Friday, February 27, 2009

Kölle Alaaf! and Helau!

or, having a blast at Karneval

Click here for images of one weekend in Frankfurt and the next in Düsseldorf and Cologne. I'll put them at the end, too if you want to read on to get more of the scoop before peeking at the end of the tale.

Two weekends ago I took a brief jaunt to Frankfurt with Erin to visit Katie in the largest city in Hesse. We were invited to join Katie and her Erasmus friends for a night in the bars and clubs of Frankfurt. One of the locals was a packed student club that was actually in one of the university's buildings. The coat check involved handing over your garments to a student employee who received them in a white garbage bag. These were then piled in the back to be reclaimed at the end of the night. The system keeps your scarf with your coat, but it makes the entryway an obstacle course of ripped and abandoned bags trying to trip you up.

The club itself was an interesting experience. If you asked me to describe a German club, I would probably think of a Berlin techno club à la Matrix Reloaded with lots of partially clothed people grinding on each other. In this club, even though it was packed, everyone very chastely kept their hands to themselves and bounced to the music. It was vaguely reminiscent of dances at Lakota Ridge Junior High. Except for the beer.

The next day Erin and I visited the Liebieghaus Skulptur Museum in Frankfurt. They had an exhibit of reconstructed Greek and Roman statues that I read about in a Smithsonian magazine my grandfather sent my way over a year ago. The exhibit displays the work of artists and scientists who have used modern methods to uncover the coloration that used to adorn the statues that we think of as solid white marble. Here are some images besides the ones in my facebook album (these are from the Glyptothek in Munich, where the exhibition began). Trying to imagine the Acropolis or the Roman Forum decked out in technicolor is a little difficult, but really makes the Mediterranean seem like an even more vibrant place than I ever thought.

The next excursion was to the Senckenberg Natural History Museum in Frankfurt. I may be giving a tour to Erin's host family and friends at some point, so I wanted to check it out before pretending to be the expert on their displays. They have a hall filled with dinosaur skeletons. Not quite as imposing as the real bones on display in Berlin, but still massive and beautiful. The real stars are the Messel and Stohnhofen fossils. I did a little lecturing for Erin, Katie, and Jonathan (an Erasmus friend)'s collective benefit. They didn't seem too bored by the fun facts. We also discovered that Katie is not a fan of dead, stuffed animals. Natural History museums are not her favorite place to hang.

After meeting Miya in Frankfurt for a catch-up dinner and promises to visit Heidelberg, Erin and I passed off our sleeping space on Katie's floor to her and departed for the Rhineland to prepare for Karneval.

As I mentioned in my previous post from last Thursday, the five days leading up to Ash Wednesday (Ashenmittwoch) are a big deal in the Catholic corners of Germany. After partying with the office on Thursday, I struck out for Düsseldorf to meet Marty, Erin, and Marco for the second largest party in the Rhineland (Cologne is arguably the largest Karneval celebration around. It's also the larger city.). We settled in at an Alt Beer (the local Düsseldorfer drink) Brew House and watched the insanity begin as chefs and clowns wandered through the doors.

Thus began a run of days where alcohol never really left my system. Saturday was in Cologne, after meeting Shane, and we began exploring the old part of the city where Kölsch and bratwurst stands abounded, then wended our way to a packed, sweaty club where we met several characters including an awkward Superman and a randy pirate-woman.

Sunday was to be a day off, but after picking up Halley we started a tour of the Altstadt of Düsseldorf that soon became another party. The streets were packed with crazy costumes and revelers. It felt rude not to join in. One of the beautiful aspects of the Karneval street party is that everyone participates. Neighbors and friends meet in the street to finish a keg, sing traditional Karnval tunes (including a "Country Roads" remix), and say hello to the rest of the city. Their kids wander around, too and their grandparents might stop by dressed as Elvis or pirates.

Monday is the largest day for Karneval and could be considered an official holiday in the Rhineland. Businesses shut down and everyone goes to see the Rosenmontag (Rose Monday) parades. The floats are decorated with politically charged caricatures with Napoleonic, Prussian and modern periods. Quite a stir was created in Düsseldorf when a float depicting Pope Benedict shaking hands with a Satanic, Nazi figure of Bishop Richard Williamson.

For our part, we decided to get to Cologne for the largest parade. A million and a half people were expected to turn up, so we left early with a crate of Kölsch ready to go. We had to abandon the first train we tried to board because it was overflowing with men in drag, fuzzy kangaroos, and Amy Winehouses. The next one had plenty of room for us all, and we bonded with other German students who loved that Americans were getting into the Karneval mood. We ended up hanging out with them for the parade as we tried to catch flying chocolate bars and flowers thrown by float riders. If you want a little insight into German political concerns, study the following images taken by Erin:

Putin ready to clobber the world.

Angela Merkel as Germany after getting a little work done.
I can tell you the SPD is a powerful politica party. Can't tell you what's going on though.

The parade ended, the clean-up began immediately and the quest for a club to rabble-rouse in was initiated. Following three Amy Winehouses who were following a confident Superman, we wound through the streets, past packed bars and brew houses, finally settling in extrablatt for the night. We danced and sang, but did not eat much. I will willingly admit it's all a bit hazy, but that's how it's supposed to be on Rosenmontag.

The next day was a real break. We didn't get to bed until the morning had gotten rolling. We went out for hamburgers after a string of very German meals of beer, wurst, and Speißbraten. Halley traveled to Bonn with me. As a International Relations guru, she wanted to see the former capital of Germany in all its quaint glory. Tuesday night, we discovered the party was still going in Bonn, but got home so we could get up early for Ash Wednesday services in the Cologne Dom.

We got our ashes in the packed day chapel, and I finally got back to work on some fossils. I saw Halley off yesterday afternoon after teaching her a little about Rhenish wine and dinosaurs. Now I'm off for a weekend in Brussels. I know I will have mussels, waffles, and, yes, more beer. Gotta experience the culture in full, doncha know. Just not quite sure if the marathon in May is actually going to happen.

I hope you got to enjoy festivities of some kind the lead up to Lent and that the coming weekend offers even more time with friends and family (even if Belgian beer isn't served).

Kölle und Bonn Alaaf!

P.S. Picture link, as promised.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Weiberfastnacht or, beer at work

Today, standing on the Tennenbusch Mitte tram platform, waiting for the number 16 to roll up I was joined by a 75 year-old monkey. I knew this wasn't going to be a normal day.

Back on November 11th at 11:11, the fifth season of the year began in Nordrhein-Westfalia (NRW), the German state Bonn calls home. Karneval began, the celebration of drunken pleasure that finds echos in Mardi Gras and Carnival. Here in Germany, though, it has special significance and length. The Karneval season is suspended for Advent, then kicks into high gear this week as Lent rears its solemn head.

Today is Weiberfastnacht also known as "Old Women's Day" or "Fat Thursday." If you're wearing a tie today, it will quickly get hacked off by an older woman and she'll plant a wet one on your cheek. I couldn't find a tie for the occasion. It's also the first day everyone busts out their costumes. As I walked to the Institute, I saw cowboys, highlanders, Peter Pan, The Joker, rabbits, tigers, ghouls, and lots of clowns.

As I unpacked my computer, one of the grad students popped her head into the office and invited Vincent and I down the hall to the department's celebration. The champagne (Sekt) is flowing, the pasteries are delicious, and the Kölsch plentiful. With everyone dressed up and celebrating, it feels a little like Halloween, but this will go on for five full days, culminating in a massive parade in Cologne on Monday. It's also a little different because everyone is in the swing of things, not just kids and drunken college students. Older people get together with their friends to celebrate just as raucously as the young ones. Everyone has to have something to repent for come Ash Wednesday, right?

