November 30, 2012

Playing the Building, or how hipsters ruined another art installation

It's an organ that doesn't play like an organ, a building that doesn't sit still like a building, and a room full of obnoxious, grimy, giggling hipsters who make you want add the extra percussion of your head against a wall.

It's not standard to review a piece of art when it's moving out of town in the next few days, but there's probably no shortage of other reviews of David Byrne's giant installation Playing the Building anyway, and this isn't the first time its been installed. It is however the first time Playing the Building has been available in a U.S. city that isn't New York, and the first time in our glorious country since 2008.

For the uninitiated, Playing the Building, currently installed at the Aria building on 1st St North in Minneapolis (former site of Theater de Jeune Lune), is essentially a giant room hooked up via pressure controlled cords and wires to an old organ, which sits at the entrance. By depressing the keys on the organ, you can swing hammers at metal plates, blow air through pipes, and set off an ominous vibration that shakes the entire room (a favorite of my lady-friend, J).

The setting of the piece is the highlight of the entire experience. The room is essentially a giant box, but after climbing a staircase on the far side, you can sit in a couple of open rooms with fun couches, listening to records (chosen by whom, I'm not too sure) and experiencing the building coming to life around you. Because the banging and whistling is happening everywhere, the sound of the room is different depending on where you are. Certain things come out of the mix (when a surface is being hammered right behind your head it tends to pop out) while others die away completely. This aspect of the piece was by far my favorite. Beyond being a neat auditory sensation, I thought it reflected the experience of music overall, especially contemporary music, where any individual experience can be vastly different than that of anyone else.

Playing the organ itself was a bit of a frustrating experience (some reasons technical, some social, which I'll arrive at shortly). The hardware is fine, and the keys basically work. Basically. I know that Byrne has said he likes this piece because it "levels the playing field" meaning that an experienced musician will have has much luck poking and picking at the keys as a total newcomer. I have to believe that's partly true, and it is a neat idea. I had the experience though that this instrument (the instrument being the organ AND the room) did not work as well as it should. The sound is made purely electrically, not electronically, which meant that there was a slight delay between depressing the key and hearing the sound. Anyone who has played organ in a big space like the St. Paul Cathedral knows that this is standard for a non-electronic machine. What bothered me about the piece was the unreliability of the sounds (or notes, if you like).

When you play a note on an instrument, especially a keyboard instrument, you expect a sound to come out. Because the sound is being produced sometimes by a small but heavy hammer, it doesn't always make its way back to striking position before it can deliver the next blow. Therefore any rhythmic predictability flies out the window. I may just be a frustrated musically trained person, who to Byrne's delight has been reduced to the skill of a newcomer, but rhythm is so crucially important to music, that without any semblance of it, the installation turns into an amusement rather than any tool of artistic expression. J, who was playing next to me, was stuck on the pipes, which operated similarly to a normal organ, but was frustrated by the confusing mixture of wind sounds and mystery rumbling, as well as the inability to differentiate tones among the pipes, making them all sound essentially the same. Despite the frustrations, we both liked playing on it, even if I felt constrained.

The room had spotlights set on each of the elements that were making the sounds. I had mixed feeling about this as well. I liked being able to look at the soundmakers, but I couldn't shake the feeling that these spots were a way to say "look what I did here, cool huh?". A piano doesn't have a sign with an arrow pointing toward the double escapement saying "Pretty neat stuff over here!"

Perhaps my experience would have also been better in the midst of a more grown up crowd. No, we didn't visit during a middle-school field trip. That would have been a blast. Instead we played the building in the middle of a crowded pack of alternative-lifestyle'd bandanna-wearing, bulky coated folks that I suppose could be labeled hipsters. I'm not going to dive into an exploration of what makes a hipster, and these people don't really fit my normal description (I don't really have too much problem with hipsters, and I suppose I'm sort of one myself). They were less these kinds of hipster:

And more of this kind:

You know how your seven year old cousin acts when he knows a bunch of people are paying attention to him? Yep, that's it. We got to play on the organ, but only after waiting for a group of folks that looked like apocalypse warriors got done not only playing on the keyboard, but also running around the organ in circles, playing with stuffed animals, giggling like idiots, and acting in general like toddlers (drooling possibly included). Now I realize that I sound uptight here, and I can easily be dismissed by someone saying I need to loosen up and get in touch with my inner child. You know what? I stopped being a child...when I stopped being a child. There's fun, and then there's fun appropriate for my age and my setting, which, for the guy who looked to be in his 50's hanging out with this crowd was a very long time ago. David Byrne looks classy, you look like you wandered into an army surplus store with very sticky glue covering your body.

There were others at the piece that looked as bewildered as we did, and the two people who played the organ immediately before us also had a bit of the "this is so cool but I can't wait to the get hell out of here" look of panic on their faces that I felt. If the attention-needy antics of the stuffed-animal organists was all that I had to contend with I would have been perturbed but could have made suffered through for longer. But there was neediness all around. Maybe the guy on the floor staring at the ceiling was a having an intense revelatory experience. I'm sure some of the found object people were having a great time and feeling something they hadn't before. But the guy flinging a tennis ball up into the rafters? The people giving each other piggy back rides? The line of people stomping around the floor in rhythm? This wasn't an art installation, this was a carnival.

