Summer travels

I got to take two great trips with other Peace Corps volunteers this summer – one to Odessa, Ukraine to do some lounging by the Black Sea, and the other to Helsinki, Finland where a few friends of mine were running their first marathon.

A group of us went to Odessa in July.  It was beautiful, relaxing, fun, and filled with lots of sushi-eating.  Our hostel situation got a little tricky when they only reserved six beds instead of the nine we requested, but luckily we’re Peace Corps volunteers and flexibility is in our blood.  Six of us ended up sharing the bottom bunks of the three bunk beds they set aside for us.  Quite the experience.  We swam in the Black Sea, soaked in the beautiful beachside pools, enjoyed some tropical drinks, and went out dancing.  Granted, everything was in Russian, and there wasn’t a whole lot of English around, so that certainly challenged our charades skills, but somehow we managed.  I didn’t take many pictures, but I threw a few together that will hopefully give a vague idea of how we spent our weekend.

Then there was Helsinki this month.  The weather was amazing, in the 60s.  We took a boat tour, ate great food, I wandered around the city while my colleagues were exhausting their leg muscles for 26 miles, went out to celebrate their impressive physical feat, went to an aquarium, an amusement park, and stayed in at hostel right next to the Olympic stadium from the 80s.  It was a fantastic trip.  Fantastic.

This roller coaster was built in the 1950s!

My next trip, in September,will take me to Istanbul, Turkey, where I’ll meet up with a friend of mine from back in the States!  Absolutely looking forward to that!

My Christmas Vacation

Christmas is sort of a big deal for my family; we’ve spent the holidays together for the past 25 years (give or take a fews years being that I have two younger sisters).  My mom pulls out her Mary Poppins bag of Christmas decorations and transforms our house into a winter wonderland.  She sets out countless nativities, nutcrackers, wraps garland around the banisters, bakes like Betty Crocker, and my parents light up the front of the house like the Griswolds in Christmas Vacation.  (I say this all of this endearingly – I love Christmas at home and I wouldn’t have it any other way.)

Well, this year was my first Christmas ever away from home.  And for me, honestly, it’s sort of like Christmas didn’t really even happen.  Like this year is just going to be double the days between the winter holidays.  Strange.  Not sad necessarily, just different.  But I also realized how much I value that time with my family; it’s one of the few times where we all just get to sit and enjoy being together.  And I realized that in my “adult life,” spending the holiday together is a priority for me.  Not that it hasn’t been in the past, but we’ve all just conveniently been around for it.  But now I know, no matter where I go, I’ll always want to come home for Christmas.   

That said, I decided not to go home for the holidays this year since I’m only six months into my Peace Corps service and I think it would be hard to trek all the way home now with 18 months still awaiting me in Moldova.  Instead, I decided to travel a bit through Europe.  See some cities that I didn’t get to the last time around.  Hey, if I couldn’t be home, I did want to do something fun and exciting for the holidays!  And go where there would be LOTS of Christmas.  Everywhere.

So a friend and I embarked on what I like to call the “BAB.”  (I have to credit my position at ASU for this one, and my colleague Jill Johnson.  We were constantly coming up with funny acronyms for events.  If you’ve ever done event planning, saying/writing the entire event name gets old quickly.)  But “BAB” stands for Berlin, Amsterdam and Belgium. 

In order to find cheap enough tickets for our meager Peace Corps budget, we had to take an overnight train from the capital of Moldova to Bucharest, Romania.  It’s an old train, and they actually have to spend hours at the border changing the wheels because Romania’s tracks are more modern.  We learned that this train ride also has ample heat.  In fact, we were sweating by the end of it…we couldn’t shut our cabin door because it was so hot.  But, sweaty or not, we arrived at the train station in Bucharest, and we had to find the bus that takes us to the tiny little airport where the cost effective airlines fly out of.  When all was said and done, it probably took us a good 30 hours to finally get to Berlin.

But to avoid boring everyone with all the silly details, I’ll list some quick highlights below.  (Also, you can check out the album here.)

