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Over 25 years of academic excellence and adventure

Category: Travels (Page 2 of 12)

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.

Redefining Celebration

Moving to Europe is accompanied by an unavoidable culture shock. That’s kind of the point, though, so the shock really isn’t that…shocking. As the time goes by, it’s not the everyday that gets to me. It’s when I realize that my 20th birthday is this week. I’m not with family. I’m not with most of my friends. I’m not a teenager anymore. Most importantly, I can’t get the homemade pound cake my mom makes every year from an old family recipe. (It’s seriously to die for.)

Normally, under any resistance, I would be inclined to forgo celebrating my birthday at all. However, the week started off with an unexpected package arriving – my mom’s pound cake, shipped all the way from home and accompanied by candles. While the shipping costs were outrageous, the gesture was so touching and exactly the reminder of home I needed at this point in the program. But as for the rest of my traditions, this year I needed to redefine what it means to celebrate, through a trip to Amsterdam.

It began as usual: cities and museums. The Van Gogh museum provides a refreshing take on an art museum. Instead of oddly modern or historically classical like most art I have been viewing, Van Gogh sits comfortably in the middle. The museum focuses on him as a person, his development, and his techniques. This narrative structure makes every piece more substantial, as you understand his influences and attempts to incorporate new ideas into his work. A favorite of mine was his experimentation with color. Upon learning of complementary colors and their contrasts, he thought to mix them. This resulted in a drab brown that he painted with in various tones. Later, he learned not to mix them, but to place them next to each other in bands of pure color. This creates a fascinating texture up close, but a vividness and overall hue from further away, reminiscent of LCD screens.

Saturday, my actual birthday, was an effort I had been planning for months but only actually became possible at 2 am the day of. For most of my life, before coming to Tech and forgetting what it means to have hobbies, I have ridden horses. For my birthday, I found a place that would allow me to ride one of my favorite breeds of horses on the beach of the island Tershelling. There was one catch: I had to be at the ferry at 8:00am, and the only way that was possible via train was to leave at midnight from Amsterdam, and experience a 3-hour layover with the high likelihood of being kicked out of the train station when it closed. In deadly cold weather.

At the unfortunately early time of 11:58pm, I was abruptly woken and informed that we needed to leave immediately. Until we realized that it was actually 12:58am, and we had actually missed the train entirely. There was absolutely no way to make it on time. Tired, cold, and devastated, we alternated between searching for any remaining option, and just feeling the weight of the lost money, time, sleep, and opportunity. Then, at 2:00am in the morning, we found a car rental open at 6:30am, and at $70, it was worth it to save the money already invested in reservations. To top it off, the drastically shortened commute allowed for a few more hours of sleep.

After that lowest point, the day only improved. We slept. The car we wanted was accidentally rented, so they upgraded us for free to a Jaguar. The drive, though incredibly stressful (the threats concerning damaging the car were numerous) was gorgeous, and gave us a chance to appreciate the open country for once. We made it on the ferry 5 minutes before it left, and then to the barn just in time for the first ride.

I rode for a total of four hours. On my second trip out, I was the only person not fluent in Dutch. While my first guide translated for us, this guide did not seem to have been told that I only spoke English. It’s amazing how much is still comprehensible, as I happily nodded when she asked if I wanted to “draf” or “galop” or laughed along with everyone at the large gestures of one girl as she told her stories. I never expected to feel like such fast friends with a group of complete strangers, not even aware that the quiet girl doesn’t speak their language, while flying down the beach on uniformly enormous black horses. The ride wasn’t without its difficulty, however, leading to one woman falling off at our fastest speed.

My birthday weekend was hectic and fun, like I strive for my life to be. It wouldn’t be complete without sleeping through the Metz stop on the train and accidentally ending up in Nancy. After managing to be on time to everything that weekend, we had to wait for a bus leaving at 11:30 pm to take us back to Metz, and then walk home for 40 minutes in the cold. Above all, I learned that there is always another way to get anywhere and do anything if you’re willing to put in the effort to research.

In Someone Else’s Shoes

Not often do you get to live in another country. Even weirder is living in someone else’s house. Through my weekend travels, I have experienced a range of accommodations, with most found on Airbnb. Each trip feels like a trial run in someone’s life. I eat their food, stay in their bed, and in the case of Amsterdam, experience their near vertical stairs. One even let me borrow clothes, so for fun I tried on a pair of pink velvet boots as I happened to be the same size as the owner. From a hostel room with 8 people to an apartment so nice I couldn’t leave, my weekend housing has largely shaped my experiences.

