30 September 2008

Book review: The Charlemagne Pursuit

The Charlemagne Pursuit (2008)
By Steve Berry (Ballantine, 2008 / Hardcover $26.00)

Perhaps in his next thriller-historical mystery, author Steve Berry could tackle the insane Phantom Time Hypothesis, a lunatic-fringe theory that argues that the years 614 to 911 never happened and were hoaxes created in the later Middle Ages. That’s no more outlandish than the mystery at the heart of his new thriller, The Charlemagne Pursuit, but since the Phantom Time Hypothesis supposedly abolishes Charlemagne to a fictional figure, that might dismantle the enjoyable adventure of pseudo-history that Berry has crafted here, which, as the title tells you, delves into the secrets of Europe’s first great ruler.

Berry returns to his series character Cotton Malone, a lawyer who once belonged to a Department of Justice task force called Magellan Billet, but has since retired into work as a rare bookseller. Not that this keeps him out of trouble, and when he starts looking into the mystery of what happened to his father Forrest Malone, whose submarine vanished mysteriously on a clandestine mission when Cotton was only ten, he walks into the scheming of Washington, a torn aristocratic German family, and a secret buried with Emperor Charlemagne that might lead to a lost civilization in the ice of Antarctica.

27 September 2008

Cane'd and more on Paul

Paul Newman

Crud. Wake up in the morning and discover that Paul Newman is dead. And I was feeling so good after the debate last night between Barack Obama and Maximilian Schell McGrumpyPants.

I have a special affection for Mr. Newman, and no, it has nothing to do with the various pasta sauces and salad dressings that carry his name. It doesn't have much to do with his humanitarianism and charitable giving, although that certainly deserves the highest praise. He was a great actor, one the real classic screen personalities, but that isn't the reason for my special connection to him. And yes, getting on Nixon's "Enemies List" is a special and laudable achievement, but that's not what ultimately endears him to me.

No, it's really a small thing that counts. Paul Newman and I share the same birthday, January 26th. Every year when my birthday comes up, I check up on all the celebrities who are also celebrating their birthdays. Paul Newman's face was always there, and I watched in astonishment at his rising age: he always seemed so young to me, even as he rose into his eighties. And now that he's gone it's hard for me to imagine that on my next birthday, Paul Newman won't be another year older. He belongs to cinematic eternity now, that sepia-toned final shot from his most famous film, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

"I've got vision. The rest of the world wears bi-focals."

How true Paul, how true.

26 September 2008

NaNoWriMo on-line early

In a bit of surprise move, National Novel Writing Month's website has gone back on-line a few days early. So go sign up!

Judgment at Oxford

Sorry to delve into politics again, but the question has bugged me since yesterday, and with everyone else on the planet tossing in their funny answers, I must confront the question as well.

If John McCain does decide to skip out on the debate tonight, whom will Barack Obama debate?

I have the answer: Maximilian Schell.
Face it, he was way cool as the attorney in Judgment at Nuremberg. (Or Nürnberg, if you want to be exact about the German. I like to be irritating about it.) Got himself an Oscar for that baby. He’s an awesome and charismatic actor, I think it would be thunderously wicked to have him on stage in front of millions of American viewers in another dramatic debate.

Come on Max, we can fly you out from Austria in time!

Update: Oh, looks like McCain decided to debate after all. Damn, I had Max's agents on the line and we were all ready to go. Oh well, maybe there’ll be a Black Hole remake. I have made a case for that for years.

No, not that Maximilian. Close, though.

24 September 2008

Visualizing Keats

Some poems for me are not truly complete unless they are accompanied with a famous painting realizing them. Such for me is Keats’s 1819 poem “Le Belle Dame Sans Merci: A Ballad” and the eponymous 1893 painting from John William Waterhouse. Appropriately enough, this painting adorned the cover of one of my favorite fantasy novels, The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany.

I adore Keats’s poem no matter the circumstances, but I think it stings all the more poignantly if you concludes a reading of it with looking at the Waterhouse painting. And so, here are both, in the order I think they should be enjoyed.
La Belle Dame Sans Merci: A Ballad

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms!
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.

I see a lily on thy brow
With anguish moist and fever dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.

I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She look’d at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan.

I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.

She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
“I love thee true.”

She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she wept, and sigh’d fill sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.

And there she lulled me asleep,
And there I dream’d—Ah! woe betide!
The latest dream I ever dream’d
On the cold hill’s side.

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—“La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!”

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.

And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.

National Novel Writing Month: begin the countdown!

November is National Novel Writing Month (a.k.a. NaNoWriMo), and I’m gearing up. (Read the F.A.Q.) I have “accidentally” participated in this event before, since each of my three previous novels reached the 50,000 word mark within a thirty-day period. However, I’m intoxicated with the idea of doing the event officially this year, starting on November 1st with the first draft of a new novel, and running headlong toward that 50,000 word goal before midnight, November 30th. My books usually come out to around 70,000–90,000 words in their first draft, so I will most likely keep writing after the official end of NaNoWriMo, but a month of working toward a deadline, and in connection with other writers across the globe doing the same, should bring me the writing jolt I need right now.

I’m also looking forward to local social events and write-ins around NaNoWriMo. Writing is so often a solitary activity—novel writers are often solo-flyers in life in general, I’m no exception—that it will feel energizing to socialize with other folks going through the same joys and pains and caffeine injections. (I don’t drink coffee, so I’ll have to rely on Monster and Red Bull.)

I’ll keep a running track of my progress through NaNoWriMo here on the blog, although most of the specific details of the novel I’m going to keep secret. After all, I want you to buy the book eventually and discover all its secrets yourselves. I am doing a different style of pre-writing and planning for this book than any other book I’ve written before, which is a longer post that I’ll get into tomorrow. I will say that this is going to be the most “spontaneous” novel I’ve written, and I’m anticipating the new experience.

At the moment, the NaNoWriMo website is locked for new sign-ups until October 1st, when the site will re-start in preparation for November. I encourage anybody with writing urges to sign up and give it a go. Writing a novel is one of the most exhilarating experiences you can have. I advise getting NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty’s book No Plot? No Problem!, which offers great advice about noveling on a deadline and goes in depth about what taking part in NaNoWriMo is all about.

And if you sign up, go to my profile and make me your writing buddy.

23 September 2008

Who Watches the Batman TV show?

Could it be? Could it possibly be that at last we, the DVD owners of the world, will have POW! BAM! ZLOT!

Is a possible DVD release of the 1960s Batman TV series is on the horizon, after years of horrible internecine haggling?

The popular TV show, which helped revive interest in the Caped Crusader during a low-sales period and introduced millions of young viewers, such as myself, to the character, has not appeared on DVD yet because the footage and broadcast rights belong to 20th Century Fox, while the rights to the DC characters belong to Warner Bros. Neither side seemed ready to come to an agreement for a DVD release, and it looked as if the Dynamic Duo would lay in Limbo forever. (Yes, I know the Catholic Church recently declared that Limbo doesn’t exist, but Dante visited it in Inferno, so damnit, I’m still going to refer to it.)

But… could there be a deal brewing in the future? According to this article, part of the conflict between Warner Bros. and Fox over the release of the movie adaptation of Watchmen in May could result in Fox getting the rights to release Batman on DVD. Fox has launched a bitter legal battle with Warners over Watchmen, which is already in the can, because Fox claims they own the rights due to contracts made in the development hell days when the graphic novel was getting shopped around. Could they just want the rights to the Batman TV show? (And a couple million bucks as well?)

I hope so. I won’t believe anything until someone makes an official announcement about a DVD release, but this is the first genuine positive news I’ve heard. And I don’t want Watchmen canned or held up, I’m extremely excited about seeing it as well.

