Saturday, January 26, 2008

I love a new perspective!

Though she won't land in Frankfurt for another 15 hours, my sister has already begun the near-epic journey from Seattle to Heidelberg! She will be visiting for two weeks, and we plan to visit at least Dresden, Berlin, and Paris while she is here, while of course also spending some time here in Heidelberg. We have both been looking forward to it for months and I can't wait.

I really look forward to having her brand new perspective on life here, because I worry that although I still notice quite a bit, it's nothing like it was at first. Things are getting pretty normal here; it's not as new and exciting as it was. Now a normal toilet has almost no water in it. A strange toilet has lots of water. Normal milk comes in a box. Strange milk comes in a plastic bottle. Normal people in the street speak German. Strange people in the street speak English.

Although we have had several visitors already, she will be the first visitor who has never been to Europe before. Everything really will be new to her, whereas with our other visitors, maybe Germany was new, but Europe/overseas travel in general was not. My sister has never been through immigration and customs. Never shown her passport. Never been in a city or country operated in a different first language than her own. She's excited about it. It's just routine for a lot of our past visitors. Of course it is still awesome when they visit, that goes without saying, but they don't have as much of a sense of wonder at just being off their own continent, and that sense is something I especially look forward to vicariously experiencing again...even though it's been only two years since I first experienced it myself.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Expatriate Delegation!

This year there will be an expatriate delegation to the Democratic National Convention!
Just a week or two before I found out about this, I was wondering to myself why we don't have our own delegation. For people that have been abroad for years, it's silly to get a ballot from their last state of residence, which they may have very little to do with now.

The statistics in the article are interesting. There are six million Americans living abroad who are eligible to vote! But in for the 2006 elections, only 990,000 requested ballots to vote in their last state of residence. Of those, only 330,000 ended up successfully voting!

I have already sent in my info to Massachusetts to vote there, but this is a great alternative. Expats, if you are daunted by the old way, try signing up to vote online at ! Also, for those of you who want to vote for Obama in the primary (I am not endorsing anyone here, this is for those who already decided), a friend of mine thanks you - he is hoping to be one of the expatriate delegates to the convention, and would be a delegate for Obama, were he to make it. So, votes for Obama give him a better chance to go.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

There goes my blood pressure

Reason #235 to consider just staying in Germany instead of going back:

People who actually wish that the United States government would be affiliated with their preferred religion. I guess people are so far removed now from the idea of being persecuted for their religion that they can't see the potential dangers of mixing government and religion not only for those whose religions they don't like, but for themselves.

I got my hackles up over an email forward this morning asserting that separation of church and state is not in the Constitution - because that exact phrase is not in the Constitution. Mmm, fun with semantics....and fun with people who just eat up whatever is forwarded to them.

"Those who would renegotiate the boundaries between church and state must therefore answer a difficult question: why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?" - Sandra Day O'Connor

"When the government puts its imprimatur on a particular religion it conveys a message of exclusion to all those who do not adhere to the favored beliefs. A government cannot be premised on the belief that all persons are created equal when it asserts that God prefers some." - Harry A. Blackmun

"I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute--where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote--where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference--and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him." - John F. Kennedy

"Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church & State." - Thomas Jefferson

"Practical distinction between Religion and Civil Government is essential to the purity of both, and as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States." - James Madison

What's funny is that Germany does not have something like this. For instance, to be a member of a particular church, you must declare it and pay a tax to attend that church! Enjoy what you have, Americans! Don't try to get rid of it!

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Cheri Cheri Lady

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I have plenty of little things to blog about, but just haven't been able to focus on actually writing them down. Here's a German hit of the 80s to enjoy for the moment!


Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Rome! (If you want to)


First to clear up something that we thought before we came to Europe, because everyone told us it was so: travel all over Europe is going to be so fast and cheap for us! We can hop around low-budget to our heart's content! It may be so relative to living in the US and wanting to hop around Europe, but it's still pretty far from cheap and fast in some cases! Rome is one of them! A generous Christmas gift from Damon's dad covered only a third of our costs for the trip, and we don't really live large. It took about 10 hours to get to our hotel in Rome from our apartment, not a short trip at all. So if anyone wonders why we might come back to the US not having seen every European country and not rolling in cash from exchanging Euros to USD, this is why! :)

However, seeing Rome was really worth it. I went in with minimal expectations because I am often disappointed in places that are extremely popular with tourists - they are fakey and don't live up to the hype (many US destinations), any impact they might have is degraded by the enormous crowds (often in famous churches) or they do live up to the hype but are ridiculously expensive (London). Although getting to Rome and staying in Rome weren't the cheapest ever, and food was kind of expensive too (we only had one "nice" meal out), admission fees were relatively cheap, if there were any at all. And it went well above and beyond the hype. Seeing for myself all the ruins and history around, especially seeing how casually they are treated, all intertwined with the religious aspects, is a more amazing and thought-provoking experience than I would have guessed.

Here are my notes, and of course, photo links! Um, it's long, but I don't want to drag this out for days, so here it all is. I'll bold some things for easy skimming (although it makes me feel like a nerdy gossip columnist wannabe!).

Day 1: Friday, December 21
*Getting up at 4:45am on the shortest day of the year is not cool. More like effing cold.
*In the Zuerich airport, the words "Smoking Seriously Damages Health" seem to actually be part of the Camel logo on the smoking lounges. It's like a tagline for Smoking: The Movie.
*Overall the trip involves having to take off our bags/coats/shoes/belts/etc three times before getting to Italy. Argh! In Italy, we get our passports stamped for some reason. Schengen what?
*Arrived at our hotel at 4pm. No English at the front desk. Room has bidet. Something mysterious and sticky on the bedside table.
*Looked for Campo de' Fiori. Found it, but only after running into an American woman and her daughter who had walked only a couple of blocks from their hotel and become hopelessly lost. They had no map and could not remember the name of their hotel or any landmarks it was near. Checked out the area. Ate pizza at a doener joint.

Day 2: Saturday, December 22
*The bed was as hard as a floor and the hotel was incredibly noisy, so we are achy and tired. But too excited to care much.
*Damon, searching for the light switch for the shared shower down the hall, discovers instead the call bell in the shower. Luckily no one comes to answer it! Why is there a call bell in there? I've only seen them in hospitals before, in case patients need a nurse!
*Breakfast comes with the room but isn't in the hotel, rather it's in a bar down the street. We get one drink and one croissant. I totally burn my throat on the hot chocolate. Everyone is in and out so fast! They don't relax over their breakfast like Germans.
*Vatican Museum. I can't believe admission is less than Westminster Abbey. The contents of the museum aside, the rooms themselves must cost more to upkeep than Westminster, and are beautiful. The Gallery of Maps and the Raphael Rooms alone are worth more than the cost of admission. We get trapped in there though, and are starving when we get to the end, finding ourselves sucked into their expensive little cafeteria for lunch. Then we sent a couple of postcards from the Vatican post!
*Leaving the museum, we witness a huge group of street vendors all run across the street with their wares and set them up all along the sidewalk in a matter of seconds. Very impressive.
*We gawped at St. Peter's after that. Security didn't appear to care if the alarms on the metal detectors went off so I'm not sure why we had to wait in line to be checked. Basilica = amazing. See the photos!
*Next we admired the Pantheon, followed by beverages at a nearby cafe.
*Then we happened upon the church where St. Catherine of Siena is buried!
*At 7 or so we went for dinner at a pizzeria around the corner from our hotel. It was nearly empty when we arrived, and packed to the rafters by the time we left. We witnessed a couple of Asian guys who could do no right by the waiter and felt bad for them. They sat in the wrong place, ordered the wrong thing. They didn't seem rude to me. Racism?
*After returning we realize our hotel is totally old school and the maid has given us new soaps even though we didn't use up the old ones yet, and new towels even though we hung up the old ones. Cheap German hotels don't even provide soap and won't replace towels unless you throw them on the floor! I feel guilty cause she also folded my jammies because I left them strewn on the bed, and that's just crazy. I folded my jammies myself every day after that.
*Rome is dirty. We blew our noses and got black. I scratched my face at the end of the day and there was black under my fingernail. We never even had that problem when we lived right under the airport in Boston (although we did have disturbing heavy black dust in our apartment there).