This festival has been around since the Middle Ages but became especially significant in this part of Germany when the Protestant Prussians started collecting the German states in the late 19th century. The crazy Catholics in the West were able to satirize the prudish Prussians with this crazy festival, and no one could say otherwise. Who wants to be known as the jerk that shut down the largest street festival in Europe (those would be Cologne's Karneval celebrations, specifically)?

Well, its time to get back to the party. There's more meat to eat, cream puffs to stuff my face with, and costumes to laugh at (not to mention drinking songs to learn). If you could do me a favor: celebrate a little today or this weekend. I need to bring a slice of this across the pond, and I'll need a little help. Who doesn't want to just kick back with their coworkers and friends and have a good time? Work will come along later....

Kölle Alaaf!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Herzlichen Glückwunsch zum Geburtstag, Chuck!

Today marks the 200th year since Charles Darwin's birth (and Lincoln's, but I'll let historians and political scientists deal with that one). 2009 is also the 150th anniversary of the publication of the Origin of Species, arguably one of the most important books ever written. I don't say that as a Darwinian fanboy or even as an evolutionary biologist. The first formal, testable theory of an evolutionary mechanism - natural selection - confronted scientists and society with a cogent argument for the antiquity of the earth, the interconnectedness of life, and the ultimate importance of the environment to the human species...big stuff.
In this article by Olivia Judson, published today in the New York Times, the author points out that Darwin was a genuinely nice guy. A lot of scientific history is clogged with big egos. Newton versus Hook. Lamarck versus Cuvier. Watson and Crick. But Darwin was just a good, humble guy.

He loved his wife and children. He was an infirm man, so he didn't like leaving home very often to rabble rouse or augment his legacy. His great adventure, the voyage aboard the H.M.S. Beagle as the ship's naturalist, began when he was 22. During the course of the 5 year journey, he began contemplating the evidence for speciation and evolution. He arrived home, wrote a book about his travels and did a lot of thinking and even more research.

He had an idea of how life might evolve, but he also understood the implications of his ideas. His wife was an intensely religious woman as was Darwin who became an agnostic only after the death of one of his young daughters. He understood that by suggesting species could change - and implying man was a part of the process - he would be forcing people to seriously consider their faith.

So he sat on his ideas. He wanted to test them and discuss them at length before causing an unnecessary debate. Through 23 years of experimentation and observation on barnacles, orchids, pigeons, and seeds, he finally began writing The Origin (Die Entstehung der Arten to Germans). As he wrote, he received a manuscript from a young naturalist named Alfred Wallace who's insights into natural selection could have served as an abstract to the Origin of Species. Darwin knew it was time to let his ideas into the world.

Science historians are always quick to remind their audience that Darwin and Wallace presented the theory of Natural Selection at a meeting of the Linnean Society in London. Wallace was in Southeast Asia, and Darwin did the talking in London. In many ways we are fortunate Wallace wasn't in town at the time. He was an iconoclast and a sometimes impulsive young man. He knew the implications of Natural Selection and was spoiling for a fight with the establishment. Darwin took his time and let his ideas speak for themselves (or let Thomas Huxley do the speaking for him).

Alfred Russel Wallace in London before darting off again to study mammals and birds in the Amazon or Paupua New Guinea.

Darwin was not a genius in the sense of Newton or Einstein, men who conceived their ideas through brilliant flashes of insight. At an exhibit about Einstein, a plaque explained that if Einstein hadn't existed, we would have waited a long time for Relativity.

Multiple scientists would probably have reached Darwin and Wallace's conclusions if they hadn't existed. But, Darwin possessed a keen power of observation and measured patience that is rare in scientists from any century. He thoroughly tested his theory before committing to it. He ruminated and considered its implications. In today's scientific climate, the race to publish and constantly fight for funding often drives measured thought from the scientific brain.

Darwin foresaw the emergence of "Social-Darwinism," the misunderstanding of his theories that led some of his contemporaries to posit social classes were a product of "Survial of the fittest": the rich got that way because they were inherently better. Darwin saw class as social injustice, not the product of evolution, and tried to keep his ideas from getting mired in political agendas.

Darwin soon after returning from his voyage on the Beagle.

Darwin set off to make his scientific fortune when he was 22 (we'll celebrate that in 2031). I'm 23. As the world celebrates his life, I often wonder what it would be like to talk to Young Chuck as a peer. The kid had dropped out of medical school because he was queasy around blood, and didn't really enjoy all that reading he had to do while preparing to be a minister. He disappointed his father by taking off to sail the world because he loved catching butterflies, collecting plants, and watching animals. It's not really the best start for someone who would have to endure ridicule and misunderstanding for the next 2 centuries. He would start a scientific and social revolution. He would become a convincing writer.

He would grow up to lose his hair and grow an incredible beard. He would lead biology from the world of description into the science of causation. He didn't understand everything about how life works. Genetics wouldn't roll around as an active field of research until after his death and much of the world had yet to be mapped, but he never presumed to be infallible. He was simply trying to understand the world and went where the facts lead him.

Happy Birthday Charlie.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Becoming an Alpinist

(Here's a link to the map of the ski area I explore in this post and here's a link to the photos of the adventure. I'll post them at the end, too.)

I’m from this Midwest. This means we don’t have a lot of topography back at home. This also means I am not a very accomplished skier. I first learned to ski when I was eleven-ish at Pine Knob Ski Resort in southern Michigan. With Scouts I would go once a year to Perfect North Slopes in Southeastern Indian. Once in college I went to Mad River Slopes outside Columbus. If you’re having a hard time remembering the mountains of Southern Michigan, Indiana, or Central Ohio, that’s because they literally won’t stick out in your mind.

So, when Shane, a chemist Fulbrighter who’s living in Munich, invited me to join him and a guy from his lab on an excursion into the German Alps for some skiing, I was excited but a little apprehensive. Would I be able to take on real mountains with my Midwestern skills? There was only one way to find out.

By the time February 6th rolled around, the excursion had snowballed (Shane’s appropriate metaphor) into a group of 9 that would be gallivanting along the roof of Germany. The group included Marco, a physical chemist Fulbrighter working in Düsseldorf, Chris, a writer Fulbrigher in Berlin, Marty, an aeronautical engineer Fulbrighter in Stuttgart, Shane, his co-worker Robert and two of Robert’s buddies (Australians). Later we would be joined by Glen, a British friend of Shane’s who grew up in Germany. An eclectic group, to say the least, but that’s how it works over here. I work with a Frenchmen, drink with Germans, share a kitchen with a Kenyan and an Iranian, and hope to work with a scientist from China.

Marco and I met in Cologne and shared a ride with an enthusiastic snowboarder from Cologne. He excitedly talked with Marco about his family and impressions of Germany. I couldn’t really hear much of what they were saying from the back seat, but I did get to enjoy rocketing along the Autobahn at 220 km/hr in the little Audi coupe. I can check “taking full advantage of the absent speed limit” off my German experience check-list.

We met the other Fulbrighers at the Munich train station and went out for dinner at one of the best döner kebab places I’ve visited in Germany. My review of Mama’s Kebab might be colored by the fact they had about twenty little bowls lining the counter, each with a different spice or sauce. Any place that offers that many condiments is an A+ in my book.

Eventually we wound our way back to Shane’s apartment, catching up and sharing stories of life in Deutschland along the way. The next morning we were up at 5:30 so we could catch the train to Garmisch-Partenkirchen at 6:30. Everyone but Glen, who was stopped underground on a delayed subway train, was able to convene on the platform. Glen decided to make the journey later in the day and join us on the slopes on Sunday.

As the train chugged towards the Austrian/German border, the sun rose and illuminated the distant mountains. Once we were in their midst, following tracks through an open glacial valley, I couldn’t keep my butt on the seat. I was up at the window staring up at their peaks, excited to soon be part their craggy, snowy profile.

