Photoessay: Ugly Beautiful Zagreb

I’m back home now and beginning the immense project of processing my photographs from a long five months of travel through Europe. I visited what felt like city after city, and while many were somewhat like the others, blending into the background of extended travel, Zagreb, Croatia is one city that really stood out to me. I liked the contrasts of Upper and Lower Zagreb; the lower area felt like the metropolis you’d expect from Croatia’s capital, while the upper town stretched over hills and held beautiful green space. In fifteen minutes you could walk from a busy downtown to what felt like a secluded residential street and just as easily make your way back to the buzzing hum below.

When asked to describe the architecture of Zagreb to a friend shortly after leaving, I said this: It’s the weirdest mix of ugly and beautiful I’d ever seen in one place. And I like it. While I didn’t walk away with many photographs (just enough!), I did pick up some lovely memories of a city I’d be delighted to revisit.

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Have you ever been to Zagreb, Croatia and what did you think? Would you like to go? How ’bout that retro passenger van? (I want one!)

You can also find me on the ABOFA Facebook Page or subscribe to the email list for updates, if you’d so please.

iPhone Photoessay: Giovanni’s Mother’s Cooking

Somehow, someway, I ended up on the fourth floor of an old European apartment, walls clad with twenty-year-old wallpaper and the living room desk covered in small, framed family photographs. An older Italian lady stood in the kitchen, preparing pasta for me and my Couchsurfing host. I was at Giovanni’s mother’s home, in Rome, Italy, and she was cooking us lunch.

I guess I’m the kind of girl you can bring home to your momma. Even if your momma doesn’t speak English and we’ve known each other for two days, and we’re just friends. Now that I think about it, this isn’t the first time I’ve been invited along with the parents.

I’m not complaining… certainly not on a full stomach.

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Om nom nom?

You can also find me on the ABOFA Facebook Page or subscribe to the email list for updates, if you’d like.

My Austrian Homecoming

Some readers may already know this, but when I was seventeen, I moved abroad for the first time. It was in Austria, as an exchange student (through AFS, a fantastic organization, might I add!), that I first got a taste of a world outside of my own. I lived with a family who, ironically, was Croatian in origin but spoke German while I was around and went to a Gymnasium (high school) during the day. It was the first time I created a world completely outside of my own. I had friends, a family, old teachers and even some dirty laundry in Bad Radkersburg, Austria, a small city on the border of Slovenia. (You haven’t lived in a place until you’ve got dirty laundry there, amiright?)

Leaving was heartbreaking, but I visited twice in the next two years; once, for my host sister and classmates’ graduation party (called Maturaball) in 2008 and another time in 2009, when I got to see the big city of Vienna and spend some time with old friends in the nearby city of Graz. Shortly after, University swung into full effect, I joined a sorority (goodbye money, but hello friends!) and began blazing a trail in other, new parts of the world. I studied abroad in Argentina, graduated and moved to South Korea to teach English, and suddenly it had been nearly five years since I’d visited with my other life in Austria.

So when I planned five months in Europe, and my parents moved to Germany, there was absolutely no question about it. I was headed back to Styria, Austria, where my travel feet were first grown. I was going home.

 Cue music: I’m coming home, I’m coming home. Tell the world I’m coming home.

Seventeen-year-old American on the loose in Austria... beer in hand. Sounds about right.
Seventeen-year-old American on the loose in Austria… beer in hand. Sounds about right.

I arrived in Graz, Austria in a rather tumultuous emotional state. I’d just spent the past week with my boyfriend in Switzerland, who’d flown in from South Korea to see me for the first time in four months. In a week I won’t be writing much about, we swung from fight to hugs to fights to tears to a strange, mellow last few days of peace. It all sounded like a romantic love story: girl meets boy in a foreign country, they endure long distance for a time and have a romantic week in one of the most beautiful countries on earth, sitting together, talking while staring out onto a lake surrounded by towering mountains. But life isn’t a storybook and I left that week confused, because it didn’t feel right and I couldn’t pinpoint why.

Walking out of the train station in Graz, I found my way to Claudia‘s apartment, who had offered to put me up while I was in town. It was a strange feeling; I’d been in Graz before, but I had no orientation whatsoever as to where certain things were or where I was. Grabbing a map first thing from the tourism stand seemed a bit odd to me, but I was lost without it. In the first few days, I wandered around, map in hand, and saw corners or streets that suddenly hit me in the face with a memory.

