Monday, April 12, 2010

European Travels, Part II

Hey arrival in Kleinwasertal, Austria was early on Saturday evening. I wanted to get into the small ski town because it would be nice to have a place to stay for the Easter weekend. I was immediately brought to a tented, outdoor pub at the base of a giant mountain where I learned was the after-work hangout for ski instructors. My friend Ophi, is a ski instructor that I met while she was in Auburn last year and I was immediately welcomed into her small group of friends. Many spoke enough English combined with my little German so that conversation got easier as the night went on.

I was immediately given a great German beer and watched as people danced and sang to a DJ for the next hour. Obviously the party had been going on for a while and many of the instructors ended up on bar top and stools. Needless to say, my first couple hours in Austria might have been my favorite out of the entire trip. Both songs in German and English were played and it was sad that most of the Austrians/Germans knew English song lyrics much better than me when it came to songs like 'Nothing Else Matters' and 'Evacuate the Dance Floor.'

Sunday, April 4: Saturday night also allowed me to meet some really cool locals that were other ski instructors. Jonas (pronounced 'Yonus') who was Ophi's roommate, was a young 16-year-old German who was a really cool kid. He stayed out with us Saturday night (that's how they roll in Austria), and we ended up hanging out most of the night. Another guy about my age, Maurizio, has been living in Kleinwasertal most of his life and not only enjoys teaching people how to ski, but really just enjoys the simple things in life. Eccentric and happy, Maurizio is one of those guys you simply admire. He loves what he does, wouldn't change it for anything, and enjoys every single day with no exceptions. I think a lot of people could learn from Maurizio. Although I try to operate my life similarly, I feel meeting Maurizio really gave me an idea what kind of person I truly want to be. Although I just spent two nights getting to know him, I felt like whenever I go back there, he will be there still doing what he loves and happy to see a friendly face. He also had lots of good things to say about Amsterdam which would conclude my trip.

Easter Sunday (which really isn't even acknowledged by people as a holiday in this part of the world), was spent watching the snow fall and ended with a small gathering in the Iglu Bar. A small igloo-shaped bar of course, it did not take long for people to find out not only was there an American hanging around, but that I lived and went to school in Alabama. Almost any German or Austrian that found this out had the same first reaction; singing some lines from 'Sweet Home Alabama.' It didn't take long for the bartender to play that song of his laptop and the Iglu Bar was roudy after that. It was an early night for Monday was another travel day.

One thing Maurizio really made me realize is there are certain things I just need to do before I die. Backpacking Europe can be checked off. But he also inspired me to create my own list of things I must do or a bucket list if you will. I am sure everyone has these lists but writing them down is one thing, doing is the next. On the list, learning a foreign language....fluently. (Sidenote: DEFINITELY NOT Czech or Dutch).

Monday, April 5: I left the edge of the Alps around 7 in the morning to what was an amazing site. The morning after a little snow, the sun was rising and the 3000 meter high mountains seemed to get larger and larger as the fog and mist dispersed. However the goal for today was Prague. I took the train to Nuremberg, Germany, and then an express bus for a few hours to Prague in the Czech Republic. The weather the entire day was beautiful and sunny for the first time on my trip. I immediately hit up the tourist office in the train station where I immediately noticed that many people speak English. I walked into the tourist office and within five minutes, I had a map and a hostel booking and I was on my way. Sometimes things just are great when they are that easy.

After getting settled in the hostel and meeting a couple cool Belgians, I began seeing Prague as the sun settled. I set out to explore the different sites and many of my night pictures were from this night. I had heard that Prague was beautiful at night and it did not disappoint. I made my way through the brick streets and true to form, Prague could be the most historic, most well-preserved city in Europe. Especially in Eastern Europe with its history of war and violence, Prague is simply gorgeous. I eventually made my way into an open area where by daytime, is home to the local market with many food and souvenir vendors. However this night, people were out and about walking, talking, and just seeing the city. I walked by a gentleman that invited me to one of the local pub crawls. We all know what it means or we can figure out what is meant to go on a pub crawl. But here the pub crawl is an organized, touring of some of the local clubs and pubs with other travelers and more importantly, a way to meet the other travelers. Many of the organizers were American as well as many of the other travelers. For the first hour and a half we stayed at one place getting to know each other. Our little group consisted of almost complete strangers, all traveling by themselves. One guy was from Istanbul and one New Zealand. The rest of group were from different parts of the United States and Canada. We had a great time as the rest of the night we crawled through the city touring the pubs. Great times.

Tuesday, April 6: The next day I got out early, booked my overnight ticket to Amsterdam for that night, and began seeing the historic areas of the city. Mainly leading up to the Prague Castle, the north end of the city sits up overlooking the rest of the city and is actually kind of peaceful. Also, the views of the entire city from here are amazing. Again, graffiti accompanied some of these areas, but for the most part the day was gorgeous and so was the city. Evidence of the previous Soviet occupation and influence are still visible, although many icons such as the 300 foot statue of Stalin overlooking the city had been torn down or destroyed.

Wednesday, April 7: Night trains can be great, if you fall into the right situation. You do all your travel at night, get a bed, and end up in a new place in no time without wasting too much money and time traveling. Many of these compartments have 6 bunks in them and can get kind of crowded. I boarded the train just before sunset and enjoyed seeing Prague as we left the city. Michele was a Dutchman that was in my compartment with me and we talked for a while, heads and hands hanging out the window catching the breeze. I guess it's important to point out the reason we stood outside the compartments by the windows is we also shared a compartment with a Russian couple and their 3-month old baby. Obviously the situation wasn't ideal but although the kid had a hard time getting to sleep, once Michele and I got to bed it wasn't much of an issue.

