Wrap Up 5.1.11

Woah. Blogging. I haven’t done this in a while. My last post was right around Thanksgiving so I have a bit to catch up on don’t I?

Might as well get started with what’s fresh: the airport. I’m sitting in Prague’s airport right now waiting for my flight home. I arrived at the airport nearly an hour and a half ago and so far, I have only checked into my flight and gone through customs. I haven’t even gotten through security, but don’t worry, that’s not even open yet, so I’m sitting outside of a duty free shop. Let me tell you though, that’s been enough for a morning and I’m not looking forward to what’s to come. I just want to be home.

First of all, I arrived at the airport before the Delta check in counters were open, so I thought I’d be productive and see whether my bags were underweight or not. They weren’t. Both bags were overweight, one by nearly ten pounds, the other only by two or three. Well that sucked, but since I had time, I thought I’d repack a little and start moving all that I could into my carry-on bags, figuring that I’d rather carry them on my shoulder than pay some exorbitant fee just to get my bags home. Smart right? Well, it almost worked. I got one bag under my 50-pound limit, but the other one was too heavy, so I thought I was going to have to pay for that. I didn’t. I still don’t really know why, but I think it’s because my dad gifted me on some sort of elite status for Delta, so let me just say, thank you dad. At this point I think I’m in the clear, I’ve unloaded maybe ten pounds into my carry-ons but, they’re just carry-ons, so Delta can’t say anything about it. Or so I think.

I’ve always gotten around the one carry-on item limit by calling it a personal item because I’m willing to put my backpack or some other small bag I bring with me under the seat in front of me and deal with it. So, when the clerk, a woman who looks like Raymond’s mother on Everyone Loves Raymond, but with an even more dour affect, sees my bags, she starts scowling and telling me that I can’t bring both my back pack and shoulder bag on the plane. I don’t see why I shouldn’t be able to bring my bags on the plane without paying, I’m still old enough to remember the days when airlines weren’t nickel and diming for everything (remember when NWA cut out a single olive from its salads and saved billions a year? Hell remember when there WERE salads on flights?), so I resist a bit and get a manager called over who tries to explain to me that I don’t have a carry-on and a personal item but two carry-on bags which is not allowed. I’m not buying, but I play along a little and offer to check my bag at the gate since I don’t need it on the plane. The Delta employees went with the “that wouldn’t be fair to other passengers” argument, and while I can see its merits, what I don’t understand is how Delta can have the gall to charge me €55 for a bag that doesn’t weigh more than 10 pounds. That’s over $7 per pound! Oh, and they also said that I couldn’t put one bag under the seat in front of me because I was in an exit row. So what they’re telling me is that because I’m sitting in an exit, I can’t bring in the same amount as any other passenger. Tell me where the sense is in that. In the end, I was forced to pay, but as I pulled out my card to pay I was so upset that I was literally shaking. (Update: While I was waiting in the line for security, I saw a man ask a Delta employee if he could bring his two bags on the plane. One bag was a hard-shelled carry-on, and the other was a “laptop case” that would be more aptly called a briefcase and a half. The Delta employee told him that he would have to pay for the second bag. Having just fought the same battle, I sympathized with the man and when he walked away, I figured he had gone off to pay the fee. Well, I’m now in the waiting area and lo-and-behold, the man came in with both bags! Curious as to how he could bring the same sort of bags as I had wanted on without paying $70+ I went over and asked him. He said that they had looked at his massive briefcase and called it a laptop case, whereas my backpack (which serves the same purpose as his briefcase) was too big. I’m sure that there is nothing I can do about it now and that it’s a sunk cost, but I’m still going to write Delta a letter when I get home. This is ridiculous. If Delta had charged me for my other bag too, it would be the same as if I had purchased another ticket on a flight!)

Oh, and to top it all off, I have to pick up my bags in New York and check them again? I pity the clerk in New York who tries to tell me that my bags are overweight and makes me pay to have them get home. No, I won’t yell. I’m not a yeller. But s/he, his/her manager, and Delta will be getting an earful. It seems especially ridiculous in light that some of Delta’s competitors are still “flying bags for free.” This was not exactly the way I wanted to ship off from what has otherwise been a wonderful country, though quite telling of the service industry here.

Before I get into the happier parts of my last month and a half in Europe, let me touch on the other times I got infuriated with the transportation industry whilst traveling in Europe to give any one who is thinking about traveling a heads up and some things to avoid.

