Belgium

I’ve lost count now of how many times I’ve been to Brussels. I’ve got the entire routine down, memorized, and I almost hate that because the trip is an enormous hassle. But always in the end, despite the extra-lengths of getting to and from Brussels via Spain is without a doubt worth ever second of the annoying journey.

As always I sat on the plane, and then the bus, and then the train, nervously and anxiously and excitedly awaiting my arrival at Chez Peebles. My palms were sweating and despite being exhausted, I couldn’t sleep for a second on the plane due to my unnerving excitement. Continue reading

Krakow

The last part of our journey was probably my favorite. Well, I guess it’s pretty unfair to compare each part because they were so completely different and each was so wonderful in its own way, but I think we chose wisely choosing Krakow to be our final stop.  By the time we got to Krakow, we were already beat from the big city life of Berlin, the free liberties of Amsterdam, but we were still excited to go exploring another brand-new city.

Krakow is a place that I knew nothing about. I had no previous idea in my head of what it would be like, what the people would look like, anything.  So I think not knowing anything made it that much better.

The city itself is full of charm and it immediately captures you with its highly-characteristic architecture, the numerous high-towering churches, and the sporadic palaces (or at least domed buildings).  When we first arrived, we were pretty beat and were thrilled to see that the sun was shining bright despite the snow we were supposed to get.

Upon arrival, the hostel was one of the most home-y, cozy, and certainly inviting hostels I’ve ever stayed at. Appearance-wise, it’s not the most attractive, but the people that work there and the atmosphere are top notch (highly recommendable for other travelers: Greg and Tom’s Hostel).

However, as much as we wanted to just enjoy the day and the nice weather, we were told that the following day was Easter and everything was going to be closed and no tours would be running. We hadn’t taken this into account when we booked the trip. Well, shit, we thought, what are we going to do tomorrow if we explore the city today?

Well that meant one thing: We had to go visit Auschwitz that afternoon, which just so happened to be a 6-hour journey (as if we didn’t just get off a plane….)  That was the last thing we wanted to do; it would have been perfect to just take it easy, go to the supermarket and stock up on food for Sunday, get a big lunch, bask in the sun for a while, maybe even take a nap, but that wasn’t an option. Furthermore, Angel really had to get something for his mother and if everything was going to be closed, he would have been really upset not getting her something. In fact, as we boarded the last bus leaving for Auschwitz for the next two days, I could tell Angel was really down about potentially not being able to get his mother something (he almost opted out of going all together just to get his mom something!)

We dropped our stuff off at the hostel before we caught our tour and we went into the center to find some food and some souvenirs for the Polish part of Angel’s family (maybe you can see the theme here: we hit up Amsterdam and met my “people” and now we were meeting Angel’s).  The center of the city was stunning: There were high churches with beautiful towers, a series of decorated wooden holiday shops all set up in the square selling all sorts of objects, people grilling tasty shish-kebabs, and what seemed like the entire town was out enjoying the day before Easter and the nice sunlight.  Angel wandered a bit for souvenirs but we were pretty rushed to get to our tour, so we snarfed down some amazing shish and took off (literally at a run) to get to the bus.

Well, we took the journey to Auschwitz. I don’t want to discuss the trip too much because it was the most horrific, depressing and moving place I’ve ever been to. I can honestly say that I am glad I got to see it, but I will never visit another concentration camp in my life. It was just too much.  As if seeing the biggest concentration camp ever built wasn’t horrible enough, the weather quickly turned for the worse and it was cold, dreary, rainy, foggy, and overall miserable. It added to the experience certainly, especially when we went through the Jewish living quarters. It gave me chills (and not from the cold) to imagine how cold I was stand there in the light drizzle, staring into these barns that hundreds of starving, freezing, naked, sick and severely over-worked people were living. I felt so thankful for everything in my life at that moment (and I certainly appreciated my jacket). I could only imagine how difficult it must have been for those people. And as I tried to cover myself further into my jacket to fight the cold and rain, it just made the whole experience come down on me even more heavily.

I didn’t take many pictures of Auschwitz because it’s not a place I want to revisit, especially not through photographs. I still have the chill in my blood and any thought of it will bring that icy feeling for the rest of my life, I can guarantee that. I don’t need pictures to remember all of the terrible things we were shown there.

It’s so strange to think that this enormous death camp was so close to such a wonderful city. Krakow is only an hour drive away.  When we returned to the city, you could feel life and joy coming back to you, like the feeling you get as you enter a warm house after running in the snow for several hours and you start to thaw.  It’s difficult to imagine how any of those atrocities occurred, especially in such a beautiful place.

