Tuesday, June 30, 2009

June Has Many Faces

This has been a strange month.

It began with school's two last deadlines, which I was glad to be rid of.

Then came our anniversary and our wonderful trip to Neuschwanstein — surely that was one of the best travel experiences we have had. Teriann's birthday, too, was fun, complete with a wacky weekend that included our first trips to the Borough Market (like nothing I've ever seen) and Harrod's (more malachite than southern Utah), and an unexpected run-in with hundreds of naked people riding bikes.

I was then hurled into full-time work at Lo-Max. It's good to have something steady, and while the income is much needed, it doesn't exactly leave me with loads of time for writing. In fact, I've done almost nothing compositionally in the last month or so — which is all the more disappointing because I was determined to work hard through June so that I could 'take July off' so to speak. As it is, I won't have very much time for writing in July, so that's valuable time wasted. I told myself this before I moved but it hasn't changed: work ethic is the biggest obstacle preventing me from moving up to the next level. Why haven't I listened to myself?

This has also been an extremely sad month: Joey died on Friday. There's no need to recount much here: either you have (or have had) a dog that you love(d) very much and you know how difficult their death can be — or you don't.

Overall, though, June has been a month of expectation. Waiting. Waiting to hear about funding for next year. Waiting to hear about whether my job will be able to keep me on next year (confound the credit crunch!). Most of all, waiting to see people from home: some of our closest friends are coming to visit for almost the entire month of July — a tantalising proposition when it's just around the corner.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Happy Anniversary to Us!

It wasn't long after we moved to London that we started thinking about what we should do for our first wedding anniversary. The initial plan was to go to Euro Disneyland outside Paris. But then, I had the idea that we should visit the real thing — the castle on which Walt Disney based his design for Sleeping Beauty castle — Neuschwanstein. Plus, it had always been on Teriann's list of places she wanted to go because her parents had a big picture of it on their bedroom wall for years.

Neuschwanstein (new swan stone/building) was built by the 'mad' King Ludwig of Bavaria in the late 1800s. Because it's not actually that old, it is in relatively pristine condition and makes the castles and fantasies of Disneyland seem miniscule.

To get there, we had to fly to Munich, a proposition that was laden with problems. Our flight was delayed several hours, and then the train from the airport to the city center was delayed. By the time we got there, we only had two hours before we had to get a train to Füssen, the nearest town to the castle with a railway station. It didn't matter that much anyway, since it was pouring rain. I still managed to grab a bratwurst and a delicious wheat beer!

Oh, how I love Germany.

We popped in a few churches (the famous twin-domed Frauenkirche is pointless but the barrel-vaulted St. Michael's is quite beautiful) and hopped on a train. Two travel-weary hours later, we arrived in Füssen, a cozy little town with a surprisingly turquoise river and not much else.

We had dinner at the restaurant in our hotel (delicious, of course!) and the next morning, our anniversary, took an early morning bus to the little tourist town at the foot of the mountain: Hohenschwangau.

Hohenscwhangau is probably one of the most quaint, beautiful towns I've ever seen. I could probably sit for days in a cafe or beer garden, looking up at the castle on the hill.

Okay, I should explain that across the valley from Neuschwanstein, there's another castle, Hohenschwangau Castle. Hohenschwangau, however, is also the name of the little town that lies in the valley between the two castles. To do the tour, you start with Hohenschwangau Castle and then make the trek up the mountain to Neuschwanstein.

So we started with Hohenschwangau Castle, which is no slouch itself. This is where Ludwig (the guy who built Neuschwanstein) grew up and lived most of his life.

To give you some sense of distance, here's a pic of Neuschwanstein on the next mountain over.

Also in the valley between the castles, at the end of town, is Alpsee (Alpine lake). The tall mountains in the background are in Austria.

From there, a bus took us up the mountain to the most popular lookout point for Neuscwanstein: Mary's Bridge (most pictures you'll find of the castle are taken from the next mountain over, which is considerably more difficult to get to). We were giddy with anticipation, because you can't see the castle as you approach the bridge. You see people ahead of you walk onto the bridge, though, watching their expressions change in amazement. At last we turned the corner and saw...


Yes, the entire side was under scaffolding. I'll admit my initial feeling was something like disappointment, but these pangs were superficial: even partially covered, it is a magnificent and awe-inspiring sight.

Still, we felt compelled to take this picture.

The whole region is incredibly photogenic, and even walking to the castle I couldn't resist snapping pics.

The view of Hohenscwhangau below.

And then we could touch it!

And then we were at the entrance!

And then we were in the courtyard!

Unfortunately, they wouldn't let us take pictures inside (I did sneak one but it didn't turn out), so here's some I found online. Absolutely unbelievable...

And there was even a cave!

All in all, I must say that it exceeded my expectations. It is an incredible and unique creation, and one that stimulates the imagination as much as the eyes.

Still reeling, we hiked back down through Pollatt's gorge, which, even had there not been a magnificent castle above us, had some great scenery.

