Friday, January 15, 2016

January Sojourn

Hi all,

School begins on Monday again, so I figured I'd better pop this post out soon. It turned out to be quite long...feel free to skim...a link for pictures is below.
My holidays were quite lovely, my Counterpart, Lila came over and Hugo came into town to eat Christmas pizza on the 25th. We had a lovely evening together.

I spent a low-key time in Ternopil for New Years, and enjoyed many simple pleasures - including some actual snow!

After Ternopil, I was in Lviv for a few days - unfortunately it was bitterly cold and everyone who met up ended up with a terrible cold. However, it was full of hours of happy companionship, delicious food, and being terribly spoiled by Darla's (an amazing volunteer who lives in Ternopil and is pretty much who I want to emulate whenever I grow up) husband, who also brought me my favorite rum from the US. It was good people, good conversation and good times.

Highlights were the vegan restaurant (so much hipster), games at the apt we stayed at, and an amazing eggs benedict breakfast at Veronica.

After a few false starts and confusion, I got myself a cab and was on the way to Lviv airport. This felt a little peculiar, as the last time I'd been there it was for evacuation. I had a slight moment of unease as I passed through passport control. I needed to show my national registration, and it was only after the agent whipped the booklet open that I realized I'd stashed my emergency cash inside! Luckily, it looked like the least intentional bribe ever, so she just rolled her eyes and shoved the money back at me. My flight was at 2:30am, and instead of other volunteers I found myself surrounded by many Turkish nationals. I don't remember even taking off.

Culture shock can be a fickle thing. So can a bit of sleep-deprived exhaustion. Suffice it to say, it as literally a rude awakening to disembark in Istanbul to an outdoor area, and endure a quick hike to the shuttle bus. The rain was unpleasant but it really the several inches of snow (or feet, in the dumping areas) that took me most aback. Then, as I searched for my transfer counter, I was informed that they were enjoying their 4:30am breakfast. Eventually, all three of them ambled up.

After I made it into the terminal proper, Starbucks and Victoria's Secret (relax, just the perfume line - don't get too crazy), helped to increase my imbalance. Not that I went to either of them, but still. I did find a quiet boarding area with a stretch of free seats, curled up and passed out for a few hours. I enjoyed eating some borek and made it to my flight with no problems. I really lucked out on my flights and was in exit rows both times - the second flight I had no seat in front of me.

This turned out to be fortuitous, as I believe I spiked a moderately high fever during this time, and pretty much just floated in and out of a feverish slumber. I also had a bit of a cough, and this caused my neighbor to regard me with utter disinterest, so I was happily left alone. By the time we landed, I seemed to be through the worst of it. I was happy to discover the airport wi-fi (Istanbul was sadly lacking in this department!), which helped to pass the hour long visa control wait. The agent was a bit thrown to discover I was not going back to America at the end of the trip, but as my cleats were not in evidence this time, it wasn't really remarked upon.

The important thing about going on vacation is to stop thinking in term of the Ukrainian hryvnia and my moderate stipend, and make the switch to vacation and my US account I used to fund my trip. For example, a bus ride costs 4 UAH (approximate 16 cents), and the train shuttle to Amsterdam from the airport cost almost 6 euros (about 180 UAH...more than what I spend in a month for transportation in my city). A train to Kyiv (15 hours) costs less than that! So clearly, a thought process that must not be followed!

Here is a link to my photo album that you can access by clicking: CLICK ME!

In Amsterdam I was serendipitous enough to have excellent taste in finding a snack before heading out on a short jaunt to my hostel. I bought "stroopwaffeln", delicious, large, round, crispy waffers filled with a sweet filling - usually caramel, but in this case honey with citrus spice. And thus a love story was born. Apparently you can purchase some types state-side, and I heartily recommend them!

