I woke up this morning after 2.5 hours of sleep. I always do this when traveling across multiple time zones: stay up almost the entire night before and try to sleep as much as possible on the plane. In theory, this allows me to 'reset' my internal clock and more readily adjust to the time of my destination. In this case: London.
This trip is something that I have been looking forward to from the moment I figured out I would have enough money to go. In part, this made it easier to stay awake for almost the entire night, and all day today. The excitement I usually feel before a journey or an adventure is easily enough to keep me alert.
Skipped breakfast, didn't really feel like eating, showered, and loaded my laptop with a few last minute diversions: Hell Boy, a Kurosawa Movie, and some un-subtitled japanese anime. This is in addition to loads of CS papers downloaded from the ACM that I probably should be reading instead of doing anything else, classic works from project gutenberg, a few different audiobooks, and Stephenson's Cryptonomicron. I'll probably just watch anime and read Cryptonomicron the entire time. Oh well, the CS papers on cellular automata and genetic algorithms are there if i feel the urge for more concrete knowledge.
I arrive at GB ridiculously early. This is typical for me, whenever I travel I tend to be incredibly anal about triple checking every item in my pack and ensuring that I arrive on time for everything, especially departures. So, we drive around for awhile because there is no one in front of the library. I'm starting to worry that maybe i mistook the time, or the place. Perhaps we are meeting in front of the Intl center at 11:30 PM instead of in front of cofrin library at 11:30am. Oh well, it will all work off. Angela drops me off at the gate to the union, outside of the intl center and i wander around campus for a half hour until other people start to show up. Decent.
- The Bus -
I had the honor of being able to assist the incredibly intelligent, interesting, and funny Dr Breznay with his newly acquired digital camera, the origins of which i shall never divulge. He also had a few nice things to say about my digital camera, which was cool. I am already rather impressed with it, but additional positive comments simply boost by satisfaction.
We then collect money, read the email from Vyckee, (or however you spell it) our 5'5" blonde tour guide that must deal with dumb yanks enough to have the sense to describe her height to us in the archaic standard system instead of metric [UPDATE - Turns out the brits actually use quite a few of the old measurements, and are still in the process of switching to metric] . After this, I attempt to settle down and take a look at a thrilling dissertation on the ability of a three dimensional array of cellular automata has the ability to approximate a universal turin..... okay, no. I started watching anime. I was about to do this but then people started sitting near me, and it would have been antisocial to dive into my own world. So instead i started organizing my picture collection. Peter was polite enough to ask about it, and what resulted was an hour long session of me sharing photos of cambodia and thailand with Peter, the illustrious CS professor, Dale, the fearsome ex marine who will be transferring to ITT, Bob, the human bio / exercise science major, and Jenny, the urban and regional studies major. Which was kind of cool. Dale could only pretend interest for so long, but Peter, Jenny, and Bob seemed pretty interested. Peter then shared some stories of his travels, and this turned into a conversation in which Jenny and bob participated, bob having been to italy before.
I then borrowed jenny's travel guide, a let's go book covering western europe. I prefer lonely planet, but the LG guide still had a lot of good info in it. I read up on the history of Britain, a few cultural tidbits, and then passed the book on to dale. I'll probably be traveling to Venice with jenny, so it's a good thing she seems cool and fairly practical. Even if she did come with a ton of luggage.
After further discussion and getting to know the above mentioned three better we arrive in chicago. I am amazed to discover that I am the only one without a hulking amount of luggage. Perhaps i have carried my 'travel light' philosophy to an extreme bordering upon folly. Whatever, if i need more clothing i can buy it in europe.
After navigating the full cavity search and background check that now constitutes airport security I am in O'Hare. I promptly head to terminal C, talk to Dale, discover that there is in fact a Cinnabon's in the terminal, and then seek out said Cinnabon retailer with Dale and Bob accompanying me. Upon purchase of the product, a soft, sugary, gigantic cinnamon role smothered with frosting and bursting with unique cinnamony flavor, I resist the urge to devour it immediately. Instead, I bring it back to gate c16, sit right next to peter, and proceed to enjoy it right in front of his face, all the while making fun of his salad. hahaha.
Peter later bought his own Cinnabon. I saw that coming. =)
I am now on the plane, typing away. We just cleared a major packet of turbulence, so now i can actually type at a decent clip. I kind of lucked out in my current seat - a girl wanted to sit in the cruddy center seat i was originally assigned so that she could chatter incessantly with her friend. This was agreeable to me because I got a window seat out of the arrangement. Bonus. Well, this marks the end of day one, as i am about to let my self fall to sleep. Ahh, blissful release.
--end day one--
-- Day Two - 6/01/04 --
Awaken - still in the plane. Christ is it hot in here. Figure out that there is a nozzle above my head that i can adjust to get a steady stream of stale air pouring right onto the top of my head, and that makes things a little cooler. I listen to some music, the peter gabriel album Up. Good stuff, and it fits with my mood, awakening in a cramped seat in the economy section of the United Airline's 737 I am flying on.
Breakfast shows up. Usually i stay away from airline food, but hunger convinces me otherwise. Besides, it's in a pretty little UA box. If it's in a box, it cannot be all that bad, can it? There is some fresh fruit which is good, as well as some mysterious, warm pastry that is soft in the middle. On the whole, rather good.
Music shifts to Dido, the album Life for Rent. We are flying over Ireland: my first view of the land on the other side of the Atlantic. Our plane flies just south of Belfast, and I am able to catch a glimpse of farmland through the clouds. Quite different from the states, actually. Farmland viewed from a plane in the US is rigidly laid out in precise rectangular grids, divided with streets. Some of these squares may have a wooded corner, but the overall pattern is immediately recognizable. Not so Ireland. It looks like some mad, blind, 75 year old with palsy just held a pen to a map while he had a seizure. Schizophrenic lines form bizarre peanut shaped and gumdrop fields. Different shades of green and brown meld together to form a fascinating patchwork. Very cool.
Still chilling to Dido. Janil awakens in the next seat in time to accept the immigrations card from the attendant. I fill mine out, Janil writes on the back which clearly states: Official Use ONLY, and then wonders whether she should get another card and start over (pen does not erase too well). She then notices that the front says in bold, red capital letters WRITE IN BLOCK LETTERS ONLY. Guess what Janil didn't do. Unable to press the button to call a flight attendant herself, I summon one, and she gets another card, managing to fill it out properly this time.
We Circle back and forth around Heathrow for about a half hour before finally plunging through the ridiculously low and thick crowd cover to a rainy London. We have arrived.
Immigrations - we go through a special group travel lane, first time i've seen one of these. Most countries will have different lanes for returning nationals, countries that they are on favorable relations with, and everyone else. England has one for groups. Guess it works. Janil finds out that we do not need the immigration card that she went through such trouble to fill out properly, and pouts.
We exit the airport and meet our Tour Director (not a guide) Vykke, or however it is spelled. Very cool chick. Upbeat and friendly, despite having to deal with three groups of stupid americans. Cool. We take a bus from the airport into london, and I am fascinated. Music is now BT - Emotional Technology. Much like japan, there are no clattering, rusted out crap-mobiles on the road. Every vehicle shiny and newish. The landscape is pretty, green and lush with vegetation similar to Michigan, but more deciduous. Traffic starts to thicken as we enter london, and I am thrilled and envious to see motorcyclist simply ride on the dotted lane divider, dodging mirrors as they whiz by the slowly moving traffic. I begin to think that i should try living in london.
The buildings and the houses are remarkably different. Brick is used more extensively, and you see very few homes that stand on their own. Instead of just the occasional duplex you will see in the states, almost every residential building appears to be either an apartment complex, or some sort of melding of four homes. The chimneys are the classic spouts you see in Mary Poppins, and similar to japan, every yard is fenced in. The streets are paved and curving, with wide sidewalks covered in either large, flat gray stones or small cobblestones, as opposed to the boring but functional concrete slabs common to the midwest. Despite the obvious press for space within the center of london, there is still quite a bit of vegetation, and the occasional park. Quite an awesome place, the entire city as a very cool vibe to it. A city such as Chicago or detroit, and to a lesser extent Tokyo seems almost cruel in it's massive size. London does not give this sense, it is a warm and welcoming city, and this despite the rain and overcast weather.
The bus drops us off a few meters from the hotel. Almost everyone in our group is simply dead on their feet. It's kind of funny panning the crowd as we stand waiting for Vykke to guide us to the entrance of the hotel: glazed eyes, sour expressions, and slouched shoulders are far too tired to look back, instead they just sort of sit there in a human version of standby mode. We find our hotel. Picture has been taken of our room. Plain but functional, no complaints.
Vykke gives us an hour to freshen up. I dump my one backpack in the room, shower, watch the infamous BBC for a bit, and then head backstairs. I am somewhat hesitant to check my laptop at the desk, but oh well. Cannot go around in a paranoid daze all the time. Check my laptop *cringe* and head out the door.
We walk the few blocks, enter the underground and Padington station (of stuffed animal fame) and ride to Picadilly circus. Vykke walked us to the heart of the area and then set us loose for an hour. I roamed around with Bob, and saw a few cool things. There were street performers going through their routines, and although this was interesting, what was more interesting is the way the crowd of londonites reacted. They were laid back for the most part, but cheered and clapped as the performer asked them to. Pulled from the caption of one of my pictures:
This guy was funny, a street performer but more impressive than his little stunts was his comedy and the way in which he would manipulate the crowd. Here he is getting ready to throw knifes at a board. Even more amusing to me was the british crowd's reaction to the entertainer, who would say lines like "THIS is the BACK of the STAGE. that MEANS, that all YOU see, is my ASS!!" and would proceed to wave his behind at the people standing 'behind' the stage, and then ask them to move. He also studded his speech with other choice words, and as you can see there are plenty of children, with their parents in their crowd, and everyone just laughed. Much cooler attitude than you would see in america. He also singed one guy out and asked 'WHY are you NOT CHEERING??' to which the singled-out-brit replied "Well, it was not that good."
Vykee then guided us to the fish & chips joint, but then made a last minute excuse to ditch out on us. Apparently she had eaten at the joint before. The fair was a bit bland, and i leave the restaurant hoping that all EF provided meals are not like this one. Vykke rejoined us just as dinner was finishing (cunning that) and guided us back to the hotel. Peter, Vykkee, Dale, Bob, Liah, Rachel, Amber and I then went out and chilled at the pub Dickens, after charles dickens, which billed itself as "London's longest pub". It was a pretty cool joint actually. I don't like bars, but this was more like a restaurant than a bar: relaxed atmosphere, plenty of chairs and tables, and decent decor. I of course had water, and much to my surprise so did bob, apparently he does not drink either. Vykke starts out by drinking mildly, but this stops as soon as she she's Amber slamming pint after pint. Dale and also got into a bit of a discussion on politics. Dale brought up a few good points about Iraq, why did we go in? I really do not think that it was because of humanitarian reasons, but Dale reasoned that if it was because of the gas, then why have gas prices not gone down?
Peter and I, still hungry and somewhat disappointed after the F&C incident, check out a greek joint - Niki's. Phenomenal. I thought that i had eaten greek before, Vango's in marquette is one of my favorite places to eat. Niki's put Vango's to shame. And I like Vango's. This food was just incredible. Even the freaking olives that the serve as an appetizer were amazing. Eating the food was like cutting of little pieces of paradise, putting them in my mouth, and becoming enlightened.
After dinner Peter and I had a little bit of a talk about grad school, and he shared with me his experiences. He also brought up the point that although people who study longer and go for higher degrees may delay their entry to the workforce by several years, thus 'putting off' 5 or more years of income, they are often happier than those that plunge into industry and start collecting money. He described money as a means, not an ends, and to him it seemed like a lot of people were pursuing the means which they had confused for the ends, which may be why many of them are unhappy. All of this is really stuff that I had thought of before. The past couple years of my life I have been thinking less and less about mass accumulation of money, or of objects at all. I actively try to restrict my accumulation of material goods. I currently make just under 15 dollars an hour, and although more money would be nice, i don't really feel the need for it. Anyhow, i am really starting to think seriously about grad school.
Read some stephenson and one of the ACM Papers, Concepts of Automata Theory. I was disappointed to find that it did not in fact discuss cellular automata, but instead dealt more with functions and recursive theory. Anyhow, after a few pages of that, I was ready for bed. Maybe i should study history instead =)
--- Day Three - Wednesday, June 2nd, 2004 ----
Awaken at 6:00am of my own accord. Apparently the cluster involving the wake up calls extended to our room. Oh well, such things happen. Stretch out a bit, grab my iPod, cruise by Dale's room to see if he feels like going for a jog. He does not, kind of saw that coming. climb down the five+ flights of stairs to the ground floor, unlock the door of the hotel and hit the streets. Jogging, london, 6am. Music: A mix of Dido, BT, and Wir Sind Helden (which, btw, i found out means 'We are Heroes'). Wonderful. I love this feeling, alone at the crack of dawn with music, exploring the external world from the comfort of my internal one, the two working off each other is a positive feedback loop making each entire levels more interesting than they would be independently.
Yet another thing that is cool about london is that the royal family still owns quite a bit of land right in the middle of the city, and instead of developing this land or leasing it out, they have converted them to public parks. Everywhere you go in london there is green, and chances are that just around the corner is another open square or park. Well, i jogged about a half of a mile and then hit Kensington park. This absolutely massive expanse of lawns, forest, and pools. I see a few other joggers and cyclists out, but on the whole the park is definitely not crowded. I run the perimeter, a jog of about five miles and then head back to the hotel for a breakfast of toast.
After breakfast we got on our bus and met the tour guide of the day, Fred. Fred was a really cool guy. It was nice talking to fred because if you asked him a question, instead of just giving you an answer he would give you loads of valid background information and answer the question in depth. Leeched much knowledge from this man.
We first cruised around London a bit until we reached St Pauls cathedral. Built in the 17th century after the fire of london in 66, the cathedral is a romanesque masterpiece. Interestingly enough, the architect Christopher Wren had never actually been to italy, but instead studied the classical knock-offs in france. The cathedral currently is truer to the architects design than it was prior to WWII. Apparently Wren was not allowed to implement all of his design in the part of the church corresponding to the top of the crucifix. Well, the Nazis bombed the hell out of this part of the church, and it was then rebuilt after the war to Wren's original specifications.
St Pauls is also the burial site of Nelsen, a british naval hero. Apparently this guy died at his crowning moment, after defeating the french at the battle of Trafalgar . There was a statue of Nelson which was actually set up quite interestingly. Apparently he had lost his right arm, and one of his eyes, and this statue was set up so that he had a cape covering his arm, and you could not tell which eye he had lost.
After St Pauls, the coach dropped us off close to Trafalgar square and Fred gave us an hour before we had to meet back up. I went strait to the National Gallery which, like most museums and galleries in britain, was free to the public. Music: Mozart - Requium. Saw some cool works, many of which were immediately recognizable. The works of Seurat, or however you spell it, the usual smattering of Monet's, some Van Eyck, and Leonardo's Virgin on the Rocks, as well as the cartoon with the virgin mary sitting on St. Anne's lap. Very, very cool. Trafalgar square itself is rather neat as well. It had a few fountains, and in the middle, Nelsons Column. Basically, a huge pillar with a statue of our favorite one-armed one-eyed admiral standing at the top, with huge lions at the base, and statues at three of the four corners of the square. The fourth corner just has a plinth, apparently they have not yet decided what statue to put there. Which is kind of cool that the brits give it that much thought. They don't just plunk a statue there for the hell of it, they think it out and debate it.
After this we hopped on the bus again, and headed to windsor. A very cool castle, and although the queen was not present it still seemed very royal. The castle was just massive, and that is only the state rooms that we had access to, the quarters that the queen was actually living in were of course closed off, and protected by a ridiculously stiff guard that would march a few paces, stiffly, at the tone of a bell. Very formal. The state rooms were very impressive and incredibly... stuffy. Master piece theatre-ish. There is no way that i would want to live, or even chill out in such rooms. The furniture was all stiff backed and very uncomfortable looking. This is not to say that the whole thing was not incredibly cool. Many rooms sported full suits of armor, weapon racks, guns on display, fantastic art, and incredible portraits. Coolest of all though was a hall that had every bit of space on the walls and ceiling covered with the different crests of the nobility.
After leaving the state apartments, i watched the stiff guard go through his routine and then headed to the cathedral of St George (of dragon slaying fame). Yet another awesome church, this time in the perpendicular gothic style (also called anglican gothic). I am in no way capable of describing the churches in a way which would do them credit, so I will not spend too much time trying. Suffice it to say that incredibly detailed columns and arches climbed the walls and crossed paths at four and sometimes six way intersections on the ceiling, forming a dome of curved triangular pieces. Each column is exquisitely carved, and the attention to detail is incredible. In addition to all this, the most prominent source of light is the afternoon sun filtered through traditional stained glass cut to depict the names and portraits of different nobles, as well as the dates that they died.
