A Travellerspoint blog

Back to the Basics

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This was a big weekend for a lot of people. Many journeyed down to Interlaken, a town in Switzerland known for its stunning views and incredible hikes around, well, you guessed it, some lakes. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an absolutely beautiful place that I want to visit at some point, but this weekend was a special occasion. Making the trip out to Western France, I went to visit the beaches made famous at 6:30am on June 6, 1944. This, of course, was DDay.

Before I ramble on about my trip, a quick word for my sponsors: school is still going great, I am in good health, making lots of friends, taking of bunch of tests, and yes, I am getting enough to eat. Homework is ramping up, but the smaller class size lets me work on it with groups that I’m familiar with and end up completing it faster. What I’m truly dreading is this upcoming week: I have 3 back-to-back tests on top of multiple assignments due. Up until now, I’ve been enjoying Georgia Tech-lite, where your biggest responsibility is showing up for class on time. Now I need to prove that I’ve been paying attention and understanding the material. If I study hard enough, I meet even be able to get my Materials Science test grade into the double digits! There’s a reason I’ve spent so much time in churches the past two weeks: I’ve been trying to find salvation from the ensuing storm. Alright, that’s enough of the doom and gloom talk. It’s not as bad as it sounds (really).

Saturday morning, I had to get up at the soul-crushing hour of 6am (psh, no problem for me) to make it to the train station in time. Our route would have us on a high-speed rail from Metz to Paris, transfer stations in Paris, and then take an intercity train from Paris to Caen. As we walked up to our platform, my friend ran into ticket issues. I tried to convince them that it would be alright, but they didn’t want to run the risk of being on the receiving end of a massive fine from some overeager ticket checker. Their decision to stay came after I had already boarded, so I watched helplessly from the window as they stood there on the platform and would not get on. Just as I was about to head down to convince them otherwise, the doors clanged shut in front of me and the train groaned to life. Any chance I had was now gone. This adventure would be one I would have to take alone.

I’ll admit: I was a little jarred by the abruptness of their exit. Now the dynamic duo had become the…. Well, I don’t even know what cool name there is for a singular person. With just one, I no longer had the power of alliteration on my side. Even worse, I had to figure out everything for myself. If I had any hesitation about something, I would just have to go with my gut (and it usually told me to get food). Making the most of my train ride, I began to work out the logistics of what would come next.

When the train pulled up to the Gare L’est in Paris, I bolted off the platform and began to make my way to the Gare St. Lazar, which stood several miles away. I had to be wary of time because I only had fifty minutes of layover and the next train to Caen wouldn’t be until much later in the evening. Luckily enough, the metro got me there with ten minutes to spare. Boarding it, I snagged an empty seat and unloaded the hefty pack that was bearing down on my shoulders. As the seats around me filled up one by one, I began to worry that this was a reservation only train (which yours truly did not have). Thinking back, I had passed by a sign earlier in the station that looked awfully like the French words for, “Reservations Required Dummy”. My biggest concern was the massive fine that could be slapped on me for not paying whatever marginal reservation fee there was. I made my decision a minute before the train pulled out: I would play it like “Joe Cool” and act like I belonged.

This tactic, surprisingly, worked out for me quite well! As has been with every previous train ride thus far, the ticket checker walked straight through the cabin without batting an eye at anyone. However, I knew I was lucky this time. From here on out, I’ll have to be more careful with knowing what trains require reservations and making sure I have them.

The train ride was long, hot, noisy, and crowded from Paris to Caen. As was the French custom, we had several delays in our journey. Originally a one and a half hour hop, it transformed into a three hour outing that a turtle could have done faster. It didn’t help that I was surrounded by high school delinquents who didn’t mind jostling my seat back and forth (man, when did I become a grumpy, old grandpa). The saving grace was the kind, older, French woman who sat next to me and who had brought her adorable dog with her. There’s no better therapy than having a puppy crawling around in your lap.

