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Saturday, February 5, 2011

Viszontlátásra, Magyarország.

11:02 pm Eastern Standard Time (EST)

And so ends Study Abroad 2010-2011...

It was strange looking out the plane windows and seeing naught but a vast expanse of white, but what was stranger was the sudden surge of love for the Michigan snow that I usually despise. Walking through Detroit Metro was a foreign experience as I have never flown in from abroad before. Customs was a breeze (thankfully they didn't think that my 12 bags of paprika were concealing cocaine, as I had joked) and I found my luggage without trouble.

I find it's the small things I've missed: free water in restaurants, the yellow glow of our porch light, the magic of high pressure in the shower; the familiar organised-chaos of my room, teetering stacks of well-read books, my fuzzy teddy bears beside my pillow. I cannot contain my smiles in spite of my deep exhaustion and aching muscles, and though I certainly left part of my heart in Budapest, I am glad to have been finally reunited with the part I had left behind here so many months ago.

It doesn't feel all that different. Of course, it is different, leaving a European city and returning to the American suburbs, but I almost feel as though I had never been away. Everything is the same as it was when I left it, and it is both comforting and disconcerting. Comforting because it shows that some things never change, yet disconcerting because I now fear that I will have to face the monotony of normal life, with nothing to explore and nothing new to see...

But I am home. I am back in cold, snowy, boring Michigan and I could not be happier about it. And yet I will dream of bright yellow trams screeching along their rails, great bridges spanning across a rushing river, and hills rising protectively above the city for a long time to come. I will forever cherish the experience Budapest has given me, and I will miss it with all my heart.

My hunger for adventure is not sated; not in the least. But the end of this particular adventure has come, and with it the end of this blog. I thank all of you, my readers, for your comments and interest, and I hope that you were able to enjoy my journey just as much as I did.

Hungary, I bid thee a fond farewell. You have taught me much and I will never forget the lessons I've learned. One hundred sixty-one days were not nearly enough... I hope we meet again someday, my dear friend.

BSCS: August 28, 2010-February 5, 2011.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Almost there...

12:17 pm Central European Time

In less than nineteen hours I will be on a plane to Frankfurt. Five hours after that, I will be on a plane to Detroit.

At this point I wish time would just go faster. I want so badly to be home...

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Last day in London.

10:50 pm GMT

Another whirlwind of a day! I set out (in the rain without my umbrella, of course) across the Westminster Bridge toward Buckingham Palace again so I could see the changing of the guard. On my way, I saw a band in bright red uniforms and a group of people waiting for them to begin, so I stopped and watched, too. It turned out that this royal-soldier-band marches along the Mall to the Palace to begin the ceremony, so I followed them as they marched, recording their performance the whole way (the video is ridiculously shaky, but I had to keep up!). When we made it to the gates of the Palace, I tried to find a good spot, but practically all of them were taken by the massive crowd that had already gathered. I resigned myself to a corner near the gate, but couldn't see much of anything. I got a few glimpses of the bearskin hat guys, though! It made me smile.

I gave up trying to see the ceremony and, frankly, following the band had been enough for me. I left before the whole thing ended and instead went back to Parliament Square to go to the Westminster tube station. I finally bought an Oyster card (I basically just wanted to look awesome swiping it...), since I knew that I'd be using the tube a lot today. I took the District Line from Westminster to Tower Hill so I could wander around the Tower of London and Tower Bridge. By the time I got there, I was really hungry, so I GOT FISH AND CHIPS!! I may have been a bit too excited about it because the lady at the stall was looking at me all weird. Anyway, I bought my lunch and ate it on a bench by the river (it was cold and rainy, but there were no places inside to sit); London fish and chips certainly lives up to the hype. I enjoyed it thoroughly, at least.

