Monday, August 29, 2005

Alps Update

We're currently in the French Alps just outside of Chamonix.  We just spent the day taking in a picture perfect view of Mt. Blanc at Aiguille du Midi, trekking into Italy on the funkiest cable car out there and then doing a 2-3 hour hike up at around 2300m.  As you could imagine, we're a bit brain dead at the moment...
More stories from the Swiss National Emergency, getting gourmet food for 10 francs a night (about 6.5€) and the costliness of the French Alps soon.  In the meantime, know that we're in one piece and spending a ton of time staring at the scenery...

Friday, August 26, 2005

It was a good run...

R.I.P. FanBuzz (1996-2005)

My former company is now defunct as of today, August 26th. For
reasons too expansive and complex to explain here, the company has
officially gone under.

I just wanted to post a thank you to all the friends and fellow
employees I worked with at FanBuzz during my two and a half years.
You made the world of online retail marketing an exciting and
interesting one. It's unfortunate that things ended the way that they
did, especially because of all the hard work put in by people trying
to do the right thing.

So thanks again to everyone for a great experience and know that life
always moves us on to better things.


Monday, August 22, 2005

Rain, rain go away....

Quick update from the Swiss Alps..
In a karmic kick in the butt for all of our gloating about heading to this wonderful place, nature is having the last laugh.
It has rained steadily since we arrived with a very low cloud cover (which can get complicated when you are way up in the mountains). We have not let that deter us (being raised in oregon and all) and have hiked both days, coming back home soaking wet to the skin. While the hikes have been fun and pretty, though alpine meadows, along streams, dodging cows, etc., we usually couldn't see much further than 50 feet around us. So we are hiking completely surrounded by some of the most dramatic and beautiful mountains in the whole alps and we haven't seen a trace of them.
We have kept our hopes up though, especially as we already had plans to stay at least 6 nights...figuring it has got to clear and we would get a chance to do the major hikes and see the peaks.
Monday night update: it has rained so much over the past 3 days that the road between the cable car base (the only way to get down from here) and the town with the train station has been washed out or landslided over, the trains are not running in that town anyway, as the water is too close to the tracks, and rumor has it that Interlaken (and maybe even Luzern) are flooded in places. So everyone who has been trying to leave today is back for the night, no one is coming in, and the latest we heard is that the roads may be closed at least two days. For us it's fine...we had no plans to leave anyway, and can think of many many worse places to be stuck, but there are a lot of folks here trying to catch flights home in a few days.  News link are here and here.
Keep your fingers crossed for sunny skies... We are!
The drowned rat alpine trekkers

Friday, August 19, 2005

Rest Day...

(we'll link pictures soon...)
In an effort not to get too behind after the huge internet binge in Prague (20+ hours of computer time), here's a quick update.
Spent 15 hours yesterday getting from Prague, in the Czech Republic, to Luzerne, Switzerland. We had a 2.5 hour layover in Munich, allowing us a brief chance to walk around the city and to (drum roll please.....) turn on our Eurorail Pass. (This is very exciting, as it means that the travel category of our daily budget ought to get a bit of a break and we can spend less time in line for tickets.) We discovered an additional benefit on the train from Munich to Zurich to Luzerne: because we are over 26 years old, we are required to buy 1st class eurorail tickets (when we would have much preferred, and been perfectly happy with second class ones). So, on both the trains last night we sat in the first class cabins, which were definitely roomier and nicer than what we were used to. Though we would rather not have had to spend the money, as long as we had to pay for it, we're certainly going to take advantage of it!
A couple of words about Prague (Brian might add more later). I would say the biggest reaction we had was regret that we hadn't been able to explore the city 5 years earlier (or at least visit in November or something outside of tourist season). It's a beautiful city with loads and loads of history just oozing out of all the cool architecture and side streets. But we simply couldn't get past the crowds (there are a couple examples in Flickr under the Prague tag). It's hard to look around and appreciate what you are seeing when you are being bumped into constantly. It got a little better over in Mala Strana, which is the area that Jon and Lori really enjoyed on their honeymoon, but we weren't over there much. Because it was grey and raining most of the time, we weren't really able to find a peaceful corner of a park or a cafe or a riverside bench and read or enjoy the people watching.
Plus I think we're both a little worn out at the moment. Except for our 2.5 day oasis in Cesky Krumlov, we've been in big cities for the past couple of weeks (Krakow to Budapest to Vienna to Prague) and we're ready for something a little lower key. 2 weeks up in the mountains sounds like just what the doctor ordered.
(We did have some good people watching our last night in Prague at a bar with 20 drunken Swedes and a few assorted Czechs watching Sweden play the Czech Rep in an international (soccer) friendly up on the big screen)
Tomorrow we head up to Gimmelwald.  Wish us clear skies and good hiking.
(Brian's two Swiss Francs:
So we're doing important stuff right now like eating berliners.  Currently in Luzern Switzerland and headed up to Gimmelwald for six days of hiking and sheep sightings in a town of about 100.  Staying at the Mountain Hostel that has been hyped by this site (who's definitely drinking the Alps kool-aid))
Please don't be too jealous of us in the meantime!

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Hot New Posts!

