7.1.06

Updates on my travel are underway. It will probably be the longest post I've ever written. At the moment I'm taking a break from that and watching Daily Show clips on comedycentral.com. I suggest you go there and look for the clip that features Sarah Jessica Parker. Her interview makes her look like a complete airhead. And it's nothing that Jon Stewart did - she's just a giggling, incoherent mess. Just... wow.

Time to make lunch and then work out. later!

5.1.06

So, my trip. Where do I start? I guess the first thing to do is to give it a big title and some witty formatting:

Kyla's Winter Break Travels
(for most pictures, consult Facebook)

Place: Vienna, Austria
Fellow Traveler(s): Ashley
Duration of Stay: 3 Days

On the morning of the 21st, Ash and I left Tuebingen to begin a journey to Vienna via Stuttgart and Nuernberg. Everything would have gone without a hitch had it not been for the last leg being thirty minutes late. They eventually brought in a different train consisting entirely of first-class carriages, and we completely lost our reservations, sitting instead in a little cubby nestled between four seats that were facing away from each other. It was kind of fun for the hour and a half that we had to sit there, but once seats opened up as we got closer to Vienna, we were glad for the opportunity to grab a few. Plus, they were first class (a.k.a. big and comfy), and Deutsche Bahn gave us free water and things to make up for the inconvienence. Ash slept, I knitted iPod cosies. We got to Vienna at about 6:30 PM. I proceeded to try and complain about our reservations at the ticket window in hopes of getting a refund, but I should know better than to do that because it NEVER works.
Anyway, we found the house we were supposed to be staying at, only to find that the woman who was supposed to house us was not at home during the time she said she would be. (We contacted her through couchsurfing.com, a great tool for finding cheap/free accomodation all over the world.) Since it was late, we decided not to wait around and instead checked into a nearby youth hostel. Pretty cheap, only 12.50 Euros a night, but my bed was a pull-out on wheels from under the bottom bunk! Ash was tired and decided to take a nap before we went out to look for clubs. At this time, "Ronja" (the woman whose apartment we were supposed to be staying at, not her real name) called my cell phone, and it turned out she had written the wrong times in the email. She really wanted us to stay with her, and we thought it would be nice to not have to pay, so I went and got the keys from her right away and said we'd stay the next night. Got back to the youth hostel to find that Ash was too exhasted to do anything but sleep, so I went back out into the night to look around Vienna by myself. I went to Karlsplatz and saw the Karlskirche, which is brilliant by night, and happened upon the city park and a McDonald's for dinner. This was my second time in Vienna, so I kind of knew my way around a bit. Didn't prevent me from walking into a sketch part of town with gogo bars, so I walked back to Karlsplatz and made it back to the hostel.
The next day, Ash was refreshed, so after dropping our packs off at Ronja's and showering, we had coffee at a local cafe (delicious Vienna coffee), and then headed out to the city. We started out at Stephansdom, of course, and then did a little shopping and ate delicious food at Euro Cafe. We started out for Michaelerplatz, which only leads the way to Museum Square and more glorious buildings, like the Neues Rathaus and the Austria State Library. After turning in every direction and seeing a new, beautiful building from afar, Ash was a bit speechless. Can't say I blame her. We went for coffee again at a place we found by tram-hopping, and I considered taking one of their mini-no-smoking signs off the table, but didn't. I think the other places we made it to that night was the Karlsplatz again (with the Christmas market), the Neues Rathaus up close (also with a Christmas market), and a random cathedral that we walked into at the very end of Mass which was beautiful. The plan for the rest of the night was to go back to Ronja's, get ready and go out to a club, but instead we hung out with Ronja and her four cats for the evening and talked. You should note at this point that this is day 2 of planning on going to a club and ultimately not going. It becomes a trend.
The next day, we woke up at about 10, planning on taking it easy before catching our train. A few things didn't go so well. One was going to breakfast at the same cafe we had had coffee the day before, only to find out that it was fairly expensive for bread and eggs and bacon, plus the jolly old Austrian man working there put 5 rolls instead of 4 in the basket and CHARGED US EXTRA when Ashley ate it. I mean, how were we supposed to know? Was he going to reuse it for other customers if we didn't eat it? Then I went to buy flowers for Ronja and butter for us, which was just enough to make us late in leaving for the train. Consequentially, we missed the train by 4 minutes. It was the last that could get us to Hannover that day, the day before Christmas Eve. So we made reservations on a night train and bummed around Vienna a little more, Ashley stopping to buy two magazines that she was charged 18 Euro for, and she forgot them on the train when we got out in Hannover the next morning. :( But the night train was kind of cool, we had two bunks in a sleeper compartment meant for six but only had three (some random German dude was in there as well), so we ate the food we had brought with us and went to sleep on the top two bunks.

