Thursday, December 24, 2015

December Highlights: So This Is Christmas

Fresh off my food coma, it was time for me to join Austria in the Christmas spirit. Since Thanksgiving is not a thing in Austria, the Christmas markets were already in full throttle. Countries like Germany, Austria, and Sweden are known for their Christmas markets, where one can purchase festive trinkets, overly salty or sweet fatty treats, and any type of hot alcoholic beverage you can imagine. Mulled wine (in German, Glühwein) is the main commodity, but any fruit juice, Austrian delicacy (Apfelstrudel), or combination thereof can also be found in Punsch (alcoholic) form. I made it my mission to try as many as possible. While I would say I was rather successful in (1) enjoying a wide variety of markets and their liquid offerings and (2) recruiting friends to join me in these explorations, I was not ready to bid farewell to the magical Christmas markets of 2015. Vienna is in its own echelon when it comes to capturing the Christmas spirit. I will let the Facebook albums do the talking.

This month was all about meeting up with old and new friends. The weather cooled and so did many of my students' motivation to speak English. No worries, my Christmas lesson did the trick for most classes. The first weekend, my dear German friend, Britta, visited me in Vienna. It was three days on Christmas markets and castles in Vienna and Bratislava - in my opinion, a perfect way to lean into Christmas. Other highlights included my main school's holiday party and the baking party at my mentor teacher's home in preparation for said holiday party.

For me, the greatest gift for this month is the time with family. I hope you all have a blessed Christmas with loved ones. And for the New Year, all the best from this American abroad. A German speaker, however, would wish you a guten Rutsch, or a good slip, into the New Year. 2015 was an incredibly exploratory year for me with ten new countries. 2016 will surely have a few new experiences in store, like the Vienna Half Marathon I'll be running in April.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
Matt :-)

Facebook album

December in Vienna

Friday, December 18, 2015

November Highlights: Gratitude for Time and Travel

As the weather chilled too quickly in October, November was certainly warmer than average. Christmas markets opened up less than a week following Halloween. The masses flocked to the markets, and the lines for mulled wine (Glühwein) mirrored the crowds waiting for stores to open on Black Friday. Despite the warmer temperatures, the spirit of Christmas is already present in Austria, especially with festive decorations and sounds at the markets and ugly sweater sales in every department store.

It felt like a sin to spend time inside with all the sunshine and warmer temperatures - a total fluke for November in Vienna. I took advantage of the opportunity to photograph Vienna's foliage, my favorite spots were Schönbrunn Palace and Belvedere Castle. I'll let my Facebook photos do some of the talking. Another interesting excursion included the Jewish Museum. In the first half of the twentieth century, Vienna was home to the third largest Jewish community in Europe. Today, the synagogues remain hidden behind the typical Viennese facades, as per the laws set in the early 1900s. In terms of the Holocaust, Austria did not admit any sort of fault until 1991 compared to Germany directly after World War II.

Daylight savings started to take effect as well. So as the sun starts to set by the fourth afternoon hour, some indoor activities were essential such as more café discoveries through tandem language exchanges. One Thursday evening, Austria Fulbright organized a celebration for its 65th anniversary. The USTA program is administrated by Austria Fulbright, and thus, I was able to join the party. Speeches and drinks were endless, making the event a good one. I even volunteered at the end and handed out goodie bags. It was a lovely evening to honor and hear the stories and successes of Austria Fulbright. 

Bringing my country count up to 41, I enjoyed a weekend of wonderful food and friendship in Sofia, Bulgaria. Full of history and unique traditions, Sofia is one of the oldest capitals in Europe, and ironically was never meant to serve as a capital city. My friend, Eva, showed me EVERYTHING in the city including malls, museums, the university, churches, government buildings, and cultural centers. There is a lot more to Bulgaria than its recent communist past - don't even get me started on the food, Bulgaria is a cheese-lover's paradise! If you like alcohol, Rakia will give you a run for your sobriety.

To round off November, I consider myself incredibly blessed to have spent Thanksgiving with loved ones....even though, the Christmas season in Austria was already in full swing. In light of the events in Paris earlier this month, my thoughts and prayers go out to all affected by such violent acts. I wish the world would see everyone as human. I can only express gratitude that I have many kind and loving people in my life who do think of others with this mentality, but my hope is that everyone can be so lucky. Vienna is still a very safe place to be - it is a two-hour flight to France, so I am not as close as most of my American loved ones originally thought. 

Happy Holidays!

Facebook albums:

November in Vienna

Sofia, Bulgaria

Saturday, December 12, 2015

October Highlights: Finding a New Gear

After my birthday, vacation mode had to be quickly switched out for work mode...which for some Americans in Austria still feels the same at times. I met my colleagues at the end of September but began teaching on Thursday, October 1st. Like any new job, the first few weeks had their challenges: learning names (an impossible feat with so many students), finding classrooms, and keeping my schedule straight. Besides what I'd consider to be a rather normal adjustment phase, I have felt very welcomed by my colleagues. (After my first day at one school, we all went out for drinks!)

In the classroom, it was quite entertaining to do my introductory lesson. I did it so much, I know the whole presentation like the back of my hand. Everyone got a few good laughs, especially when they had to ask a question to "34". The automatic question was "How old are you?", which sparked a rather offended reaction by me. The students' realization of how offensive their question was was priceless - and a fair example of my sense of humor I enjoy throwing into class. Other questions to the number were "How many push-ups can you do?", "How old is your younger brother?", "How old are your parents?", "How many sisters do you have?", and "How many countries have you visited?". The correct question: "What is your favorite number?"

