So much to say, so little time to get around to saying it. I’ve been keeping busy for the past two weeks, doing homework and running off to places outside of my normal routine in the 13th and 7th arrondissements of Paris. Here are my past few weeks of craziness:
Saint-Denis. This is the place I was looking forward to during my last entry, a northern banlieue of Paris that our entire program visited to meet some students and get a bigger perspective of the area. We were all feeling a little weird about what it would mean to “meet some students,” mainly because we were afraid the trip would seem like a bunch of American students coming out to analyze/study the banlieue, not to meet real kids our age and talk about normal things. It didn’t turn out like that at all, though, and the students there got into groups and showed us around Saint-Denis for a couple of hours, basically just chatting about our homes and school and whatever else we felt like. I can’t say that I had any deep insights there, other than the fact that it was all very normal, and the kids were really positive about their experiences.
Nantes. Then I left Paris for three days to visit Laura, a good friend from Carleton who’s studying in Nantes. People always say Paris isn’t France, and that was really evident when I got to see how different her study abroad experience is from mine. Nantes is more of a place you would raise a family, if you want to use the cliché, and I guess that’s evidenced by the fact that we babysat a two-year-old Saturday morning whose parents moved to Nantes from Paris for a slower lifestyle. He was completely adorable, of course.
Other highlights of the trip: a ridiculous French hip-hop dance class, a fantastic meal with Laura’s host family, an international festival, and a beautiful trip to the beach. Hard to believe, but it was my first time seeing the ocean outside of the English Channel.
Paris excursions. I stuck around town for a while the next week, but my days were still full of things I’m not used to doing. Monday night that meant going to a piano concert with our program, which I can fully appreciate, but I’m not one for watching one person play the piano for two hours. I had tons of homework to do, too, so I snuck in a little reading during the concert…
On Wednesday I also had to do some prep work for an art history presentation by going to an exposition at the Modern Art Museum, but it turned out it was a lot less like homework and more like fun. The exhibit was of a trio of Canadian artists called General Idea, and it’s extremely hard to describe everything they do (which likely doesn’t bode well from my presentation), but a big part of it was critiquing mass consumption and working to fight AIDS. It definitely made me want to go to more expositions, because they’re everywhere in Paris. All of my big assignments were due on Wednesday, so Wednesday night a few girls and I went to see an American band called The Head and the Heart at a little venue in the east part of Paris. I can’t even express how great the band was, plus we were standing in the second row, plus we weren’t doing homework. Gotta thank a friend at home for the recommendation!
And then, because it wouldn’t be right to just go see Canadians and Americans all the time, on Thursday our program went to a ballet of Romeo and Juliet at the Opera Bastille. Again, hard to believe, but it was my first ballet, too. And again, I really want to see more. The costumes and music were incredible, and of course so was the dancing, and I’d be excited to see a more modern piece in the future. Plus I have a stipend for “cultural experiences” that I have to spend, so might as well.
Berlin. And now we arrive at my favorite outing yet. I’m so excited to tell you all about it, and then start learning German, and then move to Berlin so you can come visit me and experience it for yourself.
That might be going a bit far, but Berlin – the first of two cities I visited with two of my classmates during our nine-day midterm break – is one of the most interesting cities I’ve seen. Its history is both terrible and fascinating, with the Nazi headquarters located there during WWII and the Berlin Wall separating the city for over 30 years. Today, though, the city is proud of its tolerance (it’s the third gayest city in the world) and has tons of young people and artists who make it really vibrant and exciting, and also a little edgy. Its architecture is really different than most European cities because most of the buildings were destroyed during the war, making it more spread-out and modern. Our time in Berlin was full of random discoveries from friends, guidebooks, and our own intuition that made us feel less like tourists and more like people just enjoying a really cool city.
Some of my favorites:
Our first day we walked out of the U-bahn (the subway) on the way to the Berlin Wall memorial and right away saw an Ultimate Frisbee tournament, a welcome site for my friend and I who play Ultimate at Carleton. Plus it was right next to one of the coolest rope courses any of us had ever seen, surrounded by a wall with some of Berlin’s signature graffiti. We knew things were starting off right.
