Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Getting into the holiday mood...Viennese style

The Rathaus Market
As I've said, I have a list of places that I wanted to hit up before I left Europe. Vienna was one of those cities....especially for the Christmas markets. I decided early on in the semester that this was the year I was going to hit up the Vienna market. So, I bought my ticket in September and waited, and waited, and waited. The last weekend of November finally arrived and I made my way (along with 6 of my female students and my friend BethAnn) to Vienna. I was not disappointed.

We arrived in Vienna in the late afternoon, but by the time we got to our hotel (an hour at the most) it was dark! So, we dropped our stuff off and headed out to our first market at the town hall. Oh wow! How incredibly beautiful. It was a feast for the eyes! There were thousands of lights throughout the trees in a variety of shapes and colors. There were hundreds of stalls in front of the town hall selling hot drinks, sweet treats, yummy sausages, Christmas gifts, and Christmas decorations. Where to begin? A hot beverage of course. Each of the markets (and there were a lot of them!) had their own mugs. You can either "rent" the mug for €2.50 or you can keep it and then buy either hot spiced wine, hot chocolate, hot punch, and lots of other offerings. So, we got our drinks and started our shopping. The markets were part heaven and hell for much to buy and so little money! ;)

Basically, the weekend was a non-stop shopping extravaganza. We went from market to market....spending. :)

In between the markets, we managed to see a couple of Vienna's biggest churches, the Hofburg palace, and other historical buildings. We also managed to enjoy some yummy schnitzel, strudel, and, of course, Sacher Torte. On our last day, Beth Ann and I popped into Cafe Sacher, the birthplace of the Sacher Torte. From the outside, it looked as if the place would be way too expensive as it was swathed in a deep claret velvet, gilded mirrors, and crystal chandeliers. To our surprise, it was completely reasonable. So, we got a seat, had some soup, and then indulged in Vienna's famous torte. Yuuummmm.....
It was a fabulous weekend and I really enjoyed Vienna. I am so glad that I had the opportunity to get into the Christmas spirit in Vienna. It was magic personified and I wouldn't have missed it for the world. 

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Rapid rundown

Ok, so I don't know about you, but this semester was the fastest of my life. No joke. It seems like I just boarded a plane bound for Rome and now I'm home for Christmas. I'm excited to be home, don't get me wrong, but this past semester was fabulous and I was/am sad to see it end. So, let's take a moment to reflect on some of the highlights of these last 3 months, shall we?

         --Students arrived
         --Friends Lisa and Ben visited. Since they'd both been to Rome before, I was able to show them a piece of "my" Rome. I love showing off this incredible city!

         --Went to Bologna and Ravenna with two friends and one of my students. Let's just say that the trip to Bologna was well....never ending. We took the train to Bologna only to have it hit something in a tunnel about 45 minutes outside of Rome and stopped. And there we sat for 3 hours. Yes, three HOURS. Without any information or anything. Well, except for the free soda we got. Then, they turned the train around and sent us back to Rome only to put us back on a slow train. All in all, we arrived in Bologna much later than we'd expected. Since it was closing in on 6:30 by the time we were able to get out to see anything, most everything, ie. churches, museums, etc, was closing for the day. So, we spent our time at Tony's eating the most amazing Bolognese of my life. Of course, we were in Bologna, so I wouldn't expect anything less!

The next day my friends returned to Rome and my student and I forged ahead to Ravenna to check out the mosaics. Can I just say WOW?? Absolutely, positively unbelievable! They were so gorgeous and I am still floored by what people were able to create out of tiny pieces of glass.

We had a great time exploring the tiny town, and not just because there was an international bread festival that weekend! No, the churches were breathtaking. Of course, this wouldn't be Italy without some sort of we discovered the next day when we went to board our train to Bologna in order to catch our train back to Rome. There was a large line of people in the train station; much too large for a normal Sunday. We got in line...and that's when I heard the word I hate: Scopiero. Strike. Yep, Trenitalia personnel were on strike. What does this mean? No trains; at least no regional trains. What to do? What to do! The man at the counter, thankfully, was very nice and rather helpful. He told us that there may (or may not be) a train later in the afternoon. So, we waited. And finally, and with much thanksgiving, we boarded the train bound for Bologna and arrived back in Rome 3 hours late. It was a great weekend....just not a good weekend for train travel.
--My cousin, Brooke, arrived for her first European adventure! We spent some time together in Rome, Florence, and then she went to Venice by herself for a couple of days before we went to...Barcelona! I first visited Spain in 2000 while my sister was studying in Granada and Barcelona was the only major Spanish city left on my list. So, we headed to Barcelona with Sean and Joy for 4 days.
La Sagrada Familia
What an incredible city! It was filled with so much to see, do, and eat! The architecture (muchas gracias, Gaudi!) was not to be believed. Seriously, I don't understand the imagination or gift behind Gaudi's genius. So, so, so cool!