The real challenge in class came with the transition from the fun introductory lessons to the regular lessons, which may involve some not-so-fascinating topics. Either way, I had fun figuring out how to demand respect and order in the classroom. Different levels and class sizes provide a wide range of surprises...

Outside of the classroom, I enjoyed some local city hikes, some volunteering opportunities with immigrants in Vienna, and meeting up with old and new friends. I've even joined a gym to combat any superfluous Schnitzel pounds and to keep my endorphins up as the weather has already turned for winter. Austria has really taught me to be grateful for blue skies and sunshine. 

In addition to my Vienna explorations, I spent a weekend in Berlin, after a two-year hiatus, and another in Wels at an AFS Arrival Camp with new exchange students in Austria. It was in the final week of October that I only had to work one day. (The amount of vacation days with this job is insane!) In this week, a day trip to Bratislava (Slovakia), another spent at Melk Abbey, and a Halloween Party concluded October with a bang. Dressed up as a runner, November wasn't the only thing coming in hot.

Facebook albums:

October in Vienna

Berlin, Fall 2015

Bratislava, Fall 2015

Melk Abbey, Lower Austria

Sunday, December 6, 2015

September Highlights: 40 Countries or Bust!

When I booked my flight home for May, I also bought a return flight for the end of August to guarantee some time to travel through Europe while the weather was still summery. The flights were the easy part of the plan because afterwards I needed to decide where I would go. I'll get to those details in a moment. 
Before getting to Vienna, I spent a few days in Krefeld, visiting friends from school and my host family. As always, it was a warm welcome and a nice transitional stay into German. However, before I could get too settled in, my flight to Austria shortly followed. My return flight to Linz was brief, as was my stay in the city limits. A friend and old colleague from Linz was extremely kind to drive me (and my too many things) to my apartment in Vienna. I got rather lucky with finding an apartment online (on Facebook) with everything on my wish list and a convenient location to both of my schools. It was a whirlwind, and I had everything unpacked by that evening.

The next few days, I laid low in Vienna. The registration process was significantly less stressful compared to Linz because I already had my visa and bank account set up from last year. All I had to do was tell Vienna where I moved to - it was a painless process. In the first few days, I met up with friends (some Austrians, some Americans), while exploring a bit of the next place I am to call home. A city hike (Stadtwanderweg) and several visits to the Naschmarkt (the main touristy market by Karlsplatz) added to the highlights prior to my much-anticipated trip.

So now it was time for me to embark to Northern Europe. Where exactly you ask? Two weeks making my way through the capital cities of Sweden, Finland, Estonia, and Latvia, was my plan to bring my country count up to 40 and to achieve my New Year's resolution for 2015. I could not have felt more fortunate for this time of connecting with new and old friends, and exploring countries (especially Sweden) that have topped my bucket list for years. I'll give a brief synopsis of each country, but I imagine you'll find the Facebook albums to be more exciting. And most importantly, I cannot express enough gratitude to those I met and/or helped me along the way.

Sweden (#37): I flew to and from Stockholm, Sweden, which book-ended my trip. I was extremely lucky with the six days I spent in Stockholm. My hosts, Nancy and Kaj, were a welcoming wealth of knowledge and hospitality. If I didn't see the sight by bike, I made my way there on foot, forever in awe of the balance of water, greenery, and people in the Scandinavian city of my dreams: everything was spectacular...and yes, the Swedes are a beautiful population. The touristy spots were nice, but Nancy took me to many other corners of the city, which showed a lot more than the typical image of Sweden. Some highlights included the Vasa Museum (a sunken ship that was lifted from Stockholm's harbor after being there for 333 years), the ABBA Museum, Drottningholm (one of the royal family's residences), and the dozens of miles biked around the city under the sun. My time spent with Swedes made these days all the more special, making me feel immediately welcome. If I have a favorite city in the world, Stockholm is now at the top of that list.

Finland (#38): After one day in Sweden, I was enthralled with what was to come. My friend from TCNJ, Nic, hosted me at his grandparents' home just outside of Turku (in western Finland). I cannot thank them enough for their generosity and willingness to show me around. As a Swedish-speaking Finn and fellow language nerd, I was immersed into Finnish life from the get-go. What does that involve? Hiking, water, and many trees! Finns have managed to center their culture and way of life around the very nature they are lucky to have. I loved every bit of it, especially the moose crossing signs. While I was thrown into the Swedish language (I'm glad I took that beginner Swedish class in Linz), we took a boat ride to the Archipelago, toured the cities of Turku and Helsinki, enjoyed a campfire in a hut, and of course, had many reflective discussions about language, culture, and international relations. It was very cool to learn so much from Nic and his family. To be honest, there was always an element of surprise because I didn't always know exactly what was being discussed between Nic and his grandparents - like I said, my Swedish is pretty rudimentary. From Turku, Nic accompanied me to Helsinki for the day. I spent one more night in Finland's capital before touring Seafortress Suomenlinnea (an old fort island that was run but the Swedes, Russians, and Finns, in different eras of its history) and taking the evening ferry to Tallinn, Estonia.

