Travel whirlwind

The answers to yesterday’s pictures are: Budapest, Hungary; Venice, Florence,  Siena, and Rome, Italy; and the Baltic Coast of Germany. Now I’m going to spend days and days and thousands of words regaling you with our impressions of these adventures.

I’m still spinning from our mad dash tour of Italy, followed less than a week later by a Budapest foray.  Let’s start with Italy. We visited Rome, Siena, Florence, and Venice, dodging train strikes and skirting bad weather like luck professionals. This was a Type-A, obsessively planned vacation. On the train zipping away from Rome at 8 a.m. on a Friday, Aaron admitted that measured on an events-per-hour criterion, it was the best trip he had ever taken.

In Rome, I had booked us a cheap B&B which turned out to be a room in the flat of a darling old Italian man who spoke no English. We shared a bathroom with his other guests, where notably the toilet was in the shower. Our host gave us breakfast coupons for the café across the street where each morning we collected a chocolate croissant and a glass of blood orange juice. On our bedraggled return each night, the host would pop out of his living room to beam at us sympathetically and let loose a stream of bumpy, vowel-heavy syllables tantalizingly close to Spanish but incomprehensible to me. “Si, si!” we replied. And finally, “Buona sera!” Our Italian efforts met with great approval.

At the Vatican Museums, our first stop in Rome, we soaked in the Catholic Church’s incredible art collection, and sought out a few pieces in particular. This sculpture of Laocoon, a Roman copy of the Greek original, features in the philosophy of aesthetics that Aaron studies. You can be part of the debate too. The sculpture depicts the cruel death by snake of Laocoon and his two sons, a crucial episode in the Trojan War between the Greeks and the Trojans.

Laocoon’s bent arm, lost for centuries, turned up in a Rome antique shop in the 1900s.

The crafty Greeks stowed away in the hollow belly of a huge wooden horse which they presented to the Trojans as a peace offering. When the Trojans brought the horse inside their gates, the hidden Greeks popped out and won the war. Laocoon begged his countrymen not to admit the suspicious gift, arguing that it was a trap. But Athena (who used to be one of my favorite goddesses) wanted the Greeks to win, so she sent snakes to kill Laocoon and his sons. The Trojans fell for Athena’s trick and interpreted Laocoon’s demise as a sign that he was lying. Now, look carefully at Laocoon’s expression in this sculpture.

The face that launched a thousand essays

Aestheticians Lessing and Winckelmann agreed that Laoccon looks anguished but rational, not crazy and terrified. The question is: Why does the sculptor retain Laocoon’s dignity? Is it (a) because sculpture is meant to inspire noble simplicity in its viewers which utter panic and horror would preclude or (b) because sculpture should give viewers pleasure and a true depiction of this scene would just overwhelm us with pain and desolation? Perhaps Aaron should give up on this Mendelssohn dissertation project and start over with the Laocoon, necessitating a year of research in Rome.

Aaron’s face portrays the satisfaction of a philosopher interacting with concrete (or marble?) ideas.

While Aaron was communing with aestheticians of ages past, I moved on to the animal room.

They sculpted their camel! (not pictured are their sculpted house pets and crustaceans.)

After many more masterpieces, the Vatican Museum ends with the Sistine Chapel, the Pope’s own sanctuary and also the room where the cardinals sit around to decide on the next pope. The Sistine Chapel was jammed with tourists, all of us standing with our heads wrenched back, jaws agape, awestruck by Michelangelo’s ceiling. I thought I knew what the Sistine Chapel ceiling looked like. I just assumed I’d seen pictures of it in books. I had a very distinct impression of that ceiling. Until I saw it. Then I had to start over and devour every inch of it afresh. I don’t know where I got my preconception, but it was totally wrong. In conclusion, you should all go look at the Sistine Chapel because what if you are also imagining something totally different than what is there? You definitely want to see the real thing.

We spent ages staring at that ceiling and the altar mural of the Last Judgment painted by Michelangelo years later. Michelangelo hadn’t wanted to do these paintings. The Pope said, “Michelangelo, paint my ceiling.” And MA replied that he was not a painter but rather a sculptor, and the Pope said, “That was not a request.” So MA managed to come up with something. Standing in the Sistine Chapel, where neither photography nor talking are allowed, Aaron whispered to me something I have never heard him say about anything else in the world ever. “This is underrated.”