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Most unfortunately, I didn’t rediscover this delicious schnitzel restaurant.

Ah, that’s where Hjördis and I took the bus home at 6 am, that first time I ever stayed out bar-hopping an entire night!

My two host sisters live and study in Graz, and seeing them was one of the highlights of my time there. (My third host sister has moved to Vienna to be a big-shot singer! Yay!) We met for drinks, caught up on the last five years of our respective lives, and then settled into laughing and group meals as if we’d been living together all along. I’d later move myself to Nika’s couch for my last few days, so I had time to catch up on blogging and a shorter walk to the center of the city. Seeing them was everything I’d hoped, with a little extra joy sprinkled in. It was also exactly what I needed; talking through my then-current boyfriend situation helped me see clearly that it didn’t matter if I could pinpoint it or not, something didn’t fit. (I made the difficult Skype call sometime later, once I was alone in Croatia.)

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Circa 2007.

Yes, I remember now! That weird organ-like building I kept picturing as Vienna is actually here, in Graz, and it’s an art museum!

I also got to reconnect with ancient friends, some of the few I have from my teenage years. Mona, who’s since grown dreads, spent significant time in India and is as sweet and intelligent as ever, introduced me to pumpkin seed oil ice cream (only in Styria…) and we spent a few hours laying out in the sun on some of the city’s green. Sigi took me on an amazing tour of Zotter’s Chocolate Factory which included so much tasting, my stomach rebelled for several hours afterwards. I also met another friend whom I haven’t kept in touch with, but who remembered not only me but most of my horrible, drunken shenanigans from that semester abroad seven years ago. (It wouldn’t be a visit home without more of that dirty laundry coming out of the woodwork, amiright, amiright?) In a lucky turn of events, I also caught up with my host dad and we took a nice selfie together to commemorate.

SELFIE WITH MARIO!
SELFIE WITH MARIO!

Graz, Austria is where most of my friends now live, but it isn’t the city I studied in all those years ago. I took one day to stroll down memory lane and visit the small border town where I went to school: Bad Radkersburg.

There’s a very special family that lives in Bad Radkersburg, and I’m not talking about my first (unsuccessful) host family. It’s the family that saw me through it all; the uncomfortable beginning, my host family transition and the ever-too-soon end of my time. We passed so many evenings with dinner and a bottle of wine, talking late into the night on the outdoor porch. When I get a package of chocolate from Austria in the mail over Christmastime, I can guarantee it’s from the lovely family who watched me grow up in Bad Radkersburg: Claudia, her mom and sister, and when he’s in town, Uncle Edmond. (Plus the endless kitties!) They met me at the train station and I was able to spend one night in the good old way, with wine and real conversation and chicken and stars soup, minus the chicken. It was hard to tear myself away the next afternoon; those 24 hours were a visit long overdue, much enjoyed and over much, much too quickly.

Just as my slightly longer visit in Styria was also over much, much too quickly.

The Hauptplatz in Bad Radkersburg, Austria where I spent 5 months in high school.
The Hauptplatz in Bad Radkersburg, Austria where I spent 5 months in high school.

I remember this H&M! Sara and I went shopping here, one time, and I bought that awful striped purple tank top.

A lot of hugs and new (but just as beautiful) memories with old friends later, I gathered my belongings into my little blue suitcase and made my way to the train station. Just like I did in Berlin, in Geneva and as I would again do in Zagreb, I turned my head up to locate the correct track for my train. Coming to Graz, I’d been home for a moment. But it was once again time to move.

I settled into my window seat. The train rolled on.

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Do you have another life in another country that feels like home when you visit? Was this super depressing? (Sorry!) Have you ever tried delicious pumpkin seed oil ice cream or does it freak you out a little bit?

You can also find me on the ABOFA Facebook Page or subscribe to the email list, if you’d like.

On Falling in Love (With London)

After spending two weeks out in the wild nature of Ireland, I wasn’t sure how it would feel to return to a busy metropolis such as London. The day before my overnight ferry I walked around Dublin with a friend, and the drizzle, traffic and noises aggravated me after the peaceful island quiet. And I was headed to an even bigger, busier city across the channel? How could this possibly go well? I wondered. But London is a must-see and I had to pass through anyways on my overland way to Germany, so onward ho.

