Final Days

Sadly, I haven’t been very good about keeping everyone posted about what I’ve been up to for the last week or so. I have several theories behind why this may be:

I really haven’t been up to much.
I’ve been trying to catch everyone up on my awesome spring break (finally accomplished, by the way).
I’ve been busy sharing memories and sentiments with everyone here as our time dwindles.
I’ve been packing.
This has actually been a dream the whole time. I’ve never been to Ireland, no one’s read any of my blogs, and I’ve discovered the hole in the Matrix just in time to wake up on my trans-Atlantic flight and punch Leonardo DiCaprio in the face for invading my subconscious.

None of that made the least bit of sense and I mixed at least two different movie plots, so let’s just agree that I’m  sleep deprived.

The truth is it’s a combination of those things (except packing…that didn’t happen until a few hours ago), but a lot of it also has to do with denial. I keep talking to Mo about stuff we’re planning to do when we get back home, and she keeps referring to home as “real life.” This got me thinking, which all of you know is an extremely dangerous past time of mine, but it’s actually not a bad comparison. The last four months have gone by amazingly fast, and it never really sank in that I was here. Obviously I’ve had an unbelievably great time, but I never had a blinding “Aha!” moment where everything stopped and it hit me that I’m in Ireland. It always seemed way too good to be true and so it couldn’t possibly be real. Now our time is up and it’s back to reality.

At the same time, I don’t think it’s completely fair to call everything about the trip a fantasy. Everyone got a little something different out of it. Some of us built friendships, some adapted to culture, some shopped, some partied, some traveled, and some hiked. Some of us found out Ireland wasn’t everything they thought it would be, and some people found more than they ever thought they could. We all learned about the culture and the economy and correlation between the two, but I’d like to think we all learned more about ourselves in one semester than we would have in four years in Dubuque, which is certainly much more than we would have learned from something that wasn’t real.

And there it is–the real reason I’ve been putting this off. I think I finally had that epiphany I’ve been looking for; I’ve been living my dream for four solid months and I didn’t want to believe that it’s real because dreams can live forever. Writing this post means that it was real and that now it’s all over.

I am very excited to go home. I want to see my family and my friends and carry on with my life, but these were maybe some of the most important months of my life, and I’m sad to see them go.

This will most likely be my last post from Ireland. Anders, Ashley, Danielle, Kelsey, Matt, Mo, and Rob will be leaving around 3am tomorrow morning to get to the airport for their 6am flight to Amsterdam and then Chicago. Libby and I will head out to New York around 10am, and get back to Minneapolis at 6:30pm. We’re spending our last night together getting a pint at Ryan’s, the pub that started it all. It will be sad to see everyone go, but it’s nice knowing that everyone will be on campus next year, and that we had all this time to get to know each other.

After four amazing months and ten different countries it’s time to cram my life back into a couple suitcases and say good-bye.

Later Ireland, it’s been real.

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Spring Break Pt. 5: Rome

29 April 2011
We said good-bye to Libby early in the morning and wished her luck in Dubrovnik, then spent the rest of the day travelling first from Vienna to Villach by train, where we caught a bus to Venice, and then another train to Rome. The entire journey took just under 12 hours, and the three of us were tired and looking forward to checking into the Vesta Residence, the guest house we had booked, and then meeting Danielle, Ashley, and Rob for dinner. Unfortunately, our guest house was less of a bed and breakfast and more of a vacant apartment in a building located far out of city center and in the center of a really sketchy neighborhood. We felt uneasy to begin with, passing under a freeway and viewing the extensive collection of swastika graffiti on and around the building, and felt more and more unsafe as we walked back to the train station to meet Danielle. We agreed to check Danielle’s hostel for openings when we got there, but it was full for some of the nights we were staying in Rome and was extremely expensive for the nights there were vacancies. Luckily for us, Rob was staying at another hostel the next street over, which had plenty of room for us for not bad prices. This is how Anders, Kelsey, and I ended up checking into The Yellow, and only spending one night in the Roman ghetto.

