Chung-Ju!

Our flight was a little over an hour, so I didn’t bother trying to sleep, but I was already feeling pretty drained by the time we arrived at the airport. We planned to take a taxi to a bus station, then ride for about an hour to her parents’ house. We found the taxi stand, then Adam and I just sort of stood there listlessly as Bomi had an extensive back and forth with driver and his buddies. She finally informed us that he was offering to take us all the way to her parent’s for $70, and Adam and I immediately agreed. Again, maybe not the most frugal option, but sometimes it’s just worth it. Besides, it wasn’t too much split between three people.

The ride was pretty quiet, but I got more and more excited the further we went because I could not wait to see Bomi’s home. Not just her apartment though, her whole city.  I mean she has spent an extensive amount of time around my hometown, and parents’ house, and my dog (may he rest in peace) over the years, and she’s even hung out with my friend group that goes back to elementary school, so I was eager to experience her life. We eventually got to her building, and I tried to soak up the environment as we made our way to the tenth floor. As soon as we got to her door we were enthusiastically greeted by her mom, who was also busy cooking. The whole apartment smelt like food and it had a really warm and welcoming atmosphere. Bomi immediately told her that we needed a bit of a rest, so her mom showed me to my temporary lodgings – their bedroom! Her parents actually slept in the living room the whole time I was there. I felt pretty guilty about it, but I guess they just wanted to give me some privacy since the living area was always full of activity (mostly by Bomi’s mom). If it’s any consolation though, the sleeping surfaces were the same in both rooms. It was basically a stone bench, that at one point had been heated, but now was simply topped with a heating pad. And a blanket. I think the hard surface is better for your back, but as a side-sleeper, I was definitely looking forward to my own bed…another sign I’m getting old! Bomi and Adam went into her room to lay down, but pretty soon I heard Bomi back in the kitchen talking to her mom. I of course couldn’t understand them, but it sounded like there were just carrying on the most casual of conversations, and it was really heartwarming to get to see her have such mundane, yet rare, time with her mom. I couldn’t really sleep either, but I eventually sort of dozed for a bit.

We joined them after a while and her mom started feeding us all this different food. Just like when I did a home stay in Morocco, pretty much the first thing you learn to say is “I’m full” because it ends up being the most useful phrase you need to know. Once we were sufficiently replenished, we took the streets with her tiny little doggo, Kong (pronounced with a long o), which means “bean” but I think also sort of translates to “small”. She was precious. We set off to the optometrist where Bomi and Adam had gotten eye exams and ordered glasses earlier in the week because it was comparatively much less expensive than in the States. I was again surprised by how much her neighborhood reminded of my neighborhood in Madrid and it was almost surreal. When we arrived, I asked Bomi if she wanted me to wait outside with the dog, but she correctly assumed they would be fine with him inside. I just sort of let him lead me around the parameter of the store while they took care of things at the counter, and we made friends with a middle-aged gentleman waiting his turn. He tried to ask me a question, but I just sort of shook my head and murmured in English that she belonged to my friend. Bomi later said that he had wanted to know much she had cost, which I thought seemed like sort of a random thing to ask. Anyway, after the eye place, we had to stop by the corner pharmacy for some Aloe because Adam and I had been burnt to a crisp on the mountain. We really hadn’t been in the sun for much time at all, but I guess it’s just more powerful up there. From there we picked up some coffees, then went back to this little gazebo thing by her apartment. She said it was mostly reserved for seniors but figured we would be okay since it was pretty deserted. We had to take off our shoes before stepping up onto the platform, and there was what I suppose was a bamboo rug in the middle for sitting.

Adam and I slathered ourselves in the Aloe as we enjoyed our coffee and discussed the plan for the wedding celebration. Pretty soon, two girls started playing nearby. Bomi called out a greeting to them, saying the informal form of hello, and it was so cute when the called back the formal form in unison. They apparently took this exchange as an invitation to come hang out with us. They were really interested in petting Kong and talking to the Americans. They turned out be in fourth grade, which Bomi later said should have made them proficient in English, but I think they were too bashful to try speaking it much. They were quite open with us though, which again felt much different than other countries in terms of the “stranger danger” mentality.  I mean in Madrid it’s considered kind of odd if you even make eye contact with strangers in public. I guess kids are different though. Anyway, I thought it was super cute, but I could tell Bomi was getting annoyed, and she soon suggested that we go pick up Adam’s dry cleaning. The three of us winced as we descended the two stairs from the platform but could really only laugh about it. To get to the dry cleaners, we had to pass by a playground, then a staircase. I think Bomi was legitimately considering leaving the suit there to avoid climbing them, but it really wasn’t so bad on the way up. As we took a side street, we seemed to gain quite a bit of attention, but it was really only the children that stared. The children in groups must have felt a little braver because they would excitedly call “hello!” or “how are you?” to me and Adam as we walked by. I think they adults tried to be more casual and call to us in Korean, but we mostly Bomi respond to those. Maybe it’s because we were in a somewhat smaller city, but everyone just seemed so friendly. In fact, the dry cleaner didn’t accept credit and we where all fresh out of cash, so they basically just took an IOU because they know her family. Bomi explained that they also don’t really have any foreigners, which is why people seemed interested in us. We made quite the spectacle slowly hobbling back down the stairs, then somehow ended up in conversation with this adorable little preschooler as we passed the playground.  After another rest, her mom took us to a nearby laundry mat. While we waited for our clothes, we had an amusingly hard time trying to find a beard trimmer for Adam because Koreans don’t really have facial hair. We also stopped to schedule a message! Again, it was really neat to just do random errands and get a feel for her city.

Back at their place, her mom fed us a late dinner and Bomi told us that one of her students was coming over for his English lesson at 11:20! I said something about that seeming pretty late for school night, and she explained that it was so late because it was school night and he would have just been finishing all his other things. I was incredulous as she told us about a high schooler’s typical day and how it was never ending. For instance this poor kid would come every single night and stay until at least 12:30, then sometimes have to do homework after that! She joked that the routine was part of her reasoning for wanting to study in the US her senior year. We were in bed by the time he arrived, and I almost felt guilty drifting to sleep as he dutifully began reading aloud in the kitchen.

The next day started with the summit between the presidents of North and South Korea! It was incredible watching it on the news with Bomi eagerly trying to translate in real time. It was surreal to hear the speeches and I was actually really moved by the whole ordeal. I think some people would describe themselves as cautiously optimistic about the exchange, but it was so amazing to see private citizens reacting to it live. We were all feeling pretty great when we left the house soon after. Adam went back to one of the PC gaming places, while Bomi, her mom and I got massages. I decided to wait there while they dropped Adam off, and I soon decided it would be a good idea to use the bathroom. I approached the receptionist and said, “bathroom please” in Korean and she actually understood me! She led me to it and I responded accordingly when she motioned for me to put the paper in the trash instead of the toilet (just like Central America!). When I returned she motioned for me to change my shoes. She said something to me in Korean, but of course I could only shake my head and smile. Ironically, she had been trying to tell me I had good Korean! Soon Bomi and her mom returned and we were ready to go. They asked me if I would be okay with a man, and I didn’t think anything of it, but he really seemed to put some muscle behind it and it was almost unbearable. Bomi couldn’t contain her screams when they got to her calves and insisted they just not bother. My guy went pretty hard and I was seriously sweating afterwards. It’s hard to tell if it helped or not because my legs still hurt pretty badly for the rest of the day. For dinner her parents took us to this place further up in the mountains for a somewhat Western-style meal. It was basically like cordon bleu with pork, accompanied by potato wedges and of course, salad. For an appetizer they also got a “kimchi pancake” which was super delicious. Perhaps my favorite part was this “rice wine” that was somewhat sweet, pretty mild, and completely refreshing. The best part was that we drank it out of little bowls! They eventually started a bonfire, and it was amazing to sit outside and watch the sun set over the mountains, while Adam regaled us with childhood stories of being a boy scout in the Canadian wilderness.

Saturday was the day of the celebration, which was scheduled for 5:00, so most of the day was spent with Bomi’s mom getting everything ready, to include cutting Adam’s hair and doing Bomi’s hair and makeup, along with her own.  Around 3:00 we went to pick up their hanboks, which are the traditional clothes. Apparently Bomi and Adam’s where those of royalty, while her parents’ were of commoners. The excitement really started to pick up once everyone was dressed, and I could not have been happier for her. We went to the venue to set up this huge poster her dad had printed and take some pictures before people started arriving. There was a huge buffet set up, and I was not surprised to see that each table came equipped with large bottles of water and several bottles of Soju. I had been designated as the greeter/money collector. Apparently wedding gifts aren’t really a thing and instead people just give you envelopes of cash. There was a box to drop them, so there really wasn’t too much for me to do. Nonetheless, I had rehearsed the phrases: “hello”, “thank you”, “Bomi’s friend”, and “I’m American”. Though it did seem sort of random when one guy asked me for something and I could only helplessly reply with “I’m American”. It turns out he was looking for a pen. Typically the protocol is for people to eat and sort of filter in and out, but many people stayed for quite a while. It was amazing getting to see Bomi interact with all of her extended friends and family. Pretty soon, Bomi and Adam were called to sort of the head table and they both gave speeches. I couldn’t understand a word Bomi said, but I clapped when everyone else did and started tearing up when Bomi did. I still find it interesting how moving something can be when you don’t even know what’s going on. It was the opposite with Adam’s speech because I would laugh when he said something, but the rest of the room didn’t laugh until after Bomi translated. Then her parents came up and made speeches, then they sat at the table, and Bomi and Adam stood in front of them to do the Korean bow. Then two of her cousins played their flutes. The crowd demanded an encore, and the second song was upbeat, so everyone insisted Bomi and Adam dance. They were not anticipating that, and they clearly didn’t want to so it was almost cringy, but they ended up rolling with it pretty well.

