Tag Archives: Traveling


26 Jun

Well, wow.  My life definitely took a 180-degree turn in just a few short days.  Finishing up classes with finals, completing end-of-the-year Chi Omega things, packing up my life, moving to DC, and starting a new job.  I went from having a full week scheduled on my iCal to not knowing what I’ll even be doing this afternoon.  Everything is new.  It’s like freshman year all over again — new city, new job, new routines, and knowing no one.  I suppose living in a college dorm is not helping that aspect of the situation much more.

But I love it!  DC is fantastic.  I’ve finally gotten around to writing about it, and here I am on a beautiful Friday night after work sitting on a bench on the mall with the Capitol, Smithsonian, and Washington Monument in view, listening to jazz in the sculpture garden, and watching a softball game.  Not a bad setting for my first post.

{ { Also, on a side note, I’m watching precious family memories being made in front of me in the form of a mom trying to get pictures of her teenage son standing with the Capitol in the background = “Mooooom.” + squirming + looking around nervously.  Embarrassed.  Success for Mom. (I think it’s safe to say that I am going to embarrass the heck out of my kids — à la Mama and Papa Lukens.  As my dad says, “That’s what dads are for.”) } }

Where to begin?  Basically, it has all flown by.  I cannot believe that two weeks ago I was still in Evanston worrying about finals and packing.  Arriving in DC Saturday night, I only had a few days with my Mom to get situated and ready for the summer while getting some tourism and quality time in together .  Starting work that Monday, I was literally thrust into an all-staff meeting at 9:30 a.m. followed by some readings aimed at catching me up on Environment America’s work.  While introducing me to the Clean Water campaign (my boss is the Clean Water Advocate), nothing would have prepared me for these past two weeks.  It has been a blur of writing letters to the editor, press releases, official statements, etc; proofing things for my boss; going to House and Senate committee markups, hearings, briefings (my favorite); conference calls; and sorting through thousands of postcards from around the country encouraging the EPA to renew Clean Water Act protections (which are brutally under attack in Congress, but that’s for a whole other post).

{ { Insert tour group of seven segways passing by.  Oh wait, eight more.  Yay, lazy Americans.  Yikes (but admittedly awesome). } }

Along with all of these things (which may sound boring but are actually pretty interesting), just in these last two weeks I’ve had so much exposure to this policy world — going to the Hill, getting to see our congressmen in action, sitting in on strategy discussions between big environmental groups, meeting these leaders, getting advice from Environment America high-ups, and having the opportunity to see and do all of the behind-the-scenes work.  This has all been so fantastic, and now I know this is what I want to do.  Really, what I need to do.  Now that I’ve seen inside, I don’t think there’s any way that I could turn my back on it and go do something else.  As one advocate said to us interns today, “there’s too much shitty stuff going on in this world to waste time doing something else.”  A little harsh, but I agree with his point.  Whether it’s here in DC or back in the state arena, I know environmental policy is where I belong.  So, I got that going for me…..(which is nice.)

{ { Kid running by “flying” a kite about 3 feet behind him.  That thing’s not going anywhere, kid.  Crappiest kite ever, but biggest grin on his face.  Totally makes up for it. } }

With about a month and a half left of my time in DC, I’m trying to cram as much tourism into my weekends as possible — the 9-6 plus travel time workdays don’t allow for much activity during the week.  Hopefully I can make the most of my time here!  Meanwhile, it is incredibly hot everyday — sadly, I was not made to endure anything south of Minnesota.  Especially as I spend my days talking about the importance of clean water and how precious our waterways are, I can’t help but wish I was up north at my cabin, on the lake, sailing and tubing and skiing.  Fingers crossed, I will be in August!

Canyon: The Ultimate StairMaster

27 Apr

Do you want to feel your butt like you never have before?  How about your calves, biceps, and even your weary feet?!  Then try this product!  All you need is a steep, rocky, sandy canyon; a pair of worn-in hiking boots; a heavy pack; and plenty of water and GORP!  Well there you have it, the hottest piece of exercise equipment on the market!  Enjoy.  (And don’t forget to wear sunscreen).

To say the least, Spring Break was fantastic!  I’m not exactly sure what I expected, but the canyons, the hiking, the camping, everything was unexpected and great!  Coming from a state full of woods, lakes, rivers, and wildlife, this thing called the desert was pretty foreign to me.  I suppose I imagined a Wild West (or Three Amigos) scene with saguaro cacti, dry and cracked ground, and a burning hot sun.  Not so much the case!  The cacti were sparse and limited to small plants rather than the tall and imposing saguaro, the ground was basically sand, and the weather was cold and even snowy at times–in a million years I never expected to be camping in snow at the Grand Canyon.  That being said, we did at one point get a lot of tumbleweed crossing the road–a sure sign that Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, and Martin Short couldn’t be too far away, right?

Our first stop on the trip was a rafting trip down the Colorado River in Moab, Utah.  After 21 hours of driving from Illinois, we were ready for some action!  Although we were somewhat disappointed that we weren’t actually going to be doing the rafting (the guides were the only ones and had big oars that they used), it was still a lot of fun!  This was actually the guides’ first trip of the season, and they were amazed that anyone would even want to be doing this so early on in the year.  Considering we were shivering the whole time, the water drenching us was icy cold, and the motor didn’t work to get us out of the canyon at the end of the rapids, by the end of the trip we were reexamining the level of our sanity as well.  Nevertheless, it was a lot of fun.  The rapids were pretty awesome, especially being in the front of the raft and getting the brunt of the waves!  And the guides were a lot of fun, going along with our craziness and accepting our strange bonding games we played during lunch.  The canyon we went through was also really cool, huge cliffs and interesting rock.  You could even see how high the river gets later in the season; there were whole trees washed up and laying on the top of rocks maybe 30 above us as we sailed by.  And although we were a little freaked out after the safety talk the guides gave us during our lunch stop before the intense rapids, we only had one incident–Sarah fell back on the raft and had her whole upper body under water before one of our Outdoors Club leaders, McCall, yanked her up.  Sarah was a trooper though and handled it really well!

