The Simple Life in Strasbourg!

I can’t believe that its the second week. It’s crazy… I feel like I’ve been here for a while, yet I also feel like its going so fast! School work is really catching up and the reality is that I’m in a STUDY abroad program. Haha! Thus, the studying begins. We’ve had a few quizzes and lots of reading, but nothing too crazy yet. Otherwise, we had a fantastic week and were so ready for a simply relaxing weekend! Similar to last week, the school organized another little trip. This time it was to the natural hot springs in Amneville, France. On Friday, once class was over, we got on the bus and took a quick ride to the hot springs. We walked in the door from the freezing cold and saw what look like giant hot pools and hot lazy rivers. Everyone was so excited. We changed and jumped in. It might have been the most relaxing thing that I’ve done my entire life! There were dozens of different pools and therapeutic jets that massaged your back and shoulders. We had a few hours to hang at the hot springs and showered to get back in the bus.

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The bus dropped us off at the train station and we got on a train to Strasbourgh, France. We got there and headed to our hotel. It was so nice to have a hotel, even if it was a few euro extra. We also had a small group of just four girls this weekend which made logistics and decision making a little easier! We had our own room with a shower and privacy. You never know how much you can appreciate those things! We got dinner at a placed called Hippopotamus, just burgers and sandwiches. We saw 4 different people get sung to for their birthdays and got to know each other better. After dinner, we explored the city of Strasbourg. It was the most beautiful city. Several times, I could not help but asking, “Is this real?!”. It was so quaint that it almost seemed unreal. Especially at night, the streets were lit and some of the Christmas lights were still up. We just explored and walked around until we decided to stop for coffee or drinks. We walked past a few bars that were filled with old men, then we came across the cutest place ever. It was very artsy. There were wooden tables in one area and then giant cushions on the other side. People just took their shoes off and sat on the cushions. It was pretty funny! We saw a group of business men walk in, take their shoes off, sit on the cushions, and order drinks. We chatted and just enjoyed the chill, eclectic atmosphere. I tried a really good cremant from the local region. (Cremant is champagne.) It was fantastic!

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We went back to our hotel to get ready for a fun day the next day! Saturday, we woke up and one of the girls still wasn’t feeling the best. So, we set out to find crepes for breakfast and told her to rest. We went to the front desk, trying to find the best crepe shop and learned that the French don’t actually eat crepes for breakfast. Most crepe shops don’t open until noon. We found a pastry shop and I got this amazing almond pastry and a cup of green tea. On our way back, we got Erica a quiche. After she ate, we headed for the local market. It was a bus ride and walk away, but so worth it. The coolest experiences are those where you can really see what the locals do on a daily basis. A few blocks were closed off and filled with stands with fresh produce, herbs, cheese, meats, fish, tea, coffee, soaps, and all kinds of things! We bought some soap made with olive oil for our host mom. Of course we had to try some local cheese. The guy gave us a taste and we bought a block for later. After walking the market,  we were really hungry for lunch and headed back to the city. On our way, we came across a little boy and his grandpa playing soccer outside of an old church. We also passed a few pastry shops and I picked up a macaroon, my first macaroon, to try after lunch.

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Next, we had lunch at this Italian place with student discounts! Woohoo for pasta, a desert, and drink for only 7E!! I got a mini tiramisu for dessert and tried my little macaroon. I was so set for the day! On our way back to the city center, we accidentally ran into the giant cathedral that we had been wanting to find. We stepped into a little souvenir shop and the owner was this adorable middle-aged, warm lady. She immediately said hello and started speaking English. Curious, we asked her where she was from… if I remember correctly, she was from Romania and had studied in Edinborough. Eventually, she ended up teaching high school English and ended up in Strasbourg. She told us about her two daughters and her very interesting life. Like any cute European lady, she gave us life advice and was so sweet. She gave us postcards that she had painted and said she was so happy to have met us. We left and as we were walking out, we wished we would have invited her to dinner. So, we went back and asked her to dinner. Unfortunately, we found out that her husband was home sick and that she had to go back to make him dinner and take care of him. Tears welded up in her eyes and we could tell how touched she was! What a wonderful encounter with the cutest lady. We left the shop to see the most enormous cathedral that I’ve ever seen and might ever see. It was towering, and again, so ornate and detailed with little peaks and sculptures. You can’t help but wonder how long it took to build and how much patience the builders and sculptors had to have. We went inside and split up to quietly enjoy the peace. I couldn’t help but think how my family would really appreciate this experience. I lit a candle for them and said a quick prayer for safety and love.