We then headed back towards town for some indian cuisine. We yet again showed up early for dinner and had to wait for about ten minutes before being allowed in. This time though, it was for the better. I walked down the street a ways and stumbled upon this fascinating little book shop, Magma Books. Apparently, their clientele consists almost entirely of design professionals. Of course, their material reflected this. Every book in the store that i looked at featured different types of ad, posters, campaigns, etc. I checked out a book that featured rock'n'roll posters of the 90's, a book of japanese design which in addition to examples of japanese posters, ads, and packaging also contained numerous photos of the infamous loli-goths of tokyo. Not being a loligoth aficionado, i forget the exact place that they tend to congregate, but i thought it was somewhere around shinjuku. Perhaps i'll figure it out and correct this entry later. I also could not stop myself from flipping through a book containing different anime posters. (they also had a lot of non-japanese material) I was trying to figure out what exactly this shop was and asked the guy at the front desk "How would you describe this store? What kind of a retailer are you?" To which another random guy answered "The best one!" and yet another random-er "A book store!". Thanks guys. They guy i originally asked looked troubled for a minute, said it was hard to explain, paused again, and then lit up like a light bulb. "How cool is this.." and then proceeded to pull out a magazine in which their shop was featured. Ok, that works. Read the article and began to understand what magma books was all about.
After that was indian. Another EF quality dinner. Better than fish and chips, and enjoyable, but i have had far better indian food back in the states. Ah well, it was still cool. After this we go and blow 10 pound on the eye of london. Thats one way of saying some of us dropped 20 dollars a piece to ride a big ferris wheel. That aside, it did provide an excellent view of london, and went slow enough that you could enjoy it. It was fun teasing stephanie for her fear of heights too =) After this, i returned to the national gallery until it closed at 9, and then headed back to padington. I chilled at the internet cafe for awhile and communicated with peeps in the US for exactly 40 minutes. After leaving the cafe Janil tried to convince me to come out to a pub with them. I managed to fob off this invite claiming tiredness and an early start tomorrow morning ( i wanted to hit kensington park one more time, and since the buss was leaving at 8am this meant waking at around 5:30ish) and ended up making a promise to go out with them tomorrow night.
I then returned to the hotel and slept. Woo Hoo.
-- Day Four - Thursday June 3rd, 2004 --
Awaken at 5:30, again of my own accord. Wake up calls simply do not happen at this place. Go for a jog around kensington park, kind of taking it easy today. Still felt incredible though. Come back, shower, dress, and head down to breakfast with bob. It is 7 o'clock, the bus leaves at 8, and we are the ONLY people, of 20, having breakfast. Hrmm. Well, we chill, i eat once again, you guessed it, toast. People started trickling down from upstairs about 20 minutes later, and spent a little bit of time talking to Chong ( i have to be spelling that wrong ) and Molly. Apparently they had gone out, bought some booze, brought it back and then spent the remainder of the night takling to the seventeen year old iraqi ex-pat army-deserter dentist wannabe future-prime-minister-of-iraq's-son front desk attendant. Apparently this guy was shot in the leg three times by his own superiors and then hitch hiked all the way to london and started working in the Rose Court Hotel (our residence) Fascinating story, and Molly and the crew seemed enthralled. Must have been a neat guy, I didnt' really get a chance to talk to him myself. We are all on the bus at around 8. All except dale. We give him another 5 minutes and then send bob to check up on him. Apparently he had not woken up yet. Okay. bob comes back, relays this to us, and we continue to wait. For another 15 minutes. Vykkee finally asks me to go and check it out. I run back to the hotel and try the front door. For some obscure reason it is locked and no one answers my poundings. No worries, i remember that the lobby window was cracked, hop the gap to the window sill, open the window, and leap into the lobby. It was all very spy-style, but nobody noticed. Oh well, i had fun all on my own. I run up the four floors to dales room. He had just got done taking a freaking shower and was sedately packing his bags. I grab his large bag, and run back to the bus. He comes strolling along 5 minutes later. Well, late start, but i guess everyone deserves one chance right?
We head to canterbury and are able to check out the cathedral there for about an hour or so. I though George's was incredible. Canterbury was awesome. Much larger and with higher ceilings than George's, Canterbury is a gothic cathedral in all of it's glory. One thing that i have noticed with gothic churches, you spend a lot of time looking up, and a lot of time feeling very small and insignificant. Canterbury was truly incredible. Stained glass everywhere, flying buttresses, vaulted ceilings, incredible stone work and the corpses of something like five saints all come together to make the pilgrim feel as insignificant as possible. A very cool experience.
After that we drive to the port, wander around the east docks searching for our loading platform for about 20 minutes, much to the frustration of john. Apparently, these docks are different every time he goes there. I can believe it. It seems like an open flat area with a bunch of temporary fences, concrete barriers, and lines painted on the ground designed with the sole purpose of confusing an english bus driver. It worked. Added to this was the helpfulness of the various people standing around, directing us in the wrong way, and the stupid Owl signs pointing in random directions. We later figured out that the owl must have meant exit. Or at least, thats what we think. Owls??? Whatever.
We hop on the ferry and shoot across the channel in no time at all. Upon deboarding, we meet our bus driver. A very energetic chap who moos at cows as we pass them, barks at dogs, and swears in french at people who dare to drive in front of him while driving. 4 hours of highway and lush green french countryside later, we arrive in Paris itself. We eat a place called Flam, in which they serve a type of flat bread with a skimming of cheese and some manner of topping, sometimes mushrooms, sometimes chopped ham, on top. Almost like a simplified pizza. Pretty good. Dessert is the same thing, but with apple and cinnamon on the top. There was also a dessert flam that had chocolate on the top, but our table did not get any, much to the dismay of the 'Three Musketeers' (Carrie, Karly, and Steph)
We drive through the city towards our lodging for the next two nights. We are just getting a glimpse of the eastern side of paris right now, but already it feels quite different from london. Not only are people not driving on the 'proper' side of the road and speaking french, the city itself has a different flavor. Paris seems.. for lack of a better word.. dirtier. This is not in a bad way, and keep in mind i have only seen a bit of the east side of it, but the city seems grittier than London. London still seems a little idyllic in my mind, Paris seems more real. Keep in mind these are impressions gained from very little travel in either of these cities. Well, we shall see what the next day brings.
-- Day Five - Friday, June 4th, 2004 --
France seems cool so far. I have been picking up a few words here and there, just stuff like please, thank you, sorry, water, etc. Fun playing around with another language. Our tour guide, Pierre Marie shows up with the coach. Pretty cool guy. Heavy french accent, strongly opinionated, and some funny mannerisms make Pierre an interesting bloke. We cruise around paris for awhile before going to Notre Damme Chapel. Before arriving, pierre says "wakieee wakieeeee" a few hundred times over the intercom, this guy is hilarious. He also says okiee dokee a lot.
Notre Damme is great, even cooler than Canterbury, if they can even be compared. I know intellectually that it is somewhat of a shame that all of this money and manpower went into building these cathedrals instead of helping very real people who were starving and dying of illness, I am still in awe whenever entering any of these incredible buildings. I don't have the statistics right now, but I believe that the church is quite a bit larger than canterbury. As we approach it, the numerous gargoyles sticking around three feet out of the side of the building are immediately obvious, projecting like so many grotesque thorns.
The gate to the church is intimidating, which is to say that it fits in with the rest of the church perfectly. Statues of the disciples are carved in exquisite detail, but the only one which can be positively identified is St Peter with his keys. The inside of the church, like canterbury, makes you feel insignificant before this incredible monument to god. The vaulted ceilings and ornate stained glass manage to create an atmosphere of holiness, despite the crowds of tourists pushing their way through the cathedral, the flashes of their cameras strobing off the walls.
After Notre Damme was Versailles. The palace of the sun king is freaking huge. Like windsor, the kings chambers themselves are impressive, but so ornate and over done that I cannot imagine living there. Of course, the ones on display were only the state apartments, the kings personal apartments could only be seen by those with a special appointment.
Most of the hall of mirrors was closed of for reconstruction. Oh well, another reason to come back Versailles. After that, the group split up and i wandered off into the state room, which was dedicated almost entirely to portraits of napoleon. After the wandering i hit the gardens, which again were cool. This probably sounds pretty repetitive, but I really find almost everything i come across interesting. The gardens are massive, but oddly comforting conveying a sense of serenity. I wander around for awhile, climbing the ornately decorated staircases and exploring the gardens.
After Versailles we go to dinner. On the way there, I manage to distract Vicky twice talking about kick boxing. Apparently she drew a match against the reigning english female champ. Vykkee gets cooler and cooler. I found out later that her rematch is on July 26th. Good luck Vykke.
After dinner is the Eifel tower, cool of course. Was slightly disappointed to find that they would not let me climb the stairs up the tower. So, like a plebian, i take the lift (or two lifts actually. kind of confusing). The view from the top is as can be described. Stephanie actually went all the way to the top too, and was terrified. I had some awesome pictures, but she was really unhappy with them so I guess I will not put them up on the web, and keep them for my own personal amusement.
We also do a boat tour on the Sienne. Coming back from that, I bought a huge bag of candied nuts from a street vendor. I eat too many, and then fob as many of them as possible off on the group. Vykee and peter thought they were evil, but most people dug them. On the way up from the docks, i was approached by a sharp selling Eifel tower crap. I smiled, and poured candied nuts into his hand. He was delightfully shocked, smiled, and kept on saying merci. His friend came over and i gave him some too, and they were both pretty happy. I have this image of people either ignoring them or swearing at them all day long, but the poor guys determined to make a euro-buck keep at it, and at the end of the day some wacko with what Vykee called ass-nuts hooks them up. I tried this with another sharp crossing the bridge, and he was equally shocked and just kept on saying merci, and even came running after me and puts a piece of eifel-crap in my hand. Very cool experience. End day Five.
-- Day Six - Saturday, June 5th, 2004 --
I wake slightly late. Peter and I were going to chill together, but I automatically assume that he has already left and make my own plans. With the aid of a pad of paper, a pencil, and hand gestures i manage to secure a bike rental for the day. 20 minutes later, my 200 euro security deposit in the shops envelope and a rattly mama-chari under my rear, i run into peter coming out of the hotel. Oh well, i'm a freak, and there probably is no way that anyone else would be able to tolerate me until 3, when our passes are good for the louvre.
I wander around paris for a little while on my bike. It is a saturday, so the parisians are out en force (literally, as we will later find out). I travel around a bit and decide to chomp down on the task of navigating to the Centre Pompideau, Paris' world renowned modern art museum. I dig out my map and proceed to search. While searching, a parisian comes up to me and blabs a torrent of incomprehensible french. I look at him blankly, and say 'Pardon, no parliveu francais' He then switches to english, and asks if i would like any help. I'm already smiling, but now I say yes and start nodding violently. The guy was awesome, told me right were to go, and 15 minutes or so later i'm in front of the funky building i was looking for. I go in and chill, checking out the works of Dali, Kandinsky, and other more freaky and disturbing stuff. I eventually end up eavesdropping on what seemed to be a pretty high level art tour from the states and just absorbed as much information from them as possible, which was cool. I would much rather go through these places with the guidance of someone knowledgeable, but usually just end up staring at stuff like an idiot by myself, listening to the audio-guide if available.
I finally tear myself away from the group long enough to find that i have 23 minutes to return to my bike, undo the tangle of chains i have used to bond it to a fence, return bike, collect remainder of security deposit, figure out the metro (subway) ride metro to louvre, and find the entrance to the louvre.
22.5 minutes later i jog up to the front of the pyramid a little damp. There are four other people there. Apparently, the louvre is not as popular an item as i had thought it would be. No worries, i grab my ticket, chat for a bit, and lo and enter with peter and bob (who had showed up during chatting). No english map, they were out, so i make do with 日本語版. No worries, it actually makes me feel kind of good that i can. What a dork, eh?
I know that if i let myself, i will just wander around like a kid in a candy store, mouth agape, listening to every bit of audio guidance available on my 5 dollar dvd-rental unit. So instead, i decide to get the whole mona lisa thing out of the way. Peter takes a million pictures, so i decide to go on ahead. The ML is smothered in tourists and the strobe of flash photography. This is hilarious. I take pictures of the people taking pictures of the ML. haha. I then wander around the louvre abusing my dvd audio guide and just grokking as much as possible. I then realize that there is noway i could possible see a quarter of the louvre in 2 days going at this rate. I start going towards the egyptian section and the part containing greek and roman statues, stopping at anything incredibly interesting in the way.
I wish that the brand Nike did not exist. It is such a cool concept, the winged goddess of victory: Nike. A shame that she has been reduced to a Jordan-endorsed swoosh. I stop and stare at the remnants of an almost 3 meter tall Nike, wings outstretched, and it brings me chills. Awesome.
Egypt is also cool. Staring at a gigantic polished marble head and thinking of tawny egyptians toiling away under the sun polishing this. 3500 years ago. Stare at hieroglyphs, entranced, for an unreasonable amount of time. Running low on time now, rush through Greek and Roman statues, listening to what audio I can. Must return to the hotel within 13 minutes. book it through the louvre, stopping if i see something i simply cannot neglect, return the dvdAG, collect my passport (another thing that gives me chills in a different way, i would have rather left the guy with 200 euro), run to the metro, get on the right train and arrive in front of the hotel at exactly 6 to find that once again that punctuality does not really seem to matter to anyone else in the group. Oh well, laid back is good.
We await our coach(bus). We continue to await the coach. This goes on for awhile. Finally, Vykee comes back and says screw the coach, you guys go to lunch. Who wants to be leader. Somehow i get nominated, get the directions, and off we go. Vykee stays behind and tries to hire a cab. We navigate the metro and arrive at the eatery with no problem. Vykee then calls again and says that she is having trouble securing transportation for our luggage. What ends up happening is we all get on the night train to berlin, and the only person with all of their baggage is me ( i travel with only one pack, which i carried with me). Apparently the reason is this: http://www.commondreams.org/headlines02/0526-01.htm
A huge anti-bush demonstration which brings traffic in Paris to a standstill. The remainder of the group, consisting mostly of girls, is a little unhappy, but better that we continue with the trip than flip out about luggage, right? The jokes about me getting smelly from only bringing the clothes i can fit into one pack stop =)
The train, fitted with beds so that we can sleep away the trip to berlin, is pretty cool. I spend some time hopping between rooms, talking to all the different people. The 3 musketeers in particular are pretty funny. They had downed 2 huge bottles of champagne in record time and were chatting it up something furious. Eventually everyone gets tired, and I attempt to go to sleep on a bed that is about 5 inches shorter than i am. No problem really... quite a bit more comfortable than an airplane, and I can nod off in no time on a train. Thus concludes day Six.
-- Day Seven - Sunday, June 6th, 2004 --
Awaken on the train with a decent amount of sleep. We will be arriving in berlin in about 30 minutes. I climb down trying not to awaken anyone else and go brush my teeth. (being the only one with luggage, i am the only one that does this =) The station in Germany has about as many people walking around as you can expect at 8:00 on a sunday morning. That is to say it almost appears deserted. We get breakfast from some vendor since the food we had bought in paris with the intent of eating it for breakfast is still in paris. After that, we meet our bus driver, Karen, a friendly Czech guy who doesn't really speak any english, and then swing by to pick up our tour guide for the day, a bitter middle aged woman with a large chip on her shoulder whose name i seem to have forgotten. Our ride in the morning consisted of her just telling us the names of buildings with very little background or history, her working in a few forced laughs, and her answering questions in a kind of harsh manner. Whatever, i still got a pretty good view of berlin, and got a chance to walk around the brandenburg gate, the only remaining city gate. West of the gate is a street seen in many history books, every column draped with nazi flags. Although the Nazis were murderous bastards, no doubt about it, i have always thought that they must have had an excellent graphic design division. Although nazi material is now tied to my knowledge of history, if i separate it and try to just appreciate the flags and the emblems without considering the evil they represent, everything seems very well designed and powerful in their simplicity and stark colors. Probably a weird thing to say, but a book by william gibson kind of keyed me into this disassociated appreciation.
We finally end up at the hotel. 80% of the people on the tour crash, muttering about not having any luggage. I get a room to myself for some reason and take a shower, anticipating the knock on the door from Dale who wants the room, probably to shag with Rachel. I'm sitting on the bed reading stephenson, literally chilling, or waiting for my body to cool down from the shower before getting dressed when the predicted knock, well, make that cacophony of noise, sounds on my door. It is dale, knocking hard enough to break the door down. I get dressed and let him in. My laptop is playing Shina Ringo, bizarre japanese music. Dale says 'Nice room here'. 'Yeah, it's pretty nice' I go back to reading. Dale stands there for about two minutes. 'You wanna switch?'
