Je vais aller à Paris! In TWO DAYS! I’m so, so excited… I’ve been looking forward to this trip all semester. I’m glad we chose to go towards the end of our time here, because the weather is going to be fairly warm (around 70 degrees - PERFECT). It’s going to be a little stressful getting there/coming back (we’ll have to stay in Amsterdam Sunday night and leave around 6 am on Monday to make it to my 10 am Art class…). But I think it’ll all be worth it. I can’t wait to eat awesome food and see some great art. What’s even better, is that I am going to Paris again the next weekend - but to see Versailles, of course (I’m practically jumping out of my skin when I think about that upcoming trip)!

Enjoy this video I posted; first of all, Phoenix is a French band, and I love this song. Second of all, it’s one of my favorite videos on YouTube (La Blogotheque is awesome). When I think about Paris, I secretly idealize and imagine myself walking around the Eiffel Tower and stumbling upon Phoenix, you know, just hanging out and doing a live performance. Haha, I know that’s ridiculous… I can hope though, right? :)

Update in a few days!

MEGAN AND I WERE ONE OF THE TOP 3 WINNERS IN THE STROOPWAFEL CASTLE CONTEST. Yes, it’s held together by Nutella. See the little furniture and garden? #harrypotterweek #castlevictories

MEGAN AND I WERE ONE OF THE TOP 3 WINNERS IN THE STROOPWAFEL CASTLE CONTEST. Yes, it’s held together by Nutella. See the little furniture and garden? #harrypotterweek #castlevictories

I should be writing my paper…

The final countdown now - less than 1 month. I now know the true meaning of "Wait ‘til after Paris". My professor has taught here for the past 25 years and every year she notices a major decline in productivity after the second excursion (in our case, Prague, not Paris). I have no motivation at all. Also, nature decided to spite me and it’s another beautiful, sunshine-filled day. Ugh! #castlestruggles

Main Square in Krakow, Poland

Main Square in Krakow, Poland

How do I even put this into words…

First, I will warn you that this isn’t jut a post about me visiting Poland. It’s about my experiences at Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau. It’s a little heavy, but if you’re interested, then please read on. I’d like to share some of yesterday’s experiences with you.

I’m back at the Castle after a 48-hour trip to Krakow, Poland. The Netherlands welcomed us back this afternoon with an embrace of sunshine and flowers. It was greatly needed after living in perpetual gray-ness. Let me explain…

Early Thursday morning we took a cab to the Düsseldoorf Weeze airport. It’s definitely my favorite airport because it’s only about five miles away in Germany. We had a smooth check in and boarded our flight for 9:55 am. However, instead of landing at 11:30 as scheduled, we flew into a massive rain storm over Krakow. We couldn’t land due to visibility issues and had to land in another airport in Poland an hour later. Luckily, they had shuttle buses prepared for us which brought us back to the Krakow airport… but another hour had gone by. We took a bus to the Main Bus Station and then had some trouble finding the right tram to bring us to the hostel (we didn’t know that it was close enough to walk). In total, it took us about 12 hours to finally reach our hostel. The hostel owners were not happy because we told them our check-in time was noon and we arrived like 7 hours later, but we were so exhausted at that point that we didn’t really care. At least we had made it! That night we got Indian food and wine. I think we definitely deserved it after all the trouble we had been through.

The next day was when the real exhaustive part started, though. That was Auschwitz day. My friends Ellen, Jaymie and I quickly caught a bus that brought us to the city of Oświęcim (the Polish name for Auschwitz). The ride lasted for about 1.5 hours. The city of Krakow may have looked stern and uninviting to me, but it was nothing compared to the outskirts. I felt like I stepped back in time. There were endless stretches of barren, gray land everywhere dotted with run-down industrial-looking buildings (that I guess were houses). It was really depressing and made me feel cold through and through, not even just from the weather. As the surroundings became more and more bleak, we knew we were getting close to Auschwitz.

