03 August, 2011

Firenze and the Final Post

Once again, I'm blogging from my comfy green chair in my bedroom, instead of from Europe. This last blog post will bring everything full circle! Before I talk about leaving Berlin, I have one last leg of my trip with Barb and Kye to cover: Firenze!

We decided to head to Florence on Wednesday, the 27th, in the afternoon. We arrived around 1pm, checked into our B & B which happened to be right around the corner from the Cappelle Medicee (Medici Chapel) and jumped right in. We walked through the San Lorenzo and had to use all our willpower not to get suck into shopping. Without any trouble we found the huge, looming Duomo. It is amazing how you can easily you find yourself at the Duomo when you're walking through Florence.

The Duomo

The cathedral church of Florence is called the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, and once inside we were able to admire the egg-shaped Duomo with its frescos as well as a large clock that was made with the sunset hour as the O hour. The church was large and very impressive. After spending some time in the church we walked to the Gallerie dell'Accademia which is most famous for housing the original David by Michelangelo. I had no idea just how huge the David was! We also looked at some unfinished scultuptures by Michaelangelo and many statues by Lorenzo Bartolini. Personally, seeing Michelangelo's David completely lived up to expectations, because I could see just how amazingly accurate and precise the sculpture was.We tried to climb up to the top of the Duomo that evening, but we were just a few minutes too late, so we continued soaking up Florence by heading down to the Ponte Vecchio, an awesome bridge with houses and jewelry shops built onto it, in such a fashion that as you walk down the bridge it just feels like you're walking down a narrow street. In the early evening light it was beautiful.

Ponte Vecchio bridge is behind me

Since we had missed the hike at the dome earlier, we made up for it by taking the long, steep path up to the Piazzale Michelangelo. The sun had set behind some clouds, the blue of the sky was just beginning to darken, and the lights of the city were starting to turn on, so it was a beautiful time to look down on the city.

At night. The Duomo is on the right

Thursday was our full day in Florence, though it was light on picture taking because of the activities we chose.  started the day by picking up the tickets we'd reserved for the Uffizi Gallery. We had time to visit the Cappelle Medicee and San Lorenzo before our time slot. We found more Michelangelo in the Cappelle Medicee, and Kye and I tried sitting on the floor of the chapel to get a good view of the dome, but we were chastised and had to study the scenes on the dome while craning our necks. We managed to figure out what Bible stories were being portrayed, and it was a lot of fun discussing the paintings. (Jenna, unfortunately I never managed to sneak my way into the room with the sketches!) Around 11:30 we were back at the Uffizi. It was crowded, as expected, but thankfully that didn't really detract from our ability to appreciate the art. Not only are there some amazingly famous works in there, but I was impressed by how long many of those pieces had been in the museum. The Uffizi Gallery was started by the Medici Family, like so many things in Florence, and some of those pieces had been in the gallery long before many "new" classic pieces had been made. Some of the higlights we found included a piece by Caraveggio, Dürer, Botticelli and more. Also, I chatted with a German woman for a few minutes when we took a snack break!

We decided we needed to give our minds a rest after all the culture, so after leaving the gallery Barb took a nap while Kye and I did some shopping along the San Lorenzo markets. We were quite successful and may or may not have picked out a few Christmas presents, though sadly the fireproof double leather purse was a little out of our budget. We had decided to stay one more night in Florence, so we had time to see San Marco, a church close to the Gallerie dell'Accademia. It started to rain on us during the walk but by the time we exited the church it had let up. We ate dinner near the Duomo (more delicious pasta), and after it had gotten dark Kye and I wandered out to get some gelato, a tasty waffle treat, and see Ponte Vecchio and the bank of the Arno again at night.

Kye's dream apartment building is the tall white one in the middle left

Friday was our last morning in Florence, so I started early. I wanted to climb the Duomo, and tried to beat the lines by arriving around 9am. It worked, and I spent the short time in line chatting with a friendly family from Chicago. It was a tough climb, very narrow at times, but very worth it--the view was amazing! I loved looking around and recognizing all the places I'd been. What a gorgeous start to the day!
Looking down

Made it to the top!