Then that night we went to an amazing Indian restaurant with delicious drinks that our friend who studied in Berlin recommended. I know that doesn’t seem very German, but from what we were later told by a guide, Berlin is not really German, either, and if you’re looking for traditional German cuisine, you’ll have trouble finding it there. Later we randomly discovered a pay-what-you-want wine bar on the Internet and, being true Parisians now, had to check it out. It really couldn’t have been better: a pretty small place with comfy couches, nice lighting, and about 15 different types of wine, and all you had to do was pay 2 Euros for a glass and then decide how much you needed to pay when you left. The bar was full of 20-somethings just lounging around, a normal hangout spot that wasn’t touristy at all.
The next day we took a tip from the same friend to go to a flea market and saw even more of the coolness that is Berlin. Almost all of the stands were run by 20- or 30-somethings selling everything from used clothes to antiques to graphic art and photographs, plus we got some more amazing food (waffles and milchkaffee!) and enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere.
Then that afternoon we found two great museums, the Hamburger Bahnhof contemporary art museum via the Internet and the Natural History Museum via our trust in small children to congregate in fun places. At Hamburger Bahnhof, we also quite randomly decided to take a free English tour, an excellent decision since the guide was pretty magical (Diana’s description) and taught us way more than we could’ve learned on own, plus we all found subjects for our art history papers thanks to him. Then we saw tons of children playing outside another museum, so we wandered inside, saw the dinosaur skeletons beyond the ticket booth, and figured we had to go in. Upon entering, we discovered that the Berlin Natural History Museum is home to the tallest dinosaur skeleton in the world and to Lucy, who is 40 percent of a 3.2-million year old skeleton. (Though it might have been a copy of the original. I never can tell with German captions.) Either way, what a win.
And the last wonderful discovery was a bike tour we took through the city. I seriously recommend doing this, because in less than six hours, we were able to get in some mild exercise, see and learn about nearly all of the city’s touristy things, and eat an amazing lunch at a beer garden. Another huge win. And then we went to the East Side Gallery, a 1.3 km-long portion of the Berlin Wall that was painted by artists from all over the world after the wall came down in 1989. Yet again, so, so cool. We left Berlin so excited that we’d visited but wishing we’d had more time to see more of its awesome museums, especially the ones at the Topography of Terror and Checkpoint Charlie, so I’m probs going back…
Prague. Forgive me if I’m a little less enthusiastic about Prague than Berlin. Call it a travel hangover (not alcohol-induced, I assure you). The city itself is beautiful, with traditional European buildings in warm colors that are completely charming as they sit along the Vltava River. If we had been there for two or three days, the trip would have been perfect, but five was stretching it a bit.
My favorite parts of Prague:
Our first day we went to a great Thai restaurant called the Lemon Leaf (I promise we did have some traditional food in both Germany and Prague, too) that was so good that we went again our last night. Thanks to our friends and the Internet, again, for the recommendation. Other food included this dubious little battered cheese sandwich called the smažený sýr that I happen to love, but certain other people are not too fond of. I actually found myself eating a lot of battered cheese over the trip, including two separate meals in Berlin. Odd. There was also really great mulled wine and this cinnamon twist dough thing called a trdelník that you must try if you’re ever there.
I also absolutely loved the world-famous Easter markets, where you can buy all sorts of hand-painted eggs and tons of other Czech souvenirs. I bought an egg the first day, it broke, and then I lost $50, so that might also have something to do with any bitterness I have toward the city. That, and the fact that there are tons of tourists.
But we kind of got away from them for a while when we took two (yes, two) paddleboat rides on the river. The weather was 70 degrees and sunny the entire time we were there, which made not having anything to do for two days quite a bit more bearable. It also helped since we walked everywhere the entire time we were there. Had to make up for all that battered cheese and sausage, you know.
And since we had a lot of spare time, we also checked out the nightlife, which was really relaxed and fun, though we purposely avoided something called the Pub Crawl, which apparently involves a bunch of British college boys drinking themselves to death in five different bars. Happy we did without that.
Other than that, we went to a farmers market and the Prague Castle, which isn’t really a castle, but a bunch of different buildings all encircled by other connected buildings. And we caught up on homework, making it possible for me to write this excruciatingly long blog post. Congrats if you got to the end!!
And a preview of what’s to come in the future: yesterday I went to two used bookstores, the first ones on my growing list of bookstores that I’m going to visit and then give a report on for my culture/language class. Expect lots of photos.