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a southern yankee abroad

Month

July 2016

Kutna Hora and a Train Ride with Franz Kafka

 

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Czernin Palace gardens

My last few days in Prague have been full of ups and downs. After switching to my new (and much better!) hostel near Prague Castle, I spent a good bit of time wandering and exploring. I came across the beautiful Czernin Palace gardens, and then decided to make the trek up Petrin Hill to its lookout tower (which looks exactly like a miniature Eiffel Tower). As I trekked up the hill, I kept thinking of one of the eeriest scenes from The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which takes place on this hill (I don’t want to give any more away in case you want to read this book, which I recommend!) Surely enough, the rain started coming down. However, the view from the top of the lookout tower over Prague below was well worth it.

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And then one high point became another low point. On my way out of the tower, I decided to stop by the ATM to take out 1000 CZK (about 50 USD). The machine  accepted my card and then put the cash out…except nothing came out. The transaction posted in my bank account anyway. I’ve never heard of this happening to anyone, and it’s the last thing I’d ever expect to happen! The manager of the tower claimed to not be able to assist, as another company manages the machine. So I set out back down Petrin Hill in the rain, 50 bucks poorer with nothing to show for it. The thought of calling my bank from Europe (Bank of America has no online chat service…ugh!) exhausted me, especially after several days of trying to sort my lost luggage with Germanwings (it’s still lost as of day 9) and several emails and a (costly) phone call with NYU Law that day to sort a registration issue.

I am absolutely aware that these are “first world problems” and I am extremely privileged to even be able to travel and have these issues in the first place. However, I still felt distraught. Sometimes solo traveling can be the best thing to gain perspective, get your thoughts in order, and know yourself more. And sometimes solo traveling isn’t as fun–especially when you just want someone with you to make you laugh and take your mind away from the string of unfortunate events. Two days later, my $50 and my luggage are both still lost. But, I have my health and the rest of my travels, so many friends and family
I love (even if they aren’t with me physically right now!), and my first semester of law school starting soon. So, in my opinion, life is good and I have a lot to be grateful for as I continue on the big adventure!

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A lot to love…like this gorgeous sunset from Charles Bridge!

Things really came back into perspective for me the next day when I took a day trip to the Czech village of Kutna Hora. About 70 km from Prague, Kutna Hora was a major silver mining city during the medieval ages and competed with Prague for prominence as Bohemia’s most important city. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Also, my tour guide happened to be the husband of my fantastic guide from the walking tour 2 days earlier. They are officially my favorite Czech couple!

The first stop in Kutna Hora was at the famous Bone Chapel, filled with the bones of over 40,000 people who died from the bubonic plague and the Hussite Wars during the 15th century. Essentially, the city was running out of burial places for the plague victims, so their bones were used in the chapel to portray a message of “momento mori,” or remember the death, which highlights man’s mortality and equality before the judgement of God.

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The chapel was redesigned in the 18th century and the bones were arranged in a baroque decorative style. There are 4 large pyramids of bones in the chapel, as well as a Schwarzenberg family shield made from bones. I found this chapel to be extremely eerie, and it definitely made all of the recent misfortunes of my travels seem small.

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Kutna Hora is also the home of beautiful St. Barbara’s Chapel (it’s really more like a cathedral), a Jesuit monastery, and an Italian-style court where the King of Bohemia lived for a time. After visiting all of these places, we had a delicious lunch at a Czech restaurant before heading back to Prague.

 

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St. Barbara’s Chapel

As I prepared to leave Prague by train to Budapest the next morning, I stopped by to see the astronomical clock in the Old Town Square one last time. The astronomical clock was built in 1410 and is the oldest such clock in the world still in operation. Every hour, the skeleton (representing death) and other figures representing sins and vices chime and perform as the 12 disciples parade by a window that opens, followed by a crow and wing-flap from the golden rooster atop the clock. (It sounds ridiculous, but you just have to see it to believe it!) The clock shows the position of the sun and moon as they relate to the Earth, as it was constructed in a time when people still thought Earth was the center of the universe. It also shows the 12 signs of the zodiac. Even though the “performance” of the figurines isn’t much to watch, I found it charming and unique to watch both times I stopped by (especially considering its age and how advanced it was for its time…it was like the iPhone of 1410!)

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Once I boarded the train for Budapest, I settled in with a collection of Prague native Franz Kafka’s short stories, including Metamorphosis. I found myself laughing out loud as I read Metamorphosis on the train, in which a traveling salesman wakes up one morning as a giant bug and then must figure out how to handle his employer and family. An appreciation for Kafka, who was originally from Prague, is a fun takeaway for me from this part of the trip, as I wasn’t deeply familiar with his writing before visiting. However, while in Prague I learned a good bit about this early 20th century writer and what makes something “Kafkaesque.” Miriam-Webster dictionary describes “Kafkaesque” as “having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality” and as “often applied to bizarre and impersonal administrative situations where the individual feels powerless to understand or control what is happening.” I have decided there is no more appropriate word to describe my debacle with my still lost luggage and the ATM than “Kafkaesque.” And how fitting that it happened in Prague, Kafka’s hometown.

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I feel like Kafka would understand my pain!

 

While I appreciate Prague and Kafka’s work, I am hoping the luck of the Irish will return to me in the last 2 weeks of my travel.IMG_2773[1]

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Brussels and a Bohemian Rhapsody

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At first, Prague seemed like a tough egg to crack. I arrived Saturday morning, after a fun one night layover in Brussels. While I always relish my “me time” while traveling and at home, this was the first time on my trip I didn’t want to be alone anymore. I think it is because of the wonderful week I had just had in Provence. Traveling to Prague and Brussels alone felt like jumping out of a hot tub into a cold swimming pool. Needless to say, I’ve adjusted and begun to uncover the layers that make “Bohemia” such a unique place, and it’s been good to be alone with my own thoughts again as I round out the last few weeks of this journey.

