Croatian Vacation (4/16-4/22)

“Wherever you go, go with all your heart.”


The past week has been packed with fulfilled dreams, unimaginable beauty, and a plethora of cats.  I have a whole lot to share, so buckle in for a long ride. 

Last Wednesday we packed up Gesa’s little car and set off for a long road trip.  We left Ostrava around 4 pm and headed south through Slovakia and into Hungary.  As we drove through the farm land, we saw many deer grazing in the fields.  Nearly every field had at least one, and I loved watching for them.  I have greatly missed the deer and elk in Arizona.  We also saw three foxes, one of which stayed right beside the road and looked at us as we stopped next to it.  I have never seen more than a fleeting glance of a fox before, so it was very fun to watch it for a moment.  We drove for over six hours and eventually reached the coast of Lake Balaton in Hungary. 

We had decided not to book an accommodation in advance because we were not sure how long we would want to drive.  We had several hostels in mind that we could find beds in which to sleep.  However, what we did not consider is that April is still considered “off-season” for the lakeside villages and thus none of the hostels were open.  It was nearly one in the morning and we were driving through tiny villages that showed no sign of life.  We finally stumbled upon a small hotel with one light on out front.  Unfortunately, the door was locked and there were no people inside.  There was, however, a phone number.  We called and reached a Hungarian lady who didn’t speak any English.  Luckily she knew a little German so Gesa was able to communicate with her.  She said she was on her way and her colleague came out of the building to take us inside.  We quickly learned they only accepted cash, and only Hungarian forints at that.  So we had to make a trip to the atm.  After filling out paperwork and paying, we finally were led to our room, and before saying goodnight, the lady offered us coffee, and when we declined, she offered us Schnapps instead.

After a short night’s sleep, we woke and drove to Keszthely, a village directly on the edge of the lake.  We were very hungry, so we walked around the shore in search of a café.  Well, apparently when they say “off-season”, they mean it, and nothing is open.  We walked for a long time and asked some locals for directions, but no one could tell us a nearby place that would be open.  We eventually saw a small shop with a picture of bread on the window and we excitedly went inside.  It was a magnificent Hungarian bakery full of different breads and pastries.  We picked out at least 15 different items and went outside where we sat on a bench and ate to our hearts’ content.

We toured the village for a short while, where there was a palace and a church worth visiting.  We then crawled back into the car and set off for Zagreb, Croatia, where we spent part of the afternoon.  We mostly just wandered the streets and went wherever they took us.  We weaved through the city and appreciated the greenness of everything.  There were vines, trees, and plants everywhere, which breathed life into the city.  We visited the cathedral and several other places before getting dinner and heading further south.  We arrived at our small apartment on the edge of Plitvice National Park and settled in for the night.  Again, upon arrival, our host offered us Schnapps.

We woke early the next day to be at Plitvice in time for opening.  When we arrived at the park, we were told their online system was down and they couldn’t sell tickets, so no one could enter the park.  After a small panic attack and several deep breaths, we went to the back of the line and waited until the system rebooted.  Over an hour later, with tickets in hand, we entered the park and shook off our frustrations from the morning. 

Immediately the scenery took my breath away.  Imagine being surrounded by vibrant turquoise lakes, bright green foliage, and cascading waterfalls.  The sun was shining and everything was sparkling in the beams of light and and dancing in the breeze. 

We very slowly made our way along the path, taking in everything we could.  There are few words to describe what it was like there, but I’ll do my best and then you will just have to look at pictures and the video below to get an idea of how incredible everything was.

The wooden path through the park was well maintained and quite impressive.  It was sitting just above the water, and there was often water raging below my feet.  It provided the opportunity for visitors to truly see the magnificence of the area by walking across the water, beside the waterfalls, and through the forests.  Around every turn was something new and astounding, and my heart swelled with joy. 

The never-ending waterfalls were not only beautiful by sight, but for all the senses.  The sound of raging water drowned out all other noise and made everything both peaceful and impressive.  The spray of water that came from the waterfalls cooled my skin in the warm sun and was very refreshing.  The world smelled so fresh and pure, exactly as nature should.  Everything was perfect.

We were very pleased by the lack of tourists, because we knew it is a very popular destination.  I guess we were there early enough in the year to avoid the crowds because it was peaceful and calm the whole day.  We also stepped off the typical path onto a hiking trail for a few hours, during which we never saw another person.  It gave us a different view of the area and let us see more of the park.

After an entire day in one of the most spectacular places I have ever been, we were exhausted, but headed to our next accommodation.  We drove two and a half hours and crossed a bridge onto the island of Krk where we found our next place.  It was in a small village on the shore of the Adriatic Sea (part of the Mediterranean).  We were, again, offered Schnapps.

The next morning, after a breakfast on the balcony overlooking the sea, we went for a swim.  The water was cold, but not terribly so.  After the initial shock I was able to swim for a long time before deciding to get out.  It was amazing because it was salt water but there were no waves, so I was very buoyant and just floated around, looking up at the sky and the surrounding mountains. 