I don't really want to get into it, and i really don't care. On the assumption that there is a reason for Peter putting me alone instead of dale (who has had is own room every night prior to this) i tell him i don't really care, just check with peter. Peter says okay. Probably more detail than is necessary, but i thought it was kind of funny how he asked, in no way acting like he was asking a favor.
I walk out on my own and ride the tram 15 minutes to the north, looking for a laundromat. The jokes about me smelling may have stopped, but i'm sure that they will pick back up if i really do start to ripen. I get off the tram station i was directed to by the girl at the hotel and have no idea where the laundromat is. I scare the crap out of some random german guy by asking him for directions. Lucky for me, he speaks fluent english and points me in the right direction, 200 more meters to the north.
Arrive at said laundromat. The setup is pretty complex. In retrospect, i really should have taken a picture, as it was kind of cool. There was a central console into which you must put your money and activate your chosen machine. You then place a cup under the detergent spout, press the button and a bunch of white powder which you hope will clean your clothes is released. This is then poured into a compartment at the top of the side loading washing machine. Further rites involving buttons and arcane symbols and centigrade measurements are performed on the front of the machine itself, and my clothes are being cleaned by a gentle, water saving clockwise rotation.
I did not figure this out by myself. The german guy that gave me directions stuck his head in the laundromat while i was staring at the washing machine dumbfounded and proceeded to do the whole thing for me. wohooo.
Cool. I part company with german dude of intense coolness for the second time, sit down on a bench wincing as i realize it is covered in something nasty, causing my butt to fuse with it. I peel myself off the bench and go next door to a dodgy looking eatery with a german shepherd tied up in front of it on a very short leash. I walk in, look at the food on display, stare dumbfounded at the very german menu trying to figure what the item is by looking at its price, and establish that the shopkeeper speaks no english at all.
After a drawn out episode of charades involving much pointing and thumbs up, and two euros later, I am sitting outside the shop at a table with a Durer (theres an umlaut in there somewhere, in fact, i think there might be an umlaut in umlaut) and a glass of warm tap water. The german shepherd looks at me placidly.
The Durer is incredible. I cannot believe it is only two euros. The dog goes nuts at two bikes and tries to devour a beagle but is foiled by a short leash. I finish the Durer, read for a bit, and then head back over to the laundromat. I start to transfer my damp clothes to the drier when german dude of intense coolness sticks his head in and asks if i would like to have a cup of coffee. I waste no time in agreeing.
We go next door to the dodgy durer shop and get some iced tea. I guess cofee is actually an arbitrary term for any beverage not containing alcohol that people drink while conversing. Except in japan, where it is tea. Turns out the guys nome is Wolfgang, how cool is that, and he is a programmer for a firm that specializes is simulating industrial drills. He has a sister in the US whom he was separated from at birth and just recently discovered. Apparently both he and his sister were illegitimate children, and his grandparents would not tolerate two. Wolfgang got the boot, and ended up being adopted by a different couple. Really a pretty cool guy. The german shepherd goes berserk again, making it perfectly clear that were it not for that damned leash he would have ripped out the jugular of that biker. We continue to talk, and since i have memorized the interview questions (as a part of the trip we are required to conduct two interviews) and work them into the conversation. Here is a write up of it:
-- begin paste of interview --
1: How would you describe germany? It's people? The country as a whole?
a. You cannot really describe germany or it's people, because it is not one country. It is a combination of many little kingdoms that have been conquered or united over the years. People are different from all over germany, and it is far too broad to make such a generalization.
2: What are your Views of the US? The people of the US?
a. Wolfgang is kind of hesitant to answer, but I keep on prodding him. You are lucky that you are asking me, i think many people in germany are not able to tell the difference between the american government and the american people. I think the current government is not very good with foreign policy, or even policy within the US. It seems to have no concern for environmental issues, and does not really seem to care too much about the world. It kind of worries me because really, there is only one superpower left, and that is america. What seems to be happening more and more is that america will just go off and do whatever it wants, and there really isn't anyone around that can stop them.
The american people are hard to generalize. (Do you know of any stereotypes that are common to germany?) Stereotypes... yes. For one, americans seem to have trouble talking about sex. The clinton incident was funny, but so was the superbowl thing. Europeans do not really think that kind of stuff is a big deal. Another one would be arrogance, i don't really think that one needs too much explaining. Also, ignorance seems to be a big problem. I was reading in national geographic that in a survey of american 9th- 11th graders, 70% of them could not find Iraq on a world map. And this is not just any country, this is Iraq, a country where your people have forces committed.
3. What is your view of the EU and european integration?
a. I think it is a very good thing. It has increased trade and made travel between different countries very easy. It also makes things more peaceful, i think that there is no longer even the possibility of warring between european states. I guess one bad thing about integration and the facilitation of trade is that many jobs and factories are moving to the east, where labor is cheaper.
-- What about the recent addition of 10 new members on May 1st?
I think that it is a good thing. Although we will be carrying their economies along for awhile, and it will take a while for them to catch up, we had to bring them in eventually, and i think it is for the better that we brought them in now, and can help them get back on their feet.
-- Thats really cool that you view it in that way. I think that in the US we would not even consider integrating with a weaker country for fear that they would weaken our economy. Instead, you seem to want to help these people.
Yes, i think that the EU is a very good thing. I think that eventually, we may even see something like the United States of Europe
4. You had mentioned earlier that with the dropping of trade barriers, some jobs have been going to the east, where labor is cheaper. This is something that has been going on in the world, you see many factory type jobs moving to southeast asia, especially china. This is all part of something called globalization. As shipping gets cheaper, and trade barriers are drop, the world gets smaller. We start to see an even more integrated economy. Also an issue is the presence of nationwide corporations and franchises such as McDonalds and KFC. You can go to Thailand, a poor country incredibly different from the US and find a KFC.
a. Yes, that is a difficult question. Even in germany if you look at the bottom of any toy you usually see made in china. Although it may seem that at the present those workers are being exploited, in the past most workers have started out as exploited. I think that eventually they will be able to uprise, and start to demand better treatment.
5. Your English is incredible, and it seems like many people in germany speak very good english. Why is this? How is it tought in the schools?
a. Many people start learning english from first grade, it is a very popular language. Taking a foreign language is mandatory in almost all schools, and some people even take 2. French and spanish is also fairly popular. Some schools even have italian.
-- end paste of interview
During the course of our conversation, the GS flips out a few more time. Some dude from the dodgy durer shop comes out and speaks to it sternly, and then gives it a fresh bowl of water. GS returns to terrorizing the passerby.
I say goodbye to Wolfgang and return to the hotel. We all go out to eat, nothing too fancy apart from being buffet style and all you can eat. We then go to check out checkpoint charlie, the third of three points where people could pass from east into west germany (the first two being alpha and bravo). Museum is interesting, many true stories of people risking their lives for freedom, quite moving really. People building ultralights from tech manual and junkyard parts, climbing over power lines, families scraping together hot air balloons, digging tunnels, everything you can think of to get to the west.
After that i came back to the hotel and got some sleep.
End day 7
-- Day 8 - Monday, June 7th --
Woke up today and went for a jog while everyone else went to the station to get their luggage. Found another neat park and ran around it for awhile, to my knowledge though there is no royalty associated with this one. One thing i have been noticing though is the ever-presence of graffiti in berlin. Perhaps it is because we are staying primarily on the east side, but almost every building that has not been restored is covered in graffiti. I just imagine all these pre-89 east berliners pissed at life somehow acquiring spray paint and covering everything they can. Too bad i don't read german.
We meet up with our tour guide, Martin. Very, very cool guy. He redoes most of the tour the woman from yesterday botched and then takes us out to potsdam. Not only was the town quaint and quite cool, we also walk around Cecielienoff and Sans Souci. Cecielienoff was cool in the english style, lots of useless chimneys. It was also the site of the potsdam conference after WWII. Actually, that is probably the only thing that put it on the map. None the less, it is always interesting being somewhere that was a major part of history. It is cool just to stand in front of a wall and think Stalin, Churchill, and Truman sat here and drew lines all over germany that changed the lives of everyone in the country.
We then go to visit Sans Souci. Apparently this was the vacation home of Frederick II, also called frederick the great. This guy was pretty interesting. Although he widened Prussia's borders considerably in many different wars, he was also a great fan of philosophy and music. He constructed Sans Souci (which means no worries) as a type of summer retreat, where he could study music and philosophy, and also eat figs all day long. Actually, I think it was just so he could eat figs all the time. The entire back yard of the palace is composed of fountains, and more importantly, a multi-level terrace with glass-enclosed compartments in the terrace walls where Fred would grow, you guessed it, fig trees.
Of course, in addition to this fred II held musical concerts, in which he played pieces he composed, as well as philosophical debates attended by such heavyweights as Voltaire, who also liked figs.
We then ride back into berlin and are set loose in the middle of the city. I walk around for awhile, doing the whole ningen-watching thing. I finally park my but in a seat that was part of an outside cafee belonging primarily to McDonalds and typed on my laptop while watching all the people go by.
After this we eat, return to the hotel and chill for the rest of the night. I abuse the internet some more, looking into ticket prices for trains from Munich to Venice. I feel kind of bad because Carrie came down wanting to use the internet, and I told her i would be done in a few minutes. I then proceed to get sucked into the information vortex for an unknown period of time. I come out of my daze long enough to notice Carrie walking away... i am a jerk. I'll apologize to her tomorrow.
After that, peter makes fun of me for quite awhile, calling me a jerk for monopolizing the net connection. This continues until some more people come down the stairs wanting to see the end of the world flash. I show this, then i also show the Woo-Woo thing, to most people's amusement. Bubb-Rubb and Lil'Sis never fail.
I then show Chris Farley and Mike Meyer's japanese gameshow skit from SNL. Peter was laughing so hard he was crying. It was ridiculous. After sharing more mind rotting flash cartoons to eager victims (think badger badger badger ... mushroom) I go to bed. End day 8.
-- Day 9 - Tuesday, June 8th 2004 --
No jog this morning, today will be a sit in the bus day, and the last time I went jogging before one of these my legs were useless for the next couple of days. This is a good feeling, but it can be kind of frustrating knowing that objects you could usually jump over, or heights you could normally jump off of are now best avoided. Made me act like a normal person for all of paris. ANYHOW.
We depart at 9, thanks to Vykke taking the initiative and phoning Dale's room ahead of time. Actually, he was still a little late, and we left at about 9:10. We then ride 2+ hours to Dresden, a pretty little town that was reduced to liquid stone by RAF firebombs during WWII. Some of the major structures remained somewhat intact though, and have since been restored. This includes the Zwinger palace of Augustus the Strong. For a name like 'Augustus the Strong' you would expect this guys thing to be war and conquering, or maybe gladiator combat. Nope. Porcelain. Zwinger is now a museum dedicated to all manner of chinese, japanese, and 18th century european porcelain. I usually shy away from porcelain in museums and galleries. I think that because of all the fancy china in my grandparents house i have developed a distaste for it. Despite this, Zwinger was enjoyable. The palace was beautiful, and the porcelain was actually pretty cool. Even aside from the traditional pots and plates which were quite intricately painted, with delicate gold leafing and multicolor murals, there was a zoo composed entirely of animals made out of porcelain. It was actually quite weird - it reminded me of the hall of the mountain kind (or whatever) in Return to Oz in a queer sort of way. I should see that movie again.
Our departure is once again delayed by dale being late, but we are all used to it by now =) Continue travelling to Czech and Prague. - Imagine four hours of me sitting in the bus alternating between reading and gaping at incredibly beautiful and increasingly mountainous countryside -
Prague. We check in, eat, and deal with the mundane. Then Peter, Bob, and I take the U (subway) into Prague. Prague is incredibly cool. I know that must be sounding stupid by now, since I have said it about every city so far, but Prague takes the case as far as atmosphere and charm go. The winding cobblestone streets hemmed close by tall 18th and 19th century european architecture, the sheer amount of smiling people, the soft artistic lighting spread all over town, and quite a few things undefined come together to create a lively, romantic city. Imagine all of the positive stereotypes americans have of Europe as flower petals. Scatter these petals on top of water, boil it, directing the mist through a pipe which eventually turns downward into an iced pot and starts coiling. The hot steam/mist will condense upon hitting the ice-cooled section of tubing and form a fluid which, when left to sit at room temperature will separate into two fluids. Most of it is useless. But the thin layer of fluid that has risen above this useless crap is essence of Europe, and it is what Prague is made out of. Incidentally, the same procedure, with actual flower petals instead of stereotypes, is used to produce perfume.
Peter and I walk around Prague at night for awhile. Some too-hip looking chick asks us if we smoke weed, Peter is intrigued by the sex machine museum, I piss off a healthy looking beggar by giving him a euro-penny (he actually threw it away, guess he wasn't that bad off), and bob hits a perfectly defenseless plastic cow. We walk from Muzeum (spelled like that) across town, cross the river by walking over some nameless bridge and cross back via the Karluv bridge. Karluv was completed sometime in the 15th century, and then covered with Baroque statues during 18th century. It also is romantic and made of the 'essence of europe' stuff described earlier.
We then come home. As i write this i try listening to Emminem again. After three songs I delete the entire album. I finish writing this listening to Evanescence. End day 9.
-- Day 10 - Wednesday June 10th, 2004 --
Well, today we do the 'official' tour of prague. The tour guide essentially covers the same sights that we saw in the evening, with the major addition of the national palace and the neo-gothic cathedral attached to it. The palace is fairly cool, but i find the city more interesting. The cathedral is impressive in scale and design, and although it is almost indistinguishable from a true gothic cathedral, it does not hold the same air of holiness that imbued Notre Damme and Canterbury. The stained glass windows are more ornate, and with richer colors, but have less charm, and a tribute from the patron (read advertisement for a bank or insurance firm) built into it. This is not to say that it was not enjoyable - it was. I even stared at the ceiling, long enough to notice that the columns really did not need to meet at the top. Although this allows for a funkier design, it also drives home the fact that the people building neo-gothic churches did not have to work anywhere near as hard as the poor saps who poured their lives into the originals.
After the palace and chapel we descend the hill and walk through Prague. It is as cool by day as it was by night. No more perfume-creation process analogies. at least not for a couple of days, it's hard work. The guide takes us through prague and across the Karluv bridge, this time giving us some history. Apparently the baroque statues lining both sides are replicas. The originals, having been deemed priceless cultural artifacts are tucked away in a museum. If a person were more observant than myself, they would have noticed that certain parts of a plinth located in the center of the bridge were polished clean by friction from the hands of countless superstitious people. This observant person would most likely then suppose that the character resting upon this plinth, a saintly looking man with an aura of five stars, was pretty important. Apparently, this person was St Nepacum (i must be spelling that wrong, lack of a constant internet connection hurts), a confessor priest who refused to reveal the confessions of the queen, and was thus drowned by the king. When his body resurfaced, it was said to be surrounded by five stars, thus the five stars depicted in the statue. According to the guide, this Nepocum (maybe one of these spellings will be correct) is the patron saint of Bulgaria, and touching him will bring you luck. I too got in line and touched the shiny spot.
After this the guide ditches us in the old square. I head off by myself and wander around for awhile, just digging the coolness that is prague. Different kanji by day, brighter and more festive. As the sky darkens, i find a ghetto internet cafe and wait out the brief rain by diving into the internet, talking with the cool people in Rosa.
As the storm ends, I again hit the streets and decide to ride a tram for awhile. When i live in a city for awhile, i develop an instinctual feel for it, kind of like a mental flavor. Marquette, where i grew up, has the most vivid and well know flavor. I can instantly recall exactly what it feels like to live in marquette, and participate in some of its communities: diving from cliffs into the icy waters of Superior in the summer, and making the best of Marquette Mountain on my snowboard in the winter. Green bay and Wakayama also have pretty strong flavors to it. Bangkok and Phnom Phen are fleeting spices that when recalled make my mouth water. Riding a bus, tram, or train (any slow moving above ground transportation really) tends to make this taste stronger. When i went down to milwaukee by myself to see if summerfest was really all that cool, i ended up spending a few hours just riding the public bus around, trying to grok the neighborhoods and watching all the people. This is what i did in prague. I hopped on the tram, grabbed a seat, and alternated between staring out the window and discreetly observing the other passengers. At one point i switch trams and end up riding line 23 up a hill towards the palace, and then shoots out into the shabbier sections of prague. This is similar to what happened in milwaukee. I picked up a bus in the shiny business district. 15 minutes later i was going through the dirt-lawn ghetto. The buildings started to tend more towards soviet architecture, or rather, soviet lack of architecture. The tram comes to a turnabout at the end of the line. Everyone except me pours out. The doors close. The driver runs away. I am alone in the tram. Not to worry, something has to happen eventually. 15 minutes later I am retracing the earlier route. A young boy with some type of sports case, perhaps lacrosse, gets on the train. His clothes are clean but well worn, and he has a plastic wiffle-ball threaded through a keyholder attached to the zipper of the case. He gets out after 2 stops. Two middle-schoolish girls get on, chat away, giggling, and then get off 90 seconds later at the next stop.