The next stop was a two-day, overnight hike in the Canyonlands National Park.  Amazing!  Absolutely beautiful and some really great and difficult hiking.  We spent the first day hiking down into the canyon and found a wicked camping spot in a passageway between two cliffs among all these huge boulders.  We even climbed the big boulders that formed one of the cliff sides up to a fantastic view of the surrounding canyon.  The next day, we started our hike out of the canyon a little rough, having a hard time finding the initial trail to take, but we quickly got on the right course and began the intense hike out.  Although it was no 127 Hours (which actually did occur in the Canyonlands area, in Blue John Canyon southwest of where we were), the sign at the trail head on the first day was correct: “this primitive route is very strenuous, difficult to follow, and recommended for experienced hikers only.”  As I said in my earlier post, I am out of shape and this was my first backpacking trip–experienced hiker I am not and endurance for strenuous uphill climbs I have not.  However, that being said, the physicality of it was a really fun challenge, and I am really glad I did it!  When you think about hiking out, you may think of uphill treks, but I didn’t really expect to have to literally be scaling boulders and to be using my arms so much.  Being especially prone to heat exhaustion and getting light headed, I was a little nervous about the tiny path with a drop-off into the canyon on one side and a vertical climb on the other.  And carrying a heavy pack didn’t make it any easier.  But, again, the challenge was so amazing and the feeling at the end was fabulous!

The next leg of the journey was a 9-hour drive to the south rim of the Grand Canyon.  Well, 9 hours once we got to the highway, which we didn’t before one of our cars (of our caravan of three) got a flat tire in Moab.  As fate would have it, we were lucky where we stopped to wait for the new tire!  The gas station we were at turned out to be in the same parking lot as a pretty nice RV park, with a nice bathroom, water spout, and–dare I say it–a swimming pool.  We spent the first bit of our wait sitting in the parking lot looking longingly at the pool, but after an hour of waiting in the beating sun and realizing that we probably wouldn’t get kicked out, we moved our party into the swimming pool area (which was not locked).  Some people went swimming, but even just laying on the pool chairs was wonderful.  I guess the lesson is to make the best of any situation!  Especially when there’s conveniently a swimming pool nearby.

Two and half hours and one new tire later, we were on the road to the Grand Canyon.  Driving through the desert, we stopped at the Mexican Hat Rock, passed through Monument Valley, and enjoyed a constant Mars-like view of vast tracts of orange sand and rock.  With never-ending orange sand and cliffs dominating the scenery, I drifted off into sleep…..only to wake up that night to SNOW at the Grand Canyon.

Well, color me confused.  Apparently, I wasn’t so out of my element in the Southwest.  Minnesota had prepared me better than I had thought–but I can’t say so much for our tents.  Some of our equipment definitely was not built to be used in the snow.  Consequently, we had to get even more cozy with our neighbors as we squished into fewer tents.  Waking up to snow on the roof of our tents and seeing our breath was surely a wake-up call I didn’t expect on the morning of our expedition into the Grand Canyon.  Again, we were separating and taking two different trips into the canyon for a two-day, overnight hike.  Eventually we got all of the supplies and food separated into the two groups and took off.

Like I said, this whole trip was early on in the season, so people were looking at us pretty strangely when we were at the top of the look-out getting our packs ready to descend.  Tourists shivering in jackets, hats, and gloves were very curious who these weirdos were.  Considering a good portion of our initial descent was through snow, I can understand where they were coming from.  Eventually we got through the slippery snow (which was pretty scary and dangerous at times!) and found a great spot jutting out into the canyon to have lunch.  Taking our time, we tried to soak it all in, but I don’t think you can really grasp the vastness of the canyon.  It was really incredible.  Continuing on, we gradually de-layered until shorts and a t-shirt were the norm–strange to think it was parkas up at the top just a few hours earlier.  Apparently, there is about a 20 degree difference between the top and bottom of the canyon.  Aside from the slipping and sliding on the snow, the hike down into the canyon was a beautiful and scenic breeze.  We camped on a huge mesa surrounded by the south rim and were the only ones camping there that night.  Again, it’s hard to describe such an amazing place and hard even to completely take it all in while you’re there.

The next day’s hike was backtracking on the same one as before, and we even stopped for lunch at the same spot as before–nothing could beat it.  This was definitely not as strenuous as the Canyonlands ascent, but we still celebrated like champions once we got back to the top!  After conquering the Colorado River, Canyonlands, and the Grand Canyon, the whole group was pretty pumped for a night of relaxing at Katie’s cabin in Arizona.  Then, it was an early start to the day and a 30-hour drive straight through Saturday night back to Evanston!  I would say that getting sick on the way back was a real bummer, but I’m not going to pretend that taking NyQuil and getting a lot of sleep was a letdown.

Check out my photo album on Facebook for more pictures!

Did I mention that we ran out of gas in Nebraska….?  Don’t worry, we’re just pushing the car to the side of the road to wait.  Ah, the beauty of having a three-car caravan in case one breaks down.  Hilarity ensued, of course.  Oh well, c’est la vie!

Wear Sunscreen.

Earthy crunchy

18 Mar

Well, I’m off to the Grand Canyon in t-minus 2 hours!  Hard to believe I’ll be standing on a cliff looking out and down at miles and miles of sand and rock.  When you see pictures of it and think about visiting, I don’t think you really fathom the immensity and epic-ness of this natural phenomenon.  Going through the daily rut of classes and work at a suburban university, it’s hard to visualize all of a sudden being in the middle of such an out-of-this-world place.  Nevertheless, in just a few short hours, I’ll be in the car on my way to Utah and Arizona for a week-long backpacking trip with the Northwestern Outdoors Club.  We’ll be stopping in Moab, Utah, first for a rafting trip down the Colorado River and a hiking trip in Canyonlands National Park.  Then, it’s off to the south rim of the Grand Canyon for more hiking.