I bought a Eurrail pass for my travels because I thought the Czech Republic’s central location would provide easy access to railways into other countries and I would be able to travel around quite easily and stress free. Well, that’s half true. One of the best parts about the Eurrail pass is that you can show up at a train station and hop on most trains. The tricky part is knowing which trains you can hop on to and which you cannot. I was under the impression that a Global Pass meant what it implies: I would have global (of or relating to a whole) access to the trains in the participating countries. That’s not exactly true. In France for example, there are three major railway companies: SNCF, TGV and Thalys, and the Eurrail is only fully compatible with SNCF. I didn’t find that out until I arrived in Geneva. I had a train that was leaving for Paris where I would meet my friend John to pick me up at the train station in a few hours, so I couldn’t miss my train, but the woman at the desk was making me pay over €100 to be on a later train because I hadn’t made a reservation on the one I’d intended to take. Cool. That was an expensive lesson, but at least from then on I knew I should avoid TGV trains because they always required reservations (which I was led to believe is the reason I had to pay for a ticket, not that my Eurrail didn’t work on these trains). So, the following week when I was making plans to visit Normandy, and then to Berlin, I sought out trains that didn’t require a reservation. Well, that worked well until I tried to go to Berlin and the train company, which said nothing about reservations on their website, asked me for a reservation on the platform.

That latter example worked out significantly better than the Geneva experience, and only cost me €24 (I say “only” as a relative value to the €100+ TGV charged me), but it was incredibly nerve wracking at the time, because I had been instructed to get on the train without a ticket and deal with the train manager afterward. I was standing in the café cart for at least ten minutes with him while he searched for the appropriate ticket for me to purchase. I felt like I was standing before a judge waiting for a verdict to be handed down. I did not find it comfortable in the least.

Okay, that’s enough complaining! I’m sorry that I had to start with that, but sometimes I just need to vent and this morning the transportation industry really frustrated me.

The semester ended on a really good note. I had been really worried about my final papers, but in the end, I finished them all and even got some studying in for the in class examinations. Czech was probably the class I had the most difficulty with this semester, and somehow I relapsed into some tendencies from my middle school years in terms of the homework. After our graduation ceremony, Petra, my professor, alerted me that she could not find several of my assignments. The funny thing is that I know that I had done them, but it didn’t surprise me at all that I had forgotten to turn them in; my organization this semester was abysmal: I didn’t have a place I liked to study at in my flat, I didn’t have folders that I used regularly, and I had loose handouts spilling out of my notebooks. So, because I couldn’t find anything, I had to redo the assignments as well as a survey of the class (worth 10% of my grade?!) my final afternoon in Prague before traveling.

The night before graduation, for all intents and purposes, our last night in Prague as a group, was awesome. Laura and Hannah, a Wisconsin Graduate as of that night (Mazel tov to her again!), had a little party at their place with a food theme. Hannah is a really amazing chef (she’s the one who managed to teach me how to bake bread) and whipped up a bunch of very tasty foods, including a to-die-for Peanut Butter pie. Hannah had made such a delicious dinner that I wanted to give something back, so I started washing the dishes and loading the dishwasher. A note to anyone out there that may have a similar desire: if the hostess tells you to stop, listen. Hannah didn’t want me to be doing any work, and told me, but when I didn’t stop immediately, she started wrestling with me at the sink. She was alarmingly strong and I was hard pressed to keep my position, resorting to box-out position that would have made Mr. McVeety proud. This went on for about ten minutes until in our play, we tore the top shelf of the dishwasher off its tracks. That wasn’t good. I spent the next thirty minutes reverse engineering the extending arm to be able to put the tray back in without it falling. When I finally fixed it, I went in to give Hannah a hug. When she turned around, her hand hit the beer I was holding out of my hand causing a huge fountain of foam to erupt. The fountain reached the wall a good ten feet away from where the bottle hit the floor. It really was a spectacle to behold and encapsulated the spirit of the party for me. Well, that and the Peanut Butter pie. The pie was unbelievable. I don’t know how it was made yet, but I’ll be asking Hannah when I get home and will try my own hand at it soon enough.

