Monthly Archives: February 2012

Deutschland Museum

“Do you think museums will one day end up in museums?”

– Katie Wessel

That was the quote of the day from my ever-profound wife. She asked me that as we were leaving Munich’s Deutschland Museum. I said, “You mean, will they one day build a building to house this building and say it’s a museum of a museum?” She said, “Yeah!” I said, “No.”

We spent close to four hours walking around the Deutschland Museum today. It’s Munich’s largest museum and it’s the world’s largest museum of technology and science. It’s much too large to visit in one day so we plan to visit a few more times while we’re here. We made it through the maritime, aeronautics, photography, music and machine sections. We felt like we were in there for forever, but what we accomplished was the equivalent to peeling one layer off of an onion. There were dozens of exhibits we didn’t get to, including robotics, physics, printing technology, astronomy and microelectronics. The museum also has a planetarium which we saved for our next trip.

Katie and I kept commenting on how grateful we were that God created people like engineers and scientists – people whose brains work in a way that we cannot fathom. We spent so much time staring at certain exhibits – like the turbo engine pictured below – and saying, “How do you even begin to build something like this?”

Looks simple enough.

Their maritime collection was particularly impressive. They have boats and various equipment that dates back over 2,000 years, along with dozens of intricate models of sailing ships and battle ships. (By the way, I left with an entirely new appreciation for the game “Battleship.” How awesome is that game?) The crown jewel of the maritime exhibit, in my opinion, was the German U-boat from World War I. It’s an actual U-boat – not a replica – and it’s set up so that you can see everything inside.

Not a lot of extra leg room on the U-boat.

The musical instruments exhibit wasn’t bad. There was a piano room, which made me happy. Katie and I showed off our maturity by taking pictures of ourselves playing the instruments that were behind the glass cases. We realized how immature we were being when we noticed a flock of kids following us around.

This was Katie's idea. I thought it was brilliant.

I think this one turned out particularly well.

Katie’s favorite exhibit was the one on photography. It chronicles the invention of the camera — a device that Katie has always found disturbing. It just doesn’t make sense to her how something like that can do what it does. (She’s also bothered by the telephone, computer, radio and really any technology that appears to be too much like magic.)

After four hours we called it quits and hopped on the subway back to our apartment. We plan to walk down to Mass in a little bit. The week ahead promises to be fairly low key as we both have good chunks of work to do. But it’s also supposed to be a sunny week, with highs of 44, 46, 53, 57 and 56! So in addition to working, I think this week will also have us renting or buying a couple of bikes to use throughout the warmer months, followed by a few rides through the English Gardens.

We hope everyone back home is doing well. It’s crazy to think that it’s been almost two months since we moved. Time is going by very fast and it will only continue to do so as March and April are bringing us quite a few visitors — eight to be exact, for a total of six separate trips. And then we’ll be back in the States at the end of April for the Concert for Life (April 22). So keep checking back as there should be no shortage of things to write about.

Ciao!

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Fasching Tuesday

In America we call it “Mardi Gras” or “Fat Tuesday.” In other English-speaking parts of the world it’s called “Shrove Tuesday.” Here in Munich they call it “Faschingdienstag,” translated as “Fasching Tuesday.” It’s the day before Ash Wednesday when everyone is supposed to celebrate one final time (and eat and drink a hefty amount) before the somber, reflective weeks of Lent officially begin.

The American Mardi Gras season begins with Epiphany, but Munich’s Fasching season starts way back on November 11 (at 11:11 a.m., of course). I won’t bore you with the history of the season, but if you’re curious I will point you in the direction of the Carnival page on Wikipedia or an informative Fasching page on Toytown Germany’s website.

While the season is months long and there are endless balls, dinners and parties to go to, Munich’s main event takes place today in the Marienplatz area, mostly around the Viktualienmarkt . Katie and I decided to take a long lunch and check it out. But there was a catch. We read that part of the celebration involves dressing in costume. On some sites, we read that if you’re there and aren’t in costume, people will come after you with face paint. So last night we shelled out a few euros and bought ourselves a couple of “from the neck up” costumes (Katie bought a bumble bee headband and I bought a bandana, eye patch and gold earring). This meant we could pocket the costumes until we were in the Marienplatz (keeping us from looking too silly on the U-Bahn).