At some point i hop off the tram and stumble across an organ recital of 'Famous holy pieces' at a baroque cathedral. a VERY baroque cathedral. Student price is 100 crowns cheaper than the normal fare. I explain that i do not have my ID, and the guy is cool about it. 290 crowns later and i am sitting inside this gaudy, baroque church, trying and failing to find a comfortable way to sit in a church pew. As i wait for the performance to begin, i stare at the gold-leaf covered statues of buff angels slaying things, or lighting bolts crashing down, or saints emitting holiness. It is actually quite cool.
The recital is good but not fantastic. Oh well, i had never really had a chance to appreciate live organ music, and this was a good experience. I have one hour until I am supposed to meet the remainder of the group in Valascev square, so I decide to check out the Medieval torture museum. It is cool, disturbing, and in some places morbidly funny. Not a good time to be a witch or a heretic. Or rather, not a good time to be suspected of being a witch or a heretic, which really boils down to not a good time to be unpopular or different.
I am back at the square at 8. I sit for 20 minutes, no one appears. 40 minutes, and still no one appears. At some point during the 40 hours in which i sat in the shadow of Valascev's massive equestrian statue a goth-ish chick sits down on the bench across for me. Thinking that i have not talked to any of the locals yet, i try to talk to her. She starts out by saying that her english is not very good. She then goes on to say that her boyfriend is meeting her here. I realize that she has no interest in talking, and leave her alone. I find out later that everybody else was actually across the street from me, and after waiting for 20 minutes or so went off on their own. oh well, i should have been clearer when specifying the meeting spot. After waiting for an hour i take the Metro back to the hotel.
I arrive at Chodov station at the same time the skies start to piss down extremely large droplets of rain. Since it is somewhat of a walk from the station, i take a look at the bus schedule to see if there is a bus which will get me closer to the hotel. It all means very little to me, so i say hello and then apologize to an intelligent looking girl standing next to the schedule. After determining that she speaks english, i ask her if she knows anything about the bus system, and if there is one which will get me closer to Eurohotel Praha. She knows nothing. Fortunately, after repeated mentions of 'Eurohotel Praha' by both myself and intelli-girl, an ultra-hip looking fella with a stylishly shaved head disengages from his girlfriend long enough to say 'Eurohotel Praha?'
After establishing that this is the same EHP that is next to the KFC, Punk-dude relays directions in Czech to intelli-girl who relays them to me in english, and even writes them down on a pad of paper for me. I go back into the Underground, ride to the next station, bother a french gentleman and another pleasant czech person for further directions, hop on a bus, and arrive at the KFC adjacent to our hotel a few minutes later. Friendly people.
-- Day 11 - Thursday June 11th, 2004 --
Day 11 officially consists of transit to the capital of Hungary, Budapest. This fails to happen. We are all in the bus at 9, with the exception of peter. I am nominated to go up to the room and determine the situation. After failing to elicit any kind of a response with a polite knocking, I slam my fist into the door a few times. 'Whaaat....'
'Vykee says you have two minutes to be on the bus'
'Vhat time is ittt...'
Five after Nine.
'Five after WHAT?????' shit..
Apparently he had mis-diagnosed his sleep pills. He comes down to the bus a few minutes later. As we pull away from the hotel, Vykke goes nuerotic thinking that she has forgotten her passport and tears apart all of her luggage to find it safe and sound in the outermost pocket of her fox racing bag (on a side note, i find it hilarious that she wears a little fox racing backpack-purse. apparently she purchased it at some sort of surplus store). Anyhow, passport found, crises averted.
Three hours or so later, Peter realizes that he forgot to get his passport back from the hotel. Hilarity ensues. We are allowed into slovakia, but they do not let us out, and the bus must go back to the capital of slovakia, Blatislava, so peter can try to work something out at the hungarian embassy located there. I find this all ridiculously funny, but most of the other people involved (read: an entire bus including director, driver, and students) were a little unhappy. Oh well, I now have 2 hours with which to taste Blatislava
First of all, the Slovaks seem to be very nationalistic, and have a little bit of a rivalry going with the Czechs. You may have heard of Czechoslovakia. You may even still use this term. The Czechs probably wouldn't care, but the slovaks are a little touchy about it. Example: We cross the border, entering Slovakia. The gaurd gets touchy after finding out that we spent 2 days in Prague, but are (planning on) cruising right through slovakia without so much as a stop. 'What, is our capital not pretty enough? We have history too!'
As i wander around the city i come to a small market featuring a few restaurants and food sellers. People are really friendly. In europe, many times you must pay to use the bathroom. The fee is usually somewhere between 30 and 50 cents. The restroom at this market area was no exception. Figuring that it was not really worth acquiring too much Slovak currency for 2 hours, i have none. I show the girl guarding the bathrooms a double handful of assorted currency: euro, US, Czech Crowns, even some hungarian, and smile sheepishly. She just laughs and waves me into the bathroom. Cool people.
I walk into a cafe and see some unknown pastries. I ask if they will take euro. I offer Czech crown, trying to get rid of it. They scoff in scorn. I offer euro, they think for a moment and then shake their heads apologetically. I show them the rest of my assorted currency and they laugh at me. Then, wonder of wonders, a random woman who happened to be shopping at the same pastry shop said the word euro mixed with a slurry of Slovak, and started digging out Slovakian crowns. I figure what the heck and pool a bunch of euro in my hands. She then takes euro and gives me Slovakian crown instead. Crowns acquired, i buy pastries. Mission accomplished. Very cool people.
After this, i continue to walk around Blatislava. Not really enough time to get the feel of the city, but it is enjoyable. I pass a square in which some old dude is jamming away on a guitar and singing folky sounding tunes in what i assume to be slovak. There are many elderly people dancing as energetically as their joints will allow them.
By this time i have sighted the castle on the top of the hill, and simply must reach it. 45 minutes or so and a few liters of sweat later, I have reached the castle and stand in front of an incredible vantage point of the city. Neighborhoods of quaintly random, narrow streets are sliced by modern 4 lane. Old architecture in the historical style suffuses the center of the city except for the occasional futuristic bank or department store. In the distance the stacks of the industrial quarter serrate the horizon. All in all a very pretty city. I then jog back to the bus and we continue the journey to Budapest.
Upon reaching the border, it at first seems that all of peter's trouble at the embassy was in vain. The guards do not seem willing to let us through. Karel, the driver, goes over and talks with him. 5 minutes later he comes back, grabs some cold cokes and beer. The next thing i see is the guard walking back to the hut, handing his co-worker half the loot and opening the gate. Whatever works. It takes us Coke, Beer, and Money to get across the hungarian border.
Arrive: Budapest. After greeting the hotel manager, Vykke comes back to the bus and mockingly reads the 'rules' to us. No loud partying past 10. No disturbing the neighborhood. No disturbing the people of the neighborhood, or their pets. No throwing of pets out of windows... after that it goes downhill, but you get the point. Wacked out rules. Apparently the last group of americans they had did everything they could to foster international good will. Oh well, the list sure was funny.
I think i'll end day 11 here.
--- Day 12 - Friday, June 11th ---
0630: awaken. I decide to jog up the mountain overshadowing our hotel. I take a gradual route that takes me up the side at an incline which is still tolerable to jog at, and provides me with an excellent view of the city. Budapest stretches out below me, but there is little to define the view from this side of the mountain, just city. I have since been told that hungary has 2.15 million people, somehow it seems much bigger, buildings covering the land which can be built upon as far as the eye can see, with only the national parks and steeper parts of the hills escaping development. There is still a healthy amount of green, but the way hungary is laid out makes it appear more populous than it really is. I come across a fortified castle at the top of the mountain, apparently it at one point was a garrison, prison, and is now a tourist center and dance club. At one end of the palisade, overlooking the danube, where once stood a USSR monument to the 'unknown soviet soldier' now stands three statues in tribute to liberty and freedom.
I head back down the mountain and discover that I have no idea where I am. I really need to get a clue when it comes to navigating mountains. First the fuji incident, now this. Okay, i traverse the base awhile until i actually reach a bridge on the danube and realize that this is futile. I climb back up the mountain, and as i enjoy the view once more i attempt to backtrack. Unfortunately, due to the circling nature of my ascent i cannot remember exactly what path i took to get up. Trusting to instinct i head to the base and am greeted by yet another unknown locale. Whatever. Right feels good. I jog for about 20 more minutes and discover our hotel. The next time i navigate a steep area I am not going to get cutesy trying to form neat little circles through unknown territory ( i can usually do this on flat ground ). Actually, it was kind of fun. I enjoy getting lost, and this exposed me to a quite a few views i may have not otherwise had the opportunity to enjoy.
Our guide for the day is a kind, well meaning old lady that is completely batty. She drives karel (the coach driver) nuts by giving him last minute directions. This is bad enough when driving a car in tolerable traffic. Navigating a 12 meter bus through the congested streets of budapest, trying to follow the often times impossible (a 12 meter bus does not have the best turning radius) directions of our cooky guide had karel getting quite angsty. I found the entire situation quite hilarious.
We have a two hour break for lunch. Having heard that Budapest was famous for its 'thermal waters' and hot springs, i decide to go to a bath house. There are two within walking distance, I go to both. They are both closed for renovation. Whatever. While walking around marveling at all the restoration i smell something incredibly delicious cooking and eventually wander towards a restaurant. I take a seat on the patio and stare at the menu for awhile, eventually just asking the waiter what the best tradtional hungarian meal available was. This ends up being cold smoked wild boar with horseradish sauce for an appetizer, and a mix of pheasant, wild stag, and what i take to be more wild boar for the main course. If you hadn't guessed by now, hungary has a rich tradition of gaming.
While i am waiting for the meal to be prepared, some guy comes in, receives a menu, and plops a lonely planet book down on his table. Hrmm... probably speaks english.
'I'm sorry, do you speak english?'
'Would you like some company while eating?'
And this is how i ended up spending the two hour break eating exquisite hungarian wild-game delicacies and chatting with the american chemical engineer turned programmer living in munich: Ted. Ted is a pretty cool guy, and had some cool views. One of the few people i have talked who do not think that a CS degree is becoming less valuable in the us. According to some of the sources he has read, the major analyst group pushing outsourcing owns an outsourcing firm, and thus their reporting is not entirely unbiased. It seems that some companies are actually having problems with the practice, and that it does not save as much money as the aforementioned analyst group would like the market to believe. Ahh, more conflicting information. Who to believe?
Couch is now en route to St Andrews, an upstream hamlet that was once separated by budapest but has since been absorbed to some degree. On the way there, our guide Lana pushes Karel closer to the breaking point by giving him more impossible directions. She also points out quite a bit of soviet architecture. These buildings, like all soviet-era constructions, are essentially featureless shoe boxes that disrupt the scenery with their oppressive disregard of aesthetics. In this case, the shoe boxes are population centers. When originally constructed, the individual apartments were not only tiny, but they lacked a kitchen. The idea behind this was to force the parents to eat at the factories and children to eat at school, thus fragmenting the family and making everyone more susceptible to observation. Orwell anyone? Throughout the entire tour it is obvious how bitter Lana is, this woman definitely did not like living under the soviets. I try to get more details from her, but she is strangely guarded, and i do not want to offend her. I resolve to do more reading on what life was like in the east during the communist era. What must it have been like to scar people so deeply, and cause others, such as in east berlin, to resent it so much that they execute the craziest schemes trying to escape. I imagine the joy that is perceivable in many of the escape stories featured at checkpoint charlie inverted into a dull, deadening emotion that continues year after year, and this probably still fails to describe what these people must have felt.
St andrews is a quaint little town largely untainted by the soviets. It has the feel of a village, with cozy one or two level whitewashed houses roofed with red shingling, cobblestone streets, and wooden footbridges crossing tiny streams. Lana takes us up a winding stairway/alley way just wider than my shoulders which leads up a hill to the courtyard of a quaint little church. After more wandering and a brief rest by the river we come to the Marzipan museum. Marzipan is a type of putty-like frosting that is made of (REFERENCE - MARZIPAN) and is frequently used for extremely decorative cakes and the like. The marzipan museum features more impressive works of marzipan - for example a life size sculpture of Michael Jackson (featuring white chocolate), nativity scenes, entire gardens of incredible complexity, the ninja turtles with party wagon, etc. Pretty cool place.
We are to travel back to budapest by boat down the danube. The fifteen minute journey by bus to the dock includes a few more instances of me falling off the seat laughing at the lana-karel interface. What makes it even funnier is that Karel speaks Czech and German, Lana Hungarian and English. Notice that there is no overlap. By this time the whole front of the bus is laughing almost as hard as I am. Feeling sorry for lana, i try to explain that we are laughing at the situation instead of her, and that we certainly are not laughing at her command of english, which is far far better than anyone's ability to speak hungarian (peter not being on the bus at the moment).
The boat ride down the river is pretty chilled. Lana is quiet and there are no DVD audio guides, no factual data to process. Instead of historic landmarks there are trees, some locals swimming in the river, a random child crossing a massive railroad bridge on foot, and a few nice houses. Although the danube is a murky brown in color, it is actually far cleaner than say, the fox river. Yet another thing which amazes me about europe: they actually care about their environment, at a government level! Even though the EU is essentially a political body primarily concerned with finances and economics, it does not put profit before something like turning a primary river into a fetid sewer of paper mill by-product.
The boat rounds a curve in the Danube and i am struck by how beautiful Budapest truly is. Directly in front is the neo-gothic monstrosity they call parliament, every part of it straining towards heaven. The palisade and it's monument to victory tower in the distance, past the 19th century 'chain bridge'.
We re-unite with peter at dinner, other than that the most eventful thing that happens is me swiping numerous carafes of cold water: Budapest is extremely warm during the summer and as a result the entire table spent the day sweating.
After dinner peter is looking for someone to walk around budapest with him, so i volunteer. On the way out of the restaurant we run into a table of drunken scotsmen in kilts. Apparently, you can find bands of scotsmen in any european city, usually at some sort of establishment which serves alcohol, all of them wearing their kilts. As some girl was taking of the revelers, I and the rest of the people in the room ended up verifying that yes, a scotsman does not wear anything under his kilt.
Peter and i walk through budapest as the sun is setting. Well, I walk, peter sort of moves from one picture-shooting-vantage-point to another, talking to me when in transit and asking me to make any shots that are too difficult for his kodak-easyshare. Along the way peter remarks that europe is so classy even McDonalds has a facade featuring corinthian columns.
We eventually make our way across the chain bridge which is guarded by the statues of four lions, two on either end. Apparently, the legend goes that way back in eighteen-whatever, when the chief architect finished the bridge and was formally presenting it to the king and the public he was so confident in the work that he boasted that if anything were incomplete, he would kill himself. An old woman piped up "What about the lions? They don't have any tongues." And with that the architect drowned himself by jumping into the Danube. kind of a cute story. Anyhow, as we are walking between these two lions i notice that there is text carved into the plinth of each and ask peter what it means. Peter explains that they are messages placed their by the soviets, thanking the soviet armies and the party for the liberation of the people of hungary. He is suddenly very unhappy and goes on for some time about how terrible it is that this has not been removed. Even though most soviet era monuments have been removed, this remains. Again the bitterness. And again the seeming unwillingness to talk about it.
On the other side of the bridge we come to what both peter and i have been looking forward to the entire night: Naqyi Palacsintazoja. Part of the reason i accompanied peter on this excursion is that he said he knew of an excellent creperie (i think this is what you call an establishment that sells crepes.) Naqyi Palacsintazoja ( which translates into Granny's creperie) turns out to be a hip little shop targeting youth and offering every type of crepes imaginable. Granny's offers both sweet, dessert type crepes as well as more substantial offerings such as indian, pizza, and Schezuan (however you spell it) that actually serve as a type of dinner. I, with peter translating the all-hungarian menu, order a Cinnamon, banana, and honey crepe accompanied by one filled with a sweet walnut-based crepe. I had already had dinner =) The crepes are well worth the anticipation. Peter goes ahead and orders four sugar loaded calorie bombs, and tops it off with a diet coke. (sorry peter, i just think that the diet coke is too much =). The place has a really cool, welcoming atmosphere to it. It also is open 24 hours and does not sell alcohol. It seems like one of those noble enterprises that tries to help people even as it makes money. In this case, maybe trying to give kids a welcome place to hang out any hour of the day. That, or my idealism is tainting things again and they simply make more money by staying open 24 hours. Either way, cool shop. Check it out if your ever in Budapest.
