One Last Trip to Oslo

Now that the sun has (sorta) returned to Norway, I’ve been lucky enough to have a few visitors! Thanks to great discounts on Norwegian Air, one of my friends from university, Alyssa, and her friend Kani decided to make a spontaneous weekend trip to Oslo. Because I’ve already blogged about some of these Oslo sights, I thought I’d keep this trip a bit on the simpler side and opted for a list format with this post.

Oslo Opera House

I absolutely adore the Oslo Opera House. It’s definitely one of my favorite places in Norway, and a part of that has to do with how affordable it is (even by non-Norwegian standards). Alyssa and I were lucky enough to get last minute tickets to the opening night of La traviata, one of Verdi’s operas. La traviata is based on a novel and play by Alexandre Dumas, La Dame aux camélias, which is based on Dumas’s life and affair with Marie Duplessis, a famous Parisian courtesan. Sadly for the two lovers, Marie dies from consumption at the young age of 23. If this story sounds familiar that’s unsurprising. The story has been retold in countless art pieces and movies, one famous example is the 2001 movie Moulin Rouge!. Unfortunately, we actually turned up a few minutes late due to a slow restaurant, but, lucky for us, we were still allowed to enter the opera once there was an opportune break in the singing.

Although the set was surprisingly bare, overall the opera and the singing was great. I especially enjoyed the singing done by the lead, the soprano Aurelia Florian.

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Mathallen Area

Following one Susan’s suggestions, I took a stroll by Oslos’ Mathallen, or literally translated, food hall. I only popped my head into the hall for a minute, but it had quite a nice selection of produce, fish, and the like. My main reason for walking around this area was to check out the local graffiti. To my delight, most of it was actually quite good, and there were a number of nice looking bars next to the nearby river, something that I wouldn’t mind checking out in the future.

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The Fram Museum

Because I didn’t really have a chance to walk around the Fram Museum when I visited in winter, I was determined to give it another shot on this trip. Alyssa, Kani, and I still didn’t have time to get through everything before the museum closed, but I learned a bit more than I did last time.

The Fram Museum is notable for housing the Polarship Fram, a boat was used by Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen on their North Pole expedition and Amundsen’s South Pole expedition (it is the boat that helped Amundsen be the first person to reach the South Pole). One of the big reasons why the Fram was revolutionary was that the ship was deliberately allowed to freeze in the Arctic Ocean. No ship had ever survived the ice pressure before, so Nansen’s desire to knowingly subject the ship to the ice was considered nothing short of insane. Lucky for Nansen and his crew, the ship’s special design allowed it to withstand the ice pressure. There were several design choices that allowed this to happen, but the one that is talked about most often is the rounded hull and smooth sides, which were built to mimic a round nut. The idea was for the ice to push the ship up onto the ice (similar to squeezing a nut between your fingers and having it slide along your fingers instead of being crushed) which would prevent the ice from crushing the ship.

Nansen also happened to be a very careful planner and prepared to spend 3-5 years on board the ship. Because of this, not only did the ship have plenty of food, it also had plenty to keep the crew occupied. There was a library of 600 books, paintings, card games, and even an organ on board. Overall the crew did quite well, remaining both healthy and well entertained.

The crew and its ship was only gone for three years, and upon its return Nansen was greeted as a national hero. Afterwards, Nansen was primarily known for his political career, becoming an ambassador to Great Britain in 1906 and later working in the League of Nations.

Sadly we weren’t able to finish exploring the entire museum, but again it’s something that I would pay another visit to. It was a really well laid out museum, and at times hilariously blunt and/or politically correct (our favorite translated sentence was “The friendliness and generosity of the Inuit was repaid by the white men’s goodwill and respect.”).

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Vigeland Park

Another one of my Oslo favorites is Vigeland Park. No visit would be complete without it, so I was happy to take Alyssa and Kani there. We were blessed with a gorgeously sunny day, so sunny in fact that we actually ran into a zumba dance class that was going on in the park.

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Vigeland Mausoleum

The three of us also went to the Vigeland Mausoleum thanks to a recommendation from Susan. While Gustav Vigeland is the mastermind behind Vigeland Park, Vigeland Mausoleum is actually done by his brother, Emanuel Vigeland. The mausoleum requires taking the subway to Slemdal, but it’s well worth the trip. The mausoleum is tucked away in a nice residential area, which also happens to have a nice view of Oslo.

