Saturday, August 22, 2015

Waltzing for Cake

So. Vienna. What have you taught us? The importance of air conditioning (temperatures hovered just shy of 100 while we were there)? That an eisspänner and Sacher torte from some random cafe on Goldegg Road can cure all ills, even those caused by route deviations, enormous crowds, and the aforementioned heat? That Luciano Pavarotti holds the record for number of curtain calls—165—a record set at the Vienna Opera House? A little of all of the above?

We spent four nights in Vienna, leaving the small town comforts of the Bavarian Alps behind. On the way from Lenngries we had to connect trains in Salzburg, so we decided to take a little walk through town, dodging Sound of Music tours all the while. As tourists we did what all tourists ultimately do in Salzburg: buy iced coffees at Starbucks. There is no tradition of iced drinks in this part of the world, much less iced coffees, unless you want your espresso poured over ice cream. Let's face it, as delicious as that may be, sometimes you just want coffee. And when it has been above 90 degrees for as long as you can remember, sometimes you just want your coffee cold. So, Starbucks. And churches. We also looked at churches.

C and I got to Vienna and were delighted—deeee lighted—to find powerful and functional air conditioning in our hotel room. Our days thereafter were spent alternately reviving under its soft caress and pushing the limits of crowd and heat exhaustion in the outside world. It turns out we were not the only people visiting Vienna in August. This point was driven home with some force by the line to enter Belvedere Palace, the lesser of Vienna's two major palace attractions. Rather than gape at Hapsburg opulence, we turned tail and ate cake and drank coffee instead. As cake and coffee are also considered Viennese institutions, I figure it still counts. Some of the Hapsburg opulence was also on display at the Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, a museum where the structure itself could have been a museum and still draw crowds even absent the Dürer, Rembrandt, and Rubens. So we didn't miss out entirely.
We also got to do laundry, because sometimes you still have to do chores even in Austria.  We packed our bags and headed to a laundromat near our hotel.  Contrary to our expectations, there were no vending machines selling small packets of detergent.  Many years ago, I was required to memorize a piece of dialogue for my high school German class, an exchange that was purportedly an advertisement for Blanco brand detergent.  It was a stirring piece of a theatre:  "Hi!  How are you?  You're looking good!  But your laundry... that is a different story.  It is gray and staying gray.  You should try washing next time with Blanco.  No washing detergent washes any whiter than Blanco!"  Stirring enough that it has stuck with me for over 30 years.  So I knew exactly how to say "detergent" in German.  Because Austrians all understand German (even though speak with some crazy dialect that I can't decipher), I approached a woman to ask, "Is there a store nearby where we can buy detergent?"
"Detergent?  You don't need detergent.  It is in the machine."
"The soap is in the machine?" I tried to clarify with some degree of disbelief.
"Yes, it is all automatic."
I'm sure we looked like some kind of yokel straight out of the closest hollow, mesmerized by big city technology, staring at the washer and elbowing each other in the ribs: "Hey!  There's soap in them there machines!"  But at least we didn't need to buy detergent.  The washing machines actually weighed your clothes and used the correct amount of both water and soap depending on the weight.  Pretty cool, actually. 
I liked Vienna.  But saying that feels a little like saying "I like chocolate."  It is kind of a given, right?  I just wish the Austrians spoke German in a manner I could understand.
(Salzburg church.)

(Salzburg window.)

(Salzburg iced coffee.)

(Vienna church.)

(View from our hotel window.  These two were out there for hours every morning.)

(Vienna cake and coffee.)

(Vienna museum.)


Friday, August 14, 2015

Check, please!

Nothing makes a United States citizen abroad more anxious than uncertainty over how or when the check will arrive after eating out in a restaurant. We as a country have come to expect that soon after our plates are clear—or maybe before—the bill will appear with a curt “Take your time,” an invitation that is rarely made in earnest. We pony up, burp loudly, and move rapidly home so as to not miss the season finale of the Bachelor.

Not so elsewhere, where the expectation seems to be that, as a diner, you will want to linger, converse, digest, and perhaps if the mood strikes order a coffee or glass of schnapps. How then, do you actually go about bringing the meal to an end and settling the business of exchanging money for goods and service received? Most of the time, it involves catching the waiter's eye and simply asking for the check, although the whole getting the waiter's attention piece of the dance can sometimes be a challenge. I am convinced that at some places we have eaten, the staff is involved in a bit of side action with money riding on who can keep his or her customers seated the longest.

