Belgium

Last weekend the program took an excursion to Brussels to visit the European Union. At the same time as a million world leaders were also visiting Brussels for the G7 Summit. Unfortunately, we didn’t see anyone famous. Also unfortunately, the only ones I could recognize if I saw them were Obama, Putin, Merkel, and Queen Elizabeth. (But I REALLY wanted to see Queen Elizabeth strolling down the street. 🙂  (Also, one of the Russian girls in Alex’s program told us that Putin totally gets plastic surgery…)

The tours of the EU stuff were interesting, but on the whole we were not impressed with Brussels. It is a very large international bustling city, but the theme of our trip is small local extremely touristy places. I don’t want power suits….I want wooden shoes and Belgian waffles! So we ate waffles and scurried on our way to the Netherlands, which I’ll talk about in the next post. (SPOILER ALERT: the Netherlands is AWESOME.)

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European Parliament – we took a picture like all the famous people do in front of the flags. But perhaps famous people don’t look as happy as us!

European Parliament

European Parliament

We talked to our tour guide a long time about the interpreter service at the European Parliament. It’s so crazy! There are 24 official languages of the EU (from 28 member countries – some double up like Austria and Luxembourg and stuff). Each delegate is allowed to speak in their own language so there is a fleet of translators and interpreters and is translated through an English relay system. So if the German delegate speaks German, it will be translated into English, and then translated into the other 23 languages. The guide said this is the easiest way because it’s very hard to find someone who knows, for example, both Swedish and Croatian.

Also, surprisingly, neither Norway nor Switzerland are part of the EU because they just don’t want to be.

Big building! the old town Brussels was fancy-ish.

Big building! the old town Brussels was fancy-ish.

 

And then we went to a church! (Of course…) The Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula. It was really lovely.

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However, we nicknamed it “the most well-armed cathedral in Europe” because EVERY statue had a really obvious weapon.

Like this golden ax...

Like this golden ax…

Then we wandered around a lot and looked at random things that were vaguely interesting.

Like this indoor mall.

Like this indoor mall.

And this cute restaurant street.

And this cute restaurant street.

And this duck in a park - who we named "Red Eye Magoo"

And this duck in a park – who we named “Red Eye Magoo.”

AND THEN WE ATE SOME MORE BELGIAN WAFFLES!!!!!!!!!! The waffles are just normal waffles, but they have some kind of amazing caramelized sugar coating on them. They are already baked, but when you buy them they warm them in the waffle maker again and it make the sugar a little crunchy. Mmmm.

Action shot!

Action shot!

Creamy chocolatey delicious waffles!

Creamy chocolatey delicious waffles!

So Belgium is cool and stuff….but we should all just look forward to the Netherlands!

Cheers World Cup!

 

Speyer by Bike

The weekend we went to the Playmobil museum we also rented bikes and explored the area around Speyer. I had a dream of biking up and down the Rhine (there are bike paths the whole way from Switzerland to the Netherlands!) so we started from there. Turns out that the path right by the Rhine is very gravelly and you mostly just see trees and water, so we went back and followed the masses of other cyclists who seemed to know that it was better to bike through the little towns. And yes! We went through countryside and farms and small lakeside villages and found an adorable small town (I think it was called Otterstadt). A terrifically lovely area.

The view of Speyer from down river. You can see the spire of the cathedral on the left and the other churches toward the right.

The view of Speyer from down river. You can see the spire of the cathedral on the left and the other churches toward the right.

The public garden outside Otterstadt church. SO PLEASANT.

The public garden outside Otterstadt church. SO PLEASANT.

Back in Speyer - Feuerbach Park trees loveliness.

Back in Speyer – Feuerbach Park trees loveliness.

The random unicorn statue outside an official looking building in downtown Speyer. ?!?!  In other news, did you know that the unicorn was the official animal of Scotland?

The random unicorn statue outside an official looking building in downtown Speyer. ?!?! In other news, did you know that the unicorn is the official animal of Scotland?

And then I celebrated the use of our bicycles by going to every thrift store in Speyer I could find. Guess what? They look exactly like American thrift stores!!! And were just as fun. (I tried to sneak a picture here….)