By the way, ZLOT! is my favorite Bat-fight word.

"Uhm, because, at the end of the day..."

Listening to the pundits blather uselessly on cable "news" networks, overusing the phrase "At the end of the day..." as if it were "To be or not to be," while trying to get a grip on the economy debacle and the Titanic-sized bailouts, makes me realize how frighteningly true-to-life this video from The Onion actually is:

In The Know: Situation In Nigeria Seems Pretty Complex

22 September 2008

Prepare to be Riddled!

As of today, I have about 95% of my Halloween costume “in process.” Meaning most of it is ordered and on the way. Ebay, salvation of the suffering soul who wants to make his own Halloween costume from scratch! The only item I have left to buy is fabric glue. So far, I have or soon will have in my possession the following:

  • A loud green sport coat
  • A green bowler hat
  • A green tie
  • A purple dress shirt
  • Purple gloves
  • Two yards of purple felt
  • A cut-out pattern of a large question mark
  • A classic “crook” cane
  • Index cards on which I will write bizarre riddles to hand to people
  • Complete disdain for the intellectually puny citizens of Gotham City

Once all the items are together, I will cut-out the various questions marks from the felt, and strait-pin them to the coat. The coat will go to a tailor, who will lightly stitch them onto the coat so they can be removed later without damaging the coat. (I’ve so fallen in love with this coat that I cannot see it permanently “riddled.”) Fabric glue will adhere question marks onto the hat and the tie (both are inexpensive and disposable). The question mark on the tie will be a specially cut elongated one to fit the tie. I will also spray paint the walking stick green.

And… there it is! I hope this gets me into a few top ten costume contests this year, just as my Penguin outfit did last year.

And Red Tape Holds Up Brigde

Headline from Associated Press today:

Russian navy ships head to maneuvers in Venezuela

This disturbs me. Whose head is Russia sending? Why do the manuevers in Venezuela require a decapitated head? What kind of shipping service allows for chopped-off heads to be mailed? (I know Fed-Ex has a specific warning about shipping blood and tissue. What about UPS?)

On top of all the other idiocy that AP has been pulling recently, this headline confusion is plain embarassing.

AP has pulled back on their aggressive attempt to stop bloggers from quoting their articles, but I'm still going to test their limits they way DailyKos did. (I don't talk about politics much on my blog, but just so you know, I'm a progressive liberal.) So here's a quote from the above AP article:

MOSCOW - A Russian navy squadron set off for Venezuela Monday, an official said, in a deployment of Russian military power to the Western Hemisphere unprecedented since the Cold War.

The Kremlin recently has moved to intensify contacts with Venezuela, Cuba and other Latin American nations amid increasingly strained relations with Washington after last month's war between Russia and Georgia. During the Cold War, Latin America became an ideological battleground between the Soviet Union and the United States.

Russian navy spokesman Igor Dygalo said the nuclear-powered Peter the Great cruiser accompanied by three other ships sailed from the Northern Fleet's base of Severomorsk on Monday. The ships will cover about 15,000 nautical miles to conduct joint maneuvers with the Venezuelan navy, he told The Associated Press.

There you are AP, 127 words. Come and get me.

And please, no more shipping heads to anybody, especially COD.

16 September 2008

Day 15: Munich–Paris–Los Angeles

Home. No matter how long you are gone, or what sites you see, the name has power more than almost any other. Home.

So, after two weeks, I'm back in Los Angeles from Bavaria and Slovenia.

During my last night in Munich, I stayed up with Colleen and Armin and chatted about the trip, and then I got to hear some of Armin's outrageous travel tales. He's far better traveled than I am, but I don't envy some of the frightening things he has had to go through. I'm satisfied with exploring Europe for the moment.

I got up early and took the long train ride out the Munich Airport, which had some scary moments because of a strange pattern to the trains that was making some of them run late—an odd occurrence with German trains. But I only arrived ten minutes later to the airport than I had planned.

Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport was much more tolerable this time because I had a three hour layover and no rush navigating the airport's general "mouse in a maze" weirdness. If I were in a rush, the long bus ride over to the other terminal to make my connection would have freaked me out. The newer terminal where I made my flight to L.A. was larger and calmer than the other terminal, so I was able to relax for two hours before boarding.

And now… I'm home.

It was an unusual trip in many ways. The time in Munich was calm and domestic, unlike the standard feeling people get on a foreign trip. My sister and her husband have settled down to their new life, and it a warm and wonderful feeling seeing the new family develop. Baby Diego is the greatest thing that has happened to my sister, and I am so proud to be his uncle and I hope to share in his life in a big way. Munich has turned into one of my favorite cities, and I imagine it will seem as much a part of my life as the places in the U.S. where my other relatives live (Portland and Seattle).

Slovenia… I had no idea really what to expect, but it was quite a ride. I can't say enough about the beauty of Ljubljana, a small but incredibly well-preserved city with a taste of Paris, Germany, and Eastern Europe mixed into one. It's also the only time in my life I really felt that I was appreciating wine. I see now why Slovene wine has picked up such a fine reputation in Los Angeles.

But, even after a trip to Germany and Slovenia, I'm still not a "beer" or "wine" sort of guy. Radler I love, but that's beer lightened with lemon soda, a mixture I think makes a great complement. But here in the U.S. I just can't imagine myself ordering a beer. Gin and tonic and whiskey sour remain my favorite drinks. (Acutally, plain old Coca-Cola is probably my favorite drink, but you know what I mean.)

The MVP for the trip is the Alphasmart NEO, the writing device that made this extensive blog possible. Stop in the middle of a museum, a castle, a biergarten, a café, or at the foot of a statue and pull out the writing device to pound out notes and impressions. The NEO made me feel like a true romantic, the wandering writing grabbing inspiration whenever it appears.

Tomorrow is all-errand day. Thrill.

But still, I'm always glad to be home.

15 September 2008

Day 14: Kočevje–Ljubljana–Munich

At last, I can stop typing in this strange code where y=z, <=:, and @=". I was getting pretty good at writing all my blog entries on my NEO using these strange switches with the keys so that it would all transfer onto the Slovene computer without problems. But now I can go back to the standard English keyboard.

After getting up today and packing for the jaunt back to Munich, I went with Maja and Jason back to her grandparents' house where we had started. Now that her grandmother had time to prepare for us, we got the huge equivalent of a Slovene meal (and I thought the impromtu one was elaborate). We had a noodle soup and delicious meatballs (at least, that was the word I used to describe them) plus a very smooth red wine. I've had more wine this trip than I've had in my entire life, and I'm afraid I won't be able to adapt to wines in the U.S. after getting spoiled with the Slovene vintage. At the airport I made sure to purchase two small bottles of Cviček to give to my sister and her husband. I imagine that in California Cviček is expensive, but I shouldn't have a hard time finding it since Slovene wines are "faddish" in Los Angeles right now. The woman at the shop in the airport was surprised when I told her about the popularity of Slovene wines in Los Angeles; she was surprised anybody in California knew about the existence of Slovenia at all.

I'm on the plane to Munich right now, waiting to take off. I'll get to see my nephew again briefly before I take off again to go home tomorrow morning.

The next blog entry will be a brief wrap-up posted from my computer at home.

14 September 2008

Day 13: Kočevje

This was recovery day for everyone after a lengthy night at the party. Right now I'm helping to heat the house through the ol' fashioned use of a central wood stove. Most houses here have a hearth where the firewood loads in the hallway, and the ceramic hearth extends into the next room, decoarted with fancy tiles.

We definitely needed the hearth, because today is the coldest day I've experienced so far on the trip, although it isn't rough; just enough for the full jacket. The rain has at least let up.