Estonia (#39): This pleasantly quaint country of 1.3 million people is full of history around each corner. The resilient Estonians have thrived since their independence from Soviet control in the early 90s. Tallinn is a precious city with adorable nooks and crannies that make the old town exciting to explore. I met some interesting people along the way, which made my day even more enlightening over a bowl of elk soup. My day concluded with a tour of a former Soviet prison that operated until the early 2000s as an Estonian prison. Cold and creepy can begin to describe the vibes of the prison, but the stories shared by the tour guide only got darker as the sun set. Our one-hour tour ended up being almost three, so I would say it was more than thorough and worthwhile! The next day, I was signed up for a tour that showed the scenic route from Tallinn, Estonia to Riga, Latvia. Our guide was so full of information, it was enriching yet exhausting...I loved it and it felt like I left no stone unturned in my first Baltic country.

Latvia (#40): The same informative tour delivered me to country number forty. I was happy and proud to share this achievement with my small tour group, and they agreed it would be worth a photo when we crossed the Estonian-Latvian border. The Baltic countries are remarkably flat, and only boast a few hills. The green landscape was still refreshing after so many cities. The majority of my time was spent in Riga, where I reconnected with an old friend from my exchange year in Krefeld - it was incredible how it felt like no time had passed at all. The weather definitely played in my favor (like 95% of the entire trip), and Laavanja provided a helpful perspective into Latvian society. The former Soviet influence was obvious with a large Russian population still present, but the city was quite versatile in my opinion. The old town was marvelous, but the central market stole the show - you can find anything there! Don't even get me started on the food and drinks, Riga has it down. 

After such a blessed time of travels and generous people, I felt like a new, overwhelmingly optimistic energy was pumped inside of me. I returned to Vienna and quickly met up with my fellow teaching assistants. It was also my last week before starting work. The explorations of Vienna continued, including a successful trip to IKEA and my birthday. I celebrated turning 25 with a city hike and with dinner at Vapianos, one of the average TA's favorite food establishments. Even though, I still felt pretty new to Vienna, September was a whirlwind welcome that is already making Austria's capital and Europe in general feel like home...and I'd like to give a special thank you to my friends and family abroad for reaching out from all over to acknowledge me (and cupcakes with candles over Skype from my parents definitely take the cake)!

Happy Fall!

Facebook albums:

Stockholm, Sweden

Turku & Helsinki, Finland

Tallinn, Estonia

Riga, Latvia

September in Vienna

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Nervous Traveler

Life has a funny way of repeating itself. Too quickly, summer concludes in the blink of an eye, and I find myself frantically packing all the last-minute necessities within the 50lb limit. It seems as if this is custom for me in the perennial cycle of my life: return home for a few months and then hop on a plane as autumn approaches to some faraway, European-inspired destination. Am I the repetitive one? Well, maybe...but I happen to follow the same strategy that has given me easier access to travel. 

There is a sense of comfort that comes with something you already know. This time, my destination is quite familiar: Vienna, Austria. But despite the familiarity, there is always a level of unknown that leaves me nervous at the beginning. You may consider me to be a seasoned traveller. Firstly, thanks for thinking so highly of me. Secondly, the whole story is often more timely and complicated than the report that reaches my blog. Where am I going with this, you ask? I'd like to admit that my travels can be filled with stress and least in the beginning.

This uneasy feeling that I often feel prior to departure can usually be chalked up to just nerves. Packing and the airport shuffle are routine and automatic. Rather, it's the human component that never gets easier. I'm blessed with loving family and friends, who usually express more excitement about my travels than I do. As my time at home winds down, that voice of doubt without fail asks me, "Why are you doing this again?" It's amazing how one thought can catapult into a flurry of doubt and negativity, which can last from a few moments to several days.

With this in mind, anything new lacks familiarity. Thus, it takes time to build up a certain level of consistency. When I arrive to a new location (especially when I move to somewhere new), dread and isolation tends to overwhelm me, along with many doubtful thoughts. Knowing the process quite well, I try to jump into my new surroundings with both feet as a way of distracting myself. That means, unpacking quickly, settling in, and touring the dwelling and area to locate the essentials. It's amazing that after a few days, Vienna became my new sense of normal, but nonetheless, the sense of worry can make it feel like it will be forever before I like the new place I call home. 

The first few days do prove crucial for me. Am I going to put myself out there, or stay in my isolated comfort zone? It's always funny that in retrospect, these feelings subside and the experience becomes worthwhile. As a natural planner and researcher, it can be a real trial of my faith and patience when I don't have all the cards in my hand. Traveling and living abroad has certainly taught me how to calm those initial gitters as well as how to manage with the hand I'm dealt. But I have yet to find a formula to cope with the unknown. I find that I can only try to know myself better, remain flexible, and most importantly, be open to whatever comes my way. I do get nervous and anxious, but that "negativity" drives my curiosity and questions. It's part of my rhythm for the time being, but I suppose I'm writing this to inform you that it's not usually as simple as it seems. 

