Wednesday, December 30, 2009

My Big Fat Greek Christmas

After a long time of not having anything particularly interesting to write about, it's high time for a new post! As some of you may know, I spent my Christmas in Greece, where I was generously hosted by my good friend Kostas and his family (thanks again, Kostas!). Here is the scene in Syntagma Square (Constitution Square) when I arrived last Tuesday evening:

As you can see, lots of lights and people! Syntagma is near the center of the city and it seems like it is always busy. Here it is on Christmas Day:
One of the first things you notice about Athens is the dogs. Yes, that's right, dogs. Athens has A TON of stray dogs that usually hang around tourist and other busy areas. This little guy thought it would be smart to sleep in front of a subway station escalator:
And here I am taking a picture while some furry friends hang around me:
Near Syntagma is the original Olympic stadium, where the first Olympic games took place in 1896:
My first stop the next day was the Acropolis, the hill of ancient Athens where the Parthenon is located.
You can climb a nearby hill to get a great view of the entire Acropolis:
Also nearby is a hill where the ancient Greek philosophers used to hang out. However, all that philosophizing can sure make you tired!
On Christmas Eve I visited some museums, and obviously on Christmas almost everything was closed. But I did have a very nice dinner with Kostas and his family. The day after I took a short cruise and visited 3 islands. We departed from the port of Piraeus, which has been used since ancient times:
The first stop was the island of Poros. Here's a view of the port there:
Athens may be overrun by dogs, but on the islands, cats rule. Here's a little "family" on Poros chowing down:
Next I visited Hydra (in Greek: Ithra), probably the most beautiful of the three. On Hydra, automobiles are not allowed, so the locals get around mainly by donkey. Of course, I was no exception to the rule:As I said, Hydra is very beautiful. Check out how blue and clear the water is:
On Aegina, the 3rd island, there is another ancient temple and a nice port with pretty, lit-up boats:

The next day I visited Delphi, where the temple of Apollo was in ancient times. Delphi is famous for its oracle: a priestess would basically get high by smoking some kind of herb and then tell the future. The ancient Greeks consulted her about everything. They also believed that Delphi was the center of the world. Here is a view of the entire site, which includes a well preserved amphitheater. The ruins of the temple of Apollo are the columns on the left:
Here's a closer view of the temple. You can also see the mountains in the background. Delphi is located way up in the mountains and it's quite beautiful!
On my final day I visited the temple of Poseidon, the god of the sea, in Sounion. This is probably my favorite spot in Greece because it is SO beautiful. The water is a deep Aegean blue and the sky is gorgeous:
Here's a closer view of the temple:
Here I am in front of the sea. Just look at how blue that water is!
And here's me with Kostas and his cousin Andy, who was visiting from Chicago.
Well, that's it for now. Happy New Year everybody!

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Emerald Isle

The past two weeks were vacation time for me, and I took advantage of my time off to visit Ireland. I've wanted to visit Ireland for as long as I can remember (even longer than I've wanted to visit Germany!), so this was really a special vacation for me. I spent 5 days there, 3 in Dublin and 2 around Galway. Unfortunately I couldn't stay longer due to prior commitments, and the fact that Ireland is super expensive! Even a pint of Guinness is cheaper in the US than in the city where it's brewed! But anyway, here's Dublin:

Here's a view of the "Spike," a huge, well, spike, in the middle of Dublin. I'm not really sure what it's for.

Here is a view of the River Liffey, which bisects Dublin. Pretty neat Harp-shaped bridge!
Here's the Liffey once again, only at dusk -- I took this while waiting for the bus.
Situated on the Liffey is the Custom House -- I'm not really sure what it was for, but it's a pretty impressive building!

