Sunday, April 13, 2014

Dinner in Vienna With the World's Most Huggable Man

Last weekend we headed out to Vienna. Most of what we know about Vienna comes for a series of books set before World War One in which a psychiatrist and a police detective solve crimes whilst eating lots and lots of pastries. Surprisingly it mostly met our expectations, minus the ritual murders.

We were struck when we arrived by how super modern the airport and train station were and even had a sit-down dinner to try to embrace the cafe culture of the city. Unlike in Munich, we managed to find the hotel without any hi jinks, though we did have to walk around the block to find the entrance.

Out first day was planned for lots of walking and the weather played along beautifully. We started with a self guided city walk, taking us by the very striking war memorial. It turns out that Austria (and Vienna in particular) were mad for Nazism, so the reminder probably does them good.

Having spent much of our travels this year in nations that were strongly on the wrong side of World War 2 has actually been pretty thought provoking. I know that there are darker times in American history as well, but the fact that the holocaust could happen continues to confound me.

We paused for coffee and a snack, then it was onward to a tower climb at the main church in the center of town, St Stephens.

It was a nice climb and afforded good views of the city and of the cool tiles roof of the church (which, naturally, was bombed in World War II and then replaced later.)

Inside, the church was Gothic and cool, with the highlight being an ornately carved pulpit. They also had some amazing stained glass, though there was no chance of my photos of that coming out.

All this sightseeing made us hungry, so it was time for another snack, this time pretzel bread rolls. So good.

Our next stop on our walk was the baroque church of St. Peter. We see very few baroque churches, so this one stood out to us quite a bit. It was very ornate, and had many small and large details that reminded us of ornately carved ships like you would see in a pirate movie.

With all of the churches that we have seen in Europe and England, it always amazes us to see one that feels totally different and new to us.

We finished up the walk by passing through the grounds if the Habsburg palace, which we would visit on Sunday. This is a whole compound of palaces, government buildings, and museums built by a family that ruled the region for hundreds of years. Both the reign and the palace were quite impressive.

Lunch was a fun adventure. The place had a display case full of open-face sandwiches consisting of bread rectangles spread with various fillings. You pick out the three or four that strike you and then shoulder your way to a table. We also got a pfif each, which was a small beer served in a cup-sized beer mug. Fun!

After lunch we took advantage of the weather with a long walk in the park which turned into a walk by a series of ever growing canals. The first was so small and had so little water that I expected to see T-birds racing hot rods down it. At one point I pointed out a duck struggling against the current, only to realized he was standing in ankle deep (to him) water. Stupid duck.

We grabbed a refreshing and gigantic glass of wine in the evening, and were still tipsy for dinner, which was at a nice restaurant in the old greenhouse of the Habsburg palace. The highlight was the wine-induced people watching. A man walked in the door early in the meal and was hugged by no fewer than five employees and two patrons. Oh, the time we had, the worlds most hug-able (and second most rub-able!) man and I. At least in the stories I annoyed Mary with.

And now my Tripadvisor review of sitting in a hotel bathroom in Vienna trying to quietly fix a broken production job at two in the morning: Not recommended.

Day two found rain in the air, so we planned for two indoor activities: Museums and cafes. The entire morning was spent in the various museums of the Habsburg palace, and started with the treasury.

Unlike the one in Munich, this one was as focused on volume as it was on historical significance. We generally aren't big ones for bling, but seeing so much of it laid out in one place is pretty striking. It's also the only museum where we could take pictures, sadly.

From the treasury we went through an interesting and long exhibit on Sisi, the tragic wife of Emperor Franz Joseph I. That spilled out into the royal apartments, which were pretty standard-issue as those things go but still a nice display. They seemed to have more of the original furnishings than some others we had seen, so that was cool.

Having had a fair amount of history at this point, but still having some time before we needed to leave, I convinced Mary into hitting the museum of modern art with me. I am pretty convinced she only gave in because it was called 'MOMAK'. We had a nice time and I was incredibly taken with the building, which was very striking. Sadly, I didn't take any pictures of it at the time so here is a collage of signs and pavement markings that amused us during our visit.

