One month ago I was on my way to Newark, New Jersey with my parents, preparing to fly out the next day. I can’t decide if it feels like it’s been a month or not. Part of me feels like this journey is going so incredibly quickly and yet the other part of me feels like I’ve been here for a year, not a month. I think it’s because I have never had so much happen to me within a period of only a few weeks. I’m ready for October though. I’m ready to feel more at home in Praha, to travel, to learn, to explore, to change. I was already thinking yesterday how once October ends and November comes upon me, I’ll be able to say “I go home next month” and I KNOW that will freak me out. I came here with an agenda. There are places I want to visit, and so much I want to do. I will admit that so far I’ve just been nestled in the backseat of this rollercoaster ride, afraid of facing it upfront. I’m hoping in the next few weeks this huge dose of boldness will get to me. At the same time, I’m still very proud of what I have accomplished in September.
The weather last week in Prague was incredible, and autumn is definitely making its presence. This week has been nothing but rain, but I don’t mind. Classes are going well, although I’m finding it difficult to stay on top of everything. My planner is filled already with all these assignments and requirements and exams and its week two. I think I wasn’t ready for the slap in the face that said, “Um, yeah Andy, this is not a vacation.” I’ve learned so much in my classes though, probably more than I have ever learned before. What is incredible is having two classes, Art and Architecture and History of Jews in Bohemia, which have out classes every Wednesday. This means we get to actually go out into Praha and witness what we’re learning about. For example, last Wednesday I got to go with my Art and Architecture professor to visit the oldest homes in Prague, which are situated underneath Old Town Hall. Old Town Hall is beautiful inside, by the way, and I actually got to be inches away from the Astronomical Clock figurines. We went down a number of staircases, and finally ended up in homes that were built in the 11th Century. The city has literally built upon itself, because now these homes are completely underground. It was one of the most interesting places I have ever been. The homes were almost completely intact, the floors were made out of stones from the Vltava River, and we even got to see a section that was turned into a prison cell. In the cell, the former prisoners etched their names and the date they were there into the walls, so we got to see things like, “VACLAV: 1603”. I didn’t bring my camera on this excursion though, and I do apologize. This actually brings up something I want to discuss. There are going to be days in the future when I don’t take my camera along, because I want to experience what I’m seeing fully, and not behind a camera lens. It was great to explore these homes and pay attention to the information and take everything in, without getting distracted by my camera. It made me realize I should do that more often, but don’t worry, I’ll still be taking plenty of pictures. =]
I decided to sign up for the November trip to Berlin after all. Even though I originally thought I’d rather visit other cities that weekend, I realized I’d wanted to go to Germany for quite some time, and I’ve heard that Berlin is incredible. In the next two weeks, I’ll be planning my fall break. I decided that I’ll be spending four days in either France or Italy, but trying to pick one and then focus on a city is going to be so difficult. Versailles, Rome, and Venice are all at the top of my list though. If you know me, you’ll also know that it’s possible that I’ll end up going somewhere like…Zurich instead haha. I don’t even know why I plan these things.
This past weekend was my trip to Budapest! It all began on Friday when a few of the people in our group for that weekend met up at this restaurant called “The Globe” to talk about final arrangements. I am in love with this place. It’s owned by Americans, so the menus and books that are available in their bookstore are in English, and it’s easy to strike up a conversation with them since we share a commonality. One of the workers was telling us how Tom Cruise was in town, and that he actually worked on a movie set with him before. I ordered, as I always do, the hot fudge brownie with ice cream. If I spend 1/3 of my study abroad funds on this dessert, I will not be surprised. It’s that good. The place also has free wifi, movie nights, and a great atmosphere. If you come to Prague, make sure you check it out! After “The Globe”, I went to one of my friend’s apartments for a Small Time Crooks themed night. Small Time Crooks is a 2000 Woody Allen film about a ploy to rob a bank that somehow ends up with the main characters getting filthy rich with a cookie business. So before the movie, our friend Hannah made delicious cookies, cheese bread, and malled wine. It was such a relaxing night and the perfect ending to a great week.
On Saturday, I woke up at around 4:30 in the morning in order to watch the sunrise at Charles Bridge with a few friends. It’s something I definitely would do again, and it set the tone for our trip that weekend. At 7am we departed Prague on a bus and began our 6-7 hour journey to Budapest. Our bus stopped in Bratislava, Slovakia, and we had a minor issue when one of our group members got their card stuck in the ATM machine, and had to leave it there. Thankfully, he handled the setback so well (I would have cried and screamed) and we continued on with our journey. Before arriving in Budapest, I felt like we were driving through the fields of Pennsylvania, and I got home sickness that lasted .7 seconds. Our bus dropped us off at a metro in Budapest, and we took out some cash, bought transportation tickets, and headed to our hostel. We had some difficulties getting there, but the people of Budapest were SO friendly. People were actually coming up to us and asking if we needed help (something we aren’t used to in Prague), and that was a trend the whole weekend. I was skeptical about how the hostel situation would be since I never stayed in one before, but it proved me wrong. Our hostel had a team of friendly and helpful owners, and it felt like we were all staying in this cozy house together. We stayed with a few Germans, and also a Peace Corps member who had traveled to Budapest for her first marathon. We spent Friday afternoon and night exploring some of the city, eating at this traditional restaurant (I had gulash, and it was…amazing), and meeting up with some friends who were also there that weekend.