We were lucky enough to catch the last English guided tour and we watched an introductory film about the camps. The movie mentioned the names of children and their reasons for their deaths as well as the liberated prisoners’ physical states after the Soviets began liberating Auschwitz. Not to mention, there were many clips of the mass graves that were uncovered. There was also footage of people discovering the bags of looted items from the prisoners, including gold teeth and pounds and pounds of human hair. Not even twenty minutes into the tour, my stomach began to turn. We then grabbed some headsets and walked with our tour group outside to visit the various “Blocks” of Auschwitz-I…

Our tour guide walked us through the buildings (they called them “Blocks”) where people were forced to live/where they were punished. We didn’t see only barracks - we saw torture chambers. Jail cells and suffocation chambers. Block 10 was where they held prisoners who would be brutally and inhumanely experimented on by Dr. Mengele. They were actually given nicer conditions than the rest of the prisoners, although they would die horrible and painful deaths soon - especially twin children. Pictures of the prisoners lined the walls, and women and men alike didn’t last more than a couple of months. Between the stretches of blocks there are the remains of a brick wall that separated the sexes.

A couple of these Blocks were set up as museums with quotes, maps, and pictures. We’ve all seen pictures of the Holocaust before. We’ve all heard about how the Nazis looted the prisoners of all their materialistic belongings, sending them to the German treasury. But it was so different to see these items in person. There they were - piles and piles of eyeglasses, brushes, clothes, and shoes… everywhere. So many shoes of the gas victims. I had seen the shoes in the Holocaust Museum in D.C., too, but seeing them here was different. There was a pile of luggage with people’s names printed on them, because they had thought they were going to get the luggage back and wanted to make sure they were clearly labeled. The pots and pans, because they were convinced they were brought to the camp to start new lives and new houses. They would never have a need for these items. The Nazis told them they would be starting new lives so they would bring their most valuable possessions. There were also broken dolls and baby sweaters and shoes. There was so much tangible evidence right there in front of me and it was so overwhelming.

We also saw various places where they’d carry out hangings (we even saw some gallows). We saw the wall where they would perform daily executions by shootings. The last thing we did at Auschwitz I was walk through an actual crematorium. That was the eeriest thing I have ever done in my entire life. We walked through the first underground room - where the prisoners stripped their clothes - then walked through the very same hallway that led to the very same room where the “showers” were. There were still two big holes in the ceiling that poured the toxic gas into the chamber. I was standing in the same place where thousands upon thousands of people were murdered in just 15-20 minutes. Even thinking about it right now gives me shivers… The room on the other side of the wall was the crematorium, which was worked by prisoners themselves…

We weren’t finished then. We took a shuttle bus to Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the famous extermination camp which was considered to be the Nazis’ ultimate answer to the “Final Solution” of Jews. People who came here came to die. When we arrived we had a short break before the tour commenced; while looking for the restroom, I took a right and walked through the thin, brick archway. This is what I saw.

That’s right. Large expanses of just barren land and remains of buildings. This picture doesn’t even do it justice. A train track ran through the camp (about 2x the size of Auschwitz I). This train car carried prisoners packed like sardines to a platform where an officer would point right or left - either to the showers to prepare for brutal work or to the “showers” and a fiery grave. The prisoners were largely Jews, but other groups of people were greatly victimized as well. Russian POWs, gypsies, homosexuals… the list goes on.

(The train track from the back end of Birkenau - the camp was huge. I don’t know if I can emphasize that enough)

(Photo of the new arrivals being directed to their fate - many women, small children, disabled people, and elderly people were immediately directed toward the gas chambers, unaware of their fates until it was too late)

(Standing at this same exact platform today)

Birkenau didn’t have much to see and it was much less like a museum than Auschwitz I. But this is because so many of the buildings were destroyed after the Soviets liberated the camp. We did see some barracks built by prisoners themselves and shivered as we thought about how freezing it would have been to have lived in them - there were holes everywhere and the ground was simply compressed earth. In the middle of the barracks was a long chimney: a cruel mockery to the prisoners who were forbidden to use them. Pregnant women gave birth on top of part of the chimney - I learned that, amazingly, some children born in Auschwitz survived to see liberation. We saw some of the remains of crematoriums, too - there were four at Birkenau alone. Like I said, people came here to die. They were basically told that in those same, direct words by the Nazi officers themselves. It was the “Final Solution” to the Jewish problem.