Place: Hannover, Germany
Fellow Traveler(s): Ashley
Duration of Stay: 3 Days

We woke up when the ticket checker brought us breakfast in the morning, along with the worst coffee I think I have ever had in my life. A bit later we were told that we had 5 minutes before arrival in Hannover, so we threw our stuff back together, got out of the train, and found the train to Isernhagen, where the Languths live. At the house (which is a short walk from the Isernhagen train station), we were welcomed by Jutta and Claus, my loving host parents, and of course *real* coffee. At this point it was about 7 am, and Ashley and I considered sleeping, but instead we showered and went into town with Jutta for coffee and a bit of shopping. We came back to celebrate Christmas Eve with the entire family. In Germany, Christmas Eve is the big holiday, and then the next two days are days of rest, and nothing is open. Another peculiarity is the decorating of the tree, which is done on Christmas Eve by one family member, and the others cannot see it until it's time to eat. After a wonderful meal and the "Bescherung" (opening of presents), Ash and I decided to take a hour's nap and then go into town to visit the disco. Needless to say, this became the 3rd night of not going to the disco as planned.
The rest of our stay at the Languths was pretty non-descript, just a lot of hanging out and resting up with great people. But there were a few more events that necessitate a few words:
Event #1: The disco. Believe it or not, we finally made it to the disco. It's called the Baggi, and is located on Raschplatz right outside of the Hannover main train station. Dancing there was great, especially after saying we would go for 3 nights and not going once. This was at the end of Christmas Day. I met a cool German guy and we walked around Hannover between the closing of the disco and the first train back to Isernhagen. So all in all, it was a good night for me, even though I didn't get a whole lot of sleep afterwards (went to bed at about 7 AM and got up at 11:30).
Event #2: Hanging with Albi. Albi is a German guy from Hannover who is doing work for his degree in Stuttgart, which is where I first met him. We had planned on hanging out while we were both in Hannover, so on our last night there (the 26th) we met him "unterm Schwanz" and walked with him to Nordstadt to his friend Daniella's apartment. We had fun hanging out and talking there, and Albi wanted to continue on to a party, but I had forgotten the key to the house at the Languth's and I didn't think it'd be nice to get back late and have to wake somebody up to let us in. Plus, we were leaving for Amsterdam in the morning. So we caught one of the later trains back to Isernhagen and were in by 10. But Albi decided to come to Amsterdam with us, so we said we'd meet him there the next day.

Place: Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Fellow Traveler(s): Ashley, Albi, Matt, Rick
Duration of Stay: 3 Days

Ashley and I caught a direct train to Amsterdam the morning of the 27th. The plan was to check in to the Flying Pig Uptown (a wonderful youth hostel), pick up Albi, then go to the Schipol Airport and pick up Rick and Matt. Everything went well except for meeting up with Rick and Matt- their flight was a little delayed so we didn't see them until about an hour after the agreed time of 8 PM. In the hostel, we met Justin, a relaxed surfer dude from California. He had just gotten done studying in Madrid for a semester, and was traveleing around until leaving on the 9th of January for home. So he hung out with us for most of our Amsterdam trip, just as laid-back as can be. The first night, all six of us went to look around in the Red Light District, since half the group had never been to Amsterdam before. We caught the last tram back to the hostel and hung out in the bar there for the remainder of the evening.
The next day, people had different goals. Matt and Rick wanted to cram about 3 different museums into the day, while the others were more intent on enjoying the other freedoms that Amsterdam has to offer. So after shopping to get groceries for lunch and dinner, I went with the boys to the Nikolaus Church and then the Maritime museum while Ashley and Justin, accompanied by Albi, tried to see how different they could make the famous Van Gogh museum look. (Answer: the windows start to look like paintings and there are way too many people in the museum. They stayed for about half an hour.) We then tried at a few other museums, but it was too close to closing to really get any value out of them. So we found the Cannabis College and were just about to go to the Hemp Museum when I got a call from Ash requesting that I come home as soon as I could. I complied, and we made our spaghetti dinner in the kitchen at the Flying Pig, afterwards hanging out in the kitchen and drinking. I believe this was the night that we tried to get into the Balloon Party, a huge annual dance that all the crazy Hollanders attend, but tickets were all sold out. So we wandered around looking for another disco, but ended up again hanging out at the hostel.
The next day was kind of sad. Ashley had to leave on a night train for Frankfurt to fly out the next morning, and Justin was relocating to the Flying Pig Beach Hostel. Early in the day, Rick and Matt attended the Rijksmuseum, while we took our time showering and getting ready. Albi met a girl from Australia named Lily, who he accompanied to the Van Gogh museum. We all met up for grocery shopping, buying ingredients for a chicken caeser salad and pasta with cream sauce. This kind of group lunch/dinner shopping made food really cheap during our stay in Amsterdam. We found out that Lily was planning on leaving for Berlin the next day, so we planned on taking the train together. Before dinner, Rick, Matt, Albi, Lily and I went to the Heineken Experience, enjoying the exhibits and trying to coax the bartenders into giving us more than our 3-glass-share of beer. Rick was rejected many times, which made it all the more hilarious when Lily and I went up and came back victorious with a glass each. But Rick and Matt each managed to take an extra "free gift" at the end, so they ended up with two Heineken glasses each in their commemorative tins. We walked back at the hostel to find Ash and Justin preparing dinner, so we helped get that done and ate before Ash had to catch her train. I rode with her to the train station and saw her off. I couldn't believe that would be the last time I would see her until September... :( So I came back to the hostel and spent the evening drinking in the kitchen again, this time with Lily, Albi, Matt and Rick.

