Tourist Info Desk

Welcome to Fernweh, a blog concerning the (mis)adventures of one Fulbrighter during a year spent in Europe teaching English.
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If you're wondering what the book reviews are about, I direct your attention to the reading list/classic lit challenge here.
Thanks for stopping by. I look forward to hearing from you!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Christmas list and Sunday dinner

Random things today. Lisbon will be up later, I promise.
I don't have anyone to tell this to, so I shall post it on the Internet in general, which cares even less than anyone else, being an impersonal global network of electronically encoded information, but, y'know, whatever, eh?

Christmas List! <3
-DVDs: Sherlock, Top Gear, How to Train Your Dragon, Inception
-Gift cards to Amazon (for Kindle books and music!)
-Poster of the IPA
-A BahnCard
-A visit from my mom :)
-A new pair of boots

Um...that's all.

I'm very worried about my grandmother, who is not recovering well from a recent shoulder surgery. It's frustrating to be so very far away and unable to do anything to help and comfort my family. Luckily, should the need arise, I can get a round-trip flight for about $1000, the downside being that it's about 18 hours each way, plus jetlag. It would be worth it, though, if I were needed. I just feel like of selfish and useless.

Anyway. Yesterday was an absolutely delightful day; I spent a few hours in the morning tutoring my mentor teacher's daughter in Japanese, which is an adventure for both of us. I have trouble remembering which language I'm supposed to be speaking in, and my Japanese is pathetically rusty. Still, my pupil is eager to learn, and we have a great time talking together about anime and such. After that, Bethany and I were picked up by Claudia, one of the Fachschule students, to visit her home for Sunday dinner. We went to see her horses, visited the town's surprisingly spacious zoo, and had an absolutely fabulous home-cooked German meal.

Claudia's stepfather is from Yorkshire, so he and Bethany got to commiserate extensively on how wrong everything (food, TV, holidays, etc) is in Germany. I had to focus carefully on what he was saying to understand him sometimes! Claudia's mother is a sweet, generous woman, and she was kind enough to speak simply and clearly to me so I could understand her. And the food was so delicious! I wish I could cook like that! Perhaps the best part for me, though, was that I felt genuinely welcome in a German home--only the second time since I've arrived.

Also, Claudia and her family invited me to stay with them over Christmas, which brings my total number of invites up to four. Ah, me...what shall I do? I'd like to clone myself, send off the clones to each house, and then unite back into one person so I could have the experience of each. (There is precedent for this.) Given that that is, unfortunately, impossible at present, I'll have to make a decision. Yuck, decisions. I think I'll procrastinate on this one.

I only had to teach one class today, but I have Bienenkunde at 2pm. My lesson consisted of reading a text about my experience in Germany/learning German, and then asking them what they think about English. There were a lot of "boring" and "hard" sentiments expressed, and many mentioned that they want to learn more vocabulary. I find this somewhat amusing, since the statement "Today we're going to be learning some new vocabulary!" is usually met with groans of agony. Ah well.

I'm off to lunch, then to deliver our Operation Christmas Child box, then to Bienenkunde in the wind and rain. Wish me luck!

ADDED: Forgot to mention that I finally got the e-mail notifying me that tickets to the filming for Top Gear are now available. I sent my request in right away; we'll see what happens! If I don't get the tickets--which is much more likely--I'll still get to spend the week with "my English friend" Stephen. (The quotes aren't there for sarcasm. The phrase implies that Stephen is my only English friend, which he isn't anymore, but he was when I started calling him that. The quotation marks show that the phrase is now an honorific title instead of a expression of reality.) We were thinking of traveling somewhere in Germany together, depending on how it all works out. If I do get tickets, I requested two, so Stephen and I can both go. Either way, I'm very much looking forward to February! :D

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Iberian Adventure: Spain, Part II

[UPDATE: Pictures now available in my Picasa album!]

But first: Wow, has this been a long weekend.

On Saturday, we had Imkertag (beekeeping day), which was basically a conference of top beekeepers from Thueringen, Sachsen, and Sachsen-Anhalt, with a couple people from Berlin and Brandenburg, too. And I discovered on that day the German love of long, monotonous speeches. Pretty much the entire day was a series of presentation after presentation; about a third of the way in, my brain started shutting down--you know, maximum overload, where your brain simply can't process more new information and strikes in protest. I learned a few new things, but I spent a good bit of it reading my Kindle.

