Thursday, July 04, 2002

Innocents Abroad
I had the foresight to put this (e)book on my Palm before leaving home, and I finally got around to reading it today. It details, blog-style, Mark Twain's 1867 trip to Europe. I've been deriving much pleasure from his descriptions of the places that we went in Italy. It seems Mr. Twain felt much the same way as I did when confronted with the entirety of Renaissance art... neither of us felt quite qualified to understand its importance, and both of us were overwhelmed with its quantity. In particular, he complained about the profusion of Michaelangelo works... "I never felt so fervently thankful, so soothed, so tranquil, so filled with a blessed peace, as I did yesterday when I learned that Michael Angelo was dead."

I'm sure he would have better appreciated the salt mines, had he ventured far enough north to see them.

It's remarkable how much has remained unchanged for the last 135 years. Dan will no doubt be gratified to hear him describe Piazza San Marco in Venice, filled with "hundreds of people at small tables, smoking and taking granita (a first cousin to ice-cream)". His band presumably wasn't playing selections from Phantom of the Opera or Fiddler on the Roof, though (sorry, Dave).
posted by Rebecca 7/04/2002 05:17:00 AM

Wednesday, July 03, 2002

Salt Mines!
Yesterday, Dave and I ventured up to Hohensalzburg, the old fortress above the city. It was high. It was fortressy. It was largely satisfying, except that we made the error of forking over 3 euros for entrance into the "Marionetten Museum", which consisted of two small rooms worth of contemporary puppets. For those of you who are playing along at home, that's somewhere in the vicinity of 1.50 per small room, or about 0.30 per contemporary puppet. Not the best value we've encountered on our vacation.

Today, we had much better luck at the Salt Mine!!! There were miner coveralls that made me look like Dopey! There was a swift train through a small dark tunnel! There was a really long wooden slide! There was a movie about salt mining! There were fragments of the really old wooden pipes that were used to transfer the salt water! There was another even steeper and longer wooden slide! There was a raft ride across an underground salt lake with 220m of mountain above it and lights all around! There was a great big almost-200-year old brass pump that pulled salt water to the top of the mountain! There was another train ride! There was a third train ride! There were teeny shakers of salt! It was like Disneyworld for geeks!!!

There was also another family from Cupertino. Is anybody left in Cupertino, or have its residents all relocated to Europe?

(By the way, Dave and I are unable to corroborate the "posterior effects" that Tony experienced on the two wooden slides. Either we were spared because he kindly advised us to wear jeans, or his tour group worked out the last few splinters for us.)

Tomorrow night, we're going to be staying in Munich again. Friday morning, we'll wake up in Munich and will have to find our way to Llangollen (in Wales) by nightfall. This is a process that takes a shuttle, a plane flight, a train ride, an Underground trip, and then 3 more train rides. "Miles to go before I sleep" and all that. Something tells me we're going to have some difficulty finding internet access in Deepest Wales, so you may next hear from me in Edinburgh in a couple of days.
posted by Rebecca 7/03/2002 12:21:00 PM

Monday, July 01, 2002

We've seen a lot of CNN lately, as we don't speak any other languages well enough to understand local TV programs. I hadn't realized just how little content they have to work with. Judging from the sample set that I've seen, CNN has about 2 hours of original footage in any news day. 90 minutes of this is sports. They stretch this out by just broadcasting it in a continuous loop. It's really awful.

Switching away from CNN is fraught with peril, though. Usually, this is just some foreign-equivalent of Jerry Springer or a really odd game show, but we spent several horrified minutes yesterday watching some sort of wrestling match. From signage around the arena, we could tell it wasn't German, but we weren't able to determine which language it was. The particular form of wrestling, though, involved two beefy men, covered in sweat, putting their heads together, pushing at each other, and... trying to stick their arms down one another's trousers. We're not sure why this last bit was necessary. We're not sure if we want to know.
posted by Rebecca 7/01/2002 01:34:00 PM

The land of beer and sausages
Sorry about the long delay in blogging, folks... I know many of you are waiting for each next installation with bated breath. Have been so tied up with sightseeing, eating, and drinking that it's been difficult to find an internet cafe.

First up, some current news... I hear my Dad has been selected to win a HomeTown Hero award in The Woodlands, TX. This much deserved recognition comes after many, many years of distinguished volunteer work in local government and at church. One of his lesser-known community accomplishments involved failing to run over any neighborhood children while test driving his rebuilt Model-T in the early stages of its development. Another entailed helping to add "No Power Saws" to the many safety rules that govern physics projects at the local high school (by assisting me in demonstrating that it is, in fact, possible to run one on DC power). Much congrats, Dad!

