Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Prague, check!

Well, I figure I should put something up here about what I have been up to since I still havn't responded to the months-old messages I've received (I'm so sorry!). Mostly it has been a lot of traveling. Snowboarding in the gorgeous German Alps, Rosenmontag and the previous weekend (like Mardi Gras with everyone in costume) in Düsseldorf and Köln, showing Shane and then James around Stuttgart, then travelling through Italy with James, then visiting Daniel and Ryan in Innsbruck, Fulbright conference in Berlin, Copenhagen and a brief return to Hamburg to see the fish market, and most recently Prague and Vienna with Matt. Although I do hope to eventually at least briefly discuss each of my trips, for now I will only talk about my most recent since I can remember it the best.

While sitting in a tiny Bavarian restaurant listening traditional music and consuming traditional food and beer in Mittenwald not far from where my friends and I had spent the day snowboarding (or skiing) on one of Germany's tallest mountains, I lamented to my friends that all of them highly recommended I go to Prague, but they had all already been there. While most of them just said "Yeah, that's too bad," Matt exclaimed that he had not yet been to Prague and also really wanted to go! We discovered that both us also wanted to see more of Vienna so we decided to add that to itenarary and we set the date for two months in the future. The advantage to planning this far ahead is that it possible to find mind numbingly low ticket prices; sometimes the ticket fare itself costing nothing with only a low fee attached to it that has to be paid. After finding such tickets, Matt and I locked in a plan for about two and a half days in each city with an extremely cheap bus fare in between the two.

I met Matt in the Frankfurt Hahn airport for our flight to Prague because it was just about halfway between our two cities (he studies in Bonn). This Frankfurt airport of course is not the major international airport that I know even some of you who aren't living in Germany have been to. This is the tiny middle of nowhere airport that Ryanair uses as their central hub. I am not sure how they acquired it, but they are the only airline that flies in and out of this miniature airport which is a two hour bus ride from the real Frankfurt and is not close to anything. This is the sacrifice one must make for cheap airfare.

The flight passed quickly as we discussed the week and a half since we had parted ways in Hamburg and in no time at all we were surrounded by signs in a language that was completely incomprehensible to us even though our flight was not much longer than an hour (that still boggles my mind). Fortunately, Prague is not a place that is unfamiliar with tourists so we were perfectly able to use English to find our way to our hostel which was not far off the city square. We then ventured onto the side streets where we heard it was possible to eat for very cheap and we were not misled. We found a small place where the waitress seemed shocked that we would have to ask if they were still serving food at 10 pm, and were handed menus that we had to unroll like scrolls (something more places should pick up on). We each enjoyed a hearty Czech speciality and our first taste of Czech beer (rumored to be the best in the world) for a little more than 4 euro. Not bad.

We then headed back to the hostel so that we could get an early start the next morning. This was my first time sharing a hostel room with people I didn't know and although they seemed nice enough, it is not an experience I am eager to repeat. These particular people decided to leave the light on because one of them was reading and although I tried as hard as I could, I was on an upper bunk and almost right underneath the light so I could not. Finally at 4 am I got up and noticed that no one was awake, but they had still left the light on. I climbed down and turned it off and not long afterward, I was asleep.

This made for a very tired day of sightseeing, but it was still amazing. We toured the Prague castle which includes one of the most gorgeous cathedrals I have ever seen. I think it alone is worth the trip to Prague. Using our audioguides which were advertised as "The best, and only, audioguide of Prague castle" we learned much about the history of the place including that the royal gallery had only survived because it was hidden in Italy when the attacking Swedes tried to steal it so that they found nothing of value.

We paused for an unfortunately not basement bargain lunch of beef goulasch at the castle cafe, but it was still decently priced and extremely delicious. We decided to pass up the delicious looking cakes in favor of forging onward. After checking out another little church on the castle grounds, we decided to stop at another little cafe for some caffeine. At this cafe, they had Coke Blak for sale, which I had not seen in at least four years. This fact was not enough to make me buy it, but I had a good chuckle at its expense.

As we were leaving the castle, we saw some sort of grand stand being set up, but we were not really able to figure out what the event was because there were no large signs advertising it. Eventually, we saw a couple guys taking a picture with a hand-written sign claiming that Obama was going to be speaking there in a couple of days. We were suspicious of the veracity of this claim due to the fact that the sign was hand written and the web address for the US embassy it listed didn't end in .gov. We decided to investigate further. As it turned out, he was going to be speaking the morning we had decided to leave and since the bus company never confirmed our reservation for our trip to Vienna, we decided that we could if a little later if we had to and we should try to see Obama's speech!

