Mid-Trip Reflections

It’s so crazy to think that I have been in Tel Aviv for almost three months now! And by that I mean both “Oh my god it’s been three months?” and “WHAT I only have three months left?!?!” When I left my home in Colorado at the end of June I had no clue what I had really signed up for, other than the classic Israeli stereotypes I had gathered on my 10-day trip to the country last December.  As I boarded my plane from New York to Tel Aviv, the sense of beginning a six-month stay in the great unknown was overwhelming. Perhaps if I had known how quickly Tel Aviv would seem like home, I would have been more at ease.

What are some fun facts about Israel? The time difference from here to the east coast is 7 hours. The Israeli weekend is Friday and Saturday because of Shabbat, so the week starts on Sunday. That’s probably what took the most time to get used to, and even still sometimes I get really confused about what day it is. The mediterranean is super beautiful and the beach always crowded. The main beach is a quick bus or Shirut ride away from my campus. Shiruts are shared taxis, they cost roughly the same amount as the bus but they drop you off wherever you need on its set route. Tel Aviv is a wonderful, vibrant, and beautiful city that I quickly fell in love with. Even though I didn’t speak a lick of Hebrew when I got to Tel Aviv and everything was foreign (even trips to the store to find scotch tape and peanut butter were HUGE adventures) I’ve never felt remotely out of place. Maybe that’s because of the people in Israel, who are often described as being “very direct.” Perhaps too direct for some people, but I don’t really see it that way. I feel more like Israelis just lack the social barrier that Americans construct around people they just met. Instead of treading lightly and being overly polite until you get to know a person, Israelis treat you like they’ve known you forever. That means they’ll tell you exactly what they think, whether it’s politically correct or not, but it also means they’ll invite you over for Shabbat dinner 5 minutes after they met you. Israelis are very welcoming, talkative, and interesting. For me, I think my fascination with Israelis and their way of life really manifested itself in my first month in Israel.

Shortly before I left for my semester abroad, three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped. As the search for the boys unfolded, I packed my bags, spent a few days wandering in New York with my mom, and arrived in Israel. That night, their bodies were found, and the following month was a little chaotic, with riots leading to rockets — even in Tel Aviv, which is really considered a bubble in Israel because it’s a very secular and increasingly international city — leading to Operation Protective Edge and a ground invasion and failed ceasefire after failed ceasefire until there was quiet again. So by a little chaotic, I mean for non-Israelis. For Israelis, I hesitate to call it normal, but it surely wasn’t too far out of the norm. For me and my fellow international students, being woken by sirens and running to bomb shelters was entirely foreign. Even though I guess it makes my study abroad experience atypical, I truly believe that I got a better understanding of Israeli life and the ever-present conflict here. It was strange how quickly it became normal for me too.  Seriously. My friends and family back home were more concerned about me being scared than I was worried about being in Israel. Being in Israel during that period of time gave me such an interesting perspective on Israeli life, and while I obviously wasn’t rooting for a fight to break out while I was there, I wouldn’t trade the experience. And by my family’s reaction and a few dozen google searches, I know that what was being reported on the news looked really scary, but I never felt unsafe. We knew what to do if a siren went off and of course we followed all of the guidelines for being safe, but above all else life in Israel went on, as it always does. This is one of the things that makes Israel very unique. I think because of the nature of living in a conflict zone, there’s a greater appreciation for the privileges that people often take for granted.

So what have I done in my three months in Israel, you might ask. Well,  I have visited the stunning Baha’i gardens in Haifa, eaten an AMAZING lunch in a Druze village after learning about their religion, hiked Ein Avdat and Ein Gedi in the south, floated around in the Dead Sea, learned about the graffiti/street art in Tel Aviv, wandered and bargained my way through the markets (Shuk HaCarmel in Tel Aviv and Machane Yehuda in Jerusalem) while marveling at pomegranates roughly the size of my head and laughing at the vendors competing for title of “Loudest Person Lane Has Ever Come Across.” I got a hair wrap from super cool Ethiopian women who opened a hair salon near the shuk to make their talent for dealing with difficult hair into a successful business. I prayed at the Western Wall, revisited my favorite ice cream shop of all time, started to slowly but surely study the fascinating and frustrating language of Israel, Hebrew, and more. So I guess what I’ve done in Israel is learned and absorbed. In all seriousness, I have learned so much, both in the classroom and out of it. I’ve met amazing people from all over the world with a really inspiring love for Israel and desire to be a part of this country.

