Sunday, November 27, 2011

One Week In Austria

I feel a little like we're in a witness protection program. Our little Austrian town is caught in-between seasons- devoid of snow and too cold to do much anything else. We are the only apartment rented in our building and as such, get extra special attention from our hosts - some homemade Austrian pastries from our landlord upstairs and a welcome cake from his parents downstairs. Occasionally I notice a couple on holiday and I kind of feel sorry for them since, while sunny and cute, Radstadt feels like a ghost town. A good chunk of the stores seem to be closed most of the time. It's a little disappointing since when we rented the place a month ago, we imagined a snowy cabin with lots of snowshoeing, drinking hot tea and building armies of snowmen. We have tea.

Despite all this, we've had a relaxing week here. Jacob taught Vaughn how to crochet; Vaughn wrote two stories about dogs in space; and I went on daily walks in the expansive field behind the house, ignoring the faint but persistent smell of manure. We also pondered important questions such as: why does the church bell have to start chiming at six am? If nothing else, Radstadt marks the end of our solo time together. Next stop - Israel.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Waning European Days

On Saturday we left Garmisch and traveled to Stuttgart to stay for a few days with a friend of mine from high school. Brian and his wife Elke both work for Mercedes and we kicked off our stay with a tour of the Mercedes car museum, which is a really nice mix of world history combined with lots of cars. Knowing that Vaughn was a little tapped out on castles and churches, Brian suggested that we spend the next day at a large indoor play park that had several giant slides, a climbing wall, massive play structures and a rope course that was high enough above the ground that I couldn't bring myself to do it. Between the Wii, going 200 km on the Autobahn, and the fact that Brian and Elke listen to music produced in this decade, I think Vaughn was considering inquiring about international adoption. It is safe to say that they spoiled us all rotten with delicious food, action-packed itineraries and really thoughtful little details like a stuffed animal on Vaughn's pillow.

Yesterday we said auf wiedersehen to Brian and Elke and headed on to Dachau which is the site of Germany's oldest concentration camp, now a memorial site. Unfortunately, we had barely allotted two hours to tour the camp since we had to continue on past Salzburg to our next rental. Being confronted with the details of the massive torture and death is hard at any age but Vaughn is at a particularly hard age - old enough to get it but young enough to be really spooked without the benefit of adult filters. After he kept hiding his eyes during the film we decided to leave a bit early. There are three pictures on this post from the camp: the art piece of the figures; the entrance gate with the words "Work Makes You Free"; and the wooden bunks in rooms that were built for 50 but housed 400. If you have an opportunity to go visit - I recommend that you do.

Now we're back in Austria in the tiny town of Radstadt, about an hour south of Salzburg. We booked a place here over a month ago when we had visions of coasting out our remaining week snuggled up in a snowy cabin. Alas, a very dry fall means there is not a flake of snow on the ground and our apartment is super cold. Our host lives with his family on the floor above us and his parents live in the apartment below us. The apartment is beautiful and the mother even made us a cake but I've taken to obsessively checking the radiators to see if they are still generating heat.

Nonetheless, we're enjoying our last European week before we head to Israel on the 30th. Lately I've been struck with this feeling that this experience has been akin to what I imagine summer camp is like - the feeling as though the group of you formed an everlasting bond and went through something transformative brought on by unique shared experiences and long days in close quarters. Jacob, having actually been to camp, wrinkles his nose at this comparison but maybe it is my mythical camp. It seems strange that you could get to know your own husband and child better but there you have it.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Garmisch, Germany

You may recall from my last post that we set out for Garmisch knowing nothing about the town except that it fit our geographical requirements (that's just the lazy way we roll!) so it was a great surprise to find out how quaint and lovely it is. Surrounded by mountains, it's a hot spot for skiers but we're a little early in the season for that. There are trails leading up into the Alps which begin at a multiple points from the center of the town so today we packed sandwiches and headed up. The trail was pretty steep in parts and we are a little out of shape but if all those elder Germans with their fancy trekking poles could do it, then so could we. Ultimately we only lasted a couple hours but considering Vaughn was crying, "The air is getting thin!" 20 minutes into the hike, I feel pretty good about it. Plus, we did reach a nice vista from which to enjoy a PB&J.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Point /Counter-Point

Often times on this trip I've been asked, "Tell us Leslie, what do you think Europe does better than the U.S.?" Actually, no one asks me that but were someone to ask me, here is what I'd say*:

Better in the U.S.
Mexican food - It's been insanely hard to find on our trip and even "hot" salsa is ridiculously sweet.

