To GT-Lorraine...and Beyond!

25 years of academic excellence and adventure

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How To: Find Your Body’s Physical & Mental Limit

The adorable village of Därstetten!

Finally having arrived in Interlaken, Switzerland on a very cloudless and sunny Thursday morning, my three travel companions and I checked into our small AirBnb, then went out to do some exploring. Our home for the next few days was comfortably nestled in the rolling hills of a village called Därstetten. This village was so small that the cows easily outnumbered the humans, and trains only went through every hour. Our house was this sweet, little country home, with the architecture and design staying true to traditional Swiss style homes. It had dark wood paneling on the outside, and carved wooden shutters painted green. There were vibrant red and yellow tulips surrounding the front, as well as a couple of free-range chickens wandering the campus, and we all fell in love with the area almost instantly.

Now I could go on an on about the home and our immediate surroundings, but I’ve actually got a very interesting story to tell you, so I’d better get started:

Waterfalls at the halfway mark!

Saturday morning, we woke up bright and early to do some more exploring. We ended up deciding to rent a couple of mountain bikes in Interlaken to ride around Lake Brienz. This is where the story really takes shape. I have not touched a bike since probably my freshman year of high school, but some part of me chose to ignore that fact and take on a 40+ kilometer trip in jeans and a sweater. It was nearly 65 degrees Celsius, and I had one bottle of water. Well, I figured I could use the exercise, plus I would be able to see the lake from all sorts of angles! During the first half hour of the trip, I was doing great. We were riding on flat, paved road, and I was really enjoying myself. Then the hills started.

*Pensive thoughts*

I don’t know what we were expecting, seeing as we were in one of the world’s most hilly/mountainous regions. We all turned a corner and saw the road go up. And up. And up. At first, I tried toughing it out, so I switched my gears and went into the first ascent at full speed. Soon enough, I lost my momentum, and found myself pedaling just to keep my bike from falling backwards. At this point, my thighs and calves were feeling a healthy sting, so I kept going until I reached the next turn which seemed to plateau off.

But what was waiting for us when we turned that corner? You guessed it- another hill! I took a breath, gathered myself, and started to tackle this one. We all got about halfway up before we hopped off our bikes and walked them to the next corner. This is how we took on every other hill. After seeing some beautiful waterfalls, falling a couple times, and a lunch break, we finally got to the opposite end of the lake. This next half of the trip was supposed to closely follow the water line, and we all joked that we would get there and see nothing but upwards roads. We would literally be going uphill both ways. That joke quickly turned into a sad reality.

Lake Brienz

There was a stint about a kilometer long that went all the way down to the lake and then it flattened out along the turn. Coming out of that turn, we, I kid you not, saw Another. Freaking. Hill. By this point, I’m already sweating bullets (the hot sun did not make any of this easier), and my legs were on fire. However, against my better judgment, I trekked up the hill. We were just over halfway home, and I was not about to be a quitter. There was one more relatively flat part, when we were going through a small town, but then the uphill battle quickly continued. We did actually go all around the lake- uphill both ways. What a story.

Towards the end, all of our bodies were feeling the toll of 40+ kilometers in our legs, backs, and souls. By the time we returned the bikes, one of us had a faulty ankle, one of us had a crazy-intense sunburn, and the other two of us had enough muscle cramps to last an army a lifetime. Plus, due to the questionable lack of padding on the bike seats, none of us could walk normally. We all hobbled and waddled into our beds that night. We were physically and mentally drained, so after cooking dinner at six that night, we fell asleep quicker than you could say “spaghetti bolognese and frozen vegetable mix” (our dinner).

The moral of this unfortunate story, even though I really did have fun and I’m thankful that I had the experience, is to NOT ride a bike for four and a half hours if you haven’t exercised those muscles in over six years, do NOT overestimate your physical or mental preparedness, and ALWAYS bring two to three bottles of water! Until my next misadventure, this is Sam signing off! 

