Merci Beaucoup Thursday, Jun 17 2010 

I have agonized over how to begin the end of this adventure. I have found that I have the same emotional ties over writing this blog in the same way as I would have with a book I don’t want to end. But like all good things, it must end, and as Fyodor Dostoevsky says in The Brothers Karamazov, “To a new life, new places, and no looking back!”

Thank you to GOD who was, is and continues to be faithful in spite of my faithlessness and loves you and I more than we can possibly conceive.

I owe thanks to so many wonderful readers, faithful in encouragement when I was down, sharing joy with me when I was ecstatic, praying for me when I was subject to fear.

Thank you to Molly DesRoches, who, in spite of my neurotic breakdowns, stuck with me through thick and thin and helped me to see the brighter side of things.

Thank you to my family who prayed, sent care packages, called and loved me from 6,000 miles away.

Thank you to my aunt and uncle who had chocolate chip cookies and ice cold milk waiting for me when I landed in Minneapolis, not to mention a warm bed and boundless hospitality.

Thank you to the wonderful, amazing, intelligent, patient and kind teachers without whom I would never have the language skills I possess now.

Thank you to my classmates for making the world an exponentially smaller place.

Thank you to Laura Trude and Laura Vein (aka Laura the Chef) for coming to visit me overseas. It means so much to me to have such intelligent, beautiful women care enough to drop everything to visit.

Thank you to ALL the students at the Aumonerie, specifically Marthe, Francois, Thinh, Louis, Jean Christophe, Guillaume, Benedicte, Pierre and Jean Baptiste who made me always feel welcome and, with their love, helped me grow in my language as well as in my faith.

Thank you to Mary Elise Holmgren, without whom I’m sure I would never have had the social circle I now possess.

Thank you to the Arneberg-Larson grant for the generous scholarship which helped fund this adventure.

Thank you to my French advisor and instructor, Dr. Sarah Mosher and the Office of Study Abroad at the University of North Dakota.

Thank you to the Universite de Caen Basse-Normandie for their help and accommodation.

And thank you, all of you, for making this the most enjoyable writing experiences of my career. The next adventure is just around the corner, and I am excited to share it with you. You can follow my writing at a new blog called “His Glorious Undertaking” and see where life leads me next.

“And now, unto Him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you faultless and with great joy– to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore!” Jude 1:24-25

Kelli Bren

Numbers Tuesday, Jun 15 2010 

While I sat in my bare little dorm room in Caen, I came to realize that almost my entire existence while overseas was dominated by numbers. Now that the experience is over, I thought I would share them with you so you can enjoy them too.

7,000- Number of grams of Nutella Hazelnut Spread purchased and consumed
5- Number of countries visited
240- Number of hours spent in a classroom
4- Number of times my financial skin was saved by a dispersion of money by the University
1- Number of scholarships received
18- Number of masses attended in Eglise St. Pierre
21- Number of days I thought I’d die of pneumonia
1- Number of beer types deemed remotely ingestible
5- Number of loads of laundry done over a span of 4 1/2 months
6,000- Number of  times I deeply desired a Swiffer
4- Number of care packages from Mom and Daddy
17- Number of cards from the USA
11- Number of awkward shirtless, gown-less chest x-rays taken (a group total)
10- Number of scarves added to wardrobe
2- Number of visible melt-downs in a classroom
100- Number of baguettes purchased
5- Number of blush-causing faux-pas
2- Number of visitors from the USA
4- Number of 8 € phone cards purchased to call home
16,000- Number of grams of pasta purchased from Carrefour
Infinity- When I’ll be hungry for pasta again
7- Number of minutes between trams
4- Number of teachers
1- Number of times caught pass-less on tram
2- Number of times the “stupid American” card was voluntarily put into play
70- Number of trips to a patisserie expressly for gluttonous purposes
55- Number of practice DELF tests
36- Number of seeds planted in hopes of flowers
0- Number of survivors
1- Number of WWII 550 KG bombs found on campus
40- Number of trains taken
5- Number of minutes it takes to get to class in a dead sprint
7- Number of pretend boyfriends accumulated
200- Number of tram rides
50- Number of times voltage converter was dropped and did not break
250- Number of handouts in class
1- Number of 50 € stamps purchased for taxation purposes
1,200- Number of pictures taken
40.5- Number of pairs of seins in Nice at the topless beaches
2- Number of trains taken in the wrong direction
22- Number of flavors of gelato tasted within a 24 hour window of opportunity
10- Number of times I was the recipient of random acts of a French stranger’s kindness
83- Number of blog posts
0- Number of regrets
Innumerable- Number of individual people to whom I owe thanks

[Please stick around for the finale post and link to my new blog coming very soon!]

