December 29, 2003

Leaving Amsterdam

Toli's wise words on Amsterdam...

* Are there any Dutch people in Amsterdam? I heard Dutch on the streets as often as English, and nearly as often as Italian and Greek. Maybe it's just the tourist season.

* How can Europeans enjoy the fabulous local and ethnic food around them in restaurants filled with cigarette smoke? Looks a bit hypocritical to me to criticize Americans for dumping their waste outside the US when a European considers it their right to dump their toxic second-hand smoke on their fellow man. Oh well, it's their country, their rules... as long as I can live far away from all that, heck, what do I care? It's their lungs.

* Cat colors vary a lot between Europe and the US. Sure, some breeds are universal, but I was surprised to see so many cats whose fur looked unlike any other I'd seen.

* Northern Europeans are fairly aggressive drivers. (Nothing like the Greeks, of course.) To illustrate the point, our friend Peter pointed out how friendly he found American drivers... in Los Angeles! Still, rules are obeyed (well, not by cab drivers, but that's a universal exception) so driving is easy.

* While gas is pretty expensive in Europe, they have this government-subsidized fuel called biodiesel that comes from plants. It costs about as much as premium gas in California, so it's a pretty good way to go (if you rent a car that runs on it - most recent Diesel engines do).

* Northern Europe is too damn cold. Still, we've been very lucky on our trip so far: no problems with ice on the road, and fairly warm weather (by local standards). Our cold-weather Austin clothes have sufficed so far!

* What's up with that "breakfast included" pricing model for every hotel stay? You usually get a stale bread roll, kraft cheese, and sausage that still has rat fur on it, and that justifies a decent price hike. I'd rather not pay for that "breakfast" and go outdoors and try a local diner. Ah well, Europe.

* Prices are very expensive here. Not just for us (the dollars is pretty weak relative to the Euro these days): for everybody! Things in general cost more than in the US and salaries are definitely not higher. Eating out is easily a $30 affair, rent is $1400/month (in Amsterdam, but German cities were also over $1000)...

That's it for now. It's a wonderful vacation, and an excellent learning experience.

Posted by Toli at 02:54 PM | Comments (0)

Dutch cats say mijaaouww...

According to Toli, Dutch is very difficult to speak but easy to spell. Just add some extra vowels or double them (like "Centraal"), or flip the order (like "Chinees"). Also, if you have an "i", just stick a "j" after it ("Tijger"), and you're golden. ;)

We did end up staying that extra day in Amsterdam, and a good thing too. We spent the morning at the Albert Cuyp market, eating lots of yummies (New Year's pastries like appelflappen, oliebollen, berliners, plus some Greek goodies) and looking at all the items for sale. You can find just about anything at this marketplace from Christmas lights to shampoo to Chinese ("Chinees") bric-a-brac.

Then, of course, we had to see the Poetzenboot. There's a little old Asian man named Gordon who volunteers there, and he is so cute with the cats! We chatted with him a little about the organization (the history, the number of cats, docking fees, etc.) while playing with the furry felines. One of them reminded us of "Leo" at Thundering Paws - all black, very talkative, and very eager to be petted. He literally crept into Christine's arms. And there was also a "schizo" cat like Pascal - luckily Gordon warned us about her, so Toli's reflexes were on high alert while petting her. She jabbed at him several times, but he managed to get away scratch-free.

Then, we spent a few hours at the Van Gogh museum, which really should be renamed the "Vincent & Friends" museum, since they have some works by artist friends of his like Bernard and Gauguin. It was a wonderful collection, spanning the breadth of his career. And not to sound like an art snob, but when it comes to Van Gogh, it's really worth seeing his works up close. You just can't capture the thickness of his brushstrokes on camera.

We tried again to go to the Upstairs Pancake House, but alas it was locked. We were well within their opening hours, and the light was on upstairs, but we rung the door bell, and nobody came. Boo hoo. We made it up by having another rice table at an Indonesian eatery called Kantjil and de Tijger. It was delicious, and we were glad to have the opportunity to try two different Indonesian places to compare and contrast.

And, by the way, Toli wanted to mention that there's a lingerie shop called "Christine le Duc" with a white cat as their mascot. With marketing like that, how could we not go in and purchase a souvenir from Amsterdam?

