I will be home in less than two months. Wow. And yikes.
On to the promised Vienna and Budapest blog! Good luck getting through the whole thing...it's reeeeally long. Sorry.
On Friday, April 3, 2009, I embarked on what would surely become THE BEST FIVE DAYS OF MY LIFE. After packing about twenty minutes before we left, we all got to the train station and departed on the Expedition Bus. "This bus has been to the Arctic Circle and the Scandinavian countries, so don't worry," says Petr. (Can I just start calling him Ptr? Let's save all the E's, why don't we?) "Aaaand the seats fold down into bunk beds, so if you have need of a nap, we can arrange it. I have never seen...such a bus." And if only you could all hear these things with Ptr's crazy Czech accent and strange vampire-esque inflection, you would surely laugh as hard as we all did on the Such-a-Bus.
Oh, the things that man does. Come to think of it, what exactly DOES that man do? (Here comes the Thnikkaman!) Points if you get that crazy reference (except for Rachel, who darn well better get it.) http://www.homestarrunner.com/sbemail97.html
So our first stop was Divci kamen castle ruins, about 2 hours away from Prague. We went on a beautiful hike through the woods and met the famous Geiger, who is a friend of Jan and Petr's and has been involved with USAC for 6 years. He just got back from traveling in Mexico and the US, which is weird. I mean, it seems so strange that Europeans take THE big trip of their lives to America. We saw some excellent ruins and climbed all over the walls. The nice thing about lesser known sites in Europe is that you can do a lot more - I mean, you can't even get close to Stone Henge or a lot of the castle ruins in Britain, but we climbed the walls and raced through the grounds and we were the only people there. It was awesome. After the castle, Geiger offered to hike to Cesky Krumlov with anyone who wanted to. It meant missing the castle and town tour, but as I'd already been to Cesky Krumlov twice, I didn't really mind. (That's right, this blog includes, for the third time in as many entries, CESKY KRUMLOV! I was there Again. It is a great place, but really, my trips there have been getting a little excessive.)
So Geiger took Sarah, Casey, Jill and I on a really nice walk through the countryside. We found out that Geiger is his last name; he goes by Geiger because his first name is something that starts with a K and ends with Too Many Consonants, and no Americans can pronounce it, apparently. We stopped at a monastery called Zlata Koruna (Golden Coin, weird name for a monastery), saw a couple of tiny towns, then took a really sloooow train into town. We met up with our group at an outdoor terrace restaurant, and listened to this crazy man Bryce talk about Cesky Krumlov while we had a beer. This guy ended his talk by asking who among us took "happy pills", and I became convinced that his "happy pills" didn't mix too well with his two beers. Strange man.
That night we had dinner at the Eggenberg brewery. I ate fish for the first time (and probably last) of the semester, and talked to Petr about American politics and his favorite states in America (he likes Texas. We maybe can't be friends anymore). After dinner, Petr and Geiger took us to a dance club and dance we did. My friend Allie has started calling USAC "camp" and I think it's pretty accurate. We do very little school and very much awesome stuff. Jan and Petr and Geiger are probably the best counselors ever, but I want to know when we're going canoeing.
The next morning, we got up early to go to Vienna! And about five minutes after we got on the bus, Petr told us that if we were hungry, there was cheese and bread on the bus...and he was not kidding. The biggest block of cheese I have ever seen. I have never seen...such a cheese.
So we got to Schonbrunn Palace at around 11:00 - it's a "summer palace" and the first thing we saw was this large, one-room structure that was apparently used only for breakfast. The emperor would ride his horse up the hill for breakfast in this huge elaborate room. A bit ridiculous. But still pretty. We saw some Roman ruins and a spring, and it was HOT outside. Hot. Seriously - the sun was with us the whole trip. It was amazing.
After Schonbrunn, we had schnitzel at a restaurant and I was sitting next to Petr again somehow. He told us the cooks in the restaurant put ketchup on our plates because we're American and they just assumed that we would want ketchup. I had some kind of delicious strawberry drink with my meal...can't remember what it was called (some German word), but man, it was tasty. We also had one of the funniest moments of our entire trip when Petr asked us what our favorite Czech words were. I said mine was "škrtl" because of all the consonants, and he then told us the longest Czech word with no vowels at all: ČTVRTHRST. And that was hilarious enough, but THEN he tried to explain what it means: "When you are forming something...by flicking...something." We died laughing, all of us, and I still have no idea what the heck he meant.
After lunch we went to our hostel and then walked through the city. We went up Mariahilfer Strasse, a huge shopping street, and through the Museums Quarter, through Maria Theresa Platz and the Hofburg residence and it was gorgeous. Much, much prettier than I remembered three years ago. I absolutely loved Vienna. Near Stephansplatz, John and Allie and I broke from the group and got ice cream, after seeing a bunch of people with ice cream cones going the opposite way. Then we got pizza from a stand on Mariahilfer Strasse where the guys who owned the place said, "You are from America! From New York, no? No? I live in New York once! I love America! You are American!" And it was delicious pizza.
