European Travel Weblog - Summer 2003
Saturday, 13 September 2003
[dinner with the casparians]
Dinner with the Casparians: after three bottles of wine, Burr drains the last of a boxed-wine bladder into his glass. | Firenze, IT

"Tonight" (mp3)
Ehi! Music. Before I'm kicked off the computer: the Italian musical artifact collected was the "best-of" album by a band called Negrita. They sound a bit like The Replacements, but with a bit more funk. 19 songs for €15... not too bad, considering everything else was at least €21 (about US$23). Again, more to follow.

posted by burr - 07:21 pm GMT
[natalie and stuffed guinea pig]
Natalie, armed with her new Italian leather sketchbook, catches sight of a stuffed guinea pig in La Specula, a zoological/medical museum affiliated with the University of Firenze. | Firenze, IT
[burr and stuffed armadillos!]
Burr subsequently finds La Specula's armadillo display: a total of five species (the three-banded not pictured). | Firenze, IT
A bit behind. Well, lovelies, we're sorry about our delinquent blog updating as of late. We're fine, we're OK, we've just been very busy!! Last you heard, we were in Munich getting ready to take a night train to Venice, where we spent the day (Tuesday) before catching an evening train to Florence. Things went as planned for that, in fact... we got to visit the Piazza San Marco and see 2 of the 3 locations of the Venice Biennale exhibit (Natalie will talk in more detail about that, I think), and then we were given an itenerary that left Venice around 18:45, changed at Bologna, and arrived in Florence arround 23:00. But when we arrived at the appropriate track, it turned out that the train was all couchettes, so we couldn't ride it (we would need a reservation). Flustered, the conductor told us that the train 2 tracks down was a private line going direct to Florence, and was leaving immediately. Sure enough, they let us on just before it pulled out... but I think the staff was having some fun at our expense: they told us that there were only 2 seats left, and they were seats 82 and 88 on car 11 (the smoking car). By the time we arrived at Florence, no more than 2 dozen people got on that weren't there before. Ha, ha, ha. Also, since it was a private train it cost us an extra €32 (but at least we would be saved the trouble of finding a place to sleep in Venice)... on the upside, we arrived an hour and a half sooner than expected.

Our Florentine accomidation needs were met by the Reverend and Mrs. Peter and Marguerite Casparian, the parents of a childhood friend of mine named Rachel. They used to live down the stree from me in Lexington, KY, but 8 years ago Peter took a new job as the rector of St. James, the American Episcopal church in Florence. So there we spend Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights, seeing several museums during the visit, including the Uffizi (perhaps the largest colledtion of 13th-18th century western art in the world), Academia (home of Michaelangelo's David as well as the "unfinished" Prisoners, among other things), and the Specula (huge museum full of taxidermied animals, wax medical sculptures, etc.). We ate too much thin-crust pizza, as well as a marvellous marinated chicken compliments of Marguerite. Both Peter and Marguerite have art backgrounds (he has an MA in sculpture, and she is a painter and children's book illustrator), so we had some fantastic converstaions with them about art and the art scene in Italy (they'd not yet been to this year's Biennale, and I think we convinced them they should). A good time had by all. Their computer was having issues when we tried to check e-mail and update the weblog, though... hence the delay. We decided sunny, beautiful Florence beckoned louder than figuring out what was going on with the weblog software...

Thursday afternoon we decided we needed to use our swimsuits at least once before leaving the continent, so we took a train the the "cinque terre" (5 cities) which we had been told was beautiful, had great beaches that licked the feet of the mountains, and hadn't yet been ravaged by tourism. Well, 2 of 3 ain't bad. We arrived in Riomaggiore (the first fo the 5 cities) at 18:11, and scaled all the way up the hill, past 2 dozen hostels/hotels, and the only one that had a room said that it would be €95. No, thanks. We also met a fellow who was willing to rent us a room in his house for €20 each per night, but would only do it if we would stay 2 nights. We only wanted to stay the one, and then get on to Paris. So we gave up and went to the next town, where we only found 3 places, all booked.

We met an Irish guy named David at one of them and he said that he was actually staying in Levanto, the town just past the cinque terre, and he thought there might be room there. I called, and sure enough there were 2 beds left in a 4-bed dorm for €24.50 each, so we made a reservation and too the next train (30 minutes later). In that time we talked quite a bit with David, whom we also joined for dinner (more pizza) once we'd arrived and checked in. He is an Irish citizen, but grew up in Boston from age 10-18, went to college in Athens, Georgia, then worked in Seattle at Microsoft before returning to Ireland (the Republic of, I might add) several years ago. He'd obliterated first his Irish accent, then his dreadful Boston accent, before settling for a west-coast sort of hum. His company in Dublin had gone under about 5 months ago, so he'd spent the summer working in Interloken, Switzerland, as the shuttle bus driver for an offensively fratty hostel there called Baumer's (I stayed there with my friend Mike for a couple of nights in 2000). He'd just finished that gig and was blowing the money he'd saved up on an excurion before having returning to Ireland in another month or so.

