Thursday, August 31, 2006

Vienna, Day 1.

Strolled over to downtown Vienna today, and you know what was the very first thing that hit me?

O.K., it wasn't the first thing, it was like, the 2nd or third, but the first couple of things that hit me: that Vienna was the cleanest city I've ever been to, and the one (or one of the ones, I forgot about Rome) with the most beautiful architecture clustered together in one place, was more or less, not expected, exactly, but rather what one imagined Europe to be, kind of, so it wasn't quite surprising, but rather...satisfying/vindicating, I guess, so it kind of just registered in the subconscious and doesn't really require much gushing about.

But anyway, the 3rd thing that hit me, or more precisely the first thing that consciously hit me was this super cool University bookstore right at the edge of the old town, with tons and tons of books about law (there must be a very good law school here), business law, and economics, but most importantly LOTS and LOTS of excellent books on the EU: policies, regulations, history, treaties, comission reports, you name it, everything you wanted to know about the EU, they had it in a book: its how it was formed, its economic policy, effects of migration on wages, dossiers on labor laws, studies on the liberalisation law's effect on the service industry, I literally mean everything, and both in German and in English. I could've spent hours in there.

Isn't it a delight, to find a freely available and easy access treasure-trove repository of information?


And then what happened: right across the street just as soon as I lifted my head as I (very regretfully, I tell you) walked out from the University bookstore, what do I behold?

The Freytag-Berndt bookstore.

Oooooh. Oh my God!!

Now, for those of you who may not know, Freytag & Berndt is a very renowned Austrian map company, publishing not only atlases (roads, biking and hiking), but holds an extensive collection of GIS raster data and Geodetic info, etc, and basically they are not just your "buy your tourist maps here" company, but mean serious business with users in the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) industry. Anyway, this bookstore, though, was the "for the vacation trip planner" consumer, as it was stocked and its shelves filled to the hilt with every possible tourist guide to any country in the world published by pretty much every possible tourist guide publisher you could think of (Lonely Planet, Let's Go, Michelin, Guide Routard, Hungarian-published guides, etc), and in several different languages (German, French, and English the most common, of course, but also some in Czech, Italian, and Hungarian). And the maps? Sure, and what was nice they were not just the F&B maps, but maps by other companies like (my now very much disliked company) EuroAtlas, Cartographia (pretty good Hungarian company), Michelin, etc. AND, not just road atlases, but cycling and hiking maps, and even nautical maps. Not to mention, of course, the phrasebooks and "learn Chinese in 5 minutes a day"-type books and CDs, plus the non-fiction travelogues, and coffee table exotic location photo books. Oh lordy!

What a beautiful city, Vienna. :)

The day today was rather rainy and dreary, winterlike, even. I had to buy me a jacket (if the weather is to be like this when I cross the Carpathians I will definitely need it!), but even in spite of the autumnal darkness and cold, the city still looked beautiful.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006


Trip dist: 124 kms. Trip time: 7 hrs, 22 min. Tot dist: 5,647 kms.'s ride felt a little bit like being in one of those anime cartoon movies, a la Hayao Miyazaki. Intermittent rain and sun bathed the scenery in some rather eldritch light, and it got soaking wet and then completely dry only to get soaked again in a process that repeated itself several times, and once nearing Vienna I could actually literally measure the speed of the approaching rain cloud, for my front wheel was just behind its shadow, and could never quite catch up, so going back to the anime theme, it was as if I was literally racing the cloud and running away from the rain (or chasing the sun, for you optimistic types ;)), for it was raining behind me (and rain clouds brought with them strong winds and cold), but just 30 cms beyond from where my front wheel reached it was still sunny and warm. Very strange.

I had miscalculated the distance to Vienna, too. The 60 kms I had told you about before was not 60 kms from Brno, but it is 60 kms from Brno to the border. So the point is, thinking I had a short ride I started rather late. Still, I was happy approaching the border (in spite of the very dark ominous cloud chasing me, which was of course an interesting extra incentive, apart from the late start, to pedal faster). It is very comforting knowing that you will once more be able to speak again! Prospect of loneliness thus reduced, I couldn't stop humming "An der schönen blauen Donau" by Strauss all the way to Vienna. :)

I arrived, as it turns out, at the outskirts of Vienna at dusk and to get to the YH you need to traverse the whole city, so it soon fell into nighttime, and therefore I didn't see much during my approach to the center, though the building outlines looked pretty against the night sky.

The Vienese are nice, though. No one scolded me, even though I didn't bother to take out the front and back bike lights required by law for night biking, and at the roads during the day the cars would stop in the middle of the highway, just as in Germany, but not to scold me this time, but to offer me a "ride" instead (funny, ha ha. Or scary, depends. It was daytime, so it was more on the amusing side). But this, the "ride offerings", the "cloud from" fleeing, the capricious and changeable weather, the dusk-turned-to-night arrival, the Strauss soundtrack that wouldn't stop playing in my head, all contributed very peculiarly to the whole "anime" feel.


Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Brno, Day 2.

Had to change hostels yesterday because the one I was currently at is actually a school and since the term was starting today they kicked all the travellers out.

Which was great because as I mentioned in the movie from yesterday I ended up staying in this dorm for university music students (it just slightly pricier than the Youth Hostel, but not by much) across the street, and which is so luxurious: you get a suite with two rooms housing 2 people per room, with shower and bathroom shared between only the 4 people in the suite, it comes with ironing board and closets, and each 2-person room has a fridge and a TV! Had I only known this sooner....would've saved myself the two nights I had to sleep in the benches of an empty room at the YH due to the cacophonies of snores inevitable product of housing 12 people per dorm room (I have a very light sleep and as you know sounds of any kind tend to occupy my full attention--to the point of distraction---when awake).

Anyway, caught "Das Perfekte Dinner" on German TV this morning (oh, did I forget to mention? In this dorm the TV is no ordinary TV, it is cable, so you get channels from all over Europe, including CNN, plus the usual popular American shows like "Crossing Jordan" and the like. Again, had I known this sooner...{sigh}). It is a type of reality show kind of like "blind date". Basically, you have these 6 strangers and each week one of them prepares dinner for the 5 others, and at the end of 6 weeks someone votes on which the best dinner host was.

Today was the first episode and we got to see this 43 year-old guy prepare dinner for the 5 unknown guests (after that, the guests are known to each other and obviously the audience---the cast doesn't change week-to-week). He took his job very seriously and we got to see how he went shopping for quality ingredients, how he planned the menu, then cut to what the guests thought they could imagine the cook to be like based on the menu choices, etc, then cut back to the cook to be doing more cooking, etc. blah blah blah.

But anyway, in-between the food preparing, the "table decorator" arrived. That's right. If this sounds odd, keep in mind this is for a TV show so it is a bit understandable if our German cook calls up some sophisticated guns to prettify the flower arrangements and make a good impression on these unknown guests, for they could be pretty much anyone (he doesn't get any information a-priori on the guests, and funnily enough, one of the women happens to be a hippie vegetarian type, which of course forshadows some interesting scenes when the lamb chops arrive, but I digress), right?

But what I found uncanny, very...."German", if you will, was when the cook guy protagonist pops out the tablecloth and lays it on the table, puts his hand to his chin as he ponders which way to orient it, then leaves the dining room for a minute and returns with....can you believe this? An iron.

The guy was ironing the freaking tablecloth!!!

I nearly fell off my chair, laughing at that one! :D

Anyway, ran errands today. My silly picture hosting company did a stupid forced "upgrade" (you couldn't opt out) so the internet uploading of pictures was excruciatingly, torturously slow and frustrating. Again, folks, think twice about using streamload/mediamax for your file storage needs.

Afterwards I headed over to the Villa Tugendhat, which is what makes Brno a UNESCO World Heritage site, but it was closed (it is only open Wed through Sun), which was a pity, because it is one of the few UNESCO WHS that are modern. But here's a linky to their website. Oh well. At least I got to see a bit of the Brno suburbs, which look rather like the poorer villages of Mexico, except near the villa, where it looked just slightly more affluent, as it was cleaner, had more flowers, and they had houses instead of concrete ugly-collored apartments.

Monday, August 28, 2006



Visited the beautiful historic centre of Olomouc today, where I had a nice lunch, no less, in the house where papa Mozart stayed with Wolfgang and Nannerl in 1767. Neat, huh? (Ian, you jealous? ;P).

By the way, do you know how you say "ice-cream" in Czech?


What a happy-sounding word, isn't it? :D

You can almost hear the shimmering of the ice-crystals in it. How appropriate. :)

Sunday, August 27, 2006


Today I day-tripped to teeny-weeny UNESCO WHS villages/towns of Telč and Třebíč.

It was a bit of an adventure buying the bus ticket from the station at Brno, since no one there spoke English and though I tried to read things off the script in my phrasebook my pronounciation was so bad no one understood a single thing I said. But then of course one eventually concludes that simplest is best so you just approach the window and say nothing more than:

"Prosim Telč" or "Prosim Třebíč"

and in reply the very sharp ticket clerk gives me back a piece of paper with the numbers: 20 and 15:30 or 31 and 10:30 and you figure out it is bus number 20 at 3:30 p.m. or bus 31 at 10:30 a.m., so off I went.

Anyway, Telč is a very tiny village with not much of interest other than its main square, which you can see in under 1 hour, visit to the castle (zámek) included. Most of the morning, therefore, was just waiting around for the connections of the bus to Třebíč on the way back to Brno and the super short visit to the city center after the castle tour which lasted 45 minutes and the 20 extra I had left between the connections was more than sufficient to walk across the town square and take the necessary pictures.

