Sunday, August 28


In total, I spent 5 days in Vienna. It's a beautiful city, complete with lots of buskers in the streets and a trendy downtown.

Unfortunately, it rained for a good part of the time I was there, so I didn't get to see as much as I would have liked. Of the things that I did see, a tour of a royal crypt was one of the most memorable. But not in a good way. Back in the days of the plague, they had more bodies than they knew what to do with, so they just piled them into large rooms below the royal tomb. And now, for the pleasure of all the tourists, you can come see these big rooms of bones. And yes, the bones are still there. Thinking that it would be just like any other crypt (ie empty), I didn't know what I was getting into until it was too late. It just seemed so disrespectful to be charging admission to look at a big pile of bones. Apparently, there's a place in the Czech Republic that takes things a step further, using the bones as decorations.

The next day was also oriented around death. I went to see the graves of Mozart and Beethoven. Although Beethoven's grave was the real deal, Mozart's was only a monument. He died penniless and alone, and although buried in that cemetery, the exact place is no longer known. He was given a popper's burial, with only the grave diggers in attendance. And the grave itself was unmarked.

I spent my last night in Vienna with Rita, a friend from when I lived in Nice in 2002. We took french classes together. Unfortunately, she was in Salzbourg for most of the time I was in town, but as I'm planning on being in Slovakia as I make my way around eastern Europe in the fall, we're hoping to meet up again then.

Prague came after Vienna. It was quite similar in terms of architecture, and I understand why people consider them sister cities, together with Budapest. I met quite a few nice people there, mostly fellow tourists, as well as a few odd balls. For instance, on my last night there my roommates at the hostel were quite colorful. A bunch of Australian coke heads. They kept going on about needing to score some blow, and their plan was to wander around downtown asking all the pot dealers until they finally tracked some down. All of this made leaving much easier.

The highlight of Prague was learning about all of their struggles over the centuries, constantly being conquered, released, and then conquered by someone else. I get the feeling that only Poland has had a harder time. Still, the locals weren't very nice at all. I'm told that it's just people that live in Prague, but the servers and waitresses were some of the rudest that I've met. The worst of the lot was a cocktail bar, where I was yelled at to sit down when I asked for my bill (no joke!). Me and one of the others that I was with started yelling back, but were just laughed at us. I would have walked out without paying, but part of our group was staying longer, and to do so would have only stuck them with our bill.

To get to Berlin, I tried using a carpooling service. I'd been taking buses for the last while, but Germany has a service where you go to an office of a carpooling agency, check the schedule for drivers that are going where you're looking to be, and for a small fee, you get to ride with them. It cost me just 15 euros (about $20) to go about 400 km. The driver was a real piece of work. One of the most stereotypical hippies that I've met in a long time. Dreadlocks, Green Peace shirt, the works. Plus he ate like a horse. Four submarine sandwiches for lunch! Can anyone say mega munchies? To top things off, he was going to Berlin to busk with his instrument of choice. A didgeridoo! Overall, he was very likable, if a little hyperactive (I don't know why, but most hippies are. Maybe all of the pot is just to keep them from completely fiering off into the stratosphere?) The only annoying point of the trip was that his car nearly broke down. Twice. But in the end, we made it. All's well that ends well.

I've been in Berlin for the last four or five days, and it's not a bad city at all. The biggest surprise is how cheap it is. Things cost less here than almost anywhere else that I've seen, including Canada. It's even on par with Prague.

It took me a few days to find the interesting spots of town, as the official downtown seemed a little bland. But there are a few different trendy neighborhoods, and quite a few nice cafes. Geographically, the city is huge, being as close as you get in western Europe to urban sprawl.

My main point of interest in coming here was the Berlin Wall, and although mostly torn down, I managed to find a few pieces here and there for souvenirs. It's hard to imagine what life must have been like in West Berlin back in the 60's, as their half of the city was walled off on all sides. They had to airlift supplies in, as the Soviets cut off all shipments to pressure the Americans and British out. They were living in fear of being invaded at any time, and they couldn't leave the city at all for over two years after the wall went up. Even after they were allowed transportation, it was very limited and required a mountain of paper work.

I spent the first few nights here in a hostel, but Barbara, a friend of mine that lives here, got back yesterday, so I stayed with her last night. She was in Tanzania for the last two months, and is now leaving to go work in a camp to combat racism, in the south of the country. She thinks that I could be a help, so I'm going to go check it out for a while. I have no idea how long I'll stay, though. It's just nice to be able to interact with the locals, as it gives a much better understanding of the country.

Sunday, August 14

High Tide

I finally left Paris, and I've been traveling for the last week and a half.

