26 April 2007

Spring Brings One Ending and Many Beginnings

This week marked the beginning of the Summer semester here, but before I talk about its outlook I would like to share a few more photos from the end of the last one.

First off, here are some shots taken during the last fencing class. Luckily, my schedule will allow for me to keep up the activity during this semester as well. The first class was yesterday and I was the only returning student from the Winter. As such the teacher asked me to spar with her as an example for the others. Hopefully they remembered that she is the teacher afterall.

Below, I'm attacking on the left. In the last one I stand on the right side.

Three days before I left Eichstätt for my travels there was an end of the semester and Fasching party in the Theke. Fasching is the southern German term for Carnival, that party that takes on a different form all around the world. In America we know it was Mardi Gras, and the main destiantion is New Orleans. Traditionally it is the period of days in which people let lose their inhibitions and party the nights away before the beginning Lent, the Catholic season of sacrifice and fasting, and Ash Wednesday. To be clear, Carnival, Fasching, Mardi Gras, or how ever it's called is not connected with the Church, rather a time of revelry organized by the laity.

In a way, Fasching is like Germany's Halloween. Special treats and pastries are prepared for the season. Party-goers usually dress up in costums and disguises. That custom explains some of the odd dressed people at the party in the pictures below. Fortunate or not, depending how you see it, most of the other foreigners and I didn't know about the custom.

Here we see from the left Valleria, Franchesca, Ji Shuix , Kristin, Federica, and me. All but Ji Shuix are gone now.

A scene from the dance floor.

Me and the Japanese girls Ayano, Mariko, and Shiho from the left. Only Mariko remains in Eichstätt.

Returning to Eichstätt I found a city engulfed with the presence of Spring time. Trees and flowers are in bloom around the city, and older German women are busy tending to their gardens. The first couple are views of the campus.

Here are some the Easter decorations left up in town after my return.

And one view of the Domplatz (Catherdral Place) and some nice outdoor seating.

My class schedule for this semester is a little tighter than last, but there's still enough lee way for weekend getaways or lazy afternoons. My German courses include the highest level grammar course, a literature course, creative writing, and the German Landscape after 1945. For geography I found a lecture more inline with my urban planning concentration, the Foundations of Settlement and City Geography. The professor is the same as last semester's USA geography course. He must be well-liked by the students because the first session, like last semester, had only standing room remaining by the time I arrived. I have decided to also continue with Spanish and am enrolled in the second level.

I attempted to take a photography course but the high number of interested students forced the instructor to limit the course only to art majors.

Wednesdays will be my sport days. The full line up includes classes in fencing and ultimate frisbee, and playing soccer with the journalism students. Charlotte's journalism friends invited me to play soccer with them, and I think the fact that I'm American is a believable excuse to explain my lack of skill with the black and white ball. They are training to win the Präsis Cup in a tournament of teams from the university's other faculties. Whether or not I will play in that tournament remains to be see.

A number of excursions already cram this semester as I attempt to see it all before I leave in around four months. This weekend I'm going with the international organization to Salzburg, Austria. Later on we will go to more destinations in Bavaria, and even farther to Dresden. In the last weekend of May I plan to visit my Italian friends in Milan. At least a couple American friends will be visiting me in Eichstätt and we'll take some day trips around the region. Plans to see Köln (Cologne) are also underway. Somehow before the semester ends I would still like to fit in a bit of Switzerland and Prague, the Czech Repbulic. When classes finally come to an end I have one last adventure sketched out the map, but more on that as the time draws nearer.

The Theke is holding a beginning of the semester party tonight, and if it's anything like the last one it should be three crowded floors of good fun.

Enough time spent on the computer, if the weather is as beautiful where you are as it is here, I suggest you go make the best of it.

The Estonian Sauna Visit

As promised here is the story of my visit to the sauna in Tallinn, Estonia. Everyone I’ve told it to so far has enjoyed it, I think you’ll get a laugh or two out of it as well.