I am leaving Slovenia tomorrow night to go back to Munich. I will have one short evening in Munich with my sister, and then take an early plane to Paris (no, not Charles de Gaulle Airport again!), then straight on to Los Angeles. I would love to come back to Slovenia again when things are less busy; so much of the activity here has centered on the party and the many visitors. At least I got to see much of old Ljublana, its castle, and take a short trip to Bled. Of the other attractions in the country, I am most interested in seeing Šempeter, the site of a Roman necropolis with complete tombs, columns, and stelae. Vladimira told me she didn't think it was much, but for a fan of Roman history, I am sure I would love it. The town of Ptuj is also of great historical importance and I would like to take a trip there as well—it's the oldest town in Slovenia. And, by the way, the famous Lipizzaner stallions were originally bred by the Austrian Archduke in Lubjlana at the town of Lipica (Lipizza in Italian). Two hundred of the horses remain on the stud farm today, and visitors are permitted to ride some of them

We ate a dinner of onion soup and a traditional, very spicy Slovene sausage that I've really come to love. There was wine (of course). Maja's dad keeps large vats of it stored outside, and for dinner pours it into a carafe for all of us. I imagine that it's all locally grown grapes. Wild grapes are part of most meals as well, and you can always find them sitting in the center of any dining table.

13 September 2008

Day 12: Kočevje–Kostel

Up early. Too early if there's a long party to go to later in the day. Six in the morning. Avoiding personal pronouns for this reason. Need energy drink.

Yes, up at six to go out to the party site at Kostel. The long preparations still needed some final touches before the party's official start at noon. I took out my change of clothes to the site of the celebration, which is Maja's new house.

When I arrived at the "site," I found that it was still clearly a construction site and wondered, more than once "Is there really going to be a party here?" Maja's house was still undergoing plumbing and drilling and woodwork, and all the furniture was sitting outside on a covered wooden platform, where the party would technically occur. This was about 8:30—so I thought that clearly, no party was going to take place at noon.

Of course, time is very flexible in this part of the world, and the guests didn't really start to arrive until 2 pm, although there was still a lot of work to be done. However, the party lasted until about three in the morning, so it didn't seem to matter when things were actually completed. Much of the festivities occurred on a terrace outside the house:
Here's a picture of the interior, with the restored antiques and the newly arrived piano. Maja is at the piano, and her mother is to her right:
It was a much more casual affair than I had thought, and it was good for that because it rained most of the time. The wine and beer were plentiful, a whole pig (head intact) was served to be eaten in trenchers of bread, as if it were the Middle Ages. Some of us went to the upstairs loft and slept for a while during the party.

The big moment for Maja came when "The Lords" (actually, the descendants of the old nobility) arrived to convey on her some sort of charge. It was all in Slovene, so I didn't really understand what was happening, but it was beautiful with the full medieval outfits, the lords riding in a carriage with attendants, and a mock sword-fight afterwards.
Much of the other entertainment came from people breaking out into Slovene songs, and a popular guitarist (Maja tells me he does gigs on TV) leading most of them. At the end, the remaining guests had gathered in the old wine cellar, a camouflage blanket keeping out the rain that was pouring down heavily at this point. Alpine weather.

I will never make a decision between Laško and Union. I stayed with the wine and champagne.

I got back to Sten's house around four in the morning and fell straight to sleep.

12 September 2008

Day 11: Kočevje–Ljubljana

Happy (official) birthday, Maja!

Thirty isn't as bad as we all try to say that it isn't. Whatever that means. It sounded good when I first typed it.

Maja received today what she considers the most astonishing birthday present she has ever gotten: a DVD preserving transfers of her mother's 8mm film taken when she was pregnant with Maja, plus footage of Maja only a few days after her birth. Maja did not know of the existence of this film until she saw the video this morning. There was a lot of tears all around when it was shown (sad to say, I wasn't there). I wonder what my family will show to my nephew Diego when he is older, since I'm certain that my sister Colleen and her husband Armin have kept a good video record of her pregnancy and Diego's youngest days. I've certainly snapped enough photos of them.

Interesting historical note: Slovenia is the only country of the former Yugoslav states to have joined the EU. Croatia has applied for membership, and may become a member nation in 2010. After Slovenia, Croatia has made the best economic recovery of the former member nations of Yugoslavia. Other major European nations that have not yet joined the EU are Switzerland, Norway, and my beloved Iceland. Iceland's concern about joining comes from worries about access to fisheries and its natural resources, as well as the independent prosperity of the national economy. I love Iceland, but I don't have enough information to weigh in on whether it should join the EU or not. There's is something to be said for indepedence, I believe, and Iceland has always had a powerful strain of it, given its geographic isolation and the reasons for its original foundation, but multinational co-operation is also something in which I strongly believe. So I'm torn.

But I'm getting on a tangent again. Apologies. Right now I'm in Prešeren Square again (Prešernov trg), sitting at the City Café, which lies at one egde of the square. The sound system just staarting playing "I Will Survive", so I immediately switched to my iPod and put on Handel's Sarbande from Barry Lyndon to get into the more appropriate atmoshpere for the city. I'm slowy sipping from a Long Island Ice Tea, which is relatively inexpensive compared to the usual cost in in the U.S.—even with currency conversion. It's good to have a drink from my familiar stomping grounds rather than a Laško or a Union now and then. I remain a man of the hard alcohol cocktail, and not beer and wine, although I have learned to appreciate both much more during this trip.

Maja's mother dropped me off at the square this afternoon so I could explore on my own. I often like trying to see sites of an old city independently—there are things I like to linger over that other tourists would bypass quickly. Because of a smudge on my camera lens from yesterday, I was not satisfied with many of my Old Town Ljubljana photos, so I've revisted some of the spots. I snapped some better photos of the Dragon Bridge (Ymajski most) and I entered the beautiful Cathedral of St. Nicholas (Stolna cerkev sv. Nikolaja), rebuilt and redesigned in the early 18th century. The red-painted church in Preseren Square, with the Latin Ave, Gratia Plena over the doors, is the Church of the Annunciation (Cerkev Marijinega oznanenja), a Franciscan church. I also took some new photos of a breathtaking art noveau building in the square built in 1903. As today is Thursday, the square has become even busier, and the diners and drinkers will spend a long time relaxing at the edges of the Ljubljanica River, this little Paris-Salzburg at the crossroads of Latin, German, and Slavic culture. (By the way, I have now switched to Mozart's Requiem for my music of choice. Perhaps some Debussy next to savor the end of the nineteenth century?)
Ahh, the great crescendo in Debussy's "Sunken Cathedral" is now overwhelming me and putting me in a state of connection with elder Ljubljana. It's beautiful—I wish I could express in words the feelings that music such as this stirs in me, and in such an astonishing place as thie old city on the border of three cultures.

I'm trying my Slovene phrases again, after getting a bit of a lesson from Natascha last night at Net Café. She was more strict about the way I should pronounce phrases, while most people seem to just humor me and tell me that I'm doing "super," an English phrase that muscled its way into Slovene. I'm trying my best, and the majority of the people understand me on the first try. People tell me that it isn't necessary to try Slovene since most Slovenians know English, but I want to make an attempt to show respect to them and learn enough of their language to do convey things.

It looks like a concert is about to start in Prešeren Square. I'll finish my drink and go see what it is all about. The weather has started to turn a touch overcast, which I hope doesn't mean rain—I don't have a coat or umbrella for it, although the weather is still warm.

