Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Not Your Mama's Meatloaf

Several people have asked me why I wrote so much about food. I'll be honest, I wasn't aware that I did until a few readers pointed it out to me. Nevertheless, I'm not all that surprised. There are three big reasons why I think food is a key part to this blog...

a) I love food. I enjoy cooking, I enjoy eating, but I also enjoy the adventure of trying new things. The worst that could happen is you get a bad taste in your mouth until you find a drink, or maybe a little heartburn. It's a fairly riskfree adventure and I like that aspect of eating.

b) Mealtime is one of the few times that we--The Viking Orchestra crew--were all together doing exactly the same thing. Our tours were divided into smaller groups and during our free time we were on our own, but we were all connected during breakfast and dinner. If I say we had apple strudel, I know I'm not leaving anybody out. Meals were very important because it's that special time when we could all catch up and find out how everyone spent their days...what they bought, what they saw, and what they liked the most. (And in some cases, um, what they ate.)

c) Along with music and art, food is one of the most unique things to any given culture. You can learn so much about a group of people based on their diet, and every region's is special to them. Just look at the wide variety of culinary delights we have here in the southeast that are just ours: sweet tea, fried chicken, collard greens, Cheerwine, really good barbecue sauce. If you went to Boston and tried to get these things they wouldn't know what you were talking about, much less in the Czech Republic! Food identifies us, and it's one of the fastest ways to get in touch with a new place, whether it's sharing bread with one of the natives or just buying a bratwurst from a street vendor.

A few examples of our cultural differences...

Breakfast. Frankfurters and potatoes.

Yep. That's corn you see sprinkled on top of this pepperoni pizza.

Meatloaf the way they like it in Germany. (It tasted like fried bologna.)

Sachertorte. Originated at the Viennese Hotel Sacher, this chocolate delight satisfied a lot of empty tummies. Some even brought samples home in the trademark wooden box.

Auf Wiedersehen

Our time in Germany concluded with a relaxing day in Heidelberg. Heidelberg is a great little college town set beside a river. I thought I might find blueberries--heidelbeer is German for blueberry--but no luck. However, I did find friendly people, a place to watch soccer, and more of that cheap and tasty "eis" (ice cream).

We spent our morning by taking a walking tour of the area. I mentioned that Heidelberg is a college town, and that's true; the university consists of about 30,000 students. But unlike the college atmosphere we're used to here in the states, this one also includes a centuries-old castle and a couple of churches that have existed for more than 200 years. It's a neat juxtaposition of the old with the new; I think our students enjoyed being able to walk through the ruins of an old fortress and then turn around and get fries at Hard Rock Cafe.

The afternoon was ours to spend. A few of us took a boat ride down the river, where we saw countless sunbathers and pedalboats. Some purchased last-minute souvenirs while others found comfy chairs and took in the England vs. Paraguay match. After many busy days waking up early, moving equipment, and walking for miles, Heidelberg was just the right pace for us as we found ourselves running out of momentum.

Our final dinner together was lots of fun. The apple strudel was probably the highlight, but the singing accordion player was also very entertaining. Mr. Buyer wrapped things up by presenting each of us, students and chaperones alike, with an award that reflected our contribution to the trip. (I received The Blog award, which is probably more flattering than Official Head Counter or Girl Who Always Cleans Her Plate.)

There was a bit of stress at the Frankfurt airport. Like I mentioned at the beginning of our trip: we have a lot of stuff! We had a little trouble getting everyone and their bags checked before the official boarding time, but somehow it all worked out in the end and our flight departed on schedule. 8 1/2 hours later we stepped off the plane and were greeted by humidity and temps in the 90s. It was great to be home.

And it is. It is great to be home, with family and friends and things that are familiar and things that make us feel safe and like we have a real place. But it was a wonderful trip. I hope everyone learned a lot and had a great time, but above all I hope that maybe getting out of the box for a couple of weeks will inspire our students (and maybe their families) to travel often.