The attitude for most GTL students is that we simply can’t afford to stay somewhere nice. Travelling every weekend, with no income, means the time to try out that fancy resort is after we have gotten that engineer’s salary we keep hearing about. However, speaking as someone who has been tired my entire life, my sleep is important to me, and it’s not hard to find something cheap and nice. So here, I present my best tips for optimizing your weekend stay:

  1. Book Early

This is obvious. For any sane person going on a trip to Europe, they would book all their major reservations months ahead of time. The thing is, GTL students aren’t exactly sane. We plan new trips to new countries with new people every weekend. When the professor turns his back, we whisper airline confirmation codes. The best way to find a cheap place to stay is to check early and check often. Find a place with a flexible cancellation policy, and you can get your money back if you decide to change your travel plans later. Airbnb prices fluctuate much more than a hostel, so checking as frequently as you can will sometimes allow you to grab a new listing that is cheaper than it should be.

  1. Location, Location, Location

While price is king, location matters. Staying within walking distance of a train station, especially the main one, is insanely convenient and can save money on public transportation. Also, the station is usually a bit removed from the most popular real estate, making it more affordable. I now always check where the station I’m arriving in is located, and look there first. After hurting my ankle in Paris and having to walk up and down the metro stairs continuously, to me it is essential to ensure I have easy transportation. If not the train station, check for other accessible but cheaper locations. In Amsterdam, we stayed just outside the city lines in Zaandam. A train travels into the center often, and we got a ridiculously cheap stay in a gorgeous neighborhood while the rest of the city trended around $70/night minimum.

 

  1. Don’t Discount Perks

While I don’t travel for the housing accommodations, they can be significant. In Berlin, I stayed in an 8-person hostel room. This was the most affordable option, and I’d do it again, but it was incredibly hard having no privacy and essentially no room to spend time in, due to attempting to respect the wide variety of sleeping schedules. In contrast, we had an entire apartment 5 minutes from the train station in Antwerp for 2 people, for about $60 per night. This apartment was the nicest apartment I have ever been in, to the point I could barely get myself to leave, and we cancelled our place in Brussels so we could stay in another night. With its own espresso machine, free food, a giant TV and luxurious sleeping accommodations, I was planning how I could recreate this in my own apartment. The space was huge, and could easily have room for at least two more people on the L-shaped couch. I don’t know the legality of it, but fitting four people in an advertised two-person apartment would make this an absurdly good deal. With the free food, the savings were even greater.

My weekend in Amsterdam was largely chosen for the availability of a new Airbnb significantly under market price. This was the most wholesome ad I had seen, titled simply “My Home” and full of cute suggestions of accommodations the host was contemplating. As we were his first guests, the place was not in perfect shape, but he enthusiastically messaged me frequently as the day got closer. He made us soup upon arrival, later cooked an extensive Mexican dinner (hard to find in Europe), and allowed us to borrow his bicycles for free. We even saw improvements throughout the day, as our room on the upper level was still being built. Notably, a door miraculously appeared after he excitedly told us to expect a surprise upon our return. With all his little details, it really felt like home.

Like with most things at GTL, everyone has a different style in their travels. My personal recommendation is to not immediately base your decision on price, but to weigh the value of other benefits. Beyond just touring in a city, I have gotten the opportunity to live with locals, hear their recommendations, imagine their lives, and have a nice cup of tea on top of it all.

Parties, Shindigs, and Fêtes – An Analysis

By now, you all probably know Maxime as well as I do. However, that is not going to keep me from writing another post about him because this past weekend I celebrated his birthday!!!

This also happened to be the weekend of the Open House (a.k.a. Portes Ouvertes!), so I couldn’t travel very far anyway, but right after I took the train back to St. Avold. My friend Laura and her friend picked me up, and we headed back to her house to get ready.

Laura’s mom is one of the sweetest people that I have ever met (the first time I came she gave me a headband with two French flags that stick out of it), so I was very excited to see her again! Then we just hung out while Laura did her make-up, hair, and put on a dress. Then we met up with two other students, and headed over to the party.

The party was in a room attached to the soccer field in the town. It was like a recreation room and was equipped with tables and a sound system. It was so nice to see Maxime’s family, especially the kids, and it was nice to see Maxime’s friends that had become my friends. I could keep going about the catching up I did and the personal family stories that were shared, but I think it would be more interesting for all of you if I write about differences and similarities that I noticed between parties in the US and parties here.

