Friday began a short trip after finals before going home.  I took a train to Manchester, a plane to Frankfurt-Hahn, and a bus to Frankfurt, arriving at 2 am, dead tired & trying to find my nice hostel two blocks from the station and eerily located in the red light district.  It was not a problem & the police there were really nice.  (the european city centers I’ve seen are really alive with partiers, police, and normal people late at night.)  I found it no problem & the hostel was really nice and safe despite its location.  In the morning I met up with Thomas & his girlfriend & we drove to Soest (on the autobahn!).  I stayed with family friends who we met through an exchange program.  They were really great hosts & showed me all around North Rhine Westphalia.  We took a stroll around a nearby park and dam.  It holds important drinking water reserves.  The surrounding area is pretty & populated by small villages which look really quaint and charming to someone who’s never been far from a McDonalds or WalMart.  The city center is very old and many of the buildings are still classic half timber, which is cool.  The churches are made from a unique green sandstone, setting them apart from all the other churches I’ve seen.  We ate dinner at a restaurant serving traditional German food.  I had a schnitzel with mushrooms & I tried some local spiegel (white asparagus) with hollandaise sauce too.  The schnitzel had great flavor, and the spiegel was very soft & had a more subtle, gentle taste than green asparagus.  The beer is made in-house & is great.  It’s smooth, like Guinness, and the bubbles are not harsh.  It was all very filling.  (photos, more photos)

Reflection on Easter Break

In the time since Easter Break I have been compiling a list of the things that went well and the things I would change.

With regard to studying abroad:  

  • Bring extra passport photos for things like school ids.
  • Bring a bank statement for customs (if you are staying for a long period of time).  If you travel outside the country you are studying in bring all your documents with you as you will need to get back in this country.  I forgot my University acceptance letter, it was not a problem but it worried me for a while.
  • Apply early & plan early.  This goes for study abroad programs, applications for credit cards, activities, day trips.  To apply and plan early has almost become a life goal.
  • Bring your own sheets and pillow.  My school provided ones were thrown out over break & they weren’t replaced.  No problem because I brought my own.
  • Don’t worry about a cell phone.  I was, but prepaid phones are cheap.  I got a phone with a qwerty keyboard for £20 and spent £10 a month on 100 minutes and 300 texts.  No big deal.  Also prepaid phones can be topped up at gas stations.  They print a receipt with a code & you top up with your phone, real simple.
  • Wire transfers take a week, plan accordingly.  I didn’t know this & was late with my housing payment.  Thankfully English people are very nice.
  • Bring an external harddrive or have cloud storage.  I took so many photos and videos that my harddrive is full, even after deleting my 30GB music library.
The following are more related to travel:
  • Book flights and hostels/hotels in advance as this will serve as the framework of the trip.
  • Email your bank and credit card companies.  I did this but forgot one card & it was frozen for a few days.
  • Have more than one card and keep them in separate locations.  I brought one ATM card and two Credit Cards.  (Capital One cards dont charge for international transactions, the card from my bank charged 3%.  Luckily my bank doesn’t charge ATM fees so I always just paid the exchange rate).
  • Get travel insurance.  I missed a flight & lost the cost of the ticket, not a fun day.
  • Bring a pad lock and key to lock lockers in hostels.  Bring two keys. 
  • Bring extra electrical adapters, more than you think you need (I brought 4).  I had a computer, phone, camera, video camera, iTouch, all that needed to be charged.
  • Do not get a Eurorail Pass (it’s too much money & the flexibility afforded is still not that great & booking fees still apply as well as restricted travel times).  Take the extra time and plan point to point travel.
  • Get the most comfortable walking shoes you can European cities are made for walking.  
  • Save money by eating at markets and grocery stores and ask concierges for local places to eat.  The food is better and enhances the experience of the location.  I ate breakfast and lunch from markets and grocery stores and spent more for dinner.
  • Cheap bottled water is in the back of grocery stores at room temperature.  I got 4 liters for 52 cents in Spain.
  • Try new food.  This is key to being in a new culture.  How can you enjoy the local atmosphere if you are eating a BigMac?  I’ll admit I did have American food every now and then but that was when we got to a city at midnight and everything else was closed.
  • Also do not get to your next location at midnight.  I tried to get the most out of one city before going to the next but if you arrive too late things are closed & it is difficult to get settled.
  • Send a complete itinerary to you family or friends (this should include flights, hostels, addresses, people you will be staying with).  You want family and friends to know where you are.  Also, email often as emails have location data in the header of the email.
  •  Bring your own over the counter medicine.  I think medicine at home is stronger than medicine here.  I took some antihistamines in Spain and they hardly did a thing.
  • Send post cards home.  People love snail mail & it’s a cool way to share your experience.
  • Save room in your luggage for souvenirs.

