“Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.”

I am going to die.

We all are, actually. One of life’s greatest mysteries is when this will happen and how, but we try not to dwell on it because life is about living and all of the joys and sorrows that come from the journey.

Unfortunately, events like the Boston Marathon bombings prove that life is much more fragile than we often realize in our day-to-day consciousness. In just a matter of moments, we can vanish simply because we were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

That’s a scary thought.

A thought that makes me, a 21-year-old who has a miles-long bucket list, not want to leave my brown leather couch and go out into the world. It’s also one that makes me feel incredibly far from home and vulnerable at this time when I’m living in a big city.

These events that put our lives into perspective seem to happen far too often. A few weekends ago, I went to the Anne Frank museum and was more affected by the visit than I ever expected I would be. Now, looking back, the visit seems to fall right in line with the tragic events that have been happening. I also think it can tell us a lot about patterns of human nature.

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I read Anne’s diary a long time ago and distinctly remember certain passages, even though I only read it once. Her diary is a profound insight into the way Jews were treated during the Holocaust, and is made all the more horrifying by the fact that she was just 13 when she started writing it.

Anne’s family moved to Amsterdam after the Nazis took control of Germany, so she lived there since she was a toddler. The museum is located in their Amsterdam home, which is the one they hid in, and ultimately, the one they were discovered in.

The self-guided tour takes you through every room in the house. Anne’s father, Otto, and the museum committee made the decision to leave all of the rooms bare. The effect is intended to remind visitors how the Nazis took everything, from furniture to memories, from the people in the Holocaust.

The set-up works. It works too well.

I felt chills the entire time I walked through. The white walls have quotes from Anne’s diary painted on them, but are otherwise blank and vacant. One notable exception is the pictures of Hollywood stars that Anne tacked up in her bedroom, which are left as if she just pinned them. The secret bookcase door also remains.

A2

In the museum, it’s easy to see how Anne was changed. In one room, testimonials from Anne’s surviving friends describe young Anne as a bossy, energetic, effervescent girl whom everyone loved. Her best friend’s mom said, “God knew everything, but Anne knew everything better.”

Over time, she became a serious, anxious and depressed teenager with one simple wish: to go outside. As visitors walk through the secret annex, they can stare at the black curtains that blocked the only windows in the rooms. The space is dark, the mood somber.

In her diary, Anne discusses how she and her family had to “tread lightly” during the day so the workers in her father’s factory wouldn’t know that people were hiding upstairs. As I went through, I too, tried to walk softly.

The room that was most difficult to be in was the room they were discovered in. How could Anne have known that when she walked into the annex, she would never be free again? The thought of Nazi boots stomping on the floorboards and the unforgiving soldiers dragging the Frank family out of the very room I was standing in broke my heart.

The checkered diary Anne received when she was 13 is the last item in the museum. It is her legacy. It is undoubtedly made powerful because the teenaged Anne describes her feelings in a mature and eloquent way. I could feel the pain from the pages while I was in the room. It’s a feeling that will stay with me both as a writer and as a human.

A4

Maybe these tragedies feel more real because I’m so far from home. I can’t imagine any wide-scale trauma happening and never seeing my family again without a word. That exact scenario happened to millions upon millions of people. Even now, the news of the bombings leaves me feeling saddened and vulnerable at the sudden, unexpected loss of life.

Anne’s death, which we can all agree happened far too early, is another eerie reminder that nothing is certain. The bombings, too, are terrifying signs of tragedy at the hands of other humans.

But both can remind of us how much good there still is. For as much as the Anne Frank museum disclosed about the trauma of the Holocaust, it also showed how many people went out of their way to keep Anne and her family in hiding. Otto’s factory staff grocery shopped for the family, bought them magazines and books, and defended the Franks until the last minute. Even in the concentration camps, Anne’s more fortunate friends snuck her extra food rations and risked their lives to come talk to her.

A3

Recently, we’ve all been encouraged by the stories of runners who kept jogging after they completed grueling 26-mile races to donate blood to the victims. We’ve seen the number of people who opened their homes to others, and are inspired by those who ran into, instead of away from, the smoke.

Tragedy is in human history. But if Anne’s story can teach us anything right now, it’s that the heart of life is good. We might be changed irreparably when these events occur, but we will carry an appreciation for our existence with us as we continue. We know that humans will rise up in the face of tragedy. Good people outnumber the bad. And life will go on.

So yes, we will die. And no, we most likely will not know when. But that’s better. There’s still reason to leave the couch. This is a privilege we have that Anne never did.

And there’s still reason to keep moving.

To keep running.

As Anne said, “Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.”

She’s right.

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A Weekend in the Weirdest Place on Earth

Amsterdam is the weird capital of the world.

If you know anything about Amsterdam, you’re probably pretty surprised I went there. Allison Pohle in a city where weed and prostitution are legal? Really? Yes. It happened. No, not any of those things, but me going to what I’m sure is the craziest city on the planet.

The G-rated Amsterdam

The G-rated Amsterdam

I had always wanted to go to Holland since I rode the “It’s a small world” ride at Disney. The Dutch dolls are the ones I remember the most. Apart from their painted-on, toothy grins, I remember a scene with lots of windmills and tulips and people in wooden shoes clogging around green hills. The whole set-up looked cheery and happy. Now maybe that isn’t the best reason to go, but our interest in traveling has to start somewhere, right?

I haven’t experienced much spring in London, which made my desire to go to Holland more intense. Even though I’m from Cleveland and am used to terrible weather, London’s dreariness has been getting me down. So tulips and sunshine? Yes, please.

As you know, the easiest way for a student to travel is by staying in hostels in big cities. Amsterdam is the most accessible city in Holland and it looked beautiful in pictures.

I knew it would be nuts, I just wasn’t prepared for how nutty it would be.

The first sign: our flight, which was about 80% male and 90% under the age of 30. It was also 70% full of intoxicated men drinking Heinekens. Might I add that we took off at 9:30 a.m.

When we got off the train in the city centre, I was hit with the unmistakable smell of weed. The stench never really went away for most of the trip. And neither did the joint sightings. I saw a 14-year-old with braces and frizzy red hair choking on a joint as she sat at a bus stop. I also saw a grandma and her teenaged grandson smoking joints together. Talk about bonding!

Amsterdam is very pretty, though!

Amsterdam is very pretty, though!

My friend Shelby and I were then charged with the task of getting to our hostel with no tram map. The metro system in Amsterdam is almost completely above ground and looks like the trams that go around the edges of Disneyworld (maybe my subconscious is channeling the Disneyworld Holland too much). Except instead of pictures of Mickey and Minnie, it’s all in Dutch. Somehow we managed to make it, but the Dutch tram system isn’t easy! There aren’t as many maps on the trains as there are on the tube, so I’m spoiled in London.

There may be trams, but most people use bikes!

There may be trams, but most people use bikes!

Our first stop was the Van Gogh museum. The earless artist lived in Amsterdam for much of his life.

Cypresses and Two Women

Cypresses and Two Women

I’ve developed a newfound appreciation for museums that are well-organized, and the Van Gogh museum was no exception. His paintings were arranged both chronologically and according to theme, some of which included his experimentation with Impressionism, Pointillism and Oriental Art. His favorite subjects were peasants. He went to live in peasant villages to paint them, and described their cottages as “little human nests,” which is a description I love.

Chillin' outside the Van Gogh museum

Chillin’ outside the Van Gogh museum

Undergrowth

Undergrowth

If there’s anything the museum taught me, it’s that it’s never too late to try something new. Van Gogh didn’t start painting until he was 27. I only wish he was able to apply the “never too late” philosophy to his own life. He only painted for 10 years.

Garden of St. Paul's Hospital

Garden of St. Paul’s Hospital

Shelby and I decided to go look for dinner after the museum and didn’t have much luck. We walked down endless canals, side streets and main stretches, which were very beautiful and reminded me a lot of Venice.

We finally found a restaurant and walked inside. As soon as we stepped in, I noticed that we didn’t quite fit in. The entire restaurant was full of Malaysian people who were having a private event. They seemed very surprised to see us, but in our defense, there was no sign on the door. We had to awkwardly squeeze between their chairs to get out as they stared at us.

In what was a change of pace, I feel like I did most of the wide-eyed staring throughout the trip. As we were walking and searching for dinner, I noticed a red lightbulb in a street lamp. “Oh” I said to myself. “The red light district.” I knew from friends who had visited Amsterdam that this was the area where prostitutes went to work. Then, as if on cue, I looked in a window and saw a 250-pound woman in a thong.

A8

Walking into the red light district intentionally is one thing, but stumbling into it unexpectedly is quite another. We were shocked, to say the least, and the sightings only got worse and more graphic. As we know, in the US, prostitution is very hush hush and shameful, but here men walked right up to women on the street and seemed cocky, if anything (sorry, I can’t help my puns). It made me sad to see these women turning to prostitution to make all of their money. Especially if you look at Amsterdam as an artsy city full of opportunities for artists and dancers.