One major similarity was that people were very hesitant to dance. There was thumping music and a great vibe for the evening, but very few people danced. At one point, Max wanted to encourage everyone to dance, so he and Laura “asked” (here read as guilt-tripped) me to dance passionately and aggressively when they played Single Ladies. I was a little hesitant at first, I didn’t want to be the one to break the tension, but Max reminded me it was his birthday, and asked me how Beyoncé would feel if I refused to dance to her music. That did the trick. It was horrifying and embarrassing and everyone started filming, but it was still really fun. Also, the dancing that French people do is very similar to the awkward bouncing with some moves sprinkled throughout that happens at many American parties.

One thing that was a little different was that all of Maxime’s close friends grouped together to get him a really nice present, tickets to a music festival. I don’t know about your friends, but my I have never been a part of a friend group organized enough to pull this off in the States. (Also, I have since been invited to 3 other birthday parties and all of them have similar concepts of a group present.)

The food: a delicious homemade mix of German and French cuisine that was all prepared by Maxime’s grandmother. I snacked throughout the entire evening.

At the end of the party, after only those who were spending the night were left, we all worked together to clean everything up. I am not opposed to cleaning things up; however, I was shocked that we did it that night as opposed to the next morning. We even mopped the floors! I was thrilled. Cleaning is so methodical and relaxing for me, so it was a lot of fun for me. (I know what you’re thinking: Robby, calm down you party animal. This is a school-sponsored blog.)

Other than these minor differences, the party was very similar to a party in the States, and the most important part was that we had fun and Maxime felt special!

The next day, we had a lovely dinner with his family where I got to try rabbit for the first time. It was gamier than I expected and was used to, but it was still absolutely delicious.

Now, for the phrase of the week! I hope you don’t feel cheated, but this weeks phrase is “lol.” I know, I know, I am incredibly in touch with French culture to come up with something so radically different from anything we know in English. But, the big difference is that French teenagers will say it, as if it was a word. It sounds like the beginning of lullaby, and it is mostly used in a sarcastic way. Try putting this to use in your friend group and see how it goes! See ya next week!

Berlin – Hidden History

I’m often struck by how casually historic Europe is, but it has never felt so present as in Berlin. This may be due to the fact that the only historic tour I have taken was in this city, though I am sure I could not be so easily biased. Berlin is ancient, with a long history now entirely overlooked in favor of that of the last century. The negative nature of the history results in an odd attitude of “give it no memorial” yet “never forget so as to never repeat.” For me at least, there was also an eerie sense of how recent this history really is, when a textbook makes it seem so removed.

The ravages of war as well as efforts to obliterate evil leave few visible traces of the 20th century. Brandenburg Tor remains one of the most famous relics of Berlin’s more distant past. The hotel opposite it also survived over 300 bombings during WWII, yet could not make it through one Russian party where the celebration of victory resulted in accidentally burning down the building. The rebuilt hotel now has a bulletproof penthouse that costs €26,000 per night (no breakfast included) and is the famous site of such events as Michael Jackson dangling his child out the window. A more somber example of this trend of demolition can be found in front of a nearby apartment complex. Here, a parking lot where dogs are often brought to pee covers the location of Hitler’s bunker. This, as well as the destruction of other reminders represents Berlin’s efforts to leave no memorial to wrongdoers and instead rebuild anew.

In contrast, tributes to the victims are readily visible and frequent. The memorial for the Jews killed in the Holocaust was the most striking experience for me. This cannot be adequately experienced in any way other than in person. Pictures make it impossible to see its magnitude or depth. These unassuming cement blocks transform into a momentous weight when in their presence. It looks like a cemetery, yet unmarked and uniform, recalling the dehumanization of this population. As you enter, the ground waves up and down, disorienting, but trends downwards as the blocks do so upwards. By the middle, the blocks double or triple human height. They are simply so massive as to force consideration of the weighty events they represent.

Later years in Berlin’s history are marked by the division into east and west Berlin. We happened to be in the city on the weekend after the celebration of the wall having been down for as long as it was up: 28 years, two months and 27 days. Again, the immediacy of this history is startling. I look around and see one united city, yet can still find segments of the wall and people telling stories of their time when it was up.