I'll try not to throw out the entire because of the weirdos in the crowd, but I felt like this is a sign of the state of art, especially a piece like this. The art itself (which I'm almost certain I would have experienced differently in a less crowded hall) has been lost in a noise of a conspicuous consumption, where it is more important to be seen enjoying the art than it is to actually enjoy it yourself. The level of ironic experience going on was overwhelming, and Byrne's piece became a backdrop to a view of the absurdism that has become our modern dynamic between art and audience.

UPDATE: 4:35 on 11/30/12
Here's a video that I found on City Pages, (but I'm not sure if they made it) of Byrne explaining his instrument:

David Byrne demonstrates Playing the Building from Voice Media Group on Vimeo.

Playing the Building by David Byrne, presented by First and First

The Aria Building
105 North First Street in Minneapolis

Now through December 4th, 2012

$10 (plus I got a really cool free poster!)

Why should you go?
It's pretty fun to play on the organ for a bit, and walk around the room to experience the sound from all different areas. This only seems to play every couple of years and rarely in America. It's a piece that may well end up in music textbooks, in one of those lists of "crazy things that modern musicians do" at the end.

Why shouldn't you go?
The experience changes every night. You should go if you can, although some of the most obnoxious people there did have name tags, so either they work there, or as J said, "they might just be the kind of people who want everyone to know their names."

November 18, 2012

Villain Composers

It's well established that movie villains like to listen to classical music. There's something about the intellectualism of classical music (especially Baroque composers (especially Bach)) that makes it a comfortable fit for evil geniuses, white collar criminals, and even the lowly-man's psychopath.

I'm not totally sure why we've chosen this style of music for on-screen villains. I think it may be a way to remove villains from mainstream society. We are often identified by the style of music we listen to and classical music is just obscure enough to paint itself into its own corner of our culture. By relating a villain to a style of music that's not as well understood as say, Britney Spears, we can remove the villain from our own level of society. This of course, doesn't work on me. I tend to like their choices in music. Another theory I have is that it's an easy way to create an ironic juxtaposition. By using classical music, a director or author can set a violent animalistic action against a high-brow artistic creation.

I personally like it more when a villain listens to something non-classical, like in David Fincher's Girl With the Dragon Tattoo when Enya's "Orinoco Flow" is used during the disturbing basement scene. That may be the exception though, and I sense that classical music will still be the villainous music of choice in the foreseeable future.

So I started thinking, what classical composers would some of my favorite villains listen to?

I went to some trouble preparing that game for McClane.
Movie: The Lion King

Defining evil moment: Dropping Mufasa off of a cliff thus instigating a coup d'etat and restructuring of Serengeti society that shocked the lion world in a way not seen since Mufasa dropped his predecessor off of a cliff. How do you think lion leaders are chosen?

Composer: Sergei Prokofiev
Now I realize that Scar is a lion and therefore doesn't have the technology required to listen to music of any sort, beside the music of giant starving cats and hyena foot-soldiers. Not only does Scar enjoy creating misery, he enjoys rubbing his rivals' faces in it. Due to his overthrow of a monarchy, and imposition of a new authority with his own party at the center (a party that I assume contained a unit dedicated to shaping of the arts) I'm choosing Sergei Prokofiev as his composer of preference. I could imagine a poor, crushed Prokofiev slaving away under the tyrannical fist of Scar, pushing out pieces such as the below Peter and the Wolf. The piece makes you happy? Imagine it being composed under the fear of being shipped off to a gulag.

August 2, 2012

Eurotrip - Amsterdam, August 2

It's our last day in Europe! We leave for the airport pretty early tomorrow so this is essentially our last opportunity to eat European meals outside, check out famous artwork, etc etc. You know how people say that their vacations have just "flown by"? This vacation has felt pretty long. Of course I had an incredible time, but with all of our travels, in so many cities, over a pretty long period of time, it has felt exactly as long as we've been here.

We woke up to a very rainy, very stormy Amsterdam. Once the heavy rain stopped though it became quite peaceful outside. The crowds didn't really start to come out until around noon, and the streets were beautiful with a light watery sheen. I love how cities feel when they're light on activity, it's like the city has a chance to exhale and recover itself. Because Amsterdam is so frenetic with all the traffic, and the attitude of its residents and visitors, seeing the city take a break was a welcome relief.

This city is much more high energy than the last couple of places we've been. Even Paris didn't have the feeling of pent up, explosive energy. Dijon was sleepy, and Zurich, Munich, and Brussels all had a very laissez-faire attitude. Amsterdam on the other hand kind of punches you in the gut and then asks you to run a few laps. It's unrelenting. So to wake up, and see the rain washing off the roof and into the canals, was a real gulp of air.

We took a canal boat tour this morning with a gruff captain and a bunch of other tourists. We've tried to avoid these kinds of tourist things, but also haven't been on a boat yet. Nor have we been on a tour, so this was a fun thing to do. The boats are covered, so rain wasn't an issue, although it did obscure the views a little bit. It was fun to see some more of the city, and everything looks a bit different when seen from below.