- End Day 12 -
--- Day 13 - Saturday, June 12th ---
Awaken. After confirming that everyone has their passports we begin to travel towards Austria. As hungarian highways have something like a 20km/h speed limit, this takes some time, and frustrates Karel greatly. He knows enough english to explain: "This not speed limit, this SLEEP limit" and shakes his head disgustedly.
On our way we take a slight detour to see Eisenstadt, noble residence of the Eisengards, given power in this particular area of europe by the Hapsburgs, or at least, this is what i got out of the guides introduction. Of course, this is probably a good guess anyways as the hapsburgs seem to have had their hand in every non-napoleonic appointment of nobles in continental europe. I make a note to myself to find some kind of decent history on this dominating and prolific family, probably titled something like "Hapsburgs: the greater part of european history".
Well, as we have established, being brought into power by the Hapsburgs is not particularly remarkable, and if this was all there was to Eisenstadt, we probably would not have made this little detour. What really makes the Eisengards remarkable is their dedication to the arts, particularly music. Eventually this combination of money, power, and good taste in music allowed the Eisengards to employ Haydn as the houses conductor and musical head honcho. Haydn, if you had not guessed by now is yet another famous composer, much like bach or mozart. You get the idea. [RESEARCH - HAYDN]
After this brief history the guide seats us in the concert hall of Eisenstadt, renowned for it's acoustics, and begins to play one of Haydn's symphonies over the stereo. I realize that this must sound cheesy, but you must understand that this is a hall designed by a noble family with quite a bit of resources solely for the purpose of appreciating music. Not only is it incredibly elegant with murals of greek legends on the walls and ceiling, the acoustics could probably make a six year old jumping up and down on top of a violin sound elegant. That, and the hall was currently equipped with a really good stereo system.
After gaping at the hall for a good period of time, i close my eyes and just let the music roll over me, trying to imagine what it must have been like during the 18th century, envisioning a full orchestra playing to an audience of elaborately dressed lords and ladies moving very carefully so as to not cause their elaborate costumes to collide with anything. For some reason i envision most of the women wearing a pale shade of yellow with lots of white lace, and the men wearing ornate blue jackets, high boots, and white lace equaling the ladies. This probably has absolutely no historical authenticity, but it is a pretty picture, especially coupled with the music swirling around my head. Sometimes i can enter this trance-like state when listening to music where my body seems to drop away and i can just watch a dream unfold, to the sound of the music. I eventually awaken from this dream, usually because i have either slobbered on myself or fallen out of my chair, and when i do there has been no interruption of the music. This happens while listening to haydn in the exquisite concert hall of eisenstadt, and i see a graceful procession of nobles. I am ripped out of this peaceful not-dream by the feeling of slobber running down my chin: the historically inaccurate but charming 18th century world falls away and replaced by reality, and throughout it all the music plays, uninterrupted.
We arrive in Vienna in the mid-afternoon, plenty of time left to walk around and check out the town before dinner. I wander off alone in the general direction of St Stephen's. On the way I step into a pastry shop in search of the legendary Sachr-torte. According to Vykkee, this is one of two sweets for which Vienna is renowned, the other being apple strudel. If one had an abundance of money and craving for sweets, they could go to the hotel Sachr, where the sachrtorte was originally invented (by the way, i am most likely spelling everything wrong) and have the famous pastry along with a cup of coffee. However, at some point in history the hotel came across financial difficulties and actually sold the sachr-torte recipe, so now it can be found at a few other shops throughout the city for considerably less money. Regrettably, this shop did not offer sachr-tortes. The girl was extremely friendly though, seeming to find my attempts to communicate funny, and thought for quite awhile before recommending a pastry to me. This is something that is repeated in Austria, the people are overwhelmingly friendly and willing to talk to you, even more so than the rest of europe. In a good way.
As i continue wandering, heading towards what i assume to be st stephens, visible only as glimpses of a very tall and gothic structure from narrow streets that align with it before dead ending or making an irregular turn (perfect four way intersections of the type common to american cities are seldom seen). As you can imagine, navigating in this fashion causes me to wander back and forth quite a bit - not as efficient as navigating by a map but far more fun. On the way i stumble into a procession of white robed fellas dancing around and beating drums. Most of their heads are shaved with the exception of what i would call a top-knot except that it is in no way fierce or martial looking, nor is it even bound in a not. Rather it is a few limpid strands of hair growing out of the back of their heads. Kind of interesting. Eventually procession comes to a square and the intensity picks up. They start moving in circles, faster and faster to the paces of the drums. The viennanese are looking on with as much curiosity as me. Eventually they start chanting Hare-Krishna, whatever that means, and start heading in another direction. Having already followed them for quite awhile I resume my trek towards St Stephens.
Although predominantly gothic, St Stephens has been rebuilt so many times it includes a mixture of various styles. It is quite imposing, overshadowing the neighboring buildings and making the square in front of it feel smaller. In the square i happen to run into Steph and Emily, who are going to see a recital of classical music later that night, and convince me to come along. Tickets are sold by a number of men and women dressed up in costumes, so i walk up to one of them and shell out 20 euro. While i'm at it, I ask if i can take a picture. They all eagerly smile and pose for the camera. Quite cool people.
I again head off on my own, checking out the inside of the cathedral. There is actually a mass in session, so tourists are not allowed to walk into the main area of the church, but i am able to soak it up from the area not blocked off. This is one of the coolest things about these churches - they actually use them! I am in no way religious, but imagine that it must be an incredible feeling to hold mass in such a structure, the voice of the church-entity (not sure what title would be appropriate) resounding through the cavernous hall, not bouncing off the ceiling because it is simply too high, punctuated by bits of organ or choir music. Regrettably, no music is played at this mass, if indeed that is what it is. After staring stupidly at the interior of the church for awhile i resume my exploration of the city.
Throughout europe there have been street performers. The english bloke shouting vulgarities at the crowd in london was probably the most interesting, but there have been performers of some type in almost every city we have been in. The most common by far is the statue-type. These people will dress up in something outlandish, sometimes covering themselves with gold or silver paint to make themselves seem more inanimate, and stand on a pedestal straining to stay still. Sometimes if you chuck a coin into the ever-present receptacle they will even move in a slow, mechanical way. In vienna i saw two guys apparently get sick of standing still. They just started moving normally and sat down upon their plinth. Guess people were not chucking in enough money. I felt bad for the guys, but at the same time it was kind of interesting to see them shrug off their immobility and become normal people wearing weird costumes. It gets even funnier as i realize the reason they are giving up is that a few feet away a man dressed up as the golden statue of some magician is drawing a much larger crowd, and more coins. In fact, he was drawing all of the crowd, and all of the coins. Kind of an odd type of competition.
After dinner Bob, Emily, Steph and I set out towards the mozart concert/recital. We left the hotel with Steph in the lead, but after getting totally lost i finally asked a policewoman (who spoke excellent english) for directions and was steered in the right way. This is a pattern that will continue to be repeated. Of all the countries we have been to, excepting england of, Austrians seem to have the best english. Anyhow, with the police woman's directions and the aid of a map we show up in time for the show. I was expecting some kind of orchestra type event, but find that it is more of a casual performance. Seven musicians in full 18th century regalia take the raised stage and sit behind 2 violins, a viola, one base, one cello, a flute, and a piano. They are all fairly young, and i think they were probably the same ones walking around during the day selling tickets to tourists. I'm not really competent to judge the quality of music, but it sounded excellent, and everyone else seemed to be clapping just as loudly as i was. During certain pieces two dancers and/or two vocalists would come on stage and add to the performance, so it was not just listening to stationary instrumentalists. I guess these types of plays or recitals are quite a tradition in vienna. If you think about it, mozart spent quite a bit of time here, as did beethoven and a few other famous musicians. Music seems to be a big part of the culture, and they seem to embrace it. It was quite an enjoyable experience.
--- end day 13 ---
--- Day 14 - Sunday, June 13th ---
We all assemble on the bus with the conspicuous absence of peter. Apparently, Jen's birthday celebration continued into the night and while the four of us were listening to Mozart peter was getting ridiculously drunk and singing 'My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean'. We meet our guide (who thankfully is able to communicate with Karel in german) and tour the historical center of vienna. Oddly enough, i saw most of the sites yesterday walking around by myself, but it is always nice to have a little bit of commentary and history. The guide is friendly and competent, providing plenty of little anecdotes to help cement facts into our heads. For instance, Vienna has a 'rich tradition of coffee shops' (vienna has many 'rich traditions') and the viennese enjoy just chilling out at a coffee shop reading a book or the paper. Our guide then goes on to say that 'However, my husband, the traitor goes where? STARBUCKS! Over 200 historical Viennese cafe's and he goes to starbucks!' It's not quite as bad as it sounds, the only reason he goes to starbucks is because he likes their no smoking policy. Which is something else you immediately notice in europe: smoking is still very much in. Restaurants not only allow smoking, often times they do not even have a dedicated smoking session. People smoke in the lobbies of hotels, on the trains, in the street, on the busses. There is nothing wrong with it, it just comes as something of a shock to my american perspective, where smoking might as well be evil and is contained to certain locations. Japan is also still very much a smoker's country, but not to the extent that europe seems to be.
After the tour of the city, our guide speaks to karel in perfect german and we drive out of the city by a route entirely navigable by a 12 meter vehicle. Karel seems to like Vienna more than budapest. Our destination is Schonbrunn, the summer residence of the Habsburgs, most notably Joseph and his... eccentric wife Sisi. There is actually quite a bit of history behind these two, but the essence of it is that Sisi was not raised to be married to an emperor. When Joseph came to the Bavarian court with his mother to meet his wife to be, Sisi's older sister, he immediately became enamored of Sisi instead, and demanded her for his wife. Sisi, until now, had been raised in an extremely liberal and free manner, in a small palace away from the intrigues of court. Although Joseph was dedicated to her, the intrigue and strictness of an imperial court essentially crushed her. Eventually, although incredibly intelligent and independent, she became obsessed with her image and figure and dieted obsessively. She would often make dining guests sick because instead of eating normally she would drink steer's blood, which was believed to convey the strength of a steer without making a person fat.
Anyhow, the palace of Schonbrunn is a bit out into the countryside. Although it only takes us 20 minutes to get there in the bus, it took Sisi and Joseph half a day by carriage. It is a very pretty palace, and the resemblance to Versailles is immediately apparent, especially if you see the gardens. Although smaller in scale, and less grandiose, Schonbrunn was originally planned to out-do Versailles. However, due to incessant wars, the funds necessary to do this simply were not available, and as such it is a much more humble affair than the french residence of Louis XIV. Although not as impressive as Versailles, Schonbrunn is much more, comfortable. touring it you actually get the impression that actualy people lived here. Joseph's study is plain, with down to earth furniture that you could probably find in an antique shop, and decorated with pictures of Sisi and his children. They say that joseph considered himself not the emperor and supreme ruler of the austrian empire, but rather it's first servant. Although admirable, this probably contributed to Sisi's descent into weirdness, as he would frequently put in 15 hour days in the service of the empire.
After Schonbrunn, we were dropped in the middle of the city and given 'free time' until dinner. Instead of wandering around by myself as usual, i actually hung out with the three musketeers. First, we went to the cafe recommended by the guide in search of the legendary sachr torte. At this time it was 1pm in the afternoon and the place was packed. All of the seats put out into the streets, every table on both floors inside were taken. After a survival-of-the-fittest type exercise in which all four of us split up and searched for tables, we were finally able to secure a seat. Apparently, there are no neat little "The waitress will seat you" lines in europe. The sachr-torte was good, but after all of the hype it was kind of a let down.
After that the four of us rode the train back out to Schonbrunn, this time to see the zoo which neighbors the palace. Pretty cool place, and quite a bit different from the american zoos i have seen. For the most part, the animals are in environments that seem to more closely approximate their own natural habitat. I very rarely had the impression that the animals were in a cage. Secondly, there were quite a few 'interactive' environments. One of the monkey rooms was especially cool: we entered through heavy doors and plastic tarps to an arboretum with vines crisscrossing overhead. At first, we thought nothing of it until we noticed that there were tiny little monkeys running along them, close enough to reach out and touch. It was incredibly cool, being able to gawk at these little dudes as they hung from a vine less than a foot from my face. Another cool interactive area had these tiny little hyper active birds that moved way too fast to really see. I pass through the now familiar heavy doors and plastic tarps and enter a room dominated by jungle vegetation, the foot path an afterthought shoved to the side. I couldn't really see anything too remarkable at first, and as i was already lagging behind the three musketeers (i tend to spend too much time gaping at things) i just started walking straight through. About halfway through the room a flicker of color caused me to twitch my head to the left just in time to avoid having it taken off by a green and yellow blur. I then duck again as another blur of color comes from the other direction. By now i'm laughing pretty hard, and have realized that the birds probably do not want to hit me, so i just stand still and let them whiz by me at ridiculous speeds, laughing the entire time. Carrie finally duck walks back into the room to see what is taking so long, and i begin to slowly walk towards the exit, birds whizzing by my head every step of the way. A very cool zoo.
Throughout the trip vykke has told us about these giant cement towers that were built by the germans during wwII. After dinner, she points one out on my map, and i decide to go check it out. The musketeers, and everyone else in their right mind, finds ice cream more interesting that WWII relics, and decide to head to a renowned parlor instead, leaving me once again on my own. Ah well, it's all good, wandering around alone tends to make it easier to meet people. That, and if i feel like going somewhere on a whim, i can.
After asking for directions only once, i make it to the site. It's pretty hard to miss: a massive cube of grey concrete dwarfing all of the surrounding buildings. The thing is incredibly bizarre and clashes jarringly with the pretty historical style buildings surrounding it. I walk around it a bit, and find that the viennese are trying to put it to some use: part of it has been converted into what appears to be an aquarium, and two external faces are now seeing use as climbing walls. It is getting dark as i approach the tower, but there are a few hard core climbers still hanging out, boulder-ing. I apologize profusely and ask if i can climb: unfortunately the office which rents the scaling gear is closed, but they invite me to boulder for a while if i'd like. My friends make fun of me all the time for being monkey like, and randomly climbing trees, so of course i take them up on the offer, and climb up, down, and sideways along their bouldering wall. since you only climb about 15 feet up, and there are pads at the base, you don't really need someone to belay for you, so i do this until my forearms start refusing to work. People are still standing around, i start talking to them.
They are college kids just hanging out on a sunday afternoon, and have no problem communicating in english. I remark on this, and they say that they have been studying it since sixth grade, and beyond that many of the texts they are required to read for their courses are actually in english. Although they have majors like architecture and political science, they are reading texts in english. Quite a bit different from what i know of american universities, where usually you only read texts in a foreign language if it is of particular benefit to your major, say, reading a book in spanish for spanish class, or something in latin for an advanced history course.
One of the guys gives me a little more information on the tower, or Flak Tower as they call it. Apparently the city government has tried to get rid of it, but explosives from the inside have very little effect. In fact, it is estimated that if they were to use enough explosives to harm the flak tower, it would probably level most of the surrounding buildings as well. Not only this, but dismantling it by jack hammer would take too long and cost too much. So these huge flak towers continue to exist, almost a monument of sorts. I have to say, the contrast they provide is quite cool. The people i have talked to actually seem to like them, but then that might be because they have turned it into a climbing wall =)
--- Day 15 - Monday, June 14th ---
Our time in Vienna has come to an end, and we move on to Salzburg. Most of the people in the bus are pretty tired, and of course they fall asleep. Peter harps on this for awhile, making such comments as "If these people are not sleeping at night, what ARE they doing?" and so on, until he too falls asleep.
I ask vykke more about the flak towers, since they seem very interesting, but somewhat impractical. Not that i am intimately familiar with the workings of WWII, but it seems like there was no real need to build these massive fortifications right in the middle of vienna, especially since it wasn't a particularly critical center of production or command. Vykke, who has studied the matter quite a bit, says that there are a few different theories. The one she likes the most has to do with hitler's mental instability. The theory suggests that hitler may have had the towers created to serve as a target, not as a defense. Basically, he hated vienna so much because of his troubled youth and repeated rejection from art and architectural colleges that he wanted to destroy it, and hoped that if he placed the flak towers in the middle of the city that the allies would bomb the crap out if it for him. Obviously, this is all just supposition, but still a neat idea, and as vienna was out of range for allied bombers until the very end of the war, it makes a certain amount of sense.