I then set up the hammock (of course) and enjoyed laying in it for a while.  Once I was dry and warm, we moved along to explore more of the island.  We headed into the largest city, also called Krk.  There we got lunch at an amazing little restaurant that served homemade pasta with fresh shrimp.  After lunch we were given free Schnapps as well. Apparently Schnapps are a quite important in southern Europe.  We then toured around the city for a bit and enjoyed the small, curvy streets, the old town walls, and the views of the sea. 

After some ice cream (which, by the way, is “zmrzlina” in Czech) we drove down the coast to the southern part of the island.  While most of the island was very lush and green, we found a rocky and mountainous area to go for a short walk.  The hills around us were covered in sheep that constantly baaa-ed at us while we walked.  We came across the ruins of an old church overlooking the sea and many small stone walls we believe must be the foundation from an old village. 

We made it to a finger of land stretching out into the sea and went to the end where there was a great view of the upcoming sunset and a small cove for swimming.  I went down to the beach and went running into the water.  Only after being totally submerged did I realize there was an abundance of urchins all over the rocks beneath me.  Thank goodness I was wearing my Chacos or I would have been in a lot of pain.  I swam for a bit, but this area of the sea was colder, so I didn’t stay in terribly long.  I did climb up onto some offshore rocks and experienced the magnificence of being a mermaid for a while. 

I returned to shore and climbed back up onto the rocks for the sunset over the sea.  It was quite breath-taking and was a lovely end to the day.

The following morning I woke to watch the sunrise from the balcony, but it was very disappointing and was not anything special, so I returned to sleep for a while.  Then we drove north to Slovenia where we went to a the home of a friend of Gesa’s, named Teja.  Teja’s family owns a farm in a village of 150 people, where they raise cattle and chickens, and have a large garden.  Their farm is almost self-sustaining, with them consuming vegetables, eggs, beef, meat, and even alcohol they grow and create themselves. 

A short distance away they also have a vineyard where they grow grapes and have a wine house where they turn them into wine.  We tasted a lot of really good homemade wine.  One of the specialties in Slovenia is a wine made from a mixture of red and white grapes and was very tasty.  They also make their own Jagermeister, which requires 44 different herbs collected at different times throughout the year.  They keep a calendar of when each is in season and go out in the surrounding areas to collect them.  The Jagermeister was also delicious.

Because we arrived on Easter Sunday, Teja invited us to join her and her family for Easter lunch, which was incredibly kind of them.  We ate a feast of traditional Slovenian food, including meats, salad, and vegetables (all from the farm).  We also got several versions of a traditional sweet to taste.  The entire meal was splendid and we had such a nice time with Teja’s family (who, by the way, don’t speak any English).  Some of my best moments so far in Europe have been conversations with locals who speak little or no English, as well as meals prepared with love from friends’ families.

Teja took us to a fairly well-known place in her village where there is a thermal spring and a beautiful creek.  The cold part of the creek rushes down a small waterfall and down past the thermal spring.  The spring starts in the back of a large cave and runs out into a pool that is very popular for swimming. 

I didn’t swim there, but I did cross the cold creek (in my Chacos) to take a look in the cave.  Of course I then had to go into the cave, because caves are so heckin’ cool.   I started just going in to my ankles, and then my thighs, and then I was belly deep in water.  Using a headlamp I was able to walk to a high side about 50 yards into the cave.  While walking I could hear the chatter (chirp-chirp-click-clickity-chirp) of bats.  Upon nearing the small bank, I looked up and saw thousands of bats in a giant blob, some sleeping and some wiggling around.  There were also some flying and others hanging alone but in the proximity of the blob.  Not wanting to get rabies or another common bat disease, I ran away like a little scardy cat. I’m pretty sure I didn’t contract any bat disease, but I guess only time will tell.  I also had a lot of contact with tick-infected grasses, so I may also die from tick bites.  Stay tuned for updates.

The cave made me unexplainably happy and I loved exploring there.  We then sat in the grass and soaked in the sun before heading back to the farm.  We then had a tour of the farm and helped with a couple small tasks that they trusted us to not mess up.  I spent time with the cows, who were much nicer than our cows.  Teja and I discussed many aspects of raising cattle in our homes and learned about the differences in each other’s styles.  I also fell completely in love with Mitsy, one of the cats.  She was orphaned at only three days old and Teja raised her, so she is very affectionate and loves people.  She spent many hours during those two days curled up in my arms with her face nuzzled into my hair.  They also had an incredibly sweet German Shepard named Isha, with whom I also spent an extraordinary amount of time. 