Métropolitain Monday, Jun 14 2010 

There are few engineering feats I consider more impressive than the subway system in Paris. To people who have never taken a subway, it would seem like the epitome of scary: riding a very rapidly moving transport medium dozens of feet underground, pressing yourself uncomfortably close to complete strangers who do not share your language. But to those of us who have become veterans of the métro in Paris, it’s un morceau de gateau (piece of cake)… sort of.

The métro system opened in 1900, without ceremony. It has expanded to 16 lines today, carrying 4.5 million people each day and over 1.4 billion people annually.

The two Lauras and I left Paris on June 9th during rush hour in Paris. Our last stop before getting to Charles de Gaulle Airport was taking the RER, a more expensive commuter train that runs through and around Paris. Thousands of people take the RER every day. What these thousands of people do NOT do is carry every belonging on their person. They MAYBE carry a briefcase. I, however, was not holding a briefcase–I was holding 1) a giant rolly suitcase that was emblazoned (embarrassingly) with AMERICAN TOURISTER, 2) a royal blue backpacker’s bag that towered over my head by 10 inches and 3) an Eddie Bauer backpack that made me look like I was pregnant with quadruplets.

When we got to the RER station, the Lauras and I were at the cusp of success–the only thing left to do was board the train and get to Charles de Gaulle Airport. But when the train approached, O LA VACHE (holy cow!), every Parisian was ON the métro. I didn’t care. I was French enough to fight my way into the train and stand there, the width and bulk of at least 3 Parisians, praying that I wasn’t going to get trampled. The train screeched to a halt, the first batch of people swarmed off, bumping into each other and scattering like sheep. I plowed ahead, and that’s when I heard a howl from in back of me. Laura the Chef couldn’t get on the train. There simply wasn’t enough room for her! As the train started moving, I craned my neck to see her, and the doors started to close, menacingly.

“LAAAAURA!!!! TAKE THE NEXT TRAAAAAAAIN!!!!” I bellowed, throughly American in my volume and desperation, while I saw the mass of Laura the Chef get pushed to the wayside by people.

As Laura rapidly planned which train to take to Charles de Gaulle in absence of the one in which I was currently being smushed, she witnessed a woman trying desperately to squeeze herself into the tin of sardines that the métro had become by this point. The doors would not completely shut, however, so someone began to pull her out of the RER. But horrors! The doors began to close again and at the same time, the train began to move so that the woman was trapped between inside and outside the RER. At the last minute, she freed herself and pulled away from the train which, along with me and Laura T, sped away toward Charles de Gaulle Aéroport.

It couldn’t get worse, I told myself. What I didn’t realize was that when Parisians have to get somewhere, they don’t care if there are walls in their way. The walls had better move or they’ll get mowed over. The same thing goes with a woman laden with every personal belonging, clinging cat-like to a center pole in a moving subway, sweating profusely by this point. If the woman doesn’t move, she will get jostled and body-slammed until the wave of exiting people ends and the ENTERING begins. I have a tiny idea of what someone who is looking smack into a tsunami might feel: when you are facing a sea of Parisians on a rush-hour RER, nothing passes through your mind except, “ah non, here it comes!” and you brace yourself for impact.

To make a redundant story short, after two stops (which doesn’t sound like a long time but it truly is an eternity), most of Paris got OFF the RER, and I was left with the rest of the sweating people, lugging equally obnoxious baggage off to Charles de Gaulle and their flights. Looking back, it’s rather dream-like. I’m not sure how I got on the métro, off the métro or even had the ability not to get robbed. But somehow, not only did I manage to live through the RER experience, but I lived through the airport experience, the flight experience and the counter-culture shock experience when I got home.

When it comes down to it, the crazy Parisian métro is just one more little hurdle, and when I sat down at my aunt and uncle’s kitchen table with a giant plate of chocolate chip cookies and ice cold milk, I forgot all about my trials and relished being home and being American.

[I have two more posts to share with you. Stick around for the goodbyes and thank yous!]

To learn more about the métro and it’s fascinating history (and to see a map!!) click here.

