Italy!

“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”

Neale Donald Walsch

Right now I’m sitting in an Italian café eating a cannoli, writing, and really living the dream.  However, my last week in Ostrava was not as great as this week has been.  After returning from Budapest, I settled in for my last week in Ostrava.  I knew it would be a hard week because I had to say goodbye to some of my closest friends.  On top of that, I sustained a bad ankle sprain while playing soccer and ended up on crutches and in a lot of pain.  Unfortunately, this put a damper on my plans both in Ostrava and for the beginning of my trip to Italy.  I had to cancel my train trip and go by plane instead because then I would have friends with me and wouldn’t have to walk nearly as much.  After only a couple days I was “walking” again, and nearly two weeks since the injury I am now doing okay with getting around but still experiencing a lot of pain.  Oh well, it’s in my family’s nature to be injured so I’m used to it by now.

I first had to say goodbye to Tanya, with whom I became very close during the past six weeks.  She is an incredible person who really helped me step out of my comfort zone and pushed me to grow.  She is very confident and brave, and thus helped me to be so also.  She is also one of the most caring and supportive people I’ve ever met, so she has been a real light during my time here.  I wish we could have spent more time together, but I appreciate every second that we did.

Next was Julia, whom I consider to be one of my best friends, not only in Ostrava but in the world.  She was one of the people I have really opened up to and appreciate her advice and thoughts greatly.  She has an incredible sense of humor and we spent so much time laughing together.  She also pushed me to grow and improve during my time in Ostrava and helped me relax and have fun in situations where I may have felt uncomfortable in the past.  She amazes me because she already spent three months working in Wisconsin, did Erasmus in Ostrava, and is headed to Canada next week to work in a summer camp.  She is brave, smart, and fun-loving, and I hope to visit her in Canada in August.

On her last day in Ostrava, we stumbled upon a hamburger festival, which was the most American thing I’ve seen since being over here.  There was a large Hummer with the American flag on it advertising American soft drinks.  One of these was Arizona Iced Tea and I was so excited I made all my friends try it.  I also made them try corn dogs, which they loved, and we all ate hamburgers.  It was raining and cold the entire time, but we splashed in puddles, sang to the music, and enjoyed good food.

After my hard goodbyes, I set off on a month-long trip.  The first week of which has been spent in Italy, and the first few days I was accompanied by friends from Ostrava. It began in Pisa where we met with Elisa, one of Gloria’s friends, and she let us stay in her apartment for the night.  We visited the Leaning Tower of Pisa both at night and the next morning.   And we ate pizza.  A lot of pizza. She invited a group of her friends to go out with us, and we had what is called giro pizza.  The chefs choose what pizzas to bring to us and they just keep different kinds coming.  It’s all-you-can-eat and allows you to try many different types.  I ate at least a pizza and a half by myself.

The next day we took a bus to Rome.  This is where our story becomes crazy. We were warned by the Italians that Rome is chaotic and intense, but we didn’t comprehend what that meant until we experienced it first-hand.  It began on the bus.  We boarded a FlixBus, one of the biggest companies in Europe to embark on the 5.5 hour trip.  FlixBus is well-known and all of their buses are bright green with the name in big orange letters.  They have a bathroom, wifi, and charging ports.  For the first hour and a half, everything was perfect.  But at that point, the driver came on the speaker and said something in Italian.  Someone translated for us and said we were going to stop soon to change buses.  Okay, no problem. 

Well, the “stop” was not an actually bus stop and instead just the side of the highway.  And the bus we changed to was old, sketchy, and definitely not a regular Flixbus.  It was full of people who exited their bus and we all switched places.  Okay, no problem.

We got on the bus and sat down.  I went to keep working on some stuff and realized there were no charging ports and no wifi. That’s okay, I could manage to work without the internet. No problem.

But then, I came to the realization that there was no bathroom on the bus.  Now, I had a problem.  For a while a crossed my legs and thought about literally anything else, but it was not a fun time.  I kept thinking about how many more hours I had to wait.  Luckily, we stopped at a bus station to drop some people off and we were given ten minutes to find a bathroom.  I swear we had to run a quarter mile to find it, but we did.  And now I know to never count on Flixbus providing a bathroom (even though it says when booking that there will be one on board…).

View of Pisa

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  We got to Rome and, long story short, Rome is incredibly unorganized.  We had bought tickets online for the Colosseum and Vatican to make our time there easier.  So upon arriving we were supposed to stop at a ticket booth to pick them up.  Well essentially everyone in Rome just tells you that you need to go somewhere else and pay more money for whatever it is you’re looking for.  Tired, hungry, and wet from the rain, we finally made it to our bus stop to get to our AirBnb.  The bus was supposed to come in 3 minutes.  And again in 20 minutes.  And again in 40.  Well it finally came after about 45 minutes, at which point I was ready to turn around and get the heck out of Rome.

At our AirBnb, our host was incredibly kind, offered us free wine, and pointed us in the direction of a pizzeria.  We drowned our sorrows in wine and pizza.  Then, back at the AirBnb, we decided to order more pizza (less than an hour later, from the same pizzeria…).  So we ate pizza again, and drank more wine.

The next morning we headed to the Colosseum.  It was incredible and historic.  However, we learned important lessons about scam artists, from people on the street bullying you into giving them money to actual employees at the Colosseum being dishonest.  For example, we needed to reserve a time to enter the Colosseum, and we asked a man wearing an information vest where to go, and he said all tickets until the afternoon were already sold out.  But we had Vatican tickets in the afternoon, and we had already paid for the entrance online.  He tried to convince us that the only to get in during the morning was to buy a guided tour for $40 each. 

We left him and walked through the crowd of other people trying to take our money, and after wandering for another 30 minutes, we found a small booth where we could make reservations.  And I’ll be darned, there were tickets available for 30 minutes later!

