Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Germany, Switzerland, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland. A.k.a. the week I turned 21.

So, I turned 21 this week.  I'll never forget that the week I turned 21, I went to seven different countries!  I didn't realize it until tonight, but it was only six days ago that I left the Black Forest in Germany and headed to Basel, Switzerland.  Then I headed back into Germany and went to Berlin for a day.  Then I went on a bus ride which took me from Berlin to two different stops in Poland, and a lay over in Kaunas, Lithuania.  Soon enough I was in Riga, Latvia. Two days later I was in Estonia and now I'm in Finland.  Yep, seven countries.  Whoa.

Since I last wrote, I had been recovering from being sick, which has been going relatively well, although, I've definitely realized that it has taken a toll on my ability to just wander around aimlessly through Europe.  Although, my exhaustion could be from the fact that the longest I've stayed in one bed besides for when I was sick was the three nights I spent in a hostel in Hamburg.  Otherwise, I've been on the move constantly for a month now.  Its a great feeling!  Also, its pretty amazing to think of how fast the last month has gone.  Today marks the exact half way mark of my back packing journey! 

Anyways, on to what I've been up to.

So, I'll start with Switzerland.  Right after I wrote the last blog, I left the cafe I was sitting in in Basel and headed out to explore.  I really liked Basel, it was an easy city to walk around, although suddenly a huge thunderstorm hit and I was right back to that cafe.  After the rain let up I left and went out to a park bench and just read.  It was nice just relaxing and not worrying too much about stuff.  After a while, I headed to the train station, bought some Swiss chocolate...of course, some fruit and a sandwich and boarded my first over night train.

The train took me from Basel to Berlin.  I left around 9:30 PM and arrived in Berlin around 7:00 AM.  The train was fine, smelled a bit weird, but I was able to sleep a bit.  Once I arrived in Berlin, I walked out of the train and immediately saw a Dunkin Donuts, which of course made me extremely excited and I literally ran up the escalator to get to it.   I had a bus booked to leave Berlin the next day, and I knew I would be back in only a week or so, so I decided to take it easy in Berlin as well.  I walked around the city a bit, and sat in a cafe and read a lot.  I booked a relatively cheap hotel room to avoid hostels for another night, especially since I knew I would be spending the next night on a bus and since I had spent the previous night on a train.  I went to bed after I had a drink with some Canadians who were down in the lobby.  I went to bed relatively early, which was great!

The next day I prepared to get on the bus to get to Riga, Latvia.  As a present to my dad for father's day and his birthday my mom bought him a ticket to come see me out in Europe, which has been great!  It has been good to get away from hostels for a bit and spend time eating in decent places with my dad!  It also felt great to slow down a bit.  We decided Riga, Latvia would be our starting point for one specific reason.  Many years ago we met Ilga Pogulis, a Latvian immigrant who we came to love and learn a lot from. 

My first memory of Ilga came when I was in elementary school standing at the bus stop and seeing this old woman just staring at me through her window.  I remember being sort of terrified and unsure about her.  Eventually over the years our neighbors Janet and George introduced us to this woman and immediately we fell in love with her.  By the time I had met Ilga she was in her mid 80s and had lived quite an amazing life.  She was born and raised in Latvia.  She was a small child when Latvia ended fighting for their independence around 1920, and would see her country be attacked by Russians, then Germans and Russians again. She eventually left her country in the 1940s and never was able to return.  She ended up in Mansfield, CT where I was fortunate enough to meet her and get to know her in the last few years of her life.  I knew she cared a lot for her home, and we promised her that one day if we had the chance we would go to Latvia and see where she had come from.  It meant a lot to me and my dad to be able to go to her home, where she had left in the 1940s.  It wasn't only great to feel as if we had fulfilled a promise, but also because it enabled us to remember a lot of the times we spent with Ilga, which was really important to us!    

