Epic Cliffs, Stinky Cheese, and Mont-St-Michel

What do you get when you put four Americans in a car heading west with a flag tied to the roof, eating Jif To Go with Ritz Crackers and drinking A&W rootbeer?

A good old US Road Trip, of course! But in France.

We rented a car and headed out on a sunny Friday morning, blasting pop tunes and full of energy. Our first stop was Etrétat, a city known for its stunning falaises (cliffs) which attract painters from all over.

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As a bonus, it was full of Normande charm, with the characteristic architecture and signs for cidre and calvados in every restaurant.

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We spent two hours clambering up onto the cliffs and taking epic photos. It was a sunny day (a rarity in the North at the moment) and a combination of that and the fresh sea breeze put us in a stellar mood. Hikes and laughter are my jam.

Back in the car, we had an afternoon snack as we headed for Caen, to my friend Dana’s host family’s house from her study abroad in Normandy. Her host family welcomed us weary travelers with an ap√©ro of champagne and snacks and a beautiful 2-room setup to sleep in (which can also be rented via Air BnB, if anyone is interested). After drinks, we dashed out to meet Dana‚Äôs expat friend for dinner at a cow-themed fondue restaurant and ate and talked until we had to sleep.

Day two was dedicated to Mont-St-Michel, one of the most famous sites in France. My mom had been telling me to go for ages, and this was the perfect time. We arrived the weekend after the grandes marées, the highest tides in ten years, which means that we beat the crowds; there had been roughly 30,000 people descending on the Mont the weekend before. Our day was spent wandering the quaint winding streets and the hidden corners of the Abbey, complete with a picnic lunch in the garden.

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On the way home, we stopped in St Malo. I am always stoked to return to Brittany, my regional true love, and this town didn‚Äôt dampen (despite the rain…hehe) my feelings for Western France. It is a walled city, with some of the most intact walls I‚Äôve seen. We entered through a stone gate and climbed up to the top of the ramparts (N.B. Cities in America do not have ramparts). We were able to walk halfway around the city and were rewarded with stunning views of the west coast on one side and the Breton city on the other. It was a great stop despite the adverse weather change, although the misty rain reminded me of home.

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Saturday night was spent with Dana‚Äôs family, eating and chatting. There was a spirit of warmth and hospitality, even though we were nearly complete strangers, which reminded me of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais community where I‚Äôve made my home this year. The only downside was the cheese choice ‚ÄĒ Camembert and Livarot, two varieties whose tastes I have yet to acquire. I can‚Äôt handle the stench‚Ķ

On Sunday we made our way home, tired and discouraged by the weather, but we all agreed that it was a great trip. What surprised me most was how it felt to be among Americans again, and on the road. It‚Äôs gotten to the point where I feel like a natural version of myself in Europe, which is a huge accomplishment. And yet, something felt especially nice about being able to joke and laugh and be outrageously patriotic in “American.” It‚Äôs our cultural language that is lacking here, as is everyone else‚Äôs cultural language if they aren‚Äôt from France.

But I was also more than happy to return home to my lovely house in Val and my international friends. As a group, we have created our own subculture, with an international smorgasbord of influences. I know that when I‚Äôm back in America, I will miss that subculture more than I can express in any language. I‚Äôll have to go on plenty of road trips (and eat jars and jars of peanut butter) to cope ūüėČ

Epic Cliffs, Stinky Cheese, and Mont-St-Michel

Un Retour √† Paris

Paris. I have experienced it over and over again¬†since my first visit. A¬†study abroad friend personified Paris as a bad boyfriend: it takes you from honeymoon period to love-hate relationship (Paris in the slush? Yuck) and back again. Now, Paris and I have settled into the companionate love of old friends. I know it’s always there;¬†it feels familiar and safe. But every time I come back we¬†have¬†new experiences together, just to keep things spicy.