Place: Berlin, Germany
Fellow Traveler(s): Lily, Matt, Rick
Duration of Stay: 1 Day

I'm not even sure if we spent 24 hours in Berlin. It was meant as a kind of layover between Amsterdam and Prague, since the ride would have been about 11 hours, and we wanted to cut that into two 5 to 6 hour chunks. And we didn't get to see Lily after the train ride, either. But we found our hostel without problem, which wasn't too thrilling since it was 18 Euros a night for what looked like a former juvenille detention. It was hard to find anything else so close to New Year's Eve, though, so we were glad for what we had. They served pretty good complimentary breakfast, too. So our stay in Berlin looked pretty much like this: checked into the hostel, went out to find dinner and happened upon a Christmas Market on Potsdamer Platz, went to Checkpoint Charlie, saw Brandenburg Gate, saw the Reichstag from the outside, visited the Berliner Dom, went to Alexanderplatz, slept, ate, went inside the Reichstag, walked the largest remaining portion of the Berlin Wall, got our stuff from the hostel, met Rick's friends Jessy and Herbie at Berlin Ost train station, and left. One funny antedote from the trip: at Alexplatz we found an open-air skating rink, which looked closed, but the door was unlocked. The sign in German said "Skate at your own risk", so Rick and Matt took this to mean that they could skate on it in their shoes. As I was watching them dick around out there, a group of young people speaking a language I didn't recognize came up and watched too. One guestured to my friends and said something to his buddies that sounded to me like "blah blah blah blah Idiot" (pronounced "id-e-oat", with the emphasis on the last syllable). It made me laugh, especially a minute later when he turned to me with disbelief at Matt and Rick and said it again, then realized who he was talking to - a friend of the "idiots". But as we were leaving, all 5 of that group got on the ice, and we laughed at them as I told Rick and Matt about what had just happened.

Place: Prague, Czech Republic
Fellow Traveler(s): Matt, Rick, Jeff, Herbie, Jessy
Duration of Stay: 3 Days