But first we needed to figure out how to get there. Stepping off the train, there was no obvious next step. Chris wisely consulted her guidebook and found the tourist information office in the middle of town. While finding out where we could rent skis, buy lift-tickets, and actually get to the mountain, the morning swiftly waned and everyone was itchy to actually get on the slopes. We found the bus we needed and settled in with the mild panic that always accompanies bus rides in strange cities and towns, “Are we going the right way? Are we looking at the map correctly? Is this the right number? Where should we get off?” Fortunately, it was pretty obvious we were going in the right direction (the mountains were getting closer) and when we should get off (the ski lift appeared in front of the bus). I had tried to do my research before getting to the slopes, but found a morass of websites, none of which detailed prices, but now know that skiing in the Alps is a surprisingly affordable prospect. For two days on the hill you can have a lift-ticket for 50 Euro and quality skis for 40. Perfect North will set you back $66 for one day, and you’re not exactly paying for the view.

Once everyone was outfitted, we stepped up to the lift for the first time. The lift was quintessential German chaos. You shouldered your way into a mass of people and surged towards turnstiles that opened when you swiped your lift ticket by the sensor. Mine didn’t work the first time around, so I had to fight my way upstream to exchange my faulty card.

Once I got through the stiles, I joined a mass of humanity clustered around the entrance to the lifts. Each car was egg shaped with a bench lining the perimeter and room enough for maybe eight people. Then there was room in the middle for your gear, or maybe more passengers. The pods slowly traced the boarding platform. Temporary gates were set up, allowing a first group of people to climb aboard. Once the egg passed the gate’s entry, it moved past a secondary entrance. Another dash ensued and the egg was filled with as many passengers as could fit. There was no line, no order to the boarding procedure. It was every man, woman, and child for his or herself. I was able to dive aboard right before the door swung closed and began a two kilometer ride up the mountain called the Kreuzeck. Soon I would be swooshing.

At the top we assembled and decompressed after the crazy exercise of clamoring into our eggs. The skill levels of the group were pretty mixed, tending toward beginner snowboarders and skiers. The first run before us was an intermediate slope, and the only way to get to the beginner stuff. A different lift would have taken us to the easier hills, but we didn’t realize the scale of the place we were dealing with, and originally thought we would all be able to make it down this first run. The only thing to do was use chair lifts and intermediate runs to get to the bunny hills for the beginners.

After everyone strapped in and Chris and I led the way, finally letting our equipment whip us over the snow. Then Marco crested the hill, struggling to keep his feet beneath him. He had a bit less experience, but he eventually pulled up next to me. Chris waited on the slope for everyone else, but no one popped up. Finally the three of us decided to take the chair lift. Maybe we would be able to find each other with a higher perspective. No dice. Everyone had dispersed. So it was Marco, Chris and I exploring the route to the Bunny slopes. I found I was able to control myself surprisingly well. Maybe because I had become a runner since my last ski trip and had more power for controlling my suddenly-five-foot-long feet? Regardless, there is no feeling quite like the icy wind lashing your face as you careen down slope, surrounded by the towering Alps.

Eventually Chris and I got Marco safely to the smaller, easier slopes so he could practice on smoother, wider runs. As we stood discussing where to meet after the hills closed, something we had forgotten to decide before getting separated. Shane miraculously appeared. Then Marty rode up to our group. Robert was nearby and by dumb luck we were able to arrange a meeting time. Lesson learned: It’s hard to keep everyone together on a ski slope and a cell phone is a pretty useful tool for communicating across the Alps. You just need to bring them.

Chris, Marty, and I then began our quest for the summit. We slowly made our way upwards by riding lifts and searching out trails. After a terrifying two way trail with people clumsily moving up the slope on skis and people descending on boards, we found what we thought was the summit. The valley opened wide below us and the town of Garmischer-Paterskirche lay at our feet while the spine of the range guarded our backs. We snapped triumphant pictures and slid up and down the slope. Then Marty and I looked at the map and realized we could still go up! A side trail dove off to the right and we followed it to the base of the Alpspitze. The peak is not the highest in the range, but it cuts a distinctive, severe profile, the twisted carbonate bedrock rising to a peak then snapping off in mid arch.

We rode a gondola the size of a small bus up to 2050 meters, 1300 m above our starting point that morning. The trail we followed was one of the most amazing runs I’ve ever set skis to (Note: I haven’t set my skis to much, but Chris was really excited about the trail and she’s much more qualified to judge such things after 20 years on skis and snowboard.). The 2.5 km run gradually drops 350 meters, diving through a narrow gap in the mountain where you ski along trail through cliffs of imposing rock. You shoot from this gap onto a looping run that traces the edge of an Alpine bowl filled with snow-frosted trees. You then drop a steep slope and slide back to the Gondola.

For the first time I understood skiing isn’t just an excuse to go really fast in the snow. It’s also an opportunity to enjoy the gifts of nature, to travel over a mountain, up peaks and through forests, covering incredible distances while overwhelming myself with the scale of the mountain underfoot. Exhilarating. Unfortunately my camera ran out of batteries as we rode to the summit, leaving indelible images in my memory that I can’t share with you.

At 4 PM, the final gondola rode to the top. We hopped aboard, watching clouds dock against the mountains around us. We proceeded to ski from 2050 meters to the base of the mountain to meet the rest of the group at 700 meters. As soon as we hit the cloud line, an oppressive fog surrounded us, cutting visibility to a couple dozen meters. It was like skiing into an atmospheric horror movie or a Grimm fairy tale.

With skis in tow, we headed back to the train station and began catching up on everyone’s experiences. The novices were a little worn out after searching in vain for simple, approachable slopes, but were reluctantly game to tackle the Zugspitze the next day where conditions might be a little more forgiving.

Exhausted, we picked up our bags from the main train station and rode on to Mittenwald, a small town further up the valley. It isn’t as close to the slopes as Garmische, so we were able to find a cheaper Pension to say in. It also meant there were precious few tourists in town. With hunger bearing down on us, we found a little Bavarian restaurant that could seat 9 people. It was the perfect place to end the day.

They served the local brew – Mittenwalder Bräu – and traditional Bavarian fare, which basically means pork in various forms with different sauces. While we ate and drank, a band played folk tunes while most of the other diners sang along. Everyone seemed to be over 45 and sporting lederhosen or dirndls for a Saturday night out on the town. The band was gathered around a large table, facing each other instead of the house, giving the impression they were playing for their own pleasure, not their audience. The guitarist – displaying a magnificent handlebar mustache - had a 9-string bass neck attached to a classical acoustic guitar for creating a solid “Oom-Pah” without brass. His neighbor – sporting a full white beard – played a dulcimer, and the final member chimed in every now and then with a fierce spoon solo.

Exhausted and full from hearty food, beer, and debate, we called it a night. The next morning breakfast was served at 7, but I was up at 6 trying to take a shower in a bath with a gabled ceiling. This meant I had to squat down to wash my hair or stand perfectly straight with my head poking into the small skylight to rinse. Really it was a solid stretching routine to start the day before punishing my leg muscles for a second full day.

Slowly everyone gathered for bread and spread (German Breakfast) then we made for the door. The clock was ticking and we had a precise schedule to keep. If we missed the train from Mittenwald, we would have to wait a full hour before getting to Garmisch-Partenkirchen. If the Mittenwald train was running late, we would miss the train to the slopes. We made both connections, but were a little warm from the hustling exertion despite the fresh layer of snow accumulating around us.

The second train we caught is called the Zugspitzbahn. You get free admission to the train with a lift pass. The cog-railway system then runs to each slope near Garmisch-Partenkrchen, terminating at the Zugspitze, the highest point in Germany at around 3000 meters. It’s not the highest Alp by a long shot (Mont Blanc is 4,810 meters), but it’s still a more imposing mountain then I have ever skied before.

