Tuesday, November 29, 2011

You know what they do in Switzerland to stay warm?

After two whirlwind weekends in Vilnius and Berlin, I had some measurements to do (on collections of human bones) in Zürich, Switzerland. On Sunday, I hopped the fast train south and, with no border controls, arrived uneventfully in Zürich. (The EU makes it really boring for people who want stamps in their passports. I know, I know, Switzerland isn't EU, but they're surrounded.) We actually were doing lots of measurements for the three days I was there (usually in the lab from 8 am until 6 or 7 pm), and the only time we had out of the lab was at night. So, this is most of what I saw in Zürich:



I did manage to meet up with some friends whom I had met at a conference some years ago, and we had dinner. The food was good (if expensive, like EVERYTHING in Switzerland), but the dessert was crazy/awesome. Called "vermicelli," it has a base of meringue covered with a chestnut/spice dough extruded through a spaghetti maker. Topped, of course, with whipped cream. It was great, and a little funky.

Vermicelli as you've never seen it before.

We did snag a little bit of sightseeing time on Wednesday: after three hours measuring the severed leg from a human cadaver (I've spared you all the pictures) and three more measuring bones from a collection, we made it outside for exactly one hour in the city center of Zürich. And what did I find? Churches!



A nice view over the river!




And chocolate!


I may or may not have brought home over 50 euros worth of Swiss chocolate home with me. And it may or may not be is fantastic. It doesn't look like so much in the photo, but it really is a lot. I think it was about a kilo all together. (There is also a cinnamon star on the left of the photo--a really delicious Swiss pastry that tastes like a better version of Big Red gum.) The goal is to make the chocolate last until Christmas. I think we're on track. Maybe. Of course, the day after I got back to Aachen, we went to the Lindt factory and spent 30 more euros on chocolate, so we should be covered. (By the way, this is how I think we'll stay warm all winter--fatten up now on Swiss chocolate. Mmm....)

I brushed over the dragons. We had ten minutes left in our afternoon in the city and I spotted a Franz Carl Weber toy store. Sara and I played a game called "7 Wonders" at the SPIEL Game Conference in Essen, and we've been looking for a good deal on it ever since. (They did have it in Zürich, but good deals there are out of the question.) While looking around in the basement, I noticed a large dragon's butt in the play area. I noticed it was a slide, then ran up to the top to (a) take a picture and (b) slide down it. I asked a worker there if it was okay for adults to play on the slide. She said of course (and I was SO glad I payed attention in German class) and so I went down. Twice. And, as you can see, have never been happier.


So if you ever have an hour to kill in Zürich, bring lots of money for chocolate, and hunt down Franz Carl Weber. If the look on my face is any indication, you won't be disappointed.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Many Names of Berlin

Having a native German speaker for four days was a great boon to our growing collection of German (and German-language) oddities. Let's start with a brief quiz about the nicknames that Berliners give certain icons in their city. Consider the following pictures:

Please identify the following landmarks.

___ The Fat Hen
___ The Pregnant Oyster
___ The Washing Machine
___ The Pope's Revenge
___ Barad-Dur
(Answers at the bottom.)

There's no potential for beating around the bush when discussing birth control pills here. According to an ad I saw on a subway (recruiting participants for a clinical investigation), the pill is called the Antibabypille. Wonder what it does?

In English, we occasionally refer to underwater basket weaving as a useless activity to pass time (for example, if you need one more class in college but you don't want to do any work). The equally useless and time-wasting activity in Germany is Teebeutelweitwerfen--tea bag throwing. (Literally, it's tea bag distance throwing, which I think adds a certain elegance to the task.) A similar word for a mindless task that requires no qualifications is a Dünnbrettborer--a person who drills holes in a thin board. Which may be how I can find employment in a few years.

I saw a vending machine in an S-Bahn station with a sticker on the side advertising the "Maybe Baby" pregnancy test. Turn out, it wasn't just a regular ad, but the product was actually in the vending machine. Right between the Twix and a pack of Antibabypille. (Just kidding about the pills in the vending machine. Though it's funny, one can't buy even ibuprofen without consulting a pharmacist here, but you can snag a pregnancy test from the vending machine!)

Speaking of crazy vending machines, we spotted this on our way to dinner last Saturday. It's a good thing the promised dinner was excellent, else I would have spent far too many euros on this cookie monster.


