Sunday, February 24, 2008

Paris: It's Not Just Love-Hate

Before going to Paris, I was told it could go one of two ways. I would love it, or I'd have a horrible experience and hate it. I was pretty interested to find out what it would be. I went in with pretty average expectations. I'd never romanticized Paris in my mind like many people do, but I didn't really have anything against it either. It was pretty similar to my expectations going into Rome - and that trip went really well!

We took a 6am S-Bahn (slow train) to Mannheim to catch the super-fast ICE to Paris. It makes a few stops in Germany and near the German border in France, then goes non-stop through the French countryside to Paris. At 6am, the Mannheim train station was a bizarre mix of people who were up really early, and people who were up really late. As we waited in line in the bakery, a strung-out woman behind us was cooing into her cell phone: "You wanna fuuuuck? You wanna fuuuck? Hee hee hee, well I don't feel like fucking with anybody right noooooow..." I assume she was part of the up-really-late crew.

We picked up the train to Paris at 6:40. As we crossed the border, we saw snow on the ground! It hasn't snowed here at all (except over Christmas, when we were away) so that was kind of cool. The French countryside was full of unbelievably tiny towns, each with a big gray church steeple. It was impressively unpopulated compared to the German countryside. As we sped through all these rustic scenes, our train got up to 320 km/h (about 200 mph)!! Sweet! (And a little scary.)

Upon arrival at the Gare de L'Est station, we dropped our bags off at a check-in place just like the one in Berlin. This one was even more expensive at 5 EUR per bag, but was much more efficient than the one in Berlin. Then we started blazing through all our must-see tourist sites, starting with Notre Dame (awesome, especially inside, though I liked the Strasbourg Munster better) and Sainte-Chapelle (I would call this a must-see). We then had lunch at a little cafe. Damon has been to Paris three times before, but remembered incorrectly that Parisians tip American-style. Actually, they tip German-style. Hence, our waiter was probably pretty psyched at our ignorance when he got a huge tip. Doh!

After lunch, we walked all the way from the area near the Louvre to the Eiffel Tower. It's not a bad walk, but it was a lot longer than it looked on the map! At the Eiffel Tower, we started talking to a British dude who wanted us to take a photo of him and his friend. He asked us if we were Canadian. Do Canadians really get that pissed if you accidentally call them (US-)American? (Canadians, help me out here.) Just given the population size of the US and Canada, he had a lot better chance of being CORRECT if he asked us if we were from the US. But he opted for his chances of being INOFFENSIVE instead. Very cute.

Paris Feb 08

We picked up our bags afterward, checked in at our hotel (Hotel Cactus), and had dinner at a Chinese restaurant down the street. The food was pretty good, actually.

The following morning we got breakfast at the hotel - croissants and little baguettes with various simple toppings. Everyone else there was French. We felt like the loudest assholes on the planet. I try to tell myself that it's not just me, but that some languages just don't lend themselves to quietness the way that French does. I don't know if it's really true or not.

We had the good luck of being in Paris on free museums day, so we headed over to the Louvre to join the crowds for the morning. See the photos! It was definitely a highlight of the trip, and of course we only scratched the surface of what can be seen there. Around lunchtime, we noticed there was a cafe there, but Damon thought he remembered from a ten-years-ago trip to Paris that it would be cheaper to eat in Montmartre than in the area of the Louvre.

Oh, how things must have changed in the last ten years. We went over to Montmartre and the prices at every single cafe were absurd. The cheapest thing was often an 8-9 EUR grilled cheese. Finally we found a little crepe stand that had crepes for under 5 EUR, and had that for lunch. They were great, too, so I'm glad we didn't settle for anything more expensive before finding the stand.

We climbed up to the top of Montmartre (all humming the above song) and checked out the area (see photos). We wandered around getting coffee and pastries and looking at windmills, then worked our way back down the hill and headed over to see the Arc de Triomphe. It was much bigger than I imagined! It's out in the middle of a traffic circle and though there were signs we couldn't figure out how the hell to get out there, so we just enjoyed it from afar and then headed down the Champs d'Elysees. (Pardon my lack of appropriate accent marks.) Frankly, it's awful. Skip that, unless you have a hankering for some McDonald's or a CD at the Virgin Megastore.

We had dinner in the Bastille area with some friends from our Boston days, who recommended checking out the French National Library. So, the next day, after a walk in the area of the Jardin du Luxembourg and crepes in Montparnasse, we headed over there. The library was closed for Monday, but they let us in (for lack of being able to talk us out of it, haha) and we got to walk around the courtyard hallways, which was pretty cool. After this we headed back to catch our train back to Germany.