The train actually cuts into the mountain, traveling a 4.5 km tunnel up a steep slope, finally expelling you onto the Zugspitzplatte, a small glacier sitting in front of the Zugspitze peak. At the peak, the snow was falling thickly, layering the glacier with several inches of light powder. Visibility was reduced to a couple dozen meters, blending air, horizon, and mountain into a blank white sheet. Marco and Shane found their way to the beginner slopes near the peak while Chris showed me how to revel in freshly fallen powder.

Chris demonstrating the depth of the snow. It could get as high as our thighs as we plowed ahead.

As the day wore on, the fluffy layer accumulated. I was fearless. Why should I worry about falling when the soft snow will absorb the impact? I couldn’t stop laughing, zipping through the stuff, my skis, boots, and legs disappearing into the light surficial layer. I felt like a torpedo cutting just below the surface, spraying a wake of flurries behind me. Red markers lined the trail, guiding us to the next tow or lift. The only drawback was the effort of moving under all that snow sapped a lot of power and we knew by the end of the day we probably wouldn’t walk, but it was worth it.

One of the clearest moments on the Zugspitzplatt. On a clear day you can see Austria to the left and Germany to the right. Us? We could only see a blank sheet of white.

At 1:30, Chris and I caught the Zugspitzbahn back to the Kreuzeck, the area we had skied the previous day, to meet Glen. I also wanted the thrill of sliding down an entire mountain one more time. The ride was about 1.25 hours, so it was also our only break in the day. As we rolled through (cogged through?) the tunnel, Chris examined the map.

At the first stop after the tunnel, a place called Riffelriß, a ski trail seemed to start. It then looped down to the Eibsee, the next station on the railway. According to the schedule, it took 20 minutes for the train to go down the slope. The trail was 5 km long and dropped 650 meters. Could we really ski to the next train station? It would be a race. If we lost, the next train wouldn’t come for another hour, killing the rest of the day. Chris wanted me to commit, I wanted her to commit. Finally I squinted and said, “We’re gonna do it.” We grabbed our equipment and got ready to bolt out the door. While we came to a halt, I tied my shoes together and slung them around my neck. The doors slid wide and we ran. The slope didn’t begin immediately. We had to awkwardly jog/hop a couple of dozen meters to the beginning of the gradient. We threw on our gear, I snapped a picture of Chris taking off, and the race was on.


Chris is a little left of center, shooting down the hill ready to beat technology.

Snow continued to fall, but visibility was the best it had been all day. The wide path plunged into the pine forest with smaller game trails leading from the main run. As I whipped by I noticed deer and boar tracks wandering into the tree line. Adrenaline surged through me as my speed increased and I created a new track on the near-virgin snow. I was closing on Chris as I tucked in to put on more speed. The trail narrowed then began a lazy bend to the right. As I leaned into the turn, the back edge of my left ski caught a drift and I exploded into a spectacular cartwheel of snow.


When I stopped tumbling, I almost felt I had the momentum to roll back onto my feet to keep plunging down slope. Then I noticed I was missing a ski. I organized my limbs and stretched for the missing piece of equipment. I then noticed my boot had been overextended and somehow the ankle guard was outside the main foot straps. I had to wrestle with the plastic as the seconds and minutes ticked away. Finally, the boot was correctly on my foot. I cleared the binding and tried to slam my boot in to lock it on. It bounced out. I tried again and the effort caused the ski to slide away. I grabbed it and slammed my heel in. Finally locked down, I pushed off and the dash continued.


A few kilometers on, a sign pointed to the right with a train station symbol. We followed and suddenly found ourselves on an upwardly sloping hiking trail. Chris popped her foot out of her board’s binding. Impulsively I popped off my skis, flung them on my shoulder and tried to run up the slope. In hindsight, this was a poor plan. In heavy ski boots and fresh snow, you can try to run as fast as the wind, but you won’t move faster than a comfortable stroll. When the trail sloped away again, I popped on my skis and slid to the next trail.


Up the trail went again, and off went my skis. At the crest, a steep hill opened before me with kids sled riding down the slope. I knew I was really close. I dropped by skis and tried to pop them on. Running through the snow had caked snow onto the soles and toes of my boots, making them slippery and difficult to lock. My skis wouldn’t stay upright in the snow and I cussed trying to juggle my poles, skis, and shoes which swung into my face and spewed puffs of snow up my nose.


As I struggled a small boy and his dad climbed the hill with their sled.

“What’s he trying to do, Dad?” the kid asked in German
“It looks like he’s trying to ski.” Dad helpfully replied.

They stood and watched, waiting for me to get my act together so they could slide down without me overtaking them. I waved them on. In a final act of frustration, I slammed by boot down as if I was trying to smash a cockroach to China. Click.

I was off.


Not sure where to go next: “Where’s the train station?”(“Wo ist die Bahnhof?”) I was in such a rush I forgot “Bahnhof” is masculine and I should have said “der Bahnhof.” The helpful sledder pointed up a steep slope. Off came the skis one more time just as my phone started to ring. There was only one reason that would happen. Chris was at the station and the train had arrived. I dug deep and climbed the hill, then started awkwardly speed-walking/ski-boot running through the parking lot. There was the train. There was Chris hanging out of the door. “Chris!” I yelled to let her know I was close. She saw and started jumping with encouragment and worry.


I made it to the closest platform entrance and tried to plow through the gate. It was locked. I ran back down the ramp. “Here, here!” Chris yelled, pointing at a turnstile 25 feet further on. I busted through, flung my skis onto the floor of the train and hauled myself aboard.


We put our equipment in the racks by the door laughing with adrenaline sunk into the same seats we had before we left. Three snowboarders who rode with us from the Zugspitze looked confused, having seen us get off one stop earlier. They didn’t ask what could make us so giddy or why I was shaking snowballs out of the shoes around my neck. Mission accomplished. I can officially ski faster than a speeding locomotive, especially if I can keep my skis under me.

We met Glen after grabbing an apple strudel at the top of the Kreuzeck (we wanted dampfnudel, the traditional skiing desert, but they were out). He was beat and feeling a little queasy after all the Dunkel Mittenwalder the night before. We skied with him to the bottom of the mountain. Here visibility was a bit better, but the snow conditions a little more challenging. Drifts of powder sat on smooth ice faces causing you to slow and suddenly skitter forward over the ice. This was like skiing at home.

Glen called it a day, but Chris and I wanted to make a drive for the peak of the mountain before the lifts closed at four. It would be tight since it was 3:45, but we could do it. The egg lift dropped us and we confidently headed for the two-way slope and the first chair lift. Skiing down the slope to the lift I saw a word that has come to be my German tourist mantra: Geschlossen. It was exactly 4 and they already had the gate up and multiple red poles over the decking. The chairs were still running, but they clearly didn’t want anyone else to go up. Maybe the operator had to go home to be with his family.

Bummed, we hiked up the slope and skied to the foot of the mountain in a final burst of speed and swooshing. We found Marco, Robert, and Shane and traded stories as we made our way into Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Marco and Shane had found the perfect beginner slopes near the top of the Zugspitzplatt and had spent the day gaining confidence and fewer bruises than the day before. Over Haxe (Baked Pork Knuckle, a symbol of Bavaria) and Paulainer Hefeweissen (another symbol of Bavaria) we declared the day exhausting but yet another wonderful romp through Germany.

Some of our Ski Crew on the Zugspitzbahn (Left to Right): Shane, Robert, Chris, and Marco.

I took an overnight train from Munich to Bonn, spending the night in the fetal position over two seats. It didn’t exactly help my aching muscles, but I was able to hobble into the lab the next day with stories to tell about an exciting weekend becoming an Alpinist.

I hope you’ve taken advantage of the gifts of winter, even if they don’t necessarily involve racing trains.

Tschüss (or “Pfüat Di” in Bavaria)

P.S. Photos of the swooshing adventures.

Monday, February 9, 2009

That Pest-y Buda

(Here is a link to a photo album illustrating this adventure, though there's a link at the end, too in case you want to read the story then get a visual aid.)