The next morning we went for a drive and a walk to a church positioned on the top of a hill.  We got an outstanding view in every direction.  I haven’t yet given Croatia or Slovenia they credit they deserve.  Both countries are gorgeous.  They both contain stunning forests, which were at their best for us because of the spring blooms.  They both have large mountains and rolling hills.  The farms are covered in green grass and beautiful yellow flowers (I believe from canola plants).  The towns and villages are small and quaint.  Every aspect of the countries was magnificent.

On our walk we passed several farms positioned high on the hill sides.  I stopped to pet some horses over the fence.  I reached over and they started walking toward me.  Now, let me remind you that I am generally an intelligent person, but we all have our moments.  It took not once, not twice, but three electrocutions before I realized I shouldn’t touch the top wire on the fence.  I am not used to living with electric fences, and it was quite a shocking experience.

So we walked around and saw beauty on all sides.  We then returned to the farm and went for a final short walk to a nearby creek where beavers live.  There was quite a big wet-land area between us and the beavers, so we took the long way around.  We made it to the creek and went for a short stroll while looking for beavers.  We didn’t find any, but we did find the “beaver man” who essentially has taken it upon himself to live alongside the beavers to protect them from human development.  Apparently, a few years back the private owners were considering selling the land to the government to create more houses, so he bought it and now spends his days studying and protecting them. 

We decided we wanted to take the short route back to the farm and thought, “It’s probably not that wet and muddy”. Ha.  We plowed through the waist high grass trying to step carefully on high spots and avoid getting too wet.  Eventually we gave up and just began sloshing and slurping through the mud.  Again, thank goodness for Chacos.  However, the mud splashed and covered my pants completely.  No matter, we laughed as we went deeper and deeper into the mud before emerging on the other side.

Alas, our time in Slovenia was coming to an end.  After another delicious homemade meal (and cleaning off a lot with the hose), we said our goodbyes and I attempted to hide Mitsy in the car.  We set forth on the long journey back and got back to Ostrava after midnight.  It was one of the most amazing trips of my life and I will never forget it.  I hope to return to Slovenia and Croatia again someday.


Other than Mitsy, I’ve had a lot of contact with cats this week.  First, Gesa and I went to the cat café in Ostrava while we planned our trip.  It’s a café…full of cats!  I got coffee and chocolate cake and spent my time surrounded by cats.  The cats have a plethora of places to climb, sleep, and play.  They are allowed on the tables and counters.  They make their rounds and spend time with all the people.  It’s a dream come true.

Slovenia and Croatia also had a lot of cats.  I chased and pet many of them.  Also, this week I realized something interesting about myself.  Well, actually, Gesa pointed it out to me.  Every time I see a cat, I make this small, excited gasping sound.  Every single time.  It’s always exactly the same.  And I never make that sound for any other reason. Gesa has now spent so much time with me that if we are walking and I make the sound, she immediately starts looking around for a cat.  Even now that I know I’m doing it, I can’t stop. 

Another week has come and gone, and I’m another week closer to coming home.  This weekend I will be in Budapest and will have more to share when I get back to Ostrava.  Much love to everyone.

Oh, and here is a video of my Croatian Vacation! Enjoy!

Penultimate Week in Ostrava (4/25-5/4)

“In the end, what you do isn’t going to be nearly as interesting or important as who you do it with.”

John Green

As I have said before and will undoubtedly say again, the most incredible part of my time abroad has not been the traveling or the destinations, but the people with whom I have shared these experiences.  One of my favorite things we have done the past few weeks is join together in the evenings to eat foods from each of our homes.  Gloria prepared a typical meal of northern Italy, Polenta.  Domi made a dinner from Slovakia.  Yaren served Mercimek köftesi from Turkey. 

And finally, last week I took my turn.  After my presentation at Nation4Nation, everyone wanted to try the savory version of fry bread, so that’s what I prepared.  I invited 10 people to eat with me, so I spent the better part a day preparing food for everyone.  During the afternoon I made the dough, some regular and some vegan, and I sliced vegetables.  In the evening we gathered in the kitchen and I had my little worker bees roll and stretch the dough into the correct size while I fried them. 

We wanted to eat them fresh so as they came out of the pan we immediately ate them.  They were a huge hit and we kept eating and eating.  We were in the kitchen cooking for several hours and consumed nearly all the dough I had made, which was enough for 30-40 tacos.  It was a wonderful evening full of laughter and food and I am so happy I was able to share it with such amazing people.


This week’s main event was a trip to Budapest with Gloria and Yaren.  We also met two of Gloria’s friends there and spent the weekend exploring the beautiful city.  Budapest is full of beautiful and spectacular buildings.  The highlights of which included St. Stephen’s Basilica, Parliament, and the Buda Castle.  We were able to enter the Basilica and climb a bunch of stairs into the dome, where we then went outside and had a wonderful view of the city. 

We appreciated Parliament from the outside, where there were protests and events happening in the square.  The castle was the highlight for me, and we visited it twice because of how amazing it was.  The first night we climbed up to it and had a perfect night view of the city.  We were able to overlook the Danube River and the city lights.  The second day we visited at sunset when the sky was a beautiful pink and purple. 