It's hard for me to pinpoint exactly where this anxiety originates, but it's most likely a combination of the following factors: societal norms, a need for consistency, and fear of failure. School and society get it in our heads early on that there is a certain path to success: college, graduate school, entry-level position in the current lucrative field, and work your way up the ladder (oh yeah, and find someone to spend your life with and start a family somewhere in between.) Looking at everyone I know, this path was never so, I know many people (myself included) who diverted from this ideal and would still say their life has been successful but most importantly happy as well. I find happiness in consistency and predictability (I mean, it is in my nature as a swimmer, we go to one end of the pool and return to the starting point...and repeat hundreds of times). And as to my fear of failure, I am consistently reminded of how I am human. My life plan is still heavily under development, and when the shit hits the fan, I try to embrace the good story that results from the predicament...but like I already said, I'm human, at times, a nervous travelers, and I'm working on it. 

Traveling mercies,

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Home in the USA

I've been home for about a month now. It was nice to finally be home after so long. I did experience some reverse culture shock and for about the first week, I felt like a foreigner in my home country. My brain needed some time to unpack the old memories and revive my American habits. My struggles also served as a decent conversation starter with friends and family. It's always a treat to see them as it feels like time hasn't past at all.

My summer will most likely be jammed-packed with reunions and short trips, that's just the overly organized planner in me. But typical me, I'm already in Vermont working at Middlebury-Monterey Language Academy for another summer. That means I have to switch my brain back into German mode. Believe me, it doesn't happen as quickly as a light switch. 

If there is anything I've learned from this year, it is crucial to enjoy where you are and to stay in the moment. I know you've probably heard this already, but this was fundamental for me. In fact, it was almost a daily homework assignment for me. My year in Austria is already planned, but after that, I cannot say I'm certain what will come next. Life is not linear so why plan it to be like that? I hope to invite some spontaneity in Vienna, but I may fall back into old habits. 

I plan to continue updating this blog once I am back in Europe in September. I'd like to (with emphasis onpossibly) share more of my teaching experiences and impressions of Austria. Anyway, I thank you for following along and hope this summer is magical in your corner of the world. 

Liebe Grüße und bis bald
Matt :-)

Sunday, July 5, 2015

May: Hurry Up and Enjoy!

The amount of federal and Catholic holidays in Austria is overwhelming. I had three extended weekends and only one full week of school...and that's without having to taking a personal or sick day. With time running out in Linz, I set out with the goal to do something new or meet up with (a) friend(s) everyday. I figured I could push off my rest to June, and that's actually what happened. 

May was full of farewells and final visits. My roommate, Matthias, invited me to his family's farm in the Salzkammergut. He forgot to mention how amazing the whole area is. We explored a bit of the surrounding area before finally making the 500-meter ascent to his place. The pictures in the FB album, "Auf dem Hügel," can show you the weekend highlights better than I can with words. But it goes to show that I have had nothing but welcoming and hospitable experiences with the Austrians...even my landlords (Matthias' aunt and uncle) had us over for a farewell BBQ.

My last trip prior to my parents' visit was an extended weekend in Slovenia: Maribor and Ljubljana, the two largest cities. My Airbnb experience in Maribor was wonderful thanks my conversational and whimsical host. The city was quaint, but I loved it for that after so many people in Italy. In Ljubljana, I joined a larger group of teaching assistants. This comparatively tiny capital was just picturesque! But still, the city did have some spunk with the night scene and the varying architectural styles. Walking around these two cities, now at a transitional crossroads between the former Yugoslavia (communism, etc.) and the modern European Union, only proved to me how blessed this year has been. 

My last week of school was rather normal but also heavy on the farewells. In both schools, my colleagues and students were extremely generous and appreciative of my "enrichment" to their classes. One school had a farewell dinner for me; the other crew had a BBQ for me. To be honest, I would consider myself to be the lucky one.

May concluded rather quickly as I always had something on the docket. My parents in Austria a mere 36 hours after my last class. It was a joyous reunion to finally see my two biggest cheerleaders after almost nine months apart. I would say that their visit was a success. We visited Vienna, Linz, Krefeld and Cologne, Germany, as well as Roermond in the Netherlands. The Netherlands snuck my 2014-15 country count up to 11. Despite multiple crises to find adequate coffee, we toured a fair bit of where I will be living, where I was living, and where I lived during my high school exchange year. The people we met, especially Barbara and Claude, were beyond kind and hospitable, and I'm hopeful my parents got a glimpse of Europe's beauty. This concluded my 2014-15 stay in Europe. Although it was sad to bid farewell to Linz and new friends, I was more excited to see home and my friends and family. Plus, the fact that I have another year in Austria probably made things a tad easier.

Facebook albums

Auf dem Hügel - at Matthias' family home

Slovenia: Maribor and Ljubljana

Farewell to Linz/Marvelous May

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

April: Amazing Travels

My trip through Spain seems to have blurred the the end of March and the beginning of April together. Barcelona's flair was a wonderful start, but this Spanish major was in search of some Spanish, not so much the Catalonian side of life. I found that in Madrid. Sangria and tapas were staples in my diet there. The time in Madrid brought my studies to life. Finally, I saw the buildings and art styles that I spent four years studying. The Spanish was like I learned and practiced in class - it came back to me like riding a bike. From the Plaza Mayor to El Prado, it was my favorite stop in the trip. It was also nice to have the company of my friends, Mel and Charlotte - two British teaching assistants. 