I Can Ride My Bike With No Handlebars Tuesday, Jun 8 2010 

Did you pack your Chucks along with your Gucci talons (high heels) from Monaco? Good deal! Because now, instead of promenading along the gilded streets of Monaco, we’re off to Dijon, where the famous mustard originates, the wine flows more freely than water and the tourists get sloshed every day (because they can!)

Countryside near Dijon, France and beautiful vineyards (or as Laura would say, "wine fields!")

Armed with a lot of water, and good shoes, the two Lauras and I took a train from Dijon (which seemed wrong, since we had just arrived in the city less than 24 hours earlier) to Beaune. Beaune is the capital of the Burgundy wine-producing region, and although nearby Dijon is much larger, Beaune is largely unspoiled by gawking tourists and remains blissfully picturesque. It boasts a “smashing Saturday market,” so after renting bicycles for the day, we wandered to the market, and “smashing” it certainly was!

Me and my bike!

We bought fabulous mustard seed-coated formage (cheese), a twisted baguette, sweet tomatoes and the rest of our yummy picnic lunch.  Packed with our pique-nique lunch, we embarked on a 24 kilometer trip to Puligny-Montrachet where some of the world’s foremost Chardonnay is produced. We explored on our bikes via rolling, sweeping hills and zipping down and around the old streets of picturesque villages and gazing at the zigzagged rows of vines on either side of the roads.

A column naming the vineyard's owner and city of origin

Vineyards.... and a horse and plow!

Baby grapes...

Everything was smooth riding (with the exception of some huffing and puffing up some hills) until the moment where Laura T thought it would be a good idea to tumble, headlong, off her bike and on to the pavement, effectively scraping herself in several places and scaring Laura the Chef and I silly. But what a trooper she was! After getting bandaged up (along with popping several painkillers), she hopped back on her bike and away we went.

My Lauras, just before Laura T had a close encounter with the pavement.

The fateful road... and a wicked rough hill to bike UP. (A moment of silence, please, for Laura Trude's skin.)

When we reached Puligny-Montrachet, we were tired. Some of us were sporting abrasions, others were sporting awesome sweat stains and others were regretting the giant 1.5 liter of Coke she had purchased earlier (It turns out that Coke is heavy not to mention NOT thirst-quenching!). But none of the above were going to stop us from tasting the world’s finest Chardonnay and Pinot Noir!

Wine tasting (and spitting bucket in background). In case you didn't know already, you don't DRINK all the wine in a tasting. You unceremoniously spit it OUT, right in front of everyone. Counter-intuitive? Yes.

So we signed up to taste (NOT GULP!!!) wine while we lazily soaked in the atmosphere of the Burgundian countryside. That night, back in Beaune (and still sweaty and somewhat bedraggled by this point), we had a delicious meal of Boeuf Bourguignon, regional wine, cheese and exquisite dessert.

Boeuf Bourguignon

Pretty Laura the Chef at a great dinner in Beaune!

By the end of the day, when we removed our Chucks (not our Guccis!), we were exhausted: physically and emotionally. But I think it is safe to say that it was my all-time favorite day of this last fling in France.

Boeuf Boeurginon

To learn about Pugligny-Montrachet, click here… and then get a corkscrew and a wine glass! Chin! (Cheers!)

To see the surrounding area of Dijon and a map of the route we took biking, click here.

Remember to check out Laura the Chef’s blog! It boasts a great new post about our Ice Cream Overload in Nice from a few days ago!

[I have 24 hours left in the country and only a few more blog posts before I say farewell. Stay tuned for the final installments!]

Dispelling the Myths: The “American” Study Abroad Experience Friday, May 21 2010 

I have spent the morning reading my University of North Dakota colleagues’ experiences overseas this past year, and I felt ashamed that the one thing I have not conveyed to the general population is what Study Abroad really is and is NOT about. I feel compelled, as in any post, to teach my readers something about the system of studying overseas, culture or how to overcome obstacles. Therefore, I give you: dispelling the myths of the “American” studying abroad experience.

I will be completely honest and say that when Study Abroad told me that the process of applying to another college, getting a visa, booking plane tickets, organizing classes, rearranging my courses at UND and bracing myself for culture shock would be EASY… I believed them. I know they meant well, but they lied to me. It’s not easy. It’s excruciatingly difficult. The difficulty of studying abroad is what gives the Study Abroad advisors their jobs. If it were so ridiculously simple, I could have done the paperwork myself! Just getting on the airplane pointed toward my destination felt like a HUGE accomplishment!

Traveling is exhausting!

