After Amsterdam, I arrived in Frankfurt and spent my first day in Germany in a post-party coma. Which was good, because my dad soon arrived to play with me in Europe, and I had to take on the responsibility of arranging tickets, tours, and overall, be on my A-game to show my dad around. Pops has never been to Europe before, and all but jumped at the chance to come visit with me. Remember how I mentioned that I’m terrible at reading maps and getting to where I need to be? Unfortunately, my dad is no better. His sense of direction is on par with that of a blinded infant. With its limbs bound. So putting two directionless people together should naturally lead to disaster, but thankfully, we didn’t encounter too much trouble.

At the top of the Gothic cathedral in Cologne. 533 steps to the top.

Not too much happened in Germany, since my Dad was still getting over jet lag, and I was still recovering from Amsterdam. We went to Cologne, which is only about an hour from Frankfurt, and climbed to the top of the Dom.

From Frankfurt, we moved onto Prague. Side not: slavic languages, while similar in root, are not that similar in pronunciation, and my feeble attempts to speak Czech were returned with puzzled looks and were immediately shot down to the ground. Prague was overblown with tourists, especially Russian tourists, which made maneuvering around the windy, convoluted city a little frustrating. The development of certain post-Communist (or should I say, socialist) countries always amazes me. The Czech Republic, among with other countries such as the Baltic states, are doing pretty well for themselves. They’re clean, their economy is not in the gutter, and they’ve integrated pretty well into Europe. Prague is also very tourist-friendly, which is something you can’t really say about Russia. I don’t speak a word of Czech (except for “hello,” “yes,” “no,” and “I don’t understand”), and I didn’t really need to in order to get around. I can’t wrap my mind around the fact that there are tourists who go to Russia not knowing the language — English just really isn’t as prevalent. Notable sight: the Bone Chapel in Kutna Hora. It is what it sounds like — a chapel with tons of decorations inside made from the human skeleton.

T

That is a chandelier made with all the bones from the human skeleton. Except for the ribs, apparently. Couldn’t find the ribs anywhere.

In front of St. Barbara’s cathedral in Kutna Hora, Czech Republic

Leaving Prague behind, my dad and I went onto Vienna, where we thoroughly gorged ourselves on their pastries. Apple strudle, sacher torte, whatever they had, we ate, and with gusto. Got our fill of art, since Vienna is bursting at the seams with various art museums. It was Gustav Klimt’s 150th birthday, so he was everywhere. In order to not feel too guilty about eating multiple cakes a day, we biked around the Danube and got a little outside of Vienna.

20 km.

Fun fact: ET is hanging out in the Albertina museum in Vienna. On a serious note, they have a great collection of impressionist to modern art in their Picasso and Monet exhibit.

Bratislava is only one hour away from Vienna, so out of curiosity, we took a day trip there. Bratislava felt like Prague’s not so attractive cousin who couldn’t speak English. Still very quaint and historical, but just didn’t have Prague’s charm. English was less spoken here, so again, I tried my hand at Slovak. Like I said before, knowing one slavic language doesn’t mean that you can communicate easily in all of them. One particularly embarrassing moment was at a museum, when my dad had to show his passport to get a senior discount. He had, however, hidden his passport in a pouch that was tucked into his pants. The interaction went down as such:
Me: (in Russian) “His passport is in his pants, but he’s 67.”
Grandmothers: “Slovak slovak slovak proof slovak.”
Me: “But he has to take his pants off to get his passport. He’s 67! Look at him!”
Grandmothers: “slovak slovak slovak.”
Me: (turning to my dad) You have to get out your passport
As my dad begins to take off his pants, the grandmothers, absolutely horrified, said, “NO NO, GOOD GOOD OKAY.” And he got his senior discount.

In Bratislava’s defense, we were only there for a few hours, so we only got a glimpse of the city.

We took an overnight train from Vienna to Italy, and after having roughed it on some really groedy Russian trains (and I mean, really disgusting), this train was a treat. Free wine! Free breakfast! Toilets that actually FLUSH! The first world is so nice sometimes. Despite the torturous heat, Rome was one of my favorite cities by far. Its history is so fascinating, and the food was to die for. Out of all the sights, the Colosseum was by far the most memorable.