Though the Vesta was still a nicer option than the place next door.

30 April 2011
We moved out of the guest house the very first thing and got our stuff to the Yellow, where we had breakfast and met Rob. We left with the intention of going to the Colosseum, but got a block out of the hostel when we ran into Matt and Mo, who skipped Venice and come to Rome three days early. We took them to our hostel to get rooms, then finally headed out to the Colosseum. We paid for a two-part tour so we could jump the line (a two hour wait), and also get into the Roman Forum before it closed. The Colosseum is truly an amazing piece of ancient architecture, but due to people recycling materials and stealing metal supports, it has seen better days.

The whole no roof thing also makes it not weatherproof.

From the Colosseum we trekked to the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill, which is the location of the ruins of the second largest palace ever built by a Roman emperor. It also had an amazing view of the city, both ancient and modern. We grabbed lunch at a pasta place (where else?) then hit up the Pantheon and the Trevi Fountain, and managed to throw some coins in, despite the hordes of tourists packed around it. We hung out in the hostel bar and played cards for awhile, then went to bed pretty early because we had to leave the hostel at 5am the next morning.

1 May 2011
As promised, 5am sharp I was out the door with Kelsey, Matt, Mo, and Rob on our way to St. Peter’s Square to see the Beatification of Pope John Paul II, also known as John Paul the Great, John Paul the Bad Ass, and after the ceremony, Blessed John Paul. For my non-Catholic readers (or Catholic readers who didn’t make it quite that far in Sunday School), Beatification is recognition by the Catholic Church of a dead person’s entrance into Heaven and their capacity to intercede on behalf of individuals who pray in his or her name.  It’s the third of the four steps of Canonization, which is the process of declaring someone a saint. Basically, Bl. JPII is one postmortem miracle away from being St. John Paul.
We arrived at the Vatican right around 6am, and stood with 1.5 million of our closest (and I do mean closest) friends. We stood in a line to get onto the avenue in front of St. Peter’s Basilica for around an hour and a half. Italian guards would periodically let people through (except for nuns, who quite literally walked through like they owned the place, which in a sense I suppose they do), but stopped letting people through when we got to the front of the line. Luckily for us, the impatient mob behind us attempted to gate rush, causing all the guards to leave the front of the line to stop them, allowing us to leisurely walk in. We spent the next few hours getting closer and closer to the square, and once they opened the gates to the square, we were able to get amazing spots in the square and near the aisle, which is why I can officially say that I have attended and received Eucharist at a Papal mass in St. Peter’s Square.

So amazing.

It was a beautiful service celebrated in Latin, Polish, Italian, German, Spanish, and English, which was only a tad confusing at times. The weather, which had been predicted to be in the low 60s and thunder storming, was around 73° and sunny with only a few fluffy clouds and just a very slight breeze, which I would say is solid proof God was pretty happy about what was going on.

After the ceremony we managed to squeeze our way out of the crowd without too much of a problem and made it back to the hostel around 2pm. We were all ravenous and ate mass amounts of pizza and pasta at the restaurant next to the Yellow, and then enjoyed a few drinks and cards at the bar, happy not to be completely surrounded by people still.

2 May 2011
Kelsey and I slept in a little bit, but after a quick breakfast in the bar headed out to see the Spanish Steps. The steps, which are near the Piazza de Spagna and the Spanish embassy are some sort of monument built with donated funds from a French diplomat in the 1700s. To be perfectly honest, I have no idea what their significance or history are at all, and only know what I just told you because I browsed its Wikipedia page right before I started typing.

There's also an obelisk, which I'm sure is relevant in some way.

