Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Catching up to now

The past couple weeks have been especially busy with school work. I have spent most of the time in and around Freiburg, with a couple of small trips within an hour or so of the city.

This past Thursday, we had our class trip to Strasbourg (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strasbourg), home of the European Parliament. It was actually one of the more worthless trips we have been on, as we only saw about ten minutes of Parliament in session, and then were spoken to by a drunk staffer and one of our professors, who also doubles as a Parliamentary Deputy Chief of Staff. The outskirts of Strasbourg strongly remind me of East St. Louis (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/East_St._Louis). That isn't to say that the trip was a total waste. The center of town is quite nice, and the cathedral (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strasbourg_Cathedral) is especially impressive. Also, we got all you can eat flammkuchen (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flammkuchen).

The Ill River in Strasbourg (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ill_River).

The Cathedral.

The European Parliament

In other immediate travel news, besides a return visit to Schliengen (see a previous post), I went hiking with two of my flatmates - one French and one German - in the Kaiserstuhl (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaiserstuhl), a hilly area of vinyards on the French border. Usually I go hiking in the Black Forest (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_forest), so this was a new direction - slightly north and significantly west instead of Freiburg, rather than the southeast direction I usually explore. It was a nice area, and it definitely felt significantly different than the Black Forest done - almost as though I was walking on the moors sometimes. The weather has been finally warming up some, which has been quite pleasant. I hope it's a trend that continues.

Two pictures from the Kaiserstuhl.

Starting Friday, I am off on our last main trip for the semester - to Krakow, Prague, and Budapest, with a slight afternoon stopover in Bratislava. I'll be gone for a little over a week on that trip, but it should definitely give me some time to see places I haven't otherwise seen. It will definitely be a downgrade weather wise, and I've been told the cities have the potential to run together if one is not careful, but I am quite excited for the trip altogether. I have finalized another trip to eastern Europe as well - to Croatia (specifically Zagreb and Split) for my study days in early May. So between those two trips and the earlier trek to Estonia, I will have seen much of the former Eastern Bloc.

Lastly, just to let everyone know who might not otherwise know, I have decided on my plan for next year. I will be returning to Minnesota and going to the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota for a Masters in Public Policy. After that, the future is unknown once more, but the next two years are set.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Western European Trip

This entry could easily be a novel length, but I will do my best to not allow that to happen.

From February 23 to March 1, I went on my program's Western European field study trip. This trip basically included a whole bunch of meetings in Brussels at all of the important EU and NATO institutions, and then a couple meetings in Paris, notably the French Foreign Ministry, and Luxembourg, with the European Court of Justice. The majority of our "productive" time was in Brussels, which thankfully gave me time to roam Paris.

On the way to Luxembourg, our first stop, we took a detour to visit St. Avold (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lorraine_American_Cemetery_and_Memorial). St. Avold is home to the largest US military cemetery in Europe. It was a very impressive memorial, and it is interesting to see the amount of American patriotism that can be safely expressed in a situation like this, even in France - a country normally considered to be anti-American.

After St. Avold, we arrived in Luxembourg City (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luxembourg_City), which is easily the most pro-EU city I've ever seen. Luxembourg City gains all its international power from the presence of EU institutions, so interestingly, by promoting the EU it is actually acting in an exceptionally nationalist fashion. European political juxtapositions are always fun.

The city of Luxembourg is rather picturesque, and the town is built on a series of hills and valleys. In the middle of the valleys, one can still see all of the old fortifications that had been built up to protect the city, many as recently as World War I. The other interesting thing I found about Luxembourg was how open everything seemed. The Grand Duke's palace (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_Ducal_Palace,_Luxembourg) was squarely in the center of town. One could simply walk up to the doors of government ministries. It's a very strange notion in the modern political world, such physical representations of government transparency.

Following Luxembourg, we had several days in Brussels. I will spare you the details of our meetings, but we met with (lower level people) at almost every institution that the EU could throw at us. We also made a trip to SHAPE (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SHAPE), NATO's military headquarters in Europe. The European Union institutions love to play the blame game with one another, which always provides comedy.

The city of Brussels was not my favorite of all of those we visited so far. Restaurants have wranglers standing outside their doors to harass passersby into dining there, which is a very disconcerting experience. Much of the city is not terribly aesthetically pleasing, either. It also ended up being the least safe of any cities that we have been to, as several students were followed extensively and some were even subject to attempted muggings. The picture above, however, is over one area that is incredibly beautiful, the Grand Place (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_Place). The picture itself is of the town hall of Brussels.

After Brussels, we arrived in Paris for a few days. I have no complaints whatsoever about Paris. It is completely amazing - like no other city I've been to in the sheer volume of things to see. In Berlin (and New York, for that matter), there are tons of things to do, but there are still large areas of the city that simply aren't worth seeing. In Paris, such a place doesn't seem to exist in the city limits. In the Banlieue (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banlieue), sure, but not in Paris itself.

Also, in a rampant attempt to defy stereotypes, I found the people to be incredibly gracious. It surely didn't hurt that I at least spoke some French with them, but no one had any problem reverting to English when it was necessary for me, and never once was I subject to any anti-American statements from anyone out in the city. Our hotel concierge was interesting, but that wasn't so much out of anti-Americanism as a need for attention and a desire to goad us into talking with him extensively so he could practice English.

As I was only really in Paris for two and a half days, I only had time to see the most basic of sites, so most of my comments really need no introduction. That said, I did make the effort to go to one area of the city that often is ignored by visitors: La Défense (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Defense).