We also visited Basilica di Santa Croce that morning, where Galileo, Machiavelli and Michelangelo are buried. It was a really cool church, very old, with a high wooden ceiling. On our way back to the hotel to pick up our bags we did a last bit of shopping, then we hopped on a train and we were back in Rome before we knew it. We were staying in Rome that night so that we could catch our flights the next morning. Kye used some Marriott points to get us into the pamerpering Marriott Grand Hotel, and we decided it was a good thing the hotel had been booked earlier in the week or we never would have wanted to leave Rome!

We spent our last afternoon in Rome checking out the Pantheon, the Piazza Navona, and enjoying one last meal and two last gelatos. We spent over an hour sitting together on the Spanish Steps, watching the crowds and especially discussing the behavior of the fake purse hawkers once a policeman and an undercover cop entered the scene.

Outside the Pantheon

The view from our breakfast table on the rooftop garden

Saturday I flew back to Berlin, where I had really the best last day I could have asked for. I spent the afternoon with my host family, enjoying Kaffee, Kuchen, and good company. I left for a few hours to run the City-Nacht 10k, and I received another very cool T-shirt for this race as well. Sadly it was pouring rain, and my legs were quite tired from all the walking we'd been doing, but I loved running down one of Berlin's biggest streets (Kurfürstendamm) and seeing so many people out in the rain cheering us on. It was really a great way to say goodbye to the city.

On Sunday morning the Tischers were gracious enough to take me to the airport, which saved me so much time and made transporting my suitcases so much easier. There were significant delays on both legs of my flight, but shortly before 3am Monday morning I was finally walking into my house and dropping my bags in my room.

Since then I've been seeing friends and family and attempting to unpack. There's a lot to do before school, but I'm not too worried. I'm interested in learning how this semester has affected me and how I've changed, and I think those changes will come out in bits and pieces throughout the semester. I already miss seeing German ads, newspapers and books everywhere! However it's also interesting to see what about me hasn't changed--I hadn't driven in five months but as soon as I put my hand on the stick of our manual transmission Saturn it all came back like I'd never left. I still wouldn't say that either the US or Germany is better, but I'm so thankful for the opportunity to truly learn and experience their differences. I certainly think both countries and cultures could learn a few things from the other.

Finally, thank you, my wonderful readers, for taking the time to check in on my adventures now and then! This blog was fun for me to write, but knowing there were a couple of people interested in what was going on in my life made the writing even easier. I am so glad I could share my stories with you, and I am so thankful I was able to keep in touch with friends and family with relative ease over the past five months, thanks to the wonders of the internet, Google calling, and skype. Even though it was frustrating at times, so much is possible with technology!

Tschüs, liebe Leute!

27 July, 2011

Praha and Roma

What a magical five days it's been! I can't believe how much I've been able to see, and I've been lucky enough to share it with such wonderful company: my mom's sisters Barb and Kye both are here traveling through Europe with me. We've packed as much as possible into every day, so I can't describe everything in as much detail as I would like, but I'm going to attempt an overview here, and if you ever want to hear more I'd love to tell you in person.

I picked Barb and Kye up from Tegel Airport on Saturday the 23rd, and we headed over together to Hauptbahnhof, where we boarded an express train for Prague. On the way we met a young man and his parents who are from Prague and were going home after a two-week bike trip. He offered to answer any of our questions and we happily accepted the offer, talking for an hour about things to do, places to eat, and how to get around. In Prague we took a taxi (Tomáš had explained how to avoid a taxi scam) and checked into our hostel, which I had booked based on a recommendation from Hilary. From our excellent location we wandered into the Old Town Square, watched the medieval (from 1410) astronomical clock chime, wandered across the north bridge to get a view of the famous Charles Bridge, walked through Malá Strana (the Lesser Town), tried a sweet and delicious Czech pastry called a trdlo, and walked back across the river on the Charles Bridge.