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The church just had this overwhelming calm to it despite the amount of people wandering and taking pictures. Everyone, no matter religion, had a certain amount of reverence and respect for the space. It was a wonderful place to remind me of how important my faith is in my life and the people and events that have really shaped it. I had a few moments to sit and reflect and it brought me right back down to earth.

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After the beautiful church, we stopped in a few shops and tasted different foods. Then, we hit the shopping district and were right at home! There were so many reasonable stores. We ran around the stores looking at everything, like little kids and candy. It was so fun! Running low in our budget and tired of dense, greasy meals, we opted to hit the local grocery store! It was the best decision ever! I got a whole container of fresh strawberries, a ham and cheese sandwich, a bag of carrots, and water. After we got back to the hotel, we ate our dinner and laid down for what we thought was just a quick nap. We had planned to go see a concert that night, but when we woke up after 2.5 hours and were kind of groggy, we decided to enjoy a chill night at our hotel. It felt just like a great sleepover. We laid on the bed and talked and laughed and had a great night. We turned Taylor Swift on and jumped on the bed- it was the most freeing, relaxing night. What a great group of girls when you really feel like you can be goofy and just be yourself! Sadly, we had a morning train to catch, so we went to bed.

In the morning, we went to the train station to find that the train to Nancy, France only came every 2 hours, so we had about an hour to hang, so naturally, we went to a McDonald’s, one of the only places open on a Sunday. To my surprise, I realized that these people are not joking when they say “McCafe”… in Europe, its the real deal! The little McCafe had coffees, teas, cappuccinos, and espressos, but they also had pastries, including even cheesecake and macaroons! 

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After, we caught our train to Nancy and were there in a little over 1.5 hours. I am really starting to enjoy the train rides. It’s a great time to read or sleep, but either way, you are on a train and you have no choice but to relax. It’s some part of the day that you can feel guilt about just hanging and relaxing. We got to Nancy and wandered towards the city center. It was pouring rain, and unfortunately, our friend, Erica, was still not feeling well. The city center was gorgeous – all white marble and stone buildings outlined in gold, statues everywhere! We enjoyed it for a few minutes and quickly realized that we were hungry. Only a few places were open, being that it was a Sunday, so we popped into a cafe for a sandwich. After lunch, we realized that we had seen most of what there was to do in Nancy other than a museum. We were still pretty tired and didn’t want to get back to Luxembourg too late on account that we all had homework we had been putting off. So, back to the train station we went, and finally back to Luxembourg.

When we got back, it was still pouring- the entire walk home. We unpacked and decided to take a walk to unpack the weekend. Susanne and I walked around Esch and really enjoyed just chatting and walking. Walking really can be a great thing! Here, we walk a lot, but intentionally talking a walk is just something that doesn’t normally happen. When we got back to our house, we went upstairs to give our host mom her soap. Of course, like usual, she had a cake in the oven and motioned for us to sit down for tea and cake. She asked us to call our other “Esch girls”, Stephanie and Catie so they could come over to join. But, they didn’t answer, so we enjoyed cake and homemade lemon cello with our lovely host family. I am really starting to get used to French and can understand it fairly well now. It was a fantastic way to end another great weekend! Ready for another school week ahead. This week, it’s our friend, Danny’s birthday, so his host family is throwing a surprise dinner for him on Monday and on Tuesday our Student Faculty Council is throwing a “Midnight in Paris” party. Looks like I might not get much sleep this week… when in Europe! 

 

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Chocolate, Waffels, Beer… oh my!: Welcome to Belgium

So, its been over a week and so much has happened! We had our first week of classes and our first “international weekend” in Belgium! 

The first week of classes is always stressful, getting a syllabus with everything that will happen during the whole semester. And, the work came right away! I quickly learned that I will have to keep up with schoolwork during the week in order to enjoy our weekend travels. I’m taking four classes and working on a research project independently. I really like most of my classes. I am taking an Anthropology class on Multiculturalism in Europe and it really makes you think. Right now, we are reading about how Muslims are treated in France and talked about the correlation to Mexicans in the US! I am also taking a History course about the last 100 years of Germany and our professor is so enthused by the topic. It’s great! The only thing that isn’t so great is that we have over 1000 pages of reading over the course of the semester… Yikes! My last two classes are Business Management and Finance, each lasting one three hour class period once per week. It’s so hard to get through these classes from 3-6pm without being hungry or falling asleep, but I’m sure we will figure it out.