After the pizza, several of us went to the Austrian equivalent of a Czech Herna bar (nonstop) because it was the only darn thing open on a Saturday night. What's up with that, may I ask? It was only 10:30, and nothing was open. Laaaame. Anyway, we drank a Radler (half beer, half lemon soda?) and went back to our hostel, where we were talking in very not-loud tones when the hostel owner came outside, freaking out that some neighbor was going to call the police. So our night in Vienna was a bit lame. But the days were great.
We went to the Belvedere to see an Alfons Mucha exhibit the next day. There's a permanent Mucha exhibition in Prague that isn't very cool, and this one in Vienna put it to shame. They had the most gorgeous piece of jewelry I've ever seen http://img0.liveinternet.ru/images/attach/b/3/19/533/19533972_Pendant_Cascade__Vers_1900.jpg
Though that hardly does it justice. They also the second panel of his gigantic "Slav Epic" which was very cool. I bought the coolest souvenir ever - a wooden bottle opener shaped like a mushroom. It's sweet.
After the Belvedere, we had time to do whatever, so some of us had Sachertorte (sorry Rachel, not as good as I thought it'd be...I feel bad for not loving it...) and then I went back to Maria Theresa Platz and slept in the grass for half an hour, which was indescribably glorious. Being able to sleep in the grass outside after so many months of snow and rain and cold was AMAHZING. I felt so good and just plain happy when I woke up.
We stopped by Hundertwasser Haus on our way our of Vienna and used the "Toilet of Modern Art". Auf wiedersehen, Vienna!
Then suddenly, we were in Budapest, which I like to refer to, affectionately, as Crazytown. Evidence:
1. Hungarian. Is. The Weirdest. Language. Ever. It is called a "Finno-Ugric language", which basically means, "Good luck learning this if you weren't born speaking it." Yes, I complain about Czech being crazy, but it's got nothing on Hungarian. Check out a few sample phrases: Jo napot! Szervusz! Viszontlatasra! Nem beszelek magyarul. Fizetek! WHAT?!
2. Budapest looks suspiciously like Vienna. Here I am picturing it all crazy and full of gypsies, but no. Very like Vienna.
3. Their currency is called the Forint, and the conversion is approximately $1=228 forints. HOW am I supposed to figure that out in my head, may I ask!?
4. Spas. Many spas. Old people in speedos and bikinis.
Anyway though, Crazytown is really cool. We had the most delicious soup EVER, which we all know is enough to make me happy - it was some kind of peppers and carrots and potatoes and beef concoction...so good. A Hungarian friend of Geiger's, Rikard, showed us around the castle at night, we learned that Budapest is actually Buda and Pest, two towns, and that Buda is the cool side. Then we sat for many hours with Geiger and Rikard and watched the Danube River flow by, our feet dangling over a highway...
The next day, Sarah, Casey, Allie and I went with Geiger in the early morning (7:00!) to a really cool pool and swam for an hour. It was weird, it was inside some old hotel with really nice architecture. Very cool. Then we ate an amazing breakfast at our hotel (Hungarians know their food) and went to another SPA. Luckily for me, this one was not so into the nudity, though there were enough old Hungarian men in Speedos that I'm certain my eyes are scarred forever. But it was warm enough to lay out! And get SUNBURNED!! I never thought I'd be so excited about the ability to get burned. Loved it.
April and I actually ate at TGI Friday's after the spa...I'm a bit ashamed, but you know what - it was delicious, I actually got a refill on my drink for free, and I don't regret it. Something you have to know about studying abroad - it's something of a mark of shame if you admit to going to Starbucks or McDonald's or TGI Friday's and liking it, especially somewhere like Prague, where it's very possible to avoid American chain restaurants due to the influence of Communism and stuff (especially Starbucks, the first one didn't even come to Prague until 2006). So even though there's a stigma attached, I'm okay with admitting my transgression :-)
Ji Min and I went to a market later that day and saw a Hungarian folk band play. They got a bunch of people from the crowd to dance, and it was all kinds of adorable. I never say no to bagpipes. That night, some of us went to a bar called Morrison's, and it was probably pretty cool, but so crowded that I wanted to DIE. I don't think I've been in a more crowded place.
In the morning, after another delicious breakfast, we went to Slovakia. Now, I love Slovakia, but not Bratislava. There's really nothing there. The castle's under repair, the "Old Town" is tiny, and the whole city has none of that Eastern European charm I've grown so accustomed to. But one cool thing - I was asking Rikard about the differences between Slovaks and Hungarians, and as we were talking, he pointed a man out and said, "Oh, that's the former prime minister of Slovakia," and then continued with his story. Kind of crazy.
After uneventful Bratislava, we went to Devin Castle, right outside of Bratislava, and it was awesome. There's a huge well that you're supposed to pour water in and then make a wish before it hits the bottom. It takes about 7 seconds. Insane. My group made me sing into the well, which was, for me, one of the best moments of the trip. I sang Killing Me Softly and made people join in on the chorus...it was really cool. I don't know how to explain it except to say that it was really cool.
Then we headed back to Prague. It was an insanely awesome trip. I'm sorry this entry was so long, and I'll post a link to some pictures soon.