Sunday, May 4, 2014

It's Dad Strnad's Birthday!

Today is a joyous occasion of many sorts. First off, it's Cinco de Mayo (which I will gladly be celebrating at one of the few Mexican restaurants in Prague). But, more importantly,
It's Dan Strnad's Birthday!
Cinco de Mayo is lucky to share a celebration day with the best Dad that's ever existed. Because I can't be with him today (and buying gifts can be tricky...), I thought I would post him a little surprise Birthday Blogpost. 

I think it's officially safe to say you're an old man now, right dad? Just another couple years and you're legally considered a "senior citizen." How exciting! A whole new world of possibilities: discount dinners, movie tickets, entrance fees -- gosh, you'll be living like a king! But let's not get ahead of ourselves. 

You are the youngest "old man" I know. You're playful, quick to laugh, and probably the most devious (in a good way) and ornery person I know. You've taught me that taking yourself too seriously is a waste of time and energy (even though I still do this too much) because laughing at yourself is sometimes the best medicine. You still run or walk every day, ski like a badass, and hike around the open wilderness with a 65 pound backpack on like it's just another day in the park. One foot in front of the other, right? And even though your bedtime is somewhere around 9pm (on a good night) you're always up an at 'em, ready to greet the sun. 

Your youthfulness inspires people in a way I know you will deny. The second you start to laugh, others start to laugh too. Your laugh is absolutely contagious! It fills a room, and immediately makes everything lighter. Your desire to explore and learn is anything but old. You make people feel young right along with you, I've seen it. Poking fun at our friends who are usually too afraid to talk, making Mom and I scream and giggle while you squeeze our sides, playing pranks on your office mates. The list could go on forever. Besides the number on your birthday cake, there isn't a single old thing about you. 

So, while you're still young, feel free to eat all the German Chocolate Cake you want, poke a little fun at Mom and Ty, and just dance like it's your birthday. Because it is. HAPPY BIRTHDAY DAD! I love you!

P.S. Just in case you forgot how to dance, here's a little reminder to get yourself back in the groove :)


Saturday, May 3, 2014

A Well-Read Traveler: Travel Booklist

Recently, due to my time in Prague, I've become inspired to read more about other's worldly adventures. There are so many books out there that deal with the seemingly infinite facets of travel -- from the actual trip, to personal impact, to global connection. So here is a short (but incredible!) list of books about traveling. Most of the books are either ones I've read myself or know someone who has (so they're legit), but a couple are ones I've come across and would love to read myself. Enjoy!

1. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

2. The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World  by Eric Weiner

3. Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

4. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

5. On the Road by Jack Kerouac

6. Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

7. The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in The Equatorial Pacific by J. Maarten Troost

8. Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe by Bill Bryson

9. The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton

10. My Life in France by Julia Child

Hopefully one of these tickles your fancy and leaves you itching to jump on a plane, head outdoors, or even just roam around the undiscovered places of your own town.

Until next time!

Friday, April 11, 2014

Spring Break Part Three: French Riviera

After two beautifully relaxing days in Prague, I was off on the third leg of my break: to the insanely beautiful Southern France. Travel to France was much smoother and shorter. We flew from Prague to Zurich, Switzerland (where I fell in love with the adorable little airport and hope to visit again) and then onto Nice, France.

The first day in Nice consisted largely of eating, with little bits of walking here and there. It was so incredibly windy when we first got there, it was almost impossible to stay outside for very long! So we just meandered around the downtown until it was time to check into our hostel. We stayed at the Villa Saint Exupéry Beach Hostel in downtown Nice. This trip was another one with Bus2Alps (which I mentioned in the previous post about Croatia), so they set up our accommodations and transportation. This hostel was...not my favorite in the whole world. We shared a room with six other girls, and only had one bathroom (aka ten girls to one bathroom = lots of annoyance). The free breakfast, which I was especially excited about after the one in Budapest, consisted of a wide variety of choices including: toast or cereal. And considering I don't drink milk, my options were narrowed to the toast. The upside was the beds: memory foam pillows and mattresses. So I slept like a baby, but other than that I wasn't very pleased with the hostel.

