It seems like everyone is blogging about the year gone by, so it’s only fitting that I follow suit and reflect on some of my best memories of 2005.
Since I was a sophomore at GWU, it has been a goal of mine to attend the London School of Economics. This goal was realized in late September 2004, when I left California to begin my MSc in Russian and Post-Soviet Studies in London. I can honestly say that my year at LSE has been one of the greatest I have experienced in my 23 years on this earth. Living in London was amazing, of course, but in particular I loved the multicultural environment of LSE. There are not many universities in the world that can top LSE in the number of foreign students on campus. Indeed, you almost forgot how horrible the food at the Bankside cafeteria was when sitting down at a table and debating politics with a Brit, Moroccan, Indian, Canadian, Jordanian, and fellow American. And having a bar with subsidised alcohol in the basement of your dorm? Well, let’s just say it made doing your laundry a lot more fun. The location of our Bankside dorm was also unbeatable: directly behind the Tate Modern and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on the River Thames, a short walk to Borough Market, and some great restaurants and pubs. So, even though the fire alarms at 3am were a constant annoyance, I really enjoyed living at Bankside.
Moving out day at Bankside
The other side of LSE, besides dorm life, was my academic program. Our RPSS group (with the addition of some friends from International Relations) became a really tight-knit bunch, and we enjoyed some great times together, from the pints inbetween classes, to the parties at Taline’s flat in Notting Hill and the BBQs on the roof of Olga’s apartment building overlooking the Thames and St. Paul’s Cathedral. And, of course, how could I fail to mention the numerous evenings spent at Churchill’s Arms, the Hillgate and Hobbit Pub, or the times we stuffed ourselves with scones and tea and laid in the grass at Kensington Gardens?
Some RPSS comrades in Covent Garden
So, to all of my friends who I met at LSE, thanks for a wonderful year…it really wouldn’t have been the same without all of you.
Another goal of mine, once reaching London, was to travel as much as possible without affecting my studies. Living in London, you literally have the world at your fingertips. I wasn’t sure when I would ever have this chance again, so I wanted to take advantage of all the low-cost airfares and accommodations throughout Europe (when else will you get to fly to Rome for $30!?) Luckily, the British academic year provides you with ample time off, including a five week spring break in March/April. Also, my boss at IT Services was really cool about letting me rearrange my work schedule, so I got some traveling in during the summer months. So, I expanded my list of countries I had previously traveled to (UK, Russia, and Mexico) to include France, Hungary, Belgium, Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Montenegro, Egypt, Italy, Ireland, and the Czech Republic. All of the countries were great, but I’ll expand on a few that I felt were particularly amazing:
Hungary: While Prague is a great city, and constantly touted as the darling of Central Europe, I think it is a bit overrated. Personally, if you have to choose between Budapest and Prague, I say go to Budapest! As a Cold War aficionado, I really enjoyed visiting Statue Park (full of old commie statues) and the House of Terror (former HQ of the secret police). In addition, I was lucky enough to experience some authentic Hungarian cooking and hospitality courtesy of Csaba and his mother, Kati.
Sunset on the Danube River
Goofing around in Statue Park
Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, and Montenegro: In April, Taline, Crystal, and I went to Dubrovnik, Croatia, a beautiful city which, only 14 years before, was the scene of massive shelling by Yugoslav artillery that destroyed many buildings withing the historic walled area. We went before the start of tourist season, and pretty much had the place to ourselves. The locals were incredibly friendly, and wanted to hear about how much you enjoyed their city, offer suggestions on the best places to eat, and talk about their relatives that lived “over there” in America.
Within the walled city of Dubrovnik. Excellent cafes and restaurants.
A big part of this trip, though, was the day Crystal and I spent wandering around Bosnia and Montenegro. Having studied the Balkans conflicts, and with a propensity for ignoring travel warnings from the State Department, Crystal and I decided to hop a decrepit bus to Trebinje, the nearest town across the Croatian-Bosnian border. After lying to to a Bosnian border guard, and passing a number of burned out houses, we finally arrived in Trebinje. Once we wandered around Trebinje for a few hours and decided there wasn’t much more to see, we hired a sketchy taxi to take us to Montenegro via a treacherous mountain road. Upon arriving in Montengro, we went down to the beach and climbed around some old fortress ruins with great views of the distant mountains and sat down to have a milkshake. We wanted to get back to Croatia for dinner, so we took a taxi to the border and walked the 100 metres of no man’s land, surrounded by signs warning us of landmines, until finally arriving in Croatia, much to the amusement of the two Croatian border guards who probably didn’t see very many American girls walking across the border. Yes, we befuddled many people that day, from Bosnian bus station attendants and taxi drivers to Montenegrin hairdressers and Croatian border guards. Building cross-cultural relations and promoting America, that’s what Crystal and I do best!
A relaxing moment in Montenegro, with a random dog that kept following us.
If you’re looking for a relaxing and inexpensive vacation by the sea, I highly recommend Croatia. Ever since I arrived back from my vacation there, I have been singing its praises (so much that the Croatian tourist board should hire me). And, surprise, surprise, CNN has reported that Croatia and Montenegro are on its list of “hot spots” for travel in 2006. Obviously, Anderson Cooper has been reading this blog.
Egypt: Well, what to say about Egypt…seeing the Pyramids was absolutely incredible, as was walking through tombs that are thousands of years old. Other highlights: Snorkeling in the Red Sea and trying not to hit cruise ships on the Nile after our boat driver handed over the controls to me. The only downside to Egypt? Constantly being harrassed by sketchy Egyptian men, and the need for a heavy police presence wherever you go.
Look Ma, I’m in Egypt, the country you desperately tried to convince me not to travel to!
The Red Sea
Beware! American tourist attempting to ride camel and take photos simultaneously
Ireland: Finally seeing the country that so many of my ancestors came from, and enjoying a pint of Guinness “from the source” at the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin. I think the most interesting part of my trip to Ireland was visiting Belfast in Northern Ireland and seeing the divided Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods with their political murals. Growing up, I often saw images of the fighting in Belfast on the news, but it was really hard to comprehend until I finally saw the city for myself.
Guinness for strength!
Loyalist mural in Belfast
So, overall, I must say that 2005 was an amazing year filled with living in the greatest city in the world, visiting some incredibly interesting countries, and meeting new people from all over the world. I don’t know what 2006 will bring, but I hope that the trend will continue somehow.