So while all of you have been slaving away at your cubes, corner offices, home offices, etc., the two of us have been hunched over keyboards in scary gaming facilities surrounded by teenage boys shooting things to bring you new exciting posts! Yes, we've finally got the procrastinating out of the way (and are taking advantage of our last shot at cheap internet before re-entering western europe) and we've got new posts up for Auschwitz, Budapest, Vienna, Cesky Krumlov (and also re-edited and added photos to the Opera Post..Kill the Wabbit) with a few interesting side trips thrown in for good measure. (Plus Becca was able to upload a bushel of new pics on Flickr.)

We apologize in advance for the length of some of the posts (let alone the length of all of them put it in sections); methinks I've been reading a bit too much of this guy. Hey, at least I'm not putting footnotes in my posts...

Hope all is well for everyone no matter what side of the pond they're on. In Prague currently and off to the Alps tomorrow for two weeks or so of hot hiking action. We may or may not have much internet access during that time...


Brian & Becca

FK Slavoj 1:3 Hluboka

(WARNING: If you have zero interest in football (the world version), please feel free to skip ahead to the next blog entry. If you want a slice of true Czech sporting life, do plow ahead.)

When Becca and I first started planning this trip, we had grand ideas of hitting a wide variety of sporting events (Wimbledon, Australian Open, The Ashes, some top level European football, etc.) during our travels. Two months in and the most exciting thing we've seen is a bunch of guys booting the ball around the park in Vienna.

Well, this past Sunday that changed. In our first day in Cesky Krumlov, we were wandering past the local brewery and saw a hand written sign for what looked to be a football match between FK Slavoj (the Cesky Krumlov team) and Hluboka (who we later found out was just a town about 45 min. north of CK. After some direction in Czech from the bar maid and a much more productive explanation at the TI, we were able to decipher that their first game of the season was Sunday. We both decided this had become the must see event of our stay in Cesky Krumlov, UNESCO rating be damned.

Sunday evening we strolled up to the FK Slavoj complex for some hot bottom tier Czech professional football. The total cost of our entrance? Twenty kc (about 80 cents). Of course that was helped by the fact that Becca discovered that girls got in free (and didn't even have to wear a wet t-shirt). Add in the beers we bought and it cost just about $2 for the evening's entertainment. And what entertainment it was; much like The Sports Guy does, I elected to do a running diary of the game. This is the abbreviated version. A number with a ' by it means the minute of the game and FK= FK Slavoj and H= Hluboka

Pregame: We settle in with our beers and the 150 or so other fans for the start of the game. The opposing coach seems to be dressed in a windbreaker and denim capri pants. Not a good look. Of course the FK coach is wearing shorts and black socks with a set of gym shoes so neither one is going for GQ mention anytime soon. That being said, the stadium is nice and tucked into a valley with houses and such around it. You can also see the occasional ball being booted by the kids on the practice field behind the other stand.

5' - After a few missed headers and general flailing, the FK goalie comes up with an acrobatic save. Of course the ball had been hit directly at him.

14' - Another great save by the FK goalie, this time on an attempted slide tackle that seconded as a shot. I'm beginning to think I might be able to dress as a late substitute.

17' - FK with a nice opportunity, again on a weird slide tackle like shot. It's been raining a bit (thankfully our sweet second row midfield seats are covered) but I can't imagine it's that slick on the pitch.

21' - FK #10 gets a yellow card for either diving or dissent towards the ref. We can't figure out which despite the fact that we should be able to hear what he said or didn't say at the ref. He's playing like a classic #10 right now though; flashy earring, cherry picking trying to break free and diving at the slightest touch.

30' - Becca points out that the FK right back looks like her brother's childhood friend and soccer teammate Joel Tanner. Me thinks we're not drinking our pivo nearly quick enough. (ed note: pivo is czech for beer)

31' - H #11 cleats the goalie, leading to much flopping around on the ground. No yellow card much to the crowd's dismay. Becca and I simulateously realize that FK's backline averages about 17 years old; either that or we're getting a lot older than we thought.

33' - Another nice save by the FK keeper and some more physical punishment to boot. He's starting to remind us of the Black Knight of Monty Python fame.

34' - GOAL! #2 from H comes crashing in from the left and puts it away pretty easily. 0-1

37' - Becca is convinced the linesman is blind with what she thinks is about the 900th bad offsides call. Maybe we should cut back on the pivo after all...

42' - GOAL! The FK defense allows the ball to roll through three people to H #9 who takes the gift and makes it 0-2. FK might have had a chance had they not all been too busy arguing another of #10's dives.

43' - Yellow on H #8 as he tries to take out FK's Maradona lookalike (post drug habit of course). Doesn't he realize they're WINNING???

Half-Time: Two highlights. One was walking to the clubhouse to go to the loo and seeing FK's road jerseys up on the clothesline drying. (I was so tempted to take one and run). The second was watching the H reserves play "monkey in the middle" and having a six round ro-sham-bo (ed. note: 'ro-sham'bo' is 'rock paper scissors') to see who had to go in the middle. Nothing beats trusty rock...

46' - Two subs for the home team as they've evidently decided to try everyone out at new positions this half. Even Becca is having a hard time keeping track of where everyone went.

55' - Opposing coach utters first word I could understand of the match. Unfortunately it's not printable here.

57' - H #15 takes another physical challenge from Joel Tanner. The guy has been getting abused the whole match and looks to be a good 15 years younger. Half expect him to go running off the pitch at some point and just keep going.

61' - Right when momentum seems to be going FK's way, #10 gets another yellow, leading to him getting sent off. Not exactly #10 type behavior (though he did pull the guy down from behind) but now it looks like the home team is in some trouble. Becca does point out this could be addition by subtraction though.