Our second day in Nice we received a tour of the downtown and surrounding areas. Our tour guide lead us in a very French manner: she would march ahead of us, pointing a giant baguette. Her favorite saying was, "follow the baguette!" She told us the story of the renowned French robber, managed to steal millions from a bank in plain sight, during the day, without hurting anyone or using any weapons. When he was caught and brought to trial, he managed to escape by jumping out the courthouse window and driving away with a friend who had been waiting on a motorcycle. To this day he hasn't been found, and the French regard him not as a criminal, but as a "hero."

She also brought us to the top of this giant hill, where we could see the entire city sprawled out beneath us. At the top there were streams and brooks and a giant waterfall. It felt like we weren't in the city at all, but in some sort of wilderness area. It was raining for much of our tour too (although it wasn't cold) so eventually our faithful baguette began to get soggy and our tour guide resorted to eating most of it. She was pretty cool.

The best thing about Nice was the gelato. One store with 95 different flavors. Could you get any more close to heaven than that?? The greatest thing was, I remember going to that exact gelato shop the first time I was in Nice when I was fourteen. It was interesting to reminice on how I remembered it versus how I was seeing it in the present day. I think while I was in France I ate gelato three times a day. At least. The very first flavor I tried (and I think the best from what I had there) was lavender. "What?! Ew. Gross. No!" is what you're probably thinking, right? Well, wrong. It was delicious! Just absolutely amazing and indescribable as you might think lavender gelato might be. Needless to say I was back at that shop often over the next few days.

Our third day in the French Riviera we took a bus trip to the neighboring towns of Eze and Monaco. In Eze we visited the Fragonard Perfume Factory, which I had also visited when I was in France the first time. It was so much larger this time though! They expanded their products from just perfumes to include soaps, lotions, and even argan oil for dry skin and hair. I love these kind of shops, so I was in heaven.

Monaco was one of the most fascinating places I've ever been. I come from a very affluent town, but I've never seen money like it exists there. People drive around in their Rolls Royces and Bugattis as if they were Fords and Toyotas. The yachts we saw in the harbor were easily worth millions of dollars. And this is just petty cash to most of the people that live there! I can't even imagine. I tried my luck in Monte Carlo, gambling a whopping .26 euros before I gave up on the slot machine because I didn't understand how the game worked. My grandma would be so disappointed in my gambling skills. Sorry Grammie!

It had finally warmed up, so we spent some time on the beach in Monaco. The water here was easily just as pretty as the water in Croatia. I was so bummed I didn't bring my bathing suit. I could have bought one there, but it most likely would have set me back around 100 euros. So I didn't. But I soaked up some sun, and enjoyed the beach anyway.

We ended our last night in Nice with what I would like to call The Last Supper, French Style. We found an obscure little restaurant and ordered what appeared to be just your typical tomato pasta with eggplant. It was so far from typical. It was a huge pan of pasta with perfect tomato cream sauce and sautéed eggplant, topped with melted cheese and basil. It was ginormous. And I ate the entire thing. I dream about that pasta. It was honestly perfection. In every bite. And of course I had gelato (three different kinds) for desert. I don't think I've ever been so full. I was definitely waddling.

Our final morning in France was beautiful and serene. We went down to the famous Fruit and Flower Market, and got all the fixings for brunch on the beach before we left to go back to Prague. We got fresh baguettes, homemade goat cheese and brie, fresh salami, strawberries, and homemade fig jam. Eating that meal on the beach, in the company of some of my best friends, rehashing our experiences of the last week is a memory I will never forget.

 Je t'aime, Nice! And I think it's safe to say that I'll be back to visit you again soon. Au revoir!

Spring Break Part Two: Budapest

After being dragged away from the shores of Croatia, I returned to Prague for a couple days of rest and relaxation before the second leg of my break. On the way home ("home" being Prague), we stopped in Budapest for another crazy 24 hour adventure.