Overall it was a great trip. The city was hugely walkable, we had great weather for our outdoor day, and the cafes delivered both great coffee and great pastries.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Beer, Wurst, and Michael Jackson

Last weekend we finally broke the seal on Germany with a trip to Munich.

We got in very late and were a bit concerned about figuring out train connections into town. It turns out that this was a well founded concern, but a friendly fellow passenger took pity on us and got us onto the proper trains.

Following the exit signs at the Munich station brought us to an elevator straight out of a Michael J Fox movie from the eighties, where he gets separated from his school trip and mistaken for a spy and has romantic hijinks while helping an attractive East German teenager defect. We had a few wrong turns on the way to he hotel but eventually made it.

Our first major site was the Residenz museum and treasury. Usually treasuries do very little for us, but this one was very well laid out and cool. It's amazing how ornate religious work was back in the day, and seeing the fine detail up close was impressive.

We also discovered that St George (the patron saint of pretty much everywhere) was probably fake. As his patron-saint-of-everywhere-ness is a running gag between Mary and I, this was a pretty astonishing discovery.

The palace itself was interesting, though mostly just huge with ninety rooms (many of which were reconstructions.)

As Mary said, the problem with palaces that model themselves after Versailles is that once you have seen Versailles, they tend to get a little same-y. Do your own thing, palaces! Fight palace peer pressure!

After a lunch break of wurst (served with fries and a delicious curry ketchup) we headed off for a self-guided city walk. This took us by several cool churches and a city museum. We are usually fans of these local history museums, but this one was a bit stuffy and lacked good English descriptions.

We also did a tower climb, as we are wont to do, and got some great views of the city. The tower was also fairly recently reconstructed, though it still had staircases that really couldn't handle the two-way traffic they were accommodating.

Old buildings in Munich are odder than usual, because almost all of the city was heavily damaged or destroyed during World War Two. In the Residenz, almost every single room's placard pointed out that it was heavily damaged in the forties and that most of what we were seeing was reconstructions of original rooms and furniture.

Each of the churches we visited had photos of the bomb damage, which was quite sobering. It's difficult not to think of all the damage to culturally significant works that was done by our side, but on the other hand...Nazis.

Speaking of Nazis, we spent Saturday morning at Dachau. In he interests of keeping this light I won't go into too much on that, other than to say I am very glad we visited. It has a well laid-out museum and several memorials, and was deeply moving and thought provoking. We opted not to take each others' picture by the ovens, unlike one of our co-visitors.

In the afternoon we finished up the rest of our city walk, hitting a few more churches and grabbing some snacks. We also hit a good art museum, and the strangest site of our visit: The Michael Jackson memorial.

Apparently he always stayed at the same hotel, and since his death, fans have been leaving offerings in the small part out front. It's bizarre, but touching. We did feel a bit bad for the now ignored composer whose statue was commandeered.

Munich ended up being a great food city. Pretzels and donuts (such good donuts) were plentiful, and dinners were heavily meat-centric. I could see the heaviness of the dinner food getting old on a long trip, but for just a weekend it was great. The beer was also very good, and I could see coming back in the summer to enjoy a few in one of the many beer gardens.

At breakfast on our final morning we spotted a waiter carrying a beer on a platter, and watched with great anticipation to see which frat brother or pot-bellied man would get it. We were delighted to see it delivered to a small old German woman reading the paper. Stay awesome, Munich!

Sunday, February 9, 2014

London Year One

We have officially lived in London for one year, so it seems like a good time to look back and reflect on some of the plans and questions we had when moving here to see how it's going.

Live British
One of my goals for the trip was to attempt to live British. We often hear of folks moving to another country and then looking for the most American experience they can find there. I wanted to at least attempt to live as the locals do. This has lead to many surprises with gas meters and grocery stores, but I do feel that it has added to the adventure of it all.

We are doing fairly well on this front. I have gotten used to writing my dates backwards and I think that I am very close to a breakthrough on 24-hour time. We know a few common conversions from F to C and back. We know how to pay on a pub. I know how much one stone weighs (14 pounds, for what it's worth.)

