Best of Europe: Paris versus Berlin

Best of Europe: Paris versus Berlin

After going to these two cities, it seems weird to put them in the same sentence but many people do “as the best of Europe“.  However, their personalities are so different in strange and semi- unpredictable ways.  Paris, the City of Lights, exudes a romantic sophistication and elegance that Berlin doesn’t even pretend to imitate.  Whereas Paris is an iconic embodiment of a charm that nowhere else can emulate, Berlin is a work in progress toward an indeterminate end.   Rory MacLean comments, “Berlin is a city that is forever in the process of becoming, never being”. There’s tremendous attention to detail wherever you look… sculptures embedded into bridges that depict their construction, ornate iron gates with gold detailing, uniform blue roofs accented by carved detailing.  Paris is chic, a cultural hub but despite its classiness, it comes chaos and feels more like a Latin city than a traditionally European one.  People jaywalk, climb their motorbikes onto bumpy sidewalks and walls are covered with scrawled messages about unrequited love.  Everyone complains about snobbish Parisians but I was pleasantly surprised how strangers happily squeezed close on the train, offered up seats for old ladies and generally seemed more patient than people in cities of that size.  And they’re laughably polite… I love it when the metro announces “This is the final stop.  We invite you to leave the train”. Berlin has massive structures, stoic traditional buildings next to mismatched modern ones, wide boulevards and no space is sacred.  There’s construction, things crumbling and street art everywhere… even graffiti on street art sculptures.  As far as the feel I get from its inhabitants, despite its punk history and rebellious lack of respect for unmarked space, it’s still a German city and I find Germans to be a rather compliant, cold and unexciting bunch.  I love to people-watch but in Germany, there’s nothing to see… people patiently wait to march across the zebra stripes when the light changes even if there’s no car approach from either side of the horizon. Despite their differences, Paris and Berlin have been connected throughout the centuries.  People I’ve talked to naively linked them together as mutually “great European cities” and ancient conquerors created a certain rivalry between the two.  The chariot on top of Berlin’s landmark Brandenburg Gate was actually seized by Napoleon during his occupation of Berlin in 1806 and taken to Paris for a time.  Hitler wanted to obliterate Paris to the ground because he knew Berlin could never compete (fortunately, his soldiers refused to follow these orders).  The French still have some animosity toward Germans, rightfully so, given the World Wars. The point of traveling from city to city to eat, see and do different things.  People go to Paris for romance, culture, massive museums of classic pieces and bohemian artsiness.  People go to Berlin for cheap beer, crazy parties, punk culture and the witnessing the aftermath of a divided city.  Greater writers than me have written better things than I can about these places so I’m not pretending to have created a comprehensive guide.  But if you want to take advantage of the “greatness of Europe” by looking for the right things in the right places! Go to Paris… 1) To Eat.  It is not going to be cheap but French food is rightfully delicious.  Expect to pay at least 15 euros for your meal if you sit down somewhere, but its worth it.  The French attention-to-detail fully carries over to their approach toward dining, true for the dishes themselves and the atmospheric surroundings.  Paris is filled with brasseries that feel like a time warp to a Parisian golden age.  Some are cozy, some are charming but they’re usually filled with Art Nouveau decor, heavy wooden mirrors and sparkling chandeliers.  Fondue, crepes, croissants, ever-present fresh French-bread… everything that entered my mouth was delicious and I only sampled vegetarian and backpacker friendly basics.  While in Paris, make sure to eat macaroons, which Parisians have also made an art form.  These colorful circular French pastries have with sweet or tart fillings, sandwiched between two meringue and almond four based cookies.  Bakeries pimp out their pastries with shimmery gloss or gold sparkles in addition the rainbow colored base layers.  Eating these treats is also an adventure… the simultaneously spongey and firm exterior melts away to expose fillings with flavors that really packs a punch.  Per recommendation of my Parisian friend, I bought mine at Pierre Herme, which she liked because of both the quality and wide selection of adventurous flavors.  They are famous for ispahan (a rose, raspberry and litchi combination), mogador (milk chocolate and passionfruit blend) and their vanilla house blend but they dabble in everything from goat cheese to green tea to fig.  My photos from a macaron sampling session are in my camera flying through the air...

