Tuesday, July 08, 2003

Week two

I was disappointed to have to come back to the hole that was CIARUS. Having to put up with insolent twelve-year-olds was annoying enough for two days, but the thought of a whole week...........

Nevertheless, come back I did. And every night, the chaperones would tell the kids to go off to bed at 10, then retire for the evening, leaving us to suffer with children running the halls all night, kicking balls against the wall, jumping off beds, screaming and yelling, and throwing things on passersby below. Not once did a chaperone come up to look in on their kids. And more than a few people complained to no avail.

Classes were made somewhat better than Rome, in that the room in which classes were held was larger, more open, had more writing space, and, most importantly, was air-conditioned. Classes were pretty interesting, with some discussion centered around the field trips we took - to the European Parliament and the European Court of Human Rights - but the highlight was the opportunity to hear arguments before the court for a case in which 2 former KGB agents had been fired by the Lithuanian government for whom they'd worked for their KGB association - 8 years later. One of the most intriguing questions asked by the judges (the ECHR sits in panels of 7 or 9, depending on the circumstances of the case) was why it had taken Lithuania so long to fire the employees, when (a) the government had known of their KGB involvement from the beginning, and (b) at least one had taken an oath of loyalty to Lithuania. The decision comes out in September, and I'll be watching to see what happens.

We made it to the European Parliament shortly after the new head of the European Union, Silvio Berlusconi, had slighted a German representative. The representative had been speaking on a mundane topic when he had been interrupted by Berlusconi, who immediately commented the German representative would make a great candidate for concentration camp guard in a new movie being filmed in Italy. The resulting flap was the talk of the Parliament for the entire day, and the lead story on the news in three countries that night.
Kassel (Part Deux)

Tun was an interesting guy. At first he thought I, being an American, only spoke English. Later (after a few drinks), he learned I spoke German, and proceeded to try to talk to me - at machine gun pace. I kept saying langsam, langsam (slower, slower) to no avail. He'd just talk faster. We got to Freierhagen, where Patty's family friend lived, and where we'd be spending the night, just after 8 - in time for a late dinner, which we declined; Patty, because she wasn't hungry, and me, because her mother had just fed me a delicious bratwurst and kartoffelsalat mit sampf (bratwurst and potato salad with dijon mustard).

When Tun failed to arrive as scheduled to pick us up, we walked the relatively short distance to the party location, where we found out why he'd never arrived. Old Tun was already hard at work pulling beers - for the three people who were there. Interestingly enough, shortly after our arrival, we met Rachel, an American and a freshman at Florida. She was gorgeous - long blonde hair, perfect tan, white teeth, pretty smile - and nice to boot. The three of us chatted for nearly two hours, with Rachel expressing frustration that no one her age in Freierhagen seemed to be very open toward her. Of course, once the teenagers started showing up (and show up they did, in droves) it was easy to see why. Poor Rachel, with her stunning good looks, was like a Ferrari in a Yugo shop. She got most of the men's attention, young and old, and the other girls got ignored. Not that the other girls were ugly - there were two or three really cute ones, the rest were average - but Patti and I speculated they must have been quite intimidated by the American girl.

The party itself was a blast. Everyone, including the teenagers (the drinking age for beer in Germany is 16) got pretty plowed. Several tried their English out on me, especially once Patty slipped behind the bar to help out as promised. A few bought me drinks, making sure that as soon as I put down an empty, it was immediately refilled. Others offered to buy me a mischung - a mix of cognac and beer - which I politely declined. They also sold meters, which is a meter-long (ingenious, eh?), fraternity paddle-shaped board capable of holding 11 beers, 10 of which you pay for, and one of which you get for free. Seeing several 16-year-olds down an entire meter was enough to convince me that the 'veteran' drinkers in our group had a long way to go to keep up with these guys. Patty and I finally left the party around 2:45a.m. and headed back to the apartment for the night. While Strasbourg had been swealteringly hot, Freierhagen was relatively cool - we had been given jackets as we left for the party, and walking home we made good use of them. The cool evening weather, and the pin-drop quiet of a small German town combined to give me the best nights sleep that I'd had in at least six weeks, if not longer.

In the morning, Patti's father picked us back up, and took us to the garden club. I spent the day doing basically nothing, just watching TV (some in English, most in German) and vegging out. For the first time in two years, I got to watch an entire F1 race (which Juan Montoya made exciting by spinning out Michael Schumacher), and for the first time ever, watched it live at a normal time (instead of having to set the VCR for 6:00a.m.). It was a nice respite from the constant bitching and sniping and the general where-are-we-eating-today nausea that this trip has sometimes delved into.

Sunday, July 06, 2003


Well, I've finally managed to re-configure a keyboard to US-style, and not get booted off the computer afterward. If it seems like forever since I last posted, it's because it has been.

So here we are, our last day in Strasbourg. It's been interesting, to say the least. Here's a little synopsis of the last 10 days....

