A Travellerspoint blog

Some Things I Forgot to Tell You!

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I find a sunlit room with an open window on a Friday afternoon the perfect atmosphere for writing. After having a week full of cold rainy days to welcome in the month of June, it’s nice to see a bit of sun. My students always teased me for loving the sun so much. They knew exactly what I would say each Friday if the weather was nice. “Yes, of course I’m doing well. It’s Friday and the sun is shining!”

Due to the rain this week, I took a bit of time to download camera pics which I had neglected to put on my computer. I realized while looking through them that I’ve forgot to write about some different events which occurred here.

I’ve discovered a great appreciation for hiking during my time in the Loire. St. Etienne is surrounded by huge hills, so I’ve taken advantage of this and hiked some of the trails. While hiking with Dimitri, we went off the trail a bit and discovered the ruins of a house. Judging by what was left of the architecture; Dimitri said it must have been at least a couple hundred years old. We also went hiking just outside of Rochetaillé with some friends and discovered the “Barrage du Goufrre d’Enfer” (Dam of the abyss of Hell). Nice name huh? The dam actually isn’t as intimidating as the name leads you to believe.

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I’ve also had some visitors during my time abroad. My friend Vanessa and her sister Kendra paid me a visit a couple of months ago. I met up with them in Annecy, a gorgeous fairy tale looking town about two hours from St. Etienne.

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Afterwards, the girls came back with me to St. Etienne and tried out some famous French delicacies; frog legs and snails! The girls then introduced the family I lived with to an American delicacy; Oreos and peanut butter. I don’t indulge in this American treat, but I’m glad Vanessa and Kendra thought about sharing this idea.
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Musée de la Mine, or the Mine Museum, was where Dimitri and I spent last Saturday afternoon. St. Etienne used to be a huge mining town, but the mine closed down in the 70’s. Today it is a museum which takes you through a replica of the mine and lets you walk through the work rooms. I personally liked the “salle des pendus” (the hanging room) where the miners literally hanged their clothes and personal affairs from the ceiling. They did this to conserve space and to assure that their clothes dried properly. I also liked the intimidating signs warning the miners to be careful while working.

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We are miners

We are miners

salle des pendus

salle des pendus

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My time left in France is growing short. I’m now in the “what things did I say I was going to do but haven’t yet?” phase. Most of this list includes eating my fill of French food and trying to savor as much wine as I can! I’m still planning on writing a couple more blogs, so keep checking back!

Posted by jauntypag 07:08 Archived in France Comments (1)

Dzień dobry and привіт!

Visiting Poland and Ukraine

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Poland, where everybody knows your name. Well, my name at least. Even in my home town of SCS, my family name always confuses the heck out of teachers, new friends and those ever so charming telemarketers. The Z’s and lack of consonants are clear evidence that my family, like so many other American families, has ancestry from a place where vodka is king, cabbage is queen and the Pierogi is the prince with whom everyone falls in love with.

I’ve always wanted to go to Poland. After hearing stories about my Grandpa’s birth place and growing up in a proud to be Polish family, I felt that a visit to the home land was a must. Since France is much closer to Poland than the USA, I decided that I should take advantage of this proximity while I am living here. And since Ukraine is just next door to Poland, I added an additional part to the trip; a weekend stay in Kiev to visit a friend for a long deserved reunion.

I’ve separated this blog into sections to make it easier to read. Read it all, read parts, or skim it, the choice is yours.

Krakow, Poland
Dimitri and I arrived in Krakow on a Rainy Easter Morning. Our amazing hosts Ryszard and Ewa were there to greet us. They are cousins of family and graciously offered for us to stay with them while we visited Krakow. From my experience with them and other Poles we encountered I can safely say that Polish people must be the most welcoming people on the planet. Aside from taking us around town, preparing insane amounts of Polish food for us to try and allowing us to stay with them, they also gave us advice on other parts of our trip and were available whenever we needed them! We arrived at their house and had a typical polish breakfast of bread, cheese, meat and a variety of salads. It was a bit odd to eat salad and sandwiches in the morning however it most definitely fills you up and prepares you for a day of walking and exploring.

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While Ewa and Ryszard (pronounced Eva and Richard) were working, Dimitri and I explored the city on our own.