It was a nice relief being back in Krakow.

Later that night, we went out, just like usual, but nothing exceptional until after we left the mediocre bar we had gone to.  We took a two-hour stroll through the city and discovered the palace at the far end. It was an enormous castle that sat at the top of a small hill that overlooked the river.  It was especially spectacular at three in the morning, all lit up by city lights with a red sky that threatened snow.

So Easter Sunday, we woke up and went into the city center to find that all the shops and the city-center market from the day before was still going at full steam.  Angel was able to buy all his Polish relatives gifts (he was the first of his family to ever return to Poland) and I was able to finally get a good nights’ sleep (I’m a drama queen, I need sleep.) We took our cameras and explored the city deeper and went back to the palace from the night before and got to go inside.

However, my favorite moment from my entire Semana Santa holiday was that afternoon, after we stuffed ourselves with Polish dumplings (called pierogi), we drifted back to the center and the snow started to fall. It’s been over two years since I’ve seen the snow, and being from Colorado, that is something that I have truly missed. Also, it was Angel’s first time ever standing in falling snow!

It was a perfect moment: just standing in the slowly falling snowflakes in the middle of one of the most striking cities in Europe I’ve ever visited.  The snow came down not thick, but real slow, but in huge flakes. It swirled around us like something you’d expect to see in some romantic chick flick.  But it was so much more than some crappy Hollywood love story; it was real. It was one of those moments, one that you will relive in your mind forever.  It was one of those moments when the world just seems to fit together and makes sense. It only lasts a second, but it’s a frozen-frame in your mind forever.  And that was Krakow to me. Angel and I are already planning our trip back as soon as possible.

So that was Semana Santa, a tale I have divided into three parts (what a story teller I am, right?)  They were some of the best 11 days of my entire life, it’s an experience that I will always cherish and remember, and it doesn’t matter how much money got dropped on the trip, it doesn’t matter how many hours we spent traveling whether it was by metro, bus, taxi, airplane or train, it doesn’t matter how many steps we took over that time, it doesn’t matter how many drinks we had, all that matters is that we lived. And we lived like kings. I had no stress, everything went smoothly, and it wasn’t vacation, it was far from that, and far from relaxing. It was eye-opening, it was revealing, it was a moving experience that only other travelers can understand. The trip now is in the past and a permanent scar in my mind as a time where nothing else mattered but living to the fullest.

Write more later,

Graham

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Berlin

Berlin was the longest leg of our trip and certainly the most interesting.

We ended up rooming with six wonderful girls from Holland (clearly we were keeping up with a theme here having just come from Amsterdam) and as we quickly got along, we also made friends with the entire hostel staff.  Basically, Angel and I crushed social networking on this leg.

Our first night, we spent it talking to this really sweet German girl inside of one of the coolest and most unique bars I’ve ever seen: It had stadium seating, couches and tables all over the place, a dj, a giant projector that was playing skate videos, and the bar took longer than the line at the bank here in Spain. This girl we met was studying American Studies (basically, she was majoring in our lives, silly) and we ended up going out with her and all the Dutch girls later that week to a club where she had the hook up and we got in for cheap.

The week was spent between Angel and I tearing through all the sites but also it was spent with a division of language: everywhere we went, it was a combination of English and Spanish. I realized the true wonders of bilingualism on this trip because we made friends with people that were divided by language. In one moment, Angel and I would be speaking Spanish and the next we’d change to English. Knowing Spanish like I do now has really opened doors for me, allowing me to make more friendships than I would be able to if I were just monolingual. I had this realization while we were in Berlin and it’s a great feeling (and also one of great accomplishment!)

We made friends with a guy from Peru and another from Argentina. I’m not sure they spoke much English, but we had a good time hanging out with those guys at the hostel bar just chatting in Spanish. But we’d later have to switch back to English; this especially prove a bit difficult when we were with a group of English speakers and Spanish speakers. I never knew which language to speak.

