Living the Italian Life in Under Six Days

Ah, Italia. Land of some of my favorite foods, beautiful countryside, and the richest history I’ve ever been able to witness. I went on a trip through parts of Europe back at the end of March, and I have written about all of them except for Italy, which is where I spent the majority of my trip. Sorry it took me so long, I had literally thousands of photos to go through, and I have been busy with classes and exams. Well, now that I’m here, I might as well start my story. Just a quick note, I don’t normally pitch individuals or shops, but I was impressed by some in Italy and they deserve some praise, so I included them. Just a heads up, I’ve got another long blog for you in this one.

My time in Italy started when our (my flat mate and I) overnight bus arrived in Florence. We wanted to head straight to our hostel so that we could drop off our bags and not tote them around the city with us. It wasn’t a terribly long walk and we arrived at our hostel, which was Plus Florence (more about this hostel later). We were able to place our bags in the luggage room since our beds weren’t ready yet, and we set of to get our first taste of the Italian street markets just down the street from us. There were LOTS of vendors, but most of them had very similar, if not the same, products. The market had the general souvenirs, with key chains, t-shirts/ jackets, and other trinkets. It also offered purses, belts and jackets of every kind of leather, masks, scarves and even pasta. We walked around for a bit exploring the vendors, but not buying anything. We decided to work out a system on who to buy from, before we made our purchases (I was looking for a scarf, my friend for a leather jacket). As for the jacket, we knew how much good quality leather went for in the U.S., so we converted to Euros, allowed for a little leeway and started asking the sellers how low they would go in price. We figured if they were willing to go below 100 Euro (€), their product was not of lasting quality. Finally we found a guy with reasonable prices and a nice/ not pushy demeanor and told him we would be back. That day I didn’t find a scarf that caught my eye.

After our browsing, we decided to grab some food at a little restaurant on the walk home (the choices were many, we just wanted cheap for our first night). If I recall correctly, we ate at Giardino di Barbano, just a few blocks from our hostel.  I had Spaghetti Pesto my friend had Penne and we split some Caprese. Our food was delicious, decent portions and really affordable (about €5 a plate and €2 glasses of house wine). After our food, we headed back to our hostel and called it a night; that was our Sunday.

Monday morning, we had a quick breakfast at a little shop (lots of them offered deals on a cappuccino and pastry for less than €3) and we decided to head towards the Uffizi, the Duomo and all the other attractions. We soon discovered that nothing is open on Mondays in Florence (attractions wise), which turned out pretty well, considering all of our photo opportunities from the outsides of things. We grabbed paninis for lunch and had some gelato.

The next day we woke up a little earlier, grabbed breakfast in a new place and headed off to the Academia Gallery to stand in line for the David Statue. We were told it might be a two hour wait, but we ended up waiting nearly four (you can reserve a pass and not wait quite as long). Once inside we were able to see the David up close, as well as a number of other incomplete statues my Michelangelo. In addition, there was a plaster mold room, containing the molds from some of the statues we saw on our earlier trip to Paris. There was also a video explaining the mold making process, and how it is replicated when faux statues and busts are needed. After our David viewing, we headed back to the markets to do some shopping. There we found what we were looking for. I met a nice vendor at a scarf booth (not pushy, which is what I look for), who had scarves that the other vendors didn’t. I was looking at one in particular when he asked if I wanted to try it. I did, and he put it on for me, showing me two different ways to tie the scarf. This alone impressed me, but then I saw the scarf that called to me. It was a peach color, with butterflies, birds and flowers in bright magenta and teal. It was his only one of that design and I decided I had to have it. The scarf is cotton with a touch of silk, only €10 and I love it (and now I know two new ways to wear it).

My friend also found the leather jacket booth she had scouted before and started talking with the salesman. He walked her into his shop (just behind the booth he had set up) and asked her about styles and colors she wanted. She tried on a few, but her favorite (and the best looking in my opinion too) was a deep blue one. He told us that their factories were in Italy (even had a video playing of it), how the leather was treated and answered any questions my flat mate asked. They negotiated prices for a bit (almost coming to a stand still), but finally they settled after he gave a demonstration. This man grantees his products, and to prove this point he pulled out a lighter and burned the sleeve of the jacket to show that there was no heat/ light damage to the leather. I was impressed; my friend was sold and gave him the price he was looking for. He even told her if it was damaged or anything started coming apart five or six years down the road, send it back to him to fix or replace. If you are looking for a leather jacket in Florence, Dante Leather Shop is where this purchase was made.

This night for dinner, we went for a little pricier food and found ourselves at Trattoria Katti. It has mixed reviews on Trip Adviser, but my friend and I loved it. It is a family run place (just be aware their English is minimal) in a small, but cozy restaurant. There were only a few other diners, and it was a quite place. We ordered our food, were given our drinks and some bread for the table. We were excited, because both my flat mate and I love bread, but more so because there was olive oil and balsamic on the table too, which we used for the bread and caprese (we love Italian food and what I guess you could call its condiments).  A bit later we got our food, gnocchi for me and penne with spicy sausage for my friend. It was the best Italian food I have ever eaten. The portions were rather large and looked amazing. I was full about half way through my dish and I couldn’t stop eating until it was nearly gone. In addition to enjoying our meal, we met a few other Americans a bit more traveled than ourselves, talked a bit about their experiences in Italy and what we could expect. It was a great experience.

The next day we walked down to the Uffizi Gallery, bought reserved tickets for later in the day (we didn’t want to stand in line for hours) and headed out too explore the area around the river. On our way out, we saw a number of artists setting up to do portraits. My flat mate had wanted to get one for her parents done in Paris, but didn’t have the time. She decided she would get one in Florence and negotiated a price with the artist she had picked, who was named Canu Vittorio. While she sat, I documented the event with my camera. The sketching process was really quite fascinating. The artist was very nice and even let me get up close for photos while he worked. The sketch turned out great. Mr. Vittorio talked with us a bit about our travels and gave me his name and phone number for this blog when I asked. If anyone reading is heading to Florence and want a great sketch done, leave a comment and I’ll be happy to give his info to you.

After this we walked along the river (it was a gorgeous day) exploring souvenir booths, little shops and just enjoying the scenery. After walking over a few bridges and taking lots of photos, we headed back towards the Uffizi. We stopped for a quick lunch at a place just down the street from the gallery with a view of the river. The food was mediocre and the gelato was alright. The view and the outdoor tables were worth the sit down however. I actually had pizza for lunch (I’m not usually a big fan), but I was underwhelmed. We went back to stand in line at our reservation time, and were inside within a few minutes. I am a fan of art, and while the Louvre houses some of my favorite statues, the Uffizi houses some of my favorite paintings. While much of the Uffizi was under construction during our visit and not all of the pieces were on display (they are expanding a wing to make more room), we were able to see The Birth of Venus and related paintings. I love mythology and some of the paintings representing Roman (and also Greek) deities are my favorites, Botticelli’s La Primavera (or Allegory of Spring) for example. Going to places like the Uffizi just amaze me. There are paintings on the walls that are older than my whole country by over 200 years, not to mention the gallery itself was built in 1581. One thing traveling did for me was make me realize that America is so young. After we had our fill of art, we headed out to the shops and markets. We decided that instead of buying dinner at a restaurant, we wanted to do a bit of a picnic. We went into a small shop, used our best Italian (the owners only spoke a few words of English) and bought fresh pesto, tomatoes, and mozzarella. Then we found a bakery and picked up a large hunk of focaccia and bottle of wine. All the food was fresh and locally made, and it was the perfect dinner, possibly the best we had. The freshness pushed a good meal to a great meal, during which my friend and I realized that two scoops of pesto is never enough.