So, the trip to Latvia begins with me boarding the bus in Berlin and preparing for the long journey.  The bus left around 8 PM and stopped twice during the night in Poland.  Otherwise, we were just driving.  Sleeping on a bus is very hard.  I slept only about two hours, or so.  The guy across from me kept yelling in his sleep and that made it a bit difficult to sleep.  Literally, every five minutes, he would just scream.  I was scared of him.

I arrived in Kaunas, Lithuania around noon the next day.  I had one hour where I just sort of meandered around the bus station.  I didn't see much, but got a sense for the differences in the town.  There seemed to be a lot more poverty than any other place I'd seen.  There were still a lot of soviet era buildings that needed to be renovated as well.  By 1 we were on our way to Riga, where I arrived and walked over to the hotel where I was going to meet my dad.  After we met up, we explored Riga.

Personally, I loved Riga.  The old city was beautiful.  It was very simple, but really had a character to it.  You would walk down a small side street with cobble stone, lined by little shops and restaurants and come to large "court yards" where there would be large out door restaurants and outdoor shops.  Many of these shops sold amber jewelry and such, which is popular in the Baltics.  We had a great time walking through the parks and the city and finally settling on a great place to eat.  It was really awesome to have a great dinner with my dad!

The next day, we walked around, found a great bakery and went to the Opera house, where in the 1930s my great grandmother, Gramp Rose, actually sang!  We met with a lady who worked there who ended up taking us for a tour of the entire place, it was really nice and really special to see.   Then, we walked around, went and got some lunch and later some more coffee.  We went to a really huge meat market and also bought our tickets for the next day to leave for Tallinn, Estonia.  After walking around some more, we decided to take it easy and have a relaxed dinner.  It was a great night.

Freedom Monument in Riga

rubbing for good luck!

My Great Grandmother Rose Bampton sang here in the 1930s! 

Mrs. P, back in Latvia...she would be laughing at us if she was still alive, but also really happy!

best mustache ever, literally. 

The next day, I turned 21!  Yay!  We woke up, got on the bus and four hours later we were in Tallinn, Estonia.  We walked around the old city and had a great lunch at a traditional Estonian restaurant.  We took a lot of pictures too...

That night, we found a great restaurant!  We had great wine, and great food and a really relaxed evening.  I also got free cake which was awesome!

The next morning (this morning) we boarded a ferry for Helsinki, Finland.  That is where I am now!  We mainly just walked around today, saw the city and had a relaxed dinner with some great Italian wine!  Tomorrow, we are planning on doing some stuff around the city and eventually making our way back to Riga the day after tomorrow.  On Saturday my dad heads home to the USA and I head to Berlin (hopefully...depending on whether or not this ash cloud delays my flight or not).  I'm really excited to head to Berlin to hang out with Garrett and have an awesome week/weekend in one of the greatest cities!  Then I'm off to Warsaw to spend a couple of days with my friend Emily. 
out the window in Helsinki at 11:25 PM...its still light! 

I've been feeling great about my travels lately!  I'm here for another month and I'm making it count!

Thanks for reading everyone!    



Thursday, May 19, 2011

Right back at it.

So, I was planning on just doing touristy back packing stuff today, but it turns out that I'm still a lot weaker than I used to be, meaning that I can't just walk around a European city for eight straight hours, instead after two hours of walking I realized that I was extremely tired (probably because I've spent the last couple of days in a bed).  I'm just not used to not having as much energy, but I'm making due.  So, I thought since I need a break, I might as well blog whats been up the last couple of days.  

At the moment I'm resting in a cafe in Basel, Switzerland.  I'm happy I get to spend a day here since I was going to spend more time in Switzerland but couldn't because of the virus I came down with.  Its a nice little city and has a really nice main street that you can walk down with cafes and shops.  The River Rhine goes right through the city and it felt great just to sit next to the river for a while this morning.   

