Weekend 11: Florence, Italia Part II!

I finally finished going through the several hundred photos I took in Florence between all the homework I’ve had, but more on that later. Finally, Florence!!

The first night I got there (Friday) I was pretty exhausted after 4 hours of sleep and a day in Pisa, so I went to sleep early. This allowed me to then wake up early the next morning and start wandering around for a little while. First I went right down the street to see the Ponte Vecchio on the river Arno, a Medieval bridge in Florence.

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The covered pathways alongside the river, called the Corridoio Vasariano, were made for the Medici family (like everything else in Florence) so they didn’t have to walk with everyone else from the Pitti Palace to the Ufizi. And that sculpture building? That’s the Ufizi!

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Okay back to the bridge. It’s known for the silver and gold shops on it, which are now all touristy.

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Next, I wandered to the Palazzo Vecchio, looked at the sculptures outside, and then got a ticket to go in later that day.

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Then I walked back down to the river, but went in the opposite direction of the Ponte Vecchio towards Sainte Croce.

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I considered going inside, but the line was already kind of long, so after looking around I headed back, towards the Duomo.

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Then I met up with my friend Leon who I was staying with and I borrowed another SACI student’s museum pass so I could skip lines and get in places for free. First, we went to the Bargello, a sculpture museum. It’s home to some amazing work, including Donatello’s famous David.

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Next we went to see some markets, and passed the Palazzo Medici Riccardi. It was closed thanks to the holiday on Friday. Also a dollar bill-ding which we don’t really know what its deal is.

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We stopped to have lunch near Santa Maria Novella, and I had some amazing pasta.

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Then, we went inside, and I got to see Masaccio’s Holy Trinity, aka the birth of linear perspective! The cathedral is beautiful, too.

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We walked around and saw a few other things, like the oldest pharmacy in the city (it’s super fancy) and then I used my ticket for the Palazzo Vecchio.

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Sunday morning, my day started with the Ufizi! This was one of the things I was most excited to see in Florence. You can’t take photos inside, although there is a great view from the top where I took some photos. The art is, of course, incredible. I’ve seen Gothic art plenty of times before, but for some reason seeing it at the Ufizi was a completely different experience. And then there’s the Botticelli room. It really shocked me, not because the moment you walk in you are faced with Primavera and Birth of Venus, but because the Portinari Alterpiece was there, which I had no idea. I sat in front of it for a while, trying to figure out how many of me could fit in it. I’d say at least 15. I also almost had a panic attack because I realized I went through the entire Ufizi and missed the Venus of Urbino (I’m totally serious, I think I had a nightmare where that happened) and then I back-tracked through the museum against the flow of traffic until I found it unceremoniously placed in a hallway towards the end of the museum. Everyone was walking passed it, like it was nothing. I do not understand.

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After the Ufizi, I got a day pass for the Duomo.

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Except, since it was Sunday, the dome wasn’t open, and half the stuff the pass gets you into closed by 1:00. I had to make some decisions, so I decided to start off with climbing Giotto’s Tower, since the line was still short and I could get a great view of the city. It was super windy but the climb restored some faith in my deteriorating physical health. Going back down was actually way worse. Anyway, here are some amazing views!

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When I finally got back down, the cathedral was about to open and the line was already getting really long, so I decided to just join it since the museum and baptistery were about to close anyway.

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Similarly to the Pisa Cathedral, the Duomo (Santa Maria del Fiore) is incredibly decorated on the outside while being very minimal on the inside. Well, except for the dome of course. For those of you who are unfamiliar, the dome was designed by Brunelleschi and was a major architectural achievement, considered to be one of the first main events of the Renaissance. The inside of the dome is covered in a fresco started by Vasari (yeah that guy was all over everything in Florence).

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The baptistery was closed at this point, so I hung around outside for a bit, admiring Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise which always has a group of people in front of it. The real doors are in the museum, which was also closed. Also, that gigantic Medici crest is pretty impressive. I bet they’re all happily resting in their graves. Oh, I went to go see their tombs. I forgot to mention, it was something I did on Saturday. You aren’t allowed to take photographs in there so I forgot. See, this is why I am a photographer.