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Home sweet home!

 

I was pretty proud of how far we had biked that day, until I found out Otterstadt was only 7km away. Guess that nips my other dream of biking for 7 days from Vienna to Prague in the bud! Gotta start training for some long bike rides!

 

We are officially leaving Speyer today – taking the train to Zurich! Can’t believe it is that time already. We had the going away barbeque last night and are trying to separate the treasures from the junk in our dorm room. It has been a terrific trip…and we’re not quite done yet!

Also, we finally settled on a one-word description of our time in Europe.  PLEASANT. I think because we came at this time, everything is green and flowers are blooming and it’s pretty cool weather-wise. So it looks pleasant and Europeans know how to take a chill pill, so there are so many places to sit around and eat something pleasant and look at pleasant things. Just so dang pleasant!

Love,

the utterly pleasantified, Kate

Random Germany

It’s comforting to know that there are weird things everywhere in the world. I have collected here a few of our random observations.

1. Germans (also Czechs) LOVE sparkling water. It’s very difficult to find still water. And sparkling water is really not the same as still water. And it is REALLY not the same when you drink sparkling water and think it is still water.  Dad, Nate S., and Cara, you would love it here.

2. Capri Sun is also confusingly popular. It is sold in bakeries, tourist kiosks, and vending machines and I see adults walking around all the time drinking them.

3. Other things Germans like – bright red hair dye, Nordic walking sticks, dogs, RVs (there are soooo many around), eating ice cream cones at 10 in the morning, and red roofs.

Here is a picture of a local Speyer Pharmacy. It is one of the top 10 oldest pharmacies in Germany. Because Germany keeps a list of its top 10 oldest pharmacies.

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Germany is also amazing at playgrounds – way better than America. The play equipment is super interesting and random. One playground just had a giant rubberized hill, on which a group of 3-4 yr old boys were running up and down wildly. Isn’t that the most perfect playground thing? Just a giant hill.

And then we found a playground that is Ron Weasley worst nightmare. Yeah, that is a giant spider climbing frame.

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Not to be outdone, we also found a climbing wall shaped like a giant ear. Seriously.

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We also ate some ice cream that looks like spaghetti. It’s a thing here.

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Also, while Europe may be good at many things, there is one thing it is terrible at – drinking fountains. America is light years beyond the rest of the world when it comes to drinking fountains. I really didn’t appreciate them until I came here and it is sooooo hard to get a drink of water. Even though you can drink the tap water in Germany, restaurants really don’t want to give it to you for free. Also, you have to pay to use the bathrooms in the train stations in Germany. I am so fundamentally opposed to that I cannot even tell you. In my own American way, I really feel like tap water and restrooms are essential human rights.

Anyway…

There’s been some radio silence from me recently while we’ve been in Belgium and the Netherlands. My friend Katie flew over from the States to meet us in Amsterdam and we’ve been bumming around Europe this week. I will be posting a bit randomly from now on, but hope to get a few out in quick succession.

Happy Thursday!

Kate

 

Cathedrals!

I promised myself I would only have one super nerdy post this trip – and here it is.

So there are a lot of cathedrals in Europe. Back in the day building cathedrals was a very popular pastime. People here don’t seem to realize how unusual this is. IT’S SO WEIRD HOW THERE ARE SO MANY GINORMOUS AND BEAUTIFUL  AND OLD CHURCHES EVERYWHERE. They are so big and so old and so interesting and EVERYWHERE.

After a very confusing first visit to a cathedral in Cologne, Alex and I watched this awesome NOVA documentary about cathedrals and learned stuff. If you want to spend a nerdy hour, here it is – NOVA Building Gothic Cathedrals. Armed with a tiny bit more knowledge we are avidly consuming European cathedrals right and left.

Introductory cathedral trivia –

1) A church is designated to be a cathedral because it serves as the seat of the bishop. It doesn’t really have anything to do with the building itself. That’s why there are three churches in Speyer that look just like cathedrals (to me), but only one of them technically is.