A nicer side of the city

A nicer side of the city

The red light district is also full of “coffee shops” which are a pseudonym for places that sell weed. Most of them are called “coffeshop” on the street signs, so I’m not sure how they keep them straight! But between the enormous number of coffee and sex shops I had seen, I was very discouraged with Amsterdam. It was nothing like the Holland I was imagining, and worse, it seemed to be the eternal bachelor party, where endless gaggles of men who were stoned out of their minds trounced around in costumes and approached naked women. (Yes, I should’ve known better and I realize that).

The Venice of the North

The Venice of the North

Luckily, when we were on the tram, I saw a sign for Keukenhof Gardens. This place is the most photographed location in the world, and is what I think of as “tulip heaven.” I knew it wasn’t in Amsterdam and would be a side trip away, but I also knew that if I didn’t see the tulips my Holland trip wouldn’t really seem worth it.

Spring! Finally!

Spring! Finally!

My new BFF in the petting zoo. Don't worry, he liked me.

My new BFF in the petting zoo. Don’t worry, he liked me.

Clogging all the way to Holland

Clogging all the way to Holland

So off we went. And thank goodness we did. Although they weren’t completely in bloom, the tulip fields were vibrant and gorgeous. We walked down endless paths of flowers in the sunny weather. Finally, I felt like I was having spring in Europe. The tulips were also unlike anything I’d seen in Europe so far. They looked even better than the ones on the small world ride, too.

Gorgeous!

Gorgeous!

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Posing with the flowers

Posing with the flowers

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That afternoon we took a tour of the Heineken brewery. Our tour once again reinforced that Amsterdam caters to people living the “high life.” There were areas in the Heineken “experience” where you could lay down and watch TV screens. It was a lot like the Guinness tour I took in Dublin except this time there was a 4D ride where you got to pretend to be beer getting bottled. We got splashed with water and tousled around. It was pretty fun! We also got free samples, so who can argue with that?

Old logo

Old logo

The selfies continue, of course

The selfies continue, of course

Shelby and I took a cocktail cruise on Amsterdam’s famous canals that night. We were the only pair on board who wasn’t a couple. Oops. We had fun though, and Amsterdam proved that it could be very pretty at night, which made me warm up to it a little more.

Too bad this wasn't our boat!

Too bad this wasn’t our boat!

Views from the cruise

Views from the cruise

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The most memorable part of my trip by far was my visit to the Anne Frank museum, which deserves its own post. The museum was the best thing I did in Amsterdam, so the upcoming post is worth it!

We finished off the trip by taking a quick look into the diamond museum and taking pictures by the “I Amsterdam” letters. This proved to be quite the struggle because most people decided to have 10 minute photo shoots on the letters, and because a baby straddled me just as Shelby was going to take my picture (see below):

I promise this is candid. I'm clearly very annoyed at the girl hogging the "a"

I promise this is candid. I’m clearly very annoyed at the girl hogging the “a”

Getting ready to take the pic and the baby approaches

Getting ready to take the pic and the baby approaches

Um...hello there

Um…hello there

Much better!

Much better!

In every other city I’ve been to, I’ve thought, “I would love to come back some day.” I don’t feel that way about Amsterdam. It’s too cooky, too out there and, actually, too free.

Amsterdam did however give me the Anne Frank museum, which was worth the trip in itself. It gave me a greater appreciation for my ability to write freely, and it gave me a taste of springtime (no, not the leafy kind, thank you very much).

Until next time,

Allison, who is now finally having springtime in London

I Love One Direction. Here’s Why You Should, Too:

If you think they’re just teenage popstar wannabees who dress up in hipsterish clothes, sing bubbly tunes and make headlines with their female exploits, you’re wrong. They’re not wannbees, they are pop stars. And you shouldn’t hate on them too much.

Yes, I went to a One Direction concert and I loved every second of it. I got to attend a concert in a sold-out arena for one of the most popular bands of the year (their album Up All Night did debut at No. 1 in America. No other British band, not even The Beatles, has done this) and the concert was in their “home territory” as one of the first stops on their world tour.

Official merch.

Official merch.

So am I supposed to be embarrassed that I went to a 1D concert as a 21-year-old? If I am, then please talk to the 28-year-old women I saw wearing leopard print leggings who had “I heart Harry Styles” buttons on. Or the many moms toting 1D purses with the faces of the boys on them.

Brooke was so excited for the show she felt butterflies all day, and I’d be lying if I said I weren’t incredibly excited, too. I had always thought their songs were catchy, but it was their music videos for Kiss You and Red Nose Day that really sold me. If you don’t watch them, take my word for it: they’re so much fun.

That’s what One Direction is. Fun. There isn’t much substance to their songs. They have repetitive chorus sections; predictable key changes and their ballads are sung with sad teenage puppy dog eyes. But their “fun factor” is what makes them so charming. (They did get Prime Minister David Cameron to make a cameo in their Red Nose Day video, so it’s clear their charm is irresistible).

The doors to the concert opened at 6:30. Yes, you read that right. I had playfully teased Brooke that the concert was “for children,” but the rules were out into effect to help parents get their children home for reasonable bedtimes. Not too long ago, the Biebs caused quite the controversy when he was two hours late for his show. He made a lot of parents angry, and a lot of kids tired the next day at school. A lot of people had to leave the concert to get the last train home to the suburbs.

Giddy selfies while waiting for the concert

Giddy selfies while waiting for the concert

When we got to the O2 early that evening, we entered a land filled with the most enthusiastic pre-teen directioners in the world. Every single girl was thrilled beyond belief to be there. Some were already crying (read: sobbing). For these directioners, the opportunity to see their favorite band in a sold-out megacomplex would make for one of the most exciting days in their lives thus far.

Maybe band experiences are a little different now because of social media. Most of the girls who attend 1D’s concerts feel like they really know the boys on a personal level. They tweet at them, follow them on Instagram and have watched all of their YouTube video confessionals.

To them, this concert was their chance to show just how much they loved them. If it wasn’t made clear by all of the posters asking for the boys’ hands in marriage, it was made even more evident by the hopeful looks on all of their young faces.

This is what a sold-out O2 looks like

This is what a sold-out O2 looks like

Before the show, they deliberately picked out special outfits, which were inspired by their Tumblr pages, in the hopes that, even though they were sitting hundreds of rows back, just maybe one of the boys would see them amongst all of the other screaming fans and want to marry them. It’s very sweet.

I think that’s something we can all relate to. A deep love for music and the work that our favorite artists put out. That feeling is intensified in adolescence. We can all remember the days of listening to our favorite pop bands on endless loops in our rooms. When no one else in the world understood your younger self, you knew that you could turn to your favorite lyrics to solve your problems and give your life a little more meaning.

Look at all those cell phones taking pics

Look at all those cell phones taking pics

You’ve surely heard “What Makes You Beautiful,” the song that launched the band into stardom, one million times. To you, it might just be an overplayed pop song with a catchy chorus that gets stuck in your head. But to 1D’s audience, which is 98% female and 90% under the age of 18, it’s personal.

“You’re insecure, Don’t know what for, You’re turning heads when you walk through the door, Don’t need make-up to cover up, Being the way that you are is enough, Everyone else in the room can see it, Everyone else but you.”

<3

<3

To little directioners, these words make them feel less alone in the world. Like someone can actually love them and think they’re beautiful just for who they are. There’s no time that’s more important to hear that than as a teenage girl.

When we were in line to get in, I heard a girl ask her friend in a low, serious tone, “Do you think I should do it? Should I yell ‘I love you’ to Harry?”

And this was only the beginning of the confessionals. Girls were not shy about their feelings as the concert went on. I heard many “I’m going to have a heart attack!” “I think I’m going to ex-plode!” And of course, endless “Oh my gawd, oh my gawd” refrains.

The concert was deafening because of all of the high-pitched screams, but it was endlessly entertaining. The setlist is clearly rehearsed and the jokes in between songs fit in as perfect introductions to the next songs. The boys jumped around the stage, sang (live, might I add) their hearts out into microphones and Niall (my favorite, obviously) even played guitar. So they aren’t completely useless musicians.

"AHHHHH!"

“AHHHHH!”

It was incredible to see the parents near us mouthing the words and swaying to the music. Some were even jumping up and down alongside their grade-school children. They have played the CDs on endless loops in their cars. The lyrics have provided the soundtrack to drives to dance lessons, the grocery store and school. Maybe these parents have even left the CD in the CD player when their kids have gotten out of the car because they enjoy it.

Because One Direction is fun. And we all need pure, uninhibited fun sometimes. I can say that I’ve never seen my sister more happy than she was during the 90-minute, 21-song set, and I definitely rode the “1D high” home to my apartment where I gushed about how great it was to my roommates.

After all, we need an excuse to scream so much we feel lightheaded, dance without a care in the world and sing at the tops of our lungs.

Hi, Niall.

Hi, Niall.

We also all need to feel like we’re wanted, and One Direction, more than any other boy band at this moment, makes its directioners feel needed. It makes them feel important without demoralizing them. They “don’t need makeup” and know that someone cares about them even though they’ve “never loved (their) stomach or their thighs.”

