January 31, 2004

Be it ever so humble...

...there's no place like home!

We're back now, after a long haul that started on a night train from Berlin to Frankfurt (more on that later), a (fortunately direct) flight to Dallas, and then a long car drive back to Austin. The funny thing is that now that we're back home, Toli's running around in his skivvies, and Christine is the one complaining about the cold. What is *up* with that?

There was a nice little coda at the very end of our trip. Because we wanted to stay in Berlin as long as possible with Uschi and Michael, Toli and I had decided to take the night train to Frankfurt where we would be flying out the next morning. However, we had to switch trains in the middle of the night, so we decided not to book a couchette or bed or anything like that and just try to snatch a little sleep before getting to Frankfurt.

The train out of Berlin was the fast ICE train, and it was Toli's first time on it. He was really too exhausted to enjoy it thoroughly, but he at least got a few "wows" in as the train accelerated to 250km/hour. Of course, the irony of the fast train is that we actually arrived *20 minutes late* to our destination. The train had to wait for some late transfer passengers coming from another train, and of course, that started a cascade effect because the train we had to transfer to had to wait another 20 minutes for us to arrive as well so we could get to Frankfurt!

Once we got on this second train though, an InterCity regional train, we sighed a big sigh, felt our troubles were over, and promptly fell asleep. Less than an hour later, we woke up to very loud singing. A group of about a dozen singing drunk Germans boarded our car (lucky us!) and proceeded to lead each other through one drinking song after another. I asked one of them if there had been a hockey game or something that night, and they replied no, it's Karneval! Should have known - we picked them up in Cologne, which is one of the central places to celebrate Karneval, the season that runs from Twelfth Night (January 6) to Ash Wednesday. They were a friendly and boisterous bunch, all dressed up in loud clothes and drinking beer and wine (generously offering us some as well, but we politely declined). Just imagine the Stanford Marching Band (another loud and drunk bunch of merry musicmakers) some twenty years older, and there you have it. We struck up conversation with a particularly chatty couple who told us about all the parties and music in Cologne, and they eventually invited us to skip our flight and join them in Bingen (where they lived). Which clearly, we also declined. I think what struck us about the whole thing was that they were all quite a bit older than we are, but they had the energy to stay up drinking and partying until 3 or 4am...and still go back to work the next day!

Anyway, we did make our flight, and now we're back home where we belong! The next few days will be about getting some rest and catching up, so if we don't call or email you right away, we hope you understand! Also, keep coming back to visit because we'll be uploading some pictures from our trip in the next few weeks.

Posted by Christine at 11:42 AM | Comments (1)

January 28, 2004

Loose ends

Time to get back... what did we forget to share?

* During our third trek through Vienna, we went to Café Landtmann upon which my parents had stumbled during our joint first pass through the city. It was strange yet again to see how well Christine fits in with the European lifestyle (minus the smoking)... elegantly dressed, enjoying her coffee and some form of dessert (usually cake), and staring into the void content to just be. Funny how that classy lady ended up with a European who looks more like a trapped ape when in Europe than a local.

* Berlin weather was cold enough that my old age ailments started acting up again... some back ache or something, and the like. And, once again, Christine and I looked like Anna Nicole Smith and J. Howard Marshall II... Nothing serious, of course, just enough to joke about as I'd let go a random moan whenever I pulled the wrong muscle.

* Talking about cold weather, a water pipe broke near Ushi's on the coldest day of the year... this meant no central heating for about 12 hours. Yipee!

* Enough whining. The weather was definitely bearable with the right preparation, and walking outside was most pleasant. Yesterday, we toured the Turkish part of town, and then moved onto some other about-to-bloom neighborhoods (where, of course, we stopped at yet another cafe... good thing Berlin stores welcome pets or Christine would have to leave me waiting outside). We finished with a quick detour to see the B-flat Jazz club, where Christine used to swing away six years ago... swing nights are over, as the whole neighborhoood is no longer a well-kept secret of the few young souls... suffice to say, there is a Starbucks there now.

And today, we started off with my young bride rubbing BenGay on me, and then we went to do some shopping for our family (yes, yes, ladies, we did buy lots of good chocolate). We got done early enough to spend some time at the Pergamon museum. What a place! Christine would rave about it, and even though I've seen enough museums in my life to be fairly jaded by the novelty of seeing old stuff, her positive attitude got me curious. It was indeed quite impressive. Unlike most museums, the Pergamon's collection is displayed in its reconstructed setting: huge halls where a Babylonian palace gate and road was reconstructed, along with half a Hellenistic temple. The only downsides of the presentation was the lack of clarity about what is original and what is not, and the relative lack of signs in any language other than German. That said, the audio guide was excellent, and the museum is under reconstruction which hopefully will address its shortcomings. Wonderful experience... good thing I listened to my wife.

And now I'd better go pack. And shave first so that the edgy immigration officials won't think of me as a terrorist given my birthplace (Lebanon). Nyah, that's easy to handle now that I have a green card; the more real concern is whether I'll be quarantined as an exotic animal. Better go pack some peanuts...

Posted by Toli at 11:48 AM | Comments (0)

January 27, 2004


The snow seems to be following us everywhere, as we've now hit the lowest temperature of our entire stay in Berlin. At about -10 degrees Celsius (14 Fahrenheit) - it's even cold for regular Berliners. Lucky us!!!

Anyway, I know I never followed up on our third ball experience. It was again a very different experience from the first two. The Vienna Philharmonic Ball is one of the most famous balls to attend, but it is held in the Musikverein, which compared to the Hofburg or the Rathaus is a very, very small space. It was just plain crammed full of people. There is one dancing area in the main room, where the orchestra and Helmut Steubl's big band switch turns playing music, rather than the multiple salons and rooms dedicated to other dancing. (Apparently, we did find out later that there was a DJ spinning in the basement, but it wasn't obvious he was there.)

