December 27, 2008

Things I've learned from television (and the internet):

Today I learned a very interesting bit of trivia while watching television. I had no idea that LFO's second hit "I Fell in Love with the Girl on TV" was about Jennifer Love Hewitt. Thanks VH1 marathons! That's one thing I miss while living abroad - the luxury of just plopping in front of the television and watching VH1 or TLC marathons. I mean, thank goodness for torrents, but it's just not the same.

While we are on the topic of being random... I've been wondering what is so fantastic that Trenton makes, that the world is so compelled to take??? I've driven past that bridge so many times. It makes it sound like Trenton is the center of the universe... and trust me - it's not. So my curiosity got the better of me and I googled "Trenton, NJ history" and aside from re-discovering that Trenton was briefly our nation's capital for two months in 1784 (whoops, sorry Mrs. McLaughlin, but I've pushed APUSH facts aside to make room for pop culture facts... because they are much more fun and therefore easier to remember), one website gave me the answer I was looking for. says: "Trenton was a major manufacturing center in the late 1800s and early 1900s; one relic of that era is the slogan 'Trenton Makes, the World Takes' displayed on the Lower Free Bridge just north of the Trenton-Morrisville Toll Bridge (the 'Trenton Makes Bridge'). The city adopted the slogan in the 1920s to represent Trenton's then-leading role as a major manufacturing center for steel, rubber, wire, rope, linoleum and ceramics."  
Please take note of the use of "then-leading" - translation: Trenton has not done anything since 1920, except give birth to Jon Stewart and Troy Vincent. Go Birds!     

The Other New York City

Finally, the day I've been looking forward to for the past four months: my reunion with my best friends from Bucknell in New York City. It didn't go exactly according to plan. Being in New York City the day after Christmas was like stepping into an alternate universe.
Of course it all started with Bish, Rach, and I demonstrating the genius result of our BU educations combined. It took us about 30 minutes to realize we were on the same train, and that they were in the car just in front of me.    
Eventually we all met up at Bish's apt: me, Bish, Rachael, Lakshmi, Cristina, Leah, and Dwight. It was only about half of the Swartz Crew, but I'll take what I can get. We went to Sutton Place for a great big American NYC dinner. I miss those when I'm in Scotland. The bar was practically empty, which was perfect because it gave us plenty of time to talk and catch up with each other. Then, it was back to Bish's for some pre-gaming ('Turrets for old time's sake) and out about town. We went all over, from Cabana in Chelsea/Meat Packing area, downstairs to Club Hiro (where Loren, Bish, and I were the minority) to ring in the Chinese New Year (which, by-the-way, isn't until January 26th), over to the East Village to a Hooka Bar called La Souk on Ave B (which I'm positive I've been to before with Steve) via a pizza place across the street where Cristina and I made some new friends (and met an insane internet lady) and were invited to their autumn wedding, and then finally to dance at Arlo&Esme on 1st St and 2nd Ave. Almost everywhere we went was completely dead. It seemed like no one was in Manhattan, or at least no one was out on a Friday night. It was the Day After Christmas Lull, except for Club Hiro - the Asian population of NYC was representing that evening.
While we were running about town, Lakshmi was at Duvet with her roommate, brother, and friends, and Dwight and Leah were getting into a bar fight at Cabana.  

[Side bar: we had a bad experience at Duvet last summer, otherwise we would have gone with Laks. I know it's hard to believe, but real life isn't like 'Sex and the City'].  

Anyway, back to the fight. The guy spit in Dwight's face, and then when he went to punch Dwight, he hit Leah in the back of the head instead. Dwight had his lawyer on the phone in seconds... and yes, it was 2am the day after Christmas. His lawyer patched him through to the police department and the cops came and arrested the guy for assault.  
The next morning, I was sitting in Penn Station, waiting for my train when two cops approached the homeless guy sleeping on the bench next me. The homeless guy was listening to an ipod, which was clearly stolen, and when he was woken up he gave the cops a hard time. The police informed him that it was illegal to sleep in a public place and that if he did not have a train ticket that he would have to move along. The homeless guy went off on this rant about how he would never wake them up if they were sleeping in his neighborhood. So the female cop asked the homeless guy to stand up and she cuffed him.  
So, one night in New York, one chinese new year celebration, one bar fight, and two arrests, but all-in-all a great time with six of my best friends.

