Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Vase That Gave Birth To Colombia

Imagine coming across a box of tea from the Boston Tea Party. I did when wondering around a museum in the center of Bogota last week. Well, actually it wasn't a box of tea but its Colombian equivalent - a flower vase. Diana checking out the Florero de Llorente:

If you're not up on your United States history, the Boston Tea Party wasn't really a party but rather a protest in 1773 Boston where the colonists protested what they saw as unfair British taxes. The colonists boarded a ship full of tea in the Boston Harbor and threw the tea overboard. This act is seen as one of the things that led to the American Revolution.

In much the same way, an event in 1810 "instigated" by the Florero de Llorente (the Llorente flower vase) symbolizes the eventual separation of Colombia from Spain. A close-up of the Colombian-independence vase:

From what I understand, a group of Creole (Colombian-born Spaniards) separatists went to borrow the vase from Llorente who was a cranky local Spanish merchant with a shop located across from Bogota's main plaza. They knew that the request to use the vase as the centerpiece at a dinner celebration of another local Creole would be rejected by a "real" Spaniard. Once the rejection was received, the Creoles would spread out in the plaza and begin to fire up the locals against the Spanish. As part of the ruse, another Creole verbally attacked Llorente, which led to a fist fight between Llorente and the Creole outside Llorente's shop.

The image of the fist fight over a flower pot, which I photographed of the souvenir post card the museum gave out, is now iconic of the Colombian independence movement:

So yes, Colombia eventually got its independence because of a relatively ugly flower vase rather than some tea thrown into a bay. As the term Tea Party has been adopted by a rightist political group in the U.S., I wonder if Colombia will ever have something like the Florero party?

The view from Llorente's shop's balcony, which you can see in the above painting, overlooking Bogota's Plaza Bolivar:

Monday, December 24, 2012

Casa de Nariño (The Colombian White House)

A couple of days after our visit to the Colombian National Congress building, we visited the Casa de Nariño, which is where the president of Colombia lives and works. It's a similar to what the White House is for the United States. This is the view of the front of the house looking from the National Congress building next door:

You need an appointment to visit, which you can get by sending an email somewhere apparently. Anyway, it looked like the first available appointment would be the week after New Years but they contacted us a couple of days later to tell us that they had an opening last Sunday. It wasn't until the day of our visit that I found out that the Bogota soccer team (The Millionaires) was playing against the Medellin soccer team in the national final later that afternoon so there were probably a bunch of cancellations.

We arrived at the recommended 15 minutes early and signed in. The guard checked our IDs against the list and we waited along with about ten other people for our tour. I was very surprised when our guide, a super-fast-talking soldier, led us in the door without us having to go through a metal detector or even a pat-down. Could you imagine entering pretty much any major public building in the U.S., much less something like the White House, without going through a metal detector? I honestly expected a full rectal exam but we hardly even got a second look. It's not to say there was no security though - we were accompanied by another, larger soldier that didn't seem like he'd put up with any bad behavior. :-)

Unfortunately, you can't take a camera, cell phone, or even a purse (for the women or Euro guys) so I don't have any other photos. Trust me, though, when I say that it's by far the cleanest place in the entire country of Colombia. Even the dirt in the planters outside the building was clean - I checked!

The tour takes you through one wing of the house, which is named for Don Antonio Nariño who originally translated France's Declaration of Human Rights for use during the Colombian independence movement. The building and its furnishings are basic European castle styling with its share of old fittings and artwork. One of the highlights for me was seeing an awesome Fernando Botero original painting in one of the rooms.

Unlike our visit to the Congress building, I didn't have a meetup with anyone famous. I was hoping to see the president but he was probably at some swanky party getting ready to watch the big game. By the way, Bogota ended up winning, which was a big deal since they hadn't won the national championship in something like 25+ years (Philadelphia fans can sympathize...).

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Touring The Colombian Capital Building

After the first few days of me being in Colombia again visiting with her family and eating too much of her mother's food, Diana planned for us to do tours of a couple of Bogota and national-government buildings.

