South Korea: The Good, the bad and the ugly

Six months. How am I already at the halfway point? There are far too many experiences to recount, so in an effort to reflect upon and consolidate the past few months, I present Korea: The good, the bad and the ugly.

But let’s mix things up and get the bad out of the way first.

The Bad:

Rude after teaching in the land of smiles (Thailand), the levels of rude in Korea shocked my system. True, I’d gotten used to the n’importe quoi rudeness of France, but it was a laissez faire rude of simply not caring. Korean rude, especially Pohang rude, is in your face and impossible to ignore. Some days it is literally in your face as people stare inches from your cheek with a fiery, unmovable gaze. Other days people yell what one can only assume are Korean expletives and spit in your path. The most common rude though is the push. Oh the push. It doesn’t matter where you are or how much room there is, at some point in your day, you will get bumped or pushed past with such force that it makes you question your own existence. Am I really even here? To be fair it’s mostly the ajummas and ajusshis (old people) who barrel through you. And they’ve seen and been through some shit in their lives here in Korea, so I can’t really blame them. Most days.

Staring-  Over the past 5 years, I’ve been an étranger, a farang and now a wagook. You’d think by now I’d get used to the staring that comes with being a foreigner living abroad; it’s part of the territory. But Korea’s staring game is strong. In other countries people usually look away after a while, especially if you make eye contact. Not in Korea. Quite the contrary, people stare for long, intense sessions, as if bigfoot has just stepped onto the bus. And making eye contact only intensifies the stare, transforming it into a glare that grows with increasingly obvious dislike for your face. Word of advice, don’t even try a staring contest. You will always lose.

Crowds-  With over 50 million people living in only 30% of the country (as 70% of it is covered in mountains), it’s no wonder people can be a bit rude. Korea is densely populated and if you live in a city, or even a semblance of one, you’re bound to be packed onto a bus, subway or even sidewalk at some point. If you’re agoraphobic, stick to the countryside.

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To be fair this was Halloween.

Corporal punishment- The first time I heard the tapping sound I thought something had fallen on a desk. The next time I thought surely my eyes were deceiving my ears as the angry flood of fast Korean was interrupted by the whisking sound of wood on skull. Naively, I initially thought that those wooden sticks were used to gesture and aid in my colleague’s’ classroom instruction. Having my desk nestled next to the disciplinarian’s cubicle taught me otherwise. As the months went on I witnessed students being smacked upside the head, slapped in the face, hit with sticks, and forced to sit on their knees with their hands above their heads in the cold hallways. It was shocking. Even worse, it was the norm. Supposedly this is more common in middle schools and private schools, as I have yet to witness this at my elementary school. And while this form of discipline continues to shock me, I must admit that there were almost times when I felt my unruly elementary hellions could’ve benefited from some swift, hard justice. Almost.

But let’s move to The Good:

Healthcare- As an American, it is easy to impress me with healthcare. Americans are so royally screwed when it comes to dealing with, waiting on, and paying for their health. Ask my sister who recently had surgery, to fix a toe tendon severed by a freak knife falling accident, and paid over $5,000- with insurance! Who can afford that?! Cut to Korea where I had my first gynecology, dentist, and eye doctor’s appointments in years and paid under $150 for all three- and that’s including my first cavity filling! Not only are appointments and medicine ridiculously cheap here, but they are fast, efficient and walk-in friendly. I almost never need to make an appointment and I’m usually in and out in under 20 minutes- including my first cavity filling! Sometimes this speed comes with the downside of wondering how in depth your medical provider actually is, but I’ll take $20 over $5,000 any day! 

Transportation- Even in the “boonies” (as I so affectionately refer to my area), there is still usually one local bus that can connect to the terminal within a decent amount of time. Intercity buses are wonderfully cheap and (depending on the destination) run so frequently that you can show up on a whim and hop on the next available bus. I can do roundtrip to Daegu (about an hour away) for under $13. The KTX train is a more expensive, but smooth, clean and fast alternative for further destinations, like Seoul. And then there are the Taxis. Taxis are a double edged sword as they are so, very, cheap. And plentiful. Which means that I’m constantly tempted to take them and that can quickly add up. In my experience taxi drivers range from hating foreigners, to pulling out every semblance of  conversational English they know. Most remain silent and jam their old school tunes, appreciative if you know some basic Korean such as:

hello 안녕하세요 (annyeonghaseyo)

goodbye 안녕히 계세요 (an-nyeong-hi gye-se-yo)

thank you 고맙습니다 (gomabseubnida)

straight 직진 (jigjin)

and here 여기에 (yeogie)

