Friday, December 25, 2009

Home Sweet Home

Finally back in the US. Things haven’t changed, other than global warming dumping snow all over the US. There are blizzards in the north and tornados in the south—it’s ridiculous. Thankfully I was able to make it home without any major problems. Better said, I wasn’t stranded in an airport. So a short recap of my long travels: I woke up at 4 am Wednesday morning, took a taxi at 6:30 and was on a train shortly after.

About one hour into the train ride we suddenly stopped and the conductor informed us that someone had thrown themselves in front of a train at Munich Ostbahnhof, a station where I needed to transfer. Thus we stopped at a random station and I needed to change trains, putting me back about an hour. My flight to Chicago was actually quite relaxing, because I was in the emergency exit row, giving me six feet of extra leg room. After we landed in Chicago and I went through the long process of customs and security, I found out my flight to Minneapolis had been cancelled due to weather conditions. My confirmed flight was for the following day, but at least I was put on standby, with an additional 120 people. Thankfully I was able to make a flight out later that evening, but my luggage didn’t make it until the following afternoon. The end of traveling.

Christmas is quaint here with the snow. We have copious amounts of snow and the whole Midwest is under either a Winter storm warning or blizzard warning. So it’s great to be home in my own environment, have all my stuff and sleep in a fluffy, oversized bed. I’m also very happy to see my cat again, and I’ve even played a bit with my mother’s dog, who has become a bit more behaved since I left.

Nothing else to really note on. I’ll write more about how America hasn’t changed soon.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

It's Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas?

One week until I head back to the United States! I’m surprised that I’m writing that with glee, because in previous years when I’ve been abroad, heading back to the US was like dreading a visit to the dentist—ok, it wasn’t that bad. But you get the idea. I suppose I should take into consideration that my previous stays abroad were rather short, six weeks max. And now I will have been I Austria four whole months when I take off. And looking out the window at the mere dusting of snow is simply not enough for me; I need a bit more snow to feel like it’s nearing Christmas.

The past week has heightened my spirit for the season, as I have been doing Christmas lessons in nearly every class. I will never forget the lyrics for “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” ever again. I’ll be singing it to my grave.

So far I’ve been to several Christmas markets: Linz, Budapest, Bregenz, Feldkirch, Ried… but sadly not Braunau. I missed out on that action this weekend when I was in Ried attending the “Xmas Party of 2009” at the event hall. The party organizers really overestimated the guest list, because they had a HUGE event hall which remained at least a third to a half empty. Nonetheless, Tim, Heather and I brought sexy back and had a fabulous time together. Unfortunately we had some troubles leaving the event, as I had somehow lost my ticket for the coat check, and they refused to give me my coat until the following morning. Tim was a bit aufgeregt and thankfully no one got hurt.

This week I have just been counting down the days until the weekend, subsequently my trip back home. On Saturday Heather and I have planned to go to the Christmas market in Salzburg, which should be nice. I can get some last minute Christmas presents 
And perhaps the biggest thing that put me in the Christmas spirit today is when four of my students pulled me aside after class and presented me with a plate of Austria Christmas goodies that they had baked me, along with a cute Christmas card. That single thoughtful act made me feel like it’s almost Christmas and made me very thankful for my time here in Austria.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Buda + Pest

I love Austria for having random holidays on a Tuesday, which means that the preceding Monday is a free day. I scheduled my classes last week so that I could have Thursday-Tuesday off. It was amazing. So for the long weekend I finally left Austria for more than an afternoon (regarding day trips to Liechtenstein, Germany and Switzerland) and went to Budapest, Hungary for four days with Heather, Matt and John. We were able to find a fabulous special roundtrip train offer for only 42 euros including our seat reservations.

Thursday morning we packed up our things, stocked up on beer and snacks, and boarded the train for a fun-filled four hour trip on the luxe Eurojet train. In Budapest we checked into our extremely cheap hostel at only 8,63 euros per night for a four bed private. The "hostel" is actually someone's large apartment, where they rent out three or four rooms. I don't recall ever seeing anyone else in the hostel other than the caretakers, so we pretty much had the place to ourselves. The hostel was located in the heart of Pest, within walking distance to many sights and shops. And since it was on a busy street, I slept wonderfully as I dreamed of Minneapolis.

Friday night we checked out the Christmas market, where we all enjoyed some cheap gluehwein (mulled wine)-- I have the cup to prove it! I've begun to notice that Christmas markets are not simply just an Austrian or German thing... they really are all over in Europe. Come on America, when are we going to catch on?! Afterwards we went to the fanciest restaurant I've been thus far since arriving in Austria. We had a three course meal complete with Belgian beer from the tap for around 12 or so euros. Even though Hungary is part of the EU, they still use their own money, the Forint. The exchange rate is great at the moment, and many things were very reasonable.