So bring on the bubbly songs. When 1D comes to the U.S. this summer, it will undoubtedly be received with ear-piercing screams and tears from millions of devoted fans. But as long as they continue to put on energetic shows full of fun and encouraging messages, I say they’re headed in the right direction.

Until next time,

Allison, who would gladly marry Niall

A Moveable Feast (Also known as a weekend in Paris)

I took French for seven years, but before this weekend, my mental images of France were limited to the pictures of teenagers wearing berets and ’90s clothing who filled the pages of my textbooks and of scenes from my favorite Disney movie, Beauty and the Beast. I knew that neither was probably accurate to Paris, the city of lights. The city of love.

If you’ve never been to Paris, you might imagine it as a city where people wear black berets, take long drags from cigarettes and carry around baguettes. In your mind, the joy and debauchery of the 1920s might still be present, with writers sitting in cafes and meandering the streets as they searched for inspiration.

Bonjour, Paris!

Bonjour, Paris!

In reality, you might not be too far off. To me, it seemed that Paris did try to maintain its chic, ’20s-era image that fills black and white pictures. It was a time of new excitement after the war when anything was possible, but when a certain longing and sadness hung in the air.

Paris is expected to be perfect. My friend Celia recently posted an article by a British journalist that talks about how there’s an unspoken agreement to always paint Paris in a positive, dreamlike light.  “Oh, you’re going to Paris!” people will say with jealousy when they find out you’re going. And it’s true. People don’t speak of other cities that way. After all, no one tries to hide the fact that London can be grey and dreary.

Some of the first sites I saw in Paris

Some of the first sites I saw in Paris

As I stepped off the chunnel after a two-hour ride through the French countryside and under the English Channel, I expected a city full of people wearing chic clothing while riding bicycles. Maybe even a sighting of Pierre, the stereotypical French teen from my textbooks.

I, too, expected the dreamlike Paris.

Instead, I saw a very different Paris.

I love the gates!

I love the gates!

Am I allowed to report what I saw? Don’t get me wrong; Paris is beautiful. If you just look at the buildings, Paris is tres belle. Most of the architecture seems to embody a French-Classicism style and living spaces are lined with intricate wrought-iron gates. There are also spacious parks paved with large gravel pathways and endless cafes lining the streets.

Look a little closer and you’ll see graffiti. There’s graffiti everywhere. Not street art, like in London (although we do have graffiti, too) but tags with the names of rebellious vandals who made their mark on the otherwise picturesque city.

Typical

Typical

We took a cab to our hotel because the metro overwhelmed us (the metro is a whole different story, but I’ll get back to that later), and were ripped off by a cab driver who overcharged us. (We didn’t find this out until the next day). Bienvenue a Paris! He was actually very friendly, but it’s probably because he was riding the high of ripping off American tourists.

The stadium seats

The stadium seats

We first walked to Notre Dame. I think my entire family was slightly disappointed. This year is the 850th anniversary and the entire front of the cathedral is blocked by a huge row of stadium seats where people are supposed to sit and admire the building, but are instead talking on cell phones and eating croissants (hey, I don’t blame them for the last one). Because of this, it’s impossible to take a picture of the front of the building while getting the whole cathedral in the frame.

The inside was very dim and dark and surprisingly enough, there were TV screens inside. They were put there to help people see the service that would otherwise be blocked by the tall pillars, but having TVs seems to take away from the ambiance of the old church.

It's pretty hard to get a picture without them!

It’s pretty hard to get a picture without them!

The workers also ask for silence, but then charged for audioguides to hear about the history of the church. I know that audioguides are a convenient way to give information to the masses, but it seems a little hypocritical to have noisemaking objects in a place that asks for silence. (Notre Dame isn’t the only church to do this, so I can’t single it out). On top of all of that I didn’t see Quasimodo or Esmeralda!

We also walked into this famous bookstore!

We also walked into this famous bookstore!

And watched people put locks on the lock bridge

And watched people put locks on the lock bridge

Afterwards, we walked to Saint Chappelle, which was originally built to house Jesus’ crown of thorns. The crown has since been moved to Notre Dame, but the chapel remains and has the most beautiful stained glass windows in the world.

Wow

Wow

Tres belle!

Tres belle!

We then took a long walk to the Louvre. Inside, we saw the Venus de Milo, the Winged Victory and a Sphinx. You would not believe the number of people who race up to these famous pieces, snap pictures and dart away. Or the number of people who take selfies by the works.

Da Vinci Code, anyone?

Da Vinci Code, anyone?

And, of course, we saw the Mona Lisa. It was one of Da Vinci’s favorite paintings. He loved it so much he carried it with him until he died. Imagine, being so proud of something you can’t bear to let it out of your sight. And just like the movie says, the most fascinating part is her smile. There’s something about her smile that’s really calm, but seems to hint that she’s thinking about something in particular. Of what we’ll never know.

There's that smile.

There’s that smile.

We spent the evening meandering the streets. We noticed that all of the chairs in the cafes face outward so that you sit next to the people you’re eating with and can people watch. People sit to see and be seen. I personally loved how all of the seats were next to one another. It means that even if you are eating alone, you aren’t really alone. You might remember that people eating alone makes me incredibly sad, so the café set-up really touched me. Maybe it isn’t exactly that amiable in reality, but the Paris café situation seems lovely in my mind.

Not so lonely! Maybe

Not so lonely! Maybe

My favorite cafe menu item: crepes!

My favorite cafe menu item: crepes!

The next day we went to the Musee d’Orsay, which features works from 1848-1915. We mainly went to see all of the Monet pieces. Monet is my favorite artist, and in my advanced art class in eighth grade I recreated one of his water lily bridge scenes on a shelf. It turned out pretty well if I do say so myself.

My painting. Just kidding.

My painting. Just kidding.

I have seen a lot of incredible paintings in my time abroad, but none of them have meant as much to me Monet’s. I’ve seen too many naked women in my time here, and the flower scenes have always made me feel the calmness and tranquility that Monet tried to capture in his Parisian landscapes.

That afternoon we went on a tour of Paris with a guide. We spent quite a lot of time in the car listening to her teach us more about the city. We saw all of the main sites (including the Eiffel Tower for the first time in our visit), Les Invalides where Napoleon is buried (well, some of him. His penis is supposedly in New Jersey) and the beautiful Sacre Coeur, which is on top of a huge hill.

Les Invalides

Les Invalides

Missing something, Napoleon?

Missing something, Napoleon?

Sacre Coeur

Sacre Coeur

I didn’t speak too much French while I was abroad. I used basic French to help ask for directions and to order a few times, but I felt surprisingly panicked most of the time I tried to use it. My heavy American accent showed through any type of pronunciation I tried to use, and it made me feel really embarrassed. I give a lot of credit to my friends studying abroad in Paris, because it isn’t an easy city to be a foreigner in.

That night we had our own midnight in Paris adventure (I know, how many times am I going to make that joke) and went to the Eiffel Tower. Unbeknownst to us, the tower had been evacuated because of a bomb threat just three hours before we got there. It reopened just as we were stepping off the metro to walk towards it.

Family photo! Minus one

Family photo! Minus one

I think everyone in my family said “ooh” “ah” and “wow” dozens of times as we looked at the tall beauty when it was all lit up. We didn’t go all the way to the top, but the view was still amazing. While standing on the platform, I could see why Paris is called the city of lights. Tiny glowing dots were peppered in the blackness. I felt almost out of my own body and partly removed from the world as I looked down. Of course, the romanticism didn’t last too long because it was cold and windy and I was surrounded by middle-schoolers taking selfies. Still, it was nice to be momentarily removed and thinking of the world passing by underneath.

Ooh la la!

Ooh la la!

All of the lights

All of the lights

The next day I was Belle. Just kidding. I didn’t read a book while walking through the streets, but I would have if I had one. We went to the Sunday Markets where locals were buying huge baguettes, pieces of meat and fresh produce for their Easter meals. It felt quintessentially French, with the specialized stores for fromage and charcuterie.

Name this movie: "Marie, the baguettes! Hurry up!"

Name this movie: “Marie, the baguettes! Hurry up!”

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Obviously I was drawn to this shop

Obviously I was drawn to this shop

At this point, we had been taking the metro for a full day. We knew that it would be smelly (think urine) and filled with endless graffiti. Unlike in London, lots of homeless people take up residence in the metro stations. There are homeless people in London, but they are far less visible than they are in Paris. I unfortunately saw homeless people more than I saw any baguettes or hand-holders. I realized that I was disillusioned about Paris when I saw a mom sleeping in a phone booth with two children. I also realized how fortunate I was to be on a Parisian holiday with my family and not jammed into a small rectangular space.

Back to the metro, which was, like London, very crowded, but incredibly dirty. We stepped on to go to the Arc de Triomphe, and all of a sudden,  I was hit with a wave of the smell of number two. It was so strong my eyes started to water.

“It smells like poop,” I said to my sister, and started giggling because I inherited a little bit of my mom’s 12-year-old sense of humor. All of a sudden, my sister looked down at the row of seats in front of her and saw, well, you can guess.

