16 December 2009

At Last Croatia

Pardon the hiatus, but several events over the course of the last several weeks, from a nasty ear infection to one of my students being hit by a car, have kept me busy. Here, long overdue but hopefully still worth it, is the post about my trip in Croatia. Incidentally, the student who was hit by the car is surprisingly back to good health.

Croatia is a quickly developing land in southeastern Europe, and in its modern form a product of the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The shape of the country on a map resembles a scythe. The blunt handle heads east and inland toward Serbia and Hungary; the tapering blade follows the coast of the Adriatic Sea to the south until reaching Macedonia. All along the way thousands of islands linger off the rocky beaches. Across the Adriatic from the country lies Italy. The four and a half million citizens of the country speak Croatian, and are opening up their home more and more to foreign tourists. The lower part of the country, where I traveled, is known as Dalmatia. The following is brief summary of the trip, with the pictures mostly speaking for themselves.

About two months ago today, Julie and I boarded a plane from a low-cost airline and flew to Dubrovnik, the so-called "pearl of the Adriatic." In the small airport a border guard checked my passport and greeted me to Croatia by comparing me to Nicholas Cage.

Dubrovnik is a relatively small city of only about 50,000 people but is quickly becoming an international tourist destination. Actually, tourists from Western Europe had re-discovered this beautiful community shortly after the armed conflicts in the early 1990s ceased. Since then it has been growing in popularity with visitors from the Western hemisphere, and for good reason. The city is basically as far south as possible in Croatia before crossing into Macedonia. The old town sits on a rocky peninsula and is surrounded entirely by the city's Medieval defensive wall. Though damaged during the recent war, much of the old town has been wonderfully restored. Walking through the historic heart of Dubrovnik is a tour through marble plazas and lush, shaded staircases.

One of the high points with a visit to Dubrovnik is a walk along the city's foremost landmark: it's city walls. A complete circumnavigation around the old town offers some of the most rememberable real-life postcards a visitor may ever see. Here are several shots of the city as seen from the walls. In the first there's a glimpse down the main promenade; as far as I could tell, cars cannot enter the old town. The resemblance to Venice is no coincidence, the cities once competed with each other for glory.

Look hard and you can still notice the local day-to-day life behind the tourist crowds in the old town. Here a dish-washing hand reaches through a window to set a pan out to dry.

As in the past, the city's life is strongly connected with the sea. Dubrovnik provides more than a couple harbors, but the most charming is located in the old town.

I would also have to say that this is a city of stray cats. Their purrs could be heard around nearly ever corner.

A short boat ride from the old town is the inational park of Lokrum, an uninhabited island and national park. Thick Mediterranean forests cover the island's hilly landscape, and rock-strewn beaches and cliffs hug the shores. A Benedictine monastery once housed monks on Lokrum, but today only its ruins remain, as seen in the first photo below.

The waters of the Adriatic around Croatia are famous for their sparkling blue character and remarkable clarity. Snorkeling at the remote beaches of Lokrum could not be resisted. The underwater environment of several yards deep offered views of colorful schools of fish, sea urchins, and other swimming creatures.

Night delivered golden vistas of the city, especially around the old town's harbor.

After a few days we left Dubrovnik and headed north on a bus. The mainland portion of Croatia is interrupted for several kilometers by Bosnia-Herzegovina. During a brief stop at a rest stop along the road in this country I snapped the picture below. Closer inspection revealed that the holes on the sign were indeed caused by gunfire.

Soon back in Croatia we reached another one of Croatia's principal cities, Split. From here we transferred to ferry, and by the end of the afternoon we arrived at our destination, the island and village of Hvar. Here we found what looked like a quaint relative of Dubrovnik, fewer tourists, and remarkably clearer water than at Lokrum. The image below shows a view from the harbor into the water, the black dots are sea urchins on the rough floor.

A couple days in Hvar gave us plenty of time to walk around the village and seek out its most attractive spots. The first photograph below shows a view from an old castle that overlooks the community.