My last night there was actually one of the most enjoyable that I'd had in that city for a long time. One of my biggest problems there was loneliness, as except for my one neighbor, I hadn't made any friends my own age in the whole time I was there. But on the second to last night before I left, I was asked by my landlord to switch apartments for a day. He needed to give my place to someone else, who had to find somewhere to live as quickly as possible. Since he was letting me out of my lease a couple of weeks early, I didn't mind.

After seeing the other building, I wished that I'd moved there a long time ago. It was a lot like a university residence, but with people from all over the world. Along with people from Germany, Mexico, Spain, Venezuela, and Columbia, I snuck up onto the roof to watch the stars that night and take in the night sights.

Still, the next day it felt like a good time to go. I caught a train to Geneva [Switzerland] to see my friend Seb, whom I know from Montreal. He's doing a postdoc there [the program that follows a PhD]. I stayed with he and his girlfriend Marina, arriving just in time to take in the Swiss national holiday.

Geneva is a city of diplomats, with almost as many as in New York, but packed into a much smaller city [pop. 400K]. As a consequence, there are quite a few upper class areas. The Rolex shop was selling a selection of watches starting at $20,000 and going up to $60,000. Though I'm sure that if the right person asks, they'd be happy to dig up something even more extravagant.

After three days of enjoying their hospitality [not the least part of which was Marina's traditional Japanese cuisine], I headed for Interlaken, a ski resort in the alps. Although it's obviously not the season for that sort of thing, having already seen the French and Italian alps, I was curious to take in the third region as well.

unfortunately, I didn't have a very good time there. The alps themselves were lovely, but I think I preferred the Italian part moreso, as well as the Rockies in Alberta. And the people that were at the hostel didn't make for the best of times either. Although I met several nice people, the majority were very clicky highschool football and cheerleading types. After trying several times to strike up conversations (and being mostly brushed off), I ended up going to bed early most nights.

My next stop was Munich, in the south of Germany. The city itself is mostly known for it's beer festivals, culminating in Oktoberfest, which takes place [oddly enough] in late September.

Munich's other claim to fame [and shame] is that it was the birthplace of Nazism. Although Hitler tried to take power in the city several years before going to Berlin, he didn't succeed, and in the end was thrown in jail for a few months. In fact, the Nazies had such a soft place in their heart for Munich that they even gave it the honor of having the first concentration camp, which is now a museum. To visit it is quite an experience. Although they built a gas chamber into it, the Nazies didn't get the chance to put it to use, as apparently they already had more bodies lying around than they knew what to do with. The incinerators [and they were quite huge] couldn't burn them fast enough.

Something else that left a deep impression was learning of the number of groups that were sent there. Massacring Jews and Gypsies was the Nazi party's main goal, but they also targeted priests, gays [who were dumped in the camps after being castrated], outspoken intellectuals and Jehovah Witnesses. If your neighbor didn't like you, just saying that he heard you speaking out against the Führer was usually enough to get you carted away.

The people in Munich are always in a rush. I found myself being constantly pushed out of the way, without so much as a word of anapologyy. Even standing over to the side of the street (away from heavy foot traffic), people still managed to shoulder block me as they rushed off on their way to do nothing. The exception to all of this were traffic lights. Even if there wasn't a car in sight, people would wait patiently, standing tall and straight, until the little green man would give them permission to move. As soon as the signal was given, they were back to their typical pace, walking full and not about to let anyone get in their way. I'm told that there, rules are rules and are never to be broken. People don't even question them.

Moving on to the positives, the nicest thing about being in Germany is the selection of meals in restaurants. In Munich, not eating meat was no problem at all. For longer than I'd like to recall, I've considered myself lucky to see even one vegetarian option on a restaurant menu. There, every place has at least three or four. Also, they love spinach. Not that I complained. A restaurant by the hostel had delicious spinachlasagnaa.

I also had a much better time in the Munich hostel than the one in Interlaken. Nights were usually spent at the hostel bar playing pool or wandering around the oldtown with my roommates looking for bars.

As of last night, I've arrived in Vienna [Austria], which in terms of architecture is the prettiest city that I've seen. The old town is very beautiful. Although the buildingsaren'tt the oldest that I've seen [I'd guess they're around three or four hundred years old], the design is so nice, and they're so well preserved, that walking around the old town is a real treat. And the old district is large enough to be a town in it's own right, as well. Plus, there are dozens of much larger buildings which are even more impressive, although I'm not yet sure what they were used for. It's not really a surprise that Vienna is so nice. It was at one time the cultural capital of the world, as the majority of the most famous classical composers all made their names here. And it was spared most of the ravages of World War 2.

One last thing that's been on my mind is that every country in Europe seems to attract a certain nationality of tourists. Hostels in Switzerland, Holland, and Germany are almost entirely filled with Americans. France is mostly for Germans and Canadians [for some reason mostly anglo], England for Australians, and Ireland and Scotland for [strangely enough] Quebeckers.