Mission Statement

Come read my attempt to chronicle the 2.5 months of studying/traveling/learning/growing and all kinds of other verbs that end in "ing" I do while in London.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Poland Day 1 and 2: Settling in and Walking Tour

Our study abroad program, AIFS, offered us a trip to Krakow, Poland.  I was the only one of my group of friends to sign up, so I had to board a plane alone, and hope to make new friends on my journey (or else just tour by myself).

I spent most of that first day getting to Krakow, by myself.  AIFS picked us up in a coach to take us to the airport, but once there, I was on my own.  Thankfully the plane ride is only about two hours, and when we got on the coach in Krakow to take us to our hotel, my roomie (for this trip only) Devon, chose to sit with me on the bus.

It was literally the beginning of a beautiful friendship, some of which you will see in these next few blog entries.

One of the first things I learned about Krakow is that it is pronounced “Krakov”, not “Kra-cow”.

We got to our hotel in the evening, around 8:30 pm.  We checked in, shared excitement on how big our room was (for a European hotel) and then headed out to find food. 

We walked around the Market Square, which is a famous Krakow site, and is essentially the center of the city.

Our AIFS leader, Sian, chose to eat with us, and we found this whole-in-the-wall Polish place called Perogies.  I found some tasty cheese and potato dumplings.  After we stuffed  our faces with as many dumplings as we could, we realized how utterly exhausted we were, so back to the hotel it was.

Of course Devon and I ended up staying up late chatting, and watching super weird Polish tv.  Almost every channel had an American show or movie on, but rather than use subtitles, or dub it with Polish actors, one man read for each character in a completely monotone voice.  So weird and I was sad for the TV watching Polish people.

The next morning we embarked on a walking tour of the city, with a Polish guide.  We started by walking 20 minutes to the famous Jewish quarter, Kazimierz.

When Spielberg came to Krakow to film Schindler’s List (Oskar Schindler lived and worked in Krakow, I even visited his famous factory later) he used the Jewish Quarter for many scenes in the movie.  We learned a lot about the Nazi occupation of Krakow during World War II, and how the Jewish people were constantly being uprooted and moved around, until they finally were sent to a ghetto away from town (the unluckiest, of course, ending up in Auschwitz).

It is important to note how cold it was in Poland.  It was in the high 30s (Fahrenheit).  Every day I wore thermals under my jeans, two pairs of socks (one super thick pair and one regular pair), a long sleeve thermal shirt, a regular long sleeve shirt, a t shirt, a sweatshirt, and my thick zip up hoodie, a scarf, and gloves, and I was still freezing.  There was no being warm, or even all that comfortable, while outside in Poland.  Whenever our guide would stop for too long at one spot, we would all be hopping around whining about wanting to keep moving.

It was in the Jewish Quarter that I remembered it was my birthday.  I heard some girls talking about how it was 11-11-11 and it clicked in my brain. Happy birthday me.

After the Jewish Quarter, our guide took us the famous castle in Krakow, Wawel. 

Krakow has many legends about its history, and one of the most famous is that of the Wawel dragon. Basically, hundreds of years ago a dragon was terrifying the population of Krakow.  He was fond of eating young women (virgins), but when he couldn’t find any, he would eat the livestock of the farmers.  The King offered the Princess’s hand to whoever could slay the dragon.  Naturally many men tried and failed. Finally a cobbler decided to try.  He stitched up a bunch of fake sheep, filled with sulfur.  The dragon swooped down, ate the sheep, and then became increasingly uncomfortable with the burning in his belly.  He went down to their local river and drank and drank and drank, trying to stop the burning, until he finally drank so much he burst.  The cobbler was too humble to marry a princess, so instead asked the King for the dragon hide so that he could make shoes.  Our guide says its still possible to find shoes made from dragon hide.  The cathedral next to the castle also has bones hanging outside of it that are supposed to be the bones of the dragon.

There are a lot of dragons all over Krakow as a result of this legend, they are in the shops, on the signs, displayed as statues.

Our guide took us into the cathedral. 

We eventually got to climb up the steep and numerous stairs until we reached the bell tower. In addition to the giant bell, it offered some great views.

She told us that the bell is so large that it requires at least ten men to ring it. 