After leaving Marseille Friday around noon, I arrived in Brussels and immediately took the train from the airport into the city. Or at least, so I thought! Twenty minutes later, I was not in Brussels, but rather was in the village of Leuven, Belgium. The nice train station worker recognized my mistake and gave me a voucher to take the next train back to Brussels (which fortunately was leaving just 20 minutes later!) I then arrived in Brussels and found my way via subway to my hostel for the night.

By this point, it was already 6pm, and I had to leave at 6am the next morning for my connection to Prague. So I prioritized the following- 1)have an authentic Belgian dinner, 2)see the Grand Place, and 3) find this (in)famous fountain.IMG_2297[1] I accomplished all 3 and made it home just before midnight for a few hours of sleep before my flight.

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Grand Place, Brussels
I arrived in Prague the next morning and found my way to my hostel via bus, train, and taxi (it was quite confusing). My hostel was located in the Zizkov neighborhood, which is supposed to be the “hipster” area of Prague. However, it just didn’t seem like much was going on there, so I made my way to Wenceslas Square (yes, like the Christmas carol!) and the Old Town to explore. From the first minute, I’ve found the blend of gothic, renaissance, baroque, and art nouveau architecture to be breathtaking.IMG_2330[1]

The next morning, I woke up feeling flu-ish. My nice bunkmate from Hong Kong gave me an amazing powdered flu medicine from Japan. It tasted disgusting but I started feeling better soon! I then made my way back into Old Town, where I then climbed the hill to Letna Park and saw the metronome. The metronome is supposed to represent time lost during and then regained from the communist regime.IMG_2362[1] For years, a giant statue of Joseph Stalin stood on the hill in this spot and looked over the city. Then, for a few weeks in 1996, an inflatable Michael Jackson statue also stood in this spot.

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The view from Letna ❤

After laying in the grass and napping in Letna, I made my way over to Prague Castle to explore the grounds and gardens, and then stumbled upon the beautiful  gardens at the Czech Senate, complete with peacocks!IMG_2409[1] Afterwards, I crossed the stunning and ornate Charles Bridge and made my way back toward my hostel in Zizkov by foot. Since I am not in a hurry, I have been walking by foot everywhere in Prague and avoiding their (in my opinion) confusing public transportation.

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A view from Charles Bridge

The next day, I met up with a free Sandeman’s walking tour of Prague in the Old Town Square. Just like my Sandeman’s tour in Berlin, this tour was  absolutely fantastic!! I realized that Prague, like Berlin, is a history lover’s dream city. I learned so many interesting facts about the city, but the  following are my favorite:

-Bohemia (the historic name for the region now comprising the western Czech Republic) had its own Protestant Revolution 100 years before Martin Luther  authored his Ninety-five Theses. It was led by a priest in Prague named Jan Hus, who began preaching in Czech rather than Latin and did not make the poor  pay church taxes. He was burned at the stake, and a war between Catholics and “Hussites” ensued. His statue is in the Old Town Square.

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The statue of Jan Hus looking out over the modern activities of the Old Town Square, with his church in the background
-Neil Armstong’s favorite composer was Antonin Dvorak from Prague. Armstrong played Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 (the New World Symphony) during the Apollo 11
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-Prague’s Jewish Quarter is home to the oldest synagogue in Europe, which has been operating continuously since 1270 (with the exception of the years during  WW2). Ten percent of Prague’s population was Jewish when the ghetto was built, and they were forced to live within its walls, which encompassed just a few city blocks, for six centuries. After reforms during the  18th century, most of the Jewish population dispersed into other parts of the city. One eerie place in the quarter is the graveyard. The city only gave the Jews a small plot of land to bury their dead, so they were forced to pile graves one atop the other. It’s estimated there are 12 layers of bodies in this cemetery. Architect Peter Eisenman, the designer of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, said that one inspiration for the design of the  raised blocks was this part of the Jewish Quarter in Prague.

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The cemetery in Prague’s Jewish Quarter
-On a lighter note, I enjoyed learning the legend of the Golem, who was allegedly a clay figure that would come to life and roam the streets of the Jewish Quarter to protect the citizens 6 days a week (resting on the Sabbath, of course). Golem’s last  appearance was on a Sabbath, when the rabbi apparently forgot to “deactivate” him for his day of rest. He was last active during the time the rabbi was reading Psalm 92 during the service, so Psalm 92 is now read twice each service to this day in honor of Golem.

-The USSR invaded Prague following the Prague Spring of 1968, when Czech President Alexander Dubcek refused to reverse pro-democratic reforms (socialism with a human face”) after direction from communist leaders. 8,000 Soviet tanks lined the streets of  Wenceslas Square. A philosophy student named Jan Palach lit himself on fire in the square to protest the suppression of free speech and the message of the Soviet propaganda. Two other students followed in his footsteps over the following months.It was fascinating to learn more about this chapter in Prague’s history after reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Czech author Milan Kundera a few weeks ago, as the novel is mostly set in Prague during the time period around the Prague Spring.

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The death mask of student Jan Palach, who died protesting the communist regime
I was stunned to also learn the Czech Republic has only been a nation for about 100 years, including the time it was joined out of convenience with Slovakia as sanctioned by the victors of WW1. Before then, the current Czech Republic had been constantly invaded and ruled by foreign powers. During those ~100 years of Czech nationhood, Prague has been invaded and bombed by Hitler (it was basically handed to the Nazis by the Allies as they were looking to avoid a war in 1938…that didn’t work out too well) and the communist USSR. For the past 27 years (since I’ve been alive!) since the Velvet Revolution, or the peaceful transfer of power from the USSR to the people of Czechoslovakia, the country has enjoyed freedom and prosperity, and currently enjoys the lowest unemployment rate in the EU under a democratic government. (The Czech Republic and Slovakia became separate nations in 1993 after the Velvet Divorce).

