Sweet Belgium

***I meant to post this a couple days ago when it was written. Sorry. I’ve actually been in Holland for the past three days now. Heading to Paris tomorrow. Updates will follow.***

Bruxelles… where was I… ah yes… dragging too much stuff through the cobbled streets of the center of the EU, staring at the city’s grandeur in the frigid night cold. After cramming my luggage through a tiny door in a small, cozy restaurant and stashing it behind an unused bar, I ascended a narrow staircase and emerged upon a band, huddled in a corner, filling every inch of the small space with speak easy music. But this time, the words were whispered and then would crescendo… in a husky French. Delighted fans huddled in chairs just in front of the band, their faces partially draped in shadow and partially lit by the soft red lights. This… is what made me fall in love with the French language. The strong sing-song of Italian has captured my heart, but French is now my secret, delicately throaty mistress.

And then Michel took me trudging on an even greater hike through Bruxelles… ample time for us to fall into the playful, brotherly-sisterly teasing and bickering that would come to define our relationship for my 4-day stay. Nearly an hour later (because by this time it was too late for the metro and buses) my luggage and I finally fell into the doorway of Michel’s… cold apartment. And that’s about as far as my luggage and I got. His apartment is jam packed in a disarray only a young college student could manage. I laughed. This would be interesting…

Somehow, I navigated my heavy luggage further into Michel’s apartment, further into his cluttered hole. I didn’t spot the couch, an oasis completely surrounded, but an inviting oasis nonetheless, until he pointed it out. It was mostly books and papers and cds and newspapers scattered and stacked everywhere. Michel is a journalism student, so I certainly understood the disarray… I just never got quite that bad.

After a quick email check, I quickly collapsed into a heap of blankets, drifting off into deeper sleep as my blankets slowly warmed me like an oven gradually coming to life.

The next morning Michel and I rushed off to the big demonstration he was all excited about. I meant to research more about what is going on, but I just haven’t had the chance to… but, from what I understand, Belgium has been without an official governing party for more than 150 days now and the people are speaking out for some leadership. Michel filled me in on the division inherent in Belgium. Belgium is actually a country of two nations, one French-speaking, the other, the Dutch-speaking Flemish. I was surprised to find out that the Flemish were considered the wealthier majority of the north and the French-speakers made up more of the second-class minority, located more in the south. I mean, geographically that makes sense, but, my American impression was that the French-speakers were the more haughty, snobby ones. Um… wrong.. in Belgium at least.

Anyways, back to the demonstration. Turns out there were more than 35,000 people… but a large majority of them were French-speakers, making a stand, wanting their voice to be heard in the new government. Michel told me there are Dutch communities is the north that don’t allow the spoken French word. I just simply didn’t know about this strong division in Belgium. There is so much about the whole subject I still don’t know. But, it just makes me wonder… perhaps, we should take more care with how we handle the surge of Spanish-speakers in America. French was the native language of Belgium and now it’s a more second-class language. Perhaps, in America, we should try to unite now with the Spanish-speakers before they outnumber us, turn the tables around, and make the native English, the second-class. It’s just a thought… I know many will scoff at such a preposterous idea… but, hey, I just left a country where something along those lines actually happened. America is not immune to the same fate… especially if we chose to sneer and write it off as impossible. Michel was really in his element during the demonstration. Snapping picture after picture… from all different angles. He was eating it up. He’ll go far in his career. I’m sure of it.

After the demonstration, Michel took me to an award presentation in his, for lack of a better word, quarter. It was a presentation for the quarters accomplished athletes, both youth and professional. Interestingly though, it started off with an improve group. I didn’t understand everything, but with Michel’s help and with the improv antics I got the gist of most of it. Michel explained the event was a bit of a political thing for the politicians of his quarter. But, that’s not all. The ceremony also honored a large number of elderly people, formerly renowned for their athletic talents on either a local and/or professional level. I couldn’t help but thank that you would NOT see that in an American athletic award ceremony.

