25 August 2007

Auf der Dult

While an American would think the logical divide in Germany is East and West (a notion the Cold War encouraged), for most Germans the divide is between Bavaria and the rest of Germany. For centuries a kingdom of its own with crazy rulers( Ludwig II comes to mind), and relatively untouched by World War II, Bavarian has held itself up as the poster child of Germany for ages. The picturesque Danube, the Bavarian forest, and ubiquitous Biergarten are understandably the pride of the locals. Blue and white, the colors of Bavaria, were to be seen everywhere at the local fair in Regensburg, including in the middle of the ferris wheel.
Last night I watched a Bavaria film which had German subtitles for the rest of us. Without them a non-Bavarian would be lost. Yet one can feel the difference between Bavaria and the rest of Germany when one is "auf der Dult" (at the fair). Here teenagers, indeed the angsty and otherwise cool youth, wear traditional lederhosen and the girls doll up in dindls. No embarassment whatsoever, in fact, they look so snazzy I wouldn't mind a pair myself.
My current home-base is Burglengenfeld, a city not too far from Regensburg (our most common destination from here) and over the last few days I have enjoyed a beer along the Danube, wondered at the stained-glass windows in the Regensburg cathedral (where the Pope's brother was choir director), and visited Walhalla, the "a la grecque" testament to German's greatest thinkers and artists. Tomorrow I am off to Munich, the heart of Bavaria and am excited to see more of the city than just the Hauptbahnhof (main train station), in which I have been about a dozen times. The Bernet family, my hosts, have been unbelievably generous and I truly don't know how people travel without staying with a host family. They have been a truly incredible, never-ending resource of knowledge and humor and Grandma's cooking has yet to be matched in my travels.

PS I forgot to mention in my last post that I endeavored on a 32-hour speed tour of northern Germany. From 8am Tuesday to 4pm, I traveled from Wuppertal to Berlin. I made long stops in Paderborn and Lübeck, while graced the train stations of Cologne, Hannover, and Hamburg with my presence. Sometimes I stop and wonder how in the world I did it!

19 August 2007

Election 2007

First off, apologies to all for my seemingly long delay in updating my blog. Due to many late nights carousing Germany's capital and the onset of a cold, I have been trying to sleep as much as possible. Even my latest reading endeavor has been put on hold for a while. But in the excitement of the pre-2008 election and the emotions (rejoicing or resigned) concerning the early departures of Bush's better halves, Rove and Snow, I decided it was time to stir up a distinctly European election. Namely, the capital of France versus the capital of Germany. The election will be decided based upon one city's point accumulation after competing in several categories. So here are the results:

Architecture - The winner is clearly Paris. Every street corner is coffee mug, t-shirt, or postcard material; the incredible number of odd-angled streets can easily leave a visitor clueless for hours, yet you will never lack something to look at. Berlin's "Wirtschaftwunder" (Economic miracle) in the 1960's coincided with an ugly time in modern architecture, leaving most of Berlin (read the parts which were destroyed at the end of WWII) lacking an engendering aesthetic. However, both Kreuzberg's untouched early 20th Century boulevards and the modern skyscrapers around Potsdamer Platz add some sophistication to the urban landscape. Berlin 0-1 Paris

Aura - Once again, Paris takes the gateau (French for cake). Whether modern chic or Lord Byron bohemian wannabe, one can make Paris their own. Intellectuals can feel Voltaire and Hugo in the breeze, and American tourists can hardly hide their jealousy that we lack such a city. Berlin's graffiti is easily the city's greatest dissapointment. While French bohemians prefer to quote Wilde and delve into existentialism, the Berlin underground is an aimless angst which borders on pathetic. Berlin 0-2 Paris

Fashion - That being said, the Berlin underground spends much more time shopping for outrageous outfits instead of reading Goethe or Hegel, making for an eclectic and decidely hip fashion. German boys continue to suprise me with their hairstyles (some of them are unfathomable in the US) while German girls can create a workable color palette of black, green and white for an entire wardrobe. Berlin 1-2 Paris

Gastronomy - While Paris took the Aura gateau, Berlin takes the Kuchen in the food category. Paris is littered with cheap crepe stands, all with the same menus, and overpriced döner kebaps. Berlin, however, not only has crepe stands but real tasty döner. Currywurst or go Greek? A question which perplexes the sidewalk diner in Berlin. Berlin 2-2 Paris

