Sunday, January 24, 2010

Going Out With a Bang

What a way to celebrate graduating - with a trip around central Europe. I cant' believe how much fun I had on this trip. the group couldn't have been better. I was really thrilled with how well everyone got along and how nice everyone was, especially towards me being an outsider and Canadian... I have so many fond memories and I don't think I have laughed so hard in a long time. I'm really lucky I got to experience something like this. I'm not too knowledgeable about American college's but this Jan Term seems like a really unique opportunity for students.
One thing that I realized (but maybe I knew it all along) was how much of European history is based around crazy myths and funny stories that really have nothing to do with historical facts but become "truths."
As I mentioned in my previous post I really think the last night was the best. We were really lucky to experience those singers. What a memory...sitting in a tiny bar in a village in Germany and all of a sudden we have a choir singing for us.

I could not have asked for a better way to graduate. THANK YOU!

Doners A Plenty

I had never even heard of Heidelberg before this trip. I think Heidelberg should be most famous for its amazing Doners. I must say that I was pleasantly surprised with this little gem of Germany. Its the kind of place I would live...if it had a beach.
A big little university town with some pretty ancient history. I've only read about castles that had moats and boobie traps, I thought they were all a myth, but we got to see one up close and personal. What's even crazier is that the moat was not only used to protect the castle but provided lasting entertainment for the royal residents. The moat housed lions and bears who would fight some unfortunate soul and provide the evening's entertainment. Apparently the lions did not cope well with the German winters and were later replaced with bears, probably to the dismay of the king. We all know people lion wrestling is far more entertaining that bear wrestling.

One myth that goes along the with castle is related to a shoe imprint in one of the back courtyards. It is said that a queen living there had a secret lover and one day the king found them together and the lover fled out the window and left his shoe print on the walk way. If men go there and their foot fits, they are supposed to be good lovers.
The university is one of the oldest in Europe, I think it rivals the Jagiellonian in Krakow. There is every faculty except engineering and it produced many Nobel Prize winners. The most striking aspect of the university is the student jail. A museum today it was once used to lock students away for minor transgressions and truancy. As I understood it time spent there was not totally unpleasant and usually did not last for very long. The reason there was a student jail was because the university was self governing.
The town also boasts the biggest wine barrel. It can hold around 228,000 litres of wine!
The absolute best part of Heidelberg and of the trip was on our very last night we all went out for a beer to cheers to a great time and in the bar was a group of choir singers. We were being rowdy and all of a sudden they start singing for us! They must have sang at least 5-6 songs and even gave our professor a copy of their CD. It was a perfect ending.

How do you say Disney in German?

On the way to Heidelberg we made a quick stop in the Bavarian alps to see the castles Hohenschwangau and Neuschwannstein, otherwise known as the Disney castle. I love hearing about all the eccentric historical figures and all the weird and mysterious things they did.  King Ludwig is one of them. He lived in Hohenschwangau and later commissioned his own castle, the Disney castle, to be built basically across the street from the other one. Our guide told us that he would sit with his telescope and watch the castle being built to make sure everything was done correctly. In his bedroom he had hold in his ceiling that could be lit up with oil lamps so they would look like the stars, in addition there was a circular piece of glass in the ceiling that could be covered to mimic the phases of the moon. No one really knows how he died. They found him one day dead by the lake that is just beneath the castle.
Another interesting note the guide at Hohenschwangau made was that the family still owns the castle and the duke was living there up until recently.

White Roses in Bavaria

I think everyone on the trip was looking forward to Munich. The excitement on the bus was almost palpable.
I was pleased with the guide's information about the White Roses, the student uprising against the Nazi's. I feel it is one of the overlooked stories of history. Perhaps it is just because I was educated in Canada and for some reason we just didn't learn anything about these people who stood up against the Nazi's, we only learned about the Nazi party itself and the events surrounding their rise and demise. I really had no idea how many people were against the regime and who tried to fight it. I hope history does not forget them.
Our tour guide Jurgen was right about the glockenspiel in is horribly out of tune. But it is still pleasant to look at.
There were a few Museums to choose from and I ended up going to the Deutches museum. I think I would need a full week to be able to see everything. The museum was divided into different sections like Chemistry, Aeronautics, Math, Physics, etc. And each section had a demonstration at different times of the day. Some were experiments and some were special tours or lectures. We went to see the liquid nitrogen experiment in the physics section.
I had no idea how much fun liquid nitrogen could be.
Our robust museum guide with a very comical mustache was kind enough to enlighten us for 20 minutes on the wonders of this frigid liquid. There were a whole series of "tricks" he did. First he poured it into a very thick glass beaker where it then started to bubble like it was boiling but it was actually just heating up.

