April 2nd-April 12th
Wow. What a whirlwind of a spring break. We definitely planned our trip out well, with the only oversight not spending more time in Budapest. Three cities in ten days was absolutely perfect.
My friends went to Amsterdam for the first four days, but since I had already been I opted to go to Sweden to see Vanessa. For those of you who don’t know, Vanessa is one of my closest friends from Dickinson who is from Sweden and decided to study there this semester (university in Sweden is free for Swedish citizens). I flew into Copenhagen on Thursday evening, and took the train to Lund, Vanessa’s university town. When I got off the train, I was so excited to see her that I jumped on her and cried for a few minutes. We went back to her friend Hedvig’s place, where Vanessa stays during the week when she has class to ditch my stuff. We were going to meet up with some of her friends, but we ended up having a glass of champagne and talking for two hours: five months of separation made a catch-up session majorly overdue. Hedvig came home after a while and talked our ears off. She was adorable, just like Vanessa in so many ways but also completely different. Vanessa told me there are a group of five or six of them who have been friends since kindergarten, so I was excited to meet all of these girls I had heard so much about.
Vanessa had class on Friday afternoon, so Hedvig showed me around Lund. I met some of her school friends who were preparing for a big spring celebration that night. When Vanessa got out of class, we took the train to Helsingborg, Vanessa’s hometown in southern Sweden. It is an adorable town, quaint and quiet, relatively desolate even at the beginning of April. Apparently I brought Rome’s good weather to Sweden: it was 65 degrees and sunny the entire time I was there. Vanessa said it was usually about 50 and grey and rainy. We met up with another of Vanessa’s friends, Mathilda, and had dinner with her. Oh and I finally met Vanessa’s boyfriend, Lucien! I have spoken with him on the phone, on Skype, and we are Facebook friends, so it was finally nice to put a face to the name. It’s a good thing I was shown around Sweden by native Swedes, tackling the language would have been a bit much, considering reading Swedish is like reading Chinese.
On Saturday, Vanessa and I climbed up to the top of Helsingborg’s castle, which had a great view of the city. We could even see Denmark across the water. Vanessa took me shopping on the small shopping streets, where I found a pair of jeans and a dress and a shirt…overall a successful shopping expedition. The only other thing I looked for was a spring jacket: I found the perfect jacket in the wrong color and the wrong size, but was then on a mission to find the perfect jacket. After shopping, we took the boat over to Denmark to see the castle where Shakespeare’s Hamlet takes place, which I thought was fascinating. Vanessa’s old nanny, Gulli, and her husband, invited us over to her house for dinner. She reminded me of the Hungarians—she would not stop feeding us. We had a typical Swedish carrot-and-onion soup and then stuffed ourselves to the brim with Swedish pancakes, which are a bit like crepes. I met Vanessa’s roommate, Caroline, that night, and we made tacos for dinner. We rented a movie and had a really relaxing night.
Sunday was another low-key day. Vanessa and I slept in for a while and went to the bakery around the corner, where Vanessa introduced me to all of these phenomenal Swedish breads. My favorite one had poppy seeds on the outside and was sweet and tasted like almonds on the inside. We went to the mall to visit Caroline at work, still in search of that jacket, but it was an unsuccessful trip. We headed back to Vanessa’s apartment so I could organize my stuff before going to Lucien’s house that night.
Lucien picked us up and took us to his house, where his family had made an Arabic barbeque. I was not really prepared for my introduction to Lucien’s family, who are Catholic Arabs from Lebanon living in Sweden. When we arrived, I was literally thrown into seemingly intense conversations between the men of the house (Lucien, his two brothers, and their father) in Arabic. I say ‘seemingly’ intense because Arabic is a very harsh language—they were laughing and smiling the whole time but sounded like they were about to take each other’s heads off. Vanessa was sitting next to me, speaking equally harsh (but more soft spoken) Swedish with Lucien’s sister-in-law. I sat there with a thoroughly confused smile on my face, trying to comprehend even a bit of either conversation going around me, enjoying the wonderful garlic-infused Arabic food in front of me. Lucien’s mother, who hardly speaks a lick of Swedish or English, simply gave me a reassuring look, that seemed to say “I apologize, you must be perplexed by these strange languages. But welcome to our home. Now eat.” It was the first time since I have been in Europe the language barrier has been a huge issue. I could at least say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ in Spanish and French, but here I was totally lost, completely out of my comfort zone. Despite this, I sat there and allowed myself to be awed by the customs and lifestyles that were simultaneously spanning cultures and generations.