But there were a lot of special attendees, including various ministers of the country and, of course, Seiji Ozawa who literally bumped into us during the first waltz of the night. It's possible that other famous people bumped into us as well, as the dance floor was unbelievably packed. I'm still amazed that Toli and I had the nerve to get out there and try dancing in all that traffic.

What we didn't dare, though, and probably should have tried, was the midnight and 2am quadrilles. All the instruction is in German, which is intimidating, and the quadrilles at this ball moved along very quickly. At one point, another Austrian couple invited us to join their quadrille (the quadrille is a dance where two couples dance together, exchanging partner, places, etc. much like square dancing), but by that time, the dance room was so full that we couldn't find the space to do it. Maybe another time?

The next day we barely made it in time to catch our train to Berlin, but luckily we did and spent most of the day riding the rails. There was a funny moment in the onboard restaurant when Toli and I ordered a baked potato (with lox) and a shishkebab. What we got back was scrambled eggs (with lox) and goulash. Is my German really that bad?

We met up in Berlin with Uschi, the woman who hosted me when I was an exchange student here so long ago. She's still as cool as ever, and she so very nicely let us shack up in her apartment during our stay here. It's in Charlottenburg, which is very close to the center of the West Berlin downtown.

Despite the weather, we've gotten to see and do a lot of my favorite things here. Had falafel at Winterfeldplatz, toured the grocery section of KaDeWe (quite possibly the largest department store I've ever been to, and same for Toli provided his memories of Gallerie Laffayette in Paris were not enlarged in his 11-year old mind), gaped at all the new buildings in Potsdamer Platz (which was really just a large construction site when I was here), and saw the glitz and the glamour of the Ku'damm and Friedrichstrasse (the main shopping avenues of the West and East). Even the museum at Checkpoint Charlie has grown and expanded, and now they have a little reproduction of the white hut in the street where the border check used to run. We also had the chance to visit Haus Cramer, the center for Stanford-in-Berlin and caught a poetry reading yesterday evening.

While talking with Wolf, the internship coordinator at the program (responsible for pairing me up with the ministry in Dusseldorf), he spoke about how the program in Berlin is less popular among students nowadays. The fall of the wall happened comparatively long ago for them (yow, I'm old!) and there are sexier places to go nowadays like Asia or Australia. It's a little sad to think that students wouldn't find a city with such a vibrant life and history interesting enough to study here, but then I remember how as a student, I still wasn't as interested in the history and economic change of the area as I am now. So maybe he has a point. Regardless, I feel blessed to have had the chance to study here and even more so to have the opportunity to come back, reconnect with old friends, and see all the changes that have taken place.

(Two days to go before we're back in the USA!)

Posted by Christine at 05:28 AM | Comments (0)

January 25, 2004

Vacationing versus tourism

Toli makes some obvious points about vacations.

One of the lessons Christine and I learned during our trip to Europe is the difference between vacationing and touring. Vacationing means simply removing the concerns of the daily everyday routine from our lives for a short period of time: no litterboxes to clean, no cooking, etc. Touring means exploring a new place. So far so good.

Usually, vacation and touring go together: you go away from home to vacation, in order to remove yourself from daily routine. And once you find yourself in a new place, you can either bore yourself to tears or explore, which means touring. Again, so far so good.

The not-so-obvious point is that touring is a heck of a lot of work! At least with a job or daily routine, you get accustomed to a task, and you get weekends. As a tourist, you are constantly on the go and seeking the unfamiliar, and weekends don't exist. So it's pretty exhausting.

Which is why we ended up realizing that

(a) We are glad to be doing all this traveling while we are young and without kids: if I am a grouchy old man now, just imagine how grumpy and impatient I'll be about everything (from smoke in restaurants to signs in France) when I'm old!

(b) We were planning to do way too much in this trip... and so we skipped Switzerland and Poland.

(c) We need to be vegetables and bored to tears for a short time in order to relax. Sure there is a sense of 'wasting time' (thinking along the lines of 'we only have one week in Vienna and we want to see so much, we should not waste time resting or sleeping'). But for a six-week long trip, resting is plainly necessary so we'd better stop fighting the basic laws of physics (can't expend more energy than you get) and lie down.

(d) Physical rest is half the story... sleeping in late or going to the baths in Budapest. For me, I also need some mental rest. I need to see some sky and some nature to warm the soul: read my earlier entry on cities, and you can tell that going from one city to the next still can't fill the void left behind by seeing deer (or even our own cats) every morning... funny how for granted I had taken the sense of inner peace this daily experience provided. And for Christine, there is a regular phonecall to family, email to friends, and so forth.

(e) Once Christine and I put (a)-(d) together and formed our traveling rules, we needed to apply them. Well, this was easy as long as it was just the two of us. But add the many wonderful people we saw during this trip, and you can tell that the overall balance was harder to achieve. Of course, the challenge to balance everything was truly worth the trouble as we thoroughly enjoyed the company and hospitality of every friend we visited. For example, my parents (despite their age) have so much energy that you if you could put them in a hamster wheel and harness the energy they expended while touring Vienna with us, you could provide electric power for Vienna for quite some time. It was wonderful hearing their perspective during our walks, sharing an Opera performance or many a fine dinner with them. Yet we were absolutely exhausted when they left... and had to recharge in Budepest! Similarly, when my friend Myrto came to Prague, she was also an Energizer bunny... in fact, having arrived a day earlier, she had walked through all of Prague by herself, and over the next three days, she showed us everything she had seen. Yes, it took us three days to cover the ground she covered on her own during one day; and not only that, she had to feed us good Greek food she made, as well as 8 pounds of vissino (my favorite Greek sweet) she made in Greece and hawled over, just to keep us going!

Lesson learned... first off, we'd better leave time to relax; and second, we have to warn whoever friend joins us that we are old foggies who have to take things slow.

When I was a young boy, I used to walk 5 miles to school every day... Well, I'm no longer a young boy. And I'm glad I don't have to get up at 8am to go to prison... um, school... any more.

Posted by Toli at 02:34 PM | Comments (0)


Toli the country mouse talks about visiting his cousin the city mouse.

