Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Back in Isolation

Today, at the US post office in Des Moines, Iowa:

The woman behind me walks up to the counter with a package. The nice mail lady looks at the address and asks:

"So, is Korea the country name, or is Seoul the country name?"

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


Where do I find ant poison? They're all over the bedroom and living room! (But somehow uninterested in the kitchen...) I used to use Terro in the US....

Monday, April 14, 2008

I love those hard little colored marshmallows...

Man, I am seriously craving some Lucky Charms all of a sudden. I'm so eating those when I go to the States (Friday!).

Thinking about cravings though - I get them really often for a non-pregnant person - it is harder to satisfy them here than it was at previous points in my life. If I had a hankering at this hour for Lucky Charms during my time living in Ames, I could have just gone over to Hy-Vee and gotten some. In Boston it would have been a little more trouble, but I could have gotten them if the local convenience store happened to stock them. It would definitely still be open. But here, nothing's open at this hour, so even if Lucky Charms were available (I don't think they are) here I wouldn't be able to do anything about my craving! Not until morning anyway - but there's a decent chance that it will have passed by then.

Maybe this helps explain the skinny Germans. :)

Der Zahnarzt, Revisited

Well, despite my talk about finding a different dentist who would give me a metal filling, I didn't manage to remember to do it before the appointment I'd set up with the original dentist for a composite filling came around. For some reason I thought I had a lot more time! So, I just went in and got the composite filling and the cleaning.

I know that the dentist is perhaps a boring topic but I am still pretty impressed by the differences between my experience here and at my old dentist in Boston! First, he asked me if I wanted anesthetic for the filling. That was never a question in Boston, where they injected by default even for small cavities. I was a little nervous because I'm not too familiar with the no-anesthetic option, but I decided to go for it. It was a little uncomfortable, but the discomfort was brief, and I was actually kind of glad to miss out on the injection, which I remember being more painful than the drilling today was. Plus, the whole thing was over with more quickly because we didn't have to wait for the anesthetic to kick in. Yay!

I made an attempt to conduct everything in German but got caught three sentences into the dentist's spiel when I didn't understand him telling me the injection/no injection option. He had forgotten I was foreign because of my ever-so-German name. Oh well, I think they were all friendlier to me because I made a (sorry) attempt.

Then I got the cleaning. Here it was completely optional and by request. In the US, I had to get one twice a year per my insurance (both were covered) as a prophylactic. They recommend it just once a year, if you want it. It was also a very simple cleaning compared to what I always got in Boston. They said this was all I needed because my teeth were in good condition. In Boston they always told me that I had no tartar and that was great, but they obsessed over the apparently awful state of my gums, threatening me with root cleanings and scalings if I didn't shape up. Here she said my gums looked good too. Everything looked good. I can't believe the difference. Also, during her lecture, she told me to floss 2 to 3 times per WEEK! I got lectures to do it 2 times per day in Boston. Anyway, my teeth feel pretty good now and I'm glad I had it done, even if it's all psychological and really not necessary.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

WIEN (Known Aliases: Vienna, Vienne, Bécs, Vídeň . . . )

We arrived after dark to Wien Suedbahnhof. After 3 days in Budapest and Bratislava, I was amazed at my sudden literacy. "Oh, I am going to be able to read everything! Yay!!" Of course, to say I can read everything in German is a gross exaggeration, but there's nothing like a few days in countries where the language is completely foreign to me to make me feel like I actually know some German.

We couldn't figure out which bus ticket to buy to get to our Pension, so we went to the info desk. A person who spoke English as a second language and no German was being helped ahead of us and having some difficulty. We soon discovered that their difficulty was no language problem - it was an unhelpful customer service problem. We got to the front and asked which ticket to get, in German. The info desk guy, slouched way back in his seat, barely cast us a glance, and said simply "ein zwanzig"* (one twenty) in some slightly confusing dialect. We asked him to repeat it, and got the same two words delivered the same way a second time. So, back to the ticket machine, where we supposed that "ein zwanzig" referred to the price of the appropriate ticket (thankfully, we were right). (*I do not remember the exact price of the ticket. It was one-something.)