We arrived at the Marienplatz around 11 a.m. and stayed until about 1 p.m. It was quite a sight. The Marienplatz is always packed with people, but today carried a noticeably different atmosphere. There was music pumping and the smell of bratwurst grilling. Then there were the costumes. For those of you in Wisconsin, picture Summerfest if it were to take place on October 31. That’s Fasching Tuesday. Some costumes were more like ours — minimal attempts to fit in — while others were quite extravagant. And while no one was attacking anyone with face paint (in fact, you don’t have to dress up at all – at least half of the people there were not in costume), there were plenty of people with elaborate make-up jobs:

Lots of face paint at Fasching Tuesday.

We walked all around the Marienplatz, took lots of pictures and sampled quite a bit of food, including a traditional Thuringer bratwurst (the kind where the bun is a third the size of the brat), the greatest polish sausage I’ve ever eaten and the greatest doughnut Katie’s ever eaten.

Ah, the doughnuts. The Fasching link above has more information on the history of them. Basically, it’s the iconic “Fat Tuesday” food in Munich (along with sausages, corn, candy, chocolate, pretzels, beer, etc.) and they’re everywhere. I was somewhat terrified of them given that they’re all filled with cream (those who know me know I have a phobia of condiments and “fillings” of any kind). But I acted like the 30-year-old that I am and tried it. It was really good — light and full of flavor. It’s kind of like Munich’s version of the Wisconsin State Fair cream puff. Or the paczki we have back home on Fat Tuesday. Katie hasn’t stopped talking about how good it was. In fact, she was so excited for it that she couldn’t wait for me to take a picture before having her first bite:

The greatest doughnut in the history of the world? Katie thinks so.

Another thing we found interesting was that you have to pay a hefty deposit (about $2.50) when you buy a bottle of beer or glass of wine. When you’re done with the drink and you return the empty bottle or glass, you get the deposit back. In America we’re used to just throwing the bottles in a recycle bin. But think of how many people throw them in regular garbage bins, or worse, throw them on the ground. By paying that kind of a deposit, you make it a point to return the bottle when you’re done.

We only stayed for a couple of hours because Katie had a busy afternoon of work to get back to (she went from honey bee to worker bee). From what we read, the “real” party takes place between 2 and 5 because most of Munich is given the afternoon off of work. I tried to make the argument to Katie that we’re Munchkins now and should abide by their work schedule, but it didn’t work.

We did asked a bartender dressed as a prisoner to take our photo before we left.

We had a great time at the cARRRRRnival. (See what I did there?)

If you’re ever in Munich in January or February, we highly recommend a Fasching party. Good times indeed. You can see several more photos on our Flickr page.

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The U-Bahn Man

Germany has some pretty fun signs for various things. Their “Exit” sign is nothing more than a stick figure running toward a door. At the train station, the “Watch where you walk” sign was a stick figure losing his balance on a train platform with a train approaching in the distance. Our favorite so far, though, is the sign for the U-Bahn:

U-Bahn man!

It’s more or less a stick figure walking down a flight of stairs. But they’ve classed things up a little bit by putting a hat on him. And if you look closely you’ll notice two different images. Is he casually walking down the stairs with his arms swinging by his side? Or — as we prefer to see him — is he really a man wearing a cape and creepily walking down the stairs with both hands out in front of him?

It’s like one of those illusion puzzles.

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Basel, Switzerland (Part I)

Our biggest takeaway from last week’s trip to Basel was that we’re definitely going back when it’s warmer (hence this post being dubbed “part one”). It was so unbelievably cold during our two-and-a-half days there that we just weren’t able to enjoy the city the way we likely would if it had been warmer. It helps that Basel is a hub for pharmaceutical activity, which makes it extremely likely that Katie will have to go back again this year (if not two or three times). This particular trip was made so that she and a colleague could visit with some of the area companies.

Before and after the meetings we did what walking we could despite the cold, although it seemed our limit was about 15 minutes outside before having to duck in somewhere to “fake shop” for a few minutes while we let feeling return to our faces.