The hope for the future that Prague embodies is beautifully captured at the John Lennon wall, just west of the Charles Bridge and Vltava River. In the 1980s, the Lennon wall was used by Czech youth to express grievances with the communist regime and hope for peace and political freedom. At this wall, people from around the world still come to view, reflect, and leave their own messages. I found my way here after my walking tour ended.IMG_2514[1]

IMG_2527[1]I decided to extend my stay in Prague by a few days, and switched to a hostel in a charming neighborhood west of the Vltava River near the castle. I am looking forward to more time in this city.

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Provence: Lavender Fields and Lost Luggage

IMG_2278[1]It’s hard to even write about this past week in Provence (southeast France), because it was just that wonderful. As I planned the Europe portion of my trip months ago, I purposefully left it open and fluid so I could go wherever I felt led in the moment. I am so glad Nat (my good friend from my Asia travels 🙂 )invited me to experience Provence last week–otherwise I don’t think I would have explored this absolutely beautiful, peaceful, and amazing corner of the world. Nat’s grandparents live at Mas Subbaroques (“on the rocks”) in Viens, a small village in the hills of Provence near the (slightly larger) village of Apt. I was able to spend the week with Nat and his amazingly hospitable family, as well as several family friends who were visiting. Not only was the scenery breathtaking, but the lovely people I met and got to know there made it even more special.

As with anything in life, peace and happiness are states that we choose and are not just things that happen to us. Somewhere along the way between my starting point in the Berlin airport, my layover in Dusseldorf, and my final destination in Marseille, my checked backpack was lost. Needless to say, I had nothing on me except my phone, passport, wallet, laptop, and the clothes on my back (the essentials perhaps?) After my bag never appeared on the belt, I made my way to the lost and found office in baggage claim. Nat, who was waiting on me in arrivals wearing an Alabama shirt as a surprise (the best!), had to wait a bit longer as I tried to sort out the situation with the attendant who barely spoke English. They wouldn’t even allow Nat back to translate from French to English because it was behind security, so I tried my best on my own. I understood they had no idea where my bag was (it wasn’t even scanned into the system!) and was given a claim number to track the search process online.

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Rolling with the Tide in France! The Bama shirt was a nice surprise.
After meeting up with Nat finally, we decided our top priority was to shop for some essentials in nearby Aix-en-Provence. I stocked up on a few toiletries, a bathing suit, and some staple clothing articles. We also enjoyed catching up over crepes in a sidewalk cafe next to a fountain where the cutest dog played in the water!

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A dog in Aix-en-Provence. So cute!!
As we put the pieces back together, I felt completely at peace and like everything would be ok. Thanks Nat!

We then drove on to Viens, passing the most beautiful fields of lavender. IMG_2110[1]After arriving at Nat’s grandparents’ place, I got to know the family over a delicious dinner of pizza and vino on the outdoor patio. It was stunning to watch the moon rise over the hills and the sunset cast a pink shadow (I don’t have a picture because I didn’t have my phone with me…what a great feeling!).

My 5 days there went by way too quickly. As we passed time laying by the pool, enjoying delicious food and wine, and walking about to take in the gorgeous views, I found myself forgetting about my lost bag in the best way. True–I had irreplaceable souvenirs from Asia and South America in the bag, as well as my contact lenses and retainers (yikes!) But somehow, this was the most relaxed I’ve been on my whole trip. We also slept in a giant Morroccan-style tent with Nat’s cousins and other family friends our age who were visiting (kind of like the kids’ table at Thanksgiving!) and it was such a fun experience.

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Enjoying the viewpoint of hills and lavender fields in Viens
After checking in with the airline again with no updates, it became apparent I would likely not be getting my bag back anytime soon. Nat’s grandfather was gracious enough to speak with them in French for me, so the communication went very smoothly. I also touched base with my travel insurance company back in the USA, who assured me that my policy covered purchases of replacement items (woo! new clothes!) As a result, Nat and I pulled ourselves away from the pool and took 2 excursions to nearby villages over the 5 days so I could pick up a few more clothing items and toiletries, as well as a replacement duffel bag so I could carry on with my travels. Even though these trips were born out of necessity, they ended up being some of the highlights of my time there. I found some dresses at the cutest boutique in Apt, and we once again enjoyed a drink at a sidewalk cafe there as we caught up and people-watched.

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Apt
On the day before I was set to leave, we took a bigger trip to Avignon, where we explored some of the historic sites like the Palais des Papes and Pont d’Avignon. It was incredible to explore this beautiful and quirky town in the pouring rain.

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Avignon
IMG_2230[1]13724102_10208049081197348_8759329954665292679_oFinally, on Saturday it was time to leave. I had booked a flight out from Marseille to Prague with a night’s layover in Brussels. It was very hard to say goodbye to Nat, who has become one of my closest friends over this summer since we traveled together in Asia, as well as the serenity of Provence. In a way, Provence reminded me so much of home (Alabama). We even got stuck behind a tractor a few times on the narrow roads! I had to remind myself I was in France and not in Marengo County, Alabama! In Provence, life is all about enjoying nature and those around you, without the stresses and noise of urban life. Even though I feel I’ve become even more grounded since leaving my finance job and over the summer as I’ve traveled, I needed this reminder to slow down, stop, and enjoy the moment. It was so hard to leave. Provence was the perfect blend of country and hippie for me, and I can’t wait to visit again someday.

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Hippie life in Provence…haha
I am now in Prague, still without my original bag. The airline has finally found it and has told me I should receive it by tomorrow! Stay tuned 🙂

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Missing Provence from Prague!

Germany, Part 2 – Berlin

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East Side Gallery, Berlin
“Paris became Paris a long time ago. London became London a long time ago. But Berlin is still becoming Berlin.”

