Where's Sam the Man

48 countries, 12 months, one man, half a brain

Name: Samuel Hathaway
Location: Roaming..., Germany

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Italia

Italy is difficult to generalize about. I was told that Italians identify more closely with their region rather than with their country as a whole, with distinct traditions and languages creating clear boundaries. My 2 and half week blast through Italy didn't allow me to savor each difference as I should have, but I did notice the changes as I traveled. So, rather than try to sum up the trip, I have tried to explain the different characters of the places I visited.

Venezia, or Venice -- It lived up to every ballad, poem, or fairy tale written about it. Wandering its streets, you can't believe that humans actually conceived a city as magical as this; it must have been elves, or some people with an otherworldly sense of romance and beauty. As soon as you leave the train station, industry and cold reality are lost in an enchanted labyrinth. Buildings start, stop, connect, separate, grow, shrink, leap, and crouch in a completely random manner, creating a pastel-colored, cobblestone maze that continually delights you with strange twists and hidden treasures. You cannot come to a disappointed end in this maze, however. The dead-ends are marble gondola moorings, hidden courtyards, an ancient fish market, a tiny pink chapel wedged between two homes, an miniature opera house...

What really adds the magic, though, are the canals. They drift throughout the city, scattering light on the ancient stone walls and wafting the perfume of sea water into the narrow alleys. The truth is, these liquid streets are actually the only way to get around. There are the elegant, touristy gondolas, of course, but there are also vaporetti (public water buses), elegant water taxis, delivery boats, private boats, etc. Hundreds of little docks are scattered throughout the city for this traffic. It's fantastic to see the romantic of idea of getting around by boat actually to be true.

Milano, or Milan -- Although we left it pleasantly surprised, initially it was a disappointment. The city is famous for being the center of fashion, but I found the main shopping drags to be rather humble in comparison to other elite cities such as London or Zürich. To be fair, though, I saw stores selling such things as designer baby carriages, so for sheer diversity of luxury Milano was impressive. Perhaps it's famous for being a design center, and not a retail center?

What really impressed us, though, was a completely unexpected trip to the duomo (cathedral). The outside was incredible enough. Instead of the typical dead, grey stone I had been seeing on major buildings up to that point, the duomo was made of a glowing white stone that fountained up into brilliant spires. It had real life. Nothing prepared for the inside, though. Walking into the belly of the third largest church in the world, I was actually awed into silence. The sheer immensity of the building must be seen to be believed. Columns the size of redwoods silently rear up in rows on either side, disappearing into the black void above your head, making you feel as small as you ever will. The decoration was simple, but any elaboration would have cheapened it, I think. It's starkness added to its majesty. As many churches as I've seen up to this point, this one takes the cake.

Cinque Terre -- It was a delicious breath of sea air after the cities. The name actually refers to an area on Italy's western coast, now protected as a national park. It's a coast of exceptional natural beauty. Hills lush with cactus, pines, lemon trees, herbs, olive orchards, and wildflowers rise up steeply to dive dramatically into the vivid blue of the Mediterranean. Sheltered along the coast are five (cinque) tiny, pastel-colored villages of plaster and stone, which are either cosily nestled into small harbours on the water or breathtakingly perched on a cliff edge. The tradition is to hike from village to village along the coast, on small dirt paths which lead you past romantically crumbling chapels, ancient stone farmhouses, forgotten shrines to the Madonna, and magnificent sea views. And although the towns are becoming more "discovered" by tourists, there is still a strong sense of community. Unlike Venezia, you actually felt like you were experiencing the country. The locals loved sharing their town with you -- especially then during Holy Week, when everyone was excitedly preparing for the local festivities. A wonderful stop.

Roma, or Rome -- It wasn't so much grand as...a grand disappointment. Not much has changed since Roman times; the ruins have just grown. There is none of the cleanliness I found in Berlin; instead, every public space was defiled by layer after layer of graffiti and grunge. There is none of the color that I found in Prague; instead, the buildings alternate between dirty browns and pea-yellows. There is none of the harmony with nature that I found in Stockholm; instead, a weary Tiber River pushes plastic bottles up and down the banks. The shops were boarded up, the streets were loud, and the only impressive buildings were the ancient ones -- and even they weren't in great shape. And expensive! What am I paying for, exactly?

Admittedly, the ruins were cool. I had seen the ruins of Efes (Ephesus) in Turkey, but the sheer scale of these buildings put them in a different league. If the remains are this awesome, then I can only imagine what it would feel to wander the streets of Roma in its glory days.

