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Berlin Day 2

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Finally, another blog post! I’m sorry for making you all wait so long. I’m determined to get through the rest of the trip. Just five more days. Totally do-able.

Anyway, day two started out with a nice surprise. Somehow my phone got unplugged in the night and was now completely dead. Great! It was terrible timing because today I was going on a 5 hour tour of Berlin. Oh and I also had no way of telling what time it was. It felt a little early when I first woke up and saw the dead phone so I went back to sleep for a bit. I woke up again and went to the bathroom. It felt like I should get up then but it was the weirdest feeling to not be able to tell what time it was. There was a guy sleeping with his watch on and I started leaning over him to read it but that creeped me out so I gave up. Imagine trying to explain to a guy that the reason you’re hovering menacingly over his bed is that you just wanted to check what time it was. Real believable.

So I got dressed and headed down to the lobby. It was like 9:15 I think and the the tour started at 10 or something. So I had a little time beforehand to try and get it the phone working again. The front desk told me there was an internet cafe a couple blocks up and then some so I hurriedly headed out. Of course the directions got all muddled in my head so I never found what they were talking about. The anxiousness level was rising as I walked up and down streets, looking for a stupid internet cafe. I swore the things were everywhere when I didn’t need them.

Thankfully, I found one on the main drag and walked in. The hacking process requires having the ability to install iTunes to the computer and I was lucky this place allow it Any good, secure place should block it though, because it’d be just as easy to install keystroke logging software and steal everybody’s passwords. I’m lucky that I never had any problems with that, as far as I know.

By this time, I as running really low on time. I started to download iTunes, which was a big file and it went pretty slowly on the ancient computer hardware. the time was just getting too close so I had to give up and run back to try to get the train. Another 10 minutes and I’d have gotten it installed no problem, but that was just the way my luck turned out. No pictures on this tour for me! :(

So I boarded the S-bahn, heading off down the line for a couple stops. I tried to keep track of the time in my head because I still didn’t have a way to know. It’s funny how few clocks there are when you need them! I guess I could’ve asked somebody for the time but I was too shy. I got off at the station and checked the clock there. I was already late for the tour. I hoped they would wait a little bit.

The meeting point was right across from the train station. I kind of remembered the name of it but had no idea where it was. Luckily, I took the right exit and stumbled onto the street right across from it. No tour group though. Sigh. Defeat and failure again. I walked to the sign saying “Meet here for … ” and confirmed my mess up. As I was walking away though, I caught another part of the sign that said “Missed the pickup time? Meet us at our first stop at the New Synagogue 20 minutes afterwards.” Oh joy! I’d have a chance after all!

So I followed their directions to the New Synagogue. Again, I was trying to keep track of time’s passing because I couldn’t find a clock anywhere. I was late to the meeting point to begin with but I got to the first stop in what felt like less than 15 minutes. And there was only one way to find out— wait.

In front of the synagogue there were two police officers guarding the place. I felt a little uneasy just loitering around there and tried to look as non-threatening as possible. However one does that, I’m not sure but they never came up to ask what I was doing so I guess it worked. After a while, I spotted the tour group across the street. I went across and joined them. Hooray, the day wasn’t a complete failure after all.

I was still mad that I didn’t have a way to take pictures though. Everything was screaming out to be photographed and I almost didn’t even want to be on that tour because of it. Oh well, my memory is decent enough and has held until now at least.

The guide described the first stop– the New Synagogue, which was mostly destroyed during WWII. Ironically, it was the Americans fault and they weren’t even trying to hit it. The building was in between two key Nazi buildings but the bomber completely missed those. Since then, the building has been rebuilt but you can see some of the original walls with pockmarks from the shrapnel.

Somebody asked if some of the marks could be bullet holes and the guide said that generally, the smaller and rounder the hole, the more likely it was cause by a bullet. I thought that was pretty cool. But then he said something that made a lump grow in my throat, and still does today.

He said that sometimes you see the bullet holes in a line and I though “cool, that must be from machine guns spraying.” Not at all. He said it was from people being lined up against the wall and executed by firing squad. Ice crawled across my skin and plunged into my chest. I knew that stuff had happened during the war but being able to see the silent, vivid reminders of those horrors struck me deeply. Each one of those simple little holes was a life lost.

So after that chilling moment we walked down the sidewalk to the next stop. It was actually the area behind the synagogue, which was filled with small shops, playground and a building which used to be horse stables. A couple of the buildings there cracked me up– one was some kind of self-promotion consulting place and the other one was a clown school. Oh wait, they were the same building. 😉

After that we went to a cool squatter settlement called Tacheles. It was originally built as a high-end shopping complex but it got bombed during WWII and people started living there afterward. They didn’t own the land or have permission to be there but have actually transformed the place into an important cultural landmark. Nowadays, it houses art studios, galleries, clubs and some other less scrupulous businesses. Again, I was kicking myself that I didn’t have a camera because the place was filled with awesome graffiti and the half-demolished building looked awesome by itself.

Next, we went over to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Its an entire city block filled with stone monoliths of varying height. It didn’t really connect with me but it was still cool to be there. The place actually drew quite a bit of controversy when it was constructed. One legitimate reason was that it only commemorates the Jews killed in WWII, ignoring the millions of non-Jews who died as well. One bizarre but interesting reason that it caused outrage was that they used an anti-graffiti coating on the stone blocks that is made by the same company who used to make Zyklon B, the deadly gas used in gas chambers during the Holocaust. It seems like they should’ve used an alternative company but its also a reminder to how recent the Holocaust was. The tour guide mentioned another interesting tidbit– the Fanta soda company was started as the Nazi alternative to Coke.

