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Category: Travels (Page 1 of 12)

Senegal: JAMM REKK!

So, this spring break I had the opportunity to return to one of my favorite places in the entire world, Senegal. Last summer, through Georgia Tech’s LBAT (Language in Business and Technology) program, I was able to spend three months in Senegal doing an internship and taking French classes. These three months definitely had their challenges, but overall it was one of the best experiences of my life, and I was so grateful to be able to go back for Spring Break.

That being said, I am trying to not double-dip with my blog posts, so if you want to read about my previous trip to Senegal you can find out all about it at www.robbytakesdakar.weebly.com !

I flew into Senegal very, very, very early Friday morning (most of their flights land and take off around 2 am). I rented an AirBNB from a wonderful family in a fun neighborhood (Sacre-Coeur 3), so I had the address. It was about a 20-minute drive from the airport and taxis in Senegal are very safe, so I was just planning on getting one after I made it through customs. That is, until I land in Senegal and realize that the new airport is open and I am now about 50km outside of the city at 2 am. Not exactly an ideal situation. However, I thought back to a Senegalese proverb, “ndank ndank muy japp golo ci nay.” Which literally translates to, “little by little you will catch the monkey in the forest,” but is used to mean have patience and everything will work out.

So, I do some quick research and find that the average fare for a taxi is around 40 euros, or there is a shuttle that runs directly downtown for 10 euros. I was definitely a little nervous about taking an unknown shuttle 50 km at 2 in the morning, but since I had been to the country before and knew how patient and accepting Senegalese people are, I decided to go for it!

Took the shuttle no problem, got off near the largest soccer stadium, and got a taxi to take me to the location of my AirBNB that I had marked on my map. Now, the tricky thing about taxis in Senegal is that Google/Apple Maps/Waze are not used. The way it works is that you give the neighborhood of your destination, a little tricky if you’re a toubab (wolof word for white foreigner, not usually used hatefully), with nothing more than a street address. I got through this part with no problem. Then, they will ask you what part of the neighborhood you want to go to. The tricky thing is that you still can’t use street names, you have to use landmarks. The harder thing is knowing which landmarks are acceptable. For example, one time I tried to use this huge shopping center, “Central Park” as a landmark, and the driver had no idea what I was talking about. However, other times I have successfully used a deformed tree to direct a driver. Usually, when it gets to this point, I direct the driver close enough and walk the difference. However, this time, the location that I marked was right near the interstate and I was able to direct him exactly there. 3:30 am and I finally made it to my AirBNB, right? WRONG. I had saved the wrong GPS location and had absolutely no idea where to go. So here I am, 4am, a 6’2” red headed toubab lost with a giant suitcase. That is how you get to know the character of a city.

I find someone sleeping in the street, and I gently wake him to ask him for directions. This in turn starts a chain reaction where he wakes someone else who has to go buy credit for their phone so I can call my host and then the host talks to my two new companions and explains to them where to go, so we set off. We get there, and the two men that helped me turn to leave, not even expecting any compensation. That is such a typical experience in Senegal. People are so ready to help you and are so willing to go out of their way to guide you. It was an amazing start to the trip.

For the rest of this post, I am going to break-out of a chronological narrative and just talk about the highlights of the trip because I would otherwise write an entire novel.

The Family:

My AirBNB family was composed of a man from the Ivory Coast that married a woman from Senegal and were raising their two children: Momo (about 2 years old) and a 10 month-old infant whose name I do not know. Momo was so shocked that a toubab was able to dingue oulof (speak wolof), so every time he saw me after the first day, he would SCREAM “Na nga def?” (how are you?) over and over and over. He was so sweet and we ended up spending a decent amount of time together. One day, when I was leaving, he grabbed on to my leg and cried and didn’t want me to go. We even watched Mickey Mouse and Peppa Pig together on Netflix. The family also invited me to eat with them every single day. Unfortunately, I was only available to eat with them once. We all sat around one bowl and had ceebu jen (rice and fish) and it was absolutely delicious. There is a special type of community that is formed when the entire table shares one dish. Often times, the women will cut off pieces of fish and vegetables and pass it to the others around the table. I like to do this gesture as well because it shows that you are thinking of the others. On my last day, I had some fruit left over that I would not be able to take on the plane, so I gave it to the mom of the family. By the afternoon, she had taken it and turned it into a delicious orange-grapefruit juice that she shared with everyone. This was the absolute best experience that I could have hoped for.

The Weather:

Hear me out, I love Metz, France so much. But, it was very nice to see the sun. Throughout the week, it was between 17 and 23 celsius, with dips in the temperature at night. It was also sunny with pretty strong winds throughout my stay. I was so happy to see the sun, so I spent a lot of my time outdoors and even went to the beach. The Senegalese people, who were mostly wearing jackets (and even winter coats at night), looked at me like I was crazy.

The food:

The food in Senegal is the best I have ever eaten. Everything is so fresh, natural, and flavorful. Meat nad fruits are the highlight, but food in general tastes better. Combine that with the delicious recipes that comprise a Senegalese diet, and I was well-fed and happy the whole time. Highlights include: Mafe (peanutbutter meat sauce), Cebu yapp (kind of like Jollof rice with meat), Yassa (a sauce made with a ton of onions that can be served with fish or chicken), and soupou kanja (some type of sauce with okra (I think)). Dibi, which is roasted goat served with onions and spicy mustard is also amazing. It can sometimes be hard to pass the next day, but suffice it to say, that I have had dreams about Dibi when I returned to the States.

