To GT-Lorraine...and Beyond!

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Category: Travels (Page 3 of 13)

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.

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.

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