About a week ago, I left Hamburg for Freiberg, Germany to visit my friend Susie who is studying there.  It was fun visiting a smaller German town and meeting some other Americans who were studying abroad there.  The town had amazing side streets and great beer gardens.  At night many students sat out in this one court yard just drinking and hanging out.  It was pretty crazy.  The next day Susie and I went for a hike in the hills near Freiberg.  That night we went to a friend of hers in her program's birthday party and it was fun just being able to be back in a place that reminded me so much of the flats in London!  It was a really great time!
Freiberg Town Hall

Side street in Freiberg...apparently if you accidentally step in the little streets on the side of the roads you need to marry a Freiberger. 

Path of the hike "climb" we went on!

Little German house!

German Wind Mill!

Break at the German.

Climbed this!

Climbing some rocks!
So, the next morning I took the train to meet up with Katja and Dieter, two friends introduced to me by Tom and Rosalind who were willing to take me into their home for a couple of days.  They run a brewery called Waldhaus and Katja is also a teacher!  They have two kids,  Janinna and Yannik who were great to meet as well!  The night I got there, we went to a town fair and climbed the tower of an old church were there were 600 bats!  It was crazy!  I got to meet a lot of the people in their town, which was a lot of fun!  That night we all had pizza that we made ourselves!  It was great to be in a home for the first time since leaving Dorset!

The next morning Katja brought me to the school she taught at to talk to each of her classes about America.  It was the first time I had really been with a bunch of people who had never actually met an American before, since many of the students come from poor families and have never really had the chance to go to America.  It was fun talking to a lot of them, and listening to their questions.  A lot of them asked about University life, sports, American Football (which of course I know everything about), my home and more.  It was fun being able to talk about where I came from to people half way across the world.  It also made me feel really proud to be American.  You could just tell how much they adored our country and what it meant to them.  That was really cool.

Anyways, after some of the teachers heard I was in the school, I started getting pulled around all over the place to a ton of classes.  I talked to kids who were 12 all the way to 18.  After we left the school we went straight to their brewery where they gave me a tour and I got to meet some of the staff!  They even gave me beer straight out of the factory!  Next we drove into the black forest a bit so that I could see some of the classic homes and one of the largest domes in Europe at Janinna's school.

After a bit of a rest we Katja brought me to the kid's tennis practice.  While they practiced we drove across into Switzerland for gas (its cheaper there) that was my first time in Switzerland! Yay!  After that we walked along the Rhine and then we met up with the Dieter and the kids at the tennis courts.  Then I played doubles tennis with Dieter, Katja and the tennis instructor.  It was pretty awesome playing tennis on the Swiss/German boarder, I felt like Roger Federer!  Sort of.  It was great playing tennis, I hadn't played in such a long time!

Katja's school


Fresh out of the tap


So, that night I got really sick.  I don't think I've ever actually been so sick, which was a bit scary, especially because I was so far away from home.  Luckily I was with Katja and Dieter who took really good care of me and made sure I had everything I needed.  After talking with the doctor at night, Katja told me he thought I had some virus that has been going around and just knocks you out for a while, but with all of my traveling, it made it worse.  After the worst part was over, I was finally able to sleep and I passed out for an entire day almost, only waking up a couple of times.  The next day I just laid outside for a while and then slept some more.  I could easily say that that period was the most home sick I've been, I couldn't stop thinking about home, but being with a family definitely made it a lot easier.  It was a bit weird, because I can't really say I've been home sick yet this trip, but immediately once I started feeling better, I was ready to hit the road and get back to it, especially because I had ground to make up.  So, this morning, I left for Basel, Switzerland...where I am now.   Tonight, I'm getting on a night train to Berlin, staying there for a night, then headed to Riga, Latvia, via Lithuania by bus.  There I will get to see my Dad, which will be really great! 

So, I'm back at it, and feeling a lot more healthy!

The pictures below are from out the window of the room I was recovering in: I think you can see why I recovered so fast!

You could see France, Switzerland and Austria!  Not so bad.  And as you can see the Alps are amazing!  Not a bad place to recover.

Anyways, I just wanted to let you all know I'm back on my feet, I miss you all and I wish you could all be sharing this with me!  Thanks for reading, as always I really appreciate it!