The gorge trail led us back to Hohenschwangau, where we had lunch (fantastic, need I even mention?). And just before we reluctantly got back on the bus (to get back to the train to get to Munich), Teriann took what I think is our best photo of the castle:

We ended up in Munich with, again, only a few hours to spare, so after a quick (and forgettable) jaunt through the City Museum, we settled down for dinner in probably the best-known beer hall in the world: the Hofbräuhaus. What a way to end a spectacular trip, and, more importantly, a spectacular year.

As always, here's the link to the facebook album.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

That Just Happened

For years I have been puzzled and enamored with the sensation that accompanies the passing of time. You spend so much time planning something and looking forward to it, that when it actually happens, it's almost surreal. Just such an event has me thinking a lot about that particular sensation:

Today was my last lesson with Joseph Horovitz. It's hard to believe that it's over, given that I first set my sights on studying with him almost two full years ago. Of course it wasn't always what I had expected, but it's still quite a kick that now, rather than saying, 'I am planning to study...' or 'Currently, I am studying...', I can say, 'I studied with Joseph Horovitz.'

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Most Fattening Country in Europe

Almost two weeks ago, Teriann and I took a three-day weekend to Belgium: one day in Brussels, one in Bruges, and one in Ghent. I suppose it's one of the joys of traveling that, no matter your expectations, each new place is subtly different from them in ways you could never find out unless you traveled there. So what did we find in Belgium?

Brussels: We took the Chunnel (a train tunnel that goes under the English Channel) to Brussels on the 23rd of May, and both agreed that train travel beats plane travel in every respect. For longer hauls, of course, flying becomes necessary, but for the short distance, it ended up being quicker to take the train than to fly to Brussels. Plus you don't waste ages with security and check-in (there is security, but it goes really quickly), the train station is right in town (as opposed to on the outskirts), and there's much more room once you're seated; everything about it is comfy.

The best thing about Brussels is undoubtedly the main square, called the Grand Place. It's surrounded by incredibly ornate buildings and bursting with the typical European tourist cafes: overpriced, mediocre food, but can't beat the atmosphere.

It was also lovely at night when the city hall was lit up.

We also visited the Musical Instrument Museum,

(what's even going on here... two keyboards at one instrument?)

and ate.

A lot. Delicious waffles and chocolate... far too much of the stuff. This was our favorite chocolate shop (just off the Grand Place) and yes, we went back twice.

While we learned some things about Belgium on the first day (for instance, that everyone there, without exception, speaks English in addition to French and, more often not, Dutch), considerably more was revealed to us on the next.

Bruges: The next morning, we hopped a train to Bruges, a sleepy little town that, like Venice, used to be a major trading port but has for centuries been reduced to a cutesy tourist attraction. It is also compared to Venice because of the canals that wind through the city, and while they are quite nice, I suspect that this comparison is made by people who haven't actually been to Venice.

Right, so, about Belgium. Many, many people ride bicycles.

In a small, traveling fairground, you can find this:

Ha! The Grand Canyon! Look at the cacti!

The stepped-gable look was everywhere. Here, for instance, was the view from our hotel room.

There were, like all the best places in the world, plenty of ducks and swans.

With babies!

And horses!

And, most importantly, we confirmed that Belgium is indeed the most fattening country in Europe with this incredible sweet shop.

I mean, it looks like something out of Harry Potter and the cookies were incredible... I didn't even know that I could enjoy a cookie that much!

Bruges was indeed beautiful. The canals made for a relaxing little boat trip and some great photo-ops.

We're ON A BOAT!!!

Plus the main square was again quite impressive.

From the top of the bell tower, you can look down on the square

or imagine London far in the distance.

Dinner in Bruges was, in a word, hilarious. On the beautiful, main square, amidst the overpriced, touristy restaurants, was a comically misplaced fast food joint: Quick Burger. It was as if someone had amalgamated all the bad attributes of American fast food chains into one sitcom-ready stereotype. We knew as soon as we saw it that we had to have it. I can't think of any fast food place with a view like this:

Plus, soon after we were finished, a random parade came down the road into City Hall.

Will he fit?



We spent the evening watching reruns of 'The Closer' in our hotel room (interspersed with truly bizarre Belgian TV) and being too tired to check out the local watering holes. The next morning, fully rested, we moved on to...

Ghent: city of... what exactly? See, that's the problem: Ghent isn't really an industrialized city, like Brussels, but it's not a city-in-a-snowglobe for tourists like Bruges. It's somewhere — not always comfortably — in the middle.

After wandering through a beautiful little park next to the train station, the city itself proved to be less than impressive. We started out by going to Gravensteen, the hulking castle near the city center. While it's not under construction, it looks like this.

However, while we were there, it was under quite a bit of scaffolding and the beautiful view in the stock photo was under orange work fence.

The castle was kind of interesting, but what we'll remember about it in a few years is that it wrested the prize of worst audioguide from the Roman Bathhouse in Bath — in the form of a 'movieguide'. The prospect sounded promising, but in practice, it was dismal.

Still, any old castle is kinda cool just because it's an old castle.

We wandered through a few churches, but the highlight of the afternoon was hands down sitting by the canal in a peaceful beer garden.

We whiled away our last few hours in Belgium over a delicious meal, and some delicious Pirate beer. Seriously, it is called Piraat and it is 10.5%! Yarrrrr!!!

Tomorrow morning? Off to Munich and Neuschwanstein!