Going digital
When figuring out what all to bring, I made some bold statements about having less stuff and going digital on more things. We did indeed leave our books behind, and have mostly stuck with e-books on the Kindle (though we can't resist Mary Roach's footnotes and silly pictures in physical form.) I have also (mostly) broken my desire to own physical copies of music media, though I will admit to buying a few CDs from particularly beloved artists. Mostly I have embraced Spotify as a good way to listen to music, though there is a part of me that still wants to run out and buy the physical discs from some of the artists I have discovered there.

I had planned to move most of our video watching to streaming, but we've made less progress on that front. Rather than sign up for NetFlix here we went for a local option, though we later found out that Amazon had purchased them. I find that the steaming options are pretty limited, though we do use it when we can (we still get discs for the rest). From hearing friends in the US talk, it seems like limited (legal) options is at least a bit of an issue there as well.

Have less stuff
Overall we had planned to have less stuff here. On some fronts (books, CDs) that has worked out well, on others less so. Some of the items that we thought we could live without (toaster, microwave) we eventually relented on and bought anyway. Some of our American stuff just fundamentally doesn't work here (lamps, our too large sofa) and so more appropriate local solutions were procured (thank goodness for Ikea). It's unclear how much of this will come back to America wit us, so we'll call this one a wash.

Will we pick up British terms?
We all knew that pretentious kid in school who spent two weeks in England one summer and came back with an affected British accent. While we didn't want to be That Guy, I was curious to what extent we would pick up local slang and sayings. We have acquired more than I expected to, but none of the very prototypical ones.

Both Mary and I have started saying 'proper' when in America we would say 'real' as in, "It's impossible to find proper American bacon in British restaurants." I have started pronouncing 'weekend' the British way (with the stress on 'end' rather than 'week') which I attribute to all the small talk about weekends one does at work; Mary, conversely, works with very few British people which is why she has not picked this up and mocks me for it.

We don't say 'quid' for 'pound', though we do say 'P' instead of 'pence'. While I know when you would use quid since it's almost exactly like using 'buck' for 'dollar', I am so used to saying 'buck' that I just blaze through and use that. I have said 'cheers' exactly once and it still felt very weird (even though I was IMing with a Brit.)

How will the cats do?
After a few days to get over the trauma of the transportation, the cats are completely unaware that anything has changed.

Monday, January 27, 2014

I Survived (sort of) Skiing The Alps (sort of)

In theory the main point of our Zurich trip was for Mary to attend her company Christmas party, though in reality we were most looking forward to our alpine adventure.

We flew in on Friday and spent the late afternoon wandering the old town. We had hoped to see the Chagall windows in one of the city's churches, but just missed their closing time. We did make it into the Grossmunster though, and they had several windows that were impressive in their own right. Several were heavily influenced by contemporary art, and a few were formed from sliced geodes. All around it was a pleasant surprise.

I stayed in Friday night to try to recover a bit more from my cold, and by Saturday morning I was feeling much improved.

Several of Mary's coworkers went into the alps with us, including two who had stayed out until two am the night before. Hardcore considering that we took an eight AM train.

The train ride along the Wallensee was gorgeous. As we entered the alps, mountains sprang up around us and seemed to grow straight up from the sea. Early during the trip we worried that there might not be snow, but altitude came through for us in the end.

A short bus trip from the train brought us to be base of the mountain, and a short gondola ride to the top.

The gondolas were modestly-sized, eight person affairs and reminded us a lot of old James Bond movies. We giggled over the fact that they needed a trap door in the ceiling and that I should photoshop myself on top of one with a machine gun, though who knows what the Swiss Germans in the car thought of us (a surprising number of folks in Zurich and at the ski resort didn't speak English.)

Having never gone skiing outdoors before, we really had no idea what to expect. The first thing that struck us was that skiing was all about lines. The line for lift tickets. The line for gondola tickets. The line for rentals. Things did move pretty quickly though and we soon realized that it was just a snow themed amusement park. This we could get our minds around.

Sadly our first ski almost ended our ski careers before they began. We had asked at the rental place where was a good place for beginners to start, and ended up with our first run being beyond our capability. We fumbled and stumbled our way down, both of us spending plenty of time on our butts. I am pretty sure that I was one helmet shy of a severe concussion after a particularly bad fall, but we eventually got back to solid ground.