So, Paris. It definitely has the air of a very important place with more stuff to check out than anyone could in a lifetime. I like the emphasis on the arts, both old and modern. I kind of love how they are so adamant about speaking French, even if it's clear you can't understand a thing. This must be a great plus for people trying to learn French. In Heidelberg they always try to sabotage your German-learning efforts by switching to German. Also, I always hear about how rude the French are, and didn't find that to be the case at all. Maybe they are, but it's not as big of a shock coming from Germany as it would have been coming from the US. I'm not sure.

The biggest disappointment was that everyone talks about how beautiful Paris is, and that just was not the case at all. It was distinctly NOT beautiful. This might have a little bit to do with the time of year, but I don't think that was the main issue. The buildings are all the same drab color. The roads are wide and hideous and everywhere. The Champs d'Elysees? What a nightmare! There isn't a single pretty thing about it. Not one! Berlin isn't pretty either, but no one says it's going to be, and Berlin is cheap and feels electric. Paris is built up as some gorgeous, romantic place, and isn't. It can't even dream of being cheap, and it feels important, but not exciting.

Also, because so many American cities - probably every single one I've lived in - dream of being like Paris and try to emulate its boulevards and cafes and parks, the funny thing that happened was that Paris felt more American to me than any other place I've been in Europe. I almost felt like I'd already been there, even though I hadn't. That was unexpected!

I'm interested in more views on Paris, so feel free to spill in the comments if you have a couple of moments!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Berlin: The Return

We left Dresden for Berlin, arriving shortly after dark at the huge, amazing and controversial Berlin Hauptbahnhof. We checked in at the Heart of Gold hostel, which was pretty clean (though Damon had some complaints about the men's room) and very conveniently located near the Hauptbahnhof, Bundestag/Brandenburger Tor, and in a generally cool neighborhood. It has a Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy theme, and our room's wall was painted with some appropriate stencil art. Breakfast buffet there was only 3 EUR! (Suspiciously, drinks at breakfast were free the first day, but 50 cents the second day.)

We ate at the nearby Kanzler Eck, a restaurant which features the supposed favorite meals of German chancellors past and present. It wasn't too busy and we got to sit right below portraits of all the chancellors. Konrad Adenauer looked pretty badass. (I think my sister ordered his dish, Sauerbraten, out of fear of what he'd do if she didn't.) Willy Brandt looked smarmy, and Ludwig Erhart reminded me of my high school principal. Helmut Kohl was sort of jolly- and adorable-looking. How appropriate for someone from the Pfalz! His dish was Saumagen, which Damon ordered. I ordered the Roulade, the favorite dish of a physicist who came from the former East Germany. I hope everyone knows the name of that chancellor! The service at the restaurant was super-friendly and we even got a little free seafood appetizer. That happened to us last time we were in Berlin, too (and would happen again before we left this time!). Every time it happens Damon dreams up wild theories about how the staff think we are food critics or want to increase tourist business at their restaurant. I think we are just lucky (or it's some kind of Berlin thing).

After dinner we walked over to the Bundestag building and it turned out it was still open! So, we waited in line only 10-15 minutes, then got to go up inside the dome (thanks to an elevator operating dude who looked eerily like John McCain) and get a nighttime view over Berlin. Afterward we stopped by the Brandenburger Tor and the Holocaust Memorial (even creepier at night). Unfortunately all the photos we took here were also lost.

The following morning we walked through a bit of the Tiergarten, stopping to check out a Soviet WWII memorial and walk down a path with trees growing right in the middle of it! Then we passed through Potsdamer Platz and took the U-Bahn over to check out the East Side Gallery, a large section of the Berlin Wall that remains standing. The wall was decorated by artists at one point, but is now fairly covered with graffiti. Across from the gallery, a huge arena (O2) is under construction. It's a bit of a wasteland at the moment. We stopped for lunch at the Ostbahnhof - not really the coolest place to eat, but it was close and we knew it would have clean bathrooms. We actually got pretty friendly service there at a little sandwich/currywurst joint. Afterwards we walked past several landmarks, including the Fernsehturm in the Alexanderplatz, the City Hall, the Marienkirche, the giant aquarium (in a hotel?). We tried to go into the Berliner Dom, which Damon and I had seen last August, but discovered that there is now a 5 EUR admission fee, even though it was free before! We would have paid 2 and might have paid 3, but it didn't seem to be worth 5, knowing already how it was inside.