Budapest is actually a lot like Prague in its architecture, layout, and overall feel. It almost was as if I was just in a different area of Prague while I was there, although the people in Budapest were noticeably more friendly and open than those in Prague (a common trend throughout this trip). Since we had been staying in hostels the previous parts of our trip, we decided to treat ourselves and booked a hotel for our night there. If you're ever in Budapest and need a hotel, The Charles Hotel is everything you'll ever need. It's affordable, the staff is incredible, and the breakfast is to die for. I ate so much at that breakfast it was a miracle I could even get up to walk around the city.

Since we only had a little time here, we tried to pack in as much as possible. We started by seeing the Buda Castle. Beautiful and grand, it was definitely a match for the Prague castle. We watched the change of the guards, and meandered around the little shops that lined the paths surrounding the property. We stumbled upon a little man dressed in medieval clothes. His occupation? Working a little shooting range that let tourists (attempt) to showcase their inner warrior through archery. Naturally, we had to give it a try. I was terrible at it! My first arrow went straight into the ground because I didn't understand how hard you had to pull the bow, and the second flew way over the entire target. So clearly, archery is not my forte. Thank goodness I didn't live in medieval times. Or didn't have to compete in the Hunger Games.

We had friends who were spending most of their break in Budapest, so we tried to meet up with them at a monument called "Shoes on the Danube River." Which is apparently a very American touristy thing to do because none of the shops we went into to ask for directions knew what we were talking about. We probably ended up walking six or so miles trying to find this monument, and never ended up meeting our friends since we arrived over an hour late. The monument was interesting, but I still don't know what it represented...I'm still glad I saw it though!

We wandered around the government side of Budapest (the river separates it into the Buda and Pest sides, something I never knew before traveling there), and had lunch at a spot where I drank amazing elderberry lemonade. It was exactly what I needed after all that walking!

The best, and definitely most interesting part of the adventure in Budapest were the baths. Essentially the baths are these huge natural spring pools where people go to just relax and swim. It's a very medicinal thing to do there, going to the baths for your health. It felt so good on my muscles after all the walking all day, but it was apparent that people there didn't care too much about: discretion, nudity, or what others thought of their bodies. It was kind of a free for all, and although bathing suits are required, there were many who tried to avoid that rule. Still something I'm getting used to!

Budapest, even though I was only there for a very short amount of time, was an incredible city that I would love to go back to to thoroughly explore one day. In short, you da best, Budapest!

Spring Break, Part One: Croatia

Hello! It's been a while since I last blogged...I've been caught up in some amazing adventures and readjusting to the school lifestyle (much harder than I thought it would be...), and finally have the weekend to write about my travels.

This has by far been the most eventful Spring Break of my life. Never in a million years would I have imagined myself sitting on the beaches of Croatia, shooting arrows at a castle in Budapest, or eating gelato three times a day at a shop in Nice with almost 100 flavors.

I began my break by setting off on a 21 hour bus trip (yes, you read that correctly) to Split, Croatia. I have never traveled for so long in my life, and I have to say it made time seem incredibly relative. Where I once "dreaded" the three hour trip to Denver, or a three hour class period, three hours seems like no time at all. The silver lining, right? Getting to Split it almost felt like nothing was going right. But this is often the case with travel, and it was a lesson in patience and definitely planning. The view as we pulled into the bus station, absolutely disgusting from lack of sleep, showers, and nutritious food, made everything worth it.

And so began my less than 24-hour stint in Croatia. Our hostel, Goli Bosi Design Hostel, was incredibly hip and accommodating. The first night there I ate my first hamburger since being in Europe, appropriately named the "Chuck Norris Burger." I'd like to report that it was no where near American standards, but I was so hungry that a patty with some thousand island on a bun was pretty dang delicious. And the french fries. Oh how I've missed the french fries.