After the award ceremony, Michel took me to meet Antoinette, a cser that had to turn down my request to stay because she was studying for a huge exam. I had made plans to meet with her for a drink the night before, but didn’t get a chance to because we went to see that live band. It turns out Michel and Antoinette knew each other though, so we rescheduled the visit. Antoinette is utterly charming with her huge grin, smiling eyes and a laugh that is both cute and sexy at the same time. She has a strong classic beauty… sorry guys she’s got a boyfriend that she’s crazy about. She also speaks English amazingly well. She lived in D.C. for several years growing up… as well as Singapore. At just 18, this young woman is rather alluring. I liked her a lot. We might meet up again in Paris this weekend. I’m not sure yet. Finally, it was time to collapse again into my slow-warming oven and go to sleep.

The light is a golden glow spilling out onto golden wheat and golden-green grass and shedding the day’s final warmth on a countryside of pastures filled with cows and sheep… just had to mention that. Oh, and I forgot to mention that I’m on my way to Holland as I write this. I had planned to go to Paris but there is a transportation strike going on… so I figured I would jog up to the Netherlands and check it out, and then try to go to Paris.

Back to Bruxelles. Well, actually Brugge. Next Michel used his day off on Monday to take me to Brugge. Michel really is an excellent host. He makes you, your comfort and your stay his top priority. His kindness is genuine and he is adoringly sweet. He likens himself to what we call a care bear in English… the name is more of a clever one in French though. He really has earned a place in my heart like that of a sweet, little brother.

Brugge is absolutely delightful and lovely. It’s known as the Venice of the North and it most certainly lives up to its name. It’s like an old world Europe that seems nearly completely preserved with just a few modern adaptations here and there. But, modern adaptations that seems to work into the city’s old-world charm instead of spreading over it like a virus. I love Brugge. I want to spend a Christmas in Brugge. It’s a fantastic place for lovers. I wandered around that charming little city all day just soaking up its loveliness. If you have the remote chance, go to Brugge… preferably on a romantic getaway.

After we got back from Brugge, Michel made sure we stopped in at the center of Brussels so I could see the splendor of the Grand Palais du Bruxelles. Splendor indeed. The Grand Palais by night is stunning. The entire square is stunning. The architecture, the warm orange glow, the crisp cool air… humanity used to devote so much artistry and time into all of its creations and architecture. Seeing it makes the heart ache… for something it seems we know of… but have lost… and this splendor before us is just a small, distorted reflection of what we feel we our hearts once knew.

My final day in Bruxelles I spent mostly catching up on some work. I did go out to briefly witness the big drunken fest of students for their yearly university fest. It’s really no different than anything you would find at your typical party college in the U.S… except wait, the entire center of the city shuts down and the roads are blocked so the students and their drunken debauchery can have the run of the streets, with caravans of trucks filled with kegs and students hoisting mugs up to filled with beer again and again. I got in, got some pics and got out. Wasn’t too interested in sticking around…

That evening Michel and I met up with Antoinette again. We went to this Moroccan restaurant called Adventure Valley. I loved the tropical ambience… it was a welcome escape from the cold. We sipped mint tea and laughed and talked and then finally decided to go home.

Michel had to go to class early this morning… I slept in because I stayed up late to do more work. I didn’t get to give a proper goodbye to Michel and I’m kind of sad about that. He did so much for me and he was so giving. I wish him many blessings in his future and I pray that he has the opportunity to enjoy a genuine kindness that he has shown me.

There is really so much more of Brussels that I didn’t get to see… as my train to Holland lurched away from the station I spied a beautiful church along with a cluster of steel globes that looked like a giant molecule science project.

Geez, these posts are sooooo long. I need to update on a daily basis to cut down the length…

You know, traveling is so bittersweet. New lands, new people and new experiences. All so exciting. But, each place you leave behind, you leave behind people and places you have come to love so quickly and in so many different ways. You leave behind people who have taken you into their homes and into their lives with no question and then make it feel as if they hate to see you go. The call to new adventure… and the trail of amazing people you have come to know… can tear at you in two separate directions. At times I’m filled with such amazing peace being out on my own, seeing the world, following my heart. But then at times I’m distressed, wondering when I’ll finally be content to call one place my home, my own.

Get To Know Luis…

…a little better. For you family and friends out there concerned about the people I might be staying with, here´s a clue: check out Luis´s old blog about when he just up and left his cozy life to go help war-torn Israel/Palestine for 3 weeks. I have so much admiration for what he did! If you go to the blog… be sure to start with the last post in the August archives and go from there so everything will make sense. I´ve copied one post below. I like this post because I feel like I understand exactly what is going through his mind here. Even though this is a part of his past… feel free to leave him comments or ask him questions!

