Sunday, July 31, 2011

Home Sweet Home... at least for a little while.

Alright folks, I am SO late with writing and really don’t have a great excuse! I’ve been back in Michigan for a little over a month and have honestly not felt like spending much time on the computer. Not to mention the fact I’ve been working at Ryke’s pretty much constantly since I’ve made my return… It’s good though! I need to make money to pay off the last semester and save for the coming year. I’ve had some fun seeing family and friends, and going to a few concerts. But for now I’ll recap the end of my journey for you.

The last time I posted I had just arrived in Finland. The days I spent there were absolutely incredible. I didn’t do anything spectacular, but merely being with my families and friends again was more amazing that I could have imagined. It never ceases to amaze me how years can go by, but if you’ve made a connection with someone, that connection never fades. I spent a few days with one of my best friends Heidi and one day were just sitting around watching “Say Yes to the Dress” on TV and she said, “We haven’t seen each other in four years and all we’re doing is watching TV!” But I think that’s what is so great about strong friendships. You can just slip into the rhythm you had when you were last together and everything just feels natural.

I was really hoping that would be how it felt to be in Finland, and it couldn’t have been more perfect. It even smelled the way I remembered! I spent a lot of time with my first host family and even slept in my old room. It was easy to keep that as a “home base” of sorts because it was so centrally located. I went to a summer cottage with two girls I played viola and sang with and went to Helsinki to spend time with two of my host sisters. For the midsummer festival I was lucky enough to be with my second and third families at the Ruissalo’s summer cottage – the same way I spent it four years ago. Most of us hadn’t changed, just my younger host sisters had grown into beautiful young ladies. I spent time walking around Riihimaki again, and even ran into old friends from school who were shocked to see me back in Finland. I remembered my way around perfectly, just as I hoped I would.

I think everyone I saw when I was back in Finland was happy I had made the effort to come back (at least I hope they were). I don’t really notice it so much, but it is quite the affair for me to get over to Europe. This had been my plan since I started at MSU though. I put it in my mind that I would study abroad in Europe my junior year and make that glorious return to Finland. I’m still getting choked up having accomplished that goal. I’m really proud that I was able to do it all and in only four years. At the end of my stay in Finland my friends said, “Ok, now it is our turn to visit you!” It makes me feel so good that they would want to come to visit me, even to Michigan. I have a feeling, though, that we’ll end up traveling somewhere new to all of us with how much we all love traveling. I know I will see my friends and family in Finland again. I’ve done it once now, and since I accomplished that there is no question it will happen again – and each time will be just as amazing as the last.

Now that I am home I’ve kind of gotten back into the swing of things… but that is kind of impossible right now. I will be in a constant state of transition for the next few years, but that’s ok with me. I can’t deny that I’m a bit scared, but more than anything I am excited for the future. I will be a senior at MSU this year and my mom is preparing to move to Las Vegas and we are selling the house I grew up in. I am very happy for my mom, but I am sad to say goodbye to my house. I am so thankful that I’ve had such a great time growing up with my family so close to me, and I am really glad to know my dad and grandparents will always be in Muskegon. And at the end of the day, my mom will only be a plane ride, or better yet, a call on Skype away.

I guess the next thing to talk about would be culture shock now that I’m back in the US… and I must say that I haven’t really experienced much. I did when I came back from Finland four years ago, but this time I was pretty much ready for what it would be like. I also feel like it would have been much different to come home directly from the Czech Republic. If I had done that I think I would have had a much harder time handling not being around the friends I had made and I would miss Olomouc even more than I do. But since I did some traveling and felt like I had gone “home” when I went to Finland, I had the chance to quickly recover from saying goodbye to my new friends, in a sense, and just be extremely happy to be back in Finland. This isn’t to say that I don’t miss my new friends at all – I miss them terribly! It’s just different. I think I also feel that way because I know how feasible it is for me to see them again. It really isn’t a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.

To rap up my journey this time around in Europe I’ll just say this: It was perfect. I know that seems a little simple and general, but I wouldn’t have changed anything from this past semester. It was the perfect program for me and I was able to grow intellectually and personally in the ways I so hoped I would. The friends I made and the places I traveled to were incredible, and I hope to keep these friends for years to come. I’m also relieved that I’m still as interested in Central and Eastern Europe as I was before I left. This is really comforting since I’m jumping into my senior year and I’m positive I’ve made all the right decisions academic wise while at MSU! So who knows what my next step will be, but at least every leap I’ve taken has taken me higher and has just added to the exciting experience of growing up.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Prague, saying goodbye to Olomouc, and London!

