Monday, December 23, 2013

Netherlands....sort of

I have said almost nothing about the Netherlands this here goes.

The Netherlands is mostly below sea level.  There is a lot of water.  The buildings are cool.  It was foggy for two days so there are no pictures from those days.  I got my chocolate letters.  Rotterdam has really weird architecture.  I went to Vlissingen to see the ocean and I saw fog.

What I liked about the Netherlands:

I played Zombie Fluxx with Stephan and his sister and her English (They all speak English over there.)  -- just like we used to do when he was living with me.  I talked about everything with Stephan - just like we used to do.  I even woke him up once  -- just like I used to do to be sure he got to school on time.

(I woke him up to make sure he took me to the train on time so I could come home...and we missed it.  But it meant I could talk to him longer.)

We went to his parent's restaurant, and watched him make sure all the other patrons had what they needed.  (Note to Stephan:  don't do this when you are on a first date!!!)  I watched him care for his two month old sister. (Note to Stephan:  This would be OK on the first date.)  I got to know him a little better.

This is all valuable to me.

I had promised one of my exchange students that I would take some presents to her family...I had imagined a meet, greet, and be on our way.  Instead I talked with a complete stranger for 2 1/2 hours.  This was a most enjoyable conversation.

On this trip, I walked around foreign cities.  I took a lot of pictures of buildings that are different than what I have here.  They are cool. But I have forgotten the names of most of them, and sometimes I even remember the city wrong!  (OK, not Notre Dame.  Or the Eiffel tower.  Or the Hungarian Parliament.  Or the funicular (this actually a train car that goes up a hill, not a nonsense refrain for a children's song) up to Sacre Coeur.  and a few others.)  I did what you are supposed to do in foreign cities, like walk along the Seine or go to Prague Castle or eat croissants (at the right time of day).

But now, having been home over a month, what I remember is...Raphael, our tour guide who could take one of my straight lines and turn it into a great joke...Meeting new AYUSA colleagues and telling exchange student horror stories (and a few great ones)...Talking with Miriam (another AYUSA CR whom I haven't seen since Taiwan in 2006)...Seeing that Guillaume has grown another inch, meeting his family, talking about his sister who is an exchange student in the US this year...Sebastien rescuing me from the metro, and talking with him in cafes...Getting completely lost in the Netherlands with Stephan, and non-stop talking.

When I go back, I will go back for the people.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Now that I am home, normality has been restored.

I am not into normal.  Maybe that is why I like Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.  As I have said before, all these Europeans walk past elegant statues and castles and 1000 year old buildings as if it was normal.  Sometimes you just need new eyes to see things.
The first day in Paris after walking through the Tuileries, I saw this and asked Guillaume:  "Why do you have a pencil and compass sculpture in Paris?"  He did not see what I was talking about because he sees that as the Egyptian obelisk and the beginning of a Ferris wheel that is built every year in November.  Here it is, only three days later.  They clearly have a lot of practice building it.
Versailles can be completely overwhelming with its opulence and gold.  Even the window latches are fancy:
This was in the hall of mirrors.  (Yes, I have pictures of that, but you can find better ones with boring commentary somewhere else on the internet.  I am willing to bet you won't find window latch pictures.  At least not very many compared with the chandeliers and marble and naked statues and the floor and the view from the window.)
And then sometimes you just have to be in the right place at the right time:
How the sculptor got the boy to look at the seagull, I don't know.
Oh look!  It's a Greek temple in the middle of Paris.  No, it is a Catholic Church.  I suppose we should have gone inside to see what that looked like.

Storefront on the Champs-Elysees.  Huh?
Stingrays, painted on the asphalt of an overlook in Hungary.  A landlocked country.

A popular statue in Bratislava.

With buildings and sculptures like this, Rotterdam clearly defines weird.  It was not difficult to photograph strange things, but I had to watch myself since I only had 1593 pictures left on the camera.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Tour Guides

Nothing keeps you humble like going to a country where you think you know the language.

It is easy enough to stay humble in a country like Hungary (where I know one word) or the Czech Republic (ditto) or Slovakia (zero).   Dutch is a tantalizing mixture of words that you might know if you knew how to pronounce them, but I am not even trying.  Besides, I had a tour guide who spoke the language.