I’ve been thinking a lot (as usual) and I reached to the marvelous conclusion that, maybe (and just maybe) this “going to Israel thing” is after nothing more than my Ivory Tower…To abdicate of all my priorities, give up of all my objectives in pursuit of a greater good… achieve a higher level, complete my noble task. Maybe because I have always been a bit of a “selfish pig” during all my life, I feel the necessity of once in my lifetime to forget about my name, my personality, my aims, my thoughts… in the end to forget about myself.Maybe after all I just want to test myself, to defy life because i love to live. I am too eager on living to the fully and fully means everything… and everything is impossible, so I want to try a bit of all.Maybe I just want to row against the tide, against everybody and everything.Maybe I don’t want to realize for what I am going… or maybe I do!Maybe I already did!I thought about everything, about all the possible and imaginary reasons that made me take this decision and just go there without looking back or think in the ones I leave behind me. It came to my mind a wide range of reasons:To loose my identity, not to be recognized by my name, my ancestors, my job, my life…To be one more in the crowd, part of a number and hopefully not part of the statistics.To be there just to help others, to be there just for the others…To be there without having even time for me!To be 100% altruist once in my life.To reallize how life is outside the the silk pink curtains…To see with my own eyes.To experience.To save somebody…To feel the fear.To have flashlight thoughts…To escape death.To be there…To live.To give even more value to life.To want to live even more!To realize that life is a gift that is worth more than some risks I might take…To be once again a “selfish pig” with a pure altruist aim…I don’t know… and I think… even better: I am sure! I am sure that the only possible answer to this questions will come to my mind after I have been there. After I lived, after I have experienced… That’s why I have to go.It is my Ivory Tower. MY IVORY TOWER!

From Köln to Bruxelles

Just one day before I was planning to head to Koln, I sent out a last minute couchsurf request to find somewhere to crash while there. It seemed the moment I had hit send, Luis shot back a warm affirmative… he and his roommates, an Indian couple, were available to host me at such a short notice. I was ever so grateful! Luis’ profile looked rather interesting… a Portuguese neuroscientist working on his PhD in Koln, Germany. Scientist or no, his cs page was filled with positive references from other surfers whom he had crashed with and whom he had hosted. I felt confident that I’d be in good hands.

My first evening in Koln started off great. Luis met me at the metro station near his apartment on his way home from work, we grabbed a quick sandwich and I met his roomies, Leo and Jinu. All of them welcomed me warmly. Then Luis, his American friend Dale and I took off to hit the local rock climbing gym. Jackpot! After, being wined and dined so gloriously during the John Deere trip, I was more than eager to go get some exercise. Except for my quick rock climbing excursion with Ben in Atlanta, it’s been more than a year since I’ve climbed. This time we didn’t top rope it though, we bouldered. Bouldering is good for improving your technique and for practicing more technical routes. It felt so great to be working my muscles again!

The next two days I didn’t do much of anything but stay in the apartment with Jinu and catch up on work and try to make a plan of action for my travels while Luis and Leo went to the lab. I didn’t have a lot of inet access during the John Deere trip, so I had a lot to do still. But, staying in did mean I got to enjoy Jinu’s home-cooked Indian food. I felt spoiled. In fact, Jinu fed me during my entire stay. I wasn’t expecting that! I did immediately offer up my free bottle of Reisling from one of the JD winery tours and we enjoyed that the first night.

Luis, Dale and I joined another friend, Raja, to go bouldering again the second evening. I’m such a novice, but in just one day and I could see a big difference in my technique! Once I get settled again, I’m definitely going to get back into rock climbing. Leo, Jinu, Luis and I capped off most of our nights watching movies online. Little did I know, www.joost.com often has newly released movies available to watch… awesome! Leo, Jinu and Luis were such easy-going company and made me feel like I fit right into their daily routine. I felt so relaxed with them and Luis was the perfect host, making sure I felt comfortable being there.

