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March 31, 2005

Apologies

Just posted a lot, but a few of the posts may be out of order. Sorry, software problems.

Bus blogging

Munich and Dresden are about 450 km apart, so most of today is being spent on the bus. We stopped at a rest stop a short time ago, and, apart from our subway ride in Munich, this seemed to be the kids' favorite activity so far. They were very excited to buy all sorts of German snacks -- mostly the same stuff they can get in home, but with German packaging.

The kids have been very good-natured on the trip, rolling with all of the schedule changes and being very flexible and accommodating. They've been about as easy as 43 teenagers can be.

It's been nice to get to see a new country, but nothing about this experience has changed my mind that group travel is not for me. Traveling en masse takes so much more time than doing things on your own. There are no quick decisions. A "quick" bathroom stop quickly turns into a production that makes us later and later.

I prefer the freedom of having our own car. When we get on and off the bus, I have no idea where we've been and where we're going. Although we saw a few sights in Munich, we have no sense of their scale, of how far away different places are, and where the places we saw are in relation to each other. I don't feel like I've really gotten to know Munich, or Germany. Plus, we end up going to all the places that are equipped to handle a group of 60 Americans, which tends to insulate us from truly new experiences. There are many advantages to the group tour -- no planning time is needed, and, at least for Janene and me, we're not really paying anything. But I'm getting tired of feeling like a lemming, and looking forward to our next vacation, when we'll have our own car and our own itinerary.

Stopping for a quick lunch soon, and arriving in Dresden in a few hours.

March 30, 2005

Leipzig to Berlin

Early start this Thursday morning. We checked out of the hotel by 8:15, headed to central Leipzig for a guided tour around the city.

The most interesting part of our tour was to see the contrast between old and new. Leipzig was in former East Germany, and there are many signs of the new, vibrant Germany everywhere. The train station has a relatively new 140-store shopping mall, with stores as modern as anything you'd find in the U.S. But throughout the city you see charmless Soviet-era buildings that are begging to be replaced. Eventually it will happen; the entire city is a construction zone.

Our tour guide in Leipzig was not great, particularly compared to the others we've had, who have all been very knowledgeable and far more proficient in English. In Leipzig, English seems much less common than elsewhere in the country, perhaps because of the effects of 45 years of oppression.

Much of our tour was spent driving in the bus around town. Touring this way has some value because you can cover a lot of ground, but we have no idea where we were and what we saw.

The most pleasant part of the day was lunch at a famous Leipzig restaurant, Auersbach Keller, which was written about in Goethe's Faust. Markus, a pleasant lunch companion as well as menu translator extraordinare, joined us. The food was great, by far the best than the hotel buffets we've generally been enjoying. The biggest thing we've been missing on this trip is the flexibility to go to interesting restaurants and cafés.

Now I'm Autobahn-blogging, on the way to Berlin, our final destination before we leave for the airport on Sunday. Looking forward to coming home. Janene has been so busy and stressed, that this has been much work and little fun.

Rehearsal-blogging

At tonight's concert venue, about 5 minutes before showtime. Janene's wrapping up her pre-performance rehearsal. The band sounds decent, though a bit loud for the very small room. Attendance is somewhat sparse, with about 20 Leipzigers here. The other half of the audience is made up of chaperones. The concert was scheduled to be an exchange with a music school here in Leipzig, but the students at this school are on a spring break trip of their own.

Deteriorating international relations

We haven't seen CNN yet, but we assume the international crisis provoked by the Lake Forest High School hotel-poster-stealing incident was today's top story.

No one has yet admitted to the crime, despite the opportunity to come clean with no fear of punishment.

Not enough time in Dresden

Very long day on the bus yesterday, with a mediocre and rushed lunch at an American-style restaurant along the Autobahn.

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It was hamburgers and fries all around, as our tour director tried to streamline the ordering process for a large group. The burgers were edible but nothing I ever want to sample again.

Made it to Dresden about an hour later than planned, cutting our three-hour city tour to a two-hour tour.

The city is beautiful. It was leveled during World War II, but the reconstruction was fantastic. The "old" part of the city has a great historic feel, but the interiors of the buildings sparkle in a way that 500 year buildings don't. I always wonder what the palaces and churches and concert halls we see looked like when they were first built. This gives us a small taste.

Part of the frustration I've felt in writing about this trip is that I just don't remember anything we've seen. Because we're not in charge of our own itinerary -- we just stand wherever we're told to stand, eat whatever they put in front of us -- I don't have a clear enough picture in my head to convey the experience.

For example, Dresden has fantastic museums, and our tour included about 10 minutes inside the main art gallery. We walked by some beautiful paintings. The museum is huge, with a beautiful courtyard. But I don't remember what it was called, and with no wi-fi access on the bus, I can't look it up. Go see it yourself. I highly recommend it.

