A Travellerspoint blog

23 July 2015

Brussels

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23 July 2015

Brussels, Belgium

A train snafu almost made me change my destination from Brussels to Liège, but I am so glad that I didn’t! By the time I arrived at noon, I had only four hours to see everything that I wanted to see, so I took my sore feet to the pavement. I grabbed a free map from the tourist kiosk—the gal had mentioned that the Royal Palace was free to visit today, so I headed in that direction.

I was a little distracted by a giant party I discovered. There was loud music and people dancing everywhere amongst a forest of national flags, and many of them had a flag draped over their shoulders like a cape. I lost count of how many different flags I saw. I had no idea what the occasion was, but I wandered in amongst the crowd, taking video.

I assumed at the time that it was connected with either NATO or the EU, both of which are headquartered in Brussels, but I found out later (when I stopped a man wearing a British flag who turned out to be very very Scottish) that it was all about Tomorrowland, a huge music festival. Apparently, the Flanders area has tons of music festivals.

I wandered around a bit looking for the Royal Palace, but couldn’t seem to find it. How I couldn’t find a Palace, I don’t know, but I *did* find the Musical Instrument Museum. I spent far longer in there than I should have, snapping a few special photos for my musician friends and family. As I walked, I had constant flashbacks to my high school/UH French classes; it was the last time that I’d actually heard the language spoken!

With barely two hours left, I decided to give up on the Palace. There was a lot more to see, and I was not leaving without sampling as much touristy “authentic” Belgian food as possible—a waffle, fries with mayo, chocolate, and, of course, Belgian beer. (Those of you who know me well are probably shocked at the beer I’ve been sampling. Believe me, so am I!)

I visited the Manneken Pis…

As promised. A statue of a little boy peeing, one of the most famous sights in Brussels. There are several stories claiming to explain this statue. Read them here: http://www.brusselslife.be/en/article/the-legends-of-the-peeing-kid
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See how small he really is? BTW--this is not a pedestrian area. Can you imagine trying to drive through all of these tourists? We thought Waikiki was bad!
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…and Grand Place, a UNESCO World Heritage Site…

Of course it doesn't look like a square in a panoramic shot, but it gives you some idea of the height and majesty of the buildings, as well as the variety in their architecture, which spans four centuries.
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The Town Hall.
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I'm honestly not sure what building this is, specifically.
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The building with the golden horse, and the buildings surrounding it are guildhalls.
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…bought a few chocolates, then had lunch:

Yes, that is a chocolate Manneken Pis. I bought it for Kona. :) The chocolate balls were for me, although they were a bit mushed by the time I was back in Essen.
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I hung out a bit longer, purchasing, writing, and posting the postcards to the kiddos, then headed to the train station. It was my last chance for a waffle so I took it. I realize that train station food is… well, train station food, but it’s not like I have a Belgian grandma to make waffles for me from scratch. I purchased a tasty-looking waffle with a bit of chocolate on it.

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It turns out that the “bit of chocolate” was a lot more than I thought, and I ended up wearing most of it. I ended this very long day in the bathroom of a slow-moving regional train, trying to scrub chocolate out of my clothes. Not a happy ending, but a beautiful city that I did not see nearly enough of.

Posted by OhMissLia 08:21 Archived in Belgium Tagged belgium brussels summer_2015 23_july Comments (0)

26 July 2015

Berlin, day 3 of 3

sunny
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The next morning, Sunday, I went with a few classmates and Saskia (a professor from Essen, Germany who taught a course at FHSU last summer) to the Stasi Museum and the DDR Museum (DDR = Soviet East Germany, known as the GDR in the USA). The two museums are a great complement for each other—one outlines the Soviet-based Stasi organization, infamous for its spying on DDR citizens, and the other is an interactive experience describing everyday life in the DDR.

The Stasi, officially the "Ministry for State Security," was the secret police of East Germany. They focused on spying on citizens, to the point where other citizens were recruited, coerced, or forced into spying for them. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the headquarters were swarmed by citizens, who caught officers in the act of destroying their records. Most were saved; to this day, any German citizen has the right to come here and request to see any records the Stasi had kept on them. People are shocked to discover that their neighbors, babysitters, even spouses, were reporting on them to the Stasi.

