Hungarians Love to Cheer

FINA, the (somewhat unpopular*) world governing body for aquatic sports, held its World Championships in Budapest throughout the month of July. While you could watch high diving with a view of Parliament or see synchronized swimming in front of Vajdahunyad Castle, I just wanted to see the best swimmers in the world compete. Fortunately, that elite group includes several current and former members of the UMBC swimming team. Thus, I had the chance to eat lunch at possibly the slowest restaurant in the world (Hungarian food service can be pretty bad) with my old coach, Chad, and Egyptian swimmers Hania and Mohamed. 

Watching the swimming itself was a fun and economical (a ticket for preliminaries cost around $2) way to spend a day. ‘Quiet, Please’ (in large lettered Hungarian) would flash on the scoreboard for the start whenever a Hungarian swam since the local fans were so outspoken. At finals, the excitement during some of the closest races was evident in the full-throated roar emitted by the entire crowd. I even ran into one of my old coaches from Philadelphia. 

Budapest itself is a beautiful city. I was able to enjoy Buda Castle and a nice view with my Uncle Bob and Aunt Susi since they just happened to pass through the city on a cruise the day I arrived. There’s plenty to do that doesn’t require catching up with family, though. I was impressed with the museum in the House of Terror (the former Hungarian secret police headquarters) and Andrássy Avenue is a wide, leafy boulevard perfect for a casual stroll. The Hospital in the Rock was also fascinating to walk through since its use as an atomic bomb shelter would be impermissible today (bombs have become much stronger). It was sobering to see maps of several major cities matched against current weapons, especially when I saw that my house would be destroyed if even a small weapon targeted the military base in my suburb. 

*FINA has a penchant for, among other things, hosting open water swimming events in conditions hotter than is allowed in their regulations and for imposing such high infrastructure requirements for hosting large events that few countries bid to be hosts. 

Slovakia is Doomed

A fully equipped knight, helmeted and carrying a rather large sword, stepped off my Budapest-bound train as soon as it reached Slovakia. I don’t know his intentions but I can say that he boarded the train from some random station in Czechia (Aside: I think the ‘Czech Republic’ was a much better name) in the middle of the night to the befuddlement of both me and the guy sitting across from me.

‘Voting’ in the GDR

You can learn a lot about East Germany with just a few hours of walking around Leipzig. At the Zeitgeschichtliches Forum, I learned from my tour (there aren’t many displays in English) that voters would ‘vote’ by folding one of the pre-printed ballots (no choice in candidates) and placing it into the collection box. There was also a comparison of sheets showing the national anthem in its original form and then a copy from several years later after the government deleted the lyrics because a line about ‘one Germany’ could have been subversive. Also in Leipzig is the Stasi’s former district office where, among the drab hallways (kept as they had been in 1989), I learned about how agents would engineer misfortune (job problems, failed relationships) in the lives of people who seemed even remotely likely to express discontent.

It was a shame that I couldn’t see the German friends I had in Berlin (I met them during my only other trip abroad in Colombia) but fortunately there are lots of great things to do. Somehow, my itinerary continued the theme of the aftermath of World War II in East Germany. Treptower Park contains a massive cemetery for the thousands of Soviet soldiers who died in Germany in World War II (it was strange to me seeing the dates written as 1941-1945 considering how the Soviets interacted with their neighbors…). You can walk on the runway at Tempelhof Airport and imagine the bustle of the Berlin Airlift. A hallway full of identical interrogation rooms at the Stasi’s secret Hohenschönhausen Prison gives the impression that the interrogators were very busy people. The museum at the Topography of Terror is incredibly frank about Nazi rise to power and is next to a portion of the Berlin Wall. However, the section of the Berlin Wall by Nordbahnhof was more interesting to me since excavations revealed the modifications of the defenses made by the GDR over the years. 

All of this somewhat dark history meant that I appreciated every moment I had to relax. Leipzig has a beautiful old town with the occasional shop offering lerchen, a dessert that reminded me of a muffin made with sugar cookie dough. The Computerspielemuseum was a well researched collection of video game equipment that also offered the chance to play all sorts of arcade games (Donkey Kong, Asteroids,…) in their original cabinets. As for the Deutches Technikmuseum, go early since there are almost too many things, from an old brewery to computer hardware that runs the Internet, to see. 

The Day I Punched a Robot

While I waited for my bus back to Stuttgart from the Max Planck Institute, I didn’t really think about how one of the world’s most respected roboticists spent several hours mentoring me. Instead, I spent much of the time giggling about how I had, in a very real sense, punched a robot that day. 

