Saturday, December 18, 2010


My increased travel continues! Last weekend, I went to Sweden. My program is set up such that for this semester half of my cohort is in Groningen with me and the other half is in Uppsala, Sweden. I have been wanting to go back to Sweden since the second we left at the end of summer school, but it kept not working out! It's tough to get to Sweden cheaply... But when we found out we had a long weekend between our second and third courses, a friend and I finally bit the bullet and payed more than we wanted to, but we got tickets!

So last Friday, we left out dorm at 8:45 AM. We then took a 3 hour train ride to Eindhoven (the only Ryanair airport in the Netherlands-Bremen, Germany is closer but didn't have good flights). After the train ride, there was a 20 minute bus ride to the airport. Then a 2 hour flight (and associated check-in and waiting time). Then a 1.5 hour train ride from Stockholm-Skavsta airport to the city of Stockholm. Then a 45 minute train ride to Uppsala. We didn't get in until 9pm... Same thing on the way home. It was a TON of traveling. But totally worth it.

Friday night one of my classmates cooked a Brazilian dinner, and we all hung out and ate until late, then grabbed a bus home and sat in the kitchen of our host's dorm floor and talked to some of his floormates-a Swedish guy and an Italian guy, both drunk. We learned the general rule that Swedish people will only really talk when they're drunk. And talk he did! It was a very interesting conversation though, and lots of fun. Went to bed way too late, of course.

Saturday we woke up and looked out the window to realize with shock and jealousy that our classmate's dorm room basically had the view you'd expect in a ski chalet-it was on top of a hill and his floor was just at the tree canopy height, with beautiful snow covered conifers everywhere. Really gorgeous. After gushing for a while, we bundled up and headed out. We were actually quite lucky with the weather. It was only around -10C/14F while we were there, whereas it has been as cold as -22C/-8F the week before. BRRRRRR. I'm not saying -10 is warm, but it's warmER. Weather is such a relative thing :)

Saturday was spent checking out the town, which I absolutely loved. Though it only has about half the population of Groningen, it feels both bigger and cuter at the same time. It only took me about half an hour to decide that I am DEFINITELY spending a semester in Sweden during my two years in Europe. The plan is to go Spring 2012. Plan your visits accordingly.

It was so nice to be in a place with both hills and forests! Uppsala is quite hilly, with several parks and gardens of various types, some cool university buildings and museums, a cathedral where Linnaeus is buried, a river running through the center of town, and more. It really was gorgeous.

And there is fika! Fika is a Swedish tradition where you have coffee and pie/cake sometime in the afternoon. I think you can do it any day of the week, but the big thing is to do it do the weekend. We had fika Saturday afternoon (ours included sandwiches for lunch). It was great! 

Saturday night was spent checking out the nightlife. Students in Uppsala join "Nations" which are social clubs. You basically have to join them, as they are the main social entities. Alcohol (and everything else) is expensive in Sweden, and the nations have cheap alcohol. Each nation has it's own pub/bar/dance area, but once you're a member of a nation (or a weekend guest) you can go to any nation. We did a bit of a pub crawl, checking out the nations of several of our classmates, which was really cool. There were also snowball fights. A lot of them. So much fun. So much fun, in fact, that we only got an hour of sleep Saturday night before we had to get up and leave to go home. That was not so wonderful, but as you probably remember, we had a lot of transportation time to sleep...

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Best German Birthday Weekend Ever!

I had a birthday a few weeks ago. Not so comfortable with that. I am now undeniably in my mid-20s. BUT, to celebrate, some friends and I headed to Germany to visit the Christmas markets! The Netherlands has a weird holiday season. They have a guys called Sinterklaas (much more skinny and religious than Santa). He is an ex-Turkish bishop now living in Spain. Every year in late November, he comes from Spain on a steamship with his "Black Petes"  as helpers. They actually put on a huge show in Dutch towns, with a whole armada coming into town though the canals. It's cool. The Black Petes are played by white people in black-face and dressed up in bright costumes. So wrong. Note that this boat is from Spain.

