Break 1 – Paris

 

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Language of Love

The next morning I found myself in a crowd of travelers from all over the world.  Though this isn’t a strange occurrence in Paris, it was a special one, because we were all appreciating Le mur des je t’aime, or the Wall of Love.  This mural, tucked away in a small park in the neighborhood of Montemarte, features written “I love you”s in more than 250 languages.  It took me a few minutes to locate the English inscription, as I was more interested in the findings of the other visitors.  While I could understand the Spanish “te amo” (upper right-hand corner) and the French “je t’aime” (left center), people were posing next to phrases so foreign to me that I could not even identify their region of origins.  There is still so much of the world to experience!

 

Passages of Paris

Breaking away from the gathering, I navigated towards the River Seine via a few of Paris’s passages, from Passage Verdeau, to Passage Jouffroy, eventually reaching the most well-known, Passage des Panoramas.  These “hidden” hallways house restaurants, boutique shops, and everything in between.  I enjoyed the afternoon in quirky antique stores and sophisticated photo galleries.

I followed the walkways down to my next location, “Les Deux Plateaux,” an art installation in the courtyard of the Royal Palace.  Though Daniel Buren’s work has been present here for more than 30 years, I had only recently discovered these funky fixtures.

Les Deux Plateaux de Buren | Alyssa's Abroad Perspective - alyssasabroadperspective.wordpress.com

Exiting the courtyard, I ended up just in front of La Comédie – a cafe that I had visited with my family on my last trip to Paris – and realized just how hungry I was!  Torn between wanting to try a new restaurant and returning to this reliable café, I ultimately decided to stay.  Compromising, I ordered a different meal, this time, the three-cheese quiche.  A self-proclaimed quiche connoisseur, I eat a lot of this dish.  My mom’s quiche is creamy, smooth, and moist, while my dad’s is dense and cheesy.  I enjoy both of my parents’ signature quiches, but La Comedies’ version was one of the best I’ve ever had.  Seriously, amazing.  Granted, I hadn’t yet eaten that day, and was (and still am) slightly appalled at the 14€-a-serving price tag, but this slice of heaven was worth it.

 

Shopping Soirée

An appropriate way to spend an evening in Paris, I went department store hopping, appreciating French fashion in the capital of all things chic.  The Galeries Lafayette (Haussman), as I’ve previously praised, is always worth a visit, at the very least for the free, panoramic views.  Expanding my retail tourism, however, I also explored Le Bon Marché, another popular Parisian shopping destination.  Though much less architecturally impressive than the Galeries Lafayette, this mini mall did have a funky, concept store section and a cool, vinyl record cafe.

Only have time for one?  Galeries Lafayette.  Not only is it’s location is more convenient, near the center of Paris, its glass dome and rooftop views rival the beauty of any other attraction in the city.

Eiffel Tower | Alyssa's Abroad Perspective - alyssasabroadperspective.wordpress.com

 

Travel Tips

  • Time of day matters.  When visiting the passages of Paris, consider when you choose to go.  If you arrive too early, or on a Sunday, many of the shops will be closed and the entire effect of the attraction will be missed.  You may skip crowds going at off-peak times, but I think that the skinny passages are in their full glory at mealtimes, when people are packed into cafés and window shopping, walking off the fantastic French fare.
  • Souvenir fail.  One of my favorite shops in the passages was Paris est une Photo. Though I appreciated his photography, I was more inspired by the old postcards mingling with the photos.  DO NOT BUY 12€ MOUNTED POST CARDS FROM THIS SHOP.  Five minutes down the hallway, I came across multiple shops selling vintage postcards for 1€ each, or less, and not just one or two shoeboxes full, but at least 10.  I’m usually a smart shopper, scanning all my options before going back to get the item I liked best, but of course I lost on this sole, spontaneous purchase.

 

Destination Locations

 

Paix, Amour, Paris,

A.J.H.

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Break 1 – Lithuania

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Location: Lithuania 

After my visit in London, I set off on my most foreign trip yet: Vilnius, Lithuania.  My research assured me that I would have no problem navigating the land of my ancestors, but I was still apprehensive about the language barrier and my physical and mental distance from anything familiar.

Though the flight to Vilnius was (unsurprisingly) empty, I shared the row with a chatty fellow traveler.  He pointed out the window and spoke to me in what I assumed was Lithuanian.  When I told him no, I did not understand, in English, he said “Français?” and I replied with a hesitant “Oui…”  He explained that he was pointing at the blanket of snow that covered the land below.  Coming from a city of the seaside and sunshine, I was not thrilled with this observation.  We continued the conversation as well as two people speaking a second language could, and I discovered that Mikhail Yurkov was a Russian pianist giving a private concert in Vilnius that night.  He lived in Paris, which is why he had learned French, but his Russian accent was very strong.  When I told him that I was going to explore Lithuania because I was Lithuanian, he shook and kissed my hand.  He repeated the gesture when I mentioned that I would love to visit Russia after reading the Russian novel War and Peace.  With this expression of friendship, I felt good about my upcoming time in Lithuania.