I’ve been there three times since September. The first time, Caro and I¬†brunched the day away at a Breton buffet and made new friends in the street¬†by night. The second time, I picnicked, then ended up in a hole-in-the-wall bar watching rugby, drinking beers, and reminiscing about college days with a friend from Whitman. This time, I¬†reunited with my mom and aunt for museums, classical music, and shopping. There really is something for everyone ūüėČ

My mom’s visit was long overdue. She and Paris had their own relationship — she studied there for a year during college. Part of my motivation for studying there was her stories about spending days in the Louvre, mornings in Parc Monceau, living in a mansion-flat owned by the sister of Fran√ßois Mitterand whom she¬†exclusively called “Madame.” She was a hitch-hiking adventuress, covering much of Europe by car-hopping, ending up in random bars and houses, and in one case, a barn. Though she advised me not to follow that particular example (it’s okay mom, we have the internet to arrange carpools now), as I chased the ghost of past-mom around Paris for my study abroad semester I¬†wished that she were with me.

And this time, she was!

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To make things more fun, her sister came with her — here we are with my lovely aunt!

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In the spirit of making their dreams come true, I found us a Vivaldi’s 4 Seasons concert in the Eglise de la Madeleine to end our first day. The violin soloist blew my mind. I can’t say I’m a connoisseur of classical music (mostly because I don’t even know where to start), but I deeply admire¬†those who can make it. [This is especially thanks to my elementary school best friend Nellie, whose life is classical music — and she’s brought it into mine. She’s even on Youtube, playing her own arrangement of a very popular song…]

We got to revisit my favorite impressionist sites (Mus√©e Marmottan,¬†Mus√©e d’Orsay, Mus√©e de l’Orangerie)¬†and visually feast on Sainte Chapelle’s stained glass. I was in the throes of a what-will-my-future-be crisis and bowed out of some of these adventures, but we always reconvened in the apartment at night for some family fun! There was much sitting, laughing, cooking, and bothering Claire with “hilarious” videos (of my mom and I, of course).

I somehow convinced them to take me to Breakfast in America, my favorite American restaurant! What can I say, I desperately needed some pancakes. (Look, they liked it too!)

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I also got to see Cara for a lunch at Les Pates Vivantes, an Asian noodle place formerly frequented by the Paris Crew. It is always a joy to see my former French major inspiration!

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Another highlight was a dinner with my old host family: Marl√®ne, Jeff and Lulu, the cat! Caro (my byootiful¬†study abroad partner in crime) even got to join us for this one; we used to brunch and dine together all the time, so Marl√®ne knew her and I finagled her an invitation. We ate¬†foie gras,¬†drank champagne,¬†and our main course was fondue, homemade by a true¬†savoyarde (the name for the fondue region, where all the best cheeses come from). And my mom and aunt got to pull out their dormant French skillz! In true Reflective Anne fashion, being back in my former Paris home made me think about how many things had changed since the last time I’d been there: I’ve graduated college, for one, and I succeeded in coming back to France. Plus, my French has come a LONG way.

On our last day, we did a trip out to Chartres, a nearby cathedral and town famous for having 12th century stained glass, saved from fires and wars by diligent townspeople for hundreds of years. They also invented a color there: the famous “chartres blue.” The cathedral was amazing, and the town was a charming escape from Paris!

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I was very sad to say goodbye! Seeing family both refreshed and comforted me: I remembered what it was like to be with people who have known me forever, and I remembered¬†that I’m going back home someday…which inspired me to live France life to the fullest, while I still can!

Un Retour √† Paris

How I Spend My Days

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order‚ÄĒwilled, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern.” – Annie Dillard, via Brainpickings.

There is a difference between traveling and living. Although it probably doesn’t seem this way from far away in the U.S., I have spent less than 25% of my time here¬†traveling. I traveled to get here, yes, but then I set up a home base and began my¬†vie quotidienne¬†(daily life). And, because my blog is disproportionately adventure stories, I thought I should say something about my days. For, after all, “how we spend our days is…how we spend our lives.” My schedule, my hours…this is what they’re filled with.

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1. I eat and write.¬† These are my two favorite ways to fill my time. I’ve already filled up a moleskine and bought a new one. In the morning and evening, I write. In my breaks between classes, I write. On my blog, I write more.¬†I’ve also learned loads of new recipes. I cook for myself, I cook for friends, I cook for tomorrow’s lunch, I don’t cook because a waffle from Waffle Factory sounds better. I sometimes put on music in the background, genre “cozy evening folk” or “jazzy oldies,” depending on what mood I’m in. I dance and sing and cook, at the same time.