This is how Zabi, my guide, described the city on the free walking tour during my first full day in Berlin. I think this statement captures the essence of Berlin. I had been looking forward to visiting Berlin since I started planning this trip months ago (being the history nerd that I am), and it did not disappoint. I remain fascinated with this city. While I was initially drawn here because of its historical significance, I really enjoyed the overall vibe in Berlin, and I managed to make some great friends during my 5 days here.

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The Bundestag, home of Germany’s parliament
Berlin, the capital of Germany, is also the former capital of Prussia (another one of the German states that used to be a separate kingdom that now comprises modern Germany). This city has experienced extremely dark periods of history, and my impression of the city (given the number of museums and memorials, as well as the tone of the artwork that’s prevalent throughout) is that it is dedicated to learning from these terrible periods and not repeating past mistakes. If a city can be called “introspective,” then I would say this is what Berlin is. In the last century, the city has experienced 2 world wars, the rise to power of a monster, and a 28 year division by a wall manned with armed guards and lined with barbed wire separating West Berlin as an “island of democracy” from the rest of communist East Germany. However, the city has also experienced a type of rebirth and is well along in the process of becoming the Berlin of today.IMG_1991[1]

Below are some of the highlights of my time in Berlin:

-Free walking tour with Sandeman’s. This walking tour was an absolutely fantastic way to start my time in Berlin. We started at the iconic Brandenburg Gate, then walked past the balcony where Michael Jackson dangled his baby at the Hotel Adlon.

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If I recall correctly, the Michael Jackson window is 4 floors up and 2 from the right.
Then we visited a random apartment building parking lot. We were told that Hitler’s bunker was located 15 meters below where we stood. This is where he allegedly committed suicide as the Soviets invaded Berlin in 1945, as well as where Goebbels and his wife killed themselves and their 6 children. There is no marker for this sight, and the world carries on in the apartment building and playground adjacent to the parking lot.

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Hitler’s bunker was 15 meters below my feet. I am standing in a parking lot.
We then continued to the Holocaust memorial and a piece of the Berlin Wall. My favorite spot from the tour was art outside of the former Luftwaffe Headquarters (interestingly, this is one of the few former Nazi buildings that survived WW2, and it was due to a mutual agreement with the Allied forces not to bomb air force headquarters). A mural outside of the building depicts a march in the artistic style of socialist realism (aka bright colors, smiling faces, and fierce nationalism) as a form of Communist propaganda. The photograph below shows the reality of June 17, 1953, when over 500 East Germans were murdered for peacefully protesting the Communist regime.IMG_1855[1]

We also visited Checkpoint Charlie, one of many famous checkpoints between East and West Berlin during the Cold War. People would go to extremes to escape the communist east, including sewing themselves into a car seat to be driven through the checkpoint.

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Checkpoint Charlie
-The Holocaust Memorial. Located just a block from the Brandenburg Gate, the memorial at first glance appears to be just a bunch of blocks. However, one must walk through the blocks to extract the real intent and purpose of the memorial. As you start at the edge, the blocks are low to the ground, and you are forced to walk alone given the narrowness of the path. Then, as you continue further, the ground becomes uneven and the blocks get taller, ultimately reaching 5 meters. This I think represents the “gradualness” of the Holocaust. First, the Jews were forced to wear a mark, then they were separated from the rest of society, then families started disappearing. The atrocities grew over the course of several years. I think it’s important to recognize from this that the longer persecution is allowed, no matter how big or small, the worse it becomes. As Jewish families began to disappear, many Germans looked the other way, and the problem grew. I think the memorial is meant to teach that it is all of our duty to learn about what is happening to and affecting our neighbors, and to speak out and act accordingly to stop injustice before it grows.IMG_1844[1]

-The East Side Gallery. A portion of the Berlin Wall has been preserved as an art gallery, and different pieces of the wall are commissioned out to street artists. The murals really speak for themselves, and say so much about what Berlin now represents.IMG_1948[1]

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-Pub crawl. This was a lot of craic (as the Irish say!) and a great way to meet other people traveling.

-Potsdam. This small town is located just outside of Berlin, and is home to several Prussian palaces. To me, it felt like the Versailles of Germany. Upon entering Potsdam, our tour group crossed the same bridge where the US and the Soviets would swap spies during the Cold War. The line dividing East and West Berlin cut the bridge in half. It was fun to pretend I was a spy as I crossed the bridge…haha.IMG_2009[1].JPG

Potsdam is also the location of the Potsdam Agreement–the meeting of the Big 3 (Truman, Churchill, and Stalin) that ended WW2. Before these leaders met at Cecilienhof (a chateau in Potsdam) to begin their discussions of what to do with Germany and how to force Japan’s surrender, Stalin moved first to make his mark on the chateau by having this huge Communist star planted in flowers…I guess he had his own priorities!IMG_2028[1].JPG

In particular, I enjoyed the gardens around San Soucci, which was the home of the famous Frederick the Great. Frederick was the Prussian king in the late 18th century and is very loved and admired in German history. He is buried at San Soucci with his beloved greyhound dogs. Visitors still place potatoes on his grave, as he is well-known for playing a personal role in helping to introduce and integrate the potato as a crop to the commoners of Germany during his rule. He was truly a king who cared about his people.

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San Soucci
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The grave of Frederick the Great…notice the potatoes and all the gravestones for his dogs.
-St. Christopher’s Inn. By far, my hostel in Berlin was my favorite of my whole trip! It was so easy to meet people here, as the lobby is basically a pub. My room was large, clean, and comfortable. It even connected to a private living room and kitchen! Also, the staff was extremely nice and accommodating (I even got a free sandwich once after the kitchen was closed and I was starving!) St. Christopher’s is a hostel chain with locations in other cities, so I highly encourage other travelers to check them out. I am going to see if they have locations in any of my remaining cities and book there if possible!