Quirky Korean weirdness Cat cafe? That’s old news. How about a rabbit, raccoon, or goat cafe? Or better yet a poop or princess cafe? Yep. Korea can offer you all of the above. How about a penis park or a love land dedicated to gargantuan sex statues? If you need to escape try one of the many themed escape rooms or belt your heart out under disco lights at one of the always available norebangs (don’t call it karaoke here). Or try a mall with a fantastical playland on the rooftop, a ball pit adorned with giant silverware, and a toy store dedicated entirely to phone service characters. In almost every downtown, you can hop into an arcade, blow of steam in a batting cage, go on a 4D ride, or try your plushie winning luck with the claw. Want zombie or cat eyes? Or want to keep it simple and make them a more natural shade of purple or grey? Step into any lens shop that will fit you within minutes. Even if you want just regular prescription lenses, they’ll throw in a fun pair of socks- just because. Or try a toy store that blasts hip hop and vaguely resembles a taxidermy shop with it’s giant furry friends on display. The list goes on. There is no shortage of colorful, comical, and whimsically weird when it comes to Korea. Quite frankly, I love it.

Community- As a foreigner, I have only touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Korean community. But in my mere six months, I have been amazed by all that comes with a society operating with the community in mind. That is why Korean crime rate is so low, and I can experience the freedom that comes with feeling safe in the streets at night, or the security of leaving my bag while I grab my order. That is why education is so strongly emphasized, resulting in a 98% national literacy rate. When the country faced a major financial crisis in 1998, Koreans, young and old, formed lines spilling outside of banks to give up their personal gold trinkets, statues, jewelry, and bars to get the country out of deficit. And it worked. That is why Korea became the first country to go from an aid receiving country to an aid donor- the power of community. I have personally experienced the office snacks celebrating a colleague’s new daughter in law, welcome dinners, work retreats, and random trinkets on my desk. My favorite experience has been the communal dining as people dig into the array of 반찬 (banchan, or side dishes), passing around bowls or bottles of alcohol, and digging into big pots with chopsticks. It’s hard not to smile as people sit crossed legged, elbow to elbow, slurping, sharing, passing plates, and laughing with alcohol infused red cheeks.

And finally, The Ugly:

I’ll be blunt, it’s you. It’s always you. If you’re a foreigner, you can expect insults about appearance quite frequently. Sometimes it comes from a more subtle place of, “Oh you look tired”, amps up to a,“Are you sure you’re not sick??”, and gets really obvious with hand-to-chest-clutching, bug- eyed gasps of “Oh my gosh! You look horrible!” To be fair I was really sick that day. My friends have gotten their own charmers such as, “Have you been eating well?”, “You have hollow eyes.” And my personal favorite, “You can take a sick day” (because she wasn’t wearing mascara).  

Let’s face it, if you’re a foreigner, you ugly.

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I need a face filter at all times.

So there you have it, The good, the bad and the ugly. I obviously need to write much more frequently as I haven’t even touched upon a day in the life of teaching, being a woman in a hierarchical society, the culture of alcohol, the pros and cons of EPIK, or my induction into K-pop, but those are future posts to come.

5 Lessons Learned from Perseverance at the Prefecture

I’ve been MIA, I know. But before I delve into the roller coaster of emotions/events of the past few months (BIG changes on the horizon), I figured I start with something concrete- life lessons I’ve learned from the prefecture.

‘What the heck is a prefecture?!’, some of you might ask. To which I would respond that it is the hellmouth, the keeper of your future, a cirque du soleilesque mental challenge of your emotional strength, or as some people like to call it ‘the administrative building for visas and other important documents’. And for those of you who know what it is, I’m sorry. Let’s take a minute to hold hands, sigh, and let go of what we cannot control. Life lesson number one.

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For those who need a visual

Which brings me to: 

Five lessons learned from prefecture pain and perseverance:

#1- Learn when to let go of things you cannot control. I’ve learned this the hard way, but when dealing with administration, it’s important to check your desire for controlfreakyness at the door. Once you step through those big wooden frames, you are a mere puppet at the mercy of French hands. Building a bubbling rage over a desire for the line to be shorter, the weather to be less miserable, the French people to be less rude, or the process to be less inefficient, won’t change a thing. It only makes the time painfully slow and your mood increasingly less pleasant. Feel that rage for a moment if you need to, and then breathe it out. The line will move, and you will get to your destination.