The last century in Berlin was marked by destruction. A beautiful church, simply blocking the view of a guard tower along the wall, was torn down. Historic monuments and buildings were obliterated in two world wars. Even what remains, such as the beautiful columns of the buildings of museum island, are scorched black and riddled with bullet holes. Statues are decapitated and maimed. Yet the spirit of the city is strong. Now, instead of crumbling under the weight of its history, Berlin chooses to find a new identity.

Berlin is a city of growth. Though the wall was torn down only a few decades ago, the only way you can tell which side you are on now is by a brick path marking the wall’s location. Buildings are being reconstructed, some using original stones and restoring the previous grandeur. Others take a modern spin. Currently, the front of a palace is being rebuilt, but the rear of the building will be modern. In this manner, Berlin is pulling itself up. This city is so valuable that it inspires the efforts of a multitude pour their hearts (and wallets) into bringing back what they have lost, while creating a vibrant new personality.

Lyon On The Fly

So, this weekend I was supposed to go to Colmar, a beautiful little town on the side of a river in Alsace, France in order to visit the cousin of my grandfather. Her name is Monique. I met her one time when I was 3 years old when she came to visit my grandparents in Atlanta. However, in the past couple of years, she has started writing letters to my grandparents again, but she doesn’t speak very much English, and my grandparents do not speak French. And so I was dubbed as the family translator. Through that, I started writing letters with Monique to learn more about her and to practice my French. All of this to say, she has a disease that disrupts the communication between her eyes and the neurons, and it sometimes flares up to the point that she cannot leave the house. So, on Thursday she called saying it was flaring up and asked if it was okay to cancel.

While it was pretty stinky that I couldn’t see her, it presented me with an amazing opportunity. A weekend of spontaneity: no planning, no itineraries – just go and explore. So, I looked all over Europe for an AirBnB under $25, that were available the next day, and that were in a fun city. I found one that was perfect in Lyon. So I booked my train and went.

I got to Lyon at about 5 PM, and I was so so excited to be out of Lorraine, so I could escape the daily rain that haunts the region in the wintertime. I get to the Lyon train station, and it is bustling with life. So many people going in so many directions, no matter where I went I felt like a salmon swimming downstream. (Get it? Because salmon usually swim upstream, so if a salmon was swimming downstream, it would be going the opposite direction of all the other salmon, so this salmon would feel like an American in the Lyon train station.)

I walk out of the train station for my first taste of Lyon, and of course, it is overcast and raining! I go to take the tram to get to my AirBnB so I can drop of my bag, and because it’s rush hour, the tram is packed. I can’t even fit on the first one that comes, and on the second one, I am smashed against the door the entire time while simultaneously having body contact with 5 different people. Of course, I love big cities and huge crowds, so I am thrilled and look like a total weirdo on this crowded bus because everyone is bothered by the crowd, and I am just smiling from ear-to-ear.

I get to my AirBnB and get all checked in, and it is exactly what you would expect for a $22 room. Clean, easy to find, but not much more than a mattress on the floor. (Albeit, a mattress that is 30 times more comfortable than I expected and 50 times more comfortable than the mattress in my residence.)

So, I leave my AirBnB, find the metro, and hop on. Like this entire trip, I have planned nothing, so I decide to get off at “Hôtel de Ville,” which I now know is in the center of “Vieux Lyon” (historic Lyon, literally “Old Lyon”). I walk around and find directions to a theatre because I bought a ticket for a play. I get to the place, called “Théâtre le nombril du monde,” and check in. There is a bar part that is separate from the theatre, where you can wait until the show starts. So, I waited around and made small talk with the other people there.

The show was amazing. It was another small café, even smaller than the one in Nancy, and so personal. It was about two people that get stuck in an elevator, so the stage was very simple, and it made the play more intense and intimate. The play was so good, and it was a lot more serious and heavy than the one in Nancy.

After the play, I was soaked and tired from having walked around, so I went home and went to sleep.

On Saturday morning I woke up with 0 plans for the day. I decided to start off by walking around the Hotêl de Ville area, this time in the daylight. It was beautiful again. I looked inside the courtyard of the Musée des Beaux Arts but didn’t have time for a full visit. For lunch, I found a cute little bagel shop, that turned out to be an American-themed restaurant. Everything was in wood: the walls, the tables, the plates. The walls were covered with old-school American advertisements for milkshakes and bubble gum. It was a quaint lunch, and I got a turkey bagel with a side of nachos with guacamole. (It was the worst guacamole I had ever had, but the rest of the meal was pretty good.)

