An Eastern European Christmas

Snow-capped rooftops of Prague

The journey to Prague and Krakow was the last trip I took, and this concluded my 4 month exchange. This adventure was definitely the most memorable as it’s hard to believe that this many things can go wrong on a 2 week trip. After spending the last night in Lille partying til 6am with all of Sciences Po’s international students, my companion and I boarded a train at 8am to Paris.  Here unfolds the tumultuous series of events that occurred between reaching Paris and ending in Krakow. A few of the highlights are included below, and I’ve kept this documented as my personal guide of what not to do while traveling.

  1. Travel light: 6 pieces of luggage between 2 people defies this general rule of thumb quite aggressively.  Granted I had just packed up 4 months of myself and squeezed it into 4 bags but when traveling across Europe, or traveling in general, less is more.
  2. Be precautious and bring extra medicine: I know this goes against traveling light, but listening to your overbearing parents sometimes pays off. Paris was less than romantic, and we found ourselves down with fevers and colds.  The Buckely’s and Tylenol Cold I had stashed were well worth the extra luggage weight.
  3. The French don’t like snow (or anything inconvenient for that matter): Our flight to Prague was canceled because of extreme weather conditions (light flurries) and this resulted in a 16 hour wait in the less than accommodating CDG airport.  Moral: avoid France in the winter.
  4. Don’t lose your wallet: Self-explanatory and also why they invented money belts. This was definitely a set-back as paying for things is mandatory.
  5. When in doubt, take a cab: Basically why we missed our flight to Krakow from Prague as the tram decided to change course en route. The realization that we were nowhere near the airport resulted in a frantic dash across the city (with 6 pieces of luggage –him carrying 4, me 2), where we arrived at the airport 15 minutes before departure. My tearful plea did not grant us entry onto the flight. Our only alternative was a 9 hour train ride through eastern Europe where the frozen landscape and train stations built in the 30’s made me feel like a refugee escaping communism.

We finally reached Krakow and were thankful not to be left to our own bad judgement any longer. Despite everything, we managed to have a warm Polish Christmas in a beautiful city that is one of Europe’s hidden gems.  Highlights of Prague include the Charles Bridge, delicious pastries, a local brewery and a few days with friends. Memories of Krakow include the Salt Mines, my first real Christmas, the still-present visuals of communism, and zapiekanka.

Now to do it all again in the summer!

Charles Bridge, Prague
Jewish Town, Prague
Cathedral, Prague
Wawel Castle Cathedral, Krakow
Kazimierz – Jewish Town, Krakow
Beautiful Krakow
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London Calling

Peeping Ben

A hop, skip, and a jump across the English Channel and we reached St. Pancras Station. London was as expected –iconic, fabulous and freezing. Highlights include everything touristy, authentic Indian food, a party with some local (and some not so local) university students, and my first truly awful hostel experience. Despite the cold (no rain though!) the city was alive with history. From Jane Austen’s Hyde Park to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, London is a well preserved museum. My photos became progressively fewer as the weather became colder, thus only a few from this trip were blog-worthy. I seemed to have enjoyed photographing monumental architecture and forms of transportation. Anyway, here is the London we all know, in 4 quick snaps!

Houses of Parliament
Double Decker
The Bridge
Black Cab

Oh, Porto

Oporto

Amongst discovering the many riches of Europe, I was also introduced to the infamous Ryan Air, where incredibly cheap airfare is a dream come true.  A spontaneous decision and 24 euros later, I found myself on a flight to Porto, Portugal with 2 fabulous companions. The shining sun and palm trees were such a welcome sight to my Canadian self, but hardly seemed to faze the Californian and Brazilian natives I was with. 2 days of cheap shopping, fantastic local wine and food, views of the Atlantic, and colonial roots were the perfect midterm getaway. If there is one thing that I will always remember about Porto, it will be the tiny restaurant we stumbled upon called Canelas de Coelho. It was possibly one of the best meals I had in Europe, and was made even more amazing because of the great owners who sat with us and chatted about the locally grown foods and regional wines. The sun and the Portugese added warmth to an otherwise chilly November. Obrigada Ryan Air!