Relieved, we spent time in Palatine Hill and the Colosseum.  Once we learned that we shouldn’t talk to anyone or make eye contact and attempt to be as invisible as possible, we really enjoyed the beauty and the history of the area.

We grabbed some pizza and pasta for lunch and set off for the Vatican.  On the way we stopped at a highly rated gelato place and had our lives thoroughly changed by the magnificence of it. Really, thank goodness for the food, because otherwise I may have exploded from stress.

Have I mentioned the terrible public transportation? Well, we left ourselves plenty of time to get to Vatican city before our time to enter.  However, after walking to the subway station and finding it closed (with no warning, I might add), we desperately tried to find a different route.  The next closest subway stations were 15 minutes away in the wrong direction, and finally we gave up and got a taxi.

We arrived at the Vatican on the wrong side to enter where we needed and with only one minute to spare.  We took off running, but it still took 15 minutes to get to where we needed to be.  Thank goodness Italians are not the most punctual people because they still let us enter.  Once inside, we had a wonderful time enjoying the museums and Sistine Chapel.  It was towards the end of the day, so there weren’t many people and we were able to take our time and appreciate the art and the history.

In summary, Rome has magnificent places to visit, but it is by far the most stressful city I have ever been to.  We should have planned more days so we wouldn’t have felt so rushed, but also, I’m not sure my brain could have handled another day in the city.

The next day we took a bus to Florence, where Elisa met back up with us.  We decided to take a much more laid-back approach in Florence, and just wandered around, enjoying the beautiful city, eating pasta and gelato, and drinking coffee.  Have I mentioned my deep love of Italian coffee? Truly, it’s incredible.  We took a long walk through the quiet streets and reached a panoramic view over the city.  And that night, we enjoyed a very nice dinner of pasta and wine, as well as Tiramisu. 

After that we went to a bar to listen to live music and have a drink, and after we went for a walk in the city at night.  It was overcast and a little rainy, but it was a lovely night.  Eventually we made our way to a bridge over the Arno river and sat on the bridge for over an hour, enjoying the night and each other’s company.

The next day I parted ways with my friends and headed to Turin.  I arrived late on Saturday night and met with Laura (another of Gloria’s friends), and we went to dinner, where we had…(you guessed it) pizza.  We went back to Laura’s place for the night.  I’ve spent the last few days in Turin.  It’s a big-ish city, but really has a nice vibe and more laid-back feel.  There are a lot of beautiful churches, squares, and buildings.  I’ve had a nice time with Laura and a friend of hers, Sara. 

Last night Laura and I made gnocchi together.  This required a lot of hand-on mashing of potatoes, kneading together potatoes, eggs, and flower, and rolling the dough into Playdoh style snakes.  It turned out really well and we had so much fun cooking together.

Tonight I leave for Spain.  I was supposed to fly to Barcelona and then take a bus to my destination, but I received an email yesterday that my flight was cancelled.  So now I will spend 12 hours on a bus overnight tonight to reach Barcelona.  Man, transportation has been a real experience. 

Overall, Italy has been a remarkable place to visit.  I have greatly enjoyed the food, history, and beauty.  I’ve shared my time with amazing people.  Personally, I prefer the smaller cities, but Rome was also a great place to visit and I’m glad I went.  I just recommend you prepare yourself for chaos if you plan to visit there.

Next week a friend from the US will join me in London.  The week after I meet my family in Prague.  I will have a few days in Ostrava to say my final goodbyes to my dear friends there, and then I will be headed home. I can’t wait to see everyone!

Penultimate Week in Ostrava

“In the end, what you do isn’t going to be nearly as interesting or important as who you do it with.”

John Green

As I have said before and will undoubtedly say again, the most incredible part of my time abroad has not been the traveling or the destinations, but the people with whom I have shared these experiences.  One of my favorite things we have done the past few weeks is join together in the evenings to eat foods from each of our homes.  Gloria prepared a typical meal of northern Italy, Polenta.  Domi made a dinner from Slovakia.  Yaren served Mercimek köftesi from Turkey. 

And finally, last week I took my turn.  After my presentation at Nation4Nation, everyone wanted to try the savory version of fry bread, so that’s what I prepared.  I invited 10 people to eat with me, so I spent the better part a day preparing food for everyone.  During the afternoon I made the dough, some regular and some vegan, and I sliced vegetables.  In the evening we gathered in the kitchen and I had my little worker bees roll and stretch the dough into the correct size while I fried them. 

We wanted to eat them fresh so as they came out of the pan we immediately ate them.  They were a huge hit and we kept eating and eating.  We were in the kitchen cooking for several hours and consumed nearly all the dough I had made, which was enough for 30-40 tacos.  It was a wonderful evening full of laughter and food and I am so happy I was able to share it with such amazing people.

Budapest

This week’s main event was a trip to Budapest with Gloria and Yaren.  We also met two of Gloria’s friends there and spent the weekend exploring the beautiful city.  Budapest is full of beautiful and spectacular buildings.  The highlights of which included St. Stephen’s Basilica, Parliament, and the Buda Castle.  We were able to enter the Basilica and climb a bunch of stairs into the dome, where we then went outside and had a wonderful view of the city. 

We appreciated Parliament from the outside, where there were protests and events happening in the square.  The castle was the highlight for me, and we visited it twice because of how amazing it was.  The first night we climbed up to it and had a perfect night view of the city.  We were able to overlook the Danube River and the city lights.  The second day we visited at sunset when the sky was a beautiful pink and purple. 

We visited Margaret Island, which is a small island park in the Danube.  It was a great place to relax for part of the afternoon (and for me to take a power nap). 

We also climbed Gellert Hill to Liberty Statue, which is a memorial for those who gave their lives fighting for Hungary’s independence.  The hill also offered a nice view of Budapest.