Basel is a small town with quite a bit of “old charm.” Even though all of the cities we’re visiting have histories much deeper than what we’re used to in America, Basel actually felt older. Of course, the city is pretty old. The earliest documentation of the city’s existence dates back almost 2,000 years. The town’s iconic Münster church (formerly a Catholic cathedral and now a Protestant church) is almost 1,000 years old. The Mittlere bridge was the first to cross the Rhine river and was originally constructed in 1225 (though was completely overhauled in 1905). Even the ornament store that we went into on Saturday had ornaments that were almost as old as the United States (we didn’t buy any of those — too expensive).

Simply put, it’s an old city. But a beautiful one. It seems to have a blend of German and Italian architecture — both in respect to houses and roads. The city is also very horizontal. You’ll notice in the picture below that there’s just one skyscraper on the eastern landscape. That building was actually our hotel – the Ramada. It really sticks out and kind of ruins the otherwise lack of a skyline. Makes you wonder why they built it at all.

The city of Basel looking east. The tall building in the background was our hotel.

Basel – as with most of Switzerland – is also very expensive. VERY expensive. Thankfully, the way the currency matches up with the dollar, it’s easy to keep this reality in mind. I mention this because between America, Munich and London, all three cities might charge the same unit price for a particular item, say 10 dollars/Euros/pounds. But if you converted everything to dollars, it would actually be 10/13.3/16. In other words, at first glance it can seem equal, but it’s not. In Switzerland, the Swiss Franc is pretty much equal to the dollar, so  you don’t have to do the math in your head. Rather, you just notice that you’re paying 8 Swiss Francs for a glass of beer and realize it’s 8 dollars.

We had lunch at a really good Asian noodles place on Thursday afternoon. What should probably have cost $25 total cost $55. A freshly-baked pretzel (my new addiction) cost $3.50, up from the 75 cents that they cost in Munich. A 5-minute cab ride? $20. We asked one of the locals why it was so expensive to live in the country and her answer was, “People get paid more. It’s a better standard of living.” They do get paid more, which must make traveling to other countries very fun for them. I’m guessing the country’s smaller size has something to do with the higher prices, too.

It’s fine for a short holiday (don’t I sound European?), but visiting Switzerland for much longer than a few days would be brutal on the bank account. With that said, we’re excited for a return trip! We’d love to visit in the summer and take longer walks throughout the old city, jump in and float down the Rhine river and enjoy over-priced coffee at an outdoor cafe.

We left Basel on Saturday afternoon and took the train back to Munich. It was much cheaper than a flight and – as it turns out – a much better way to travel. We decided that traveling by air gives you the advantage of time, but that’s about it. We found train travel to offer many perks. There’s no baggage checking, no security lines and no cramped seating. You get views of the countryside while you ride. You don’t have to show up hours before your train leaves (we got there 15 minutes ahead of time). First class is affordable, too! For an extra $5 each, we were able to sit in the first class cabin which gave us additional privacy, much more legroom and – on the second of the two trains (we had one connection) – snack/dinner service. All of that for a fraction of the cost of flying. Of course, it took five hours to get home instead of 45 minutes. But when you add up the travel time we saved – both in not having to get to the station so early and not having to spend an hour on the metro once we got home (since the train station is much closer to our apartment than the airport) – it was really only a few hours difference. It’s a good excuse to watch a movie or read a book.

Our next planned trip isn’t until late March when we head to Denmark for a few days. We’ll explore Munich and southern Germany a little bit in the meantime. We’re hoping warmer weather is in the near future, too. It’s supposed to climb back into the 30’s this week, which would be a welcome relief.

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A river runs through it

A shot of the Rhine river taken from the Mittlere Brucke in Basel, Switzerland.

There are seemingly infinite differences among the cities we’ve visited so far — language, currencies, food, weather, culture, architecture — but we’ve begun to notice the one thing they all have in common. A river. Munich has the Isar. Budapest has the Danube. London has the Thames. Today we got to see the Rhine in Basel (pictured above).

The rivers were no doubt major selling points when the first inhabitants of these various cities decided to construct their villages. A city on the edge of a river made for easy transportation and trade. It also provided a natural barrier from enemy attack. But even today the rivers provide life to the city. What used to be a source of transportation and safety is now a source of tourism.

