Friday, September 14, 2007

Jack's birthday greetings announced by a bevy of frogs that surrounded the bird blind in which we were sitting last May. At first I thought we had discovered the mating call of some rare bird, and then eventually I spotted one of the culprits. The close listener will be rewarded by hearing Jack say "ribbit" about midway through. I can't hold the camera still because I'm giggling too much.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The next day, a Sunday, was another beautiful one. We went down for breakfast and were greeted by an astonishingly large buffet. Just as we were concluding our meal, D and T popped into the breakfast room. How do they do that??

We decided to check out the palace situated at the center of the wheel that is Karlsruhe--concentric streets connected by spoke streets running towards the palace. The grounds behind the palace were taken up by a lovely park. Shortly after arriving I realized there was a mini-train, and by gum if I didn't make it my mission to be on it. Once it opened for the day I went to buy tickets. The guy sized us up and told me he'd give me a group discount if I kept my friends in line. As if we were a bunch of hoodlum kids! Well, we WERE the only ones on the train without children, so naturally we must be up to no good. In reality, I just like me a mini-train.

This was no ordinary mini-train; it was wood-fired. As we cruised around, I waved to almost everyone we passed (except those tanning), and people responded with mostly blank stares. D and T took all this in with good grace, and didn't immediately conclude that I was insane, which was nice. Upon exiting, I wanted to pitch a fit and make them go around again, but sense got the better of me.

We then visited a fountain that contained polyp-like sculptural rock formations protruding from the ground. Water was mostly cascading down the sides of it, and walking between the polyps, like a cleaner shrimp out for its daily constitutional, provided a refreshing respite from the sun due to the light precipitation falling within. We continued on our stroll until we reached a playground. There was a zipwire we all had a go on, and I took too long a spin on a barfinator, causing me some serious queasiness. There was a small pool with an island in the center, and kids were paddling around on rafts using large sticks that seemed to have been collected from the nearby forest. Kids love water, and they all looked like they were having a good time. Our litigious American society has largely caused such pastimes to to disappear, sadly.

Once we milked all the enjoyment out of the palace grounds, we crossed it off our list, said "Done!", and went to have some sausage sandwiches. We sauntered our way back to the train station for the ride back to Cologne, taking our time and getting some ice cream on the way (I got a pretzel, which was called a "brezel", one "t" away from the French spelling). D and T saw us to our train, and then went to spend the afternoon at the zoo. We, on the other hand, had a rather dull 3-hour ride ahead of us.

About a half hour into the ride things started to get interesting. Instead of the more direct north-south route that we took on the way there, we began following the west bank of the Rhine. At first this was merely pleasant, because it was different than the ride down, but then we began seeing large castles dotting the hillsides of the opposite bank. Lots and lots of castles. Some were in a state of disrepair, but others were in good upkeep and appeared to be in use. It was pretty amazing to think that that many royals lived in such close proximity to one another at one time--perhaps they were all part of a large extended family or something. It was a hot day, and sunny on our side, so we had the window open and the shade down, and everytime a train came by going the opposite way, the window would snap shut. After about the fifth time of reopening it, Jack gave up with a shrug. You think you know wind currents until something like this happens.

We got to Cologne in the early evening, checked into our hotel, and set about getting our bearings and finding something to eat. Cologne has very few surviving buildings from the pre-WWII era, so aside from the cathedral there's not much to see charm-wise. But the town is nice anyway, people are friendly and used to tourists, and they put out a decent beer called Kölsch. We found ourselves a lovely spot on a terrace close to the river, had a nice meal, and continued meandering through the streets. Once the sun started setting, we positioned ourselves on the opposite bank of the Rhine to catch the light dying behind the cathedral, and took a lot of blurry pictures.