My favorite thing, though, was the day that we saw the Barcelonans (is that even a word?!) gather together in front of the Cathedral and dance the Sardana. It was so cool! Here's how this works: an orchestra plays whatever music it is that one plays to do the Sardana, then one by one people begin to gather in a circle and dance.

November: (I don't even know where November went!!)
--Venice: As always, the 10th weekend of the semester found us in Venezia. I never get tired of that city and wandering around. I discovered some new gems on my own, and Joy, Sean, and I went to the island of Torcello to look at some beautiful mosaics.

--Thanksgiving: Thanksgiving remains one of my favorite days with students. We celebrated a week late as we were in Venice over Thanksgiving. Still, we wanted the students to have a piece of home. As always, I ordered our turkey about two weeks ahead from the butcher. I asked for a 12 kilo turkey (about 24 pounds) and as always, they gave me a 30 pound, 8 ounce turkey. Ahhh! That's too big for the oven bag! You should have seen the eyes of all of the nonne (Italian grandmothers) in the butcher shop. I thought they'd pop out of their heads! They couldn't believe that I was cooking an entire turkey or that we would eat the whole thing. As always, students signed up for parts of the meal to make/help out with. We had a ton of food, but it was all soooo good...and eaten quickly. One of my students made the most incredible apple pies! They even had fun dough shapes on the top of the pie. She has some made pie making skills. We spent the rest of the evening putting up our Christmas tree and decorations, and watching Elf. Once again, it was a memorable evening.
--Vienna: Well, this weekend getaway deserves its own post....

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Monday, December 3, 2012

Where in the world is Kristen?

You may be asking yourself, or maybe not, where in the world has Kristen been? Well, quite literally: Rome, Pompei, Florence, Bologna, Ravenna, Barcelona, Venice, and Vienna.

However, I have mostly been in Rome with my amazing students. I have been so blessed this semester with a truly unique and incredible group of young people. While there have always been students that I have enjoyed immensely and to this day miss a lot, this is the first group that I have worked with in my 11 years in higher education that truly got along all of the time, encouraged one another, spent time with each other, and felt like a cohesive group. What a tremendous blessing! Even now I am listening to their laughter in the halls as they prepare for their final presentations. So, that's where I've been....hanging out with them. That's not to say that I haven't been active in, around, and out of Rome...cause I have. I will post a couple of blogs in the next couple of days about places I've been and things I've been keep an eye out!

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Sunday, April 29, 2012

Chocolate, waffles, and mussels from Brussels (and I'm not talkin' Jean-Claude Van Damme): Belgium

Spring break found Joy, Sean, and I headed to Belgium for 4 nights and 5 days of relaxation, chocolate-eating, and sight seeing.

We started our vacay away in the European Union capital of Brussels. I wasn't quite sure what to expect from Brussels outside of the stereotypical ideas that I had about the city: chocolate, politics, and a kind of drabness. I must say that I was pleasantly surprised. Yes, there was a lot of chocolate, and I mean A LOT of chocolate, politics, and even areas that seemed sterile, but it was a rather beautiful city towards the old town. We spent our first day exploring the area around the Grand' Place. What a sight! Surrounding the Grand' Place were shops, chocolatiers, waffle stands, beer halls, and homes. I was taken aback by the stature of the square and found it to be so wonderfully romantic and memorable.

Far left: Grand' Place. Center: Manneken Pis...I have NO idea why the fountain/statue of a little boy is such a big deal, but apparently it is. There are replicas (even in chocolate) of this all over the city. Right: Chocolate capital!!! Wonder if I would have gotten in trouble 
for gnawing on Mickey's ear?