Top 5 List of Favorite Encounters of the Food Kind

Thinking introspectively I’ve come to the conclusion that my love for travel might actually be not so subtly linked to my love for good food. Seeing famous landmarks and learning about the history of places is great and all, but my favorite part is undeniably the food. Be it street vendors, marketplaces, little cafés, or fancy restaurants, good food can be found everywhere, and in Europe you have nearly unlimited access to foods from many different cultures, and cuisine that might not be so easily accessible in the United States, so in the spirit of Buzzfeed, I decided to make a top 5 list of my favorite encounters of the food kind.

5. Schnitzel with Noodles, Heidelberg
Don’t get me wrong, this simple meal from Germany was delicious, but it secures a spot on my list for the experience of finally getting to eat the iconic food combination sung about in the Sound of Music. Growing up hearing that song, I never even knew what schnitzel was before coming to Europe, so it was fun for me to not just figure out what is actually was, but also to eat it.

4. Hot waffle with Ice Cream, Amsterdam
Right outside the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, by the famous sign, there’s a little food stand that sells an amazing combination that I had never seen anywhere else. Waffles, ice cream and coffee was a perfect way to break fast before enjoying the incredible art of Van Gogh and touring the beautiful canals of Amsterdam.  

Picture Courtesy of TripAdvisor.

3. Roasted Duck, Paris
This was one of the very first meals I ate in Europe, occurring in my very first weekend of travel. I’ll always have a soft spot for that first destination and the trip was highlighted by finding this tiny little café in the middle of Paris with great hospitality and even better food. This was also my first time actually trying duck and it has quickly taken it’s place high among my favorite meats.

2. Pork Belly with Creamed Potatoes, Munich
This whole meal at a lively restaurant/pub in Munich was amazing but I can say with some certainty that their potatoes were the best I had ever had. People who know me know that I love potatoes, so this was truly a wonderful experience. There’s just something great about the simple cuisine of Germany, and when it’s prepared as well as it was in Munich, there’s not much that can beat it.

1. Gyros, Athens

Right across from our hotel in Athens.

My number one spot comes from a little hole in the wall in the middle of Athinas street called the Pita Bar. My girlfriend and I discovered this place near the end of our trip and proceeded to go there for at least 4 meals in 3 days. It wasn’t particularly fancy or anything, but they knew how to make gyros like you wouldn’t believe. If you ever find yourself in Athens, I cannot recommend the Pita Bar highly enough. Just watch out, because other gyros will never taste as good again.

It might sound a little weird that food would be such a big part of traveling, but really, food is a huge part of culture. Europe is known for its diverse and impressive cuisine and it hasn’t disappointed. I look forward to a few more weeks of amazing food and amazing places.

5 Tips for Train Travel

From using the Eurail pass, I have learned a lot about traveling on trains. Especially when one doesn’t speak the language, going on trains can be a bit daunting. Trust me, I have taken my fair share of wrong trains, slept in a few very cold train stations, and been to many an information desk. This post is a ‘learn from my mistakes’ type deal so I hope everyone is ready!

1. Make sure you are in the right car.
I know, I know, this sounds like a no-brainer. However, a lot of the newer trains have the capability for cars to split off from one another and go to different places. Make sure that the car you get into is going to your destination, because there is no way to switch once you are en route.

2. Secure your valuables with your companions so you can all sleep.
It’s always a good idea to keep your personal items close to you. I keep my passport, Eurail pass, and money in a money belt, and put it under my clothes. However, sometimes I worry about my backpack. I want to sleep, but I don’t want to have to worry about my bag being stolen if everyone in my group falls asleep. So, I came up with a plan. Whenever we are planning on napping, my crew and I all buckle and tie our backpacks together. That way no one can grab our backpacks and quickly make off with one, but will have to struggle through the tangle of backpacks and thus become discovered. It makes me feel a lot safer.

3. Bring a scarf or neck pillow for sleeping.
One thing I learned about taking trains is that you will never know when or where you will be stranded. It is always a good idea to bring extra warm clothes in case you are stranded in a train station, because most of them are not heated. Also, most train stations don’t have places to lie down for sleeping, so having a pillow to rest your head on can come in really handy.