Germans had warned us about the famed rudeness of Wien, but this experience actually turned out to be the worst we had. There were a few more encounters of indifferent annoyance, but none so unhelpful as the first!

Our Pension, Pension Hargita, was located just off of Mariahilfer Strasse, so that was the first we saw of Wien outside of the train station. It was horrible. The same hideous fashion stores found in any city, enormous lit-up ads (check out the first photo in the album!), ne'er-do-well-looking people running around, cars screeching their tires. So much for all those wedding-cake-perfection stories I'd heard about Wien. I was part disappointed at the flashy, packaged America-like atmosphere of the street, but also really glad that maybe Wien wasn't going to be grotesquely perfect.

The Pension was super-clean and friendly. The owners are Hungarian so it was filled with Hungarian decor - more so than even the place we stayed in Budapest. We'd gotten the "shower in room, shared toilet in hallway" option, and the shower really was right in the room! As in, there was just a shower stall in the corner. There were still two separate beds, though!

With just two days, our experience in Wien was much like Budapest - just a lot of walking around past sight after sight. The Stephansdom (St. Stephen's Cathedral) is the city's primary landmark, and was partly under scaffolding. The outside is mostly gothic with a cool patterned roof, but inside it was jam-packed with unattractive baroque altars. See the photo album for more details about what we saw!

Wien Mar 08

We also jammed much cake-eating into our schedule! In the end we'd hit Cafe Demel, Hotel Sacher, Cafe Central, and Cafe Prueckel. Summary:

Best Sacher Torte: It's true - Hotel Sacher. Second place to Cafe Demel. The others didn't come remotely close (including Sacher Torte from Aida, a chain Konditorei around Wien).
Most Touristy: Tie between Cafe Demel and Cafe Central. Central had more German-speaking tourists, while Demel had more American and Asian tourists. Central had a crowd waiting to be seated inside the door at all times; Demel had so many tourists circulating through that one knocked a full tray out of a waiter's hand.
Smokiest: Cafe Prueckel. There was a thick fog when we entered, and the smoking section was bigger than the non-smoking.
Cheapest: Cafe Prueckel. It's located further from the tourist center and has a more casual air.
Most Expensive: Sacher. We also could not take a seat there unless we checked our coats, and the coat check wasn't free.
Best Service: Sacher. Well, actually, they brought me the wrong tea, but the friendly waiter who bade us goodbye at the end totally made up for it.
Worst Service: Prueckel was close, but Central wins this one.
Most Amusing Experience: At Demel, a local couldn't find an empty table, so he sat himself down with an American mother and daughter, who could not conceal their horror. (Sharing tables with strangers at a crowded restaurant is normal in Germany, and it appears to be in Austria too.) They were unable to say anything about it and just sat there twitching.

One of the best perks in Wien is the opportunity to get ultra-cheap tickets to see the opera! (Or in our case, they were showing a ballet that day.) You don't even have to be a student - just able to line up around 5pm or so to get a shot at the standing room spots. Prices run from 2 to 3.50 EUR. That's not a typo! It's cheaper than coffee. We got to see Swan Lake at the Staatsoper for only 4 EUR between us! The spots are not great and we couldn't see part of the right hand of the stage, but for that price, who cares? You can always just leave if it doesn't suit you. I am always pessimistic about the ballet, but it wasn't bad (especially the guys, heh). Actually, it was quite enjoyable, even standing.

We also encountered in Wien a surprisingly large number of American female college students who had just recently been to Prague and possibly Budapest and were discussing their experiences loudly with their friends. Or maybe we just kept running into the same two girls over and over. In general, it seemed Prague was getting more rave reviews in these overheard conversations. "Prague was so colorful, but everything here I feel like is like white." "Prague was so great, but then we went to Budapest and we came out of the train station and it was sooo....eastern. It was sooo crazy." I'm sure my conversations sound this stupid out of context, too. I'll continue to hope they don't.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Bratislava, here to represent Slovakia to the world

Bratislava is the only place in Slovakia most outsiders have heard of. It's the capital and it's the biggest city. And, it's conveniently located very close to the borders of Hungary and Austria, and even not so terribly far from the Czech Republic - perfect for travelers who are trying to hit up a lot of countries on a single trip. I have to admit, that is how we ended up there. We looked at a map, knew that we wanted to go to Budapest, added Wien, then saw that Bratislava wasn't all that far off the path between the two. Who doesn't want to hear some Slovakian language and eat some Slovakian food, and, well, say they've been to Slovakia at some point in their lifetime? We join a very, very huge crowd of people with the same idea.

