Friday, September 29, 2006

Our apologies about the delays in posting, we were travelling from Holland to Spain on Monday, and there´s only one computer here at our hostel, so it is difficult to get enough time to do a blog entry. But we are currently waiting for a phone call from DHL in regards to the package that has our camera in it, so we are hostel-bound for at least a little while, so you´re in luck! So late last week, on Thursday, we returned to Nijmegen from Amsterdam, after having a great 4 days there. Amsterdam is a fun city, but very pricey compared to most others in Europe, so while it is a place worth experiencing, a couple days give you the flavor, staying longer is merely indulgent and superfluous. On Friday we explored the town of Nijmegen with Nicole a bit more, she gave us a walking tour of her school, and we did the now usual shopping for our dinner at the market. We layed low Friday night, because we had been invited by Nicole´s friend Enni to join a bunch of international students on a ¨field trip¨ of sorts. We ended up being gone most of the day, at the De Hoge Veluwe, a 40 square km national park, that is internationally known for its 1700 white-painted bicycles that are free to use with admission in order to get around the park. The bikes were fun to ride, and gave us at least a part of the Holland bicycle experience, though they lacked any gears and were somewhat low-riders, so cruising around the dirt and sand paths was challenging at times, but lots of fun. It added some nice variety to our Holland visit, and our train and bus timing that day was amazing, as we twice caught them right before they were departing. Our last day in Holland was on Sunday then, and we headed south by train to explore the town of Maastricht for a little while with Nicole, before taking the train to Brussels in order to catch our flight to Madrid early Monday morning. So Sunday was kind of a long day on various trains, around 3 or 4 total hours, with us ending up in Brussels at around 8 pm. We got to the airport quite easily, since there was a direct airport express train, though the Virgin Express ticket counter was already closed for the evening, so weren´t able to check in, and thus we had to sleep on the aiport floor until morning. However, we were rather tired from travelling, and with our sleeping bag liners and some well-placed clothes and jackets we both managed to get a more-than-adequate night of sleep.
Monday morning then, was spent flying from Brussels to Madrid, though our plane left a bit late, so we didn´t really get to our hostel, Pop Hostel, until around 2 pm. The hostel here is quite nice, and much more social than our Amsterdam experience. We´re on the European 1st floor, which is really the 2nd floor, so you have to buzz downstairs to be let in, but it´s a good system that seems to work well, though the market downstairs means that it smells rather fishy going up the stairs. We´ve spent far too much of our time here attempting to get our package, from DHL, that is supposedly tied up with Spanish customs. Not that we haven´t been enjoying Madrid, which we definitely have been, but we only have 24 more hours before our flight, and we don´t want to leave here package-less. Our Monday night ended up being rather unusual: we were relaxing at a nearby park, waiting while a one-hour-photo place developed our disposable cameras, and a mute hippie-looking guy came and ¨chatted¨ us up. We would speak to him, and then he would write back with us. He was very nice, and after a while invited us to his house for tea. We figured we might as well, since we had some time kill, and we ended up spending the entire evening with him and his roommmate, who was an old woman from the Philippines. She spoiled us with 2 meals, mostly consisting of fruit and cheese, from a fruit salad, to fruit cakes, to fresh oranges and cheese plates. It was a very weird experience, since the man, Youman, had a lifetime of stories to tell, as well as numerous (and we mean numerous) pages of miscellaneous writings. While eccentric, he didn´t seem crazy at all, so we had to believe that what he said was true, that he´d attended Harvard but been expelled for protesting, had spent 5 years in jail in India, and had spent time with Naga tribes in north-east India, who were traditional headhunters (no longer, of course). He had a unique style of writing, mixing small words, mostly English but sometimes in Spanish, with psychedelic drawings and word-pictures. Time seemed to fly by, and Youman seemed more than happy to have visitors, so were did not leave until 4 am, much later (obviously) than we had ever intended on staying. But we´re travelling to experience the world, so unusual happenings are just part of the journey!
Yesterday we went to the massive Retiro Park, where we rented a rowboat and floated around the massive man-made lake there, which is surrounded by large statues and is a very relaxing area. We then walked around the rest of the park, which was simply massive for being within a major city; it includes all sorts of gardens, long paths with benches, a sports complex, numerous ponds, and several massive buildings, including the Crystal Palace, a huge glass structure overlooking a tree-filled pond. Last night, after cooking a nice dinner at the hostel, fresh pork cuts and cheese from the market down the street, as well as fresh bread from a nearby bakery, we hung out with some other hostel-ers, a couple of guys from Ireland and an American from Montana. We all then ended up going out for a while, which ended up being a bunch of wandering and talking, before ending up at an Irish bar. Irish bars are universally similar, but universally acceptable when one is thirsty for a pint. So we had a fun evening, and since the beds here are quite comfortable, a good night sleep as well.
So it´s time to give up the computer, but we´ll be leaving for Greece tomorrow afternoon, and won´t get to Athens until tomorrow night, since we are going through London, which is the exact opposite direction. The joys of connecting flights...

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

We're not sure if it's more the Hotel Brian, or more just Amsterdam, but either way we definitely decided to stay for a few more days, primarily so that we could explore the city more, but also because our gracious host Nicole had some academic responsibilities that needed her attention. So we will have stayed at Hotel Brian for a total of 4 nights, 2 with Nicole and 2 without, and will head back to Nijmegen to join her by train tomorrow evening, after we enjoy Amsterdam for one more day. We have to be out of our hostel by 10 officially, but they are quite flexible about such things, though we do want to be up early to take advantage of the complementary breakfast, but we can use the internet and kitchen and such later in the day if necessary. Of course it only seems today that we'd gotten a grasp on navigating the city, but that's how it goes travelling around the cities of Europe. Right after noon today we went to the Botanical Gardens, though we squeezed in a sandwich luncheon in the neighboring park, Wertheim first. The park was certainly nice, but the gardens are massive and immaculately groomed. The Botanical Gardens have been around in some form since the 17th century, and its been a Dutch institution for well over a century, so many of the trees are themselves quite ancient. The whole place is divided into smaller garden sections, such as the rock garden or the herb garden, and then there are a pair of massive greenhouses as well: one is a 3-climate greenhouse, built within the last 10 years, that includes a jungle room and a desert room, plus an overlooking walkway through a large part of the greenhouse; the second dates from the early 20th century, and is called the Palm House, and it is filled with many tall palms, cycads, and other ancient plants that have "survived" from previous eras. A lot of rare plants are featured throughout the zoo, including around 25 particularly rare trees. All in all in was a fun, cheap experience, and a change of pace from the museums we saw the previous few days.
Most of the major art museums in Amsterdam are only showing partial collections due to massive renovations not due for completion until 2008, so even though we wished to see them, it didn't make sense to miss most of the art itself. But we did go to one of the 3 big museums, the most operational, the Van Gogh Museum. One whole floor was still closed, but 2 other floors featured Van Gogh paintings from his "early years" and "continuation." Europeans view things unusually sometimes. Anyway, there was also a large exhibit called Japanese Season, featuring artwork from the Meiji period during the Japanese Enlightenment Period. Numerous exquisite vases, guilded screens, and other pieces were simply amazing. Not that the the European paintings were bad either, we were just expecting them on arrival. We also saw a lot of good painting at the Rembrandt House & Museum, which features the house where Rembrandt painted many of his masterpieces, restored, and an adjacent museum featuring many of Rembrandt's contemporaries. Many of his paintings were featured, but his etchings and engravings were perhaps more impressive, since they are initially etched mirrored-backwards, before ink is applied and the regular image is made on paper.
We also went to the Torture Museum just a little while ago, which although not the largest museum we've ever been to, certainly covered the history of torture quite accurately. Sometimes with museums you feel like you don't quite get your money's worth, but fortunately at only 5 euros we cannot feel too ripped off. We've been doing a lot of walking around the city, as Amsterdam is pretty large, and therefore somewhat confusing when you are not very familiar with things. But having a centrally-located hostel has really helped, as we have everything we could really need (bars, coffeeshops, a market, cornerstores) within just a few blocks. Of course it took us about 5 days to figure everything out, but at least we're there now! Tonight we also watched some Champions League Football (where all the best European clubs teams play each other) on a big-screen at a nearby pub, which was fun, and the Dutch team Eindhoven beat the French team Bordeaux. Tomorrow we may try to go to one more museum, possibly, but we really haven't decided yet, just that sometime in the evening we will catch a train to Nijmegen/Lent, and meet back up with Nicole. Over the weekend we will explore Nijmegen some more, until Sunday morning, when we will head south to Maastricht, a town that Nicole has visited before, and that our hostel host has described as "beautiful." So that will make for a nice day, and late that night we will catch another train to Brussels, where we have an early Monday flight to Madrid, Spain, where we will be until Oct. 5. We had hoped to spend more time in Madrid, but we were trying to wait in Holland for our camera (Anderson dropped it right before we left, but we've been notified that it's been fixed under our warranty), though that's just how life goes some times. We've just booked a hostel in Madrid, after doing some research, so hopefully the Pop Hostel will treat us well. We should be able to update one more time before leaving Holland, and hopefully our trip back to Nijmegen will be relatively painless. So long as we don't take the last train of the night...

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Our journey to Amsterdam was, perhaps just like Amsterdam itself, a definite pain that was nonetheless worth it. We attempted to leave Nicole's mid-afternoon, however, the trains were not running at all from Lent where she lives into Nijmegen where we could catch a train to Amsterdam, due to construction at the Arnhem station. But we could only find that out by waiting at the train station until they made an announcement. So we ended up catching a bus, not really a bad alternate mode of transportation, just a little bumpier. We then got our tickets, involving a change at one station... that we accidently underjumped due to poor sign positioning and had to wait 30 minutes for the next train, at which time we did finally make it into to A'dam. The town is massive and sprawling, to understate things, rather too much to figure out under any conditions, nevermind the strains of travel in the Netherlands! Most corridors look the same, and while there are canals too "help" you locate things, there are numerous ones that are appear identical, particularly at night. You certainly can easily get around with a map, its just wandering from streetcorner to streetcorner is a time-consuming process, particularly when most roads are under construction. So amidst our initial wandering for a hostel, we checked out a few cafes, coffeeshops, and bars, while also not being able to ignore the occasional red light, street busker, or random foreign street traffic. Amsterdam (and its shoppes by extension) have a very foreign feel to them, English will often seem to be the only language being spoken, and its safe to assume most at least understand what you are saying: certainly all the staff do, blocks upon blocks inevitably get visited by tourists, even when trying to escape the "main drags." That being said, there are exciting stores every block, clusters of coffeeshops, boulevards of bars, and corners of cafes, plus numerous street vendors, hostel/hotel signs, plus sex shops as well. Amsterdam is a busy city by day, but empty by night except for certain districts. All the streets really do look the same, with confusing polysyllabic names; but while its a different world, stores are stores everywhere, pictures explian the food options, and everyone speaks at least rudimentary English. Thus, comes the comfort of your hostel/hotel, that provides your homebase/comfort zone/internet access (ideally) enabling you to stay in touch with "reality." However, our journey took even longer that that to find one in Amsterdam.
After much wandering, and "all full" hotels, we had even checked chuckling bucket shop stands for last-minute options, we finally found an overpriced but available option "just 7 minutes down the subway line" - after a little more foot-travel, we finally then hit the Central Station in order to catch our subway. After twice being told the incorrect information by the Infor booth (when we checked with passengers the trains were going other ways), we finally figured out an appropriate train to take, one of the last of the night. However, for reasons still unknown, our train skipped all of its "regular" stops, only going to its final destination Ulrecht. We realized things weren't right quite quickly, but what do you do on the wrong train, the last train, that's just not stopping, which means you definitely don't have the correct ticket? Well, we hoped for the best, and some fortuitous luck gave us a comfortable night sleep:
We walked through the mall-maze attached to the Ulrecht Centraal station, and eventually emerged in a main square, with shoppes sloping down a gentle hill beyond a rather modern extended public area. So we followed the hordes, and decided to check the first hotel we saw, a Best Western. We were told in short order that, just like Amsterdam, things were full up, even though we'd travelled a good distance away. Just as we asked what exactly we "should do," when an older couple arrived, to check out of their room. At 1:30 am we could hardly believe our luck, and the hotel employee was kind enough to overlook our deal-on-the-side, saving us a bunch of money for "an unused bed" we were promised. We ended up with a nice 4th floor view, in a 150 euro hotel for a third the price, less than even the cheapest hostel in Amsterdam, though we did the journey by train back to the city to deal with, but we would be refreshed then.
Given that it's now Sunday, and we easily found a hostel this noon-time, it should be noted that Amsterdam is not the best to approach on a Saturday night, particularly not when already held up by uncooperative trains, without some sort of internet reservation. Our entire journey would have been easier, and the comfort we are currently in, we would have been enjoying yesterday as well. But a 4th floor proch with a view after a rough travel day isn't too bad, and the bed was certainly comfortable. The train ride back to town was around 10 euro, money saved the night before accidentally. We went to the Ajax Stadium exit, in order to check out the ticket options for the game. After navigating about the enormous stadium, we found the only tickets available included a mandatory scarf and were right around $60 each. So for a moment the ceaseless battle of "two-weeks-in-India" vs. "great experience in Europe" was waged, with the prestigious Ajax football club losing, in favor of quickly finding a comfortable hostel and exploring the city further by foot. We decided to check our ideal destination, the Hotel Brian, which Nicole had stayed at previously in the month, and includes many fringe benefits like breakfast, free internet, 24/7 access, own room, etc. all for only 27 euro. Cheaper could be had, but the accoutrements more than make up for the few euro savings (lowest price = 18 - 20 euro, in large military-style rooms with 20+ beds. The free internet alone is the savings, one euro usually buys between 15 and 30 minutes at most of the A'dam coffeshops or bars. Some do have wifi (often marked in the windows) but we don't have a laptop with us.
But we're here at the Hotel Brian, and will be for one more night, leaving Tuesday morning to return to Nijmegen most likely with Nicole, though there's at least a slight chance we might stay here one more day and try one of the cheaper hostels for comparison sake. We really are leaving most of our trip details to circumstance, which creates some harrowing moments, but creates a lot of fun potential as well.

More details to come, we do have all night internet...

Friday, September 22, 2006

We're now in Nijmegen, The Netherlands, which we've discovered is definitely not Nij-meg-en like we thought, but rather Nigh-may-gen - like something coming soon is "nigh" (silent g), the month of May, and with a hard 'g' at the end, as in 'again.' Roughly. Dutch is a very guttural language, and is honestly rather different from most of the other European languages that we're aware of. The Dutch and German languages are therefore really nothing alike, and while much is the same here, it definitely feels like we are in a different country.
But first, our last day in Hamburg with Tom was packed full, as Anderson awoke with Tom for 2nd breakfast at Cafe Lisboa, the Portuguese breakfast cafe, this time complete with fresh-squeezed orange juice, before heading off to the train station to purchase tickets to Nijmegen for the next day (Thursday the 21st). While the ticket counter employee claimed to not speak English very well, the entire conversation was conducted in the language, which Tom explaned as typical German behavior.
After lounging around Tom's for a bit, we headed to the nearby neighborhood Blankenese, which was located in close proximity to the Elbe river. We spent a few hours walking about, checking out the harbor, but mostly walking through very pretty, older and spacious housing, particularly compared to the endless multi-story apartment buildings in Tom's neighborhood in Altona. It was actually a bit difficult to find an outdoor cafe, but we finally ended up at a Spanish tapas restaurant, and although their food was a bit unusual (lots of boiled vegetables), the meal was still quite enjoyable. We then met Tom at his lab, after navigating the buses for our first time. His office shows the signs of having been occupied by the Wisconsin group (from Madison) that he is a part of from for several years now, and in addition to all the computers that fill the room, one wall is dedicated to postcards from all the group members's trips over the years, and another to posters of Madison's hometown bars.
After a brief stop back at Tom's, we headed out the the Popa Chubby show that we'd all been awaiting. We started the night off with some cheap street falafels, at only 3 euros the best deal we've found yet, which "were more than she could handle" according to Liz, before grabbing our tickets from the Fabrik box office. We waited for Tom's friend Matt to arrive after being joined by another coworker Freddy, enjoying some cheap beer during our wait (genuinely a great deal, actually, only 1 euro 30 cents (around $1.75) for 22 oz. of delicious German-brewed beer, of certainly above-average caliber). Really, we didn't have such a thing as a bad beer in Germany, the market is far too competitive for an inferior product to last very long. Anyways, Popa Chubby was definitely a blues/rock musician, not a jazz player as previously reported. To accurately understand the Popa Chubby experience, one must first get a grasp on the man himself: at 340 + lbs, around 6 feet tall, bald except for a lonely wisp of hair above his brow, his arms enblazed with a multitude of tattoos, a sleeveless leather vest with a Woody Woodpecker shirt squeezed around his massive frame, and a self-descibed "big, bad guitar stolen from the Devil," he is a unique and dominating stage presence, a legitimate blues musician who doesn't fear rock 'n' roll, both of the classic 50s and 60s vintage, as well as the edgy metal tone of most of today's bands. Backed by his nephew, a skinny Sid Vicious type who must visit his uncle's tattoo parlor as well, on drums, and a bassist who could pass for a Mediteranian Scott Stapp in every department accept ability, which this half of the Chubby rhythm section definitely possessed. They played for 2.5 straight hours, before the venue forced them to stop at midnight, though Popa Chubby and the majority of the crowd were ready to go much longer.
Since we'd packed up most of our stuff earlier, we only had a few last things to throw in our bags, before we caught as much sleep as we could before 8 a.m. arrived. After saying goodbye to a luckily-returning-to-sleep Tom, we began our day of train travel by taking the S-Bahn subway to the main station, which was a hub for subways, regional and local trains, plus buses as as well. Everything is government run, and is very efficient not only in German, but also in Holland (at least what we've experienced). Our train ride, which involved two transfers, was highlighted by Liz finishing her book, since every ride was smooth and quite comfortable, with the only slight glitch being that our last train within Germany was late, so we missed our train, but local trains within The Netherlands run every 30 minutes, so we really didn't have long to wait, and since Nicole was coming to meet us from an appointment, we all ended up at the Nijmegen train station at pretty much the same time.
We hopped back on the train, for the one-stop 3-minute ride to her stop, the neighboring village of Lent. From the station it's a short walk to her student housing complex (and around a 5-minute bike ride as evidenced by the large student bike shed), which is made up of 7 buildings that formerly housed refugees. But they are comfortable, with a fully functioning kitchen - which we use with frequency, since we've gone to the grocery store several times already, and have made a few meals at "home," and Nicole has her own typical dorm-sized bedroom, though her's is larger than most.
When we go out, then, it's to the very accessible university town of Nijmegen, NL, 15 minutes from the border with Germany. It's a pretty good size town, as we experienced today by climbing 15 flights of stairs to get the view from the top of a mid-restoration midieval castle. Post-WWII the town sold all the original stones for cash, but the town is now remaking it. Go team tourism, but it should be classy, one would hope. The Dutch are all about sensibility, so for it to be tacky would be against the national character. We're definitely in football country, local matches play nightly on TV, often jumping between multiple live matches for a variety of action. We've been to downtown Nijmegen several times, its got a mostly modern shopping area, consisting of many city blocks, featuring shops, bars, and cafes alike all overlooked by a church and clock tower, all situated within a few blocks from the river Waal. The town has 8 coffeeshops, and actually has its own one street Red Light District as well. Nicole has roommates from Hungary, Poland, and Spain, though they all decorated with the help of IKEA, and her friend Enni from Finland has joined us on most of our ventures to Nijmegen. Tonight we ate at an Italian place called Pinoccio's, which served pizzas (uncut of course, served with silverware), and a wide variety of pastas (Anderson's was served with a sprinkling of lettuce and raw tomato on top), that was scrumptious. Grolsch is the common beer, though all restaurants have several choices on tap. Some menus just have "tap bier" for the cheapest option, which seems like it might be Grolsch sometimes, but perhaps a house brew in other occasions. Coffeeshops do not serve any alcohol at all, just juice, soda, tea, and the obvious :-)
The food here is awesome, and since we are cooking most of the time at Nicole's we've been eating a lot of sandwiches (made from high-quality meats and cheeses from the multitude of options - the first market we went to had 4 cheese cases and about the same for meat) and drinking lots of interesting fruit beverages (some mixed with yogurt, others carbonated, some along the Kool-Aid vein, though all with different tastes than what we're used to, plus of course different packaging, both as far ad physical size and also marketing (all writing being in Dutch).
We're heading to Amsterdam tomorrow (on Saturday) for at least 2 days, we're going to play it by ear after that, but we're want to see the Ajax football club play Nijmegen in Amsterdam on Sunday, so we have to go early in the morning when they release tickets to the public on Sunday so that we can. We're going to go the Anne Frank house and the Van Gogh museum for sure, but the other 2 major museums are undergoing extensive renovations, which means most exhibits are currently closed. Nicole got sleep pads from Ikea especially for us, which was very nice and means we are very comfortable sleeping, so we're enjoying comfortable sleep while we still can. Everyone has been so nice to us, not only our friends, but their friends, and all the random people who have assisted us despite the language barrier. It certainly makes being in a different culture with a different language (which means you really can't read most of the signs) - with all the food packaged different, and a lot of it tasting different as well - much, much easier.
Right now we're just relaxing in Nicole's room, listening to some Ryan Harvey on our mp3 player with its teeny-weeny battery-less speakers. You should download some of Ryan Harvey's music though, in all seriousness, he's part of a self-described riot-folk movement from San Francisco, which you owe it to yourself to check out. We are about to go to bed. Now we are...

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Monday September 18 was our 2-year wedding anniversary, and though we intended to have a fun time celebrating, we had no idea just how full a day we would end up with. We managed to awake at a decent hour, and so we joined Tom for his pre-work breakfast at a local Portuguese breakfast place, which had excellent coffees and cappuccinos, as well as a tasty grilled chorizo breakfast sandwich. We met some more of his friends, two Brits, John and "British" Tim, as well as Tim's dog Einstein. Dogs are omnipresent in Hamburg, all of them cute and virtually all of them exquisitely behaved.
After our leisurely breakfast, we then embarked on our first true "solo" traveling adventure, though Tom had nicely listed what S-Bahn stops we needed, as well as some recommended sites. So we took the S-1 train to Jungfernsteig, in the downtown area, and set off through the neverending construction (Hamburg is currently undergoing FDR-esque rebuilding with similar economic ambitions). Hamburg is definitely an old European city, and yet it is also more modern than most due to the extensive bombings it received by Allied troops during World War II. We wandered to one of the city's main thoroughfares, which proved to be quite beneficial as we then quickly found a very informative map of the general downtown area, one of many that guided us throughout the day. So our first stop was the Rathaus, the German Senate building, which is simply massive, taking up several city blocks, including a massive courtyard with a fountain. We decided not to take a tour, mostly because the only one departing was comprised of elderly German couples, but also because we wanted to some more city exploration. Our next stop was Nikolai'skirche, or the Church of St. Nicholas, which is no longer a church but rather a monument to peace. The entire building was bombed out during WWII, save the spire, once the tallest building on the Hamburg skyline. Just last year, from funds raised by a rescue group, a glass elevator was built so that people could travel 75 meters up to soak up the city. After some debating on whether it would be worth the 6 euros or not, we decided to check out the view, which was indeed worth the money, as we got to see the entire city while comparing it to black and white photos taken just after the war ended. A bit of a sobering experience, but a good history lesson as well as a unique opportunity to see all of Hamburg at once. Next up, after an enjoyable yet lengthy walk across most of the city's center, was another church, St. Michael's. Definitely a stark contrast to St. Nicholas's, St. Michael's is still in use, so we got to relax for a while in the main chapel and appreciate the artistic wonder that surrounded us. After stopping for lunch, at one of many different sandwich shops that were around, we then headed to the Kunsthalle, the art museum that is home to many pieces of modern art. However, given that it is undergoing massive renovations, the museum had already closed for the day 30 minutes before we arrived. The hilarious part is that it took us a while to figure this out, because we were able to sneak in a side entrance when some workers came out (which we thought was the main entrance), and then wander around trying various doors for about 10 minutes before we were politely informed by security that we needed to leave. We still had some time before Tom would be done at work, so after some more casual city walking, we ended up at one more church, St. Jacobi, which apparently does not belong to St. Jacob, but rather St. James... the joys of translation! St. James' was definitely a cool church though, with a fully renovated organ from the 17th century that has about 4000 pipes, as well as a bunch of well-preserved paintings, plus an altar from the 15th century that was being restored by a painter while we there, so that was a pretty rare experience to watch priceless art being touched up right in front of us!
After that we got a hold of Tom, after a bit of fun with the public phones not being cooperative, and after enjoying a beer in a local park, we met Tom at the train station. We decided to go out for the evening, so once again we started out at the Reh Bar (well, it is just down the street), with Tom's friend Matt meeting us in short order, and after some anniversary shots we headed to the Kir Bar for its Monday Gothic Night. Gothic Night in Europe is definitely loosely interpreted, as they played mostly dance-rock, with an emphasis on the 80s, though they did occasionally play some killer electronic songs. But we had a great time dancing for hours (we ended up being out until past 3 a.m.), and Tom truly deserves some sort of award for being a hardcore host, since the whole time we've been here his sleep has been either cut short by his having to be at work, or interrupted when work emergencies occur (he's on call this week for his lab, so when something breaks down or isn't working right, he has the cell phone that rings, and with it the problem that must be dealt with). We honestly had no idea that Hamburg was such a late-night party town, we'd just picked it because we wanted to see Tom, and figured it would be a good introduction to Europe before we headed to Amsterdam.
Since we were up so late, we slept in quite a bit, though Tuesday ended up being a gloomy rainy day (apparently the norm in Hamburg, but the first non-sunny day we've experienced), so we stuck around Tom's place in the Altona neighborhood, mailed some postcards, checked out the local Mercado, ate some great Lamb Donner sandwiches for lunch, and then spent a while reading at a local pub called the Labyrinth. The nice part of European pub life is that you can relax for as long as you'd like, there's no pressure to leave or to purchase more food or drinks - quite the change of pace from the American dining experience. For dinner we ate some amazing Indian food, at a restaurant called Tandoori, where we essentially had the place to ourselves for most of our meal. The food was quite authentic, inexpensive, not to mention filling. You may have noticed that we have yet to eat any actual German food, but beyond shops selling wieners of various types, not much is really available. Tom explained this as a sort of culinary Darwinism: frankly, who wants to eat German food when so many other delicious international offerings are available? Of course, the fact that Hamburg is a University and port town, and a very internationally diverse one at that, probably also plays a role, but we too prefer pasta, falafel, curries, fresh seafood, and other global delicacies to fancily-prepared hotdogs, potatoes, and green beans.
So now we're again up a bit later than intended, but at least you're well-informed, and then again, we are on semi-permanent vacation, so it's not like we've got a particle accelerator to fix in the morning like poor Tom does!

Sunday, September 17, 2006

We've just experienced our first European weekend, which was of course great fun. After sleeping most of Saturday (though Tom had to run to the lab where he works several times to deal with some problems), we went out to Mamma Mia, not the musical but rather a wonderful Italian restaurant, with delicious wine and almost shockingly fast service. Every restaurant that we have eaten in has been fabulous, it really seems that Hamburg doesn't have any bad eateries at all. The language barrier would probably be a bit problematic for just us, but Tom thankfully takes care of any potential problems for us quite handily. So after dinner, we relaxed at his place briefly, since the nightlife here doesn't begin until much later than in the States. There are essentially no closing times for bars, so subsequently there is no reason to arrive really before eleven or midnight. To get the full Hamburg nightlife experience our main destination was the Reeperbahn, a series of about a hundred bars, restaurants, and sex shops packed into only a few city blocks, that are filled with partiers of all nationalities all weekend long. So, after a drink at the local pub to get us started, we took the U-Bahn (subway) to where the action was, meeting up with a bunch of Tom's friends/coworkers. Since he works at an international lab, his friends come from all over Europe, so we ended up partying with Spainiards, Italians, a Scot (named Matt, who'd just returned from travels of his own), and a Columbian, which was definitely quite cool. We hit up several bars, most notably the Cobra Club - a rock/punk club with a logo straight out of GI Joe, the Drafthouse which alternately featured American rock like Nirvana and Green Day as well as a typically cheesy German band covering 50s/60s music and singing in English. The band actually cleared out most of the crowd, but the mantra in Hamburg is simply to have a good time, and we most definitely did indiscriminately dancing to music both good and bad. We danced at another packed club, the Nachtlager, to tunes by Oasis and Soundgarden amongst others, and if you can't tell all and all the music isn't much different than in the States, though everyone here in Europe is much more relaxed about their partying. After a much needed refueling by way of a cheap tasty pizzas (2 euros with whatever toppings you wanted - and ready literally within a minute), we headed to a bar called the Golden Pudel to end our night. To put it in context, by this point is was right around 6 a.m., and yet the Golden Pudel was still filling up, as people streamed in from the other bars that were beginning to slow down. We were hesitant to pay the 2 euro cover, given that the bar is quite the dive, but Marcos, a guy from Spain, managed to talk the doorman into letting us all in, which worked out nicely since the DJ was spinning a lot of dark, heavy techno on actual vinyl. While every bar in Hamburg seems to have a live DJ, most use CDs and don't really do too much mixing, though since they play a lot of modern dance-rock that is somewhat understandable. But it was nice to hear some authentic techno, albeit in a somewhat nasty bar, but at well-past 6 a.m. after being out all night none of us were being too particular. After dancing for a bit more, we headed to the Fishmarkt, which is a crazy Sunday morning ritual not only for post-partiers but also for early-rising bargain shoppers. So it was quite an interesting mix of people, but a good time for sure as we wandered amongst a sea of vendors and odors (plenty of fish was around, for sure) before finally catching the subway home again around 8 a.m. If you're ever in Hamburg, make sure to catch the Reeperbahn, it is definitely a unique party spot, distinctly German and very, very fun.
After sleeping most of Sunday (how could we not with being up all night and still battling jetlag?), Tom took us out for his usual Sunday night ritual, half-price pasta at a local restaurant. We got to have some Franziskahner Heifer-Weisen, a popular German beer back home at the Sanctuary Pub where Liz used to work, and enjoyed great food that would've been worth full price. We then joined a few of his friends, Anna from Spain, and Jerome from Canada, for a quite nightcap beer before retiring to read for a while and then go to bed. We definitely maximized our weekend here in Hamburg, and are looking forward to our next couple of days here in Germany before heading to Holland on Thursday to meet up with Nicole. We're going to explore the town some the next two days (when Tom doesn't have to be at work), and on Wednesday we are going to the Fabrik Club to catch Poppa Chubby, a jazz guitar player that Tom is a big fan of. So that's where we are at now, we're both relaxing and reading our respective books (Anderson = The Fires Of Heaven by Robert Jordan, Liz = Aztec by Gary Jennings), and we're excited to be back on a normal sleep schedule!

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Not that this directly relates to our trip, although perhaps it relates all too much, but here's Keith Olbermann's Special Commentary on 9/11. Enjoy.
Well, wir sprechen Deutsch nicht, but we've made it here to Deutschland and are having a great time, although we're in the midst of fending off attacks jet-lag. We took 3 different airplanes - Minneapolis to Chicago, Chicago to Stockholm, Stockholm to Hamburg - so Thursday into Friday was a lengthy, crazy day, filled with not near enough sleep, but it was obviously quite worth it since we're now happily across the pond. We'd highly recommend Scandinavian Airlines if you have the chance, it's part of the United network, but unlike United their planes are extremely pimped out. How can a plane be "pimped out" one might ask? Well, each seat has its own retractable TV screen, with over 10 different selectable movie channels, plus the usual music selections, as well as a video game controller built in so that you can play arcade games if you so desire. Since it was an international flight adequate legroom was available of course, and the food was arguably the best airline food we've ever had. Dinner was salmon pasta, with a salad that was actually tasty, and a delicious dessert - a frosting-coated brownie. And dinner was actually served by chefs. All the staff was very nice, and unlimited alcoholic beverages has never hurt anyone - well, it has, but it didn't hurt us...
They even had a documentary channel, which was great accept that it kept Anderson up much later than initially intended.
Even though we only saw the Stockholm airport, we definitely intend to return to Sweden since the country looked absolutely gorgeous, and the residents weren't too hard on the eyes either! We'd highly recommend Thursday travel, as none of the airports were really very busy at all, particularly the Stockholm airport at 8 a.m. local time Friday morning. It's a seven hour time difference between US Central Time and whichever European time zone we are currently in (Greenwich +1 possibly).
We arrived in Hamburg at around 10:30 a.m. and Tom was nicely there to pick us up from the airport, so we didn't have to wander around like the sleep-deprived tourists we were, which was fabulous.
We then drove to Tom's apartment, which is a quite nice, particularly for a self-described bachelor pad :-)
Tom is here in Hamburg doing PhD research at the particle accelerator (through a UW-Madison program), and is into his 3rd year living in Germany, so he is pretty well-informed as well as almost fluent in German. So we've got it real rough!
We had a nice lunch at a nearby cafe, Liz had a tasty panini sandwich with pesto, tomato, and ham, while Anderson had a pasta dish with ham and four types of mushrooms. After suffering through water with gas on one of the airplane rides, we are now being diligent about requesting no gas - who honestly wants to quench their thirst with seltzer water... Europeans evidently!
Things then worked out well, as Tom had to go to work for a weekly video conference, which enabled us to get some much needed sleep in the form of a five-hour post-shower nap. After that recuperation, we were ready to experience some of the Hamburg nightlife, and with Tom's friend/coworker Anna (who's from Spain) joining us, we had an excellent seafood dinner at a La Sepia, a Portuguese restaurant. Anna informed us that the seafood itself (Anderson had salmon, Liz red snapper, Tom crab, and Anna mussels) was authentically Portuguese, while the side-dishes of potatoes and beans and such were very German. Obviously the "grosse pils" was German as well, but all the beer we have had thus far, and all those to come we're sure, are quite good. After our European-paced dinner (in America we'd call it bad service, but here slow service is the culturally-expected norm and a 15% tip is not only not expected, but would almost be inappropriate since the workers receive livable wages) we then headed to a pub near Tom's house, where we met several of his friends, all coworkers at the physics lab as well. One of his friends is actually from Iowa, oddly enough, and she lived in Iowa City about 15 years ago, so that was an unexpected coincidence.
We had some Astra beers, which at 2 euros each (about $2.60) on a Friday night for bottles was a pretty great deal. Given our lengthy days preceding, we kept the night relatively short, but we plan on making up for that this evening.
All in all our journey to Germany went off without a hitch, we are very excited to be here, and very appreciative of Tom's hospitality. We plan on being in Hamburg until mid-week, at which time we will head, most likely by train, to Nijmegen, Holland, where our friend Nicole is studying.
It should be mentioned that our photo website will be suffering for a while, since Anderson accidentally dropped our camera the Tuesday before we left, which means it is currently at Kodak getting fixed, though we will hopefully have it back within a week or two (most likely two since it must get shipped by Anderson's parents to us over here). But life goes on, we've purchased several disposable cameras to tide our photographic side over, and we'll get them developed to photo CDs in order to post them on our website.
Until we post again, Frieden auf Wiedersehen!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Sorry about the delay in posting faithful reader, but we've been quite busy getting ready for our trip (imagine that). We have been outside of Rice Lake, Wisconsin, staying with Liz's parents since August 29, with the exception of September 7-10, when we swung down to Iowa for a night (and a Hunab Ku show), and then headed north to attend Harvest Fest at Harmony Park in far southern Minnesota. We have a generally relaxing time up here in Wisconsin, and have done all sorts of fun stuff with Liz's family. We all went camping for Labor Day weekend, at nearby Veteran's Memorial Park, so we were surrounded by energetic nieces and nephews while we weren't going boating/tubing, grilling out, playing football and soccer, going on walks around the campground, and riding Liz's grandfather's new scooter. We recently saw "Beerfest" with Liz's brother Zach, after much anticipation, and although it is no "Super Troopers" it is still an excellent movie. We've enjoyed numerous excellent meals by Liz's mom Jane, including a fun family fish fry the night before we returned to Iowa. All the fish had been caught by Jane & Brad earlier in the season, so it was deliciously tasty. Other culinary highlights have included tater-tot hot dish, spaghetti-and-(huge)-meatballs, slow-cooked BBQ chicken, and other stuff that would make you drool. Yesterday Liz attended a "Ladies Lunch" with around 10 of her female relatives while Anderson suffered from being sexually discriminated against.
We also took Sarah, Isaiah, and Malikhi (our 3 oldest niece & nephews) for one afternoon each in order to spoil them a bit before we leave. Liz took 11-year-old Sarah shopping in Eau Claire, which everyone involved thought Anderson should skip, and he was all too happy to oblige. Isaiah got an afternoon at the skate park, which included some necessary skateboarding equipment (8-year-olds definitely need pads before they ride the half pipe), and we took Malikhi to the bowling alley and Dairy Queen for a 5-year-old's dream day (he wore himself out so much that he fell asleep during the 20-minute ride home).