And this grand old building is the Dublin General Post Office, where the freedom fighters of the 1916 Easter Rising were holed up for a week before surrendering -- but more on that later.
One of my first stops was the old Jameson Distillery. Although the whiskey is no longer produced there, there's a cool tour about how the whiskey is distilled and, best of all, a free drink of Jameson at the end!
No trip to Dublin is complete without a trip to the Guinness Brewery! Here's a massive waterfall in the tour part. Apparently the water is so important for Guinness that Arthur Guinness signed a 9000 year lease for the land back in the 1700s. Once again, at the end of the tour you get a free drink on the top floor, where you can look out over all of Dublin:
One of my favorite destinations in Dublin was Kilmainham Gaol, where the captured leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising were held and later executed. During the Potato Famine of the 1840s, the gaol held about 500 prisoners, even though it was only meant for about 200. The British would throw little boys in for petty crimes such as stealing bread. However, a lot of people tried to get in the gaol since it was a roof over their heads and had food. As you can see, there are still prisoners being held there, so tour groups must be on guard when they visit.
One of the leaders of Easter Rising executed in Kilmainham Gaol was called Michael Mallin. Perhaps a relative?
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A picture is worth a thousand words. . .After 2 days around the West of Ireland, I headed back to Dublin and spent my last day checking out Knowth and Newgrange. Knowth (pronounced to rhyme with mouth), pictured above, is a 5000-year-old mound that was probably used as a burial chamber. It has two long passages, one facing due east and one due west, that are the longest existing stone passages in Europe:
Unfortunately you're not allowed to go in. The mound has suffered significant damage because early Christians tried to destroy it!
Thee mound rests on these huge decorated stones, many of which came from 30 kilometers away or more! The stones at Knowth represent a full third of megalithic art in all of Europe! Most of the designs are circles or spirals, perhaps to represent the sun.
Part of the same mound complex as Knowth is Newgrange, pictured above. Newgrange predates Stonehenge by 1000 years and the Pyramids by about 500 years. You can actually go inside Newgrange and it is. . . incredible. You stand in a large stone chamber that would be completely dark if not for lights. The stones weigh several tons each and were taken from 60 km away in the north AND in the south. It probably took at least two or three generations to build this thing, so the folks who built it were definitely organized and very skilled. After 5000 years, the roof is STILL intact and completely waterproof, which is saying a lot because it rains just about every day in Ireland. They obviously knew what they were doing. Oh, and did I mention that they only used it 5 days of the year? The temple is built facing due east, with the entrance set up such that on the 5 days around the Winter Solstice, light shines through the tunnel to illuminate the central chamber. We know that they didn't use it at other times because there is no fire damage in the interior, and they would need light to see what they were doing. You're not allowed to take pictures of the inside, unfortunately, but here's a snapshot of the entrance:

Monday, September 28, 2009

Thoughts on the German Election

Sunday was the big day. Although the conservative CDU lost a lot of seats, they retained enough to stay in power. Merkel will definitely remain chancellor. The SPD had its worst election since 1960, garnering 11% less than the last election 4 years ago. The big winner is the FDP, the Free Democrats (kind of like libertarians), who increased their percentage by about 5%. The CDU and FDP together have an easy majority (Schwarz-Gelb, or black-yellow, is what their coalition is called, named after the colors of the respective parties). Guido Westerwelle, their most well-known candidate and an open gay, will probably be foreign minister. The 4th strongest party is now Die Linke, a party of socialists and former east German communists. Although the Greens are only the 5th strongest, they had a very successful election, crossing the 10% threshold for the first time in their history.

The election was not a very exciting one: many Germans felt that the debate lacked substance. Consequently, many abandoned the two big parties (CDU and SPD) and opted for the smaller parties; and voter turnout was lower than normal, only about 70%, about 7% lower than 2005. There were really only two possible outcomes: a black-yellow coalition, or a continuation of the coalition between the CDU and SPD. Neither option is that exciting for those of us on the left, but having the SPD in power is admittedly better than having the FDP. The CDU and FDP both want to extend the life of Germany's nuclear power plants.

However, some people seem happy that the SPD was ousted, because it will force them to change their party internally and hopefully push them back towards the left.

Burg Eltz

Sunday was election day here in Germany, but apparently they don't do the whole "get out the vote" thing that we do in the states. So we went for a short hike to Burg Eltz, a castle near the beautiful Mosel (or Moselle for you Francophiles out there!) River.

Here's the castle in all its glory. Pay no attention to the scaffolding behind the curtain! Yes, they are in the process of renovating the castle. Inside it was pretty sweet, but unfortunately you're not allowed to take pictures. There was all kinds of old furniture and weapons (the castle itself was built in the 12th century). What is singular about this castle is that it has never been attacked, and thus it is in very good condition. The castle was used as a luxury retreat and is thus not in a strategic location, but rather in the middle of the woods. Also, a family still owns the castle and actually lives in it!

Here's a view of the castle from which you can't see quite as much scaffolding!