Anyhow, it started a theme of tasty food experiences on my travels. While waiting for Bean (from the community days!), I drowsed on the chair in our hostel room - waiting for the bedding to be changed. This finally happened as we headed out for dinner, but I'd perked up quite a bit from travels. After a flurry of greetings and quick catch ups of her traveling (she'd been in Italy, Sweden and England previous to our meeting up), we were just going to lock up our stuff for dinner when the other 6 members of our hostel room filed in. 4 were currently living in Germany: 1 from Dubai (plus his brother who was visiting from Dubai, 2 from Armenia and 1 I missed, and finally a Canadian from Syria. I believe these gentlemen enjoyed Amsterdam to the fullest, but were very polite - offering M&Ms, coming in quietly later, and none of them even snored! Demonstrating the best part of the hostel experience.

Anyhow, back to food. We wandered the drizzly streets and ended up at a quiet sushi restaurant. The food was good, but greatly overshadowed by the conversation. It'd been a bit over a year since we'd last seen eachother, and our online contact is sporadic. We chatted about our ideas for the trip an found ourselves to be on the same page - lots of wandering, low expectations, and keeping it low stress. A perfect traveling companion! We finished the evening with some tasty gelato, and a long ramble through the red light district. Not terribly scandalous, and indeed difficult to distinguish from other areas at times.

Efteling, Tilburg & Cologne
The next morning we were up at a reasonable hour, ate the free hostel breakfast and were off to the trainstation for our 9:30 train. After a quick ride and a bus ride (complete with mind-blowing Wi-fi and seats for everyone!), we found ourselves at the gate of Efteling - a smallish amusement park with a fairy-tale theme.

While ideal for taking children under the age of 12 to, it was naturally up both of our alleys. Much of my formative reading years was spend immersed in fairy tales, and so it really was quite enchanting. Though clearly not up to today's modern technological standards, it was more than made up for by the relatively small crowds. We went on 4 roller coaster rides in 20 minutes. One about mining and ghosts, a "dueling dragons" (two side-by side rollercoasters on separate tracks that race...we lost both times...) an intriguing "bobsledding" coaster, where you spent part of the time off tracks in a luge, and one based on Rocs with some funky laser effects.

We also discovered a fresh stroopwaffeln stall, and enjoyed them immensely  - they were full of caramelly-goodness and almost as big as my face! The part was personable, as there were all unique booths - not the repetition of the same knicknacks or snacks every 20 feet, and the regions all distinct in their flavor.

We saw a hall of dioramas, with a complete miniature country side sharing a hall with a gorgeous carousel. Here and there, rides for younger children with automatons were also present. Maintenance crews were busily keeping everything pristine, and Bean's winged knitted cap drew great interest and approval where ever we went - the carousel worker even carried it off to show his co-workers at one point.

After hours of walking around, we decided to take a peek into the fairy-tale statue/automaton garden, just to glance around. This resulted in being lost for a good half an hour, attempting to stumble back to the exit. (Because we'd eschewed taking a map or downloading the park app in a fit of adventurous spirit.) We found a creepy talking tree, and enjoyed seeing the different stories.

We finally exited the park, hopping a bus to our transit town of Tilburg. We had an hour to find food, but after being denied access to a cafe (apparently it was that kind of grass cafe, and we had to be nationals to enter), we ended up at a pub that cooked our delicious dinner so slowly that we were forced to abandon it to make our train. Prompting a slightly snide comment from the slightly strange barman, so we had to promise it wouldn't happen the next time....

We made our train to Cologne, arriving in the evening and trekking to our hostel with no problem. We took a night stroll, unaware of the drama that had unfolded several days before. The streets were quiet, with no roving bands of harassing men in evidence. We turned in at a reasonable hour, as we were taking an 8ish train to Stuttgart the next day.

We arrived to our Stuttgart hostel with ease, after some initial local transportation confusion while buying tickets. There, we met Sara and her partner Andy already waiting for us. After we checked in, we set off to explore Stuttgart.