Christine already mentioned our day-trip from Vienna to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. It was a short trip, with not much to see in terms of tourist sights. Yet it had a profound impact on me.

As we entered Bratislava on the bus, I noticed the communist era buildings by the highway. These buildings are big blocks of flats, which have no distinguishing features from each other: they all look like big cubes with identical floors, each floor having a very regular pattern of windows and balconies. I had seen them before, when I visited Sofia (the capital of Bulgaria) in 1989, so the sight of one such building wasn't particularly notable. However, once we climbed up to the old town's castle, we saw a striking view: one the one side of the Danube lies the old town: unkempt, in the process of being revitalized, and devoid of soviet blocks of flats. But on the other, there is nothing else but soviet-style construction. The sight was vaguely reminescent of US towns, where some highway divides the affluent part of town from the run-down neighborhoods. Anyway, in addition to the flats, there were two large factories (with the usual immense smokestacks) on either end of the soviet town; there was also a huge cube, situated by the river, which acted as exhibition hall and/or warehouse for goods to be shipped via the port. And all this edifice was surrounded by woods.

Well, the first thought that struck me was that this half of Bratisava is really a naked city; or, in other words, a city reduced to its bare essentials with all aesthetic elements eliminated. There were the places of production, the places where the necessary workers subsisted, and the trading center. And that's what a city is in its very essence.

And then I realized that, if I had ever been tasked with building a city, that's exaclty what I would have created. Heck, that's what my LEGO constructions of houses looked like (I grew up in a city too, though one more aesthetically pleasing than Bratislava; and, yes, LEGO kits of houses look like country houses, but I never followed instructions with LEGOs). Preoccupied with function over form, I would have built a city of minimal construction and maintenance cost, and maximal functionality. And also one that minimizes human impact on the surrounding environment (if you spread the families residing in those soviet blocks over single-family homes, the woods would have been long-gone, let alone the pollution generated by commuting). Yet, to be honest, I would have absolutely hated living in such a city...

So I realized that I do appreciate aesthetics after all. That may be obvious to anyone who knows how beautiful a wife I chose, but she will tell you that every time she buys something for us, my first question is 'why do we need this new blah-blah?' (meaning 'what function does it serve?'). Well, the simple answer again is that an object that pleases the senses alone (and has no other practical, utilitarian purpose) has that very property as its function: and I am not immune to appreciating it, and I even downright feel a need to be surrounded by beauty (however subjective its definition might be).

I also made another profound observation thanks to the soviet Bratislava... We live in the countryside, but this trip took us primarily to cities: Munich, Amsterdam, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Berlin, etc. And, of course, I also have the experience of 18 years growing up in Athens. As this trip is near its end, I have finally put my finger on why I love living in the countryside: quite simply, the clothes and makeup a city adds to itself to turn the naked Bratislava into a fabulous Vienna is not enough for me to hide the Bratislava within. My (very personal and subjective) experience of being in a city is one where I constantly see through the facade, and every city looks like a Bratislava to me.

I think I need to explain this a bit more... it's not that I am an observer more acute than others. It's just that the clothes and makeup of a city look transparent to one who doesn't put a very high aesthetic value on them. For example, a city may boast ancient ruins or grand churches or neoclassical buildings. For many people, these create a sense of connection to their heritage, a sense of pride in the artistic talent of mankind, or even make them feel awe when praying in a vast gothic temple. I can see all that, and, as a tourist, thoroughly enjoy the experience. But, for me, it's transitory. Sooner or later, the ruins are just delapitated old buildings, my connection to God on a field in spring unmatched by a human construction, and as for most artistic decorations, well, they are just plain ugly (esp. since a few years after their regular upkeep they look pretty bad covered in pollution). In the end, Vienna is reduced to the sum of Bratislava (function without aesthetics) and Disneyland (aesthetics without function)... and Disneyland's magic, wonderful as it may be for a short excursion, doesn't last past midnight.

In the end, cities are neither good nor bad in any absolute sense. Nor is the Austin countryside any more ideal in itself: there are scorpions, there are mosquitoes, there is urban sprawl, there is pollution driving into town, there is a lack of museums, grand art, and restaurants, and so on. Quite simply, for me, the aesthetics of (almost untouched) nature --- the trees, the sky, the stars at night (can't see them from most cities by the way), the slow pace of life --- make up for the deficiencies. So I guess I am a country mouse...

The soviet Bratislava will probably be rebuilt sooner or later. It's clearly a mark of local shame, as it doesn't appear on any postcard of the city. Already, the old town its being prettied-up to attract tourism (the old buildings are getting repainted, their plaster replaced, etc.). Slovakia is the poor sibling of the Czech Republic, so the rebuilding may take a while, but sooner or later, soviet Bratislava will be gone. And it looks like I'll be the only one who will miss it for what it can teach its visitor.

Posted by Toli at 12:31 PM | Comments (0)

January 23, 2004

Seiji Ozawa bumped into us!!!

In case you diehard readers were held in suspense, we did end up going to the third ball. And it was worth it! More coming later...

Posted by Christine at 02:25 AM | Comments (0)

January 21, 2004

Cats in Prague

No, this entry is not about felines in the town of Prague. It is also not about a Prague performance of the Webber musical Cats. It's about the musical Cats In Prague. Sounds odd? Well, it is. Very odd indeed...

Myrto is a wonderful friend of mine for over 20 years now. We met up with her in Prague. She arrived a day early, though, so on her first night there (without us) she went to see the musical Cats In Prague. She sugested that we check it out, and so we did the night after Myrto had left. We laughed our hearts out, though the musical is definitely not intended to be a comedy... still, it shows how different people can enjoy the same show for very different reasons.

