Thursday, November 3, 2016

October Trip, Part I

>>> Hello Prague, Warsaw & Krakow<<<

Prague, Czech Republic

What an amazing opportunity I had to travel with these dear friends.

15 friends at one point or another.
11 full days.
               8 nationalities.
6 cities.
4 countries.
3 Polskibus trips.
1 train with seats sold separately.
0 severe sicknesses/ lost valuables/ catastrophes. 

I have so much to share about this fall break trip! I collected so many memories, and I have so many new ideas and experiences I never imagined myself possessing. With that said, in order to do the trip justice I'm going to split it into two posts. Here's the first post to outline my time in the first three cities we visited, and I'll write about the rest of my trip as soon as possible. I don't like putting off blog posts, but (unfortunately) French exams and homework assignments are part of this year long study abroad, too.
polaroid mentioned below

October 21st: The Beginning

The plan was to meet at La Marne at 6pm to leave for the 6:45pm bus. At 6:11, Francisca and I were taking a Polaroid picture with Cíntia in her room. By 6:14 we had left the building, only to discover that Cíntia needed to run back for the sandwiches she had packed for the bus ride. Clara and I sent the Portuguese girls ahead, and we waiting for Cíntia to return. Starting late, handling a quick delay, and having bad luck with trams landed us in a situation where it was 6:35 and we realized we were still approximately 8 minutes away from Place de E'toile, the bus stop.
Cíntia just wanted to give Clara and me time for a cute picture before we got started.
Picture 6 girls hustling through Strasbourg to the bus stop with an assortment of rolling luggage and backpacking packs, as well as travel pillows and carry-on bags in tow. I'm sure we were quite the sight. Now picture them passing a friend who is also coming on the trip as he sprints by (in the wrong direction) because he forgot his contact lens case at his residence. When we finally got to the bus station all was well and the crisis was avoided... Soon after we arrived, Floris ran in, contact lens case in tow. Crisis #1 avoided. 

Somehow we all made it onto the first Flixbus, and we were off to Frankfurt. In Frankfurt, we were scheduled to have a connection to Prague with about two hours to kill. When we arrived, we ventured into the city since our friend Tomàs has a Portuguese friend studying in Frankfurt to show us around a bit. Cue group picture #1 in front of the Euro-Monument.

Eventually, we boarded our next Flixbus to Prague, and we got comfortable for the remaining 7 hour journey. We got lucky to have a comfortable Flixbus for this leg since it was the overnight, and after settling in for a bit I got a good amount of sleep. I woke up in the morning as we were nearing Prague, and I was excited but slightly skeptical as we passed graffiti-lined, semi run-down streets on the outskirts of the city. In retrospect, I'm glad I had this moment of doubt about how beautiful Prague would be since it made Prague that much more impressive to me once we got downtown. 

When we left the bus it was pretty chilly, and the 13 of us made our trip to the hostel. We locked our luggage there for the day, and put ourselves together a bit to begin our first day of tourism. We decided our first stop would be St. Charles's Bridge and the castle. The whole morning was just wonderful. When we got to the bridge it was pretty scarcely populated; it was just us and a few other tourists who beat the crowd. By the time we visited the castle and came back across St. Charles, it was a scene similar to the Brooklyn Bridge. Borderline Times Square foot traffic.
This picture is overlooking Prague from the castle's side of the river early that morning.

I wrote that all during my first day of the trip in Prague, optimistically presuming I could give you all a play-by-play of my trip, and since I've realized it's going to be impossible for me to document all of my days; instead, I'll focus on highlights and special moments in each city.

Prague, Czech Republic

On the left is the Astronomical Clock in downtown Prague.
Gosh, what a beautiful city. What a BEAUTIFUL skyline illuminated across the river to the castle in the distance with St. Charles Bridge in the foreground. I found Prague to be hugely interesting for its rich history, as well as its general atmosphere. Prague felt a certain way to me. I can't really describe it... It's a quirky city. It's a city where I can picture Franz Kafka living and learning, and I can picture students storming Wenceslas Square to revolt against a communist regime. 

One of their most famous landmarks is their Astronomical Clock. It's special because it survived the World War II bombings, and it's one of the last of its kind. It's not special at all because each hour it performs one of the most anticlimactic jigs of all time, and hundreds of people (including us) crowd together to watch it. Our free tour guide, Annie, told us that it's actually ranked as the 2nd most underwhelming things(?) of all time next to the Mona Lisa. If that were a relevant claim, I would fact check it, but I think you get the point.