A storm definitely seems to be approaching us now. The concert in Prešeren Square was traditional dance and music; I'm not sure it is is Rumi (gypsy) or older Slovene-Croatian. I will have to ask Maja later based on the flag they were flying. My immediate guess is that it is Macedonian music. (Update: I was correct, it is Macedonian.)
I then moved down the river a bit to another café to have some red wine and tiramisu. This is where I am currenlty writing. The groups of older women next to me seem to be English, and it is rare to run across other English speakers here in Slovenia; most tourists are German, Croatia, or Italian. At least the wind has calmed a little. I went over to the three older women, who turned out to be Australian on an art tour that started in Venice and ends in Dubrovick. Of course, I pulled out the photos of Diego to show them. Now I'm eating some yummu tiramisu with a traditional red wine of Slovenia, Cviček (described in my guide book as "A distinctly dry light red wine—almost a rosé—produced in the Posavje region from both red and white grapes. Apart from the Tuscan chianti, it's the only wine made this way.")
Now I have had to move indoors, to the same pizza place that Jason and I ate at previously. I couldn't get over the selection available. I went for a traditional choice, what they call "Pizza American" because it's basically a pepperoni pizza. I decided to go for chardonnay this time, but maybe I'll have another Cviček later in the evening—I have discovered that I genuinely like it, which is unusual for red wine. And it's an authentic Slovene wine.

I really am enjoying this solo jaunt; I feel as if I'm truly interacting with the Slovenes and manage well. Right now I've gone to one of the more modern and socially active outdoor bars (the storm hasn't happened yet, maybe it won't) to try another glass of Civček. I've never liked a red wine this much, and I feel so European moving from café, trying pizza, tiramisu, and the local wines. Now I have to take a fifteen minute walk over to bus station and take the bus back to Kočevje.

Oh, and as I took a photo just ourside my covered table of a fabulous building, I felt a drop of rain. I guess the storm has arrived after all. But I can survive.

As I started the short walk to the bus station, the rain had definitely started, but remained a sprinkle all the way to bus to Kočevje. Once our bus got started for the hour-long trip, the downpour with thunder n' lightning started. A genuine Slovene thunderstorm! Awesome! Time to break out The Flying Dutchman on the iPod. The bus again dropped me at the same spot in the middle of nowhere, this time in the downpour. I dashed back to the house to find Maja already there, and Jason and her friend Lance expected at anytime for dinner. A warm welcome back after an exciting day.

Tomorrow—the party!
The famous Art Nouveau Urbanc House on one corner of Prešeren Square

11 September 2008

Day 10: Kočevje–Ljubljana

I found some time today to upload a slew of photos to yesterday's blog, although I couldn't do any manipulation or color correcting to them, so they don't look as good as I would like them to. I'll have to wait for the return to L.A. when I can take some time to fine-tune them all. Until then, here they are, enjoy 'em.

Have I mentioned that driving in Ljubljana is a terrifying experience? I don't just mean parking up on the curb: I'm talking about watching cars fly down narrow roads with pedestrians randomly leaping into the way. A bit like Boston. I wonder how bad Rome is, because I've heard that that is worst place to drive in Europe. This feels pretty damn scary, and I'm only a passenger. I guess that going the wrong way down a one-way street isn't uncommon after all. As for parking, it's very, uh, casual. Does the car fit? Can traffic move past you? Then fine, you can park there.

I'm getting better at navigating the weird way I have to type in order for my writing to translate fast onto a Slovene keyboard—not just the reversal of "y" and "z," but also the confusion with punctuation. For example, parentheses are shifted one key over on a Slovene keyboard.

All right, enough with the technical issues. Back to our story. (Or, as I just typed it for the Slovene keyboard, "storz".)

The morning and afternoon was the requisite "slow time" that I need to have on every long trip. That everybody needs''a chance to unwind on your own. Maja had to take care of some work at the site where her father was building, and Jason went with her, so I stayed in the house, worked on my journals and some writing projects I had. It was extremely relaxing and a good break.

When Maja and Jason returned, we ate pizza again (everybody in Slovenia knows how great the pizza is) and then drove out to Net Café for the swing dance. And again got lost. Maja circled the block, asking five people where to find the place before we finally zeroed in on it. Getting lost in Ljubljana must just be a fashion craze, because everybody does it.

I enjoyed the dance, and did Lindy and Balboa with a number of girls, but in a city as small as Ljubljana, the swing dance scene is extremely tiny and everyone knows each other and aren't used to dancing with new folks. It took some effort to get started, although Maja was always willing to dance with me. She had a harder time getting the men to ask her to dance: they didn't want to leave their comfort zone with the girls they knew. I had the best time dancing with an amicable girl named Natascha, who speaks the best English I've heard so far from a native Slovenian—but she's a linguist, so it makes sense. The music was filled with familiar California bands, including the defunct Indigo Swing and the incarcerated Eddie Reed. They played one of my dance partner Laurel's favorite Indigo Swing tunes, "Baron Plays the Horses," so I'll have to tell her about that. It's amusing to me to hear all these songs from home that I'm familiar with and dance to weekly, and watch a crowd of people dance to them in a setting just like one back in L.A., only to have the music stop and then hear a smattering of a Slavic language from all the dancers. Worlds apart, brought into one world through dance.

Okay Ryan, shut up with the feel-good philosophy.

Back in Kočevje for the night. Tomorrow (or today, actually, since it's past midnight) is Maja's actual birthday, although the party will be the day after. While more preparations are made at the castle for the party, I will probably end up in Ljubljana again and sight-see more, perhaps go to the main art museum.

Oh, here's the Ljubljana coat of arms, with the mascot dragon sitting atop a castle, if you are interested. This flag flies beside the flag of Slovenia and the flag of the EU in places all over the city.

10 September 2008

Day 9: Ljubljana–Bled–Kočevje

I fell asleep on the drive back to Ljubljana last night and awoke to find myself at Ljubljana Castle, the medieval fortress perched over the city. I'll have more to say about it later in this post, since we went to it during the day, but the quick tour I had of it at night made it seem tremendous and spooky; ancient walls hollowed out and lit with modern lights and decorated with modern art exhibits (the castle was sacked and much of it destroyed long ago, thus the intensive re-decorating). From the road, I could see a gorgeous vision of the nighttime cityscape, with spot lights illuminating the old churches. Maja's mother then drove Jason and I down into the old city center (again, this is something we saw during the next day, so I'll describe it later) and we walked along the file of cafés that line Ljubljanica River; the old architecture of the city is breathtaking in its beauty. I have never yet seen a city like Ljubljana, with the blend of German, Italian, and Slavic influences. The architecture is Baroque and similar to the style of Salzburg, which is because much of the city was destroyed in a 1511 earthquake and was then rebuilt in the current Renaissance style. Although the city has been attacked many times over its long history (originally as a Roman fortress, Iulia Emona), the center has remained largely intact with the original buildings.

We stayed at Vladimira's apartment, and this morning first went to her office where she has planned a surprise for Maja on her birthday: a notice of her birth and destiny inserted into the front page of newspaper from the actual date she was born.

In the morning, we set out for Bled (pronounced closer to blayt), a lake that is the most popular tourist destination in Slovenia. A medieval castle sits on a high perch over the water, and a famous church is located on an islet on the lake. The castle stood here by at least 1004, when the German Emperor Henry II deeded Bled to the Bishop of Brixen. In the 19th century, Bled gained a reputation for its sanitorium founded by Swiss hydropathist Arnold Rikli. Bled is now a tourist-mecca, filled with hotels, cafes, tours, and weddings. (Many Americans and Europeans choose to marry at the small church on on the island. Afterwards, the groom must carry the bride up the steps to the castle—quite a hike from where I am sitting.)
We went into one of the restort hotels around the lake, Grand Hotel Toplice, and ate the traditional cake of Bled, which translates to "creme slice," and looked through enormous half-circle windows onto the lake, the castle, the islet with its church, and the Alps. Tour boats move across the lake, but power motors are not allowed. During the winter, ice-skating is popular on the lake. By the way, Maja went to high school here, making it much much more scenic than my high school on Palms.