The presence of a river makes any city that much more picturesque. It’s hard to take a bad photo when you’re framing buildings that sit along the water’s edge next to a bridge or two. If Budapest didn’t have the Danube, I think many would consider it to lack charm. But when you add the river and its amazing bridges, suddenly everywhere you look is a potential postcard.

Rivers also brings a sense of charm, nostalgia and romance. If you’re in a city that has a river, it’s no doubt a perfect place to find lively restaurants, cafes and shops. River walks are perfect for a morning jog, a mid-afternoon walk or a nighttime stroll under the stars.

And then there’s the feeling you get when you’re standing on a bridge overlooking a body of water. It’s comforting, peaceful — spiritual. The stresses of the day can easily be wiped clean by a meditative walk along the banks of a river — something that residents of these towns have been doing for hundreds of years.

As old as the cities are that we’re visiting, the rivers that run through them are older still. And that’s pretty cool.

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London, England

We just wrapped up a quick two days in London after arriving into town on Monday afternoon. We flew EasyJet for the first time. It’s a low-cost carrier that keeps ticket prices low by 1) charging for checked bags, 2) requiring passengers to take a bus to the plane from the terminal, 3) maintaining a very strict carry-on baggage policy and 4) selling you everything from newspapers to cigarettes on the flight. Even the soda and water has a price. But for a two-hour flight to England (or any European country, really), those are all very minor things to adapt to and the significant savings totally justify the effort. We were both very impressed with the airline. Everything ran like clockwork and the in-flight staff was very friendly.

We landed in London at about Noon (“mid-day,” as they say). We flew into one of the city’s smaller airports and had to take a combination of bus and taxi to get to our hotel. We spent the entire ride in marveling at the cars that were driving on the left side of the road.

After getting to the hotel (we stayed off of Cromwell Street, just one major street south of Hyde Park), finding a quick lunch and catching up on some emails, we set out to find Buckingham Palace. It was the only night Katie was going to be able to get out and see the city and the palace is something she really wanted to get to. Because it was 30 degrees warmer here than in Munich (though still a chilly 35 degrees), walking didn’t present any issues.

Along the way to Buckingham Palace (which was about a 25 minute walk from our hotel), we kept commenting on how much the city reminded us of Boston, Washington D.C. and other American east coast cities. You can see the same architectural style that influenced Americans in the 17 and 1800’s.

Walking the streets of London at times felt like walking the streets of Boston.

After walking through the questionably dark Green Park (and talking about how it seemed like a good setting for a mugging), we arrived at the palace. It’s a giant, rectangular building that sits next to a massive traffic circle that goes around the Queen Victoria Memorial. After a few minutes of trying to spot the Queen in one of the windows, we headed back toward the Marble Arch and hailed a cab.

Us in front of Buckingham Palace.

The cabs in London are great. First of all, they’re mostly all black, a much more subtle color than the bright yellow cabs in America. Rather than using their color to standout, they use their shape. They all look like cars from the early part of the 20th century. I’m not sure if this was intended or not, but it makes one feel like their back in time, when nannys named Mary Poppins flew around the city by umbrella.

The cabs in London made us think of the early 1900's.

We found a bite to eat near our hotel at a small but lively place called Comptoir Libanais (delicious lebonese food!) before calling it a night.

As for the next day, Katie and her colleague, Kevin, attended a conference that had them tied up all day and night (and for the better part of Wednesday). While the two of them worked, I happily took to the streets to soak up more of this vibrant city.

After putting in a couple hours of work myself, I decided to go for a run. It was cold, but not too cold for a jog. I ran a three-mile route that took me through parts of Hyde park. It’s a beautiful, large park with paved paths, plenty of trees, a pond, a river and a wide central walkway. It reminded me of the animated fox-and-hound scene from Mary Poppins. (I thought about Mary Poppins a lot while in London.)

Afterwards I made my way to the subway (they call it the “underground” or “the tube” here) and rode out to Westminster Abby. I was able to get some great pictures of London’s Parliament building (which Big Ben is attached to) with a clear blue sky in the background. My walk took me past Westminster Abby (I actually thought the Parliament building was Westminster Abby for about a half an hour) where I, along with several other pedestrians, were stopped momentarily while a motorcade drove by. I asked one of the guards who was in the car. “Prince Charles,” he said. Cool!