We also got to see a lot of houseboats on the canals, which some people live on rather than finding apartments. Living in a houseboat in Amsterdam seems like it would be fun for about two days and then I'd be done.

We also saw a giant church, and the smallest house in Amsterdam, which is only one window wide, equating to maybe 7 feet across.

After the boat tour we just wandered around some more and ate lunch. It's going to be a pretty uneventful and lazy last day I think. And that's okay with me.

Just came back from a day out in Europe for the last time. It feels weird and strangely anticlimactic to be ending this trip, but short of some sort of ritualistic ceremony I don't see any other way it could end. We had our best meal of the trip at an Italian restaurant right on the edge of a strip of gay bars. Amsterdam pride festival runs all throughout this week ending tomorrow, so there have been flags and banners everywhere for it. Overall though, there hasn't been a lot in terms of events, at least out in the open.

We re-visited our "getting tired of the city" strategy from just about every place we've gone to this afternoon and went to a park to relax and do some reading. The park, called the "vondlpark" (I think that was the name....) was the antithesis of the park we visited in Munich, with its superbly preened and sculpted English gardens. By contrast, this park was layed out chaotically and naturally so as to make the visitor feel lost, and provide some real respite from the speed of the city. The paths are circuitous, the gardens sort of ugly, and the ponds are scattered. Basically it felt perfect.

This park apparently used to be an open sex park, meaning that people could have sex in the open, as long as it wasn't by the playground. Patrons engaging in this activity were encouraged to do so at night though. The police announced that they would still arrest people having sex in public though, effectively ending this practice. Thus, we didn't fall witness to any sex in the park, although we did see a lot of water fowl.

Did you know that in the old days hunting and birding (hunting birds) were considered euphamisms for sex, and that paintings with guys offering dead animals to women were actually sexually suggestive? Now you know, from the Rijkstadt to you, via me.

We ended up finding a big cafe in the park and read there for an hour or so. It was a somewhat chilly day after this morning's rains so we picked a nice sunny spot, ordered drinks, and took our time before dinner.

After crushing our way through the crowds outside a couple of bars, we found this Italian place, and like all but a few of our meals here, ate outside. I'm going to miss eating at tables on sidewalks when I go back home. Beside breakfast, we ate nearly every meal of this trip outside, from my first lunch in Paris nearly 2 weeks ago, all the way up to today. Eating this way keeps you feeling like you're interacting with the city while you eat. I'm fact I don't remember the names of any of the places we ate because the locations mattered so much more.

After dinner we took one more walk through the red light district. It still weirds me out that there are people you can pay to have sex with you standing four feet away, but the area really doesn't feel that seedy. I think part of the reason it's so popular, even with people who don't partake in its most notorious offerings is that it gives you the opportunity to be immersed in this world without actually participating. It's like a Disneyworld of the sex and drug industries. I like that the environment mingles the guilty participants, the curious bystanders, and the reluctant voyeurs all together and let's them sort out their own place in the mix. It also sports the greatest cross-section of people you can find here. I saw families, party boys, business people passing through, and couples of every type and every age. Although the red light district may be more tame than I expected, I found it fascinating and won't soon forget it. I'm just glad we didn't have to sleep there.

I'm looking forward to getting home tomorrow, seeing my parents and girlfriend, and settling into my own bed. Since I left for Europe right after E3 this year, I've been on the move basically non-stop since mid July. I wonder if it will be nice or difficult to settle back into my normal schedule again? I know it could be hard to go back to teaching, but I'll settle in again. This trip has actually been a really intense version of what my work life is like anyway. I know where I'm going and when, but never know exactly how it will be until I get there. So all I can do is take a deep breath and let it all wash over me one more time.

August 1, 2012

Eurotrip - Brussels to Amsterdam, August 1

We woke up pretty early today to the sound of garbage collection outside our hostel. I didn't mention yesterday a kind of gross thing about Brussels, and I suppose lots of big, older cities. The personal garbage pickup is just left on the sidewalks outside people's apartment buildings. Without alleys or dumpsters, the garbage just builds up all week until it's picked up. Evidently that day was today, because the sound this morning was loud enough to drive me into a sleepy rage. As a result of today being garbage day, the trash bags were piled high yesterday with stinking food and animal waste. It smelled awesome out there.

We decided to be done with Belgium a bit earlier than originally planned because Justin is really excited to go to Amsterdam. I feel like even though we only spent one day there we got to see a lot of it. The state of my sore feet and legs last night also supports this feeling. I liked Brussels, it was a more functional, less tourist-driven city than some of the others we went to. It had some real character underneath everything as well. Despite our first, somewhat intense, introduction to the city, it came out on top for me. Still, I'm looking forward to exploring the canals of Amsterdam.


Whoa Amsterdam whoa. This city is bonkers compared to the last couple of cities we've been in. I mean, France was busy too, but this is way different. I know that's not news to people who've been here before but it's news to ME!