With my Interrail pass, I also organized two day trips from Madrid. Toledo was a walk back in time. Segovia was like a fairy tale. My pass also brought me Valencia - my final stop. This was the "underdog" city in my itinerary, as in, I wasn't sure what to expect. Everything was perfect! This student city has a diverse range of things to do, from bull fighting and graffiti, to the classical touristy sights (i.e. Flamenco) and the beach. The Easter week processions were also unforgettable. I met a former CBYXer in my hostel which goes to show how small the world can really be. After Valencia, I had one more night in Barcelona and a layover in Zürich before I was officially back in Linz. I did my best to make the most of the time and wonderful weather, including a free walking tour and lunch in Zürich with my friend, Marco.

Each weekend in April was jam-packed. One weekend was spent in Vienna to scope out where my schools will be next year - my main school is in the 3rd district while my second school is in the 7th. Another weekend was spent in Linz with other Austrians and/or other teaching assistants doing my favorite pastimes in this Alpine country: hiking and baking. My last weekend, a solo trip to Italy and the Vatican City, rolled into May.

Italy was all that I had expected: wonderful sights, delicious food, warm people, hot-ass temperatures, and a million tourists. One unfortunate accessory to many tourists was the Selfie Stick. To save you my typical hour-long rant: in short, the inventor is probably very rich now, but oblivious tourists become even more annoying and obnoxious with a pole that enables them to take selfies (a self-portrait taken by the person). Perhaps I'm being a tad hypocritical, since I too was a tourist...

Rome and Florence were my two stops. Italy's capital city, Rome, was extraordinary. The cathedrals, especially the Vatican, were out of this world. I could have wandered for days since everything (i.e. street corner, statue, toilet, etc.) had some sort of historical significance. Florence, the capital of Tuscany, was architecturally beautiful in its own right. Again, it was very touristy, but I never wondered why. As the birthplace of the Renaissance, many influential people thrived here. I was fascinated to literally walk through history. However, I felt most in my element watching the sun set over the Tuscan hills from Piazza Michelangelo with gelato. My travel bug and appetite were both fully satisfied as rolled in directly to school on Tuesday morning.

Facebook albums

Hiking through Ebensee and Traunkirchen

Italy and Vatican City

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

March: Working towards Spain

January was slow; February was quick; but March was the blink of an eye. With flights and hostels in Spain booked for Easter break, I was already planning ahead to the other upcoming breaks in May. My weekends were more local in Linz with hikes and I continued with the usual week's activities: tandem, Swedish, sleep, Facebook, work etc. 

Two highlights in March were the Upper Austrian and Austrian National Language Competitions and the AFS pre-departure camp. For the language competitions, I served as an English Juror. These Austrian high school students were the cream of the crop! It was uplifting to observe students with a genuine passion for language. Some students even participated the switch competition, in which they had to go back and forth between English and a second foreign language, either French, Spanish, Italian, or Russian. For the AFS camp, I'm happy to volunteer with the organization that got me started on my international path when I can. This group of people is more like a family than a network, so the fun, jokes, and discussions were endless. After this weekend, I could say with confidence that I understand the Upper Austrian "Mundårt" dialect pretty well.

My advancing German would prove helpful as I got to Spain. Although I was traveling solo, it's almost always possible to meet people along the way. I met a Bavarian by the name, Andrea, with whom I explored a fair amount of Barcelona, my first stop in this multi-city tour. The whim of Gaudí sprinkled throughout the city was refreshing. And I was happy not to fall victim to Barcelona's high petty theft rates. The tapas were heavenly, the Sagrada Familia was surreal, and the tours and information were mind-blowing. One "alternative" tour in particular shifted my perspective on the infrastructure of virtually every city I can think of. Under the guide's motto, "Same shit, different toilet," he brought to light the not-so-bright side of cities where the poor are undermined. With that, I suggest that we try to understand another person's situation before jumping to conclusions. Think about it: can you really ever see the whole picture?

Facebook albums

Explorations around Linz and Salzburg

Spring in Spain (Easter break)

Monday, June 1, 2015

February: In Love with Turkey and Operation Thanksgiving

For those who know me, I'm sure you were quite concerned that it took me this long to add another country to my list (the most recent one prior to Turkey was Belgium in July 2013). I felt it was essential to get to know Austria's is after all where I've called home for the past year. My trips around Austria also served another purpose: to figure out whether I'd rather spend a second year in Linz or try a new part. With my application for extension as a U.S. Teaching Assistant complete, my travels shifted towards an international focus. (Spoiler alert: I received word in April that I was placed in Vienna, my top choice!)

I traveled to Turkey with my friend and fellow teaching assistant, MaryBeth. We booked our flights before Christmas at the unbelievable price of €95 ($102). Turkey proved to be a very affordable and exotic destination...a trip we named "Operation Thanksgiving." We spent 11 days touring Istanbul, Pamukkale, and Antalya. Istanbul was certainly a beautifully chaotic city - I had never been in a place with so many (loud) people. The mosques were incredible; the restaurants hosts and salesmen were ever so pushy to try and convince you to check out what they were selling; and the daily call to prayer around 6 am always came as a surprise.

Pamukkale was an interesting segment of the trip because it snowed in all of Turkey. It started in Istanbul when we left for Pamukkale and joined us for our 9-hour bus ride...the entire way which extended this already long bus ride by three hours. Fortunately, the madness calmed down once we got to Pamukkale. The tour was spectacular, and Pamukkale was unlike any other place I had ever seen in my life. The meaning of "Pamukkale" in Turkish describes it best: cotton castle. 

Antalya was our final stop before returning to Austria from Istanbul. This beach resort town (of over 1 million people) was sunny and a tad too windy. February was not the month to forget your winter jacket. The views were epic as the Taurus mountains stretched along the Mediterranean Sea. Albeit brisk, I did not waste any time and finally "reached" the Mediterranean...which meant putting my hand in the water for a hot second. From Antalya, I enjoyed a tour of Ancient Greek and Roman ruins in Perge, Aspendos, and Side. Turkey was certainly an unforgettable trip, especially with my co-traveler, MaryBeth. 

It was amazing that after almost two weeks in Turkey, it felt like the early sunsets of Linz were pushed back an hour or so. Finally, I could enjoy some more vitamin D! After Turkey, it took a week to get back to the normality of Austria with their quiet streets, organized transportation, and the concept of queueing. I also planned my travels for Easter break. You can either look back to my postponed from March to see where my next flight brought me, or I'll let you know in the next post. 

In the meantime, I hope you have been enjoying the photos. I'd like to remind you that a Facebook account is not necessary to view the FB albums. Enjoy!

Facebook albums 

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

January: A Wintery Mix of Homesickness and Joy

With the lack of sunlight in Linz, I was concerned that I would start suffering from a vitamin D deficiency. After settling into a relaxed Christmas break with my German host family, I was flown back to my "grown-up" life in Linz. I was trying to save money for some bigger trips I had planned, so more of my adventures were local. These involved museums, the botanical garden in Linz, two weekends in Freistadt with MaryBeth, and a snowy day trip to Bad Ischl. It was a great time for me to really appreciate Linz and Upper Austria...for which in hindsight I'm especially thankful since life got really busy in 2015.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

December: The Hype of Weihnachten

Christmas is a magical time in Austria. That means there are Christmas markets with malted drinks (especially Glühwein) and countless forms and combinations of Wurst (sausage) and dough. Despite the brutal cold, Austrians emit pure joy during this time, in part thanks to the warm alcohol, I think. My travels in December revolved around the markets: in Graz, Klagenfurt, Gmunden, Linz, Vienna, and Kleve in Germany. I can attest that these festivities keep you warm and full of Christmas spirit, even on the coldest and rainiest days.

I have shared this before, but just as a reminder: I did not return to the States but rather to Germany to celebrate with my German host family. It was a blissful reunion but the time was trying at times with homesickness and the realization that I had immersed myself more into Austrian culture than I initially believed. I guess the differences between Germany and Austria then became more obvious to me. Either way, it was an ideal way to conclude 2014 with one of my families.

Facebook albums

Thursday, May 21, 2015

November: Feeling at Home in Linz

As the weather in Linz really started to cool and the not so sunny days of wintery fog settled in, the excitement of life abroad started to dull slightly. My trick to conquering the boredom was to stay busy and made each day feel like an accomplishment. For me, it was this feeling of productivity that helped me to make Linz feel like home. 

My weekend trips and adventures found a new gear in Bratislava, Slovakia, and Zürich, Switzerland (where I visited my good friend, Marco, who also studied in Leipzig for a semester). But more importantly were the grand events which were celebrated in Linz: the Maturaball and my Austrian Thanksgiving dinner.

Each secondary school in Austria has a Maturaball (an Austrian prom which is celebrated during the wintertime leading up to graduation). It was a grand ball with formal Austrian dances, everyone dressed to the nines in formalwear, and several choreographed numbers by students and teachers. It seemed almost royally extravagant to me. It was the first time I felt officially a part of my schools...and things only got more interesting after the ball concluded at 2am and continued with an after party through the night. I called it a night at 5:30am, a new record for this old soul. 

Thanksgiving is usually a day where I can't help but miss home. In Austria, it's just another regular day, in fact, the Christmas markets were already in full swing in Linz. The Austro-American Society of Upper Austria organized a Thanksgiving feast with a live band and I participated in a skit that presented the history of the holiday for our non-American participants. It was a fest-filled evening with many servings and laughs. The following weekend I had a fancy time blending the intercultural customs when I visited a total of eight Christmas markets in Vienna and subsequently took part in a Thanksgiving dinner with my friend from NJ, Noemi.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

October: Alpine Beauty

My responsibilities in school had commenced and the weather in Austria was still cooperative. It was time to start admiring one of Austria's finest attractions: the Alps. A weekend in Innsbruck showcased why so many people love it here in Austria. The fresh air, landscapes, and outdoor adventure are each distinctly breathtaking. After our first payday, it was an opportune time to check out Dachstein, the highest mountain in Upper Austria. In fact, it marked the day I fell in love with the Salzkammergut - the southern mountainous region of Upper Austria where the Alps more or less begin. 

In addition to admiring the landscapes, hiking was a pastime that I gladly took up. The physical challenge of reaching new heights and relishing the views at the top are always worthwhile, or they end up being a good story when experience the challenges of hiking in the fog.

Lastly, I wasted no time in exploring some of the not-so-great secrets, hidden by the rolling hills: remnants of the Holocaust. Tours of Mauthausen concentration camp and the Limonistollen (WWII bunkers constructed by political and religious prisoners from Mauthausen) humbled my appreciation for social advancement in the last century, albeit there is some progress still to be made.