Città del Vaticano, or Vatican City -- To be politically correct, I suppose I should put the it in a separate paragraph, seeing as it is an autonomous state.

After what I had seen of Roma, I wasn't prepared to be impressed, but within a few minutes of touring the Vatican I was excited. A few minutes later, I was amazed. Not long after, I was floored. Peterhof is a magnificent palace, the Hofburg is an incredible treasury, and the Prada has a priceless art collection, but they are all public displays and separate, public institutions. The Vatican City unites the rooms, gold, and the art of these three behemoths into one private collection! Incredible! Elaborately, intricately gilded hallways house row after row of gigantic mosaics, then tapestries, then ancient sculptures (the greatest collection in the world), then gold crucifixes, then artifacts from ancient Mesopotamia, then costumes...and that's before you see the Rafael-frescoed apartments, the Michelangelo-painted Sistine Chapel, and the glittering tomb of Saint Peter. You have to see it to believe it. An that was only a fraction of the Vatican's hoard! We never saw the museums dedicated to Egypt, the Roman Empire, the Etruscans, the Pope's carriages, modern Christian art...to name but a few.

The basilica itself was impressive, though more for it's opulence than for it's size (after seeing Milano's duomo). It was interesting to see St. Peter's supposed resting place and Michelangelo's Pieta (yup, that's here too).

No wonder the Vatican City wanted to be seperate from Roma. It definitely justified the trip the area.

Napoli, or Naples -- I have read in every guide book up to this point about the incredible energy here. Now that I've been there, I'm still not sure if it's energy or chaos.
It's Italy's third largest city, bit it has none of the sprawling parks, spacious plazas, or wide boulevards that allow the other cities to stretch out and relax. This city is an ants nest of chaos and activity. The streets of Napoli are tiny alleys that condense all of the energy into such a small space that everybody and everything is ricocheting off each other. Balconies, laundry lines, ancient scaffolding, and bird cages pile on top of the streets, turning them into narrow tunnels which cut between the crumbling stone buildings. These dark passageways gave me the most trouble to navigate out of any city yet. They spiral everywhere, branching apart, swooping up, coming together, diving down, and dead-ending in a most impossible manner.

And then there are the ants in the tunnels. Cars run bumper to bumper all day, while Vespas zip around them. Vespas have the real advantage, because if the going gets slow they can just hop up onto the sidewalk and swerve through the pedestrians (I saw this happen). Traffic lights blare vainly to control the steady flow, but the crowd seems not to notice. Neopolitans never wait for a pedestrian crossing, but just dive into the flow and press on resolutely in front of the vehicles. The drivers, thankfully, show remarkable courtesy for this, and always stop.

Overall, it was an incredible tour through one of the cultural giants of the world. To see the tombs of such intellectual giants as Machiavelli and Galileo, architectural masterpieces such as the cathedrals in Firenze (Florence) and Milano, and cities with such global influence as Roma and Milano was a real thrill. Few countries seem to have excelled and influenced the world in so many different fields as Italy, and it was fascinating to see it from the inside out.

That said, it definitely was not the place of beauty and romance that I had heard about. Perhaps at one time it was, but that place is back in the history books with Romulus and Remus. The grunge, disorganization, and poverty made it seem more like an Eastern European country than a Western one. At least the ones in the East have the excuse of Communist oppression -- what's Italy's? Admittedly, things like bitter cold and rain on Easter Sunday at the Vatican might give a more negative impression. But when a train leaves half of its cars at the train station (including the ones we were on), with only a passerby gesturing madly to alert everyone, something must be off.

But I still love my Vivaldi.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Germany pics


Stuttgart Christmas market



Zürich Christmas market



The family in Heidelberg, Germany



Necker River Valley



Heidelberg castle



Five beautiful pairs of cheeks



Berliner Philharmonie -- foundation stone laid by Herbert von Karajan, home to the greatest orchestra in the world



Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate) -- symbol of Berlin



The East Side Gallery -- a remainder of the Berlin Wall given over to local artists



Holocaust memorial in Berlin

Saturday, March 1, 2008

The Last Four Months, in Brief

Thankfully, the last four months did not consist solely of tiling, painting, lifting, and shoving. As one of the great culture capitals of the world, Germany offered more than enough to keep me entertained. A complete listing would be time-consuming and tedious (for you, my readers), so I have highlighted some events and listed them below:

1. Christmas Markets -- During the Christmas season, most Germanic towns (from villages to cities, from Berlin to Zürich) will put up a Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas Market) in the town square. Local vendors set up wooden booths sheltered with pine boughs to create rambling shopping alleys along the cobblestone. They sell local cuisine (whole smoked fish in Stuttgart, Germany, toasted cheese in Zürich, Switzerland, and always, always hot wine), local crafts, Christmas ornaments, and other random gifts. The atmosphere is always charming, but as the cities get larger so does the scale of the markets. In Stuttgart there was a contest amongst the vendors, where each would try to make the most fantastic rooftop decorations -- you would find whole nativity sets blossoming out of pine branches, glittering angels fluttering above the passersby, etc. In Zürich the main attraction was a three-story Christmas tree dripping with Swarovski crystals. It's a great way to spend winter evenings.

2. My family -- Rather than allow me to spend Christmas on my own, much less the next six months, my family was able to fly over and meet me in Frankfurt for the week from Christmas to New Years. The first six months of travel had rushed by so quickly, but when I saw them again I realized how much I missed them. We spent a day in Frankfurt (where we saw the home of the great German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe), but quickly moved to the more quiet and charming hideaway of Heidelberg. The historical village is located in the lovely Neckar River valley in the southwestern corner of Germany. We spent the week wandering the ancient streets, exploring the romantic ruins of a castle perched on the hillside (a favorite place of writer Mark Twain), and just catching up on family time that we hadn't had in months. The week went by far too quickly, but it was a blessing for all of us!

3. Berliner Philharmoniker concert -- Most of you should know, by this point, that I am a self-confessed classical music nerd. One of my goals for my travels this year was to see, in person, the great European artists, directors, and orchestras that fill my iPod. In Tallinn, Estonia, my father and I had the chance to see the Fabio Biondi's ensemble Europa Galante -- the greatest Baroque orchestra in the world. Really fantastic (seriously: you'll never hear such such purity of tone from period instruments or life-filled Baroque interpretations anywhere else -- get yourself a CD). Now, being in Germany, there was only one thing on my mind: the Berliner Philharmoniker (Berlin Philharmonic). It's usually held to be the greatest modern orchestra in the world -- every player is a virtuoso! I made a weekend trip to Berlin (a whole other story...) to see the revered Dutch conductor Bernard Haitink conduct Schubert's Ninth Symphony, an Anton Webern arrangement of a part of J. S. Bach's Musikalsches Opfer, and Alban Berg's violin concerto (with Frank Peter Zimmerman on the violin). It was the greatest orchestra in the world, conducted by one of the greatest conductors in the world, playing music by some of the greatest composers in the world, at one of the greatest concert halls in the world (the Berliner Philharmonie). It's an amazing experience to be part of art at that level!

Monday, February 18, 2008

Confessions of a Christian Maintenance Man

My confession is not just that I haven't blogged since the last blue moon, leaving you all to speculate about where in Turkey I was captured and sold into the white slave trade.

Nor is it just that I didn't didn't send you guys any Christmas presents. Your waiting is not due to the Turkish postal system -- I really didn't buy you any.

No, the heart of my confession is this: I have become a real man. I have been working as a maintenance man for the last four months.

You might as well get all of the laughs out of your system now.

Now shut up and let me explain.

Back in June, as I began to think about the logistics of one full year of travel, I began to realize that I couldn't stay on the move for 365 1/4 days. That last 1/4 day would be certain to kill me. Even the hard-core travelers that I've read about or talked to -- backpackers, motorcyclists, whatever -- said that after 6 months of being on the road "travel" becomes "living". The day plan becomes finding the next pub (or tea garden, depending on your preference) to hang out in. I decided that I need a place to rest from the road, refill my travel juices, be productive (I threw that in for my parents), and hopefully get to know a foreign culture a little better than constant backpacking allowed.

When I graduated from high school, all I knew was that I was leaving for Europe in a month and that I had nothing planned. I was thrown into travel homework as soon as school homework was done. As the weeks slipped by, me frantically trying to address all of the problems that needed to be addressed, I began to worry about finding any employment. Once I eliminated the out-of-season jobs like grape-picking in France, the unrealistic ones like being a female au pair, and the illegal ones like theft, all of the remaining opportunities were only for European citizens.

Those skinny-jean elitists.

When I lowered my standards from "formal employment with pay" to "whatever the heck I can get", things started to look more hopeful. My mother put me into contact with a Christian organization called the Capernwray Missionary Fellowship of Torchbearers, who often used volunteer labor in exchange for room and board. Torchbearers runs bible schools across the world, from Costa Rica to Greece to India (my mother attended the school in Sweden years ago), for students from all denominations and countries. Since they had schools throughout Europe, I knew it wouldn't be hard to end up at a school after my autumn travels.

