Monday, August 30, 2010

New Mexico (also, fun with the new photo app)

Now, as most of you know, I am an "Air Force brat."  This means I grew up all over the country, moving from base to base as my father's job dictated.  For the most part, I liked it, though there was some angst in late Elementary and Middle School when I didn't want to leave my current "home."  As a result of this childhood, I am independent and lack ties to any one place.  I am free to go where I want to go.

There is one place, though, that I have the most ties to.  I lived from 8th grade through high school in Alamogordo, NM, and contrary to stereotype had a great high school experience there.  I was involved in everything possible and had a good group of friends; other than that necessary to qualify as a teenager I had little emotional angst.  I loved New Mexico: it's beautiful, empty, and nothing calms a troubled soul quite like staring at the sun set across a desert basin, the wold around you drenched in rich sepia-toned shades of pink and purple and cool racing towards you to fill the place left by sunshine.  The desert is something that I don't think can possibly be described, but once you're there, you understand.

But then I graduated, and my family moved back to Pennsylvania, where my parents are from, and I came east as well for college.  I was 16 years old when I went to university, so I had to be close to my parents.  I visited for a long weekend after freshman year, and did a Habitat build during Spring break of sophomore year.  After that, I didn't return to New Mexico.  I fell out of touch with my friends there, most of whom moved to somewhere else in the state anyway, as they married and had children.  I was busy with college, then with the Americorps, then in Hungary.  I didn't visit New Mexico for over five years.

Knowing I would be in the States for several weeks this summer, I jumped on the opportunity to visit New Mexico.  I would stay with a family friend, Anette, whom I consider to be something of a god mother.  And so, I did.

Of course, as they say, you can never go home again.  The New Mexico I visited this summer was not the New Mexico I had lived in.  It was, on the other hand, still beautiful.  They sky still stretched out as far as your eye could see.  The desert still rolled up to rusty mountains.  It still smelled of dust, ozone, and chile.  The stars still filled the night sky like nowhere else in the world, the atmosphere so dark and clear that the entire expanse of sky is filled with stars, even the places that are normally dark twinkling with tiny, far-away lights.  The white sands still burned on the surface, belying the damp coolness just underneath.  Lizards skittered away as you walked by, and hummingbirds buzzed around.

So I sat in Anette's house and watched New Mexico, traveled up to the mountains to watch it, drove through the valley and looked and breathed.  New Mexico did not disappoint.  New Mexico is beautiful.  I love it there.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Prague, also delayed

So in late May we got a three-day weekend for Pentecost (God bless Europe's adherence to religious holidays) so we headed to Prague.  We got on the train super-early Saturday morning, and arrived around lunch.  After sitting in a park eating the sandwiches we had packed (of course!) and dropping off our stuff, we headed out for a big day of sight-seeing.  Lyla had been to Prague a few years earlier, so she got to be the master of this little trip.

First we headed up to the castle district, popping into the botanical gardens, admiring the beautiful buildings, mailing postcards, eating ice cream, buying crazy stamps for our dads, and enjoying the beautiful sunshine.

The castle district is on a hill, and we walked down on the side facing the city, enjoying the view over the old castle wall.  We also saw a giant black thing, so we decided to go investigate that.

After getting a bit lost in the winding streets of the old city, we found the entrance to this little garden.  It's part of the complex of the Castle of Wellenstein, and it is insane.  That big black thing is actually a giant wall of stalactites, mixed in with creepy, goblin-esque faces and bugs, snakes, and bats.  It drips water, and owls live there.  The garden itself is also full of unhappy statues of snarling dogs and snakes attacking people.  In all it was a very strange place, and a very weird juxtaposition with the beautiful sunny weather.

From there we headed across the Charles Bridge to the old town square, where we admired the gorgeous architecture and ancient astronomical clock.  We also ate... kolbasz, langos, and kurtos kalacs, even if each was a little bit different than the Hungarian version.

We spent some more time wandering around the downtown (seeing the funniest nesting doll ever) before meeting a friend for some drinks.  We went first to a pub to watch the extremely-important-to-the-Czechs world cup of hockey (this will be important later) and then we went to the "train pub," where you put your order into a little computer pad, and model trains bring it to you.  Seriously.  We sat down, and a little model train pulled up a few minutes later with delicious delicious czech beer for us.  In that moment, the world was perfect.

The next day we headed to Vysehrad (going "... Visegrad?" the whole time), an old part of the town on a hill, covered in churches and parks, that is considered to be the spiritual birthplace of the Czechs.  We wandered around there, visited the beautiful Art-Nouveau church that dripped with gold-touched paintings inside, and of course I found the cemetery.

After more wandering, we met back up with our friends to watch the final of the Hockey world cup, where the Czech Republic beat Russia.  It was a BIG deal for them, and the main square literally filled with hundreds or thousands of happy Czechs waving flags, chanting, and honking horns.  It was one of the most... I don't have a word for it, but I guess moving... experiences of my life, to be totally surrounded by so many people who were all so happy.  It was awesome.  I can't even explain it.

The next day we dropped our bags off at the train station and then headed up yet another hill to investigate that area.  It was remarkably empty and didn't feel at all as if it were in the middle of a capital city.