After lunch, I just walked around all over the city. Lyon is beautiful: much bigger than Metz with many different architectural styles. Some of the highlights of my exploring include: accidentally stumbling across a zoo in the “Tete en or,” getting churros and coffee on the side of the road, a 90-minute walk along the Rhône, and an impromptu break in a small park.

Now, I am going to warn you, the next part of this blog post is going to sound super hippy-dippy but bear with me. At one point on my walking journey, I stopped in a little park covered in pebbles nudged between two buildings. I sat down to just enjoy the scenery and closed my eyes and just listened. At first all I heard were the cars on the road nearby. Then, slowly, new sounds started showing up. Peoples feet crunching the pebbles, a woman spraying her hairspray with an open window, and the last sound to come was birds chirping. It was a really beautiful moment to sit there, do nothing, and just enjoy the hustle and bustle of the city around me. I know that it sounded super wanna-be artsy, but you should all try it whenever you visit somewhere new.

Anyway, Lyon was super amazing, much larger than Metz, and very welcoming. But now, it’s time for the best part of every week: PHRASE OF THE WEEK, woohoo, wow, amazing. This week’s phase is going to be “J’en ai marre” which means I am fed up or I have had enough. I thought about this as the phrase of the week because of all of the kebab’s I have eaten, however, it doesn’t apply.

Nancy and All of Her Libraries

Just as a head’s up, this week’s post is not the most exciting. However, I think it really provides a good look into some of the every-day things that happen in Lorraine as well as some fun traditions/cultural aspects. Also, this is the stuff that I enjoy the most, so this post is very long-winded.

This weekend, I decided to go visit my friends at Nancy. Nancy is a city that is in the Lorraine region, about an hour away from Metz. It is bigger than Metz, with 105,000 inhabitants or so. However, the most exciting part about Nancy is that it is full of university students. There are plenty of universities and “Ecoles Prépa,” so the town is always bustling with the excitement of an overworked and under-rested college student – it feels like home!

I took the quick train over to Nancy, where my friend Laura picked me up from the train station. I would be spending the weekend with Laura and Maxime, so we went home to drop off my stuff. Unfortunately, it was about 1:30pm, and Laura had already eaten, while I had not. So, I talked her into stopping for a kebab (I should really get bloodwork done to make sure these kebabs are not killing me), so we stopped. Then we dropped my stuff off at Laura’s house and headed out for the day.

Laura and Max are both in their first year of university studying to become doctors. In France, the path to becoming a doctor is extremely competitive. You don’t just have to get good grades, you have to get grades better than anyone else. For example, at Laura and Max’s faculté (sort of like a discipline – find an explanation of the concept here), in order to continue after your first year, you have to have scores in the top 300 students. That doesn’t sound so bad, until you hear that every year there are 1,500 students that sit for the exam. Needless to say, Max and Laura work practically all the time, and don’t really take the weekends off. So, I got to spend a weekend like a real French medical student: in the library. Friday, we got to the library at about 2 PM and we stayed there until 7 PM. Max finished classes and came to join us around 4 PM, and we all worked side-by-side. The library itself was very comparable to a library in the States; there were group-work areas, silent areas, and even a student-run café in the basement. (Café is a generous description, it was the reselling of some prepackaged snacks and baked goods at a table with a sign. I like the idea of a student run café in the building, especially compared to a Starbuck’s in the library, but the number of options and quality of products was not even on the same planet.)

Anyway, after our library grind, we got home and just spent time together. We watched TV, specifically the French version of House Hunters, with which I am totally obsessed. They put a fun little spin on it, in that they have 2 real-estate agents compete to best meet the needs of the client, and at the end the client chooses a winner. It is very formulaic, but I have still not once predicted the correct winner. Then, of course, we had dinner and went to bed.

The next morning, Saturday, we woke up at 7 AM to go to the library. Yes, three 20-year-old college students woke up at 7 AM on a Saturday morning to go to the library, and they do it every weekend. (For reference, they told me that the study habits are even more intense in the “Écoles Prépa.”)

“Écoles Prépa” are a crucial part of French education, and there is not a good American counterpart, so I am going to take the time to explain it. If you aren’t interested, there’s a TL;DR at the end of this paragraph! After high school, you can go to an “Ecole Prépa” which is two years of extremely intense education to prepare you for a series of exams. These exams grant you entrance to what are called, “les grands ecoles” (directly translated, “the big schools”) which are essentially the best institutions of higher learning in France. It’s similar to the medical school predicament, in that you are competing for a limited number of spaces – except there are fewer spaces, and everyone in these schools is practically a child prodigy. It is an intense process, but if you make it into one of the “grands écoles” your life is made. It is a track for a life of success and academic rigor.