We walked back to a piazza near our hostel where we met Anders as well as a walking tour of the Vatican advertised by our hostel. We were joined by five other college students from Canada, London, and Hong Kong and headed out on a four hour tour that included the history of sites like the Bridge of Angels, Castel sant’Angelo, St. Peter’s Basilica, and the actual Vatican Hill. Our guide was well-educated and knew what he was talking about, but he was also funny and young so he made everything much more applicable to college aged kids. We went to the Vatican Museum, known for its extensive art collection, and most famously, the Sistine Chapel.

Look familiar?

The chapel was beautiful, both for the ceiling and The Last Judgment, Michaelangelo’s other painting in the chapel, which takes up the entire wall behind the altar.
After the tour I was hoping to go into St. Peter’s, but the basilica was unfortunately closed for the duration of our stay in Rome due to the Beatification and services going on for that. I was pretty disappointed, but now I have a reason to go back!

This marks the end of our spring break. We made it home without a problem, and I’m so glad that it was such a great trip. It was definitely a long time to be on the move, but I’m so glad I did it, and I loved every minute of it!

Spring Break Pt. 4: Vienna

26 April 2011
We arrived to the train station quite a bit before our train left so we got to hang out in the Prague train station for a few hours before boarding our train (which had Hogwarts Express-style compartments). We arrived in Vienna in the mid-afternoon and got to our hostel, Wombat City Hostel, to check in and get settled. It was a very nice hostel, definitely aimed at college students, complete with laundry facilities, breakfast bar, and the WomBar, which had signs boasting “Happy Hour 6-8pm! Beer one f***ing euro!” We ate dinner and had a few drinks at the hostel then headed to bed to be well-rested for our first full day in Vienna.

27 April 2011
We  got to sleep in for the first time all break, and after breakfast headed out to Schönbrunn Palace, the summer home of the Hapsburgs, and childhood home of Marie Antoinette.

From this to Versailles...well played, Antoine.

We explored the extensive gardens, navigated ourselves through a hedge maze, and viewed the privy garden before touring the royal apartments inside the palace and learning the history of members of the royal family and the emperors of the Austro-Hungarian and Holy Roman Empires. We also saw a demonstration of the royal bakers making their famous apple strudel, which is delicious in case you were wondering.

After Schönbrunn I went with Kelsey and Libby to see St. Stephen’s Dome, the massive cathedral in city center. It’s still a Catholic cathedral, which is actually pretty rare in a lot of places around Europe, and was very pretty on the inside.
For dinner, we went to a traditional Austrian restaurant recommended in Libby’s guidebook and tried the famous Wiener Schnitzel, which is fried pork, turkey, or veal, served with lemon and German potato salad.

It's delicious beyond belief.

28 April 2011
We slept in a little bit again and after breakfast Kelsey, Libby, and I took the U-Bahn into city center to see Hofburg Palace, the Hapsburg’s city residence. Much of the palace is dedicated to the extensive silver and dining ware collections, as well as the Sisi Museum, which chronicles the life of the Empress Elisabeth, wife of Emperor Franz Josef. There was also a tour of the royal apartments. It was a bit redundant having been to Schönbrunn the day before, but it was still a very interesting look at the Hapsburgs. From Hofburg we went to the Parliament building for a tour, only to discover it was closed for session, and wouldn’t reopen until the following week.

An impressive building for an impressive Parliament.

We got lunch from a street vendor (amazing bratwurst hot dogs served in a mini baguette) and dessert from a nearby gelateria, before walking to the World War II memorial, and taking the tram out to the Zentral Cemetery, the final resting place of Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Strauss, and the memorial to Mozart (who rests in a mass grave in another cemetery). We went back to the hostel and met Anders for dinner and drinks, then packed and got to bed early. Tomorrow would be spent traveling all day to Rome!

Spring Break Pt. 3: Prague

23 April 2011
Our time in Berlin came to a close and we were off early on our train to the Czech Republic.  We arrived in Prague in the late afternoon, got transport passes, exchanged currency (they’re not part of the EU, so they’re on the Czech Krona), and found our hostel. The Riverside Hostel, aptly named as it was right on the river, had the air of an abandoned building that had beds in some of the rooms, but was still a nice and secure place, though the beds were a little more than uncomfortable. Once we were settled, we walked around the city, checking out Old Town, taking pictures, and battling the hordes of tourists populating the Charles Bridge.