I could have spent more time in Berlin, as there are still so many museums and sites I would still like to see! As I mentioned in my last post, I have taken this week slowly, and I actually spent a good bit of time reading this week and finished 3 books–The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Siddhartha, and Mrs. Hemingway (historical reading but a light, fun read for being on holiday!).

Now, I am in Provence for another unexpected and unplanned portion of my trip! I have me up with Nat, my friend from Southeast Asia, and am spending 5 days in a small village located near Marseille. I am excited to get away from major cities for a bit and see a less touristy side of Europe!

 

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Germany, Part 1: Munich

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Munich Residenz
It’s been a while since my last blog post, and that’s because I’ve taken some time this week to slow down a bit and pace myself as I’ve traveled through Germany (Deutschland!) Initially, my plans were to spend a little over a week solely in Berlin, taking the time to enjoy the unique art scene and soak in as much history as possible. However, as has often happened this summer, my plans changed along the way. On the advice of a few friends who have visited before and swore I would love it, I decided to include a few days in Munich (München) during my time in Germany.

They were right, to an extent. I arrived in Munich Monday morning after a smooth overnight bus ride from Amsterdam (I am quickly becoming a huge fan of Flixbus! It is ridiculously cheap and both trips with them have been comfortable). After checking in to my hostel, I struck out to explore the city. Munich was once the capital of Bavaria, a separate state in the south of Germany that joined Prussia and other states to create what we know as modern Germany back in 1871. Therefore, Bavarian culture is quite unique compared to other parts of Germany (i.e. lederhosen and Oktoberfest!)

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Casual shopping in Munich!
Over two days in Munich, here are my highlights:

-The chiming of the glockenspiel at Marienplatz. Nothing screams “Bavaria” like a giant music box in a church tower! I stumbled upon this by accident right at 11am, as the bells were chiming and the glockenspiel, which contains 32 life-size figures that move about, started going. This was definitely a unique surprise during my visit to Munich.IMG_1738[1]

-Munchen Residenz and Hofgarten. The Residenz is the former palace of the Bavarian kings and dates back to the 14th century. Much of it was destroyed during WW2 but has since been restored. I walked through the complex, not going inside, and spent most of my time in the Hofgarten, or the courtyard garden of the palace. Here, I stopped for about 30 minutes to listen to an amazing celloist playing both classical and modern music (like U2!) in the rotunda for free. I relished this moment, as I remembered how just 6 months ago I would never have had the time or patience in my daily life to stop and listen to free and beautiful music. I hope I always find the time to do so for the rest of my life!IMG_1750[1]

-Englischer Garten. By far, this was my favorite part of Munich! I spent the afternoon wandering through this beautiful garden, laying in the grass and reading, and dipping my feet in the cold water of the surfing river that flows through. I immediately planned to forego all museums and spend my second and final day sunbathing here (unfortunately, it was cold and rainy so I did museums anyway!) I also met some nice Germans sitting nearby who gave me some good advice for the rest of my week in Germany. I finished the visit by finding a hidden beer garden tucked away near the river, where I enjoyed my first true Bavarian weiss beer!IMG_1766[1]

-Deutsches Museum. My last day in Munich was chilly and rainy, so I decided to geek out at the Deutsches Museum as I could not go back to the Englischer Garten. The Deutches Museum is a giant science and technology museum located on the bank of the Isar River. The exhibits range from physics to astronomy to modern energy production to aeronautics to cartography and geology to cryptography and mathematics to everything in between! I learned a lot about how windmills are used in Germany for energy (the process of selecting the correct sight and implementing the necessary public policies is much more complex than I realized). I also enjoyed seeing the Enigma coding machine, used by Germany to send encrypted messages during WW2. The code was ultimately broken by British mathematician Alan Turing and was crucial to ending the war (for more info watch Imitation Game…an amazing movie!)IMG_1803[1]

I only spent 2 days in Munich, but I found it was enough time to get a feel for the city. If the weather had been nicer, I could have spent a few more days just enjoying the Englischer Garten! As it was, I found myself ready to move on to what I knew would be a highlight of the trip–Berlin.

A Weekend in Amsterdam

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The Singel Bridge at the Paleisstraat by Breitner, Rijksmuseum

If Paris was frenzied and beautiful, Amsterdam has been calming and quaint. I think Amsterdam’s reputation in the USA as a wild party city, given its red light district and “coffee shops,” is undeserved. Amsterdam is extremely chill, and I think these things exist here because people are so tolerant because they are so chill. I instantly felt more relaxed given the slower pace and cheaper prices (30-50 percent lower than Paris already!) here. Also, my dad reminded me we have some Dutch heritage, so I was excited to see another place my ancestors are from!

After the 8 hour bus ride from Paris, I was excited to arrive at Sloterjdik station in Amsterdam. On the ride from Belgium to Amsterdam, I shared my seat with a belly dancer from Amsterdam currently living in Istanbul, and she graciously filled me in on the history and sites to see in the city. In addition to discovering the city, I would be spending the next few days with Sjors and Wendel, two friends I met in Africa back in December who live in Amsterdam! I was so excited to see Wendel at the bus stop, and we took the 15 minute train train ride together into the city to Sjors’ apartment.

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It was so good to see Wendel at the bus station!

Once we got off the train, our first task was to visit a bike rental shop. Everyone in Amsterdam gets around by bicycle, and there are more bikes than cars on the road it seems, so I would need this to get around for the weekend. We visited the shop, picked out a bike, and were shocked when the manager offered it to me for the weekend for free!! This saved me close to 25 euros! I was so excited and knew at that moment I would love Amsterdam and the people here.

