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Berlin

April 25, 2011 Leave a comment

It’s the 25th of April, meaning that only 13 days remain of my time in Europe. Upon returning, I’ll be at Duke doing physics, EMS, and OIT for the Summer, and will have quite a full plate in the Fall. For the moment, I’m trying to enjoy the last few days that I have here, and try to remember to blog as I’m finishing up with my classes. The workload isn’t exactly strenuous in Spain, but I’ve let a lot of it pile up. While I have a bit of time to breathe, I’ll throw down this post. West side. West Berlin side. Haha puns.

Anyway, after going to Galicia, I went directly from the airport to Berlin where I met Felipe Gaitan. It was late when I got there, so I didn’t get to see much of the city immediately upon arrival. Felipe’s host family was incredibly nice and spoke English impeccably well. I couldn’t have asked for a more hospitable group of kind people.

The next morning, I explored a bit. As has been the case with Madrid and Barça, I felt that same big city feel in Berlin. That is to say, it didn’t particularly emanate “German-ness” like perhaps a smaller town would have. It was even more modern than the others, I’d say–much more company and logo-oriented. You can see the giant Bayer building, a big Adidas outlet, etc. I think this modernness comes from the fact that the Berlin Wall went down so recently. Felipe kept telling me that Berlin considers itself the city that changes every 10 years. Wonder what it’ll look like in 2020…

Though I’m dropping out of chronological order a bit, I think that last paragraph serves as a good segue into a conversation about the Wall. The Berlin Wall, as probably all of you know, was torn down in November of 1989. Most of it was torn down quite quickly, as the Berliners were eager to rid the city of the scar that divided the city for decades. However, a few parts of it do remain today; some have been moved, others remain in their original locations. Felipe took me to visit the Wall, which was probably the coolest thing I got to do the whole time I was there. You truly get a strong feel of the history of Germany–a place historically torn apart by bad luck and poor leadership. Standing next to the Wall was somewhat eerie. One panel with the word “Necessary?” really stayed with me. You can almost feel the author’s pain in the shaky handwriting. A social commentary about divisions, maybe the same message could be applied to a certain southern border of this country I know… </politicalopinion>

Necessary? - Click to Enlarge

Since I’ve ruined my chronology already, I’ll pop backwards a bit. The second night I was in Berlin, I had the opportunity to view a classical music performance with Felipe and the Duke in Berlin crew. As my grandfather is a classical music DJ, I’ve been exposed to this before, but it was exceptionally cool to see it in Berlin. Everybody present was respectfully attentive. They also followed tradition well: coughing only between pieces, and giving the composer and special guests several rounds of endless applause. In a conversation I had with Felipe’s host mom, I asked her what the biggest difference between the USA and Germany is. She responded that the German people are much more cultured. In my experience, I’d have to agree, and this is just one example.

From my pictures, you can see some of the other travels I had as well. This includes the street performers, the architecture of the city, and the government buildings (including the Reichstag, which I wasn’t able to enter). Check it out in the slideshow at the bottom.

A couple small observations:

  • Germany is incredibly environmentally-conscious. They have tons of different types of recycling bins to enable easier sorting of their reusable trash. This leads to good things, such as the rinse and reuse of soda bottles (you get small reimbursements for recycling the bottles). Another example is the tall ceilings, which means that hot air will settle at the top of the room and therefore less air conditioning is needed. Finally, as a giant symbol, the Reichstag (their parliament) is one of the most efficient buildings in the world. I was quite impressed by their ecological effort.
  • I swear, everybody in Europe drives stick-shift. Germany is the same as Spain is the same as Amsterdam is the same as Sweden. I think in Spain the only vehicles I’ve seen that are automatic are the buses.
  • To continue my identity crisis, the Germans all thought I was one of them. I must look like a German/Dutch/Swede. The Spaniards never make that mistake :(.