Money Matters - If Parisians coined the phrase "put your two cents in" it would have been "put your two euros in". The Wallet Monster should be the subtitle to every travel guide about the city of love. I created two measures of cost during my trip, a scoop of ice cream and a Döner kebap. A scoop of ice cream costs somewhere from €.50-€1 in Berlin, depending on size and quality. In Paris you couldn't even buy the napkin for that much, rather one should be ready to shell out €2.50 for a little taste of Rocky Road. The Turkish pork gyro, beloved by Germans of all types, offers the same advice: "Why spend €5 in Paris, when you could spend €1.60 in Berlin?" Berlin 3-2 Paris

Size - B for Big and P for Petite. Berlin begins with a B, and Paris with a P! Coincidence, I think not. Paris is walkable, Berlin is, well, not. While I wouldn't call traversing the Champs-Elysees all the way to the Eiffel Tower a walk in the park, one can manage to see much of the city in a long afternoon. Berlin presents a rather different problem. There are several sightseeing meccas in the city, none of which are in walking distance of the other. Gigantic parks are situated right in the thick of Berlin, while the Bois de Bologne (Paris's largest forest) are on the outskirts of town. With the agreement of my tired feet, I award the laurels to Paris's compactness. Berlin 3-3 Paris

Tourism Friendly - With a mascot like Knut the Polar Bear, how could anyone not feel welcome in Berlin? The 3rd most visited EU city, Berlin caters to the ignorant American and blitz-touring Chinese with a heaping portion of Gemütlichkeit (hospitality). When is the last time you ever heard a traveler call Berliners snobbish like they do the Parisians? Notice JFK had the sense not to say he was a Parisian, instead he opted to say the grammatically incorrect "Ich bin ein Berliner" (I am a Berliner). With just a few words of German, you will get a free beer from a nice local; with a few words of French, you get an ugly stare and the experience of French-butchered English. Berlin 4-3 Paris

Transportation - Thank God for the Metro. Paris' subway system makes 2+2=4 seem like quantam physics, it's so easy. One purple ticket gets you from point A to point B, with train changes taking 5 minutes at the most. The only drawback is the 1am curfew. Berlin's plus is the €2.10 ticket is good for every means of transportation (suburban trains, subways, streetcars, buses) for two hours, whereas Paris' purple ticket is only good for one trip and costs €1.50. My issue with Berlin is that because of its size, any trip will require utilizing every type of transportation, which can mean 20 to 25 minutes waits at a bus stop or subway station. In the time I took to write this paragraph, two Line 6 trains heading to Nation would have passed by, securing Paris as the transportation victor. Berlin 4-4 Paris

But a tie, that can't be. In that case, Paris and Berlin sue each other and the case is taken to the Supreme Court. Presiding is Chief Justice Michael Arnst, the court uses the 2000 election as a precedent and decides a tie is not a tie and denies all appeals for overtime. Therefore, a decision must be made, Paris or Berlin. If only there were Miami-Dade ballots to recount . . . drumroll please . . . the winner is . . . Paris. The City of Lights may be a little expensive and cliche, but every visitor wishes it were home, including this writer.

13 August 2007

Early Industrialization to Expressionism

No, that is not the 5th volume of Encarta, but rather the subjects of two museums which I visited during my stay in Wuppertal. Just to get everyone oriented, Wuppertal is a medium-sized city in central-Western Germany, not too far from either Cologne or Düsseldorf. The border to either France or Belgium is less than two hours away. Wuppertal derives its name from the Wupper river and the valley (or "Tal") it creates and has a population of about 320,000. While I am actually staying in a section of the city Remscheid (pop. 115,000), most of my time has been spent going to/through Wuppertal. Some may recognize Wuppertal as the home of the firm Bayer (and they still make the aspirin), others as the home of the Schwebebahn, a suspended train which runs directly over the Wupper river through the town.
Going back to my post's title, I would like to recount some of the museums I toured. In Wuppertal I stopped by the Early Industrialization Museum and Friedrich Engels house. Engels, for those who haven't brushed up on the Communist Manifesto lately, was Karl Marx's intellectual partner (and as some would argue, "better half" in an academic sense) and champion of communism in the mid-19th century. In other words, the same time as Industrial Revolution migrated to Germany.
Düsseldorf has a host of museums, including the K21 Kunstsammlung. While housed in a beautiful Baroque building, the art inside is indeed modern. A little too modern at times. But this questionable "aesthetic" was countered by Wuppertal's renowned (and it truly is, not just more German boasting) Van der Hydt Museum's exhibit of German expressionism and special exhibit of the Blue Rider artists. But enough of the 20th Century!
The Schlossburg museum is a medieval fortress in the Wupper valley, destroyed during the late Middle Ages, it was renovated in the late 1800's when Otto von Bismarck felt he need to build German pride in its past. The museum winds through all the Count's rooms, the fortress walls and the keep, which held the Archbishop of Cologne prisoner for 13 months in the 14th Century.
I wondered why we don't see more museums in Minnesota, then I remembered our history is a blink of the Germany eye. We weren't around when the Romans founded Cologne in the first century AD, and no American emperor spent time in Chaska, so i guess there is no reason for a museum. Unless, yes, of course. A Gedney's pickles museum!