On our way to Salzburg, we stop at the Melk Monastery, a home of benedictine monks since 1089. Razed multiple times, it was most recently rebuilt in the ornate baroque style. Even though it is baroque, this monastery seems more.. tasteful than other baroque buildings i have seen in europe. The ornamentation is elaborate, but not overdone. The whole structure is rather pretty. Our tour of the monastery starts out at the top floor of the museum wing. Probably the most interesting things here are the incredibly elaborate reliquaries: gilded and jeweled containers built to contain parts of saints clothes and bodies. Most of these reliquaries featured a transparent center piece allowing pilgrims to actually see whatever body part they had come to visit. Although reliquaries had always been elaborate, the original idea being to both protect the relic and to reflect the magnificence of the relic contained within, the baroque reliquaries went beyond this. Part of the counter reformation, these almost gaudy containers were designed to fit into an environment that sought to reflect the glory of a living god on earth, and no expenses were spared. Throughout the entire tour of the monastery, peter commented a few times on how ornate everything was, especially for a religious order of monks that were supposed to shun worldly possessions. It is kind of an interesting question. As far as i understand it, all of this wealth is and was the possession of the church, not individuals. Although they still lived in this incredible environment it was not theirs. Perhaps, because it belonged to the church it belonged to god. And if you were concerned with images, and believed that possessions should show the status or station of the owner, then how would you decorate the house of god? I'm not saying that i agree with this, in fact i don't. I don't even know if what i just spewed down into this journal makes any sense at all, just an attempt by me to understand the extraordinary amount of money which must have gone into the baroque cathedrals and monasteries.
After Melk, peter falls asleep and we continue to salzburg, taking an indirect but incredibly scenic route. We take a little tour along the side of wolfgasse, an elongated lake nestled in the austrian alps. The calm blue water reflects the image of the surrounding mountains almost perfectly. As our huge bus navigates a road along the shore of the lake, half the bus moves to the front three seats to gawk out of the windows. Seriously, it is that pretty.
We don't get a chance to swim in wolfgasse, but eventually we come to another lake in the alps and park the bus in the lot of a nearby resort. Those of us crazy enough to go swimming rush over to the bathroom to change. The bathroom, like most public restrooms in continental europe, costs money to use. Rather than pay the elderly gentleman entrusted with guarding the toilet, i go behind the restroom and change as quickly as possible. I figure that if i at least make some sort of effort to conceal myself, then if someone happens to see me it is their own fault and they have no right to get offended. It is probably a moot issue though, europeans seem to be much more relaxed about this sort of thing.
I make my way down to the dock. by now, all the people that will not be swimming in this frigid mountain lake have assembled on the dock to just chill out and laugh at those of us who are stupid enough to dive in. Like me. I walk to the end, take off my shoes, pile my glasses and shirt on top of them, and dive off the end of the dock into water so cold and clear it can only be described as crisp. It feels incredible: after a day of sitting in a bus, jumping into an icy mountain lake is incredibly invigorating. Dale, ex-marine macho man that he is, hesitates for awhile until he is convinced by the people on the dock egging him on that if jon is calmly treading water, and claiming that it feels really good, that it can't be that cold. Dale jumps in, and 30 seconds later jumps out. He is then shown up by Steph, jess and molly, who jump in and scream that its freezing, but stay in long enough to let the shock wear off and actually enjoy themselves. Molly even starts going off about how good the water is for their hair.
I swim around, staying in as long as possible, letting all the excess body heat be drained away. I side stroke out towards the middle of the lake and float on my back, starring at a circle of perfect blue sky pierced by the peaks of surrounding mountains. Idyllic. Eventually, i go back to shore and climb back onto the dock. My shoes and shirt are not where i left them. After looking around for awhile, i find my shoes, but there is no sign of my shirt. I conclude that the kids which were chilling on the dock before we invaded stole my favorite black shirt out of spite. I bring 5 shirts for almost a month in europe and one of them gets stolen! Actually, it was just a typical black shirt and they probably mistook it for their own. Bah. I walk back to the bus half naked and dig in my pack for one of my remaining shirts.
We arrive in salzburg later that evening. It is already pretty late, so I just chill out in the hotel, trying to catch up on my journal (which i am perpetually behind on) and then go to bed. end day whatever this is.
-- Day 16 - Tuesday, June 15th
The hotel we stayed at is very nice, yet our shower lacks a curtain. This may strike other's as odd, but by now i am quite used to it. In austria too, as well as in a few other places throughout our trip, the showers have lacked curtains. It has forced me to develop a special way of showering, always taking care that as much of the water as possible bounces back towards the wall. It is a little more awkward than it sounds.
After marginally cleaning myself and creating a mess of the bathroom, I meet everyone for breakfast, and then decide what to do for the rest of the day. Vykke will be taking everyone into the center of town, after which we will have free time until we are to meet the guide for a walking tour of salzburg. Since my clothes are starting to smell a bit ripe and i am down a shirt, i decide to take this opportunity to do some laundry. I find out where a laundromat is from the hotel's reception counter and then stand on the other side of the street and watch everybody else pile into a bus heading towards the city center. It's always kind of a weird feeling watching EVERY SINGLE OTHER person in the group go one place and then just heading off on my own in the exact opposite direction. I like it. I turn on my music and wait for the bus.
The bus-substitute shows up. It has tires like a bus, but it does not run on petro. It is kind of like a Tram with rubber wheels instead of rail-rims. Like a tram though, it still has runners attached to power lines overhead, so it is confined to a certain range of movement. It is also much wider, and longer than a bus, being divided into two separate cars joined with a flexible joint that keeps the interior wide open. Quite a cool vehicle. In some of the larger cities in america, especially new york, the bus depots are located in the center of a poorer region of the city, and the resulting higher concentrations of diesel fumes in the air cause respiratory problems among the people living in these communities at epidemic rates. These tram-busses, running on electricity, avoid such problems. I kind of doubt that they would ever catch on in the states though. I don't think our governments would be willing to spend the money on the infrastructure required to run such a system, especially when there is a cheaper, already established alternative.
The bus ride is pretty uneventful. Keep in mind, it is tuesday morning so not too much is going on. Neighborhood old-people get on at random stops, talk to the old-people already riding the tram-bus in a neighborly way, and then get off a stop or two later. It is a sign of how efficient and affordable the public transportation system is that people use it just to go a few blocks.
The laundromat is a futuristic affair run by an energetic little old man that greets everyone who comes into the shop and then walks them through the process of using the machines. There are instructions EVERYWHERE, instead of wallpaper, this place has bilingual instructions on how to use the washers and drier. I look at the ceiling half expecting to see a step by step illustrated example. Non the less, the little old man steers me through the entire process, and then points at the flat screen terminals in the corner of the room and asks if i want internet. Wanting to wander around like a dorky tourist, i thank him but decide not to take advantage of the net at this moment. Later, when i come back from wandering around and transfer my four shirts, 6 pairs of underwear, 6 pairs of socks and one pair of shorts over to the dryer, i sit down in the corner, pull out my laptop, and begin to try (again, in vain) catching up on the journal. Imagine, at the beginning of this trip i stocked my laptop with all sorts of information thinking that i would have mounds of time - i hardly get a chance to write the journal. While i'm typing, the little man comes over and compliments me on the laptop, saying it is very nice. It's funny, but this is not the first time during this trip that this has happened to me. Not to be too much of a mac-geek, i have a PC at home and all, but i do not think this would happen with any other laptop on the market. The apple power book is just so slick that people come up and ask questions about it, commenting on how nice it is.
Tech-gloating aside, i finish the laundry, hop onto another bus-tram and head into the center of the town. While going, i make the decision that the castle on the top of the hill would be cool to see. A little while later, a middle-aged woman sits down next to me and smiles. Yay, a guide. I ask her where to get off if i want to see the castle, and she is happy to tell me what stop to get off at, and tries to give some directions but unfortunately there is not enough time. I do not think i can count the number of times during this trip that complete strangers have been completely happy, even eager to help me out.
I step off the bus and into the 'historic city center' of salzburg. Somehow more quaint than Vienna, salzburg still has the classical style architecture, but in general the buildings seem to be of a lighter color. The streets curve madly here as well, but they are paved with cobblestone and rarely traversed by cars. Often times when streets meet there is a little impromptu courtyard type area, and it is as i walk into one of these i am greeted by the strange site of students wearing signs, blown-up (as in made large) money, and yellow safety vests around their torso. Scattered on the cobblestone of the triangular shaped courtyard circular cutouts of black plastic with writing (in german) on them. As I walk through this scene trying to figure out what the heck is going on, a pyramid of cardboard tubes, each individual tube covered with the life-sized picture of a politicians face, is demolished by a student rolling a volley ball into it.
That's it, i must figure out what in the world is going on. I stop, and watch as a girl picks up the tubes, stacks them into a pyramid again, and hurls the ball at them, only getting the top two rolls. Another chap shakes his head, stacks up the pyramid, and hurls the ball harder, knocking them all down. This goes on for awhile until i notice that one of the fellows with a huge euro wrapped around his chest is standing around idle. I walk up to him and ask " Hello, i'm sorry, but do you speak english?" In what i hope is somewhat intelligible german.
He turns around, rather surprised and says, why yes, and we begin to talk. His name is david, a history/education/theology major at the local school. He explains that they are protesting a recent hike in tuition. Apparently, students are required to pay their tuition to the government, but the money that they pay is supposed to come back to the school and be used for the improvement of school facilities. Well, they say that tuition has been raised, but that the school has seen none of it. Instead, the government of austria recently bought a bunch of fighter jets. Although this does seem odd, it seems to have truly upset these students, which is why they are chilling out on this fine tuesday, protesting. While we are talking, another chap comes over and asks if i know who michael moore is. It turns out that the creator of bowling for columbine and now Fahrenheit 911 is immensely popular among students in europe. They also hate bush. We talk for awhile, and establish how bad bush is. After this, the chap is called away by a cute girl and goes to talk to her, and David and i are joined by claudia, a communications major with a technology bent. We start talking about everyday life, and i try to figure out what they do for fun.
Well, it seems like the average college student not having too much money is some sort of universal truth, because the first thing they say is that they do not have much money, so they do not really go out to the bars too much. Instead, they tend to chill out at each others houses, drinking and socializing. During the summer they swim in the surrounding lakes, and in the winter they spend a good deal of time snow-boarding. They are both really cool people, and we just hang out in the courtyard for awhile talking.
About an hour later i continue my quest towards the castle. The castle is pretty neat, and definitely gives the sense of being a military fortification. Although Windsor castle in england seemed like it would be pretty tough to invade, Festung hohensalzburg would be madness. Perched atop a mountain that is towering over the city, the castle is bounded by immense stone walls that go right to the edge of the cliff. Walking to the castle and through the gate instead of taking the cable-car requires the visitor to scale what feels like a 45 degree grade. I carefully climb up the dirt path between towering walls and the occasional sally gate which i imagine would be pouring hot oil or something else nasty down upon me back in the day, dodging the stone irrigation ducts that run diagonally across the path. This would be fun to do in the rain.
The castle proper has been turned into a museum which i did not have time to check out, but area inside the outer wall is still pretty interesting. There is a single large tree in a very not-level courtyard. I walk along the inner wall, which is even higher than the outer wall and peer out of the various cannon ports facing the river and the center of salzburg below. I imagine the soldiers manning these cannons adjusting them to presets allowing them to strike any portion of the plain below or the river, and using them to blow up bridges or ships carrying supplies, the cannon balls falling from the ridiculous height of the mountain fortress into the enemy below.
Salzburg is quite pretty, even when viewed from above. Often times cities look interesting from heights, but seldom are they aesthetically appealing. Salzburg lies in a flat plain surrounded by mountains and divided by a winding river. i guess you could call it a valley, but the plain seems to wide for that.
Running low on time I begin the decent back to the city: i sort of skid down the steep paths of the castle, and then take the steps down the side of the mountain two at a time, run across an open courtyard in which horse-drawn carriages are lined up in a row and two elderly fellas are playing chess on a 15 foot chess board painted on the cobblestones, bending down to use their knees to lift the massive pieces, dodge through various little alleyways and arched colonnades, weave through the crowds of people and meet the rest of the group with 2 minutes to spare.
The walking tour is interesting but very sound-of-music oriented. Every other place we stopped at featured the guide saying that this was featured in so and so part of 'the sound of music' and then telling us how the movie portrayed it inaccurately. As i have not seen the movie, most of it was lost upon me, but judging from the crestfallen looks of some of my travel partners the info must have hit pretty hard. Don't get the wrong idea though, the guide was really cool, and used to taking people on walking tours. She had planned out a route which would let us sit down and listen to her talk after a significant amount of walking. As you can imagine though, there are not many parks or squares with seating for 20 tourists, especially configured in such a way that one speaker can easily address the entire crowd. Our guide's solution to this problem was to use churches. We would walk into a church, (which were massive, being designed for thousands of people), sit down and listen to our guide give us a little bit of history. Although this plan was foiled at one church by a priest who had the indignity to actually be performing some sort of mass, we were able to spend quite a bit of time chilling out in the Dom, or salzburg cathedral, which was quite massive. Although the style is technically baroque, it has more of a renaissance feel to it, and is actually quite elegant. It is very interesting comparing this church to something like notre damme or canterbury. Although similar in scale, the interior of salzburg cathedral is primarily white which makes comparing the two styles similar to comparing night and day. Where gothic cathedrals are somber and mystic, the true baroque cathedrals typically (to my tastes) a little gaudy, the salzburg cathedral is bright and clean.
After the tour i split off on my own in search of confectionary. Salzburg is somewhat famous for their Mozart chocolates. Apparently, some bright entrepreneur in the candy business guessed that since Salzburg was the birth place of mozart, he could make some money by putting chocolate, marzipan, and something else together into a ball and selling it as a 'Mozart Chocolate'. He guessed right, they are very popular and available in almost every shop in salzburg. Unfortunately, he forgot to patent the creation and so other shops soon began to copy him. Today, there are two types of mozart chocolates sold, distinguishable by their wrappers. If i remember correctly, the chocolates in the silver wrapper are closer to the original, hand made, and cost about 20 cents more than the manufactured variety packaged in gold. I buy three of these, intending to eat one now and the save the others for later.
I have heard that the mirabell gardens are very pretty, and start walking over to check them out. On the way over i take one of the numerous pedestrian bridges spanning the river. Salzburg, like most european cities, seems to be designed more for pedestrians than motorists. Not only is the public transportation system fantastic, but there is always an effort to provide a safe place to walk / ride for pedestrians, and much of the town is flat out closed off to automotive traffic.
By the time i reach the gardens, the remaining mozart chocolates have disappeared. Although the gardens are pretty, it is kind of hard to get excited about them after seeing the gardens of Versailles and Schonbrunn. That is, if you only look at the garden itself. One of the key elements of most japanese gardens is the incorporation of the surrounding scenery, and you will often see zen rock gardens or traditional gardens laid out in such a way that the mountains, trees, bamboo or whatever scenery happens to be present complements the overall design. It is subtle but incredibly pretty. Whether the designers of the mirabel gardens deliberately took this approach or not is irrelevant, they succeeded. The mountain upon which hohensalzburg sits and the other mountains framing salzburg combine to make mirabel equal to the gardens of versailles in terms of aesthetic appeal.
I then hop on a bus and head back to the hotel. After dinner most of the group goes to a bar next door to celebrate Stephanie's birthday, and after writing some post cards i stop over and hang out for a little while. It is strange, i have tried many times to enjoy myself in this sort of environment but always seem to fail. I just feel like such an outsider, no matter who the group consists of. Although i do enjoy people's company, i lose the ability to relate in large-ish groups, and usually just end up sitting aside listening to conversation that for the large part seems to lack substance. Sometimes i joke about being anti-social, but at times like this i feel like i really am. I only stick around for about a half hour before returning to my room to read some more cryptonomicon before going to bed. End day 16.
-- Day 17 - Wednesday, June 16th
Essentially the last day of the trip, and most people are actually looking forward to going back to the US. The ride to Munich does not take very long and we arrive before noon. We are to meet our guide at one o'clock at the city center, so Karl gets as close as he can by bus and drops us off. Fortunately, we are let off fairly far away and get a good chance to walk through munich checking it out on foot. Although we stopped briefly in Dresden, the only other german city we spent any significant time in was berlin. It is hard to believe that Munich and Berlin are a part of the same country. Where berlin is spread out, open, and full of larger buildings and converted communist era population centers, Munich is packed tight with quaint little structures. Berlin also seems more chilled out than Munich. Even though Berlin is much larger, Munich feels like it has more people. The streets are packed with cars and motorcycles, the sidewalks crammed with pedestrians, and cyclists fight both cars and pedestrians for right of way. Most sidewalks are either stone or brick, not the flat concrete seen in berlin (or in most midwest US cities). Another striking difference, there is very little graffiti. Culturally, Munich feels more like Austria than northern germany. I have talked to a few people about this, including wolfgang, the interview victim from berlin, and they all seem to agree.