I hadn't seen Sara since I left Regensburg about 8 years ago -making me the age she was when we first met. She had returned to Regensburg and lived there for 4 years, and then made the move to Stuttgart where she'd been living for the past four. Luckily, it was a holiday, so she had the day off to meet us. However, this meant that many things in the city were closed. They brought us to one of their favorite restaurants that served local Schwaebisch food, and the meal went by quickly.

We'd made no concrete plans, and they were lovely enough to just fold us into a plan to spend the day together. Due to our lack of interest in cars, we opted out of going to the Porshe museum. The Rittersport chocolate factory and museum was of intense interest, but the transportation would have made it time consuming. So we ended up going back to Andy's apartment.

We had a lovely afternoon: they had a huge stash of holiday chocolate - so there was an impromptu chocolate sampling of over 10 chocolates, I learned the game Carcassonne (German, despite the French name) and we played two variants. It was similar to Settlers of Catan, and was great fun. We also discovered our shared love of Doctor Who, and so geeked out a bit over that. We ordered in dinner from a Doener place around the corner, and had dinner while watching Doctor Who.

It was a lovely day of catching up, renewing a friendship, and sharing memories. I believe Bean enjoyed herself as well, and as we were both suffering from colds, it was a relaxing way to spend a recuperative day.

We returned to our hostel to find it taken over by the belongings of our third roommate. We called it an early night, and were up early for the next day's adventure!

Dachau/Munich & Regensburg
In stark contrast to the theme park, Dachau was much more forbidding the gray light of day. I've lost track of the times I've been to Dachau - although I believe it's around 4. It would be a stretch to call it something I enjoyed. It's more of a pilgrimage, and a pledge that I won't forget. I spent longer this time in the museum than ever before. Dachau was one of the earliest camps, meant for "political" prisoners initially. The PR surrounding the camp was astounding. However, as the war went on, the quality of life plummeted into being a complete nightmare. Dachau became the dumping ground of those not fit to be sent out to the surrounding "work" (Read: death) camps that it served as a hub for. And swelled to an enormous number of prisoners by war's end.

Stories of resistance still somehow managed to happen - in one instance, a group of women (a rarity, as it contained only men for the majority of the existence of the camp) who worked in a camera factory, came to their breaking point over salt. Starvation was not a new phenomenon late in the war. Resources were limited, and at one point the salt supply ran out - the sole seasoning of what cannot even properly be called "soup", the basis of their diet. This was the last straw, and the women went on strike - knowing full well the possible implications of this action. This spark of humanity resonated strongly with me. In a strike of luck, the ringleaders, condemned to death,were somehow never executed.

Yet many were not so lucky. Walking the grounds with their few barracks and memorials is an incredibly grounding experience. The Jewish memorial is especially powerful, and contains an atmosphere of palpable sadness. In the back wall, a carmelite convent is in operation - started by a priest who survived internment. An echo of the faith that was somehow kept by Christians, Jews and others that somehow survived.

Munich was rainy and served as a stopping point for dinner on our way to Regensburg. I sent a brief text to my friend Uli, and was relieved to see him at the platform.

So awesome it gets its own second heading.

Regensburg felt like coming home. As Uli showed us the way to his apartment (spiffily located near center), it was awesome to realize how much of the city I recognized. Uli took us out to his favorite pub as soon as we'd dropped our things, and it was pretty awesome. It'd been opened in the past few years, and was new to me. It had awesome beverages including an amazingly strongly spiced wine, mead, and of course German beers. It also had Pflammkuchen - basically a very thin crust pizza covered in taste combinations that made my inner foodie very satisfied. After 5 minutes with Uli, I turned to Bean and said: "Don't I know the best people?", and she had to agree. (After all, she is one of them...)

We had a fantastic time (though I discovered the solidity of the wooden tables in a painful manner, thus resulting in a beautiful, free bruise souvenir), and had a good night's sleep.