Day 1 - Arrival

John C. and I arrived in Strasbourg expecting a short walk to our hotel. To be sure, I attempted to ask a female employee of the train station where our hotel was. Since I heard Willis talking to her in German, I was reasonably confident she could speak the language. She could. She just had no clue where our hotel was. According to her, it should be somewhere on the outskirts of town because "zat's where Hotel Etap is always at." Wonderful. Instead of a short walk, we'd have a cab ride. But to be sure, she said, check with the tourist office downstairs. So we headed downstairs.

The tourist office was located right beside the exit doors. Lo and behold, I looked out the exit, and what did I see across the plaza? Hotel Etap. So the lady was wrong. John and I made a beeline to the hotel. We walked in, and were greeted by an attractive girl of about 18, who acted as if we were interrupting her nap (it had to be her nap, because there were no other customers). After a brief exchange, we were told that our room was up one flight, and given the room access code. We got to our room, walked in and saw - two beds. For three people. And a note telling us to be at the other hotel (where everyone else was staying) at 6:00p.m. I looked at my watch. It was 6:05 already. Taking a shower and cleaning up was out. So was wearing my newly-acquired (in Interlachen) Swiss Military watch. We headed back downstairs to find out where to go.

Front-desk girl was equally unhelpful at getting us to Ciarus. She told us it was too far to walk, that we needed to get the number 10 bus from the train station, but not where at the train station. She did go into detailed explanation of where to get off, but since we didn't know the town, it didn't help. But fortunately, John had grabbed a map which clearly showed Ciarus. We decided to walk.

Of course, because I hadn't bothered to clean up, everyone else had. I looked sloppy in my t-shirt and jeans, as we went to a very nice restaurant for dinner. My slovenly looks, combined with the hotel clerk's indifference (I found out later that Art had, upon arriving, attempted to obtain a cot, or another mattress, to no avail. He'd flatly been told "no" to every question he'd been asked, without any further explanation) and the accomodations, served to put me in one foul mood. I hated France, and I had ten long days to brood over it.

Eventually, Dean Jean came by to take the photo of everyone at our table. I was thoroughly embarrassed by my clothes, and abjectly refused to be in the picture. Dean Jean thought that I was kidding, but Mary quickly told her that I was in a bad mood. Although I was mad at Mary for spilling the beans, it all worked out - somewhat. Dean Jean had an open room in Ciarus where I could spend the night. The next night, I had a room at another hotel (although that was nearly another fiasco), and finally, two days later, a room at the Ciarus, with Blake (whom I'd shared a room with in Interlachen) and.........Willis. Somehow, I was being repaid for all the bad karma I'd spread by being saddled with the most annoying person on the trip.

Few people like Willis, except of course, Mrs. Willis, who must be a saint for marrying someone like him. He's impossible to describe, but the most succinct version is that he's kind of like Rainman - he has thousands of totally useless facts in his head, and he doesn't hesitate to share them with you, whether or not they are relevant, or if you are interested in them. According to rumor, Mrs. Willis (whom he calls Boo on his frequent calls home, but not in a lovey-dovey voice, but a very flat, emotionless one) has lots of cash. Or at least her parents do. Either way, Willis must have some endearing quality, but no one on this trip can find it. Not only does Willis talk - a lot - but he also invites himself along if he likes the trip you're taking. Even if you tell him he's not welcome. Well, maybe if you were so direct it might work, but otherwise it won't. And when he speaks another language (he knows German fairly well, but not the rules of grammar, so when we went to Interlachen via Spiez {pronounced speerz}, he kept mispronouncing the name {calling it spitez}) he speaks it so poorly that the native speaker usually says "let's just speak English." No lie. It happened in the train station at Interlachen.

For now, I'm just trying to play nice.

Council of Europe

On about day 3 or 4 (it's all becoming a blur, but I do remember it was a Friday) we went to the Council of Europe for a tour. Supposedly, we were going to see the Council Parliament debate, but, as other things on this trip have turned out, it didn't happen. Instead, the Parliament went home, and we got to look at an empty chamber. Which was a good thing, since I got some nice pictures. But to be honest, while it was all very interesting, it wasn't very memorable.

Weekend 1 - Kassel

Patty's been dying to see what I'd write about my visit to Kassel, and I've been making her wait an entire week. But the first thing I'll say is that Patty and her parents were more than kind, and went out of their way to make me feel at home. Words cannot simply say how much I appreciated all their efforts, and how much I enjoyed the visit.

I'd been trying to get a hold of Patty for a couple of weeks, and on Thursday, I'd finally managed to get through. We made plans to meet on Friday, which became Saturday when laundry and other things (including a late class) intervened. Nevertheless, on Saturday I made my way via train (of course) into Germany. Patty couldn't meet me at the station; her mom had gone shooting, and Patty doesn't drive stick, so her father picked me up. We went back to the Garden Club, and I hung around while Patty worked, waiting for our ride for the evening to Frierhagen, where there was a party Patty was supposed to help out at.

Tun (I hope I'm spelling that right) picked us up about a half hour late. He made up for it on the Autobahn, where I had the pleasure of experiencing 230kph (sorry, I don't know the conversion).

Damn. My hour's up, and the gamers are waiting......more soon, but when I can't predict, since tomorrow we leave for Brussels, and on Wednesday we head to Luxembourg. But I will post again before the week's out.....