A shot of Parliament sitting on the edge of the Thames river.

I continued to walk back toward the hotel and found myself in St. James Park, which sits on the east side of Buckingham Palace. I think this is where the writers of Mary Poppins were inspired to write the song “Feed the Birds.” It’s a miracle I got in and out of the park without getting pooped on.

Does this make anyone else think of the bird lady from Mary Poppins?

The rest of my walk took me past the same areas that Katie and I walked past the night before. I did stop in the famous Harrods department store just to see what all the fuss was about. It was pretty impressive. Several stories, dozens and dozens of stores. It has everything you would ever want (and most of which you could never afford).

Later that night, Katie and I set out again to take a night tour of London. I found a company that does nightly tours leaving at 9:15 p.m. Katie finished her dinner around 9:00, so we jumped into a cab and raced to the bus stop. Once there, we were told by the tour director that there weren’t enough people registered for the tour. It had been cancelled. What a waste of a cab! I felt bad for Katie because she really wanted to see Parliament, Big Ben and a few other places. But it wasn’t meant to be.

We do want to return before the year is through, though. It’s too big of a city to see in two days. Then again, two days might be all we can afford! London is a pricey town. If you pretend that the number on the price tag means dollars, you wouldn’t think too much of it. But the pound-to-dollar ratio is a little more than 1.5:1. So if something says 8 pounds, it’s really more like $13 bucks. A one-way ticket on the underground costs $7!

After spending a month in Munich (it’s been a month already!), it was both refreshing — and strange — to spend a couple of days in an English-speaking country. Surprisingly, my instincts were usually to respond in German when saying things like “thank you” and “excuse me,” and I was often taken aback when someone spoke to me in English. I was also surprised at how difficult it was at times to understand people’s accents. But I never tired of hearing them. I wish I spoke with a British accent. Normally, I hate when employees come up to me in a store and ask if I need help with anything. But here, they come up to you and say things like “Anything in particular catch your eye?” Except it sounds like, “Ony-thing in po-tick-you-lar catch yoh eye?” You almost want to lie and say “yes” just so they’ll talk to you some more.

We thought a lot about Munich while we were here. We compared a lot of things (it’s very different, as you can imagine) and talked about what things would be like if we had moved to England instead of Germany. (Before the Germany/Switzerland area became our prime focus for relocation, London was a place we seriously considered.) We thought a lot about America, too. It’s hard not to, knowing that this is where our country’s founders came from. As big fans of American history, it was fun to walk the streets of the country that gave birth to our nation. I would guess it would be hard for any American – no matter where their ancesteral roots may lie – to come to London and not have similar thoughts.

We wish our stay could have been longer. As I said, we hope to return someday — perhaps even this year. But we’re thrilled that we got the chance to visit at all.

As for our next adventure, we just got into Basel, Switzerland, a couple of hours ago and will be here until Saturday afternoon. It’s 10 degrees and the entire city is covered in snow. I’m off to find some Swiss hot chocolate …

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Living in Munich

I’m not sure if it’s garnering any attention in the States, but the “deep freeze” that Europe’s going through has been a hot topic over here. It’s really hitting countries like Russia, Poland and Ukraine. Northern Germany is getting hit pretty badly, too, although the southern Bavarian area (where we live) has been uncharacteristically cold, too. I even read reports of snow in Rome, which is very unusual. It’s about 10 degrees (F) right now (Weather.com says it feels like -3, though). We don’t have the vicious wind that we’re used to from Milwaukee winters, but it’s still extremely cold.

So on a chilly Saturday morning we thought we’d share some observations that Katie and I have had about German life as we celebrate one month as Munchkins (that’s what I’m calling us – although it’s probably technically “Munichers”). These are in no particular order and I’m sure the list could be much longer.