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2.¬†I ride the train.¬†Four days a week, four hours a day, I am either in or waiting for the train. This has ceased to be unbearable since I remembered On Being, my old favorite podcast. Now I use the time to be inspired by the mysteries of human existence as reported via interviews with the famous studiers of humanity. It can’t be beat, as far as train entertainment goes. It’s also a lesson in chuckling at the little things, like this Christmas-colored train board (unfortunately the result of multiple delays…not uncommon train behavior).

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3.¬†I talk to students and teachers. Much of my time at the high school (12+ hours per week) is spent in the staff room, socializing with teachers as they come and go, or with students in class. I’m getting to know them, even if I still don’t know most of their names. I am greeted by a chorus of “‘ello” as I walk down the hallway. I am welcomed to lunch tables and solicited for english advice. I am engaged in conversation by especially interested teachers and students. I also have a tutoring job once a week, which provides extra money and the fulfillment that only one on one time with a really motivated student can provide.

4.¬†I spend time with friends.¬†In the land of workaholics (America) (or maybe just college), relationships too often get thrown into the “do if I have enough time” category. Now that I always have enough time, I get more enjoyment out of social events, because I never have to rush off to the next thing. I go round for tea.¬†Breakfast dates, dinner parties, wine tastings, soir√©es in town, poetry readings, film nights, group workouts, leisurely walks to the lake…the world is our oyster, and I’m grateful to have others in my position to share experiences with.

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On any given day, I will do all of these things. This is how I spend my days.¬†Really, my year with TAPIF is not about the number of countries I’ll see or the amount of French I’ll learn…it’s about the moments and memories I will have spent which make up a totally unique, and fulfilling, and happy¬†life,¬†in a foreign place-turned-home. I think the hardest question to answer when I go back to Seattle¬†will be “how was France?”

You may as well ask, “how was life?”

And how would you respond to that?

How I Spend My Days

TFH Part 2: The Three Christmases

On Monday the 22nd, my journey through the west continued via train to Vannes, where I met¬†up with Solena, my second former native speaker friend! (For those who don’t know: I met both Solena and Lise at Whitman, where they were Native Speakers and lived with me in the French House).

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Solena invited me to spend Christmas with her family before I even knew for sure I’d be coming to France, and I was so excited to get to know her homes and families and experience a real French Christmas! Little did I know, I’d be celebrating three of them…

Christmas 1:

I spent Christmas Eve with Solena’s mother’s family in Elven, near Vannes (post on Bretagne to come). Here’s a breakdown of the evening’s festivities:

6 PM: Start getting ready by getting dressed in Christmas best

7:30 PM: Christmas Mass at l’Eglise d’Elven, full of songs and small children. The small children made it that much more entertaining, because we all agreed that it dragged on a little…but¬†it seems like Mass is a pretty widely attended pre-Christmas celebration and I wanted to experience it firsthand.

9:00 PM: Get home from Christmas Mass, indulge the children’s fevered cries to open presents (P√®re Noel came while we were gone).

10:00 PM: Begin Christmas dinner with an ap√©ritif —¬†Martinis, vegetables and dip, and a variety of nuts.

IMG_060111:00 PM: BeIMG_0599gin the first entr√©e course — Fruits de mer¬†(seafood) and¬†vin blanc (white wine).¬†This was a big vocabulary lesson for me. Pictured are some of the entr√©e options; there were shrimp, crayfish, spider crabs, oysters, clams (live), and some kind of sea snail. I tried everything!! I still love shrimp, and crayfish are delicious, but I had more trouble with the raw oysters. They tasted a little too much like the sea for me.

I think 12:30 AM: Second entr√©e course —¬†Foie Gras on toast. I also tried some of this. I think¬†foie gras¬† is really delicious, it’s just sometimes a psychological struggle for me to eat it.

Sometime after 1 AM: Main dish! —¬†Poulet marron (chestnut chicken)¬†and¬†vin rouge (red wine). I had never tried this dish, a Christmas specialty, before, and it was DELICIOUS! It’s my new favorite. Unfortunately at this point it was getting really difficult to eat anything due to fatigue and stuffed-ness.