As if living in a bilingual situation wasn’t good enough for Angel and I, we caught a free walking tour from Sandeman’s (this was now my 5th or 6th tour with them) in Spanish our first full day in Berlin. We had this wonderful tour guide, Lucha, who came from Madrid. My only complaint (or maybe it was my favorite part) was that she made all of us introduce ourselves, so of course Angel threw me under the bus by saying his name, which is already Spanish and then saying he was from Madrid, and I’m like, “Uhhh, soy gra-jjjjam, como los cereales. y soy de estados unidos.” (Uhhh, I’m grahhhham, like the cereal, and I’m from the United States). I got a few laughs but mostly blank stares (you know the Spanish, they just love to stare at people).  But later, I feel like my awkward attempt to be funny got us good points, because later that week, we caught another tour with Lucha to Potsdam, a neighboring city, also known as the City of Palaces. We ended up being pretty buddy-buddy with her and we both are convinced she went home that night and told her boy friend or her roommates or whoever, “I got those crazy American kids again. What a bunch of goofs!”

On that tour, Angel swore he over heard someone say that we didn’t understand a word of the tour, because him and I kept speaking English amongst ourselves. So naturally, we had to prove ourselves and we started chatting them up in Spanish. Later, one of the girls was asking me how to say something in Spain-Spanish (she was from Mexico) and I said I wasn’t sure and that she should ask a real Spaniard. And she says, “Wait. What? You’re not Spanish?” At this point, I’m high-fiving myself on the inside. Victory is mine, they think I’m Spanish. (Then later after admitting I was American, they made some comment along the lines of, “Oh, yeah, well that makes sense, I just thought that the region of Spain you said you were from had a funny accent.”) *Face palm*

Potsdam on the whole was probably my favorite part of Berlin because it was so beautiful and romantic in a novel sense.  It was complete with rolling green hills and heavy mist that floated down covering up the backdrop with a wonderful grey.  A large river flowed through the middle, connecting the numerous palaces, and even though we only got up close to one, from afar, they were all so wonderful to see.

Back in Berlin, after saying goodbye to our trusty guide, Lucha, we went back to the regular site-seeing.

We visited the Topography of Terror which was an entire recollection of the Nazi growth to power and all of the horrific atrocities they did beginning with them killing off the communist opposition in Germany in the early 1930s to the Final Solution and their plan to exterminate all of the Jews. It was really powerful, and well-worth the historical visit. We saw the Stasi Museum, which was a little disappointing, but I guess I’m not sure what I expected. I was hoping to get into some of the underground stuff that the Stasi had left behind, but instead we got a very informative and thorough tour through the staff building.

On our last day, we finally made it down to see the Berlin Wall which is all covered in illustrious graffiti.

As for the food culture in Berlin, we were impressed. First, their sausages are king. Second, the beer is fantastic! I think Brussels has competition. I loved walking into bars and convenience stores because of the enormous beer selection. In Spain we have two: Mahou, and Mahou Sin. There we had so many it was impossible to pick.

Angel and I went back and forth between the same restaurants because we were so happy with them. We found an excellent burger joint, a pho restaurant (which we were both thrilled about), and a pasta joint. In Berlin, we didn’t go out a whole ton because the area that we were in was limited on bars, but what we did do was always fun, even if it was just drinking down at the hostel bar meeting other travelers, or sipping on some delectable German beer up in our room with our Dutch roommates.

One of the highlights of the trip was getting to see my friend Gretchen from home. I met up with her once with Angel and then another morning when Angel was still asleep.  It was just so great getting to see her, but it’s always different seeing your friends in another country. She’s living in Berlin to study German, amazing!

My overall impression of Berlin isn’t what I expected it to be. I loved the city, there’s no mistaking that, however, I felt like it was just another big city. It reminded of Paris: bits of it were just cold. It was just endless buildings and very few had character. Granted we stayed in the East side of the city, but there wasn’t this amazing sense of character I was hoping to find like we did in Amsterdam and later in Krakow (that’ll be in the next post). However, Berlin is a wonderful place for twentieth century history nerds like me. The walls are still literally coated in its richness, which was by far my favorite part. You could still see bullet holes in some parts.  The historical center of the city is also quite a site. We went to the top of the Reichstag building and got a great view of the Brandenburg Gate as well as other famous churches which all left me speechless.

Also to my surprise was my taking to the German language. I had always thought that it was a rough language, a language that sounded as if the speakers were always scolding rather than actually speaking, but being surrounded by the language, I was actually quite moved by it. It wasn’t as harsh as we all think, it was actually…nice.  I wouldn’t mind learning German now, not at all.

Anyway, Berlin is now far behind, and our next stop of the trip got better than the last.

Write more later,

Graham

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Amsterdam

I have just returned from the single longest journey of my life and I am left feeling incredibly tired, but not because I traveled so much but rather I’m beat from all of the incredible things I saw and experienced that it has left my body, mind and heart exhausted. I feel as if I now carry the places, the cities, and the people in my heart. It’s something unreal inside me that still lives on and I am at a complete loss of words to describe the impression I have been left with from everything I’ve seen.

