Across the Pond

A year in the other Cambridge


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Barcelona

This was my second time and second week in Barcelona; in 2011, Anne, Christine, Jason, and I spent a week there on our grand Eurotrip. Any fears that I may have gotten tired of the city were completely unfounded. I got to enjoy the amazing weather, revisit some of my favorite buildings, find some new ones, see the city from even more vantage points than last time, have some darn good food and coffee, and make a complete fool of myself trying to break out my rusty espanol.

I traveled with two of my classmates who are not camera fiends like me, which is good news because this post will (hopefully) load a bit more quickly than my other ones. I think it also helped that I had seen the city before, so I was a bit more calm about my phototaking instead of frantically trying to shoot everything. (Do I do that normally? Possibly.)

We took an early morning flight and arrived in Barcelona around noon. We rode the Aerobus, a bus service that runs from the airport to Placa de Catalunya, to the apartment we were staying at in L’Eixample, which is Catalan for “The Extension.” From what we learned from a tour guide, it was the planned enlargement of Barcelona in the 1800’s and early 1900’s, so all the blocks are nice and square and the streets are wide and generally well paved. I never really went into this area last time, but I would stay here again. We were about a 15 minute walk from Placa de Catalunya, and it felt safe and residential and was convenient to a couple supermarkets and cafes and stuff.

Since none of us had slept all that much the night before, we took it easy the first day. We had paella and a pizza for lunch at a restaurant down the street from our apartment, and then headed down to Placa de Catalunya and Las Ramblas. I don’t know if it’s just me, but Las Ramblas and La Boqueria seemed a little less bustling than they were last time. Maybe it’s not full-on tourist season yet, or we went at the wrong time of day. The fruit we got was disappointing too, which was a let-down since I was so excited to get amazing fruit again. I think we forewent dinner (I’m starting to regret not keeping a journal like I did last time…) and instead got some really nice cappuccinos, mini croissants, and melindros at Mistral, a cafe just off of Placa de la Universitat.

The next day, I woke up an hour and a half after my friends did–off to a really good start. This was our Gaudi day, so after another cappuccino, we were off to Passeig de Gracia to see Casa Batllo, which is possibly my favorite Gaudi work. I had forgotten how cheesy the narration for the guided tour is.

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still love this rooftop view, especially the egg -shaped rooftop ornaments!

still love this rooftop view, especially the egg -shaped rooftop ornaments!

first and only group pic on this trip!

first and only group pic on this trip!

We walked over to Casa Mila / La Pedrera but decided not to do the tour. Instead we went to a cafe called Moon, which had mediocre cappuccinos but a decent burger. Then it was off to Parc Guell!

Being that Parc Guell was built to be outside of the city, it is quite a trek to get there. I believe this was the (first) time my friend Steph wondered why she was doing more hiking than she did on her family hiking trip the weekend before. (BTW, may I just take a moment to say that I did not fully appreciate at the time how well you guys navigated, Jason, Christine, and Anne. I just followed you blindly like a lost sheep. THANK YOU!!)

totally worth it for the view

totally worth it for the view

It was probably like this last time too, but possibly we spent this time more often indoors? Anyways, every evening before the sun set, we just had the most spectacular lighting. This photo doesn’t do it justice.

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In the Parc Guell gift shop, we found a poster of Gaudi’s works and discovered that Casa Vicens a) looks like a lego house, and b) was kind of on our way to dinner! (Speaking of lego houses, cool song) So we did a detour…

Casa Vicens, AKA the lego house

Casa Vicens, AKA the lego house

before going to Origens for dinner! We had really good tapas here last time, so I brought my friends here again. (This is a theme; I totally piggybacked off of all of Anne’s hard work and amazing planning.)

I might be getting my days mixed up, but I think we then took the subway to Barceloneta, where I proceeded to get us all turned around and lost, almost going down Passeig de Colom toward La Rambla instead of heading toward the sea. We finally got to the beach but then had a devil of a time finding somewhere to get a drink. We wandered all the way down to the casino area, where we found a nice creperie that served sangria. We also found out that the subway stops running at 12:30 on weekdays. So we took a cab back to the apartment instead. (Had a funny conversation with our waitress when I asked her where we could call a cab. She responded “Where do you want to go?” and I hesitantly replied “Um… Our apartment?” before she laughed and said “No no, you can go anywhere and find a cab.”)