I hope this list helps you with your adventures.  I’ll be referring to it next time I travel.  Best of luck.

The hall I live on is vicious when it comes to people leaving their doors unlocked.  It’s an invitation to mayhem.  Most of the time it’s facebook posts (why don’t people password protect their computers when they sleep?) or flipping posters.  This one is over the top.  (it’s not my room but a friend’s)  It’s a pretty intense prank, even the drinks in the fridge were wrapped.  He left for a whole day or two so there was tons of time.  On facebook he said he was more impressed than upset, so thats good.

On a different note I’ve been planning my sleep schedule to accomodate sleep cycles so as to not wake in the middle of a cycle.  That way I’ll wake fully refreshed in the morning.  Each cycle is 1.5 hours so sleeping for 7.5 or 9.0 hours is ideal even if it means waking up half an hour earlier.  It’s working really well & helping me get morning revision done for finals.

It’s looking more like spring here.  The weather is very nice, though I’ve heard we are going through a drought still.  I’ve been taking the opportunity to read and run (not at the same times) in Wollaton Park.  I’m now reading Steve Jobs’ biography by Walter Isaacson.  It’s an easy read but full of great information about how Jobs thought & operated, & created an awesome company.  I’m running to get in shape for RAGBRAI.  Iowa is flatter than home (we laugh at their hills) but it’s not pool table flat & the wind is not always at your back.  At Wollaton, there is also a golf course.  It’s private, but looks fun to play.  (York, campus, Wollaton)

Back to work

With finals coming up, now is the time for revision.  Our lecturers provide us with the topics we really have to know for the final.  My finals will offer a choice of questions & I’ll answer the one’s I’ve studied for.  At home the professors expect us to know all the material for the final, here we can choose what we are strongest in.  I’ve gotten a few grades back & the results are good.  Some places I need to study more.  Thats why having multiple assignments constitue my semester grade is good;  I have time to revise where my knowledge is lacking.  I the UK school system the average grade is a 50%, and 40% is passing. Anything above a 70% is a first and anything over 90% is publishable.  I like how the grades are shifted lower in the spectrum of percentages.  This allows truly remarkable people to be exposed.  At home we only use less than half the scale (60% and above), doing a wonderful job of differentiating people who are failing.  Where is the sense in that?  On the other hand, if you miss half the questions, do you really know the subject?

This is the video of Plitvice National Park Croatia.  Highlights include the cave, both the one we explored and the one on the water, the views when I’m eating an apple are the views of where we ate lunch, and the myriad of waterfalls toward the end, these make up the end of the park and the last waterfalls.  Walking along the boardwalks is really the best way to see the park.  It made me slightly anxious, both because I had all my electronics and because the water was a few degrees from freezing (or so it felt).  Without any handrails I felt close to the park, like I was just walking in the woods (and on water), making the experience so much better.

The last two days in London were great.  I had a bap (without bubbles) at Maria’s Market Cafe in the Borough Market.  The sandwich was overly greasy with hearty bread and the skimpiest of vegetables on top, perfect.  In the afternoon I saw the exhibit Animals Inside Out, plastinated and dissected animals by the same people who do the Bodies exhibits.  The preserved detail is amazing, and offers the chance to compare anatomies of different species in the same family (horses have longer feet & walk on their toes).  My favorite is the shark who’s veins and arteries are left in place but everything else has been removed.  Fine red wires are all that’s left, mostly concentrated in the fins & more sparse in the nose.  

The last day was a great day for spotting cars.  On the one hand I feel like the unashamed paparazzi but on the other, they’re driving an out of the ordinary freaking awesome car!  I visited Daunt Books to look for another book (as I finished Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, which is a wonderfully reasoned book).  I couldn’t find anything I liked but the store has a great classical, comfortable look.  Today, after being in England for three months, I had a proper English tea time.  It was quite impressive.  I didn’t think I would like tea with milk and sugar, but it was very good.  My favorite part is the scone with clotted cream.  Clotted cream tastes lightly like butter but with a thin milk flavor toward the end.  I’ll be looking for it when I get home.  Before I go back to the hostel I ran into a protest (?).  I think they were celebrating someone’s birthday.  Either way they stopped traffic in Oxford Circus (and trapped an Aston Martin in the intersection), crazy. (photos, more)  

