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Why, this watch is exactly two days late.

I’ve been MIA for quite some time, so much so that it seems I had to reset the passwords to this blog and my flickr. With the semester finally over (projects soon to be posted if I have an inkling of inclination to put myself out there for critique) I have been quite busy. I have begun an internship with Silver Linings Construction, a (very) small design-build company that focuses on renovations and government-supported projects. I’ve since completed the renovations on two separate houses in Creedmoor and Lockhart and will soon begin the design and approval processes for a dental clinic in Luling, Texas. The job is not what I expected, to say the least; my boss has had his hand in many an industry since leaving Texas A&M, including restaurant manager, graphic designer, and car salesman. The work is giving me a new perspective on the design process, especially when the designs have a price tag attached to them.

Not sure how much freedom I’ll get with the clinic… we’ll have to see what I can sell him on with the design.

I have been starting up small projects here and there since the semester ended which I will cram into one paragraph in no particular order. I built a new desktop to replace the old Alienware rig that bricked back at the beginning of the semester; wonderful little design box, especially when hooked up to the TV. I’ve been trying to build furniture in my free time that is either recycled from bottles, grocery pallets, etc. or a collection of Ikea pieces. So far, I have a desk that is in the preliminary stages. By that I of course mean that it’s entirely in my head and I haven’t even put pen to paper yet. I have been wanting to expand on my portfolio this summer as well, and with my recent decision to make a design/photography portfolio separate from my architecture one I have been trying out new things with my camera. With graduation quickly approaching, my sister wanted to take some pictures that she could frame and give to her boyfriend as a graduation gift type thing. I have included some of the pictures that I personally liked from the set. Originally I was asked to take a picture of each of them separately doing their hand signs for each of their colleges (University of Texas and Texas A&M) and then one of them together combining the two, a sign that stands for “love”. Cute, but posed and boring. I tried to catch them distracted a bit to get some better pictures, but I’m not sure about some of them; this is my first time experimenting with portrait photography after all. I snapped a few at her graduation as well, but as of this post I have yet to sift through them. Oh, and I’m dating this cute girl. Life’s pretty awesome.

Jo's Hot Coffee and Good Food

Allie and Robert at Jo's Hot Coffee and Good Food

I feel like summer is going to flash by and soon we’ll all be taking the GRE’s, applying and being admitted to graduate schools, going off and having careers, responsibilities. I’d like to wait on some of that for a bit, set my watch back two days and try to save some of that time.

Humbling Swiss Elementary School Children

Apparently I’ve been living in the world of a general lack of updates and inherent laziness, so this is the first time I’ve felt the compulsion to blog since I’ve been back from Italy. About a week after getting back from Europe, the father figure saw fit to fly my sister and I over to Switzerland to visit him for a portion of our winter break. I suppose I should explain why; my parents are divorced. Back when my sister and I could not sign for anything, much less drive ourselves anywhere, my parents “agreed” to a system of visitation that had my mother maintain custody and, every other weekend, Allie and I would visit him. During the winter break, we would spend the first half with him and the second half with my mother. This was a tolerable system, despite difficulties in relationships that I won’t delve into here, until this last year. Dad began to act as a consultant for one of the companies that his company acquired, and to do so he had to visit Switzerland for two, three months at a time. Most recently, however, his work has required him to move to the land of chocolate and cheese and live there for an undisclosed amount of time. This meant that, if we were to see him even once during the year, he would have to fly us out. I suppose, then, the easiest time for that to happen, when my sister and I don’t really have anything going on, would be during the winter break. And so this trip was justified in his mind.

Home Base

We arrived in Geneva to snow. Being from Texas, it’s always a shock to the system to see a land covered in the fluffy white stuff, but the overbearing presence of jetlag prevented us from enjoying it; it was a struggle just to keep my eyes open and my body moving. We decided, in our infinite wisdom, that after two cups of coffee we were awake enough to take a short trip up to Gruyères for castles, cheeses, and tiny potatoes. Again, I have to reference our lack of experience with the snow, as my sister and I made a point to stop and do any one of the following on our way up into the town’s walls: make snowballs, throw aforementioned snowballs, fall down, make snow angels, make rather embarrassing snowmen, repeatedly stomp in deep snow, fall down again, generally make fools of ourselves in front of the locals. By the time we reached the top of the hill, the resting place of Château de Gruyères, we were nearly too tired to take pictures. Nearly.

The Chateau was a fairly formal castle, unlike those found in other towns (I’m looking at you, Dublin), and we were treated to an awkward tourist video that explained the history of the castle to the tune of an incredibly excitable (possibly aroused) old friar. I would like to point out that it has taken all of my willpower to not use the phrase “hot-to-trot” just now. After that embarrassing bit, we did the short walkthrough of the grounds, keeping to the interior as best as we could to prevent our heat-conditioned bodies from collapsing in the cold. It is interesting to see these castles that are central to Europe, as they all undergo such dramatic changes in both technology and purpose over the course of their lifetimes. In Switzerland (and Germany, from what I remember), the castles were in constant contention between owners of different nationalities, particularly the Germans and the French. In the late 1300’s and early 1400’s, castles served primarily as fortifications and were simple, strong structures built on the high ground of regions. In the late 1400’s, everyone began converting the practical fortifications into either monasteries or palaces, fancy French vacation homes in the mountains. It is a bit disappointing, to say the least; such monolithic testaments to strength and power, even French, are imposing and wonderful in their own right.