Hopefully I’ll be able to throw down the Sweden post soon, and then perhaps one more before I return to the land of the free. Thanks, everyone, for following my posts!

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Categories: Language

Buen Camino

April 21, 2011 22 comments

I want to first start by saying that the music video FINALLY CAME OUT. You can’t see much of me in it. Not only are the extras not exactly in focus, but literally the full extent of my appearance is approximately 1/10 of a second. For your convenience, I have uploaded a fancy-pants screenshot of my presence. It is a pretty good song, too.

Our final official trip for Duke in Madrid was to the north of Spain to the region known as Galicia. Galicia, like Cataluña and País Vasco, has its own language that rather closely resembles Portuguese–in fact, the two were originally the same language. It also is similar enough to Spanish that most speakers can read and understand it without difficulty. However, in contrast to the nationalistic attitudes of Cataluña and País Vasco, Galicia is more than happy to be part of Spain–and for this reason I admire them.

I think the culture merits mentioning as well. Galicia, due to its location, shares a significant amount of its culture with the Celts. This ranges from everything from dances to bagpipes to landscape (sharp rocky coastline and high cliffs). In contrast to the South, Galicia has very little Arab influence. While the Muslims held Al Andalus (now Andalucía) for 700 years, their presence was only made known in Galicia for a mere 36. For this reason, their cultural and architectural impact is largely nonexistent in this community.

The first city we went to was La Coruña, a coastal town that, like much of Galicia, thrives off the seafood industry. Our tour, led by the glorious Paula from the University of Santiago de Compostela, directed us through the city–an examination of the architecture and their way of life.

The Tower of Hercules - Click to Enlarge

The first real monument we saw on the trip was the illustrious Tower of Hercules. Originally built by the Ancient Romans, the tower is used as a lighthouse and has remained in constant use since the 2nd century A.D. The Tower couldn’t be in a more picturesque location–it’s simply stunning, overlooking the sharp rocks along the coast while also giving you a glimpse of La Coruña’s “skyline”. It’s a 180 foot climb to the top, but totally vale la pena.

Panorama of La Coruña - Click to Enlarge

After visiting the tower, we were given free time, and Thea, Mónica and I chose to go to the beautiful pebble beach and relax with a bottle of wine. It was warm, but not hot, and there were surfers were practicing. It was a peaceful afternoon. I also somehow managed to get sunburn, but what can you do?

The pebble beach... Not to be confused with Pebble Beach - Click to Enlarge

Later on in the trip, we headed toward Santiago de Compostela. The city turned out to possibly be my favorite of my entire time here (perhaps tied with Toledo)–it’s everything I could want: old architecture, tons of history, lots of cultural significance, and plenty to do. It is also the final destination along the Camino de Santiago, a famous pilgrimage running from France to Galicia. The history of the Camino is quite extensive and beautiful, beginning before Christianity as pilgrims began trekking in the direction of the Milky Way. Over time, with the burial of the apostle Saint James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the journey obtained religious significance. While today, the “official” pilgrimage is a one-way trip from France, originally of course it was a two-way trip from wherever you lived to the Cathedral. The symbol of the pilgrim, a shell, was obtained and displayed as the sign of the completion of the pilgrimage. The Camino has really been revived lately; in 1983 there were only 13 pilgrims who completed the journey versus a projected 270,000+ who will make the trip in 2010.

In addition to just learning about the camino, we actually had the opportunity to walk about 8 km of it or so. And it truly was amazing. The path ranged from concrete to gravel to dirt, from flat to hilly. The cool thing about it is that, once on the trail, all you have to do is follow the yellow arrows painted along the trail all the way to the church. Not to say the trip itself is easy–it’s not–but it’s at least difficult to get lost. Just follow the yellow brick road.. err, arrows.