Showering - Why oh why are the showers designed so that you have to hold the shower head constantly OR set it in its holder (which is never attached to the wall any higher than knee level) OR you can try to set it down in the tub only to have it spray all over outside of the tub? I guess it does mean that you don't waste water because showering is cumbersome rather than enjoyable. In one location in Croatia our shower was flush with the bathroom floor and had no door which required that I enlist Jacob to spray me down like an elephant if I didn't want to get water all over the floor.

Beds for multiple people - What is the point of having a queen/king sized frame but with two single beds placed within the frame? It's like you are conceding that two people will want to sleep next to each other but you still want to make it undesirable by having a crack in the middle of the bed. I thought having my own little single comforter would be a plus but Jacob still steals the covers.

Curbside recycling - I realize a good chunk of the US doesn't even HAVE recycling, but living in a liberal, progressive state I'm used to taking it to the curb and no further. Barcelona has food waste next to the other recycling receptacles, that was pretty cool.

Tap water - For all the eco-goodness that Europe does have, why do you have to buy bottled water everywhere you go? We encountered exactly three restaurants that didn't force us to buy a bottle of water if we wanted water with our food. The glass and plastic waste from that was painful.

Pay bathrooms - This is a tricky fence rider. On the one hand, it's great to be able to go into a place and plunk down your change and use the bathroom (which is nearly always clean) without the pretense that maybe you're going to buy something else. On the other hand, paying to pee adds up.

Clothes driers - Another fence rider. We only stayed in two places that had a clothes drier in addition to a washer. You can't deny the environmental benefit of skipping drying and I actually started to like hanging up my clothes (mostly because I had time to), but it also made for some pretty stiff and scratchy towels.

Better in Europe

Grocery bags - Just about everywhere we went you had to either bring your own grocery bag or pony up the cash to buy one. Now I'm sure most people would find this annoying but from an environmental perspective, hitting people in the wallet is a pretty good incentive. Granted they were always plastic but they were pretty heavy duty and therefore reusable.

Sundays - We never did quite get used to having everything shut down on Sundays and often found ourselves without food but overall I think it is fantastic to have a day of rest that everyone partakes in.

Local/seasonal produce - I'm not going to lie, it was tough living off the same five vegetables. Living so close to the "salad bowl" of the U.S. we get a lot of fresh produce. However, we also import huge amounts of produce and have a culture that demands strawberries and roses year round and there are big environmental consequences with that. Farmers markets were in many of the places we went and in some cases they were daily.

Cheap wine - A place where your two-buck chuck actually results in a fairly decent wine. On the other hand, I find American two-buck chuck perfectly fine and can't tell the difference. Maybe the angle with this one is that you can buy cheap wine and not be scorned?

Pharmacies - Some people might find it annoying to have to go to a separate store for aspirin and such but the giant green crosses denoting a Pharmacy were practically on every block. Staff were informed and helpful and they usually had non-Western medicine options just as prominently displayed.

Multilingual populations/health care/fuel efficient cars - Okay, so this is the low-hanging fruit but won't someone think of the salsa?

Electric water heaters - How many years of my life have I wasted heating up water on a stove? Exactly 3.4. That number might be slightly off but it's fair to say that I will be buying an electric water heater as soon as I get home.

*Disclaimer: These are the views of someone who has only lived on the West Coast and has only traveled for 5 months, but if I know anything from living in the U.S., it is that gross generalizations are perfectly acceptable. Now please pass me a strawberry.

Monday, November 14, 2011

High on the Hills is a Lonely Goatherd....

The writing on the bottle liquid soap in our hotel room in Salzburg is all in German except the name of the soap - Tricky Ricky. What does that even mean? Which marketing genius came up with that?

We're staying in a giant, bargain hotel that is actually nicer than I thought it would be. It has a pool table and sort of a dorm/hostel vibe with the exception of the odd older adult or family here and there (present company included in that demographic). In the rooms they have a stencil by the light switch that says "Find the Cow" and there are three or four red cow stencils around the room. They show The Sound of Music twice a week at the hotel and as I passed Sound of Music bus tours and play bills on the street I had to wonder if any girl comes of age in Salzburg not having acting as one of the Von Trapps in a community theater production.

Yesterday we went to the Natural History Museum here which I can say was one of the best I've ever been to. Vaughn wasn't initially excited but I gave him ye ol' "learn something and we'll call it homeschooling for today" and he perked right up.

Today we attempted to wander around but we hadn't put any effort into figuring out what there was to see here and didn't last very long past lunch. We only sort of glanced in the direction of the castles and churches. I was excited about the prospect of shopping the Christmas Market but everything just kind of seemed like overpriced crap I could pick up at Cost Plus. I guess you could say we're experiencing a bit of sticker shock to be out of Eastern Europe and I suppose it is fair to say we're tired. Tomorrow we leave for Garmisch, a town we know nothing about but it was part way between here and Stuttgart where we're headed Saturday to stay with my high school friend, Brian and his wife. Plus the rental was large, always a plus after three nights in a single hotel room- even if it does have cow stencils.