And just in case you didn’t feel like you accomplished anything by getting on an airplane where the pilot speaks your native language, the next step is even more worthy of a victory dance. The culture shock of studying abroad is nothing to skim over. You’ll recall my entry about the Culture Shock Ninja and his sneaky ways! I do not jest. He is very sneaky.

Culture Shock Ninja Weapons: 1 Kg of Nutella and a Spoon!

Study Abroad is many things, but it is not a chance for a student to go overseas for the express purpose of getting themselves sloshed every night and to wake up with a splitting headache.

Study Abroad is not about going to every country except the one you came to acquaint yourself with. If you came to learn a language and meet the native speakers, why go globetrotting? See the sights! Enjoy the culture! Drink the wine! Speak with the native speakers (even though their Normandy accent is almost impossible to understand)!

Studying overseas is NOT cheap. It does NOT cost the same as your in-state tuition. The end.

Too bad that's a 1000 Czech crown note and not EUROS!

Trains Trains and more Trains! They aren't always reliable, especially in France and the national sport of "Striking!"

Americans have the same warped perceptions of how “small” Europe is in the same way the Europeans have a warped perception of how giant North America is. It takes a very long time to get from point A to B via train.

Study Abroad IS, however, an experience of a lifetime. When I tried to wiggle out of studying abroad, the realization that I would never get another experience like this one struck me, and I signed on (with much fear and trembling!) for the bumpy ride.

Study of a language abroad is invaluable to acquisition. It takes seeking out the people with whom you do not share a common language outside of French and talking with them, stumbling through bad grammar and phraseology in order to convey your thoughts.

It is a way to shrink the world. You will find that you’re only a plane ride away from your family and just down the hall from the girl from Italy who’ll be your friend for the rest of your life. You may even be in the same CITY as your culturally-adopted family!

University Family

My new Brothers and Sisters

It is a time for growth: physically, mentally, academically and spiritually.

Studying abroad is a time to be flexible in your sleep schedule, your class schedule and your every-day comforts. It’s a time to let go of things you thought you absolutely need to live and see how it is to live like a true adventurer!

Study abroad is a unique opportunity to make lifelong friends, cultural adjustment, sacrifices, splurges and life-changing decisions.

So! With the truth before you, what will you do with your life? Where are you going with your goals, and are your goals used to bring glory to yourself or others? Are you ready for adventure? Are you ready to grow emotionally, physically and spiritually?

Go ahead, jump. Do something great.

Rouen Run Monday, May 17 2010 

When my friend Maura Talozzi (from Sienne, Italy!) asked me to go with her to Rouen, France, I knew I had a really great opportunity on my hands. If I didn’t take advantage of the opportunity, I’d regret it. Boy, was I right!

We left Caen via one of the smooth, comfortable regional trains and headed toward the stunningly pretty capital of Haute-Normandie (High Normandy). The city is about 80 miles north of Paris and just like the larger city, Rouen flanks the Seine River. It was founded by the Romans shortly before the time of Christ (58 BC) and was the second permanent city to be founded in France after Paris. Rouen was hit very hard by the Hundred Years War, mainly because of its location between England and Paris. The beautiful, white hills that surround Rouen and loom over the Seine are mined for the mineral qualities used in the famous ceramic wares that come from Haute-Normandie. Unlike Caen, Rouen was mostly spared during the bombardment of World War II. For that reason, the unique and gorgeous Norman half-timbered houses are largely untouched and look like they may have 300 years ago.

Mes tres belles amies (Maura et Molly) pendant une pause dans un parc (My pretty friends (Maura and Molly) during a break in the park)

Even though the city has a multitude of enjoyment to offer, people usually associate the city with two things: the magnificent Cathédral Notre-Dame de Rouen and Sainte Jeanne-d’Arc.

La Cathédral Notre-Dame de Rouen is the “crowning glory” of Rouen. The cathédral’s enormous cast-iron Lantern Spire rises above the city 495 feet, the tallest tower in France. The Lantern Tower was begun in the 13th century and raised in the 16th century. Construction on the cathédral itself was begun in 1150 and took on its final appearance in the 15th century. La Cathédral Notre-Dame was badly damaged during World War II and has been under constant reconstruction for 50 years and will most likely continue for another 25 years. The cathedral itself was the subject for a series of impressionist paintings by Claude Monet in the early 1900s. Monet was interested in how sunlight effected the pictorial capturing of a constant subject. It is estimated that if you were to buy only ONE of paintings by Monet, it would sell for approximately $45,000,000.