The headquarters building interior is very much as it was when in use, with original furnishings and items still in their original locations. This is the lobby, with original flags and statues. The trio of flags are for the DDR, the Socialist Unity Party, and the "red flag of the working class." The statue on the left is Karl Marx, the one on the right is Felix Dzerzhinsky--a particularly bloody Russian known for founding the Bolshevik Secret Police, the Cheka, and orchestrating the Red Terror. By the way, Vladimir Putin recently restored the title of "Dzerzhinsky Division" to a unit of his special forces police. Hmmmm.
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This is one of the umarked vehicles the Stasi used to grab people.
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Western music like Iron Maiden was believed to be an attempt to lure East German youth.
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The conference room of the Stasi decision makers, all original and intact. Who knows what horrors were conceived here?
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Before this museum, I'd had no clear idea of what the relationship was between the East German and Russian governments, or what really went on. Seeing these things, especially within their own environment of the hated Stasi building, made it all crystal clear. Now it was time to learn what life was like for the average East German citizen, at the very interactive DDR Museum. This museum really comes alive; visitors can try on clothing (uniforms, fashions), thumb through books (approved schoolbooks, novels), play with children's toys (wooden hand grenades, not balls), sit in a typical East German home (watch what you say!), and listen to the radio or watch the TV of the time. http://www.ddr-museum.de/en

Welcome home! This is part of a typical East German living room--come on in! Sit down, relax, watch some TV. Just be careful of what you say...
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...this sign is posted on the wall behind you. Visitors in the Stasi portion of the museum can sit at an actual listening machine the Stasi used and listen in on the conversations in this living room, just like the real Stasi did to real citizens in real living rooms.
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Children's schoolwork and toys were war-themed.
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Saskia is a fabulous guide; she expanded on the museum information with stories about her family’s personal experiences during these times--for example, because they lived not far from the DDR border, her family's TV signals were often jammed when East Germany jammed signals from the West. She has personally studied this era of her country's history, and has extensive knowledge on the subject. We were SO very lucky to have her with us!

Me and Saskia with Ampelmann.
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This green man is the Berlin-specific “walk” sign at intersections. He’s famous! You’ll see Ampelmann (“traffic light man”) on merchandise all over the city. He was briefly replaced in the 90s as the city sought to get rid of previous East German icons… but, using the protester's slogan of “we are the people,” a committee successfully saved Ampelmann. He’s the star of the city’s traffic safety films, and he even has his own store/website! http://ampelmann.de/html/geschichte_english.html

The Berlin bear is also seen everywhere, a beloved symbol of the city. When I asked Saskia if the bear had anything to do with the Russian bear, she responded with an emphatic, "No," that Berlin had always been symbolized by a bear. Subsequent research has informed me that these particular bears are "buddy bears," with arms outstretched in a gesture of welcome, peace, and hope. No wonder I like them!

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I spotted this Buddy Bear from across the street, and zoomed in, several floors up, to snap his photo.
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Berlin. Before this weekend, the word conjured dark images of barbed wire and burning books, urban grit and foreboding buildings. Now, the images are much brighter: the peaceful Brandenburg Gate and smooth Spree river, great Indian food and a friendly bear. Although I had done some research before travelling here, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I really enjoyed it. The graffiti is both depressing and impressive; the construction is both encouraging and frustrating. There is so much to see-do-learn-experience that it’s impossible to do them all in a lifetime of weekends. Would I return? In a heartbeat.

Posted by OhMissLia 08:51 Archived in Germany Tagged germany berlin summer_2015 26_july Comments (0)

25 July 2015

Berlin, day 2 of 3

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The next day began with another stroll. On Museum Island, we went through a street market. At the entrance to the market, several of the cement blocks (holding up street lights or whatever) were graffiti'd (?) with quotations.

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A most interesting vendor. Note the selection of items: Russian clothing and uniforms, gas masks, and an American flag. (That's the Bode Museum in the background, one of five world-class museums on Museum Island.)
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One of my favorite street musicians of the entire trip.

This guy was fabulous! If you peruse my full set of photos at https://www.flickr.com/photos/43163337@N02/ you may notice that there are several shots of street musicians. (And horses. And doors.) This is because, in my fantasy future, I will travel extensively and write a book about street musicians around the world. Since it’s unlikely—haha, impossible—that some publisher is going to front me the money to conduct this research, the best I can do is take a few photos/videos of the musicians and give them some coins. How I would love to interview them and ask their stories. “Tell me about your musical life… were you trained formally? Do you perform anywhere else? How long have you been working on the streets? How does your city treat you? Will you do this forever?”

Later, the full group headed to Checkpoint Charlie.

