Final Goodbyes

Flashback to 5 months ago, I would have never expected to come out of GTL with so many new experiences and stories to tell. I came with little expectations of what the semester would look like and would have never expected to become such a train fanatic and almost full time traveler every week. Besides the gorgeous mountain views, quaint little towns, and amazing foods across Europe, there are so many other things I’ve taken for granted at GTL. Without these people, I really wouldn’t have had the time of my life in Europe. So as a final goodbye to this blog post and to my time at GTL, here’s a thank you letter to everyone who’s made my journey thus far the best it could have ever been. 

To my travel buddies and new friends, 

I can’t believe 5 months of traveling with you all has passed by so fast. Regardless of where we were or how bad our train journey was or how sleep-deprived and hungry we were from trying to get back to Metz before classes started, it’s been such a fun time. I’ve not only seen so many things with you all, but I’ve also learned so much about your lives and interests in general. Most notably, thanks to Deni for taking me all the way to Bulgaria and showing me your culture. Thanks to Neel for being my personal map and travel consultant. You’re indeed more reliable than any SNCF website or Eurail time table ever could be. Thanks to those who survived the Augsmatthorn hike with me in Switzerland. That’s a ride I will never forget for sure and I’m still confused how we made it out of there that night. Thanks to the Spain/Portugal group for eating great seafood together and having a blast sea kayaking and mountain biking. Long live “Spain/Portugal!” You guys have been such a fun group to travel with and I hope we have more crazy adventures again sometime. And finally, thanks to Sam for being my ultimate travel buddy. I’m so glad I got to explore, eat, and try random new things with you so much over the past months and that’s been the greatest blessing this entire semester. To everyone else who has made my GTL journey an unforgettable one, I can never thank you enough. Love you all 🙂

To the GTL professors, staff, and admin,

Thank you so much for providing and running such an amazing and exploratory program. The professors here have been so accommodating and caring about our well-being and physical health. With around the clock GTL urgent support, consulting, and nursing staff, GTL has been equipped to meet all my needs. Here, people will actually sit down and listen to your needs, whatever it may be. It can be arranging a shuttle to and back from Cora or going to the hospital for being sick. Sending out notifications for travel surveys and mental health resources every week has been comforting for me to know that someone is watching out for us if something happens. You will never be alone at GTL if you’re struggling, that’s for sure. Special thanks to everyone for keeping the student body happy and healthy. Without you all, GTL would not have been the way it is today.

To Dev and the BDE student community,

Thanks for organizing so many fun community bonding events throughout the semester. I’ve been able to talk to and meet so many new people through the ice skating, bowling, and ping pong tournament events. It’s been such a blast. BDE has been really active in bringing GTL together as a community, which was a big change up from the beginning of the semester when COVID restrictions were tight. 

And finally to those running the GTL Blog and Instagram,

Throughout the semester, you’ve been able to bring my story and those of others to life by posting them to social media. Not only will this hopefully provide a glimpse of reality at GTL, it will also encourage prospective students to expand their horizons and spend a semester thriving in Europe. 

Thanks for everything, GTL. It’s been a great run. 

Signing off, 

Claire Lin

 

High Speed Trains: Rated

Friday, April 22, 2022 | Written by Claire

Trains. They’re what make Europe run the way it does today. From local to region to cross-country high speed trains, there are so many different designs and engineering feats you will encounter everywhere you travel. As a newcomer to European transportation before this semester, I found the intricate time tables of arriving and departing trains, engineering mechanisms of high speed rail, and designs to be highly fascinating. From the hundreds of trains I’ve ridden in this past semester, here are my top 5 favorites. If you get the chance, definitely use your Eurail pass to your advantage and take a luxury train ride across the country of your desire. 

5: TGV (France)

This train is going to be your best friend. The good ol’ TGV, also known as Train à grande vitesse, or high-speed train in French. This is the French intercity rail line that will be the heart of how you travel in, out, and within France. There are many other trains that follow the design of the TGV, but this is the original, fastest rail-based high speed train developed in the world, traveling up to 300 km per hour. While TGVs are not the most luxurious on the inside compared to many other trains, it is definitely a classic exterior that represents France as a whole.
4: Italo Treno (Italia) 

To me, this train is like a Ninja. Flanked by red and black stripes, the design of this train embodies speed, agility, and precision. With a nose slightly sharper than many of the ICE and TGV trains, it creates a narrow, streamline figure that cuts through air as it races down the tracks. It is also eco-friendly and sustainable, a good move towards Italy’s renewable energy plan. The interior also has several sections, one that is more “first class” that comes with unlimited snacks and private suites. The seats themselves are firmly cushioned for comfort. Bathrooms are kept squeaky clean and table space is generous. 