Now to our hostel, where we ate this lovely meal. The rooms themselves were decent, clean enough and had ensuite bathroom and shower (two separate places), and large lockers to keep luggage in while you were away. We had problems in several other respects however. As with any hostel, unhygienic roommates can be a problem, but when windows are broken and you cannot open most of them to air out the room, that can be an issue. During our stay at Plus Florence, we discovered that the hostel was also being occupied by a large school age group (I am thinking 12-14) who were running up and down stairs frequently, taking up the restaurant in the basement of the hostel, along with the bar/ dance floor and the lobby. Now I don’t normally mind kids, but when I am trying to enjoy a vacation and they are disturbing it, I don’t really want to have to scold someone’s kids in a foreign country. It was a definite negative to our stay. The hostel did have a sauna and pool, which was nice, but make sure to bring your own towels. They will sell you a towel for three Euros, but the towel was barely big enough to wrap all of my hair. The last thing that gives Plus Florence a low review in my experience, was that both my friend and I left with our allergies acting up (her’s in a sneezing kind of way and mine in a hives kind of way). I wouldn’t suggest staying there unless you can’t find something a bit better.

On our last day in Florence we walked over to the Boboli Gardens. We didn’t end up having time to go all the way up and see them, but we did get some pictures from the bottom level. After that we headed back to the hostel to pick up our stuff and catch the train to Rome, where we were wrapping up our adventure.

The trip through the country of Italy was beautiful. The hills, houses and vineyards were amazing to watch go by. Some day I would love to go back to Italy, rent a car, and just drive through the whole country. Eventually got to Rome, and I packed the most tourism into one day that I have ever done. Our first stops were to drop off luggage at my flat mate’s hostel (she was spending Easter weekend in Rome with a tour group), and then at mine. I knew that I would only have one day in the city, so I booked a bus tour to take me to all of the important sights, and my friend decided to join me. It was raining a bit, so we were a little wet as we sat on the top level of the bus, but it was covered and the photos were better with out glass in the way. The bus tour would be hitting all of the major attractions, and I planned to get off and take photos at my favorites. So we set off and arrived at the first sight I wanted to walk around, The Colosseum (Coliseum). It is amazing to me that any of the structure is still standing considering how old it is. My friend and I both found ourselves wishing for a time machine at this sight, just to see it in its prime.  It was the first of many stops on my surreal trip around Rome. The next place I disembarked to see was Trevi Fountain. The fountain was truly wonderful. My friend and I stopped to make some wishes (hopefully ensuring our return to Rome), snap some photos and grab gelato.  This gelato was really fantastic and I still think about it. It was probably the best gelato I have ever had and the man in the shop was very sweet, if not a little flirty. We also took a little walk to visit the Pantheon, which was much more amazing on the outside than the inside for me.

Then it was back on the bus and we headed towards the last stop I wanted to photograph, Vatican City. This last sight was packed, given that Easter was only a few days away. We were able to get into St. Peter’s Square fairly easily, but there were people everywhere. Tourists, workers setting up for mass and vendors filled the whole place. We walked around, took photos (mine relating a lot to my recent viewing of Angels and Demons) and then got back on the bus to head back to our hostels. When the tour wrapped up, my friend and I parted ways. I wasn’t satisfied with some of my photos however, and I did the bus tour all over again, this time sitting on a different side. I got off in Vatican City again, but this time I just needed to grab a few souvenirs for family members. The gift shops were very crowded. After my second round of the bus tour was over I was exhausted to I headed back to my hostel (Freedom Traveler), where they were having a free pizza night (they also offered a pasta and wine dinner for 3 Euro). It was a nice little place, quite, with a kitchen downstairs and ensuite bathrooms. I settled in for the night and got up early the next day to catch my flight back to Dublin.

The main transportation center was only a few blocks from my hostel (trains, buses, airport shuttles), and I was able to catch a shuttle to the airport with in an hour. Then it was all waiting until my flight. Rome Fiumicino airport is a small place and it was a bit confusing to actually board my flight. People stood in line at a gate with no airplane, then go outside, boar buses and take those to the planes. This was the first time I had ever done something like that, but it wasn’t too bad.

I made it back to Dublin just fine, if not exhausted. It was the most amazing trip of my life and I am glad it ended in Italy, one of my long time wish list countries. I would love to go back someday and spend more time, but for now I have some really great memories. Photos are below. There are a lot more (and some of much better quality) on my photo blog: http://kldphotoblog.wordpress.com/.

Thanks for reading,

K

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100 years of history, my visit to Croke Park

While I should be telling you all about my time in Italy, I have yet to finish sorting through my 1,000 photos from that trip. I will share as soon as I can, but in the mean time, I will let you know about a recent field trip I was able to take.

A few weeks ago I was able to take a trip with my Introduction to Irish Studies class to Croke Park. It is home to the Gaelic Athletic Association and the GAA Museum. For those who don’t know, GAA sports include Gaelic football for men and women as well as hurling for men and camogie for women. Our trip started with a video with a brief history of the stadium and some clips from the most recent finals that were held, and then we went on a partially guided tour through the museum. Not only does the museum have historical items (trophies, jerseys and more), information and video displays for more detailed displays, it also has games to let you try out your Gaelic sports skills. There were practice areas for both Gaelic football and hurling, as well as several training games to test jumping, catching, reflexes and more. It was a lot of fun to both try the games and watch others try them (I am quite short, so the games for jumping and goal tending left me on the sidelines, but I was entertained by others trying their luck).

After our look around the museum we were able to go into the stadium, starting under the stadium and going from there. We were able to see the tunnels first and on the wall was a set of huge hurling paddles. They were so large that they had several sets of handles so they could be carried. Our tour guide informed us that children usually carry them out onto the field before big games to get the crowd rallied and excited. Our trip through the tunnels led us to the winners lounge next. This room was very nice. It has a great chandelier with different sized hanging lights that represent the reigning champion with colors. This room is only used after the finals and both teams have to use it, or no one gets to. Also, we were informed that the room was built with all Irish materials. There seemed to be a large emphasis on sportsman ship as we continued our tour. Our guide informed us that most of the players are friends off the pitch, so even after a loss, a camaraderie usually exists.