*Thank you to the anonymous reader who corrected my history about the beginning of the Velvet Revolution. I knew the correct facts, but wrote this too quickly and didn't proofread. I know better now to check and double check!*

I last left you in Olomouc, and now I am back in Riihimäki, Finland after four years! It is kind of hard for me to comprehend being back here, but it actually feels like coming home. It even smells the same as I remember it… But more on Finland later! I have lots to write about, including my trips to Prague and London!

One day in Prague was, once again, not enough! At least it was an improvement from the three hours I had there four years ago. I just keep saying that now I’ll just have to come back yet again, and extend my time to spending a night there! My friend Zohre (Turkish) and I left Olomouc very early and took the train to Prague at 6 am. We were there before 9 and immediately started on our busy day! We first walked past the National Museum and found the Dancing House to take some pictures. My travel guide said that Americans see it as representing Fred and Ginger, which I suppose it could. It was a cool sight nonetheless. We then made our way down the Vlatva River and to the Old Town Square for a free tour, which was fantastic! We had a really great guide that told us the history of Prague, all the way from medieval times. It was fun for me to listen to him because he had some really great anecdotes, and I could follow right along with him once he got to 1945… I really learned some things this semester! ;-)

He took us through the Jewish Quarter, the New Town, and the Old Town. After the tour we decided to head across Charles Bridge to see the Castle and the St. Vitus Cathedral. We didn’t feel like paying for the tour, so we just let Rick Steves and his travel guide be our guide! That ended up being great and we really enjoyed the castle and the views of the city from the top of that hill.

We then walked some more, found the American Consulate for me, and went to see the Petrin Tower and get another great view of the city. We rode the funicular up the hill and found a beautiful rose garden, and found our way to the Petrin Tower that resembles the Eiffel Tower in Paris. We were quite tired from walking around the city all day, so we decided not to climb to the top, but the area around the tower was beautiful anyway.

The last things I wanted to see in Prague were a few memorials of communism. The first was one on the side of the hill near to Petrin that gives an eerie representation of the effects of communism on the human. The statues of the man begin to deteriorate as the go up the hill, but they never really die.

The other monument is a small and discreet plaque commemorating the students that protested on November 17, 1989 on the street that was filled with people asking for freedom peacefully, but were unfortunately attacked by the police (This was the beginning to what would be called the Velvet Revolution). Seeing these monuments and walking the streets where the revolution occurred was an amazing experience for me after studying the events all semester. I have been so consumed with the history of these places that it was like coming full circle and fulfilling a dream to actually stand in the places I had learned so much about.

I then found a place to drink my last glass of my favorite Czech beer, Staropramen, and we ate our last fried cheese sandwiches (best Czech fast food, as far as I’m concerned) and we caught a train back to Olomouc just past 8:00. We were exhausted, and very proud of ourselves! We saw just about the entire city. Next time I go to Prague I will make sure I spend the night and see some live music, or a concert of some sort. I am sure I can accomplish that, though. I really feel that I will be back in Central Europe soon!
That next day was my last in Olomouc, and even though it was kind of sad, I really had a good time. I went out with a few of my closest friends that were still there and ate Olomouc stinky cheese, drank Czech beer and Moravian wine, and saw the city at night for the last night. Olomouc is such a beautiful city, and I’m so thankful to have lived there for a few months. The friends I made are also very beautiful people and I will think of them and remember them for a very long time, and I truly hope to see them again some day.

It was hard to leave them, and to make my way to the airport in Brno alone… especially with all of my things from the whole semester! I was sore and tired when I finally arrived in London, but was so happy to see two good friends from high school, Josh and Calder!
Calder has been at the London School of Economics all year and he invited me to come spend some time with him to see London, and Josh happened to be coming at the same time. It was such a cool thing to be in London with two friends I hadn’t seen in such a long time! We had fun catching up, talking politics, music, and philosophy, and of course seeing the city – which without me they probably would have seen much of! We walked a lot, but also saw a lot. I regret that I was not very prepared to see London at the time, since I had focused my travels on Eastern Europe (and only had travel guides for Eastern Europe and the Czech Republic!). Since I hadn’t really read much on London, and only knew things from the movie “The Queen” and what my friends had told me, I had to do some reading and thinking when I first got there. Looking back, I’m quite happy with what I saw! And it’s true, 4 days is not enough to see all of London, but it was enough for a big taste.
We saw all the main tourist spots like Big Ben and Parliament, Westminster Abby, Buckingham Palace, Hyde Park, Sharkespeare’s Globe Theater... and we went through Greenwich Village, Soho, and other districts of the city… but it’s so huge it is hard to keep track of everything! Calder’s dorm was right in Central London so it made it easy to get to some places, but we did take the tube quite a few times. London has a fantastic transportation system, though it is very expensive. That was definitely a change from being in Central/Eastern Europe – everything is more expensive, but labeled better and seems safer - as far as transportation goes, at least. It was interesting for me to go to London from living in the Czech Republic… I will probably comment on some observations of West and East at some point in time… so maybe you can look forward to that in the future ☺.
Josh and I were really lucky, and a friend of Calder’s had two tickets for standing at the Globe Theater! We rushed to get them and were delighted to see a performance of “All’s Well That Ends Well”. It was absolutely incredible seeing Shakespeare at the Globe (though it is a recreation, the original was burned down). I had never seen Shakespeare performed professionally, and this was the real deal! I’m so thankful to have had that opportunity… and for only 5 pounds! Totally worth that small amount, and standing the whole time!