PS - If the title of this blog makes no sense to you then you don't love The Sound of Music enough and have no business in Salzburg (special shout out to my SoM buddy Mr. M. Moyers!)

Friday, November 11, 2011

Why Do I Do This To Myself?

(Alternatively titled: Why Am I Such a Big Baby?)

I like the macabre so, having missed out on the Museum of Medieval Torture in Prague, there was no way I was going to skip going to the Museum Tortury here in Cesky Krumlov. Jacob and Vaughn weren't as enthusiastic so they dropped me off and went on to do a little shopping.

The front of the museum is light and bright and the only thing distinguishing it from the front of any other art gallery is the iron maiden standing to the left of the cash register. But after paying the fee you descend down a steep spiral staircase into the windowless bowels of the building. The whole thing is lit just enough to keep you from twisting your ankle and is a maze of interconnected rooms and staircases. I have a pretty strong stomach so the rusty instruments with their accompanying descriptions and woodblock illustrations didn't phase me. But some of my faithful readers will also recall from a certain little incident in the French woods that I also have an overactive imagination honed by years of horror movies. It wasn't long before it hit me I was the only person down in that basement.

In addition to flogs, knuckle screws and chastity belts, the museum also had multiple displays similar to what you might find in a carnival haunted house with dummies that were set up to depict torture scenes. You could see people being burned at the stake, broken on the wheel, wasting away in jails and an odd beach scene that seemed out of place and looked like it might have belonged in Pirates of the Caribbean. Accompanying these little scenes were audio tapes of people moaning and screaming, fires crackling and water dripping.

It took maybe 5 whole minutes for me to go from diligently boning up on some history to expecting a sadistic madman (maybe that "nice little old lady" from reception!) to come around the corner and put me in one of these devices! No one would even hear me scream and I'd be another off-season Cesky Krumlov "incident".

I decided to calmly make my way up the stairs to the exit only to find myself in an entirely separate wing of chambers and displays. Did I even know where the exit was anymore? I don't want to say I bolted up the next flight of stairs but it is fair to say that I did a hasty trot without even looking at the rest of the displays. Even as my heart raced I knew that as I pushed through the turnstile that said "No Re-admittance" that I'd regret having bailed early. You'd think I'd know myself (or reality) a little better at this point.

Note: These pictures are with the flash on people. Until you've spent time in torture museum basement by yourself with creepy dummies you can't judge!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Some Days are Stranger Than Others

I wasn't planning on doing a post until after we'd left Cesky Krumlov but sometimes a situation just calls for it and today was one of those days. We made our way to the tiny little UNESCO world heritage town today and had to park right at the outskirts since the inner core of the town is supposed to be car free (I say "supposed" because I couldn't help but notice the number of cars driving through the streets as we hauled our luggage around). Even though the trip only took two and a half hours, I was a little grumpy upon arrival. I didn't sleep well last night and when we parked I really had to go to the bathroom.

We finally found our hotel and hauled our stuff up to the third floor and were pleasantly surprised to find that the room was larger than we had anticipated. Then Jacob noticed the giant, white fur rug in the middle of the floor. Then we noticed the two giant wild boar "rugs", then the ring of nine fox carcasses strung around one of the banisters, then another smaller pig, a badger, an otter, four brown/black skins of indeterminate origin and something with a tail that I swear was a dog. Oh and a stuffed pheasant. In total, 19 dead animals in one hotel room. It was almost as though a forest had regurgitated. Jacob and Vaughn were horrified and wanted to leave but I convinced them that I could neatly stack everyone but the fox garland into a corner in the room, an activity that unfortunately and inexplicably separated a boar from one of its hooves.

We ended up having to leave the hotel after all because their internet was down and both Jacob and I have job interviews in the next 24 hours. After hauling our bags to four different places we finally found one that, while small, has working internet and was reasonably priced. Thankfully Vaughn hasn't seen The Shining and so he won't be disturbed by the creepy twins picture hanging above his bed.

Unfortunately our new hotel was without a kitchen so we set out in search of some dinner and amazingly, we found a tiny vegetarian restaurant. The place was small, barely heated and a little too cobwebby for comfort but the menu was pretty appetizing and it was a vegetarian restaurant after all. It was really early according to European dining standards but the place was empty and the enthusiasm of the owner (who was also the cook and our server) gave us the impression we might be the only diners that night. He had a friend back in the kitchen who came out and sat down to sip his yerba matte at the table across from us but got up and retreated back into the kitchen about five minutes later never to be seen again.