December 24, 2008

Brendan Fraser Fir and the Feline Escape Artist

This is the fourth Christmas in a row that my family has bought a 10-foot-tall Christmas tree to put in our backporch/sunroom. I guilted my parents into getting another 10er this year because I'm a sucker for traditions. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. My brothers weren't home yet and my Dad was at work, so my Mom and I put up the tree by ourselves. Our first obstacle was that we had left the tree outside overnight and the water it was sitting in was frozen solid into a block of ice. After my Mom dragged the enormous Fraser Fir into the sunroom to defrost, she got her hammer and ice pick (screw driver) and put on her protective eye gear (sunglasses - because we didn't want a Monica Gellar Thanksgiving incident) and started her glacial archeological dig - chipping away at the block of ice so that we could put it in the tree stand. I equated our glacial expedition to the movie 'Encino Man' (minus the California earth quake, nix the whole digging a pool in the back yard, and replace the caveman with a pine tree and it's totally the same thing), and my brilliant mother dubbed our tree with the name "Brendan Fraser Fir". It was an enlightening moment. You know how people always ramble on about how "all the planets were aligned" and all that jazz? Well, this was that moment for us, but on a much smaller scale. So I guess we can say that all Santa's reindeer were perfectly aligned at that exact moment. I'm definitely leaving them Reindeer Corn next Christmas. (Reindeer Corn is Candy Corn, except it's red, green, and white for Christmas).  

Our glacial archeological expedition 

Somehow the two of us successfully put up the tree, and that evening, my Dad helped me string up the lights. I was up on the rung of the ladder above the one that says "DO NOT stand above this point" when I heard a muffled digging noise - like the sound my cat makes when she rubs her paws repeatedly against a door. So I look at the door that leads to the laundry room from the sunroom, but something outside catches my eye. My cat is outside! She's been an indoor cat for 15 years! And suddenly, somehow, she's outside, at night, in the below freezing weather that caused our Encino Evergreen to turn into a block of ice! I just start yelling "let the cat in the house!" three or four times until my Mom finally understands the situation and jumps up to open the sliding glass door. Satin slowly walks back into the house and my Mom slams the door behind her. Man that cat is getting frisky in her old age. We have no idea how long she was out there, but she must have snuck out the kitchen door with all of the frequent traffic coming through it. Thank goodness she wanted to come back inside!        

December 23, 2008

Fröhe Weihnachten Berliner!

Leigh and I had our own train car all to ourselves from Prague to Berlin. It made for great sleeping conditions. We passed out and must have looked so peaceful because when the train stopped at the border, we could sense something there and looked up to see two patrollers looking in through the windows, debating whether or not to wake us and check our passports. Of course as soon as we looked up, they came in... but I could have potentially snuck into another country. The majority of this train ride was during daylight hours so we could see the beautiful Czech and German countryside covered in freshly fallen snow from the previous day.

The view out of our window on the train

Once we arrived in Berlin and checked into our hostel, we moseyed on over to Alexanderplatz to meet up with Rachel and her friends. There were two Christmas markets set up there, with an ice skating rink that surrounded the Neptunbrunnen (staute of Neptune).  

Neptunbrunnen on ice

It was already dark, but we saw the exterior of Marienskirche in the square, and Berliner Rathaus (town hall and clock tower). The TV tower stuck up behind us and showed up in a lot of my pictures that night. It was hard to miss it.  