I was lucky enough to have a family contact in London, who not only offered me a place to sleep and a key to her place, but who is just as obsessed with delicious noms as I am. Suffice it to say we got along quite well, if for no other reason than we both love stuffing our faces and talking about travel. Her intimate knowledge of London’s food scene and kindness set me up on the perfect foot to dive into London, despite my hesitations about being in such a big city.

This is what London angels leave you while they go to work.
This is what London angels leave you while they go to work.

And then the food, oh the food! One of the best things about big cities is the array of cuisines available in one place, and London surely didn’t disappoint. We ate Asian noodles and Spanish tortillas and Indian daal and sandwiches from Pret A Manger, a French health-food chain. I spent no more than three and a half days in London, but food-wise, it was well spent. Afternoon Tea and strawberry cake and other sweets here and there didn’t do much for my waistline, either, but I don’t regret one delicious bite. Mmm, allow me to wipe the drool off of my face as I continue.

On second thought, I'm not sure if I actually fell in love with London or just with clotted cream and macaroons...
On second thought, I’m not sure if I actually fell in love with London or just with clotted cream and macaroons…

The tourist sites were beautiful, as well. Huge churches, beautiful parks and elaborate costumes on the Queen’s guards were all sights to see. But of all the things to look at in London, there is one moment I remember clearly; it took my breath away. I was walking down the street and as I turned right onto Westminster Bridge, I was suddenly faced with the entirety of the House of Parliament across the river and Big Ben standing tall. To see such a gigantic, beautiful building come out of nowhere stunned me. Sometime while walking across that bridge is when I really fell in love with London and all of its charm. The Tower of London, while expensive, was worth the cost only because of the Beefeater tour, though the building itself is also lovely. Old buildings, tall as can be, lurked in corners at nearly every turn, somehow hidden by the city around it from other angles, much to my delight as I rounded corners throughout the city.

I'm just a huge, gorgeous building chilling on the riverside. No big deal.
I’m just a huge, gorgeous building chilling on the riverside. No big deal.

But one of the things that struck me most about London was how easy it was to travel. I’m not just talking about the language, though not having to navigate and read things in a foreign language was nice. I’m referencing the bus system, which was both efficient and not overly expensive. The Oyster cards that made everything easier and cheaper. The way the city was laid out, with multiple bridges to choose from when crossing the river, meaning no backtracking was necessary to get where I wanted to go. More than anything, though, were the beautiful maps everywhere. I even stopped carrying my own city map with me, which if you know me, is unheard of. (I always get lost.) I simply didn’t need it. Every few blocks stood a post with two maps: one close up and one farther away, so you knew not only exactly where you were and which direction you were facing, but what important landmarks were nearby and how to get there. I never worried about being lost, because if I needed to double check my location, I just checked one of the signposts within a few blocks of wherever I was and all was resolved.

It should be illegal not to have helpful maps everywhere in big cities.
It should be illegal not to have helpful maps everywhere in big cities. Seriously.

Genius, really. Maps. Useful public maps. Can every city get on board with this, now? (I’m looking at you Valencia, Spain!)

Between the relaxed feeling I had walking all over the city, the happy state my tummy was perpetually in, the lovely company I enjoyed while in London and the ancient beauty lurking in corners, I found London a hard city not to fall in love with. London is easy. London is beautiful. London is fun. Tell me, how could I not want to stay forever?

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Have you ever been to London? What did you think? Has anything ever caused you to fall in love with a city within days of arriving?

You can also find me on the ABOFA Facebook page, Instagram and Twitter. There’s also an email list, if you’d like to subscribe.

The Aran Islands: One Day Isn’t Enough

In March, I flew from Spain to Ireland with two main goals in mind: experience St. Paddy’s Day in Dublin and settle down for some peace and quiet. Through one of the work-for-accommodation websites, I found a promising job: working in a hostel on the Aran Islands. Set up for two weeks, I arrived to peaceful Inishmore, the largest of the three islands, and picked out my bunk bed for the next two weeks.

Wikipedia’s beautiful map of the Aran Islands.