I did not want Monday to come because it meant I had to leave Vanessa. She was leaving for New York City with Lucien on Thursday anyway, so I could not have stayed much longer if I had wanted to. We went to Malmö, another small town further south of Helsingborg, closer to Copenhagen, where I had to fly out of later that day. We did even more shopping here, still on a quest to find that jacket I tried on the first day. I think we went into every single store in the town to try on all colors and styles of spring jackets known to man. Defeated and worn out, Vanessa and I stopped for a coffee shop. I had given up: we had been everywhere, I had tried everything and was so over it. Vanessa saw something she liked in the window of a shop, so we stopped in one last store, and asked if they had this brand or knew of anywhere else carried it. As luck would have it, there was one store we had not yet checked, at the other end of town. Newly inspired with potential, Vanessa and I booked it over to this mini-mall in hopes of finding something. Because I had set myself up for disappointment, I was overjoyed when I found the exact jacket from that first day in the correct size, and 50% off! I could not resist, and by some other stroke of luck, I spent my last 2,000 Swedish Kroner on the jacket (the equivalent of $20…quite a steal). We walked as slowly as we could back to the train station, prolonging our goodbye. I bought my ticket, said a teary-eyed goodbye to Vanessa and cried the entire twenty-minute train ride to the Copenhagen airport. Even though I had not seen her in five months, it was like not an hour had passed: we did not skip a single beat.
That day, I was in four countries in the span of five hours: Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, and the Czech Republic. I flew from Copenhagen to Amsterdam to meet Dana, Brenna, Caitlin, Ariel, and Jaclyn so we could fly to Prague together. Initially, I was not really excited to see them after being with Vanessa, but those reservations quickly dissipated when I saw them at the airport. We had only been apart for five days, but we had never spent that much time apart from one another: we basically live together in Rome, so it was a new concept, to travel separately. The flight to Prague was painless, I read my book, The Other Boleyn Girl the whole time. When we got to the airport, however, we had to quickly figure out the conversion rate in order to determine how many Czech Crowns to withdraw for taxis and hostel payment and things. We ultimately came to the conclusion that Czech Crowns (and Hungarian Forint, for that matter) are Monopoly money. We each took out about 4,000 Crowns, which is about 150 Euro, and the ATM spit out four 1,000-unit bills, which we did not really know what to do with. We did not grasp conversion rates at all while on break.
We took a taxi to our hostel, the Czech Inn, and arrived to a receptionist who was a Robert Pattinson look-alike (I again apologize for the obscure Twilight reference…For those of you uneducated in the world of vampires, Robert Pattinson is the gorgeous actor who plays the character of Edward Cullen in the movie Twilight. He also plays Cedric Diggory in the Harry Potter movies). Naturally, none of us could compose ourselves. Even Brenna, who is always the most collected out of any of us at any given time, had a difficult time forming coherent sentences in front of him. The hostel was great—clean, friendly and extremely helpful.
We were out the door at 9a.m. on Tuesday morning: we wanted to make sure we did not miss anything in Prague, even though we were going to spend four full days there. We walked around a bit, saw Wenceslas Square, which is not a square at all, but rather a long boulevard running from a museum down to just before Old Town Square. We walked around a small market there for a while, and I could not help but feeling like I was in Disneyland: the stands were all in stalls that were little wooden house-like things which were so cute—selling everything from pastries to sausages to hand-painted egg shells. We even saw a blacksmith making bells right in the main square. We went into Old Town Square to take a free walking tour of the city, which was a tour of the west side of the river. This included a hike up to Prague Castle and the surrounding gardens, the Czech Senate, the Charles Bridge, and the John Lennon wall; the only place in Prague where you can graffiti. We had GORGEOUS weather while we were there—about 80 degrees and sunny the whole time. I got so burnt the first day I couldn’t let anything touch my chest for the rest of the time we spent in Prague, but things could have been worse. For dinner that night, we dove into a small pub-like restaurant that served typical Czech food, which was amazing. As usual, we stuffed ourselves over capacity and then had to roll ourselves back to the hostel.