Travel can be such a therapeutic thing, if you let it. It’s a great way to explore your interests, not only to go do the things that you know already interest you but also to go out there and find out what else interests you. You may be looking at a map or a travel guide and suddenly find yourself pulled into an antique store. You might never have thought that you liked antiques before now, but maybe being in that place at that time you somehow felt inspired. Perhaps your roadtripping will uncover a hidden passion for photography that you never knew existed. Who knows, maybe you’ll begin planning more and more trips with the sole purpose of taking pictures. Travel gives us the chance to learn about culture, geography, and geology. But it also gives us the opportunity to learn a little more about ourselves.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Who Knew Salt Could Be So Fun?

MANNHEIM--It's hard to wake up at 6:15 and be in a great mood day after day. But it's much easier to get motivated and start your morning when you have the wonderful scenery we've been blessed with the past few days.

We left Salzburg early Friday morning and headed to the salt mines in Hallein, about 30 minutes away. That's not quite accurate; it should have taken 30 minutes, but it took us closer to an hour due to the size of our bus and trailer. The mountain roads can't accommodate such a big vehicle so we had a lovely detour that provided us with some beautiful views of the ski resort area.

I'll be honest. Since the moment I found out we were going to the mines I've been giddy. I found
a website that described the ridiculous white overalls, the slides you ride down into the mine, and the raft ride several hundred feet underground. It lived up to my expectations and then some. It was such a different experience from the other tours we've taken--there was still plenty of history and information, but we were able to be silly (and look ridiculous) and a little more active than the usual guided tour.

In our Oompa-Loompa outfits, we rode a long train deep down into the mine. We were escorted by a surly-looking gentleman in an engineer's getup, who told us a little about the history of salt in Salzburg but most of his job appeared to be starting the next movie and keeping us moving. We walked through skinny caves and corridors and in each room we stopped to watch a brief movie about the mining of salt and its impact on Austria. I realize that this probably sounds a little dull to most of you, and I understand. I've never gotten really excited about salt either, unless it was on top of pretzels or tortilla chips. But this was fun just because it was so weird and they tried so hard to turn a simple mining operation into a Disney attraction.

We spent a couple of hours on the road and stopped for lunch at the nicest rest area I've ever seen. They had a McDonald's, a great cafeteria of Bavarian food, toilets that clean themselves!, Wi-Fi, and a biergarten that overlooked the Alps. With the World Cup starting yesterday in Germany, the place was packed with buses and carloads of soccer fans en route to various stadiums throughout the country. It was cool to see so many people from so many different places, all proudly displaying their flags.

After several more hours on the bus we finally made it to Mannheim just before 8 PM. Germany won their match against Costa Rica and the streets were full of celebration. People drove by honking air horns and screaming, while others unfurled their Germany flags in hotel and apartment windows. We walked to dinner and were able to see many revelers in the streets and the city squares; it's hard to believe it was just a first-round game!

Dinner was good (although I believe by now most of us are getting sick of it)...salad, sausages, potato salad, and Neopolitan ice cream. The only really wacky thing was the beverage situation. Usually we have been greeted by carafes of water on each table. We drink tap water for free, or we have the option to order a Coke or other drink, including bottled water. This time we each had one glass of water and no carafes. When we asked for more water they said we'd have to pay for it, even if it was just plain old tap water. Mr. Russell saved the day by speaking firmly with our waitress; she brought out 4 more pitchers of water, complete with ice. Many of our travelers have come down with mild colds or sinus infections, so I'm glad that they were able to get more to drink.

We walked back to our hotel and hit the hay, awaiting our last full day of Europe.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Expect the Unexpected

MANNEHEIM-- Sorry no posting from Salzburg, it was just a really quick visit and the 15 minutes I was allotted for computer time was devoted to email. I'll try to catch you up best I can...

We left Vienna bright and extremely early Wednesday. Salzburg's about a 5 hour drive, so we broke it up with two pit stops along the way. Our first stop was in Melk, a beautiful mountain village. We enjoyed a guided tour of the monastery--the cathedral is amazing, built in the Baroque period with lots of gold and pastel murals. Despite the cold and the spitty rain, we learned a lot and had a good time seeing such magnificent architecture.

After a brief 2 hours, we headed on to Linz. I usually do a bit of homework and learn about a place before I visit, but unfortunately I still know nothing about Linz. All I can tell you is that it's very cute, set on the Danube River, with nice shops and great ice cream. We split into groups for a quick lunch and a bit of free time. I believe the highlights were the oh-so-intense giant chess game between Owen Belcher and Stephen Strickland along with riding the yellow sightseeing train back to our buses.