The capturing of this picture was immediately followed with me getting mowed down by a group of nuns.

Once we made it across the river we found Our Lady Victorious, the Catholic Cathedral of Prague, and found they had an English service the following day at noon, then found a nearby restaurant for dinner. Ferdinand’s was a hole-in-the-wall (or possibly hole-in-the-floor) Czech restaurant located underground in a refurbished cellar of some retail buildings that had been built in the 1800s. They had awesome food like goulash with Czech dumplings, blue cheese encrusted pork tenderloin, and goat cheese and honey sirloin for amazing prices (none of our meals were over €8), proving once again that Europe isn’t all that expensive if you’re in the right places. We returned to the hostel to play cards and hang out, as well as make each other Easter baskets, which mainly consisted of candy, cereal bars, and beer purchased at the corner store.

24 April 2011
We were up early so we could get some sightseeing done before mass. We first walked to a church that houses the botanical garden of Prague, which was pretty, though after seeing the massively sprawling gardens of Berlin, it was a little bit of a let down. We then walked back into Old Town to see the Astronomical Clock.

More than a clock.

The clock, which was first installed in 1410, measures the earth’s location in reference to the Equator, the Tropic of Cancer, and the Tropic of Capricorn, siderial time, the average revolutions of the moon, average solar ecliptic, planetary time, the zodiac, the location of the observer, estimates the times of sunrise, daybreak, daylight, sunset, twilight, and the astronomical night, and displays the time on a 24-hour clock that also reads in Ancient Czech. Granted, I have no idea how to read most of that information, but it makes your Timex seem pretty worthless, doesn’t it?

We went up into the tower and got an amazing panoramic view of the entire city, which boasts a better preserved original skyline that a lot of central Europe because it was largely spared from any air raids during the second World War.

Pictured: Original Architecture.

After the stunning view, Kelsey, Libby, and I took a tram across the river to get seats for mass. We were treated to a lovely service inside the beautiful cathedral which in addition to being the only Catholic Cathedral in Prague, houses a famous statue of the baby Jesus ensuring dozens of tourists walking partially down the center aisle during mass to take pictures and leave. We met Anders back at Ferdinand’s for lunch, and spent the rest of the day exploring Old Town and a park overlooking the river.

25 April 2011
We were up early again, though this time faced with a gray drizzle rather than spectacular sunshine, and made our way to Prague Castle, home to Kings of Bohemia, Holy Roman Emperors, and offices to presidents of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic.

It's a royally good time.

It’s also the largest ancient castle, and one of the largest castles in the world. We were able to tour St. Vitus’ Cathedral, the Basilica of St. George, and the royal apartments. We also saw the changing of the guards, and a suit of chain mail in the gift shop for about €2,000.

After the castle, we walked through a large park, had lunch, and took a tram to the top of a large hill where the mini-Eiffel Tower observation tower is located. We decided not to pay to go up into the tower since it was so cloudy and foggy, and instead went to a mirror-maze funhouse and witnessed several children running full speed into their reflections.

We spent the evening packing up again and playing even more cards. Tomorrow, Vienna!

Spring Break Pt. 2: Berlin

20 April 2011
We caught our train out of Amsterdam bring and early from Central Station around 8:30am, and arrived in Berlin in the early evening. We got our transport tickets and found our hostel, Grand Hostel Berlin, without a problem and soon discovered that it was an amazing hostel. It was nicer than many hotels I’ve stayed at, had a bar with €1 beer Happy Hour, offered tours of different sites in the area, and is the cheapest hostel we booked for the entire trip. Amazing.

It wasn't bad looking, either.