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After the Duomo, it was time for the one other thing I knew I absolutely HAD to do while in Florence… go to the Galleria Accademia and see Michelangelo’s David. You aren’t allowed to take photographs in there, but it was amazing. I honestly did not realize how big he is, even though the replica in front of the Palazzo Vecchio is the same size. He dominates the entire Galleria, and while the other works in the museum are nice, they don’t stand a chance. Sorry, guys.

After that, I had some more amazingly delicious cheap pizza. Seriously, the whole Italian pizza thing is no joke.

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Then, I went back to Santa Croce, only this time I went inside. It was awesome!!! It’s basically a giant, beautiful, indoor graveyard for famous Italians. Some of its notable inhabitants are Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, and Rossini, plus a giant monument to Dante (but he couldn’t be buried there because he was banished from the city). Oh, and it has a wooden ceiling. I don’t know why but this really surprised me.

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By the time I exited the basilica, the sun was setting and making everything orange and beautiful. Outside the basilica was this row of casts made from sculptures based on Dante’s and Virgil’s depictions of hell. They were pretty cool, especially in this setting!

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We crossed the river after taking a ton of sunset photos, and then went grocery shopping. And I got gelato, duh.

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That night we had a potluck with other SACI students which was one of the best meals I’ve had all semester. Oh do I miss home cooked meals. Eventually, I had to go to sleep, and then wake up early to take the bus back to Pisa to take my flight back to Paris. As soon as  I touched down, I got to go out into the freezing rain. Oh, Paris.

So, Italy was an amazing, packed, delicious, beautiful break from Paris. It was definitely an unusual way to start November, in the heat eating ice cream and walking around in capris and a t shirt. It was also my last break, as I have been working hard in the cold since then. The end of the semester is nigh! But more on that in another post. It’s almost 2AM and I’m really, really tired. I just needed to finally get this post done so I can catch up with everything else…

Weekend 10: Krakow, Poland!

Upon first arriving in France, there were several places I knew that I wanted to make time to see while I was in Europe for the semester. For whatever reason, Poland was not one that initially came to mind, although I had no reason to not want to go there. I think something about it seemed very distant, even though it’s much closer to Paris than, say, the distance between Philadelphia and Kansas City. I think it may subconsciously have something to do with the divide between Western and Eastern Europe, or maybe it’s just because I honestly don’t know that much about Poland. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t matter. When my friend from high school, Janka, invited me to come visit her in Krakow, I did not hesitate for a moment to take up her offer. It is not often that you get a tour of a city from someone who lives there and is fluent in the language! As the time drew nearer for me to leave for Poland, I became more and more excited. Whenever I mentioned the trip to someone, they always had great things to say about the country and how much they enjoyed it. I looked into the kinds of things Krakow has to offer, and found that I would have more than enough to see during my short day and a half there.

I left Friday afternoon with no trouble getting to the airport or on my flight with just a little carry-on suitcase. As I was landing in Krakow, I had an amazing aerial view of the city. I could see everything so clearly, and it was so refreshing to see something incredibly different from Paris. All of the buildings are evenly spaced, surrounded by trees, and often are repeated in groups. I tried to find a picture online that demonstrates this, but Google seems to have failed me.

Once at the airport, I got out some money from the ATM. The Polish currency is the złoty. $1 is about equivalent to 3 złoty, which you can imagine was quite a wonderful break from the disastrous euro-dollar conversion. I love how their paper money looks. They have neat illustrations of kings on them. After that, I met with Janka and we took the bus into the city. I immediately noticed how many parks there were, which are full of big, beautiful trees dropping many colorful leaves. It reminded me of home, and I realized I hadn’t seen trees like this since coming to Europe. Overall, the passing buildings and landscape were the homiest looking things I’d seen in a long time.

