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a southern yankee abroad

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Europe

London Calling

Somehow, my trip has come to an end. Months ago as I planned the summer-long journey, I decided to make London my final stop before hopping back across the  Atlantic. I’ve found so many other parts of my planning-related aspects of my trip to be serendipitous, and my visit to London was no exception. As Nat lives just outside of London, I was so excited to spend a few more days with him after our adventures in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and France earlier in the summer. Nat was absolutely the perfect London guide, and the last few days have flown by. I only wish I had known to plan more time in London months ago when I was booking flights, but we made the most of my time there!

After a quick flight from Vienna to London, Nat picked me up Monday night and we made our way to the quaint town of Potter’s Bar, where we watched the Olympics and I reunited with my long lost bag! The next morning, we set out for London. Nat surprised me with tickets for the London Eye, as well as a room at the Citizen M Tower Bridge hotel for our nights in London with a flawless view of the Tower of London and the Tower Bridge!

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The view of the Tower of London
After checking in and enjoying our complimentary drinks, we made our way across the Tower Bridge, along the Thames, towards a quick stop for lunch and a beautiful ride on the
London Eye. I never would have done this by myself, so I am so glad Nat had this idea and surprised me with it!IMG_3511[1]

After the London Eye, we made some quick calls from an iconic London phone booth before exploring the Big Ben and Westminster Abbey areas.IMG_3535[1] IMG_3536[1]Later, we made our way to drinks at the Sky Garden bar, located at the top of The Shard (the “cheese grater” building) in London. This place houses a large indoor garden and has a beautiful view of London below.IMG_3552[1]

The next day, we visited the Tate Modern Art Museum where we enjoyed several well known pieces, like The Snail by Matisse, as well as a lot of random art.  IMG_3584[1]Then we made our way to the Globe theater, which is somewhere I’ve always wanted to visit! Even though today’s version is a modern replica, it was amazing  to learn more about how the theater played a role in the everyday lives of Londoners in Elizabethan times, and also how tough life was at that time.  Apparently people only bathed twice a year, so it seems like coming to the plays was a welcomed distraction from the roughness of reality. The “groundlings” were the people who would pay 1 pence to be able to stand on the floor, and I learned they were very much part of the plays (almost like a sporting event!)  It also stood out to me how Shakespeare was truly in touch with all levels of society–his plays regularly entertained and involved the “groundlings” and he  was also invited to court by Elizabeth I multiple times.IMG_3591[1]

After the Globe, I enjoyed my first experience at Cheeky Nando’s.IMG_3597[1]

Then, we made our way to Trafalgar Square (Nat is related to Lord Admiral Nelson at the top of the column, so we took a picture!) and then to the National Portrait Gallery. So many of the pictures’ captions included stories about scandals related to the portraits’ subjects, so it was quite entertaining to walk through!

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Showing some love for George Washington in the National Portrait Gallery. USA!!
Then, we walked past Buckingham Palace as well as the former residences of Ben Franklin, Heinrich Heine, and Herman Melville. IMG_3659[1]After relaxing a bit and watching Great Britain win gold and the USA win silver in men’s diving, we went to dinner at the French restaurant Clos Maggiore in the Covent Garden area. The small dining room had a glass roof and the room was filled with flowers. It was beautiful!!13995434_10157387957330595_5362559082951680775_o.jpg

The next day, we visited the Churchill War Rooms (thanks for the recommendation, Hillary!). This museum shows the preserved bunker for Churchill and his war cabinet during WWII and includes an extensive museum on Churchill and his life. Nat and I both enjoyed it a lot and left with an even deeper respect for Churchill and understanding of the complexity of his life and work.IMG_3673[1]

After an Asian lunch (throwback to earlier in the summer for us!) we went to the British Museum. We saw the Rosetta Stone, as well as several artifacts from ancient Egypt, Africa, and Native America. We also looked at their coin collections, as Nat collects coins!