The morning after we had our “graduation” ceremony. I’m still not exactly sure from what I graduated, but it was a big to do with presentations from each of the Czech classes, a debate, speeches, a diploma ceremony, and a farewell lunch at the Municipal House. The lunch was clearly the best part. It was a huge spread with a bunch of traditional Czech dishes and two huge tables dedicated to desserts and sweets. Nom, nom, nom.

The only bad part from the lunch was the goodbyes. It was the last time I was going to see a lot of these people and though I don’t get emotional with my goodbyes, it still sucks to have to say goodbye when you don’t know the next time you’ll see your friends.

The goodbyes sucked, but the next day I started traveling for 18 days, so I didn’t really have time to fret too much. I had to pack and prepare my stuff for my journey and get my apartment in condition for checkout.

Traveling was A.Maz.Ing. I’m not going to try and squeeze every detail into this post. That would be boring and this will be long enough without all of the minutiae. In 18 days, I traveled to four countries and six cities across Western Europe. Salzburg, Austria was atop my list but the trains from Prague to Salzburg are kind of finicky. Knowing that the sun sets around 4:30 in the afternoon, I didn’t want to waste an entire day traveling during the day since my time was short already. I looked for a night train that would get me into Salzburg early in the morning, but they don’t exist, so, I found an even better solution: travel to Karlstejn for the day and not lose out on the limited amount of sunlight I had.

I had wanted to make it Karlstejn the entire semester, but it had never happened. It’s a castle that Charles IV built to house his crown jewels and is less than unimpressive. It’s only 30 minutes outside of Prague by train, but it is still a bit removed and you need to walk a kilometer or two from the train station, through a small little town, and then climb the castle mount to see the castle.

As most of my friends were on the way to the airport to clamor aboard their airplanes and return to the US, I didn’t have anyone to travel with me, but I had my camera and my iPod, so I really had no issues. Unfortunately, I also had the bag that I was bringing on my travels with me because I didn’t have time to return to my flat after I got back from Karlstejn and still make the train to Salzburg. I found a locker to store my bag in for my trip to Karlstejn in the Prague station, so I didn’t have to carry the bag the whole day. I messed up though and locked both pairs of gloves that I was bringing in the locker and I didn’t have enough crowns to be able to open the locker and afford to close it again.

I managed just fine though without gloves for a few hours, keeping my hands in my pockets as much as possible, but in the end, I couldn’t feel my fingers, so I thought that was a good time to return to Prague and head off to Salzburg.

I only stayed a few hours in Karlstejn, but I really enjoyed my time there. The closer you get to the castle, the more touristy it feels, but still, there are glimpses of what it might have been which was pretty cool. I have been collecting pins for my hat that I purchased in Bavaria, and I got another one in Karlstejn. I’m not going to mention every time I bought a pin, but this time was unique in that I found a pin in a bin in one of the souvenir shops and the store owner gave it to me for free because she said, “it’s ugly.” Well, yeah, she’s probably right, but I wanted to have pins of the different places I’d seen, and when some of them cost 4, 5, or even 6 euros, I’m not going to scoff at one that is given to me for free.

Salzburg was probably my favorite place on my trip. Everything about it was just so great. First of all, I was there for two days and three nights and I met Minnesotans each of the three days I was there. It’s not like I was meeting hundreds of Americans either, but almost as if I was magnetically attracted to Minnesotans, because it seemed like everywhere I turned, I met another one. The town itself is fantastic. There’s a main center of town. which has attractions like the birthplace of Mozart and, while I was there, Christmas markets. It’s not a pretty small town, but that was one of the more charming features of the city and complemented the friendly folk I found quite nicely.

Salzburg is also where the Sound of Music was filmed, so while most Austrians are oblivious to the film, it draws a ton of tourists to see the sights, and there are even companies who offer Sound of Music tours. Obviously, I had to take one. The tour was so fun. It starts pretty routine, but by the time they take you out to Mondsee (a nearby town) to see the church where the interior of the wedding was filmed, they start playing the songs on the speakers of the bus and everyone is singing along.

On the tour, I met some more Minnesotans, this time a daughter, Sarah, and her parents, and it just so happened that she attended a rival high school in Minnesota and her older brother had attended SPA, my alma mater. I have a hard enough time wrapping my head around the idea that I met Minnesotans in towns across Europe,  but when Sarah said her brother went to SPA, with classes of less than 100 students, I was dumbstruck.