We returned to the city, and then I had my chance to go to Ljubljana Grad (Castle) in the daytime. In fact, I am at this moment writing while sitting on the topmost tower, the entire city spread below me and only the dragon flag of the Ljubljana above me.

Ljubljana Castle started its life as a Roman fortification, and in the twelfth century the medieval castle was the seat of the Margraves, the Dukes of Carinthia. Carinthia was absorbed in the Habsburg Holy Roman Empire and the castle was destroyed then rebuilt in the current configuration with its towers in 1495, and served to defend the southern Empire from the Ottoman Turks. The current damage to it stems from the Napoleonic Wars. It would eventually serve as a hospital and then a prison. The city renovated the castle in the 1960s to make it a cultural center.
The mix of the old and the new is bizarre here, since the castle is fortified with extensive steel and glass and pieces of modern artwork. A tight winding metal staircase with an image of Ljubljana's dragon (the city symbol) on each step winds up to this tallest tower. This flag tower is actually the most recent section of the castle, constructed in the nineteenth century. Right now I am facing east, according to the metal compass points on the floor of the tower.

I dislike the presence of the modern art in this medieval masterpiece, but it is a cultural center, so oh well. The many-tentacled metal cube in the courtyard is darn distracting.

I wandered through some of the lower levels of the castle, probably where prisoners were kept during the castle's time as a prison. Like the fortress of Salzburg, a funicular railway runs back down to the town center, so Jason and I took that route back toward Prešeren Square, the center of the city. We passed over one of the city's famous monuments, the Dragon Bridge. The Dragon is the symbol of the city, and St. George is the patron saint of Ljubljana.
Poet France Prešeren is Slovenia's national writer, and his statue in the square allows him to always gaze toward the apartment of his beloved Julija, his unfulfilled love (all poets gotta have one; you hear me, Beatrice?). This place is also called "Three Bridges" because of the three short bridges that cross over into it. Creative name, I know.

Now I had a chance to walk down the Ljubljanica River in the daylight and stop at one of the many pizza places... and the one we picked had an enormous selection. I also discovered that radler exists here, served in a bottle using Union beer. (As of yet, I have no opinion between Laško and Union. I probably never will, given my general ambivalence about beer.)
I am now writing from the base of France Prešeren's statue, looking across the line sun-figure that marks the center of Ljubljana. I snapped photos of many of the conflicting but stunning architectue that surrounds the square. Like most European town centers, it teems with criss-crossing bicycles and tourists, there's the sound of someone wheezing on an accordion, and an open-air cafe is a few feet away. I wonder if Prague feels like this.

We met up again with Vladimira and ate at a restaurant where she ate the most elaborately prepared lobster I have ever seen. It looked ready to dance away. I drank some excellent Slovene silver champagne.
We took the bus back to Kočevje, and although it dropped us onlz a brief walk from Maja and Stane's house, it still gave me the illusion I had been dropped down in the middle of a Slovenian field at midnight. Jason told me that a short walk in the wrong direction would put me in the forested mountains with the bears.

Tomorrow night it looks like we are going to go to a swing dance event in Ljubljana. So once again, Thursday night comes around and I get to go swing dancing.

09 September 2008

Day 8: Kočevje–Ljubljana

I woke up briefly this morning to see pure white outside the windows: the heavy fog of a Slovene morning. For a brief moment I had no idea where I was. Then I remembered I was in Slovenia, but couldn't recall why. Then I went back to sleep and when I woke up I had it all figured out. I think. I am in Slovenia, right? The places you find yourself.

We didn't end up going to Ljubljana for sight-seeing today; Jason and I got put to work for Maja's dad Stane, helping him for a few hours to scrub and varnish tables and chairs for the party on the thirteenth. Stane does a lot of refurbishing of antiques and old pieces, and has re-inovated numerous houses into the resort homes that he now owns, mostly on a Croatian island called Vis.

Before getting to work, Jason, Maja, and I ate at Vila Silajovic, a hundred-year-old house that formerly belonged to a local lord and lay destitute for years. It was recently restored and changed into a five-star hotel and restaurant. Sten picked up some food here to take to the workers at the house where the party is to be held while the rest of us ate. I had Wierner Schnitzel, a good standby food for me in Europe—it's almost always good.

After hours and hours of scrubbing and varnishing wood, we went to have pizza at a local restaurant. As in Bavaria, pizza this close to Italy is always excellent.

The plan now is for Maja's mother to take Jason and I back to Ljubljana for the evening and go sightseeing tomorrow to Ljubljana Castle, the major sight in the city. Maja has to get some work done tomorrow, so her mom will be our tour guide.

I have to apologize for the slight change in the blog, but I have run up against som technical issues, one of which involves the different configuration of Slovene keyboards. The y and the z are switched, as are many simple punctuation marks, so when my NEO downloads onto Stane's computer, it believes that it is a Slovene keyboard and inverts all the characters. I have to go back over the whole document and correct it. I am experimenting with reversing the two letters while initially writing, which takes less getting used to than you might think. Nonetheless, for a few days, until I return home, you may notice some strange errors creeping into the blog. Also, downloading photos is a problem, so you wont see many for the time I am in Slovenia. I promise to upload the backlog later.

08 September 2008

Day 7: Munich–Ljubljana–Kočevje

This morning I spent a little more time with mein neffe Diego, who is usuallz in his "happy place" in the morning, with many smiles. (He certainly wasn't in his "happy place" last night. Long day, even for someone who can't walk.)

I left the train station at Starnberg at nine for the long trip across Munich to the other side of the city to the Munich International Airport. Of all the airports I've gone to on this trip, this is the most relaxed, although finding my way to the desk that actually checks in for flights on Adria Airwazs, the national airline of Slovenia, took a bit of guess-work and plain ol' wrong turns. I still had a full hour of time waiting at the gate, running through my phrase-book Slovene one more time. However, I can proudly claim that I can count to ten in Slovene now.

I arrived in the Ljubljana airport, found my luggage waiting for me beside the plane—that's a first—and then met Maja right outside. What happened afterward would require Maja's explanation, since we got horribly lost going into downtown Ljubljana. Don't blame me, I don't know the city. Maja hadn't been here in over a year, and she had forgotten the easiest way to get to her mother's health salon in the middle of the city. After some mistakes, we finally made it, and I got my first good look at this country.

I don't want to say much about Ljubljana right now, since I won't see the historic center until tomorrow. At the moment, I've seen a city that switches drastically between the ultra-modern the unadorned new, a small but very vital city. I look forward to seeing it up close tomorrow, a city in which I never expected to find myself.

Maja and I arrived at the health salon, parking right up on the curb—you can do that in Ljubljana—where her mother and her boyfriend Jason were currently working. Maja and I then went to her mother's apartment to pick up some of her baggage, packing her tiny European car to the dome light with suitcases, and then returned to the salon.

What happened after that... I really don't know. Maja took us on an epic adventure of lost throughout Ljubljana, at one point slamming us the wrong way down a one-way street while trying to navigate a one-car tunnel with traffic running the wrong way. Basically, we added forty-five minutes onto the trip trying to find an effective way around Ljubljana city center.

Jason and I never let her hear the end of it, believe me.

But we finally hit the exit road and headed to Maja's hometown of Kočevje. We first stopped by her grandparents' house as a surprise: they knew she was coming in for her birthday over the weekend, but not that she was coming in so soon. Maja surprised her grandparents and her aunt, and all of us were treated to an "impromptu" meal thez whipped up of sausage, pork, beef, and enormous amounts of Slovene wine. Actually, the wine was Macedonian, but Maja's grandfather was extremely proud of it and encouraged Jason and I to keep partaking. The whole family was enormously welcoming to me, despite speaking not a word of English. They did seem impressed with my meager Slovene. They insisted that Maja and I dance for them, but all they had available to dance to was a Croatian version of "Rose of San Antone." You do the best with what you have.