Bogota is the capital of Colombia and all of the major government buildings are either on, or within a few blocks of, the Plaza Bolivar, which is the historical center of the city. The first tour we took was of the Lievano building, which is the French-style building to the right of the Christmas tree and the second was at the National Capital building, which is to the left of the Christmas tree:

Colombia's been trying to be more open and available to its citizens and one of the things that it's done is to open many of the government buildings to the public by offering tours. The Lievano building tour didn't end up being too interesting. It houses the offices of the Bogota-city government and the tour only covered the central courtyard and didn't go inside the building at all. It'd probably have been much more interesting if the women's prison, which was there prior to this building, was still open and had tours...

Our second tour was of the Capitolio Nacional (National Capital), which is the Colombian equivalent of the U.S. Capital in Washington, D.C. Perhaps following the influence of Antoni Gaudi and his Sagrada Familia, construction started in 1848 and finished in 1926.

The stone capital building, like its United States counterpart, serves as the offices and meeting places for both houses of congress. The Colombian senate has 102 representatives, 100 of which come from a single national ballot (I so wanted to write ballet instead!), and the remaining two representing the indigenous peoples.

The Colombian House of Representatives currently has 166 members, which are elected based on a formula that includes a minimum per department (state) plus a factor for population. As the population of Colombia increases, the number of representatives increases. The representatives meet in the room below, which has a mural by Santiago Martinez Delgado showing the founding of Colombia. The mural, which was politically charged at the time of its creation, is one of the highlights of the tour.

It was kinda' fun to watch the congressional proceedings. There were a couple of people paying close attention to the speeches that were being given but, for the most part, people were (loudly) having conversations, drinking coffee, looking at their smartphones, or just walking around. It wasn't as chaotic as when they show something from England but it wasn't nearly as orderly I expected...

Diana doing her best to look like an elected official working on official government business:

The tour was great and led by an excellent guide who seemed to allow us a lot of freedom. At one point, we had the chance to use the congressional bathrooms!

The final part of the tour took us through the tunnel that connects the Capital building to the congressional offices across the street. While our guide was summarizing, one of the more popular and approachable senators (or so I was told) who was also formerly the president of the senate (sort of like Joe Biden is currently in the U.S.), Aurelio Iragorri Hormaza, stopped to talk to our group. Our guide told him a little about the group (mostly Colombians, a couple of Dominicans, and me) and he immediately singled me out and started asking me about California. We spoke for about a minute and I was able to get my photo with him. Super cool!

I actually learned quite a bit about the Colombian government on the tour and would recommend taking it. Bonus if you get your photo with a senator!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Five Guys Burgers

On our way home from horseback riding, we stopped off for a late lunch at a Five Guys.

If you're not familiar, Five Guys is basically the East Coast version of In-N-Out, which is sort of like a high-end McDonald's. The difference between Five Guys (as well as places like Nifty Fifty's and In-N-Out) versus McDonald's is that the food is actually good and the service is (usually) competent and friendly. Ask anyone who has ever lived in California what the best burgers are and 99% of the time they'll say In-N-Out. The problem with In-N-Out for most people is that they're located primarily on the West Coast. Five Guys solved that problem by copying In-N-Out (in my opinion) and spreading the idea beyond In-N-Out's original stomping grounds.

A flock of cuties munching on the free in-the-shell peanuts while waiting:

If you weren't paying too close of attention, you might not know whether you were at an In-N-Out or a Five Guys. They both have white-tile interiors with red highlights. The soda machine is all-you-can-drink (free refills). The staff is friendly and efficient. You can see the whole kitchen and all the prep. The fries are fresh-cut from whole potatoes. The biggest difference, if you can call it that, I can find is that instead of In-N-Out's food coming in a brown-cardboard box, Five Guy's food comes in a heavy brown paper bag.

My sister picking up our meal (in a paper bag):

The similarities continue with the food. Somehow, I ended up with a double-cheeseburger (I believe I ordered a regular cheeseburger), which was, at a minimum, equally good as what In-N-Out's got. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that I think that the fries might be better at Five Guys. Oh, and the peanuts are a nice bonus. (Note the jalapeños on my burger!)

Apparently kids like Five Guys' food too!

I'm kinda' mixed on the whole Five Guys' thing but I'm thinking that it's because, to me, In-N-Out is the original. On the other hand, the food is good and there's a lot more of them in a lot more places. I think In-N-Out missed their opportunity to spread across the United States since Five Guys beat them to the punch. Hmmmmm... I guess that the reality is that I'd go to whichever was closest if I were in the mood for a good burger.