Beautiful Cathedral Notre-Dame de Rouen

Sun streaming into Cathedral Saint-Ouen, another exquisite cathedral in Rouen

One of Monet's paintings of the Rouen Cathedral worth about $45 million.

In the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen (Museum of Fine Art of Rouen), I was thrilled to actually see one of the incredible impressionistic pieces of the cathédral by Monet along with other invaluable pieces of art by the likes of Clouet, de Boullogne, Vouet and Jouvenet. The musée holds an incredible collection of irreplaceable art, hideous art and we even found startlingly realistic art in the form of a living statue. The living statue was cloaked in a white sheet, and her face was painted white. She did not move. Not even a flutter of an eyelash was delectable! Only after regarding her for several seconds did I realize she was a living, breathing human being. I marveled.

We toured the one remaining tower of the ancient castle built by Philippe Auguste in the 13th century and the place where Jeanne-d’Arc (Joan of Arc) was subjected to torture and imprisonment before her hideous fate on May 30, 1431. Jeanne-d’Arc was canonized in 1920 and is the Patron Saint of France. Throughout Rouen, there are many tributes to the saint: a cross in the Vieux-Marche (Old Market) where she was burned at the stake and Eglise Ste-Jeanne-d’Arc (Church of Joan of Arc) completed in 1979 are only two of many.

Vieux-Marche (Old Market) and I believe what is supposed to look like Jeanne-d'Arc's helmet

We spoke in French the entire day, falling into yet another culture “melange” that has become very comfortable yet at the same time remains painfully exhausting. As we rolled back into Caen after such a full and wonderful day, I thought that the world had shrunk a little bit more with the acquisition of my Italian friend Maura while we spoke in French about things of the world.

Beautiful half-timbered houses you do not commonly find in Caen because of the bombardment from World War II

If you’d like to learn more about Rouen or see what the newer parts of the city look like, click here.

To learn more extensively about La Cathédral Notre-Dame, click here.

Kamakazi Culture Shock Thursday, May 6 2010 

I have an apology to make to my faithful followers: I have given you a warped sense of living in France. You may have thought that living in France has been nothing but sunshine and flowers, pain au chocolat and fantastic churches. I have been careful to conceal all meltdowns I have experienced and have realized that by doing so have given you a warped sense of the emotional rollercoaster ride that is studying abroad. However, the truth has been hidden long enough and therefore, I give you the post where I admit to going a bit grey over French and Culture Shock.

If Culture Shock had a human form, it’d be a ninja. Stealthy, plotting, sneaky–it attacks when you least expect it. It comes out of thin air and kamakazi attacks you from behind without giving you time to arm yourself with the weapons needed for hand-to-hand Culture Shock Combat. The Culture Shock Ninja doesn’t leave very many survivors, either. Victims can be identified by the blank, mindless stare most commonly found among beginning French students mid-worksheet at about 4 PM on any given day of the week. Sometimes victims burst into random tirades in English or fervent “Franglais” protesting whatever injustice they feel has been dealt them and in extreme cases, the victim may burst into tears and threaten (if only to herself!) to leave the classroom.

The Culture Shock Ninja is very cunning, too. He doesn’t only use the culture in question as a means for emotional, physical or psychological distress. He uses every single instance around you to slowly grate away at your nerves until–all at once–you flip out! “WHY IS THERE NO HEAT IN MY ROOM?!”  she may or may not yell to nobody. “DON’T THEY KNOW IT’S COLD IN THIS BUILDING?! ARE THEY INSANE?! I’M GOING TO FREEZE TO DEATH IN FRANCE!!!!!!!!!!!!” Also very common is the distinct lack of chocolate resources when the Culture Shock Ninja strikes. It is widely suggested throughout the Culture Shock World that the Culture Shock Ninja waits until chocolate resources are at their most minimal and then makes its attack. The victim, upon realizing she has no chocolate resources and may suffer frostbite at the hands of the person who turned off her heat may be observed to yell, “WHY DO I HAVE NO CHOCOLATE???! THIS IS MADNESS! I AM GOING TO MARCHE PLUS THIS INSTANT FOR AT LEAST 10 EUROS WORTH OF FATTENING SUBSTANCES!!!!!!!!!” and then stalks off in a full-on chocolate hunt.