TL;DR: Crazy-hard schools to prepare you for the best schools in France.

Saturday we had to go to a different library because the other one is closed on the weekends. This time, we went to a library downtown and worked from about 8:30 AM until the library closed at 5 PM. For lunch, we met up with two of Max and Laura’s other friends, and they chose to get kebabs. You might be thinking to yourself, “Oh no! Poor Robby had a kebab the day before; he isn’t going to want another one.” You would be horribly mistaken. I was thrilled for a socially justifiable reason to eat kebabs 2 days in a row. (Now you may be thinking to yourself, “Oh no, Robby is going to clog his arteries, gain weight, and experience negative health effects of eating so much red meat.” You may be right, but I only have 4 months left at Georgia Tech-Lorraine, so live and let live.)

That night, we went out to dinner at a delicious Italian restaurant, and just walked around Nancy. It is important for you to know that Metz and Nancy have a fierce rivalry, and I love any type of rivalry, justifiable or not, but for obvious reasons I am firmly planted on the Metz side. Because of this, I have a tendency to compare Nancy to Metz, especially in subjects where Metz has the upper hand. All that to say: Nancy was beautiful and stunning and a fun city to be in. But, VIVE LA METZ !

Anyway, after walking around and dinner, we went to a comedy theater to see a play. However, when we arrived we were promptly asked for our reservation confirmation. This was a comedy café that could seat maybe 45 people, so of course we didn’t make a reservation. The person working the ticket stand said to sit tight, and if there was any room she would sell us the tickets. Two other people in our situation came in, and we all waited together and cracked jokes about how we can watch it from the side of the stage.

The theatre itself was adorable. Brightly colored walls plastered with posters of plays that had been shown there. And on the lights, there were inflatable pool toys so that the naturally harsh lighting became a little softer.

In the end, we were able to get tickets. We watched one of the funniest plays I have seen. It was called “Tabernacle” and it was about a woman who managed a cabaret learning to interact with the Canadian niece of the cabaret owner. (They made fun of the Canadians as being loud, clumsy, too laid-back, and of course for having a different accent. I related so, so, so much to this Canadian character.) It was a two-woman show, and it was so funny. If you are ever in Nancy, I highly recommend this café, “La comédie de Nancy.”

After the play, we went home and went to sleep. The next day, we had a very authentic French Sunday where we lounged around, talked casually, and moved slowly in general. (Although Max and Laura did this while reviewing their notes from class.) Then, Sunday afternoon, I returned to Metz to get a good night of sleep.

Like I said at the beginning, this is not the most exotic location with the biggest buildings or the oldest cathedrals. However, these are the memories that I am going to cherish for the longest. This weekend is such an insight into so many parts of French life, and it was a really special time for me. Anyway that’s enough sappiness for one post.

I guess that brings us to everyone’s favorite section: The word of the week. This week’s word is “Pas de soucis, pas de problems.” It means “no worries, no problems.” This was important because my friends were always worried about me coming for the weekend just to sit in the library, but I kept reassuring them that there were no worries, no problems because I was happy to see their daily life (and I had plenty of homework to do myself)! This is also a useful phrase if you run into a problem somewhere. Hypothetically, let’s say a kebab restaurant is out of your favorite sauce. You could use this phrase to let them know that it is not a big deal, and you will still love the kebab. (This is the most Robby-ish example I have ever thought of. Also, I am sitting on the train right now and very hungry.)

Depth vs. Breadth Touring

Maybe it’s the looming exams, but the realization that my time at GTL is finite has hit with full force. I came with dreams of London, Vienna, and every quaint town between. Four months in Europe seems endless, but throw in the stress that is a Georgia Tech education and it becomes much more limiting.

Unable to avoid the tendencies instilled in me by my classes, I’ve been looking at the situation as an optimization problem. How does one have the ideal European trip? Like most problems in engineering, the system in overly complex without some simplification. Ignoring the fact that I have little idea what actually is available to do in most of the places I want to visit, not to mention those I haven’t even decided on yet, it is fairly easy to come up with two general approaches to being a tourist: depth and breadth.