TV tower behind a typical German wooden windmill tower

After perusing the Christmas Markets (because, let's face it, even though we had seen a dozen of them already in both Munich and Prague, we still couldn't get enough of them), we wandered the streets of Nikolaivertel: a re-creation of Berlin's medieval birthplace around 1230. The original sector had burned and been striped down during the war, but they rebuilt it cobble-by-cobble. It was late, so mostly everything there was closed and too dark to turn out in photographs, but it was where we discovered the "famous" Berliner Bar with its high platforms and tiny mugs...
Back in our hostel, we slept in lofted beds. At first, it seemed really cool - like summer camp. The three of us took over the top bunk and giggled like 12-year-olds at a sleepover. But there was only a small rectangular plank of wood that extended the length from your head to about your thighs that separated one person from the next, and it creepily reminded me of either a bunker that a Nazi soldier might have used during WWII, or where they might have crammed people together in a concentration camp type of scenario. Neither option sounded as fun as summer camp. I guess it was extra creepy because we were staying on the East Side of the wall. 

Our bunker

Cozy as a German soldier

The next morning, Leigh and I saw the East Side Gallery - the longest remaining stretch of the infamous Berlin Wall that divided Germany for 28 years from 1961-1989. In 1990, it was transformed into a mix of murals, and an open air gallery, in remembrance of the oppression, and celebration of their freedom. My favorite parts were the places that the wall had holes, crumbling right in the middle of beautiful paintings, it was such an appropriate metaphor for what the wall stood for and what it stands (or crumbles) for now.  

The East Side Gallery

Graffiti artists have unfortunately tagged the murals, 
you can see here where the stone wall crumbles...

Our next stop was the Pergamon Museum to see the amazing Pergamon Alter, which we could climb up, and the massive Ishtar Gates of Babylon, with its design of golden lions on brilliant cobalt blue tiles stretching high above our heads. There's a great controversy over the museum's acquisition of these artifacts. Many say that they should be returned to their country of origin. But then, I would never have been able to see them in person, so for selfish reasons, I'm glad they were in Berlin when I was. 

Pergamon Alter

Ishtar Gates

Next, we passed by Humboldt University, Berlin's oldest University, where the Brothers Grimm and Albert Einstein taught. We also passed by Neue Wache, an antiwar memorial on our way to the Brandenburg Gate at the end of Unter den Linden Street. The Brandenburg Gate is the only surviving of 18 gates that once surrounded the city, and is crowned by Quadriga, a horse-drawn chariot piloted by the winged goddess of Victory.  

Brandenburg Gate

It was a symbol of division during the Cold War, but now embodies German reunification. The landmark is modeled after the Acropolis in Athens, supported by many unevenly spaced columns. It was customary for royalty to pass through the center columns where they were spread the widest apart, and commoners would walk through the outer columns where it was narrower. We made it a point to always walk directly through the center every time we passed through the Gate, to prove to Berlin that we are royalty and should be treated as such. In the same square as the Brandenburg Gate, Pariser Platz, is the Adlon Hotel where MJ notoriously dangled little baby Blanket out the window. Around the corner is the Holocaust Memorial consisting of 2,711 concrete blocks representing a cemetery.  

Holocaust Memorial

While the blocks are all identical in size and placed on a grid, the ground dips up and down between them and their heights vary, and as you weave your way through the maze, the tombstones grow in a very disorienting "Alice in Wonderland" sort of way, until you reach the center and feel lost and vulnerable with large grey blocks towering over you.     

The disorienting Holocaust Memorial

We explored the inside of the Berliner Dom, had a quick hot chocolate at Einstein's, and then were off to meet Rachel at Checkpoint Charlie, the principal gateway between East and West Berlin.

Me and Leigh at Berliner Dom

Checkpoint Charlie

There was the reconstructed sign that read "You are now leaving the American Sector" on one side and "You are now entering the American Sector" on the other. A soldier stood at the guard house, holding an American flag. He waved at us very adamantly. We figured he was American. But he was very much German, and super creepy. So we snapped a picture and hightailed it out of there. Only after we were all back in Edinburgh, when I was looking through my pictures, did someone else point out the fact that he was wearing a sign on his belt that read: Photos €1. Whoops!

