Saturday, November 13, 2010

I Heart Parisians

I think that it is time for a post dedicated to all my favorite, but unknown people in Paris. You know, those people you see all the time? Or even those you see once, but just can't forget for their awesomeness? And finally, the acts of people that make your life just so much more enjoyable? Well, be prepared for some seriousness and some sly sarcasm, cuz here it comes...
1. The woman that, in the middle of the fast lane of the swimming pool, with people doing freestyle all around her, decided that she would backstroke. No, scratch that. She would float on her back, occasionally waving her arms a bit, forcing everybody else to swim around her/underneath her/behind her, getting a good luck at ... trust me, everything you do not want to see of a middle-aged woman in a pink bikini. R-e-s-p-e-c-t for being so oblivious.
2. The guy who comes to different markets with a little crate in which he has a piglet and a baby goat. I finally saw him after seeing pictures of him from different friends. What does he do with them? Sell them for people to slaughter? Is it a pet-a-piglet-for-a-euro thing? Who knows?
3. The guy in the metro playing flamenco music every single morning just brightens up your day. When you are late, hot, being scuffed around by other people and did not have your morning coffee, seeing him play and seeing how much he loves it is an instant pick-me-up. Last week he even got a friend to sing along. Awesome.
4. The people who manage to run and jump into the metro a millisecond before the doors close. They are insane, but amazing.
5. The people who manage to run and jump into the metro, just to wait another minute before the doors close because they didn't realize the train wasn't actually leaving yet. I am one of you.
6. The dolled-up old ladies in their fake furs, ruby lipstick and tottering high heels that walk back and forth on Boulevard St. Germain, wishing for the old days when they were young and beautiful and courted by rich men. They warm my heart.
7. The distinguished white-haired waiters in the Cafe de Flore that just seem to impersonate class, grace and pride in their establishment.
It's fun to realize how you remember certain people without actually knowing them!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Dangerous Paris

Dangerous... because of muggings? People "on strike" burning your cars? Or to your wallet? Yes, all three. But what I really meant with today's post is dangerous to your fitness levels.

How to gain weight get chubbier get rounder round the cheeks in Paris…

1. Paris = city of great eats, right? So swear to yourself to try every single kind of French pastries/baguettes/cheeses/ chocolates (I know, there aren’t really French chocolates, but somehow it belonged in the list) that the city has to offer. You’re only in Paris once, after all!

2. Decide that now you’ve tasted all of them, you might as well see where they make them best. Continue the degustation in all boulangeries and cheese-shops in the vicinity.

3. Reward your busy schedule and social life by eating lunch out. All the time. To keep it cheap, prefer crêpes, pastries (yet again!!) and those 1 Euro cookies from the distributor that make you really full.

4. Spend long, long, long hours pouring over French readings/writing outlines/reading food blogs/p-r-o-c-r-a-s-t-i-n-a-t-i-n-g at night, so that there is no possible way for you to get up early and do sports before your 10 am class. Snacking is a must during those hard study sessions.

5. And anyway, Sciences Po hasn’t gotten a gym, so you couldn’t even work out if you wanted to. As if you wanted to. Plus, nobody else does! Right?

6. Finally, nurse an old sports injury and be so frightened to make it hurt again that you decide to rather do Tai Chi until the end of your life than ever engage in physically challenging activity again.

…And how to get back on the right track

1. Become appalled at your couch potato self in the last weeks and remember great achievements in your past.

2. Find swimming pools and gyms ALL OVER PARIS. Seriously. And for 19 Euro you can go swimming all you want over three months. Raaad..?

3. Switch the food blogs for healthy living blogs.

4. Try not to read them too late at night so you can be at the pool at 7 three times a week. 7am, of course.

5. Cut out most processed sweets from your diet. Drink more. Take the 5 fruit and veggies a day seriously. Start feeling so much better after the first week already.

6. Promise yourself to have homemade sweets and cookies only. Then forget to make them cuz you went on a run.

7. Test, slowly, slowly, the limits of your injury, don’t do too much, but do something.

8. Set yourself goals (Paris Half-Marathon OR Marathon depending on how well my foot works for me.) and think about prices for yourself if you keep to the workouts every week.

9. Tell EVERYBODY about it. And join in the fun! 

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A hint of sun and beach... Spain getaway

So... after a lot of work, my first French expose is done, my first French econ exam as well, and several research projects and presentations well on their respective way... Sciences Po really doesn't let you take a break, which nevertheless didn't prevent me from taking one anyway. I had planned this trip since the summer, since my aunt has been living in Spain for more than two years and now, though back in Germany, goes there every vacation. I hadn't seen her for about six years, so what better opportunity than meeting up in Figueres? The Ryanair flight was short, though getting to the airport took about three times longer (refer to the previous post for more info about the magic of Paris Beauvais). But once arrived in Girona, these were four wonderfully stressless and enjoyable days. The first day we visited Girona, the cathedral and the old town, had lunch, walked around and chatted so so much. In the evening, my aunt taught me how to make pan con tomate (so easy and soo yummy) and we had wine, cheese, and macarons that I brought from Paris. The second day was all about sleeping in, breakfasting leisurely, and seeing the Dali museum in Figueres! That was a crazy, crazy artist, man, with an inflated ego just to match his love of attention. In the last years of his life, he actually created his own museum because he was convinced that after his death the world wouldn't be able to properly commemorate him. On the other hand, that ensured that there are really cool installations and art projects to see that you could have never otherwise replicated. He was a genius after all as well - one of those typical cases where the genius and the crazy lie very, very close together. After the museum, we found a little plaza where we sat out in the sun and had gazpacho, paella and sangria... Perfect... Then we hit the shops and I stocked up on very necessary winter clothes, very necessary ...uh.. fall dresses and super... important... jewellery..? My aunt is the worst and best person to go shopping with because she finds all the right things for you - and no reasons not to get it. Finally, we rounded the day off when sharing churros con chocolate (spelled xurros con xocolate in Cataluna) which may just be the best high-caloric food ever. If I ever need to put on weight for medical reasons (hey, it can always happen, right?), just put a huge plate of this in front of me. Actually, it's these little dough fritters that you dunk into really, really thick hot chocolate... Apparently also amazing after-partying-three-in-the-morning food. I heard.
On Saturday was Barcelona day. From the start we had said that you can't see all of Barcelona in one day, and we didn't even try, that was the nicest part. We just took the train in and went directly to Parque Guell, the park area that Gaudi designed. It reminded me a little of the Mont Royal in that it's such an oasis of peace and nature in a hustling and bustling city. Except that Parque Guell has in addition to that amazing art - sculptures, mosaics, little caves and bridges made of natural stone.. You could spend the whole day there, but we stayed strong and left after a couple of hours in order to see the heart of Barca - the Rambla! This pedestrian zone in the middle of a huge shopping street has three parts - the newspaper part, where you can get the world press, the flower part with the most amazing bouquets, and the animal part. Here, I think they play with pity and the adorableness of the animals, since I would have taken every single one home just to save it from the fate of staying in that small cage forever. Later, we meandered around the Barrio Gotico, the old town with teeny tiny streets that only allow the sun to shine in for a couple of hours every day. Walking through the Barrio is a little like a maze, you always turn a corner and see something unexpected - a little church, an accordeon player on a little square, a cafe or a churreria with the odd handful of customers.... Or if you are unlucky, you hit one of the bigger streets filled with loud tourists clamoring for real German Schnitzel (why do I have the impression that all the annoying tourists are German?) and you can only save the atmosphere by fleeing back into the cool, calm alley. On one of the larger squares, it looked like a courtyard with balconies lining the side of the houses and palm trees growing in the four corners, we sat down for a coffee and people watching - the best activity in big cities. And finally we went to the harbor (hello ocean!) and also said hi to the Columbus colon (hello Columbus!).
All of a sudden the last day was already there, and so I packed my bag and... we went to the beach! My flight only went in the evening, so we had another full day of adventure. We decided to drive to Caraques, a little coastal village, near which also Dali's summerhouse is. Already the drive there was breathtaking - the road went in serpentines up over the hills, and after every turn was a new view of the ocean, olive groves or the valley below. Caraques itself has these little whitewashed cottages and a white church that reminded me a lot of Greece, and so did the laidback atmosphere. Dali himself did not live in the village - God forbid!) but in the next bay which he bought up for himself. Yup. He bought a bay. And built a house out of three joint former fishermen's huts. Including his personal fisherman, his cleaning ladies, chefs and gardeners. Well, in any case, his house is super interesting, especially the contrast between some cottagey-simple rooms that work well with the view out of every room, which his wife Gala decorated, and the unusual collections of Dali. In his entrance hall stood a polar bear with a lantern in his hand; in his pool area he has advertizement signs for Pirelli tires, and pretty much wherever you turned there was another artefact. I only pity his wife for having to put up with so much... well, let's call it creativity. Plus he drew here in all kinds of situations, from behind, naked, an expressionist painting with drawers coming out of her chest... she must've been really stiff from all that modelling. Well, finally we walked around Caraques for a while and, as a last meal, had tapas (tortilla for me) and pan con tomate. A perfect end of a perfect getaway. Plus, the fact of not having done any homework resulted in my studying econ on the plane and feeling incredibly superior to all the people reading "Elle" or the board magazine. Is that bad? ;)

Monday, October 18, 2010

Why Paris Beauvais is not a real Paris airport... and maybe not a real airport at all

1. The shuttle bus takes off from the very periphery of the city three hours before your flight.
2. Thus, the shuttle bus journey to Beauvais took me longer than the flight to Spain.
3. After the journey of 1h30min (I saw one blogger saying "I thought we were already in Belgium"), you realize you didn't have to be there early anyways because the whole airport is one shack with two security lines, a passport control with empty seats and one coffee shop. The security check line took literally all of 3 minutes.
4. Around the airport, there is advertisement for tourism in the Valle de l'Oise region... but not for Paris. Strange?
5. Landing, I saw not one but two hares run off the runway.
6. After landing back in Beauvais, the pilot said... "and we wish you a pleasant stay in the Paris ... region."

