Europe Day 8- In The Nooks and Crannies

One of my favorite things about the “get lost and explore” method of sightseeing is that occasionally I’ll stumble on something totally unexpected, a little place off the beaten path that’s given nary a mention in the guidebooks. It may not even be very spectacular, in and of itself, but it’s the surprise that makes it worth it, like receiving a little unexpected gift from a friend.

I had one such moment in Ljubljana today. After a quick breakfast at the hostel, I shouldered my camera bag and set off toward the Old Town in the center of the city. Walking around the Old Town is fun, even without a destination in mind. There are no cars, just narrow cobblestone roads that thread their way between the densely packed buildings. Like in Germany, the cafes and restaurants have moved most of their tables outside, and even in the heat of day plenty of customers relax in the shade under an umbrella, having a cup of coffee or a beer, and chain smoking cigarettes. (Okay, so not all of it is pleasant.) Lots of little stores line the street, and the city hall in particular looks like it’s right out of a painting.

After a lap around the Old Town, I take a small but modern-looking cable car up to the most prominent landmark of the city: Ljubljana Castle, situated at the top of a hill which dominates the city center. Once I reach the top, I don’t really feel like touring the castle’s official museum, so I do a slow, lazy walk around the castle, taking pictures of the city skyline and of the scattered wildflowers which line the path.

Afterward, feeling restless but still not wanting to go into the museum, I find myself standing in a wide “foyer” underneath the castle, near where the cable car drops off its passengers. It’s not so much a foyer, though, as an underground cave, with a high ceiling, and stairs climbing up from it in three directions. To the left is an art gallery, to the right is the main castle exhibit, and to the rear is a little unmarked hallway, separated from the main foyer by glass doors. There’s no sign indicating what it is, and enough of this area is under construction that I’m not even sure it’s open to the public. But my modus operandi tends to be “if it doesn’t explicitly say it’s closed, assume it’s open.” Besides, the glass door is ajar, and even though there’s no one inside, it’s certainly accessible. So I walk up the deserted stairs to the glass door, and find a tunnel through the rock. One side is lined with framed pictures from local artists. At the back, a floor-to-ceiling glass window looks out onto a tiny, inaccessible grass courtyard surrounded by the high walls of the castle.

At the far end, I find a tiny opening in the rock wall, leading into what appears to be a dark, empty cavern cut into the rock. The floor comes to an abrupt end at the cavern’s entrance, and only two narrow wooden planks serve as a walkway over the uneven rocky bottom of the cavern a couple feet below. It sort of blends in with the “under construction” motif that seems to dominate much of the area underneath the castle, and the rickety-looking wooden planks definitely suggest that this is somewhere I shouldn’t go. Are they even safe to walk on? The only sign suggesting that this is more than just an empty cavern under the castle is a sign saying “Fluid”. Is it an official exhibit or not?

Part of me is afraid that at any minute I’m going to get arrested by a security guard for straying into off-limits territory, but I decide to go in. As I leave the light of the hallway behind, I see that the cavern walls are bare, rough rock, much like outside. But embedded into the rock are patterns of three-dimensional lights, like illuminated tentacles sticking out from the dark wall. It’s beautiful, almost entrancing, and the mystery of this place, tucked into the end of a quiet hallway underneath the castle, only adds to the atmosphere. In a way, it’s far more exciting than the views of the Ljubljana skyline, as if this magical room was just sitting here waiting for someone to discover it. I stand there for a minute, in complete isolation, not even so much as hearing the sound of another human being, as if this little room in the city’s biggest tourist attraction doesn’t exist to anybody else but me.

I walk back out the hallway and into the waiting room for the cable car back down to Old Town. There are other tourists here, and I feel like I’ve re-entered reality after a brief sojourn into another world. My own little “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe” experience in the middle of Ljubljana.

Europe Day 7- The ABCs of Ljubljana, Slovenia

By “ABCs” I mean my Arrival, the city’s Background, and the Cuisine. Don’t ask me about the Slovenian ABCs. I had a hard enough time figuring out how to pronounce the name (Answer: Lee-OOH-blee-AH-na).

Even among knowledgeable Americans, saying that you’re visiting Ljubljana will often draw blank stares; it’s off the beaten path, internationally speaking. But after reading about it in an article on up-and-coming European cities, I was intrigued. Ljubljana is the capital of Slovenia, which is a small country of just 2 million people. But despite (or perhaps because of) its size, Slovenia is easily the most economically and politically successful of the former Yugoslav republics. After holding a referendum in which over 90% of the people voted for independence, it declared itself a sovereign nation in June 1991, and soundly defeated Yugoslavia in a ten-day war of independence. It joined the EU in 1996, seven years before the next of its “siblings” to do so, Croatia in 2003.