Sarah invited me out to dinner with her family and her friend Heather, who was also traveling with them, that evening, and that proved to be one of the best meals I’ve ever had. We ate at a restaurant called the Blue Goose and I honestly can’t remember the last time I had food that fancy. The better part though was that it was really tasty too! I guess I was kind of tired at the dinner because I felt the beer go to my head after only one, so I stopped drinking rather early, but the rest of the table clearly wasn’t suffering from the same ailment and we finished the meal with a few empty bottles of wine littering the table. The alcohol was not in anyway the focus of the meal, but it might explain why Sarah’s father was such a character, ending the night by reentering the restaurant to announce to Sarah, Heather and myself that the taxi had arrived, raising his voice above the conversations of the other patrons. Another crazy part about this whole story was that at some point during the dinner, I was speaking with Sarah’s father when he realized that he knew my father. Apparently, he had hired my father for a job back in the ‘90s. When he realized the connection, he pulls out his phone and asks for my home number. He wanted to drunk dial my parents! Having no objection, I dialed the number and unfortunately, my father was out of the house, but I got to speak to my brother and mother before passing the phone back to Sarah’s father.

While the dinner stands out as a highlight of my travels, I think the best time of my entire two weeks traveling around Europe happened just before dinner. After the tour, I decided that I wanted to travel out to a mountain our guide had mentioned and see what it was all about. I took the bus out to the foot of the mountain and then the funicular 900 meters up to the top of the mountain.

I’ve been atop mountains before, looked down and seen sprawling landscapes, other mountain peaks and ranges in the distance, but I don’t think I’ve ever had an experience like this one. First of all, I wasn’t going skiing or snowboarding, so I was solely focused on the setting. Secondly, I don’t think I’d ever just gone up a mountain in the middle of the day for the sole purpose of looking out onto the world. Awesome.

Well, this post is taking me significantly longer to write than I had intended and now I’m going back to Madison tomorrow morning to start another semester, so I really don’t have the time I’d like to dedicate to making it a complete post. That being said, let me wrap up just a few more points before I end this blog for good.

I had my first Christmas in Paris this year and I couldn’t have been happier with how it went. That’s my first Christmas ever, not just first time celebrating it in Paris. Sure, I’ve seen Christmas trees and even exchanged gifts with family friends on Christmas before, but this year I got to wake up at the crack of dawn with the family I was staying with as the kids rushed downstairs to see what Santa had left for them. The family gathered around the tree and opened gifts. It was storybook and I loved it.

A few days later, I made a quick tour of Normandy (hitting Mont St. Michele, Caen, Rennes, and Deauville in 24 hours) before running off to Berlin for New Years. It was my second visit to Berlin in as many months, but this time, it seemed that all of Europe had joined me. I don’t think I’ve ever seen as many people in one place. Berlin was really great for a few reasons. Aside from the obvious (it’s a really cool city), I was with friends that I’d met on my travels and two from my time in Prague, I went to the Brandenburg Gate to ring in the new year (and even though I couldn’t actually see the gate, it was still sweet because we were in the middle of a huge carnival), and on my last day, I took an Alternative Culture Tour of Berlin. A lot of my friends from CIEE had taken a similar tour when they had visited Berlin during the semester, but I had missed that trip, so I was quite pleased when I managed to attend the tour this time around.

Those are some of the highlights of the last few weeks I spent in Europe. I know I’m leaving out a lot, but I don’t want to bore you and I also don’t have the time at the moment to dedicate to a proper retelling.

My first week back in the states has been great, though I really cannot wait to get back to Madison and start classes. It’s one of those sentiments I’m sure I’ll regret soon enough, but right now, I want to be challenged and feel productive because I’ve been pretty efficient at wasting whole days since I’ve been back. It’s not even that I’ve been sleeping the whole day away either, since except for today and yesterday I woke up between 4:30 and 8 each morning. I think I’m finally back on a normal schedule now though, which will help when it comes to getting back into the swing of college life.

Highlights of being back in town: seeing my family and friends, getting chipotle, driving again, and having my dad’s cooking.

I don’t know if I’m having reverse culture shock. I don’t think I am. I feel like Minnesota is largely the same as when I left it and I like it that way. I miss my friends from Prague and I find myself thinking about them, but I also miss my friends from Madison, many of who I have not seen in a semester and many more who I will not see for another eight months as they begin their travels the world.

And with that, suppose I have to Czech back in. It’s been a pleasure. Thank you all for reading.

-Stephen