I know some German, but the only sentence I ever understood there was "Wir haben Kaffee getrunken und Kuchen gegessen."  That and a 4 year old boy, after speaking to me in German and not getting the reaction he expected, "Sie verstehen nicht?"  Well, I understood THAT!  The only German sentence I successfully spoke was referring to his sister, who was meowing:  "Sie sprechen Katze."  And by successfully, I mean that the other Germans understood what I meant, not necessarily that I was grammatically correct.  Or pronounced it right.  But they did laugh.

In Paris, reading the signs, I actually understood a lot of what I was reading.   The first time I saw the pedestrians cross twice sign was at the airport coming in.  I understood most of the ads in the metro.  The day there was a fire at the St. Michel train station, I successfully translated the station signboards:  "There has been a disruption across all the lines.  Please pay attention to the spoken announcements on the trains."  I was really proud of myself for that one!  So, in Paris all by myself for a day, armed with excessive confidence, I attempted to communicate.  I walked up to a place that was selling crepes to take away.  The cook said "Bonjour," I replied "Bonjour" and he said "How can I help you?"  I guess he did not want to hear his language butchered.

Well, it was a good crepe anyway.

I did ask a lady in a department store "Ou est les toilettes."  I got the message across in spite of the mistake.  And "Café au Lait" is easy to say, another successful communication.

In the end, you just can't get any better than these tour guides:

Guillaume and his little brother, Nicolas, got me lost because I couldn't get back to their house without them.  Plus I got tidbits of information, like you cannot order a croissant in the evening, it just isn't done.  (The waiter laughed at me.)  And he insisted on picking me up from the train station every day so I did not get lost going through the park and possibly locked in for the night.  (surreal moment:  being driven around by my exchange student!)

Sebastien got me thoroughly lost.  I literally did not know where I was (I had long ago lost track of North, South, East and West).  He also kept me out of a riot, got me out of the underground (more than once), got me back on the right train at night (and called Guillaume).  We talked.  He showed me the American embassy (which the polite Gendarme informed me I could not take a picture of).  We walked.   He showed me the tower of St. Jacques, probably because of Jack.  We talked.  He found a café so I could get a croissant at the proper time.  He took me to the highest point in Paris.  And we walked and talked and drank coffee in the cafés...which is what you are supposed to do in Paris.  (Another surreal moment: drinking alcoholic beverages with my exchange student.)

Stephan, on the bottom looking particularly pleased with himself, got me lost all over the Netherlands, to the point that I was continually asking him if we were on the right train.  (Rotterdam (where it poured down rain), Leiden, Dordrecht (to go to his parent's restaurant from the bus stop you climb down a hill, cross a highway, walk along a canal in the industrial section of town, are you sure about this Stephan? and it is late at night), Roosendaal, and Vlissingen (where neither of us had been before))  And we somehow always made the train on time.  And we never stopped talking.  (surreal moment: watching him care for his baby sister.)

Without them I would not have had so much fun!

I'm going back.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Paris Metro Adventures

With a little tweaking, that could become a great murder mystery title.  (Murder on the Paris Red Line?  Murder on the Paris Express?...suggestions?)  Instead, I survived the Paris metro, thanks to my French friends.

Of course, it didn't help that, as we were waiting for the first train, Guillaume regaled me with tales of recent fatal accidents.  Fortunately, all were caused by an intense desire to be on the train that was almost departing (I almost saw one myself, but the desire for self preservation prevailed and the person gave up trying to open a closing door.)  As a result, the song "Casey Jones" ran through my head, specifically the lines "There are two trains here and they're gonna bump."  and "This is my trip to the promised land."  (One version of the song is here  Like all folk songs, there are several versions, have fun finding them.  The Pete Seeger version is the one I remember, but his video is blocked in the US for copyright reasons, which has got to have run out LONG ago.)

I retaliated by continually asking Guillaume how the trains turned around at the end of the line.  He didn't know, so of course I kept asking.

Every time I got on the metro something happened.  Every.  Time.  The first day, Guillaume had to figure out an alternate ride home because the station we had to transfer at was closed.  The second day, Sebastien had to find another way out of the station because of a threatened riot at our destination and police were not allowing people to join the riot.  (Spoilsports)  Then he had to confer with a bus driver because the President Hollande was disrupting traffic down the Champs-Elysees.  (And being booed, but not for that.)  The third day, when I was traveling by myself to Versailles,  Guillaume's father Francois found out there was a fire at St. Michel-Notre Dame, where I was to change trains, and instead bought me a ticket to change at Massy-Palaiseau instead.  There I successfully changed trains to go to Versailles-Chantiers, in spite of a French woman, who spoke no English and apparently did not like Americans or tourists or both, and insisted that I get on the train to go the other direction.  The other person I asked was actually a Japanese lady, who spoke no French, but had been put on the right track by her French friend, along with written questions -- in French -- to ask someone how to get to Versailles.  (This was great, the first person we asked told us it was less than a kilometer and to turn at that street and we would see it.  The city maps gave us no clue.)