I have always liked Mexico, where, as here in Europe, it is required that you ask for the check, done in Spanish with a brief, “La quinta, por favor.” In my experience, without exception, this is greeted with a pause, a slight inward gaze, an internal calculation, the tossing of hands in the air, and the exclamation: “Ah! La quinta! Si, senor.” Unspoken, but carried in subtext, is: “The check! What a great idea! I never would have considered that, but now that you mention it I can think of no better way to bring our time here together to a close. When I return home tonight, I shall light a small candle to the Virgin of Guadalupe in honor of your vision and courage! The check will arrive momentarily, and I thank you for your wisdom!” Soon thereafter, the bill arrives, I pony up, burp loudly, and move rapidly to my hotel to catch whatever tele-novela is on that night.

In Germany, I initially also asked for the bill--”Die Rechnung, bitte”--but have started following the lead of those around me and just saying we want to pay--”Wir wollen bezahlen, bitte.” So I did recently at a beer garden in Lenngries, a small resort town in the Bavarian Alps. The proprietor came over with the ubiquitous leather wallet, used to make change in every place with table service I have ever seen in Germany, settled the bill, and then asked, “Where are you from.”


Tell someone you are from Alaska, and you generally get one of two reactions. The first, and more common, includes a widening of the eyes, a slow whistle, and a shake of the head, all intended to let you know that you are crazy for living somewhere so cold, notwithstanding that anywhere north of the Alps probably gets as cold or colder than Anchorage over the course of a winter. The second reaction also includes wide eyes and a slow whistle, this time with a slight nod and various statements about how badly the person speaking wants to go see the place. But the man in Lenggries went off script.

“Alaska? Really! You see my nephew over there? The boy in the blue shirt?”

“Yes.” Indeed, his nephew had just earlier brought me a second beer.

“He thought for sure you were French. Hey! They aren't French! They're from Alaska!”

The nephew walked over. “Really? But the way you ordered a beer: 'May I have another beer, please.' It sounded so French. Alaska, eh? What the hell are you doing in Lenngries?”

Now that was a good question.

We had actually intended to be in another town altogether. Once in Munich, a friend had sent a number of tips for the Bavarian Alps, most involving stays at alpine huts for which we couldn't quite figure out the logistics. But he also sent a link to a hotel on a mountain lake that looked lovely, particularly in contrast to the heat of Munich. C started looking online, followed some links, declared the price south of reasonable, and we decided it was time to head into the mountains. C booked us into a room for a few nights—at a non-refundable rate.

I started looking at train tickets, which is when we started to realize that C had followed the wrong link and booked us into a completely different hotel in a town we had never heard of. As it turned out, though, the place we booked was only a valley or two over, and the original hotel was priced well north or reasonable and not a valid option after all. So, win-win. To Lenggries we went.

Lenngries is at the base of a ski hill, that I gather is a rather large and popular winter destination, but they also boasted summer fun, with, among other things, ski lifts to alpine hikes. And, as luck would have it, Lenngries was hosting a week-long traditional Bavarian alpine festival that started the day we arrived. The festival appeared to draw crowds from neighboring towns, but only a handful of other tourists. The tourists were all immediately recognizable as the ones without lederhosen or dirndl dresses. It turns out that traditional clothing isn't all kitsch in these parts, but still gets worn by young and old when the occasion calls for it. Brass bands played, the locals went on parade, and a giant beer tent welcomed all.

None of which, though, did I tell the nephew. I just said it got hot in Munich and we decided to come to the mountains for a few days. Then I burped, and C and I went back to our hotel to watch Freiburg play in the Second Bundesliga match on TV.

(Just, you know, out walking the dog and the kid in my lederhosen.  That's just how we do here in Bavaria.)

(Follow the horses on parade at your own risk.)

(Let us take a moment to recognize the real heroes of the Alpine Fest.)

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Orbital Cycles

A sure sign that you are over-nighting with a scientist is that the evening's entertainment consists of a glass of wine on the balcony, watching the International Space Station interactive location map.  We were waiting for the ISS to appear on the horizon and pass in an arc across the sky only to disappear with a promise to reappear in another 90 minutes or so.  Frankly, the night suited us well.  But we nevertheless got pulled into the station's orbital wake and were yanked from the quiet of Reutlingen and tossed to Munich.

Our arrival into Munich was inauspicious. We had not known when—or even if—we would be going to Munich, so had not made any housing arrangements. We disembarked at the hauptbahnhof, and wandered to the Tourist Info center to book a room for the coming days, a strategy that had worked well for us in the past in other cities. This being peak vacation time in southern Germany, the lines were long, and we cued at the back. More people filtered in behind. We could overhear conversations up at the counter.

“Every room in our system is booked.”

“But where will I stay?”

“You can take this list of hotels in Munich and try to call them, but there is nothing on our system and nothing I can do.”