Barb and I with the Charles Bridge behind us

The clock tower and the Týn Church (with the two towers)

That evening we stopped by Zvonice, a restaurant in an old belfry, but because they were crowded we tried another one of Tomáš's suggestions, U Medvidků (which means Two Bears), and enjoyed some traditional Czech cuisine and beer. After a long day of travel and walking it was some much-appreciated nourishment!

Sunday we spent most of the day at Prague Castle, which is the biggest castle complex in Europe. It was extremely impressive. We hopped a tram across the river to the castle, and spent most of the day going through the Old Royal Palace, St. Vitus Cathedral, exhausting ourselves by climbing to the top of the South Tower of the cathedral, and seeing St. George's Basilica and a house where Kafka once lived. We also walked through the beautifully terraced Gardens Below Prague Castle before leaving the complex. We then took the funicular up Petrín Hill to get a different view of the city, and we talked ourselves into climbing the Petrín Observation Tower, which is shaped like the Eiffel Tower (sorry Tomáš). The Petrín Tower is on Petrín Hill, and though it is only 60m tall, from the level of the river it is as tall as the Eiffel Tower in France. It really was a great view. The architecture of Prague is stunningly dramatic, and you can see that from up close as well as from the hill.

St. Vitus in the Prague Castle complex
The three ladies

Inside St. Vitus

Charles Bridge and the Old Town, looking out from the South Tower of the Cathedral

Barb and Kye in the gardens

Monday we moved on to Rome! We manged to get to the airport, to our gate, and to Rome without any trouble. It was late afternoon by the time we were settled in, but we had time to see the Colosseum. Wow. Such a marvel, in terms of size and age, but when you think about what it was used for you can't help but get a little chill. After a panini and gelato break we walked around the Roman Forum, but it was too late to go in. We also walked by the Pianna del Campidoglia, Vittorio Emanuele II Memorial (which is huge), the Trevi Fountain (where I threw a coin in so I should be coming back to Rome someday!) and finally the Spanish Steps. We found some delicious pizza on the way back to the hotel, where we collapsed.

Kye, me, and Barb in the Colosseum
Above the Roman Forum

Vittorio Emanuele II Monument on Piazza Venezia

Trevi Fountain

Tossing a coin in the fountain

Tuesday was our full day in Rome. We started the day swinging by St. John Lateran before visiting the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill, which I just found incredible, and so far is one of my favorite things about Rome. I love the piecemeal aspect of the Forum, how many different structures were there and what meaning and use they had, and I can't believe how old they are. After the Forum we ate lunch in the Vatican area, and then decided to sign up for a tour to do the Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel and St. Peter's. I learned a ton while hitting the highlights of the museums, which are the second biggest in the world. The Sistine Chapel was unbelievable. I don't really know what more I could say. I decided to go up in the dome of St. Peter's, because I can't say no to a good  view, and just soaked in the luxury of seeing all of Rome before me.

Overlooking the (very old) stadium on Palatine Hill

Vatican City and Rome from the top of St. Peter's dome

I descended the dome and exited into the massive St. Peter's Basilica, which despite the fact that they were beginning to close it up for the night was impressive. Barb, Kye and I decided to walk through the lively Trastevere area for dinner, and I had some amazingly tasty spaghetti with bacon in a fun atmosphere. We came back to the hotel a little earlier last night, to do some planning and decision making about the next leg of our trip. And now here I am in Florence! It's wonderful, but we still have one more day here so I'm going to save the rest of my comments until I can talk about the entire trip.

Overall it's just been an unbelievable summer vacation. I am seeing so many huge things that sometimes I just don't know how to describe the experience. But I am so thankful for this opportunity, and for the fact that I am sharing it with two of my aunts, as well as getting the chance to talk about my semester with them. I've loved walking through these two very different cities, and getting a tiny bit of the feel of them. I do miss Berlin and I certainly wish I could communicate with people as well as I've realized I can in German, but I'm getting by.

