Friday, August 1, 2008

Bits and pieces of our time in Berlin:

[I published 4 posts at once, so plenty to read for those looking for an afternoon's worth of entertainment.]

The Tiergarten is the city’s largest park, filled with trees and lakes. Right by one of the lakes is a biergarten, where you can sit at picnic tables and drink Berlin beer while people rent boats on the lake. We only went there once, mostly because they only serve pilsner beer, which we aren’t particularly fond of, but it was a beautiful place.

There are still sections of the wall from Soviet rule throughout the city. We lived in East Berlin, and just a few blocks down from us was a 100 meter long section of the wall. Usually the bricks are covered with graffiti and spray-painted murals, and sometimes the iron reinforcement bars show through. It’s a forceful reminder of how recently the wall fell. Throughout the city, even when the wall has been taken down, they mark where the wall was with inlaid cobblestones. There is usually only one line of cobblestones, but it lies right between where the inner wall and outer wall would have been. In between was the dead zone where you were likely to get shot by a soldier in a nearby guard tower. This is the only way the Soviet communist government could keep its people from escaping into West Berlin.

Germans don’t like to talk about Hitler or the war or anything related. We went to Nuremburg partly because it was where the war crimes trials were held, and we wanted to learn more about WWII in general. We couldn’t find any tours along those lines, and when we went to the town’s museum to watch a 50 minutes film on the town’s history, approximately 45 seconds were spent on WWII-related things. 45 seconds is about how long it took them to say, “Jews suffered exile and persecution for the third time in Nuremberg’s history during the 1930’s. [Skip to 1945 aaannnd] The Nuremberg Trials were held in such-and-such building. All 23 party leaders pleaded not-guilty.” Not even a mention of the backdrop, which was, you know, WWII. The film just assumed you knew. In Berlin, there were reminders of the war. Buildings still had bullet holes. The war memorial built by the Soviets still stood. The bookstores had an English section on the history of Germany with books on Hitler and such. There is a large memorial near the city-center called “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe,” but the memorial is an abstract design. A concrete field of several hundred rectangular columns jut out of the ground at varying heights. As you walk deeper into the concrete field, the columns become higher until you feel like you’re in a darkening maze. Below is a small museum commemorating some of the people who died in concentration camps and some who lived. The entrance has a timeline that details the growth and expansion of concentration camps, but the rest of the audio guide makes almost mention to Hitler or the war itself. The only real information we could find of Hitler, the Nazis, and the war came in a tour organized by a non-German company. The tour guides who were hired to talk about Hitler and the Nazis were from England, Ireland, Australia, and the US. Other than the two tours we took, we could find little verbal or written mention of the war. It just sits in the city like a fog that’s waiting for some sunlight to clear it.

They still use the Olympic Stadium built by Hitler for the 1936 Olympics. The Berlin Bears soccer team play there, and our group went to watch them play Liverpool. The game ended at 0-0, lame, but the season’s in down-time since the World Cup’s over. Apparently, Germans can get really boisterous at soccer games when it counts. There was still a loud student section, but everyone was just sort of hanging out and drinking beer.

Modern Berlin is very much trying to exert itself as a cultural cornerstone, and it seems to be succeeding. They were holding Fashion Week while we were there, and all the big-name designers and models were there. The mayor was able to bring Barack Obama in for his only European address (more on this in a bit). The film industry holds its annual film festival in Berlin. Still, Berlin is the poorest city in Germany, practically bankrupt, from what I understand.

On every single block, there was a stand you could walk up to and get bratwurst or currywurst and a beer. They hand the bratwurst to you in a roll. Seriously, a long bratwurst on a little bitty roll. Currywurst is a delicious Berlin favorite. In a paper box without a lid, they cut up a bratwurst, smother it with a sauce that tastes like tomato-ketchup-BBQ goodness and sprinkly on curry powder, pile on a side of French fries, and smother the French fries with ketchup (unless you catch them beforehand and say, “Ohne ketchup, bitte!” which of course I didn’t do because I love ketchup, but Chad had to shout every time). Then you can top off your meal with a Berlin pilsner and walk down your merry way in the street, open container and all. I had way more meals on the go in Berlin than in the states. I guess main difference was that I walked up to the stand instead of driving, and I never knew quite how their bratwurst or currywurst would taste, less predictable.

It was much easier to find non-German food than German food. Berlin is full of Turkish, Chinese, Indian, Japanese, and Italian restaurants. I saw one Burger King, two Subways, one McDonald’s, and one Starbucks. When we wanted German food, we found it best to duck into a dark bar (dark because electricity is apparently Very expensive) where German men were drinking their lunch-time beers and try our luck there. Or we could always head to a brat/currywurst stand on the corner, but even then, there was always a Turkish gyro (“duner”) shop right next door.

Going back to the pilsner beer, Northern Germans love light beer, and often sweet-flavored or fruity light beers. We thought we’d be able to get thick, dark beers wherever we went. Oh, no, definitely not. And some of the cheap pilsners (like Jever) taste worse than Coors Light, maybe even worse than Natty Light. We were not fans. For the stereotypical malty beers, you have to go down South. Chad and I just must be Southerners at heart.

Well, we must be Southerners of the rebellious sort. We love Bavaria, and Bavaria is the German version of Texas. They were their own Republic for a while and are still annoyingly proud of it (according to Berliners). They’ll say they’re Bavarian before they’ll say their German. Just like Texans.

The autobahn has a reputation in the States of being a place where only crazy people would drive. I pictured it like a specially designed cross between a highway and a high-speed racetrack. It’s exactly like a US highway, except there were often three lanes instead of just two. At least half the people were going around 80 mph or less, a quarter were passing them at around 90 or 100 mph, and a quarter were flying by everybody at 120-150 mph. But it works really well with three lanes. If anyone is behind you and moving faster, you get over immediately. If everyone abides by that rule, traffic moves along just fine. And, really, you get used to driving at 120 mph after an hour or so.

The walk/don’t walk signs are very unique to Berlin. Under communism, the walk signs in East Berlin were walking little green men with hats on. The don’t walk signs were little red men with hats on and both stubby arms stretched out to the sides. He’s very cute. When the wall came down and East and West Berlin merged, West Berlin adopted the East’s walk/don’t walk signs. In fact, that’s the only part of East Berlin culture that was adopted by West Berlin.

There are still beggars in Berlin. I don’t totally understand how beggars exist in a socialist society, but they do. There aren’t nearly as many in Berlin as there are in Italy (by about a hundred fold!), but I couldn’t decide whether it was a con job or a flaw in the socialist system.