2) Almost everything in a cathedral is symbolic, even the shape of the building itself, which is usually a cross.

But the big question that I didn’t even know I had until I watched that documentary was about how people learned to make cathedrals in the first place. For a really long time if architects, engineers, and builders wanted to make a really big building they had to make the walls super duper thick in order to hold up the weight of the enormous building. Hence, the images of medieval castles with tiny windows and draw bridges and clunky towers. But then, all of a sudden, people suddenly started building REALLY big buildings with soaring parapets and extremely skinny walls that were filled with stained glass. Apparently, it took modern day people a while to figure out how ancient architects could have made this extreme jump in engineering knowledge.

Turns out it’s all about the arches. A rounded arch can hold a lot of weight, but an arch with a pointy top can hold A LOT OF WEIGHT due to the angle of gravity or something. Once they figured this out they started making pointy arches right and left and were able to build churches so, so tall.

This was pretty fascinating for me to learn, because the cathedrals I’ve seen so far totally illustrate this.

Here is the Speyer Cathedral. It is a Romanesque design, which means it was pre-Gothic, and they started building it in 1053 (which was before the Great Schism when the Orthodox church broke off from the Roman Catholic church – also, fyi, the Pope and the Orthodox leader are planning an official get-together for 2025…that’s crazy! and unprecedented!). You can see how the windows are quite small and all the arches are rounded. It’s very square and solid and robust.

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The word for cathedral in German is Dom. You can see on the sign – Dom zu Speyer.

But then, they figured out the pointed arches thing…..

And you get this! The Gothic Cathedral in Strasbourg, France. Very tall, elegant, and detailed.

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You can get a really good feel here – see the pointy arches and the walls almost entirely made up of glass?

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Also, contrary to my belief that flying buttresses were a made up thing said by Cogsworth the clock in the Disney Beauty and the Beast, a flying buttress is actually a very important arch that was put on the outside of cathedrals to help support the other arches. In this way they could just build up and up and up!

You can see the flying buttress arches over the green roof area on the side here.

You can see the flying buttress arches over the green roof area on the side here.

There is a very interesting part of the documentary where they talk about cathedrals that are falling down and why and how people are trying to fix them. They do a lot of futuristic things with lasers.

Okay, so Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals….but mostly Gothic. Blowing my mind since 2014. As much as I am nerdily obsessed with churches, these cathedrals (while impressive and awe-inspiring) were not wholly unfamiliar to me. I mean, I’ve seen the Hunchback of Notre Dame and everything.

But then we went to St. Ignatius Church in Prague and….well….you’ll just have to take a look for yourself.

Here is the outside – pretty innocuous. DSCN2153

And then the inside…BAM. It’s like a little girl’s princess tea party threw up in the church. Twice!

Pink, anyone?

Pink and frilly, anyone?

I couldn’t stop laughing when I first saw this. It was just SO unexpected and SO different from all the Gothic churches we’d been looking at. Our friends didn’t really understand what was so funny, they had just tried to take me to see a church, which is what I had asked for. But holy garlands and gold, Batman!

And that, my friends, is what you get with the Baroque style. Gothic just wasn’t cutting it anymore. Also, when I just tried to google this church to find the name I got off track for a minute because there is another more famous Baroque style church with a pink interior in Prague. Seriously.

Oh man, I just love this so much.

Okay enough churchiness for today. I leave you with this one last random cathedral related thought from the documentary. Apparently William Randolph Hearst once bought an old cathedral from Spain and had it shipped (stone by stone) to California where it hung out in a pile in a barn for 50 years. Ten years or so ago, some people started trying to put it together again, but no one really knows how the cathedral was originally built so it’s taking a long time. And a lot of science.

Cheers!

Kate

Frankfurt…and Toys

Our official program “excursion” this week was to Frankfurt to visit the European Central Bank (ECB) and the Frankfurt Stock Exchange. Frankfurt is not super interesting, and I am not super interested in finance, so it wasn’t my favorite excursion ever. But they did give us cookies and fancy bottle water at the ECB! But I think it was to buy our loyalty before they talked for 1.5 hours…. In all fairness, though, I did actually understand most of what she was saying, minus all the key vocabulary words. The only time I almost gave up was when she stopped to explain what “collateral” meant. Collateral was literally the only vocab word I DID understand in the presentation!!! I did have to give up at the stock exchange though – that was totally impenetrable.