4. Leave enough time for transfers
Even though trains are usually on time, small delays or train strikes can lead to some close calls and missed trains. When planning your route, make sure that you can always get to the next platform for your transfer. I think 20 minutes is a safe bet. Every train station is different, and you need time to figure out where the train is and how to get there. Leave stress out of the equation and plan for decent transfer time.

5. Bring snacks!
Although many trains have dining cars, bringing snacks along for the ride is always an awesome idea. Train travel makes you sleepy, and a quick granola bar, apple, or other snack can be a great pick-me-up. Trust me, you will love yourself later.

Happy travels everyone!

Krakow: The Old City of Eastern Europe

As a Lithuanian, I was very excited to go to Krakow, Poland. As any Lithuanian will remind you when you respond, “I haven’t heard of that country,” the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was the largest country in Europe during the 14th century, and Krakow was one of the main capital cities of the country.

This is a monument dedicated to the 1409 cooperation of Lithuanian and Polish forces in Grunwald.

The Polish are a proud people. They have seen some of the most brutal wars, famines, and atrocities of any European country. Since the 11th century, they have only seen about 100 years of peace total, in the 16th century. In the span of WWII to the fall of the Soviet Union, they lost about 35% of their population to death camps, shootings, war, and gulags. They have a fierce hatred for oppression, extreme national pride, and they oppose all things Nazi and Soviet. According to our tour guide, ask a little girl about 4 years old what the colors of the Polish flag stand for, and she will respond with intense expression, “White is for the innocence of our country in the many wars waged on its soil, and red is for the blood that our people have sacrificed in those wars.”

This is the beautiful square in the heart of the city. The old city was so prosperous because of trade with Middle Eastern countries for horses!

After the lighthearted tour of the old city, famous for its walled defenses, beautiful castles and wonderful cathedrals, my group and I were ready to face one of the most difficult topics in human history: the Holocaust. About 1.5 hours outside of Krakow is the site where the most people were killed in the shortest span of time in history. Auschwitz and its sub-camp Birkenau, Nazi death camps, are today Krakow’s main tourist attraction. No one is excited to go to Auschwitz. Remembering all of the atrocities committed there is not a fun day trip. But it is something that every human should do, and it is a burial site that everyone needs to make a pilgrimage to.

The victims were mostly Jews, but also included Soviet prisoners, Romani people, and Polish people. Here are some statistics from the US Holocaust Museum website: “Jews (1,095,000 deported to Auschwitz, of whom 960,000 died); Poles (147,000 deported, of whom 74,000 died); Roma (23,000 deported, of whom 21,000 died); Soviet prisoners of war (15,000 deported and died); and other nationalities (25,000 deported, of whom 12,000 died).” When you enter Auschwitz, you see the sign above the entrance “Arbeit macht Frei,” meaning, work sets you free. However, this was not true at all for the prisoners sent there.

After arriving off the cattle cars after days of journey without a break, food or water, you would be filtered through the entrance. If you were sent to the left, you would be sent directly to the gas chambers. If you were sent to the right, you would be put in the forced labor camp or sent to the human experimentation area. The only people sent to the work camp were strong young men. Women, children, the elderly and those with any sort of disability were sent to the gas chambers.
When you entered the gas chamber, you were told that you would be taking a shower. Prop shower heads would be on the walls. However, the room was filled with Zyklon B, which would kill you painfully in about 10-20 minutes depending on your proximity to the vent. We walked inside the gas chamber, and could see the nail marks on the walls where people had tried to claw their way out of the gas chambers.

We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the camp as a sign of respect. Here is a view of the barracks from the outside. 700 people were kept in each building.

After the people were murdered, a forced Jewish labor force would have to shave all of their hair to be used for coat lining or mattress filling, and all gold teeth and rings would be taken (along with any possessions they had taken on the cattle cars) to houses in the camp known as ‘Canada.’ These storehouses for valuables were called Canada because Canada was a symbol of wealth for the Polish. Then, the corpses would be placed in ovens and incinerated. Walking the paths of these people was incredibly moving and powerful.