After that it was, yep, more wandering, a bit of shopping, and on the train to head back to Budapest.  I really liked Prague, and I must admit I didn't expect to based on its popularity as a tourist destination and my distaste toward crowds.  But it wasn't actually that crowded, with the exception of the Charles Bridge, and actually no more expensive than Budapest.  I had a great time there, and it was definitely one of those times where the city combined with the experience I had there added up to more than the two alone.  It was a lovely, relaxing, and beautiful final-out-of-country trip from Budapest.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Berlin, tragically and underservedly delayed

As some of you know, I've wanted to go to Berlin forever.  Since high school, at least, when I first learned about the Cold War and the split city, and wondered how such a thing could be possible and how a city could ever come back from that.  Berlin fascinated me, and then everyone kept talking about how much they loved Berlin and what a fantastic city it was.  So, faced with a shorter-than-expected Easter break and the inability to travel far, we jumped upon the opportunity (and round-trip-to-the-west bargain price train ticket) and took the night train into Berlin.  The train was painless, and we arrived to the shiny and clean train station at 8 am on (Good) Friday morning and headed to our hostel, where we ditched our bags and headed out to sightsee.  The first stop was museum island, where we did not actually visit any museums, but did visit the giant Berlin cathedral, which was beautiful both inside and out.
From there we headed toward the former wall zone, stopping in many little souvenir shops along the way.  I took a photo with a giant Steiff bear, remembering the little one I have at home that I got as a baby.

Finally we arrived at the Brandenburg gate, complete with one million fellow tourists and the requisite living statues and vendors.

From there we continued into former West Berlin and ate a currywurst, which was both strange and delicious (basically a frankfurter covered in spicy, homemade ketchup and curry powder, served with fries and a tiny fork for spearing).  Refreshed, we continued to the Reichstag, found signs on it in both Hungarian and Polish (I didn't realize I was reading Hungarian for a line or so, which I was very excited about), and chilled for a bit on the lawn with many hippies playing frisbee.

Nearby is the monument to the holocaust, which consists of a series of dark gray blocks of varying heights spread across an area the size of a large parking lot.  While I imagine it is rather eerie and moving at dusk, or in the winter, on this glorious early April day the blocks were covered in kids leaping from one to the other, picnic-ing tourists, and teenagers sunbathing and making out.  Lyla and I felt a bit squicky about the whole situation, and headed on.

From there we continued on our sight-seeing day of justice, passing along the former path of the wall, eating pistachio ice cream, and wound up at Checkpoint Charlie.  We went into the museum, which was interesting and contained many personal-level accounts, but which was also INSANELY crowded and could certainly benefit from staggered ticket sales.  So we stayed there as long as we could handle it without breaking into agoraphobic fits, and then wandered back to the hostel.

On the way home, we passed many interesting buildings, new smashed up onto old, pieces of street art, tiny galleries, cute cafes, esoteric museums, and the like.  Berlin is certainly a lively city and an interesting one, and I know I could have spent weeks and weeks there and not done everything.  Which is exciting, because I have a reason to go back.

We made it back to the hostel, relaxed for a bit, and headed out for a dinner of Pelmeni (delicious little Russian dumplings that we fell in love with in the Baltics last summer) that wouldn't have disappointed even Pelmeni bear, and then enjoyed some night life.  I drank something on fire.  I need not continue my description of the evening.

We woke up the next morning and ate a lovely leisurely breakfast in the hostel before heading out for Western Berlin.  None of the shops or markets were open Friday due to it being a religious feast day, so we first headed to the artist market on the museum island, where I bought a series of street-art prints featuring rats, Lyla bought lucite jewelry, and we would have bought seven hundred other things if not deterred by the staggering Euro.  We wandered a bit more, and came across some more lovely buildings.  You can tell that Berlin once had money and now has it again.

We then wandered over to the Sony Center, which has a very cool roof but little else.

From there we headed to downtown Western Berlin, crossing a little river and wandering many beautiful neighborhoods.  The downtown was very commercial and also very crowded with everyone doing the shopping they had been unable to do the day before.  One particularly cool feature is the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, which got quite destroyed in the war.  Rather than rebuild it as it was, they did so with a giant modern tower.  It's very striking, to say the least.

After another long day, we bought some groceries and headed to our friend Margaret's house in a different part of East Berlin.  Many of the apartment buildings had murals on them, which was fun.  She took us out to a cool little restaurant nearby where I had some awesome garlicky bread dish.  We went to bed early, tired.

I woke up early and went to Easter mass, along with twelve other people, all easily over 70 in an old, cold church.  It was one of the saddest church-going experiences of my life.  Then we had brunch with Margaret's friends, which was awesome... apparently Berliners will sit all day long on Sunday and eat brunch and chat, because the food available changes from breakfast food to lunch and dinner food as the day goes on.  It was the most impressive brunch ever, and Lyla and I wondered how, if the Berliners are such champions in the world of brunch, the Hungarians we know can be so baffled by the concept.  From there we went to the zoo, where giant water rats moved around their enclosure en masse, squeaking, swimming, and shaking dry in an eerie unison.  All the raptors feasted on piles of dead chicks, a bit traumatizing on Easter for sure, but Knut's playful antics cheered us.  It was a huge zoo, complete with a small aquarium, and we spent the rest of the day there.

On the way home we stopped in Alexander Platz to admire the intense communist architecture and poke around the open-air market. 

We also misjudged the distance, and wound up walking home for what seemed like forever along the massive Karl Marx Allee, wondering at what the world would have looked like had the Communists been more successful, and marveling at the incredible infrastructure available for bikers.

 The last day we headed into the old town, which actually looks like the rest of Germany.

We also visited the Museum of the GDR, full of kitsch from the former East Berlin/Germany.  We perused old catalogs, visited a reconstructed apartment, and felt tacky seventies-style clothing and housewares.  It was fun, but very topical.  More emotional was a visit to the East Side Gallery, and kilometer-and-a-half long stretch of the Berlin wall along the river, now painted by various artists.  It was raining, grey, and dreary.  Some of the paintings were hopeful, others less so.  It was a good last stop before we headed to catch our night train back.  I'll be back to Berlin, no doubt about that.