It did rain the day we went to Buckingham Palace and Parliament, but it wouldn’t be London without a day of rain. We did our best to stay dry, and luckily it was still pretty warm outside. That night we ate delicious Indian food… because again, it wouldn’t be London without Indian food!
The next day we saw the British Library, which had an awesome exhibit about science fiction, and I was lucky enough to meet up with a friend from MSU! Mike has been studying in Lancaster this semester, and we ended up going to London at the same time. I’m so excited about how many friends I saw from home while I was over here! It’s such a small world! We walked around the city and saw Hyde Park and had a few beers in a nice pub before making dinner and going to a great jazz club. I was very excited to see some good jazz in a big city like London, and I wasn’t disappointed! Despite the expensive drinks, there was no cover for student night and the club had really great atmosphere. The next morning we met up again at the gigantic and fantastic British Museum. There is so much to see there, so we decided to download a Rick Steves guide to our iPods and see the ancient Egypt, Assyria, and Greece exhibits. It was great having the audio guide, and the exhibits were great. It’s always fun to see mummies! It was a beautiful day so we sat in a park near to Calder’s dorm and ate burritos before heading to an open mic night. I had never been to one before, but Josh prepared us for the best and the worst… and it was fun the majority of the time! I give a lot of credit to everyone who got up on the stage, but I will admit that a lot of it was pretty painful to watch. Some of the people were really funny though, and the audience was really forgiving and laughed a lot. After the show we went to Calder’s favorite pub that was decorated in typical English style, so it basically looked like the inside of a really nice Victorian/English house! And the beer was great and pretty cheap too.
For my last day in London, and before Calder and Josh headed to France, Calder’s parents insisted that we go on the London Eye. We weren’t planning on it because it was quite expensive, but they decided to treat us to it so we went. I’m really glad we did! It is basically this huge Ferris wheel that has capsules that hold about 12-15 people. You get a really amazing view of London, so it was a really great time to take pictures. It was a great end to my short stay in London… and now I am back in Finland! I will trail off here because this was such a gigantic post… and I will write again soon…

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Krakow, take 2! And the last days in the Czech Republic...

I have arrived at my last few days in Olomouc… it’s amazing how fast the semester has gone! It feels like just yesterday I was arriving here after struggling to get my visa, and in three days I’ll be flying to London. I will write a “reflective” post after I’ve left the Czech Republic, but for now I’ll tell you about my great second trip to Krakow and the past few weeks in and around Olomouc.
My second trip to Krakow was a bigger surprise than my first, and I was thrilled to be going the second time! A great friend of mine from MSU, Spencer, announced on Facebook that he would be stopping in Poland on his way to Tajikistan for a project with James Madison. When I saw that he’d be so close to me, I jumped at the chance to see him! Luckily we were able to meet up for almost 4 amazing days in Krakow. He was an exchange student in Poland the same time I was in Finland, and he lived in Krakow for a month last summer, so it was really fantastic to be in the city with him. It was also really great to see someone from home to remind me that I really have a lot to look forward to when I return to Michigan and MSU.
We stayed in a great hostel in Kazimierz (the Jewish District) and spent almost all of our time there. Krakow is even more alive in the summer and there are beer gardens everywhere! It was so great to be in the center, or in Kazimierz, and just go from garden to garden having a beer or a drink here and there.

Spencer and I drank a lot of Polish beer and ate a lot of yummy Polish food from the grill… I went running soon after I got back to Olomouc I felt so guilty! But it was so delicious and wonderful at the time. Since this was my second time in Krakow, what I really wanted to do was to relax and enjoy the city. The first time I was there we were really rushed because we spent one whole day at Auschwitz, and not to mention the fact it was really cold. Spencer and I did do some touristy things, though.