Monday, May 18, 2015

September: Explorations and Friendship

This was a brief month since I arrived in mid-September. The highlights were certainly the USTA orientation in Saalbach-Hinterglemm and my birthday. Orientation was a wonderful introduction to our role as teaching assistant as well as a hysterical time to get to know the other USTAs, who would become some of my closest friends and exploratory companions here. With a fresh excitement off of orientation, my birthday rolled in the day before we would officially start work. It was a splendid day with kind folk and spectacular views of Linz from Pöstlingberg. 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Home Stretch

Hi, y'all! 

I apologize again for another hiatus. I have a tendency to over schedule my life, and the past few months have been no exception. My time in Linz is nearing the end in about a week with a visit from my parents. It is a time of mixed emotions - I am ecstatic to see my loved ones and friends from home, but I'm sad to depart from where I've called home the last nine months. I have a lot to physically and mentally pack up.

This year, Linz has been home, but Europe has been my playground. This explorative time has brought me to a total of ten countries, including five new countries (in bold) that bring my lifetime country count to 36: Austria, Slovakia, Switzerland, Germany, Turkey, Spain, the Czech Republic, Italy, Vatican City, and Slovenia. 

However, my time in Europe is technically not yet up. I'm pleased to say that I will be back in September for another school year but this time in Vienna at two Gymnasiums (university-track high schools). I have a lot to look forward to in the upcoming months: a summer at home and Vermont as well as my eventual return to Europe. But for now, I'd like to complete a review of my stay in Austria with highlights from each month over the next few weeks. For the sake of time, I will do my best to be brief and will depend on my photos from Facebook. 

I hope you enjoy and thanks again for following!

Viele Grüße

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Musik im März

March has already been a busy month here in Linz. February concluded with a day at a thermal bath (Austrian spa) in Bad Hall. From indoor and outdoor pools to saunas and steam-rooms, it was a rejuvenating day. I know, life seems unbearably tough in Austria...

 Outdoor pools in Bad Hall

First of all, the weather has fortunately taken a turn towards spring. I can't put away my winter jacket just yet, but a sunny day can always be recipe for a wonderful day. I had my normal things to do, such as Swedish, tandem, and of course, teach the kids a more Americanized (vs. German/Austrianized) English, but there were also some new endeavors that I think are worth sharing.

Linz Center - it's starting to feel like spring!

On Thursday, my colleague, Helga, invited me to a classical concert at Brucknerhaus Concert Hall. The evening was titled: "Africa sings: a Selection from Afro-American Lyrics." It included works from the Harlem Renaissance. The concert got off to a slow start as the orchestra played so beautifully, it felt like a bedtime lullaby. The guest singer who came on after the intermission vocally carried the audience to a faraway African tribal concert. She was simply extraordinary the way she captivated the room. It felt like she sang forever, but then it seemed as though the performance had been five minutes long. Need I mention that she gave two encores?

Off to the Concert!

On Friday, I was given an invitation to serve on the English jury for the Austrian National Language Competition. This is an exciting honor to observe and help judge some of the best language students from all over Austria. Tomorrow (Monday, March 9) I will be on the jury for the Upper Austrian Language Competition. These competitions are spread out over two days: day 1 is the Switch Competition, in which students prepare an article in German and subsequently discuss the article with two native speakers (English and either Spanish, Italian, French, or Russian). Day 2 is the traditional single language competition with several elimination rounds. I am the moderator for the English finale this Tuesday...I'm both excited and anxious to see how things go - it will be intense, I'm sure.

This weekend I stayed in Linz. On Saturday, I had breakfast with my colleague, Gerhard, and his family. Their home was as lovely as them, and we enjoyed an adventurous, off-road stroll after the lavish meal with numerous spread and every form of bread possible. It was so welcoming, it was great to hang out with a family again.
Stroll in a Linz suburb

On Sunday (today), we had a "Brunch with the Oscars" with the Austro-American Society of Upper Austria. We had a full-spread brunch and then watch The Theory of Everything, the life story of Stephen Hawking. It was a fascinating film, and I, along with the two other teaching assistants, led the post-movie discussion.

Sunday was International Women's Day, so some people decorated the Pestsäule accordingly.

Sunday's sunset from St. Magdalena Church

Have a great week!
Mit freundlichen Grüßen

Friday, February 27, 2015

Final Fun Friday in February

February has almost come to an end, so I feel like it's time that I drop a quick line. Last Monday, MaryBeth and I returned safe and sound to Linz after a wonderfully unforgettable trip to Turkey, more specifically to Istanbul, Pamukkale, and Antalya. I have 2,500+ photos to make my way through before I can finalize a post about our trip, which we appropriately titled "Operation Thanksgiving." I have needed a few days to recover from such a on-the-go trip and to fall back into the old work rhythm. Part of that old rhythm involves the pesky, yet insatiable travel bug that gets my mind racing about where I could journey next. With Easter break only four weeks away, it seemed necessary to start making a plan of action...please keep reading to the end for that update.

Today, I started a new position as an English assistant at an elementary and middle school for a deaf and hard-of-hearing school in Linz. Nothing has changed with my other two schools; till the end of April, I will be at this third school every Friday. I had the opportunity to work with three highly-enthusiastic classes with students ranging from 9 to 15. Their energy levels were much higher than I'm used to working with from my typical students, aged 16 to 20. Some students called me Mr. American, which made me smile for sure. Their curiosity was heartwarming as they asked a variety of questions, ranging from about my relationship status to life in New Jersey and why do we have big yellow school buses in the States. Overall, students and teachers alike seemed excited to realize that the English they are learning can be used to speak with people who do not know German. The morning left me with a great first impression, and I'm looking forward to meeting some other classes next week...and wearing a microphone again.