Now, most people who visit the Aran Islands arrive on the early ferry around 10 am to the island and leave again at 5 pm. When the boat lands on shore, groups of young people pour out onto the dock and most head directly to the bike rental place next door. For two hours the roads are filled with tourists, all heading the same direction, towards the old stone fort of Dun Aengus. And by the end of the day they’re gone. They’ve “done” the Aran Islands. Saw what needed to be seen. Time to move on.

Having been there for two weeks and not even setting foot the other two islands, I find it truly hard to believe one day could be enough.

Why?

A million reasons. Two million reasons! Soooo many reasons.

Six Other Forts

Dun Aengus is a really cool fort. It’s big, it’s set on a breathtaking part of the coast and it’s SUPER old, as in before-Jesus old, and some of that stuff (like the outer defensive rocks) is still standing. But did you know that the Aran Islands actually contain seven forts overall? They are less popular and don’t have visitors centers and tourist infrastructure set up already, so when you head there it’s like your own private hike and treasure hunt. Four are on the main island of Inishmore, two on Inishmaan and one on the smallest island, Inisheer. While the forts are all similar in construction (round and made out of rocks), they’re in a few pretty cool locations. In my opinion, the landscape around them is the biggest reason for you to go take a look, in particular the cliffs near the Black Fort. Breathtaking, people.

Watching the sunset from the Black Fort.
Watching the sunset from the Black Fort.

Crazy Beautiful Cliffs

Speaking of landscape, let’s talk about cliffs on the Aran Islands. Unlike the Cliffs of Moher, the striking ocean cliffs on the islands are all free to look at and without barriers (aside from those that are part of Dun Aengus), so you can really feel the reality that if you just walked three more steps, you would be dead. (Please, no one do that.) There is no feeling in the world that can compare to being surrounded by silence and listening to the ocean beat against the huge stone walls while you look down from above. You could spend several hours working your way down the coastline, contemplating your own life, and not tire of the landscape.

Nature's orchestra. #Ireland #AranIslands

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The Seals

The Aran Islands have seals! And they aren’t always out to play. You have to be lucky to see them lying out on the rocks, sunning themselves, and if you’re only around for the day, then you’re likely to miss them. Heck, I have friends that tried three times to see the seals and still weren’t lucky.

Nightlife With The Locals

I can’t really guarantee that locals will talk to you (unless you’re an attractive female, then I just can’t guarantee that you’ll like it). But if you’re in the right place at the right time, AKA in the right Irish pub with the right drunk people, then you’ll have nothing but a blast. There is no culture like the Irish pub culture, and the Aran Islands are one of the most authentically local places to do it. Maybe you’ll end up with some new Irish phrases under your belt, as nearly everyone speaks Gaelic.

I didn't have any photos of locals from my stay, so this picture of some German dudes will have to suffice.
I didn’t have any photos of locals from my stay, so this blurry picture of some German dudes will have to suffice. The one guy had been to the Aran Islands three times already, so that totally counts. Right?

It’ll Probably Rain

Okay, so this is a bit of a downer, but let’s face reality: you’re in Ireland. It’s probably going to rain several times while you’re there. And if you plan out your trip to the Aran Islands and it rotates upon a single day when you can explore, you could be rained out and be one sad puppy. It’s best to plan for a few days and then an afternoon of rain (or two) won’t ruin anything.

Cows Galore

I’m kind of a cow freak, and I know it, so the Aran Islands were a little slice of paradise. Cows are everywhere, of all different colors, of all different ages, and you can often get pretty close to some of them and really gaze into their big ol’ eyes and then take pictures. Some of them have adorable tufts of hair on top of their head. Some of them might be walking down the street with you. Lots of them have babies. If you like cows, you’ll love the Aran Islands, and I haven’t even touched upon the chickens, goats, horses, ponies, donkeys and other assorted animal life all around you. And let’s face it: one day with cows everywhere is just several days too few!

Cow butt! Happy day!
Cow butt! Happy day!

Hidden Old Ruins

In addition to the super old forts, there are also several church ruins that you can find scattered across the island, along with graveyards and a few informative signs posted if you’re lucky. The tourist office can tell you where to find them, or you could just take your bike. head out and see what you run into. I personally have a fixation with graveyards and love looking at all of the different headstones used around the world, and stumbled upon the ruins of a 6th century monastery while I was walking around one. Pretty cool.