Wednesday was basically a repeat of Tuesday, except the walking tour this time was on the east side of the river. We got an explanation of the famous Astronomical Clock, situated on the front of the old Town Hall building. It is a beautiful clock that has a face for twelve-hour time, twenty-four hour time, a face for the astrological signs, and something else but I cannot remember what it stands for. Every hour on the hour, the windows above the clock open and the twelve apostles do a cameo in the frame of the window. It was so beautiful out that we did not have the attention span to stay on the full 3-hour long tour, so we ducked out early and went to walk around the Jewish Quarter. That’s the thing about having Jewish friends: they want to see the Jewish part of every city we go to. It is a nice change of pace to learn about the Jewish history of each country and look at synagogues instead of Catholic churches. We walked back to the John Lennon wall to sign our names and take pictures in front of the huge peace sign in the middle. I signed my name with the other girls, then found a peace sign and wrote ‘K.K.C.C.K.’ in it. I also wrote Philip’s initials. I do not know if that is something he would have done or not, but now the letters ‘P.E.R.’ are etched on the wall forever.
We then walked over the Charles Bridge back in the direction of Old Town Square, where we ran into some of our other friends—Brenden, Michael, Kristin, and Chelsea—who were there separately from us. We had lunch in the square with them, and then walked around a bit. We went to see the “Fred and Ginger” Dancing building (which was not anything special). Then we went to a church where the some Czech government officials who tried to assassinate Nazi officer Reinhard Heydrich (one of Hitler’s most esteemed colleagues) hid out after the attempted assassination. I did not know about any of this before we went into this church, and was both significantly creeped out and fascinated. We were going to go visit the Botanical Gardens, but we got caught in the rain so we returned to our hostel for some down time.
On Thursday morning, we said goodbye to Caitlin who was returning to Rome to meet up with her family. We met up with Dana’s friend, Lindsay, who was also on spring break. We dedicated this day to go get lost in the Prague Castle, which proved to be relatively easy. We hiked back up to the top of the hill (my legs are going to be the only part of my body in great shape when I get home) and went into see the different parts of the castle. Unfortunately, some of the castle was closed off for restoration, but we made do with the other things to see. Probably the coolest part of the whole tour were the crown jewels, which were so astounding they looked fake. The honking jewels on the crown looked like the ones you find on those plastic play tiaras. We went into the St. Vitus Cathedral, which echoes Notre Dame in every way. The only difference is that there are more stained glass windows allowing light to stream into the nave, giving the cathedral an all-around lighter, welcoming feeling. We walked down Golden Lane, a small street lined with souvenir shops, and one of the oldest streets in Prague, if I am not mistaken. When we were finished with the castle, we came down from the hill ravenous with hunger. We quickly suppressed that with bagel sandwiches, a bit reminiscent of the States considering bagels and turkey do not exist in Italy.
Friday was another early morning because it was our last day in Prague. Brenna and Ariel had left way early that morning—they were on the 6a.m. Student Agency bus to Budapest. Dana, Jaclyn, and I were not scheduled to leave until four that afternoon, so we just walked around Prague, doing some last-minute postcard shopping and such. We went to the Franz Kafka museum, which was equally intriguing and depressing. I did not know anything about Kafka’s work or life before our trip here: I could not have told you a single thing he wrote. After learning about his life, the obscure nature of his novels makes complete sense. He was one disturbed man.