Next we went into a dressing room, number two to be specific, which is known as the lucky dressing room. Here we saw the jerseys of every team displayed in sections representing Munster, Ulster, Leinster and Connacht. There were four jerseys raised above the others, representing the mens and womens champions in Gaelic football and hurling/ camogie. In addition to being a dressing room, there were also showers, washrooms and training rooms attached. We went into the training room last and our guide explained some of the additions to the room (outlet covers, netting on the ceiling), thanks to players targeting the fixtures for practice.

After this, we took the path that the players take out the tunnel and near the grass on the pitch (we weren’t allowed on it, but a few of us dared to touch the grass for a quick picture), escorted by the sounds of cheering crowds and music on a speaker system. This is where our real history lesson started. We were told about the different sections of the stadium, named after several important figures in Irish history and Gaelic sports.

The sections of the stadium are the Cusack Stand, the Canal End Terrace (renamed the Davin Stand after the first GAA president) which contains the Ali Tunnel (named after the boxer and his fight in the park), the Hogan Stand, and finally Hill 16 (Dineen Hill 16 and Nally Terrace). These stands combine to seat/ stand 82,300 people. Our guide also informed us that Hill 16 was built with some rubble from the 1916 Easter Rising.

After learning a bit of history, we were informed of some speculation that followed certain design elements of the stadium. For example there is a set of steps up to the champions/ trophy platform that has 32 steps, which people have said represent the teams you must beat to become the Finals champion. Sometime coincidences (or not) create really fun stories I guess. At the top of this platform is the section reserved for the President and special guests. We were able to walk up and try to guess which seat was the designated one for the President.

Next we were able to take a trip up the other two levels of the stadium and visit the media rooms and a private box. Our guide informed us that recently the Media rooms have been playing host to weddings. The last rooms were quite nice and had a great view, but the prices were not for the average spectator. We were informed that for season tickets to a suite, you would have to go to over 60 percent of the games to make it worth the money.

After this our tour wrapped up and we headed back to the museum. Outside the doors to the museum are the club walls. Not only do they display the Gaelic sports clubs in Ireland, but the show the clubs from all over the world. I didn’t even know there were Gaelic sports outside of the region, let alone in places like the U.S., South America and Australia.

Croke Park is celebrating 100 years in 2013 and it was a great time to visit. The museum and stadium offer a Skyline tour where you can walk along the very top of the stadium (we didn’t get to go, but it was raining for most of our tour). I had fun learning about Gaelic sports, and if given the chance, I would love to see a game at Croke Park someday in the future.

Thanks for reading,

K

Note: If you are wondering how photos go from being super sunny to dreary, just remember I am in Ireland and the weather changes quite often in a day.

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Quietly Beautiful, My Guided Tour Through Austria.

After our adventure in Budapest, my flat mate and I were headed to Austria, where we were set to stay with my aunt. We were planning to wander around Vienna first, but with how tired we were, and me feeling sick, we decided to head straight to Kirchdorf an der Krems, where my aunt lived. We took the train from Vienna to Linz and transferred to the Kirchdorf train from there. We were a little confused on where to head from there, but the train conductor gave us some street directions and we made it to my aunt’s with out any problems. Once we settled in, we were able to get some food, and just relax. I also got to meet my aunt’s new baby (four months old, the youngest of three), who is probably the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. My aunt told me a bit about the house her family was living in. I found out that it was built in the 1600s, which explained some of the strange layout (the toilet was in a completely different part of the house than the sink and bath). It had some of the original ovens (though not in use any more), and other features of the house were very cool. After some more chatting, we called it an early night and headed to bed.

The next morning we were treated to home made breakfast. We talked about our plans for the day, and after some discussion, we were going to get a (family) guided tour of the town, the local castle, then we would be treated to a homemade meal at my uncle’s parent’s house and get to walk around Linz to see the sights.

After our plan was set, we wandered out of the house and on to the main street of Kirchdorf. There we were introduced to the most comprehensive organic store I’ve ever seen, called Bio Bauernladen Kremstal. They had everything from local cheeses, vegetables and meats to baked goods, home cleaning products, personal care products, wine, and frozen foods. They were really nice and let me wander around in fascination with my camera taking pictures. My aunt said she buys a lot of the food for her family from this store. If I had access to that kind of store, I would probably buy as much as I could there too. I find it really interesting that I have seen so much more emphasis on local and organic food in Europe than I ever did at home in the States.  I really hope that changes in the near future.

Next we were off to a chocolate store that changed my chocolate eating experience forever. The store was called Bachhalm Confectionery Cafe (after the main chef I believe) and it is a chocolate café. They had individual chocolates, boxes of chocolate bars and so much more. It was sort of like stepping into a fantasy and it smelled fantastic. After talking with the woman in charge, my aunt was able to get us some samples of chocolate, including one that was made for the Pope. We learned however, that you cannot simply eat this chocolate; there is a process. My aunt translated for us, and basically to enjoy the best possible flavor, we needed to: let it sit on the tongue for 10-15 seconds and let the chocolate melt, chew the chocolate a few times, then press the chocolate into the gums. I thought the process sounded a bit weird, but as soon as I did it, my mind was blown. I don’t know why, but putting the chocolate against your gums really makes the flavor intense. We tried a few different pieces of chocolate, and my aunt bought two favorites for us all to share. Now if you’ve read my blog before, you know I love chocolate, but now I’m ruined. I don’t know how I will ever go back to eating American chocolate.

After our crazy chocolate experience, we drove up a mountain to the nearby castle. After we got a portion of the way up, we did a bit of hiking and took in the view of the villages below. At the top of one part of the mountain (it went up further to the peak), we came to the castle. It was called Altpernstein.  While not a huge castle, it was still really cool, and also still in use by a local church. Again, it paid to have locals as our guides, and we were able to go in the castle and have a look around (and my family could translate all of the signs for my flat mate and me). Most castles we knew of don’t let visitors in if it isn’t summer, but we were excited to be able to see this one up close. We were surprised to discover a lot of the features of the castle were original, or as close to original as possible, including the floors near the entrance, the water fountain/ pump (that’s my best guess for what it was) and door bell, which was literally a bell attached to a string leading all the way to the front doors.

After our castle tour, we made the short drive to Linz, where I met some new family and had a great home cooked meal. We ate vegetable soup, which tasted extremely fresh and was very delicious. With that we had several different types of bread and two kinds of apple juice, both were made by the family from apples out of their own orchard. They were very good. One had more of a cider taste, while the other tasted a bit like liquid applesauce. For dessert, we were served dough pieces covered in ground poppy seeds, and also made with honey and sugar. It was extremely good. I wasn’t sure what to expect from ground poppy seeds, but it was great and my flat mate and I wanted to eat more, even though we were really full. After our home-cooked Austrian meal and some good conversation, we headed off for the center of Linz to see some sights.