Maja, Jason, and I then moved into the center of Kočevje to the main pub to meet up with her father, Stane. Now is probably the best time to mention that Slovenian has two competing beers: Laško and Union. Laško has been made since 1825, as the cafe umbrellas continue to remind me. Union is brewed right in Ljubljana. You must pick one or the other beer, and their defenders are staunch and serious. I'm not a beer fan, so I haven't made my decision yet. But that wine her grandfather gave me from Macedonian sure was sehr gut. I'm glad that most people around here also understand German, or I would be completely lost.

All of us returned to Maja's house in Kočevje, which is enormous. Her father currently lives here. Honestly, I'm too zoned by being in Slovenian in the first place to even understand what's going on. I can't believe I am here. Slovenia is pure Alpine country, great forests with castles capping each hill. The language has a few words I can comprehend, but otherwise it's an entirely new world. People's emotions are very up-front here, more so than in Bavarian, as I've already discovered, but the welcome I've received from Maja's family—even thought I'm just a friend of hers—is quite overwhelming.

So, until Ljubljana tomorrow, se vidiva.

07 September 2008

Day 6: Munich–Starnberg

I spent an hour and a half at Absofort restaurant writing on my NEO while having a few cocktails. The dim light made typing a bit difficult, since the NEO doesn't have a self-illuminating screen (that would drain its batteries too fast, and the long-staying power is one of this machine's biggest draws), but I loved the café ambience and felt for a moment like a Lost Generation writer—if the Lost Generation had gotten so lost that they ended up in southern Germany instead of Paris.

With the morning, I once again faced one of the notorious Bavarian weather shifts. Yesterday's sun, warmth, and glorious Bayerische skies morphed into gray clouds, wind, and rain. It was an indoor café day.

Colleen and I and two of her friends from the school where her husband teaches (he stayed home to get some work done) headed into downtown Munich to go to the Café am Beethoven Platz, a popular jazz restaurant with a nineteenth century Bohemian flair. A live combo played gypsy jazz, and performed two of my favorite pieces: "Undecided" and "Deep Purple." It's strange to order brunch with beer, but that's nothing unusual here in Bavaria. All the brunch specials are named after musicians; I ordered the Gershwin, the fancy name for bacon n' eggs, plus a Ruß'n, which is similar to a Radler, except the lemon soda is mixed with Weißbier instead of Helles. I'm trying to keep my beer-drinking options open, but tomorrow I'm heading to Slovenia and it will be all wine country—time to practice liking wine.
Colleen's friends headed home after brunch, but I wanted to take a short trip over to Odeonplatz, my favorite of the many plazas in Munich, for a brief stop. I was glad to see that, like the Neues Rathaus, the Theatinerkirche has had its ugly scaffolding removed since my last visit so I could get a decent picture of it. I also got a photo of me posing with the statue of the Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly, in the Feldhernhalle at the end of Odeonplatz. Tilly was the main general for the Imperial forces in the Thirty Years' War, and died from wounds sustained in combat with Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus's forces in 1632 at the Battle of Rain. Because of my fascination with the Thirty Years' War, Tilly is an important figure to me, so I insisted Colleen photograph me with his statue.
By this time, Diego had started to get fussy and Colleen was tired of hearing her brother babble about the Thirty Years' War, so we took the train back to Starnberg. Tonight I'm prepping for the next big adventure: going to Slovenia tomorrow. Washing clothes, packing, finishing up this blog, and doing my last polish on my few Slovene phrases. And it's also the last night I'll get to spend with my new nephew until December (excepting one night when I pass through Munich on the way back to L.A.). By then he will have already grown so much that he'll hardly be anything like the baby I know now. It's difficult knowing that I'll only see Diego grow up in stages with long vanishings in between.
The evening concluded at Absofort again, as I sat with my Munich family (my sister, my beautiful little nephew, and the new in-laws) and talked and drank… Radler. Of course.

On to Republika Slovenija. Hope these phrases hold up. Se vidiva.

Lastly, Godzilla loves Diego:

06 September 2008

Day 5: Munich (Nymphenburg Palace)

Today Diego is six weeks old! He got around with us today with minimum fuss; he's a durable little fellow. Here he is with me in front of a lion statue at the back of Schloß Nymphenburg:
The Über-30 party last night was even more insane than the one I went to last year. I've never seen a party in Los Angeles so crowded and spread over so much space. I went with Laurent and his wife Jen, and we spent most of the party on the enormous outdoor patio on the edge of Starnberg Lake; it was simply too hot to stay inside on the crammed dance floor, although we tried it for a bit. It was a good socializing time for the three of us, all only recently made relatives and now drawn together closer because of the presence of a baby. The night went late and ended with 3 a.m. pizza.

On to today's current events. Our large group—five adults, a baby, a large dog—headed into Munich in the afternoon to go to see one the great sights of the city that I missed on the last trip: Nymphenburg Palace. It lays far out from the center of the city; we took the S-Bahn to Laim (the connection point to the airport) and then took the long walk to Schloß Nymphenburg. The very long walk. The path to the palace runs along a wall surrounding the immense castle grounds. Once you enter the gate, you move through an astounding wood on twisty paths, occasionally coming across Neo-Classical rotundas sitting on lakes filled with swans. Swans are the symbol of the Wittelsbach dynasty, and they pretty much rule the castle grounds. I would sometimes stop and greet a swan that had drifted close to walkways in Latin: "Salve, cygne!" The long walk got tough for Cuba, Colleen and Armin's dog, and she needed a dip now and then in the streams of the park.

After a while, I started to wonder if there was indeed a Schloß Nymphenburg, since the paths wound on forever with a hint of a palace anywhere, aside from beautiful outbuildings. But at last the path we were on brought us to the magnificent orderly gardens surrounding the castle itself. Here is a 180° panorama of the front of the castle, although we first saw it from the back:
Schloß Nymphenburg, the summer palace of the Wittelsbach Dynasty, was constructed in 1664 by Elector Ferdinand Maria after the birth of his son Maximilian II. (This was long before the rulers of Bavaria were kings; an "Elector" was one of the most powerful positions within the Holy Roman Empire, since the Electors were responsible for choosing the next emperor upon the death of the current one.) The palace was expanded in 1701.

I would just like to point out that you know you're filthy rich when you think it's necessary to have a summer home only a few miles away from your main home. However, I understand why the family would want to get away from the Residenz in the center of city for a few months and enjoy time in the middle of a forest paradise.

Anywhere, where was I? Oh, yeah Schloß Nympehnburg. Armin, Laurent, and I took the tour of the interior of the castle—or at least the center section of it, the place is enormous—and got to look at the room where Ludwig II was born. It still has its original furnishings. The main feature of the tour is "The Gallery of Beauties," a room containing portraits of women that Ludwig I commissioned because he was "fascinated by female beauty," as the tour sign delicately put it. I guess that royalty is always "fascinated by female beauty," and everybody else is just horny. Most of the women in the paintings have a similar appearance, which must have been Ludwig's "look."

Concluding our tour of Nymphenburg Palace, our group took another long walk (you can't gain weight in Germany, no matter how many Thuringer sausages you eat, because you have to do so much walking) to the closest Biergarten, the Hirschgarten. We went here last year: it's the largest Biergarten in Munich and is famous for its enclosure with live deer in the middle. I'm writing at the moment on my NEO sitting in the Hirschgarten and enjoying a large (Maß) Radler. Have I mentioned how much I love having the NEO in Europe?
I love the Biergarten culture of southern Germany, where you can relax, bring your own food, purchase a beverage, and stay as long as you want with your friends. They really are the center of community here in Bavarian, and this Biergarten is especially filled with families and children.