We got to Salzburg at around 6 PM our time, just in time for a dinner of tomato soup and turkey. My sources say it was great; I skipped dinner and met up with a friend of mine from Munich. After dinner most of the kids were led on a long (LONG) walk which the students are now calling the Battan Death March. Our winds and brass players were the exception, since they stayed at the hotel for an extra rehearsal along with Ms. DeHollander, Mr. McDaniel, and Mr. Stewart. They are a dedicated bunch and didn't complain for a second.

Thursday morning we woke up for a guided city tour of Salzburg. We saw Mozart's birthplace, a couple of beautiful churches, the university, and roamed around together admiring the fountains and the other details that make their architecture unique. The plan was to then grab a quick lunch and meet up before unloading the bus and preparing for our afternoon concert.

Everything went well until the point that we saw our performance venue. The stage would have comfortably fit about 25 musicians rather than our 56. However, the bigger concern was the fact that the whole area had been converted into a construction site. While sitting on the stage discussing our options, we stared at a pile of gravel and watched a crane operator slam a dumpster into a historic site (and almost kill Hunt Russell). It was decided that we should not play in such a dangerous area (not to mention noisy and insulting). After trying unsuccessfully to find another place to perform, we were given more free time to enjoy the beauty of Salzburg.

I don't want this to become the Sarah Wright blog, so these times in our schedule are difficult to write about. I can tell you that some people went up to tour the castle and the museum of medieval torture devices, while others sampled foods at the biergarten, and still others shopped till they dropped. I escorted a delightful gang to Mirabell Gardens, where we rolled down grassy hills, took pictures of roses, and sang the Do-Re-Mi song from The Sound of Music.

Dinner was pretty tasty: chicken breast with gravy, a brothy soup with semolina dumplings, and apricot cake. Some of us walked off the calories while others decided to crash pretty early back at the hotel. Friday's wakeup call was 6 AM and most of wanted a good night's sleep before our salt mine adventure!

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

There Are No Kangaroos in Austria

VIENNA--It is really cold here! I don't think any of us were expecting this kind of weather; it's been fun to pick out clothes each morning.

We started Tuesday with a city tour, a little bus ride around town followed by some walking. There are lots of beautiful buildings, particularly the palace, the museum complex, and the many churches that line the streets. I generally tend to use "the big steeple" as a landmark in any neighborhood, but it's not possible here...there are too many of them.

We didn't do anything too musical in the morning, but we did walk the same streets that were once home to Beethoven and the boys. Beethoven is sort of like George Washington is in America; if it's a building, he probably slept there at some point in his life. During his time in Vienna Beethoven moved 67 times; the dude covered a lot of ground while he was here!

We were given a few hours of liberty in the afternoon, so everybody spent their time in different ways. Some shopped. Ok, many shopped. Some toured St. Stephen's Cathedral (myself included) while others went through the Imperial Palace. The Lippazaner stallions are also trained here, and a few people went through their school and stables.

We met in front of the church and walked to the House of Music. This is a hands-on museum, and it explores music by combining physics and arts. One of the floors discusses soundwaves and frequencies, while another goes through the brief biographies of the major Viennese composers.

Dinner was chicken schnitzle, another delicious soup, and apple strudel. Mr. K gave us the chance to walk around town some more and spend the evening sightseeing a bit, but we were cold and tired so nearly all of us came back to the hotel and played cards.

Wednesday morning we had free time again. Same story--we all explored different options, including a few folks who chose to wash their clothes. Two pairs of jeans get grubby fast! This afternoon we all went through the Mozart House. Mozart lived in this house for a few years, including the time that he composed Don Giovanni. The guided tour is full of little-known facts and wonderful musical excerpts. It was so cool to look out a window and know that we were seeing the world the same way he did 250 years ago.

We hiked over to the Votive Church next, the site of tonight's performance. The church is lovely and still in use. We were lucky enough to be able to rehearse briefly before dinner, which turned out to be very important. It's a big space and we needed to get used to the acoustics; like our museum venue in Prague, we had trouble with echoes. But not too much trouble...we received a standing ovation from an audience of about 140!