Peace and Quiet

Why do you go to Ireland? For nature. (Okay, and Guinness.) Why do we seek out nature? Because it gives us a little respite from the busy world around us. If you want to find that on the Aran Islands, especially during the busy summertime, you need to stay over for a few days and use those early morning times (before the first ferry arrives full of people) to take a walk and breath in the fresh air. When you’re busy doing your day trip from fort to old church to lunch and back in time for the ferry, you’re not able to sit back and really relax, listen to the ocean and enjoy everything the Aran Islands has to offer.

No, I didn't make this picture up. This is real.
No, I didn’t make this picture up. This is real.

What do you think, have you ever been to the Aran Islands? How long would you stay?

You can also find me on the ABOFA Facebook Page or subscribe to the email list, if you’d like.

Photoessay: Carneval and Cádiz

Cádiz, a small city on the southwest coast of Spain, is seemingly quiet. The waves are a surreal pale green, the sand white and clean and the boardwalk was surprisingly empty as I went for an “early” morning run at 9 am. It was a Saturday morning in late February, and the peace of Cádiz was in full effect, but within hours the streets would take on a very different feel. Carneval is a celebration that occurs just before Lent all over the world, mostly in countries that had a strong Catholic influence in the past. People dress up in costumes, eat, drink, sing, march in parades and generally just indulge in all of those things you’re supposed to give up for Lent. Cádiz is the epicenter of Spain’s festivities; before the actual festivities dancers and groups spend weeks practicing and preparing for the grand celebration.

But running down the beach boardwalk at 9 am Saturday morning, aside from the occasional group of costumed teenagers still awake from the night before, you would never know. The peace, the ocean and the patter of my feet on pavement filled the air.

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Have you ever been to Carneval in Spain? To Cádiz? Would you like to wear one of those blue or green tutus, too? (Hands up, because I do!)

You can find me on the ABOFA Facebook Page or even subscribe to the email list, if you’d like.

Semi-Domestic Bliss in Almería, Spain

I gave myself a month to see Southern Spain, but it wasn’t until I arrived and actually got my feet on the ground that I realized what a tall order “see lots of important things in Spain in one month” actually is. Each person I spoke to insisted on another city, another place, and another event that is, to them, a must-see and since I have an entire month, I must see it. Well, my entire month disappeared somewhere between five days in Barcelona (not enough), two nights in Valencia (enough), one night in Alicante (not enough), five nights in Almería (not enough) and several more cities that I’ve gotten to and plan to go to before March 12th flies me away to Ireland. Somehow what I thought would be a leisurely-paced trip through Spain has turned into a whirlwind tour of only a fraction of the important things this large, complex and gorgeous country has to offer. And while I love to add new cities to my brain’s conversation fodder, I have found myself completely exhausted. That’s why my five days in Almería, a small city on the southern coast of Spain weren’t spent only seeing a few of a multitude of sights nearby, they were spent pretending I was home, even if just for a little bit.

An old friend of mine, Liz, is teaching English in Almería and offered to put me up for as long as I’d like. I arrived thinking that I’d only stay two or three nights, but my friend’s gracious hospitality and equally as incredible Spanish friends reeled me in, and as Liz and I reconnected over cañas and tapas (translation: beer and food) in a small but busy restaurant, I realized that I probably wouldn’t be ready to go as soon as I’d planned.

While I can safely say that I’ve seen the Alcazaba, the second largest Muslim fortress in the province of Andalusia (the largest is Granada’s Alhambra), walked the white, shining streets of Mojácar for a panoramic view of the area, hopped tapas bars around the city, sampling Spanish food and even picked up a postcard along the way, my best memories are a little different, and a little more domestic.

Proof: I did the things you're supposed to do in Almería.
Proof: I did the things you’re supposed to do in Almería, like an obligatory beach picture.

I went running down the boardwalk; the ocean on my left and plenty of other people exercising all around me made me feel like I was part of the daily life, at least for a moment, and it was really just a moment. Within ten minutes I was back to walking, as it turns out you can’t run away from being super out of shape!