Blake Ross has seen fit to disparage my sole surviving houseplant, and I think this requires a response. For those of you who don't know, Blake is a precocious youngster who was recruited from his 2nd grade class to work at Netscape. This makes him almost as clever as my new nephew, Charlie. At any rate, this whippersnapper noted that my sad little houseplant is the only bit of greenery that we asked bryner to take care of while we were away. What Blake doesn't know is that the sad little houseplant is under my direct care, and is therefore subject to the influence of Rebecca's Black Thumb of Plant Death. The sad little houseplant is therefore remarkable by virtue of the fact that it has yet to completely die. We actually have a service that takes care of our yard. This keeps it out of my hands, which explains why it's lush and green and does not in any way remind one of Chernobyl. We use this service out of respect for our neighbors.

Back to the travelogue.

Pompeii kicks butt. After looking at ruin after ruin in Rome and environs, it really stands out. You finally gain some understanding about what all of this stuff looked like before it "got all crumbly". Dave was running around with his audioguide plastered to his ear. Every so often, he'd look at me with an expression of pure delight and scamper off to go look at some new detail that had just been described. Very, very happy camper.

Random Italy observation... it came to our attention that all of the females were either thin, young, beautiful and over 5'10'', or old, wrinkly and under 4'. Lacking any examples in between, I came to the conclusion that the transformation from one state to the other must happen very, very fast. Overnight. Maybe this is why the little old Italian women are always in such a bad mood. They can be very effective... the easiest way to fight your way through a densely packed crowd is to follow a little old Italian woman.

After Pompeii, we made our way by rail to Luzern, which included getting trapped in a smoking car as far as Milan. This was a complete nightmare. Our railpasses automatically give us first class seats, we had air conditioning instead of openable windows. Under normal circumstances, this is an advantage, but in the smoking car, this meant that there was no place for the smoke to go. Rather like sitting in an aquarium with 200 lit cigarettes. To give you an idea, even the smokers don't want to sit in the smoking car. They sit in comfort in the non-smoking cars and just move to the smoking cars when they actually want to smoke. It took several days for my lungs to recover. Next time, we'll just get on the next train.

Going from Italy to Switzerland was a bit of an adjustment. The air was 20 degrees cooler, so we got our first relief from being constantly drenched in our own sweat (yuck). The trains all ran on time. Really on time. You can wake up from a nap and use your watch instead of your window to figure out which station you've just pulled into. And people suddenly start obeying things like traffic rules and pedestrian walk signals (and will fuss at you if you do not). Dave and I spent our one day in Luzern travelling to the top of Mount Pilatus. Only 7000 feet, so not that big by Alp standards, but really nice view, regardless. On the way up, we took the world's steepest railway. The maximum incline of the track is 48%, so this train doesn't bother with the usual niceties of switchbacks and such... it just runs straight up the side of the mountain. The seats are installed at 45%, so as to prevent passengers from falling into an uncomfortable pile on the rear windows of the train.

Dave and I almost didn't make it onto the train, despite the fact that we started out near the front of the line (mob) that was waiting to get on. I accredit this to Dave being southern. He let too many people shove in front of him. As he put it, "I need to learn to bat women and children out of the way." His gentlemanly conduct resulted in his being situated on the last available seat of the car, which was actually in the "caboose"... where the engineer sits while driving the train down the mountain. As a result of this, he got a fantastic view (especially looking straight down the mountain). Also as a result of this, he had access to a fantastic array of levers, glowing buttons, and other instruments. I feared for our lives.

After meeting up with Carey for a quick lunch in Zurich, we were off to Munich. The highlight for both of us was the Deutsches Museum... the largest science and technology museum in the world. We actually went there twice and didn't even make a dent. Tunnels. Bridges. Trains. Boats. Mining. Musical instruments. In that last section, there was a collection of mechanical musical instruments that I've never even heard of... one of them played 3 violins using a rotating disk and suction to serve as the bow. Way cool. They also had on display one of the original Pilatus Railway cars, along with an example of the cogwheel assembly it uses to prevent the train from sliding down the mountain (unless some tourist is sitting in the caboose and hits the Big Red Button).

We stopped in at the Hofbrauhaus. This is the oldest Biergarten in Munich. After sitting down, we realized that the kids sitting next to us were American. This was not surprising... the Hofbrauhaus is packed full of tourists. We got a little suspicious when we overheard one of them telling the others about RSA, though (non-techie translation... this is an algorithm for computer cryptography). Turns out they were all from Cupertino... practically our own backyard. We spent a pleasant hour having an extremely geeky conversation with the RSA guy (probably to the relief of his non-techie friends, who were freed up to have a conversation about something more interesting).

Now we're in Salzburg. We haven't seen much yet aside from Mozart's birthplace, which, as I now understand it, isn't so much his actual birthplace, but a building that happens to stand in the same place. It was sparsely filled with reproductions of actual Mozart music and portraits of the family. A couple of the things might have been original. In all, it was pretty underwhelming.
posted by Rebecca 7/01/2002 02:59:00 AM