However, Alex asked a lot of intelligent sounding questions that they seemed to understand and answer interestingly back…so I was very impressed. I was also very impressed with the whole environment. It was kind of like the adults in Charlie Brown who just say waaa waa waaaaaa wa wa, except they were saying THIS IS IMPORTANT. WE ARE IMPORTANT. IMPORTANT THINGS HAPPEN HERE. They do set the monetary policy for all of the EU countries. That DOES sound pretty important!

I was afraid to take pictures of the bank….I thought I might get tackled by Interpol or something.

But they took us to the 36th floor to feed us the cookies, so got a cool view of Frankfurt.

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The Frankfurt Stock Exchange. All the trading is actually done online now…so it was a pretty quiet place.

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But the best part of Frankfurt was that our friend Hanna came to see us! We know her from China too – if you remember she and her boyfriend Asong took us to the jungles in the middle of Hainan (that I was REALLY excited about), but now she is back at her normal job as a forester near Berlin. She came down for a bit to visit with us. Really fun to see her!

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We also went to a church where they first signed the German Declaration of Independence in the late 1880s. It didn’t really stick and they went back to being a monarchy for a while, but it was a good start!

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And that was that. Friday accomplished!

We decided to just hang around Speyer this weekend and catch up on all the things we’ve been meaning to do. So Saturday, we went to the 40th Anniversary Playmobil exhibit at the local history museum.

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IT WAS AWESOME. Both Alex and I played with Playmobil (a German company) as kids so we were excited. It was an incredibly fun exhibit with huge dioramas and stop-motion videos and giant play-places for kids and almost-life-size Playmobil characters. And we got to see how they are made and got to keep a Playmobil mouse as a souvenir. However, the whole tour was a chorus of Alex saying “We had that horse!” “We had that Sheriff’s Office!” “We had that revolver holder!” “We had that dog!” It was pretty funny.

Also….they have a lot more Playmobils now then they did when we were kids!

Fairy castle!

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Old West!

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But my favorite by far was the dinosaur park. It was basically a re-creation of Jurassic Park, with tons of dinosaurs and tons of researchers hiding in the bushes taking pictures of them.

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And Alex’s favorite was the pirates!

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And then there was the group of nuns taking a tour of Sea World! Not even kidding.

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PLAYMOBIL SELFIE!!!!!!!!

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We finally had to stop playing around…but it was awesome!

Happy Sunday!

Kate

These Pretzels are Making Me Thirsty!!

It took us four whole days in Germany to remember this classic Seinfeld episode – where Kramer gets a single line in a movie and all the characters try to help Kramer decide how to say the line by repeating it ad nauseam throughout the episode. But since then we have made gooooooood use of the quote. Germany and Seinfeld – a match made in heaven.

(Also, we made the joke around a German guy once and he started laughing and was like, yeahhhhh! Seinfeld!)

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We haven’t been super impressed with German food so far. It’s pretty much as I expected – a lot of meats, potatoes, and beer – none of which I really like. However, there are two German food pastimes that I can seriously get behind – pretzels…and gummy bears. Mmm, classic.

Preview: Totally going to a 40th Anniversary Playmobil exhibit at a local museum this weekend. Score!

Strasbourg, France

Despite my best efforts to be disdainful of visiting France and my deep loathing of learning the French language (sorry Burches!), I really loved visiting France. I still can’t understand their pronunciation, but I think they are nice and friendly and have amazing food. Of course, it’s not Paris, or the Riviera – just a small town on the Rhine. Which is probably why I loved it.

Seriously, can the Rhineland get any cooler? #charmingalert #GermanyANDFrance #isthisreallyDisneyland?