(Let Beirut entertain you as you read about the city!)

We rolled in shortly before lunch at the main station. The station itself wasn't terribly modernized and we had some confusion figuring out how to get tickets for the bus into the town center. As it turned out, you can buy them from the tobacco stand near the bus stop. However, though everything we read recommended getting a bus to the center, it didn't really seem necessary. It was a very short ride down just one street! On the way back at the end of the day, we just walked.

Bratislava Mar 08

We wandered through Michael's Gate (see the photos by clicking above!) and conveniently came upon a restaurant recommended by the guide, Prašná Bašta, and decided to eat there. The food was really good and cheap and I would definitely recommend it, though every single customer was speaking English or German. I imagine the locals look at the tourist prices and laugh at how we are all getting ripped off, but without a language guide bigger than the one in our guidebook, we couldn't have eaten at a more local joint. Our main dishes were so good and the prices so decent that we both ordered dessert too, which was also great! (Some kind of crepe-like thing with chocolate and apricot. Get it!)

After lunch we walked around the old town and up to the castle. The weather was great and it was all quite picturesque. See the photo album for proof, and for some info on the sights we saw! The only downside of Bratislava is that the old town is the only tourist-friendly area - step outside and all the signs and menus are only in Slovakian. The old town was completely packed with tourists, mostly German-speaking (Austrians?), but also many, many Americans. The tourists seemed to all be of the variety who find themselves to be brilliant photographers (I'm making fun of myself here, too), so they are constantly in your way taking five minutes to get a perfect shot of their kid doing something adorable in a cute little adorable eastern European city, while their wives make comments to each other about how the local traditions (being conveniently sold at the tourist market) are so quaint, in the most condescending fashion possible. After a few hours we ran screaming from the tourist zone, and found that the streets were completely empty and of course we could not read a thing (though it was easier to make guesses than it had been in Hungary!). The difference between the two areas was quite extreme.

We wandered back toward the train station, which reminded me of an American train or bus station - dirty and full of vagrants. The bathroom had no toilet paper, no soap, no flush, no lock on the door. We ate at a nearby cafe, then caught the hourly train shuttle to Wien, which is only an hour away. (Hint: Bratislava could make a very nice day trip if you are spending some time in Wien!) By the way, the bathroom on that train isn't so great either. There were pubes all over the seat and when I flushed the toilet, the sink ran (I tried not to ponder this too much). I think the worst thing about traveling is always worrying about where your next tolerable bathroom experience will occur! (Or dehydrating yourself to avoid finding out!)

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Ha ha, it was called Pest!

One of the factoids that every American seems to know about Europe and want to bring up at a given opportunity is that Budapest used to be two separate cities called Buda and Pest. Several people mentioned it to us when we said we were going there. "Are you going to BUDA, or PEST? Har har har!!!! I'm not only in the know about Budapest, I'm funny!" I very distinctly remember learning this in elementary school because it sounded hilarious at the time, for whatever reason. It was also entertaining to imagine other cities having been named in this way. Budapest was Buda and Pest! Omaha was Oma and Ha! Chicago was Chic and Ago! Har har har. I remember very little else about those lessons on Europe. At that time I never imagined I'd actually get to see Budapest someday.

Anyway, the two sides are still called Buda and Pest, and we did indeed go to both.