  • Sundays are sacred – When God decided to rest on Sunday he really rested. Very few businesses are open on Sundays. No grocery stores, drug stores, clothing stores, etc. The occasional restaurant will be open, but not many. Germans see Sunday as a day of leisure/personal activities. (By the way, during the week, stores close at reasonable hours so that employees can go home and be with their families. Many places close at 6 p.m. and grocery stores typically close by 8 p.m.)
  • Mom-and-Pop shops are thriving – There are at least 20 hair stylist places within walking distance of our apartment. I have no idea how they all stay in business.
  • Exercise is important – It’s shocking that neither one of us have been run over by a bike yet. It seems that everyone owns one and there are dedicated bike lines on almost every sidewalk. It’s taking some getting used to, as this is very different than Milwaukee. Between that and all of the walking that people do, they seem to get much more “effortless” exercise than Americans. I’ve also been surprised at how many joggers there are in Munich – even in the freezing cold.
  • Speaking of getting around … – Public transportation in Munich is amazing. They have underground trains, aboveground trains, buses and trams. Everything is clean and runs on time. If you miss a train, there’s another coming in 10 minutes or less. Pricing seems to be fair, but if you’re going to buy a week- or month-long pass, you have to make sure you use it. A week’s pass costs about $16 and a month’s pass costs about $60. Passes let you take any form of public transportation you want. (Side note: The city’s metro system is also on the honor system. No one checks your tickets and, unlike American metro systems, there’s no entrance gate that you have to open by swiping your ticket. You just walk onto the train. We’ve read that they’ll occasionally check passenger tickets and hand out fines if you don’t have one.)
  • High-speed Internet at a snail’s pace – If you move to a new place in America and want Internet service, you call Time Warner Cable or AT&T U-Verse (or whoever) and you’ll have it within days. Here, you only get fast service if you go through Telekom – and even that can be slow. If you’re like us, and use a different Internet provider (we’re using M-Net because it’s what our landlady chose), Telekom is still in charge of coming to your place to set up the hard wires. And since you’re using a competitor for the service, they make you wait. We’ve been here one month and the technician is finally coming out on Monday.
  • The right to watch TV – Basic cable is free in Germany. It includes 30+ channels. They’re all in German, so it doesn’t do much for us, but it has to be nice for native Germans.
  • No small talk (sorry, Katie) – We read that Germans don’t smile at one another on the street or say “hello” to strangers because it’s perceived as a sign of weakness. I’m not sure if that’s the true reason, but there is some truth to that notion. They also don’t seem to be big on small talk. Unless you’re sitting next to someone at a restaurant, Germans would rather keep to themselves. They’re not rude about it, just quiet.
  • Sitting with strangers – I just alluded to this. In most restaurants here, you seat yourself. If you don’t, you’ll be standing for a long time. And if you’re a party of two that sits at a table for four, don’t be surprised if another party of two joins you. Why should two empty seats go unused? Makes sense to me, but it takes some getting used to. You don’t really talk with the people next to you (unless you both want to), but it’s still awkward to have them there.
  • Typical food prices – Certain things are more expensive or less expensive than in America, but overall it really balances out. Our grocery bills seem to be on par with what we pay in the States.
  • Order the beer!When looking at a restaurant’s drink options, the beer always seems to be the same price (or sometimes cheaper!) than the soda or other non-alcoholic drinks. A large glass of Coca-Cola at one of our neighborhood cafes costs about $4.50 – the same price as a half-liter of beer.

German beer is mighty tasty (and cheap!)

  • Or the lattes! – Ordering a regular coffee is just as expensive as ordering a specialty drink like a latte or cappuccino.  A small coffee (very small) costs about $2.00.
  • “Do you want fries with that?” – That’s something we don’t hear very often. In fact, in the month we’ve been here, I’ve had french fries just once. Sandwiches might come with a side salad, but otherwise they just come out as sandwiches. And you know what? They’re filling. I don’t miss the fries. (Okay. That’s a lie. I do miss them. But I’m trying to cope.)
  • Food that’s fast (but not fast food) – You can get a quick lunch almost anywhere. It seems every block is selling pre-made sandwiches of all kinds. They’re not greasy or fried, and have fresh meats and vegetables. “Fast food” as we know it is here (although we’ve only seen McDonalds restaurants in Schwabing), but not nearly as prevalent as back home. We have had a couple of lunches at Subway. For me, as a guy who hates condiments, it’s nice to get a custom-made sandwich once in a while! (Side note: They do have the delicious “doner sandwich” everywhere you look, which probably has the same nutritional value as a Big Mac.)
  • Do-it-yourself recycling – Dealing with garbage is just like any place in the States: you walk your trash bags to a dumpster. But recycling is different. We have to walk two blocks to giant cement bins and carefully drop our recyclables into the appropriate containers (they’re broken down by aluminum, plastic, green glass, brown glass and clear glass).

