A Week In Croatia: Part 1/3

I took a sleeper train to Croatia, and managed to find myself in a car with two women from Britain, one from Croatia, and a guy whose origin was unknown. He sure knew what he was doing on that sleeper train, though. He came in, said hello, and went about setting up his quarters in a way that said, “I’ve done this about a hundred times and have the process down to a science.”

On Sunday, my first full day in Croatia, my friend Mia took me to a Leonardo da Vinci traveling exhibit. They had touchable models of many of his experiments, a couple of his notebooks, many prints of his anatomical sketches, and prints of a few of his paintings. This was in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. I fully enjoyed playing with all of the mechanical toys, and found some things that would help our physics students back home.

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On Monday, I wandered around Zagreb on my own for a while until Mia was out of class. I visited the famous cathedral in Zagreb. The two towers of this cathedral are built from a stone that erodes very easily and has to be replaced often. So often, in fact, that there is almost never a time during which neither of the towers are under construction.

When Mia had her lunch break, we visited the Museum of Broken Relationships. It was at once intriguing, inspiring, humorous, and heart-wrenching. It was easy to see how much a relationship meant to the person who sent in the item. Sometimes they wrote their story in a humorous way, sharing their failed love and a smile at the same time. Others were clearly still heart broken by the loss, while still others simply wanted to help readers not make the same mistake they had.

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Paris started with a meet-up at the airport, after which my sister and niece and I took the RER B for Paris. After that, the fun began!

First stop: the Science and Industry Museum! We saw the transportation exhibit, the light&vision/optics exhibit, and a math exhibit. The transportation exhibit included models of the trains that I am now very familiar with (TER, TGV) – as well as interactive sections about building and testing ‘green’ cars, new types of windmills, and a multi-layer map of Paris. My favorite to see was the Geode – but the best thing to play with was the lasers in the light exhibit. There was also a turbulent fountain (a video of which you can see here. Google some studies about turbulent fountains, too)!

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The museum area also had a giant dragon slide! Unfortunately, it was closed for the season – so we could only take pictures of it from afar:

P1320374                   P1320377

On our second day, we went to breakfast at a Croissanterie that my niece declared to be “The best ever!” As an added bonus, it was local and therefore did not have tourist-trap pricing.

The first museum of the day was le Musée de Cluny, a medieval museum. It was amazing: the armor, tapestries, church pews, jewelry, gold work, chests, and more were masterfully crafted. The church pews were particularly interesting because the seats were so small no one would ever be comfortable in them – and thus no one would fall asleep! The museum itself is a partially restored ancient building that was probably a monastery.

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Next was the Eiffel Tower. We took a lot of photos before we even got to go up the stairs, and once we were at the entrance we found that the top was closed because of high winds. All three of us made it up to the first level and wow, what a view! It was windy and cloudy, but still, to be there was quite the experience. I braved the stairs up to the second level, which had more of an unobstructed view. It was simply amazing.

I think the thing we noted to be most interesting was the color: the Eiffel Tower is a tan/beige color, not black nor dark brown nor dark bronze, as you’d guess from most of the photos.

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Our final stops were the Arc de Triomphe (which has 300 stairs) and then a few hours in the Aquarium Paris.

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A Trip to Strasbourg, Luxembourg, and Nancy – Part 3

In Nancy, we stayed in a very new hotel that had a great apartment. I cooked for the group for both evenings, and we had a great time with it. Nancy had less to see, but we still got to tour through the city’s monuments and numerous churches.

We took a suggested tour route through the city, and we found it hilarious that one of the tourist stops was Societe General (which is the bank we all use). I think that the building that Societe General is in is what was the actual attraction – it was old with great architecture.

The center of the city was a beautiful gilded square. I stopped in awe. I have never seen so much gold in one place!

Later, we walked through a park that had a merry-go-round and a petting zoo. The petting zoo was great fun, as was getting to read the names of all the animals in various languages. Finally, as we walked home for the night, we chanced upon a Little Free Library. I did not take a book, since I have already bought a couple of books in French and have little space for more.

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On the last morning, Evan and I went to an aquarium before anyone else woke up. The aquarium was quite large and included a small zoology section. Evan was very excited, as he has an aquarium at home and was able to tell me about the various fish we saw.

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A Trip to Strasbourg, Luxembourg, and Nancy – Part 2

Luxembourg was easily my favorite city of the three. The buildings are mostly ancient with fantastic form and function. They have lasted the numerous centuries without truly fading.

On the first day, we visited the Casemates. None of my photos were good enough to share here, but I loved exploring the underground tunnels of brick and seeing the ancient architecture. Luxembourg used to be a fortress of a city and is built in mountain foothills. This meant many beautiful photograph opportunities and lots of walking up and down hills and stairs.