Seeing old friends:

I was able to see my friend Ndeye two times. Once, I went to visit her where she works, and another time we went out to get Dibi together. She and I have stayed in contact since my trip to Senegal, and she was easily my best friend while I was there. I was also able to go back and visit my host mother, tata Aby, and her nephew Alasane. (There is also a cat in the house named mous (the wolof word for cat), who remembered me and gave me lots of hugs.) Finally, I got to see Tata Charlotte, my self-titled Senegalese mother. Tata Charlotte runs a stand selling fruit and snacks at a moving market in Senegal. We met on my first week in Senegal when we were both in line to buy phone credit. She offered me the girl next to her in line as my wife. I laughed it off and said I need to graduate first, but the weirdest part was that Tata Charlotte did not know the girl in line. She has an infectious personality that makes everyone in the room feel like family. I was able to stop by Tata Charlotte’s stand and catch up with her for a couple of hours. As always, she gave me gifts of various snacks and cooking ingredients, and refused to accept my payment. Tata Charlotte is another perfect example of the endless hospitality that can be found in Senegal. Unfortunately, my friend Thiat was not able to hang out.

Football

About 2-minutes away from my AirBNB home there was a football field. It was always full of various local teams playing games, and it was such an amazing place to just hang out. I would go to the side of the field, enjoy the sun, watch the game, and do some light reading. It became a really peaceful part of my daily routine.

In the end, a week in Senegal was exactly what I needed. The openness of Senegalese people, demonstrated by the fact that I got phone numbers from 5 people that I just met in the street, is a little bit different from the daily life in France. The weather was absolutely beautiful, and it was a very slow-paced week. The only problem is, that after a week I was definitely not anxious to go home.

Although I have already given some wolof phrases, I am going to include one more as the phrase of the week. Jamm rekk (literally “peace only”), is such a great way to sum up my time in Senegal. It is commonly used in response to how are you, or how is the family, and it is a super useful phrase to know. So, here, I am going to use it like peace out: Jamm rekk!  

My Grandfather’s Cousin and Colmar

Prepare yourself, because this week’s post is full of wild parties, endless nights, and general craziness. This weekend, I finally had the chance to meet my grandfather’s cousin, Monique. My great-grandfather was born in Europe and moved to the States when he was quite young. I never knew that I even had family in Europe, but apparently I do! Monique and I met once, 17 or so years ago, but I really do not remember it at all, so it was basically our first time meeting. I was definitely nervous to spend an entire weekend with an 84-year-old French woman that I had never met before, but it was a relatively welcome change of pace from the non-stop busyness that is GTL. So off I went, to the cutest little town of Colmar.

When I got to the train station, Monique and I did not recognize each other, so we definitely passed each other about 7 times in the span of 15 minutes (and Colmar’s train station is not exactly huge). Finally, after seeing her for the 8th time, I said Monique and gently touched her elbow. At least that’s what I thought, but the elderly French woman I was touching did not appreciate the gesture. However, the real Monique did hear her name and was able to find me. Finally, reunited at last.

We went back to her house for dinner. Dinner consisted of a picnic of traditional Alsatian food. Some delicious bread, some charcuterie, a salad, and of course—cheese! (It was even better than a kebab.) Thankfully, I had nothing to be worried about. Monique and I hit it off immediately. We talked about French culture, American politics, and art. After dinner, she shared stories about her time in Alsace during the German occupation in WWII, including a story about a classmate who got sent to a concentration camp for 6 weeks because she asked a question in French. (At the time it was illegal to speak French.)

The next day, we spent the morning and most of the afternoon in the Musée Unterlinden which had an amazing mix of modern art, ancient artifacts, and pre-Renaissance religious paintings. It was an amazing museum, especially considering how small Colmar is. Then, we went driving all through Alsace to see some Cathedrals. We even got to see the Cathedral where Monique’s sister, Betty, was married.

The next day, we drove along “la Route des vins” to get some amazing views and have lunch. Then, we spent the afternoon indoors playing scrabble and sharing stories.

Let me tell you, scrabble in a foreign language is much harder than expected. That being said, I did a lot better than I thought I would and only lost by 30 points.

This week, I feel like I did not have much to write about because so much of the experience could not be put into words. It was surreal to connect with such a distant relative, and I was shocked by how well we got along, despite our differences. There were certainly periods of silence, but none of those silences felt heavy or uncomfortable. It was just such a special opportunity and I am so lucky that I had it.

Now, for the phrase of the week. This week’s special comes from Alsace: “Il ne vient pas de Guebwiller.” Guebwiller is a small town in Alsace that is loosely based on the German word for generous. So the phrase literally translates to, “he does not come from Guebwiller,” but it is used to mean that someone is not generous. So, at the end of the weekend I tried to tell Monique that she IS from Gueberwiller, but the joke did not translate well. In the end, it was an amazing weekend, and I am just blown away by the connections that life throws to me.