The Vigeland Mausoleum is also known as the Vigeland Museum, and it was originally supposed to house Vigeland’s future sculptures and paintings. Vigeland later ended up changing his mind, and now the mausoleum is a huge dark room covered in frescoes. Many of the frescoes have a religious undertone, and more information on them can be found on the museum’s website. Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take any pictures inside the mausoleum, but Google Images can still give you a good idea of what the interior looks like.

The museum itself resembles a church, not only in its construction, but also in its silence. We were strictly told not to talk before entering, and we soon found out why. One visitor accidentally knocked into one of the museum’s chairs and echo was unbelievable. It’s definitely not your classic museum, especially considering that Vigeland’s cremated remains are stationed above the door, but I would definitely recommend a visit if you have the time.

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Berlin Wrap Up

As always, here are my tips for Berlin:

  1. Berlin is a very large city so things can be quite far apart. That being said, I would still recommend walking around. There is a lot of really wonderful street art, and it’s a beautiful city in the sunshine.
  2. As in all of Germany, Google Maps is a godsend and works perfectly with the public transportation system.
  3. Buy and validate a transportation card. Berlin is the only city where I’ve had my ticket checked multiple times. The fine for riding without a pass is €40. You validate your pass on the platform in a red box.
  4. Invest in a Museum Pass. For €12 you get 3 day access to all of Berlin’s main museums.
  5. I bought a Berlin Pass (combination of a transportation card + discount card) and found that I was consistently getting better discounts with my student ID. I would say that you’re probably better off buying a transportation card and a Museum Pass (instead of a Berlin Pass) if you’re a student.
  6. Buying a SIM card is easy and affordable. I went to a Saturn Electronics store with my ID and was able to purchase a SIM with 250 MB of data for €5.
  7. If you’re going in winter you’d probably do well to pack an umbrella.
  8. Don’t jaywalk. It’s highly frowned upon in Germany and I’ve even been told that if you jaywalk next to a family it’s not uncommon to be yelled at for setting a bad example. Apparently there are even pedestrian signs that read “Think of the children.”
  9. For me the permanent must sees were: the Neues Museum (even if it’s just to see the building itself), Brandenburg Gate, Tiergarten (see the nearby Holocaust Memorial and the memorials to the murdered Gypsies and homosexuals),  Reichstag dome (you can book a more extensive tour online provided you book in advance, but you can also get tickets at the Reichstag. If you decide to buy at the Reichstag I would recommend going early in the morning to avoid a line), Pergamon Museum, Piano Salon Christophori, East Side Gallery, Checkpoint Charlie (mostly because it’s just one of those things that you have to do), Topography of TerrorSchloss Charlottenburg (more for the grounds than for the palace itself), and Tränenpalast (Palace of Tears)
  10. The temporary must sees were: Mario Testino exhibit at the Gemäldegalerie
  11. Places to eat: Balli Döner for döner and Monsieur Vuong for Vietnamese food (there was always a wait when I went)
  12. Keep in mind that Berlin is basically two cities in one, so there is plenty to do. Even though I was in the city for about a week I still didn’t see everything that I wanted to.

Tromsø Wrap Up

I would say that Kari was quite accurate when she once told me that Tromsø is a vibrant town. It may be small, but it certainly has character and some wonderful views. Here are my tips and tricks:

  1. As with all major Norwegian towns, Tromsø has mobile applications that you can use to buy public transportation tickets and to map out a route on the public transportation.
  2. Unfortunately the buses do not actually list or announce the stops, so if you’re confused or a newcomer to the town definitely ask the driver to help you get off at the correct stop.
  3. You can take the flybussen or the local 42 bus into town from the airport (or from town to the airport)
  4. To be honest I think that Tromsø’s biggest draws are the reindeer races during Sami Week and the scenery. I wasn’t able to take the local cable car, but I’ve been told that it’s well worth the effort.
  5. The burgers at Blå Bar are surprisingly delicious and Smørtorget is well worth the stop for both cheap eats and some cheap shopping.