The next spot we went was a place most tourists would never discover. It was a parking lot. But the spot had quite an infamous history before it became a parking lot. It used to be the office and home of Adolf Hitler. Everything was leveled after the war but his underground bunker is still buried there. In that bunker, Hitler committed suicide along with his mistress Eva Braun and afterward their bodies were taken outside, covered with gasoline and burned. We stood on that exact site.

There were no memorials, no markings, nothing other than a small sign about 30 yards away. The fact that the site was used for something as mundane as a parking lot was perfect. The man who thought he would start a thousand year reign doesn’t even have a gravestone. Poetic justice at its finest.

After that, we walked around East Berlin. We saw the second longest stretch of the Berlin wall as well as Checkpoint Charlie. The checkpoint is one of the worst tourist traps in Berlin. Not only does it have a poorly done museum but the “guards” re-enacting the checkpoint are also male prostitutes. I couldn’t even believe that. Not so classy, Berlin.

At that point, we stopped for some coffee and I also got a delicious piece of bread pudding. It was fun talking to the guide about his experience in Berlin. I think he was from England originally but moved over about five years ago. I asked him how much German he knew and he said enough to get by. He said that Germans asked him why he was even trying to learn an ugly language like German, which I found interesting. It stems from the issue of the huge national guilt that Germans feel over WWII and the embarrassment they have. The guide called it “self-flagellation.” He also said that some of his English friends have been in Berlin for 10 years and still have problems ordering at a restaurant. Interesting.

Anyway, after that we saw a few of the buildings designed under the Nazi reign, which were all ascetic, gray structures. Then we saw some of the more famous buildings like the Brandenburg Gate. Also saw Hotel Adlon, where Michael Jackson dangled his son Blanket over the railing. After walking around to the other side, we saw a couple nice cars roll up and somebody famous looking get out. He had a couple bodyguards and a cameraman with him. We couldn’t tell who he was but he was pretty blinged-out and posed for a couple photos. People thought he might be Prince but looking at pictures, he seems a little too big. You be the judge.

From there we walked to the Berlin Cathedral. He was explaining the history and stuff of the spot but all I really remember is that one year they were filming a Hitler movie in the area. They had it all set up like it would’ve been back in the day and our tour guide just happened to stumble upon it unknowingly. He said he saw all these swasitkas and was like “what the heck?” but they said “its ok, it’s for a movie.” Yeah, pretty interesting story. We parted ways and now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure I never paid for the original tour. I offered as soon as I joined the group, but they said pay later and I forgot. Bad Brandon! I guess I’ll have to go back, if only to pay up. Maybe they could extradite me– a free trip over there!

If you’ve been reading this straight through, now’s a time to get up, stretch and think about something else for a second. You’ve been a reading machine and you need to take a break before you hurt yourself. It’s taken me two days to get this far in writing it, so I bet your eyeballs are screaming for a break. I think this it’s already the longest post I’ve done. Berlin is just so interesting and cool! If there was any place I could see myself living, Berlin would be it. OK, go take your break now.

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Break’s over, back to the action. The tour was over and I now had to fix that broken phone of mine. Luckily, someone offered to send their pictures from the tour over. Thanks to Kate B, I have pictures! Anyway, I headed off to Prenzlauer Berg to look for a dang internet cafe. The area is hip and cool and apparently has the best dressed babies in Berlin. I didn’t see any babies. I did shop around some of the clothing stores a bit while I was up there but didn’t see anything fantastic. I went into a couple internet cafes there and finally found one. Of course I spent too much time in there but I did get the phone working again. Hallelujah. I also planned out some more of my trip, although it was pretty well planned out at this point. Grabbed a beer to go and headed down the street.

Explored the area a little bit and must’ve eaten something at that point because it was dinner time. I had an “anti pub-crawl” bar tour at 8 and I think I went back to the hostel to get changed into jeans. Anyway, I met up with the group, back in Prenzlauer Berg. The plan was to tour some local bars and have a drink at each one without becoming a huge mob of drunk tourists by the end of the night. The pub crawls have quite a bad reputation for that amongst the locals, so our guides kept the group smaller and possibly less intoxicated.

Our first bar was decorated in the hippy 70’s style. The place wasn’t very full except the tables where our group was at– probably 12 of us in total. We all did the typical traveller chat: “Where are you from? How long have you been travelling? Where are you going next?” That’s usually enough to get things kicked off.

The second bar was some kind of Gothic dungeon with lots of skulls and skeletons and other evil things lining the walls. They were blasting heavy metal classics and it was awesome when Rammstein’s Du Hast came on. That’s been a long time favorite of mine and it was the perfect place to hear it. For those of you who don’t know him, you might as well save your eardrums for something else. But I loved it and it all made me chuckle at how over-the-top this place was.

We left there after about 45 minutes and then headed via S-Bahn to this ping-pong bar. I had never been to one before but they are actually cool. The place was tiny and must’ve been a converted house. The grand attraction was a ping-pong table, where people would get in a giant circle and walk around it, hitting the ball once and then continuing on. If you missed the ball, you stepped out of the circle and eventually the game got down to the final two, who would play a game to 10 points. Then it was everybody in again. I did the best during my first round, lasting past about half of the other people. We must’ve been there an hour or so, having drinks in between games of ping-pong.