Myrto had never seen the real Cats. As a result, she evaluated the show as it stood on its own. As such, it has upbeat music, with lyrics in English (though they are not very easy to understand), and the style of the performance is intriguing: it is Black Theater, which means a black light is the only illumination, and the performers are in white, which glows under the black light. As for the performers, they were mostly hand puppets: one hand being the head of a cat puppet, the other hand being its body (the palm) and legs (the fingers). There were also three dancers (one man, two women) dressed in white, as well as a multitude of props such as white string which performers shaped to form the outline of scenery such as a house, staircases, etc. Given the available nighttime entertainment in Prague's center, which is mostly strip clubs, sex shops, and dance clubs with go-go dancers, the 1 hour-long Cats In Prague is clearly a better alternative for $15. And, in its own right, it's quite a fun piece, esp. for children or those of us who are still child-like.

However, if you've seen Webber's Cats, the show has a wholly different dimension. It is outright hilarious in its feeble attempt to copy-cat (har har) the original.

First off, the poster advertising the show (all around the tourist trap called the Old Town) is virtually identical to that of the original show, only the cat eyes are just cat eyes (instead of the eye slit shaped like a dancer). And it blatantly says 'Why go to West End to see musical?'...

Next, the music is clearly a rip-off. Except that, for copyright reasons, it's slightly different... Still, the intro to most songs, and general beat is identical. Even I could tell the similarity despite being musically-challenged.

As for the lyrics, imagine all songs sung by the Chipmunks: high-pitched voices singing...

If you're feeling unhappy and lonely
And you're sure that you'll never be happy again

And so on... not much sense in the lyrics, and nothing to match T.S. Eliot's poetry (even if his intended audience was children). The songs corresponded almost one-to-one with the original's songs, with Grizabella singing 'night sky in the city on Prague' and 'changes after the dawn' (in the original, she sings 'Memory' whose lyrics I assume you know and can see how similar they are to Prague's imitation). And there is also a performance by the Prague Boss of Cats (think Macavity).

The real-life dancers were, shall we say, not of West End quality and, as such, they were a true parody of their Apollo Theater counterparts. Oh, and they lip-sang.

Finally, the plot as a whole is fairly weak even in the original Cats: T.S. Eliot's poems each describe a different type of cat --- to turn it into a musical, a weak glue of a plot was added whereby all cats come together for a ball at which they chose one cat to be reborn; in this setting, Eliot's poems describe the cats that come to the ball. Eventually, Grizabella gets chosen and ascends into her place of rebirth. Pretty weak to start off, right? Well, in Prague, the puppets all ascend a staircase, at the end of which their bodies are replaced with tutus (tissue paper) lit from a flashlight underneath, and fly away... go figure.

Overall, it reminded of me of the first time I saw the Russian cartoon Wolf and Rabbit ("Hey, Wait Up"), done in imitation of Tom and Jerry and/or Ralph Wolf (Wile E. Coyote) and Bugs Bunny. Though entertaining in its own right, when compared against Tom and Jerry, a whole new layer of hilarity was added to it... By the way, if you haven't seen the real Russian Wolf and Rabbit, the Simpsons have an episode where they show a parody of it, with a Cat and Mouse (because Itchy and Scrathy get Kancelled).

We had a fantastic time and couldn't stop laughing.

Posted by Toli at 09:37 AM | Comments (0)

It's Prague, it's Prague, it's big, it's heavy, it's wood...

...it's Prague, it's Prague, it's better than bad, it's good!

We're actually back in Vienna right now. (Ahem...more on how that happened later.) As is typical, I'm really behind on what we've been up to, so here's another long entry to read!

Toli's last entry covered our general activity in Budapest, so I'll skip over that and fill in any details later.

After Budapest, we headed for Prague with a quick one-night stop in Vienna to catch the Blumenball ("Flowerball") that takes place at the Vienna City Hall. I think we were a little too ambitious trying to fit squeeze that in as we were pretty rushed getting everything together (finding a hotel for just one night in Vienna, arranging transport to Prague the next morning, etc.) That, plus the weeks of constant travel were starting to wear us down, and we spent much of the evening being snippity with one another and then lounging on the stairs trying to sort out the lines of communication. Still, it was an especially beautiful ball, and in my starry-eyed way of seeing things, it's much more romantic to have a lover's quarrel in a flower-filled ballroom (dressed in an evening gown and tuxedo no less) than anywhere else.

We managed to kiss and make up and soothe one another's egos by the time we got to Prague the next morning and were able to thoroughly enjoy the next few days together with Toli's friend Myrto. She had the brilliant idea of renting out a two-bedroom apartment during our stay in Prague, which really made the whole experience much more homey and relaxing. The flat came with a kitchen and some bare cooking tools, and anyone who knows Myrto knows that she has a special touch when it comes to food, so we were all soon in a drowsy state of sated happiness.

After a long nap, we did a Prague-by-night walk and then explored more of the city the next morning. Prague is a beautiful jewel-of-a-city, with noteworthy architecture and a thriving old town area. I had been to Prague back in 1997, though, and for me, it was disappointing to see how tourist-oriented the city had become. Back in the day, Prague was a backpacker's mecca, where everything from hotel rooms to restaurants was easily affordable (especially on a student budget) and the city seemed relatively untouched.

Nowadays, it's still relatively inexpensive compared to Western Europe - but not always. (For example, the two Internet cafes that we've used in Vienna are surprisingly cheaper than the ones in Prague.) Every shop in the old town, it seems, is tourist-oriented, and they find ways to charge for everything, from using the public toilets to looking inside a local church. This is understandable - they've caught up with the supply and demand cycle of tourism.

What's disconcerting, though, is the number of chain stores and sex shops that have popped up. Prague has at least four McDonald's, a Marks and Spencer, as well as the Hermes and Louis Vuitton stores that usually are the mark of an upscale Western European city. I guess this is all a part of the city's growth, but the whole appeal of going to Prague in the first place was for something less...westernized?