He then took a piece of chalk and showed us that it could not easily slide across the table. He put the chalk in some liquid nitrogen and then easily slide the chalk on the table, it looked like the table had turned into ice the chalk was moving so slowly. He also blew up a balloon and put it over the liquid nitrogen. The balloon shrank, but it did not burst and then in a matter of seconds it re-inflated to its original size. I don't entirely understand the science behind it but it was pretty nifty.

There were many others but my favorite was when he poured the liquid nitrogen onto a large shallow cardboard box and then blew soap bubbles over it. The bubbles bounced on the gas and some broke, not popped but almost shattered into little pieces.

And of course we went to the historic Haufbrau Haus. Most of those mugs pictured came home with us...

One the Road Again

From Vienna we slowly made our way to Munich...with a few stops on the way.
There was an excursion to Mauthausen concentration camp. I opted out of this for several reasons and I feel this is an appropriate platform to explain why I stayed on the bus that day.

A concentration camp is the last place in the world I want to be a tourist. Getting a guided tour of a place where such horrific acts just does not sit well with me. But I do believe that learning about and remembering the holocaust and the victims in extremely important for people to do. Personally I do not feel the need to be in the physical space of the camp to appreciate it. At one point in my life I was very interested in the holocaust and the stories of the people who were sent there. I  read several books, watched many documentaries and reflected on those events for a long and depressing time. I have also known a handful of survivors and they have told me their stories personally. I do not believe that the preservation of memory is site specific. But do believe that the preservation of these sites is extremely important for future generations and those who did not read books and speak with the survivors firsthand. In fact I would go so far as to encourage people to go see them, learn and never forget. It is important to pay respect to those who perished, but I feel that I can pay respect in a different way. I hope that makes sense.

On a happier note...

We also visited the quaint Austrian town of Salzburg. Home to Mozart, Mozart Balls the Sound of Music...not much else apparently. It was a big salt producer at one time and the name Salzburg literally means salt castle and it has to a vast network of salt caves. I did not manage to take any post worthy photos of Salzburg from this trip so I will cheat and post some of the first time I was there...when it was greener. The picture of me looking extremely excited in front of Mozart's house is from the Jan Term.

Wienerschnitzel and Ballet

Vienna was a new edition to my list of places I've visited.

The Schonbrunn palace was quite elaborate decoratively. It was the home of many Hapsburg emperors but most famously it was the residence of Austria's Maria Theresa. She made it her royal summer palace and as we learned hosted many important political events. When we were touring through the palace I noticed there were not any rooms designated for washing...when I inquired about the absence the guide informed the group that people simply did not wash. She also noted that women would have a box that was filled with honey and blood hidden under their dresses so it would keep the flies away from them. The palace had a pretty inventive system for heating the castle. There were giant wood stoves that were filled from behind the walls. There was a system of small hallways so the servants could keep the house heated and not disturb the royals.

The second best museum I've visited was in Vienna. The museum of art history, the Kunsthisoriches, (my favorite museum is the Pharmacy museum in Krakow).
The museum itself was a piece of art. I could have wandered around the lobby and been amazed for hours. But I didn't. I headed straight for the Egyptian collection and was not disappointed. The Roman and Greek displays were also superb. I did not spend as much time as I would have liked to in the picture galleries but was able to appreciate the notable works like Velazquez's portraits of the Hapsburg royals and I also saw Brueghel's depiction of the tower of Babel.

The Nutcracker performance we went to was quite an experience. I have a new respect for male ballerinas.

And, what would Vienna be without cake and coffee? I was under strict orders from my professor that I could not leave Vienna without having cafe and coffee.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Paris of the East

It was interesting to be a tourist again in my adopted hometown of Budapest.
The first night there we ventured out for some live music and beverages. We had to take the metro and since it was late the ticket booth was closed and the ticket machine was broken, so we went without. By some grace of the almighty 30 Americans were able to go undetected and we were saved from what would have been a very unpleasant encounter with the transportation police.

We visited a few sites that I had not visited since I first arrived and our tour guide gently reminded me of how patriotic Hungarians can be and how it can sometimes muddle historical facts. This also means that they never let you forget how tragic Hungarian history is.
During our stay we visited the Fisherman's Bastion and then St. Mattias Church which throughout history was used for many different purposes. It was a catholic church, then it was a mosque under the Ottoman rule and I even heard (but am not entirely convinced) that during WWII it was used as a horse  stable by the Nazis. It was also the coronation church for the kings and where our Bohemian friend Charles IV had his coronation.

At Hero's Square I was also surprised to learn about what some of the details of the statues mean. There is one horse that is sporting some antlers and the legend says that the warriors put the antlers on their horses so they could trick their enemy into thinking that some unearthly beast was charging at them. I don't think it worked too well, Hungary was occupied several times by several different groups. Ottomans, Hapsburgs, the Soviets, and now tourists.