Saturday morning we caught the free walking tour of Budapest led by a local Hungarian man in women's yoga flared pants-- it was hilarious. We saw most of the sights, had some good laughs, and saw a lot of ET (Euro Trash). The tour was also quite affordable, since we paid him in tips (around three or four euros per person). After the tour we checked out the "California Coffee Company" near the University, and I had some nostalgic moments sipping my coffee and eating my brownie while watching University students type their papers. Post-coffee was spent experiencing a children's Christmas market complete with terrible Hungarian songs sung by children (which made it even worse) that took place right across the street from a giant protest-- at least we assumed it was a protest, since we can't understand the language at all. Let me just pause for a moment and point out that I finally was able to play the clueless tourist this weekend. It's been quite a while where I've been in a non-German speaking country where I need to rely on the locals speaking English to me.

Saturday night we drank some cheap and delicious Hungarian wine and set off to find a good club. We wound up in a place called "Morrisons 2" and danced the night away. There were so many different people at that club from all over the globe. After catching a night train and making a much needed run to Subway, we finally crawled into bed at around four AM.

Sunday we soaked up the Hungarian culture in a traditional bath. Budapest sits atop many thermal springs, and baths became part of the Hungarian culture during the Ottoman Empire from the Turks. It was the most cultural experience in Budapest, considering the amount of tourists was quite low. I even treated myself to a cheap aroma relax massage. In the evening we found a wonderful Mexican-American restaurant with the BEST food I have had thus far. They even had processed cheese. It was sooooo amazing. Oh, and that evening we also visited "Hero's Square", basically the Champs Elyse of Budapest. We took tons of photos and watched a bunch of young kids skate around the square. Afterwards we stumbled upon the craziest and most EE Christmas market ever: a NASA virtual reality ride on one side of the tent, a camel ride on the other, and inside the kind of crap you could find at a thrift store. But the best thing about that Christmas Market was when Santa Claus himself came riding in on sleigh being pulled by a giant reindeer mascot (who looked oddly like Bullwinkle) on a Harley Davidson as "Sexy Bitch" by David Guetta played in the background. Gotta love Eastern Europe.

Monday morning we tried to spend the last remaining Forint that we had, so we attempted to shop at the big mall just outside of the city. It was a failed attempt on my part, and I ended up just buying a bunch of cheap food and wine at Intersparr.

All in all, the weekend was fabulous. It was so great to get out of Austria finally and experience a totally new culture. Pictures to come.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Being Thankful

This weekend I hosted my very first Thanksgiving dinner. Ever. In Austria of all places. And despite living in a small town where finding foreign ingredients is somewhat of a challenge, we created a pretty darn good meal-- that is, after going to nearly all seven or eight of the grocery stores in Braunau to collect the food and ingredients. The turkey was the hardest to find; I finally found a whole 9 lbs turkey at Merkur for 21 euros. That's roughly 31 dollars. That's $3.50 a pound. My parents bought a 14 lbs turkey for $3.50.

On Friday evening Adam, Jay, Matt, John, Emily and her friend arrived. Heather came Saturday morning. Friday evening we prepared a few things, got some gluehwein (mulled spice wine) and relaxed with a bit of drinking. Saturday morning Adam took over the kitchen and made an amazing turkey. Other things included in the meal: stuffing, cranberry salad, green bean casserole, bread rolls, steamed veggies, mashed potatoes and gravy, and apple pie! After many hours of preparing, cooking and setting the table, we finally sat down and started reciting what we are thankful for this year. Answers include things like: being thankful for living in Austria, for cheap travels, for cheap wine and beer, and for having met one another. My experience around the table eating the typical American meal and talking about why we are thankful made me really glad to have my friends in Austria. My experience would be so different had I not met them. But it also made me really miss home a bit. Only three more weeks until I'm back home for Christmas!

After creating the American tradition in Austria, we experienced a brand new, and slightly frightening, Austrian tradition called the Perchtenlauf. Perchten is a tradition where Austrian men dress up in the scariest costumes ever complete with a satanic mask that they carve from hand. They carry baskets on their backs to "take little children away". And they carry whips around and whack people. The tradition is to scare the evil spirits out of the city, and it's always common to see at the end of November and in December around the Christmas market season. And they love to target girls with blonde hair. I was almost taken away!

Long weekend coming up, and I'm headed to Budapest! More to come!