3: ICE (Germany) 

I’ve spent most of my travel days on ICE trains simply for its convenience, reliability, and comfort. While it can be packed as the summer months approach, the ICE train is the German high speed rail line that is designed to get you across the country in a matter of hours. If timed right, you can take them as overnight trains and save a few bucks on hotel costs. For the winter, these trains are definitely safe havens for warmth and shelter among the blistering cold winds outside. The seating cushion is also one of the most comfortable. With pillowed head rests and curved back spaces, you can comfortably sleep without leaning your head on a stranger’s shoulder. Additionally, ICE trains have adequate luggage racks at the end and above seats to actually fit your backpack and not just a jacket like some of the French TGVs. 

2: Südostbahn Traverso (Switzerland) 

Deemed as what my friend calls the “sexy train,” the Südostbahn, often abbreviated as SOB, is the new design for the regional Swiss railcar. Plated with a rose gold chrome roof and side matting, the Traverso features spacious seating, large window space, and noise canceling interior. Many of the regional lines also go through scenic routes, making the train ride even more enjoyable. Not only is it kept clean and hygienic, the train also has a bistro car for certain food options and even a vending machine in several cars where you can grab instant coffee or soda. Additionally, while most train bathroom cars are filthy and often smelly, the Traverso has a huge and luxurious bathroom with high pressure faucets and good mirror lighting as well. This was by far one of my favorite train rides I’ve been on and one the most sleek exterior designs within European trains. 

1: Thalys (French-Belgium)

For me, the Thalys will always have a special place in my heart. Branded as an entirely red train, the sleek design makes Thalys standout among the mass of trains passing through each station. They are characterized by their bright red exterior, flanked with silver. Thalys are one of the most expensive trains to ride and they only run through specific cities as well. This French-Belgian line runs high speed trains from Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels, and Cologne. Interior-wise, spacious seating with adequate working room and quadded table space make it easily one of the most comfortable trains to ride. 

How Am I Doing at GTL? (Mental Health)

Wednesday, April 20, 2022 | Written by Claire

At Georgia Tech, it is no surprise that mental health is a big topic among students facing stressful situations at university. Just like any other college, students are often met with heavy workloads, difficult courses, and little social time outside of classes. At GTL, it is a different type of challenge.

At GTL, the classes are known to be slightly easier than the ones at the Atlanta Campus. This is due to different professors, more relaxed school schedule, and more travel time. Even so, while course loads can be difficult to balance while traveling full time, there are many personal struggles that may emerge from living in an unfamiliar, constantly changing environment. But thankfully, GTL is equipped with many services that provide aid to students.

As a GTL student myself, I’ve had a smooth run the first few months of living in France. Besides the lack of usual Asian food that I eat, life has been good. My classes were going well; I was managing my workload while traveling extensively; I was having a lot of fun as a happy and healthy student. It wasn’t until late March when I began experiencing some health hiccups here and there. I had and am still going through a bad eczema flare up on my face after being prescribed a steroid cream for a previous rash by a French doctor. After using it, the rash spread across my face and currently, I’m still doing everything I can to keep it at bay. Then, after it had healed for a day, I got COVID. From there I was stuck in isolation for a week and the rash came back full force and still hasn’t subsided. This period has been very difficult for me. I had to skip out on so many social events just to stay stuck in my small dorm room. Right when I thought I was healed and ready to go for my long weekend vacation in Italy, I had to stay in COVID isolation for a week. It was truly very frustrating to deal with day after day and today almost marks one month of this struggle. Slowly but steadily, I am beginning my recovery.