The plan was to celebrate New Year's in Prague, which Rick had researched online, and his general report was something like "on New Year's Eve, all of Prague's residents flood the streets of the Old City and shoot fireworks at each other all night long." This met our requirements for a good time, so we booked a hostel in Prague three months in advance for two nights for six people. Of course, things did not go to plan, but many things did, so we were thankful.
Things that did not go to plan:
1. We missed our connection in Dresden and had to wait 2 hours for the next train. This allowed us to see some of the beautiful old city, though, and gave me my first experience with former East Germany (except for Berlin, which I don't really count), not to mention one of the funniest things that happened the entire trip. But I'll get to that in a minute.
2. We took forever finding our hostel due to us not understanding Czech and poor English-language directions provided by our hostel.
3. We finally called the hostel from a hotel after we ended up in the boonies, and they had given our beds to somebody else. They gave us a discount at another place which was not close at all to downtown, and was actually a private residence with a barking dog and a lady who couldn't speak anything but Czech and a little bit of Russian. Luckily, Herbie had taken four years of Russian in high school (this continued to be a godsend), so she was able to ask the lady order us a taxi. By the time we had this all figured out and were ready to leave for the Old City, it was 20 to midnight. We were running out of time, and we weren't sure if the busses would run, or if we'd make it down there in time at all, even with a taxi.
(Quick story before I continue on with this post: Funny incident in Dresden that I said I'd talk about. Rick was looking for beer to take with us to the Czech Republic, so he decided to ask the guy at the Doner stand we had just eaten at. But he decided to ask in German. The only word missing that he needed was the word for "store", which I told him was Laden. So Rick goes up, leans over the counter, and with big eyes and exaggerated pronunciation, he looked the Doner seller in the eye and said, "Ich brauche ein Bier-Laden." But the Doner guy, who, like most of them, happened to be Turkish, stared back at him and said, "Bin Laden???" It was priceless. There was a moment of confusion before I stepped in and said, "Bier! he said Bier", and then the man looked relieved and pulled out a few bottles. But it was still hilarious, and we laughed for a good 15 minutes about that one. Now on to the rest:)
Things that did go to plan:
1. We met Jessy and Herbie in the Berlin Ost train station on platform one. They're friends of Rick's from college, and Jessy is studying abroad in France this year. I was glad I got to meet them, because I like them both a lot, and Herbie's pretty much the coolest person ever.
2. Jeff met us in Dresden. All of his trains from Tuebingen were late, so he wasn't sure he'd make it in time. But there were no problems there. Especially since we missed the first train to Prague.
3. We stepped out of the taxi on the next bridge over from the Charles Bridge pretty much directly at midnight. No time for countdowns, but in plenty of time to watch as hundreds of fireworks, both commercial and store-bought, were fired from every bridge and every bank of the river. We yelled and cheered with the rest of the people on our bridge, especially the drunk Czechs. The feeling was indescribible... simply glorious. We made our way to the Old City Square, with hundreds of other people as they tried to squeeze through the narrow, building-lined streets to get to the square. I couldn't help but think, "This is New Year's in Prague, and I'm here!!" We ducked into an Argentinian-themed restaurant for an overpriced doublepint, and then continued on our now more-merry way until we found a small club. This place was about the size of a dorm room, but managed to house a turntable with two DJ's, a small bar, and a dance floor and lounge area. We hung out here until it became obvious that they wanted to close, and that only after Rick and Matt had been swindeled into buying 5 Vodka-Red Bulls for a bargain total of only 250 Krones. (That's only about 10 US dollars, but still more than they were planning on spending that night.) We started out looking for the river so that we could orient ourselves and get back to the hostel, but it became clear that we were either wandering away from it or directly parallel to it, because we never found it and ended up taking a taxi back to the hostel, which cost an unfortunate 800 krones (around 35 bucks, but then again, split between 6 people isn't bad).
That was a long point #3...
The next day was spend looking around Prague, muddling through slush on the streets and enjoying the beautiful castle complex that's up on the hill overlooking the river. It was January 1st, New Year's Day, which meant a few things: one, there were polar bear swimmers in the river, who looked very cold but got a lot of attention from both crowd and press for it. Two, it was Herbie's birthday, so we all went to a restaurant and enjoyed an actual meal. (Up to this point, we'd been eating mostly sandwiches we'd composed of the cheapest materials we could find at the store, and street-kiosk food.) The rest of the night called for splitting up: Herbie wanted to rest at the hostel; Rick, Matt and Jessy were scheduled to meet up with Rick's old Czech exchange student Martin; and Jeff and I decided to visit the big dance club. This place is seriously awesome. Entrance that night was about 6 dollars, but drinks were cheap, and the dance floors - well, there were 5, all with different DJ's and music. (Okay, two were techno floors, but what can I say, this is Europe...) Each floor had a corresponding lounge so no one had to spend all their time there on their feet. Given that it was the day after New Year's Eve, the place filled up nicely at about midnight. I loved this place, and can't wait to go back, which I surely will. Sadly though, I fell asleep while sitting in a corner with Jeff (he'd call me out on this if I didn't write about it, so here it is). But can you blame me? I was exhasted from the evening before...
The next day had us up early to catch the train to Plzen. I felt like I had just fallen asleep when my alarm went off. As I got up to hit "snooze" and maybe catch a few more minutes of sleep, I tripped on the heater (strategically placed in the middle of the room - this "hostel" was really a dump). The contraption fell over, there was a brief flash of light, and then the power went out. We tried to look at the panel, located right outside our door, and see if we had tripped a breaker or something - but there was nothing. Just no power in the entire two bottom floors of the place. So, using a flashlight to pack up, we got out of there and hoped that the hostel lady would not track us down via Rick's passport information and get us in trouble.