I arrived in Třebíč by mid-afternon and submitted myself to a horribly/unnecessarily long tour of the UNESCO WHS Basilica of St. Procope before heading over to the old Jewish quarter which is one of the best preserved ones (and now very lavishly restored and cleaned up) of its kind in this country, and where for the first time, I think, I saw what appeared to be Roma gypsies, who have since (i.e. after the Jewish WWII deportations) settled in this quarter of town. I was rather curious to catch a glimpse of them since I'd heard a lot about them so far, and found them to look a bit like some of the peoples of Mexico, especially the little girls, with beautiful dark hair, large brown eyes and bronze skin.

The Jewish cementery was interesting, all the captions were in German even when the names had Czech derivations. No surprises there: Bohemia was part of Austria-Hungary, as you know, until the end of WWI.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Brno, Day 1.

What was my delight and surprise this morning when I stepped out of the Hostel to walk right into some kind of streetside folk music and dance festival. 'Twas fantastic! Basically these groups of kids aged 10-18 do a couple of dances at one of the main downtown street corners and then head off to the next corner, while at the corner they were previously at another group quickly comes to take its place, and they bring their own musicians (kids, too, same age) playing violins, contrabass, flutes, and singing.

And how colorful the dances are! Playful, happy, flirtatioius, tender, romantic, and cheerful like all peasant dances are.

The music and its harmonies are interesting. When I got a Polish folk music CD years ago I thought it was unlistenable. But seeing this music ("seeing", ha ha, but it is true!) in the context of the dances, that perception really changes, and you can ever start to see the feeling behind the melody (see the green "gypsylike" movie where it seems to be about someone getting married, perhaps? Look at how the man looks at the girl, what a tender look! Would make any girl melt! {sigh!}).

What a lucky day. :)

Friday, August 25, 2006

Havlíčkův Brod-Jilhava-Brno.

Trip dist: 123 kms. Trip time: 8 hrs, 52 mins. Tot dist: 5, 524 kms.

This should've been an easy and short ride but wasn't. Even though from Jilhava (elev 524 m) to Brno (elev 241 m) there is a net elevation loss of almost 300 meters the road is so hilly that it made the ride vey tiring and slow going, in spite of the favourable wind.

Also on the downhills (steep ones, at that) near the cities (the Czechs seem to like to build their cities on valleys surrounded by mountains/hills) there was a lot of stop and go traffic so it was a bit of a wear on the brakes.

But glad I'm in Brno (and it is kind of cool to say it, let it roll off your lips as you lengthen the traffic jam of consonants at the beginning: "" :) Hey. Don't make fun of me. I live for these kinds of simple pleasures, the sounds, the feeling of the word as it vibrates off your tongue and draws a little circle on your lips...{shrug}). Only 60 more kilometers to Vienna, which I've been looking forward to, perhaps to even catch the tail end of Mozart's 250th Summer Festival.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Prague-Kolín-Havlíčkův Brod

Trip dist: 118 kms. Trip time: 8 hrs, 3 min. Tot dist: 5,401 kms.

This was a very tiring, boring ride, with a net elevation gain and with lots of hills. The countryside in some parts was a bit reminsicent of Italy, with poplar trees lining the landscape at some points, which was the only nice, nostalgic thing about it. At the gas stations one still gets "service with a snarl": one woman even shouted at me when I asked her to repeat things since I only know 3 words in Czech (always, when travelling to a foreign-language speaking country learn first to say: "Please", "Thank you", and "Hello!". You'd be amazed at how much you can get by with simply that, usually! :)).

But one must've led a very unhappy life, if it makes you this cranky at nothing.


Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Prague, Day 3.


I didn't accomplish much by way of sight-seeing today. Mostly I hung out near the Charles bridge (I really like seeing the people) and Mala Strana again, then towards the end of the day went to the Mucha Museum, which, disappointingly, consists of only 1 room housing a few paintings of renowned Art Nouveau painter Alphonse Mucha, and with a rather overpriced ticket, at that.

But again, as I said, for such situations, there's always the internet.


Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Kutna Hora.

Hmm...did you know, that the only bombing that Prague sustained (and the reason Prague has such a well preserved center is precisely because it was one of the few cities that sustained almost no damage during WWII) was one American bombing mistake, where they were meant to head over to Dresden but, goes the story, the skies were cloudy, they got confused, and ended up bombing Prague instead? Funny, ha ha.

Do you hear me laughing, though? :|

Anyway, headed over today to Kutna Hora (UNESCO World Heritage Site!) on a nice tour guided by a very handsome gentleman in his early thirties (dark hair, hazel eyes, carmine lips and pale ivory skin...oooh!), and while we were driving on the bus we passed by an old Cistercian Monastery, which was turned into a tobacco manufacture by Josephus II, and which is now owned by Philip Morris, who now uses it to build Marlboros in what used to be a beautiful, peaceful old building designed for meditation, work and study. Funny, ha ha?

I'm not laughing yet, either. :|

Anyway, one of the interesting things about Kutna Hora is its ossuary, which is unique from all the others I've shown you is that here the pretty bone patterns are more elaborate. Now, in that shield in the picture, do not miss the little "joke": the bird skeleton pecking at the skull's empty socket where the eye used to be.

Anyway, Kutna Hora is a sleepy little town, though its cathedral of Santa Barbara is way cool, with its art nouveau stained-glass widnows which I cannot show you, since pictures are not allowed. Though we did get a complimentary picture CD with the tour package so I may try to link to that when I get to a better equipped and more relaxed computer facility. :)

Our handsome guide then took us to a nice restaurant where we had some delicious Czech food, I had a nice steak with cream and berry sauce. It was sweet and therefore a bit unusual, but it came with those delicious bread dumplings so typical of this country and which I have been gladly eating for the past two or three days. Besides, David the guide was sitting across the table from me so the views were pretty nice also. :D

In the evening back in Prague, I catched a show of the very strange, absurdist Black Theatre, which is rather cool: you go in and it is pitch black onstage, and then you see all these fluorescent-painted figures (i.e. fish, flowers, actor's faces) floating by on the black background and doing flips since the stage is actually lighted by UV lights ("black" lights, as you know) which makes white things brighter and this kind of paint glow, and it doesn't matter that you don't speak Czech because the actors speak little and the little they do is made purposely to be gibberish so even a child can "understand".

And I put "understand" in quotes because with fish flying and flowers doing backflips in response to an actor's funny face expression, the plot doesn't typically make much sense anyway.

But it is a bit like walking into someone else's dream, and that's kinda cool. ;)

Monday, August 21, 2006

Prague, Day 2.

Ha ha. Well, the Prague Opera is definitely the place to see and be seen. Why, the opera boxes have strategically placed half-mirrors positioned in such a way that you can have a nice view of the rest of the theater, of the boxes, that is, that would be normally obscured by your angle of vision to the stage, so that even with your head turned towards the performance, you can easily check out what the object of your affection seated several boxes away from you is doing by a quick glance at the looking glass.

Neat, huh?

Anyway, the reason I went there tonight (if you know me in person you know full well that I hate operas) was simply because they were giving a performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni using original period costumes and set designs just like when it was premiered in Prague back in 1787 (to great success, I might add). But so what, right? Elisa doesn't like the opera anyway, nor does she like Mozart much, either. But I figured I had to pay my respects to Mozart year 2006, in honor of Mozart's 250th anniversary.


In the morning, I went across the river (it is the Vltava river, not the Elbe or Labe in Czech anymore) to see the Castle, seat of the Prague government, and St. Vitus' Cathedral (which is inside the castle complex).

They're pretty, huh? :)

Anyway, I had a very nice morning stroll across the Charles Bridge which with all its artists was a bit reminiscent of Paris' Montmartre, and Mala Strana, the part of town near the castle with all its shops and host to all the consulates and embassies.

There are so many people here, lots of tourists and youngsters and kids and everything, it is a very cheery place, the old quarters of Prague.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Prague, Day 1.

Ran errands in the morning (i.e. find internet cafes, nearby tearoom and bakery for morning breakfast, find supermarket/post office, etc).

In the afternoon, I headed to Josefov, the nearby Jewish quarter (my hostel is very nicely located only 1 block away from the main center square) where I admired the amazingly beautiful Spanish Synagogue built in moorish style and its insides decorated with golden arabesques. Incredible.

Now, pretty much the whole of Josefov in Prague has been made into a museum, you can buy a combined ticket that lets you in most of the monuments (cementery, a couple of synagogues, exhibits, etc), which is not, by the way, all that cheap. Only one building is excluded on this combo ticket, and it is the Old-New Synagogue, which is the oldest Synagogue in Europe that is still in use.

Now, if you thought it a bit odd that one has to pay to visit a "church" (I've always thought that worship should be a free exercise, and admiring where others worship should be free too, as it is a kind of "worship by proxy", but anyway, I am not here at the moment to talk to you about politics...), imagine what I thought when I discovered that the price to visit this particular one was no less than 200 Czech crowns, which is a little over two thirds of the price of the admissions ticket to all the other Jewish Museum (i.e. Josefov) buildings and exhibits combined (and for you currency conversion weenies let me point out that 200 CZK is almost 10 bucks--nine, to be exact!).

Well, the Old-New Synagogue must then be a jaw-dropping sight then, right? Even if the exterior is deceptively...ascetic?