After that Bomi and Adam made their rounds and visited each table. I’m pretty sure every single group wanted to see Adam do a shot of Soju and he really hung in there like  a champ. Meanwhile, one of her uncles approached me and simply said “eat”, while installing one of her cousins at my post. A table of her cousins invited me to sit with them and it was great getting to know them. They didn’t feel very confident about their English, but I thought they all spoke well enough. Besides, by that point in the trip I had grown super proficient in piecing together broken English to get the gist of what people meant. One of her cousins actually studied Spanish!! He of course insisted that he wasn’t comfortable conversing in it, so I didn’t push it too much. Bomi’s mom had explained to us that Koreans tended to be pretty fluent in reading and writing, but not at all in conversation. I definitely see what she meant. I did always get a laugh though when someone would apologize for their English and I would point out that their English was way better than my Korean. Anyway, by the time the bride and groom got around to our table, I think Adam had at least a dozen shots under his belt. The thing about Soju though is that there are different brands, and some are much less potent than others. Still though. The event ended at 8:00, and I was soon informed that the three of us would be going out with a group of Bomi’s high school friends.

We started off at a Japanese restaurant, and I had a blast getting to know them. They eventually told Bomi they were frustrated because there were so many things they wanted to talk about but couldn’t express. We had a great time anyway. I then learned that I would finally get to experience the notorious Korean karaoke! We were shown to our private little room, and given an enormous set list to chose from. We somehow got to the point of them all chanting “M.C. Tori!”, so for whatever reason I attempted a rap song and completely failed. At lease I didn’t have any face left to lose after that, so I had no problem belting out the rest of the songs (at lease the ones in English). I honestly think it’s sort of cathartic to be in a room of people singing at the top of your lungs, and I would absolutely do it again. It was interesting to see which pop songs they chose though. For instance, I had sort of laughed to myself when I saw Radiohead’s Creep on the list as it’s not really a party song, but apparently it is in Korea because everyone knew all the words. They also chose some songs from Frozen, which they knew better than I did. It was so sweet how nice and accommodating they all were to us, and Bomi said they were stoked to hang out with some Americans.

Adam took it really easy the next day, and Bomi’s dad drove her and I around to some stores to shop for gifts. We went out for one final Korean meal that evening, then went to an archery range! Random, I know, but it was really fun. We spent the rest of the night getting packed and ready for our journey the next day. We left their house around noon, and since we had a total of six suitcases between us, it was quite a cramped ride. We did stop at this amazing rest area though. It had a ton of restaurants, and shops, and a huge Japanese Garden. We spent a while there and had a good lunch – Adam and I got Bulgogi burgers! When then piled back into the car and settled in for the second half of the three hour drive. We took our time at the airport, and thankfully Bomi’s goodbye wasn’t all that emotion since her parents are coming to the States in September. We had fun perusing the duty free store, but 6:30 came all too soon and we were called to bored. Flying is definitely one of my favorite things, but to me the best parts are: 1) takeoff, 2) landing, and 3) occasionally hitting mild turbulence – none of which are prevalent on a 13 hour stretch. For the life of me I couldn’t fall asleep, and by hour 9 I was really starting to get stir crazy. Of course by the time I finally started to doze they came around with breakfast and I abandoned sleep entirely.

We arrived in Toronto around 5:30, which was technically an hour earlier than we left Seoul! I was maybe a little overconfident at boarder patrol because it wasn’t my first rodeo and I was an American with nothing to hide, but it definitely wasn’t my best go. First of all the machine that snaps your picture was apparently facing the light, so mine was literally just a black silhouette. Then when the man at the counter asked me if I’d bought stuff to bring home I said no because I just assumed he was referring to large quantities or things that needed to be declared. It occurred to me later that he was probably asking me that since I’d checked two bags. Since we got two free bags, I offered to check one of Bomi’s small ones so she wouldn’t have to lug it around the airport. I’m really glad he didn’t ask me about that because I’m sure it wouldn’t have gone over too well saying I’d checked someone else’s bag.  Then he asked how long I’d been away, and I drew a complete blank! I answered with, “uh…ten days?”, but before I’d even finished he was returning my papers and telling me to have a nice day. Oh the joys of being a natural-born US citizen. We didn’t have a ton of time at the airport, but we stopped in at a restaurant. I’m sure we’re looking too deep into it, but the waitress seemed to pay special attention to us. So first of all, Bomi and I were dressed in t-shirts and jeans/leggings, while Adam was wearing a suit. You see, he brought it for the wedding but ended up wearing a Hanbok, so he insisted on wearing it at least once. Plus the bags were tight, so he wore what took up the most space. Anyway, our ensemble maybe seemed like an odd dynamic. Since I wasn’t at all hungry, I didn’t complain when they decided to split a plate of fish and chips, but the waitress actually seemed concerned. She immediately stated that it comes with a small portion of fish and Adam said that was okay. She then looked directly into Bomi’s face and asked if she was okay with that. When Bomi said yes, the waitress deliberately turned to me, looked into my face, and asked if I was okay with that. When she brought it out, she said she told the cook it was too small and soon returned with another huge piece! I’m sure she didn’t think that we were in a less than pleasant situation, but she really did look concerned at first.

I slept for most of the flight back to St. Louis, but it was only two hours and hardly restful. We landed at Lambert around 9:30 then took a taxi to arrive at their place around 10:30. As much as I love their house, I was so eager to get back to my own since I’d been away for 15 days, but decided it would be easier to spend one more night there. I slept alright, but apparently Bomi woke up at 4:30 and went grocery shopping! It was fun getting ready together though, and soon we all parted ways for work. On the drive in I could already tell it would be a long day. Don’t get me wrong, I was really excited to see everyone and get back to some sort of routine, but I’ve never felt like I had less energy in my life! My colleagues were fortunately quite patient with me and I somehow made it through eight hours. By the drive home I felt almost deliriously exhausted. It was pretty sweet walking through my front door though, and I’m so looking forward to finally sleeping in my bed tonight! I’ve managed to stay awake this evening, so hopefully I’ll sleep through the night and wake up feeling completely rested!!

Jet lagged or not, I don’t regret a single second of the whole trip. It was incredible to go experience something so completely different than what I’m used to and to get back out in the world. There’s this indescribable feeling to traveling abroad that’s hard to replicate elsewhere. It’s like the ole mountain climbing metaphor; sometimes it seems too overwhelming to even attempt, but it is remarkably rewarding and ultimately one of the greatest things you’ll ever conquer.

 

Jeju!

So our flight arrived in Jeju and we were greeted by even more rain! As we waited for the shuttle to the car rental place, I was again surprised by some of the differences here than other places, namely theft. The first place I went was  Central America, and the university all but forbade us from going out alone because it could be really dangerous. Europe was much safer, but everyone just sort of accepted pick pocketing as part of life, so they were very vigilant and protective of their belongings. Here it seems like people don’t really have that concern. For instance, when Helena and I went out the other night I had of course planned to leave my passport at her house. She noted my concern when she told me I’d need it to get in places and assured me that people don’t steel here like in Europe. Anyway, as we were in line for the shuttle a family of four was also waiting, and they just put their bags where it would be then stood under the awning. It turned out to be the smoking area, so they eventually took the kids inside and just left their bags sitting outside! Nobody really seemed to notice or think anything of it. In Europe it seems like things disappear if you aren’t in constant contact with them, so it just seems like a completely different mentality.

Anyway, Bomi was a champ driving through the rain and darkness, and we soon arrived at our Air BnB. The place was nice and we were exhausted, so we decided to order delivery. Bomi kept saying that Korean fried chicken was different and very good, so we went with that and they even delivered beer and soju! The breading was quite lite and had a hint of sweetness – it really was delicious. It was also great to just chill for a while.

We were a little worried that all the rain might put a damper on our trip, but as it turned out there was a waterfall that you can only see in the rain, so we were pretty excited for that. The place where  we were staying served us a breakfast of scrambled eggs, oranges, toast, and…salad. I asked Bomi if salad was just a common breakfast food, since this was the second time I’d been served it. She explained that they don’t really have breakfast food, but they had tried to serve us a western-style meal. I guess salads are strongly associated with western culture.

After breakfast we drove for about an hour to get to the waterfall. It was somewhat crowded so we had to park and trek it up a pretty steep hill. We arrived to the lookout, but had to look kind of hard to see the waterfall because of the fog. Apparently it’s the fourth longest waterfall in the world, and it’s the only one that dries up when it doesn’t rain.

We then drove about an hour in a different direction to check out a cave. Along the way we stopped at a beach, and the dreariness of the day was the perfect backdrop. We didn’t stay for too long, but I got to touch the East China Sea! The cave we went to was actually a “lava tube” from the volcano that makes up the island. It definitely was not Bomi’s favorite place, but I loved it! we thought we might get some shelter from the rain, but it turned out to be pretty wet anyway. It was also suuper dark and pretty chilly, but I just love underground places.

We emerged from the cave into more dampness then set off for dinner. Bomi had also been raving about Korean Chineese food, so we found a nice little resteraunt. She was absolutely right and it was amazing. I didn’t even realize that the one dish was Lo Mein…I’ll never look at Panda Express the same way again!

Wednesday was the big day. So less than a month before the trip, Bomi asked if I would be interested in climbing a mountain. Right before that I had decided that within the next year or two I want to hike the Inca Trail up to Machu Picchu and was eager to begin training…you know, starting small then working up to longer, more intense treks. She asked me if I would be okay with a 10 hour hike, and I honestly thought she was kidding. She wasn’t. Hallason is the tallest mountain in South Korea at a whopping 3,597 feet. There are apparently several summits and trails to choose from, but we of course had to pick to pick the most difficult one. I again thought they were joking when they said that, but I came to learn they are indeed serious about hiking. I grew increasingly anxious as the day drew nearer because I honestly wasn’t sure how it would go, but what else was I going to do?