Thankfully we made our way to the real beginners area shortly thereafter and got a bit more practice in with the Swiss toddlers (and a few adults taking beginners lessons). By the end of the day I was feeling confident enough to try a blue (beginner) run again, and this time made it down entirely on my skis!

Having managed to recover from the bad start, we agreed that this is probably a hobby we will stick with, at least casually. We have a year until the next Christmas party, so hopefully by then we will have learned enough to not have anybody fall off the T-bar lift. Baby steps!

Monday, January 20, 2014

Indoor Skiing

Next weekend Mary and I will be heading to Zurich for her company's Christmas party which places us quite near the alps. We've discussed learning to ski in the past but never quite pulled the trigger, so this seemed like a good tome to do so. That said, it also seems absurd to get to the alps having never put on skis before. Enter the Snow Centre (their spelling, not mine.)

The Snow Centre is an indoor skiing facility a bit north of London. Indoor skiing! This seemed like it could kill two birds with one stone, in that we could learn the basics in a lower pressure (and cheaper) setting and also get to say that we've skied indoors. Win win!

Sadly we did have some issues getting there as our Google directions assumed that it would take no time to make one of our transit connections. Thanks Google! We ended up taking a cab for a shocking cost and just barely arriving in time for the lesson.

From the outside, the place was unassuming and looked like a slightly upmarket big box store. It reminds most of the old Home Depot Expo stores, which Mary and I actually miss quite a bit. Once inside there were areas for registration, rental equipment, and changing, and then a huge cavernous space with the actual snow. Snow! Indoors!

We were in a group lesson that started with the putting on of skis and built from there. We learned how to walk uphill and stand on an incline, the proper posture and weight distribution, and humility. Both Mary and I felt great relief when someone else was the first to fall, since we knew it was just a matter of time before we each did.

After the basics we got working on coming down the smaller hill in a controlled way. It's not a very natural posture, and because of my height I had very long skis and struggled a bit with the 'snowplow' technique. Once we were reasonably comfortable with that we moved on to stopping and then, finally, to turning.

All in all we both had a lot of fun. On the way home we got to discussing who had the most spectacular wipeouts, though I think that I won that contest given that I managed to take out half do a fence. Twice. Same fence; same half; I rest my case.

Thankfully the ride home was drama-less and we actually took a single train the entire way. Thanks again for nothing Google! We are both a bit sore but had a sufficiently fun time that we will probably give it a go this weekend, though the Swiss toddlers zooming down the hill with confidence may cause us to wimp out.

Monday, August 26, 2013

A Weekend in Bath

I have managed to get myself about three trips behind on my travel posts. Let's see...Rome, Bath, Amsterdam. Yeah, that's three. Since we have yet another coming up (Scotland with the folks) in a few weeks, I need to get through some of the old! So forgive the delayed posting, and onward...to Bath.

Our first long weekend trip whilst in London (and, by the way, Brits love them some whilst) was to Bath. Bath has been a spa town and destination for leisure travel off and on since Roman times. That's a long time. We took the train down and spent a full weekend there.

And oh the train ride. Let us narrate our train ride in texts sent between my wife and I on the journey:
  • It totally feels like a third-world leg on The Amazing Race.
  • If you book 90 minutes on a train, why would you not get assigned a seat?
  • Sorry you did not bring your book.
  • I have my phone to fiddle with. And my tacos to wear.
  • Yeah, it is a bit not smooth.
  • Hello stranger, would you like to know my life story? [moments later] He sings in a barbershop group!
  • I thought the guy with the flowers got off.
  • Me too
  • Now he is back
  • His flowers are gone
  • We should source code him
Thankfully our stop was shortly after the group of drunk young hooligans got on board and started playing drinking games.

Our first major site in Bath was the Abbey. Our guidebook played it down as a fairly minor site, but we were quite taken with it. It's very bright compared to most of the churches we have visited in the past, and has 'fan vaulting' in the ceiling. We like fan vaulting. A lot. I had several dozen pictures of this ceiling to pick from.

