Sunday, December 26, 2010

Still Alive

Merry (belated) Christmas from the Netherlands!

Unfortunately, a full-sized Christmas tree wouldn't fit in Thomas' apartment, but this miniature tree, complete with bottle cap ornaments, is pretty swell. Very Charlie Brown-esque.This was also my first white Christmas, which I was extremely excited about. As much as I bitch about the cold here, it was refreshing to not be able to go outside in jeans and a t-shirt on Christmas Day. Three cheers for Richmond! Anyways, Christmas here was very relaxing, and involved a lot of 30 Rock Christmas specials, hot chocolate, and Opus and Bill: A Wish for Wings That Work. The Christmas movie to end all Christmas movies.

Just a few days before Christmas, we arrived from a bit of a EuroTrip to Luxembourg and Geneva. Marseille was originally on the schedule, but due to some massive TGV burden, we weren't able to make it without either spending Christmas Eve on a train or spending 24 hours on a train. Either way, awful. After a picturesque train ride through Wallonia, we arrived in Luxembourg, which was beautiful. The city is a bit of a tease; it looks like any run-of-the-mill city center, until you start moving away from the center and then all of a sudden BAM, the entire town plummets down into a fortress:

by day

by night
The city square in Luxembourg had been transformed into a bustling Christmas market, with plenty of crafts and GLUHWEIN and gaufres and other delicious winter foods. It was ridiculously cold that night, and the gluhwein with sugar and rum most certainly hit the spot.

We didn't have a lot of time in Luxembourg, but there wasn't much to see there, especially in the dead of winter. The next morning, we hopped a train for the seven-hour journey to Geneva. Beautiful lake views ensued. Geneva was definitely my favorite part of the trip. The city is positively gorgeous, with lots of green space and freshwater; it actually reminded me a lot of DC, and I flashbacks of Nebraska Avenue as we were walking past the Qatar embassy. The only difference was that I was full of fondue and not Chipotle (miss you). Speaking of, Thomas' boss at DOCIP, whose headquarters is located in Geneva, took us to Cafe du Soleil, a cute little restaurant that is apparently Phil Collins' favorite fondue joint. Pretty cool, right? Adult contemporary + so much cheese = glorious. After touring DOCIP's office and enjoying the headiest of cheesy lunches, we headed to CERN to check out their museum, which was great. It was especially fulfilling after binging on the The Universe this summer and spending way too much time in the library last semester poring over works by Carl Sagan for a Nuclear Energy paper.

We were supposed to spend more time in Geneva, and then take a train to Marseille, but the TGV, as previously mentioned, totally screwed us over, so instead of headed back to Leiden. Anyone who is looking to spend some time in Europe or is studying abroad later should definitely invest in a Eurail pass; the dates are flexible, so although we didn't make it to Marseille, we can use the pass to visit another French city at a later date. Super convenient. The train ride back to Leiden was frustrating, to say the least. The first hour was spent in a compartment with a young Italian couple who felt the need to listen to Jason Derulo and Akon on their iPod as loudly as possible without putting the earphones in their ear. You know, because a 9 AM train is the perfect time for a dance party. They also clipped and filed each other's nails and made out a considerable amount, both of which were nauseating. We eventually moved compartments, and 15 hours later, a few train delays, and a half a bottle of wine later, we finally made it to Leiden.

It's good to be back in the Netherlands, although, I do miss being able to understand signs/people/general things in Luxembourg and Geneva. My French definitely left much to be desired (there was a lot of stammering involved), but hey, it's better than Swedish.
Hope everyone had a very Merry Christmas, and have a fabulous New Year! Super excited for New Years a stone's throw away from Amsterdam.

Oh yeah, pics!

red cross/red crescent


this is both offensive and nonsensical

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Beautiful, What's the Hurry?

Current temperature in Gothenburg: 12° F with a wind chill of -1° F. This one goes out to you, Sweden:

Ode To Finals Week

I know that it's sick, twisted, and more-than-slightly masochistic, but I really do miss AU Finals Week (yes, it deserves capitalization). My Swedish final, the only test I've taken since October, was last night, and when I walked out of the exam hall having officially completed my first semester abroad, something didn't feel right. One of the best feelings I've ever experienced was the day I came home from the Fall 2009 semester. The three weeks before that had been a blur of 60-hour benders in Bender, my body completely exhausted from a grueling schedule that mandated that coffee be substituted for sleep. I finished my final 25-page paper at 3 AM, having been in the library since the morning before, came back to the dorms, packed, slept for three hours, went to my internship, and then finally at 5 PM, left for Union Station. When I finally sat down on the train, I felt a physical, tangible relief. The stress and pressure and sleeplessness and hysteria and the panicking and inevitable craziness of Finals Week is satisfying only in the contrast afterwards. It's massively rewarding when you've worked so hard and pushed your body to the edge and logged countless hours in the library and then made it out alive with a solid GPA to show for it. Here, there was none of that. I'm not complaining about having next to no work while abroad, but after the exam, there was little catharsis. I had spent one night on a three-page paper, the next morning studying for an exam that wouldn't even count for a grade at home. I didn't feel like I needed to pass out or cry or party, because post-finals life was exactly like pre-finals life. It's very much a Big Yellow Taxi situation, but I want to sit in a cubicle for days straight with a stack of books so heavy it breaks my tote bags and bark at anyone who dares to text me about getting dinner at TDR because how can I eat when I've just thrown up again?????

Hi, I'm Sarah, and I'm a Bender Library addict.

It's 5 AM. Do you know where your children are? (Hint: With Janet)

Friday, December 10, 2010

Three Jolly Fishermen

As part of my Get Out of Dodge-enburg campaign last week, I headed south-ish to Amsterdam to visit Claire. The trip there was quite stressful, to be honest. As previously mentioned, I got into Gothenburg from Stockholm at 1:30, and then had to unpack, do laundry, and repack before leaving at 9:30 the next morning. If you've spoken to me for more than two seconds, you know how much I dislike, nay, LOATHE packing; so, I was struggling with packing, and then I woke up early to get my laundry from the dryer only to find the dryer had never turned on and was in fact broken, which was a total bummer, and this combined with a lingering cold from Stockholm and the subsequent remedy of chugging paracetamol tea (actually drinking some right now- is this stuff addictive?) left me frazzled and extremely drowsy and loopy. All of the worries and the tea-daze disappeared as soon as I saw this smiling face:

The stay in Amsterdam was amazing. The city itself is extremely picturesque, and much quainter (gezellige in Dutch, as Claire taught me) than I expected. While there are quite a few bars and neon signs that line the busier parts of the streets, most of Amsterdam was canals lined with brick townhouses and cobblestone streets. No seediness at all; after spending three days there, I still hadn't been in the Red Light District. I think the homey feel I got from the city came from the fact we stayed in an actual home. Claire's abroad program arranges a home stay for them with a Dutch family, and her host parents, Erica and Viktor, were so great. Apparently they've been lamenting the fact that Claire has only cooked for them once during the semester (which she described as "disastrous"), so we whipped up some dinner one night, and chatted about Dutch culture and Sarah Palin over some mighty fine quiche and tomato soup.

Most of the time spent in Amsterdam was in museums, trying to complete The Quest; students get a discount on museum cards, which give you free admission to 37 museums in Amsterdam, as well as museums outside the city. Claire had set a goal for herself to go to every single museum before she left, and I was more than happy to help her complete her task. Over the next few days, we hit eight museums which I think is pretty impressive. Included in that number are the canal houses, which are just old townhouses where wealthy Dutch families used to live, and everything has been preserved exactly as it was back in the day. The best part of those were the geriatric tour guides and desk workers who obviously didn't see a lot of visitors, and they were overly enthusiastic to show us around the place. The houses were quite a sight to see, though; if only I could live in a place with blue velvet wallpaper, fake cats, and French-inspired tranquility gardens:

Also great/confusing was hanging out with Claire's friends, all of whom are named Sarah. We went out to a Belgian bar the first night, and every time Claire said "Sarah," four people turned around. Yay, 1990.

By the third day, Claire had to buckle down and get to work on a 40-page research paper (yikes, whatever happened to abroad wonking?), so I hopped a train to Leiden to see Thomas for a few fabulous days. I loved biking along the snowy canals, watching Christmas movies and drinking white Russians with his friends, getting ambushed by snowballs, going to a hockey game (!!!!):