Shall I spare you the gory details? Yes. You’re welcome. Needless to say, after trying to hold our breaths and stifling our gags, we jumped off the metro and switched cars at the next stop. I’ve never been so thankful to gulp in the smoggy metro air, and would never take it for granted again. I’m also thankful for how clean London is.

Paris is much more gritty than I expected. A huge cloud of smoke lingers above graffiti-tagged buildings, and when I think of Paris, I’ll now always think of the smell of cigarette smoke. And maybe of another smell, too.

Afterwards, we went to the Arc, which has a tomb to the Unknown Soldier.  We climbed to the top and enjoyed views of sunny Paris, once again above the world.

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We left the city Sunday night with stomachs full of fondue. I really enjoyed my time in Paris. We ate well and saw beautiful artwork and architecture. I felt transported in a cloud of smoke (quite literally) into a city trying to hold onto its 1920s-past.

That’s good and bad. The ‘20s are over, obviously. And the graffiti and obvious sights of poverty show that Paris isn’t the dreamlike city it’s often painted to be.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t beautiful. It is. It just means that even the most beautiful things have blemishes.

Au revoir, Paris!

Au revoir, Paris!

I recently read Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast,” which might be why my visions of Paris are so skewed towards the ’20s. He sums up the city pretty well though when he says, “Paris was a very old city and we were young and nothing was simple there, not even poverty, nor sudden money, nor the moonlight, nor right and wrong…”

Nothing is simple when you describe Paris. Even more, he writes, “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

Now, I haven’t lived in Paris and I’ve obviously not a man, but the memories of the city will remain. Paris is a moveable feast for me, but I know that if I should ever return, a haze of smoke will transport me back.

Until next time,

Allison, whose moveable feast was mostly crepes

“We Are Family”: London Edition

Please excuse my blogging hiatus: Time flies when you’re having fun with your guests. I had lots of company the past 10 days! My mom, dad and sister finally arrived in London on March 23, which explains why it’s been so long since my last update. It’s no secret that I’ve been homesick, but I was so glad to get the chance to show them around the city that I’ve gotten to know over the past few months. I really wish my brother could’ve come too, but missing a week of classes isn’t easy when you’re in the middle of a college semester.

London did not reciprocate with a warm welcome, I’m afraid. The weather was absolutely terrible the entire time they were here, with temperatures in the 30s, snow, freezing rain and even a bit of hail. I’m proud of how well they marched through it!

London can still be pretty in the cold.

London can still be pretty in the cold.

We started off their London tour in Camden by going to the markets. I showed them the place where I got my tattoo (kidding, but there are a lot of tattoo shops in the market) and told them not to be fooled by the sneaky sample-givers. We went to dinner with my roommates that night and they got their first taste of fish and chips! Brooke wasn’t thrilled with the outcome, as the fish tastes really fishy, but my dad and I enjoyed it. That night I took my dad to the Earl of Camden, the old standby pub, and we had a pint together.

Sunday was a day for touristy sites in abundance. We spent the day on the south bank, first going to the Tower of London. It’s as a tourist once again that I can remember exactly why I wanted to come to London. Maybe some of the magic gets lost in the day-to-day work and class routine, because after all, I am living here. But sites like the tower, which has served as an armory, treasury, royal residence and execution site in its history, show just how much significance London has.

To the Tower!

To the Tower!

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Who sat here? Was he beheaded? (There's a good chance).

Who sat here? Was he beheaded? (There’s a good chance).

The ghost whisperer, ghost hunters and Long Island Medium would have a field day at the tower because of all of the people buried there. I didn’t meet any ghosts, and that’s just fine with me. William built the Conqueror the tower in 1078. It was here that we got to see the queen’s royal Crown Jewels, which are magnificent diamonds owned by the royal family and worn during important ceremonies.

The crown jewels were in here, but no pictures are allowed

The crown jewels were in here, but no pictures are allowed

We also got to see a lot of animals. I had no idea that the tower was once a menagerie. Rich people would give animals to the king as gifts (because what else do you give the person who has everything?) Monkeys would run rampant and smoke cigars (really). One even mauled a little girl who was visiting! Artists created sculptures of the animals to try to recreate some of the magic. (I preferred the sculptures. They were tamer and probably smelled better).

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Don't hurt me!

Don’t hurt me!

Next we went to Tower Bridge, which is not the London Bridge. Tower Bridge is much prettier than London Bridge and is the one you probably recognize from millions of shots during the Olympics. We went up to the top and got some great views of frigid, cloudy London.

Not London Bridge

Not London Bridge

View from the bridge

View from the bridge

We also did the London Eye, which is a big Ferris wheel that was built to be the world’s tallest “observation wheel.” There’s one orange car on the eye that’s probably used as a marker to track the speed and number of cycles the wheel makes. I’ve always wanted to ride in the orange car because it’s the most identifiable. Guess what? We got put in the orange car without asking! I was as excited as I would if I got to ride in the front car of a roller coaster.

You can't see the orange one here, but it's special!

You can’t see the orange one here, but it’s special!

Eye spy...

Eye spy…

Buckingham Palace views from the eye!

Buckingham Palace views from the eye!

On Monday I got a second chance at Bath, which, as you might remember, is home to the Jane Austen Centre. I mean, yes, there is more in the town than the centre. This time it was open! Hallelujah! We took the train to Bath and once again toured the Roman baths. Bath has a lot of limestone and the hills are removed from the town, but it has the countryside charm that I was hoping my family could experience. I think they enjoyed their reprieve from the city.

Bath take 2

Bath take 2

Costumed workers. Or time travelers?

Costumed workers. Or time travelers?

Looks magical

Looks magical

The Jane Austen Centre was pretty great. Not as great as her house of course, but still worth the visit. The most important thing I took away was that, though Jane hated the high society and superficiality of Bath, the trials and tribulations she faced helped her to write her novels. No matter how hard things get, it’s important to remember that there is a higher purpose.

Life motto

Life motto

NOT Mr. Darcy. Also, he asked to take a picture with me. Eek.

NOT Mr. Darcy. Also, he asked to take a picture with me. Eek.

I got dressed up for the occasion

I got dressed up for the occasion

Tuesday was another day of touristy activities. We started off the day at Westminster Abbey, which is where Will and Kate were married. It’s also where an incredible number of monarchs are buried. There are plaques with tributes to great writers (featured in poets corner). I think there must be a lot of bad juju inside. Mary Queen of Scots is buried next to her nemesis, Elizabeth I.

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Going to a burial site always makes me uncomfortably aware of human mortality. The majority of people in the Abbey have amazing monuments that are testaments to the grand people they were and exciting things they accomplished. Of course, we don’t all need that, but I think we can do our best to make some sort of mark while we’re here.

We tried to go to Borough Market so my dad could try wild boar, but sadly the beasts weren’t there. The market is much more crowded on the weekends (and probably when it isn’t 30 degrees).

Shakespeare’s Globe was next. I had stood outside but hadn’t been in. Of course the actual theatre was closed that day (this is the story if my study abroad experience) but we did get to see an exhibit.

Globe through the years

Globe through the years

We owe a lot to the bard!

We owe a lot to the bard!

We then went to the Churchill war rooms, which I thought were incredible. During the blitz of WWII, Churchill and his staff bunkered down in rooms under the street to essentially run the war operations. Churchill was well respected by his staff even though he had some weird personality quirks (he made his staff tie papers together because he didn’t like paper clips and staples). I think he was very stressed and took his war frustrations out in idiosyncrasies.

Meeting room

Meeting room

This sign was used to show the weather above ground

This sign was used to show the weather above ground

Churchill's bedroom

Churchill’s bedroom

Foreboding poster

Foreboding poster

The museum gave such an intimate look into his life. I was sad to learn that his parents had neglected poor little Winston. He had a privileged upbringing but was sent to boarding school. He wrote his parents letters begging them to come visit him, but they never did. Poor guy. I think he turned out ok.

One of Winston's originals

One of Winston’s originals

Keys to all of the war rooms

Keys to all of the war rooms

I love this!

I love this!

On Wednesday we visited a cute Easter-themed egg display in Covent Garden. My mom read about it on Facebook, and although we didn’t see any eggs at first, you should never underestimate my mom and her ability to use Facebook to find promotions.

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Found one!

Found one!

I went to the famed changing of the guard for the first time. My experience could also be called the “view of the palace gates as blocked by hundreds of people.” It’s really hard to see over the tall tourists who press themselves against the gates. The changing of the guard is so much longer than I thought it would be. I thought it was 10 minutes, but it’s actually between 45 minutes and an hour.

Keep calm and march on

Keep calm and march on

Honestly, I was a just “whelmed” (my sister’s expression for not being over or underwhelmed, but in between). It’s a ceremony with a lot of meaning, but because of the temperatures and the man resting his camera on my head, I had seen enough after 30 minutes.

We then headed out to Windsor castle to see the queen’s “preferred” residence where she spends her weekends (well excuse me!). I had no idea that Windsor would be so, well, castle-y. It was more of a fortress than a palace, and that’s what it was built for. Windsor actually burned down in 1992 and was restored within five years. We saw the chapel where the queen mum is buried, an enormous model dollhouse, an exhibit with pictures of the queen throughout the years, and endless paintings, garnishes and priceless furniture. We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside, but maybe the outside will give you an indication of the extent of the collection.