Michele like my time with Maurizio, was amazing to talk to. Once a teacher of history, Michele has also done social work and now is involved in photography. We talked about how he liked all of those but if you don't do what you love, what is the point. I kind of related as I recently have been getting more into taking pictures (which will soon be up, I promise) not to mention questioning what exactly my next step should be in my career path.

Thursday, April 8: My arrival in Amsterdam like Prague, was to sunshine and high expectations. Besides my flight to Dublin the next day, this was really the end of my tour of Europe so I was excited to say the least. After a couple hours of getting myself oriented, I had yet another easy time finding a hostel to stay in. I went again, to a local tourist booth and in even less time then in Prague, I had a map, a hostel, and was walking to it with my now extremely heavy backpack. I came back a few hours later to check in and by that time, had gone and visited the Anne Frank museum. Really out of any of the sites, tours, or other features of the city, the Anne Frank house was one place as a history person, I really wanted to see. During World War II, Anne Frank and seven other Jews including her family hid in the back of a three story building masquerading as a business from the aggressive Nazis. The only entrance to their hidden abode was a bookcase covered hole in the wall and for months Anne and Co. had to live in silence and without sunlight in tight spaces. Eventually and it is still not sure by whom, the group was given up and all sent to concentration camps. Only Anne's father, Otto would survive Auschwitz. It was extremely disheartening and a reminder of the treatment of Jewish peoples in and around the rest of Europe.

Back at the hostel, after a shower I met another cool individual. As you can tell I have met a lot of cool people along the way but I finally met within the same hostel, another American traveler. Gordon from Denver, had been backpacking with his cousin and also by himself for over a month before getting to Amsterdam. He is a landscaper and I also learned, would someday like to run and own a restaurant (me too-bucket list) and make wood furniture. Extremely cool and slightly resembling my best friend in CT, Josh, Gordon and I immediately started our own Amsterdam pub crawl.

Amsterdam is completely night and day but some things are true all the time; you can smoke marijuana, prostitution is legal, and you canNOT drink beer in public places. We learned the latter that evening as we decided on sitting in the popular Dam Square, watching musicians singing their songs and decided on saving a few Euro and getting a couple drinks at the supermarket, and enjoying the sunset and the scenery in the square with our beers. We actually both were planning on a chill night and it was absolutely a great evening, just enjoying the weather and comfort of the new city; although the Polizei caught me with the beer (all I had to do was throw it away). Gordon and I shared a lot of stories and ideas and we hit it off immediately. We later made it back to the hostel, relaxing a while in the common area before going back out for one last pint. There was a little rain which allowed the clouds to drown out the reflection of the red neon lights projected into the sky.

Friday, April 9: The next morning I checked out of the hostel after a lovely breakfast, and Gordon and I made our way sort of aimlessly towards Vondelpark in the southern part of the city. The long park had many bike and walking paths as well as some other paths that were more 'off the beaten path.' Amsterdam is actually a city made for bikes and as Gordon kept saying, it's a lifestyle. Every time you cross a street not only do you need to watch for the cars and busses bearing down on you, but bikes are sometime even more of a danger. You can see the masses in some of the pictures. If time had allowed, I would have chosen to add a bike rental and a canal trip into my time in Amsterdam. The day started off pretty cool, but by the time we got to the park and took a seat, the sun came out to add to the string of gorgeous weather days I had been experiencing. After a lunchtime pint it was time to depart from Gordon as he was planning his next moves of his journey. I then made my way to the airport as I was going to spend a night in Dublin.

There is so much to see and do in these cities yet once you get there, you can't help but just enjoy the scene by just sitting and watching. Most of my joy in my time off (as it was a vacation) was sitting, relaxing, and observing. Sure there were trips to the museums and other sites lost, but just being there was enough for me at times. Of course solo backpacking trips are great and I would definitely do it again, but little moments shared with other friends you meet along the way make the trip even better.

In ten days I traveled through and to 6-7 different countries and spending quality time in 5 of them. Having the availability of the train system in Europe, as well as the cheap accommodations in hostels and other benefits for travelers, makes traveling Europe not only financially possible but fun. It was funny that during this time I read Stephen Fry's 'Stephen Fry in America.' A British comedian and actor, Stephen Fry brings his quirky comedic style in the form of a travel around the States; stopping and experiencing each one for a few days. Although his book (and also TV show) was not exactly reflecting my own experience, that combined with my tour of Europe not only made me more motivate to travel, but also to take more time to see what else my own country has to offer. I think I have a lot of experience when it come to the East Coast however, besides one short trip to San Francisco, I have only seen a fraction of what the United States has to offer, especially west of the Mississippi. Now I can add I have only seen a fraction of what Europe and the rest of the world has to offer. Was it an amazing experience and a fun time? Of course, but it was also far from complete.

Living in Ireland has also helped with this feelings towards traveling and in a way, I can see why it is harder to travel within our own American borders as it is often harder and more expensive to make it to other places. This is true for Europe too although you have cheaper options in hostels and public transportation there. Traveling does take money and I think you know how blessed I am for having this chance. However, if you get a chance to go somewhere, anywhere, in Europe or not, why not take it? I was surprised, challenged but most importantly, delighted by the unknown I came across in Europe.

I have one more week in Ireland, and I will surely make the most of it. This is not me saying goodbye, yet. I will be slightly saddened by leaving my friends in Ireland and in other parts of Europe behind when I head back to the United States. However, the places to see in America are waiting for me when I come back.

Look for photos and a few more updates in the next week. I actually have some work to do but I have some good things planned for the final week. Enjoy your week, I know I will.


Song of the day: 'Black or White' by Michael Jackson

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