Sunday started off with a quick breakfast, and then we went to a tour that lasted for four hours. If you would have told me before that the tour would have been that long, I would probably have ended up just doing my own, much shorter, walk around the city; however, the tour was fantastic. We got to see two festivals that were taking place in Budapest at that time, heard the interesting history behind all the beautiful buildings, saw an old castle that looked like it was out of Lord of the Rings, and even went inside one of the oldest synagogues in Budapest on a religious day. Our tour guides were so sweet, and we made some friends throughout that day (and also saw a German/Czech couple who were also on our bus the previous day, and would be where we were later that night. SO bizarre, but we loved them). After the tour we ate at this place called the Hummus Bar, and that’s where we met our friend Richard. Richard was a really friendly waiter at the restaurant who gave us all these tips and tricks for a weekend in Budapest (one such tip was to manipulate our transportation tickets so we didn’t have to buy new ones, which worked out until two of our friends got caught and had to pay a $35 fine). The food at the restaurant was so delicious, that I can honestly say I think it was the best meal I have ever had; I ordered the hummus plate with falafel, and got lemonade with mint leaves to drink. The meal was so great that we even went back the next day before we left, and also gave Richard our names. We are now friends with him on Facebook haha. The whole Richard situation made me laugh because in Eat, Pray, Love, a book by Elizabeth Gilbert, she meets this man in India who has a great impact on her life and calls him simply, “Richard from Texas”. I now can say that I have a “Richard from Hungary”. We relaxed a bit in the late afternoon, and then went to this music club that was built under a pond. It’s still surreal to me that I can legally drink in Europe, especially because I never drank in America. I’ve actually thought a lot about the law in the US, and I really think it needs to be rethought. Here I am in Europe with alcohol all around me, and I am completely naïve towards it. I don’t know what is what, what to mix with what, what’s strong, what’s unsafe. I think it’s really important, if you’re going to be in a situation like I’m in, to research a bit before you go. Alcohol is treated with a much different mentality in Europe. It isn’t just thought of as, “Omg what a great way to get wasted and have a fun night”. It is just a way of life, and a part of culture. I really appreciate and respect how it’s viewed here (but don’t be fooled, I have definitely seen my fair share of drunk Europeans). After the club, I ended up having what would be one of the best nights of my life, because I went to a 16th century Hungarian thermal bath. Words cannot describe this place, and sadly I was not allowed to take pictures (you should google/bing/yahoo it though!). I have never felt more carefree, relaxed, and alive in my life. Here I am in this huge bath with all these people, and my friends and I are so in sync with one another. There were four smaller baths and one giant one, a heated pool, saunas, and steam rooms. The temperature of the hottest bath was 108 degrees! I spent almost three hours at the bath, and we ended up falling asleep around 4am. The city was lit up on the way home, it was raining, and I crossed a bridge that goes over the second longest river in Europe, the Danube. I feel like I’m in a dream sometimes.
The next day, I got to visit the second largest synagogue in the world. I’ve been interested in Jewish studies since elementary school, and getting the opportunity to experience things related to such an interest (the synagogue, Jewish classes I’m taking in Prague, a trip to Auschwitz next month) has been something I’m so grateful for. Unfortunately, I started to get sick throughout the day, and still am. I think the lack of sleep, weather changing, and amount of walking I do all took hits at my immune system. We left our hostel that day, and it felt so bittersweet. We said good bye to the friends we made, to the helpful staff. To Budapest. On the way back to Prague, I kept thinking “I’m going back home”.
I’ve begun to feel more comfortable with Prague this week. So far this week the highlights have been waking up to a playing piano, visiting the Jewish Quarter, and being on the movie set of Mission Impossible IV with Tom Cruise! I got a lot of my to do list done today, so I’m beginning to feel like maybe my phase of no motivation may be ending. I just get in these stupors where all I want to do is sit in my room and watch TV, but then I look out my window and think “GET OUT THERE NOW!” I can’t say enough how baffled I am by the fact that people in the USA know so little about Prague. This city has such a unique history, is incredibly beautiful, and is situated in such a way that you can travel to so many spectacular European cities. Praha is such a gem, and I truly believe there isn’t any other city like it out there. I feel like Prague is an actual entity sometimes that holds me close, and has taken me under its wing.
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*Special thanks to my friend Harrison for supplying the picture of the Charles Bridge sunrise!