Still, Ljubjana has the most “Eastern European” feel of any city I’ve visited. Except for parts of Berlin, it’s the first city I’ve seen which was behind the Iron Curtain during the Soviet days, and the difference is visible. The city’s a little less clean that the major Western European cities I’ve been to, the public transport system isn’t quite as great, and new buildings seem less common.

Not that the city felt dirty or unsafe, by any means. Walking down the streets at night, I still felt safer than in pretty much any American city I’ve been in. And in fairness, the lack of any sort of metro train system is probably due to the city’s size: only 280,000 people, which makes it one of the smallest capitals in Europe. And to walk along the Ljubljanica River on a summer evening, when street performers come out and all the cafes and bars have moved their tables outside, and the air is alive with a mixture of music and hundreds of conversations… it’s great. It’s a perfect mixture of quaint and urban, historic and modern. It still has the charm of a small European town, but it’s smart, ambitious, with aspirations of grandeur. I think I could live here pretty easily.

But let me back up a bit. As I was researching the trip, I found a lot of reasons to visit Slovenia: it’s over half-covered in forest; it touches both the Alps and the Mediterranean; Ljubljana is an extremely well-educated city, and the majority of the population speaks English. It’s also fairly inexpensive, compared to major cities in the West. But when I was in Munich, deciding where to go next, the decision came down to something even simpler– namely, it’s on the other side of the Alps. Getting to Ljubljana would be a six-hour train trip across some of the most spectacular scenery in Europe. Sign me up!

On the train, I had a six-seat compartment to myself after the first hour, and spent the entire trip with my camera out, darting from one side of the train to the other as I searched out the best views and experimenting with ways to take pictures out of a dirty train window with lots of glare. (Answer: hold your camera lens as close as possible to the window, and take a LOT of pictures. Then find the good ones later.)

As the train trip progressed, I found myself falling in love with Austria, much as I fell in love with Switzerland when I passed through it in 2008. Every few minutes we would pass a tiny village, surrounded by green fields and farmland, and just a short distance beyond, the landscape would soar upward at impossible angles, reaching into the sky, until the lush green trees and verdant fields gave way to gray, craggy cliffs and banks of white snow. A whole other world, just a few miles away.

Once I reached Ljubljana, I checked into a private room at a hostel for slightly less than the dorm-bed-from-hell had cost in Munich. After that, I negotiated my way via bus to the a place called the BTC City shopping district, which was easily the largest shopping complex I’ve seen in Europe. Hundreds of stores, housed in several long, narrow, multi-story indoor malls. There was an electronics store there which spanned multiple buildings (connected via an overhead walkway) and put any Best Buy I’ve ever been in to shame.

For dinner, I ate at a place called the Hot Horse. Yes, they served horse, which seems to be a feature of Slovenian cuisine. I had a horse burger with lettuce, tomato, onion, and nacho cheese on it. Surprisingly tasty, actually… the flavor and texture were reminiscent of venison.

The day ends at the hostel, which doesn’t have wireless Internet access but someone nearby has been silly enough to leave their wireless network unlocked. Thanks, random someone!

Europe Interlude- Photos

In addition to catching up on blog entries, I’m also still sorting through photos, and uploading them to Flickr. If you’re interested, you can see them by clicking on the photo link in the right-hand sidebar, or clicking here to see them organized into sets: Link

The sets from locales I haven’t blogged about yet (like The Alps and Ljubljana) may still get some more photos added to them. On a related note, Flickr’s uploader is really dang slow.

Europe Day 6- On München, and Hostels

Note: At this point I’m catching up on blog entries from home. As I post them I’ll back-date them to the day they happened.

I came to a realization earlier today: I’m too old to stay in hostels.

Don’t get me wrong, I like hostels. They’re a cheap and easy way to get a room, and the social atmosphere means you’ll almost certainly meet interesting people. But when you look around the lobby and realize everyone is ten years younger than you, it’s kind of startling, especially if you still think of yourself as young. I’m only 29, but at this particular locale, across from the train station in Munich (München, as the locals call it), I half expect people to start calling me Grandpa.

On top of that, while you do undoubtedly meet interesting people, they tend to be the sort of people I spent most of high school trying to avoid: loud, boisterous jocks and socialites whose idea of visiting a place is to spend as much time as possible there either drunk or stoned, whose goal in traveling is, apparently, to remember as little of it as possible.

