Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The final week!

We are getting close to our return date and so have been very busy with packing up the apartment, getting rid of lots of stuff, doing some last-minute tourism and saying goodbye to friends here. A few things we've done in the last week:

The Roman Ship museum in Mainz. In the foreground are some of the 1700-year-old bits of ship they found in the Rhine River. In the background is a model of what the ship would have looked like. Really, who needs more? I'll admit that I didn't, but we also heard second-hand about someone for whom this museum was the high point of their trip to Germany. We don't want our blog reader(s) to feel left out. On the day we rented a van to return borrowed furniture we had some extra time so went to Bad Muenster and had a really nice couple of hours there. The Nahe River is there, and we saw this swan, ducks, a cormorant, and a heron carrying an eel. The area is beautiful. Today we went briefly to the Garden Show at Bingen. I'd underestimated it -it lasts for six months and has amazing plants as well as infrastructure built especially for it, like this playground, a skateboard park, and bridges. This is one of the things Abby is going to miss most about her school - the pottery workshop. We get to figure out how to pack the pottery for the trip home! (This isn't all hers!)

Friday, June 6, 2008


Unrelated to the title of the post, but worth noting that as I blog this evening the European Championship of soccer/football is underway, with Germany having just defeated Poland (I'll avoid the obvious jokes here) 2-0. Horns are honking, people are yelling, there is huge excitement. On cars and balconies all around are the flags of many countries, supporting the home team (we live in the central part of the city, which is pretty multicultural, or multi-culti as the Germans say).

But on to Trier, the oldest city in Germany. We went mainly to see the Roman ruins, including the Porta Nigra, which is the largest and best-preserved city gate from the Roman Empire.
We also saw some of the Roman baths - the most fun part of that were the tunnels under and around the old baths - and a Roman amphitheater. One of the museums has wonderful old mosaics and other relics of Rome, including this stone carving of a wine ship that adorned the tomb of a wine merchant who lived on the Mosel River around AD 220.
Trier also has a wonderful old market square, which has been in use since the 10th century.
Street performers are pretty common, but this one was particularly good - his costume actually included a working fountain.

Unfurnishing the flat

All that furniture collected back in December? It's got to go now! And we're learning why there's so much furniture on the streets - it's hard to get rid of! So far we've tried the classifieds (sold the washing machine), Ebay (sold the bed and the shoe cabinet) and a garage sale (sold one wardrobe, the television, and some other stuff, but not a lot). On Monday we're returning stuff generously loaned by our friends and on Tuesday a charity is coming to see what they want, followed by a used furniture dealer. Then, what's left, we'll put on the street like everyone else does! We've actually already made an appointment with the city agency that takes care of big garbage pickups.

Our vacuum cleaner broke a while back and we weren't going to replace it, but then one of our neighbors who was moving out put one on the curb and I snatched it up. Felt like manna from heaven. It sure will make the final cleaning easier.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Going to the Chapel . . . .

Actually, they were going to St. Stephan Catholic church in Mainz with beautiful stained glass by Marc Chagall (wasn't he Jewish?). The bride is the daughter of an old friend of Wayne's, and we couldn't have been more pleased to be invited to the wedding. Afterwards, of course, there was a reception: the wedding was at 2 and I applied American assumptions about how late it would go. Boy, was I off! After the wedding, we went to the reception site where they had tables laid out with all kinds of delicious cakes.
While we enjoyed cake and snacks, friends of the bride and groom asked guests to make up gift certificates for the happy couple and to write down their wishes for them. (The father of the bride wrote a gift certificate that he would still change her summer tires for winter ones.) That portion of the reception lasted until around 7, when they took a group photo of all the wedding guests and the bride tossed the bouquet. Want to guess who caught it? (We did persuade her to give it to the girlfriend of the brother of the bride!)Then it was inside for the formal dinner. The set up of the tables is different from most American weddings, with the tables in long rows. The table at the left was the head table and there were also a couple of smaller tables off to the side for the kids. The bride and groom welcomed all the guests and then introduced each (over 100 people) with some comment about their relationship to the bride and/or groom.

Between courses formal toasts, skits, songs, etc. were presented by the parents of the bride and the groom and by some of the guests. Unfortunately, we only made it to just past the main course (about 10:30), when Abby, who'd had a sleepover at school the previous night, was falling into her food. Wayne stayed until about midnight, when the dancing started and the last public bus for Wiesbaden left.