I’ve never been on this long of a camping trip, and I’ve never gone backpacking like this so it should be an interesting and amazing adventure!  As my mom can attest, we should become an official sponsor for REI because of all the gear I had to get for this trip, but I know that it will be a priceless experience.  The week will kick my butt physically (thanks France for the laziness and carbs) and push me mentally, but I couldn’t be more excited!  And it’ll check two more national parks off my bucket list, so I got that going for me, which is nice.  (Caddyshack? Anyone? Bueller?)

A week to forget about classes, exams, internships, grad schools, and jobs.  A week to push myself, meet new people, and expand my horizons (becoming even more earthy crunchy; although, I’m not sure I want to hug any cacti…).  I’ll take it.

In light of my backpacking excursion, here are some of my favorite nature pics from my semester abroad.

Neighbor with the trees

14 Mar

As I get ready to wear in my hiking boots, fill up my pack, and head out to the Grand Canyon for spring break, I took a particular liking to this poem that I came across in my book last night.  As if the opportunity for camping, hiking, rafting, camp food, camp games (ninja–Foley ’10), and amazing scenery wasn’t enough, I know that this experience will mean a lot.  Consider this trip a warm-up to my (hopefully) summer at a national park and score one for “earthy crunchy (dirty) hippie“.

The Out-Doors Man

He must come back a better man,

Beneath the summer bronze and tan,

Who turns his back on city strife

To neighbor with the trees;

He must be stronger for the fight

And see with clearer eye the right,

Who fares beneath the open sky

And welcomes every breeze.

– –

The man who loves all living things

Enough to go where Nature flings

Her glories everywhere about,

And dwell with them awhile,

Must be, when he comes back once more,

A little better than before,

A little surer of his faith

And readier to smile.

– –

He never can be wholly bad

Who seeks the sunshine and is glad

To hear a songbird’s melody

Or wade a laughing stream;

Nor worse than when he went away

Will he return at close of day

Who’s chummed with happy birds and trees and taken time to dream.

–Edgar A. Guest

Wild Wild West


12 Dec

Now that I’m leaving in a week, I’ve gone from being totally ready to get home (especially since it’s the holidays) to getting a bittersweet feeling more and more as the flight home gets closer and closer.  Everyday I’m finding more things I’m really going to miss.

Things I’ll miss:

Living in history.  I pass the coolest, oldest places just walking to the university.  And I always see something new.  One of my favorite things to do is just walk around the narrow, winding streets of the old town and seeing the shops and homes built right into the Middle Ages.  And the best finds are tucked away and easily passed over.

La Place de la comédie.  The center of the city, in the middle of the old town, I make excuses to walk through there whenever I can.  It’s full of life, full of old buildings, full of cafés, accordion music, shops; basically, it is France in a nutshell.

Taking field trips not to the science museum but to thousand year-old castle ruins and historic cities.  Last week, my medieval literature class went on a field trip to a couple Cathar castle ruins west of here near the Pyrenees and stopped in Narbonne.  We had only really read one story about the Cathars and didn’t really learn much school-wise on the trip (our prof is a really laid back French-American), but the trip gave us eerie mountaintop ruins with gorgeous views of the Pyrenees, probably the quietest I’ve ever heard (if that makes sense; being on top of the mountain in the ruins, no one else was there except our small class, and just miles and miles of open countryside and rolling hills), and a day full of hilarity.  So, why not?!  Also, we learned a new phrase from our prof: “bon, bein, donc, voilà, quoi?!”  It literally means nothing.  Nothing!  All of those words are filler words, and together it just basically means, “well, there ya have it.”  Haven’t used it yet, but maybe it’ll be my parting words to my host family, “Well!  Bon bein donc voilà quoi!  Au revoir!”  Actually, that’s probably not a great idea.

Wine.  I don’t really need to explain this one.  New addition: vin chaud.  My hypothesis behind vin chaud:  so, they were drinking wine, and it started getting a little chilly outside.  They knew they couldn’t keep drinking the cool wine when it was getting so cold, so, they looked at the fire, looked longingly at their wine, and one smart aleck piped up, “Screw it, let’s heat it up!”  And they did.  Voilà.  Bravo, French wine-addicts, bravo.

Fromage cru.  Non-pasteurized cheese is sooooo good.  Paranoid American health standards, you’re lame.

Good bread.  Croissants, baguettes, pain au chocolat, delicious.

The graffiti.  At first, I thought the graffiti was awful and destructive, but now I really like seeing quality artistic graffiti.  Some of it is really impressive.

Christmas markets.  It’s like a party nonstop in the center of town.  The stands are so cute and abundant, the shopping’s great, the food’s delicious, the hot wine is hot and wine, and it seems like everyone comes out to the market–it’s just a sea of people.  There are Christmas lights everywhere, a huge “tree” made of lights, occasional singing performances, and even a tiny bunny hill put up right in the middle of the Esplanade (our pedestrian boulevard, basically) where kids can put on some skis, march up the walkway, and get pushed down the little slope by ski school teachers.  They imported snow and everything.  Ah, France.

Shakespeare.  The pub that we’ve made our home away from home and destination for many trivia nights.  Mari and I got a cider beer (our favorite) there yesterday afternoon and couldn’t stop saying how we wanted to transport Shakespeare home to Minneapolis.  This bar will be hard to beat.

Exposure to different sports.  My family was very nice and brought me to both a Montpellier soccer match (against Lyon who is very good, and we only just lost right in the last minute) and a handball match (Montpellier is very good and rocked Nîmes), and I’ve watched rugby plenty on TV.  These sports games live are very different than in the US.  At least with soccer and handball, there are small sections of hardcore fans for each team, but then the rest of the crowd is fairly calm.  Leaving the handball match last night, my dad asked me about how raucous games are in the US and told me that “the French are too timid for that.”  He’s right, while watching the game, I kept thinking that the noise in that arena was about equivalent to a middle-school basketball game back home.  Handball at least tried to make it into a show with flashing lights, loud ominous music, and even cheerleaders, but it didn’t quite work.  There were soccer hooligans, of course, and they brought tons of flags, drums, and even torches; but they were a very small part of the crowd.  Everyone else was pretty composed.  It was strange, to say the least.