GTL, however, has been excellent in reciprocating my needs. For all prospective students, the GTL urgent phone line is staffed 24/7 by GTL staff members who care about your health and wellbeing. They are willing to talk to you about your wants and needs whenever it is. I’ve heard about students calling for emergencies or even slight inconveniences, but for me GTL Urgent staff have been angels. When I had COVID, one of the staff members even drove me to the hospital personally so I could get treatment for my flare ups. They spent hours upon hours waiting with me at the hospital despite the massive line of patients. They even helped translate what I needed to say to the doctor in French and helped me get my prescription medicine during rush hour. With Easter right around the corner, many places were going to be closed for the long weekend, and they made sure I was able to get my treatment before that time. Other than that, during isolation, they also arranged a food delivery service that would drop fresh groceries from Cora right at my door.

Other than the GTL Urgent phone, GTL is also staffed with a school nurse, admins around the clock and professors who prioritize your health and needs. Thus, I am happy to say that no student will ever be alone if they are in need and are at GTL. They can arrange emergency services whether you are in Metz or abroad, and I am so thankful for that. 

Spring is in Full Bloom!

Monday, April 11, 2022 | Written by Claire

Warmth. As the sun began to filter through the trees, the first signs of Spring emerged as tiny flower buds nestled within the greening grass and started peeking out from the crackly tree branches. In Metz and across Europe, a myriad of colors began to paint the cold, bleak canvas left by winter. 

Amsterdam

 

One of the best places you should visit if you’re headed to Amsterdam is the Keukenhof Tulip Fields. It has several hectares of flowers of all different colors and varieties, whether they’re tulips or different species. The beautiful design of the garden itself creates a great environment that accentuates the color of the flower themselves. The placement and pairing of colors create an artwork along the ground. It was a shame that we went slightly too early as many of the flowers had not bloomed but if you go any time in late April or May, that’s when you’ll see the best of Keukenhof. 

Bonn

This glorious stretch of cherry blossom was just a random find when we visited Bonn, Germany. 

It was a random residential street around the city center, surrounded by small local businesses and restaurants. The blossoms were in full bloom, casting a pink hue across the street. As a breeze floated through the streets, some of the petals would fall from the trees, floating through the air in swirls. It was as if I were in a real-life anime scene. If you ever stop by the region, look up Cherry Blossom in Bonn on Apple Maps and you’ll find yourself a gorgeous view, perfect for the gram.

No matter where you visit next, as Spring arrives, there will be so many opportunities to see the beauties of nature around every corner. While the semester draws to a close, there are so many things that may stress you out: finals, thoughts of moving back, or catching up in your classes. I, myself, have also been extremely stressed with many things in life that are outside my control, including things with my own health that have prevented me from enjoying the last month at GTL. While the GTL staff has been more than accommodating with my needs, I just want to head into the last 2 weeks at GTL on a positive note, and with the weather much nicer and everyone in good spirits, I hope to continue heading in the right direction to end this semester strong, not just for myself but also for my friends and family. These flowers have been a reminder of how great life is and I should just enjoy what is left to one of the best chapters I’ve ever had in my life.

Hiking in Switzerland: Life Lesson

Thursday, April 7, 2022 | Written by Claire

Every semester, most GTL students flock to Switzerland to enjoy the hiking, paragliding, and skiing, during the colder months. I could not miss seeing this beautiful country so my travel group and I decided to conquer the hike from Interlaken, a beautiful, quaint, Switzerland town, to Augstmatthorn, a grueling 10 hour hike that ends in Hardergrat where a shuttle bus would take us back to where we started. The elevation gain was around 1500m over a 24.8km journey. Our plan was simple: start at 4 am and then reach the mountain top to see the sunrise, continue our journey and finish around 2-3 pm. 

At first, our journey was smooth, we were able to catch a glimpse of the beautiful sunrise as it shimmered across the lake and reflected off the snow-covered mountains across from us. Preparation wise: we really loaded up on food. With 3L of water for each of us, a dozen or so ham sandwiches, 12 granola bars, a pack of Biscoff, 2 fruit squeezies, and a pack of Dutch Nutella cookies, we were set. However, in terms of gear, only one of us had hiking sticks and the rest of us managed to get around using regular school backpacks, tennis shoes, and our overall balance. That was where we made a grave mistake. 