We visited Margaret Island, which is a small island park in the Danube.  It was a great place to relax for part of the afternoon (and for me to take a power nap). 

We also climbed Gellert Hill to Liberty Statue, which is a memorial for those who gave their lives fighting for Hungary’s independence.  The hill also offered a nice view of Budapest.

The highlight of our time in Budapest was surely the boat ride on the Danube we took.  It departed at 10 pm and lasted for two hours.  During that time we sat on top of the boat where we had a great 360o view.  We also got champagne upon entering the boat and were able to go back and get more.  We rode under the famous bridges and along the banks of beautiful and historic buildings.  Part way through our tour, a large storm rolled in.  The water got rough and we were hit with a lot of wind.  We eventually were told we had to leave the top of the boat because a bunch of cabbages1 left their champagne glasses sitting on the deck, which became a safety hazard in the wind because glasses were flying around and shattering everywhere.  I was not pleased by the idiocy that forced me to leave my perfect spot.

We were able to find places on the next level down that had a decent view, but not as good as on the top.  We still sat outside while it rained, and just made sure we were under the little roof, so no glass would fall atop our heads.  Overall, it was a beautiful and fun experience and I shared it with amazing friends.

1. Cabbage (n.) – my family’s favorite word for people who do stupid/annoying/thoughtless actions

Hansel and Gretel (2019 Edition)

Once upon a time there were two girls named Yaren and Becca.  They were students living in Ostrava.  One day they were riding the train from Prague back to their homes and they met a small and sweet old lady named Jana.  She spoke only broken English but conversed through pictures and body language the entire train ride.  She lived only 45 minutes from Ostrava in a small village called Třinec.  She invited the young girls to visit her at her home.

Months later Becca contacted Jana and made plans to visit the forest near Třinec.  Jana enthusiastically agreed to showing the girls around the woods near her home.  So Yaren and Becca set off early in the morning on the train.  Jana was waiting for them at the train station and immediately ran to them and gave them hugs.  They boarded a bus together and went further into the wilderness. 

They then began climbing the mountains.  Jana would stop and show the young girls different plants that are edible, and they would all have a taste.  The three of them climbed up and up.  Jana showed no sign of tiring, despite her age and small stature.  Becca kept dropping pins on google maps so as to know where the trail was for future reference.  The forest was a beautiful lush green.  The view was spectacular. 

They kept climbing until they reached a cabin on top of the mountain.  After just a short break to look at the view, they continued hiking along the ridgeline.  Two hours later they came to another cabin, where they followed Jana inside.  The young, trusting girls then sat with Jana and had some food.

They then went back down the mountain by a different route, and several more hours passed before they reached another small village.  They then took a bus and a train to first go back to Třinec.  At Třinec, Jana left the train and they all said their goodbyes.  The girls made their way safely home to Ostrava.

The End

Jana is an amazing woman and we are so lucky to have met her.  She was incredibly cheerful and full of life.  She taught us about the forest and the surrounding area.  She clearly loves being outside and doing many different activities.  She has been teaching herself English the past few years and loved the opportunity to converse with us in English.  I will never forget the small lady we met on the train who took us on an amazing adventure through the woods.

One other interesting adventure this week was a tour we took one night into the underground of Ostrava.  There are old bomb shelters used during World War II, and a local took us into them and showed us around.  They were both very interesting and very creepy.  It was a fun and strange experience.

I am now preparing for the end of my time here.  I already said goodbye to Domi, who left us last week.  Tomorrow I say goodbye to Tanja and Keisha.  On Sunday I say goodbye to almost everyone else, as I will be departing for three weeks in Italy, Spain, France, and the UK.  By the time I return to Ostrava, most of my friends will be gone.  I have no words to express how much I will miss the people I have met here.  I am so grateful for the relationships I have formed and know that each of these people changed my life.  I will keep in contact with them over the years and hopefully our paths will cross again.

Italy! (5/6-5/21)

“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”

Neale Donald Walsch

Right now I’m sitting in an Italian café eating a cannoli, writing, and really living the dream.  However, my last week in Ostrava was not as great as this week has been.  After returning from Budapest, I settled in for my last week in Ostrava.  I knew it would be a hard week because I had to say goodbye to some of my closest friends.  On top of that, I sustained a bad ankle sprain while playing soccer and ended up on crutches and in a lot of pain.  Unfortunately, this put a damper on my plans both in Ostrava and for the beginning of my trip to Italy.  I had to cancel my train trip and go by plane instead because then I would have friends with me and wouldn’t have to walk nearly as much.  After only a couple days I was “walking” again, and nearly two weeks since the injury I am now doing okay with getting around but still experiencing a lot of pain.  Oh well, it’s in my family’s nature to be injured so I’m used to it by now.