Four satisfied Five Guys' customers:

Friday, December 7, 2012

Horseback Riding For Christmas

Growing up in the city there weren't really too many opportunities to be out in the countryside and even fewer opportunities to be around big animals like cows or horses. I can count on one hand (maybe two) the number of times that I've been in contact with something larger than a big dog (like when I milked the cows, for example).

Nature growing up in Philadelphia was "going down the park". The park in this case was the nearby Pennypack Park where we'd fish, build forts, break stuff, light fires(!!!), and even build BMX tracks (remember those days, Dave T.?) - you know - boy stuff. There was even a place where you could rent/ride horses by the hour, which my dad took me and my sister to at least once. I remember that day, which must have been like 30 years ago, very well.

Flash forward to this year when I was thinking about Christmas gifts for my six nieces and nephews. I really didn't want to just go out and buy "stuff" that they wouldn't remember eight minutes after opening. Nope, it had to be something different - something memorable. That's when I remembered going horseback riding with my dad and decided to try to take everyone this year. It took me two days to find a place, coordinate schedules, and make a reservation and off we went last Saturday.

My sister's three oldest (my brother-in-law should buy boyfriend-deterrent shotgun now!):

The closest stable I could find with availability is on the Pennsylvania/Delaware border just over an hour (via car) from my dad's place. The only issue was that the two youngest (a two and a three year old) couldn't ride with us. After talking it over with my sister and sister-in-law, we decided that it was okay and that we'd go only with the four oldest (ages four to nine).

My sister's second oldest on Freddy the horse:

Our reservation was for 2pm and we got there a bit early so that we could hang out and check out the horses before our ride. We ended up being four kids and two adults and we did a trail ride for about 45 minutes. The trail ran (literally) right along the Mason-Dixon Line, or also known as the border between North and South, and, now, just Pennsylvania and Delaware:

We weren't sure if the kids would be afraid or something. Each one had their own guide and they all ended up doing well. I was happy that we had no problems at all and the kids really seemed to enjoy it.

My sister's number three:

The biggest surprise of the day was my sister-in-law's riding ability. I had no idea that she had done quite a bit of it in the past (and even had the boots, jacket, and all!). Doesn't she look like a pro here?

I was a little concerned about the reservations as the stable I chose seemed a bit flaky. I originally called them and left a message with what I wanted. They called back and asked me to confirm the wrong time and wrong number of people. I corrected them and all was good. My sister-in-law then decided she wanted to ride as well so I called them back to request the change. They, once again, had the wrong time and wrong number of people (but different than the first time). The day before our ride, someone called and left a message confirming our ride for the next day and, again, had a new time and a new, seemingly random, number of people. I called back once more and gave them the "new" information. It all ended up going well though. The people at the stable were super nice and accommodating.

My sister-in-law and her oldest:

My sister walked with us (and took all these photos) while we rode just in case one of the kids got scared and didn't want to ride or something. During the ride, my sister kept saying to me that my horse was huge. I hadn't noticed when we were mounting up or riding. It wasn't until I got home and saw the group photo below that I realized what she was talking about.

One other semi-related story. After I graduated from grad school in Los Angeles, I went to work for a bicycle-helmet manufacturer. While I was there, we started developing and selling horse-riding helmets. They were basically bicycle helmets with horse-helmet styling, except with grossly inflated prices and super-high margins (got to love horse folks and their money)! At the time, we weren't sure if they'd ever sell because those same rich horse folks tended to be (very) conservative and the helmets' styling was different. It's been almost 20 years and those same exact helmets we developed are now the standard. It was cool to see my nieces and nephew wearing something that I helped develop. By the way, I didn't get to use one of the helmets I worked on as they didn't have one in jumbo-head size.

Ride 'em, cowboy:

I had an awesome time. Everyone really enjoyed it and I loved having the extended time with the kids. I hope that it's something that they'll (also) remember in 30 years. The only problem now is how I'll top it next year! Skydiving, anyone? Do they allow three-year-olds? We could do a formation!

Thanks to my sister for taking the photos!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Thanksgiving Weekend

I've been back in Philadelphia for just about two weeks now and I'm finally getting around to posting some stories from here. As I write this, it's like 65 degrees Fahrenheit (17C) outside, which is verrrry unusual but also verrrry nice after living in that frozen land called Germany!