The hike to Augstmatthorn itself isn’t necessarily a challenging one, for us at least. Physically, the overall terrain wasn’t too rugged, it was just very steep and death defying in many places. However, hiking in March, the trail didn’t reveal itself to be dangerous until we completed 7 hours of hiking. As we reached further into the ridge-line, snow began to coat the ground. Some of it was packed and slippery, a menace for those with tennis shoes that had poor grip. Some of it was on the verge of melting, which was extremely dangerous as one wrong step could send the entire snow pile rolling down the ledge only a few inches away from our feet. On the other hand, the snow was cold and wet, numbing our feet perpetually and making it even more slippery. 

The trails became narrower and the ridge even steeper, with two sharp drops on both sides. We were ill-prepared to take on the trail any longer. When we were almost about the clear the trees, several experienced hikers had turned back, warning us that the ridgeline would be too snowy to continue, but we were determined to check out the scene for ourselves. Long story short- we turned back. The sharp drop was covered in packed, melting snow, the most dangerous combination. With our lack of equipment and expertise, we had to give up the hike. It was just too early in the year to reach Augstmatthorn. 

On the way back, we sighed a breath of slight heartbreak as we mentally prepared ourselves for the 7-hour journey back. We would reach Interlaken much after the sun goes down, but luckily three of us had flashlights that would hopefully last us a few hours. As we squeezed through a maze of logs, we spotted a sign: Ringgenberg, a 1.5-hour hike down to the nearby town where we could take the next train back to Interlaken. That turned out to be the worst decision of our lives. This trail took us on a steep, strenuous route that had an elevation loss of 1060m in a climb that was a fourth of the original trail length from Interlaken. The route was steep, winding, and extremely muddy. My shoes, once black, had turned brown, and dirt accumulated under my fingernails as we had to get on our hands and knees to stay balanced. Halfway down the mountain, the trail disappeared. The red and white markers vanished into a maze of fallen pines that completely blocked the path further down. There was no way past the tangle of spiny branches. Even the ground, once made of hardened dirt, had become a slush of mud and accumulated snow. We were stuck. As we sat there, covered in mud and becoming increasingly cold, we felt a wave of panic as the sun began to dip over the ridge and we were no where near the town that was thousands of feet below us… until we thought of another way to reach there: slide. The trail had opened to a grassy slope of long weeds and small tree saplings. The slope was long, but not extremely steep, and near the bottom, we could see the opening to the road leading to the town. Fighting against the time and desperate to get back home, we decided to go for it and slide down the slope. 

Slowly inching our way down, we were able to scoot slowly over the grass, with one of two terrifying moments when we would lose control over patches of slippery grass, grabbing desperately onto the weeds for some stability. In the end, after 40 miserable minutes of sliding, slipping, and sprawling on the ground to slow our descent, we made it to a flatter ledge on the side. Just getting to the ledge was difficult enough, spreading into a sea star and grabbing the small tree saplings to pull us over to safety. Finally, we had made it. Miraculously, just several meters away was flat ground that looked relatively clear of snow and mud. The trail. Somehow, we had made it to the same trail just further down the mountain, saving us a hundred meters or so of downhill hiking. From there, we hustled down the mountain, almost running as we heard strange animal sounds and breaking branches coming from deep within the forest. After another hour, we collapsed onto the pavement, relieved, exhausted, and elated to be one step closer to home… sike.

The pavement we landed on had no direct route down to the town of Ringgenberg. Instead, it weaved back and forth on the mountain as it descended from the slopes. The walk would take at least 45 more minutes and the sun was almost completely gone. We were losing hope. There was not a single light in sight and just more and more rolling hills. We were thinking of cutting across but our muddied shoes would not have made it up those hills to begin with. Then we walked, further and further down the pavement road towards the town, losing hope and spirit. Until yet another miracle, a duo of Swiss guys were coming up the road. Parked to the right was a caravan, big enough to hold at least 10 people. They were our saving grace. They had offered us a ride down to the town, and we willingly said yes, crowding into their van looking tired and hungry. After a short 10-minute ride, we were outside the Ringgenberg train station. We made it to safety. 

On the same night, after we reached our hotel in Geneva on the French border, someone set our hotel on fire, and we escaped out of the burning building just as black smoke began to fill the room. More on this in another blog. 

 As a lesson, this trip was by far one of the most adrenaline-inducing, death-defying, and life-changing experiences I’ve ever had in my life. Hiking in Switzerland is no easy task, and you need to be prepared with the right gear to conquer the terrain. Our journey is just an example of what you SHOULDN’T do when hiking dangerous trails anywhere in the world. And I hope that whoever goes hiking on that same trail won’t have the same experience as us. 