The Americans calling our city Montpillz.  Best nickname ever.

The warm weather.  It’s in the 50s right now, last week it got into the 60s and was tshirt weather.  It’s December, I’m listening to Christmas music, and it’s too warm to wear a jacket.  I asked my host mom today if this warm weather is normal, and she just looks at me a little shocked and says, “This is cold!”  haha I don’t think they would survive one day in Minnesota.

Palm trees, flamingos, and constant sunshine.

My Montpellier friends.  I was really worried about this before getting to France, but I’ve made some really great friends in my program and I’m really going to miss them.  They’ve made the stay and European trips so much more fun.  Luckily, we’re all in the midwest, and one of them even lives just in Minnetonka.  Montpellier reunions in MN or Chicago will definitely be necessary.

Living in France.

Things I won’t miss:

Living by pourquoi pas:  Literally meaning “why not”, it became our motto to live by (à la “you only live in France once”).  But it actually means pants getting snugger and the wallet getting a lot lighter (sorry Mom and Dad).   But then again, it also means taking day trips to castles and weekend trips to Croatia, so maybe I actually will miss living this way….

Getting harassed on the street and tram stops.  I am so sick of French men (sometimes drunk, sometimes not) thinking it’s okay to harass women whenever they feel like it.  I have been slapped on the butt and told “fuck you” among other things.  And don’t even think about speaking English too loudly, it apparently gives them the right to harass you.

Having bread as a huge part of my diet.  Sometimes I think that some French dishes are just excuses to get to the bread.  (but I will miss it, kind of hard to beat French bread)

Not having soap in the bathrooms.

Scratcher.  This is what I named the animal living in my ceiling.  Yep, there’s something up there.  Apparently, a few months ago, he was hanging out in my parents’ room and waking them up in the middle of the night scratching and running around.  Then, in October, he got bored and cozied up into the part of the ceiling right above my pillow (I sleep up in a loft, so it’s literally about two feet from the ceiling).  It’s like having a soundtrack of someone snoring.  From his noises, I’ve decided he’s definitely something bigger than a rat–maybe a squirrel??  I have no idea.  Also, what does he eat up there (he has been up there a long time)?  Nevertheless, he wakes me up and I’m afraid he’s going to somehow get through the crack in the beam, but I hope he’s enjoying himself up there.

Having my name used all the time.  I knew that it was French, and I knew that it meant “clear” (hence, Eau Claire, “clear water”), but I did not realize how often they say “c’est clair,” which means “it’s clear/evident”.  Especially in my classes.  In the US, I think I hear my name so often since it rhymes with so many words it’s ridiculous (think about it), but I don’t want to think how many times my name is actually used here.  I’ve learned to ignore my name completely.  Also, apparently I can’t say my own name correctly, so that’s kind of a bummer too.

Living in a world full of black clothing.  Forget about wearing colors, if I wear brown I feel like I’m standing out.  You may think I’m exaggerating, but everyone wears black all the time.  Especially now that it’s cold out, everyone’s jackets are black.  C’est fou!


My brother had all of his Silly Bandz laid out on the table on display in the hall.  Either he has put it in safe keeping away from the other kids, or else the little punk has traded Minnesota.  He doesn’t know what he’s missing.

Dobar dan….

27 Nov

….And with cao (bye) and hvala (thanks), that would be the extent of my Croatian.  Somehow we were able to get through the country using those three phrases.  However, it definitely helped that basically everyone under 30 spoke at least some English.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Recently, for a long weekend, two friends and I went to Croatia–why not?!  We left Thursday morning, and we decided to go and bought our tickets on, well, Tuesday afternoon.  Generally, I like to have things at least semi-planned out earlier than that, so I think it’s a good sign that I really had no reservations or anxiety about going on such short notice and not having every night or transportation paid for or even decided upon.

And I’m glad I didn’t.  It was a really fun trip!  We had to spend (had to, I know, right? Darn) one night in Paris because the only flight we could get to Zagreb was early Friday morning.  So, we took the TGV up to Paris; had the typical lunch of baguette, cheese, and wine; bumped into a fellow Montpellier study abroad-er; went to a fondue restaurant for dinner (which serves you baby bottles of wine, has graffiti everywhere, and forces half the party to climb over the table to sit on the long bench on the wall); and then spent the night strolling Paris.  We saw the Eiffel Tower sparkle, visited the Sacré Coeur (which is even more spectacular at night), had the tiniest hostel room possible (three twin beds litterally squeezed together; but it was only us and we had our own bathroom with a shower!), and had some fun on the metro.

Then, after three hours of sleep, it was off to Croatia!

Arriving in Zagreb, we were introduced to kunas, a currency as cheap as it is fun to say, and made our way to the hostel.  Well, when we got to the street that the hostel was supposedly on, we couldn’t find it anywhere.  We stopped in a little shop where neither of the women knew English, and all we had to go by was the “Let’s Go Europe” guide book’s helpful phrases.  Luckily, we found a young traffic cop who spoke English and directed us right back where we had been walking by.  Deciding to walk down the other side of the street, sure enough we found our hostel.  However, I think they badly need to rethink their signage. The only sign they had outside was a little postcard-sized logo on the side of the door, not even facing the street.  Fortunately, that was our only complaint with this hostel; it was actually pretty nice, and the people who worked there even helped Elizabeth track down her camera that she had left on the plane!  High five Hobo Bear Hostel!

That day, we explored Zagreb and visited the Cathedral, the cemetery (immense and beautiful), and had actual roasted chestnuts (a first, and they were as delicious as the song makes them sound).  We topped the night off at a microbrewery/restaurant that served traditional Croatian fare and great beer.  In fact, we liked it so much–especially one dish–that we came back our last night and all ordered the same thing.