Here are a few more shots from the harbor and cityscape of Hvar. The dogs in the second photo seemed to be waiting for me.

On our last day in the country we started our return to Dubrovnik's airport early in the morning so that we could spend a few hours in Split. The city of more than 200,000 offers some trips into classical history with its Roman ruins.

The old town is literally built into the remains of a Roman palace. Emperor Diocletian of the Roman Empire left his ruling position near the fourth century AD and had a retirement palace constructed for him in Split, the capital of the then-Roman province of Dalmatia. Much of the structure of Diocletian's Palace has remained amazingly intact through the centuries, and today the residences and shops of the old town appear perfectly integrated into the ancient walls. Steps even lead to a subterranean portion that now houses a bazaar. Here a couple photographs of the palace remains and old town.

Another interesting place in Split was the fish market, though it did appeal more to the eyes than the nose.

Pleasantly fitting on our last day in Dalmatia was seeing none-other than possibly the most well-known export from the region--a dalmatian. And this one seemed quite the chic canine.

We arrived back home in Germany close to midnight that day, and the semester would be starting for me in less than a week. With the semester came all of the unexpected events and work that have regretfully kept me from posting more frequently. Fortunately, free time has again found its way to me.

14 November 2009

Return to Oktoberfest

Back on October 3rd I traveled to Munich with my friends Steffi and Masashi to pay a visit to Oktoberfest. It marked my second time at the world-famous Volksfest of Munich; the first time was one year previous to the day. Steffi took the following picture of me and Masashi shortly after we arrived in the main train station. As last time, a lederhosen-clad man was caught in the shot.

Originally meant to celebrate the wedding of a Bavarian king, today's Oktoberfest boasts 14 overcrowded beer tents filled with roaring voices and the aromas of roasted chickens and freshly tapped beer. We arrived at the festival around noon, the precious last minutes in the day when one stands a chance of finding a seat inside a tent.

We wasted little time after exiting the subway station at the edge of the Theresienwiesen, the fairgrounds home to the annual festival, to find our way inside a tent. We were turned away at our first try because of a security guard unwilling to let me in with my backpack. Terrorist threats this year increased the security precautions. We had better luck with our next try at the Hippodrom tent, seen below, but it didn't last long. After nearly half an hour of searching for free seats we left for another tent.

By then, all tents were full and the doors were closed to new guests. Knowing it was too late to actually find a seat inside, we started to look for openings at the tents' outdoor seating. After a couple more tries we found some open benches and quickly took our seats. Shortly thereafter we realized that we had apparently sat down at the classy tent.

So our search continued. Along the way we passed a trash can that was, to put it mildly, in need of some attention.

Eventually we came across a back entrance to the outdoor seating of the Schottenhammel tent. With excellent timing, a customer at the tent, likely under the influence of a few drinks, slyly walked to the closed entrance and lifted the rope for waiting fest-goers to pass under. Most in the crowd, either Germans unwilling to break the rules or tourists unsure of what to do, simply stared at the man. Steffi, Masashi, and I swiftly slid through and onto the terrace as a displeased-looking waiter raced by the tables to stop the man. We yelled out a quick "danke" before blending into the crowd on the terrace. Minutes later we found a table and sat down. This would be our table for the rest of the day.

The only size available for any drink, whether beer or cola, at most of the tents is one liter. The prices for a glass of beer at the festival seem to be rising more and more every year. A beer-drinker should have been prepared to hand over between eight and nine euros this year, about twelve American dollars. On the bright side, there's no general entrance fee for the festival. At times the liter-glasses can resemble a hand-held trough. As we learned, one should also avoid from making an overly energetic toast

We left the festival sometime after eight o'clock that night. The train back to Eichstätt took longer than usual because of the dozens of visitors at the festival returning home. Not necessarily because of each returning visitor, mostly only those who were still inebriated. The train conductors had to wait a little longer at every scheduled stop in order to make sure that everyone exited the train safely, and that the confused had some time to board again.