After that: Fromage — cheese! I skipped this course accidentally because Solena’s 4 year old cousin came to sit on my lap and I couldn’t reach the cheese (at least that’s my excuse…)

3:00¬†AM: Dessert — the traditional French Christmas dessert is ice cream cake, or Buche de Noel. It’s in the shape of a Yule Log. Ours was an atypical flavor: mango passionfruit! The most common is chocolate.

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4:00 AM: Not over yet! The last course: coffee and chocolate. I had hot milk for fear of never again being able to sleep if I ingested caffeine. Although I bet it would’ve been absorbed before it hit the bloodstream…

BEDTIME!

The next day, we got up and packed and drove to Port Louis.

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Port Louis will be featured in my Bretagne post as well, but here I will talk about Christmas meal number 2! This time, it was Solena’s father’s family, and it began around 1 in the afternoon. I’ll just briefly describe the menu:

Apéritif: a variety of toasts with mystery seafood spreads (her grandmother had us guess what was in each one), and champagne!

Entrée: Oysters for most people, but another woman and I split the cooked palourdes (clams) with garlic, parsley, and butter, because neither of us like oysters. They were delicious!!

Entr√©e:¬†Coquilles St. Jacques. These are some of my favorite, favorite things. It’s basically a variety of seafood treats in a deliciously rich beschamel-style sauce, and it was served to us in a shell. Homemade by Solena’s grandma and grandpa!

Main Dish: Poulet Chataigne. The same dish with a different type of chestnut, and I liked this variation even better. I ate a lot of it this time.

Fromage: I ate this this time.

Dessert: Chocolate Buche de Noel!

Café and Swiss chocolate rounded out another delicious meal.

This meal ended around 6 PM, and Solena and I went for a walk by the sea for digestive purposes. A beautiful end to a beautiful day.

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The third Christmas dinner, I will be brief about, because the company was more important than the food. We dined with Solena’s family of friends the night after, for a soir√©e that lasted from 7 PM til 4 AM and was full of joy and laughter and friendship! To me, that is what Christmas anywhere is all about: family and family-like friends, coming together and eating and drinking and enjoying each other’s company. I was so grateful that I was welcomed with open arms into these families when I couldn’t be with my own! I have a hard time really putting into words how much I enjoyed the love and joy and Christmas spirit that I encountered on this vacation…here are some pictures of new and old friends instead!

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Merry belated Christmas to friends and family, near and far!

Next up: Bretagne, the tourist post!

TFH Part 2: The Three Christmases

Bummin’ Around in Belgium

I recently discovered that aside from my “chatty” and “angry” neighbors, I have another neighbor who is much worthier of being visited: BELGIUM.

Some of you may have already seen my post about Ghent¬†with Dana. That was my first Belgian adventure. In the two weeks since Thanksgiving, I’ve been there twice more.

A trip to Belgium from Valenciennes involves:

1. Taking the city bus from the train station to “Fronti√®re,” the last stop on the line which is right on the Belgian border (30 minutes).

2. Walking across the border, down the street which consists of nothing but Tabac shops (bulk tobacco, booze, etc. for much cheaper than in France), and end up at the grimy and desolate, not to mention closed down indefinitely so we can’t actually go into it, station. (15 minutes)

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3. Catching the train from Quiévrain (the border town) to St. Ghislain. (20 minutes)

4. Catching a train in St. Ghislain to basically anywhere in Belgium (1 hour to Brussels, where you can catch another to Ghent, or about 1 hour to Tournai)!

In other words, it takes me about as much time to get to Belgium as it does to get to Seattle in traffic at home. My friend even worked out how to get to Luxembourg or Aix-la-Chapelle this way.

I had Tuesday off this past week, so Matt and I went to Tournai.

The belfry, which is the oldest one in Belgium

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The view from the belfry (cue intense feeling of vertigo)

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On the main square

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Then, this weekend, my friend Laura and I went to Brussels, having heard about their amazing Christmas market. It definitely lived up to our expectations.

Inside the market rows

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Bison burger (!? they invited Québec to do a few stalls) and vin chaud (mulled wine)

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Smoked salmon! 

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Sometimes (all the time), a change of scenery does wonders for one’s mentality. There is¬†nothing¬†better than arriving in a brand new city with a bunch of new things to do and see and feeling like every little victory (navigating a new metro system? finding the grande place?) is a championship achievement.