The final place we went was a club called Cassiopeia. It was about 2 am by this time and the club was bumping. I learned later that it used to be a train depot that got bombed out during WWII. Pretty cool. The DJ was playing fast dubstep techno and everybody was dancing wildly. It was a ton of fun to be there and the frenzy of it all was exhilarating. There was another level above playing different music and I checked that out too. After a while, I was getting psyched up to go to another club, the most exclusive club in Berlin, the Berghain.

The Berghain is legendary amongst clubbers worldwide not only because of its awesome music but also because of its draconian door policy. There’s no rhyme nor reason to who they let in– it’s all about having the “look.” Most people get turned away but that just keeps them coming back for more. I was nervous about even trying because I’d surely get turned away if they found out I was an American tourist. But that night I was feeling gutsy enough to try it out.

I left the group and walked to the Berghain, which wasn’t more than 10 minutes away. Both clubs are in an area of Berlin called Friedrichshain, which is stuffed with other clubs and nightlife spots. Luckily, my hostel was in the same area too so I could just walk home. Anyway, I had butterflys in my stomach as I walked to the Berghain. It was stupid to get so nervous but whatever.

Turns out my nerves were for nothing though. The place was dead– not another soul roamed the area. I then remembered hearing that they were only open on Saturdays. My guidebook had been wrong. It was getting late anyway- probably about 3 or so. Actually, that’s about the time people start going out to clubs. Peak time is 6am and by 9am the clubs are kicking people out. Sounds insane.

So I walked back to my hostel and fell asleep. There ends the day!

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September 26th, 2010 at 5:01 pm

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First Week at Microsoft

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We’re not done with the Europe trip posts but I thought I’d share how my first week at my new job went. I started last Monday working as a Program Manager at Microsoft. My team is responsible for work on the Office family of products and they were my first choice out of the options I had. Program managers are responsible for inventing and designing new features for the software although we don’t actually code. The main thing we produce are specification documents, which provide the goals, justification, and detailed design for an individual feature. The specs are written early on in the development lifecycle and PMs work with the coders and testers to see the feature through to completion. The work involves a lot of collaboration– both within the team and between teams. What attracted me to the position of PM was the opportunity for critical thinking and high-level design, as well as the big impact they have on the final product.

Speaking of the big impact, one cool thing about my Europe trip this summer was seeing all the people who would be impacted by the work I would be doing. They were people who spoke a different language, lived thousands of miles away, and would never come in contact with me, yet they will be affected often by software that I, along with my team, designed and brought to life. It was an empowering feeling to realize that and it made this job feel even more rewarding. If I could make Office a tiny bit better and save millions of people just a couple seconds of their time, it would be so awesome.

Working on Office and at Microsoft will not only give me an opportunity to improve the world, but it will be a great chance to improve myself and advance my career. What really attracted me to Microsoft is their long standing legacy of expertise and dominance in the Software Engineering world and the opportunity to work in this environment. They also take an active role in advancing the careers of their employees, from encouraging mentorships to offering training seminars to developing a career plan. They really are interested in helping you reach your maximum potential and I think that’s cool.

So it was with a lot of excitement and optimism that I started the week. Monday was spent in basic training, just an overview of company policies and employee benefits. I was lucky though and got to meet my boss at the end of the day. He seemed like a good boss: responsive, respectful, relaxed, communicative, and experienced. He told me a bit about team and the kind of work I’d be doing, which I didn’t really understand but was good to hear. I felt relieved to get a good boss because he will be having a big influence over my job success and enjoyment.

The rest of the week was spent meeting people on the team, going through training sessions, reading presentations, and generally drowning in information. It was easy to feel stupid and intimidated by all that was going on within our team but I was assured that the feeling is normal and subsides with time. It takes about six months to become truly effective and independent, so I’m going to try to not judge myself too harshly. But it is frustrating when you want to hit the ground running and instead have to spend so much time coming up to speed. Then again, the software is so intricate and the complexity so high that it’d be impossible to do anything else.

The days went by quickly but I was glad when they were over. Of course, it wasn’t time to relax just yet. I still had to get home, which takes a lot of time. Traffic is so bad that I took anywhere from forty minutes to an hour to get back home. I tried driving once instead of taking the bus, but the stress of dealing with stop and go traffic greatly outweighed the time savings. Microsoft actually operates an extensive network of buses that go throughout Seattle to pickup employees and I’ll try taking that once my information gets into their system. Optimizing my commute is still a task and someday I hope I won’t mind it at all.

So that’s about it for the first week at work. I expect to occasionally post stuff about my job, but only after I’ve thoroughly read the guidelines for blogging. One leak of sensitive information is all it takes to get fired. Yikes!

A new Europe post is coming soon…

Taken in the Paris metro system. This job has impact!

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September 6th, 2010 at 5:19 pm

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Berlin Day 1

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Berlin started out like most cities– me going through the Let’s Go guidebook and getting a list of things I want to see in the city. First on the list was the Hamburger Banhof: Museum for the Present. Housed in the old train station, this huge exhibition space focused on contemporary art. I grabbed a Doner Teller, a doner kebap minus the pita- on my way there.

The museum had a lot of weird stuff in it. Some was cool weird and others was just weird weird. Like this one room which was mostly filled with huge blocks of tallow (solidified beef fat) that had been made by the artist, Joseph Beuys, pouring the warm liquid tallow in between concrete forms at a construction site. The description said “The senseless urban construction was to be transformed with a healing substance. Fat, a source of energy for the body, was used as a positive substance to rescue a cold, wounded place.” Now is that what you would call art? I tried not to condemn stuff like that, instead just admitted that it was over my head. The artist had a bunch of other varied and bizarre works, including a video of him boxing a TV set. You can check out his Wikipedia page here. It claims he is one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. Hmm…. guess it was over my head.