GT students don’t like being conventional. Coming back from stellar weekend just to find out that everyone else planned the exact same itinerary as you dampens what felt like a personalized journey. So, in theory, I’d love to blend with the locals and eschew the tourist traps, but given that I have never been to the continent before, I can’t help but feeling like I am missing out if I don’t go to Paris and Rome. These approaches also apply to how to tour within a given destination. Do you skim and hop, exposing yourself to as much as possible, or slow down to discover the historical context and consequential significance of that statue in the corner?

There is no perfect strategy, but the cliché answer is that everyone needs to find their own approach. My best memories have been longer experiences, some of which I couldn’t plan if I wanted to. On the other hand, I feel like I can grasp the personality of a city better by hitting as many spots as possible. It’s best to do both. Even an individual trip can feel too rushed or as if I am missing out on the entire point of the city. To counteract this, I’ve adopted the strategy of moving quickly at first, to  calibrate to the new city. From there, I keep open to opportunities to stay if something grabs my attention, but try to learn to let go of the things I know are not as interesting to me.

Above all, I advise to put an emphasis on opportunity. The best stories can’t be planned. When in Paris, I missed out on almost everything the city has to offer, but I spent so long in the Louvre that I not only can navigate such a monstrous maze with ease (and my favorite part of these museums is always the building they are in) but I genuinely learned an insane amount about art and history in general. I’ve become a bit of a snob about the dynamics of subtly spiraling contrapposto sculpture. While in Germany, my mobility surprised me, and I ended up waking up
at 4 AM and walking so many miles as to cover the majority of Frankfurt in a day. This led to day trips in the area and a better understanding of Europe outside the major cities..

We’re Not in France Anymore

This weekend, I stayed in Frankfurt, Germany. The city is beautiful, where skyscrapers strain around historic landmarks, but the trip was inspired by a desire to rest my injured ankle. Frankfurt is known for some of the best public transportation in Europe. Everyone seems to just step on the trains, but just as I was contemplating whether the tickets were only an obligation for unaware tourists, I noticed a sign translated into English scolding that it was “never less worth it” and how deep the fines were for that very act. I still ended up walking over 10 miles the first day, feeling great and excited to get to know the city I hadn’t researched beyond its trains.

My first time outside France, Frankfurt introduced me to the wonders of German food. Bakeries with pretzel sandwiches and jelly doughnuts just scratch the surface. While walking to the metro from the Airbnb, we ran into a Saturday morning market where we ate fresh lamb kabob and bought a huge half loaf of bread that we snacked on all weekend. These markets are extremely common in Europe, so finding a morning meal at one is a must every Saturday. The best food, though, is incomparably My Currywurst in Heidelberg. With pork, beef, and vegan currywurst, all diets can eat this amazing meal coated in sauces that are so addictive they should become controlled substances. To complement, their sweet potato fries and homemade ice tea are heartily approved by a certified southerner. This was by far the best meal I have had in Europe, and it was so affordable that I don’t have to starve this week.

From my experience, Germans love Americans. English seems to be much more common there, and I was most often regarded oddly when I didn’t just assume they spoke English. I’m convinced a German accent sounds more American than the British do. I was even mistaken for British, so they seem to be matching my country’s accent better than I can. My only complaint about Germany, though, is how incredibly common it is to only accept cash. I spent the last of my money through questionable means, leading to a jog down the block to the nearest ATM while my food was already being prepared for me.

To get the most of the city, we purchased museum passes. This is a 48-hour pass that allows you to get into any museum in Frankfurt, and as they all line the river in what is called the “Museumsufer” or “Museum Riverbank”, it’s easy to get your money’s worth. I do not even remember how many I made it to, after getting up at 4 am to get started on this trip and forgetting to make room for food on the first day’s itinerary. As world-class museums are beginning to be old news, I sought out the slightly more obscure. Instead of another historic art museum, I opted for one on the design of everyday objects housed in a modern, minimalist addition to an older house. This museum chooses to organize its contents into “elementary parts” based on “thematic orientation” as opposed to time period, material, geographic origin, and so on.

After covering most of the highlights of Frankfurt in one day, I wanted to find a way to escape another day of sprinting between museums in a city. A huge benefit of staying in Frankfurt is its central location, so even while in the same Airbnb for a weekend, we got a sampling of German towns. Heidelberg became the main destination, and ended up creating my favorite day at GTL so far. This day was perfect. Our Airbnb was the entire top floor of a kind family’s home in the outskirts of the city, where the best tea I have ever had was provided for free, and the Saturday market was just up the street.