Rome Wrap Up

Even though I was pretty travel weary when I arrived in Rome, I still managed to really enjoy the city. Here are my tips and tricks:

  1. Rome is a city that you can easily visit multiple times, so there is no need to rush through the city.
  2. I went in winter and I have to say that going during the off season was a good choice. You can still expect crowds at all of the major tourist attractions, but they are pretty manageable. I think the longest wait that I had was about an hour.
  3. Rome is a fairly walkable city. All of the buses that I saw were packed, but I’ve heard that the subway is pretty functional. You can use this website to figure out how to navigate the public transportation system, though be aware that things generally don’t run on time. If you want to avoid public transportation, all of the big tourist sights are probably within an easy 20-60 minute walk no matter where you are in the city.
  4. All of the fountains in Rome offer clean water that you can easily fill a water bottle with. Now when I say fountain I don’t meant that you should dip your water bottle into the nearest Bernini fountain, I mean small water fountains that are scattered throughout the city.
  5. When ordering water at a restaurant it will be bottled (and expensive) unless you specifically request tap water.
  6. Many sights are close to each other so be sure to glance at a map beforehand so that you can be efficient with your time.
  7. If you are a Dan Brown fan and want to follow the major sights listed in Angels and Demons check out this blog.
  8. People in Rome eat late so many restaurants won’t open until late.
  9. I was warned by pretty much everyone I know to watch out for pickpockets in Rome. Honestly as long as you keep an eye on your things and take preventative measures such as zipping up your pockets you’ll be fine.
  10. You do not need to tip at restaurants since a service charge is generally included.
  11. Sights run by the city of Rome should be free on Sundays.
  12. On Sundays the Pope occasionally appears at noon to give blessings to people in St. Peter’s Square.
  13. Many churches have their most famous pieces of artwork in shady corners. Many of these shady corners have lights that are activated when you feed a few euros into a machine.
  14. Have gelato
  15. Italians HATE it when you don’t have exact change so try and keep track of those pesky coins.
  16. While reservations and tours would probably enhance your experience in Rome I was honestly just fine without them. That being said, the standards for tour guides are quite rigorous so if you do hire a guide you will probably have someone who is very knowledgeable about the city and its major sights.
  17. For me the permanent must sees were: the Pantheon, St. Peter’s Basilica (go through the catacombs and the climb up to the dome), Villa Borghese (you should probably make reservations for this, although you can try and weasel your way in), Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo, Church San Luigi dei FrancesiSanta Maria Maggiore, Roman Forum (you can buy combination tickets for the Coliseum and the Roman Forum so buy them at whichever sight has the shortest line), Coliseum, Piazza Navona, and Trevi Fountain (though it’s currently undergoing renovations).
  18. The temporary must sees were: the M.C. Escher exhibit at Chiostro del Bramante and the Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibit at the Museo dell’Ara Pacis

When In Rome, Do As the Roman (Fulbrighters) Do

One thing that I noticed in Rome is how some of the simplest things make me happy. It was sunny and warm almost the entire time I was in Rome, and that just made every day seem amazing. Even just waking up to the sunshine made me ridiculously happy.

Anyways, I picked up Gargi in the morning and we walked to Santa Maria Maggiore, which is one of the churches in Rome that is actually owned by the Vatican. Apparently this gives the property something akin to diplomatic status. Because I was with Gargi hiring a guide or going on a tour wasn’t particularly necessary. Between Gargi’s knowledge and Wikipedia we managed to do alright. We even managed to find Bernini’s nondescript grave.

IMG_7826  IMG_7859  IMG_7861IMG_7840  IMG_7845  IMG_7852IMG_7849  IMG_7833  IMG_7835From there we walked South towards the Colosseum. Unsurprisingly the line was out of control. But again traveling with Gargi is great. She steered us towards the Roman Forum since you can buy a combination ticket there for both the Roman Forum and the Colosseum. So instead of waiting for hours in the Colosseum line we waited in the much shorter line for the Roman Forum.

It was pretty incredible once we were inside the Roman Forum. While everything is more or less ruins, you still get a pretty good sense of the scale and craftsmanship that must have gone into everything.