With my adrenaline still pumping, I opted to cross a few things off my Linz Bucket List. I set the goal back in October that I wanted to at some point take each tram line in Linz to the last station. Starting from the center of Linz, I did that today for all three tram lines. Yes, I stopped at every tram stop (on lines 1, 2, & 3) in Linz today. It may not sound like everyone's cup of tea, but it was a wonderful chance to people watch and see other parts of Linz. Plus, it didn't cost me anything with my monthly bus ticket. It was a beautiful, clear and sunny day to uncover a few new, mostly residential corners of Linz. But unfortunately in each tram, I was surprised to see how many people had buried their faces in their phones. I know I have been guilty of this, but such a warm, sunny day does not come around all the time in Linz.

 SolarCity is at the end of the No. 2 tram line. Like the name suggests, this is a 
community in Linz that focuses strongly on then environment. 
I kid you not, every house or building had at least one solar panel.

My tram joyriding lasted for about 4 hours.

As I switched trams one last time to head back to Katzbach (where I live in Linz), I finally purchased a pastry at Knott Bäckerei (Bakery). It was a sweet treat, especially since my last name shares the same pronunciation [kuh-note]...but I forgot to ask for the family discount.

Now to my final update: my Easter break plans. Turkey was wonderful, but I felt like I was at a disadvantage since Turkish is a language that I do not understand. That language obstacle finally convinced me to pick the final contender for this upcoming destination. Trips to Bulgaria/Romania or Finland/Estonia/Latvia were strong considerations, but I ultimately decided to book a flight to No. 2 on my Country Bucket List: Barcelona, Spain. (If you're curious, Sweden is number one on the list.) My plans are still pretty open, but Barcelona and Madrid are top priorities. I cannot be happier about my decision because I will finally be able to put my Spanish major to the test since graduation...this should be interesting to see how "Germanized" my Spanish has become.

Happy weekend und schönen Februar noch!
LG (Liebe Grüße)

Friday, February 13, 2015

Föhniger Februar

Winter has arrived and made its presence known in Austria. I suppose we can all thank Punxsutawney Phil. The Austrians are now able to go about their typical winter activities, i.e. skiing, snowboarding, cross country skiing, and hiking with snowshoes. Snowmen don't seem to be all the rage at the moment, probably because the snow in Linz tends to melt away by late afternoon the same day. I've spent the first two weeks of February continuing to adjust to this alpine country's outdoor climate. That has mostly consisted of biking/slipping to school and doing my "keep warm" dance while waiting for the bus. In other words, it has been low key.

Last weekend, I volunteered at the AFS Upper Austria chapter's mid-stay camp in Linz. AFS is the high school exchange organization I did my exchange year with - this opportunity feels like it brought my time with AFS full circle. I have the fun job of interpreting German into English (and Spanish as well at times) for the students who didn't understand. The group of students and volunteers were great - we had three days of fun in small groups, group activities, and a nighttime hike lit by torches. It was nice to be adopted by another AFS chapter - I'm already signed up for the next camp in March. 

Subsequently on the Sunday, I went to an American Brunch that one of my colleagues invited me to at their apartment. Her husband is American, so it always nice to speak with another humorous native speaker of English...although in my colleague's defense, when we speak English, I forget she's Austrian. The pancakes and bacons reminded me of a Jersey diner.

Although winter won't be thawing for a while, I have started to get the feeling that I understand how the Austrians tick. I've been doing well with their dialect, and I've got their humor (sometimes lack thereof) down. My colleagues are a hoot, and they are enthused that I've started to take an interest in the Mühlviertel (Upper Austrian) dialect. In class, I learned that a portion of my students still don't know that I speak German...although I answer (in English) their questions which they ask in German. (One class was astonished that I could count to ten...I suppose they have low expectations for the American). Moreover, I do comment on the way it sounds when they speak German, and they find my impressions hysterical. Sometimes I wonder how classroom instruction can feel so much like a comedy skit. 

Another thing that I've needed no time adjusting to is the amount of breaks and extended weekends their school calendars have built in. It wasn't six weeks ago that I was in Germany celebrating Christmas. Winter break is now in full swing for Upper Austrian schools. Most Austrians use the week to ski. MaryBeth and I have decided to head to Turkey, stopping in Istanbul, Pamukkale, and Antalya. This is country number 32 for me, and my first new country since 2013. My Irish passport is getting its first stamp; this will be my first time on the Asian continent; and this is all happening on Friday, February the 13th. But no worries... Firstly, it's also pay day. And secondly, before this trip, I received a festive Mardi Gras package from my Aunt Nancy. 
(Vielen Dank, Aunt Nancy!) MaryBeth and I devoured the Kings Cake. The traditional goes whoever finds the Baby Jesus in the cake will have a year full of luck. Friday morning, MaryBeth found the baby in her breakfast slice, so I'll be sticking close to Ms. MaryBeth the Lucky! 

We took a two-hour train, a two-hour plane ride, and lastly a three-hour airport shuttle to reach our hostel. It's good to finally be in Turkey...let the adventure begin!

Liebe Grüße aus Istanbul