After seeing a lot of seemingly senseless and random art, it put my mind in a different place. I started really enjoying the nonsense of it all– it was a nice break from all the sense we have in normal life. I started to realize how we have all these specific patterns and habits and conventions and don’t ever really step outside them. Of course there are good reasons for the things we do, but there’s seldom a good reason against doing something completely different.

It’s fun to see art doing that because it you confront the work violently and indignantly- asking questions like “Why is this stupid thing in a museum?” and “What’s even the point?”. You feel pressured to come up with good answers and this process of rationalization forces you to think in ways you never have before. Once nonsense starts making sense are you going crazy or just deepening your understanding of the universe? Think about it.

Anyway, you can see some of the other odd works in my pictures. It was a fun experience but eventually I got tired of thinking and wrapped things up. Maybe it was just time for a meal, too. So I walked around the surrounding area for a bit, checking out the Berlin Cathedral and the Tomb of the Unknown soldier. By this time, I was getting really hungry so I found a place serving authentic German food and got a weisswurst, white sausage. It’s a local favorite in Bavaria but I hadn’t gotten a chance to try it there. I thought it was pretty good.

And from there, I must’ve gone to an internet cafe to do some planning because I have a bunch of pictures of maps and addresses. That’s how I save stuff for later. After those shots, there aren’t any more pictures for the night. Hmmm… I wonder what happened. Without those little reminders, I’m drawing a blank. The timestamp was 9:00 on the last picture so I must not have gone back to the hostel right away, but then again I must not have done anything interesting or I would’ve take pictures. Part of the trip just slipped into oblivion. :( Well, I guess that’s the end of the day. Bye!

Cover of next month's Bon Apetit

The brush technique on this one was crazy.

Andy Warhol, whose works or fame I still can't understand.

Some scribbles on canvas done by Cy Twombly. Whaaaat?!

Those are faces of real people who got convered in paper and flour and paint. Its part of a style called Action Art and this one is by Otto Muhl.

Tallow.

One of many bug models. Incredible level of detail.

This one was disturbing. Yes, that's Michael Jackson.

This can't be purely coincidental. The question is, which came first?

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August 27th, 2010 at 7:01 pm

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Munich Day 4

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My last day here and there were way too many things I still wanted to do. Wanted to visit the concentration camp Dachau. Wanted to visit the renowned modern art museum Pinakothek der Moderne. Wanted to visit the BMW World and museum. Only one would fit in the half day I had until boarding the 6 hour train to Berlin. I ended up choosing the BMW World because I thought I might be able to get fit into one of their factory tours. They were booked out for the week when I called, but I thought there would be a chance for one person to get squeezed in.

The BMW World housed in a crazy looking building and was just opened in 2007. Inside, there were all of BMWs current cars on show and a bunch of little exhibits showcasing BMW technology. Felt like a big fancy dealership to me. It was cool to see the huge engines they put into some of those cars. I talked with guy at the information desk about the tours and he said I might be able to go on one leaving in 15 minutes but it would’ve made me miss my train to Berlin. It was the last direct one and I was arriving after 11 as it was, so I decided to skip it. Add that to the “Next Time” list.

So instead of hitting the tour, I went over to the BMW Museum, which housed a bunch of classic cars and motorcycles produced throughout the companies 94 year history. Seeing the evolution of body styles and aesthetics was fun and some of their early motorcycles looked especially cool. They had a couple famous BMWs from movies, like the 007 cars from James Bond. There were little videos talking about the design process and even a full-size clay model of a BMW 1-series.

But my favorite part of the BMW Museum wasn’t the cars. In the temporary exhibit space, they were showing a collection of contemporary architecture projects. Some had been completed in real life while others were still under construction, but here they were all tiny models built from wood and metal. The intricacy of the models and their beauty captivated my mind. The designs were so new and crazy and opened my eyes to the huge range of possibilities in modern architecture. Check out one of the craziest buildings, the new National Museum of Qatar, here. That one only had a picture in the exhibit and the link has much better ones. I’ll post a couple pictures of other scale models, too.

At the top of that exhibit space, which was shaped in a spiral ramp, was a 360-degree screen playing a short computer generated video. This technical achievement brought out the nerd in me and I marveled at how they synced 16 different video projectors and speaker sets together to form one seamless multimedia experience. Cars would zoom around the walls without a single blip or line in the image and sound would come from all different points in the room. It was a cool experience! Wonder when they’ll be pushing that system for home use. 10millionP 3D 360-degree 16.1 multimedia explosion!! You’ll never want to go anywhere and you couldn’t afford to either.

From the museum, I left for the train station and got there with time to spare. Relief! The train ride was uneventful– spent some if it watching “Goodwill Hunting” and the rest either blogging or relaxing. I got into Berlin after 11 and was able to find my hostel without problems. It was really nice– only a couple months old and had a cool lobby with a bunch of couches and blasting dance music. I went to bed then and prepared for a new day in a new city!

P.S. The pics are this way because there are more than usual and I didn’t want to hog the entire page with one post.