Place: Plzen, Czech Republic
Fellow Traveler(s): Matt, Rick, Jeff, Herbie, Jessy
Duration of Stay: 1 Day

Plzen was meant to be a kind of respite from the whirlwind tour that we were on over break. And it was - a quiet, mostly industrial town whose claims to fame are the 3rd largest synagoge in the world and the factory that makes Pilsner Urquell, a wonderful beer. We visited both these places, along with the church, where we climbed the 300 steps to the top of the spire. We also had another *real* meal, which for Jeff and I cost about 12 bucks total (tip included) for us each to have a pizza, a soup and a drink. Pretty good deal, but the service was lousy - super-slow.
Another few highlights: Our beds cost 190 Krone each, about 6 bucks, which was wonderful. We pooled all the leftover money and bought as many groceries as we could for the train ride, and feasted in our little compartment. Also, Rick, Matt, Jessy and Herbie bought a ticket to the Czech border all together, which cost them about 2 bucks total - I guess if you buy them together you get some sort of a group discount.

Place: Munich, Germany
Fellow Traveler(s): Matt, Rick, Jeff, Herbie, Jessy
Duration of Stay: 1 Day

Back into Germany, where, as Herbie put it, "they know languages". And it was true - after the Czech Republic, where communicating was often reminiscent of pulling teeth, I was glad to be able to talk with the ticket-taker from the Deutsche Bahn. He told Jeff and I that we were in the wrong compartment of the train, that it would be splitting in a half-hour and that if we wanted to go to Munich, we had to move two cars down or else we'd end up in Nuernburg. I didn't know how we'd ever get that piece of info from a Czech train official.
Jeff and I decided to stay only one day, which is a shame, because Munich is so beautiful and there's lots to do. But after so many days on the road, I was ready to come back to Tuebingen and settle back into life as I know it here. Knowing that there was a deadline on my travels, too, gave me more motivation to enjoy my time in Munich. So upon arrival, we checked into the hostel that we had contacted via cell phone on the train. It was wonderful - a respectable 15 Euros a night in a really nice place called the Euro Youth Hostel, right next to the train station. And the next thing - you guessed it - we were off to Hofbrauhaus, Munich's huge tourist beer hall. We had decided to eat dinner here, which was relatively expensive, but I got a great plate of Kaesspaetzle for ?6.10, so no complaining from me. Can't say the same about Rick's Weissw├╝rstchen (imagine those, but white) - they were completely watery and lacked in taste as much as they did in color. But the beer was really good, which pictures taken after we left will testify to. (Look on Facebook, link at the top of this post.)
The next day, we visited the Munich Residenz, a grand old palace built in the 19th century that has WAY too many rooms. After looking at that and the Schatzkammer (treasury), our feet were exhausted. Jeff and I decided it was time to start thinking about heading to Tuebingen, so we parted ways with our traveling companions. They headed to visit the old WWII work camp in Dachau, and we went in search of food and then made our way back to Tuebingen for some much-needed rest.

So that's it, that's my story. Hope you liked it. Now it's time for class... ergh. Wish I was back in Prague...
My bank really makes me mad sometimes. Good ol' Bank of America, I know you're accessible everywhere, which makes life easier for me, but why oh why do you have to have so many hidden fees that make me a sad panda? I logged onto my online bank account for the first time after 2 weeks of travel, and a few entries take me by surprise:

INTERNATIONAL NON-BANK OF AMERICA ATM DENIAL CHARGE, $1.50. (If I didn't take any money out at all, why do I get fined? This only happened because I tried to take out 300 Euros, which apparently exceeds my per-transaction limit.)

EXCESSIVE ACTIVITY SERVICE CHARGE, $1.00. (This one was on my savings account. Why doesn't anybody tell me about these things beforehand? It almost completely nullified my interest earnings.)

Um, so I'm going to stop whining about BOA and instead write about my pleasant journeys over the Christmas Break. I'll even start a new post for it.

4.1.06

Back in Tuebingen. What a great trip... 13 days of being on the road in Europe. It was fantastic and I have quite a few stories to share. But for the moment, I'm going to enjoy being back in my home-away-from-home, and just chill out for a night.

Hope everyone has gotten their New Year off to a great start! Updates soon.