Horror and Fantasy

In its variegated history, Germany has been the setting of fairy tales and real-life terrors. These are joined in Munich. Originally, I chose to travel to this city for my most depressing motivator: the belief that while I am able, I should witness firsthand the remnants of a concentration camp. Poland is a bit out of reach for me, so I decided on Dachau. I will not discuss this much further, as the experience is distinctly disturbing and to detail my thoughts would not be quite in line with my intended mood for this blog.

In contrast to Dachau, my other intention for visiting Munich was to take a day trip to Schloss Neuschwanstein, a nearby castle and the inspiration for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle. Despite not allowing any photographs indoors, it is the most photographed building in Germany. This means that tourism runs rampant, and I learned an hour past the deadline that to see the inside of the castle, reservations must be made two days in advance. I held on to the hope that I would be able to buy tickets on site, given that it was snowing, not tourist season, and I intended to arrive at 9 am. It turned out to be a shorter line to buy tickets than to wait in the “express line” for those who reserved in advance. I don’t exactly advocate showing up unprepared, but at least in this case, most things that I was completely unprepared for turned out better than my series of plans and backups. On a whim, I bought a combined ticket that included a tour of the nearby Schloss Hohenschwangau, a much less remarkable structure externally but still another castle to visit.

As with most visitors, my intentions were primarily visual – Neuschwanstein is a beautiful building, after all. The castle was entirely satisfying in this matter, but I found myself most fascinated with the building’s creator. My tour inside this building turned out to be fairly unremarkable, but after further research I attribute this to a lackluster guide. Certain highlights interested me, such as the modernity of its design. Electricity, central heating, and running water (from the mouth of a swan statue into the King’s washbasin) were cleverly designed amenities incorporated in the overall elaborate aesthetic. The entire interior was intricate and beautiful, including such odd choices as a faux cave and extensive murals detailing scenes from the operas of Richard Wagner. This made me question how such things came about – a lucky choice of designer, or a King who actually took the time to think of all of this? The building’s beauty is self-evident, but there were few mentions of the people and stories that normally populate such a project. Small comments in passing hinted at more: the castle is largely unfinished, and only housed the king that built it for less than 200 days, before he died under mysterious circumstances.

 

As I waited for my tour at Hohenschwangau, I began researching this King Ludwig II. It turns out, his life is utterly fascinating. My tour in his childhood home of Hohenschwangau turned out to be fantastically informative of him and his family as well. This actually is a great combination – Neuschwanstein’s beauty attracts you and presents the mystery, while Hohenschwangau, less dramatic in its exterior, holds the information and history of the family. Due to the fact that it was actually lived in, the interior is filled with stunning gifts and intricate details. The king’s bedroom was even outfitted with glowing stars and a moon that changed to match the actual moon’s phase. The details of Ludwig’s life started to come together, centering around the theme of fantasy. He was utterly obsessed, and his entire life seemed to be out of some tale.

Ludwig ascended the throne at only 18 and was known to have little interest in ruling. According to Wikipedia, “he was not prepared for high office, [but] his youth and brooding good looks made him popular in Bavaria and elsewhere.” This trend marked his life and eventual death. His fantasies appeared most notably in his obsession with Wagner, going so far as to consider abdicating the throne to follow him when he left Munich. Instead of getting too concerned in politics, Ludwig wished to elevate the cultural aspects of Bavaria, by investing in the arts and using his personal fortune to build an assortment of castles and palaces. His advisors believed this spending to be unreasonable, though they have now paid for themselves many time over due to the high-traffic tourism. Ultimately, they conspired to depose him and had psychologists declare him insane. The next day, he and his psychologist were found in the nearby lake, drowned allegedly as suicide. As his cousin, Empress Elisabeth of Austria stated, “he was just an eccentric living in a world of dreams.” Perhaps he should have left the throne for a life that suited him better.

As we travel, we unkowingly walk in the wake of uncomprehensible depth of history. I often get caught up in what is availible for me to go see right now, but forget to research the lives of those who came before. Even when there’s no tour guide or sign detailing what was significant, I can take it upon myself to follow leads that interest me, adding significance where little was before. That’s not to say that the present is less important. The entire history of a place should be appreciated and enjoyed. On this note, with my little remaining time in Munich I decided to follow a recommendation by my Grandpa. He travels constantly, and as he is of German heritage, he often comes to this country. As an inspiration in both my desire to travel and to become an engineer like him, he recommended I visit the Deutsches Museum. I only regret not being able to spend as much time here as the museum deserves, given that it is the world’s largest STEM museum, with substantial amounts of English descriptions! Any Tech student would love this museum, and I highly recommend setting aside as much time as you can to explore.

When in France, Do As the Germans Do

The great benefit of GTL as a study abroad program is the pure freedom. Initially, I thought of this in terms of time and space – 4 months of unlimited trains spanning most of western Europe. The longer I am here, though, the more I realize how many different ways this program can be experienced. I have been talking to many other students at GTL about how they have shaped this program for themselves.

