mexico study abroad

My Month in Mexico: a photo series

So as some of you may already know, I recently got the opportunity to travel to Santiago de Querétaro, Querétaro, Mexico for a study abroad trip. It was an amazing trip that changed my life. Story posts, tip posts, and location posts are soon to come, but I thought I would share with you all the best pictures I took along the way (and pictures that were taken of me)!

Continue reading “My Month in Mexico: a photo series”

Barcelona, Spain

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Day 1

Sister and I arrived at the airport in Barcelona around 8pm. (How did we get here? If you’re new to My Travel Diary, go to the beginning here: The First Leg) After reclaiming our bags, we spoke with the lady at a tourist kiosk about the best way to get to our hotel. It was quite far away from the airport (actually, quite far from everything, as it turned out). She told us all these different routes and public transportations to take. As soon as she finished telling us all this, I turned to Sister and said, “Taxi?” She agreed; we headed outside. It was a breath of fresh air. This sounds cheesy, but it felt like Spain. Welcome home, Close. (I would later find out the people of Barcelona don’t even want to be a part of Spain. Sorry, but you’re totally Spain.)

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We waited in the long taxi line and were quickly ushered into a car. It was a nice car! Our driver was nice too. Taxis are funny because you’re always taught— Never ever get in the car with a stranger! But here I was, paying a stranger to put me in his car. He drove wickedly fast. Like, fast and furious, slamming your body back and forth, fast. I watched the meter tick up, but we arrived at our hotel in around fifteen minutes. It didn’t even cost that much!

Our hotel was ridiculously nice. Here we were, walking in with our large backpacks and comfy travel clothes into a sparkly white lobby. We checked in and headed up to our room which was equally as nice. The relief of spending two nights in one place is one I hope to never get over. I got to put my bag down, empty things out. I didn’t even have to repack before going to bed! I got to shower, make a mess, and then not clean it up before comfortably falling asleep!

Day 2

So this day was weird. Sister and I had a plan for the next day to get to our tour; the tram then the subway to the square where the tour agency was located. Unfortunately, we underestimated how long the public transportation would take. We arrived in the square at the time our tour was supposed to be leaving. Normally they go a little late so that might’ve been okay, but we couldn’t find the building. We had a map (but we’re so bad at those!) and knew the name, but it was nowhere to be seen. Another tour company was near by, so Sister and I walked inside and asked about their tour options. Either way, we were going to need money, so we headed to the ATM. While Sister got more euros, I discovered a wifi signal and loaded my maps to see exactly where our tour company was. We followed the map to a hidden side street off the square (no wonder we couldn’t find it!). Our tour had left, but the lady at the desk was very nice and helpful. They called our phone number, but no one answered (probably because it was mom’s phone number and she was very asleep). Desk lady told us we could still catch our tour; we’d just have to meet them at the first stop—Sagrada Familia. Luckily, there was enough time that even our terrible directional skills couldn’t keep us from getting there on time. We even had time to grab some breakfast at the cafe next door.

Sister and I found our group out front and were only slightly embarrassed as we reintegrated. I liked our guide well enough, and she gave us good explanations about the history and details of Sagrada Familia. It’s weird, dude. It’s one of those cathedrals that will be incredible in a thousand years. We were used to seeing all these ancient European monuments full of history; a hundred year old church was worth a stop? It was though, considering the beautiful stained glass and incredibly detailed carvings. We learned a lot about the artist who designed and worked on it, Antoni Gaudi. The construction on the church actually isn’t finished, even though construction started in 1882. Gaudi was very interested in the natural lines and shapes of the earth; to make sculptures of donkeys he actually made a mold of a live donkey! There are no straight lines or angles in the church because they don’t naturally exist.

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Our tour group left the church and headed down to the city center. There, we took a walking tour that explored fun, modern shops and also ancient streets all the while learning about the history of the city. Surprisingly, Jewish and Catholic people were able to coexist in the city for hundreds of years with minimum conflict. That came to an end at the dawn of the Black Plague. Because Catholics did not value cleanliness as much as the Jewish people did, the Catholics were dying at much higher rates. They assumed the Jews were poisoning them and retaliated appropriately.

Next up, we took an hour break downtown to have some lunch individually. We had lots of time, so Sister and I got some light sandwiches at a little cafe. We ate, and then we went back to a little candy store/bakery we had seen before. Inside the window, I had noticed some delicious-looking cupcakes, and we both knew we needed them! We ordered in Spanish, got a bottle of water, and then headed outside with our amazing cupcakes to eat. We were so excited! I took a giant bite of the frosting and…. it wasn’t a cupcake. We’re still not sure exactly what they were (maybe some sort of marshmallow?), but they were not good. That was probably the biggest disappointment of my entire life. But hey, it photographed nicely, and as a blogger, what could be more important?