62' - Fans in front of us start talking smack/arguing with one of H's reserves who looks strangely like Sean Astin. "Conversation" then shifts from the reserve to the opposing coach. Not quite sure what's being said, but I do think people's mothers are involved.

67' - H #5 misses a great chance. Becca (a former D player) about has an aneurism over the fact that the FK D can't stay on their feet. I propose it's because their feet haven't finished growing yet.

70' - GOAL! Addition by Subtraction indeed. FK #9 buries one home and we've got a ball game. The crowd has something to finally break them out of their stupor... 1-2.

71' - Things are finally getting exciting. Double yellow card with the H striker (who cleats a D player) and the FK keeper (who promptly runs out and chest bumps/shoves the striker with a lurchy-like run).

72' - Another near goal by FK. Can they come back?

73' - GOAL! Too bad it's by H #9 on the counterattack. The crowd takes whatever interest they still had and put it into their cigarettes. 1-3.

75' - H sub gets a huge cheer despite his multi color Beckhamesque hairdo. His parents perhaps?
83' - Not much happening until H attacks again and fires one past the keeper and then off the post. A bit scary as the FK's clear almost goes back into the net. Did I mention we were watching low tier semi-pro Czech soccer again?

84' - H player has to ask a little girl riding her tricycle on the sidelines to move so he can execute his corner kick. Somehow I don't think they have this problem at Old Trafford or Highbury...

87' - Mini-Maradona gets clipped something fierce by a H player, who promptly gets sent off. All of this despite the fact that the ref's back was turned to the play. Yeah Crowd!

90' - After three uneventful minutes of injury time, it's a final. The crowd quickly takes off and the players wait for their friends and family to come down from the crowd to say hi before heading off to the locker room.

All in all a pretty cool experience. The football was of so-so high school club quality (or so Becca informs me) but it was interesting to be the only two non-natives there and checking out the local football experience. In fact, as we made a call back to Oregon on the way back from the match, we saw a number of the players walking past us with the families to the local pub for dinner. Quite a slice of life and I can guarantee it will certainly be a lot different than any other football match we'll see on the trip.

So there you go; our first european football experience in the books. For those of you still reading, if you're this bored you might want to think about changing jobs :-)


Our own fairy tale kingdom

Looking for a little medievalness in your life? Try Cesky Krumlov, our new favorite place. (Or at least, easily in the top 5). more good pics

Cesky Krumlov is the second most visited town in the Czech Republic, but somehow even with crowds of tourists it felt like a magical place. The Vltava River (the same one that flows through Prague), makes a double S through the town, creating two separate peninsulas, and there is only one main street through the old center of town (though many wonderful small side streets to explore.

Because of the geographic features, this has been a choice spot to live forever. There were Celtic tribes here around 100 BC, then German tribes arrived later, then Slavic tribes showed up in the 800s. The 16th century was the town's golden age, when it housed an important Jesuit college. The town came under the rule of the Hapsburgs in 1602. Hitler claimed the region in 1938 and annexed it. The Americans liberated the town in 1945, but it ended up falling under the east (soviet) rule. From 1945 to 1989 the town was infamously polluted from the upstream paper mill, but communism did create a kind of cocoon that allowed the town to perservere so that once it escaped and was able to clean off the grime, it's now a fairy tale town.

We stayed at the Travellers Hostel (click the pictures link on this page). We were in a tiny double way up at the very top under the roof. Though Becca had a few anxious moments trying to figure out how we would ever get out in the case of a fire and we had to bend over to fit under the eaves in getting to bed, it otherwise was a wonderful and comfortable hideaway where we were able to sleep well.

We had originally planned to spend only 1.5 days here, but as soon as we arrived and started to walk around we knew that we needed to stay longer. We had just finished the Krakow, Budapest, Vienna trifecta and were heading to Prague and were tired of cities. This seemed like a perfect place to relax and refresh. We spent most of our time doing nothing in particular, which was wonderful. We would just wander around the curvy narrow streets, or sit by a garden and read, or spend hours leaning over the railing on the bridge watching the all the people float down the river.

It turns out that the Vltava River in this region of the Czech Republic is the most popular place river to float/boat down and given the way the river winds around the town, C. Krumlov was a perfect place to spend an hour floating. Right by one of the bridges there was a weir and a chute next to it. Ironically, the conservative folks would just take their canoes, kayaks or rafts over the falls of the weir (which we assumed would be the more dangerous way) Actually, the MOST conservative folks portaged around. 95% of folks however, went through the chute. This was some fast water that ended in a pretty big rolling back wave, a little white water, and then flattened out. As we walked past their the first time on Saturday, we were amused to see someone take their canoe down the chute, hit the wave/whitewater and promptly capsize. Our amusement turned to amazement...and then hilarity....when the next 10 boats did the same thing. It turns out that only about 1 out of 15 two person crafts could make it through without sinking/capsizing, or otherwise coming to harm (the one-person kayaks and canoes and the 4-6 person rubber rafts usually fared batter). The fact that the river was only about 2-3 feet deep there meant that folks just stood up (once they got done being swept over the rocks) and then had to figure out how to lift up and drain their full water craft. (And a bunch of folks would go through over and over and over again, trying to find a way to succeed and getting REALLY wet)

It was like a car just couldn't look away. We ended up standing there for almost 90 minutes, laughing and cheering (for those few who made it through). Our favorites included the dozen or so boats that would make it through the initial rough water, raise their arms in the air in triumph, and then promptly flip over; and the folks who would make it through, but had taken on so much water that their canoes/kayaks eventually would submerge. The best example of that was a young man with a Huck Finn hat who just sat up straight and kept paddling as his canoe sunk lower and lower under the water. Eventually all his things were floating out and away and his canoe was totally submerged but he just kept floating downstream.