The first thing we came to was a center square with a monument and a couple of covered fountains. There are several shops there, including one for souvenirs. Next we wandered through the town, popping in to several churches and looking around at the interesting architecture. One thing I noticed that seems somewhat unique to Austria is that many of the churches (and houses) are yellow. I asked my aunt about this, and she said that she had really never noticed how many there were. We went into at least two churches in Linz that were yellow, and they were only a few blocks apart. My flat mate and I noticed several houses and buildings on our travels through Austria that were a nice yellow color. After some more general sight seeing, we made our way to the Neuer Dom (New Cathedral), which is the largest in Austria. The high vaulted ceilings were similar to those we saw in Notre Dame (in traditional gothic style), but I believe they were higher. The Dom was huge and each wall had dozens of stained glass windows with detailed depictions and there was also and organ that took up nearly a whole back wall. It was extremely impressive and beautiful.

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At this point it was getting dark and cold, so we found a small café for a bite to eat. We ended up at Gelber Krokodile, which offered a variety of salads and hot drinks. My flat mate and I shared a mixed salad with chicken (there was more than enough food for both of us with just one salad for 8 Euro), which was really delicious and juicy. It was served with both a vinegar based dressing and a cream based one. The tastes were different, but complimented each other well.

After this we headed to the train station to get back to Vienna, where our overnight bus would take us to Florence. We said goodbye to my aunt and found our train. By the time we got to Vienna it was completely dark and we didn’t get to do any exploring. We decided to head to our bus station to make sure we knew where we needed to be for our 11:30 pm bus. We had some confusion on which train stop we should take, given that our stop was not listed on the underground map. After about 15 minutes of staring and trying to find the right place, and man from the station came up to us and tried to help. Between his limited English and our limited German, we were able to work out which stop and train we needed, and he even walked us down to the platform. Once on the train we realized our stop was listed in the car, just not on the map, which was a small frustration. We made it to our bus station just fine, but we had about two hours until we needed to leave and the bus schedule didn’t have our bus listed. A warning: the nights in Austria can get extremely cold. The day was a comfortable temperature, but the darker it got, the lower the temp went.  Being from Illinois, I’m acclimated to the cold, but this was freezing even for me. I can’t imagine what it was like for my flat mate, who lives in California. We tried putting on extra layers and bouncing around, but we were pretty numb. Eventually we got desperate for someplace warm and wandered into the nearby hamburger place just to warm up. We bought some food and stood inside for as long as we could, but they closed at 11 pm. We reluctantly walked back to the bus station to wait. We still weren’t sure which side of the station our bus would be arriving at, so my flat mate waited on one side and I waited on the other. After what seemed like forever (I know it was only 30 minutes) our bus arrived and we settled into the only two seats left (luckily they were next to each other) and tried to thaw out. Our journey was going to be a long one, and we tried to get comfortable.

While we missed out on some things, the experience my friend and I got in Austria was better than we could have hoped for. We got a real taste of the culture and people, and having a family member there to translate for us was extremely helpful. I know I had a great time. I would love to go back to Austria in the future, to visit and to see more of the larger cities.

Thanks for reading,

K

Three Crazy Nights, a Wild Adventure in Budapest

I am not even sure where to begin for this blog. Well, I suppose I should start with the preparation for the trip of my lifetime. A flat mate and I decided we were going to spend our study week and Easter break trekking around continental Europe. She was headed for Prague; we would meet in Budapest, and then head to Vienna, Florence and Rome. I knew I would be flying Ryanair (not my first choice, but the cheapest) back to Dublin, so I had to pack for 10 days, with one bag. Not an easy task, but not unmanageable either. I knew I would have access to laundry facilities, so I was able to pack lightly. I booked the hostel for my flat mate and I early, and though we were attempting to stay at Retox  (a party hostel recommended by a friend), through a mix up we ended up booking at Carpe Noctem instead (more on this later). However I discovered that I would need an extra night in Budapest, so I ended up booking at Retox for my first night after all.

After I was all packed I headed for the bus that would take me to the airport. This being my first time travelling alone to an unknown place (where the language was not English), I was a bit nervous, but also excited. And I knew that my flat mate would be meeting me the next day. After a relatively short flight, I touched down in Hungary. I decided to take out money from an ATM in the airport to avoid the commission of the exchange bureau. Then I was going to look for a bus ticket, but I realized the directions that I had printed to get to the hostel were less than clear. I found an information desk, and she helped simplify my instructions for me, pointed me to the ticket counter and I was on my way. After some ticket malfunctions on the bus, I made it to the point where I could walk to my hostel. I soon discovered that all of the street markers were on the walls, but I couldn’t find the one that I needed. Knowing better than to ask someone on the street for help (Budapest isn’t exactly the safest place for a single girl at night), I found a small flower shop run by a woman and asked where the street I needed was. She pointed me in the right direction. I of course walked the wrong way down the street I needed, because why would I make things easy on myself. I finally arrived at Retox to be greeted by name, since they were expecting me an hour earlier, and they were looking for me.

I was shown around, given what to expect during my stay (which was rather graphic and specific), and told where I could find food in town. There are lockers in the rooms, but my bag was a bit too large to shove in one, so I was told I could keep my bag in the office until I got back later. Each night, the party hostels of Budapest (Retox, Carpe Noctem, Carpe Noctem Vitae, and Grandio) get together and have some kind of event, usually centered around alcohol. The event the hostel was hosting that night was karaoke and Strawpedo boat races. I didn’t know what a Strawpedo race was, but I learned that it is where you take a bottle of alcohol (they were using Bacardi Breezers), put a bendy straw in it to let out the air, and chug it as fast as possible. At the Retox bar, they were doing time trials to find the fastest members of both  the staff team and the guest team.

Then everyone ventured out to the pub, where there was pretty much non stop karaoke and I even went up to the microphone with some new friends. I was a part of groups that chose to sing 1985 by Bowling for Soup, and Angel by Shaggy. Others chose to sing much more adventurous and random songs through out the night, depending on how much “liquid courage” they had consumed. For anyone who has not been to Budapest, drinks are quite cheap compared to the rest of Europe. They were between 600-900 Forints (HUF), which is about $2-4 U.S. And that price covers everything from mixers including vodka, rum and whiskey to tequila shots and more, so most people were celebrating the ability to afford alcohol in Budapest. I can tell you it was a definite difference from Ireland prices, and I was glad for the break on my wallet at the pub. The social outings that the hostel hosts are a great time to meet new people, some from all over the world, and others from the next state over. You never know who you are going to find connections with while traveling. Eventually the night died down and the last few stragglers from the bar made their way out and back to the hostel.

When I got back, it was 3 in the morning, and as luck would have it, my bag was locked in the office, with no staff member in sight. So I headed into my room to see what I was in for. Turns out I was bunked with four guys (an American, a Canadian, an Irishman and an Englishman), which sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but really it was just an interesting start to a night that lasted longer than I anticipated. I soon found the guys in my room were not shy, and were happy to share (sometimes explicit) details from their adventures across Europe. I heard some horror stories about the guys that had been in the room the night before, involving broken glass all over the floor and vomit in the shower. I’m very glad I missed that. I also found that the Irishman had graduated from the same university I am currently attending in Ireland. Three of the guys had known each other for a while, and I even helped them out by taking photos, when two of them decided to pile on top of the third, who unfortunately fell asleep first. Eventually I realized it was 5 a.m., I had no chance of getting my bag back, and the guys were finally going to sleep, so I settled on sleeping in most of my clothes and dealing with the consequences of sleeping in contacts after I woke up. One thing I noticed this first night was that all of the mixed bed hostel rooms have bunk beds, which is both highly amusing and highly dangerous when it comes to drunk and hung-over people. Especially when those drunk people decide to not use the ladder and just climb the side of the bed. It is probably a good thing they are only about six feet high, since I watched one particular guy nearly fall every time he got out of the top bunk.  Overall, it was an interesting night that threw me right into the lifestyle of Budapest travelers.