We went shopping for fresh produce at a local market and cooked a full dinner for us and friends. There’s something comfortable about shopping for ingredients and creating a meal out of them that I sometimes miss while on the road (even as good as those tapas bars are!). The busy market, the unbelievable amount of fresh vegetables we could pick up for under two euros, and the end result of tons of laughter and excellent food all while sitting on L’s living room couch were much needed after so much of the unfamiliar.

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Liz’s Spanish friends (or shall I say my new Spanish friends? I’m stealing them!) cooked us a homemade, authentic Almerian meal. We all sat together at an old kitchen table decked out with food galore, stuffing our faces and laughing, and enjoying migas. One of the friends is actually a chef, so even though it was a relaxed atmosphere, I essentially got to sit in on a cooking class as I watched him cook one side dish after another, all to be added to the migas (a kind of friend starch) when it was finished.

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Earlier that same day, we toured around an old farm house and then picked organic oranges from an orchard. The chef and his wife showed me the backyard full of olive trees, small plants and other odds and ends that little Spanish farm houses have (like oregano). Standing on the small roof and looking over the nearby landscape wasn’t just beautiful but intimate. Spain felt a little bit more like a place that I could imagine life in. A quick drive down the road and the group of us were in the midst of an orange orchard picking fruits to take back; my Spanish friends said that their parents who are now too old to keep up with the labor are constantly asking them to drive out and pick oranges for them. We were rewarded for our hard work (yeah right!) with way too many oranges for one person to even attempt to eat, alone.

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And, bonus, I watched a herd of goats block the road.

Later my friend and I left to shortly tour Granada before drinking ourselves into oblivion during Carneval in Cádiz (well, other people did that and I mostly just watched) (get excited for those blog posts!), but when I think about Almería, I’ll always think of it as the place where I was most able to immerse myself into Spanish culture and customs, and see a little bit more of what life is really like for those who live here. It was also the place where I was able to rest in between two exhausting bursts of sightseeing and travel. As for things to see, the city didn’t hold a candle to the big bad boys of Spain (Barcelona, Madrid, Granada, etc.) but that’s not why I adored being there; it was the laughter and friendship that I’ll always associate with this little town on the ocean. And all of the oranges I had to eat after picking them from the orchard. So. Many. Oranges.

But next time I go, I definitely wouldn’t put up my nose to doing a little more sightseeing, specifically those incredible beaches everyone has been talking about. Laying on the beach does count as sightseeing, right? Right.

Have you ever associated a pretty typical city with incredible memories? Have you ever had migas? Want to pay for me to visit these incredible beaches this July? (If so, let me know! I’ll send a postcard.)

You can also find me on the ABOFA Facebook Page or subscribe to the email list, if you’d like.

An Introduction to Spain in Barcelona

As “well traveled” as my relatives like to say I am, let’s be clear that I didn’t know very much about Spain before arriving in Barcelona. I didn’t even realize until about two weeks ago that Barcelona doesn’t speak Spanish as much as it does Catalan, a Spanish-y French-y language of its own. Thankfully most people are bilingual (if not trilingual) and can communicate in Spanish quite easily, but my “remember and practice Spanish in Spain” plan got off to a rocky, this-isn’t-Spanish-is-it start. So I’m not exaggerating when I say I didn’t know anything about Spain before arriving. During my five days in the city, Barcelona (and my Italian Couchsurfing hosts) taught me quite a few lessons.

Lesson 1: Spain is really, really old.

I can't tell you exactly what this is, but it is realllllllllly old.
I can’t tell you exactly what this is, but I can tell you that for once, this tree is the younger subject of a photograph.

Germany was impressive with its 15th century towers, but Barcelona blew those timelines out of the water. They have sections of an old Roman wall dating back to the 4th century, for example. Just try to even imagine life in the 4th century… because I can’t. That’s so old, it’s abstract. And there’s even remains of a temple dating from the first century BC, which is even more difficult to imagine. All I know about BC is… togas, right?

Lesson 2: What is a “Tapa”?

These are several tapas. All on one plate.
These are several tapas. All on one plate.

You might be like me in the sense that you understand that Spain has something you eat called Tapas and they are famous, but you have no clue what the hell that even means. Well, folks, the truth is a little anticlimactic. Tapas can literally be anything. It just means a small portion of food to be eaten with your beer (or other alcoholic drink of choice), like cheese, olives or ham.

Lesson 3: Tomatoes are for spreading.

