Friday, May 29, 2009

Meeting Rossini and half the TMNG

The continuing observations of the Borths brothers in Milan (here are some photos of the events described herein)...

Teatro alla Scala:
On the other side of the Galleria is the most famous opera house in the world. To the opera world it’s the Louvre, it’s Wrigley Field, it’s the Shoe, it’s a place that embodies everything it was built for. To perform at La Scala is to be at the top of the operatic heap. Revamped in 2004, it’s a jewelry box of gilt and red velvet. Josh and I were interested in seeing a performance if we could catch one, but first we wanted to see the opera’s museum. The place has been around since 1776 and has seen as much history as, well, our country, so we assumed the museum would have some spectacular artifacts all tastefully arranged in engaging displays. It didn’t.

The museum was essentially someone’s collection of opera odds and ends. This person died and their heirs wanted to empty the attic, so they gave it to La Scala. I don’t know if that’s true, but it felt like a likely story as we glanced into cases with fans of famous Divas and busts of composers famous and obscure. The walls were covered with uninspiring portraits of people we were notable two-hundred years ago, but now stare blankly. There was a limited attempt to explain these personalities except the ones we knew about such as Verdi (they had a special devotion to him in Milan). The most interesting section of the museum was the costume display where you could observe the fastidious detail the costume designer invests in every garment. Also in the display was a series of costumes designed by Picasso for a ballet.

The reason you go to the museum is because you can peak into the theater. This was a wasted opportunity, though, since Josh and I had plans to see a performance.

How to get one of the standing-room seats at La Scala:

1) Show up early. The list appears at 1 PM. There’s only 120 of the things. We showed up way early, as in 11 AM, we were second in line and wouldn’t have companionship for an hour.
2) Make friends with the old man who’s been going to La Scala for several decades. Be sure to look amused as he speaks at you in perky Italian. You won’t understand. You probably woudn’t understand if you spoke Italian.
3) Admire the old man's ancient dog who would rather be sleeping than doing really anything else. This sidewalk is an extension of his yard.
4) Be fawned over by the old man’s friends who are entertained by these punctual Americans who seem to care about La Scala.
5) Become part of this opera family.
6) Put your name on the list for tickets at 1 PM.
7) Go back to the hotel to grab your stuff and start the labor intensive process of going down the street hotel by hotel searching for a decent price. Let on you will be back at each place and try not to act as cheap as you are.
8) Look for fashion design district and be mildly disappointed that fashion is so muted and repetitive.
9) Return to La Scala at 4:45 where the Opera Family makes sure you are in the correct part of the line to claim a ticket voucher. Receive a packet of ancient playbills from the regular while his dog snores.
10) Return to ticket office at 6 to actually claim a physical ticket.
11) Pay too much for a pizza and beer dinner at a café near the Duomo where you are besieged by pigeons. Literally. The café you are at serves chips with your beverage and the pigeons have learned to go for the snacks with a vengeance. You are but an obstacle between their appetite and your chips. If your name is Joshua, brush off the whitewash that suddenly appears on your arm thanks to the pigeons. If you name is Matthew, unsympathetically laugh. Pay the bill.
12) Back to the Opera at 7:15 for the performance.
13) Realize you may have wasted an afternoon in Milan, but also realize you’re not sure what you would have done with it if you weren’t waiting for tickets.
14) Enjoy the show.
We weren't allowed to take photos. We might have tried to sneak one, but it probably would have caused our adoptive opera-parents to raise their eyebrows in disapproval. So, this is what the interior looks like to those with a photo pass.

And we did. We were assigned seats, but couldn’t see much - so you and every other person in the back row – stand up, holding onto overhead bars so you can see and hear what’s going on. This makes reading the subtitles on the back of your seat tough to read, but this is the sacrifice we make to live cheaply while enjoying high art.
Josh looking suave outside La Scalla. He's contrapposto and the building Neo-Classical. Further proof everyone wants to be Greek.

The performance was Rossini’s “Il viagio a Rheims.” According to Josh, this was a show put together with all the aria’s Rossini hadn’t gotten into more plot driven pieces. The story involved a bunch of aristocrats from different nations trying to see the French King’s coronation in Rheims. They never make it. But they sing a lot. One scene features the harried porter packing everyone’s stuff while making gross national stereotypes about Germany, Russia, England, France, Italy, and Poland. It’s amazing how many of the stereotypes persist. They then sing about a beautiful united Europe under the kings. Obviously Rossini was writing before 1910.
Entering a castle exactly the way you would want to enter a castle.

Castello Sforzesco: A bit of a hike from the center of town (also called the Duomo) is the Castello Sforzesco, a massive bastion erected in the 14th century, that now guards a couple city museums.
Castello Sforzesco from the inside.