The next morning I was up at 5:55 and headed to the shower. It was a late night, but the drive to explore Budapest, said to be the most beautiful city in Europe, was greater than my reluctance to get off the bunk bed. Everyone else was up, showered, dressed and ready to hit the streets before seven. Go Team Budapest!

It was a quiet Saturday morning in the Hungarian capital and we moved towards the massive Neo-Gothic Parliament, listening to our voices echo off the buildings and public art of the governmental district. We finally saw people when we approached the parliament building in the form of two guards with furry ushanka hats (the ear-flap hats). They were patrolling the chained off main entrance to the building. According to the guidebook we needed to enter a small door next to the main staircase. We stood by the chain, stared at the door and wondered what to do next. As we discussed, one of the guards began to stroll towards us. Apparently he would let us in, but to watch him approach was to see a man hauling himself through ankle-deep Jell-O. He took his sweet time pulling back the chain to let us pass. Little did he know we had a schedule to keep. Or, maybe he did and this was one of his few kicks for the day.

Regardless, we purchased our tickets for the English language tour from an older woman huddled in the small room next to the regal, main staircase. We had time to kill before the tour, so we walked back across town to St. Stephen’s Basilika. The Neo-Classical building took over 50 years to complete thanks to the collapse of the central dome, causing the architect to start things over at square one. In 1904 it was finally finished. The interior is layered in gold leaf, marble and paintings, a reminder of the power once wielded by Budapest on the European stage.
St. Stephen was the first King of Hungary and his right hand is enshrined in a chapel near the alter. Unfortunately there was a private service underway, so we had to leave the ornate sanctuary before seeing the relic. With more time to kill and not much sleep in our systems, we searched for an example of the famous Hungarian coffee café. After roaming for a few minutes, we realized the only coffee place near the Basilica was “California Coffee Company.” Obviously an import, with a menu in English, we felt a little guilty patronizing the place. They did have bagels, though, a rare product in Europe.

With a shot of Americanized caffeine in our systems and after reviewing our itinerary again, we headed past all the massive bronze art to the Parliament building to learn about the massive Neo-Gothic structure on the Danube. Modeled on the Parliament building in London, but with a dome and more spires, it really feels like an ennobling place to legislate.

The interior is red, teal, and gold, much like the interior of the Basilika. Statues of kings and other proud Hungarians line the walls. In the center of the main rotunda sits the Holy Crown of Hungary. Originally placed on St. Stephen’s head in 1000, over 50 kings have worn the crown. With time it has become more ornate and the coronation set expanded to include a sword, orb, and scepter. In the 16th century they put a cross on top, but in the 17th century it was accidentally bent over. Instead of straightening the ornament, the Hungarian’s left it lop-sided. Now the official coat of arms of Hungary proudly displays the now very distinctive crown.

At the end of World War II, the American Army captured the crown in Austria and took it home for safe keeping before the advancing Soviet Army found it. For most of the Cold War, while Hungary was firmly ensconced behind the Iron Curtain, the Crown Jewels were stored in Fort Knox. The Americans ran a bunch of experiments on the objects, confirming their veracity, then Jimmy Carter gave them back to the Hungarians in 1978. Who knew the U.S. took the Hungarian crown jewels as war booty?

We also saw the assembly chamber where the former upper house of parliament sat. Similar to the House of Lords in the British system, the house of wealthy nobles was pitched leaving a single National Assembly and a convenient open meeting space for tourists and conferences. As the third largest Parliament in Europe, the building is also notable for the traumatic modern history it has contained. In the 1944, the Nazis installed a puppet government lead by the Arrow Cross Party. Basically Hugarian Nazis, they immediately started sending Jews, people who sheltered Jews, and Roma to Auschwitz. In 1945, the Soviets conquered Budapest and installed their own satellite Communist government. In 1956 a massive popular revolution in Budapest succeeded in temporarily removing Hungary from the Warsaw Pact. The Russians weren’t happy and quashed the revolution. Thousands died in the conflict, but the Hungarians succeeded in establishing a more liberal form of Socialism termed “Goulash Communism” with relaxed travel restrictions.
We walked along the Danube, crossing from Pest into Buda, where we climbed to the Buda Palace.

A view from one of the first suspension bridges ever constructed, looking up at Buda Castle.

A royal castle has sat on the site since the 13th century. Sieges and wars destroyed the original fortification, and the current building was erected in 1770. The castle has an incredible view that you can enjoy by wandering up the paths in the hill or by funicular.

St. Stephen's Basilica is poking up on the horizon with the dome.

I didn’t know funiculars were a mode of transportation until I arrived. Now I see funiculars everywhere. Personally, I just like saying the word.
Rachel, Erin, Halley and I wandered around the castle, taking in the view of the surrounding hills and river. We also eaves dropped on a tour that described the ruins underneath the castle, evidence of the old Roman city. It’s been a popular place to build for some time. We then turned a corner and heard a bugle blasting a Reveille-like call. The Hungarian changing of the guard was underway, with soldiers marching in front of a rather non-descript building.

As the last notes faded, and the new soldiers settled into their posts, a middle-aged man who looked like a grizzled Robin Williams asked us if we knew where we were going. Crap, a freelance tour guide. He told us he would show us around the castle area and tell us good places to top to eat. An officially dressed officer then stopped by and whispered something in his ear. I figured he was being told off, but instead his eyes widened and he looked past us at someone walking by the building, “Look, look there! That is the Prime Minister of Hungary!” The Prime Minister was out for a Saturday stroll with his wife while security guys spread out around him. I couldn’t tell you his name at the time (I now know it’s Ferenc Gyurcsány), but I’m always a fan of snapping pictures of someone with political power.

PM Ferenc Gyurcsány and the missus are on the left of the frame.

Our tour of Buda hill left the potential tour guide behind, but we found the main sights by following the streams of tourists and tacky souvenir shops. Matthias Church sits a respectful distance away from the palace. Built around 1000 it was first restored in the Gothic style in the 14th century, then turned into a Mosque when the Turks took over in 1541. When the Turks were kicked out at the end of the 17th century, the Hungarians tried to make it Baroque, but just couldn’t fix it. Finally in the 19th century it was given its current Neo-Gothic form. Like everything in Hungary, it has a pretty complicated history including sieges, miracles and many coronations involving the crown with the slanted cross. It’s named after Matthias the Just, the greatest Hungarian King. I think his name was really what propelled him to greatness.
Inside Matthias Church. The original paintings were uncovered after the Turks left. they were touched up or redone in the 19th.

Outside the ornately painted and tiled church is the Fishermen’s Bastion, a Neo-Romanesque overlook of Danube, built for the Millennial (The Millennial really gave Budapest a lot of reasons to build). We took in the view and I considered chatting with a falconer who was standing in the middle of the bastion with his eagle and hawk for tourists to pose with.
I didn’t want to pay to put the bird on my arm, but I was curious to find out how he came by the birds. Were they rescued after injuries? Were they bred for tourists? Were they captured? Questions I will never know the answer to, because we had an entire city yet to explore.
The Fisherman's Bastion. It would be a perfect place to perform Shakespeare, or shoot a Disney movie.

Our final destination on Buda Hill was the Labyrinth. Way back when the Romans were on the hill, people started building tunnels under the city. These were expanded in medieval times and just kept getting bigger. They were used for storing supplies and people during times of siege, such as in World War II when the Russians defeated the Nazis in the Battle of Budapest. It’s an interesting history, so it made sense “Let’s Go Europe” would recommend we check it out. In fact, the tunnels were one of the highest rated things to do in Budapest.

One of the mystical passages leading to enlightenment and other such B.S.

After visiting, I can tell you it is one of the lamest things to visit in Budapest. The above history was taken from a small sign near the entrance. The rest was a futile attempt at profundity.

