Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Laon: in which I attend the WORST CHRISTMAS MARKET EVER and am reminded how much French people can suck

So on December 8 (I think. Also, I apologize for the out of order-ness of this blog. I would put it in order... but then I doubt anybody would find the posts... so this is how it's going to be), Tristan and I went to Laon for the day. Laon is a little bitty French town up on a hill. It's very classically French, but other than that, there is NOTHING there.
So why did we go? you ask. Well, that Friday as we were hanging out in Soissons having our classic frozen pizza lunch, one of Tristan's floor mates comes into the kitchen and starts talking about this Christmas Market that they have in Laon, and she pulls up the website and reads about it. And it sounds pretty fun. Also, Tristan had gone to Laon twice before because that's where he had to go for for his OFII (immigration) appointment and there was this american food restaurant there that he really wanted to go to again because it was really good. And it's also only like 7 euro (round trip each) and 20 minutes away from Soissons, so why not?
Pony attack! These ponies were in Soissons. So don't give any pony points to Laon, Laon was devoid of ponies.  Though they did have reindeer, which was pretty much the only thing cool about Laon.
Laon is up on this really tall hill, which we hiked up after discovering the restaurant we wanted to eat out wasn't opening up again until like 5 or 6pm... I forget which. Which means we have some time to kill.

Note how steep the stairs are... 
 Pretty much the best part about Laon is the view (other than the reindeer which are presumably only there for the Christmas Market)...

Whether or not it is worth the hike is up to you.

This is pretty much the entire Christmas Market. To the right are the reindeer, to the left was a roasted chestnut stand that sold the grossest chestnuts ever, and also the cathedral. Later we found some stands that were in a basement selling trinkets. And straight ahead (behind the Christmas trees was the worst vin chaud stand EVER).
So as you can see, there was not much to do at the Laon Christmas market. So this whole thing wouldn't have really warranted a belated blog post if the guy selling vin chaud/mulled wine/gluehwein hadn't been a total douche.
So it turns out I have been saying the word "vin" wrong for my ENTIRE life. I have been saying something like "vahn"- with a really soft n - more nasal than anything. Which means I'm really saying "vent" - which means wind. The ACTUAL way to say "vin" is something like "vehn" - with the same n thing. It's a hideous word. Coincidentally, this is also how you say "vingt" (which means 20) which I have ALSO been saying wrong all this time (yes, vin and vingt are said the same. I hate this language.). So anyway, I go up the vin chaud stand, and ask for "Deux vins ('vahn') chauds, s'il vous plait." and the guy working there says "pardon" or something like that. And I repeat myself. He responds "Ahhh, vin (vehn) chaud"  with a laugh -- in the most snotty way possible. Dude! The only thing you are selling is vin chaud! It's not that hard to figure out what I want! This would have been sort of annoying, but okay, whatever but of course that wasn't the end. He turns to his coworkers and is all (in french) "She ordered a "vahn" chaud-- hahahahaha" and they all laugh and repeat it. Seriously. And I was standing RIGHT THERE and I could hear and understand everything. I get it, hahaha, I ordered a hot wind. Very funny. But it's generally considered to laugh at people you don't know to there face. I mean, if I were working at a popcorn stand or something and a french person came up and ordered what sounded like a "poopcorn" or something, I wouldn't laugh at them to their face. 
And to add injury to insult (see what I did there?), the vin chaud (which I will henceforth refer to as Gluehwein because that's easy to say "glue-vine" and nobody ever talks about mulled wine in America.) was awful. Usually, it's like ambrosia or something: delicious, warming, and amazing. But this gluehwein was just -- bad. It was a tragedy. 
As we walked away from the market, a choir preformed in front of the Cathedral. They sung some carols in English, but I don't think they spoke English. A) they had terrible accents and B) I'm 99% sure they unknowingly blended two songs together. 
So that was Laon. Though it did end well, with a delicious american meal.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013