Around 1pm, the amazing FINALLY happened. We rolled into Caen! Now, I feel that I should tell you that the city’s name is pronounced like “cone”, as in, ice cream cone. I don’t know how you’ve been reading it so far, but let’s just set the record straight and make sure you say it correctly from here on out. Furthermore, a quick history lesson! Caen played an important role in the DDay invasion. After the Allied Forces secured the beachhead, the Germans holed up in Caen and prepared to make their stand here. The fighting was intense and left most of the city in ruins. Caen was one of the most, if not THE most, destroyed cities in all of France. The air bombing done by the Allies was fairly ineffective and ended up creating as many civilian casualties as it hurt German assets. The original plan had the Allies expecting to secure Caen within a day of the landings. It ended up taking four bloody weeks before the town would be back in their grasp. This was a city where history was buried in its walls: every street-corner holding the story of some intense firefight that had occurred 74 years ago.

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Walking out of the train station, I made a beeline for the nearest grocery store where five euros could fill a bottomless pit (aka, my stomach). Thirty minutes later, I found myself stuffing groceries into my already full backpack like a homeless person and leaving the store with baguette in hand. I munched on the bread as I cruised the streets and ended up working my way towards the obvious center of the city. Why was it obviously the center? Well, it was the remains of a large fortress embedded in a hillside that loomed over the rest of the city. It was pretty hard to miss. I hiked my way up the ruins and plopped down in the soft, green grass. Enjoying my mini-feast I had acquired, I soaked in the sights from the hilltop. Although the grey clouds didn’t make for an attractive backdrop, it was still warm enough for a t-shirt and shorts. Around me, little kids on a school trip scurried around and played tag on the hillside. I’m sure none of them realized that the walls they were running around were almost a thousand years old, erected by William the Conqueror.

After lunch, I began to amble around the old town. Here and there I would see pockmarks in the walls: bullet holes which served as reminders of the fights. The streets narrowly wound in every direction from the center, as if the enormous roots from the Tree of Life. I made my way through several churches and eventually to the DDay memorial park, which situates itself a mile northwest of the city. To my surprise, there was a wonderful museum at the entrance of the park. It offered an interesting perspective of Caen and France before and after World War Two. Unlike other World War Two museums I had visited, this one was different in its tone. It paid homage to the staggering number of civilians lost and didn’t thank the Allies as incredible saviors. Instead, it highlighted how some of their actions led to a greater loss in civilian life. Like I said, it gave a unique perspective of the war that felt genuine, as if seen through the eyes of a French person living during the time.

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At this point in the afternoon, I was trying to kill time until I could check into my Airbnb. I stumbled upon a botanical garden and sat for a while, enjoying the tranquility of the water flowing down the rocks and into a reflecting pond. I was very excited to check out my living arrangements this time. After all, the place I had found to stay at was in the bottom of a boat! Yes, you did read that correctly. Someone had an extra bunk in their boat and was renting it out for travelers like me! I couldn’t turn down an opportunity like that. When the time did come, I found my new dwelling not far from the city center. The host, with his two sons, was incredibly friendly and helpful. A jovial man with a perpetual grin on his face, he provided me with dinner recommendations that I heartily took. After going out and getting my fill of falafel, I returned to my bunk and got some studying done. As I dozed off to sleep, I could hear the sounds of the city swirling around and slipping into my cabin through the porthole. There was quite the party going on across the river. At some point through it all, I finally ended up getting some shuteye.

The following day, I departed from my host at 7:30am and made my way back to the train station. I would ride the rail one station further up to Bayeux. The tour I had signed up for would meet at the train station there and depart at 8:30am. Even smaller than Caen, Bayeux was a quaint town that had escaped the tragedies of the war. Due to its narrow streets, it never saw any fighting, so it maintained its pristine, rustic quality. When I found my tour group, I was easily a third of the age of the next youngest person there. Boy, did I feel like a kid. Comprised of three older couples, I stuck out like a sore thumb. Despite the massive age gap, my new groupmates were very friendly and made great talking companions. Being from the States themselves, they had all served in the military in some capacity or another. One of them had even been a pilot! We struck it off right away and would jabber incessantly about planes in the spare minutes. The guide of our group was a younger woman who was a Bayeux native. Her accent was thick, but her knowledge was vast on the topic of DDay. This was definitely not her first rodeo.