Berlin Jan 08

At this point the weather had really started to take a turn for the worse. What better time, then, to check out a museum? We thought we could only do one with any justice, and chose the Pergamon Museum. The museum has a couple of themes going on - one is the reconstruction of giant ruins that fill whole rooms - altars, gates, columns, facades - and the other is middle eastern and Islamic art, full of more beautiful things than you can shake a stick at. I absolutely recommend it!

We then took a look at the book-burning memorial in the Bebelplatz across from Humboldt University - an underground room full of empty bookshelves, visible through a glass pane in the ground - and headed off to Prenzlauer Berg for dinner. We'd read that a restaurant there called Nosh was good, but when we looked at it, nothing on the menu really grabbed us, so we passed it up for an Indian restaurant across the street, where the service was great (free pappadums and mango drinks!) and it was about half the price (no kidding) of the non-fast-food Indian restaurants here in Heidelberg. It was only 30 EUR for all three of us to have drinks, samosas, and entrees! It was around this point that Damon said he would never take me to a city again, because it just makes me cranky to go back to tiny, costly Heidelberg. Heidelberg has its benefits. Cheap Indian food and entire cool neighborhoods and interestingly-dressed people just aren't among them.

We wandered around and found a Rewe that was open until MIDNIGHT! That's like the Holy Grail of grocery availability. In Heidelberg, you're lucky if a place is open until ten. We stopped in a cocktail bar and I had a great White Russian. I suppose they are hard to screw up, but I had been trying to branch out in cocktails lately (mostly without good results) and hadn't had one in a while. They played a song from The Big Lebowski right after I ordered it. Coincidence? The drinks turned out to be way cheaper than they were listed on the menu. We used the menu to coach my sister on how much to give the waitress as a tip, since she wouldn't be able to understand the price when it was spoken. Consequently the waitress got a fat tip from 70%...heh.

The next day was our last in Berlin so we headed over to the Hauptbahnhof in the morning to drop off our bags in lockers for the day. It turns out there aren't any lockers there, as there are at pretty much all other German train stations. Instead there is a check-in service, which costs 4 EUR a bag! (This is a lot more than typical lockers.) It was really friendly, but sooo slow and expensive. I suppose they do this for security purposes (all the bags are x-rayed) but it's time-consuming and expensive, and hence kind of annoying.

We ended up spending the rest of the day wandering around in the vicinity of Kreuzberg, past the Jewish Museum and Checkpoint Charlie (this is mostly a mock-up for tourists, I gather), to lunch at a little Turkish joint, and down Oranienburger Strasse just looking at shops and stuff. My sister wanted to check out the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedaechtniskirche (we went past it last time we were in Berlin) so we went over there. This time we had time to stop inside and look around instead of just breezing past. The weather was once again terrible so afterward we found ourselves warming up in a cafe and wandering in bookstores to pass an hour or two before hopping on the train back to Heidelberg!

I guess I haven't talked too much about how I feel about Berlin but rather just keep blabbing about what we did. Well, I love it. It's diverse, exciting, and super-cheap. I can't really describe the feeling of being there because I suck at words, but I can say it's better than the feeling of being in Boston, better than the feeling of being in New York City, better by eons than the feeling of being in Munich or Frankfurt or Heidelberg. Unfortunately the economic situation in Berlin is not good so it's unlikely we'll ever end up getting to live there.

We were lucky enough to have booked tickets on a train called the Sprinter which goes non-stop from Berlin Spandau all the way to Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof! We got a pretty good rate too. The only downside was that we somehow ended up in a quiet car so we couldn't really talk. A lady came through with free candy too. Cool! The train got up to 250 km/h. It seemed awesome at the time, but we were soon to be going even faster on our next trip!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Glory of Bundesvision

Last week Damon and I were flipping channels after the end of his favorite show, Tatort, when we came across a super-cheesy "metal" band playing on a giant stage. We tuned in just to make fun of them - the pseudo-Legolas looking guy with his hurdy-gurdy-esque mystery instrument, the bleached platinum blondeness, the big screen behind them with images of a stormy ocean. Niiiice.

We discovered that what we'd found was the Bundesvision Song Contest - a German version of the Eurovision Song Contest wherein a band from each German state competes for a title. Voters call or SMS their choice, just like Eurovision. The only difference in voting is that one can vote for the act from his or her own state, whereas one cannot vote for his or her own country in Eurovision voting.

We tuned in for the rest. None of it was outstanding; cheesy productions were everywhere, but it was fun to see what each state put out there. We tried to make a guess at who would win. I thought Berlin had a decent chance with a group called Culcha Candela. Damon was all for a punk group from, I think, Niedersachsen. There was a large showing from the punk genre.