The student population is small enough that everyone becomes a familiar face after a while, so it’s not unusual for me to beg for homework help from someone I’m only vaguely sure is in that class. This odd familiarity we’ve found ourselves in leads to small talk of weekends in Italy and bruises from Swiss Alps: the kind of chats I figured only those rich enough to use “summer” as a verb would be having, yet here we are. But my foolproof blueprint for social interaction has begun to fail. It’s almost as if I can’t just ask every person the same question and have conversation flow flawlessly. I thought this was like FASET, where you just ask every acquaintance what their major is and promptly form arbitrary cliques. But now, not every time I ask where someone went this weekend is it met with tales of an exotic trip 4 countries away.

It began with the graduate students. Most of them are not Americans partying abroad, but French or other nearby European students studying in a program that allows them a dual degree from both their home university and GT. To them, GTL isn’t the haven of travel I see it, but could be a bridge to a job in America, or just a diversification of their education. I commend all of them – I can’t understand fluid mechanics when it’s taught in my first language.

My friend Seth, a fellow American undergraduate, has spent, as far as I know, every weekend at GTL in Metz. I was shocked at first. I had once considered doing this as a means to afford going to Europe without paying for travel every weekend, but to voluntarily ignore all the easily accessible countries for just our corner of France? The more he explained though, the more boring my own approach seemed in comparison. Unlike me, Seth has actually learned French fairly well, and he came to France not for “that constant vacation feel” but to solidify his knowledge of the language while forming bonds with those of another nationality. His approach is not to use Metz just as a gateway to other attractions, but as an opportunity to experience living somewhere entirely new. This is an uncommon experience – not just living in a new location, but in a novel country and culture.

Since talking with Seth, I’ve tried to focus more on imagining life in the countries I visit, on a more day-to-day scale. My purpose in coming to GTL was to experience more than my little corner of the world, so I put an emphasis on breadth in order to generally calibrate my understanding of places. Now, I also imagine what living in these locations would look like. France, I can certainly comprehend, as I’m doing it right now (albeit in a sheltered GTL bubble). Regardless, I love the French people, language, and food. More interesting to me, however, is comparing this experience to the other countries I have visited. I have a running theory that the ideal sample of a European country can be found in its public transportation. The Italians sang and played guitar, the Germans passed around beer, and on one train the French were so utterly silent, I was too self-conscious to eat a sandwich. All of these I enjoyed, but in different manners. Italy is a beautiful, lively country, but I cannot imagine myself living there. I’m too introverted for their familiar style, and I prefer the quiet of a French train. The Germans seemed surprisingly jolly in most of my interactions with them and spoke more English than most other countries, making for another appealing option.

Ultimately, my strongest driving factor in evaluating countries is on their food. The Germans brought me the best new food: currywurst. France has the most diverse food, with a surprisingly strong Asian trend that satisfies my cravings. Italy, of course, has pasta, pizza, and gelato to die for, but it seemed comically void of literally any other food. Every meal was simply a choice between the three (yes, gelato is a meal to me). My ultimate favorite remains the glorious Belgian fry. Street carts and café’s devoted to fries line the streets of Belgium, and people wait around the block. Sauces come in more flavors than you can imagine, and the little forks make eating somehow so much more enjoyable. For this alone, I could thrive in Belgium. I may not quite want to give up my nomadic lifestyle for the sake of cultural acclimation, but “playing house” internationally has become my new favorite game.

Verdun, dun dun dun dududuhhhhh

This weekend, I took a different approach to planning my weekend trip. I, the forward-thinking, avant-garde hipster that I am, decided to point to a city on a map, go there, and then find things to do. The city that I ended up choosing was Verdun. Verdun is a small little city, somewhere between a city and a town, that is about an hour east of Metz and has amazing WWI history, as well as some WWII history, but the WWI history is what puts the town on the map. I got to Verdun just after 9PM on Saturday, and like most small towns in France, it was dead. I saw one other person throughout my walk to my AirBnB and not a single store was open.

I got checked in and settled to my AirBnB, which was absolutely amazing, and the  history of the city showed itself immediately. My hosts had, on display in my room, gas masks and food canisters from WWI that were found in the walls of the building when they purchased the unit. These artifacts even had the family’s name and year written on the bottom. It was such a great start to my stay.

After unpacking my bags, I decided to go on a walk and explore the city a little bit. I walked from my apartment to the downtown area and it was just breathtaking. The cutest town with a river through the middle, statues and memorials scattered throughout, and a healthy mix of storefronts, restaurants, and bars.

I stopped and read every statue that I came across, some for ancient Polish leaders before the 19th century and many for the lost lives, known and unknown, during WWI. There were also a lot of sculptures, especially near the river. The town was so incredibly picturesque, and I just had the best time walking around.

The next day, I woke up and went to tour the cathedral. It was about 73 steps from the front door of where I was staying, so it was an ideal place to start. Although there were not any guided tours, I was able to go into the cathedral and look around. That was the end of my luck of a last-minute trip. Everything else that I wanted to see or do was closed, thanks to the fact that it was a Sunday during the off-season.

So, with nothing concrete to explore, I just walked around the city. I re-explored the downtown area in the daylight, found new monuments, and walked through the residential part of the town to get a good feel for it. I even found this one sculpture down by the river that I really enjoyed, so I grabbed lunch and sat there and enjoyed the town, the river, the sculpture, and my kebab. (What else is there to eat in France?) However, the freezing nature made this quintessential touristy moment short lived so I went to get a coffee and catch the train home. Of course, the train from Verdun to Metz was cancelled so I had to train to Nancy then from Nancy to Metz. It was just such a great reminder of how the entire trip had gone.