After our tour of the Reichstag building on Saturday morning, we walked out of the security building to find the reminder that in front of the capitol building, grilling is forbidden. Don't even try it.


Lastly, I saw my favorite word (currently Sparschwein) in a new form: die Sparschweinerei. Now the -ei ending usually indicates a place where things are made/sold; for example, Fleisch (meat) with the -ei becomes Fleischerei, a butchery. So what is a Sparschweinerei? I'm not sure, but I hope it's a Factory for the Pigs of Salvation (or piggy banks). Especially for the types that we saw (and sadly didn't photograph) in Monschau called "Kapitelistenschwein." Priceless.


E. The Fat Hen is the national symbol for Germany. Apparently drawn by politcal cartoonists a little skinnier depending on the state of the budget.
C. The Pregnant Oyster is actually a building donated to Germany by the USA in 1957, and where JFK spoke in '63. It's currently a center for European contemporary art, following the collapse of the roof in 1980.
B. The Chancellory, where Angela Merkel (currently) works and has a small residence, looks much like a washing machine from the side.
A. The television tower, built between 1965 and 1969, has a globe that reflects light across the sky, including across the Wall to East Berlin when it was separate. Why, then, the Pope's revenge? Owing to the flatness of each individual mirror, The sphere reflects light in the shape of a cross wherever you look. I hear the East Berlin officials weren't terribly happy with that.
D. Okay, it's not really Mordor. It's the world's fourth largest carillon, built to commemorate the 750 year anniversary of Berlin. Not as old as Aachen, but a bit older than Mordor.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Mehr Berlin

Before I tell you about my Berlin adventures ohne Tyler, I must mention something he forgot in his Berlin post. The day we traveled to Berlin was the first day of Karnival. Apparently, the first day is one of the days of the Karnival season that one celebrates with copious drinking, costumes, and song. We thought it a bit strange to see several costumed hooligans on the Aachen Schanz platform before 9 AM. Things got more exciting from there. As we headed toward Cologne the train filled up with people from all walks of life wearing elaborate costumes, drinking, and singing. Cologne is the place to be for Karnival in Germany, so all the arriving trains were packed and the station was a madhouse. Brass bands were playing as they marched through the station. I saw a group of three young men dressed as giraffes. Tyler's favorite costume was Man in Wind--a guy in a suit with his tie wired so it went up over his shoulder and leaves and newspaper stuck to his pants. We can look forward to more of the same come February, I'm sure.

On Monday I went on a tour of a WWII civilian shelter built around a Berlin subway station. (The tour company is called Berlin Unterwelt Verein.) The tour guide's somewhat eccentric English added entertainment value (and the content was quite interesting, too). The shelter still had the original signs on the walls indicating how many people were allowed per room in the original phosphorescent paint. There were displays on the propaganda campaign begun just after the Nazis came to power in 1933 and on the cleanup still being done in Berlin--of unexploded bombs and unidentified bodies. Unfortunately, no pictures were allowed on the tour.

After that I toured the Berlin cathedral. It was finished in 1905 and was severely damaged in WWII. The final restorations were completed just a few years ago. The coolest parts were the dome gallery, which afforded great twilight views, and the crypt. The Hohenzollern family (emperors of Prussia, including Frederick the Great) have very elaborate sarcophagi.









Also interesting was the Dom Museum, where one can see many different proposed (and failed) designs for the cathedral, along with architectural drawings and models of the final design. Dan Gasser, these are for you.



On Tuesday I finished my homework in record time so I could visit the famous Pergamon Museum. This museum's great draw is its reconstructions of several architectural wonders of the ancient world, most notably the Great Altar of Pergamon and the Ishtar Gate.



(Note: Pergamon was located on the west coast of present-day Turkey. It was ruled by Greeks and Persians in its glory days.) The Great Frieze on the altar of Pergamon is 130 meters long, all told, and 2.5 meters high. It depicts the great battle of the Olympian gods with the giants/old gods.


The Ishtar Gate was the gate of Babylon, built by Nebudchenezzar. (It says says so right here on this wall. That's cuneiform, FYI.)


The portion reconstructed in the museum is only a small fraction of the original size. This model shows the actual layout, including the long processional corridor lined with lions, intended to show visitors to Babylon who was boss.


The museum has lots of other cool stuff, including:

This Syrian reception room.


This other giant gate, also from Pergamon (I think).


These lovely lions. (Lions were popular in the ancient world, I've noticed.)