We went out to dinner at a nearby traditional German restaurant to get our fix of the local cuisine, and after ordering two frankfurters with kraut and a beer, I realized that Europe isn’t actually all that expensive — I had just been visiting some of the most expensive places in Europe. Go figure. We were all pretty tired so we went to bed early, and were excited for our plans for the following days!

21 April 2011
We got to sleep in a little bit and enjoy a nice breakfast in the hostel lounge, then left with a tour group from the hostel to see Sachsenhausen, a concentration camp 35km north of Berlin. The camp was mainly used for political prisoners and Russian POWs from 1936 until it was liberated by Soviet troops in 1945, but also held Jews, homosexuals, and common criminals. It was used to train SS officers who went on to posts at Dachau, Auschwitz, and Bergen-Belsen, and has been estimated that 30,000 some prisoners died from exhaustion, malnutrition, and pneumonia, or were executed. After the end of the war, the camp was used as a Soviet prison for criminals and suspected fascists. In a word, the entire place was kind of eerie.

The worst part was the quiet.

We saw everything in the camp, from where prisoners worked and slept to where they were executed and buried. It definitely wasn’t the most fun experience, but it was fascinating and I’m really glad we did it.
After the tour was over, we took the train back into Berlin and went to the Pergamon Museum, which is basically a building full of stolen buildings. The museum boasts many finds from various excavations including the entrance to a 3rd century marketplace from modern day Iraq, the walls and gate from the entrance to the city of Babylon, and the Pergamon (for which the museum is named), an entire Greek temple cut out of a hillside in Turkey.

It's not stealing, it's borrowing. Forever.

It was very cool, albeit a little bizarre, to see these amazing structures in the middle of Berlin. We went back to the hostel for Happy Hour and got Döner kebaps for dinner from Mustafa’s kebap stand, which had been recommended by every single staff member at the hostel, and turned out to be amazing despite the fact that I’m still not completely sure what a kebap is.

22 April 2011
After our meatless Good Friday breakfast, we set off an a rather indirect route to the Berlin botanical garden, which happens to be the 3rd best in Europe, and was absolutely beautiful. From there we rode the train to the Brandenburg Gate where we had planned to join a free walking tour. I was impressed with the gate, though it is a lot smaller than it tends to look in pictures or on TV.

Still awesome.

We found the walking tour we were looking for, though it unfortunately was made up of easily 150 people. Since we had a pretty detailed map with all the landmarks we wanted to see, we went off on our own walking tour. We saw one of the many Holocaust memorials, the “Topography de Terror” (the largest remaining original piece of the Berlin Wall which has an outdoor museum chronicling the history of Berlin from the rise of the Nazis to the fall of the wall), and Checkpoint Charlie (the third and final checkpoint travelers had to go through to cross into Berlin from East Berlin). From there we went to Alexanderplatz, home to the radio needle, Neptune’s fountain, and the Alexanderplatz world clock (featured in the Bourne trilogy).

Jason Bourne, however, did not have to deal with Topography de Terror.

We grabbed a quick lunch (sushi!), then Danielle and Libby went to see the Berliner Dome, and Anders, Kelsey, and I went to the DDR Museum, which does not detail the history of foot-based video games, but rather the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (German Democratic Republic) under Soviet rule. It was a very interesting and interactive exhibit that chronicled nearly every aspect of life during that time.

Afterwards, we came back to the hostel to say good-bye to Danielle, who was leaving to meet Ashley in Paris. We all got packed up and went to bed early, all ready to leave for Prague in the morning.

Spring Break Pt. 1: Amsterdam

I am sorry to say that I did not write about my adventures as soon as I would have like to, but it has been a crazy couple of weeks and I was busy doing laundry and running around Dublin. Better late than never though, right?

Right?

Without further ado, my adventures of Spring Break 2011.