To find out more details about what happened on the hike: check out my vlog on my YouTube channel

City Hopping on Lake Como (25 Trains and Counting…) 

Thursday, March 31, 2022 | Written by Claire

The day began with cancelled trains and booked out trains across the board as we approached the Metz Ville station. The original journey took us from Metz Ville to Chiasso where we would catch the last bus across the Swiss Italian border at 11:30 PM to our hotel. Strangely, all the TGVs heading to Nice and Marseille were completely booked for the weekend and right before we had to leave for our train to Italy, a truck driver got stuck on the rails on the Strasbourg line and shut down the entire area for several days. It was a mess!

However, thanks to the help of the SNCF app, we were able to find another route out of South France that routed through Nancy and some smaller stations such as St. Die and ended in St. Louis. There, we booked it to a train headed to Basel only for it to stop halfway at a random station called Mulhouse, making us miss our next 3 connecting trains, but after hopping onto the next train, we finally made it to Basel for a quick 20-minute connection, an expensive bite of food from the local Migros. Our next stop: Zurich. Not more than 5 minutes after slumping down into the cushioned seat of the nice Swiss Train, I got a text notification that I had a 50 euro surcharge from my Free Mobile phone plan. Turns out, Free charges you one euro per one MB (emphasis on Megabyte) of data you use abroad, which was JUST what I needed. A quick pro tip, Switzerland isn’t in the EU, so make sure you turn off your data before passing through the country. It was a hefty charge for a careless mistake. The train ride from Zurich was more of a miracle; it made up a decent amount of time for being late, and thankfully we were able to get into Chiasso with 20 minutes to spare. A bit past 11, we walked, and cartwheeled, across the border and into Italy. 

Over the next few days, we were hoping to ferry hop the water-front cities across Lake Como, but of course-there was a strike. Ferries were operating at unreliable hours, so we decided to just suck it up and take the hour-long train journey to Bergamo. 

As the sun rose high in the sky, I was delighted to feel the warm rays bathed across my face and the fresh breeze. It was a definite change up from the weather in Metz, where it was perpetually grey and gloomy seven days a week. The city itself was beautiful. The town was lined with colorful houses of pastel orange, yellow, and red. The small little alleyways of the quaint Italian town seemed to emerge from stone, stacked upon each other creating small winding trails on the cliffs above the water, which shimmered a beautiful crystal-turquoise color as small private boats settled on the surface, rocking peacefully back and forth. Although the trees were still on their early spring phase, the leaf-less branches created intricate shapes and patterns that weaved higher in the sky, a natural masterpiece.

Other than Bergamo, Bellagio and Varenna are the other two must-sees in the area. We happened to stumble upon a giant garden in Varenna that stretched for miles along the waterfront. It had an array of flowers, trees, and small bushes, creating a myriad of purple, red, and orange that contrasted the bright green forestry. The white columns and marble coated buildings gave the entire garden a Venetian look, comparable to the marble statues in Rome and Florence. Other than the scenery itself, luxury cars decked out in silver lined the streets, perfectly blending into color scheme. 

Finally, in Bellagio, we hopped off the ferry right on time to catch the glorious sunset, a ball of bright red that dipped below the horizon. As the sun disappeared, the cold started to set in, coupled with the strong winds that ripped our hair back and forth. As we took a look at the time, we would be right on time to catch the last bus back to the train station in Varenna, which would bring us back to the hotel. We stood in the dark corner of the bus station, waiting as the time ticked past its scheduled arrival. As the moon continued to rise higher into the sky, the bus finally showed up, only to be packed to the BRIM with passengers huddled like sardines on board. There was no room to spare. The driver, however, didn’t even stop; instead, we took one look at our shivering selves at the bus station, shrugged, and sped away. Our hearts sank. There was no way back. We stood there in silence for a minute pondering on what to do, but not too far from the dock, we saw a ferry pulling up to the station. It seemed to be running on schedule despite the strike. At once, we bolted on board only to find twenty other people trying to get to the same train station to catch the next train that would supposedly leave 5 minutes after the ferry arrives. 

