Saturday, November 26, 2016

Beautiful Barcelona

The last week of October into the first days of November my school had off for fall holidays.

I didn't want to be away the entire week, but one spontaneous morning I took a look on my favorite flight booking platform and before I had finished my tea a flight to Barcelona had been booked.

So from Saturday night to early Wednesday morning I found myself strolling through the streets of Barcelona, stocking up on warmth and sunshine before winter sets in, breathing in deep that fresh seaside air, eating good food, and generally just enjoying myself!

Every good trip includes chocolate waffles ;)

Since I was there on the weekend of All Saints Day I was lucky enough to catch a cultural program in the city which included the breathtaking Castell human tower building.

On my first full day there I went out for tapas and ended up meeting a group of Americans - who work in Munich! What are the odds?? We ended up spending the rest of the evening together and have met up once since we've all been back in Munich.

On my last day I had tickets to visit the La Sagrada Familia Cathedral. Now this here was the highlight of my entire trip! I could spend hours just surrounded by such beautiful architecture. It was simply stunning! I've never seen anything like it! It's certainly not to be missed on a trip to Barcelona...even if the ticket prices are a little steep. 

My trip to Barcelona was a solo adventure.  I always have mixed feelings about traveling alone.  On the one hand, it is nice to be able to do what I want, when I want and I did meet some other travelers. Alone time wandering through the city or sitting at the seaside can also be very relaxing and peaceful and a good time for self reflection.  But being alone also really stinks sometimes. Like when I would love to go for a nice dinner, but sitting alone in a restaurant just doesn't sound appealing in the least.  Or simply being able to share the experiences with another person and to make memories together.  Of course, I made plenty of my own memories, but at the end of the day I'm still definitely the ''travel with friends or family'' type. But given the choice between traveling alone and staying at home, you better believe I'd still be getting on that plane! 

Friday, November 4, 2016

Matryoshka Monday

This fall I have been teaching a Russian language and culture course to a mixed group of 1st through 4th graders on Monday afternoons.  Most of them are beginners so we are taking things slow, but one recent Monday we learned the numbers 1-10.  I taught the numbers within the context of the topic ''Matryoshka'' and the lesson culminated in the children having the chance to make their own set of paper matryoshka.  I found a wonderful template online, but also gave the children the option of creating their own unique design.  We had multiple sets of minion matryoshka, various animals, a football theme, and even a very colorful minecraft matryoshka.  While they were working on their dolls I turned on some Russian music and two of the girls couldn't stop dancing in their seats.

Just before the commencement of fall break each of the Monday afternoon courses held an exhibition of what they had learned since the beginning of the year.  I loved watching everyone take on their own role in setting up the classroom.Two boys went and found a step-stool and declared themselves in charge of hanging up the worksheets the class had done on former Soviet countries and the September 1st ''Day of Knowledge'' celebrations. The older girls took over the organization of the posters, delegating the cutting and gluing to the younger ones, while one of my shy girls decorated the board and two others were just happy to color pictures of matryoshka to decorate the room.  We also had Cheburashka cartoons projected and I wrote the names of the kids visiting our display in the Cyrillic alphabet.

Monday afternoons will continue to be one of my favorite times of the week.  When each teacher has the chance to take his or her passion and share it with young, curious minds.  Isn't that what learning should be all about?! 

Saturday, October 15, 2016

On Becoming a Teacher

Today's story isn't about my recent travels to far away lands. This story begins many years ago with a little brown-eyed girl growing up in the American Midwest.  A little girl who spent many of her carefree childhood days teaching her ''classroom'' full of younger siblings and cousins in her grandparents' basement.  A girl who admired her teachers, loved them, and regarded them as real-life super heroes. This is the story of a girl who grew up in a society where teachers are far too often overworked, underappreciated, and underpaid.  Where barely 18 year old kids feel the pressure to already know what they want to do with the rest of their lives.

And that girl, well if you didn't guess already, it's me.  And all I knew in those days of important college decisions was that I wanted to learn foreign languages and see the world and felt that politics, international relations, and foreign language studies was the way to that goal.  

So I set off to university, naive and optimistic. I poured myself into my studies and experienced success in my academic endeavors.  From representing Georgia in a Model UN to writing my senior thesis on the politics of a divided Ukraine, I shined bright within the sheltered environment of my university, yet found myself time and time again in a completely different role in the ''real world''.  I became a dedicated volunteer teacher of Russian to children in the community, a peer-instructor of a university course for first year students, and an English conversation partner for ELL students. I started out my year abroad as a nanny and English tutor in Germany and found myself spending more time in local schools, orphanages, and English clubs than at the university during my year abroad in Ukraine.  Sometime during that year it became entirely clear that a career in politics just wouldn't make me happy and didn't fit into the plans and dreams I had for my life.  Upon my return to the US I diligently finished off my bachelor's degree in International Studies and Russian Language and Culture, while all the time looking into what the next step might be.