We spent Saturday wandering through the city and into various neighborhoods. It was fun to explore and see the variety that Brussels had to offer. We meandered through a fabulous curio market, ate chocolate, toured a couple of churches, stopped for a quick drink, ate chocolate, checked out the World's Fair Atomium, ate chocolate, soaked up the night life, and I don't know if I mentioned this, 
but...ate chocolate. 

Left: Joy and I about ready to hunt for treasures. Right: the Atomium...this is as close as we got because we didn't want to pay...better things to spend money on. Below: chocolate!!!

We left Brussels on Sunday and spent the next couple of days north in Bruges and Ghent. I will say that while I enjoyed Brussels, I LOVED Bruges!! It was so quaint and full of so much character. There was a lot to see, though it was such a small town. It was like stepping into a nursery rhyme. I fully expected Mother Goose to show up somewhere! Ghent, on the other hand, was ok. I suppose that was due to the fact that the skies opened and literally DUMPED rain down on us. I don't know if my jeans have ever been so wet...even in the washing machine! We spent the last couple of days of our time together in Belgium discovering the hidden corners of these small towns, eating chocolate (you'd think we'd had enough after 2 days in Brussels!), and sitting back and relaxing. All in all, it was a great stop? Perugia and Cortona!


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Saturday, April 28, 2012

To the East!

In February, my colleagues and friends, Joy and Sean, and I decided that we needed to get going on this whole travel Europe thing while we were in Italy for our spring semester. We shot around a few ideas of places we wanted to go to including Barcelona, Brussels, Istanbul, Switzerland, Austria, and Greece, and decided that we would make the most of the one weekend off I have a month by going to one of these places. So, when it came time to decide where to go in February we thought it might be nice to go to Switzerland, but little did we know how expensive it was to get there and stay there until we began to look into it. That's when Joy suggested Poland--home to her ancestors. Poland? Yes, Krakow. It's home to interesting architecture and has a long, sad Jewish history. Well, tickets were cheap and so was the hotel. Poland here we come!

My first thought as I stepped off the plane at 7:30 a.m. on February 17 was: why on Earth did we come to Eastern Europe in February!? This question was prompted by the ice cold wind that struck my cheeks as my feet came in contact with the gray slush that lined the tarmac. Man it was cold! What had I gotten into?

Cloth Hall 
We made our way into the city, dropped off our luggage at our cute hotel, and went in search of adventure and something to warm our systems. After a quick breakfast and a hot coffee, we set out to explore the city. I'd read somewhere that Krakow has one of the best preserved and beautiful medieval squares in all of Europe and I'm here to say: so true! The shops and apartments that line the square are lovely, but it's the Cloth Hall in the center that's really something. The world's oldest shopping center, Cloth Hall is a place for tourists and locals alike to score authentic Polish trinkets. There is booth after booth inside the building that sells everything from wood work to pottery to the famous Polish eggs.

We bypassed much of the square as we wanted to make our way to the Kazimierz Jewish Quarter and to the Oskar Schindler museum. We began our time in the Jewish Quarter at the Remuh Synagogue and its cemetery. It seemed that everywhere you turned you were faced with reminders of what happened in that part of the world some 70+ years ago to people who were victims of senseless hate. The Jews' plight and the Nazis' evil is still evident today in the many synagogues and museums in this area. Personally, I found the Empty Chairs Memorial and the Schindler museum---one of the best museums I've ever been to---to be particularly haunting and reflective.

Above left to right: Empty Chairs Memorial, Oskar Schindler's desk, and a replica of the barbed wire that surrounded the ghetto.

After the Schindler Museum, we headed back in to the heart of the Kazimierz area in search of a traditional Jewish dinner with live Klezmer music. Unfortunately, we couldn't find a restaurant that had live music early enough---after a long day on our feet and a before-dawn flight, we wanted to turn in early. Instead, we ate a dinner of traditional Jewish food and enjoyed good company before trekking back to our hotel.

The next day, we arose and made our way through town towards Wawel Castle. First, we stopped in at the Pope John Paul II museum. Surprisingly, it was very interesting. The former Pope's life was on display from his days before he became the head of the Roman Catholic Church until his death. From there, we went to the castle that once housed the ruler of the area. On our way, though, we encountered two street performers clothed in traditional garb who ended up serenading Joy!

  The sun finally began to peek through the gray clouds while we were at the castle and I imagine that in the spring and summer the grounds and the view are gorgeous! Again, why Eastern Europe in the winter!? From the castle, we took our time exploring the city--and it's food offerings--at a leisurely pace. We wandered inside churches, shops, ate kielbasa, drank vodka, and soaked in all that Krakow had to offer.