Everyone is exhausted tonight, and after two nights in a row at late-night parties, I'm looking forward to a calm evening sitting in Absofort writing and absorbing the café culture I so rarely get back home. Colleen also wants me to watch Your Job in Germany, an unintentionally hilarious training film for American soldiers working in West Germany during the 1940s. She says it has a Mystery Science Theater 3000-ready quality to it.

Be back with you tomorrow.

05 September 2008

Day 4: Starnberg (Lake Starnberg)

Last night I made the trek back to downtown Munich to go to Café Cord on Sonnerstraße, which has swing nights on Thursday. I went to Café Cord before on my last trip, but I still felt nervous because I always get intimidated in a new swing scene; not speaking the language makes it even tougher. However, I fell in with a small group who were celebrating one girl, Kerstin, who about to move away. One of her friends, Michienna, was skilled at dancing Jive, but her boyfriend and dance partner couldn't adapt to the more swingy style of the club's DJ and the live band. I know enough Jive (a common "Latin" dance in Europe, with connections to what we call East Coast Swing) to mix it up with Swing, and danced with her many times; she followed me excellently. Here's one of the photos her friend took of us dancing.
A lot of the music that the DJ played is from L.A. bands I see regularly, which gives me the oddest split location feeling. The DJ even played a request of mine, "Cherokee" by Charlie Barnet, one of my top five or so swing dance piece. But at midnight, the swing music shifts into standard disco-pop, and thus it was the perfect time to get the last S-Bahn back to Starnberg before the train schedule switches to two hours between trains. I didn't realize how exhausted I was from the day (waking up at 6:30 am, trudging all around Munich, dancing until midnight, and still living roughly on L.A. time) that I nearly fell asleep on the S-Bahn. At least I was awake enough to recognize my stop.

This morning started out slow, which was fine by me. While Colleen took a shower, she left Diego in my brief charge. I held "The Spaniard" on my lap and read to him from Die Dinosaurier, a German children's book on dinosaurs that I purchased for him yesterday at a bookstore off of Marienplatz. Neither of us understood the book—I don't speak German and Diego is pre-lingual—but I got to practice my pronunciation and hold my über-cute nephew. Colleen then let me help with his bath-time—I handled shampooing his hair, what little hair he has. I guess Colleen just wanted to give me the simple job.

Once Diego was all washed and set for the day, Colleen and I headed toward Starnberger See (Lake Starnberg) to board the tour boat for the circle cruise of the historic lake, famous as the place where King Ludwig II spent his last days in incarcertaion and then was found mysteriously drowned. Richard Wagner also received inspiration for the "Ring" operas at Starnberg Lake. First Colleen and I ate lunch at an outdoor restaurant, Sowieso, and I finally got my weißwurster (with pretzel! hot mustard). We then boarded the boat for the three hour tour (nooooo! not a three hour tour! anything but that! we all know where that leads) of the lake.

At lunch, Colleen took what is, so far, my favorite picture of Diego and I:
The lake weather was absurdly beautiful, and sailors, kayakers, and pleasure swimmers filled the shores that we passed. We didn't hit any of the either. Just a swell day. The houses along Starnberger See belong to wealthy Müncheners, although there is also a significant amount of land that belongs to the mighty Free State of Bavaria, such as the impressive Castle "Seeburg," built in 1889. Schloß Berg is where Ludwig II was imprisoned after his uncle usurped him, and a cross before the castle marks where Ludwig's body was found. (Accidental drowning? Suicide? Murder? One of the crazy swans of the lake went rabid?) You can't see it very well in this photo of Schloß Berg because the boat didn't come close enough to it.
The most picturesque of the stops along the lake is Seeshaupt, which has a rural feel and a beautiful onion dome church rising above it. ("Onion dome church" is a redundant term in Bavaria, actually—I've no idea why I just typed it.) Another beautiful stop along the lake is the town of Benried, which the guide pamphlet informed me was voted "Bavaria's Most Beautiful Village" in 1983, but doesn't list the source. I'll guess that Bernried itself did the voting—but still, it's a pretty little town. Near the Island of Roses (Roseninsel), the remains of a three thousand year-old boat was recently discovered. The island was first inhabited by the Celts, but could this find actually pre-date them? Finally, before heading back to our starting point, we passed the castle of Elisabeth "Sisi," future Empress of Austria who was the perpetual fianceé of Ludwig II.

By the time the boat docked back at Starberg's wharf, the heat of the day had started to get to us, although Diego amazingly managed to sleep through most of the boat ride. Colleen and I took a leisurely walk to one of the lake's Biergartens, Strandhaus, to meet up with her husband Armin, Cathy, Laurent, and his wife Jen. More radlers for me! And then a long walk back to Colleen and Armin's home, stopping for Armin to get a döner, a Turkish food with which I have had, uhm, unpleasant experiences. Armin and my brother Reed both love them however.

Tonight is the monthly Über-30 party at the restaurant Undosa on the shore of Starnberger See. I went to one of these parties last year and had a good time, despite the massive crowd and eardrum-ripping music. I'm not sure if we're going to the Über-30 tonight; will fatigue set in, or will I just say, "Hell with it, I'm on vacation"? Details tomorrow... stay tuned.

04 September 2008

Day 3: Munich

Last night ended with a relaxing drink at Absofort, the restaurant and bar a block down from Colleen and Armin's house. After that it was early to bed—not too early, since I was still trying to get on German time to some extent, but early for me. However, with new parents in the house with me, everybody was turning in quite early.

As I might I have expected, I was up at 6:30 this morning and unable to get back to sleep. I puttered around the house with Colleen while she took care of Diego, and I felt again the strange feeling that I wasn't in a foreign country on vacation because the life around me was the ordinary, day-to-day life of a family. The usual hustle of hotels, transportation worries, sightseeing, and other vacationer stresses, weren't concerns. I wonder if I'm starting to take Munich for granted.

I finally left the house in the late morning with Laurent, Colleen's brother in law who lives with his wife downstairs in the same apartment complex. We had a specific sightseeing goal: The Neue Pinakothek Museum. On my trip last year, I went to the Alte (Old) Pinakothek, an amazing collection of early art, but didn't get a chance to go to the two sister museums, Neue ("New") and Moderne. The Neue Pinakothek doesn't hold "new" art, it's just new relative to what's in the Alte Pinakothek. The artwork covers a period from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth century, and as Laurent and I progressed through the rooms according to the guided plan on our map, we moved from Neo-Classical, to Romantic, to Impressionist art—making for some shocking transitions. I remember the moment I walked into a room, saw a dark gothic cathedral back-lit with the setting sun, and thinking: "Well, we've hit the Romantic period."

One of the most amazing paintings in the museum is The Siege of Cosel (1808) by Wilhelm von Kobell, which has an astonishing view of the grand sky with horse soldiers on a mountain planning an attack. This was a current event painting, since the siege had only occurred a year before. "Cosel" is the Polish town of Koźle, which fell to Bavarian troops allied to Napoleon.
There are also some excellent paintings by Thomas Gainsborough, such as this portrait. One of the key exhibits in in a large room of gray stone where hangs a painting series by Carl Rottmann of the landscapes of Greece in the 1840s. King Ludwig I of Bavaria commissioned the paintings from Rottmann after he placed his son Otto on the Greek throne. Fourteen of the original twenty-three landscape paintings are now on permanent display. 