I’m sharing a room with some of them tonight: four guys, Americans, early twenties, way too macho for their own good. The testosterone sloshes through the room like we’re in a giant hormonal wave pool with the agitator set to “tsunami,” as they try to one-up each other with tales of smoking hashish in Amsterdam, sneaking into the trendiest clubs in Berlin, and in general leaving a money-strewn trail of cigarette butts, marijuana smoke and alcohol-saturated puke through the capitals of Western Europe.

I suppose they’re friendly enough, and I even get an offer to go clubbing with them, which I turn down on account of “I’ve got an early train to catch.” Which is true, although of course it’s just a convenient excuse. People like that make me feel every bit the introverted geek that I actually am.

The funny thing, I’m comfortable with being an introverted geek. I like who I am (well, mostly). But put me in a room with a bunch of noisy jocks and suddenly I have to fight the urge to curl into a ball in the corner, where hopefully they won’t notice me. Maybe it’s just that I’m outnumbered four to one, but I don’t think so. What is it about people like that that makes me so freaking uncomfortable? I mean, I was way more comfortable around the metalheads in Quedlinburg, and I’m not a metalhead. Maybe because being a metalhead and being a geek are similar in that you’re seeking to define yourself in a way that’s separate from the mainstream, whereas jocks pretty much are a living, breathing representation of said mainstream.

I guess in the end, I just don’t like these people. They’re loud, overbearing, and obnoxious (for example, smoking in the room despite being reminded that it’s non-smoking), and I simply don’t relate to them. I mean, at all. Having a conversation with them is pointless, because (a)we have nothing in common and (b)they react with skepticism and surprise if you suggest that maybe you’re just not into clubbing until 6 am, or you aren’t over here specifically to party. I mean, that’s why they’re here, and isn’t everyone else just like them?

After a few minutes, I throw my camera bag over my shoulder, and head out into the city. I don’t have any particular destination, but then, that’s not really any different than usual. My method of exploring cities is usually to get lost in them, and just follow my instinct, looking for interesting sights or landmarks, and see where I end up. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t, but I enjoy it. It’s a style well-suited to a solo traveller. If I were doing this with somebody else, we’d probably kill each other after the first day.

I eat dinner at an outdoor cafe– this time of year, all the cafes are outdoors. People around here love to get outside in the evenings, even though the heat of day hasn’t really faded yet. Across the street, there’s a wide open green space where a group of people play a hard-fought game of soccer, with two backpacks marking each goal. It’s a diverse group: guys, girls, young people, and old people, as if college professors were playing alongside their students.

As I sip my beer, I can’t help but think about the encounter at the hostel. It’s not that I’m adverse to partying or going clubbing, it’s just that I’d rather have a root canal that do it with my current roommates. I know they say you should meet people while you travel… but dammit, does it have to be people like that?

Other than that, I really like Munich, for many of the the same reasons I like Berlin. There’s an abundance of green in the city, and the streets and the sidewalks are wide, with plenty of room for pedestrians and bikers (although if I’m not paying close attention, I usually manage to end up walking in said bike lane). On top of that, the city practically oozes history, and you could spend weeks exploring, making your way from one square to the next, seeing what there is to see.

And then of course there’s the beer. Last night was the World Cup final, so I made my way to a place near the Munich Olympic Park where a massive screen had been set up, and drank some excellent weissbier from a liter mug while I watched the Netherlands fall to Spain… alas. After the game ended, I staggered in the general direction of a train station, but must have missed it, because I had to rely on some American expats with a map to point me in the general direction of the hostel. Fun fun.

After tonight, I’ll have spent two nights in Munich. Not bad, considering originally I wasn’t sure if I was going to spend any at all.

Tomorrow, though, it’s time to move on. The Alps are calling.

Europe Day 4- Rocking Out in Quedlinburg

Well, I can check “Go to German Heavy Metal Festival” off my list of Things To Do Before I Die.

Don’t get me wrong, it was fun, and the hearing damage I suffered when I was ten feet from the stage for Krypteria and Delain was totally worth it. As for the other bands, a few were really good, some were decent, and some were just trying too hard to be hardcore, the end result of which was that they were lousy– at least, in my opinion.

The worst part was the heat. Here’s a bit of advice: if you ever have to pick between suffering through a heat wave in Europe or suffering through a heat wave in America, pick America. It may be five to ten degrees hotter, but we have iced drinks and air conditioning to compensate. In Europe (at least the parts of it I’ve been to), air conditioning is rare, and drinks with ice in them are even rarer, which means you pretty much have to sweat out the heat wave, even if you aren’t going to outdoor events.