There’s one on Egypt, another on life in a castle, but only one was deemed worthy of our limited time: Pinacoteca del Castello Sforzesco. Or more simply, the art museum. It helped it was free. After walking past sturdy towers and a massive courtyard blanketed with lounging students, we began our tour through Milanese art history. We started in the Dark Ages with Cletic inspired carving brought in by the Lombards, the invading Germanic tribe that stomped out Roman culture and asthetics. It would be an uphill battle before ideas like “proportions” and “perspective” gained much traction.

I know it's tough to carve stone, but is it really that hard to made the head smaller than a pumpkin? Come on Medieval Artist, it's time to step it up a notch.

Josh and I were studying some massive tapestries when a guard approached us “Scuzi, uh we close soon. In 15 minutes. If you have not visited it, you should see the things later in the museum. These are more important. See Michelangelo.” We appreciated the advice. While there was plenty of artistic merit in the triptychs we power-walked past, we really did want to spend some time with Mike.

The final object in the museum is reportedly Michelangelo’s last sculpture (he had a lot of stuff in progress at the time of his death, so figuring out which piece was his “last” is kinda tough): The Rodanini Pieta. The marble sculpture is unfinished with abstract lines suggesting the faces of the dead Christ and Mary. Features such as Christ’s legs are polished, but the arms are amorphous. You can see the chisel marks in the stone. In a few days we would be in Florence where we would see some of Michelangelo’s completed works (though he didn’t complete all that much) and seeing this scene, just emerging from the rock, was an important reminder of how much effort it took to coax art from marble.

The Last Supper: In an unassuming monastery away from the city center sits one of the most famous images in western art. The artist labored for years, going past deadline and over budget. But in Milan in the late 15th century, you didn’t mess with Da Vinci. He invested his fresco with the full force of his towering, Renaissance intellect. The only problem is he really didn’t think about making sure it would last. He tried a new technique for painting plaster and the result was a work that quickly started to deteriorate and crumble.
Leonardo contemplating where to find a cheap beverage in Milan. He would soon be stumped and move on to thoughts concerning military technology.

Since its completion, people have been touching it up and restoring it until you weren’t sure what was Da Vinci and what was people trying to be DaVinci. A few years ago the work was completely restored with an effort to preserve only Leonardo’s original vision. The work once sat opposite monks at dinner, and later presided over Napoleon’s horses. Now it’s in a thermally and chemically sealed room. Only a limited number of people are allowed in for 15 minutes to look at the work under the supervision of a guard.

The thing has been hyped and analyzed (thank you Dan Brown) within an inch of its crumbling life. There was all kinds of disappointment potential. But it didn’t disappoint. The image is massive. The apostles and Christ are life-sized and larger. Everyone is a little faded, like someone forgot to put on the autofocus, but the gestures are preserved and parts of the vivid expressions. It’s packed with narrative elements I’ve never paid attention to as the apostles lean into each other with questions and theories. After being immersed in such a work I feel proud to have been Leonardo when we played Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

We also did a lot of wandering through city parks, venturing down narrow alleys that dead ended into parking lots, then sat down to pay too much for drinks. After two days in Milan we were ready to leave. She had shown us what we wanted to see. We were brusquely told off by waiters and ate more gelato. It was time to see if Venice was all it’s cracked up to be…
If this was in the States you would assume it's on the quad of some state university. In this case though, it's in a city park by a castle that was built in the 1300s.

The photos of Verona and Milan before we move on down the boot.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Milan Part Uno: Pretty Buildings

Milan is one of the northernmost cities in Italy and has a reputation for not really being Italian. Personally, I thought this made it a great segue into Italian culture as we graded from the stodgier Swiss-and-German influenced north to the vespa-and-mob dominated south. The problem with our strategy was Milan is a tough city to really enjoy. It has a few remarkable sights, but it’s difficult to really revel in great art and architecture when the bars close at eleven and the drinks cost seven euro. So, I will spare you the frustrations of wandering the “fashion district” that was remarkably difficult to find and skip to the good stuff (the buildings for now):

The Milan Duomo. In 1386 the archbishop of Milan saw the gap in the middle of the city, left by the old Roman basilica (Roman courthouse) and later cathedral which had recently burned to the ground. He decided to fill the gap with a hip new structure in the French Gothic style. Nearly six-hundred years later (in 1965 they declared it complete) it stands as the symbol of Italy, and is one of the most memorable huge churches I’ve seen recently, and you can scroll through these posts to appreciate how many huge churches I’ve notched on my belt. The building is wide, the architect missing the memo on a narrow nave fronted by two massive bell towers, with small-ish windows pocking the façade. The girth of the place allows it to gleam. The white and pink marble was cleaned and the scaffolding only removed a few months ago, marking the Milan Duomo as one of the only non-scaffolded churches I’ve seen in my wanderings.
The interior is cavernous. Because it’s so wide, the light from the narrow stained glass windows barely make it to the edge of the pews, let alone the center aisle. Not a great spot to get hitched.
Here the interior looks a little brighter than it was thanks to a stead pew and an extended shutter speed. But it still feel like spelunking.