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Our tour started with the Point du Hoc, which was a set of cliffs that housed a scary array of German anti-naval and anti-air batteries. The craters from the bombs were overgrown with brush and the same lush, green grass that I had seen in Caen. In some places the craters were ten or fifteen feet deep! As we stood at the edge of the hundred-foot-tall cliffs, our guide explained that the Army Rangers had to scale these very cliffs by cutting slits in the rocks with their knives and climbing up with their hands (even Bruce Willis would be scared of these guys). The original plan called for them to launch grappling hooks and make the ascent with the aid of ropes. Unfortunately for them, their ropes, drenched in the ocean’s salt water, prevented the hooks from reaching the ledge. When the Rangers did get to the top, the Germans had already packed up all of their larger guns and replaced them with telephone-pole look alikes. The men that came over the ledge were hit with a heavy torrent of bullets that kept them pinned down and slowed their advance. By the time they finally captured the Point, the Germans had regrouped a mile away and were preparing a counterattack. Pinned up against the cliffside they had worked so hard to reach, the Rangers had to fend for themselves for two days before reinforcements would reach them. Of the 225 men that had landed, only 90 made it through.

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We continued on to Omaha Beach itself, which is a shallow stretch of sand that goes on for 3.5 miles. It was a fairly good landing site for the Allies to pick, but the Germans had the advantage of sitting on the high ground. After disembarking from their water transports, soldiers had to crawl past tank traps, barbed wire, landmines, and dodge the deluge of bullets that rained down across the beach. Even with the Germans caught off guard about the attack, it was no easy feat making it up the beach. We didn’t stay too long at Omaha Beach, but our guide told us some fascinating stories that transpired that morning.

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By the time we got to the American cemetery, it was nearing midday. There was a good gaggle of tourists surrounding the centerpiece of it all: a beautiful statue showcasing the youth of the troops as they came in from the water and onto the beaches. We walked among the white crosses, which seemed to glow in the sun. At one point, we heard the deafening roar of a C-130 as it flew overhead and out onto the water. With DDay being so close, there were actors everywhere getting ready for the large scale re-enactment that would take place in a few days. That day we saw tanks driving down main roads, people dressed in the garb of World War 2, and planes from the era practicing maneuvers. I’m sure it would be quite a spectacle to see. As we rounded the edge of the cemetery and made our way back to the van, we were stopped short by the sound of “Taps”. At the statue, there was a procession going on for veterans of the 101st Airborne. As the notes played, there was a hushed silence as all movement ceased and everyone faced the center. There, several veterans stood and held a salute for their fallen brothers. It was a very moving tribute that sent shivers down my spine.

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Thirty minutes later, I was back in the city center of Bayeux and making another grocery run. I had said my goodbyes to the group and found a quiet place to eat my loaf of bread and block of fresh cheese. I spent another hour exploring the city before making the trip over to the train station and beginning the journey homewards. Although I’d only been in Western France for 24 hours, I felt like I had seen enough to last me a week. The train ride home, I mulled over the famous landmarks I had seen and how significant they are to our history. The beach, soaked with the blood of thousands of young men, lays testament to the noble sacrifice given up in the name of freedom. Those men may not have realized the importance of it at the time, but their selfless devotion and courage in the face of insurmountable odds provided the stepping stone to the world we live in today. Through the celebration of DDay, we remember their legacy. Within Arnold Air Society, we have a quote that we say after every session of PT, which we dedicate to the POW’s and MIA’s. This DDay, I hope you can take some time to remember those who gave up their life in the hope of making the world a better place. As we like to say: “Always Remember, Never Forget.”

Posted by oklempay 22:02 Archived in France Tagged boat castle normandy bayeux rangers caen dday st._lazare Comments (0)

The Big Kahuna

sunny

Great Scott! It’s already been two weeks in France and it still feels as if I just got here. It’s like the remote control of life seems to be stuck in fast-forward and events flash by one by one (this is getting heavy, Doc). On a different note, school is continuing to go well! Thermo is trying to keep us on our toes with pop quizzes and numerous assignments that come back to bite you for deciding to take a 4-credit hour class during what many would consider a “vacation semester”. My deformable bodies professor continues to rock with his crowd-pleasing personality. He’s incredibly personable and genuinely makes an effort to learn a bit about each student. Suffice to say, he’s already up there among my favorite teachers I’ve had at Tech. I feel a special connection to him due to his past at West Point and time in the Army Corps of Engineers. Statistics is starting to improve, but I’m waiting to see how it shakes out. The runt of the litter is Materials Science. Being a survey course, the class flies through a multitude of topics and expects you to pick up most of it very quickly. Chemistry has never been my strong suit, so this is the class I’m most worried about. Next Wednesday is our first test, so hopefully I won’t need to order my coffin now (they go pretty fast as finals season approaches). Enough with the classwork, though, on to the fun stuff!

