Thursday, June 10, 2010

A Sampling of Countries

The past week and a half has been like a small sampling platter of little-known countries from Central Europe for us to taste and savor. The first flavor we experienced was seeped in ancient beauty. A busload of students ventured to the village of Český Krumlov in the Czech Republic, where we found Professor Lanier’s description of the town as "a place that never left the 15th century," to be true. Amid the cobblestone streets was a castle and gardens perched upon a hill, a monastery brewing beer, a river meandering through the village, and bears guarding the palace entrance. Danny and I were intrigued by the stores full of marionettes and sweet cinnamon rolls.

The second flavor of the week was brief but luxurious in Ljubljana, Slovenia. On our 15 hour bus transfer from Austria to Croatia we spent the night in this capital city. I was charmed by the mix of old and new architecture, the snow-capped mountains, and new language. In a large group, we ate arguably the best meal on the trip so far, in a traditional Bosnian restaurant. The waitress brought out plate after plate of sumptuous dishes and we gorged ourselves with each course. I didn’t have any preexisting schema to anticipate what Bosnian food tastes like, and I still lack the vocabulary to do it justice, but it was amazing. Meat dishes, salad dishes, breads, it was truly a feast.

The next country we savored was a small village by the Adriatic Sea in Bosnia Herzegovina. We stopped for coffee, treats, and soaked up the sunshine, the first since arriving in Austria. Our journey through Bosnia was on a small two lane highway through curvaceous mountains that brought spectacular views with each twist.

A few more hours of driving and we encountered our final flavor of the summer school course: salty, tropical, and a little gritty; Croatia. We arrived at our hotel and were greeted by the blue clear water and skies of the Adriatic. We are staying in a small ocean village called Mlini, close to the gorgeous, walled city of Dubrovnik.

Our simplistic hotel is the site where less than twenty years prior, the Serbian rebel forces stayed while they bombed the surrounding area. To this day, there are the standing shells of former five star hotels sitting unused and lonely on the coast’s edge. Our lodgings are less accommodating than Danny had anticipated. I laughed at his antics and tried to point out the fact that our room was less than twenty feet from the ocean, but between the overwhelming smell of ant-killer, wiring coming out of the wall, flooding in the bathroom, a nonfunctioning room phone and air conditioner, and finally, a four inch centipede crawling onto the bed, Danny argued our way into a room change.

Since arriving we have indulged in the sand, sun, cold ocean water, boat cruises, island tours, parasailing, kayaking, cave exploring, and visits to Dubrovnik. It has been a delicious change from the cold and dreary days in Austria. Studying has been a near impossibility for all of the law students with the gleam of the sun and water shining in their eyes. Conversely, my biggest challenge and responsibility of the day has been preventing sunburn while I frolic on the beach. We are unquestionably “on vacation” now.

Danny is eager for the ferry ride to Italy, and I am excited to start traveling on our own. There is only one day left of class for Danny, and then a farewell dinner before the law program ends. It has been fantastic meeting and becoming friends with all of the law students from Missouri, Florida, and Atlanta. We share some amazing travel stories and experiences together that we won’t soon forget. We are hoping to take up a few of the offers, and visit our new friends in their respective states.

Until next time (when we will be in Rome!), Do videnja (Good bye in Croatian).

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Mauthausen, Concentration Camp

Danny and I just returned from a concentration camp memorial in Mauthausen, Austria. The hair on the back of my neck is standing up just remembering what I saw there. Our group arrived at the memorial and I found the gray and dreary weather fitting for the tense nervousness I felt about entering such a place.

Going into the museum hall, I looked out at the green flowered fields and the walled fortress of the concentration camp and was surprised at its unobtrusiveness. Danny had the same thought and said to me, “If you didn’t know what the history of this building was, you might think it is actually kind of nice.”

We watched a video outlining the atrocities that took place at the concentration camp. The evil of man knows no bounds. Historians estimate that between 200,000 – 300,000 people were killed in this work camp through hard labor, starvation, gassing, or other forms of torture and murder. It was the last concentration camp to be liberated by the Allies.

The theater was dead silent as the film came to an end, and we wiped our tears and headed into the mist outside to see the physical structures that bore witness to the carnage. I have seen videos on the holocaust before, and I have felt the numbness that comes with the knowledge of man’s wickedness, but being there and actually touching, seeing, and breathing in the air of that place is a whole other experience.