I forgot to mention dinner tonight. It was...er...interesting. Coach Rivers would call it "curious." It was a crepe stuffed with spicy ground beef that was kind of a cross between marinara sauce and chili. The highlight of the evening was that it was the first time in this trip that we've gotten salad as part of our meal. A very tasty treat!

Happy birthday to Matt Burcham and happy belated to Lura Blumenfeld. They received chocolate cake complete with sparklers tonight! And now it's time to pack, savor the last few hours in Vienna and prepare for a long time on the bus tomorrow.

Monday, June 05, 2006

I Wish I Was A Weiner

VIENNA--Well, here we are in the city of champions. At least from an artist's standpoint. They actually have a walk of fame here, much like the one in Hollywood, only here it's all classical musicians. I will be brief because apparently in Austria time is money. I'll type as fast as I can...

We drove for a long time yesterday, making our way from Prague. Cloudy grey day, perfect for sleeping or reading a book. The countryside is full of mustard fields, vineyards, and my favorite surprise, red poppies. Some of the kids picked a few and decorated their hair. We did a rest stop just across the border...our first All-German menu. Encountered a little frustration when students couldn't order properly--a big thankyou to Paul Buyer and Matt Burcham for sharing their German language with the rest of us gringos.

Eventually with full bellies, we headed to the Central Cemetery. I think every teacher said something along the lines of "I could spend all day here." It is amazing. Beethoven, Strauss, Schubert, Schoenberg, and Hugo Wolf are all there, along with hundreds of thousands of others. It was a remarkable way to start our visit and really feel like we were in the presence of greatness.

Dinner got a unanymous "YES!" when we were finished. Beef burgundy with egg noodles, a brothy soup that tasted a lot like WonTon, and tiramisu. We were in hog heaven.

The day just continued to get better...most of us spent the evening at The Prater. The Prater is the world's largest amusement park. It's open every day and night and admission is free; you just have to pay for your rides and food. Everyone split into groups and when we compared notes this morning it was clear, things are different over here! The rides are run more like game shows--there's lots of dialogue between the passengers and the Carnies, and it's just an incredibly fun atmosphere. There are detailed stories to tell, but they will have to wait for a day when Internet access is a little less expensive!

We did a city tour this morning to get an orientation of the city, and we are preparing to head to a music museum. It's a hands-on place, and in such a rich cultural environment, I expect it to be great. Hope all is well back home; we'll keep you posted!

Sunday, June 04, 2006

The Prague Castle

Saturday was wonderful. Beautiful weather (we expected it to rain in Prague, but it has been terrific!) and lots of free time to explore more of the city.

After our hotel breakfast buffet we took the bus up to Prague Castle. The castle sits atop a hill on the other side of the city's river--The Moldau--and from the palace and cathedral one can see for many miles. Being a Saturday it was very crowded, and it took a little patience to stand in the lines and shuffle through each area of the complex. It was worth it for the history and art, however. Most of the students went back down to the old town for lunch and to do more shopping. A few of us diehards stayed at the castle for a few more hours, not sure when we'll ever have the opportunity to see it again. The pictures you see here are from the belltower at the cathedral.

Last night we had a great dinner--very sophisticated for some of our younguns! Duck, bread dumplings, red cabbage (served like a sweet sauerkraut), and apple strudel. We then went back into Old Town for a few hours of nightlife. The Czech Republic had their elections this weekend, so lots of locals were out celebrating (or drowning their sorrows depending on the results). It was nice to see everything lit up and the churches and river had an especially beautiful glow.

We took the subway (Metro) back to our hotel. This made it very clear that "we ain't in Kansas anymore!" Taking 40 high school students into a subway station at 10 PM is quite the adventure--trying to buy cards from a machine written in Czech, hopping on the subway and attempting to hear all stops. It was truly an experience I'm sure some of the kids will discuss for a while!

Today...on to Vienna!

A Picture's Worth A Thousand Words

I believe I mentioned that people are pretty World Cup crazy over here. It's not just in Germany; the Czechs are pumped, too.