Today we got up, checked out, and went to the beach!!! And the water was cold!!! but it felt great to be there... we looked at all the different kinds of mediterranian rocks that washed up, ate some gelatto in the sun, and when 15:00 rolled around (and the hostel, where we'd stored our backs after checking out, finally re-opened from afternoon siesta), we scurried to the train station to catch a train to Genova, then Milano, where we are now. In about 40 minutes an overnight train for Paris leaves and will have us on it. I suppose more updates will follow after we arrive. Take care, all, XOXOXO.

posted by burr - 07:17 pm GMT
[piazza san marco]
Natalie's dream: to see the Piazza San Marco in person. | Venezia, IT
The pigeons wouldn't even let this man get out his wallet to pay for the bird-feed before they pounced on him! | Venezia, IT
meanwhile, in Italy. Burr and I just realized that if we didn't update the blog today, by tomorrow it would have been a week since we had done so.

I'm getting better at sleeping in couchettes on trains. We took another sleeping train from Munich to Venice and will be on yet another tonight from Milan to Paris. Burr will tell you more about the specific travel route.

The venice highlight was the Biennale. The Venice Biennale is like to the Tour De France for Art, what's more, this year the Biennale was celebrating its 50 anniversary in style. There are three major venues for this showcase of art. Each venue is divided into smaller paviolions; many of these small pavilions house the art of a specific country, some simply have a mix. We were able to see two of the venues--the Giardini Garden and the San Marco location (The Arsenale was is closed on Tues).

We stopped at the San Marco Exhibit first where the Biennle featured a 50 year review of paintings from past Biennales. Ut was wonderfully curated and included a blurb about the changes in painting though the past 50 years. The work was not chronological, but was mixed together and showed some wonderful contrasts and similarities across the years. I was sketching like crazy, of course.

The second venue we visited was the Giardini where we visited the pavilions of various countries. It was quite a trek to all of them. Our favorites wre the Israel, Poland and Australia among others...another prominent favorite was a taxidermied, altered horse done by a Dutch artist.

The show on a whole was a wonderful experience and I learned a lot. However, as we discussed later with our friends, the Casperiens, when we were in Florence, only about a third of the works in the show could be called strong pieces. The blurbs written under each artist's name by the work tended to be a big load of houie. I stopped reading them soon into the process. Burr and I also stopped looking at the names of the artists as frequently. We noticed many people walk up to various pieces with confused dazed or disgusted looks on their faces only to glance at the artist's name and immediately begin raving to their companions about how much they actually loved the work. (We witnessed this happen to a piece by Basquiat, and the woman actually screamed when she read his name after looking thoroughly underwhelmed by the work. In the end after only looking at a few names I realized I liked the works of some artists I thought I disliked, and was very impressed with works by artits I had neever known before. I highly recommend a trip to a biennale if you are ever in Venice on a odd numbered year.

posted by natalie - 07:17 pm GMT
Monday, 8 September 2003
[polka with fred]
Fred, our friendly neighborhood Bavarian, tries unsuccessfully to teach Natalie a few polka moves. | München, DE
[bar tricks at the hofbrau haus]
Bar trick shenannigans at the famous Hofbräu Haus. | München, DE
fred. Last night we had a couple of German brews (the second was accidental) and an orange soda at the Hofbrauhaus, one of those manditory tourist stops in München. I say that the second beer was accidental--not because of any altered state of mind on our part, but because after slowly drinking the first one together (mostly Burr) over a period of an hour and a half (as usual in Germany, a beer comes in a litre glass...*whoa*) we tried to pay but some how ended up ordering a second one instead...language issues strike again! However, at that point we decided to stay and talk with our table mates anyway. The first man to join us was a native Bavarian dressed in Lederhosen and a green vest (Lederhosen are like leather over-all shorts that are usually greenish with flowery trim across the front...I grew up with a pair of these hanging in our basement; a souvenir from my mom's European escapades when she was my age...) His name was Fred, and he was an older fellow, maybe sixties or so who spoke no english, but was an animated comunicator nonetheless. He was a great dancer who would whisk ladies out of their seats and dance with them if he couldn't convince the men who came with the ladies to get out of their seats and dance themselves. Fred insisted on taking me out to dance on one such occasion, but he quickly learned that I am no Ginger Rogers. Fred, Burr and I spent most of our time building structures out of the pile of cardboard coasters at our table; Fred communicated that the object of this game was to build a structure that would hold the weight of Fred's weissbier glass. None of us were successful until a group of German and Californian opthamologists joined us. They asked us who our friend was and were slightly more confused by his odd manner than we were...We told them that we and Fred went way back, say thirty minutes or so. The five opthamologists (four men one woman) were attending a conference in München and had been cheuffered by one of the local O's to see the famed Hofbrauhaus. Fred mimed the building game to them and a man at the end of the table took up the challenge. In under fifteen minutes he had his full stein balancing atop his concocted structure. Fred was impressed and so were we. It turned out that this gentleman at the end of the table was an engineer (& opthamologist?!) and was full of all sorts of puzzling party games--trivia about rearranging coins in a number of moves, balancing eggs and blowing coins across the ashtrays using the Bernoulli Effect. While Burr solved the rearranging coins trick, I am proud to say that I properly demonstrated Bernoulli's wonderful scientific observation by launching my coin over the edge of the ashtray and staight at Fred...who proceeded to pocket the coin. I spent the next 20 minutes convincing him in broken German to give it back. The woman kitty corner from me was sheepish about the whole experience, and especially about sitting next to old Fred who appeared to have had his share of weissbier. (Locals are given significant discounts on drinks for showing up in their native garb, which some wear all the time anyway. The natives in Bavarian costume are, needless to say, quite a tourist draw.) In the end Fred went off dancing, and, after jovial conversation, the opthamologists left Burr with some trivia to keep him thinking through the next couple of weeks. Burr decided to abandon the last part of the second beer and we went out to walk back to our hostel.