As the boat sped across the water, the workers seemed to be in no rush docking the boat. The exit ramp was not even close to the dock, but all of us were on our feet, ready to sprint. The next few moments seemed to be a movie. It was as if the ferry became a starting line, and as soon as the ramp touched the ground, everyone ran. Flying out of the boat, over bike racks, and across the town, everyone ran to the train station together, wheezing and laughing with those who once strangers were now bonded over our mutual rush to the train station. 

Free Mobile (Not so Free but Decent) 

Monday, March 21, 2022 | Written by Claire

Free Mobile is going to be your best bet for a reliable phone plan during your time at GTL. If you’re debating on using your current international data and call plan, you may want to reconsider after hearing about what Free Mobile has to offer. 

There are several things you should keep in mind when choosing your phone plan. You will be traveling across the EU during your time at GTL, especially with your Eurail Pass. 

Free mobile has been heavily reliant and can make calls for a few cents during emergencies. They offer fast and reliable data from local telecom towers. Free Mobile has reasonable rates for 50 GB in France and 10 GB abroad per month, which is more than plenty. They will charge you only 11 each month after the first payment of 21 for the plan and the sim card when you first purchase from the store. Free covers all countries within the EU, but if you’re going to Switzerland, watch out! You’ll be charged 1 CHF per MB of data used so make sure you turn roaming off when you’re crossing through the area. I was charged a hefty 50 surcharge for accidently using data in Switzerland, but usually you’ll get a warning text every time you enter a different country. Here are some of their current deals:
Depending on the package you get, you are able use up to 35 day’s worth of international calls , which include US landlines. This was super useful for when we had to call hostel owners abroad in order to check in or other uses for emergencies. Additionally, having the international component makes it much easier to receive international texts and other confirmation codes you might need to apply for Passenger Locator Forms in you’re flying into different countries or sometimes even getting the verification code for renting scooters and bikes. It can also be a hotspot for your computer if you need to get assignments done on the train or for others to leech off of if needed. 

Buying a Free Mobile sim card is easy. There is a store right next to the CDG airport in the local mall where you can register for a new French number at a kiosk. After getting a new number, you can start using your French sim card immediately. The only downside is that the kiosk is entirely in French but here’s a thorough walk through on how to use the kiosk. 

https://tabiparislax.com/en/freemobile-2/ 

Now, when you first arrive in Paris, you might be tempted to buy from the sim card vendors within the actual airport. DO NOT! Those rates are ridiculously inflated for just a few GB of data. Some of these vendors may be Orange, SFR, or Bouygues, but comparatively, Free Mobile has the best rates for data you are getting and its extensive coverage outside of France as well. 

Overall, Free mobile has been a lifesaver on many of my trips, and I highly recommend that you get a French sim card. The only thing is, remember to cancel your subscription before you leave!

Bulgaria

Friday, March 18, 2022 | Written by Claire

Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria and home to one of Europe’s most ancient civilizations, is a stark contrast to the bustling Western European cities I’ve frequented in the past. Marred with Roman ruins and statues of Soviet figures, the city center has two sides: one lined with run-down buildings and tiny bakery shops while the other side is packed with luxury brands and high-end bars and clubs. The difference is staggering, and when I first stepped off the metro in-route to our hotel, I was taken aback. Old, crumbling buildings covered in graffiti, signs scrawled with Cyrillic, and quiet, empty streets paired well with the greying skies, casting a depressed look upon the city. But, as I continued to walk and observe the people, the food, and the overall culture in Bulgaria, I realized I was very far from the truth. 

Bulgaria was a place with very rich history and deep national pride. Their cultural norms were rooted for centuries, passed down from family and family. And one of the first influences I noticed was the presence of Eastern Orthodox churches and mosques. Located in the heart of Sofia is St. Alexander’s Basilica. Its brutal architecture featured green and golden domes with large, arched windows. Its intricate, rounded façade creates an encompassing sage haven, unlike the Western Catholic Churches that featured pointed roofs and arches that reached higher and higher into the heavens. 

Inside, the atmosphere was even more unique. As we slowly entered, many Bulgarians would bow at the entrance and before the cross while performing the traditional Catholic crossbody hand gestures. The Basilica itself was very dimly lit with giant chandeliers that hung lowly from the ceiling. Paintings along the walls had darker undertones, featuring a more gothic approach than the fresh rococo style seen in Spain or Italy. There was a priest standing at the front of the sanctuary reading script in worship. His low, melodic yet monotone voice sent shivers down my spine. It was unlike anything I’ve seen or heard before.