The first thing that hits you is how difficult it is to navigate the streets. At the risk of sounding like a person who grew up in suburban Minnesota, it is hectic here. There are cars, pedestrians and a shitload of bikes everywhere. Bikes everywhere. And the bikes don't stop for anything. At least in Paris the traffic would stop for lights or pedestrians trying to cross the street, but here the bikes just blow through crowds of people while dinging on soft little bells. It's a miracle people aren't run over more often. And that is the small fish/big lake minute.

Amsterdam really is cool though. People always talk about the neat architecture in Amsterdam and they don't lie. The buildings are all very unique looking and it's nice to just walk the canals and check them out.

We visited the Rijksmuseum this early afternoon, which is a general collection of dutch artists, with big collections by Jan Steen, Rembrandt, and Vermeer. The collection was really nice and nicely presented too. It was a pretty expensive museum for it's size but I'll let it slide because of the quality of the collection.

We spent the rest of the afternoon just wandering around, stopping into some shops and taking in the Amsterdam atmosphere. I had been commenting to Justin how this city doesn't feel like the bacchanal city of licentiousness that it's been built up as, and then we wandered through the red-light district. It does reek of weed, and there are prostitutes in windows. I mean, it's not like some horrible den of hedonism. There's a festive atmosphere and there are even families walking around (which I question the good taste of) so it doesn't feel dirty. The sex shops and bars playing music are usually pretty bright and inviting as well. The smell puts me off though, and the women in the windows makes me sad. I know they're unionized, and it's regulated to keep things safer and more humane, but it all feels wrong still. There's a trapped animal feeling looking at the women behind glass, and their sad expressions don't help much. There are prostitutes on dates with their Johns in bars and on the streets, which brought the reality that much closer to me. It really left me feeling uneasy.

To be totally honest, both of us are kind of getting a travel glaze over our minds. Despite the grandeur and larger-than-life qualities of this place, it's having a hard time cracking into me. Maybe when we have a better plan of what to do tomorrow it will start to make an impact, but right now I'm just tired. We've still got tonight though, and all day tomorrow.

As soon as we stepped back out to find some dinner tonight, it started to sprinkle so we quickly found a restaurant and ducked inside. Luckily we made it inside right when it started to downpour. Amsterdam is even more beautiful in a light rain than it is in the sun. The downside of course is that you get wet in the rain. Hmmm. Well, we were pretty tired, so rather than wander in the rain we came back to the hotel and made some plans for tomorrow. Canal cruise? Shopping? Erotic museum? Who knows!?!

July 31, 2012

Eurotrip - Brussels, July 31

The thought had actually crossed my mind while we were leaving Munich that I may never sleep well again for the rest of my life. That's how sleep deprived I was. Our room here though was way better than Munich and I slept really well. This hostel is interesting. It's much more catered toward young adults rather than lonely travelers and school groups like the last place. The "we're a cool place for young people" vibe kind of wears on me but the facilities are nice, the bed was nice, the view from our room was great and I slept really well, so basically it's all good in the hood.

Brussels is a nice town in the daylight. It's very compact, so you can walk basically anywhere but if you want there is a metro system. There are museums absolutely everywhere as well as lots of little shops and cafes. Actually, this town caters really well to hipsters. There are lots of knick-knack stores with antiques and neat old crap piled across many rooms. There are also tons of record stores for the hipster vinyl collector interested in buying the star trek soundtrack in Belgium.

We started the day with a stop in the Brussels museum of fine art (beaux-arts for those keeping score at home) which keeps paintings from the 15th century through modern times. It wasn't the best museum we've been to but it also wasn't the worst. Most of their best collection was in religious artwork from the 17th and 18th century.

We saw a lot of paintings of Jesus, lots of freaky surreal religious imagery and of course a couple representations of my buddy, the arrow-filled Saint Sebastian!

The modern art collections were dreary and didn't inspire a lot. They also were attempting a collection of art around the theme of "Art and Finances", which was pretty bad.

A nice surprise was the Margritte museum which contained artwork by the famous creator of "this is not a pipe" and all those paintings with the guy and the apple in front of his face. You know, that guy. Art historian I am not. This museum also contained a biography of the artist alongside a lot of his artwork.

We spent a lot of time just walking around Brussels so I didn't take very many pictures. The city is a fun place to just absorb what's around you without needing to necessarily stop at museums or stores. We saw the statue if the kid peeing, which had a lot of people taking pictures, and eventually sat down for some insane French fry lunch. We were just going to get a basket of fries, but they make these insane state-fair type foods of burger sandwiches with salad, onions and fries on top. This is all drenched in some sort of lightly spicy sauce that was sort of like the frisco melt sauce from steak and shake. Don't judge. It tasted amazing, and sat in my gut for the rest of our afternoon.

Brussels is one of the seats of the European Union so they have a cool visitor center that we stopped in. I was expecting a small shop with pamphlets (Justin expected a tri-fold history day project) but we got an hour long walkthrough of the history of the EU complete with little handheld touch screen guides and games. It was pretty impressive. But just like history classes in high-school I will probably forget everything I learned.

The hostel gave us some great maps (hipster maps no joke) that have waking tours just outside the inner city. We took the "East Tour" through some nice parks, and also through one of the poorer neighborhoods. The latter area has a large outdoor market area that's blocked off from traffic, that was nice to wander up. At the top of the hill were some cool cars colored like taxis that had been filled in with dirt and left to grow plants.