Once we got to Janka’s apartment, I dropped off my stuff, re-hydrated, and then we headed out to dinner at a vegetarian place. Janka is also a vegetarian! We walked there, since Krakow is a very walk-able city. On the way there, we passed through the center of the Old Town, which was filled with a traditional market. I swear there was a man singing “Guantanamera” (a traditional Cuban song) which I thought was strange, but Janka said it wouldn’t surprise her. The food was so great, one of the few and best vegetarian meals I’ve had since coming to Europe. By the time we were done eating it was dark out, but we spent the night walking around most the city while Janka pointed out different sites to me. We discovered a really amazing hand-made gift shop that I decided to come back to the next day. There was something for everyone I know in there! We also got some candied nuts at the traditional market, which were super yummy. After walking around for a while, we stopped in a cafe. I decided to try something new, which ended up being hot raspberry wine with vanilla ice cream and raspberries. I’ve never heard of anything like this but it was actually quite good. By the time we headed back to her apartment, it was late and a very thick fog filled the city. It was eerie, but I also really like fog.

Saturday morning we took it easy with a delicious breakfast consisting of one of my favorite things; peanut butter, bananas, and honey on toast, with tea. I hadn’t realized how long it had been since I’d eaten that combination. Then, we headed out to start off the day with some churches. The previous day, Janka had explained to me how Poles are still very Catholic, which is obvious if you go into any of the many churches. Unlike the churches in Paris, which have seats for prayer and candles you can light, but are otherwise rather visitor-oriented, these churches all made me feel very intrusive with my camera. They all had people in them, praying, and were either completely quiet or had organ music playing. Most of them also had nuns or laymen doing preparational things. For these reasons, I only took a few photographs in the churches. Still, they were absolutely stunning to see.

The first church we went to had a sermon going on in an adjacent room, so I put my camera in quiet mode but then forgot to change my other settings. As a result, all of these photos have some pretty bad camera shake but I’m posting them anyway.

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Outside this church was this interesting mural/sculpture thing:

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The second church we went in was incredibly ornate and beautiful. It’s probably one of my favorite churches I’ve ever been in! This was also the emptiest church we visited, and the organist was practicing, so I felt more free to snap away my camera without being disruptive.

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I thought this relief was pretty weird.

I thought this relief was pretty weird.

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Across from the church was a pretty little courtyard with sculptures in it.

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Next, we went into the courtyard of the oldest building of the Jagiellonian University, which is also the school Janka attends. This particular building now only functions as a museum. It was also the most touristy place I’d seen so far. It is very significant, though, being the oldest university in Poland, second oldest in Central Europe, and one of the oldest in the entire world. The courtyard had lots of sculptures in it, and a cat 🙂

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After that we headed back to the Old Town square, where we climbed the tower, which is the only remaining part of the original Town Hall. That tower has the steepest stairs I’ve ever had to climb!

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The view at the top was totally worth the climb. You can see the whole city stretch out around you.

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After the tower, we went to St. Mary’s Basilica, which houses the famous Veit Stoss Altarpiece.

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Right outside of the basilica are people dressed in various period costumes trying to make money. One of them came up behind me to try and scare me but was surprised when I didn’t even react. Take that!

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So, the inside is incredible. This was by far the most touristy of all the churches we went to. It was amazing seeing the altarpiece in person. Just one of the many things that I learned about, never dreaming I’d actually see it in person so soon, if ever. This particular altarpiece is special because it is the largest wooden altarpiece in the world. During WWII it was dismantled and taken by the Nazis to Germany, so it’s amazing that it was restored, recovered, and reassembled for people to see today.

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After the Basilica we headed over to the Wawel Castle! On the way we stopped at the church of Saints Peter and Paul. The inside seemed pretty plain after the past few churches I’d seen, and I actually liked the outside better than the inside.

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Some cool buildings leading up to the castle…

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Once we got there, we didn’t go inside because it was actually remodeled in the 20th century, so it’s not original to the structure. We walked around the perimeter and went inside a courtyard.

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The Castle also houses Poland’s only da Vinci painting, Lady with an Ermine. They are incredibly proud of it, and Janka says there’s a Polish movie where it gets stolen. It is displayed in its own room. It’s about the same size as the Mona Lisa. When we were looking at it, I saw no signage that said you couldn’t take a photograph of it, so I figured I would because why not? As soon as I did, the guards swarmed around me and were yelling at me in Polish, and I had to delete it. Of course you can’t take a photograph of the only da Vinci in Poland. So, here’s a Google image.