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Paris observations

Since I haven’t written for a while, here’s to a double post! My friend Eric was asking for some Paris observations and this comes right out of my answer to him. I have been making some more observations since then and included them randomly (they are probably the lighter-hearted ones, when I was writing to Eric I was in a pretty bad humor) so sit back and pretend to be in Paris!

1. Parisians are obsessed with baguettes. I mentioned it before, in my Belleville post, but I thought it was only on Saturday/market days that they walk around with baguettes. Ohh no. On their way to work, from work, to see friends, in their lunch break, from the grocery store where they got a jar of Nutella – they carry a baguette everywhere. I can understand that the quality here of baguette is really hard to resist, and I have not yet gotten enough of them, but you would think that after a lifetime living here you’d kind of become accustomed to white bread, wouldn’t you? Maybe it’s addictive and gets worse as time goes by? In that case I will have to be very, very careful…

2. In that vein – okay, you know the whole spiel of “why do French people stay so thin with all the good food they have" and the answer is some weird red-wine-plus-mediterranean-food explanation? Forget about it. They stay thin because they don’t eat. I mean, yes, they have baguette, the occasional cheese and chocolate exuberance and all – but from what I have seen here, the Parisian at least eats very sparingly, has little time to cook, and prefers just to sit for a very long time with a bottle of red wine and a couple of grapes and corners of cheese to nibble on. As a foodie, I feel extremely awkward when it comes to the question “tu as faim?” – are you hungry?, because of course, I am always hungry. But that is not Parisian. At. All.

3. It's funny how Parisian nightlife is influenced by public transport systems. Since taxis are soo expensive, most people rely on the metro and/or buses to get home. Though there are night buses (occasionally) and the infamous Velib (the original BIXI), most people decide that since the metro only opens at 5h30, you'll just stay out and party until 5h30. I personally have gone the sporty way and taken the Velib plenty of times up the steep Rue de Belleville, but heard of loads of my friends just coming home around 6am or 6.30. The rest of the day is then of course lost, at least until the next evening where the same thing starts all over... Interesting concept.
4. Parisian traffic is friggin insane, especially (inexplicably) around 3 or 4 in the afternoon. Wait, not inexplicably. That's Parisian rush hour for you. I really think so, cuz last time I tried to bike back, I nearly got hit by cars/buses/bikes/vespas like 5 times and it took me soo much time just because of all the red lights and detours. The really ironic thing is that in order to alleviate traffic in the city, the Mayor's office decided to make nearly all streets one-way to deter people from even taking their car. Just, although many streets are theoretically free in both directions for bikes, once they are really small and there are cars parked on the side too, biking up the wrong way is pretty much a kamikaze action. But at least you get your daily kick of adrenalin totally free and with a healthy inhalation of car fumes! No, kidding, biking around the city is normally a hell of a lot of fun just because you get to see so much history in front of your eyes! just the pedestrians get annoying. especially all the tourists. *parisian sigh*
5. The best music you will get to hear for free is often going to be in the metro. Until now, I've discovered this 10-head-Russian big band (they all sing, and play the guitar, clarinet, and a bunch of other instruments that I can't remember) that sings traditional Russian and Kletzmer music,

GEDC2171 then there is the string orchestra, the flamenco guitarist, the piano player that set up his concert piano in front of the St. Germain metro exit, the Jamaican drummers, and last but not least the 20-head Spanish band that sang and played guitar and serenaded me two days ago (it was too funny, I just walked down to the metro with them when one of them offered me a seat, talked to me in Spanish and made his companions sing a song for me. Cuute!). There are also the more...amateur people that come into your metro train, sing a phrase or two from Edith Piaf and then walk around your already pretty stuffed wagon asking for tips. But at least they have guts.
6. Apparently the weather is going to be pretty grey-cloudy during the fall and winter months. Good for cookie baking (and galette baking. Nectarine-raspberry galette. Hmmm:

GEDC2169  Not good for jogging. As I discovered today. I'll go tomorrow. Most probably.
7. Parisians can be really nice, but can also be as snotty as their reputation. Especially Parisian bank clerks. Seriously, my bank has screwed up more times than I could even count. I've been trying to get back at them by boycotting giving them the stupid unnecessary documents which I always assume that they will forget, but they never do, leaving me in a Catch 22 situation which I can't resolve without giving in to the bank clerk I’m having a duel to death with. What a dilemma.

Juxtaposed Versailles

After a slightly difficult week with first classes, illnesses of myself and everybody around me, confusion, frustration and occasional spouts of loneliness, this Saturday was the perfect opportunity to shake it all off and just… enjoy life in Paris. But first things first – first classes.

I knew that the French lecturing style would be different and was apprehensive about what would expect me when I walked through that door the first day. Well, the French lecture course as well as the English one were just fine, except for the language barrier for economic vocabulary (ALENA = NAFTA??) and the fact that on Tuesday I concentrated more on not throwing up over my course notes than on completing them. But then came the conference courses, and they left me baffled. In a … good way. I guess. Because different isn’t automatically bad. But – it’s most definitely different. First of all, the class sizes are tiny. My largest class (the cours magistrale) are 45 students, the smaller ones are between 19 and 22 students with a real professor to talk to! It’s like taking all master-level seminars at McGill! Awesome.

Then, the evaluation methods are … interesting. In three of my five classes, I don’t seem to be having finals. In one, I need to make a presentation and a hand-out, in another one write a paper and participate in class, and in the third one, I need to do a presentation, and hand in 2 to 3 other written assignments. Oh – that is all? O—kaay…

Finally, in my steady search of “where is the work? where is the work?", let me confide you a secret: there are no mandatory readings in French conference classes. Our professors did say that readings would be important to contribute better to the class, and gave us reading lists of 10 to 20 books, but none is mandatory. Apparently, they want you to be able to express an informed opinion on the topic we are discussing and to defend that opinion in front of your peers. But whether you do that through improvisation, reading like crazy, nights in the library or leisurely Sunday mornings reading the weekly press is apparently your choice. This absence of structure brings me on edge. Couldn’t you just tell me which book to buy? Which chapter to read? It’s bad enough to be researching for one topic relying on good luck and chance to actually find the important readings and quotes, but having to constantly work like that? Don’t the teachers just want to spare themselves the effort of making a course pack? On closer reflection, I guess the fact that not all students will have prepared exactly the same way will make for way more fascinating discussions – provided everybody has enough self-discipline to actually prepare at all…

So, enough of Sciences Po rant and more to Paris. With my friends John, Haruho and Cecile, I went to Versailles today on a glorious beginning-of-fall day (the air is starting to get crisp, leaves are curling up on their branches and boots are definitely replacing the ballerinas on the feet of trendy Parisians). We didn’t know it yet, but we picked a great weekend to go, since only last week the exhibition of the oeuvres of Murakami in the rooms of Versailles opened up. Imagine crazy, colorful, fantastic, imaginative, funky sculptures sharing the limelight of fleur-de-lys tapestries, golden moldings and mahagoni cabinets. Don’t think it works? Let me prove you otherwise:



I loved it. Having seen Versailles before, obviously I was impressed by the grandeur, but I had already thought the first time that it was a little too much gold, a little too stuffy, and too many portraits of men and women I didn’t know. This exhibition brought exactly the right drop of fun and ridiculousness into the whole that I would say was desperately needed. Though we heard a lot of French muttering about “comment c’est moche”, there were also loads of people enjoying themselves immensely, especially the Japanese tourists and children obviously. In our hearts, we are all just children, aren’t we?

After the exhibition, we wandered around the gardens, came back to my place and made carrot-yam stew and home-made bread. What a perfect, perfect Saturday.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Le belle Belleville

Tomorrow is the first day of class for me, but the following couple of days are my last days of freedom to walk around and explore Paris to my heart’s delight. Already this weekend was a great introduction to my neighborhood, Belleville. I simply love it here and can’t believe my luck to be able to experience such a different, but equally fascinating Paris compared to intellectual and uppedy-nose St.-Germain-des-Pres. Firstly Place des Fetes – it’s a tiny little park on a rather large square, surrounded by not all too aesthetically pleasing high-rise buildings. But there is a market three times a week – Tuesday, Friday and Sunday mornings – and then you can feel the real Parisian spirit waft through the air together with the delicious smell of fresh baguette. It still makes me excited to see how excited Parisians are about food. Walking up Rue de Belleville yesterday noon, you could tell the best butchers, bakers and fishmongers by the lines that were building on the sidewalk in front of their shop. Little children are taken along to the Sunday morning achats and wait patiently for their parents turn in line, maybe watching the roasting chickens turn on their shashlik. At the cheese makers, the women serving you will ask when you want to eat your camembert – tonight, tomorrow or within the week? – and poke her finger into the different cheeses on display until she finds the right one. At the market, again, the freshest and tastiest veggies – not necessarily the cheapest ones though – are well-marked by the line that forms quickly at their stand, but standing in line (trusting the locals is always a good idea) just gives you enough time to decide whether this week will be zucchini-, eggplant- or pumpkin-week, whether the tomatoes and the basil both look good enough to make insalata caprese, and whether you can afford to get fresh figs this week as well or rather try the fresh dates. Also, wearing a skirt at the market is always a good idea if you want to have free samples of apricots, melon and pineapple, though you might have to deal with a kiss on the cheek from some of the merchants and endless calls of “Mademoiselle! Mademoiselle! Bonjour!”. Finally, I counted yesterday rigorously and seriously, every second person I saw on the street was carrying a baguette. Or flowers. It makes me happy to think about all the happy wives cooking at home when their husband comes from the market with kids crunching fresh carrots and a huge bouquet of wild flowers in his hand.