The highlight of our time in Budapest was surely the boat ride on the Danube we took.  It departed at 10 pm and lasted for two hours.  During that time we sat on top of the boat where we had a great 360o view.  We also got champagne upon entering the boat and were able to go back and get more.  We rode under the famous bridges and along the banks of beautiful and historic buildings.  Part way through our tour, a large storm rolled in.  The water got rough and we were hit with a lot of wind.  We eventually were told we had to leave the top of the boat because a bunch of cabbages1 left their champagne glasses sitting on the deck, which became a safety hazard in the wind because glasses were flying around and shattering everywhere.  I was not pleased by the idiocy that forced me to leave my perfect spot.

We were able to find places on the next level down that had a decent view, but not as good as on the top.  We still sat outside while it rained, and just made sure we were under the little roof, so no glass would fall atop our heads.  Overall, it was a beautiful and fun experience and I shared it with amazing friends.

1. Cabbage (n.) – my family’s favorite word for people who do stupid/annoying/thoughtless actions

Hansel and Gretel (2019 Edition)

Once upon a time there were two girls named Yaren and Becca.  They were students living in Ostrava.  One day they were riding the train from Prague back to their homes and they met a small and sweet old lady named Jana.  She spoke only broken English but conversed through pictures and body language the entire train ride.  She lived only 45 minutes from Ostrava in a small village called Třinec.  She invited the young girls to visit her at her home.

Months later Becca contacted Jana and made plans to visit the forest near Třinec.  Jana enthusiastically agreed to showing the girls around the woods near her home.  So Yaren and Becca set off early in the morning on the train.  Jana was waiting for them at the train station and immediately ran to them and gave them hugs.  They boarded a bus together and went further into the wilderness. 

They then began climbing the mountains.  Jana would stop and show the young girls different plants that are edible, and they would all have a taste.  The three of them climbed up and up.  Jana showed no sign of tiring, despite her age and small stature.  Becca kept dropping pins on google maps so as to know where the trail was for future reference.  The forest was a beautiful lush green.  The view was spectacular. 

They kept climbing until they reached a cabin on top of the mountain.  After just a short break to look at the view, they continued hiking along the ridgeline.  Two hours later they came to another cabin, where they followed Jana inside.  The young, trusting girls then sat with Jana and had some food.

They then went back down the mountain by a different route, and several more hours passed before they reached another small village.  They then took a bus and a train to first go back to Třinec.  At Třinec, Jana left the train and they all said their goodbyes.  The girls made their way safely home to Ostrava.

The End

Jana is an amazing woman and we are so lucky to have met her.  She was incredibly cheerful and full of life.  She taught us about the forest and the surrounding area.  She clearly loves being outside and doing many different activities.  She has been teaching herself English the past few years and loved the opportunity to converse with us in English.  I will never forget the small lady we met on the train who took us on an amazing adventure through the woods.

One other interesting adventure this week was a tour we took one night into the underground of Ostrava.  There are old bomb shelters used during World War II, and a local took us into them and showed us around.  They were both very interesting and very creepy.  It was a fun and strange experience.

I am now preparing for the end of my time here.  I already said goodbye to Domi, who left us last week.  Tomorrow I say goodbye to Tanja and Keisha.  On Sunday I say goodbye to almost everyone else, as I will be departing for three weeks in Italy, Spain, France, and the UK.  By the time I return to Ostrava, most of my friends will be gone.  I have no words to express how much I will miss the people I have met here.  I am so grateful for the relationships I have formed and know that each of these people changed my life.  I will keep in contact with them over the years and hopefully our paths will cross again.

Croatian Vacation

“Wherever you go, go with all your heart.”

Confucius

The past week has been packed with fulfilled dreams, unimaginable beauty, and a plethora of cats.  I have a whole lot to share, so buckle in for a long ride. 

Last Wednesday we packed up Gesa’s little car and set off for a long road trip.  We left Ostrava around 4 pm and headed south through Slovakia and into Hungary.  As we drove through the farm land, we saw many deer grazing in the fields.  Nearly every field had at least one, and I loved watching for them.  I have greatly missed the deer and elk in Arizona.  We also saw three foxes, one of which stayed right beside the road and looked at us as we stopped next to it.  I have never seen more than a fleeting glance of a fox before, so it was very fun to watch it for a moment.  We drove for over six hours and eventually reached the coast of Lake Balaton in Hungary. 

We had decided not to book an accommodation in advance because we were not sure how long we would want to drive.  We had several hostels in mind that we could find beds in which to sleep.  However, what we did not consider is that April is still considered “off-season” for the lakeside villages and thus none of the hostels were open.  It was nearly one in the morning and we were driving through tiny villages that showed no sign of life.  We finally stumbled upon a small hotel with one light on out front.  Unfortunately, the door was locked and there were no people inside.  There was, however, a phone number.  We called and reached a Hungarian lady who didn’t speak any English.  Luckily she knew a little German so Gesa was able to communicate with her.  She said she was on her way and her colleague came out of the building to take us inside.  We quickly learned they only accepted cash, and only Hungarian forints at that.  So we had to make a trip to the atm.  After filling out paperwork and paying, we finally were led to our room, and before saying goodnight, the lady offered us coffee, and when we declined, she offered us Schnapps instead.

After a short night’s sleep, we woke and drove to Keszthely, a village directly on the edge of the lake.  We were very hungry, so we walked around the shore in search of a café.  Well, apparently when they say “off-season”, they mean it, and nothing is open.  We walked for a long time and asked some locals for directions, but no one could tell us a nearby place that would be open.  We eventually saw a small shop with a picture of bread on the window and we excitedly went inside.  It was a magnificent Hungarian bakery full of different breads and pastries.  We picked out at least 15 different items and went outside where we sat on a bench and ate to our hearts’ content.