again, I didn't take this
See, people? Proof that I went to a sporting event! HYS Den Haag v. THE SMOKE EATERS. It was a bloodbath of epic proportions, 13-1. The players on the losing team lost hope and instead of trying to score goals, they just started brawls. I really felt like a bro, drinking beer out of a plastic cup while rooting on sports-related violence. Anyways, this brings me to what I wanted to say earlier. The Netherlands (and Belgium too, I think) separates their Christmas festivities; you celebrate the religious part of it on, well, Christmas, and then all of the secular going-ons occur on Sinter Klaas Day, December 6. Sinter Klaas is the Dutch Santa Claus, who comes in on a boat and fills children's shoes with candy if they're good and beats them and ships them to Spain if they're bad. Sounds pretty innocent, right? Oh, so, so not right. While Santa Claus comes armed with elves to help him with his toy delivery, Sinter Klaas has Zwart Piets, or Black Petes, for assistance. While the Dutch will tell you that Piet is zwart because he went down a chimney to deliver toys to kids and now he is covered in soot, there's no escaping the fact that everywhere you go, there are people in blackface dressed in jester's costumes walking around. It's terrifying. At the hockey game, there were Zwart Piets dancing on the zamboni (spellcheck does not recognize this as a word but I am calling bullshit). Michel, Tara (who are from the Netherlands and Belgium, respectively), and I had a discussion about this Christmas tradition last night, and they explained that, while Zwart Piet surely has some racist undertones, there's no historical context in their countries that would make blackface taboo. Fair enough. Claire showed me this video of David Sedaris' take on Zwart Piet, and it's definitely worth a watch. Begins at 0:30 mark:

So, seeing Claire was amazing, and seeing Thomas was fantastic, but seeing both of them AT THE SAME TIME was the best. We went up to Amsterdam for a bit and hit up the Dutch Resistance Museum and all hung out at a coffee shop for a while together. It was just like old times, awwww. Except, you know, in Europe instead of in Bender library or a frat house. Details, schmetails.

Headies, The Prequel

In the words of Liz Lemon, things are happening! I got a little antsy with the blog and decided to switch up the layout, let me know if you dig it. I still need to post about last week's trip to Amsterdam and Leiden, but I'm currently stuck writing a paper on the etymology of Greek and Latin scientific terms (marry me, Oxford English Dictionary), plus there are Christmas cards to write and hotels to book and couches to locate and a Swedish exam to study for and parties to be attended and flea markets to be shopped and hockey games to be watched and laundry to be done and all that jazz. Here's a teaser, though:

To answer your questions: no, I did not take this picture (thanks, Thomas!) because it was really cold outside and I'm delicate and a Temperature Princess and I didn't want to take my mittens off long enough to fish a camera out of my pocket; yes, I know it looks like I was photoshopped into it; no, that is not the Pope; yes, that Dutch person on the left is indeed in blackface because the Netherlands is terrifying and oh yeah, he's (or she, let's not be exclusive here) totally drinking a Heineken at 1 PM.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

"Did you remember to get your shots?"

In proper Abroad Wonk (we're gonna wonk around the clock tonight, we're gonna wonk wonk wonk till the broad daylight) fashion, I only have one class, which I'm halfway through as we speak/type, from November 22-January 18. Most other people have exams and classes and papers and other academic burdens, and to avoid bothering them and bugging them to go out at all times, I planned a solid ten days of traveling to get out of everybody's hair and/or Sweden. First stop: Stockholm. I realize that that is still in Sweden, but it's also a five-hour train ride away, which is longer than it takes to get across multiple countries on continental Europe, so whatever.

Jasmien, Natsuko, Joy, Yuri, and I departed at the way-too-early hour of 5:27 AM to catch early train out of Gothenburg. We bought our tickets so early that first class ended up being cheaper than second class, so we got to ride in style like the classy broads we are.

Well, except Jasmien, who quickly found herself on the receiving end of mocking texts. "Here come the servants to fan us and feed us grapes!" "Do you think you could push the train a bit more quickly?" "I hope we don't crash into a lake because I don' think there are enough lifeboats for all of us..." Anyways, upon arriving, we checked into our hostel (this was my first stay at a hostel, and it was definitely less seedy than expected), and trekked out into the city. Stockholm was gorgeous, and a really great city, but it was miserably cold. How cold? This cold:

Sexy, right? We had to duck into a store or cafe every 20 minutes at max to avoid freezing to death. I never believed the cold weather/catching a cold correlation, but the next morning I woke up feeling positively awful, so there you go. Despite illness and a slice of the impending Scandinavian winter, Stockholm was fantastic. Riksdag and Kungliga Slottet (Parliament and the Royal Palace, respectively) were definitely highlights.

I'm enamored with the idea of having a figurehead monarchy that stands there and looks pretty and can technically do whatsoever its little heart desires but never actually would, much to the dismay of my European friends who are like THEY'RE SO EXPENSIVE BLAH BLAH BLAH, to which I reply, maybe, but aren't miniature horses worth it?