We woke up bright and early because we had to drive for a bit and wanted to make it there by 0700. We entered the trail into what seemed like a rainforest and began what was going to be one of the longest days of my life. Within minutes it got harder to breathe and I felt somewhat queasy, which was only exacerbated by the thought that this would be my life for the next 10 hours. Bomi had this boundless energy and she kept running ahead then stopping to wait. I was relieved that Adam was lagging behind me. He explained that we going at what felt like an uncomfortably slow place that he could keep for the rest of the day. He eventually started to feel sick too, so after a beef jerky break, he decided to take point, with me in the middle and Bomi at the end. Things got better after that, but it was far from pleasant. It was fortunately pretty cool and the water dropping intermittently from the trees was refreshing. For real though, it was intense! I began to question every decision I’d ever made that led me to this point, and I questioned how badly I really wanted to hike Machu Picchu. I did my best to remember that people usually train for THIS hike, not use it as their first day. Eventually I couldn’t think of much besides moving forward. There was a trail, but we also had to traverse large stones and sooo many stairs, some of which were almost as tall as my knees! Every step I hoped with my whole being that it would flatten out around the corner, only to be greeted with the steepest stairs for as far I could see.

On the bright side, it was cool interacting with the other people on the trail. Everyone always greeted each other when they passed, and Bomi would sometimes exchange friendly words with them. Occasionally they would see me and Adam and cheerfully call “hello” or “good afternoon “. A little more than halfway up there was an incredibly steep segment. There were some stones that I practically had to climb on all on fours, then it opened to a very steep and narrow staircase. It was at this point that the scenery became absolutely breathtaking (not that I had much breath left to take). It was also at this point that Bomi started to lose some of her steam, but right before that she had been talking how hiking could be a metaphor for life in many ways. I would say that never-ending stretch exemplified the juxtoposition of simultaniously feeling so defeated, yet so inspired.

It was encouraging to start seeing people on their decent because it meant we had to be getting closer. I didn’t help that many people would say something to the effect “whoa, you guys are going UP the steepest path” because it indicated that where we were heading would only get worse. We encountered one poor lady who really seemed to be on the verge of death and virtually abandoned by her group. Bomi offered her some of our water and asked if she wanted to join us since we were going pretty slow, but the lady said that she was going even slower. She also said that someone had told her we were only 30 minutes from the summit. LIES! After about 45 minutes we stopped at a lookout point to rest and revel in the fact that we had almost made it. Again, we were sorely mistaken…it just kept going on and on and on. We were also encouraged by a group on their decent composed of a man and two small children! Bomi sympathetically said something to the effect of “aww children” and the man just glared at her. The two boys were each wearing small packs and fearful expressions. One of them slid on the stones as we passed, but seemed to receive little sympathy from the man. If those kids weren’t motivating I don’t know what is.

We reached the summit at 12:45! We were shocked to see so many people there because we definitely hadn’t encountered that many on the trail, but it was because the vast majority of people had elected to take the other path. The best part of all was this lake on top that you can only see when there’s been rain. Earlier in the day, one of the locals had told Bomi that he frequently hikes the mountain and can only see it about 1 out 10 times. It turned out to be really lucky that we got to experience that. We took some time to rest and eat kimbop, sure the worst was behind us.

We decided to take the other trail down, which was almost a kilometer longer, but not as steep. I’m sure it was, and there were stretches of flat, wooden walkways, BUT there were also sooo many large stones. Like the trail was just huge rocks. I wiped out almost immediately, but it was a controlled fall. It seemed like all these older people were just strolling by us as I took several seconds to determine every single step. It wasn’t as physically taxing, but it was strategic and kind of scary. It didn’t take long for Adam to offer me his hiking poles, and they definitely saved me multiple times. I still rolled my ankle a lot and slid a few times. I felt like we were making decent time when we reached a rest area along the way. Then we learned that it would be three to four more hours until the end…

As we made our way down the mountain, our morale followed suite. Someone suggested that maybe hiking really is a metaphor for life in that sometimes you just want it to end. Again, it just kept going and going. We’d sigh with relief when we reached a wooden walkway, then seethe when we soon encountered more stones. At one point, Adam declared that he hated rocks because, what have they ever done for us? I pointed out the technological advancements of the stone age, but we both conceded that these particular rocks were despicable. Bomi said that we were just getting bitter because we were tired, but by the end she was right there with us. The trail FINALLY opened up into parking lot, and I’ve never been more relieved to see the sky!

We took a cab back to our car and had to ride with the windows down because Adam and I were both soaked through with sweat. We changed clothes then headed to a resteraunt were they serve Black Pork, because apparently black pigs are all over the island and a specialty. There was only one chair available during our 30 minute wait so we took turns, but honestly getting up and sitting down were the worst part. We splurged on an incredible meal and reminisced about the best and worst aspects of the hike. As I’d expected, it was one of those experiences that seems much more satisfying once it’s over. Since Bomi had also participated in the Soju celebration she didn’t want to drive so she called this really awesome service. They basically come to you, then drive your car to wherever, and it wasn’t even expensive! We had planned to hang out for a bit back at the Air BnB, but we all pretty much fell straight to sleep.

We had  a pretty early flight the next morning, but were a bit behind schedule. It didn’t help that we could only hobble through the airport at a snail’s pace, but fortunately security was much more relaxed than in the US, so we made it in plenty of time. With that we headed to Bomi’s parents’ place in Chung-Ju, our final destination.

 

 

Busan!

Annyeong!

Well the adventure is still going strong in Busan! Not long after I arrived at the train station yesterday Bomi, Adam, and her parents arrived from their town and came to pick me up. It was great to see Bomi again. I mean, it’s not like it’s been years or anything, I just feel at home with her. We all piled into the car to head to Lotte, which seems to be a pretty big enterprise around here. We went to this huge department store that, along with many shops you’d typically see in a mall, also housed two movie theaters and several resteraunts. We went to a buffet to meet up with her cousin – “Peter” (his English name) – who had recently moved to Busan to take a new job. So the tables all had hot plates, and the first thing they did was pour a bunch of water in it. Then you go to the buffet and collect a variety of vegetables and raw meet to put all together in what was referred to as the “hot pot”. There was also some more individual foods like fried dumplings, sushi, and fruits, among other things. Anyway, it was a great meal and I loved getting to know Peter. I don’t remember exactly what he says he does, but apparently he studied Chineese in college. He admitted that his Chineese was a quite a bit better than  his English, but I thought he spoke pretty well. Bomi’s mom explained that his great English could only be attributed to his great English teacher…a.k.a her haha. She definitely is a natural teacher, and she was teaching me (Korean) words all day!

We left the resteraunt and Peter led us through this huge market, which basically had a booth for anything you could fathom. My favorite place was one alleyway loaded with thousands of books, but not just any books – USED books! Well I’m sure there were new ones too, but they don’t have the same appeal. I only found one booth of English books, but I just love being surrounded by used books on all sides. After all, no matter the language, they all tend to have the same scent. The food section of the market reminded me quite a bit of those in Central America, though there was definitely a different variety of sea creatures. We eventually found a coffee shop and settled in for a pick me up. I was fascinating to hear Peter explain the political perspectives of South Korea and China as they relate to current global events, to include US politics and North Korean relations, and so on.

We left to head back to Lotte and cut through a massive subway station – I figured we’d take a train, but we simply emerged from the station back in a different part of the city. I was glad to have a local to guide us and show us things off the beaten path. Speaking of locals, we departed from Lotte to head Bomi’s dad’s friend’s house. I didn’t know, but I guess South Korea has (or had?) a compulsory military service, and that’s where they had met. This man was incredibly friendly and boisterous and vaguely reminded me of my cousin Woody. We all sat in a circle on a blanket and soon his wife brought over a small table full of Soju and placed it in the middle. So the most popular thing to do is pour a shot into a cup and fill it the rest of the way with beer. I know that sounds less than appealing, but it really just taste like beer. Apparently Koreans have quite a strict decorum when it comes to drinking, of which I was not entirely familiar. For instance, when I held out my glass for him to pour me a shot, Adam practically dove in front of me to grab it with both hands. Taking something from someone with both hands is traditional for pretty much everything, but I hadn’t realized it applied to liquor. On top of that, it’s considered very unlucky to ever pour your own drink. I later asked Bomi if that meant people could never drink alone; she laughed and explained that people definitely still do. Another thing is that you hold the glass with both hands when you toast and observe a strict hierarchy. So if someone is older than you, the top of your glass should be below the top of their glass when you clink them together. I fortunately had plenty of opportunities to practice over the course of the night.

We eventually got ready to go to dinner, and Bomi informed me that we would be eating at an eel resteraunt. Anyone that knows me well enough knows that I detest seafood, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to entirely avoid it on this trip. Fortunately after my year living with a host family (person) in Spain I got pretty good at concealing my gag reflex, so I figured I would just do that. After all, eel is considered a treat, and Busan is especially known for its quality. Bomi insisted that I could eat at the chicken place across the street, but it didn’t seem worth it. Besides, I’d never had eel so I figured there was a chance I might like it. Almost as soon as we sat down the servers began filling our table with bowls of vegetables and other garnishes. Then they brought a basket of raw eel because again, the table had a grill in the middle. Bomi’s dad began to place the pieces on the grill and the two long ones immediately started flopping around all over the place! Bomi admitted that she’d never had it that fresh before and was pretty surprised. Adam explained that it was just because they still had electricity in them, not because they were alive or anything, so I guess that’s better. As her dad cut them into smaller pieces with scissors and occasionally turned them, Bomi passed me plenty of things to go with it, such as pieces of ginger, leaves of lettuce, and some sort of spicy sauce. I found the piece that looked the most seared, mixed it with the other things, then took a deep breath determined not to let my face betray my tact. I quickly shoved it in, and to my immense relief, I mostly tasted ginger! As the night wore on I helped myself to piece after piece and gradually reduced the ginger ratio. I wouldn’t say that it’s my favorite thing in the world, but it wasn’t so bad. Their friends made sure the beer and soju continued to flow, but I took care not to overconsume because I wasn’t sure how it might content with the eel in my stomach, and as much as I didn’t mind it going down, it was not something I wanted to experience again later.