IMG_7875  IMG_7877  IMG_7878IMG_7903  IMG_7901  IMG_7906IMG_7913  IMG_7919  IMG_7939IMG_2203My favorite thing that Gargi told me about the Roman Forum was that if you look at some of the inscriptions you can tell that things have been replaced or chiseled over. She told me that this was because new battles, generals, and victories would be recorded on these monuments and the old ones would be erased. I guess you really had to be quite the military stud to have your name stay on these memorials.

Once we were done walking around the Forum we retraced our steps to the Colosseum. One thing that really surprised me was the size of the Colosseum’s steps. Now I’ll willingly admit that I’m a short person at 5’3” (160 cm), but I like to think that I would have been tall in ancient Rome. So I was really surprised at how steep the steps were. Gargi also told me that these steps are called a vomitorium. The idea behind them is that the stairwell slope downwards and causes you to rush down the stairs. So the Colosseum was designed to “vomit” its crowds out quickly and efficiently.

And now for a few more Colosseum facts. Fact one: you might notice a number of holes in Colosseum when you take a look at my pictures. This is because the Colosseum used to have a marble facade. The marble was taken and used in other constructions, one of the most notable being St. Peter’s Basilica. Fact two: historians suspect that the Colosseum used to have some sort of shade system, which considering that I was feeling pretty warm in the middle of winter seems like quite a good idea. Fact three: apparently ladies had to sit towards the top of the Colosseum since it was thought that the violence would be too upsetting for them to view up close.

IMG_7944  IMG_7957  IMG_7962IMG_2215Now by the time Gargi and I had finished with the Colosseum we were starving. So we sat down for lunch and waited for Iman to join us. Once our hunger had been satiated we walked towards the Pantheon since I wanted to actually go inside.

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We took a small detour just before the Pantheon since a few blocks away lies the church Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. Right outside the church is an obelisk by Bernini and inside there is a statue of Jesus Christ done by Michelangelo. I wouldn’t have said that the statue was particularly striking, but the church was quite beautiful.

IMG_8029  IMG_8033  IMG_8039When we were done looking around we quietly left the church and continued on to the Pantheon. Gargi had told me early on that it was her favorite building in Rome and I would have to agree. There isn’t too much to do inside but that doesn’t stop it from being incredible.

IMG_8054  IMG_8047  IMG_8059After that it was gelato time! Now that I’m an adult I can do things like have dessert before dinner and that’s basically what happened. After we grabbed gelato we walked back towards Piazza Navona and paid Borromini’s Sant’Agnese a short visit. After we were done we stopped by a drug store for Iman (take note that Italian pharmacies do not tend to sell American drugs) and then found an Argentinian restaurant for dinner. Now both Iman and Gargi have been living in Italy since October so I couldn’t blame them for wanting to eat literally anything other than Italian food. The restaurant, Baires, actually ended up being really good and I would highly recommend their sangria if you get a chance to go.

Once we had finished we slowly walked back towards our hostels. It was here that Gargi and I parted ways since she was going back to Messina the next day. Overall I had a great day and can’t thank Gargi enough for showing me around.

Nobel Peace Prize

Now for a little background as to how I ended up in Oslo in the first place. The Fulbright Office gets a set of tickets to the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony that it lotteries away every year; however, I have never had any luck with lotteries and didn’t manage to win a ticket. But, not all hope was lost. During the Fulbright orientation one of the Fulbright alumni talked about how she managed to get two tickets to last year’s ceremony from the Nobel Institute. I decided to try and follow in her footsteps and see if I could also get tickets to this year’s ceremony. So, after emailing around I was told that once the winners of the peace prize were announced I should email the Nobel Institute a compelling reason as to why I should attend. I patiently waited for October 10th to roll around and with it the announcement of this year’s winners. Then I had my hopes plummet. Considering the popularity of Malala, I assumed that there was no way I would be able to get tickets. Sure enough, after emailing in my reasons for attending, I got this email:

Once the standard invitations (from our regular list) and the invitations to the guests of the laureates have gone out, we have to wait until the latter half of November to see whether we have seats available. Only then can we look at requests from around the world and possibly grant invitations to some of these (we prioritise those that show a keen interest in this particular year’s laureates). I will add your name to the list of requests and get back to you when we know more.