We'll be leaving Amsterdam tomorrow, probably for Maastricht. It might take us a few days until we get Internet access again so please don't forget us.

Posted by Christine at 02:06 PM | Comments (1)

December 28, 2003

Pass the beef...

(The Dutch word for "please" is "alstublieft" - but Toli likes to say "pass the beef" instead. It doesn't really matter, though, because everyone here seems to speak English anyway!) Anyway, we're in the Netherlands! It was just a short drive from Henni and Peter's into Amsterdam, and we've been blessed with the mildest weather we've had this whole trip - 4 degrees Celsius here, compared to 0 in Germany. Believe us - it makes a big difference!

We very wisely parked our car at the Transferium outside the city and took the metro into the center of Amsterdam. The tourist office here, the VVV, is one of the most helpful we've ever come across. They found us a fabulous room at a really nice hotel at a bargain price, and we were able to buy museum tickets and all that to avoid the lines. That's one thing we've noticed about Amsterdam - there seems to be a lot of waiting in line.

Our first evening was spent scarfing down mounds of Indonesian food at a restaurant Henni and Peter recommended. The food and the service were fantastic, though we found it odd that the menu was printed in English/German/French - but not Dutch! (Toli asked later - they do have a Dutch menu, but it was pretty obvious that we were tourists.)

Then, we hit the (in)famous red-light district, with the sex shows and the women in the windows. It was strange, but not altogether that shocking. For some reason, we were expecting more out of it - like naked people carousing through the streets or something. Maybe it's more jarring once you get behind the curtains and closed doors; or in warmer weather. More amusing were the scores of Japanese tourists and other tour groups being led through the district.

Today, we had to move hotels, as they could only book us for that one night and were sold out the rest of the week. There was a mixup in the second hotel, as the girl at the VVV directed us to one end of the street, but the hotel was really located at the other end of the street - kind of a big deal here, since that's a difference of several kilometers, and it's not fun navigating that with all your luggage in the rain! One thing we learned very quickly - our bought-in-Texas umbrella was no match for the rain in Holland. That seems to be the case all-around, since we saw several umbrellas in nearby trash bins!

But after we found the hotel, things got better. We visited the Kattenkabinett - a museum devoted to works of art with felines. We saw works by Rembrandt, Picasso, and several by Steinlen (he's done the famous "Le Chat Noir" posters). Best of all, there were seven cats in residence, so we got to pet and love on some furry creatures. We then walked over to the Poetzenboot, a houseboat on the canal that is a non-profit cat sanctuary. Unfortunately, they're only open two hours a day, and we got there a bit after their closing hours. :( Oh well, at least we got to pet some cats earlier!

After that, we went to the Anne Frank house, where we spent about two hours touring the building and learning more about her life. There was an unbelievable number of tourists there, but it's a good thing that so many people have taken an interest. Looking out of the windows into the street, it's difficult to imagine that people were once hiding in that house for so long and even more difficult to imagine their eventual capture. The museum also has several other exhibits on tolerance, democracy, etc.

For dinner, we went to a restaurant that Christine's coworker Marjorie recommended - De Blonde Hollander. (We wanted to go to a pancake house she recommended, but it was closed.) We filled up on Dutch pea soup, some peas in this fatty sauce (yum!), and poffertjes and this semolina custard.

And that's about it. We were planning on leaving Amsterdam tomorrow morning, but we might end up staying a little longer. Being Sunday and all, a lot of things we wanted to see were closed or closed early. Plus, we'd really like another chance to catch the Poetzenboot...

Posted by Christine at 02:57 PM | Comments (0)

December 27, 2003

On the second day of Christmas...

Here in Germany, people celebrate the second day of Christmas as a holiday from work. It's nice - stretches the holiday over an extra day, though the downside is you have to wait longer for those after-Christmas bargains!

We were treated to a Jazz Matinee at the Dortmund Opera House for the second day of Christmas. A local jazz club, domicil, has held this matinee as an annual fundraiser for the last 32 years! There were 10 bands on 5 stages, so we had a chance to see everything from big band and swing to modern jazz. Our favorite was this tango quintet from Essen - not quite jazz exactly, but they played really beautiful music. Also worth noting was a local hip-hop group - it's a little strange to see Germans in dark suits jumping up and down and hearing "Yo Dortmund! Yo Dortmund!"

