Sunday, June 21, 2015

commemorating failure

Hi Friends!

So I'm thinking about all the adventures Sasha and I have been on over the past 3 years (almost) here in Europe, and I am realizing how much we haven't told you about.  That's fine; we wouldn't want to make you too jealous, and it's more fun to have adventures than to write about them.  But I decided it would be fun to make a short post with snippets from various trips that share a common theme.  Failure.

The first one is a monument close to our house.  It is a memorial to a guy who accidentally was killed while hunting because he mis-loaded his gun.  I know, it's pretty tragic, actually.  It just strikes me as a bit funny, though, that all the other big stone memorials and such around here are to saints or famous dudes who were local rulers (or their wives) or Nobel prize winners, etc., and as far as I can tell, the only claim to fame of this guy was his unfortunate demise. I'm sorry for ya, Konrad, really I am.

"Here Konrad Diffmar from Wehrda died suddenly from his own misloading of a hunting rifle on the 3rd of January, 1979."
The Vasa; ancient boat, modern rigging
The second is much more impressive; so much so that there's an entire museum built around it, and it was one of the highlights of our trip to meet up with my parents in Stockholm, Sweden, in the summer of 2013.  The Vasa Museum.  The Vasa was a warship built in the 1600s that sank almost immediately on its maiden voyage.  Oops.  As far as we could tell, the king Gustavus Adolphus decided that he wanted a taller boat about half-way through construction, and the boat builders said "OK king, will do" but then the lower row of cannon ports was too close to the waterline, so when the ship leaned over, as sailboats are wont to do, it quickly filled with water and sank. Luckily, though, it sank in brackish water instead of the open ocean, which meant that instead of instantly being eaten by ship worms, the boat remained mostly intact for 300 or so years, when it was found by archaeologists, and was raised up off the seafloor in one piece, and was quickly treated with a polymer that prevents the wood from decaying too quickly, and they built an entire (highly climate controlled) museum around the boat.  It's really impressive how much of the detail is left of the carvings and such, so although the boat might have been a failure, the museum is pretty awesome, and the boat is quite a feat of conservation.

Intricate carvings on the ill-fated cannon ports
Boat-building failure, conservation success, and pretty darn cool as a thing to visit
The third is much more tragic; the Maginot line.  Between the world wars, France built a series of fortifications along its border with Germany, to prevent another German invasion.  Which totally failed because the Germans just went around it by attacking through Belgium.  Oops.  I guess it may have stopped a massive frontal assault over that border, but it was eventually attacked and overrun.  We went to an old casement turned into a memorial and museum on our way back from Switzerland this past spring. I'm not a historian, and can't tell you all the details about the battles and the war, and I can't even really speculate about what France should have done to repel attack.  It has got to be pretty hard with such a flat, long border. And (in terms of preventing the invasion via Belgium) deciding whether or not to build defenses along a border with an ally/non-aggressor. But once again, my opinion was only reinforced that war is a stupid waste of lives and resources.
Why not invest a lot of infrastructure, manpower and resources defending a long, flat, easily circumvented border?  Casemate turned museum.

But let me be honest, war is a stupid waste of resources and lives; as far as I'm concerned, all wars can go on the list of failures...because even if one side enters for "just" reasons, wouldn't it be better if they hadn't have to?

But, I'm not sure what we should take from these things.  Maybe that while we all strive to succeed, if you fail spectacularly enough, you can still be remembered for it?


Easter is a four-day holiday weekend here in Germany, and we decided to travel for Easter this year.  We rented a car and drove down to the Jungfrau valley in Switzerland.  I had been there in 2002 when my parents came to visit while I was working in Germany for the summer, and had liked it so much I wanted to show it to Sasha.

We rented a car and drove down.  We rented a small "vacation apartment" Which turned out to be a room with a refrigerator and hot plate and a bathroom in the basement/first floor of an old farmhouse.  It wasn't quite what I expected, but was in a good location, and our host was very nice.