Sunday I went with Bethany to visit Victoria in Ilmenau. We ate Vietnamese food, shared pictures from our vacations, and munched on cookies. It's so nice to have a friend to go visit, even if it takes two hours on the train to get there...again, Kindle.

Today was a free day off class because it was the official opening ceremony of the Fachschule. And yet again, more long and painfully unintelligible speeches, from 10am to 4pm with just one hour break in the middle for lunch. I didn't last as long this time; I only made it through the first presentation (something about agriculture as relates to politics or something) before my brain saw what the second one was on (genetics and breeding) and went "Aw, hell no," and bailed. It was a long seven hours. I was there for the whole thing because I was supposed to be officially introduced, except the head of the school forgot to introduce me at the beginning and didn't get around to it until the closing remarks. The only redeeming feature was hanging out with the fun Hauswirtschaft ladies and drinking copious amounts of coffee.

Anyway. Back to the adventure!

Our plane to Madrid was delayed (of course), so we got in later than expected, but the kind tourist info lady at the airport got us back on track quickly. We took the Metro into the city center and strolled through the sundrenched streets to our hostel. The reception was pretty janky, but the rooms were brightly colored, with a tiny balcony looking out onto the pedestrian street.

Bethany and I were starving, so we immediately set off in the direction of our next stop, the Prado Museum, in search of some food. We found...nothing. Well, nothing affordable, at least; there were no cafes or sandwich shops that we could see. We ended up...I'm ashamed to say this, but we got take-out from Burger King and sat out in the sunshine in a park. I was surprised how delicious that hamburger was.

The Prado is like Spain's Louvre, except much smaller and containing mostly paintings by Spanish artists. We got an audioguide, but seriously, all of the paintings sort of blurred into each other. I did like some of the works by Goya, and it was fun to see the real Las Meninas instead of Picasso's wacko caricatures. After a few hours, we were both willing to be done, so we headed in the direction of El Parque del Retiro.

The park is one of those enormous, perfectly groomed, so-pretty-it's-fake parks that Europeans seem to love so much. We wandered down the tree-lined lanes as the sun wandered toward the horizon; finding a nice little lake, we bought some drinks, sat on the steps of an enormous monument and watched the sun go down over the water while I learned from Bethany about British royalty. Bethany has a great head for history and is a good storyteller, and I'm always up for a good story.

With darkness falling, we headed out of the park and up the Gran Via on our way back to our hostel, where we asked for directions to a good restaurant. They pointed us to a place that did little tapas things on toast (so yummy!) and gave us free glasses of sangria. We returned to the hostel for sleep, although Bethany was kept up by some obnoxious Americans who were prepping for a night out clubbing and, completely ignoring the fact that there were people in the room trying to sleep, kept the lights on and their voices up until they finally left around 1am. Gah, some Amis give us all a bad name.

As usual, Bethany popped out of bed way before me and had to convince me that being awake is actually a good thing. Our first task of the day was following RFS' self-guided walking tour through the city. We started in the Puerta del Sol, a large and beautiful public square that, at 10am, was almost completely empty. We headed into the streets and found ourselves in another wonderful pedestrian square, Plaza Mayor, where the cafes were just beginning to set their chairs out in the sun. Dropping by a market, we made our way onward until we stopped outside a church to witness a random parade.

There were men in uniform on horses, and women in traditional dresses, and people carrying gold and silver staffs and ornately decorated banners. We stood around gawping for a while, and a camera guy took some footage of us standing there looking mildly bemused, but no one we asked could tell us what was going on beyond, "it's some kind of religious procession." Yes, I can see that, thanks.

After a bit, they started singing and parading and such, so we followed along and split off from them at our original end destination: the royal palace. The audioguide took us through ornately furnished room after room, explaining to us in meticulous detail where each piece of furniture came from, who had designed and built it, and what artistic movement who had inspired it. Some of the rooms were very lovely, but as opulently beautiful as these palaces are, they have small windows and not much sunlight (can't be getting all weather-worn like those peasants!), and they feel like a circular maze, so that the rich and royalty just go around and around and eventually forget that the rest of the world isn't covered in silk and gold. Anyway, after glancing through the armory (look, another suit of armor! Wowee!) we bailed and headed to the cathedral right across the plaza.