Climbing up the hill and through the fortress doors I immediately felt a physical sense of repulsion. I felt the weight of all those souls who had perished here, and was overcome by a strong feeling of evil. The chills I felt up and down my spine and the sudden dryness of my throat were a physical reaction to the anguished and malevolent energy that clung to the buildings. Mauthausen is truly an evil place.

We entered the rooms where prisoners were kept, and it was impossible to not imagine the hundreds of people who died where I was standing. I felt as if the tired eyes of all those tortured spirits were watching my steps and considering my presence silently. I was not alone in that room.

Danny and I came upon the crematorium, a staircase descending into a dark basement below the prison cells, and I could feel swaths of hate pouring out from its underground lair. I did not want to go into this room, I was afraid of this room, but I told myself I should see it, to make it real.

It was real.

The ovens, the body dissecting table, the corpse storage room, all of it was horrendously real. Scrawled on the inside of one of the cells was this message from a prisoner, “If there is a God he will have to beg for my forgiveness.”

As we walked back to our bus, Danny and I both breathed deeply as if we had been holding our breath for the past three hours. I felt like there were eyes on our backs, and I just wanted to distance myself from that place as fast as possible.

Seeing the darkest scars of history raises more questions than gives answers. It makes you search your soul for a purpose behind such suffering. In all the potential for good that humankind has, how does something this depraved happen?

It makes me realize how grateful I am for the freedoms I have, for the life I live. It makes me want to fight against future injustices, and I believe that Danny and I are in a unique position to do just that; Danny through law, and myself through teaching. Hopefully we can make a small contribution towards shaping the world into a better, more tolerant and just place to ensure that these tragedies are not repeated.

Ahh, Venice

Ahh, Venice. Like a cool, refreshing breeze on warm sunny day. Enveloping you, refreshing your spirit, and awakening your mind. How do I describe the beauty and romanticism of this place? I guess I should begin with our journey there.

Driving through the Austrian Alps towards Italy was stunning. Again, we were privy to witness a place where the heavens come down to touch the earth. Clouds huddled toward the upper reaches of snowcapped rock, misting the earth. Once parted, they revealed a world below of intense colors; sharp blue skies and searing green valleys, an image that my eyes won’t soon forget. It felt as if the colors in this part of the world were painted in a vivid hue that awakened the mind.

As we drove, Danny and I both felt a certain domicile pride. We were traversing the land of our forefathers and mothers. We passed by signs for Udine, the town where my great-grand parents had lived, and crossed the border into Italy where signs suddenly shifted into Italian and Danny beamed.

As we approached closer to Venice the air became salty and gained the humidity of a sea town. Danny and I practiced out of our Italian phrase book with growing enthusiasm. When we finally arrived onto the island and stepped out of the train station, the stunning beauty of picturesque Venice, took me off guard. It was every bit as beautiful as photographs I had seen and then some. Pictures could never capture the sounds, smells, and motion of the town.

Everywhere we looked there were boats of all sizes zooming by with their engines humming merrily. Tourists moved through the streets with vendors selling their wares and calling out in Italian the day’s specials. Sea birds cried from the air above and swooped in to grab scraps of unwatched food. And everywhere we went were the soothing sounds of water lapping onto ancient city walls in the wake of all the gondolas, water taxis, and motor boats.

And the smells! As we slowly made our way through the tangled streets to our hotel, each corner effused a new delicious smell. Fresh baked cheese pizza, a sea food market, pasta with white sauce, garlic bread, and a sweets store. My mouth was watering as Danny declared, “I’m going to eat my way through this city!”

When we found our hotel, we were pleasantly surprised. Our expectations were outdone as we were led up to our room and the doorman threw back the blinds. From the fourth floor, our corner room had four windows looking out over San Marco’s square, the Basilica, and canals being traversed with gondolas.

Without a doubt, Venice is the most romantic place I have ever been. The air was thick with the languid warmth of love. Couples walked hand in hand, musicians played passionate melodies on every street corner, and lovers unexpectedly paired off to dance. It was if every couple had slipped into their own private space, glowing with the drunkenness of the honeymoon, tightly wrapped in a love cocoon.