In a surprising turn of events, I write to you now from Slovenia! After a month of summer classes and 7 weeks of an intensive Hebrew course known as Ulpan, I got a month-long break over the holidays before my semester officially starts so I decided to backpack through Europe with friends from Ulpan. My oh my has it been an eventful trip! My friend Ginsey and I flew from Tel Aviv to Geneva with the intention of going straight to Milan because Geneva is very expensive. Well, fate was having none of that. I left my wallet on the plane and after reporting it to lost and found, they told us we would have to come back the next day at 11. Welp. So we found a hostel, stayed the night, and wandered around Geneva, which was of course very beautiful. Everything was picturesque and the weather was gorgeous. To put it in Ginsey’s words, no filter needed. After wandering to the UN building we made our way back to the airport where we found my wallet! Hurrah! Except they wanted 20 francs for it. No, really. The lost and found in the Geneva airport charges you for their services. My interaction with the woman working there went something like this:

Woman: Sign here and here and I don’t know if they told you this last night but it is a 20 franc fee to collect your wallet.

Me: Ha- WHAT?

Ginsey: 20 francs?!

Woman (without reaction): yes.

Me: Are you kidding?

Woman (woman or robot? We couldn’t tell): No. This service is provided by the Geneva airport and we do not receive any money from the airlines so yes, there is a fee.

Me: Can I give you 20 shekels*?

Woman (still looking vaguely like a robot): Perdon?

Me: And what if I take my wallet and run?

Woman (WHO STILL HAS NOT CHANGED FACIAL EXPRESSIONS ONCE): Well, I would have to call security.

Me: So you mean to tell me that because of YOUR inefficient lost and found system I had to stay a night in Geneva, a city we were trying to avoid, spend money on hostels and food here, and now pay 20 francs to get back my wallet?

Woman: Yes.

*New Israeli Shekels, the currency in Israel. I had a total of 14.60 in my wallet.

So, incredibly frustrated both by the situation and this woman’s complete lack of facial expression, Ginsey and I resign ourselves to paying the 20 francs… but we don’t have any francs, we only have euros, and the exchange rate is in favor of euros. So after arguing with the woman about this too, we finally throw her 20 euro and run to catch our train to Milan. When we got to Milan, we got lost trying to find our hostel and when we got there we found out they had cancelled our reservation because the only thing we had managed to relay via Skype was that we wouldn’t be there that night, and they’d booked everything except this quasi-room in the attic with enough space for our bags, a bed, and our bodies. We were so tired we couldn’t bring ourselves to look for another hostel and we found a random restaurant where the people didn’t speak any English, mimed our way through dinner, and fell asleep within minutes of getting back to the hostel. The next day, fate had its way with us again when the machine to buy metro tickets refused to take our cards and proceeded to eat 20 euros. After being advised to wait a few minutes to see if the machine spat the money back out (it didn’t) and filling out a form, taking it to the central metro station, and finding the right people to take it to, we found out that this would be the second 20 euros we lost this trip. An angry Italian man informed us that we were basically out of luck and he got very, very upset with us when we asked what we could do. He was shouting, bouncing up and down, and waving his arms in the air as we tried to relay to him that we understood what he was saying. So that was no fun. We faxed the form with contact and bank info to the main metro office and hopefully we reduce our “wasted money” pile from 40 euro to 20. We wandered around Milan and saw a castle from the 12th century, complete with Michelangelo’s unfinished last work, Pieta Rondanini. We saw the Duomo and a whole bunch of stores that were so fancy I was afraid to look at them, and the beautiful Milan Cathedral before we grabbed a bite to eat and headed to the train station for our next trek. In short, as I’m sure you can see, our first two days in Europe were a little rough. Even so, misadventures are still adventures, and Ginsey and I have mostly managed to laugh everything off and roll with the punches.