Colossal

Super excited

My travels and living abroad have officially come to an end for now, and I’m state-side for at least two years (with a few breaks in between). Which means that, inevitably, this blog has come to an end for the time being. Thank you to everyone who read this — I am grateful for your readership. Until next time.

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After the hectic pace and crazy people of Paris, I arrived in Amsterdam with a big sigh of relief. Amsterdam so far has been my favorite city, and believe it or not, I don’t like it just for the drugs and prostitutes (those are a big plus though). The layout of the city is something I have never seen before: tall, narrow houses that lean slightly over the many canals. Bobbing boats and boat houses that cling to the sides of these waterways. Deft bikers weaving in and out between pedestrians, unaware tourists, and cars. And their history is so fascinating! (had no idea that the Dutch started the stock exchange, or that it was such a rich city) The Red Light district, where my hostel was located, was a bit jarring at first. The prostitutes are literally in your face, standing scantily clad in a window. But, I’m sure that after a bit of time, anyone would get used to the sight – prostitutes are, after all, people too!

Their lax attitude towards marijuana is also somewhat of a shock, especially coming from the states, where the stuff is quite illegal. The smell would literally hit me in the face when I was walking around the Red Light district. The Dutch have it right though – tax it, and make loads of money off it and the tourists who use it. Because if you think about it, they’re not just making money from the weed itself, but also from the rolling papers, various paraphernalia, Bob Marley CDs, and tons of greasy junk food that they sell to the absolutely baked tourists. Brilliant.

For most of this trip, I was traveling by myself, but unlike in London, I was rarely alone. I would do a lot of the tourist things (ie Anne Frank house, van gogh museum) by myself, but at night, I’d come back to my hostel and people were just so welcoming and inviting, and I never had a dull night here. The hostel culture is so unique in that you literally just go into a common room, and you instantly have friends! People are so eager to meet each other. Yes, you end up sharing a room with 10 people and you don’t really sleep, but if you’re traveling, you really shouldn’t be sleeping anyway. I also had the chance to meet up with someone I had met when I was traveling around Eastern Europe two years ago, and it was a very lively reunion.

Now onto Frankfurt. I did not plan Germany out well- basically just chose a city without doing much research. My Dad is coming though, so I’m excited to see him and travel together.

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I have always wondered if English people think American accents are charming the way we do about theirs. I’m going to put it out there that the American accent is the least pleasant out of the English speaking accents. It’s so damn nasally, flat, and uneducated sounding. I swear if I had a British accent, I would just never stop talking. Ever. They can say things like “cheers” and not sound like pretentious asshats! Brilliant.

I arrived in London bleary eyed after an overnight, overbooked flight on July 1st. I’ve never traveled alone before, and it definitely has its positives and negatives. A big positive is that I can do whatever I want and plan my schedule however I want. Harry Potter walk? No qualms about it. A negative would be that it’s just more difficult to get around. At least for me, it was. I am awful at reading maps. In fact, I’m pretty sure a person with no eyes would be more successful at determining where he needed to go then I was. Despite my terrible sense of directions, I was able to hit most of the touristy things: Tower of London, St. Paul’s cathedral, the British museum, and of course, platform 9 and 3/4. Among other things.

On July 5th, I left the overly crowded London for the even more crowded Paris. To be honest, I was a little nervous, since my French is pretty rough. I met up with a few friends and made some more, and it was nice to have people to hit up the tourist spots with. Pictures below.

I have conflicting feelings about Paris. It’s such an astonishingly beautiful city and I love how fast paced it is. On the other hand, I definitely had a sour impression of Paris at night. I went out with a few people from the hostel, and the entire time as I was walking, people (more precisely, the middle easterners) were throwing out some pretty insulting comments about my ethnicity along with disgustingly lecherous looks. I’ve never been so verbally harassed in my life! Definitely did not expect that kind of sleaziness from Paris.