Going home I was again on my own.  I got to the station (after getting lost in the city of Versailles, but not terribly) and asked a station employee where I should go.  He directed me to platform H.  I got on the train, there were several other people on it.  Then there was an announcement, in French, which I didn't have a prayer of understanding, and everyone got off.  I asked someone, who spoke no English, but pointed out of the train.  I asked the only other person on the platform if she spoke English.  Nope.  Umm...Ich wait, that's German...ummm...Je vais Massy Palaiseau?  It was probably incorrect French, but she pointed to the next train over.  I got in, and the signboard on the train listed stations that did NOT include the word "Massy Palaiseau."

OK.  My borrowed phone rang -- it was Sebastien asking where I was.  I am on a train in Versailles that will take me to Massy Palaiseau (I hope).  OK, meet you there.

And it was a good thing, because I had thrown away the wrong train ticket and I couldn't get to the right platform.  Once again, Sebastien to the rescue!  (And he did it so fast I didn't have time to panic and remember the MTA song.    This is a song written for a Boston mayoral campaign, in which the candidate promises to lower taxes.  Since the French tend to riot over taxes, it is probably a good thing I did not remember and hum it while in Paris.)

The fourth day, Anne, Guillaume's mother, put me on the train and I had no problem.  (I did have a problem finding Chatelet- Les Halles station while on the streets of Paris (and in the dark) and once again Sebastien came to the rescue.  But not actually on the train.)

The fifth day, Anne put me on the train and I had no problem.

The lesson (Anne used to be a teacher) is clear:  Anne should be in charge of travel plans from here on out.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Gardens in Paris

I have been in four gardens in Paris.  Ask any physicist, this is enough data points.  I can now expound with authority on the subject.

The physicist comment:  ask a mathematician, an physicist, and an engineer to prove or disprove the theory that all odd numbers are prime.  The mathematician comes to 9, says that it is not a prime number, and declares the theory false.  The physicist come to 9, says the data point may be in error, stops at 13 and says "That is enough data points.  The theory is probably true."  The engineer says "1 is prime, 3 is prime, 7 is prime, 9 is prime, 11 is prime, 13 is prime, 15 is prime, 17 is prime..."

First, Parc de Sceaux.  Notice the trees?  They are in a line.  very orderly.

The next one was behind Notre Dame

Too bad the name "boxwood" is already taken.

Then there is the Tuileries, the garden on the west of the Louvre.

Once again, very orderly.  I would not be surprised to find the trees directly across from one another.

Finally, the gardens at Versailles

Ordered.  Trimmed precisely.  Boxed in. (OK, we do see a sense of humor at the space alien trees.)

Now the streets in Paris are...random...curved...renamed at odd places.  There are few grids.  (In fact, when I mentioned that I had directed some Japanese tourists to Notre Dame by saying "Go that way a few blocks," Guillaume told me "We don't have blocks!"  And traffic!  I was at the Place de la Concorde at rush hour, everybody at a complete standstill, thinking  "Someone, somewhere has a green light."  (Later I was told that it is a mess in the snow or ice.  And what I saw was not?)

In a number of intersections are signs saying (in French) "Pedestrians, attention, cross two times."

This means stop in the middle of the street, on the island provided, and wait for another signal.  The problem is that some people stop where there is no island AND no signal at all...while I learned to jaywalk (thanks, Sebastien) with all the other jaywalkers (a way of life in Paris), I was never so stupid as to try that!

I have come to the conclusion that gardens are one way of having order in a chaotic city.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Notre-Dame de Paris

This is my first view of Notre-Dame de Paris.  My first thought was "What happened to the towers?  they are flat!  There is no pointy spire!  I knew that cathedrals took a long time to finish, but really!!!"

My tour guide, Guillaume, assured me that indeed the cathedral was finished.  So there.

(Actually, there are a lot of flat roofs in Paris.  Almost the only pointy thing is the Eiffel tower.)
Here are some spires, on the side, are you happy now?
I guess so.  Not very many, are there?  If you want spires, you have to go to Cologne.  That is where baby spires are grown, and then shipped (when they are old enough) to all the other cathedrals.