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August 26th, 2010 at 3:39 pm

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Munich Day 3

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Day 3 in Munich (July 26) started with a free tour of Munich given by the popular Sandeman’s Tour company. The guides get paid solely by tips given at the end of the tour and I’m amazed that they can survive on it. We met outside the New Town Hall, in front of the famous clock called the Rathaus-Glockenspiel. Twice a day, 32 life-sized mechanized figurines on two levels act out two different stories from their culture in a 12-15 minute spectacle. The guide said it was supposedly voted as the #2 most overrated tourist attraction in the world so I wasn’t too sad to never see it in action. #1 went to another animated clock which has an even longer time-waste of a show.

Anyway, our guide was a character and I laughed both at him and his jokes. We saw a couple churches and buildings and learned a lot about the early beginnings of the Nazi party, which started in Munich. I won’t go into too much detail, but Hitler was a devilishly clever and well-spoken man and fought a hard uphill battle on his way to the top. At first, the Nazi party was some small, ultra-conservative group of political outcasts. They actually had a violent encounter with the Munich police when they were marching to overthrow the Bavarian government. The group lost 16 members and Hitler barely escaped alive. He was devastated at the loss and in his despair, contemplated suicide but was talked out of it. What a different place the world would be if he had gone through with it!

Anyway, he was arrested on grounds of high treason and thrown into jail. Unfortunately, during his trial, he was given complete freedom to speak as much as he wanted and the press reprinted everything he said in the newspaper. He used the opportunity to espouse his nationalistic ideals and rail against the political system in Germany. This powerful speech pushed Hitler and the Nazis into the national spotlight for the first time and he even became somewhat of a celebrity, receiving a greatly reduced sentence and even fan mail in jail. I’ll stop there with the history lesson– Wikipedia the rest if you’re curious. It was interesting to me how this unlucky string of events started Hitler on his path to destruction.

Oh, something interesting about modern Germany is how they’ve outlawed stuff related to the Nazi party. Our tour guide warned us that if you do the Nazi salute even as a joke you will be instantly deported and given a huge fine. It’s also illegal (except for special situations) to own Hitler’s manifesto Mein Kampf or to draw a swastika. Germany has a huge national guilt over this dark past and is trying to show the world they are as far from that thinking as possible. Yet they still protect the right of free speech and allow the Neo-Nazis to have marches. Interestingly, a recent one was completely blocked by angry citizens, so the marchers were all taken by bus to march around in countryside field. Not exactly what they had in mind, but fine by me!

Back to the day’s story. After the tour ended, the guide invited us along for dinner at one of his favorite places so I went along. It sure beat eating alone! My dinner was pretty good and the conversation was enjoyable too. But I had to cut things short in order to make it to my next tour, the Beer and Brewery tour which started at 6:15.

This tour wasn’t free but we’d be going to several different beer halls and also seeing a micro-brewery in one of the places. There were going to be free samples of beer at each place, too. Our guide was from Michigan and had traveled to Munich and Germany so much that he and his wife finally decided to just live there. Now he was making a living by giving tours and I think he said he did about 6 different types of tours during the week, 2-3 per day. Not a half-bad way to go!

The first stop was the Schneider-Weisse beer hall. That site used to be the home of the Weisses Brauhaus, which was the first brewery to popularize wheat beer, or weissbier. Its been a hit ever since and is one of my favorites. At the place, I tried something different though– a beer called Eisbock which is a high alcohol (12%), dark, sweet beer. Its made by taking an already strong lager called Doppelbock, partially freezing the barrels, and removing the ice chips. This concentrates the flavor and alcohol content of the beer and has been used to make beer with an alcohol content of 60% (full story here). The Eisbock was pretty hard to drink because it was so strong and sweet. But hey, it was good to try out.

After Schneider-Weisse, we went to a Paulaner beer hall that brews its drinks in-house. Here, the guide explained the process of brewing beer and showed us the machinery they use. It’s pretty cool to learn how the magical stuff is made. If you’re curious, there’s a good explanation here. I’ve seen the action before when I was helping a friend start a batch of homebrew and it actually made the stuff taste different to know and experience the process. It reminds me of brewing tea, actually.

So we got to see the fancy copper mash tuns and boilers and fermenters. He explained the different varieties of malt and we tasted them. Also got a sniff of some hops, which is an extremely strong herb used to flavor and preserve the beer. After seeing that stuff, we headed to the dining area and had some samples of the beer and big pretzels. Along the way, I’d been talking with some fellow travelers and hearing about where they’d been. It’s fun to compare experiences on places we’d both been and to complain about the travail of travel.

After that, we went to our third and final beer hall, the internationally famous Hofbräuhaus. Back in the day, it was a beer hall reserved only for royalty but one king along the way opened it up to everyone and since then its been an important center of activity. The Nazi’s actually used it as a place to gain supporters and Hitler’s first public speech for the party was given there. Oddly enough, before he turned to politics, young Hitler pursued a career as an artist, painting thousands of watercolors, including one of the Hofbräuhaus, which you can see here.

Anyway, the place was cool to see and we sat down for some proper-sized beers (liters!) and food. The guide explained that some people actually come here so often they have lockers for their beer mugs and seating priority at a specific table marked by a wooden sign denoting the group’s name. There’s some ridiculous requirement for how often you have to go to be considered a regular and get your own table. I think it’s something like at least three times a week for 10 years. The beer mug lockers are so precious that they’re handed down from father to son. These people love their beer!