Cheap Travel And The Myth of “Cheap” Countries

Cheap Travel And The Myth of “Cheap” Countries

People always ask how I can afford to travel so much on a graduate student salary. There’s hundreds, maybe thousands of blog posts and articles online so I’ve never felt a need to write about it. Furthermore, most of my trips are based around free flights courtesy of physics fellowships and teaching opportunities. When you come from America, flying anywhere is unavoidably a large part of your travel expenses so when that cost disappears, I’m not paying rent back home and getting paid for researching remotely, travel becomes much more affordable. However, the average person who wants to travel the world isn’t getting a PhD in physics, probably doesn’t have a job where they can work from anywhere so much of what works for me isn’t transferable advice. So what else do I tell people? This advice is a little more nuanced than other bloggers make it sound so read carefully… 1.  Use couch surfing… even if you don’t feel comfortable staying with people, this website allows you to connect with locals for free walking tours, free entertainment and free tips for really getting to know a place. Sometimes, people have cars and offer to drive you places that you can’t get to as a solo traveler reliant on public transportation. Sometimes, you’ll get a free meal or a free drink. However, cost saving isn’t the primary reason I use couch surfing. You can’t and shouldn’t expect to get any of these perks for free. If you want to stay with a local, you’ll probably be living farther from the center, in less touristy parts and end up spending as much time and money on transportation as you would spend on a cheap hostel. If a host accepts your request, don’t expect an all-service hotel… you may be sleeping on a mattress on floor without a pillow, there may not be internet, you may get kicked out when your host is at work… By agreeing to stay with someone, you need to be flexible and adjust to their schedule, not your own. I use couch surfing to find out what a place is really like, beyond the postcard pictures you see online, behind the optimistic information you hear on free walking tours, in the random parts of the city you’d never see when you’re on a mission to visit the essential tourist sights. The experiences I’ve had couch surfing (sleeping outside near an Egyptian pyramid mound in Giza, staying in a traditional Nubian village by the Nile in Aswan, shopping at markets and cooking in Tbilisi, Georgia) have transformed my perceptions of what it means to really live and you could never put a price tag on that. 2. Try workaway or WOOFing … I haven’t had time to really take advantage of these websites but if you want to spend an extensive amount of time in a place, these websites that allow you to work in exchange for housing (and sometimes food) are a great resource. If you don’t want to work on a farm through WOOFing (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms), workaway has a larger variety of options- babysitting, language exchange, working in hostel as well as plenty of farming opportunities. You can pursue the hosts on the website for free but you need to pay an annual membership fee to contact them. Getting free accommodation abroad sounds too good to be true and it kind of is… I found that the response rate on this website was quite low so I had to send dozens and dozens of emails to get a response and hosts have limited openings. I’ve only used it successfully in Passau, Germany, helping a college student prepare for English exams so I’ll have more to say about this after I try it again in Belgium in a week. 3.  Use car shares… for many of the reasons above, I haven’t planned ahead enough or spent enough time in one place to be able to use couch surfing for free accommodation this trip. However, I have saved a ton of money and time by finding ride shares, primarily through blablacar. On this website, people post rides, times and prices then you can email the driver to see whether you can tag along. There’s tons of options in Europe and it’s a way to get to smaller towns not easily reached by public transportation. Car sharing wasn’t too helpful in Balkans and Romania but you can ask locals whether a similar resource exists in their area. For example, this facebook group works in Romania (you may need to use google translate to figure out what people are posting). Like couch surfing,...