We then walked to Sjors’ apartment with my bike, and then we continued on together to a nearby rooftop bar with a great view of the city. There were 3 of us and only 2 bikes, so I rode on the back of one while Wendel drove. Apparently, this is the real “Dutch way!”13619943_10207949812755699_6202679943874757891_n Here, we had Dutch beer and bitterballen, a Dutch delicacy. We then continued on to a nearby restaurant for dinner, and then to Rembrandt Square to watch France and Germany play in the Eurocup semifinals. Although the Netherlands were out, the atmosphere was still electric!! I cheered on France, one of my new favorite countries (allez les bleus!), and Wendel and I were excited when France won (Sjors was for Germany!)

The next morning, the three of us visited the Rijksmuseum, which is the national art museum of the Netherlands. I was very excited to see the Rembrandt collection here, but was also very impressed with their total collection of Dutch art, as well as the exhibits with ship models and instruments. I enjoyed learning about Jan Steen, a Dutch painter who often depicted everyday “peasant” life, including hilarious scenes (like a drunken couple or misbehaving children) in his work.

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The Milk Maid by Vermeer
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A self-portrait by Rembrandt
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A Jan Steen painting

13599813_10207949797755324_6924443745220603961_nAfter lunch (I had a traditional Dutch pancake!), Wendel left for her own trip to Milan, and Sjors and I rode our bikes to Oost Park, where we had a nice afternoon of reading, catching up, and napping. I am realizing how important it is to slow down during long-term traveling…it is so easy to burn out by trying to fit something into every minute.

The next morning, I visited the Van Gogh Museum, which houses the largest collection of Van Gogh art in the world, as well as hundreds of his personal letters. I was surprised to learn that he did the majority of his work in the last few years of his life, before he tragically committed suicide. Also, it seems that Van Gogh is often characterized as a crazy, emotional, reactionary artist who chopped off his own ear in a fit. While this did happen, I learned his approach to his art was actually very measured and calculated, and he was a diligent student of the craft. Sadly, his work was not recognized on a wide scale until 2 years after his 1890 suicide, and he is now one of the best loved artists of all times.

After my morning at the museum, I hopped on my bike with the intention of getting lost in Amsterdam, stopping at a few cafes along the way to write. I loved riding my bike around the city, and I really want to get one now when I move to Brooklyn in the fall! I then met up with Sjors to visit the Heineken Experience, which is a tour of the brewery complete with a full history of the company, demonstrations and tastings,video games and a Disneyworld-like ride where they “turn you into the beer” and brew you! Afterwards, we took a ferry across the North Sea channel to enjoy the skyline before biking home.13599910_10207949790635146_3658631312419820696_n

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13567380_10207945477407318_7632282861631892131_nThis morning, I ran a few errands and then struck out on my bike to explore the city a bit more. I enjoyed biking through the canals on my own instead of on an organized tour.13567498_10207949786835051_5640788401119301127_n I then headed back to Sjors’ place, where we watched the end of the Formula 1 race (I had no idea this sport really existed, but it’s huge here! I am learning new things everyday) I then packed my bags, had a nice homemade dinner with Sjors, and set off for the bus station to leave for Munich.

Amsterdam has been lovely, and my time here made me realize that people are what make traveling so special. I am so grateful to have friends like Wendel and Sjors, who met me at the bus station, took time to show me some of the amazing sites in their city, and made sure I made it to the bus station well-fed, well-rested, and on time. I can’t wait to show them the same hospitality when they visit NYC (or the southern USA for that matter, if I’m home!) Next stop…Munich!

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Trying to climb the “D” with Wendel’s help…it didn’t quite work out!

Museums, Cafes, and FNAC: More Reasons to Love Paris

As is evident I’m sure from my last few posts, my time in Paris was wonderful. On Tuesday morning, I woke up ready to knock out a few administrative tasks (laundry and finding a new computer charger and portable phone charger-which had also died) so I could then get back to enjoying the city. I found a laundromat near my hostel, and after figuring out how to work the machines (in French!), I enjoyed an espresso and a book at a cafe next door while waiting on my clothes to finish. It’s funny how I assumed I would be doing my own laundry in the sink throughout the trip when I started-I haven’t done that a single time! Instead, I’ve been able to find either cheap laundry services or easy do-it-yourself machines. I guess I’m not roughing it as much as I planned!

With that necessary task out of the way, I headed off to visit the Musee d’Orsay, one of the museums in Paris I was most looking forward to visiting. Musee d’Orsay is a converted train station and has several early and post-impressionist works, as well as a wide collection of sculptures from Rodin and Degas. IMG_1292[1]
This painting, Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe by Edouard Manet, is most famous for being one of the earliest works that sparked the impressionist movement. The woman dining stark naked on the grass with fully clothed companions and looking directly at the viewer was considered very controversial in the art world at that time.IMG_1295[1]
This painting, Starry Night over the Rhone by Vincent Van Gogh, is fairly well-known…I was excited to see it because I had a print of this in my dorm room and then my bedroom for a few years! IMG_1328[1].JPG

It was also neat to see other famous works by Claude Monet, Edward Degas, Paul Cezanne, and Gauguin.

The Musee d’Orsay also had an exhibition of the works of Henri Rousseau, including a display of his famous The Dream, which is on loan from MOMA in NYC. I have seen the painting before there a few times, so it was cool to see it again in Paris!

After the Musee D’Orsay, I decided it was time to find my replacement electronics. I found my way to what was soon to become my most-visited place in Paris, FNAC. FNAC is a great store and is like a combination of Best Buy and Barnes and Noble in the US. I quickly found a portable phone charger and a new book (they had a good selection of books in English on one wall), but the computer charger was another story-they didn’t have it. They sent me to a store that specializes in every type of battery imaginable. They, too, did not have one that would work. Disillusioned, I began the walk across the city back toward my hostel (like NYC, Paris is very walkable, and it takes no more than 45 minutes to really walk anywhere within the main city). I happened to come across a PC repair shop along the way, and decided to give it one last shot. It was closed, but the man saw me peering in the window and graciously let me in to try to help me. After a few minutes of looking through parts, he announced I was out of luck.