Danny and I were immediately enveloped in the mood of the city, purposefully getting lost in the winding streets and alleys, only to find our way out again. We ate some of the best food of our lives. Pasta, seafood (I tried octopus, snails, and mussels!), pizza, and gelato. Oh! The gelato! Every corner had a stand, and I tried five different flavors – I was truly in heaven. Danny ate the best and worst pizza of his life all in the same day. We went on a gondola ride with friends, shopped, ate romantic meals, toured the palace, took in the sights, and attended Mass at the Basilica on Sunday.

Danny and I laughed hysterically as we watched the Italians “communicate” with each other. For example, two little boys were playing with toy cars, and launched them flying into the air off a banister while their mother and grandmother weren’t looking. Immediately both women launched into a rapid diatribe in Italian, scolding the boys for their poor manners and grandma reached to smack one on the head. Danny burst out laughing, fondly remembering similar stories about his grandmother. Another example, Danny and I were walking through a side street in a residential area and a man started screaming in Italian, in a tone that made Danny pick up the pace and look back concerned. Danny later explained that he might not understand the words, but that tone was unmistakable, it was the “I’m-so-mad-I’m-about-to-throw-something” tone. Hand movements and animated faces were present in every Italian conversation. Strangers’ faces in the street had uncanny resemblance to various branches of Danny’s family tree. And Danny felt completely at home, jokingly pointing out the various ways that his fatherland was superior to my own. (I will give him the concession that Italian food is far better than Austrian food.)

Three days in Venice was not enough time to truly appreciate and take in the city. Danny and I quickly decided that, of all the places we have been, Venice was the one we want to revisit in the future.

So, as I wrote at the beginning, to summarize my thoughts, I can do it in only one way…

Ahh, Venice (sigh).

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Hills Really Are Alive with the Sound of Music, Just Not in Budapest

So I wouldn’t call Hungary a third world country (my previous experiences make this label seem far too severe), but it is certainly a fallen country. Allow me to illustrate. As we arrived in "Buda," we were able to look out over the Danube River to the "Pest" side that comprises Budapest. From afar I was struck by the city’s beauty; shining castles, ancient buildings, the grandeur of the Parliament building, a sense of real history. But upon up close examination, things took on a far darker hue.

In our three day weekend adventure, Danny and I were witness to both the light and dark side of the capital city. We ate traditional Hungarian food as we were serenaded by a gypsy band. We went to see the Hungarian opera Xerxes in the exquisite Magyar Állami opera house (see photo below). We climbed to the top of the citadel overlooking the entire city and ate lunch. We continued our tradition of guided bus tours and I took hundreds of photos of the rich architecture, statues, and sights that saturated the city.

However, for the first time since arriving in Europe, we glimpsed the effects of poverty. Prostitutes were out on the streets openly soliciting men as they passed. Garbage, graffiti, revealing smells, and grime permeated all parts of the city. The Hungarian police were extremely vigorous, arresting or questioning people at least half a dozen times (that I saw) in our short stay. A drugged and homeless man came up and grabbed the hand of one of our friends, kissed it repeatedly, and then immediately tried to box him. All of this was mixed in with the remnants of palaces and buildings which echoed the former power and influence of the country.

The cause of this decline was detailed on our bus tour throughout Budapest. We learned about a king who was tied to his royal throne with his crown upon his head and burned to death, grand palaces that were blown up or destroyed during the communist era, another king who was placed in a barrel filled with nails and pushed down a steep hill into the river, witches who were hunted and killed until the 18th century, and the Jewish holocaust during the Nazi era, just to name a few of the bloody horrors that were included in this city’s history. Just your average happy little city tour, right? Clearly, Budapest’s tragic past accounted for the shabby, faded, and deteriorated state of its buildings, government, and even the depressed state of many of its people.

The final event that solidified my wary sentiments towards the city happened when a group of law students returned from a river cruise and explained what they had witnessed. While enjoying the views of the palaces lit up at night, someone noticed a man at the top of an extension bridge over the river. He had managed to climb to the very top and was riding an eagle sculpture which crowned the structure. Police, emergency crews, and a crane were below trying to get him down. As they watched, the man lit himself on fire, jumped off the eagle, and landed suddenly on the bridge’s pavement, not making it into the water. To say the least, this group of friends was stunned.