Stealing photos with Checkpoint Charlie

After our adventures with the "American" soldier, we wandered through the Christmas Markets in Bebelplatz and Gendarmenmarkt (which you had to pay €1 admission for) squeezed between two other Doms, of which we did not go inside. But we did play around in the Ampelmann store. There was so much Ampelmann merchandise - even Ampelmann-shaped pasta! So what is Ampelmann? THe literal translation is: Lantern Man. He's like a mascot to the East Germans. It is the figure of a green man striding, and a red man in a halted position with his arms extended out to either side of him, used in pedestrian crossing lights.  

Ampelmann in action!

They were introduced in 1961 by, no joke, a traffic psychologist. When Germany began re-unification in 1990, they moved to standardize all traffic lights according to the generic figure used in Western Germany, and completely do away with Ampelmann. But, it's one of the few things of Communist Eastern Germany that survived after the Berlin Wall collapsed, and has somehow become extremely popular. I just think it's fun to say: Ampelmann. And he just looks so happy in his bright green stride. He doesn't seem Communist at all! 

Me and Ampelmann crossing the street together

We backtracked down Unter den Linden, and saw the Brandenburg Gate all lit up at night, and rounded the corner to see the magnificent Reichstag, German Parliament. Of course Rachel just kept repeating those lines from "The Producers" and got it stuck in my head: "And then I got my big break. Somebody burned down the Reichstag. And, would you believe it? They made me Chancellor. Chancellor!" And then we just started singing "Der Guten Tag Hop-Clop", which is not easy to do with a mix of jibberish-German words for lyrics. We ate a nice German meal and then went back to our hostel where Anne Frank frequently haunts, apparently. So we slept uneasily in our bunker, and woke at the crack of dawn to fly back to Edinburgh. Next stop... Blue Bell!  Just like the lyrics says: "I'll be home for Christmas."
Under the Linden Trees on Unter den Linden Street


Me and Leigh at the top of Ke Hradu

Prague was a dream. However, the Praha hlavni nádrazí (main train station) was a nightmare. We were trapped in the station – there were literally no exits and no signs indicating any exits. No ATMs either. We had to buy Czech crowns and probably lost money in the process. Then we had to take a taxi to our hostel, because that was the only way for us to find our way out of the station. It was very traumatizing.

Absurd exchange rates make me feel rich

Once we were settled into our hostel in Staré Mésto (Old Town), we walked the 25 yards into Staromêstké Námêstí (Old Town Square). It had a Christmas Market and a beautiful Christmas tree all lit up. The Christmasiness definitely calmed us down and put us in a better mood – well that, and food.

Old Town Square

The next morning, we set out early for Hradcany, across the Karluv Most (Charles Bridge). We wanted to see Prazsky Hrad (Prague Castle) first thing, so we crossed over the Vltava River on the famous Charles Bridge at a time when it wasn’t swarming with tourists. I loved the statues along the bridge, it had a very romantic feel to it. Then it was a long trek up Ke Hradu, the large hill leading up to the castle entrance. It was misting rain and we were climbing a large hill to a castle… it was all too familiar for Leigh and I.

On Charles Bridge looking up toward Prague Castle

We poked around Hrad, Prague Castle, all morning. My favorite was definitely St. Vitus Cathedral with its gothic architecture. We got to see St. George’s Basilica, the royal apartments, take a stroll down Golden Lane, mess around in the dungeon in Daliborka Tower, wander through the dead vines in St. Wenceslaus Vineyard, and witness the changing of the guard at noon.

Prague Castle

St. Vitus Cathedral

While we were up at the top of the hill, we explored the Strahov Monastery and Library. The library had two magnificent halls: Philosophy Hall and the Hall of Theology, with their fresco-ceilings and large globes. The library housed the cabinets of curiosities… which are very appropriately named. They were filled with the skeletons of sea creatures; anything from urchins to giant sea horses.

