Monday, December 28, 2009

Berlin

Berlin Hauptbahnhof (Central Station)...it's huge, and when you're not trying to meet someone or find your way out of it, it's beautiful. It's even fully equipped with a McDonald's, Burger King, Starbuck's, and 24-hour drugstore for those accustomed to convenient travelling. :)
View into one of the Parliament buildings...they have all been recently rebuilt in a modern style with plenty of glass so that proceedings are visible to the public. If you're willing to wait in a queue, there's free access to this dome, which gives a nice view of the city and the main council meeting room.
The Milchmeyer Christmas tree, traditionally adorned with real candles!
Gate which used to be the border between East Berlin and West Berlin in what used to be no-man's land
One of the few remaining sections fo the Berlin Wall - didn't get a picture of Checkpoint Charlie, but I did see it and other wall sections, including the one from which Laura's dad took two pieces!

This must be one of the longest streets in Berlin. It used to be near the wall so I think it was a sort of no-man's land as well. It's runs through what used to be the royal hunting grounds, which are now a public park. On Sylvester, or New Year's Eve, the street is packed with up to a million people celebrating. You can see the preparations already beginning above, as well as the gate from the previous picture in the distance.
For whatever reason, all the traffic lights in Berlin are in the form of this little man with a hat! There are even shops filled with memorabilia bearing his image, and one single female trafficwoman in Dresden.
The statue in front of a little Legoland store...this one's for Jonathan. There was also a Lego statue of Albert Einstein with his tongue out which reminded me of Dad.
The Berlin Wienachtmarkt (Christmas markets) were just closing down, but this one was still offering people a glimpse of true winter and an escape from the rain with this artificial sledding hill!
Bears such as this one were given to various artists a few years ago, decorated, and then auctioned off and placed around the city...they're everywhere!

This is definitely one of the nicest monuments I've seen. Built just 5 years ago, it honors Holocaust victims. At first sight, it just looks like a plaza full of identical rectangular blocks, but when you start walking between them you see how huge the area is, and also that each block is a different size, and that the ground slopes up and down to make them seem even more massive. (See the view below.) It's vast enough for children to lose their way, and grand enough to at least inspire a sense of awe in the rest of us.

View from one of the main squares

View along the river between the parliament buildings and train station. In the summer, there are cafes with artificial beaches along the way!

I had another interesting experience on the train. The older gentleman next to me spoke English, and after he struck up a conversation was absolutely bewildered to hear that I am American, but study in Bosnia, and went from Austria to Belgium alone by train for only a week, and was on my way to Berlin for a day...I have to be honest, in the midst of internationalism I sometimes forget just how strange it is. In return, I was slightly bewildered to hear that when I said I'm from St. Louis, he automatically associated it with Monsanto.

My next stop was a short stay with the family of a coyear, Laura Milchmeyer, in Berlin. It took us a while to find each other in the station, but once we did they got right to showing me their city with a view of the building where Angela Merkel works and a visit to the dome of the parliament building, which has a great 360 view of the city during the day. All this buildings are new in Berlin, and all are intentional constructed in a very modern style with lots of glass to make all the council proceedings visible to the public.

The next day, Laura and I spent hours walking around to try to fit in all the major sights. It was neat to finally see a city with so much recent history, and even cooler to hear her parents' firsthand accounts of it!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Brussels










Since Elodie goes to university in Brussels, the capital of Belgium and administrative center of the European Union, she has an apartment there were we spent one night. The pictures from there are not the best as we were only in the city for a short time, but despite the time limits and ice we managed to visit at least the facades of the tea house (first picture), the music museum (fourth picture from top), the royal palace (fifth picture from top), a statue whose leg is meant to be rubbed for good luck, the exact city center in the courtyard of the city hall (sixth and seventh pics), and Manequin Piss, along with it's chocolate counterpart. Brussels is another city with chocolateries in abundance, along with Belgian waffels slathered in whipped cream and fruit toppings!

