Friday, September 19, 2008

The Euroblog, Take 7 - Austria

After getting whatever we wanted at Greg's apartment in Stuttgart, we arrived at the Alpenland Sporthotel, a 5-star resort in the Austrian countryside, courtesy of Steve's step dad. It was a super nice place and we were very grateful to stay there. However, we were in for a slightly rude awakening: whereas everything at Greg's place was free, almost everything at the resort cost money. Fortunately, the spa and ping pong table had no cost involved, which equaled us spending most of our time there when we were at the resort. We did get nailed with a $50 internet bill and a $40 laundry bill - for four loads. But this was more than offset by the first-rate views, the accommodating facilities, and some sweets sent by Tracy which disappeared after they were set in the middle of the room.

We spent a marathon day seeing everything in Salzberg, which turned out to have a lot more to offer than I expected. There were a couple castles, a couple rides up nearby mountains that offered killer scenery, a river tour, and a couple sites dedicated to Mozart, among other things. One of the castles - the Hellbrunn Palace - was built in the 1800's by a monarch who also apparently was an extravagant practical joker. He had a running water system installed throughout the castle grounds, and also constructed several various rooms with contraptions designed to interest any of the guests to his castle (these included fountains, a cave/room with a bird theme, and a small mechanical recreated version of Salzberg). The catch was that as guests were absorbed with site seeing, he would trigger jets of water set up throughout the castle grounds and would brutally spray them down. The tour was no different, as the guide mercilessly sprayed all the tourists along the way. This castle was also supposedly the location of the gazebo from The Sound of Music. Here we had perhaps our dumbest moment of the trip. We wandered around the grounds trying to find the gazebo, and came upon a circular slab of concrete with a couple stone benches on it. Not seeing anything else promising, we assumed that the gazebo had been destroyed and that the concrete floor and the benches were all that remained. We spent about 5 minutes there taking various pictures and videos before another couple came by and laughingly pointed us in the right direction.

At this time we were joined by Chris Riboli. The joke now became that poor Carly now had a dad and not one evil step-brother, but two. At this point I also was joined by a terrific case of swimmer's ear. It developed suddenly during the day, and by evening I could barely get to sleep. That night I was awakened every hour that night by Steve and Chris snoring and by what felt like a knife being stabbed into the side of my head. I may or may not have then woken up Carly with some choice words. In the morning I decided I had to get a prescription before my ear swelled shut, but it was the beginning of the weekend. I called back home and eventually got in touch with a family doctor who agreed to call it in. However, the drugstore closed before he called, and so they sent me to another drugstore, which I discovered closed at the same time as the other one. I was now ready to be screwed and not sleep for the next 48 hours and have my ear fall off. That was until an Austrian woman stuck her head out of a small window in a similar way to the crazy guy at the gate to the Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz. After a struggle of communication I eventually got what I needed.

Random moment award goes to one evening when were eating in the small restaurant at the resort, only to be suddenly interrupted by someone singing opera loud enough that I thought my glass might shatter. Turns out a somewhat famous tenor from Spain was staying at the resort, and was so charmed by the waitress that he decided to sing her a piece of an opera. At full blast. I guess he enchanted the waitress too much, as she stood us all up later that evening after agreeing to take us out on the town in her car.

There is almost no end of scenic places to go in Austria. We visited a gorge with a built-in path inside it next to a river that led to a waterfall. Nearby was a field with some mountains in the background, so we thought we'd try to recreate the first scene from The Sound of Music. Carly wanted to just skip down the hill, which I thought was pointless since the goal was to recreate the scene, in which there was no skipping at all. I tried to do it with Steve, and told him to just walk normally down the hill, but for some reason he ended up running down the hill singing as I chased after him with the camera. But in the end I think we got some solid footage. We also visited the largest ice cave in world, which was a good ways up in the mountains. Chris decided to do it in a short sleeve shirt, which didn't really seem like a big deal until we were standing outside the cave watching people in full winter garb exit shivering and rubbing their hands together. I gave Chris my hoodie, thinking it might be fun to rough it, but the guide graciously gave me a jacket. We were first in line, and when the doors were opened to the cave, we were completely smashed by a 40 mph gust of below-freezing wind. I couldn't breathe for 10 seconds, and most of my aspiration to rough it fled away pretty quickly. We hiked up several thousand steps and did end up seeing some pretty eye-opening ice formations.