Budapest Mar 08

We only had two days, so we did a lot of walking past things rather than going into them. On day one arrived in the morning, checked into our hotel, then took in the Great Market Hall (ok, but touristy), walked across the river and went past Gellert Hill, climbed up to Buda Castle (not so exciting) and walked along the terrace, went around and through St. Matthias (amazing!) and the Fisherman's Bastion, went back down past a neat museum and church, crossed the Danube (it's huge) on the Chain Bridge, had cake at Cafe Gerbeaud (I was skeptical, but it was delicious), walked through a touristy market square, checked out a grocery store (hello 5-liter vats of oil!), and ate dinner near Oktogon. On day two, we rode the M1 out to Heroes' Square (if you like monuments...), walked through the big fake reconstructed Vajdahunyad Castle (they did pick some nice buildings to fake up), down Andrássy Avenue (very cool), checked out St. Stephen's (you can see his mummified hand - nifty), ate near Oktogon again, went over by the Synagogue (wasn't open), had coffee, went to another church I can't find any info on (the German tour book called it the Pfarrkirche, but that's in German), went down part of Váci Street (incredibly bland) and past the Museum of Applied Arts (very cool building), got some more cake at Gerbeaud (yum!), and went past the Market Hall again for souvenirs (I'm a sucker for simplistic embroidery in primary colors - this is the first place where I actually like the tourist knick-knacks).

Some notes:
*The Great Market Hall continues in the grand tradition of places like Fanueil Hall in Boston or the stalls around Heiliggeist in Heidelberg. They woo in tourists by billing themselves as markets that have been markets since the dawn of time, which is supposed to give them an air of localness and legitimacy, which tourists love. The Hall does have some places that draw locals, but don't be fooled, the majority is tourism. Buy your paprika, if you've got to have it, at the grocery store, not from someone selling it with ceramic holder that says "Hungary" and a bow on it. Don't get the icky food in the stalls on the second floor (we did - mistake). However, the souvenir prices were better than other places we looked (though it's not saying too much).

*St. Matthias is definitely in my personal top-five of awesome churches. It was being re-roofed, but we could still see some sections of its patterned roof, which puts all the ones in Basel to shame. The entire inside is painted on every surface like the columns in Notre Dame were. If you can see only one thing in Budapest, unless you're not into churches at all, see this!

*The cake at Cafe Gerbeaud really is good. I wouldn't have gone because I always worry about these touristy places (they rest on their laurels and stop being good), but my friend recommended it, and she was right. We ended up going a second time just to have it again. Watch the receipt - tip is included in the bill, don't tip more on top of it!

*Smoking seems to be allowed pretty much everywhere. Yuck.

*In tourist areas, everybody seems to be trilingual - Hungarian, German, and English. Hungarian is not an Indo-European language and as such is really difficult for foreigners! However, how cool for them. I would love to be a true speaker of a language so unusual. You could really be carrying the torch for something cool.

*We ate at Menza because Lonely Planet (not my favorite guide for sights, but the best for hotels/restaurants, I think) "implored" us to do so. It was hard to get a seat so we had to make a few attempts and ended up being successful at lunch the second day. The garlic cream soup is awesome, but we ordered way too much food, not counting on the enormous free dessert they brought us! Get a reservation if you really want to eat there.

*We saw bearded hipsters! Of course they might have been American students, who run rampant over eastern cities right now (it's hip and cheaper than Paris). But, I never see bearded hipsters in Germany, except in H&M ads.

*We saw misuse of English on clothing - a jacket that said "AMBIGUOUS" across the back, and a kid wearing a shirt that said "FOR YOU". I wish I knew where to buy that stuff. I definitely need an "AMBIGUOUS" item.

*Keleti is a mess and a madhouse. To buy train tickets to leave the country you have to go to a separate desk outside the station. WTF? There's no one to help you figure things out. We asked one employee where to find the track we needed and he pointed in the completely wrong direction. We wandered around and ran into another guy who wanted our train and was traveling to Berlin. He tried to ask someone if the train went to Berlin, and all they said to him was "Praha! Praha!" He didn't know that Praha was Prague, and the train did go to Praha, but it went to Berlin too. So I don't know what that conversation was about. Eventually we found a car that was marked with the train route and got on in some confidence.

*Our hotel gave everything in three languages, except for a sign one evening on the door, which was only in Hungarian. Hmm....