“Picturesque, but compact,” as my grandparents, who have apparently visited here, phrased it, Heidelberg has it all. The town has a uniform architecture with classic red roofs to match the rosy sandstone common in the area. An arched bridge crosses the river to a grand gate that introduces the city. The best, however, is the castle dominating the mountainside and overlooking the town nestled in the valley. I’ve been adapting to European city life, but my love for nature has been neglected. I still cannot walk well enough to make the hike up the mountain, so a train supplied my mobility and the mountaintop view I’ve been missing. This castle has it all. Ancient and evolving since 1214, it has medieval towers that have collapsed into ruin, while a pristine renaissance palace stands within. To describe this beautiful mess, Mark Twain stated that “Misfortune has done for this old tower what it has done for the human character sometimes – improved it.” You can peruse gardens and forests, ponder the variegated architecture, or go inside to the German Apothecary Museum and a quaint café. Though originally unplanned, Heidelberg was the highlight of my weekend and I highly recommend finding time to stop there.

The First Weekend

The first weekend at GTL is a very special time. There have only been 3 days of class, so nobody has too much homework to do. Everyone is new and trying to find the people that they will call travel companions for the rest of the semester, so students pair off into groups of 6, 9, or even 15 (which is stress-inducing number of people to plan for). However, there were classes on Friday, so the week-end is a normal length, instead of the 3-day weekends that we will enjoy for the rest of the semester. So, there is a certain sense of calm going into the week-end that I don’t expect to be there for the rest of the semester.

I had a bit of a split weekend. I spent Friday and Saturday during the day in Saarbrücken, Germany. But Saturday night I went to a birthday celebration and spent the rest of the weekend in St. Avold, France.

The first lesson I learned in Germany: the only thing worse than a language barrier is a language barrier similar to your own language. I am such a big fan of languages, but I have never learned German before. (I know “Guten tag” and the other basics, but other than that, nope). However, because English is a Germanic language, there were just enough similarities to lure me into a false sense of comfort. I went out to lunch with my friend Saturday, and I was super confident that I could order my own lunch. Needless to say, I goofed. The worst part is that I thought it went flawlessly. I ordered a schnitzel sandwich with extra onions, some sauce I didn’t know, and a cup of coffee. My friend, who speaks German, laughed throughout the whole order, and I thought it was because of my accent. But, I, being the stubborn person that I am, said I didn’t want any help. So, when my food arrives and it is not a sandwich, but rather some type of baked pasta with raw onions on top, my friend explodes into laughter. Of course, the poor restaurant employee looks so concerned because he just put a lot of effort into this super weird order, so my friend explains to him what happened. (So of course, he laughs too.) I was just happy that I got the coffee right! (And, the pasta dish was absolutely delicious, so no harm no foul.)

Also, we went shopping and came across a beauty contest in the middle of the mall, so that was unexpected and fun to watch.

Saturday night, I went to the birthday party for my friend’s mom’s friend’s husband, who also happens to be my friend’s step-dad’s cousin, named Jean-Luc. Jean-Luc. Maxime’s mom and step-dad have a couple friend (you know, typical married people stuff), Jean-Luc and Sylvie. Anyway, I got invited to Jean-Luc’s birthday party and it was a hoot.

It was my first time seeing Maxime’s family since I left, and it was such a treat. I also got to meet so many cool people. Jean-Luc’s niece, Priscila, and I hit it off. When I arrived, she was raving about her recent trip to Harry Potter World in London, and we spent the rest of the night talking about Harry Potter. It was super interesting to see how some of the words translated. A wand is a “baguette magique” (literally magic baguette). The best one is the sorting hat is the “choipeau.” (A combination of “choix” and “chapeau,” the French words for choice and hat!) She also taught me about the southern French accent. Her husband, Bruno, is from the south, so he talks with this accent. (One of the main characteristics is that they replace the usual nasal n for “-ain” with something close to a nasal “ing” sound. Hard to explain, but very fun to experience.) She also gave me an open invitation to her house with her husband in southern France. (Stay tuned to see if I can make it work.) The party was so much fun, and the food as so amazing.

Sunday was great because it was a very authentic Sunday. I woke up late and did nothing. Just hung out with Max and his family, and then I went home. It was a very fun first weekend, calm and relaxing, just as I expected.

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