We toured the village for a short while, where there was a palace and a church worth visiting.  We then crawled back into the car and set off for Zagreb, Croatia, where we spent part of the afternoon.  We mostly just wandered the streets and went wherever they took us.  We weaved through the city and appreciated the greenness of everything.  There were vines, trees, and plants everywhere, which breathed life into the city.  We visited the cathedral and several other places before getting dinner and heading further south.  We arrived at our small apartment on the edge of Plitvice National Park and settled in for the night.  Again, upon arrival, our host offered us Schnapps.

We woke early the next day to be at Plitvice in time for opening.  When we arrived at the park, we were told their online system was down and they couldn’t sell tickets, so no one could enter the park.  After a small panic attack and several deep breaths, we went to the back of the line and waited until the system rebooted.  Over an hour later, with tickets in hand, we entered the park and shook off our frustrations from the morning. 

Immediately the scenery took my breath away.  Imagine being surrounded by vibrant turquoise lakes, bright green foliage, and cascading waterfalls.  The sun was shining and everything was sparkling in the beams of light and and dancing in the breeze. 

We very slowly made our way along the path, taking in everything we could.  There are few words to describe what it was like there, but I’ll do my best and then you will just have to look at pictures and the video below to get an idea of how incredible everything was.

The wooden path through the park was well maintained and quite impressive.  It was sitting just above the water, and there was often water raging below my feet.  It provided the opportunity for visitors to truly see the magnificence of the area by walking across the water, beside the waterfalls, and through the forests.  Around every turn was something new and astounding, and my heart swelled with joy. 

The never-ending waterfalls were not only beautiful by sight, but for all the senses.  The sound of raging water drowned out all other noise and made everything both peaceful and impressive.  The spray of water that came from the waterfalls cooled my skin in the warm sun and was very refreshing.  The world smelled so fresh and pure, exactly as nature should.  Everything was perfect.

We were very pleased by the lack of tourists, because we knew it is a very popular destination.  I guess we were there early enough in the year to avoid the crowds because it was peaceful and calm the whole day.  We also stepped off the typical path onto a hiking trail for a few hours, during which we never saw another person.  It gave us a different view of the area and let us see more of the park.

After an entire day in one of the most spectacular places I have ever been, we were exhausted, but headed to our next accommodation.  We drove two and a half hours and crossed a bridge onto the island of Krk where we found our next place.  It was in a small village on the shore of the Adriatic Sea (part of the Mediterranean).  We were, again, offered Schnapps.

The next morning, after a breakfast on the balcony overlooking the sea, we went for a swim.  The water was cold, but not terribly so.  After the initial shock I was able to swim for a long time before deciding to get out.  It was amazing because it was salt water but there were no waves, so I was very buoyant and just floated around, looking up at the sky and the surrounding mountains. 

I then set up the hammock (of course) and enjoyed laying in it for a while.  Once I was dry and warm, we moved along to explore more of the island.  We headed into the largest city, also called Krk.  There we got lunch at an amazing little restaurant that served homemade pasta with fresh shrimp.  After lunch we were given free Schnapps as well. Apparently Schnapps are a quite important in southern Europe.  We then toured around the city for a bit and enjoyed the small, curvy streets, the old town walls, and the views of the sea. 

After some ice cream (which, by the way, is “zmrzlina” in Czech) we drove down the coast to the southern part of the island.  While most of the island was very lush and green, we found a rocky and mountainous area to go for a short walk.  The hills around us were covered in sheep that constantly baaa-ed at us while we walked.  We came across the ruins of an old church overlooking the sea and many small stone walls we believe must be the foundation from an old village. 

We made it to a finger of land stretching out into the sea and went to the end where there was a great view of the upcoming sunset and a small cove for swimming.  I went down to the beach and went running into the water.  Only after being totally submerged did I realize there was an abundance of urchins all over the rocks beneath me.  Thank goodness I was wearing my Chacos or I would have been in a lot of pain.  I swam for a bit, but this area of the sea was colder, so I didn’t stay in terribly long.  I did climb up onto some offshore rocks and experienced the magnificence of being a mermaid for a while. 

I returned to shore and climbed back up onto the rocks for the sunset over the sea.  It was quite breath-taking and was a lovely end to the day.

The following morning I woke to watch the sunrise from the balcony, but it was very disappointing and was not anything special, so I returned to sleep for a while.  Then we drove north to Slovenia where we went to a the home of a friend of Gesa’s, named Teja.  Teja’s family owns a farm in a village of 150 people, where they raise cattle and chickens, and have a large garden.  Their farm is almost self-sustaining, with them consuming vegetables, eggs, beef, meat, and even alcohol they grow and create themselves. 

A short distance away they also have a vineyard where they grow grapes and have a wine house where they turn them into wine.  We tasted a lot of really good homemade wine.  One of the specialties in Slovenia is a wine made from a mixture of red and white grapes and was very tasty.  They also make their own Jagermeister, which requires 44 different herbs collected at different times throughout the year.  They keep a calendar of when each is in season and go out in the surrounding areas to collect them.  The Jagermeister was also delicious.

Because we arrived on Easter Sunday, Teja invited us to join her and her family for Easter lunch, which was incredibly kind of them.  We ate a feast of traditional Slovenian food, including meats, salad, and vegetables (all from the farm).  We also got several versions of a traditional sweet to taste.  The entire meal was splendid and we had such a nice time with Teja’s family (who, by the way, don’t speak any English).  Some of my best moments so far in Europe have been conversations with locals who speak little or no English, as well as meals prepared with love from friends’ families.

Teja took us to a fairly well-known place in her village where there is a thermal spring and a beautiful creek.  The cold part of the creek rushes down a small waterfall and down past the thermal spring.  The spring starts in the back of a large cave and runs out into a pool that is very popular for swimming. 