I first had to say goodbye to Tanya, with whom I became very close during the past six weeks.  She is an incredible person who really helped me step out of my comfort zone and pushed me to grow.  She is very confident and brave, and thus helped me to be so also.  She is also one of the most caring and supportive people I’ve ever met, so she has been a real light during my time here.  I wish we could have spent more time together, but I appreciate every second that we did.

Next was Julia, whom I consider to be one of my best friends, not only in Ostrava but in the world.  She was one of the people I have really opened up to and appreciate her advice and thoughts greatly.  She has an incredible sense of humor and we spent so much time laughing together.  She also pushed me to grow and improve during my time in Ostrava and helped me relax and have fun in situations where I may have felt uncomfortable in the past.  She amazes me because she already spent three months working in Wisconsin, did Erasmus in Ostrava, and is headed to Canada next week to work in a summer camp.  She is brave, smart, and fun-loving, and I hope to visit her in Canada in August.

On her last day in Ostrava, we stumbled upon a hamburger festival, which was the most American thing I’ve seen since being over here.  There was a large Hummer with the American flag on it advertising American soft drinks.  One of these was Arizona Iced Tea and I was so excited I made all my friends try it.  I also made them try corn dogs, which they loved, and we all ate hamburgers.  It was raining and cold the entire time, but we splashed in puddles, sang to the music, and enjoyed good food.

After my hard goodbyes, I set off on a month-long trip.  The first week of which has been spent in Italy, and the first few days I was accompanied by friends from Ostrava. It began in Pisa where we met with Elisa, one of Gloria’s friends, and she let us stay in her apartment for the night.  We visited the Leaning Tower of Pisa both at night and the next morning.   And we ate pizza.  A lot of pizza. She invited a group of her friends to go out with us, and we had what is called giro pizza.  The chefs choose what pizzas to bring to us and they just keep different kinds coming.  It’s all-you-can-eat and allows you to try many different types.  I ate at least a pizza and a half by myself.

The next day we took a bus to Rome.  This is where our story becomes crazy. We were warned by the Italians that Rome is chaotic and intense, but we didn’t comprehend what that meant until we experienced it first-hand.  It began on the bus.  We boarded a FlixBus, one of the biggest companies in Europe to embark on the 5.5 hour trip.  FlixBus is well-known and all of their buses are bright green with the name in big orange letters.  They have a bathroom, wifi, and charging ports.  For the first hour and a half, everything was perfect.  But at that point, the driver came on the speaker and said something in Italian.  Someone translated for us and said we were going to stop soon to change buses.  Okay, no problem. 

Well, the “stop” was not an actually bus stop and instead just the side of the highway.  And the bus we changed to was old, sketchy, and definitely not a regular Flixbus.  It was full of people who exited their bus and we all switched places.  Okay, no problem.

We got on the bus and sat down.  I went to keep working on some stuff and realized there were no charging ports and no wifi. That’s okay, I could manage to work without the internet. No problem.

But then, I came to the realization that there was no bathroom on the bus.  Now, I had a problem.  For a while a crossed my legs and thought about literally anything else, but it was not a fun time.  I kept thinking about how many more hours I had to wait.  Luckily, we stopped at a bus station to drop some people off and we were given ten minutes to find a bathroom.  I swear we had to run a quarter mile to find it, but we did.  And now I know to never count on Flixbus providing a bathroom (even though it says when booking that there will be one on board…).

View of Pisa

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  We got to Rome and, long story short, Rome is incredibly unorganized.  We had bought tickets online for the Colosseum and Vatican to make our time there easier.  So upon arriving we were supposed to stop at a ticket booth to pick them up.  Well essentially everyone in Rome just tells you that you need to go somewhere else and pay more money for whatever it is you’re looking for.  Tired, hungry, and wet from the rain, we finally made it to our bus stop to get to our AirBnb.  The bus was supposed to come in 3 minutes.  And again in 20 minutes.  And again in 40.  Well it finally came after about 45 minutes, at which point I was ready to turn around and get the heck out of Rome.

At our AirBnb, our host was incredibly kind, offered us free wine, and pointed us in the direction of a pizzeria.  We drowned our sorrows in wine and pizza.  Then, back at the AirBnb, we decided to order more pizza (less than an hour later, from the same pizzeria…).  So we ate pizza again, and drank more wine.

The next morning we headed to the Colosseum.  It was incredible and historic.  However, we learned important lessons about scam artists, from people on the street bullying you into giving them money to actual employees at the Colosseum being dishonest.  For example, we needed to reserve a time to enter the Colosseum, and we asked a man wearing an information vest where to go, and he said all tickets until the afternoon were already sold out.  But we had Vatican tickets in the afternoon, and we had already paid for the entrance online.  He tried to convince us that the only to get in during the morning was to buy a guided tour for $40 each. 