I planned to stay in
Tallinn for only two days, then I was to board a ferry and cross the Baltic Sea for Finland. Therefore, my time in the city and the country would be fast paced. I had read and heard before that the saunas in Estonia are a unique and interesting experience. Furthermore, they offer insight into the authentic local culture because of their long tradition and the fact that few foreigners ever visit one. For a traveler seeking exactly that, a route not taken by the average tourist, I knew where I was heading the first afternoon on the day I arrived in the city.

Before leaving the hostel I decided to take my contacts out and wear my glasses because my eyes had that tired feeling from a night of tough sleep.

I reached the doors of the public Kalma Sauna at around five o’clock. I walked inside and to the attendant at the front desk.

After paying for entrance I asked the English-speaking man what one normally does in the sauna here. Of course I knew the general idea of sitting and relaxing in the heat but I thought maybe there were some customs or differences I should be aware of before going into the changing rooms. The man gave me a puzzled look and asked if this was my first time to visit a sauna. I had been in one once or twice back in America to see what it was like, but not for a prolonged visit. I thought it to best to answer no.

After his light hearted laugh the man explained to me what I already knew. He told me that it’s a hot room and that I simply sit in it and relax. Again, I wanted to really hear about the local customs, but I brushed aside this misunderstanding and followed him to the door of the changing room. At the entrance he paused and turned to me, “Watch the other men and do what they do.”

The man pushed the door open and I walked into the changing room; I very quickly wondered into what I had gotten myself. This dressing room was more of a lounge with some storage lockers for clothes. In the center were some black leather chairs and couches. In one corner was a bar selling drinks, snacks, and other small items for the sauna. The room was full of men standing or sitting and talking with one another. Most were middle aged but others had white hair and aged faces, and still a few more looked about my age. Some stood at the bar and ordered drinks, while others reclined in the leather chairs and sipped on their beer. Everyone, except the bar tender, was completely naked.

Let me be clear when I saw they were naked. That doesn’t mean they had a towel wrapped around them and covering their nether regions. That means they stood, sat, talked, and drank with every inch of their skin exposed for all to see. Shocking to say the least for me.

I made a bee line to another door way and found another dressing room with only a handful of men in it. Here I considered my options. I had brought swim trunks with me to wear in the sauna, thinking that was the expectation, but I now knew that if I wore anything I would stand out like a naked guy would on the side of the street. It’s not often one finds himself in a situation where he’s in the minority for wearing clothes. I held the trunks in my hand for a few seconds and arrived at my decision. I threw them on top of the rest of my clothes in the locker, locked it, and walked away with a towel wrapped around my waste.

I found a door to the nearest room that I assumed was the sauna and walked into thick steam. My glasses instantly became useless and I pushed them up on my head. I took a seat on a tiled bench and could see another flesh tone human form at the other end of the room. Slurp. Flurp. These noises caught my attention as they come from the direction of the other body. Through the steam and my nearsightedness I could make out the person’s arms moving over their skin. My imagination began to wander and I considered if I should leave the person in private. I then realized they were sweeping the sweat and condensing steam off their body. The body rose and to my relief a man walked past me and out the door.

I allowed for a few minutes to pass then I decided the time had come to find the true sauna. I left the steam room and went back through my dressing room and the original one. I came to another room lined with open showers; no sense in installing privacy walls or doors. At the end of this room rose a three foot tall pool, to the left of this was a wooden door. That had to be the sauna.

Approaching the door I could feel the heat radiating off from it and pulled it toward me. The sauna room had five tiers of wooden bench seating facing a large heater covered in stones. Alone in the room, I took my towel off and laid it down on the warm wood of the third tier and sat down. Very soon sweat began to gradually flow out from my pores, but the heat was relaxing and a pleasure to my travel weary muscles. The door opened and I was no longer alone.

A middle-aged man in the buff closed the door behind him and took a seat opposite me on the same level of seating. With my fog free glasses I curiously observed a small cone shaped hat covering his hair and the bundle of birch branches he had carried into the room and placed over his lap. A minute passed and my nostrils sensed the thick menthol-like aroma seeping from the birch branches.

Ah, it must a therapeutic thing, I thought to myself. The aroma probably clears up his sinuses.