 

Winsdor

Winsdor

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So pretty!

So pretty!

London was chilly, foggy and grey but I think my family liked what they saw of their first visit to the international city. We saw the best of what London has to offer, and I’m glad I got to experience it with them.

I know a city vacation In a foreign country isn’t the most relaxing, especially when you’re jammed between strangers on the tube, trying to understand strange accents and struggling to make sense of the tube map. I hope they got to appreciate another culture and learn more about the history of the world and if nothing else, appreciate the convenience of driving to Target at a moment’s notice. I think this trip meant more to them than just a visit to see me (at least, I hope it did!)

This trip is one my grandparents will never get to take. This is a trip many of my friends will never get to take. This is a trip my parents worked all of their lives to take, and I was lucky enough to get to jet off before they could. I think each time they look back on this trip, it’ll only mean more to them. I’m so lucky to have been able to spend so much time with them in a foreign part of the world, snow and all.

Stay tuned for my post about our weekend in Paris!

Until next time,

Allison, who misses her family already

Allison O’Pohle’s St. Paddy’s Day in Dublin

Warning: This blog is full of lame St. Patrick’s Day jokes. Proceed with caution.

The luck of the Irish was really with me in Dublin (ok, I’ll tone it down).

I left for Ireland with three friends on Thursday night. We flew into the Dublin airport and found it decorated with balloons and streamers for the holiday. We took a bus to our hostel, which was very centrally located on the River Liffey.

The airport was all decked out for us

The airport was all decked out for us

There was a small surprise (read: shock) when we arrived. We booked our trip with Andy Steves (yes, the travel-guru Rick’s son) and he made the hostel arrangements. Because he is an expert backpacker, sharing a room with complete strangers for the total “hostel experience” probably doesn’t faze Andy.

Andy's self-promotion

Andy’s self-promotion

So many beds. So little sleep.

So many beds. So little sleep.

Luckily (heehee), there were bins with locks underneath the beds so we could lock up our things. The bins were very screechy, so they did tend to wake us up when people used them in the middle of the night or early in the morning. Needless to say, between the hyper-awareness of all of the strangers around me and the snoring of the shirtless guy diagonal from me, I didn’t get much sleep on the trip.

(The room did help me to make friends with American students who are studying all over the world, so I guess I did get something out of the “hostel experience.” I met some very nice girls studying in Copenhagen in Madrid whom I wouldn’t have met otherwise!)

Does this describe you?

Does this describe you?

On our first full day in Dublin, we went on a walking tour with Andy’s guides, who are all Irish college students. Andy popped in every now and then to offer us some cookies, which are apparently a travel “must.” (I wonder if his dad mentions cookies in his guidebooks?)

We finally had sunny weather!

We finally had sunny weather!

River Liffey

River Liffey

Lovers' Locks on the Ha'Penny Bridge

Lovers’ Locks on the Ha’Penny Bridge

Dublin is much smaller than I had imagined it would be. The city centre is primarily located on a few parallel streets that are very easily accessible from the River Liffey. Along the way, our tour guides cleared up some common misconceptions about Ireland.

Spire of Dublin

Spire of Dublin

I 'Rish I were Irish!

I ‘Rish I were Irish!

Is that sun? It's been so long since I've seen you!

Is that sun? It’s been so long since I’ve seen you!

Did you know:

  • Dublin doesn’t dye the river green anymore? It first dyed the water green in 1997, but the coloring killed all of the fish. In 1998, river-dyers from Chicago came over to show the Irish how it was done, and the fish lived. The next year, Dubliners decided not to dye the river anymore, so it stays blue.
  • Corned beef isn’t a native Irish dish? It’s Irish-American! People don’t really eat it in Dublin (at least according to our guides).
  • People don’t drink green beer? It’s black Guinness all the way.
  • Vikings founded Dublin? Apparently the last name McLaughlin means “sons of Norwegians.” And about 25% of Irish people are also of Scandinavian descent.

We passed endless shops with touristy garb, from wigs to leprechaun hats to scarves. We also toured Trinity College, which is one of Dublin’s oldest universities. Oscar Wilde went there once upon a time and I got to see the outside of his dorm room. I was so excited to be able to continue my literary tour of Europe without even planning the visit! I didn’t see a picture of Dorian Gray, though…

Trinity's Campus

Trinity’s Campus

I wonder what kind of "Wilde" times he had here?

I wonder what kind of “Wilde” times he had here?

That night we went to Whelan’s, which is the pub featured in P.S. I Love You, and I saw Gerard Butler! No, I’m totally kidding. I wish I had. But it was still fun. The crowd was very similar to the crowd in the movie. There were a lot of Hilary Swank-aged people (not that there’s anything wrong with that). My friends and I danced, waited for a live band that never showed up and just enjoyed being in Ireland.

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So, I kind of saw Gerard.

So, I kind of saw Gerard.

On Saturday we left relatively early in the morning for the coastal town of Howth, which is a fishing port. It smelled very fishy. Really, it was overwhelming. I took pictures by the cliffs, looked for leprechauns and tried to find a rainbow. I had no luck with the last two.

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Rocking the sunglasses before it started raining

Rocking the sunglasses before it started raining

All three shops that were located in the town

All three shops that were located in the town

We then went on a tour of the Guinness Factory along with every single other tourist in Dublin. Thanks to Andy, we got to skip the line, which had to be hours long. It wrapped around the building and went down the street. I learned about the special combination of barley, hops, water and yeast Guinness uses to make the perfect dark beer.

"I see a green door and I want to paint it black"

“I see a green door and I want to paint it black”

Literally everything was green this weekend

Literally everything was green this weekend

Bottles throughout the years

Bottles throughout the years

Arthur Guinness signed a 9,000-year (yes, you read that right) lease at the factory site because he was so confident in the taste of his brew. I guess he was right. Guinness is definitely Ireland’s beer and isn’t going anywhere any time soon. We got free pints of Guinness at the “Gravity Bar” when our tour was finished.

The 9,000-year lease

The 9,000-year lease

It's not quite gelato

It’s not quite gelato

Sunday was the big day. We went to mass at St. Mary’s Church in Dublin. The president of Ireland was there with his wife, and I was surprised that he had no security members sitting in sight. The entire Catholic service was in Gaelic and they even blessed a shamrock!

Can you take off your hat please?

Can you take off your hat please?

We next walked in the rain (now that’s more like it, right?) to the parade route. Because Dublin is so small, the route was short, but there were 2 hours worth of floats, bands and Irish jiggers. It was hard to see over the leprechaun hats that everyone seemed to be wearing.

I thought that only tourists would be wearing four-leafed clover gear and face paint, but nearly everyone in the city was wearing some type of ridiculously oversized piece of clothing. While I didn’t have an orange wig or fake beard, I did have on my green Andy Steves sweatshirt, so I think I came pretty close to being crazily dressed.

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Everyone wonders how crazy Dublin is. Yes, people were drunk. Some were very drunk. But most people seemed to be in the “I’m a happy sort of tipsy” state where they were enjoying the buzz from their alcohol and not crossing over into the angry, teary or sick type of drunkenness. That probably changed later in the day, though. All of the pubs were packed wall-to-wall with people licking foam Guinness mustaches off of their lips and enthusiastically taking Irish car bombs.

I think I speak for all of my friends when I say it was incredibly cool to be in a city in a time of such excitement and celebration. Although Dublin was probably 80% (or more) full of tourists and leprechaun-wannabees, the locals seemed genuinely excited to have us there.

Look at those costumes

Look at those costumes

They gave us directions, smiled as they hurried to busy tables and wished us Slainte, or good health. A lot of the buildings were cast with green spotlights and signs on almost every street corner and pub welcomed visitors.

Even though I was the only one of my friends who isn’t Irish at all, I felt very spirited and happy to be in Ireland! I knew that traveling to a country in a time of celebration was something I wanted to do when I came to Europe, which is why I was so eager to go to Dublin for St. Patrick’s Day.

Happy to be in Dublin

Happy to be in Dublin

So yes, the Guinness flows as strongly as the River Liffey, but there’s more to St. Paddy’s Day than brew. It’s the feeling of being one green hoodie in a sea of emerald. It’s the feeling of being Irish for a day, even if you don’t technically have the blood lineage. It’s the feeling of seeing a city in its prime, when streets are decorated, musicians are playing outside and people are smiling.

It’s like Christmas as an adult, when no material object can make the day great, but just being where you are in that moment is the best thing you could’ve hoped for.

Until next time,

Allison, who is still looking for the pot of gold

Practicing “Keep Calm and Carry On”

I know a lot of people who have studied abroad, and every single one of them has described the experience as “great”, “amazing” or “the time of my life.”

It’s the easiest response, and it’s the most positive. But it’s probably not entirely true. No one wants to hear about how some weeks are harder than others and that life can still go wrong while you’re here. Those confessions aren’t as fun as stories of sitting on Shakespeare’s bed or trying wild boar.

