Saturday, July 7, 2012

Train problems trying to get to Rome

My train to Vienna went fine, except for the lack of AC in the hot, stuffy 6-person booths. The Vienna-Rome train was more comfortable, and had a controllable AC, but with impossible-to-read symbols on the knobs. At some point it shut off entirely, and we had to crack a window, but that made one guy cold in the bed he was sleeping in (it was a 6 person sleeper booth), so he shut it. These Danish guys i shared a booth with were pretty cool though. And they spoke flawless English (which is somewhat a norm in Denmark, despite Danish being the most spoken language). They told me Denmark is pretty boring. I asked how they pronounce Tyco Brahe, something I've always wondered. In Danish it's "TEE-co bra," but they said in English nobody says it like that, and there's pretty much no standard pronunciation. They also said that even for Danes "Tyco Brahe" is a really weird and distinctive name.

On the train an Indian guy in a cheap train-person uniform kept coming by and telling us things in German, and because he wasn't so great at English, he kept reverting back to German no matter how many times the Danish guys said "English please." Luckily I knew the words "essen, trinken, morgen, frühstuck," etc, so I could tell he was asking what we wanted to drink and later talking about how there'd be no breakfast, because...

The real train problem came just before Florence, when the Indian/German guy woke us up and said there are technical problems with our particular car, and I'd have to get off and go to platform 5 to figure out a way to Rome. So I went to platform 5 and all I saw was some back office nearby, and when I asked, they didn't really understand and thought I was asking where my original train was, so they sent me running (literally) back to platform 5 (and with no escalators!) and brainstorming what I would do if I never made it to Rome. At platform 5 one guy rudely told me to get back on the train to Rome, having no idea why I got off in the first place. I tried to get back on and they other guy said don't do that because it's full. He sent me back to platform 5. I realized he meant not platform 5, but the customer care desk near te entrance to platform 5. There things started making sense again. I'm now on a train to Rome, although without a bed or breakfast.

Final half-day in Prague

And this morning, without having much sleep under my belt, i visited this park full of old religious buildings, as if I haven't already seen enough of those. But there were some frescoes in this one church from 1903, with some really creepy depictions of saints. The painter used a bit too much red in the eyes and face, and wound up giving the saints an evil look to them. Pics to come eventually.

On my way to the park I saw an Orthodox mass going on and went in to see how different it is from other masses. The first difference is that it's Saturday, not Sunday. Everybody dressed about the same as they do at a Catholic mass, except for the veils worn by the women. They don't all wear them to the church; some put them on right before entering. At the entrance there was a kind of traffic jam of people, and when I approached the door I saw that there was a counter with a cash register, where people were buying long yellowish candles as soon as they entered, so they could light them in the front of the church. I suppose the same thing happens in Catholic churches, just not diring mass, and more on the honor system (not requiring a cash register and all). There were also people scribbling on papers, sometimes copying from a list they had brought from home. I couldn't tell if they had to pay money in order to put the papers in the basket or not. I got a copy of the blank paper they were filling out (pic attached below), and the second line translates to "for health." So maybe it's a prayer intention system.

Also there were almost no pews, and everyone stood. An the whole time I was there, they were chanting songs nonstop. Also the leader/priest wears some weird clothes, but i guess that's pretty standard across all similar religions.

Only full day in Prague

For my only full day in Prague, I started by doing a 50-min tour of an astronomical tower and its accompanying chapel and library. Saw lots of sextants, telescopes, and globes and things. There's a meridian string near the floor and a small slit for the sun to pass through, and they'd use a microscope to find the exact instant of midday, when the light hits the string, and they'd raise s flag to the belltower. A few B-list astronomers worked from this building. Didn't recognize any names (Josef stepling, Ladislaus weinek, Frantisek nusl). Did recognize Kepler, Galileo, Tyco Brahe, and Copernicus, but they didn't work here, their portraits were just hung. Kepler and Tyco Brahe did work here in Prague, though, and we saw some statues of them and buildings with their names on them. Apparently they are the ones who complained about bells being rung at night, and got a law passed against it.