The cathedral was singularly unimpressive from the outside--well, compared to many other cathedrals I've seen. Inside, the most impressive thing was the psychedelically beautiful rainbow ceiling, painted with fantastic colors in complex geometrical patterns. The underside of the dome had its four walls painted like the four elements, and the sunlight shining through the stained glass bathed the crucified Christ in rainbows. The only slight weirdness was one of the transepts, which was devoted to an enormous golden altar to Mary.

Since we were now quite hungry and it was well into the afternoon, we stopped by an overpriced, touristy cafe for lunch and then continued to our next stop, an Egyptian temple. When we arrived, it was closed, but the posted schedule said it would reopen in 45 minutes, so we enjoyed the view into the city and took a nap in the deliciously warm sunlight. An hour later, we managed to peel ourselves from our comfy spot and totter back to the temple, only to find we'd read the time wrong and the thing was actually closed for the rest of the day. Oh well.

We set off instead in search of our next goal: a chocolate shop recommended by a friend of mine. On the way, we stopped by the Corte Ingles department store, where Bethany gave me a heart attack by wandering off and losing me completely (this is like a 10-storey store, too). With no way to page her (the help desk refused), my cell battery dying, and no idea where she'd gone, I was just starting to formulate how to say, "Please help me, I think my friend's been kidnapped" in Spanish when we found each other again. Whew! By now, the streets that had been quiet and empty were starting to swell with people, so we took ourselves off again and eventually found the chocolate shop. There we enjoyed churros con chocolate, a yummy treat involving churros (strips of deep-fried dough) dipped in thick, pudding-like hot chocolate.

From there, we headed back to Puerta del Sol. That morning, it had been quiet, bright, and almost deserted; now, with the sun setting and the lights beginning to glow, it was filled with people, tourists and locals, listening to bands, taking pictures, chatting, enjoying the atmosphere. Bethany and I sat by a fountain to enjoy it, but after we were each approached by older gentlemen determined to converse with us, we decided to move on. We wandered looking for a restaurant for a bit, but my foot was aching, so we eventually took RFS's advice and found a tiny little tapas place that served gazpacho, which my grandpa had recommended, and we had a delicious dinner followed by gelato. It was getting late by then, and we had yet another early-morning flight the next day, so we took ourselves off to bed.

I have to say that I really loved Madrid. My impressions of Barcelona had been mixed, but somehow Madrid felt to me much smaller than it really is, and very open and welcoming. Maybe it was the warm weather, the cheerfully conversing crowds, the wonderful pedestrian streets and sidewalk cafes, and maybe it's because my great-grandmother's family was from Madrid. Whatever, I felt very comfortable there. I was impressed and surprised, and continued to be throughout the trip, by how much I loved and enjoyed almost all the cities we visited, and how sad I was to leave them.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Iberian Adventure: Spain, Part I

[UPDATE: Pictures now posted in my Picasa album!]

But apology.

It was recently brought to my attention that it's now been a month since I've written anything on this blog. I'm very sorry to the three or four of you who actually read it. I'd like to say I've been busy, but that would be so much of an exaggeration to be untrue. Since my return from Spain, I've certainly been more busy with many new classes, but I still have quite a bit of free time. I'm beginning to think that it's inevitable.

I've mainly been delayed by the fact that I wrote drafts of both Barcelona and Madrid, which have subsequently mysteriously disappeared. (Update: found the part on Barcelona!) So, I'm going to try to catch up by giving you, quite belatedly, the exciting story of our adventure in the Iberian peninsula. It may take me a few installments, but I'm going to try, okay?

Our adventure began on Tuesday, October 12th, when we left the Wohnheim with our backpacks to catch the train to Altenburg. The weather was cold, drizzly, and grey, and we were desperately hoping for better on the other end of our flight. First, we had to wait for a few hours for the bus to the airport, so we did some shopping in a half-awake little shopping mall to pass the time.