C and I looked at one another and decided there was no point in standing in line any longer.  The man at the counter looked shell-shocked.  We stepped out of the TI office and into a Le Crobag at the train station that had WiFi, deciding it would be more efficient to do some searches online than take the TI's collection of phone numbers. It was hot in Munich, way hotter than it had any right to be, and the Le Crobag (like all of Munich) had no air conditioning. Across from us a couple of (suspected) junkies nodded off to sleep, snapping awake from time to time to scan the room with eyes that never seemed to track one-another. Next to us sat two girls from Japan texting, crowded by a man from Spain talking loudly on the phone who had, for some reason, decided to forego the numerous empty seats for a seat at the same table as the girls.  It looked like their shoulders touched. The man started to get agitated, speaking louder and unintelligibly into the phone.  At least he was unintelligible to me. Presumably, the caller on the other end could make it out. But maybe not, which may have led to the agitation in the first place. The girls got up and left, but not as quickly as I would have expected. A pigeon wandered in to join the fun, and I'm pretty sure one of the junkies tried to score from it. We did not research hotels long and hard. There's a hostel with space? Take it and let's get the hell out of here.

Once in the hostel, we arranged an Air B&B stay for the remaining nights in Munich, settled in, and wondered what to do next. A guide book we are carrying in electronic form—convenient for its weight but not particularly functional if you actually want a guide—stated that Munich is a city of art and beer, and I cannot really argue with that description. There was plenty of both on offer. There was also stifling heat raining from the skies in a relentless siege on all that is good and right on this Earth. As such, we spent most of the time trying to keep C alive by browsing shopping centers, the only buildings in all of Europe (apparently) that were constructed or remodeled recently enough to have included AC as part of the design. I looked at women's clothes. I looked at kitchen wares. I saw shoes and scarves enough to fill a lifetime. All in the name off keeping cool.

Between sale racks, we learned a little about Munich's history and its rise to wealth and prominence, including its role in the rise of the Third Reich. We saw Satan's footprint, preserved under the onion domes the Frauenkirche. We saw a small fraction of the art available city-wide for viewing. And, yes, we drank an even smaller fraction of the beer available for consumption. But most importantly, we stopped to pay homage to a great historical figure who changed the world with his message of peace and declaration that Billie Jean was not, in fact, his lover, spending the better part of two days in quiet meditation at the Michael Jackson memorial.

Munich hovers near the top of lists ofthe world's most liveable cities. It may be, but it is hard to judge under the twin oppressions of crowds and heat. We only scratched the surface of the city's museums, and could not fall into the city's rhythm on the tourist trail. Rather than admire a high quality of life, we seemed to spend our time trying to hydrate, cool down, and dodge rental luxury vehicles driven by the monied visitors who seem to have come for the high-end shopping on Maximillian Strasse rather than the collection of ancient Greek sculpture in the Glyptothek. As such, we again cued the ISS interactive map and grabbed hold on its next pass, letting it pull us out of the urban and into the (hopefully) cooler Bavarian alps.

Some photos from Munich:

(It is still called the "New" Town Hall, even though it was built in 1867.  How does your town hall measure up?) 

(C... and crowds)

(Beer garden, quiet before the storm.)

(The iconic view of Munich, available on every post card.)

(The junkies we saw in the Le Crobag?  Some picture I took after too many house in the heat?  Our Air B&B host watching our every move from the shadows?)

(Munich has a surf scene.  Really.

(Beating the heat.)

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Don't Start Asking Questions

You could do worse as a 15 and 17 year old boy than to choose an all girls school in Germany to attend as an exchange student. Of course, I never actually made the choice. That decision was made by virtue of the school my high school, Albermarle High School, partnered with as part of the German-American Partnership Program, St. Ursula's School for Girls in Freiburg, Germany.  But still, all girls.  So of course I went on exchange twice, both times for approximately a month, staying with different families each time. Unfortunately, I was an ill mannered youth who failed to keep in touch with his hosts, which is too bad because we just passed through Freiburg and it would have been fun to have friends on the ground.

I did find the school, although it did not look at all like I remember it. It wasn't even where I pictured it relative to the rest of the city. There are two possibilities: 1) the school has been renovated and/or moved; or 2) my memory is shit. I'll leave it to you to guess which is the more likely.

C and I met our good friend Tina in Freiburg, who had travelled over from France, and immediately went to the doctor's office. That is what you do in a new town, right? To get to know the people? And the culture? No? Well, it is what we did, but mostly because Tina's arm was starting to blister and swell from an insect bite. The doctor wrapped her up good and prescribed a steroid. So fortified, we explored the town for two nights and one day before heading into the countryside to stay with the family of a mutual friend from Fairbanks.