The next day, I was able to get my bag, so I could change, put some serious eye drops in my eyes and have access to my snacks (in an attempt to save money, I had purchased granola bars and mixed nuts to keep my hunger in check). I just settled in to read a book on my kindle until it was time to check out and head to my next hostel. During this time (from about 9:30-11), a group of guys kept wandering by, sticking their heads in our window and asking if we had seen their missing friend. They had a flight in a few hours, and it seemed that Budapest had claimed one of their own. After a few hours, they discovered that he had drunkenly gone to sleep somewhere else, and was not in fact missing. How they lost him in the first place, I don’t really know.  One of my roommates also decided that Retox was not for him, and he was going to check out Carpe Noctem to see if they had an open bed. After the rest of the guys left in search of some food to help their hangovers, the room was the quietest it had been since my arrival. It was time to check out, and I left Retox behind me.

When I arrived at Carpe Noctem, I had a totally different experience right from the start. The people were really nice and helpful, let me borrow a lock for my important things, but told me that they had never had anything stolen from the rooms, and people leave their bags out with out any problems. I was sat down again to go over the map, but this time with details on where to get what kind of food, the best views for photos, the best sights to see and other helpful information. I didn’t have to pay until my friend arrived and everyone was very friendly. My Retox roommate was able to get a room at Carpe, and he had arrived before me. I settled in to my bed, and started to journal about the previous night, until it was time to meet my flat mate at the train station. Fun thing about getting around on public transportation in Budapest: nothing is in English. The underground train was fairly easy to navigate once I learned the central hub where all of the trains meet and you can catch a transfer. From there I got the right train to the international train station and waited for my friend to arrive. During this time I realized I hadn’t eaten since my granola bar that morning and I wanted a snack. The thing that caught my eye was Kürtoskalács, which is a Hungarian pastry. I ordered a chocolate one, and it was extremely delicious. It was crispy and chocolaty on the outside, but had that warm gooey pastry taste on the inside. I highly recommend them.

After I finished my snack, I wandered back to the platforms of the train station, waited a few minutes, and saw my flat mate. She stopped at the currency exchange and then I lead the way back to our hostel (because I was obviously a master of the Hungarian underground train system by this time). We got back, she got the same orientation that I did, we paid for our stay, and then got ready for that night’s event: a bar crawl. After we got ready, we ventured out for food, coming across a burrito place of all things. It was a quick choice, so we sat down to eat what turned out to be burritos the size of my forearm. They were filling and tasty. I had a bean and cheese, while my friend had a vegetarian burrito.

Then we made our way back to the hostel to begin our first ever bar crawl and the beginning of her 21st birthday. We were told we would be hitting five bars (mostly ruin pubs, which are old buildings or garages converted into pubs/clubs), one of which was voted the #3 bar in the world. The group could purchase drink vouchers for 2,000 HUF, which got you two free drinks and four buy one, get one free drinks, good at three of our five stops. We set out and got to our first bar, Kuplung, where we all sat at the outdoor bar to enjoy the nice night. I was introduced to a game called touch the cup. As a bystander, I was able to ask questions about how the game worked. I came to understand that through a combination of quarters, passing cups while saying touch the cup and attempting to remember people’s names, this game was designed for everyone to fail, as most drinking games are. After a few rounds of that, we set off for the most famous ruin pub on our trip, Szimpla Kert.

This pub was definitely not a let down. It was two stories, had something like five different bars (I sort of lost count) there was stuff took look at everywhere, and yet the atmosphere was oddly tranquil. All kinds of objects covered the walls and ceilings from plants, to industrial rubbish, to art. It was a cool place to just sit down, enjoy a drink with new friends, take in the surroundings and talk. Also, as a newcomer to the Budapest pub scene, I was informed that the woman walking around selling carrots was a totally normal occurrence. I had never seen such a thing in a bar before. This bar is also the kind of place where you can sign a wall and leave your eternal mark on the building. So if any of you venture to this particular place, you may find my name written on the wall near the main stairs on second floor (good luck with that by the way, there are probably millions of names on those walls). You can also add your legacy to the mix while you’re at it.

The next stop on our pub crawl (though everyone was still walking well under their own power at this time), was Fogas Ház. At this particular watering hole we were greeted by large denture teeth depictions and other interesting art. This bar didn’t have much seating, but the atmosphere and space did allow for some drunken challenges, such as being able to kick at a certain height and attempted push up contests. Just a reminder for while you are out with friends: keep your drinks or glasses at a safe distance away from the more intoxicated among you, or you could end up helping to clean up what used to be a glass from the floor after an unfortunate meeting with an elbow. By this point in the night, you will probably start to know your hostel mates quite well.

From there we ventured to Iskola, which was relatively empty and drinks were a bit more expensive (plus they didn’t take the vouchers) so this bar was used for bathroom breaks and chatting between our group and some of the others on the bar crawl. There are several places to dance in this pub, but the most interesting thing was probably the décor, which included art, lighting, and various bold prints and colors for walls and furniture. The most interesting furniture happened to be the tables. Each table was supported by legs…not so strange right? Wrong. The legs were actual legs, well mannequin legs, but it was still creepy in a fascinating kind of way. After talking for about half an hour, we moved on to our final bar of the night.

Our last stop was Instant. This pub also had two floors, dance floors packed with people (actually the whole place was packed), and coat check. Again the décor was similar to falling through the tunnel under the tree in Alice in Wonderland, but seemed like there might be some purpose to the chaos. This was the place for last drinks, dancing and having fun. There were quite(r) rooms off to the sides where people could sit and talk if desired. At this point it was getting late and some people needed to head to bed, so several of us from the hostel walked back. It took us a minute to figure out where we were at on the map, but after that it was a quick walk back to Carpe Noctem (which actually isn’t far from anything you need). Even though it is a short walk to most places, I would suggest being in a group while out at night. A group containing a male is even better, just to be safe. In addition to adding that look of protection, they can also help carry those who are nearly crawling home from the bar.

On another note, Carpe Noctem is up several flights of stairs, so you may want to keep that in mind while drinking, or make sure you have friends/ hostel mates who are willing to help you up them…slowly. As a helping hand in this situation, I can tell you that the stairs are dark, and with out help, some people would probably not make it to the top.