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Afterwards, we made our way back to our hotel, where I had one of the main highlights of my London trip! My friend Amber, who I had traveled in Africa with back in December, met up with us for a drink. It was so amazing to not only see her and catch up, but to see her on the last night of my travels. It was very much a full circle moment for me. Amber, along with my friend D.J. from TFA, has been 1 of the 2 single-most influential friends when it came to planning and executing my round-the-world trip. I find Amber’s story, which involves losing a significant amount of weight and then traveling the world for 14 months, so powerful, and I’m thrilled to learn she is writing about it!! Stay tuned…I can’t wait for her story to further inspire others to travel!IMG_3723[1]

While (in my opinion) London is not as beautiful or as cheap as other European cities  I’ve visited this summer, I still found myself feeling at home during the last few days. On one hand, London reminds me a lot of New York. On the other hand, I was with Nat the entire time and felt very comfortable. I couldn’t help but feel sad at different intervals throughout the visit–as much as London reminded me of New York, it was a reminder that my travels were coming to an end so soon.

Yes, I know that the end of every adventure is the beginning of a new one, but I’m not ready for this one to end!IMG_3674[1]

Vienna Waits for You

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St. Stephen’s Cathedral with its amazing roof!
My last week of traveling has been among the best for so many different reasons. I spent the first part of the week in Vienna, before flying to London and spending 4 amazing days.

First stop–Vienna.

My visit to Vienna got off to a rough start. After arriving via a smooth 1 hour bus ride from Bratislava, I made my way to Seven Hostel, where I had a reservation for the next 3 nights. This place literally looked like where the horror film Seven could have been filmed–after one look, I instantly felt uncomfortable staying here. Not to mention, the receptionist refused to even let me in the building at 12pm. So, I took my bags and quickly found another hostel that was a bit pricier but definitely cleaner and safer than Seven Hostel.

Vienna started off a bit roughly, but being able to reconnect with an old friend made it one of my favorite stops of the summer! Lekisha and I interned together in the U.S. Senate in the summer of 2009, and grew up just down the highway from each other in Alabama. She is now living in Vienna as part of her second tour with the U.S. State Department (she’s changing the world…no big deal!). We met up for some sightseeing, an authentic Austrian dinner, and long-overdue catching up.13920169_10208178554754106_7585510553736956668_o.jpg Even though we had not seen each other in 7 years, we picked up right where we left off and had so much to discuss in terms of current events, career goals, and life in general. #AlabamatoAustria !! Lekisha generously offered to let me stay in the guest room of her (gorgeous) apartment for my last 2 nights in Vienna, so I grabbed my bags from my hostel and threw my deuces up to my last hostel of the entire trip!

In terms of sites to see, below is a list of my highlights of Vienna:

-Sigmund Freud house/museum/cafe. This was the first place I attempted to visit in Vienna. The queue was extremely long and slow-moving, so I settled on having a glass of wine and dessert at the cafe next door where Freud frequented. I recommend going early in the day if you would like to visit this museum!IMG_3194[1]

-Belvedere. The Belvedere is a former castle converted to a museum with open gardens. It has the largest collection of Gustav Klimt artwork in the world, which is why I had to go! I saw The Kiss, as well as other famous works of his such as Adam and Eve and Judith. I also enjoyed seeing a series of marble busts by Franz Messerschmidt which are known for their absurd expressions.IMG_3279[1].JPG

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-Haus Der Musik. Vienna is a city all about music. This was surprisingly one of the most enjoyable museums I’ve ever visited. The museum focuses on the science of sound, as well as Vienna’s significance in the history and contemporary performance of classical music. I liked how a separate room was dedicated to each great composer of the Viennese Classical school, including Mozart, Strauss, Haydn, Beethoven, and Schubert. The emphasis on science was particularly interesting too–one room recreated the sounds we all heard in our mothers’ wombs. It was fascinating! Another darkened room played Mozart and Beethoven scores as performed on synthesizers on a surround sound system. I definitely chilled in here for a while and relaxed.IMG_3280[1]

-The entire Vienna downtown. Vienna is absolutely beautiful and the entire downtown is a UNESCO World Heritage site. St. Stephen’s cathedral is iconic with its chevron pattern, and the Hofburg (the Hapsburg imperial palace), National Library, Volksgarten, and Museum Quarter are nearby.