After Salzberg, we took a short trip to Vienna, which only increased my admiration for Austrian towns. There was a square downtown set up with all types of ethnic food available, a palace with incredible gardens, and sandy beach along part of the Danube. Outside St. Stephen's Cathedral there was a guy who looked like he was asleep while posing as a statue of a soldier. Carly timidly walked up to take a picture with him, but as soon as she got next to him he suddenly turned and shouted. She screamed and ran about 20 feet - it was one of the funniest things I've seen. The evening was great - the night was another matter, as Steve was snoring especially loud that night. I tried to sleep on my side with one hand propped to cover my ear - but to no avail. Eventually I nodded off, but awoke in the middle of the night to both Steve and Chris snoring in tandem so that there was hardly a moment of silence - when one was breathing out, the other would snore, and vice versa. Early in the morning I awoke again to Steve, and I had had enough. I kept getting out of bed and hitting him (not hard, okay..), and he would stop for a few seconds. Finally, there was a long enough pause and I got back to sleep. In the morning, Steve revealed to my incredulity that he had hardly slept at all because Chris and I were snoring, and that in order to get to sleep he was trying to make disc jockey-type rhythms in his head out of Chris' and my snores. And apparently he had finally gotten to sleep when I began hitting him. Chris slept the whole night without a problem, of course.

We decided to take a night train from Vienna to Venice. It started out on a shady note, as I was in the train bathroom trying to wash my hands, when someone busted in on me (apparently, the lock didn't work). I pushed back on the door and knocked them back out, but then they turned right around and tried to bust in again. Not believing it, and I again pushed back on the door and knocked them back out, this time keeping my foot in front of the door, while trying to reach the sink, which left me in a strange position. I came out half-expecting to fight someone, but there was no one to be found. Speaking of washing hands, I'm reminded of a previous train incident when a fly hit my face, and Carly insisted that I use a wipe on the area. She then proceeded to wash her own hands, the idea of a fly landing on me apparently being so gross that it became too real for herself. Later I used the bathroom later to change, which several girls in the aisle by the door seemed to find humorous. I guess transitioning from jeans to red Jordan shorts is pretty comedic stuff in Europe. It was also established around this point in time the Murphy's Law of riding on a train: as soon as you stand up, the train will swerve, and you will in all likelihood fly into other seats, looking stupid and uncoordinated. Things were going great until the train was inundated after midnight, and the two extra seats in our six-person room were taken. There was little ac, and so it soon felt like we were being taken away to a concentration camp. But we made it to Venice all in one piece and ready to take on Italy.


Steve (to a German-speaking person): Do you sprechen sie English?

Carly: I'm always afraid that when a train comes a pebble will shoot up and hit me in the face then I would die. It's my biggest fear.
Me: Then you'd be a minotaur. I mean cyclops.

Carly: That mountainside is beautiful. If I were a bird, I'd live there.
Steve: That's cool.
Me: If I were a person, I'd live there.

Carly (looking into the distance): I need a stethoscope so I can see that better.

Steve: If you removed "stuff," "crap," and "thing" from your vocabulary, you'd be a mute.
Me: I say all kinds of stuff.

Carly: Germs to me have ugly faces. They have mean expressions, and they're wrinkly, kind of like a raisin.

Carly (looking at her cards of the same suit): I have the runs.

Chris: The reason it sucks to be a girl is not pregnancy or a period, it's not having sword fights.
Carly: Okay, I've had all the testosterone I can take right now.

Steve: I have too many character flaws: I sweat and I snore.

Chris: It's 11:11, make a wish!
Chris: Was that kind of girly?
Silence from Steve and me.
Carly: No, that's cool!!

Friday, September 5, 2008

The Euroblog, Take 6 - Quotes: German, Swiss, Dutch

Carly: Do you think it's coincidence that there are black squirrels in the black forest?

Carly: Are there any yetis in the Alps?
Steve and I can't help laughing.
Me: Yeah, they had an incident last year.
Carly: Ok, ok, but is there anything like a yeti up there?
More laughing.
Me: My great uncle lives up there.
The officer comes to check our tickets and Steve and I try to get further directions.
Carly: Good job, you guys really looked helpless.
Me (calling after the officer): Sir, are there any yetis on the Matterhorn? Will this train get attacked by a pack of wild yetis?
Steve: Will the characters in Monsters Inc. show up?
Me: Is there a portal to the Monsters Inc. world on this train?
Carly: I'd rather hang out with the yeti than with you two.

Swiss pastor (in all seriousness): All the Swiss pastors go to America to buy clothes from Hollister.

