I’m done!

Midterms are finally over! This week was insane, as I had midterms for all of my classes. I’m not used to having everything accumulate all at once, since at Penn State my workload ebbs and flows from week to week. This was probably the first time I’ve felt a considerable amount of stress since I’ve been here. I was pretty much either in my dining room studying or at school studying all week. Reviewing for every subject all within a few days is definitely not easy. It would be nice if they spread the tests out over a couple of weeks so that we’re not scrambling to memorize everything. It’s so weird that it’s already mid-semester though… I feel like I just started class.

Last weekend, before the midterm mayhem, I went on a school field trip to Lidice and Terezin. Lidice is a town in the Czech Republic that was completely destroyed and eliminated by Hitler during WWII. After the assassination of Reich Protector Reinhard Heydrich (protector of the Czech Republic), Hitler chose this town to avenge his death. He ordered the Nazis to kill every adult man, send the women and children to concentration camps, and burn the town down entirely. All 173 men over the age of 15 were murdered, and several hundred women and children were sent to concentration camps. The site is now a memorial. Seeing the completely barren landscape and imagining that it used to be a town full of houses, buildings, schools, and people was pretty scary. It’s so hard to believe that these kind of events actually occurred in our history, and not too long ago either.

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Lidice

Our next stop was Terezin, which is the “model” concentration camp. It was originally a military fortress built in the 18th century, and was later turned into a ghetto and concentration camp by the Nazis. It wasn’t an extermination camp, but thousands still died at the camp from things like starvation and disease. The Red Cross came here to inspect the conditions of concentration camps, so the Nazis had a huge “beautifying” project where they made sure everything looked hygienic and humane. It was interesting to compare and contrast Terezin to Auschwitz, as they are sort of on the opposite ends of the spectrum. Terezin acted as a labor camp, where people had more of a purpose than at Auschwitz. However, the barracks and living conditions were strikingly similar, with extreme overpopulation and lack of nutrition. As I was walking through the camp, I didn’t feel as emotional as I did when I walked through Auschwitz. Perhaps it was because I was distancing myself since I didn’t want to feel those intense emotions that I felt in Auschwitz again. I felt guilty for feeling numb– but I guess it was a defense mechanism.

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Courtyard in Terezin

I’m really glad I got the chance to visit Lidice and Terezin. I’m so lucky to be able to experience and see first-hand such significant parts of history. It extends beyond World War II, too. I see buildings and houses from the communist regime, architecture from the 10th century, and remnants of the communist mentality in Czech culture on a daily basis. I am surrounded by it, and it is truly fascinating.

Anyway, weather here has been absolutely wonderful and it finally feels like spring time. I love being able to pull out my lighter jacket and wear it comfortably outside. This weekend I’m going to Paris to meet up with Carolyn, who is studying abroad in London. I’m so excited to see her! It’ll be really nice to see a familiar face, one that I’ve known for more than just a couple months. It’ll be my first trip that I’m traveling via plane, too! I plan on consuming many delicious pastries this weekend.

Ciao 🙂

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A Raw Experience

I had the opportunity to visit Auschwitz recently. I had no idea what to expect before I got there. We started off the tour at Auschwitz I, which is set up like a memorial or exhibit. Each building features a different aspect of the concentration camp, like everyday duties or rituals. Auschwitz II, or Birkenau, is less of a museum. It’s a lot bigger and open than Auschwitz I, and there are several barracks and hygiene stations that you can walk through. It was a surreal experience to walk through the camps, looking at and reading different things and trying to everything in. I found it really difficult to be there, experiencing it all and reminding myself that I was in THE Auschwitz, the place full of horrible history. I’m so used to walking through museums, detached and removed from the objects I’m seeing that being in the concentration camp threw me off. I felt immense guilt every time I felt my mind wander, or if I found myself thinking “I’m thirsty” or “I’m cold” when I was literally looking at pictures of starving and freezing people.

To be honest, I didn’t know how to feel. I felt sad, of course, but I felt like crying would be fraudulent or melodramatic. I felt like I didn’t have the right to cry when I didn’t have the slightest idea what these people truly went through. Who am I to shed tears about something I know nothing about? It was a really confusing experience for me as I developed all these conflicting emotions– I was sad and I felt compassion for the victims but I was also disconnected and outside of it all. It was very surreal and hard to process everything as it all happened. I guess you just have to react in your own way and not think too much about it. Looking back, it was pretty egotistical of me to be worried about what I was thinking and how I was reacting when it really wasn’t about me whatsoever. Maybe I shouldn’t have been thinking about my own experience but of the victims and their hardships.