We finished up in the castle and made our way back down the hill. Allie and I stopped in to an art exhibition, one that my father recommended; it was the artist responsible for the development of the sets and creatures in the movie Alien. Eventually, I will have seen enough absolute garbage art exhibitions that I will just ignore them as a possibility for visitation. I’m not sure what possessed this artist to draw the things that he drew, but I saw all the work, all 45-minutes worth of tour. Sure, the movie renderings and concept sketches were interesting, but his alternative work? If you have ever looked at the concept sketches for the videogame Doom you will have a vague idea of what we were looking at. Think futuristic-devil-meets-S&M-erotica and then slam your head in your bedroom door, it’s about the same.

Gruyères

We then proceeded to one of the local restaurants to try fondue, something that Gruyères was particularly famous for. We were seated next to a panoramic window that offered a beautiful view of the mountains (though in all honesty, there’s not a place in Switzerland where you can’t see the mountains) and were handed four bowls skewered with tiny forks: one each for pickles, potatoes, bread, and pearl onions. In hindsight, how I originally imagined this going down was naïve, believing it to be similar to eating queso here in Texas. No, it is a bowl filled with boiling Swiss cheese. For those readers who are still under the impression that this is a creamy, delicious snack, let me quell those happy thoughts. The cheese itself is not seasoned or flavored and, when melted, the Swiss gives off a strange aroma and becomes thick and grainy; it’s like dipping your potatoes in cheesy snot. Yep, cheesy snot; I ate a lot of it, more than I am comfortable admitting, actually. Filled with Swiss mucus, we headed back to the apartment in Neuchâtel and I crashed hard.

Gstaad at night

Our second day was the beginning of our ski trip. We purchased wintry clothes, a cheap four-wheel-drive Skoda rental, and made our way over to Gstaad. This little German town was my favorite place in the land of cheese and chocolate, primarily because it was German. Nestled at the base of the mountains, the little tourist town was our base of operations for the next two days. Our first day had us, snowboard boots and all, waddle over to this bunny slope at the base of one of the mountains. I had never had any sort of experience snowboarding (or skiing, sledding, tobogganing, falling down the mountain, or even running through deep snow before the day prior to this) so this was uncharted territory in the most awkward sea of universal-lack-of-coordination I have ever encountered. I found myself on my hands and knees bunny-hopping my way out of the powdery stuff more times than I would care to remember. I decided, about fifteen minutes in, that I was going to try and ride Goofy stance (right foot in front) and proceeded to learn everything like that. I encountered a problem, however, when I tried to turn left; wasn’t going to happen. No matter how I tried, I either went straight or fell on my back.

It's just you and me, Alps.

At the end of the day, though, I decided that I had a good enough grasp on the basics that I would try one of the runs that went from about halfway up the mountain down to the base the next day. My sister, citing issues with her knee, decided not to participate in the second day’s activities. The father and I purchased our lift tickets and stepped into the gondolas. At the top, feet in bindings, I realized that there wasn’t any other way than to go down the mountain. One deep breath and away I went, awkwardly shifting my weight in a wholly unnatural attempt to corner and (for the love of God!) not end up in the deep powder on the fringe of the run. We meandered our way down the slope, being sure to avoid the classes taking place at various points. I would like to pause the story for a minute and complain about children. As it turns out, Swiss children are required to take a 10-day ski course while in elementary school. This means that not only do they get to ski for free (all of the trips are publically funded by the schools) but by the time they are my age they are amazing. I mean, relatively speaking, the elementary school children were amazing, as most of them flew past me while I sat on my rear in the middle of the run after not being able to turn left. There were several camps of these “beginners” dotting the slope on our way down but the real trouble came at the end. Our instructor described it on the first day as “about ten meters of steep drop into the lift area” and he wasn’t kidding. As you approached the end of the run, the slope went from ~15 degrees to 45 degrees. The issue with this was that there were classes at both the top of this drop and at the bottom. To the inexperienced snowboarder, such as myself, the thought of possibly losing control and plowing into a crowd of ten-year-olds wasn’t particularly appealing. Neither were the thoughts of bodily harm or Swiss prisons.

I shuffled down the slope boardside, being as careful as possible not to hit the kids at the bottom, as the father walked his skis down the slope. Back on the lift and up the mountain we go.

I began to get the hang of riding switch, that is, with the tail-end of the board forward. It may not have lent itself well to correct technique, but damn it, I was able to turn right and left. It was going fairly smoothly; I had my headphones in, I wasn’t plowing into my fellow mountain-goers, and I hadn’t sustained any injuries that required a feeding tube and a body cast. On one of my later runs, however, I did manage to make an epic fool of myself. I was making my way down the slope and decided that it was time for me to work on cornering with the correct stance. I had developed a unique proficiency at finding the edge of the board (most of the time the wrong one) and falling one way or the other. Usually I was able to just hop back up and continue about my business. Unfortunately, as my bravado had coaxed me into trying something I should have mastered before getting up the mountain, I managed to clip an edge at a significant speed. Soon I was airborne. I watched my bindings sail over my head, then the gound take the place of the sky, then clouds and bindings again, and then impact. My momentum carried me nearly a hundred and fifty feet down the mountain, the entire time my eyes fixated on the sky and the reel of pine trees that sped by me. Eventually I managed to roll to a stop, an annoyed look on my face and a load of snow in my breeches.

That snow followed me all the way down the mountain. Soggy.

