Thursday, January 14, 2016

Home at Last

Since I discovered this blog a few semesters ago, I've been a dedicated reader. I've read about all the Maryville students who post their study abroad adventures here, just as I'm doing. No matter where a person goes, though, one thing seems to inevitably happen to all of us: life. We get busy and, suddenly, the blog posts we used to easily be able to get up weekly suddenly become bi-weekly or, sometimes, just whenever we get a spare moment to type everything out. I've lost count of how many blog posts begin with "So I know I haven't posted in a while, but..." I'm guilty of this as well. And that is exactly how this blog post is going to start because I, just like most other students, get caught up in the whirlwind we call life and sometimes forget to sit back for a while and relax.

So I know I haven't posted in a while, but I've been super duper busy! As I said in my last post, I went to Helsinki on the first of January. My reason for this trip was to attend the World Junior Hockey Championships. As a hockey fan, this is something that was on my bucket list, so the fact that I actually got to attend was a dream come true. I'm a huge fan of Finnish ice hockey, so I was cheering for Finland at this tournament (it's a long and boring story, for the sake of everyone, just accept the fact that I cheer for Finland over my two homes, the USA and Sweden), and obviously, I was even more excited to be cheering for Finland on home ice. 

My seats for the bronze & goal medal games
To put it briefly, the tournament was the best time of my life. I had the opportunity to meet other hockey fans and to watch the biggest international hockey tournament in the world from inside the arena. I was on a constant emotional roller coaster, but I wouldn't change a single second of it. 

Especially because Finland won the entire tournament. In overtime. They had to beat Team Russia, which is never an easy task, but when the Finnish boys had a one goal lead with ten seconds left, I guess everyone started feeling like they'd pretty much secured that gold medal. So naturally Russia scores to tie the game with seven seconds left. I felt my heart fall out of my chest then and there. Overtime was unavoidable at this point, and the entire intermission period between the third period and overtime I sat in my seat on the verge of tears and my heart pounding with such force I could have sworn it was going to leap out of my chest. But not even a minute after overtime began, a hero emerged in a blue and white jersey. Kasperi Kapanen, a 19 year old kid who had been accused of not even deserving a spot on Finland's roster, tucked the puck behind the pads of Russia's goalie in a beautiful wrap-around goal. The entire arena went from a mass of anxiety-ridden cheers to deafeningly-loud celebratory chants in mere milliseconds.Here's a link to the goal and a few seconds of the celebration if you desire visuals/audio. In the video I just linked to, the Finnish commentator shouts "KASPERI KAPANEN ON SANKARI," which is Finnish for "Kasperi Kapanen is a hero," and nothing could be more true than that statement. On that night, Kasperi Kapanen united a nation, and I can't help but feel honoured that I was there to witness it. 

"Finland is world champions 2016"
It's just a shame that I had to leave so early the next morning. The city was having a celebration in honour of the boys' victory the night before, and I would be back in Stockholm by the time it began. There was so much temptation to buy a later flight, but in the end, I decided against it. It would have been fun, but the celebration was being held outside with temperatures in the negatives and I knew I needed to get back home to work on assignments before I left for Prague, which I was doing just a day and a half after getting back from Helsinki.

So I came home, worked like a madman (and finished all my work!), then left for Prague. My flight was actually to Krakow, Poland, and from there, I took a bus then a train to Prague, but before I got on the bus, I had some time to explore Krakow. I wasn't brave enough to get too far away from the central station, but I walked a few blocks around the old town, which was right beside the station, and it seems like a beautiful, magical city! It wasn't on my list of places to visit (rather, properly visit), but it sure is now. 

Prague though.

Bird' eye view of Prague
There are no words to describe Prague, Czech Republic. The city speaks for itself. The hype is lived up to. It was cold and wet and rainy and it still managed to blow me away. I can only imagine the beauty it boasts during the summer seasoning, when the sun shines down upon the city. Surely it is more beautiful than the pictures suggest. I went during one of the coldest, darkest months, and it was still more beautiful than any photo I've ever seen. 

Where do I even begin?? 