About three-quarters of the way through the meal our owner/server/cook came out to ask us where we were from. Somehow this led into questions about the U.S. economy, the housing market, California declaring bankruptcy, the election, the state of the Republican party, whether the U.S. would really elect a Mormon, and the federal vs. state funding breakdown for just about every tax-payer funded system you can imagine. Jacob and I were tired and while we were happy to oblige (mostly by making things up), we tried to get off the hook by just periodically interjecting, "You're so right" into the conversation. At this point he had pulled up a chair across from us and started in on the state of the European economy and what it meant for the global market, his voice often rising to shouting levels. At around 45 minutes, he seemed to be slowing down, wistfully looking off into space and wondering what the future held when all of a sudden he reinvigorated himself by saying, "And we haven't even begun to talk about the environment!" Would he ever let us go? He was incredibly smart, like-minded and well-versed but we had long since finished our dahl and just wanted to go move the car so we could return to the hotel.

So that pretty much sums up our first day in Cesky Krumlov. The town looks adorable and I'm looking forward to wandering around tomorrow when I'm well-rested. Plus, like all modern Czech cities I see they have a Museum of Torture.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Dude, where's my Kangoo?

Is there anything creepier than a statue of a pre-pubescent young boy painted in all black except for the genitals, which are painted metallic gold? What if said statue is outside of the world's largest toy museum?

On Sunday we went to visit Prague Castle which holds the Guinness Record as being the world's largest castle and covers an area greater than 7 football fields. On either entrance to the castle grounds are stationed two traditional guards whose sole purpose seems to be to give obnoxious tourists something to pose next to. We wandered around the grounds but only paid to go into the toy museum. We spent a long time looking at various exhibits of dolls and trains and so I am sad to report that the boys were fairly burnt out by the time we got to the glorious third floor dedicated solely to Barbie. I did, however, get this awesome quotation off the Barbie exhibit description which led me to believe that some curator seems to think that Barbie has not only been unfairly maligned but also that she might be an overlooked contender for the Nobel Peace Prize:

Despite her normality and gentleness, despite her artlessness and unpretentiousness, despite her peaceful nature and friendliness - the 29 centimeter-high vinyl doll again and again provokes disputes.

Today we went downtown again to grab lunch, hit the bookstore and wander around. We had the car with us and parking is a real bear in the old district. When we finally found a parking spot Jacob suggested we circle our location on our map; a suggestion I confidently ignored, feeling I could remember the name (later I would curse the Czech street names that seem to all sound the same while also sounding like nothing at all familiar). At 4:30 we started heading back to the car since our meter was up at 5:00 and it was also getting dark already. It became obvious fairly quickly that neither of us remembered where the car was. All we had was a fuzzy recollection of being near a park, a statue of man on a horse somewhere in the vicinity and maybe a street starting with the letter 'o'.

We went to four different parks on the map before Jacob began desperately hitting up strangers on the street to ask if they knew of "a man on a horse". We ran into what I think might be a control tower but it looked like the world's largest hypodermic needle with metal statues of babies climbing up the sides (the pictures don't do it justice). Just as we were about to give up and find an internet cafe (to do what exactly, I have no idea - report the car stolen to Renault and cut our losses?), we stopped a man on the street to ask our cryptic horse statue question. Not only did he stop and say, "How can I help you?", he knew of Prague's two horse statues and which one had parking nearby and he also said he'd drive us there except his car was further than we had to walk. In a simple five minute gesture he turned our whole night around, mostly by being present and genuinely interested in helping us.

Two hours after our search for the car began we found it and amazingly we didn't even have a ticket. Come on Barbie, let's go party.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Praha- Pt. One

How do you drive a nine year old insane? Put a gas powered go-kart in the kitchen of your rental that he can't drive but play German Monopoly with him as a consolation prize. Actually, like many things on this trip, Vaughn was a real sport about the off-limits go-kart.

We arrived in Prague on Tuesday and while we've only seen a little bit, I'm already in love with this city. It is charming and magical and romantic but in a dark and broody way - but it's possible that's just the weather now. We're seeing the city by way of running errands on foot - an English language bookstore, vegan restaurants, and yarn stores. Thus, we haven't really toured many of the sites but we have run into several by accident. Today we walked across the famous Charles Bridge which is lined with statues, buskers and artists selling jewelry and prints. We stopped to listen to the aptly named "Bridge Band" play the jazzy number "Chinatown" with thick Czech accents and bought their CD. We debated briefly on going into the Museum of Medieval Torture Devices but thought better of it at the last minute. And of course, we bought to-go cups of hot, mulled wine from one of the many vendors selling it along the street.

Tomorrow I think we'll get around to touring the famous Czech Castle which, according to Guinness World Records is the largest ancient castle in the world and also happens to be just a short walk from our house. I'm also fixated on getting myself one of these posters from the Museum of Communism.