23 July, 2011

End of Finals

I need to head to bed soon, but I really wanted a little closure on here before I embark on my adventure with Kye and Barb tomorrow morning! Or really, later this morning. Oops.

As of Thursday at 11:09am, I have fulfilled all of my academic obligations for my spring semester. Finally! And it felt so good to be done. I turned in my paper for my history class on Wednesday and then on Thursday I took an exam for my International Political Economy class. I lucked out on the exam: we had to choose two of three essay questions to answer, and we were given two hours, and the exact two topics that I'd already said would be my favorite to write about were on the test! It felt good to make my outline and know that I had plenty to say for each question, and to be confident that I knew what I was supposed to say. I really enjoyed that class, and studying for the final was encouraging because I still find the material interesting, and so it's always nice knowing that I made the right decision in taking that class.

That meant that today (Friday) was my last full day in Berlin. But I think I spent it well! I went to the Uni to say goodbye to Carmen, my program director, and I met Emma and Hilary at the Konzerthaus for an awesome tour of the building. It's the Spielzeitpause, or break in the performance season, which means they're catching up on some repairs and cleaning. It was a very unique look for the grand concert house! I enjoyed the tour and loved that I was able to understand our friendly guide as well.

In one of the smaller performance halls

Afterwards we stopped by Fassbender & Rausch to see the Brandenburger Tor made out of chocolate, picked up a few more chocolates from Ritter Sport, did a little shopping, and then met Maria and her parents for dinner. We wanted to eat at Salat Boutique but it was closed, so our beloved Vapiano's stepped in and saved the day! I loved having the opportunity to meet Maria's parents, they are so friendly. She's from Romania, if I haven't explained, and her parents drove to pick her up and spend a few days seeing Berlin with her.

This whole week has felt pretty weird, because the time crunch suddenly hit me. However up until Thursday I had to spend a fair amount of time studying, though I continued to do much of my studying at cafes or bookstores. I took most of Tuesday off and went to Szczecin, Poland with Hilary and Emma, which was a really fun experience and a nice break. We saw a castle, churches, and the busyness commonly found in a beautiful harbor town. And I can't forget the pretty Polish money.

The very cool, very old mechanical clock in the castle courtyard
Polish złoty!

But it's still been weird, feeling a deadline in the back of my head. And it's not like a school deadline, where once you finish the work or take the test you don't have to think about it anymore. I can't "finish" Berlin before this deadline hits, but thankfully I think I can look back and say that I'm still happy with what I've accomplished. And I don't have to really say good bye yet! Kye, Barb and I leave tomorrow for Prague (hopefully I'll be able to post an update or two during our trip), but I will return to Berlin on the 30th, next Saturday, to run one last 10k and finish packing before flying out on the 31st. It's comforting to know that I may be leaving Berlin, but I get to come home to it one last time!

18 July, 2011

Dad in Berlin: Part II

My dad is back in the States safe and sound now, and I'm in full gear, trying to combine as much studying as possible with seeing as much of Berlin in my little time left. It's a tough task! My dad's timing really worked out pretty well, because he gave me motivation to work hard before he got here, and then with him I was able to revisit so many of my favorite parts of the city.

So I left off the last entry with Thursday. Thursday was indeed a calmer day for me, because I had class till 4 so I took Thursday as a work day while my dad wandered around the city on his own. He saw part of the Technikmuseum, the outside of the Jewish Museum, and njoyed walking through the markets of the ethnically diverse neigboorhood of Kreuzberg, where much of Berlin's Turkish population lives. Around 6 he came down to my apartment complex so that we could have dinner with Emma, Hilary and Maria, as well as Hilary's mom. We ordered pizza and had salad, and Dad brought watermelon and a dessert from an open air market. There was also plenty of wine!

Action shot!