Next up: Amsterdam. Only two words can describe my feelings: f-ing excited.

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It’s been a hectic week back in America — family and friends to see, housing to find in DC (check), among other things. Tomorrow, I leave for my month long backpacking journey across Western Europe. Part of it is by myself, part of it is with a friend from college, and the last two weeks are with my good ol’ Pop. Papa Tran has wanted to see Europe for the longest time, and when he asked to come with me, how could I say no? We’ve got a backpack each, a heavy guide book, and reservations at some grungy hostels.

My route. Somewhat similar to that taken in the 2004 comedy “Eurotrip.”

 

I seem to have really good luck with Russia’s weather. I came from one of the chilliest summers ever to a scorching 134 F (in the sun, and this is according to one of the babushkas who works in the dorm, so I don’t know how accurate the measurement is). Last Sunday, after the post-farewell-party train ride from hell (never ever ride a train hungover), I arrived in Elista. It’s the capital of the Republic of Kalmykia, but it’s still a fairly small city — it’s got the same population as Ukhta, and I would say that it’s just more stretched out than Ukhta is.

Seven Days Pagoda in the center of Elista

I haven’t been here for long, and I’m only staying until Tuesday, but it’s a nice change of scenery. The mix of Asia and Europe here is aesthetically pleasing to the eye. At least, more pleasing than ugly, squat khrushchevki buildings that clustered the streets of Ukhta. Also, unlike the Komi Republic, I definitely feel that I am in an ethnic republic here — most people are Kalmyk here, and Russians are the minority. The Kalmyk people, in case you didn’t know, are related to Mongolians. Some of my friends back in Ukhta joked, “You’re going to finally be with your people!” Humor aside, I do fit in quite well here. No one stares at me, and it’s only when I begin to speak Russian do people give me funny looks.

Buddha. in honor of the Dalai Lama.

What’s most fascinating to me is the Buddhist culture here. Kalmykia is the only Buddhist region in Europe (Sibera and whatever is east of the Urals is considered to be Asia), and they practice Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lama has even been here quite a few times, and the people here recognize him as their spiritual leader. While I’m technically a Buddhist, I’m a rather terrible one, so I look forward to checking out the temple some more while I’m here. It’s not the same branch of Buddhism that my family practices, but it’s worth exploring anyway.

The largest Buddhist temple in Europe

There are only a few downsides to being here. The first being that it is ungodly hot, and there’s no escape from the heat. The school is unbearably stuffy, and the poor kids sit there weakly fanning themselves as I make half-hearted attempts to teach them English. They’re good sports about the heat though — I’m not, mainly because I’m a wimp and I hate sitting in my own sweat. The second would be that since most of the college students here are busy, none of them want to hang out with me, which makes me feel rather alone. I have, however, befriended some people from Benin and Congo in the adjacent dormitory, so not all is terrible.

I know that I’ve been writing about leaving and saying goodbye for the last few posts now, but this is really it! I leave this Saturday bright and early in the morning to head to Elista, the capital of the republic of Kalmykia. In case you’ve never heard of it (you really have never heard of it). Elista is famous for Buddhism and Chess!

Life size chess boards and pagodas — my kind of city.

As my days here are quickly winding down, I can’t help but be filled with conflicting emotions. I am itching to leave to see something new, to travel, to get back to America to see my friends and family.  At the same time, it’s heartbreaking to leave all the friends I made here. This goodbye is different from typical goodbyes — after I graduated from college, at least I knew that most of my friends were staying stateside. Visiting is only a matter of buying an airplane ticket and a little bit of planning ahead of time. Visiting my friends here will take a trip to the consulate, shelling out $$ for an invitation and visa, even more $$$ for a plane ticket. Not to mention the 40 hours it will take to actually arrive here, crossing an ocean, etc.

