Monday, April 25, 2011

Traveling Woman, pt. 2

Austria is Catholic, and as Catholics, they really believe in celebrating Easter. Luckily for me (and every other TA in this country), that means a 2 week vacation for me! I took the opportunity to get out of Austria and instead head south to the land of carbs, cheese and gelato... yes, Italy.
Guess where this is!

Venice (April 16-17) - I've been to Venice before, with the University of Portland Salzburg group back in 2008, but unfortunately for us, it was pouring rain then. This time around, Taylor, Jenni and I explored the city with about 50,000 other tourists. Really, Venice is kind of crazy... It seems to me that everyone there must either work in tourism or be a tourist themselves. By the end of our 2 days there, we were all nearly tricked into buying an unnecessary mask or glass dish of some sort... but I'm ranting. Venice truly is a city built around the canals, with police vehicles and even ambulances cruising in the water, dodging through the tourists on gondolas. 

Scott scampering on some rocks in Riomaggiore
Cinque Terre (April 17-22) - Oh goodness, there's so much to say about the Cinque Terre. As Taylor exclaimed immediately after leaving the train station at 11:30 PM, "I love it so much!". The Cinque Terre are five coastal towns (hence "Cinque Terre") connected by a train track and hike-able paths. We chose to stay in Corniglia, the middle and smallest of the five towns, with a population less than the number of stairs it takes to reach it (382 or so, which is a lot of stairs after a 4 hour hike.). Our group of ladies was joined by another TA, Scott, and we four followed Rick Steves's walking tours around all of the Cinque Terre and two bonus cities. The views from the hikes were fantastic, the towns were quaint, the tourists were at a minimum, and the gelato was abundant... basically it was five days in heaven. Also, I saw my first real fireflies (!!!) although I may have nearly killed one in my excitement. I truly hope I can return to the Cinque Terre at some other point in my life, because it seems like a place where many new things can be discovered. Thanks, Rick Steves!

A view of Manarola... the colors were fantastic!
A tourist doing the typical "holding up the tower" pose.
Pisa (April 21) - Pisa, as most people know, is home to a rather famous but useless building: the Leaning Tower of Pisa. We took a 2 hour stop in Pisa solely to see this photo-worthy tower and discovered that yes, folks, it really does lean! Construction on the building started in 1178, and they noticed quickly that it was leaning, so, to compensate, the constructors decided to build the next couple levels with one side shorter than the other. Logical, right? Anyway, other than the tower Pisa left a lot to be desired. If Pisa ever tires of its tourist, it just needs to take down the tower to become another medium-sized, somewhat boring Italian city. Problem solved!

A bookstore we found in Florence. I can only imagine
 how difficult it is to find a specific book in there!
Florence (April 21-23) - After our brief stop in Pisa, we continued on our journey to Florence, the home of lots of art and people selling fake brand-name things. We took a nice walk around the city and saw all the sights (which Jenni and I had seen before when we came with UP), but for me the best part of the stay was our hostel (Plus Florence Hostel, if you're curious)! Among other amenities, there was a pool, sauna and Turkish spa of which we certainly took advantage. Returning to the "big" (population: 367,000) city of Florence proved to be a bit overwhelming after our relaxing break in Cinque Terre. Florence is a big study abroad hot-spot, and I can see why. The city is big yet easy to navigate, and there are lots of interesting museums and churches for art history people to study. Plus, it's nice looking.

Anyway, I'm happy to be back in Austria. The strange thing about major tourist areas is that English is spoken more often than the native language, and definitely not just by native English speakers! It's strange to be able to understand everyone around you, since the majority of what people talk about is either complaining or just nonsense. It's kind of nice to be in Austria, where every conversation going on around me is a mystery that I can try to understand or not. Vacations are great because you can see so much and learn a lot about other cultures, but they have a tendency to become a major money-sucker, which frugal people like me tend to stress about.

Traveling Woman, pt. 1

I've been doing some traveling recently, which has been interesting. Traveling makes me appreciate what I've got here in Vienna while also helping me learn interesting things about other places. A few weekends ago, I took a trip with my friend Laura to Sofia, Bulgaria. I won't talk about everything, but here are some highlights (in no particular order, to keep everyone on their toes):