We drove down on Friday, and didn't have time to do much besides cook ourselves dinner.  It was pretty cloudy, so while we could see some of the mountains, it wasn't particularly spectacular.

Wild chamois
Saturday, we woke up to clouds and a forecast of rain, and just as we were about to set out to do a hike or something, it started really raining, so we changed plans and instead of driving up into the mountains, we drove around one of the lakes in the area, the Brienzersee, got tasty treats from a bakery in Brienz, tried to bird along the lake (well, I guess we did bird along the lake, there just weren't many birds to see) then drove up somewhat aimlessly, trying to stay below the cloud line, following a cute looking road that led to a cute little restaurant where we ate Rösti for lunch (a traditional Swiss dish of pan-fried roasted potatoes, often covered with tasty things like cheese and bacon and egg), and just happened to pick a time when there was a large herd of wild chamois goats grazing in the yard (they aren't something you see every day).   Then after lunch, we went for a hike to a pretty waterfall, the Giessbachfälle, which we hadn't heard of, but decided to follow the random signs pointing to a waterfall.  Rather than one tall falls, it was a series of shorter cascades, so we had fun hiking up a fair ways, trying to see how much of it we could see (after a while, the trail veered away from the water, so we decided to press on instead of getting all the way to the local maximum). On the other side of the lake from the waterfall, there was a cool old church with a ruined castle in the town of Ringgenberg, and since we like castles, of course we had to go investigate.  Although I'll admit I was too cold and wet at that point to get as excited about it as it deserved (and thus can't tell you all of the interesting historical facts on the signs, because I didn't want to stand around long enough to read them).  We went into Interlaken for dinner, and ate Thai food, which is something we can't really get in Marburg.  It was OK, although the sticker shock of paying about $20 for a plate of Pad Thai that is about take-out food quality is rather drastic.

This is what happens if you eat too many rosti!

Sunday was Easter, and we decided to go to church in the town of Lauterbrunnen, since we wanted to hike into the mountains above Lauterbrunnen after the service.  Yeah, the service was in Swiss German, and although my "high German" comprehension is pretty good, Swiss German is basically another language, and I could barely understand a word of the readings or sermon.  But it sounds vaguely like I -should- be able to understand, so that was kind of frustrating.  I guess I know how Sasha feels now since I drag him to all sorts of things in German, and especially at the beginning, he couldn't really understand most of what was being said.  We did, however, get chocolate bunnies after church, and they were very tasty.  To go for a hike, we decided to take a cable car up instead of hiking up from the valley floor, and it was bizarre to go from spring down on the valley floor to winter higher up; we were walking on a packed snow path, and it was actively snowing for much of our hike.  We stopped for another Rösti lunch, but cooked dinner in our apartment to save a bit of money. 

Spring in the valley....

...winter up on the mountain!

And friendly sheep (unless I just smelled like food...)

Monday morning was bright and sunny, so we changed our plans and instead of hitting the road right away, drove back up into the mountains.  We took the train up to Kleine Scheidegg.  Most of the other people were skiing, and after the fresh powder the day before and overnight, it was pretty appealing, but alas, no downhill skiing for us this trip... we contented ourselves with a bit of walking and a lot of picture taking, and I got a wood-fired pizza to eat on the train down, and it was delicious.

Wow, those are pretty mountains!

Wood-fired pizza on the train ride down!
We had a long drive ahead of us, so didn't stay up in the mountains as long as we might have wanted, but also we decided to make a few tourist stops on the way home to break up the drive and keep our legs and such from cramping up.