Carly: Do you think there's caramel in that chocolate?
Me: I don't know, could be.
Carly: You look like a terrorist.

Me: In a C-section they take some of your organs out.
Carly: Do they put them back in?
I can't help but laugh.
Carly: I mean they important ones. Like, you don't need your appendix, your gall bladder, and one of your kidneys.
Me: Yeah, they usually try to keep those out if at all possible.

Carly: If you want to prevent pregnancy do you have to block your Ethiopian tubes?

Carly: Dave, talk to me like I talk to you.
I talk loudly with lots of inflection.
Carly: Steve, defend me.
Steve (unaware of the situation): Dave, stop talking loud and obnoxious.

Carly: A bunch of people are doing the 300 workout.
Me: I'd want to do it.
Carly: Do you think you could?
Me: Well, three hundred people did it. I think I could.
Carly: You think that three hundred people can do it?
Me: The three hundred people in the movie did it.
Carly: Is that what the movie is about?
Me: Yeah, the movie is about three hundred guys who try to see if they can all get buff before the Persians come kill them.
Carly: So the movie is about people working out?

Carly (trying to hurt me): I'll pinch you in a pressure spot. Didn't that hurt?
Me: I don't think you've ever managed to make it hurt.
Carly: I'll do it when you're not looking.
Me: Why don't you just punch me in the face when I'm not looking?

Carly: So we're going to Amsterdam, but our host lives in the Netherlands.

Steve: I wish I could sing.
Carly: You can sing.
Steve: Not very well.
Carly: You can make a joyful noise.
Me: You know you're bad when someone busts out the "joyful noise" line.
Steve: It's like having your opponents cheer for you: "Yeah! Good try!"

The Euroblog, Take 5 - German, Swiss, Dutch

You might think that being spoiled in Paris is not the best prep before going to stay with an army officer. And normally you'd be right. From the villa in Paris took a train straight to Stuttgart, Germany, where we were able to stay a week with Greg, a major in the Marine Corps. Thankfully he was not the Captain von Trapp sort that ran his house the same way he ran the army. Plus he had a super nice apartment. I felt like I was in Hollywood when I stepped inside - floor to ceiling windows everywhere, remote control blinds, extra-modern kitchen, a bidet in the bathroom, etc. A very gracious host, Greg let us pretty much do whatever we wanted.

Arriving in the public square after stepping out of the train station, I knew for sure it was Germany, and no longer France. In Paris, the public musicians play the accordion mostly, and occasionally other various instruments (one guy had a harp - I'm not sure how he lugged the thing down into the metro system without damaging it). But in this German public square, some musicians had assembled and were playing what I thought sounded like hell's national anthem on some cellos that were bigger than the musicians themselves. I half-expected Hitler's ghost to be summoned forth or for Rammstein to come play along and call up a giant demon from the depths. But then after they left it seemed like a nice, pleasant town.

We first went to Balingen to see my freshman roommate Rob Miller play soccer in one of the German professional leagues. It may have been one of the lower professional leagues, but Germans take their soccer, excuse me, futbol, very seriously. Several hundred people showed up, which was a good percentage of the town, and most of them were pretty adamant fans. One player would make a run, and you could feel the excitement. Another player would make a bad pass and there would be a collective "Aaaiii!!" (pronounced "I"). Then I'd hear some older guy mumbling to himself in German something to the effect of "What in the world are these guys thinking!?" Germans don't really cheer like cheerleaders though, which Carly discovered after she whooped for Rob and everyone around just kind of looked at her. Rob had the equalizer goal, and they ended up winning 2-1. Carly was filming during one of the goals, but unfortunately she was filming the mascot running around with some of the little children. After the game, a good amount of the fans stayed around to eat sausage and drink beer right outside the complex. I can think of few things more German - go yell at a soccer match, then eat sausage and drink beer. We hung around the town a bit and took some pictures. It was a little awkward when I asked Carly to take a picture a certain way, and she responded by yelling, "Stop being such a picture Nazi!" - in the middle of the German town.