We left him and walked through the crowd of other people trying to take our money, and after wandering for another 30 minutes, we found a small booth where we could make reservations.  And I’ll be darned, there were tickets available for 30 minutes later!

Relieved, we spent time in Palatine Hill and the Colosseum.  Once we learned that we shouldn’t talk to anyone or make eye contact and attempt to be as invisible as possible, we really enjoyed the beauty and the history of the area.

We grabbed some pizza and pasta for lunch and set off for the Vatican.  On the way we stopped at a highly rated gelato place and had our lives thoroughly changed by the magnificence of it. Really, thank goodness for the food, because otherwise I may have exploded from stress.

Have I mentioned the terrible public transportation? Well, we left ourselves plenty of time to get to Vatican city before our time to enter.  However, after walking to the subway station and finding it closed (with no warning, I might add), we desperately tried to find a different route.  The next closest subway stations were 15 minutes away in the wrong direction, and finally we gave up and got a taxi.

We arrived at the Vatican on the wrong side to enter where we needed and with only one minute to spare.  We took off running, but it still took 15 minutes to get to where we needed to be.  Thank goodness Italians are not the most punctual people because they still let us enter.  Once inside, we had a wonderful time enjoying the museums and Sistine Chapel.  It was towards the end of the day, so there weren’t many people and we were able to take our time and appreciate the art and the history.

In summary, Rome has magnificent places to visit, but it is by far the most stressful city I have ever been to.  We should have planned more days so we wouldn’t have felt so rushed, but also, I’m not sure my brain could have handled another day in the city.

The next day we took a bus to Florence, where Elisa met back up with us.  We decided to take a much more laid-back approach in Florence, and just wandered around, enjoying the beautiful city, eating pasta and gelato, and drinking coffee.  Have I mentioned my deep love of Italian coffee? Truly, it’s incredible.  We took a long walk through the quiet streets and reached a panoramic view over the city.  And that night, we enjoyed a very nice dinner of pasta and wine, as well as Tiramisu. 

After that we went to a bar to listen to live music and have a drink, and after we went for a walk in the city at night.  It was overcast and a little rainy, but it was a lovely night.  Eventually we made our way to a bridge over the Arno river and sat on the bridge for over an hour, enjoying the night and each other’s company.

The next day I parted ways with my friends and headed to Turin.  I arrived late on Saturday night and met with Laura (another of Gloria’s friends), and we went to dinner, where we had…(you guessed it) pizza.  We went back to Laura’s place for the night.  I’ve spent the last few days in Turin.  It’s a big-ish city, but really has a nice vibe and more laid-back feel.  There are a lot of beautiful churches, squares, and buildings.  I’ve had a nice time with Laura and a friend of hers, Sara. 

Last night Laura and I made gnocchi together.  This required a lot of hand-on mashing of potatoes, kneading together potatoes, eggs, and flower, and rolling the dough into Playdoh style snakes.  It turned out really well and we had so much fun cooking together.

Tonight I leave for Spain.  I was supposed to fly to Barcelona and then take a bus to my destination, but I received an email yesterday that my flight was cancelled.  So now I will spend 12 hours on a bus overnight tonight to reach Barcelona.  Man, transportation has been a real experience. 

Overall, Italy has been a remarkable place to visit.  I have greatly enjoyed the food, history, and beauty.  I’ve shared my time with amazing people.  Personally, I prefer the smaller cities, but Rome was also a great place to visit and I’m glad I went.  I just recommend you prepare yourself for chaos if you plan to visit there.

Next week a friend from the US will join me in London.  The week after I meet my family in Prague.  I will have a few days in Ostrava to say my final goodbyes to my dear friends there, and then I will be headed home. I can’t wait to see everyone!

Pyrenees, Spain (5/22-5/27)

“In every walk with nature, one receives far more than she seeks.”

John Muir

The start of my Spanish adventure was, well, exactly that: an adventure.  I mentioned before that my flight from Turin to Barcelona was cancelled.  I was young and gung-ho, and so I booked a bus ticket.  Let me tell you, 12 hours on a bus is a long time.  And then, I got off the bus, walked for five minutes, and took another bus for four more hours.  It was a loooooong day.

At long last I arrived in Huesca, Spain, and soon met Silvia, a bright and wonderful lady who worked with my mom at NAU a few years back.  She drove me another hour and half to her home in the Pyrenees mountains.  Her home, Boltaña, is a village of a few hundred people.

I spent the following five days essentially at the end of the world, visiting villages that ranged in population from 17 (yes, 17) to a few hundred.  I met locals and immersed myself in the small-Spanish-town life. 

I visited ruins of old castles settled high on the hills above the villages.  I visited rivers and waterfalls.  I visited mountains and forests.  It was an extraordinary place to visit.

The villages in the area were constructed during medieval times, and thus were all made of stone, all weathered and worn, and some on the verge of collapse.  The nature is well preserved because it is the Ordesa and Monte Perdido National Park.  We were able to drive into the park and go hiking.  On several occasions we set off on easy-to-moderate hikes that led to beautiful destinations.  I would have liked to do more difficult ones, but my ankle is not in good shape.