The first bit of the drive was pretty, at least the bits of it that weren't in tunnels (although there are a LOT of tunnels in Switzerland). The first stop was Lucerne/Luzern.  It looks like a pretty cute town, but we limited our stop time in order to keep from getting home too late.  The most famous landmark in Lucerne is the "Kapellbrücke"; an "old" covered bridge with paintings in the rafters.  I say "Old" because although the bridge was first build in the 17th century, it was seriously burned in a fire in the early 90s, and so is mostly a re-creation.  It is funny, actually, because there are 2 old covered bridges, and we saw the 2nd and less famous one first, but didn't realize it wasn't the Kapellbrücke until we went a bit further in our quest to stretch the legs, and saw another, longer bridge.  We also got some really delicious gelato before hitting the road again.
Painting on the 2nd bridge

Re-built Kapellebruecke

Our next stop was a memorial/museum commemorating the Maginot Line, in France, in Marckolsheim.  I'm going to talk about it more in another post, because this one is getting long.

After that, we just stopped one more time for dinner.  Breaking up the drive made it much, much better.  But, all-in-all, although the weather could have been kinder, we had a nice Easter weekend in Switzerland, and Sasha can add another country to his list.


Thursday, May 14, 2015

crazy louie's castles

Hello family and friends!  We are very behind on blogging about all of our adventures, so here is a report about a trip we made in February to Southern Germany.  I'll see about writing about our more recent trips to Switzerland for Easter and the Netherlands for the weekend later.

As you doubtless know, we are a bit (OK, or more than a bit) castle obsessed, so you might be surprised it has taken us this long to get to the most famous castles in Germany.  And, because they are down in the German Alps, we combined some castle visiting with a cross country ski weekend; both castles and skiing were pretty awesome.
Skiing!! On snow!!

One of the mural covered buildings in Oberammergau
We went to the town Oberammergau, which is most famous for having hosted a passion play every 10 years since 1634 in honor of having been spared from the plague, and also known for having adorable painted buildings in the town center.  I knew about it as a ski destination because the town holds a big ski race in early February every year, so I knew that they had to have a decent number of kilometers of ski trails.  I'm not going to lie; Ramsau, Austria has way better skiing (we went there 2 years ago, if you remember) with more varied and longer and harder trails, but Oberammergau is significantly closer to Marburg, and for gestational reasons (and low fitness) I was OK this year with fewer, easier trails, and a town center with good touristing.  What I hadn't realized is that besides the dozen loops in the Ammer valley itself (the Ammer is a river, and the one that gives Oberammergau and its neighbor Unterammergau their names), tons of towns in the area have short ski loops in the fields and such, and as far as we could tell, you don't need to buy passes for any of them.  It doesn't look like every network is very extensive, although most of the various trails near Oberammergau itself are connected, so you could get a fairly long ski in if you are in shape and the conditions are fast, although neither of those were true for me this trip.  We stopped on Friday to ski in Bad Bayersoien, which is in the Ammer valley itself and looked like the trailhead access would be easier from the trail map I found on-line.  The trails there loop around a little pond, and although there were a fair number of road crossings, there were also some lovely stretches of trail in the woods and although the snow was very warm and wet and sloppy and slow, it was really great to be on skis again. When the sun started going down, we headed on to check into our hotel (Pension Zwink, which was inexpensive and very nice with friendly hosts, if you don't mind the occasional crucifix...say, directly over your bed) and then went out for dinner with friends Nuria and Marek who had joined us for the weekend, although they didn't join us for the skiing parts.

Saturday, we decided that things had re-frozen overnight and were going to be icy, so we wandered around town for a few hours, shopping, before going skiing to let things soften up a bit and get a bit safer. We found some really cute things, including a small wood carving, for which the region is famous, and a traditional Bavarian men's hat that looks good on Sasha and coincidentally also fits me. We grabbed sandwiches and pretzels from a bakery to eat for lunch, then drove down to a trailhead near Ettal, so that we could ski to a castle, which we then did.  Now, this isn't our usual "two rocks on top of each other that you can envision once was part of a castle if you squint"; rather, this was Schloss Linderhof, one of the famous castles of Crazy Louie himself.  OK, we have started calling him that because it is more fun than saying "König Ludwig II of Bayern" every time we want to talk about him.  Anyway, he was born in 1845, and pretty quickly after he became king, Bavaria became part of the German empire and he effectively didn't need to govern so spent his time and his money (and then some more money that he didn't have) building 3 elaborate castles around Bavaria, because after visiting Versailles, he decided that Bavaria needed more castles.  At some point, the people around him realized that he was pushing the monarchy into insolvency, they decided that the best way to reign him in was to get him declared insane, and shortly thereafter he drowned under mysterious circumstances.  The castles then quickly became tourist attractions, in an attempt to recoup some of the losses of their construction.
Don't you agree, that's a stylish hat for Sasha!