So, it was to our surprise when we found out that Germany found best the video we originally saw and tuned in just to make fun of! For your pleasure, here it is: Subway to Sally, a band from Brandenburg.


Monday, February 18, 2008

Dresden: The Return

The day after she arrived, my sister and Damon and I were up dark and early to catch a 5:47am train to Dresden. I'd put together a Europe-wide selection of possible 4-day 3-night itineraries for her to choose from, and a Dresden/Berlin trip beat out Lisbon, Amsterdam, Vienna, Athens, Barcelona, and Muenchen!

We were there only for just over 24 hours, so it was another Dresden quickie for us. We stayed at the hostel Louise 20, which turned out to be located right above Plan Wirtschaft, the restaurant where we had such a good experience back in November. The hostel was super-clean and pretty nice. The fact that it was a Monday night and very quiet was kind of nice considering how tired we were! We had breakfast the following morning at Plan Wirtschaft. They had a nice selection but it wasn't as friendly and cheap as I remembered. Also, there was a fly in Damon's soup - no joke!

We zipped through all the sites - the Frauenkirche, the Catholic church, the mural of all the princes, the Zwinger, the communist mural. This time we even got to go inside the Frauenkirche! It has been just as carefully restored as the exterior - though we all found that it wasn't really to our taste. No photos were allowed inside. We had Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cake) at, strangely, a Canadian-themed place near the Frauenkirche, then stopped at the hostel before meeting up with a friend for dinner at a tapas joint, followed by dessert at a restaurant I can't remember the name of (took a photo to remind myself, but it was lot), and drinks at a cocktail bar I also don't recall the name of - all in Neustadt.

The following morning we explored Neustadt in the daylight, checking out the Kunstpassage and various shops. Unfortunately I lost all my photos from that morning! I guess the memory card - an off-brand one that we got in Prague - had a problem. No photos from that day (second in Dresden, first in Berlin) survived, and only a few from the day before and the day after survived and were uncorrupted. Check out the Dresden ones here!:

Dresden Jan 08

Friday, February 15, 2008

It ain't your home country's mayonnaise.

Damon and I had cruddy days yesterday - his experiment went well, but the results weren't what he was hoping. My classes the whole day were somewhat disappointing, and I have another full day of the same teachers/subject today. So, we decided to indulge in a nasty comfort food of ours - my sister's Delicious But Really Horrible For You Chip Dip. (Did I mention my current classes are on cardiovascular health? Ha ha ha...) The recipe is super-simple: one part mayonnaise, one part shredded cheese of your choosing, and one part finely chopped onions. Mix it up, put it in the oven, and wait until it's hot and bubbly.

This is never the most appetizing looking thing, and it's not a good idea to eat too much of it. However, last night it reached a new level of both of these qualities, thanks to our not-like-its-American-cousin, our friend, German mayonnaise. It tasted vinegary, and here is a photo of the liquidy nastiness it caused. (Not for the faint of heart. Avoid looking at this while eating.)

Needless to say I think we are going to avoid this recipe unless we can get our hands on some American mayonnaise.

And, a happy belated Valentine's Day. :)


Monday, February 11, 2008

Small money! I want small money!

I was flipping through my notebook in class today looking for a blank page when I found this half-composed blog!

A year and a half ago, Damon and I visited my sister, who was living in Las Vegas at the time. We stayed at the casino/hotel where she worked. At some point we found ourselves in need of cash and found an ATM on the ground floor. To our surprise (and great annoyance) we discovered that it would only dispense amounts in multiples of 100, instead of multiples of 20 like a usual ATM. And not only that, the money came out in the form of oh-so-spendable $100 bills! Only in Vegas, we grumbled to ourselves. Little did we know . . .

A year later, I stood at a Heidelberg ATM and requested 60 EUR. (My standard withdrawal in the US was $40, but cash is used more often here.) I got used to requesting money only in multiples of 20 in the States and have yet to break the habit, though it seems most German ATMs have the nifty feature of allowing any amount to be withdrawn (perhaps multiples of 5). After requesting the 60 EUR, I expected 3 20s to pop out of the machine. Or maybe it would be something really cool like 2 20s, a 10, and 2 5s.

But no.

Out came a 50 - a giant bill that barely fit in my wallet - and a 10. The smallest number of bills, of course . . . and also the beginning of some minor psychological pain here in the land of exact change.

Think cashiers will hate you for large bills in the US? Just try it in Germany. First I stretched that 10 EUR bill out as long as I could, then I dug around for 1 and 2 EUR coins, trying to put off the inevitable breaking of the 50 and subsequent trauma. In the end, I lucked out, getting a drink with a fellow student in Mainz and offering to pay for theirs if they would just be the one to hand over the 50. I guess they are more used to it and the icy glare or the big put-out sigh don't hurt them anymore.