She also said that people like to touch the bell for good luck.  Before she let us touch it though, she let us know that if we touch it with our right hand (which is the hand the Polish wear their wedding rings on) then we were destined to get married soon.  If we touch the bell with our left, then we are simply asking for good luck.  Immediately everyone rushed at the bell with their left hands.  It was pretty funny.

After the castle, we went back to the Market Square, and our guide told us of another legend involving Saint Mary’s.  

Apparently Krakow was being invaded by the Tartars, and a guard high up in the tower saw the approaching army.  He grabbed his trumpet and started playing a warning call, which enabled the town to defend itself.  Unfortunately for the trumpeter, he was found dead with an arrow through his throat.  Today a sentry plays a song, every hour on the hour, in the square.  He abruptly stops in the middle of the song to represent when that trumpeter was shot so long ago.  It is really cool to hear, and everyone in the square stops what they are doing while the trumpeter plays. (See the guy in the window? So cool).

Our guide left us after that.  Devon and I were starving, so we opted for a warm restaurant.  We both got hot chocolate (it would be the first of many) and I was intriqued by the straw, as I have never drank hot chocolate out of one before.

It was independence day so that night they had a big sing along in the square.  Devon and I joined in for a while, and tried our best to sing along in Polish (the words were projected on the screen).  We got pretty cold though and decided to head back.  At the end of this entry is a video I took of it.  It is pretty cool.

We were a bit hungry again, so we ended up going to the hotel restaurant.  I got more hot cocoa, and some fried mushrooms.

We then went back to our room to sample the various kinds of Polish candy (mostly chocolate) we bought.  We learned they are pretty fond of putting wafers in their chocolate, as every chocolate bar we got had this.

We also decided to make art out of the gummies we bought.

The next day would be our trip to Auschwitz.

Monday, November 7, 2011


The last trip AIFS planned for us Southern California students was a trip to the town of Bath.

Bath is over a two hour bus ride outside of London.

Bath is famous for its ancient Roman baths.  The Romans discovered a hot spring under the city, and quickly built a bathhouse around it.  Thousands of years later, the Georgians were using these hot springs, not realizing that the ruins of a much older bathhouse lay dozens of feet below them.
Now the baths have been extensively excavated, and are available to view.

We made a brief stop to see the Royal Crescent.  Apparently Johnny Depp owns one of these.

The it was onwards to the bathhouses.  It rained the entire time we were in Bath.  Foolishly, we left our umbrellas on the bus.

Thankfully, the bathhouses are mostly indoors, so we weren’t too bothered by it for the first hour or so of our tour.

Our guide warned us that we weren’t allowed to touch the water, but urged us to do it anyway, quickly and quietly, without getting caught.

We snapped many pictures by the water.

When I knelt down and touched it,  I immediately wanted to dive it.  It seemed to be the perfect temperature.

We explored the ruins and excavation sites

The water was so warm! The air was humid and the buildings had that wonderful wet, musty smell.  Love it.

And at the end of the tour, we had the opportunity to try a class of the spring water.  Hundreds of years ago, they believed that this water had all kind of healing properties, so people flocked from all over to get a taste.

The waitress got a glass, and filled it up from a fountain behind her (in the picture).  The water was warm (as it came from the hot spring) so that was a little strange.  Once you got a big enough sip though, it became apparent how metallic the water tasted.  There are large amounts of iron in the water and this became fairly obvious the more I drank.  I was suffering from a cold at the time, so I drank almost the whole glass, figuring I should try whatever it takes to feel better.

There was also a random lion...but I like lions, and it was super cute.

We were starving, and it was pouring, so we ran into one of the first places we saw and got pizzas.

We then wandered outside, but thanks to the pouring rain, we mostly hid out in various shops to try and stay dry.

Erika wanted to buy something at a shop we passed, so she left while Ryan and I agreed to meet her at a shop near our bus, closer to our pick-up time.

It stopped raining by the time we were heading back to the bus, so we got pretty distracted taking pictures.

We even peeked into the Bath Cathedral.

The doors were so pretty

The Cathedral, for some reason, had these creepy exorcist angels on the outside

We saw a cute pig, which I know are all over Bath.

And this fountain was super cool and said "Water is Best"

Before we knew it, we were past the meet up time and worried about our bus leaving us. We ran to the bus and got on right as they were getting ready to leave.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Imperial War Museum

One of our most recent British Life and Culture trips was to the Imperial War Museum.  We were a  bit skeptical, as the past few museums we have gone to have been a bust. 