But Belleville has so much more to offer than the market and typically French stores. Down the street are one after the other a tiny Indian place, two Vietnamese “Pho”-soup places, a Chinese ravioli restaurant, an Arab grocery store that stocks evverything in the tiniest amount of space possible, one or two Thai places (though unfortunately with little vegetarian plates, maybe one should inquire whether they make any), and then at the very bottom you get to one of Paris’ largest China towns where all the shops have labels in Chinese and French, and I explored a huge supermarket with very intriguing products (many of which were not labelled in English, and looked… interesting). To top it all off, East of Rue Belleville there is a beautiful park that overlooks the town and where the city offers free wifi.

Yes. free wifi. In a park with view on the Eiffel tower.

Welcome to my corner of Paris.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Wow… First two (and a half) weeks in Paris

The thing about a blog is that it is a contradiction in itself. If you have something exciting that you are doing, you don’t have time to blog about it. And if you do blog, you have the time to do so, therefore your time isn’t filled out with exciting social encounters and adventures.

With this words, sorry for being so absent (though how many people read this anyway is another question), but I have had a splendid time in Paris in the meantime and was quite busy. Let me see whether I remember all I accomplished:

1. Got a phone.

2. Found an apartment.

3. Got a bank account (nearly. Only one more meeting. Okay? Please? Send me all the right documents now??)

4. Got a Sciences Po student card.

5. Found an apartment (oops. got that already.l But it’s really cool!!)

6. Made a tarte aux mirabelles, my first French baking experience in Paris. Those chocolate chip cookies didn’t count. At all. In fact, they didn’t even count in my stomach.

7. Biked around with a baguette under my arm and felt very Parisian.

8. Settled my health care (nearly. Just one more signature to go and get… Story of my life.)

9. Messed up a job interview and applied for three more, none of which have gotten back to me. Not really an accomplishment, but loads of my time.

10. Moved into my new place!

All this makes me occasionally consider myself like a true Parisian and scoff at the tourists running through the city to see all the sights in 3 days like I did three years ago. Instead, I go sit in my favourite cafe, have a café au lait and do some people watching while I scour the internet sites for more job offers. It’s a good life.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Decision Time

Time to look over my options.

Option 1: Gentilly. Nice boys, really sweet and light apartment with a big kitchen and modern living room. Out in the suburbs, but the nice middle-class ones, not the burning-cars one. Really tight renting requirements with the garant though, and the landlady only comes back from vacation on the 23. of August – what do I do when she refuses me?

Option 2: Place des Fetes. Really sweet 19-year old roommate, cute apartment (from her family) with big kitchen and a large room for myself, my room would be a little remodelled and cleared out, the whole family is really nice and the location is in the Belleville part of town. My guide says that “Belleville is not exactly belle, but it’s certainly vibrant, thanks to its diverse population. Successive waves of immigrants have settled in the area: Jews, Poles, Greeks, Armenians, followed by Spaniards and Portuguese, then Tunisian Jews and Muslims from Algeria. The most recent arrivals are Chinese.  The quarter is known for its strong left-wing and community spirit. Many artists and students have settled here due to lower property prices.” It’s close to the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont and the Parc de Belleville for jogging and a good 20 – 25 min metro ride from school. The immeuble is right in front of the metro station. Alice is supposed to choose somebody next Thursday.

Option 3: Chambre de bonne in St.-Germain, one of the renowned best quarters of Paris. Coming down the steep stairs, I imagined my life, rolling out of bed 10 min before class, making astonishing variations of one-pot-dishes, having friends over (only 2, more don’t fit) for experimental microwave-cake-parties… It sounded like fun, until I tried finding a low-priced grocery store (hm.. found one 15 min away) and a laundromat (20 min approximately). The quarter has loads of antiques and designer stores, but little affordable every-day items. But it is cool. And close. And definitely mine. If I want it. I have to tell Chantalle Monday.

And there I was, fed up with waiting and searching and applying and waiting. Willing to take my future in my own hands. Willing to take risks. Willing to listen to my friend Aurelie (thanks, Aurelie!). So I called Alice and told her that I really really wanted to live with her, but would have to take Chantalle’s offer since I couldn’t risk not taking it in case Alice wouldn’t take me. And guess what? I was Alice’s first choice anyway. We’re signing the sublet rental agreement (also without garant) on Tuesday morning. UPDATE: We just signed. And discovered that we are both vegetarians. How much more perfect can it get, really?


(P.S. I may have jumped around Aude’s place making little squeaky noises of delight after we had finished the call, but just because I was alone and didn’t have anybody to celebrate with. I would’ve totally celebrated like a grown-up. Totally.)

Sunday, August 15, 2010

AHA! (Apartment Hunt Anecdotes) V – The Maid’s Quarters

Only day four of the apartment hunt, and it seems as if years of searching have gone by. I can only drag myself out of bed by the promise of having café au lait and croissants for breakfast with Aurélie (oh, the croissants. Montreal, sorry, but you have no idea of croissants) and a gorgeous new day of hunting ahead! Ha. ha. ha. No, so true for breakfast. It is especially great how all the chairs in a cafe are so placed that you automatically look out on the street and just have to people-watch. Fantastic. After the best start in the day possible, I have an apartment visit that I got over CROUS, the French student help center that also offers subsidized housing. I am not totally certain whether I even am eligible for this, but it’s never bad to check it out. When we arrive with Aurélie, there are already around 7 people waiting. This one kid looks intense, he has his folder under his arm as if he can’t wait to shove his dossier (those freaky papers with all your bank information) into the landlady’s hands. This is supposed to be a studette, a student studio, with your own shower and the toilet in the hall. When the landlady arrives and after lots of confusion (on which storey was the room again? Where are the keys?) manages to open the room, it has.. a bed. a chair. a table. a sink/hotplate/fridge/all-in-one/nothing-entirely. A rusty shower. And looks like the saddest place in the whole world. My fellow contenders for the place don’t look the least appalled though, and when the landlady says that we have to say immediately whether we’re still interested, intense kid is like, yeah, yeah, and I have my dossier ready too. What they must’ve already seen otherwise… While the landlady can’t find the keys to the bathroom, we say our goodbyes. Intense kid looks relieved. One contender less. But I have to say, I’m not too sad to have left this race.

Against lunchtime, I ring up my one find of the bulletin board and arrange a meeting. This is for a chambre de bonne (maid’s quarter) literally a five minute’s walk away from school. In the heart of the St. Germain district. Right behind the Musee d’Orsay. The location is a dream. And the landlady looks nice too, she has a no-nonsense kind of attitude, wants us to be in good relations (I can call her Chantalle), and says she is so tired of her phone ringing that I could decide immediately whether I wanted the place – then it’s mine – or not. Wow, first choice! This chambre is on the fifth floor of a bourgeois building where apparently Napoleon’s doctor lived –ooooh- and where now a bunch of snobby Parisians hate to hear any noise. So you have to be quiet. All the time. Otherwise your neighbors will hate you, and Chantalle, and Chantalle will therefore be angry, and you don’t want Chantalle to be angry. Oh, ok. The rooms are tiny, but cute, much like the studette, but much more charming, with slanted ceilings (but meaning you can’t stand upright in half of the room) and little kitchen niches. It might be silly, but I try half of the visit to picture my culinary excursions with one hotplate, a microwave and a toaster. There are microwave cookbooks, right? And why did I take Julia Child’s baking book along if I haven’t got an oven? Can I live without an oven? The bathroom is tiny, but oh well, one of the rooms has a tv, there are plugs for internet, but clearly, here you are paying foremost the location. Is it worth it? Maybe. At least this would be my first chance for a guaranteed roof over my head. I would have to find a “floormate” though, because there are two chambres, and if you are friends, you might also share hotplates, so you have one to make spaghetti and another to make the sauce. E-mail time! When leaving, all of a sudden I discover the door that says toilette and remember that Chantalle hasn’t told me about or shown me the toilet yet. For good reason. On request, she does open the door for a millisecond, enough for me to see the – hole?? Visitors to France might know that the standing toilet (is that the name?) has been very popular, mainly at highway restrooms and the like. Apparently also for French maids. Cuz who really is prissy enough to need a seat?

AHA! (Apartment Hunt Anecdotes) IV – The Trapdoor

Buoyed by feelings of success from the other day’s visit, I launched myself into the next day’s hunt. Jogging. Calling people. Phones not being answered. Buying groceries. Calling people. Making appointments. This time I actually got a hold of the mysterious Alice, and she turned out to be a super super sweet person that I would love to be roomies with. We got along super well and chatted away more than an hour. Yay, feeling of success! Ok, moving on. Since I was in the neighborhood, what better to do than go in the cafe of yesterday and continue. Internet site. After. Internet site. Turns out, thousands and thousands of other students are searching for accommodation too, which brings people to not even respond after the first 50 applicants. At least that’s how I explain my numerous e-mails (at first I typed them all individually because I hate copy/paste, there is so much wrong with it, but I still ended up sending the same super enthusiastic, cheery message to the latter 20 offers) never to be replied to. Really people? Not a simple “sorry, but no..”? Though I got those too, and they really crush your feelings. “You don’t … like me? You won’t even let me visit? I’m a nice person..!” So yeah. Where was I. Oh, right, the hunt. After weeding out the single men looking for preferably a female roommate (only applications with photos accepted), the ones offering a room against cleaning and massaging services and the clear scams on craigslist (get a villa  in the heart of Paris with free towels, a juice press, a double toaster and free calls to 96 countries!! I learned to recognize those by too much information.), there are maybe 24 daily acceptable offers left. 20 of them are in the suburbs. Leaves 4. For thousands of students. Yeah right. Nevertheless, sometimes I do get responses back, and then go to look at the place. For example this one girl who rented out a well insulated, sous-sol room in a really nice neighborhood. You know the Canadian sous-sol? Where you still have a small window and spacious rooms? Well, think again. She led me into a kind of sweet living room, with a tiny kitchen, the bathroom door was a curtain (though she promised to get a sturdier model), her room was a mess (because she moved things out of the new, to-be-rented-out-room… Hm, was that a storage space..?), and the highlight of the tour, my potential bedroom! Um, mind the steps. Because in the middle of the living room floor is a trapdoor which leads down to the… well insulated bedroom. Yup, living in the cellar has apparently never been trendier. You can leave the trapdoor open or closed as you wish, and there is no more authentic way to explore the period of hiding Jews or resistance fighters from Nazis than this one! Or are you a Twilight fan? Scared of sunlight? Is your skin itching to be bathed in atmospheric darkness? Then this is the space for YOU! We might even include an Edward Cullen poster for free. And for your daily 5 minutes of sunlight – well, you can use the living room as well. Deal?