    Rila Monastery (take a peek at the awesome frescoes!)
  • Rila Monastery - On our second day in Sofia, we participated in an excursion offered from our hostel, and we took a terrifying (because of our crazy driver) two hour drive into the mountains near Sofia. We ended up at the Monastery of Saint Ivan of Rila, an impressive complex built originally in the 10th century, though most what is left was built in the 19th century. The church in the middle is beautiful, with fantastically colorful frescoes everywhere! Also, we some some monks walking around... and I like monks.
  • Free walking tour - Our first day, Laura insisted that we take a free walking tour of the city, which was a great idea! We got to visit all the important places of Sofia with someone telling us interesting things about them. Sofia is on top of a natural spring (rather than a river or lake like most European cities), and we got to see some Sofians filling 5 gallon jugs with water. Also, I won a prize for answering a trivia question. 
  • These bracelets are tied to trees during spring
    after a Bulgarian sees a stork, to bring good
    luck in the following year! I have one, but I've
    never seen a stork... so no good luck yet.
  • Our hostel - In Sofia, we stayed in a lovely hostel called Hostel Mostel. The hostel offered a complimentary breakfast (with 2 kinds of cheese, apples, yogurt, tomatoes AND ham!) and pasta dinner, and the friendly atmosphere made everyone feel comfortable sitting around and making small talk. We met a lot of interesting people in the hostel who often joined us on our adventures, which was great. To top it off, the hostel was dirt cheap! Overall, it was a win.
  • Learning about their crazy history - Sofia as a city has had a lot of leadership issues. It's history starts with the Thracians around the 4th century BC, which was followed by leadership by the Romans for a while. In the 800s, it became part of the Bulgarian Empire (yay!). An influential part of Sofia's history was when it was part of the Ottoman empire, from 1382 until 1878. The Turks turned some of the older churches into mosques and did a lot of other things that the Sofians didn't really like. Finally in 1878 Sofia was liberated by Russia. After siding with Germany in WWII, Bulgaria formed a Communist government, which was abolished in 1989. See, I told you it was crazy!!!! I can hardly fathom how they've managed to maintain their culture and sense of identity throughout this whole mess.
  • Cheap food - Vienna is expensive. Sofia is cheap. I ate a lot. 
Alexander Nevski Church
  • Talking to my cab driver in German - One of my favorite moments in Sofia was in the taxi ride back to the airport. While my driver was on the phone, I looked out my window and saw 1. a man reading the newspaper while driving, 2. a man rollerblading the wrong direction through traffic and 3. a man eating a sandwich and talking on the phone while driving. And people wonder while Sofia is such a nightmare, traffic-wise. Anyway, the driver and I had a great talk in German, which put me in a good mood. It's fun to speak German with people who also don't speak it perfectly, since neither of us is intimidated!  
Laura, Sloth and Guillaume enjoying baklava!
Anyway, Sofia was an interesting city, but definitely not like Vienna. It's much poorer and less stable, but the people were still very kind to a pair of non-Bulgarian-speaking American girls. At one point, we got lost while looking for a church, and asked for directions in a movie store... I ended up speaking in broken English to a women on a cell phone, because these kind Sofians were willing to do anything to help.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Appreciating and things

As June 14th comes closer, I find myself thinking more and more about what I'm going to miss about Austria when I'm back in the States. It's been a strange year, of course... sometimes exciting and wonderful, sometimes really difficult. But there are lots of little things I really dig that don't exist where I come from.

1. Relaxation - Austrians love to take it easy. My teachers are consistently 5 minutes late to class (always commenting on how I'm ready to go when the bell rings... which would still make me tardy by American standards), and they really value sitting for a mment to drink their coffee. I tend to live my life bordering on being over-stressed, so it's nice to be surrounded by people who are never going to pressure me time-wise.

2. Aufstrich - Aufstrich is a wonderful spread found in most grocery stores here. It's made up of soy beans mixed with vegetables, garlic and some spices. Personally, I like to put tomato-basil on my sandwiches and eat curry-pineapple with my plain bread. I guess it's kind of like hummus.. only less tahini, and more variety.

3. Public transportation - When I go to work, I ride the train for about 3 hours a day. I am so glad that time is not spent driving a car, but rather in the comfort of a train where I can spread out, read, eat, study or sleep! The underground in Vienna is also a great way to get around the city, since it goes basically everywhere I need to go. It even runs all night on the weekends! I hate having to pay for a monthly transportation pass, but it definitely is cheaper than driving... so that's great.

4. Ability to speak German at any time - I like speaking (correct) German, a lot. It's a fun language for me; kind of mathematical, sometimes English-like, sometimes absolutely different from everything I know. Sure, I don't speak it all the time, but it's pretty cool to be able to practice whenever I want! I've been making some serious progress with my small-talking skills, which helps me feel comfortable. Anyway, I don't get the chance to speak much German in the States.

Austria is cute!
5. Picturesque countrysides - I wish I could explain the quaintness of Austrian villages. 3 or 4 onion-shaped church towers (does anyone know what that style is really called?) surrounded by peaks of red roofs... It's adorable. Not to mention the bunnies and deer that I see daily, and the Danube! I love my train ride and the chance to see such a cute countryside.

6. Brown eggs - Eating a white hardboiled egg just isn't the same... I'm always afraid I'll eat the shell.

7. Teaching - Teaching has made me smarter and wiser about current events, history and the world in general and I really like doing it! I'll definitely miss gathering all the fun facts I have learned this year (such as: Austria gets 39% of its energy from rivers, there are 300,000 homeless people in America, and 34% of Americans are obese!).  It's fun to help my students realize new things, and really awesome to see them make progress. Don't know if I'll manage to incorporate this into my future or not... only time will tell.

So, yes. Austria is great and different.

(But I still can hardly wait for Stumptown coffee, Indian food, a dryer and the ability to sing in my car while driving where I need to go!)