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We met back up with the group and boarded the bus to a place called Park Güell, which was designed by Gaudi. A wealthy man, Güell, owned an entire mountain and decided he wanted to turn it into an exclusive neighborhood. Gaudi was to design all the houses and the public areas. Each house was to follow strict standards and be completely designed by Güell, who would make all the rules and charge lots of money. Surprisingly, only one person bought land on the mountain and purchased a Güell/Gaudi house. Because of this fail, the land was turned into a park (even though the one house that was bought still remains in private hands). The park is beautiful and a popular tourist destination. I was amazed at the impressive mosaic details, the intricate water systems, and beautiful greenery that was moved in. It was very hot outside, so we did not stay long.

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Our final stop and where our guide would leave us was another work by Gaudi. This time, it was an entire apartment building he designed. The top and bottoms had been converted into a museum honoring the design of the building and Gaudi, but the middle levels still had real life residents! By this time, we were honestly kind of sick of Gaudi. His work was incredibly interesting and complex, but I had not realized we had signed up for the Gaudi Tour of Barcelona. We toured through the house, the attic, and down to an example of apartment of what they would have been like when they were first built. The audio tours were nice and convenient, so Sister and I breezed through the museum quickly.

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Sister and I took the subway and then the tram back our hotel. We refreshed, and then we walked down to a street a few blocks away that had a couple restaurants. They were all “mom and pop”-type places, and it was nice to talk to a local restaurant owner. It was obvious they didn’t get a lot of foreigners, which was an exciting change to the over-touristed places we had been to. Sister and I both had spaghetti with sausage. We ate quickly, and then we headed back to our lavish hotel. After washing off in the elegant shower (there wasn’t even a curtain!), I called home and then went to bed.

Day 3

Our train wasn’t until the early afternoon, but the train station was far from the hotel. We took the tram to the subway to the train station. Like always, we found a locker to put our bags and deposited them for the day. Sister and I figured that we might find something outside the train station to do, and we did! There was what my mother would call a “crap fair”–a craft fair. It was like a flea market selling old trinkets. I searched for a ring to no avail, but I enjoyed looking at all the goods on display. Next to the station was a large pond. It looked rather dirty, but that might be because the other side appeared to be a dog park. Several dogs were jumping and splashing around, along with their owners throwing balls and calling for them. I quickly realized the large metal statue of what might have been a dragon was a slide. We watched small children slide down the metal for a little while, but we also knew we had a lot of time.

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A few searches and looks at maps lead us to agree that a visit to the beach would be worth our time. I think we were both thirsty to go swimming, but we wouldn’t be able to change or shower. Settling for looking at the beach was the next best thing. Sister and I hopped on the subway. We had a sort-of plan, but once on the subway it became clear that we just had to follow the people in the bathing suits. As soon as we were off the subway, we could smell the sea and headed in the flow of others. We were both hungry, and while I was leaning towards a quick bite at McDonald’s, Sister picked a steak house. I ordered a salad that ended up having a million different ingredients in it that weren’t listed on the menu. I was not into it. Sister ate her meats, and then we finally got down to the beach with ten minutes to spare. We looked around at the overcrowded beaches and appreciated the scene.

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Then, it was a mad rush back to the subway to catch our train. I think we were both giddy, knowing in just a few hours we would be with the Spanish family we had missed for a whole year. We made it back to the train station, reclaimed our bags, and literally ran through the train station. We had to go through some security, which was strange for a train station, and then made it on the train just minutes before it left. We made it. We were about to be back to our Spanish Home.

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Barcelona, Spain

Venice, Italy

Day 1

Sister and I arrived in Venice around 9:30pm; it was already dark. We knew our hotel was definitely not within walking distance of the train station, and since Venice is a collection of islands, there was no subway. We had thought we would take a cab. Outside the train station, we found a little taxi stand and asked how much it would be to take us to San Marco Plaza. When the worker told us €60, I politely thanked him and headed back into the train station. I connected to the wifi and looked up what the heck to do. Sure, it was a water taxi, a boat, but we weren’t going that far at all. I did some research online in the train station and asked my mom; we decided the water bus was probably the best option. We purchased two tickets at the ticket booth and boarded the boat when it arrived. It took forever to get all the way around to San Marco, dodging other boats and stopping for five minutes at each stop along the way. The Venetian streets were laid out like a maze, but somehow I was able to navigate them better than any other streets before. We got to the hotel quickly; two little beds and a bathroom, but that’s all we needed. It was cute from the outside, and we only had to walk up two flights of stairs to get to our room.