I figured my request was doomed. As expected, I got an email in November thanking me for my interest but telling me that the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony was completely full. BUT to my very great surprise I was told that I could still have a ticket to this year’s CNN interview with the laureates. Considering that I was going to have a light teaching schedule that week, I immediately emailed back saying that I would love to have a ticket to the interview.

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Which is how I found myself in Oslo this week. After my tour of the Munch Museum I decided against going to the City Hall area, where the Nobel ceremony is held, and instead opted to go back to Lud’s house to watch the ceremony from the comfort of a couch. While Susan and I enjoyed watching the ceremony on television, we also kept our eyes peeled for Lud and Kyle, two of the Fulbrighters who had won the peace prize tickets. Just when we had given up all hope of seeing them, we spotted them in the last row as the laureates walked out after the ceremony. Overall the ceremony was really something worth watching, and both Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai gave great speeches that I’d recommend either reading or watching.

After the ceremony ended I made my way over to City Hall for the CNN interview. Getting into City Hall was similar to going through airport security, but overall it wasn’t too bad.

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My early bird impulses and fast walk earned me a seat in the eighth row of the audience. One great thing about the interview is that it took place in the same room where the laureates received their prizes. Even though I wasn’t able to go to the ceremony it was still nice to be in the room afterwards and see the laureates up close. The interview itself was really well done, though unfortunately this is the only YouTube video CNN has released so far:

In it, Malala talks a bit about how her family has supported her, her funny attempts to stop fighting with her brothers, and more. And while Malala has rightfully received a good amount of attention over the Nobel Peace Prize, I would also really recommend looking into Kailash Satyarthi a bit more if you haven’t already. He has also done some incredible things even if they have not received as much attention in the media.

IMG_1660  IMG_1696  IMG_1708 IMG_1682Later in the evening, Kyle and I went to the Grand Hotel on Karl Johans Gate to see the lauretes one last time and to meet with Alyssa. Here the Nobel laureates traditionally appear on the balcony at 7 pm to greet and receive a standing ovation from the crowd. Kyle and I duly paid our respects to the laureates and then headed off with Alyssa to catch up a bit more and to unwind. Needless to say, the day ended up being a truly breathtaking experience.

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Füssen and Neuschwanstein

Having been born and raised in Los Angeles, I have always had a slight obsession with Disney and Disneyland in particular. Going to Disneyland as a child was the highlight of any day, and I admit that going to Disneyland as an adult is still pretty fun. So when Julie suggested that Michael and I take a trip to Neuschwanstein, the inspiration for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty castle, I was more than happy to agree.

The game plan was to take the three hour train ride from Munich’s central station (Hauptbahnhof) to Füssen, where Neuschwanstein is located. We struggled a bit when it came to actually leaving the house in time to catch the morning train, but luckily the trains runs regularly enough that it was fairly easy to buy a ticket for a train leaving around noon. The confusing thing about the train tickets was that they didn’t have any information printed on them beyond the fact that we had purchased them for the day. This made Michael and I a bit worried since the tickets didn’t list the train times or platform numbers. At a bit of a loss, we wandered over to the information desk and asked for help. To our surprise (and later on Julie’s), the woman at the information desk printed out all the information we needed for our trip to Füssen, including information on where we needed to switch trains and the platforms we need to be at. More than just a little bit grateful we then went in search of brunch.

Having been told multiple times, usually by Alix, that the Turkish food in Munich is amazing, the two of us found a well rated Turkish place on Yelp and decided to check it out. We gleefully followed Google Maps to the restaurant only to pull up short once we were outside. It was a vegetarian/vegan restaurant. Now I have nothing against vegetarian/vegan meals, but Michael and I had definitely been thinking about having something with a lot of meat in it. We tentatively walked in and inquired if the signs outside the restaurant were accurate. Turns out they served chicken! Not all was lost.

It was with big smiles and happy stomachs that we eventually left the restaurant, and we caught our train in plenty of time. The plan was to take one train to Augsburg and then transfer to Füssen. Thanks to the lady from the information desk things went smoothly. The train ride itself was also beautiful. We even saw deer!