Friday night I went out into Metz and enjoyed the city. We ended up eating at what I would consider to be a more upscale restaurant. This, of course, meant that the golden ratio (the ratio between cost to portion size) would be pretty bad. However, the chicken breast I ordered was mouthwateringly delicious and the carrot puree and mushroom sauce were highly reminiscent of something from the Tailor and the Cook (a classy restaurant at home). I spent the evening getting to know some new people from the program and taking in the scenery of the city. After dinner, we made our way down to the water and enjoyed the evening with ice cream in hand. Geese floated along and terrorized the local ducks (jerks). I got back around 10pm and began to prepare for our trip the following day.

I’m glad I got plenty of sleep, because this weekend was the big kahuna! After seeing Paris in just about a million different films, I had always wanted a chance to visit the iconic city. Our plan of action this time was to hit up the Bastille and work our way left. Following this philosophy, it would lead us in a chain of sights from Notre Dame to the Arc de Triumphe. Leaving at 8am once again, the train ride to Paris was short and uneventful. It was only an hour and a half hop over by train, which gave me just enough time to complete one homework problem before arriving at the train station. We made our way down to the Metro and bought our day pass tickets. Then, for whatever reason, I was put in charge of the group and figuring out where to go…. BAD DECISION. The first train we hopped on travelled in the opposite direction from the way we wanted! Luckily, I realized the mistake after one stop and we made a quick course correction.

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When we got to the Bastille, I stepped out of the station and looked around in confusion. Whenever I had seen pictures of the Bastille, it had been of a giant, stone fort that loomed hundreds of feet in the air. What stood before us now was a pretty wimpy column. Apparently, I had dozed off during the part of history class where the Bastille was burned down by the French people. After snapping some disappointing pictures, we made our way down to the Seine. The dirty, brown water surged by and gave off a peculiar smell. The river was not as wide as I had expected, but we found a nice pathway to walk along it. Going on for some ways, we shuffled in the hot sun until we hit the first big stop: Notre Dame. Squatting on an island, it had massive stained glass decorating the outside of the building. We stopped short of our destination to grab a quick bite at a place that offered a 2-course meal for a reasonable price. I felt bad for the waitress who lured us in (we essentially lived up to every stereotype of an obnoxious tourist).

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After lunch, our group split and I headed on with my friend to check out Notre Dame. The line to get in moved at a fast pace and we were inside in no time. It seems as if each church I visit is trying to one up the previous one I’ve seen. They get bigger, grander, and take my breath away even more each time. The trend continued on with the real Notre Dame (not that faker in Strasbourg). I stopped at the statue of St. Theresa and lit a candle there for my aunt. Coming back out into the daylight, we had to take a few minutes to adjust to the drastic change in lighting. Then, we continued on our pilgrimage leftwards. We made our way over to the bridge which was home to thousands of locks of love. Well, it used to house thousands of these locks. So many were put on that it began to put stress on the bridge. They were all cut off, unfortunately, and replaced by rather ugly, plastic siding. Our crossing of the bridge brought us right into the Louvre, which means I can cross, “seeing the pyramids”, off of my bucket list. Before you ask if I saw the Mona Lisa, I will tell you straight up that I am not a fan of “high art”. With a super-packed day, I was not ready to wait in an hour-long line and shell out some serious dough for a picture that I’ve seen a hundred times over.