Vatican Dez 07

Day 3: Sunday, December 23
*We wanted info on opening hours of things in general for Christmas so we tried to find the info desk at Termini. We followed all the signs but got nowhere. Eventually we found it by accident. It was completely unlabeled from the outside.
*Then we took the Metro (subway) to the Colosseum. The Metro was pretty dirty too, and covered in graffiti (which I was convinced, by the end of the trip, looked cool).
*We covered the Colosseum, Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill. See the photos!
*We then wandered off in the direction of the cute neighborhood Trastevere, passing more ruins on the way.
*It was rainy. I left my umbrella in a beautiful church in Trastevere. We came back for it after stopping for coffee and realizing it was gone, but the umbrella wasn't there when we got back.
*Wandering back across the river, we found an internet cafe near the cat sanctuary (a block of ruins set aside for stray cats, who are spayed/neutered and generally taken care of by a volunteer group) that was really cheap! Internet is never cheap in Germany.
*Wandered into Piazza Navona, which was all lit up with a Christmas market!
*Our only nice dinner out, at a restaurant called Cul de Sac which, we discovered when checking in at the internet cafe, was recommended by Damon's brother, who studied abroad in Rome 5 years ago.

Roma Dez 07

Day 4: Christmas Eve!
*We started with a sort of church tour through S. Pietro in Vincoli, S. Clemente, and S. Giovanni in Laterano. The first is famous for having Michelangelo's statue of Moses and the chains that held St. Peter in Jerusalem. The second has two levels of old ruins being excavated underneath which you can visit, and is beautiful on its own in addition! The third is actually the highest-ranking church in Rome, even above St. Peter's, and has a beautiful cloister. I would recommend all of them!
*Afterward we headed out to Via Appia Antica to look for some catacombs. The bus driver completely skipped the stop we and another woman had rung for. The woman started screaming at the driver. Then another passenger, an older man, decided to get in on screaming at the driver too. Then the driver started screaming at them, and it just got louder and louder in a giant mess of pissy Italian. It was awesome. And, it turned out that the stop we ended up at was better than the one we thought we should get out at. (Not so for that poor woman, though.)
*I really needed to use a restroom and we wanted lunch so we went into a cafe at the side of the road. It was closed but they offered very nicely to let me use their restroom so I did. It was so filthy and had no toilet paper. This was a recurring problem! I nearly dehydrated myself trying to avoid the constant stress of wondering where I would pee next and whether it would have a toilet seat, toilet paper, soap, or warm water. Of course, I still had to worry about that anyway, just slightly less often. One of the best things about the trip being over was knowing I'd be back where I knew there was a good place to pee!
*We decided on seeing the catacombs at S. Sebastiano because Damon already saw the ones at S. Callisto last time he was in Rome. We headed in that direction, hoping to find food on the way. No luck on the food, except for a bag of peanuts from a vending machine at S. Callisto when we passed there. When we got to S. Sebastiano, it was closed for two hours for lunch. (Who needs two hours for lunch?) So, we continued walking up Via Appia Antica to pass some time, and in hopes of finding some real lunch. We saw still more ruins and eventually stumbled upon a little tiny grocery where the guy made us sandwiches for lunch. Then we returned to S. Sebastiano. You can't go into the catacombs without a tour guide, and cannot leave your tour group. Unfortunately our guide was terrible. We rushed through and couldn't take photos, and didn't have much time to really stop and appreciate things. It's too bad because it had the potential to be really cool, on its own. We then checked out the church above the catacombs, where St. Sebastian is buried. We were encouraged to take photos of his tomb, even though they told us we couldn't take photos below out of respect. What about respect for Sebastian, eh? You just want us to buy your stupid catacomb photos in the gift shop instead of taking our own.
*We picked up some groceries for fear of not being able to find any food on Christmas Day, wrote some postcards, and napped. Then we headed out again for midnight Mass at St. Peters. We hadn't really decided whether that was what we wanted to do, so we set out without our camera or map. Waiting for a bus that seemed it would never come, we ran into a Swedish family and English tourist who offered to share a cab with us to St. Peter's. It was expensive and I think the driver totally ripped us off - 45 EUR for 7 of us, from Termini to St. Peter's. But, we did it...we didn't know if the bus would ever come, and how often do you get to just go over to St. Peter's for midnight Mass? The line to get into the church wrapped all the way around the piazza outside in a complete circle, and then continued even further. So, we ended up watching from the big screens outside. Afterward we thought we might have to walk all the way back to our hotel (well over an hour's walk) to save some cash, but ended up finding a bus that was operating and took that! On the bus we got to overhear a big argument between a Jewish girl and two Mormon missionaries, which was sort of entertaining. There was also a pickpocket on the bus who gave me the willies, but didn't get any of our stuff, yay.