While St. Alexander’s Basilica was a perfect representation of one of the more traditional Eastern Orthodox churches in Bulgaria, we caught a train 3 hours away from the city center to the snow-covered tips of Ria’s Monastery. Here, the history runs even further back, almost all the way to 1200 BC. Paintings here were vibrant, even after so many years, and they featured works of thousands of artists and disciples year after year, adding on to other artists’ work. Breakaways in the stone walls revealed even older paintings, now faded, and discolored from years past, uncovering a web of biblical stories and depictions. The monastery was active, with 9 monks still living there. While the architecture outside was a major contrast to the classy basilica, its black and white stripes revealed its Ottoman influence. With the snowy peaks in the background, we trudged through the icy weather deeper up the mountain. Three hours later, after a long hike with our feet freezing and noses running, we found ourselves back in Sofia sitting in a giant barrel in an empty restaurant. Thanks to my friend, Deni, who is Bulgarian, she recommended this traditional Bulgarian restaurant where folks would come to dance and drink in the evenings. It is often the site of celebration and lively musical performances where people would wear traditional Bulgarian dresses and outfits. While we didn’t get to witness the scene, we were still able to try heaping plates of Bulgarian salad, chicken, and sausage for just 3 euros per person, or 9 Bulgarian levees. The food itself was fantastic. Tender, flavored, and juicy, the sausages and Kofte patties were some of the best I’ve ever tasted. It was filled with a variety of herbs and other seasoning like cumin or other strong Asian spices. 

Overall, while our trip was short with long travel times, visiting Bulgaria was a very eye opening experience. It was indeed one of my favorite trips during my time at GTL so far, and simply walking around, learning some Cyrillic, and trying local foods, I was able to have a rich, immersive experience while refreshing my Eastern European history with local tours and first hand experiences. The people there are such generous people, not to mention their beautiful culture as well. While we had so much good food and great experiences I want to write about, these are just a few highlights from my trip. To check out a more in-depth follow through of my journey in Sofia, check out my Youtube channel: Claire Lin.

GTL Newcomer’s Guide: Food Review

Tuesday, March 15, 2022 | Written by Claire

As a new student at GTL, you may wonder where the best places to get food around campus are. Without an official meal plan, it sometimes can get monotonous eating pizza or Carbonara pasta from Crous everyday, and cooking for yourself is also no easy task. Metz has a few notable and reasonable places to help you get adjusted to life in France. Here are my favorites. 

Cora: 10/10

This is the biggest market in Metz and its definitely one you can’t miss. Basically a Walmart and Target combined into a Costco sized warehouse, Cora is the place to find anything you ever need. There are huge selections of housewares, clothing, pastries, meats, and drinks of all sorts. While prices are not much cheaper than those back in Atlanta, it depends on the meats, fruits, and veggies you end up buying. Tropical fruits, such as strawberries, grapes, and mangos are very expensive, almost 1.5 the price than we usually see at home. Meat cuts include parts from all parts of cows, pigs, and chicken, but the one thing you want to keep in mind when selecting cheaper meat is the date of consumption. Many times, the meats must be eaten within the next 1-3 days, so if you’re traveling on the weekend, it’s best to buy the groceries after you return. Overall, Cora scores a 10/10 on the scale. It has almost everything I ever needed and while it’s a 30-minute walk from Lafayette, with the metro pass, you can get there in a matter of minutes. 

Auchan 8/10 

Auchan is a smaller chain supermarket that is closer to Lafayette than Cora. It sells mostly the same things and brands, but overall, Auchan has higher quality pastries and good budget food items. While the veggies selection is not as diverse, it specializes in lot of bio or organic produce that are slightly cheaper than the ones at Cora. From my experience, it is best to go to Auchan earlier in the day when things have been stocked up and when the bakeries just restock on their fresh breads. It scores brownie points for its convenient location and accessibility to Lafayette. Finally, most French groceries stores are highly plastic conscious, so you’ll have to bring your own bags! 