We waited outside of the museum for our professor to show up and take roll.  While we waited, some English folks came over with their pack of dogs, so we quickly gathered around and played with the pups while we talked to their owners.  If there is one thing you should never be afraid to talk to the English about, it is their dogs.  It is a total ice breaker and it translates well for folks on either side of the pond.

Once roll was taken, we got our worksheets out and headed inside.

We were immediately in awe of the dozens of once-working war machines littered throughout the gallery.

Our worksheets had us essentially on a scavenger hunt, it asked us to find and fill in key pieces of information that we would get by reading the various placards.

The museum itself scaled a few stories, and each one had some interesting pieces to pose with

And learn about.

After we completed our worksheets, we headed into the Holocaust gallery.  Unfortunately I didn’t get to see all of it (it was a very extensive look at the Holocaust) as the museum was closing.  What I did see was enough to have me almost in tears.  Visiting the real Auschwitz next Saturday is going to be hard.

The Imperial War Museum was such a pleasant surprise, especially since I am generally not too interested in military history.  I highly recommend it and would love to visit again.

Friday, November 4, 2011


One of the great things about living in London is its proximity to dozens of other countries.  The gang and I benefited from this on Saturday, when we took a day trip to Paris.

Yup, saw Paris in a day.

To start this adventure, I was required to get up at 3 am.  That in itself isn't a huge deal, since that is what time I often wake up for work at home.  Unfortunately, I had been suffering from insomnia the past few days leading up to the trip, so I spent the whole night pre-Paris laying in bed, staring at the ceiling.  Around 2:30 am, I gave up, jumped in the shower, and got ready to leave.

The tube doesn't run until around 6 am, and I needed to be at St Pancras International Rail Station by 5:30 am.  This meant that for the first time, I would have figure out and ride the "night bus".  That was an adventure all by itself.  The night bus is notorious for its drunk patrons, and seeing that this was a Saturday morning, there were plenty of drunks around.

I got one one bus right outside my door, then had to get off in front of Hyde Park and wait over ten minutes for the second bus to come.  Only in London would I feel totally safe sitting outside, at 4 am, in front of a large, dark park.

The bus reminded me of the night bus in Harry Potter.  The driver whipped around the streets like nobody's business.
I was the first to arrive at the station, and soon my friends joined me.  We realized that none of us got much sleep.  We checked in, got our tickets, and boarded the train.  Our train seats were all in sequential order, but upon closer inspection we discovered that Ryan and Erika were in a car towards the back of the train, while Matt and I were in a car towards the front.  So much for socializing as a group during the two hour trip.

We met up once we arrived in Paris and were greeted by a woman who worked with the tour company we booked the trip with.  She stuck us on a hop-on-hop-off bus, and we were whisked through the city.

I fought the zombie feeling the best I could and was pretty excited to be in Paris.

Apparently though, this is my "I need coffee face" according to Erika

And classic group shot! Erika is making that face because of Matt's typical lack of smile (which then makes our pictures not as fun).  She didn't realize that he wasn't being a frowny-Floyd this go-round. Why Ryan chose to be a creeper, I don't know.

It was pretty exciting when I got my first peak at the Eiffel Tower.

And we drove through some pretty spectacular areas

We decided to make the Eiffel Tower our first stop.

We were all starving and decided that a crepe sounded like the best thing to eat, so we found a stand across the street from the Eiffel Tower.

Rather than get a sensible crepe, Erika and I opted for one that had bananas and chocolate and creme. 

I do not regret that decision.

We took loads of pictures.

Erika wanted one of us "being romantic"  We both took that to mean doing a "foot pop".  We didn't communicate this though, and only realized the other did it after we had taken the picture.

Want to know what it looks like underneath the Eiffel Tower (looking straight up)?

Here is a random story about a trip to the bathroom.  First of all, the bathrooms were mostly free in Paris, which is unheard of in Europe.  Secondly, while I was in the stall, I heard a loud crash coming from outside the door, like something in the restroom had fallen over.  When I went to leave, I couldn't open my door.  Mild panic set in and I realized that crash I heard was a bunch of cleaning supplies toppling over and perfectly preventing me from opening my door more than a crack.  Thankfully the bathroom was crowded enough that someone helped me out.