(The remains of one of the crematoriums)

As you can probably tell, the weather was just horrible. It was raining/snowing/hailing, which definitely made our experience more miserable. The creepiest part of the trip was getting back to Auschwitz I and having to wait about half an hour for the next bus back to Krakow. Auschwitz was closed for the night, so everything was just dark. I was too focused that moment on my freezing fingers and toes to feel really creeped out, and to make things worse, I felt that I absolutely couldn’t complain about my condition in light of everything I had learned/seen that day. During the two hour bus ride back to Krakow, however, it really started to sink in… what I had actually seen that day. The feelings I experienced. The eerie sense of helplessness that colors the whole place. Though the people were gone, the atmosphere was still there, definitely… the pain and the suffering. It held so many tortured souls. The scariest thing to think about was the fact that this kind of bestial treatment was only half a century ago. Not long ago at all. It always seemed to bother me that the United States had done nothing to intervene until much too late (even though sources point out that we had an inkling of what was going on long before but were afraid to challenge Hitler so directly). How could we - or any watching nation - let this happen, and for so long?

I am still really disturbed thinking about and re-living all of what I saw yesterday. It disgusted but also fascinated me. It fascinated me in the sense that it seemed so real - the Holocaust wasn’t just a period in history textbooks anymore. It was an absolute and horrifying reality. We don’t even know all of the horrors that went on there. Though it was probably the most uncomfortable situation I’ve ever been in, I’m glad that I went because I’ve now seen the place with my own eyes. I will always remember what I saw and learned about for the rest of my life. However, after visiting the Anne Frank House, Terezín concentration camp, Auschwitz I, and Auschwitz II-Birkenau (and not to mention the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.) I am going to be taking a long break from learning about the Holocaust. Pretty understandable, I’d say…

(Inscription: “For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women and children, mainly Jews from various countries of Europe. Auschwitz-Birkenau 1940-1945”).

I was eager to say goodbye to Krakow, Poland. The city itself was harsh, but the outskirts were much more dreary. Like I said before, perpetual gray-ness. That was my last experience in eastern Europe. Even though I am complaining about Poland, I am truly glad that I went. I can’t believe that I actually saw Auschwitz. I’ve always been really interested in the Holocaust for some reason and have been eager to learn more about it; I wanted to go to Poland for the sole purpose of seeing Auschwitz, and I’m so thankful that I had the opportunity to do so. I think it was a good experience for me; it put things into perspective. I’m sure that many people consider me crazy for willingly subjecting myself to something like Auschwitz. But I felt that I needed to. It was a reality check. It’s so easy to live life without paying attention to important lessons such as the Holocaust. But no matter how hard you try to ignore it, it’s still there. It happened. We need to learn from it. And leaders of countries like Hamas continue to deny that it ever happened. It’s blasphemy and it makes me sick. Holocausts are still going on today, right at this very second.

As you can tell, my mind’s reeling now with all of these disgusted and depressing thoughts and emotions. I’m sure I have much more to say on the subject, but I thought this was enough for a public blog post. Please, if you have any further questions, let me know.

Living is easy with eyes closed.

Extended Travels (part two)

Let me begin by pointing out the obvious:


There was so much to do. The public transportation system puts the T to shame. If I could spend five days in any city, I would choose London all over again. It was my favorite city that I’ve been to so far. Hands down.

I saw and did so much during my five days there. It’s all a big blur. So much walking and riding the Tube. We stayed in Kensington, a great location with a few minutes’ walk to the Tube. I guess the way to start this post is to try to recount each day, because a simple overview just won’t suffice…

Tuesday was our first official day. Megan and I walked through the Kensington Gardens and made our way into Hyde Park. London was all in bloom… it was beautiful. The parks were really flat, but it was so relaxing to walk through… there were birds everywhere and people walking their adorable dogs. Later, Liz, Megan and I started the tourist-y things and we saw Big Ben, the London Eye, and Buckingham Palace. We also were able to sit in on the HOUSES OF PARLIAMENT in the afternoon! It was open to visitors because they were discussing a EU bill. We all got photo IDs and the people were really nice as they guided us to the House of Commons viewing room. We watched for about 30-45 minutes and laughed at their cordial behavior. That was definitely one of the highlights of my trip… I sat in on Parliament! Still can’t believe it… Later that day we got dinner in Leicester Square and for desert we got CADBURY McFlurrys. Yes, it was delicious. I wish I had about five more of those right now.