Another weapon that the Culture Shock Ninja uses is environmental annoyances. For example, the victim, while sitting in a classroom of depressing bareness can become so worked-up over the slamming of  the doors, scraping of chairs from upstairs, clicking pens, snapping joints, incessantly sniffing noses, tippy desks and scratching chalk that she may or may not have just enough self control not to 1) lock the doors by whatever means necessary, 2) tip over every chair in the building in angst, 3) snatch pens away from classmates, 4) hand out tissues and insist that they “blow” and 5) break every piece of chalk that the teacher has in her possession into the tiniest shards possible.

So what, you may be asking, is the remedy for such awful symptoms of the Culture Shock Ninja? There are weapons to combat the Culture Shock Ninja if you feel its presence or its impending attack. Go for a walk to Marche Plus to buy boatloads of nice things to eat (i.e. substances with a lot of endorphines also known as Dark French Chocolate (DFC)). Go for a walk to the castle while listening to show tunes, singing along to them on your iPod while skipping. Make some tea and write a blog post about your grey hair. Take a deep breath and tell yourself that you only have a few days left in the country. Seek out the wonderful hugs you know your friends are ready to give. Boo-hoo on their shoulders, taking care to soak them throughly (it’s okay to cry). Realize that you really do love France, you wouldn’t change the experience for the world, and everything will be better in the morning.

April in Paris Monday, Apr 19 2010 

My Spring Break Travels ended up in Paris, the Gem of the West. Staying in Paris was a quick stop-over from a long train ride from Salzburg. I saw so much and so little at the same time, because the city of Paris is not something you can just see for one day and say that you’ve seen the city. You might not be able to see the city in a whole lifetime!

The river Seine and the walls of the canal, protected by UNESCO.

Paris was founded by a tribe of Gaulish people called the Parisii in about the year 250 BC, although archeological finds have seen evidence of inhabitation from as early as the 4th millennium BC. The Parisii settled the land known today by the world as the “Île de la Cité,” a little island in the middle of the Seine River in Paris. All was well in the world until the Romans invaded. And then the Vikings invaded, and then the rest of the world invaded (almost including Attila the Hun, who swung just south of the city, thanks, it is said, to Saint Genevive, Patron Saint of Paris!).

Today, there are no Turkish invaders, no Attilas, and the closet thing to a Viking invader was me, a 3rd generation Norwegian-American who can barely scrape together a sentence in the Norwegian language. Paris today is a vast city of art, culture, tourism, haute couture and history. Its streets ramble in all directions and getting lost is a serious concern. Such a cultural melange was never seen! Chinese, American, Spanish, Italian, French, Irish, English, Saudi Arabian… it’s not crazy to be surrounded by people with entirely different backgrounds and all be interested in the same city.

Lovers from all over the world flock to Paris. They bring locks to fasten to this bridge and then they throw the key into the Seine to symbolize lasting love. Aww.

So many famous sights are within a stone’s throw from each other: Place de la Concorde (where the guillotine was set up for many years as a grisly reminder of the 1,300 deaths from the French Revolution), Arc de la Defense, La Louvre (which houses over 33,000 pieces of art!), Les Jardins de Tuilieries, L’Orangerie Museum, L’Arc du Triomphe, and the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel seem to point in a straight line. They point directly down the Champs-Elysees and cut a line through the heart of Paris.

The Famous Pyramid Entrance to the Louvre by American Architect, I. M. Pei, thought to be "the most controversial artwork in Paris" because of the mass dislike voiced by the Parisians. It lines up perfectly with L'Arc du Triomphe and the Place de la Concorde!

Place de la Concorde, the Obelisk which replaced the Guillotine from the French Revolution that stood here for many years to remind the people of the grisly revolt.

It’s possible, of course, to write a BOOK on Paris with such famous and historic landmarks, let alone cover it in one fell swoop with a blog post, but I will try to convey the visit I had with the famous city just a few days ago.

After so many days of rain and clouds in the other locations we visited over Spring Break, it was a delightfully blue sky that greeted me and Molly when we opened the curtains to our youth hostel. We stayed at an “all women’s” hostel which had a shocking amount of man-like women roaming around (in other words, it wasn’t an “all-women” hostel as we had expected!). Nonetheless, we left bright and early to take in Paris before our train left for Caen that night.

Me, next to the Notre Dame de Paris!

Jardin de Tuileries, the gardens that replaced the Palais de Tuileries when it was burned down in a revolt. It's beautiful, and the Parisians enjoy lounging around the pools, soaking in the sunshine. In the distance, you can see L'Arc du Triomphe and the Obelisk in the Place de la Concorde.