During the day on Tuesday we went to the Wieliczka Salt Mine, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was an operating salt mine from the 13th century up to 2007. It was really incredible to see… we went 300 meters underground! It’s a fantastic museum and shows how salt was mined in the past, but there are also a number of beautiful statues carved out of salt and amazing supports that are hard to imagine being built. And, in true Polish form, there is a church! It’s beautiful, with amazing statues and carvings… even a statue of Pope John Paul II carved out of salt! It was definitely a cool thing to see. The next day we went to the Schindler Factory museum, which was something we had really wanted to do the last time we were in Krakow, but didn’t have time. And let me tell you, this museum was the most amazing museum I have ever been to. Yes it was in Schindler’s factory (I am assuming most of you have seen the Holocaust movie, “Schindler’s List”), but it brought you back in time to Krakow during the years of 1939-1945. It was amazing how they set up the museum. Each room was incredibly done; even the floors and walls were decorated and built to make you feel like you were in Krakow during those years. For example, in the section of the museum about Nazi occupation the floor had Nazi tiles and there were Nazi banners hanging from the ceiling. I gasped when I entered the room… it was a crazy feeling. They even recreated the cement wall that once surrounded the Jewish Ghetto in Krakow. Throughout the museum there were videos, and things to read, and interactive computers… We spent nearly three hours walking through it and didn’t even touch the majority of it. To see it all you would have to separate the museum into sections, and take a day for each. Another great thing about it was something Spencer brought up – Even though the museum covers years of war, murder, and destruction, it doesn’t make you feel depressed the whole time you’re walking through it. It was really different from the Holocaust museum in Washington DC, at least for me, because I didn’t feel like crying the whole time. Instead I was just in awe and learned so much about Krakow during these years. Instead of feeling depressed, I felt reflective and like I had gone back in time. So I will have to say – If you are ever in Krakow, you must go to this museum!
I headed back to Olomouc the next day excited, but sad, to spend my last days with the best friends I had made here. There was a big barbeque outside of my dorm when I got home and it was a lot of fun to listen to music, eat, and be with my friends. It’s been kind of hard to be in Olomouc the past week and a half because each day more people leave for home or on trips. All semester I have been saying that we aren’t really saying goodbye to each other, it’s more of a “see you later!” Although, when the time came for my friends to leave, it was harder to believe what I had been preaching. I’m not focusing on the fact that they’re gone now, but on the amazing time I had with them this semester. I will miss so much being with people from all over the world with all of our talks about language, culture, and politics, but it was so great while it lasted that I can just be thankful for the time we had.
This past weekend was pretty fun, and a nice distraction from having to say goodbye to my friends. I went with two friends from Poland, one from France, and one from Spain to a music festival in Třebíč, which is south and east of Olomouc, kind of near to Brno. This festival had all kinds of music from rock to reggae to drumb and bass, and it was situated between a river and a castle - so beautiful! It reminded me of the Muskegon Summer Celebration, and really got me excited about summer. Though this festival was only two days and had music basically all day and all night. It had two stages, a tent for the drumb and bass, and even a kind of club with a dj, bar, tables, and couches. We camped in the area set aside for tents... and were really surprised to find that we basically had to rock climb to get to our tent! It was really quite dangerous, and we were sure someone would get hurt coming back drunk one night. We had a great time people watching the whole weekend. Something that made this festival really different from ones I’ve been to in the US was the amount of alcohol consumed. Beer was the typical price of 25 crowns (around $1.50... for a pint... gosh I’m going to miss the prices of this country...) as opposed to $7 beers at festivals in the States. So you can imagine that people were drinking a lot. There’s definitely a lot more public drunkenness in Europe than in the US. The good things was that there really wasn’t any violence, just some really funny things to watch. I don't have any pictures, however. I didn't want to bring my camera and risk losing it or having it stolen! You'll just have to imagine everything :-).
Today I have been doing laundry and starting to pack and clean up my room. I am finally going to Prague tomorrow! My Turkish friend and I are going early in the morning and coming back at night. After I post this I am going to go through my travel guide and make a list of things I have to see... Even though I’ve waited so long to see Prague, it seems fitting that it’s the last place I see. It’s almost like I’m coming full circle! I’ll post about that and try to reflect a bit on my semester before I fly off to London on Friday!