#2- Expect the unexpected. Just because you have all the right documents, or you waited the allotted six weeks (or months), does not mean that you will leave with a smile of success. In order to release, or at least aid, that desire for control, you must expect the unexpected. Prepare for a multitude of possibilities so that your emotional armor is strongly in tact when you leave. Don’t assume anything. Because trust me, no one wants to see a frustrated sobbing mess crumpled in defeat just outside the gates. It’s awkward. On the flip side, when you do have that rare moment of prefecture success, it tastes all the more sweet…especially when you weren’t expecting it.

#3- Kindness Kills. Ok, so this is a strange expression, but it never hurts to appeal to a person’s humanity. Don’t over do it- especially with the French. But a simple smile, a polite ‘how are you’, or a preemptive merci can work wonders. This is not to say that you should avoid being firm when needed, but rather don’t come in with guns ablazing and silent rage bubbling. After all, these are the gatekeepers you’re dealing with. Make eye contact, be confident, but most importantly be kind.

#4- Be creative, don’t despair. If things don’t go your way, don’t crumple in awkward panicked defeat. Allowing your first thoughts to be your worst thoughts is not only unproductive, it’s unrealistic. There are always options. Maybe let a few frustrated tears fall if that’s what you need, but then get back to the drawing board! Did you ask all the right questions? What would happen if you went again? What would happen if you talked to someone new? 9 times out of 10, plan B has had a weird way of working out.

#5- If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again…and with different people. Piggybacking off of the whole being creative thing, is the need for some good ole fashion perseverance. Keep trying. As my grandma loves to say, “Never surrender! Never give up!” (yes, I know that she mixes the order- it just adds to the delightful quirkiness of her shouting it).

My French coworker once said to me, “French administration is a labyrinth. You can get in, but you can’t find a way out.” While it is indeed a mental maze and at times you might find yourself in a pit of despair, a release of control, a creative outlook, a little kindness, and a lot of persistence are excellent tools for navigating that labyrinth.

…and if all else fails, grab a tea or coffee at the nearest cafe with a supportive loved one and prepare for round 2…or 20.

Oh the Travel ‘Companions’ I’ve met

Most of the time I relish in flying alone. Despite the stress that usually accompanies flying- waking up at the ass crack of dawn, dealing with power drunk security officials, eating god awful food at jacked up prices- in spite of all of this, airports can actually provide a wonderful source of solitude, or much-needed space. I have time to write, ponder, read that book I’ve been dying to finish, observe the various interesting human interactions, and catch up on my latest trashy magazine (yes Cosomo is my guilty travel pleasure).

But then there are times when I wish to all-that-is-holy that I was traveling with a partner, or friend, or anyone who I could comfortably tell to “move their damn arm because it is popping my personal space bubble!!” On my way home this past Saturday, as I sat getting far too personal with the frosty airplane window, because Mr. ‘Unaware of His Surroundings’ just had to take up the entire arm rest, and even some of the skin between my ribs, I thought about the travel “companions” I’ve had the pleasure of knowing throughout the years.

I present to you only a few of the character’s I’ve met.

1. The Talker
This companion can actually be quite fun- if you’re in the right mood. Usually they’re excited about their destination, and want to hear all about yours. But mostly they want to tell you about their life’s story. I’m from Texas, so it’s kinda protocol to engage if someone talks to you. We’re talkers too. However, if I’m sleep deprived, or travel constipated, or still pissed off by the TSA jacking my favorite key chain, (true- it was a tiny pocket knife, but it’s honestly so small that even a fly would roll their eyes at it), then the last thing my sweaty, frazzled self wants to do is exchange in social pleasantries. Which leads me to #2. Continue reading

Kindness Counts

I can’t believe it’s been over a month since my last post. Where did time go? How does it fly by so quickly? I have so many ‘return to the States’ observations, thoughts and general posts whirling around in my brain. But here we are- a month later and I’m just now posting. I guess being home for the first time in a year, coupled with a plethora of familial emotions will take its toll on time.

Plus I’m a horrible snowball procrastinator. Just the worst. If I let something slide, and then slide even a little bit more, it snowballs into this seemingly overwhelming task that occupies too much of my thoughts, and thus results in a complete system shut down- a.k.a. curling into a blanket on my dad’s couch and watching the worst American television. Seriously. Is it just me, or has American TV gotten even more dramatic, over the top, expulsive, and so generally disgusting that you somehow can’t put down the remote and oddly continue to watch in shock (and awe) at this train wreck that is television? My return to America (or should I say ‘Merica) was christened with walking into the hotel room where my sister was watching Honey Boo Boo. Enough said.