The experience of going to Auschwitz is not something that can be summed up in words. It’s something internal, so real yet surreal that it creates many layers and complexities. One must experience it for themselves. A blog post does not adequately describe the feeling of walking through the barracks, prisons and gas chambers and seeing first-hand things the things that you’ve been reading about for your entire life. Touching the building walls, walking along the long pebble roads and standing under the camp gates– I tried so hard to process it and understand it, but I just couldn’t. Perhaps I’m not supposed to.

Budapest.

It’s been too long since my last blog post! A lot has happened since then. I’m now well into my classes and I’ve been to Budapest, Auschwitz and Krakow in between. I’ll start with Budapest.

My weekend in Budapest was absolutely amazing! My flatmate Kate and I got there at around 6:30 in the morning (we took an overnight bus), a little groggy and tired but so excited for the weekend ahead. After dropping our stuff off at the hostel, we headed to a street known for its food and shopping, hoping to get something to eat. We found a little cafe and had croissants and cappuccinos (yum) and then walked around for a while before our walking tour at 10:30. We walked along the river, which was so pretty. It’s a lot bigger than the river in Prague and the bridges are also a lot larger (obviously).

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After a mid-morning snack and some more exploration of the area, we headed to the meeting point of our tour. I was pleased to see that it would be a small group, since our tour in Berlin had well over 20 people. Our tour guide took us to the Buda side of Budapest (Budapest is divided by the river into Buda and pest), which is the quieter and more historical side of the city. We walked to the castle and St. Mattias Basilica which was beautiful. We also saw the President’s office and a panoramic view of the city. It was interesting how different the city was on this side of the river, though… it was almost more like a village.

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Chain Bridge

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St. Mattias Basilica

After the tour we headed back to Pest for lunch, where I had gulash soup and fish. The soup was basically beef stew, but it was really good!

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We decided to spend the rest of the afternoon in the hot springs, which Budapest is famous for. We went to the biggest one, called Szechenyi, which has multiple indoor and outdoor baths. It was quite an experience– the place was huge and had really cool architecture. The outdoor pools were mainly filled with young tourists while the indoor pools were occupied by mostly older people. Each pool had a different temperature, so you could switch around based on what temperature you liked the most. Personally, I don’t think they were hot enough but I’m used to the scorching hot onsens (hot springs) of Japan.

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After the baths we went back to the hostel to shower and then went to a little restaurant called Hummus Bar for dinner. It was super cheap; I got a beer and pita sandwich for $5. I’m pretty sure Budapest is cheaper than Prague, which is impressive. The hummus was so good!! I wish they sold containers of it so I could bring it back with me.

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We then went on a pub crawl, where we met people from all over the world– Germany, Belgium, Ireland, France and of course some Americans as well. This was my first pub crawl and I have to say it was well worth it! We got free drinks at every bar we went to and they even got us a slice of pizza toward the end of the tour, which we all appreciated quite a bit. If you’re ever in Budapest and not sure how to approach the nightlife, I would definitely recommend doing the pub crawl. We went to a bunch of ruin bars (old buildings destroyed by the war that they converted into massive bars), which were all really cool.

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One of the ruin bars

The next morning we started off at Central Market Hall, which sells a bunch of locally grown fruits and vegetables as well as pastries, meats, bread, etc. They also sell langos, which is a traditional Hungarian specialty. It’s a deep fried bread (basically a huge doughnut) with toppings that vary from sweet to savory. We went for the savory and got sour cream and cheese topped with chicken, onion and tomatoes.

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After the market we went back to the Buda side and hiked to the top of the hill, which features a huge “liberty” statue from the Stalin era. I found it interesting that they keep the statues/monuments built under Stalin in Budapest, since in Prague they got rid of almost everything from that period and replaced it with something else. Anyway, the statue was interesting (very large, dramatic) and we got some pretty great views of the city!

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In the afternoon we tried out the Book Cafe which is an immaculately decorated cafe with vaulted ceilings and murals all around. Probably one of the coolest cafe I’ve been to in Europe.

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For dinner we went to a pub called Stiler and I tried Hungarian crepes. They turned out to be sort of like enchiladas, and they were delicious. I loved the atmosphere of this pub! I wish we had more time to check out some of the other pubs, since they all seem unique with great food.

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Overall, I loved Budapest and I wish I could have spent more time there. It was so cheap, the people were very helpful and friendly, and the city was the perfect size. I also really liked that since it’s not one of the top tourist destinations it still has sort of an untouched, authentic feel. So if you’re ever in Europe, on a budget, and/or are looking for one of the most vibrant and youthful cities, then I would definitely give Budapest a go.