Although Zagreb has its Yugoslavian hauntings, it’s a pretty thriving, young, commercial capitol with lots to do.  And the kaleidoscope of beautiful neoclassical architecture in the old town wasn’t too bad, either.  Quickly, though, it was off to Plitvice Lakes National Park–basically, our reason for going to Croatia.

It didn’t disappoint.  After a bus ride through stunning rolling hills and quaint villages and a hike to our hotel, we quickly settled in and ran off to explore the park.  Saturday afternoon, we did the upper lakes, and we returned Sunday morning for the lower half.  While the setting sun and following moon provided an eerie and cozy feeling to the lakes and waterfalls, Sunday’s blue sky and sun made it all come alive.  The park was gorgeous.  I don’t really know what else to say.  The paths of wooden planks were like docks as they wound their way over the lakes and waterfalls, giving no concern to the walker’s risk of falling in to the icy waters.  As we joked, it definitely wasn’t an American national park.  There were no handrails, no signs warning “slippery when wet,” and no guides walking around.  On top of Saturday not showing us many other visitors in the upper lakes, beside the wooden paths, it was really an escape into nature.

The waterfalls were amazing, the lakes were so clear and colorful, and the water ate my camera.  Whoops!  There I was sitting on a path on one of the lakes, enjoying the view, taking it all in, and stupid me stood up to move on.  Here’s a tip, make sure you zip up your pocket.

Snapfish Croatia album

New Experiences

10 Nov

As I sit here eating some delicious Speculoos—what is Speculoos, you ask?  Well, well, wouldn’t you like to know?—I think it’s appropriate to recount my fall break trip in regard to new experiences:

Visiting Edinburgh: first leg of the week-long voyage was a few days in Edinburgh.  Kaitlin and I stayed with a fellow Chi Omega, Kat, who is in grad school at the University of Edinburgh, and we also got to see three of our other sorority sisters who are studying abroad there.  It was quite a sororitastic weekend to say the least.  Aside from the awesome people, the city was fantastic!  I loved it.  Edinburgh has such rich history, plenty to see and do, it’s beautiful, and the people are very nice.  Kat’s very lucky to live there!  We saw the sites—Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood Palace and Abbey (amazing), St Giles’ Cathedral (home of John Knox), Walter Scott Monument, National Gallery of Art, Calton Hill (giving Edinburgh the title of “Athens of the North”), etc.  We even found Adam Smith’s grave.  However, it wasn’t until after scouring through the rest of the cemetery that we realized if we had turned the other way upon entering the churchyard and followed the “Adam Smith brick road” (literally), we would have seen it right away.  All of these sites were really great but even just walking the town was a treat.  And any city quirky enough to have a tradition where you spit on a cobblestone heart on the ground for good luck is okay by me.  The city is so old and beautiful; I just loved the feeling you get being there.  Needless to say, I am a little in love with the UK—which would also explain the obsession with Tudor England.

Exploring the secrets of Edinburgh: I am proud to say that we survived a ghost tour of one of the most haunted cities in the world on Halloween night (dun dun dun).  They did a good job telling stories (I will admit I was a little spooked), and then they brought us underground to the vaults right underneath the city that are said to be extremely haunted (I will admit I held on to Kat and Kaitlin for dear life and was nervously giggly the whole time).  Example: one ghost in the vaults was said to be a little boy who grabs on and holds your hand.  Well, I couldn’t shove and hide my hands in my jacket fast enough, while Kat on the other hand bravely stuck her arm out to the side ready and waiting.  I bring shame to the Lukens name.

Being Charlie Chaplin:  For Halloween in Edinburgh, we went to a vintage store, found some hats…then found some fake mustaches…then found some bow ties, and BAM we had costumes!  I was Charlie Chaplin, Kat was Burt Reynolds, and Kaitlin was the Monopoly man.  This was the simplest and perhaps most fun Halloween costume I’ve done.  Six pounds for the whole thing, and we got to wear normal clothes.  Win.  It was only made better by cider beer and finishing the night off dancing to Scottish folk songs in a bar—so much fun.

Making a Harry Potter pilgrimage:  J.K. Rowling (the author, duh) lived in Edinburgh, and Kat brought us to the Elephant House café where she wrote the first book.  In fact, Kat was sneaky enough to get us the table that she sat at.  Looking out the window, you can see the inspiration for the books—an amazing view of Edinburgh Castle on the top of the cliff.  The café boasts being “the birthplace of Harry Potter,” and even the stalls in the bathroom are graffitied by HP fans with notes like, “I heart Ron Weasley,” and even quotes from the books.  You could feel the magic (bah-dum-chh).

Actual going into Amsterdam:  As opposed to visiting the airport—which is still lovely.  But the city was great.  The canals, the flowers, the bikes, the buildings are all so picturesque.  We visited the Van Gogh Museum, Rijksmuseum, the Anne Frank Huis, took pictures at the “I Amsterdam” sign, but I really loved just walking around the canals.  One morning, we went on a free walking tour and saw the Red Light District (so strange to see as an American), some interesting spots in the city (architecture students from the 1960s should not have been allowed to have free reign, even if it was contained in one neighborhood—shutter), and got some great tips on how not to be killed by a bicycle.  Jimmye was a great host and shared some secrets of Amsterdam with us—(Speculoos! I’m getting there, patience.)—and it was great to have an NMQ freshman year reunion.  We even had the traditional popcorn, orange juice, and movie.  AND I got to see Frank, a fellow Foley counselor from this summer.  It was so great catching up with him and SO weird to see him not only outside of camp but in another country, his country.  Now I’ll have to visit London and see Jack and Sarah!

Being the stereotypical tourist:  Mostly to do with photographs.  A thank you to Kat for forcing me to have pictures taken with me in them (dubbed “mom pictures,” as in for mom), because otherwise there would be none to speak of.  We played up the tourist card by taking jumping pictures, paying to take pictures with a bagpiper and the Mel Gibson—I mean—William Wallace, throwing up the X and horseshoe (Chi Omega hand sign), and having a photo shoot with the UK telephone booths.  (The hipster photos were more for our amusement than a tourist bout.)