The airport was typically tiny--like someone had set up a check-in desk and a couple of X-ray machines in an oversized shed--and we settled down to, once again, wait, talking sporadically with a nice German girl heading back to Barcelona for her half-year study abroad. From her report, she wasn't too impressed with Spain; she complained about the Spanish midday siesta and their supposed inability to take anything seriously or do anything urgently. Personally, that sounds good to me.

Our plane was supposed to leave just before 6pm, but by then, the plane hadn't even arrived. When it finally did arrive, and they had disembarked, cleaned it, and let us on, we were already quite late. We settled into our seats and waited. Finally, the captain came on the intercom to tell us that would be able to start the engines in about 40 minutes. After about half an hour more waiting, we were informed that due to "problems" (i.e. strikes) in France, we would not be allowed to enter French airspace and were looking at a delay of about three and a half hours. It was now dark outside, and we were getting hungry and thirsty, but apparently they aren't allowed to serve any food or drinks until in the air, so we sat there and waited. And waited. And waited.

Like a miracle, at about 9pm, our captain informed us that we could take off. We taxied to the runway, and I saw the rows of lights stretching away into the darkness, pointing our path into the sky. And we sat there, not moving, just waiting, as I rocked back and forth, clutching my half-dead copy of A Tale of Two Cities and doing my best impatient-Jeremy-Clarkson impression: "Let's go! Come on, come on!"

The whine of the engines built to a roar--the most wonderful sound I've ever heard--and we accelerated into the sky. Two hours later, we arrived in Barcelona in wind and rain, only to stagger onto a bus for the next two hours into the city. At the station in town, I was suddenly confronted by a problem that my sleep-deprived brain could hardly surmount: a cabbie asking me, in Spanish, where I wanted to go. I told him the name of the hostel, and when that didn't work, tried to tell him where it was, failing entirely to remember the words for "intersection" and "nineteen." I showed him the address, and we finally arrived, tottered in, got our keys, and wandered off to bed.

We began our exploration of the city with a walk down Las Ramblas--a wide, tree-line boulevard connecting the newer Eixample neighborhood with the harbor. Apparently, in the summer Las Ramblas is swarming with tourists, pickpockets, and those annoying living statues people, but for us it was quiet and mostly empty. Partway down, we turned off down some narrower, twisting streets to arrive at the scaffold-bedecked cathedral.

I've said before that churches, no matter where they are, are oasises of cool peacefulness amid noise, heat, and stress. The Spanish churches are a bit different, though; walking in, the clamor of the street is replaced by the familiar comforting murmur of prayerful awe, but instead of coolness, these churches are full of warmth. And the smell! The first church we dropped by, off the Ramblas, was scented by the rich aroma of warm wax from the prayer candles burning in each chapel. When I smell the sweet, musty perfume of old books, I think of knowledge and learning; wet stone and moss smell of age; but warm wax smells of holiness.

Unfortunately, the cathedral has done away with real candles and replaced them with frankly pathetic electric ones, and the peace was disrupted by construction noise, but that didn't make the tall pillars and magnificent arches any less beautiful. Also striking was the tomb of a young girl, who was tortured and martyred by the Romans for her faith. She's now the patron saint of the church, and her ornate tomb lies under the high altar. I can't help but wonder what she would think to see all that pomp and honor for her. Of course, the church also can't pass up the opportunity to make some money: to turn on the lights to see the tomb, you have to slide in a coin.

The best bit about the cathedral was, by far, the cloister, enclosing a small garden, a fountain dedicated to (and sporting a very small statue of) Saint George, and thirteen white geese. While the cathedral, while beautiful, felt a bit kitschy (I mean, paying to turn on the lights? And electric candles? Really?) the cloister was full of that cool serenity that characterizes churches.

We dropped by the Deacon's House, now the Archives, for the a look at their pretty courtyard and enormous palm tree (which had to be tied to the surrounding building to stay upright) before going to seek some lunch. We rejoined the Ramblas and followed it the rest of the way to the harbor, where we sat by the water to eat. On the way, we passed the Colombus monument, topped by the man himself pointing out to sea. It doesn't cross my consciousness too often that Colombus was Spanish. Huh.