We hiked several miles at a time and always ended at beautiful areas.  I saw different canyons and waterfalls.  One day we hiked in the mountains while Ordesa, the highest peak in the area loomed above us.  Many of the large mountains were formed by glaciers and thus have the beautiful, sheer look that I love.

The colors on the landscape during the hikes varied from bright green spring leaves, to red rocks in the canyons, to turquoise water.  I never tired of looking around and appreciating the beauty of the place I called home for a few days.

As for food, the main traditional food from the area I ate was croquettes: left over foods from stew mixed with béchamel, bread-rolled, and fried.  I arrived at the perfect time, on the first night of the area’s croquette festival, during which many restaurants in the area sell their croquettes with a beer so people can walk around and taste many different ones.  Over the course of my time there, I ate a lot of them.  I even tried some filled with octopus and squid.

There isn’t much I can say that the pictures won’t say better.  I spent my time connecting with nature and with locals in small villages.  It was different from any experience I have ever had and I am incredibly grateful for the time I spent there.

The final days (5/28-6/16)

After my time in Spain, I arrived in London and stayed with a wonderful couple my mom was able to connect me with.  The absolute best part of the week was having one of my best friends, Jacy, fly from California to spend time with me.  Jacy and I studied chemistry together at NAU and she and I became incredibly close.  At the very last minute, she decided to use my dad’s benefits to join me.  We had an amazing time together and I could not be happier that she made the trip to see me. 

On our first day we headed into central London to do all the tourist attractions.  We saw Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, and everything else that are well known.  After just one afternoon there, we felt very satisfied with that part of London and decided to spend our remaining days seeing different places.  We spent time in the amazing parks of London, including the well-known Hampstead Heath park, where we enjoyed the sunshine at the exclusive “Ladies Pond”.

One day we took a train out of London to the shore.  We went for a hike along the unique white cliffs and enjoyed the small beach towns, where we ate fresh fish and chips. The hike was very beautiful and unlike anywhere I have ever been.  The ocean was calm and we walked high over it with a beautiful view extending out to the horizon.  We also walked some along the shore, looking in tide pools and the rocky beaches.

We visited several other small districts that were recommended to us and just walked through the cute London streets and explored the area.  We had a very laid-back attitude and we enjoyed good food and beer, as well as each other’s company.  After five days in London, we packed up and flew to Prague, where I reunited with my family.

It was amazing to see my parents and sister again after so long.  I missed them so much and it is unreal that they are finally here with me again.  We spent a couple days in Prague where I showed them some of my favorite places.  It was much different than in March because it was very hot and everything was in bloom.  The parks were green and gorgeous.

We went to the Prague castle and cathedral, as well as Vyšehrad.  We walked along the river and ate good food.  My dad and I found an old bell tower that was probably supposed to be closed, but we went inside and climbed the rickety stairs to the top.  It was very interesting, and we just had to walk slowly and disperse our weight so as not to fall through the floor.

After a few days in Prague, we said goodbye to Jacy and sent her back home.  We continued on to Brno, Czechia for a couple days.  Although Brno is the second biggest city in Czechia, we didn’t spend any time in the city.  Our main destination was the Moravsky Karst and Macocha Gorge.  This area has very interesting topological and geological features which lead to beautiful caves.  The land is composed of karst, which is formed when water erodes sedimentary rocks, such as limestone, and creates cave systems formed by rivers underground.  These landscapes are known for sink holes, as well as caves with stalagmites and stalactites, formed from calcium in the water dripping through cracks in the ceiling.

As you may know, I love caves, so I had a splendid time exploring the caves.  We even got to take a boat tour on the river inside the cave!  The natural formations in the cave were beautiful and quite interesting.  The Machoca gorge was formed when one of the deep caves collapsed many years ago and is astonishing as well.  We were able to see it both from the bottom and the top.

We also took a day trip from Brno to Vienna and spent one day exploring the city.  Again, I was able to show my family the areas in Vienna I liked most, as well as the tourist spots.  After spending so much time over here, it is really fun to be able to show my family where I have been and to be so confident with the transportation, directions, and languages.

We then moved on to Ostrava where we had a more relaxed vacation.  We spent a lot of time sitting and drinking beer.  We also made it to the zoo and to Vitkovice (the industrial region), where I gave a small tour.  We also rode an elevator up into the town hall building to get a bird’s eye view of the city.  For me, the priority while in Ostrava was to enjoy a few final days with my friends, which I did successfully.  I spent many hours reunited with those remaining, including several of my closest friends.  We had a picnic in the park and beers at the pub.  I got to experience a few more laughs with everyone and share stories of my travels before heading on home.