We took advantage of the Free Walking Tour provided by Sandman’s (check them out here!) and managed to see so many beautiful things in only 3.5 hours that I felt compelled to circle them on my map in order not to forget where we had been. Paris is enormous! Its people are in a hurry, just like any big city, and I was glad that it was spring and not summer because Paris certainly WOULD sizzle!

Probably my favorite activity of the whole day was partaking in mass at the Notre Dame de Paris. It was utterly awesome to be in such a famous cathedral. People were shockingly quiet throughout the service, and I was pleased. Molly and I moved on to find a sumptuous lunch before catching our tour. We saw the Louvre (but only from the outside!), the Tuilieries gardens, L’Arc de Defense (France’s department of defense), countless statues, bridges, landmarks and avenues. When we finished our tour at the Grand Palais and Petit Palais (both false names as neither were palaces but constructed for the World’s Fair in 1900), I was EXHAUSTED!

This is where we ended our Free Tour with Sandman's. The Petit Palais is not a palace nor is it petite. It is, however, very beautiful with its gilded doors! It's used today as a museum and conference hall.

The last stop of the day was at Montmarte, “Hill of the martyrs” where Saint Denis, the 1st bishop of Paris, was decapitated for his beliefs. It now is home to the very famous Basilique du Sacre-Coeur de Montmartre. It was built between the years of 1875 and 1914 and consecrated in 1919. From the basilica, you could see a sweeping vista of the city, a beautiful sight.

When I crawled on to the train at Gare de Saint-Lazare, Paris, I had walked about 15 miles and was utterly spent. I couldn’t quite remember a time when I was so tired! Our train was blessedly speedy and comfortable (and NOT delayed due to ash and volcanic eruptions!!!), and with our Carrefour Market suppers, Molly and I were happy as clams.

Montmartre, the "Hill of the Martyrs" with the beautiful Basilisque du Sacre-Coeur

My little dorm room had never looked so inviting or comfortable as it did that night. I crawled into bed, thanking God for His protection throughout my travels. It was a delicious, inspiring, beautiful week, one that I’d gladly repeat.

Click here to see Paris and the famous landmarks on a map!

Click here to see more of the Basilique du Sacre-Coeur in all its beauty.

Modes of Transportation Friday, Apr 16 2010 

It would seem that this Spring Break has acquired a Bad Travel Sprite. To start off the saga, we missed our flight to Prague. Our train was completely disregarded by France’s SNCF workers. When we tried to get to the airport on the second day, we were derailed (har har) again because of the same strike, only this time, in Paris and on the RER (the fast trains that run through the city)!

The Travel Sprite got lost somewhere in Paris because when we arrived in Prague, our shuttle waited for us, timing perfect and the ease of which made us all rejoice. The next day, however, the Travel Sprite reappeared, and I misread our tram map. We got off on the wrong stop and had to navigate.

Now I will impart the story of why and how I came to be inexplicably on a bus headed toward Linz, Austria as stated at the beginning of the last entry. At the time I was writing the previous narrative, I was somewhere in the Czech countryside on a bus. I firmly believed I ought to be on a train, traveling straight to Salzburg, Austria. Instead, when we arrived at our train, two nanoseconds from boarding it, we were stopped by official train workers and told that we were going to be taking an “autobus.” What! Why did we buy train tickets to get on a Czech bus? Where does it say “bus” on our TRAIN TICKETS??!

I asked 3 or 4 different people and got the same response. “Ne, ne! Autobus for you! Ano!  Dobry!” (Translation: “Even though you bought a ticket to ride a train, You are not going to take one. You will be taking a bus for 6 hours into countryside you do not know where people speak a language you do not understand all while others look to you for answers.”) I know about 10 words of Czech, all of which were spoken to me with much head-nodding and pantomime. No doubt about it! We weren’t supposed to be on a train–we were supposed to be on a bus. Why the platform at the train station said “SALZBURG” on it and why other people weren’t visibly losing their minds over the thought of taking a bus to the middle of nowhere was beyond me. But the happy-looking woman and the seasoned-looking driver didn’t look confused. I reasoned that they were educated individuals who spoke significantly more Czech than me and walked on to the bus with much fear and trembling.

Watching the Czech countryside race by my bus window... Where were we going?