The second day I did go out for a bit to get groceries with Jinu and to pick up some gloves. I had forgotten to pack them and I was certainly missing them in this cold weather! I grabbed some roasted Chesnuts too while we were strolling through Schildergasse, Koln’s main shopping district. We also went to check out the cathedral, or the Dom. I planned to go back the next day with camera. Jinu likes to paint too, so I picked up some small ornaments and paint for her to create custom decoration for her Christmas tree this year. Jinu has a fine touch. She’s accustomed fabric painting and henna. She used to make all of her own clothes while in India. Her artwork inspired me to get more involved with art too once I get settled!

That night, I had Luis pick a restaurant for us all to go out and eat at… my treat. It was the least I could do for being fed Jinu’s home-cooked food throughout my entire stay! Luis picked this authentic Portuguese restaurant, A Caravela. The restaurant was beautiful, built mostly from rich, red-golden colored wood and with paintings of ships hanging everywhere. I had Luis order me a traditional Portuguese dish of a thick and savory slab of Cod with potatoes soaked in olive oil. It was delicious! We sipped both the red and white house wines during the meal… which is probably what provoked Luis and I to get into a hearty debate about science and religion and America. Luis is just like me, stubborn and intense… so it was amusing. But, a very healthy debate! Then, we capped off dinner with a traditional shot of “I don’t know what the Portuguese call it” but the waiter was calling it “burning water” (update: Luis has since told me it’s called Aguardente) and… some more roasted chestnuts! The highlight of the night though wasn’t the food, it was the troop of Chilean singers who strolled in, surrounded our table and drowned us in their exciting and enlivening music! I’m not gonna lie, I’m such a sucker for live, table-side music and I was just eating it up! I tipped them so they would play more music for us. I wanted to keep them there all night! Luis definitely picked the right restaurant!!

Finally, after catching up on work and figuring out somewhat of a travel plan, I went out to explore Koln during my third day. I wandered around the city, snapping pics of the Rhein River and the huge, gothic Dom. The Dom looked so awesome the night I had arrived in Koln. I popped out of the main station and there it was, gothic and looming in the dark, cold, wet drizzle. I wanted to snap a pic, but it was too dark and too wet. I knew I’d be going back to see it later. And see it I did… all the way to into its 475 ft tower. I climbed 509 steps to get to a height of 332 ft. What a hike! Unfortunately, it was caged off at the top, so it was difficult to take good pics of the incredible view of Koln. I tried my best though. It was late afternoon when I finally broke myself away from the enchanting Dom and I had to decide if I would use my few daylight hours left to go to the Ludwig Art Museum or the chocolate museum further down along the Rhein. Well, I hadn’t eaten… so chocolate won out. There’s a lot I didn’t know about chocolate and cacao. It was an interesting museum to explore. I did expect to have more of a sample than a wafer barely dipped into a milk chocolate fountain, but that’s what they offered. Of course, that meant I had to go the gift shop and buy some. I tried some 56 percent Indian spiced chocolate that was too sweet for (I should have known better… it was only 56 percent). I also grabbed a bar of 77 percent chile-mango chocolate. Ummmm… WOW. AMAZING! Originally, chocolate used to be eaten with chili peppers. The taste combo is so ridiculously good! I’m ordering a box of it when I get home!!

And now we’re caught up! I’m in the train station now… waiting for my train to Brussels, Belgium. I lazed around with Luis all day, thoroughly enjoying his company while I waited for a couchsurfer to bite in Brussels. I was just about to give it up and reserve a room at a hostel when I got a message from Michel saying he could host me. Sweet! He’s meeting me at the main train station and we’re going straight to a free concert. It shall be fun! I am already missing Koln though…

Update: Michel met me at the central station in Brussels and immediately took me traipsing throughout the cobbled streets of an “old Europe”. Even at night, the old granduer and beauty of Brussels is evident. With more than 100 pounds in tow(aka my luggage), we hiked to a small restaurant to listen to Belgian band, Ivan & Le Singes Savants, struggling to make a name for itself. I´ve always loved the italian language, insisting that it´s the most beautiful language, but I must admit… eavesdropping on the French chatter of the locals was a delight.

Michel is a character… within a half hour we were bickering like brother and sister… all in good humor of course! He has already convinced me to stay for a couple days more because there is just so much going on here in the center of the EU… like a huge political demonstration with somewhere between 20,000 or 30,000 people. More on that soon! Michel really is like a little bro…

Enjoy the vid of the Portuguese singers… thanks to Jinu!