After my lunch I walked around for a while, waved at a Beefeater, almost dropped my camera into the Thames, walked beneath Tower Bridge, and went back to the Tower Hill tube station. From there I took the District Line again one stop to Monument, where I transferred to the Central Line to go to St. Paul's Cathedral. It was still kind of rainy and still rather cold, but I walked all the way around the Cathedral before stopping out front to take photos. It is absolutely enormous and it reminded me a bit of the Esztergom Basilica. No one was feeding the birds on the steps, though; probably too chilly and too wet. Even so, I had the song stuck in my head the entire time I was there.

The Millennium Bridge is not far from the Cathedral, so I walked back toward the river to walk across it. On the other side is the Tate Modern (the exterior is quite ugly if you ask me; looks like a giant brick oven) and the recreation of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. I turned around halfway across the bridge so I could return to the St. Paul's tube stop, where I again boarded the Central Line to Lancaster Gate, which is right across the street from Kensington Gardens. I walked only briefly in the park, since I was pressed for time. I found what I wanted to, however; the Peter Pan statue didn't take too long to locate, and I looked at it for a while--taking in all the details--before turning back the way I had come. I took the tube (again) from Lancaster Gate to Oxford Circus, transferred to the Piccadilly Line, and took that to Piccadilly Circus where I was to meet Katie for the afternoon. We found one another and relocated to a Starbucks (the same one I was at yesterday) and talked for a few hours, catching up on life and everything since we last spoke. It was great to see her again; the setting just made it even more memorable.

We walked to Leicester Square, Katie looking for a pharmacy and I searching for St Martin's Theatre, where I was seeing Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap. We passed what we believed to be the premiere of the new film "Brighton Rock" starring Helen Mirren, John Hurt, and Andy Serkis (which means they were there! In the movie theatre! HELEN MIRREN WAS SO. CLOSE.) before we found St. Martin's and went our separate ways. I sat on the steps for a while before I went in, since I was still there a bit early. I soon took my seat, which, unfortunately, was immediately behind this obnoxious American guy who was eating Pringles throughout most of the first act. Anyway, the play was fantastic. I know I've seen it before somewhere, but even though I couldn't remember the details, I still knew most of what happened (including the twist). Despite knowing it, I was still on the edge of my seat, heart pounding, for most of the performance. They did a wonderful job and it clear why it has been running for 59 years; it was terrifying and spine-tingling and I loved every minute of it. As for whodunit? In the tradition of the play, I am now sworn to secrecy... so you won't be hearing it from me!

After the play I returned to the hostel for a night of rest. I have to get up early in the morning to take the tube all the way to Heathrow to make my flight in time. I only hope that security going out isn't as dreadful as it was coming in... I don't think I'll have the patience for that again.

Monday, January 31, 2011

"Wolverine would definitely be the Queen's favourite from X-Men..."

11:28 pm GMT

Goodness, today was exhausting. I slept in a bit (which was wonderful), and at around 10:30 I hauled my arse (since I'm in England now... har har) out of bed to go exploring. I have a map, but I decided I wasn't going to use it unless I really got lost or if I was trying to find a specific place.

So I left the hostel and walked to the Westminster Bridge. It didn't take too long, and as soon as Parliament and Big Ben came into sight across the river, I broke out into this giddy smile that probably made me look like a complete idiot. There was really no reason to be that happy... but I guess finally seeing something so familiar has that effect, eh? I walked along the South Bank of the Thames toward the London Eye, but decided against going on it at that time and maybe saving it for later. I crossed the Golden Jubilee Bridge to the North Bank where most of central London is. I walked back toward the Westminster Bridge, now on the other side, and walked around Parliament once I got there. Big Ben chimed (bellowed? Rang? Boomed? "Chimed" seems far too... dainty a word to describe its noise) noon as I passed, and my stupid giddy smile came back with a vengeance. I walked from one end of the Houses of Parliament to the other, and then crossed the street to go to Westminster Abbey. I didn't go inside, but I saw everything on the outside; it's absolutely gorgeous and without a doubt some of the best Gothic architecture I've seen. From there I meandered the streets till I (somehow) ended up at Buckingham Palace. The flag was up, so that means the Queen was home--not that I would have seen her, anyway. They only do a changing of the guard every other day during the wintertime, so I'm going to have to go back tomorrow morning to see it.