Day 2

The next morning, we had a lovely buffet-style breakfast at the hotel. We had our day basically all planned out. First off, a boat tour visiting three islands. The tour advised us to cover our knees and shoulders so we could enter churches. That made us a little hot (but in the end I was happy because my outfit was really cute for pictures). Luckily, the tour left right down the street from the hotel so we couldn’t even get lost on our way there. We waited around a bit for our boat, but we were definitely not disappointed. Our tour guide spoke four languages— Italian, French, Spanish, and English. Sometimes it was hard to hear her over the noises of the boat, but she talked about every place we passed in each language. It was incredible! The first place we stopped was at the island of Murano, famous for its glass blowing. With our tour, we got a tour of one of the glass blowing factories. It was approximately thirty jillion degrees in the room, but it was worth it to see a man literally turn sand into an extremely detailed horse. They showed us around the stock room—as if we could afford (monetarily or in suitcase space) to buy a glass figurine, plate, or a chandelier. After the tour, we still had around fifteen to look around the island. It was stunning. The buildings were beautiful, the water was clear. It felt like a scene from a movie. I felt giddy just to stand there and admire the town.


We boarded a new boat with the same tour group and headed to the island of Borano, famous for lacework. Along the way we enjoyed the breeze and sea mist while we tried to hear the tour guide. This island was larger and the houses were even cuter. We explored the more residential part, noting every house that was for sale and the ones with the cute plants in the window. Then, we headed to the shops. Lace! I’m not a big fan of lace in general, but watching them craft it with their hands was impressive. Several shops had walls with lace swatches that were hundreds of years old. One store had an upstairs full of lace-detailed dresses. Remind me to get my wedding shoes from there.


Next up was the island of Torcello. Do you want to know how many people live in Torcello? Eleven. Most of them are older and retired there, one of them is young and performs on the street there since it’s so big for tourists. We had about an hour, and our tour guide recommended we eat lunch or visit the church in the center of the island. Sister and I decided on lunch. We stopped at a cute little restaurant where I ordered a Coke and lasagna. I absolutely hated the lasagna. There was so much cheese (and I love cheese. I never thought there was such a thing as too much); it made me feel almost nauseous. Sister enjoyed her meal, lucky her, and we strolled around a bit before it was time to head back to the boat. Even though I didn’t love my meal, I loved the quaintness of the island and the simplicity of life there.


We rode the boat back to the main island as our tour came to an end. A giant cruise ship passed by us and all the people on the deck waved to us. After we reached land, Sister and I had about an hour and a half before our walking tour started so we went back to the hotel. With my expert navigation skills, we got there quickly and had time to dab away our sweat and freshen up. I even managed to successfully get us to the starting point of our tour!

While waiting in line to receive our nifty radios and ear piece, we chatted with a Chinese who was also from Texas and a British woman and her daughter who expressed their concern over the flooding in Texas. I thought we had made tour friends, but once we got our supplies, we were split up. The other group’s tour guide was wearing cargo shorts and flip flops; ours was wearing a suit. I don’t know about how the other guide’s tour was, but I think we definitely got a good tour.

It was a walking tour through the streets during the hottest part of the day, and of course our suited guide recognized that. He ushered us into the shade before telling us a thorough explanation of each street, plaza, or area, full of jokes and snarky remarks about the tourists. I enjoyed the tour and the group; the walking and the heat wasn’t even that bad! I got to see beautiful streets in Venice and hear about them from a native Venetian! Our tour concluded with a gondola ride! After waiting in an extra long line, we boarded with another family and quickly navigated through the nasty green water. We soared around the corners. Our gondola driver (is that what you call him?) winked at me, but considering his beer gut and cigarette smoking as paddled, I didn’t think it was going anywhere.


Sister and I were exhausted and sweaty, so we went back to the hotel. Let’s note for a second that we wore hot clothes so we could enter churches, yet we didn’t enter any! Ha! We rested, freshened up, and then headed for dinner. A cute little place was just down the street, so we hopped in there to eat. I had a specific pasta that definitely has a name that I definitely should research. It was cheese stuffed and delicious! After dinner, we walked around until we found gelato. With our gelato in hand, we began walking back to the hotel but somehow we had gotten turned around in the maze-like streets. Every restaurant was open with men standing out front ushering customers in. The man in front of one, leaned over and pretended to take a bite from Sister’s ice cream. Sister’s horrified reaction and yanking away of her ice cream was clearly the funniest thing he had ever seen; so much so that when we stumbled upon the same restaurant five minutes later, he noticed and laughed at us again and pointed to her ice cream. The other men were more civil; they simply asked us to dance and persisted with why not?s when we politely declined. Maybe because you’re an old man and I’m just trying to enjoy some gelato in a beautiful city?