A few windows stood out including one from the ‘20s showing the expulsion of Lucifer, and the gargantuan windows behind the altar. Each of three was divided into small blocks, a comic strip of the Old Testament, a comic strip of the New Testament, and a final group showing holy people. Because it was divided into so many complicated scenes, the windows lost a little of their grandeur. They were actually more impressive from the outside where the swirling marble frames created a massive, cohesive whole.
Windows that are kind of hard to appreciate as the distance increases, but the scale stays constant. This window depicts holy people doing holy things.

The exterior of the stained-glass windows was almost more interesting than the colored panes.

The final standouts of the interior were an intricate 12th century candelabrum packed with biblical imagery, and a grotesque statue of St. Bartholomew carved by Marco d' Lopez, one of Da Vinci’s students. The apostle was skinned alive then crucified in Armenia for being an outspoken Christian missionary. He is now tastefully the patron saint of tanners. I’m sure he would love to hang out in a leather workshop if he could meet and mingle today.
A massive 12th century masterpiece. The base is about five feet wide, and a couple dozen candles would have stood about 15 feet off the ground. Dragons support the base with demons yanking on their teeth and ears. In the filigree are scenes from Genesis and allegorical stuff about the Earth.

The statue shows Bartholomew before his martyrdom is complete. He holds the Gospel of Matthew and placidly gazes into the cathedral with his skin casually thrown around his shoulders. D’ Lopez had clearly taken up the illegal practice of human dissection, because the statue has all the right muscles in all the right places. Wow art can be disturbing.
St. Bart modeling 50 AD's favorite fashion accessory at the first Milan Fashion Show.

As I said, the interior is not why you go to the Duomo. You go to climb to the roof. Hundreds of spires and flying buttresses soar over the building, each crowned with a different holy person. You get a great view of the city and can appreciate the intricate detail on every block of stone. Little vignettes and angles are incised in each cross-beam and capital. I almost typed that they’re mostly ignored by tourists, but you have to ignore most of the masons’ efforts, or you would never get off the roof.

Carvings that arch over a nondescript pathway. How many hours does it take to carve something like that? Now you know why it took 500 years to pull this off.

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II: One of the prototypical shopping malls. It was built in the 1870s to celebrate Italian unity (Emanuele II was the first king of Italy). Steel and glass domes and ceilings cover designer stores so chic I’ve never heard of them.

The main attraction is the mosaic work. Allegories of the four continents look down on the central mosaic which has symbols of each of the major Italian cities. I forget which city he represents, but one of these mosaics depicts a small white cow. For good luck, you put your foot on his crotch and spin. Everyone does it - tourists, school-kids, locals – they all spin on the poor animal. The best place to watch the spectacle is to settle into a chair at McDonalds, where you can get a beer for 2.50 E. Beverages at any other café in the Galleria would have set us back 8 or 9. Thank you Mr. Steves.

As Josh and I enjoyed the novelty of McDonald’s beer, an older woman next to us shyly interrupted and pointed at us. We heard some Italian and the word “Gee-mon-ee” followed by an interrogative pitch-change. I nodded. It’s a bad habit. When someone starts speaking to me in a foreign language, I default to affirmation. I suspect this will get me into trouble at some point in the near future. In this case though she simply looked satisfied with my “Si.” Only later did I realize “Gee-mon-ee” was “gemelli” or “twin.” We got frustrated. Sure we’re both blond and have blue-ish eyes. We look like brothers, but don’t look identical. For one, I’m significantly more attractive than Josh. Maybe all Americans look the same to the Italians. Next...Art! Opera!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Two Gentlemen in Verona

Illustrations. The first part is Verona. Don't peak at Milan until tomorrow!

I got back from the field, showered and immediately started packing again. This time I would need a different tool kit. I surrendered my field pants and replaced them with shorts. My hiking boots were set aside and my sandals seized. My hammer abandoned and my Italian…well couldn’t pack that since I didn’t have any to bring. I then went to the train station and started my journey through three countries before getting off the train in Milan after a rough night spent searching for decent sleeping positions on the ridged train seats. Every two hours or so I would switch trains and begin the ritual of dozing and reawakening various limbs all over again.

But it was all worth it after I rolled into the station (a few minutes late, per my expectations of the Italian rail system) and found Josh near the gleaming tourist information desk (literally, it was covered in brass and neon). We were both bleary-eyed after respective bouts of pseudo-sleep on uncomfortable mass-transit vehicles, but very happy to find each other on the boot.

We found our hotel – The Best Hotel – near the train station. I wouldn’t say it fully lives up to its name, but with our own bathroom and free breakfast every morning, I told Josh to live it up while we had it. The bunk beds were coming. We dropped our backpacks and returned to the station where we ate Italian panini sandwiches, the taste of Italian street food, and started the two-week long process of catching up while we waited for our train to Verona.