Now, today’s, phrase of the weeeeeeeeeeeek, eeeeeeeeeeek, eeeeeeeeeeek. (Those of you who grew up listening the Rickey Smiley’s Morning show will get that joke; the rest of you can do some research. Hint: Joke of the day introduction.) This week’s phrase of the week is: chouette. Chouette is a fun French word that means fancy, cool, high fashion, and awesome all in one. The word itself sounds fun. (It’s pronounced like sweat but with an sh sound instead of just s.) Say it 10 times, and you’ll understand why it means what it means!

The French and Maps

Growing up as a quasi-millennial, I took a lot of things for granted. The internet was mostly what I take as an essential part of life but that my parents grew up without. I didn’t (and honestly still don’t) understand how life functioned without the internet. How did you find new places to eat? How did people answer life’s everyday questions? However, most importantly, how in the heck did people find where they were going? Especially if it is in a new city, and all you have is a street address.

I pride myself on having a good sense of direction and good intuition when it comes to travel, but I still can barely make it from my bathroom to my kitchen without Google Maps. Most people in the States have caught on: Google Maps and other GPS mapping software make life easier. However, in France, the memo has yet to be received. I am not sure if it is the stubbornness, pride, and overly-nostalgic appreciation of tradition that drives French people to swear off mapping software, but whatever it is, it makes for an interesting blog post.

To do a case study, we will look at my interactions with my exchange student and fan-favorite, Maxime. One time, we were going to visit his sister, who had just moved into a new house in a town nearby. Max had never been to this house, not even the town itself, so I offered to put it in his Maps. Not only did he refuse, but he didn’t even have the application downloaded! Instead his sister sent him a text (more like a novel) explaining where the house is and how to get there from the main road. In the end, it worked out and we only made one wrong turn, but I was shocked that he didn’t just use a mapping application.

From my experience with French people, about 2 out of every 5 young people regularly use Google Maps, as compared to 1 out of every 7 not-young people. (This is an incredibly formal and well-researched survey and definitely not a guess. I plan to publish my results in Le Monde later on this month.)

One influencing factor that makes this independence from mapping software possible is the clearly marked road-signs in France. At almost every round-about, there is a plethora of signs describing how to get to nearby cities, how to get the interstate, and how to get to popular destinations within the city.

Now, how does this affect life in France?

One major impact is that people have a better general sense of where they are. Max, who has never lived in Metz, but has visited a couple of times, has a general sense of Metz that took me 2 months to develop. This is extremely helpful for tourists because if you ask someone in a French city how to get somewhere, they will usually know what to tell you. (But just because they know what to tell you, does not mean that what they say will help you.) Lastly, it gives French people a sense of pride and accomplishment that they “really know their city.”

Train of Thought

While Metz has one of the most beautiful train stations in Europe, the station in Antwerp (pictured above) remains my favorite.

My first time stepping off a German train and being greeted with a sign for “Ausgang City”, I reacted with panic at having gotten off at the wrong stop. Ausgang, while charming, I’m sure, had no prepaid Airbnb waiting for me. I often experience unwarranted panic, and it turns out that “Ausgang” just means “exit” and the Germans have not conspired to make every train drop you off in the same, incorrect city. It is fairly easy to start getting the hang of the terms it takes to navigate foreign train stations, as the announcements and signs are much clearer than anywhere else. Consequently, my understanding of foreign languages is extremely limited and largely train related. While it’s fun to throw “uscita” and “nächster halt” into my conversations, I now end up cycling between 4 words for “thank you” before giving up my attempt to courteous in the appropriate language.

Travel by train is the heart of the GTL experience. Europe is known for its public transportation, but above buses, cheap flights, and all else, I praise the train. Flights take hours to ensure enough time to get through security and not miss boarding. Buses get held up by traffic, skip stops, and are usually ahead of or behind schedule. The train never leaves early, and only occasionally leaves late. At this point, students are scheduling trains that leave half an hour after their last class, assuming a 20-minute bus ride and an easy stroll to the platform. As long you get off the bus with about 2 minutes to spare and a Eurail pass, you can meander to the train with confidence that it will be waiting for you.

This consistency can be additionally beneficial if you get a bit creative. When the cold became unbearable, we noticed that the train waiting next to us was scheduled to leave after our actual train, though ours had not yet arrived. Ignoring the fact that this train could take us in the entirely wrong direction if it left early, we hopped on for its luscious warmth. At least our Eurail passes made this technically allowable, though the potential to miss our Monday classes would be frowned upon.

The confusion associated with traveling in Naples is best represented by this image of a sign instructing you not to cross the tracks, next to the crosswalk for crossing the tracks (necessary to get between platforms). Another sign helpfully suggested you wait to cross the tracks until no trains are coming.

That said, the consistency is occasionally heartbreaking. A Viennese tram held me hostage at red light as I watched my train leave precisely on time, while I arrived about 30 seconds later. This led to taking the last train home, leaving no room for error. Even after finally making it onto my last train, I ended up napping slightly and missing the stop. At least Nancy has a bus that arrives at Metz at 1:30 in the morning, but this then requires a 40-minute walk in the cold back to the dorm. The Metz buses stop running sometime around 10 pm, and this should be factored in when planning return trains.