Later I did a city tour in the morning and castle tour in the afternoon. The tours (& beer tasting) were put on by the same company, which is extremely heavily publicized around all the hostels. The guides have a very "storyteller" style. One was Hungarian and the other was American. The tours were both entirely outdoors, aside from a free period to explore a cathedral.

I saw a Jewish cemetery 8 ft above ground, because with limited space allowed for Jews (and since cremation is prohibited in Judaism), they had to stack layers of bodies and soil up to 12 times!

We saw a Soviet secret police department, and they said back in the day everyone was too afraid to even walk through the same neighborhood as it.

We saw a statue of the man who planned the assassination of Heinrich Himmler. Himmler lived in the Prague Castle during the occupation, and a local legend says he actually died because he placed the cursed crown on his head. I'll go with the "grenade fragments" theory.

There was a statue of a young boy with genitalia of a different color than the rest of his body. Apparently the Communist sensors thought his originally sculpted anatomy was inappropriate, so they cut it off, and after the fall of the Soviet Union it was recast with newer metal, and thus is shinier. Weird.

This cathedral near the castle that we stopped at had a weird façade: instead of statues in the gothic archways there were empty statue pedestals. They represent Sweden's theft of the castle's statues and their subsequent throwing-them-overboard to lighten their ships. But that part of the cathedral was put up in the last century.

During the castle tour, I met a couple from Lafayette (the guy is a UL grad and the girl will soon teach in Jeanerette).

On the tour I also met "M", from Jersey (the island in the English channel, not New Jersey) and "P" from India (but lived the past 5 years in California). After the tour, we walked down the Charles bridge together, admired the scenery, made a wish on the sculpture of the priest being thrown off the bridge, visited the old Jewish cemetery, and went off to dinner at a very reasonably-priced and non-touristy place called Lokal (recommended by the beer-tasting guide). The pork steak was good but the dumplings weren't. (sidenote: "Knöedln," German for "dumplings," is used to mean "jibberish," just like the French say "yaourt" (yogurt).).

That night "P" and I did the pub crawl, which came highly recommeded from various people I've met up until my stay in Prague. I had to sprint across town in crocs (ran out of clean socks, and it was gonna rain) to make the signup deadline. That was the most running I'd done in a while. We did two OK pubs, but they didn't really give us enough time to really enjoy it. The crawl ended at this epic 5-story club with many different rooms, each having its own style of design and music. So that was pretty fun. Stayed out till it was light out. But the sun rises relatively early here anyway.

First half-day in Prague

After my train arrived in Prague at 2pm, I realized that Euros wouldn't be any good here, so i had to change money to the local currency, which I learned is the Czech Crown. 20 CHK = $1.

After, I just walked around the center of town, looked at stuff and tried not to get soaked in the rain. I stopped by a museum, just labeled "Muzeum" on the map (later found out this is the name of the subway stop), without knowing what it was about. It was about Czech inventors and scientists, and was somewhat oriented towards kids (They had a low-budget film where 2 bad actors travel through time and discuss the inventors.). But still interesting. Lithography, soft contact lenses, screw propellors, and some medical stuff that i didn't understand (blood transfusions?) were all invented here.

I arrived too late on the first day for any of the tours. But I did have time for a Czech beer tasting. This guy served us 7 beers I had never heard of (all Lagers), and explained the differences, the brewing process, and what to look for in the taste. Here they have some beers that are a blend between light and dark brews. I didn't drink all the beer they served me; I had other stuff to do that night and wasn't looking to get drunk or anything.

I also went to the station to buy my next train tickets to Rome. People at the Prague train station (and most natives I've interacted with in general) are generally rude. I wonder if that's because I don't know the language. But here and in Berlin were the first times I had to get tickets at the station. Other times, the internet sufficed, and I'd just print the ticket at the station.