Friday, May 27, 2011

Exams and Budapest

Wow! Sorry it has been so long since I last posted! The past few weeks have flown by – exams, final papers, goodbye parties and goodbyes, and trips to Budapest, Hungary and back to Krakow, Poland. So, I have a lot to tell about! I will do my best to keep it short and entertaining ☺.
The weeks after my last post were basically filled with finishing my papers and studying for exams. I don’t think I listed the classes I took this semester… so I’ll tell you now!
- Czech Culture and the Olomouc Region
- Central European Culture and Society
- Ethnic and National Minorities of Central Europe
- Central Europe and European Integration
- Central European Political Systems
- Problems of the Post Soviet World
- History of Central Europe since 1945
So it really was quite a class load! I had an exam in all of them except the first two I listed, but had some paper or presentation for all of them. I was quite nervous for a few of my exams, but I think I ended up performing pretty well! And I think my papers, even though not the best I’ve ever written, were quite good too. Overall I am quite pleased with how much I was able to learn and retain about a region that I didn’t have any background knowledge in. A lot of my classmates were from Central Europe, or at least European, so they had some background knowledge of a lot of the topics we discussed. I was hearing most things for the first time, and I’m from across the Atlantic! So like I said, I learned a lot this semester and did quite well in my classes given where I come from.
I went to a couple really exciting and unique things here in Olomouc, though! Ambassador Norman Eisen, who is the ambassador from the United States to the Czech Republic, was at the university doing a sort of question answer session. It was really interesting! He seems like a really great guy and is very excited about making relations between the US and the Czech Republic even closer. He’s also excited to be the ambassador because for quite a while the US didn’t even have an ambassador to the country. People asked him really interesting questions, and I was surprised how interested they were in the US itself. He had a lot to say about the Obama administration because he was an important member of the transition team. But, when asked about former president George W. Bush and about negative attitudes toward him, he was very polite and only spoke about his good experiences with that administration. I was so excited I got to catch the presentation, and that it was in English! I was also very lucky one night and got to see one of my favorite singers perform! I was kind of bored working on my papers one morning and decided to look and see if any of my favorite European artists were performing anywhere I would be this summer. So I checked Marketa Irglova’s site, and surprise! She was to be in Olomouc that night! I hopped on Facebook and found out some of my friends were going, ran around the city trying to get a ticket, and ended up having a friend of mine give me his. I feel like it was fate seeing her in concert… Before I left for the Czech Republic I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to see Marketa performing in her home country?” And it happened! For those of you who don’t know her, she is in the movie “Once” with Glen Hansard. It’s a wonderful music-movie and definitely one of my favorites. Watch it if you haven’t! And look out for Marketa’s album in August… it’s going to be amazing!

Two weekends ago I was so excited have had the opportunity to go to Budapest, Hungary! One of my best friends lived there for a time, and was stopping there on her way home to Romania and asked a few of us if we would like to join her. I was thrilled because I thought I might have missed my chance to go to Budapest. We left Olomouc early Friday morning and took a train to Brno, and then took a bus to Budapest. We arrived around 2:00 and first learned how the public transportation works. Thank goodness we had a native speaker with us! Hungarian is a very difficult language… even though they say it is the closest language to Finnish, I didn’t understand anything! And, there really aren’t as many people who speak English, at least compared to other capital cities. They are also very serious about controlling the entrances to the metros and have sometimes eight people ready to check your tickets! So there was no chance to try to ride for free.
We first went to our hostel, and were very pleasantly surprised! It was close to one of the main train stations, and our friend’s friend works there. It was so adorable and homey – not like a typical dorm hostel at all! It was great because we were able to relax and cook together. After dropping our stuff off, we had some lunch and headed to the Danube! A little bit about Budapest – The city is actually comprised of two cities: Buda and Pest. Buda is much more green, and all of the buildings and real aspects of the city are in Pest. We first went to Pest so we could look at the Parliament from across the Danube… and it was breathtaking!

Looking anything along the Danube is really an amazing sight… we definitely spent a lot of time just looking at the city. We then walked around the Castle and saw the Mathias church, which also has an amazing view of the city. It was really great just walking around and enjoying the weather the first night.

That night we decided to stay in and cook in the hostel because we were all really exhausted from the trip and just how busy we had been with school lately, so it was really nice to relax.
The next day we had a busy day planned! We really saw a lot. We first headed to the House of Terror museum, which was in the former headquarters of the secret police in Hungary. The Nazi occupation of Hungary was really intense, and the highest numbers of people were deported in the shortest amount of time in Central Europe. Like the other countries in the region, they were very much under the control of Germany and Hitler, but when the Soviets took over there was a bit of celebration. This changed, however, with the coming of Stalin and the “evolving” of communism. Hungary had a really bloody revolution in 1956 when the people revolted against the government. They banded together and demanded for freedoms and a change in prime minister, and were the only country to achieve some sort of freedom on their own. However, the Soviet Union had too strong a desire to hold on to the countries it occupied and after only 5 days of freedom, Soviet tanks rolled into the city. Walking around the city today you can still see bullet holes in the buildings from the fighting that occurred. The museum was fantastic in telling the story of both the Nazi and Soviet occupation of Budapest and Hungary in general. It displayed what daily life for ordinary citizens, the secret police, and political prisoners was like. I was so thrilled with it because I had already learned so much about the revolution in my classes, so it was really exciting to be able to follow along so well with the exhibition. If you’re ever in Budapest, I really recommend that you go to this museum!
Next we walked around and saw the main sites: Heroes Square, the other castle, and Parliament. It’s all so beautiful, and you can kind of feel the remnants of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in some areas, but also still feel communism in others.