But I digress. There will be other times, other posts to rant about overweight hicks on “reality” TV, or terrifying trashy pop stars occupying all forms of social media, and even American news. Right now I want to talk about kindness. About having patience, going above and beyond, stepping outside of your daily routine, and generally giving a shit at a time when ultimately, it’s easier not to. Continue reading

How to take the SNCF (a.k.a. my love affair with the difficult French train system)

This one's special- so short.

This one’s- special so short.

It’s time to talk SNCF. This post has been in the making for quite some time, as I have had an intimate and frustrating relationship with the French trains over the past 7 1/2 months. But let’s go to the start.

My relationship with the SNCF began when I was a young, optimistic, 18-year-old backpacker with nothing but love in my heart. I was charmed by SNCF’s allure. It was so efficient, so connected, it could take me anywhere- places I’d only dreamed of. After all, I was a mere Texan, where trains transported cargo or cattle, not people. It was easy to fall for SNCF’s appeal.

But as I grew older, and spent more time with SNCF, it grew distant. It let me down. It was unreliable, inconsistent and resistant to providing the information I needed. I became frustrated and bitter, longing for the unknowing innocence of my youth.

Oh SNCF. How complicated you are.

Oh SNCF. How complicated you are.

So now I write. I write so you can know. And because in spite of it all, I still have love for the SNCF.

Step 1: If possible, get a pass. 

First and foremost, decide how long you will be traveling in France. If you are traveling around Europe, consider Eurail. If you are traveling to multiple destinations in France, look into the passes.

For example, if you are under 25, or even if you are under 30, get the carte 12-25. It costs 50 euros and gives you anywhere from 25-60% off of tickets. Buy it in person as the website is hellish (more on that later). Sometimes it goes to 25, 27 or even 30. It depends on the deals they are offering. Bienvenue a SNCF.

*Note- you will need a french passport style picture. You can come prepared, or take one in any of the ready photobooths at the train station.*

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This little guy has saved me so much!!

STEP 2: Decide how fast, and how much (and no, this is not a Boratesque proposition…) TER vs. TGV. 

Depending on where you are going, and how much you want to spend, you might want to take the TGV or the TER (or a night train, but that’s a whole other ballgame).

The TGV is a high-speed train that gets to your destination faster and usually more comfortably. However, it is more expensive and contrary to popular belief, can be a pain in the ass (more on that soon). Here’s what you need to know:

  • TGV can cut your train travel in 1/2, so if you need to save time, it’s worth the cost.
  • There are two prices for the TGV- 2nd class and 1st class. Don’t waste your money on 1st.
  • You have assigned seats on the TGV. Look on your ticket for voiture, your car number, and place, your seat. When the train pulls up, it will have the car number on the side and when you get inside, you will see seat ranges to find your place (ex. 61-80 to the right). If all else fails, there are usually conductors for you to gesture at your ticket and figure out the right direction.
  • More often than not, to get to your TGV, or to get into the center of town, you will have to take a navette, or shuttle service. It basically looks like a big tour bus that costs anywhere from 1.50-2.50 euros.

This is where TGVs can be a pain in the ass. The stations are usually located on the outskirts of towns, so you have to take a navette from the local train station to the TGV station. Ultimately you pay for the navette, and take more time, as you’re out in the middle of no where. I would recommend sticking with local trains, the TER, unless you are traveling to big cities like Paris or Lyon. They seem to have it down.

The TER is the local train that usually takes longer (as it makes many stops), but is cheaper. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Again. Don’t waste your money on 1st class. Stick with 2nd.
  • Pay attention to “période bleue” and  “période blanche” when buying tickets. Blue is usually more expensive as it’s during commuting time. White is cheaper.
  • Pay attention to the train as it pulls in. You can get a preview of what kind of seating you want. Each train is different, and sometimes each car is different. You can have anywhere from normal seating, to cabin seating, where 8 people fit in one cabin. Depends on how you like to travel and how many you are traveling with.
  • If there is construction, sometimes your train is replaced with an autocar- a bus that will take you to your destination.
  • In big cities pay attention to the name of the train station. Sometimes there are multiple stations.

Sometimes you take more risks with the TER- delays, construction, cancellation, but the trains are cheaper, the refunds easier and usually you don’t have to wait long to catch the next available train. Usually.

*Note- A plus of the TER is refunds. Should you have any problems, you can get a full refund before your train departure. If you want to cancel or refund a TGV, there is a small fee.

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The cabins even have privacy curtains

Step 3: Reservations/Buying the Ticket

Depending on how much of a planner you are, you have a few options.