The little car planter installation is kind of indicative of what make Brussels a neat and comfortable town. The city is not as esthetically pleasing as Zurich or Paris, but there are things like these cars, or a large orange overhead snake-thing that we saw this morning that give the town some vitality and personality.

Language here has been interesting. They officially speak both French and Dutch here, but everyone also speaks English. This means that signs can often be in all of these languages, or depending on which neighborhood you're in, only one of them. The Dutch is a nice way to get used to Amsterdam though, where we go tomorrow!

We didn't end up doing too much tonight. I mean we walked probably 3 or 4 miles, but I didn't take any pictures and we didn't go in anywhere. We took a trip to a wealthier part of town that our map suggested we check out (it was a tip from a local guy whose occupation is actually listed as "hipster") and look at the nice buildings, expensive stores and fancy restaurants. There was an antique store that also looked cool but by the time we got there it was closed. Actually pretty much everything was closed by the time we got up there. That's okay though, the walk was nice and it was interesting to see things outside of the inner Brussels area. Brussels used to be surrounded by a giant wall (like a really really long time ago) and the "inner city" part is what used to exist inside the walls. So even though I said earlier that the city is easily walkable, that's really only this inner area. Outside of the city there are tons of neighborhoods, sort of like Paris. We arrived in a poor red-light neighborhood last night and tonight visited an old-money neighborhood. The problem with this plan though was that we arrived too late to go into shops, and the dining was all out of our price range. After wandering until our feet hurt we settled on an "irish pub" which served American pub food. No matter! It was food, and we didn't have to eat it standing up. Speaking of food, I haven't eaten waffles or chocolate yet. Only French-fry uber-sandwiches.

We decided to turn in earlier tonight, and leave a bit earlier for Amsterdam. Adieu Belgium!

P.s. I didn't see anyone I'm related to.

July 30, 2012

Eurotrip - Munich to Brussels, July 30

I think I actually slept worse last night than I did the first night here. I got maybe 3 hours of sleep. At least it got me up early again so we could go out exploring some more. Also I discovered that we get into Brussels at 9:30, not 11:30 so today's journey shouldn't be too bad. We take a train back from Munich to Stuttgart and then on to Siegburg before transferring to a Brussels line. In short, we have 7 hours of train time in which to catch up on sleep.

We visited the former Olympic park in Munich from the '72 games. It's kind of a sad place. They're doing a decent job of keeping some of the buildings active still, but a lot of the land is sitting unused.

We stopped into the swimming building and climbed a really big weird looking hill which was covered in school-children.

 I'd love to see a photo collection of the current states of former Olympic villages. Do they all have abandoned carnivals?

I forgot to mention the last thing that pissed me off about the music instrument collection at the Deutches Museum yesterday. Their example of a modern grand piano was a Steinway and Sons concert grand. This is a problem with lots of the music stores we've been to. The piano selections are mostly Steinways and Bostons and Yamahas. Europe used to be the piano making center of the world, and still makes a lot of fine instruments. Why in the world did the museum not choose a Bosendorfer, the German flagship piano maker? Alright, this interests no one but me. But now i'll be able to read about it in perpetuity!

We also saw the glockenspiel performance in the Marienplatz this morning. I took a video of people taking videos and this picture if Justin watching it.

We were tired and grumpy, but luckily our European Coca-cola lifted spirits. The glockenspiel thing was basically 19th century animatronic dancing a-la chuck-e-cheez. If we had been more awake it might have been more appealing, but as it was we spent more time giggling at the gawkers than truly appreciating the show.

As promised it has been an overwhelmingly dull day. It's fascinating how something as breathtaking as zipping across countries in a high-speed train can become commonplace. When you settle in for an entire day of travel though, you tend to space out a lot of the time.

I'm looking forward to Brussels. A large portion of my family's heritage is Belgian, but none of us has actually been back the homeland. I really have no idea what to expect from it. For some reason in my head it looks like Poland or Russia but I know it looks more like France or the other cities we've been to. It was weird to hear French being spoken again the train today as well, just when I was starting to get used to German. I think we do better with French anyway. C'est Bon!

Cologne, like the cologne
The train passed through a bunch of cities that are all musically historically significant but I'd be hard pressed to name why. Cities like Bonn, Cologne (I took a picture of that church over the water from a bridge), Stuttgart again, and of course Mannheim. I remember why Mannheim is important. There was an orchestra there in 1700's (pre-Classical times) under a conductor/composer named Johann Stamitz which was famous for several orchestral techniques including bowing together and a big crescendo which became known as the Mannheim walzer. In English this translates to the Mannheim steamroller. So next time you're hanging out with your friends at Christmas listening to everyone's second favorite electronic easy listening band (after Trans-Siberian orchestra), you can share my favorite anecdote about music history.

It's kind of weird how both of my premonitions about Brussels came true. Our station, Brussels Nord, was what appeared in the dark to be the sketchier of the two main train stations. It was dirty, sparsely occupied save some people who didn't seem to have anywhere to go, and it was surrounded by sex stores. We of course had no idea where we were going so we wandered around the outside and inside of the station before figuring out what the hell we were doing. Once we found it route we walked up a dim street with the scary buildings on our left and the giant office buildings on our right. I haven't walked this fast with my backpack on since we tried to outrun a sandstorm in Utah with Odyssey in high school.