The main square of Krakow has a wonderful covered market where you can search for touristy goodies, the Maraicki church where a trumpeter performs a song every hour in honor of a long standing tradition and a new museum about the ancient village of Krakow. Wonderful restaurants outline the square and are always filled with people having a beer when it is sunny. A huge benefit to vacationing in Poland is the amazing exchange rate! We ate many big meals there, including drinks and sometimes desserts all for under $25 American dollars.

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We visited Wawel castle and discovered the flaming dragon near the shore below. No worries, we fearlessly blocked his flames with our umbrella and escaped un-burned. The dragon is actually a statue based off of the castle legend. If you walk near the gate of the castle, you can see the dragon’s bones hanging by the front door! Some speculation is that they are in fact whale bones, but to respect the legend, the bones have never been taken down and inspected.
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Aushwitz-Birkenau
I had some initial hesitations about visiting Aushwitz-Birkenau. It was difficult for me to voluntarily go to a place where so many people were forced to spend their final days in such downright torture. However, I decided that skipping it would be missing out on a very significant part of history. The camp is located about 30 mins outside of Krakow, so we took a tour bus out to the site. Our French tour guide had a very thick Polish accent which made it difficult for me to understand him, but the place really spoke for its self.

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Aushwitz is actually not that big. It is composed of about 40 red brick buildings, guard posts and a small court yard where inmates stood for roll call. It felt a bit surreal walking through it. Walking down the little dirt lanes while passing buildings with yellow dandelions blooming in the grass, the place had a clam but eerie feeling. Signs, explaining the different parts of the camp and the grisly events which took place there are written in Polish, English and Hebrew. The atrocities they explained where chilling. Walking through the dormitories you could see huge show cases of prisoner’s personal items which the Nazis collected upon the prisoner’s arrival. Glasses, clothes, hair, shoes, toys, bowls ect. Pictures of the first inmates hung on the walls, some with memorial flowers hanging on top of them.

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Birkenau was much bigger than Aushwitz. We took a quick bus ride there and were able to walk through the fields and see the remains of the gas chambers and dormitories. All of the visitors there were very respectful. All of the school groups going through were very quiet and some of the students were silently crying as they followed the tour. I’m very glad I visited this place, but once is definitely enough in my opinion.

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A Promise Made is a Promise kept: Kiev, Ukraine
The last time I saw Sveta, I was finishing up my sophomore year of high school. She was an exchange student from Ukraine who received a scholarship to study for one year in the USA. I was already friends with her host family, so naturally I became friends with her as well. Everyone adored her and it was really difficult when she left. I remember hugging her goodbye on the front lawn, promising her that we would see each other again. Nine years after our good bye I saw her smiling face waiting for me at the airport in Kiev. Words cannot describe this meeting. Even after such a long lapse in time, it seemed like nothing had changed. During our hour long bus ride to the apartment, Dimitri sat and listened as Sveta and I talked and talked and talked.

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We only had a short weekend together, but I enjoyed every minute of it. During the day, Sveta took us around Kiev and showed us the town. In the evenings we went back to the apartment, made dinner and talked late into the night about memories, movies, new things in our lives, and any subject which came our way. Although I loved seeing the city, talking to her was my favorite part of our time in Kiev. Her vivacity and lightheartedness was exactly the same as I remembered and the time which had passed since we last saw each other seemed more like a few weeks instead of a few years.

I really had no idea what to expect when arriving in Ukraine. I knew that it was not a prosperous country, but visiting it opened my eyes up a bit more. The buildings are old and communistic looking. The buses and trams can’t compare to our new high tech models. Surrounding the metro stops were little markets with food available for purchase. Chicken, fish and meat were simply put on tables, in the sun light and stayed there all day waiting for someone to purchase them. The price of food is not equivalent to the salary of the people. I paid about 250 Grivna (about 30 bucks) for three days of groceries for three people. The salary of a DOCTOR in Ukraine is 1,000 Grivna a month (approximately $125).

On the up side, down town Kiev was a pleasure to see! We visited some amazing Orthodox churches with round orb roof tops and brightly colored walls. We walked through little markets and wandered around in a big park looking down on the city.
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It was hard to say goodbye. After such a long absence of seeing each other, the weekend felt like it went by too fast. But I am confident now that a return trip to visit my dear Sveta once more will be in my future.

Zakopane
Once back from Ukraine, we headed way down to southern Poland, almost to the Slovakian border for a visit to the ski town of Zakopane. I discovered this place while surfing the net, and was drawn to the huge mountains and picturesque village. We were a bit flabbergasted that such a small town was filled to the brim with tourists. As we latter found out, Zakopane is not very well known worldwide, but it’s a renowned vacation spot for Poles.