The Northern Italian city of Verona is famous as the setting of Billy Shakes’s famous story of star-crossed lovers. It’s also the setting for his lesser known but more obvious “The Two Gentlemen of Verona.” I don’t know the plot of the latter play, but I know we were two gentlemen ready to experience Verona.

The train station was a bit of a hike from the old center of town. Our maps offered little guidance, so we started following students who seemed ready for a meal at a quaint street café. They led us right into town via our first Italian gelato stand. Everyone who has been to Italy raves about the gelato. And they should. The flavors are potent (“I ordered kiwi.” “How does it taste?” “Like a kiwi.”) and the ice a perfect consistency for licking from a cone. One of the best things to do in an Italian town is to simply stroll around the town square. This amble is significantly improved with a scoop or two of the world’s favorite Italian desert.

In the town square squatted a massive stone edifice, a Roman amphitheater that once housed gladiatorial combat and now hosts opera festivals. Along the edge of the square were a couple thousand chairs for the dozen cafés that want to edge in on some historical authenticity. We continued our walking tour through town guided by Mr. Rick Steves, a name I once uttered with distain, but now thoroughly rely on for all my Euro-traveling needs. I expect my kick-backs in cash Mr. Steves.

We wandered down colorful alleys walled with muted colors of pumpkin, terra cotta, and rose. Small designer shops with no shoppers indicated a swanky shopping district. Then we rolled into the market square where we learned the towers were built by the ruling families as a way to one-up each other. Finally one took over and had all the other families cut their towers down to size.

We popped into a few churches along our route where I had the weird realization that I was seeing something new. If you had plunked me down in a Veronese church a year ago I would have said, “Gothic.” Now I can say “Italian Gothic.” Who says that? The thing sprawls, making the building more square than rectangular. The alters are slapped flush with the wall instead of getting their own nook. There also isn’t a lot of light. The design of the building only allows a few small, clear windows along the roof-line. I think the openness of the floor plan is necessary to combat the limited light. The ceilings were frescoed with vines and coats of arms, creating an aerial Magic Eye.

We reached the river and learned the bridge spanning the Adige River was constructed in 100 BC by Roman hands. It stood for two millennia until retreating German soldiers blew up four of the bridge's arches. The blocks were dredged from the river and in 1957, the refurbished bridge was unveiled. We had to cross, following the ancient Roman route to the Veronese amphitheatre (under construction, of course). Past sculpted pines and up brick stairs we wandered until we found a castle overlooking town. We sat on the wall and took in the terra cotta landscape of Verona. The bell towers and domes punctuated the romantic skyline. This was Italy.

Josh and I sat and chatted, mostly about how every Italian vision we had ever dreamed up, aided by too much television and opera (in his case), was being confirmed by Verona. But finally, we had to climb down and cross the bridge again. It was time for food. The clouds started rolling in and we had a find a place with a good umbrella or awning quickly. But we were also on a budget, quickly discovering the price you pay for a seat on the square. We wandered a little off the beaten track and found a pizza place with cheap house wine. More Italian must-dos (not that we wouldn’t get plenty of both by the end of our adventure) checked off the list.

Josh discovered the European love of corn as a topping and I was reminded that fresh spinach rarely goes on top of pizza in these parts. After our meal, we visited the final icon of Verona: Casa Guliette or “Juliet’s House.” The authentic Renaissance house near the market square, like so many Veronese homes, is decked out with a balcony. You can take a tour of the house with a few artifacts discussing how Romeo and Juliet would have lived for their brief, angsty tenure on this earth. We didn’t. Instead we watched the statue.

Under the balcony is a bronze statue of Juliet coyly looks away from the hundreds of tourists polishing her right breast for luck and long-lasting love. Wives goaded their husbands into the ritual and Japanese tour groups swarmed for the opportunity. After laughing and watching for a few minutes, Josh and I finally decided that we should probably follow suit, just in case the tradition is more than a tourist trap. I now confirm this fact: It is awkward to feel up a statue, even if it’s a tradition.

Before leaving the Casa, I inscribed mine and Carolyn's names in a slightly open spot on the wall of the entrance to the balcony courtyard. The graffiti is part of the ritual and I think Carolyn's and my love will last at least as long as our names on that wall, which have probably already been obscured by other pining Romeos.

As the sun set over the mini-Coleseum, we caught the train back to Milan, ready to get the next day started early in the fashion capital of Europe (not that we really had any idea what that meant).


Photo Album of terra cotta roofs and other Veronese things.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Where’s the beach?

One of the reasons I study geology is because you are required to get outside. It’s not enough to sit in a classroom and look at pictures of outcrops and sedimentary structures. A framed image never tells you the full story. You have to stand at the locality and take it all in: the modern topography, the tectonic structures, and the fossils and rocks in their original cozy home. The only way to absorb the full geological context of a site is to go. One of the universal signs of spring is the departure of geology classes for the hills, and earlier this month I got to do exactly that.