But rough days (or weeks) happen. I felt like nothing went right this week. Every day something completely unplanned went wrong and managed to upset me more than I wanted it to.

Of course, they weren’t major crises. It’s those little things that add up, like a broken washing machine, a shattered glass ring from Venice (that I dropped after one wear) and my arm getting very bruised after I clumsily tripped down the escalator on my way to the tube. And when you’re abroad, it’s hard to go for a spontaneous pick-me-up ice cream run and even harder to call your family and friends to cheer you up, so you have to figure out what you can do to make yourself feel better.

Maybe that’s life.

Even in America, the person you want to talk to most might’ve forgotten her cell phone and can’t pick up, or you might not have any cash to spend on a cheer-up cupcake. But you have to keep going.

And in London, you have to follow the British mantra “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

So that’s what I did.

On Thursday I went on a street art tour around East London’s Brick Lane and saw hundreds of illegal masterpieces. Street art is technically vandalism, but our professor explained that street artists wouldn’t be punished because they add value to the area.

How someone can do this in the dark, I have no clue

How someone can do this in the dark, I have no clue

Oscar Pistorius made from newspaper clippings

Oscar Pistorius made from newspaper clippings

It’s actually thanks to street art that the area surrounding Brick Lane became financially stable. Just 10 years ago the area was barren and “sketchy.” Now, it’s inundated with hipsters shops where vendors sell trendy clothes, vegan meals and fair trade items.

Thanks to these unconventional artists, drab brick walls become colorful works of art overnight. The scene is constantly evolving. Street artists paint over one another’s work after just a few days or even hours, so the changing landscape helps to draw people to the area. Even hipsters admit that they like street art, so the universal appeal is undeniable.

Dessert art <3

Dessert art <3

Deep

Deep

I got to see original works by Banksy, a famous street artist who works in the night. He’s a political activist, film director, painter, and also a very sarcastic and irreverent guy who uses dark humor in a lot of his pieces. His works are much loved and admired by people worldwide, but Banksy is famous because no one knows who he is. Somehow, this incognito artiste placed fake works in the Museums of Modern Art, Metropolitan Art, and Natural History in New York.

Sealed with perspex so no one can paint over it

Sealed with perspex so no one can paint over it

Banksy is great, but my favorite street artist is Stik, who paints solitary cartoon figures. Besides the fact that I love animated figures, I love Stik because of his message. His characters symbolize how London can feel lonely even though it’s filled with 8 million people.

I'll be your friend, little guy!

I’ll be your friend, little guy!

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On Saturday, Jessica and I pretended to be royalty as we traveled to Hampton Court Palace, which was once home to the callous womanizer King Henry VIII. I’ve always been interested in King Henry VIII, but it’s mainly because of the number of wives he had. Watching The Other Boleyn Girl has made me incredibly sympathetic to Anne and Mary Boleyn, even if the story is historical fiction. Although I have yet to read the book, I loved the movie (and not just because my favorite celebrity crush of all time is in it).

Home to Henry VIII...and six of his wives

Home to Henry VIII…and six of his wives

The palace is a 30-minute train ride outside of the center of London. It’s incredibly big, which fits Henry’s massive ego. There’s enough room for all of his six wives to live inside at once and never see one another, although they obviously lived there at separate times.

Beautiful!

Beautiful!

We first toured the kitchens, where servants once made enough food for 600 people. The Tudors ate the ultimate “man meals” with meat comprising 75% of their diets. Meat was a status symbol, so the wealthier you were, the more meat you ate. The kitchen actually had an administrative office where one person would keep track of all of the meat orders and meal plans for the day. Tudors ate 4,000-5,000 calories each day, so they definitely enjoyed their protein!

Pies were used instead of pans. No one actually ate them!

Pies were used instead of pans. No one actually ate them!

Fake meat

Fake meat

Faux Tudor dinner

Faux Tudor dinner

Um...

Um…

Looks like I could be a Tudor with my wild boar eating habits

Looks like I could be a Tudor with my wild boar eating habits

We went to Henry’s apartments next, where we saw rooms that he dedicated to each of his brides. Awkwardly enough, these rooms stayed open after he remarried. I guess his brides knew what was coming when they married him, and knew that at the very least they would get a beautiful, ornate room dedicated to them.

Henry VIII was self-important and when he didn’t like the rules, he changed them (remember that whole Church of England scandal? That was because of this guy). He desperately wanted a son to succeed him, but his first two children were daughters. Eventually, Edward VI was born. He took the throne when he was only nine, but died when he was 15.

The first King to be painted standing up, so he looked imposing.

The first King to be painted standing up, so he looked imposing.

Edward VI front and center at the age of 8

Edward VI front and center at the age of 8

Interestingly enough, all of Henry’s kids got to save their turn on the throne. Mary was queen for five years but largely disliked. She’s actually the “Bloody Mary” from the scary folklore tale who will appear in the mirror if you whisper her name in the dark. After she took the throne, she killed all of the church officials whom her dad appointed in the Church of England because she was Catholic. Elizabeth was last and was queen for 45. She was largely admired and never married, thus ending the Tudor dynasty.

King Edward VI painted in a pose similar to the ones his dad made

King Edward VI painted in a pose similar to the ones his dad made

Hampton Court Palace is full of amazing gardens. I decided that if I were ever Queen, I would be known for taking breaks for daily garden walks.

Privy Garden

Privy Garden

I love these trees!

I love these trees!

My palace photo shoot

My palace photo shoot

Starting to bloom

Starting to bloom

Ok if I can't live in the palace can I live in the garden?

Ok if I can’t live in the palace can I live in the garden?

To finish our visit, Jessica and I decided to warm up with coffee and a cupcake. Because he loved food, it’s what King Henry VIII would’ve wanted.

Now who's surprised?

Now who’s surprised?

So yes, my washer is still broken and my arm is bruised, but I’m not one of King Henry VIII’s wives, so things are still looking up.

Until next time,

Allison, the princess wannabe and cartoon enthusiast

Roma: That Time I Saw The Pope

If you couldn’t tell from my excited tweets, Facebook posts and videos, I saw the pope.

Well, I saw him in his helicopter leaving the Vatican on his final day, so that’s still seeing him, right?

But we’ll get to that.

We arrived in Rome on Wednesday at 9:30 a.m. We weren’t sure what to do, so we strolled down to the Vittorio Emanuele II Monument and looked at some ancient ruins from afar. The cool thing about Rome is that you can walk down the street, past souvenir shops selling Italia track jackets and gelato (sorry for referencing it so much) stands, and bam! You’re looking at ruins that were built BC.

View from the monument

View from the monument

Vittorio Emanuele II Monument

Vittorio Emanuele II Monument

Don't be fooled, this isn't Florida. Rome has so many orange and palm trees!

Don’t be fooled, this isn’t Florida. Rome has so many orange and palm trees!

Tomb of the unknown soldier

Tomb of the unknown soldier

Bongiorno, Roma!

Bongiorno, Roma!

We always seemed to have a hard time deciding where to eat, but we decided on the News Café because it seemed pretty cheap and had authentic Italian food (I promise these details are significant). Right after we ordered our food, I looked up at the TV screen in the news cafe and saw the news broadcast summary of the pope giving his last ever public appearance in the Vatican.

The panini I ate with a broken heart (ok I'm being a little dramatic)

The panini I ate with a broken heart (ok I’m being a little dramatic)

He had just finished speaking and we could’ve been there because we had no morning plans.

My heart sank to the bottom of my stomach.

Now, you may wonder how I didn’t know this was happening. In Italy, I was only able to use my iPhone when I was connected to wifi, which never happened. You have to pay for internet access in restaurants, and it was very spotty in every hostel we stayed in. I had hardly any access to Twitter or Facebook and wasn’t reading the news.

Nonetheless, I felt like I should’ve known. We had previously been told that the pope’s last day was Thursday, and I naively assumed he would come out and wave or make a speech when he was finished.

I really regretted missing this “once in a lifetime” opportunity and the regret would not leave from the pit in my stomach. I had just missed a major historical moment and now there was nothing I could do.

We had already ordered, so we ate our food as fast as possible and jumped on the metro to head to Vatican City just in case anything else happened.

The area had pretty much cleared out. All that remained were empty chairs from the 50,000 people who had tickets to sit and watch the address and desperate reporters looking for sources to interview about the speech.

Anderson? Brian? Nope.

Anderson? Brian? Nope.

50,000 chairs

50,000 chairs

A frantic BBC reporter ran up to us and asked us if we spoke English. If we had actually been there for the speech, we could’ve been on the BBC TV broadcast. However, I didn’t think it was a good idea to lie in the Vatican.

Being the journalism nerds we are, we stalked the broadcast stand to see if any TV celebrities came down from the platform. If we couldn’t see the pope, we were hoping to see Brian Williams or Anderson Cooper. Unfortunately, we didn’t have any luck.

We were happy to have seen the aftermath of the speech, but the missed opportunity still stung a little. To overcome the disappointment we walked to the Spanish steps and Medici villa, which are part of Rome’s most famous piazza. We then walked to the Pantheon, which looked absolutely amazing at night. Raphael is actually buried inside the Pantheon, but it’s primarily significant because it was first built as an ancient Roman temple to the Gods.