As I was tired of running errands, I decided to stop at a cafe and finish my book over a coffee. I highly recommend We Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride! It is her debut novel, and I was blown away. After shedding a few tears over the ending, I decided to walk another 45 minutes to visit the Arc De Triomphe. Of course, it reminded me so much of Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village NYC, home of the NYU Law campus. This, then, reminded me that law school starts next month. I feel like it’s been a long time coming, and I can’t believe the time is almost finally here to start this chapter of my life.IMG_1380[1]

From the Arc De Triomphe, I decided to visit the Bastille. Once I arrived, I was surprised to learn the Bastille actually doesn’t exist anymore! Instead, it’s just a city plaza with cafes and an operahouse. So, I read about what the Bastille was and its significance in the French Revolution while having a glass of wine outside a cafe.

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La Bastille today
The next morning, I set off for the Louvre. I had booked a timed entry ticket online a few days earlier (only 15 euro directly through the museum), so I was able to skip the massive queues (i.e. lines) and walk right in! Like the Met in NYC, the Louvre has an extensive collection of ancient artifacts as well as medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque art. Of course, I saw La Gioconda (the Mona Lisa). She draws some serious crowds!IMG_1402[1]

I also saw works by Botticelli, Raphael, and Titian. I think my favorite painting I saw was Lady Liberty Leading the People by Eugene Delacroix, painted to commemorate the French Revolution.IMG_1425[1]

I also saw this work, The Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David. Marat was a revolutionary journalist who was assassinated during the French Revolution. He is painted to resemble a Christian martyr in the baroque style, symbolizing the spiritual significance of the revolution.IMG_1445[1]

I also enjoyed seeing the African, Greek, and Egyptian exhibits in the museum, as well as learning that the Louvre was originally a fortress built to protect Paris that was later turned into a palace and then a museum.
After several hours at the museum, I walked south of the Seine and had lunch at a sidewalk cafe with my new book (The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera) before heading to the Luxembourg Gardens to take a nap in the grass. The nap turned into a journaling session (with pen and paper in a real notebook!), and this made me realize how much I missed writing. I knew what I had to do–I went back to FNAC to buy a new tablet (I can use this in law school, so a justified purchase?!) This FNAC told me I had to go to the other FNAC on Champs d’Elysses, so I set off for there. I also learned that Champs Elysses is pronounced “shawn-sell-ee-say” rather than “chomps-da-lease.” I am so appreciative to the endearing French gentleman who taught me this–I am used to being (lovingly) teased for my southern USA accent back in NYC, but he taught me in the least condescending way possible– another testament to the genuine hospitality of the French I have experienced! Vive la France!

Once at the other FNAC, I invested in my little French tablet. I could not understand a single word once I opened it and started using it, which I quickly realized would be a problem. To fix this issue, the FNAC worker spent an hour converting it to an “English” computer by “downloading the English language.” Even though my computer is now in English, it still greets me with “bienvenue!” which I love! It also has an AZERTY keyboard instead of a QWERTY keyboard– here’s to being multi-cultural!

I slept just 4 hours that night before waking up early to catch a bus to Amsterdam. I had researched trains, planes, and buses, and the bus would take 8 hours but only cost 20 euro. Easy decision for me! The bus ride was actually quite nice…after spending so many hours on my feet the last few days, it was great to sit still in one place for a few hours. We stopped in Gent and Antwerp in Belgium along the way, and arrived in Amsterdam on time!

Until next time, Paris!!

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Questions in Paris

I have grappled with a big question my last couple of days in Paris- do I stop writing my blog a month shy of the end of my trip, or do I continue writing? This question was thrown on me when my Chromebook charger died unexpectedly about a week ago (yes, it’s only a few months old…so frustrating!). I searched in Dublin before I left, and high and low in Paris the last couple of days, but apparently they do not even sell that model in Europe. Normally I would just order a new one from Amazon, but traveling around for the next few weeks makes coordinating the shipping nearly impossible. So, without a charger, my dead Chromebook is rendered useless. What to do?

This situation made me start thinking of bigger questions.Something about the streets of Paris has opened something inside of me. What am I looking to find over these few months traveling the world? Do I even need to really find anything?

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As Monet’s study of the Rouen Cathedral demonstrates, what is the same often changes under a different light.
Yesterday, I posted a picture on Instagram saying I was excited to start law school at NYU (which is true…I worked hard for that!) The truth is, though, I feel uncertain. As a disclaimer, I always feel some degree of uncertainty about every big decision I make in life…it’s just part of my nature! Choosing a path means turning away from so many other paths. Those other paths may not necessarily be better, but I am curious all the same. I thought that seeing as much of the world as possible this summer would lead me to a sense of peace and groundedness, but I have only found more questions.

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In my travels, I’ve wavered between being completely surrounded (and sometimes smothered) by people and being completely alone. Today I was completely alone with my own thoughts. As I laid in the grass of the Luxembourg Gardens, it struck me that maybe I am not ever supposed to find “anything” in particular, in this trip or in my life, but that it’s about asking more questions along the way. Questions that keep changing as I change, and leading me not to answers but to even more questions.

I am in love with Paris, because in a way, it reminds me of life. I’ve spent many parts of the days wandering the streets, having a general sense of direction yet not ever knowing where I was specifically at any given moment. However, each turn in the street led to another lively cafe, a museum, a beautiful storefront, or just a picturesque scene of Parisian architecture. I don’t have to know exactly where I am going, but I trust wherever the turns take me, it will be lovely and exciting, just like Paris.image

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A few months ago, my dad wrote his weekly column about my so-called “quarter-life crisis.” I really liked the article and its amusing tone, but I would now dare to reclassify “this” (whatever all these gear shifts and changes are in my life) as a quarter-life “enlightenment”- staying true to the history and spirit of Paris.