We saw just enough of Dresden to know we want to return. It's lovely, with lots of pleasant-looking cafés and boulevards that Janene and I had no opportunity to explore.

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At night, the kids were given the opportunity to walk around Dresden on their own, accompanied by chaperones. Janene and I along with a third chaperone accompanied 13 kids, who were expectedly loud. They also were begging Janene and me to hold hands in front of them. I'm not sure why our relationship holds such fascination for her students.

Writing as much as possible

Reading back over some of my entries, I notice that there isn't the same amount of detail as what I've written about past trips. There are several reasons for this.

First, we're on the go all the time, and today is the first day that I haven't felt half-asleep. (We had time to sleep in this morning.)

Second, Internet access has been spotty. I'm posting when we can, but there haven't been ample opportunities. I believe our Berlin hotel, where we check in on Thursday, will have access.

Finally, there are sensitivities involved this time around, so I've chosen to omit certain details that would be much more interesting than what I've given you, but inappropriate to write about for a worldwide audience. Really wish I could, but I can't. Sorry.

March 29, 2005

Monday in Munich

Today we took a guided tour of Munich. The day was much smoother than the day before.

Perhaps it was because of our German tour guides, Erika and Gisela, who were diligent about keeping us in line and free with the admonishment if whatever we were doing was not to their liking. This happened often -- whenever anyone talked, was a few paces behind, appeared not to be listening, was dawdling, or anything else that did not conform to their highly developed sense of Teutonic order.

On the other hand, having a couple of Germans in charge of our day was probably the main reason why everything went relatively smoothly. Markus, who is Austrian, has a much more casual approach about doing things and has been less willing to take charge when needed.

Munich is a very attractive city. There are some old buildings, although most of the city is relatively new, having been rebuilt during World War II. It makes one sad to think about all the destruction from that time, not just in Munich, but all over Europe. What a pointless loss of history and civilization.

We saw or at least drove by many of the main sights, including the Merienplatz, the pedestrians-only tourist town and had an hourlong tour of Nymphenburg Palace, which was beautiful but packed with tour groups like us. What was extremely disappointing about our day in Munich, however, was that Easter Monday is a holiday here. Except for restaurants, everything was closed. There seems to be lots to do in town, but we'll have to do more of it the next time, when shops are open and we get a real sense of life here.

At night, we took a hastily planned excursion to the Hofbrauhaus, the most famous German beer hall. It's kind of peculiar to take a group of American high school kids to a beer hall, but this is more of a tourist trap than primarily a drinking establishment. Okay, it's both. But the entertainment is as much of the experience as the alcohol, which no one in our group was drinking, even the chaperones, who were setting the good example for the kids. (It's kind of hard to have alcohol-free experiences here, just because beer is so central to German life.)

The entertainment consists of a bored-looking polka band, with German men and women wearing traditional Bavarian costumes and doing traditional Bavarian dances. To me it looked more like a Monty Python sketch. It was fun to see in mercifully limited quantity (we were there about 50 minutes). More fun was watching the two other tour groups there -- including a long table of southern Italians and one of Californians that were not showing the same beer-related restraint demonstrated by our group. Their full mugs were enormous, the Big Gulps of Munich.œ

March 28, 2005

We're glad Sunday is over

Sunday doesn't quite rate as a disaster, because no kids got lost, no one broke any limbs, and the day included a reasonably successful and well-attended concert at the end. But not much went as planned, and everything was much more stressful than it should have been.

The day started with a long bus ride to Neuschwanstein, about two hours away. It's a very famous castle built by Ludwig II, a Romantic-era Bavarian king. If you have a Germany guidebook, the chances are good this is the image that appears on its cover. The castle looks much like the one at Disneyland. It's in as picturesque a setting as you can imagine -- in the hills, the snow-capped Alps in the background and a lovely valley below.

We ended up getting to the castle far later than expected. The bus left the hotel about 20 minutes late. By the time we got the town, we stopped for what was supposed to be a quick bathroom break. What should have taken five minutes turned into 20. Then we headed to the location where you pick up the shuttle bus for the 10-minute ride to the castle. Except Markus -- who really is a nice guy but may be too nice for his job -- had us standing in the wrong place, and couldn't muscle us past the far more assertive Italians and Germans, who were standing in the correct place to board the bus.

We squeezed on to the bus at about 11:55, five minutes after our English-language tour was supposed to have started. Markus tried to talk us into the castle, but we were pretty sure that he was going to get walked all over. Germans don't exactly relax the rules well or often. And sure enough, Markus wasn't getting very far. One of the chaperones on the trip, however, speaks German, and was able to convince them to allow our group in, six people at a time, for each tour leaving every five minutes. Fine, except this added greatly to the amount of time we were to spend at this place -- it was at least 45 minutes before we all got through -- and it also seriously limited our appreciation of the castle because all the tours we joined in German. Given my limited facility in German, all I could understand was that in one room King Ludwig had "two" of something.