The next day, after a breakfast that left a lot to be desired compared with the previous day's feast, we checked out and promised ourselves that we would make the most of the day before heading back. The first stop was the cathedral. The tower had just opened for the day and we decided to make the climb. It was indeed a climb. There were none of the stopping off points like in the Bruges tower until you got to the belfry. Lawdy, it was a haul. At the next stop there was a lovely kiosk built into the center of the tower, which at this height was open to the air. I assume that it was staffed to assist any visitors who were feeling faint, but I imagine it would be an odd place to work, so far removed from your colleagues. You'd have to be in pretty good shape, as well. Maybe there was a secret elevator behind one of the unmarked doors we passed on the way up. From there, a short staircase led us to the top. There were great views of the city and the river, and there was a LOT of graffiti. We saw an American family encouraging their children to write on the church. What is up with that?

On our way back down there were a lot more people huffing their way up than there was a half hour before, so we congratulated ourselves for our decision (which was in reality pretty much happenstance) to go up early, before the heat set in. The interior of the church, as T had warned us, was nothing special, just extremely big.

Our next stop was an hour-long cruise on the river. This was a steal at under €7. The tinny, inaudible tape recording in several languages put a damper on the educational aspect of the cruise, so we mostly just sat there and baked under the midday sun. The lowlight of the tour was the "beach" on the bank that was entirely given over to old nude sunbathers. The highlight was...well, there was no highlight, really. It was just nice to be out there enjoying the sun and breeze and stuff. And there was an interesting mushroom-shaped building on the bank at one point, perhaps a closed revolving restaurant. I waved to people on shore.

Then came lunch: a delicious sausage platter for both of us while sitting by an open doorway in a shady restaurant. It was nice to hear the German burble around us as we ate our tubed meats and drank Kölsch from tiny glasses. I later discovered that the 0.2 liter glasses are the traditional size for serving Kölsch. You end up ordering a lot of beer this way, especially on a warm day. But such is life. You've gotta go with the flow.

Cologne had a lot of churches that were lovingly refurbished to their original appearance after the war, so we looked at some of those. We wandered in the old but renovated city hall (which features a statue graphically mooning passersby below from a squatting position) and watched an older couple exiting after having been married, grinning goofily and surrounded by family.

That was about it, really.

Friday, September 07, 2007

From the vault...

This was taken by M last September in the secret park on our street.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Two weeks later, we went to Karlsruhe to see D and meet his creation, which I am hereby naming Hal. We took the train, transferred in Cologne, and arrived an hour later than we thought we would. We were supposed to meet D at his place of work, but because of our lateness and the fact that we didn't have a phone number for him, we were worried about whether he'd still be there. As we exited the train station and got our bearings, he and his wife T were walking towards us! This was not the last time that D displayed an uncanny ability to meet up with us. He and Jack must have some kind of special bond, forged in the early days of their youth in the gritty underworld of Steeltown, USA.

As Jack and I hadn't eaten, we visited a small cafe/bakery nearby. For under €10, the four of us ordered the following:
3 Oranginas
1 Coke
2 meat sandwiches on freshly-made rolls with a (perhaps overly) generous schmear of butter
1 slice of fruit tart

We were flabbergasted by the reasonable prices of things. It was a world away from Brussels. In spite of the deliciousness of everything, the best part of the bakery was the bathroom. All the auxiliary stuff had names: Polly Dolly for the toilet bowl brush holder, Jacky Paper for the paper towel dispenser, and Lady Killer for the container for the Lady Bag shown at left. (If you click on the photo you can see that the graphic at the top is a revolver.)

After that, they went with us to check into our hotel, which we had picked out on the strength of the decent prices and the absolutely insane architecture. We arrived and got up to our room, which wasn't in the crazy part as those were much more expensive, but afforded us a great view of it. There were a number of helpful signs around to direct us to the beergarden, and so we headed down in search of some refreshment after our walk through town. Did I mention that despite D's prediction, it was not rainy and cool, but in the 80s and sunny? Probably one of the hottest periods all summer, which has largely been a bust weatherwise.