Related to this display is a huge painting in another of the gallery by Peter von Hess that depicts Otto's entrance into Greece as its new king. The size of the painting allowed me to pick out many details, but I couldn't quite tell what the reaction of the Greeks, especially the Orthodox Greek priests, was to Otto's entrance. However, the most interesting painting (if not exactly the most gorgeous) is a work entitled Monkeys as Judges of Art by Gabriel Cornelius von Max in which a crowd of monkeys and apes stare at an unseen painting. (Is this a criticism or art critics? Or a criticism of art itself.) Another portrait with an interesting name is a painting of the artist's dog and is titled "Caesar," Mein Überhund, or "Caesar," My Super-Dog. Sounds like a 21st century children's book. 

The museum concludes with a few of the big names: Cézanne, Rodin, Monet, and Munch. The single Munch painting is a cheery contrast to his famous The Scream titled Woman in Red Dress. Van Gogh's famous Sunflowers (below) is housed here, along with a few works by Gaugin.
After the Neue Pinakothek, Laurent and I headed down to the center of old Munich on Neuhauser Straße to the Augustiner Beer Hall, one of the oldest beer halls in the city. I've gone to the Augustiner before, and it's my favorite of the beer halls; much less touristy than the better known Hofbräuhaus, and the décor speaks to me more of old Bavaria than any place that has a chain outlet in Las Vegas (yes, there's a Hofbräuhaus in Vegas). I've found that I really love Radler, a light beer (Helles Bier) mixed with a lemon soda that has a very refreshing taste that I don't often associate with beer. I finally got my Bavarian sausage, although they were out of the famous Weißwurster—not served at certains times of the day—and I instead had the Regensberger, a smaller, fatter sausage. Of course, it cam with heapings of sauerkraut and the famous sweet mustard. Ah, I feel truly Bavarian now. But I still haven't gotten my Pontiac-sized pretzel.

On the way toward the S-Bahn station, I discoverd that the Neues Rathaus finally has its ugly scaffolding removed. Last year, I had to settle for only getting to see part of the famous town hall because of the restoration work, but now at last I can provide a photo of it in its uncovered glory:
Now I'm back in Starnberg at Colleen's house. We're going to eat dinner here tonight, and then I will head out to Café Cord to go swing dancing.

03 September 2008

Day 2: Paris–Starnberg

Welcome to Bavaria, welcome to Munich! Again. With family living here, there's a strange feeling of "coming home," even though it's a distant country.

My sister, with her baby Diego breastfeeding, met me at the gate, along with her mother-in-law Cathy. My first meeting with my new nephew is a hard experience to describe—I just sort of stumbled through holding him for the first time and thinking, "Wow, I'm an uncle." Diego was in what my sister calls a "milk coma" when I first got to see him, a dazed stupor from a full feeding. Here's a photo of Diego and I sitting on the couch together in my sister's house.
Great feeling. I'm so in love with my nephew. Cuteness off the meter. Here he is with my first gift I gave hin, a stuffed Godzilla doll.
After I got situated in my sister's house, and got to see how enormous her dog Cuba has grown (she was a puppy last time I saw her, although she could still eat through steel bars if presented the opportunity), we headed out to Colleen's favorite local Biergarten with Laurent, her husband's brother who recently got married and moved into an apartment in Colleen's complex. I was eager to dig into the German cuisine, and I ordered the Wiener Schnitzel (okay, that's actually an Austrian cuisine, but it's extremely good) and enjoyed my first Helles Bier. This was also the time that the jet-lag really started to slam into me. It was now six in the evening in Munich, and I had gotten up at a quarter to six in the morning in Los Angeles. However, I'm going to power through today and go to bed at the normal Munich time so I can get onto schedule the Germany schedule, and that means some dinner and drinks at the local restaurant Absofort.

Enough of the cheery, happy part of the trip. On to the traveler's complaining corner: I now have a pathological fear of Charles de Gaulle Airport. I've heard horrific tales of this twisted labyrinth before, but now that I've experienced it... no legend has exaggerated the terrors it holds. It feels as if three large airports were forcibly crammed into the space of one, so that all the gates are about as close together as the tiny booths at an electronics convention. In order to make a simple connecting gate, I had to go through security again (I can't tell you how much the "everything off but the boxers" style of security bugs me), and following the signs to get to my gate involved a series of ramps, under-passes, skywalks, and confused arrows pointing so many directions that I started to think that Lewis Carroll had designed the place. There's almost no seating around the gates—boarding areas just won't fit here—and boarding consists of a big crowd trying to push toward the single woman checking tickets and passports. That U.S. system of boarding by rows—it's a great idea. Once I was on the plane, however, at least I knew I was on the final stage of the journey and meine schwester und mein neffe awaited me at the other end. And I was sitting next to two girls speaking German, the first time I had heard the language during the trip, which made me feel the long journey was finally over.

Okay, more Diego to offset the grumpiness. I can't resist more pcitures. Here is our first meeting in the airport.

02 September 2008

Day 1: Los Angeles–Houston–Paris

This morning seemed to start well, and after my father dropped me off at LAX. I breezed through check-in and security, and I had every indication that it all would go smoothly for a change; except that once I was aboard Continental Airlines Flight 1594 to Houston, secure in my naive belief that we would start on time, the plane decided to taxi out to the runway, and then go right back to the gate again. A computer problem, or so it was explained to us through the infrequent updates from the disembodied voice of the captain. 

We left LAX an hour and fifteen minutes late, and with a layover in Houston of only an hour and a half before my Air France flight to Paris, I had some concerns. Okay, extreme concerns. The captain cut some time off the flight and we made it to the Houston airport with about forty-five minutes to spare, but I still had to sprint along the movingt sidewalks. (People, do not stand on the left side of the moving sidewalk. That's for the panic-mongers such as myself to sprit along so we can make our flights because our airline bungled the connection.) This, by the way, is the third trip in a row in which I have experienced obnoxious delays on the tarmac. I thought I would break the cycle here, but I have fallen into some sort of Taoist recursion. I'll just have to rely on the stoic philosophy of Ancient Greece to get me through.

After the mad sprinting through Houston, I boarded Air France Flight 33X to Paris-De Gaulle, and suddenly encountered instructions and questions in French. Damn, all this time trying to learn German and Slovene, and the first language that confronts me is French! My meager knowledge of the language failed me and I started spewing out German phrases instead of English ones, a language they are much more likely to understand. I was a bit frazzled from the time crunch, which didn't help. I hope my luggage makes it.

Now I'm on the Air France flight to Paris. We have a touch of turbulence to deal with, but I've already had my complimentary glass of white wine, so I feel mellow about it. Amazing, I am actually starting to enjoy white wine!

I should arrive in Paris at 8:40 a.m. local time, which will feel like about 1:40 Houston time (which was the last time I reset my watch). It's a nine-hour flight, and I'm amusing myself with the graphic novel Watchmen by Moore and Gibbons. Hopefully, I nod off later for the last part of the flight. I think we get champagne with the meal. That will help.

Whoa... sudden awakening many hours later as the airline switches to the "breakfast menu" light. I can see the slight blue horizon of a Gallic dawn outside my window. I've only slept fitfully on this flight, not so well as I did on the flight to Brussels last year, but that flight took place during my regular sleeping hours anyway. The second glass of wine and the cognac did help me catch about two hours of sleep, with the complimentary eye mask, plus Kind of Blue playing on the headphones from my iPod. Back up, got through some episodes of Deep Space 9 on my laptop DVD before the battery died. I imagine we will be on the ground at Charles De Gaulle airport in about an hour.

Since it it now technically “tomorrow,” I'll cut off this blog entry and start anew on September 3rd, as I start on the last leg of the journey to Munich... and finally get to see my nephew!

Again, I hope my luggage makes it. (It did, not to keep you in suspense.)