Some weeks later, when I went to Munich to have the new pages added to my passport, I passed by the fairgrounds. Oktoberfest was long over, but not yet gone. The frames of the giant tents remained. Work crews were busy dismantling the beloved festival. The pieces would be carried away and put into storage until next year, or at least until the next Volksfest at the Theresienwiesen.

31 October 2009

How I Lost My Visit to Lichtenstein

A new year in Germany has begun. I have actually been back since the end of September but a series of events and necessary work kept me fairly busy until now. In the first week after my return to Eichstätt I moved house from one apartment to another, albeit no more than 500 feet away. A stack of paper work greeted me back to the country as well, some associated with the change of address and some with staying for another year. It is this paper work that inspired the title of this post.

Immediately after my return I was faced with an important yet seemingly easily achievable chore: the renewal of my visa. My past visa, which granted me permission to reside in Germany throughout the last school year, expired on September 30; I arrived back in the country on September 28, leaving me two and a half days to renew the document.

My initial worry dealt with the supporting documents required for the extension. The government officials would need to see confirmation of my position at the university, but I fretted that because of my changed address the needed letter from the school would be delayed. Fortunately the letter awaited me in my new mail box when I checked it on the afternoon of the 28th. The next day I received the last necessary documents from the university during a personal visit that lasted longer than expected, and, along with the inconvenient government office hours, thereby erased any chances of visiting the visa office on the same day. I would have to wait until my last legally granted day in Germany to obtain the new visa.

If I could not receive the new visa before my current one expired, chances are that I could have remained as an illegal alien in the country for a couple days without any problems. These were, however, chances that I preferably did not want to entertain.

On Wednesday, September 30, I rode my bike over the cobblestone bridge into the old town and up to the Landratsamt, the equivalent of the county office building. I walked into the Foreigner's Office at an early hour so as to assure that I had plenty of time until noon, closing time for public visits, to wait if need. Luckily, only the standard, plain chairs occupied the waiting room.

After passing through the last door and greeting the worker behind the counter I started to hand over the forms and documents. To my surprise (this being my third year in Germany I have come to expect unforeseen problems with the Foreigner's Office), everything appeared in order. The current German visa, that is, the document itself, consists of two thick slips of paper that are pasted on two pages in one's passport. These slips display the holder's photograph, his pertinent information, and the conditions of his stay in Germany. Before retreating to the waiting room for the official to finish the work, I asked her if she could simply paste the new visa over the previous one, in order to spare some blank pages in my quickly filling passport. She answered that she wasn't allowed to do that, and I shrugged it off as a small issue.

After only a few minutes in the waiting room the office door opened and the official emerged with my passport in hand.

"We have a problem," she began. "I've looked through your entire passport and there is only one blank page available."

Assuming I had caught on to the alleged problem I quickly responded, "It's okay with me if the new visa covers a page with stamps." The solution would result in the loss of some travel mementos, yes, but considering the alternative I had to allow it.

"I'm sorry," she answered, "I'm not allowed to place the visa over any stamps either."

Surely, my eyes noticeably widened or my head cocked to the side a bit as my understanding of the "problem" improved. If there was no place for her to place the visa, what then was she suggesting, that I cannot receive it at all?

I reached for my passport and, as one does tend to trust only himself in stressful situations, turned each page carefully to see with my own eyes if what she had said were true. There were my two previous visas, one about to expire in mere hours and one from my year of studying abroad, and the many entry and exit stamps I had acquired through my travels. I came to the third- and second-to-last pages, both were blank.

"Here, you can use these. These are still blank."

"Hm," she thought out loud as she took the passport back, "no, I'm sorry. The titles of these pages read Amendments. I'm only allowed to insert the visa on pages with the title Visas.

"I really am sorry," she continued, "but there is no place for me to insert the new visa. You will have to go to the American consulate in Munich and request a new passport."

The bureaucracy, the waiting time, and the potential problems involved with that possibility were too much for me to accept.

"It really would be no problem with me if you placed the visa over some of my old stamps. I don't need them anymore." I hoped that some of her German bureaucratic ways would waiver, but she again informed that she was not allowed to do that. Then I had an idea.