At that, the man grabbed the branches with his left hand and stood up on the bench. He raised his arm into the air and violently brought it back down through the air. Threewp! The dried branches and leaves struck his bare flesh. I couldn’t believe what I had just seen, but then he repeated his actions, and again, and again. He whipped every inch of his body except his face and his privates with the branches. I couldn’t take it and had to look away from the man, not because of how painful it looked, but because laughter wanted to erupt from my mouth. Then five more men with cone hats on their heads and birch branches in hand entered the room.

In under a minute the room was a flurry of birch branches flying through the air and colliding with hairy chests, arms, and legs. It looked as if all of the men were under attack by a hive of angry bees and they were trying their best to swat them away. I quickly wrapped my towel back around me and bolted to the door. Outside the room I went to one of the shower stalls and pushed in the knob. The running water cooled me down and the noise helped cover the sound of my laughter.

The minute hand crept along and I decided it was time to reenter the sauna. I found the room full of about ten men sitting all about on the benches. This time my glasses fogged up and I pushed them back on top of my head. I took a seat and listened to the men talk to each other in Estonian. A pause in the conversation gave me the opportunity to ask if anyone spoke English.

At first no one spoke, but then a man on the opposite side of the room started talking to me. My eyes could not make out facial details or much else, only a pink body and a head covered in white hair. His voice confirmed that he was an elderly man. His English was less than decent, but it sufficed. The other men fell silent as we spoke.

“Do you like saunas?” the old man asked.

“This is my first time,” I answered to simplify the conversation, but also somewhat truthfully.

“First time?!” The man then looked around to the other men and translated. The room bursted into laughter.

Our conversation continued and as the metal on my glasses and watch began to heat up I decided to stay in the sauna at least as long as the old man. If this senior citizen could stand the heat so could I, or so I thought.

The minutes ticked by and the temperature seemed to raise higher and higher. Eventually I took off my glasses and wrist watch altogether because the metal parts were too hot to touch. The sweat collected on my brow and dripped down to the floor. We kept talking and I kept waiting. Soon the towel on which I sat became pointless and the heat flowed freely from the wooden bench to my bare skin. Next it reached the inside of my body and my mouth and throat dried; the elder carried on about some trip he took once in his life. I had already stopped paying attention somewhere back around the part about his cousin, uncle, or something in America.

I answered simply, but kept thinking in my head.

Will you ever leave? I don’t care about how you learned English anymore. Don’t you see the door right there? Hurry up, old man!

As I opened my mouth to say I was leaving the man stood up and headed to the door. I grabbed my things and rose onto my two feet. I began to step to the door when my head started to spin.

From the heat, and maybe a little from the lingering menthol odor in the room, my head swirled in a dizzy blur. I made it out the door and was going to sit down on a chair when the old man whistled to me. I turned around and he pointed to the raised pool.

I managed to make my way up the ladder and submerge neck deep into the ice cold water. I leaned against one of the side walls and let out a sigh of relief. Then an overweight man climbed up the ladder and dipped into the cooling waters with me.

It turned out that this man worked as a taxi driver and spoke broken English. As we treaded water in this five by ten foot pool filled with birch green stained water a thought occurred to me. Before coming to Germany I never would have imagined myself naked and dog paddling in a tiny pool while carrying on a conversation as casual as a Sunday afternoon with a nude stranger only a water splash away from me. I found this whole turn of events amusing.

Before leaving the sauna for the night I bought a bundle of birch branches from the bar tender with a mind set to follow the local way.

I had watched what the other men did with their branches and copied their system. First I filled a round green plastic tub with hot water from one of many faucets. After placing the dried branches into the water I put another empty tub on top to trap the steam and vapors. I let the branches soak for around five minutes before grabbing them and heading into the sauna.

I took a seat on my towel and let the branches rest in my lap. Once I could smell the vapors I stood up and started flogging myself.

After a few good swings I stopped to assess the things. My legs had light red scratches and, quite honestly, I wasn’t getting any enjoyment from this practice. I looked over at another man as he swung at himself. Perhaps I needed to put a little more force into it. I tried it again. When the wooden branches began to burn my hand I decided to walk away, and did so with my towel in one hand and the branches in the other.