IMG_5794  IMG_5806  IMG_5810 IMG_5816  IMG_5819  IMG_5822 Once we arrived in Füssen we decided to take a cab up towards the castle. Luckily the cab drive was only around 5 minutes and cost about 10 euros. The cab dropped us off at the foot of the mountain and we decided to walk the rest of the way up to the castle, following Julie’s recommendation to do the Marienbrücke hike, a 30 minute endeavor.

IMG_5826  IMG_5827  IMG_5829 We eventually made it to the castle and it was worth the trek. We didn’t actually go inside the castle for two reasons 1) apparently you have to buy tickets at the foot of the mountain–something that we had neglected to do 2) Julie had informed us beforehand that the interior of the castle was originally unfinished, making modern day attempts to finish it a bit disappointing.

IMG_5838  IMG_5845  IMG_5851 IMG_5862  IMG_5875  IMG_5878It was around this point in time that Michael and I encountered a slight dilemna. Before we had set off on our adventure, Julie had told us that if we wanted to get the classic shot of the castle from a distance we should follow the path labeled Marienbrücke. Following Marienbrücke had led us to the castle, but it was clear that we were not in a position where we could get the panoramic view. We texted Julie to make sure we had the right path, and were again told to follow Marienbrücke. Still confused, we left the castle courtyard and sure enough saw a sign indicating that Marienbrücke continued beyond the castle. Now feeling less confused, we continued along the path until we got to a bridge. Once on the bridge, Michael and I were finally able to take the classic picture of the castle. I would say that the trip was worth it for that view alone.

IMG_5884  IMG_5885  IMG_5903Julie had also told us that we could visit another castle in the region called Hohenschwangau. Unlike Neuschwanstein, this castle has a finished interior, but at this point Michael and I were ready to call it quits. It also didn’t seem like anything could compete with the view we just saw.

On our way down the mountain, we were accosted by a man dressed up like a king and wheeling around a baby carriage. The strange thing was that the baby carriage contained beer and had beer cans trailing behind in. On our train ride down to Füssen one of our ticket collectors had tried to talk to us about “the king of the mountain.” It was in this moment that Michael and I realized that this must be who he was referring to. Our conversation with the king went as follows:

King of the Mountain: You English?
Us: Yes, we’re Americans.
King of the Mountain: Perfect! You must help me with my question!
Member of the king’s entourage: No dude, it’s quest. Not question.
King of the Mountain: Yes, my quest. You must help me with my quest!
Us: Uh, what does that involve?
King of the Mountain: You give me three euros for a picture and I also give you free beer!

This seemed like a decent deal to us, so having given the man a few euros we finished our walk down the mountain with a beer in hand and later on with a pretzel.

After waiting for the bus to take us into town and later waiting for the train, Michael and I finally began our journey back to Munich. This time we ended up having to take three trains instead of two. When we arrived in Augsburg we happily boarded the next train leaving for Munich and didn’t really bother to look at our surroundings. Once we sat down, it was very clear that we were on a much nicer train than any of the other trains we had taken that day. The seats were comfier, there was wifi, and people were dressed in suits drinking beer out of real glasses. We glanced around, glanced at each other, and more or less shrugged it off. We figured that if we were on the wrong train the ticket collector would let us know. To our great surprise, the ticket collector did not bother to check our tickets and after about two stops we were in Munich. When we told Julie what had happened she told us that we had definitely been aboard an ICE train, which was something our ticket did not cover. I suppose ignorance is bliss.

We ended the day at a restaurant that Julie suggested, Weinhaus Schneider. She mentioned that it was a fondue restaurant and both Michael and I happen to love cheese. After a bit of a wait, we were led to a table and given an English menu with a German alcohol menu. I zeroed in on a red wine, while Michael attempted to figure out German beer brands. We ordered and soon realized that we were wrong on two counts. While Michael and I thought we had figured out which section of the menu was selling beer, it turned out he had inadvertently ordered wine. German: 1 Michael and I: 0. The second surprise was realizing that instead of cheese fondue we were simply cooking our food in some sort of oil. After we realized our mistake, we snuck a few glances at our neighbors to make sure that we eating things correctly. While it was not the cheese extravaganza we had hoped for, it was still quite good. Afterwards we hopped on the S-bahn for the last time that day and made our way back to Julie’s apartment.