Where have we been?!

Maybe you can guess…

Notice  Parliament on the left edge and the Elizabeth Bridge coming out of my shoulder.

This famous square has a palace with an attached church for the Doge.

We have no pictures including both ourselves and anything remotely recognizable from this city. We took this one on the hillside while drinking wine and watching the sunset.

This is a toughie. I’d barely heard of this city before we planned a day there.

Finally Aaron let me have the camera! Here he is at this city’s most famous ruin.

Too cold to go in farther, though I got soaked pretending I wasn’t trying to go swimming in this sea.

Answers, and the beginning of the endless stories, tomorrow.

Scenes from a Berlin Birthday

Cake and photo by Christina Mason

A lovely day, beginning with fresh banana bread and ending with this strawberry-raspberry cake.

In between, we went to the park to visit Berlin’s various hilarious ducks.

Papa Mallard tends the brood.

Punk ducks

At tae kwon do I got to break a board with a front kick, to prove, as my teacher said, that I am a year older and a year more powerful.

We even extended the celebration to Saturday and hosted a party for our Berlin friends. And of course we had another cake.

My newest sewing creation prepares to cut the cake.

It’s Spargel season!

Asparagus is my favorite vegetable, and in Deutschland, it has only solidified its position above broccoli and Brussels sprouts. Everything about German asparagus is bigger and better. I love the word “asparagus,” but the Germans have found an even catchier handle: Spargel. Around the beginning of May, the country went Spargel-crazy. Most restaurants sprouted special Spargel menus, wine shops advertised the best wines to pair with the Spargel you would certainly be eating. The grocery stores cleared out whole quadrants to display Spargel and its fixings. Germany boasts the Best Spargel in the World, and we eat it like we believe it.

Spargel fiend!

My experience of asparagus heretofore has been of succulent slender spears, steamed to a bright green crunch. Spargel, while also delicious, is a totally different animal…er…vegetable. It’s subterranean white, stocky (stalky?), and a far more serious undertaking. Unfortunately, the local stuff sells for around 9 Euros/kilo ($5.50/lb.), but we picked up some more reasonably priced Greek imports on our recent vacation to the Baltic Coast with our German friends.

I’m glad we got an authentic Spargel lesson before trying this on our own. I would have gone about it all wrong. None of this green asparagus laziness of snapping off the ends and plopping them in the steamer for a  few minutes. Aspiring Spargel chefs must first peel the vegetable almost all the way to the tip, and down through quite a few layers.

My aspiring Spargel chef

Then the peeled spears boil in a water bath for 30 minutes. Finally, douse them with hollandaise sauce and enjoy. But don’t throw out the water bath because if you’re lucky, your resident German will turn it into Spargel soup for the next day.

After the feast

A nerd in her prime

Tomorrow is my 50/52 (or 25/26) birthday! Usually I only keep track of monthly fractions like my half-birthday on Dec. 2, or my 5/6 birthday on April 2. We’re in the endgame now though, and anticipation is rising. My favorite thing about being 28 has been that it’s a Perfect Number, according to mathematicians. To be perfect, the factors of a number must add up to the number itself. The last time I was a perfect number was when I was 6. Observe:

1 x 6 = 6

2 x 3 = 6

1+2+3=6

28 = 28 x 1; 14 x 2; 7 x 4

1 + 14 + 2 + 7 + 4 = 28

Wow! I love that! And I won’t be a perfect number again till I’m 496. It’s been a big year for me, finishing my first year as a high school teacher way back in Syracuse, attending my little brother-in-law and new sister-in-law’s wedding and my college roommate and new college-roommate-in-law’s wedding, reveling at my 10-year high school reunion, and of course, leaving everything I know to adventure in Berlin. Man, I’m getting old for this kind of excitement.

Luckily, 29 also has it’s charms. It’s a prime, which means it only has two factors, 1 and itself. There’s no other way to multiply positive whole numbers to get 29. As I age, I get fewer primes. They used to crop up all the time (11, 13, 17, 19), but my last one was age 23. This year, I’m glad to be heading back to my prime.