Now I am happy.  I have seen my first gargoyle.  The etymology of the word includes the French for throat, the Latin  for swallow and Greek for gargle.  Also French for gargle.  (Just so you know that English isn't the only language where words are stolen and changed.  But we are the best at it.)  They are useful for diverting rainwater away from the walls, and apparently make a gargling sound when that happens.
But the wait to go in was too long, so we walked on to the Louvre, the Tuilleries (which I never did pronounce right), across several bridges, the Champs de Mars, and finally the Eiffel tower.  More on that later.
Three days later I went back to Notre-Dame, and this time I went in.  (Wednesdays, no waiting!)
I am in love with this cathedral.
I went around it twice.
I finally figured out why I love it.  It is simple. (Well, for a cathedral, simple).  It defines the word majesty.  I have since figured out that part of that is there is no gold in it (something about the French revolution, which was as much against the church as Louis XVI.  (Cue Alan Sherman)).  It is not overly ornate.  It is not gaudy.  It is simply majestic.
I felt I could worship in this cathedral.
(This is the only inside picture that turned out.  (I work on the theory that if you take enough pictures, eventually something will work.))
After walking around for another few hours, it got dark and was getting cold, so I decided to go back and see if I could go inside and get warm before meeting friends.  I was greeted with a moon, just four days from full:
I went inside to find the vespers service in progress.
Now I am really really happy -- I have heard an organ inside a cathedral.
I AM going back.  To look for gold.  To hear the organ again.
I also have to hear the gargoyles gargle.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Prague Architecture

It has been said that Prague is the most beautiful city in Europe.  I really can't say one way or the other...I've been to how many cities in Europe?  (Actually, how few, now that I think of it.)  It has all the amenities you expect in a European city:  narrow streets (This is where you find out just how good a bus driver you have...ours was able to back up a whole block without hitting anything.  And turn around on what appears to us Americans as a one way street but is really two way with parking on both sides.  There was an intersection involved, and applause when he was done.), architecture that you just don't see in the U. S. (we took lots and lots of pictures, and Europeans just walk right by it everyday as if it was normal) and enough people that speak English so that you can function.

Anyway, I took lots of pictures of buildings.  Unfortunately, I forgot what most of them are called.  (I have problems accessing my obsolete memory storage device.  Last I heard, no upgrades available.)  So what I have here are collections of buildings of different styles.  I also don't know what those styles are called, simply because it has never bee important to try to find storage space in my obsolete memory storage device.  Other facts, like half lives of Pu-241 decay products, are more fun.

So here are architectural pictures I found interesting.  First of all, a wonky street that may have inspired Diagon Alley and one that our bus driver could easily have handled.

style mixtures:

Like I said, they think this is normal!

Monday, December 02, 2013


I have been to Prague before, about seven years ago.  I spent one day there both times, seeing approximately the same things.  So I decided to take pictures of what I knew I hadn't already taken pictures of.  But that got old, because I have an obsolete memory storage device.  I simply don't remember what I took pictures of 7 years ago, and what I had took pictures of that was blurry.  (Except the inside of cathedrals.  For some reason my camera does not like those.  But at least I didn't waste any actual film, just electrons.  And those are free.) (Well, I did have to pay for the camera, so they weren't technically free.  Just no additional charge.)

I did play with my zoom lens, which I like.  These are flying buttresses at the back of St. Vitus cathedral, in Prague castle.

Charles the Fourth, the most important king of the Czechs, looking rather pleased with what he accomplished.

The details....the capitals (I'm guessing on the name here) are about 10 inches tall.  And there were lots of them!  Is it any wonder that it took so long to build cathedrals????

The Golden Gate, on the side of St. Vitus.  It is a mosaic showing the last judgment.

And finally, the flag showing that the president is in the castle.

Sunday, December 01, 2013


Next stop on our trip was Bratislava.  (No, that is not the dessert claimed to be native to, at least 15 countries.  That is Baklava.)

We were only there for about 6 hours.  It would have been more, but our bus had to be fixed and we were delayed.  But that is a boring story that has no point, so I'm not saying more.

What can I say about Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, after only 6 hours?  The food is good, the coffee is strong, they have a sense of humor (see above) which does not descend to junior high level (see previous posts on bathroom labels).

They are proud of being free again.  (this resonates with me!)  This is a continuous film about gaining that freedom.  It is surrounded by barbed wire, which I found interesting.

And this is a little baby Space Needle, on a bridge, and it even has a restaurant in it!

What can I say about Bratislava?  I wasn't there long enough.