In my “free time”, I’ve gone grocery shopping, read, journaled, and, most importantly, worked on planning trips around Europe. Planning a simple weekend trip, I quickly learned, is not so quick or easy! You have to get a group of students who have the same schedule and want to commit to going to the same place for the weekend. From there, we have to go to the train station to book our trains, which usually include at least two destinations and a lot of planning. It’s amazing, you can’t buy your train tickets over the internet here, so everything has to be done in person. Another interesting thing is that, unlike the US, most places only take cash, so you have to have enough cash on hand at all times. After booking transportation, we look into accommodations for the weekend. Being students who will travel almost every weekend, we are looking for the most affordable accommodations, but in decent areas. Usually, we book youth hostels, and I’m sure we will have our fair share of interesting experiences, but that is just what makes it all the more interesting! Finally, the fun part comes… getting out a tour book or searching for things to do. 

So, this is how it all starts! This past weekend, our chateau planned a trip on Friday afternoon to Orval Abbey and Brewery and it was free! So, we decided to take it and then planned to go to Brussels for Saturday and Bruges for Sunday being that they were within a few hours of Orval. So, Friday morning came and I had everything for one weekend packed into a teeny backpack… Here we go. After classes, we got on the bus to Orval Abbey. We arrived and got a tour of the snow-crusted grounds and abbey. It was so incredibly beautiful, although a little cold. We learned that the French had burnt down the original abbey and so we saw the remains of what was the original abbey. Today, the monks live in a new abbey and produce beer and cheese. After the tour and exploring for a bit, we went to a beer tasting of the Orval beer. It was very dark and I didn’t end up liking it… in fact, none of the girls at my table did, so we ended up taking a few sips and handing it over to our friend, Ryan, who happened to like it! 

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We hopped back on the bus and it dropped us off at the Arlon train station, so we could all split up for our separate weekend trips. Our train ride to Brussels was only a little over an hour and we met a really interesting French student on the train. He sat next to us and was born in Paris, but was Greek. He spent part of his childhood growing up in Greece and returned back to Strausburg for university. He had just applied to study for his masters degree in London. Being that he was our age, we had so many interesting conversations about politics, society, and just things to do in Europe. He had been to Brussels a few times and gave us some places to go. 

We hopped off the train and found ourselves in the beautiful city of Brussels, hungry and ready to find some great chocolate and waffles! We tried to use our map, but had to ask people where to go. We eventually found our way into a touristy area of the city and we summoned by this Italian guy to eat at his restaurant. It was pretty funny. We got lucky and they offered student discounted meals with an appetizer/salad, main course, and dessert for only 12.50E, and we were all in! I decent meal in Europe is pretty expensive… its about 15-20E, which is about 23-40 US dollars!! So, during the week, we try to save part of our lunches and get food from the grocery store because meals get expensive very quickly. Ok, so back to the dinner. We were starved and so excited to eat. I ordered a salad and grilled steak and it was pretty good! The meal came with dessert and it was a Belgian waffle. It was sweet and had this bitter butterscotch type of sauce drizzled over top and fresh whipped cream. The combination was really good and I was so excited to eat my first ever Belgian waffle! 

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After dinner, we set out to find out first hostel and our friends who were meeting us there. We didn’t get done with dinner until around 10PM and to our hostel around 10:30. We checked in and found our private six person room. For a hostel, it was pretty nice. I was really surprised how clean it was and it was super nice to have our own room as a group because we didn’t have to worry about locking anything into locker. We freshened up and headed off to the “best bar in Belgium”, Delirium. There were three huge floors crowded with people and 500 kinds of beer! The best part was that there were tons and tons of young people from all over the world. We actually walked in and saw another Miami group there, so we got a table and hung out. Later, we explored and met people from Brussels, Bruges, London, and so many others! It was a late night, but a great night. That concluded our first day in Belgium!

The next morning, we got up and left the hostel, headed for The Grand Place, the city center, to  see the city before the museum that we planned to go to opened at 10. We had heard all about this famous statue called Mannekin Pis that we had to see. So, we wandered the city, passing the government center and beautiful town square before we came across Mannekin Pis. We got there and found out that this little statue is only 2 feet tall! Thank goodness we hadn’t traveled any farther. We laughed and took a picture and met a couple from the US that were studying in Switzerland. 

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Next, we headed to the Margritte Museum, an art museum. It was only 2E for students to get in and it was so relaxing. We set a meeting time and split up to walk around. The art was really interesting and you could see how the artist’s work transformed and changed over time, with different life stages and world events. We were absolutely starved when we got out of the museum. We wandered, looking for somewhere reasonable to eat and found an Italian restaurant. At lunch, one of my friends realized that she thought she had left her iPhone charging at the hostel. While they were paying the bill, we went into a shop across the street to buy postcards. When we came out, our friends were gone. This weekend, our phones had not been activated yet, so the four of us had no way of contacting our other three friends! So, we figured that they had gone back to the hostel and went to get a waffle and chocolate and then would come back to that store in a few minutes to see if they returned there. We went to a few amazing chocolate shops and I could not resist, but to try a chocolate or two at each place. The Belgians are known for their pralines and chocolate-dipped biscuits, so I had to try one of each! We headed back and waited a while and eventually found our friends! 