Atlas Shrugged

I finished Atlas Shrugged in the British Library.  I really like the book & the ending.  The political fog is lifted and the opposing viewpoint labeled and rationally, logically explored. The kernel of Objectivism- “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”-Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged.  The book is definitely worth a read, if nothing else read John Galt’s fifty page speech,  because of the way Ayn Rand frames and argues the point of alturism and working for your own happiness.  One clever side note, Ayn Rand argues that reality is real, exists, and affects us; our senses do not deceive us.  These points were discussed in my philosophy course, Locke: Appearance and Reality.  Some philosophers argue that we cannot know anything, or that the world is a creation of our mind.  This line of thinking reminds me of the lady who died trying to live on sunshine (Darwin Award anyone?).  But the book is a great read, the fictional story helps lighten the load of the dense philosophy.  While reading it I could clearly see many parallels to news stories or the way politicians were acting, rationally exposing their motives and goals.

Saw Kew Gardens and Wicked the other day.  Kew is really nice, a good break from the city.  Its almost on the last stop of the District line of the Tube.  It rained on again & off again, so I darted from greenhouse to greenhouse.  The main one is the largest surviving Victorian greenhouse.  I saw some new plants, specifically the jade vine and the caulerpa.  I was lucky, the jade vine in the first greenhouse bloomed two weeks ago, but the other one was in full bloom, and the color was really great.  Like an Easter egg.  The caulerpa is unusual in that it is made of only one cell, one of the largest in the world.  

The last time I saw Wicked was on Broadway five years ago.  It was great to see it a second time, but undoubtedly the show was different (not the slightest change was the English accents).  This altered the original memory.  I had this discussion with a couple in Dubrovnik, whether or not it is beneficial to revisit places.  They had the souring experience of visiting a city a second time and it couldn’t live up to their previous standard.  There are other plays I would like to see again (Tartuffe, Moonlight and Magnolias).  The other thing is, especially when visiting cities, the first trip is about seeing the history and major sights.  You cannot visit a place like London & not have seen Parlament or the London Eye, people will think you’re crazy.  When the major sights are done, subsequent trips are to explore what makes that destination truly unique to its citizens.  I’ve never been to some of the attractions where I live, but I can tell you all the best restaurants (for bbq and bacon cheese fries) as well as cool places to hangout.  (photos)

London is great, again.  I got to see Parlament in session (the House of Commons).  It seemed relaxed.  Granted they were not debating a hot topic, financial services bill report govt. new clause 4.  Basically do pay day loan lenders need more regulation.  There were lots of sob stories, so and so just needed cash they didn’t have time to read the fine print or research a company.  Cameras are not allowed (neither are guns, knives, padlocks, video cameras, or cell phones), so I took some time to draw it.  It turned out ok.  I know what it looks like because it helps recall my memory of being there.

That was Yesterday.  Today I saw a play.  My day began with an Affogato, really just ice cream with an espresso poured over, but it was brilliant.  The flavor would increase in bitterness, just to the point when it is about to turn bad and then mellows out.  Without any plans I walked to the West End, London’s Broadway, & found a discount ticket place (TKTS, the original) & asked about prices.  I wanted to see Chicago but it was a bit expensive, so I caught the matinee of Woman In Black.  My friend from Nottingham University said the play was good, I was skeptical because the plot is a ghost story.  Boy was I wrong, everything about it was great.  The lighting, sounds, jumps, and characters.  None of the frights were given away beforehand, just as it should be, but not as good as I was expecting.  The pacing seemed a little slow, but looking back it was good.  (photosmoreeven more)

London again?

Slight change of plan.  Missed my flight to Paris.  The arrival time in Copenhagen (the connecting airport) was in bold instead of the departure time.  Arrival times are not useful if you miss the departure time.  So, as flights to London are half the price of flights to Paris, I’m now in London.  It almost feels like being home, everyone speaks English, the brands are familiar, and I can read newspapers and signs again.  I’m feeling a little home sick, as a result I’ve been to McDonalds twice here.  

The first night was interesting.  The only place with room was above a 24 hour pub bar, checkin at the bar.  The rooms were tiny with triple bunk beds, & the lockers were a cubic foot.  Got right out of there and now I’m in a proper hostel.  Until next time, cheers.