Enjoying Simplicity in Trieste, Italy

Enjoying Simplicity in Trieste, Italy

 “I cannot always see Trieste in my mind’s eye.  Who can?  It is not one of your iconic cities, instantly visible in the memory or the imagination.  It offers no unforgettable landmark, no universally familiar melody, no unmistakable cuisine, hardly a single native name that everyone knows.  It is a middle-sized, essentially middle-aged Italian seaport, ethnically ambivalent, historically confused, only intermittently prosperous, tucked away at the Adriatic Sea and so lacking the customary characteristics of Italy that in 1999, some 70 percent of Italians, so a poll claimed to discover, did not know it was in Italy at all” -Jan Morris, Trieste And the Meaning of Nowhere Why am I in Trieste?  I’m not sure to be honest.  I just saw it on the map and read that it is a rather atypical city, that is more Balkan and Mediterranean in its influences than Italian.  Trieste’s roots go back to before its Roman empire occupation it in 1st century DC, it flourished under the Austrian empire, was occupied by French troops during the Napoleonic Wars then was annexed to Italy after World War I.  How did I arrive to this culturally confused land?  I found a ride there and yoga loving lady to host me, and here I am. As Jan Morris writes, there’s nothing about Trieste that’s particularly notable.  It hosts the International Center for Theoretical Physics which has brought at least one of my colleagues here.  But most people don’t come for science.  You can climb to the top of San Giusto Castle, peak at its unimpressive Roman Ruins and hang out in the Cathedral of San Giusto.  You can take a bus to Miramire, which is a much prettier castle on the sea, instead of perched on top of the city.  You can explore historic cafes frequented by literary giants like Rainer Maria Rilke and James Joyce.  You can take the tram to the obelisk for an incredible view of the city and a jolty ride where the tram randomly rolls backward for non-trivial periods of time.  You can people-watch in its main square, the largest in Europe and supposedly one of the most beautiful in the world.  If you’re lucky like me, you’ll puzzle over people wearing Christmas wreathes in October and get serenaded by their cheery caroling.  Except for Miramire, I did all those things but that’s not why you come to Trieste. You come to Trieste to wander amongst a hodgepodge of architecture (neoclassical, eclectic, art noveau and neo-gothic), an eccentric collection of religious buildings (Greek Orthodox, Serb-orthodox, Jewish synagogues and Christian cathedrals) and take the time to do things you typically don’t make time for when you have a list of museums to visit and attractions to see. In Trieste, you should spend hours watching the sun sink below the local lighthouse, listening to rowers grunt as they practice and watching sailboats capsize.   You should find a bench, watch the people pass and wonder how men got so gorgeous just over the border.  As in Greece, where the economy is also bad, they don’t age well, probably because of too many cigarettes, glasses of wine for breakfast and hours sitting in cafes.  But there must be something in the water that makes the men, pizza and coffee infinitely better than I’ve experienced elsewhere. Maybe Trieste isn’t real Italy but it allows you take advantage of the perks of the country without emptying your purse.  You can meander along Trieste’s grand canal sipping a rich cappuccino that will cost you 1.5 euro instead of 15.  Your tastebuds can turn into a melty puddle, like the cheese on your 4 euro 14″ pizza at Pizzeria L’Orizzonte.  You can lick GROM gelato and get swept away with the magic that happens when milk, eggs, sugar and Italian ingredients are prepared simply according to traditional methods. My stay in Trieste stayed interesting thanks to Aruna, my  couch surfing host.  Aruna is a 48-year-old, intelligent but quite eccentric, woman who encountered yoga and her life changed forever.  Her cozy home is covered with colorful tapestries from Tibet, wrinkly photos of Hindi deities and smells sweetly of incense.  Walls are covered with handwritten notes about chakra points and garland made from used tea-bags.  She led me through a a candlelit yoga practice with her neighbor, where we breathed through one nostril at a time and talked about the way it made us feel.   We made a Halloween-esque sandwich out of sugary biscuits, halved grades and lumpy vanilla pudding.  She saw my tie-dye leggings and instructed me to decorate her stairs with chalk, to make it as colorful as my clothes.  For me, Trieste has been a trip back in time, when life was simple and there...