At the festival, they’ve been coping by spraying the crowd down with hoses, and I’ve put up with some really loud music I don’t particularly like in order to get wet– it’s pretty much the only way to stay cool. The next best option is claiming one of the high-demand bits of shade and hoping for a breeze, but it’s a poor second choice. To make things worse, security is technically not supposed to allow outside drinks in– and the drinks they sell you are 8-ounce cups of beer, warm cola or warm sparkling water at two to three Euros apiece.

Luckily, most of the security guys will let you slide by with a bottle of water, but some of them are evil.

Meanwhile, in addition to exploring the German metal scene, we’ve also been exploring some of the local towns. Quedlinburg is a UNESCO Heritage Site and was one ruled by an abbess, from an abbey/fortress/compound that sits on a tall hill in the Southwest part of town, and provides an impressive view. The cathedral has a pretty cool crypt, which we almost got locked in when a tour group left and shut the door behind them. We finally figured out how to work the latch, but for a moment I was worried. I don’t know how to say, “Help, I’m locked inside the crypt” in German– although it definitely seems like one of those “Essential Phrases” that guidebooks about foreign countries should include.

We’ve also been monitoring Germany’s progress in the World Cup– or, rather, its demise at Spanish hands, which we watched at an outdoor cafe in the town square. (Later, we tried to sleep through the noise of drunk, disappointed football hooligans in the street, with limited success.)

And of course, we’ve been trying the local Biergartens. I’ll definitely say this for the Germans– they make some mighty fine beer, and the food in general has been pretty good, too. (I know, I complained about it on Twitter a few days ago, but that was mainly just an excuse to make a pun involving “wurst.”)

Tomorrow Mark and Roberta head home and I strike out on my own. I’m actually booked on the same train to Munich that they are– but after that, they head for the airport, and I head for a hostel, to spend two days in the capital of The Free State of Bavaria. I predict drinking will occur. Although not, sadly, of ice water.

Europe Day 1- The Dark Side of Storytelling

The Berlin Holocaust Memorial is a series of 2,711 gray monoliths, which all together take up an entire block near the center of the city. On the outskirts of the Memorial, each monolith is about waist high. As you walk toward the center, they get taller, and the ground begins to dip lower, as if the entire thing is built on the inside of a giant, shallow bowl. By the time you reach the middle, you’re lost in a forest of stone slabs, unable to see anything but slate gray and, if you look high enough, the sky above.

There are no words on the Memorial, so at first glance, you might wonder at its purpose. It seems an odd thing for a series of unmarked gray stones to take up such a large swath of land in one of Europe’s most bustling cities.

But if you look closer, you see that not all the slabs are the same. Some are crooked, leaning slightly in one direction or the other, and the top surfaces aren’t entirely flat. If you look across the top of the memorial, at the undulating field of stones, your mind wants to find a pattern, but it can’t. Is it just a group of stone blocks, slowly rising in the center, or is something deeper going on?

I’m an idealist when it comes to storytelling. I believe strongly in the power of stories to promote empathy among human beings: when a person shares his story with another, those two people can then relate in a way they couldn’t before. I believe that storytelling, whether through writing, or film, or some other medium, is the greatest unifying force in the world, and maybe, if enough people of different backgrounds are able to tell their stories to each other, maybe there really will come a day when things like wars can be relegated to the history books.

Good stories can bridge individuals, and cultures, and countries… stories remind us that people who are different from us are still people, with hopes and dreams and families and friends of their own, and that those people aren’t just abstractions, they aren’t just stereotypes, they’re full-fledged human beings. I think this is true for both fiction and nonfiction; any story where you have to relate to characters different from you, where you have to put yourself in the shoes of someone else, whether that “someone else” is real or not, helps us learn to empathize.

But in Berlin, the strange gray stones stand as a stark, disturbing reminder that stories can be twisted.

In the 1930s, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis weaved a story of their own. But it didn’t break down stereotypes, it reinforced them. It was a story which denigrated and demonized an entire group of people, taught that those people were not worthy of empathy, respect, or even the slightest shred of human decency– it taught that they were vermin, or lower than vermin. Mired in problems, economic and otherwise, the German people were looking for someone to blame for their plight, and the Nazis told a story that gave the Germans the villain they had been looking for: the Jews.

A story like that has many things in common with the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. It’s not something that hits you all at once. But if it’s told enough, over and over again, it builds into something sinister, and slowly it skews your perspective. The facts and details don’t line up, but you may not even notice, so lost are you in the greater overall mass of the structure.