Dr Katherine J. Kuchenbecker ran a student research program at the University of Pennsylvania that I had participated in a few years ago. Since I was close to her new city, I emailed her and she, very graciously, gave me a tour of her institute, introduced me to her group members, and then took me to lunch where she gave me a lot of advice concerning graduate school and working in the future. The highlight was seeing a demonstration of the Baxter robot that is used to study both haptics (giving robots a sense of touch / Dr Kuchenbecker’s specialty) and human-computer interaction. My favorite demo involved the robot playing the Rocky theme song as it moved its ‘hands’ ($20 boxing pads from Wal-Mart) around with the expectation that you would hit them. Lest you think such games are worthless, consider how a ‘punch’ would be registered (by sound? sight? pressure?) or how firmly a punch should be received so that the user believes that the robot is safe. Who knows? Maybe a version of this robot will one day keep retirement home residents active. 

Stuttgart itself has a lot of great museums to visit when you get bored with fighting robots. The Porsche Museum was almost like a pilgrimage site since the visitors there were more hushed than the people I had encountered in cathedrals. The Mercedes-Benz Museum touches on the entire history of cars — I could have spent an entire day there. The houses in the neighborhood by the Weissenhof Museum are beautiful examples of modernist construction. You can even find an old-style German neighborhood in Bad Canstatt (one of the few parts of the city not destroyed during World War II). A few days would be necessary to enjoy all of things available to see in Stuttgart. 

Even Green Mush Is Better Than Sauerkraut

The Germans I ate with at Spezialkeller, a beer garden in Bamberg, seemed genuinely disappointed when we were told there was no wirsing (an unappetizing-looking but apparently delicious green vegetable paste) available. When a huge bowl of sauerkraut was placed on the table instead, not even German stoicism could mask the dislike of that fermented mess. However, the odorous intruder was soon forgotten as we enjoyed schaüferla (a large piece of pork cooked until crispy), good beer, great company, and a beautiful view of the city and the sunset. 

I visited Bamberg, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in order to see my old UMBC teammates, Leo and Greg. The competitive spirit is alive and well with them if you consider the seriousness with which they play water polo with their friends. Not only did everyone wear team caps (I was thankful for my side’s blue caps since my eyes are too weak to identify faces in the pool otherwise), but everyone played as hard as they could with strict rule-following and lots of sprinting to reach the ball. It was very fun.  

The city itself and its surroundings are beautiful and don’t need much explanation. Leo’s family lives in the countryside with a view of farm fields and a nearby castle. The short Autobahn ride to Bamberg itself (Aside: it was totally unremarkable to Leo that we were driving 140 km/hr) seemed as if we were in the middle of the forest. We saw all of the sites from Altenberg Castle (where you can climb a tower to get a panoramic view of the surrounding city and countryside) to the colorful Altes Rathus (old town hall). It’s almost boring to write about since everything was so nice. Bamberg is definitely worth a stop in. 

Making French Girls Laugh / Pretzels

I didn’t think I was asleep as my train to Munich was passing through the Slovenian countryside until I woke myself up with a loud, singular, goose-like ‘HONK’. I wasn’t the only person who heard it either—I noticed a really pretty French girl* my age a few rows down start giggling and whispering to her friend with a quiet, but distinct, ‘honk’ thrown in. 

My WordPress ‘author profile’ (that sounds a lot more official than it really is) says I like pretzels. I really do like them so I was pleased to see that Munich is a city full of them. I ate one after strolling around the historical part of town (jam-packed and full of colorful banners for the Gay Pride festival that weekend), and another while strolling through the Olympic grounds following my visit to the BMW Museum, and yet another for good measure to relax a bit after visiting the concentration camp in Dachau. 

I heartily recommend everything I visited in Munich. The Deutches Museum, with its recreated mine and its microelectronics exhibits, really captivated me. I loved seeing all the cars on the BMW Museum (though seeing their actual prices in the showroom in BMW Welt tempered my enthusiasm). The Old City and the Nymphenburg Palace grounds were pleasant places to stroll around in. Even Dachau provided a surprising contrast between the horror of its (thankfully mostly unused) gas chamber and the pretty buildings that the town itself is comprised of. 

*I am a pragmatic prescriptivist since I would like to use ‘man’ and ‘woman’ for people my age. However, those terms seem far too formal for my peers. Thus, people my age will be referred to as ‘guys’ and ‘girls’ to reflect common usage. Feel free to call me a mysogynist in the comments.

Smile and Nod

I heard the museum staff speaking perfect English to the woman in front of me in line at the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb. However, I was too busy practicing ‘one, please’ in Croatian to hear what they were saying about entry. Apparently, my pronunciation was passable enough for the clerk to give me a long apology about why we couldn’t enter…in Croatian. Since I wasn’t too interested in seeing the museum, not to mention that I didn’t want to admit defeat in my Croatian skills, I let out a ‘Da, da’ in an appropriately grave tone and a ‘hvala’ as I walked away.

Zagreb is a city full of beautiful buildings and nice museums. I enjoyed seeing the art in the Gallery of the Old Masters and I’m glad I took a tour concerning the Croatian War of Independence (Wayudo Tours). My guide, Kristina, was (barely) born in Yugoslavian times yet was a masterful teacher of history. We were shown World War II era bomb shelter tunnels (now pedestrian pathways), taught about the first independent Croatian state and its atrocities prior to joining Yugoslavia, and then taken to a museum documenting the shelling of the city by the Yugoslavian Army in the 1990s as Croatia sought independence. It’s remarkable to think that this was a war zone 25 years ago. 