In the meantime, we walked around Prague some more crossing the famous Charles Bridge, which is lined with statues of various saints. One of which is one of the Czech Republic's patron saints, Sigismund of Burgundy. He was a king in the early 6th century and was worried about his son usurping him, so he had him strangled. Afterwards he felt really bad about it and apparently that was enough to make him a saint. Not only a saint, but a patron saint of their entire country. Another one of their patron saints is King Wenceslas, who you might remember from that song whose name currently escapes me. He was actually a pretty good guy and the Czechs believe that every one of their rulers after him is only borrowing the right to rule from him as he was their one true king. The audio guide mentioned him quite frequently causing the song to be stuck in our heads for most of the day.

We also wandered the Easter market in the main square which hosted not only many of your run-of-the-mill tourists, but also a large group of sports fans who were chanting and banging drums in the square for a solid couple of hours. At first we assumed they were soccer fans and could not figure out where they were from, but later we discover that they were Greek and they were volleyball fans. Who knew volleyball fans got that rowdy? Further meandering led us to discover that people were carrying something delicious. It looked kind of like a pizza, but the dough part of it was deep fried and the cheese on top was not melted. We eventually found a stand selling them and it was delicious! It also had a garlic oil on it besides the visible tomato sauce and cheese and the whole thing went quite well with a Czech beer.

Prague was where I finally saw my first opera, Die Zauberflöte. Less than an hour before the performance, Matt and I were able to score very cheap tickets and the seats we had were not terrible. It was fun to see an opera in German because during the speaking parts, I could actually understand most of it! Afterwards, we headed back to the hostel because we had decided to get up at 4 to make sure we got to where Obama was speaking in time to have a good place in line before the gates opened at 7.

We ended up having new roommates, but they also enjoyed reading until very late and were also seemingly able to do so only by the room light. I tried once again as hard as I could to sleep since I was very tired and we had to get up very early, but I had no success. Finally around 2, I decided to offer the reader my flashlight on my phone since I was going to turn the light out when I discovered that he had also fallen asleep without turning the light off. I was just about to do it myself, when the last roommates returned. They had just about climbed in bed without turning the light out when I, as patiently as possible, requested that they do so. They just mumbled a confused "Uh," and gestured towards the the girl using her laptop and she said that was okay. Why would she need the light to use her laptop?!?!

Despite getting a little over an hour of sleep after not being well rested the previous two nights, I was still able to get up in order to see Obama. We ended up getting in line not long after 5 and although there was a decent group of people already there, I felt like we lucked out because it I am sure it could not remotely compare to the size of a crowd outside of a similar event in the US, no matter how early. As a trade off, we had to deal with the poor organization of the event. No one running it seemed to think that it was a bad idea to have only one entrance that people lined up at, and that vehicles came in and out of. This meant that every time a police vehicle wanted to come in, or a moving truck wanted to come out, the mass of gathered people had to squish against the buildings along this already tiny street they had us in so that a vehicle barely had enough room to come through without running anyone over.

Next they wanted us all to move back, but at first they just yelled at us at the front of the group in Czech (the group was almost entirely Americans) and then when they did do it in English, they still only told the front of the group. This meant that the people at the very front pushed back, but the people at the back who couldn't hear what was going on just saw movement and got excited and pushed forward. This meant that all the people where we were just got compressed. The two girls behind us decided at that point that they were going to pass out and throw up respectively. I think the former did end up passing out, but fortunately the latter did not throw up. Given the choice, I think that worked out for the best because all though the vomit would have had plenty of places to go, the fainted girl was well supported by the masses and did not really have any chance of falling.

When the gates did actually open, it was not bad at all because they very carefully regulated the amount of people coming in and the speed at which they did it. I was worried it would be a repeat of the people trying to cram into the Oktoberfest tent when it opened, which was kind of scary. After we got through security, we found a good place to stand where we could actually see the podium, which was exciting. We couldn't find anything that said when he was actually going to be speaking, but eventually we started hearing rumors that it would be 10. It was a long wait. They had a Czech bluegrass band that played to help pass the time at least.

By the time he got on stage, the crowd was huge. It at least filled the entire square in front of the castle, but I could not see all the way back so I don't know just how big it was. Although people went crazy taking pictures, I was actually able to see him for most of the speech and I thought that was extremely cool. His speech was really interesting too. I thought the focus would be on the financial crisis, but he mostly talked about the threat of nuclear weapons and called for new policy on and a global summit about the reduction of said weapons. If you are interested, you can find the transcript of the speech on the Prague US embassy's site.