Today we visited the Deutches Museum and raced from room to room trying to soak in as much information as we could in 6 hours. So many rooms! Germans must like to collect things...I guess they've had more time tham we have in the USA to collect things... so many cars, trains, planes, minerals, etc... The dioramas were AMAZING! Seriously, the detail and particularity made each one look as though it could actuallly function: bottling factories, farming communities, sugar beet processing plants, mines, hydraulic operations, the Grand Canyon! Even each of the miniature people were often indidvidually sculpted to fit the scale, with period dress. I expect nothing less when I go to the Smithsonian this fall--the bar has been raised! Burr and I also marveled at the feats of design and engineering that must have gone into the building of the museum itself. I wish you could have seen the colossal steel skinned fighter plane in the second floor mezzanine! How did the get it in there, and how did they build two and a half floors to keep it from crashing through to the ground!? It wasn't as if there were just one or two pieces we wondered these things about, but hundreds of huge planes, mining equipment, ships (yes, not boats, ships) trains, rockets and vehicles. At any given time the foor above you may be performing small miracles to keep it's contents up. AMAZING! The whole thing museum was laid out cheek to jaw with facinatating objects and facts I could have never imagined seeing or hearing...not like the science museums of recycled, well know ideas. Wow. My brain was in overload by the time we left. Bravo, Deutches Museum.

posted by natalie - 08:29 pm GMT
Oh.... Just a brief music blurb: I was watching a European MTV-like channel earlier, and a music video for the band "Wir Sind Helden" came on. It was a very silly South-Park inspired animation, and I think fit the song quite well. I was just sort of excited to see one of my rather arbitrary band choices is, in fact, a reasonably successful group here. Now I just have to find an Italian group and decent French group... I dunno what to do about England. Maybe I'll just use it as an excuse to get the new Radiohead album or something...
posted by burr - 08:19 pm GMT
Real-life fooseball? At a street fair near the university. | München, DE
Hofbräu. Last time I was in München, I failed to go to the world-famous Hofbräuhaus for a liter or two, and several folks chided me for it. So, this time Natalie and I made sure that we went... we found it last night and it was actually nothing much like I was expecting. It was much more of a restaurant than a Pub (there was no bar to be seen, just tables and waiters came to take your order), though by the time we arrived ~21:00, most were done eating and were just drinking anyway. The band mostly played German Polka songs that people were sloshing their mugs to, singing loudly, but they also did a few american classics like "Sweet Home Alabama" and "Country Roads" (aside: you haven't lived until you've heard a tuba solo in a John Denver song). Natalie had an Orange drink and I had athe "Hofbräu Dunkel" (dark beer), which only came in a liter. In fact, all the beers came in 1 Liter mugs except the Hefeweiß, which was 0.5L. It was quite tasty, but when the waiter came to settle up and he asked if we were done, I gave him the thumbs-up (meaning I was done). In Germany, however, they start counting with their thumb instead of index finger, so I accidentally ordered a second liter of Hofbräu Dunkel. Mmmmmm... Natalie helped out some, though.

Things were slow at first, but we soon made friends with a local Bavarian named Fred and a group of Californians who were in down for an Opthamology convention. But Natalie wrote more about them, I think. Another aside: apparently the Hofbräuhaus has become so touristy (e.g. it was about 15% Japanese last night) that the locals have stopped coming, so now they offer free drinks to the locals in traditional Bavarian garb (Leiderhosen, Durndels, etc.) just to encourage them to show up, and keep the atmosphere a bit traditional. Interesting, I thought.