Still, none of this negates the fact that Prague is a charmingly beautiful city, and we definitely enjoyed ourselves with Myrto. We walked through the town at least half a dozen times, saw the castle area, enjoyed several homecooked meals, enjoyed several meals out, and we also saw two shows. One was a marionette performance of "Don Giovanni" that would probably make my opera-loving in-laws cry "blasphemy!" The other, a black-light theater performance called "Cats in Prague". I'm going to have to let Toli describe that to you, as the words fail to describe my impression of the musical. It was well worth the money, but for reasons different than you would assume.

But, good things come to an end, and Myrto (and her cooking talents) had to go back to Athens. It was in our plan to head for Krakow and Warsaw to see Poland before heading to Berlin, but Toli and I decided that we were too tired to try to squeeze in another country in the three days. Especially one as cold and snowy as Poland.

We pulled out the guidebook and the debate began. Should we spend a few quiet days in a small Czech town like Cesky Krumlov or Karlovy Vary? Should we head for Dresden or Leipzig to see eastern Germany? (It actually occured to us to post these options as an online survey and have you all vote to decide where we go next, but we didn't have the time for that unfortunately.) Then, Toli came up with the suggestion of coming back for Vienna to do, for the third time, another Viennese ball.

Was this really my Toli suggesting *another* Viennese ball? I had to make sure that he realized he'd have to wear a tux yet again. But he made the very good point that we're not going to be in this area of the world during ball season any time in the foreseeable future, so we might as well.

Still, I was unconvinced, and we finally decided that we'd just take the bus into Berlin and arrive a few days early to relax and have more time to explore the city. We didn't know when the bus would leave for Germany, but we figured we'd set the alarm bright and early and get to the bus station to catch the bus to Berlin.

So this morning, we were both up before 6:30am. We had a quick breakfast and packed up and left for the bus station. And then found out that the bus had already left. Just 20 minutes before. And it was the only bus for the day. But...we were in time for the bus to Vienna. So the debate began anew - go to the train station and take the train instead to Berlin. Or go back to Vienna. In the end, we just couldn't decide, and it was a Czech krony coin that decided our fate. Crown-side up to Vienna, animal-side up to Berlin. We tossed it once. Then another time. Both times - Vienna.

So here we are!!! Now the big debate is whether or not we're going to try the Viennese ball a third time. What do you think?

Posted by Christine at 09:26 AM | Comments (0)

January 16, 2004

St. Jupat, the patron saint of overweight Hungarians

Toli finds his roots in Budapest.

What a nice town! I was in Budapest in '87, in the communist years, and it was truly amazing seeing the difference...

* You can get money from the ATM or exchange desks and not get ripped off. Sounds normal, but in the old days, ATMs were nowhere, and exchange desks offered only the official exchange rate, which was a total ripoff. Instead, you changed money in the hotel elevator, where the porter gave you a better rate away from prodding eyes; or on the street (at the risk of getting mugged). Either way, it was illegal, but you got 3-4 times the cash. Ah, the good old days for tourists, I say, since Budapest's cost of living is rising very fast (still cheaper than all other European cities though). Nowadays, there are malls (we stayed near a huge one, in fact), luxury boutiques, ATMs...

* We saw the sun! The Danube was gorgeous in the sunlight, and the sky had a fantastic deep blue color on the first evening there. I realized that I must photosynthesize fairly frequently to maintain an equally sunny mood.

* The temperature was quite good too. First day without a scarf!

* And so, we ventured to the public baths... not knowing the language, and not knowing what to do, we were a bit of a circus act the two of us in our swimming suits, but we managed. Some help from the staff, some signs in English, plenty of exploration ("Ouch that's hot!! Oh, it's in degrees Calcius..."). The baths were dominated by overweight, elderly Hungarians (what do you expect on a weekday... well, besides Susan Dell) who stared at us the way Europeans often do --- Christine was mighty uncomfortable, but I didn't mind; the stares were of curiosity (and admiration of Christine), not disapproval. Anyway, we became prunes after soaking for over 2 wonderful hours in pools of various temperatures, a current pool, steam room, sauna, etc. for $7 per person. The Turks (and the Romans before them) sure knew a good thing when they saw it...

* On the way in the baths, we saw a pretty sad sight: a homeless man lying next to one of the steam vents for warmth. Many more homeless people than I recall from '87. Maybe the rising cost of living and westernization... or maybe there were just as many back then, but the police rounded them up and kept them out of sight. Dunno...

* We concluded the day at St. Jupat's restaurant, where for $25 we ate like kings. In fact, we ate half our food (we ordered many dishes to sample the cuisine). And this meal, along with the baths, is how I concluded that St. Jupat is the patron saint of overweight Hungarians.

* People in Budapest are very pet friendly. Though they have big dogs (German shepherds and the like). I can just imagine Hungary invading France, and the shepherds gobling up all the yappy sissy rag-carpet Parisian dogs.

* In general, people are fairly friendly; in '87 they all seemed grumpy to me. Well, of course, tourists mean money... Anyway, when it came to public transportation, though, and congestion, people pushed each other, and were pretty disorderly. Maybe they've had enough of the communist bread lines. It was funny (and sad) to see that the most effective pushers were the hunched over old ladies... man, can they pack a punch.

Posted by Toli at 11:30 AM | Comments (0)

January 15, 2004

The Princess Diaries

Sorry for the long delay in writing - between computers losing my entries and spending time with the in-laws, I think I've fallen about a week behind on all our travels!

I think the title of my entry pretty much sums up the last week of travel adventures. After a sober drive out of Freiburg, we wound up in Southern Germany near the Austrian border. Located near a town called Fuessen is one of the most-visited tourist sites in Germany, the Neuschwanstein castle. Since Christine had missed it during her first go-round in Germany, she managed to talk Toli into taking her to see the famous fairy-tale castle of the mad King Ludwig II. He was King of Bavaria for a short time in the 19th century and was fascinated by castles, building up several of them during his lifetime. Neuschwanstein is supposedly the inspiration behind Walt Disney's Cinderella Castle.