The Christmas lights were quite impressive, as was the ever-present Chrismas market! The city hall is situated in the Grand Place, the main square (part of which is in the last pic above), and there is a light show on it's facade every night during the holiday season. In addition, there are a variety of significant buildings. My favorite is the former house of Victor Hugo which now contains the famous Neuhaus confectioner...what better use for a building than literature and chocolate?

On a more modern note, in the evening we went to the cinema...my first visit since the summer! We watched It's Complicated in English, but with a little encouragement I managed to buy my own ticket in French, much to the kind amusement and pleasure of the cashier and the people around me in line. Brussels is definitely a pretty lively and international place. It was a nice soujourn back into Western Europe, and I hope to visit again and see more.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Namur












Well, I obviously made it to Belgium alright, and the travel experiences even inspired a last-minute college application essay, so I guess I can't complain. Elodie's family lives in Namur, which you can locate along with the other cities I visited here. Since there was a nice layer of snow, we went for a walk on a ravelle, an old train track which has been turned into a walking path. Namur also has an old quarry and iron foundry which have become sort of a park and walking ground. Once a year, the community even comes together to keep it clean. Within the city, Elodie gave me a tour of the city with the traditional Christmas market and decorations. Once the weather cleared up a bit, we went to the citadel for a bit of history and a great view of Namur! There is a perfumerie on the hill and as well as some museums, hotel, restaurants, outdoor theatres, even a small theme park. Most things were closed for the winter or the holidays, but the views were still lovely.

In the European countries I've visited, Christmas is generally celebrated on the 24th, with presents being exchanged and traditional foods eaten with the immediate family. On the 25th, there is usually a big dinner with extended family. Belgians also separate Saint Nicolas from Father Christmas...the figure Americans know as Santa Clause seems to be a combination of the two. SinterKlaas is celbrated in Belgium and the Netherlands on December 5, commemorating the man who was know for giving other people gifts on his own birthday. Traditionally, children get gifts and candies on this day, and in the Netherlands they don't get anything else for Christmas on the 25th! In some countries, such as Austria, it is the Christ child who is said to bring the gifts.

Besides delicious Belgian chocolate, the Boulangers made a deliciously gourmet fondu dinner on the 24th with smoked salmon, roast beef, baked apples stuffed with cranberry sauce, and the traditional French Christmas log cake for dessert the next day! In the evenings, Elodie and I watched one famous Francophone comedie called Le père Noël est une ordure...think Monty Python meets French humor meets Christmas. The other evenings, we decided to be a bit less traditional by watching House of Wax and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. All in all, it was great to catch up with Elodie, see a bit of her city, work on French, and visit with a lovely family. The newest member, Chanel, is pictured here...needless to say, I felt right at home. :)

Friday, December 25, 2009

Brugge/Bruges










On one day, I went with Elodie and her parents to a town in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium. A great deal of this city is contained within its old town, which is still very medeival, if a bit touristic. There are several bridges leading to this sector, and while we were there it was foggy and snowy so the water was just freezing over. We visited a convent on the edge of town which is now the home of Benedtictine sisters, a museum which used to be a refuge treating people with the bubonic plague in past centuries (fourth pic from the bottom above), the Brugge vesrion of Hogwarts (fifth picture above), and a museum about the history of chocolate complete with a demonstration, sample, and chocolate statue of Obama! Indeed, Belgium is famous for it's chocolate and Brugge seems to embrace that tradition...almost every other shop is a chocolaterie, and it's hard to resist! The image of the display above is just a glimpse of the artistic temptations.