On the occasion that a train is late, much more caution should be taken. I’ve sat through so many announcements changing the time estimate that I believe my German is perfect, if just for that one phrase. One group had a train delayed by 20 minutes, so they decided to go grab food. These delay estimates are notoriously awful, leading to an unexpected arrival and the group having to find a last-minute hotel while the one member who had stayed behind got to attend his Monday classes.

As our experiences build, we get riskier. A day trip to Luxembourg is certainly an option, but if we left at noon on Thursday, we could take 5 trains over 8 hours and be in Berlin before 9. These decisions should not be made too hastily, however. For the longer legs, I highly recommend looking for German ICE trains, as they tend to come with a café and free wifi. These seats are commonly reserved, but you can sit in pretty much anywhere that doesn’t have a sign above it listing specific cities where it is reserved. The comfort makes a long ride tolerable. On that note, night trains are wonderful and often include breakfast, but the beds are a bit too stiff for my back.

The comfort and freedom of the rental car when we got upgraded to a Jaguar may be unparalleled, but trains are by far the easiest, most affordable, and consistent means of transportation. When in Rome, the buses would often take longer than walking would. The metro did lose power once, but I will never underestimate the benefits of having exclusive tracks, except in the case of a tram: the unfortunate mix with the traffic of a bus but the restrictions of a train. I am now preemptively dealing with the sadness that MARTA will bring me.

Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.

The stairs of Riomaggiore were keen on reminding me that the more difficult is it to get somewhere, the more worthwhile it usually is.

GTL often redefines my perspective. Spring break represents the epitome of travel opportunity, providing the ability to reach unimaginably far and for so long that you miss “home” (GTL) desperately. Yet, I found my plans failing, and the need to improvise. I noticed that my favorite moments were when I decided to slow down and do what I would have previously described as “nothing.” My spring break, while laughably unoriginal in concept (I ran into 6 separate GTL students while traveling), became an entirely alien experience.

Momentous in length and located in Italy – notorious for reservation-only trains and frequent attractions that get booked months in advance – my break necessitated early planning. I had the outline laid out over winter break and felt desperately behind as I booked Airbnbs and flights only weeks before. Ideally, I would have planned more and executed flawlessly, but I ended up being grateful for my sparse plans when I immediately and fatally ruined them.

Ryanair is a blessing. Like a siren, it calls to you with talk of 11€ flights to Sweden, and it wasn’t hard to find an affordable flight to Naples that left after my last class on Thursday. This would allow me to take the maximum time to make my way up Italy and back to Metz. I had often been warned of the catches that inevitably come with such promises and was amply prepared. My bags were sized appropriately, and I didn’t give in to all the add-ons they pushed. I noted which airports were actually closest to me, as Ryanair airports are often ridiculously far from the city they claimed to be located in. All this work was overshadowed by the mania of last-minute packing and being lulled into complacency by the usual ease of travel in Europe, so I found myself remembering this fun fact about airports right when I arrived at the main Frankfurt Airport, decidedly not Frankfurt Hahn, where my flight was departing from. I had left myself plenty of time to catch my flight, but the amazing obscurity of location that Ryanair managed to find made it impossible for me to arrive on time.

After the devastation of finding out that the best gelato shop in Riomaggiore hadn’t opened for spring yet, the beauty of the view was a bit of consolation.

The GTL motto should be “There is Always a Way.” Every student I have talked to has had something go awry, resulting in sleeping in train stations, walking 40 minutes home, or shelling out the money to make it work. In this case, a few hours were spent combing through the possibilities. Can we get our flight changed? Is there another flight tonight? Is it too late for a refund? Most of these resulted in a definitive no. While I had previously basked in the glory of the bargains I had found, I now used the relatively minor cost to accept the entire loss of money. With limited flight options, we flipped the entire trip upside down, booking a night train to Venice for that evening and a flight back from Rome on the last Saturday of break.

From there, no struggle compared. Italy provided all the highest and lowest points of my semester thus far. Venice snowed, then melted into sogginess. Reservation trains were cheap (10 EUR) and easy to book, while regional trains were free with Eurail, saving the cost of metro and buses. My favorite stop of all, however, was the region of Cinque Terre and in particular, Riomaggiore. The Cinque Terre consists of five picturesque towns clinging to the western coast of Italy. While we couldn’t spend much time there and our plans for renting a sailboat fell through, I have never been somewhere so refreshing. I have a particular love for moody ocean cliffs, with wild wind and stormy skies and the only sound the crashing of waves. The hiking trails wind between the towns and out on stony promontories. For a bit of refreshment, it is mandatory to stop for gelato in every town. They will be packed with tourists in a few months, but as of now, it is cool, quiet, and absolutely gorgeous. If I could include a hundred photos, I would.

Rosy, sunny, dark and brooding: Cinque Terre can do it all.