Recycling containers in Schwabing. Oooh! Ahhh!

  • Paying the “pfand” – It took us a bit to learn what this was. When you buy bottled drinks in the store, the price will include something called “pfand,” which means “deposit.” You pay the pfand up front and are given it back if you return the bottles to the store. Six bottles of water might only set you back 20 cents per bottle, but with a pfand cost of 25 cents per bottle. In other words, you get more than half of the purchase price back if you return the bottles. Germans are very into green living — recycling, energy efficiency, etc.
  • Communion line rush – I’m not sure if this is true at all churches (we’ve only been to two) or if it’s unique to Sunday night Masses, but we’ve learned there’s no orderly line for receiving Holy Communion. When the time comes for Communion, everyone just gets out of the pews and heads to the front of the church. Some people even push and shove to get there before others. It’s so bizarre.
  • Footwear – We’ve noticed that the girls over here really like wearing their boots. Guys tend to wear dark colored shoes. We see very few pairs of white sneakers.
  • Don’t forget to tip – Tipping your server is standard practice in Germany, just like back home. But the expected amount is much different. If you tip 10% on a meal in Munich you’re considered an excellent tipper. Can’t argue with that!

As I said, this list could be much longer. But we hope it gives a little insight into some of the cultural differences we’re adapting to.

After a quiet weekend in Munich, the travels continue … Katie and I will be in London early next week for a two-day conference that she’s attending. Immediately following that, we’ll scoot over to Basel (Switzerland) for a few days where she and a colleague will take part in several meetings.

Look for photos and stories later next week!

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Budapest, Hungary

We survived our first adventure beyond German borders this past weekend, although it wasn’t without a little bit of drama.

Budapest, the capital city of Hungary, is a city of just under two million people. It actually used to be two separate cities – Buda (on the west side of the Danube river) and Pest (on the east side). We stayed on the Pest side in a nice hotel just off the pedestrian-only center. We were only two blocks from the river, which made sightseeing just a walk away.

For those who may have missed it, I already blogged about our first night there. As for the following day, I spent much of the morning doing work and then made it out of the hotel around 11:30 a.m. to try and find some lunch. This was the only part of the trip where I left the hotel and walked away from the river (most of the more touristy sights and shops are along the water). After walking for 15 minutes or so, I stumbled upon a restaurant that looked promising. I had a generous portion of chicken, vegetables and rice for only $3.00 – a meal that would have cost at least twice that had I eaten at a place closer to the river. We’ve learned that cheaper meals and better values can sometimes be found by straying away from the touristy areas.

After lunch I walked over to St. Stephen’s Basilica. It’s a beautiful church that was built in the late 1800’s and is named after the first King of Hungary. In the back of the church, in a small chapel, visitors can catch a glimpse of Stephen’s “incorruptible” right hand. (Yes, his actual right hand is on display. Weird.)

The main portion of St. Stephen's Basilica

Later that afternoon, once Katie had wrapped up her meetings, we joined two of her colleagues for a walk around Budapest. We began with another visit to St. Stephen’s before moving onto the Hungarian Market. This place reminded us of Milwaukee’s Public Market in some ways – just on a much bigger scale. It’s in a large building with two floors. The lower floor is filled with produce vendors (fruits, vegetables, meats, spices) and the upper level is more retail items and hot food. It was here that we enjoyed our first cup (but not last) of Hungarian “hot wine,” which is basically hot wine with sugar and spices added to it. It tastes a lot like mulled, hot apple cider. It’s a delicious way to keep warm in the winter.

A shot of one of the produce stands taken from the second floor.

Many of the vendors are selling the same thing as the vendors to the left and right of them that makes us wonder how anyone makes a consistent profit. To that point, I was particularly impressed with this vendor’s attempt at product marketing:

A good example of product marketing!

After the market we made the long (and cold) walk to the Chain bridge where we crossed to the Budapest side and continued north in order to catch a glimpse of the Parliament building at night. On the way, we were able to get some other great photos of the city in an evening setting. They’ve done a wonderful job lighting up their historic buildings and bridges that make the city come to life in a whole new way once the sun sets. (See the last blog entry for some of those pictures.)