Thursday, May 29, 2008


Abby and I made the long train ride (11 hours) to Poland to visit friends there. We had a terrific visit in Warsaw with Angelo, Beata, and their kids and then we went on to Bielsk Podlaski. The question I've gotten so far is: what's changed? So here's what's changed. The train system was still good and inexpensive, with far fewer smoking cars (there are now laws against smoking in public places in Poland!). People are still polite on the trains, saying "Smacznego" (Bon Appetit, basically) when anyone eats, saying goodbye to the compartment at large when they leave, and making room for everyone's bags. The train to Bielsk, however, has fallen victim to competition, with a private bus line operating frequent and inexpensive trips to and from Bialystok. The train is down to just one or two one-car trains a day, and this is the track (the picture taken through the front window as we went). Abby got a big kick out of riding on this little train, though.Life in Bielsk has gotten nicer in a couple of ways. One is this new municipal swimming pool! Wish they'd had that 17 years ago!Also, one can now shop Saturday afternoons and Sundays! I am guessing this is a German chain by the name, but they sell everything. It is funny to me that in Germany, which is not a terribly religious country, the stores are all closed on Sunday, but in Poland, which is very religious, one can shop. There's a new Russian Orthodox church in town, and it is beautiful. It joins the 3 Orthodox churches, 2 Catholic churches, and 1 evangelical church already there.And some things haven't changed a bit, like Polish hospitality. It was wonderful to see Jola (my counterpart teacher in Bielsk) and Tadeusz and also to see some of the people I knew at the school where I taught. They now have 4 English teachers at the school. I met with a class of students and they had lots of questions - mostly to keep them out of Russian class, which they were missing to talk to me, I'm sure.
So after 5 days in Poland I think I need to stop eating for another 5 days to make up for it! My language is hopelessly muddied today - I find myself substituting Polish words for German ones. I think a day or two of German will take care of that.

Monday, May 19, 2008


Speyer is about an hour south of here, but this was our first visit. The Speyer Cathedral is a World Heritage Site and was built in the 11th century. Can you imagine how it would have appeared to a pilgrim in that time? In the crypt there are some amazing carvings. This is one of the 4 Salien emperors buried there.
Also in Speyer is a large Technical Museum. The most fun part for us was the airplanes. This is the view from the crew area to the cargo hold of an old Antonov 22 - a Ukrainian cargo plane.
There's also an old 747, and you can explore it from the cargo hold to the first class cabin and cockpit up top! As you can see, you can also walk out onto the wing, which was fun, especially since the plane is displayed lifted high in the air. Then, to get down, there's an enormous twisty slide.
A little touch of home - in the automobile section there was a pevious winner of the Houston Art Car parade!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Wurzburg and Nuremberg

Last weekend we went to Wurzburg and Nuremberg - the gorgeous weather has continued and we want to take full advantage! Wurzburg is in Bavaria, on the Main River.

Although Wurzburg was mostly destroyed in 20 minutes one night in 1945, the city has done a remarkable job of preserving and rebuilding. The most famous building (and World Heritage Site) is the Residenz.

You are not allowed to take pictures in most of the building, but this picture from just inside the entrance gives a pretty good idea of what it's like.

Our favorite room was one with an inlaid wood floor that looks 3 dimensional. It's a little strange to walk on. The gardens are pretty, too. Abby took this shot in the gardens - you can see why it appealed to her!

We continued on to Nuremberg. Wayne had work to do, but Abby and I went to the zoo to see . . .Flocke, the baby polar bear. She's cute, but Abby was more impressed by the amazing playgrounds they have at that zoo! It's a big zoo, with lots of walking, but we highly recommend it. Lots of trees (and shade), great playgrounds, some interesting animal habitats, dolphin shows, decent food.

On the way home from Nuremberg we had to change trains in Wurzburg. Our train was running a few minutes late, which is not unusual for the local trains here (though the intercity trains are nearly always on time to the minute). As we arrived in Wurzburg, we could see that our connecting train was just across the platform and was still there. So the train stopped, we hopped out, and the other train immediately pulled out, leaving 100-150 people standing on the platform yelling and shaking their fists at the engineer! I have never seen them do that before - usually they'll hold a train for a couple of minutes. So we had an extra hour in Wurzburg! It got us home later than we'd intended, but luckily Monday was a holiday (Pentacost).

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Sunny days . . . .

This post is dedicated to Mom, Betty, Pete & Robin - the visitors we dragged up and down the Rhein in the pouring rain, snow, sleet, or all of the above! Sunday we went to Rheinfels, the ruin of a castle on the Rhein. This is a really fun ruin to explore.