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It wasn’t difficult to show the taxi driver my hostel address, so I made my way into town with ease. I stayed at the Litinterp Guesthouse Vilnius in a large, single room with an ensuite bathroom for the same price as I paid for my room in London, a shared bedroom of 14 with a communal hall bathroom.

I noticed the poverty of the area between the airport and the city center, evident from the extensive graffiti and overall disrepair of some of the buildings.  Vilnius’s Old Town, however, found on the south side of the Neris River that divides the city, contrasted the capital’s suburbs as quaint and clean little village within an Eastern European metropolis.  I ate dinner at Forto Dvaras, a Lithuanian chain restaurant that makes authentic Lithuanian food certified by Lithuanian’s Culinary Heritage Fund.  I ordered potato pancakes, a dish that I am familiar with from meals with the Lithuanian half of my family. The pancakes tasted delicious and reminded me exactly of the ones I enjoy at home.

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Churches of Vilnius

Vilnius awoke sluggish yet sunny the next morning, and I boarded the hop-on-hop-off tour bus from a rather deserted town square.  Accompanied by only two other couples, I rode the bus around Vilnius, gathering an idea of the city’s layout, as well as historic information about the country as a whole.

The first thing I realized of Old Town Vilnius were the churches.  Acting like the blue-light system on a college campus, if standing in front of one church, one can turn 360 degrees and find another place of worship within sight and walking distance.  I’m convinced you could do so all day.

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Church of S. Casimir

The Vilnius Cathedral Basilica can be found in Cathedral Square, the center of Vilnius’s Old Town.  This Roman Catholic church is one of the most celebrated sites in Vilnius, hosting religious services, the remains of St. Casimir, Lithuania’s patron saint, and even, one time, Pope John Paul II.  The cathedral shares the square with the Bell Tower of Vilnius Cathedral that overlooks the old city.

“The shrine in which the heart of the Lithuanian nation beats.”  ~John Paul II, on the Vilnius Cathedral Basilica

 

Užupis

Apart from Vilnius itself, (the Republic of) Užupis, comparable to the artist-filled Montmartre district of Paris, is an alternative section of the city allegedly independent from Lithuania.  The entity, created by those who create, recognizes its independence day as April 1st (April Fool’s Day), and strongly supports its 41-point constitution, which guards some of the citizen’s most important rights:

  • Everyone has the right to die, but it is not his duty.
  • Everyone has the right to make mistakes.
  • Everyone has the right to love.
  • Everyone has the right to take care of their dog until one of them dies.
  • Every dog has the right to be a dog.
  • Everyone has the right to have no rights.

Though the official status of this neighborhood remains, intentionally, vague, it was entertaining, and somewhat humbling, to discover a place where art, emotion, and truth reign.

 

The Gates of Dawn

Continuing the tour, we traveled along the outskirts of the Old Town near what used to be Vilnius’s defensive wall.  Built in the 1500s, the Lithuanians constructed the wall for protection from Russian invasion.  Today, the Gates of Dawn is the last surviving passage of the original wall, and is a shrine to the Virgin Mary, housing a world-renowned painting of the “Vilnius Madonna.”

As I approached the gate, I realized that each person passing through stopped and prayed, gesturing the sign of the cross.  Everyone, from the mother with her toddler to the group of older church ladies, halted in the middle of the street to recognize the religious significance of this sanctuary.  I found the religious dedication of the Lithuanians incredibly moving.

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Did You Know?

Did you know that the Lithuanian language is one of the nearest spoken forms of Sanskrit?    Though the Lithuanians are proud of their special language, I found that many people in Vilnius has some knowledge of English.  In an attempt to fit in, however, I learned the Lithuanian word for thank you: ačiū (pronounced like a sneeze).  My one-word knowledge of Lithuanian could not get me very far, but each time I said”thank you” to a Lithuanian, they gave a small smirk of approval.

 

Conservative Country, Plenty of Pride

Lithuania may be a country that is easily overlooked from a North American perspective, but the people’s passion for their history and traditions rivals that of any great nation.  I was disappointed to be missing Lithuanian Independence Day on February 16th, so close to my visit, but I understood the depth and intensity of Lithuanian pride from my short time in the country’s capital.  Lithuania’s history recounts repeated episodes of political and religious intrusion, but despite these difficult events, the Lithuanians never gave up defending their freedom.  A symbol of this political liberty stands in front of the Presidential Palace in Vilnius as a reminder of this fruitful fight.  Though I appreciated this object of political pride, it does not compare to my encounter with the Lithuanians’ physical manifestation of religious independence that I experienced later that afternoon.