As we continue to make our way through Germany, we've been puzzled by the volume of bottled water we (and everyone else) consumes. Unlike other countries—the U.K., France—you cannot get tap water in restaurants. It is only served sometimes (I've seen it twice) as a very small glass on request to accompany espresso. I've seen no drinking fountains. Although the water is safe to drink, everyone relies on bottles at home. No doubt the bottled water tastes good, but all of the packaging and transportation comes at an energy cost, even if the Germans reuse or recycle all of the bottles. And in every other facet of life, the Germans are fanatics about sustainability. It doesn't add up.

I asked Margret, our friend in the rural Black Forest, for her take, but I'm not sure she understood my point and I didn't press the issue. Because the bottled water—from springs—tastes better, has not been treated chemically, and has minerals that are believed to be healthful, she equated drinking bottled water as an extension of sustainability. Clean living = clean environment. While there may be the perception of purity with spring water, that seems to me independent of any question as to the energy costs of transportation.  I wonder if the added energy costs are worth the benefits.

I raised the same question with another friend we stayed with in Reutlingen, Olaf, a professor of ice physics who I first met in Fairbanks. He understood my point, but didn't have a good answer. He pointed out that most of the water is transported a short distance—towns and regions have a “local” water of choice. Germany has plenty of water. And, again, there is the perception that the spring water is much better for you than tap. At the end of the day, it seemed tradition trumped sustainability, at least in this instance. Probably for the best. If you start looking too hard at sustainability you start to question beer. I've read that anywhere between 8 and 24 gallons of water is required per pint of beer once you take into account water used to grow the ingredients, etc. And any analysis that questions the reasonableness of beer, particularly as we move east to Munich, is an analysis best swept under the rug.

(Seen in a shop in Freiburg, the REAL reason we come to Europe at all.)

(Freiburg Munster.)

(Wall detail, Freiburg.)

(Wine detail, Freiburg.)

(Blogger detail, Freiburg.)

(Path through the Black Forest.)

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

A Short Walk in the Vines (Mosel River, Part 2)

When you travel with two sisters, you never lack for interesting and topical conversation. I suppose it is the shared experiences of youth coupled with shared genetics—no need to bet a dollar on nature versus nurture when both are at play—that allows sisters to talk for hours on all subjects with nuance and eloquence.

“Amaretto is almond. That drink was hazelnut, so not amaretto.”

“Right. Amaretto is almond flavored.”

“But you called it amaretto and not hazelnut.”

“Did not. You brought up amaretto, not me.”

“Did not.”

“Did too.”

And so on. Luckily we were on the Mosel, and I had the landscape to suddenly distract me from the need to weigh in on the amaretto or hazelnut debate (a debate that was tabled by agreement).

We choose the Mosel as a good place to start the non-London European leg of our trip for a number of reason. We found reasonable and affordable lodging for three. The towns looked rich with half-timbered buildings and narrow alleyways that the locals called “roads” and on which drivers still assumed they might fit their cars as if by right, notwithstanding that the village predated the internal combustion engine by some 1,000 years. And access to hiking trails.

A quick search online shows that the Mosel is popular as a bike-touring destination, with bike trails tracing the contours of the river on both banks. People ride from town to town, camping or staying in hotels along the way. [As an aside, camping on the Mosel appears to have little to do with what I think of as camping, and much to do with large RV parks on which people set up elaborate homes for the season.] Less discussed, at least in English, are the hiking trails that dissect the hills. It looked very easy to pick a town, walk until tired, then catch a train or a bus and return to your starting destination. To facilitate, we picked Cochem as a central location, a tourist town in the heart of what most people characterize as the most beautiful segment of the river.

The plan worked well, although five days was too short to really start to explore, particularly where we also needed time to visit castles and sample wines. But we hiked to Eller, up out of the river valley and through the region's agriculture, coming to rest in a biergarten where we practiced the fine German art of consuming coffee and cake and, for good measure, beer. We hiked through vineyards and across shale slopes with signs warning hikers of the need for good footwear and sure footedness. We went up steep climbs and down loose descents, which we again finished with a cup of coffee and cake on the deck of a guest house with a Mosel river view. We hiked into a winemaker's garage, and drank a glass of cold Riesling on a hot summer day, shaded by grape vines and followed by runs through an impromptu water park constructed by village kids with a faucet, a hose, and something with which to poke holes in the hose. The Mosel was everything we hoped.

Thereafter we shuttled to Frankfurt for the sole purpose of putting C's sister on a plane. Her trip through Europe came to an end a few days ago, and we miss her guidance already. Unfortunately, though, the amaretto or hazelnut debate never reached closure, and I now expect to hear about it at family get-togethers for years to come.

Some pictures from hiking on the Mosel: