Saturday, January 24, 2015

Throw Back Thursday: Kaley and I in Batumi

I realized that I have seriously neglected telling some hilarious, interesting stories on my blog, so here is a classic memory that I will cherish forever involving Georgia, strangers, alcohol, and adrenaline-fueled manic laughter. Enjoy  ;)

Once upon a time, my friend Kaley and I went on a trip to the small Caucasian nation of Georgia. The last few days of our trip were spent in Batumi- a resort town on the Black Sea coast, extremely popular since Soviet times.
Our bus from Gori to Batumi
One night we decided to go out for dinner, but didn't have anything specific in mind, so we just strolled around casually looking for a restaurant. We came across a cute, authentic-looking place with affordable prices, so we headed in. After about 10 minutes we realized that while there were several chattering, munching tables, we were the only female patrons...I had a moment where I wondered if this was some kind of man-only club and we were breaking some cultural taboo, but the waitresses were women and they seated us without a problem, so we figured it was okay. We ordered some khachapuri and were chatting about our day when a waitress came by and brought us a big pitcher of wine. In broken Russian we explained that we hadn't ordered wine- turns out it was a gift from the men at the table behind us...huh. Surreptitiously sneaking glances at the table, it was four middle aged men, who seemed to have already been drinking quite a bit. Over the next half hour our relationship progressed from a respectful nod of acknowledgement, to long winded toasts, to everyone crowding around our table, arms around our shoulders. One man was particularly interested in Kaley and kept kissing her (and occasionally my) hand. This man was also hacking up a lung and more or less ruined our appetites with his phlegmy coughs.
as of yet untained khachapuri
We learned the men were some kind of television executives/producers celebrating a work anniversary. They gave several toasts, justifying them and their interest in us by explaining that Georgians have above average respect for women. Since we were the only women eating there, they needed to express their veneration of the female through us. Polite smiles, awkward untranslatable moments, and frequently hinting at our desire for a "girls' night" did not deter these men. One man spoke a little English and was seemingly determined to show off every word he knew so he was just talking nonsense. Kaley's suitor spoke Russian but would frequently slip into unintelligible Georgian and by that point was pretty slurry regardless. After we had sipped some wine, nibbled at our khachapuri, and indulged their toasts for an appropriate amount of time, I asked the waitress for our check, but she said the men had already paid for us...of course now there are mixed feelings of excitement at a free meal, but also a little weariness of ensuing expectations. I extracted myself from the table and approached the waitress.
"How much was the bill? We would like to pay."
"No, no, they already paid for you."
"I understand, but we want to leave...alone...if they pay for us, they will think we owe them something else, won't they?"
"What?!" the waitress seemed shocked, "No, absolutely not! If you want to leave, say thank you and leave. Don't worry, they don't expect anything."
So with considerable relief, I tapped Kaley on the shoulder and gave the signal it was time to leave. After thank yous and goodbyes, we began to back out of the restaurant, but the men tried to invite us to another bar. We only managed to throw off their insistences by claiming we had to meet a friend. When we finally left the restaurant, we weren't free from their grip yet, because they were leaving right behind us. We knew it would have been much more difficult to get them to leave us on the open street, so we picked a direction and booked it before they could find us. We saw them leave the restaurant from down the street, and unfortunately they started in our direction.
So we did the only logical thing, and sprinted up a random apartment building stairwell to hide and wait for them to pass.
dance studio!
So here we are, crouched at the top of a dark, dingy, paint-peeling stairwell on top of an oriental-style rug almost black with dirt, and gripped with a pseudo-fear we were overcome with the ridiculousness of the situation. We never for a moment felt like we were in actual danger, never felt threatened by those silly, drunk, friendly men, but were playing characters in an adventure movie in order to avoid an awkward social situation. A clatter of feet passed by and we waited another minute before I started humming the James Bond theme and creeping down the stairway. Finger-gun at the ready I peaked around the corner. I gave Kaley some made-up hand motions to signal "all clear" and she came slinking down the stairs behind me. After one last cursory check we tumbled out of the doorway into the open air and burst out laughing.
We couldn't contain ourselves. The after shocks of adrenaline turning into hyperactivity in our brains and we literally ran and skipped down the wide, empty, off-season streets laughing and yelling like American hyenas.
In our giddy haze we didn't notice a young man in our path. He turned around and smiled, "Why are you laughing?" his English cut through our shrieks.
I forget the exact conversation that ensued, but basically this guy, named Tengo, turned out to be studying English...but his skills were, uh, still developing, so he called his friend who had lived in America and made us talk on the phone with him. Then he invited us for coffee and said he would call his English teacher to see if she wanted to join us.
big feet at the beach
On the way to coffee, we passed a building with loud traditional Georgian music coming out, so I peeked my head in the window- and it was a dance class! Suddenly the women inside looked at me, and they yelled something. My first instinct was "Oh shoot, get outta here," but Tengo translated that they actually invited us inside! So, thanks to our new friend we got to sit and watch a private performance of both modern and traditional dance! It was one of the coolest and most spontaneous things I did in Georgia.
Coffee with Tengo was, honestly, quite difficult since his English teacher was unable to join us and there was a significant language barrier, but I'm so glad we did it, because the next day we met up with Tengo again and he drove us all over the city! He even bought us each a big English hardcover illustrated book with Georgia's most famous epic poem, The Knight in the Panther's Skin!