Taking flight
Duoro River
Church on a Hill
View of Porto
Classic Streetcar

A Sweet Encounter

Streets of Brussels

Two day trips and my fall break were spent indulging in the world’s chocolate capitals – Belgium and Switzerland. Just a stone’s throw from Lille, Brussels and Bruges were my first day excursions from France, followed by Lucerne and Geneva for my week off in October.

Besides the copious amounts of amazing chocolate, I indulged in Belgian frites, beer, waffles, and a breathtaking view of the Swiss Alps. The stunning train ride from Lucerne to Geneva made me realize that it was the first time I was seeing mountains (kind of a sad thought) but it accounted for why I was so amazed at how majestic nature can be.

Beautiful Canals of Bruges
Cathedral, Brussels
Lac Geneve
Alps, Geneva
Knotted Trees, Lucerne
Water Tower, Lucerne
Foreshadowing, Bruges

The moment that tipped the scales for me during these trips was the last few moments in Bruges..
I left that day with a huge mix of emotions – disbelief, happiness, shock and amazement. Thinking back, the store with my name could have been seen as foreshadowing of the event that took place. The event might not hold as great a significance for everyone, but for me it was truly an awe-inspiring moment. When I was 15, my dad cut out a picture from the newspaper of a pretty canal lined with houses and trees, and a boat full of passengers riding down the river. It was from the travel section, where they encourage photographers to send in photos from around the world. He suggested I try painting it. In my head, I always assumed it was Italy, and never really gave it much thought. He liked the painting so much that he had it framed and hung up in our house.
6 years later we were about to leave Bruges when one of the friends I was with wanted to walk over to a bridge to take a photo. I stood where I was, but decided to accompany her last minute. Upon reaching her, I did a double take. The scene was so familiar in my head after hours of poring over the slightly fuzzy photo to ensure I had every detail right, that when I looked at it, it took me a second to realize what I was seeing. This was my painting! Every detail was just as I had captured it – the large, leafy tree extending over the water, the mismatch of houses lining the canal. Only one thing was missing, and that was the boat filled with tourists. This is when I realized that that boatload of people had been us, only a few hours earlier on our spontaneous decision to take the tour. I couldn’t explain to my friends what I was seeing. I could only stare at the very real scene before my eyes and try to sort out my feelings and the amazement of it all. My mind was racing, my heart filled with excitement and trying to make sense of it on a deeper level. I started to think about coincidences and how much of our life is written for us versus the choices we make. The chances of me seeing this scene in real life were so small, miniscule really, yet here I was. I had no intention of ever finding this place, and had forgotten about the painting for the most part. Perhaps my 15 year old self had subconsciously made a decision the moment I picked up that brush, and I had unknowingly painted a piece of my future. My dad was the only other person who could truly appreciate the experience, and was ecstatic when I had the chance to tell him. However I look at it, no amount of chocolate could have created a sweeter moment.

My Painting!
Keep in mind I was 15…

La Vie en Rose

Falling for Paris

The fall of 2010 is when I fell in love with France. I lived in the northern town of Lille, right on the border of France and Belgium for 4 months on exchange. It’s not easy to recount the time I spent there in a few short words. I won’t ever forget that first day when I arrived, excited and fresh-faced only to be told I had nowhere to live despite my “confirmed” accommodation. The scramble to find an apartment turned out for the better, and I ended up living with the best roommates possible. I came a long way in four months, and as cliché as it sounds, I experienced such a huge sense of self-discovery that is only possible when you’re stripped down to just yourself and you’ve left your support team and everything you know across an ocean.

Despite my initial struggle, thoughts of home quickly floated from my head, as I indulged in warm baguettes, delicious cheeses, 2 euro wine, and pain au chocolat. Jumping on trains for weekend getaways to the next best European city (not often enough Paris), partying til 6am, and studying political science at a top French university are just the tip of the iceberg. The friends I encountered, the adventures taken, and the memories made make the book of my life that much more full. As much as it seems like a dream now, I was awakened by the loveliness of France and the warmth of the people I met.

Omaha Beach, Normandy
L’opera a Lille
Locks of Love, Paris
A Bed of Stone, Louvre
The Metro, Paris
Fall Flowers, Jardins des Tuileries
Christmas at Galeries Lafayettes