And as life so beautifully has a way of doing, things fell into place exactly as they were meant to.  It took a few rejections and wrong turns, but I eventually ended up Munich - enrolled in the perfect teacher training program, living with the most wonderful host family, and learning and growing in the classroom of the world's most inspiring mentor teacher.  And 2 years and 4 months after the big move across the Atlantic, I met the 24 first and second graders who would fill my classroom in my first year of teaching at Jules Verne Campus.  Less than a week later I held my first Russian class at school.  Each week I get to teach one of my class's music lessons. I'm learning to let go and let the class become a bit chaotic as they discover the world in our Curiosology lessons.  And as someone who has always considered herself anything but artsy, I've surprised myself with how much fun I'm having teaching arts and crafts for two hours each week. The teachers and students at the school come from every corner of the world and you can hear the schoolyard buzzing with a colorful mix of languages. I have the best colleagues anyone could wish for and am surrounded by so much positive energy each and every day.

Since starting at the new school this fall I feel such a sense of contentment and peace.  And I'm so thankful for the journey that brought me here! 

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Tales from Tajikistan

Tajikistan - you were a surprise! Although you were trying at times, in the end the beauty of your nature stole our hearts.  I could have stayed weeks taking in those beautiful mountains and crystal clear lakes.  Here is what we discovered in our time there.


A relatively uninteresting city, but a nice place to stop if you don't want a whole day of traveling ahead of you when you leave Uzbekistan.  We enjoyed mountain views and walks along to the river and the luxury of the ''Khujand Deluxe Hotel''. In this part of the world the city really comes to life after the sun goes down, so we enjoyed walking in the parks, admiring the lit-up fountains which appeared to be choreographed to the music playing.  Some children who heard us speaking English even came up and talked to me. Well, they tried their best at least.  We only got as far as ''My name is'' and ''I am __ years old'' before the language barrier set in.  They were beaming with pride nonetheless.

Mountain view in Khujand
City view across the river

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Beautiful sunset

Home to the worst guest house we experienced while on our trip, but also our gateway to the most amazing trip into the mountains.  The 7 lakes region of Tajikistan is one of the most famous places in the country to go hiking, although getting up into and staying in the mountains is quite difficult if you haven't got a tent and your own set of wheels. Local tour providers know this, of course, and charge outrageous prices to arrange a mountain trip. But thanks to the friendly Tajik girl working at the guest house, we managed to get up into the mountains a bit more ''local style''.  She called around to some people she knows who regularly drive up into the mountains. Basically, they operate as a shared taxi, mostly bring people from the various mountain villages into the city to buy supplies.  On the way up the mountain there were 6 of us in the 5-seat car as well as a trunk full of everything from potatoes to panes of glass for windows and tied to the roof was a variety of lumber and door frames.  That was a light load compared to the 12 people who were inside that same car on the way back down the mountain. A little more than halfway to our destination we got a flat, but the driver assured us that this happened quite often (his 5th one in 2 months) and it was replaced in no time.  The driver took us to our home of teh family where we would be staying and we agreed on a time for him to pick us up and bring us back down to the city.  Honestly though, I could have stayed up in those beautiful mountains forever.