Continuing on from the Louvre, we walked through an expansive park lined with statues of Caesar and grand fountains. Eventually, our pilgrimage led us to the Champs-Elysees, one of the most famous streets in Paris. As if to mock us, our final destination (the Arc de Triumphe) sat at the very end of the Champs-Elysees and atop a steep hill. Folks, I have made some difficult treks in my life, but battling my way through crowds of tourists whilst in the heat and humidity of an 86 degree day and loaded down with everything for a weekend was up there among the top for difficulty. Our feet were already sore from the 6 miles of walking early, but our prize was so close now (and in plain sight!) that we could not give up now. We eventually made it up to the Arc and were confronted with one final challenge: it sat in the middle of a massive 8 lane traffic circle! The cars zipped around and tempted us to play frogger, but we did not rise to the occasion. Instead, we scratched our heads along with the other confused tourists and finally found the giant sign that read “ARC THIS WAY”. Thirty minutes later, we were standing triumphantly on top of the conquered landmark. For all of the trouble it had been to get there, the view was magnificent. You could see Paris in all directions. It was a definite highlight of the trip.

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Exhausted and battered by a day of trudging through the sweltering heat, we took the Metro to our Airbnb, which was situated in the southeast corner of Paris. After figuring out the correct building and dealing with a host who knew only a little English, we got some respite in a comfy bed and a room of our own. We took a much-needed rest and got prepared to head back out once more. This time, we would be heading for the Eiffel Tower. Every night, they have a light show on the Tower that makes it sparkle like a diamond. Getting there at 10pm, we found the park filling up quickly with other eager tourists and a fair share of locals. Gypsies weaved their way among the groups lounging on the ground selling beer, wine, and champagne. You had to be careful with them, because they would do anything to get some money from you. They weren’t afraid to touch, either. When we picked our ideal spot, we hunkered down with our stuff and got our cameras ready for some prime picture-taking. The show was not disappointing. The display was lit up like a giant, white Christmas tree and went on for several minutes. Despite my complete state of exhaustion, I’m glad we went back out to see the show. By the time we made our way back to the safety and comfort of our bed for the night, it was almost midnight and the metro was jam-packed. There was hardly room to stand, and the sweaty, smelly bodies did not make it any more pleasant. I collapsed into the bed when we got back and slept soundly for the next seven hours.

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The following day, we were out by 8am and on our way to the Tower again. This time, we wouldn’t settle for just looking at it: we would be scaling its steps! The line in front of the Tower wasn’t bad, until we realized that it was just for the metal detectors. Then, we had to wait in line for tickets to climb the stairs. After that, we had to wait in line on the stairs themselves (see a pattern here?). All told, the view was most excellent from the galleries. The Tower, although much taller than the Arc, did not seem to give as good a scene as the Arc did. I’m not sure what it was about it, but I seemed to prefer being on top of the Arc to the Tower. On the way back down, I chatted it up with some Russian tourists from Moscow (see, my Russian is so coming in handy!).

At this point it was just about lunchtime, so I convinced my friend to let us eat from a grocery store. Grocery stores prove the existence of Heaven on Earth, because I was able to pick up lunch and dinner for under 9 euros! With my stomach full, I was in a much better mood as we headed to Versailles. The train alone was much nicer than any other Metro train I had ridden, as if the palace’s royal influence extended to the railway that led to it. As we rounded the corner of the boulevard that led to the palace, we both had a moment of jaw-dropping shock. When Versailles is talked about as big, that word doesn’t sum it up well. Versailles is BIG. Scratch that, it is HUGE. Its golden (literally gold) gate gleamed in the sun and rounded its exterior. Waiting in the security line, we were given a mini sideshow as the cops pulled up and scared off the gypsies that were pestering us poor tourists incessantly.

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Moving inside the gate, we worked our way around to the back, where the gardens were. I’m a fan of the Botanical Gardens, but this was something from another world. The gardens stretched as far as the eye could see in every direction and were so large that it made you feel like you were Alice and had just been shrunk down to Wonderland. Being almost 2,000 acres, the gardens were dotted with fountains, statues, baths, and intricate hedge structures that were unimaginable. We made our way through the center and then along the outer perimeter to the newest feature: Neptune’s Fountain. We were mostly guided by the music, as the fountains would go off every couple of minutes and lead you to somewhere new. Golf carts zoomed among the hedges, as some lucky tourists had been patient (and rich enough) to wait for the privilege of riding through the gardens in the luxury of a covered, 4-wheeled, motorized vehicle. We were supremely jealous of them as they rode around and we plodded along.

