28 July 2007

Americans in Paris

I gave up on being an invisible tourist the second day in to my trip. Not even the Parisians know which is more annoying, an American tourist who addresses them only in English or the one who only knows the four phrases listed in their travel books and must then apologize one minute into the conversation by saying, "je ne parle pas francais" (I don't speak French). Parisians speak so quickly that even my basic knowledge of French got me nowhere, and so I do look forward to staying with my friend Francois and having the opportunity to practice.
But this isn't complaining. Paris has been quite the experience and sometimes you have to give in to being a tourist. How many Parisians claw and scratch to get to the Mona Lisa? It was World War II over again: ignorant Americans, camera-toting Japanese and belligerent Germans. Amazingly, I cruised from the Pyramid main entrance to da Vinci's masterpiece in less than 15 minutes, including security screen and ticket purchase. While the Louvre is as good as they say, one cannot pass up the Musee d'Orsay across the river. The paintings are all quintessentially French and nothing gets you in a better mood for a walk along the Seine than a few Monets to please the visual pallette.
I now have to days left in the city of love, which has remained unsurprisingly loveless for me, and my big dilemma is what to do on Sunday when the Tour de France, doped and all, reaches the heart of Paris in a triumphant celebration. Lucikly I have a little less than 24 hours to figure that out. Sorry for the delay in a new blog post, but I am sure it's not necessary to explain there is too much to do in Paris. My next post will be written from the French countryside and written by a much more relaxed author. A bientot!

23 July 2007

The DMV of Paris

Bonjour mes amis,
Yes that means I am in Paris, the city of love and lights and lost passports. I indeed lost my passport somewhere between Zurich and Paris, and still have absolutely no idea how. To compound my problems, when I arrived at my hostel they booked me as two people in a double room instead of one person in a room of 4. The upside, I spent a night in a room by myself and paid the dorm room rate. The downside, the solution is being in 4 different rooms over 8 nights. That wasn't so difficult.
Spending the morning in the US Embassy was the hard part. Luckily it was raining, which meant waiting inside for a long time was tolerable. And to be clear, we Americans do receive expediated services once pass the initial screening. While taking the ID photos required for my new passport, I missed my number: C816. I came back to the waiting room, waited for nearly an hour, and when they called C829, I went up and asked what was going on. They explained that I had missed my number being called 3 times, and the woman gave me a disgusted look. The look that says I work for the DMV, or in the cases of Victoria and NYA, the post office.
Luckily I was spared the twenty minute interrogation suffered by a businessman when asked why he lost his passport. I just gave her my best "Lord, forgive him for he knows not what he has done" look, and it worked. From 9:15 am until 1:30 pm, I stood, waited, stood, waited and paid.
Thank God for equilibrium though. What goes down (my mood) must go up, the reverese is true only for gravity. Tonight I am invited to a 21st birthday dinner for a French acquaintance of mine from Johns Hopkins.
Bonne anniversaire Gwen et a bientot mes ami americains!
(For those of you who speak French and wonder why in Paris I cannot type the accents, I reply the Internet cafe has American keyboards. Go figure)

21 July 2007

You are now entering the Twilight Zone

Misleading, that is what Switzerland is. And gorgeous Crossing the border from Germany into Helvetia (what the Swiss call their country), the landscape changes only a little. The houses look the same, the billboards still in German. Everything seemed so normal, until the first Swiss opened his mouth.
Having so many German contacts, I have already heard the woe stories of Germans who mistakenly went to Switzerland thinking they could get by speaking High German (Hochdeutsch). But it is quite an experience in itself. To be sure German dialects differ from the German I learned in school, but no course can prepare you for Swiss German. Most of the time I give up listening in on conversations because I understand NOTHING!
Interestingly enough, my first night here, Raphi and his friends spoke to me in High German and said that was harder for them than speaking English. While their course materials are written in standard German, their spoken language is somewhere off the charts. I was trying to come up with an American, or even American-British comparison. Feckless. While people from New Jersey murmur and use outdated slang, and Texans take more time to speak a sentence than I do to eat, we at least understand one another. The same cannot be said for the Swiss and Germans.
Yesterday, I went on a solo excursion to Luzern. Stunning views and high-end fashion stores are ubiquitous. With a charming, but expensive, downtown, Luzern is situated next to the mountains and spanning a channel which goes into a gigantic mountain lake. Rain precipitated an early departure, but over all, the city is definitely a must-see. Tomorrow I will arrive in Paris. Unbelievable.
Happy reading to all the Harry Potter fans out there, and Gruezi to the rest of you!