The people I will sorely miss. The city, however, I will not. As a person from a big city, living in a small provincial town is something that I just can never do. Sometimes, I feel as if Ukhta is a good example of what’s wrong with Russia: the crumbling infrastructure, lack of opportunities for young people, stifling atmosphere, and general attitude of “nichego sdelyat’.” Can’t do anything about it. Case in point, there is no hot water here, and until I leave, I will be joyfully bathing in ice cold water. When I asked about it, I got some convoluted answer about using a basin to get hot water from the kitchen and somehow taking a shower with that. I pressed on and asked why they turned off the hot water, to which the babushki in the dorm answered defensively: “That’s the way it is, we can’t do anything about it.” It’s an answer that infuriates me to no end, because it’s not true — there is something one can do about it, but no one does, because the belief that nothing can be done is basically ingrained into people’s heads.  On a larger scale, people who can leave this city do, mainly because, again, there is nothing to do in this city and it’s a dead end — no opportunities are available here (well, aside from oil and gas, but not everybody can work in that fun sphere). A lot of my students dream of going to a bigger city. Maybe St. Petersburg, perhaps Moscow, maybe even Europe if possible. Similar to the way young people dream of leaving Russia. It’s not the way it should be. But I guess, for now, leaving is the better option than trying to change.

Negativity aside, while this is a farewell, this isn’t the last time I’ll be in Russia, nor will it be the last time I’ll be in Ukhta. At least, that is what I’m telling myself now. Because, in the end, even if I was sent to live in a big city, it would have been terrible if I didn’t have good friends. I am so, so grateful to have met all of the wonderful people that I am friends with here. I will miss being able to drop by someone’s place whenever I wanted to. I will miss walking around and wasting time as if I had all the time in the world to spend. I will miss being able to do things that I never got to do in America: sing, ride dogs, ski. I will greatly miss their company, and I appreciate their willingness to put up with a crazy American like me.

Someone once told me that life is like a train ride. People get on and off, join you in your compartment (of life…), and you enjoy their company while they’re there, and make peace with it when they leave. However, I’ll make sure that my train goes back to this snowy land, at least one more time.

I thought my life would be over the minute my computer died on me. However, as with a lot of things in Russia, you can’t just give up. Luckily, I had a friend whose brother is a computer whiz and he managed to get my laptop screen to sort of work. Smacking it around a bit also helped. In other words, don’t bring a Mac to Russia because most people won’t know what the hell to do with it.

Last Friday was the “Last Bell” celebration at the lyceum. It’s a celebration that marks the last day of class for the graduating seniors.  For the last day of class, the seniors gussied up and the 5th graders came in and “taught” them. Then there was a concert, some speeches, and lots and lots of crying parents. All in all, it was really quite adorable and a lot of tears were shed. At my high school, we didn’t have anything like this. I remember we all went to Six Flag, and after graduation, we had an all night graduate party. But there were also roughly 500 graduating seniors at my high school — graduation felt like one gigantic party, whereas it was much more personal at the lyceum. Watching the seniors whisper excitedly to one another and nervously shift in their seats during the concert definitely got some waterworks out of me. I remember all of the emotions of high school graduation and all of the uncertainties. Will we all still be friends? Will we all stay in touch?

Graduating!!

That’s kind of how I feel now. Everything is going to change so quickly, and whether or not I want it to, I have to go with it.

On a less angsty note, this past weekend, I also got to fulfill my dream and FINALLY rap in a concert. Yes, you read correctly. Rap. In a concert. In front of people. And no, it was not sloppily nor was it drunkenly (well, only a little bit) at a karaoke bar, it was at a legitimate concert. My friend Anesh and her sister Eka are two relatively famous singers here in Ukhta, and they invited one of their friends to sing with them in concert. They needed back up singers, so they asked yours-truly to help out. At first, I was only to sing back up in one song, but then it turned into two songs. At rehearsal, I saw that they were going to perform “Lady Marmelade.” I asked, sheerly out of curiosity, which one of them would rap. They all looked at me with wide eyes and said, “You! How about you?!” So I brought my street cred to the streets of Ukhta, and the crowd went wild.

Once pictures (and videos) are up, I will most definitely post them.

Edit:

Here is a short video of me rapping in concert and an even shorter interview. The video starts at 4:40.
http://www.ugtu.net/video/5552