After a slow start the next morning, my flat mate and I ventured to the Széchenyi Baths. This is a great place to relax after a night of pub hopping, and according to my friend a great place to detox after the kick off to her 21st birthday. We ended up spending almost two hours in the warm water of the outdoor baths. We decided to stick to the outdoor option, given that if we got too warm we could just pop out of the water and let the chilly (slightly rainy air) cool us down. After we left the baths we decided to do a bit of shopping and get some food. We found an interesting little shop that sold Middle Eastern trinkets and jewelry as well as belly dancing costumes and more. Then we found a quick snack and headed back to the hostel to prepare for that nights event, which was a party boat.

We started at yet another bar, before heading toward the Danube River. After what seemed like a very long walk (it was freezing and we were busy being cold, not paying attention to how far we were walking), we arrived at the dock to our party boat. Following what I can only describe as an epic pre-entry speech, we boarded. Those who had a certain ticket received a bottle of campaign and many corks could be heard popping up on the deck of our entertainment for the night. One rule on the party boat: you have to kiss someone every time the boat goes under a bridge. This resulted in couples kissing (in that we’re embarrassed but still managing to be cute way), friends giving each other awkward pecks on the cheek and strangers grabbing who ever was closest for a giant smooch. The boat went up and down the river a couple of times, giving us a great view of the parliament building lit up at night. After the boat portion of the evening concluded, the partiers headed to a nearby club to keep the festivities going.

After another eventful evening, it was past bed time, since my flat mate and I were headed to Austria the next morning.

On a serious note, being in a party city comes with dangers as well as fun. Some suggestions I have based on what I saw and experienced while in Budapest are these: travel with a group at night (as a woman it was an important precaution), it is better to be safe than sorry. Only drink to your limit, don’t over do it, because no one really wants to drag you back to the hostel after a long night. Always remember the rules of drinking (especially women): don’t take drinks from strangers, don’t let your drink out of your sight (or probably out of your hand), and if possible, keep the top of your drink covered. While you may feel comfortable with the people around you, you never really know what someone’s intentions are, and again, it is better to be safe.

Someday I’d like to go back to Budapest and participate in the other party hostel events, including a city walking tour (guided by staff from the hostel), caving, a bath rave and other fun things during both the day and night. The time I spent in Budapest was crazy, amazing and unforgettable. I met some great people who I plan to keep in touch with on Facebook, and who I hope to meet again on future travels.

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Want to check out these places for yourself?

Visit them on Facebook:

http://www.facebook.com/carpenoctem.hostel?ref=ts&fref=ts

http://www.facebook.com/Kuplung?fref=ts

http://www.facebook.com/szimplakert?ref=ts&fref=ts

http://www.facebook.com/fogashaz

http://www.facebook.com/iskola.hegedu.utca.3?ref=ts&fref=ts

http://www.facebook.com/instant.art.bar.wood?ref=ts&fref=ts

Thanks for reading,

K

Student Abroad: One jam-packed weekend adventure in Paris

Where do I even begin? As a student studying abroad in Ireland, I thought I was already taking in some amazing sites, and a new culture. Then I went on a weekend trip with some flat mates and a friend to Paris. It still doesn’t even seem like it was real.

Let me start with the fact that this trip cost me a grand total of $520 U.S. dollars. While that seems like a large amount of money, it is actually quite good considering that Paris is an expensive city. Also, the flight was $270 thanks to our delay in purchasing. Booking a flight in advance will save a lot of money and reduce the total cost dramatically. Then I spent about $62 (47.25 Euro) on inter city travel. We bought a three day travel pass, which was a great thing to have. It got us unlimited access to the Metro, trains (even out to Versailles), buses and even the shuttle to the airport. And trust me, if you are looking to get to the sites in Paris, you will be using the Metro like crazy.

I spent about $50 on food (of course food spending is entirely up to the traveler). In Paris it is easy to grab a baguette or croissant for breakfast and not spend much at all. There are also crêpe shops sprinkled throughout the city. I really enjoyed the baguette I had one morning, both for the food, and because I find eating a French baguette in France highly amusing, having never had the opportunity before.

For lunch, depending on where you are, you could grab a Panini or food from a small shop on the street. I did both in my time in Paris. Our first day, we wandered into a small shop called Pizza Rustica Huchette, that served several different kinds of Panini and some strange pizzas. I chose a thin crust pizza with potato slices, black olives and a small amount of onion, just because potato on pizza seemed like an awesome idea to me. A friend chose a pizza with shrimp on it. They were really good. Mine had a slight olive oil taste and was just the right amout of seasoned, and my friend enjoyed hers. The next day, we ate at a Panini vendor outside of Versailles palace, near our train station, called Le Corner. My chicken and cheese Panini was filling and tasty. I paid about 6 Euro for lunch each day.

Dinner is the priciest meal of the day, but several places in the Latin Quarter offer three course dinners for just 15 Euro. We were lured toward a small place by a friendly man out front early in the afternoon, but weren’t ready for dinner. When we were looking for a place to eat dinner, he remember us, which won us over (he was quite good at his job, he kept the place full the entire time we were there despite the competition across the street with the same deal). I honestly don’t remember the name of the place (it was just down from the pizza place where we ate lunch), but the food was good and our server was very nice. I had vegetable soup as a starter, a chicken kebab, and a crêpe with chocolate for dessert. The soup was creamy and delicious (between that and the bread, I could have been done eating). The chicken on the kebab was tender and juicy, but the real winner in the dinner was the vegetables on the side (green beans, olives and tomatoes mostly). They were seasoned or soaked in something that made them tender and wonderful to taste. The crêpe was also very good, with a chocolate sauce that tasted homemade. Our second dinner was at Le Sancerre Restaurant. The atmosphere was nice, the food was delicious and the service was quite good. This restaurant was just down the hill from Sacré Coeur on the shopping and food side. It was a little pricier, with entrees staring at 13 Euro. I chose a three miniburger entrée, which I shared with a friend. Each burger had a different topping (cheese and onion, bacon, and guacamole), and it came with a salad and generous portion of fries. The food was really good, and worth the price for a great evening and meal.

As far as actually seeing the sites, I spent a grand total of $16. If you are a European student, studying abroad in Europe, or perhaps just a young person, Paris is a tourist friendly city. With our I.D.s or student cards, my friends and I were able to get in free to The Louvre, the Musee de l’Orangerie, and Versailles Palace. We also went to the Arc de Triomphe, Sacré Coeur and Notre Dame, where we saw some more amazing carvings. All of these places not only left me speechless, but I could return to each of them and spend countless more hours just staring at the art and the ceilings. We attended the night hours of the Louvre on Friday, as we wanted to avoid some of the crazy large crowds. We only had a few hours, so we chose our favorite pieces and exhibits (Venus de Milo, Mona Lisa and Roman/Greek sculpture), and set off to see them. On the way to any given piece, I found myself just staring at the ceilings in awe. I don’t know how past European artists thought up these things, but the ceilings throughout the city of Paris are amazing works of art in themselves. I could have gotten lost in the Louvre and not even noticed or cared. Time restraints however pushed me toward the door.