I suppose I'll begin by saying that I am incredibly thankful I spent my days in Prague with someone that speaks Czech. It's foolish of me to go everywhere in the world and assume that the people there will speak English, but I tend to do it anyway. Many of the people we interacted with while there spoke little to no English and the public transportation, for the most part, wasn't translated to English either. Štěpánka, my beloved Czech friend and constant interpreter, was an absolute godsend. She bought public transportation tickets for me, she ordered food for me, and she always made sure I got on and off at the right stops.

Shout out to Štěpánka, y'all.

The place we stayed was a cute, comfortable room we found on Airbnb. The owner of the apartment, Jitka, was really nice and gave us some maps and tourist information and recommended some of her favourite places to us. Despite being tired after a long day of travelling (I arrived around 10.30pm and had started my journey at 1.30am the same day with only 2 hours of sleep), meeting Jitka was a pleasure and I felt right at home even though I'd only just arrived.

Our first full day in Prague was mostly spent on a free walking tour Štěpánka had spotted in a guidebook. With it being a free tour, I wasn't expecting much, and I was happily mistaken! Our tour guide, Levan, was phenomenal. He was funny, smart, and had endless knowledge of Prague in every aspect. I learned useful things such as the history of Prague and Czech Republic and not-so-useful things such as the fact that there is a mummified hands in one of the churches in Prague. It's a fun fact, I guess.

My favourite Prague attraction:
the Dancing House!
But Štěpánka and I loved Levan so much we decided to go on another tour with him the next day. This time we took a tour of Prague Castle, which was endlessly entertaining and educational thanks to Levan. As it turns out, the Swedish embassy is located right beside Prague Castle! (Levan has quite a bit against the Swedes, considering the fact that they did a lot of damage to Prague a couple hundred years ago and stole a lot of priceless items, which are still in Sweden to this day) When I noticed a blue and yellow flag wrapped around a flag pole, I jokingly said to Štěpánka that it was probably the Swedish flag, and she said "Why would the Swedish flag be here?!" And seconds later, Levan announced: "So guys, that over there is the Swedish Embassy. In case anyone was wondering." Of course, he taught me numerous other things, but the Swedish flag and embassy was my favourite part of the tour, even though we had the opportunity to marvel at the beauty that is Prague Castle. All in all, the two tours were perfect and equipped me with all the knowledge I needed of Prague and more!

Astronomical Clock
If you're ever in Prague and want to go on a tour, free or paid, make sure Levan is your tour guide. I will never be able to think of Prague without thinking of Levan.

After those two days of guided tours, Štěpánka and I were left to wander the city on our own. We fared fairly well, I think. We managed to hit up all the major tourist attractions, such as the Lennon Wall, Charles Bridge, and, of course, the Astronomical Clock. Levan told us that the Astronomical Clock and its "show" was voted the second most overrated tourist attraction in the world and, I have to admit, I believe it. Here's a video if you've never witnessed how exciting it is firsthand.

The final thing we did was climb to the top of the tower in the Old Town Square. Štěpánka felt the entry fee was a bit pricey, but once we reached the top (tip: take the elevator, we took the stairs and I regret it), she admitted it was well worth the money. At the top of the tower, you receive a bird's eye view of Prague. I don't think I knew what true beauty meant until I saw what Prague looked like from above.

Unfortunately, though, all good things must come to an end, which meant I had to return to Stockholm and leave behind the real-life fairytale that is Prague. At the airport, though, something amazing happened. I heard people speaking Swedish. Maybe that wasn't the amazing part, but the amazing part was definitely the fact that, for the first time that I can recall, the melodious sound of Swedish being spoken made me feel at home. I remember when I came back from my trip to the Netherlands, my first big trip outside of Sweden, I heard Swedish being spoken at the airport and felt vaguely annoyed. At that point, I was tired of hearing Swedish, tired of trying to constantly understand it and, I guess, I'd felt sort of suffocated by it that first month and a half or so. But when I heard it at the airport yesterday, I didn't feel annoyed. I felt like I was going home. I think it's wild that I didn't recognise this change in me until just now. When did it happen? Why? There are so many questions that will remain unanswered, but one thing is for sure.

No matter where I go, no matter where I travel, Sweden is my home now.