(Kensington Gardens)

(Princess Diana Memorial Fountain)

Wednesday was definitely my favorite day. We spent the morning in Westminster Abbey, which was an incredible experience… we all had audio tours so we could walk at our leisure. It was so cool to see Queen Elizabeth’s tomb, and what’s really interesting, is that in the room directly opposite of her was the tomb of Mary Queen of Scots. Mary’s supporters made sure that she had a tomb equally as extravagant as Elizabeth’s. The Poet’s Corner was also really interesting… I recognized a lot of names from when I learned about British poetry in senior year. It was such a cool experience to be in a place that held the remains of so many amazing people in history. It was intimidating, but in the best possible way. After Westminster we went to the Tower of London. We climbed up the narrow staircases and walked across the connecting bridges of the White Tower, Bloody Tower, among others. The walls in the towers were coated with carvings by the prisoners. Though the Tower was really interesting overall, I did feel a little creeped out. It’s supposedly really haunted, for obvious reasons… and after a while, I was kind of anxious to get out. Before we left we walked through the Armour exhibit, which showcased King Henry VIII’s armor among other monarchs, as well as the Crown Jewels. For lunch, we ate at Wagamama - ASIAN FOOD! How I’ve missed it!

(Walking toward the Tower of London)

(Some guards marching in the Tower)

(Armor exhibit - Henry VIII)

After, we went to the Sherlock Holmes Museum, which turned out to be really cool. It was basically a house that had rooms set up as scenes from the series. We walked through Holmes’s room and Dr. Watson’s Room and there were dummies set up re-enacting the scenes. I’ve never read the series, but it made me want to start! That night was the best ending to an already awesome day. We went to Leicester Square and I finally saw The King’s Speech in a movie theater. It was great to see it after visiting Westminster and the Tower earlier that day. Also, seeing it in London was already really awesome. I’m sorry that I keep using the words “cool” and “awesome” but those really sum up my time in London…

Thursday was also great, because we met up with my good friend Justin from Emerson and his friend Susan! We all toured Shakespeare’s Globe Theater and then did some shopping on Oxford Street. That night we got dinner and met up with another friend from Emerson who we haven’t seen in a year; he lives in London and took a year off to work in his major. He brought us to a pub and we all had a fun time catching up. It was great to reconnect!

(The girls and Justin outside of the Globe Theater!)

Friday was our last day. Megan and I found Abbey Road and we took a picture of me crossing to Abbey Road Studios (walking in the opposite direction though… oops). That was the thing I wanted to do the most in London, so I was thrilled. I wanted to do a Beatles tour too, but the Magical Mystery Tour only runs on certain days of the week. Oh well… that just gives me another reason to come back someday! After, Megan and I met up with our friend from London again and he showed us a less tourist-y part of London. We went to a farmer’s market for lunch and then walked through the Tate Modern - London’s Modern Art Museum. Megan and I recognized some pieces from our Art class! On the Tube to Harrod’s, I saw the most ADORABLE little grey kitten. It was just sitting in this girl’s huge purse and it was blinking its big eyes and biting the rim of the bag. It was SO CUTE. It might be sad, but that was also one of the highlights of my London experience…

That night, Megan and I had to begin our long journey back to the Castle. We took a nap at the hostel for a couple of hours and checked out around 2 am. We got a Night Bus (yes, we immediately thought of Harry Potter) which brought us to Victoria Train Station. After scarfing down some coffee and croissants we took a train to London Gatwick Airport. We landed in Amsterdam and it took another 2.5 hours + walking to get back to the Castle through another train and bus. It took 10 hours. Needless to say, we were about to collapse when we got back! I really had one of the best times of my life in London.

Though it was expensive (the ratio of the pound to the dollar is ridiculous), I wouldn’t choose any other city to spend travel break in. I’ve enjoyed basically all the places I’ve been to so far, but there was something very special about London. I felt a connection there. I really hope I’ll find myself there again someday!