All told, we probably spent at least 4 hours over the weekend watching from various vantage points. Brian really wanted us to rent a boat too, and in general I was in favor of canoeing/kayaking and even wasn't totally against getting wet, but I kept noticing the couple of people who actually did get banged up on the rocks or hit by other canoes coming downstream and I didn't like the idea of being the entertainment for others. I still might have done it anyway (we were thinking of getting the rubber two person rafts which looked like they had at least a chance of making it through the chutes), but in the end our schedule didn't work out for it.

Other than the wonderful aimless relaxing, our only two official sightseeing activities were visiting the Baroque theater and attending a low-level professional Czech football (soccer) match, which Brian covers in excrutiating (but hilarious) detail in the next post.

The theater was very cool though. We had decided not to tour the Castle itself, as after Vienna we were a little castled out. But we did stand in line the day before to get tickets for the limited admittance to the Baroque theater tour. Europe once had several hundred Baroque theaters. Unfortunately, since they use candles for lighting and fireworks for special effects, most of them burned down. There are only two well preserved theaters of this type and from this period left in the world: this one and one in the royal palace in Stockholm. We eagerly entered the dark building to see what it offered. And what it offered was amazing. The theater still has all of its original sets, decorations and hundreds of costumes (though those are being preserved and can't be seen). Once our eyes adjusted to the dim light we were blown away by the illusion of depth and detail that the sets created. The entire set (side flats/backdrops etc.) could be changed in 10 seconds, and were usually not seen by the audience as fireworks would go off at the end of a scene, their eyes would be momentarily stunned/blinded, and when the smoke cleared the set would be completely different: magic. The guide also demonstrated a couple of the several-hundred year old special effect machines that had survived. These machines made very realistic sounds of wind, rain, and thunder, and hidden backstage (and above the stage) and combined with lighting effects could create an incredibly realistic storm. Afterwards we were taken below the stage to see the pulleys and contraptions that allowed all the set shifting to work. It was very cool (especially to a former theater geek like me) and it just blew our minds to imagine how advanced all of this must have been in its time.

The last thing to mention was our favorite restaurant, the Tavern U dwau Maryi (tavern of two Marys). As the page mentions this restaurant focuses on medieval cooking and uses a lot of ingredients like barley and millet that you don't see around a whole lot anymore along with lots of herbs and spices like majoram, rosemary, etc. Its fascinating menu actually has a couple of pages of small type talking about the diets of the medieval Bohemian (the folks living in this region) peasants and making an argument that it was varied and healthy and lamenting that some of these ingredients have made their way out of daily dishes. The food was so good we went two nights in a row to try more dishes. It turns out we really like millet. Who knew?

I've gone on long enough here....suffice it to say that despite the many other tourists we found it an oasis of peace for a couple of days, which we dearly needed.

On to Prague (with a sports detour from Brian)


Pitstop to Refuel

Becca and I took a day out of our Vienna experience and took the train up the Danube to Durnstein. This is one of the cities that Becca's brother Jon and his wife Lori went to on their honeymoon and the location from which they'd brought us back some tasty apricot liqueur. Being so close we had little choice but to visit the town and refill our supply :-)

We spent a wonderful sunny day just relaxing and enjoying the small town atmosphere. In between tourist groups (they came into town by the hordes from the Danube boats) we were able to spend the morning relaxing, checking out the town, and doing some reading (we're both currently averaging a book a week). The afternoon was spent having lunch at one of the local restaurants (and evidently the cheapest by the number of cyclists we saw in there) and taking a hike up to the ruins of the old castle, where Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned during the Crusades for insulting the colors on the flag. The ruins had great views of the Danube and the surrounding villages.

All in all, just a relaxing day and a great chance to see one of the villages along the Danube. I can certainly how the cyclists enjoy biking from town to town, seeking out cool shops and restaurants and just enjoying the beautiful view. And yes, we did have a chance to restock on the liqueur; now we just have to figure out how to keep it in one piece in our bags!


History Personified

Upon the end of our stay in Budapest, we headed up to Vienna, the former home of the Hapbsurg Empire and currently home to one of the strongest economies in Europe (shown by the large number of corporate suit/investment banker types we saw floating around town). We were originally worried that the increased cost of everything would have us stressing more about our budget than having a chance to experience the city (much like what happened to us in Amsterdam). Thankfully, Vienna played a more than friendly host and despite going a little over budget, we had a good time and did a good job of balancing seeing many of the sites (Vienna is very heavy with museums and showing hundreds of years of history) and still experiencing the overall vibe of the city.

Vienna is certainly a city that is built on it's past but one whose class and elegance shines through. Becca and I were impressed both with the history as well as the general cosmopolitian feel of the city. Both of us agreed that Vienna and Stockholm have been the two major cities we've seen so far that we could see ourselves living in. Just an amazing combination of history, modern amentities, culture and parks. A city with a strong personality and identity and one that we mixed with quite nicely.

That being said, here are the highlights...

Vienna Film Festival: After a 30 minute hike and a few stops on the metro, we finally checked in to our hostel. The university student promised us cheap ethnic food if we headed towards Rathausplatz for the film festival. While we did find tasty ethnic dishes (though not really cheap; more like normal festival prices), we also found this film festival. Evidently every summer in the town hall square they do a film festival where each night a famous rendition of some opera or classical piece is shown on the big screen. We stuck around for the beginning of the performance and realized that the seats were packed; the Vienna folks certainly like their high class entertainment, that's for sure. Meanwhile, Becca was like a kid in a candy store with all the food options. In the end, we decided to try some traditional Austrian food: rindfleischgrost'l (yummy and very filling) and Radner, a mix of beer and lemonade that was way too easy to drink. I think we'll be having more of that....

The Royal Treasury: One of the many locations housing the various riches from the Habsburg empire, this was the highlight of the Vienna sightseeing for me. Just an absolutely stunning collection of jewels, crowns, tapestries, clothing and religious artifacts, etc. that were all explained at just the right depth by the awesome audio guide we decided to invest in. The audio guide also had bonus sections; sometimes we were finish a section and it would say "If you'd like to learn more about x, please press 22". Needless to say we took advantage of this quite a bit and got a college history class in about two hours of audio coverage.

The Hapsburg's ruled from 1273-1918 so there is a ton of history throughout. It was interesting to learn some of the backstory of the Holy Roman Empire (warning: link is educational!), Napleon's forcing himself into the Austrian Royal Family and how Francis II became Francis I. Definitely my favorite place; very educational with just the right amount to see. Even Becca enjoyed it in between poo-pooing all the "straight from the cross" religious items scattered throughout.

Schonbrunn Palace: A bit of a disappointment for me, but this could be because I'm quickly realizing here in Europe that I'm not big on just seeing palaces just for seeing's sake. Very heavy tourist location and we certainly felt that during the actual tour of the inside, that we were on a tourist treadmill that we had to work hard to get off. This treadmill feeling may be because/in spite of one of the more precise entry systems I've ever seen. Upon receiving your tour ticket, you are given a specific time (in our case 12:09). And you're only allowed to enter once the clock hits 12:09. Does a good job of keeping people spread out at the start (especially the gatekeeper who had more of a conceirge feel, keeping everyone happy) and it seemed like most people stayed spread out during the tour. Just one of those cool pieces of european efficiency.

For us though the really cool part of the palace was the huge gardens in the back; about a kilometer of beautifully sculpted gardens with nice tree covered paths branching out in all directions. And the Austrians take their gardens seriously: as we were sitting having lunch we saw a security guard get off his bike and start yelling in the general direction of a group of tourists sort of close to the grass (the grass is verboten at the palace). Thinking he was a bit harsh on the folks we looked around and realized that there were two people right in the MIDDLE of one of the gardens. He was pissed to say the least; I think if he was carryina handgun he might have knocked them off right there. After a momentary "who us?" look, the peopel finally got out of there post haste, though only after almost stomping on a group of flowers. If that had happened I think we would have seen our first homicide of the trip...

KunstHausWien: This museum celebrates the art and innovative urban design work of Hundertwasser (you can read his philosophies here). His art has heavy influences from his time in New Zealand and reminded me heavily of Maori/Aboriginal art. His urban design ideas really defy description; if one tried it could be the meeting of sustainable living and abstract design. Just a real potpurri of design styles all anchored by his own philosophies. Definitely a worthwhile visit, again the art was ok but the urban design and practical projects (such as designing a new license plate for Austria) were the real highlights. Just a very interesting individual and an interesting stop off the beaten path.

Kunsthistorisches Museum: Another part of the Hapsburg empire; this was the home of all the various artistic masterpieces obtained over the years. Due to time constraints (and the fact that after 4+ days we were pretty museumed out), we stuck to the Picture Gallery (think of it as the greatest hits of the museum). Overall the collection is an impressive one with world famous artists from all over Europe (Rembrandt, Vermeer, etc.). As Becca pointed out, there are only so many still lifes or pictures of various major religious events that you can stand before hitting the "dazed and glazed" mark. Particular artists that stuck out for us though were Arcimboldo, Rembrandt, Rubens (especially this) and Vermeer. Overall good to visit but a little too much for us to sink in all at once. Cool entryway though.

All in all we give Vienna high marks. The post is long because we did a lot; there was a lot to see and much history to learn in amongst just strolling the streets (where we actually saw the shell game being executed to perfection) and enjoying the sophistication of the big city.

Ok, enough long posts. Less talk, more drinking tasty Czech beer.



Becca addition:

It's funny. There are so many reasons why we could have disliked Vienna. It's so expensive, it's a big city, so many of its hotels, shops and cafes were so clearly for wealthy people, its sights were all prices really high...and yet we were enchanted. Maybe it was the cleanliness versus Budapest, maybe it was all the parks and gardens and green spaces throughout the city, maybe it was the magical first night at the film festival, maybe it was the way all the sights blended into the city, maybe it was all of it...but we felt at home.

Bathing in Budapest!

Finally the rest of our Budapest visit. As enjoyable as the Opera and the cafe was, it was not the grand total of our four plus days in Hungary's capital. Despite the bad weather (it rained HARD over half the time we were there) we did a good job of getting out and exploring an interesting town. Our two big highlights were the House of Terror and the Baths in City Park.

The House of Terror (terrible name, good museum) was the former headquarters for both the Arrowcross (Nazi-occupied Hungary's version of the Gestapo) and the AVO/AVH (communist version of the secret police). It's now a museum covering that time of terror. The museum itself was interesting and had a number of exhibits that certainly seemed fairly moving. Unfortunately for us (and everyone else from a number of countries that pointed out the same issue) there was very little information in anything other than Hungarian (There were page-long general description in each room (though nowhere to sit and read them), but little Engish in the captions/labels/etc.) As a result, we were left to look at pictures and read the sparse english descriptions. Throw in the very unfriendly security guards and staff and we were left with the opinion that it was a worthwhile experience (we still learned a lot about the various regime's brutal suppression of radical movements) but one that could have been improved exponentially with just a little bit of effort on the museum's part.

The other story from the Terror Museum was Becca catching her toe on a metal letter and ripping it open pretty good (Casualty score for the trip so far: Becca 3, Brian 0). Of course, we didn't realize how badly she'd cut it until she'd walked across a room leaving a slow drip of blood across the floor. Talk about trying to make the museum interactive...

(And we can't decide whether splattering the floor with blood at a Terror Museum was incredibly appropriate or incredibly inappropriate)

The other big highlight of the trip was a visit to the Szechenyi Baths. Hungary's Carpathian Basin is a thin crust on top of a lot of hot water. As a result, Budapest is the home of 123 natural springs and 27 thermal baths. We decided to check one of the thermal baths out as we had been told this was a great opportunity to hang out with the locals and experience a Hungarian tradition. I have to admit I was pretty excited about the idea of just hanging out in the warm baths for an afternoon (this despite the fact that I'm not a big water guy) as the bed in our hostel had caused by back to lock up pretty severely. Despite some inappropriate mental images of people in ill-fitting speedos, we headed out to the baths.

It ended up being just a cool experience. Neither one of us figured we'd be there for more than an hour or so but three hours later we were wishing we'd shown up earlier. We just spent the overcast afternoon going back and forth between the two outdoor pools in a wonderful royal like setting with statues etc. One pool was cooler (with bubbles and fountains and a fun current track to float around) and one was quite warm (with hard shower like fountains to work your neck and back and men playing chess).

We also made a couple quick detours into one of the indoor mineral baths (water is a little green as a result) to refresh the body. Becca went outside of her comfort zone and tried the sauna with me but lasted about 30 seconds (I wasn't much better; it was certainly hotter than the saunas at home) before exiting and plunging herself in the cold water. Sure we ended up all wrinkly but we were pretty happy to have experienced a true Hungarian treat.

In all, we were glad we had come to Budapest. Though it didn't make its way into our top cities ever, it was a nice look into a place that had once ruled and empire, then been devastated by two oppresive regimes, and now was getting back on its feet with a vengence.


No jokes here

We're taking advantage of our last few days of cheap internet (before we hit Switzerland and its $4/20 minute rates) to try and get caught up with all our posts. We're only about 2 weeks problem.

We've had some time to digest our experiences with Auschwitz and thought we'd share some thoughts and impressions. I had been to Dachau (in Germany) a number of years ago and also to the excellent Holocaust museum in Washington DC, while Brian was new to the experience.

Some observations:

There are actually two camps to visit when you take head to Oscweim, a town about 70 km from Krakow, Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II (or Birkenau). You start at the museum at Auschwitz I with a film taken by the Russian troops as they were liberating the camps. It actually had some new footage for me of the survivors being examined and treated, and the soldiers inspecting the camp facilities and warehouses. Most of what I had seen before was mostly corpses, etc., so this was a new perspective.

Auschwitz I itself was in many ways kind of anticlimatic for me (in much the same way that a good part of Dachau was). I think this was so for a number of reasons:

1) The mental imagery that most of us have when we hear the name 'Auschwitz' is actually from Auschwitz II/Birkenau. (More about that later)
2) Like in Dachau most of the barracks have been converted into exhibit halls, and while there are some very powerful exhibits, it still distances you from what it was like for the people imprisioned there.
3) The camp itself was located on a former Polish army base and so the buildings themselves are a lot more 'normal' looking. Plus they've been repainted and landscapes so as you walk around and in them, it just feels like a normal place (with the obvious exceptions of the sinister barbed wire fences, famous "arbeit makes frei" gate, etc.).
4) Most of the things that you are seeing are inside buildings, where there are lots of other people talking/laughing etc. and the god-awful, omnipresent tour groups. It makes it a little difficult to be alone with your thoughts and contemplate what you are seing.
5) Like at Dachau, the one type of exhibit that was not translated were all the documents, letters, reports, diaries, newspaper clippings, etc. as well as the labels describing them. That was a shame, as it would have given us a whole other perspective.

However there were still many powerful elements of the camp that still successfully conveyed the horror of the atrocities there:
1) The "Death Block" with the execution courtyard and wall, the sham trial room that led out directly to the courtyard where the condemmed immediately met their fate, and the prison cells in the basement.
2) The exhibits of all the plunder the Nazi's took: just rooms full of suitcases and dishes and clothes and shoes and hair(!).
3) The gas chambers and cremetorium. Like at Dachau, this is where it all hits home. We were particularly uncomfortable here, because of all the other people walking through this hallowed ground with very "touristy" attitudes. There just wasn't the respect for all the people murdered there that you would like to see (or it was their way of dealing with their discomfort....). Like Brian, I was eager to get out of there.
4) All the pictures of people. The hallways of a couple of the Blocks that you walk through are just covered with hundreds of pictures of who had come through the gates. These weren't the skeletal pictures you see that are horrible, but that allow you to distance yourself from them. Rather, these look just like you or me. The pictures of the mostly women and children who have just been unloaded from the train and are now being herded unknowingly straight to the gas chamber are heartbreaking. Also, there are hundreds of mug shots of the people who were chosen to live for a bit in the camps. You just look in their eyes and wonder what was going through their head and what they had seen and experienced. Each photo had a name, sometimes a birthdate, the date that the person entered the camps, and the date they died (often just a few weeks or months later).