Pauls 7/10

For new French pastry connoisseurs, Paul’s is the perfect place to start exploring. Located just 5 minutes away from GTL, Paul’s has a huge collection of coffees, breads, tarts, and ready-made food just for your convenience. For my first time at Paul’s, I tried their pain au chocolat, a classic French delicacy with chocolate folded into crispy, buttery goodness. Their tarts are amazing with fresh berries and a glaze that isn’t too sweet but also not too sour. Their freshly made baguettes in the morning are perfect for cheese and jam. Overall, the prices are comparable to those in Cora, so you might as well try out what they have and expand your horizons. There are also many tables set up inside for you to get your work done, in an ambient, cozy environment with your favorite pastries. While taste is good, the waiter experience was slightly awkward when we first visited there. If you do not know French, you might want to touch up on some of your basic French phrases before heading over. 

Mamma Mia Pizza 9/10

Funny enough, Mamma Mia Pizza was my first meal I had in Metz when I arrived. It is located right next to Paul’s and it has a massive selection of specialty pizzas and pastas for a reasonable price. The maxi size is enough for two and they are often loaded with toppings. My recommendation would be the Pizzaiolo, which comes with ham, peppers, mushroom, and chorizo. It is the best bang for your buck and it quite filling as a pizza itself. Mamma Mia specializes in thin crust pizzas, which are a nice crunchy and light comparison to the traditional American pizzas. It is also open all 7 days a week, which comes in clutch when stores are closed on Sundays. 

24 Hours in Copenhagen

Monday, March 14, 2022 | Written by Claire

After 21 hours of cancelled trains, freezing layovers, and cramped power naps, the beautiful Copenhagen skyline finally appeared in sight. I breathed a sigh of relief as I stretched out my limbs after standing on the fully reserved Danish train packed with rowdy teenagers hogging the bathroom to make Tiktoks. The journey there was nothing but chaotic. Our connecting train to Hamburg just magically disappeared into thin air and DeutschBahn just gave up on giving us housing for the night. So, we spent 2 hours bundled and starving in the Frankfurt station in Germany.

We left Thursday, arriving Friday afternoon at 4 PM then, we had all of Saturday to explore the city. We were there for a short, but pleasant time and there were several nuances about Danish society that made it characteristically different from any of the other places I’ve been to. 

Bikes: To make our time there more efficient, we rented bikes for the day! All of the online tips said Copenhagen is a bikeable city and they were not wrong! The city was built around biking. Massive travel lanes dedicated just for bikers were sometimes wider than the car lanes themselves, and each corner was equipped with a bikers-only traffic lights. Furthermore, not only were there actual turn lanes, but there were also massive sections on the metro for people to snag a spot on their short journey. The design of the metro was interesting. To fit the width of the bikes, the middle of each train cart bowed outwards to make extra space. Inside, you could park at least 6 or 7 bikes in one car, and there were also seats on the other side for passengers as well. Even on every street corner or marketplace, there would be hundreds of bikes parked in designated bike lots, creating an array of colors that are characteristically Danish.

Coffee Shops: We also stopped by a quaint café that doubled as a bookstore and cozy living room. As a group, we ordered out a bundle of cinnamon rolls, bread and butter, pain au chocolat, and several cups of espresso. The aesthetic was immaculate, and the huge shelves of books that canvased the entire wall made the vibe very homey. The café itself served the pastries on different colored plates, just as if we were to eat a quick snack in someone’s home. With some people there tapping away on their laptops or grabbing a quick caffeine fix for the long day, others were sitting at wooden benches, chatting away. The entire café had such a positive vibe that reminded me of home. 

Masks: One of the more “shocking” traits of Copenhagen was the lack of masks or any social distancing restrictions. On the train ride, as soon as we crossed the border out of Germany, everyone ripped off their masks and started bathing their faces in the warm sunlight that floated in from the windows. All the shops and restaurants had no mask mandates and hardly anyone was even wearing one, not even the elders. With young people hanging around the cannals eating smorrebrod and hot dogs, older people also walked around, hand in hand, just soaking up the liveliness of the city. It was indeed a beautiful scene to see, something that seemed straight out of a movie. Especially when the sun started to dip below the horizon, casting a pink hue across the sky and reflecting against the water, I found myself smiling as I enjoyed my last minutes of sunshine in Copenhagen before hopping on the 7 AM train the next morning. I’d say it was well worth it.