We eventually reach Marienplatz at the center of the city. One entire side of the square is formed by the new town hall, a neo-gothic monstrosity with a huge tower housing the famed glockenspiel rising out of the middle. We arrive just in time to see the glockenspiel, which means something like "Bell Play" go off. The numerous bells in the tour begin to clang together in something I am unable to recognize as harmony, and in the center of the tower various figures pop out and start dancing around. There is even a joust between two mounted knights, the two figures making two passes before one is knocked off his horse.
After the glockenspiel display we split up to buy lunch or do whatever and meet back in the square at 1. Vykke tells us all to look for our guide, described as a 'Severe looking german woman'. Hrmm... quite a few german women in the square. Eventually, i spot a middle aged but not very severe looking woman in sun glasses looking inquisitively at the motley group of americans we form. I walk up to her and ask if she is with EF, and bingo, we have found our guide. We then walk back to the bus and begin our tour.
During the walk back to the bus our guide and peter begin talking and eventually stumble upon the subject of foreigners in berlin. Our guide seems to be very.... make that extremely.. conservative. The impression i get from the portion of the conversation that is not in german is that she views the tremendous influx of foreigners, especially those from former eastern states and (of all places) turkey extremely negatively. The usual complaints one hears from people such as they take jobs and cause a disproportionate amount of crime etc. are voiced. I may be getting a one sided view of the issue since a good portion of the conversation was in german, but it makes me wonder how many other people in bavaria share not only her views but her conviction. Vykke, some of the students i had talked to in austria, and other people have all said that european politics are starting to be dominated by the right but this is the first person i have met that gave me that opinion. Please do not get me wrong, I am in no way saying this is wrong, people have a right to their own views and I am sure that from my three days in munich i was unable to grok the situation to the point where i am qualified to comment on it. I am just saying that the.. vehemence of our guide was a little startling, and it made me wonder what percentage of the population of bavaria, germany, and europe as a whole felt this way.
The tour itself is fairly interesting, we cover the major sites and pretty buildings, and our guide is very good about giving us a bit of history. One of the ironic things about the bombings of munich during the war is that the bombers leveled just about everything but the nazi buildings, which were covered in camouflage nets. So our tour includes many old nazi administration centers, including the HQ of the Gestapo which features cornices in the shape of gestapo headgear and the like. We also pass one of hitler's first building projects. Without going into too much detail, it is fairly easy to see why they didn't let him in to art or architecture school. One of the things that is kind of neat about the structure is that it is currently used as a school and gallery of liberal art. So a building designed by THE nazi, a movement that was all about control and toeing the party line, is now used as a center of personal expression and individuality, almost in mockery of the constructor.
After the tour we have more free time, and a large group of us head back to the Hofbrauhaus. I don't drink, but the hofbrauhaus is huge, with multiple levels, a courtyard filled with tables, and crowds of people milling around. I then split off from the group and head back to Marienplatz on my own, intending to climb the nose-bleed high tower of Peterskirche (church of st peter). I wander around inside the church for awhile trying to figure out how people are climbing the tour before i finally go back outside and look at the other wall of the tower where a crabby old man sits in a wooden shed next to a small opening in the stone of the church. I pay the man 2 and a half euros, duck my head, and squeeze along a very narrow winding stone stairway until it opens to the inside of the tower. The inside of the tower is filled with rickety wooden structures supporting ridiculously tiny and steep steps that lead all the way to the top of the tower. During my climb i have to backtrack frequently to allow descending people to go through, because there is no way two people can pass each other on the steps. Finally I reach the top, duck through another tiny door and onto a 2 foot wide wooden plank. I am kept from the edge by both a railing and an eleven foot fence/net combination there to keep the maliciously suicidal from hurling themselves into marienplatz instead of doing away with themselves in a more tidy manner. At the risk of being wildly wrong, i would say that the platform from which i observe munich must be at least 150 feet high, but my memory may be playing tricks on me. Regardless of what the measurement is, the view is impressive. There are only two other buildings in the immediate vicinity that even come close, the neo-gothic town hall's steeple, and the two towers of Frauenkirche (Cathedral church of our lady).
Munich from above is interesting, but not as pretty as Salzburg. Although even within a city block the style and color of buildings can chance pretty dramatically, when viewed from the street the facade of each structure looks as if it was designed to fit in with it's neighbors harmoniously. When viewed from above, it is chaos. Flat roofs, curved roofs, different styles of chimneys, tents, skylights, tents, and different tiles all conspire to make munich from above seem totally random and chaotic. I am also truly able to appreciate the size of munich for the first time - it stretches away into the distance, with no viewable end. Munich, located on a very flat plain is not bounded by mountains or lakes or any other pesky geographical figure - it has been allowed to simply grow, unchecked. My initial impression of a quaint city is quite shaken - munich is huge.
I decide that before heading back to the bus i should connect to the net for a period of time, and start heading towards the san francisco coffee company. I know this sounds stupid, to visit the SF coffee company while in munich of all places, but they had a big Apple Airport wireless add posted outside, and rather than trying to convince some internet cafe punk to let me hook up my laptop i would rather just chill out in a cafe and connect via wireless. On my way there, i pass the Old town center, not to be confused with the neo-gothic new town center it shares marienplatz with. In the shadow of the Old town center two girl playing violins and a young gentleman on a bass produce a beautiful rendition of pachelbel's canon. All three are dressed up in semi-formal wear and smiling the entire time, seeming to truly enjoy themselves, and they continue to play in front of the crowd which has assembled there listening to them. I guess i am a sucker and a tourist, because I stand there for awhile listening to their music and then drop a euro into their instrument case and walk off.
Our hotel is actually in an entirely different city and takes about an hour by bus to reach. Not too much happens, just about everyone is in wind down mode and looking forward to flying back to the US tomorrow, so most of the group just chills out, goes for ice cream, or stocks up on german chocolate from the gas station next door. (ritter sport offers about a hundred different varieties of chocolate that are sold throughout europe, and every one that i had a chance to try tasted incredible)
By now i have decided that i will see Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau tomorrow, and figure that i will probably want to take one of the first trains out tomorrow morning. Jen, who is also staying longer but will be moving on to venice is also planning on traveling by rail so the two of us along with dana and lynn take a walk looking for the closest train station. We find it after not too long, and stare at the ticket machine and schedule failing to comprehend. While we are waiting, some german guys show up on the opposite platform, waiting to catch a train. They must have heard me mispronouncing Diebahn (it is actually pronounced Di - bahn, as opposed to Die - bahn) because after the express train comes hurtling through the station at about 500 miles per hour, the wind of it's passage threatening to suck us off the platform, one of the german dudes, with a slightly pale face says " DIE bahn!" and we all laugh at me =)
Eventually we figure out the schedule and go back to the hotel. End day 17.
-- Day 18 - Thursday, June 17th
I wake up at around 6am and sneak out of the room as quietly as possible trying not to wake bob. I head downstairs and take advantage of a continental breakfast that is still in the process of being set up; all of the finer treats and foods are still present, the fruit is fresh, and best of all the room is quiet and clean. Jen comes down earlier than anybody else and is really the only person that sees me go. I said most of my good byes last night though, so i don't feel like too much of a rogue, and am still able to make a nice, clean departure. I set out with a feeling of excitement much like the one i get whenever starting a new trip. I guess in a way that is what this is, a new trip where i can go where i want, when i want, and spend as much time as i want doing it. It really is a liberating feeling. I get to the train station and ride to the central station of Ausgang (if i remember the name correctly).
Before i look into riding the rail to fussen to see neuschwanstein, i need to use the bathroom. The only one available at the train station is another one of of the pay varieties, and this one actually seems to be some sort of chain or franchise. There are turnstiles into which you must input 80 cents in exact changes before it will allow you to pass, and there is a maid in uniform seated behind the desk guarding the turn styles and who is probably responsible for cleaning the joint. Not only this, but the mens bathroom is wide open to not only the passing hallway, but the girl sitting at the desk. As in, if you use a urinal, you can turn your head to the left and make eye contact with the attendant, or any random bloke walking down the hallway. Kind of interesting. whatever, i pay my 80 cents, take care of my business and go to the information booth.
The attendant is almost delighted to help me and prints out an itinerary outlining when and where i must change trains in order to arrive in fussen. I purchase a ticket and about an hour later i'm on the train. This is a much nicer experience than the night train, for one thing, there are only two other people in the entire car, and i just get to chill out, take off my shoes, and rest my feet on the opposite seat, watching the scenery whiz by as i chill out and read stephenson. As i get closer to neuschwanstein the alps become visible. Green, verdant farmland with placid cows kept in line by weathered old fences form the foreground of a beautiful landscape, the blueish peaks of the alps towering in the background. Rail is definitely my favorite way to travel over land. You have more room to chill than in a bus, the motion is more constant and relaxing, and the huge windows almost always provide an awesome view of the countryside. Sometimes traveling by highway seems a little contrived - the highway almost always has a huge impact on the surrounding environment, the road itself is fairly large, there are road signs giving directions, speed limits, mile markers, turn offs, on ramps, gas stations, souvenir shops, traffic jams, and usually about a million other cars sharing the same space. Rails tend to be simpler, and the scenery viewed from a train blasting through the countryside often feels more.. pristine than that viewed from a highway.
I arrive in fussen and prepare to go through a bunch of work in order to find the correct bus to take me to the village closest to the castle. I wander around, eyes scanning every sign i can see frantically searching for any clue that will get me to the castle, watching other tourists who look like they might be going in the same direction. I came around the corner and see a bunch of busses, one of them says "To Castle" in english right on it. Oh. that wasnt so tough.
I arrive in schwangau, the village closest to the palace a few minutes later. There are actually two castles within walking distance, and the entrance tickets for both castles are sold in the village. I opt for the royal pass, which gives me access to both Hohenschwangau and Neuschwangau, and start up the road towards Hohenschwangau.
First off all, the area is incredibly beautiful in and of itself. The palaces are perched on opposite slopes of the valley in which the village and a pretty mountain lake is nestled. The surrounding mountains are covered with trees which soften their lines, giving them the look of giant moss covered boulders. Hohenschwangau was originally constructed as a mountain fort, destroyed several times, and eventually reconstructed as something of a resort palace. Ludwig II spent most of his life in this palace, and it was here that he would look at the surrounding mountains and imagine building fantastic palaces on top of them. Neuschwanstein was actually only one of something like four planned palaces, each designed by artists, not architects, to be grander than the last. Although not designed by a madman with a nation-crippling budget, hohenschwangau is still worth a visit. Tickets for both castles are sold with set entry times, and you need to see the castle as a part of a guided tour. I arrive at hohenschwangau about 40 minutes too early, and so spend the time wandering around the gardens, gawking at the surrounding countryside, and reading the travel books in the gift shop. When the number on my ticket finally shows at the amusement-park style metal turn-style i enter the palace and meet the guide for our tour. He is a short man with a slight german accent that for some reason sounds snobbish to me. He is also sure to make jokes about how he works for the duke of bavaria, not the government, and as such can accept tips. Hohenschwangau means ' High land of the swans' and there is swan imagery all over the palace, it seems like every table we pass has some sort of elaborate centerpiece featuring silver swans, there are swans in the chandeliers, and swans in the woodwork. As gaudy as this sounds, it is actually done quite elegantly, and the palace has a very cozy feel to it. We finish the tour in decent time, and the guide receives a good amount of tips.
Realizing that the tickets are timed for people in wheelchairs and that i probably have about an hour to kill before i need to queue up to enter nueschwanstein i take about 30 minutes to just sit and stare at the lake and the mountains before beginning the hike to the castle. You can take a horse-drawn carriage to either of the castles, and during the longer hike to neuschwanstein, it shows. The path is a wide cobblestone boulevard littered with horse manure climbing the side of the mountain at a gentle slope, the trees on either side forming a sort of shaded tunnel. As you approach the castle, you begin to see bits of it through the trees and realize how BIG it truly is, you can never see it in it's entirety, instead you will only see a large expanse of white stone with maybe a few windows, or perhaps a spire or two.
The path eventually emerges from the forest and curves up towards the gate, the foundation of the castle on one side, a sharp descent into the ravine on the other. At neuschwanstein, you are not even allowed into the gate until the number on your guided tour ticket is called, so there are a number of people simply waiting on the path outside of the porticullis, a mangy band of tourists besieging a fairy-tale castle. It seems like there are more people lined up to get into the neuschwanstein at this particular moment than will visit hohenschwangau all day long.
My ticket number eventually shows up on the digital display mounted underneath the arch of the entrance way and i and about 80 other people file inside, lining up inside a maze of hip-high metal railings. Eventually the doorway is opened and we all file inside the palace, like cows to the slaughter. I make fun of this part of the experience because it is really tacky and does a lot to detract from the fairy-tale atmosphere of the place, but neuschwanstein is truly incredible. Pictures cannot do it justice, and i lack the words necessary to convey how impressed i was. Every hallway, every room, every stairway, every ornament featured the most incredible attention to detail. there was even a room made up to look like the interior of a cave, an irregular opening in the rock exiting to a balcony overlooking the surrounding countryside. The singers hall at the top of the castle is simply exquisite, with a beautiful ceiling of paneled wood, arched windows peaking higher than a man is tall running the entire length of the hall providing light and an incredible view of the mountains and waterfall behind the castle, and a polished wood floor patterned so that it appears differently depending upon what angle you view it from.
After leaving the castle i walk up to the Maresbrucke, the bridge which gaps the ravine running behind the castle and observe nueschwanstein from a distance. Most people just get to the bridge and then head back to the village or go home, it looks like it just runs into the side of the mountain on the other side. Figuring that there must be something on the other side of the bridge, even a bridge used primarily as an observation platform, i walk all the way to the end of it. Although it at first seems to simply run into the side of the mountain, upon closer inspection there is a tiny little one-track footpath leading off into the woods and winding up the mountain. My curiosity gets the better of me, i start to climb. Noticing that the path makes many switchbacks, i start scrambling straight up the face of the mountain, grabbing roots and trees to help my ascent. For the first 20 minutes or so i do not see a single person. The path that i am on is very narrow, runs along the ridge of the mountain. On the right i have a rather tame descent. On the left there is a sharp drop off to the ravine thousands of feet below (exaggeration.. i think). I am now above the highest spire of neuschwanstein, and able to see the surrounding country side quite clearly. Awesome path. Eventually, i see a fence coming up on my right and begin to think; that's strange, usually they have the area closest to the fatal drop offs fenced up. The fence continues to get closer to my current position until it actually crosses the narrow track i am following. Sitting on the other side of the fence are two blokes staring at me strangely. I climb over the fence and join them, looking back at the path i just came from and the DANGER - DO NOT ENTER sign that is visible from this side of the fence. Oh.
Throughout my time at the castles, i keep on running into a friendly seeming mother/daughter combo. When i showed up slightly late for the tour at hohenschwangau (spent too much time in the gift shop reading) they let me know what the scoop was, and i kept on running into them again on the path, and inside of neuschwanstein. Well, lo and behold as i sit on a rock overlooking the castle and the plummet to the ravine below, the same mother and daughter combo come up, and we end up introducing ourselves and make the rest of the climb together. The daughter, willow, just got done studying french in paris for about a month or so, and her mother came over to travel around europe with her before they both go back home to Oregon. They truly are pretty cool people, they were not really wearing the best footwear for it, but they decided to start hiking the mountain just because it looked interesting.
We continue the climb and eventually reach the peak. I ended up going on ahead a little bit and spend some time just chilling out, perched on top of a rock formation surrounded by a deadly fall of several hundred feet on either side. It is kind of a zen moment.. if that makes any sense. Just sitting on the rock, the wind blowing around you the only audible sound except for the occasional rustle of trees, and a panoramic view of mountain valleys and a lake in the distance. I kind of takes me back to mt fuji, another place where i have felt like i was a part of the landscape, instead of a person.
Willow and her mother Jane are headed back to munich too, so i travel back with them. Which is handy because not only are they excellent conversation, but they have the train schedule with them and know exactly where to change trains and such. They also tell me of a youth hostel close to their hotel, and offer to show me the way to it if i cannot get onto a train to venice. Once we arrive in Munich, I go to the information both to check into night trains to venice. While i check out the sitch, willow and her mom are kind enough to actually wait for me, just in case there is not a train leaving tonight and i need a place to stay. There are a few people lined up before me, and everyone seems to be asking pretty involved questions, so the wait alone takes about a half hour, throughout which willow and her mom wait patiently. I finally get to the desk and find out that the night train had been cancelled, and the next one is leaving tomorrow night. I attempt to book a bed on that, but the only sleeper they have left is in a smoking cabin. I ask if there are any other options, and eventually end up paying 40 euro or so extra for a first class sleeper in a non-smoking cabin. It probably seems like a waste of money, but i really dislike cigarette smoke and there is no way that i want to spend 8 hours on a train in a cramped cabin featuring poor ventilation with someone who might spend much of it smoking.