A few runs later and I had had it; I was exhausted and in need of a warm beverage. We made our way back to the apartment in Neuchantel and partook in copious amounts of both coffee and Lost. The following morning was the very definition of suffering. Every muscle in my body screamed for painkillers and sleep, reminding me that I am not athletic and that falling down a mountain has consequences other than a snowball in the trousers. However, we really only had a single day of travel left and we still had yet to experience a Swiss Christmas Market… so off to Montreux we went.  A nifty series of shops, the Christmas market housed all manner of vendors: keychains, purses, scarves, clocks, ornaments, coffee, chocolate, books, some Russian knick knacks, et cetera ad nauseum. The sister bought a purse and I snapped pictures of wares and people. One man in particular (I couldn’t decide whether or not he was a street performer) was making a spectacle of himself by feeding the gulls along the shoreline. Not sure what his intentions were, but I can guarantee you that he went home smelling worse than when he left.

He played right into their trap.

The castle in Montreux, Château de Chillon, was our last tourist attraction for the trip. Although it appears to be a proper castle, it is built in a location that can only act as a testament to the fact that really, it was a lake house. Beautiful on its own, the castle frames views of the Swiss Alps and catches the sunlight as it reflects off of the lake, adding to its splendor. Unfortunately, it was a particularly nasty day filled with clouds and fog, so there were no views of the mountains and no sunlight for the lake. Sure, the history is interesting and all, but I would like to take some sweet pictures too; too much to ask for, apparently.

Not pictured: gorgeous scenery

That ended my adventures abroad for the year 2010. An upgrade to business-class on the long flight back to the states made for a nice parting gift while heading out of Geneva. Allie and I were unsure as to how to handle ourselves; it was the first time we had ever been out of coach. Reclining seats (read: bed), television screens, and real food made the ride back quite enjoyable. For now, I shall leave you with another picture of the gulls. Who knows when I’ll post again, so stay tuned!

Giving orders to the troops

A Tune to Start the Semester

With the semester starting in less than 24 hours, I’m more than a bit busy with preparations so I’ve decided to postpone the Switzerland post until I have a bit more time to finish writing and editing the pictures. In the mean time, however, I have a jam that I have decided is perfect music to begin the semester with:

Average White Band: Pick Up The Pieces. Get the semester started off right.

Let Them Eat Crepes!

So here we are: the final weekend trip of the semester. Of all the places to make my final excursion to, France was pretty close to the bottom of my list and Paris was even further down. I, like many Americans, had the impression that the French were a pretentious, stuck-up people and Parisians even more so. Not that this wasn’t true… some of the locals definitely would have preferred us gone. However, I can say without a doubt that Paris was by far my favorite trip (in no small part thanks to Renee LaCroix and Nick Uselton, my traveling companions).

We started the trip off on a bit of a rough note: our flight was at seven in the morning so we decided that the smartest thing to do would be to train to Rome, bus to the airport, and sleep in the terminal. This was fine and dandy, at least for a while. We started a game of Golf but were rudely interrupted by the security guards. The problem: they were closing the terminal at midnight. We, along with the other fifty or sixty people, were thrust out into the cold. Lucky for us, the arrival terminal was left open overnight. Yep, another night on the tile floor of an airport resulting in little to no sleep. Pretty awesome.

Arc de Triomphe

Arc de Triomphe

Taking a bus from the airport to Paris (we actually landed in Beauvais, about an hour out of the city) we arrived alongside the river. Honestly, we had no idea where we were; wandering was in order. Soon our group found itself beneath the Arc de Triomphe where a memorial service was being held. It was one of those things I had seen in a book before, that I knew existed, but never really understood what it was until I stood in its shadow. The Arc splits the main street in Paris that connects the Louvre and the Concorde and is situated in the center of an extremely busy roundabout that serves to isolate it from the rest of the city. From the outside, you are engulfed in the noise of people and cars and busses and life, the “hustle and bustle” of a busy metropolitan. Once you pass beneath the street and enter the central space, it all seems to quiet down, allowing you to experience the monument as if it were standing alone in isolation from the city.

After “skillful” mastery of the metro system, we made confused, broken French conversation with an old man at the front desk of our hostel, dropped our stuff off in the room, and ventured out into the city. Our first goal: find a crepe. We wandered a bit past the Anvers metro station towards the Sacré-Coeur Basilica, weaving through brightly colored market stalls and touristy shops selling countless variations of tiny Eiffel Tower replicas (they do make fantastic paperweights, after all). At the foot of the basilica steps we grabbed jambon et fromage crepes (Ham and cheese, thanks for the translation Renee) and a glass bottle coke and began the recovery process from the plane ride. Spirits were high despite our exhaustion.

Notre Dame

Notre Dame Cathedral

Hopping back on the metro, we headed over to the Cite station in the center of the metro. We passed up  the Sainte-Chapelle Cathedral (fifteen euro to see another church… we’ll pass) and made our way over to Notre Dame. The exterior is incredibly intricate and, dare I say, a bit menacing. As we would learn on our tour the next day, the church had been covered in black soot and pollution and only recently restored. As a testament to the condition of the cathedral prior to the restoration, the tallest spire of the structure was left black; as ominous a symbol as it appears, I can’t help but feel like they just got tired of cleaning and didn’t want to have to drag the equipment up to such a height.

The interior is incredibly solemn; dim lights illuminate the corridors and few windows let in sufficient natural light. The windows, specifically the rose-windows, do serve a seemingly grander purpose than simply lighting the building, though. A large stained-glass window adorned with intricate tracery crowns the West, North, and South ends of the nave and transept. Easily the best stained glass I’ve seen while in Europe, the church itself pales in comparison to the ones in Prague, Florence, and Rome. Honestly, I was a bit underwhelmed by the interior, though it was definitely an amazing building.