I flipped to a certain page and pointed to the one stamp on it. "Maybe you could cover this stamp? It's from Lichtenstein, but it's not real, not official. It's just a souvenir; I actually bought it. See, the words Tourist Office are even on the stamp." The last truly blank page would be used, and only one stamp would be lost for the needed second page.

She inspected the stamp briefly before shaking her head. "I'm sorry, but," I almost repeated the words with her, "I'm not allowed to do that."

A long sigh signaled my surrender to her strict adherence to the rules. She returned inside the office to issue a certificate that would offer me temporary permission to remain in the country. From the waiting room I could hear her speak with her coworker, not well enough to distinguish every word, but enough to catch a few phrases. I understood, "not allowed to," and, "Lichtenstein," and then there was laughter. Soon after, as I contemplated when I could go to Munich and how much the trip would cost, the door opened and the coworker walked out. He gave me a brief hello and what seemed to be like a smirk. Not only were they putting me in this situation, I thought, but they also found humor in it.

After the coworker left the waiting room into the hallway, the original official cracked the office door open.

"After discussing the matter with my colleague, I have decided that it would be permissible to place the new visa over the stamp from the Principality of Lichtenstein. Would this solution be okay with you?"

I paused for a brief second as if to actually contemplate her question. "Yes, that would be okay. Thank you."

And so it was that I lost my visit to Lichtenstein. If I now hold that page of my passport up to a light I can still barely make out the hidden stamp from the backside.

After waiting a little longer for the woman to complete to visa and insert in my passport, I walked toward the exit. While doing so I recalled my visit to the tourist office in Lichtenstein when I bought the stamp last February. As the worker in that office was about to place the stamp on a blank page, I almost stopped her and requested if she could simply put it on a page with previous stamps. However, on quick second thought I decided it wouldn't be so important to keep that certain page blank, and the stamp landed on the page.

In order to prevent any future problems dealing with a scaricty of blank pages in my passport, I visited the American consulate while in Munich a couple of Fridays ago. After a tight security procedure at the entrance and about an hour of waiting, several new pages were stitched into the booklet. Hopefully that will suffice until this current passport expires.

Following the tiring first week or so after my return, things took an easier path. I traveled to Munich on another occasion to attend the Oktoberfest with a couple friends, and in the middle of October I went a little farther in order to spend a week in the splendid country of Croatia. Look forward to posts about these events in the days ahead.

04 September 2009

Summer Vacation

For the first time in eight months I'm on home soil in America. I'll be staying here for most of the month enjoying time with friends and family. As Fire at Will is mostly meant as a means of sharing my European travels and experiences, I do not forsee any new posts until my return to Germany. New trips are already planned for the weeks after my return, and soon after that the next semester will begin. Check back sometime in the middle or towards the end of October, and in the meantime take advantage of the summer's twilight.

Eichstätt's Volksfest

A couple weeks ago I wrote about the famous Volksfest of Straubing, now its Eichstätt's turn. The festival here is of course not nearly as large or as famous as Straubing's, but it offers it's own charm.

The festivities began last Friday evening, but the festival itself did not officially kick off until Saturday afternoon. This is when a short parade carrying Eichstätt's mayor and this year's chosen "queen" for the festival left the town center and arrived at the fair grounds. Before the parade started, hundreds of people gathered on the Marktplatz, the main town square, to enjoy free beer distributed from the local Hofmühl brewery.

Some photos showing the staging of the parade follow.

The fairly small and quaint Volksfest Eichstätt offers one massive beer tent, seemingly large enough to contain all residents of the town, a couple dozen vendors and amusement rides. A view inside the beer tent, which I believe was acutally larger than any of the tents I visited in Straubing, is in the first picture below. The blue and white banners correspond with the offical colors of Bavaria. At the end of the tent, or what looks like the distant horizon, is a stage where different bands will play during the entire length of the festival. The last picture offers a glimpse of the festival from the top of the ferris wheel. Eichstätt's Volksfest will continue until next Sunday, but of course by then I'll have been gone from Germany for a handful of days.