Nah. The interior is just as barren and featureless as the outside. There is only 1 dilapidated room you can visit, and on the outside, a stone or two ruins of the older parts of the building. My advice to you? Skip it. The ticket price is unabashed unarmed robbery.

Anyway, in the evening I went to listen to the Dvořák Symphony Orchestra play the Prague/NY master's 5th (a.k.a. the 9th, or in other words the sublimely beautiful, "From the New World", probably my favorite symphony, a fitting performance for this wanderer's travels in Prague, you'd agree), which prompted my unvoiced remarks:

" old is the director of the Dvořák Symphony Orchestra? So young, and in so much of a hurry...."

Honestly, this has got to be the worst performance of the 9th I've heard, and that includes the uncoordinated and oft out of tune Guadalajara Symphony. The concert hall provided very good sonority, though (as you could tell by the overwhelming brass and the woodwinds, whose monotone counterpoint easily drowned out all of the strings during what should've been beautiful violin melodic passages and cello fugues). Oh well.

Luckily, for such situations there's always the internet.

Saturday, August 19, 2006


Trip dist: 71 kms. Time: 4 hrs, 50 min. Tot dist: 5,283 kms.

Street hawkers.

Wow. I rolled into Prague this afternoon (short, fairly easy/uneventful ride along the national roads--ditched the Elbe Radweg shortly after setting off from Litoměřice, too much pain in the neck trying to figure out the sineage, and car roads are much faster) to discover that every single church near the city center is hosting a concert this evening, and some even twice a day (6 p.m. and 9 p.m.).

The competition for classical music performances is amazing here, so much so, that peddlers on the street hawk "Concert! 6 p.m. so and so church!" to passerbys as if they were selling crockery wares or something.

My kind of paradise. :)

Except that unfortunately this competition doesn't really do much to lower the price of a ticket: at an average of about 15 Euros this is approximately what you'd expect to pay for a church concert in the U.S. {shrug}

Ha ha, and I, that had been even thinking of cutting the trip short in Berlin, what with the dissapointment at the lack of music up to that point, can you believe it? :D

Glad I didn't. ;). And you betcha I'm listening here in Prague to all that I hadn't been able to listen to over the past 4 months [gets dreamy-eyed...]. Aaaah....{sigh}.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Dresden-Pirna-Bad Schandau-Děčín-Litoměřice

Trip dist: 126 kms. Trip time: 8 hrs, 59 min. Tot dist: 5,212 kms.

Well, just in case you were wondering, how do I quickly type all those special characters on top of the consonants in the names of the towns above? Simple! Cut and paste from the Czech webpages! (yeah, it is a pain dealing with the html stuff since Firefox doesn't even read it correctly anyway unless you use the numerical symbol number, and who has the time to look all of them up anyway?)

Anyway, I decided to head towards Prague on the Elbe Radweg, though I wasn't particularly looking forward to the extra 50 kms (as I've said before, one of the many drawbacks of the radwegs is that they tend to meander a lot more, and in this case, the river meanders quite a bit), because as it happens, there is this great German National Park only about 30 kms from Dresden known as Sächsische Schweiz, which has really pretty mountains, awesome sandstone formations perfect for rock-climbing, and in general lots of very nice lancscapes, and as it happens the Elbe Radweg cuts just right across it, and judging from the rave reviews this park had gotten in the Youth Hostel at Dresden and the pretty pamphlets I had seen at the reception advertising the hiking tours to Bastei peak, well, it seemed like the park was something not to miss.

So I very much enjoyed the ride today, in spite of the fact that it started raining right after my little breakfast/lunch break on top of a hill at the entrance of the park, where I had no canopy cover, and which you can probably tell if not from the misty pictures at least from my frizzy hair (see for instance picture above ;P), and the fact that the ride was extremely tiring (the bike path signals say you need to take the ferry at one point and head for the shore on the opposite side of the river, then continue there for a while before eventually crossing back over a bridge, but engineer Elisa hates these kinds of "inneficiencies" so I tried to continue along the bike path even after, though it had started paved, it turned to gravel, then dirt, and uphill path cum wooden staircase for hikers. Pushwalking the bicycle up that became out of the question after two hikers coming down said that the trail peaked in about an hour's hike uphill, so back to the ferry station it was. After arriving to the ferry station where all the short-distance/touring cyclists were sitting around waiting for the ferry does Elisa now take the ferry? No, she tries to cut across on the minor auto roads marked on the car road atlas to try to catch the bike path after the bridge crossing, without knowing, of course, that this requires an 18% slope climb which the road atlas, having no gradient markings, does not show. Imagine climbing up that when you're carrying 30 kgs of panniers and the oily road is wet and slippery from the rain, and your sneakers give you no traction from wear and use. Yup. A group of 4 German cyclists--1 male and 3 women kindly took turns helping me push the bike from behind for half of the slope, which I found most kind, and they most comical. Oh well. Luckily the 18% climb lasted only about 1 km or so. I did save myself 2 kms of riding with this little "shortcut". But obviously I probably saved something like negative 40 minutes, in terms of time, waiting for the ferry included. :P. Lesson learned: Elisa, after you've decided to follow the radweg, then follow it to the hilt, no "shortcutting" or "brilliant variations". That only works when you're playing chess, and then only if you're Kasparov. :))

Anyway, there were lots of short-distance cyclists on the bike path today, which was comforting, because not knowing the language can make one very lonely.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Dresden, Day 2.

Visited the Protestant Frauenkirche today. It is that church that got squashed to the ground by a direct hit bomb during the (infamous) RAF raids towards the end of WWII. The reconstruction of the church has just recently been completed using some of the original bricks as I tell you about in the movie I took yesterday, and looks very beautiful from the outside.

Now, judging from the amazingly long lines the visitor must submit himself to prior to visiting the interior (longer than any I've ever seen to visit any church, including St. Peter's), one would think that it had to be amazing inside.

And sure, it is quite beautiful, being brand new, but as it is kind of re-built and a Protestant church at that (which tend to be known for avoiding excessive ornamentation) it wasn't all that much prettier than any other Cathedral in any other big city.

I guess my point is: the interior, I don't think, justifies the long lines, and the extraordinarily obnoxious behavior (i.e. pushing, stepping on people's toes, etc) of the crowds inside. {shrug}

Anyway, so. Tomorrow: should I go the 150 kms to Prague on the Bundestrasse 170, or take the Elbe Radweg for 201 kms instead?

What do you think?

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Dresden, Day 1.

So. Dresden is divided into two sections, the Altstadt (old part of town), like most European cities, and the Neustadt, across the river from the old part of town. I'm staying in the Neustadt and it is pretty nice: its streets have lots of shops, pubs, ethnic restaurants (can you imagine? Cuban and African restaurant here in Germany! What a welcome surprise that was!) and bazaars, that give it a rather warm, "bohemian" feel, not very unlike the Haight and Ashbury over in San Francisco. Probably because there are a lot of immigrants in this part of town.

Anyway, today was errand day. Bought a map of the Czech Republic, watched a movie, and went a-hunting for a place to get my hair cut. It has been 4 months since my last haircut and things are getting unruly (ponytails every day can be so...boring!). And, it HAS to be done here, in Dresden. It just HAS to.


Try explaining: "Take four centimeters all around, front bangs to just below the chin and fading to length, slightly layered on the back" in Czech.


Tuesday, August 15, 2006


Trip dist: 92 kms. Trip time: 6 hrs, 15 min. Tot dist: 5,086 kms.

Celebrations V.

Note to self: If at all possible, try to avoid planning routes through towns with names starting with "Ober-" (i.e. Oberelda) or "Hohen-" (i.e. Hoherleipisch). The name prefix is no mere caprice, indeed, as the name suggests, arriving into these places will, invariably, no exceptions, guaranteed, by necessity involve some sort of steep hill climbing.

Anyway, hmm. The 5000th kilometer anniversary was...well, it happened, you see, very shortly after I left Finsterwalde (only 6 kms, as you know), just as I was getting the hang of pedalling, so to speak, and to top it off, it had just started raining right after I left the main town square, so I didn't really stop for the traditional, required celebratory ice-cream, which was a bit anti-climactic.

Still, the rest of the ride (apart from the initial rain, that is), wasn't too bad. Took a small "indirectour" about 15 kms north of Dresden to catch the Elbe Radweg, which follows, as the name suggests, the Elbe River and which one can catch from as far up North as Cuxhaven, all the way up in the North Sea right close to Denmark, all the way down southeast to Dresden, thus traversing the full length of Germany, and finally straight into Prague.

People seem a lot friendlier here on this radweg. Some of them even said "hi" to me before I did. So in response to this of course I invented a little game to amuse myself during the boring part of the bike ride: when you sense people are about to say "hi", quickly say "hello" first. It tends to throw them off (and I still win every time). :)

So, Dresden is my last German city before I head off for the Czech Republic, but I find that I am not so nervous about switching countries as I used to be before this time. The real reason, I think, is because I know that Czech Republic can't possibly be worse than here in terms of the scolding I keep getting, but another good part of the reason is that, whereas before I would get nervous about the language, and how my rudimentary skills would barely be sufficient to make myself understood, and the worry always persisted, of whether I would understand them, and would they understand me, etc, now that question no longer exists, because the questions: "Will I understand the language? Or will they understand me?" I can already easily answer with a categorical, 100% certain, undeniable:


So that's one less thing to worry about. :)

Monday, August 14, 2006


Trip dist: 119 kms. Trip time: 8 hrs, 7 min. Tot dist: 4,994 kms.