Plitvice is definitely worth the 11 hour drive to get there.  It took about 9 hours to comfortably see the park, and with no one there it was peaceful.  I took the time to read a bit, of course.  The park is very similar to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, rolling hills, deciduous trees, ice cold water.  The waterfalls seem endless.  The pictures all look the same, but walking for 9 hours and seeing different, complex waterfalls is amazing.  In the afternoon the sun came out and the colors followed.  The water, aquamarine; the clouds, white; the moss, green; the sky blue, and all pure colors. (photos, more)

Turns out in the Dubrovnik harbor is the world’s third largest yacht, Al Said.  Thats right, just ran into the first and third.  This one is owned by the sultan of Oman.  Not as great as the other one (its beige), but still a good surprise to see.  Again, had to walk all the way around the harbor for a good view.  

We have made a change of plan and left Dubrovnik three days early to see Plitvice National Park.  After walking around for only two hours this evening, we’ve made the right choice.  Dubrovnik is pretty, but the coast is a cliff, thus unwalkable, the old city is mostly touristy, and the whole city is generally tough to walk.  It is settled between the mountains and the sea, so the road are narrow and not conducive to walking.  Now we are outdoor hiking around and over many waterfalls in between 16 lakes, a pleasant shift from the cities.  We’ve purposefully kept our itinerary open for changes like this.  The only things that are certain are the fights from country to country.  Even the hostels can be changed on relatively short notice, which makes for a nice general framework. (photos)

It has been raining quite a bit here in Croatia.  I thought the Mediterranean was all sunshine, but it would be strange going an entire month without rain.  Just why did it have to happen in our outdoor destination?  My spirit has been unabated.  Sure its raining, but its Croatian rain!  Doesn’t help much, but I’m still happy.  Breakfast in Europe is more like dessert (unlike pan fried pancakes covered in liquid sugar, obviously).  I started the day with chocolate mousse with olive oil and salt.  We walked around the beaches in Split and had cheese cured meat and bread for lunch on rocks in the sea, a great day.  (extra photos, more)

Croatia is wonderful.  The city is quite old, & was used as Diocletian’s place in the late third century.  Some of the old walls are still standing as are the underground floors.  There are 5 bakeries and 2 pizzerias in a 4 minute walk from our hostel.  Perfect, I’ve had bread and nutella for about three meals now, interspersed with bread and cheese.  Good thing I’m walking everywhere.  I’m trying to branch out with new food, but it’s difficult to find.  In Barcelona we found a great sandwich place our last day.  In Florence we found a local sandwich place inside the market, serving marinated meats on white bread, soaked in gravy.  In Rome I ate prosciutto and cheese.  I hear Croatia is big on seafood (major plus), however I have yet to find it. (photos)

This is a short video about the trip from Rome to Split.  I took a ferry which was much bigger than I thought.  It had a lounge, casino, nightclub, bar, restaurant, really a mini cruise ship.  I also got used to the rocking of the ship.  At first it didn’t seem like it would rock (and the ship is huge) but the rocking turned gentle after a while.  Split is really great.  It is a smaller city than I’ve been going to, so it will be more laid back and outdoor. The views across the water are amazing.  When I first arrived the sun was beaming through the clouds across the islands and bays. (photos)

Today I ate my favorite meal since leaving England (perhaps since leaving America).  I found it on suggestion of the travel book I’m using, which I’m using on suggestion of my grandmother.  It was quite simple, a mixed cured meat plate and cheese with pistachio and grappa on bread.  The combination was purely sensational.  The creamy, lightly seasoned cheese, with the sharp, smoked, cured meat, on the  neutral, soft bread blended perfectly.  The atmosphere was also great, above the dimly lit floor were lofted wine bottles.   I cannot wait to go back.  This place was recommended in the travel book my grandmother gave me, and its information is really solid.  Its great. (photos)

The second day in Rome pales in comparison to the first, but is still amazing by any other standard.  The thing about Italy is that the Monday after Easter is still part of the holiday, ergo many places are closed: restaurants, museums, stores.  We hit the outdoor sights, Roman ruins, piazzas, and fountains.  To sit by the ruins and imagine all the things that happened in this same spot is out there.  Granted, most places have had people, but the people in this small area controlled 30-40% of the world population.  There are untold number of great stories that happened here.  The other thing is that all the ruins are about 20 feet under ground level.  One sign described an early explorer’s experience here & all he saw were the tops of columns sticking out of the ground.  What an odd sight.

The arch (Arch of Constantine) is important.  It marks Constantine’s victory over Maxentius.  Constantine made Christianity the religion of Rome, thus elevating its status as a dominant world religion.  Thank you Constantine. (pics)