Anderson also played (and lost at) poker with Zach and his friends during their weekly Sunday night poker game, and tonight we are going to see him play flag football. We've also hung out a lot with his girlfriend, Nikki, and her 2.5-year-old son Logan. Last night we witnessed an intense Logan v. Malikhi battle, which Isaiah was all too happy to help "break up." After the football game and one last family dinner tonight, we'll leave early tomorrow morning to drive to the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport, one of four we'll see in the 24 hours or so. We have a quick flight to Chicago, followed by the long trans-Atlantic voyage to Stockholm, Sweden, where we'll pick up a 2nd short flight to fly us to Hamburg, Germany. Fortunately Anderson's old friend Tom will be picking us up at the airport, so at least once we arrive we don't have much to worry about!
Now, here's the details on our Iowa/Minnesota-Hunab Ku/Harvest Fest four-day weekend:

We spent most of Thursday the 7th in the car, although we actually got to Iowa City in just about 6 hours, one of our fastest times ever, since several new bypasses in Wisconsin enabled us to avoid unnecessary stops and traffic. So we ate our last Oasis falafel for a while when we got to town, and then met Luke's roommate Kat's new dog Madison (she's a basset hound) and hung out with him for a bit, before heading over to the Hunab Ku house. After helping them get some promo CDs ready for their show (opening up for The Pnuma Trio), we then caught a ride downtown with our friends Stephanie & Jeremy once the show was about to start. As usual Hunab Ku played really well, and there was a good crowd (well over 100 people) in attendance, mostly for them since when the headliner came on later things had thinned out at least a little bit. It was really nice to see all of our friends one last time, and thanks should go to Luke, Chad, Stephanie, & Mike Stone (and anyone else, if we're forgetting you - it was a pretty crazy evening) for their generosity in the alcoholic beverage department! The Pnuma Trio played well, although their decision to play a short first set was a little unexpected, but they did pick up the intensity for the second set, much to everyone's delight. We got some Pizza Pit pizza (good times indeed - thanks for staying open late for us Tim!), and then hung out at the Hunab Ku house for a few more hours, until the great pass-out competition began (Luke certainly won, though there were many runner-ups...).
The next day departing for Harvest Fest seemed to take forever, as we had various errands to run; somehow getting food, costumes, glow-sticks, alcohol, and one's act together seems to take forever. So rather than leaving in the early afternoon like we'd initially anticipated, it was around 7 by the time we finally got out of Iowa City, which meant is was around 10 before we arrived at Harmony Park.
But the main attraction is Saturday night, when Wookiefoot plays. So we heard Arrested Development (yes, that Arrested Development) from the parking lot, and we managed to get a pretty decent camping site saved for us by our friends Jeremy, Zech, & Courtney who had arrived much earlier in the day, and we ended up just hanging out and chatting at our campsite for the remainder of the night, taking full advantage of the massive air mattress we spoiled ourselves with purchasing earlier in the day. Saturday by comparison was anything but low-key, as we got into our costumes in the early afternoon, in time to go see Fat Maw Rooney, a Wisconsin band we've seen several times before. Anderson dressed as a hobo-clown, Liz as a sexy tigress, Brian as Leonardo (the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle), Scott as a prisoner/robber (or the Hamburgler as he got called later in the night), Luke as an international table tennis player (though he looked more like a Scottish golfer due to his knickers), and Jeremy was a fabulous hippie-zombie. We've been uploading some random videos we have shot onto; here is one of mostly Anderson dancing (in costume of course) at the Fat Maw Rooney show.
All the bands that we saw played great, others of note include Unity: The Band, Balkan Beat Box, The All Mighty Senators, and God Johnson. Harvest Fest has a definite family vibe, given that a group of friends of Wookiefoot (primarily the band themselves) puts on the festival, so it's a real chill environment versus many of the larger festivals that we go to (Summer Camp, Wakarusa, & Bonnaroo earlier in the summer, for example). Wookiefoot pride themselves on the sound and lighting, and this year's 3-D blacklight show was pretty amazing. Somewhat a "had-to-be-there-to-believe-it" experience, but fortunately there will be one next year, so you've got a little while to get yourself organized. If you do go, wear a costume, you won't regret it! We did somewhat regret signing up for cleanup on Sunday (in exchange for free admission), not because the trash removal was hard (we've done it previously), but because the sun did not appear all day, only a constant drizzle that sometimes turned into rain. So Sunday was a dreary day, but most people there that we knew were volunteering, so we still had a fun time cruising around with a local guy named Jake whose truck and trailer we were filling with trash. After a long day of hauling sweet-smelling hippie trash, we said goodbye to all our friends (Luke & Scott in particular - we're going to miss you guys so much!), and then had a last meal with Brian at some place called The Green Mill in Albert Lea, MN, that was really good, though we were so exhausted even menu reading was somewhat taxing. That was an appropriate closure for our time in Iowa, since Brian was Anderson's randomly assigned freshman roommate at Cornell, and somehow they don't hate each other!
After a 3-hour drive back to Liz's parents' house, a bed never felt so good - the post-festival sleep is something well worth festival-ing to experience!
So now we're at the Rice Lake Public Library, taking advantage of their Wi-Fi, and we're awaiting food from Liz's former employer, Kids Korner Pizza, which will hopefully silent our grumbling stomachs.
Next time you hear from us, we'll be in Europe! We love you all and cannot wait until our paths cross again!