Day 5: Christmas!
*So, there was no reason to think that everything would be closed on Christmas like it is in Germany. We didn't have any need to stock up on groceries. Even the grocery store where we had stocked up was open. Almost all the restaurants in touristy areas were open. The Christmas market in Piazza Navona was open, too! Christmas markets in Germany close a couple of days before Christmas, for the year.
*We'd saved up a lot of "things that don't have to be open for you to see them" for Christmas day - so we took the subway over to Barberini and saw the Trevi fountain first. It is huge, and the large amount of water going through it makes a pleasant, relaxing rushing sound. All of this is of course countered by the sheer number of aggressive vendors, tourists, and pickpockets swarming the area.
*Next: the Spanish Steps. Very cool! I'm a sucker for stairs, though. Unfortunately the obelisk at the top was covered in scaffolding and a big car ad. I guess there is a big obelisk restoration project going on because 2-3 of the obelisks we saw were covered when we were there.
*We climbed the stairs and wandered into Villa Borghese, where we sat down for some lunch (from what we'd gotten at the grocery store). It was nice and sunny! There were a lot of families out walking around.
*After lunch we continued on to Piazza del Popolo where we visited a church and absorbed some more sun before moving on past the Mausoleum of Augustus (it's all closed) and over the river to Castel Sant'Angelo. It was of course closed but we got to walk around the outside and over the bridge. Then we found ourselves back in Piazza Navona, where we got a drink at a horrifically expensive cafe. The book warned that that getting a drink on that particular piazza was an expensive venture, but since non-touristy areas were mostly shut down, we probably wouldn't have done much better, and it was a very nice place to sit. After more wandering later, we got pizza back at Campo de' Fiori, stopped at the internet cafe again to wish everyone a merry Christmas from Rome, then made our way back to the hotel.

Day 6: Wednesday, December 26
*We debated a day trip to Florence, but it seemed like far too much for just a day. I suppose this means there's now the possibility that we will never see Florence, so it was a tough decision. I think it's better to see something very briefly than to never see it. But, our other options - the nearby wine village of Frascati or the vast ruins of Ostia Antica - were both much closer and much cheaper to get to. In the end, Ostia Antica won.
*Ostia Antica was far bigger than we imagined. Only 6.50 to get in, then we checked out every nook and cranny. Soon we realized it was about 10 times larger than we had guessed. By the end we were hitting highlights only! Ostia Antica was excavated before current standards were in place and a lot of it was restored in ways they might not have done now. Still, despite apparently damaging restorations, it was really impressive to see an entire ancient town all in ruin - a town surprisingly similar to contemporary towns (with the exception of a very high public-bath-to-inhabitant ratio). See the photos!***

*Again with the trap - one must spend at least a day at Ostia Antica, so they know you're stuck with their expensive cafeteria. The bathrooms were also terrible. Only one toilet had paper, only one sink had water. No seats, of course. Argh!
*Afterward we continued on the train out to the Mediterranean, just to see it, then turned back to Rome for some pizza and to pack up to leave the following morning.

***Any comments on whether the embedded slideshow link is better than the embedded static photo link? I can't make up my mind. The slideshow is a little cheesy, but it does give a better idea of the album contents than just one photo.