So, on January 6th, we visited two of Ludwig's castles - Hohenschwangau, where he grew up, and the famous Neuschwanstein just a few km away. The scenery was breathtaking, as the castles are set up in the hills against the Bavarian landscape. The tours of the castles, however, left something to be desired. We were herded like cattle among the other tourists (something like 30 to 50 people per group) and given a cursory look at a few rooms, along with some various trivia in heavily-accented English. (One of the more interesting tidbits - Ludwig was a big fan of Wagner, and it is due to his patronage that Wagner became such a famous opera composer.) Maybe our perspective of the trip was somewhat hindered because Toli wasn't feeling well that day anyway - must have been a combination of bad goulash and the trauma from losing Fritz.

The following day, we went back to Munich to return our rental car and give Toli a day to rest up before meeting his parents in Vienna, which we did on January 8th. They very generously set us all up in a nice little hotel in the center of Vienna, where we spent the next few days touring around the city and soaking up all the sights.

Toli's parents may be a bit older and slower than we are, but boy are they energetic travelers! Each day we spent with them was packed, starting with the king-sized breakfast at the hotel each morning. We did several walking tours of the city, visiting the large city park and looking at the beautiful architecture of various residences. We also visited several important cultural sights, such as the Historical Art Museum (featuring the Royal Hapsburg family's art collection) and the Schonbrunn Palace (which has a better tour than Neuschwanstein).

(Quick tangent: We were both extremely impressed by the Francis Bacon exhibit at the art museum. Bacon is a 20th century modern painter who still liked to paint figures and people, as opposed to abstractions. The nice thing about the exhibit was that they put together his paintings, along with paintings done by other famous artists that inspired him - Velasquez, Picasso, Van Gogh, etc. You could actually see the influence of the other artists on his works. They also included various photographs and books found in Bacon's possessions after he died, which also showed some insight into his paintings, as well as various movies that also influenced him. It really felt like a complete, organic exploration of the artist.)

The two major highlights, though, were the Economics University Ball at the Hofburg and seeing La Traviata at the Vienna State Opera House. Lucky for us, we made it to Vienna in the middle of ball season and were able to get tickets for a ball at the Imperial Hofburg Palace for Saturday, January 10. As our only other ball experience was the Stanford Viennese Ball, we decided to go to a university-based ball so that we wouldn't embarass ourselves too much with our ungraceful waltzing.

Now, it must be said that when it comes to size, scale, and grandeur, the Stanford Viennese Ball has nothing on a Hofburg Ball. It's impossible to describe the feeling of waltzing (albeit clumsily) to Strauss in an imperial ballroom. But, after watching the opening ceremonies with the debutantes in white, Toli and I both agreed (and perhaps we are a little biased too) that the Stanford ballroom dancers have a slight advantage over the Economics University when it comes to beautiful dancing. The opening dancers were indeed very talented, but we have seen smoother dancing in Palo Alto. Of course, this relieved us greatly as we are not the best of dancers!

Toli's parents also made an impressive showing at the ball, cha-cha'ing and boogie'ing in the various other dance halls (the ball had about six different dance halls with different styles of music) and they managed to keep up with us until two in the morning.

Toli's dad's birthday was on the 12th, and we celebrated that evening by going to the Vienna State Opera to see "La Traviata". Getting tickets to the opera was no mean feat - tickets go on sale the month before the performance, and Toli and I were up at 1am on the morning of December 12th, trying to coordinate the reservations between ourselves because you can only buy two tickets at a time online. We did manage to secure box seats, though, and were rewarded with a clear view of the stage and a beautiful performance. If you've never been to an opera before, La Traviata is a good one to start with. It's relatively short, the music is very familiar, and the plotline is easy to follow. If you've ever seen "Camille" or even "Moulin Rouge", you'll know the story.

Having exhausted the sights in Vienna, we spent our last day with Toli's parents visiting Bratislava, in neighboring Slovakia. It is remarkably different - more run down, with clear scars from its Communist past. The Soviet-style apartment buildings along the Danube look a little bit like Legoland. But it does have an old-city center and a castle of its own, and the city is starting to come to life. There was clearly a lot of building and renovation going on while we were there, as the Slovakians continue to form their own cultural identity and nurse their budding tourist industry.

After that, we sadly parted ways with Toli's parents. They went back to Athens, and we have gone on to Budapest. It was wonderful living it up with them, but as many of the palace tours we've taken seem to suggest, the royal life is also an exhausting one. Toli and I had fun being grand for a little while, but we're happy to back to our "normal" lives just touring around.

Posted by Christine at 10:42 PM | Comments (0)

January 12, 2004


Toli continues his ranting about driving in Europe (and other topics)

* McDonald's in everywhere. The primary highway stop eatery throughout all the highways we drove (esp. in Germany), a store in almost every little town. In a way, it's sad. In a way, it's a good thing, for two reasons. First, they are open when other restaurants are not (holidays, during local siesta hours, etc.) This means there is always a place to eat, esp. for families with kids (who are too restless for a traditional European sit-down meal). (Nope, we didn't waste precious stomach space on McDonald's fare...) Second, they are consistent. This means the food is always of the same good quality: no rat-wurst (sausages). This is particularly important, as Peter told us, for the highway joints they replaced were places of questionable quality --- sometimes "local color" is not a good thing. Finally, for those that would complain about the fatty quality of McDonald's food, yes it's fatty, but still much less so than the typical local food (wurst that drip with fat, and french fries are just as common).

* Luxemburg highways are amazing: lit across their full length, wide, clear, excellent pavement... The only trouble is that Luxemburg is too small to have more than a handful.

* The French just have to do things differently. First off, their roads are the worst we drove on. Pavement quality, lighting, and (in general) signage. Ah yes, and they don't call Diesel by the same name as everybody else, so good luck at the pump! They call it Gazoil, so if you know where diesel comes from you can make an educated guess; but otherwise... Anyway, their signage is the strangest thing: they can have great signs at places, sometimes so many that you can't read them all while driving near the speed limit; and sometimes, they forget to have any at some key turns ("Ho, ho, ho, you stupid American, it's obvious you turn left here"). The general pattern is that signs can get you into a small cute town, but, once there, it's up to you to find your way out. Hm... are casinos owned by the French?