Friday was our first day trip, but we had picked an afternoon tour so had the day to wander first. We made sure to check out Satan’s Coffee Corner, which several people said had the best coffee in Barcelona. It’s a tiny window inside of a hipster stationery/trinket store and the coffee most certainly did not disappoint. We also happened across a contemporary art institute but just admired the building because we were off to Montserrat!

After a short explanatory tour, we had some free time to explore.

still really like these lamps

still really like these lamps

We spent a little time in the basilica, but there wasn’t enough time to take the funicular to the top of the mountain, so we decided to do one of the walks up to a small chapel instead. But then we took a wrong turn changed our minds and went out to the cross of St. Michael instead. It was quite a hike (so much for a lazy vacation), but the view was incredible. We could see Barcelona from about 70km to the northwest, and this–of the Montserrat monastery and the valley below. You can actually see the Pyrenees in the far distance if you squint and use your imagination. (Just kidding–although I don’t think it’s very clear in the photo; they’re just below the line of clouds)

amazing view from St. Michael's Cross

amazing view from St. Michael’s Cross

After we got back to Barcelona, we wandered into the University of Barcelona, which is a really neat Romanesque building.

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We had dinner at Les Quinze Nits in the Placa Reial, which was another repeat from last time. I can’t say enough good things about this place. The paella and sangria last time were so good, and I have been obsessed with the spinach cannelloni that Jason ordered for almost 2 years now. (We had it again. Did not disappoint.) Also tried the fideua and the patatas bravas, which were possibly the best that we had on the trip. Also really reasonably priced, especially considering it’s in a huge tourist location.

Then we headed back to the apartment for a night in, with some cheese and ham picked up from a charcuteria and a really tasty rioja that we picked up at a corner store for €4.50. We watched this music video channel we had found, that did an odd mix of pop, oldies, and random Spanish ballads.

All of Saturday we spent on Montjuic, which is probably most famous these days for its magic fountain, but was also the site of the 1992 Olympics and a World Fair. As you might expect, there are remnants from all the events that have occurred there, so we managed to see quite a few things on that mountain. We took the funicular up, which is connected to the subway so it all counted as one subway journey. Good deal and really convenient!

We decided to begin at the top of the mountain at Montjuic Castle. It’s an old castle which is now open to the public and free. Basically just looked like an old defensive fort, but the weather was beautiful and we got pretty good views of Barcelona and the Mediterranean.

Montjuic Castle moat and Barcelona from the southwest-ish

Montjuic Castle moat and Barcelona from the southwest-ish

Next we went to the Joan Miro museum. I’m not the hugest fan of Miro’s work, but I really liked how the museum was classified by times in his life so that walking through the galleries you could see how his art progressed and what events he was thinking about. This was one of the coolest pieces, and since we weren’t allowed to take photographs in the museum, I took this from the roof.

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Afterwards we walked through the Olympic stadium park (I don’t really know what the correct term for this is), which was pretty but for some reason not as impressive as I thought it would be. *shrug*

Our next stop was El Poble Espanyol, which was built for the World Fair (I think) to show off Spanish culture. It’s a town that is cobbled together from parts of towns all over Spain, so that it represents Spanish village life. Some of the reviews online had made it seem like a huge tourist trap, but it was really quiet when we went, and it was nice to walk around the little streets and alleyways and explore the shops.

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Belltower in El Poble Espanyol

We stayed in El Poble Espanyol until it was time to head to the magic fountain for the show. Because it’s still on winter hours, the show started at 7pm, which was while the sun was still out. I was a little disappointed by the lack of color, but it was still really amazing without it. We stayed for all of the shows, and as the sun was setting, we were able to see some really cool colors in both the sky and the water!

