Monday, August 9, 2010

Eastern Europe Part 1

The three weeks I spent in Berlin were the last few weeks of about the past 2.5 months of putting in extra hours, so after wrapping things up there, George and I headed to Prague and later Vienna for a few days of relaxing before heading home.

Prague sucked!

Creepy statues in Prague

Okay, Prague didn't really suck, but getting your camera stolen can really ruin a first impression. Add that to the Czech people's genetic inability to smile, and your overall impression of the city might be affected a bit. Maybe it's just me (I can be a jerk at times), but Prague seemed like a pretty negative place sandwiched between the super-friendly cities of Berlin and Vienna.

More creepy statues in Prague

As mentioned above my camera got stolen, therefor the only pictures I have of Prague are the couple I took with my cellphone because I wanted to use them as wallpaper. So you'll have to take my word for it when I tell you Prague is a beautiful city (or just search google images, as there are thousands of photos to back me up). Despite the best efforts of the United States Airforce, Prague was remarkably damaged very little during WW2, so many of the historic buildings remain in excellent shape. The historic downtown, the bridges over the Vltava river, and of course the famous Prague Castle that dominates the skyline, are all just as amazing as the postcards make them look.

Check out the wikipedia article on Prague for more pics

Prague was a bit touristy though. Some things seemed quite expensive for what you got, and if you didn't specify up front that you wanted the cheap version, or the cheaper seats, you were automatically sold the most expensive version, without any explanation of the options. We got suckered into spending 26 bucks for seats that were only about 5 feet closer to the stage than the 16 dollar seats for a show that should have cost about 5 bucks at most. It looked promising from the outside--a large billboard that displayed a large band playing songs from various American musicals, but once inside it was a sole pianist and a singer who was occasionally accompanied by a saxophonist.

All three performers were definitely talented, but the production values were pretty low, the venue not very impressive, and the singer had the strongest Slavic accent I heard while in Prague. As she sung songs like Somuh Vere Dere sa Place fer Rus (you might almost recognize that from A West Side Story), I could only smile in amazement. Her voice was excellent, and she even did a bit of tap at the end that was pretty impressive, but she was extremely difficult to understand at times. I certainly do not want to poke fun at anyone's accent, I know I have a horrible accent when trying to speak any language, but I wouldn't even attempt to sing songs in a foreign any language in public, much less ask you to pay me for it.

Other than amazing architecture and unintentionally humorous musicals, Prague is also home to a ridiculous amount of Thai massage parlors. I'm not sure what brings all of these Thai masseuses to Prague, but if you have the endurance for that kind of stuff, the price is good and the service was friendly.

Does this look like massage to you?

I love when my wife rubs my neck or shoulders, especially after driving for a long time, or working in the yard or something, so I assumed that paying a professional for their massage services would be incredibly relaxing and invigorating. However, after paying the professionals at the Venitian Hotel's Spa in Vegas for something called a deep tissue massage, and then having someone literally stomp on me during this Thai massage, I have to say that I just don't get it. Maybe I'm doing it wrong, which is hard to imagine since I am just laying there, but professional massages just hurt!

Overall Prague was cool. But skip the pay performances and just hang out at the cool bridges listening to the street performers. They put on a better show, and you only pay as much as you like.

I leave you with this bit of street art from Prague.

The Infinite Ignorance of War

Monday, August 2, 2010

Three weeks in Berlin

Growing up in the USA I have a very specific, and most likely wrong, image of what a German city is supposed to be. I lived in (or near) the pseudo-German American tourist traps of New Braunfels, TX and Leavenworth, WA, and Octoberfest is probably the second most important holiday of any American city with a decent sized population of university students.

Leavenworth, Washington

So when I think of Germany I think of large sausages, sauerkraut, giant beers, and people in liederhosen. Berlin didn't exactly match my preconceived notions. In fact, it didn't even almost match them. Currywurst is more common than Bratwursts, sauerkraut was difficult to find, and I didn't see one person in liederhosen. Berlin definitely had its share of giant beers, but they also had beers like this:

I thought Germany had laws against stuff like this

Given the length of my stay, work put me up in a residential apartment, rather than a hotel. The apartment location seems to have been picked especially for me, as it was surrounded by asian noodle places, indian food, pizzerias, and even a mexican food place! All my favorite types of foods, and all places where the word 'vegetarian' doesn't mean fish. I didn't eat any meat (including fish) the entire time I was in Berlin, and I don't think I ever ate the same thing twice.

While the geographic location was excellent, the elevation kinda sucked. 6th floor apartment in an old building with no air conditioning and no elevator meant the first thing I did every day when returning home was take a shower, and while I originally thought the extra flights of stairs would be good for working off all the fatty foods I was eating, I quickly decided I would rather be fat. There is a reason God created elevators! And air conditioning!

But the apartment was cool (esthetically, if not temperature wise). Quite big and comfortable with a gigantic bathroom and the largest refrigerator I have seen since moving to Europe (about the same size as the normal (American) sized one I had in the US). It also had a pretty cool terrace, a TV from the 1980s, and a VCR. Seriously, a VCR?

The future of home entertainment

Since I didn't bring any VHS tapes with me to pass the evenings, I spent most nights out eating and exploring the city (oh, and working a bit too). At nearly 900 square kilometers, Berlin is a gigantic city. Roughly the same size as Dallas, Texas it is 18 times larger than the city I currently live in, and with a metro area of nearly 5 million people, it also dwarfs the 1.2 million that live in the Lyon metro area. Having gone to Berlin for work, I only had the weekends and evenings to do my exploring, and given the immense size of the city, I am sure I just scratched the surface, but I would definitely give the city the thumbs up. Tons of good food, SUPER bike-friendly, great public transportation, lots of libraries and book shops, cool history (although somewhat scary and depressing recently), numerous parks and public spaces, friendly easy-going people, and quite cheap--the city scores highly in all the important categories. The near total lack of air conditioning was a bit of a bummer at times as neither my working place nor living place nor 90% of restaurants had AC. Despite being nearly 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37 C) almost every day I was there, I was repeatedly told that it really doesn't get that hot in Berlin, so they don't really need AC.

To test out the bike-friendliness of Berlin, we decided to take a bike tour of the city. Fat Tire Bike Tours provided the tour guide and the bikes (my bike was named Chump, and George's was named Charles Barkley--practically synonyms), and miraculously the city provided the first sub 90 degree day all week, so we had a nice 5 hour city tour in great weather. I got great pictures of all the cool Berlin landmarks, parks and a good shot of me sneaking across the border at Checkpoint Charlie.

In fact, I took a lot of really cool pictures in Berlin. I am sure some of them are even Ansel Adams quality.

Artist recreation

Unfortunately due to my ever-worsening Alzheimer's disease and an unscrupulous store clerk in Prague, I no longer have a camera (or more importantly, a memory card) to extract those photos from. So if any famous magazine editors are reading this and some anonymous Czech guy tries to sell you some awesome photos from Berlin, give me a call.

But the disappearing camera just gives me a reason to go back.