So once Sinterklaas is in town, he hangs out for a while and then on the night of Dec 4/5 (Belgium) and 5/6 (Netherlands) you put your shoes in front of the chimney/radiator and the Black Petes come in and put candy in your shoes. Then, completely separately, there is Christmas with some presents. Not the US Christmas extravaganza, but a much smaller thing. And Christmas trees, but only after Sinterklaas (the 5th).

ANYWAY, the result of this, somehow, is that the Netherlands really hasn't felt very Christmasy. Germany, on the other hand, knows how to celebrate a religious-turned-commercial holiday--decorations and shopping! My friend came to visit and knew this, and so we went to Germany to check out the markets. Best decision ever! My birthday was on a Saturday, and another friend's was Sunday, so we headed over to Germany for the whole weekend.

Saturday was in Bremen. The market there is huge and wanders through several interlinked squares in the center of town. There were tons of stalls with great German food (sausage, pork sandwiches, candy, everything), Gluhwein (hot spiced wine which was very important given that it was several degrees below freezing the whole weekend and we were outside the whole time), jewelry, and tons of Christmas ornaments and other paraphernalia. Totally awesome. This picture is walking up to the market. The picture isn't very good, but once I got inside, I was too distracted to take many pictures!

We stayed Saturday night in Bremen and drank German beer and Gluhwein past midnight in order to celebrate both birthdays. It was fantastic. We also visited the statue of the Bremen Town Musicians (from a Brothers Grimm tale). I love this statue!

Then Sunday my friend visiting (sorta) from the States and I headed to Munster for another dose of Christmas
market cheer. It was a short, pretty train ride (I saw hills and forests for the first time in months)! Munster has a different Christmas market style, so it was fun to see both. Instead of having one huge market, Munster had 5 markets spread out along a ring around town. Each market had a general specialty, although you could get most things in most markets if you looked. We ended up with enough time to check them all out, which was great. Munster seemed more focused on crafts, which I really liked. I got all kinds of cool stuff! Munster was also a very pretty town. Tons of churches, and there is a small river that runs through town, but along it is a nice greenway. Nice way to cut through to the various markets!

Then, sadly, way too fast, it was Sunday evening and I was on a train home. But I got another birthday present Monday night-an awesome Foals concert in Amsterdam. The traveling, plus birthday wishes and great presents from here and home, made it a really amazing birthday!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Dorm Thanksgiving!

Yes, this post is a little late, but I wanted you all to know that we did it! Dorm kitchen, no oven, and yet we created a really respectable meal! It was me, a visiting friend, and the other girl from the US in my program. Turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, and deviled eggs. We found a jar of cranberry sauce, but everything else was homemade. I think we all surprised ourselves!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A weekend in Belgium

When I was growing up, my family had first nannies and then Au Pairs (nannies that came through a formal program instead of through family and friends in New Zealand). The last Au Pair, Fatim, was from Belgium and spent a year with us when I was 15-16. She was only about 8 years older than me, and we were more friends than anything else, so when she found out I was going to be in the Netherlands, she immediately invited me to her place near Brussels anytime I wanted. Yay!

It took a while after the semester started, but I finally got a free weekend and booked a train ticket. I unfortunately picked the weekend Brussels almost floated away (more on that later), so the trains were late, but I arrived in Brussels on a cool and wet Friday night. Fatim and I wandered around a bit, checked out the Grand Place at night-beautiful, and had a nice dinner at a cute Italian place.

I also realized almost immediately that my French needs serious work. I took it for five years in high school, seven years ago, and haven't used it much since. Back then I was pretty good. Now though, while I could tell the French was in there somewhere, I was having a lot of trouble making sentences. My understanding was much better, but still rough. Fatim and her husband both speak English (each lived in the States for a year) but I tried to speak French with them. Unless of course, their cute four year old Elliott was listening and didn't need to understand! I did feel bad though, when he would talk to me in French and I couldn't understand. It usually wasn't too bad, as we would continue playing anyway, but I knew he wanted me to know what he was asking. Grr. Fatim reminded me though (sign of how long I've been away from young children) that at that age he wasn't using real words or sentences, which made me feel better.