The abbey also has a few minor-but-awesome-to-us things to see, including a plaque in honor of the first mayor/warden of Australia and another to a guy for his contribution to spelling. Spelling!

It was on a smaller scale than many of the huge catholic churches, but it was just what we needed. We also drew the attention of a nice older man who was serving as a docent and got a nice inside view on a few of the highlights, at least according to him. Whenever we encounter overly enthusiastic older people as docents, we always point out that that is us in a few years.

The abbey had a tower climb, so of course we were helpless to resist. Unlike many of our climbs, this was a guided tour. We learned all about their carillon and that there is actually an English way to ring bells -- you first turn them all the way upside down, then rotate them a full 360 each time you chime them. Neat! The views over Bath were nice, and I couldn't resist getting some artsy-fartsy shots framed by bits of the church itself.

We also hit up two minor museums on our first afternoon, the Museum of Bath At Work and the Fashion Museum. The first was mostly a recreation of a hardware store and factory form one of the early entrepreneurs of Bath, who was quite adept at identifying ways to turn waste into profit. Every time he found a bit of scrap that was produced as a side-effect of one manufacturing process, he came up with another to consume that scrap.

There were some neat models and working mechanisms, including his original workshops for machining parts and casting bronze. The workshop was belt-driven from a central generator, and you could push a button and watch it go. Mesmerizing. Also, loud and dangerous. They also had a few interesting vehicles, including this velocipede. I want a velocipede, just so I can can have an excuse to say 'velocipede'.

The fashion museum was fun, but after a long day of walking and exploring we were pretty pooped. They have a huge collection of interesting and significant outfits, as well as displays on the changing fashions of the last two centuries. It was surprisingly interesting, though we were a bit too low energy to appreciate it as much as we could have. A quick cup of coffee and some cakes afterwords solved that nicely.

The last big site (and arguably the biggest) is the Roman Baths. This is a site that was built over two thousand years ago to take advantage of a hot spring that comes up in the area. The spring had been modified for various uses over the next few hundred years, but eventually fell into disuse. Then, as always baffles Mary and myself, it was forgotten and buried in the rubble and refuse of time. Large portions of it have been excavated now, and it makes for an amazing visit.

The site was as much for religion as for leisure, and the museum houses all kinds of interesting artifacts like curses that people would write on metal tablets and then throw into the baths to ask the gods for vengeance. Of course these types of details and the mechanism of the place most caught our eyes. There is a huge network of tunnels and channels for moving the water around, which were an amazing feat of engineering.

All in all we had a great time on the trip. While there were some bumpy bits (the train ride out, the fact that not a single breakfast place was open at 9:00 am) overall it was a relaxing and enjoyable destination. It was a low-key, low-stakes trip, and it was exactly what we needed.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

On Rules, The Importance of Following Them, and Why I Spent Wednesday Night In A Hotel

This week we had some apartment drama, which ended up being an interesting window in the British spirit (once we got over the fact that we had to spend the night in a hotel.)

One would not be faulted for forgetting that long ago, shortly after the move, I made a passing comment in a previous post about some issues that we had had getting the keys to our unit. As preamble, here is that story: When we showed up at the unit after signing the lease and getting the keys, we found that while we could get in the outer door we could not get in the actual door to our unit. We had been given a key-ring with one 'normal' key and two skeleton keys. We had joked a bit about the skeleton keys, because they really are not used at all in America, and it seemed so fun and charming to get them. Well it was less fun when we couldn't get in. After many backs and forths with the real estate agent, we figured several things out. First, we learned some valuable vocabulary (a normal lock is a 'yale lock' here, even if it's not Yale brand; a skeleton key lock uses a 'chub' key.) Secondly, we figured out that somehow, we had been given the wrong keys for our unit. In fact, it took many people and several different agents at several different agencies to actually find a set of keys that would let us into our new home. Once we did get the keys, we had two yales (outer and inner) but only one chub. We were told that this was OK because it's not actually legal to use the chub keys, for fire safety reasons (it's hard to escape if you have to fumble with your keys to leave.)