D and Jack ordered beers randomly off the menu. I queried waiter for suggestions and he picked out a brown beer for me. He asked if I wanted a small and I agreed. He did not ask the men-folk what size beer they wanted. They got half-liter glass steins, whereas I got something I could more easily wrap my delicate hands around. Sexism! The beer, it turns out, was made by the in-house brewery, and was quite good. The more we saw of the hotel, the more we realized it was some kind of massive complex of interconnected businesses, not all of which were in operation at the time (we saw a sign by the parking garage advertising electric cars, for example, and the four trampolines set into the ground (which was the ceiling of the underground garage) were in a state of disuse). D and T had to leave to go get Hal started up for the evening's festivities, but not before D had consumed all of his beer (as well as a taste of Jack's and mine) in about 20 minutes. Not quite as impressive as that time HHH, a known non-drinker, bet me $5 that he could finish a can of beer in 2 minutes and then he swallowed the thing down like water in about 15 seconds, leaving me feeling like a chump, but pretty good nonetheless. Jack and I finished our brews at a more leisurely pace, observing the other denizens of the garden and the architectural oddities.

Later we went to ZKM to visit Hal and meet up with D and T. D met us at the door, and claimed to have seen us approaching from a window one story above. Again, uncanny. The entrance space featured chandeliers that swung in various patterns and a spotlight that would follow patrons around and whisper words that they alone could hear. The piece in the background at left was a spiraling tower of Babel made of books. Hal spent the evening learning from the people who stopped by to see it, making sounds and projecting patterns on a screen based on the input it received. Later that evening, it was speaking Russian and discussing computational fluid dynamics with passersby. The saddest part was when it discovered that it couldn't understand why people cried.

After making sure Hal wasn't going to crash, we went out to dinner. We found a quiet spot nearby with a great waitress--the latter being another rarity in Brussels. The food was cheap enough that I suspected that quality would be sub-par, but we ended up getting good dark beer and delicious wiener schnitzel with heaping portions of spaetzel or fries. There was some discussion about how T can't drink much because she gets very giggly, which is why she mostly stuck to tea except for a few sips of the bubbly stuff. D helped her out with her beer, thankfully.

Back at ZKM, we decided to spend some time touring around. Being a multimedia museum gave it an interesting perspective that made it more "fun" than more traditional museums, where you look at something and perhaps someone more knowledgeable than you provides some interpretation in a writeup. There were many audio-visual displays, some of which you could interact with. One exhibit was entirely made up of video games that people could play using the original consoles. They had that same robot arm from the 1982 World's Fair, and this time it was writing out the entire bible on a long scroll in elaborate Gothic calligraphy. In one exhibit, 2 people (in this case Jack and I) entered a small room with 3 red walls and one made of glass. After a few moments, the lights came up behind the glass to reveal a small stage with furniture on it, and people were projected onto the glass panel in such a way that it looked like they were on the same plane as the furniture. Our images were also reflected on the glass, so we could "interact" with the characters. Which we did, although I don't remember how. Hopefully nothing lewd. Once we exited, we were greeted with applause: a TV monitor was embedded in the exterior wall of the box, and a camera had captured our gestures while a small crowd watched. I took a bow in front of my adoring fans.

There were two other museums attached to ZKM, and the one focusing on modern art was entirely given over to up-and-coming artists from Asia. Some of the works stretched the boundaries of what a large, publicly-funded museum would feature (in my experience): one room had water cascading from the ceiling onto a desk below, upon which a mouldering book sat open. Some of it was gimmicky, but most pieces were thoughtful. I found the whole thing to be an interesting experience, and much more lively than a lot of museums I've been to. We hung around until the guards kicked us out at closing time, 1 a.m.

Before leaving, D had to shut down Hal. It was just in time, too, because it had somehow tapped into the Red Phone and was trying to convince POTUS to push the button and annihilate the USSR (Hal was a few years behind the times in his history, but POTUS didn't notice the error).