In stark contrast to our first few days, Slovenia has been perfect. It’s beautiful here. Actually, I don’t think beautiful even covers it – it’s unreal. Ljubljana is the kind of city where every building looks like it could be on a postcard. Right now we’re in Bled, a small town about 45 minutes from Ljubljana that’s right on a gorgeous lake with a magnificent church on an island in the middle of it. So basically it looks straight out of the movie Frozen. Everything is lush and green, we ate apples and raspberries and grapes and pears and walnuts straight off the trees as we walked through the village today, and the view from where we’re staying looks like it was painted. It’s unbelievable. Today we visited the Vintgar gorge and, even in the pouring rain, it was so so so stunning. The gorge is covered in moss, with a river running whose fluctuates from a deep, mysterious blue to a bright, clear emerald turquoise. Even soaked to the bone and shivering, we loved every second.

So that’s all for now! We leave on Saturday for Berlin where we will meet another friend from Ulpan, Rebekah. Three’s a party right? If you want to read more about my first three months in Israel, feel free to check lanewithalamed.wordpress.com, where I’ve been blogging until now, and click on the link below for pictures!

https://www.flickr.com/photos/68441434@N05/sets/72157647618347298

Once Upon a Time in Italia

I realized I hadn’t left England since arriving. So I called up my friend Fiona in Spain, and Amanda in Nottingham, and decided we should try Italy. We left in the early hours of the 30th, and I hardly got any sleep from then on. Amanda and I met Fiona at the airport, then took a bus into Milan, where we’d booked a hostel for 2 nights. We checked into the hostel and then went straight into Milan.

I love taking public transportation, especially metros/undergrounds/subways. It makes me feel travel savvy, and independent. Because it makes me feel like a local. So we took the metro, which is always the cheaper alternative in a big city, to the city center. The first place we went to was the Duomo di Milano.
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It’s pretty impressive in person. We scaled the stairs to the top.

I will say this though: besides the Duomo and maybe a few other things Milan isn’t really the best city to tour. I know The Last Supper is featured in a museum there. There’s apparently a nice lake or something. It’s really a better place to people watch, and shop. Milan is the metropolitan business centre of Italy, and there’s a bunch of expensive shops there. So you can go window-licking. And if you’re into haut-couture? Go to Milan.

Something I’ve only really found outside of England (after having been to France and Italy) is that there are more street peddlers in other areas of Europe than in England. They’ll grab you by the wrist and slap a bracelet on you, or put a keychain in your hand, and urge you to pay for it, and harass you if you refuse. They mainly target tourists of course, so they lurk outside buildings such as the Duomo. If you see a man carrying a slew of bracelets, run away. One Senegalese man got to me, but Fiona spoke Wolof (a language from Senegal) to him and somehow convinced him let me have the bracelet he tied on me for free.

That evening was somewhat of a debacle. I’m not going to explain what happened, but I’ll say that my faith in humanity was restored. People are, in general, kind and willing to help. I met some great Milanese locals that night, so a round of applause for the people of Milan!

We went to bed at probably 2 a.m., and woke up the next morning at 6 to catch our train to Venice at 7. Miraculously we caught the train, then had a nice nap until we arrived in Venice.

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Two thirds exhaustion, one third delirium. Here’s Fiona and Amanda looking dapper.

Then Venice:

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Venice is fantastic. The people were fantastic. The city itself is just beautiful, even the run down bits. There are cute dogs running around everywhere. I urge anyone to go.

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Basilica San Marco

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There’s a phenomenon in Venice called “acqua alta” which means “high water”. In the fall months Venice is prone to flooding. This year they had the worst flooding in decades. However, by the time we got to Venice the waters had receded a bit, so the only parts that were inconveniently flooded were really just Piazza San Marco, which is the main tourist area of the city. Go figure. It’s got the Doge’s Palace and the Basilica di San Marco. Being in Venice in fall, and during acqua alta, meant that there weren’t many tourists at all. It was so hassle free. Although it is a bit chilly (in the 40s fahrenheit), I’d recommend Venice in the fall. Acqua alta isn’t that much of a nuisance either. There are raised platforms that you can navigate to keep your feet dry, or you can get a pair of rain boots and just trudge through the water. It’s an interesting experience and it’s something that locals deal with every year.

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Rialto, a bridge across the Grand Canal, known for its markets. This is a place where you can get Venetian souvenirs. It’s pretty touristy though.

We heard that it was a good idea to wander around Venice, and purposely get lost. A lot of the appeal of Venice is really just in enjoying the city, looking at the buildings, sitting in a random square and watching local kids play soccer. So that’s what we did. We ended up walking around, taking photos, looking at the graffiti.