19 July 2007

A German Menü

While the English are known for bad food, the French for rich and creamy food, Italians for everything tomato and pasta, Germany is known for a drink: beer. Actually this country has more bread varieties than any other country, has a burgeoning wine industry and cheese to match. So here's a look at some of the daily specials in Germany:
Käsespätzle A Swabian specialty, this delicious dish consists of noodle-shaped dumplings covered in cheese and baked to perfection. Can also be served Rahmgeschnetzeltes (a light meat sauce) or plain with butter.
Döner Kebap While thought to be of Turkish origin, this dish is consumed mostly by Germans. Shaved beef is served stuffed in a pita, covered with cheese, tomatoes, cabbage/lettuce, and a creamy sauce to create a cheap, on-the-go snack.
Zwiebelkuchen Similar to a quiche, this "onion cake" can also be served with cinnamon or pieces of ham on top to create a sweet dinner entree.
Apfelsaftschorle Basically sparkling apple juice.
Eisbecher Ranging from a small plastic cup of one scoop to an elaborate, kiwi-themed confection, a "cup of ice" creates lines of people outside of the diele, waiting to cool down on a hot summer day.
Nutella What would bread be without a layer of hazelnut-tinted chocolate spread? Simply delicious, Nutella makes even two-day old bread taste wonderful.
Joghurt Varieties of this less sweet and milder form of yogurt include gooseberry-kiwi, rhubarb-cheesecake and stracciatella.
Mohnschnecke A swirly pastry aptly named "poppy snail", covered in honey, poppy seeds, and a clear glaze.
Currywurst Pieces of sausage smothered with ketchup and curry normally served with brötchen, similar to our dinner rolls.

Guten Appetit!

15 July 2007

A Small World

My current home base is Weil der Stadt, yet another small town on the outskirts of Stuttgart. Some of you may remember my host, Verena Buhl, as an exchange student at Chaska High School a few years ago, the rest of you have no clue. Either way, she and her family have been such gracious hosts. Verena has showed me much in only the last three days. From friends in the neighboring town on the first night to a full day at Lake Constance (Bodensee) today, my schedule has been packed, so best start at the beginning.
I had no troubles finding the train from Marbach to Weil der Stadt, and right outside on the platform upon arrival was Verena. We spent the first day touring Weil der Stadt and its sights, including the usual suspect, the God-fearing installation that is the local Catholic Church. While Marbach has Friedrich Schiller as prominent native son, Weil der Stadt can claim astronomer Johannes Kepler as its own. Before we headed to a welcome-home party for a friend of Verena's, who spent the last year in Spain, we were going to stop in at the high school festival so Verena could say hi to a former teacher or so. What happened instead was we went there, and I ran into two (that is right, two not one) people from CHASKA!! Both were high schoolers on a 3-month exchange that I met through the German program at CHS, but it really taught me the world is small. If only that corresponded to a shorter trans-Atlantic flight!
Schlepperfest. Think Stiftungsfest, but with real Germans. This is one of Weil der Stadt's summer celebrations in which the local farmers show off their Schlepper (tractors) and give the rest of us an excuse to drink beer and listen to the community band. It was a great time, sitting at the long beer tables, eating currywurst and drinking the teenager favorite: beer mixed with cola. Go figure.
While it was a late night, that didn't mean a later morning. Instead we got up early and went with Verena's boyfriend all the way (somewhere around 250 kilometers) to Lake Constance. The Lake Superior of Europe that is, in the tradition of the cars and streets, much smaller than its US counterpart. But nonetheless, very impressive and idyllic. Meersburg (literally Fortress on the Lake) is a beautiful, and hopping, coastal town on the German side of the lake. The extremely hot day lent itself to a paddle-boat ride into the lake and hanging out under the willows, and with a conversation-filled family barbecue, a perfect day ended.