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#freedom / #liberty (depending on translation from Lithuanian)

 

Travel Tips

  • If interested in the Vilnius City Tour bus, note that preordering tickets online only allows for the purchase of an all-day ticket.  If bought from the bus driver, tickets for a one-time trip can be obtained for nearly half of the price of the unlimited option.
  • I didn’t have time to see all of Vilnius, but the Vilnius Tourist Information Centre provides a great list of other places to see in Lithuania’s capital city.

 

Destination Locations

 

Taika, Mielė, Vilnius,

A.J.H.

Break 1 – London

Not Your Average Bowl of Cereal 

I enjoy a serving of cereal every now and then, and I love milk, but I do not like my cereal in my milk.  Where some may find the two a perfect pair, the solid and liquid complementing each other to create a both filling and hydrating breakfast in a bowl, I much rather grab a handful of cereal and wash it down with an ice cold glass of 1%.  All cereal preferences considered, I was still curious to try the Cereal Killer Cafe.

Initially, creating cereal concoctions with a crazy collection of cereal, an assortment of sugary treats, and a multitude of milk seems like a fun snack.  The nostalgic décor and literal beds for a seating option created a one-of-a-kind atmosphere.  Unfortunately, on a Monday afternoon, the Camden location was out of many menu options and lacked cleanliness in their establishment.  I could not enjoy half of the toppings that I had hoped for, and sticky tables and unwashed silverware was unsettlingly obvious.  As a result, I only ordered Lucky Charms with Oreos (a “magically delicious” combination), but, for sanitation reasons, I was too apprehensive to drink the milk out of the bottle.  Perhaps there is better luck at the Brick Lane cafe.

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Little-known London

With a few hours in between my cereal snack and my evening plans, I decided to take a trip to Harrod’s, an only-in-London shopping locale that I had imagined was England’s equivalent of Macy’s department store.  Though the establishment was technically a department store, it was nothing like Macy’s.  A cross between a gorgeous galleria and a merchandiser’s museum, Harrod’s endless emporium made my initial plan to browse the store in an hour futile.  One could spend an entire day marveling at the beautiful products and décor!  I didn’t even take photographs because they wouldn’t due the store justice.  If you’re visiting London, move Harrod’s from your “place to visit if I have time” list to your “must-see” traveler’s agenda.

I left the retail paradise for a true museum, the Tate Modern.  This attraction, granting free entry to all, presented interesting exhibits typical of a modern art museum.  It also, however, offered a rooftop view of London.  Though foggy (like my other sky-high sightseeing attempts), the panorama offered a different experience of London.

To end my time in this city, I went to Poppies Fish & Chips, a popular restaurant serving a popular English dish.  However, I dined at the chain’s Soho location and enjoyed an entertaining meal.  At Poppies’ quirky Chinatown restaurant, the dominantly male wait staff, though slightly uncomfortable, was goofy and fun.  They interacted with the Asian guests in native language attempts and were extremely attentive to all diners.  The food, too, impressed, rivaling my grandma’s own breaded Haddock fish.  I even appreciated the 50s throwback soundtrack while sipping my fresh lemonade.  In London, fish and chips is a must, Poppies is a go-to, and the Soho location is recommended!

 

“Only in London”

My motto for this trip accurately describes my English capital exploration.  London is truly home to the stylish and the strange.  Rather than investigate the history of the city, as I usually do when traveling, I decided that London just had too much “now” to see and do.  I would speculate that I could learn about London’s past on a return trip, but I suspect that the eccentric metropolis will have new quirks to discover.

 

Destination Locations 

 

Peace, Love, London

A.J.H.

Budapest, Hungary

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Views of Pest and the Széchenyi Chain Bridge from the Buda Castle grounds

With cheap flights and accommodations, it was not difficult for my friends to convince me to take a trip to Budapest.  I loved Prague, so I anticipated to feel a similar affection towards this less-popular Eastern European city.

We flew Wizz Air to and from Budapest, and were unsure of the airline’s validity up until the moment we boarded the plane.  With a late-evening flight, I was hoping to nap, but it was instead one of the noisiest flights that I’ve experienced while traveling abroad so far.  Constant conversation from every row made it impossible to relax.