That reminds me to talk about how important beer is to their culture and social lives. The town was started by monks who brewed beer, so it makes sense that it’s such a strong part of their identity. It’s a law there that any place serving food must serve beer. Consequently, you can get a beer at McDonald’s or Burger King, which I find really bizarre. What’s also weird is to see old ladies headed to table with giant mugs of beer in their hands. It is cool though how the beer gardens and beer halls are packed with people of all ages out to relax, socialize and have a good time. It refreshingly reminds you of the positive aspects of beer when you’re used to hearing about about all its abuses in American culture. Not like there are no problems over there but here I think we’re overly conservative with it and drive it into a weird place where it ends up causing more problems.

Soapbox dismounted. Along with my pint, I had a delicious dessert that was basically a crepe sprinkled with powdered sugar and warm applesauce spooned over the top. Yum! More talking of course, and the place actually was shutting down by 11, so we left for another place. By this time, the group had dwindled to a handful and we headed to an Irish pub, one of the only places open late. Some more good times there until they closed at 12:30. Then I headed back to Christoph’s place.

I found the house empty, which he said might happen, but it still creeped me out to be in a stranger’s house all alone. He’d left a key for me so I went in and settled down for the night.

Scale model of downtown Munich to help the blind see their city. Very cool!

Check the price tag!

The Eisbock- an acquired taste.

Some barley used for beer making.

Top of a beer fermenting vat. Looks like a delicious latte!

Our tour guide in front of the Hofbrauhaus.

yummy dessert!

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August 25th, 2010 at 6:16 pm

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Munich Day 2

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Let’s keep the ball rolling…. here’s Munich Day 2.

Day 2 began early at Christoph’s kitchen table. We were planning how I should get out to this rural town called Kaltenburg, which was holding the Kaltenberger Ritterturnier. Billed as the largest knight tournament in the world with competitors coming from all different countries, the Kaltenberger Ritturnier caught my eye as a fun and interesting spectacle. I mean, how often do you get to see knights fighting? They also had a medieval market set-up around the venue. I’ve never been a big fan of those Renaissance fairs but I thought it’d be cool to see for a bit.

The event started at 11 but it was about an hour trip to get there and I wanted to leave plenty of time to spare, so I left Christoph’s at 9. I was a little nervous about the last leg of the trip, because we just guessed there would be a bus to take people to the small town of Kaltenberg from the last S-Bahn stop at Geltendorf. The event was big enough they’d have to provide a way to get there. Or so we assumed.

So I get on the bus from his place to the proper S-Bahn stop. Get off at the station and hop on the southbound S4 only to realize that it doesn’t go all the way to Geltendorf like it’s supposed to. Hmmm, this was a Sunday, so maybe the line is different, I thought. Anyway, I get dumped off the train about 2 stops before Geltendorf. Looking at the departures board, I see another one is coming in 20 minutes that goes all the way to Geltendorf, so I’m ok. Sigh of relief. Eat some breakfast and then get on the next train. I was glad I’d left myself extra time.

I arrive in Geltendorf and I’m not sure what to do next. I decide to just follow the dude in black leather pants. A person dressed like that only has a few possible destinations and a Renaissance fair was a very likely candidate. My instincts were right and he lead me right to a shuttle bus taking people to Kaltenberg. For once an assumption had been good!

So the bus pulls into the event grounds and I see a sea of tents and vehicles. Jackpot. People must come from all over to see and participate in this spectacle. I excitedly got off the bus and walked into the crowd. I picked up my tickets from the reservation desk and was about ready to go in when the festivities started…

Drums and blaring trumpets announced the arrival of a procession of costumed flag wavers and musicians. They marched past the crowd and gathered in a semicircle. Both old and young performed in this little ditty of music and flag work. It was mildly entertaining and once they finished, I walked through the main town gates and into a medieval world.

Shops lined the street, selling necklaces, clothes, leatherwork, ales, swords, and more. Some of them were actually buildings you could walk into and a lot of work had been put in to make the whole thing feel as authentic as possible. “Townspeople” roamed the streets as if they were living normal lives there, despite the throngs of tourists crowding around them.

All this was fun to see but I wasn’t as excited for that as I was the knight tournament. But my heart sank and blood pressure rose and I saw the schedule for the day. The knight tournament wasn’t starting at 11— that’s when the doors opened. The thing wasn’t until 3:30! I didn’t want to spend the next 4 1/2 hours wandering around this fantasy land. I don’t even like to spend time in normal Renaissance fairs, let alone ones in a completely different language! I was on lonely English island, stranded in a sea of Germans pretending it was the 12th century. Far far away, the glorious city of Munich was beckoning for me to come explore its treasures.

I kicked myself for assuming the tournament started at 11. But to my credit the site was almost entirely in German and there wasn’t a schedule posted. The other option was to leave and come back at 3:30 but it was an hour-plus travel time each way and that sounded like even less fun. I could’ve left and not come back but that was admitting failure and losing the $50 I spent on the damn ticket. So I left my mind undecided and just wandered around some more. I wasn’t in the greatest mood but I took a few pictures anyway and tried my best to enjoy things.

Somehow I managed to pass the time to the point where I figured I could tough it out until the games begun. Some beer and food along the way no doubt helped me reach that point. The town was also big and had a lot to explore. All around, there were different little events going on, from somebody being tarred (actually more like waxed) and feathered, to musicians performing, and puppet shows. There was also some band made up of 5 bagpipers and 2 drummers playing a concert. I’ll let you imagine what that sounded like. If your imagination is lacking today, here’s the link to their MySpace page.

So finally, the games were about the begin! I sat down at 3 because there were some festivities to take place beforehand and I really needed to kill the time. Don’t exactly remember the order of things though. Some trumpeters blasting, people walking out into the dirt arena, the announcer speaking in German of course. By this time, I think the official ceremony had begun. It was kicked-off by the arrival of the real Prince Luitpold of Bavaria, whose dad started this whole thing. First time I’d seen a prince in real life. Oooooh.