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By this time, we were hitting the point of near-exhaustion and barely made it back to the metro before collapsing into two empty seats. Lucky for us, it was a long, smooth ride to get back to the city center. Our last stop on this great journey was Sacre-Cour. Not so lucky for us, it was perched on the top of a freakin’ steep hill. I guess the Universe had to come back at me somehow. The streets leading up to Sacre Cour were bustling with tourists and we had to fight off gypsies selling cheap bracelets on the ascent to the top of the mountain. Was the view from the top worth it? Even in my deranged mental state back then, I would still have said yes. It was phenomenal. You could see for miles and we were blessed with a nice strong breeze that came in. We camped out around Sacre-Cour for an hour or so before making our way down to the train station and closer to the safety of Metz. Hopping on the 5:40pm train, we slept for most of the journey back. I was almost crawling by the time we reached our rooms.

Paris was an amazing city and we were able to see almost all of the big attractions in 2 days’ time! If you want to stay sane, however, I would recommend making it a 3-day trip for those interested. Or conversely, find a better way to get around than by walking everywhere with a 35 pound pack on your back. Once again, another successful weekend! I look forward to what the next week will bring!

Posted by oklempay 12:12 Archived in France Tagged tower paris metro louvre arc versailles champs gypsies sacre-cour Comments (0)

The First Forray

sunny

Okay, this is working….I think. I had been worried about the class load and travel combination, but this might be doable. With only four hours of class every day, I have plenty of gaps in my schedule to study and get homework done. I just need to be vigilant about doing it and not slipping behind too much. Psh, if I made it through last semester, then this should be a piece of cake (is what I tell myself to stay sane). The teachers of my classes all seem sincere and understand the allure of travel mixed with schoolwork. Hopefully all will continue to go well like it has thus far.
I get the feeling you don’t want to hear about my boring classes, though. Hey, it’d be fun describing Mohr’s circle or the times when a flow can be called viscous, but let’s be real here: you want to hear about the travelling and what my croissant count is up to (only 10 I believe). This past weekend I had the pleasure of visiting Luxembourg and Strasbourg. Both were only an hour away by train and seemed to be a good baby step into the pool without diving in head first. The high-speed rail was fairly intuitive to figure out and travelling with a person who knew French made life much easier.

We left for Luxembourg at 8am and passed the time counting cows on the trip (it’s a game all the kids are playing these days). When we finally pulled in, we were surprised to realize that no one had even checked our tickets! Now, I don’t condone illegal activity, but we “technically” could have ridden for free…. Just saying. The train station at Luxembourg was nondescript, which in Europe means that the stained glass was only 100 something years old. Leaving the station, we ambled along the empty streets towards Luxembourg’s old town. Passing by some old churches, we popped our heads in and marveled at the (for lack of a more articulate words) craptastically tall ceilings that seemed to reach to the stars and were covered with frescoes of Jesus in every aspect of his daily life: walking, talking, biking to work, you name it. Luxembourg’s modern city is perched on the top parts of a valley. The fun comes when venturing down into the valley. This is where the old town is nestled. It’s a steep trek to get down and we were very much aware that every step down would mean another one coming back up. It was worth it, though, because the view was incredible. We spent several hours walking among the ancient battlements that had once been crucial during World War II and took in the views across the valley as we crossed the large connecting bridge.

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As lunch time approached, we moved back into the old town for a cheap bite to eat. Eventually settling on a popular sandwich chain called “Paul’s”, we were able to enjoy our baguette-sandwich’s whilst sitting in a park serenaded by musicians performing for the jazz festival. People were swaying to the music in front of us and enjoying the beautiful day just as much as us. There are moments that stick out in a memory, and this will be one of them.

Following lunch, we moved out of the old town and down to the Casemonts du Boc. These are a system of tunnels built into a looming rock wall which were used during World War 2. They offered an amazing view of the valley and led us down to a meandering river bordered by gardens. While walking down to the river, I heard familiar voices: there was a tour being given in Russian! I knew my 5 semesters of Russian would finally be useful for something: I could get a free tour! Although I wanted to stick around and be a nuisance to them, we moved on for a stroll along the river. We wrapped up the trip in the mid-afternoon and took the short train ride back to Metz. For first travel adventures, this one was a success!