Greg took Rob and us to see the black forest and what supposedly is the world's biggest cuckoo clock. I'll admit, if I had the choice to look at the world's biggest anything, I don't think cuckoo clock would be super high on the list. But in the end it was kind of neat, and the black forest was very scenic. Black forest initially sounded kind of ominous, like the kind of place you'd find hags and werewolves. Instead it turned out to be the kind of place where you'd expect to see Snow White and her little creatures running around. Greg took us their in his BMW via the Autobahn, which we discovered doesn't have speed limits and some points. We'd be going 130 mph and get easily passed up. One thing about Germany is the average car is pretty nice, and quite often a Mercedes or BMW - even the taxis. In fact, Germany in general looked more modern and developed than the rest of Europe. The engineering talent that was there for so long looks like it's been making a comeback. I think I have a better picture of Germany building up in the 1920s and 1930s like they did.

We decided to take a day trip to Jungfraujoch, which was nearby in the Swiss Alps and is apparently the highest you can go in Europe without doing some hardcore mountain climbing. It took about half the trip before we were pronouncing the name right. The only issue was that the most efficient way to do the trip was to leave one evening and spend from 1 am to 6 am in the Interlaken train station, before continuing the ascent. Of course, we naively packed like one jacket and froze to death outside of a bar while trying to sleep on some of the outside tables. We did meet a couple of English guys who were on their way to Paris after travelling through Eastern Europe. When asked why Eastern Europe, they said it was because they wanted to do something that few people do. As it turned out they were more fleeing to Paris after a nightmarish experience. We wanted to tell them that there was a reason why few people toured Eastern Europe - it's a generally sucky place. At one of their stops, they got back on the train in half an hour after seeing packs of dogs roaming trashy streets on top of terrible living conditions. At other stops, a creep came into their room in the middle of the night and stood there for over an hour, a beetle fell on one guy's face in the middle of the night, and one guy misused his 3-minute shower token and had the shower run out on him right after he was all lathered up. And then there they were freezing overnight in a train station. Maybe they were bad luck for us. But in the end Jungfraujoch did feel like being at the top of the Alps, and there were some pretty extraordinary views to be had. The building on the side of the mountain and the Sphinx Observatory at the top were some impressive feats of engineering.

On another trip we went to see a couple of castles in Bavaria in southeast Germany. It was going well until we got off the train in a tiny German village to catch a bus. Apparently this town had no concept of or didn't care at all about maintaining reliable public transportation. After an hour waiting for the bus to show we were trying to hitchhike. The question arose as to whether the thumbs up is the universal hitchhike symbol, but we tried it anyway. People on bikes then became the theme. Steve tried to call to a girl on a bike to see if she spoke English, but she just zipped right on by. I thought it was pretty funny, but Steve was too irritated by that point to see it. Later, I was trying to ask a lady about the bus schedule, when I heard a child cry out, immediately after which a bike with a wagon attached driven by some kid flew by just a couple inches from me. I tried to arch by back forward so the edge of the wagon wouldn't hit me, but in doing so, my head went backwards and got wacked by a wire with flag on it that was stuck on the back corner of the wagon. A little while after that, Steve and I looked up to see a woman riding toward us on a bike. She looked like she was twice the size of the bike, and from a distance she looked pregnant. But when she drove by we realized that she was just unbelievably anatomically blessed. We finally got back on the train to try a different spot, only the train was slow as molasses for while. I looked out the window to see a biker passing up the train. I questioned my $1,000+ rail pass at this point.

We eventually made it there, and it turned out to be the most scenic place we'd seen yet. There were two castles situated on the side of some tree-covered hills, with two large lakes nearby and the Swiss Alps in the background. The castles were very ornate - in Neuschwanstein the king's bedroom was covered in intricate woodwork that took 14 woodcarvers 4 years to complete. A common theme in castles seems to be to have the door to the king's bathroom be a secret door the blends into the wall. Unfortunately, our schedule had been thrown off, and this resulted in our not being able to catch the right train and having to sleep in the Munich train station for several hours that night. Carly had been having a tough time, and who can blame her, but we had to laugh when the song "You Had a Bad Day" started playing in the Munich train station. We stayed in the overnight lounge, where I've never seen rows of benches more perfectly designed to prevent sleep.

We finished Germany with a trip to the Netherlands, where we were graciously hosted by Ewout van Rhee and his new wife Jess. Amsterdam is of course generally known for it's dikes/canals and legal drugs/prostitution. I've never seen so many pimps - and interracial couples - in one place. Carly had a nice moment when she stepped on a syringe in one of the trains. Fortunately, the needle part was already gone. But even if you're not there to lose yourself and your mind in the Red Light District, there's a good part of Amsterdam that fits a more generic tourist profile. We might have gone there, but my memory of my time there is kind of hazy. Not really.

Austria looms. We'll see what happens next.