Pompidou

George Pompidou Center

Off to the George Pompidou Center. A wonderfully strange building, the architects decided to design it without a unifying shell so it appears as though all of the mechanical systems are exposed to the elements. On the inside, neon signs are suspended by steel cables and interior walls move on a grid to create modular, constantly changing spaces. But enough about the architecture, what really got my attention was the exhibit on the fifth floor: vaginas. Now, I’m a supporter of women’s rights and I understand that not everything is as perfect as it should be, glass ceiling to be considered and whatnot, but feminism is just as annoying as male chauvinism. It breeds misogyny in men and misandry in women and, while trying to at least mimic moves made by civil rights movements in the past, really only escalates the issue to a point where two incredibly opposing sides are at each other’s throats. I witnessed horrible modern art consisting of, but not limited to, sperm and penis bombs, large-scale oil-based paintings of genetalia, a repeated clip of a couple having sex in which only the butts are shown, photographs of men and women in compromising positions, et cetera ad nauseum. There has to be a better way to express the struggle, if it is still dire enough that artistic expression holds merit on the subject, than watching two asses slap together for an hour and a half. I get it, it’s pornography, but you’re not making me care. Please stop.

Interior Pompidou

The Interior of the 0 Level of the Pompidou

There was another floor full of actual modern art, but to be honest, I don’t remember much of it; I was too distracted by the aforementioned annoyances. We finished up fairly quickly on the sixth floor and headed out to find some Parisian eats. Clearly they have Americans pegged as a demographic, as we were drawn like flies to the neon sign of a particular restaurant, only to find out that the selection was limited and pricey. We had already sat down, though, so there wasn’t much we could do. Afterwards, though, I needed another crepe, this time one with banana and nutella. My companions followed suit and we headed back to the hotel to crash.

Louvre

The Louvre at night

Our second day was taken almost entirely by the Fat Tire Bike Tour. Billy, our tour guide (from Dallas, no less) was hilarious, knowledgeable, and handy; Nick managed to get a flat tire fifteen minutes into the tour and he switched it out for a brand new one about a thousand yards from the Concorde. We got a chance to see everything that we needed to in order to get the full Parisian experience: the Eiffel Tower, Napoleon’s Tomb, Musee D’ Orsay, The Louvre, Tuileries Gardens, Champs-Elysees, Arc de Triomphe, UNESCO, the Alexander III Bridge, and so on. During the course of the tour, Billy managed to convince us to take the night tour (an entirely separate route) as well. This meant that the Louvre had to be shortened.

Quite short indeed.

The Mona Lisa

The Most Overrated Tourist Attraction in Europe

We had roughly an hour in the museum to see all of what Paris’ largest gallery had to offer. We checked out Napoleon’s apartment; for a little guy he had some pretty sweet digs. Everything had just been restored and re-opened so we got to see all of the furniture and design in its grandest form. We sprinted, then, to the east wing and caught brief glimpses of Winged Victory, the Venus de Milo, and of course the Mona Lisa. Picture this: a wall roughly ten meters wide and three meters tall with nothing but an ~18”x24” painting in the center, surrounded by a crowd of awestruck tourists. Incredibly disappointing, but I did get a rather cool shot of everyone around it; sightseers make wonderful subjects.

The Louvre

Another picture of the Louvre; I was a bit shutter-happy

We made our way back to the Fat Tire offices to begin the night tour. An exciting ride through the Latin Quarter put us right outside Notre Dame where we took a short break for some of the best ice cream ever. Our next stop was on a small cruise ship to float for a bit up and down the river that runs through Paris. Of course, to make the ride less educational and more social, Billy brought along a bit of French wine that everyone was more than happy to dip into. Needless to say, the ride back to the office was interesting; how often does one get to ride a bike, questionably sober, through the courtyard of the Louvre at night? Once back, Billy insisted that everyone get a free lesson on the Segways that the office used for another, probably more boring, day tour. I’m not sure if it was the wine talking, but everyone took a spin on these crazy things and he even managed to convince a Dutch couple to come back the following day and do the Segway tour.

And then we asked him about the crepes. Apparently, there’s this small shop tucked away near the elevated metro line that has crepes only the Fat Tire officials know about. Billy referred to these as the “Change Your Life” crepes. The first had chorizo and some other stuff but we really weren’t interested in a savory snack; we wanted something sweet. He had the hookup: banana, nutella, and coconut. Now, Nick was the first to order. After the essential ingredients, the cook whipped out a bottle of amber liquid from the bar behind him: “Grand Marnier?” Oui. Hands down the best crepe ever, I had to get one myself. The remainder of the tour group ended up at the same place and we had to let them in on the secret: get the liquor too.

Eiffel Tower

The Eiffel Tower at night

After the crepes, we set off to do the final thing on our Paris list: drink a bottle of wine under the Eiffel tower. At ten o’clock at night, it is notoriously hard to find a decent bottle of wine, in case you are ever in the neighborhood and are in need of such refreshments. The tower was gorgeous at night, though I’m fairly sure that my pictures won’t be able to do it justice. It was the perfect way for us to end the trip.

If anything, Paris made me realize that small groups are awesome. Before, I had travelled with five, seven, nine, eleven… never a solid three or four. Food was always difficult, everyone wanted to see different things, and lodging always ended up being a nightmare. It was also about this time that I discovered that a certain few people had been wearing on my nerves and traveling with Nick and Renee allowed me a much-needed break from these individuals. It was one of the best groups, I feel, to have experienced Paris with and to end my extended travels in Europe.