Financial issues aside, in the end, I think Ludwig did Bavaria a great service, because those castles are awesome, and help bring tons of tourists and money to the area. Linderhof is the smallest of the castles, and since we didn't feel comfortable touring it in ski boots or leaving our skis and poles sitting around outside, we just looked at it from the outside and stopped at a small cafe for cocoa and apple strudel.  The gardens are supposed to be lovely, but everything was in hibernation for the winter. We thought it looked like the fountains or statues or planters were in little outhouses...

Sunday, we ended up going for a short ski because it was snowing, and I like skiing in fresh snow, although it was slow skiing, and I was too lazy to pick a kick wax so ended up skating, when classic would have been much more fun.  Then we drove to Fussen to visit probable the famousest of all German castles; Neuschwanstein.  Neuschwanstein is another of Crazy Louie's castles, and it is very impressive in size and position half-way up a big hill/mountain.  It is overlooking another cool but less huge castle built by Ludwig's dad, Schloss Hohenschwangau.  One thing to know about these castles is that they are NOT undiscovered.  We're talking 1.5 million visitors a year, and up to 7000 or so people a day in the summer.  We weren't there in high season, but never were out of sight of dozens of people (even when walking along a closed path for a good photo).  Because of the wet fresh snow, the buses up to the castle weren't running, so we had to walk up to each of the castles, and this meant that we decided to skip the tour of Hohenschwangau, although we did walk up to admire it from the outside. 

I have to say, from the outside, I was almost a bit disappointed with Neuschwanstein.  Yes, it is huge, and with the towers and such, looks like an ideal castle.  But it doesn't look "real" to me, it looks more Disney.  And it's not just because this castle is one of the main influences for Disney's castles, it is also because it is so new and pale in color that it looks like it just was taken out of its castle box; the stonework is too crisp and perfect, which makes sense, I suppose, since it is less than 150 years old (a baby by castle standards) and was barely lived in.  Only a handful of rooms were completed by the time that Ludwig died, and he stayed there I think something like 113 days total, and never with guests and musicians, etc.  The inside, though, changed my opinions.  Unfortunately (although not surprisingly given the number of tourists), we weren't allowed to photograph inside, but the walls are completely covered in murals and such, and there were plenty of fancy curtains and brocaded furniture for it to seem suitably palace-like.
Neuschwanstein (doesn't it look new and shiny?)

But I still have to admit that my favorite thing was probably the freshly fried donut things we bought on the way up.  Hot, covered in powdered sugar, with moist quark-rich dough... Yum!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015


Fish, Rialto Market
People have told me that you either love Venice or hate it.  I don’t think that’s true; After spending 3-4 days there I don’t love it, but I don’t hate it either.  Venice is a tremendously unusual place, so was totally worth a visit.  On my birthday, after a night-train from Germany, we didn’t do anything particularly noteworthy, we just wandered around for a few hours, went to the Rialto market (it was my birthday, and looking at tasty food makes me happy), got lunch, then caught our train to the mountains. 

After hiking, though, we had a much better chance to get to know the city.  Chris went up to visit friends in Munich, but Chris and Ann joined us in Venice, because they definitely fall in the category of people who love Venice.  Which may, actually, contribute to my own impressions of the city, for when you are with people who are excited about a place, it is easy to catch their excitement.  I am, however, left with the feeling that Venice is largely a historical park remembering the times that were, and at times feels more like a tourist attraction on the scale of Disney land than a living, working city.  But times change, the past is worth remembering, and as one of the hordes of tourists myself, I would be hypocritical to complain too much about tourism.