Next, we passed by one of the most beautiful cathedrals I had ever seen and decided to stop in. The inside was so ornate. Our jaws literally dropped! I was so glad to have my panoramic camera for the church! One of my friends, Anna, had a conversation with the priest. 

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After the cathedral, we went to the train station to catch our train to Bruges. We arrived in Bruges, and again, were hungry for dinner. We checked into our hostel, called Snuffels, where a huge group of Miami kids were staying and set out to find a reasonable meal. For dinner, we ended up at Cafe Pick, and, even though I am not a huge ham fan, I got the best ham and cheese panini that I have ever had! It was so cheesy and amazing… I downed it! We went back to the hostel to meet up with the Miami group because there was a concert at our hostel. It started out slow, but it ended up being pretty cool… Euro tech… a new genre for all of us! After a while, we decided to head out for the night… all 30-40 os us at one time. We looked like a herd walking down the street; it was pretty funny! We had another good night… I went to bed around midnight tonight, hoping to get a little more sleep.

In the morning, we had breakfast at the hostel and headed out into the snowy weather to see what Bruges had to offer. The city is so beautiful and picturesque! Unfortunately, my camera had run out of battery by this point, and in only two days. So, I used my video camera to take pictures. The quality wasn’t as good, but at least I got some pictures!

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We climbed a tower that was from the World Fair and had over 300 spiral stairs to the top! It was slippery and the staircase was very, very narrow. You could barely fit one person through the stairwell and when people were coming down, it was quite the challenge! We got to the top and saw the most wonderful view of Bruges and laughed about the trek up to the top. Next, we explored the city, did some shopping, and got lunch. We went on to tour another cathedral, known for being the Cathedral to house the only Michelangelo statue that left Italy before he died! We walked in and an orchestra and choir were setting up for practice, so we had the chance to listened to the beautiful, classical music and then toured the cathedral. 

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At this point, we were pretty tired and decided to take the train back home. We got to the train station, caught a train to Brussels, and on our layover, enjoyed one last Belgian waffle! I got a waffle filled with chocolate and it was so out of this world amazing! We slept the entire 4 hour train ride home and were so excited to get showers the moment we got back to our house!

It was a fantastic first weekend! We got lost more than we found places, tried some awesome Belgian food, and had a memorable experience with loads of laughs! Now, time to buckle down and get back to school work… Yikes!

When in Lux…

 

 

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Here we are, in Luxembourg, and time is already flying! We arrived last Wednesday at 7:30 in Brussels, Belgium and took a 3.5 hour bus ride to get to the chateau, our school building. It’s beautiful and looks like a castle. We waited about 6 hours at the chateau until our host family got off of work to come pick us up. It was a very long wait, but it gave us time to relax, explore the chateau and meet new people. Finally, we were the second to last group to get picked up, but our family came and we finally got to meet them. I quickly learned that when they say that they don’t speak English, they really don’t. Thank goodness my roommate, Susanne, speaks a little French and can help us figure out things. It’s quite amazing here… most people speak many languages. Our host mom, Rita, is Italian and speaks French, German, Luxembourgish (yes, it is really a language- a mix of German and French), Italian, and a little Portuguese. I tried speaking Spanish with her, but she thought I was speaking Italian and it didn’t work! Our host dad speaks a little more English, but just very basic phrases; he is French. We also have two host sisters, 21 and 30, who live a block down the street. The younger one, Gwen, speaks English very well, and her sister Barbara also speaks a great deal of English. It’s fun when they visit because we can have a conversation in English! 

The first few days were orientation so we learned about Luxembourg and explored Differdange and Luxembourg city! We got to see a castle, a Luxembourgish school, and a winery. It was a great way to start our time here. Classes started yesterday and it was time to get down to business! I had two classes yesterday and one was 3 hours long! I am really excited about our class study tours. We have two classes where we take a trip with our class and the professor to places that we have been learning about in class. For my anthropology class, we are studying Multiculturalism in Europe and are traveling to Barcelona! I’ll finally be able to use my Spanish and we might even get to see a soccer match. For my History class, we are studying the last 100 years of Germany and traveling to Munich and a few other German cities. 

The school also plans discovery tours where we visit a place for a Friday afternoon. This Friday, we signed up to visit an Abbey and Brewery in Belgium. It should be a great experience and lots of fun! Looking forward to experiencing all that Europe has to offer!