I bought a sandwich for lunch and headed into The Green Park, where I found the Canada Memorial for the soldiers who died during both World Wars. After wandering around this park, I crossed the street into St. James Park so I could find a bench and read. I finished a few chapters, fed a huge swan and some geese the leftover bread from my lunch, and continued out of the park toward The Horse Guards' Building and Admiralty Arch. I went through the Arch and walked to Trafalgar Square, where I bought a t-shirt (yay!) and was floored by the fact that public washrooms are FREE. That definitely won England some points in my book.

So after taking some pictures and wandering around the square (there was a giant sculpture in front of the National Gallery of a ship in a bottle! SO COOL!), I continued along Pall Mall and Regent Street till I got to Piccadilly Circus. I walked around even more, stumbled upon China Town (which was completely lined with hundreds of lanterns for the upcoming New Year), and ended up at a Starbucks, at which I got a peppermint mocha (soooooo good) and sat down to pass some time reading. Once I'd killed enough time, I went to this little Indian place for dinner. It was so incredibly delicious; I knew Indian food was good in London, but damn! This was fantastic! After dinner I went back to Piccadilly Circus to find the Criterion Theatre where I was to see the stage adaptation of Hitchcock's The 39 Steps. It was really good! Extremely campy (the fourth wall was destroyed several times, lots of so-bad-they're-hilarious jokes in reference to other Hitchcock films, etc.), but not in a bad way. After the show, I got on the tube (which makes me feel really claustrophobic for some reason) and went back to the hostel.

Tomorrow is my last day here and I am going to make the best of it. I have a huge day planned... hopefully I'll have time to get everything in!

Saturday, January 29, 2011

"This is a Piccadilly Line service to Cockfosters." Oh dear.

9:51 pm Greenwich Mean Time (GMT)

Last night we said goodbye to Dion and Patrick with the first program dinner since everyone else went home in early December. We were all there (save Tristan, who had already left on a trip), including Niki, Heni, and Zoli. It was really great seeing them again after such a long absence. Hopefully we'll get to see them once more before the last five of us leave next Saturday!

And now... I'm in London! It certainly took long enough.

I frantically tried to pull everything and myself together this morning after a sleepless night. I left on time, but there's something going on at the Kőbánya-Kispest metro station, so a slightly different route was necessary. Once I got to the airport, I quickly went through security (but had to get a patdown for some inexplicable reason) and sat at my gate. The flight to Amsterdam was good; I kept falling asleep and waking up again a few minutes later. The sandwiches they gave us were really good... I'm having a rough time deciding if I like KLM's or Lufthansa's better, haha.

I raced through the Amsterdam airport to get to my gate for London, but it was closed when I got there. I hung around for a while and when it opened, we had to go through a mini security checkpoint. The lady at the x-ray machine couldn't figure out what was in my bag, so the other lady went rifling through it till they realised that what they didn't recognise was a bar of chocolate. They had a good chortle over it, then sent me on my merry way. The people sitting next to me on the flight were from New Zealand. I've never met Kiwis before! They were really nice and fun to talk to; I think the guy was a little tipsy, though... one too many in-flight beers, methinks.

When we landed in London, I had forgotten that I'd have to go through customs and border control. IT TOOK FOREVER. I got through a few chapters in my book, though, so I guess that's an upside to waiting in a line for an hour and a half. Once through, I got some money (I cried a bit on the inside about the exchange rate) and bought a tube ticket. I didn't get lost! Wahoo!! I made it to the hostel (The Walrus Waterloo) easily enough, and now I'm hanging around in my room of 15 other people, trying to stay awake after a very long day.

I've got to finish some paper-writing tomorrow, but hopefully I will be out and about by the afternoon. I definitely need to rest now, though; I don't think I truly recovered from Poland. Or Greece, for that matter...

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Auschwitz-Birkenau and our last hours in Krakow.