This is Urinal Soccer. Being a girl I can't be too sure, but I believe the object is to, um, aim well and get the ball in the goal. Thanks to Owen Belcher for agreeing to run back into the restroom with my digital camera.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Communication Breakdown

Hello to everyone! Sorry the webmaster took a brief hiatus--we had a little trouble in Germany with the convertors (I'm afraid several of you will be taking your daughters to buy new hairdryers when they return home) and the laptop has not been up and running. Messages should be more frequent now.

The trip has been great so far. We had almost no trouble with our flight, with the exception of a few packing issues (our 116 lb. amplifier caused a little fuss). Considering all the stuff we had to move to Europe, we got mighty lucky!

We hit the Frankfurt airport at about 7 AM Wednesday. A few things were immediately noticed--lots of cigarette smoke (and vending machines), a ton of very tiny cars, and World Cup mania. With soccer teams already arriving, the airport and its surroundings are full of mascots, merchandise, and welcome signs. Another week and the place should really be hopping; our check-in for the flight back home could be very interesting.

We met our tour guides and bus drivers outside the airport and headed straight to Rothenburg. Breakfast on the plane was not very substantial, so we stopped at a rest area along the way. It was called Axxe and set up a lot like a college cafeteria. Most of us got cereal, muffins, and croissants but there were a handful of explorers who braved the sausages and cheeses. The students got to use their first Euros--not on their food, but in the bathroom! It's hard to find free public restrooms in Europe, and the kids are having to get used to either waiting a little longer than usual or scraping up spare change.

Rothenburg is a great little town. It's what you would expect of a Bavarian village...everything looks like gingerbread houses and the gardens are breathtaking. We had a guided walking tour of the area which was very informative, and it would have been lots of fun had we been better prepared for the weather. It was rainy and stayed under 48 degrees which made for a dreary stroll. It gave us a good excuse to order hot chocolate, though, and that's never a bad thing. Our dinner was really nice. We ate in a restaurant in the old Market Square, which is the big plaza at the center of town. Our meal consisted of pork, sauerkraut, potato dumplings, and ice cream cake with raspberry sauce. A band also played authentic German music which livened things up a bit after two very tiring days. I think nearly everyone was asleep by 11 PM.

Which is great because our wake-up has been 6:15 every morning. This is a trip, not a vacation. I hope one of these days we get to sleep in a little or we may be dealing with some cranky folks! Musicians tend to be night owls...We left Rothenburg for the long drive to Prague. It was a fairly quiet bus ride as most of the kids took naps. We had an early lunch in a German rest area before driving across the border. I'm not sure if it's usually more difficult, but crossing into the Czech Republic was very easy for us. We all stayed on the bus and the border guard didn't even ask for a manifest of our instruments and equipment.

The first few miles into Prague were disappointing...lots of industry, KFC and McDonald's, and buildings that appeared to need renovation. But then we reached the old town, the historic area, and it has a completely different feel to it. Green onion domed churches, red tile roofs as far as the eye can see, and the Moldau river with its many beautiful bridges. It's impossible not to appreciate the architecture of this city. And it has been a thrill to listen to the kids for the past two days, hearing them ask smart questions and watching them lag behind in the group a bit to take "the perfect picture." I'm so happy to see that they're enjoying this new culture.

Last night we actually rehearsed, so there was no time to explore. We rehearsed in a hotel ballroom, loaded up the truck and got ready for a very busy Friday. This morning we got the 6:15 wake-up call once again, and by 9:30 we were on our guided city tours. The weather is much better here--sunny with highs in the 60s--and it's a perfect city for pedestrians. Everyone liked hearing about the history of Prague, but I think the students were more excited that we gave them several hours to walk around on their own. I know how liberated I feel each time I scope out a new city; I can't imagine how neat it would have been when I was 16!

We had an early dinner that got mixed reviews. Mushroom soup, salmon-stuffed chicken, and pommes frites (fries). Our bus drivers fought the rush hour traffic to take us to the Czech Museum of Music where we performed our first concert. The crowd was small, about 40, but very receptive. This was a great warm-up for our big performance in Vienna.

Pictures will be posted very soon--stay tuned. Tomorrow we head to the Prague Castle and a glass factory. Hope all's well back home!