Panorama of Santiago de Compostela - Click to Enlarge

In Santiago de Compostela, we toured the University (beautiful), as well as parts of the city in general. We also had the opportunity to walk around on top of the cathedral, which gives a breathtaking view. Again, check out the photos, but I’ll put the panorama here:

Panorama from the top of the Cathedral - Click to Enlarge

After prancing around the tops of buildings, we took a plane flight back to Madrid, where I stayed in the airport. My next flight to Berlin departed only two and a half hours after I got back to Madrid. The next blog post will outline my time in Berlin with Señor Felipe Gaitan. Until then, thanks for reading!

Categories: Language

Observations: Episode II

April 11, 2011 Leave a comment

As with last time, I’ll just kind of write, with observations first and stories second. Here goes (how’s that for an introduction?).

Observations:

  • Though I don’t eat out at restaurants often, I have picked up on one thing. In Spain, you don’t tip the waiter, no matter how nice the restaurant. I’m assuming their salaries are higher, more like a regular job. In the USA, the waiter’s salary is generally lower and they depend on tips to make up for the lower pay rate–for this reason, tips are expected. Additionally, if you don’t ask for the bill, it’s not coming. They consider it rude to drop a bill off at a table, as if you’re pushing them out the door. Makes sense–it’s just different.
  • Taking care of its citizens is a major concern of the Spanish government, whether liberal or conservaitve, and it manifests itself in many ways–sometimes small ones. One example is that, at crosswalks, the street posts beep audibly to let you know when it is safe to cross. It’s a GREAT idea, and not only does it make it safer for people who aren’t paying attention, it makes a world of difference to the blind. Spain helps the blind a lot: spoken names of bus stops and Metro stops (as well as talking signs to tell you when the bus you want is coming), different sized paper money, etc. This technology might also exist in America (NYC or Chicago maybe?), but I know it exists in Madrid, Barça, and Amsterdam.
  • I’ve raved about the public transportation system the whole time I’ve been here, and I’m still quite happy with it. It’s cheap, easy to use, and easy to navigate (once you get used to it). The other day I found out you also get free WiFi use on all the buses. They’ve done public transportation the right way–nothing like Facebooking as you’re riding down the Paseo del Prado.
  • Though I’ve been here for three months, I still never hear Spanish music. Going to clubs, eating at restaurants, walking into stores–no matter where you are you almost always hear American music. There is one exception that I can think of: I went to a cheap-o Indian restaurant one time that has included some Spanish songs in its playlist, but the songs they played were by artists Juanes and Julieta Venegas… The songs were Mexican.
  • Though the American economy isn’t as strong as it could be (1.49 dollars to the euro), in some respects, we’re still far better off than Spain right now. They’re sitting at around a 20% unemployment rate right now. That’s not a typo. The Prime Minister, Zapatero, is hated here much like Bush was and is probably blamed more for the crisis than Obama was by the right. The ugliness of politics is universal: nobody’s ever happy, and it’s always the other guy’s fault.
  • Europeans introductions: As a male, if I meet a new guy, I greet him with a handshake. However, introductions with females are made with kisses, one on each cheek. Don’t try to shake a girl’s hand–the resulting situation is just awkward. I think this type of introduction is present in Latin America as well (and maybe in more places), but I’ve still never been there, so I wouldn’t know firsthand.
  • Drinking alcohol here is very much different from the United States–in legality and culture. Obviously I’m allowed to drink here legally, but its societal role here is much more than recreational (which is not the case for people my age in the USA). I generally have a glass or two of wine with every lunch and dinner, and it is incredibly normal. In fact, Pepe (the host dad) drinks wine with me every day. Returning to the States where it is neither culturally nor legally acceptable will be an odd relapse.
  • The Spanish word for buzzkill or party pooper is aguafiestas, which made me laugh endlessly when I learned it. It doesn’t translate well in a literal sense, but a rough translation would be “water to parties”, which to me for some reason is really funny. Along the same silly lines, the word for handcuffs is esposas: “wives”. Languages can be pretty funny at times.
  • I still can’t roll my R’s too well. My intercambio, Pedro, makes fun of me pretty endlessly about it (in good fun). When I try, I either end up doing a uvular trill (back of the tongue and/or in the throat) or a really weak hiss sound with the correct part of my tongue. Oh, I should also mention that I have something between a Spanish and an American accent now. C = th. ‘Nuff said.
  • Smoking–everyone does it. Walking into school every day means walking through a small cloud of smoke from the kids loitering around the building’s entrance. The number of smokers is astronomically high here, particularly among the younger generation. According to this site, 40% of young women smoke here (I will say that it seems that even more women than men smoke here). I have also seen other figures that are higher.

