Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Not Homesick

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Thursday, December 07, 2006

Wednesday, November 15, 2006


Our school had a class day trip to Chartre which is not too far from Versailles. The day basically consisted of a tour of the cathedral and some time to wander around the city. We didn't do much with our free time, but just before we were to leave we found this quaint little section of town behind the cathedral. There is a river with some nice stone buildings as you can see in the photo below.

The rest of the city was very nice, though similar to many other French cities of the same size.

But it was the tour of the cathedral that made the trip so memorable. Our guide was Malcolm Miller. He is a scholar who has been "reading" the cathedral statues and stained glass windows since 1958. He compares the cathedral to a library with each stained glass window and statue arrangement being a book. During the tour, he walked us around and read some of the stained glass windows along with an assembly of statues. Some are graphic representations of stories from the bible complete with symbolic iconography. Others like the rose window also spell out numerous symbolisms and etymologies. If you were raised Christian or have a fair knowledge of it, the tour probably has your head reeling at the end. It is astounding how the creators of the elements of the building infused it with such a rich network of imagery and meaning. The tour was one of the highlights of my stay in Europe and a tour or lecture by Mr. Miller is highly recommended. Especially if you have time during a stay in Paris for a day trip to Chartres.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Thursday, November 02, 2006


I arrived in Chamonix after a day of train travel and the discovery of a picturesque locale. It was early evening and I had yet to find a place to stay.

During the previous trip, we researched possible accommodations in the guide books. When we arrived we would locate them via the tourist office. Then we would find vacancy at one of the first two on the list. It was usually at the youth hostel since they had more than a couple in each place, it was off season, and they were big cities. In this case, it was a village and they had only one youth hostel on the outskirts of town.

I called the hostel and they said they were full with only a chance that a spot could open up. I decided that it was better to try my luck in town. I checked quite possibly every hotel in town. I was either quoted 288 francs ($58) or more or they had no vacancy. So I bit the bullet and paid the 288 francs. Quite a jump for me since I was usually paying half that. The upside was that I had a room and a bathroom to myself. I'm pretty sure it was the first time I ever had a hotel room to myself.

The next day after a big breakfast that was included with the room, I set off without any real plans. I found a slightly cheaper place to stay for 178 francs ($36) and wandered around the small village. It was not a very large town and it had no tall buildings. So it was composed primarily of three and four story buildings with primary streets parallel to the valley. All the while, the mountains tower over either side of the valley. Chamonix is at the base of Mont Blanc which is the tallest mountain in Europe. It is also a world-renowned downhill ski destination. But this was in between the summer tourist season and the ski season, so activity in the town seemed like any other. The style of buildings tended to be either traditional French stucco or alpine timber frames. A charming little town, but not really any more special than other small European towns.

After a tour of the city, I decided the thing to see would be the mountains. I returned to the tourist office to see if any of the ski lifts were operational. Unfortunately they were not in service because the forecast was for cloudy conditions later in the day which would prevent any chances to see anything. Having already seen the town, I figured I would try hiking up the side of the valley opposite Mt. Blanc to see if I could get up there before it clouded up or even get up above the clouds. So at 11:30am I started walking up one of the streets on that side of town until I found a trail. I had done quite a bit of hiking as a kid and I was a runner at the time, so I didn't have any concerns about the hike. I decided that I needed to be back by 4pm, so I split the available time in half and determine that I needed to turn around and head back down around 1:45pm.

The hike up involved a few different progressions. The scenery changed from deciduous forest to sparcely scattered conifers to steep rocky terrain with patches of snow. The oxygen got more and more scarce with my ears popping from time to time. I had to stop at each switch back to catch my breath. The weather went from partly sunny to cloudy to spitting drizzle. Not enough rain for an umbrella, but enough to get drenched over an hour or two. Plus it was starting to get pretty windy toward the top.

I just kept climbing thinking I would either get above the clouds or reach the top and see over the other side. Finally when it got to be half an hour past my turn around time, I headed back down. The top was very close, but I was drenched and cold. Water had even gotten into my camera. And I also did not want to head down in the dark. It took me 2 1/2 hours to climb 965m (4000ft). But it only took 1 1/2 hours to get back down. Although I wish I could have gotten to the top, the landscape was worth the climb.

The next day was bright and sunny for another day of train travel with multiple transfers. A nice ride with great views of the fall colors. Although my experience in Chamonix was less than perfect, it would be nice to return if I'm in the area.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


After learning how easy it was to get around Europe, I was eager to venture out on my own. We had a three day weekend so I decided to see the French Alps and see if the leaves were changing color. After consulting guide books, Chamonix had the most appeal. The route to get there involved several trains and transfers. I took my first TGV (French high speed train) from Paris to Lyon. Then I took the regular train from Lyon to Annecy. From Annecy there was a train to St-Gervais where I transfered for the final train to Chamonix.

The layover in Annecy was two hours, so I had time to quickly check out the city. What a beautiful city! It is situated on a lake at the foot of the Alps as you can see in the photo above. The town itself was quite old with a canal and promenade along it. It was very picturesque as you can see below. The canal with swans and waterfalls. The old buildings lining it. The promenade littered with bistro tables, and the mountains looming behind. There was also a large lakeside park that was teaming with people strolling, lounging, and playing sports. The lake was quite active with sailboats taking advantage of the windy day.

It is definitely a place to visit if you are in the region.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The EuroRail Pass

Some of you may be thinking that all of this travel must have cost a fortune. Well since I was under 26 years old, I was able to purchase Youth Eurarail Passes. The youth pass costs 65% of the adult pass.

More specifically, I purchased Youth Eurarail Flexipasses. It is a flexible ticket accepted by most countries in Europe with the notable exception of Britain. There were two different types that I purchased. If memory serves correctly, the first was ten days of travel within two months at a cost of $250 and the second was five travel days within two months for $300. That was in 1991. The prices and the types of tickets may have changed. Though, I may be wrong and the types of tickets have not changed. In any case, you get the idea.

How they work is that the day you start using the pass you have it validated at the station. Each day you choose to travel, you mark the date on the pass and it is verified by the conductor in order to be allowed to travel. So during the date marked on the pass, you are allowed to jump on any regular train that departs before midnight of that date to anywhere served by the pass. It is an amazing amount of freedom.

And there are some tricks. If you are taking an overnight direct train that departs after 7PM, you are allowed to mark the following day. This can give you an extra day when you start the pass. Plus you can do it to take an overnight train and arrive in a city in the morning, then depart (or return) on an overnight train that night to another destination (or back home). I used this trick often during my stay there.

It was a great asset to be able to choose the days of travel within the two or three month time period. And if there were unused days toward the end, it made for a good time to get away. The freedom and relatively cheap price of travel made the pass and incredibly valuable part of my travels. That and my Thomas Cook Train Schedule.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Ritz

As I mentioned in Day Two in Berlin, I liked going to dance clubs. In my Fodors Guide, they recommended a club called "The Ritz". So on the last night of our trip, we went and checked it out. Like at the Metropolis, we arrived when there were very few people there. After climbing the stairs, there was a long rectangular room. On one side was the bar with bar stools. On the other were booths lining the wall. The room was well lit. The dimly lit room with the dance floor was at the far end of the long rectangular room.

So we went to the dance floor room, found a big table, and ordered a round of beers. The waitress told us it was happy hour, so we were starting to like the place already. Soon after we ordered our second round, three or four people came and started dancing on the dance floor. Their dance style was a bit different and more "free" than we were used to, but we chalked it up as being more European.

Noticing that it was taking a while for more people to show up, we asked our waitress "When does it pick up here?" She replied "You mean when does the show start?" We were like "Show? What show?". She looked around at us and said "Um, do you know what kind of bar this is? It's a drag show." Ohhh. So we ordered another round and said we would leave after. In the meantime, one man came over to our table and propositioned Tom, saying in very broken English "Will you come with me?" The rest of us broke out in adolescent laughter. (In an odd twist, I learned a couple years later that Tom came out of the closet. I met up with him and we got along quite well as opposed to our experience on the trip.)

So we got up to leave and entered the long rectangular room that we walked through coming in. Contrary to the dance floor that was fairly empty, this room was now packed. Packed without a woman in sight. The room was filled with men dressed in leather. Pants, coats, vests, straps, etc. Many with stereotypical goatees and shaved heads. There was such a lack of available seating that many were sitting on other's laps. Now, I was no stranger to gay bars. I went to and sometimes frequented them because they were the best place to dance and I had absolutely no problem with gays. But to see a sea of men in leather staring back at us wondering "What the hell are you doing here?" completely stunned me. All we could do was duck our heads and make a v-line for the door. Quite an experience.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


Contrary to the previous two cities, I absolutely loved Stockholm. The city has been called the Nordic Venice and I think the water element is part of what attracted me to the city. I have always had a thing for water. Not to be in or on it, but to be next to it on the side of a like, a river, or an ocean. Maybe it's because I was born only a couple hundred feet from Lake Michigan. Most of our stay revolved around the water.

Stockholm is primarily a collection of islands tied together by bridges. The Old Town (seen above) is one of those islands comprised of winding narrow streets with old buildings and churches (who'd a thunk). Quite an adventure to explore.

Our accommodations were the best of the whole trip. We stayed in the youth hostel aboard the AF Chapman (seen above), a decommissioned British sailing ship permanently moored in the harbor. I remember that the showers were in a large open space in the prow of the ship. Odd because they were communal and he floors and walls were sloping. It was really an experience to live on an old ship.

Other than Old Town, the only real tourist destination we visited was the Vasa Museum (seen above). It was an extraordinary museum that would be great to see again. The Vasa was an ill-fated sailing ship which sunk on her maiden voyage. The ship was salvaged, restored, and relocated completely intact inside this contemporary designed museum. Quite amazing to see the whole ship with all of it's details dry docked in a large open space where you can view the ship all around an many different levels. And the accompanying exhibits talking about the ship were excellent.

Stockholm was also just an interesting city to wander around. Interesting buildings and the maze of islands and bridges. A city that I would really love to return to.

Saturday, October 14, 2006


Copenhagen turned out to be another city where I didn't walk away with an eagerness and enthusiasm to return like I had with Munich, Salzburg, and Prague. Part of that may have been due to the cloudy/rainy weather we had while there. There also weren't any sites that really captured my attention and the tensions in the group may have also played a role. We were probably pretty fatigued at this point

That said, it was a nice city. I liked the architectural style of the city. Part baroque, part nordic. Nyhavn (seen above) was very interesting with the uniform facades and all the old boats. Part of me was disappointed we didn't catch it on a sunny day. Though people seem to like the melancholy mood of the picture above. We also explored Rosenborg Castle and saw the Little Mermaid seen below.

Our youth hostel was across the street from the Tivoli Gardens amusement park, but the park was closed for the season. We met three women from Kansas who were studying abroad in Holland. We talked to them quite a bit and I exchanged information with Lisa who I kept in contact with during the rest of the stay in Europe.

Another item I remember was how we ate. We found an all-you-can-eat pizza buffet soon after we got there. They had three or four different types of pizza that they would constantly replace. A few standards and a couple we had not seen before like Hawaiian or corn with ham. This is where our shoe-string budget won out over local cuisine. As we moved farther north, prices also rose. So we would stuff ourselves on the free breakfast at the hostel, starve until about 4pm, then stuff ourselves again with pizza over the next two hours. Silly, but we were young.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Berlin - Day 2

On our second day, Craig, Tom & Mike decided they wanted to go on a guided bus tour of East Berlin. I decided not to join them because I felt the city should be discovered on you own, I didn't think there would be anything interesting to see over there, and because of the growing tension with Tom. I thought the sites in West Berlin would be much more interesting. I really regret that decistion because it was my only chance to see East Berlin fresh from being unveiled from behind the iron curtain. Plus, Al, Paul, and I saw nothing of significance. We went to the zoo and wandered around the neighborhood. I really can't remember why we didn't venture more into the city. It could have been a lack of interest in this city on our part or inability to figure out how to get around.

One night we went to the Metropolis night club. I was a frequent patron of dance clubs from about my mid-teens to my mid-twenties. Not to be part of "the scene", but because I liked dancing and like the atmosphere. The club was fairly standard. We arrived there early and watched one guy dance by himself in the middle of the floor doing some sort of pseudo-robotic dance. After about a half hour more people came and filled in the dance floor. I remember it being not too much different from back home, but it did have a German feel to it. We really enjoyed the music and if I remember right it was somewhere between house and industrial.

Overall, Berlin was not one of my favorite cities on the trip. Though now after many years of learning more about it, I have gotten interested to return and see the city properly.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Berlin - Day 1

Unlike previous cities (except Vienna) where we saw much of what there was to see, I missed much of Berlin and only saw a few pieces of the city. I am fairly sure that we only spent two days there, but one of them was completely wasted. I even lost a roll of film or two from that part of the trip. So my memory of it is kinda weak.

The area that we seemed to use as our rendez-vous point was Breitscheidplatz and the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. The church had been bombed during WW2 and has been kept as a memorial. I am fairly certain our youth hostel was near there.

On our first day, we went directly to Checkpoint Charlie. The Berlin Wall had only fallen two years earlier. Much of it had already been dismantled, but a forty foot section remained at Checkpoint Charlie. Nearby is the Mauermuseum. An excellent museum about international non-violent protest that we did not have enough time to fully explore. They chronicle many famous leaders of peace such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King. It was quite moving.

As a funny aside, I had sent home 20 or 30 rolls of film at one point. My father eagerly developed them in order to have pictures of me in front of something famous. Now I was not a fan of doing that because it seemed so touristy. But I did have someone take my picture in front of the Berlin Wall because everyone in our group was doing it and I was still a bit in awe after leaving the museum. It turned out to be the ONLY picture of me in front of anything in the 700 to 1000 photos my father developed. So he made a few 8x10's of it, framed them, and gave them to my mother, sister, and myself. The problem is that I look horrible. I hadn't shaved in a while so I looked scruffy and I had this silly smirky smile on my face. Oh well. I learned my lesson and took pictures of myself in front of various tourist sites along the rest of my stay.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Prague - The Sites

Prague is a great city and one of my favorites on the trip. It was definitely the most exotic place we had been to so far. The city was very dirty. Every building seem to have a layer of soot on it. And not speaking the language made it difficult at times. But it was so well preserved. I don't remember very many buildings built since the baroque period. And everything seemed to be in the baroque style. I'm pretty sure it was also the city where we spent the most time. At least three days, maybe four. So we had the time to cover all the sites of the city very well and have time to do other activities like take photos or visit a "club". I'll get more into that in the next post. So what did we see.

One of the main sites is the Old Town Square. It is located in the center of the old part of town with two churches and the Old Town City Hall overlooking it. It became a major meeting point for our group and other people we met up with. On the square is also Orloj, astronomical clock, seen in the photo below.

Not far from the square is the Old Jewish Cemetery. It is a very small piece of land and the gravestones are sitting at all different angles. I actually remembered the cemetery from an INXS video that had been shot in Prague three years before. In it Mike Hutchence saunters along a path in the cemetary while Kirk Pengilly plays his sax on the street below for Never Tear Us Apart. It is so cool that nowadays I can link to the video on YouTube and you can see what I remember.

Walking to the west of the city, you come to the Vltava River . One the main ways to cross it is by the Charles Bridge. The city actually has a well beaten path that tourist take between the Old Town Square and the Prague Castle. The bridge is quite something. It is a pedestrian bridge lined on each side with statues. And along the whole length there are artisans and musicians. Quite a pleasant walk. And at each end are gothic towers in a style very unique to Prague. A tall steep center roof with small steep turrets at the corners. The towers of Tyn Cathedral have the same configuration.

Past the bridge, you make your way up to the Prague Castle and St.Vitus Cathedral. The castle is one ofthe largest in the world with numerous buildings and outdoor spaces. They even had a architecture exhibit that we spent a few hours checking out. I really liked St. Vitus Cathderal. It was very bright and had that verticallity that I really like. The facade is in the high gothic flamboyant style as you can see in the photo below. Another of my favorite churches in Europe.

The only other site I can remember is the miniature Eiffel tower on the castle side of the river. We climbed up, but I don't have any pictures so the view must not have been very good.

As a group, we were starting to get on each other nerves a bit. Tom, who had taken over the leadership role, was not doing a great job of getting us around. I tend to be good with maps, so I started taking over getting us from place to place. Tom also had a tendancy to be a know it all which rubbed a few of us the wrong way. On the other hand, I got along great with Craig and we spent a lot of time traveling together on future trips. Craig was caught in the middle on this trip since he got along with both Tom and I.

Prague was really a great city and I hope to be able to return someday.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Prague - The Arrival and Accomodations

We boarded the train to Prague from Vienna in the evening. I remember during the train ride watching the sun set over a river. I was quite uneasy about Prague. We were going to Eastern Europe. The Berlin Wall had fallen only two years earlier. So what could we expect as far as acceptance of Westerners. Plus it was the first place where no one from our group spoke the local language.

The train car we boarded even had a distinctly communist regime feel. Drab color, old and bare furnishings. The language barrier became apparent when the boarder guards came through the train car. We could not communicate to them even in sign language. And they were all business. No joking around. Straight faced and to the point.

We arrived very late into Prague. It was 10 or 11pm, but the tourist office had already closed. There were guys coming around offering places to stay. At first we shook them off and were minorly annoyed by them as they kept coming back. But after an hour not knowing what to do, we started discussions with them. We finally picked one guy near midnight when we realized it may be our only option.

We followed our guide out of the station into the dark winding deserted streets of Prague. I have never been more scared in my life. I felt sure it was a set up. I had a feeling that at any moment a gang would jump out and beat the heck out of us. Yes, we were six young healthy guys, but still thats no match for a few guys with bats or worse, guns.

My fears were relieved when we arrived at our destination. A woman in a nightgown invited us into her home and had us sleep in their beds. From what we could tell, the husband worked nights, so she slept on the couch while giving up the other beds in the apartment. That was really odd to sleep in complete strangers beds. On top of it we woke up to them having made us breakfast. It also turned out to be a great location close to all the major sights. It was a bit more than we wanted to pay and they insisted we pay in Western money. We thanked them as best we could for all the hospitality and the next day we found a place through the tourist office that was farther away and more in our price range. Up on the hill across the river past the palace. It was a hike, but that wasn't a hastle as long as we didn't go back often.

Sunday, October 08, 2006


We arrived in Vienna on the morning train from Salzburg and we left on the late evening train to Prague. So we were not there long and the photos I had taken suggest that we didn't even visit any major tourist attractions like St. Stephens Cathedral. I do remember that we exchanged money to get Czechoslovakian money and we had a great supper at a small restaurant. I returned to the city for almost a week the following February and that is when I truly discovered the city. But this time was really just a stop over seeing some of the typical streetscapes and having some local cuisine.

Friday, October 06, 2006


We arrived in the early morning hours in Salzburg along with a few others escaping the craziness of Munich and their train station. Unfortunately, that meant the tourist information center was closed and we had no means of finding a place to stay for the night. So we stayed with the others in the train station and tried our best to get some rest on the floor.

The next morning we consulted the tourist office and got the directions to the local youth hostel. As with much of the lodging for young people across Europe, this was run by and inhabited by a large percentage of Australian nomads. From what I was told, the Australian government subsidizes their young people to take a year off, travel, and see the world. So there are many young Australian backpackers across Europe and many try to extend their stay by working in youth hostels for the cash to stick around.

Salzburg was great. It's a small city stradling the Salzach River. On one bank is the old city squeezed between a hill and the river. The old city is almost entirely buildings that are over 100 years old. Primarily baroque in style, but there are also some gothic and romanesque buildings also. On the hill overlooking the city is the fortress, Festung Hohensalzburg. The city is known also for being the birthplace of Mozart and the Sound of Music was filmed here and in the Alps nearby.

We spent two days in the city and one of the first attractions we saw was the Mirabel Gardens. They were some very nice French style gardens with baroque sculpture. They were nice, but again after seeing Versailles it was hard to find other gardens too interesting. From there we crossed the bridge into the old town. The Old Town was amazing because it seems that great lengths had been made to preserve the character. I'm pretty sure they have the same zoning regulation prohibiting neon and lighted signage like in Quebec city. So the majority of store signage is done in wrought iron, even McDonalds.

Speaking of. This was when we discoved one of the quirks of our fellow traveller, Paul. Paul requested at every possible chance that he eat at McDonalds (yes, I can hear you gasping). Here we are in new and interesting places with authentic foods, and he wants what we can get at home. Paul's reasoning was that he didn't trust foods at other places and he knew that McDonalds would always follow a standard of quality. So some extra time was spent looking for Mickey D's or waiting at them while he got his food. I later found out that he only made hamburgers at home when he was cooking for himself.

In the Old Town, we visited all of the churches and wandered through all of the streets. In the end we did not see any of the Mozart attractions or go on the Sound of Music bus tour.

On the last afternoon of our stay we went up to see the fortress. It was quite the intriguing place. It was a huge complex and quite a maze with many different levels. We took the tour and the guide gave the descriptions in at least four different languages. It made for a longer time spent in each room, but you had time to look closer at them while she spoke to others in the group. And she seemed to speak each language flawlessly. We had a big surprise during the tour. As we were walking around, we peaked out of one of the windows and saw the Alps just across the valley. I was blown away because I didn't realize they were that close. And the view was fantastic. Since we had arrived in the middle of the night and spent our two days in the valley of the city, we never had a view of what was around. It was a pretty amazing surprise.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006


After spending the day sightseeing in the city we headed for Oktoberfest. I actually didn't remember much about the outdoor part of it until I recently saw some photos I had taken. Part of that may be because it was so familiar to any state or county fair. Food booths and rides are primarily what I remember. But it is the beer halls that set this event apart and what the event is famous for.

We poked our head in one or two different halls looking for space for six guys. We eventually found a table at the Paulaner hall. The atmosphere was something else. Women of all ages dressed in traditional garb carrying as many as a dozen 1-litre bocks of beer (that's over thirty pounds in each hand). Many of the younger (and cuter) ones came around selling pretzels and other baked goods. Of course, we six young men took kindly to one of them and made our best efforts to talk to her whenever she came by. The music was your traditional Oktoberfest fare. But there were two songs I remember in particular. First, apparently the 'chicken dance' is either German or an Oktoberfest favorite. They played that multiple times over the night. The other was something like a cheer or toast. Einz! Feinz! Sofa! Everyone clinks glasses and takes another swig of beer.

In between the times that the pretzel girl would swing by and talk to us, I remember that we toggled between talking about others around us and just sitting, observing, and drinking our beers. That was until the table across from us invited us over. It was a bunch of Munich high school kids whooping it up. We were soon goofing around with them having a great time. Singing, dancing, and trying our best to get to know each other even with the language barrier. We had a blast. We even exchanged phone numbers at the end of the night. The two I kept in contact with were Florian & Stephanie who I came back to see on two separate trips.

Unfortunately we did not have a place to stay, so we went back to the train station to find a train out of the city. In the end, we found a train headed for Salzburg, Austria. It was not a long ride and we would arrive in the middle of the night, but at least we would be away from the craziness of Munich.


I was very much in the dark when this trip started. I had no idea what the plans were or where we were going. I was just a follower. That would completely change by the end of the trip.

There were six of us (Craig, Tom, Al, Mike, Paul, and I). The travel break started Friday afternoon and we boarded an overnight train to Munich on Friday night in Paris. We arrived bright and early Saturday morning with all the other backpackers arriving by train. The train station (Hauptbahnhof), the surrounding streets, and the entire city were flooded with people. It was Oktoberfest. It appeared that Tom was the leader of the group. He seemed to toggle between being very uncomfortable to overly confident in the roll, but we got around fairly well.

We first headed to a major pedestrian thoroughfare, Neuhauser Strasse, to the central city square, Marienplatz. In the square there was an Oktoberfest band playing and we returned there in order to hear the Glockenspiel chime. From my memory, we spent most of the day wandering looking at assorted tourist spots. We saw Peterskirche, Frauenkirche, ...We even spent some time in a sporting goods store for some reason. Al thought he would by some skis. Didn't make sense to me since he would have to lug them with us for two weeks.

At one point we ended up in one of the city squares, Odeonsplatz, where some punkers were having a protest. It was a peaceful gathering. On the square is Theatinerkirche that we also visited. I'd like to note at this point that one thing I noticed over the course of the day was how may people dyed their hair. And not just the young kids. There were older women with streaks of purple or pink in their hair also. So we were standing around and a young gothic woman comes over. At the time I was also dressed in all black with a turtle neck. I had been letting my hair grow out also, so it was a bit longer than the normal "wedge" that I usually had. Well, she came up to me and said that they were looking for people to be in a Vidal Sassoon commercial. The thing was that I would have to stay overnight. Our plans were to leave that night and if I did it the others would leave without me. Plus I didn't have a place to stay. So I passed. I've always wondered if that offer was sincere. Could I have become an international model or been drugged and beat to a pulp?

We strolled some of the large avenues. From the photos I have, we visited Konigsplatz, which was a victory arch of very Third Reich character. There was also another victory arch that I have not been able to locate.

We later made our way to the Deutches Museum. A very very interesting technology and science museum with many moving parts displays. But it was all in German, so we could only conjecture what they were trying to show. We had a snack in their rooftop cafe then made our way to the major reason for coming to Munich. Oktoberfest.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

The October Trip

Our first of four travel breaks started in October. In total the travel breaks comprised 10 weeks. A two week break in October, two for Christmas & New Years, two in February, and four in April/May after classes had finished.

As with other things, I didn't really have an idea of what I wanted to do during the break. I thought it would be fun to go to Rome and Greece, but I had no one to travel with and was unsure about how to go about getting from place to place. A few days before the break, I was approached by Craig who said he was going with others to Northern Europe. Their reasoning for going north instead of south was because the warmer climes could be saved for the winter breaks. There would be six of us travelling together (Craig, Paul, Tom, Al, Mike, and myself) and we would cover seven cities in two weeks. Munich, Salzburg, Vienna, Prague, Berlin, Copenhagen, and Stockholm. I had a great time in almost all of these cities and would love to go back and experience them again. I returned to Vienna on another trip and Munich four other times. Having grown up in a largely German neighborhood may have contributed to my enjoyment and familiarity with the cities on this trip.

It is the second best trip that I have taken to date for two reasons. The first being that we saw so much. The second reason being because it was really the threshold where I was introduced to the world of international travel. After that point, the rest of Europe and even the world seemed so accessible. Part of it was familiarity with travelling and also with getting around in countries of other tongues. The burden of the unknown had been lifted. After this trip I was jumping on trains every other weekend to wander in another unknown city.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Rouen & Honfleur

Our second class trip was a day trip to Rouen & Honfleur in the Normandy region of France. There wasn't anything in particular that I wanted to see in either city, so I spent much time wandering looking for stuff to photo or sketch. I have returned to both cities a few other times during trips to the area.

My rememberence of Rouen on that first visit is it was very gothic. Meaning that it was cloudy, everything seemed grey, and I was visiting various gothic churches. I'm a big fan of gothic churches, though none of these are significantly covered in books on the subject. There are three gothic churches that are the main sights in Rouen. First there is Notre Dame Cathedral. The facade was painted numerous times by Claude Monet as a lighting study. One of the tower facades was replicated in the design of the Tribune Tower in Chicago. It was an impressive church with a unique crossing tower. But something didn't grab me about it. It seemed quite ordinary at times.

The second church I visited was the Church of Saint Maclou. This church 1s noteworthy for the flamboyant late-gothic facade. But it seemed very dark and clunky for a gothic church. It did not have that soaring ceiling that I like so much and I couldn't get very good pictures of the exterior.

The last gothic church I visited was the Abbey Church of Saint-Ouen. This was my favorite. The interior (seen in the above photo) is very tall and the piers and arches accentuated that verticality. The facade is very ornate and I like the arrangement and shape of the different components. I also like the composition of the tower over the crossing. A center drum surrounded by four tourettes (as seen in the first photo). Now that I look at it again, it is probably my favorite church other than the gothic church in Amiens. The interior was also interesting because all of the seating had been removed and if I remember correctly, there were pieces of modern art displayed in it's place.
Honfleur is a quaint seaside town at the mouth of the Seine River. The Pont du Normandie has since been constructed not far from there. It was a fun little village to explore. There is a central harbor with some very nice buildings bordering it. I spent most of my time wandering around alone. So I saw quite a bit and had time to take many photos including the one below of fishermens nets drying out at the end of the day. Quite a picturesque little town.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Loire Valley

Our first class trip was to the Loire Valley. Although there were not any good stories to accompany the trip, there were some memorable places that I saw. On Saturday we visited the chateaus in Blois and Chambord. Blois was the oldest of the chateaus seen. It was interesting for it's history and gave a starting reference point for the history of the others. The exterior was less appealing since is was built over the years and was a less cohesive mismatch of architecture styles.
Chambord is an amazing and huge chateau with clear views of it from all around. The rooftop is one of the best features. It is almost like a medieval playground as seen in the photo above. So many interesting shapes and perspectives that you could walk amongst. I could spend a day taking photographs of that alone.
The interiors of all the chateaus were very medieval. Dark woods, dark spaces, and sparce furnishings. Chambord was different because the rooms were very large. There is also a double helix staircase that was very interesting. The tower at the top of the stair is seen in the photo above.
On Sunday we saw chateaus in Chenonceau and Amboise. Chenonceau had a very interesting exterior, setting, and surrounding area. It is the chateau built over a river as seen in the pictures above and below. I didn't find the interior very special, and although the gardens were very well done and maintained, they paled in comparison to Versailles. The most interesting aspect was the views of the chateau from across the river. We were fortunate to have absolutely no wind, so the River Cher was a mirror and made for some great photos.
In Amboise, I skipped the chateau in order to go see Leonardo da Vinci's residence Clos Lucé. I had heard the chateau was nothing special and I was a little chateau'ed out. The Studio of Leonardo da Vinci and the walk up the winding road up to it were very nice. It was my first introduction to his works and I found it quite intriguing.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Our Place

We really lucked out on our place. (Center of the map in the link. Zoom out to get an idea of the location.) We were not too far from the school. We had a full separate kitchen. Some only had a hot plate, we had a working stove and oven. We had access to a television on Sunday evenings. There was soft porn shown and we called it 'Sex on Sunday'. We had a fireplace which we think actually sucked cold air in instead of heating the place. We were not tucked into some unused bedroom of a French family. Our place was independant of our landlord. We had a French high school student flatmate, Clovis, who stayed with us. I will say more about him later. The two biggest pluses were the location and the patio.
We were located at 13 Marechal Gallieni just north of the Neptune Basin of the Gardens of Versailles. So it was very easy to access the gardens for a run or a simple walk.
In the first few months before it was too cold, we spent every evening on the patio. It seemed like every night, I would cook spagetti from scratch and Robin and I would drink a bottle of cheap red wine. Robin was a few years older. He was on an accelerated graduate program for a Masters in Architecture. He had already spent a year studying abroad in Coventry England during his undergrad. He has also attended a boarding school. So those evenings on the patio were largely spent listening to all his stories from those times. Great times, just hanging out, drinking wine, and enjoying the outdoors. A place and time I will never forget. But as the weather turned colder, we were relegated to the indoor kitchen. We were lucky to be able to spend some time out there in the spring before leaving.
So that was largely our place. As far as the layout, Robin and I shared a room, Clovis had his own, there was a bathroom with shower, and the kitchen. Not big, but better than most. I'll get into more of the other day to day items later. As I said before, I was very fortunate to live in this place and have such a good roommate.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

The First Days

After a summer of work and a quick trip to Champaign, I got ready for the big day to leave for France. I don't remember much before getting to the gate. There we were all the other students and their families and myself with my parents. My mind was really focused on the trip, so I really wasn't thinking about what I would be missing for the next months. I said goodbye to my parents and boarded the plane.

I remember an energy in the plane. Kinda like a bunch of kids going on a field trip. I was not mentally prepared to go a place where they spoke another language. Although I had spent months half-heartedly learning French, I still giggled when the flight attendant said Bonjour. I was like, OK, Bon joor.

We arrived in Paris early the next morning. We were herded onto a bus and given a tour of Paris. Of course I remember little of it. It is one of the worst ways to visit a city. We were dropped off at a youth hostel for the night. People started grouping up and I gravitated toward a couple of the other students, Tim & Robin. Robin I had met the year before. A group of us ventured out of the hotel. We hit a tabac and bought postcards and stamps. I quickly learned my French was horrible. Others had to help me through it. I think we wandered around a bit, but headed back to the hotel since we would be here a while. Plus we were exhausted.

Then next morning we were herded back onto the bus and off to Versailles. I don't remember much about what happened once in Versailles except we were told we needed to group up for our housing assignments. There were accomodations of different numbers (6, 3, 2, 4, 2, 2,...) and you had to match up your group with the accomodations. I was completely caught off guard. I hadn't thought at all about this and people had already paired off, or were frantically doing the same. I grabbed the one person I knew and didn't have any aversion to. Robin was eccentric and quite interesting to talk to. It turned out to be a great choice as I will go into more later. So almost as soon as we put our names down, we were wisked off to our residence by the landlord Madame Villiers.

The division of residences was almost purely by chance. Almost no one knew anything about what kind of residence pertained to which number of people. The one exception was the legendary house of six. Which past students told future students about. I totally missed out on that and came into the program without any advice. That's why I was caught off guard about the housing thing and had no inside info on Paris. Though eventually I would learn about it from the others.

As I said I was blind about Paris. So I was afraid to venture there on my own. I was probably one of the last people to venture into Paris and it was with the comfort of three other people. It seemed like it was a month into the program, but it was probably only a few days into it. We took the grand tour. Place St. Michel, Notre Dame, Le Louvre, Place de la Concorde, Champs Elysee, Arc du Triomphe, and the Eiffel Tower. It was a fascinating tour of new and interesting things. I took every visitor on the same route on their first venture into the city. Interestingly, every trip to a new place after this has been thoroughly researched and planned out. Plus half way through the program, I was taking most trips by myself.