Back at the hotel, I had a lovely chat with the desk clerk to figure out the best way to get to the train station in the morning. He let me know the buses would be running, and I definitely needed to give myself at least an hour. Sister and I had a train out of a mainland station, so we had to get from the Venice station to mainland in time for that train at 8:02am.

Day 3

It was a little and rushed and complicated in the morning, but we made it on time. From the mainland station, we went to Milan. In Milan, we went to the airport to catch a flight to Barcelona. Because we were flying on Ryanair, a low budget airline similar to WOW, we had opted to be “Business Plus” fliers. This was mainly because it included a free checked back, so flying regular with a checked back would’ve been more expensive. Sister and I tried so hard to get help at the Ryanair desk, but the woman kept dismissing us like we were stupid. We knew exactly what we wanted; let us please check in. Our flight is very soon. Eventually, she let her colleague help us, and she promptly pointed us to the check in desk. It wasn’t so hard.

We got to be in the shorter Business Line to check our bags, even though we still had to take them over to the special “odd sized” luggage drop. Sister and I got over that quickly when we literally got to walk to the front of the security line thanks to our business plus status. I love security in European, even though the guards scare me, at least I don’t ever have to take off my shoes.

Our flight got delayed, which meant that we got an hour more of sitting in the airport with a bachelor party! WOOHOO! They were the most obnoxious people I’d ever seen in real life. It was like jersey shore in their matching “game over” t-shirts. It wasn’t so bad. I had some really good pizza and people watched. When it came time to board, we got the special treatment. We lined up first, and they opened the doors up for us and all the other business plussers (older men who apparently all knew each other). We walked down the stairs and waited at the bottom in front of glass doors. I realized that we were going to walk out to the plane—SWEET. We waited for a long time, but finally a nice little flight attended walked us along the tarmac and up the stairs onto the plane.


On the plane, we got to listen to the bachelor party harass the flight attendants and yell to each other throughout the whole plane ride. It didn’t matter so much; we were about to be in Barcelona!

Venice, Italy

Como, Italy

The train station in Como sat on top of a hill overlooking the town (featuring a stunning sunset), which was good because there was absolutely nothing to see inside the station. It was the smallest station we had been in; there was one cafe, no wifi, and we didn’t see a place to check bags. It was already late, so we were just going to head to the hotel. I had even saved a map of how to get there on my phone…what could go wrong? (Folks, if this isn’t the first Travel Diary you’re read of mine, you know everything goes wrong when maps are in involved. But, if this is the first Travel Diary you’re reading, you need to start from the beginning: The First Leg. Or, if you’re wondering why I am doing all this, check out The Background.) Basically to get to the hotel that was down the street and around the corner, we walked a large block around the tiny town and appeared at the hotel from the other side. Keep in mind that we’re each lugging a thirty pound backpack and a fifteen pound “frontpack”. Sister and I survived, but we were grumpy about it. We checked into the hotel and headed up the elevator to our tiny room. We were sharing a bed and there was basically no floor space, but hey! Free wifi and a warm shower, what more could a girl ask for? We called home to let everyone know we were still alive.

In the morning, we got all ready to go and checked out. I had done research the night before, and online forums claimed there was a small bag check at the train station. We were spending the day in the town, but there was no way we were lugging around our massive bags. This time, we knew how to get to the station; just down the street past the giant hand statue.

Sister sat with the bags while I looked for the baggage check. The station wasn’t that big at all, so I just followed the signs to one Italian man sitting at a table with a paper sign. We communicated in crude English (yes, I’m that annoying traveler who doesn’t speak any of the language), and he charged us per bag. I felt kind of strange leaving our bags in his hands simply because he was a person and not a machine. I had all my money and valuables with me, and I watched him lock our bags in a room so I shook away my fears.

Next up, Sister and I were headed out to the beautiful Lake Como. You’ve probably heard of it. George Clooney has a house there. We took some time to admire the beauty of the lake, noting all the boats and the little houses across the way. By this time, it was 11, and I was starving. Like any normal traveler, I decided on classic Italian food—a piece of pizza from a food stand. It was the best pizza I’d had so far.


Sister and I ate in the park next to the lake and discussed what to do. We walked up and down the shore, taking in the view and looking for a place to get on a boat tour. We found the dock that seemed the major dock for everyone and bought tickets for a one-hour ride to see all the little ports around the lake. There was some time before the tour, so we walked out on a long dock to see a famous statue that stood surrounded by the water.

After people watching there for a bit (seriously, dude, your kid is drinking from the fountain), we went back ashore to find gelato. I got a delicious fruity cone and Sister got chocolate chip.


We took ourselves, dripping with sticky melted gelato, to the line for the boat. We boarded quickly and set off to see the tiny islands all around. It was stunning, and we saw a swimming spot we wished we could visit—who would’ve thought we might’ve needed our bathing suits at a lake? Some of the towns on the lake looked classic Italian, some just had modern hotels, and some were private homes.