On my last evening, a group of us climbed Halda Ema (the slag heap) one final time.  We got to the top right as a beautiful sunset covered the overcast sky.  We opened beers and watched as the sky changed to different colors, and eventually went dark.  Then we watched as a lightning storm rolled in, illuminating the sky around us.  We sat for over an hour, talking and watching the storm.  When finally it began to rain, we headed down the hill and walked back.  It was a perfect way to end my time in Ostrava.

I’ve slowly been saying goodbyes to people for a while.  I said goodbye to several close friends before going on my travels, but these last few days have been packed with tough farewells.  Each day I said goodbye to someone else.  I will miss my life and the people here more than I can express. 

We then headed back to Vienna for the weekend to participate in Europride.  On Friday evening and Saturday we joined 500,000+ people in a celebration of LGBTI pride.  We marched in the rainbow parade which took over five hours in 95 degree heat.  The amount of joy and love shared among the people around us made for a powerful and beautiful day. 

On Sunday we flew to London, where we had a huge dinner at the pub and settled in for the night.  We made it home on Monday evening, and I’ve been adjusting back to regular life.

Final Thoughts

“How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”

Winnie the Pooh

Looking back 5 months, it’s incredible to think how far I have come and how much I have changed.  When I left to come to Europe, I was terrified, home sick, and completely unsure about my upcoming experience.  I sat and cried when I said goodbye to my loved ones, feeling like 5 months was too long. And now as I sit on the train leaving Ostrava behind, I have tears in my eyes again.

This has been the most rewarding thing I have ever done.  My eyes have been opened by travelling to incredible places and meeting amazing people.  I will never have the words to express how grateful I am for the people I met while studying abroad.  I have formed connections so deep and pure with the people here.  Today my heart aches from the goodbyes, but I appreciate that they were so hard, because it means I was lucky enough to meet the best people imaginable.

I want to thank every person who has been part of my life in Ostrava for making my time so unforgettable.  From the friends with whom I travelled and spent every day to the friends I would sit and have a beer with once a week; you all impacted me more intensely than I ever thought possible.  I have loved every second I have spent with you and I will treasure those moments for the rest of my life.

Those closest to me not only brought me so much joy, but each had an impact on me and my view of the world.  Gesa taught me to be curious and always ask questions of the world around me.  Julia continually brought me outside my comfort zone and to helped me enjoy every moment in life.  Gloria reminded me how kindness and laughter are universal and can be shared despite any language barrier.  Yaren joined me in continual weirdness while also showing me the importance of learning about history and art and had an immense impact on my world view.  Iiro taught me to be brave and seize every opportunity and to laugh at all the little things in life.

And those are just the few I spent the most time with.  Every person I met changed me in some way.  I will steal a quote from a friend, Mustafa: “I am not the same person I am when I left, because now I am composed of little pieces of all the people I met while I was here.”  I carry every single person in my heart and in my thoughts, actions, and personality.

I have also grown as an individual immensely over the past months.  I am more courageous than I have ever been.  I have learned to travel on my own.  I have spent hours and days by myself, figuring out where to go and what to do.  I have slept in hostels, at strangers’ houses, and on trains.  I have fearlessly taken on new challenges, new cities, and new experiences.  There is something very powerful about learning to survive completely by yourself.

I am more confident in who I am than I ever thought possible.  For most of my life I have struggled, as many people do, with low self-esteem and lack of confidence.  Although this has been improving for the past couple of years, the last five months was the final step I needed to truly love myself in every regard.  I have seen the impact I can have on those around me and learned that I can completely be myself, and those who matter will continue to love me unconditionally.  I learned that I can be the first person to stand up and start dancing, and people will not laugh, but instead will smile and join.  I have learned that I do not need to hide in a crowd or behind others, but I can lead fearlessly and weirdly.  I finally can understand the quote from Dr. Seuss, “Do what you want and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”  And not only did those who matter not mind, but they loved me even more for standing out.  It is life-changing to be self-assured.

I am more curious about the world around me after having my eyes opened by my friends from around the world.  I am determined to spend time learning about the biology and geology around me so I can understand more about the planet, specifically around my home so I can fully appreciate the area where I live.  I am interested in learning more about the history and culture of people from around the world after meeting the amazingly diverse people here.  I have spent endless hours talking politics, religion, history, and culture with my international friends to get a sense of how the world works.  I have many new goals about becoming an informed individual upon my return because I feel as though I have been so naïve about the world.

I am a new and better version of myself.  I have grown and improved in many ways over these months and have come to love who I am now.  Seeing more of the world in this way, as well as meeting amazing people and living a different life style has completely opened my eyes.

I encourage everyone who has the means and opportunity to travel.  Especially, students, take your chance to study abroad.  See the world, meet the people, and experience the culture.  Go to cities and go to the countryside.  Talk to locals and eat foods that intimidate you.  Step outside of your comfort zone.  It is intimidating, and some days you are miserable and miss home.  But I would not trade this experience for anything.