I took one last shower to remove the bits of dried leaves and wood stuck on my skin, but also because my mind was slightly still preoccupied about sharing that tiny pool with that other naked man. I had no soap with me, but that didn’t prevent me from feeling cleaner afterwards.

As I walked back into my changing room and put my clothes back on I surveyed the scene around me. Many men gathered around the leather chairs and sat down for their dinner. With legs crossed or spread wide, they unwrapped packed sandwiches and poured drinks from thermoses. I suppose a lack of clothes makes napkins unnecessary. I gathered my belongings and headed for the door as the men carried on about the day’s news.

By the end of my experience I had grown comfortable enough to walk around freely exposed, but I kept my towel in hand incase of any sudden episodes of modesty.

Back out in the lobby I told the front desk attendant I had an interesting, but good time. He smiled and said he was glad to hear it. Before walking out to the street I said goodbye and promised to share the experience with my friends back home. For that he thanked me.

The Klama Sauna

20 April 2007

Odysseus Returns Home

Oh, the wonders my eyes have seen, the places my feet have trod, and the experiences which have nourished my soul! To simply say that I did and saw so much during my Odyssey would be the understatement of my life. This adventure saw the realization of many life dreams, and the birth of others. I will never be able to fully recount the tales, but I will probably try to for the rest of my days.

All of my friends here are curious and excited to hear about my travels, and I am equally excited to share the stories with them. They shake their heads in disbelief or call me crazy when I list the countries I visited in the past two months. They show faces of amazement when I tell them about my time in Albania. They laugh about my visit to the sauna in Tallinn (for which I still plan on devoting an entry ). They express disgust when I describe tripe soup, beef tartare, or head of calf. Finished with one story I eagerly await for the next question and think of the perfect words to use in order to elicit the response I desire.

Before I continue, here is a recap of the last week or so of the trip.

I spent five days in Paris during the first week of April. My timing couldn’t have been better, the city bloomed with Spring flowers and trees. After hearing so much about the City of Lights I had an impression of a divine city, but once I arrived I could see it was only mortal. Like any large urban area, it has its share of troubled and neglected areas; however, for the most part it truly lives up to its reputation of beauty. I believe it was the most beautiful city I saw in the two months.

I spent the first two days alone and seeing some of the main sites: the Louvre Museum, the palace of Versailles and its horizon-sprawling gardens, and the Notre Dame Cathedral. I also visited some of the lesser knows, like the Pompidou Center, the Holocaust Memorial (an interesting note: the Nazis had an effect on every country and nearly every city I visited), and the Jardin des Tuileries. I tried such foods as head of calf and Angelina’s famous Mont Blanc dessert. The first was the second most disgusting dish of the trip, and the second vies with Greek baklava for the position as the best sweet.

I spent the rest of the time in Paris with Natalie, my friend from America who is studying in Angers, France. Together we climbed the steps of the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe, strolled down the Champs Elysees, and visited or saw other sites such as La Defense, the Parisian catacombs, the Montmarte neighborhood, Moulin Rouge, Napoleon’s Tomb, the Latin Quarter, and the Basilique du Sacre Coeur. Food experiences included escargot, beef tartare, and french onion soup. While eating beef tartare (raw hamburger meat topped with a raw egg) I felt like I was breaking every rule in terms of sanitation. Contrary to what one might think, it tasted good enough for me to order again.

My favorite, and most anticipated, site in Paris was the catacombs. In order for one to reach these old quarries he must descend far beneath the grand boulevards of Paris. At the end of the 1700s Paris faced sanitation issues and one solution was to exhume over a million bodies and store them in the damp underground tunnels. At first, workers threw the remains into piles, but eventually they adopted a more organized method and stacked the various bones along the dark corridors. At the underground entrance to the catacombs reads an original engraved stone in French, “Stop! Here is the empire of the dead.”

Inside, Natalie and I found innumerable skulls, leg bones, hips, and other various remains lining the tunnels. Most of the time they are in simple rows, but at other times are arranged in basic geometric shapes, like a heart. Other original stone carvings along the way present macabre quotes, like “If you have seen a man die remember that the same fate awaits you.” Our mood understandably changed from curiosity and excitement to morbid fascination and reflection. Surrounded by death one can not resist contemplating his own eventual demise. The queasy, the very young, and those with a fear of life’s end should never step foot into the empire of the dead.