31 August 2009

A Culinary and Sight-Seeing Tour of Brussels

From last Friday to Tuesday I found myself, for the first time, in the Belgian capital city, enjoying the sights and the food. After arriving I met my French friend Julie in the train station, where Julie's friend, Emily, greeted us. We would stay with Emily at her apartment and with her two roommates for the next four nights.

When most people think of Belgium they can instantly find connections with chocolate and waffles, but beyond these things general knowledge of this small Western European country remains lacking. Located between France and the Netherlands, the Belgian nation of roughly 11,000,000 citizens is essentially two cultures living together. The southern half of the country is known as Wallonia, home to the French-influenced and French-speaking Walloons. Flanders consists of the larger northern half and the Flems, who speak a dialect of Dutch called Flemish. The national capital, Brussels, rests in the southern portion of Flanders. The city is the only officially bilingual region of the country, but French is actually the primary language in Brussels. In contradiction to this, the Flems constitute the majority of the Belgian population.

As most people's initial thoughts of chocolate and waffles would hint, Belgium has a strong food culture offering several specialties, but there is of course more to the country. For example, Waterloo, where Napoleon was defeated, lies outside the capital. More to the present, several European Union institutions and agencies have their main offices in Brussels, making the city and region of one million residents the unofficial "capital of Europe."

The apartment of Emily, who is in the city temporarily to conduct an internship in the offices of the European Union, was in the allegedly posh neighborhood of Brussels located south of its center. The neighborhood was also younger than the city center, though judging by the buildings this distinction was clearly in the relative sense. The following several photos show views from in and around Emily's neighborhood. The first one is looking out the window of Emily's apartment building. In the second you can see an example of Brussels' strong sidewalk cafe scene.

Most of Brussels' main sights are located in the city center, a masonry wedding cake with layers of architectural styles. At the very center lies the Grand Place, a medieval public square framed with early 17th century guild halls and Brussels' Gothic city hall. When a French army bombarded the city in 1695 most of the buildings around the Grand Place were leveled; the city hall remained standing with relatively less damage, an ironic outcome considering that this building was actually the French's intended target. A couple photographs of the Grand Place follow, but the city hall is not seen in either.

Branching out from the Grand Place are several narrow lanes and twisting streets. Open air markets selling goods and antiques abound, as do the pedestrians strolling from the stalls on the streets to the shops along them. In the picture below you can see Emily and Julie walking past the art galleries lining this alley.

In short walking distance from the Grand Place are two more of Brussels' most popular attractions, both seen below. The first picture shows the internationally recognized statue titled the Manneken Pis. This bronze depiction of a urinating boy is only about a foot tall, but the fountain's edge is usually crowded with camera-toting tourists. Slightly north of the Grand Place can one find the landmark seen in the second image, the Galeries St Hubert. This shopping arcade was built in the mid-18oos and still houses some of Brussels' up-scale stores.

As said earlier, Brussels and Belgium are both well known for their food offerings. Here are some looks at the foods we tried during our visit.

As an appetizer for one lunch I ordered the escargot, though as a dish I had eaten several times before it was selected more for its taste than its novelty. Of course, in the end, prepared snails are associated more with French cuisine than Belgian.

The main course that followed however was as traditionally Belgian as possible. Moules frites consists simply of steamed mussels in a white wine sauce and French fries, and can be regarded as the national dish of Belgium. An image of the meal is seen below. Emily explained that the proper way to eat the mussels is to use one emptied mussel shell as a utensil to pull out the meat from another shell. Additionally, as one would in do in most European restaurants anyway, the French fries should be brought to one's mouth with a fork. We agreed that it was a simple, yet tasty meal.

When it comes to Beglian cuisine, most people would likely call to mind sweet concoctions before meals of mussels, and rightfully so. Belgium is the birthplace of chocolate pralines; Belgian chocolate in general requires no introduction. In Brussels, the city's main chocolatiers operate multiple stores near the main shopping and tourist destinations. The stores emit a refined ambiance. Associates, for example, wear white gloves when picking up the chocolates. One of these chocolatiers is Neuhaus, which was established in 1857 and is allegedly where the chocolate praline (chocolates with a flavored filling) was invented. Neuhaus' flagship store in Brussels, pictured below, is located in Galleries St Hubert. From here we purchased a small sampling of their pralines, including such flavors as caramel, rasberry, and champagne. All met my approval.