Stories:

  • For Mythography class the other day, our teacher Patricia took us through the underground scene of Madrid. In Lavapiés, a place known for its diversity, we were taken into a previously abandoned warehouse that had been seized by this sort of hipster young crowd. The entire building was decorated with artistic graffiti (a la Banksy), and full of young people dressed like revolutionaries (almost). We toured it, walking through a coffeeshop among kids with thick-rimmed glasses and plaid shirts. In one room, there was a trade-shop. Clothes were placed pell-mell throughout the room, and if you wanted something you could take it. It was just understood that you’d replace it with something of your own–a trade. Later on, we ended up into a large room where there was strange music playing in the background while a man and woman dressed in metallic clothing were seated, unmoving, on a raised platform in the middle of said room. The man, who looked a bit like he belonged in Daft Punk, was wearing fake glasses with big, bulging eyes, while grasping his hand to his throat and grunting as if struggling for air. Surrounding them were around 100 art students, drawing the scene quickly from different angles. In yet another room, we saw some teenage girls practicing acrobatics on giant ribbons hanging from the ceiling. It was easily the oddest place I’ve been to in Madrid, and perhaps the strangest thing I’ve seen in all my life.
  • The Champions League is in full swing right now, and the most recent match that Real Madrid played was against Tottenham Hotspur, a team from the English Premiere League. The day before the match was the day I came back to Madrid from Amsterdam, and while riding the Metro back home, I heard two folks speaking English. This is relatively rare in the Spanish Metro, so I generally make a point to talk to people when I hear it. Turns out, these two men, Ivan and Joe, were Irishmen who were in town for the game (Tottenham has a large following in Ireland). Additionally, neither spoke a word of Spanish and both were extremely lost. They had simple directions to their hotels and to the stadium (where they had to pick up their tickets), and the Madrid Metro system can be a bit intimidating and unhelpful without experience on it. I took pity on them and chaperoned them to the stadium. At the Bernabéu, all you have to do when you buy a ticket is stick the credit card you used to pay for the ticket into a machine and it prints it for you. However, one of the tickets was incorrectly cut by the machine, cutting it directly in half. I ended up having to go talk to their main office to get the ticket reprinted for them, but I suspect that without me there, Messrs. Joe and Ivan might have been out of luck. I left them with more detailed instructions on how to to get to their hotels and went back home. They were both very grateful, calling me a “good samaritan”. Just doin’ my part to make ‘Murica look good. Tottenham lost 4-0.

Tomorrow, I’ll be in Galicia. On Thursday, I come back to Madrid, but I’m staying in the airport to fly out to Berlin to meet Felipe Gaitan. After that, I’ll go to Stockholm to see Felix Wibergh’s family. Should be a great Spring Break. It’s not that much time until I come back home, which is a strange feeling to be sure. I now have a routine established here–something of a life established. Furthermore, I am going to have a ridiculously difficult schedule upon my return. But alas, little I can do about it except enjoy the time remaining, then work my ass off when I return.

As always, gracias por leer!