Anyway, Thanksgiving (or a link to a less traditional one) was a week ago Thursday and it began like it does every year - with eggnog in my coffee (thanks dad!) and the MASSIVE Thanksgiving day newspaper. I had paper routes for about five or six years during grade school and high school and always dreaded Thanksgiving because of how big and heavy the papers were. Thanksgiving 2012's paper:

If you've ever wondered if Americans are truly consumer oriented, look no farther than the contents of the day's paper. The local newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, had at least 58 (!!!) pull-out color advertisements in addition to the regular ads that appear throughout the paper. Most of them advertised Black Friday specials, which this year started at like 8pm on Thanksgiving night. They're not even waiting for midnight on Black Friday anymore. Yes, I think it's crazy and, yes, people in the United States love love love to shop. Baseball may used to have been the most popular pastime but today it's shopping.

As in prior years, dinner was at my cousin Mike's house. He's got the biggest house in the family and the party is able to spread over two floors. I love being in town for Thanksgiving as it's basically the only time during the year when my entire family gets together in one place. I think the thing that amazed me most this year is how crazy big all the "kids" in the family are. There are "kids" that will be in university in September! Damn, I'm getting O.L.D.!!!

The kitchen during the dinner rush:

I had promised Berat, my roommate from Stuttgart, that I'd take a photo of the turkey and send it to him so that he could see what a real cooked one looks like. Unfortunately, the turkey had already been cut before I ever had the chance to take a photo so I snapped one of my dinner plate instead. Just in case, clockwise from the top (12 o'clock), there's: stuffing, hot macaroni and cheese, (half of) a biscuit, ham (6 o'clock), sweet potatoes, and some turkey with the light meat to the left and dark meat towards the center, cranberry sauce (back up near the stuffing), and some mashed potatoes taking center stage:

Oh, and Thanksgiving dinner, and the similar Christmas dinner, is my favorite meal ever. Wawa has a sandwich that's called the Turkey Gobbler, which has turkey, stuffing, cranberry, and gravy, that I just can't get enough of. I've already eaten three and might go for another today!

Something that I've wanted to do for a few years is take an extended-family photo so I decided that this was the year. My dad's got my sister's, brother's, and my wedding photos hanging up in the living room of his house and the photo from my sister's wedding from like 13 years ago is really the last photo where everyone in the family is present. It was time for a new one. I warned people when I arrived that we'd be doing the photo and they seemed game. Believe it or not, it only took about five minutes of being "Mr. Pushy" to get everyone outside and smiling with the nice photo below being the result:

Just a quick note that missing were Diana (she's in Colombia) and my one cousin and his wife and two kids so I'll have to try again next time.

Oh, and I pretty much was immobilized by the quantity of food that I ate that night. I remember going to bed thinking that I just can't ever do that again. And, my diet should start the next day. You know the drill, right?

The next morning I was driving through my dad's neighborhood and came across a flock of wild turkeys walking down the street. Okay, a couple of things. First, I had no idea that my dad (and sister, who lives nearby) had wild turkeys for neighbors. There were at least six of them and they were giant - it was a f'n trippy sight to see. Next, I'm wondering if they were out celebrating that they made it through another Thanksgiving? Possibly. Of course, there's always Christmas!!! [cue: evil laughing] Hahahahahahahahaha!

Later that evening we went to meet up with a couple of relatives from my dad's side of the family who he hadn't seen in over FORTY years (and I didn't even know about)! My dad's an only child and, for the most part, our "family" is made up of folks from my mom's side. My brother, sister, and I were excited to finally meet some more peeps from the other side. From left, my brother, my dad's cousin's husband, my dad's cousin, their daughter, my dad (partially blocked), Ginny, the most beautiful guy in the world (cough, cough), and my sister:

Another note: I ate waaaaay too much that night too. The pumpkin-pie martinis and extensive bar-food menu were just too much to resist. It was another super uncomfortable night of sleeping! So much for never again...

Can I just say how nice it is to be back home? Family, fun, and FOOD! What could be better? Now to get outside to enjoy the amazing weather!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Tage Wie Diese (Days Like These)

Each time that I've relocated over the past few years I've gotten sentimental when leaving (yes Louise, it's difficult). Stuttgart's no different and, in some ways, it's been a bit harder than usual.