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We had a bit of interesting luck while discovering this town. We tried to book a rafting tour, however the tour ended up being canceled. We took a funicular up to the top of a cliff to see the view and within 5 mins of our arrival huge storm clouds rolled in and covered the gorgeous view. And much to our surprise, it snowed while we were there! It was the first time it snowed since 70 years, and we happened to be there! Luckily, Richard had already given us some coats to take with us just in case. Otherwise we would have frozen! On the upside, we discovered some AMAZING Polish restaurants with really good food, waitresses dressed in traditional garb and bands singing folk songs. We hiked a bit in the mountains and the present snow fall made them even more captivating. Our hostel was also in a creepy old hotel like you see in the movies. It was decently comfortable, really cheap and empty! We did a bit of exploring at night to see if we could find anything interesting and came across some cool old rooms. It really felt like a haunted house (which I looooove) with the exception of very nice Polish speaking receptionists and a lack of ghosts.
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Back to the Roots- Rzeszow
Unfortunately, the only English speaking personnel at the bus station in Zakopane misguided us in regards to our bus to Rzeszow. She informed us that it would take 3 hours to get there and instead it took 7. Not exactly the impression I wanted to give to our host, but unfortunately it was out of our hands.
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Waiting at the bus stop for us was a very patient and understanding relative. Ziggy is the nephew of my grandpa and lives very close to the village where my grandpa was born. In planning my trip to Poland, I really wanted to visit my grandpa’s birthplace and therefore contacted Ziggy to ask if he could play tour guide for us. We stayed with him and his wife and they took us on a fast paced tour of the area.

Niebylec is a tiny little village outside of Rzeszow. Driving through it takes under a minute. And just on the side of the main road, across from the bus stop and near the tiny market square is the wooden house of my grandpa. I really wanted to go inside and look around, however I think a random non Polish speaking intruder might have scared the little old woman living there.

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We also explored this region a bit more and went to a very beautiful lake which is popular for camping vacations during the summer months. Ziggy ordered us all beers to drink on the terrace and enjoy the scenery. This would have been a bit more enjoyable if 1) I enjoyed drinking large quantities of beer (he ordered us each a 16 oz!) and 2) It wasn’t 10:30 in the morning. At lunch time we had a really good meal of fresh fish, fries and coleslaw with beer again of course! We then explored some of the other little towns in the area.

I feel fortunate to have visited my grandpa’s hometown. American’s have such a colorful, multicultural background, yet many people don’t have the opportunity to really experience their ancestor’s culture. Although he’s no longer with us, and he never returned to his little town of Niebylec, I think my grandpa would be quite happy to know that I’ve seen the green hills around his village and walked near his childhood home.
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Reflection
Poland is a phenomenal country. The people are warm and incredibly welcoming. The language has diverse sounds and rules which can make your head spin. The big cities are full of entertainment and things to see, however they don’t get caught up in the rushed big city atmosphere. The trains are slow, but they allow you to spend a bit more time enjoying the scenery. Poland’s history is a harsh one, yet the Poles honor it and truly respect the important things in their lives. The American movies on T.V are dubbed with a very monotone male voice over even for female characters, yet somehow you still manage to follow along. I can’t speak for the North of Poland, but the south has rolling hills, sky scraping mountains and little villages freckling the countryside.

If perogies tickle your fancy or your last name is stock full of Z’s, I’s and Y’s or even if you just have a longing to put on a flowered skirt and do the Polka, pack your bags and discover for yourself why being Polish is something to be proud of.

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Posted by jauntypag 01:00 Archived in Poland Comments (3)

No More Classes, No More Books

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I didn’t get the prolongation to continue teaching in St. Etienne until the end of May. There were only 60 spots left in the academy and they just didn’t have room. To be honest, I am kind of glad this is my last week. It’s not that I don’t enjoy my students and the school I am working at, I am just ready to move on I think.

Tomorrow is my last day. In some classes we are having a little party, like bringing cookies and juice to class and just talking. In other classes, I am ending the year by helping the teacher give conversation exams! Not exactly a relaxed way to end my time here, but I kind of enjoy grading the exams. I like trying to figure out the student’s speaking level and how they can improve. Anyways, many of my students wished me good luck for the future. Some asked if I would ever see them again. I really will miss their enthusiasm. They were always so happy to see me and went out of their way to come and talk to me when I was in the hallway.

