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S O N J A . L A R S O N . P A N A C E K

179 Days in France

This number-counting thing is no longer very accurate since I took a weeks worth of vacation in central Europe. Regardless, I’m keeping the theme just for purposes of being able to envision a timeline.

I stall on writing posts as if I’m waiting outside of a conference room about to enter a meeting 45 minutes late. Due to the fact that I now have almost a month to cover, it would make sense to just bite the bullet a little more often, but anyway, on y va!

So towards the end of February it started getting warm. The first week of March we hiked up to the kids’ great-grandmothers house just outside of Belfort. We all stumbled into this enormous mansion late Friday night, the last night of February, were shown to our rooms, and boom lights out. Poured myself a glass of water — that tasted like the bottom of a wallet — and awaited to see the house in daylight. 

The next day I awoke to explore an ancient estate with a house that was basically all rectangles — grand, oddly proportioned rooms — and walls covered in what looked like original and very expensive Baroque artwork. It would also be important to note that all the walls were also decorated in wallpaper that resembled drawer-liner — kind of awkward faded floral patterns. Bonus — what seemed to be the previous set of dinnerware and serving plates also adorned them. I dared not run through the house — actually I more like tip-toed — wide-eyed admiring the plates and anonymous portraiture. These included but were not limited to war scenes of naked men and bleeding horses, innocent looking pale women, and various French buildings in the country.

It was Brigitte’s birthday so of course there was champagne before lunch. At that moment, during a conversation about cette grande maison I offered the simile of the house’s essence and decor to the house in the game Clue. Honestly — it was a perfect match. The dining room even had black and white checkered square floor tiles and large corner sculptures. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to catch a glimpse of how accurate the secret passages were, but they were totally there.

Onward to Saulxures-sur-Moselotte! All the cousins reunite for a week of vacation! But not so much vacation for the few adults who also joined — preparing a weeks worth of three meals daily for a dozen hungry mouths is a career in itself. What is important to note is that I now know how to ski. Yes — this was my first snowy outing in the mountains to learn how to maneuver myself voluntarily down slippery slopes. It was great! Brigitte let me borrow her old ski outfit and I have to say that the 90’s never looked so.. enthusiastic. I was literally dressed in a hot-pink puffer outfit. Don’t worry no one lost me — it would have been impossible anyway. We went four days in a row, and all were fairly warm. The snow drastically dwindled on the fourth day and that was that.

So at this point I’m on my own. Since the kids have two weeks of vacation, I stay with them for one and for the second I can do what I want. I had planned to meet my friend Julia and her travel buddy Christina (both Spanish) in Vienna for the weekend, after which we would all continue together to Prague for the remainder of the vacation.

I arrived in Strasbourg on Friday evening the 7th by train. I had a few hours to eat and see enough of the city to say that “Yes, I have been there.” I casually admired all the street food that can all be summed up as “German sausages and things that go with them,” and settled on Monoprix for dinner (grocery store). Not gonna lie, this trip redefined the confines of a budget. More on that later. At the store I bought only what I needed — two clementines, dried pork sausage, whole wheat bread, store-brand drinkable yogurt, and a travel size bottle of watermelon scented shampoo. Back to basics. I quickly found the bus stop and boarded, and with luck was just in time to claim the last two seats that were next to each other (first row). I got as comfortable as possible, drank some yogurt gloop, and attempted to sleep.

At one point during the night we arrived at a rest stop in Germany. I was completely taken back about being back at zero-language-knowledge-square-one. I didn’t even know what to say for a greeting! Probably should have done some homework on that but instead I bought two neon postcards and a Snickers bar.

We arrived in Vienna, Austria the next morning, where I found Julia and Christina at the city center’s giant cathedral, duh. We made our way to our couchsurfing haven — a small house outside the city owned by a nice lady named Eva who treated us as if we were friends in the neighborhood for the weekend. She had a really cool coffee machine (whole beans ground instantly for your choice of size.. made a lot of noise but it was damn good) and said we could eat whatever we wanted. Her house was full of books only in German and lots of sunshine. Our room had foam mattresses with lots of pillows to choose from, decent internet access, and lots of pictures of her and her family traveling all over the world. She even had a guest book full of praise for her open-arms hospitality.