I put this picture here of the flag with a hole in it because it symbolizes the revolution because the people cut the communist symbol out of the Hungarian flag in protest. And the Parliament is a very impressive building, and it’s even more popular to see the inside. However, it’s somewhat of a challenge to get tickets and they only sell them the day of, so we opted out of doing that because there were other things we wanted to see before we left for Olomouc.

That night we decided to split up for a bit because Noemi needed to see some family and Elodie and I wanted to see the city by night. We went back to the castle across the Danube in Buda, and oh my goodness was it gorgeous.

We sat and looked at the city Buda for almost an hour, while enjoying the sounds of a fiddler and people dancing right near us.

It was so romantic… and we even got a quick spring rain that just added to the mood. While sitting there I really thought about how lucky I am to be seeing the things I have this semester. I am so thankful to have this opportunity – so here’s a big THANK YOU to everyone who’s helped me get here!!!

Sunday we had a few hours to see some last minute things before catching the bus back to Olomouc. We first headed to the Old Synagogue, which is the largest and oldest one running in the world, except for one in New York City. It was really beautiful, but there was a huge line to get inside and we unfortunately didn’t have time to wait. It was still nice seeing it and walking around the Jewish district a bit. We then headed to Gellert’s hill to see The Citadell and yet another amazing view of the Danube and the city.

It was quite the hike up the hill! We were exhausted, but the view really was worth it. We then met up with Noemi and had our last meal with her. It was sad to leave her in Budapest, but the goodbyes are just beginning. And I really feel like I will be back in Central Europe very soon, so it definitely isn’t goodbye forever!

Well, I think I will leave you with my trip to Budapest for now… this is quite a long post! I will tell about my time in Krakow and the last week with a lot of my friends here in a few days. Hope you enjoyed the pictures!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Diving into Finals and the Final Weeks

I guess I would say I am finally settled back into life in Olomouc after being away for over a week. It was very difficult to get back into study mode after being away from it for so long, but I think I'm finally back! Good thing - I have exams starting this week already. I also have four papers to write and a couple more presentations. My classes haven't had any assignments throughout the semester, except for some presentations. Unfortunately, all the exams and papers have piled up because of that. Of course I could have been working diligently on them throughout the semester... but at least I kept up with the reading! Because of that I'm not overly concerned about my exams and papers. I also have the advantage of being one of the only native English speakers, so writing the papers won't be as difficult for me as it will be for my friends. With finals coming up, I have stayed in my room and the library this weekend. It will be worth it in the end though - when I finish my exams I am off to travel Europe! Not sure of exact plans yet... but I will end in Finland and it will be great!

Friday night I did go out with some friends to see some live music! My friend Kristijan (Croatia) has been telling me he will take me out to see the real Olomouc, besides the clubs where the Erasmus parties are. So, Friday night we went to a real Czech pub and saw an alternative rock band play. They were authentic alternative rock, and had been together since 1968 - and you could tell they had been together that long. I really liked them, especially the trombonist! He was so wild. I didn't know you could play the trombone the way he did... So that was really great to see. I had been dying to see some live music! After that we went to a pub Kristijan had been to once before, he said it had a "soul". It was kind of hidden, and in the basement of a building (like many Czech pubs are). There were only Czech people there and two of my friends played a game of chess while we all had a beer and great conversation. We then tried to go to the bar that is in an old Soviet plane - yes you read that right! This is a real plane, from Soviet times, that has a bar on it. You sit in airplane chairs and it is decorated in an antique style. There's even a small dance floor! It was pretty cool - but there wasn't enough space for us to all sit together, so we decided to head home. Overall the night was great! It was nice to see Olomouc on the weekend and be in places Czechs frequent, rather than just where the Erasmus students go.

Tomorrow is Majales, which is kind of a student festival to celebrate spring and the students. There will be different events and concerts around the university, I guess... and then after parties at a few clubs. I'm not really sure what it will be like, but I hope I'm able to go check it out! I'll need to continue doing a lot of work tomorrow, and I don't know if my class will be held... but I hope to see the festivities! If I do go I will be sure to write about it. Today is May day - Vappu in Finland! I do remember that day fondly... so many people out and dressed up in the streets... So maybe Majales will be memorable like that! We'll have to wait and see :).