We booked the Croatia trip with a company called Bus2Alps, that offered a boat hopping tour the next morning we were there. I was a little worried about the price (40 euros), but now I am so, so glad I decided to go. It was easily the best thing I did in Croatia, and one of the most beautiful experiences I've ever had. The hosts of the boat served us little breakfast pastries and shots of some medicinal liquor that the locals apparently drink every morning. I don't know if the locals have incredible alcohol tolerance, or if it was being on the boat, but that one little shot (plus the bottle of wine we bought for the beach) was definitely enough to put us in "high sprits."

The view from the boat was absolutely stunning. The water was crisp, blue and slightly turquoise in some places. Even though it was windy and not incredibly warm, the water was so inviting! I wanted to dive right off the boat! We stopped at two islands, neither of which I knew the names of. I was shocked at how friendly everyone was! We stopped in a grocery store to get some snacks, and even the cashier was interested in us, asking about where we were from and our study abroad journey. It was a refreshing change from Prague, where the people usually keep to themselves unless you engage them. Croatia was also very clean and family-friendly. There were kids everywhere on the main promenade when we were there! Families would just go for walks along the water, or stop to eat at one of the cafe's alone the harbor.

The last morning of our stay in Croatia we decided to get up to watch the sun rise over the water. It was such a tranquil and serene experience. I felt the presence of my roommates, but also the stillness that only comes when you're alone. In those early hours, I realized that I love being near the water. I love the endlessness and mystery that comes with it, and especially the reflection of lights that make everything seem glamourous. The sunset was all pinks and oranges and with the blue of the water, it was absolutely exquisite. There's no doubt in my mind I'll be back to Croatia one day. Honeymoon? I think yes.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Krakow, Poland

I spent this weekend in the incredible city of Krakow, Poland. 

We left Prague Thursday morning (and by "we" I mean about 80 students), and arrived in Krakow a whopping eight hours later. Our bus driver was probably the most the energetic, charming, and talented driver I've ever seen. He dutifully waved at every bus that passed us, and wove in and out of traffic without a care in the world. Oh, and he managed to parallel park the beast of a bus as if it was a smart car or something. I have no idea. He was amazing. 

Thursday night we were all pretty exhausted and hungry from the drive, so we meandered out of the hotel and stumbled upon a gem of an Indian restaurant just outside Krakow's main square. I'm not kidding when I say it was a gem. It was cozy, comfy, and exactly what we needed after the day's travels. 

Friday morning I woke up bright and early, only inclined to get out of bed because I knew there was free breakfast waiting in the hotel lobby for me. Food has amazing powers. If you give me food, I will probably do anything for you. Yes, it's that big of a deal. After stuffing my belly with the infamous yogurt that is so common around Eastern Europe (as well as a few crepes, shh), the group set out on a tour to see the the oldest parts of Krakow. Our guide was a middle aged Polish woman that looked Venezuelan, but spoke perfect Czech and would repeat the phrase "so this is what I would like to tell you" before telling us anything. She also liked to call her tours of downtown Krakow "ABC" tours, or "Another Bloody Church" because there are so many churches there (140 Catholic churches to be exact). She was adorable. 

We toured all around downtown Krakow, including the main square, the oldest street, and the Wawel Cathedral (pronounced Vavel). The main square has this huge building in it that was originally used to buy and sell textiles. It's now been renovated into a shopping area with boutiques and restaurants, but the middle is devoted to little Polish trinkets and souvenirs. 

Old Textile Trading House 

Some of the little trinkets sold in the textile markets

The Wawel Cathedral was located right in the middle of old town atop Wawel Hill (fitting, right?). This Roman Catholic church is extremely important in all of Poland, as it is the coronation site of all the Polish monarchs, as well as the place where Pope John Paul II was ordained into priesthood. So, kind of a big deal. I guess. Outside the Cathedral there was this adorable little man playing an accordion and singing what I assumed to be traditional Polish folk songs. He was so friendly, I'm pretty sure he could have been Santa in disguise, working a bit in the off season.