Die Sorben.

Today was a pretty ordinary ride along the flat lands of Niederlausitz (southern Brandenburg), smack right in the middle of Sorb country.

The Sorbs are a group of European "natives", who still live by their traditions, and are protected in Germany a bit like the indigenous peoples are protected in the U.S. or Mexico, getting their own self-government and schools and everything.

And, as is typical, they (or their culture) was used a bit for propagandistic purposes back in the GDR days, for they were representative of the farm-working, "volk" ideal.

How do I know this, since I didn't even see a single one of them in the fields I was riding through today? Because I did a report on them for German class back in school. ;P

Anyway, as I said, the ride was not particularly exciting. The houses did start to look a bit like the ones in Poland, though (I am indeed not too far from the border, probably 80 kms or less): 3 storied and with very sharp inverted "V" roofs. But mostly it was kind of cool knowing I was riding through a place of people I had up to then only read about before, especially because I knew "a priori", not "a posteriori" as it happened to me when I rode through Charlemagne's birthplace Herstal, so I could appreciate the significance of things a bit more.

What else? Everyone speaks to me in dialect. It was kind of funny (it is funny that they speak so to me, clearly a foreigner, considering I am not as blond or blue-eyed ["as blond", ha ha!] as they). A bit difficult to understand, though.

Then I arrived in Finsterwalde, which appears to be the barbershop singing quartet capital of Germany (except they do not call them barbershop quartets here, of course). That too was a bit funny.

Finsterwalde was rather quiet, though. And cloudy and rainy. Wouldn't be surprised if it rained tomorrow as well.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Berlin, Day 5.

This morning I awoke to the unmistakeable sounds of heavy rain. This is not good for biking, not good at all.

I had changed hostels yesterday, I was now in a very comfy, clean, friendly place (staff German!) with no rules and what's more, no roommates, so I decided to take the day off from biking. "Punting", we used to call it at my old university. :D

So I slept late, showered at midday, read some Adam Smith (he has a delightfully funny take on Columbus's meanderings in discovering America), and later in the day when I got bored of staying indoors (it was still raining outside) I headed over to Berlin's Jewish History Museum.

Now, I had visited this museum a couple of days ago, but had arrived just 1 hour before closing, which did not give me time to see half of the most excellent exhibit there. The whole building itself (i.e. the architecture) is part of the exhibit, and what's more, the things displayed there, and the way they are explained, is extremely well done, and is the best museum of its kind I have ever encountered.

Take the architecture, first. The building was designed by Daniel Libeskind, who, by the way, won the commission for the master plan for the reconstruction of the World Trade Center. You can take a look about how the architecture contributes to the "statement" that the building makes (not just its contents) in the words of Libeskind himself here. But the point is, that walking through the building does, indeed, invite some reflection, which is precisely what he was trying to accomplish. A visit to the Holocaust Tower, in particular, is rather poignant.

Speaking of which, one of the things that makes this Museum so wonderful, I think, was the fact that it does not focus on the Holocaust per se. There...are enough places that do that already, and the quiet, understated way in which it is mentioned here, only towards the end, after showing the thousands of years of Jewish history frm Roman times to the present, you arrive to a little quiet workspace with a desk, with bookcases behind, holding the archives, of the names and birthplaces of all the Jewish people murdered, and which you can peruse at your leisure be it for research or personal reasons.

But most importantly, the rest of the exhibit, tracing the development of Judaism right from the beginning, is incredibly clear, engaging (lots of "Write your name in Hebrew here!" or "Listen to the sounds of two Yiddish merchants talking here!" and other suchlike fun interactive multimedia exhibits, for instance), and informative. It really does do a great job of showing the cultural richness, the treasure inherent in these peoples and culture, and which again, ties in with the "blanks" left intentionally in the structure of the building by Libeskind to make the point, understated elsewhere in the exhibit, of all that was lost during the Holocaust.

But what I enjoyed the most was discovering all the good things that are inherent in the Jewish culture. Their values, for instance, emphasizing education. The strong and intelligent women this culture has produced. The beautiful tradition of passing down the sweet-smelling spice boxes at the end of Havdalah ("separation"), to mark the end of Shabbat and to start again the week in an uplifted, happy, tone. The humorous and ingenious personalities, which value wit and resourcefulness more than the superficial qualities our modern culture seems to do too much, for instance:

Goes the story that Moses Mendelssohn (grandpapa of musician Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, whom I've told you quite a bit about before), a reputedly very ugly man, won his beloved over with the following story:

"When a baby is born in Heaven, they tell him who his future wife is going to be. They told me my wife would be a hunchback. 'Oh God,' said I, 'A girl that's deformed easily becomes hard and bitter. Please, let me have the hump, so she can be pleasant and beautiful instead.'"

It worked. :)

Moses Mendelssohn was such a remarkable personality (he was well known thinker of his time), that there is even a Jewish saying:

"From Moses to Moses there's no one like Moses"

or, in other words:

"From Moses to Moses (Maimonides/Isserles?) there's no one like Moses (Mendelssohhn)".

Cool, huh?

Here's another one:

Mendelssohn (grandpapa) was invited to court in Potsdam in 1771. On that day, it was a Jewish holiday, and as no one was working he had to walk to the gates of the palace. He presented his invitation to the guard, who, as it was rather rare to see Jews in court, asked Mendelssohn his profession. The answer: "I do magic tricks."


Anyway, do go to this museum if you are ever in Berlin. It is one of the neatest things I have seen in this city.

Saturday, August 12, 2006


SAT Verbal: Analogies.

Pop Quiz: Potsdam is to Berlin what Versailles is to....?

Headed off to UNESCO WHS town of Potsdam today (I had passed it on the bike on the way to Berlin a few days ago but didn't have time to stop then). There are 4 main things to visit near the Palace:

Schloss Sansucci (Palace) --- 8 Euro for guided tour (cannot visit without tour).
Bildergalerie (Painting Gallery) --- 2 Euro.
Damenflügel (Lady's Wing) --- 2 Euro.
Schloss Küche (Palace kitchens) --- 2 Euro.

Quick: How much does this add up to?

The day pass, which gives you access to all of the above, costs 15 Euros (pass valid for two consecutive days).

Again, how much does the above add up to, if you buy the tickets individually, as opposed to buying them in the packaged day pass?

I, of course, wanted to see everything, so I asked the ticket counter woman for tickets to each (did you say the total for that comes to 14 Euros? Because if you did, you'd be correct). But just as I said: "1 ticket for the palace, please. Then 1 ticket for the Bildergalerie and one ticket for the Damenflügel. Oh, and one ticket for the kitchens, also, please," (all of this in German, of course), the ticket-selling woman actually asked me (I kid you not!): "Would you like to buy a day pass?"

I of course said no.

"It gives you access to all of the above," said she.

Man, either these people are so dense that they really miss the obvious, or they are so smart that they think that everyone else is so dense that they miss the obvious. So I said:

"Yes, but if I buy the tickets separately without the day pass, it is cheaper."

She nodded knowingly (ah, so they really are too smart then): "Yes," she said. "It is 1 Euro cheaper."

Me: "Separate tickets, please."

Honestly. I wonder how many stupid tourists they dupe with this one? I mean, does it really work?


Anyway, I had a couple of hours to kill before my tour was scheduled to start, so I went off to the town, had a nice snack of the obligatory bratwurst with bread bun and mustard, played around on the internet, then started heading back. But just as I arrived to the Palace gardens a half an hour before my tour I realized I had left my memory card reader and 2 GB worth of photos in my memory card at the internet place, another half an hour's walk away from where I currently was.

So I had to go back.

I hadn't eaten much, and to be frank the past few days had me in a rather cranky mood in general, so even though I luckily did find the memory card, in the end, I no longer felt at that point like going back to at least see the kitchens and the lady's wing or the paintings, which required no guided tour and one could go whenever one pleased. So I ditched my Potsdam day. Sat under a tree for a while. Looked at the old people passing by. Maybe with a friend the whole day's events would've produced much laughter and pleasant memories. As it just kindof sucked. {shrug}

Back to Berlin.

Do you know what is the first (or one of the first) thing(s) that happened after the Wall fell?

The Wall got taken over by a private company so that they could sell the chips of it to tourists.

What a triumph of capitalism. :|

I haven't finished visiting all of the sights of Berlin. But all of its square-tiled checkered sidewalks are driving me insane (it is impossible to stop thinking about chess knight move patterns on the diagonally-arranged 25cm x 25cm brick slabs as you walk over them in every street). So I'm fleeing this city tomorrow.


Friday, August 11, 2006

Berlin, Day 4.

Godwin's Law.

Holy smokes, Batman! Will this nightmare never end?

Today I had to change rooms at the hostel. These guys have never heard of good computer algorithms because they have the registry of guests all written out by hand, and if you ever want to extend your stay and someone else had a reservation for your room it is apparently impossible to send them to a different room so that you can stay in yours, but you have to move instead so that the person with the reservation gets the room they originally placed them in.

Silly, I know, but this is not such a big problem, except that when I came downstairs in the about half an hour before checkout time to ask for my new room key they said they could not give it to me until 2 p.m.

O.K., could they at least tell me what room it is?

They thought this strange, asked me why I wanted to know that.

"Because," said I a bit exasperated at having to explain the obvious, "that way I can move my luggage into the new room."