Paris 2010- good people, good times.

They’re After Me Lucky Charms!

Our group started as nine, then two split from us in Berlin. Once we were seven, a third and fourth went to separate places after Germany as well. Then we were five. Two members of our group were left in Berlin having missed the plane; we were now three. The three of us would complete our task and, despite the burden of public transportation, reach our destination. We were, as a friend put it, in the Lord of the Rings (credit for the wholly appropriate analogy goes to Amanda Jones, who I think we decided was Sam).

Our entrance into the country was not without a rough patch. Amanda and I, being American citizens with Italian visas only staying in the country for three days, had no problem getting through the passport check on our way out. The third member of our group, however, was not so lucky. A few weeks earlier, she had made the comment that she might not be able to get into the UK with her Chinese passport and Italian/American visas, so she decided to come with us to Ireland. We pleaded for her to double-check and make sure that she would be able to go with us without any trouble and she assured us that she would be able to. Well, she didn’t check. Amanda and I were called back over to the passport check stand, having already associated ourselves with her, and asked a series of questions. Finally, the clerk made a stand: “I have two options here. I can refuse your entry into the country, on the basis that you have no credentials to visit Ireland, and you will spend the night in prison. Tomorrow, you will be deported back to Berlin.”

Our friend: “Haha… and option two?”

This is a serious matter! Don’t laugh at the man! You are about to be deported back to a country where not only are you not a citizen, but you have no contacts, no plane tickets back to the center, and no one to help you. For Christ’s sake, this is the kind of thing that people make sure about well in advance so that they don’t, you know, end up in prison. She’s lucky that we were there; only two American students with solid heads on their shoulders and a dire understanding of the situation would have been able to get her into the country at that point.

And breathe…

I cannot stress enough how awesome it was that everyone… wait for it… spoke English. Amanda made a point to ask everyone as many questions as she possibly could; we had conversations with bus drivers, cab drivers, people waiting in line, gift shop employees, everyone; ordering food was simple. We were not only able to read menus but also ask about specials, what came with the food, where our hotel was, where the bus station was, how we could get to where we needed to go; it was refreshing.

A Subtle Warning

We took a rather uneventful bus ride from the Dublin airport through the main city and towards Galway. Though a rather uneventful trip, it was worth the extra time (as opposed to a train) to get to see the Irish countryside. “Gorgeous” is the best way I can describe it. It has a sort of melancholy beauty to it; the fall colors contrasting with the archetypal rolling green hills painted a firework-riddled landscape against a grey stormy backdrop. Leafless branches reached skyward, their slow yet steady march stunted by the coming winter. Sunlight broke through the clouds as it made its final peek over the horizon before the moon clocked in after the passing twilight; it was a thing of beauty. It wasn’t long before we found ourselves in the Galway bus station.

And that’s when the adventure started. As it turns out, the last bus headed towards our hostel had left at four in the afternoon. This meant that we had to take a private taxi from Galway to our place just outside the Cliffs of Moher, quoted at 50 euro. Expensive, sure, but what other option did we have? Soon the three of us hopped into the back of some random Irishman’s van and set off into the night. It sounds sketchy, and let’s be honest, it was. We really hadn’t the slightest idea where we were going or where he intended to take us (though we hoped to God it was our hostel; getting robbed and left in the Irish countryside was not part of our travel plans). The man drove like me, sliding the van through corners and driving what seemed to be well over the speed limit. We were able to catch glimpses of the meter as we were turning and found ourselves getting more and more nervous: seventy, seventy-five, eighty euros. After climbing a hill called “Dead Man’s Pass”, a road that our driver was so kind as to point out to us, we arrived at the entrance to our hostel. One hundred and eleven euros. Luckily, the cabbie was nice enough to knock it down to an even hundred, despite the fact that he only quoted us fifty. What other choice did we have but to pay the man?

The hostel itself was a bit sketchy. Upon entering a dimly-lit lobby, a slightly-frazzled man whom we can only assume was sleeping, stumbled into the room and asked us if we were the Jones family. Remembering that we had booked a family room, we explained to him that we lost two of our group in Berlin and that it would just be the three of us for the night. Between small talk and awkward silences, he showed us to our room. We learned that he was originally from Berlin and wasn’t actually the manager of the hostel; he was the custodian. Left in charge of the place, he hadn’t seen any customers for two days and declared himself quite lonely. He mentioned this a lot. A bit unnerving for us, I must admit. After bringing in two separate space-heaters (apologizing for the lack of a central heating system many times over) we decided to venture out and grab some Chinese food. Under a veil of silence we slipped out the door and abandoned our creepy custodian. Upon returning with the take-out, we locked ourselves in the room for the night and slept with one eye open.

Our bus was going to leave the next morning for the Cliffs of Moher at 8.15 in the morning. We woke up at some obscenely early hour to get ready and make sure that we got to the bus stop on time. This would have been fine and dandy had we not been locked inside our hostel. Yes, the main entrance of the building had been locked by the custodian, trapping us inside the creepy building. In a moment of panic, we turned all of the lights on in a random order and flipped all of the switches under the reception desk; nothing. Then an idea occurred to me: maybe they have the same fire codes in Ireland that they do in the states… a fire exit perhaps? Luckily there was one posted around the back side of the building and I, in a brief fit of vengeance and laziness, propped the exit open and left it that way. Take that, creepy custodian, for locking us into the building.