I didn’t swim there, but I did cross the cold creek (in my Chacos) to take a look in the cave.  Of course I then had to go into the cave, because caves are so heckin’ cool.   I started just going in to my ankles, and then my thighs, and then I was belly deep in water.  Using a headlamp I was able to walk to a high side about 50 yards into the cave.  While walking I could hear the chatter (chirp-chirp-click-clickity-chirp) of bats.  Upon nearing the small bank, I looked up and saw thousands of bats in a giant blob, some sleeping and some wiggling around.  There were also some flying and others hanging alone but in the proximity of the blob.  Not wanting to get rabies or another common bat disease, I ran away like a little scardy cat. I’m pretty sure I didn’t contract any bat disease, but I guess only time will tell.  I also had a lot of contact with tick-infected grasses, so I may also die from tick bites.  Stay tuned for updates.

The cave made me unexplainably happy and I loved exploring there.  We then sat in the grass and soaked in the sun before heading back to the farm.  We then had a tour of the farm and helped with a couple small tasks that they trusted us to not mess up.  I spent time with the cows, who were much nicer than our cows.  Teja and I discussed many aspects of raising cattle in our homes and learned about the differences in each other’s styles.  I also fell completely in love with Mitsy, one of the cats.  She was orphaned at only three days old and Teja raised her, so she is very affectionate and loves people.  She spent many hours during those two days curled up in my arms with her face nuzzled into my hair.  They also had an incredibly sweet German Shepard named Isha, with whom I also spent an extraordinary amount of time. 

The next morning we went for a drive and a walk to a church positioned on the top of a hill.  We got an outstanding view in every direction.  I haven’t yet given Croatia or Slovenia they credit they deserve.  Both countries are gorgeous.  They both contain stunning forests, which were at their best for us because of the spring blooms.  They both have large mountains and rolling hills.  The farms are covered in green grass and beautiful yellow flowers (I believe from canola plants).  The towns and villages are small and quaint.  Every aspect of the countries was magnificent.

On our walk we passed several farms positioned high on the hill sides.  I stopped to pet some horses over the fence.  I reached over and they started walking toward me.  Now, let me remind you that I am generally an intelligent person, but we all have our moments.  It took not once, not twice, but three electrocutions before I realized I shouldn’t touch the top wire on the fence.  I am not used to living with electric fences, and it was quite a shocking experience.

So we walked around and saw beauty on all sides.  We then returned to the farm and went for a final short walk to a nearby creek where beavers live.  There was quite a big wet-land area between us and the beavers, so we took the long way around.  We made it to the creek and went for a short stroll while looking for beavers.  We didn’t find any, but we did find the “beaver man” who essentially has taken it upon himself to live alongside the beavers to protect them from human development.  Apparently, a few years back the private owners were considering selling the land to the government to create more houses, so he bought it and now spends his days studying and protecting them. 

We decided we wanted to take the short route back to the farm and thought, “It’s probably not that wet and muddy”. Ha.  We plowed through the waist high grass trying to step carefully on high spots and avoid getting too wet.  Eventually we gave up and just began sloshing and slurping through the mud.  Again, thank goodness for Chacos.  However, the mud splashed and covered my pants completely.  No matter, we laughed as we went deeper and deeper into the mud before emerging on the other side.

Alas, our time in Slovenia was coming to an end.  After another delicious homemade meal (and cleaning off a lot with the hose), we said our goodbyes and I attempted to hide Mitsy in the car.  We set forth on the long journey back and got back to Ostrava after midnight.  It was one of the most amazing trips of my life and I will never forget it.  I hope to return to Slovenia and Croatia again someday.

CATS

Other than Mitsy, I’ve had a lot of contact with cats this week.  First, Gesa and I went to the cat café in Ostrava while we planned our trip.  It’s a café…full of cats!  I got coffee and chocolate cake and spent my time surrounded by cats.  The cats have a plethora of places to climb, sleep, and play.  They are allowed on the tables and counters.  They make their rounds and spend time with all the people.  It’s a dream come true.

Slovenia and Croatia also had a lot of cats.  I chased and pet many of them.  Also, this week I realized something interesting about myself.  Well, actually, Gesa pointed it out to me.  Every time I see a cat, I make this small, excited gasping sound.  Every single time.  It’s always exactly the same.  And I never make that sound for any other reason. Gesa has now spent so much time with me that if we are walking and I make the sound, she immediately starts looking around for a cat.  Even now that I know I’m doing it, I can’t stop. 

Another week has come and gone, and I’m another week closer to coming home.  This weekend I will be in Budapest and will have more to share when I get back to Ostrava.  Much love to everyone.

Oh, and here is a video of my Croatian Vacation! Enjoy!

More Adventures

“A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles.”

Tim Cahill

The last week consisted of a lot of hammocking, more travelling, and a soccer tournament.  Last weekend were the National Erasmus games, which were held in Ostrava this year.  There were three events and I participated in the futsal (of course).  I was nominated as captain and my team was wonderful group of people: Won (South Korea), Iiro (Finland), Lee (South Korea), Paulo (Portugal), and Ayaka (Japan).  We have all played together over the past couple months every week when we play pick-up at the dorm. 

When we were told about the event, we were told it was for fun, and everyone would be drinking beer and having a good time.  So, we were relaxed and didn’t worry too much about being good.  However, when we showed up on Saturday, it was clear the other teams were competitive and were not just there for fun.  Long story short, we played against a lot of very intense people who did not share our laid-back mentality.  That being said, we were still very competitive and had a lot of fun.

A bunch of my friends came to cheer me on, so I had a loud and wonderful cheering section.  They made me laugh and I loved their support.  On Sunday, many of them played in the volleyball tournament, so I went for the day to watch them.  They played very well and it was so fun to watch.  I want to start playing volleyball now.