Since Janene and I were in the final tour group, we had very limited time left for lunch. Along with the others in the final group, we grabbed a quick bite at a very touristy and somewhat overpriced but not too bad restaurant.

We got back on the bus and headed to Oberammergau, the site of the famous once-a-decade Passion Play and where the band and orchestra was to play their concert that evening. Except Markus directed the bus driver instead to Unterammergau -- a nearby but completely different city.

Finally in Oberammergau, we sat through a very impassioned but not-very interesting presentation by the priest at the Catholic Church in town, where our concert was to be that night. The church was very nice, but 25 minutes of explanation in German, translated by Markus, after we had spent most of the day sitting on a bus alternating with being lost, and still being jet-lagged, was more than any of us wanted to listen to at the time.

The evening's concert went well. Playing in a church is always challenging because the acoustics are so boomy, but the kids did a nice job. The concert was well attended, which was surprising considering that the entire town was closed for Easter Sunday.

Dinner followed at a local restaurant. We had sausages, which was nice, but extremely heavy. I'm already a little sick of German food. My stomach feels like a brick.

After dinner, we had to load the bus with the instruments, which is a time-consuming and cumbersome process in the best of circumstances. It's even less fun in the rain, especially followed by a two-hour bus ride home. Made it back at about 12:15, asleep by 1, and set to wake up the following morning at 8 am for a day in Munich.

(Note: Everything we wrote about Markus in this post was true at the time. But he got considerably better and more proactive as the trip went on. By the end of the trip, he was doing a great job.)

March 25, 2005

Trying to stay awake

In our Munich hotel, looking for toothpicks to place in our eyes until dinnertime tonight. After a long day of traveling, we are very tired. If this entry doesn't make much sense, blame it on the jet-lag, not the messenger.

The hotel, the NH Neue Messe, is surprisingly nice and quite modern. By European standards, our room is very large, especially the bathroom, which itself is bigger than most New York City hotel rooms we've stayed in.

The flight left and arrived on time. The students were pretty well behaved and quiet, but they're still teenagers. They weren't always using what I would consider their "inside" voices.

Our first day has been a little chaotic, mostly because our tour guide, Markus, though very nice, is not a take-charge kind of guy. Our first stop today was Dachau. (Nothing like a good concentration camp tour to get the trip off to a bang.) Markus took us to the grounds and told us we could explore until it was time for the English movie about the camp. But he never told us when the movie was, where it was showing, and what time it was showing. We found out from one of the chaperones that it was at 11:30, which made us more informed than most of the kids. Because so many of our group didn't know when the movie started, many were wandering in after the film had started, disrupting the people already in the theater. Another few minutes later and we would have missed the movie entirely. That would have been a huge shame. The was excellent, putting the camp we had just walked through in gruesome context. Beginning with the first image of mangled corpses, you couldn't hear a sound in the theater.

Dachau

After the movie, Markus gave us an extra 30 minutes to wander through the Dachau museum. But he seriously misjudged our energy level. Virtually the entire group went straight to a bench to wait the time away. Janene took charge and decided that we were done there. We headed to the hotel, dropped off our luggage, and went to a surprisingly good Italian restaurant for lunch across the street from the hotel. The food was authentically Italian, cooked and served by actual Italians (I was even able to order in Italian).

Hanging out in the hotel for a few hours, resting, showering, trying not to fall asleep, blogging, and waiting for dinner. It's going to be an early night tonight.

Blogging in flight

In the air. Made it to the airport three hours early. I met Janene at the airport -- she got there via the school bus with the rest of the group, I came by taxi so I would have a few extra hours at home to wrap up loose ends.

The check-in was uneventful. Janene was moderately stressed as the entire group looked to her for answers about what to do next, where to stand, etc., but everything went smoothly and we were on our way before long.

Many of the high school kids were inordinately excited to meet me in the flesh, having heard so much about me, or at least having imagined what the husband of their teacher would be like.

We'll probably be trying to nap pretty soon. We were up very late packing last night. Next time we fly overseas, we'll have to remember that starting to pack at 10:30 pm is not the best idea.

Should be landing in Munich in less than seven hours, at about 8:30 Germany time.

March 24, 2005

This time, Germany

It's a new post! It can only mean one thing. I'm avoiding my work. So it can mean two things -- procrastination, and some new material is coming soon.

We're off to Deutschland on Friday. This trip will be a bit different than the others. Yes, it's that time again. When you decide to marry a band director, it never comes up during the wedding vows that someday you might have to chaperone 43 high school kids to Europe on a three-concert tour.

There are definite pluses. The trip is nearly free, with lunches and shopping our only financial obligations. There are also minuses. Did I mention the 43 high school kids?

Next stop, Munich. More on Saturday, Internet access and jet lag permitting.