Traipsing Through Germany

Deutschland has treated me incredibly well so far… and it’s certainly time to get up to speed. After Heidelberg , our group of “America’s top agriculture editors,” as the German Agriculture Society described us, toured the John Deere factories in Mannheim with our awesome JD hosts Barry Nelson and Kelly Schwalbe (And when I say awesome, I mean awesome!) I’ve never seen the inner workings of vast factories with thousands of assembly lines, so I really enjoyed getting to see how it all works. The next day we went out to get our hands dirty… well, not so much dirty… but a little wet! We toured a BASF arable farm, a vegetable farm and an authentic German winery on gray, drizzly day. I must admit, before this trip, I didn’t realize how spirited and good-natured the Germans are. Both farmers we met with, Albert Woll and Walter Schmitt, were all smiles and laughter during our visits, eager to share their work with us and proud of their life’s pursuits. At the vegetable farm we got to see how salad was processed and packaged. Before now, I had never given much thought to how salad gets from the farm and to being sealed fresh in nice plastic package in my grocery cart. I watched green corn salad, or lamb’s lettuce, wind up and down and around all throughout Walter’s barn first getting dumped in troughs of water, then being shaken dry and finally being hand-packed into consumer friendly packages by dozens of Polish workers to be shipped out fresh daily. The Polish are like America’s Hispanic workers. They come in and do the labor intensive work that locals wouldn’t give a second thought to taking up. Germany, however, has a more controlled system than America. The Polish are able to get work visas for two months and then they must return to Poland. Walter pays the Polish 5 euros an hour and the pay includes health insurance, lodging and food. It seems the Germans are a bit more reasonable than the Americans when it comes to working immigrants. By then, the our entire ag journalist crew had learned about my plans to stay and couchsurf my way through Europe after the JD experience. They all began urging me to apply for a position on the salad line…. free lodging, food and health insurance! Hahaha… not a bad idea really. ; )

I really got a lot a grief from the group about my couchsurfing… they were either telling me how dangerous it could be… or they were walking up to random strangers at the bar asking them if they could spare a couch! Especially, our very own charmingly, classy Mary Doss and our cleverly below-the-radar Laurie Potter. It was all in good fun though… I couldn’t possibly describe how dynamic and interesting our group was. Everyone was so easy-going, outgoing, and an absolute pleasure to travel with. Something that’s not so typical with group travel! JD bigshots Mary and Terri Reinartz mothered me in the best, most comforting way. Jim Patrico with Progressive Farmer was like the protective uncle you eagerly look forward to seeing at family get-togethers. Laurie was a sisterly confidant. Greg Lamp with the Corn and Soybean digest was the mischievous, yet ultimately good-hearted troublemaker. Jay Whetter with FBC publishing, Canada’s largest agricultural publishing group, was like the older, accomplished brother whom you looked up to as a role model. Really, he’s one to watch… even the U.S. government thinks so! But, that’s for Jay to talk about, not me. Dan Crummet with Farm Progress was the sharp-tongued, funny man that kept us rolling our eyes and cracking a smile the entire trip. Karen McMahon with Farm Industry News and her husband, Randy, were the worldly, travel-savvy couple who’s stories of Kazakhstan and beyond delighted and intrigued me. Margy Fischer with Farm Journal is close behind Jay, quickly making her mark as a well-accomplished young woman taking charge of a successful career. Odds are, she’ll be one to watch too. Finally, Barry and Kelly were the glue that kept our group together. They really gave us the royal treatment with fine wining and dining at every meal. Both of them seemed concerned only with showing our group an amazing time, making sure we were all enjoying ourselves. Everyone agreed Barry really is one of the best PR guys a journalist could ever want to work with. He’s just so all about everyone else… and that’s really a rare quality… in any profession. Kelly quickly became a close, brotherly confident. I used so many familial terms to describe the group and that’s because that’s what it really felt like. They all welcomed me into the ag journalism niche with open arms… and already I miss the whole gang, exploring the deep, mold-covered recesses of wineries that no tour in America would ever reveal. I even dined in my first moving, skyscraper restaurant with these amazing people who made the treat particularly memorable!