11 July 2007

A Ginormous Post

I was so happy to see today that, among other words like Bollywood, "ginormous", that hyperbolic mixture of giant and enormous, is now in the collegiate dictionaries. In that spirit, I thought I might explain my stay with some definitions.
Michael's Research in Marbach noun the act of researching the effect of music, i.e. opera, in the early short stories of Thomas Mann at the Deutsches Literaturarchiv in Marbach am Neckar, Germany.
Thomas Mann proper noun German author (1875-1955), winner of the 1929 Nobel Prize in Literature, and noted novelist, essayist and public intellectual. He left Germany for Princeton, NJ during the Nazi regime.
Early Short Stories noun Mann's short works from 1897's "Vision" until 1912's "Death in Venice," which is his most famous short story.
Deutsches Literaturarchiv proper noun engl. The German Literature Archive, opened in 1955, is a world-renowned collection of books, manuscripts, slides and artwork covering all of German literature, but with a focus on the present (1850-present).
Marbach am Neckar compound noun Marbach is a town of c. 15,000 located along the Neckar river (hence, am Neckar in German) in the southern German state of Baden-Württemburg. Notable residents included Friedrich Schiller, poet, and Tobias Meyer, astronomer and physicist.

Hopefully I have added to your lexicon, and I will surely be passing this along to Mr. Noah Webster himself to see that this gets added to next year's collegiate dictionary. Tomorrow is indeed my last full day here, but I have reached that critical moment in Newton's first law where an outside force (namely restlessness) is acting upon this body in rest. Until the next part of my journey, Good Night and Good Luck!

09 July 2007

Weekend Update

Okay, so this post won't quite live up to it's Saturday Night Live namesake, but here's a brief overview of my thank-God-it-is-not-raining weekend. Friday night was spent thinking of how to spend an entire Saturday doing something, all quaintness aside, Marbach isn't quite known for tourism precisely because there isn't too much to do. So I went to Stuttgart. Hence my trip from Stuttgart back to Marbach that I wrote about in my last post.
I was surprised by how metropolitan this local capital was; Gucci, other Italian fashion gods whose names escape me, and the usual American suspects like Lacoste. German cities are known for their "Fußgängerzone", which for the Minnesotans is like Nicollet Mall. An uninterrupted pedestrian zone lined with shops. A jumble of historic churches and sleek buildings, Stuttgart was a busy place but nothing impressed me more than the Schlossplatz. Picture the palace of Versailles meets "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" and you wind up with the center of Stuttgart life. Crowds of people laying out, tanning themselves in long pants and colored socks (Europeans, explain yourselves!) in front of a miniature palace.
Aside from wandering around the city and enjoying bits of the LiveEarth concert, which was broadcast by the Green Party on the Schlossplaty, the one entertainment that was unintended was the strike. Now I know the French like to do strikes the old-fashioned way, throngs in the street making life miserable for everyone else, but the Germans . . . they're like the Northwest workers who stand by the drop-off area; fifteen people in a circle, shouting with signs, something reminiscent of a tribal pow-wow. The store in question was H & M, a Swedish clothing chain. My only question is, what could the Swedes possibly do wrong?
Yesterday I took a Stadtführung, a city tour, of Marbach and it was very interesting. The tour started with the college orientation week questions: What's your name, where are you from, etc. I was last in line (a line of 5), and the others proudly stated they were from across the river in Benningen, from Zurich and from Berlin. "Oh, all the way from Berlin! I bet you don't understand my accent, you're from so far away," the tour guide said. My turn. "From America?? You are the champion!" Yes, a title I deserve after the 11-hour flight. His English was quite good when he sprinkled it in for linguistic flavor, even the occasional "that's Schiller in a nutshell." Although the weather made for bad picture taking, it was fun to hear a native, life-long Marbacher brag about his little home. I promise you all pictures when I get back, but for now, Tschüs!