  1. Buy tickets online
  2. Buy tickets at counter (speak to person)
  3. Buy tickets from machine in the train station

1. Buying tickets online would seem like the easier option. However, if you do not have a French card, purchasing can be difficult. Be warned that the SNCF website can be confusing to say the least. This can help you through the process:

http://www.seat61.com/France-trains.htm#How to use voyages-sncf.com

2. If you have questions, do not know the best option, or need help arranging travel plans, speaking to someone with access to all the train times can be helpful. Usually you can find some one who speaks English and is more than willing to help. Again, usually.

3. If you have an idea of the destination and times, the ticket machines in the station can be your friend. It also has options for several languages. However, yet again, if you do not have a French card, this can be a problem.

Step 4: Riding the train

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Once you have successfully purchased your tickets. It’s time to ride the train! But wait- it’s not quite that simple.

First thing you need to do- arrive early. Give your self time to figure out where to go and to find the voie, or platform.

In theory, your voie is displayed 20 minutes before your train departure. Most of the time, it’s more like 10 minutes. If it’s anything under 10 minutes, seek help. Even if you don’t speak French, gesture at your ticket, and you’ll get somewhere. I made the mistake of growing accustomed to SNCF’s delays, and thought 5 minutes was plenty of time. Turns out, my “train” was an autocar.

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I was taking the 9:50 Valance train. Note the time…

While you’re waiting for you voie, composte, or stamp your ticket in one of the many machines. But wait! It’s not that simple either. More often, than not, the lovely machine will reject you. ….or at least your ticket.

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It’s temperamental

Turn your ticket multiple times- try the front, the back, the other side- until the machine has been appeased.

Once your number or letter comes up on the screen, follow the signs for your train and hop aboard!

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STEP 5: Extra- Things to Bring

Just as a little tid bit, these things can be quite helpful:

  • a book and/or music
  • scarf (doubles as blanket)
  •  granola bar/snack as train food is expensive and you don’t know when you’ll be delayed
  •  water bottle
  •  tissues- doubles as napkins and toilet paper
  • patience

All things considered, the SNCF has been there for me. It’s been temperamental and we’ve had our fair share of fights, but at the end of the day, it’s taken places- places I only dreamed of.

Return to Avignon

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As soon as I stepped off the train in Avignon, a surge of flashbacks flooded my brain. Like the weirdest hybrid of sheep-meets-cricket noises I heard in the night. Or getting lost in a hellish loop of a drive through the vortex trapping maze of Orange. Or the time my friends and I almost slept on the streets, got murdered, and ultimately stayed up til three in the morning watching gay porn. Ok. So that might be a tad over-exaggerated. Except for that last part. That totally happened.

My second time in Avignon went much more smoothly than the first. I stayed in a lovely hostel (Pop Hostel) right in the center of town. I had time to enjoy the town, see its sights and feel summer. It’s great to feel summer- eating homemade passionfruit peach ice cream bars, earning more freckles, sitting in a park and soaking up the sun, spying on potential flashmobbers, unfolding people’s secrets (literally) and having an adult playdate- where you talk, picnic and day drink.

But let me talk about the first time because there’s a lesson here.

I first set foot in Avignon four years ago, as my friends and I stepped off the TGV and into the warm summer night filled with…bizarre guttural noises. Those sounds signaled the start of a strange evening. As we tried to get our bearings out of the labyrinth that was the TGV station (which we later learned was on the outskirts of Avignon), the guttural noises got louder and more nasal. Crickets? No. Too loud. Birds? No. Too bizarre. Suddenly the strange noises surrounded us and as we peered into the night, we noticed what looked to be the faint glimmer of water. As I cautiously creeped closer to the waters edge, a small figure moved. And another. Frogs! Frogs with the weirdest assed mating calls I had ever heard.

Happy to have identified the bizarre sounds, and know that potential murder #1 was out of the way, we trekked on into the night with only a print out of directions to our “close” hotel. Long story short- our hotel was not close. We got lost. We wandered through back alleys and parking lots. And we wondered how we could possible avoid potential murder #2 until we finally made it to our sketchy hotel (in the middle of fucking nowhere I might add)…and discovered we were locked out. Another long story short- several phone calls, some lock picking and gate jumping attempts, lots of exhaustion, despair and a resignation to sleep on the streets later, we miraculously managed to get a hold of some one and get in….to our shoebox of a room. Seriously. If you opened the bathroom door, you hit the bed. Correction- if you cracked open the door, you hit the bed.