Also, I loved¬†the Brussels Christmas Market because so many of the stalls contained things I would never be able to get anywhere else in the world. It was mostly a visual feast, because after I got some Christmas presents there wasn’t a reason to spend more money…but the number of beautiful artisan home decorations, jewelry, food, etc. we saw was insane! The market went on for blocks and blocks, and we got lost several times…but it was a GREAT day.

Goal of the year: visit every Belgian city worth seeing? ūüôā

Bummin’ Around in Belgium

The First Thanksgiving(s)

~ WEATHER UPDATE ~

It is so frickin’ COLD! Literally ordered a new (North Face) coat online this week.

Anyway, Here’s what I’ve been doing besides turning into an icicle (annecicle):¬†

Last week, I celebrated my first Thanksgiving away from home…or should I say ThanksgivingS, because we did it big and had three of them.

First, on Sunday, there was a potluck hosted by a friend in Lille. All of the traditional Thanksgiving foods made an appearance, including pumpkin pie with good old American canned pumpkin! My love affair with sweet potatoes began when I was a baby (it was my favorite treat when I was toothless), and our sweet potato chef did them justice. Two friends and I were responsible for the turkey, and the ‚Äúalternative‚ÄĚ recipe we picked out (because it‚Äôs hard to find whole turkeys to roast in France) turned into the best turkey I‚Äôve ever eaten. The ambiance, created via numerous American Flag displays (see Dana‚Äôs post on patriotism‚Ķand for some cute pictures) and ‚Äútraditional Thanksgiving music‚ÄĚ (Turkey in the Straw) was a complement to a wonderful day giving thanks for friends.¬†

The day of Thanksgiving dawned weirdly ‚ÄĒ because I had to get up at the crack of dawn to go to school. I hadn‚Äôt realized how ingrained ‚ÄúThanksgiving Break‚ÄĚ was into my yearly routine until having to work caused some major cognitive dissonance. I wrote ‚ÄúHappy Thanksgiving‚ÄĚ on some of the classroom whiteboards and tried to explain its significance‚Ķbut my discovery was that it‚Äôs difficult to explain what a holiday ‚Äúmeans.‚ÄĚ For instance, Thanksgiving is technically a celebration of a peace between the pilgrims and Native Americans, but considering that it was followed by years of discord and massacre it can‚Äôt really be a ‚Äúcelebration‚ÄĚ of that in my mind. I think it has become more symbolic ‚ÄĒ it‚Äôs a holiday of gratitude, of family and friends, of taking a break to appreciate the things we have. It‚Äôs like pre-Christmas.

After school on Thursday, I shopped and cooked and headed over to Thanksgiving #2, at a friend‚Äôs house in Val. It was larger and even more internationally influenced than the previous one ‚ÄĒ we had Costa Rican tuna salad, Chinese fried rice & tea eggs, and a host of other culinary treats, brought by people from all over the world. This is the true beauty of Thanksgiving Abroad: it is necessarily a cultural exchange. I explained to a German person and two South American people, in French, the story behind the holiday… obviously¬†not something I‚Äôd ever have had to do at home. Our British friend did a lovely performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” to round out the evening, to which other British friends responded by putting on “God Save the Queen,” beginning a musical Revolutionary War…¬†

The third Thanksgiving was quite a party, and it was a fitting climax to the week of celebrations. I can safely say that Thanksgiving this year was more patriotic, intercultural, drawn out, reflective, and definitely more of a party than it ever has been…and I hope to experience it abroad again someday.

And now, we can officially start setting up for Christmas! Lille already has ūüôā

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The First Thanksgiving(s)

Kebaby and Dragons: 4 Days in Krakow

As seen on Facebook, I’ve been spending my Toussaint vacation with friends in Valenciennes and Poland. Yes, we did only work for 2 weeks before getting a 2 week vacation. There is some evidence that suggests French workers are more productive when they do work because they get a lot more vacation time than American culture permits; we’ll see if that applies to me ;).

Last week, I arrived home after an outing with friends to find that the water in my building had flooded the halls, and in the process had leaked into the electrical box for the common areas. So I was without electricity and water, all at once. A kind friend offered to host me while it was repaired, so I bounced around houses until it was time to leave for week 2 in Poland. When I left, there was still no electricity, but thankfully the water got fixed super fast — it just wasn’t hot!