You are entering the American sector--to confirm, look at the soldier on the sign.
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You are leaving the American sector--to confirm, look at the soldier on the sign.
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The booth is a reproduction of the actual Checkpoint Charlie booth (original is in the nearby museum). The "soldiers" are there to take pictures with tourists--for a fee. I found this a little too celebrational-feeling for my taste. They play their part well, however--when we students posed for a photo under the nearby “You are leaving the American sector” sign, Dr. Scott and her sister were somewhat near the "soldiers" to frame the shot. The "soldiers" were quite surly; they had a few words with Dr. Scott. I’m not sure what their problem was, but they were definitely rude.

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Lunch was currywurst. It had no taste, but I could tell that was because it came from a horrible touristy location. It was pretty much a large hot dog.

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By going for lunch, I got separated from the group, so the rest of the day I just explored on my own.

From the Checkpoint Charlie museum. This photo is everywhere in Berlin, and I didn't know what it meant, so I snapped a photo of this display, which includes an explanation. It's Brezhnev (Soviet leader) and Honecker (East German leader) on the 30th Anniversary of the founding of East Germany. It's called the Fraternal Kiss, acknowledging that the relationship was tremulous and dangerous. The caption quotation is: "Lord! Help me survive this deadly love!"
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Amusing trash can.
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A large section of the wall that still stands. This is where the SS was headquartered; it is now a memorial and documentation center, titled the Topography of Terror. http://www.topographie.de/en/
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Berlin has many faces, many facets.
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Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The graveyard-esque memorial is 4.7 acres of confusion. It's not a maze, but the rows of concrete slabs are uneven in height and ground slope, creating an uneasy atmosphere amongst an otherwise orderly location. What remains of Hitler's bunker is in the far left corner of this picture, still controversial and relatively unmarked.
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My first glimpse of the American Embassy, its flag at half-staff. You can see the edge of some of the concrete slabs from the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in the foreground.
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I fell in love with Brandenburg Gate. Something about its majestic structure and reminders of peace really appealed to me--particularly the statue of Mars sheathing his sword.
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The Room of Silence is a thing of beauty as it attempts to shut out the noise of the world outside and remind its visitors of the original intention of the Gate of Peace.
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I stood for a while inside Pariser Platz, just enjoying the atmosphere. Even amongst the chaos that can be found in any heavily-trafficked area on a sunny summer Saturday, there was an air of jubilance. The bagpipe musicians played for money, sure, but their tunes were appropriate; "Amazing Grace" would transition to a jig without feeling awkward. The flags of the Allied nations whose embassies line Pariser Platz all flew proudly in the breeze; silent partners in peace and cooperation. I took a moment to take a video, doing a 360 of Pariser Platz beginning and ending at the American Embassy.

It was almost evening and my toes hurt, but there was still so much to see!

The Reichstag. You can barely see the dome from this angle. We'd hoped to be able to climb it, but it's difficult to arrange.
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In Bebelplatz, a memorial to the book-burning event of May 10, 1933. The Nazis burned about 20,000 books that day; the memorial is empty bookshelves, enough to hold 20,000 books. It's underground, viewed through a window in the ground in the middle of the platz.
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My dinner that night was another attempt at currywurst. The older Asian man running the place (a tavern across the street from our hotel) was quite intriguing; just one of those people who inspired me to wonder what their story is. Writing about him would take up another whole post; it's enough here to say that this currywurst was much better than lunch. :)
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Posted by OhMissLia 08:51 Archived in Germany Tagged germany berlin summer_2015 25_july Comments (0)

24 July 2015

Berlin, day 1 of 3

all seasons in one day
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After an uneventful early-morning train journey on a very fast train...

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...we arrived on Friday morning to the very pleasant discovery that our hotel was awesome! They let us check in right away, and the rooms were comfortable and most of us even had a decent view. Saskia and I, however, did not. Oh, well.

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Then it was time to visit Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. I had very sore feet and had already visited the very similar Dachau, so I didn’t explore as much as I might have otherwise.

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Sign showing the route of the "death march" that cost thousands of lives when inmates were forced to evacuate Sachsenhausen.
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The kitchen area is covered in political cartoons like this. Hans Fischerkoesen, known as "Germany's Walt Disney" was an inmate at Sachsenhausen for not wanting to get too cozy with the Nazis. He decorated the kitchen area with "funny" cartoons that were actually very rebellious statements. Hans' fascinating story (he survived and had an incredible career) can be read at http://www.awn.com/mag/issue1.7/articles/moritz1.7.html.
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The secrets of this building were not specified, but I found it compelling.
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Original barbed wire along the original enclosure wall that separated inmates from SS personnel barracks.
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I spent a good amount of time in a small room in one of the barracks that had served as “home” for eleven boys and young men aged 11-23. They were hand-picked upon their arrival in Auschwitz to serve as guinea pigs for some of the medical experiments conducted at Sachsenhausen. At one point, the boys were scheduled for death, but were saved by the heroic actions of the medical assistants—the interesting part is that the boys, who all survived the camp, did not know who had saved them until a reunion fifty years later.