After dinner we returned to their house for – you guessed it – more beer and soju! Once again, they brought out a table of snacks, and when I did not partake they kept trying to offer me different food. Bomi explained that he couldn’t understand why I wasn’t eating with my drinks, but I’d assumed it went without saying that I still had a belly full of eel. Although I couldn’t understand anything anyone said, it was hard not find myself laughing along with the rest of the room. Besides, some sentiments don’t need to be expressed in words. As the night drew to a close, Bomi, Adam, and I lined up in front of them to do the “Korean bow”. We basically got to our knees then put our foreheads to the floor. Apparently it’s tradition for children to do that to their elders and subsequently be given money! I thought he handed me a 1,000 wan note (~$1), but I later saw it was 10,000! With that the three of us bade them farewell and caught a taxi. On this night I stayed in a motel, which was rather simple but comfortable enough.

Bomi informed me in the morning that her parents were going to pick me up and we’d all be meeting somewhere else. While her parents and I waited for Bomi and Adam, her mom explained a few things about some of their holidays and told me a little bit about the typhoon that hit Busan in 1989. Their friend then met up with us again for a late breakfast. As we waited, he kept saying things to me, but all I could do was return a blank look and awkward smile. He occasionally said something slower or rephrased it, but alas I still could not speak Korean (though I know like 10 words now!). Bomi and Adam eventually joined us and we were all served heaping portions of some sort of bean sprout soup, which was quite good. We spent the rest of the time in various shops and walking through more markets. Adam wanted a bit of a break so we dropped him off at this video game cafe. It was basically a room with a ton of computers that have most PC games downloaded, and you pay roughly $1/hour to sit there and play. I thought it was a great idea, but it apparently serves as quite a distraction to young people who would otherwise be spending their time in extra curricular activities.

We all eventually piled back into the car, and her parents dropped us off at the airport. Before long we boarded our flight to Jeju Island where we plan to spend the next few days. It’s supposed to be pretty rainy, but Peter gave us plenty of rainy day activities to try here. We’re also supposed to climb the tallest mountain in Korea, so we’ll see if I make it out of that one!

Seoul!

Annyeonghaseyo!

So once again, there has been a significant time lapse since my last post, but I’ve mostly just been hanging around the midwest anyway. I moved back from Spain almost two years ago, then immediately started a job as a research analyst at Scott AFB! Having a job has been a fulfilling adventure in itself, but alas I still yearned to get back out in the world. It just so happens that my good friend Bomi planned to celebrate her marriage in her hometown, so that was a perfect excuse to travel to South Korea! I’ve never been in this part of the world, and so far it’s been amazing! There’s always a little angst that accompanies traveling alone internationally, but it’s not so bad.

My flight from Toronto was a mere 13.5 hours, and went without issue. I love flying at night, but as it turned out we followed the sun all the way across the world so it never did get dark. Oh well. The airport in Seoul wasn’t particularly large, but it was definitely bustling. Either way, it was pretty easy to follow the herd through immigration and customs, and my bag was waiting for me at baggage claim, which is always a relief. I exchanged some money and broke down and rented a wifi “egg” so I’ll have internet wherever I go. It was more than I had planned to spend, but as much as I enjoy being frugal, the ability to navigate and communicate has been well worth it. Anyway, after I got all of that squared away, I set off to purchase my (much cheaper) bus ticket to Gangnam.

Bomi and I had planned to meet in Busan two days later, so in the meantime I got in contact with Helena!! Helena was the first friend I made in Spain, and she’s the one who introduced me to Nola (our other companion). Helena was only there for a semester, but we traveled to Milan, Venice, Morroco, and Amsterdam together, and I’ve found that traveling abroad with someone tends to be a pretty great bonding experience. She met me at the bus stop near her apartment, and it was so amazing to get to see her again. We later called Nola and mused how we hadn’t spoken all that often but pretty much picked up right where we left off. Except now we’re old, so much of our conversations revolved around working, investing, and some of the legislative and economic differences between our respective countries.

I also got to meet her family! She lives with her parents and two sisters – one older, one younger. I’d met her older sister when she came to visit in Madrid, and I can’t believe I actually got to see her again! Her family was soo accommodating. For instance, her mom had some sort of crab dish for dinner, but ate several hours earlier for fear that it would make the house smell. That didn’t stop her from laying out a huge spread for us later though. Helena’s dad came home from work right around 8, and we immediately sat down to a meal of rice, bulgolgi, and some noodle-ish dish that was really good. I also sampled some kimchee and seaweed, but those weren’t my favorite. Her parents didn’t speak much English, but they were impressed with my chopstick skills! See, back at home everyone makes fun of me for using chopsticks on any non Asain food, so I was rather excited to be somewhere that it’s not only socially acceptable, but expected.

After dinner Helena and I set out for Itaewon, a  neighborhood known for its nightlife. We walked around a popular street then settled in for a drink on the patio of a quite restaurant – more proof that we are indeed getting old. It was interesting to observe the atmosphere because it just reminded me so much of Madrid. It’s hard to explain, but just the sights and sounds and smells took me back. Since I’ve been back in the States I’ve visited New York, Chicago, and some smaller cities, but they just feel…different. I’m not sure what it is, but Helena agreed. Actually, when Bomi came to visit me in Madrid she kept saying how it reminded her so much of Korea. Her conclusion was not that Europe  and Korea were that similar, but that the US is just so different from everywhere else. Anyway, it was great to sit and catch up and reminisce. We returned to her place pretty early because I had officially pushed my circadian rhythm to its limit, but it worked out because I woke up feeling pretty refreshed the next morning.

For breakfast her mom made some rice with potatoes and salad. I’ve never had salad for breakfast, but I suppose there’s a first for everything. Helena is studying for her CPA exam, which entails a weekly class, so we had to part ways soon after. It was with a heavy heart that we said goodbye, but she, Nola, and I planned to meet in Hawaii next summer or so because it’s kind of in the middle of New York, St. Louis, and Seoul, so there’s that.

She walked me to the metro, then I set out to find my hostel in Insadong, another neighborhood. It was supposed to be a straight shot, but I think I got off a couple stops too early, so I ended up having to walk for quite a while. I didn’t mind because it was a great way to experience the city, but I’m glad I packed relatively light because dragging my suitcase along the cobblestone sidewalk was somewhat cumbersome. I was also relieved that I had invested in wifi, so I made it there with relative ease. The man at reception didn’t feel too strongly about his English, but he was extremely nice and soo helpful while I was trying to sort out my train ticket for the next day. I was staying in a four person  dorm, but there was only one person there when I entered. Her name escapes me, but she was from Russia and she was really nice. I later met the other two. One was Korean (I think) and didn’t speak much Enlish but was courteous nonetheless. The fourth girl appeared to be Korean, but she conversed with the girl in Russian as opposed to the other girl on Korean, so I’m not sure.

I took a moment to get my bearings, then set off for the Royal Palace. I actually walked straight there without getting lost! It was incredible to be somewhere so old. Though as it turns out, it was almost completely destroyed by their war with Japan, so it’s been largely rebuilt within the last few decades. I meandered aimlessless in and out of the different halls, then strolled around the Royal Gardens for a while. I eventually came to the Korean Folk Museum, which had free admission! It was really interesting getting a glimpse at the country’s history and how it has evolved into the culture it is today.

I left the museum in search for a traditional village, but stumbled upon the Nation Museum of Modern Art in the meantime and couldn’t resist. The sign said that people under 24 were free, so being 24, I wasn’t sure if I qualified, but the lady looked at my ID and gave me a free ticket! I know modern art is notorious for being somewhat, well different, and it was fascinating. The first exhibit was from this artist that had taken all the flags from every nation and broken them down into like their original strings, and wove them all together. The commonalities in color schemes were meant to call into question all the perceived differences between countries. There was another exhibit that had a bunch of fingers pointing towards the middle of the room, but upon further review I think it was supposed to be two sides pointing fingers at each other. There was an exhibit on the Futurist movement, which was a video. I stopped to check it out and when I did there was a dark screen with a familiar voice giving a speech in English that ended with “and we are going to make. America. great again!!” I tried to get a read on the room out of curiosity, but literally no one seemed to show any reaction. The video went on to an animated segment of a robot in a decayed city, and there were several minutes of the robot dancing with a whale swimming around its head. It was so bizzare that when it ended I had to stay to see the first half that I’d missed to try and get some context. It didn’t help. The whole thing was in English, and part of it was set in NYC, so I guess it was American made, but I didn’t really get it.

I wandered into another exhibit that was even stranger. So it was an animated video featuring a classic German hymn that depicted some Thai death ceremony only with mice instead of people. In front of the screen a bunch of “dead mice” were layed out with what looked like mirrors as headstones. It was absolutely one of the most bizzare things I’ve ever seen, but it was fascinating. One piece had a quote from the artist saying “to explain it is to exploit it” because there’s often not a single interpretation of art, and that sort of became my mantra throughout the entire museum. The next room was a much less ambiguous video that detailed some of the current issues of Korean Chineese people in regards to immigration and their identities. I definitely learned a lot. One of the last exhibits was about food and how even “traditional” dishes tend to be products of other countries. There was a video of a focus group where a man was adamantly arguing that curry comes from India…

I left the museum in deep thought then meandered the streets for a while longer. I’m not sure if I actually made it to that village or not, but I was feeling pretty drained so I started back to my hostel. I hung out for a bit, then went out in search of food. I knoow it seems ridiculous but I couldn’t read most menu items displayed on the street, and I was really in the mood for something familiar, so I went to an Indian restaurant. I figured I have plenty more time for Korean food, and sometimes ethnic foods are different in different countries. I had Indian in Madrid and London and they were nothing alike. This place was pretty on par with what I usually eat in the US though and it was thoroughly satisfying. After dinner I went back to wandering the road near my hostel and just sort of taking in the environemt. It was pretty crowded, and again, really reminded me of Europe.