After departing my peaceful retreat, we sped up the pace. I didn’t have much desire to stay in Florence, but we slipped in just in time to see Michelangelo’s David for free, since most museums in Italy are free the first Sunday of the month. We then traveled all the way to Naples and stayed in the most suspicious Airbnb yet. It was located above one of those famous street markets that convince you that you could be attacked by scam artists at any moment, but turned out to be a much more wholesome local market than it initially appeared. Until a man shouted something in Italian that spurred all the vendors to scramble and hide their large trays of cigarettes in such a beautiful whirl of motion that it must have been choreographed.

Naples itself is not particularly noteworthy for anything other than the delicious fried pizza, but nearby Pompeii and Herculaneum are absolutely necessary to visit. Pompeii is massive, and with an audio guide helpfully explaining the meaning of all the buildings as well as a visit to the archaeological museum in Naples, I learned more about life in the Roman empire than I thought was possible in one day. Also, I may be a bit disturbed, but the plaster casts were fascinating to me and caused me to plan a route that included visiting as many as possible.

As Italy warmed up, my newfound temperature scale in which 42 degrees Fahrenheit is “so warm!” screamed in remembrance of summer in Atlanta.

I ended my Italian excursion in Rome, a true must-see city. The traffic was frustrating, and it is essential to stay somewhat near the city center, as the city itself is monstrously large. Still, the city is busy for a reason. The Colosseum and Roman Forum were my particular favorites. As a history nerd obsessed with Greek and Roman myths, I felt I was walking back in time. Rome also contained my favorite museum I have seen so far: the Borghese Gallery. This small Gallery allows only a limited number of guests in at a time, so reservations are required. For only two hours, it seems expensive, but the collection is compact magnificence. The best works by my favorite sculptor, Bernini, are held here, and they truly are mind blowing. Fabrics swirl next to smooth plump skin that are all somehow made of the same stone. The rest of the gallery is so amazing that I eventually had to tear myself away, and while I am not nearly as enthralled by paintings as I am sculptures, their setup was exquisite. Each room was themed, with the painting on the ceiling often depicting the same myth as the sculpture immediately below. On the upper floor, sets of paintings would depict scenes from the same story as it wrapped around the ceiling. I came to a new understanding not just of the art of painting, but of myths I had not heard of before and have since researched thoroughly.

When going up famously tall spiral staircases, don’t look up to discover how far it really is.

Italy was polarizing, but so enthralling that it was difficult to leave. With my newly made itinerary, I had to depart Saturday morning and spend the weekend back in Paris. Despite having already been to Paris, I love every moment there. Last time I was mostly crippled, so now I could finally walk the steps of l’Arc de Triomphe. A friend I went to high school with was even visiting Paris that day, so I managed an unexpected meetup. Despite everything, a wonderful trip emerged from the ruins.

Paris by Theme

Oh, Paris. Largest city in France, the city of lights, and often times used (incorrectly) interchangeably with France. Paris is often described as the city that can change lives, or at least perspectives. It is also described as a touristy crap-hole devoid of authenticity and culture. I would definitely put it somewhere in the middle but leaning toward life-changing.

I have already been to Paris once-ish, so I was thankful to have all of the touristy must-sees and must-dos out of the way: Notre Dame, la Tour Eiffel, le Champs-Elysées. I decided that this weekend would have two goals in mind: to see as much art as possible and to visit the outer/less-touristy arrondissements (the French way to say neighborhood).

Does art mimic life or does life mimic art?

As for the art, I succeeded. I spent an entire day in the Louvre, which, is only one one bajillionth of the time that I could have spent there. I managed to get in free by simply flashing my student ID. (If you speak French well enough and proceed with confidence, you can find many little perks along the way.) I had heard the stories of how big the museum is and how impressive all of the works were, so I thought I was ready. I was not. After an hour had passed, I realized that I had seen approximately one fifteenth of the museum.

Highlights: artifacts from the Roman period (shout-out to my 8th grade Latin teacher for making this experience even more valuable), countless paintings of aristocrats in stuffy clothes from Italy, an awesome exhibit on Islamic art with gorgeous calligraphy, and finally, as much as I tried to be to cool to enjoy it, La Joconde (a.k.a. the Mona Lisa).

Lowlights: The section on African and Mexican art is closed on Fridays, so I did not get to see it.

I also got to see the Palais de Tokyo which had a lot of impressionist artwork – my favorite. Highlights include some amazing work by Matisse and paintings by Robert Delaunay (I still have not decided how I feel about all of his pieces).

La Grande Mosquée

As for the other half of my visit, I decided to take the metro to an unknown stop in a not-so-touristy part of town and see what I could find. I ended up getting off at Stalingrad. It was a diverse neighborhood, close to the train station, that was full of movement and life on every corner. There were at least two shops per block offering “Exotic African goods.” With my experience in Senegal, I set out to find my favorite soft drink ever, a pineapple flavored nectar of the gods called “Gazelle Ananas.” Although I did not get to find my soda, I did get to practice my Wolof and meet some amazing African immigrants living in Paris. For lunch, I opted for a hole-in-the-wall Turkish restaurant and had a delicious meal. I wish I could tell you what it was, but honestly, I do not really remember the name, nor do I know what it consisted of!

Starry night – more like snowy afternoon!