After you finish walking through the camp, you board a shuttle bus for the 3 km trip to Birkenau. Birkenau was built when the first Auschwitz camp was deemed not be efficient enough in killing the train loads of Jews arriving (it took 4 days to process through the cremetorium all the people killed in one day in the gas chamber. unacceptable.).

Like many people, we found Birkenau to be the nightmare place that we had always associated with Auschwitz and ultimately to be much more affecting and moving:

1) Birkenau, more than any other camp, makes it clear that its purpose is solely a death factory, not a concentration camp. It basically is a set of railroad tracks that lead straight through the main gate to 4 gas chambers/crematoria, with some basic barracks on either side for the overflow of people over the daily killing capacity (and to do some labor around the camp).

2) It turns out that a large number of the photo images with which we are all familiar (passengers being unloaded from box cars, being lined up on the platform for the selection, being herded toward the gas chamber, etc.) were all taken the the echos are very strong. You'll be walking down a path and all of a sudden realize that you are in the exact spot that you have seen people being sent to their death. It's impossible to escape that feeling...that you are walking in their you walk around the place.

3) The vastness of the camp is mindboggling. While only a dozen or two structures remain intact, as far as the eye can see are the remains (the chimney stacks and outlines) of the more than 300 other buildings that had been built and the electrified barbed wire fences that turned the 425 acres into many mini-camps. You can picture it teeming with emaciated, terrified people, with only mud to walk on and the smoke constantly belching from the crematoria..but you can't really believe it.

4) Because most of what is here to see is outside (versus inside buildings) and because it's so much bigger than Auschwitz, it is much easier to get away from other people and to experience it in your own head and to feel a little less like a tourist and more like somone trying to pay their respects.

5) The few barracks that are left are not exhibit halls, rather they've been left (or restored to) the way that the camp inmates experienced them: dank, dark, with the bed bunks that so many people had to crowd into. (The wooden barracks were prefab units designed as stables for 14 horses. Meanwhile, more than a hundred people were kept there). It was incredibly powerful to imagine 5 people lying sideways to fit into their assigned one bunk amid the straw and mud and filth.

We continue to believe that everybody who can should visit one of these camps (or the museum in DC). You may read about it in books or see things in movies, but it remains academic and an intellectual exercise until you can see the cold efficiency with which so many millions were murdered. The more people experience this, the better chance that there may be people to stand up when situations like this arise in the future.


Kill the Wabbit! Kill the Wabbit!

On Thursday, Becca and I decided to get dressed like real adults and take in a night at the Hungarian Opera House.  Though the season is over, they are having a special festival right now and performing a couple of Verdi's operas. 
First though, we showed up in the afternoon, dripping wet, and after donning protective gear toured the beautiful building. The Budapest Opera House is supposed to be one of the nicer ones on the continent, though much smaller than LaScala, etc.. It actually had made the Austrian emperor Franz Joseph jealous by being nicer than the one in Vienna and by being the first to encorporate a number of technological inventions (such as the first such building to have fire safety attributes and to incorporate air conditioning: blocks of ice under a vent under each seat!). It's just a beautiful, opulent building and we were excited to think about the fact that a few hours later we would be climbing those stairs ourselves.
For the evening, we had tickets to Il Troubador, evidently one of Verdi's most musically impressive but ridiculously plotted operas ( the link). Needless to say the best investment of the evening was the program with an english speaking synopsis of the opera (and of course some opera glasses).
It was the first opera for both of us, and we actually enjoyed it more than I think either of us thought we would (in addition to just enjoying the whole scene of being there).  Fortunately, as this is one of the big time places, the opera was subtitled (since it was performed in Italian). Unfortunately, since we're in Budapest it was subtitled in Hungarian. Ah well...we just had to rely on the program notes and our imagination.
A couple more thoughts about the evening:
a) it was really fun to put on the one nice outfit we had packed and pretend to be real people for the evening
b) we would get really excited the couple of times we either recognized a word or two in Italian or even more rarely, recognized one of the pieces of music. The most famous (to the non-opera connoseurs) part is probably the Anvil Chorus.
c) the budapest opera is probably the cheapest world class opera to see. The most expensive seats (in Empress Sissy's old box) were probably about 75 dollars, standing room ticks were 1 dollar, and our upper level seats were about 16 dollars. Not bad.
d) after being all excited about getting to room these grand staircases and rooms and walk in through the fancy lobby and then into the concert hall for real during the opera we were totally denied. See...our seats were where the commoners would sit back when, so there was actually a separate entrance around the side of the building and you climbed up some side stairs to the top, never actually entering the rarified areas where the nobles socialized. Good thing we took the tour! Though to be fair, the view from our seats wasn't too shabby.
All in all a great cultural experience and we both safely say that we enjoyed the opera alot more than either of us would have imagined.  Perhaps we will try to take in another one before we head out of Europe!
-The Newly Cultured Brian & Becca (yes, a joint post!)

Monday, August 15, 2005

In Memory....

We miss him very much.