The rest of the afternoon was fairly quiet, and Christine crashed for a long nap. Then, it was off to a Yugoslavian restaurant with Henni and Peter where we literally had a platter of meat to dig through. All of it was delicious and filling, and we even managed to snag the check and pay it ourselves this time.

We spent the evening listening to music of all kinds. First, we went to a local jazz club ("Jatz") to catch a jam session. After filling Christine up on beer, Toli managed to con her into singing some jazz standards once everyone was back at the house. Then, we listened to some more tango music and had a crash course on the musical stylings of Frank Zappa (Peter is an expert) until our eyes began to droop.

It will be hard to leave today for Amsterdam after having such a relaxing and wonderful time here with our friends. But we've trespassed long enough on their kindness, and it's time to see some new things!

P.S. By the way, our access to email has been restored for the last two days, so we've been receiving just fine. (Hope it keeps up in Amsterdam!) Keep writing, or send us a comment in our weblog! We love hearing from you.

Posted by Christine at 04:01 AM | Comments (0)

December 25, 2003

Froehe Weihnachten!

Merry Christmas, everyone!!!

It's been a packed couple of days - we've been very short on time and short on sleep, but never lacking for pleasant company, interesting conversation, or delicious food. Henni and Peter continue to spoil us with delightful sights and sounds (Peter's a big music afficionado), as well as yummy things to eat. Every morning starts with a large German breakfast - at least three kinds of bread, four kinds of cold cuts, six kinds of cheeses, and yummy European yogurt. If you haven't had yogurt here, you're really missing out - it's a little bit thicker, but the taste is so light. There's none of that sour-ish aftertaste in American yogurts - we sound like snobs, but it's one of the few things where you can taste the difference right away.

After breakfast, there's usually some sightseeing, a stop at a nearby bar or beer garden (where Toli enjoys an alcohol-free "Kinderbier" - literally, children's beer) then a large sumptuous dinner, and then conversation until at least 1 or 2 in the morning.

Anyway, on the 23rd, Toli and I went to nearby Recklinghausen (via U-bahn subway and a regional train) to visit Sven (an old friend of Christine's) and his wife Franka. It was nice to see the lifestyle of a couple our age in Germany - they're not as established as Henni and Peter, and they have two small (and very sweet) children as well. We had breakfast together, visited Sven's office at a small architecture firm, and then spent a relaxing afternoon at their house. They decorated their tree with real candles (they have these special weighted holders to balance them on the tree) which is a very unique sight.

One thing we've noticed about life here is that most people rent rather than own their homes. Buying is really expensive, and even though salaries are good, it's still hard to save up for the down payment, mortgage, and interest. Rents are comparatively more affordable, plus a lot of people don't like worrying about the upkeep of their property and would prefer to leave it to a landlord to handle. It's a different kind of attitude - home ownership isn't as much of an end-goal as it is in the U.S.

So, after spending the afternoon with Sven and Franka and sharing a gluhwein (a sweet mulled wine) at their local Christmas market, we came back to another gut-busting dinner at Henni and Peter's. At one point in the evening, Henni walked over to Mykonos (the local Greek restaurant we mentioned before) to drop off a gift for Simela. When she realized that Henni came alone, Simela promptly held Henni hostage until the rest of us came to visit and share a drink. The evening quickly took a wild turn, as there was a large Greek Christmas party in attendance - with plenty of food, alcohol, and loud Greek music to go around. And then (this shouldn't be a surprise to you if know Greeks), the dancing started. A la Zorba-style.

Unfortunately, we had left all our cameras at home, so there's no photographic evidence, but it was a big surprise to see Toli partake in all of the dancing - since he'll have nothing to do with Greek dancing at home. He performed rather well, demonstrating (with an empty glass, of course) how to dance around an ouzo glass and how to properly drink while dancing. He was soon outshone, though, by several other dancers who clearly get a lot more practice. The most impressive dancer, though, was an old Greek truck driver who demonstrated some slow, old-fashioned dance steps. Then we followed with some ouzo-drinking and a lot of laughter - according to Henni, it was the first time in about twenty years that Simela had ever toasted and shared an ouzo with them. We managed to get away after midnight and promptly collapsed. Opa!