After the speech was over, Matt and I rushed back to the hostel to grab our bags and then on to the bus station. Were already cutting it pretty close to when the last bus was supposed to leave when we had a miscommucation and Matt and I got separated in the subway system. Fortunately, we both ended up near the bus station at the same time, but we had lost precious minutes. We got to the station before the bus had left, but it was already sold out. We tried other bus companies, but they were all sold out too. Finally, we headed to the train station, only to find out that trains to Vienna didn't leave from that train staion. We got to the other train station 20 minutes before the next train to Vienna left so we were able to finally eat, which we hadn't done since the night before, and to rest our very weary feet before the train came.

Coming soon: Adventures in Vienna!

Monday, March 30, 2009

With Absolute Wonder

This past Saturday, I engaged with some fellow members of my big band in an attempt to bolster our collective band fund. In order to do this, we grilled sausages and sold them, drinks, and slices of cake to visitors of a textile factory that had an open house where they sold wares for a marked down price. I didn't mind spending a good portion of my Saturday this way given that my computer is broken and there is not much else to entertain me in my apartment. It was also another opportunity to socialize with my bandmates who I usually see only once a week. Our little team worked pretty well together and sold a decent of amount of sausages and enjoyed each other's company. If the weather was a little nicer, we might have had a few more customers, but that didn't get us down.

There were two things that especially struck me about this whole event. The lesser of the two is a hair style fad that seems to have struck women of the upper-middle age range which I had failed to notice until now (perhaps because I swore off Over 50 parties). The fad of which I am speaking is one in which women with completely white hair dye the front part of their hair a markedly different color such pink or deep blue. Sometimes it is just the bangs, sometimes a little more. This fad which I had not seen previously passed before my eyes, and I do not exaggerate, at least 10 times that day. Perhaps it is the mark of a dye hard (sorry) discount textile fan. When I brought it up with one of the trumpet players, he gave it the name "Old Punk" which I found amusing.

The much more striking thing occured much earlier in the day. When we were setting up the grill and our daring drink display, we all happened to look out toward the train tracks and notice a group of about five maintenance workers all dressed in neon safety outfits pushing a ladder on wheels along the track. Every single one of us stared at them and their curious wheeled ladder and they stared right back at us. Given, our band uniform which they call "Overalls", looks like a gray mechanic's jumpsuit with red sleeves and various patches from different festivals that past borrowers of the suit have sewn on. They were also probably trying to figure out what we were doing. It was just such an odd moment because I swear it lasted at least a full minute with every single one of them staring at us as the walked along the tracks with their ladder and every single one of us staring back at them.

So, after not posting for such a long time during which I have a taken many trips and experienced many things, I have decided to do a post about something so insignificant that maybe only I find interesting, but I guess that is all you should expect from this blog.

Friday, January 9, 2009

SSB Man- Pervader of Justice

SSB Man is the hero of Stuttgart. He carries but one tool, and that is his mighty hammer which he uses to disrupt the pane of glass over an information board at a bus stop. This action allows him to place there a notice to the people to inform them that the bus system will be incredibly inconveniently disrupted for the day.

SSB Man loves his job, but who wouldn't? Not only does he perform his courageous duty to the people, but he does so with his hammer of truth. Like the town criers of old, he artfully swings his instrument to spread the word, but more efficiently and with more satisfaction.

As you approach the bus stop, you will suddenly notice a shard of glass jutting out at which is now mere inches from your face. As you jolt to a halt, you can hear an old woman cackling from the bench. She calls out to you "Bet you thought you wear going to lose an eye." "Yeah," you reply, "thank god for the SSB Man."

You of course realize that had you not received that shock, you likely would not have seen SSB Man's notice neatly tucked between the shards of glass. Then you would have been stuck there, waiting for a bus that would not come, and the old woman would have laughed at you anyway, but for longer, and with greater cruelty.

In what other ways does SSB Man improve the lives of ordinary city transit users you ask? Well, can often be seen leaning over the shoulder of a tram driver and softly imparting his wisdom into their ear. He may appear to be a vagrant, irritating the driver while he is trying to do his job, but how would a common transient get past the lock on the driver's door? "If you look stern and ring your little bell, the delivery guy is more likely to take you seriously and move his truck out of your way," he whispers to the driver. "Thanks SSB Man!" replies the driver, "you're a genius!"

SSB Man also has a hobby of which you should be warned. If you do not believe in him then watch out! For his powerful hammer acts not only as a purveyor of information, but also as a queller of impertinence. SSB Man loves using his hammer on the unappreciative when he is not using it to help the just. So beware!