Stefan Bloomfield
May 2, 1944 - August 15, 2004

Thursday, August 11, 2005

We're still alive...

Sorry for the lack of new exciting stories or pictures; we've been getting our internet connection in 5 minute intervals so updates have been fairly tough.  Just getting ready to leave Vienna for 8 days in Cesky Krumlov and Prague (Czech Republic for the geographically challenged).  Had a blast in Vienna and are racing to go catch a train to Cesky Krumlov right now!
Brian & Becca
PS Happy Birthday to Mom Bloomfield!

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Two Type A's Assimilating to European Culture...

So yesterday we spent the afternoon at Central Kavehaz, one of the more famous coffeshops here in Budapest. It was Becca and my first shot at the 'coffee culture' Becca's brother Jon have been telling us all about ever since their honeymoon in 2004.  For two type A personalities, the idea of spending the afternoon in a coffee shop and just relaxing, reading, writing in our journal, etc. isn't the easiest fit.  This same culture also transfers to the cafe/dinner culture where a three hour dinner and having to practically beg for your bill is certainly the norm.  Needless to say this is a little different from the US fast food culture where if you stay more than a few minutes past finishing your meal, the 'associate' at the local chain restaurant is ready to pull out the taser to get you out the door.
I can safely say that we're doing our best and slowly adjusting to the longer meals, slower service and the 'table is yours until you want to leave' philosophy.  It's nice to be someplace where you can relax and let the time go by without worrying whether the waiter is giving you the royal stink eye or whether you need to purchase something else so you're not a victim of the table turnover taser.  Just allows you to relax, have real conversation and just spend the time needed to let your brain open up to think creatively and not worry about what has to happen in the next 30 minutes.
There are obviously pluses and minuses to both cultures; in the case of the Europeans, your waiter can be indifferent (not that that is specific to one culture or another), getting the check may be difficult at times and we certainly have learned that eating with a deadline (whether it be a bus, an opera, etc) on the brain can lead to a stressful experience.  And as Becca pointed out to me yesterday, when you chug tea like she does, hot water refills and/or the bottomless cup of coffee isn't such a bad thing. 
Just our two cents on yet another thing that has popped up in our discussions and experiences here in Europe.  May get around to the Tipping Dilemma at some point but until then this will have to do.
Comments as always are welcome; we appreciate the chatter.

Pictures up

Have attached some pics to the vilnius and zakopane posts, with lots more up on flickr.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Crock-OOF Uncovered

So we spent three days in Krakow (who's actual phonetic pronunciation has been the strangest thing I've learned so far on the trip) with one of those days being a trip out to Auschwitz/Berkenau. Given the fact that Becca and I are still letting that sit in we'll stick with Krakow proper for the time being.

Krakow is a very cool city; at about 800,000 the downtown has a relaxed and very walkable center. After getting into town, we stumbled our way to our hostel. Of course, once we got there we found out that our hostel had two locations and we were at the wrong one. And that the one we needed to go to was across the city. Thankfully the lovely hostel goddess Ania called a cab and trucked across across town to our hostel. Needless to say we're not terribly sad about the fact that in Budapest (our next locale) the person is picking us up at the train station.

We spent our two and a half day just really exploring Krakow. The first evening we mostly spent walking around the enormous town square and just soaking in the ambiance. Our second day was spent between the Kazimerz district, which was once the thriving Jewish quarter of Warsaw and doing the first half of the Royal Walk (which goes from the main entrance of the old town to Wawel Castle). Kazimerz is now almost completely devoid of Jews (only 600 or so still live in the city) but the history of the area and the synagogues, etc. are still there. For those of you who have seen it, this is also where parts of Shindler's List was filmed. For dinner that night we dined at the Ariel restaurant as Becca wanted to get a klezmer music experience while we were here. The entertainment was quite good (in fact Becca got suckered into buying a CD); too bad the food wasn't (except for the matzoh ball soup that is). All in all though an entertaining evening, especially when the Polish man leading the Italian tour group in front of us described Matzoh as "traditional Jewish bread" ie what is eaten daily as bread by the Jewish population. I know I'm only a honorary MOT (Member of the Tribe) but even I know how off he was...

Our final day here in Krakow has been a relaxing one. We got a late start, got organized and then headed out to explore Wawel Castle. The castle has been around since the beginning of recorded history and because of that, is quite a mishmash of different architectural styles. This is the most visited tourist attraction in Poland (and it showed with the large number of chotschke stands around the castle) and Becca and I joined the crowd to take a look at the castle and the church (where all the Polish royalty is buried).

The cool fact that the folks at Wawel don't want you to know though is that Wawel Hill is one of the seven focal points of Chakra in the world. No, I'm not making this up. So when you walk into the courtyard, you go to the left and in the corner are typically a group of people trying to take advantage of the mongo Chakra. Yes, both Becca and I figured it wouldn't hurt the ol' general karmic levels so we went over for a few minutes, much to the chagrin of the local workers (evidently they're banned from discussing it if a tourist asks; we didn't).

I'd have to say our highlight of Krakow proper though was spending the afternoon here. A great bookstore with a tea, coffee and "american pastries" selection. For the record, evidently "amercian pastries" equals tasty looking cake (too bad we'd just had a lunch of periogies). Gave us a great place to chill out, enjoy the shelves and shelves of books (mostly in english actually) and find ourselves some good reading for the trip to Budapest.

And with that, we're off to a night train to Hungary... Who says travel isn't sexy?