Philosophy Hall

Hall of Theology

Cabinets of Curiosities

Then it was back down to the Old Town Square to watch the Astronomical clock sound the hour and enjoy the Christmas Market in the daylight. I discovered my favorite Czech pastry there: staroceske tdrlo – it’s like a snap bracelet of a cinnamon-sugar croissant, yummmm. This was the day I thought it would be a great idea to buy a new wallet from one of the street markets. When I got back to our hostel I turned it over and over and over, searching for the zipper to open it... there wasn't one. Lesson learned. We turned in early that night – still pretty burned out from paper-writing and traveling.

Astronomical Clock in Old Town Square

Staroceske Tdrlo - a Czech pastry

The following morning we climbed to the top of Staromêstská Mostecká Vêz (the tower on Charles Bridge)… and it was snowing! This was when Prague really started to feel like a dream, when it was covered in snow. We crossed the bridge into Malá Strana, "Little Quarter", and went inside the Church of St. Nicholas (Kostel sv Mikuláse). We only thought it appropriate to visit a church, called St. Nick, while it snowed so close to Christmas. This was by far my favorite church in all of Europe. It had amazing white marble statues with gold filigree and spectacular paintings, and claims the largest fresco on the ceiling in all of the Czech Republic.

The tower on Charles Bridge

Church of St. Nicholas 

We continued up to the castle to see it in the snow and then went to Loreta, a baroque place of pilgrimage. A line of snow-dusted angels on either side of the pathway lead us into the heart of Loreta, where we saw a 15th-century replica of the original home of the Virgin Mary known as Santa Casa (Sacred House). We also saw the Prague Sun (Prazské slunce): a 90cm-tall ornament, studded with 6,222 diamonds. Needless to say, it was shiny.


Sacred House

The snow only seemed to be sticking at the top of the hill by the castle. Poor Leigh, in her frenzy to throw things in a suitcase five minutes before we left Edinburgh, she forgot to pack warm boots. Luckily, I had plastic bags, which she was able to cover her feet with as an extra water-proof sock. It was quite hilarious to see her put them on! So we walked back down to the Old Town Square and climbed to the top of the Astronomical Clock Tower. Our last stop that day was to walk back over toward the newer part of Prague to find the statue of St. Wenceslaus. Apparently he’s not actually a King. And he was looking out alright, but I saw no feast of Stephen, and there was definitely no snow laying round about; not deep nor crisp nor even! The Christmas Carol lies.

A view of Prague in the snow from the top of the tower on Charles Bridge

Statue of St. Wenceslaus


Our Munich trip started off in a blur and never really came into focus. I had pulled an all-nighter with Rachel and Leigh on the 6th/7th to finish my paper, but Leigh was forced to pull back-to-back all nighters and she stayed up all night the 7th/8th as well. Emily, Leigh, and I were meant to leave for the airport at 6:00am on the 8th. Leigh basically had a nervous breakdown as we left for the airport, she wasn’t finished her paper, and she had only slept three hours in the last three days. I think she was actually shaking.

We arrived in München Friday afternoon and were zombie-tourists the first day. All three of us were exhausted from finals week and lack of sleep, but we somehow managed to go through the motions of visiting landmarks and taking pictures. A nice German couple, that we met on the S-Bahn from the airport into the center of Munich, gave us a list of things to see that day. Thank goodness they did, because I had done no previous planning. I know… me not planning… it was a shock to all of us.

Basically, we wandered up and down Neuhauser Strasse and Kaufingerstrasse. From the ice skating rink in Karlsplatz along the line of stores to the Christmas Market in Marienplatz with the Glockenspiel in Neues Rathaus and the Viktualienmarkt. We ate giant pretzels and browsed through all of the many Christmas ornaments, nutcrackers, and traditional smokers.

Leigh and I enjoying a large pretzel in Marienplatz

When the sun started to set, we climbed to the top of Peterskirche and looked out over the city. The sunset was absolutely amazing: a purple sky ascending on the two onions that top the towers of the Frauenkirche.