Too exhausted and traumatized from having endured a long day that ended with surviving three potential murders, we decided to stay in our shoebox, watch some t.v. and venture out when we could see the light of day. We flipped through the 10 channels on our tiny télé, among them there was that lion movie with that 6th sense kid (which was even more annoying dubbed), some news, and…gay porn. At first we watched it out of awe that such a thing could exist within 10 channels, and then changed the channel out of awkward awareness that others were in the room.

But then it became a thing of it’s own, as we watched on in fascination of what kind of french soap opera gay porn drama plot line was unfolding before our eyes. And then all of the sudden it was three in the morning and we all looked at eachother with a “holy shit did we really just stay up until three in the morning watching gay porn even though it started off as a joke and then turned into a thing of its own, and now we have to get up early because we can’t justify sleeping in and missing our one day in Avignon because we actually stayed up until three in the morning watching gay porn” look. Or something like that.

Except we did sleep in. And we barely saw Avignon.

Moral of the story- if it’s an option, and especially if you’re visiting a small or old touristy town, stay in the center. Unless you wanna watch gay porn in a shoe box.

But Avignon really is beautiful. I’m happy I got a second chance to see it. It’s definitely worth a visit!

Off to Aix

*Disclaimer- first time posting with phone so excuse typos.*

Today I’m off to Aix for what I described on facebook as “birthdays,beaches, burritos, and much more!” Except for today the SNCF,or the french train system, got in the way.

After waking up early, taking two trams and still arriving with ample time, I figured I was set. I could cozy up with a book and wait for my voie to show up. But the French system never quite works that way.

Five minutes before departure with still no voie information, I realized something was wrong. Long story short- because the voie never appeared, I missed the train, had to pay a fee for new tickets, and take the only option left of catching a bus that arrived 4 hours later and took three times as long as the original train. Merde.

In situations like this, there is always a choice. I could bitch and moan and furrow my brow in anger or I could let go and embrace my predicament.

My first response- Fuck. THAT.  I’m pissed off. Screw waiting in this weirdly cold weather, screw these rude Frenchies all up in my space, and screw you stomach! As I looked at my tickets and the lack of time for lunch between trains, on cue, my stomach started growling as if to say “Oh whats that? I’m not gonna get lunch? Then I’m gonna be hungry now!! At 10 in the morning by the way. Sincerely, fuck you.”

After I sent venting texts and my body tightened in anger and my head filled with a slew of internal cussing, I stopped myself. I needed to take the path of least resistance and calm down. It was difficult to let go of the principle of the matter- what a waste of sleep, of time, of money! But I reasoned with myself and realized that being angry wasn’t going to replenish those things and it wasn’t going to transport me to Aix any faster.

I’ve learned this lesson before and I guess I’m gonna keep learning it- Perspective is essential.

So I don’t have my high speed train and I lost some time, but a bus to Aix is still a bus to the South of France and friends. And that’s totally worth it.

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Sprechen Sie Deutsch?

It never ceases to amaze me how quickly (and easily) you can cross borders in Europe. Coming from Texas where it took 8 hours to go from Central to West Texas just to visit my grandma, I was surprised to go to school in Massachusetts and discover that state borders can be crossed in just 3 hours. But entering a new country in under 2 hours still baffles me.

Tiniest Train to Germany. Short train for a short trip I guess...

Tiniest Train to Germany. Short train for a short trip I guess…

I was fortunate enough to spend a lovely Easter weekend in the quaint city of Freiburg in Germany- a destination with quite a reputation to live up to as my friends had not stopped talking about it since our arrival in France.

Apart from the obscene amounts of rabbit decorations and chocolates abound, there wasn’t much Easter to the weekend. It hardly felt like spring as we did not see the sun until the morning we left and the Black Forest was in fact a white forest- covered in snow and thick fog. In spite of that, Freiburg managed to make it to the ranks of cutest European cities (according to Anna’s mental tally). It lived up to it’s reputation.

Black Forest?

Black Forest?

At least it's pretty

At least it’s pretty

Though Germany’s warmest city was unusually cold, we managed to get in a good day of exploring the medieval buildings and traversing through the small, winding, cobblestone streets. It reminded me of Bruges with it’s quaint charm. Now if a medieval town doesn’t seem that unique, throw in a vibrant university crowd, cobblestone crests, unusual canals and a black forest to peak your interest.

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Running through the tiny streets is a unique system of gutters called Bächle. Contrary to what one might assume, these canals were not used for waste, but rather to put out fires and feed livestock. Hearing the sound of bubbling water coursing through the streets was a wonderful addition to the experience. Apparently the water helps cool the summer streets and rumor has it that you will marry a Freiburger if you accidentally fall or step into one. A long time luster of the Germans, it was difficult for my friend to not feign falling into one of the many Bächles.