Cliffs of Moher

After a confused conversation at the stop, we managed to make it onto the bus and headed out to the cliffs. Definitely worth fighting the early morning, the rain, and the cold. Very picturesque, exactly what you would picture an Irish coast to look like. I’m a bit disappointed in the size of the viewing towers; not that high, super windy, and impossible to take pictures from. Have to admit, though, that I did steal quite a few bits of slate from the Irish coast; that’s a real souvenir.

We began our long bus trip back into Dublin that afternoon. Via some confusing directions from both the internet and random Irishmen, we wandered around downtown Dublin until we managed to find out hostel tucked away in an alley. There we discovered that not only had our lost friends arrived at the room well before us, but they had already set out to find food. Deciding to do the same, we moved up the street and found a place called O’Shae’s; seemed Irish enough. We get in and to our surprise run into our friends who just happened to run across the same place and had the same. Coincidence? Yeah, probably. God’s getting pretty good with the dice.

Our last official sight-seeing day was spent cramming every tourist locale in Dublin into a single afternoon. We began with Christ Church and Temple Bar, made our way over to St. Patrick’s, and then over to Dublin “Castle”. It was here that we discovered something strange: just as everything is bigger in Texas, everything is smaller in Ireland. The castle itself was really only a single tower joined to a large palace complex similar to what we had seen in Prague. Not only was the castle itself sized not defend anything larger than a suburban house, but they were charging 10 euro to get in and see… pretty much nothing. We passed it up quickly and stopped by Gruel for lunch. Wonderful sandwiches, tasty soup, and the only brownie I’ve had in Europe; great lunch.

We then made our way over to Phoenix Park, an impossibly long trek made to look simple by the scale of our map. The memorial there mimicked the size of the castle tower and was nearly dwarfed by the surrounding trees. It began to rain steady, soaking us to the bone. We hurried into the Museum of Modern Art Ireland (IMMA) and took the time to dry off while looking at confusing paintings, architectural drawings, and witty writings on black and white photos. By this point everyone had pretty much been drained by the rain and the cold. A friend and I decided to head back and change into warmer clothes; somehow I was convinced to go boot-shopping in the process. About an hour-and-a-half of shoe perusing later, we met up with our friends and had another dinner at O’Shea’s.

Christ Church, Interior

And there wasn’t much else to it. We crashed early and made our 11-something flight. Miserably early, sure, but it got us back a day early and in time for dinner. That’s something, right?

…Right?

Bikes, Beer Gardens, and the Berlin Wall

In lieu of actually working on the final project for studio, I’ve decided that now would be a wonderful time to tell you the story of Berlin, Germany. Rolling in at five in the morning, we stumbled around the train station in a nearly-futile attempt to find a line that would get us to our hostel. In a strange exchange of German and utter confusion, we managed to make our way to the tram station and wander to our hostel. Also, there was Dr. Pepper.

Upon arriving at our hostel, we (being everyone but myself; someone had to watch the luggage) crashed on couches in the lobby. At about seven in the AM, the room became inundated with middle and highschoolers speaking an awkward combination of English, German, and what I thought might have been Italian or Spanish; it was early, hard to tell. Then it struck me: the hostel we booked was designed for a younger crowd. Blue neon lights covered a swath of bright-green wall, stainless steel and black tile lined the floors, and the bar was lit with blacklights. Great, it’s like the Chuck-E-Cheese’s of Berlin.

We rolled out of “bed” at ten and made our way into Berlin. The tram system, God bless it, was not particularly well-monitored or user-friendly. That said, we didn’t spend a lot of money on public transportation, but it was definitely the quickest way around the city. I am not sure why it hasn’t caught on as strongly in the US, but I would invest in an Austin metro pass if it worked anything like the passes in Prague, Berlin, Milan, or Paris; Brilliant.

We arrived at the base of the TV Tower in East Berlin for the Fat Tire Bike Tour. After a particularly awesome speech by an Irishman, we split into groups. Unfortunately, the Irish guy’s popularity proved to be a burden; no one wanted to join the other guides’ groups. It came down to four of us, being the adults, moving to another group; we were now five and four. But that was okay; it was a bike tour and damn it, I was going to enjoy myself.

Fat Tire Bike Tour

We spent the next four hours doing the full tour: our guide made sure that we saw everything and learned everything we could in a single afternoon. Berlin on a bike is gorgeous; between the restored architecture of East Berlin and the modern buildings of West Berlin, it was a wonderful refresh of what we had experienced up until that point in Italy. We stopped at a beer garden in the massive public park in East Berlin and I had the best beer and stuffed pepper that I had ever had. We ended up in front of the Reichstag and our guide suggested that we take group pictures there. Unfortunately, something about our group kept us from seizing the moment, a decision which I regret. The bike tour, despite being completed under a veil of sleeplessness and uncoordinated frustration, was the best thing we could have done on the first day.

After a little shopping around the TV Tower, we headed to a nearby beer garden for dinner. As you can see, there was a consistent theme to our diet in Germany. I took part in the schnitzel, which between Bolzano and Berlin had started to become a staple of my nourishment, and a dark beer that I and a friend decided tasted like Christmas. Yes, the beer tasted like opening presents and sitting by the fireplace while watching Frosty the Snowman; it was that good.