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Hofburg
-Schloss Schonbrunn. This palace is in the southwest corner of the city and is Austria’s version of Versailles in France and Sansoucci in Germany. Lekisha, her summer intern Maria, and I enjoyed walking in the gardens and taking “Sound of Music” pictures on the hills (haha).13913872_10208183684122337_8576659094238598319_o.jpg

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-Rauthaus and Vienna Film Festival. I happened to be in town during the Vienna Film Festival, which consists of regular showings during the summer on a giant screen attached to the Rauthaus, or city hall. Several food and drink booths line the lawn. Lekisha and I had stopped by for a drink earlier, and I went by myself for a screening (Cinderella by the Dutch National Ballet) my last night after Lekisha had left for Spain. It was a great atmosphere and the perfect way to enjoy a nice summer night in Vienna.IMG_3406[1]

-Naturhistorisches Museum. My last day in Vienna, I explored the Vienna Natural History Museum, which houses the largest collection of meteorites in the world (~8,000). I saw meteors from all over the world, including ones discovered in Alabama, Tennessee, Gerogia and Arkansas! I also saw a huge collection of beautiful minerals and dinosaur bones, including a “live” animated dinosaur. While I think New York’s museum has a better dinosaur collection (and the blue whale), I feel the Vienna museum is superior in every other way.

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The “Cabin Creek” meteorite from Arkansas is particularly well-known when it comes to meteorites…and it’s in Vienna!
To top off my amazing trip to Vienna, I received word from Nat on my last day that my backpack had been delivered to his house after 3 weeks of being completely missing and no word from Germanwings. I was so excited and relieved to know it was waiting on me in London! I still find it astounding that my bag made it from Hanoi to Qatar to Dallas to Lima and was the first bag off the belt in June, yet got lost between Berlin and Marseille in July. This gave me just one more reason to be so excited for my last stop–London.

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Volksgarten

Vienna, according to Billy Joel

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The view from the Upper Belvedere

Slow down you crazy child
You’re so ambitious for a juvenile
But then if you’re so smart tell me,
Why are you still so afraid?

Where’s the fire, what’s the hurry about?
You better cool it off before you burn it out
You got so much to do and only
So many hours in a day

But you know that when the truth is told
That you can get what you want
Or you can just get old
You’re gonna kick off before you even get halfway through
When will you realize… Vienna waits for you?

Slow down you’re doing fine
You can’t be everything you want to be before your time
Although it’s so romantic on the borderline tonight

Too bad, but it’s the life you lead
You’re so ahead of yourself that you forgot what you need
Though you can see when you’re wrong
You know you can’t always see when you’re right

You got your passion, you got your pride
But don’t you know that only fools are satisfied?
Dream on, but don’t imagine they’ll all come true
When will you realize… Vienna waits for you?

Slow down you crazy child
Take the phone off the hook and disappear for a while
It’s alright, you can afford to lose a day or two
When will you realize… Vienna waits for you?

And you know that when the truth is told
That you can get what you want or you can just get old
You’re gonna kick off before you even get halfway through
Why don’t you realize… Vienna waits for you?

When will you realize… Vienna waits for you?

Bratislava: A Slovak Version of Memphis

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The main town square. Much smaller and less busy compared to other European cities I’ve visited.

My last 2 days in Bratislava have led me to draw the most unlikely comparison. Bratislava reminds me, in a strange yet not completely far-fetched way, of Memphis, my favorite city in the USA. Needless to say, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my 48 hours here! As I was planning the last few weeks of my trip a few weeks ago, I decided to come to Bratislava somewhat on a whim. I was initially attracted to it because it is off the beaten path a bit, and considered making it a day trip from Vienna. I’m so happy I stayed 2 nights! As the capital of Slovakia, Bratislava offers its own dose of unique history and culture, yet is small enough to feel like you’re visiting a small town.

 

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Like Memphis, Bratislava is home to a major river and a uniquely shaped bridge. Natives call this bridge “the UFO” 🙂
How does Bratislava remind me of Memphis? Both cities are similar in population (around half a million, more or less). Here are a few other ways:

1. It’s a chill river city. The Danube is basically Europe’s version of the Mississippi River, and it flows just south of the old town portion of Bratislava. As in Memphis, the river is the ideal place to go for a stroll, to relax, or to have some food and drinks. I spent an entire day laying on this beach next to the Danube, reading a book for fun as well as my first law school assignment (Chimel v California! wooo). Especially after coming from some of
the busiest cities in Europe, life is a little slower and more relaxed around here, just as in Memphis.

 

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Chilling by the river getting a bit of reading done!
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Beach time!
 