The next morning, Uli had to go teach 5 classes, so we enjoyed sleeping in. I then gave Bean a brief tour of the city  - as it is rather small. Unfortunately, the bridge is under construction, but I think I got the mythology of the deal with the devil down. We ended up at this little gourmet foodie cafe with delicious panninis - after we made the mistake of doing gift shopping for German chocolate and other goodies.

We met up with Uli around 12:30, and decided to accompany him to Nuremberg. Poor man needs to transfer for his final stint of student teaching and must relocate for the next 5 months. The Christmas markets were still in evidence in Nuremberg (as well they should be, as they lay claim to the largest Christmas market in Europe/the world (?)), and we parted ways to go trek up to the castle. That accomplished, we meandered around until we met up with Uli again. His apartment hunt had been successful, and we ended up in a cafe. After the train back to Regensburg, we hit up a favorite pizza place - still going strong. We then did a little bar-hopping, savoring some wonderful German brew.

All good things must come to an end, and we soon found ourselves packed up for our early morning departure to our next step, and last day traveling together.

Bean and I had both been to Prague before. I have to say it's nicer in the spring, but the snow was a nice touch. Figuring out the metro took a minute, and involved an interesting experience. Directly ahead of us on our way down to the platform was a young woman (early 20s?) with lilac hair, being pestered by her boyfriend. With a slight edge of exasperation, she informed him that no, she did not have any cigarettes. She batted at him ineffectively as he took glee in pestering her by touching her face a lot.

However, it was soon evident that he was NOT her boyfriend. He took off after another woman. Now, I have no idea what he said to her, but I'm pretty sure he came to regret it. This woman LIT into him. For the next three minutes, she railed non-stop at him - and it was pretty easy to interpret that she was giving this creep that what-for. I really had to stop myself from applauding - this lady was NOT going to put up with his shit.

The actual trip into the city was uneventful. We ate at a cafe, meandered through town to take in the astronomical clock tower and enjoyed many groups of talented street musicians. (Oddly popular were jazz and American folk traditional songs.) We went over the bridge, and then up to the castle. Bean's train was quite a bit earlier than mine, so we called it a day. I spent the next 5 hours in a cafe, and then outside it in the train station. It was nice to have Wi-fi, but the plug ins were all shut off, which was annoying. My midnight train to Slovakia (trying making that into a song) finally arrived, and I managed to nap intermittently for the next 5 hours.

Bratislava and Kosice
Bratislava was a bit of a let down - although my tiredness clearly played into it, and the bleak weather as well. Arriving at the train station at 6am meant spending the next hour and a half or so waiting at the station for the sun to rise and things to open - as it was also Sunday. Unfortunately, the train station was not very comfortable - as it is a mecca for un-housed and many inebriated men. A slight altercation between a few men cemented my idea to change my travel plans - as I was not sure I didn't want to spend the evening hours waiting for another midnight train.

So I went out and explored the town for a few hours (including another castle, of course), but it was mostly quiet and closed down for Sunday. I'm sure it's much prettier in spring. It was interesting that Slovakia is on the euro, although prices are much different than in Germany or the Netherlands. It seems like a hard way to use the currency.

Anyhow, I took a noon train across the country to Kosice - the sun was out and I enjoyed a first class compartment to myself. I arrived shortly after dark and made the trek to my hostel in the middle of nowhere. I had a room to myself by chance, and called it a night early on. The next morning I explored the old city, including a beautiful church. (The castle is quite a trek out of town, and I simply didn't have it in me at that point to make the trip.) I also discovered a lovely chocolate cafe, and managed to get a beautiful fruit-covered waffle.

After several hours, I made it onto my bus back to Mukachevo. It was a bit strange, as it was a fancy coach bus (complete, again, with Wi-fi), and we made great time across the border - without stopping to pick up random people. I was very happy to arrive back home safely, and have spent the past few days recovering and doing a mountain of laundry.

This concludes my epic tale...

Hope all is well,


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