We walked down the dungeon stairs off the street into the dank tunnels. I was excited because it smelled like a cave, but instead of ornate formations there were hokey, pseudo-mystical inscriptions and the highest admissions price we paid all day. Instead of acting as a museum, the installation is supposed to be a meditation on labyrinths though human history. We started with reproductions of European cave art. There was no explanation, just images copied from Lascaux and Altamira. Normally I’m down for some Ice Age art, but this was just pointless. Then we found fake medieval fonts and mazes. Again, normally fine, but it was accompanied by a forced attempt at introspection and New Age mysticism. It’s enough to make me create crop circles.

Searching for the point.

The final section detailed the doomed Late Eocene species Homo consumus. The creature produced artifacts preserved in concrete such as Coke bottles and computers. It didn’t appreciate the world and went extinct 50 million years ago. Geeze. We finally went though the “Labyrinth of Courage” in the semi-dark, searching for the sun. We found the exit. Strike one against the “Let’s Go” series.

We finally descended the hill and crossed the river in to Pest, first searching desperately for a café of some kind. One of the bummers of wandering semi-aimlessly through a new city is food tends to cluster. If you find one restaurant, you’ve found ten. We didn’t know where the cluster might be and stumbled into the shopping district just as everyone’s patience was starting to slide. With sandwiches and Hungarian wine in our systems, we could continue our trek to the Hungarian National History Museum. We only had so much time to deal with and Halley looked at me honestly and said, “How much time do you need?” Oh, she hasn’t seen me in a new museum. “I will use as much time as I am allowed.” She suggested 45 minutes. I pushed for 1.5 hours. We decided 1 hour and 15 minutes would work.

The entry staircase to the National History Museum. There aren't as many Barbarians in the murals as I would have liked.

As you can tell, I learned a lot about Hungarian history. Not surprising considering I had everything to learn. Hungary has been conquered, invaded, and resettled dozens of times. This makes it a country fiercely proud of the moments in their history when they were independently ruled. This includes the line of beautified kings and revolutionary leaders. These people take on a mythic quality when exhaulted all over the city in massive bronze statues including “Heroes Square” near the City Park where all these heroes from throughout Hungarian history have gathered in one triumphant arch.

After learning about Maygar armor and 18th century bustles, we needed grabbed coffee again and were given the slowest service I have yet to experience in a café in Europe. That’s saying quite a lot. In Vienna, I practically had to tackle the waiter before I could pay and Carolyn and I could get to our waltzing lesson. This slow waiter was a problem because we needed a bath. Crossing the river for the third time, we headed towards the Gellért Baths. The thermal pool at Gellèrt is described as the only opportunity you will ever have to swim in a cathedral. We didn’t get this experience because the bath had a sign proclaiming it “Geschlossen” (It also said “Closed” and something in Hungarian that likely conveyed the same idea).

We considered its opening time and coming back in the morning, then consulted the map and guidebooks and found two other baths. One was a short walk along the cliff fronting Buda Hill. We saw the steam rising from the complex, but saw a locked door and a gathering of rough locals eying us in suspicion. We darted away and crossed the river once again, heading for the Metro so we could shoot to the suburbs to find Széchenyi Medicinal Bath, the largest medicinal bath in Europe which stays open 'til 10 PM.

The bathing culture in Budapest started with the Romans when they got to the region early in the first century and set up Aquincum, the capital of Lower Pannonia and a bastion against the Barbarians. The Romans were excited to discover Buda (then Aquincum) sits on a fault line, popping up the Buda Hills and percolating geothermally warmed water through the bedrock. They set up their elaborate bath houses and went about the business of being clean and healthy. The idea was forgotten through the more conservative Middle Ages, but was brought back to Budapest by the invading Turks who stole the idea for soaking in hot springs from the citizenry of Constantinople, the heirs of the Roman Empire. So it all came full circle.

The Széchenyi Medicinal Bath was built in 1913 with Neo-Baroque domes and classical statues. We found it by crossing through Heroes Square and thinking we were lost or locked out about three times before getting to the front door. It was open until 10 PM and it was only 8. We had plenty of time to soak and get rid of our Rheumatism.

As we stood in the doorway looking at the ticket booth we felt very foreign. Everyone seemed to know the system. There was a menu of options and even the English translation took us some time to process as it described methods for getting deposits and refunds. Erin finally stepped up and was quickly handed a basic ticket after speaking a few hesitant words. With tickets and cards ready to go, we wandered into the hall next to the booth. People in bathing suits were crossing in every direction with self-assured purpose. Some descending a slippery set of stairs, others entering little wooden doors lining a hallway. We could see the steam rising from one of the baths through the window to our left. There was no roof over them! The baths were just standing in the open freezing air and bathers were dashing from its warm water into the locker area that we slowly entered. This would be an adventure.

The floor was covered in an inch of standing water and we delicately stepped over and through it with our shoes. I parted ways with the girls, turning to the men’s locker area. Everything was steamy and damp. I put on the swim trunks I’d been carrying in my bag all day, and tried to look confident in my path as I followed a massive Hungarian up to the pool level. I stood in the frigid air, waiting for the girls to arrive, but finally gave up my stoic watch and hopped into the water.

The warmest of the outdoor baths. Cool, huh ? (or Hot)

It was heaven. The water was warm. Really warm and smelled earthy and healthful. I ducked my head under and could feel my muscles relaxing. Erin, Rachel, and Halley found me bobbing in the water surrounded by happy couples heedless of PDA norms and large businessmen. We stood under the fountains, then moved to a middle pool area. The first was a decently sized recreational pool. The second was long enough to swim laps, though it was a bit cooler. Halley swam the backstroke and snowflakes began to fall on her face. That is a unique Budapestian experience.

Venus emerging from her shell presides over the "lap pool". Note there is less steam over this one. We didn't soak for quite as long.

After exploring the sauna, the indoor pools and the final outdoor pool with jets and a whirlpool that whipped you around a loop with a 30 foot diameter, it was finally time to get dry. In case you were curious, because it is a public, co-ed establishment, there were no traditional Turkish– read nude – baths. This option is available in Budapest, but the sexes are segregated either with separate bathing areas or with different days of the week for men and women.

The baths are a regular part of many a Budapestian’s day. Online there are pictures of people soaking in the thermal, spring-fed pools playing chess and reading the newspaper while fortifying themselves with the mineralized water. Someday I will participate in such a chess game.

At 10 PM we were dry and cured of the obscure 19th century chronic diseases that ailed us thanks to the therapeutic power of the water. Dinner was supposed to be near the baths, but after walking along the unexpectedly massive blocks to our guidebook advised destination, we were told the cute traditional Hungarian restaurant had just closed the kitchen. We walked on, finally getting to the Metro. At this point we would eat anything. As we emerged from the station near our hostel, an Italian restaurant greeted us with bright interior lights and a bored looking waiter. He assured us they were open and serving, so at 11:15 we ordered our pizzas and they arrived near midnight. The only other customers were three dudes who looked like members of the Hungarian Mob, sporting leather jackets and slicked-back hair. The Mafioso effect was ruined when they started sipping massive glasses of soda instead of wine.

Our final destination was a bar the guy at the hostel told us about near the opera house. Near the trendy part of town, it seemed like a good recommendation. Mensa certainly worked out for us. The streets were eerily quiet and we couldn’t find the street marked on our map. Turning down side streets, we got a little nervous and finally resolved to just find a bar, instead of the one recommended by the hostel dude.

Happy noises emanated from a cellar off the road. The prices looked good, so we stepped down into the dungeon and were greeted with a tiny bar outfitted with three booths, three sitting tables and two standing tables. The clientele ranged from punk to business suits. In other words, this was a local hang out. Always a great discovery because it means drinks are cheap. We ordered a round of palinka, a traditional fruit brandy from Hungary. If the fruit makes juice, it makes palinka. Pears, plums, and cherries are particularly popular sources for palinka. We toasted with our tulip-shaped glasses and sipped the sweet liquor like the locals.