Now it’s back to work, and it’s so hard to into the swing of things. Three more trips left. This Thursday I’m going to Krakow, Poland to see Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkineau. It’s going to be an extremely depressing weekend, but I’m really interested in the Holocaust and I feel like I need to go. Hopefully that Prague concentration camp has prepared me a little for the things I’m going to see…

My mind’s still on London…

"West End Girls" by Pet Shop Boys

Extended Travels (part one)

I still can’t believe that it was just last Friday that I started my long week of traveling. It feels like forever ago. After seemingly endless hours of traveling, walking, and sight-seeing, I am finally back at the Castle, my temporary home base. It made me feel more alive to be traveling again, especially since I had stayed back in Well the previous weekend. I have SO much to say about both Prague and London (mostly London) so I will divide this into two posts…

On Friday we set off for Prague. While I enjoyed this city MUCH more than Amsterdam, I can’t say that I had the best time there. But it was definitely an interesting experience… in fact, it was my first real experience in western Europe. Their history of communism was really fascinating… I learned about it when my friends and I made an impromptu decision to visit the Museum of Communism. I mean, look at the poster. Is that not convincing enough of its potential awesome-ness?

Anyways… the city is undergoing a major transformation right now: a kind of face lift. Wenceslas Square - where our apartments were - used to be a site of protests and demonstrations (a young man in the 1970s even lit himself on fire). Now it is a typical city center, with clothing stores and Starbucks and fast food. Apparently this development is new - like, 10 years ago-kind of new. It’s all part of an initiative to attract more tourism to the city, especially after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Something interesting about Prague was their currency. They run on the Czech Crown and the Euro has a much higher worth than the Crown. It was hard to wrap our minds around the idea of spending 200 Crowns on a meal. It was like Monopoly play money!

Leading to Old Town Square

The Charles Bridge

Basically, the city is divided into two areas - the newer, industrialized area and the Old Town. The latter definitely had its charm, especially the Charles Bridge. The architecture wasn’t just one distinct style, which definitely contributed to their overall Bohemian culture. I can’t say that I felt comfortable here, though. With the narrow, crowded, winding streets of dangerously uneven cobblestone, I was constantly afraid of being pickpocketed. I had a close encounter my first day, so I was continuously on my guard afterwards. The places we visited, though, were really great. We did a historical walking tour the first day and then that night I saw my first opera, Madame Butterfly, which I enjoyed. The second day we visited Prague Castle where Kings of Bohemia, Holy Royal Emperors, and presidents have held their offices. It was beautiful. We decided to climb the high tower to see a scenic view of the city.

Prague Castle

For Sunday, our itinerary planned for us to visit the Jewish Quarter and various synagogues. Saturday night, though, I became sick and returned to the apartments before dinner was over to rest. Needless to say, I missed out on the activities on Sunday, but I was able to make the Mucha Museum in the afternoon. For those of you who don’t know who Alfons Mucha is, he was a Czech Art Nouveau artist famous for painting beautiful posters and panels. I did a guided tour with students in my History of Western Art class. Megan and I are now big fans of Mucha - we bought a Mucha poster and some coasters for when we get our apartment! We are also starting a collection of magnets from different cities. It’s the little things like that that make me more mentally prepared to be living on my own in a few months (eeek).

Stained glass designed by Mucha

Monday morning… that was a heavy ending to our time in Prague. We boarded the buses and drove almost two hours to the site of the Terezin concentration camp: a Nazi German ghetto. After we had been driving for a while, our surroundings became more and more desolate; we knew we were there. Let me tell you, it’s definitely a weird experience standing in an actual concentration camp. We all learn about the horrors of what happened during the Holocaust, but to actually see the sites… that’s something else. It made it so much more real. We were all silent as we walked through the barracks and across the grounds. We walked through an underground, poorly lit tunnel for about 7-8 minutes which made me really nervous and claustrophobic. We also visited the crematorium and people lit candles in remembrance. It was a really unsettling morning, but I suppose it was good preparation for when I visit Auschwitz and Birkineau this weekend (I may need emotional therapy after!). Even though I’m really interested in the Holocaust, it was still extremely difficult to visit an actual camp. History didn’t seem so distant at that moment.

When the buses brought us back to the apartments at 2 pm, our spring break had officially begun. Talk about the weirdest transition ever. Our time in Prague was over as fast as it started, and I never even learned to say “hello” in Czech! We said goodbye to Prague, ready to start the next five days in London. Part two coming soon!…

Crossing Abbey Road… teaser for my London post!

Crossing Abbey Road… teaser for my London post!