Budapest was our main goal on this trip. Bratislava and Wien, which I'll write about later, were just afterthoughts that we tacked on, since we are worried about seeing a lot of things in a short period in case we have to leave Europe soon. The trip left me with a lot of thoughts on tourism and what is "real" that I'll maybe write about another time.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Four percent less hated than last year

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According to this article, world opinion of the influence of the United States is four percent more positive than it was in a similar survey last year. Also check out this article (though it shows slightly different results for some reason).

Per the article, in the countries surveyed, 32 percent of respondents have a positive view of the United States, compared to 28 percent a year ago. Apparently people have a little bit of hope that things will turn around after the election, and are giving us slightly more love as a result. Prior to this, opinions of the US were on a steady decline for three years.

How positively are the influences of various countries viewed?

Pakistan 18% positive
Israel 19% positive
Iran 20% positive
North Korea 23% positive
US 32% positive
Russia 35% positive
India 42% positive
Brazil 44% positive
China 47% positive
Great Britain 50% positive
Germany 56% positive - the most positively viewed country in the entire survey

Places where more than 50% of respondents have positive views of the US: Kenya, The Philippines (my friend always swears that the US is actually liked in the Philippines, and I finally believe her), Israel, Nigeria, Ghana, and the Philippines.

Who hates the US the most?
Seventy-three percent of Turks and Egyptians view the US negatively, and 72% of Germans. You read that right - right here in Germany there are more people who actively dislike the US than in nearly every other country surveyed.

The full PDF report is here.

I don't know why the numbers are differing from the three different sources. (Media being crappy today?) Most of the numbers I quote come from the Yahoo article because I found it first. Some come from the BBC article.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Mysteries of the Schlafwagen and Liegewagen, revealed!

When we planned our Easter trip, out of sheer curiosity we decided to book some of the fancier options in overnight train travel: the Schlafwagen (sleeping car) on our way to Budapest, and the Liegewagen (lying-down car?) on our way back from Wien (Vienna).

We picked up the train to Budapest shortly before midnight in Muenchen, after a three-hour journey from Heidelberg on a regular train. We found the car marked on our tickets, and found a man at the door taking them. For a regular train, you just hop on and get your ticket checked at your seat later. The train appeared to belong to the Hungarian rail system, and so did the employee taking our ticket. He was gruff and spoke pretty minimal German. He stared at our German ticket for a very long time before waving us on to the train. He kept the ticket with him! This was the first time we'd seen this, too. We were halfway in when we realized that without it, we didn't know what room we had, so we had to ask. After a very long pause and more staring at the ticket, he told us we had 12.

The Schlafwagen contains private sleeping compartments with their own sinks, like having your own very tiny hotel room. The toilet is shared down at the end of the car, though. (I wish I'd taken photos of that! It was very clean, but somehow sort of icky anyway.) Each room can have up to three beds, but for ours they had configured it with just two beds. In this photo, you can see the bottom bunk is out, the middle one is folded up against the wall, and the top bunk is barely visible above the window.

We'd brought snacks and beverages with us, and discovered they'd left some drinks for us, too. Behind the mirror above the sink were towels, soaps, some really old dried-up wet-naps, a box of orange juice, and a bottle of mineral water with a plastic cup. I guess they gave us the water because, as the sticker below the cabinet shows, the water from the sink isn't potable.

The privacy of the Schlafwagen is pretty nice. We put on our jammies and I put my hair up in its hideous bedtime 'do. Damon took the top bunk. To do this we had to hang the ladder in front of the door, which made me feel a little trapped in. The train bumped along at what felt like very high speed toward Austria. I find that I can only feel the bumpiness more when lying down. Also, being on the train is exciting, with a constant curiosity about where we are now and what's outside. And I'd be waking up in a new country! Of course, in the dark, there isn't much to see. It didn't kill off the excitement, though. I wrote four lines in my notepad before getting in bed. The last one was, "I don't know how we're gonna SLEEP..."

Damon slept pretty well. I woke up pretty much constantly, though I did sleep here and there. I crawled over to the window at Salzburg and Wien to see where we were. The train seemed to stop for ages at these places. I think they were adding and removing cars - I know that at least part of our train went to Zagreb instead of Budapest.