Of course I've also been dumb enough to forget about this and have it happen all over again. But I swear, next time I'm withdrawing no more than 40 at once, to avoid the 50s!


Sunday, February 10, 2008

I'll never catch up!

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I have more than a full notebook page scribbled with tiny notes about things to put in my blog. Right now, I feel that I will never catch up and write all of these blogs! My sister took off in the wee hours of Saturday morning, and I spent the weekend doing laundry and dishes, sorting all the little ticket stubs and assorted bits from our traveling, doing general cleaning, going through photos from the trips to put online, and doing some general fretting about Monday morning. This week I go back to class for the first time in months and have a wicked case of what one of my favorite music bloggers refers to as the Sunday night heebs. I'm not sure what I dread most - the alarm going off well before 6am, the frantic bike ride to the train station because missing the train is just not an option, hoping I don't snore if I fall asleep on the train, the drag of trying to pay attention to lecture after lecture from 9am to 5pm, or the fidgety wait for the train that will take me back to Heidelberg. Thank God there are other Heidelberger taking the course - the whole process would be nearly unbearable without some friends with whom to share the experience!

As you can see from my sister's posts we had a great time over the last two weeks, and I hope to soon have up some photos and my observations about the places we visited! Bis dann!

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Guest Blog: A respectable amount of delicious crepes.

Guest Blogger time!

Our major trips (Dresden, Berlin, Paris) are all finished and I am really enjoying just chilling out in Heidelberg at my sister's apartment, reading and relaxing. One thing about vacationing in such exotic places is that you might feel like you absolutely MUST keep running running running and see absolutely EVERYTHING you possibly can before you have to leave -- but I am a firm believer in making sure your vacation also involves some downtime to just take it slow. I return to Seattle - to work, busy friends, life, and overdue library books, ouch - in a few days, and the chance to NOT run run run is welcome.

I didn't read my sister's blog about her interest in my thoughts about "the little things" until I'd already written my first guest blog... and I do think I haven't necessarily been here long enough to really get a lot of those things. Also, I really only buy soy milk in the States so I'm used to it coming in a box. I didn't even notice anything strange.

I am, however, NOT a fan of the infamous "shelf toilet". Maybe it's a girl thing to pay very close attention to the toilets you have to use when traveling, but I have noticed that while it is common for toilets here to not have a lot of water in the bowl (I am A-OK with that), the location of the drainpipe varies... I prefer the ones wherein the drainpipe is in the front. Not so with the one in my sister's apartment. Gross, dudes. (While we're talking about bathrooms, I got over the shock of having to pay for public toilets pretty quickly. Only the first time, at the train station in Dresden -- and mostly because it was a whole Euro. The rest of the time it's been more like 40 or 50 cents, and all those times the bathroom attendant was so ridiculously friendly I was almost happy to give them my money. If a little change on my part ensures a clean bathroom, I'm game.)

My other beef: my sister and brother-in-law have certainly been enjoying my very vocal distaste for your carbonated mineral water. UGH! Do not give me this stuff. I'm told this is the standard -- and if you want non-bubbly water you have to be very specific in your request for it. People, this stuff does not taste good. You're used to it now, and might even like it, but it's nasty. Okay okay, maybe you do like it. That's okay. I don't mean to hate!

I'm on the fence about water in restaurants. Sometimes it costs, sometimes it doesn't? It would appear for the most part you have to order it -- fancy water, and in some places it's more expensive than wine or beer. You can maybe get tap water -- but only in some places, and only if you know how to ask for it? We ate Chinese down the street from our hotel in Paris and I didn't see any "normal" water on the menu so ordered bottled -- but I saw several other tables with water in jugs that was probably just tap. Then again, between the three of us only one had any knowledge of French.

In Paris we did important Paris things. On the first day we started at Notre Dame and walked all the way to the Eiffel Tower, which is much farther than you think it should be. MUCH farther. The next day happened to be the first Sunday of the month, free-Louvre-admission day, so we braved it (knowing the crowds would probably be slightly more nightmarish than on a day patrons must pay). It could have been far worse, and the crowd at the Mona Lisa was predictibly suffocating, but I would have been happy, if I had to choose only one piece of art, seeing only the Winged Victory of Samothrace which I could have sat and stared at all day if there weren't other things to do and see. Something about that particular statue grabs me far more than any other piece of art in the museum. Then again, I was also particularly stoked to be able to stand in front of the massive painting that is the Raft of the Medusa which hangs in the large-format French paintings section. I don't recall where I first saw this image but I liked it a lot then and now there's a song by Lovedrug that makes me think of this paiting EVERY time I hear it. (Which is quite a lot.)