An attraction I was intent on visiting during my time in Prague was the Franz Kafka Museum. My Honors Scholars advisor, Dr. Browne, is a professor I greatly respect for his commitment to critical thinking and constant pursuit of learning; he wrote Honors Scholars an email last semester telling us the museum is one to see, and I'm so glad I followed his recommendation. I haven't studied any of Kafka's works in depth, but I'm just amazed by the man. What was going through his head? He's psychotic in a way that intrigues me intensely... I have so much to say about my visit to this museum, but for the sake of brevity I'll save it. Basically, do yourself the same favor I did, and visit if you're ever in Prague. Don't go within a couple hours of closing, though... The (potentially) crazy old lady working there will lock you in, turn off the lights, and mumble in Czech at you... Borderline terrifying. 
I think the entrance to the Franz Kafka Museum is intentionally this uninviting.
Like all good things, our time in Prague came to an end, and we headed over to Warsaw on an overnight Polskibus. Our friend, Rodrigo, had joked that our 5€ overnight Polskibus tickets might land us on buses with chickens, and I'm happy to announce no livestock boarded the bus. I'm also happy to announce that as I write this post at 3:54am on my way to Budapest I am on my last Polskibus trip for hopefully forever because these buses are unimaginably uncomfortable. They're worth it for the price, but self-respecting individuals (even college students) probably treat themselves to the 20€ buses in this part of Europe....
Kika and I at the John Lennon wall. 
All of the girls in the main square 
The Old Jewish Cemetery was just one part of the Jewish Quarter in Prague that we spent a good part of a day visiting.

Warsaw, Poland

After that super (un)pleasant overnight to Poland, we were all pleasantly surprised by the hostel when we arrived. We were able to go to our rooms and have showers, which was super nice and definitely unexpected since it was 8:30am and check-in wasn't until 2pm. Puffa Hostel Lux was also amazing because it had free coffee and super sweet receptionists. This hostel was inexpensive and well-located near the Old Town... 10/10 would recommend for anyone heading to Warsaw.

After we put ourselves together, we headed to the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. This museum was presented the 2016 European Museum of the Year award, so you can assume it was great. I'm constantly amazed by these museum curators. Every museum I've been to on this trip has been assembled in such an intricate, effective way. This museum was huge... When we left a friend mentioned we had been in the museum for 3 hours, and I honestly could've spent longer. For 10 zloty, about 2,5€ or $2.70, this museum was definitely worth the entrance. That's another awesome part of visiting Eastern Europe; all of these museums are so reasonably priced. With student and group discounts, we're really able to see so much even with tight budgets. (Sidenote here: self-five for finding friends who will want to pay to spend 5 hours a day in museums with me... it's not everyone's cup of tea.)
POLIN museum's European Museum of the Year Award symbol near the entrance
Unfortunately, our time in Warsaw was plagued by rainy days, which makes it really hard to enjoy the city when it's cold outside, too. Imagine rainy and cold fall football game weather minus the football game and hot chocolate. We went into the National Museum in Warsaw to hide from the rain... it was nice and worth the time, but so much of Warsaw was destroyed in the wars including its art, so it wasn't comparable to some of the museums I've seen recently. The museum was free though! We just got lucky that Tuesday is their free entrance day, so that was a fun victory amid a gloomy day.

Another notable part of this trip in general has been the food we've been enjoying. We're typically eating sit down meals at least once a day so we can experience the local cuisine, and I've yet to spend more than the equivalent of 10€ or $11 on a meal. I'm averaging more like 6€. If these restaurants had free water, I'd be skating out for $5-7 a meal easily. In Strasbourg this food would cost easily 20€ or about $22, maybe more, so this has been super nice. We also shop for travel meals and snacks at the groceries, so we pitch pennies there, too. I've also gotten pretty lucky with my estimates of currency to withdrawal.  I've needed to exchange for Czech Crowns and Polish Zlotys, and in both cases I budgeted between my card and my cash quite well so I left with less than a quarter worth of the currency. Hopefully I can say the same when I leave Budapest in a couple days, as I'll be back in the Eurozone once we hit Vienna.

Oh, and I got eyeliner and lipstick in Poland for less than 4€ (less than $4.40). I looked everywhere for this specific lipstick in the days before I left the U.S. in August, so this was a triple win, really. This seems like a small deal, but really this made my day.