Trying new foods: In Edinburgh, we tried haggis (traditional Scottish meat dish “haggis neeps and tatties”—quite delicious; I believe we had haggis every day somehow), pear cider beer (not too shabby), black pudding (aka blood sausage), fish and chips (a must), deep-fried Mars bar (thankfully not right after the fish and chips), Irn Bru (slash cough medicine that the Scots pass as pop: disgusting, but Kat and Kaitlin got a kick out of it—seriously, I think there was something in it), and roast beef and mustard potato chips (not even the weirdest of their potato chip flavors).  In Amsterdam, we were adventurous enough to mosey on into a Febo.  What is that?  Well, it’s basically a vending machine restaurant.  You put money into this wall full of little windows with food in them and then you open the little door and pull out the food you want.  Upon telling Jimmye and her roommate what we had for lunch, her roommate responded with, “you had FEBO?!?”  Apparently, it’s not as fun-adventurous as we thought.  Apparently, it’s more like gutsy/hazardous/sketchy-adventurous.  But our Amsterdam food excursion was atoned for with muesli pancakes, hagel slag (real chocolate sprinkles that they put on toast and it kind of melts into the bread), and, finally, Speculoos Pasta (!).  Speculoos is essentially the new competition in Holland for Nutella and is currently winning in my book.  It is best described as a gingerbread/cinnamon (?) cookie mashed to a pulp and made into a crunchy spread.  Put it on bread, waffles, gingerbread cookies (the Lukens family’s favorite “windmill cookies” from the airport), or you might…..just eat it plain.  Delicious.  Best recipe: Speculoos and hagel slag on a waffle at 2 am.

Well, a puff of smoke in the face was the reminder I received telling me that I was indeed back in France—shortly followed by the realization that after one week of all English, I had lost some footing in my French.  C’est triste.  It scares me to think what my French will be like after a month back in the States.

Completely random side note, have you ever been walking somewhere and realized that you’ve been walking behind the same person for a while, and then you keep on going and you’re still behind them?  Then, you start to wonder when they’ll turn off, and then you start to wonder if they’ve noticed you.  Then, when they end up going to the same obscure place you are or they finish their walk while you’re still behind them, do you ever wonder if they think you’re stalking them?  You may have just freaked that person out so much to the point that they will watch their back for the next few days, convinced someone followed them home.  Way to go.

Now it’s off to Croatia for the weekend!!

Travel Tips

28 Oct

Learn the secret to a great French accent: To my surprise, my best accent came out when I was dead sick early one morning one week in my phonetics class.  My friends said they were expecting something awful when I had to read out loud, but it was spot on.  Secret = a throbbing head and sinuses, a stuffed-up nose, and a sore throat.  You’re welcome.

Start the day off right: Leave it up to my mom and dad to bring tailgating to France in the form of a 10:30 a.m. wine tasting (it was a Saturday morning after all).  Two bottles of good wine for a total of 10 euro, a day’s-worth of French practice, and a little buzz made for a successful stop.

Question everyday American things that now seem weird to you: A large coffee?  A to-go coffee, for that matter??  Driving a car everywhere.  Having restaurants/shops open all day.  Drive-thrus.  Cereal (very foreign to me now; seriously, what I wouldn’t do for a bowl of oatmeal…or Life).  Being carded (I have yet to have the satisfaction of proving my age).  Being in a place where people know how to walk down a street without playing chicken and walking into each other.  Mexican food.  Asian food.  Having a dryer for clothes.  Having an overhead shower (a luxury I miss).  Having soap in the bathrooms (yeah not so much here).

Remember that Sunday literally means day of rest: Good luck finding places that are open or open for very long.  In general, getting lunch after 2 p.m. is difficult in (not even much) smaller cities, but on Sundays it’s nearly impossible.  Case in point, Sunday in Nîmes with the parents.  Good thing we still had some cheese and grapes left (which is saying something since we’re kind of cheese addicts).

Always have a roll of toilet paper in the car when on road trips: Restrooms are few and far between (even in Montpellier, where their version of a “public restroom” is the McDonald’s where you have to buy something and use the receipt to get in), and if you do find a public restroom, chances are it’s a nicely-ceramiced hole in the floor.  After saying I’d do so many times this fall, I finally popped a squat, no less during our peaceful picnic lunch in the French countryside next to a canal.  Camp prepared me well for extreme traveling.

Go to the source: Roquefort cheese bought in the village of Roquefort.  The stinkier the better for us–this one came in a sealed and lined bag.  Did I mention we should be in cheese rehab at this point?

Be observant: For some reason, I have seen more look-a-likes and doppelgangers here than ever before.  Random people from school, home, even celebs–I saw Jacob Black slash Taylor Lautner.  Edward has yet to be found.

Take your time: The other day on my walk home, I stopped and joined a small crowd gathered around two street artists and, expecting some cheap parlor trick, was amazed at their skills.  They used spray paint, a square and a circle templates, and a kind of blade.  They had some fantastic finished works laying out in front of them, but I didn’t fully appreciate the talent until I saw them create an amazing painting right before my eyes using really interesting techniques.  With the simplest movements and combinations of the paints, using the templates to create layers and edges, and the effortless strokes of the blade, they made detailed and colorful surreal scenes of moons, mountains, etc.  Undeniably true artists.

Don’t be a Belge: I still have yet to figure out how to turn on the TV on my own.  It’s been almost two months.  I would call myself a blond, but here that would be a Belgian.

Know what there is to do in a city before you get there: Going on a day-trip to Sète probably would have been more fulfilling if we had looked at what there is to do or see there, but it definitely wouldn’t have been as funny.  Getting off the train and asking if any of us had brought a map or knew what there was to do brought complete silence, followed by a few hilarious hours of aimlessly wandering, trying to follow signs for the office of tourism which led in all different directions (at one intersection, there were signs pointing in 3 completely different directions).  We found it eventually…but on accident while we were trying to find a place to have a beer.  Meh.  C’est la vie.