This seems like a pretty fun-filled and standard weekend trip to Paris, right? Well, here is the best part: the whole time Paris was covered with a thin blanket of snow. As someone who grew up in the south with parents from the north, I have that fondness of snow that only exists in those who have experienced it enough to know how to amuse oneself, but have not had to deal with the negative aspects: the shoveling, the monotony, etc. So, for this entire experience, Paris was in a rare form of beauty and I was walking around with my jaw on the floor the entire time.

Now, for the part of the week that I do not know if you enjoy or despise, but I am going to keep doing it anyway: the phrase of the week! Although, this week is not really as much a phrase as a general grammatical rule. In French, there is a hip type of slang called verlan. It is when you switch the syllables of a word to form a new word with the same meaning. For example, the word “famille” (pronounced fahmee), becomes mille-fa à “mifa.” However, the most frustrating part of this system is that you cannot use it on any word. For example, if you tried to take the word “baguette” and turn it in to “guetteba” you would be met with confusion and ridicule. The socially acceptable versions of verlan emerge from seemingly nowhere, but it is a cool thing to know. It is kind of like pig-latin but it is actually used by young French people. With all of this written, to you I say, “voi-rau.”

Affording Opportunity

Growing up the daughter of an Economics major, weighing opportunity cost was a daily habit. In high school, I often turned down proposals of exotic trips. I worked, and though I could pay for gas for my car and some luxuries while still saving a few thousand dollars for emergency, the cost of a single one of these would take out an astronomical percentage of my savings. My orchestra traveled to Austria in my junior year in high school. For a European spring break trip that included missing a few extra days of school, competing as an orchestra, and eating chocolate with Mozart’s face on it, the price was downright reasonable. For people who consider traveling to Austria on spring break in the first place. Despite persuasive claims that an opportunity like this will never be so affordable, I turned it down.

I now find myself in Vienna, eating Mozart chocolates and rubbing out the aches of a 12-hour train ride. I have already been traveling extensively for months at this point, but this is the city that drives it home for me. The city that was my original opportunity at Europe now represents my furthest distance traveled. GTL is genuinely an outstanding opportunity that this time I couldn’t turn down.

College students are generally understood to be poor, but this comes with the perk of universal pity. From scholarships to Spotify discounts, it’s nice in this instance to be reminded of how much debt you are in when it means you can live above your means while still making self-deprecating Ramen jokes. I’ve personally come to experience a form of income in which the Financial Aid office gives me enough loans to cover the overpriced food and housing of a freshman, but I have since reduced my costs while getting to keep the leftover as “savings” – to be spent on Austrian chocolate, of course. With all this support, European travel has never been so unintuitively affordable.

If you’re an out of state student, like so many are, studying at GTL allows you to pay in-state tuition, effectively saving money by moving to France. This spare cash can then be allocated to your daily pastry budget instead of the debts that you can ignore since you go to a top school and are just waiting for your offer from Google to come any day now. If you are in-state, like me, you get to complain about how you now have to pay for traveling every weekend and there’s no loan for that while your out of state friends loudly remind you of how the sandwich they’re eating costs more than your tuition.

While the only cure for disgruntled non-Georgia residents is to bow your head to their superior debts, there are solutions to your travel woes. Despite my fears that I would technically be able to afford to attend GTL but would end up sitting in my dorm every weekend with no money for a place to stay, I have traveled every weekend while staying hundreds of dollars under my (quite overestimated) budget.

  • Scholarships:

The best advice I can give is to fill out the OIE study abroad scholarship application. It is the easiest application I have ever filled out, and it got me an extra $3,000 unexpectedly. There are so many scholarships tied to this application and every dollar can make a difference. Of course, there are tons of other outside scholarships, but they take considerably more effort to find.

  • Jobs:

Working part time during school or full time in off semesters is an obvious way to get some money, and savings from these earning periods can make affording GTL travel much less stressful. Finding a job while at GTL is less likely, but still possible. Some people write for the GTL blog to get a free Eurail pass. Others are RA’s, but that’s a bit too much interaction with people for me. My years working in the tourist industry have worn through my cheery persona to my cynical core.

  • Financial Scams:

Credit cards are gambling for adults who want to be perceived as financially responsible as they give in to their addictions. I was initially hesitant to get a credit card, but now it is going well, and my credit has been rising steadily. After getting this system down, I wanted more. Higher cash back, better revolving categories, the works. Since I needed to get a new card for GTL without foreign transaction fees, this was the perfect opportunity to spend hours researching. I eventually settled on the Barclay card Arrival Plus, which gave me 40,000 miles as a sign on bonus if I spent $3,000 in the first 90 days. This led to another plot, where I opened a savings account with my bank backed by $1,000 paid from my card, earning me a new account to help with budgeting – and the sign on bonus that has paid for most of my weekend Airbnbs.

The experience at GTL is different for everyone, but can also be affordable for anyone. This really is the most opportune time to drop everything and live in Europe for four months. Vienna lived up to all expectations as the city that is the pinnacle of so many of my long-standing interests. The Spanish Riding School (named for the Spanish roots of their Lipizzaner horses) was the highlight of my trip, despite a hindered ability to breathe given that a decade of daily allergy pills was apparently not enough for me to remember that I’m allergic to horses. My one regret: not following suit after wondering why both people in front of me at Manner chocolate spent 50 EUR on this exclusive treat.

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