From top left to bottom right: One of Krakow's lovely churches, delicious lunch of kielbasa, main square, outside the city's old walls, managed to track down a Starbucks!, and the nativity contest.

Krakow pleasantly surprised me. It was a lovely city with a lot to offer. I'd like to get back there one day--in the spring or summer!!--so that I can see more of what makes it unique and to go to Auschwitz. I highly recommend Krakow to anyone who is considering it and to those who've never considered it: you should! 

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Monday, February 13, 2012

Great Roman snow storm of 2012...well, sort of

We left Rome for Pompeii last Friday under a cover of darkness...that is, at 6:30 am. What sane person is up at that hour?? The morning was cold as we departed and snow was forecasted. I had high hopes that it would be a light dusting and nothing more as that's all the snow Rome has seen in the last 25 years or so. Was I wrong.

My first clue that something was awry was when we were waiting for our train back to Rome. I was looking at the board to see which platform we were on when "cancellato" scrolled past me. Cancelled? Huh? Oh gosh. Ok, ok. Breathe. Talk to someone. Breathe. Had it just been me, no worries. But 21 other people? Oh my. My colleagues and I made our way over to the information office where a line had already begun to form. We waited, prayed, waited, and prayed until our turn finally came. I asked the man if our train had been cancelled. Yes, it was cancelled. I asked him what we should do. He said that there was another train departing in 20 minutes and I could take that one. I told him that there were 22 of us. His eyes grew large and he repeated the number back to me. Yep, 22. Ok, there is room in cars 9, 10, and 11. Just get on one of those. Could it really be that easy? We headed back to our group and made our way to our new platform. I stopped the conductor to confirm what the other man had told me as I certainly didn't want to be half way to Rome only to be booted from the train or fined. The man confirmed what we were told and we boarded the fast train home. Now, this was a huge blessing in and of itself as we'd purchased tickets for the slow train which takes 2 hours, but the fast train wasn't going to cost us anymore and only takes about an hour.

Anyways, we arrived back in Rome and I saw the snow that had accumulated in front of the trains. Hmm. And then I walked outside. Holy white stuff! There was a steady and heavy stream of snow falling from the sky and much of it had already built up. We quickly made our way over to where we get the bus home only to be told that buses weren't running. Thankfully, though, the Metro was. So, we boarded the Metro to Piazza Bologna and then made the 15 minute trek home---though it took us closer to 20-25 minutes as we had to slow down to account for ice and an occasional snowball. I will say, though, that it was beautiful. So peaceful and quiet.

We arrived home and quickly changed clothes. As we'd been up for forever everyone closed themselves in their room and quietly went about their business. I went to bed and anticipated waking up to slush. Again. Was I wrong.

I got up around 7am to use the bathroom and my eyes about bugged out of my head at what I saw. Snow covered everything like a white down blanket. Everything. The cactus, the palm trees, and the grape vines. It was magic. I began taking pictures and reveling in the unusual quiet of a Roman morning. Stunning. I went back to bed for a bit and waited for students to get up and see the spectacle.

The kitchen was alive with chatter when I got up as we were all in awe over the turn of events. As I drank a cup of hot coffee, we made plans to trek down to the Colosseum as the sky had cleared and the sun was out. So, we dressed and then made the trek back down to Bologna to catch the Metro as the buses weren't moving.

We joined thousands of other Romans around the Colosseum and wondered at the sight of the ancient structure surrounded by snow. Absolutely magnificent.  Students engaged in an epic battle of snowballs with Italian teens. We took pictures. We marveled. And we went home to get warm.

The snow wrought havoc on this city as they're not used to it. Buses didn't return fully until that Tuesday and there was still snow on the ground. In fact, we got more snow this past Friday and Saturday. It was wild. It didn't stick like it did the weekend before, but it was almost worse as it was sleet-like and really cold. All in all, I loved my Roman snow experience, but I am sooooo ready for spring!!

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Monday, January 30, 2012

Snow? WHAT?!

I was informed today by a friend that snow is forecasted for Rome this week on either Thursday or Friday. Not good as we're headed to Pompei on Friday. Then again, the last time it snowed in Rome? The time when it snowed in Rome for the first time in 24 years? Well, that happened to be the day that we were headed to Pompei. Hmmm, wonder what the odds are of that?!