I have to say, I can’t decide whether to admire or find crazy the people who decided to drive poles into the mud and to build paved walks and large houses and churches on mosquito-y swampy islands, where the roads are canals and the vehicles are boats, but it is a singular place, no doubt.  It is strange to think about Renaissance Venice, where money was king, and it seems that sins of all sizes could be repaired by an appropriate donation to the church, and my feelings were definitely mixed while crammed into the front of a Vapporeti (basically the boat equivalent of a bus) motoring down the Grand Canal, looking into the windows and doors of beautiful, decaying, sinking mansions, and watching the chaotic, vaguely ordered movements of the gondolas of tourists, the delivery boats heading towards restaurants, the vapporetis and water taxis all trying to get past one another without being held up (or colliding) in the narrow waters. 
Even in mansions that are being used and kept up, the changing water levels and the wake from the boats make the ground floors useless and largely abandoned.
We did a mix of the standard tourist things to do while visiting Venice (we toured the cathedral of St. Marco, the Doge’s palace and prisons, went to a museum chock full of paintings by famous Italians like Titian, and poked our noses in various other churches), things that are touristy but not what Everyone does (Chris and Ann and I went out to the islands of Torcello, Murano,  and Burano to look at an old Romanesque church, glass makers and sellers, and colorful houses, respectively) and then things that fewer people do, but were still totally worth it (we actually bought seafood and vegetables at the Rialto market to cook in our Air BnB apartment, and we took a kayak tour). But really, some of what is memorable about Venice for us was just wandering around in the evening after all of the shops had closed and all of the day tourists had gone home, just trying to get from point A to point B (which is not easy with all the canals and dead-ends) and finding cute little squares and bridges and shrines on the walls, and just feeling the history at every step.
The Venetian lagoon is actually full of tons of islands; many small, and very few are still inhabited, although many show signs of human use at one time or another.  Some were used as quarantine islands during plague years, others more recently than that.
Colorful houses on Burano, traditionally known for lacemaking, although few people still hand-make lace there.
Public art on Murano, the island of glassblowers.  It seems very clever to sequester your glass blowers and their furnaces far away from your giant mansions made primarily of wood.
These are bricks on the wall of a pretty if unspectacular church in Murano.  All of the different colors and wear patterns on the bricks makes one think about the history of the place.  If bricks could talk, I feel like every brick in Venice and its neighboring islands would have different and fascinating stories to tell.
The Doge’s palace was cool, and was very different from all of the other castles we’ve visited so far.  It was also interesting to learn about the Doge and the various counsels in Venice in general; I hadn’t realized that he was elected, or that the city was effectively ruled by the top tier of merchants.  I think that was the first palace we’ve seen that didn’t belong to someone who ruled just due to luck of birth.  