Hola, Spanish steps

Hola, Spanish steps

Sunset over the Spanish steps

Sunset over the Spanish steps

Pantheon!

Pantheon!

Then we had one of the best meals of our trip. For just 15 euros, we got endless wine, bruschetta, pasta, pizza and dessert. We also made friends with our Italian waiters, who were very friendly!

Sometimes being an American student has its perks

Sometimes being an American student has its perks

Devoured this

Devoured this

I know it's not gelato, but it was still good

I know it’s not gelato, but it was still good

Thumbs up to you too, dude.

Thumbs up to you too, dude.

Thursday. We were told that the pope was leaving the Vatican at 9 a.m. via helicopter, but as we know, news sources aren’t always correct.

Our Vatican tour was supposed to take two hours, but took us upwards of three. No matter what your religious beliefs are, it’s impossible not to appreciate the beauty that is inside of the Vatican museums. There are thousands of sculptures, busts, tapestries and paintings, all created by some of the world’s most famous artists. There are scenes documenting every stage of Jesus’ life, every historic moment in the bible (old and new testaments) and even mythological Gods and Goddesses whose stories contributed to the formation of Rome.

No pictures can do these works justice.

No pictures can do these works justice.

Every millimeter has intense detail

Every millimeter has intense detail

Once again, I spent the majority of my time craning my neck upwards. I took endless pictures and did my best to listen to our tour guide’s broken English as she explained every significant work in detail.

My favorite ceiling

My favorite ceiling

Once we finished, we toured St. Peter’s Basilica. We all made sure we were dressed appropriately because you are not allowed inside if your knees or shoulders are bare (but that wasn’t a problem given the weather we had). I got to see the famous inscription with all of the previous popes, the beautiful altar and even part of a service that was being conducted in Italian.

Altar in St. Peter's

Altar in St. Peter’s

The next pope is being decided right now!

The next pope is being decided right now!

I also saw the some of the former pope’s shrines where their bodies are prominently displayed in glass cases. Masks cover their faces, but their hands are left folded on their chests, which means you can see the progress decay has made.

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Suddenly, the security guards in the basilica started closing off entrances and exits. I assumed it was because it was almost 5 p.m. and the church was closing, but then I heard a helicopter.

It was the pope leaving the Vatican.

We sprinted outside and saw the helicopter circling around the main piazza. I assumed the pope was inside, and was surprised that the crowd outside St. Peter’s was so small.

Snapped a picture as fast as I could

Snapped a picture as fast as I could

The helicopter soon landed out of view. There were some protesters inside the Vatican and I think they wanted the pope out of view for security reasons. Soon the pope was in the air and the crowd began cheering. I think the video I took can explain the feeling more than any words can.

I knew history was happening in that moment and my “once in a lifetime” was redeemed. I was surrounded by people craning their necks to wave a final goodbye and by priests and nuns who had traveled from all over the world to bid farewell to the leader of their church. Many of them had tears in their eyes and crossed themselves continuously.

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The coverage continued until the pope reached Castel Gandolfo, where he would make his final speech. He walked very slowly and deliberately with tiny steps out to the balcony, where he was greeted by a massive cheering crowd and also by cheers from the bystanders in the Vatican.

He looked incredibly tired and weak. We can assume that he’s in ill health, but the effects showed. Although he was giving up his position, he almost looked as though he’d given up on life. My heart broke for him.

A lot of protestors argue that other popes have served until the ends of their lives and that it’s Pope Benedict’s duty to stay until the end of his term. On the other hand, some argue that people do retire from their work once they have done their duties and that it’s responsible of the pope to recognize that he cannot do the job anymore.

Inside the Vatican

Inside the Vatican

Swiss Guard

Swiss Guard

Who am I to say what is right? As I watched him deliver his final address and wave his last goodbyes, I did feel an overpowering sadness. I already had goosebumps from being in the right place at the right time, but seeing the pope give his last public words was incredibly humbling. He stood there almost admitting defeat, but vowing to continue his pilgrimage.

Humans have limitations. Even the pope has weaknesses. And regardless of your faith, we’re all looking to do the best we can and overcome challenges. Sometimes the obstacles are just too great.

We continued our day in a haze of disbelief, all the while making wishes in the Trevi fountain and of course having more gelato.

 

The pizzas are so big! This one had grilled veggies

The pizzas are so big! This one had grilled veggies

BEST GELATO EVER. I'm serious this time.

BEST GELATO EVER. I’m serious this time.

151 flavor options. Oh my Gosh.

151 flavor options. Oh my Gosh.

Throwin' a wish in the well

Throwin’ a wish in the well

Our last day in Rome was spent at the colosseum and Roman Forum ruins, which are just as spectacular in person as they are in pictures. I still have a hard time believing that ancient people walked amongst the rubble that now stands preserved by fences. Once again, I felt small. Who knows what relics will survive from our time period that our ancestors will look at for years to come?

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Colosseum

Colosseum

I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to travel all around Italy for a week. Between all of the incredible gelato I ate, all of the ancient relics that reminded me of my place in the world and all of the emotions I felt while seeing the pope’s departure, I know the week is one I will never forget.

Not even rain could "ruin" this trip

Not even rain could “ruin” this trip

Channeling Lizzie McGuire

Channeling Lizzie McGuire

One last thought: I visited a lot of churches while in Italy, and as I mentioned before, it’s possible to appreciate them no matter what your faith is.

But I came to this conclusion, which is best summed in a line from Mumford and Sons’ “Ghosts That We Knew.”

I think that no matter what time period we live in, no matter if we sleep in a stone hut or a gigantic palace, we’re all looking for one thing:

“Hope in the darkness that (we) will see the light.”

Until next time,

Allison, the pope-spotter and gelato connoisseur

Firenze and Milano: Where Once in a Lifetime Takes on a New Meaning

Before you study abroad, everyone tells you that you should do it because it’s a “once in a lifetime experience.”

I think one of the scariest parts is realizing that it’s true.

“Once in a lifetime” is such a common phrase that its meaning has lost its dramatic effect. I saw some of the most beautiful sights in the world in Florence, where I spent the middle stretch of my spring break, and it’s humbling to think that in however much time I have left on earth I might never get back to see them again.

Maybe I’m too aware of my own mortality, but traveling has also made me realize how much I don’t know and how much I want to understand other cultures.

See what I mean?

See what I mean?

So maybe Florence brought out a contemplative side of me, but wait until you see these views. We spent an entire afternoon hiking up to the Piazzale Michelangelo on our second day and admiring how beautiful Florence is.

Amazing.

Amazing.

I got to know Florence in a very fun way: through its food. “Feast your eyes” on a blog post full of food pictures. Italy definitely encourages having both a dinner stomach and a dessert stomach, so who am I not to go along with it?

First pizza in Florence. "Pepperoni"

First pizza in Florence. “Pepperoni”

Aside from satisfying my stomach, Florence also gave me some of the most picturesque landscapes I will ever see. I never realized how much I love green spaces until I moved to a big metropolis.

It’s not a secret that I don’t walk out of my way to throw my recyclables in recycling cans and I’ve never had a desire to spend a night camping outdoors. After using an ancient stairstepper and climbing the 414 steps to the top of the duomo, I was surprised to find that I was most excited by the greenery and hillsides of Florence. There is a sea of yellow-tinted buildings, but they rest against a backdrop of mountains and rolling hillsides. The stuff paintings are made of.

So happy we made it to the top!

So happy we made it to the top!

From the top of the duomo, you can also see rooftop pools, terraces and table settings. Space is clearly at a premium in Florence, which we found out firsthand while lugging our suitcase up five flights of stairs to our hotel room. It’s obvious there’s something that draws people to Florence. It’s big enough to have a city feel, but small enough to cross by foot in 30 minutes.

Selfies from the top of the duomo

Selfies from the top of the duomo

People are also friendly. Men were most often too friendly. I made a “friend” in one of our waiters when he gave me this note.

I think "go to exit" means "go out"

I think “go to exit” means “go out”

We didn’t have much of an agenda in Florence, and I’m finding that as much as I like trying to plan out every aspect of my future, I like the relaxed, unplanned way of traveling. We were able to enjoy the slower continental pace while walking through piazzas, churches and Florence’s famous leather market.

We spent the next day in Milan, which was probably not the best day to go. Besides the fact that it was hailing, it was a Monday, which meant that all of the museums were closed.

Help me, I'm wet.

Help me, I’m wet.

Milan is much more urban than any of the other cities we visited. It has its own underground system and downtown area, but is also home to cathedrals and ancient castles. I think the old castle was my favorite part of the city, proving that once again anything that’s green and ancient is the way to my heart. I do wish the original moat still existed though instead of the current grass.

Once upon a moat

Once upon a moat

View of the castle from afar

View of the castle from afar

Milan fashion week was in its final days, so we saw some of the set-ups where shows were going on. The city also has a three-block shopping area filled with incredibly expensive designer stores. The funny thing is, the stores were the same on every block. All of the window displays were at their prime for fashion week, and I’m sure all of the increased prices reflected the huge number of fashionistas as well.

