13 April 2012

Venice - A Tourist Trap Worth Visiting

For the first day of my trip around Europe I got up early, got on my train to Venice, and enjoyed the view out my window for the next six hours. I watched snowy, steep Alpine landscapes transition to wide, flat plains covered with vineyards and square, terra-cotta roofed houses before my train finally crossed the bridge that leads from the mainland to the Venetian island in the middle of the lagoon. Upon exiting the Santa Lucia railway station I found myself in a city practically built for tourism: No cars, ancient buildings, and quaint sights of quiet alleyways appearing unexpectedly around each corner.

Naturally, the first thing I did was to take a boat ride along the Grand Canal, Venice's Main Street. The public transportation system in Venice consists mainly of a fleet of marine buses called vaporetti. Of course, this being a tourist city, it was expensive, but I wasn't quite expecting 6.50 € for a single ride. Oh well: It was also the most scenic public transport ride I've been on:
The view from the train station
Gondolas on the Canal

The Ponte Rialto, one of three bridges across the Canal

On the way to the island of Lido near Venice
I stayed for one night on the island of Lido, which separates the lagoon from the Adriatic Sea. It had an entirely different atmosphere from the main island, closer to that of a small town than that of a tourist attraction. I even found that it had a beach facing the Adriatic:
I'd been living in an inland city for months, so it was wonderful to see the sea again. It would have been an excellent place for a weary traveler to rest for a few hours.

However, since my trip was just starting I wasn't suffering from exhaustion or burn-out just yet. I went back to the main island, first to quickly see the main tourist attractions, then to get to know the rest of the city. I went past the Arsenal, the Venetian shipyard that was the basis of much of Venice's naval power:

After that, I headed toward the Piazza San Marco, known as the main tourist square of the city. Later in the day, though, it was populated only by street salesmen selling the latest tacky light-up novelty.
The Piazza San Marco. The tower on the right is the famous Campanile; the Basilica is to its left.
Walking around some, I found that Pisa isn't the only Italian city with a leaning bell tower:

I made my way to the Ponte Rialto to see it and the Grand Canal at night. It was almost more impressive than it was by day:

Then, to get to know the rest of the city, I took a piece of advice that I would recommend to any visitors of Venice or, for that matter, any other European city:

Get lost.

Not hopelessly, permanently lost, of course. By that I mean that I wandered through the narrow streets of the city without any particular destination, with a map in my pocket in case I didn't remember the way back. This wasn't a problem in Venice, though, since signs like this were helpfully posted on many buildings:
Of course, you had to know that "Ferrovia"meant "Railway [Station]."
The following morning, my visit in Venice was already at an end. It was a very nice place to visit: The city is full of history, there are many things to see and experience among the beautiful old buildings, and the setting of an island on a lagoon is unique and interesting. However, I couldn't imagine permanently living there. For one, the same feature that distinguishes the city for tourists -- the canals and the location on the lagoon -- make everything outside tourism incredibly impractical for everyone else. I already saw how expensive public transportation was. Also, I spent much more money than I was planning on a single dinner: 30 € for a salad and pasta dish, with water and a caffé (Don't call it espresso in Italy or you might pay double the price because you sound like a tourist). Of course, I didn't get the chance to total my bill because the waiter didn't return it after I paid -- another lesson learned the hard way.

But all this was starting to become a memory as I boarded the train headed for my next stop: Florence, on my way to Rome.

08 April 2012

Southern Europe trip update

Well, I've had quite an amazing tour so far of Italy, Spain, and France. The number of sights I've seen, people I've met, and stories I'll be bringing back is staggering in retrospect. I've been so busy trying to see as much as possible of what each city has to offer that I really haven't had time to write good, comprehensive posts about each visit. But, as my trip draws to a close, I'll soon have more time to relate my experiences in each city with the help of photos. I'll start with Venice next Friday.

Also, I've got plenty of material for posts about European rail transport, language, and other miscellaneous topics, so expect some of those to appear in the coming weeks.

21 March 2012

Tour of Southern Europe

As long as I'm in Europe, I decided it would be a good idea to visit some of the most famous cities here. So, I bought a three-week rail pass (it's the cheapest form of travel, especially with discount passes; see the Transportation Systems article). I'll be leaving tomorrow.