Now, on to cheerier subjects.

Natalie and I left Paris for Mont Saint Michel and met up with Andrew, another friend from home who is also studying in Angers.

At a certain point along France’s Normandy coast a rocky protrusion juts up from the sea floor and reaches for the heavens with its crowing abbey. During high tides this outcropping becomes a mountain-island, and half a day later at low tide it stands exposed by barren mud flats and stretches of quicksand. A religious community first began on the Mont around 700 AD in dedication to Saint Michael the Archangel, who supposedly appeared here. Over time an abbey, fortress, and a small village were built clinging to the rock. During the Hundred Years War the community resisted all attacks by the English soldiers. The abbey itself exists like an extension of the rock, and its towering spire scrapes the sky. The stark contrast between the flat surrounding landscape and Mont Saint Michel amplifies the glory of the natural element and the man-made structure.

That night from one of the ramparts we watched the sun setting over the barren sea floor, and then the tides rushing in under the vanishing twilight. During the most impressive displays they say that the tides move as fast as a galloping horse. Some people have perished from walking too far out onto the mud flats during low tide, and then drowning when the high tide comes. We saw the depressions and channels in the sand glaze over with a black glassy surface, and the water progress ever closer to the Mont. At its closest point we could barely hear the sound of the lapping waves approaching.

After dinner we were forced to ride rented bikes back to our hostel in the early morning hours. The ride brought us through a dark French countryside and chilling winds. Most of the time we rode along old farm roads or gravel tractor paths with only the stars and a small flashlight to light our way. Two hours after we left the Mont we walked into the hostel and fell asleep in our beds.

For Easter Sunday we returned to the Mont for Mass in the abbey, and then some strolling in the quicksands.

Unlike in the movies, one can not suddenly sink waist deep into quicksand. In reality it is a very slow process and someone would have to stand still for a long time to reach that point. However, with violent shaking of the feet or strong vibrations in the sand one can speed things up. Exactly like the liquidfication effect during earthquakes, after a few strong strikes with our feet moist yet firm sand would turn into something like gray watery pudding. We allowed ourselves to go only shin deep, but even that created resistance sometimes strong enough to require a helping hand.

I will admit that after seeing so many natural and man-made wonders in two months I had become disillusioned and hard to impress by so called must-see sites. However Mont Saint Michel surpassed my expectations and restored my faith in the places to see in this world. As such, it was a fitting finale to the Odyssey.

We left in the afternoon and returned to Paris, where we went our separate ways. I boarded an overnight train to Munich and awoke the next morning in familiar territory. I spent the first half of the day walking around that city before beginning the last leg of my trip. In the train station I didn’t need to check a schedule or ask the information desk for help; I knew where I was going- Eichstaett.

Reaching my apartment I slid the key into the hole, turned it, and pushed the door open. That adventure was over.

In the last two months I: became a victim of crime in Rome; saw the devotion of which man is capable at the monasteries in Meteora, Greece; witnessed the beauty that man can create while viewing St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City; learned of the horrors that man can perform by the constant reminders of the Nazi regime all over Europe and the Communist authorities in the East; admired ancient relics in Athens; searched for my family heritage in Maar, Germany; traveled from the sun-drenched Mediterranean coast to the snow-packed Arctic; and came away with enough experiences to keep this paragraph going for pages.

I hope by following along with me in these past two months your own willingness to go out and live life grew. During the trip there were times when I was anxious, nervous, or embarrassed in certain situations, but I pushed on and was rewarded with an amazing experience. As humans, we cling to continuity and the well-worn path for the sake of comfort and ease. We tend to dislike change and fear the unknown. However, staying with the tried and true ways leads to a boring life, and prohibits progress. Never allow nervousness to prevent you from trying something new and living more actively. Usually the worst that can happen is that you’ll walk away with an embarrassing yet entertaining story.