Feel Like Royalty Without Spending a Penny: Free Attractions in Vienna, Austria

Feel Like Royalty Without Spending a Penny: Free Attractions in Vienna, Austria

One reason I avoid traveling Europe is because of the price tags. I arrived in Vienna, Austria and stopped at a souvenir shop pretty early on as I tried to do my daughterly duty by picking out a magnet for my father’s collection. Seeing that it cost 5 euros confirmed all of my intentions to avoid Western Europe like the plague. However, luckily for me, I had two knowledgeable locals to give me a blitz tour of the city, and beyond the 7.60 euros I paid for a 24-hour transportation pass, I was pleased to find most of the attractions didn’t cost anything at all! Entrance to most of the city’s churches, markets, gardens, parks and galleries are free. You don’t need to spend money like royalty to feel like it in Austria, just visit these free attractions in Vienna.  From nature to classic architecture to more modern buildings, there’s something for everyone especially if you time your visit to coincide with free concerts and events. 1) Schonbrunn Gardens and Palace (Free open-air concert in June!) You will have to hop on the metro to get here but make sure you visit this sunshine yellow palace, Austria’s most visited site. Colossal, cheery and picturesque, I was surprised to learn these are only the summer residences of the Austrian royal family, including empress Sisi, whose beauty started wars. While you need to pay to tour the inside of the palace, you can easily spend a day exploring its vast gardens which are so big that people go jogging here! If you zig-zag up the hill, you will also find a beautiful view of the city. If you’re lucky enough to be in Vienna in June, the palace hosts a free concert by the world famous Vienna Philharmonic. Although I couldn’t experience it myself, I can’t imagine a more beautiful setting to listen to a symphony than surrounded by roses, pruned bushes and fishponds. 2) St. Stephan’s Cathedral & Surrounding Downtown St. Stephan’s is the symbol of Austria’s capital city and is located in the heart of the downtown. Its towers soar high over the city and it contains one of the biggest free-swinging church bells in Europe. I found the interior to be a little dark and dreary but I loved the building’s colorful roof tiles, which were laid to depict the royal coat of arms of the city. I also enjoyed the costumed interpreters in knee socks, wigs and velvet jackets who try to invite you to the Opera. Nearby, explore Vienna’s famous shopping streets that emanate out from the cathedral and Hofburg, the imperial palace. You can peek at some old ruins and walk under its impressive entrance… just don’t get run over by the horse-drawn stage coaches that regularly pass through! While you’re here, stop at Demel, one of Vienna’s oldest bakeries, and splurge on a slice of sachertorte. Desserts are a highlight of Austrian cuisine and this chocolate cake with apricot jam is its crown jewel. You’ll feel like royalty especially when you enjoy it in this elegant setting. 3) Opera Vienna is a city with a rich musical heritage that works hard to maintain its reputation. Partly by housing one of the most famous and busiest opera houses in the world, with shows changing almost weekly. The building is massive and something to marvel at from the outside. However, with 3 or 4 euros and a little extra time, you can actually see an opera for yourself! If you show up 90 minutes before the show, you can buy standing room tickets, high in the balcony but the acoustics are good everywhere. 4) Parliament & Rathaus (City Hall) Walk through City Hall park and find yourself in front of the mammoth, neo-Greek style Parliament building. I’ve seen many parliaments and I’m not sure why Austria’s needs over 100 rooms but it sure is impressive. Speaking of grand buildings, just down the road is Rathaus, the most extravagant City Hall you ever will see. It has gothic towers that make it look like a cathedral and outside, you will find rotating exhibits. When I was there, there was a miniature circus (and even one of the nearby statues wore a red nose for the occasion) but I hear it has excellent places to get Gluhwein, mulled spiced wine, in the winter.  Because of these rotating attractions, it’s even fun to visit after dark (I never thought I’d say that about a City Hall)!  According to my host, the hall has also hosted free Playstation 4 video-game-a-thons but if you aren’t in town to catch something like that, you can go on a free City...