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After that whole ordeal, we walked around the rest of the castle, which offers a great view overlooking the river.

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We then walked down the hill to the river and passed the dragon statue. This statue has the ability to breath fire, though I didn’t see it in action. There’s a legend that a dragon used to live in the caves under the hill (which you can go in, if you want) and there’s a typical story of a guy slaying the dragon and winning the King’s daughter’s hand in marriage. The part I like is that his name was Skuba and he defeated the dragon by feeding it lamb stuffed with sulfur so that when the dragon ate it, he become so thirsty he drank from the river until he exploded. Classy.

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Our next destination was the historic Jewish district of Krakow, Kazimierz. There are hardly any Jews left in Krakow after WWII, so it has become more of a cultural place for the non-Jewish people of Krakow. There is basically just a lot of Jewish restaurants and it has become pretty touristy in recent years, mostly thanks to Schindler’s List having been shot there (more on that in a moment).

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I wanted to go see the museum that is housed in what used to be Oskar Schindler’s factory, but first we had a nice lunch in Kazimierz at a cafe Janka had eaten at once before. After we sat down, I noticed right next to us on the wall were stills from the movie Schindler’s List. I realized that they were showing scenes that had been shot right in the cafe. Then, for the entire meal tourist groups were going in and out of the cafe and we heard all about how it was the location for a 25 minute scene in the film. Since we had picked such a fortunate place to sit, we ended up being in a bajillion tourist photos of the photo wall. So, as neat as that is and everything, if you ever go there, that is the one place to not sit. Also during the entire meal I think I saw at least 3 different wedding portrait sessions going on in the cafe as well. It’s a pretty popular place. I ordered tomato soup which ended up having chicken in it. Who puts pieces of chicken in tomato soup??

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Before going to the factory, we stopped in a market to get this traditional food called zapiekanka, which is basically half a baguette topped with cheese and whatever other toppings you desire. We both got the vegetarian one, which was delicious.

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Janka with her zapiekanka

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A blurry photo of mine. Yum!

Their cute attempt at carving pumpkins :)

Their cute attempt at carving pumpkins 🙂

After all that food, we went to Oskar Schindler’s factory. It is now a museum that tells the history of Krakow’s involvement in WWII, starting with right before the German invasion and ending with the Soviet Union’s control after the end of WWII. It uses photographs, quotes, letters, and objects to immerse viewers in the time period. It’s a lot of information to absorb at once, but it’s incredibly interesting and educational. You really get a feel for what it was like to live in Krakow during WWII, both as a Jew and a non-Jewish citizen. Also, it’s probably one of the few places in the word that can get away with having a swastika-tiled floor.

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After the museum, it had been quite a long day. We went back to the Old Town hoping to get souvenirs at that awesome handmade shop, but sadly it was closed. I was really disappointed, but also should have known better. This is Europe, after all. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the hours here. I somewhat made up for it by getting a few things at the traditional market, and I also tried another traditional Polish food: fried sheep’s cheese with cranberry sauce. It was really, really good. We also stopped in this great chocolate store where you can watch the chocolate being made. I got some more gifts in there as well.

We went back to Janka’s apartment and decided to go full-circle with Schindler. Janka had never seen the film and I’d only seen it once several years ago, so despite how late it was, we watched the whole thing. It was really neat seeing it the same day I had just been to many of the locations in person, and I could compare the facts I’d learned at the museum to how the film portrayed the events.The next morning all I had time to do was get ready, go to the airport, and head back to Paris.

So, even though I was there for such a short time, as you can see I got to do quite a bit. I really, really enjoyed it and I definitely plan to go back some day to see not only Krakow, but more of Poland as well. I was surprised with how homey it was, and I’d like to see if more of the country is like that as well. I highly recommend that if you have the chance to go, take it! It will be so worth it. It also helps if you have a friend that’s a local to be your tour guide and translator, but not everyone is as lucky as me!