09 August 2007

Au revoir France!

Due to a "suspicious package" on our train at the platform, my ten-hour trek from Saint-Brieuc, France to Wuppertal, Germany was lengthened to ten hours and forty minutes. My trip started out looking out over wheat fields, interrupted by off-white-washed houses with slate roofs; it ended with mist-obscured views of forested valleys containing fachwerk (the traditional German style with dark-brown exposed beams in patterns) houses with clay-tile roofs. The roofs were the first Franco-German difference I noticed . . . that, and plastic grocery bags. To be sure, they exist in both countries, but in France they are as abundant and free as in America. In Germany, only the customer who forgets to bring his own sturdy cloth grocery bag is forced to shell out 25 euro cents to buy a plastic one. But this represents one of the stark differences in the mentalities of the neighboring nations.
Germans would rather spend ten minutes separating garbage into neat piles of organic waste (Biomüll), plastics and packaging materials (Verpackungsmittel), glass, and Restmüll. Restmüll is, as the name suggests, the rest, the garbage which absolutely cannot be sorted into the other categories. As an unwritten rule, this last lump of waste should be the smallest. If not, the sorting process went awry at some point.
The French would rather live life it seems. I actually stood by a green waste container for ten minutes in Paris, waiting to see what people threw in it. Not out of curiousity, but out of fear of throwing my German-qualified Restmüll into a container reserved for recyclables. I thought, what else can a green bag mean other than recycling. But the Parisians proved me wrong. The bag was for everything; how German tourists manage it in the city is beyond me. They must join Catholics in confession, asking for forgiveness from Mother Earth.
On another note, I must offer kudos to all those who have been a tourist in a country without knowing the local language. While I had more French knowledge than most American tourists, it fell embarassingly short of my expectations. Being a non-tourist has always been a tourist for me, and only visiting German-speaking countries and staying with host families has made my wish a reality fairly simply. But France caused me to stray from my comfort zone, and it made for some great experiences.
This weekend promises trips to Köln (Cologne, and not my father's hometown in Carver County), Düsseldorf and Wuppertal, home of Bayer aspirin. Then off to Lübeck, Berlin, Regensburg and then finally Munich.
There is a German word which suits my feeling about my remaining time in Europe: knapp. It can mean "short" but it is much better used to describe the five-minute gap when changing trains ten tracks apart. The hint of sufficiency ("If I run, I can make it" mentality) and the reality of missing something important (Muttering "Oh Scheisse" while the train pulls away).

03 August 2007

Pesky keyboards

As promised, Saint Brieuc has given this author days of rest and serenity. While I realize it has been a while since my last post, I can honestly say that there hasn't been much to write about. Saint Brieuc is a coastal town on the English Channel and the last four afternoons I have spent on its wonderful beaches, reading and testing the waters. Rural France is everything one imagines, uninterrupted straight lines of poplar trees and all. 
Today François and I went to the famous Middle Age abbey, Mont Saint Michel. It is a religious fortress of sorts on top of a seaside hill with a stunning view of both water and fields. The food here has been amazing; such morsels as honey-lemon crèpes to hearty dishes like grilled tuna. Certainly the French reputation of bon appetit is being upheld.
As for the computer keyboards, I must register some complaints. While the German keyboard's only major switch is between "y" and "z" (causing everybody to everzbodz), the Swiss and French have presented more difficulties. This in large part due to the difference in usage of certain letters. For example, "q" has changed places with "a", and "z" with "w", and "m" with the question mark and comma key. Not to mention one must hit "shift" in order to use the number keys for numbers instead of punctuation marks.
But that is a small price to pay for two months of European travel I suppose!