Speaking of socialists, let’s go back to Barack Obama. I don’t know if it made headlines in the States, but at first, Obama wanted to speak at Brandenburg Gate. Big mistake. Only presidents have spoken there, never candidates. It made Obama look obnoxiously cocky. Chacellor Merkel immediately said she thought Brandenburg Gate would be an inappropriate location, but surprisingly, the mayor of Berlin said Obama was welcome to speak at the Gate if he wanted. (It’s the mayor’s decision in the end, not the Chancellor’s.) After a couple weeks of uncertainty (like July 7-19), the city government was getting nervous. Obama was scheduled to speak on the 24th, and the Obama campaign hadn’t picked a location. One official said it would normally be impossible to set up such a large event in such notice. On the 19th, it came out that he would speak at the Victory Column. Interestingly, although the Victory Column was built to commemorate Prussian war victory, Hitler had moved the column to its present location, so it has the stain of Hitler in Berliner’s eyes. Anyway, they started prepping for the 200,000 attendees right away. We got there a few hours early and snagged a spot 60 feet away from the podium. People in Germany love Obama, 80% of them would vote him for president of the US. I gotta say that even though Obama and I have our differences on policy issues, I still was excited to see his charisma in action. After his 30-minute speech, though, I felt a little let down. Almost everything he said was predictable, not fresh or especially insightful. The US and Berlin have been partners ever since the airlift during WWII. Berlin is a city that knows the value of freedom and how to persevere in pursuit of freedom. (That was 10 minutes.) Europe is the US’ best partner, and we must work toward increased multi-lateral relations. (Another 10 minutes.) The US needs Germany’s help to stabilize Afghanistan, but the US should get out of Iraq immediately. We need to get rid of all nukes, including Iran’s. The US should be as concerned about energy consumption as Europe is so we can preserve the ice caps and save the polar bears. (Don’t even get me started on the polar bears! Knut is very cute, but the polar bear population is the largest it’s been in decades! They aren’t dying off. Besides, they love swimming. Don’t pull them into political/moral agendas, please, especially when it’s unjustified.) We shouldn’t allow an economic system that benefits the few over the many. We all have to remember that we’re all citizens of the world. (Last 10 minutes, and I was left with an image of Obama and John Nash as fellow citizens of the world.) He didn’t even attempt one word in German, which especially disappointed the Berliners. They wanted to be a part of a historical moment as memorable as Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner.”

Okay, I’ll make a separate paragraph for this one. In case you haven’t heard the story, when Kennedy came to Berlin, he began his speech with, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” which translated to, “I am a donut.” He was very close to correct sentence, though. “Ich bin Berliner,” would have been, “I am a Berliner,” so he wasn’t really that far off. I don’t think the Berliners minded at all, they all seem to have good memories of Kennedy.

Most people, or at least most people in cafes and retail, spoke between a few English words and enough to help us out with what we needed. Only a few were fluent. In the smaller cities, though, we definitely ran into people that didn’t know a single word of English. So, for the most part, we didn’t have problems, but there were some situations that called for extended charades. (See trip to Steinau.)

Right next door to our apartment was a little café. I went there pretty frequently for a morning milchkaffee. They must use fattier milk because it was always creamy and delicious. It was probably also infected with disease because they used the same container to steam milk for everyone’s drinks over and over again, but maybe that just added to the flavor. I think most places we went to did that, so they must not have rigid health inspection codes. Sandwiches with meat and cheese also tended to stay out in the display case all day, and I sometimes suspected cafes of reusing yesterday’s sandwiches. Well, anyway the owner was very nice and made it her mission to teach us a new German phrase every time we went in. I think she got a kick out of us.

I always hear people say disparaging things about Starbucks because they use a machine that automates espresso shots, but I saw that several times in Germany too. In fact, some cafes had machines that automated the whole process. You put down a cup, push the “milchkaffee” button, and out comes frothy milk and espresso. So, I guess it’s not just a Starbucks thing. Next the US will get the vending machines where you just put in a dollar and it dispenses a paper cup and spits our coffee and the amount of milk and sugar you specify.

Okay, well, that’s enough for now. If I think of anything that I skipped, I’ll post it later, but for now I’m back in the States and still on Berlin time. My presentation yesterday went just fine, and Darcy and I are going to take advantage of a relaxing week Boston while Chad finishes up finals in Berlin.

Weekend #3: Friday July 25 – Monday July 28

I planned this weekend’s trip, so all of the shenanigans soon to follow are my fault, lol. First off, getting information was difficult. Many hotels didn’t speak English and didn’t respond well to email. I wanted to head down to the Rhineland and do a tour and tastings in a winery. I thought this would be easy, I mean, in California, you can do tours and tastings in a hundred wineries. I was limited in a couple ways: I can’t read German websites, and a lot of the family owned wineries didn’t translate their sites. Family-owned wineries in Germany, which is most of them, don’t really do tours. If they do tours, they’re in German and available for private parties that have to reserve before-hand. I ended up finding a tour of some sparkling wine (“Zext”) cellars in Mainz that are famous because they’re the deepest in the world. The tour was in German, but they offered English cards to follow along. I’d already wanted to go to Mainz, so that worked out. Okay so here was the fun-filled weekend:

We rented a car that was not a Smart Car because we really wanted to break 100 mph. We drove down through Frankfurt and into Mainz, just 20km or so outside the city limits. We got in around 9:00 and went to the bed and breakfast. Often in Europe (or at least in Italy, Spain, and Germany), people who have an extra bed and bath upstairs or downstairs put their name and address in a bed and breakfast directory. You send an inquiry to the bed and breakfast directory, saying which city you’d like to stay in and when, and they connect you to someone’s home. A lady in her 60’s owned our bed and breakfast, and in this little town of Mainz, she had the second-best English we heard the whole trip. She also had a cozy room for us downstairs, but I guess the breakfast part didn’t translate.

We drove into town to find a late dinner and after wandering around the city and by the Rhine River, getting thoroughly lost, fighting about where we should go, then finally asking for directions, we ate dinner at a brewhouse. Our waitress had the best English we heard the whole trip because she’d grown up by an army base and played with American children. They had fabulous beer and a meal that is now one of Chad’s all-time favorite meals: turkey cutlet with dark beer sauce. Just ask him, he’ll tell you aalll about it. We wrote down the name and address for the next time we go to Mainz because we’re definitely going back. The next day, we visited one of the churches, wandered through a produce and flower market, explored the Gutenberg museum, saw a live demonstration of Gutenberg’s printing press (so cool!), and took a tour of the sparkling wine cellars. I think the Gutenberg printing press was my favorite moment of the day, though. Ask me for a demonstration the next time you see me. =)

Around 3pm, we decided to ditch our Google instructions and drive along the Rhine down to our next stop, Worms. We drove through a couple of private-property-no-trespassers vineyards and through several small towns before we realized we’d headed the wrong direction. We stop and asked directions, and the man who helped us was so nice that he gave us his cell phone number in case we got lost again. We found our way back to the autobahn, though, and made in into Worms.

Worms is the sight of the Protestant Reformation, where Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door, preached to congregations, and faced off with the council of bishops. The Catholic Dom still stands and is quite beautiful, one of my favorite churches that I saw on the trip, but the church where Luther preached was destroyed by (I believe) French troops around 1689. They’ve rebuilt a church with a modern interior where it stood. There are also several museums in the town, including a small art gallery, but nothing too exciting. We loved our hotel because the man who owned it was so nice, fixed us breakfast when we were late getting up, and told us all about the stain glass windows that had taken him years to do by hand, but Worms was boring, so we left Sunday afternoon for Steinau.