Tokyo Day Trip: Hot Springs and Mountains in Hakone, Japan

Tokyo Day Trip: Hot Springs and Mountains in Hakone, Japan

If Tokyo’s cosmopolitan craziness has you yearning for fresh air, travel south for an hour or two for mountains, sleepy neighborhoods and onsens (hot spring baths) everywhere you look. I haven’t even gotten to the city yet and I was ready for some R&R. Immediately after reaching the Hakone-Yumata Station, you know time flows at a different pace. Instead of the uber-efficient metal trains you find around Japan, a charming, nostalgic red car chugging slowly along the tracks will pick you up. The train will stop a couple times, momentarily alarming the train, for the conductor to hop out, manually activate the switchbacks before you can continue on your merry way. Whatever stop you get out, it may contain a couple gift shops but you’ll probably have to wander up a mountain to find your accommodations for the evening. Hakone is one place where there’s not a convenient store within eyesight from anywhere but it’s kind of nice to experiment with mom and pop restaurants where you have no idea what you’re ordering. As with most tourist cities in Japan, Hakone has a fairly foolproof prescribed route through the town, that will take you five hours or so. It begins with a ropeway ride up Mount Owakudani, an active volcano probably responsible for the hot springs all over the place. If your day is anything like mine, you’ll inevitably encounter swarms of schoolchildren in matching uniforms and wide-brimmed hats. Judging by how many Japanese kids I saw along my trip today, they don’t go to school, they just go on field trips. Pre-teens dressed in yellow swarmed the ropeway station, girls gossiping and boys lovingly swatting each other on the heads. Ten-year-old kids dressed in white marched in perfectly straight lines on the trail to the hot spring. Toddlers in red uniforms held hands in pairs as they waited for the sightseeing cruise. Anyway, so once you advance past the army of kids, you will “float above” the trees as you ascend over 500 meters to the sulfur-smelling wasteland at Owakudani, formed by an ancient volcanic eruption. There’s a short (10-minute) hike through steaming streams with views of Mount Fiji on a clear day. Make sure to try the famous black eggs, cooked in the hot spring… it’s supposed to bring you seven additional years of life! From there, you’ll hop back on the ropeway to descend back down to Togendai-Ko port.  You’ll hop abroad an extravagant pirate ship (complete with a captain dressed for the occasion) for sight-seeing around the lake (including views of Mt. Fiji on a clear day).  I got out at Jakone Machi-Ko to walk by the lake, pass through the Ancient Cedar Avenue and check out the Hakone shrine (which was pretty minimal).  From there, you can hop back on the boat at Motohakone-Ko to return to the ropeways or I took the bus back to Gora. Hakone has a whole host of museums to chose from (several art museums, Hakone local museum, Hakone Museum of Art, Kitahara Toys Wonderland and even the Museum of Saint-Exupéry and The Little Prince… not sure why it’s here and not in France but that’s cool).  I had seen pictures from the Hakone Open-Air Museum, it sounded like a place I’d like and I wasn’t disappointed in the slightest. The sculpture garden hosts over 100 sculptures which rotate with the seasons.  Lucky for me, the leaves were changing which enhanced the experience further.  The grounds showcase the surrounding mountains and contain all sorts of modern metallic and funky colorful statues.  There’s also five exhibition halls to explore (sort of on the small side but still containing interesting pieces) and a foot bath onsen, if you need a break from walking around the extensive grounds. My favorite parts was a tower of stained glass with an observation tower on top, where you can look out on the surrounding valley.  They also had a knitted playscape where kids can play- I love interactive art like that! Song of the Moment: Volcano– Jimmy Buffet If YOU want to go to Hakone: It’s a less than two-hour trip from Shinjuku (Tokyo station) or Odawara Station. At both of these stations, you can buy a 2 or 3-day Hakone Free Pass which will cover all local Hakone transportation (ropeway, lake cruise, cable car, buses, train) and provides discounts on some museums. The trip can easily be done as a Tokyo day trip but I found it to be a relaxing place to spend the night, especially since your money goes much farther here and it would be difficult to find accommodations that include access to onsens… I spent one night at B&B Pension where...