The very loaded car

Just a routine flat tire


Dushanbe and Lake Iskanderkul

We finished up our time in Tajikistan by visiting the capital city Dushanbe. One our way there we again took the shared taxi because again, no mini-buses. They of course wanted to give us the ''foreigners price'', but we sneakily asked the others how much they were paying for the journey and insisted that we pay the same price as everyone else.  It worked! Dushanbe is home to one of the world's tallest flagpoles.  The flag itself is 60 meters long!! Dushanbe was also our starting point for a day trip to the famous Lake Iskanderkul.  To get there we had to once again cross through what I came to call ''the tunnel of death''.  This mountain tunnel is nearly 1 kilometer long and has no lights or ventilation. Because most of the cars do not have filters on their exhaust pipes, it is so foggy from vehicle fumes that you can hardly see where you are going, yet people drive like mad, blindly and recklessly passing one another.  Although Lake Iskanderkul is one of Tajikistan's most famous natural wonders, the roads to get there are atrocious and the only transportation option is shared taxi. There is extremely basic Soviet-era accommodation at the lake, but a giant sign near the main roads proclaims plans to build a luxury hotel and resort.  We'll see if that happens or not.  At first glance there doesn't even seem to be a restaurant or cafe anywhere near the lake, but upon asking around we were directed over to a topchan and a little makeshift kitchen from which plov and tea magically appeared. Our game plan to get back to the main road and thus back to Dushanbe was to just stop a car heading away from the lake and ask to ride along.  It didn't take long before a jolly crew of three Tajik men offered to let us squeeze into the back of their small SUV. We quickly realized that this short journey would turn into one of the highlights of the entire trip.  They immediately popped open a beer and handed it to Mario and told him that he was a ''молодец'' for planning this trip around Central Asia. They also seemed to know/be related to the people in almost every car which we passed along the road, although one car load warranted a special stop.  Everyone got out of the car and meat, bread, and vodka magically appeared. Now, this may seem like your typical former Soviet scene, except that these friends/relatives that we met had long beards and traditional Muslim dress, yet they downed their teacup full of vodka nonetheless.  ''It's different here in Tajikistan,'' our new friends explained.  The men asked Mario if he would ''allow'' me to drink the vodka, but I told them I don't drink hard liqueur and luckily being a woman is a good enough excuse for that in Tajikistan. The bottle was emptied in record time and, a little bit wobbly, we were back on the road, only to be stopped by the police about 5 minutes later.  Being stopped by the police is quite a different ball game in Tajikistan to say the least and in this case the police didn't even talk to the driver, rather to the front passenger who seemed to be friends with the officer and just exchanged a few laughs and handshakes before sending us merrily on our way.  As we bid farewell to our new friends at the main road, I was once again reminded why we travel like we do, without the organized tours and fancy guides.  It's to meet completely average people like these men in the truck and to share, if even just for a short time, in a genuine piece of Tajik life. As we did yet again when our shared taxi back to Dushanbe stopped for a quick car wash from a simple family-run roadside car wash stand where they offered us tea and the littlest daughter just learning to walk entertained us all.

Our last day in Tajikistan we spent hanging out with a French guy from our hostel who was heading back home after a month in Afghanistan.  In fact, we met many travelers on our trip who had been traveling in Afghanistan and they all had amazing stories to tell.  We ended up all sharing a taxi to the airport together at 2 o'clock in the morning.  And of course it wouldn't be a trip in the former Soviet Union without a little bit of bribing, as the security officer wasn't going to let Mario bring our power bank on the flight otherwise.  We also met a very interesting Tajik-Australian at the airport who seemed more than happy to be headed back to Sydney after a few weeks of Tajik craziness.

Lake Iskanderkul

Topchan chillin

Lunch at the lake

The pride of Dushanbe

Kvas - Mario's favorite!

Tajikistan is a place where most people would never dream of going on vacation, but having been there, I would go back in a heartbeat.  Maybe once that Iskanderkul resort is finished, I'll head back ;)

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Tales from Uzbekistan

I'm happy to report that we are safe and sound and completely happy back in Munich! It was the trip of a lifetime, but goodness do I love living in Germany! I hope to fit in sharing tales of our journey here on the blog amidst the busy-ness of beginning my brand new exciting job on Monday.  So without further ado...Uzbekistan!

Once again the taxi drivers had the special foreigner price for us at the train station, but having been told by our train neighbors what the real price for the ride to Khiva from Urgench is, Mario struck a deal with his favorite line ''Двадцать тысяч или до свидания!'' When we arrived at our guesthouse in Khiva the wife showed us to our room and explained a bit about the city and how we could best get to Samarkand the next day.  She spoke in such a soft and delicate voice, but with nearly perfect English, as baby Zuleyha rested on her hip and stared at the newest arrivals with her big brown eyes. The guesthouse has two locations and we were staying at the one a bit outside the city.  Therefore, the guesthouse owners drive guests into the city and then guests can simply stop by the more central branch when they're ready to go home and catch a ride back out.  Our first impressions of Khiva - seeing those ancient colorful buildings under the golden light of the setting sun - really stunned us! Add to that a delicious dinner in a lovely restaurant and we had the perfect evening in Khiva.

Local bread

Just look at those colors!
The next morning we were up early to buy our tickets to Samarkand.  It took a little bit of elbowing (do you seriously think shoving your passports through the ticket window while she's already looking for tickets for us is going to accomplish anything?!) but we got our tickets.  The roads between Khiva and Samarkand are atrocious, leaving train the only viable option.  Unfortunately the train schedule is rather stupid inconvenient and has passengers leaving at 4 PM and arriving at 5 AM.  The train ride itself, however, was one of the best we had.  As usual we were the only foreigners in a train full of locals and had to answer all of the standard questions about who we are and what we are up to.  We sat by a woman who turned out to be an English teacher and her two young sons. The woman and I did word searches together from the book I had brought along for a little bit before Mario and I escaped to the restaurant wagon.  There we made friends with the restaurant workers who introduced us to Uzbek wine, gave us a discount because we are guests in the country, and offered to let us sleep in the restaurant wagon if our spots in platskart were too uncomfortable for us.  In the end we decided to return our beds since all of our stuff was there and, in the end, what could have been a miserable train trip turned into something quite enjoyable afterall.