Berlin

  • Saw the Reichstag (Loved it – I’m a government NERD!)
  • Saw the Brandenburg Gate
  • Walked through the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe and the museum below
  • Visited the Topography of Terror Museum about the Nazi regime in the place where the Gestapo HQ used to be
  • Visited three amazing Christmas markets with trinkets, food and hot wine!
  • Walked through the Pergamon Museum with reconstructed pieces from the gate to Babylon (SO cool)
  • Toured the Berlin Cathedral – all the way to the walkway at the top of the dome!
  • Strolled through the East Side Gallery where artists have painted the portions of the Berlin Wall still standing (amazing – the concept that )
  • Walked through the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, accidently from finish to start (oops, I think we came in through the exit, Andrea…)  Checkpoint Charlie was a crossing point between east and west Berlin.  It was the only crossing point that foreigners and Allied forces were allowed to use between the two sides.  Lots of cool stories here.

Amsterdam

  • Stopped off at the Anne Frank house, where she, her family and several friends hid until they were reported and taken away by the Nazis in 1944.  Only her father survived.
  • Took a 3-hour walking tour of Amsterdam through a company called NewEurope (would definitely recommend).  Learned a lot about the city itself and its history.
  • Visited the Van Gogh Museum (loved!!).  I’m fan of impressionist artwork, and I especially like some of the Van Gogh’s philosophies in choosing what he painted (depicting reality and the common people), so this was worth every penny.
  • Took a 2-hour “Cannibas” walking tour.  Our guide explained the policies on marijuana (which is actually illegal to buy/sell/smoke in Amsterdam, but is overlooked by authorities), the evolution of those policies, current controversies and industrial uses of cannibas (the industrial uses were fascinating – hemp can actually be used to produce biodegradable plastic).  Amsterdam is currently looking at making it’s “coffee shops” (stores where customers can buy/smoke marijuana) member-only establishments, prohibiting access to foreigners/tourists, who apparently make up most of their business. 
  • Walked through the Red Light District (honestly, this mostly just made me sad)
  • Got stuck in Amsterdam because of a 24-hour train strike in Belgium.  Found some quick accomodations near the train station, wandered around for an extra day, and left for Belgium a day late on an early train.

Belgium

  • Started our tour with a quick, 4-hour visit to Antwerp.  Saw the Het Steen Castle, which is apparently the oldest building in Antwerp, and (of course) hit the Christmas markets.  Ate a delicious macaroon at one.
  • Headed to Brussels, left our luggage at the train station, and booked it to the European Parliament before it closed.  Wished I had more time there to do more reading (again, government NERD!).
  • Visited Christmas markets in Brussels, saw the holiday light show in Grand Place, bought chocolate, ate chocolate, and ate some more chocolate.  Got lost trying to get to our hotel (chocolate-induced coma?).
  • Took a day trip to Brugge on Christmas Eve.  Saw Michelangelo’s statue depiciton of Madonna and Child, created out of marble in the 1500s.  Amazing.  Beautiful architecture, Christmas markets, and best hot cocoa/Christmas cupcakes around!
  •  I did get to Skype with my family on Christmas (three cheers for video chatting!), and that was great.  I watched my sisters open some gifts, watched our dog open a new squeaky squirrel (yep, even Toby gets gifts!), and watched them do some cooking in the kitchen.  It was great.

Returning to Moldova was a whole other experience.  We had to take the tram to the train station, where we had to find the unmarked bus that will drive us an hour outside Brussels to the little airport where our flight was departing.  Upon arrival in Bucharest, Romania, we had about an hour an a half to get to the train station if we wanted to take the spacious, overnight train instead of the overnight bus.  Well, we step off the plane into the bus that will take us to customs and baggage claim.  That bus waits there for 20 minutes because someone has left a backpack on the plane.  We finally get to customs, sure we’ll have to take the bus, but then we speedily manage to flash our passports, our luggage comes out in the first three minutes, and we snake through the crowds outside, hoping to find a taxi that will get us to the train station quickly.  Taxi driver tells us he can have us thee in 15 minutes.  Let’s give it a go!  So we hop in and arrive to the train station 30 minutes ahead of our departure.  Window 1 sends us to another window, where the cashier tells us to go outside and to the right, where another cashier tells us we have to go to window 1.  Well, we finally get there, get our tickets, and the train leaves a half hour later than we thought.  Regardless, we’re just happy to have some room to spread out and sleep.  Back to the capital, back to my site on a bus, back to Moldova.