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Love locks” on a bridge.

We caught the train back to Milan that night. Fiona left for the airport early. Then since Amanda didn’t print her boarding pass for our Ryanair flight back home we wandered around the city at 5 am asking hotels if we could use their “stampa” which is Italian for printer, because our hostel’s printer was broken. After a couple of failed attempts at other hotels, a very apathetic front desk attendant obliged and we printed her ticket and then left for our flight back home. I liked Italy, but it’s good to be back in England. It’s kind of like home now. It’s becoming familiar. I couldn’t image leaving after just one semester.

Alla prossima.

Hello, Hallo

As part of this little project, one of the first things I should do is write an introductory pre-departure post, so that you can all compare me before and after this European experience. However, I must confess that I have cheated. I’ve already been in Europe for a little over a month, and still have about a week before I start going to class. So far I’ve visited the following cities (some more thoroughly than others), in more or less consecutive order: Amsterdam, Utrecht (the Netherlands) – Milan, Venice, Rome (Italy) – Lugano (Switzerland) – Prague (Czech Republic) – Munich, Dresden, Berlin, Wiesbaden, Rudesheim, Frankfurt am Main, Koblenz, Bonn, Cologne (Germany) – Brussels (Belgium).  Here are a few of my favorite shots (btw, it breaks my heart how many pictures I’m cutting for the sake of brevity):

Inside the Coliseum in Rome, Italy
Inside the Coliseum in Rome, Italy
View from a gondola in Venice, Italy
View from a gondola in Venice, Italy
Rudesheim, Germany
Rudesheim, Germany
Nobody tells you Brussels, Belgium is this beautiful!
Nobody tells you Brussels, Belgium is this beautiful!
Amsterdam, the Netherlands at nightAmsterdam, the Netherlands at night

As you can see, I’ve been a bit busy, but there’s still so much more to see! It’s been an absolute blast of an adventure, and I wish I could do this for much longer. I wish I had more time, but I digress… Anyway, for those that don’t already know, I’ll be spending this fall semester studying at Universiteit Utrecht in Utrecht, the Netherlands. I was already there for a couple days when I first arrived in Europe to leave most of my belongings with my good friend Betty who lives there, so I have already seen a little bit of it of the town, and I must say it’s such a pretty place. I know it’s not the same since I’m not giving an on-site, immediate description of my first days in my new temporary home, but here’s one thing I can tell you about my first impression of Utrecht:

Bikes! Bikes everywhere!

Well, there aren't that many bikes in this picture of Utrecht... but it's cute!

One thing everyone will tell you about the Netherlands (or, as some Dutch people will call it, Holland—but I’ve been reprimanded by a couple of Dutch people for saying that, so I’m just going to cover my bases and say it the long way) is that it’s a bike country. Biking is literally the primary mode of transportation within towns and cities, and you will notice this right away. Many streets—traffic lights even—are intended for bikers, and even as a pedestrian you have to watch out for them. People ride them to school, work, parties, bars, and they do it in any weather. In any clothes. (Yup, girls bike in their skirts and dresses—they don’t pay any mind, and neither should you). There are parking lots specifically for bikes, and everyone makes sure to lock theirs in at least two different places, as apparently they get stolen quite often. As you might imagine, finding your own bicycle in a sea of other similar-looking contraptions can be difficult—plus, the more inconspicuous ones, being harder to identify, are commonly stolen. As a result, people like to “pimp out” their bikes quite a bit. Some people cover them in spray-paint, stickers, or even duct tape, and lots of girls like to personalize theirs with special baskets and artificial flowers around the handlebars and other areas. I know I’ll be buying my own bike soon (and yes, I do plan on getting a basket and at least one flower for it), but for now I must say it’s an adjustment. Not being used to biking everywhere, I must say I was left a bit… sore.

Exhibit A: Betty, showing me how to properly park a bike on the second story.

Exhibit A: Betty, showing me how to properly park a bike on the second story.