Any plans to go up inside the Eiffel Tower were squashed when we saw the epic amounts of people waiting to do the same.

We jumped back on our bus and decided to check out the Louvre.

Sadly, as gorgeous as the outside was, we didn't have a chance to go inside because the line was so long.

I am going to now share the evolution of a photo bomb.  Photo bombing is something the boys love to do (especially Matt) so of course they were going to use this opportunity to ruin my shot.  This time, Erika had the brilliant plan of taking pictures as it happened, rather than putting the camera down to yell at them with me (so this is 100% legit).

1. Notice me sitting, getting in pose, when the two boys stumble up.

2.  They usually then decide to either a) look around like they are lost, b) act like they are looking at something off camera, or b) they pull out a map or a similar object to study.

3. At this point, I usually yell, express frustration, and physically remove them from my shot.  This time however...

4. I chose to drag them into the picture with me.  If you can't beat them, make them join you.

Erika and I try to repay the favor when possible.

There is a bridge near the Louvre that is covered in locks.  These locks are often written on or engraved in some ways with initials and dates.  Apparently couples write their name and the date on the lock, and lock it to the bridge and it is supposed to bring luck.  It was pretty cool.

The next stop was Notre Dame.

Now to continue the theme of the day, it was way too crowded to even come close to going inside of it, so we would have to be content with just taking pictures of the outside.

At least we could still see the famous gargoyles.

No sign of Qausimodo though.

I would also like to mention that something happened with our tour company.  We were given tickets to show the drivers of the hop-on-hop-off buses that we paid for the day.  Unfortunately, the driver who printed these tickets, put a bogus date on them.  Most drivers didn't care about this, but one super rude driver shoved us off his bus as soon as we got on.  He physically pushed us and told us to go away and get off his bus.  He was french, and very rude.  It was pretty jarring.

It was starting to get late at this point (the traffic in Paris was awful) so we decided to make out last stop the Arc de Triomphe .  We snapped some pictures of it.

I freaked when I realized that the tiny dots at the top were people (just one more thing to add to my "things to do when I go back to Paris" list).

There is also this huge roundabout circling it.  It is the perfect example of the roads in Paris.  There aren't many road signs, virtually no traffic lights, and a lack of lines dividing lanes.  It was literally a free-for-all, as this picture shows.

Driving around the city in the bus was a bit hair-raising.

I think this says "your car will be towed"...

Erika and I wanted to go to the Disney Store we saw, so we rushed over there, bought some Disney Paris items, and rushed down to the Metro, after struggling to find it.  We managed to make it back to the train station with time to spare.  Once again, Matt and I were together in one car, while Ryan and Erika sat together in another.

Some things about Paris:

The stereotypes seemed to mostly hold true.  We ran into some pretty rude Parisians. A lot of times, it felt like people didn't care about you the second they heard English words come out of your mouth. The whole city seemed to not care about tourists, and there wasn't a whole lot of help for English speakers.  Our buses touted having "an English speaker" on board, but this was usually not actually true.  Most of the signs (even important ones) were only in French.  It was surprising, considering how much Paris draws on tourism.  Other, lesser visited places I have been to were more English friendly.

There were nice people there, it wasn't all bad.  The man who made us our crepes was very nice, and joked around with us.  We also bought some souvenirs from a really nice man.  Of course all of the employees in the Disney Store were ridiculously nice.  That about does it though, but these people really stood out because so many others were so very not nice.

It also smells there, especially the underground.  The underground was one of the dirtiest I have ever seen (and this includes New York's subway).  At any given time it smelled like urine, vomit, weed, or B.O.  Often it was a combination of these smells.

It was very crowded.  There were huge lines for everything.  There were even massive lines going into some of the higher end stores, like Louis Vuitton.  We weren't sure if something special was going on, or if the city is always like that.

Overall, I would love to return to Paris someday.  I really want to go up the Eiffel Tower, see the Louvre, climb the steps of Notre Dame.  I don't have the desire to spend a copious amount of time there though. To me, it is more of a "get in, get things done, move on" kind of city.  I wasn't too impressed with the culture, and there are so many other places I'd like to spend considerable amounts of time in. 

I also realize that I spent a very hectic couple of hours there, and shouldn't judge it based on that, but I have done the same in other countries here and came to different conclusions.

It was fun, and it was definitely and experience that I do not regret.