The Grimm brothers spent their early childhood in Steinau, and their home has been made into a museum, so I really wanted to stay in the town. I’d book a room online, but when we got into town and looked at a map, we couldn’t find the hotel’s street anywhere. I called, but the lady only spoke German. Here’s where things got interesting. I struggled for 7 or 8 minutes with my terrible, terrible German to have a conversation that went something like this: (I’ll just give you the English equivalent for what I said.)

Guten tag (blah blah blah German)

Guten tag. Do you speak English?


Uhhh, I MacDonald. You hotel?

Ja. (Something like can I help you?)

I have room. Where is you? I Steinau train station.

(Blah blah blah German, but I knew she wasn’t giving directions.)

I to come you. I Steinau train station.

(Blah blah blah, but I heard the word “strasse,” which means “street.”)

Street in Steinau? Near Brother Grimm Museum?

Nien. Nien Steinau. (Garble, garble “bach”)

No Stienau? Hotel no Steinau?

Nien. Nien Steinau. (Garble, garble “bach”)

Oh. I Steinau. I Stienau train station.

Nien. Nien Steinau.

Okay. I no to pay room.


(Shoot, Chad, look up “cancel”! He looks it up, I try word #1 in painfully slow German. She doesn’t understand. I try word #2. I say it twice. The second time, she repeats it back, then repeats it again, and it’s the same word.) Yes, yes, I no to pay room, okay?

(Blah blah blah German) okay.

Okay? I no to come. I no to pay.

(Blah blah blah German) okay.

Okay, thank you.

We were worried that since I booked online it would charge anyway, but since the hotel wasn’t in Steinau, we had no way to find it. We headed into old town to find a hotel, but they were all booked. Well, all two of them. We resorted to asking a couple people where our first hotel was, and eventually we figured out it was in Ulbach 8 km away, so we decided to try to find it. We found Ulmbach just by following signs, and luck was one our side. We drove down the main street until almost the end of town and the heavens shine an angelic light upon the sign that bore our hotel’s name. We showed up, I pointed to myself and said, “MacDonald.” She laughed in that confused but amused, and took us to our room. We ate dinner at a restaurant on a hill in the forest and went through a short walk until it got dark. In Europe, you spend all your time surrounding by stones and concrete, so it was great to spend some time with trees and grass.

We got up early enough on Monday (the next day) that we could go to the Grimm Museum on the way out of town, but we ran into troubles paying. The man (her husband?) said they couldn’t take Visa credit cards. Almost no one took Visa, they all wanted Master Card. I eventually explained that I’d book online with He pulled out the faxed reservation, I pointed and said the equivalent of, “I pay credit card. I pay cash. I pay twice.” I think he got that I didn’t want to pay cash then get charged on my credit card. He got his English-speaking daughter on the phone to explain that doesn’t charge the card, just gets the credit card information in case the guest doesn’t pay. So, we paid cash and headed to the Grimm Museum, which ended up being closed until noon anyway, so we just went back to Berlin, and Chad was in class by 5pm. Another successful weekend trip.

Weekend #2: Friday July 18 –Sunday July 20

We spent this weekend in Berlin. The highlights were the Third Reich Tour and the Sacchsenhausen Concentration Camp Tour. I’ve posted notes and pictures from the Third Reich Tour, and Sacchsenhausen will be coming soon. It was an all-day tour, though, so it’ll take me a while to compile my notes and type them up. Since it was such a fascinating (and gruesome) tour, I think some of ya’ll will be interested to read about it.

Weekend #1: Friday July 11 – Monday July 14

Chad had planned an anniversary trip down in southern Germany. We rented a Smart Car and set out on the autobahn. We unhappily realized that Smart Cars max out at 157 kph, just under 100mph. We still got some good speed and passed a number of cars, but how can you drive on the German autobahn and never break 100? Shameless. We drove to a little town north of Munich and stayed in a large castle on a hill top. It was beautiful countryside, friendly people, and delicious food. Not to mention, it was a real (/historical) castle, not something built for tourism. The wooden stairs creaked quite appropriately, and they still used some of the original furniture. The next day, we had lunch in the town and drove up to Nuremburg. We had Google maps to the hotel, but we wanted to catch part of the German National Museum before it closed, so we tried to wing it, figuring we’d just head toward the city center. Hah. We exited way to far south, tried to guess which direction the city was, circled, back-tracked, circled some more, and finally stumbled on it. Always head toward the church, that’s what we learned. We arrived in time to spend a few hours at the German National Museum, one of the largest museums I’ve ever encountered. It sprawls across several blocks worth of buildings. There are exhibits on everything from archeological finds from the Roman period in Germany to typical household goods and children’s toys to secular and religious art. A full day’s guided tour would really be the only way to do the place justice, but we took our audio guides and covered as much ground as we could.

When we left to find our hotel, we got pretty hopelessly lost –again. We tried to follow signs to the autobahn, how hard can it be? We’re convinced the German sign system needs to be updated. You’d follow a sign to the autobahn and not see another sign for 5 or 6 kilometers and then convince yourself you’d just missed a sign, so you pull a U-turn, and try to find some sign. When you do find one, it takes you in a completely different direction and drops you signless again. Turns out you have to be patient and willing to drive 8 kilometers before seeing another sign sometimes. Anyway, and hour and a half later, we checked into our hotel, took a “disco nap,” and headed out to the city center at 11pm. We passed a lot of “gesschlossen” signs before we found a place that would serve dinner. Then we headed to a Mexican cantina for drinks, but we had to finish them quickly since the place closed at 1:30, and the town with it. So the night life was a little sleepy, but we just went home for a good night’s sleep. The next morning we went to a Protestant church and listened to a very eloquent sermon in German, sat near one of the most unruly kids ever (he was running around the altar during service!), and witnessed a baby’s baptism. The service was much like a Protestant service in the US, with a few hymns, prayers, a scripture reading, and a sermon. The congregation was quite small, maybe 50 people in the first 20 pews of a very large, Gothic church. We spent the afternoon wandering Nuremburg. It’s very pretty, with a river running through the middle, cobblestone streets, a large church every few blocks, and groups of café tables curving into the squares. The center is mostly pedestrians and bicycles only, which is great for strolling and less great for finding hotels in a rental car.

We left that afternoon for Leipzig so that we’d only have a short drive into Berlin on Monday morning. Leaving Nuremburg was another autobahn-finding mess, but after an hour, we were finally on our way. We got into Leipzig around 7 pm and drove into town to explore and have dinner. We found what they call “pub mile,” which is an alley way stuffed with rows of tables. There are probably 8 restaurants in the alley way, but you can hardly tell the tables of one restaurant from another because they’re so close to each other. We circled and looked at menus and examined other peoples’ dinners until we found one we liked, but since our waitress was so slow, we had time to look at our guidebook and discover that Europe’s oldest café was in Leipzig, from the 1500’s. And they serve dinner. So we paid our drink tab and left for Café Baum, where Bach, Strauss, Goethe, and Mendelssohn had all been regulars or visitors.