I made up for spending Thursday with my books by spending the whole day with my dad. Dad suggested renting a car for a day, and I liked the idea. I chose Rostock as the destination for our Tagesausflug (day trip). Rostock is a harbor town two hours north of Berlin, on the coast of the Baltic Sea (or auf deutsch, Ostsee). It lies in what used to be Eastern Germany.

After we figured out how to exit the parking garage and the GPS figured out where we were, it was a straightforward drive. And now I've been on the Autobahn! The Autobahn isn't just one road but it's the German word for highway. We arrived without any problems and spent our first two or three hours in the older downtown area, walking around to see the St. Nikolai church, St. Petri church, the old city wall, city gates and the city harbor. I thought it was a pretty area, very quaint.

Outside an old city gate

This main downtown area was set on a small inlet from the sea. The ships in the harbor can easy sail out to the open Baltic Sea, but it's a few miles away. So after a few hours downtown we drove up to the beach area on the Baltic Sea, and this really was gorgeous.With the two piers it reminded us a lot of Grand Haven, MI. We dipped our toes in the Ostsee (my takeaway: the Ostsee is CHILLY!) and walked along the beach and up to the lighthouse on the west pier.

In the Ostsee!

The water was a bit frigid.

Walking back from the pier it started to rain, and although my dad liked the idea of seeing a stormy sea, we didn't stand around but instead enjoyed the view while walking quickly towards shelter. To keep me from melting we stopped and had Kaffee and Kuchen in a little cafe, which was delicious and restoring. The rain had paused by the time we left and we could see clear skies to the north, which made the view over the beach very cool. We stopped in another church, the Warnemünder Kirche, and then walked back along the beach and pier area looking for one more place to eat.

We stopped in a restaurant that I chose because of the beer they had on tap, and we both enjoyed a delicious (and fresh!) lobster bisque while sipping a half liter of Köstritzer Schwarzbier, one of Maria's and my favorites. After taking our time with our drinks, then walking around a little longer to find some ice cream, we headed back to the car just as the rain started up again, so that we could start the drive back in the daylight. Other than the GPS trying to make us take side roads a few times and not being able to find the Hertz parking garage the trip back was uneventful!

Dad's last day in Berlin we hit up Potsdam, the city just southwest of Berlin, full of castles and where I took my visitors in March. The weather was perfect. We walked around the grounds of the Schloss Sanssouci and the Neues Palais. Seeing the castles in their summer greenery was stunning. I think this set of castles is my second favorite I've seen in Europe (first would have to be the complex in Versailles).

The terraced gardens are beautiful in summer
A bit of construction going on at the Neues Palais

After some sandwiches in Berlin I did some homework in his hotel room (with AC!) and sent Dad back to the Technikmuseum to check out the planes, trains and ships building. He really enjoyed seeing all the stuff I sent him there to see in the first place, and I was glad he had time to go back. After he closed out the museum I met him downtown and we went to church at St. Hedwig's near the Museum Insel. It was a cool church, it's just one big dome. Emma joined us for Mass.

After Mass Dad and I walked through Gendarmenmarkt to see the German dome, the Konzerthaus, and the French dome. Just across the square was an Augustiner Bierhalle, so we stopped in for one last drink. It was a good choice. Dad ordered an Augustiner Dunkel and I tried an Edelstoff, which was great. We picked up some bratwurst from a stand on our way to our last event in Berlin: a return to the Reichstag!

One last true German beer

The dome was reopened on Saturday, so I had made another appointment for us just in case Dad decided he wanted to see the dome. He did, and it was a great use of our evening. I just think the dome is so cool! And I was glad that he could get the historical background that the audio guide provides. After we left the Reichstag I went back with Dad to get my computer from his hotel and leave him with the airport bus times, and then I said goodbye. But only for two weeks! (Yikes!)

Sunday was a lot of work, and then I watched the Women's World Cup championship match between US and Japan. It was so exciting but at the end so heartbreaking. We lost in penalty kicks. Today was another study day at Cafe Bilderbuch, because life goes on and my final exam approaches.