This is just a small fraction of the original castle complex.
One of the remaining parts of the castle is a series of mine tunnels. These were used on the western, more vulnerable side of the castle, and were intended to be filled with gunpowder and exploded if enemies got that close - a forerunner of the land mine, I suppose. Based on this experience, I have a new rule: I wil not go into any tunnel in which Abby has to bend over to walk. After this the tunnels actually got shorter, and of course they were pitch dark. We did have a flashlight, but navigating underground is a little tricky, as there were lots of cross tunnels and dead ends.
This time of year the hops fields are in bloom. They are spectacular.
We continued up to the Mosel River and went to Cochem. There we toured a palace built in the 19th century, so very different. Although this looks like a frog, it's actually a lion wearing armor. Or so the tour guide said! This tour was notable in that the tour guide spoke such clear and simple German that I could actually understand the tour! She did pass out cheat sheets (just to our group of maybe 20) in English, Dutch, Polish, Chinese, and Japanese.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Admission charges for churches

An interesting question has arisen - should churches charge an entrance fee, as many churches in Europe do? Some are quite expensive ($10-$15/person). One of our recent visitors believes strongly that churches are houses of worship and as such should never charge admission. I see it differently - if I am using a church as a house of worship, then I agree that I should not be charged. And churches don't charge to attend services (or may have free entrance for residents of the diocese). If, however, I am using the church more as a museum (I want to see the architecture, the artwork within, climb the tower, etc.) then I think it's only fair that I pay for the privilege. What do you think?

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Some random notes

Taking the train back from Italy with Mom and Abby, we shared a compartment on the Munich to Frankfurt leg with a very nice guy who said he'd done a high school term abroad in the U.S. I asked him where and he said it was a small town we probably hadn't heard of. Turns out to be Vilonia, Arkansas, just a few miles from Conway. Small world!

We don't have a car in Germany and are glad we don't. For one, gas here is about $8/gallon. Secondly, parking is very difficult in our neighborhood. I even saw a sign posted on a tree a couple of weeks ago "Young married couple seeking parking place." But I love these automated signs:

They tell drivers well in advance of what parking garages have spaces free, and how many. I should point out that I took this picture on a Sunday - on Saturdays the numbers are closer to 0.

I forgot to mention in my Barcelona post that we avoided 2 pickpocketing attempts in our first 15 minutes in the city. It can happen anywhere, but late at night in a subway station does seem to be about the worst.

Everything is closed here today for Labor Day, held on May 1 in Germany (and most other countries, I think).

Tuesday, April 29, 2008


Seville was our last stop in Spain, mainly to see the Alcazar, which was built for a Christian ruler but using Islamic design (and some of the same craftsmen who worked on the Alhambra in Granada).
This is the ceiling of the throne room, intended to look like the stars. As at the Generalife in Granada, the gardens were beautiful and had lots of water elements. Also in Seville is a huge cathedal with an amazing high altar including over 1,000 carved figures.

This is a view from the tower, which is fun because it is all in ramps instead of stairs. The guidebook said that was so the guards could ride their horses up the tower. Seems unlikely to me!


On the way from Granada to Seville, we stopped off at Cordoba, mainly to see the mosque/cathedral there. The site has been used for over 1000 years as the religious center of whatever group was in power. It became a mosque starting in the 8th century and was, at one time, the second largest in the world. In 1236, Cordoba was conquered by the Christians, and a cathedral was built in the central section of the mosque, leaving over 800 of the columns (there were once over 1,200) and the mihrab (the niche in the wall that indicates the proper direction for Muslims to pray, towards Mecca).
The pillars are the most striking feature of the mosque/cathedral, and they were built, at least in part, from an ancient Roman temple on the site.

This is the ceiling over the area where the Islamic ruler would have prayed. Then, in the middle of the mosque, is the Catholic cathedral. The mosque/cathedral is surrounded by a high wall. Abby asked me why it was there, and I replied that, as with most walls, it was for protection - to keep the mosque safe from invaders. She sighed and said, "Sadly, it wasn't enough."


The main reason we went to Granada was to see the Alhambra, which was the fortress/palace of Granada's Muslim leaders for hundreds of years. This was the last part of Spain to remain in Islamic hands (until 1492 when Ferdinand and Isabella conquered them). The Catholic king and queen are buried in Granada in a beautiful chapel adjacent to the cathedral, incidentally.

The architecture of the Alhambra is simply amazing. This is a view through several doorways - every square inch in carved with non-representational art and Arabic words. This is a closeup of one of the walls. Nearly all the walls are like this.

The ceilings are decorated, too. This is a beautiful wooden one.Next to the Alhambra is Generalife, another palace (not an insurance agency, which is what it sounds like to English ears!). It has beautiful gardens with lots of fountains and ponds thoughout. Water served a practical function in helping to keep the palace cool in the very hot summer months (it was already in the high 80s in April!), but also symbolized life and purity.

And a view from the Alhambra of the Sierra Nevada mountains in the distance.