Go international: At our usual trivia night this week at our favorite bar, we ended up with a table/team of Americans, Swiss-Germans, and French-Italians.  Though the quiz was fun (and we got 6th out of 26!), it was great enough to just talk to each other about differences and similarities in our countries.  Fun fact: there are 638 muscles in the body, and Rachel on Friends says “oh my god” the most of any character.

When you are asked if you want to go to a torture museum, the answer is ALWAYS a resounding “yes”: In Carcassonne, we toured a torture museum and spent the time split between shock and laughter.  Shock because of the horror of these tools, and laughter because of the hilarious translations of some of the placards into English and the absurdity of some of the tools (I’ll admit it was a bit childish of Mari and I to go through the exhibit laughing, but we couldn’t help ourselves–a mask “most commonly used for talkative women”?  An “instrument of torture for bad musicians”??  The “pear” used for, well, insertions and expansions–I’d like to point out that women get this done annually.  A metal chastity belt with spikes around the holes?  You can’t even make that stuff up).

Take it all in: Having your visit to a Romanesque basilica interrupted by five men standing in front of the altar and breaking into beautiful hymnal music.  Soaking in accordion music on the street.  Trying new dishes such as aligot (basically mashed potatoes with cheese that you have to pull apart–new favorite) and cassoulet (delicious bean stew with duck and sausage).  Stopping for a street musician.  Your host dad and brother giving an impromptu magic show after dinner.

Faites la grève! Actually, don’t.  But, it’s hard not to be affected by these strikes.  The French have the constitutional right to strike, and they use it!  This time around, the strikes are regarding the possible (and now passed) law to raise the retirement age by two years, making French people work until 62 years-old.  The trams don’t run as frequently, they are stopped by rioters (I waited on one train en route for 20 minutes until we moved), manifestations fill the streets, high schools strike and protest in front of the gates (les grèves are really almost a rite of passage for the French; I’m not convinced these high schoolers completely comprehend the situation), and my university–the hippie (liberal arts) uni of Montpellier–was one of only six universities in the country to shut down.  Last week the president locked down the school, and currently there are stacks of chairs filling stairwells and blockading doors to classrooms and buildings.  As my host dad pointed out, one could pull down the stacks of chairs…and yeah one could…but no one really feels up to it…and plus there are students patrolling to make sure that doesn’t happen.  In fact, I’ve heard of classes that have gotten into their rooms and commenced that were told to leave because it wasn’t safe to hold class.  No class at the Uni for the last week-and-a-half.  Zut!

In the end, know what the hell you’re talking about: Awhile back, I told a friend’s host mom after dinner that I was pregnant, rather than full.  Well, I beat that at dinner last night.  We were talking about needles and shots, and I said, “j’aime donner le sein“.  Sein is breast, and I had just said that I like to breastfeed, instead of saying that I like to give blood (sang).  Bravo, Claire, bravo.

Now it’s off to Edinburgh and Amsterdam for the fall break!

Get to see Kat, Jill, Katie, Ariel, Frank (Foley reunion!), and Jimmye!

(updated snapfish pictures–but not the most recent, I need to update it even more)

No habla español.

20 Sep

Two and a half days, 5 French-speaking girls, 1 very large Spanish city = jam-packed site seeing and no communication skills whatsoever, unfortunately making us the ultimate American tourists.

And making us realize and appreciate how much French we know.  We realized we were in trouble–and back to not even square one, but probably negative five–when Mari and I went to get breakfast, and we walked up to the counter and realized we had no idea how to even order a simple meal.  We had lost the edge.

But, that was just a side note to a great/interesting weekend in Barcelona.

To start off with, though, the bus ride there was hellish.  We were picked up en route at 9 PM, and the next five and a half hours turned out to be a horrible start to an otherwise great trip.  The bus was full of only Catalan-speakers, which is fine, but the area we were in was full of middle-aged men who had no consideration for anyone else.  They talked very loudly while everyone else was trying to sleep, one guy was flicking his cigarette lighter very close to Liz’s hair for a long time, another guy just straight up stole mine and Mari’s seats after a rest stop break forcing us to sit on the bench in the back with no support for sleeping except for each other’s backs, and he even called us all “the four whores”.  Very little sleep, cricks in the neck, a toddler having a tantrum, 3rd-grade budging in line at the bathroom and stealing seats, sweating in the sauna (I mean bus), and classy name-calling.  Great intro to Barcelona.

The only highlights of the bus ride: Mari and I watching The Hangover on my iPod and so slaphappy at the absurdity of the bus ride (at least at first) that everything in the movie was hysterical; and me half-way walking up, searching for my shoe with my foot, finding my shoe, groping at it to pull it toward me, and realizing too late that I was stroking the foot of the guy sleeping next to me.  But if you pretend you’re still sleeping and that it never happened, it’s okay…..right?

Once there, we were dropped off at the outdoor bus station before the train station opened leaving us to try to get some sleep on the cement platform and fend off a huge cockroach.  Fortunately an older security guard took us under his wing, found us a better spot to sleep–the ticket office stoop–gave us water, and patrolled us while we slept.  He definitely made up for the jerks on the bus.

After a short sleep on the bus station floor–ending with a swift kick to the foot by a gruff security guard–we headed to the hostels and started the trip!

Wow.  Barcelona is an architect’s (and architecture lover’s) dream.  Passeig de Gràcia alone has so many impressive, but mismatched, buildings all mixed together.

Long story short, Gaudí is a crazy genius.  Crazy.  But wicked genius.  His presence in the city combined with the rich historical setting is really incredible.  La Sagrada Familia is beyond amazing.  To think that’s it’s not even finished and is going to be so much bigger and taller (only 8 of the 18 planned towers have been built) is incredible.  There is so much to look at, so much going on, and SO many contrasting and varying styles of art; I could have stayed and taken pictures all day.