The hostel we stayed in was part of the Hostelling International company, and I could not believe how many languages I heard! I met some American students, a Canadian, and I heard Chinese, German, French, Spanish, and English being spoken.

We went down into a very green valley in the central part of the city and wandered around the beautiful space and then over to lunch. After lunch, we wandered to a different park and found a big swing set. We took some videos and high-speed photos of us jumping off of the swings and just as we were circled around looking at the photos, a pair of police came our direction. We finished our looking and went on our way but were stopped by the police who said that we had left after seeing them and that our actions looked suspicious. After they inspected the area where we had been standing and declared it fine, we walked away. I think all of us had different emotional reactions to the encounter ranging from scared to angry to indifferent.

On our last morning before going heading to Nancy, we walked around a different route and saw a more modern part of the city, eventually crossing the red bridge that is in a few of my photos. After that, we trudged up the hills with our luggage to the train station and rested while we traveled to Nancy.


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A Trip to Strasbourg, Luxembourg, and Nancy – Part 1

A six-day, three-city tour began, like most days in Belfort, with a bus ride. In this case, it was to the TGV station where we took the train to Strausbourg. Our first hotel was part of the Ibis Budget chain and not at all far from the train station.

The Gare de Strausbourg as seen from a fifth floor hotel

The view of the train station from our hotel

First, we saw the great cathedral in Strausbourg, which is a place of pride for the Alsace region. The entirety of the city is built with fantastic architecture, and a beautiful river runs through its heart. Some of the bridges we crossed had locks hung on them, reminders of one of my favorite traditions here: placing locks and throwing away the key to secure love for a lifetime or to stow away a secret.

Most of the group found a cheap lunch, but Evan and I went down a little side-street to a restaurant called Crep’Mili. The restaurant was mostly underground and we had to climb down a full flight of tight stairs before entering a warm but lowly lit cave-like dining area. Evan and I both had comfort-food crepes, really. I had ham, egg, and cheese while he had a seafood array. It was a nice little restaurant, and we both had hot cocoa. This was the first ‘typical’ French hot cocoa I’d had. It was very bitter and took both sugar packets to get to be a taste I could handle.

Crep'Mili Lunch in Strausbourg

The wind howled for much of day, though the sun was bright and beautiful. On the way home for a pre-dinner nap (we walked 10km), Evan and I got caught in a sudden typhoon-like storm. The rain was pounding and viciously slicing on a diagonal. The wind was so strong that it knocked over a store’s plant boxes. I enlisted Evan to help pick up the plant boxes when the rain subsided enough, and just a little later the store owner came out and thanked us for righting the plants. It was a crazy moment of a storm that passed very quickly.

There was no crazy weather during our second day in Strausbourg. We toured a number of European Union buildings, including a human rights building. Eventually, we meandered to a huge park and had lunch. The green space was a welcome place and felt a lot more like home than any of these cities ever do. The cities smell different than home, but the countryside always smells the same.

As we walked away from the park, I finally saw a squirrel! It was a reddish brown color and the size of a grey squirrel but with longer and pointier ears. There was also a long line of trees in which huge nests were built and inhabited by huge waterfowl.

Later, a few of us set out to find a pottery shop I’d seen the day before. The potter was very kind and skilled and set about to explaining what each piece was. I knew which goblet I was going to purchase, but took the time to look at everything anyway. The art was magnificent! When I made my purchase, the artist gave me a pamphlet and business card after wrapping up the goblet.



Week 1 In Belfort

My first week has been quite a roller coaster. When I arrived at the airport in Basel, my luggage was not waiting for me.  I have never been in airports in living memory before this trip, but despite my unfamiliarity, I was able to figure out where to go and place a claim for my baggage.

As soon as I stepped off that plane, all of my conversations were in about half French and half English. At least in the airport, it was easy enough to ask around for directions. After placing a claim, I ended up taking a bus, two trains, making a phone call, and then taking another bus, getting lost, and finally being directed properly to the UTBM.

Ah, but there is no rest for the weary. Tired as I was, it was only midday and there was lunch, shopping, and games still planned for the day. Without my luggage, I had minimal clothing, most of my electronics (but not my adapter, oops), and all of my important papers. At the store (called E.Leclerc, it’s like a Wal-Mart), I bought the minimum to get me through the next few days. My bed for the first night was a sad sight for someone used to having sheets and blankets:

First night's BedYes, that’s a towel for a blanket. I ended up using my jacket and sweatshirt for blankets as well.

Don’t worry, it got better! A few days later – with a lot of hassle and many emails and phone calls – my luggage arrived. It was quite the relief.