Back to Warsaw... Our second day in Warsaw, after the art museum and a really tasty lunch, we walked through the rain in search of the last remaining wall of the Warsaw Ghetto. We had to ask for directions multiple times, and it was surprising to us that no one could point us in the right direction. Eventually we found the wall... it was very simply the edge of a parking lot. How crazy is that? The Warsaw Ghetto, the living hell for countless Poles and Polish Jews, is almost completely erased. Many of our friends laughed because of how long we walked to find this wall in the cold rain, and, while I have to agree it seemed underwhelming at first, I'm glad we went.
The plaque to commemorate the last remaining wall of the ghetto

Once we got back to the hostel, we had a quick turnaround to use the restrooms and head out for the bus station. We started in the direction of the wrong bus station (arriving and departing from different transportation hubs in the same city is always an added complication), but eventually we made it. Floris and I almost got left on a platform when the group told us to hop off then changed their mind, but years of agility training still pays off occasionally, I suppose. We both made it back on at the last second.

Eventually we made it onto the next leg of the journey. This Polskibus experience was nicer because the bus was essentially empty... We spread out and leaned all the way back in our chairs, and the bus ride from Warsaw to Krakow was actually quite a pleasant group nap-time.
The rain illuminated the square at night, so it was really beautiful to explore the city.
Our group in Warsaw's Old Town 
This is Warsaw's Parliament Building; it was just a block from our hostel.

Krakow, Poland

My friends and I lined around the "Kraków" letters
Since we arrived to Krakow in the evening, we were able to start our morning exploring the city. Krakow's Old Synagog, Stara Synagoga in Polish, with a Jewish museum inside was a preview to the focus of our time in Krakow. The weather was very pleasant, so we enjoyed our time looking through the city. There are a number of nice parks throughout the town, so I really enjoyed seeing all of the fall colors as we walked from our hostel to the main square.

The famous Schindler Factory with the Museum of Wartime Krakow was one highlight of my time in Krakow. We got super lucky because the day we visited was the last day it was open until 8pm for the "summer" season, which is the only reason we had time to fit it in. The museum was amazing, and I really left feeling like I had a much clearer understanding of the Jewish struggle in Krakow during WWII. There were quotes from children that  gave me goosebumps, and there were pictures that made me cringe. I definitely teared up at multiple points because of the words Jewish children wrote. One quote from a 5-year-old naively conveyed his dislike for the small space he was being forced to live in. A different quote from a 17-year-old too wisely conveyed his hopeless frustration with the beatings he had received. 

Our day trip to Auschwitz

"Work makes you free"
The day we visited Auschwitz was perplexing. It was emotionally draining, but not to the extent that I expected. I almost feel guilty admitting that it didn't hit me the way I thought it would. I didn't cry. There were times I could have, sure. A different day. Different mood. Maybe if my mom were there to hold my hand I would've let tears fall. I didn't want to cry though. I truly believe the events that took place at Auschwitz mark some of the greatest tragedies in history, but really the emotion I was experiencing wasn't sadness, it was quite simply disgust. My stomach turned as I learned what each building was used for. When I saw the room full of human hair, I felt my throats constricting. Looking at tired faces that lined a hallway documenting some of the first victims of Auschwitz, I felt a deep disgust that these human beings were reduced to the lifeless bodies I saw in the photographs.

When we went from Auschwitz I to Birkenau, it didn't feel real to look at the train tracks where the Jews would be carted in. Our tour guide was amazing. When she explained the selection process all I could think was how blessed I would retrospectively feel to die in the gas chamber within a few hours of arriving versus the alternative fate, living your expected 1-2 miserable months building the death camp that was the very instrument of your own murder. It's a twisted logic, but I really don't know how humans lived even a couple months like that. Again, as I recount my time in Auschwitz there's so much more I could or maybe should say, but this is all I have for you.
Auschwitz I main camp's Death Wall where countless victims were executed

This trip really proved to me that no matter how much I try to wrap my head around the Holocaust, the evil that occurred will always be incomprehensible to me. The fact that less than eighty years ago humans in first world countries committed this genocide... It's too much for me. I subconsciously fight the reality of the evil humans are capable of.

Krakow to Budapest was a miserable overnight bus. The trip was seven hours, and I'll optimistically guess I got two hours of sleep. I was mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausted, but my discomfort still managed to outweigh my need for rest. I thought our last overnight Polskibus was long gone, but I had been wrong. The only thing that brings me any comfort is knowing my friends who are over 6' tall definitely had a worse time than me. 

Sorry to end on a depressive note; I PROMISE I'll share stories about my amazing time in Budapest, Vienna, and Salzburg soon! 

Love, Jules
"Wander with wonder and the whole world becomes home" - Tyler Knott Gregson

P.S. Keep scrolling to see a number of photos that didn't make it into the body of this post :)

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