"Ah, no problem," they said, "just bring down your luggage and we will keep it in the luggage room. After 2 p.m. you can come pick it up and move it to the new room."

When you have to carry 2 panniers and a backpack that weigh, combined, about 30 kilograms up and down 5 flights of stairs, you can see why this was a very unappealing prospect. I would 10 times rather carry it up one or two flights or maybe even none if the new room is on the same floor. Additionally, consider, that I had already stayed in the room in question for 4 nights, and after such a long stay, one tends to "settle in" a bit: things are unpacked and strewn around the room, towel left to dry by the windows, books on the table, toothbrush in the bathroom, etc. Re-packing would require a half an hour at least. Not the kind of thing I like to waste my time doing.

So I tried to explain: "My luggage is very heavy, I would rather not have to carry it up and down if possible."

The receptionist gentleman: "Sorry, that's the way it is."

Me: "Why?"

(Always ask these rule-obsessed people "why". It is interesting, how it invariably throws them for a loop.)

He hesistated. I could tell he was trying to do some really fast thinking, from the frown that followed. Finally, he brightened up and said: "We need to keep the rooms clear for the cleaning staff."

"I see," said I. "Moving my luggage to the next room will not disturb the cleaning, as I will leave it in the lockers provided. May I have the key now, please?"

He did not expect this. He was at loss for words, for a minute. Another receptionist approached (British woman, but clearly having lived in Berlin for a while), asked what the problem was. He explained. She said: "Yeah, sorry, not allowed."

Me: "I understand what you are saying. However, my luggage is very heavy, and it would be of a tremendous help if I could just move it to the new room now. If you will not give me the key, could you at least please tell me what room it is?"

Him: "But how is that going to help, if I tell you what room it is now or at 2 p.m.? I will not be able to give you the key until 2 p.m. anyway."

Me (again, I hate having to explain the obvious): "If you tell me what room it is, I will go ask the people in the room if it is o.k. with them for me to move my luggage in right now."

Her: "What, and wake them up this early?"

Me: "It is 9:30 a.m. It is half an hour before checkout time. Someone in the room should be awake already."

[In case I didn't mention it before, in Youth Hostels the rooms tend to house between 4-8 people in dorm-style bunks]

Her:"But you cannot just go into a room and disturb the people there. How would you like it if someone did that to you?"

Holy scripes! Some people really are obtuse, I thought. "I will not disturb them. I will ask politely if they mind if I leave my things there. I will not wake any still-sleeping people. Naturally, if I had the key, it wouldn't even be necessary for me to make any noise at all, but you will not give it to me. I will therefore simply knock on the door. So, will you tell me the room number, please?"

Him: looks at her. She stares at him. "No" she finally says.

Intransigent, eh? I tried to the old trick of getting them to care: "Please, my luggage is very heavy, and I cannot come back here at 2 p.m. today..."

Him: "But it is the rule...."

Ha ha ha ha!! Here we go. I have a lot of patience, but this just riled me up, and besides it had been clear from the past 5 minutes that the conversation was going nowhere. I couldn't resist, at this one....

Godwin's Law is a little "meme" from the old days of the usenet discussion groups. It basically states that the longer a usenet discussion lasts, the probability of one of the parties being called a Nazi or compared to Hitler approaches one. Usenet lore has it, that at this point, a thread can therefore be declared as "has been going on for too long", that the discussion has degenerated into a flame war, and there is no more point for discussing any longer. Invoking Godwin's Law is the automatic thread ender, by convention.

So, why shouldn't the automatic usenet thread ender be used in this particular conversation, that as I said was going nowhere, and particularly, because the trigger words that very nicely summed up my German experience in my brief sojourn in this fascinating country: "But this is the rule!", are words that I cannot, as someone who thinks with her very own two brain cells, suffer as the justification for anything?

Me (smiling sweetly and shrugging): "It is just a stupid rule. What, if the rule says 'Kill the Jews', will you follow that one also?" [and here I braced myself for the new level of conversation I had just so rashly and mischievously propelled the three of us to by gripping the counter of the reception I was leaning on a little tighter, because, you see, calling an American, or a Mexican, or anyone else a "Nazi" will probably produce some incredulous laughter, but, doing this to a German would most surely touch an exposed nerve, for obvious historical reasons...]

I needn't have worried. At my "It is just a stupid rule...", before I had had a chance to even finish with the second part (the fun part!) of my phrase they had already started talking above me at the same time each of them saying fragments along the lines of: " staff...", "the rules are there for a reason!", or "what if we did this for everyone", and other fragments I couldn't catch as I was busy preparing myself for the explosion of my statement, however, it seemed that due to the disordered interruption at my remonstrations, the second part, the explosive part of my comment....had gone unheard.

Or ignored, which was just as likely. I did say it loud enough that at least two people nearby could overhear.

Eventually, when the two receptionists finally stopped talking at the same time, the woman sighed and left (went to the hostel bar to attend to something or at any rate returned to where she was before she "joined" this conversation), leaving the gentleman with an, admittedly, rather helpless look on his face.

At about that time two fellows approached the reception desk, checking out or some other rutinary hostel request. The remaining receptionist started attending to them, and stopped looking at me.

I waited with a pleasant smile on my face, because it made me chuckle (a chuckle I supressed, of course), the idea that by simply pretending I wasn't there would make the issue go away.

After 10 minutes, the fellows left. I smiled at the receptionist, who returned my gaze with a cold, very angry stare.

I smiled even more.

He kept staring.

And then I decided to try a different approach (thanks to A.C.T. in San Francisco Acting I teacher Jeffrey, for this very wise piece of advice: "When you are trying [i.e. in Theater or acting, etc] to get someone else to do something, and this something is important enough, it is intrinsic in human nature, to try different things. If yelling doesn't help, try being quiet. If pleading doesn't help, try commanding."). And, remembering another acting teacher's advice: (Marvin, Acting II teacher: "In dialogues where you're fighting, it is very boring, very uninteresting, just to yell, and it accomplishes nothing. Even when you're fighting...find the love in things."), I then softened all my features, relaxed my stance into a welcoming position, as if about to receive an embrace, and in the sweetest, most affectionate voice I could find, as if cuddling a lover, I said:

"Come on." [tenderest smile] "It is not a big deal...."

A long exhaling sound followed as he placed the key to the new room on the counter and said: "Oh, alright then, fine.".


Honestly! The kinds of things one must stoop to to get what one wants! Amazing....

(Still, it was a good trick to stumble on, must keep for future reference)

Anyway, after dealing with the Hostel people I headed over to the Bundestag again to try to finally catch the insides of it (including, possibly, seeing the promised "democracy in action" much promoted in the brochures for tourists that I told you about before). Not surprisingly due to the morning events, I arrived there not as early as I had hoped (only half an hour earlier than three days ago), but luckily today there were no lines outside the building at all, so I was able to get in fairly quickly no problem. After heading up to the top floor to see the beautiful and modern Glass Cupola I asked at the information desk (in German, of course. I only adress people in German here, except at the Youth Hostel, where the staff, except for the gentleman this morning, is British) if I could join a guided visit to the plenary session hall. The information desk gentleman (he was in his late 40's or 50's) replied to me with a complicated schedule and times for guided visits that went from half an hour past the current time (it was 10 a.m. at the moment) all the way to 5 p.m. I asked politely if he could repeat slower, please (I had just been the victim of a barrage of very fast, supernumerary information, and I only needed to once more catch the first part of what he had said).

Can you believe it? He replied, that the visits were led in German, and that they would speak as fast as he just had (this was, of course, not my question nor incidentally the reason I'd asked for repetition. The list of times had simply been too long for me to remember which one came the closest to 10 a.m., the present time). Honestly! As if it were the tourist's fault, not to know the schedules by memory inside out, somehow.


Nope, it was not over. During the actual Parliament visit (they take you to the upper floors of the building, where you can sit down to a very nice view of the Plenary Hall), and where they tell you lots of rather uninteresting details about the building of the glass cupola, instead of what I wanted to know, which was more along the lines of German politics (but I recognize that on this one I was probably expecting a bit too much from a simple tourist guided visit). But as if this weren't exasperating enough, when she opened the floor for visitor's questions someone (most of the visitors were German, of course) started asking cum arguing with her about the details of the date of the construction of the cupola. She had said it was 1999 when the cupola was completed, but she had also said something about 1957, which was when reconstruction of the whole Reichstag building had begun, but apparently the tourist had misunderstood, and he was arguing with her that: she had first said that the glass cupola had been completed in 1957, and how could that be right, if Norman Foster (who designed the cupola) only won the design in 1992? So then it couldn't have been 1957, right? No, said the guide, it was 1999, but then, said the tourist, what about the fact that you said in 1957, and so on and so forth, going on in a very polite but very tense (and incredibly boring!) discussion that lasted no less than 20 minutes, until the guide finally said: "Let's give someone else the opportunity to ask questions!". But all in all, very unpleasant. As if these details were so important. So the guide is wrong? Keep quiet then, then look up the facts in the encyclopedia for your own satisfaction, it is not necessary, I think, to both embarass the guide and waste the time of 50 other people who do not care that you are right and she is wrong or vice-versa.

Strange things, that these people find important.


Anyway, after that I headed over to the Philharmonic. I needed some cheering up. Find out if they were playing at all (though I didn't have my hopes up for this one, as it is August, and most orchestras are on vacation during this time, as I've said), or at least how much tickets cost during the season, or how pretty the building is, etc.