I'm going to visit Rome, Barcelona, Madrid, and Paris, with shorter stops in Venice, Florence, and Genoa. I've roughly plotted my route on the map below:

Since I'll be backpacking by rail, I obviously won't be bringing my computer. I will, however, be taking lots of photos and will post here whenever I get the chance. These posts will be short by necessity of typing on a smartphone keyboard, but I hope I'll still be able to give you an idea of what I'm doing and seeing to get the most out of this trip.

Finally, I want to reassure the readers of my longer compare/contrast posts that I haven't forgotten about that "Translation" post. I simply hadn't gotten to it amidst all my exams and over-zealously corrected physics lab write-ups. As soon as I get back from this trip I'll resume my normal posting schedule.

25 January 2012


I'm going to try something different today. My previous posts focused on comparing the cultures of Germany and the United States. Since this is by no means a simple topic, the posts got pretty long and were extremely time-consuming to write. Also, I realize they say little about what I'm actually doing to get the most out of this experience as possible. So, for those of you who actually are interested in what I'm up to, I'll answer that question right now in lieu of the usual compare/contrast essay: Besides blogging, I have been spending most of my time with my classes here (I could go on and on about why my classes are taking up most of my time; suffice it to say that I'm trying to double major, which is uncommon in Germany, and read the Educational Systems post for more details). But before I say how I spend my free time, I'll first have to make something clear:

It's winter in Germany.

This may not be earth-shattering news to you, but to me it means I get to participate in my favorite activities outside of using the Linux command line and solving second-degree partial differential equations in space and time. Downhill skiing is one of those activities; I've been skiing pretty much since I was old enough to stand. Even though I've done a lot of ski racing (Slalom and GS) I still like free-skiing in the mountains, especially when you're rewarded with sights like this:

These photos are from a ski area in Austria called Hochfügen im Zillertal, which I visited earlier this month.

Of course, just plain playing in the snow is fun, too. Last weekend I built a snowman:

That ball of snow to my right must have been at least as heavy as I am.

I was lucky that it was almost exactly zero degrees (Celsius; you may have noticed I've already converted to the Metric System) when that day's snow fell. The snow stuck together like glue. Locals amusingly referred to it as a "sick" snow.

I soon learned why:

That photo was taken less than 24 hours after the previous one. During the preceding night, a hot wind decapitated and dismembered the unfortunate snowman and a persistent rain reduced the remaining pieces to this -- I'm sorry, that sounded incredibly depressing. Go ahead and look at cute cat pictures or something for a few minutes.

To a person who has spent most of his life in Minnesota and is used to having winters with extreme cold and lots of snow, winter rains feel like a direct insult from Mother Nature. I don't think I could ever live in a place where it rains instead of snows in the winter (to be fair, I'm told that this is unusual weather for this part of Germany). Actually, I did live in Hamburg when I was younger, but thankfully I don't remember too much about the weather.

At least it still snows in the mountains. That's a good thing, because this upcoming weekend I'll be skiing with a group of other students in one of the largest ski areas in the Austrian Zillertal. I'm really excited, even more so because this place has the steepest ski run in Austria, at a 78% grade. Assuming I manage to survive that run, I'll write a post about the experience.

Oh, and for those of you who found my comparison/contrast essays interesting, I've got a few more ideas planned. Specifically, I'm going to write about how I translate my posts into German and the fundamental language differences I notice in the process. First, however, I need to catch up on said German translations so that this blog stays bilingual. You can probably expect the next English comparison/contrast post around the second or third week of February.

14 January 2012

Christmas Traditions

Well, it's that time of year again! At least it was, a few weeks ago. I thought I would wait until well after Christmas to give those who were sick and tired of preparing for, reading about, and being bombarded by advertisements centered around the holidays some time to recover from their holiday burnout.

The first question you may have right now is why I'm writing about Christmas and not the other holidays that take place in December, such as Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. The reason is that no other holiday in the USA or Germany has such a public, national prominence. Schools plan their winter breaks around Christmas and New Year's Day, stores make a big show of their Christmas sales (at least in the USA), and Christmas trees are displayed in public spaces. Christmas is no longer a pure religious holiday (although for many people it still is), but a national and commercial event as well. Since it's easier and safer to make general observations about public traditions than private, family ones, I'll focus on those today. Also, since my family and I (here and in Germany) celebrate Christmas, I am better able to make comparisons of the less public traditions of Christmas than for any other holiday.