Before Hofbräu shennanigans, however, we went to the Stadtmuseum on Saturday. Unfortunately their beer-brewing exhibition closed, and the photo gallery was between exhibits. However, we still did get to see the gallery on the history of puppetry (Natalie used to make puppets)... and they had all kinds of interesting things there. huge marrionettes, shadow-puppets, hand puppets, etc. Very cool... and upstairs from that was a gallery of musical instruments from all over the world... and this gallery was being monitored by and extremely friendly, English-speaking older man who was filled with fascinationg stories about the instruments and various world experts that they'd had come through the museum to perform concerts on them. I got to see the evolution of frets and fingerboards on stringed instruments, they apparently developed independently in Europe and the east, and there were several different ways of implementing them. The craftsmanship on a lot of the instruments was interesting, too. Many very original, non-standard things that I found very inspiring (I have... or rather, would like to have... a hobby in instrument building, though I have yet to complete one).

Yesterday we didn't do much during the day. We were going to go to the Deutsches Museum, but by the time we found it, it would only be open for another 2 or 3 hours, and we were advised that that wasn't enough time. So instead we watched the Glockenspiel play (also something I missed on my last visit) and observed that, if it played mechanically it is need of a tuneup. If it is played manually, they need to break in the new guy. We think itäs the former, though. For lunch we finally found a restaurant that served Weißwurst, which Natalie learned about in German class in high school and was dead-set on having while she was here. I also tried a drink called a "Radler" which is 1/2 Weißbeir and 1/2 lemonade... not bad.

This morning we rolled ourselves out of bed at 9:15 and got dressed, packed our bags (stuff was strewn everywhere b-c we did laudry a day or 2 before so the bags were empty), Ate some breakfast (dangit... I'm in Germany so I'm capitalizing Everything!), and checked out so that we could run off to the Deutsches Musuem. Wow, was it cool. It was huge... we spent from 10:30 until closing at 17:00, and still only saw about half of it. We saw exhibits on metalworking, power machinery (windmills, waterwheels, etc.), trains and cars, aeronautics (there were several rooms just dedicated to vehicles of flight that my former roomate Brian Beitzel would've flipped over), biochemistry & cell biology, printmaking, paper making, musical instruments (traditional, mechanical, and digital), pharmacy, technical toys (history of technical toys erector/lego-type things), mathematics, and computer science. I was interested to see what a German museum woul dhave to say about the enigma code, which they used for cryptography in WWII. Interestingly, they just talked about who devised it (a Dutchman, apparently), how it worksed, and that the British cracked it. They didn't mention that Alan Turing worked on the team that cracked it though, and I was surprised that they didn't even talk about the Turing Test (classic Artificial Intelligence fodder) in the mini-exhibit on AI and robots. In fact, the only mention of Alan Turing was a "highly impractical, theoretic construct" called the Turing Machine. I dunno, I'm kind of a Turing fan, so I took a bit of offense to it. Anyway. It was really cool and we barely saw half of it.

Right now we're checking overpriced e-mail (the rate was €2.30 when we came in, and is down to €1.50 now) to burn time before our night train to Venice tonight. When our time runs out in this cybercafe, I guess maybe I'll keep reading in Harry Potter (he just finished his first week of school) until it comes. We're planning on just spending a day there and seeing part of the Venician arts festival La Biennale, feeding some pigeons at the Piazza San Marco, and then we're off to Florence where the parents of one of my high school friends currently live and will be putting us up. He is the rector of the American Episcopal Church there (St. Peter's), and she is an artist and book illustrator. I haven't seen them in 7 years, so it will be fun to catch up. We'll stay there a few days and see the standard sights like the Duomo, the Ufizzi, and the Academia (I know Natalie will be scribbling in her sketchbook a ton while we're there... I hope she enjoys it as much as I do, Florence is one of my favorite European cities, while Venice is actually one of my least favorite). Well, that's probably all for now. Ciao!

posted by burr - 08:14 pm GMT
Weekly Archives
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21 September - 27 September
14 September - 20 September
07 September - 13 September
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17 August - 23 August
10 August - 16 August
Burr's website
Natalie's website
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Smithsonian Institution
National Library of Medicine
About the Trip
For the fall of 2003, we're taking a break from Madison to work for a bit in Washington, DC. Natalie landed an internship at the Smithsonian Institution after acquiring her MFA, and Burr will be doing research at the National Library of Medicine. But, with a month or so of free time between the end of our lease in Madison and the start of our capital tenure, we decided to jaunt around Europe! We'll be sleeping on trains, seeing some art, and visiting some friends. Here is a loose itinerary.

Since Europe is riddled with "cyber-cafes," we will stop occasionally to post our thoughts about the trip and keep you (beloved friends + family) up to date with what's going on.

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