Samobor, with its green hills reminiscent of the Pacific Northwest, was an idyllic place to spend an afternoon. If you walk to Samobor Castle, you can enjoy a huge ruin, miraculously free of graffiti, without the hassles of tickets, crowds, or safety barriers to keep you from plunging down a few meters from a wrong step. Aside from the trash cans and the well maintained adjacent walking path, it would be easy to think that the entire castle was forgotten. 

The Standard Slovenian Itinerary

To remember ‘thank you’ in Slovenian and a few other countries, it helps to think you are a magician pulling vocabulary out of a hat. ‘Hvala’ (pronounced VAH-lah) sounds almost like the utterance a magician makes at the end of a trick and you feel like one when a reflexive ‘Prosim!’ is given in return. 
Slovenia is a beautiful country with a few well-beaten tourist tracks. Ljubljana (give a ‘j’ the ‘y’ sound) is a picture perfect capital with well preserved buildings and an obsession with dragons (St. Stephen and Jason and the Argonauts are to blame). Ljubljana Castle, unlike other very sterile castles, is an integral part of the community with a few museums (the puppetry museum was particularly enjoyable), restaurants, and summer film screenings. 

Day trips from Ljubljana are standard fare as well. Bled, an hour and a half bus ride away, is famous for its island church, clean water, and local ‘kremschnita’ cakes. Postonja, an hour from Ljubljana, contains world famous caves with high ceilings and correspondingly high ticket prices (26 euros). It would have been nice to explore more of the country but I think I was able to sample some highlights in the few days I was there. 

The (Formerly) Free Territory of Trieste

If you find yourself in one of the little settlements high in the hills above Trieste, with the pretty sea views and bilingual (Italian and Slovenian) signs, you can sometimes see tree branches tied to road signs. These indicate that an osmizza, or farmhouse selling its homemade products, is nearby. This Austro-Hungarian tradition (every producer is given two weeks a year to sell directly to the public) meant that I was able to enjoy a farm-fresh dinner with Alessandro (an Italian I met in Hong Kong), Dan (Serbian), Foteini (Greek), and Santiago (Colombian). Thankfully, we all enjoyed ourselves so much that it didn’t matter that the service was slow (though we didn’t complain when they gave us shots of grappa la fruta as compensation). 

You can think of Trieste as a checkbox city since you can cross off seeing or experiencing things normally associated with other places. There’s the Austro-Hungarian architecture that creates a dignified atmosphere and a well preserved Roman theater to see a performance. You can climb uphill to see a castle from the Middle Ages or just go swimming at one of the public beaches. I didn’t know that the Nazis built concentration camps in Italy so it was sobering to walk around the Risiera di San Sabba and to see the outline of its Nazi-destroyed crematorium. Even the central post office and its small museum were worth a visit (the building itself reminds me of the Old Post Office in Washington, DC). 

Alessandro and Dan gave me a lot of great recommendations. Miramare Castle, a shining white 19th century residence, is a proud symbol of the city and the tour of the huge, cathedral-like synagogue downtown was informative. I’m glad I followed Alessandro’s advice to visit the antique Cafe San Marco afterwards—in their sophisticated decor is complemented by a very tasty tirumisu. 

A common thread to this trip has been that people were extremely generous with their time. Alessandro and Dan spent several hours one evening giving me a walking tour of downtown where I saw wide streets (originally supposed to be canals), narrow alleyways (part of the Jewish ghetto), a former industrial pier turned into a popular hangout spot, as well as a (supposedly smart) Erasmus student cave to peer pressure and jump in the mildly polluted harbor. My last night in town was spent on a beach blanket at one of the crowded beaches with a bunch of friends enjoying the perfect weather and pleasant company. Again, I am very fortunate. 

Mosaics and Spending Lots of Money

Ravenna, a city filled with amazing mosaics, was my next destination after visiting Luca. The Mausoleo di Galla Placida, with its dark blue night sky mosaic covering the ceiling, was the most memorable to me. If you want to save money, you can stay in Rimini, full of hotels and Russians on vacation, and take a commuter train in. Rimini itself contains many sights like the Tiberius Bridge, a 2000 year old Roman bridge sturdy enough for cars to cross. 

Most of the positive and negative things said about Venice are true. It is very expensive (7.50 euro for a single vaporetti, or waterbus, ride), is thronged with clueless visitors (it was difficult to move with all of the huge suitcases at the vaporetti stop by the train station), and waves do splash onto the paths when it’s high tide. However, it really is special to see the opulence of the Doge’s Palace or to explore the (extremely safe) alleyways at night once the crowds are gone. One night there was plenty for me.