Now that I'm back in Philadelphia, and having lots of time to reflect on my experiences in Germany, I've concluded that the weather, food (except for maybe the wine), and the views are not the reason to live in Stuttgart. :-) The reality is that, even though I've met and spent time with some pretty awesome folks over the years in Japan, Spain, Colombia, the United States, and lots of other places along the way, something is different this time - probably 80+ percent of my memories are about "just" the people as opposed to the sights, etc. The folks I got to know in Germany made it, unexpectedly, one of the best experiences I've had.

I started writing out a big-ole'-list of people to thank but I'm too afraid to leave someone out so I ain't doin' it. Instead, I went through all of the more-than 10,000 photos I took and selected about 80 or so that show both the people I spent my time with and the great times we had. The result is the slideshow video below.

The song I chose for the video is called "Tage Wie Diese" (Days Like These) and is by the old German punk/alternative band "The Toten Hosen" (The Dead Pants). The song's basic story is classic guy-meets-girl. Their time together is so amazing that he (the singer) doesn't want it to end. The refrain (with English translation below):

An Tagen wie diesen, wünscht man sich Unendlichkeit.
An Tagen wie diesen, haben wir noch ewig Zeit
In dieser Nacht der Nächte, die uns so viel verspricht
Erleben wir das Beste, kein Ende in Sicht.

On days like these, you wish it would never end
On days like these, we still have all the time in the world
On this night of nights, which promises us so much
We’re experiencing the best, no end in sight.

To the amazing people that I met and spent time with in Germany, vielen Dank für alles! Ich werde euch vermissen. Wir sehen uns bald wieder, hoffe ich. Kein Ende in Sicht!

Thanks to Fabiola from my German classes for (unknowingly) introducing me to the Toten Hosen and, especially, to this song.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Cologne Germany

With our medium-term plans changed, Diana went to Colombia to be with her family. We decided that I'd stay in Stuttgart for a while longer to deal with work-related stuff before going to Philadelphia for Thanksgiving and then onto Bogota myself. But, I had one last weekend left and I wanted to go somewhere that I hadn't been yet. I considered Prague (only four hours away) and looked into some options but, in the end, I decided to take my friend Katharina up on her previous offer to have me up to visit with her and her family in Köln (Cologne in English).

Köln is located a little over three hours (via car) north of Stuttgart and is about twice the size. My ride dropped me off on the other side of the Rhine river from the center of the city and it's about a 15 minute walk to the main square/cathedral, which was very scenic. On the way, I crossed the main train bridge going into the city and was amazed to see millions of Locks of Love attached to the fence that separated the tracks from the walkway:

I couldn't believe how many were there. Even in Paris and the other places that I've seen them, there were not nearly as many. They are so popular, apparently, that local businesses sell customized locks that you can buy for a few Euros and attach to the bridge with your honey.

Köln's been around for a couple of thousand years (!!!) and was once a Roman city. The center of town is very scenic especially when you consider that it was completely destroyed during the war and rebuilt over the years. The highlights are the narrow winding shopping streets, the glass-and-steel Hauptbahnhof (main train station), and the Köln Dom (cathedral):

Honestly, I wasn't super fired up to see another church. Europe's full of them! Although, there are a couple of amazing ones...

Let's be honest though, all I really wanted to know was if Cologne smelled like, well, cologne. Unfortunately, Hamburg didn't smell like hamburgers. Would Cologne live up to its namesake? Well, it turns out that the city of Cologne is a bit older than the smelly stuff of the same name. Cologne (the smelly stuff) originated in Cologne (the city) during the early 1700s and continues to be manufactured and sold today in the oldest fragrance factory in the world - this building in the city:

Another padlock display this time at the train station. I don't know about you but 2 Euros seems a bit cheap to "secure" my love...

I got up to Köln on Friday afternoon and walked around until Katharina met me after her classes. We climbed the cathedral tower stairs to check out the views, walked around the city center for a while, and then went to eat at a place called Früh. Früh's is a lot like the Hofbrauhaus that I went to with John John when we met in Munich. Katharina was even able to get me to drink a (very small) beer! I won't be switching from wine to beer anytime soon but it was not too bad. After dinner, we went to her house to meet mom. I think mom and I hit it off because we stayed up at least two hours after Katharina went to bed drinking wine and speaking a very convincing English-German mix.

On Saturday morning Katharina's old high school was having an open house and she wanted to go visit the old stomping grounds. I got the tour and then we met up with mom again for a visit to...wait...wait...wait!!!