On Monday I presented at Nation4Nation, an event put on by the ESN club.  I got to share about the United States and Arizona.  First, we played a game of Family Feud and I asked questions to see how much foreigners know about the United States.  Then I did a twenty-minute presentation, most of which was about Arizona.  I was able to share the beauty of my home state.  I also made Navajo fry bread so everyone could try a food from Arizona.  Everyone seemed very impressed by how amazing Arizona is and they enjoyed my food.

Throughout the week I spent most of my days relaxing in the park and planning more of my upcoming trips.  Each day different friends came to join me and spent time in my hammock with me.  Apparently Europeans don’t hammock often, and people are very intrigued by the hammock.  One of my friends told me, “You look so American right now”, and another, after sitting in the hammock for the first time, “Oh my gosh! Americans know how to relax!”  They all are hooked on it now and look forward to the days I go to the park so they can join.  I’m so happy they have spent time with me doing one of my favorite things.

This past weekend, Gloria, Gesa, and I joined our friend Domi on a trip to her home village, Parnica, Slovakia. We reserved a camp trailer to stay in on the side of a lake.  This turned out to be an interesting experience because the gas ran out multiple times, leaving us with no heat, no hot water, and an inability to cook.  Since it was barely above freezing at night, it got quite chilly.

However, Slovakia was a lot of fun and we saw some beautiful things.  On Saturday we took the bus to a neighboring village where we first visited a castle from the 1300’s.  After touring there, we headed to a hiking trail which led us to the remains of another castle.  This was very interesting because it has not been restored since it was built in the 1200’s and is high on a mountainside where it is not visited frequently.  It was very authentic and beautiful.  We then hiked about 4 more miles up to a cottage where we ate.  It was not a terribly difficult hike, but challenged me some and provided good exercise along with nice scenery.  We hiked back on another trail and headed back to our trailer.

On Sunday we took a small row boat provided by the trailer park out onto the lake.  It was incredibly relaxing and beautiful.  We went out in groups of two or three, and we laughed continuously while trying to row properly.  I love the friends I have made here.

We then went for a short hike before going to the train station to return to Ostrava.  We had a wonderful trip and I loved seeing Slovakia.  Upon returning to my dorm, Saul and I were able to celebrate our anniversary to the best of our ability, by watching one of our favorite shows together over Skype.  It’s days like this when I miss home the most, but I am grateful for technology and the time we do get to spend together.

I’m down to just four weeks left in Ostrava before I move on to see more of Europe.  Time is flying by and I’m loving every second. 

Welcome, Spring!

“Blossom by blossom the spring begins.”

Algernon Charles Swinburne

I have been struggling to find the words to express the past week and a half.  It has been truly incredible watching the trees bud and the flowers bloom.  In addition, I spent five days on a marvelous trip.  So here we go: The latest in The Becca Chronicles.

Last Thursday one of Gloria’s friends came to visit Ostrava.  We wanted to take her up Halda Ema, so we set off to do so in the evening.  By the time we reached the top, the sun had just dropped below the horizon and the city was lighting up.  We sat on a bench and drank beer while enjoying the cool spring air and the view of the city.  I had not yet been up there past dark and loved the experience.  The mountain was also steaming more than I’ve seen yet.

On Friday I woke up early and set off for the first day of my long weekend.  Yaren and I headed to Vienna.  I needed to pass through there to get to my next destination, and she had not been yet.  So, we spent the entire day exploring the city.  I was able to take her to my favorite spots and we also saw new things together.  The parks were all beginning to blossom and the world is coming to life.  The city looked so different than it did 7 weeks ago.  I am awed by the cherry trees and their vibrant blossoms.  I could sit among them all day long (which I’ve been doing, but more on that later).  We also visited the art galley in Belvedere, which included Gustav Klimt’s very famous peace, The Kiss.  It was quite spectacular.

In the afternoon, Julia, Elina, and Iiro joined us.  We got lunch and spent the evening visiting more of the city.  We saw Yaren back to the train station so she could make it home to Ostrava, and we set out to burn a couple more hours.  We decided to ride the famous Vienna Ferris Wheel.  The view of Vienna at night was great and it was a relaxing ride. 

Once back on the ground, we had dinner at a fabulous Chinese restaurant, where I had dumplings.  Yes, it is possible I have become obsessed with dumplings.  Then we went to the train station and boarded our first overnight sleeper train.  The compartments were small and set up with six beds (two sides each with three bunks).  Between the people and our luggage, we pretty much couldn’t move once we crawled into our little caves.  Surprisingly, I slept fairly well and woke the next morning to a train attendant holding breakfast and coffee!

We arrived in Bregenz, Austria, and took another short train ride to our destination: Lochau.  Our friend, Thomas, lives there and invited us to come stay for a few days.  Upon arriving, he and his girlfriend helped us get settled in the house and make our beds.  We sat on the balcony on the third floor, where we could see the village around us.  Lochau is located on the edge of the Lake of Konstanz, at the base of the Austrian alps, and within sight of both Germany and Switzerland.  From the balcony, we had a view of all of these things. 

After a bit of rest, we walked to the next village over where Thomas’ said his mom would give us some “snacks”.  Well, apparently “snacks” means an entire multi-course homemade traditional Austrian meal.  She prepared wienerschnitzel, salad, vegetables, pasta, and potatoes.  We feasted, each of us so excited to have a mom-cooked meal.  It was the best meal I’ve had in two months.  After lunch we sat and had coffee and traditional Austrian cake, sachertorte.  It was to die for.  We had a lovely afternoon talking and eating.  Oh, and I chased some of the neighborhood cats.

We walked along the edge of the lake and went to a small German island town, called Lindau.  It was a beautiful town and we enjoyed an evening of strolling around.  After returning to Lochau, Julia, Elina, and I went to the lake shore to watch the sunset.  We stayed outside a long time, enjoying the weather and talking about all sorts of things.