For two days I joined a group of twenty German undergraduates and graduate students who followed Dr. Martin to the outcrops of the Mainz Basin, a geological feature near Frankfurt (and Mainz). I’ll admit the prospect of the trip was slightly terrifying. Two full days of German technical speak. I have taken several German geology classes and regularly attend the department seminars in German, but I always get to cheat a little by extrapolating the speaker’s intention from his Powerpoint slides.

On a geology fieldtrip you roll up to a locality, pile out of the bus or vans and the professor starts talking. No visual aid beyond waving hands and the rocks in the background. This could be rough. Fortunately Vincent was along for the ride as well. We have bonded over our wanting German skills. We would continue to do so for the duration of the trip.

When I arrived bright and early to pile onto the department bus, I made the poor decision to sit in the front where I assumed Dr. Martin and Dr. Ruf would be situated so I could ask a few clarifying questions in English if necessary. I accidently sat where the equipment had to be stored, and had to troop to the back corner of the bus, far from sympathetic translators, wedged between two pairs of friends who didn’t seem particularly warm with their companions, let alone a stranger.

I tried introducing myself to these droopy undergraduates with an “Ich bin Matt.” They mumbled their names and faced forward. So much for making new friends on the bus or exercising a little German small talk vocabulary.
In the States when we need to find a way to overlook a valley or outcrop, we stand on a highway overpass or a fire tower. In Germany, you climb a castle.

At our first stop we piled out of the bus in an expansive field overlooking a shallow valley. We climbed up a Napoleonic tower and Dr. Martin launched into a basic introduction to the area’s Miocene geology (roughly 20 million years ago). I followed as long as we were using the images in our packets, but then he started a lecture that involved his hands rapidly rising and falling and many new vocabulary words. Suddenly he stopped with an interrogative tone and looked around expectantly. He had asked a question. No one was responding. I couldn’t fathom what he was quizzing us on.

Normally when a teacher asks a question and there is such a lull, I fill the void. Yeah, I’m that guy, but there are few things I hate more than the anxious atmosphere that follows a question no one wants to answer, but everyone knows will be answered by the sap the professor calls out against his will. I looked around the tower, mentally urging someone to break the silence. Dr. Martin caught my eye. Crap.

“Matthew, where do you think the beach is?” What? We’re talking about beaches? Come to think of it, I really wanted to find one far from that tower at that exact moment. “Uh, near the shore?” (I couldn’t tell you why the ocean is near that though, for that insight I would need a brain). “No, it’s near the bridge.” And he pointed towards a distant highway crossing. Hmm, not quite where I thought the beach was.

In that moment Dr. Martin had outed me as both a native-English speaker and a possible illiterate moron. I felt like I should turn to the rest of the group and explain, “Yeah, I’m American, and I don’t really understand what’s going on, but you guys do, and it would be nice if you would just man up and answer the guy’s question. ‘Kay, thanks, bye.”

For the rest of the excursion, Dr. Martin would helpfully follow every outcrop lecture with the English phrase, “Do you understand Matthew?” I would often lie saying I did. My pride wouldn’t allow otherwise. I would then ask carefully worded questions for clarification that didn’t belie my ignorance.
A really famous group of rocks that has a bunch of clam and snail fossils. It also has these holes that are produced by rays that move across the sediment and blow puffs of air, hoping to scare up some microscopic meals. Obviously I needed to ask for a translation of this explanation.

A manatee rib exposed in a boulder. The German manatee has all kinds of band name potential.

A picture of the whole manatee skeleton that you can see at a local museum. The plastic sign was transparent so you could more easily imagine the skeletal creature swimming through sandstone.

One of the problems I had to deal with was the German geological vocabulary I had never encountered before. My classes have taught me the German names for dozens of obscure animals, but very little about obscure Geological phenomena. Because Geology as a science developed independently in England, France, and Germany, each country has its own technical vocabulary for describing outcrop that is derived from centuries of mining know-how. Where a chemist or physicist can pick up on technical jargon discussed by a German, a geologist needs to learn the German adjectives for describing the grain sizes of sand, or the texture of clay. This made my translating efforts a little more ponderous.

I would make efforts to chat with other students in German or in English. Thankfully, the graduate students I already knew from the institute would joke with me and also help explain what was going on, but otherwise the Germans I didn’t know remained quiet and distant. How they manage to make new friends, I will never fully understand.

We walked between the vine rows searching for concretions, round chunks of rock that often form around organic remains. You crack them open like Easter eggs and hope for something good. I found a small crab claw, though it didn't break along the fossil in a very pretty way. This was deemed unfortunate.

We collected fossils in vineyards, and shark teeth in mines. In fact, quarries and mines were a popular stop. It’s nice having someone else excavate your rocks, but some of the romance of the field is lost when you need to slap on a yellow hardhat and shelter in the shadow of a track hoe.