SIX HOURS LATER, we got off the bus in Linz, Austria and got ON to our train in Linz destined for Salzburg. Somewhere along the trip via bus, we crossed the Austrian border, stopped numerous times for toilet breaks and turn-arounds, gazed lovingly on the beautiful rolling hills of the eastern Czech countryside and wondered where on earth we could possibly be. I, meanwhile, sat as close to the front of the bus as possible and kept tabs on the highway we were taking (E55) just in case the driver took momentary leave of his senses. When we finally made it on to the train, had our tickets examined and deemed acceptable, I finally relaxed.

Another 4 hours later, I sat in a comfortable hostel in Salzburg, Austria while the raindrops stubbornly refused to stop dropping from the sky and the setting of the Sound of Music movie shrouded the city in fame. Around the corner, I knew Mozart’s birthplace, museum and artifacts were housed. And I knew that for the time being, the Travel Sprite would have to remain in slumber.

Click here to see the hostel I crashed at. It’s pretty sweet and featured as one of the world’s best hostels.

The Golden City Wednesday, Apr 14 2010 

I am inexplicably in a bus traveling toward Linz, Austria. The sky is getting darker and darker and I am left to think about the last 2 days as well as why I am on a bus instead of a train.

I spent a beautiful two days in Prague, capital of Czech Republic with my friends. It was my 4th journey to Prague, and every time I visit the “Paris of the East” it seems to get nearer and dearer to my heart. When I landed in the plane, it was almost like I was coming home. We were warmly greeted by a kind driver who brought us to our hostel. Sir Toby’s Youth Hostel immediately won our love because of its giant fluffy pillows, warm comforters and exceptionally nice desk workers. In spite of the rain, we ventured out to a wonderful restaurant and ate traditional and delightfully cheap Czech food and then hurried back to attend a wine and cheese party at Sir Toby’s. We met a lot of interesting world travelers and shared many laughs over the Czech “stinky cheese.”

This is Sir Toby's, the Greatest Hostel in Prague.

Culture shock manifested itself with the switching of currency (it’s stressful doing division in your head all day for money purposes!) and the people-to-people customs (a startling lack of KISSING in Czech Republic as opposed to France!). I was struck again at my complete and utter lack of language skills. I have, in comparison with my Czech langauge abilities, perfect French.

It’s easy to forget that communism ruled over this country only 20 years ago. In Prague, one is surrounded by the glittering beauty of a city that works tirelessly to obliterate any trace of the deep scars imparted by communism. The rambling, majestic castle stands beyond the swiftly-flowing Vlatava River over which the Charles Bridge and all 31 of its famous statues seem to preside.

Me, on the Charles Bridge, ignoring the fact that I was getting more and more soaked with rain. Prague is beautiful, even in the rain and when you have wet feet!

Big Square by night in Prague.

One of my favorite little things about Czech Republic is the existence of terracotta rooftops and the warm glow that the color seems to give the city as you look over it from the Petrin Observation Tower (which is why Prague is oftentimes referred to as the “Paris of the East”). In spite of the unwelcome rain that thinned out the usual crowds of people, I soaked in the distinct beauty that one can only find in Prague by night.

Prague, splendid view from the Petrin Observation Tower

The City of Terracotta rooftops. The reason it was called the Golden City comes from the practice of putting the city's extensive gold reserves on the rooftops, safe from thieves.

The people you meet in the shops, at the hostels or waiting your table seem to be bred for niceness, as though its part of their very core to be kind and generous. Yet at the same time, as my friend Molly observed, there is a distinct feel to the city and its people. The Czech people have suffered under persecution from destructive government regimes for many decades, and it’s as though they are very anxious and happy to show others what their city is truly like (warm and welcoming!) instead of the stigma that might still linger from the days of communism and a closed-off country’s inhospitality.

Prague Castle by night. The lights of the castle are reflected in the Vlatava River.

If any country in Central-Eastern Europe can make you fall in love, it’s Prague. Come visit! Stay for awhile and soak in the kindness, the atmosphere and the beauty of a country that is worth a second look. The story of how I came to be on a bus instead of a train will be saved for the next installment of my adventure in Czech Republic.

Me, Molly and Laura spending time in the castle gardens with breathtaking views of the Vlatava River and the city.

To learn about the Petrin Observation Tower, click here.

To learn a little Czech History and how far this country has come in the last century, click here.

To see where I stayed and where you can find Sir Toby’s, click here. You won’t be disappointed!!! This is the BEST HOSTEL!