The topic of political correctness with regard to religion is probably worth a mention here. The idea of political correctness as I interpret it is based of two principles. The first is the separation of church and state: Any public or governmental institution is not allowed to endorse a specific religion; this is a founding principle of the American government. Displaying a nativity scene on public property, e.g. the city hall or a public park, could be seen as an endorsement of Christianity. The second principle is the basic fact that it's insulting to assume the person you're addressing is the same religion or celebrates the same holidays as you when in fact this is not the case. If a TV station only wishes everyone a merry Christmas, Jewish viewers are probably going to feel put off or annoyed.

Of course there are places where political correctness is ignored. Retailers probably realize they'll make the most money if they focus their sales and advertising campaigns on Christmas instead of a different December holiday. In Germany the role of Christmas is upheld mostly by tradition. It's probably due to tradition, for example, that Christmas markets take place every December in public places in several German cities. It may be that a higher proportion of people are Christian in Germany compared to the USA -- Christianity is definitely the majority religion in Germany -- although the German Jewish and Muslim populations form a not insignificant minority. I can't really comment on the public awareness in Germany of religions, holidays, and traditions other than those relating to Christianity and Christmas. I can say that in the American schools I attended we did receive some education on this topic.

But before I spend the entire article talking about political correctness, I should start on the actual holiday. As I just mentioned, Christmas is a public event in both the US and Germany. In Germany, however, it seems a lot less commercialized. Most stores, except for maybe some large retail chains, are closed on Christmas Eve and Day, and they don't start blasting cheesy Christmas music and promoting sales the second the previous holiday is over. What they usually do is put up decorations ranging from a modest Christmas tree to a spectacular curtain of lights outside the store. The exception might be electronics stores, who stand to make huge amounts of money on Christmas presents if they advertise enough and encourage their demographic to be as materialistic as humanly possible (one advertisement asserted, "Christmas is decided" -- decided -- "under the tree").

If you're looking to buy Christmas presents that aren't a new laptop or camera, many German cities have world-famous Christmas markets. Hundreds of independent craftspeople have a chance to sell their handmade creations at these markets. You can find amazing hand-painted glass ornaments, traditional nutcrackers, and wooden candle-powered carousels. There are many food stands as well with delicious regional specialties. The experience most visitors will remember the most is probably drinking Glühwein (glowing wine), or hot red wine with spices such as cinnamon and orange mixed in. As you can see from the photo, it's very popular:

Another terrific holiday drink is Feuerzangenbowle (fire-tongs punch), prepared by soaking a sugar loaf in rum and burning it over a pot of Glühwein, adding lots of rum to keep the loaf burning:

As far as holiday drinks go, that creamy American swill known as eggnog can't hold a candle to rummy fire punch.

Those are the only photos of the Christmas markets I have right now, but I'm sure a Google Image search for "Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt" will turn up some nice postcard-worthy overview photos. All in all, it's pretty safe to say: If you haven't ever been to a German Christmas market it's definitely worth a visit.

I mentioned Christmas music earlier, which is another tradition where the USA and Germany differ. The Christmas music heard on American radios consists largely of modern music consisting of original songs or new, updated, and occasionally unbearable takes on older popular or traditional songs. Older popular songs like "White Christmas" or "Silver Bells" are also played in their original forms, at least on the stations I listen to. These songs are, as far as I can tell, much less popular in Germany. It seems to be more common to listen to classic (here meaning before 1900) choral or orchestral songs. On Christmas Eve, television stations almost always broadcast a classical Christmas concert performed by an orchestra and opera singers (or singers who perform the same general type of music). Also, due to the sheer amount of classical music that has been written, you won't hear songs being repeated ad nauseam and be completely sick of them by the end of the holiday season.

The last difference I'll write about here is the celebration of Christmas-related holidays leading up to Christmas itself. Whereas in America these weeks are usually filled with gift-shopping, making cookies, and decorating, perhaps putting up the Christmas tree (something which in Germany is traditionally reserved for Christmas Eve), in Germany the holidays of St. Nicholas Day and Advent are observed. St. Nicholas Day was the original day when St. Nicholas (Santa Claus) was supposed to come and give presents to children, through the admittedly odd method of having them leave their shoes out on the doorstep. Hopefully when the children open the door in the morning they will find their shoes not stolen, but filled with goodies. This is a tradition I have never seen observed in the US.