So I arrived, and the first thing that struck me was the building of the Philharmonic Hall. THIS is the Philarmonic??!? This garish, icky yellow, corrugated metal building is the host of the most renowned orchestra on the planet?!??

I hoped it was prettier on the inside.

I couldn't really tell, though, because, as expected, the Philharmonic was not in session in August: I am 11 days too late (the rage, Ian! I should've pedalled faster!).

With nothing left to do now, except slowly circle the neglected, abandoned, lonely dilapidated Philharmonic building, the culmination of my 4 month-long trip, the much awaited high point, geographically and culturally, of my journey, helplessly taking the obligatory pictures of this oh so highly reputed building with its oh so highly reputed music inside that I would not be hearing live, I realized suddenly (or rather, over a period of 4 months converging in this instant) that this much touted Europe, the First World, was not really all that much different from my own country, and what's more, with its own share of absurd problems to solve to boot, and I didn't know whether to laugh or cry at the irony.

And as the tears of frustration, helplessness and anger welled up in my eyes, not at the the clichéd "Wizard of Oz" realization that "there's no place like home", but rather: "Everywhere is like home," that everywhere is the same thing, with variations, and there is no running away that will make the bad things disappear, because in the end there is nowhere, really, to run to, that there is, in the end, no such thing as "better", I realized that without my consent, my heart had settled for the latter.

One....should not visit Berlin without a friend.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Berlin, Day 3.

Visited the Neue Synagogue on Oranienburger Strasse today. At the entrance you have to check your bags through x-rays and pass through a metal detector as if it were an airport. The security reminded me of the obnoxious security measures at American consulates in Mexico. Strange that this would be necessary in a Church. These guys are obviously afraid of....something. They must've had vandalism or threats in the past, surely.

Once inside, though, the people were very polite and friendly. Though you do have to pay 3 Euros for the entrance ticket (2 Euros for the synagogue proper and 1 Euro if you want to go up the tower).

The main part of the Synagogue was not particularly exciting. Much of it was destroyed during Kristallnacht(1939) and during Allied bombing in 1943, and it was then demolished in 1958, so what you see now is basically new. But the main room itself is pretty small and the exhibits/displays not particularly interesting, in my opinion.

Anyway, since I had already bought the ticket to climbing up the tower to the moorish cupola, I headed up there next. I thought it was a bit odd that there was nobody to check my ticket as I headed up the stairs, especially given all the security hullaballoo at the entrance of the Synagogue itself. This was soon explained, however, upon my arriving to the top of the stairs (several floors up, no elevator), right inside the cupola, there was a man checking tickets. To tell you the truth I felt a little annoyed that the ticket checking came so late. What if you didn't know you had to buy a separate ticket for the cupola? Then you would climb up inadvertently, and nobody would tell you you needed one until you were already at the top, with all that wasted effort if it later turned out you didn't really want to see it (there was not much to see). So I asked the ticket checker, why didn't they just check the ticket downstairs?

He replied: "Why check it downstairs?" (ha ha. Nice rethorical device: when you don't feel like answering a reasonable question, turn the question around to the questioner, have them answer it instead). So I explained my annoyance: you check the ticket downstairs so that people who forget to buy a ticket don't have to climb up 5 flights of stairs before finding out that they are not allowed inside. If you check the ticket downstairs, you save these people some effort.

He then pointed to a little cash register by the table. "If the people climb up the stairs with no ticket, they can then buy the ticket here. After climbing all those steps, they will think it more worthwhile to buy the ticket at this point than they would've downstairs."

Aha. Sneaky tactics, eh? Interesting economics/psychology experiment: would people without a ticket be more likely to buy one, after already having spent the effort of climbing, than they would be if the ticket were checked downstairs? Having a cash register at the top seemed to bank on an affirmative answer. Nevertheless, my intuition on human nature (which I basically figure as follows: A. I am a normal, average person. B. I was annoyed at having to have the 5 flights of stairs without having had my ticket checked first. C. Had I not bought a ticket downstairs, finding out I would have to buy one only after I already climbed would annoy me so much, that I would purposely not buy the ticket at the top, I would rather not see the cupola at all, and especially not, given that what you can see from the entrance to the ticket check, is not that impressive, and D. Since my sentiments are those of a normal, average person, it follows that most normal, average people will share similar sentiments) said the contrary.

But why, then though I, just leave this as a conjecture? I could already hear some people climbing up the stairs. Let's see, thought I, if my conjecture is true, and let's see, if the next people that climb up here have no tickets, whether they will buy them.

I didn't have to wait long before a family of 4 popped up the stairs. They had no tickets. "Would you like to buy one?" says the ticket checker. Family members look at each other, take a quick look around the room (there is not much to see), then say "No, thanks." and turn around back down the stairs.

Next, a man (Middle-Eastern?) pops up the stairs (his wife was half a flight behind, and very exhausted-looking). He had no ticket, either (lucky data points so far! :D). He asked the ticket checker how much they cost. "Two Euros fifty," came the reply.

I was puzzled. My ticket had cost only 1 Euro downstairs. The sneaky tactics include charging more? And is this part of economics, would people be willing, not only to pay after spending the effort of climbing, but to pay...more?

I waited with baited breath. Especially because my sense of engineering justice suggests that charging more at the top is a very sneaky thing to do, because it takes advantage of the fact that the consumer, not knowing that the price of the ticket downstairs is only 1 Euro, is now paying a lot more than he ordinarily would've.

The gentleman balked. "Two Euros fifty to see what, this?!?", as he pointed around the cupola room (it is a small, plain room, and the view of the city through the windows is not interesting at all).

At this point, the wife of the gentleman arrived, huffing and puffing. The gentleman turned to her and said something in what sounded like Arabic, to me (he had been speaking to the ticket checker in English, I had been speaking to the ticket checker in German). He then turned to the ticket checker again, and said, in English: "What is there to see here?"

The ticket checker (in bad English):"Don't understand."

The gentleman: "I want to know what there is to see here before I spend two and a half Euros, is this it?"

The ticket checker: "Two Euros and fifty cents."

Gentleman: "But what is there to see here?"

Ticket checker: "I don't understand. German please."

The Middle-Eastern gentleman, turns around, says something to wife, they start walking down the stairs.

A party of 3 reaches the top. They too, turn back upon finding out they need to buy tickets.

Satisfied, I start going down the stairs.

But something annoys me. When the ticket checker kept saying: "I don't understand English", it sounded fake to me. He can say "Two Euros and fifty cents." with perfect pronounciation, but cannot explain there is only "this" to see in the cupola? And what is it with the charging of so much extra, one-hundred and fifty percent extra?!?

Heck, I was bored, let me make some waves and practice my German elocution skills. I turn back upstairs. I ask the ticket checker, "I'm sorry, I'm a little bit confused, how much do the tickets cost here?".

The ticket checker seems taken aback by the question. It takes him a little bit of time to answer. My sixth sense starts ringing alarms, something doesn't seem quite right..."The tickets cost 1 Euro 50 cents. A student ticket costs 1 Euro."

Me: "Aha, I see. But I just heard you say two Euros and fifty cents to the gentleman that was just here. How come the tickets cost more here upstairs?"

The gentleman's posture stiffens. "Yes, they were two people, so it is two Euros and fifty cents...."

I stare at him frowning, looking innocently puzzled, as if thinking "Hmmm....the wife of the gentleman didn't look like a student to me" (and besides, I know for sure, because I made a point to observe the occurences carefully, that the woman did not pop up to the top flor where the ticket check gentleman was, until after the ticket checker had already quoted the price to the husband)

The ticket checker continues:"...Er, yes, two people, it should've been at 1 Euro 50 each, it should've been 3 Euros, I just gave them a discount..."

I nod. Head back downstairs.

Another party of two gentlemen reaches the top as I reach the first landing, where the ticket checker can no longer see me. I wait in the landing for the gentlemen to come down, as predicted by human nature (they had not bought a ticket previously either, and did not stay to buy one at the top). As the first one reaches me, I ask him, "Excuse me, do they sell tickets up there?"

"Yes." comes the reply.

"And how much do the tickets cost?"

"Two Euros."

I head back to the bottom, thinking.

Every person I saw going upstairs turned round without buying a ticket (I had been the only one who bought one downstairs). Downstairs, there is no indication that you need a ticket to go up (I only knew, because the cashier at the bottom had asked me if I also wanted a ticket to the cupola when I was buying the ticket to the synagogue). Not only that, the prices upstairs are higher (no pun intended) than they are downstairs. How well does this economics reasoning of making a little profit out of the already expended 5 flights of stairs climbing effort work, if no one buys tickets at the top, in the end? And what about the....odd feel I got from the ticket checker gentleman above? Why the whim-like ticket prices, the pretending not to understand English, the stiffening features?

By the time I reach the first floor, I have decided. I am bored, and this annoys me. Let me ask downstairs, why this practice of changing prices as if it were a stock market.

I go to the cashier downstairs, and innocently ask: "Hi, quick question, I was curious. How come it costs more to see the cupola if you buy your ticket upstairs than it does if you buy your ticket here?"

"Whaaaat?!?" comes the reply.

Uh oh. At that instant, I realized what I had just started doing. No, it wasn't a super clever scheme by economics-minded businesspeople designed to optimize the revenue from synagogue visitors at all. At that moment, I suddenly realized I had just irreparably kickstarted the process of getting someone into trouble.

I repeated my question.