Lots of paperwork happened in the first week. We (the foreign exchange students) started the paperwork for our bank accounts, for our bus cards, bought SIM cards if we needed them so we could have French phones, filled out UTBM enrollment paperwork, sent info to the OFII (Office Française e l’Immigration et de l’Intégration) so that we can get a small grant to help with housing costs… and something else, at least. Oh, yeah! We took French level tests to see if we needed to take intensive French lessons and which language course we should take.

As the lady who assists incoming exchange students told us many times, “Welcome to French paperwork.”

There is a student group called the Welcome Club that helped us through the first days. They fed us more than a few meals, led us around town, and facilitated most our paperwork needs. They even took us up to the top of the Citadel, where we could look at the whole city under the light of the setting sun.

20150212_174704It took me a few hours of trial-and-error during the first couple of days to figure out the door system. I have never seen doors that are magnetically locked. You have to push a button to open the door, and the door handle is not always intuitive. In discovering doors, though, I also found that there is a kitty who lives in our mailroom/building. Someone feeds her, and students let her in and out as she asks. Usually, she can be found prowling around or sleeping atop one of the radiators.

Lobby CatDespite all of the hassle with my luggage, I had plenty of successes in the first week. I bought a pot in which I have since fried chicken, cooked butternut squash, and more than one serving of pasta. Pasta was, in fact, my first cooked-it-myself-in-France meal.

Pasta! First Home-Cooked MealI’ve made quite a few new friends already, and expect that I will continue to do so. I taught one of my new friends, how to play pool! Not long after that, a student from Romania taught me a lot more about the game and helped me improve immensely in about an hour. The pool tables here are quite a bit smaller than what I am used to, and the one Claudiu and I have played on is in rather bad shape. But it’s not a big deal, because we just learned how to take the table itself into account.

I have discovered that even if my eating habits don’t change at all, I will lose weight while I am here. We walk almost everywhere, but if it’s a bit too far, we’ll take the bus. Just a few days ago, I spent three hours at an open gym. Not long afterwards, the three Spanish women asked me to go on a walk with them. I said, ‘Sure’, and on we went…. until we met the rest of the exchange students hanging out. We ended up walking for a good 40 minutes before finding dinner and then walking another 30 minutes back home.

Classes start Friday the 20th for me, and on Monday or Tuesday for everyone else.  We have a week of classes before our first week of holiday. Yes, one week of school and then one week off, what world do I live in? (Hint: France) There’s a festival in Bescançon next weekend that I would love to attend!


En Avion

My trip consisted of three legs: Madison-Chicago, Chicago-Munich, Munich-Basel. It didn’t go as planned, and my luggage was lost (later recovered) on the way. I’ve learned two things: 1. Fewer stops is better for luggage tracking; 2. Lots of stops are nice for seeing new places.

Madison Terminal

Desk at the Madison Terminal

My flight from Madison to Chicago left 20 minutes late – not so bad considering  I had an hour and a half layover in Chicago. But then we got to Chicago and waited to be de-iced and then for a gate to open up. We spent a whole hour on the tarmac, and I and most of the other passengers missed our connecting flights.

My flight was rerouted through Frankfurt for the following day. I was put up in a hotel and given three meal vouchers since my missed connection was the company’s fault. I have never stayed anywhere so huge and fancy, let alone so clean. It was the Hyatt Regency O’Hare, and I was in room 519.

                Hyatt Regional Chicago  20150209_095002

I finally left the States on Monday, which is when I should have arrived in France. The O’Hare airport is really cool to be in, with rainbow windows, moving walkways, and fun architecture.Chicago International AirportI made a friend along the way who helped me figure out where to go when I couldn’t understand the announcements being made. I never learned her name, but she was returning to finish her semester abroad in Italy.

United Airlines FlightDuring the flight, we were fed dinner, breakfast, and a lunch. They showed a few different entertainment options, but each one was played multiple times. There was also a really neat little map on the in-flight entertainment that showed where we were, our altitude, and the outside air temperature.

Big Hero Six

In-flight Map

Frankfurt brought a long list of new experiences. The signage, toilets, restaurants – everything was different. I bought a bottle of mineral water without realizing it was mineral water. I thought it was just water, but I didn’t mind the fizz and the crisp but slightly chemical flavor.

20150209_230132 Frankfurt Airport

Three hours of waiting and then a small hopper flight later, I was in France. After that, it took a baggage claim, a bus, two trains, a phone call, another bus, getting lost, and then being directed to the UTBM before I finally got to my destination.

Lufthansa Fleet in Frankfurt Atmospheric view

View of Belfort from the Citadel