Fun, Cheap and Free Attractions in Kyoto, Japan

Fun, Cheap and Free Attractions in Kyoto, Japan

Traveling in Japan is notoriously expensive and there’s truth to that.  If you want a roof over your head and to travel between attractions, you’re going to need money to be here (unless you find a Japanese girlfriend with the Tinder app).  Because of space limitations and a shy culture, I’ve had minimal luck with couch surfing (except as a way to connect to fellow travelers).  I love to walk and have no problem walking an hour to a destination but despite what the brochure says “Kyoto: the walkable city”, there’s no way you can cover Kyoto by walking.  Despite these challenges, I’ve found some ways to have fun and keep things affordable in the “City of a Thousand Shrines”, including several free attractions in Kyoto.  Here’s some suggestions of budget-friendly ways to see this city (some of it applies across the country). 1) Shrines And Temple Grounds Can Be Visited For Free! In Japan, you have two main types of religious places of worship: shinto shrines (ninja) and Buddhist temples (otera).  As a general rule, shrines are free to visit.  Usually their names include “-jingu” and have a flowing water source with ladles, which should be used to purify yourself before entering.  The Japanese approach these altars by bowing twice, clapping their hands twice, bowing a third time then praying.  In Kyoto, definitely visit the Yasaka Shrine in the heart of Gion (the geisha district) and Fushimi Inari Shrine (the shrine of a thousand gates, which has a good hour-long hike to the top of the mountain) both of which are free.  There are smaller shrines throughout the city and since they don’t charge admission, it’s a great way to experience Japanese hospitality. Buddhist temples usually charge admission (300-600 yen) and their names are often end in -dera, -tera or -ji.  A large, FREE Buddhist temple right down the street from Yasaka Shrine is Chugen-ji, which provides a more realistic view of real-life Buddhist practice.  I don’t think too many tourists visit but I enjoyed walking around, seeing Buddhist graveyards and bumping into wandering monks, including the site scribe doing calligraphy in open room. Another tip for visiting temples is that you can often access most of the gardens and grounds for free.  For example, Kiyomizu-Dera temple is a UNESCO world heritage site and I didn’t actually pay to go inside (since usually you can’t see inside any of the buildings anyway) but I could explore the surrounding gates and gardens and cute stone figures dressed in colorful clothes.  Surrounding the temple, you can also find shops selling traditional treats, artisan crafts and souvenirs so you can shop too. I paid for the UNESCO Golden Pavilion temple since it was one of the reasons I came to Japan.  It’s a beautiful, glimmering serene building on a lake but your ticket basically just gives you access to walk around the lake so understand that’s what you’re paying for. 2) Day Trip to Saga-Arashiyama With a quick 20-minute trip on a train from Kyoto station (free if you have a JR pass), you can be transported to a serene, riverside mountain-side getaway with… you guessed it!  More temples!  But not only that.  Preserved historic villages,  a monkey park (~500 yen for mediocre macaque monkeys) and hiking opportunities.  In general, it’s a cute town, a nice change of pace and you can entertain yourself nearly all day, just by walking around.  3) Japanese Tea Party For penny pinchers who want to sip tea peacefully, you can find cafes around town with gardens who will give you access to their oasis, a cup of tea and a sweet for approximately 500 yen.  I bumped into several of these around Saga-Arishiyama but I’m sure you can find something similar in Kyoto too. For a tea ceremony experience, check out En in Gion area or you can consider creating or joining up with a private event at Totousha tea house (both cost ~2000 yen including snacks and tea).   Lucky for me, I had a friend-of-a-friend who lives in a beautiful “share” house in North Kyoto so I had the pleasure of attending a semi-traditional tea ceremony at the second location. Totousha runs matcha tea ceremonies in a beautiful traditional-style house with open walls, bamboo mats and decorations personalized for the occasion, which for me was a moon honoring ceremony.  There was about twenty of us in attendance, sitting in a circle behind out bamboo mats in candlelight, feeling the post-thyphoon breezes from the open door.  As a ceremony for friends, it was a little louder, more fun and less formal than a true traditional ceremony but it still lasted a few hours and followed the traditional sequence....