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Before leaving Placa Espanyol, we checked out the mall that’s in the old bullfighting ring (I can’t remember the name of it…). We took the elevator to the top, which was pretty neat if a bit nerve-wracking. Then we got tapas somewhere close to our apartment before calling it a night 🙂

On Sunday we explored the Gothic Quarter, which is the old old part of the city. Last time I really wanted to come here just to see the bridge over Carrer del Bisbe, but this time I had done a bit more research (i.e. read all the things Anne, Christine, and Jason had looked up for our last trip…). On our way to the Palau de la Musica Catalana, we saw some castellers doing a performance!

Can you believe how little those kids on top are??

Can you believe how little those kids on top are??

We derailed our plans for a bit to watch them. So crazy!

Anyways, afterwards we continued on to the Palau de la Musica Catalana, which is a really intricate building. It’s a modernist building but not by Gaudi. The architect is Lluis Domenech i Montaner, who was apparently much more popular at the time and was also a politician in favor of Catalan independence. The music hall was designed to be a monument of Catalan music and was an incredibly intricate building.

sun stained glass on the ceiling

sun stained glass on the ceiling

view from the balcony

view from the balcony

The acoustics in here were amazing. Our tour guide played a short recording on the organ… I don’t know if I’ve ever heard anything that clearly in a music hall before. Also, tons of natural light that just complements the architecture really well.

the outside of the building featuring St. George, the patron saint of Catalunya

the outside of the building featuring St. George, the patron saint of Catalunya

Aaaand, that’s apparently the last photo I took that day, so the rest of this I’ll have to do by memory… we tried a couple places for churros y chocolate, but they were kind of disappointing. The churros were pretty good at the first place, but the chocolate wasn’t, and then the second place was just okay. I should have figured out where we went last time… We also just wandered around a bit getting lost in the alleyways of the Gothic Quarter. Saw the Barcelona Cathedral and went through the Museum of the History of the City, which is free on Sunday afternoons! I think we then meandered our way down to the Barceloneta beach, and I led us down the wrong way through a sketchier part of the neighborhood… but we got out okay! The sun was starting to set, so we grabbed a drink at one of their beach bars, which I think are called chiringuitos? When it started to get cold, we went to a restaurant for some tapas, fideua, and a tropical sangria that was more like a fruit smoothie than anything else. Afterwards I think we just headed back to the apartment and opened up the other bottle of really cheap but rather good rioja.

The next day was Sagrada Familia day. The line was long when we got there but luckily moved pretty quickly, so we didn’t actually have to wait a long time. It was pretty neat to see it again; there were some differences in the past 2 years. They opened up the area behind the main altar, and either the basement exhibit is new or I just completely missed it last time. Also, I liked the Passion entrance a lot more this time.

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I also told my friends to go up the tower, while I stayed safely on the ground. They came back and told me that they understood why I didn’t want to go up again… I guess I blocked out how terrifying it is, since all I remembered was that I didn’t want to go back up again. Sorry guys!

The original plan was to go up to Tibidabo afterwards and get dinner up there, but I didn’t plan this very well and apparently all public transportation up to Tibidabo doesn’t run on weekdays during winter hours, which it still was. So instead we found something to eat near Sagrada Familia. We ended up going to a tapas place that made really good croquettes in different flavors. Afterwards we walked to another subway station, which was actually a really nice walk through I guess a more residential part of Barcelona. We found a horchata shop so stopped to get a cup to share. They apparently make it out of tiger nuts in Spain. What tiger nuts are I have no idea… but I think I prefer the rice version from Mexico.

Trying to remember what we did… I think possibly we just the subway back to Placa Catalunya. Brought my friends to the fountain that you’re supposed to drink from so that you return to Barcelona one day, and then we wandered a bit around El Raval. We found Cafe Granja Viader (I think granja means milk bar?) that had some pretty good reviews, where they pretty much specialize in all things dairy. The specialty seemed to be this cheese (or something?) called mató, which kind of had the consistency of soft tofu but had a bit of a skin to it. My friend and I shared one with honey and walnuts and then a flan with mató, and my other friend got a lemon cake. It was pretty good but just a bit too much dairy… I think we would have been okay with about half that amount, which is too bad because I think that kind of soured (har har) my view on it.