And who could forget Belgian waffles? There actually is not one type of Belgian waffle, rather local varieties that differ from regions and cities in Belgium. That said, the two most popular versions are those of Brussels and Liege. The waffle of Liege, a city in eastern Belgium, is made from a rich batter that contains small chunks of sugar, which essentially gurantee that every bite will be sweet and crunchy. Liege waffles are commonly sold from street vendors and in bakeries, and eatten plain.

The Brussels waffle is the kind that most Americans are likely more familiar with. Served mostly as a dessert, this version uses a yeast batter lacking the sugar chunks. Multiple toppings, such as whipped cream, fruits, sauces, or ice cream, are placed on the warm waffle. Savory versions also exist, but are ordered less commonly. One of the incredibly sweet Brussels waffle that I tried is the subject of the following photograph. Indeed, under the strawberries, chocolate sauce, powdered sugar, and two types of ice cream is a waffle. After trying both the Brussels and Liege waffles, I decided that my preference lies with the latter, which was evidenced by the fact that I ate at least three a day.

From waffles we arrive at the last Belgian culinary specialty that I will take time to exhibit: the French fry. Though the reason for the misconception remains uncertain, perhaps it deals somehow with the fact that part of Belgium speaks French, the truth is that French fries are traditionally Belgian, not French. Belgians proudly claim that their small country is the home of this now world-wide side dish, and they demonstrate it by accompanying many meals with the fried-potato slices. This may inevitably lead one to ask what the Belgians call French fries. The answer would be the same names that the French use, pommes frites or, simply, frites. These are the French words for, respectively, fried potatoes and fried (Technically the French name for potato is pomme de terre, apple of the Earth). Whatever the origin, the Belgians do indeed offer some quality French fries.

Emily brought use to a street vendor that was a fifteen-minute walk from her apartment. After asking around during her first weeks in Brussels, she had learned that the title for the best Fench fries in the city usully goes to either this vendor or another north of the city center. The line of customers in the first photo attests to the popularity of this stand and its fries. After waiting at least ten minutes to place our order, we waited a little longer for the cook to prepare the fries fresh. Clearly, no bags were being pulled from a freezer. You can see the final crispy product in the second following picture.

Considering that I've had an incountable number of portion of French fries in my lifetime, I probably can't say with certainity that they were the best I've had, though I am tempted to do so, but I can definitely report that they were the best from recent memory. The golden slivers of potatoes were consistently firm, yet never over-fried. Not one came close to being soggy, and traces of oil didn't exist. The salty seasoning was light enough that it didn't overpower the taste of the potato or cause one to reach for his drink. Though quite a number of dipping sauces were offered on the side, I chose the Belgian favorite of mayonnaise. The pairing is recommended.

The European Quarter north of the city center, where several of the European Union offices are located, is likely less of a destination in Brussels for most tourists (espeically those outside of Europe), but ranked as my favorite experience in the city. Europe is in the midst of a great democratic experiment, and this experiment is known as the European Union.

The E.U. is a unique, original goverment body that is changing the face of Europe. Unlike the United Nations, the E.U. is not merely a stage for international cooperation or a collection of government representatives to discuss common issues. Likewise, the E.U. is not a federation like the United States of America because its independent member states retain levels of sovereignty in multiple areas. In other areas where the member states have decided that a regional approach is better, such as trade and environmental protection, they have pooled their sovereignty together to create European law. For simplicity's sake, it may help to think of the E.U. as a confederation of European nations. An additional result is that member states are able to have greater world influence together than they would alone. But the E.U. is not simply an invisible bureaucracy, as it has grown stronger, its presence has been seen and felt more and more across the continent.