While walking toward the astrological clock, two Belrussians asked me where it was, so they followed me. They both spoke English alright, and one of them was my age, studying math! Geometry, though. They kept stopping to look for a souvenir mug with a specific painting on it.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012


The hostel at Berlin (Heart of Gold) was also pretty cool, although not as family-ish of an atmosphere as the one I stayed at in Cologne. Here I'm in a 50-person room, but effectively it's only like 19 since the 50-bed room is partitioned in two. But you have to pay for breakfast and internet. I extended my stay twice, ultimately staying 4 nights.

The Berlin Dom (cathedral) was pretty cool, just because seeing a protestant cathedral is a break from the ordinary Catholic ones. There were relief sculptures of Martin Luther testifying before the court, for example. It's nice seeing something that isn't the same 10 bible stories recreated over an over.

The first day, after seeing a bunch of things and having no clue what they were exactly, I hopped on one of those tour buses (something so touristy i swore i'd never do it). But the earphone explanations weren't that descriptive, and the dead air was filled with some terrible Kenny G song which never even rotated to a new song. I eventually got off.

Ate döner, currywurst, schnitzel and bratwurst. Just by the name I'd imagine that schnitzel is some sort of sweet corndog thing, but actually it's like a fried slab of pork. Döner and currywurst are both originally Turkish, but Germany has embraced it (lots of Turkish immigrants). Bratwurst is just a weird hotdog, and the one I had wasn't very good.

Lots of English speakers in Berlin and Cologne. Not just Aussies, British, etc; i'm talking native Germans who speak English as well. I wonder if that's an indication that I'm trapped in the touristy zones.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe was amazing. It starts out as like an above-ground graveyard, or like a grid of benches, then as you walk into the grid of concrete blocks they get taller and taller until you're trapped in a forest of these wonderfully hideous monstrosities. Whoever designed it gets an A+; probably the best single piece of art I've seen so far on the trip!

The East Side Gallery is nice; it's a section of the Berlin Wall with paintings on it, dated 1990 and 2009. For an open-air gallery it's remarkably devoid of graffiti (although there is a little bit, and on the other [western] side there's a lot).

Tried to go to the Reichstag, with its cool glass dome overlooking the Parliament, but I would have had to wait in line 1.5 hours and then wait on a security check for at least 2 hours (usually 3 days though). Didn't have time for that.

At night on the street I met 4 Australian guys, a Canadian girl, a British Guy and a guy from New Jersey, and we all just wandered around looking for a good bar. When we found one in the district of the East Side Gallery, we sat and talked for a long time. Australian guys proceeded to tell me about how Rugby was better than American football, and were amazed to hear that I don't watch motorcycle racing. Apparently they thought it was big in America b/c all the racers are American. I spoke French with some fashion-industry workers from Paris and their Italian friend, here to be stage assistants for a big fashion show.

Played a game of chess against this girl I met on the train to Berlin. Lost. I haven't played a game of non-random chess in a long time. She said when she was little she was like the 12th rated girl in the US. Turns out we've both been to the same national tournaments in Dallas and Nashville.

While walking from the Victory Column through the park, I saw a whole field of nude sunbathing men. This guy on a bike thought i was a native Berliner and asked me where's the field with all the women, lol.

Went to KaDeWe, Berlin's big shopping center. Saw some really nice clothes, but holy crap that stuff was expensive! The experience seemed very American, aside from the abundance of man-purses/satchels on the accessories floor. And the top floor was entirely dedicated to overpriced food. And they had a huge variety. There seemed to be an American section, with like peanut butter and stuff. A German I spoke with at the hostel said that people who eat there only eat there to be seen eating there.

Levi's at KaDeWe cost 90€ ($120). But that's also just because Levis in Europe are luxury goods, what with the import tariffs and all I suppose.

Saw a Dali exhibit. It was mostly lithographs/etchings, with some made for book illustrations. But there were also statues and whatnot. The exhibit was very cool; it's nice to get a break from the realist-leaning art I've been seeing everywhere else.