In short the walk was terrifying, not because of any real danger, but because it's late, we're basically guessing our way around, and who knows what kind of evil lurks in the heart of Belgians?*

On a positive note, the hostel here is way better than the one in Munich. There are fewer kids running around, they seem to offer more, and we have our own shower. Still, the Hilton in Amsterdam is looking reeeally good.

Also, I saw one of the greatest graffitis of all time in a dark and terrifying tunnel that we had to cross through, and I posted it for your enjoyment. Sleep ahoy!

Currently listening to: the streets of Brussels

*The shadow knows.

July 29, 2012

Eurotrip - Munich, July 29

Hostels. They are a cheap place to not sleep. The only real refuge in the hostel is the shower which is (thank god) a single stall. And the breakfast was decent, and everything was okay except for the actual sleeping. But we made it through our first night, squeeking out maybe 3 hours of sleep alongside the four other sweaty, hairy dudes in the building. I can't quite put my finger in what kept me awake, maybe it was the horrible pillow, the lack of ventilation, or the kids who played Alicia Keys' "New York" about 9 times on max volume. Maybe that doesn't sound like a lot of times, but it adds up, especially when you're trying to sleep. Anyway, I actually feel pretty great today, despite the rain.

Things we've seen today so far:
A mural on the first floor of the hostel depicting a nudist beach (I have selected my favorite detail for eternal digital memory),

we saw this clocktower (glockenspiel),

and a brush made out of genuine badger fur!

The clocks ring for a very long time here. They were going when we entered the Marienplatz and then went again from 9:30 to 10 while we hid from the unholy downpour. I drank a coke in the Marienplatz. I know I don't usually drink caffeine but my god it tasted good this morning. We woke up at 7:00 because of the poor sleeping conditions so we're going to have a nice full day today. Stuff doesn't really open until 9 or 10 though so we had time to kill. It is Sunday though so places will close by 5 or 6.

Next up: the Royal Residenz.
Also, I haven't seen any sporthocking yet.

Currently listening to: inoffensive Starbucks music.

No one jaywalks in Munich.

We took a tram to the Duetsches Museum which bills itself as the biggest science and technology museum in Europe and as the most popular museum in Germany. While both of these thing may be true, they can't hide the fact that this museum is pretty outdated and boring. Now, I previously labeled museums as boring because they weren't in English, so I couldn't read any of the information. This museum had signage in both German and English but that didn't save it from being over encumbered with text and too devoid of interactivity. The size of the place was impressive, i'll give it that. It's six floors, and the ground floors are like airplane hangars, but the information is packed in too densely, and everything is static and lifeless.

I was a little excited to see that they have an instrument room but once we walked in I braced for disappointment. They had an impressive collection of keyboard instruments, from early virginals to clavichords and all the way up to modern concert grands. There was no explanatory literature on how they worked, what made them different, or what kind of music was played on them. It gave the impression that these instruments were just a natural progression of pianos, not the individual keyboard instruments that they are.

Additionally they seemed to be poorly maintained apart from humidity control (the place was tropical). There was dust collecting on the outside and inside of the instruments and I saw at least one big soundboard crack on a harpsichord. The keys were all covered by plastic cases (although I did see one kid just pull it off) so the keys weren't collecting dust but it did deprive the room of any sound, which was my biggest problem with the exhibit.

This collection treated musical instruments like pieces of furniture, to be moved around and displayed rather than used to make art. I understand that instruments themselves can be works of art, but they should he enjoyed for the sounds they make, not just for how they look. The fact that these rooms (there was another room of all the non-keyboard instruments as well) were so devoid of sound was frustrating. This combined with the lack of reverence for keyboard history in a music rich city like Munich made for a endcap to a truly disappointing museum trip. Well at least we got to talk in hushed tones about how superior the Minnesota science museum is. AND we got a nice view of Munich.

We're sitting in a Starbucks for the second time today avoiding the rain outside. I skipped over our trip to the Royal Residenz this morning. The Residenz was the former palace for German royal families. From what I understood it's best known for housing King Maximillian, or at least they mentioned him a lot on the audio guide. That's right, we used audio guides. They were really fun for a while until we figured out that it would take 5 days to listen to everything. Anyway, the palace was filled with all sorts of neat royalty stuffs plus some original rooms and reconstructions. Much of the place was destroyed in WWII, but they saved almost all of the artwork and furniture. Some of my favorite things are below:

A fountain depicting the defeat of Medusa. I loved it because water flowed out of her decapitated head and the neck on the body. That's really grisly stuff. Plus mixed with the rain this morning it looked specially dramatic.

The great dining hall just for its sheer size. The thing was huge and had beautiful artwork on the ceilings and walls as well as built into the architecture. They ate dinner here.

We found more of those pieces of saints that we saw in Dijon. I guess the royalty liked to collect them and had not only scraps of clothed but also skulls, femurs (see picture), hands, and entire child corpses. Great job!