I myself learned some lessons along the way, some applicable for the rest of my life and some specifically for traveling. For one thing, while on the road one can never have too many plastic bags. I know understand why I often see homeless people with a collection of these bags. After being given the wrong amount too many times to remember each, I will always count my change. A friendly smile goes a long way, especially when you can’t speak someone’s language. I will always keep better attention of my surroundings, and my trust in gut feelings and intuition has been reaffirmed. While true jerks and evil individuals exist in the world, the majority of people mean well and many will go out of their way to help others.

This last lesson was perhaps the strongest felt. Time and time again the friendliness and helpfulness of strangers surprised me. In Albania, a woman paid for my bus ticket across town and then found a taxi to take me to another city, where a man on the street invited me to coffee. In Greece, another woman led me through the streets of her town to a phone and an English speaking friend. A man in Romania guided me through a chaotic train station and made a deal with a cab driver for me. Individuals invited me and my parents into their home in Germany. The list could continue, but I think the point is made.

Though difficult to fathom, even after two months of travel and accomplishing life goals I remain unsatisfied. No, not with my Odyssey, rather with travel in general. I believe that I have now visited more countries than the average person will see in their lifetime, but so much more remains. In fact, I can picture myself returning to nearly every place I visited, yet I know that I will never again lay eyes on the majority of them. As I wrote in my very first entry, I believe that travel is the best way to experience life; therefore, I will never rest when it comes to seeing the world.

Here are some photos from the second half of the trip:

The village of Maar, Germany, from where my paternal ancestors originated.

The largest Ikea store in the world at home in Stockholm, Sweden.

The medieval skyline of Tallinn, Estonia.

The former Communist Ministry of Culture and Science, now partly a movie theater, in Warsaw, Poland.

The Arc de Triomphe in Paris, France.

La Defense and the Grand Arch in Paris, France.

The catacombs in Paris, France.

The Basilique du Sacre Coeur in Paris, France.

Reindeer sleigh ride in Rovaniemi, Finland.

Dealing with the quicksands of Mont Saint Michel, France.

Natalie, Andrew, and myself out by Mont Saint Michel.

Mont Saint Michel, France.

Me and my friend Nawell in Nantes, France.

La Tour Eiffel in Paris, France.

The Fisherman's Bastion in Budapest, Hungary.

One of the thermal baths in Budapest, Hungary.

Part of the dinning area inside the Snow Castle of Kemi, Finnland.

Views of the quicksands and mud flats around Mont Saint Michel, France.

The cathedral of Angers, France.

13 April 2007

Done Deal

I returned to Eichstätt this past Monday and ended my once in a lifetime adventure. As my train rounded that bend in the Altmuhl valley and I caught my first glimpse of Willibaldsburg high on the ridge my heart felt like it leaped from one of the castle's walls. Spring enveloped Eichstätt while I was away, and bright flowers and green trees flourish around town. To change the landscape further, nearly 15 new Americans have arrived for this semester. Whether I like that change or not remains for me to see.

The quickly approaching semester has caused my mind to abruptly shift from trip planning to school planning. Since Monday I have been busy reviewing the course catalog and organizing my semester. However, the registration period for my home university back in America also began this week, so I have double the work load.

Because of this necessary work I have been unable to write a proper conclusion to the Odyssey, but rest asured that one is on the way.

01 April 2007

Bon jour

I now find myself staying with Nawell and her family in Nantes, France. In a few minutes we will sit down to a meal of authentic Moroccan dinner made by her father, who is from the country. Therefore, my time to write is brief.

In Germany my parents and I successfully traced my paternal heritage to the village of its origin. We came to find out that in that region our family name is fairly common. Hopefully I will find more time to write about that later.

I left my parents last Wednesday and came to Angers, France, where I met a couple friends from home. Andrew and Natalie are studying abroad at the university there for the semester. They showed me around town and introduced me to French life. So far, it appears that many of the stereotypes about are unfortunately true. I still have time for France to prove me wrong though.

Tomorrow I will for Paris, and Natalie will join me in two days. Then we will go to the Normandy coast and rendezvous with Andrew in order to see Mont St. Michel. After that I will finally return to Eichstaett.

I smell the aroma from the kitchen, and don't want to keep my hosts waiting any longer. With the excitement of Paris around the corner I might not be able to post again until I'm back in Germany. In that event, look forward for another entry in a little more than a week.