If you were sent to the work camp, you would be given insect-riddled and soiled uniforms and tattooed with a number. You would sleep 8 in a bed in barracks with mud floors, full of rats and insects. Only one latrine was provided and almost everyone had dysentery. You were given about 200 calories per day. You had to work 14 hours or more of backbreaking labor, and if you fell, injured yourself, or passed out from starvation, you would be sent to the gas chamber. If you did not fulfill work quotas, you would be subject to capital punishment, including having your arms broken, lashings, beatings, spending a night in a suffocation cell (no ventilation, many people to a room, only a few survive) or a standing cell, (four people placed in a 1 meter by 1 meter cell with no room to move at all. After all of this, you would be expected to work the next day.

At Birkenau, the site of the largest mass killings, our tour guide informed us that there was a 1 inch layer of human ash just below the grass. The camp was liberated by the Soviets. Many of the prisoners that survived, however, were sent to gulags – Soviet-enforced labor camps – immediately following their liberation.

I know this post has been really heavy, so I want to leave you with an inspiring story. On our tour, our tour guide mentioned a professor that was arrested and sent to Auschwitz in the beginning of Nazi occupation. He survived four years of hard labor in the camp. After the war, his political ideals landed him in a Siberian gulag, because he opposed the Soviets, where he survived another four years of starvation, hard labor, and cold. He lived to be 104 years old. When asked by a student how he lived so long, he responded “I wanted to live long enough to see Poland peaceful. Now, after 80 years of nonstop war, I can tell them at the moment of my death that everything is alright.”

The Travel Bug

I think that I’ve been sick more times in the past three months that I’ve been here than in the last three years of my life. When coming into this European adventure, I expected to get sick a couple times. At least once. Maybe twice. Definitely not more than that.

Boy was I wrong.

I’ve been sick almost every other week, barely recovering from the past illness before I was struck down with yet another virus. Now I know that I’m not the best candidate for World’s Healthiest Traveler, but come on man, I should not be getting sick this many times. Once I exchanged health horror stories with some of my more seasoned traveler friends, and after reading up on other travel blogs, my physical restoration and mental sanity seem to be on a good, solid path upwards!

With all of this new knowledge, I have come up with a list of five things that you can do to prevent illness (and keep mental blissfulness) while traveling, or at least control it to the best of your ability.

Courtesy of shswstatic.com

1. PRE-TRAVEL CHECKLIST: When making a journey anywhere, I strongly advise creating an essentials kit. This should include, but is not limited to, hand sanitizer, hand/face lotion, a light sweater or small blanket, a travel pillow for those cramped, long distance trains or flights, one or two reusable water bottles, some nasal spray, and of course my personal favorite, a pack of gum. Also, make sure that if your eyesight requires some kind of support, like mine, wear glasses instead of contact lenses. While contacts may seem like the nicer, more comfortable option, they quickly dry your eyes (especially on airplanes), which makes your them more vulnerable to bad microbes!

Courtesy of mrdoorsign.com

 

2. SANITIZE: While this may seem a bit over the top, you should sanitize your hands after touching germ centrals. This can include anything from the seemingly harmless ATMs, ticket kiosks, and airport security-line bins, to the germ-y cesspools that are public restrooms. And speaking of public bathrooms, try not to touch any surfaces! It is a little difficult, but trust me, you’ll be regretting that one time you laid your hand on the counter when you’re sick in bed WAY MORE than a weird stare from a local stranger when you do a miniature Tai Chi/Olympic gymnast move to keep your coat off the floor.

Courtesy of coresites-cdn.factorymedia.com.