What started as the European Coal and Steel Community in 1952 with six member states, has become the European Union of 27 members. As the name accurately describes, the E.U. has worked hard to unify Europe. Bridges, highways, high-speed rail lines, and tunnels have been built and funded to better connect member states. The euro was introduced as a common currency to additionally facilitate trade, and is used by most member states. Every five years an election throughout the E.U. takes places for its 500 million citizens to choose their representatives in the European Parliament. The E.U. has a flag (twelve blue stars on a blue background) and an official anthem (Ode to Joy, based on Beethoven's Ninth Symphony). It would be inaccurate to label the E.U. as a country, but with integration continuing and pushes for the E.U. government to hold greater power strengthing, that may one day in the far future be more of the case.

In many senses, the E.U. now is similar to the U.S.A. in its beginnings. For several decades even after the first goverment of America failed, the Articles of Confederation, member states held greater power than today and fought for "states' rights." Residents of the states described themselves as citizens of their respecitve states first, then as Americans, partly because American citizenship didn't officially exist until after the Civil War. As time passed, the states united physically and emotionally. The parallels with the E.U. exist, and because of this, at least for me anyway, the evolution and shaping of the E.U. is interesting and entertaining to follow.

Due to reasons too complicated to discuss here, many of the E.U. law-making institutions and supporting agencies have their main offices in Brussels. The photograph below shows one building in the European Quarter, the walls of which are labeled with public messages reminding people to vote in the recent elections for the European Parliament.

The main sight to be seen in the European Quarter is the European Parliament. This is actually one of two locations where the parliament meets. The other seat is in Strasbourg, France, and the reason for this is, again, too complicated for this post. Free tours are held inside the parliament building to allow European citizens to see the meeting chamber and better understand how the body works. In the first picture below is a sign on the parliament building indicating what it is in each of the E.U.'s 23 official languages. The second photo shows a larger perspective of the building.

On the tour, I learned many interesting things, but most fascinating for me were the details involving the language interpreters. On the front circular wall of the meeting chamber, seen below, are rooms for the interpreters who represent each of the 23 E.U. languages. As there is a room for each language and there are three interpreters in each room, at any moment during a parliament meeting there 69 interpreters listening to the discussion. Each interpreter can speak four foreign languages fluently, meaning that each language room has the capacity to translate only twelve languages, which clearly isn't enough. To solve this problem, whenever a more seldom language is spoken, like Estonian, it is first translated byan interpreter of a far more common language, like English, and then the interpreters of the other languages use the English version. In this manner a double translation of the speaker's words takes place.

Because a parliament session lasts from nine o'clock in the morning until midnight, the interpreters work in several shifts. The result is that nearly 600 interpreters are needed for one parliament session. Due to this high number, parliament sessions must be planned with consideration for the meetings of United Nations' General Assembly, which uses slightly more languages than the E.U. A meeting of both bodies can not take place simultaneously, otherwise there would not be enough qualified interpreters in the whole world to attend both.

The time limit for how long a representative can address the parliament ranges from one to two minutes, depending on the circumstances. When the allotted time expires, the representative is warned, if he continues to speak the microphone is turned off. In most national parliaments this would do little good, as the speaker could simply raise his voice and continue to hold the floor. In the European Parliament though the time limits are rarely exceeded. Once the microphone is turned off the interpreters can no longer hear the speaker, and, as such, no longer translate. If a representative were to continue past the time limit, most of his audience simply wouldn't understand him.

One last major sight for Brussels, and a landmark for all of Belgium, is the Atomium. This bizarre structure resembling a giant model set from chemistry class is pictured in the last image. Inside the Atomium is a restaurant, exhibition space, and a viewing deck. As a remnant of the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels, the landmark today is an attraction for tourists and visitors to the city. Apparently, some of the spheres are currently closed due to safety concerns.

On Tuesday we left Brussels, and I returned to Germany for my last week before leaving for my visit home. Though it may not receive as much attention as the other capital cities of Europe, Brussels should not be forgotten or overlooked. Many new experiences await one with a visit to the so-called "capital of Europe."