Bachle

Bachle

Boat Races!

Boat Races!

Being the lover of art and visual person that I am, I was particularly charmed by the cobblestone crests. Placed in front of shops as a means of identifying the store, these stone images were varied and plentiful. It was like an exciting Easter egg hunt to see what image we would discover next.

The most bizarre experience of the weekend was the inability to use English. Three of us separated from our German speaking friend which resulted in eating our breakfast like hobos on the street. We could barely order our food, nonetheless understand what they were saying or how to ask for a table in the back. So feeling flustered and confused we took our food to go. It was strange not having my basic language tools. In my experience people have taken pity on the foreigner and fallen back on English. Or at least I come prepared with a few basic expressions. I barely even knew how to say please, thank you or  I don’t understand. Travelling 101: Know the basics, bring a travel book, or stay with your friend who speaks the language.

Crossing countries in 2 hours can be misleading. You forget you’ve entered a new region with a completely different language. The nice thing is that when you dive in, you have to sink or swim and I’m happy to report that my German language base has increased.

But I still need to conquer the French front first.

Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda

Buongiorno from Italy!

The Texan Holiday Ambassador (or in other words, my father) finally arrived! With him descended madness, much laughter, thoroughly missed Texan cuisine (re-fried beans and tortillas!!) and a gift bag stocked full of goodies from ma mere (which I have been diligently waiting to open until xmas…well most of it anyways).

Some how relaxing took a back seat as dad and I ran around trying to prepare for our trip, fighting with gps technology (or lack thereof), and printing out last minute maps. We made a snap decision to cut our trip in “half” (if only we knew), crash at Antoine’s in Grenoble Wednesday, and brave the snowy French Alps on Thursday all to avoid Swiss tolls and make it to Como, Italy. After the 4 hour drive turned into over 10, and as sanity, patience, energy, and motivation to make it to our remote mountain villa faded, it seemed as though we would not arrive at our final destination in one piece. But we finally arrived and the sight of our beautiful (and GIANT) lake view villa was enough to breathe new life into us. We couldn’t believe that such lavish accommodations were all ours! But lesson learned- sometimes your time IS worth the money.

The past few days have been dreamlike, or as Dad keeps calling it “Disneyland!”. We took ferries around the pristine lake from Menaggio, to Bellagio to Como and caught the funicular in time to watch night fall over Como. (Fun fact: for those of you who don’t know, George Clooney owns a villa in Como. Unfortunately no sights were made). Today was just as surreal, as we popped across the border and took another (much bigger) funicular up Monte Bre in Lugano, Switzerland. While I might have an ever increasing personal annoyance with Switzerland (their “neutrality” is a little too convenient, they hold most of the world’s money, they’re surrounded by EU countries all sharing in currency and border privileges and yet remain their own little island of superiority AND charge out the wazoo to pass through their little island…), I cannot deny the breathtaking beauty that is the Switzerland. Layers of snow capped mountains stacked upon steep rolling hills with crystal waters and cozy villages nestled in valleys is pretty hard to scoff at. As we ate our pre-packed sandwiches, we stared in awe at the fairy tale scenery before us. Sometimes I really have to stop and remind myself of the amazing experiences I am having. I truly am lucky.

That being said, I must reaffirm what I already learned through my travels (especially during my East Europe trip) as well as some new insight.

1. Maps- always have them. Especially detailed ones. Don’t rely on technology (namely stupid Garmins!) to help you.

2. **A little planning goes a long way** I’m staring this one because as much as people like to write my desire to plan trips off as just another anal tendency, there are certain factors that, when planned, can alleviate stress and insanity.

  • Knowing where you’re going and having a general time frame helps avoid hunger, night driving, tolls and delirium…
  • It also helps to think about when to leave (especially by car), when to pass through, and when to arrive in big cities. Will you hit traffic? That goes for small cities too! Will you get lost if there is a detour? Will you be able to find your way at night?
  • Having detailed maps for leaving one location and arriving in another is always good. Surprisingly enough, the highway roads are not as easy to find the next day.
  • And I have learned that roads always take longer in Europe. They’re windy and you don’t know they way and maybe even the language. Prepare to get lost. Prepare to smile.

As Dad likes to quote from Peepaw, “Prior planning prevents piss poor performance”.