After dozens of e-mail exchanges, kind offers, and much debating, I finally ended up at one of their German schools: Bodenseehof, in the town of Friedrichshafen. It was a convenient half way point as I finished traveling in Eastern Europe and started moving towards the West. Additionally, I was in close contact with two Germans and two Swiss (all past exchange students), so I had the reassurance of friends either in the country or next door.

Bodenseehof is located on the Bodensee/Lake Constance (the third-largest lake in Europe) in the south-eastern corner of Germany known as Baden-Württemberg. Looking out of your window at the school, you can see three countries -- the lake borders Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. Germany has the worst side of the lake, but it has the greatest view; on a clear day, you can the see the Swiss and Austrian Alps rising up out of the water. It's such a huge thrill to see every day. To remind yourself that you are seeing the the Swiss and Austrian Alps across the vast, glistening lake surface never fails to excite me. The German side is much more flat, with some rolling hills as you go farther inland. It is thick with miniature farms, vineyards, and pastures -- very lush, very peaceful.

The English-speaking school is an international conglomeration of about 80 odd students and staff. Most of the 60 students are from America or Canada, but there are some from Kenya, Taiwan, Japan, France, Austria, and, of course, Germany. Although the majority of the students are fresh out of high school, there are some college students and even middle-aged men and women in attendance. All come to the school with no grandiose theological goals, but rather with the simple desire to learn the foundational truths of Christianity and to draw closer to God.

Enter Samuel Hathaway: a windswept young man wearing shorts and flip-flops in the below-zero weather (so Germany isn't as warm as Turkey...), slinging two fake Hugo Boss duffels from his shoulders which were slowly sawing off his arms with their oppressive weight (had to carry my bike gear somehow), dragging a grungy cardboard box with Turkish slogans fading on the side (that would be my bike box), wearing cloths that had been washed with dish soap in a hostel kitchen for the last four months, and smelling no doubt rather ripe. What to do with this pitiful hobo at your door? Put him on the maintenance team.

Bodenseehof was in the heat of a large remodeling project, which meant that I and my baby-soft hands were thrown into the thick of things. Week 1 was "Learning How to Tile a Floor with Gerhard, a German Man Who Can Speak As Much English as I Speak German", and it just took off from there. From tiling floors we went to dry walling, painting everything from plaster to radiators to fire doors, building patios, carpentry, sawing firewood in the forest...you know, being Real Man (I had no idea what that meant, until now). In addition, the maintenance team is made up solely of Germans, which means that asking questions or receiving instructions for detailed jobs was much more difficult (anybody know the German word for "hacksaw"? the English word for that strange canister marked "lecksuchspray"?).

The beginning was painful, as I learned completely foreign skills and the calluses they require, but I slowly began to adapt -- and even enjoy myself. The raw, hands-on nature of maintenance work leaves you very satisfied upon completion of a job. And the jobs themselves, although not necessarily fascinating, were constantly changing and demanding new skills. Painting doors would require a patient attention to detail and aesthetics, installing lights would require a brief lesson on electronics, carrying sewer pipes would require my awesome brawn, etc. I appreciated the lack of routine, and the chance to learn and apply new skills -- patiently taught by the German maintenance men. Although the language barrier was frustrating at first, my German grammar and accent naturally improved much more quickly than would have been possible, otherwise.

Of course, these German instructions have their downsides: I'm only a German Christian Maintenance Man. The terms I know, the electronic system I know, etc., are only valid in Germany -- Europe, if we stretched it a bit. So, mom and dad, don't be thinking how nice it will be to have me home so I can be a resident MacGyver. I mean, I am a MacGyver, but the European one. The one with the dark-wash skinny jeans.



So, that's a summery of the last few months of relatively normal life. Settling down has not just allowed me to rest and save money, but has been a great cultural experiance. I feel like I am no longer walking through Europe like a man at the zoo, looking at all of the strange creatures in the cages; living here has allowed me to leave behind the spectators and get into the cage to slap high-fives with the monkeys. Or something like that. Anyway, the culture suddenly seems valid and workable, and no longer as strange as it once seemed. Europe is now a home and not a vacation spot.

My apologies at this delay, and my promises for more prompt updates. I'll try to post some pictures, soon, and maybe a quick list of highlights from my time here in Germany. Meanwhile, I'm working on plans for my spring travels. First destination: Italia.