I'm not sure if it has a name, but to one side of the Eiffel Tower there's a giant set of stairs and a high lookout point -- it was from there that I got my first glimpse of the tower, which was built for the same reason my homie the Space Needle was built -- a world's fair -- and made me feel strangely at home. That platform, however. Whew. That platform was wobbling. Shaking. It may look like it's made of stone but it is most definitely not. Never have I felt a floor wobble like that except for a few rock concerts when the entire crowd is jumping or dancing. I wasn't expecting that in a high-volume tourist location!

We ate a respectable number of delicious crepes (helloooooo nutella banana!).

On our final day in Paris we were only partially successful in an attempt to visit the National Library of France. Turns out things are closed on Mondays around here? A few people were going in and out, so we thought it might be open, but we couldn't really communicate at all with the woman staffing the security gate we went through, and I felt really awkward, but they didn't stop us from going in... so we went in. There must have been some lectures or something happening that day, accounting for the people already in there, but everything was pretty much closed, so we left. But! The National Library of Paris is HUGE! It is totally cool on the outside, a MASSIVE space capable of handling thousands and thousands of people, and tres photogenic to boot. I am a library geek, so I would have been much more excited were it actually open. It appears to have a separate building which may or may not house a movie theater? Unknown.

Again, I was very surprised to see so little street art in Paris, although I may have been in all the wrong neighborhoods. I saw a smattering of stencilwork while wandering in Montmarte, and a handful more pieces that were entirely corporate advertising co-opting the medium (ie stenciled ads for Jack Johnson's new record -- because Jack Johnson is TOTALLY the kind of music street artists LOVE). Unrelatedly, public transportation is FABULOUS in Paris. We only took the subway trains but we pretty much never had to wait more than five minutes and it took us everywhere we wanted to go with minimal transferring. I was incredibly jealous. Anytime anyone started complaining about having to wait I started on rants about Seattle busses.

We returned to Heidelberg and after a failed attempt to travel to a tiny town with a massive Karneval parade (foiled by a delayed train!), we toured the castle (ooh! castle!!) and then took in the local parade. Um, I love parades. I was in a pretty awful mood waiting for the parade to start (it was cold and wet and we'd been out all morning, I had to go to the bathroom and of course there's no great place to do so, I was getting overwhelmed by the costumed, drinking crowds, etc) but I knew once the parade started I'd be fine -- and I was totally right. (I also caved and bought hot chocolate at a Starbucks down the street, therefore gaining access to the restroom -- the first time I've been to a Starbucks in a LONG time and the only time I've been to one on this trip.) This parade didn't fail to deliver lots of marching bands, which are always my favorite part. I saw for the first time a new method of candy-catching -- open your umbrella and hold it upside down above your head, and you'll get more cheap hard candy than you could have previously dreamed of! These people are not playing, my friends. They have a LOT of candy and they aren't just tossing it to you, they are showering you with it, maybe even hurling it at you, and you're getting smacked in the eye! Some people on a balcony above us and some people across the street got in a candy throwing fight, and I suggested they settle it with a dance-off after the parade. No need -- the last float was a German radio station blasting dance music, and once it passed you you joined the jumping, dancing train of people behind it.

Upon returning to my sister's nice, dry apartment, I read about Mark Twain's impressions of Heidelberg Castle in an appendix of A Tramp Abroad, which I WILL finish one day. Oh Mark Twain, you are so sarcastic and funny.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Guest Blog: I Sausage Berlin

How cool is it to be a Guest Blogger? Um, super cool. I am the Guest Blogger. The Sister from the States! Holla!

Okay. Enough of that. As for the actual act of the guest blogging, I am a list-maker by nature. It helps me feel less overwhelmed. Since so much has happened since I left the Seattle airport, and there is still so much to come, a list will help me report my current findings without feeling incredibly overwhelmed. let us begin!

1) Hostel Etiquette 101 - To Lock or Not to Lock?

In Berlin our hostel, which was ultra-hip and themed after Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in a miraculously non-cheesy way, seemed to have very few bathrooms for the amount of people who could potentially stay there. Our room was just around the corner from one set of dude/lady restrooms, and they each had one stall and one shower. The shower! The shower had no door, only a curtain. A curtain! And so, in a hostel that size, you want to lock the bathroom door so you aren't marched in on by god knows who whilst you are cleaning your birthday suit... but do you also feel guilty because you're locking a bazillion people out of one of the few toilets in the place? In the end, we said screw everybody else, and locked the door. Everyone else said screw us by being pretty noisy overnight. It's cool, we are invincible.