Sunday, December 21, 2008


I love the German tradition of Christmas markets. One of my favorite things about them is that it seems like every town has one of some sort and they are all at least slightly different. I went to Stuttgart's today under the pretense of trying to find my last few gifts. Yesterday I went with some people from my lab to the medieval Christmas market in Ludwigsburg, which is really close to Stuttgart, and that was my third Christmas market so I figured it was time to see my own. I entered it from the town hall side and was instantly filled with the Christmas spirit. Cheesy, but true. The square in front of town hall which is huge and usually almost completely empty, was absolutely packed with a tight grid of market stalls and visitors. The aromas of different foods and the sounds of all the joyful people were almost overwhelming. There were many groups of musicians, all of them were kids and most were playing badly, but in a charming way.

It didn't take me long to find what I hope are some perfect gifts so I had plenty of time to wander and just absorb everything. I fully support the idea of the Christmas market because it is the spirit of commercialism of the season that I can actually get behind. It isn't some emotionless department store, but people selling their handmade wares that have a personality you can't get from mass produced objects. It is many people wandering in a huge cheerful mass through all the stands that sprawl through city spaces that are usually empty and fairly lifeless.

I still like the gifts I bought, but I kept seeing things I wanted to get that just wouldn't be the same after the 7,000 some odd mile trip home. What I really wish I could package and send to everyone is the entire Weihnachtsmarkt experience. I would send the smell of all the different types of roasting nuts that mingle into one indistinguishable sweet smell. The sudden wonderful olfactory impact of so many distinctive sausages grilling all around. The incredible delicious warming sensation of the spiced wine based drink known as Glühwein. If I could give that entire experience to everyone, I would. Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Update 1

So I got this update up a lot later than I wanted, but here it is. Since it took me so long, I am going to have to briefly summarize a lot, but feel free to ask me about any of it. I lived with a host family for my first three weeks in Stuttgart after finishing my intensive five week language course in Marburg. It was fun and they were super nice and helpful and I learned a lot about what a typical German family life looks like, but I am also glad to be living in the city now. They live in the town just south of Stuttgart so it took about an hour to get to the university or into town whereas it takes me about twenty five minutes to the university now and maybe 15 into downtown.

I live now in a two bedroom apartment at the top of what used to be a hotel with a guy from Georgia (the country). My roommate understands a lot, but doesn't speak any English which is awesome because it gives me a non-pressure opportunity to really speak German. My apartment isn't super nice, but it is definitely good enough for how long I will be here and especially since the rent is decent. My roommate doesn't exactly keep the place super clean and he will on average have people over at least two nights a week when I am trying to sleep, but I have had the place to myself for the last week and a half since I last saw him so even though I feel a little bit bad about it, I am happy. He is really nice and fun to talk to, but I have to get up early so it is nice to have the opportunity to go to bed when I want and not be woken up most nights.

It took the first three weeks of being in Stuttgart, but I finally got a hold of my professor. Apparently he was on vacation the first two weeks and didn't respond to the email I sent a month before that for some reason, and wasn't really ever in his office and no one seemed to have any idea where he was so I finally trapped him after one of his lectures and from there everything went pretty well. He introduced me to an awesome PhD student who is working on the project I proposed to do. He seemed really excited for me to be there and introduced me to everyone in our research group and after I told him I could speak German, gave me the benefit of the doubt and hasn't looked back since. He has also been really patient when explaining all of the theory behind our project especially since all of that is also in German. I have been surprised that I have gone through multiple meetings with him about theory and only had to ask him about a couple of words. It helps that he has had me read German dissertations about our project so I can learn a lot of the terms that way.

Our project, without wanting to go into too much detail so as not to bore people, is studying particle collisions in Xenon plasma with applications to the development of reusable heat shielding material (our plasma is a simulation of the kind a capsule experiences on reentry) and also to make ion engines that use Xenon plasma more efficient. It has been slow to start. We were able to run the experiment once, but then one of the circuit boards in the laser we use to make our measurements burnt out randomly so we have been waiting to receive a new board which will have to be setup which will probably take a couple weeks. That means I have been reading to try gain at least a basic understanding of almost all new material. It sounds like we might start setting up while we are waiting for the laser after the holidays though.