That night we discovered just how “kiddy” our hostel was. At karaoke night, we found ourselves surrounded by German students, possibly middle-schoolers, all smashed and wearing school-sponsored shirts that read “I’m in Berlin BITCH”. Needless to say, the combination of Germans singing American pop songs and drunkenly stumbling all over the bar was enough to drive us out. It wasn’t until the teachers got up on stage, however, that we decided that it was a good idea to bail. They screamed some song in German, with an English chorus of course, and the entire school seemed to join in. Annoying, that’s the best way to describe it.

The next day we were on our own. We decided to try and hit up the Reichstag and move up into the dome early in the morning. Unfortunately, the line was several hours long. We decided to wander around the buildings nearby and make our way to a modern art museum. Along the way we took what is probably my favorite picture (shown below) for the entire trip. It took quite a bit of coordination, but it was totally worth it. At the museum, I was pretty much just along for the ride. I don’t do modern art very well; it all comes across as either incredibly pretentious or incomprehensible, and I can’t understand why an artist would ever want to be perceived as either. To put things into perspective, the exhibit that sticks out in my mind is one of a grown woman imitating baby noises and expressions… on a giant video screen… for eleven minutes. Why? Not sure, probably something about feminism or childhood or repressed memories or something irrelevant to the lives of anyone except those who would like a ridiculous sculpture of genitalia in their New York Loft (this is a recurring joke, be prepared to hear it a lot).

Best Picture Ever

After the gallery, we wandered over to revisit the Holocaust memorial, the most somber place I have been in my random travels throughout Europe. Designed by Peter Eisenman, the site consists of 2,711 concrete slabs on a structured grid. Eisenman claims that the slabs don’t represent anything in and of themselves, but that the space is designed to create confusion and a sense of a loss of place once you’re inside, contrasting the clear organization of the grid when viewed from the outside. Pretty successful, it allowed me to get lost in thought in the middle of crowded East Berlin. Think of it as being in a forest, totally separated from the outside world save for the occasional fellow wanderer; you have all the time in the world to think.

Holocaust Memorial

But we didn’t. We made our way over to the Topography of Terror exhibit, then to the Jewish Museum. Another wonderful piece of architecture, the Jewish Museum was designed by Daniel Libeskind. I will let the reader look into the building itself; it is a fantastic building (though a bit post-modern for my tastes) with many subtle nuances derived from Jewish history. It has to be experienced… mere explanation cannot do it justice (at least, not a month after having seen it).

The Jewish Museum

It was another weird night; it seemed as though everyone was getting a bit burned out on each other. We wandered into the train station and picked up some fast food. Despite the recommendation from the Irishman, Currywurst is not as awesome as predicted; think bratwurst covered in paprika-laced ketchup. Heading back to the hostel, we all pretty much did our own thing. I took advantage of the space outside the bar to avoid the drunk youngins, but there’s really only so much you can do when the hostel is packed with them.

Berliner Graffiti. Look in the upper-right corner. That just happened.

Our final morning in Berlin was a bit hectic. We wanted to hit a few sights before our flight to Ireland, so we hopped onto the metro before nine. Our first stop was East Side Gallery, a restored portion of the Berlin Wall complete with murals from many famous artists. I’ll have a few pictures from the wall up on my flickr and I promise it’s worth checking out. When we finally finished running along the wall, we needed to make our way to the airport to catch our flight. One of our team members, however, wanted to check out a final modern art gallery before heading out of Berlin. Despite the better judgment of this individual, she went with two of the other people. We made it to the airport and chilled for about an hour. We made it to the gate, started boarding, and did not see our companions.

They missed the flight to Ireland.

Up next, what we did in Ireland for the first day without our abandoned friends!

The City of a Hundred Spires

And so we entered Eastern Europe. I’ve only heard stories about the former Communist area: drug addicts, mafia, sex traffickers, thieves, vagrants and vagabonds, and other manner of ill repute wandering around just waiting to take advantage of disillusioned tourists put in awe by cliché storefront windows and towering monuments. Shifty eyes and quick hands were the name of the game, or so I thought.

A few of the Hundred Spires

We stumbled off of the plane in what can only be described as an exhaustion-induced stupor. Luckily, foresight provided us with straightforward directions in the form of sketchbook doodles and garbled Google-map instructions. Between the tram and our hostel, however, we stumbled upon a jewel: a Ferrari and Masterati dealership. Yes, I pressed my face up against the glass and drooled over the gloss-white Ferarri 599 GTB. Yes, we walked into the dealership. Yes, we started taking pictures. Yes, the security people quickly descended upon us, shouting things in broken English, and proceeded to kick us out of automotive awesome. Yes, I flipped off the security. A metro and two trams later, we were in the ‘burbs of Prague headed to our hostel.

That's a kick-ass Ferrari, photo credit goes to Renee LaCroix

Sir Toby’s is hands-down the best place I have stayed in Europe. The staff is entirely English-speaking and is supplemented by American workers, often students. Petra helped us out at the front desk with all the information we could ever need; never have I felt more welcome in Europe than in Prague (which, in hindsight, is weird to me). We were handed a plethora of maps and told where all of the best places near the hostel were to eat, set our stuff down in the luggage room and wandered out as the walking dead into Prague.

We ate lunch at this local joint called Rustika, a small bar/restaurant not too far from our hostel. Between broken English, German, and Czech, we ordered a random assortment of duck, sausage, chicken, beef, and potatoes. You see, the wonderful thing about Praha is that the accepted currency has a pretty awful exchange rate. This means that when you pay 100 Krowns for a meal at a sit-down restaurant, it’s only four euro. The amount of food we got was astounding: between a friend of mine and I, we had a whole duck, four sausages, a quarter-chicken, several pork chops, an assortment of vegetables, some mashed potatoes, and two beers, five euro. It was easily the most food I’ve had in Europe and until this point, so much so that the two of us could not finish the food- amazing.