In evening we stopped in a small German town on the Mainz River that Vincent proclaimed “Germany. Ziss is what people see when they see Europe.” The quaint town of church spires and winestubes was crowned by a walled castle. This would be our home for the night. Apparently the castle is a kind of family hostel with cheap rooms for everyone. I went on a geological fieldtrip and stayed in a castle. Yes Vincent, this is what I see when I see Europe.
We showered the dust and fossil dust out of our hair and found the hotel restaurant’s patio overlooking the river valley. Dr. Martin and a few graduate students were set up with local wine and they invited Vincent and I to join. I shocked the crowd by ordering Saumagen, a regional specialty that Dr. Martin explained as “pig stomach stuffed with many things. It is very good but sounds very strange.” When it arrived and I proclaimed the sausage-like dish delicious Dr. Martin seemed impressed, “This is not something, I think, normal Americans would say.” I like to think normal Americans would respond well to pork, onions, mashed potatoes and sauerkraut, but I’ll take the compliment.
Our castle for the night. You can't see it from this angle, but there's a round turret that Vincent and I called home for the evening. We did our duty and kept an eye out for advancing siege engines.

After ordering round after round of Rheinish wine, we were all smiling a little more than we normally would, mixing English and German phrases without anyone batting an eye. Vincent and I then descended the hill to track down other students. The town was closing for the night, so our hike became an exhausting post-dinner stroll with a lot of elevation change.

A quarry that houses little mammal pieces. It's being refilled with construction waste, so there are a few last-ditch efforts to figure out if there's anything good that will soon be lost to science.

A reconstruction of the Euopean Miocene (15 million years back).

The next day we visited a quarry that has produced a huge diversity of rodents and horses. Of course I only found a few bone fragments, but any day prospecting for fossils is a good one even if the discoveries aren’t particularly exciting. Our final stop was a sandy quarry where rhinos and elephants occasionally tumble from the hillside.
A rhino lower jawbone or "Nashorn Unterkiefer." Please note the German word for rhinoceros is "Nose-Horn." The logic of this language can be shockingly blunt.

Then we turned the bus towards Bonn. I was exhausted from the combined efforts of searching for fossils and constantly pretending I knew exactly what was going on. My field notebook was filled with new vocabulary, but my mind was moving on. The next day I would be catching a train south to catch my brother in Milan where we would begin the Great Borths Brothers’ Adventure…

A canola field in full bloom near a quarry. A vision of spring (and violent allergies).

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Wo kommst du?

Spring sprang here in Deutschland, bringing with it flowers, leaves, and sudden congestion on the sidewalks of Bonn. I arrived in this city in early October last year and have vague memories of a few sidewalk cafes, but the last few weeks have ushered in a profusion of stackable chairs and tables that are somehow consistently occupied as the clear sky warms the contented masses.
With the warm weather, I decided to start taking walks in the middle of the day to commiserate with the university neighborhood and ease the digestion of over-sauced mensa (otherwise known as cafeteria) food. Note: The mensa is a State subsidized, pan-German institution that serves lunch and dinner at a cheap price (2 Euro for a “vegetarian” option, though the lack of meat is no indication of its nutritional quality). Every entrée, regardless of ingredients or ethnic heritage, comes with a dollop of sauce. Lasagna arrives tricked out with some kind of tasteless creamy concoction and fried fish is usually swimming in a pool of tartar sauce.

A few weeks ago I decided to stop for coffee as I walked. I sidled up to a newspaper stand near the institute and waited for the attendant to appear. She exploded into view: Brünnhilde’s mother with a brassy voice and braided blond locks.

Me: Eine Café, bitte. (A coffee, please)
Her: Ah, wo kommst du? (Ah, where do you come from?)
Me (unprepared to do anything but take my cup of Joe): Uh, The…den U.S.A.
Her: “Yes we can!” We love O-ba-ma.
Me: Yeah (unsure which language to use). Ich auch…so do I.
Her: But, I worry for him, that he doesn’t last very long.

This seems to be a common concern among Germans, and maybe Europeans more generally. They all think our president will be assassinated imminently. Either they know something they aren’t telling the secret service or the tolerance of American citizens doesn’t count for much in their book. I blame the music the kids were listening to twenty years ago, and thus the Germans are listening to now.

Me: Well, I think he’s protected…Tschüs
Her: I hope, too…Tschüs

This conversation didn’t disturb me for its content, but for being called out as a foreigner. Somehow in three words I made it clear I didn’t belong. I’ve been here a while now. When do I stop emitting un-German vibes? Apparently not on this particular day because...

I went for a run that same evening in the hills near the institute. I got into the groove, and didn’t turn around until I started to get hungry. By the time I had changed, it was nearly 8:30 and I was starving. Instead of riding the tram home and delaying my grumbling stomach’s satisfaction even longer, I walked by a kebab stand near my lab for a falafel pita.