Another thing I’ve enjoyed here is that lots of the food which we consider more luxurious and specialized is a lot more common here, and is hence much cheaper. Whereas people usually just go for pre-sliced loaves of sandwich bread in the US, Europeans seem to prefer getting rolls and baguettes. Actually something I had never seen before which seems perfectly normal here is to buy packages of slightly-undercooked bread and then putting it in the oven for 10-15 minutes. Then you end up with practically freshly baked bread any time you want, which is fantastic. It’s also much cheaper to get fruits and vegetables, berry jams and nut spreads like Nutella, [supposedly] healthier, more natural cereals like Muesli, and “fancy” cheeses like Gouda and Brie. Inversely, I saw a box of American Lucky Charms cereal on sale for 7 euro!

A modest lunchtime picnic with baguettes, Brie cheese, hummus, strawberries, grapes, rose wine, chips, and more.

A modest lunchtime picnic with baguettes, Brie cheese, hummus, strawberries, grapes, rose wine, chips, and more.

Anyway, I don’t want to make this post any longer. Since we’re on the topic of food, here are pictures of some of my favorite meals I had from around Europe. ‘Till next time and, as the Dutch say, eet smakelijk! (Translation: bon appetit!)

Pancakes in Utrecht, the Netherlands Pancakes in Utrecht, the Netherlands
My brother-in-law, Carlos, and my first Italian gelato in Milan, Italy. What they say about Italian gelato... it is all true. My brother-in-law, Carlos, and my first Italian gelato in Milan, Italy. What they say about Italian gelato… it is all true.
Pretzel in Munich, Germany! As you can see, it was as big--if not bigger--than my purse. Pretzel in Munich, Germany! As you can see, it was as big–if not bigger–than my purse.
Crepes with my friend, Linda, at Museumsurferfest in Frankfurt, Germany! Crepes with my friend, Linda, at Museumsurferfest in Frankfurt, Germany!
Kebab with my friend, Laura, in Cologne, Germany!Kebab with my friend, Laura, in Cologne, Germany!Last but definitely best: Belgian waffles in Brussels, Belgium! My life changed after the first bite.Last but definitely best: Belgian waffles in Brussels, Belgium! My life changed after the first bite.

Gelato, Calzones, and Pickpockets?!

I’m behind on my posts so I want to backtrack a few weeks to the weekend I spent in Milan. It was the first time I travelled out of France since I moved here. Over the trip I learned a few things about traveling in general and also got to visit my grandmother’s homeland (I am a quarter Italian you know!). I saw landmarks, ate gelato, watched people fall victim to typical tourist traps, and took a ton of pictures. Overall it was a great weekend!
A group at my university here called Interculture (a group for enrolled students and exchange students to interact much like our NaviGators) organized the trip, so naturally the bus left almost half an hour late (nothing here is punctual). The bus driver hit a few curbs and stalled the bus before we were even a block away from Place de Gualle (the central square in Antibes). Once we were on the highway things went much more smoothly though, and an exhausted gaggle of students clambered out of the bus and into a hostel approximately four hours later. It certainly wasn’t a five star hotel, however the hostel was much nicer than many of the horror stories I’ve heard regarding European hostels.
The next morning we ate a free breakfast of cereal, tasting mostly like cigarette ash, when a fellow student realized the couple sitting next to us stole her purse containing her money, bank cards, and passport. We all learned firsthand how quick a pickpocket can be and how important it is to be aware, no matter how seemingly safe your surroundings are.
Later that morning, walking out of the subway, my mouth dropped open in awe: the center of Milan, near the Duomo (Italian for cathedral) is absolutely gorgeous. This was my view as I emerged from the subway station:

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At the Duomo, we took a look around inside, and even got to climb to the roof to see an aerial view of Milan. To a girl who grew up in the magical land of Orlando, the Duomo is slightly reminiscent of the Disney castle.
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The rest of the day and most of the following was full of the typical tourist excitement—scammers trying to hand you “free souvenirs” then demanding money and following you if you refused, tons of pictures, window shopping, etc. The food we ate the first day wasn’t very Italian at all. It was overpriced, mediocre, and overall disappointing. The next day however, we found a hole-in-the-wall type pizzeria called “OK! Pizza”. I ordered a fairly cheap calzone that turned out to be huge and positively delicious with a strong Italian espresso.
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The weekend in Milan was a blast, but I have to admit I was relieved to return to Antibes and have a day or two to recover before my classes on Wednesday. It was an eerie feeling leaning over to tell me friend I was “glad to be home” when we arrived in Antibes. I’ve only been here a month and already it’s starting to feel a bit like home. Until next time… Au revoir!