And then, like the Germans of the late thirties, you get totally surrounded by the field of oppressive monoliths, losing sight of the real world for this alternate world of inescapable wrongness, looming over and consuming you. You completely lost sight of the real world, when all you thought you were doing was exploring a field of simple gray stones.

Even if you do manage to stay outside of the slabs, they still warp the landscape, corrupt the horizon. Whether you’re standing on the edge of the thing or right smack dab in the middle, they will affect your worldview, and not for the better. The Memorial is a wordless reminder that words have power, and like any great power they can be misused, sometimes to horrible, horrible effect.

I’m still an idealist. But as I leave the Memorial behind, heading back toward the Brandenburg Gate, I can’t help but feel chilled by the very real power of storytelling’s dark side.

Europe Day 1- Back in Berlin

I’ll be back-dating these entries to the day they happened. There probably won’t be a blog entry for each day, just whenever one pops into my head and I finally get a chance to write it.

By my count, this flight was my seventh round trip over an ocean since 2000, so they’re kind of becoming old hat. But I haven’t gotten any better at sleeping through them, which is disappointing. Heck, for this trip, I even bought one of those pillows that are shaped like a horseshoe and wrap around your neck. Dang– I thought for sure that would do the trick.

In the end, I got maybe twenty minutes of sleep, which is pretty much par for the course for me. (Actually, to be honest, I might have been able to get more, but Invictus was on, and I wanted to see Morgan Freeman playing Nelson Mandela.)

(Yes, I’m a weak man.)

So we landed at the airport at about 9:30, and I got to the train station shortly after 11 (getting there was WAY more of a chore than it should be, thanks to the otherwise-efficient Berlin public transport system.) I’m meeting a couple of friends, Mark and Roberta, in a little town called Quedlinburg this evening, but Quedlinburg is only a three-hour train ride away– which means I’ve got time to kill.

So I stash my luggage in a locker to go for a walk around Berlin. I love walking around the city– I got to do in 2008, and I loved how green and modern the city feels, while at the same time retaining a lot of character in buildings like The Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate.

The day is beautiful, sunny but not too hot, and despite operating on no sleep and almost no caffeine, I’m feeling no sign of jet lag as I walk. So far so good.

Sprechen Sie Deutsch?

It’s a sign of how crazy the past couple weeks have been (both at work and in life) that I haven’t gotten a chance to write a post about this yet, but on Tuesday July 6 I’ll be going to Europe for two weeks.

There’s a long story behind how this all came together, but it basically started as a whim. A few months ago, I noticed that a few of my favorite bands of all time are playing at a rock festival in GermanyKrypteria and Delain, to name two. I remarked in passing to some friends of mine that I wished I had someone to go with, and as it turns out, they were interested! So without much hesitation, we decided to seize the opportunity. For three days we’ll be staying in the town of Quedlinburg while we sample what Germany has to offer, in terms of food, language, sightseeing, beer, and of course, metal.

After the concert is over, I’ll be striking out on my own, and likely heading south to Austria, to pay a visit to my old friends The Alps. I had a chance to take a train ride through the Alps in 2008, but unfortunately I was in a hurry and didn’t get a chance to see much except what I could see through the train window (which was nonetheless impressive). So hopefully this time around I’ll get the chance to do some hiking– maybe even settle down in a little town for a few days and put my feet up. My vacations the past few years have been somewhat manic, often involving hurried charging from destination to destination in an effort to squeeze as much as I can out of two short weeks, but I’d like to take things easier this time. Will it happen? We shall see. Old habits are hard to break.

In preparation for this trip, I’ve been learning a little German– the most important phrase of which, of course, is Entschuldigen sie, meine Deutsch ist nicht gut. Sprechen sie Englisch? (Excuse me, my German is not good. Do you speak English?) However, I have learned other key phrases, such as Wo ist die Toilette? (Where is the restroom?) and Ein Bier, bitte (A beer, please), just to cover the, er, goings-out and goings-in, as it were. (On a side note, anyone know any good German football cheers, in case Germany makes the World Cup final while I’m over there?)

Like I did with my Australia trip last year, I’ll be blogging whenever I can, although probably not every day. I may be posting to Twitter more often (see “The Tweeted Path” in the right-hand sidebar for my Twitter feed), although it depends on what kind of Internet and cell phone access I end up having. Probably not much, if the Australia trip was anything to judge by.

My plane leaves in about 67 hours, and I’ve barely planned past the first three days. Should be fun!