On Saturday we ventured out to Versailles Palace and I was once again shocked by the detail and beauty that a building can have. First of all, the day was sunny, clear and probably about 55 degrees Fahrenheit. The gates to the Palace glowed and the details in the architecture really popped. Once inside the palace itself I literally couldn’t comprehend the details in each room. The arches over the windows had intricate flowers, the doorknobs had faces, and the ceilings had crown-molding on crown-molding. Not to mention the paintings that covered the expanse of nearly every ceiling in the place. The magnitude of the Palace is hard to comprehend from the inside, but once I stepped outside into the gardens and took a look around, I realized that the place is huge. The garden was a slight disappointment, as none of the fountains were on, but I figure that gives me an excuse to try and make it back in a future summer. Overall, Versailles is definitely worth a day trip. It will astonish you.

When we made it back into the city, we wanted to head to the Musee de l’Orangerie so we could see Monet’s water-lilies in natural light. It was a beautiful experience. The light really helps give a depth to the paintings. My friends and I took the time to explore each one up close and from across the room. We also ventured downstairs to see some of Renoir’s work, along with some Picasso, Matisse, Derain, Soutire, Utrillo and Laurencin. It was a very soothing and pleasant gallery to walk through. The atmosphere is great for just taking in the art and relaxing.

The only thing we paid to see on our trip was the Eiffel Tower, and even that had a student discount. We wanted to go all the way to the top, so we paid the 12.50 Euro. Just being at the Eiffel Tower was a surreal experience. It was one of those “I’ve seen this in movies, how can it be real” moments. The journey to the top took several stops, but it was a great experience, and once we arrived at the top, it was like being in a different world. The top of the Tower was windy and cold, but the views were the real breath-takers. You can see an expanse of city from the top, and the photo opportunities are great.

Some of the other attractions also offer free admission or discounts to people under 24/ 26 or with European student cards.

Lastly for costs, I spent about $52 for a hostel room (split with three other people) for a two night stay. We stayed at Hipotel Paris Voltaire. It was nice for the price. The room was very good. The bathroom was a water closet style, with toilet, sink and open shower all in one space, so containing the shower spray was a challenge. The stair climb to the third floor involved a spiral staircase (there was an elevator that could fit two average-sized people with only very small bags and no claustrophobia if needed). We felt safe leaving our backpacks in our room while we explored, and there was an attendant at the desk at all time. Also, the hostel was just next to the Voltaire entrance to the Metro, which was very convenient for travelling.

Overall, I don’t regret any money I spent, and I had a FANTASTIC time and took over 1,000 photos. Some of those will be on this post; many others will be uploaded to my photo blog once I get them sorted out.

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Thanks for reading,

K

P.S. Preview for my next blog: 4 cities, 3 countries.

Coffee and Chocolate Lover Abroad

Let’s start off with two facts. One, I love chocolate. Ever since I was young, I have been a fan of dark, milk and even some white chocolate (even though technically that last one isn’t really chocolate). Two, I love coffee. Back in my late junior high/ early high school days, I started my endeavor into coffee with the stuff that comes out of vending machines and cappuccino machines in gas stations. Now I know neither of these is actually coffee, but that put me on the track to trying different roasts and blends of sugar/creamer. Nowadays, I enjoy light sugar and cream, or even the occasional black coffee when I need a good, bitter slap in the face to wake up in the morning.

Now that we have those things established, I will share with you some of the wonderland that is Europe when it comes to the coffee/ chocolate connoisseur’s taste buds.

Since arriving in Ireland, I have been to a number of local and chain cafes, coffee shops and grocery stores, where I have been able to taste some of the best coffee and chocolate I have ever had.

Let’s start with chocolate. Not only do they have brands of chocolate I have never heard of before (Galaxy for example), they have their main brand, Cadbury (and not just crème eggs), and even familiar candy such as Kit Kat, Crunch and Rolos. The difference between the later here in Ireland, versus home in the States, is crazy. The chocolate here is so much richer and more flavorful. I had a Kit Kat shortly after I arrived and it was like I’d never eaten one before. Most of the chocolate here is made with no artificial colors or preservatives (as is most of the food), and in addition to that, many of the candy bars proclaim a use of only fair trade products. I have really come to love the dedication to fair trade and all natural products here. I’m not sure how I will cope when I get back to the U.S., but I have a few months to go before that worry sets in.

A friend of a friend (a resident of Great Britain) suggested that we (a flat mate and I) try Galaxy chocolate, so of course we did. It is the only chocolate I have bought since. It is rich and creamy, and my favorite kind has chocolate cookie pieces in it as well. Back home I would eat Hershey’s chocolate on occasion, but I usually went for things like Lindt or Ghirardelli. I haven’t seen those here, but I have been quite happy with my choices.

To wrap up my chocolate obsession, I must tell you about the experience I have had with its liquid form. Hot chocolate is another love of mine (sweet tooth much?). There are two specific places I like to get my hot beverage, and they are Brewley’s on the NUIM campus, and Café Bon Bon in Maynooth town (more about both in the coffee section). Brewley’s offers whipped cream and marshmallows as a topping for each cup (as if I could say no) and they are generous with the amount of each they cover the drink with. I feel like a little kid again with every cup I get (so far at least one a week). The sweet marshmallows are perfect for snacking on while the hot chocolate cools to a drinkable temperature, and the whipped cream adds extra richness to the drink. Café Bon Bon offers a great cup of HoCho too, but they serve theirs with chocolate on the bottom that needs to be stirred in, whipped cream on top, and a chocolate wafer (basically chocolate shavings packed into a small stick shape) and Oreo for dipping. It is delicious with a savory breakfast.

Now on to COFFEE (emphasis for caffeine?)! I like coffee, not for the caffeine like most people (I’m the kind who has had a triple shot latte before a nap), but for the flavor and sometimes bitter wake up. There are so many places to get coffee around this area it is crazy. Just on the NUIM campus, there is Brewley’s, Costa Coffee, O’Brien’s (small), and a Starbucks. In town there is Café Bon Bon, O’Brien’s (large), The Coffee Mill and more. Basically people love coffee here (well they love tea, but coffee may be a close second). Some of my favorite cups of coffee have come from Brewley’s (I think I may love this place). My most frequent coffee beverage is a latte (with soy when I remember). When I am feeling particularly sleepy, I add a caramel shot for a pick up. O’Brien’s and Café Bon Bon serve a pretty good cup of coffee, their lattes even have heart shapes when you get them for a sit down. (Side note: things are for take-away here, not to-go. Not sure why, but the workers usually understand what you mean.)

With all of the coffee places around, there are a plentiful amount of opportunities to sit and chat with friends. I currently have an elevenses (don’t judge me for the Lord of the Rings reference :p) date with some friends for tea and coffee on Friday mornings and a Saturday morning breakfast with two flat mates at Café Bon Bon (we haven’t tasted a food or drink there we don’t like yet). Getting a few minutes (more like an hour) to just sit with friends or co-workers seems to be a popular activity here. The coffee places on campus with lounge areas and cafés in town are always full of people talking and laughing. It’s a refreshing experience that I highly encourage while traveling or studying abroad.