With only about three weeks left of school I'm starting to think about my semester as a whole... and I must say that I am incredibly happy and do not regret anything I have done. I have made amazing friends, been on unforgettable trips, and have grown in many ways. When I came here, I had it in mind that I would learn to live with less - and I think I've done that. It was a bit of a challenge to live in these dorms first because I had to learn how to cook in this setting and be without a lot of the amenities I have at home (because my suitcase was only so big). I've also really learned the beauty of food. When someone wants to give someone something, or share a part of their culture, they cook - and invite everyone to enjoy! Last night my friend made flemish stew, my roommate often makes crepes, heck I even made cheeseburgers! I hope I can bring this back with me to the dorms at MSU and make the kitchen on my floor in Williams more of an open and sharing space. It's so much fun to socialize and learn with food! Besides the fact that it tastes soooo good :).

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Vacation in Spectacular Split, Croatia

Happy Easter everyone! Things are pretty quiet in Olomouc today – at least in the dorms. A lot of students went home for Easter, or are still on trips from the reading week. The town is pretty quiet too, but someone pointed out to me that the Czech Republic is quite an atheist country. So, that might be why there isn’t much going on for the holiday. Vienna was really gearing up for it though… and there were so many tourists there! It’s quite nice to be in low-key Olomouc again.

And I guess that’s where I need to tell about my vacation to Croatia! We had a fantastic time and everything went so smoothly. Flying was a fantastic choice – I have never been so relaxed while traveling. The places we stayed were fantastic and every person we dealt with was very friendly. I would recommend that everyone travel to Croatia!

Marliz (my friend from MSU), two of her roommates Matt and Kitsa, and I left on Saturday evening from Vienna, but I had been there the night before with an American friend from Olomouc and was able to see Bernardo for a bit. The flights were really short and we just had a layover in Zagreb, and we were in Split at 10 pm. We got really lucky and had a great taxi driver to our hotel for the first night and he gave us some tips for what to do during the week. Our hotel was very nice and I slept so well… And the weather was warm and flowers were in bloom! Sunday morning we called our taxi driver again to take us to the campsite we were staying in outside of Split in a town called Stobreč. And wow were we surprised when we saw our mobile home… right next to the beach! It was incredible to see the Adriatic Sea from every window and while sitting on our deck. It was the perfect way to spend a vacation.

Stobreč is a nice little town with just enough to keep us occupied at the campsite. There weren’t many people there because it is the low season, so we were happy to basically have the place to ourselves. It was very nice and quiet. The beach was beautiful – the coast of Croatia is really long and the water is incredibly blue and clear! There are also rocks on most of the beaches instead of sand, and that had its pluses and minuses. Stobreč is about a 20-minute bus ride from Split, which we went to 3 days in a row.

The first day we went into Split was so we could take a bus toward Dubrovnik… but I promised our cab driver Tony that I wouldn’t disclose the city we went to because it’s his family’s secret! But it was about an hour’s bus ride along the coast in the mountains, which was absolutely breathtaking. The city and beach we went to were perfect – surrounded by the ocean, quiet, clean, and the water was even bluer than in Split. We had a great day on the beach and had fantastic fish for dinner when we got back to Split. We turned in pretty early because we planned to take the ferry to the island of Brač the next day!

We spent the day in Supetar, Brač and had a wonderful relaxing day on the beaches – and the water was even bluer and clearer! I didn’t think it was possible, but Croatia proved me wrong. The ferry ride was about an hour long, but it was very comfortable sitting in the sun. The beaches were beautiful with great rocks in the water to climb around on.

There were quite a bit of young people on the island that day because of their Easter holiday, so that was interesting to see. We even had a nice chat with a violinist from Geneva! It’s great talking with people while traveling – so many interesting people to meet. We wanted to see the rock that was used to build part of the White House, but it was in a place on the island that required a bus ride. Our day was well spent on the beach though, and we headed back to Split
around six and explored the city of Split for a while before heading back to the camp.

Kitsa left us the next day to see her family in Greece, but we had a nice day walking around Split during the day.

We found a great place to see the whole city and took lots of pictures. Split is a really old city, and the core of it is actually built into the ruins of Diocletian’s Palace. A lot of it reminded me of Venice with the white marble and old archways. It was absolutely beautiful with something interesting to see around every corner. There were lots of shops and cafes – both inside the city and in the harbor. Split combines two of my favorite things – being on the coast and an old city! Naturally I fell in love with it.