Somewhere in the beginning there were some really talented horse riders and horses who did tricks. The horses would run fast towards one end of the arena and the rider would do tricks on top of them. Like bounce his feet on the ground, go over the top of the saddle and then bounce them on the other side. Others rode without hands and their bodies goings sideways from the saddle. Some stood up on the horses as they galloped. It was cool to such well trained people and horses.

So eventually the games started. They drug in a big stage and set it up. Ok. Then they had a big parade with the knights riding in, all decked out and holding their jousts. Hmmm, why did the jousts look like they had lines cut into their tips? Seems like that’d just weaken them. Ignore that, everything is still fine. But then when they started mentioning something about Camelot and King Arthur and the evil Queen Minerva, I realized I had been duped. The gig was up– this whole thing was a staged show. A mere re-enactment of a knight tournament. NOooooooo!! It was true, the whole thing ended up being a Disney-style tale of the princess being kidnapped by the evil Queen, Camelot being overthrown, Excalibur stolen from its stone and of course King Arthur saving the day in the end by winning a knight tournament. I’m sure that it was great for people who had brought their kids and knew what to expect but it was quite a disappointment for me. Guess I should’ve learned to read German. But they made it sound like a real knight tournament! The jerks.

After the show finished, I got out of there and headed back to Munich. The day hadn’t been a complete waste but there were so many better things I could have done. I got back around dinner time and starting exploring downtown Munich. Saw some cool buildings and eventually got a Doner Kebab to eat. These things have been a staple for me on the trip.

The evening was pleasant and relaxed as I strolled around. I went up to the English Garden, which is a huge park– even bigger than Central Park. There were people lounging on the grass, playing frisbee or whatever. Park-type stuff, you know. It has an artificial river running through it and I read it actually has a standing wave somewhere that surfers like to ride. I saw a beaver along the river too. I saw a pantheon-type building on a hill in the distance so I walked up to that. Inside, there was a guitar player performing and he had a beautiful voice. He played some American classics, like “Free Falling” and I really liked his style. Earlier, I saw other musicians roaming around and I imagined that they all got together to jam sometimes. Cool place.

By this time the sun had set and it was almost dark. I walked up through a beer garden– seas of picnic tables around a couple small buildings serving dinner food and beer. I liked watching the locals hanging out, enjoying the peaceful evening and beautiful surroundings. I thought if I lived there, it’d be one of my favorite places.

After that I walked to the U-Bahn station, stopping along the way for a little ice cream. It was perfect for a night like that. Eventually, I made it back to Christoph’s and shared the days events with him. He chuckled at my experience with the knightfest. I bet he had a hunch it was fake all along! I was pretty tired out by that point, so I went to sleep.

Beginning processional.

Inside one of the tents. Sick pelts, brah.

I wanna work here when I grow up daddy!

Blacksmiths.

One of the many interesting medieval structures. I think these must be up year round.

Trick horse riders. Digitally zoomed so it looks bizarre.

The stupid fake knights, those heartbreakers.

Fog and sparklers wow all the seven year olds.

Mini-waterfall in the English Garden.

Pagoda thing near the beer garden.

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August 23rd, 2010 at 6:02 pm

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Munich Day 1 (half day)

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The train ride from Fussen was only about two hours long so I was in Munich around dinner time. I thankfully had a CouchSurfing host for my stay there so I was excited to meet him. I took the U-Bahn from the train station and then caught a bus to his place. The host, named Christoph, happily greeted me at his house and we sat down to chat in his kitchen. He’s also a Software Engineer, working for a company that goes through old software to streamline it. BMW is a big client of theirs and he said it’s pretty cool to see how much money can be saved by changing a bit of code to make it run faster. The systems he’s used to working on are 20+ years old and they’ve never been upgraded simply because it’d be too costly and they work just fine as-is. Same thing with the bank mainframes, actually. They’re running programs written in languages that are completely antiquated and almost laughable in today’s standards.

But I digress. During our conversation, he even served me up some pasta and white sauce, which I eagerly scarfed down. Now after this point, my memory gets foggy and there aren’t any pictures to help me out. Nothing very exciting must have happened. The next thing I remember was playing his digital keyboard while he sung along or played his guitar. We were just reading off of lead sheets, which is music with just the chords and no specific notes written. This barebones notation requires the musician to fill-in the rest of the details and isn’t really a skill I’ve developed yet. But what I hacked out did sound decent and we had a lot of fun. Even his girlfriend sung along to a couple songs. I thought it was pretty cool to barely know somebody and their language and culture but still be able to engage in this close musical interaction with them. Music is the universal language!

After that we all went to bed. I had the basement to myself and a nice fold out couch. Ahhhh… goodnight.

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August 23rd, 2010 at 4:07 pm

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Posts are still coming, people!

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Hey so I’ve been on hiatus for a while with these posts but I promise you I will be better. I must finish them all before I start work on Monday or they’ll never get done and I’ll feel like a failure forever. Now this is all in writing, I’ll be more compelled to finish. Here we go!

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August 23rd, 2010 at 3:50 pm

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Fussen Day 2

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It was raining again this day. I had a ticket for a 9:00 AM entry to the castle. I heard that the earlier one arrives, the less crowds there are to deal with, so I got the first one of the day. I was running late by the time I got out the door (no breakfast) and decided the quickest way to get there would be walking. Not a whole lot of fun in the rain, but at least I still had my umbrella from Paris. They said 20 minutes at the hotel but after about 30, I arrived and then had to find the ticket desk. By this time it was 9:20 and they said I’d have to get new tickets, since I missed my reserved time. Thankfully, it still was not busy there and I got a 10:20 entry time.