AHA! (Apartment hunt Anecdotes) III – New Neighborhoods

After that interesting first day, I got up Thursday, metroed/walked to the American Church to check the bulletin boards for housing offers (1 find), walked to find the Sciences Po buildings (and I found all of them! And they are super modern and cool! Remember my first Paris post? Yeah, that was just the back entrance.) and looked for more bulletin boards (2 offers for rooms over 700 Euros and estimated 30 offers of students looking for accommodation and presenting themselves as the perfect roommate.) Wow. Then I metroed out of the city to see the suburb I was visiting an apartment this evening by daylight. Gentilly is a really cute suburb, with flowers on the streets, parks, residential buildings, residential buildings, residential buildings… Oh, and there is a supermarket near the RER station! I could imagine myself living there, though, it is just a completely different lifestyle. There are no bars. No cafes. No anything except for housing. But then again, how much time would I really be at home anyways? Then I metroed up to Jourdain, in the Belleville district, 19th arrondissement, and completely fell in love with the district. It’s still Paris – it’s got the cafes, the boulangeries, the boucheries, but it’s also very diverse, multicultural, and a little more run-down and working class than the core Paris districts. In Jourdain, I was supposed to meet my future roommate in a cafe, close to the metro station.. But which one? There was no 19-year old girl anywhere around, not up the street, not down it.. I even randomly started people: “Are you Alice?”, while the charming song of “Who the hell is Alice??” was running through my head. Turns out, later, that Alice was under the impression that we were meeting the following Thursday. My bad. Bad communication. But it made me check out and fall in love with Belleville, and find what might become my usual hangout cafe with good wifi and not too many crowds. Their mirror is decorated with money bills from around the world; cool. Later in the evening, I went out to the 20eme in the East and did not even try to check out the apartment; I didn’t like the area particularly and the prospects of living in a flatshare with only one guy, even if he is 20, started to make me feel uncomfortable. Therefore, I went to look at an apartment with 3 guys! They were the ones living in Gentilly, and they are actually super nice. Their apartment is, too, and you can see the Eiffel tower and the Montmartre from their kitchen window! This was definitely one option to be held open, and I was given a list of things to get for their landlady… OMG. In France, you most definitely need a garant who stands in for you if you don’t pay your rent, mostly one of your parents, but he or she must theoretically be living in France…. Also, you need their pay check, tax bills, identity card and account balance information. Just hand all that over, please. But we might still not take you cuz you’re a foreigner. Looking forward to that battle.

AHA! (Apartment Hunt Anecdotes) II – The Drawback

So, the next visit is just after the first one, and this visit is also for a colocation (a flatshare) with an older guy. He says he is 35. What really brought me to even look at the place is that it’s located in the fifth arrondissement, the nicest district of Paris, right close to the Latin quarter. When we find the place, it’s one of those kind-of-fancy-but-none-descript doors, but when we open it, it looks like you just stepped into the Garden of Eden. So many doors in Paris hide wonderful courtyards, little squares full of plants, sunlight, laughing children and roaming cats, that you would never expect. Other doors hide… well, other things. This door was a happy door, and stepping inside the courtyard, I was already asking myself what the drawback on this deal was, because I clearly couldn’t afford such a place. We were let in by a man that certainly looked 35 to 40 years old and led around a gorgeous apartment, flashy kitchen, big room, and nice bathroom included. Then, we get a tea/coffee to get to know one another better. You know, it’s important if you are flatmates that you make a careful decision, because you really enter in a special relationship. When a girl moves in in his place, one could say, it’s almost like a couple relationship. Yeah, he really likes the feminine touch, without having to marry right away. And obviously, this close relationship needs to be maintained by having at least one dinner a week just the two of us. Actually, if I were to be further interested, he would gladly invite me to an evening (without my lovely friend) so that we could get to know one another even better, be honest, show all our flaws (by the way, do I drink alcohol? Only little? Oh, because he –ahem- likes a good red wine. A lot.) So, do I have any questions? Oh, whether friends could come over to visit? Well… Since there is a certain age difference, it would make me feel a little uncomfortable to be surrounded by 20 year old people, so, it would be better if I just came back here to work. And hang out. You know. Oh, and I showed you my son’s room, right? He comes over around every second weekend, and sometimes in between. Also for his sake, there are certain rules and restrictions in the house. I mean, the future roommate should at least be around every time he is here, to give him a certain consistency in his lifestyle. But, then, the price is really good, I lowered it to make sure that I could also target students and not just people with a lot of cash. So, are you interested? Just think about it, text me tomorrow and then we can make arrangements for dinner.

I did not text him.

He called me.

I politely texted back that, after due consideration, it wasn’t what I was looking for.

I think I found the drawback.

AHA! (Apartment Hunt Anecdotes) I – First Impressions

My first day in Paris. My first visit. Taking the metro out to Crimee, in the very north of town, was fine, and seeing my friend there waiting for me was even better. So then we go and look for the apartment. It’s in a gated complex of houses, though the gates are open during the day and there is a gang of guys hanging out within the district. So we are making sure to keep the creepy guys… inside the gates..? Calling the dude, I suddenly remember his last mail. “Oh, by the way, how old are you? I’m 45, haha, but I feel much younger..” Well, this is supposed to be for comparison purposes anyway. We follow him up the stairs. The door opens and you walk into a shelf, because the corridor leading to the two rooms on either side is so tiny. He shows us the free room. It’s smelly. It’s gross. It looks like it hasn’t been used (or tidied) since the 70’s. Then he shows us the grimy kitchen and the grimier (is that a word) bathroom, and finally his room where he does his recordings. He’s a musician/composer. Note: he will be at home all the time. Finally, he faces me and says: “Well, let’s be honest. How old are you? 21? Well, I think you might be a little too young, although I am open to everything..” Without further ado, we acquiesce, and he gives us further tips for the apartment hunt I am about to really start. It turns into an ok encounter. Except for the 1 second that I imagined myself living there.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Quest

...for an apartment has started. This is the one task I am the least excited and most anxious about. Living space in Paris is notoriously rare and expensive. And since I am looking for a room in a shared apartment, not only should the room be okay, the area not too far out and too dangerous, but also the people I will be living with should be at least non-creepy, if not to mention nice and friendly. Starting out to prepare my arrival in Paris on Wednesday, I made a profile on a couple of so-called 'coloc' - sites and am rigourously checking for new offers twice - thrice- often a day. As of now, I have 4 serious visiting meetings planned for Wednesday and Thursday. I am living in the fear that all of those rooms will be rented out before I set foot in Paris though and that I'll be able to start over there. I just don't know how good these offers really are and what other ones will be coming up in the next two weeks. Is it better to wait? Or to make compromises? To go for the outskirts? Or extend the budget to get the real big city life? All those decisions to make are not helped by possible future roommates putting pressure on you to decide now, to send in your documents immediately because there are so many people on the waitlist, and giving you the impression that you should really be glad to have found a bed at all. (Though many of them are also really nice and wait for you. To be fair.) Then there are the people on craigslist - which is in any case questionable for its seriousness - which make offers that are just too good to be true. And promptly they have elaborate excuses why they cannot show you the apartment (living in Edinburgh now, eh?) before you haven't wire-transferred them the caution sum and the first monthly rent. But they will send you pictures of what looks like a Marseille beach loft. Which is supposedly located in the middle of Paris. Yeah, sure.
If this sounds slightly annoyed, well, this is pretty stressful, but there are the funny moments. Top five of most funny housing posts:

5. Julien who wants to share his studio with somebody respectful in Scandinavian manner (don't speak if there is nothing to say), but who likes long chess games as well. of course, there will have to be bunk beds.
4. Karmelle says he's a 33 year old male and gives this full description of the offer: "je lourer 1 chambre don mon aprt". Would you ever need more info?
3. Chloe thinks yes: "JAttention avant toute chose, je suis et resterai membre basic, depuis quand faut il payer non mais ?! Donc, de deux choses l'une : il faut impérativement me contacter par sms parce que je ne peux pas lire mes mails. Merci. J'aime avant tout les fortes personnalités. Si tu penses Blanc alors que moi je risque probablement de penser noir, on s'en fout. On fera qd même une liste pour les tâches ménagères, les corvées quoi.. je ne suis pas bonne samaritaine. Faut il aussi qu'on pense à acheter des post it ( fluo ? ) pour qu'on se dise les choses à faire, à penser. J'aimerai bien aussi qu'on ai chacune une étagère sur le frigo me demande pas pourquoi je serai incapable de te répondre surtout si je vois que t'as penser à prendre des danettes au chocolat et pas moi. Je suis pas profiteuse du tout ! je vois les choses c'est différent..Si j'aime pas tes baskets adidas et si je tes les pique le matin quand même pasque je serai inévitablement à la bourre.. tu m'en voudras tant que ca ? je toucherai pas au Gucci, promis. Si je réflechis après avoir m'en veux pas faudra s'y faire.Ha bon c'est négatif ? Si je suis pas capable de prendre une decision, prend toi en à mon signe astro..! Si tu me dis que t'en as marre je comprendrais, moi aussi je le dis souvent.. J'aime l'odeur du propre quand tout est propre mais je suis pas maniaque j'aime juste le bordel organisé foutoir ou je me retrouve. Mais dans ta chambre, promis tu feras tjrs ce que bon te semblera, je promets. J'aime faire la fête mais surtout chez les autres.. je suis pas contre evidemment de temps en temps, mais vraiment pour un jour spécial ! J'aime coocconer. J'aime Ruquier le samedi J'aime les test rapides de culture général surtout si t'es plus forte que moi ! j'aime vraiment apprendre Je ne suis pas folle vous savez ! j'écris bcp mais je ne parle pas seule et je ne ronfle pas ! J'aime bien qu'on me ramène un mcdo à l'improviste, ou alors qu'on me dise : on se barre j'ai eu deux billets d'avion pour barcelone ! aaaaaaaaahhhh. ouais on peut rêver ! mais tout reste négociable don't worry.j'aime les bilingues ! les polyglottes aussi. Si je te gonfle t'en fais pas non plus j'ai la carte ugc je m'en irai au ciné voir ailleurs si j'y suis.. Si on rigole de nos conneries c'est le début du bonheur dans la vie à deux, je parle en colocation cela va de soi. Avec des si on referait un monde. Ne vous fiez pas aux apparences, je prône la simplicité. NB : Merci à tous pour vos mails, vos apels, etc Je donnerai rdv au heureux pré séléctionnés dans un café parisien le plus vite possible Pas de panique, nous avons beaucoup de questions à nous poser ( on va quand meme vivre ensemble !) et si on se voit, de toute façon ca changera la donne, n'est ce pâs ? Faut il aussi que je précise que si je ne tiens pas à vivre avec des personnages avec des têtes en cartons, et que tout élan épistolaire avec une tête en carton ne vaut vraiment pas le coup. Continuez à m'écrire
Bien à vous" Goodness, I really wanna move in with her, don't you?
2. Florian thinks that special talents bring new roommates: "J'aimerais une personne avec un peu de temps pour se faire masser les pieds dans le cadre de ma formation en reflexologie."
1. But nothing beats Haitham: "bonjour je cherche un femme ; MOMME sereus.". At least he's totally clear about what he's looking for.
About the only thing keeping me insane through this all is my background music. I found the incredibly talented Ingrid Michaelson through the youtube suggestions and LOVE her music. I guess it's just because I'd like everything to be ok.

P.S. Random fact of the day: did you know what the @ symbol is called in French? arrobase.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

What I love about Switzerland

1. The cuteness of e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g.
2. The possibility of going jogging and meeting a cow, a barn cat, a bird of prey and a goose without the slightest bit of difficulty.
3. People greeting you on the street.
4. Max Havelaar fair trade bananas. Seriously, Canada, you get them here everywhere!
5. Church bells telling you the time.
6. Schwitzerdütsch.
7. My friends.

to be continued.

On the traces of history in Berlin

While with my grandparents, I also took a day off to visit a friend in Berlin. Well, and to visit Berlin itself too. My home town - city - changes so much over the years that I wanna stay in touch with it, even if you can only manage to walk around Berlin Mitte in one day. I started off coming into Berlin Hauptbahnhof, the central station - a must-see if you ever come here, and chances are, it will be the first thing you will see from Berlin. The construction process was pretty exasperating, but the result is highly modern, welcoming to travellers and a huuuge hub to get almost anywhere in Germany. Plan your trip to have enough time to catch a connection though, since trains leave from three different floors and finding the right one is slightly tricky. Then, I wandered past the Chancellor's office (hi Angela!) to the Reichstag building, where the German legislative body, the Bundestag, works. It has a sightseeing platform and a cool dome on top of it, and is definitely worth a first visit just to get an idea of the size and layout of Berlin, but lines can be extremely long. I was lucky, though, and got up to the top in about 20 minutes. Coming from the Reichstag, the next logical goal is the Brandenburger Tor (Gate), though I went to search - and find - the Soviet war memorial as well and then approached the Brandenburger Tor from the West. If you pay attention crossing the street there, you can see a line of bricks that symbolize the Berlin Wall - since the Brandenburger Tor was one of the last buildings in Eastern Berlin. And of course, on the Paris Place on the Eastern side of the Gate, there were actors all dressed up as Eastern German soldiers and bureaucrats. I kinda prefer the people dressed up as Tsars and princesses in St. Petersburg, somehow. Going down the street Unter den Linden, you can see plenty of foreign embassies, five star hotels and - a huge Aeroflot building, the Russian airline that I flew to Petersburg with. ??? Maybe they really want to expand into the German market?? Unter den Linden leads you straight to the Museum island with Berlin's three or four main art museums, divided up into time periods, though in remembrance of extensive Petersburgian art visits I decided to skip these ones and rather wander along the river to cross at the Monbijou bridge. This leads you to a sort of mini-Globe theatre on the edge of the river where in summertime, Shakespeare plays are regularly given. I wanna stay and see!! Also, very close is the New Synagogue, the largest synagogue in East Berlin and memorial for the plight of the Jews. It was burned in the Reichskristallnacht, though a heroic policeman managed to get fire fighters there before too much damage was done (the fire fighters didn't work at all otherwise during this night of terror), was then bombed so much that it was deemed unsafe by the (small) East Berlin Jewish community after the end of the war and destroyed completely in, I believe, 1957. Only in the late 80s and 90s was idea raised to reconstruct it, not as a working synagogue, but as a museum and memorial site for the Jewish community of Berlin. The exhibition is very interesting and shows many aspects of Jewish life before and during the fiercest antisemitic times. It was very powerful to see how the Jewish community adapted and tried to help one another through the more and more restrictive laws; there were pictures of language classes in preparation of emigration and an economic help centre for Jews who lost the right to work. This changed my impression of the helpless victim a lot, though many of these operations were shut down one by one. A Jewish old-people's home ironically was transformed into a collection station for Jews waiting to be transported into KZs. After that, I also found the Jewish cementery and a building that was used to (mainly) keep male Jews with 'Arian wives' in there. A poster outside tells the story of one of the greatest feats of mass protest during that time. When the German women realized where their husbands were held, they started waiting in front of the building, screaming for their men and didn't back down, even when threatened with violence and guns. In the end, those men had to be let free because it would have been too much of a scandal to shoot into a crowd of 'Arian' women. This impressed me a lot; I just wondered what would've been with more of those kinds of action...
Wandering further, through the cute old Nikolai quarter, you get back to the river and to a sight where originally stood the German castle. It was bombed as well and torn down later by the East German government to make place for a parade square as well as the Palace of the Republic, a building with ballrooms, restaurants and loads of entertainment for the people of the Republic (and of course their elites). Once it was found to have been built with asbest, it was decided to tear that building down and rebuild the German castle outside with a modern inside, to restore German history as it was. There was a large controversy about the Palace of the Republic, with many East Germans feeling that it was also part of their history, but finally, the plans for the German castle (originally from the 18th or 19th century I believe) overweighed. It is interesting who and how is decided what history contains and what doesn't, isn't it? Finally, I also went into the German Museum of History, where I was only able to touch the first half of the main exhibition - it is huuuge! - and met up with my friend Sara, who worked there, to talk a little more about - history. Amongst many other things. An interesting day for sure. I just had to pull myself into the present with some difficulty.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Clicking Contest

Well, I haven't been soo uselessly sitting around after all. July 16th was the day of glory or doom for all Sciences Po exchange students, because after receiving our final admission and documents (finally!), we were informed that class sign-up would be on this day at 3pm, Paris time. Of course, we didn't right away get the class listings or - God forbid - the course schedules. Noo. Students don't need prep time at all! The first time I even saw the classes offered this semester was 2 weeks into the St. Petersburg program, so 6 weeks before sign-up. I mean, that's ok. Although my internet access possibilities have been pretty limited for all of that time, so I was super glad to get to my grandparents' house to use their computer and my dad's laptop. I miss my laptop. So much. (Excuse me for a second, I need to blow my nose.) Ok, back to topic - course inscriptions. So I spent the evenings at the Baltic Sea hogging my dad's laptop to send course descriptions to my academic advisors with varying responses, I still have no idea whether any econ courses I take here will count or not. Well, we'll see. Then, I had a list of about 13 courses that I would like to take (I needed 6). Those 13 courses were in 4 different categories. I could take 1 in category 1, 1 in category 2, 2 in category 3 and 1 in category 4 OR 1 in category 3 and 2 in category 4 OR only one each and French language class OR the same plus another foreign language OR... well, you see the point. It. Is. A. Mess. Plus, that was still the week before sign-up. Obviously, in the week before sign-up you wouldn't need any course scheduling, right? None of your courses could even fathom to fall in the same time slot, right? Well, the people at university did seem to think so, because the schedule went up online 1 day before sign-up. As in one. day. That day was well-spent trying to fit those 4 categories into one working schedule. The way I remember it, I had 3 slots with each 3 classes at the same time that I had been considering. Then, I remembered prof evaluations. Which I found online thanks to my friends' tip. After which I crossed out a couple of courses of this list. Ending up with one schedule that fit. Plus second options that fit. Plus a variety of third and forth options of the type 'If you don't take this course (time conflict) and decide not to take that one (same topic kinda), you could take this course, but then you would have to take this conference session for the first course instead of the second... I made a little chart. I like little charts.
Friday afternoon, 2.00pm. T-1. I try to use my aunt's computer because the internet is more reliable. Password-protected. She not home. Fail. Run back to my grandparents house, start their computer. T-0.45. Think long and hard about how long I could count on the internet being fast (it continuously slows down the longer you use it) vs. how early I would have to sign into the server before it overloads. T-0.30. This is the time I decided to risk it, and sign into my sciences po portal, making sure to click back and forth on random options every 5 minutes to avoid being kicked out of the system. T-0.01. I get ready, chart and time table in hand. T-0.00. The Clicking Contest has begun. I get my first class, check. I enter my second class, check. The third one. Woah, times changed, but it still fits my schedule, check. Fourth and fifth are fine, check. Where is the foreign language class? What, the Russian level I self-evaluated my way into is called moyen-fort? Whatever. Check. It is 3.02pm. I am out of breath. Once I check that I am really signed up for what I wanted, I click on the classes again out of interest and see that they are full. All of them. ALL OF THEM. At 3.07pm. Oh geez. Now I get interested and click random classes to see how popular they are. Full. Full. Full. Oh, a place open! Ah, that's the Theatre Workshop with 4 options. Full. Full. Hospitality and Parasitism? Really? I go and get a glass of water. And pity all the people that overslept/had to work/logged in at 3.08 and get to study Hospitality and Parasitism. (P.S. Quote from the FB Sciences Po Exchange Students page: 'I got raped by enrollment.' Comment: 'Unfortunately it was mass rape.' Or: 'Good to hear I wasn't the only one who got crushed in the stampede.' Oh noo..)

