From Pasties to Pierogi

This past week I had the pleasure of going on my first official “Rotary Trip.” For those of you not largely familiar with the Rotary Youth Exchange (RYE) program, each Rotary district gives its inbound exchange students the option of paying to go on structured excursions or “trips.” The trips can last anywhere from a weekend to a few weeks and range from the iconic multi-week “Eurotour” for European inbounds to the infamous Brazilian “Bikini Tour” where exchange students venture up and down the coast of Brazil experiencing its fantastic beaches. I just got back from a “Central Europa Tour” organized by the Rotary clubs of Warszawa, Poland for its inbound students.

During the tour, we traveled by van to Budapest, Vienna, Prague, Dresden and Berlin all over the course of a week. The van rides alone were something of an adventure as we quickly found out that a vehicle packed with five Brazilians, four Mexicans, three Poles, three Americans, two Taiwanese, one Frenchwoman, and one Canadian is not only filled with loud multilingual conversations, but is also prone to spontaneous seated dance parties as well as several a cappella renditions of “Ai Se Eu Te Pego” and “Hips Don’t Lie.”

On the first day of our trip we were fortunate to have beautiful sunny weather before being subsequently downpoured on for the rest of the week. But despite our rain-soaked clothes, our spirits remained sunny as we took in the spectacular and beautiful world of Old Town’s and Cathedrals that is Central Europe.

Budapest (which contrary to popular belief is pronounced Budapesht) is thoroughly adorable and inviting with brilliant displays of Hungarian embroidery and beautiful panoramic views of its two main districts, cleverly named Buda and Pest. Whilst ambling around the city, we stumbled upon the Budapest Marathon and cheered on participants. We were also subjected to a wealth of curious looks as we trooped around in our neon turquoise uniform polos.

In Vienna we toured the Habsburg Palace, which is seemingly dripping with class and luxury, especially when compared with Old Town’s quaint and simple elegance. That evening the pouring rain turned into a torrential thunderstorm, forcing us to take shelter in a Viennese bakery in which I developed a staggering addiction to European macaroons.

Prague proved to be as beautiful and magical as every social studies textbook and seasoned traveler claims and left me wishing I had at least a week to explore its gorgeous streets and appreciate its remarkable and entirely original architecture. I did not however fall in love with the food, which was almost always fried and was comprised of mostly meat, quite often smothered in a very salty white cheese sauce.

Dresden and Berlin were both wonderful in their own ways as Dresden offered an old-worldly and ethereal vibe to my perception of Germanic culture while Berlin proved to be a fascinating and tough urban jungle with a lingering shadow of the horrors of WWII and the Berlin Wall. The German History Museum in Berlin is truly one of the most fascinating I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. German chocolate remains my favorite.

When first asked by my host parents about which city on the tour was my favorite, I immediately said Prague; the history, the bridges, the architecture, etc. But in retrospect, I really can’t say which city is my favorite, because if these past seven weeks have taught me anything, it’s that first impressions rarely hold true meaning and that meaningful discovery takes time and patience. I can’t wait to see what other discoveries are in store.