 

3. HYDRATE: Because of the dry air that comes with plane rides or long distance trains, your body will start to (gonna sound a bit gross, but stick with me) produce less mucus. And while none of us particularly enjoy mucus, it helps our bodies fight off infections and disease! Dehydration can also cause tiredness, headaches, and chapped skin (hello, hand/face lotion), which none of us want. Usually, people should be drinking around six to eight (eight ounce cups) of water per day. However, when you’re traveling, you should be drinking at least one eight ounce cup of water every hour, totaling to about ten to twelve cups throughout your day, and even up to fifteen or eighteen on longer days. One way to get a head start on your daily hydration is to drink two cups of room temperature water right when you wake up. Not only does this knock sixteen ounces off your daily intake, but it also refreshes you and makes you more active, boosting your energy so that you can take on the long day ahead of you!

Opening_Aang_airbending.png

Courtesy of vignette4.wikia.nocookie.net.

 

4. FRESH AIR: Whether you’re sitting in an airplane cabin or the backseat of a taxi, try to get as much air flow as possible. This can be using the little air vents above you or opening the window to breathe in some well needed fresh air. Constant air flow reduces your chances of becoming ill, and as a beautiful plus, it flushes out any questionable smells that you may have acquired during your trip!

Courtesy of lifecdn.dailyburn.com.

 

5. VITAMIN UP: Citrus fruits are such wonderful things. Not only do they taste heavenly, but they also give your body nothing but health and energy! But the really great thing about citrus fruits, is that they are so versatile! You can eat them straight off a tree, you can eat them dried, you can eat them candied, you can drizzle their juice in drinks or over your meals, you can straight up drink the juice, or for a more subtle flavor, you can put a couple slices in a bottle of water and drink that instead! You should always be consuming fruits and vegetables, but juicy fruits or vegetables will make you especially full of energy boosting and immune strengthening goodness! My point here is, you can consume fruits and vegetables (my favorite being oranges) in nearly any way possible, and there’s pretty much no excuse. Just eat more fruit!

Alrighty campers, now that you’re prepared to fight infection and drowsiness, go out and travel around the world! Conquer viruses and show bacteria who’s in charge! And as for me, I will make a shopping list full of good, healthy, things and try to recover from the bug I caught this past weekend!

The München Experience

The government offices in the Marienplatz.

Last weekend I made my first foray into the land of lederhosen: Bavaria. The largest region (by area) in Germany, Bavaria is home to over 12.5 million Germans and is highlighted by the city that this blog makes its namesake, München (or as you might know it in English, Munich). A common stereotype about Germans I’ve heard throughout my life is that they only care about work and achieving peak efficiency and I can’t say whether that is true or not everywhere, but it is certainly just a stereotype in the South of Germany. I found almost every local I met to be polite and inviting even though it was obvious that we were tourists, and Americans at that. I feel that knowing how to relax after work, and being able to forget about the stresses of life are skills that Bavarians excel in. The atmosphere of every restaurant and gathering place we visited were so lighthearted and joyous, more so, I think, than any place I have visited to date. As a destination in Europe I can’t help but recommend the Bavarian region and the city of Munich to anyone interested in both history and a fun environment.

A building in the square where Hitler famously faced off against the Munich police forces preceding his arrest.

The biggest highlight of my trip had to be the walking tour that I went on through the city. I love history and Munich is a city that has been around for a very, very long time. It was really cool to hear first-hand from someone who lives there about everything that’s happened in the city’s past, from the original founder’s partnership with the greatest Holy Roman Emperor Barbarossa, that turned sour and resulted in his exile, to how in World War II, 90% of the city was destroyed, only to be rebuilt and make such a comeback that it was able to host the Olympic Games in the 70’s. It was unbelievable, and a little scary, that less than 85 years ago, Hitler had walked these very streets and led his march to try to uproot the Bavarian government through the same square where I drank an afternoon cup of coffee. If history is what you are looking for in your travels, there is plenty to be had in Munich.

A river where locals apparently surf when the water is flowing at full speed.

But of course, Munich is more than just its history, the city today alone is worth visiting, so even if history isn’t your thing, come for the people, for the food, and, if you are of legal drinking age of course, Munich is known for having the best beer in all of Germany (or as Germans would purport, the world) and is actually something that plays a large part in their history and culture.