Skopje (pronounced scop-yeh) was by far the most interesting city we visited during October break which came as quite a surprise because neither of us knew that much about it coming in. To be honest, we visited Skopje because there was a cheap flight from there to Saint Louis. And had we visited only a couple of years earlier, it would have been a completely different experience.
This town, the capital of Macedonia, is currently undergoing a massive face lift in a project called Skopje 2014 which aims to give the city a more classical, monumental, and generally pleasing look by 2014. 80% of Skopje was destroyed in an earthquake in 1963 and the buildings where initially replaced then -- today, they hope to rebuild some of the buildings as they were before. The government has spent an estimated 80 to 500 million euros on this project. And not everyone is pleased, in a country with high unemployment and many social problems, the beautification of the capital seems wasteful.
We arrived in the early afternoon after a long bus ride (and a super long border crossing, of course). As we exited we were hounded by a taxi driver who wouldn't take "no" for an answer (our hostel was super close to the bus station begin with). One of the things we discovered in Eastern Europe is that saying "taxi" near taxi drivers is like announcing you need a ride. For example, you can say "we don't need to take a taxi" and 5 taxi drivers will emerge and say "taxi? taxi?".
Our hostel was pretty tiny, with only two rooms, a cozy living room, and tiny kitchen (and only one bathroom). But it had three puppies! They also had the mother, but I think she had been rescued from the streets and therefore was a bit skittish bout people.

Note: Australian girl on the third year of  her decade abroad. (We met a ridiculous number of Australians on ridiculously long trips on this trip. Do people not have to work in Australia? Or what?) 
That evening we didn't do much, because we were exhausted. However, we did take night stroll. 

Admittedly,  the new buildings look pretty cool all lit up at night. 
The architecture is mostly neoclassical which is a style I usually hate because everyone did it death in the 19th century. However, I've never seen 21st century neoclassical and I found it quite interesting.

One of the things we noticed is that they seem to want to steal the monuments of other  European cities. For example, there is a bridge much like this in Prague.
Walking around the city, I was reminded of a book that I read at the beginning of my time in France called The Devil in the White City. This book is the novelization of the building of the Chicago world fair and how that intermingled with the story of serial killer that lived in that area during that time. Skopje recalled the "white city" to me. Everyone who see the buildings of the world's fair spring up and everyone who visits it experiences it as magical. It was fascinating to see the national monuments of a country under construction. Sure, it might all fall to disrepair, and it might be a waste of money -- but it's interesting to think that these buildings could become the symbols of Macedonia in the future. Every country has build it's national buildings at some point.
They had gone completely sculpture mad... 
Particularly they like to invoke a supposedly glorious Macedonian past (particularly they like to claim Alexander the Great). This Justinian II, I think...
We spent the morning and early afternoon seeing the new monuments they have erected. These are only a fraction of them! And they are no where near finished, there is construction everywhere.

Personally, I think these benches are the greatest symbol of government waste in Skopje.  I mean, what is their purpose? There is no way you could have a performance in this Rotunda thingy. 
This is the original train station, in ruins after the earthquake. 
During the afternoon, we walked over the bridge to the old town of Skopje, which was much less epic in scale. We had burek (a greasy, delicious pastry stuffed with beef (or other things)) and cevapi (cheh-va-pee  -- type of sausage wrapped in delicious bread with onions) both Turkish/Balkan specialties for lunch. While  we ate the burek, we were stared at by a small gypsy boy, who wouldn't take our refuse to make eye contact as a refusal. It was awkward, and also sad. But giving money wouldn't help him, he surely is being used by someone to guilt people into giving money. 
After we ate, we walked up to the old fortress, but it was closed. That night we went to a Mexican food restaurant called Amigos, that was actually pretty good but played horrible music. 
The next morning we did a little more site seeing and searched for post office to send our post cards before leaving to come back to Saint Louis...

This is where the post office was. It really makes you understand the desire to tear down everything that they rebuilt in 1963.

One more gratuitous puppy picture. The puppies didn't have names, so we named them. From left to right: Boris, Constantine, and Alexander the Great. 
Stay tuned for winter break posts, which will hopefully be more timely than this one. :)

Wednesday, January 23, 2013


From Veliko we took a bus to Sofia and arrived in the early afternoon. We arrived to find that a lot of work had been done on the train station since we had last been there and this work was still in motion. As we walked back to the hostel, we reminisced about our last trip to Sofia and wondered what would have changed and what would stay the same.
We stayed at the same hostel: Hostel Mostel, but in a different part of it and it was a completely different experience. Additionally, we were both still getting over our cold so we couldn't experience it the same. Of course, nothing's the same the second time around but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. You can't recreate the past.
Like us, the city has changed a lot in the past two years - it's more modern and wealthy and there is a hint of grungy hipsterness that I'm sure the college students of the coming years will love. For example, they had a bar that was an apartment that was set up like an apartment with different rooms and couches and tables, and even a kitchen. Kind of cool, but also kind of awkward. Where do you order the drinks? We didn't stay.
The first night, we did a little walk around the close parts of the city and then relaxed. The next morning, we did the tour of the main attractions.
Some things had changed quite a bit...
and some things not at all...