The boat brought us back to where we started from, and we headed into another part of town. Sister hates shopping, but we stumbled upon the commercial district. I had fun looking around, especially peaking into a church that wouldn’t allow us in due to our immodesty. However, I didn’t like the two men dressed in mascot costumes standing behind women until they noticed and jumped, or being approached and called sexy by a knock-off Cookie Monster.


We headed back lakeside and spent some time putting our feet in the water. People were swimming, even though the “beach” was made of pager blocks. It was interesting to watch everyone splash around; we stuck our feet in and watched the ducks. A museum was right behind us, and we might as well take a look! The entry cost was a euro a piece, and we realized why after a minute or two. It was interesting, for sure. It was about a scientist who lived in Como, Alessandro Volta. He invented the battery (see, Volta—volts?), so his whole museum was just a collection of his different tools with labels. I could only look at so many different variations of a beaker in the small circular museum.


By then, I was hungry, so we headed back towards the area of our hotel. We stopped at a grocery store to get water, and then I found a little street stand and got a warm ham and cheese. It was about time for us to head to the station (or so we thought). We got to the station, checked the schedule, reclaimed our bags (In good condition! Nothing stolen!), and then had nothing to do but sit for an hour. We hadn’t yet learned that your really have to be five minutes early for a train; throughout the trip, we kept overestimating time for fear of ever being late. Folks, I payed €4 for Wifi and I’m not ashamed. There train station had a little Internet cafe, so I chalked up the money for the wifi. He took my phone to type in the password, but I watched. In case you’re ever in the train station in Como, try 1234567810. No 9. I gave Sister the password because I’m a devious evil thief, and we sat contently for fortyfive minutes until our train arrived. Off to Venice!

Como, Italy

Zurich, Switzerland

Sister and I only had one day in Zurich, but we had booked a trolley tour of the city the day before and had looked up some things to do. At the train station, we had some trouble finding the lockers and getting them to work, but eventually we managed and took the giant key with us on our walk to find to the bus lot where we would depart from. I had a map on my phone, but Sister and I were learning that we were comically bad with maps and directions. We walked all the way across a park and looped back around to find the bus parking lot right next to the train. Who would have thought? We waited under the bus stop until it was time for our tour, and we exchanged our mobile voucher for a sloppy hand-written ticket.
The trolley kindly took us around the city, and there were headphone jacks to listen to a narration in any language you could imagine. I’d like to say I learned lots about the beautiful city of Zurich, but I honestly fell asleep on the trolley. I remember lots of talk about the financial district (most insurance in the world is managed in Zurich), but I really did not appreciate anything until our first stop. Fifteen minutes, the driver told us as we all unloaded from the bus. The overcast day set the perfect atmosphere for the large lake. It was full of boats, a swimmer fighting the waves, fish, and a family of ducks Sister and I took a liking to. Back on the bus, we headed to look at several other important buildings, including the homes of old guilds and several churches. Neat! At the conclusion of the tour, we returned to the bus lot and weighed our options of what we should do next. We decided to get lunch at the train station since it was right nearby and had lots of options. We struggled to order lunch at the counter with all the options and communication barrier, but we ended up with what we both wanted. I was learning to not be as picky with my food choices, and I actually liked the results of that!


The museum next to the train station was in an impressive old building, and once inside, we realized the tickets were very cheap, and that the museum had free wifi. Looks like we found a place to stay for a while! We looked at old Christian relics forever and ever and ever. One painting stood out to me: a painting of a scene of the city from a traditional story of the execution of three saints in their city. The painting had been painted over to hide its graphic nature, and recently the layers of extra had been carefully removed to reveal parts of the original work. It was interesting to learn about the history and to see things I recognized from the town in the painting. The other sections of the museum held artifacts and exhibits from Zurich’s history. For me, the most interesting section was modern photographs of varying subjects. They all had interesting explanations or heart-wrenching stories.


After we got positively bored of the museum (bored? Sister, you’re a history major…), we hopped onto a trolley and tried to figure out how to get to a university’s garden that we had read about online. We got off at the stop we decided was correct, but we quickly realized we had lost our orientation again. We walked the street and got some gelatto. I regained a general idea of where we needed to be going, so we started walking along the beautiful rushing river in what I was assuming to be the right way. Finally, we stumbled upon the garden and explored the area. It was more of a green space and they seemed to be growing less varieties of things than at our favorite garden in Cologne. Also, there was a library and a building that claimed to be a museum, but we could not seem to understand exactly what was going in those buildings or the random people we saw around the gardens. It was beautiful with some nice views, but the entire place gave us a strange vibe. Sister and I found another trolley stop and got back on, stopping once to buy a bottle of water. By that time, we needed to head back to the train station. We ate there, reclaimed our bags, and headed for our train to Italy!