What a long day. Starting off at 7:30 in the morning really makes you feel like you're getting every little bit out of the it. We basically started before the local Munich citizens were awake and ended after they had gone home. The restaurant wasn't even very crowded. Oh yeah, we ate at the same place that we did last night.

The rain today cooled everything off considerably, so hopefully the room tonight will be a bit more bearable. It's actually cool enough to wear pants now! Imagine that!

Our last action before dinner tonight was to walk a few miles in the Nymphenburg palace's gardens. I think this palace was the summer home for the Bavarian ruling elite, and as part of the grounds they have extensive English-style gardens with a beautiful stream and pond that runs its length. It was a nice way to end the day. I've posted a lot of pictures throughout the day, but what are a couple more?

Tomorrow we leave for Brussels and we'll be on the train basically all day long, getting in to Brussels very late at night. If I do make an entry it's likely to he pretty short, but we are planning on seeing the glockenspiel in Marianplatz before we leave.

Oh yeah, we also decided to stay in a hotel in Amsterdam instead of the hostel. We've given up on that front.

July 28, 2012

Eurotrip - Zurich to Munich, July 28

Well we're on our way to a new city again already. Munich treated me very well and got me pretty excited for the rest of the trip. We're at the halfway point right now with 6 more nights, now entirely in hostels. These should be interesting, at least our hostel in Brussels is just a double for the two of us.

I shaved last night for the first time since we arrived here. My face was extremely displeased, but it will thank me for the next couple of days without itching. We'll see if I get to it again over the final week of the trip.

We stayed up pretty late last night watching the Olympic opening ceremony. It was nice watching it on the BBC. If you have the ability to watch it off of network television I recommend it. There were no commercial breaks at all and the announcers mostly stayed out of Tue way. Because it went so late though (I think we watched it on delay and we're an hour ahead of England) we woke up pretty late this morning. After checking out and catching the train back into Zurich, we only had an hour until we had to go catch our train to Stuttgard. So we just walked down to the river and passed the time reading and people watching. It was a very pleasant way to start a travel day. The picture below of the boats was our morning. Oh and I didn't mention before, that canal has swans in it all the time. As if Zurich wasn't idyllic enough.

I never told the story of our entrance onto Zurich. Our train from Dijon left there around 8:15 so we didn't get into Zurich until like 10:30. Being in a brand new station, with a new language, and a new currency (which we didn't have) it took us some time to figure out what we were doing. Finally we figured out which train we needed, figured out how to buy a pass (the ticket and information windows were all closed for the night so we had to use the computer terminals) and then set out trying to find our damn train. After running around the city like idiots, chasing down trams and trolleys, we discovered that the train we wanted left from the station. Smart. We stayed in the Zurich airport Hilton, which is northwest of the city in Kloten, so the train dropped us off at the Kloten station and we ventured off into the great dark suburban landscape to find our hotel. It only turned out to be like a 15 minute walk down the road (they have sidewalks everywhere here) until we found the driveway to the hotel, but every minute in the dark late hours of a foreign country feels pretty long.

Zurich was awesome though. I pretty much summed that up with yesterdays entry I think.
Todays train ride to Munich is in two parts, first to Stuttgard (which I know has a musical significance but can't put my finger on it right now) then to Munich. This train ride has been incredible. Now I know why people but those goofy videos of train routes.

We've passed mountains, rivers, waterfalls, and castles. A castle built on a waterfall. It's really stunning. And these trains work really well. They're always right on time, comfortable, and don't have too many stops. Let's learn from this okay? I tried taking some photos but it seems like everytime I look up there's something new I want to capture, and unfortunately I rarely get it. So I'll put some up to give an idea but it's really the kind of thing that needs to be experienced.

Currently listening to: Beethoven Piano Concerto #1

I wrote a longer post that seems to have been devoured by my phone but in summary:

  • Stuttgart was bad news bears (see above video of our arrival)
  • Kids in the Munich suburbs wear black metal t-shirts just like US kids did in 2003.
  • I ate Jaegerschnitzle for dinner and it was awesome.

  • Basically we didn't do a whole lot today but travel, but now I'm excited for tomorrow 
  • the end!

July 27, 2012

Eurotrip - Zurich, July 27

We did a great deal of things today. I kind of want to move to Zurich now. It's incredible. I know it doesn't take place here, but of you want to live in all the happy parts of the Sound of Music, I'd recommend a long trip to Switzerland.

We rented a car this morning and drove out to Lake Aergi which is a mountain lake a couple of miles south of Zurich. If you can't tell from the pictures below, it was breathtaking. There's absolutely no way to properly capture the scenery. Just imagine combining a lake, several small villages, farmland, craggy mountains and rolling green hills, then cover it all with some light low-hanging clouds. That's what we saw from the tops of these hills.

After walking around the small town of Oberargi (not to be confused with Unterargi) we discovered a gondola that goes up to the top of one of the larger hills in the area. We knew this little journey would be worth it when we started off by seeing a kid in a hamster wheel outside the gondola station.

You know what was waiting for us at the top? If you looked at the pictures already, you know already. A BOUNCY CASTLE! I guess when you can't ski down a mountain you'd better put a damn bouncy castle and inflatable fish slide up there.