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The following day was Strasbourg, a city to the south of Metz and close enough to the border of Germany that one could walk there in several hours. Leaving around 8am again, we arrived to the sight of a slightly more extravagant station. There was a massive glass awning that had been built over the old, stone exterior and which housed various shops and benches. Our plan was simple: walk to the old town and get lost. Unlike most other cities, Strasbourg did not have as many major touristy attractions, but could be appreciated more through its architecture, food, and big-*** church (Seriously, this church was massive). While walking to the city center, we heard it before we even saw it. Following the bells, we saw the building unfold from top down. This church dwarfed all other buildings around it. It even made ME feel small. The sculptures lining its sides were intricately detailed and its parts seemed to disappear and reappear again in the shadows that hid its exterior. We didn’t venture inside yet, because mass was being held. Instead, we would make our way back here later in the day.

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Instead, after having all sense of ego stripped away by the sheer magnitude of that church (which, it turned out, was named Notre-Dame. And no, not the Paris Notre-Dame), we moved on to the waterfront. There are several rivers that weave their way through Strasbourg, resulting in some cool mini-islands. There’s even a playground on one! I would have gone on it too if I didn’t fear being hauled off by the police for what might seem as acts of drunkenness on a Sunday morning. The waterfront provided a great backdrop for pictures that captured Strasbourg’s iconic architecture. We eventually made our way to a breakfast place that won my heart over. The foodie in me was just as satisfied as the frugal half of my brain that hates to spend heaps of money on small meals.

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As the day progressed, we headed over to our Airbnb to check in. There was some difficulty in finding the place, but when we did, we weren’t that impressed. For one, our host had an above-ground pool with a giant, pink flamingo half-submerged in its murky water. Tacky lawn ornaments were strewn across the grass and her three dogs barked incessantly with each ring of the doorbell. Unfortunately for us, she was not there at the prearranged check-in time. We waited twenty minutes at the door before turning back and heading into the city for the second time that day. We sent her various emails, text messages, and phone calls, hoping that she would eventually respond.

Making a beeline for the church, we visited the royal palace adjacent to it that housed three museums. There was an archaeological museum in the basement, a tour of the palace on the ground floor, and a posh art museum upstairs. Six euros was enough to get us into all three, all thanks to student discounts! The basement was full of rocks (yes, I paid money to stare at rocks) that had plaques written in French describing their importance. I guess I’ll just make up my own stories for them. Moving out of the palace, we went back for round two with the church. We went inside this time and felt our jaws drop as we crossed the threshold of the entrance. This ceiling truly stretched to the stars. Massive stone pillars lined the edges of the pews and led up to an impressive altar. We snagged some seats (because we’d walked about 8 miles at this point) and took a break.

As dinnertime approached, we began looking for good, cheap eats. We eventually settled on a German-themed place that was pretty popular with the locals. The line was long and the tables filled as we walked up, but it was very much worth it. I ate some potatoes mixed in with sausage which was reminiscent of kielbasa and pierogis. Leaving the restaurant, we took a long stroll to wear off the effects of eating a large meal. We continued meandering until we decided to head back to the Airbnb and give our host one more shot (she eventually got back to us that afternoon, but it was via email). If she didn’t show up this time, we would’ve hopped the last train of the night and gone back to Metz. When we came to the door backed by the cluttered lawn, we rang the doorbell three times with no answer. Right when called an uber to take us to the train station, our host came barreling out of the house with a towel on her body and her hair sopping wet. She had been taking a shower right when we showed up. Our timing was just very unfortunate with her. We were greeted by her three dogs and showed to the spare room. The bed was a welcome relief after walking over thirteen miles.

The next morning, we took an early train back to Metz. Although we encountered some delays due to technical issues, we passed the time by spotting cows once again and watching Green Arrow (DC’s less cool version of Hawkeye). It was good getting back early, because I had some time to relax for the afternoon and catch up on work. All in all, it turned out to be an amazing first weekend and an awesome introduction for what France has to offer! I’m looking forward to traveling to other small French villages and enjoying the culture. Although, next weekend, I was looking at going to Paris….