Hiked up to the hill to where the castle stood and the first thing I noticed was that it’s much smaller than it seems in the pictures. It was the first time I’d been to a real castle before so it was still pretty cool though. After waiting around for a while for my tour to begin, we started off through the castle. Unfortunately, they didn’t allow any photos to be taken and now I think it’s just a conspiracy to get visitors to buy the picture books in the gift shops. Worked on me. I’ll post a few scanned pictures from it to give you an idea of the highlights.

To give you a bit of background, the castle was built in 1869 by “crazy” King Ludwig II as his own private retreat and a tribute to the operas of Richard Wagner. The castle was never completed, due to the death of the king under “mysterious circumstances” (read: murdered). Despite it never being finished, the king did spend about 180 days in the castle before being declared insane, deposed, and found dead in the shallows of a nearby lake with his psychiatrist. Anyway, the castle was fantastical, with murals of knights and dragons and even an artificial cave. For some reason, it did feel a little fakey, but I think that was the point. It was the playground for King Ludwig to carry out his romantic fantasies of Middle Age life. Anyone who knows the operas of Wagner would see scenes from those stories in the artwork throughout the castle.

It was still raining after the castle tour ended and I rode the shuttle back down to the main bus stop. I had a while to wait before the next bus to my hotel, so I grabbed some lunch in a nearby restaurant. It was venison in red sauce and it tasted pretty good. Finished that up and caught the bus back to the hotel. There, I grabbed my bag and headed by bus to the train station in Fussen. Remarkably, I arrived with plenty of time to spare. I boarded the train and was on my way to Munich.

Neat picture of the castle.

A tower of the castle.

North side of the castle.

Looking out from Neuschwanstein. The orangey-yellow building is another castle called Hohenschwangau.

Scale model of the castle.

Throne Room (facing away from throne)

The bedroom. Check out the wood carvings!

Beautiful!

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August 17th, 2010 at 3:41 pm

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Fussen Day 1

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I started out the morning in Innsbruck and after doing laundry, started my journey to Fussen, a small town in the south of Germany. The trip was going to be a bit tricky– it had 4 different legs, two of them on the train, two by bus. Looking back, it would’ve been smarter to just take a train to Munich and then to Fussen, but this way I got to see more of the countryside. I had a few hiccups along the way, too, but nothing too catastrophic, luckily. It was raining pretty heavily that day and there was a lot of fog, so I didn’t see any mountain tops. But it was cool to be winding my way via bus through small towns in the foothills of the alps. They were like tiny cosmos, spinning around in a completely different orbit than my own. I marveled at the miracle of modern transportation to be able to take me on this circuitous path from Innsbruck to Fussen. At the same time, I had to be double-sure that I got my routes and stops right. One misstep and I’d be stuck in the middle of god-knows-where staring at a herd of goats. That would’ve made for a good story though!

I happily arrived in Fussen around 8 and found my hotel room to be quite nice. I booked to late to get a hostel, so this was an upgrade and a nice treat. My own room, bathroom, TV, and even a balcony. Big pimpin’. I got settled and then walked around the town (in the rain, still) looking for a good place to eat. I never saw anything that looked better than the restaurant in the hotel, so I came back. I was seated with a Japanese daughter and mother, so I thankfully had company for the night. Its always a bit awkward at the very first, but the ice was broken quickly and we had pleasant conversation throughout the meal. The daughter lives in Germany and was taking her mother around for a vacation. Her English was fairly good, so she could talk and also translate a bit to her mom for me. They were happy to meet somebody from Seattle and actually had been there to visit before. It’s a small world!

I ordered the Bavarian specialty called Pork Knuckle, noticing the little warning that this was not for those with a small appetite. Well, I thought, I’m a big boy and have been traveling all day so I won’t have a problem putting it away. When it came out though, I just laughed at myself for thinking I could eat it all. I swear it was the size of half a volleyball, just solid meat, and I learned later that it’s actually an entire shoulder of pork. There was a delicious crispy skin baked on the outside with a layer of juicy fat right below. It was mouth-watering but stomach-conquering. After eating for 10 minutes, it barely looked like I made a dent in the massive hunk of meat. In despair, I ate some of the sauerkraut resting beneath it.

While I was eating, I enjoyed listening to the accordion player. He was the best one I’d ever heard and his fingers were flying across that keyboard. Usually accordian music is slow and waltzy, but this was fast, lively and virtuosic. I talked to him after a bit and he said he’s been studying for 14 years. It shows! He was playing for the duration of our meal, walking around to different parts of the restaurant and smiling the whole time. A special touch added to the quaint Bavarian atmosphere.

In the end, I was able to finish 3/4 of the food but there was no way I could do it all. It made me sad to leave the meat behind, but there is only so much a man can eat. For future reference, that dish must be split by two people! Completely stuffed, I headed up to my room and turned in for the night. Tomorrow I was going to see the fairytale castle of Neuschwanstein.

Passed through this Alpine cosmo on a bus.

Hmmm...

Hotel Schwanstein, my place for the night.

The Indomitable Pork Knuckle

Classic.

Fresh Prince of Bel-Air dubbed over in German. Bizarre.

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August 10th, 2010 at 6:42 pm

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