Family Love and the Challenge to Slow Down

So after flying back to Berlin and getting off at a non-sketchy airport (though Germans in line were already complaining and moaning. Leave it! Seriously! Don't you know how lucky you are to even consider a 20-min-wait in line a problem of yours?), I spent a few days in the ever hospitable and so very relaxing home of my grandparents, then spent a couple of days of doing nothing at the Baltic Sea with my parents, and now am at my grandparents' again, taking care of study/internship stuff for this coming year, working on my translation project (which has suddenly grown into immense proportions), and just enjoying myself thoroughly at the closest thing to home that the European continent can offer me right now. =) I'm happy to have the translations, though it is quite a heavy weight on my shoulders, because it does give this time a bit of a purpose. Having to spend a certain amount of time in summer without concrete 9-to-5 employment is obviously very lucky and I am glad of the opportunity, but I can also understand the slight frustration of the unemployed - being accustomed to working/reading/doing pleasure activities at McGill around the clock, taking life a little slower is, I think, my big challenge this summer. So, there the possibility of working long hours in the night on translations gives me the perfect opportunity of getting back into the old style of life. Not that I'll much enjoy the lack of sleep tomorrow morning...

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The hooded man in our airplane

So, sadly but truly, I had to leave Russia one glorious sunny Sunday a week ago. I enjoyed my time there so much, made real Russian, German, Swedish and Canadian friends, had a lot of blini (the blog name has to be fulfilled, after all) and did improve my Russian quite a lot, so I was pretty sad to leave, but also glad to see my family. I have to say that Russia was a lot less sketchy, more friendly, and more metropolitan than I expected, though the last part might just have been because it was Petersburg. My impressions here might have sounded a little more mixed, but that is just because the interesting things to write about are the things that are not what you are used to. Had I reported about street cafes, bridges that go up at night, shopping streets (shoes!!) and students sunbathing in parks for days at a time (no, no we were studying! Hum-hum), it would have sounded less like Russia and more like any awesome study trip. Which it was. The white nights especially was amaaazing - they made your days so long, and seeing the sun set at 11.30pm and a night sky filled with red clouds from the sunset at close to 1 am is simply breathtaking.

But of course the sketchy things are more fun to write about, right? So here one last Russian impression before I hit German ground and was back in the orderly, boring world of Western Europe:

My flight from St. Petersburg to Moscow went through Pulkovo 1, the domestic airport of St. Petersburg. And to people complaining about Pulkovo 2, the international one, let me tell you - you ain't seen nothin' yet. At a certain point, I had to cross a concrete tunnel with one of those horizontal escalators that probably hadn't been renovated since Brezhnev's time. It felt very foreboding, especially since I was the only person in the whole thing. Tunnel into the underworld or something like that. But then I came to my gate and the underworld had a whole new face: While we were waiting for our gate to open, me and two American ladies were watching our plane. All of a sudden, 3 police cars and one unlabled white van come swerving around the plane and halt with screeching wheels in a line, blocking some of the view on the airplane. The doors of the van open and 6 or 7 SWAT - looking people in balaclavas, with kalashnikovs, bullet-proof vests and all in black stormed out and surrounded the plane. Then, somebody with a black hood over their face was led into the plane by three bald-headed guys in crisp white shirts, the SWAT team stayed there for another 10 minutes (one of the balaclava-wearing people was looking and pointing his gun in our direction, kinda scary), and then they all ran back into the van and left. Then, the stewardess announced that we could board our plane. And who would've thought, the black-hooded guy (prisoner? principal witness?) and his three bald companions were sitting in economy class next to all the vacationers and even got the same lunch as us. When we left the plane in Moscow, I turned back in the terminal just in time to see the whole action in reverse happen to get him or her out of the plane. Mind blow. Especially after the huge spy-exchange between the US and Russia was just announced. Maybe I was on the plane with some American FBI agent???

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Nevski misunderstandings

Russia needs a lot of jobs. Walking around the city, we have seen interesting job creation projects - the ubiquitous museum guides,one for every room of a deserted museum, the armies of people planting gorgeous flower arrangements in parks, or the bus ticket controller whose job could easily be replaced by a machine, but isn't. Mind you, the wages are a mere pittance, but the state still seems to have a special responsibility for employment. However, the private sector is adding into the mini-job category, most strikingly by the tons of flyer-distributers on Nevski prospect. I have a hard time understanding the rationale behind this business idea, there are so many distributers that close to no passer-bys take one. Plus, they don't even have coupons. Pshsh. I have only ever caved out of pure pity - there is a guy dressed up as a giant cupcake, one as a bear and one as a pink bunny - and out of curiosity, like when this business man next to me suddenly pulled out what seemed like a business card and handed it over. Who could've guessed that exactly that one was a flyer for what I think was a drug rehabilitation centre? when I laughed incredulously, he just smiled and handed me a copy of the new testament in Russian. Thanks. So apparently when I walk around town, in comparison to the Russian girls I look like a drug addict in desperate need of help. Interesting. Well, I guess that is still better than my friend's misunderstanding : when she was waiting for the bus on the curb after the opera we went to, apparently she was propositioned to by 10 to 15 guys in cars driving by who all thought she was a prostitute. But then again, she was wearing very high heels even for Russian standards.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The grey areas on the map...

...are grey for a reason. This is what me and Pierre, a friend of mine, discovered one evening-stroll a couple of days ago. We were just walking down Nevski-Prospect like two normal tourists - though obviously we already feel like semi-Russians - and took a right through a small park, when we decided to cross the park and make a large detour back to where we came from. And so we did. Already the park was semi-sketchy, more random trees and patches of grass littered with cigarettes and broken glass (though you can find broken glass anywhere, even in front of my house). Once we exited it though, it seemed as if the happy-and-pretty St. Petersburg was just a huge projection that somebody turned off without telling us. Instead of picturesque buildings stood dilapidated former factories, in which ominously still random parts were spouting some kinds of fumes. Half-finished Soviet buildings still invited people to rent them, as though they were mocking themselves. On one fish factory, nature had taken over and little trees were sprouting from the chimney. While we were making our way along the river to the next area on the map with buildings - for now we had understood that the grey areas didn't mean good things - we walked past two packs of stray dogs that were sleeping (though that black one opened his eyes when we were passing, I'm sure of it) and arrived at a building site exactly at the underground passage of the railroad tracks. We were pretty sure that we weren't allowed over the building site, but had to continue on, so our only option was to climb over the tracks - always careful that no train was arriving from either side - and descend at the other side, walking faster when we realized that the other side had a security guard who most probably was there to prevent passers-by to enter the building site we were exiting. Onwards we went, finally finding areas with advertizement and inhabited buildings again, though the sketchy parts of town were apparently not over yet: when we were walking along this multi-lane semi-highway, a pack of 8 dogs, very straggly and very large, were running right at us. We decided to retreat carefully and cross the street, of course just in case. Once on the other side of the street, this car pulled over and two bulky, bald guys walked straight at us, but then decided to walk by in the last minute. Then we checked the map, crossed the street, and were in pretty Petersburg again! The hologram was working again. And we learned to avoid the grey areas of the map in the future. You know, just in case.

Russia Day

On Saturday, after Victory Day on the 9th of May and St. Petersburg City Day the first weekend of our arrival, we had the honor of witnessing another celebratory day. Really, I am under the impression that the Russians just need occasions to celebrate in the summer, and are very talented in finding them. But anyway. While on St. Petersburg Day the streets were packed with people, waiting even in the rain for parades to walk by and operas involving red giraffes (don't ask) to be performed, and my friend Leona arrived on Victory Day to see military parades strutting about (what greater way to arrive in Russia...), Russia Day only had a couple of half-hearted salespeople with Russia flags (including some featuring Putin and Medvedev though, funnily enough) and little to no celebratory spirit in the streets. Oh, people attended the concert at night, of course, but whether that was just for the concert or to celebrate the birthday of the new Russia is another question.
Why this lethargy? Have people just been overwhelmed in holidays to appreciate the greatest one any more? Or is there another underlying reason? When asking around, we were told that our friends definitely didn't celebrate Russia Day, also called Russian Independence Day. A glance back in history might explain why. "What are we celebrating?", one of them said. "The demise of the Soviet Union? Another failure in our history? And independence - from whom? The Ukraine?" Though obviously with a hint of sarcasm, maybe this one comment was enlightening to explain what happened. Russia Day was introduced to celebrate the new, smaller, but revived Russia. But whereas Victory Day made people excited, because they had something to be proud of and could remember their former glory, Russia Day might make them remember the harder parts of recent history, and awaken nostalgia instead of pride. It is interesting, how the next years will see Russia Day, for that might also show the general feeling in Russia better than any polling.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

First days of school

It is unbelievable that already nearly two weeks have passed of us being in St. Petersburg. While I have gotten used to the occasional drunk on the main shopping street, the Nevski boulevard, as well as the unfathomable Russian frown which is to maintain until you have a good reason to smile, our classes are still somewhat challenging. It's great to learn so much Russian vocab and grammar in just a couple of days, but it's really hard too, especially the part of 'memorize this page-long text with 50 new grammar rules until tomorrow and I'll ask you detailed questions about it!' We are doing an ok job so far, I believe. Well, I don't really have to make assumptions; the Russian teachers are some of the most direct I have ever met. After each round of questions, there comes a round of evaluation, reaching from "Student X has done his/her homework properly, but has troubles expressing it in actual Russian" to "Student Y doesn't understand or know anything at all". In pretty much these words. It's an extremely good motivational tool though; cuz the first time I was told that I made "many, many mistakes in my essay; a lot more than other students", I started working. For realz. You just don't want to be the student that "never understands everything". Believe me. Not with that Russian frown waiting for you.