The top of the hill had a whole bunch of hiking trails leading off of it which, at some other point in my life, would he fun to take, but we opted for the short route of trecking across the terrifying metal suspension bridge across a valley and then walking back up on the other side. The bridge was maybe a 1000 meters across (i actually have no clue how far 1000 meters is) and it was only attached to the ground on each side of the valley, so it swayed a lot as we walked across it. I wanted to take a video but I was afraid I'd drop my phone into the valley. The other side going back was much less exciting. It was hot, we were thirsty, and an old man passed me as we walked back to the gondola top.

After some more wandering around the small towns (lunches don't get served until 2:00?) we drove back to Zurich the long way around Lake Zurich via a bridge that bisects it to the south-west of the city. I'm not ashamed to say that I feel asleep during the ride.

Zurich is the perfect town for me. It's a pretty small city, especially compared to the other places we're visiting this trip. The population is only about 360,000 but the city is very cosmopolitan feeling. The city's layout reflects the lake very well and the heart of the city life (apart from the shopping area) is right along the water and there are bridges connecting the two sides to eachother.

Zurich is well known for it's shopping area, the Bonhaffestrasse, which is basically like a grown up, extremely rich version of the Nicollet Mall. We didn't shop here but did stop into the Musikhaus, where I played some pianos (mostly Yamahas and Steinways, come on!) and bought a little Satie score for myself. We also stopped into a large English language bookstore, where I looked unsuccessfully for a bathroom. Thought I should share that.

We had some time to kill before dinner and decided to hunt town the Kunsthaus Zurich, a museum for non-swiss artists. This museum blew my mind. Really it did. I loved it so much. In some of the must creative curating that I've ever seen, the museum posts artwork based on their content rather than the era or artists. It has some standard collections like "old masters" with tons of paintings of saints and Jesus, as well as a superb collection of Monet and the impressionists and a modern collection of Kandinsky etc. but the special collections were where the museum really shined.
In one area the museum collected portraits and different versions of still life from various eras. There were renaissance portraits paired with modern photography. Still life with flower photos. Giant oils with small drawings. It was so refreshing to see art collected this way, by subject, instead of how we traditionally group them.

The best part of the museum's exhibits though was the collection named "Riotous Baroque" in which the curators aimed to extricate the term baroque from it's usual meaning of pomp and frivolity and focus on life's relationship with disorder and pain. The exhibit contained a number of 17th and 18th century paintings of terrifying murders, battle scenes, and opium-induced nightmare visions. It was great to see these paintings, which I think often get hidden in favor of religious paintings from the time. Next to these works were pieces by modern artists who also worked around themes of sex, death, and the realness of life. It was also awesome to see Robert Crumb displayed in a museum. Going on about this won't do it much justice. I was inspired, entertained, and I wanted more.

Some other notes about the museum:
We got chased around by a lady who wanted to kick is out of every exhibit claiming we didn't have the right tickets. We both avoided her and saw it all. Bite me!

I keep seeing these paintings of saint sebastian, who I'd never heard of before. Apparently he's been left out of my education, yet ironically really popular in old paintings for the same reason. This guy died by being shot full of arrows. And old artists friggin loved painting it over and over again. I've seen probably 6 representions of it so far and at least one at each museum. Anyway, the reason I mentioned it finally was because I saw my favorite one so far and took a picture to share. In this one, saint Sebastian is a baby, and in the panel on the right, a dude is just hanging out waiting for Seb to grow up so he can shoot arrows into him. Can't this guy get known for anything else?

That's enough about the Kunsthaus. We made our way back down to the water and ate at a pasta restaurant, trying to spend some more of our Swiss francs before we go back to Euro land.
Wait, I have to say something about the Swiss franc. They don't use the Euro, which kind of sucks. But they do have their own badass currency called the Swiss Franc. The paper currency goes down to 10s and the coins go up to 5. They also have a 1/2 coin. The coinage kind of stinks because they're all about the same size (except the 5, it's huge) and they're all the same material. The paper currency is really cool though. It's in sweet colors AND they have neat portraits on them. I swear I'm going to find a giant 20 bill poster and put it on my wall.

Okay, dinner was great, our server talked to us a bunch and swore which felt great, and the food was food. Enough said. After dinner we drove up to a park, the name of which escapes me but couldn't quite find our way in. We did drive past FIFA headquarters though before finding a crazy underground parking garage that looked like a re-fitted missile silo and echoed in crazy ways (video when I get back). It was actually a parking lot for a hotel so we didn't stay long, just enough to pop above ground and take in the view from high above Zurich close to sunset. AND WE FOUND A CAT. That cute little cat followed us around and scared Justin by popping out of some bushes before we took off.

After a confusing and long return of the car back to the airport we got in the hotel shuttle, ran past the new arrival of Asian tourists and got up to the hotel room in time for the Olympic opening ceremony.

We're heading to Munich tomorrow and a week straight of hostels until I get home so I'm not sure when I'll get to update again. Hopefully these places have WiFi but I'm not counting on it. I'll keep writing though and upload them when I can!