As we loaded the return bus, Danny and I were in agreement that, although we were glad to have experienced it the one time, we would not be visiting Budapest anytime again and that touring Austria would be a welcome departure.

And tour Austria we did.

This past week the class traveled to both Salzburg and Vienna for lectures on arbitration law by Austrian professors and judges. I’m not sure what Danny learned in his classes, but while we gallivanted around after class, I learned that Austria is a truly stunning and diverse country.

In Salzburg (the filming location for The Sound of Music) we used our free afternoon to visit ice caves in the Alps. It was incredible! It’s hard to speak to such beauty and do it justice, but I can try. Imagine yourself five thousand feet above a green valley with a winding river, Austrian village, and castle atop a hill. As you look out you are eyelevel with the distant clouds and snowcapped peaks. The wind is fresh and smells like pine as you breathe deeply. Crows play in the breeze, carrying themselves high and low in large, single swoops. Your god’s-eye-view above the world and the miniature size of the homes below makes you feel big and small at the same time. You are awed by the valley’s magnificence.

In order to get this view on top of the mountain we rode a bus, took a cable car up a sheer cliff face, and hiked for an hour. The final stretch of hiking was electrifying. Being so high and feeling the air pressure and temperature change, while the clouds misted on us was invigorating. Once we arrived at the mouth of the cave we put on our warm clothing gear (well I did, Danny and a few of our friends had to endure with flip-flops and no sweaters), blew out a warm steam of breath, and headed in.

The ice cave was like a winter paradise, I had no trouble imagining Santa’s elves sledding down the ice sculptures or yetis lurking in the shadows. We followed our guide with candle lanterns on a wooden path and climbed up, down, and through remarkable ice formations. The sheer size of the cave and the variety of ice formations; some delicate (as with the slender rows of icicles), and some powerful (as with wall of ice that devoured the wood planks to the point that they needed to be reconstructed) was humbling.

After we left the frozen wonderland we started our trek down the mountain in the warmer open air. The sky mercilessly held of raining until we returned to our bus, where we relaxed feeling sweaty and contented, and it began to downpour. The ride back down the mountain in the rain was again beautiful, but in a new blustery way. Being in nature rejuvenated us. With the remainder of our day we enjoyed the company of our new friends, eating food, and belly-laughing over stories (much like today, which we spent in Vienna at a street side coffee shop). Salzburg’s ice caves truly were the highlight for both of us so far… but this weekend we depart for Venice, Italy. A city which we have been told is the most romantic in the world.

Until our return, ciao!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Hallo Austria!

It is fine-time that I should revive this blog. And what better time to pay homage to the blog’s name than on a fantastic trip? At this point, I really do feel like I have the whole world in my hands.

One week has passed since we departed Phoenix for Linz. This is hard to believe because with all the business of traveling, getting settled, adjusting to the time change and jet lag, and being entirely unaccustomed to the continuous cloudy gloom hiding the sun, I have completely lost my sense of time. It feels like we just arrived. Or I have just woken up from a very deep sleep.

As I already mentioned, the weather has been less than idyllic, drizzling most days, with the blue sky gracing us with her presence only a few times through open patches in the cloud cover. However, this has given me plenty of time to rest indoors, and to write down an account of our adventures so far.

So here they are.

I should probably begin with our reasons for traveling across the globe with Austria as our destination. In early November, the idea of Danny studying law in a program abroad was placed on the table. He found a program through Georgia State University’s law program and we attended a seminar together. I, having the heart of a gypsy by nature, was instantly sold on the idea of a summer in Europe together and began making plans. My husband, Danny, having a more conservative and pragmatically-minded constitution, needed to think over the costs, benefits, his responsibilities and duties some more (thus he is the one in law school and not myself).

We debated back and forth about the pros and cons of being away for the summer, and after several tense conversations, high emotions on both sides, and invocation of the “happy wife, happy life” clause, we packed our bags.

We left for Austria on a Friday and after 26 hours of continuous travel by plane, train, or car, arrived late Saturday evening to Linz. We grabbed a taxi, and with our vast knowledge of over five German words or phrases, directed our cabbie to the hotel. The cabbie in turn took it upon himself to mock our “foreign” accents by repeating everything we said in English with an over-exaggerated nasally babble. Apparently, English sounds as funny and unattractive to Austrians as German sounds to us.