The other cashier just heard me, too. They are both incredulous. They asked me to explain my question. I related what I just told you above. One of the cashiers tells me: "Wait here please", as she dialed some number on the phone. I shifted my feet. I cannot take back anything I said now. I start feeling guilty, for after all, what I had witnessed didn't affect me nor did it affect the people I saw climb up to the cupola (nobody bought these overpriced tickets in the end). A security guard comes to the counter.I didn't mean for anyone to get in trouble, I was just bored, I berate myself inside my head.

The cashier relates to the guard, in German, what I said to her (I had spoken to her in English). There is an error in her account, which I correct (lucky I can understand some German): the gentleman to whom the price of 2 Euros 50 cents was quoted did not buy the ticket, as she related. None of the people bought the ticket, I clarified. They were only quoted higher prices, but no one bought. I made sure to emphasize this.

"Thank you for telling us," says the cashier. I am now free to go.

Ooops, then, I guess. I do not feel proud of what I just did. I should've just kept quiet, I keep telling myself. I try to shrug these musings off, but as I walked out the door towards the crisp air of the streets of Berlin, I couldn't help thinking, that the gentleman upstairs, he better have a good explanation for what I heard....

The rest of the day went by like the preceeding ones in Berlin. Strange, unknown, fremd, is the word in German.

Berlin has got to be the city with the most graffitti I have ever seen (even more than New York, if you can believe that!), especially in the area around Prenzlauer Berg and away from city center, which contributes a bit to this...malaise of feeling.

And then, yet another strange thing happened in the afternoon. I was sitting at a restaurant, in the outdoor tables. A couple (wife and husband in late 40's) approached my table and as I instinctively looked up from the book I was reading in response to this to see what was the matter the woman extended her hand and took the menu from my table (I had left it flat to my right-hand side after ordering) without a word or look or any other sort of indication of asking for permission. I stared at her as she leafed through it and opened my ears as wide as I could to try to guess what nationality this boorish tourist could possibly come from, because as far as I knew this kind of behavior is not acceptable in any of the places I've ever been to. She then said something to her husband. It was in German. To this I opened up my eyes wide in incredulity, because the Germans have ALWAYS been impeccably polite to me (yes, in their peculiar way, but always polite). When she was done with the menu she placed it back on my table and turned around and left. No "Thank you" or "Excuse me" or "Entschuldigung" or any other kind of acknowledgement that I was occupying and eating at the table she had just so lackadaisically invaded ever for an instant crossed her lips or eyes.

Please wake me up now? I learned my lesson, I promise to be good. I take back what I said about dreaming. Please?

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Berlin, Day 2.

Headed to Museumsinsel in the morning. Three of the 5 museums there are open to visitors at the moment (the other two are closed for renovations), but luckily the Pergamon Museum (probably the most famous one of the bunch) was one of them, and so here I headed for first.

Now, the Pergamon Museum is well known because of its fantastic architecture collection. Yup, inside the halls of this museum you can see entire walls, gates, facades of not just buildings, but entire cities: the stunning Gate of Ishtar only one of the most famous ones here.

How exactly is it, than whole sections of buildings from faraway lands end up indoors in a hall? Plundered as conquest trophies, perhaps, like Napoleon did for France? If this is so, it is then shameful, and exhibiting them in the plundering country is no cause for pride.

But in the case of many things on exhibit at the Pergamon, is the history of rich yet poor countries like Mexico: rich in history and culture, but too poor to find resources to fund excavations. Going back to the Gate of Ishtar, for instance, it was discovered by a German excavation of Babylon throughout 1899-1977 (and as you may know many of the excavations in Mexico--especially in the Yucatan penninsula--are being done by US Universities these days). And then somehow, Germany kept the discovery, and no less than took it home. If the effort is to preserve and reconstruct, it would've been more beautiful, to leave it at home in Iran, take the museum to the art, not the art to the museum. But then again, maybe there is no glory in a job like archaeology, if the archaeologists cannot keep what they find, and if there were no foreign teams excavating your poor country, your poor country may remain poor culturally as well, since there are be no means of funding your own excavations and thus giving you the possibility to discover neat things about your ancestral culture. Tough quandry.

But the saddest part of all: when you, as the reigning Sultan Abdul Hamid II, give away part of your country to another to exhibit for the masses: in this case, the entrance Façade of the Palace at Mshatta, given as a gift to Kaiser William II. What is this? An attempt at expounding how rich your country is, "Oh, don't worry, we have so many of these cultural treasures, that one won't be missed?". What a way to steal from your own people. How....angering, really.

By the way, I was in the middle of these musings, writing some notes in my journal, when I got scolded yet again by these Germans with their rules. My crime? I was leaning my shoulder against an unpainted, drab, not part of any exhibit cardboard-like plaster wall of the museum, right next to the restrooms (i.e. part of the restroom's wall structure). Leaning not allowed, apparently. Amazing. Honestly, probably the guards have nothing to do and they have the most boring job in the universe, if they pick on people for things like this.

Anyway, moving on to the rest of the exhibit, random notes:

1. Cuneiform writing looks kinda cool. Seems very practical.

2. The scale of the Temple of Marduk in Babylon---huge, judging from a diorama at museum. How many steps were there to the top?

3. Neat to see the excavations of Uruk (remember? this is the city where Gilgamesh came from. We had to read sections of the story of Gilgamesh in translation for Spanish literature class. Yeah, our Spanish lit curriculum that year was kinda cool. :)). Neat to see that those mythic-like places actually existed. Cool also, the round tiles making colored patterns decorating the walls of Uruk.

4. Take a look at the placement of the flowers painted on the glazed bricks of the Gate of Ishtar. Since glaze needs to be baked in an oven, it had to be placed on the bricks before they were laid to make the wall. Now, since the flower petals do not always fall on the same brick every time (see for instance, in the pic, the third flower center, the yellow part, falls on two bricks, while on the other flowers, the yellow center is completely included in one of the bricks), because the spacing of the flowers is not a nice integer multiple of the length of the bricks, then it follows that one had to know where each brick would be placed on the wall before the glazing was baked. In other words, you had to keep track of which brick went where on the wall, before, and after glazing the design onto the bricks. Or at least, that's what it seems like to me, unless I'm missing something (unless the glaze was done later, and then fired/baked at height, but that seems complicated given the height of some of the designs). These complicated trains of thought were in fact what required me to lean my shoulder on the plaster museum wall with the unpleasant consequences I just related to you above. But moving on....

5. It would be cool to visit Iran...

6. Someone should build a city from scratch using only all modern architecture a la Calatrava or Frank Gehry, etc. Wouldn't that be kinda cool?

7. Faith in humanity restored! How much we have learned from all those cultures that are so different from us! May it remain so.

8. But even so, in this museum a latent cloud of darkness remains, a bit of a "Spring with a Broken Corner", if you will. Yes, humanity creates, but humanity also steals away, gives away, devalues and much of what humanity creates is with the purpose to subjugate another (i.e. technological progress through weapons development, religions used as excuse for wars, etc. and on and on and on). {shrug}.

9. But, so long as people still visit museums (which are living libraries!), there is hope, that we can grow, and learn, and strive for greater and nobler things. :)

10. Quote (from whence I don't remember): "Science teaches us how to think. Art teaches us how to feel".

Visited the other open museums at the Insel. But in these last two hours, I got scolded no less than....5 times, to wit:

1. It was hot inside the museums. Took my sweater off and hung it off the straps of my purse. Got scolded by museum woman guard. I should put the sweater inside the purse or check it at the coat check, according to her. "Why?" I asked (hey, I figured, if the rule is absurd, question it. Maybe you're missing something and there is a good reason). Didn't understand explanation. I said can you repeat the explanation a bit slower, please. Spoke louder and faster and about something else, then repeated the prohibition. "O.K., can I tie it round my waist, then?". "No, put it in the bag.". So I did. These Germans sure are strange.

2. In the 3rd museum (the Nationalgallerie), I had to check the bag (i.e. I was not allowed inside the exhibit upon presenting my ticket due to my bag not being checked--another scolding). Why? Because it was apparently too bulky. This was, of course, due to the fact that I had to place my sweater inside (it is a fleece sweatshirt and folds up bulkily). Nevermind that I had had no problems with the size of the bag before, and had had no need to check it at the other two museums I had just visited. Fine. Here you now have me carrying: my sweater, my notebook, the Lonely Planet guide, the Museum guide, my wallet, the camera, a pen, and coins in my bare hands now (my pockets were too small to fit most of these items). Will this thrill with rules never end?

3. Since I was carrying so many things due to the bag check, I put my sweater draped on my shoulder. A guard on the first floor wanted me to tie it around my waist (so, the first guard says it is bad fashion to tie it round your waist, to put it in the bag instead, now this guard says it is bad fashion to carry the sweater, to please tie it round the waist instead). "Can I tie it round my shoulders?". "No. Please tie it around your waist," says the fashion police now. "Why?" "In case you come too close to a picture, your sweater can disturb the paint". "I see." I look around. I see a lot of other people with a)bags, and b) at least 2 other women with sweaters tied round their shoulders. No one has hassled them. Obviously this (bags and sweaters round shoulders) is a fashion statement allowed only to those older than 40, then. Interesting.