The outside of the Doge's palace
The courtyard of the doge's palace, looking towards the adjoining facade of St. Marco's cathedral
Thrones and murals in the Senate Chambers. 
The kayaking was pretty interesting, too.  So, you can’t just rent kayaks and paddle around on your own, which is good, because the canals are a maze, and the other boats are all bigger and have right of way, so we went with a guide (, but it was just us in our group.  Our guide was perhaps not the best of personalities for a guide; she didn’t always say things politely, and often expressed her frustration at us, but I think it makes sense when you think about what it takes to be a woman on the water in Venice.  She was from the area, and Italy as a whole (and Venice for sure) has pretty strong gender roles, and the water is a man’s world in which she doubtless has had to fight constantly for her own place (in our paddling, we saw several high-heeled, well made-up women standing around waiting for the men to pull the motor boat up to the door, and I can’t remember seeing a single motor boat, vaporreti, or anything with a woman steering).  In any case, I should start by saying that we are not inexperienced water people; Ann and I grew up canoeing a ton, and we’ve all canoed and rowed and kayaked to varying degrees.  But Venice is different.  We’ve mostly paddled in rivers and lakes and bays, and it is very different dealing with heavy boat traffic, and then having to navigate around sharp corners in narrow canals; steering maneuvers that work in a large body of water don’t always work when it is very important that your boat not shift laterally.  Also, our guide made the men sit in the stern (we paddled tandem boats), which is the opposite of what both of the couples in our group usually do. But we did get the hang of it, and once we did, it was really amazing seeing Venice under our own power from water level.  We stuck to the area around Arsenale, which is largely a neighborhood inhabited by actual Venetians and not just tourists, so I feel like we got a view of a very different Venice from what we would have seen from a gondola around St. Marco; we saw boats bringing in deliveries, and laundry drying over the canals, and there were moments of stillness that showed us a very different side of Venice from the more frenetic tourist areas, so despite the frustrations, I'm glad we did it.  Also, we stopped for a pasta lunch after finishing our kayak tour at a restaurant on Certosa, the island that the kayak tours leave from, that is completely away from any tourist areas, and it was probably my favorite meal in Venice.  We had simple, perfectly cooked pasta with delicious, fresh toppings. Yum.  
With a kayak you can go places that are impossible by any other means (pictures curtesy of our guide)

Seriously, with tons of boat traffic and sharp, narrow corners,  Venice is NOT an easy place to paddle, but I still think it was worth it (pictures curtesy of our guide)
Sasha's lunch on Certosa after paddling...YUM!!

The last thing that I think was really great about Venice was the Gelato.  OK, so Gelato isn’t Venitian so much as Italian, but we ate a lot of it in Venice, and it is delicious.  I do like black currant, but chocolate is also good, and we sampled many other flavors in the name of cultural understanding. And we don’t regret a single scoop. The only regret is that no shop sells cones of it in Marburg in January!!!

Sasha agrees. Gelato: a "cultural experience" not to be passed up!!

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Happy 2015!

So, this being a new year (Happy 2015!!) I have decided to try something totally different for a blog post to start the new year.  Hopefully I'll get around to blogging about our Christmas and New Year's Eve adventures later, but one thing I started doing this fall was watercolor painting again.  I am taking a class through the "Volkshochschule" (kind of like taking adult classes offered through the city/school district in the US) which is sort of amusing since the class is mostly a bunch of retired German women, but it is a good excuse to make art again.  I think I will try to keep painting after the class ends, but probably won't sign up for the class again in the spring.

BUT enough rambling, instead I am just going to show you pictures of all the paintings I've made.
This was the first painting I made.  I was playing with different techniques and colors, which was interesting. Very different from painting with Acrylics/Oils, which I am more used to.

This is a European Robin, and is the first "real" painting I made.  I made it for Sasha's brother. But I was fairly pleased with the way the painting turned out for it being my first "real" watercolor painting since high school.
Hey look, not a bird!  This is based on a picture I took in the Dolomites.
This is a blue tit, which is a Blauemeise in German, and was a secret santa present.  I really like how the branch turned out,  (it looks better in person) although the bird's head shape is a bit too broad, and I don't love the top right corner.
These are a pair of bee eaters, and they are for a friend's birthday in a few months.  The back bird is a bit too big, but overall, I feel OK with the way it turned out. is a secret! (I'm not very good at keeping secrets).
This is for Sasha, because Southern Cassowary is one of his all-time favorite birds.  I really like the head, although am not super satisfied with the black feathers.  Tons of black is hard to make look good.
OK, I'll admit that most of the paintings are from internet photos, but what can I say, I'm not Sibley or Audubon.  This is for fun, not my job (although I might take commissions upon request, family).  Who knows, maybe I'll graduate to more complicated things like landscapes one of these days.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed the change of pace, and I hope the new year brings you wonderful things.