Which brings me to my second nerdy pastime, puns. None of you seem to have appreciated my tulip pun at the end of April. Samuel Johnson said puns are the lowest form of humor, but Shakespeare agreed with me. Puns are hilarious! If I ever got good enough to make a pun auf Deutsch, I would feel like I’d arrived. I can use Deutsch to make puns in English, but so far, no German puns. It’s hard in a language where, for example, the word for a ride is Mitfahrgelegenheit (with-drive-possibility) and speeding is Geschwindigkeitsüberschreitung (speed-exceedence).

What the Germans know that Americans don’t

After so many months here, I’m still running into cultural disconnects. This one arose yesterday as my German friend Claudia and I sat on a park bench and observed an overalls-clad German two-year-old play with a spade.

Me: I love overalls. The only downside to overalls is that it’s hard to go to the bathroom.

Claudia: Actually, overalls make it easier to go to the bathroom because they keep your kidneys warm.

Me: Wait, what? You don’t mean kidneys. Where’s the dictionary? What are we talking about? Something has gone awry.

[We verify that, yes, Claudia did mean to comment on overalls’ kidney-warming property.]

Also important for kidney health:

  • Wearing an undershirt that tucks into your pants (Claudia gave me a peek of hers.)
  • Not sitting on cold surfaces like stones
  • Wearing a special belt while riding a motorcycle so your kidneys have extra protection

Claudia could not believe that I have never paid any heed to my kidneys. Like a boorish American, I laughed mercilessly at this German concern. Then we headed back to Claudia’s where we cooked delicious spaghetti together and watched the beloved German crime series Tatort, with subtitles in German so I would have a chance of understanding what was going on. Luckily for me, despite our culture clash over this serious health concern, we still had a lovely day together.

Travelling again

More and more my thoughts dwell on coming home. Where should we live? How will we find jobs? What’s next for us? But officially, we have possession of our apartment here until July 31. I can’t adopt a homeward bound attitude yet. I have so much more to experience here. But it’s hard to keep myself focused. Eight months have never felt so long, and we have over two to go. I let the blog lapse because it’s cold and rainy here and I’m full of worries. I gotta be done with that. It’s time to dive back in.

Aaron’s parents visited for a week, and that gave us the motivation to explore outside Berlin. May 1, International Worker’s Day, is also Berlin’s annual Riot Day. This is Germany. Of course we schedule our riots. So, instead of joining the fray of banner wavers and police-car burners, we tiptoed out of the city to visit bucolic Kloster Chorin, a medieval monastery.

From the Chorin train station, visitors traverse the adorable village of Chorin, replete with farm animals and vegetable gardens, and stroll through a refreshing woods.

Pferd aus Chorin

The monastery perches above a lake, whose shores also host a specialty honey restaurant. I ate asparagus strawberry salad in honey vinaigrette. I can’t get over how ridiculously sweet this little journey is. Right down to a honey restaurant. Of course.

A few days later, we trekked out to the Polish border to the town of Görlitz, one of the few places in Germany that wasn’t completely destroyed during WWII. We wandered through the truly ancient streets, popping into churches, admiring Renaissance facades, and, oh yeah, walking over the bridge into Poland.

As soon as we got to Zgorzelek, Poland, it started to rain and we darted back to Germany.

I ate one of the most delicious lunches of my life, a local specialty called Schlesisches Himmelreich (the Silesian Kingdom of Heaven): ham and roasted fruit in a cream sauce served with puffy dumplings. Our daytrip to Görlitz began and ended with a 2.5 hour drive conducted by me, the only eligible driver according to the car rental shop. Aaron’s mother presented her valid Michigan license only to be rejected because the license says “Operator’s License.” “This doesn’t tell me that you can drive,” said the rental agent, in that inimitable German bureaucratic tone that admits no argument. “I don’t know what you can operate.” I had a few ideas of what I’d like to operate in relation to our rental agent, but instead, I sweetly handed over my New York Driver’s License. Aaron’s license expired on his birthday in January, so he wasn’t getting the keys to any car either. The situation improved when the rental agent upgraded us from the VW Golf we’d reserved to the enormous Mercedes they had on hand. I zoomed off, and made my cautious most of the no speed limit Autobahn.

File:Zeichen 282.svg

No limit!

Upon our return to Berlin, I drove us through Checkpoint Charlie in all its historical significance. Few places in the world look so welcoming as an abandoned restricted border crossing.