Kungliga Slottet is actually only used for official ceremonies and what; the royal family and all of their splendor reside at Drottningholmet outside of Stockholm. With no one to actually protect (besides, does the Swedish royal family actually have enemies?), the guards are there more for effect and spectacle than safety, which means that they're super friendly. They were joshing around with little kids, taking pictures, being friendly and human, etc. Jasmien and I snagged a picture with them, which means that I could leave Sweden tomorrow and be a happy camper:

They were also super cute when they were changing:

Not really sure what they're charging? Norwegians? Litter? Baggy jeans? Anyways, we also hit up City Hall (twice, we trudged through the blizzard only to be told that there were no tours that day due to a concert, major burden), which was gorgeous. It is also the location where the Nobel Prize ceremonies are held. Being so close to the reception, the chairs and speakers were already in place, and it was pretty cool to be pre-mingling among the academic elite.

I usually never pay for guided tours, but it was only 40 SEK, and Tara highly recommended it. Totally worth it. You find out so many things you would have never known, like how long it took to Prince to paint the al fresco mural of Stockholm, or why a totally brick room is called The Blue Room, or why the mosaic in the ballroom features a person without a head (five years, an indecisive architect, poor planning/decapitation legend).

While we did make a few stops at cafes for some bone-warming soup (mmmm, mushroom soup), we got really good at eating on a budget. I practically lived on a bag of clementines and loaf of bread for three days. Also, not to brag, but we totally got to go to H&M Home, the first of its kind in the world.

No big deal. It was actually quite small, and pretty disappointing, since I was expecting IKEA but more inspired by cheap sweaters and going-out dresses.

We finally got back to Gothenburg at 1:30 AM on Tuesday, two hours later than expected. Since Swedes are so nice, though, they gave us 50 SEK vouchers to use in the train station for food, coffee, etc., and after a bit of a grift, we found ourselves with 450 SEK to kill. I swear to god, there is nothing more delicious than a McFlurry and a cup of earl grey tea on Sweden's dime.

As per uje, more pictures on, and a select few below:

the metro!

"you look homeless"

clowning hard, or hardly clownings?

Superstition and Skating at Sandals

As fabulous as the past week or so has been, galavanting around in Stockholm, Amsterdam, and Leiden, and as nice as it is to be back in Gothenburg, I have very, very sad news. You know how athletes will win a game while wearing a certain pair of socks or jersey or jockstrap, and then they decide to never wash that garment ever again as to not dilute the lucky particles of magic, or whatever? Well, I found my proverbial unwashed jockstrap.

When I was 12 or so, I was going through security when I realized that my bottle of lotion was still in my carry-on, currently being scanned by the menacing faces of TSA. I was sure that I would be arrested on the spot and jailed, and I had awful visions of damp, clammy interrogation rooms with one flickering lightbulb that kind of hangs and swings from the ceiling. To my surprise and delight, though, no one noticed. Since then, I've made a point each time I fly to pack a bottle of shampoo or Diet Coke or some liquid larger than 3 oz in volume in my carry-on, just to see if TSA will do their job properly and oh, I don't know, detect it. Also, I have never, ever experienced a flight delay before. Not even a minute. I thought the two were completely unrelated, until yesterday.

I put all of my travel-size liquids in an approved plastic bag on my flight back to Gothenburg from Leiden, and what did it get me? A seven hour delay. I arrived at Schipol at 8:20 AM only to find my 10:10 flight had been pushed back to 10:40, just enough to miss my connection in Frankfurt. Instead, I was placed on a 1:50 direct flight, which became 2:25, then 2:35, then 3:05, and then finally 3:45. The experience could definitely have been worse, but I've been spoiled with a previously impeccable flight record, and with neither a computer nor a crossword puzzle, the boredom was absolutely crippling. I think I took a nap in about five different spots in the airport, just to switch it up. Variety is, in fact, the spice of life. CALIENTE.

Anyways, the past 24 hours in Gothenburg have been great. I was greeted with a solid foot of snow on the ground,

and quiche! Katrijn made a delicious dinner for me and Dusjan, complete with appetizer, dessert, and wine. It truly hit the spot that was my empty, withering stomach after being stranded in an airport that charges like, a million euros for a sandwich.

With only a few more days left until everyone starts leaving Sweden, we've been trying to pack as many activities as possible into the remaining week. Today, Tara, Joy, Alex, Jasmien, and I laced up our skates (new favorite hobby: carrying my ice skates around my neck and looking really cool and Swedish) and headed to the outdoor rink at Heden.

Before Sweden, I had never been skating outdoors, so this is still quite the novelty. None of us are very good, and spend most of our time waddling and envying Alex, who learned how to ice skate and play hockey in gym class in Canada, but it's still a great time. I even learned how to do a crossover and a T-push today! I also invented a new move, the Skating Shimmy, where you move your hips and shimmy in such a way that you propel yourself backwards. Other accomplishments: Crank That Soulja Boy dance ON ICE.

Added bonus: it was totally toasty today. 32 degrees Fahrenheit, rock on!