I had the opportunity to meet a local older couple while out for dinner and was blown away at how welcoming and friendly they were, despite the language barrier. Europe is filled with exciting and interesting places, and I believe that Munich, Germany should hold a place among the greatest of these, and I know for a fact that when I return to Europe later in my life I will try my hardest to find a place for Munich again in my travels.

Meet RA Noah Pilz: Master of Eloquence and Pillar of Responsibility

 
After interviewing Noah for GTL, I knew I needed a second interview for the RA section of the blog. He has a way with words that it simply indescribable, and I wish I could write them in his tone of voice. Honestly, if this blog interview was a job interview, I would hire him in a heartbeat. Here are his answers to come of the questions I asked him.

 

 
What made you decide to go to GTL?
There are three main reasons. The biggest one is that I had never been out of the US before – and nothing had really driven me to. When I heard Tech had a program like GTL, I was intrigued. The second reason was talking to people that had done it before. It wasn’t a vague, “I knew people that loved it,” and I knew I didn’t have to worry about the program. The third reason is that classes were in English.

Why did you decide to be an RA?
I always enjoy getting to be a person that people can go to with questions. I am a people person. It really comes down to the fact that I can be in Europe, get my housing payed for, and be a source of info and way to help people getting acclimated. The only problem was I had never been a RA before. However, as I worked on the application I realized it was really something I wanted to do; I loved being a camp counselor over the summer. Although college students aren’t 10-year-olds, it’s still nice to be in a position where I can be a resource for people.

What is your favorite part about being an RA?
That’s a tough one. I can tell you my least favorite. Midnight duty rounds, especially with 8 am classes can be a bit nightmarish. But it is definitely worth it. My favorite part is being able to have people place their trust in me. I value that. I can use that to help others.

Are you more of a Type A or Type B person?
I’m not super organized in my room, but I do like structure and knowing the order of things in a way I can follow. I am definitely not good and sticking to a daily schedule though. Maybe I’m a Type C?

What is your favorite GTL memory so far?
My mom had planned to come visit over spring break, but she couldn’t because of an emergency. After spring break, we found out she could come for the weekend. My mom had never been out of the country before either, but when she was in high school, she hosted a foreign exchange student from Sweden named Tina. They kept in touch, and when my mom came, she was thinking about reaching out to her after 30 years. We decided to visit her.  
 
We flew to Copenhagen, and Tina drove us to Sweden. We stayed in her beautiful, rural farm house. She had 3 amazingly obedient golden retrievers that competed in dog shows. We spent a day playing with them.  Tina then took us to ride Icelandic horses. We rode through the forest. It looked like something out of Lord of the Rings. It was an amazing experience especially traveling with my mom for the first time. We learned about Sweden, went into the city and tried classic Swedish pastries and awesome Swedish fish gummies. It all really came together, and it didn’t really have an initial structure. It was a spur of the moment.

Graduate Student Interview: Sarah Malak

This week, I was able to catch up with one of Georgia Tech Lorraine’s graduate students, who are part of our institution that we undergrads don’t really see much of. Meet Sarah Malak, a PhD candidate in Mechanical Engineering and one of the most interesting people I’ve had the pleasure of chatting with. Sarah was born in Atlanta and grew up a huge fan of Georgia Tech, even attending Tech home games when she was younger. However, Sarah decided to move out-of-state for college and only just recently reconnected with the university from her home town.

As an undergraduate student at the University of Akron in Ohio, Sarah received a dual degree in Mechanical Engineering with a focus on Polymers and Applied Mathematics, while also minoring in Arabic – talk about ambitious! She then moved all the way to the Middle East on a program with Middlebury College where she continued her Arabic studies in Jordan. She lived there for 6 months, also stopping by in Israel where she studied in Tel Aviv for around 3 months. Sarah told me that she traveled all over the country while she lived there and said that Israel was the most beautiful place she had ever been.

After finishing school there, Sarah decided to move to Paris where she attended an engineering school, Le Mont, for 1 year. Around this time, she met who the man that would become her husband in Brussels and moved with him to live in Nice. Following this, Sarah decided to get her PhD, and when she learned about Georgia Tech Lorraine, and the fact that she could actually attend the university she had loved in her childhood, it became clear to her it was a perfect opportunity.

Outside of her quite impressive academic history, Sarah also actively pursues many hobbies and interests in her free time. Among these are a number of musical instruments including piano, flute, Balalaika (a triangular Russian guitar), and the Darbuka (a type of Arabic drum). Another very interesting hobby of hers is belly dancing, which is in fact more than a hobby, as she is actually a professional in the art.

Outside of her PhD work, Sarah also acts as a TA for the undergraduate dynamics class here at GTL, which is where I first met her. As someone who has enjoyed getting to travel all over Europe and see lots of amazing things so far at GTL, it was really cool to hear about all places Sarah had gone for school, work, and just for fun. She told me that out of everywhere she’d been, Tel Aviv and Brussels actually stuck out to her the most. Israel for the incredible beauty and history of the country and Brussels for being one of the most interesting places to be. Since Brussels is home to the European Union parliament and is a center for much EU related activity, there always tend to be people from all over the world staying in the city at any given time, this combined with the fact that, in Sarah’s words, “[t]hings just don’t close there,” it makes it an amazing place to meet interesting people and do fun things.

Maybe I should give Brussels a visit myself, it sounds like a great place and it’s just as close to Metz as Paris is. Anyway, I really enjoyed talking to Sarah and if you happen to be taking dynamics here (which seems to be a lot of us) don’t hesitate to come visit her for help during her office hours, she really is a very kind and helpful person.

Castles and Cobblestones

Throughout all of my European adventures, I’ve noticed one thing that most tourist cities have in common: castles and cobblestones. The cities themselves are so old and commercialized that the house tech repair shops and Internet cafés are within one kilometer of their marvelous castles. Most downtown streets are covered with ancient cobblestone, and although, at times, you may trip or stub your toe (it happens to the best of us), it is so amazing getting to walk the same paths as so many people did before us.

This past weekend, I brushed up on my German “Ordering In A Restaurant” skills and sat on a train for three hours to visit my girlfriend in Heidelberg. Thankfully, with her German competence, I didn’t make myself too much of a fool! In all seriousness though, it was a great weekend!

Heidelberg, Germany

Even though I’ve got some Irish blood running through my veins, I completely forgot that Friday was Saint Patrick’s Day, and so did my girlfriend. With neither of us wearing green that entire day, we decided that we were thankful we weren’t in middle school anymore, hiding from overly excited, shoulder pinching, four leafed clover, leprechaun lovers. This isn’t to say that I have anything against Saint Patrick or the day that honors him, in fact I love it, it’s such a fun holiday. However, we all know that one kid who went out of their way to find their non-green-wearing-peers and pinch them when they least expected it. Aside from that, this weekend was full of unnecessary amounts of broccoli, the World’s Largest Wine Barrel, and schnitzel with noodles!

Thinking it would be both frugal and fun to cook our own dinners while we were at our BnB, we stopped by a grocery store on Friday to pick up a couple of things. We wanted to make this kind of pork stir fry, so as we went through the ingredients we usually see in stir fry, we eventually came across broccoli. Instead of finding small, single stalks, we only found packs of three giant stalks, so we had broccoli for breakfast and dinner, the whole weekend. It’s safe to say that both of us can go without broccoli for a while now!

On Saturday morning, after having stir fry for breakfast, we made the trek up the the world famous Heidelberg Castle, home to the World’s Largest Wine Barrel, the Heidelberg Tun. Built in 1751, the Heidelberg Tun is seven meters high, eight and a half meters wide, and able to hold 220,000 liters of wine. It even has a staircase along the side leading up to a dance floor at the top of the barrel!

Heidelberg Castle.

After our trip up to the castle, we went back down to the main part of the city for lunch at a typical German restaurant. Now, I really had no idea what schnitzel with noodles was before this weekend. I just remember Julie Andrews singing about it being one of her favorite things, so when I saw that it was on the menu, I immediately ordered it. What I got was this huge plate full of really, really thick noodles, an amazing mushroom cream sauce, and a giant chicken nugget to top it off. It was way better than how I’m making it sound, but really that’s how simple it was!

We visited the Lindt chocolate store and a couple of bakeries after that, but don’t worry, I will soon dedicate an entire blog post to all of my sweet tooth conquests! All in all, Heidelberg was good to us, and if I have another chance to visit again, I think I definitely will! So until next week,

Tschüss!

Amsterdam, a Severed Ear, and a Whole Lot of Garbage

This weekend, we made the journey to Amsterdam. Although the weather was bleak, we bundled up, and woke up in the morning ready to make the most of the day. Before I begin my usual account of historical events, I would like to give a small shout-out to the Amsterdam public transportation system. With frequent buses and trams and a ticket that allows you to swipe on any mode of transportation, my companions and I never had any trouble finding our way around the canal city.

The most tourist-y picture, smack in the middle of the museum quarter.


Now, to the history part! Ever since I was a child, I have always been drawn to Vincent Van Gogh, the famous Dutch painter with his bold brush strokes and distinct style. When I was about 7 years old, my family took me to the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. When I visited this weekend, I messaged my parents: “This museum was honestly life changing.” To which my mother replied: “It changed your life in elementary school too! You went from a perfectionist to ‘Oh, just get it done!’ It was after you saw the bold brush strokes.” So I guess I owe my adult personality to this painter.


Everything about Van Gogh is inspiring to me. He struggled with mental illness, didn’t begin painting until 27, and had the courage to challenge the social and societal norms of his time. The museum itself is in a modern glass building, where well-displayed galleries take you through his whole painting career from his earliest painting to his last days. His impressionistic style was quite revolutionary, and he is considered today the most famous painter in the world. The museum was thorough and excellent, displaying everything from Vincent’s letters to his brother, with whom he had a very close relationship, to his painting technique. (He didn’t typically mix colors on the palate, but rather mix the wet paint as it was applied to the canvas.)


My favorite thing about Van Gogh’s art is that his paintings aren’t meant only to depict a subject, but to depict what the subject is feeling. He preferred painting and living in the country, because he thought country living to be more honorable and honest than that in the city. He attributes the city to what drove him to madness. Indeed, in his last paintings while he was living in a mental asylum, he used much more red than in his previous work because he was trying to reflect the emotions of the patients there.


Van Gogh was truly mad, and many know the story of how he cut off his ear. He was living in a small house with his friend and fellow painter Gauguin, but after a few weeks, Gauguin began to find Van Gogh utterly intolerable, and attempted to leave. Van Gogh, angry at his friend, chased him into the street with a razor, and then being unable to catch him, cut off his ear in a fit of madness. He then presented it to his mistress, who was understandably horrified at the whole affair. Van Gogh knew he needed help, and a few years later actually admitted himself to the asylum, comforted by his brother’s shipments of painting supplies and letters. However, the tortured artist could not live with himself and shot himself in the chest. He will go down in history as one of the greatest artists of all time.


After the amazing visit to the Van Gogh museum, I embarked on a canal cruise. Amsterdam, by necessity, has become a city expert at controlling water flow, water levels and flooding. Using a system of locks, seawalls and sluices, they have kept their marshy city below sea level flood free. Drifting along the man-made canals, I could see that the facades of all of the houses were very skinny. This is because the taxes on the properties were determined by the width of the facades of the houses, so the skinnier the facade, the less taxes you owed the state.


Another very interesting fact about the city is that the term ‘flea market’ originates there. This is because in the very poor sector, floods happened so often that they sunk garbage into the water to prevent their houses and streets from flooding, and therefore made a sort of city out of garbage, riddled with fleas. In this area, most of the square is covered with stalls, and is a busy market during the day. Therefore, we get the term flea market.

Notice the skinny facades? Cheapskates!

Amsterdam has so many amazing museums, and I would love the chance to go back and see more.

All in all, a beautiful visit.

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