There were video interviews of the survivors taken 50-60 years after liberation (although, technically, Sachsenhausen wasn't "liberated," it was abandoned via death march--the very sick were left behind and discovered by Russians and Poles a few days later). I watched and listened as they described the men that conducted the experiments, both the willing and the forced. They described the room they lived in—the very room I was sitting in. My eyes went to the window when the man described how they would look out the window, and how the view was only of the side of the next barracks building a few feet away (the area is now cleared; there are only foundations visible behind this room). When the man talked about their single sink and mirror, I easily found the place on the wall where they used to be—like a house in renovation, there were holes where the pipes used to be and the outline of where the mirror had been hung.

The tiled area is where the sink/mirror used to be.
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A drawing by one of the boys while at the camp, depicting an SS official holding a gun on inmates, saying, "Work sets you free." The inmates are digging holes, likely pits for crematorium ashes.
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After Sachsenhausen, we rested a bit then went for dinner (without a doubt, the very best Indian food I have ever had, YUM!) and a stroll.

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If you zoom in, you can see that these posters across the river are for the celebration of 25 years of reunification.
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The stroll was a relaxing way to end a long day, and provided a great taste of what else Berlin had to offer us in the coming weekend. :)

Posted by OhMissLia 08:51 Archived in Germany Tagged germany berlin summer_2015 24_july Comments (1)

13 July 2015

Munich

semi-overcast

Arrived in Munich on time. I had no problems retrieving my luggage or finding the train station. Not too much trouble with the ticket machine (hey, the first one was broken, and I don't read the language!) and then got to sit back for a 45-minute train ride. My first impression was that the cliche of German engineering is true... this was the smoothest, quietest and cleanest train I've ever been on!

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Navigating from my final train station to Mark's apartment was going to be the tricky part, but turned out to be a non-issue, as Mark met me there. Woohoo!

We walked to his apartment--stopping first at a meat place for some yummy sandwiches and second at a cheesemonger's--then chilled out until Laura, his wife, returned home from work. She'd just received news of getting a new job, so we all celebrated with a Viennese drink made from white peaches--it was delicious. Then we headed out and strolled through the heart of Munich: Marienplatz, churches, the palace, Hofbrauhaus, and more.

A dragon, symbolic of the Black Death, attacks citizens on this sculpture (if that's the correct term) on the side of a Marientplatz building.
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The Munich National Theatre, an opera house on Max-Joseph Platz.
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Outdoor dining near the National Theatre.
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Rubbing the nose of the Bavarian lion outside the residential palace. It brings good luck! Why? Read about the legend here: http://munich-greeter.de/en/2013/06/munich-only-die-residenzlowen/
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The infamous Hofbrauhaus. It was a lot less "tavern-ish" than I'd anticipated; I just thought there would be less artwork and more wooden timbers, or something.
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This is where the regulars of Hofbrauhaus store their personal steins--a practice I have seen mirrored in certain coffee shops back home. :)
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Laura and I pose beneath the gorgeous ceiling. We didn't stay--way too loud.
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No official tours, just strolling until we found a good Bavarian restaurant for dinner. I managed to down a litre of Schneiderweisse with my dinner--a savory pancake with vegetables that was quite good.

Prost!
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What strikes me most about Munich is how safe it feels... no creepy feelings. We just walked around anywhere we pleased, even after dark. Also, it's clean. And old. The restaurant we ate in is older than the United States, and is still owned by the same family that has always owned it!

As we strolled, we came upon an unofficial Michael Jackson memorial, located outside a posh hotel where he liked to stay. [Note from later: the memorial is quite controversial, to the point of violence between fans. Here is an article about it, written two weeks after my visit: http://www.businessinsider.com/afp-disputed-german-michael-jackson-memorial-may-have-to-beat-it-2015-7 ]

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I'm tired, and can't get on wi-fi to post this; will do so when I can.

Posted by OhMissLia 13:44 Archived in Germany Tagged germany munich summer_2015 13_july Comments (0)

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