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Saturday, January 28, 2012

Jolly good time

I love London. Seriously. I love it. In fact, I could live there. Truth be told, I asked Jesus if I could move there some day in the future. It's just so.....I don't know how to describe it. I just freaking love it!

I met a group of students on a Friday in November for a quick getaway. I was looking forward to this trip for two reasons: 1) I had all documentation from Italy, and 2) I had reservations for the Wimbledon tour. WIMBLEDON!! AHHHHH!!!!!

I fully admit that I was a bit nervous as I approached the passport control agent given my previous experience. Though I knew that I had everything in order and there should be no problems, I think I had a PTSD flashback of a very cross and rude agent making me feel like some sort of illegal immigrant out to take the British crown for all it's worth. Still, I approached the desk with confidence and boldness. I was greeted warmly by a woman who proceeded to ask me what brought me to London. I told her that I was on vacation for the weekend from Rome. She asked me what I was doing in Rome and I told her that I was there for work. "Do you have your permesso di soggiorno?" she asked. "Yes, I do!" I told her excitedly. Not only was this the first time anyone had asked me for it, but it was also the first time on UK soil that I felt confident to be there. I handed it over to her with a modicum of pride. She gave it back and wished me good travels. That's it?! Ok. Thanks!

I met up with my students as they were finishing their tour of the Tower of London. From there we made our way across the Thames to Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. Now I know it's not THE Globe Theatre, but it was still a really neat tour and experience. To think that Shakespeare was nearby the site while he was alive was pretty overwhelming.
From there we tried to catch a river cruise, but were unsuccessful so settled instead for walking around Big Ben, Parliment (hey! Isn't that a line from a movie? :) ), and Westminster Abbey. We just stood in awe of the sights and marveled. We also talked about the many movies that we'd seen that used these sights as a backdrop: Harry Potter, Sherlock Holmes, National Lampoons...

We walked around the city for a bit longer, grabbed some yummy fish and chips for dinner and returned to our respective hotels for the evening. After leaving Rome super early, I was ready for bed. Besides, I had to be ready for my big outing tomorrow: Wimbledon.

I am a tennis fan. I have been playing since I can remember. I love the game. When I was studying in Australia, I went to Melbourne for Easter weekend. I took some time and went to Melbourne Park, where the Australian Open is played every January. I went so far as to rent a court for a half an hour and hit with a friend who'd accompanied me. So, if I was going to be in London---I had to get to Wimbledon. Imagine how excited I was to learn that not only could I visit the museum, but have a guided tour as well! Oh. My. By the time I reached the grounds, I was practically hyperventilating I was so excited.

I spent some time looking around the museum that's located below the souvenir shop. There was an amazing collection of tennis history within it's walls and it was surprisingly hi-tech. Afterwards, I joined  the 30 or so people for our 90 minute tour. It. Was. Incredible. No jokes, one of the best things I've done in Europe. The tour guide not only was very knowledgable of tennis and Wimbledon history, but she was also entertaining. She took us all over the grounds--from the entrance gates to courts 2 and 3 to the court where Isner and Mahut played for 11 hours and 5 minutes spread over 3 days to the press room to centre court. I can't say it enough: WOOOOOWWWWW!!! I loved every moment of it. But I think my favorite was sitting in the press room where players discuss their matches after play. Nobody's allowed in there unless you're a player or member of the press...or you go on the Wimbledon tour. I felt like a kid in Disneyland.  So much to see and process. I really think that I'm going to try to go to Wimbledon in June because how can I not when I am so close?!

Left: Before I entered the hallowed gates of Wimbledon. Center: Press room. Right: Centre court.

Ok. So I've now made it to two of the four major tennis tournament locations. Next: Roland Garros in Paris--guess I'll have to go back--and New York for the US Open. It will be done.

Rounded the day out with a cup of coffee at Starbucks and then dinner with students. We meandered over to Buckingham Palace where it seemed a British man wanted to recreate the Trevi Fountain scene in La Dolce Vita and was wading through the fountain in front of the palace. Why? Who knows.

It was a quick trip, but wonderful nonetheless. I want to move there. I do. I think I would fit in. I mean, let's be real. I love British cinema, books, TV, clothes, and of course, accents.  Now if I could only find my British husband....

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