Weekend 7: Crossing Off My List

Saturday was completely a school work day for me. By the end of it I was pretty exhausted. I had dinner with friends at Miranda and Shelby’s apartment which was really fun. We were all still craving Mexican after Chipotle on Thursday, so we had a taco night. It was amaazingg. We hung out there for a while and eventually went out to Nuit Blanche, but didn’t see very much. It’s a big city-wide arts night that happens once a year. Apparently it is pretty big but maybe we weren’t in the right area.

Sunday I wanted to cross more things off of my super huge to-do list in Paris, so I got right to it and went to Les Invalides. This building was originally a war veteran retirement home, and now houses the military museum of the French Army, a few other museums, a chapel, and the burial sites for several important French war heroes.

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I didn’t go into any of the museums and I don’t know if I will, but it was nice just to walk around. Of course I loved the chapel, Saint-Louis-des-Invalides.

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Now one of the main attractions of Invalides is Napoleon’s burial site under the gold Baroque dome. I wasn’t sure how to get there from where I entered Invalides, but you can actually kind of see it through the windows at the end of the chapel. When I first got a good look I couldn’t believe what I saw because it looks just like the Baldacchino from St. Peter’s Basilica which is obviously in Italy, not Paris. For a second I doubted myself, but I definitely remembered learning it was in Italy. I looked it up later and it is supposed to be a direct influence, so I’m glad I wasn’t going crazy!

There didn’t seem to be a way to get to the other side from where I was, so I left for my next destination: the Musee Rodin.

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Being the first Sunday of the month, entrance was free, though I think I get in free anyway with my school ID. Still, it’s definitely nice going to museums on first Sundays when you can just wander in! There was a really long line to get into the Biron house, so I wandered the gardens first.

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They are installing some kind of stage, so this was my beautiful view from the other side of the garden:

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Also, in the part of the garden with The Thinker, they play this weird “music” that is basically a woman humming and vocalizing. It’s really eerie and at first I didn’t realize it was part of the museum. I wonder what the reasoning is behind it?

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As I walked around, I found that I really, really like Rodin. He found a way to capture such raw emotion in an equally raw form of sculpture. He turned a really cold material into something fluid and natural. And those hands and feet are huuugee! I tried to take close-ups to show how big they are, but you really have to see it in person.

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After the gardens I finally got in the line for the house. You have to wait a while because they only let in a certain amount of people at a time, which they monitor very closely. At least you have a pretty view while you wait!

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The house is pretty small, but it’s great to see his process and some of his more famous works in their original sizes. There are also some great views out of the second story windows.

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There is a special Camille Claudel exhibition going on in one of the rooms, but no photography was allowed. I really loved seeing her most well-known works in person as well. They were actually much larger than I expected. The Wave and Women Gossiping were really, really green in color, which is given no justice in photographic reproductions.

After all that walking I was starting to get tired, so I decided it was time for a break at the cafe in the garden. I got some ice cream and it was AMAZING. I’d love to go back and actually eat there some time, but man was that ice cream good. I got vanilla pecan and chocolate. If you ever find yourself at the Musee Rodin, make sure you get some!!

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Next I headed down the street to finish my exploration of Les Invalides, but this time to the dome were Napoleon is buried. I had to get a ticket to get in but it was free (yay!). Being a student in Paris really has its advantages. My student ID is magical.

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When you first walk in, there is a tomb to your right. This is not Napoleon. This is his older brother.

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Like pretty much every other building in Paris, you can spend a lot of time looking at the ceiling.

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The Baldacchino I was talking about earlier:

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This is Napoleon.

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What a guy.

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There are really beautiful gardens in front of the dome. They have tons of plants I’ve never even seen before.

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This looks like something that fell off a Muppet.

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So that was basically my Sunday! This week is going to be super crazy for me, because I have so much to do before Thursday, when Shelby and I take a night bus to Amsterdam!! We are spending Friday and Saturday in Amsterdam, then leaving early Sunday to spend the day in Brussels before heading back to Paris. We are soo lucky that Dov’s brother lives in Amsterdam and is gracious enough to let us sleep at his house! I am so excited, but first I have a lot of work to do… for some reason even though it’s the first week of October, I have to write three proposals for final projects/papers. And do research at two different libraries. And prepare another PowerPoint presentation. Ahhh!!