Categories: Class, Culture, Language

Amsterdam – Venice of the North

April 10, 2011 1 comment

After returning from Cuenca and Segóbriga, I went to visit Amsterdam on that Thursday. I unfortunately booked the wrong flight into Amsterdam, so I ended up getting there before Thea (who made the trip with me). The airport I flew into, Schiphol, is super nice, with tons to eat and many shops to peruse, and also has a train and bus station. I asked an official looking lady for the best way to get into the city (literally every single person I talked to in this country knew English) and kind of wandered around for a while. Eventually I sat down on a bench to figure out where I was. While I browsed Google Maps, I opened up Skype and talked to my sister and my friend Jacob while seated on a bench. It was pretty cool to just turn my computer around and point the camera towards a busy Amsterdam street.

The first night, when Thea arrived, I met her in the hotel (which was around 30 to 40 minutes outside of the city by train and bus) where she came in needing help, as the cab driver screwed her over–she was charged 40 euros for a 25 euro taxi ride. We then went into the city and kind of wandered–something that we did a lot while there.

The city itself is really visually attractive (yeah, I personified it). I am realizing that cities with some sort of charm are the ones that I find to be the most pretty. Amsterdam certainly had that historic, established, and dignified feel. It just looked very Dutch. Something I wasn’t aware of before going was just how much water flows through the city (including the Red Light District). There are little canals everywhere, and little bridges to overcome them. It’s very cool.

Some of the things that we did while there:

  • Visited the Torture Museum. The Torture Museum was exactly that, a museum that showed medieval forms of torture. It had a real-life example tons of artifacts, including a guillotine and an iron maiden. It was cool, but I was expecting it to be more of a chronological evolution of torture as opposed to examples thrown pell-mell into a set of rooms.
  • Saw the Red Light District, as indicated above. We happened to stumble upon it during the day. I was amazed at how normal the street looked. It really was just like any other street, but there were buildings with big glass windows with hookers in underwear. I don’t understand how that intrigues people, but to each his own. Someone told me that there’s a possibility of a new school opening up nearby, and that the proximity of the District to the school would force most of it to close or relocate.
  • Went to Keukenhof, a giant tulip garden in Holland that’s only open during the Spring and Summer. It has, as you can imagine, a TON of tulips and other flowers. We went on a beautiful day, and I enjoyed myself quite a bit. This is in spite of the fact that I spent the entire day with a bunch of flowers.
  • Visited a brewery! This was probably the highlight of the whole trip for me, getting to go to a small microbrewery in Amsterdam called Brouwerij ‘t IJ (don’t ask me to pronounce that). While trying to find it, we kept asking directions to “the brewery”, not realizing that we were being led to the old Heineken brewery (which no longer actually produces beer). Eventually we found it in time to take a tour. I loved it, and was actually quite surprised at how similar their brewing procedure is to mine for the MireBeer. While on the tour, I learned that the original owner was a former musician who had a passion for homebrewing, and decided to open up his own brewery. He picked this particular location as it was originally a bath house, making it ideal for the transformation as beer making can get messy and requires water as an ingredient anyway. Very interesting experience. I picked up some coasters to bring back home for my father, as well.
  • Saw the Anne Frank house. From the outside, at least. It was rather expensive to enter, so we elected not to. Nevertheless, it’s cool to see a place that is so infamous.

Holland thoughts:

  • I liked it, but not as much as I thought I would. I like Madrid much better–the weather, the people, and the abundance of activities. Maybe someday I’ll go back, but I was a bit underwhelmed.
  • Upon first contact with anybody in the country, they always started speaking to me in Dutch. I had no idea that I look Dutch until now. Two nights ago, I was participating in a Botellón near the Templo de Debod, and I met a few Dutch people studying in Spain. I asked her, and she told me I did look like I was from the Netherlands. Especially with a shaved head, which she says is very common there. I never knew.

Next blog post will just be some more thoughts and observations. I still hope to get it done tonight. As always, thanks for reading!