La Défense is the modern downtown of Paris, on the very edge of the city. Being in it is a surreal experience. There is no connection to Paris at all, except that one can very faintly see the Arc de Triomphe (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arc_de_Triomphe) down the main boulevard. Otherwise, you are in this district, feeling like you are surrounded by the future. The majority of the skyscrapers are all done in exceptionally modernist style, and the entire area is centerpieced by the Grande Arche (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grande_Arche), a modern representation of the Arc de Triomphe across the city.

Immediately outside the Arc de Triomphe, one enters one of the Banlieue, which is another complete culture shock. I explored for a while and stumbled across an impresive older cemetery, as is obvious from the picture. There was an obvious shift in the methods of construction - rather than beautiful old buildings or striking modern skyscrapers, one hit buildings that were obviously dated from the 1970s and 1980s, but still attempted to maintain some style. Several looked like they were inspired by Miami. Others were painted in camo. It was a thoroughly interesting experience to see the sides of Paris that many don't bother to see.

Beyond that, I did see all of the things that people decide to see. And they are entirely worth seeing. So I'll leave you with a couple quick pictures of Notre Dame (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Notre_Dame_de_Paris), the Louvre (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louvre), and the Eiffel Tower (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eiffel_Tower).

Friday, March 6, 2009


I apologize for the long delay in updating again. I've been terribly busy with traveling, mainly. This entry will probably be broken up into three over the next couple of days. I'll send out an initial e-mail for this and then an e-mail when everything is complete.

Going back in time awhile...

The weekend of February 20 to 22, I, along with two friends, took a recreational trip to Italy. We traveled by train to Milan (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milan) and subsequently to Turin (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turin). Milan is obviously one of the conventional main Italian destinations. Turin may not be, but it was a necessity - actually first on my list of places to go on Europe. Two reasons, really. First, it was the most recent site of the Winter Olympics (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2006_Winter_Olympics). Second, it is the locale of one of my five favorite movies of all-time (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Italian_Job). This was actually the first trip of my own accord I've been on in Europe - everything else has been done through the program, and will continue to be that way until April. One day for a city of these sizes is hardly sufficient, but one must do the best they can with limited time and money.

The first thing that we learned is that once you are outside of Germany, trains rapidly become less reliable. We missed our connection in Zurich, which necessitated ad libbing trains across Switzerland to reach Lugano (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lugano). Lugano is the starting point in Switzerland for the Italian train system, though it is still on Swiss soil, so we would be able to more easily catch another train to Milan.

I did not actually mind the extra delay, because it gave me a small opportunity to explore Lugano for a few minutes. It's actually a beautiful city. Had I been blindfolded and dropped off there, I would never guess I was in Switzerland. It looked and felt completely different, if the palm trees were not obvious evidence enough.

Ultimately, we reached Milan two hours late. Given museum scheduling and our travel schedule, this meant we would be unable to see the Last Supper, but that was the only real casualty of our delay. Strange hostel prices for the beginning of fashion week resulted in hotels being cheaper than hostels, so we ended up with a four star hotel in Milan. The hotel itself was, naturally enough, quite nice, but in a much less nice neighborhood. In fact, despite our posh accommodations, was not terribly keen on the city of Milan. That is, until we made it to the very central part of the old city.

I know this picture is small. I think it's too detailed to be at full size, so the blog site reduced it. Sorry about that, you can find it either on Facebook or when I return at normal resolution. Anyway, that is the Piazza del Duomo. Il Duomo (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duomo_di_Milano) is the massive church on the right, which we could not go inside because it was hosting a fashion week event. On the left is one of the most famous shopping areas in the world, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galleria_Vittorio_Emanuele_II). After spending some time in this Piazza, we moved through the Galleria to the area around La Scala (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Scala). Here, in la Piazza della Scala, we unexpectedly encountered a large-scale performance art demonstration with bungee cords on the neo-classical facade of the building opposite the opera house.

It was a little absurd, but it was a pleasant surprise. Then to make a long story short, subway line shifts necessitated a slightly longer walk home through the sketchier part of town to our hotel. I got to watch the theft of a late-model Fiat - I have never actually watched a car theft happen, so that was a new experience. The next morning, we saw a couple more major sights in Milan, the San Siro (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_Siro) - one of the most important soccer stadia in the world - and Castello Sforzesco (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castello_Sforzesco) before catching a mid-day train to Turin.

The central areas of Milan were beautiful, but they covered a very small part of the city - the same cannot be said about Turin. The preserved old city in Turin covers a huge area of the city a seemingly endless stream of things to take pictures of, all the while completely surrounded by the Alps and other mountains.

The first night we were there, however, we had a different project: the Olympic Stadium (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stadio_Olimpico_di_Torino):

The Olympic legacy in Turin is actually surprisingly subdued. There is no indication that the stadium was used for the Olympics aside from the name. Well, and the giant torch. But the purpose of the torch is never stated, and an unknowing passerby might consider it merely modern art, as the flame doesn't burn once the Olympics have left the location. The only rings that remain are on the building next store, which hosted the main skating venues.

There is not much to say about the old city, except that it is amazing and to show you a couple pictures:

The Mole Antonelliana (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mole_Antonelliana) is the primary structure that dominates the old city.

The Po (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Po_River), historically one of the most important rivers in Italy. If you look carefully, you can see an Alp (is that the singular of the Alps?) in the background.

A typical Turin piazza.

I enjoyed both cities, but Turin rates, along with Paris, as one of the most consistently visually impressive cities to be in. I will say that I felt considerably less safe in Italy than most of the rest of Europe, including both Paris and Berlin. Interestingly, the only other city in which I felt equally at risk to Italy was Brussels, the Capital of Europe. But more on Brussels later, for I returned to Freiburg at 12:30, Sunday evening. At 7:30, Monday morning, I would be boarding a bus to Brussels...