The bus ride from Prague to Budapest was 7 ½ hours which was a bit rough. It was a really long trip and the guy sitting in front of me insisted on leaning his chair all the way back so I had exactly zero leg room. They showed a few movies and we were able to watch a few episodes of Friends, which passed the time. We got to Budapest really late, around midnight, and then had trouble finding our hostel. It was literally a hole in the wall, in between a bar and a tattoo parlor. The taxi dropped us off and we all looked at each other totally bewildered. Even though Brenna and Ariel arrived there earlier in the day, our phones did not work so we could not call them to ask them if we were in the right place. Thankfully I was able to send them a text message and they came down to meet us. The hostel was cool—it was actually an apartment that with about fourteen beds that the guy rents out to students and people who are traveling. We learned that the out the apartment actually used to be the landlord’s (Adrian) when he was doing graduate work at the university in Budapest. He was only supposed to stay for a year but fell in love with the city (shocker!). He is half Finnish, half Hungarian, and grew up in Australia. He gave us all kinds of recommendations on where to go out, where to eat, how to get around the city—all in all he was incredibly helpful.
The next morning, I met up with Huba (my great-uncle)! He took me around to see some things I did not get a chance to see the last time I was there—I didn’t realized how little of the city I last time I was there. In fact, we spent all of our time in the hotel and the immediate surrounding area: we only saw the Csarnok and the Citadel. Huba took me to Hero’s Square (for a second time), to see his namesake of a statue. We went to see Parliament but did not go inside because the line was too long, so he took me to Castle Hill, where some of the cousins went last time. At 10:30a.m., Huba took me to the best ice cream place in Budapest, followed by a marzipan museum. Then, we climbed to the top of St. Stephen’s Basilica. Ok actually we took the elevator. Huba told me it was the first time he had ever taken the elevator up to the top. He said he brought Kicsi and some of her friends there and even they climbed the stairs to the top! I think we took the elevator because of time constraints—Huba was trying to get out to Zamardi for the better part of the afternoon. Oh—St. Stephen’s hand is preserved in the basilica. It is housed in a little thing that looks like a house, made out of gold and decked out with precious jewels: quite a setting for an old shriveled up hand.
Huba then took me around Budafolk to see Palko’s statue again, which was just as powerful as it had been the first time. We saw where the Takács house used to be, and drove by Atila and Anci’s house. We went to their apartment to meet up with Zsuzsi and Emeshe for lunch. I almost broke down when I saw Zsuzsi: I guess that is the effect the Magyars have on their family. It was so good to see her, and made me really homesick. Lunch, as usual, was phenomenal—the Hungarians know how to cook and even more so they know how to feed people. I know I will never go hungry when I am around my Hungarian relatives. We had kaposta (stuffed grape leaves), thickly sliced ham, bread, and beigli (pronounced bagli for those non-Hungarians). They asked me if I wanted to call home—thank the lord it was 6:30am in the States and no one was awake, otherwise I might have lost it. I told Zsuzi that and she joked that we could call Zsolt because he would be awake (Emeshe translated for her—her English is pretty good!). After lunch, Huba took me back to the hostel, where I met up with the rest of the girls before heading to the Szechenyi Baths for the remainder of the afternoon.
The baths were amazing, completed by the beautiful weather outside. We spent a few hours in the warm bath, just hanging out, talking, and giggling at the European men in Speedos. I got a much-needed massage—he worked out every single kink I had in my back (which is difficult with the kinds of knots I get). We basked in the sun for a while and then went and walked around the gardens a bit, admiring a castle that is nicely nestled behind some trees.
By the time Sunday came around, I did not want to leave Budapest at all. We spent most of Sunday morning at the baths again, only deepening the redness on my chest, but it was well worth it. Leaving meant leaving the family and everything I love about my Hungarian background, as well as a rough reentry to Italy where there were three research papers and four finals waiting for me.
I did eventually miss the Italian food. Although Italians love their carbs, at least they attempt to incorporate veggies into their diet, unlike the Czech or the Hungarians. I also missed speaking Italian—I often found myself thinking in Italian, which I only realized as an afterthought. Pretty remarkable afterthought.
It was a wonderful, exhilarating, and wholly exhausting trip.