Also, the one thing I thought we were doing (touring a bank) was wrong (we are doing that this coming weekend in Frankfurt). Instead, Alex’s program took us on a tour of the Council of Europe. Having approximately zero knowledge of what this was, I found it to be quite enjoyable.

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Also, I tried to guess some of the flags….but was disheartened after being TOTALLY SURE Iceland’s flag was Ireland’s. But seriously, their names are basically the same.

The Council of Europe is NOT the same thing as the EU (surprise to me – if I had ever thought about the Council of Europe before I would have definitely said it was part of the EU). It is actually a body that focuses on human rights issues – creating resolutions (like the European Convention of Human Rights) and monitoring human rights violations. The only prerequisite to be part of the council is to be a European country and to be a democracy. That means every country (except Belarus…poor Belarus) is a part of it – which is about twice as many countries as the EU. They meet 4 times a year here…

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Each country is allowed a certain number of delegates based on size, with the smallest countries (Monaco, Lichtenstein) bringing 2 and the largest (Russia, Germany) bringing 18. When in this chamber all members are seated in English alphabetical order of their last name (interestingly, not by country). English and French are the official languages, with German, Russian, and Italian being working languages.

Then a guy told us some stuff in here.

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I show you these pictures so you all can verify Professor Resh’s comment that the Council of Europe looks like the setting to a 1960s Bond film.  Yeah, you know that’s right.

But the social politics in the Council of Europe was very hard for this American to grasp. For example, due to their questionable acts towards Ukraine, Russia has to sit in the naughty chair now at the Council (no voting for the rest of the year). Which everyone decided/argued about while Russia was still in the room. Awkward much? The Council of Europe also wields an interesting balance of peer pressure, bad publicity, and humiliation. If you are a country in Europe and you don’t belong to the Council of Europe it pretty much means you don’t care about human rights – AT ALL. So there’s a lot of pressure to not get kicked out. It’s kind of like kindergarten and kind of like the aforementioned Bond movie??

And then Alex found a fork head guy.

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The rest of the time we wandered about the old city, which is full of canals and German and French buildings all squished together. We took a boat ride through the canals, ate the best Indian food I’ve ever had (sorry Btown Bombay Cafe!), rode bikes to a park full of storks, went to Notre Dame (the other one), and saw an astronomical clock chime the mid-day!

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When Thomas Jefferson was the ambassador to France, he traveled all the way to Strasbourg from Paris in order to visit the cathedral, which at that time was the tallest building in the world. (You can’t even see the spire in this picture because I was too close.)

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Astronomical clock in the cathedral – bringing science into the church! Tells the time, the position of the planets, the month of year, the day of the week….even has a calculator! Every quarter hour a figurine (child, young man, old man) passes in front of the image of death. Every day at 12:30 a mechanical cock crows and flaps it’s wings, a baby angel turns over a sand timer and hits a bell, Death hits its bell, and the twelve apostles process in front of Jesus (you can see two levels of figures towards the top – they are both on revolving wheels). Oh yeah, and this was made in the 1500s. Soooo into this.

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We took a boat ride down this river around the town, but all the pictures had window reflections in them. 😦 But we got to go through two locks! That was pretty nifty. Funny thing about locks though – cool as an idea, but kinda boring when you are actually in one.

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A tiny stop sign for the bicyclists! Adorbs!

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The camera battery decided to die right when we got to park – so no pictures of the hugely awesome stork nests we saw there. But I thought, no big deal, we are heading back to the train…what could possibly happen that I would need to take a picture of? Then we saw a parade for Jesus. Literally, a parade of people walking down the street holding signs that said JESUS. They were blasting praise music and just walking around smiling. It looked pretty official with a police escort and officers directing traffic. We were pretty confused, as Europe/France is not particularly religious, but decided to drown our confusion in an ice cream cone. Just as we were sitting down….ANOTHER parade goes by. This time, however, it was a parade protesting genetically modified foods and Monsanto. I guess it was parade day in Strasbourg??

But now Alex is back to classes – his cold is better, but I caught a milder version of it from him. So now the “can you bring me some water” tables have turned! Mwhahaha.

Happy Memorial Day!

Kate