We had planned to spend our second and last night in Sofia going out after cooking for ourselves at the hostel (chicken nuggets, couscous, and peas)... but in fact, we only went to one bar (which had pretty gross beer, to be honest) and then we went home, because I guess we're old.
And that was Sofia -- finished again in a flash. 

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Veliko Tarnevo

I'll catch up on my blog posts eventually... I hope.
Back to October Break (only 3 more cities to talk about ;) )...
Originally, we thought we were going to have to take a night train from Bucharest to Veliko Tarnevo because  according to all the information we could find on the internet, this was the only time there was a train. This involved us arriving at some random Bulgarian town near Veliko at like 5 in the morning and having to take a taxi to Veliko, else we would have to wait two hours for the train to get there. Luckily, we went to the train station the day before we planned to do this and we were able to get a very helpful woman (who spoke to us in French because that was the language we had common!) who got a us a train reservation for around noon. This cut our time in Bucharest short by half a day, but it was certainly worth it. 
So we woke up and checked out of our hostel to head to the train station. We thought we had given us enough time to get the train station, in fact we had left pretty early. But first we had to get ourselves food for on the train because we wouldn't be getting to Veliko until around 8 and we also decided to have lunch (rather than waiting until the train station, because we were starving). All this went okay until we got to the grocery store. Tristan stayed outside so we wouldn't have to check our bags and I went in to grab food as quick as I could. The problem was that I couldn't find any sort of chip like thing at all in the store. I searched and searched until I found them finally -- in the back corner of the second floor. By this time, we were running a bit late. But it would have all worked out if we hadn't gotten on the metro going the wrong direction... and then not realized it until like 5 stops later. We decided we needed to take a taxi to get there in time, so we exited the metro and there were some cabs right there. We approached the first cab, and when we told him where we needed to go, he just shook his head. Thankfully, the second cabbie got us to the train station with 5 minutes to spare. We were so thankful, we paid twice what we owed (the rest of our Romanian money).
A long train ride, with a border crossing that took literally 2 hours, later, we arrived in Veliko Tarnevo. The hostel picked us up at the train station and then directed us to their favorite restaurants. 
We ended up at Ego, which we later returned to several times despite the TERRIBLE (and I mean TERRIBLE service) because the pizza was yummy and they had the best ice cream cake ever. Also, it was inexpensive and had an awesome view.
Tristan, the Restaurant, and girl with horrible hair. Seriously, it looked ridiculous.

And the view would be something like this. Like everything in Bulgaria, the prices at this restaurant belied it's location. 
The next day we both woke up with somewhat sore throats - a hint of the cold to come. But we set off to see the fortress, which is really the only tourist attraction of the city.

As we entered the fortress, there was a man with an animatronic king and queen who informed us that this fortress is super important and unique because "many people lived and died [there]." 

I choose to believe that opasnost means "Don't do ballet on the fortress walls."

Looking towards Veliko -- as you can see, it was much warmer here than it was in Brasov.
The fortress was very interesting and the views were very pretty. We spent the early afternoon exploring the rest of the city. Particularly we searched for this road  that led along the canyon and good views or something that was supposed to be really awesome according to the travel book we had. We never found it but we did get followed by a creepy crazy seeming old guy. Almost as soon as we lost him, we we chased down by a woman who told us in broken English that she has a bed and breakfast and we should stay there and that if we come with her, we could meet the two Washingtonians who were there. Needless to say, we declined.
Later, we searched for Turikish Bath ruins that were marked on the map in the travel guide. We found them, we think. They were supper underwhelming... the rocks could have been from anything to be honest.
We planned to rent a car the next day to go to Buzludzha (an abandoned socialist monument pictured below) and also Gabrovo (which is the city Tristan would have been living in had he decided to do Fulbright instead of coming to France).
But by the end of the day, it was pretty clear that we were sick and weren't going to be do anything the next day. We spent most of the day in bed, with a trip out only to go to the mall to see Skyfall (with Bulgarian subtitles), we also ate lunch at another Ego at the mall. And that's when we discovered the best ice cream cake ever. 
usually, I think it's pretty silly to take pictures of food, but I made an exception for this delicious cake . I'd probably go back to Veliko just for this cake.