Advent is another holiday I would never have known about without living in Germany. One Advent-related tradition in Germany is the Advent calendar, which is apparently gaining popularity in the US. For those who have not heard of this, it's a type of calendar that marks the days from the first day of December leading up to Christmas Eve. Little doors numbered 1 through 24 are opened on the corresponding days of December, usually with some kind of treat or little picture inside. I remember it as a fun way to build up anticipation for Christmas Eve. The other Advent tradition that I haven't really seen in the US is the lighting of candles on the four Sundays leading up to Christmas Eve, which is apparently the traditional way of celebrating Advent.

In short, it seems Christmas in Germany has managed to maintain its traditional charm, even as a public national holiday. This is yet another example of how old traditions seem to be much better preserved in Germany than in the US, where many European traditions appear either to have been abandoned due to practicality and commercialism or were not even brought over from Europe in the first place.

12 January 2012


Der Verkehr beeinflusst uns alle jeden Tag. Wir denken aber meistens nur daran, wenn er uns nervt oder nicht richtig funktioniert. Jede Woche fahre ich mit der U-Bahn von meiner Wohnung zu meinen Ausbildungsort und zurück, und fahre mit der Regionalbahn am Wochenende zu Verwandten, aber denke fast nie daran, dass es solche Verkehrsmittel in Minneapolis-St. Paul überhaupt nicht gibt. Die Verkehrssysteme der USA und Deutschland sind jedoch sehr unterschiedlich. Selbst wenn ich mit dem Auto fahren würde, würde ich erhebliche Unterschiede merken:

Auf amerikanischen Autobahnen, zum Beispiel, gibt es immer eine Geschwindigkeitsbegrenzung (mit Ausnahmen im dünn bevölkerten Bundesstaat Montana) von 100 bis 110 km/h, oder weniger in Städten. Sonst ist es aber weniger geregelt als auf den deutschen Autobahnen: Es gibt kein Rechtsfahrgebot und rechts überholen ist nicht im Allgemeinen verboten. In Wirklichkeit achten auch sehr wenige Fahrer strikt auf die Geschwindigkeitsbegrenzungen; es ist nicht ungewöhnlich, 20 km/h schneller zu fahren.

Der andere große Unterschied im Autoverkehr, außer dass Autofahrer in Minnesota viel öfter als in Deutschland von Handys, Kaffee, oder ähnliches vom Fahren abgelenkt sind, ist in die Form von Straßennetze auf der Stadt-Skala. Wo die meisten alten deutschen Städten ein radiales Straßenmuster mit der Altstadt in der Mitte und aufgefangene Vorstädte außen herum besitzen, haben amerikanische Städte und Vorstädte überwiegend ein rechteckiges, regelmäßiges Straßenplan. Das könnte so sein, weil viele amerikanische Städte ganz schnell gewachsen sind und daher mehr Planung im Straßennetz ging als bei den langsamer gewachsenen deutschen Städten.

Wo die Länder sich am Meisten unterscheiden ist natürlich im Schienennetz für Personenverkehr. Das deutsche Netz hat eine hohe Dichte, also sind alle Großstädte und mittelgroße Städte sowie die meisten Kleinstädten vom Schienennetz erreichbar. Züge verkehren meistens im Stunden- oder Zweistundentakt, und die ICE ermöglicht es, manche Ziele zu erreichen fast genauso schnell wie mit dem Auto.

Wie viel auch manche Leute über Verspätungen und Zugausfälle bei der DB meckern möchten, ist es immer noch besser als bei die Zuglinie die durch Minneapolis-St. Paul fährt. Züge fahren nur einmal am Tag, und Verspätungen bis zu sechs Stunden sind nicht ungewöhnlich. Insgesamt hat das amerikanische Fernverkehrsschienennetz eine sehr geringe Dichte. Manche größere Städte sind nicht am Streckennetz angeschlossen und vier Bundesstaaten, inklusiv Alaska und Hawaii, haben überhaupt keine Bahnlinien. Die Fernverkehrslinie, die durch Minneapolis-St. Paul läuft, ist die einzige in Minnesota. Der Regionalverkehrsangebot ist ebenso mangelnd, mit nur einzelne S-Bahn-artige Pendelbahnlinien in den größeren Städten. Außer zwischen den Großstädten an der Ost- oder Westküste ist die Bahn fast nie eine gute Alternative zum Autofahren oder Fliegen, was eigentlich Schade ist, weil Bahn fahren meistens viel einfacher als fliegen und gemütlicher als lang im Auto fahren ist.