Samarkand boasts somewhat similar ancient architecture to Khiva, but instead of being all within the ancient city walls, it is spread out a little bit more around the city.

Love the colorful tapchan

To be honest we had a bit more time in Samarkand than we needed, so we took a day trip up through the mountains over to Shakhrizabz. The claim to fame in Shakhrizabz is that it is the hometown of Timur, founder of the Timurid Empire and Uzbekistan's favorite hero. To be honest I found the whole thing a bit strange.  The ruins, mosques, and ancient buildings are impressive and worth seeing, but the entire area around it has been constructed into a meticulously landscaped park which is nearly completed abandoned save for the gardeners and a few foreign tourists.  The outer boundary of the area is lined with storefronts, which remain largely empty except for a few women selling cold drinks and ice cream.  Honestly it all felt just a bit too fake.  Apparently it wasn't always like this, according to our ''guide', but I'm not sure how long ago the government completed this massive project.  Speaking of our 'guide''.  In fact, he wasn't a guide at all, but rather just a random old man who happened upon us and decided that he would impart all of his knowledge about Timur and Shakhrisabz upon us.  He didn't always understand us and couldn't always get his point across in Russian, but we had a wonderful time together nonetheless.  It honestly made our day. He wrote down his address and asked us to send him copies of the photos we took together, but he was convinced that the KGB would call him in for questioning when he received mail from Germany. He assured us it would be fine though.  He would just tell them that he had had us in Uzbekistan as his guests to show off the beautiful country.  And as any good host, he made sure that we got safely back on the road to Samarkand.  I'm pretty sure that the price he had us pay for the minibus wasn't enough, but he told the driver that we're guests and it's rude to try to make money off of guests. The same was when he told off the people at the public toilets who asked for money only after we had used them, although they were in a public park and had no signage that indicated that they weren't for free.  In any case, he was a jolly little old man and I can't imagine our trip to Shakhrisabz without him.

Can't get enough of those mountains

In Shakhrisabz 

Our new friend

Having fun in the mnibus

Our taxi driver suggested this shot in the mountains

Back in Samarkand, we had one final night before heading off to Tashkent on a morning express train.  Tashkent is very Russified, but as they say ''столицу надо посмотреть'' (you have to see the capital).  And the hostel had a pool, so that was awesome.

Tashkent plov - the very best we had on the trip!

Hotel Uzbekistan.  All of the former Soviet capitals have such a hotel.  Once where all important guests stayed, most of these hotels are now falling into disrepair.

Hostel pool!

Sunset in Tashkent

Fountains, fountains everywhere!

In the morning we needed to go to Tajikistan, which meant a taxi to the border, border crossing by foot, and then another taxi to Khujand, our destination in Tajikistan.  The reason that there aren't any minibuses driving this route or a direct taxi to Khujand is that any Tajik vehicles entering Uzbekistan, as well as the other way around, are subject to absurd taxation.  If you didn't already guess, relationships between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan aren't the greatest.  Anyway, this taxi ride was the ultimate end to our Uzbekistan experience, as our driver quickly declared us his friends and guests in his country and stopped along the way to let us try homemade juice and special Uzbek ayran, as well as to take photos by the Tashmore.

Special ayran with salt and red pepper


When you enter and leave Uzbekistan you must fill out a lengthy and detailed customs forms and one of the stipulations is that you aren't allowed to take any currency out of the country which you didn't bring into the country.  Well, considering that the border crossing is in the middle of nowhere and we definitely needed Tajik Sumoni to pay for a taxi to Khujand, we had exchanged some euros for Sumoni with some other guests in our hostel in Tashkent.  We decided to put the Sumoni on my customs declaration and when the officer asked with a scowl where the money had come from, I put on my cutest smile and rattled off a sweet little story about the ohsokind new friends we made who just couldn't accept that we would enter Tajikistan without any local currency at all and insisted that we take it with us as a gift.  Seeing as it was only about $15 worth of Sumoni, they bought my story and sent us on our way.  As we were leaving the border post, some other western tourists (they turned out to be Canadians) we coming from Tajikistan and the border guard insisted that we get to know each other, ''since they're foreigners too, afterall'' ;)

Uzbekistan is a place that I have been dreaming of visiting ever since high school and I now know that it is somewhere I'd like to return to someday.