Around 8am, we were both awake and moving around. I got dressed and stumbled down the hall to the bathroom. Most or maybe even all of the other doors were still closed. The train attendant seemed strangely thrilled to see me. I guess it gave him something to do. I had barely returned to the room when he arrived to clear away all our linens and pull a transformation trick on our car, turning it into two seats and a little table! Then he brought us the breakfast pictured here. Not so appetizing, but more than I thought we were going to get (which was nothing). He returned our ticket to us and said we would have to show it upon alighting in Budapest, then he busied himself with the other passengers, who had all simultaneously woken up around 8:30.

All in all, the Schlafwagen was pretty alright.

On our way home, we tried the Liegewagen from Wien to Karlsruhe, which is not far south of Heidelberg. We picked it up at the Wien Westbahnhof around 8:30pm.

The Liegewagen is basically a regular train compartment that can hold up to 6, only it has bench-like beds in it instead of seats. Our compartment was completely booked, with three beds on each side and about a foot between them in the middle - just wide enough for the ladder. The beds were so close together one couldn't even sit up in them. Four of us boarded in Wien, and it was very awkward at first. It was too early to sleep, but there wasn't anything else to do. We laid uncomfortably on the beds, reading. I think one of the guys in the compartment was a train aficionado, judging by his reading selection (train magazine) and history of having taken this particular train many times.

A woman came by to take our tickets and passports, which she held overnight. At first, she wouldn't accept our ticket because she couldn't find a mystical reference number on it. It appeared we were in a car belonging to the Deutsche Bahn, but maybe it belonged to the Austrian rail system. Clearly she couldn't have been a DB employee if she didn't know how to find the reference number on a DB ticket. She argued with us for awhile about it and finally figured it out. Then she brought by sheets, blankets, and minuscule pillows. We had to put them on ourselves, which was a challenge to do on the top bunk while sitting on it.

Yeah, I got the top bunk. They were numbered so I had no choice. I never thought I was claustrophobic, until all the lights were out and everyone was trying to sleep, and I felt like I was lying in a coffin. It was dark as anything and I would have had to climb a long ladder to get down, most likely waking everyone up. The ceiling was just inches from my face, the room was locked and the lock was hard to turn. The air was hot and smelly - Mief to the max. There was no rail or anything so I thought I might roll out of bed (to Damon's amusement I have actually done this before). The bed was too short for me, and I'm only 5 foot 5. I am quite certain that I slept no better than I would have on a red eye in coach, and definitely would have slept better in a train seat. Damon, however, slept just fine in the middle bed. Perhaps that spot is the best. (The train aficionado specifically booked the middle one on the other side.)

At around 4:30am we were to arrive in Karlsruhe. Four of us had to get up, get all our stuff together, and get out of the car while causing minimal disruption to the other two occupants, who were continuing on to points west. Actually, there's no way they could have slept through it, because the ditz who collected our tickets and passports the previous night came to wake everybody up. By that point I had bailed and was standing outside our compartment in the teeny tiny hallway. She asked me my compartment and spot and I answered her, and she tried to find my passport to return it to me. I got a kick out of it as she went through all the German passports first trying to find mine. I could have told her I was from the US, but if she couldn't tell from my pathetic German, she could just deal with it. Then she opened the door to our compartment and shouted, "KARLSRUHE!" Yeah, the others definitely didn't sleep through that.

The train was delayed getting in to Karlsruhe so we spent a bit of time standing around the doors waiting. I've never been so eager to get off a train. I could smell cigarette smoke hanging in the air, despite a no smoking sign. The employee office was right there so I imagine that was the source. Classy, train employees.

At this point I noticed that our train was called the Orient Express. I thought it was pretty funny ("Yeah right, the Orient Express! How exotic!") and took a photo. Later I checked out Wikipedia, though, and discovered that the train we were on really is the modern, much shorter, incarnation of the Orient Express. It goes from Wien to Amsterdam, though at Karlsruhe it meets up with a train from Strasbourg as well, and via Strasbourg is still pretty connected to Paris. Apparently it is still possible to ride the entire route of the old Orient Express by taking four different trains. It takes 60 hours. Not in a Liegewagen, say I.