Der Grund für das mangelhafte amerikanische Bahnnetz ist wahrscheinlich die überwiegende Benutzung von Auto und Flugverkehr, wofür es schon recht gut ausgebaute Infrastruktur gibt. Das kann aber nicht der ganze Grund sein, weil in Deutschland Autos und Flugzeuge auch sehr häufig benutzt werden, aber (im Gegensatz zu der USA) die Bahn sich in Konkurrenz gegen diese Verkehrsmittel hält. Es kann auch sein, dass die einfache geografische Größe und relativ kleine Bevölkerungsdichte der USA etwas damit zu tun haben. Das ist sinnvoll, weil an der Ost- und Westküste der USA, wo die Bevölkerungsdichte am größten ist, das Bahnnetz auch relativ gut ausgebaut ist. Auf jeden Fall ist aber das amerikanische Schienennetz für Personenverkehr immer noch weit hinter das deutsche Netz.

Bisjetzt habe ich nur über Verkehr auf der regionalen und landesweiten Skala geschrieben. Ein anderer wichtiger Bestandteil von Verkehrsnetze sind die öffentlichen Personennahverkersmitteln in Städten. In diesen Bereich ist es schwer, landesweite Verallgemeinerungen zu machen; jede Stadt scheint eine eigenartige Lösung für ihre Verkehrsprobleme zu finden. Deshalb beschreibe ich nur als Beispiele die Verkehrssysteme von München und Minneapolis-St. Paul, weil ich viel Erfahrung mit beide habe. Der direkte Vergleich von den Städten ist aber nicht wirklich möglich, weil München eine viel größere Einwohnerzahl als Minneapolis-St. Paul hat. München hat ungefähr eine Million Einwohnern und Minneapolis-St. Paul haben zusammen ungefähr eine halbe Million Einwohnern, wobei viel mehr Leute in den großen Vorstädten, die die Städte umgeben, wohnen.

Münchens Verkehrssystem besteht aus sechs U-Bahn Linien und mehrere S-Bahn Linien. Bus und Straßenbahnen fahren in Gebiete, die nicht durch U- oder S-Bahn erreicht werden. Die Züge und Bahnhöfe sind meistens sauber und sicher, obwohl sie während der Hauptverkehrszeit ganz überfüllt werden können (glücklicherweise werden sie nie so voll wie z.B. in Tokio). Fahrradwege gibt es zusätzlich neben den meisten Straßen.

In Minneapolis-St. Paul gibt es keine wirkliche U-Bahn. Die Stadt hatte einst ein Straßenbahnnetz, dies wurde aber in den 1950er Jahren abgebaut weil ein Bussystem wirtschaftlicher schien. Neulich wird aber ein neues Stadtbahnnetz gebaut. Eine Linie gibt es bereits, die eine Vorstadt, den Flughafen, und die Innenstadt von Minneapolis verbindet, und eine zweite Linie, die die Innenstädte von Minneapolis und St. Paul verbinden soll, ist im Bau. Das ist allerdings eher eine Straßenbahn als eine U-Bahn, weil die Züge überirdisch und meistens neben Straßen fahren. Die Städte besitzen allerdings ein sehr gutes Bussystem, das fast alle Stadtteile verbindet. Für eine amerikanische Stadt ist Minneapolis-St. Paul ziemlich Fahrrad-freundlich: Es gibt sehr viele bestimmte Fahrradwege und alle Busse und Züge haben Fahrradträger. Nur die Vorstädte sind (wahrscheinlich wegen der dünnen Bevölkerungsdichte) nicht sehr gut abgedeckt. Leute die da wohnen haben meistens keine andere Wahl, als mit dem Auto zu fahren.

Es ist interessant zu sehen, wie zwei verschiedene Länder bzw. Städte an die fundamentale Aufgabe, viele Leute von einen Ort zu den Anderen zu bewegen, herangegangen sind. Es ist immer noch ein kleines Wunder, und ein Zeichen dafür, wie weit die moderne Gesellschaft mit dieser Aufgabe gekommen ist, dass ich in einen Ort im Zug einsteigen kann, fünfzehn Minuten und zehn Kilometer später aussteigen kann, diesen Vorgang jeden Tag mit hunderte oder tausende andere Leute wiederholen kann, und das Ganze überhaupt keine zweite Gedanken geben muss.