Wizz Air dropped us off in what seemed to me to be the airplane parking lot.  It was now past midnight, and we had to walk, in the rain, to the main terminal building.  The quick and easy airport transfer experience with miniBUD Airport Shuttle Services made up for the rainy route.  Our hostel, however, made my friends and I once again question the way that Budapest operates.

The Baroque Hostel had a liiiitle sign with a liiiitle gate and a liiiitle walkway to the door, located at the back of the building.  It all seemed slightly sketchy, especially at 1:30 a.m.  The receptionist was pushy, presumably because of the late hour, but accommodating.  Our group of six girls booked a mixed dorm of eight, with hopes that no one else would join the room, and if people did, that they would be two other girls.  As luck would have it, our stranger was a lone guy. The hostel, though, decided to move him to another room for the duration of our stay to make the situation more comfortable for everyone.  Score one point for the Baroque Hostel, and a sliver of trust restored in Budapesti logic.  The location of our room, though, raised doubts once again.  Adjacent to the living room, our room connected us to the man cave of middle-aged Hungarian men who watched TV until 3 a.m. and continued to be stationed on the couch, sleeping, when we rose in the morning and tiptoed to the bathroom in pajamas.  Though not ideal, this situation was uncomfortable at worst, and we had no problems with the Baroque Hostel, its staff, or any of our fellow travelers.  Because we would spend less than 35 hours total in Hungary, we accepted the lodging circumstances, determined to make the most of our trip.

I have become a big fan of walking tours, especially in cities where knowing the history and development of the area is crucial to appreciating the visit.  My friends and I joined a United Europe Free Tours walking tour to see Budapest’s main city sites and hear more about this unfamiliar place.  Budapest, we learned, is actually two cities, Buda and Pest, divided by the Danube River.  We first walked Pest, visiting St. Stephen’s Basilica, Erzsébet Square, and the Danube River waterfront.  Then, we crossed the Széchenyi Chain Bridge and toured Buda.

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A short climb up one of Buda’s many hills brought us to the Buda Castle, with courtyards overlooking Pest on one side and the hills of Buda on the other.  The tour also led us to the beautiful Mátyás Templom, or Matthias Church, surrounded by the Fisherman’s Bastion and its sprawling views of Pest.

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St. Stephen’s Basilica (right) and Parliament (left) are the exact same hight to represent and maintain the equality between church and state.

Not wanting to leave us without some knowledge of the native language in a city full of moody Hungarians, our tour guide taught us some important Hungarian phrases.  Saying “Hi,” or “Szia” (pronounced sia), was simple enough, but the rest of what we learned was through entertaining and effective phonetic tricks.  “Please,” or “kérek,” was remembered as “key rack.”  What would one be asking for to utilize please?  “Két sört,” or “Kait’s shirt,” meaning two beers, of course.  Finally, with a sört in hand, one can toast “Egészségére!” or “Cheers!”  The key to this phonetic pronunciation is to have had a few drinks beforehand to slur the phrase, “I can shake the tree.”  After our crash course in Hungarian, we were prepared to take on the rest of Budapest.

My friends and I returned to Pest to visit the Easter market in Vörösmarty Square.  Similar to Prague’s Easter market, but with more variety, the market held performances, prepared Hungarian food, and sold clothes, jewelry, and other creative gifts.

Making our way back to the hostel, my friends and I took the metro (which must be seen to understand its quaint comicality) to Hősök tele, or Heroes’ Square.  Though the solemnity of the Millennium Monument is somewhat lost with Budapest’s obnoxious, tourist letters, we could still admire the structure’s significance and place in Hungary’s history.

Though we quickly ran out of daylight hours in Budapest, my friends and I were looking forward to our final Hungarian activity, the city’s famous Széchenyi Thermal Baths. Used primarily for therapeutic and relaxation purposes, heated pools can be found in many different bath houses across the city, but only one provided travelers with an experience that they never knew they wanted.  Without time to soak up the baths’ nourishing effects during the day, my group planned to enjoy the baths a little differently: we were going to a sparty.

 

Travel Tips

  • Pack light, but pack heavy.  I have found that there is no better feeling than fitting your belongings for the weekend in a handy-dandy backpack.  Okay, so there are many better feelings, but this one is pretty great.  On weekend trips, I walk through the airport with pride, hands free from any rolling luggage, just me and my backpack.  Though this is the way to travel, I may have packed too light for some my trips.  No, I didn’t run out of things to wear.  Instead, I didn’t pack warm enough clothes.  Traveling with only a backpack is great, but there was more than one occasion over multiple trips when I was desperate for heavier clothing.  If you can pack cold-weather clothes in a warm-weather-clothes-sized bag, you have truly mastered the art of traveling light.

 

Destination Locations

 

Nyugalom, Szerelem, Budapest

A.J.H.