4. I approach a painting (A Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, the "Annunciation" It is a cool picture because he even painted the dirt on the tile floors!). I like looking at some paintings up close, as you know. Gives you opportunity to observe the brushstrokes and therefore deduce how the painting was painted: how the colors were loaded, what was outlined first, are there charcoal or pencil marks, is there texturizing going on, was the paint laid thick or thin, etc. Immediately a guard starts walking towards me and stands behind me about 2 feet away. Obviously afraid I may touch something, or worse, I am carrying a pen on my right hand, for note-taking, of course, especially when looking at pictures up close. Perhaps he is afraid that I will scribble on the picture. But take a look at me. Do I strike you as a vandal, someone who would scribble in blue ballpoint pen at your precious National Gallery paintings? Hmmm?

Nah, I didn't think so either.

Given that all these scoldings have by now ruined my enjoyment of the museum, I now purposely try to push rule boundaries, to annoy them only, on purpose. Seeing the gentleman "don't touch the paintings guard" approach me, I come even closer to the painting, so much so that my nose is only centimeters from it. Guard realizes what I am doing, takes a few steps away from me. I take a few steps away from the painting. Repeat the process for all the paintings in the room. He finally gets the hint, stays at his designated corner. But he watches me closely, ignoring the people taking photograps in the other corner of the room, in spite of the signs at the entrance forbidding this.

I mean, they can't be picking on me, can they? Do they have a prejudice against teenagers, perhaps I look too young (I've been told that before), and my behavior cannot be trusted? A person that takes notes in museums, perhaps, is that so rare, that one needs to be suspicious of such behavior? Do I smile too much? Enjoy myself too much at these boring exhibitions for the norm? Or do I smile too little? I don't know! I just know, that other people are not being picked on, and in 2 hours, only 2 hours! I have been scolded no less than 5 times!

I mean, what is so valuable here? Not even at the Louvre, were they so uptight!


In the afternoon, I head over to the Berliner Mauer Dokumentazionszentrum, on Bernauer Straße. I arrive there late, near closing time, so right at closing time I head for the exit door. Just when I am about to open it, right at the time my hand had barely touched the handle and was about to push the door, I see the curator rush vigorously at me and in a loud, almost shouting voice exclaims: "No, no, no, no!". He then approached the door, displacing me, and said, in an angry English: "PUSH, not PULL!!", as he opened the door for me.

I didn't quite get why he was so angry. It is just a door, after all. {shrug}

Anyway, since I couldn't really look at anything displayed at the Dokumentazionszentrum I headed over across the street to see the remains of the Wall (see pic above) and the Jewish cementery, but as I headed there I couldn't help thinking, that with all these memorials and monuments, there's a bit too much of a cult of "death" here in Berlin. Enough already! Look to the future, now! If you ever lose hope, it would be good to simply remember: in the end, the wall fell. Erfreut dich!

Blech. To top it off, heading back towards the city center, where my hostel is, I discovered that the Berlin Metro tickets cost no less than 2 Euros and 10 cents for a single trip. How depressing in itself.

All in all, a strange day, today.


Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Berlin, Day 1.

Well, this morning the first thing I did at the recommendation of my guide book (Lonely Planet this time) was head over to the Reichstag building. The guide recommends you get there early but by the time I walked there from the hostel it was already close to 11 a.m. and there was a huge line to the entrance. Luckily, these things being as organized as all German things are, they distributed very well written and informative pamphlets about how the Bundestag (that's the German parliament) works here to very easily keep you entertained for the over an hour wait that the line promised.

The Bundestag has a nice varied composition (especially compared to the U.S. Congress). According to the pamphlet, in this Bundestag there are:

4 students.
30% women.
22% lawyers.
20 engineers and scientists.
70 teachers out of a total of 614 members.
15 members under the age of 30 (wow! that's a lot!)
youngest age: 22
average age: 49

One can serve in the Bundestag since the age of 18. I think this is both a good and a bad thing, and again, compare to the U.S. (serving age I think is 30 or so, if I remember correctly). I wonder how well this (that is, allowing such young people to serve) works, though. Must ask a local, I suppose (Torsten, any comments from my favorite Berliner?).

What is kind of neat though, is that it would appear that with such diversity (as reported, at least), this comes closer to the democratic ideal: a lawmaking organism that truly (or fairly closely) represents the people (in the U.S. I think few people know their representatives and surely the group tends to be more homogeneous, in terms of age, education, and background? Take, for instance, the fact that currently, only 15% of it is female, 1% African American, only 8% is under the age of 40--with only ONE, yes, just 1, senator under the age of 40--and 39% of Congress is composed of lawyers).

Anyway, one of the things I found kind of interesting was how the speaking times in the Bundestag depends on how much percentage of the house your party has got. That seemed a bit weird to me. My sense of fairness suggests that everyone ought to have equal voice (since clearly voting should depend on the percentage of the house you control--control more, your vote counts more, makes sense, but speak more? That intuitively seems odd, I think), but then again, I'm probably just thinking like an engineer. They probably have a good reason for it, I hope.

Anyway, the pamphlet makes a big deal (that is, they mention several times and in several ways) about how the architecture of the Reigchstag is used to reinforce the concept/ideal/(propaganda?) of "transparency" (i.e. the glass cupola). But the cool thing that I haven't seen anywhere else before is the fact that apparently people, ordinary people like you and me--even tourists--, can come and sit in the Bundestag plenary sessions. How neat is that? That is super awesome. The pamphlet then goes to emphasize that this is a way for the public to be able to see with their own eyes what their representatives are up to. Though this method, I think, is a bit useless given that as an observer you probably can't make much noise if you find something fishy going on....or could you? I dunno. Might be interesting to try to get in one of these sessions and find out.

Anyway, I didn't really find the patience to sit through the rest of the line so I resolved to come earlier in the subsequent days (and perhaps even catch a live session) instead of waiting around for the line to move a few more inches, so I headed over to the nearby, newly-completed (just a little over one year old) Jewish Memorial instead.

The Jewish Memorial is very....evocative. As you walk the ground sinks and the square stellae get taller, engulfing you, and you feel like you're sinking a bit deeper and deeper in desolation and confusion....until the effect is ruined by a pair of 7-year olds laughing and jumping about between the stones and playing hide and seek behind them.

Remember the painting, "Then and Now" that I told you about before? Maybe...there's a bit too much of a cult of death, with these things sometimes. Either that, or come to the memorial at dusk during wintertime, when happy cheery children are less likely to be found, if you feel contemplative, I would say.

Anyway, somewhere at the bottom and in the middle of the grounds is the information center, which does a very good job of humanizing the victims and giving you an idea of the unfathomable scale: the Holcaust victims came all the way from Greece, Lithuania, Denmark, Austria, Estonia, Belgium, Luxembourg, Macedonia, the Mediterranean coast, Ukraine, Romania, Yugoslavia, even Norway, Turkey, and North Africa (!) not to mention the obvious Poland, Checkoslovakia, France, the Netherlands, Germany, and even German allies Italy and Hungary.

Reaction during exhibit: anger, despair, helplessness.

How easy to forget that the victims had a life, illusions, goals and projects, that they had a family (many of them who died as well), parents and children, some who kept looking for them unavailingly for many years afterwards (some who still do), that they are not merely numbers and statistics. Remember this, the next time you're in favor of your country dropping a bomb somewhere.

Anyway, after this sobering wake-up, I headed over towards the nearby Potsdammer Platz, with its übercool modern architecture. Ha ha. Can you believe it? In Potsdammer Platz, Berlin is just like I imagined it (from all those movies, I sort of had thought it was all full of skyscrapers and modern architecture. Not quite true, as it turns out: as I saw yesterday--approaching from the outskirts one can see more than if one just arrives all tourist-like into the airports--Berlin doesn't seem to be too well maintained--grass on parks and lawns is several weeks long, many buildings are run down with paint peeling, even on the Western side, etc. No city upkeep, it seems....).

In the afternoon I headed over to Checkpoint Charlie, but following the Jewish Memorial with a visit to the House at Checkpoint Charlie (a privately sponsored, rather propagandistic museum dedicated to the history of the Berlin Wall and the spectacular escapes from the GDR, which tried to advance a lot of the greeny granola liberal views of the owner, towards the end) left me a bit depressed and almost drained of all faith in humanity.

Do you know that joke about the physicist, the engineer, and the mathematician, who are having a contest, to see which one of them can enclose the largest area of a field with a given length of wire and a set of some wooden poles? The physicist, an empiricist, immediately starts trying things, hammers away, ties up some of the wire here and sticks some poles to the ground there, finally comes up with the widest, slightly mishappen circle possible given the materials provided. The engineer, on the other hand, first measures the total length of the wire, figures out the radius of the circle that would result with such a length for circumference, counts up the poles and calculates at how many degrees from each other they should be posted apart, and finally builds a perfect circle the exact same size as the physicist. Finally, the mathematician comes, and after scratching his beard for a while the pile of wire and poles he's been provided with, takes up a few of them, surrounds himself with them, and proceeds to build the smallest possible circle fence around him that will still allow him to barely move. He then announces: "I declare myself to be on the outside!"

The building of the Berlin Wall, it seems to me, was a little bit like my mathematician. The absurdity!

Anyway, I'm choosing a more uplifting program for tomorrow. Perhaps a visit to the Museumsinsel (which is what makes Berlin a UNESCO Heritage Site) and closing with a visit to the Berlin Philharmonic in the evening, if they're still playing (as you know most world class orchestras tend to go on vacation during the month of August, but maybe I get lucky!), may restore a little bit of perspective. It might do good once more to be reminded, how humanity can invest its talents in efforts to create instead of to destroy.