Despite trying to go to bed somewhat early, I didn’t sleep very well because I was afraid of missing my alarm. I finally gave up about an our before I was supposed to leave and just layed in my bunk to watch the sky gradually get lighter and brighter. I packed up my stuff as quietly as possible so as not to wake the others, then set off for the train. I had to walk to the metro, then take a train  to the station, and I was again grateful that I had decided to splurge on wifi. I made it with relative ease and before long boarded a train to Busan, which is where I currently sit. I’m excited to meet up with Bomi this afternoon – I was a little nervous about being alone in Seoul, but of course, I was just fine and actually enjoyed exploring on my own for a bit!

So far the people here have been pretty great. For the most part they really seem not to notice me, but have been very polite and courteous in the few interactions I’ve had. I think Busan is going to be different than Seoul and I can’t wait to experience it!

Until next time!

 

Paris!

I was determined to make it to Paris because I thought it would be weird to spend a year in Europe and not see the Eiffel Tower; the problem was that I didn’t really want to go alone, but all of my friends had already been. Then as fate would have it, my friend Kiki called. We graduated from McKendree together and she has since been living in Kuwait so she wanted to pay me a visit in Madrid. The weekend she was scheduled to fly in I happened to find an extremely cheap flight to Paris! It was great to see her again, and we spent a night of shenanigans in Madrid before embarking on our adventure. It began to hit me that this trip would be my last – my last European flight, probably my last hostel, and of course my last new city – which was pretty sad.

We got in pretty late on Saturday night, so we enjoyed a nice dinner after getting settled in at the hostel. The food was pretty good and everything was reasonably priced (for Paris), but when we got the check it turned out that the tap water was 8 euros! That was almost the whole price of my meal! It was ridiculous, but what can you do.  Once we were sufficiently hydrated we set out to find the Eiffel Tower. The scale on the map was a little deceptive, but we didn’t mind the walk so much due to the scenery. We also met some interesting characters along the way. After more than hour we finally saw it lit up in the distance. I was expecting to be disappointing by the size, but it was much more impressive than I had anticipated. It was also quite aesthetically pleasing with all the lights. We temporarily lost sight of it when we turned the corner, but when we saw it again the lights were sparkling! There was later some debate by people in our hostel if it does that every hour or only at midnight, but since we only saw it at midnight we couldn’t help. Anyway, it was pretty enchanting. I didn’t think I would be quite as moved as I was, but I guess it just occurred to me how fortunate I was to experience midnight in Paris under the Eiffel Tower. It was super cool. We finally made it to the base and it looked even more grand from the bottom. It was pretty cold, so once we were finished marveling we got a taxi back to the hostel.

They served an impressive breakfast, which was perfect fuel for another long day of walking. We started at the Louvre since it was just right around the corner. We didn’t pay to go in or anything because, you know, the Mona Lisa is supposedly overrated. The building looked cool from the outside anyway though. The only problem was that it was absolutely freezing and not to mention quite blustery, so we ended up getting tickets for a hop-on-hop-off buss tour. We the went to the Arc de Triunfe, but it started raining pretty heavily so we didn’t stay for long. By the time we made it to the Eiffel Tower we had resigned to staying in a constant state of shivering. The rain had let up, so to get warm we bought tickets to climb the stairs, which turned out to be quite a commitment. I think there were around 600 in total. We still had to take a lift to the very top though because it gets too narrow for stairs. It was cool to see the city from above, but it was soo packed and we had to wait in line for over an hour for the elevator. It was gusty on the ground, but near the top the wind was horrible. I don’t really mind lines otherwise though, and we enjoyed each others company. We made it up and took the typical pictures, then waited another 45 minutes to come down.

Paris is cool and all, but I honestly wasn’t really feeling it. I mean most of it looked just like Madrid anyway. We found some food, then went to Kiki’s most anticipated stop: the Catacombs. We had to wait in line OUTSIDE for over an hour and it actually started to sleet; the cold was literally nauseating. It was worth it though. By the time we made it through the small door we were chilled to the bone. We got our tickets then proceeded down a very narrow spiral staircase made of stone. It seemed to go on forever, and it was impossible to know where you were because it was such a sharp spiral. When we reached the bottom I knew I was going to love this place. I know its weird, but I’ve always loved unfinished basements, and we were basically in the basement of the city! We walked through damp, dimly lit, narrow passageways, and I loved it. Maybe I’ll install underground tunnels in my future house. We walked for a long time, then we came to a doorway. Outside was a sign prohibiting the usual things like backpacks and flash photography, but there was also a picture saying not to touch a skull. I had absolutely no idea what to expect at this place, I just went because Kiki had really wanted to. It turned out to be unlike anything I had ever seen.

Back in day, like the late eighteenth century or so, they had to relocate some grave yards, so I guess they decided to just stack the bones under the city. We walking in to be greeted by another narrow passageway, but instead of concrete walls on either side we were surrounded by a bunch of bones; I had no idea it would be like that! Again, I know this all probably sounds really creepy or maybe even awful, but I found it to be entirely fascinating. I honestly could have spent like an entire day down there. It did take us quite a while to walk through the whole thing. We did our best to decipher some of the stones with Latin engraving because there seemed to be some golden existential phrases on them. It was enchanting in its own special way, and probably one of the coolest experiences of my whole life.

We eventually reemerged into the cold, nearly-dark street without an idea of where we were relative to our starting point, and most importantly, our bus stop. We quickly made our way into a gift shop across the road that advertised heat and free WiFi so that we could get our bearings. Our ever-improving topography skills brought us to the stop just before the last bus of the evening came along on its route, and before long we were heading back towards the river. We hopped off a little early to grab some food at a cafe we had seen earlier in the day. You know, the food in Paris was just okay, but the wine was incredible; I thought it was even better than the stuff in Italy! By the time we left the restaurant we were practically impervious to the cold, so we decided the trek it back to the hostel. It was great to walk the streets in a different part of town and see what they had to offer. We even passed Notre Dame at one point! It felt nice to be back in the warmth of our cozy room though, and we quickly made the acquaintance of some of our roommates. It turned out that two of them were actually from Madrid! There was another girl from Russia who was studying in London, and I’m pretty sure there was someone from Italy as well. Anyway, I suppose we talked with them for longer than anticipated, so by the time we got cleaned up, we didn’t really feel like going out. It would have been fine except we had to leave for the airport around 4am, and it was Sunday night mind you, so I would have class once we got back to Madrid. We settled on a glass of wine at a nearby cafe, where we also got our travel documents in order.

I think I preferred Paris at night versus during the day, but perhaps my favorite time was last few hours of darkness before dawn. I don’t know what it was, but as we walked from our hostel to the metro everything just seemed to serene, with so much potential energy. I mean as we walked through the dimly-lit streets, we could smell fresh bread beginning to bake along with the occasional murmurs of early risers, and it just seemed like the whole neighborhood was anticipating the bustling day to come. The subway system wasn’t too bad, but of course it didn’t hold a candle to the one in Madrid. It was still dark when we arrived at the bus station, but we were just glad we made it in time. It was pretty full when we climbed aboard, so we had to sit separately. I had planned to sleep on the hour long drive, but of course I couldn’t so I settled for listening to Francoise Hardy as I watched the sun begin to rise over the French country side instead. The airport turned out be this tiny little building in the middle of nowhere, but it was sufficiently functional nonetheless.

Overall Paris was a good experience, and I’m glad I got to see it. I don’t think its the first place I’d go back to in Europe, but we definitely created some memories there that I will never forget.

 

 

 

Roma!

I’ve always had a bit of an infatuation with Italy, which why I decided to revisit it. We had really wanted to see Florence, but for whatever reason the flights were obscenely expensive (more than 30 euros) so we settled on Rome instead. We landed in a bit of a sticky situation as the hostel didn’t have 24-hour reception and the lady said she’d leave at midnight. She advised us to take a taxi from the airport to make it in time, but we disregarded that and ended up on a bus for about a third of the price. The bus dropped us off at the main train station around 11:45 and the GPS said the hostel was about a 20 minute walk  so we had to book it. The directions were a tad confusing, so we were forced to consider when a taxi driver tried to solicit his services to us. When we told him our address however, he said it would cost 20 euros! We immediately declined so he and his compadre insisted it was a fair fare and that he wasn’t collecting any sort of extra money, but as soon as we started to walk away he quickly lowered it to 15…so much for no extra fees. I realize that as two young females clearly from the States we might have appeared a bit naive, but we refused to swindled and set off on foot. Although we were practically running through the dark streets, the architecture was quite fascinating and it was hard to not get caught up. Anyway, we arrived a bit after midnight, but the lady was still there.

After getting settled into our dorm, we set out to take our first look at the city. Our hostel turned out to be pretty close to the Trevi Foutain, so that was our first stop. I’m honestly not sure what I had expected, but it was incredible! It was so big and grand and really marvelous. Though it started to rain a bit, it was a great experience. The best part is that there weren’t too many people crowded around it since it was nearing 1am. Nola and I of course had to follow tradition, so we each took a coin, turned our backs to the fountain, counted to three in Italian, made a wish, then tossed the coins over our heads into the water. Nola’s wish came true that weekend, and it turns out mine did too! It may seem like an odd wish, but I had just applied for a job at the local Kroger back home, and considering that this year in Europe has literally depleted my finances, I had a strong desire to hear back from them. They called a couple of weeks later, so it worked! Anyway, there was a man nearby selling fruit, so I bought a delicious plum and we simply sat and gazed at the fountain until the rain picked up again; it was pretty incredible.

Nick would also be joining us in this city, but he was staying at a different hostel and his train arrived pretty late that night too, so we didn’t really hear from him for a while. We had sort of loose plans to meet up with him the next morning at the Vatican, but he was going earlier since he didn’t have a reservation. It was only about a 45 minute walk, but the weather wasn’t so cooperative so we took the metro. It was a little confusing when we got off the train, which was weird because I thought the Vatican would be hard to miss; we actually had to ask several people for directions to get there. We eventually found it and were taken aback at the masses of people everywhere. I mean it’s technically the off season for tourism, so I can’t even imagine what that place must be like in the summer or during Holy Week. We gave up pretty quickly on trying to find Nick among the chaos, but walking through a museum isn’t necessarily a group actively anyway.

The first part was a hall of statues. Most of them were missing pieces here and there, but it was pretty incredible to be in the presence of something so old. It was also interesting reading about and seeing the faces of some famous emperors. After meandering the hall for a while, we moved onto a series of other various galleries. There were a few more statues, but there were mostly paintings. The coolest part were the painted ceilings though, I mean the detail was incredible and the scenes actually had impressive dimension. We got really confused when we came to the first counter selling souvenirs because they had all these miniature statues of David.  We were like 99% percent sure he’s in Florence, but that kind of threw us for a loop. To be clear, David is not at the Vatican. Don’t worry, we didn’t actually ask anyone in which room we could find the Statue of David, so we saved some face there. Alternatively, I had no idea the School of Athens was there, and I got super excited when I saw them selling posters of it because its basically one of my favorite paintings of all time. As we advanced through more galleries, I could tell we were getting close; eventually we walked into a room, turned around and there it was in all its glory. It was almost overwhelming. I mean this picture was the background of my computer for basically all four years of college, so I had spent enough time looking at it, but it was just so different to be there in person and see this enormous canvas spanning almost an entire wall. They say the Mona Lisa is the number one disappointing sight in Europe (the Berlin Wall is number two), but I think this painting might be one of the most underrated attractions ever.

At the end of each gallery were signs indicating the Sistine Chapel, but the labyrinth of rooms seemed never ending. Don’t get me wrong, it was all great, but every time we thought we were there new rooms kept popping up. We knew we finally made it when we saw angry-looking signs strictly prohibiting photography and loud voices among other things. So there we were. As soon as we entered into the packed room, we were immediately instructed to keep walking and corralled to a specific area. Once we finally reached the middle I stopped to take it in. The whole thing evoked many thoughts, but the one that kept popping up was Robin Williams’ soliloquy from Good Will Hunting when he puts young Matt Damon in his place for being an inexperienced youth. He basically says something to the effect that Will could probably cite so many facts about art, but he had no idea how it felt to stand in the Sistine Chapel and stare up at the paintings. He had a valid point, it’s pretty hard to put into words. It looked different than I had imagined it would though. We stood there for quite some time simply contemplating the nature of life and the universe. Apart from the absolutely indescribable art, the most entertaining part were the guards. They very actively enforced the no photography rule (though Nola did manage to sneak a pic), and they were constantly calling people out on it. On top of that, they would routinely repeat the words “keep moving, don’t stop here”, which were separated by the a “sshhhhh”; I never knew shushing could sound so forceful. Once our necks began to ache we moved towards the exits to open up some space. The whole experience was quite extraordinary, and I still can’t believe we technically crossed into another country!

We decided to walk back to the hostel afterwards, stopping along the way for some wine and pizza. I was honestly quite disappointed. I’m a bit of pizza connoisseur, but I have a pretty low threshold for what I call good; this pizza was not very good. They also didn’t serve free tap water, which I hate. Oh well. We ended up back at the hostel to plan our evening. It was actually really hard to find a restaurant for dinner because most seemed to need reservations and they were booked solid! We made a reservation for the next night, but ended up just grabbing a quick bite that night. We found a suitable pub crawl that left from the Colosseum, so that’s where we decided to rendezvous with Nick. We were only about a 15 minute walk from there, so we enjoyed a nice stroll. We had been studying the directions at one point, then we turned onto what he hoped was the right road. I looked up from my phone and in the distance at the end of the street we could see part of the Colosseum. It was lit up beautifully, and it was really breathtaking. The closer we got, the larger it grew; I had imagined it being somewhat smaller, but it did not disappoint. Of course the pictures don’t really capture the whole thing, but it was amazing. We eventually found Nick then found the guy for the crawl. We actually skipped on the open bar because we couldn’t make it time, so we would be joining with the rest of the group at the second location. We ended up having to wait around for a while, so we thoroughly enjoyed walking around and taking pictures with the incredible site. I’m not sure what happened, but when the guy finally said it was time to leave we were apparently running quite late. The four of us started speed-walking through the streets until he broke out into a jog. We actually had to run for a quite a good distance; I’m not sure they really understand the concept of a pub crawl.

We finally caught up with the group and most of them were already pretty intoxicated. We went to another bar or two, then ended at a rather interesting club. First of all, they played entirely Spanish music, which I found odd but enjoyed nonetheless. Additionally, they only had unisex bathrooms, which was kind of confusing at first. Also, some of the patrons were extremely liberal with public displays of affection, more so than at your average club but hey, when in Rome. Anyway, we had a really good time. Nick left before we did, and by the end of the night we had no idea where we were or where to go. We ended up meeting a young man from the States who was working at the embassy and offered to drive us to the train station so we could navigate to our hostel. His car was parked really far away, so we enjoyed getting to know him on the way. Eventually, he declared that he was probably too tired, not to mention inebriated, to drive so he advised us to take the bus. He was really nice about it and made sure we were at the right stop and knew which one to take!

Nick had planned to attend an audience with the Pope the next morning, but we got in not long before we had to leave, so we missed it. He said he couldn’t see that much anyway. Nola and I took our time getting up then made our way back to the Colosseum. We decided to do an audio guide, and there was definitely a wealth of information. I learned so much about some of the things that went on there and the logistics of it all. Obviously a lot of it was pretty brutal, but gladiators were actually around for much less time than I thought they were as it was outlawed sort of early. It was kind of eerie walking around a place with such a bloody history. It was also pretty cool being in such an old establishment. We spent a long time in there taking in the whole situation. Afterwards I just sort of wandered around some of the shops. My shoes had been torn to shreds, I guess from months of walking everywhere, and for life of me I had not been able to find shoes in half sizes. Well I decided on a whim to check out a thrift shop, and I found a cheap pair that fit like a glove! We had a relaxing afternoon, then we all met up at the restaurant. The food was honestly just okay though. We took Nick to see the Trevi Fountain afterwards, and it was incredibly crowded. Fortunately he was able to make hisen wish anyway! That night we ended up grabbing some beers from the corner store and hanging out at the hostel. It was nice to just hang out for a bit, and we had a really good time. Nola and I had to leave for the airport by 4am the next morning, so we called it around 2. We were reassured in our goodbyes knowing that we’d see him one more time in Madrid.

Overall Rome was more incredible than I ever imagined it would be. Everyone says it’s so old and dirty, but I didn’t think it really was. The food did not live up to my expectations, but all of the sites exceeded them. It rained occasionally, but the weather was mostly nice, so that helped with the whole experience. In the end I’m so glad I had the opportunity to go there and see what I did, and I’m glad I was able to do it all in good company.

 

 

Spring Break – ft. Madrid, Brussels, Prague, and Berlin!

Make yourself comfortable because this one is going to be quite long. Classes had been increasing in intensity between midterms and spring break, so by the time Thursday afternoon arrived, I was more than ready for some time off. Due to our recent travels, we hadn’t had a night out in Madrid for quite a while, so Nola, my cousin Madison, and I prepared ourselves to go to one of the most exclusive clubs in Madrid. Since it was also St. Patrick’s Day we of course had to start the evening at an Irish Pub. We were having fun but decided to head to the club early since it was a huge party night. Normally the streets of Madrid come to life in the evening, especially from Thursday to Saturday, but this night was on a completely different level! Even the metro was crammed full of boisterous youths drunkenly carrying on and breaking the law in various ways. We finally got to the club, at an obscenely early time, to be greeted by a hoard of people waiting outside. It didn’t take us too long in line to realize we weren’t going to get anywhere, so we decided to cut our losses and head to Kapital, which is that club with seven floors. We rushed there to learn that it was rented out for a private party, and if you weren’t on the list the entrance fee was 50 euros! We had recently been discussing returning to the club we used to frequent when we first got there for auld lang syne, so we decided to just head there. There wasn’t a line, and before long we were back on the familiar dance floor. It was so strange because I remember being so enamored by it in the beginning, but now it just seemed so small. Anyway, we still had a great time.

The night progressed and I was getting more and more caught up in the music, until a man on stage began to ask for volunteers. I didn’t even know what was going on until Nola thrust my hand into the air. He called me up, and we both thought it would be some sort of drinking competition. I made it on stage with six or seven other girls, and they had us line up to introduce ourselves. He then made the announcement to the crowd that the dance competition would begin. Although Nola and I weren’t near to each other, I’m pretty sure we had the same reaction when he said that. So here’s the thing, when I reach a certain level of intoxication and combine that with loud music, I have a very unique, yet distinguished style of movement. I’m told the best part about it is that my moves are always accompanied by a huge grin and what has been described as a look of “childlike glee”. If you’ve ever witnessed it you know exactly what I’m talking about, and if not maybe I’ll show you the next time we drink together. Anyway, by that point I had gone too far, so I thought “here goes nothing” and strutted to center stage and gave it everything I had. Nola admitted later that she was worried the room might go completely silent, but people actually began to cheer! I honestly think I blocked all of that out anyway, but the next thing I knew, the moderator began asking people to leave the stage and I was left standing with two others. The three of us then danced simultaneously. I honestly hadn’t been paying much attention to anything else because I was losing myself to dance, but I did happen to look over at them at one point and notice that they were both hardcore twerking with very serious expressions on their faces. Meanwhile, I was cracking myself up with my one of a kind movements. Eventually the judge called us forward one by one to give our final display and he judged our place by the crowd’s reaction. By this point Maddie and Nola were using the new friends from Portugal we met to try and rally the crowd, so that probably helped, but I couldn’t believe people were really cheering for me! I was even more surprised when the judge finally yelled “Victoria!” and thrust a bottle of champagne into my arms.

The rest of the night was a bit of blur, but I was pretty much a celebrity. When I would walk through the crowd random people would yell “la campeona!” (the champion) and high five me. I eventually managed to open the bottle of champagne, and I’m a bit of socialist, so it got passed around to quite a few people. That probably wasn’t the smartest idea because, you know, communicable diseases and whatnot, but it’s been over a week and I’m fine…though I may have infected them all with a sore throat. Oh well. Everything went well the rest of the night, and as soon as I woke up the next morning I started laughing and couldn’t stop for at least two days. Again, if you haven’t seen me in action you can’t grasp the gravity of this situation, but I actually won a dance competition! I mean that was something that I had sort of just accepted would never happen in life, yet here I was!

I took of Friday to revel in my glory, but I managed to get other things done too. Nola and I went to lunch at our favorite Thai restaurant, then I once again took the long trek out to that police station in the middle of nowhere to pick up my residency card. I was extremely relieved when they had it there waiting for me because stuff always seems to go wrong at that place. Anyway, it only took about four months after losing it, but I finally have my replacement card!

I finished everything by around midnight, but could not fall asleep for the life of me! I guess I was too excited about everything. Finally around 5am I abandoned all hope and started getting ready to leave as I had to catch the first metro at 6. Since Bomi had spent the last two days traveling, I figured she probably wouldn’t have slept much anyway, so at least we were on the same level.

Bomi had booked her ticket to come visit me last September, and I remember it feeling like the day would never come, yet here it was. It was so great to see her and pretty surreal having her in Madrid. From the airport we went straight to the hostel to drop off our stuff, then ate breakfast and spent some time taking in the sights of Madrid. We met Nola for lunch at one of our favorite restaurants, then checked into the hostel and settled in for a much needed nap.  We spent the rest of the afternoon showing Bomi the best of what Madrid had to offer and it was fun to see everything from a fresh perspective again. We took her to another one of our favorite places for dinner, then went back to the hostel to check out the pub crawl they offered. It was even cooler to do such a touristy thing in our city because we got to mingle with foreigners from other places and we experienced some new places around the city. Shenanigans ensued.

We woke up Sunday morning safe and sound in our hostel, but before too long Bomi revealed that her bag had been stolen. In it she had all the euros she had just withdrawn, her phone, and, of course, her passport! I figure that everyone who comes to Europe has to have at least one mugging story, so now she has hers. I hardly even broke a sweat because I was all too familiar with the protocol in these situations. I mean it was a shame about her stuff, but the passport was our main priority as our flight to Brussels was scheduled for that afternoon. We found the nearest police station, and I escorted her there to file a report. We arrived to the waiting room around 1pm and it was packed with other people filing reports from whatever they had lost over the course of Saturday night. We sat there for almost two hours and literally only one person had been called in, so we started to get nervous because our flight time was fast approaching. I went to one of the officers guarding the door and explained our situation; she was extremely nice about the whole thing and ultimately told us we would be better off heading to the airport, talking to a representative of the airline, and filing a report there. With that, we stopped back by the hostel to collect napping Nola and made our way to Barajas.

When we got to the airport, we were shocked to see the enormous line at the visa check counter for RyanAir; Nola went ahead and took a place, while Bomi and I went to find a representative. I explained the situation, and he told us she would indeed need a temporary passport, which she would have to get from the Korean Embassy. We reluctantly decided that Bomi and I would miss our flight to Brussels then book another one the following day. On our way to find the office to make a report, we passed Nola in line as she was showing her boarding pass to a representative walking through the line. We walked up to her just in time to hear him say that our flight had been cancelled. We were shocked. Apparently there was an air traffic control strike in France, so nobody could fly over it at all that day. The line was for people waiting to get a new flight and a hotel voucher. Now most people were pretty upset at the situation, but Bomi and I were overjoyed – we wouldn’t have been able to fly anyway, but at least now we would be reimbursed! Things were looking up as we went to the police counter and were immediately taken back to file the report. I got to be the translator once again, and I was really starting to enjoy it.

We were in pretty high spirits as we joined Nola in the line and began our wait. Those spirits gradually declined with each hour we continued to stand there. I didn’t really mind so much, but there were definitely some people starting to get outraged. The most intense part was that line seemed to grow exponentially. At one point I went to the bathroom and found that the end now snaked around several layers, and there were probably at least close to a 1,000 people camped out! Around hour seven, one of the airline executives came to address the mob, and it was pure chaos as a huge crowd of people surrounded him to hear his explanation. Bomi kept saying that fights and fires were bound to start happening eventually, and I was starting to believe her! The man pretty much just said that there was nothing they could do and to only stay in line if you needed a hotel for that night. People were not pleased. The three of us tried to make the best of situation and started playing random childhood games as we waited. At one point we had a pretty intense Rock Paper Scissor tournament. Apparently people were watching us and getting quite the kick out of it. One of the elderly Spanish ladies behind us explained that in Spain a fist represented an egg instead of rock, which completely changed the dynamic of the game. An Italian man further down the line confirmed that in Italy a fist is indeed rock.
By hour nine, we were the next in line! We were a bit distracted examining each others passports, when all of the sudden the crowd seemed to erupt in yelling; the next thing I knew, the sweet old Spanish ladies were yelling that it was our turn and one of them actually shoved me forward. It turned out that two good-for-nothing yellow-bellied degenerates had the audacity to walk straight up to the counter and cut the line! Everyone immediately behind us exchanged loud heated words with the pair, as we just sort of stood in the middle of it. We finally got the counter to be greeted by an exhausted-looking worker that couldn’t have been older than 24. We did our best to explain our complicated situation to him. Here´s the thing, we had tickets to Brussels for Sunday, then we were supposed to fly from Brussels to Prague on Tuesday, and take a train from Prague to Berlin on Thursday. So if we didn’t make it to Brussels in time it would completely derail the whole itinerary. We would have been fine going straight to Prague, but the stupid cheap airline of course didn’t fly to Prague. Everything was booked pretty solid, so he said the best we could do would be to fly to Brussels on Wednesday morning, then get a new flight from Brussels to Prague Wednesday night. That would mean we would completely miss out on Brussels, and only get to spend like 12 hours in Prague. That’s not to mention all the money we would lose on our hostel deposits. He also said we could try flying standby to Brussels Monday afternoon, so we were banking on that.

We finally left the airport well after midnight to head to the hotel. We were pretty excited when we got there and learned it was four stars! I can still remember the feeling of approaching of the building; I was so looking forward to falling into bed so we could get up bright and early to head to the embassy. Well, we walked into the lobby only to be greeted by another line! By that point all we could do was laugh it off. We ended up waiting another full two hours before making it to the counter. On the bright side, we found a nearby Chinese restaurant that was open late and made deliveries, so that occupied some time. The food arrived when we were about four people back in line, but we soon realized that they hadn’t given any utensils for it! Even worse, it smelled kind of disgusting. We dragged it along with the rest of our stuff as we advanced in line. Pretty soon a girl that had just checked in came down laughing and saying that there were already people sleeping in the room they had been assigned. They ran around behind the counter and eventually gave them another key. When it was our turn in line, the German couple that had been in front of us came storming down with the exact same complaint but in much worse humor. I felt pretty bad for the people working, so I asserted that the three of us could just share a two person room instead of them trying to find two rooms to accommodate us. The man seemed appreciative, but Bomi and Nola were a bit annoyed that I had made the offer without consulting the group; apparently a room for two included one double bed.
We made it to the room and were relieved to find that no one was already sleeping there. Nola immediately went to the bathroom and called out, “Hey, I found a comb!” which confused me because I didn’t think she used combs. It turned out she meant to use it a rice utensil; it was actually super effective, and I’m pretty impressed that she saw it and immediately thought of it. Bomi and I tried using the sugar packets from the coffee machine as our scoops, but I got annoyed when the paper got soggy after a few bites, so I went all natural with my hands. It wasn’t the most dignified moment in my life, but we had literally spend over 13 hours waiting that day and I was just tired and hungry. Fortunately Nola finished first and let me use the comb after. As we suspected, it was probably the worst fried rice we had ever tasted. I was elected to sleep in the middle of the bed since I was the one who made the offer. There was enough room, but it was unbearably hot so I couldn’t fall asleep. Fortunately the room also had this wooden bench with some sort of pad on it, so I used my backpack as a pillow and one of the bathrobes as a blanket, and with that I was finally able to doze off.

After only a couple of hours, Bomi I got up and went downstairs for the free breakfast. For what it’s worth, it was a pretty nice hotel and we were greeted with one of the best spreads I’ve ever seen! We only had time to stuff ourselves to a certain extent before we set out for the embassy. We made it there just before it opened, and I let Bomi take over with the language. One of the things she needed for the passport was a new picture, so she had resolved to make it the worst picture she had ever taken and she succeeded; over the last three days we had not showered and probably slept a total of five hours, so we were looking rough. The picture is amazingly perfect though. It only took about two hours before we were leaving with a brand new temporary passport in hand! We joined Nola back at the hotel and finally enjoyed a much needed shower. It was actually one of the best showers I’ve ever taken; I should start staying in four star hotels more often. We eventually set out for the airport feeling very optimistic about flying standby. We were greeted with yet another long line and were quickly informed that all flights were once again cancelled. I spoke to a representative who “couldn’t say for sure” but speculated that no flights would make it to Brussels before Friday.