We spent our last day in Stobreč on the beach relaxing and enjoying the sun. My skin of course was not happy with all the sun, but I managed to get a little color and still enjoyed being outside in the shade. We had to be at the airport Friday morning at 5, so we went to be early again on Thursday night. It was worth it to leave that early though, because we landed in Vienna at 9:00! Again, the most relaxed traveling of my life! The whole trip was really fantastic and I’m so glad I got to share it with a good friend from home. I was really happy to go on a vacation to some place warm – although, it wasn’t perfect beach weather yet. It was around 70 degrees all week, but the sun was so nice! I’m happy I got to see another ocean and to be in the Balkans again. I feel really unique in that I was able to take a vacation in Croatia… and like I said – I really recommend going! It is easy to get around and the prices are very reasonable. Even in the low season it is beautiful. I’ll remember this vacation forever.

And now I am back in Olomouc with Bernardo! I’m really excited that I get to show someone around my home for the semester, and to see him! It’s a really fantastic thing that we can see each other again after all these years. He’s really liking the life in the dorms with the other exchange students, and I am definitely happy to be back with them after being gone for a week. For the next couple of days I will try to relax and spend time with Bernardo, but after he leaves I really have to hit the books! There are only about 3 weeks left in the semester and I have multiple papers to write and tests to study for. I think it will all turn out ok, but just like every spring semester it is hard to concentrate with such beautiful weather! So, I don’t think I will be traveling much in the next couple of weeks... but I will be planning my summer travels! I’m definitely getting excited for that ☺.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Our Own Pilgrimage to Holy Hill

Spring has arrived! And boy am I happy ☺. However, it is now even harder to focus on school when all I want to do is walk around outside! I am trying my hardest to be very productive this week because I will be away from Olomouc for 8 days… I’m off to Vienna and then Croatia this weekend! I can’t believe it’s already time for our trip. I am so excited to go on a vacation and be away from school and work for a whole week. It has been since high school since I’ve been able to do that!

This past weekend, however, was well spent in Olomouc. I did quite a bit of schoolwork – mostly researching and settling on topics for a few of my papers. Friday night a few of my girlfriends and I had a “pajamas” party! We made a lot of crepes, ate too many sweets, and watched “Love Actually”. It was a great night in with my best friends here! We also planned our walk to the Basilica Svatý Kopeček that turned out to be one of my favorite places I’ve been to in the Czech Republic.

Svatý Kopeček, also known at Holy Hill, is a famous landmark in Olomouc because it was visited by Pope John Paul II in 1995 and has been a destination for pilgrimages. The Olomouc zoo is also really near the Basilica, and there is a fantastic view of the city from the top. It is a beautiful site to see from far away and up close. We decided to walk to it because the weather was really quite nice, except for the wind! But we were strong and just focused on how great the sunshine was. The Basilica is about 8 kilometers from the main train station in Olomouc, so we decided to take the bus to the next little city and then walk the rest of the way, which ended up being around 4 kilometers.

That walk took us about an hour, and seeing the Basilica up close was a great reward after the steep hill we climbed! When we got to the top, we took a group picture – I should have mentioned! My roommate, two friends of ours, and I organized the group and we had 22 people come all together! We were a bit nervous about having to be “in charge” of that many people, but we got there just fine!

We all brought something to eat for a picnic, so we sat and ate and talked for around an hour. Again, it was so nice to be out in the sun! The wind made it quite chilly though, so I was pretty cold while we were there. After eating we walked into the Basilica… and it was absolutely breathtaking. The inside of the church is so detailed it was incredible.

I could have stood look up to the ceiling for an hour and still missed some things. The colors were so wonderful for me – light blues and purples. And the thought of how important this building has been since the 1600s added to the feeling of being in an amazing place. I really think it is my favorite place I’ve been in the Czech Republic so far, and I am so happy I was able to see it was good friends.

Like I said, I’ve been trying to be productive this week since I will be away for all of next week. Most of my classes have what they call a “reading week” without any classes so students can study for exams. It is also the week before Easter, so it seems like a natural time to have a break from school. Even though it is for studying, I think most students treat the reading week as a vacation – and all of my professors recommended that we travel! I am also really looking forward to this next week because I will see my friend Bernardo! He is from Brazil, and we were exchange students together in Finland four years ago. I saw him when my high school choir traveled to Brazil three years ago, but we didn’t have the chance to spend much time together, so I am very excited to see him here. He will be at an international law simulation in Vienna… it is kind of like Model UN but for international law I think. We always thought it was more likely that we would see each other in Europe than any other place, and it actually happened!

I guess I am signing off now until I return from Croatia Easter weekend… I can’t wait to tell you all about my vacation!
ALSO! I was just notified that I was accepted to be a Peer Assistant for the Office of Study Abroad! I GOT THE JOB! I'm so excited to work for them :-D