Me: Falafel…sandwich, bitte. (The word “sandwich” was on the menu)
Him (a middle-aged Turkish man): You come from America?
Me: Uh (unprepared for this question for the second time in one day), yes I do.
Him: We like America very much.
Me: I do, too. I also like Germany.
Him: I am not sure about Germany.
Me: Um…Danke (taking my dinner).

Again, there are some issues to deal with in this conversation, such as why Germany is not this man’s favorite country, and what can be done to make his home more…homey, but the real issue was, for the second time in one day, my German efforts were quashed by a service industry employee.

I think I gave myself away by pronouncing sandwich as I normally would instead of Germanizing it with a “S-ah-nt-vish.” Or I could just look like a stereotypical American searching for coffee and falafel with a slight suspicion that my order will not be understood and I will not produce the correct change from my pocket without looking at the coins.

Regardless, I have some work to do before someone asks “Wo kommst du?” and they’re mildly surprised when I supply “Cincinnati, Ohio.” I have a sneaking suspicion flying pigs will be required. Fortunately, I know a city where I can find some…

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Swiss Time

A photo album of the Swiss adventures of the Borths family. I promise I didn't scan any postcards and claim the images as my own. Switzerland is just that gorgeous.

After driving North, my parents settled into their 12th century castle/hotel while I returned to the lab to churn out an abstract for next year’s Society for Vertebrate Paleontology meeting. While I plugged away on Jurassic mammals, my parents explored Rhineish castles including a magnificent, Romantic vision of towers and stone that is still owned by the family that built it in the twelfth century. They also explored Bonn (Rick Steves’s claim that it’s one of the best pedestrian shopping districts in Europe encouraged them to linger in the former capital longer than last time everyone visited). They also saw the Cologne cathedral in the daylight (a must to appreciate the stained-glass) and saw the Roman mosaics. We then gathered downtown and ate at one of Bonn’s kölsch brew houses and said good-bye to Germany for a couple of days.
Lake Tun ready to unveil a lake monster.

We drove south to Basel, a city on the French/Swiss border. We dropped off the car and caught a train to Interlaken in the heart of the Swiss Alps. I knew the Swiss portion of the trip would involve a great deal of train-time and I was looking forward to getting some serious reading, journaling, and blogging done. Unfortunately none of this came to pass. Once we crossed into Switzerland, it seemed like a crime to look away from the windows (which they keep impeccably clean). The castles and placid lakes marched by, followed by vineyards and finally the mountains. This is the fourth time I’ve seen them in the last year and they never fail to astound me. Other mountains – the Sierra Nevadas, the Alaskan ranges, the Wasatch – are impressive, but the Alps exude a special majesty. They sit at the cross-roads of Europe. People have been exploring their forests and peaks since cavemen were wandering the continent. The villages and trains that nestle into their slopes reinforce the massive scale of the landscape.

Traveling through Switzerland is a testament to the creative and technical power of Engineering over the last century. Tunnels that slice through unclimbable mountains, bridges that span impossible chasms, and cog-railways that drag the train uphill are regular features of any commute across the small, mountainous country. While the place has been neutral since all that construction work began, the Swiss engineers built with war in mind, ensuring every tunnel and bridge is equipped with explosives that could turn the entire country into an impenetrable mountain fortress at the touch of a button. The Swiss Army, famous for their practical cutlery, has jet hangers bored into mountain sides, and artillery hidden in barns along the border. Got to protect those banks.

Our first meal in Interlaken was eaten early since we’d skipped a solid lunch on our drive to get to Switzerland quickly. Mr. Steves recommended a smoky dive that offered authentic Swiss cuisine. They served fondu, but we were hoping for rochlette. Then I saw the meat options. They served “Pferdesteak” that is “Horse Steak.” I love horses. I dream of riding through the badlands on a sturdy, dependable animal who wants nothing more than to run through the grass.

But I’ve always been curious about their flavor. Now I know. The steak was served rare with a “hot stone,” a slab of granite that was stored in the oven until they served it to me over the head of a local artist and this friend the town drunk. You cut off pieces of the steak and cooked it to perfection on the stone. It was accompanied by four condiments: a herb butter, garlic sauce, cocktail sauce, and a curry sauce. I tried them all, but none was necessary. The meat tasted like lean, grass-fed beef. There wasn’t a trace of white fat, but the muscle had plenty of juice to make it one of the best pieces of meat I have ever consumed. It was all washed down by half a liter of Raugaubrau, the Interlaken blonde beer.
Lord Byron was a fan. So am I. I don't think the guys locked in the dungeon would have appreciated the view though.

The next day we ventured first to Lake Geneva and the Château du Chillion, a 13th century castle that still sits on a small peninsula in the lake, making it nearly impossible to conquer. Much of the interior has been maintained faithfully with only minimal interference from those meddling Romantics. We then traveled across the small country and high into the mountains to Zermatt where we saw a perfect profile of the Matterhorn, the mountain that defined the idea of “craggy peak.” It’s almost unnatural, more an imaginative fantasy than a real geological formation.
A Medieval tapestry of the gospels giving the great hall a little historical context.
Personally I think it looks more like a tooth than a horn, but that could just be the mammalian paleontologist in me talking.