Outside of work, I am trying to get involved so I have more chances to make friends and use my German. I went to some of the practices of the university frisbee team until it got too cold outside for the clothes I brought here that I can run in. It was fun because they are a nationally competitive so the practices were at a high level that really pushed me. I also joined one of the big bands at my university. That has also been extremely fun too because the people there are also very welcoming and there is definitely some good friend potential. They also have a huge collection of music they play out of so there at last a few new songs that we play every week. They take a tour to Sweden every May to play at a big festival there and at German cities along the way so I am definitely looking forward to that.

I have been doing a lot of travelling. So far in Germany, I have travelled to Mainz, Frankfurt, Heidelberg, Mannheim, and Munich, and outside it to Geneva, Vienna, and Venice. I am also planning to fully utilize the holiday break for some serious travelling. I will first meet my friend Shane, from my language course, in Munich, where he is studying, and we are going to meet with some of his friends for Christmas. Then we are going to meet some more language course friends in Berlin before taking the train to Krakow. We are going to spend three days there and then head back to Berlin for New Year's eve. Then on to Hamburg for the last few days of the break. I am sure plenty of stories from that trip will be here eventually!

Thursday, October 9, 2008


Phone rings. I go rigid. Phone keeps ringing. No one else home. Phone rings for the fifth or sixth time. It is obvious at this point that they don't have an answering machine. Phone does not stop ringing. What if it doesn't stop until someone answers it or the person on the other end gives up? What if they are particularly persistent? She told me how to answer the phone if no one else is home, but does that mean she expects to me answer the phone whenever it rings? Probably. She knows I utterly fail at comprehension on the phone. My overall comprehension is generally pretty good, way better than my speaking ability, but somehow the phone completely destroys me. I don't know where anybody is or when they are coming back so what good what it do for me to answer the phone especially if I won't understand anyway?

Finally it stops. I heartily exhale. Not more than a minute goes by and it starts ringing again. What if she is calling to make sure I don't get up too late? Would she do that? I can wait this one out too. An eternity later it stops ringing. This time at least five minutes go by before it starts ringing again. Is this some emergency services hotline and they neglected to tell me? I am pretty sure I understand the word emergency in German and would have noticed if it was dropped.

My worst fear is that multiple people that later get ahold of her will mention that they tried to call earlier and she will realize that since I didn't leave the house, I must have been here. Or that she will come home while the phone is ringing and see that I am not even attempting to get it. I find myself making up a different excuse for every time it rings. This time I am definitely in the bathroom. This time I just couldn't find the phone in time. This time I had just gotten into the shower. The more it rings, the more absurd my excuses get as I run out of all the obvious ones. This time I was so immersed in what I was reading that it took the first couple rings for me to realize it was ringing and it took the last 7 or 8 for me to get down the half flight of stairs between me and the phone and by then it had stopped.

I have started listening to music loudly just so that there is the possibility that I wouldn't have heard it. However, the phone is sure loud. I have also taken to making a trip into town daily just so I don't have to listen to that terrifying noise. Plus that is at least two hours round trip travel time, plus a reasonable assumption of at least an hour doing what I supposedly need to do that she will know I was out of the house, but not when. Sometimes I have almost jumped out of my chair with joy when someone comes home, just to know that I don't have to feel responsible for the phone anymore. I still feel that occasional pang of terror every time it rings. It's like it is just waiting for me. Waiting to shame me. Waiting for me to try to take some really important message and then be responsible for some catastrophe caused by my failure to pass it along correctly.

I hear it in my sleep in that time in morning after everyone has left to do something useful and/or important and I remain attempting to enjoy the rare opportunity to get all the sleep I need. Sometimes I wonder if it is even ringing at all or if it is just reaching into my subconscious to gain more time in which it can torture me. Simply ringing. Ringing. Ringing.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Introduction and Explanation

So, I finally did it. After two months of being in Germany and meaning to start one, I finally started a travel blog. I am not exactly sure yet what it is going to look like, but at the very least I hope it will be a way that everyone who wants to can have at least a general idea what I am up to. I hope to alternate between posts that are more detailed about things I have been up to and posts that focus more on a specific aspect of my life here or fiction focusing on specific aspect. That way I feel it will be hopefully be a more complete picture of my experiences and it will also prevent montony. I am not going to promise that the two types it will be entirely equal, but I will try and keep it about equal so that it is more diverse. I also won't promise that my updates will be consistent or regular, but I am hoping to make it so that there is something new at least once a week. This isn't meant to replace any other form of communication, but I hope it will keep those that are curious updated while I try to respond to all of the e-mails I am behind on. I apologize for being so slow at this and I hope it is not a deterrent to sending emails to me in the future. I really do appreciate getting them and am trying to be faster at it!

Now on to the actual updates. But first, a story of absolute terror.