We spent Christmas Eve in a comparatively mellow manner - woke up late, turned breakfast into brunch, and puttered away until the afternoon. Henni and Peter took us along to visit some of their friends nearby - they live in this fabulous flat that is completely modern in style. They have a pet snake, and we got the chance to see it devour a mouse (already frozen - don't think we could stomach watching the mouse get killed) for Christmas Eve dinner.

Then, it was back for our own Christmas Eve dinner - rouladen, another traditional holiday dish. It was an enormous dish, and we ate until we could eat no more. We then chatted the evening away, sharing pictures and stories. The Germans open their gifts on the night of Christmas Eve instead of Christmas morning (no waiting!), so we exchanged gifts that evening.

Which brings us to today! We woke up late again and had a delicious Christmas brunch, with lox in addition to the usual yummy spread. We then spent the afternoon visiting Duesseldorf, where Christine used to intern at the government ministry. We visited her old office building, walked along the Rhine promenade where Christine used to jog (back when she was fit), explored the beautiful Altstadt (old city quarter), and then finally the Koenigsallee. Koenigsallee could best be described as the area's Rodeo Drive. Impossibly expensive jewelry and haute couture in every shop window, as well as women in diamonds, furs, and little dogs strolling by. Walking along Koenigsallee to window-shop and people-watch was one of Christine's favorite pastimes.

In an attempt to return some of the generosity we've experienced here, we spent the evening cooking a Greek meal for Henni and Peter. Soutzoukakia meatballs, horiatiki salad, and tzatziki sauce. We had superior ingredients - real Greek feta, Turkish yogurt, this fabulous extra-virgin olive oil from Tuscany, and freshly ground beef from the local butcher. The meal seemed to go over pretty well, though it will take a few such meals from us to compensate for everything we've received.

Well - this entry has gotten long enough! If you've read this far, then we wish you and yours a warm and wonderful Christmas holiday. May you be surrounded by kindness, generosity, and the love of friends and family.

Posted by Christine at 03:17 PM | Comments (1)

December 24, 2003

Checking in...

Just wanted to write in and let you know that everything is going well. We're having some trouble accessing our email accounts, so if you haven't been receiving responses via email in the last few days, that's why.

Posted by Christine at 06:28 AM | Comments (1)

December 22, 2003

Wir sind das Ruehrgebiet!

Ahhh...we've made it into Christine's old stomping grounds in Northrhine Westphalia - to the home of Peter and Henni Scholz who have the knack of Southern hospitality even here in cold Northern Germany.

Anyway, we left off in Nuremberg, so we'll start with that. We made it into the city on the evening of the 19th. We drove out of the snow of southern Bavaria and into the (somewhat) warmer northern Bavaria. Besides being the site of the famous Nazi trials, Nuremberg is very well-known for its Christmas market. Christine had been there back in 1997 and was anxious to share its beauty and excitement with Toli.

Christine had booked us into a backpacker's hotel within the walls of the old city - great location, but it made parking with our enormous Ford Focus Tournier a bit of a nightmare. We did manage to park the car, though, and made it to the Christmas market as it was closing down. :( But we persisted, and we ended up taking a long walk through the city, visiting the castle in the center of the city and the various shops and sights nearby.

We must have covered a lot of ground, because we managed to sleep more than 12 hours that night to wake up at 1pm in the afternoon! We blame it on our lodgings, because they placed us in the relaxing "Dionysos Garden" room with a view of the opera house and these funky green leaves hanging over our bed. (Imagine something out of A Bug's Life, if you will.)

Anyway, we spent what remained of the day at the Christmas market, exploring the different stalls and trying the famous Nuremberg sausages and lebkuchen (a kind of gingerbread). We took a short break in a little Viennese-style cafe, where Toli commented (rather appropriately) that Christine was more European than him.

The next morning, on the 21st, we set out to drive the 400 km to Dortmund, located in northwestern Germany. We experienced all kinds of weather during the drive, from rain in Nuremberg to sunny skies in Wurzberg to snow and ice in Siegen. We also stopped for gas, which cost us about $50 to fill just three-quarters of the tank! And this is diesel fuel - the real gas costs a whole lot more.