The Cathedral had so much history, and so many interesting aspects, there's no way I could describe them all here. It will have to suffice to say that it was outstandingly beautiful, both inside and out. I wasn't allowed to take pictures inside, but the couple I took of the outside don't begin to do it justice. 

Wawel Cathedral. Wowza.

After our tour of the city, we explored around the square for a little, stopping for lunch a falafel place (not the best in the whole world) and a little shop that sold ice cream and dessert waffles. Imagine our surprise when we discovered they also sold donuts that were as big as a human face. Doughy, glazed, deliciously filled donuts. I'm pretty sure this place was a small section of heaven. The donut was enough for five girls (barely), but we just simply weren't satisfied so we came back again on friday and indulged in the waffles. Warm and fresh off the grill, mine came with strawberry jam, whipped cream, and some of the thickest milk chocolate I've ever seen. I mean, does it really get better than that? No. The answer is no it doesn't.

Thursday I also visited the Salt Mines. The tour was incredibly fascinating, but a little long for my taste. We were down in the depths for two hours, and only saw about 1% of the entire mine. I can't even wrap my head around how huge that is! By far the best part of the salt mine experience was the opportunity to lick every single thing around you. Yep, that's right, I said lick it. Lick the stairs, the wall, the floor, you name it, because it's all made of SALT. Licking the wall was disgusting but satisfying at the same time...I tried not to think too hard about how many people had probably licked that wall before me. Gross. But it was so worth it because, really, how often in a lifetime are you invited to lick walls? 

 The night ended with an amazing feast at a traditional Polish restaurant. It was a giant four-course meal, with the star attraction being a huge platter of roasted chicken, dumplings, cabbage rolls, mashed potatoes, and steamed vegetables. It's safe to say I was close to bursting out the seams that night. Oh, and I can't forget the warm apple piecake for dessert. I say "piecake" because it was trying really hard to be pie, but just didn't quite make the cut. Thus, piecake. 

Saturday was a very sobering and emotionally intense day. I visited the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau, and even reflecting on it now I don't think there's a single word or expression that could accurately summarize my experience there. It almost doesn't seem real in a way. There were thousands of people there, walking the same paths, going through the same buildings as the prisoners did not so many years ago. The tour was very defined and informative, without much emotional intimacy, which was better in a way I think. It gave the facts. 

The only times I was aware of any strong emotion was when we walked through a room where hundreds of suitcases had been piled. The suitcases belonged to the traveling Jews who thought they would be going home someday. Many had written their addresses on them, in case they were lost or stolen along the way. They really had no idea. The other time was when we walked through a hallway lined with photographs of the actual prisoners. Those things--the suitcases and the photographs, made everything so real. So tangible. I think the events of the Holocaust are often talked about in very abstract terms, which makes it challenging to really feel the intense disgust I felt seeing those items. In a class room it's easy to feel hatred and to feel sadness and even maybe pity. But being there in the camps, being present where these people were once present, that is entirely different. 
"Even alive prisoners looked like dead ones."

The rest of Saturday we roamed around downtown Krakow, and eventually went back to the Indian restaurant for dinner (apparently I was a creature of habit on this trip...not much variety food-wise. But it was just so good!). Sunday morning was a small tour of the Jewish Quarter and the area where the infamous movie Schindler's List was filmed. It was cold and rainy, so our tour guide let us do most of the tour from the bus. I told you she was amazing. She was choc-full of interesting facts about people that lived in the Jewish Quarter. Apparently Estée Lauder, the beauty and cosmetic icon, was Hungarian Jewish and spent some time in the Krakow ghetto. The most astonishing fact was that of the 70,000 Krakow Jewish people sent to camps in WWII, only 5,000 made it out alive. The magnitude of those numbers still shock me. 

The drive back feels like a blur now, with the in and out of sleep and the endless green pastures that boarded the highway. This weekend was an incredible experience, and I feel beyond blessed that I had the opportunity to travel to a place so rich with history and culture. But as we pulled into the bus station in Prague early evening on Sunday, the beautiful feeling of familiarity came over me. This is my place now. This is my town.
I was home.