The Haribo Gummy Bear Factory (store) in nearby Bonn:

Yes, the Gummy Bears you know and love! But, I have to admit that I was a bit confused as I thought that we were going to visit the actual factory (damn German language skills!). I didn't know we weren't until we pulled into the store parking lot and I saw them tearing down the factory! 8'-(

But wait!!! Don't panic like I did! Once my heart rate dropped back down below 240 bpm, Katharina and her mom reassured me that there was indeed a new factory nearby and that the world's supply of chewy-deliciousness would not suffer. The store was quite impressive and, like the Ritter Sport Chocolate Factory, you can buy as much candy as you can carry for ridiculously low prices. I ended up spending about 20 Euros (~$25 U.S.) and I left with a TON of candy. The surprise score of the trip was finding packs of spicy gummy bears, which are quite the treat!

Random, semi-related story that I just thought of... Back when I was in high school, we (at least I think it was we) would put gummy bears in our mouths to get them wet, take them out without chewing them, and then through them up in the air so that they'd stick to the ceiling...during class. I can hear my mom and my aunt both asking themselves if we were animals and shaking their heads... Gummy bears, delicious and many good memories!

From there, it was back to downtown Köln again to visit the city's World Of Chocolate Museum. Can I just say "wow"? Like churches, I'm just not that into visiting museums but every once in a while, like with churches, one just blows me away. It wasn't just because it was about one of my favorite edibles (the others being things like coffee, wine, and Mexican food), but because they had a mini FUNCTIONING chocolate factory set up on site. Yes, that's a real operator running that packaging machine! Can you say "sexy museum"?

In addition to the production line, they've got an excellent history-of-chocolate museum as well as a green house where they've even got a flowering cacao (chocolate) tree! I was amazed that they could get the tree to bloom and my hat's off to whoever's maintaining that green house.

Oh, and they have a kick-ass, on-site chocolate shop too. (Maybe this should have been called the chocolate museum story???) Anyway, from there we walked across the street to the Kölner Senfmuseum (mustard museum).

The mustard museum's more of a mustard shop with some historical displays set up. What'd I expect, right? Even though it's not that exciting, it's location across from the chocolate museum and their free entry and samples make it worthwhile.

Katharina's mom chose an Italian restaurant overlooking the Rhine for our dinner. I have no idea what it was called but the food was top-notch and I left very full. We then headed back to their house for some more wine and conversation. It's funny but I went to visit with my friend Katharina but I left feeling like I now had two friends in Köln. A big ole hug and a kiss to Katharina and her mom Susana! You guys were great hosts and I can't wait to see you again. Maybe you need to come visit me and I can repay the favor???

And with that, my nine months of living in Stuttgart came to an end, or maybe to a brief pause. The future's open and we may very well find ourselves back in Germany after the new year. For now, it's off to Philadelphia for Thanksgiving and then on to Bogota to reunite with Diana and hang out with Juaco, Fidu, Rises, and Pepe for Christmas and New Year's.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Germans And Their Bicycles

I'm going to say it.

I believe that every German is issued a bicycle when they're born. They all have them. They use them for everything. They love their bicycles!

"Parking lot" at the local Adventure Playground:

Bicycles are basically kids' toys in the United States. They get one when they're old enough to learn and continue to get new ones pretty much up until around age 16 or so when they finally get their driver's license. At that point, almost no one uses a bicycle other than if they're "into" bicycles or they're trying to impress a first date or something. Contrast that with Germany where bicycles are an accepted, no, the preferred form of transportation for many. Everyone has one and they use them all the time for everything; going to the metro in the morning, to work, the supermarket, school. You get the idea.

The bicycle parking area outside a local shopping center. Note that the bikes aren't locked up to anything!

In the U.S., even if people take mass transit to work, they drive to the local station. In Germany, many stations don't have car-parking lots but they usually have bicycle parking ones. Look at the parking lot for the metro near the Sachsenhausen concentration camp I visited recently. Not only is it covered but there's got to be space for like 300+ bicycles - and it's full!

The best part? Just like most things in Germany, bicycle riding is serious stuff. Germans pretty much have rules for everything, whether they're written or unwritten. Bicycling is the same. One morning I looked out the window of our apartment and there were at least 20 kids with neon vests on their bicycles. According to the Germans I asked, they were school kids learning about bicycling traffic/safety laws.