And since reaching Dortmund, we've been thoroughly enjoying the company and hospitality of Peter and Henni. (Christine met Peter while interning at the state Ministry of Technology, Economics, and Traffic in Dusseldorf.) We've enjoyed exploring their favorite neighborhood bars and local sights with them. Last night, they took us to their favorite Greek restaurant, where we experienced a sort of "EU-United Nations" evening. See, Christine speaks German and English. Henni, mostly German and some English. Toli speaks Greek and English. And Peter has the great advantage of speaking German, English, as well as some Greek. Throw in Simela, the restaurant's Greek and German speaking proprietor, and we had an assortment of languages and translations going all night long. There was not one single common language, yet we all had a great time laughing and eating away the entire evening.

Which brings us to today, which again has been full of sightseeing and good company. We saw the Sauerland (the hilly countryside on the outskirts of Dortmund), which gave us a beautiful view of the area. After some attempts at visiting some local industrial museums (which were all closed on Monday), we at least got to see the largest Christmas tree in the world (according to the Guinness book of records) at the Christmas market in Dortmund. I'm sure there's much more to tell, but the smell of goulash (a typical German Christmas dish - like tamales in Texas) is filling the air, and we will be eating soon!

Posted by Christine at 01:19 PM | Comments (0)

December 20, 2003

Of camps and castles...

Hello from Nuremberg! It's taken us a few days to get back on the Internet. Thanks for being patient. :)

We spent a relaxing second day in Munich, staying at a charming little pension and walking around the city, especially through the ginormous English garden there. The pension was located near the technical university in the city, where we were surprised by the number of Asians (mostly male) studying there. Technical university - should have known!

The next day we picked up our rental car to begin our drive through Western Europe. Poor Toli had to figure out how to navigate this enormous station wagon (large by European standards, at least - its footprint is still smaller than our Ranger) through very confusing streets and a lousy map. We managed to make it out of Munich and to Dachau to visit the concentration camp there.

It's hard to put in words the sobering aspect of visiting a concentration camp, especially in the middle of a freezing December snow. I had visited Auschwitz several years ago, and what made Dachau strange was how educational and museumy it was. Lots of school groups, a lot of pictorial displays, and we had an amazing tour auf english.

We ended up staying there a lot longer than planned because the tour was so informative and interesting (plus we gave some Australian girls a lift to the train station), so we had to make do and stay over in nearby Augsburg. We had to navigate the city without a map, searching for a train station/tourist office/hotel where we could find a place to stay for the night. After about two hours of mindless searching (resulting in our first argument abroad) we both gave in and bought a map of the city.

Finally, we found a little hotel with a *very* nice, english-speaking innkeeper who took good care of us. That, plus a dinner at a local Greek restaurant (and some free ouzo, thanks to Toli's Greek-language skills) managed to salvage the evening. (It also probably helped that Christine was falling-down drunk with all the ouzo. One shot glass goes a long way.)

The next day was fabulous - we drove up the Romantic Road that runs through several medieval towns in Bavaria. Twas very romantic, with beautiful architecture, landscapes, and several castles. We enjoyed a very German meal in Nordlingen with the company of a little old German lady (who drank at least three huge beers while we ate) who thought Toli was Italian. The day turned a wee bit unromantic when we came back to the car to find a parking ticket!!! Lucky for us, though, a gentleman nearby explained that we needed to have this little parking disc in our window to show how long we were parking and very generously gave us one to use during our trip. He also told us that we could pay the ticket at a nearby bank, where the teller was very sympathetic to our plight. Both Toli and I were impressed by the friendliness of everyone, and no one treated us like dumb American tourists for getting a ticket!

After that, we spent the evening at another medieval town - Rothenburg ob der Tauber - which had a lovely Christmas market of its own. Christine enjoyed a ride on the carousel, and we munched on crepes for dessert.

That evening, as we left for Nuremberg, Toli and I noticed a car in front of us with its hazards on. Turns out, they were following a lost German shepherd and trying to catch it and get it off the highway. Of course, being the pet-loving schmucks that we are, we pulled over and tried to help them out. Fortunately, we were able to divert the dog to a side road, and a police car came out to help. How funny that even in Europe we can't avoid helping the occasional animal!

