Monthly Archives: March 2009

Sundogs on Spaceweather!

All you geeks in the audience officially fail at your status.  Why?  Because yesterday my sundog pictures were linked from the main page of spaceweather.com and no one mentioned it to me!  I had to rely on the explosion in my inbox when I came online to learn about such matters!

For those who were never silly enough to call themselves geeks in the first place, spaceweather.com is a NASA website whereby they report on solar activity and other random current events in astronomy.  You can submit pictures and getting yours on the site is sort of a geek badge of pride- I did it once before in New Zealand.  Man, is there anything that little camera can’t do?!

Kitzbuhel

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I realize I’m a bit behind on blogging and pretty much anything on the Internet.   Forgive me.   The reason for this is  by nature of my activities these past few days I am dead tired by the end of the day-

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That’s right, time for some spring skiing!   My family loves to ski, and so when I started considering a mini ski holiday within the  framework  of my trip I asked my parents if they knew of a good place to ski around Austria.   “Kitzbuhel!” was the immediate reply- my parents spent their first Christmas together in this town and loved it, and that was more than enough endorsement for me.   Plus it turns out skiing in Kitzbuhel is pretty cheap- 35 Euro (US$47) a day for a ticket!   I challenge you to find a mountain even half as good in the US for that price.

Plus Kitzbuhel is really photogenic in its loveliness-image498

And before I forget, yes, I did find a place to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day yesterday-image337

The bar was jam-packed with Irish people, of course, which is entertaining as the Irish pub in town is owned by an Englishman.  Another interesting thing about Kitzbuhel- I am the only American here, to the point of being a novelty.  If you’re doing a ski holiday in our part of the world you just go West after all, right?  And I must say, the minor celebrity status is kind of fun.

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My hostel in Kitzbuhel is called Snowbunnys.  You either know why this is hilarious or you don’t.  Snowbunnys is run by the expat Kiwi named Dave and his Austrian wife, and Dave has the sort of personality I can only describe as “cowboy reincarnate.”  You know, the sort of person who is rough around the edges, but once you gain his respect he is the sort of person you want on your side in a showdown.  Dave proves this by letting his guests spread out in the hostel so after the weekend crowd leaves everyone has their own room even when only paying the dorm bed price (it’s the very end of the season, most hotels close down this weekend).  In hosteling Europe, this is an unexpected luxury.

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And because I have no other place to put it, there have been some great sundogs around here! (As in, see that rainbow right above my mitten?) Overall the weather has been great- the first day was one of those ugly “rain in the village, snow on the mountain” affairs that you wouldn’t step out in if it wasn’t your first day, after that it was mainly sun on each day.  Which was good, as it’s not like one comes with full ski apparatus when in the middle of a trip around the world.

And that is what I have been up to.  Of course, the tiredness is catching up with me again so I will leave the actual ski tales until later.  Cheers!

Ein Prosit, Ein Prosit…

Because I’m fairly certain it would have been a terrible breach of etiquette to not visit such a fine cultural institution, I spent my last night in Munich at the Hofbrauhaus-

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The Hofbrauhaus is, in short, the grandaddy of all beerhouses, having doled out beer and food to its guests for several hundred years now (I mentioned it in passing when I discussed the free tour of Munich a few posts back).

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Me and the two guys I met at the hostel, who work for a software firm in Seattle.  Due to our respective lines of work we were all mutually excited to find company who knows what xkcd is, discuss programming languages, and argue over Star Wars.  On a more important note, the guy on the right even spoke German so we weren’t total tourists.

And also, of course, as this is Bavaria those are one liter steins we were drinking from as that is the standard size in these parts. (Apparently if you ask for something smaller the waiter just gets huffy and tells you to wait for another tourist to split with.) I must say, drinking a 1L stein is kind of interesting when you’re not used to it.  Sort of like finding your personal Everest, and you can’t help but feel happy at the end because the effects have long ago caught up with you.

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Speaking of drinking a liter, you luck out because you have this helpful oom-pa-pa band to help you out on occasion.  You know the song referred to in the title to this post, which then goes “ein, zwein, zuppa!” at the end, when everyone has to drink?  Well, that was invented on this very spot.  And the band hence plays that refrain about every other song, in between Bavarian folk tunes.  Which I liked just because c’mon, it’s not like people pour into bars in the US saying “man, I would so want to listen to She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain right now!”

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The obligatory wiener schnitzel I ate, with a side of sour potatoes. I think that tomato on top of the potatoes is just to ward of scurvy.

image492And last but not least, the obligatory gingerbread heart with frosting that the three of us split for desert, which are sold by ladies walking around in traditional German garb. (The frosting just says “thanks a lot!”)

I must say, the Hofbrauhaus was great fun but it’s one of those paces that inevitably makes you wish you could drag all your friends back home to visit as well.  On the bright side, a new location of the Hofbrauhaus is opening in Pittsburgh later this year, in the South Side Works, so I guess we can do it when I get back! Should be interesting competition for the Penn House Brewery too when Oktoberfest rolls around…

Neuschwanstein (and why you should always double-check your train ticket)

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Neuschwanstein is about 100km north of Munich, and is known as the “fairy-tale castle” because, well, it was built by King Ludwig II of Bavaria in the late nineteenth century with this in mind.  Walt Disney even based his Sleeping Beauty castle off of it, so obviously this was something to check out.

Getting to Neuschwanstein involves a two hour train ride to the town of Fussen, then a short bus ride up to the castle.  And it was here I did what was my most stupid action whilst traveling- the train was set to leave at 9:50 but somehow my mind decided this meant 9:40, the time the train on the opposite platform was leaving.  I stepped on just as the doors closed and the train left the station, only to have me realize platform 26 wasn’t the same as 27 and oh my God why am I on this train?!

Minor panic ensued, as trains from Munich’s central station go all over Europe and for all I knew I could be halfway to Stuttgart before it even stopped (I confess my main worry was the huge embarrassment of explaining this to a train conductor).  Luckily it was a local, stopping in a few minutes two stops up on the S-bahn (local train line), so I jumped on a train for the short ride back to the central station.  I wasn’t too optimistic about catching the train I was supposed to be on- Germany’s one of those “set your watch to the trains” countries- but I was back with two minutes to spare so I proceeded to run like hell.  I was despondent upon seeing the giant clock reading “9:52” until I noticed something on the departures board- my train was five minutes late!  Providence!  I jumped onto the train in a panting wreck with a minute to spare, vowing to triple-check my train tickets from now on.

Anyway, the scenery on the train ride itself was somewhat uninspiring-

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That and the window was obviously dirty.  The most noteworthy thing though is that white stuff blanketing the ground which I hadn’t really seen since January but was plentiful around Neuschwanstein.  There was even a perpetual snow shower while I was there, giving the entire place a great sugar-coated feel to it.

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The castle from the bottom of the hill where the bus drops you off.  This is the south-east corner of Germany and I have to say I liked it- the mountains are about 2000m high, and due to the snow I felt like I was in the American West ready to go skiing.  Except there were castles! They definitely add to the scenery, and I concluded we really should build one or two well-perched ones at home.  You could pay for it within a few years if you open it to tourism if these ones are any example.

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Most people don’t know this but there are actually two castles in the area, this yellow one being Hohenschwangau Castle built in the early 19th century by King Maximilian II, father of Ludwig II who built the prettier castle on top of the next hill.  Frankly I found this palace lovely enough that I would be quite satisfied with it, but apparently I lack vision.

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A close-up view of Hohenschwangau (you can’t take any pictures inside any of the castles, unfortunately), which really reminds me of the Lego castles I used to build as a kid.  It should be noted that interestingly enough this castle is still owned by the Duke of Bavaria- Neuschwanstein is owned by the state- who apparently lives in another palace and is not interested in providing rentals on this one.  He’s also 75 years old and has no kids, so that method of living there won’t work either!

Anyway, a cozy bratwurst lunch later I tackled the half hour walk up to Neuschwanstein, with an impressive final result-

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There were, understandably, a lot more tourists up here, to the point where there were about 50 people in my tour group.  Another one of those places that must be terrible in the summer… As for the tour itself, trust me, even if I have no photographic evidence to back it up the inside is beyond splendid.  Everything is gilded gold or painted frescoes of various fairy tales and most of the floors have mosaics.  My favorite, though, has got to be the fact that Ludwig II ordered an artificial cave be made between his living room and his reading room.  The fact that one needs a cave inside a castle frankly never occurred to me, but that’s probably because I’m lacking vision.

And before anyone asks, yes, the train ride back to Munich was uneventful.  Fussen thankfully only has one train platform.

Deutches Museum

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I woke up on my first full day in Europe to discover a snow squall right outside the window.  So I promptly said “screw you, weather!”, figured out the tram system in Munich, and headed for a full day at the Deutches Museum.

As it turns out, the Deutches Museum is one of the best science and technology museums in the world located here in Munich.  As I haven’t  done many science-y things since getting on the road it was high time for a geek-off, and the museum was absolutely perfect for it.  I am now  in total love with the Deutches Museum, to the point where if they had groupies I would totally be one.

What is so cool about the Museum?   In short they have everything  you could imagine relating to science and technology under one roof- not just planes and ships and every physics demonstration you can imagine, but also random things like how to drill for natural gas and textile-making and printing and musical instruments.   Further, American museums tend to have this habit of dumbing down their exhibits lest they scare people away- something I never understood as you can’t scare someone away who willingly paid to enter the museum in the first place- but here that is no problem.   The Germans will explain everything to you with more detail than you cared to know about each object, including a brief run-through of the thrust, mass, specific heat, or how many ants it would take to carry it to Stokholm.  They do this on the grounds that telling you such things about a jet engine does not make the engine any less interesting and it would probably be improper to not list such parameters anyway.  I loved it.

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A typical room in the Deutches Museum, this one relating to time pieces.  In the front the cone is essentially a visual explanation of the arrow of time, and in the back the cabinets are filled with various clocks and such from various eras.

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The world’s first commissioned German submarine, U-1, which was part of the German Army up through WWI.  After this point the Allies ordered the submarine to be destroyed along with the rest of Germany’s fleet, but the Museum director convinced the powers that be that the submarine should be donated instead.

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One of the world’s first radio telescope dishes, originally used for radar in the Netherlands in WWII and later used to prove the galaxy is spiral in shape.  They still use it to pick up the signal from weather satellites as a demonstration.

Also, interestingly the Museum even has an amateur (Ham) radio display.  Where I learned that in German amateur radio is called amateurfunk, which I am rather fond of.

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The refracting telescope used by German astronomers to discover the planet Neptune.  Which is a cool story for mechanics by the way- a Frenchman calculated where Neptune should be based on slight variations in Uranus’ orbit, and when the German astronomers looked the next night Neptune was exactly where the Frenchman said.  As someone who has taken lots of classical mechanics, it’s a feat that makes my head spin… Also because the Germans are nice and tell me these things, it’s worth nothing that this telescope lens has the same diameter as the one I had at home in high school (8″, or ~20cm).  I could spot Neptune pretty easily with that one, but it’s always fun to realize how the state of the art 150 years ago now qualifies as an amateur’s telescope.

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Posing in front of a replica of the Apollo 8 capsule in what I came to think of as the Air and Space Museum equivalent for the Deutches Museum.  Lots of pretty airplanes with an emphasis on ones with Norman crosses on them instead of stars and stripes, obviously.  It’s not like a German science and technology museum would have a lack of homemade things to put on display.

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A glassblowing demonstration, which is one of several various trades highlighted in the museum.  Curiously placed right next to an exhibit explaining geographical surveying and a replica cave like the ones where they found Stone Age paintings, in case the haphazard nature of trying to cover everything under one roof hasn’t been made clear yet.  I suspect this is a reason I liked it so much- one step in another direction and you had a fresh topic to examine, usually quite unlike the previous one.

image470I could go on as this was obviously a very fun day for me, but I the Deutches Museum tower is where I will leave off.  Because those are  not clocks on the side of the building but rather a giant barometer and hydrometer, respectively.  I am a little jealous of people who get to live right next to the Museum because I don’t think I would ever tire of this (that and, well, they get to visit whenever they want).

All in all I think you can agree that I had a rather successful geek-off.  If you ever come to Munich I highly recommend it, so long as you realize your feet will probably hate you after walking and standing without rest all day.

The Grand Tour Begins

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A few centuries ago when it was common knowledge that everything in the world worth seeing was in Europe, there was a tradition that the children of aristocracy in Britain would travel the continent after finishing their education. They would spend a few months at it, going through France to Italy, then over to Greece and even Egypt if wealthy enough, and this rite of passage became known as “The Grand Tour.”  And for whatever reason, this is what I’ve taken to calling my own rite of passage through the continent, except I get to stay in hostels and take second-class train rides.  Progress!

I like Europe. Thanks to being raised by my Hungarian mother I am probably as European as one can be despite never having lived on the continent, which has led to an odd inferiority complex on my part regarding the “right” way to do a lot of things.   I’ve also been to a lot of countries in Europe already- it will be several weeks before I hit a completely new one- but with this odd detail in that my age was in the single digit so what I absorbed was quite selective.  So while in many ways Europe and me are old pals, it was high time to visit now that I’m old enough to know you should look up in the Sistine Chapel, and not at the floor!

Anyway, for my first city Munich ended up getting chosen due to its central location in Europe and my lack of having visited it previously. When I met a German on the road and mentioned Munich was my first stop in Europe, he warned me to watch out because Munich is in Bavaria, which is a bit like the Texas of Germany.

“Why, they shoot people?” was my response, but it turns out this has to do more with Bavaria being independent until fairly recently in the scale of European history, the populace identifies itself as Bavarian first and German second, and still having a conservative attitude about things. I promised him I would keep an eye out.

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Here’s the first thing I noticed about Munich though- it is cold here! The temperatures hardly cracked 40F my first day, which I realize isn’t really cold but is downright frigid if you just spent two months wearing shorts.  I got adjusted after the first day but that first one was a bit miserable- my head was just barely warm wearing a knitted hat and two hoods, and my teeth began chattering more than once.  The wind and light drizzle wasn’t seriously helping either.

This building by the way is the National Theatre in Munich.  Apparently one of the best operas in the world is here but there are unfortunately no performances coinciding with my visit.  Hopefully I will find one to watch in another city in Europe!

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So what is there to do in Europe on your first day when you’re still uncertain of where things are?  How about a free tour!  Several companies manage them in Europe nowadays where the only fee is to tip the tour guide, and I can recommend it.

This was our guide telling us about the conditions in one of Munich’s oldest beer houses when it first opened (turns out those Bavarian boys were a bit interesting when it came to how to relieve oneself without leaving the table).  As a bonus, see that upper bay window just to the left of the tour guide’s head?  That’s where the Nazi party was formed…

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This lovely view is of the Marienplatz, which is the central square in Munich.  The impressive-looking Gothic building is the new town hall, built just over a century ago.  It shouldn’t be  confused with the old town hall, which was a few centuries old until it was destroyed in WWII and was rebuilt in the 1960s, thus making it younger than the new town hall.  Got that?

By the way, I really need to hand it to the populace of Munich for their lovely architecture.  Before the bombs started dropping they had the foresight to go around their city and photograph everything and to cart all the delicate stonework into the countryside, all of which they used to rebuild their city exactly as it was once they had enough money.  The final result is lovely.

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This is the reason most people go to Marienplatz- the glockenspiel!  Every day at 11am and once again at noon these little figures do a joust, followed by a little dance to thwart off the plague.  It is, in short, a precursor to any mechanized scene you’ve seen at an amusement park, and there are a bunch of videos on YouTube if you have a burning desire to see it in full.

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A shot of Marienplatz during the glockenspiel, filled with more  tourists than I’ve seen here in Munich at any other time.  All I could think of is how crazy it must be in the summer.

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The towers of the main cathedral in Munich, which was built in an astonishing 20 years (it’s a pretty simple design, and they used brick).  The second tower is currently undergoing renovation just like everything else in Munich- this isn’t tourist season yet so everyone who needs renovations done is frantically trying to finish them now, from various beerhouses to the lobby area in my hostel.  It almost feels like finding yourself on a stage set before the actual performance.

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A picture of the wares in a tourist store, where the prominently displayed items are knives and beer steins.  I am including this here to tell my brother that he should get to Munich as soon as possible.

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In heaven there is no beer, that’s why we drink it here, and when we’re no longer here, our friends will be drinking all the beer!

It’s Munich.  In Lent, when they brew the beer even stronger.  What did you expect?

And as a final note, I was curious to find out what kind of people travel Europe as I was only certain that it’s different than the crowd in Asia.  Verdict?  It feels like there are more Americans here than there were in all of Asia, as it is spring break back home so lots of college students have hit the road.  I should’ve thought of that…

Other than the Americans, I did have a fun night two nights ago when I had dinner in a beerhaus that has been doling out food and drinks for centuries.  I ended up spending the evening talking with two German gents on business in Munich, so we got into a great conversation about the differences in our cultures and perceptions. (For example, the Germans would like to ask you to please stop assuming everyone is evil.)  The most entertaining part of the night by far was when they decided we were speaking enough English so it was time to start speaking German- a language I’ve never learned so things got a touch one-sided, but I’m proud to say I lasted about fifteen minutes before we needed to abandon the venture.

So now most of my vocabulary in German relates to beer, how to order pretzels, and why yes, I am a jelly donut.  Prost!

Abu Dhabi That’s Where You’ll Go…

My sister and I have this never-ending argument as to whether you can count having been somewhere if you’ve only been to the airport. I am of the opinion that if you were being tracked by the C.I.A. the agent would shout “she’s at the Dallas airport!” rather than “she’s in a nonexistent location!” so it counts as I assume the C.I.A. agent knows how to classify locations better than me, but my sister tells me things don’t count unless you actually set foot on the soil and breathe the air of the location. Hence airports don’t count and I’ve never even been to Delaware, apparently, because I never got out of the car the couple times I’ve driven across it.

So I know, without a doubt, she will be upset at me talking about my few hours layover at Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on my way to Europe. Which I was very excited about, of course, due to the Abu Dhabi song-

For those not lucky enough to watch Saturday morning cartoons in the early nineties, the best one was Garfield and Friends. He was forever sending Nermal to Abu Dhabi and singing the song that starts in the clip about forty seconds in. Needless to say, this song has been incessantly stuck in my head for the past I don’t know how many hours as it’s quite catchy, so I am passing along the favor.

Plus really, I have to say I had no real interest in visiting Abu Dhabi beyond saying I’ve been, in which case a few hours layover is kind of perfect. Beyond being a touch expensive I really don’t see much point in spending time in countries countries that restrict half their citizens particularly when I’m a member of that half. But anyway, with that soapbox moment, after a six hour flight from Bangkok I was in Abu Dhabi and this is what the airport looks like-

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Quite nice, isn’t it? Curiously the airport was absolutely bustling around midnight as most people are catching connections elsewhere. Oh, and it has to be one of the most expensive airports I’ve ever seen- duty free was one exclusive designer store after another, more than I’d ever seen in one place at a time. I guess that explained that message at landing informing the first class passengers that attendants were waiting at the gate to take them to their personal limousines…

And that is all I have to say about my last few hours in Asia, and the time I went to Abu Dhabi. Now if only there was a way to get that dratted song out of my head!