I may be biased but so far on my travels I think Budapest is the most photogenic city, especially at night. Everything looks spectacular lit up, and it is all concentrated along the riverside and offers great city scape. A boat trip down the Danube almost always offers great vistas of the parliament and palace and produces some lovely pictures. I have been living there for nearly four years and I will never get tired of the view. There is a reason why it is called The Paris of the East.


Bohemian Rhapsody

As we left Germnay and traveled through the rest of Saxony the scenerey gradually became more mountainous and rugged. We even spotted what looked like an old castle or church eerily resting atop a mountain.
the Czech Republic, like Berlin, is another divided land. Except unlike East and West Berlin which were eventually reunited, Czechosolovakia was permanently split in 1992. All the tour guides glaze over the subject and they only offer vagaries when describing why the split occrued. They usually mutter something about it being highly "political." Whatever that means, but I guess I will take their word for it.
Prague seems worn out from being constantly inundated with toursits. I think it needs a vacation. If the city were a person it would be the old uncle of Europe; the one with a sordid past and a constant runny nose and couch. He always shows up to family dinners half drunk and with some new beautiful girl at his side. Nobody wants to give him a kiss because his nose is running and he smells like beer. The Czechs are infamous for their beer consumption. World champions in fact. It is a widely spewed fact that they are the biggest consumers of beer in the world.

When we went to see the Golden Alley, one of the oldest streets in Prague and golden because people would toss their pee down the street, some were amused that how small the houses were. Its quite logical with you think about it - back then people did not really have access to great nutrition and therefore did not grow as tall (or wide) and as a result built smaller houses.

The famous Charles Bridge looked as if it might collapse from all the visitors, even at 10'o'clock on a Tuesday morning! There were swarms of people everywhere. Its namesake if from King Charles IV who ruled over Bohemia and the Holy Roman Empire. He seemed like a pretty decent ruler. He developed Prague quite a bit when he was in charge. He ordered the construction of what is known as the 'New Town' and he had the bridge built in order to connect the old and new town. Quite a forward thinker for a 14th century politician.
The clock was pretty nifty too, if you can swim through the sea of tourists. It can not only tell time but the date, the moon phase and the zodiac signs.
On our last night some of us ventured to a more local friendly scene where they had several Czech beers on tap for very reasonable prices - the water is too expensive might as well drink the beer.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Warm Cherry Beer on a Dreary Day

Berlin is Berlin, it is its own universe.

Our two excursions to Potsdam and Dresden allowed us to see some other parts of Germany.
Its easy to see why people would want to live in Potsdam; its outside of Berlin but not out of touch. Its a quiet and cute place. You can sit in your local pub and enjoy some warm cherry beer on a cold day or in the summer you can relax in the gardens of the palace, Sans Souci, which belonged to the ever controversial and almost mythical historical figure, Freidrich.

Dresden is another story. Almost completely annihilated in the second world war it has been almost totally rebuilt in a very elegant style. Kurt Vonnegut mentioneDresden in his book Cat's Craddle. As he was an American soldier he was in Dresden around the time of the bombardment. He described how there was destruction and rubble everywhere but in the centre of the city stood a single porcelain cup, Meisin Porcelain, which is produced in the area and rather famous. The church in the centre of the town is unique in the fact that it was rebuilt almost exactly as it used to be using the rubble from the ruins of the old church (below) - a Phoenix from the Ashes of sorts. Again, we find that enduring fighting spirit that we experienced in Berlin. On a more ironic note Dresden is the capital of cigarette production while it is also the greenest city in Europe - 62% is covered with green  (grass, trees etc.).

Also, on a more hilarious note Dresden boasts not only the Amplemann but the Amplefrau!!

Berlin, Berlin the Divided City

Berlin in itself is an iconic place. It embodies a spirit of a special kind of people. The natives of Berlin make it such a unique city. Only in Berlin would you find such nicknames for places like the bombed out Wilhem Memorial Church as 'rotten tooth.' Or the tv tower as "the pope's revenge' because of the cross that is illuminated by the sun at certain times of the day, and the House of Cultures of the World dubbed "the pregnant oyster.' And of course the installation art, 'Berlin Berlin the Divided City.' 
It takes a certain kind of people to withstand 374 air raids, 50 000 tonnes of bombs, and over 25 000 of it inhabitants killed during World War II. 

There are remnants of the division that was imposed on Berlin everywhere you look. From the trams only running in East Berlin and the Ampelmann telling people when it is safe to cross the street to one of the biggest symbols of the Cold War, the infamous Berlin Wall. Now it is more or less unified even though there are 5 distinct districts within the city state. As Kevin Kennedy described to us the residents of Berlin sometimes only associate themselves with the district that they live in, some haven't even been to the other districts. We also learned never to call someone from the district Charlottenburg a 'Charlottenburger' as in Berlin slang it means 'blowing your nose without a tissue.'

They may have taken a few punches but Berliners know how to roll with them.