Thursday, June 3, 2010


It is priceless to have real Russian friends to test things on and to know when you were fooled by your Russian teacher into behaving in a quite ridiculous manner. Yesterday, we went to the Russian Museum of Political History, where you can see Lenin's desk and the balcony from which he held his speeches. After listening to the (Russian) guide for 2 straight hours and getting about as much as we would've probably figured out without guide (but it was hilarious to see how excited he got... And how he called the end of Communism the 'Second Bourgeois Revolution'), we went to walk around one of the smaller recreational islands with our new-found friend Gleb (actually, a friend of mine was set up with him by her host mom. Another funny story for another time). Gleb now tried to speak Russian to us to make us practice, which was super nice of him, but obviously sometimes I didn't understand, so I said 'что-что?', which translates as 'what-what?', but which we were taught to use as 'Excuse me?' if you didn't get what the other person says. Well, Gleb burst out laughing and asked me: 'Did you just say what-what?' So apparently the 'excuse me' sense isn't that well known in Russia itself. And we have been saying what-what?? to all kinds of different people, including customs officers and the officials at our university. I start to understand why we have been treated like morons so much here. Because we sound like them.

P.S. Also, in our unit on home remedies, my Russian teacher swore on hot milk with honey and baking soda as a trusted Russian home remedy. And I tried it. It didn't really work. And Gleb had never heard of it either. So, apparently half of our Russian education is not to be relied on anymore. Uh-oh.

Monday, May 31, 2010

St. Petersburg Fashion

Oh man, Russian students - Russian girls in general! - set totally different standards in fashion. Walk down Nevski Prospekt -which takes like an hour! It's freaking long!- and you will see 80% of Russian girls in high heels (you need to skillfully take away tourists, as well as they are masqueraded) and around 50% of them in hotpants or skirts that end well before the knee. And they are skinny. Mostly though, they need to hold on to a strong arm of their guy in order to even keep balance, which sort of sadly destroys the image of the fierce and independent woman. Nevertheless, St. Petersburg makes me feel perpetually under/wrongly dressed. Case in point: Today. The weather - blue sky in the morning (but it won't fool me again! That was the case on Saturday too and it rained throughout the day!). The wear - skirt with tights (babushka approved) and a shirt, but towing the rain jacket and umbrella along, cuz you never know. What would I have needed? A bikini, since after our first class, we discovered a beach where an astonishing amount of St. Petersburgians were exhibiting an astonishing amount of naked skin trying to reap the sun rays as long as the sun shone. Did it rain? Of course not. I mean, I had my umbrella with me.

Friday, May 28, 2010

From Berlin to St. Petersburg

So, why does the Berlin ground personnel have to strike exactly - exactly - the one morning I need them to do their job? Why? After spending a sleepless night imagining me stranded in various locations with various means of getting to St. Petersburg (catching the train from Moscow? Flying over Riga? Taking a cruise up? Okay, that would be fun), I then did take off and arrive in time, probably because all the Easy-jet flights were simply cancelled. Oh no, though benefitting from it, I found the solution to be quite acceptable.

Now just a few first impressions cause my time is running out:

1. If you smile without reason on the street, you are taken for an idiot. Do not smile.
2. Hotpants and stilettos are perfectly acceptable for 12 degree Celsius rainy weather.
3. Follow, always, the advice (strict advice) of your Russian babushka host mom, and you'll be fine.
4. If you smile and don't talk in the admissions office, you are taken for an idiot as well, but one who cannot communicate either. Avoid that.
5. Taking an admissions test of 170 questions and 1 hour length, just to be put in the class that you were supposed to be in anyways, is perfectly acceptable. Don't question.
6. If you are yelled at in Russian, just get up/out of the way/stop whatever you are doing and say a doe-eyed 'Izvinite'. Don't question.

Following these tips, you should be fine in Russia as of my latest experiences. It basically runs down to - do not smile without reason and do not question the system. Pretty basic, if you think it over.


Day 11 - Still Budapest

How better to start a day in the Hungarian capital than with a thermal bath in the hot springs that it sits on? I got up early extra to spend another 2 hours lazing around in the 36 to 39 degree Celsius water, and let me tell you, it is so. worth. it. I decided to go to the Gellert bath, which is one of the better-known baths and was on my way into the city, and man, you have the impression of swimming in an aristocratic mansion or so, what with the columns surrounding the pool and the mosaics of the hot-water tubs. Another great thing about coming early in the morning ist that the baths are completely free of tourists, and instead, you can do the best people-watching of old Hungarian grannies plunging into the water, careful to keep their hairdoes dry, and dignified retirees discussing world matters over at the bubbly end.
From there, I took another walking tour of the city, which ended up visiting most of the same places I had seen the days before, but offering interesting insights in Hungarian history (they were occupied so often I lost track), technology (they are super proud of many many inventions) and culture. In the afternoon, having foregone the chance of visiting the parliament because apparently you have to be there at 8 am sharp to get tickets, I decided to visit the market hall instead and was rewarded with another astonishing view of produce, meat and cheese stands without end, while the upper levels have an overwhelming assortiment of souvenirs, especially table-cloths and the like which are obviously all hand-made by Hungarians. Yeah... And then was already the night train to catch (I was so nervous I'd miss it with unexpected traffic on the streets of Budapest and a nightmarish downpour) and onward the journey went. I'll be back, Budapest! I promise!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Day 10 - Budapest

Budapest has so so much to offer that you have to make concessions. So I decided to follow my interests and take the 'Hammer and Sickle' walking tour that brought me and an Australian girl with a personal guide (lol) to the Memento Statue Park, where Socialist statues that were removed from the city centre were brought after 1989 to act for informational and commemorative purposes. Though it was advertized as a 'Socialist theme park', it was actually less touristy than I had feared, except for the baby blue Trabant that stood in the corner for people to sit in and the (rather small) 'Red Star' souvenir shop which sold all kinds of paraphenelia. On one hand, I felt that people taking ridiculous pictures with these statues was a little tasteless, since each of these statues offered memories of hardships suffered, or at least of a certain historical event. On the other hand, maybe that at last shows that people have overcome the taboo-ish aspect of the Socialist past and can now see the comicality in it? Already in Socialist times, the allegorical statues received really funny nicknames like 'the Spa warden' about a guy who looks as if he was running behind somebody who had forgotten their towel, or 'Another beer!' about a guy that stretches his hand into the air energetically (Fotos to follow!).

After this interesting tour, I walked up the Andrassy avenue (the Champs-Elysee of Budapest) and found the city park - and apparently all the city's inhabitants. It was a holiday and everybody was hanging out in the sun, playing ball games, and just having the time of their lives. So I just joined in with gusto! In the evening, after a quick trip up the Castle Hill (the picturesque little streets were nice, but I had already seen similar ones so often.. But the Fishermen's Bastion with its little turrets was great!), I had a snack and chat with an interesting Jordanian guy before returning back to the hostel and watching most of 'Into the Wild'... which gives a whole other direction to the term of backpacking...

Days 8 and 9 - Pecs and Budapest

Wow, the last few days didn't leave me a lot of time at a computer! I'll keep these posts short and sweet and expand once I have better access.
After arriving in Pecs, I just discovered the city with a Hungarian girl a little that taught me a little of the language and a lot about the typical (I hear, at least the dude at my hostel told me so) Hungarian pessimism. Despite studying in Budapest and going on study trips to Greece and the lot, she seemed to think that she didn't have any possibilities to work in her field, and talked longingly of the time she spent jobbing in London. I wondered later on whether the situation in the country is that hopeless or whether her mindset was responsible for her feelings. A bit of both, I'm sure.
Pecs is sweet and has a beautifully done-up city center. However, although it is one of the three 2010 European Culture Capitals, half of the museums were closed due to renovations. Apparently they were extremely behind schedule, and a lot of the EU money just disappeared without a trace. According to Hunor, the extremely helpful and knowledgeable staff member at the Big Fish hostel I talked with a looong time about Hungarian politics and everything else, corruption is still widespread and politics is especially marred in this pessimistic feeling of 'we can't do anything anyway'. And that with extremist groups gaining power...
I jogged up to the TV tower which offered a stunning view of Pecs and the Hungarian countryside, then came down and walked round the city a bit until a thunderstorm made me seek refuge in a museum and then in the hostel. A sold-out folk concert meant that I spent my evening at the hostel as well (other than a reaggae festival, there wasn't that much going on..), but it was really fun times talking to fellow travellers and exchanging views over some home-brewed wine which the hostel owner brought over in the course of the evening...

The next day, I left for Budapest and spent my time in the train dozing (the night had been short) and occasionally snatching glimpses of gorgeous stretches of nature. Budapest was big, confusing, exhilarating after these few small-town days, but after finding my hippie-esque hostel in the Buda section of town, I set out exploring, climbed up to the Citadel for yet another great view (I'm really getting into hiking here!) and slowly made my way over the chain bridge and by the St. Istvan Cathedral to the Opera, where for 900 Forint (about 3 Euros) I experienced a great performance of the 'Barber of Sevilla'. I mean, it would've helped if I had read the story in beforehand, or if the subtitles hadn't been in Hungarian... But who wants to complain...