12:35 pm CET

Carrie and I returned to Budapest this morning and, thankfully, the train was on time. The night on the train was not restful, however; our compartment was completely full and, as such, there was a lot of noise. We shared our compartment with four random Polish men, so... that was more than a little awkward. Maybe I'll end up sleeping all day. I'm certainly tired enough.

Yesterday was a very long and taxing day. We started off fairly early with breakfast in the hostel before checking out and wandering around. At 9:45 we met the tour bus that was to take us (and a bunch of Italians, some French Canadians, and several other English-speakers) to the small town of Oświęcim. It is difficult to understand why people still live around there--I don't think I could, knowing what happened. On the bus ride there, we watched a film with images filmed during the liberation by the Red Army in 1945. It turned out that we went the day before the 66th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz (the anniversary being today, January 27th), so that added even more purpose to our visit. When we arrived, the dread that had already settled in my gut became a bit more pronounced. We waited for our tour guide and were given headphones and receivers to better hear the guide among the throng of other tours at the site.

We started through the "Arbeit macht frei (work makes one free)" gate, which was surreal seeing with my own eyes after years of seeing it in photos and films. What was strangest was that Auschwitz I, the first part of the camp that was built on a Polish army base, seemed terrifyingly benign, even with the barbed wire fences and watchtowers. It was not until we went inside the buildings that things began to feel more sinister, and the more we saw, the more we broke through the place's façade. In one room was a massive case filled with human hair, and I could only take a quick glance before having to look away for fear of nausea. The worst ones were the cases in which shoes and suitcases were piled to the ceiling; some of the names on the suitcases hit far too close to home and just seemed to twist the dread even more.

We saw a reconstructed wall where prisoners were shot or hanged, and there were several people leaving candles and flowers at its base. There was also a very old man--a survivor, we thought--carrying a Ukrainian flag over his shoulder. It began to snow swiftly and silently, and it was a wonder to me that such beauty could fall over such a horrible place. We made our way through the snow across the camp to the only remaining gas chamber and crematorium. I hesitated briefly before going in, taking a deep breath and trying to keep the tears at bay that had been threatening to fall since walking through the front gate. There was an eternal flame lit on the floor that was surrounded by flowers, and it made me feel only the slightest bit better having living, breathing people surrounding me in this place of death. We walked through the small space quickly and quietly, and I mostly kept my eyes on the ground. Once out, we walked back to the front of the site and clambered back on the bus to drive the short distance to Auschwitz II-Birkenau, where we would end the day's tour.

Walking beneath the infamous watchtower was again a strange feeling; it was all so quiet and the land was blanketed in crunching white snow. The brick barracks to the left seemed to stretch on forever, and on the right, all that remained of the wooden barracks were two red brick chimneys where each building had stood. A few wooden barracks had been reconstructed with original materials, and we went into one and all I could think of were the photos I had seen in school for years. We left the building and walked beside the stretch of train tracks that led to the platform where people were sorted, separated, and led to their deaths. There was a single boxcar on the tracks and it looked dilapidated and almost forlorn, as if crumbling under the weight of the sorrows of those it once carried.

We made our way to the very end of the platform where the blown up remnants of the two crematoria are. This attempt to cover their atrocities only proved that the Nazis had something to hide, and I felt myself lifted slightly at the sight of the destruction of these horrific buildings. A large black monument also sits at the end of the tracks to honour the people who died there. There are several plaques lining the base of the monument in all the major languages of Europe, Yiddish, and Hebrew. They all say "Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women, and children mainly Jews from various countries of Europe. Auschwitz-Birkenau 1940-1945." I am not a religious person at all. But standing there at this monument... I wanted to do something that would have been meaningful to those who perished. I had brought with me a smooth white pebble that I had taken from the beach in Nice three months ago, and I placed it on the Hebrew plaque. Against the black metal of the plaque, my white stone stood out with the shine and freedom of the Sea that bore it, and as I whispered the Mourner's Kaddish to the lightly drifting snow, I finally allowed my tears to fall.