2. I (almost) got hustled at the bus station. Like it or not, Memphis is a city full of hustling. As I got off my bus from Budapest, I was feeling a bit  tired, sick (still fighting that cold), and lost. I decided I would splurge and take a taxi, and I knew from my hostel’s website it should cost between 4 and 8 euro from the bus station. I decided I was willing to pay up to 10 euro given my condition however! As I approached the first cab driver in the queue and started my bidding at 5 euro, he informed me the charge would be 20 euro flat to my address. I literally laughed in his face as I turned around and walked away! After 2 years of living in Memphis, 3 years of living in NYC, and 3 months travelling abroad, there was no way I was falling for that one. Better luck on the next person, dude! Within 15 minutes, I had purchased a ticket on public transport for 0.70 euro and had easily found my way to my hostel. Just as in Memphis (or anywhere really), it’s smart to watch your back here 🙂

 

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These streets are hard…literally! The cobblestones are quite slippery!!

3. It’s a bit on the gritty side. There are several parts of the city that are less renovated and a bit more rundown than other cities I’ve visited this  summer. The same can be said for some areas of Memphis (although my understanding is the local government has put a lot of emphasis on fighting blight in recent years). In my mind, the right amount of grunge adds significant character to a place, as in Berlin. However, the grittiness here is unaccompanied by the frenzied energy of Berlin, and instead is a testament that time marches on and can leave places behind, as in some parts of Memphis.

 

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Not every inch is landscaped or renovated. To me, this makes a place more real and less touristy!

4. The cost of living is low. I have been blown away by how cheap everything is here! My dinner and drink the first night was under 5 euro! Beers and glasses of  wine are all under 2 euro, no matter where you go! Also, my hostel is extremely up-to-date and nice, and I am paying less than 35 euro for 2 nights. Oh Memphis, I remember when I paid 25 percent of what I paid each month for a tiny walk-up studio in Midtown NYC for a practically new downtown apartment with a pool, gated parking, free access to AAA baseball games next door, a balcony, etc…sigh.

5. Blues music! To be fair, I did pick my hostel (Hostel Blues) because it is a blues-themed hostel…and I love blues music! However, I had no idea they feature live blues musicians at night in the lobby for free. I loved listening to these 3 guys pick away and play the harmonica. I had to remind myself I was in Bratislava and not on Beale Street. 🙂

 

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6. They both have royal homes (Ok, this one is a bit of a stretch). The Bratislava Castle is arguably the city’s biggest attraction. I took a walk around its grounds my first few hours in the city. It was first built in 907 AD and is now a museum exhibit with beautiful gardens. It’s also on a big hill with stunning views of the city and the Danube below. Memphis has Graceland, the former castle of another king, which is arguably its biggest attraction as well (haha…sorry. I know this one was a bit of a stretch!)

 

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Bratislava Castle

7. It has an array of cute and hipster coffee shops. Just as in Memphis, the cool coffee places abound. I had coffee and a poached egg with avocado yesterday morning at Urban Space…and of course it was ridiculously cheap too. This place would fit right in in Midtown Memphis or Overton Square.

8. Everyone is extremely friendly. Just as in Memphis, the hospitality is deep and genuine. My waiter this morning insisted on telling me about his favorite  place in Bratislava and encouraged me to check it out. The girls who work at my hostel have given me endless recommendations (more than they were required to!) on restaurants and coffee shops, as well as places to see and chill (they are the reason I found my amazing beach!) Just as in Memphis, it seems everyone here looks out for one another (except the few hustlers!) and everyone treats each other and visitors alike as neighbors. ❤

 

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I am so happy I came to Bratislava. What was supposed to be a random stopover has turned into a much-needed few days of relaxation, chilling out, and saving  money. Just as Memphis does, I feel like Bratislava surprises those who visit in the best way possible!

Next stop…Vienna!

 

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Taking a quiet stroll along the Danube

Budapest: Give Me One Good Reason Why I Should Never Make a Change

“If you come from Paris to Budapest, you think you are in Moscow. But if you go from Moscow to Budapest, you think you are in Paris.”

IMG_2985[1]It’s been 85 days since I left the USA, and the exhaustion is starting to set in in the form of sickness. However, surprisingly I am in no way ready to come home. The fact that this adventure is almost over has really started to set in during the last few days in Budapest. I am not ready to be in one place again, even though I know I realistically can’t continue to be a nomad forever.