Then we ordered Czech beer and Prost-ed our successful conquering of Budapest. We had see everything on the list, and enjoyed it all, even the goofy Labyrinth. After the girls were hit on a particularly drunk Hungarian who needed to work on his English we decided to call it a night (or morning). Aside: Actually, listening to him was an interesting insight into how I probably sound to a native German as I find the right words but fail to decline them correctly or assign them appropriate genders.

After a brief nap, Erin and I were back on our feet and traveling back through the transit system towards the airport. Even though we had only been in town for 36 hours, we felt a familiarity with the city, lending us confidence as we retraced our steps to Germany and the work awaiting us in Western Europe….

If you actually read this whole thing, I hope you’ve gained a small appreciation and interest in a country that barely registered on my internal world map two weeks ago. I would love to visit again, though next time I might give myself some time to snooze and maybe attempt to learn some of the notoriously difficult Hungarian language.

Until then “viszontlátásra!” (Tschüss!)

P.S. Here's the link to the photo album again.

Anybody, Hungary?

Apparently Berlin has been blanketed with ads for winter escapes to Budapest for months. Bonn is not a key market for this campaign, so a couple of weeks ago when Halley, a fellow Fulbrighter living in Berlin, asked if I wanted to take a trip to the capital of Hungary to celebrate her birthday, I was a little surprised. I really didn't know much about the capital of Hungary except it was east-ish and...actually that was about it.

It’s a fourteen hour train ride from Bonn, so I looked at my air options and was introduced to the incredible world of European budget flying. I discovered German Wings, which flies out of the Cologne/Bonn International Airport, had tickets to Budapest for 50 Euro and Easy Jet had tickets for 50 coming back. That's with taxes, and very little foresight. If I order just a month in advance, I can find flights to all kinds of incredible destinations for 20 Euro and lower. Crazy. This discovery has lead to my new method for wasting time: searching for cheap flights to Milan, Copenhagen, Krakow, Reykjavik etc. Of course I don't plan on going to all of these places, but I love the thrill of discovering how frugally I could do it.

Unfortunately, there aren't many departure times, so I had to settle for flying out on a Friday, arriving around 7:30 in Budapest, then turning around to fly out at 10 on Sunday. Roughly 36 hours in town. Erin was also making the trip and using the same flights. We made a pact to make the most of what little time we had by getting up early, staying out late and sleeping when we're dead (or on the plane).

Friday January 30th arrived and I put my fossils away and headed to the Cologne-Bonn International Airport. I was expecting a tiny establishment with 5 gates, something like the Bismarck Airport, but was surprised to see a recently renovated, massive glass and steel structure. I have a habit of forgetting Cologne has about 1.8 million people in it and the surrounding area gooses that number even more. I met Erin and we boarded. I kept waiting for something to go wrong because the tickets were so shockingly affordable, but they let me sit and we were touching down in Budapest a few hours later.

The first order of business was getting cash. Hungary is in the European Union, but they are not in the Euro Zone, so Erin and I had to track down a ATM to get out a couple Hungarian forints (HUF). Or rather, fistfuls of forints. The conversion rate was roughly 280 HUF to the Euro. This is a difficult number to process quickly and it’s a little disconcerting to stand at the money machine and press the button for “10,000 HUF.” That’s a lot of zeros. The rest of the weekend would be punctuated with each of the adventurers – Halley, Rachel, Erin and I – staring at our wads of money, slowly calculating how much we even had.

The directions provided by the hostel we were gunning for suggested we take the bus into town. Dutifully we stood by the modest bus stop sign trying to figure out how to get tickets. The ATM had spat out one 10,000 HUF note for each of us and we had a sneaking suspicion that the bus driver wouldn’t appreciate making change for our 400 HUF tickets. Sure enough, after the bus arrived and the tourists who each had massive bills started boarding, we watched the change drawer slowly dwindle to nothing. We were the last two to step aboard and the driver just shook his head in frustration, looked at the other passengers, looked at Erin and waved us through. Free ride to the train station, I liked the place already.

The bus dropped us off behind a construction site. There were bags of concrete, lumber and antiquated equipment squatting in the dark. This was how I pictured Central (read “Eastern” Europe). We followed the confident commuters and climbed into the rusted train station that had clearly seen better days. Winos and homeless dudes milled around as Erin and I sized up the train ticket machine. It only took coins and we were still rocking 10 G’s. As we tried to figure out if the convenience store could help us, a control officer approached us. In every train station there were control officers surrounding the validation machines, watching you punch your card. Of course, some people have day passes, others have student passes etc. The controllers don’t check for this or ask why you didn’t stamp your ticket. They just stand there and everyone walk by. We never met a control officer on one of the trains. Bizarre, but I guess it’s a good way to create jobs.

The controller understood our problem and gestured towards an older woman sitting near the stairs to the tracks. She was behind a plywood booth reminiscent of Lucy’s Psychiatrist “Real In” booth. She had each ticket neatly laid out in front of her, and all the change we could hope for. With tickets in hand we could finally descend to the tracks of the oldest subway line in Continental Europe, and the second oldest in the world. The London Underground was the first in 1863, and the Hungarians opened their trains in 1896 in honor of the millennial celebration of Hungary’s founding. Some of the stations still have the ornate Corinthian filigree on the platform’s steel girders. The trains themselves are standard, if slightly used, examples of Europe’s amazing ability to make urban centers accessible and affordable.
We emerged from the station somewhere in downtown Budapest. We spent about ten minutes playing prairie dog, popping out of different tunnels trying to orient ourselves, while being lightly heckled by a homeless dude. We finally saw the street sign we needed, found the hostel’s address and stood in front of a massive steel gate. No lights were on. Erin and I eventually decided to press the main button on the panel next to the door to see what would happen. “Hello?” We stared at the speaker like baboons trying to figure out a radio. “Uh…” “Hello?” “Uh…wir…er, we’re looking for a backpacker’s hostel?” What did I say? We’re backpackers? Did we bring our water purifiers and iodine tablets? “Come on up.” The door buzzed open and we entered the dark passage way, following the wide staircase up to another grated door.

This one said “Hostel.” Entering we saw Halley and Rachel sitting by the computer in a brightly lit lobby. Okay, less horror movie vibe one you got inside. That’s always reassuring. We dropped our gear by our low-slung bunk beds that must have been lifted from a 4-H summer camp, and asked for dinner recommendations. The guy at the desk directed us towards “Mensa” near the center of Pest, the part of the city on the east Side of the Danube. Budda is the city on the western bank. I was skeptical. A “Mensa” in Germany is a cheap, government subsidized cafeteria for students. I’ve seen backpackers in mensas looking for a cheap meal. I really didn’t want typical mensa food, but the location suggested there might be restaurants in the area.

After passing swank designer boutiques and the Budapest Opera House, I decided this wouldn’t be a typical mensa. Indeed Mensa was a very trendy restaurant with a hip, nostalgic vibe and lots of young locals. The food was traditional Hungarian with a twist. For instance, I had Fisherman’s stew, a typical paprika infused dish (the Hungarians love paprika), served over noodles. This was topped with cottage cheese and a tomato and basil sauce. Fantastic. The venison, chicken-stuffed doughnuts and stew were all hits as well. An excellent recommendation. That night as we planned our excursions for the next day, Rachel and I notice that our guidebooks, hers from “Let’s Go Europe” and mine “Lonely Planet’s Europe on a Shoestring,” each demanded we try Mensa if we only ate in one restaurant in Budapest. Things were off to a great start.

We had a pow-wow and decided what we wanted to do the next day: Parliment Tour, visit the St. Steven’s Basilika, visit Buda Palace and Buda hill, visit the Labyrinth recommended by “Let’s Go Europe,” visit the Hungarian History Museum and finally, experience the famous medicinal hot springs of Budapest. If we had extra time, we would figure out what to do with ourselves…will we do it? Stay tuned!