Zurich, Switzerland

Cologne, Germany

We headed off in the morning with no problems.

Sister and I arrived around 11 with no plans; I barely knew anything about the city. We were headed to Zurich next on an overnight train, so we were only spending the day in this beautiful German city. After we stored our backpacks in the lockers at the train station, we walked outside and right into the middle of town. To our left was a grand cathedral and to our right were several restaurants. We picked one at random and sat outside. I ordered some soup and Sister had wienerschnitzel. We were totally German. To our awesome surprise, the city had free wifi available to everyone. I logged on, and we started doing research on what to do in the city. Lots of museums came up, and the main attraction appeared to be the large church that loomed behind us.

Unfortunately for us, after walking to a nearby museum, we learned they were closed on Mondays—the one day we happened to be there. We peaked inside the church, tried some more internet searches, and then just decided to walk down the busy-looking shopping street. The first store we stopped in was called Pylones, and it was full of creatively made everyday products. I was intrigued by the adorableness of it all.

We saw lots of global chain stores and some smaller ones we had never heard of before, just paroosing. We returned to the city square and found a bridge that sister had read about online jutting off the city square. This bridge was absolutely covered in locks. Honestly, I’d estimate a million locks. The bridge seemed to go on forever, and it was completely covered in various love locks. They were beautiful to look at and read; some engraved, some written in sharpie. Some massive bike locks, some turtle-shaped locks, some little tiny combination locks… The view from the bridge was beautiful and so was the sight of all that love.

We snuck back into the restaurant we had eaten at for lunch to use their bathroom (which had an attendant with a small money tray—for tips? She didn’t make us pay), and then sat on the massive church steps to figure out what to do next. Online, I read about a garden that was outside the city center that I was interested in. Sister figured out how to work the subway system (this quickly had become her speciality) and we hopped on after a quick debate about whether or not it’d be wise to get so far away (throw caution to the wind!). One thing that was both amazing and odd was that you didn’t have to swipe your subway ticket before getting on. You just got on. No one checked it; they just trusted you. I looked around, wondering who had bought a ticket and who hadn’t, and if we’d ever be checked. Going to the garden ended up being one of our very best choices.

This place was free to get into, and it was absolutely full of different types of flowers. Paths connected different areas, between the lake and the greenhouses and the play area and the massive venue building in the middle. It was stunning, and the perfect relaxing afternoon that we needed after our travels. We got some healthy, organic gelato from a stand. “Do you speak English?” Sister asked the server, and he replied, “Yes, of course!” like we’d be silly to ask a German man if he knew English.


Around 3:30, we headed out from the gardens and back to the city center. Again, we paroosed the shops. I decided I needed nail polish, and that I wanted to get a second piercing in my ear. A quick internet search revealed there wasn’t a minimum age to do that in Germany, so we skipped on over to Clair’s. Unfortunately, the kind lady at the counter (who, of course, spoke English) said you had to be eighteen. Sister volunteered herself, and she ended up getting a second piercing in her ear. All I got was nail polish and a new pair of earrings. When we left, it started pouring down rain, so we rain to the big cathedral to get out of the rain. This time, we opted to buy the paper guide of the tour (just drop a euro in the jar; they trusted us as much as the subway did). The church was beautiful, albeit boring, so we ended up sitting for a while, trying to decide what to do.


I was craving pizza, so we found directions to an Italian restaurant. On the way there, a group of giggling girls about my age stopped us and asked me to take a picture with a flower for them. I was confused and hesitant, since that’s traveler rule number one (never trust a stranger who approaches you), but they seemed so nice. I asked why, and in broken English and giggles they explained something about a teacher and a message they had to send for a hunt. I agreed (still wish I had gotten the picture), and I got to keep the flower.

The restaurant we ate at was interesting, and I’d never seen anything like it. You got a card when you walked in, sort of like a hotel key card. Then, you went up to individual counters and ordered what you wanted. They swiped your card. At the end, you paid for your food after they read your order from the card. It was smart and efficient. I didn’t like the pizza I got at all, but Sister really enjoyed her spaghetti. On our way out, we noticed a protest in a large open square, but couldn’t see or understand what it was about.


Sister and I hung out in the train station until our overnight train was set to come in. We rested in a cute coffee shop and called home for a bit, watched a bit of the Eurocup in he center of the station with fifty of our closest friends, and checked out some of the shops. Our train was a little late, but we got on and figured it all out.