2) Soundtracking! Vacation to Europe 2008 is so far getting a pretty kickass musical score. My first full day in Germany we took an early train to Dresden and once the sun rose I was able to admire the gorgeous European countryside, stunningly complemented by Sigur Ros. Amazing! It was like watching their stunning DVD Heimal... pretty foreign landscapes and soothing music.

Next train we rolled from Dresden to Berlin, through Brandenburg, and we appropriately busted out "Brandenburg" by Beirut, an artist we are currently both a little obsessed with. (Although I am kind of a hater when it comes to wedding, and am not the kind of girl to plan a wedding when she is 100% single, I still think I want to play entirely Beirut at my reception and force all my guests to waltz. End of tangent.)

Finally, on the train back to Heidelberg, we asked Rufus Wainwright to help us commemorate Berlin by sharing one set of headphones and listening to "Tiergarten" (which we walked through) and "Sansoucci" (which we talked about but didn't see).

3) A Girl's Guide to Germany

When the airline "lost" my baggage (which is a very long story) the tried to make it up to me by giving me a "female overnight kit" to take care of my immediate needs until my baggage could be located. Among the things I need, according to Star Alliance Airlines: and XXL t-shirt and "whitening" deodorant... wtf?!

Regarding public restrooms... at one point I noticed the disposal bag for the "feminine products" had a handgun on it. A handgun? What? I grabbed one and took it with me so I could ask others about it, and nobody seemed to know what it was about. Later I discovered the NAME of the line of feminine product products (tee hee) was called "lady killer"... wtf.

4) Street Art

Holy crap, Germany! Your stencil grafitti artists are out of control! I've been developing an obsession with photographing street art and grafitti ever since I left my tiny college town and have been living in cities that actually HAVE grafitti. It became kind of full-on when I moved to Seattle, and Dresden and Berlin were totally overwhelming. I was a little worried I would have more photos of grafitti than, say, historic landmarks and famous sight-seeing locations. Lucky for me, the Berlin Wall can offer me both -- an onslaught of history PLUS a really long abandoned wall full of art!

In the main train station in Berlin I bought this book called Urban Illustration Berlin which covers some of the main/most prolific artists of I think the mid-to-late 90s, when the guy was doing the research/taking the pictures, and it includes short interviews with some of the artists - but more exciting is the large fold out MAP of Berlin that shows where all the pictures in the book were originally photographed. So you can follow the dots and see if the pieces are still there -- and if they aren't, you at least find yourself in a neighborhood that is ripe with other art. I didn't buy this guide until we were in the station ready to leave, but that doesn't mean I didn't get a lot of great pictures of what's currently out there. I'm biased toward stencil art, but I also really like cut-outs. In the cities the small stencil work is much more common, while on the train in between cities I saw some really, really great examples of good old fashioned tags - except they're all in the huge, colorful bubble-letter style. Everything struck me as so BRIGHT and COLORFUL, which makes me wonder if Seattle isn't rolling in colors like that. I hadn't noticed that the city was distinctly lacking in colors, but the fact that the colors here grabbed me so much must mean something. Unfortunately because I was speeding through on an ICE, it was impossible to get photos of that stuff.

5) Regional Anomalies

I'm not sure if "regional" is the right word, but here are some strange things we found:
-- In Dresden, a restaurant called "Ontario" which was (obviously) Canadian themed. The food didn't strike me as particularly Canadian, except for names like Mountie Meal or whatever (we only had dessert and coffee, but I browsed the menu). But everything had Canadian flags on it. It otherwise looked like an upscale place -- a strange combo of kitsch and class.
-- In Berlin, in the back of an ESPRIT store of all places, we found Chicago Coffee Company. My mind still has trouble wrapping itself around that one.

6) ETC

-- So much sausage! The weird thing about me (the pseudo-vegetarian) is that I think sausage tastes really good but looks really disgusting... so most of the time I don't eat it because I can't get past how gross it looks on the inside. I've eaten a lot so far in Germany (duh) and I can eat it fine as long as I don't look at it. Weird!
-- My only purchases thus far other than travel/accomodations/food has been: one museum admission (Pergamon), the grafitti book, and a crapload of postcards and stamps. But watch out, pocketbook! Paris is next!