The next day we had just enough time to take quick tours through the church where Bach had served as music minister during his day and Mendelssohn’s house before we had to get back to Berlin. The drive was uneventful, and we were ready for a few days of downtime.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

News from Germany

Hallo! So it's finally time to hear about Germany. I'm sad to say that at the moment I am packing to leave Berlin, but I don't want to be State-side before I even have one post in about German adventures. Here are some highlights (though stories and accompanying pictures will follow in a few days):
July 4th: We left Hong Kong at 11:30 pm and landed in Berlin at 10 am the next day. We'd been awake all day in Hong Kong, got on our overnight flight, and had to spend the whole day awake in Berlin. Flying to and from Asia is killer, but we adjusted okay after a few days. (Well, I was kind of a wimp, but Chad was good.) That day, we went to Brandenburg gate, and to our surprise they were having a party to celebrate the relocation of the American embassy. It is now right beside the Brandenburg Gate, where it was before the Cold War.

July 5th: We went to the Pergamon Museum to see their exhibit on Babylon - fabulous. Although they had a "Truth" section and a "Myth" section. The "Myth" section was very Berlin-like. I think it was basically a way to compare myths of Babylon to artsy-like movements today. Ie: It was a myth that Babylon was full of whores and orgies, so they took the opportunity to show porn clips. Sigh, I don't know. The "Truth" stuff, with your more typical archaeological finds was way cool, though. They re-created the massive temple with some tiles they'd found and some they'd made to match.

July 6th - 10th: In the mornings, Chad would go to class, I would read or fiddle with pictures, we'd go somewhere nearby for lunch, the afternoons would be more class and more reading, then we'd do something in the evening. This was our typical routine. One evening, we went to a beer garden in the middle of the city's largest park. We sat on a dock and watched people rent canoes. July 7th was also our one-year anniversary. Chad found a restaurant in West Berlin that has fantastic weinerschnitzel and his new favorite beer, King Ludwig's.

July 11th - 14th: Friday evening, we rented a Smart Car drove down to a small town North of Munich and stayed in a castle. It was so cool! We spent the next two days in Nuremberg and Leipzig. Chad's class started Monday evening.

July 15th - 17th: More classes, reading, and picture-fiddling. We went to some more museums, art, history, and such. Berlin has so many fabulous museums. We've been here a month, and there are still some I'd planned to see but haven't.

July 18th - 20th: We stayed in Berlin this weekend to see some of the local sights. We took a tour of the Third Reich sights in Berlin (see two posts previous for details) on Friday. That night, we celebrated the birthday of one of the guys in the program at a local Irish pub. They love Irish pubs. Italy loved Irish pubs too, must be a world-wide phenomenon, or at least Europe-wide. Saturday we took a tour of Sachsenhausen, the concentration camp just outside Berlin. I have detailed notes of that excursion. It was fascinating, creepy, and gruesome melted together. I'll post notes and pictures of the tour later. On Sunday we went to the Alte Nationalgalerie, an enormous art gallery. An entire floor was just German painters.

July 21st: I went with the law program group to the Ministry of Justice to hear how the law works in Germany. It's quite different, in some unexpected ways. Ie: For some cases, they have "lay judges," who are not trained in the law but are professionals of the field in question who serve on the bench with other "lay judges" and "professional judges." So, if the area in question is business-related, a businessman will sit on a judges bench and have all the power and responsibility that a professional judge does.

July 22nd - 24th: Normal classes and reading and such. The evenings of these weeks, though, were fairly eventful. On the 22nd, we went to a soccer game, Berlin vs. Liverpool. Since the World Cup is over, it was a "friendly game." The game ended 0-0, but it was still fun to watch. Apparently, when the games are competitively/un-friendly, the Germans can get quite riotous. Behind our apartment is the Natural History Museum, one of the largest in the world, so we spent the afternoon of the 23rd there and saw the largest dinosaur skeleton in the world. A brontosaurus, btw. On July 24th, we went to see Barack Obama speak at the Victory Column in Berlin. It was packed, an estimated 200,000, and we were maybe 60 feet away. It was pretty darn cool to be there, but I was slightly disappointed in his speech, and I wasn't the only one. He was fine, just not the hugely charismatic speaker the US press has hyped him up to be. Or maybe he was jet-lagged, who knows. I'll post more about this later, including pictures.

July 25th - 28th: We rented something better than a Smart Car because we wanted to break 100 mph. We got up to about 120 in this car as we headed down by Frankfurt. We spent a night in Mainz (saw the Gutenberg museum, toured a zext/champagne winery, and Chad had the best meal of his life and a liter stein of dark beer), a night in Worms (saw where Luther started the Protestant Reformation, not much else to see there), and a night near a small town where the Grimm brothers grew up (saw their childhood home and roamed the nearby woods). Very fun weekend, and we loved Mainz, definitely going back there someday.

July 29th: We're headed to Hamburg. Our train leaves in an hour. We'll hopefully meet up with Louisa, Curtis' girlfriend and long-time family friend. She's from Germany, and it's been a few years since Chad's seen her, so it should be good fun. Hopefully all trains run on-time because...

July 30th: We leave Hamburg at 9am, get back just before 11 am, and my international flight leaves Berlin at 3pm. I'm a little worried because 52,000 of Lufthansa's employees are striking right now. The biggest strike is in Frankfurt, and I connect in Frankfurt and fly Lufthansa all the way back to Boston. Assuming all trains and planes go well, I will present some research I've done in the sociology of religion in Boston on Thursday. Yikes, very busy, and I have to prep this talk. Well, the time in Germany has been fantastic, and we're already planning how to get back here. More posts and photos soon to come.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Final China Post

(There are two new posts. This one finishes China adventures. The one before this has a virtual Third Reich tour of Berlin.)

(And for accomapnying pictures of the China posts, see my China slideshow here: )

Day 5:
After breakfast at the hotel, we loaded into our giant van and met our guide, Peter, who would be taking us to the Ming Tombs, a jade factory, and the Great Wall. During the 1 ½ hour drive, Peter gave us a quick rundown of China’s history. He probably skipped a lot, but it was more information than I could retain. We went through the list of emperors and bunch of Chinese inventions. Peter insists that the Chinese invented pretty much everything. Except 0. Marco Polo brought a group of Europeans over to China during the 12th century, and that’s when the Chinese started using 0 and other geometry. Everything else, though, is Chinese. He was a history teacher for much of his life, so he’s read a decent amount and was a great tour guide. He took us through the Ming Tombs, the burial place for all emperors from the Ming Dynasty. There were a series of archways leading to a main temple building. At the top is a large column, with the name of the emperor buried, but it does not mark the location of the tomb itself. The entrance to every emperor’s tomb was hidden. The only people who knew the location were the construction workers, and most of those were killed. For one emperor’s tomb, 30,000 workers were killed. Current researchers have found the tombs of many emperors, but some are still hidden. And even if found, they don’t always want to open them, since once exposed to oxygen, many ancient artifacts crumble. So, we didn’t see inside any tombs, but the archways and temples around them are worth the trip. There are dozens of dynastic tombs in the foothills of the mountains near Beijing.

Next up was the jade factory, where they gave us a short tour of the various types of jade. Hard jade is typically used for jewelry, but soft jade is needed to do some of the amazingly intricate sculptures. Jade naturally comes in green, white, black, red, pink, yellow, and pretty much every shade in between. Some of the most valuable pieces were one piece of jade that had several colors and was sculpted to use those colors aesthetically. For instance, they had some white and dark green jade pieces that were sculpted so that white Chinese monks and the moon stood out in the foreground, but dark green mountains and trees hovered in the background. Very cool. Then they gave us plenty of time to buy things from their massive store. Chad and I got a fabulous dark green boat.

And last on the list for the day was the Great Wall. Peter filled us in on more fascinating things that I can’t remember anymore on the way to the wall. Traffic was fairly heavy because it was the last day deliver trucks and 18 wheelers could be in Beijing before the August Olympics. (Bear in mind this was July 1.) So every single company, store, and shop was having its last delivery made, and we were in the middle of it all. Luckily, we got through alright, and made our way to the wall. This thing is absolutely huge. And it’s built on the top of a mountain range. So imaging hiking up to the top of a mountain and then putting a brick down on the highest point. That’s where you’d build the wall. At first, the wall was only 3 meters high, but as the dynasties added to and added to, most of the wall reached 8 meters. Bear in mind that construction began in the 6th century BC… BC! It’s not one continuous wall because it branches off a couple times like streams alongside a river. Including all its veins, the wall is 6,700 km (4,160 miles) long in total. I had two main questions: 1) Aren’t the freaking mountains enough protection? Those things were steep! 2) If it took such a long time to building, was it really a necessity? If you had pressing enemies, wouldn’t they have barge in somewhere between the 6th and 4th century BC? And if you didn’t have pressing enemies, why even bother? These may never be answered. Anyway, the wall is phenomenally impressive. We went to a section that has been restored so that the walkway from one guard tower to another is smooth, but I was surprised at what a steep incline the walkway reaches sometimes. Occasionally we were walking at a 30 degree incline, and once it got steeper, there were dozens and dozens of steps all the way up to the next guard tower. We did make it up to the hero’s point, though, so I guess that means we’re pretty great people.

We did a little bargain shopping the town by the Great Wall, and then we were so tuckered out that we just went back to the hotel for dinner.

Day 6:
Since the van worked out so well the day before, we just asked the driver if he could take us around Beijing the next day, and he agreed. So the next morning we had him drop us off at the Hutongs, which are alleyways filled with houses and shops. In that same area is a ceramics factory/shop, where we got a brief tour and, of course, were given plenty of time to shop. Chad and I actually found a beautiful painting there, which we will have to post of picture of when we get back to Nashville. After shopping, we wandered around the alleyways of the Hutong. Literally, there’s a tiny doorway into a long, winding alley that has entrances on either side, and that’s someone’s front door to their home. We did see a couple leather couches, but many of the homes were more like shanties than anything else. When you’ve spent so many days in the heights of Chinese architecture and history, the Hutongs are a glaring reminder of people’s less-than-imperial daily lives in China.

And with these images fresh in our minds, we set off to the lively city of Hong Kong.

Day 7:
Since Whitney and Patti would be leaving that afternoon, we decided to stay around the hotel for the morning, and if there ever was a hotel to just hang out at, the InterConinental would be it. After a ridiculously huge breakfast buffet with everything down to organic honey dripping off the honeycomb onto your bread, we walked around the harbor. The hotel sits right on Victoria Harbor, facing the shore of Hong Kong Island. The previous night we’d seen the lights of hundreds of buildings, but these weren’t normal lights. Giant walls of neon changed color, flashed, and moved right/left/up/down/diagonal/in a circle or just, you know, displayed the moving letters of the company name. Multiply that by like 30 buildings on the edge of the harbor. It’s one crazy light show at night. So now we were out during the day, and we could finally see just how tall those buildings were. Many of them looked between 80 and 100 stories tall, and they just stretched on forever down both sides of the habor. Miles of 80 to 100 story buildings. We headed up to the hotel pool for a better view. The InterContinental has a three-tier hot tub that looks like it pours into the harbor. We got some silly pictures out there, if you haven’t seen the Picasa slideshow already. (See post below.)

And when it came for 1/3 of our group to leave, the remaining 4 went down the street to yet another luxurious hotel way out of mine and Chad’s price range. Chad had asked a friend from Hong Kong (who is now Vandy Law student) for the name of a good tailor, so me, Chad, Rod, and Curtis roamed the streets of Hong Kong to find him. They got measured for suits/slacks/shirts. It really is amazing. You walk into a tailor store, which is the size of our living room in Nashville, they quickly find out what material your looking for in a suit (warm, cool, in the middle), you pick out a fabric color, they measure you 40 diferent ways up down and all around, then they tell you to come back the next day. You come back like 18 ours later, you try on your half-made suit, they not some adjustments, and they tell you to come back in a few hours. You come back like 6 or 7 hours later, you try on the suit, it fits great, and they bag it up for you. They say if you ever want another suit, just email them, they have your measurements, and they can ship it right to you. AND it’s cheaper than buying a suit at Men’s Warehouse. I know! Crazy. So that’s exactly what Chad did, and now he has a snazzy hand-tailored suit from Hong Kong. Pretty cool. We celebrated with high tea at the Peninsula Hotel (since Hong Kong still has remnants of the British influence). For dinner and desert, Chad and I met the friend from Hong Kong who had recommended the tailor – Veronica. We ate at a Japanese restaurant, where she ordered beef tongue and chicken skin and other actually quite delicious things for us. Then we met one of her college friends (they both went to college in the States) for a very American-esque dessert. In fact, many things in Hong Kong felt somewhat familiar. For one thing, most people spoke very good English.

Day 8:
Curtis and Rod left the next morning, leaving Chad and I by ourselves in Hong Kong. We decided to find a tailor for me. Their tailor only did women’s suits, and their pattern book was from a number of years ago, so we decided to wander around some of the main shopping areas. After a few stop ins at random tailors, we found one that had been in business for three generations. What really caught our eye was that no one was standing outside, handing out pamphlets. We’ve decided this is the key to finding a tailor in Hong Kong. If they’re handing our pamphlets, do not go. If they’re waiting patiently in the shop, do go. This guy was very helpful, did dresses all the time, and was very willing to let me go through catalogues of patterns and clothes. Having clothes made to your specification could definitely be a terribly addicting habit. We asked him to make a traditional Chinese dress, with a few tweaks here and there, and he said to come back in 5 hours, he’d be ready for the first fitting. So we walked around a bit, had some delicious Japanese noodle bowls for lunch, and came back for another fitting. The tailor said he’d have it done the next day. Amazing!

Day 9:
On the recommendation of Veronica and her friend, we went to the Flower, Bird, and Fish streets, and they sell exactly what they say. The Flower street is really five or six streets, some running East-West others North-South, with indoor stalls/stores selling orchids, bamboo, palm trees, and a dozen other exotic plants. The Bird street is much smaller and has outdoor stalls selling exotic birds that squawk when you walk by them. The Fish street is not very exciting because it’s a bunch of fish tanks, although some have really Huge goldfish or little topical fish. Still, you’d never see anything like the Flower, Bird, and Fish streets in US, at least not in the parts of the US where we’ve lived. We spent the rest of the day really just wandering the city because our flight didn’t leave until 11:30 pm.

Hong Kong is an amazing place. I don’t know that I could live there because it’s so crowded, but it’s fun in a way too. For one, there are double-decker pedestrian sidewalks. The typical ground-level sidewalks are packed with people moving every which direction all the time, so downtown Hong Kong has a layer of sidewalks that are on the equivalent of the second story, and there are pedestrian bridges that connect blocks of second story sidewalks. For two, there are masseuses and tailors everywhere. Tailors we’ve talked about, but the masseuses should not be overlooked. Chad and I just randomly stopped into a masseuse and had a fabulous massage for half the price in the US. Plus they gave us ear candles, which are little rolled up pieces of paper they stick in your ear and light on fire. Some how the heat pulls the wax out of your ear, and believe me, there’s way more wax in there than you would Ever imagine. It’s scary, but you can hear so well afterward! They can do a belly button candle too, but there are just some things I NEVER want to imagine, let alone know about. Ick. For three, there subway systems are fantastic. They connect everywhere, the maps on the inside show the whole system and have little lighted dots to show you where you are, and the connecting trains are time perfectly. For four, they have the best Japanese bowls of noodles everywhere. Except maybe in Japan. I should try real Japanese ones first. For five, the US Dollar is really strong there, so like everything’s half off. Chad and I made it in plenty of time for our 11:30 pm flight to London, then on to Berlin. And in the upcoming segments, I will finally fill you in on the highlights of our time in Berlin.

Third Reich Tour of Berlin

I'm interrupting the China posts to bring you the Third Reich Tour. Chad and I took this tour over the weekend, and I immediately came home to type up the notes. Then I thought that my faithful blog readers should share in the educational experience. Then I thought pictures would be nice too. Then I thought I'd just make a powerpoint presentation, which I ended up doing through Google tools, so please excuse the terrible formatting.

If you want to re-live my tour of the rise and fall of Nazism in Berlin, click here:

Friday, July 18, 2008

[Before moving on, I forgot to mention that after lunch on Day 3, we went to the Kunming airport to catch our evening flight to Beijing. The Kunming airport literally felt like a bizarre bazaar. There were enormous stands selling flowers, fresh fruit, packaged candies, bags of nuts, dried eel, everything. Masses of people dragging rolling luggage were squeezing through fruit stands. So strange. And once we made it through the vendor maze onto the plane, we had a daredevil pilot who thought it would be fun to fly through a thunderstorm cloud with lightning flashing outside the windows for a full hour. Okay, I don’t think they were really doing it for fun, but they didn’t provide much reason for me to give them the benefit of the doubt. The most the crew could say in English was, “Ladies and gentlemen, we are experiencing a little bit of turbulence,” followed by a whole bunch of Chinese. You hear that every 10 minutes for an hour and you start to really wish you had a Mandarin dictionary so you could at least point to the words, “Are we going to crash?” We didn’t crash, but it was a little tense. Well, I was a little tense. Apparently Chad can sleep just fine with his head bobbing up and done like it’s on a pogo stick.]

Day 4:
We had checked into our Marriot hotel the night before, so on the morning of day 4, we converged in the breakfast lounge to decide what we would like to see. After some lengthy talks with the very nice concierge - (Really everyone at every single restaurant, hotel, check-in counter, etc was incredibly nice. They just keep smiling and bopping their head and asking if you need anything else, all the time.) - we set the plan to do the Forbidden City and one of several sight-seeing options, depending on how much time we had left, and end with dinner at a traditional restaurant on a lake. For the next day, we set up a tour guide with a van to take us to the Ming Tombs, a jade factory, and the Great Wall. The concierge gave us several cards with our destination written in Chinese on one side and the way back to our hotel. We got two taxis, showed the drivers the cards, and off we went to the Forbidden City. We met back up in a large square in front of the city and again felt like we were the star attraction in the place. Six Americans and 300 Asian tourists, all with cameras. We didn’t have a chance. Every time we took more than a single step toward the ticket area, another group asked us to have our pictures taken with them. At first, we thought it was great fun. We’ll be all over facebook and myspace! But after 10 photo ops, we were a little tired of smiling and giving thumbs up and doing the funny peace sign that they all do in pictures. We eventually made it inside, and with the audio guide headphones on, we must have looked less approachable. We wandered and listened to the audio guide and took pictures. We split off a few times, and wandered back into each other.

The Forbidden City is a fully contained complex of imperial palaces that was in use by emperors from 1420 until 1911. We couldn’t go inside any of the palaces, but the exteriors were phenomenal. The large palace buildings were at least 60 or 70 feet high, with the traditional two-tiered triangular clay tile roofs, and every single eve had detailed images painted to depict imperial myths, animals from Chinese legends, various geometrical designs, and such. These tiny frescoes were underneath edges of the roofs and continued several feet onto the wall itself and wrapped all the way around every building. There must have been miles of these eve frescoes. There were maybe 8 large palaces, set in a North-South line down the center of the city. Each palace had a walled plaza and an entrance into the next palace and walled plaza. On the sides, although we didn’t see much of the sides, there were smaller palaces and many what I would call normal-sized buildings, all of the same roof and eve style as the palaces. There were a total of 9,999 rooms. (9 is a lucky number.) The entire city was for the use of the emperor, his concubines, his children, staff (all of whom were women or eunuchs), and a few officials (also usually eunuchs) only. Some walkways were only for the emperor, and everyone else had to use a side walkway or back entrance. Even in 1911! The last emperor of China abdicated his throne in 1912, and China became the new Republic of China, but the emperor remained in his Inner Court until he was thrown out in 1924. I don’t blame him, it seemed like a nice place to live.

We left the Forbidden City, and wandered through Tiananmen Square and saw the changing of the guards. I bet there were at least 50 guards/soldiers in that one square. There weren’t any reminders of the student massacre from 1989, though. As an interesting side note, I tried to do some research on the Tianamen Square massacre at our Beijing hotel and the top 5 Google hits were broken links. The link names and the descriptions were just like what we would pull up in the States, but every link that had some description of the massacre was surprisingly not functioning. Mysterious…. Equally mysterious was our inability to access Wikipedia, and we tried several searches in different languages. Anyway, we ate lunch at a Chinese fast food restaurant just off the side of the square, and it was quite delicious. I had beef with sauce, bean sprouts, white rice, and egg drop soup, all very familiar tastes. We then set off to find the Olympic Stadium. We decided to try out the subway. By the way, if you are in Beijing for the Olympics, do not use the maps that are posted on the walls and in the subway cars – those are all incomplete. The only complete maps we found were actually printed on the back of the metro tickets. We got to the subway stop but couldn’t find the stadium, so we hailed some cabs, tried to explain to two very confused cab drivers where we wanted to go, and finally they said, “Birds nest!” Apparently, that’s what the stadium is called. Once there, we marched right into a hotel next to the stadium - through armed guards and metal detectors – pretending that we’re guests, so that we can go up the elevator to get pictures from an overlooking window. After a full day, we excitedly head back to our hotel for a quick change before going to the restaurant. Our taxi drivers didn’t know exactly where the restaurant was, so it took a while for everyone to get there, but we did, and we had another fabulous meal with a full lazy susan. We even tried camel hump, although it tasted pretty fatty and watery to me. All of the pork, beef, and chicken dishes were very good, though. Another successful day in China.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