Cologne, Germany

Paris, France

DAY 1

To get from London to Paris on the Eurostar train, security was similar to that on airplanes, except we got on rather quickly. In England, we mainly went through tunnels and caught random glimpses of the English countryside. I didn’t even know the tunnel we had been in was the Chunnel until we came out on the other side and realized we were in France. It was cloudy and raining, but the rolling hills were picturesque.The ride was quick, and Sister and I soon stepped off the train at Gare du Nord. It was overwhelming. It smelled like urine, looked dirty, and everyone was moving in every direction. “Taxi? You need taxi?” said several different men guarding the door into our faces. No, no, no. We headed outside. There wasn’t any wifi, but we had planned, and I had screenshots of the map to get us to the hostel we were staying at. If the streets had street signs, they were hidden behind awnings or obscure on the side of buildings. Somehow, we found the street we needed to be on and started our nineteen minute walk. I had myself orientated, and Sister and I were walking along quietly and peacefully. They talk about our senses being able to perceive danger before we even realize it, and when one of the two men walking ahead of just suddenly stopped, I got that feeling, but couldn’t place it. He began walking next to Sister and talking to us in French. Without even looking at each other, I knew Sister and I were in agreement—silence, eyes straight ahead. With our no reply, he asked in Spanish if we spoke Spanish. No reply. “OH, English? Yes, English.” He had a slimy smile and my heart was beating so fast. We kept walking together, him laughing. We had no escape, the road was full of traffic. When I was almost in full panic mode (but not showing it on my face of course), he said, “Call the police.” and laughed. If we were in a thriller movie, that would be the line the creepy killer would say before he lunged at you in the street and dragged you to his dungeon. Thankfully, he grabbed neither of us, and a second later, there was a green walk light, so I got Sister to peel off with me across the street. He didn’t follow. The street we needed to turn onto had already passed, but I wasn’t going to stop on the street when the light was red and just be standing there, stuck, with those men. We got back on course, and the rest of the walk was pretty pleasant.

The hostel was incredibly nice, and I’m kicking myself for not taking pictures. This was my first time to stay in a hostel, and I don’t think another could compare. We were in a room with eight girls. I got the top bunk and Sister was on the bottom. The room had one toilet, shower, and sink, and there was a whole community bathroom down the hall. The girls in our room were friendly enough, but we locked out stuff up quickly in the boxes under the bed and headed to our night tour of the city. The meeting point was far away, so I googled “nearest metro station” and one .7 miles away from the hostel popped up. The tour information said which stop was closest there, so we walked SO FAR to get on the metro, and we got off at their suggested stop. It was raining and hectic and we couldn’t find the right street. We were supposed to be at our tour 30 minutes early, and we didn’t get there until 1 minute before. Luckily, we made it on to the tour.

We drove through the main square in the double decker bus to get to the dock for our cruise around the river. The cruise was scenic, and the narration was a bit weird. The voices were of the river personified, and I learned how proud France is to be France. France literally loves France. After seeing the sights along the river, we had a few minutes before reboarding the bus, so Sister and I shared some surprisingly good chicken nuggets from a stand on the boardwalk.


The bus drove around the city and taught everyone about important history and landmarks. All I really cared about was the Eiffel Tower that loomed in the distance. Soon, I’d be standing on the most iconic landmark in the world. First I had to go through a bag check and security and then cram into an elevator, but then I was on top of the world. It was incredible to see the entire city and all the different aspects of it. The Tower itself is just unbelievable, and it has so many different parts and pieces. It’s much bigger from the inside! We spent time exploring the first and second level (which are both broken into 2 sub-levels) and then walked down approximately a million steps to head back to the bus. At the same time, the Eiffel Tower suddenly began to change colors. Because of the Eurocup that was happening (hence the giant soccer ball hanging in the middle), the Tower was lit up to represent different teams. We watched the spectacular light show from a distance before boarding the bus. Sister and I got on the Metro, and it turns out there was a stop right next to our hostel—thanks a lot, Google. When we got back to the hostel, everyone else was asleep or in bed, so we snuck in and used our phone flashlights to get clothes and toiletries to take to the bathroom. I fell asleep full of exhaustion and content.

DAY 2

Sister and I got lots of much needed rest and slept in. We took the metro to one of our Big Bus tour stops and got on. The plan was to see the city, visit the Louvre, and hit up the giant arch to watch the relighting of the flame. We got off at the Louvre stop and ate some pizza at a nearby restaurant. After that, we walked the block and found the entrance to the museum. The grand pyramid out front looked interesting, and I was surprised to find out that was the entrance. In hindsight, we should’ve bought the audio guide because all the signs were in French, so we couldn’t read any of them. Occasionally, they had English signs, so we understood the gist of the exhibits and what the art showed. I attempted to pose like the statues, and Sister tried to appreciate the ancient art. The Mona Lisa was proudly displayed in the middle of a room, but swarms of people surrounded it. Interesting to see in real life, but I thought the paintings that were larger than walls to be more impressive. We found and used the bathroom there—one single, large room hidden among the art. Neat!