7) In Conclusion

So far, obviously, I totally love Germany. I have noticed that people here pretty much look exactly like people in Seattle -- young people at least, all the women are wearing short skirts and tall boots, all the dudes are wearing jeans and suit jackets. Euro-metro-casual-fashionable-whatever, I guess. Some neighborhoods made me think of places in Seattle. But everything is much, much older, and everywhere you look there are towers and churches and buildings that have been around longer than you can really even comprehend. I was hoping to be assaulted by history-overload and that's worked out just fine. ;) But holy shit! You can just go to a cart on the street and buy a sandwich and a beer and WALK DOWN THE STREET DRINKING! Funny the things that blow your mind. If I were a drinker I'd be totally stoked. I'd be drinking all the time. All day long.

Thanks for reading, Heidelbergerin fans! I'll be back post-Paris for another Guest Blogger breakdown. Out!

Meme Break - Privilege and Me.

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We all just got back from our four day sprint through Dresden and Berlin, and have a quick day off here in rainy Heidelberg before heading off to Paris tomorrow! I will have lots of photos later - plus a guest blog from my sister, which I promise will be extremely cool, because she is. In the meantime, here's a quickie meme regarding privilege, and how much of it I might have. I have been thinking about this because I have been getting bummed when visiting bigger cities, that I'm deprived in Heidelberg. Haha, deprived, by living in Heidelberg! Pretty shitty of me to even have it cross my mind. So here's a reality check.

I got this meme from Christina G over at Ami Expat. It was developed for a research project (and copyrighted) by Will Barratt, Meagan Cahill, Angie Carlen, Minnette Huck, Drew Lurker, Stacy Ploskonka at Illinois State University (see their project’s website here). They ask that you PLEASE acknowledge their copyright if you use this meme.

Bold the true statements.

1. Father went to college.

2. Father finished college.

3. Mother went to college.

4. Mother finished college.

5. Have any relative who is an attorney, physician, or professor.

6. Were the same or higher class than your high school teachers. (Does this mean economic class? I would probably say same, then.)

7. Had more than 50 books in your childhood home. (I don't think we started with that many, but we ended up with far more!)

8. Had more than 500 books in your childhood home. (Again, I think we did, once the three of us went through - but definitely not before.)

9. Were read children’s books by a parent.

10. Had lessons of any kind before you turned 18. (Art.)

11. Had more than two kinds of lessons before you turned 18.

12. The people in the media who dress and talk like me are portrayed positively. (I'm not sure how to interpret this one. I was female and white, so yes. I was a hick and a nerd, so no.)

13. Had a credit card with your name on it before you turned 18. (Sisters did, though.)

14. Your parents (or a trust) paid for the majority of your college costs. (The vast majority - over $80,000 - was covered by need-based grant aid.)

15. Your parents (or a trust) paid for all of your college costs.

16. Went to a private high school.

17. Went to summer camp. (It wasn't camp - it was in college dorms and had classes - but it was time away from home, and it was paid for, so I'm counting it.)

18. Had a private tutor before you turned 18.

19. Family vacations involved staying at hotels.

20. Your clothing was all bought new before you turned 18. (I got hand-me-downs from the neighbor girls.)

21. Your parents bought you a car that was not a hand-me-down from them. (I have never owned a car by any means.)

22. There was original art in your house when you were a child. (Do the ones I made count? :) )

23. You and your family lived in a single-family house.

24. Your parent(s) owned their own house or apartment before you left home.

25. You had your own room as a child.

26. You had a phone in your room before you turned 18. (And my own line, because Dad worked for the local phone company!)

27. Participated in a SAT/ACT prep course.

28. Had your own TV in your room in high school. (I couldn't believe it when I saw in college that some people brought them for their dorm rooms!)

29. Owned a mutual fund or IRA in high school or college.

30. Flew anywhere on a commercial airline before you turned 16.

31. Went on a cruise with your family.

32. Went on more than one cruise with your family.

33. Your parents took you to museums and art galleries as you grew up.

34. You were unaware of how much heating bills were for your family. (Most of the time I was, but at the end of high school Dad had me balance the checkbook for a while.)

So, 11/34. I would still say I was pretty privileged, although thanks to the answers on this quiz being far more bolded for most of my social circle, sometimes I feel a little out of it. I also think there were some benefits to being kind of sheltered as a kid - by the time I saw a big city or endless water, or flew on a plane, I was old enough to really understand the value of it and not be jaded. I'm also great at managing money. At the same time, I started out college far behind my peers, who had better high schools, zillions of lessons, and so on. It was a problem at the time, but probably hasn't made a difference in the long run.

I want to tag my husband to respond in the comments since he doesn't have a blog, and Michelle.