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).