Then, of course, there was our German Ag Society representative Hans Christian Hetterich. There is no word to accurately describe Hans. He was an incredibly witty, firecracker still so much in love with life. He’s a magnet for excitement and relishes in life’s little pleasantries. If you’re looking for the secret to how to savor life, he’d be the man to learn from. Hans accompanied us on the farm and winery tours, then slowly brought our evening to a lavish close with an exquisite dinner at, what I’m convinced is the finest restaurant in his German home town of Bad Durkheim. The dinner started off with samples of the restaurant’s still fermenting 2008 wine straight from the vat, followed by samples of 31-year-old ice wine… that is not even for sale. The wine had a delicate, honey-filled taste. Ice wine is a bit of a wine delicacy. Then, on to our 4-course meal with four different wines and a liquor kicker for dessert! Our dinner lasted for more than 3 or 4 hours… I’m not positive which. I wasn’t counting. I was simply thoroughly enjoying myself. Hans’ skill for truly savoring life seemed to filter through all of us and we simply carried on with no concern for time. At one point, I got a little too carried away with my “talking hands” and accidentally broke one of the restaurant’s fine crystal glasses. I felt rather bad about that… especially since I was making such fine music with them just moments before! Speaking of music, one of Hans’ good friends provided some after dinner entertainment in a strong German bass accompanied by guitar, of course!

Of course, I musn’t forget Dr. Oliver Neumann. Oliver was the perfect diplomat ensuring our German encounter was nothing short of incredible. He was the man that put most of this trip together.

Finally, we made it to Agritechnica, the world’s largest Farm Machinery Show. Sixteen buildings full of every machine and innovation you could think of when it comes to agriculture. My exploration of the event didn’t even scratch the surface of what was offered there, but, from what I saw, JD really did have the most hi-tech, sophisticated all-around package. Of course, Case IH went for the sexy puma girls, which I’m sure went over well with most of the male crowd. The German Ag Society put on a great reception for the media with all kinds of hors d’oeuvres and it was fun meeting all the journalists, literally from around the world.

Whew! That’s not quite up to where I’m at now… but I need a break. I’ll tell you all about my wonderful hosts in Koln (Cologne) soon!

JD German Experience Photo Album

Heidelberg’s Rooftop Landscape

The gray sky couldn’t fully mute the reds, yellows, greens and oranges of fall that were sprinkled throughout the rolling hills surrounding Heidelberg today. The colors popped through a lacy mist draped over the valley. The fall hues weren’t the only colors stubborn enough to stand out from the gray haze. “Heidelberg is known for it’s colorful rooftop landscape,” said Charlotte. Charlotte was the tour guide for our official “introduction to Germany,” our introduction to the aged land. I couldn’t help but think the misty atmosphere set the perfect mood for our slow saunter through a historic German town marked by Baroque architecture and art.

The tour of Heidelberg jump started the series of activities John Deere has scheduled for our group of ag journalists. We are here to learn about John Deere’s growing prominence in the European agriculture industry, Germany’s deep-rooted agricultural value and the latest innovations in farm machinery being showcased in Agritechnica 2007 – which kicks off next week.

I can’t speak for the rest of the group, but for me, getting acquainted with a notably historic city in Germany seemed like a most appropriate way start to exploring the country’s agricultural identity. One of Heidelberg’s biggest draws is it’s authenticity. Heidelberg is one of the few cities that was left unscathed by the bombings of World War II. This doesn’t mean the city didn’t face it’s share of devastation and destruction from enormous blasts of gunpowder during the Thirty Years War, and by the French in 1689 and 1693. It also suffered a stone-crumbling strike of lightening in 1764. But, it does mean that many buildings that enclose the city’s quaint market squares and the famed castle ruins that sit 300 feet above are true remnants of historic Germany and are not some mere recreations.

The remains of Schloss Heidelberg Castle are the most dominant features of the Heidelberg landscape, resting above the River Neckar. They once housed the Palatine princes during the Holy Roman Empire of the 15th century. The castle’s Elizabeth gate is a warm symbol of romance for Germans, as the gate was a gift from a young 19-year-old prince to his young 19-year-old wife. The most notable artifacts inside the castle are the enormous wine barrels, including the world’s largest wine barrel which can hold about 55,000 gallons of wine. Today, the barrel remains empty. Heidelberg’s old bridge which spans the River Neckar is one of Germany’s most famed bridges. Heidelberg is also home to Germany’s oldest University, which was founded in 1386. The charm of this old German city also caught the poignant attention of Mark Twain, who delighted over its splendor in his book A Tramp Abroad.