When the sun disappeared, the Christmas Market lit up like magic. From the top of the church, the Christmas Market in Marienplatz looked like the North Pole!

Marienplatz Christmas Market

We dragged our lethargic zombie-tourist selves to the notorious Haufbrauhaus for dinner. It’s a wide-open beer hall where they serve beer by the litre. In our exhaustion, we could each only handle one, and that litre had us singing Christmas carols all the way home. We were in bed by 7pm.


Three girls and their three litres

Saturday, we started early with a skate around the ice rink in Karlsplatz. We were the first ones on the ice and were able to snag ourselves a few eisbärs. (I was pretty much obsessed with the polar bears... real shocker).  

Me and an eisbär

With the help of my polar bear ice-walker, I was able to show off my killer Katerina Witt moves: when in Germany… do as the German ice skaters do...

Skating like a pro - Toronto 2010, here I come!

That afternoon, we took a relaxing stroll through the Englischer Garten (English Gardens) to the Chinesischer Turn (Chinese Tower) and the Christmas Market that surrounded the Chinese Pagoda in the park. 

Chinese Pagoda

Even though winter had taken its toll on the gardens, there were beautiful bridges over babbling brooks. At some points, I felt like I was walking through the pages of Shakespeare. It felt like A Midwinter’s Daydream – wandering past the rolling hills with streaks of sunlight peaking through pillared temples. 

English Gardens

There was even a ski-themed café with gondolas for tables and hammocks for tired-out tourists. Then, Leigh retired back to our hostel to finish writing her paper and Emily and I played around in the Christmas Markets, drinking gluweine (mulled wine) and eating schneeballen (Snow Balls: a German dessert).

Gondola café tables

A tuckered-out tourist relaxing on the hammocks

Apart from the minor freak out I had from discovering that our train tickets from Munich to Prague were for the wrong day, we were able to remedy that situation rather easily, and Leigh finished her paper, so all stress was relieved before Leigh and I said goodbye to Emily and headed off to the Czech Republic…

December 7, 2008

Now be a grownup and come play in the fort!

After slacking off all semester, we decided to crack down on ourselves and get to work during finals week. We basically set up camp in the common room of Mylne’s Court and had a series of paper writing parties each evening for a week straight. I finished my creative writing portfolio in plenty of time, but it was my annoying literary option course paper that was driving me crazy. You mean I have to go to the library and do research of outside sources to write an essay… what is this, undergrad? I thought I had left research papers behind me – I’m here to make stuff up when I write, not to do research. How dare the University push me to excel in academics by writing research papers.

Leigh and I doing work in the Fort of Knowledge

Every night, one-by-one our friends would turn in for the night and go up to bed, until it was just Rachel, Leigh, and myself. The three of us would work until the late hours of the night, or should I say the way-too-early hours of the morning. All the work drove us mad, because we would start taking study breaks to build forts out of sleeping bags and chairs. We called it the Fort of Knowledge, and we actually got work done in the fort. If we didn’t, then we were sent to Academic Prison. There was a big raid, and a few prisoners managed to escape and flee the country to Germany.

Leigh, Rachel, and I in the Fort of Knowledge

Rachel in Academic Prison

Me breaking out of Academic Prison

Technically, the common room is under ground, so it's no wonder that there was a leak. The water dropped into a metal bucket at a constant rate. It resembled the sounds of deep and mysterious caverns and reminded me of Fraggle Rock. Our last night in the country, we pulled an all-nighter. That’s the night we discovered Fraggle Rock, which is in Fozzy Bear’s Grandmother’s kitchen in Canada (watch A Muppet Family Christmas to make sense of that). Around 7am we made chocolate chip pancakes and saw the most amazing sunrise. It was our reward for lack of sleep. Crazy as it sounds, I miss those late nights of paper-writing and ridiculousness!

Discovering Fraggle Rock in the basement of MC

Insane sunrise after our all-nighter