Link to panorama

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Categories: Culture

Cuenca and Segóbriga

April 10, 2011 Leave a comment

Finally, finally, FINALLY, I’m writing more. Hopefully I won’t have forgotten too much in the meantime, considering it’s taken me a metric year to finally write this. In this blog post I’m going to write about the one-day trip we all took to Cuenca and Segóbriga, in the next post about my trip with Thea to Amsterdam, and then finally I hope to round everything out with a third with just random stuff. If all goes well, it’s going to be a monster day.

On the 25th of March (yeah, I’m really bad at being punctual about writing), the DiM crew went to Cuenca. The glorious Cuenca is a small town in Castilla-La Mancha, the autonomous community to the south and east of Madrid. Yes, Castilla-La Mancha is where Cervantes’s character Don Quixote de la Mancha hails from. In all seriousness, this is one of the most well-known pieces of information about the autonomy. And not just among ignorant Americans, but the world over.

The bus ride there was about two hours long, and most of us slept since we left at 9 AM. I wasn’t able to sleep (I can never sleep in vehicles) so I stole Mónica’s crossword puzzles and started doing those. She brought with her a set of crossword puzzles from the New York Times in book format, and we’ve all been working at it since we got to Spain. I think we’re on number 80 or so out of 100 now.

 

Panorama from the rackety bride that I jumped around on (to the chagrin of my friends) - Click to Enlarge

Upon arrival, the first impression you get is that Cuenca looks very similar to Toledo. It is old, rocky, hilly, and in the same antique architectural style that I love about old Spain. It also is a very vertical city, in both an architectural, building-stacking sense and a “crap that’s a big hill” sense. As such, we had to climb flights and flights of stone steps to reach the top of the city where our activities were scheduled to take place. We started at the Museo de Arte Abstracto Español, which had a number of really cool pieces of art. I wanted to take more pictures of the art (which was permissible there if I recall correctly, so long as flash was off), but my camera was acting up. As it turned out, I only captured a photo of one painting, but rest assurred that there was a ton of nifty pieces within the museum.

While still in Cuenca, we all had a rather nice lunch on Duke’s tab. Good wine, good food, and a fun afternoon. Not much else to say.

Eating lunch - Click to Enlarge

General impressions of Cuenca: positive. It’s a very calm and gentle place with a stunning view. It’s the type of city you stereotypically think of when you think of Spain–that is to say, unlike Madrid, which has a very universally-metropolitan atmosphere, this city felt Spanish. However, I don’t think it’s worth bending over backwards to see. Toledo, with its similar architecture and tranquility (as well as its leveler terrain and closer proximity to Madrid) would be my recommendation for this type of experience.

Upon leaving Cuenca, we stopped at the Roman excavation site of Segóbriga, a place I found to be beyond interesting. An ancient city in ruins, Segóbriga is full of history. Originally occupied by Celtiberians, the Romans captured the city in around 200 BC. During this time, the Roman Empire was rapidly expanding. The city continued to grow, eventually building a theater and an ampitheater (which was used for gladiator fights). Pictures of this place are in the slideshow.

Interestingly enough, there’s now a very small Christian church on top of the hill that the city is buried beneath. I find it oddly appropriate that you can see the Christian influence in Spain in yet another place–mosques in the South were converted into Christian places of worship, and this Roman city was no exception. It’s extremely fitting, as eventually Christianity triumphed throughout the continent.

Oh, and I managed to leave without saying “When in Rome” a single time.

That’s all for this post, I’m going to start working on the next one immediately. Thanks for reading!

Also: here’s the link for the other panorama (since they don’t show up well in the slideshow)

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Categories: Culture

Walking the Halls

April 7, 2011 1 comment

So I’ve been really bad about updating the blog, and I’m sorry. I still intend to write two more blog posts: one about Cuenca and the other about Amsterdam. Oh blog posts, I meant to write you sooner, but I just been busy. Anyway, to sort of hold everything over until I get a bit more time (this weekend I think), I decided to photograph my walk to school this morning. I’ll just put it in a slideshow below with a bit of commentary. Look back again this weekend!

Here’s the route on Google Maps

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Categories: Culture