Vienna was different than I thought. In the summer of 2006, my first trip to Europe, I experienced Tirol and Salzburg for an entire week and fell in love. I pictured giant mountains and locals dressed in lederhosen because yes, that’s a thing. Vienna wasn’t like that. It was a big city with some cool buildings and that was about it. It was very flat. It had some palaces. Parliament was pretty. The National Library and that area at night was the coolest moment of the whole weekend. Otherwise, it was just a place on the map. It was fun to explore with Christina and Julia, as well as their friend Teres, though, of which notable places included a super jenky amusement park with Weiner in the name (like most things), an all-you-can-eat Indian basement restaurant where you pay for however good you think it was (I shouldn’t have paid but I gave the dude like three euros in pennies), a pub where we enjoyed a few local sunday-funday beers, and a public market that sold literally one of everything ever made. This market was legit tho — there were three sections — food (international, spices, fruits and vegetables, tea, lunch stuff), vendors with all the same clothing and bracelets, and a sort of antique/used section with old leather jackets, lamps, tea sets, art, furniture, jewelry, etc. Literally was just a bunch of old shit but was cool to walk around and look at.

So Monday we board the bus to Prague by the skin of our teeth — like we didn’t have tickets but showed up anyway and there were three seats left on the bus and we got them — and bing bang boom we’re in the Czech Republic. Our hostel was okay — kind of off the beaten track and there was no “incredible breakfast that you can’t miss” like the reviews said but they DID have store-brand Nutella and endless tea/coffee so I wasn’t mad about it. The people who were staying there were what made the experience — Canadians, Australians, and Americans — we were this giant motley crew of English speakers very quickly and began exploring. The city was easily the most beautiful I’ve ever been to in Europe — quaint, well-preserved, small but not too small, historical, quirky, clean… Saw a great live band, drank possibly THE most delicious beer ever, and enjoyed the views from both the castle and the bridge. The weather was perfect for the entire week — sunny and about 60 every day. 

We took two day trips — one to a castle in Karlstejn which charged admission (so we went to lunch instead), and Kutna Hora where we went to see a church whose interior was decorated with the skeletal remains of 40,000 people, most of which had died in the Plague during the 14th century. Monks started organizing the bones into designs, etc. and before you know it you have skulls covering the ceiling and piles of femurs. It wasn’t really that creepy or gross but more just weird once you started thinking about the timeline from death to ornamental — cleaning, decomposition etc. — that’s what got you kind of irked. ANYWAY well it was definitely a site to see. Afterwards we stormed a local grocery store and then had a giant picnic.

I took a bus to Paris (which I do not really recommend but whatever) and then took another bus to Lyon, (again, take a plane and plan ahead), but got home safe and minus the bus tickets getting around to my various destinations I spent just over one hundred euros for seven nights of traveling in central Europe. If you’re wondering — that’s not a lot. And I went out five of those nights. That budget included eating, the hostel, all drinks, and all local transportation (which was very little because we walked everywhere). The point is that Prague was dirt cheap — one euro got you a draft pint and three euros got you a meal. If you made friends and grocery-ed — which I highly recommend — your meals were more like 2 euros. If you want to go out and drink weird stuff like Redbull and absinthe (yes that exists and it tastes awful), you’re going to spend a little more money, but it’s still relatively inexpensive. The point is — go to Prague.

So I’m back in the Rhone valley enjoying all the flowers and spring-time things. Last weekend I went to Annecy for the day with a few friends of mine — it’s a little town about 90 minutes away that is centered around a giant lake in the French Alps. It poured rain the entire time — though we went for walks anyway because that’s what the French do — but inside the 14th century home I stayed in we ate well and had a nice fire for most of the time I was there.

At one point we went to buy cheese for our raclette dinner and it was at basically a shed at the top of the road.. This lady couldn’t have been a day younger than 85 and she buys cheese from the farmers in the area and sells it in her “store.” This place must have been a seriously well kept secret because if any sort of food inspector knocked on the door the whole place would get the boot in about 5 minutes. But anyway this lady knew her cheese and was still going strong selling out of a one-room dustbin of a store so we held our noses and got home to enjoy the raclette.

I will be reunited with friends from my study abroad trip back in 2010 next weekend in Madrid and I cannot wait — lucky enough to have a 4 day weekend to relax and finally experience Spain. Otherwise, I’m already feeling as if my days are numbered.