Fast forward to Wednesday evening. Mary was stuck late at work, so I came home alone. I swung by the store for taco fixings (Taco Night! Woo hoo!) but when I got to the apartment I discovered that the door to our unit was locked. Not just the amount of locked we usually have it, but extra locked. The chub lock had been done. Now we knew that the landlord, against all past behavior, was actually getting workmen out to look at a maintenance issue, so I immediately knew what had happened. He had the magical second chub key and when he left, he locked all the locks he had keys for. A sensible action without context, but a bit irritating for me.

My first plan of attack was calling the management company, though I didn't hold out much hope given past experience. In keeping with history, it was already half an hour after the office closed, so I was out of luck. They don't have a 24-hour contact number, and with nobody answering in the office I was on my own.

Next up was calling a locksmith, as I would if I got locked out of my house at home. Both Mary and I did a quick websearch (me on my phone, she texting me suggestions) and shortly I was calling in the experts. Turns out, they can only speak to the building owner. To let a tenant into an apartment, they need an incident number from the police. "So...I need to call the police just because I got locked out?" I asked incredulously. Yup. Those are the rules.

I was not about to call the police just because I was locked out of the house, so next up was seeing if I could find the contact info for the workman. I knew that he had called me earlier in the week, but I could not remember when, on which phone, and if I had deleted his message. After much searching and some guesswork (was he the blocked number? No, that's the cat-sitter calling back about our Amsterdam trip.) I tracked him down. I gave him a call and explained the situation. Step one for him was establishing that this was not his fault, as he was just following the directions he was given. He was told to lock up, he locked up. Not his fault. Now, I can understand his perspective, but honestly. I was locked out of my apartment and he held the keys. Surely some culpability lay with him. Regardless, I just wanted back in. I asked if he had a better contact number for the landlord if he could try calling. He was very willing to help, and said that it was probably better for him to call anyway since he would be less likely to get screened on caller ID. He called me back shortly thereafter reporting no luck. The landlord is on vacation and wasn't answering.

My next question was, "Where are you?" It seemed sensible that either we could go to him, or he could come to us, and we could still spent the night in our own bed. Naturally, he was an almost two-hour drive away, each way. As we had clearly established that he was just doing his job and not at fault, he was clearly not coming to me. I got his address info, as a possible backup to the backup plan. Then I asked him how one calls the police in a non-emergency situation in this country.

I actually got through to the police with very little hold time, and was connected with a nice gentleman. I explained the situation, that the landlord had never given us a key for this second lock and that a workman had locked that lock; that we needed a police incident number in order to get the locksmith to let us in; that I had exhausted all non-police options. He asked if there was a reason that the landlord would have changed the locks on us. I paused. I thought. And I said, "Sir, I appreciate that you can not act on this information, because you have a set of rules that tell you I am probably in the wrong, but the fact is through no fault of my own I don't have a place to sleep tonight because my landlord is shit." Or something to that effect. He was very apologetic and, as had the workman before him and the locksmith before him, expressed sympathy at my situation but explained that he was just doing his job.

One fruitless round trip to the office to ransack my bag for extra keys in case my memory had failed us later we checked into a hotel near home. Thankfully the grocery store was open even though it was technically after their closing hour, so we could at least pick up a toothbrush and toothpaste.

We called the management office the next day when they opened. I was prepared. I had my list of reasons why, really, truly, it was the landlord's fault. The landlord's agent rented us the place and failed to give us the key. The landlord's agent had locked the door with that key. The landlord was going to take responsibility if I had to keep him on the phone all day. Basically the first thing he said (after "I'm sorry") was "This was our fault." I was shocked. They sent someone out with a master set of keys to let us in. They also agreed that we need to either be given a key to that lock (which they also mentioned was technically illegal) or have all keys to it destroyed.

In reality, every one of these people I spoke with pretty much failed me by being British. In America, I would have had some chance at charming someone into intervening on my behalf. I would have been able to get one of them on my side, I truly believe this. But here, in this country, if you are given rules you follow them. It's just how it is. None of these folks would have even thought of stepping out of line, even if it meant us sleeping on the street. Thankfully it didn't come to that, but first thing Monday I am calling the landlord to follow up on preventing this from happening again.