So, I went ahead and bought a tablet at the end of the day, and I decided to save the blog from early retirement. I appreciate all the feedback and responses I’ve gotten from readers, but I realized today the blog is really a way for me to spell out the questions I am finding, even if not directly. So, I will continue this exercise as I travel on to Amsterdam in the morning!

Also, I promise I did more than wander around and go to computer stores in Paris, so I will detail this in my next post.:-)

Thanks for going along with me on the journey.image

Paris: The City of Light

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“But Paris was a very old city and we were young and nothing was simple there, not even poverty, nor sudden money, nor the moonlight, nor right and wrong nor the breathing of someone who lay beside you in the moonlight.” -Ernest Hemingway

Paris has surprised in me the best way possible. Before arriving here, I had several American friends warn me that the French were rude and generally do not like Americans. However, I have found this to be far from the truth! In fact, one nice man helped me with my backpack on the subway and another lady has walked me to a subway stop I was having trouble finding. Everyone I have met has been extremely friendly and welcoming. This is simply an added bonus, as I was already so excited to finally visit Paris and experience all it has to offer. I am loving Paris, the City of Light! I have already booked an extra night here (but just one night as the city is so expensive…even more expensive than NYC, if that’s even believable! SO far, I have paid the equivalent of $11 for a beer and $9 for a plain coffee here…yikes!)

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Sacre Cour… It was 6 euro to climb to the top but at least it was free to enter!

I arrived Saturday night at the airport in Beauvais (which I learned is like the Newark airport of Paris! haha) The airport transfer required a 1 hour bus ride into Paris. My phone had died by this point (as well as my portable charger…ugh!), but fortunately I had written down directions via the subway to my hostel in my notebook based on the maps Nat had sent me (thanks again, Nat!) I drifted off to sleep on the bus, but randomly woke up just in time to see the lights of the Eiffel Tower over the horizon on the highway as we came into the city. I felt the same thing I felt the first time I saw the skyline of Manhattan from an airplane…sheer excitement!

The subways were easy to navigate, and I found my way into the city from Porte Maillot. After accidentally wandering into an abandoned building I thought was my hostel (oops!), I found my way into my hostel and settled into the smallest room I have rented so far. Despite the tight space, I was happy to find my bed on the top bunk has a beautiful skylight right over it. So, I drifted off looking at the few stars that I could see from here.

I woke up early the next morning to meet my good friend Jess from NYC at the Palace of Versailles, which is about an hour subway ride outside of Paris. Jess is one of my closest friends in NYC and happened to be traveling through Paris at the same time I was. I was so excited to see her and catch up on everything that has happened in both of our lives since I left the city 2 months ago. We planned to meet at our guided tour at Versailles, but by a stroke of serendipity, we ran into each other at a random subway station underground!! After a lot of shrieking, hugging, and catching up, we were on our way to Versailles, along with her brother and his girlfriend with whom she is traveling.image

Visiting Versailles was truly a childhood dream come true for me. When I was 9, my mom took me to an exhibit of Versailles artifacts that happened to be traveling through Jackson, Mississippi.image Ever since then, I have wanted to see this place in person, and it happened on Sunday! We booked a general admission ticket for 25 euro, as well as a guided tour in English of the King’s private chambers for 7 euro. This was money well spent, as we saw and learned so much during the day!

imageWhenever I think of Versailles, I always think of the Tolkein quote, “All that is gold does not glitter.” I think this quote applies to just about everything except Versailles, where everything is in fact gold, and it glitters! Versailles became the center of the French kingdom in the late 17th century, when Louis XIV moved the royal court there. Louis XIV was known has the “Sun King” and ruled France for 72 years until 1715. He was the ultimate monarch, and everything in Versailles (and France for that matter) revolved around him and his wishes. On the tour, I learned he even had a ceremony everyday when he got out of bed, called the lever. His ornate bedroom in Versailles faced the rising sun, and he woke up with great fanfare to a crowd of attendants each day. He gives a new meaning to Beyonce’s expression, “I woke up like this!” He also had a crowd that watched every meal he ate in the dining room…I find this to be quite awkward, but he was really into himself so it worked for him!

Versailles was inherited by Louis XV and then Louis XVI, who was married to the famous Marie Antoinette. Marie Antoinette built her own estate within Versailles, which we explored along with the rest of the gardens. This place is the size of the small town, and Jess’s FitBit reported we walked over 8 miles during the day!image

One of my favorite things we saw was the table and room where Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin negotiated the terms of American sovereignty with the British and French following the American Revolution.image.jpeg

After a busy day at Versailles, we grabbed dinner (I had a crepe, a cheese plate, and wine…very French!) and watched France defeat Iceland in the Eurocup semi-finals at bar. The atmosphere was electric!image

This morning, I woke up early once again to meet up with Jess and the crew to visit the Eiffel Tower. I got some good views of the tower, but decided the line was too long today to visit the top as I had plans to meet another friend at the Louvre. After saying goodbye to Jess, I met up with my friend Chris (also from NYC and visiting Paris for the day!) at the Louvre. imageChris and I had a nice, relaxing day wandering around the city, eating amazing food, enjoying good wine, and catching up on all of our news in life!

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A delicious Parisian lunch!

We ultimately wandered upon the Sacre Cour in Montemartre, where we decided to climb the 300 steps to the top of the dome. There was an amazing view of Paris from here!image

As Chris had to catch a train back to London, I said goodbye and explored Montemartre a bit more before heading back toward my hostel. There is so much of Paris I want to see and too little time. One thing about long-term traveling is you have to find time to do mundane things like laundry and buying a new computer charger, so I am going to try to tackle this tomorrow while seeing more of the city. I also booked a ticket to the Louvre on Wednesday and plan to spend the entire day there…stay tuned!

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