3. There’s something to traveling off season. True, things might be more dead than usual and you might miss out on some experiences due to off season closures, but there’s a tranquility, a peace that you don’t normally get to have when travelling to hot spots. During off season, you’re not battling the crowds, the jacked up prices, or the stress of “gotta see it all quickly!” You have time to set up the shot that you want to take, to breathe in the air, to listen to the sounds. Most of these places are beautiful in their own right- because of the area and not necessarily the tourist attractions set up around them.

4. And finally shoulda/coulda/woulda doesn’t ever really help. It’s tempting to pull them out during times of frustration, but it never changes your situation or predicament. And most of the time you don’t really look back and think of the bad things. I won’t resent the traffic jam in Milan, or the scary snow/ice covered alpine roads, or the expensive tolls because they led me to the good. And they helped pave the road for future travel knowledge. Instead of lamenting the things that should or could have gone better, it’s best to keep our eyes on the road, the final destination and learn from our mistakes- our experiences.

Here’s hoping I can apply these things to Nice! Tomorrow we bid the mountains arrivederci  and make our way towards the Cote d’Azur!

Ciao ciao!

I’m Alive

I know it’s verging on a month since my last post, but I am alive- in both the blog world and…life. I managed to survive the 2 week roadtrip where Antoine and I traveled to East Europe and battled snow and the breakdown of the campervan. But oh what a fun experience it was- nine hour drive through surprise snow in Germany to get to the Czech Republic, adventures in Prague and Bohemian Paradise, gear stick breakdown, sunny days, thermal baths and Disneyesque castles in Budapest, large, overcompensating structures in Vienna, some more engine issues, and finishing with mystical Alpine scenery.

Snowy Czech Republic

Beautiful Prague

Bohemian Paradise

Disney in Budapest

Budapestian Baths (Thermal!)

Colossal Vienna

While travelling I learned a thing or two.

Here are Eight things I’ve Learned:

1. You will not (unlike in Texas) get shot or yelled at if you park a big green campervan in random spots for sleeping

2.Travel books are a godsend- especially if you’re lost, hungry, cold or just need a place to find a good drink

3. Don’t fall into tourist traps. Don’t let hunger win. It’s never worth it.

4. A little crown or forint (Czech and Hungarian currency) goes a long way- we feasted like kings

5. And speaking of kings, if you’re in search of castles, travel the countryside of Prague. There are castles aplenty  off of just about every exit

6. Campervans are great- unless you’re driving in the big European cities where the ancient streets are small and the parking is expensive, too tiny, or nonexistent

7. When roadtripping, always have snacks available. Lost + hungry= cranky captain, cranky copilot, cranky car

8. If a gear stick breaks, fear not! Welding tools? Don’t need em! Wrenches, metal bands, some screws and a bit of Macgyvering and you’re good to go!

And of course Eight things to Travel With:

1. Pocket knife- scissors, tweezers, cheese cutter- need I say more?

2. Maps, detailed maps- especially when travelling by car. City maps are good too

3. Layers. Always layers. Good thing I had training in New England to know that a sunny day can always turn to rain and snow likes to surprise you

4. Water- cuz you never know when it will cost more than a pint of beer

5. Tissues- great for the nose and napkins and even better for the occasional TP during those really gross rest stops

6. I-pod- music is essential for road trip sanity. Unfortunately we had to learn the hard way.  Random songs popping up when you don’t have music- Zombie (yes that 90s Cranberries song) and Call Me Maybe on repeat in your head. It’s a wonder we didn’t kill one another

7. Sunglasses- you never know when you’ll be blinded by the sun…or snow

8. A sense of humor- because nothing ever quite goes as planned when traveling

**And of course a good travel companion is always nice

Unfortunately I just spent the past half hour attempting to figure out how to import video into this blog only to discover that it’s not really possible and my internet is too slow for youtube.

BUT all in all it was an amazing trip filled with breath taking sights, a wonderful re-connection to nature, some battles of my neuroses and the campervan’s defiance, therapeutic thermals, lots of castles,  eye opening art exhibits about the Slavic ethic, an increased interest in Eastern European history and how it was shaped by WWI and WWII, much laughter and quite a bit of delirium and ultimately a  great beginning to my eastern exploration. One lofty goal I have is to one day keep going east. We’ll see what happens. But for now I’m happily back in France, finally finding my teaching rhythm and eating lots of cheese.

Winter wonderland. It’s not every day you see the fusion of winter and fall

One of our campsites

Antoine’s second Macgyver fix

At least I’m not claustrophobic

St. Vitus Cathedral in the Prague Castle- Fisheye style

Prague is pretty gorgeous

Is this real life?

Beautiful Budapest

Belly of the beast