An introduction of my host family is LONG overdue! From left to right you see Dieter, his wife Tina, their daughter Laura, and her boyfriend Stefan. Dieter works for the city of Koblenz in its environmental protection department (yes, a whole city department for environmental protection! And Koblenz is only about 100,000 people). One thing he does is help schools build solar panel roofs, and he showed me some around town. Sunday was also Dieter's birthday, so they had a birthday/election party. Tina teaches computers and IT at a local school. Laura is 18 and still in school; she hopes to work in the hotel or tourism business. Stefan is in school training to be an electrician.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Castle and Roman Aqueduct

Even though I'm still a little sick, I had enough energy today to go visit a castle from the Middle Ages and a Roman Aqueduct, both of which are close to Koblenz. The castle is called Stolzenfels ("Proud Cliff") and was built atop Roman ruins in the 1200s and has since been used as a sort of retreat for kings and princes.Here is an up-close view of the castle. Unfortunately we weren't allowed inside because it is being renovated.This is a view from above of the castle's STABLE. Wtf? In the Middle Ages, even the horses had an effin' castle! I want a castle!
Here's yours truly in front of the castle doors. They're just lucky I left my battering ram in my other pants.
As usual, I can't resist the urge to get artsy-fartsy with my camera. These flowers at the castle were really beautiful, and, luckily, it had just rained.
Here is my group and I at a very old Roman Aqueduct. If I remember correctly, it is about 1800 years old! It's interesting that the Romans built it here -- it doesn't serve the city Koblenz, and we also don't know where it ends. It was probably used as a resting point for military units. Also, it is very close to the Rhein River. However, apparently river water wasn't good enough for the Romans, so they built this aqueduct to get fresh spring water. I wonder if they bottled it and sold it for an exorbitant price as well?
Here we are in the aqueduct! Unlike other Roman aqueducts, this one is below ground. I forgot why, but I think that they wanted it to remain completely undisturbed for some reason.And here I am climbing out. Afterwards we went to a festival in a nearby village called Rhens and had some homemade cake and local wine.

My first day at school. . .

So, Friday was my first day at my school. Just to make things difficult, I was sick the whole day. The principal invited me to accompany her and the teachers on an outing which consisted of walking through the woods and visiting a local university. Not a lot fun when you've got a sore throat!

On the plus side, I got to know a lot of the teachers, and they are all incredibly nice (the principal is too). However, I have a feeling that the head English teacher has no idea what to do with me. I emailed the school a couple times during the summer and the principal forwarded my email address on to him, but he never got in contact with me. On Friday I asked him what my schedule will be; that is very important, because I have to commute to the school via the train. He has no idea. He says he has to ask the other English teachers if they need an assistant or not. OK, that makes sense, but they've known SINCE EARLY JUNE that I was coming. Oh well. He is a nice guy too so hopefully everything will work out.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Protest against nuclear power in Berlin!

On Saturday I took a bus to Berlin with Greens from around Rheinland-Pfalz to protest nuclear power. Germany's 20 or so nuclear power plants are set to be decommissioned in the 2020s, but the conservative CDU (Christian Democrats) and FDP (Free Democrats) partys want to extend the deadline. Right now the CDU is in power, and the FDP is the third most powerful party in the German Bundestag. About 40,000 people took part in the protest, which wound its way through the middle of Berlin, around the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag. It was amazing! Not only was it really energizing, but I got to see some of the German Greens' top candidates.
Here's me in front of a HUGE line of tractors that were part of the protest. It stretched all the way down the entire street from the Brandenburg Gate to the Victory Column. My flag reads: Nuclear Power? No thanks! in German.This is the walking part of the protest along the Spree River. The girl who is looking backwards with the green flag is my host-sister Laura.
These are some the leaders of the German Greens. The guy in the green Hoody is Jürgen Trittin, former environmental minister and leader of the Greens in the German parliament. The woman next to him is Renate Künast, also a former minister and member of parliament. Their sign reads: "Black-Yellow? No thanks!" Black is the color of the CDU and yellow the FDP. It's possible that the two parties could form a coalition if the both do well on election day, which is Sept. 27. But that probably won't happen, because the CDU has already lost a lot of seats in a few provincial elections which took place last week.This the protest as it makes its way past the Brandenburg Gate.I just had to take a picture of this guy! His sign says: "I am the biggest. Radioactivity improved me. Thanks!!"To cap off a very exciting day, as we took a break while driving back we were greeted by a stunning rainbow.