Friday, February 6, 2009

Anyone know where I put my January?

If you’ve been following my blog for the last few weeks, you would think I only arrived in 2009 a few days ago, just in time to catch February. In a way this is true. January was a blur. I had envisioned a quiet month spent getting real work done on my manuscript which is based on one of my undergraduate theses (the elbow one for those in the know) and getting real data out of the hundreds of fossil mammal claws I’ve decided to tackle. I also had plans to become fluent in German and play Freebird by February 1st on my underutilized guitar.

Well, maybe those expectations were a little unrealistic, but progress was made. I have a draft of the elbow paper in my advisor’s in-box. I’m trying to learn a little FORTRAN so I can use a few custom programs to analyze those claws, and I have a German language partner. While Skynyrd is beyond my abilities at this point, I can play Wonderwall and the theme from “Fistful of Dollars.”

January highlights:

1) Inauguration Day. I met Marco and Erin, my fellow Nordrhein-Westfalen Fulbrighters, in the wonderfully named Wuppertal, a city near Düsseldorf (I was going to describe it as a “small town near…” but it turns out it has just as many people as Bonn: 350,000. Not that Bonn is huge, but it means Wuppertal ain’t small.). This is probably the one event that will ever work in my favor with the time difference. Obama was sworn in at 6 PM German time. Just in time for drinks and dinner.

Marco and I at the Inauguration party. Photos of the event courtesy of Erin.

The event was organized by the Democrats Abroad of NRW the Londoner Pub. The irony of watching the American President sworn in while sitting in The Londoner didn’t escape us. We ordered Irish beer and watched as fellow Americans and curious Germans surrounded us.

The Press showed up to film the action. Unfortunately, there wasn't a lot as we periodically clapped and grinned, excited that this day had finally come. I'd be interested to find this broadcast at some point.

There were some fanatical Obama fans, including a woman who reminded me vaguely of Amy Sedaris who stood closest to the TV, booing loudly when Bush appeared and squealing when Obama graced the screen. She reminded me of the girl you see at football games who has no idea what’s going on, but knows she should probably be enthusiastic for most of the game. But that’s just my observation.

The speech itself has been analyzed to death, but needless to say it was incredibly refreshing to officially say “President Obama.” The world is intrigued and ready to give the United States, or at least her citizens, the benefit of the doubt once again. Of course the Finacial Crisis, or simply “Krise” according to the Germans and French, is keeping everyone on edge, but listening to Obama’s vision for the next four years gave everyone confidence in a concerted global effort to make things run smoothly again.

The swell of patriotism made everyone in the room hungry for a burger. When our waitress came around, she informed us they only had two left. I feel like they should have seen the rush coming as hosts of the Democrat event…oh well. She offered the English Breakfast as an appealing option. I said, why not and was served this:
The ideal German breakfast involves a lot of bread and spreads. The English (and Americans) love their breakfast meats. I do too.

The burger I missed out on got middling reviews. The flag toothpick was a hit, and the fries were good, but the Londoner's special sauce wasn't quite working and the bun was deemed inadequate for supporting the sandwich.

2) Museum visit. A joint exhibition on the barbarian tribes that ultimately eroded the Roman Empire and founded Modern Europe’s ethnic populations was hosted by the Landesmuseum of Bonn and the Rheinishes Landesmuseum. The period between 300-700 is called “The Great Migration” as the European deck was shuffled in anticipation of the Early Middle Ages. In its final weekend, I decided to visit. I learned all about the Lombards, Franks, Huns, Saxons, Angles, and Vandals as they assimilated Roman culture while seasoning it with a healthy dose of Celtic traditions.

The boss of a Lombard shield. You can see the art of the Dark Ages taking form. The Lombards started in Northern Germany, but eventually migrated to Norther Italy where they were eventually conquered by Charlemagne. What, did you think we would get through a post without mentioning Chuck?

At the exhibition I saw a professor and a post-doc that I met through the Institute. One was with his wife, the other, I presume, was with his girlfriend. They constitute about 10% of the people I know in Bonn. I was right on track with each pair, often listening to my audioguide within a conversational distance. I tried to catch an eye, not wanting to seem rude if they wanted to say “Hi.” They didn’t. I don’t know if they saw me. If they did, they ignored me. Perhaps they didn’t recognize me out of context? Or maybe you don’t acknowledge work buddies when you’re out of the office? Or maybe they just didn’t remember by name and didn’t want an awkward introduction to the significant other. I was a little confused and was a bit distracted as I tried to seem approachable, but not creepy.

A beautifully preserved battle helmet. The centerpiece of the exhibit. It was found in Southern Germany in a bog with other pieces of armor and weaponry. Archaeologists think the bog was sacred to the god of war and you would pledge your equipment to the bog if you were victorious as a way of saying "Danke!"

3) Snow. Bonn was blanketed in snow for about three weeks. There is still a remnant of a massive snow man melting in the park behind the Institute. I wanted to snap some photos of the gorgeous event, so I started by taking this:

As I stepped back onto the sidewalk, I heard a car slow down to the curb. I was thinking about lunch and didn’t notice someone say something from the car. Then the person yelled. I turned and saw the grey car on the left side of the picture stopped near me with a large blond woman yelling at me. I couldn’t understand anything except “Polizei!” “Police!” Was she going to call the cops for my photograph? My confusion was clear. She then said, in English, “Are you a Police controller? Are you taking that picture to the Police? “ This was new to me. Do officers dress in civilian clothes taking pictures of cars breaking the law? I think my bewilderment and stuttering German response (“Nein, Ich mache Fotos von den Schnee.” “No, I’m taking pictures of the snow.”) assured her I was not an authority figure.

Lesson, always be careful where you point your lens in Germany. You may be mistaken for The Man.

Views down Poppelsdorfer Allee to the Poppelsdorfer Schloss, one of the Zoology buildings. I wish my office was in there, but they had to move us out a while ago to make room for the mineral collections and dead animals. Oh well.

4) Run. I’ve gotten back in the swing of running. I had a few Christmas pounds to work off. The prospect of running outside became significantly more agreeable after receiving my Christmas gift from my Grandparents: running pants.

Up to this point I had been running in shorts through along the frigid Rhein. While the cold provides an incentive to keep moving and to keep the blood flowing, its pretty hard to convince yourself to hit the trail when it’s -15 degrees Celsius. Or at least it’s hard for me to convince myself. Maybe you’re a more dedicated athlete than I am.

One notable run was under a full moon up to the Kreuzberg a hill near the Institute that overlooks Bonn. At the top of the hill is a Baroque church with a life-size reconstruction of Christ being condemned by Pontius Pilot as Barabbas looks relieved. The scene is on a balcony over the entrance and is lit at night. Around the church is a park with overlooks and a dense forest. On this particular night, the snow was still layered over the forest, trails, and benches, reflecting the light of the moon. I could see perfectly and there wasn’t a sound besides my shoes crunching the snow and my rhythmic breathing. If you’re ever in search for a purely poetic moment, find a quiet hill surrounded by the twinkling lights of a sleepy town, apply snow liberally, and flip on the moon. Then run.

Kreuzbergkirche with the first station of the cross on the balcony. I don't run with my camera, so I took this from their website.


Detsch Wort des Tages (German Word of the Day): Doppelschlappe (f.) – noun. Double setback

Heute ist die Deutsche Welle Überschrift, “Doppelschlappe für Obama.”

Today’s Deutsche Welle (The BBC of Germany) headline is “Double setback for Obama.”

Of course, the article is about Tom Daschle and Nancy Killefer bowing out of the confirmation process. When I first read the headline I thought “Doppelschlappe” meant “Double Slap” making the title read “Double Slap for Obama.” I thought that might be putting the events a bit severely, until I looked up “Schlappe.” Then it all made sense. Oh, false cognates.