Another one of Gaudí’s, Casa Batllò, was fantastic.  It was an apartment built for one family (which is shocking in itself since it’s so big) that he created to look like the ocean.  Inside and out, Gaudí didn’t miss any opportunity to make it his own.  There were no linear lines anywhere.  Curved everything, foggy “under water” glass, incredible tile work, and impressive innovations.  However, we were told by the audio guide that we were going to use all 5 senses up in the backyard…..we’re still not sure what we were supposed to taste…

The last Gaudí site we visited was Park Güell our last morning–and, luckily, the first blue sky and sun we had.  Basically an extension of all of Gaudí’s works thrown in one park, I found it so weird how one artist could have so many styles that were so different, yet you could tell that they were his.  The view was spectacular–only to be rivaled by the view from the Montjuic Castle on top of another hill/mountain closer to the sea.

In addition, we explored the medieval part of the city, visited the roman ruins directly underground the city, listened to some great street music (playing the hang), walked a TON trying to find our way up to Montjuic, and ended with an impressive show at the Magic Fountain.

Overall a great trip, the weekend was filled to the brim and definitely worth the horrible trek there.  And as a bonus, on the day-time bus ride back, we went through a part of the Pyrenees with some beautiful rolling hills and mountains peaked with towers, abbeys, castles, fortresses, etc.  The internal fight between sleep and staring out the window was fierce.

And since I’ve been getting crap from various people for my lack of pictures with actual people in them, here ya go.  And I gave you a weird one, so there.  haha I’m sorry, I guess people take a backseat to art/architecture and nature for me :/

New school, new family, new home, new phone

6 Sep

That’s a lot of new.

Things have been crazy busy in the last few days, but I’m finally getting settled in and once classes start next week, I’ll be in my new routine.  It’s been a while since my last update, but I’ll try to go over things quickly and not bore you!

Friday night, we went to visit a ranch near Le Grau du Roi (where we stayed for the weekend) that raised bulls for racing and fighting.  Just the drive there was a treat to see the Mediterranean, vineyard after vineyard, and the flamingos?  Yep, flamingos.  In France.  No one told us about that, but apparently they’re everywhere down here.  In fact, the shops around here all had these souvenirs with horses, bulls, and flamingos.

But once we arrived at La Manade, it turned even more into a “wait, I thought we were in France” moment as it looked like a true ranch with the barn-like buildings and cowboys riding around on horses–but with a French twist, of course.  The cowboys, while totally legit, wore fedoras.  But hey, which came first and which is the “real” farm hat–the fedora or the American cowboy hat??  Regardless though, it was amusing.

We rode on a tractor/wagon and went on a tour of their land and their bulls while the cowboys rode around us and herded the bulls, and we got to see their race track and when we got back we watched as some of the farm hands played/taunted/ticked off the bulls in a ring arena and tried not to get stabbed in the butt.

Afterward, we had a traditional French meal with all of the courses, including a basket of fresh vegetables and the main dish of bull, of course.  It was all really good, and then to top it off, we were invited over to the barn where the farm hands and friends (young and old) were dancing and partying.  We joined in, and it was a lot of fun to see how different the music and the dancing was–it was just fun, everyone just did what they wanted, and even our program directors joined in.  And of course, techno and house (still unsure exactly what house is) without lyrics usually, OR as a remix of an eighties song.  Every now and then, I was pulled by the hand and I danced salsa/swing with some of the farm hands (one a 16 year-old who was especially thrilled to have all of these college girls there I’m sure), and by the end of it, I was given the title of Dancer of the Night.  So, thank you Mom for the cotillion and dance classes!

Saturday, we had a nice boat ride on a great big catamaran on the Mediterranean, but we really only just went around the bay area.  But it was really nice being out on the water–it was so pretty, and there were a lot of other boats out (sail boats, yachts, jet skis).  Afterward, we laid out on the beach and threw the Frisbee around in the water.  I was stupid and didn’t put any sunscreen on and got quite a nice rouge.

Sunday, we went to Arles briefly and visited the Museum of Antique Arts.  It was very cool and definitely a test for my French.  It was all about the Roman ruins and artifacts discovered in the city and in the Rhône River in Arles.  They had a lot of cool things and so much of it was in really good shape.  Their prized possession was a bust/head of Julius Caesar, which was also in amazing shape.  It’s important for two reasons: it’s the only bust of JC in France, and it is one of the only made during his lifetime, so it’s a very true likeness.

After Arles, we went to Aigues-Mortes, which is a completely walled-in city from the time of St Louis (Louis IX) in the 13th century.  The walls are filled in to the brim with little streets full of shops, restaurants, and houses.  It was so pretty, and we ended up walking around for a long time just looking at all of the houses.  We took a tour of the tower, which imprisoned women (the original sinners) of the Protestant Reformation (Huguenots).

Then, it was back to the office to meet our family!  We were all so nervous and the families were so excited, and we all kind of lined up one group facing the other, and we joked that it was like a game of dodgeball.  And once one of the directors started calling out our names to match up, it felt like she was picking teams and the last few of us joked that we were the losers who nobody wanted on their team haha.  My family is great!  The parents are very nice and are so helpful for improving my French, and the little 10-year old boy Matteo is so sweet and cute!  The house is very cool too.  They have a pool (I had no idea) and a faux-lawn with lounge chairs and a bar up above, then a level down they have their house and the dad’s office, and then stairs down to the street (they are kind of built up against a tall bank/cliff).  We are in the old (very old) part of town, they say they’re in a separate village than the rest of the suburb, and it has the typical tiny French streets winding around, and the beautiful windows and houses, and a church from the 12th century (I think).  My room is very cool too; I have a loft where my bed is and a ladder/stairs up to it.  It’s so cool and everything is so French!  I love it.

Anyway, I should go, but I will write more about the French culture and lifestyle more later, I’ll try not to be so boring with just reports on what I’ve done each day!  I miss you all and hope everything’s great stateside!