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Tomatoes are not to be cut and consumed in slices, tomatoes are not to be squished into a paste and become part of a pizza (at least not all the time). No, tomatoes are to be cut in half and then the insides are to be dragged across pieces of toasted bread until it’s pink and delicious. Olive oil and salt as desired. (If you get the chance, try this. Simple genius.)

Lesson 4: Dancing is for everyone.

WHY ARE STOCK PHOTOGRAPHS SO WEIRD. This came up when I searched for "dance". I have so many questions.
WHY ARE STOCK PHOTOGRAPHS SO WEIRD. This came up when I searched for “dance”. I have so many questions.

I don’t really do nightlife. I definitely don’t do strobe lights, and I prefer my beers with laughter and for the grocery store price. Still, I took it upon myself to do research into Barcelona’s nightclub scene for the blog. Or maybe my Italian friend just invited me out and I said “Sure, why not!” When in Barcelona. In any case, first, the club we went to lacked strobe lights, which was a huge plus. Second, I was astonished by the variety of people in the place. Not just young high school and college-aged folks, but older twenties. And also some people in their forties, some married people, some single people, some dating people, some guy in a wheelchair, also a giant group of 50+ year old lesbians. Everyone came to the club, bought their overpriced drinks and then got down to the business of dancing, laughing, and generally just having a great time.

Lesson 5: It’s impossible to sleep early (unless you know magic).

Cooking dinner well after 8pm with my couchsurfing hosts.
Cooking dinner well after 8pm with my Couchsurfing hosts.

This was the case in Argentina as well, but people in Spain don’t eat dinner until it’s late; most restaurants are open and ready at 8 and people will eat as late as 11 at night. This means that even if you don’t go out on the town until 3am (see above), it’s still pretty tough to get back home, stop talking to whomever you’re with and catch some shut-eye before the next day rolls in. I love sleeping early and I adore waking up with the sun to enjoy the quiet morning hours, but in Barcelona, it just wasn’t possible.

I’ve only been in Spain for about a week now, so if I say anymore, it’ll become borderline presumptuous and pretentious, two things I’d really prefer not to be. I really enjoyed Barcelona, the balconies all over the city were breathtaking and I found the streets surprisingly easy to navigate, despite the insanity of several large roundabouts with ~8 streets coming out of it, all at different angles. I’m really curious to see whether I’ll like Barcelona more or less so be after seeing several Spanish cities; it’s hard to pick your favorite cereal when you’ve never tasted more than one kind. But regardless of what opinions I form later, I left Barcelona behind with quite a few fond memories, and not only of the tapas.

At the end of the day, Barcelona was the perfect introduction. Spain, it’s very nice to meet you.

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Modern Meets Medieval in Halle an der Saale, Germany

Germany holds a very special place in my heart. Not only can I understand what’s going on for once, thanks to years of German instruction and a semester in Austria, but the things that are going on usually make sense. There’s masterful public transportation. I have more than a few friends scattered all of the country. To top it all off, there’s little to no crime, so arriving in Germany is not just exciting (dark beer! curry wurst!) but, sigh, comfortable.

And now, my parents are moving there.

Yes, my expat-ness has officially rubbed off onto my poor, unsuspecting parents and my dad has accepted a job transfer to a plant in Germany. And he’s dragged his suitcases across the ocean and is squatting in a hotel at the moment in the small little town of Halle and der Saale, a short drive away from Leipzig, where I had a happy reunion with my Finnish friend Pinja less than a year ago. He’s begun work, my mom is wrapping up life in Pittsburgh, and then in April, she’ll complete her own leg of the journey to Halle an der Saale and they’ll set up house in a house. Coincidentally, I’ll also be headed to Germany at the same time… oh wait. That’s not a coincidence. It’s just my excellent planning, muahaha.

Anyhow, I am running away from the point of this post. I visited Halle for a few days before my flight to Barcelona, Spain, and was surprisingly quite… impressed. Not only was the city small, quaint and full of history, but it had done an excellent job of not just preserving that history, but giving it a new usefulness and function in the modern world. Now, I’ve not been to many small towns in Germany (maybe Lübeck counts?) so I can’t speak for all, though I wouldn’t be surprised in Halle an der Saale wasn’t the only little city to do such a phenomenal job of balancing history with today’s world. But I can only talk about what I know. These are my favorite ways Halle an der Saale brings its past into the present (and who knows what else I’ll discover, come April!).