With that we resigned to our fate and bought obscenely expensive airport hamburgers. We decided to just book a flight to Prague with another airline. Now RyanAir said that they would mostly likely refund our cancelled flights, but we would still have to have to make up the difference between airlines of no less than 150 euros. On top of that, RyanAir couldn’t even guarantee when we would get the refund, so we had to dig deep and front the money out of pocket. We found a flight to Prague for Tuesday morning with only four seats left so we quickly booked it and never looked back. We went back to the hotel happy that there was hope of someday making it out of Madrid, only to find out that our room had been given away. They found us another one that actually had a third bed! That night we ordered pizza from the only place that would deliver to our location and it was disgusting; it of course didn’t come pre cut either, so we pretty much just had to tear it apart with our hands. We were consoled by another amazing breakfast in the morning though.
I can’t describe our euphoria when we actually made it to our gate and learned that our flight was still on track to take off. We had a short layover in Barcelona, and by three that afternoon, we had finally made it to the Czech Republic! Even as we took the public transport to find our hostel, we couldn’t help getting sucked into the absolute beauty of the city. It was truly amazing. We found our hostel and at reception, the first thing he asked us was if we wanted complementary tea, coffee, or water. The place was perfect! The staff were incredibly friendly, and our room was one of the coziest places I’ve ever seen in my life. On top of that, we were just glad we had made it to Prague and our trip could continue as planned.

Then we connected to the Wi-Fi. Our phones immediately started blowing up with a flurry of people desperately demanding to know if we were okay. We had no idea why until Nola googled Brussels. The airport and one of the metros had been bombed that morning, the morning we should have been flying to Prague. Now in retrospect, since our flight was the cheapest you could get, we would have actually been flying from an airport about an hour outside of the city, but we could have easily been on the metro. In any case, we would have been grounded indefinitely and I can’t even bear to think of the anguish our poor mothers would have experienced. But still, it was so surreal that we were supposed to have been there but relentless obstacles kept us from going. I was pretty shell shocked to say the least, so we took some time to decompress in the room and respond to all the messages.

On a brighter note, we were also in contact with my cousin Nick who had decided to take a jaunt around Europe after having achieved his Master’s degree the previous December. We had planned to meet up in Prague, so it felt reassuring to know we would be with him in a couple of hours. In the meantime, we decided to venture outside of the hostel and explore the surrounding area. We were right next to the Charles Bridge, and as soon as we began to cross it we were already enamored with the city. It was chilly and gloomy, and the sun was starting to set, but the setting was absolutely perfect. It’s hard to fully describe the beauty of the city that night, but just know that it was truly incredible. We found a small street market and tried some Mauled Wine and bratwurst, both of which were delicious. We basically just wandered around trying to take it all in until the sun was well past the horizon. We returned to the hostel, and Nick arrived before too long. We had planned to go to a highly recommended restaurant for dinner, but the wait was outrageous so we had to find somewhere else. We ended up at a pretty classy place and the food was good enough; the best dish by far was the duck that Bomi ordered. After dinner we wandered around downtown in search of a decent pub, which was harder to find than we had anticipated. We ended up in an Irish bar with live music; it wasn’t nearly as great as Dublin, but it was nice to relax, catch up, and let the rest of the group get to know each other.

We started out bright an early the next day. Right across the street from our hostel was a small restaurant that sold pizza and all sorts of sausages, which were quite delicious. We went downtown to the main square where they were currently hosting an Easter Market. There were booths selling all sorts of crafts, along with great food and other types of Easter themed things. We registered for a free walking tour, which taught us so much about the rich history of the city. I learned a lot about the ineffective implementation of communism that had ruled the country for many years, but has thankfully been reformed. I hate to sound redundant, but it really was one of the most enchanting places I have every visited. I wish we could have stayed there for so much longer! Although all of it was pretty great, I think my favorite part had to be the Astrological Clock, which seems to be one of the most ingenious feats of science. It was quite a wonder to see in person! After the tour it was time for Nick’s most anticipated activity: Absinthe. I hadn’t really known much about this particular drink, but from what he had told me I was actually a bit nervous. The tour guide laughed when we asked him for a recommendation and gave us some really helpful information. So I didn’t really know what to expect when we walked into the small saloon, but the bartenders were very nice and helpful. We decided on a traditional Czech type, and learned soon after we ordered that it actually came from a bottle with a beetle in it! It was fascinating to watch them prepare the drinks, which were literally flaming. We all got a small glass, but it was recommended to sip it as opposed to shooting it. It was still quite warm and pretty interesting. You definitely feel the burn the whole way down, but it lessened after a while.

After all of the walking we found some food, then went to the hostel to take a rest for a bit. On this night were wise enough to go the restaurant super early, so we finally got a table. Nick decided he wanted to try an appetizer called beer cheese. The waiter had warned us that it was quite potent when we ordered, but we went for it anyway; it literally smelled like dirty feet and was extremely pungent, but Nick and I actually enjoyed the taste of it – as long as we breathed out of our mouths! Once we had eaten our fill, we hurried back downtown just in time to catch the free ghost tour of the city. Some of the stories were more interesting than others, but the best part of the tour was that we got to walk around some of the back allies and much less popular areas. Towards the end it started raining though, which really put a damper on things and we were somewhat relieved when it ended. Once again, we had to run back to the square where we met the representative for, you guessed it, a pub crawl! This crawl was a little different than the others, but it was a really good time. We went to three or four bars and two clubs. It goes without saying that shenanigans ensued, but we all had a lot of fun and really bonded as a group.

It would have been nice to sleep a bit later the next morning, but we had to check out of the hostel on time and it was our last day there anyway, so we got up relatively early. We took our time to explore more of old town and made the climb up to the castle and royal palace. Once again, everything was picturesque and just so perfect. I’ve always heard great things about Prague, but none of it compares to the actual environment. I guess it was cool because it’s older than many cities, as it had never been destroyed by a war. Anyway, it was all just such a great experience. We eventually made our way back to the square and took some time to shop in the Easter Market. There were so many great things at such a reasonable price, I wish I had room for everything! We finally set off on our trek to the train station, which was bit further than we had anticipated but it was pleasant.

The station was chaotic and confusing, and we ended up sprinting to our platform unnecessarily, but the important thing is that we made it. I expected the interior to be sort like any other train I had ridden, but this one actually had compartments! In reality they weren’t that great because it’s hard to stretch your legs with someone sitting right across from you, but it was also sort of cozy. Somewhere near the German boarder a lot of people got off, so we ended up our very own compartment. By now it was completely dark, so we were able to stretch out and enjoy some very refreshing sleep.

We arrived in Berlin around 10 or 11 that night, so we didn’t take too much notice of our surroundings. Nick was staying at different place this time so we parted ways when we made it to our hostel, which looked really nice from the outside but was interesting on the inside. I mean it was clean and everything, it was just so bare and plain. We later learned that it basically represented communist style architecture: large, clinically clean, and almost intimidating. My favorite part was the small room near the common area that housed a pool table and computers; right above the door there was a small black and white sign that simply read “Fun Area.” It wasn’t so bad though. Interestingly, Nick’s hostel was only a few blocks away, but we later learned that we would have been on opposite sides of the wall.

We wouldn’t have much time to spend in the city so we really had to take advantage of every moment. So Nick knew this girl, who I think was a friend of friend of his that he had met once like five years ago, but she invited us to brunch so we went. Of course, we had quite a bit of trouble finding the bus and ended up walking way more than what was necessary, but what else is new. We finally met her at a nice-looking restaurant and were greeted with a Smorgasbord of meats, cheeses, fruits, and bread. It was all extremely delicious. Perhaps the best part though was the opportunity to get to know a local and compare perspectives on global politics and whatnot. We had a very interesting conversation about our countries elections, and the direction that public opinion seems to be moving towards in each place. She was very nice, and she even taught us a few German words!

By the end of the meal we were stuffed, so we meandered for a bit. Before long we thanked her for her company and bid farewell. With that, the four of us set out for downtown where we took advantage of yet another free walking tour. Berlin definitely wasn’t the most aesthetically pleasing of cities, I mean it has been completely rebuilt more than once in the not so distant past, but there was an almost overwhelming amount of history behind its walls. Though much of it was quite somber in nature, it was somewhat surreal to be physically standing in a place where so many things had happened. I feel like I could have spent several weeks in the city and still not see everything it had to offer. Of course it rained throughout almost the whole tour, but again it seemed sort of fitting.

We were all pretty worn out by the end of the day, so we decided to take it easy that evening. We got dinner at an excellent Vietnamese restaurant, then went back and hung out at the bar in our hostel for a while. Nick and Nola hadn’t planned to leave until Sunday, but unfortunately Bomi and I had to return to Spain on Saturday. Fortunately we made it through everything without any problems and by the afternoon we were once again wandering the streets of Madrid. We enjoyed a good meal and went to see any major sights we had previously missed. We decided to go for a drink at Pool and Beer, which was quite crowded. Bomi realized just how often we go there when several patrons greeted me by name and the bartender asked how I had enjoyed Germany. Her flight was for very early the next morning, so we went back to the hostel before long to try getting some sleep. I accompanied her to the airport in the morning and stayed until she got to security. It was bittersweet seeing her go; I was grateful that she had come to share quite an interesting adventure, but it felt like she was leaving too soon!

I stuck around the airport for a while waiting for the first metro to begin at 6, then I made my way back to the apartment. Beatrice had the door chained, so I decided to wait a while to see if she would wake up soon. I basically just ambled around the neighborhood watching the sun rise. I was tired, but it was a relevantly nice morning and it was enjoyable. I’d have enough by 8 though, so I finally rang the bell to wake her up. It was good to be back in my room, not to mention I was long overdue for a shower! I called home and talked to my family for a bit, but mostly I did nothing. Nish and I went to lunch when she came home and we both recounted the highlights of our weeks. It was an interesting Easter, and I once again enjoyed the sweet relief of the elevator!

I wasn’t quite ready to return to the reality of school, but I felt quite content with the whole experience. It had been stressful, joyful, and overall just a long, strange trip, but it was one of a kind and I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by great company.