So Many Places, So Little Time!

I have a good explanation for my lack of posts lately: I have not spent a single weekend in Paris for the whole month of April.  Crazy, right?? As much as I love Paris it’s been great being able to travel all the time.  Sometimes it gets a bit stressful between hostel hopping and making sure everything fits inside my teeny backpack (thanks, RyanAir!), but it has been so rewarding.

The weekend after my mom and sister came to visit, our program took us for a weekend in Rennes, in the Bretagne region of northwest France.  It was so fun to get away from Paris with everyone as a group.  Rennes is a little college town, so it was fun seeing a different side of France.  We also visited Mont Saint Michel, an abbey built atop a large boulder on the coast of France.  It’s kind of hard to explain, but it’s basically a giant church sitting in the middle of quicksand and tide pools.  It dates back to the thirteenth century, which was amazing to walk around and explore.  We also visited Saint Malo, a nearby beach town.  It is such a cute little beach town that I probably wouldn’t have visited without my program, and it was fun to walk around with my friends and play in the water – even though it was freezing!  The next day we were free to roam around Rennes on our own.  It was beautiful and sunny, so we threw a frisbee around in a park.  It was a quick weekend, but so relaxing and fun!

The following weekend I met up with some friends from high school in Amsterdam.  One girl is studying in Paris on a different program, and my other friend is studying in Tel Aviv.  I took the train by myself to Amsterdam and somehow managed to navigate the canals and confusing language – with the help of a friendly Dutch couple, of course.  It was so great to catch up with old friends and share stories of each other’s study abroad experiences.  On the first day we went to the van Gogh museum, which was personally my favorite part of the trip.  We also walked around the city – I had no idea what to expect, and it was so beautiful!  Most of the architecture dates back to the seventeenth century!  All of the canals are hand-dug, and the city has more bicycles than people.  We also visited the Ann Frank House, which was such an incredible thing to see.  We walked through where her family hid during the Nazi occupation of Holland and saw what life must have been like for them.  That was probably one of the most powerful experiences of my life.  On a lighter note, we went for a tour of the Heineken Brewery, which included a tutorial on how to brew beer and a free canal tour!  That night I went to a seder – I should note that I was raised Catholic, but now I am not religious at all.  Both of my friends are Jewish and they wanted to go, so I figured why not?  Everyone there was really nice and welcoming to me, even when they found out I wasn’t Jewish.  My friends explained to me what the foods represented and translated the songs and prayers for me.  The food was great and it was really interesting to see it in practice!  The next morning I took the train back to Paris after a great weekend.

After a stressful week of school (so many projects and papers to finish up), I had my spring break!  We had two weeks off, including the three-day weekends on either end of the weeks.  I traveled for 20 days out of my North Face backpack – pretty impressive, if I do say so myself.  On Friday the 13th (yikes) my friend and I flew to Prague for a few days.  One of her friends from home is studying there, so it was great having a tour guide.  The first day was sunny and beautiful, so we were able to walk around and see all the sites.  I signed my name on the Lennon Wall!  We also climbed the hill of the park and saw a great view of the city.  It was so interesting being in a country with such a recent history, between the fall of communism and the split from Slovakia.  My friend was able to explain to me some of the history, like why there are national quiet hours.  We stayed in Prague for four days, which was the perfect amount of time for a trip.  The city was beautiful and it was so cool seeing so different than what I was used to.

After Prague we flew to Venice, where we stayed for a few days.  It is super expensive to stay on the actual island of Venice, so me and my two friends stayed in a hotel on the mainland in Mestre.  Venice is absolutely picturesque – that is the best word I would use to describe it.  I must have taken a thousand pictures just of the canals! The buildings are so brightly colored and the little bridges over the canals with gondolas passing through them really makes for a great photo.  We followed every tour site’s advice and didn’t look at our map at first and got lost in the city.  The main places are SO touristy, sometimes to the point where you can’t even see what you’re looking at!  It was great being able to walk off the main canal and see the lesser-known parts of Venice.  We found an amazing pizza place and a great falafel place, both of which we ate sitting on the canals in the sun.  I also turned 21 in Venice!  We took a boat to Burano, an island nearby.  All the houses there are super bright because the fishermen who lived there wanted to be able to see their island from sea.  We had a picnic on the island before heading back to Venice.  As far as 21st birthdays go, mine was pretty tame since the city pretty much closes down after 8pm, but it was hard to complain!  I also ran into my friend from UW in Venice!  She is studying in Florence and happened to be there that weekend for a trip.  Such a small world!

After spending a few days in Venice, we took the train to Florence, where we stayed for a week.  Let me tell you, a week in a hostel that feels like the orphanage from “Annie” is a long time.  Fortunately two of my oldest and best friends from childhood are studying in Florence, and we had so much fun together catching up.  It was so fun seeing their study abroad experience and getting a little insight to their life.  Of course we visited the Duomo, with the oldest dome in the world, and the Ponte Vecchio.  I feel like I really got to know the city because it is small enough to walk across in thirty minutes, and we were there for so long.  My cousin, who graduated from UW last year, studied abroad in Florence for a year, so he sent me a map with all sorts of things to do that locals do.  My favorite thing was finding the “secret bakery” around 2am.  While the bakers prepare the pastries for the next day, you can buy them fresh out of the oven at night.  Delicious!

I’m now back in Paris, and I only have 3 weeks left here.  I’m realizing how much I still have to do!  While school work and finals are stressful and make it difficult to do things, I plan on being really proactive about seeing sights and absorbing as much of Paris as I can.