Honestly, I thought I was going to hate teaching at an all boy’s school. I suppose I just had this horrible image of them all ganging up on me or ignoring me, however it wasn’t really like that at all. In some ways they paid me more respect then mixed classes I have taught. I did a lot more conversation exercises this year than last year, and I really think they benefited from this.

So what next? Good question. I will be heading back to the USA in mid June meaning I’ve still got a bit of time left to enjoy the European lifestyle. I decided to move back to Roanne for the remainder of my time here. I might travel a bit more (if I can afford it), spend time enjoying the city and attempt the difficult task of job searching.

Dimitri and I leave for Poland this Sunday! We also added a side trip to Ukraine to see my dear friend Sveta, whom I haven’t seen in 8 years! I might be a bit broke after this trip, but I’m excited to for the upcoming experience.

Posted by jauntypag 05:06 Archived in France Comments (1)

A Picture is a Memory

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I’ve decided to let the pictures do most of the talking here.
Some recently past events.

Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday!) no pounchkis to be found, but I stumbled across a HUGE parade. There must have been five thousand children marching down the street in costumes, showering the onlookers in confetti and silly string.
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mardi gras

mardi gras

mardi gras

Spring arrived in France! Flowers have abruptly started showing up around town, café terraces are full of little tables for afternoon drinks and color is finding its way back into the city. It is much nicer to walk around town when it is glorious outside.
Centre ville de St. Etienne

Centre ville de St. Etienne

I discovered that despite their brutal stereotype, Vikings actually enjoy a nice swim in potpourri.
Everyone needs a break

Everyone needs a break

Aunt Kem and Uncle Glen came to visit! It was sooo wonderful to see some familiar American faces! We had dinner together in St. Etienne and walked around the city a bit. The next day we headed to Roanne, my former dwelling place, and I gave them the grand tour. We enjoyed a lovely picnic lunch by the Loire and spent the day soaking up the sunshine and each other's company.
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Happy Travelers

Bliss

Bliss

Robin, the little boy of the family I live with, turned six. This of course meant a birthday party! I stuck around to see the activities and was surprised to see some familiar party games, like musical chairs. Robin’s mom bought huge bags of confetti and let the kids throw it up in the air in the living room and dance around. Needless to say, it was the highlight of the party!
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robin's birthday

confetti explosion

confetti explosion

Confetti

Confetti

I went to see a music group from Madagascar in Roanne. The group had amazing vocals and the harmony was exquisite. I had never seen some of the instruments before and loved discovering their sound. I almost felt like I was in Madagascar while at the concert, instead of in a dark bar in Roanne. Dimitri’s step mom was singing and dancing the entire time! Since she was born in Madagascar, she knew all of the songs and got everyone up on their feet to dance to the music!

Ny Malagasy Orkestra

Ny Malagasy Orkestra

And I’ll leave you with another great food picture, of my lovely lunch. Salad with cooked goat cheese (chèvre chaud), smoked ham, tomatoes and homemade vinaigrette. Bon appétit!
Yummy Salad

Yummy Salad

Posted by jauntypag 15:14 Archived in France Comments (1)

Once Upon a Time, in a Land Far Away...

Off to see the Castles of the Pays de la Loire

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The ski vacation has once again arrived in France. Students, educational workers and anyone who wants to use up some vacation time have two glorious weeks to spend hitting the slopes. I’m not much of a skier, so instead of bruising my bottom on the hills of the Alps, Dimitri and I headed back in time for a week.

I’m a bit of a romantic, and have always had a fascination with castles. The region of La Pays de la Loire in France is chock full of them. It used to be the area of France where royalty lived, which is before Louie the XIV moved into the palace of Versailles outside of Paris. We also chose this area of France because Dimitri’s mom gave us a night’s stay in a castle as our Christmas present. We got to choose the castle, so we figured why not make a week out of it?
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We started off with one of the most well known castles, Chenonceau. This castle was built over the Cher River, meaning the river literally runs underneath it. The of the castle over the river is actually the ball room. I think it would be amazing to be invited to a huge party, go in a big fancy gown and spent the evening dancing over a river. This castle was also used as a hospital during the Second World War.

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The Abbey of Fontevraud is in a tiny little spit of a city in the countryside. Without a GPS I think we would still be trying to find it. This huge abbey has in interesting history. It was originally built to be a monastic sanctuary, a religious residence for both nuns and monks, away from the rest of the world. The place is massive with a stunning chapel and simple courtyards. Richard the Lionheart is buried there. In the 1800’s, this place of peace and reflection was turned into a prison up until 1963. It was really weird to think how such a beautiful place was once one of the most horrible prisons in France. Where monks and nuns once prayed, prisoners fought and preformed manual labor.