Moritzburg Castle & Saxony-Anhalt’s Art Museum

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If you’ve ever been to Halle an der Saale, this is probably the building you knew I was going to bring up. Because it’s great. This castle was built in the fifteenth century and as most castle stories go, people were fighting over dumb things and actually important things got burned. Like beautiful, giant castles. Anyways, after years of deteriorating, finally the city of Halle was given rights to the property and after that whole DDR situation was dealt with, a gorgeous and modern art museum was created. Now, instead of recreating the castle walls, though, Halle an der Salle decided to stabilize what ruins there were, preserve them, and then built a sleek metal/glass building within the walls. It looks like this museum literally rises from the ashes, if you will.

Dramatic effect, indeed. Well played, Halle.

Market Church of Saint Mary (Marienkirche)

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This church sits right in the main plaza of the city and is pretty iconic, for good reason. Not only does Halle an der Saale incorporate their history into today, but they’ve even got a history of incorporating history, as seen with Marienkirche. Why do you think this church has 4 towers? Nope, it’s not because the architects were weird. (Though maybe they were, who can say?) It’s because some important Catholic Germans wanted to build a giant church to impress all of the townspeople and make sure they didn’t join the Reformation. But instead of tearing the two existing churches completely down, they left the towers in place and connected them with the new nave (fancy speak for the middle part of a church).

(Also, a bit of historical irony, it was within this partially-built church that some important German dude gave a speech and converted the congregation to Protestantism, the exact thing the construction of the fancy church was supposed to ward off. Ouch. See Wikipedia for more drama.)

But that’s not the only way the Market Church of Saint Mary has fought off being dated. These days, instead of closing off the tower stairs and declaring them unfit for traversing, the city of Halle installed new, metal, spiral staircases in both front towers, maintains the top bridge/platforms and leads tours up, across and back down, twice a day. How do I know that, you ask? Because out of sheer luck, I found myself in the right place at the right time and joined the tour group, stepped up those steep metal stairs, visited the indoor platforms and walked across the hanging bridge, hundreds of feet above ground. How often do you get to do that in towers dating from the 1500s? (On second thought, maybe that’s not on your to-do list…)

The Francke Foundation Homes

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In 1695, a German guy (Can you guess his last name?) decided to set up an orphanage and religious school for poor kids and anyone else who wanted to attend classes or live there. It was a huge success and expanded into an entire complex (teacher training, a pharmacy, library, etc.), all with matching white buildings in a row. Until the dumb WWII bombings and later DDR situation, things were going well and the place was huge. Nowadays, they’ve rebuilt and repaired the damage and started up all of the social programs again. Big-whoopty-do, right? But that’s not the entire reason I was so impressed with this old complex

No, the real kicker is that the library holds books that are hundreds of years old, in a building built completely out of the original materials: nails, floorboards, bookshelves and all. It’s fully functional, beautifully done and you’re allowed to walk into the first section of the room and touch a couple books. And then, they’ve digitally scanned a ton of the super old books so that you can look at the books online. Not only is that modern, but it contributes to the book’s preservation in the long run and it’s just super cool.

The Main Square

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Alright, so this one isn’t really so unique, but I still love how Halle’s modern transportation, street cars, go right through the historical center square. Berlin also has a trolley hub right in one of its historical centers, and I’m sure there are plenty of other cities that qualify on the same account. But there’s just something about seeing that bright red street car pull up in front of a 15th century clock tower (or in this picture’s case, a 16th century church) and let off a bunch of Germans, some of whom have their face in an iPhone. I adore it.

There are a couple more honorable mentions, here:

  • The Handel Museum is built inside of the house George Handel (a famous composer) was born in.
  • A square of apartments are being put into renovated 15th-18th century buildings with a courtyard.
  • The Giebichenstein Castle also houses a museum and University, though I’ve never seen it myself (parts of it are closed in winter so I didn’t make it up there).

I only had a few days in Halle an der Saale, but it was quite a lovely time. If you’re ever in the area, it would certainly not be a waste of time! And say hello to my parents, too, while you’re there.

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What do you think of Halle an der Salle, Germany? Which modern/medieval mash up was your favorite?

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