We leave, and willow and her mom show me to the youth hostel. It looks like a pretty cool place, there are loads of young people just chilling out in the lobby, even a couple of guys playing chess, and it looks like a fun time. Unfortunately, it is full. So are all five of the other youth hostels within walking distance. Spur of the moment traveling is fun, but finding accommodations can be rough sometimes. I eventually end up checking at the desk of the same hotel that Willow and her mom are staying at. They too are all booked, but one patron has not showed and they can give away rooms after 8. The guy even knocks down the price for me, and i end up paying 60 euro. More than I wanted to pay, but the room is nice and right in the center of Munich, about 20 minutes walk from marienplatz.
After i check in, the three of us grab dinner at a Duner restaurant close to the hotel. This place, like the one i visited in Berlin, is a little dingy and run down, but seems really authentic. They guy manning the counter is very friendly, and speaks quite a bit of english and helps us make our selections. It's kind of funny, but i think that my favorite german food is turkish =) End day 18.
-- day 19 - Friday, June 18th --
Day in Munich
I wake late and eventually make my way down to pick over the remnants of this hotel's continental breakfast before heading out. The man at the front desk is very polite and tells me exactly how to get to mariesplatz, and so that's what I do, making sure to visually confirm the location of the train station on my way. Evidently my backpack identifies me as a certain type of mark, because as i get into the vehicle-free part of the city center an enthusiastic student about my age approaches me and starts speaking in an american accent telling me how awesome his company's bike tours are. I talk with him for awhile, curious and finally figure what the hell, a bike tour would be fun, even if they cover the same sites as the EF tour.
As some kind of freak bonus, I get unlimited internet access included in the 15~ euro I pay for the 4 hour tour. Since i have a little more than an hour before the tour starts, and it has started raining, I follow Isaac to the internet cafe his organization uses as a base of operations. It turns out that he is backpacking through europe, and just hawking as a way of earning money and room before he and his friends move on from munich, an enviable way of experiencing europe.
I had originally planned on taking the midday four hour tour, but as i was about to leave the cafe sheets of rain began to pound munich hard enough to slow traffic. Having no umbrella and being unsure as to how waterproof my backpack is, I confirm with the bike tour people that i can take the late afternoon trip instead and return to the internet cafe. And start reading Stephenson instead of doing my journal, emailing people, filling out postcards, looking up information on venice, looking up info on munich, or anything else more productive. Well... it is a vacation.
Eventually the rain lightens to the point where i can step outside without soaking the contents of my pack and I resume walking towards town. I have a few hours before the afternoon bike tour starts, so I am in no hurry. On the way i stop by the Frauenkirche, a great landmark of a church with two onion domes dominating the skyline of munich. Apparently, the story goes that the architect who designed the church actually enlisted the help of the devil in constructing it, promising to the devil that he would build the church so that one who stood inside could see no window. The devil, thinking that this would be a great trick to play on god, since churches (at least 15th century gothic churches) were supposed to be places of light and of windows. When the church was constructed, the architect summoned up the devil to a part in the center of the church from which you he could see all four walls, dim in the distance. And then the clouds parted and sunlight filled the church causing the devil to look around in rage and confusion, finally taking a step. After taking one step he could see the beautiful arched windows reaching up to the ceiling through which the light streamed, and knowing that he had been tricked he turned himself into a foul wind and blew around the inside of the church trying to shake it down, but he could not.
Or so the story goes. The church is massive, and I spent some time gawking at the well lit interior before heading on to lunch. The last time i was in munich with the rest of the group I had passed a restaurant whose sidewalk-tables were set with baskets of fat, delicious looking pretzels and fresh wheat bread. I had wanted to try eating there but had no time, so this is where I went. It was still raining off and on, so I went inside and took a 6 person table set with one of the baskets for myself. After awhile a serving woman came by and brought a plate containing different types of mustard and an english menu. After managing to convey that i would like a glass of water by saying cold drink water in german until she was able to work her ears around my incomprehensible accent, and ordering a type of sausage soup, the serving woman left me to myself and I yet again began to read stephenson (Cryptonomicon is a REALLY good book). The pretzels were everything i had expected them to be, and went well with the tangy mustards, and the excellent soup which eventually showed up. After finishing the soup i continued to sit there drinking water and munching on pretzels for awhile until I finally asked for the bill.
The serving woman then started making gestures towards the pretzels and holding up fingers questioningly. Four? Five? I say that i think i ate six, and then find out to my dismay that they were 85 euro-cents a piece. No wonder none of the other patrons had eaten all of theirs. Oh well, they sure did taste good.
By this time the clouds have passed and the day has become positively beautiful, a still wet munich illuminated by bright, direct sunlight. I go back to the mariensplatz with an hour to spare before the tour begins, and start trying to find a seat at one of the cafes. The place is packed. There must have been 6 or more different cafes opening onto mariensplatz, all of them with a forest of chairs and tables spreading out towards the statues in the center. I finally secure a table and sit down, ordering what i hope is a lemonade and beginning to read stephenson yet again. Now, in most other cultures i have been to, even if the restaurant is full, most people would not be willing to walk up to a complete stranger and ask to share his table. Unlikely in most american cities, and certainly not in Japan. However, after about 2 elderly women came up to me and spouted off in german, gesturing to the chairs. The german was beyond me, way beyond me, but i understood the gesture well enough and smile at them, waving towards the chair and saying 'vitte' or however you spell it. Whether or not i used or pronounced the word correctly, the two thanked me and sat down, and began conversing with each other in a flurry of german, talking with the serving girl far more easily than i was able to when she comes by to take their order. After awhile of just sitting there, smiling stupidly and listening to them talk i begin reading again. The chapter of cryptonomicon i am reading is particularly funny, and a few times i just start cracking up, laughing so hard i am unable to read. The two old woman stop their conversation, look at me, and start laughing too. I just point at the book and say 'funny' figuring theyd get the idea. After about another half hour of this, with me bursting out laughing at certain points in the book, i smile at the two ladies and leave, to meet up with the bike tour folks.
Our group is mostly american, with one chinese guy and a few australians. Our guide is an american law student currently studying at Munich University. Our guide with EF was pretty good, but in my opinion this guy was better. Although just a student working for a ghetto bike touring company to earn a little extra cash, he was extremely knowledgeable and explained quite a bit more of the history behind each site we saw. Of course, we were also cruising around on bikes, and so could just stop at any point of interest for as long as we wanted without blocking traffic, but I was still happier with the bike tour than the tour provided by EF. We started out from mariensplatz by bike and soon meshed with traffic. Biking in munich is not as bad as i thought it would be, not even as bad as biking in green bay. Despite being a big group of relatively slow moving people, no cars honk at us, no drivers yell at us, and we proceed through munich without any problems.
I have already remarked on the lack of graffiti in munich, especially compared to Berlin. Our bike tour takes us through a pedestrian tunnel, and it is as if all the graffiti that is not splayed on the sidewalks buildings and public property of munich is focused here. There is not so much as an inch of concrete not covered by graffiti, it's actually quite cool. Our guide tells us that this is the only place in the city that the incredibly anal and scary police of munich will turn a blind eye to graffiti, and the sub-culture makes use of it extensively. Apparently, they sometimes even hold raves in this tunnel, although those are almost always broken up by law enforcement. I kind of imagine a bunch of different people adding graffiti to the wall, those with more confidence in their skill over-writing the earlier graffiti of those that just grabbed a can of spray paint and marked up their name. Eventually, as more elaborate and artistic applications of graffiti emerge, only those who are ultimately confident in their abilities have the guts to write over such works of art with their own images. I have seen graffiti elsewhere, and at times it can be boring, amusing, and sometimes impressive. What covers the walls of this pedestrian tunnel is an underground art gallery of the finest pieces of graffiti, all blending into one another. Concrete instead of canvas, and no frame but what another artist has created.
We continue through munich, seeing many sites that the EF tour skipped, such Feldernhalle, where Hitler's ill fated beer-hause putsch (spelling) ended, and where a monument to hitler was created when he eventually did come into power. We also saw the dodger's alley, the route taken by those who did not want to salute the aforementioned monument every time we passed it. The tour covered other interesting tidbits, we saw the nazi swastikas created by the small tiles covering the ceiling of the German House of Art, a building we only saw in passing from the bus with EF. We also were able to go down and watch the surfers ride the standing wave on the river flowing through the English Gardens, each one riding the wave moving back and forth but staying in the same position in the river relative to the bank before either falling or relinquishing control to the next surfer. We also were able to walk around munich university, where they still honor White Rose, a student group dedicated to resisting the nazis by distributing fliers and counter-propaganda.
By the time the tour ended, I only had a few hours before i needed to be on the night train to venice. My hunger still being held off by the amount of pretzels I had for lunch, I make use of an internet cafe with wireless access for a little while before making my way to the train station. Once there the night train is easily identifiable by all of the scruffy looking folk with large backpacks waiting to board it. I join the line and fit right in, and begin talking to a gentleman originally from africa that was living in europe to teach some sort of martial art, and dancing. We only talk for a little while though before the train is ready for boarding and we go our respective ways. My cabin is so far to the front of the train I keep on thinking that i have made a mistake before finally finding the correctly marked car and double checking with the conductor, confirming that I am in the right place. With the bored air of a man who has answered the same questions thousands of times before he assures me that I am in the right place and then takes my tickets. I assume that he will be waking me up before my stop. Actually, I hope that he will be waking me up before my stop, the word assume conveys a little more confidence than I am feeling, and I climb up into my bunk and fall asleep. Actually, I read some more cryptonomicon by the light of my minimag, eat some more Ritter Sport Chocolate, crank my neck as far to the side as possible so i can fit in my bunk, and then try to go to sleep.
End day 19.
-- day 20 - Saturday, june 19th -
I wake when the conductor opens the door to our cabin to wake the first of my cabin mates, the very faint light of pre-dawn bleeding around the edges of the window blind. I fall back asleep almost as soon as the conductor closes the door, and apparently my cabin mate did to because the conductor then opened the door five minutes before his stop to give a second warning. I listen to to my cabin mate swearing softly as he scrambles to get all of his stuff and then leaves, brighter light pouring through the door as it opens briefly, and then fall back to sleep until the conductor wakes me, the other backpacker sharing the cabin already gone. I stumble to the bathroom and back, to out of it to even look out the window and then get ready to leave the train. By the time i have triple checked that nothing has been forgotten, I am awake enough to be able to stare dumbfounded at the view visible from the windows of the train as i make my way to the end of the cart. I cannot see the rails, or the bridge which is on the other side of the train, so from my perspective the train seems to be gliding across the ocean as it heads towards the island of venice, the morning sun still low in the sky. As I approach the island, part of the island spreading out into the ocean becomes visible, along with more and more aged timbers sticking out of the water, perhaps the remnants of docks long gone.
Even the train station is aquatic, with the tracks leading out of it all reaching out into the water, and no land visible except far in the distance. The first thing I do upon getting to venice is look into transportation to Milan, just to make sure I know how it works. I consider waiting for one of the information booths to open up, but it is not yet 7am and there is already a considerable line, so I go over to one of the kiosks instead. It is surprisingly easy to use, and within a few minutes I know when trains leave for milan, how long it takes, and how much it costs. That chore done i set out to explore venice.
The train station doors open up on a plaza bounded by the grand canal on one side, a large arced bridge of stone spans the canal and already people are starting to move around. There are no cars permitted on the island of venice, nor any form of motorized transport to my knowledge, other than boats of course. The steeply arched bridges spanning the canals that are to venice as streets are to other cities make wheeled transport impractical. Instead people get around by boat. Instead of busses, there are the veparado, passenger boats that run through the major canals of venice stopping at certain docks to let people climb on or off.
Willow and her mother had recommended a hotel to me, and I set out to find it. I cannot, and soon give up, content to just wander around venice as the city is waking. I follow the grand canal for awhile, crossing numerous bridges over minor canals that join it. Eventually, on a whim, i follow one of these canals deeper into the city, and this is pretty much how I spent the morning. Just wandering around, following canals or people, backtracking when i reach a dead end or when the buildings come right up to the edge of the canal, blocking my path. Venice is a warren of small canals and even smaller alleyways, most of them sprinkled with shops that are just starting to open for the day. I see men with dollies hauling milk, food, and other perishables from boats to the different shops, the dollies specifically built for venice, with a smaller set of wheels behind the main ones so that the delivery men can rock them up the stairs of the bridges when necessary, putting the main wheels up to the edge of the step and then rocking the dolly back so that the smaller wheels pop it up enough that the front wheels are resting on top of the next step. I eventually work my way back to the grand canal, and come out into some sort of fish market taking place on the open ground floor of a building, open archways between the support pillars allowing the wind to blow through freely, and an unrestricted view of the canal. All manner of fish, most of which i cannot identify lay in ice atop tables, with gruff looking italian dudes ready to sell you whatever you want. Pretty cool place, there are a bunch of what i take to be the residents of venice milling around, here and there buying something from the vendors.
There are only so many bridges across the grand canal, seven i think, and my current location was pretty far from either one. Especially considering that i would not be able to simply walk along the canal till I found one, but would have to re-enter the warren of alleyways and smaller canals. However, since the fish market seems to be a popular destination, and there is a busy causeway on the other side of the canal, two enterprising gentleman and a gondola have gone into business for themselves. As I watch, about 10 or 12 people walk down rickety wooden steps and hop onto the gondola, handing a few euro to one of the men as they do so. Everyone remains standing as the two men begin to paddle across the canal to the fish market, where I am standing, and the passengers get off and go to buy fish or whatever. I then watch from a closer perspective as people load from this side, and catch that it is only about 50 cents to cross. Just as I am about to hop on, a dog comes trotting down the steps and jumps into the gondola as casual as you please, cooly waiting for it to cross. I hand the gondola-guy 50 cents, and we are off. It's kind of strange just standing on the slightly swaying gondola, but there are no waves, and no one 'rocks the boat' so we get to the other side without incident. The little dog hops out of the gondola and trots away down the street before it is my turn to disembark.
By this time i have been in venice a good four hours or so, and it is starting to get HOT. Crazy hot. I decide that it really is time to find a hotel, and begin checking prices at every place i come to. Most are pretty expensive, so i keep on walking. The streets are really starting to get crowded now, most of the people tourists like myself. It is interesting watching how much more reticent the 'true' venetians get as the day wears on and the island is suffused with tourists. When i was walking around in the morning, I stopped at a few shops and purchased some snacks. No one really spoke enough english to converse, and what Italian i know i learned this morning, so I didnt really get a chance to talk to anyone. However, everyone seemed very bright and friendly. As the day wears on though, people start to seem more brisk, almost sulky. The people working the desks at the hotels i check answer disinterestedly, and no one really seems very interested in talking. The people all seem nice, but at the same time incredibly used to tourists. I guess when 9 out of 10 people you see every day are travelers from some different part of europe, or the world, the novelty must wear off.
- cabin mates not given enough lead time, hurtle out of the cabin as fast as possible
- first approach to venice - a rail track running across the water with a view of the ocean
- crowded train station with view of the grand canal outside of it, learn how to buy tickets to Milan via an automated terminal
- square in front of the canal
- walk through venice in the morning, as the city awakens
- fish market
- gondola bridge + dog
- search for a hotel
- run into jenny, found out where she was staying
- chill in st marks square
- travel to lido
- ticket incident
- hotel on beach
Day in venice
Spend night in Lido
-- Day 21 - Sunday, June 20th -
Morning and most of afternoon in venice
- sleep in, then start the journey back to venice
- arrive slightly too late to take a boat tour, spend the rest of the day in a museums
- greek sculptures
- cartographic tools, globes
- weapons throughout the ages
- heavy, heavy rain
- stop to eat, first pizza with anchovies. Very good, if spendy
- rain continuing to pour down, veparado to the train station
- veps packed, water level rising
- ride an almost empty train to milan
- beautiful mountains
- bush-hating italian guy
- arrive in milan, secure lodging, sleep
-- Day 22 - Monday, june 21st -
wake in milan
Go to check out the Duomo - no pants, no entry. check it out from the outside
hop on the tourist tram, kind of a waste
Go to the castle (castello sforzesco) constructed by the sforza family in 1450
walk through the park
music all over the place
just walk around the city
eat at an italian joint, check out a few youth hostels, one of which was just foul
Take late bus to airport, sleep at airport
-- Day 23 - Tuesday, June 22nd -
Travel back to the us via Copenhagen
Unable to get a greyhound back to GB, stay at wills
-- Day 24 - Wednesday, June 23rd -
Get on the AM greyhound
Stop in milwaukee, chick pissed about driver getting lost
Bus out of milwaukee breaks down
Arrive in GB a little late, talk to gouda from Ukraine