Friday, September 5, 2008

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.

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