A show was going on in here!

A show was going on in here!

Milan's Next Top Model

Milan’s Next Top Model

"Check"er them out

“Check”er them out

"Shoes. Oh my God! Shoes. Shoes."

“Shoes. Oh my God! Shoes. Shoes.”

As I mentioned before, we spent our last day in Florence sitting on one of the very hills I had grown to love. It’s no wonder Michelangelo created “David” here.

Obviously very happy to be here

Obviously very happy to be here

The hills are alive!

The hills are alive!

Seeing good ole’ Davy turned out to be harder than I expected. There are probably 40 copies of the David around Florence, but the real one is kept inside its own gallery away from the elements and tourists who want to climb on it and take pictures by its junk.

Fake David (exposed)

Fake David (exposed)

I bought the tickets online through a third party website (you can already see where this story is going) and to make a long story short, they were for the Uffizi Gallery, which houses original paintings by Botticelli, Caravaggio and other famous Italian artists, but not the David like the website promised it did.

Shoot.

I’m glad we saw the Uffizi gallery, but it’s not what I was expecting. Claire and I spent the extra 6 Euros to go see David, because I couldn’t stomach leaving Florence without seeing him.

I’m really glad we did go. It’s hard to believe Michelangelo crafted him from a single slab of marble. The tendons in his hands are pronounced and his every muscle is sculpted with intricate detail, but his face, with its calm and grace, has become an iconic symbol worldwide. He’s also massively tall. 17 feet to be exact.

I ended my time in Florence with more great food, of course. Each time I had gelato, I would ecstatically pronounce, “oh this is the best gelato I’ve had by FAR.” I’m very happy to report that this trend continued throughout my entire trip.

Pasta arrabbiata (tomato and chili sauces)

Pasta arrabbiata (tomato and chili sauces)

"Surprise" cake

“Surprise” cake

Bruschette

Bruschette

Best fruity gelato

Best fruity gelato

Cannoli! (They taste the same, except they put apricots in theirs)

Cannoli! (They taste the same, except they put apricots in theirs)

Always thinking of my next scoop

Always thinking of my next scoop

Gnocchi

Gnocchi

Best creamy gelato

Best creamy gelato

Florence was hard to leave, mostly because it was so beautiful and gave me the opportunity to reflect. Seeing things you might never see again is bittersweet. Jane Austen’s house showed me that more than anything else I’ve seen thus far.

Ciao, Florence.

Ciao, Florence.

So yes, a lot of what happens when you live abroad is “once in a lifetime.”

But at least it happens once.

Until next time,

Allison, who might just start recycling more

Viva Venezia: Italian Spring Break Part 1

I’m back!

And wow, is “the continent” different. So different that it’s inspired me to share what I’ve learned based off of my Italian experiences instead of just summarizing what I did. No, I didn’t jump on the back of a scooter and ride into the sunset like Lizzie McGuire, but I did have a great whirlwind of week filled with gelato, enough walking to destroy my trusty pair of black boots and infinite amounts of ancient relics.

First off was Venice, where we arrived in the early morning after waking up at 3:15 a.m. for our flight (I still can’t believe that happened).  Did you know that there are no cars in Venice? Maybe I’m just clueless, but I was shocked to find that the roads are designed for pedestrians and the air isn’t clouded by smog and exhaust fumes. We had to take a waterbus to reach the island. It makes stops at assigned locations and rocks back and forth pretty slowly.

All aboard the waterbus

All aboard the waterbus

Venice feels like Italy, if that makes sense. There are canals, which we’ve seen pictures of all of our lives. There are little streets with balconies, awnings and flowers that are trying not to wilt under the weight of the February snow. The overwhelming feel is very rustic. Every side street looks similar, so it’s easy to get lost. I actually think it’s impossible not to get lost.

I probably have 86 pictures that look like this

I probably have 86 pictures that look like this

Man, I have good it in London with no language barrier. Studying abroad is overwhelming enough at times, but the fact that everything in Italy was, well, in Italian was incredibly challenging. My only tool was a Siri-esque iPhone app that played audio recordings of common phrases so I knew how to talk to people with decent pronunciation. Thank goodness for technology, right?

At least a smile is universal in all languages

At least a smile is universal in all languages

Venice is what I like to think of as Italy’s reward to old retired couples. There are places to dock the boats they’ve spent their entire lives working for, endless mom and pop shops where they can visit their friends who sell glass items and countless bridges over canals where they can watch the sun set on their beautiful city. It’s removed from the rest of Italy and has a quiet feel all its own.

I imagine Venice is at its peak in the summer. “Spring break” in Venice is a challenge in February, and sure, I wasn’t expecting it to snow. But studying abroad has taught me to be flexible when things go wrong. It’s taught me not to get frustrated and roll my eyes, but to try to laugh and go ahead with what I wanted to do anyways. After walking around shivering to the bone, my friends and I took a gondola ride in the snow. When in Venice, right?

 

Quiet day on the water

Quiet day on the water

Even barred windows look pretty

Even barred windows look pretty

At least we had a blanket

At least we had a blanket

The gondola “driver” had a striped shirt on just like I’d imagined he would. He sang a bit, but mostly talked on his cell phone. I saw the same views of Venice that endless couples have seen on their honeymoons and on dates. But I didn’t feel lonely. Studying abroad mostly makes me feel small and part of an immense web of people who have done the same thing before me for generations upon generations.

View from the water

View from the water

Venice also made me feel naïve. We went to dinner at a restaurant that promised ”special” spicy pasta, but instead served me five noodles and charged 3 Euros for a table setting fee. Who would’ve thought that Italy encourages portion control? It was a frustrating introduction to Italy, where locals can spot Americans from a mile away and will use every extra charge and tax to scam you. Sure enough, in tiny print at the bottom of the menu there was notice of the restaurant’s “cover charge.”

This was from a better Venetian meal. I didn't document the 5 noodle incident

This was from a better Venetian meal. I didn’t document the 5 noodle incident

As always, I turn to dessert to solve my problems. Thus began my introduction to gelato, which was one of the best parts of my Italian trip. I ate gelato almost every night and don’t regret it for a second.

Gelato selfies

Gelato selfies

Our second and final day in Venice was spent primarily on the island of Murano, which is known for glass blowing. Our morning began early because, if Venice is a city for lovers, we heard it early at 6:30 a.m. from the room next door (if you know what I mean).

Murano!

Murano!

Nonetheless, Murano was full of family-owned shops where it was obvious generations of people have been crafting beautiful glass sculptures, jewelry and light fixtures for centuries. We encountered people who carefully strung beads onto bracelets and a man who took so much pride in his display of bracelets that he had to reclasp each one onto the display bar with his own hands, all while scolding us for not hanging them up properly. My four-year-old self would be envious of how well I “kept my hands to myself” so I wouldn’t break anything by accidentally knocking it over.

Look at those cows!

Look at those cows!

They sounded great (if you like the sound of silence)

They sounded great (if you like the sound of silence)

"Don't touch anything"

“Don’t touch anything”

Although it seems as though our world is largely rejecting organized religion, it’s obvious how much it still means to some people. Italy is home to some of the world’s most beautiful churches and the San Marco Basilica was no exception. It was here that I began looking up at the ceilings, which I continued doing in every church we visited during the rest of the trip. I’m admittedly a “Chreaster” and only attend church on Christmas and Easter, but it didn’t stop me from appreciating the beauty of the church and the reverent atmosphere inside.

 

Don't look down!

Don’t look down!

 I promise I wore more than one outfit while I was here. The black coat is misleading


I promise I wore more than one outfit while I was here. The black coat is misleading

Venice first alerted me to how different Italians are than Brits. One Venetian woman touched my hair while she told me it was “bella,” while Italian men confidently approached my friends and me because we are noticeably American. Even people in quiet wintertime Venice are much louder than English people, who apologize for everything and avert your glance.

But some things are the same. I noticed a child’s birthday party inside the city’s only McDonald’s and the number of kids who ran around screaming while holding their Happy Meal toys. I guess Happy Meals have universal power.

I knew London was fast-paced, but coming back emphasized it even more. In Venice especially, I spent time tasting the pizza I ate and time turning over souvenirs while considering what my family and friends would really like. Even though I was cold, I strolled along the side streets and stopped to admire the canals.

Sunrise in Venezia

Sunrise in Venezia

Once I got back to London, I noticed how quickly everyone was walking around me. I once again noticed how they kept their eyes down and shouldered past people in their way. I never realized how much I, too, sped past strangers to get onto the tube and shouldered past slow-movers to grab a bottle of spaghetti sauce in the grocery store.

It’s more than a little weird to realize that you adopt new traits to survive in a city. The book I’m reading about Londoners often says that you have to be tough to survive in London, especially in the winter. You have to walk fast, know what you want and go after it. Most of the time I do.

But I think there’s still time to stop and taste the tea without gulping it down. Time is going fast enough already.

So here I am, back in London, moving a little bit slower and still looking people in the eye.

More Italy updates to come soon,

Allison, who is powerwalking a little slower today