Another great thing about coffee (and tea) here is that it is cheaper than it is at home. Usually you can get a good cup of coffee (a regular size) for under the equivalent of three dollars U.S. The Starbucks prices are about the same, go figure.

Well I think I’ve rambled enough about my food/ drink obsessions starting with “C,” so I’ll end it here. Check out the photos for some examples of my tasty endeavors. (oddly I have none of my coffee even though I thought I did).  Hopefully I’ll get some more while I’m out and add them in.

Thanks for reading,

K

American Girl, Adjusting to Irish Life

So, I’ve been a little behind on blogging. Sorry about that. This week I am going to tell you all about the adjustments of getting settled in an Irish society, just to get caught up.

As an American in a new country, I was expecting quite a few changes. What I have found has taken some getting used to, both in positive and negative ways. From flat mates, to classes, to food, to general culture, life on the Emerald Isle has come at me full force.

To start, I have six flat mates of various cultures and backgrounds. This is a pretty great thing in most ways. I know live with some really cool people who I have found have some similar interests to me, and I also learn new things from those who are more dissimilar to me. We get along pretty well and some of us even team up to cook meals and get groceries. Now I have to say, prior to this I have only ever lived with family, and usually in relatively small numbers. Living with six other people has been an adjustment in itself. Then, I have to factor in that we share two bathrooms between six people (one lucky girl who won’t be named scored an en suite bathroom), and one kitchen/ living area. This means cleaning schedules, messes and friends of flat mates coming over. All of that I have gotten pretty used to in the three weeks I’ve been here, but it started rough. With no hot water for a while and people around the building making lots of noise late at night when they get home from pubs, the first week was tough for everyone. Luckily the hot water is fixed and I learned to put headphones in at night.

One huge culture shock for me was the classes or modules here at NUI Maynooth. In the past three and a half years of school I have become accustomed to syllabi, especially those that generally detail out the course, required texts and how the course will be graded (participation, # of exams/ quizzes, essays). When my first class started I discovered I would find no such thing here. I don’t know if we are babied as Americans (given our increasingly lowering scores) or if we just like more structure, but the Irish don’t seem to feel the same way. Several of my professors jumped right into lectures and some eventually made it to a reading list. Most classes are only once a week, which is fairly standard. Coming from a small liberal arts university, I was used to classes that were smaller than 35 people, but I NUIM I have classes ranging from 15 to over 200 people. I only found out what books I needed to buy in my second week of classes. On the plus side of that, I only had to buy four books, three of which are novels. Many classes use online readings as material or supplements. Now I am starting my third week of classes and I think I have the hang of almost everything. My few remaining questions involve the essay and/ or exam by which the course is graded, and tutorials. I never had a tutorial before, but it seems to be a kind of study/ homework/ extra help class (required) that helps to gain a better understanding of the course. There are only 9 weeks of actual classes left, so it will be interesting to see how I end up.

As for the classes I am actually taking, I think they are some of the best I’ve ever had. I found out just before registration that I could take classes for something called an Irish Studies Certificate, and I was thrilled. For this certificate I am taking Intro to Irish Studies, Intro to Irish Language, Intro to Celtic History, Intro to Celtic Language and Goddesses and Kings. In addition I am taking Culture: Themes in Anthropology. So far all of my classes have been pretty great (one had a bit of a heavy start but got better this week). I already have a favorite professor, and she teaches two of my courses. She has the kind of personality that you can’t help but enjoy, and she is a great storyteller. One of my favorite classes is probably Irish Language. I have taken language courses before, but never for a language that nearly died off before a revival began. It is really a fascinating thing. At the same time I am learning about the predecessors to Modern Irish in my Celtic Languages class. Some of the history of the language dates back to before the 6th century B.C., and it seems crazy that something could be written and spoken that long ago and still resemble a modern language.

Next, one of my favorite things: food. So as most people know, food in Europe is pretty different from food in America (better for you, different meats, different words). I have to say I love that fact. Now, I am a self-professed pick eater and anyone who knows me could tell you so, but I figure I need to put myself out into the food world and just try things.

First let’s clear up some food vernacular. Irish words and American foods are what I am aiming for. Chips here are really thick fries or potato wedges depending on where you get them. Crisps are chips. Biscuits are cookies, but I found out that savory biscuits are crackers. Pudding is not liquid; it is sort of gooey bread like food, to be non specific. There are two types of water: still and sparkling. I’m sure there are many more, but those are the main ones I have encountered since my arrival. I will update you on any new ones I come across.

I have eaten the stereotypical fish and chips meal, but I have also ventured out there and tried black pudding (blood pudding), lamb shank and various sauces and soups that I can’t begin to say, let a lone type here. To be complete honest, I haven’t eaten anything here I didn’t like. One of my dinner ventures took me to a local pub and Thursday night student hangout called The Roost. There I had some great fish and chips, served with salad and tiny cup of Irish peas (which are delicious FYI, and pretty much the same as regular peas), the portions were American sized and quite tasty. An interesting trend for Irish eateries and cafes is that nearly all of them have cream, sugars and a variety of condiments on the table from mayonnaise to malt vinegar spicy mustard and more. Very handy if you ask me.

Best thing about the food here is the stuff in the grocery store. Fresh produce is cheap compared to the U.S., even factoring in the exchange rate between dollars and Euros. The best thing by far though has to be the lack of artificial ingredients in foods. Soda (pop) has no fake sugars (unless you buy diet, yuck) and no fake anything really. Back home I got used to reading packages for high fructose corn syrup and fake sugars and the like. Here I started doing the same, but in just a few short weeks I gave up. There is no need here. Almost everything is made with natural ingredients and I couldn’t be happier with the food.  A note: The chocolate and coffee here are FANTASTIC! Every cafe I have had a cup of coffee from makes me smile on the inside. The chocolate is so much better and if I can stock up before I leave I definitely will.

Lastly, and probably the biggest adjustment is the culture itself. The language, while English has different words and slang. Most of the time I follow along pretty well (thank you BBC America for the practice), but occasionally a dialect or slang term comes along and I find myself being a foreigner and saying “I’m sorry what?”. Another thing I knew about was the traffic and driving style, but actually experiencing it is something entirely different. I still catch myself thinking: why isn’t anyone driving that car. Also I’ve quickly taught myself to go back to the days of looking both ways before crossing the street (sometimes repeatedly), because more than likely I am still expecting traffic from the wrong direction. Another adjustment I still haven’t gotten used to is the fact that nearly everything closes for a lunch break. I think it’s nice for workers, but I keep going places just to have to come back after an hour.

So far everything is pretty fantastic and I can’t believe I am actually in another country. I’ve joined the International Society, and I was able to sign up for a trip to Dublin to be in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. It will be a crazy experience that I will remember for years to come. I’ve also started going to a kickboxing class, which is a challenge, but a really great workout. Maynooth has a ton of clubs and societies on campus and I will probably end up trying out a number of them. One of the great ways to meet people here (other than the bars) is to join the groups. I’ve met some really wonderful people so far,  and I can’t wait to see what else is in store for me.

That’s all for now, thanks for reading.

 K