As I write this, I am on a bus from Budapest to Bratislava feeling a bit light-headed from the variety of Hungarian cold and flu medicines I am currently taking to ward off my stuffy nose, cough, and slight fever. The last few days in Budapest have been both fun and relaxing. On my first night, I discovered Margaret Island in the middle of the Danube River (Budapest consists of 2 cities which used to be separate cities–Buda to the west of the Danube and Pest to the east of the Danube).

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A view of Pest-Buda at sunset from the bridge across Margaret Island
Margaret Island is the perfect place to relax, with a walking path, beer gardens, and a beautiful lighted fountain that performs to music. It even performed to George Ezra’s song Budapest (thanks Nat for introducing me to this song before I left to come here!)IMG_2831[1]

My first morning in Budapest, I set off to explore after doing some laundry. I came across a memorial to the Hungarian Holocaust victims that included an active protest area in front. Of course, I had to know what the protest was about, and I soon learned it had to do with what many Hungarians view as the government’s attempt to rewrite the history of WW2. The memorial portrays Germany as a relentless invader and Hungary as a victim of violent imperialism. IMG_2851[1].JPGThe protesters argue that the Hungarian government at the time willingly participated in becoming part of the Third Reich and volunteered to participate in the Holocaust. The protests highlight the stories of Hungarian Jews who lost their lives at the hands of their own government, and also calls for the government to remove this dishonest memorial. If the concerns raised by the protesters are in fact valid, this is quite alarming. One thing I really admired about Berlin was the city’s humility, introspection, and apologetic spirit about the evil atrocities that took place there during the rise and reign of Hitler, and the city’s commitment to equality and ensuring these past sins are not repeated. However, if a nation chooses to disregard and withhold any sort of acknowledgement or apology for past harms, that nation is not only dishonest with itself and others but runs the risk of repeating those evils. Time will tell what happens to this memorial and if there will ever be some kind of apology from the Hungarian government.

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I also took time to relax after investigating protests 🙂

On a lighter note, my visit to Budapest was full of relaxation, including a boat cruise down the Danube (where I met some great girls from Spain, Sweden, and the U.K.), a pub crawl (where I met some new USA friends!), visits to a couple of Budapest’s famous “ruin bars,” and several hours at 2 of the city’s famous thermal baths–Szechenyi and Rudas. When the Ottoman Empire invaded the city back in the 16th century, they brought with them the concept of the Turkish bath. Both baths I visited consisted of indoor and outdoor pools at various temperatures designed to promote health and relaxation, as well as several saunas. My favorite bath was Szechenyi, which has been open since 1913 and is absolutely beautiful. It also had a whirlpool in one of its outdoor pools, which was like a small, fast-paced lazy river! It was so fun to get carried along in this, and also quite relaxing! I also enjoyed Rudas, which was smaller and newer but was located just off the Danube and had a rooftop thermal pool that overlooked the city skyline.

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I obviously didn’t take this picture (I didn’t want to get my phone wet so I left it in the locker!), but this is a typical day at Szechenyi.

While most of the modern shopping and restaurants are on the Pest side (and this is also where I stayed in 2 different hostels), the Buda side is home to many of the historic sites. I spent the entire third day in the city exploring the Buda side. I started with a visit to the Cave Church, which is exactly what it sounds like–a church carved into a cave in the side of the mountain. The church was closed down under communist rule but reopened its doors in 1989.

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Cave church!
I then climbed up Gellert Hill (it was very steep and a good workout!) to see the Citadella, which was used by the Soviets to quell the 1956 Hungarian uprising and is now the home to the Liberty Statue. There are some stunning views of the city from here! I then walked up the Danube to visit Matthias church, which was originally constructed in 1015, reconstructed in the 14th century, and served as the city’s main mosque during Turkish rule.

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Liberty Statue atop Gellert hill
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Matthias Church
I was in Budapest for 5 days, which was ideal as I still got to see a good bit of the city while also taking time to rest and attempt to recover from being sick. Also, Budapest was very, very cheap–by far the cheapest city I’ve visited in Europe. Hungary uses the Hungarian Forint, and about 280 forints equals 1 US dollar. It was hard to spend even more than 10 US dollars post-conversion on food and drinks at any meal. I am not complaining at all!

Just 3 cities left until I return to NYC…Bratislava, Vienna, and London. I definitely have mixed feelings and am half-tempted to book a ticket back to Asia or Africa instead of starting law school! But, duty calls…IMG_2835[1]

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]

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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