The abbey of Fontevraud

The abbey of Fontevraud

inside the chappel

inside the chappel

Cool Colister

Cool Colister

While on the way to another castle, Dimitri suddenly turned down a little side road in the hills. He had seen a sign for a “troglodyte” which was for sale and wanted to see what it was like. I had no idea what he was talking about, so he nicely explained. All of the castles in the area were built from stone. Obviously the stone came from somewhere. The workers cut stone from the hills in the area, leaving huge caves. Some people turned the caves into houses and these places still exist! The man selling his “troglodyte” aka cave house was kind enough to show us around. It was just as you would expect pointy ceilings of various heights, with a darkish atmosphere. Absolutely not my first choice for a house, but I could see how Gollum from Lord of the Rings would like it.

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We made a quick stop at the Chateau d’Ussé, the castle which was supposedly the inspiration for the story for Sleeping Beauty. We didn’t go in, which we were told later was a good thing. Apparently the inside isn’t really that nice, we enjoyed the outside though!
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Quick visit to Chateau of Azay le Rideau. One of the smaller castles, but I loved its middle age architecture.

Chateau d'Azay le Rideau

Chateau d'Azay le Rideau

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Our castle was “Chateau des Sept Tours” or Castle of the Seven Towers. We were surprised to discover that we were the ONLY customers there so they bumped us up to a room in one of the towers! I absolutely felt like a princess. We had a private dinner in the castle restaurant and snuck around at night trying to explore. We did find an open door in one of the castle rooftops, but it was pretty creepy. It was just used of storage but it looked like a nice home for a ghost or two. To thank us for being their first customers or the year, they gave us an additional night in the hotel along with breakfast! Hopefully we can use it before I go back to the USA.

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We also visited Clos Luce, which was Leonardo Da Vinci’s house for the last three years before his death. This house has a secret tunnel connecting it to the Chateau d’Amboise, about a 10 min walk away. This way the king could visit Da Vinci to see what kind of wartime masterpiece’s Da Vinci was inventing for him, without those pesky villagers hassling him.
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Our last stop was the biggest castle in the Pays de la Loire, the Chateau de Chambord. It was continuously added onto throughout the years making it a monster of a hunting lodge for François the 1st. surrounding the castle is a 13,000 acre park where the king used to go hunting. Apparently wild boar and deer still live there, but we sadly did not see any. In the middle of the castle is a double helix stair case designed by Leonardo da Vinci. It consists of two winding stairs cases twisting around each other. This made it so someone going up the stairs on one stair case would never come across the person going up the stairs on the other stair case!
Chambord

Chambord

Chambord

Chambord

One of the reception rooms

One of the reception rooms

Spiral Staircase

Spiral Staircase

I adored this trip. We spent a lot of time driving from city to city, but we had a beautiful landscape to observe as we did. We drove along the river of the Loire, the biggest in France, and got to see so many amazing little cities. Apart from the castles I wrote about here, we passed hundreds more of them as we drove. I would say we came across one about every 5 to 10 minutes while driving, and I’m not exaggerating at all. Tiny little villages with 50 houses would have a huge castle sticking out of the middle of the down town. Hidden among the trees on the banks of the Loire, point roof tops could be seen. Not all of them are inhabited, and sadly a lot of them are falling into ruin. Yet they add a fairy tale like charm to the landscape and can easily make you think you have gone back into time.

Some little observations:

  • Castles are freezing! Even with the fire places burning away, I was cold in every single one of them. I can’t imagine what it would be like in mid December.
  • People were really short in the renaissance/middle age time period. I almost touched of many of the doors in the castles and I definitely would have had my feet hanging off of the beds if I slept in one.
  • The kings were naughty! Not only did almost all of them have multiple mistresses, but many of them had their own personal room in the castle! I guess that is what happens when you marry for power and not love.
  • Japanese Tourists love this part of France. Many of them speed walked around the castle grounds, taking pics of random things without really looking to see what they were looking at.

And Princess Amanda and Prince Dimitri returned to their home kingdom after their vacation and they lived happily ever after. The end!

King and Queen faces

King and Queen faces

Posted by jauntypag 02:43 Archived in France Comments (1)

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