Once we were satisfied with our pictures, we made the walk back to the hotel. After a quick drink with her colleagues, Katie and I ventured off to find dinner. We ended up at an authentic Hungarian restaurant near the Danube called “Szazeves Etterem,” which claims to be the oldest restaurant in Budapest (dating back to 1831). It was a very elegant place with candles and live music (piano and strings). I had bacon-wrapped pork medallions (they were as good as they sound) and Katie had duck.

What’s funny about dining in Hungary – something we noticed at multiple places – is that their servers are really driven sales people. In America, after dinner there’s typically an offer for dessert. If you say no, you get the check. In Hungary, if you decline dessert, it’s followed up by two or three additional attempts to convince you otherwise. If that doesn’t work, a different server might come over – someone you haven’t seen all night – to make his or her attempt at convincing you to buy more food. On this particular night, we firmly held our ground and finally got the check. It was definitely a “fine dining” experience, but it only cost us $45 (wine included), much cheaper than what a similar meal in the States would cost.

(Another interesting dining quirk: The night before, when Katie was at her work dinner, she was served a multi-course meal. When she didn’t finish every single bite on the plate for one of the courses, four separate servers came by to ask her what was wrong with the dish. They were concerned that she didn’t like it.)

The following day was a highlight for me. We took the city’s subway (which felt rather rundown and dirty) to the famous Szechenyi Bath and Spa – one of the largest spa complexes in Europe. Now, dismiss what comes to mind when you hear “spa” in American terms. It’s not really like that (although you can pay for massages and whatnot). It felt more like a public swimming pool. We paid our entrance fee, picked out a locker and walked to the pool. There are 19 pools at Szechenyi filled with natural water that comes from a depth of 1,246 meters (three quarters of a mile deep!) at a temperature of about 76 degrees Celsius, or 168 degrees Fahrenheit (of course, the water is much cooler – though still piping hot – by the time it’s filtered into the pools).

The water itself is rich with calcium, chloride, sulphates, fluoride and more. Because of this, there’s a strange odor when you first walk in that takes some getting used to. Hungarians believe the water to have “healing” properties – both when soaked in and when drunk. In fact, citizens in Hungary with certain medical conditions can get free passes to the spas for “medicinal purposes.”

We spent about an hour and a half at the pools. I capped off my visit with a trip to one of the outdoor pools (we chose Szechenyi because their outdoor pools stay open in the winter). The walk to the pool was freezing cold, but once in, I was in heaven. I wish we had photos to share, but we opted not to take our camera along. You can see photos of the place on the Szechenyi website.

If any of you find yourselves in Budapest and visiting a thermal spa, here are some things to do that we did not: 1) bring your own towel (they’re cheap to rent, but the deposit is unnecessarily expensive), 2) bring sandals (I think we were the only people without them), 3) bring a bag for your wet suits (we actually remembered to do this, but the bag ended up being too small so we had to carry wet suits on the metro).

We spent the afternoon walking around the river area. Katie wanted to walk up to the former Royal Palace (which sits on the Buda side of the river) and it turned out to be an excellent call. Not only is the palace area rich with its own history and architecture, but also because it’s built high up on a hill, it offers stunning views of the Danube and Pest side of Budapest.

The Parliament building is one of Budapest's architectural wonders.

I even found a place behind the palace to practice my archery skills.

None of my arrows hit the target. One flew over the haystack altogether.

We returned to Munich that evening. Poor Katie had to drive the entire trip – both ways – because I can’t drive stick. That changed on Sunday when we returned the car. We spent some time on the side roads where I learned how to make myself more useful on future road trips. I can’t promise I won’t stall out on occasion, but I don’t think that matters to Katie since she’ll be asleep in the passenger seat.

Prior to last month neither one of us had ever had any inkling whatsoever to visit Hungary. It was just never high on the list. But we’re glad we did. And as Katie’s work travels pile up, we’ll likely go to many other countries that we never thought we’d visit. Bosnia, Serbia, Ukraine … who knows! We’ll happily go wherever the wind – er, work – blows us.

(If you’d like to see more photos from our trip to Budapest, you know where to find them.)

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