Honestly, I feel a little left out as I don't have a bicycle...yet. I do want one but haven't been able to decide what to get. Do I go road, mountain, hybrid? Do I need lights? How about a removable basket or rack for trips to the store? Could I join the kids out front one day to learn the rules of the road? Ich möchte jetzt ein Fahrrad! Welche soll ich kaufen und wie kann ich lernen, die Fahrad fahren Regeln?

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Local Stuttgart Wine - Spätburgunder

Today's post is about something that's very close to my heart: WINE!!! Woohoo!

Before moving to Germany, my opinion of German wines was, well, not too good. The reality, though, was that I didn't ever have much of it but what I did try was too sweet for my taste, which tends towards very dry reds and whites. I usually tell people that I want to be more thirsty after drinking the wine than I was when I started!

Living in both California and Spain has given me the opportunity to try lots of different wines and my favorites for sure are Pinot Noir (mostly California) and Pinot Grigio (mostly Italy). I even wrote a homage to California Pinot Noir a while back! When I got to Stuttgart I was surprised to find vineyards lining the hills around the city so I immediately set to work figuring out what the local wines were and making sure to.Try.Every.Single.One...

The two common wines from the Baden Württemberg area are Trollinger and Lemberger. They are available at pretty much every restaurant and festival including the annual Stuttgarter Weindorf.

A bottle of Lemberger and another of a Dornfelder/Spätburgunder blend:

The most common local wine is called Trollinger, which is a dark-red wine that's often used in wine blending.  It's (just) okay in my opinion, in other words, there are better. Lemberger, the other, in my non-technical-wine-vocabulary view, is one of those multipurpose wines that can range from sweeter to dryer, hearty to light, and so on. I've tried quite a few and really am not a fan.

Don't think that it's all doom and gloom at southern-Germany wine tastings though. Quite the opposite! What I found, quite by accident when my roommate brought home a bottle that had been given to him as a gift, is called Spätburgunder:

Spätburgunder is a Pinot Noir grown in Germany. Like the California Pinot Noirs that I love, love, love, Spätburgunder is now among the wines at the top of my list. The four bottles above range in price from around 5 euros (~$7 U.S.) up to around 9 euros or so. It's not expensive but it sure is oh-so-good! Oh, and the second from the left, a Pinot Noir from the Collegium Württemburg winery (see this story I wrote for photos from their winery) is now one of my two or three favorite wines for under $10.

So, what have we learned? Well, yes, German wines, are, on average, still a bit sweet for my taste but I'm no longer hesitant to check out the German section at the store and neither should you. On your next trip to Trader Joes, take a look for some Stuttgart-area Spätburgunder, buy a bottle, and have a drink for me! You won't be sorry!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

I've gone to quite a few places over the years but this one was different. I was a bit mixed on how I would feel. Would I be sad? Would I not be sad? Would it be life changing? Would it be "just another place" I had visited? I didn't really know what to expect for my first visit to a concentration camp. What could one make out of a place that, over time, became an overly-efficient factory killing machine? Up to that point, I only knew what I had seen, heard, or read about. On one side, the pictures of the skeleton-like bodies pilled up like raw materials and, on the other side, things like Hogan's Heroes, which is a television show that I had watched, and really enjoyed, as a kid.

Somehow, standing at the gate of the Sachsenhausen (pronounced "zox-zenn-how-zen") concentration camp gave me pause. I stopped for a moment to consider all of these mixed thoughts and feelings before going through the gates where so many had gone before:

Sachsenhausen is located about a 30-minute metro ride north of Berlin in what is now a suburban neighborhood. I didn't know it on the way there that some of the prisoners had been transported to the camp via those very same metro lines and walk from the nearby station to the camp.

On the way there, we passed by this memorial for one of the death marches that took place just prior to the end of the war. It's located about three blocks from the camp along one of the main roads. Before moving to Germany, I didn't know how people handled the whole Nazi/World War II/Holocaust topic much less how it was remembered. Over time, I've come to learn a lot more, such as that kids are taught all about these topics in school (way more than I ever was), smaller memorials all over the place (including things like Stolpersteine, which I've written about before), and larger monuments like this one in the middle of a suburban neighborhood:

The camp was originally built to house political prisoners as opposed to the mass-killing camps like Auschwitz that were built later. Interestingly, the camp wasn't closed at the end of the war, rather it was taken over by the Soviets who continued to use it as a prison until 1950. (That last sentence's structure made me realize how bad my English has gotten with the combination of German, Spanish, and English grammar floating around in my head. Oh, and I left it as written so you could see it for yourself.)