The hotel we are staying in is also a dormitory used by the nearby University, which means our room is furnished like a dorm for two college students. We have pushed together our two single beds and rearranged the desks, and all-in-all it is cozy. With a good sized closet, internet access, and a private bathroom I have no complaints. Our view from the 10th floor (see photo) looks out over Linz, and we get front row seats to the sunset (albeit cloudy) each day at about 9:00 pm.

Our first few days have revolved around exploring the town, meeting the students (about 40 from all over the U.S.), professors and getting settled. Here are a few highlights:

The airport in Munich, Germany was quite possibly the cleanest, most organized, and quietest airport in the world. The contrast with the American airports we were just in was astounding. The people were completely silent as they waited for their bags, and there was an air of efficiency that isn’t explainable. Even the line waiting for baggage was different in its calmness. No one was crowded at the front to get their bags first, in fact there was a good 15 feet before the first person was lined up waiting patiently. Danny immediately decided that this was evidence of my family being from Germany. He said that only a place like this could have produced the quiet, task-oriented, and efficient Streff family. Then we both burst into laughter, as we tried to imagine what the airport in Rome, where his people come from, would look like.

An hour after arriving we dragged our exhausted bodies to the welcome dinner at Yosef’s, where we ate a traditional Austrian food (think lots of meat and potatoes), Danny drank beer, and I learned quickly (after a long and surprising swig) that water comes in “still” and “gas” in Austria. We were introduced to the somehow not-seemingly-exhausted group of students (These people are professional revelers. So far, they have outdone the intensity of several fraternities and keep going strong). For dinner, we had blood sausage (delicious), along with various colored sausages and meats, and lots of the only vegetable provided: boiled cabbage. We excused ourselves early and stumbled to the street where we got on the city street-car. In our dazed state, we soon realized we had no idea what our hotel looked like, or how to find it at night. As we exited the tram, we located our hotel based off of one fact: Our room is on the 10th floor, so our hotel must be tall. Our logic proved true and we slumped into our beds defeated for 15 hours.

The next day we met a few students on their way to the city and did a sort of self-guided tour of the Hautplatz or city-center. We walked through the central square with its beautifully colored traditional buildings, churches, and fountains. We explored a neighborhood, visited a church built in 8th century, and took photos at the Schloss museum, formerly a castle. When I say took pictures, I mean took pictures. My love for photography has become a slight obsession, and Danny now threatens to hide my camera somewhere to make me walk faster. I am completely content to languish in the angles and colors, which I maintain make me see everything from a different, more observant, perspective.

While Danny is in class, I have been flexing the muscles of my wanderlust by exploring the city and surrounding area. I have found wonderful graffiti, green hidden pathways, garden gnomes, climbing walls that would make Johann green with envy, and that Austrians are completely at ease with staring for long periods of time, but not uber friendly. Again, Danny teasingly attributes this as proof of this being “my people.”

In Passau, Germany we attended a lecture and then bummed through the city hopping into churches, museums, and cafes to avoid the rain (Leave it to Phoenicians to not bring an umbrella). We had soup in a restaurant which was formerly a jail and execution room. We had hot chocolate in a café that was a fantastic tribute to Alice in Wonderland. And we trounced through floor upon floor of a glass museum. Danny ate weinerschnitzel with cranberry sauce and ordered beer (Nick, you will be happy to know that weinerschnitzel is scrumptious and is actually an inoffensive nick-name). Apparently, in Germany when you order a beer you don’t specify the type, because each restaurant only has one, the house beer. It came in a stein, and there was so much foam that Danny had a beer mustache. It was adorable. I was completely caught off guard, when I asked (in English) if I could throw away a plastic bottle in a grocery store, to have the teller take it, put it in a specially marked bin, print a receipt, and then give me 15 cents for recycling. I could get rich off this scheme!

Somehow, Danny is fitting all of his reading and studying into this hectic schedule, and dealing with the stress of being away from family, home, and all the political action of the upcoming primary season. Have I mentioned that I love this man? To be on a once-in-a-lifetime-trip like this with Danny, before we have kids, and with the full backing and support of our families is phenomenal. We are both truly blessed to have such an amazing opportunity and the love and encouragement of our families and friends. Danke familie! (Thank you family!) I need to start preparing for our weekend with the law program in Budapest, Hungary. So until next time: auf Wierdersehen!