Friday, May 21, 2010

Day 7 - How Janina got stranded in Hungary...

You know how my blog wasn't the funniest upto now, filled with "blah blah and then I went to see blah blah"? Well, this is going to change it up. Cuz today, pretty much all I saw were random Hungarian train station stops in the middle of the pampa.

How to be stranded in Hungary for Dummies

1. Pick a travel route that requires you to change regional trains at least twice and at the smallest train stations possible.
2. Make sure that your first train is delayed just enough to make you miss your connection.
3. Get off at the random train station anyway because you don't have another plan and your ticket doesn't take you to Budapest.
3b) Optional: for maximum enjoyment, try getting off the train before the Hungarian border guards have checked your passport, causing the control person to bellow "What are you doing? Sit down again!"
4. Realize that nobody at the random train station speaks any other language but Hungarian.
5. Realize that you don't have any of the local currency on you.
6. Take it as an adventure.

I had assumed that since I was taking a regional train, even if I missed the connection it would be fine because those trains run hourly or something. Well, no. Fortunately enough, there was another train to my final destination (Pecs), but it left a good three and a half hours later. So, time to explore the city! Um, town. Village really. Wait, do five houses count as a village? After I had tried to find the city centre and walked along a road of never-changing basic grey concrete houses in diverse states of dilapidation, I realized that the little square in front of the train station was the city centre! Yeah, Gyekenyes is that hardcore. Looking it up, I can't believe I missed the famed attractions of chapel and mine lake! Apparently, "The former closed border station has become an open-minded village by now aiming to focus on the development of tourism in the future." LOL. I ended up giving my survival apples to really sweet kids excited to see an alien backpacker in their environment, though our communication was limited to "hi" and "bye". The rest of the three hours had me sitting in the square, in front, in, and behind the train station, althewhile trying to dodge the looks of "what a weirdo with a backpack is that" that I got from diverse Gyekenyesers. Seriously, I felt like I was the first tourist they ever saw. That focus on tourism might have to be a touch better developed.

Finally, the train pulled in (it was the longest three hours ever, I was really tired but terrified of sleeping through the train and having to sleep in Gyekenyes), and after bording it the next adventure begun. Don't get me wrong - the Hungarian countryside was crazily beautiful, a lot flatter than Slovenia but with the same charm, but the adventure was rather how the train sometimes slowed down to probably around 5 km/h and followed the railroad tracks that seemingly went across a lake! It must have been raining like crazy the last couple of weeks, because the whole area seemed inundated and the train seriously was maybe half a meter above the water's edge. Wildlife sightings included water snakes and various kinds of birds; it sometimes felt like the train was slowing down in order to give us a scenic tour instead of just trying to snake along the tracks.

Finally, finally arriving in Pecs around 6.15pm, I was impressed by the beautiful old town centre (I know, same old, same old) and am looking forward to explore it in more detail tomorrow. Knock on wood that it won't rain too hard!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Day 6 - Zagreb

This day was supposed to be a stop-over and half travel, half-explore day, but was actually one of the neatest surprises on my trip so far. Zagreb is so nice! I don't really know what I had expected, or why exactly there seems to be little hype around Zagreb compared to Prague or even Ljubljana, but it is a really nice town with loads to see and do - I nearly regret that I am not staying a little longer.
Firstly, the train ride was fine, I got my first stamp on the trip (exiting the Schengen-zone) and there was a funny man walking around the train, advertizing (I think) for the restaurant and giving out (or selling??) little cups of coffee. I didn't take any because frankly, I didn't quite understand what was going on. Arriving in Zagreb meant that I had to switch currency for the first time, getting Croatian kuna out of the Bancomat which worked fine with Mastercard - I was worried because in Italy, most bancomats only accepted Eurocard Mastercards with a chip in there like a debit card.. I didn't want to be stranded somewhere in Eastern Europe without any cash!
Stepping out of the trainstation, you just see one massive park with a museum or two scattered about and lined by more or less renovated, but still gorgeous old buildings from the time of the Austro-Hungarian empire and after. The main square was filled with stands, I literally wandered right into a folclore festival or something similar, because all sorts of traditional crafts were presented and sold on the spot. It was a nice introduction to the Croatian culture, which Croatians are immensely proud of. The city itself is divided in the Upper, older town with many narrow, crooked streets as well as the parliament and the seats of power, and the Lower town which is less cute and more majestic with long, straight alleys and many parts. There is an area called the Green Horseshoe because the parks are so close that you can nearly walk from one into the other in a giant C. I visited specifically the Botanical Gardens, which are free and small, but very well-kept and beautifully put together. After coming back to my hostel and successfully uploading some pictures (free internet, yay!), I went to dinner with some of the fellow travellers in an actually kind of fancy place (think linen napkins and candelabras) and paid 50 kunas for a pasta dish (around 7 Euros). Ah, the joy of Eastern Europe...

Day 5 - Ljubljana

Fortunately enough, I booked two nights in Ljubljana, so that I could enjoy my bed in a (most probably) former room of a prison warden one night more. The breakfast was great, we had a buffet with eggs, cereal, juice, yogurt... It was nearly hotel-style! The coffee was disgusting though, and that in a country where good cappuccino comes to prices of 1.20 Euro or so.. In the morning, I decided to take the hike up to the 'mountain' and castle of Ljubljana. There is also a funiculaire, but why not at least pretend to be a little sporty. The view once up at the castle is gorgeous, especially from the tower, where you can see the Alps in the distance, the squares and buildings of Ljubljana laid out clearly before you and the Ljubljanica river snaking its way into the distance. The castle itself is extremely well renovated and updated with glass elevators and steel walkways, and even has a 3-D virtual tour of the city's history for just about 2 Euros. Oooh... The 'tour' was a little dizzying, but pulled together many strings of Ljubljana's history that I had vague ideas about. Like being included in various empires, being named the capital of Napoleon's Illyrian Provinces, upto the point where Slovenia declared independence from Yugoslavia and had to defend its decision in a 10-day mini-war. It is astonishing, how much perseverance and energy the Slovenian people had to define and re-define their country and their city.
Later, while wandering towards the Prešeren Square (Prešeren is the national poet of the Slovenes), there was a subtle noise that grew louder and louder until I stood in the middle of the square and of a student protest! The local student union had chosen that day to protest against what I now understand are new government reforms that would restrict students' working hours and maximum pay. The language barrier made and makes it tough to communicate with people, read their message or understand what they are concerned or worried about, though Slovenes seem to be rather multilingual.
After lunch at the hostel, I wanted to take the tour of all prison cells that were renovated, but apparently, since there were no other people interested, the guide had nixed the tour for the day. Nevertheless, the reception gave me access to the unoccupied rooms and I have to say, they are truly amazing, each in their own way. One had a round bed that was set on a second level so that there was a hang-out area underneath it, others had fireplaces or other accessories. It was interesting to see how, with the same amount of space, so many different ideas were realized. The afternoon, still with great sunny weather, I decided to enjoy the Tivoli Park at the Western border of downtown, and just read a little further and have vacations. Travelling around is soo exhausting! (I know, I know. There is some irony in there, don't worry). And in the evening, I got to enjoy some authentic Slovene cuisine and atmosphere in a really nice place in the Old Town... as in 'yes, yes, I will make you something special. Just sit down, sit down. Another beer? Oh, we bring you a little schnaps for the digestion. Do you want anything more?' I rolled back to the hostel, I was so stuffed. But oh, was it good.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Days 3 and 4... From Venice to Ljubljana

The internet in Venice was so freaking expensive that I decided to post a double post today, I had to pay 2.50 Euros for 20 minutes!! Well, Venice prices. After spending the morning with this really cool German baker in Padua and ooh-ing and aah-ing over all the great Italian food on the market (I won't bore you with that, it's just amaaazing!! Photos to follow!!), I got to Venice without problems, with the regional train. First , I bought myself a map (wise decision, wise decision) and decided on where to go next. I still had an hour before check-in to my hostel. All of a sudden, this American lady comes up to me and says 'are you going to use the vaporetto within 20 minutes? Here, take my ticket!' So just like that, I was in the possession of a 6.50 Euro vaporetto (the ship-bus thingies) ticket. I decided to use it to the fullest and drive down to Piazza San Marco, over the whole Canale Grande (gorgeous!). Piazza San Marco was overcrowded and touristic like usual, but making my way back to the hostel (still with backpack), I discovered some really nice corners and ate my strawberries from the Padua market on a little bridge overlooking a quiet canal. Picturesque! Having gotten rid of my bag, I showered, changed, and explored that area in a little more depth, trying to find the real Venice behind all the shopping districts and souvenir shops. And I think I did, at least partially! I took little side-streets, followed signs to places I didn't know, got explained how the masks were made by an artisan and saw how the Murano-glass was brought into those pretty shapes in another shop, and on the whole went as little as possible to the touristic areas. It was perfect. The next day, I had to take the bus from Venezia Mestre to Villach in Austria, which was a great great trip through the mountains with gorgeous scenery (finding the bus terminal was another issue, why can't they just put up a sign??) and then from Villach, which I explored in 2 hours, onwards to Ljubljana. Slovenia is beautiful, so green, with pastures, lakes, .... It's like a miniature Switzerland, being only half of the size of Switzerland to begin with. And Ljubljana!! It feels like a small cutesy town, when it is really the capital of the country that got out of Yugoslavia best and the quickest and is now a full member of the EU - impressive! With this Argentinian guy that stayed in my hostel room (in the hostel that was formerly a prison! Awesome!), I explored a little the streets along the river and sat down at a little square for palatcinke - basically crepes with Nutella. Yum! Today will be a little more thorough exploration of Ljubljana and maybe a hike on the mountain to the castle =) Woohoo!