Until next time, Au Revoir (for those that only know American, that means goodbye in French)!

Posted by oklempay 13:14 Archived in France Tagged church jazz german luxembourg strasbourg airbnb casemonts Comments (0)

Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore...

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Last summer I considered the best and worst of my life. Through a faculty-led study abroad program, I was able to live in Latvia and Lithuania for two months and learn about Russian language and culture. I got a true insider’s perspective to life in Eastern Europe. It greatly opened up my world view. Little did I imagine that just 10 months later I would be embarking back to that continent. With a lot of luck, some help from my parents, and narrowly making deadlines, I was able to get into the study abroad program known as Georgia Tech Lorraine. Centered in Metz, France, students usually take 3 or 4 classes and get the benefit of taking classes whilst traveling on many of the 3-day weekends. I am excited to see how Western Europe stacks up to Eastern Europe. The cultural differences between the two are vast. I’m biased to say that I really liked the East. From what I’ve seen about the West, it seems touristy and expensive. However, it’s probably that way for good reasons. After this, I can put the two pieces together and check, “travel across Europe”, off of my bucket list.

On the way to the airport, we met up with my cousin who goes to Georgia Tech’s North Campus (MIT) and spent the day with her in Boston. Getting to see her and enjoying the fried clams were the highlights of the trip before boarding a 10pm flight and taking off across the Atlantic once again. The entire day, I was filled with a nervous trepidation for what was to come. As I mentioned, most people only take 3 classes, but here I was, signing up to do 4 hard ones simultaneously. Furthermore, I will have to leave the program in the middle of finals week so I can make it to Field Training in time (which will round out my last two once-free weeks of the summer). This summer will be a tough balance between adventure and classwork, so I believe that I am rightfully nervous.

I boarded the plane at 9:45pm and found myself stuck in the middle of two big, burly, guys who had happily claimed both armrests as their own. Nonetheless, I made the most of the trip: including the several hours where the person in front of me reclined their seat so far back that it seemed to go into my lap. We flew into Charles De-Gaulle at 10am the next day and were met with dreary, gray skies. Unfortunately, I was not able to see Paris, but I did manage to get lost in Charles De-Gaulle Airport! After grabbing my bags, I walked right past the meeting point of our shuttle group and proceeded to go to the other end of the airport. Only once I reached the other end did I realize my mistake. Lucky for me, I had plenty of time on my side and backtracked to the spot.

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The shuttle took four hours to reach Metz. It was PURE TORTURE to stay awake and fight the jet lag. Everyone else had fallen asleep an hour into the ride, but I brought a book to combat the urge. Somehow, I ended up making the long journey without nodding off. When we arrived to campus, we were almost two hours late to the welcome party. We were given five minutes to throw all of our luggage in our rooms and meet back downstairs in the main lobby. I was able to take off the clothes that had been glued to my body for the past 24 hours and splash some much needed cold water onto my face before heading back down. The welcome party was interesting, because the “first week effect” was in full swing. Oh, you don’t know what that is? It’s a term I’ve coined after seeing it for the 5th time now in college. The first week, people will come up and talk to you, sit down next to you at lunch when there was a perfectly good empty seat there, and make a million groupmes for every little thing. After the first week, however, people will settle into familiar groups and their true selves come forth. The introductions vanish and the lunch tables become reserved for certain cliques. So, if you are in college, I highly encourage you to observe this “first week effect” and experience it firsthand. It’s like something straight out of Animal Planet.

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Falling asleep was the worst part of the trip. Being six hours ahead of my body’s clock in New York, it didn’t understand what I was doing lying down and closing my eyes when it read 5pm. Sometime around midnight, I drifted off into a half-sleep that left me restless the next day. Despite the discomfort of traveling, I had finally made it! Suck it universe: I didn’t miss my train, forget my passport, or get too lost overall. I’m excited for the semester to come. Tomorrow, the next journey begins…

Posted by oklempay 13:12 Archived in USA Comments (0)

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