This palace facade (Syria? Jordan?).


This priceless rock crystal ewer (from a private collection).


I made quite a thorough yet efficient tour of the museum, with only slight museum fatigue. On my way to meet Tyler I stopped by the chocolatier Fassbender & Rausch, which we had visited a couple nights before, to photograph their charming chocolate Berlin Bear. Enjoy.


P.S. for Heidi: I got yelled at only once in the Pergamon, for taking a cell phone call (which I kind of figured was against the rules).

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Ich bin ein Berliner

Three times in the last few days Sara has accused me of "turning my back on Aachen." She's totally right. After about 4 hours in Berlin, I was in love. This city of about 3 million people has so much history and so much to offer (and SO many good restaurants), I couldn't get enough of it. Sara loved it too, but she can tell you about what she saw without me while I was working (cf. Greece).

We arrived in Berlin on the fast train from Aachen on Friday evening. Our friend and my former colleague Leif, who was our awesome host/tour guide for four days, met us at the Hauptbahnhof (main station) and took us around to drop our stuff off at his downtown apartment, then to eat at a Chinese fusion place around the corner, then to a bar where we had orange-thyme coolers (AWESOME, by the way). The next day, we got up to take a tour of the large dome atop the Reichstag building (the equivalent of the US Capitol). The day was cold but clear and the views, as you can see, were excellent.





After our tour of the Reichstag, Leif took us around to several places in downtown Berlin, including the line marking where the Berlin Wall was, dividing the city into two halves for nearly 30 years.


We also saw the Brandenburg Gate, the last standing gate that was part of the former city wall (not the Berlin Wall of the 20th century), and managed to NOT get our passports stamped by crazy tourist-trap guys posing as immigration officials.


We spent a few minutes at a World War II Genocide Memorial. It was many concrete blocks set into the ground at varying heights. You could get lost in it quite quickly, which, I think, was the idea.


After lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant, we went to the Konzertsaal, a gorgeous building (surrounded in the picture below by tents for the upcoming Christmas market) located in the old city center of Berlin where we enjoyed an organ concert for about an hour. The organist was really fancy, doing some quite technical works and really blowing out the candles with the organ.



That evening we went to our fanciest dinner yet in Germany at "Das Speisezimmer" (The Meal Room), where Sara had a squid salad (another seafood triumph), we both had braised rooster, and for dessert--a cherry mousse (Sara) and walnuts three ways (Tyler). We ate for three hours and loved every minute.

On Sunday we finally met our friends Heidi and Paul, currently in Rostock (about three hours north of Berlin). We went to breakfast with them and Leif, then took a trip out to Potsdam to see the parks with palaces from the era of Frederick the Great (Freddy G, as I like to call him) and the building in which the conference between the US, Britain, France, and Russia was held in 1945 to split up Berlin. As he is credited with bringing potatoes to Germany, Freddy's grave was adorned with the tubers, and his palaces were adorned with, well, everything. Including lots of naked (statue) men--there are plenty of historians who think he was gay. We also went on a brief tour of the Marble Palace, a beautifully decorated building that has only recently been restored after so much damage in the war (a common theme with many German cities, as you've noticed).









Monday marked the beginning of "work" for me, including a trip to Leif's lab to give a talk on some work I finished in Berkeley, and a day-and-a-half of measurements at the Landeskriminalamt (the LKA, the equivalent of the FBI but just for Berlin) looking at forged paintings by a guy who is currently in jail awaiting trial in Köln for his (multi-million euro) forgery scheme. His art, though impersonating other artists, is gorgeous. I hope our results can match. (And I'll post pictures of some of the stuff I'm analyzing once I'm sure that it's okay for it to be publicly available.)

As I'm writing this, we're on an express train out of Berlin back home to Aachen. I really am sad to leave Berlin--it was urban, yet small (at least, smaller than, say, New York), the food was great, and we have a friend (Leif!) there who helped us feel really at home. Also, Berlin has not only buses and trains, but U-Bahns, S-Bahns, Trams, Metros, and Ferries, so there are places to go and ways to get there. I'll certainly miss Berlin, but am happy to have plenty of reasons to go back--scientific or otherwise. And a huge Dankeschön to Leif for his hosting and guiding for the weekend--you're a great friend and I'm glad that, even though when you left Berkeley I thought we wouldn't see much more of one another, we're still close enough to come by for a weekend. We'll be sure to do it again soon.