We ate a cheese plate, drank Swiss wine and took in the view. The next day we rode to the top of two of the tallest mountains in the region. We enjoyed breakfast at the Schilhorn in a rotating restaurant. Unfortunately, the view was wasted on us since the clouds and rain decided to follow us uphill. As we rode the cable cars and cog railway up and down we caught glimpses of the magnificent view shrouded in cloud. In a panoramic theater in the restaurant they showed clips from “On Her Majesty's Secret Service” a Bond flick shot in the mountain lair that became the restaurant in 1969.
Dad feeling like a Bond villain on the Schilhorn. There's a view out there, you just need to be patient, or rig up a weather altering machine that may also lend you world-dominating power.

Then we rode into the valley, up the mountain meadows and through the Eiger to the Jungfrau which features the highest train station in the world and an opportunity to check out one of the largest glaciers on Earth. More views. I was kind of OD-ing on impressive heights and quaint towns. The best part of this adventure was getting to walk across the glacier, letting the observation station disappear into the distance until the sound of crunching snow and ice and the white expanse dominated my senses.

The view from inside the Eiger (Ogre), one of the most difficult ascents in Europe (if you're on the outside without the assistance of a cog railway).

An astronomical observation station at the peak of Europe.

Dinner was in Grindelwald, an Alpine town that is home to hundreds of ski instructors who boisterously rode down the mountain with us, heedlessly shattering the Teutonic mass-transport code of silence. Their work ended the weekend we were in town so they were celebrating at a street festival with cheap beer while we consumed more cheese, wine and röstti (Swiss hash browns) at a tavern with yet more incredible mountain views.
Bern in all her quaint glory.

On Sunday we left the Alps for Bern and Zurich. Bern is one of the best-preserved and most beautiful medieval towns in Europe. It’s also the Swiss capital. It was a bit of a trip down memory lane for my Mom and Dad since he worked there about a decade ago. Mom, Josh, and I visited when I was in second grade. My primary memories involve sliding down a glacier in my snow pants, seeing a freeze-dried baby mammoth, and feeding the Bern bears. The bears are the official mascots of the Swiss capital (“Bern” as a word is related to the German word “Bär”) who contentedly sit in a pit along the banks for the Aar river, catching vegetables thrown by tourists and locals. It could be a sad scene as you watch the caged wild animals gaze up at the ogling humans, but they seem to have plenty of obstacles in their cages to keep themselves occupied, and no one taunts or injures the creatures.

We also spent some time by the Aar at a microbrewery after watching a presentation on the history of Bern, complete with a rotating relief map and audio-animatronic, French soldiers. We stopped by the Gothic church that was stripped of its figures and saints during the Reformation, then caught our train to Zurich.

We dropped our gear off at the hotel and headed for the National Museum, which I previously visited in November. Knowing we didn’t have a ton of time, I gave a whirlwind tour of what I thought of as the highlights (the oldest wheel, Roman gold, and a battle diarama). The tour was cut even shorter by a temporary exhibit that seemed to explore Swiss popular culture. It involved TVs and books set up in historic rooms playing the Swiss equivalents of Howdy Doody and Johnny Carson. We didn’t get it, and most of the permanent exhibits on the last 500 years of Swiss history were cluttered with the temporary exhibit. So the Borths family headed out after maybe 40 minutes in a museum. I think this is the exception that proves a rule.

We then stopped by the Fraumünster church to spend some time with a series of ethereal stained glass windows created by Marc Chagall depicting Creation, Jewish patriarchs, and the Crucifixion then visited the Grossmünster, the church across the river from the Fraumünster, where we contemplated the explosive personality of Huldrych Zwingli, a Swiss Reformation leader who began his ministry in the twin-domed Grossmünster.

Our final stop was the Restaurant Kronenhalle, a Zurich institution established by a bustling Frau and her art collector son. The restaurant became a favorite stop for artists such as Chagall, Picasso, and Miro. Their work now decorates the restaurant’s walls. There is a lot to be said for spending more than a few seconds with a work of art. As I ate my mean, I contemplated the images in my view while re-hashing the trip with Mom and Dad. The combination of our attentive, personable waitress, fantastic food (including fresh chocolate mousse scooped from a foil-covered bowl), and art made it one of the best dining experiences in a trip dominated by fantastic food and drink.

Marching bands celebrating spring really should barge in to more establishments.

As the sun set, we walked back along Lake Zurich to the hotel and sampled the hotel bar’s options, declaring the trip a success. The next morning my parents caught their plane back across the Atlantic. I'll see them again in another couple of months, though this likely marks the last time we will spend so much quality time together for a very long time. I traveled the familiar train tracks north to Germany where claws, and further adventures awaited my attention...

The photos of lovely Switzerland again.