* In general, though, French people outside Paris are friendly, fairly eager to help, and polite. It was a bit hard adjusting to their lunch siesta, but that was our fault, not theirs. And they all love their pets, which are typically bathroom-rag sized creatures. So much so, that (French law be damned) they are universally allowed to poo all over the French streets. And it's amazing how much poo a little yappy dog can produce (they do not follow mass conservation laws those things). Add the snow in winter, and... beware where you step, and God help you if you slip.

Posted by Toli at 05:21 AM | Comments (1)

January 09, 2004

In memory of Fritz/Frites

Urgh urgh urgh!!! This next entry has literally been a trial to post. Firstly, I ran into difficulties typing it in the first place, as there were some server issues in accessing the journal. Then, after almost an hour of typing up the story, I lost the whole thing when the computer farted. So, here goes try number 3 - I've backdated it a few days since it was supposed to go up earlier than now...

So...after our fruits de mer debacle and a short stay in chilly Strasbourg, Toli and I began our drive back to southern Germany to return the rental car before meeting up with his parents in Vienna.

We decided to go by way of the "Wine Road", which runs between Strasbourg and Colmar, the winemaking capital of the Alsace area. Similar to Germany's "Romantic Road", it's a combination of several roads leading one through various medieval towns, vineyards and wineries. However, we should have learned from our drive to Strasbourg that French roads have poor signage and rarely lead directly to the destination in mind. We got lost at least half a dozen times (at one point, going halfway up a moutain) and managed to spend a few hours going less than 100 km along this picturesque, but circuitous road. About a third of a way through, we finally gave up and took the highway directly to Colmar, where we eventually did taste some wine and purchased a few bottles for Toli's parents.

It was mid-afternoon by the time we finally did leave Colmar to head for Germany, but we were making relatively good time towards our destination until another little adventure took us by surprise.

As we were heading into Freiburg (a fairly large German town close to the border), Toli noticed a wounded bird hopping along the autobahn. The sight distressed him enough that we decided to turn back and see if we could help.
Upon realizing the size of the bird (about the size of Hedwig in "Harry Potter"), Christine promptly freaked out like the wuss she is and wouldn't go near it. Toli, however, perservered, and managed to coax the bird into his sweatshirt. It struggled just a little, but he was able to wrap it up snugly and carry it back to the car, as Christine frantically searched through her German dictionary for translations of "animal protection agency" and "wounded bird".

We drove towards a nearby gas station, planning to call a local animal agency when Christine saw a sign with "Zoo - 600 meters". After checking with the gas station to make sure the zoo was still open, off we drove and soon realized that in Germany, "zoo" doesn't always mean zoo! Sometimes, it means pet store! Even so, we walked in with the wounded bird. The staff was unable to help us, as it was a wild animal, but they kindly provided us with an address and a crudely-drawn map, directing us to a woman who could help.

Undaunted, we went driving around looking for the address (getting lost once on the way), which led us to an apartment building. But there was no apartment number listed with the address! So, Christine went knocking door-to-door, asking if anyone knew of a lady who helped wounded birds. Fortunately, the third try was a charm, and the woman living there led us to yet another apartment building down the way where we finally found the woman who could help us with the bird.

Sadly, though, after more than an hour of searching for someone to help, our poor bird did not survive the ordeal and tumbled dead out of Toli's sweatshirt. It had literally been squirming in our laps on the car ride over to the apartment, so we surmise that it had died as we were taking it to the rescuer (whose name we actually never learned). The woman, who was about as heartbroken as we were, explained that the bird had suffered some sort of internal injury (as evidenced by some blood on its beak) and that it had probably been hit by a car before we found it. She assured us, though, that we had at least given it some comfort and warmth before it died and spared it from a panicked death on a noisy highway. We learned that our bird was a European "bussard", which
translates literally to "buzzard", but in the U.S. they are commonly known as hawks. See - http://www.hawk-conservancy.org/priors/buteo.shtml for more information.

It was a sad drive for the rest of the night, as we were both distressed by the bird's death, especially Toli. However, the sadness was tempered by the knowledge that so many people had come forward to help us rescue the animal - the lady at the gas station, the young man at the pet store, the old woman who helped us find the address when we got lost, the woman at the apartment who led us to the bird-lady, and of course, the bird-lady herself.

(An explanation for the title of the entry: Since the encounter, Christine has affectionately referred to the bird as "Fritz the buzzard", but Toli has pointed out that it's not a fitting name for hawklike bird of its size. We've compromised by calling him "Frites" - as in pommes frites. Go figure.)

Posted by Christine at 05:04 AM | Comments (0)

January 07, 2004

Beware the Fruits de Mer...

So much has happened over the last few days, that we may have to parcel out the stories over more than one post - to keep everything straight...

On the evening of January 3rd, we took our long drive from Ypres (in Belgium) to Strasbourg (in France - the Alsace area). In all, it took about 8 hours to get there, with a stop in Luxembourg City for dinner.

We were so impressed by the Belgian cuisine that we were sure of a good meal in Luxembourg, being bordered by both Belgium and France and all. And we weren't disappointed. We stopped at a brightly-lit restaurant in the middle of town, apparently an Italian-influenced one called Osteria. The whole menu was in French, but all the dishes were Italian, so we figured that between our knowledge of both cuisines, we'd be okay. Toli played it safe and ordered his favorite pasta - Spaghetti Carbonara (spaghetti with an egg-cream sauce and bacon). Christine deftly avoided ordering anything with escargot (snails) or vol (brain) and decided to get the restaurant's signature dish - Spaghetti Osteria, with Fruits de Mer (fruits of the sea) and looked forward to having spaghetti with shrimp and mussels.