07 July 2007


Today I took a day trip to Stuttgart, the capital city of Baden-Württemburg, the large state that divides Germany's south with Bavaria. It had everything a German town of 600,000 people should have: a couple large churches whose steeples compete with modern bank buildings in the skyline and several open-air markets which make any Saturday a fun day to be in the city. But as the train pulled into dinky, little Marbach (pop. 15,000), it was obvious why this overgrown village prides itself so much.
When you drive into Chaska on 41, either from the north and south, and you see the grid-patterned (and grid-locked) downtown, you think "quaint, Minnesota river town". But that is about it. No great person was born here whose poems we as townsfolk have commited to memory, or even a baseball field that bears the name of a local sports legend gone by. We're just the town that wants to be like all the rest, or what used to be the rest.
But Marbach, Marbach is different. It's the Schillerstadt. Schiller's city. Only fifteen minutes out of Marbach, the train winds through the gardens which Germans grow on the outskirts of town (because they have no sizeable backyards) and then all of a sudden, you enter wine country. Open fields and vineyards unending. On the horizon, however, juts a pointed tower. Marbarch's "Obertor". And as the train gets closer, you feel you are getting higher and higher, but actually the Neckar river has just eaten the ground below the railway so you are now high up on a steepe instead of a rolling hill. The Neckar separates you and Marbach, which is now clearly in sight, but still separated. The train station was obviously an afterthought in this 1,000 year old settlement, so it sits along the northern rim by the river, nowhere near the medieval buildings. Marbach's original development sits on a prominent hill, with no sizeable wall blocking your view, and it looks so vunerable. But you realize that this city survived all these years because it sat so high up on a hill. Coming up from the river is unbearably steep and rocky, and so you can feel a sense of defiance, the little nagging voice telling neighbors "you can't get me". Impregnable.
This is what makes a real small town. Holding on to that one claim to fame like it's life's breath. A poet who was merely born here and spent part of his childhood in Marbach's streets, became it's namesake. An important date in the town's chronology is the late 1960's visit by Queen Elizabeth II, most likely to see the Schiller National Museum and wander past the Schiller monument, all situated on Schillerhöhe (Schiller Heights, loosely translated).
Marbach sticks to its historical guns, the ones that withstood the Thirty Years War, and raised the author of Ode to Joy, and hosted English royalty. It's nothing new, it's quite satisfied being old. That is precisely why it's charming. Charming, but impregnable.

04 July 2007

Happy 231st Birthday!

Hello my fellow Americans, happy 4th of July! I waited to talk about my travels here because I thought an American tale deserved an American holiday. PS, I am wearing white socks in complete defiance of European culture. As I was saying . . . my flights were uneventful, other than getting through the monstrosity that is the Amsterdam airport. Be advised, however, that the Dutch have to be the coolest people around (not the German, stand-offish "cool", but the hip, Scandanavian, fashionable cool). It was my first time getting on to an airplane from the tarmac; we took a small jet from Amsterdam to Munich, on which I met a fellow American who completely confused the English-speaking Dutch stewardess by asking for a diet "pop". Living amongst East Coasters, I knew this was going to be a difficult situation for the poor Dutch woman. She was thinking "what is pop?" but all she could come up with was "I have Coke."
Leaving the baggage claim in Munich, I wasn't sure why I hadn't been asked for my passport and so I walked near the exit and asked the guard in English if I could leave that way. In a very hesitant English he told me I needed to wait for my luggage, and then I figured I should give him a break. My first German spoken in the Fatherland informed him I had no luggage. From his quick response in German and his deep breath, it was clear this guy was so relieved. While on the train from Munich to Stuttgart, a 3-hour ride, the conductor checked my Eurail pass, then my passport. He looked at me with a wryly grin: "Aah, from America. Thank you!" in an Ahhnold-esque accent. I returned the gesture auf Deutsch and afterwards there was no more questions asked. I was beginning to think this being American thing wasn't so bad after all.
Indeed, it got even better! Once in Marbach, as I got off the S-Bahn (the suburban commuter trains) and an older woman asked me if I knew how to walk to Schillerhöhe (the area I'm staying in) and I told her, in fact, I don't because I am just an American trying to find his own way there. With her two other older friends (all of whom were headed to an art festival next to the literature archive), she and I got a taxi. As I was getting ready to pay my share of the fare, she said "No, you do not have to pay. You are my American guest and I know students don't have a lot of money."
Aaah, while todayI might not have hot dogs, fireworks, or CNN, I at least know that I will always be the American, white socks and all. Happy Independence Day from one Yank to another!

02 July 2007

Quick update

I am saving a more interesting post for July 4th, a date which better suits the subject, but for now I just wish to tell you all that I am indeed safely in Marbach. Between my punctuality and the Germans need to be "puenktlich" (on-time), I made it here without any difficulties. Although uneventful, my journey was long enough and nothing feels better than being able to walk around and not have your butt glued to a seat, be it a train, S-Bahn or a plane.

p.s. Send some nice, hot Minnesota weather since it's been rainy and cold here. It'd be appreciated!