A few photos

For (many) more photos go here:

View of Kunming from our hotel window

Chad, Curtis, and Morgan exploring downtown Kunming

A typical sight in Kunming

Whitney's solo performance of the Brooke concerto with the Kunming Orchestra
(Dr. Lui is conducting)

And celebrating afterward

Traditional Chinese lunch with Dr. Lui, Mrs. Chang, and Ina

Our very funny baggage helper at the Kunming airport

China - Kunming

Day 2:
We arrived in Kunming around 2:00, 6 hours before Whitney’s solo violin performance with the Kunming orchestra– the reason for the MacDonalds’ visit to China. The husband of Whitney and Chad’s former violin teacher was invited to conduct the Kunming orchestra, he used the opportunity to invite Whitney to play a concerto, and the rest of us used both of them as an excuse to vacation in China. We said hi to Whitney and Patti at the hotel – the only five-start hotel in the province – and set off to explore the city. We’d spent 36 hours either on a plane, in a terminal, or in a hotel, and we were eager to start the trip. Curtis, Chad, and I had asked the hotel receptionist to write our downtown destination in Chinese characters on a business card, which made the taxi driver happy, and we were dropped off in a pedestrian shopping area. The main attraction was a long brick street with a median of trees and window-shopping on both sides, but you would have thought we were the sight to see. Everyone around us was swiveling their heads and practically walking backwards to stare at us. We didn’t know it then, but we’d need to get used to that reaction. Chad and Curtis went straight to the blind masseuses, who had set up a whole line of folding chairs down one side of the road. Just pick your blind masseuse and sit down for a bone-crushing rub. Well, half of them were blind, and it was the blind ones that made the spot famous as a good place for a massage. I opted out on the excuse of wussy shoulder muscles, but Chad and Curtis loved all twenty minutes of it. Then we walked around a bit, and the wide street turned into a wide alleyway, and the merchandise changed from handbags and clothes to dried eel and strangely-shaped produce. We weren’t tempted to buy anything.

We came to a street and turned a couple of times until we smelled spicy, delicious things and decided to get some dinner before the concert. There was a man with a cart selling some kind of meat on a stick, three for 10 yuan (about $1.50). Well, heck, sounds like an authentic Chinese experience. And on both sides were I guess what you could call cafes with outdoor only seating, and the customers all looked healthy enough. We asked for only a little spicy, so the guy spread on about 8 layers of a cayenne/chili/super spicy pepper sauce while the sticks of meat roasted over a propane flame. It only took one bite of those spicy mystery meat sticks to get us sucking in air and looking for a drink. We were definitely getting stares. The owner of the restaurant next door (well, five feet to the right at a separate fold up table) was more than happy to sell us coke bottles. We had walked a few yards down the street before we figured out the Chinese yelling behind us was actually yelling at us. The coke bottles were glass, and they definitely wanted them back when we’d finished, so we sat down at a picnic table on the sidewalk. When the meat sticks didn’t fill us up, we went down to another “next door” restaurant (another propane-cook top area with tables) and order some bowls of meat with kung-pao-like sauce and rice. Feeling like we’d gotten a fill of a real Kunming experience, we caught a cab back to our five-star hotel to get ready for Whitney’s concert.

The taxi rides in this town took probably about as long as walking would since every major street had a metal median dividing the two directions of traffic, the kind of curved metal fences we see during road construction. These little blockades meant the cars had to drive half a mile farther than they needed to until they reached a light that allowed U-turns. We made it to the concert hall on time, and we knew we were in the right spot when we saw a 4-story poster, with a 10ft x 10ft picture of the night’s soloist, hanging on the front of the building. Whitney played her Brooke concerto during the first half, and she sounded absolutely fantastic. She looked every bit the confident, adept soloist in her black A-line dress with dramatic white satin flares falling down the back, and audience called her back for several rounds of bows when she’d finished. Truth be told, they might have wanted to see Whitney’s glowing blonde hair one more time as much as show their appreciation for her violin performance (although both were beautiful). Incidentally, since we sat next to Mrs. Chang (Whitney and Chad’s old violin teacher and wife of the conductor), we showed her pictures of the things we’d ordered that afternoon, and she informed us it had been a very bad idea to eat food from street vendors. Even she never did that. Well, we never did get sick – but we never ordered from street vendors again either. The MacDonald family went back to the hotel lounge for champagne and finally got a chance to relax, relay adventures from the past week (since Whitney and Patti had been there for 6 nights or so), and congratulate Whitney on her fabulous performance.

Day 3:
Mrs. Cheng and Dr. Lui (it’s traditional for the wife to keep her last name, so yes, this is the teacher and conductor married couple) and their 15-year-old daughter, Ina, took us to a traditional Chinese restaurant for lunch. We had a private room with a sitting area for enjoying green tea before lunch and a huge circular table for a Chinese feast. The seating arrangement is quite important for a Chinese meal, and Dr. Lui put Whitney at the place of honor, farthest from and facing the door. For over an hour, waiters brought huge plates of food to put on the lazy susan, and we spun the food around while picking pieces off plates with our chopsticks. It’s a wonder we don’t use lazy susans more often in the States – they are so efficient! Our chopstick skills were a little slippery at first, but we improved as we went along. There were platters of round corn puffs, pumpkin slices, whole spicy shrimp, chicken pieces, sautéed broccoli, roasted crispy duck, green vegetables of some sort, and several more plates I can’t identify. Most of them were absolutely delicious. One plate I tried only once turned out to be a stew of eel and frog, but all the others were mostly recognizable or only a little odd to our American tongues. With stomachs full, we said our goodbyes and went to pack for our next city of adventure: Beijing.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Ni hau from China

The first year of grad school ended well enough, Chad and I went back to Midland for 5 weeks to work - him as a summer associate at Stubbeman and me as a barista/cashier at Harvest Caffe - and as of Wednesday, we've started our two months of travel lunacy. Here's the itinerary:
June 25 - July 4: China
Kunming, Beijing, and Hong Kong with MacDonald family

July 5 - July 30: Germany
Berlin during the week and TBD German destinations on the weekends

July 31 - August 5: Boston/Berlin
Morgan in Boston with Darcy & Chad stays in Berlin

August 6 - 9 or 10: Midland
Packing all the things that didn't go to China & Germany

August 9 or 10 - August 16: Dallas
Chad has a week-long summer associate position at Haynes & Boone

August 17 - 19: Nashville
Try to organize life before school starts

August 20 - 23 New York
Just for kicks since the MacDonalds have a place in Manhattan

August 24: Nashville
School starts

Since lunacy is abounding this summer, it's only right that you hear the details and witness it all through pictures. I'm working on getting a cable to download the pictures (which is sitting in one of many piles scattered throughout my various homes), but for now, here is China thus far.