Most of the charm of Brugge was in the old-time architecture and decorations, free of cars and complete with horse-drawn carriages. The town seemed relatively quiet despite all the visitors, and it was a pleasant day walking through the past.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Long Way "Home"

Since coming to Europe, I have always been told that German trains are efficient and reliable like the people that run them. Then again, I was also told that it doen't snow in Mostar...and that's the irony of life. After leaving Graz, all went smoothly until the train to Munich was late, and consequently, the train from Munich. If someone ever asks you which European train station you'd like to be stuck in, pick Munich. It's huge, and busy enough to keep you occupied eating, shopping, and people-watching all day...or so I'm told. Unfortunately, I only spent about 3 minutes there because I made that connection but missed the next and was stranded in Saarsbrucken, a very cold, very closed station somewhere in western Germany. A policeman was kind enough to tell me I'd have to wait 3 hours for a train and then make 4 more connections in order to get to Namur, my final destination for the day, and I had no way to contact Elodie. After waiting 2 of those hours in a waiting room with some prostitutes, drug dealers, a nice Scandanavian couple and two terrified Asian tourists, I saw the info office open and spoke to a very kind woman who reminded me of my cousin Ranee searched her database 5 times to help me find the fastest connection to Namur. It came down to a choice between more waiting and risky connections with my Interrail ticket or paying 7 Euros for an immediate bus to Luxembourg and a train from there. I went with the bus and it was definitely the right choice as I got a friendly old driver who carried my bag for me, made jokes to make us all forget the fact that we'd been in a creepy, freezing station since the wee hours of the morning, whistled along to German and French songs on the radio, and gave a nice driving tour of little Luxembourg. All in all, I'd say I got more than my money's worth in utility...if nothing else, I can now confirm what I was always told about Luxembourg: it's a pretty boring, very expensive little country. And by little, I mean it has only one discernable city, the capital, which seems itself to be slightly larger than Mount Vernon. Actually, I felt at home...the crop fields look just like someone took a snowy Southern IL and shook it like a blanket so it has a few hills worked in. This is my first soujourn in a Francophone country, and when the first conductor came to ask for my ticket in French; I was absolutely astounded to hear myself respounding in the same language. After a couple more waits, I made it to Namur and managed to find Elodie and her family, who took me to their apartement and revived me with a delicious Sunday dinner and a warm shower. I must say, I've hqd enough adventure for one trip! Now all I'm up for is tackling this French keyboard, braving the improvement of my French pronunciation, and celebrating Christmas in true Belgian fashion!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Beginning a Much Awaited Journey!

Well, as usual I´ve failed to fulfill my commitment to blog ready, but it´s never too late for another try, and as I won´t be in my usual "home" for the holidays, I thought I´d share a little of what I am doing with you! Global warming is wreaking havoc on Europe´s weather patterns, but we seem to be getting the good end of the deal. After a few days of sleet, we woke up to snow in Mostar for our last day of classes, Winter Gala, and end-of-term concert. To the right are some views from my window.




























Now, I´m making a brief stop in Graz, Austria, sharing a lovely day with my English teacher, Barbara Lichtner, and her family. It´s been snowing lightly all day, and we went for a walk downtown, visiting some shops, going up the clocktower hill, and stopping for coffee and the traditional Christmas frankfurters and punch. It was busy but quiet as it´s the snowy last official shopping day, and the end of advent which means pulic trams are free. In a couple of hours I´ll be leaving on an overnight train to Namur, Belgium, where I´ll spend Christmas with Elodie (an exchange student during my sophomore year at CHS) and her family. I should be able to share some pictures there. For now, I´m enjoying some much-needed downtime and hoping for stress-free travels and no cancellations for my friends at Sarajevo airport! Here is me and Barbara in front of the clocktower on a hill, me in front of the ice-scultpure nativity...


On the far left is a hill which contains a huge hollowed-out cave. People hid here during the WWII, and now there are night clubs and lifts to the top, where there is a park for summer concerts as well as picnics and rendezvous. To the left are some...creative, but lovely holiday decorations in Graz.







A view of the traditional European Christmas Market, which always features crafts and culinary holiday specialties, and in Austria includes frankfurters with mustard and horseradish and hot spiced wine...yum!