By the time we left, it was pouring down rain outside. Sister and I walked confidently in the rain to our bus stop, and we headed off to the arch. Thankfully, the rain stopped. In between the bus stop and the arch, we stopped for lunch. Sister had a sandwich and I had some fruit, but we both got these delicious chocolate eclair-like treats. They were amazingly good, and we decided to get some on the way back. We watched the relighting ceremony (which seemed oddly unorganized, considering they do it everyday…) and then headed back to the cafe where we had bought dinner. We decided it’d be easiest to take the metro back, but as soon as we started walking towards the stop, it began to pour down rain. Suddenly, and hard! We waited under the edge of an umbrella at a restaurant patio until the walk light turned green, and then we sprinted to the metro station just across the street. We scrounged around for our tickets and headed through the turnstiles. Lots of people were hanging out in the station because of the rain, and a group of girls was right behind the turnstiles. When Sister went through next to me, one followed right behind her. I assumed they were trying to sneak through, but then she turned around. That was weird, I thought, as Sister frantically declared she couldn’t find her phone. It had been in her pocket. I turned around, and the girls were laughing. We couldn’t get back through. I pulled on the machine in an attempt to bring myself through, searching the floor and their eyes. “Those girls!” I told Sister, “They were right behind you!” We had no way to get back through. Suddenly, a different girl than the one who had followed Sister walked up to the turnstile and handed over Sister’s phone. Just like that. No words. It was bizarre, and I still don’t know if they were trying to pickpocket but failed when they realized we knew or if one friend had a good conscious or if Sister’s phone had simply fallen and they had picked it up.


We rode the metro back to the hostel and quickly got ready for an early night. We FaceTimed home and then tucked ourselves in. Unfortunately, even though it was 10pm, some of our roommates weren’t back and the others were still active in the room. I closed my eyes, but just couldn’t sleep with the lights on. I ended up staying up until around 2am, when the last group finally got back and went to sleep.

DAY 3

Sister and I’s train to Belgium left in the afternoon, so we planned to visit Notre Dame and the “love locks” bridge. Since we had to check out of our hotel, we took the metro over to the bus station and found a locker to place our bags. The Gare du Nord station is really confusing, but somehow we managed every time we went there. We grabbed some Nutella crepes for breakfast and eventually found our bus stop.


We hopped on our bus and rode over to the Louvre stop. From there, we walked back to the “love locks” bridge. A man on the bridge selling the locks wanted €10 for a small lock! I said no way, no how, I’ll take three small locks for €15, and we had a deal. Sister and I each did one as a cute gesture for our respective boyfriends (the key & the picture makes a fun souvenir) and then one for our family with the intention of giving a key to our little sister.

All locked up, we got back on the bus and headed for Notre Dame. Fun fact: I’ve never seen The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but our tour said it was supposed to center on the actual structure as the main character, not the hunchback. Either way, the architecture is stunning. I think Sister appreciated it more than I did; it just looks like another old building. We did see people getting wedding pictures taken, though, and that was neat!


After that, we needed to get to the train station, so we walked down a metro entrance… and found one that looked different than ones we’d seen in the past. First of all, there was a double decker metro train down there! We looked at the schedule and the map, but we couldn’t figure out where to go. A girl approached us and said, “Do you guys speak English?” She was so relieved to find out we did. She was from the US, but studying abroad in England and had just come to Paris for the weekend. She was trying to find Gare du Nord, too, to catch to the Eurostar! We discussed the map, but there was no way we could find to get there. Finally, a nice French gentleman who’d been listening in on us informed us we had to go down another level. YAY, down there the train map clearly showed the quick route to Gare du Nord, and we were on our way.

Earlier that morning, we had seen a news report that the train station in Belgium (where we were trying to go next) had been evacuated due to the finding of suspicious bags and terrorist threats. I called mama, and we agreed that if we could just change our tickets to go to Cologne, our next stop, that would be ideal. So Sister and I waited in line for one hundred million years, just to be told we were in the wrong line (even though the worker told us to get in that line…) so we waited in another line to be told the man couldn’t help us and that we just had to buy tickets outright to go to Cologne. The only tickets he had were very expensive first class, so I called mama to ask what to do. We looked at the kiosk, and it said there were tickets available, but wouldn’t let us purchase them. Mama said the computer let her book them, but never sent her an email confirmation, so we were not able to print them at the station. The best plan of action was to just take a train the next morning, so mama booked us another room at our hostel (a private one this time) and we headed back there for the night.

I couldn’t sleep—too stressed about making our early train and the money we wasted and the rest of our trip. Morning came, and we boarded our train off to Cologne.

Paris, France