The bus ride back to Krakow was not eventful. Everyone was either asleep or talking in hushed tones to their companions. I listened to some music to help me feel better, though I still felt sick for a few hours after returning. When the bus stopped at the meeting place in Plac Jana Matejki, Carrie and I went to a café for a quick cappuccino break. From there we walked through the Old Town (it truly is beautiful) to the river to see the statue of the dragon, the protector of the city. It was an abstract-looking dragon, but it breathed fire, which was really cool (except my timing was horrible and every time I wanted to take a picture of the fire, I missed it because I wasn't ready). I gave up trying to photograph the fire-breathing, and we walked to the Jewish Quarter. It was already quite dark, so we couldn't see all that much. We walked by the old cemetary and we saw a synagogue and some neat-looking restaurants, but continued onward, eventually crossing the river to look for Schindler's factory. We sort of found it, but there were no lights and and it was all locked up (super creepy), so we just looked at it from a train platform above.

The rest of the night we spent walking around, getting pastries, eating dinner at this little Italian place in the Old Town, and hanging out at a Starbucks in the mall next to the train station. We made it to our platform just minutes before the train arrived, and we were soon trying to sleep en route back to Budapest. As I said before, the night was by no means restful, and I hope that I will have enough time to recuperate before I hop on a plane for London on Saturday. But now I definitely do need to rest; I am physically and emotionally drained. Despite my heavy heart, I know that my unforgettable experience in Poland was good for me, and for that, at least, I am glad.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Rachael and Carrie spend an enternity on a train.

8:24 pm CET

So our eleven-hour train ride from Budapest to Krakow somehow ended up taking a not in any way infuriating twenty. The train first broke down about half an hour after leaving. Outside our compartment window we saw this huge flash and then the train screeched to a complete stop. We sat in the middle of "bumfuck nowhere" (as Carrie kept saying) for at least an hour or two as electrical trucks showed up one by one to try to fix the problem. We passed the time with games and stories, but we soon gave up waiting for the train, at which point, of course, we started moving again. By the time we reached the second major stop in Slovakia it was midnight and, once again, the train must have broken down because we remained stationary for the rest of the night. To make things worse, upon waking at six (since that was when we were supposed to be arriving in Krakow) we found that we were still in the same goddamn place. We were not too happy, to say the least.

Fast forward to nine stop-and-go hours later and that was when we finally arrived in Krakow. Luckily the hostel is right across the square from the train station, so it didn't take too long to find. We checked in, got some complementary tea and a quick overview of the city, and went to our room to put our bags away and get ready for a couple hours out on the town. We'd missed all the daylight, unfortunately, so we braved the chill and inky darkness to explore. I wish I could have seen everything in the sunlight, but it was lovely at night, too. We walked through most of the Old Town, which sort of reminded me of a less-cramped Prague. There were several churches and shops and restaurants, and a market and a clock tower. When the hour struck six, a trumpet player sounded some notes from the top of the tower, and his song was echoed from the steeples of two nearby churches. It was really awesome! Almost as though they were talking to one another.

We walked around for a bit more, wandering till we got hungry enough to return to the hostel for dinner (we'd only each eaten some oranges and a bowl of cornflakes all day).The reception staff had cooked a traditional Polish meal for the guests, and who are we to turn down free food? We met a whole bunch of people: a guy from Spain, two from Brazil, one from Finland, an older guy from Melbourne, Australia, Phil from England, and his friend Trisha from Ireland (whose accent is awesome, by the way; I wish I had a cool accent...). We all chatted over our food and exchanged quick background stories and future plans; they are definitely the nicest bunch of people I've met on my travels so far. I doubt we'll see much of them again since we're leaving tomorrow, but I am glad to have had the chance to talk; that's what hostels are all about, right?

Carrie and I booked a half-day tour to Auschwitz for tomorrow morning and afternoon. I'm feeling something akin to dread; I want to go, but I am more than a little scared...