Lots of construction in Berlin, generally. Notably, when I went to visit the church near the zoo (a church whose claim to fame is that it's one of the only non-repaired war-damaged churches around), even it was under some sort of construction! But there was another replacement/memorial church nearby, which was cool because it looked almost nothing like a church. The building is hexagonal with only pure blue windows. There were pews but almost no statues or ornamentation aside from the crucifix in the front. And even that didn't match the commonly agreed-upon depiction of Jesus.

Busy in Berlin no time to make posts. I'll post stuff when i'm on the train to Prague tomorrow! Skipping Florence :( not enough time!

Monday, July 2, 2012

A Lot of Windmills

The countryside around here has a lot of modern-style windmills. Just something I haven't really seen in the US.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Laguiole and Opinel knives

In Barcelonnette, a few of the girls were buying Opinel pocket knives, which are popular local knives with a very simple design, but honestly I just didn't like the style, so I passed on getting one. I had seen another very distinctive style of pocket knife in a few stores, and at Karin's house I learned that they are Lagoioule (she had Laguiole spoons and forks, and I recognized the handle style.

I stepped into a Cologne knife store and asked to see the Laguioles in te case, and the guy pointed out the prices. About 150€ ($185) each! Now that he mentioned it, they do seem handmade with nice woods and whatnot. I got a much cheaper pocketknife, but I'll stay on the lookout for if Laguiole has any kind of production models, since really i judt like the shape rather than the ridiculously fancy materials and craftsmanship.

Another day in Cologne

It was less rainy on the second day in Cologne. I saw the roman museum, which took a lot of the daytime. There's a lot of near-pristine-condition Greek and Roman art from like 500 BC, and I liked that because all the ruins I had seen previously had been so eroded away you couldn't see the gods well enough to recognize them or see what they're doing. Here the pottery was also nice, where they'll paint an orange vase black and then erase on the parts were the people are. The aesthetic reminded me of the Hercules animated movie.

Then I climbed the tower to the Cathedral. That wasn't as exciting as they made it sound. There weren't many great viewing points. And the other tower had scaffolding all over it, so it wasn't very photogenic. When the bells rang, everybody in the bell chamber jumped and this one guy hit his head on a rail.

I went down into the Cathedral's treasury, which had all kids of golden chalices and monstrances and crucifixes and septors and staffs and whatnot. Also there were some things buried with people under the Cathedral's floors, like a Frankish woman's jewelry and stuff, or these weapons buried with a noble 12-year-old boy who they hope would be a warrior or something. Then there were the Relics of the Magi, which I knew nothing about, but apparently it's really a big deal. There was plenty of text around it, mostly about the Cathedral's acquisition of it, but no explanation of what it actually was. Later I googled it and found that supposedly it contains the bones of the 3 men who visited Jesus's birth (as you'd expect from the name). I have no idea how anyone could be sure to have tracked down the correct three people.

Walked through the Rheinpark and had lunch near a concert that I didn't go into (costs money, was already halfway over). Apparently here they have beers that they mix with other things like Sprite or Coke. That's called a "ratler." Mine was with Fanta, and it mixes much better than you'd think.

The local beer variety is kölsch, and it's pretty good. Of course, based on what i've been told I expect all German beers are good by American standards.

Went to a Nazi documentation center this morning and saw lots of prisoners' graffiti in the underground cells. There were whole letters written in pencil on the wall, still intact. They were mostly in Russian, German, French, or Polish, but they had English translation panels. People described what was going on around them in the cells, that they had no idea why they were there, and how many executions happened each day. There were also drawings and poetry on the wall. Upstairs there were less historical items and more presentation aboud Nazism. I didn't know before that Nazis forced the sterilization of certain people, and as early as 1933!

Ran out of tourist sites to see in Cologne (only thing I missed was the modern art museum). Mostly there seems to be just churches and roman ruins, and I've walked past (almost) all of them. Currently on a train to Berlin, yay!