It was nice though, to be in a (part of a) country where I could usually read signs and understand train announcements. They live in the southern French part of Belgium, but Brussels is French/Flemish (Dutch) and the northern half of the country is Flemish.  And whoa is the split weird. Half the country speaks each language and in Brussels everything is in both languages. The weirdest part though, was that each half translates the names of cities in the other half. And they apparently literally translate them, not just change pronunciation or a few letters. What does that mean? Antwerpen (which English speakers call Antwerp) is called Anvers in the French part of the country. Lille=Rijsel, Tornai=Doornik, etc. And once you're in a certain part of the country, they only use their name for the city, so if you're looking for the "right" name, you'll never find it.

After diner Friday night, we made the 45 minute drive out to Fatim's house in the country (everything in Belgium is 45 minutes from Brussels). The house was so cool! It's from 1817 and is beautiful on the inside--exposed wooden beams, tile floors, great upstairs for the kids' rooms. Loved it. And a nice large yard I never set foot in. It was a holiday weekend in Belgium, and unfortunately absolutely poured from Thursday morning (start of the holiday) until Sunday night. Monday was gorgeous, Fatim told me later. The rain ended up being a huge problem, as Brussels just doesn't get rain like that and so is not designed to handle it. Lots of road and tunnel closures and accidents. And slow trains.

Anyway. Saturday morning after an awesome breakfast of croissants from the local baker, Fatim and I headed back into Brussels. The family didn't come because the parents knew the children would last about half an hour in the cold rain before being done with it all. Our first stop was the Atomium, a huge atom-looking thing that is a leftover from the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels. It looks exactly like what was considered futuristic in the 1950s. So funny. But very cool-we got to climb inside it and look out for great view of Brussels.

After the Atomium we headed to the Renee Magritte museum, which was awesome. Google him, you'll recognize the stuff probably. A surrealist. It was a great collection, which we found out was because it was all loans from various collections and that the museum is only going to be open as long as people don't ask for the pieces back, which could be whenever, so I'm really excited we got to see it.

Saturday night was a nice dinner at home with the family. Good wine and cheese and conversation. And lots of playing savanna animals with the new lion toy Fatim had found Elliott since he couldn't come with us to Brussels. My favorite animal was the tiger that Elliott decided was "a lion made up as a tiger." He referred to it that way all weekend, without fail. Good memory! He also opened an imaginary restaurant where we tried his chocolate-carrot-coconut-something-else-really-odd soup. It was so much fun to be in a real house with a family again, instead of my impersonal dorm and with classmates around my age. The 10 month old was both teething and sick, so he wasn't happy, but the rest of us had a great time.

Sunday morning was crepes-delicious again! Then we got ready and headed off to Fatim's parents' house near Brussels. Her parents were really excited to finally get to meet someone from the family she had spent her year in the States with, and since they are Moroccan, they decided to show their excitement by feeding us. I've now learned that Moroccans do not feed you halfway. We ate skewers of meat with bread to dip in the juice, then couscous with chicken-vegetable sauce (and that you eat with sour milk, which was good), and then there was fruit and mint tea and cookies. But my descriptions aren't doing the meal any kind of justice. The food was amazing and the quantities were unreal. I'm pretty sure her parents could have eaten off the leftovers for a week. It was a lot of fun hanging out with Fatim's parents and a brother and sister. They were all very nice and understanding of my slow French. I'll also take it as a good sign that they kept talking at normal speed and I was following pretty well!

After stuffing ourselves to oblivion, it was goodbyes all around and then I was off to the train station. But my weekend in Belgium was fantastic and I'm looking forward to going back. I've discovered that there are  cheap flights from my future French town of Montpellier to Brussels, so that will be fun. I have to go back to try what I learned is a Belgian specialty-fries and mussels. And more beer and chocolate.

George is dead

There are awesome travel updates coming, I swear, but for now, I just want you to know that my latest plant-rearing experiment is now over. George the Aster is dead. I blame it on the lack of sun, which caused me to leave him on the windowsill over the weekend while I was gone in hopes the sun might come out and make him happy. It did not and George got cold. And when I came home and rescued him from the windowsill, I might have put him in front of the heater, which was on high due to it being unholy cold. How cold? The high temperature today was -6 Celsius (21F). The HIGH. With lots and lots of wind. They think it might get above freezing sometime next week...