14 July, 2011

Herzlich Willkommen, Vati!

Whew, what a week! Before I start talking about my dad's arrival in Berlin, I want to continue on the cafe review from last post with a picture from Sunday. Susie, Emma and I had a nice work day before Susie had to head back to Munich. Emma and I tried a new church in Schöneberg, right down the street from Baltos Cafe, and then we all studied together for a few hours. It was a cool cafe, modern looking and with plenty of outlets, and the side of the cafe was a window that could open, so the cafe was open to the street.

Studying ith Susie and Emma

And now the most exciting news: on Tuesday my dad arrived in Berlin! I had a lot planned, and by keeping a quick tempo and walking miles and miles we've managed to cover a lot of ground. I picked Dad up from the airport Tuesday morning and we went to check in to his hotel and drop his bags off. From there we headed to hit the highlights. We bussed to Potsdamer Platz and walked along the Tiergarten and through the Mahnmal für die ermordeten Jüden Europas, or Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe, a fairly new Holocaust Memorial. It's over 2700 stone steles and not only are they different heights, but the surface of the pavement rises and dips so it's pretty interesting to walk through.


We also saw the Brandenburger Tor, of course, and walked along the main street downtown to the Museum Insel and the Berliner Dom before I had to head to class. After class we met up again, and we visited KaDeWe (the 7 story megastore) and Schloss Charlottenburg, where we didn't go inside but we enjoyed wandering through the beautiful blooming gardens behind the castle. We sat by the pond, watching well-fed pigeons, sparrows and ducks beg for bread crumbs before heading towards Zoologischer Garten, where my dad's hotel is, to find a delicious dinner of pizza and beer (we each had different kinds so I could introduce my dad to as many kinds of German beer as quickly as possible!).

Proving he is, in fact, in Berlin

In the gardens of Schoss Charlottenburg

But the day wasn't over after dinner! Oh no. We rested for about two hours, caught up on email, napped, then at 10:30 pm we headed back out into the city! What for? For the HARRY POTTER 7 midnight showing! Wait, you may be thinking, I am a dedicated fan too but I thought HP came out on the 15th! If you live in the States, you are right. But here in Germany it came out at 12:01am on the 13th. We joined a few of my friends for the 3D midnight showing at Potsdamer Platz, and had a blast. I won't say anything about the movie except that I really really enjoyed it! And not only was Dad willing to stay up to watch HP, but he was also willing to go with Emma and me to Schwarzes Cafe, one of only a few cafes that's open and serves food 24hrs a day. It was just around the corner from his hotel, so that helped. We celebrated HP and Dad in Berlin with a delicious B&B (breakfast and Bier) of eggs and Augustiner.

ND kids outside HP (Mark, Emma, Maria, me, Michael)

Wednesday was also a full day! After picking up my final grade in my literature class I met Dad, and after a quick detour to pick up his passport from the hotel we headed east. We checked out the East Side Gallery, walked around the Fernsehturm at Alexanderplatz, the Dom again, and then we headed to Ritter Sport to make our own Schokokreations. While we were waiting for our individual creations to be made we hopped down to Checkpoint Charlie to snap the obligatory photos there. We picked up our chocolate and still had time for dinner at Vapiano's before seeing "Salome" at the Komishe Oper. "Salome" was...very strange. A very modern interpretation. We did not like it, but now Dad has seen first hand how German theater tends to shock and alienate the audience.

At Checkpoint Charlie
So much chocolate! Counteracting the 14 miles we walked on Tuesday.

But the night didn't end with the opera! Hilary's mom has been here for a week, and they went to the opera, so we both planned to take our parents up on top of the Reichstag afterwards. Seeing Berlin at dusk, all lit up, from the roof of the parliament building was amazing.

In front of the dome of the Reichstag

I would say it's been a pretty successful start to Dad's visit! Today he's on his own for most of the day because I have class. He's here till Sunday morning and there's plenty planned for the rest of the week, so come back in a few days to hear about the rest of our adventures!