When we bought our tickets to Amsterdam, I was a bit intimidated just because you hear all of the typical stories of Americans traveling there and getting messed up. I’m not that kind of guy. Sure, I like to party just as much as everyone else, but Amsterdam seems to be a hotspot for ignorant American tourists and I didn’t want to be one of those.

But to my surprise, Amsterdam was one of the most intriguing, unique, and breathtaking cities I’ve ever seen. And that stands alone: sure the Red Light District is fun to take a walk through, and yeah, smoking pre-packed joints in their legendary coffee shops is always a good time, but the city as itself is an undeniable gem.

Being “Dutch” myself, I was excited to return to our family’s roots, even if our family fled Holland in the early 1600s which hardly makes us Dutch, but at least my last name comes from there. I was excited to observe the culture and the people and I’ve come to the consensus that they are the pedestal of the perfect human environment: it makes you proud to be Dutch…actually; it makes you wish you really were Dutch.

Amsterdam’s endless canals, the buildings that all lean forward (and others from one side or another), and the distinct uniqueness and at the same time the similarity that each street possesses, one can only feel breathless when attempting to take in all of the beauty.

Apart from the aesthetic enchantment of the city, the culture is remarkable.  According to our tour guide, the way of life in Amsterdam is all centered around one word: Tolerance. That means you won’t have any issues if you do the following:

  1. Make money
  2. Don’t hurt anyone
  3. Be quiet and discreet

Although the Red Light District and the coffee shops may be far from “discreet,” anyone can do whatever they want in this city. It’s a place to go to live your life the way you want it. They have erected a statue supporting sex workers all over the world and that all people involved in the industry should be respected. Also, they have the first (and maybe only) homosexual monument. Of course gay marriage is allowed in Holland. Like I said, everyone can do whatever they want without any persecution from anyone. It’s a beautiful society and it’s a way of thinking that the United States will never see.

Also, as if their society couldn’t be more perfect, everyone there speaks perfect English. When I say perfect English, I mean perfect. They hardly have an accent, but everyone is comfortably fluent to a level that shocked me. Even the most unsuspecting people spoke perfect English: A little Dutch boy asked us to buy some postcards to raise some money to save the rainforests and he spoke flawless English (he couldn’t have been a day over the age of 10). Even the people that worked at the kebabs spoke perfectly. I was blown away. It made me really think: Why can’t Spain speak so well? What are we doing here in terms of English education that they are doing there to be so successful?

Furthermore, I’ve been to New York, I’ve been to London, but I’ve never been in a more dangerous city in my life: Between the chaotic tram system, thousands of people passing by on bikes, cars, buses and others, I’ve never been more afraid to cross the street. We swore we were going to get hit by someone, but we miraculously survived without getting even a scratch.  The entire bike-culture is wonderful and I wish I could be one of its citizens, passing through the endless stream of streets and alleys on bike. Maybe one day I’ll get a Dutch passport and I’ll be one of the thousands of bike travelers that skillfully maneuver through the maze of brick streets.

Some other interesting facts to note:

The Dutch wear orange because it has to do with the Duke of Orange whom the government hired hundreds of years ago to help reorganize their government. Their flag is red, white, and blue, but orange is a historically symbolic color to their country.

Also, in case you live under a rock, New York was originally New Amsterdam (which is where my family originally moved to) and Brooklyn and Harlem get their names from neighboring districts to Amsterdam in Holland. Even the term “yankee” is Dutch for “young person.”

As for our trip, we ended up rooming with four of the most incredible people, all from Finland! We went out together every night and had a blast together. Later, we met some Dutch guys who taught me how to pronounce our original Dutch last name and what it meant: it means “crossways.”

During the day, we visited the Anne Frank museum, which is probably one of the best museums I’ve ever seen. It is set up so well that doesn’t leave you feeling too depressed, but rather uplifted, it makes you want to change the world so that something so horrific never happens again. Anne Frank’s life was just so short and what she did was really beautiful.

We also saw the Van Gogh museum which is a must-see but wasn’t anything too spectacular (in fact, I was a little disappointed).

Amsterdam is a city that I would return to in a heartbeat. We were only there for four days, but they were some of the best four days of my life, honest. I want to return to Holland to see other parts of the country and maybe even learn a little Dutch since I’ve got Dutch in my blood.  Either way, Amsterdam deserves all the popularity it has.

Write more later,

Graham

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