17 April 2011
We were up by 3:30am to catch the 4:00am bus to the airport. The flight went smoothly and peacefully (it wasn’t Ryan Air), and arrived on time at about 8:45am local time in Amsterdam. We took a train to Central Station where we got our Holland Pass for sightseeing, our 72-hour transport passes, and booked a ticket for our train from Amsterdam to Berlin. The Holland Pass is a really nice deal that I would recommend. With the pass you get five tickets that get you into five sites or museums of your choice for free, and the pass gets you discounts to other sites and even restaurants. We checked into our hostel, the Hotel Annemarie, conveniently located just across the street from a tram stop and the park with the “I amsterdam” sign.

There was also a museum of some sort, but check out the sign!

We grabbed lunch at a highly-rated café from our guide book which wasn’t actually that good, then Anders, Danielle and Libby went to see the Anne Frank house, and Kelsey and I walked around and checked out the city.

18 April 2011
We started off the morning taking pictures with the “I amsterdam” sign because it wasn’t swarming with tourists at 8:00am. We walked to the Van Gogh Museum a few blocks away and waited for it to open (we may have had a deck of cards). None of us know a whole lot about art, and some of us don’t actually like art at all, but I thought it would be a really interesting exhibit, and Anders was very excited to see Starry Night. If you ever travel to Amsterdam and decide to go to the Van Gogh Museum, it should be mentioned that Starry Night is actually located in a museum in New York City. After exploring four floors of paintings of different periods, we took a tram to Sloate, a suburb of Amsterdam, to tour a windmill. Holland is known for it’s many windmills, and it was actually very cool.

And literally in the middle of a suburb.

We came back into Amsterdam to grab a quick lunch and then go to the House of Bols. If you travel to Amsterdam, this is an absolute must. Bols is the name of a liquor known as genever, which is only distilled in Holland. It’s a cousin of gin (the British actually invented gin trying to mimic genever), comes in a variety of flavors, and has an amazing interactive tour experience that envelopes all five of your senses. The end of the tour ends in the mirrored bar with a free cocktail and two free shots of your choice (some of the 36 flavors include apricot, amaretto, blood orange, butterscotch, espresso, kiwi, and vanilla just to name a few).

And they're pretty.

Sadly Bols is sold in very few places in the US, so seriously stop by if you’re ever in Amsterdam.

19 April 2011
For our last day in Amsterdam we started the morning with a boat tour of the canal. A lot of the sites were extremely interesting and the architecture is beautiful, but the tour itself was actually pretty disappointing. The “guide” was just a bad tape recording that drifted between three or four different languages which made it hard to get information or even pay attention. I did get some cool pictures though.


After the cruise, Danielle and Libby rented a paddle boat and had their own adventure navigating the canals (they got hopelessly lost for about four hours), while Anders, Kelsey, and I checked out the “Amsterdam Dungeon,” an indoor theme park of sorts that explores horrible history and the supernatural of the Middle Ages. It was sort of like an educational haunted house that ended with a roller coaster, and was accompanied by hysterical German teenagers who were awfully afraid of the dark.

Kelsey and I decided to do authentic cuisine for lunch and I got a Dutch omelet, which is a massive omelet served on a ciabatta roll and was the first and probably only meal I actually enjoyed in Amsterdam. After lunch we went to a canal house that was once home to an extremely wealthy and powerful family in Amsterdam in the early 1800s. It was a beautiful house with a great garden where I got to see my first tulips since arriving in Holland.

Fun Fact: It's illegal to pick them.

That evening we walked around the city for a little while to see some of the “night life” phenomenon, which were certainly much different than anything we were used to. We headed back to the hostel to pack up our things and get to bed so we could be up early for our train. Next stop, Berlin!

I’m Back!

Hello my wonderful readers! Hopefully you haven’t missed me too much these last two weeks…though I’m also hoping you haven’t found yourselves better off without my insights into daily life here in Ireland.

Anyway, I made it back safe and sound from our fantastic spring break trip, and as I am currently busy unpacking, doing laundry, uploading pictures, and looking around my kitchen for any semblance of food, I will write all about it tomorrow. In the meantime, please enjoy this pictorial preview.

Ayyy.