Finally, we made it to Nuremberg where we've spent the last day. There is much to be said about the town and its world-famous Christmas market. BUT this entry is very long-winded as it is, so I will just say Tschuss for now!

Posted by Christine at 02:04 PM | Comments (1)

December 16, 2003

Munchen ist funchen!!!

Gruess Gott! Well, we made it here safe and sound in one piece (well, two - since there are two of us) to Germany. We had a very harried Sunday morning getting everything together. It felt like everything that could go wrong, went wrong. But we finally got our act together and made it to Dallas in time to go to dinner with my ultra-cool cousin Angie who let us crash at her place for the night. She also let us love all over her cat Musket, who was the poor recipient of a lot of pent-up guilt we were feeling over leaving our felines.

The flight over was great - direct, and on this amazing plane where you can pick and choose among various movies and entertainments. We had lots of legroom, and Toli watched three movies. We got into Frankfurt early in the morning, and I remembered enough German to get our train ticket to Munich. (BTW - did you know there's a sex shop in both the Frankfurt airport and its adjoining train station?)

When we got here to Munich this afternoon, it was snowing! I've been in snow before, but this was the first time I actually noticed the snowflakes. I know this sounds stupid, but snowflakes really do look like those cutouts and pictures. They were really pretty, but after having a few of them blow into my eyes, I got over it.

Anyway, Toli and I got the chance to check out the Marienplatz, the Christmas Market, and the sights, smells and sounds (and additional sex shops - I'd forgotten how many there were) of the main downtown. Toli launched straight for the doener kebab stands (the Turkish version of gyro that is much closer to the original than anything you can get in the U.S.), and we did some minor damage to a local bakery buying out some pastries. We passed out for a few hours in the afternoon (jet lag be damned - we're tired, we're on vacation, and we wanna sleep) before hitting the town again for a *looooong* walk and some rather impressive Indian food. Besides the doener stands and the beer halls (cuz you know we're such lushes) it was the only thing open at 11:00pm that would still feed us.

So our bodies are cold, tired, and completely unused to the weather, but our tummies are (as always) happy. If only the kitties (and you, of course) were here.

Posted by Christine at 05:36 PM | Comments (1)

December 14, 2003

Did you pack mouthwash?

So here we are - the day before our flight. The bags are (mostly) packed, and our kitties have been parceled out to various petsitters. It's so hard leaving them behind! I just hope that they all understand that we're coming back for them and haven't left them for good. Not like all of them care - Perl's already nuzzling up to Fay after just a few days. So much for missing us...

After today, you can keep up with us via this weblog or through our personal email addresses. Also, if anyone is interested in an Austin-based cell phone number that translates into BYE XINE or AXE XINE, let me know. I've cancelled cell service, which means giving up my fun phone number - but I have 90 days to transfer it if anyone wants it. :)

Off we go!

Posted by Christine at 10:56 AM | Comments (0)

December 01, 2003

T-minus 14 days and counting...

Never thought the month of December would ever come, but here we are! I've already started having anxiety dreams about preparing for our upcoming trip. Dreams where I only have an hour to pack and am scrambling all over our house snatching things and cramming them into suitcases. My favorite variant of this dream is when Toli's parents show up on our doorstep for a visit. Wickedly ironic since they live in Europe, and we're supposed to meet up with them in Vienna. But in the dream, they got some sort of cheap ticket to the U.S., so they decide to do some visiting with us before we meet up with them. All sorts of stressful hijinks ensue, and I wake up wondering if they're really at the front door. ..

Anyway, welcome to our brand-spankin new weblog! We thought it would be a fun and convenient way to keep everyone posted on our misadventures as we force ourselves upon the big wide world. Or half the continents, at least. (Antarctica's too cold - God knows how we'll even handle a German winter, Christine's afraid of getting kidnapped in South America, and we're saving Africa for later.)

So check back in a few weeks when we're actually on our way. We have a ridiculously long list of things to do before we leave, so I don't think I'll be messing with this log until we're actually somewhere far away.

Posted by Christine at 10:12 PM | Comments (0)