Just under the guard house, there's a gate where "ARBEIT MACHT FREI" (work makes you free) is written. This saying, which became famous, originated here and went on to be used at many of the camps. What went through the 200,000+ (!!!) people's minds as they read this when being led in?

Just inside the gate the camp's large size is evident. It's really big and shaped sort of like a piece of pie (wedge) with the main guard building (above photo) at the point. All the buildings were laid out along axes that extend out from that one point so that a single tower could monitor the whole camp. It didn't end up working as well as they had hoped and other towers were added later.

There are only a few buildings remaining. None of them, as far as I know, are original. You can see two of the buildings below, which served as the laundry and kitchen facilities, along with a large concrete memorial tower built during the Soviet era, and in the foreground, the shoe test track where prisoners were punished by being forced to march many, many, miles each day to test out new army boot designs:

A section of the electrified fence, barbed wire, and wall around the camp:

The two buildings below are recreations of the prisoner's barracks. The gravel pits mark locations where other buildings stood.

Inside of one of the barracks. The second room where the sleeping area was is blocked off by a glass wall and the peeling paint was the result of some Neo-Nazi vandalism:

Other than the large machine gun installation by the front door and the shoe test track, the tour had been surprisingly light. My first face-to-face with the reality of what happened here was when I left the barracks and walked out the back to these strappado poles. Prisoners who were being punished for some infraction were suspended by their wrists tied up behind their backs. This, as you can imagine, was quite painful and would usually result in all sorts of damage including pulling their arms out of their sockets.

From there, it was over to the killing trench where victims early in the camp's history were shot or hung. The baby stroller and young child were an interesting juxtaposition to what must have happened here.

Just beyond the trench is a fabric-covered structure that surrounds "Station Z", which is where the gas chamber and crematorium were. The building itself is a bit hard to make out as it's overexposed to the point where it disappears. In an interesting coincidence, the professor that Diana is working under here in Stuttgart was one of the designers of the structure. The memorial sculpture is of two prisoners holding the body of a dead fellow prisoner.

Station Z along with the trench were definitely the most somber part of the tour for me. Just imagining what was happening here was/is pretty hard to take. The remains of a gas chamber are in the foreground left-hand side of this photo. You can see some of the plumbing in the chamber's far wall (left side corner running along the floor, not the four vertical support bars):

...and, located on the other side of Station Z, remains of the crematorium used to dispose of dead prisoners:

Random aside: A photo taken at the onsite museum showing a uniform in a glass case. The reason I took the photo, though, is that, hanging on the wall, there's a pattern nest for the uniform. Having worked in the clothing industry and making uniforms (but not Nazi ones...) at one point, I felt instantly at home!

Sachsenhausen was definitely not Hogan's Heroes, not that I expected it to be. For most of the time I was there, I was surprised how little "impact" that the tour made on me. It wasn't until I saw the strappado posts and the killing pit that it started to hit home. Then, on seeing the remains of the gas chamber and ovens, having it slam into me. Yep, people died here. A lot of them. They were not very different than you and I and they suffered and died here. The worst part is that I know genocide, albeit on a smaller scale, still happens today. I am guilty of sometimes thinking that there are just too many memorials to what happened here but, after seeing this first hand, I'm convinced that we may need even more so that we will be quicker to stamp it out.

Another random note... If you're wondering about the whole "what/do Germans think about Nazis/Hitler/etc.?" thing, let me share a little story from this past weekend that happened after I originally wrote this story. I was watching television with a born-in-Germany friend and her mother and the news was showing coverage of Merkel visiting Portugal. Some of the protesters' signs showed Merkel with a Hitler mustache and others had the word Nazi and/or the swastika written on them. Around 60 years later, this kind of stuff happens every day. I'm not excusing what happened back then at all but, trust me, Germans think about it in their daily life waaaay more than you probably do. I believe that lots of Germans, at some level, believe that most people in the world see them as Nazis. The past can't be undone, nor should we forget about it, but we have to make sure not to blame (today's) people that had nothing to do with what happened. That's just not fair.