After lunch (and a quick chat with a nice old Dutch couple), we headed back up into the city through the Barri Gotic and made our way to the Picasso museum. Factoid of the day I didn't know: Picasso actually could paint well. Like, real, recognizable faces and landscapes which, although unremarkable to me, look quite nice. The museum focused on his early years (i.e. before he went all four-year-old-on-LSD-y) and by golly, the man could actually paint. This just made it all the more ridiculous and horrifying to see the hideously deformed block-people he began to paint instead for no obvious reason. Did the "making sense and having good taste" gland in his brain just spontaneously crawl out of his ear in boredom after the thousandth sketch of countryside rooftops? I like to imagine, though, that the conversation went like this:
"Hey, Picasso my man, whatcha paintin'?"
"Oh, I'm doing a reinterpretation of Las Meninas, widely regarded to be one of the best paintings of all time."
"Uh...are you sure? I'm pretty sure most people's eyes aren't stacked on top of each other. Where would the nose go?"
"...Under the ear. Obviously."
"What ear?"
"Oh, well, in this case her ear's actually on her forehead. And purple."
"That's ridiculous and possibly insane."
"Well, luckily for me, apparently the art scene is so desperate for innovation that 'ridiculous' and 'genius' are indistinguishable..."
(Except all this would be in Spanish. Obviously. And, er, apologies to people who understand/appreciate Picasso...)

All that this proves, I'm sure, is that I'm just not sophisticated enough to appreciate Picasso's genius. To which I guess I have to say, um, yes, and if sophistication means liking Picasso's wonky doodles, then no thanks.

To recover from the museum, we took a break in another warm, wax-scented church, then headed to the concert hall, designed by a guy named Gaudi. From what I can tell, Gaudi designed half of absolutely everything in Barcelona (churches, concert halls, parks, lampposts, etc), but this is okay with me because his style, although definitely odd, is kind of fantastically intriguing. Anyway, we scored some cheapish tickets for a concert that night, so we dashed off for a quick dinner of tapas and wine before returning for the music. The two-part concert was very nice--the piano/violin combo was better than the woodwind/brass quintet, I thought--but the concert hall itself was the main attraction, designed with fanciful sculptures and unlikely colors, along with the odd random Pegasus. After the concert, we made our way back to our hostel via another coffee shop, where I had my 4th coffee of the day. Mmm, the coffee is just delightful...

I was awoken by Bethany, my human alarm clock, and we eventually headed out. (I hate mornings.) We began at La Bouqueria market, a riot of colorful fruit, twitching crustaceans, and assorted animal parts. We strolled through the aisles, sipping fruit drinks, before heading for the Metro.

We stepped blinking into the sun to behold before us a fantastical display of Jesus and genius gone mad. La Sagrada Familia (the Sacred Family) is a church, covered in scaffolding and presided over by watchful cranes, but not for renovation: begun over 100 years ago, the church is still being built. Designed, like everything in Barcelona, by Gaudi, the building looks like someone built the most exuberant, mind-bogglingly intricate exposition of Christianity--including all symbolic animals and people from the Bible--out of wax, then left it outside too long in the Mediterranean sun. Far from solemn, but somehow possessed of a sort of wacky, melty dignity, it's nothing if not striking.

We entered through one of the side door, featuring a much more subdued portrayal of Jesus' life than the Nativity Door's lavish effervescence, paid our 10 euro (?!) to get in, and wandered around. The interior is mostly barren except for the construction equipment, but somehow the fact that the cherry-pickers look tiny next to the enormous stone forest of tree-pillars holding up the half-finished roof doesn't hurt the church's awe factor at all. I can't wait to see what this place will look like finished, if they finish it in my lifetime! For now, I have to be content with those beautiful pastel stone trees, bathed in the soft light that the rainbow-tinted windows allow to enter. What a brilliant church!

Regretably, we had to keep going, so we left La Sagrada Familia behind and strolled through the city, stopping briefly for lunch, on our way to a park that Gaudi had also designed (surprise!). The park afforded lovely views of the city stretching down to the sea, and we got to see the adorable mosaic lizard guarding the entrance to the park. We dropped by the bookshop and then, as we were both getting very hungry, we decided to head back into town.

We found a good restaurant and took a break with some good food and sangria. My feet had been aching for a while, so it was wonderful to sit back and rest...until I found that my wallet was missing. Damn. Anyway, we then walked back through the Eixample to our hostel, since we'd have an early day the next day on our way to Madrid...