Anyways, after that we were all too full for dinner, so we just went back to the apartment and vegged out, planning an early night because we were going on a day trip the next day. And then we found out about the Boston bombing and I ended up staying up reading way too many uninformative articles and being relieved every time someone told me they were okay. But in the interest of keeping this happy and hopefully finishing before I reach the 3000 word mark, the next day we were off on a cava and Sitges day tour!

(Okay, a quick whine: in addition to not sleeping much, this was also my WORST coffee day on this trip. I don’t think I had a single cup of good coffee, and I had a lot of them 😦 )

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First to the cava winery, which was actually different from the one we went to last time, but sounds like it’s a pretty big one as well. The tour was pretty similar to the last time, and we enjoyed some cava at around 11am, haha. We also bought a bottle to have in the evening!

Then we were off to Sitges, a beach town close to Barcelona. I kept thinking it was part of the Costa Brava, but it looks like that is untrue. It was a pretty cute, quiet town, and apparently is where Bacardi (of the rum company) was originally from. Apparently it’s a pretty crazy party town, but we didn’t really see it since we were there in the middle of the day. Had some pretty good Catalan chicken though… can’t remember what it’s called.

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We got back to Barcelona around 3pm, and we headed straight to Satan’s Coffee Corner for a coffee and to pick up some beans to ship home to my dad. I hadn’t really planned anything to do for the rest of the afternoon, but my friend suggested exploring the area further out north/northwest-ish of where we were staying, so we went walking! It was really neat to see a more residential side of Barcelona instead of the spots that are full of tourists, but for some reason or other we ran into so many smokers (or maybe I was just particularly sensitive to it that day). We did see some pretty neat streets, a square with a lot of kids playing, and a quiet market with lots of fresh produce that wasn’t as kitschy as La Boqueria.

For our last dinner (!) in Barcelona, we went to Moritz Brewery. So if I remember correctly… it was the first brewery in Barcelona, opened by some guys from Germany, at this location, which was pretty close to the Universitat. It was shut down at some point, but then fairly recently, the name was bought by a larger company which then began brewing beer again and also renovated the brewery location into an complex with restaurants and probably a factory tour. The food was a funny/surprising mix of Spanish and German, but it was all really good. We tried some of their beers too–also good. We left in a bit of a rush because we were trying to make it back before the supermarket closed, so that we could pick up some supplies for our exciting night in with cava (turns out semisec is really quite sweet) and youtube videos!

Since our flight the next day wasn’t until 10pm, we still had lots of time to chill. We went to Placa Catalunya again and hunted for postcards, then I dragged my friends back to Passeig de Gracia so I could try to take a photo of the Row of Discord like the one I had seen on a postcard:

eh.... close but not quite

eh…. close but not quite

Afterwards, we went back to Quinze Nits for one last sangria, spinach cannelloni, and patatas bravas. Then we strolled back to our apartment and got ready to go to the airport! Turns out leaving postcards until the last minute is a bad idea. There are no postboxes inside the terminal! Luckily we found a really nice lady working at the cafe and I asked her to post them for us in the most horrifically broken Spanish ever. (But I got a postcard today, so she did manage to mail them correctly!) The flight back was possibly the worst flight I had ever been on and has thoroughly convinced me that I never want to take Ryanair again. But I’m so glad I got to spend another week in Barcelona and was sad to leave. And to end on a happy note, one last photo!

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Boston

I don’t usually post about serious topics, nor do I really feel qualified to offer any social commentary, but the bombing in Boston on Marathon Monday has been on my mind, and as this is an expat experience, I’ll attempt to document my feelings and thoughts here.

I was in Barcelona this Monday, on vacation with two of my classmates. My friends were looking at the news that night, and when I got out of the shower, they asked me, “Ana, what time is it in Boston?” and followed up with “There was a bombing at the marathon.” I had no idea that it was Marathon Monday. Patriots Day was such a big deal at MIT because we always had a 4-day weekend, but it wasn’t a holiday at work so it had fallen off my radar a bit over the past couple years.