So, that's like 50% of what happened in Batumi, and some pretty awesome times with really cool people. 

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Great 2014 Thank You Note Debacle

Here is a quick story about another time I f*cked stuff up <3

So it was Christmas, and being raised by very polite and super cool parents I have been conditioned to write thank you notes. I left for Russia on the 27th, and didn't have time to write the notes before I left, so I brought them with me! I thought it would be cool (and, let's be honest, I wanted to show off a little bit)to mail the notes from abroad. I put my pre-addressed (thanks mom!) envelopes and cards in my carry on and wrote a few notes on the plane. I wrote a few more on the train into Munich (where I spent an 11 hour layover- read more here), and finished at the cafe where I had lunch. Then I needed to find stamps. But it was Sunday. Oops. 

I went to a few different places, and eventually found an automated machine that sold stamps, so I got hooked up for about 8 euros. 

I spent the train ride back to the airport licking and sticking, and was pretty proud of the end result! When I walked in to the airport I saw a post box, but the thank you notes were at the bottom of my backpack, so I went to check in and print off my boarding pass. I decided to pass security and then mail them since I was pretty short on time. Once I passed security I had 20 mins until boarding, and COULD NOT FIND A MAILBOX. I ran around, clock ticking, looking for an employee- all of whom who had magically gone on break right at that moment. So finally I wildly break into the Lufthansa VIP lounge and demand the people to direct me to the nearest post box before I missed my flight. Well, what do you know, there are no post boxes this side of security. None. Not one.

So of course I beg and plead- "You look like nice people, could you just pop these into a mailbox on your way home from work?" And in that moment, when those women looked at me with their cold, hard German eyes, and shook their blonde heads in disbelief at my ridiculous request, and insisted that it was against airport rules, I hated Germany.
I hated the rules, I hated the strict adherence to them, I hated policy, and I almost hated those Lufthansa Barbies. All I wanted was to get to Russia and bribe some people to assert my dominance over "the system". 
Instead, I smiled politely and walked away, heart crushed, brilliant plan to send cool notes from Germany (which I mentioned in almost every note) destroyed. 
I held back my tears and boarded my plan, chin up, resisting the urge to rip up those notes completely, mentally readjusting my budget to compensate for the wasted postage. 

In the end, I managed to send the thank you notes from St. Petersburg. Thus, they will probably reach their destinations in about a month and are literally coated with stamps (5 each!!). But perhaps this makes an even better story. There was a moment when my deep love for Germany flickered, I saw the cracks in its beautiful facade, but in retrospect my day trip's wonder was in fact not diminished.

So if you got me a Christmas present, keep an eye on the mailbox for a postage-laden envelope over which I slaved and despaired. 

What have I learned? I'm not sure, honestly. Maybe...don't mess up so much? That's generally the take away from all of my mishaps. I'll let you know next time I try to mail something while traveling...actually, there probably won't be a next time. 

xoxo Samantha 

Guide to a Winter (Sunday) Layover in Munich

 I have recently been enjoying long layovers in new cities as an opportunity to get an extra mini-trip in when I travel! My most recent layover excursion was in Munich, Germany. I flew in at 7:40 am and left at 6:55 pm on Dec 28th 2014, giving me about 11 hours. For me and my travel style, it was the perfect amount of time! I’ll explain here what I did and give some tips for anyone else looking to do a layover in Munich with a little more or less time.
Keep in mind: the airport is about a 40 min train ride (plus max. 20 min wait time between trains) from the city center, so plan accordingly!
The airport also has a downloadable PDF stopover guide that is a good starting point and has some useful information on transportation and the airport itself.

Positives of Munich in the winter:

  • It's absolutely gorgeous in the snow and especially around Christmas all gussied up with fir, and ribbons, and lights
  • The world famous German Christkindlmarkt is open in the main square from Nov 27th-Dec 24th (if you miss this, the München Airport Center has a Christmas market open until the 28th)
  • Glühwein! Winter menu specials with chilis and stews; Bavarian classics are hearty and rich, perfect for cold weather 
  • Less tourists!
  • Women walking the Maximillionstrasse swathed in furs is excellent people watching 
  • Winter sports in Englischer Park! Cross country skiing, sledding, tobogganing, and I even saw three guys in wetsuits surfing on the near-frozen mini-rapids in the Isfar river that runs through the park (I have video!) 
Negatives of Munich in the winter
  • It can get COLD; it was hovering a few notches below freezing on my visit and snowed steadily almost the whole time. Apparently winter came late this year (2014) and it was only a few days in, which is why there was only about 3 inches of accumulation. Usually snow starts in mid-November and by late December it can be up to your knees! The city does a good job of keeping pedestrian areas in the city center navigable.
    the band at the hofbrauhaus
  • There are no nude sunbathers in the Englischer Park (I know, I looked for them)
  • It is likely to be grey and snow-cloudy, so you won't get the best views from the towers in the Marienplatz- certainly not to the Alps as is rumored on clear days
Going on a Sunday
  • There are less crowds and the streets are quieter
  • Most shops are closed, but restaurants remain open
  • The famous and beloved Viktualienmarkt is closed (major bummer)
  • The Rathaus tower is closed (but you can still climb Alter Peter, which is really the view you want anyway so you can actually see the most famous landmark- the Rathaus)
  • Pinokotheke Museums are just 1 euro! 
    Ludwig Church
  • Church services: if you are religious, or are interested in seeing a service, all the big tourist churches are still working places of worship with services at various times on Sunday mornings. During a service, you are asked not to take pictures or walk around the aisles for obvious reasons, but no one seemed to have a problem with me standing in the back quietly with my big backpack and watching for a bit. The churches still had their Christmas decorations up and it was beautiful!    
Still not sure if winter is the best time for you? Check out these statistics about tourism-related factors in Munich throughout the year!

my lunch at cafe rischart

My Planned Itinerary (for the energetic, fast-paced traveler)
·         9: Arrive in the city, find a café to sit and write thank you notes

·         10: climb Peterskirche and look at the church inside

·         11: see the Rathaus glockenspiel chime and ‘show’

·         11:30: head to the Alte Pinokothek

·         13: find lunch

·         14: Deutches Museum

·         15:30: Englischer Park

·         16: a final beer at Hofbrauhaus

·         16:30: catch the train back to the airport

Looking at it now with the times written out, this was clearly optimistic. I ended up skipping both museums, spending way more time in churcheS and Englischer Park than I anticipated, and enjoying a gluhwein and dessert-lunch at a bar across from Hofbrauhaus! 

Below I have listed the attractions I visited (or didn’t) in order of importance, as determined by me (who has spent a total of 11 hrs in Munich). If you’re pressed for time, start with number 1 and work your way down.

1.      Marienplatz: main square of the city, starting point for most tours (there will be people in the square in the morning offering bus and walking tours),U-bahn and S-bahn station
a.      Peterskirche: one of the prettiest churches in Munich, lots of color; €1.50 (€1. for students) to climb the 300 steps up the tower for a great view of the city and an awesome vantage point to watch the carillon glockenspiel show
b.      Neues Rathaus: also has a climbable tower, but is closed on Sundays
c.       The Marian column in the square's center
2.      Frauenkirche: one of the city’s most recognizable buildings with its soaring, onion-domed towers
3.      Englischer Garden: bustling in both summer and winter! In the winter, people still go out with dogs (well trained, not on leashes) to feed geese in ponds, sled, cross country ski, jog, or get a drink at one of the park’s 3 beer gardens. Englischer garden is bigger than Central Park in NYC and contains several sites worth seeking out in its rolling hills.
a.      Chinese tower
b.      Japanese teahouse
c.       Diana Temple
4.      Odeonsplatz: another square, not far from Marienplatz; makes a nice addition to a walking tour of the city center.
a.      Residenz/Opera
c.      Theatinerkirche
d.       Hofgarten
e.      Maximillianstrasse
5.      Hofbräuhaus: Kitschy and a bit over-touristed for my taste, but it is definitely worth walking in and looking around, listening to the oom-pah band for a bit. Good for large groups, not so good for solo travelers. One of the oldest beer houses in the city, and has an atmosphere consistent with the “classic” Bavaria of decades past.
6.      Viktualienmarkt: open air market filled with fresh, organic, and diverse foods and trinkets; great place to get a hot chocolate/glühwein or to pick up groceries for a traditional home cooked meal; closed on Sundays
7.      The Pinakothek Museums: Three museums (alte= Old Masters, neue= 19th c., moderne= modern art), admission on Sundays is only 1 euro!
8.      DeutschesMuseum: The world's largest museum of science and technology ;8,50 for adults, 3 for students
9.      Kaufinger Strasse: One of the oldest streets in Munich and its busiest shopping street
10.  Maximillian Strasse: One of the city's four "royal avenues"- it's ritzy, glamorous, and very expensive
11.  City gates: There are four pretty gates left from what was once a wall encircling medieval Munich

Transportation: If you’re coming from the airport, the best thing to do is to buy a pass that allows you to ride all public transportation in the city (S-bahn to and from the airport, U-bahn, buses, trams) for €12. Purchase from electronic machines on the S-bahn platform. Hold your ticket with you, but it probably won't be checked.