The next morning we headed up into the mountains.  We caught a bus on the way up and hiked maybe 100 meters once we got off.  We stopped at a café overlooking the lake for breakfast.  We sat for a couple hours, ordering more food and coffee when needed.  Eventually we moved on and went through an animal park (like a zoo) on the side of the mountain.  The highlight of this was a slide that was built into the side of the mountain.  Yes, it was probably made for kids, and yes, we each rode it three time and laughed hysterically while doing so.  It was not your average slide.  It was steep, long, and curvy, and provided us with a lot of amusement.

We continued on to the top of the next mountain, where we lay in the grass and enjoyed the view of the alps.  After maybe an hour of napping in the sunshine we began the hike down.  It was a couple kilometers of steep downhill through the forest, which is turning green and was beautiful.  We reached the bottom and walked along the lake.  I think we ate more good food at some point in there.  And ice cream.  And maybe cake.  Essentially the whole weekend consisted of naps in the sun and good food.

The next day Julia and I made ourselves a picnic breakfast to eat on the balcony in the sun.  We then travelled by car to Meersburg, Germany, where we visited a beautiful castle, and, you guessed it, had coffee and sweets.  We dined (briefly) like royalty on the balcony of the castle. 

We then took the ferry across the lake to Konstanz, Germany, where we toured the city.  One of the most interesting things in Konstanz is the giant rotating statue on the shore of the lake.  The statue depicts a prostitute, holding the Pope Martin V in one hand and Emperor Sigismund in the other.  It is a satirical take on how the woman held power over the men after “working” with both of them and learning their secrets. 

After another great meal, we drove back through Switzerland to Lochau.  The next morning we headed towards home and travelled by train for about 11 hours.  It was an amazing trip and we visited some of the most beautiful places I have ever been.

On Wednesday and Thursday of this week I spent the majority of my time laying in my hammock in the riverside park.  I found a lovely spot beneath the cherry trees where I got a little bit of sun and a view of the river.  I worked on a lot of things from there and had a picnic lunch both days. 

As some of you may know, my family sent me a package over a month ago.  For weeks I heard nothing about it, until finally I received a notice that it was stuck in Czech customs.  So today I took a quick trip to Prague, where I rescued my package, and finally got my birthday presents.  I had cards from both sets of grandparents, including chicken feathers and dog hair straight off the Camp Verde farm.  It’s a good thing customs didn’t think to check inside my letters, because livestock is largely forbidden. I also heard from several friends and got some wonderful gifts from my family.  I miss everyone dearly.

Many More Adventures

“As with any journey, who you travel with is more important than the destination.”

Hi everyone!  I’m sorry it’s been two weeks since I’ve written.  Last week I had a cold and hadn’t done much of interest to share.  However, I have a lot to say today!

On March 15th , Gesa and I joined Gloria and her friend Laura (who was visiting from Italy) on a trip to Wraclaw, Poland.  We had a great weekend exploring the city and eating way too much pierogi (we had it four times in 2 days…).  The city was very beautiful and we enjoyed touring it.  It was full of gorgeous old buildings, including cathedrals and churches, and had a wonderful park and garden.  The city is also known for gnomes, so there are about 350 small metal gnomes spread throughout the city and we searched for them as we walked around. 

As for pierogi, we tried a variety of places, fillings, and styles.  At each place we all ordered different things and shared accordingly, so I feel as though I am now a pierogi expert.  Throughout the weekend we created different criteria and discussed each place thoroughly while eating and acted as though we were professional critics.  The criteria included things such as the dumpling dough, fillings, cost, atmosphere, and flavor variety.  We went to one place that had oven-baked pierogi as well as traditional pierogi, and after trying them both we all agreed we prefer traditional style.  My favorite type of filling is the traditional Russian dumpling, with potato and cheese.  However, we also tried ones with onion, spinach, meats, and more.  The spinach ones were also a big hit among our group.  Oh, and the dessert pierogi are also wonderful.  We tried some with chocolate and some with fruit.  What did we learn through this experience?  Pierogi is delicious and you will enjoy it at pretty much any restaurant that serves it.  Thank you, Poland, for having such exquisite food.

I began to feel sick during our stay in Wroclaw and continued to fight a cold for a few days.  Monday I stayed in bed and slept probably 20 hours, which made we feel much better.  Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday I had class.  I know what you’re thinking:  three days of class in one week? Outrageous, I know.  It was a tough one.

For those who don’t know, Thursday was my birthday.  At first I was very sad because I wanted to spend my birthday with my family, friends from home, and Saul.  As the day proceeded, however, my friends here made me very happy.  For dinner many of my friends said they wanted to celebrate with me, so we decided to order pizza to the dorm building.  We gathered in the dining area in the lobby with our pizza and beer, and many of my friends came bearing gifts and cards, which I had not expected at all. 

We ate and laughed together, and after eating our fill of pizza, Gloria and Yaren snuck away and returned with a beautiful homemade tiramisu cake.  The candles they chose were “magic candles” and were the most impressive things I’ve ever seen.  After blowing them out several times and having them reignite on their own, I licked my fingers and pinched the wicks, expecting that to be the end of it. Alas, the flames returned.  Eventually we had to remove them and fully submerge them in water to make them stop.  Oh, and they were similar to sparklers and were sending off sparks the entire time.  After dinner, we went to trivia night at the pub in the dorm, which we won, and all the Erasmus students in the pub wished me a happy birthday.  Although I was away from home, my new Erasmus family here made my birthday one to remember.

On Friday I joined the ESN club on a trip to Landek Park, which is an old coal mining area near Ostrava where one of the mines has been converted into a museum.  We were able to enter the mine and tour inside.  It was very interesting and scary to imagine the work that occurred inside the mines.  We were in the shallowest mine, only about 20 meters below the surface, but below our feet there were five more, the deepest of which was 600 meters down.  It was interesting to learn about the machines inside the mines and see how little space the miners had to move around and work.  I am very grateful that I am not a miner.

On Saturday we went with ESN to Olomouc, which is a neighboring city and is considered the historical heart of the region.  A member from the ESN club in Olomouc met us at the train station and gave us a guided tour through the city.  It was a beautiful old city with much deeper history than Ostrava.  The weather was great and it was sunny and warm the entire day.  In the afternoon we took the bus up to Holy Hill, which gave us a great view over the surrounding farm lands.  I laid down in the grass and soaked up the sun and the view for a long time.

On Sunday a group of friends (Gesa, Gloria, Elina, Iiro, Michelle) and I set off on a hike up Radhost mountain, which is south of Ostrava near the Slovakian border.  It was about an hour and a half away by train and then we did a 10 mile hike.  We immediately entered a forest with a lovely stream flowing through it.  We hiked up a pretty steep trail for a while until we reached the first stopping place: a small skiing village called Pustevny.  There we sat and had some food, and I had the most incredible blueberry cake-dumpling things. 

We then pushed on along the top of the ridge to the next place, where we found the statue of Radegast.  Radegast is an ancient pagan god of hospitality, wisdom, war, and more, depending on who you ask.  He is credited for the creation of beer, and the most common Czech beer is called Radegast.  This mountain range was a place for sacred rituals and celebrations.  We continued on to the summit of the mountain where there is a beautiful chapel on top of the hill.  On the way down, we took a different and much less used trail, and weaved our way through the forest, over downed trees, and through overgrown areas.  I was delighted to spend the day in nature.

Oh, and at the end of the day as we were walking back to the bus station, I decided I wanted to go down to the creek and feel the water.  There happened to be a down tree laying across the creek as a bridge, and someone jokingly said, “You should walk on the tree!”  Well, I took this as a challenge and a dare, and stupidly set off to cross the tree bridge.  After a couple steps, I realized walking on it was too dangerous.  So, I sat on my butt and started scooting.  This also didn’t work.  My next attempt was to lay down and inchworm my way backwards.  This worked well, until I got about halfway across, got scared, and realized there was a big knob coming up that would be difficult to wiggle over.  I decided to return back the same way, but quickly realized that pulling myself forward uphill was far more challenging than scooting backward downhill.  I lay in the middle for a bit, deciding what to do.  My friends tried to give me branches to pull me up, but that failed epically.  Finally I continued my inchworm-ing down the tree, carefully maneuvered over the knob, and swung off the tree to the ground.  I wish I could say it was graceful, but of course it wasn’t and I ended with some gnarly bruises. 

This upcoming week is our spring break, and I am hoping to take a big trip for six days or so across Austria and southern Germany.  Gesa, Elina, Yaren, Julia, and Iiro all want to join, so we are figuring out the exact plans to make it happen.

Time is flying by and my time abroad is already half over.  My time is Ostrava is only about five weeks from ending before I leave for my trans-Europe trip.  I still have days where all I want is to be at home, but I am loving my time here and am making wonderful memories.

Much love,

Becca

Auschwitz

Visiting Auschwitz has always been a dream of mine, and I believe it is an experience that every person should have.  It was one of the most powerful and heartbreaking days of my life.  We decided to take a guided tour and I am very glad we did.  Our guide was extremely knowledgeable and was able help us to comprehend the horrors of the camp.

There are two camps at Auschwitz: Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau.  We began in the Auschwitz I camp, which is significantly smaller than Birkenau and was established first.  It consists of a small village of old Polish army barracks.  It was mainly used as a working camp and held prisoners, and some people were also killed there.  It contained around 15,000 prisoners on average. 

Birkenau is less than two miles away and was meant for 125,000 prisoners.  It was also the sight of the death camp and main gas chambers.  Birkenau had at least 1.1 million people enter the camp during the three years it was used, and an estimated 90% of these prisoners perished there.  Many of them were sentenced to death in the gas chambers immediately upon arrival.

The large gas chambers in Birkenau are where most people were killed.  Many people also died of starvation, disease, and some were shot or hung.  Upon arriving at Birkenau in very crowded, hot train cars, prisoners undergo a selection process, during which the children, elderly, and anyone unfit to work were immediately sent to the chambers.  The rest were held in the camp as workers, but most were only kept alive for a couple of months before being killed. 

The gas chambers could hold 1500 people at one time, all of whom could be killed in 20 minutes using a hydrogen cyanide-based gas.  The prisoners were forced to remove their clothing and enter the chamber, where they were murdered, and then their bodies were moved to the crematorium where they were burned.  In the days leading up to the liberation of the camp, the Nazi’s destroyed much of the Birkenau camp, including the gas chambers.  The remnants remain to this day, but it is not possible to enter the chambers.

In Auschwitz I, there is one small gas chamber that was used in the beginning as a trial chamber before the Birkenau chambers were built.  We were able to enter the chamber and looking at the pipes where gas flowed and trying to imagine the suffering and death that occurred there was heartbreaking.  I have never stood on such devastating soil.

Many of the old barracks in Auschwitz I have been converted into a museum where visitors can see living conditions for the prisoners, as well as see the average food portions given to them per day.  There are pictures hanging from the camp that were taken illegally and show the brutality in the camp.  There are pictures of survivors the day they were rescued, starving and weak from their time there.  There are piles of the prisoners’ belongings that were found in a camp.  Perhaps the saddest thing I have seen was the room filled with thousands of children’s shoes that were collected from the undressing room in the gas chamber.

The entire experience was eye-opening and horrifying.  If you ever have the opportunity to visit Poland, I suggest you visit the camp.  It is impossible to imagine or understand the pain and suffering that occurred during the Holocaust.  It is impossible to imagine the evil and cruelty of the Nazis.  It is important, however, to attempt to learn about and see the place where so many people were murdered.  We must be educated so we can remember and mourn all of the innocent men, women, and children of the Holocaust.