I immediately booted up my computer so that I could check my e-mail and make sure everyone I knew was okay. I was so frustrated when my calls on Skype wouldn’t connect and tried to convince myself that if something had happened, someone would have tried to tell me already. No news is good news. I have never been so thankful for social media, being able to chat with people online to hear that they and others are safe, to see Facebook statuses and know that they were unharmed. Also, for once so glad and relieved that a friend is always even later than I think he will be, because he hadn’t quite made it to the finish line yet to watch the runners that afternoon.

I don’t know if being abroad has been a good thing or a bad thing. I am grateful that I am safe and, ashamed though I am to admit it, removed enough that I can sleep okay at night and possibly think about other things during the day. But I still feel angry and sad and it’s frustrating to be somewhere where people are detached. I mean, I guess rightly so. I can’t say I wouldn’t react the same way in their place, so it’s probably unfair of me to judge. But watching BBC almost made me sick. One reporter was interviewing someone who had witnessed the explosion, and when the man mentioned that he smelled the same chemical before, followed up with “So is this the type of bomb that would maximize damage?” Another commentator said, “It’s too early to tell who did this, … but it could very well be an act of domestic terrorism.” I had to plug in my headphones and found a live streaming from NBC instead.

On the other hand, being on vacation in a city that doesn’t speak English made it easier for me to filter out news that I didn’t want to see. After the initial reports of the attack, what I read was news of marathoners finishing the race and continuing to run to MGH to donate blood; Bostonians opening up their homes to marathon runners needing a place to stay; Google’s People Finder page so that people could find their loved ones; photos of the bomb exploding where you can see first responders already running to help. Now I read about the police questioning and apartment search of a Saudi national who witnessed the attack and offered to help or the sensationalist misreporting of number of victims and who was responsible, but I was glad to be ignorant for the past couple days.

A post I read that really stuck with me was one by someone who had gone to college in Boston. He said, we may not be from Boston, but we are of Boston. From the solidarity runs being organized in other cities, to the cartoon where a dad tells his son, “We are Yankees fans, but today we root for Boston,” these tributes from Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, to this rendition of the National Anthem… all I can say is that I am proud to be an American and proud to be of Boston.


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Slovenia

In the interest of keeping up with holiday posts (and possibly procrastinating my paper for just a little while longer…), I visited Slovenia last week! This was my first time in Eastern Europe, and I actually didn’t know where Slovenia was until the night before I left. I got it confused with Slovakia… whoops.

Anyways, Slovenia is a small, rooster-shaped country just north of the Balkan Peninsula, sandwiched between Austria to the north and Croatia to the south, bordering Italy and Hungary and having a nominal coastline on the Adriatic Sea. Because of the location, most Slovenians speak multiple languages, usually at least Italian or Hungarian depending on which region you’re in. It’s got a really long history, going back to Neanderthal settlements that archaeologists continue to explore, and through the Roman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian empire, Yugoslavia, Socialist Yugoslavia, and the EU. But through it all, you kind of get the feeling that the Slovenes really won the Eastern European country lottery. Slovenia has been through wars, invasions, communism, and still seems unravaged, safe, and economically sound.

Perhaps because of this, Slovenia isn’t the most exciting country. Ljubljana (LOVE this name) is the capital and largest city at around 280,000 inhabitants. As its Wikipedia page says, Ljubljana is a “large town,” and the only one in Slovenia. If you google Slovenia, you’ll see some gorgeous photos, but it was cloudy/raining every day we were there, and what with the late spring that hasn’t quite arrived yet, it just didn’t look quite as spectacular as one would hope.

But anyways… Presernov Trg is the central square in Ljubljana, named after the Slovene national poet France Preseren. It has a statue of Preseren and his muse, and the most prominent building is the pink Franciscan church.

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We saw some kids doing the Harlem Shake, so maybe we’ll appear in the corner of some YouTube video or something.

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As is true of many European capitals, Ljubljana is built around a river, called the Ljubljanica.