We set out on the Metro with the goal of finding the Prague castle. Unfortunately, the maps that we were provided did not reflect the changes that were being made at the end of some of the lines. In the distance, we could see the castle and at the last stop decided to get off. The group decided to split at this point; three people insisted that the castle was up the hill towards a park and the rest of us were confident that it was south of our stop, down the hill and through the village. The six of us that went down the hill meandered about for a bit, watching a procession of “pimped-out” Skodas and other Russian autos and tried to not get hit by speeding VW buses. Not long from the tram stop we ran into a large palace. Weaving in and out of the crowd, we noticed the changing of the guard at the main gate; we had arrived.

The castle itself is not one in the traditional sense; when one pictures a castle, images of medieval fortresses and crenulated walls inspire thoughts of kings and knights in shining armor battling in the name of honor and chivalry. This was, in essence, a palace. The largest of its kind in the world, it contains St. Vitus Cathedral, St. George’s Basilica, Holy Cross Chapel, the Old Royal Palace, the Belvedere, The Lobkowicz Palace, the New Royal Palace, the Column, Rothmayer’s, Vladislay, and Spanish Halls, and a slew of other structures. By far the most impressive (and easiest to find; this complex was huge) was St. Vitus. The gothic styling of such churches, this being the most iconic in Prague, is how the city was christened the “City of a Hundred Spires”. I’ll spare the text here and just post pictures of the building because, as I’ve said before, nothing that I say will adequately describe the cathedral.

St. Vital inside the Prague Castle

Our second half caught up with us here and we headed into the downtown section of Prague. Our first stop was the Lennon Wall, a collage of amateur graffiti and lyrics to Beatles songs. Honestly, when I had heard it described by Petra at the hostel, I was expecting something a bit more impressive (See future post: East Side Gallery). Tucked away in a small square on the west side of Praha, the wall itself started in the 80s when people started writing tributes to John Lennon on it. The wall began to symbolize a point of contention between the Communist regime of the time and a progressive, unsatisfied young demographic that used the wall as a sort of forum for grievances that related to the economy, the government, and the general lack of an acceptable standard of living for the working class. Originally, it contained just a portrait of John Lennon; now, it is a symbol of peace and love tucked away safely in the suburbs of Prague. If you had to ask me my opinion of it, though, I’d say it’s nice if you like the Beatles. For me, it was enough to be there for a few minutes and bail. It was surrounded by American tourists taking hundreds of pictures and writing messages that would inevitably be overwritten by another tourist doing the same thing (see: Juliet’s wall).

Lennon Wall

Once everyone had their fill of the wall, we made our way over to Charles Bridge, the Rialto of Prague. Unfortunately, my time was spent not looking at the street vendors but trying to get a picture of the castle from the bridge in the sunlight. No such luck. I realized, as I hopped down from the raised ledge on the bridge, that I had lost my group. Among the huge group of tourists and gypsies I managed to regain half of our group just in time to see the one thing that I had expected in Praha: a man, lead on a chain leash with a metal collar around his neck, walking across the bridge in a trench coat and a gimp mask. I will let that one sink in for a minute. Trench coat. Gimp mask. Leash. That’s the Prague I expected.

That night we had pancakes at the hostel (just our luck that we came on Pancake Day!), though with such competition in the bar, a few of us were restricted to only a few pancakes… hardly a dinner. We decided to break off from the others and grab another meal at Rustika. Unfortunately, the night-crowd is a bit more hectic than the quiet of lunch, so we ended up waiting quite a bit in the haze of chain-smokers for what I can safely say was my favorite meal in Prague: chicken breast stuffed with ham and cheese. The best part about the night was keeping the cost under 6 euro… you get your money’s worth and then some.

At this point, I called it a night. A few friends, however, decided to head out to a nearby club to get the “genuine Prague experience,” which they later found out was a downtempo-rave (see: trance music) in a sketchy club where pretty much everyone was on one thing or another. Having not been there I can’t really speak from experience, but if you Google “trance dance” or “cross club” I think you’ll get a pretty accurate representation of what was going on there.

Our second day was another split-up, with half of us making our way out early for an awesome breakfast of Bagels and a trip to Frank Gehry’s Dancing House. It was a cool building, sure, but it was also cold and rainy and I really didn’t want to be outside. Trying to keep our spirits high, we stopped into a convenience store and picked up some chocolate and made our way into the Old Town Square. A stop for lunch had us meeting back up with our people at the Hard Rock Café (yeah, we gave in to temptation) where we paid a significant amount of money for American food. Upon exiting the restaurant, we caught the Astrological Clock just at the turn of the hour and saw the choreographed show that metal figurines and mechanical black magic pulled from the clock face. Amidst the applause I couldn’t help but ask myself, “So… that’s it?”

Gehry's Dancing House: Fred and Ginger

Astrological Clock

The rest of the evening was spent shopping. I purchased a pair of gloves and tried to find something other than Absinthe to bring back as a souvenir; no luck. A little market in the square provided us with sustenance for the evening and we were serenaded by a street-guitarist chilling on one of the benches in the nearby park. We called it a night fairly early and headed back to Sir Toby’s to begin packing. After conversations with some of the coolest people we’ve met thus-far on our trip, we hauled our stuff from the hostel, grabbed a tram to the bus station, and awaited our ride to Berlin.

Yeah, we took the night-bus. Berlin up next!