This situation could have been a million times worse…as it was, it was much fun spending time with friends in their houses AND¬†it made me appreciate our hostel showers so much more.

Speaking of which, I’m in Krakow! one of my lovely new friends Dana¬†planned herself a trip to Krakow, Poland, and invited anyone who wanted to to join her. Four of us hopped on board, and have been kickin’ it together like the best of friends for DAYS. Not even tired of them yet ;). In other exciting news, my travel buddy/best friend/twin Caro showed up to join us on our Polish adventure.

Here’s some stuff we did:

1) Lots of walking.

We began our trip with a walking tour of Old Town, in the middle of Krakow.

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We hit up the Main Square, the city walls, the moat-turned-park with walking paths, and the Wawel Castle. We also saw the oldest building in Krakow, a church built in the 1200s. We did another walking tour later in the week with a “macabre” theme, and heard some cool Polish ghost stories. Krakow is one of the cleanest cities I’ve been in. It’s also COLD! We walked many more places too — around the lake, through the Jewish Quarter, to and from the hostel, from bar to bar on the hostel pub crawls — good thing we also…

2) …ate lots of Polish food.¬†

Look, here’s my new favorite food. It’s called a pierogi, and it’s a meat and potato and many other thing – filled dumpling. We found many pierogi shops, including a 24-hour one by our hostel and a 50-flavor one across the street from that. I ate a lot of them, especially considering that you eat 10-12 at a time.¬†

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We also stopped at a Polish restaurant and ordered a bunch of food to split — Kebab, schnitzel, pickles and sauerkraut, blood sausage, etc. I still can’t stomach blood sausage but the rest of it was delicious! And they gave us free shots of cherry liqueur at the end.

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Our hostel offered free breakfast every morning, and a free home-cooked meal every night. Here’s where you should stay in Krakow:

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We made friends and had fun going on the hostel-organized pub crawls and outings. It’s also really clean and homey, and we were in agreement that we had an all-around lovely experience!

3) We took some day trips.  

On a more sobering note, part of the reason we came to Poland was to see Auschwitz, one of the most famous death camps of the Holocaust. This was a hugely important experience. I came away feeling absolutely gutted. I’m not going to talk about it at length here, because this is a too lighthearted platform for an incredibly heavy subject. I just wanted to say that I went, and will never forget how it felt.

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We also went to see the salt mines near Krakow. The salt mines used to produce a hefty percentage of Poland’s salt, but they used up all the pure salt a while ago. They still make salt, but using a filtration system and in much smaller quantities than before. We spent two hours in the mine, and saw a chapel made of salt, salt lakes that you literally cannot submerge yourself in (the salt makes you too buoyant), and I licked a wall. It was pretty salty.

4) We heard some legends.

Here’s my favorite legend:

Once upon a time, there was a dragon that guarded the castle gates to Wawel. Nobody wanted the dragon around, but nobody could kill it…until the town¬†shoemaker had a brilliant idea. He decided to make a fake sheep stuffed with the spiciest spice of the village. He put this spicy sheep outside the dragon’s lair, and the dragon was fooled, so he ate the spicy sheep. He was already fire-breathing, so¬†you can imagine how fire-y his stomach was after eating this spicy sheep. He decided to drink from the nearby river, but the sheep was so spicy that he drank and drank. His stomach capacity gave out before the river did, and he drank so much water that he EXPLODED!! That was the end of him.

We had an enjoyable hour in the ex-dragon’s cave. The dragon’s statue still guards the entrance (and breathes real fire).

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RIP, Cracovian Dragon.

I’ll leave you with one more tidbit¬†about Poland (Polish, really) —

Kebab = kebaby

Chips = chipsy

Burger = burgery

Toilet = toalety

Saying these out loud made us giggle much of the time. It did also remind me of my love for languages, and maybe someday I’ll learn Polish…

Dziekuje (pronounced jin-koo-ya) means thank you. That was the word I retained from the trip.

A great big dziekuje for the adventures, Krakow and friends!

Kebaby and Dragons: 4 Days in Krakow