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As a result, there are many bridges. The Triple Bridge (so named because it is in fact three bridges) is probably the main one, since it connects Preseren Square and the Town Hall.

count 'em.

count ’em.

Possibly my favorite thing about this city is that they love dragons. The Ljubljana dragon appears just about everywhere, from the heavily photographed Dragon Bridge to the manhole covers.

one of the dragon statues on Dragon Bridge

one of the dragon statues on Dragon Bridge

a dragon above Ljubljana Castle

a dragon above Ljubljana Castle

The story goes that Jason and the Argonauts defeated the dragon who lived in a lake near Ljubljana. Or that St. George defeated the dragon, as he is the patron saint of Ljubljana. Unsure.

The friend I was traveling with pretty much only wanted to come to Slovenia for one reason, and that was the town of Bled. It’s a popular tourist attraction as it is a picturesque mountain town and home to the only island in Slovenia–and also one of the 1,000 castles in the country. It is also famous for the Bled cream cake, but we’ll come to that later. We took a bus from Ljubljana that took around 1h20m, and then headed straight to the castle.

On our way up to the castle, we saw these fellas.

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After a roughly 15 min climb up the mountain, we saw this.

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The castle was still all decked out for Easter, so there were little ornaments hanging on the… shrubs?

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The castle was pretty small but well maintained and obviously ready for tourists. The best part was the view from the old bathroom window:

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And again from the courtyard outside:

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The castle was also home to a Gutenberg press replica, and the guy there showed us how to use it. Really cool!

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By the afternoon, the sun had burned through some of the clouds, so it got a bit brighter. We headed down to the town to try and get a boat to take us to the island.

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The pletna (traditional boat) captains wouldn’t take us because we didn’t have enough people, so we took a motorboat instead. The clouds cleared up a little bit so that we could see the Alps behind the castle and town.

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And then our last stop before leaving Bled was going to the Park Hotel to get the cream cake. So simple and delicious!

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When we got back to Ljubljana, we took the furnicular up to the Ljubljana Castle, which was redesigned to be a cultural center for the city.

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As you might expect, it offered spectacular views of the city.

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The next day, we had booked a Viator tour to the Postojna Cave and Predjama Castle. Postojna is part of the largest cave system in Europe, and Predjama is actually built into a cave/cliff face. We weren’t allowed to take photos inside of the caves, so here’s a shot of the entrance:

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The castle was just… crazy looking.

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They really lived in the cave and took advantage of “natural windows”

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And lastly, the food! (You didn’t think I had forgotten, did you?) Apparently there isn’t much that is traditional Slovenian food, but we did our best to find it. They like their sausages

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And eat some meat that we tend not to, like horse:

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We met some of my friend’s friends for dinner one night, and they had a good laugh about the horsemeat scare in the UK.

There are a lot of stews

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And pastas (this one is filled with potato)

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And also this barley dish that I cannot remember the name of

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Pretty much the one vegetarian thing is these cheese pasta rolls (on the left in the picture)

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And they like walnuts a lot. Especially in their desserts.

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The one thing I don’t have a photo of is the schnapps. Slovenians like their schnapps, which are around 40% ABV (whereas I think schnapps in the States tend to be around 20%), and they are often flavored with honey, pears, or tarragon. I didn’t love the tarragon, but they use it fairly often in other things too, so maybe that’s a distinctive Slovenian thing as well.

And lastly, photo from the plane window! If you look through the clouds, you can see the Alps!

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Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race

Every year around Easter, the Oxford (aka the Dark Blues) and Cambridge (aka the Light Blues) rowing teams race on the Thames in London. And it was this Sunday!

I decided pretty late on Saturday to go see it, and I didn’t realize there was construction on one of the train tracks, so I got to Hammersmith Bridge (about the halfway mark on the race) just in time to see the boats go by. There was about two seconds of excitement as the boats sped past, and then they were gone! It is amazing how quickly they go…

I didn’t get any pictures of the boats, but here’s a shot of the crowds at Furnivall Gardens, just to prove I was there 😛

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Oxford won, but it was fun to be there anyways! If you want, there is more info on the race and history and stuff at http://theboatrace.org/