Our first clue that things weren't quite right came when the waitress presented our dishes. Toli got exactly what he wanted - spaghetti in egg-cream sauce with bacon. But Christine's dish looked like...well, a pie. It was a very large dish, covered with a crust on it. Just as Christine wondered how in the world she would eat it, the waitress took it away. She brought it back a few minutes later - apparently, it's served with the crust cut out onto another dish, with the spaghetti and fruits de mer on top. Fruits de mer being yes, shrimp, mussels, as well as scallops (yum!), little octopus tentacles (mmm...okay), and oui oui...escargot. And also some sort of large crustation (looked like a cross between a shrimp and a large crawfish) on top that was served whole - eyes and everything.

So...okay, Christine took a deep breath and dug in. For the most part, the dish was delicious. And the escargot was well...squishy. It wasn't so much about the snails themselves but the fact that they are really difficult to pull out of the shell. They provided a little fork, but really, to eat them, one has to grab the shell, then poke around for a while with the fork before being finally rewarded with this gobby thing that looks like the inside of an ear. Also beware - the sucker thing at the bottom of the snail should be spit out - because it's crunchy.

But Christine perservered and made it through about 3/4 of the dish with only a snail or two left untouched. We both giggled about it and decided it would make a cute story.

Until the waitress brought out the second half of the dish. Apparently, she had only served up half of the pie thingy. More spaghetti, more fruits de mer which meant more escargot. Again, Christine tried her best to make it through the dish, but it was clear this time that she had been beaten.

Spaghetti Osteria: 2
Christine: 0

Christine promptly passed out in the car as they left, leaving poor Toli to handle all the navigating to Strasbourg alone. He didn't do half-bad, until he decided to follow a sign for Strasbourg that led off the freeway and onto this rather provincial road. It's true - the road led to Strasbourg - after some 150 km of circuitous turns, some rotaries in the street, with sketchy signage to boot. But we did make it to Strasbourg at about 1 in the morning (fortunately we had a hotel already booked) and crashed until the next morning. We spent the day wandering about the city (most of which was closed, being Sunday and all) and enjoying french croissants and other yummy things.

No more fruits de mer, though.

Posted by Christine at 10:07 AM | Comments (0)

January 04, 2004

Detour to Belgium...

Sorry for the long delay in logging in! It's been difficult finding Internet cafes in the small towns we've been visiting, and with the new year and all, a lot of places haven't been open. Even here in Strasbourg (big city in France), we had to try three places before finding one open on a Sunday. Plus, I've got this French keyboard that takes me forever to type on!

Anyway, we left off in Amsterdam, where we had planned on leaving for Maastricht the next day. We actually never made it to Maastricht. Toli wanted to see the dams built in the lower part of the Netherlands (on the Western part of the country), so we ended up driving through there until the late afternoon and then decided to take the tunnel across to Belgium, where we ended up in Bruges!

Bruges is a little medieval town in Belgium that's a huge tourist attraction because it's still well preserved from it's heyday as a cloth capital. We made it into the city pretty late, so the rest of our evening was spent scrounging up a hotel room and then collapsing into bed. The next day was spent properly exploring the city and enjoying some of the delights it offered.

Let me tell you, Belgium is very underrated. They seem to offer the best of all the countries around them: fabulous chocolate (French influence), good beer (German influence), and yummy cheese (Dutch influence). They say in Belgium that the food is as good as the French but in German sized portions, which we can easily believe. Besides, what's not to like about a country that serves frites (fries) with every meal and a small bar of chocolate at breakfast every morning?

We ended up switching accomodations to a cozy little pension (with two resident cats, we found out!) where we spent New Year's Eve huddled up in our room with an enormous picnic dinner. It was a quiet way to ring in the New Year, but with all that we've been doing lately, it was just what we needed.

We awoke to snow falling outside on New Year's day but managed to rouse ourselves out of bed to explore more of the city and eat more of that delicious food (a great incentive for us!). We did a long walking tour of the city, which was kind of quiet and charming as most of the shops were closed.

The next morning, we decided to spend just one more day in Flanders, so we ended up driving to nearby Ypres. We took a detour to drive through Gent, another medieval town, where Christine discovered the sinful delights of Neuhaus. The most famous of Belgium chocolate candies (they call them "pralines") come from Godiva, but Neuhaus is supposedly better(and a tad more expensive). For anyone on a budget, Leonidas is another famous chocolatier that produces some very fine chocolates as well!

Then, we drove to Ypres where we stayed in this little pension/B&B run by this little old lady. It was literally like staying at Grandma's house! We spent the evening walking around the city, ate yummy kebabs at a nearby restaurant, and then walked to the Menin Gate.

For those of you who aren't up to speed on your history, Ypres is a well known battlefield area from WWI. The city was literally razed to the ground from all the shelling and fighting, and hundreds of thousands of soldiers from both sides died in the fighting in and around the area. The Menin Gate is a large memorial constructed to the memory of Allied soldiers, inscribed with some 50,000 names of those who died. It is a really sobering monument, especially when you realize that all the names on there are merely a fraction of those who died in the Flanders fields. Every night at 8:00pm, buglers play "The Last Post" at the gate in honor of the soldiers.

Appropriately, there's a WWI museum (called In Flanders Fields, after a famous wartime poem) in Ypres, which we visited the next day following breakfast at "grandma's". As people who enjoy visiting museums (and who both have worked in one at some point or another, even Toli!), we were both completely blown away by the magnitude and presentation of the In Flanders Fields museum. It was put together very recently in 1998 and very successfully integrates movies, high-tech computing, audio-visual, and other media elements with WWI artifacts and diaries. It is truly an interactive museum, and we were lost in its exhibits for most of the morning and afternoon. And afterwards, we completed the experience with a quiet visit to a cemetary outside the city where a number of British (and Commonwealth) soldiers were buried. There are dozens of these cemetaries in and around Ypres.

Then, it was a mad dash of sorts to get to Strasbourg, which was a good 400 to 450 km away. We had fallen a bit off our original itinerary, so we had to make up some distance to get here. Anyway, the story of that adventure (including a very entertaining meal in Luxembourg City) will have to wait until the next entry!

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