Day 1
Chad and I left Midland on a 6 am flight to Dallas, then San Francisco, then Hong Kong. The 24 hours of travel went better than I'd expected. It's like a long drive - after a while, your brain just floats along and you forget that you've been on a plane for a full day. We landed in Hong Kong with all of our baggage and waited for Curtis' plane to get in before grabbing a taxi to the hotel. We had the hotel name written out in Chinese, so we just handed the paper to the taxi driver. This has pretty much been the only way we can get around, since we can't even attempt to pronounce the hotel names correctly, so we're totally dependent on some nice English-speaking Chinese soul to look at our email confirmation, know which hotel it is, and write it in characters without taking the opportunity to play a practical joke on a bunch of Americans. So far, so good. We all stayed up in the hotel lobby for the next 3 hours, drinking Chinese beer and French wine, and snacking until Rod made it in. The hotel was super sleek and modern, everyone spoke some English, everything was written in Mandarin and English, and the rooms (including showers and toilets) were exactly what you'd expect in an American hotel.

Day 2
We all woke up in plenty of time to head back to the airport for a noon flight to Kunming. Whitney and Patti had already been camped out at the 5-star hotel there for a week so that Whitney could get acclimated and practiced well enough to perform her solo with the Kunming orchestra. So back to the airport we went. Interesting thing about the Hong Kong airport - since Hong Kong is an island, when they ran out of expansion room, they decided to just build another island for the airport. The patient little Chinese people flattened a small, mountainous island and put in ton after ton of dirt into the ocean until the island quadrupled in size. No shock that this is the most expensive airport in the world, but it is shocking how spacious it is. with hug lobbies, extra-wide walking areas, and plenty of spaces between rows of chairs at the gates. And even after $20 USD in construction, they're still willing to pitch in free wireless. We boarded our Dragon Air flight and were amazed when they announced they would be serving lunch for our 12-2 flight - and it was better than any of the food United served on our international flight! Plus served with orange juice, water, your choice of additional drink, and coffee/tea to finish it off. So there are occasional perks with a communist regime that subsidizes airlines.

But we'll have to continue with Kunming later because it's now time for breakfast and exploring Beijing.

Zai Jain!

Friday, March 14, 2008

85% on the stats midterm!! Yes!!
This is been an excellent week! We had some fam in town, saw Michael Buble live, went to a ritzy law firm reception, I did fabulously on the stats exam, and we're going to a law school friend's birthday party tonight. A whole slew of ridiculously good things all in one week!

Friday, March 7, 2008

I was just thinking about all of the careers I've wanted to have in my life, and the list is a little crazy looking:
Age 12: Website designer
Age 16: Software engineer
Age 17: Journalist
Age 18: Newspaper/Magazine editor
Age 19: Author
Age 20: Publishing editor or Layout designer
Back-up plan: Teacher, Author on the side
Alternate back-up plan: Website designer
Age 21: Sociology, Applied Research
Age 22: Sociology, Teacher/Independent Researcher

That means every year since age 16, I've had a pretty drastic switch in career plans. Lol, man, that's kind of a depressing realization. And this PhD program is 6 years long? I need work on my attention span, it seems.

Monday, January 7, 2008

When Morgan is not paying attention, bad things happen. Like near electrical fires that threaten to burn down an 11 story condominium building. I did say NEAR. Here, let me tell you the story through my thoughts as everything was happening.

"Well, I think that's enough statistics review for the moment. [Authors comment: Yes, I do get to go on to Stats 2! Not because I got the required 85%. Oh no, the final went very badly, but I get a second chance. That is why I will be studying statistics perpetually for the next 15 weeks.] My stomach's growling. Oh, noon? Well, then it's time for some lunchity-lunch! [Author's comment: I think weird things in my mind. Don't judge.] What do we have? Oatmeal? Nah, had that for breakfast. Ramen? Kind of gross, not nearly as good as the meals I've been having at home and on the cruise ship. Oh well. One packet left. Guess that'll be good. Okay, pot, water, two-thirds full, put it on the stove, bottom left burner. Hmm, the new waffle iron that Chad's folks gave us for Christmas is sitting on the stove. Oh well, I'll just use this bottom left one and make sure not to turn the right burners on. Okie doke, burner on high, and I think I'll go do some transcribing right here at the kitchen table while I wait for the water to boil. [Transcribing with headphones on and back toward stove.] Out of the corner of my eye, I think I see a bit of smoke! Well, it's probably the water boiling over. Let's look. HOLY $^!%! Oh no! Oh no! Oh no! That's not the right side of the stove! No, no, no! That's where the waffle iron is! I can't see - too much smoke! What do I do first? Fire? No. Turn burner off! Get waffle iron off? Okay, putting on the oven mitts. Or should I open windows? Crap, if the fire alarm goes off, all the 95 year old handicapped people have to evacuate! Open the windows! Wait, first put down teh oven mitts to open the windows. Okay, turn on the fans. Crap, the waffle iron is still on the stove! Okay, back in the kitchen, grab it! Wait, where are my oven mitts?? By the window! Geez, it's hard to breathe running around with this burning rubber smell and smoke, can't see where I put the oven mitts! There they are! Okay, pick them up, put them on, go grab the waffle iron. Where do I put it? Not on the other side of the stove, not on the counter - sink! Okay, good. No fire, won't melt anything. Yikes, it melted right down to the wires. Man, if those wires had caught, whole apartment up in flames! Would I have even known how to put that out?! Yikes, that stovetop looks bad... $2,000 to replace it, we can't afford that! Oh man, there goes the fire alarm! Make sure vents and fans on, windows open. Move Chad's suit so it doesn't get smoke damage! Okay, I should go downstairs to tell them there's no fire. [Author's comment: I would call downstairs, but I lost my cell phone yesterday.] Get keys, open door. "Hi Charles! [Maintenance Man] It's coming from my room. There's no fire, just burned something on my stove." [Charles comes in, checks things out, radios downstairs, leaves to get a fan.]

Well, it's smoky in here, think I'll stand by the balcony. Sirens? Are you kidding me? Yep, here comes the fire squad. Knock on the door, maybe Charles? Nope. FIVE firemen in full suits AND the FIRE MARSHALL! Hey, don't slam the door, you knocked my clock off the wall! Great, now everyone's going to know what a major scatterbrain I am, even the Nashville fire marshall.... At least they're bringing a high-power fan to get this crazy smoke out."

Well, I hope that little trip was as fun for you as it was for me. Kids, don't EVER leave ANYTHING on the stove. Except for pots and pans. Everything else WILL catch fire! And we didn't even get to make a waffle with our brand new waffle iron. At least the stove is okay. We scraped off the melted plastic, and it works fine. I emailed Chad - again, no phone - who came home quickly, made sure I was alright, and then started laughing. It was kind of funny. All-in-all, just some smoke and a melted waffle iron. And an embarrassed Morgan. And upset old people.

Be safe, readers, be safe.