Our tour guide Charlotte seemed just as enthralled with the city as Mark Twain. She spoke of the city, the castle and the intimate realities and secrets of the Palatine rulers with enthusiasm, speaking of them with a fondness almost befitting that of a beloved relative. Charlotte brought the figures of Heidelberg’s history to life and her recount of events lured you into the storied drama of Heidelberg.

After a most impressive tour of the city, we dined at a locally owned bierhaus for dinner, blanking on the name of it. I tried both the light Pilsner bier and the dark Double Boch beir. I liked the dark bier better. The first dish with dark greens drizzled in peppercorn ranch and served with goat cheese wrapped in salted ham were was most savory.

I’m so exhausted in that pic from lack of sleep…

Here’s an excerpt about Heidleberg Schloss or Heidelberg Castle from Mark Twain:

A ruin must be rightly situated, to be effective. This one could not have been better placed. It stands upon a commanding elevation, it is buried in green woods, there is no level ground about it, but, on the contrary, there are wooded terraces upon terraces, and one looks down through shining leaves into profound chasms and abysses where twilight reigns and the sun cannot intrude. Nature knows how to garnish a ruin to get the best effect. One of these old towers is split down the middle, and one half has tumbled aside. It tumbled in such a way as to establish itself in a picturesque attitude. Then all it lacked was a fitting drapery, and Nature has furnished that; she has robed the rugged mass in flowers and verdure, and made it a charm to the eye. The standing half exposes its arched and cavernous rooms to you, like open, toothless mouths; there, too, the vines and flowers have done their work of grace. The rear portion of the tower has not been neglected, either, but is clothed with a clinging garment of polished ivy which hides the wounds and stains of time. Even the top is not left bare, but is crowned with a flourishing group of trees & shrubs. Misfortune has done for this old tower what it has done for the human character sometimes?improved it.

Heidelberg Photo Abum

Deutschland!!

Ahhhh… the feeling of adventure on foreign lands is coursing through my veins once again… finally! It’s been a year since my last trip to Europe! I really can’t describe the feeling of elation that washes over me whenever I embark on a quest to discover new lands, new people and new cultures!

I really started getting excited at lunch in Dallas with some of the clan with the John Deere Tour Group. Kelley Schwab is the PR agent managing the trip. He’s been to Germany three times before and he’s mapped out some pretty awesome recommendations for me check out after the JD tour is over:

Koln – cathedral on the Rhein
Binghan – take Rhein River cruise to St. Goar Castle
Heidelberg – which we’re actually headed to this afternoon with JD!
Munich – famous opera house, Glockenspiel, Emperor’s museum
Dinkelsbhul – quaint walled city between Munich and Frankfurt
Trieberg – Black Forest, waterfalls, hiking, Grimm’s Brothers Romantic Road
Nuremburg – Dachau concentration camp
Berlin – that’s a given

On the plane ride from Dallas to Frankfurt I met some pretty interesting people. There was Claudio who is from Chile. But, he has a European passport thanks to his Italian family. This does wonders for Latinos when they want to travel, esp to America. Usually, it’s ridiculously hard for Latin Americans to get a visa to the U.S. He was your typical charming Latin boy. Mix of Spanish and Italian??! That’s dangerous! ; ) Good thing he was on his way to Germany to see his girlfriend! I’m kidding!

Then there was Sargaent Jason Perdew (E-6 in a month!). He’s in the special forces and can hotwire a car, break out of handcuffs, hack a computer (he’s a white hack – meaning the good kind!), break down and build a computer and own a number of assault weapons. He knows Jujitsu and Karate. He’s your real life Jason Bourne! Hahaha… almost! Pardon my French, but this is one BADASS dude. But, he is also extremely down to earth and modest. I had to inquire about everything before he would talk about it. He didn’t mind sharing… I’m just trying to say he’s far from a bragger. He’s turned down two medals offered by the Army – one for dragging his wounded soldier out of enemy fire. He says he shouldn’t get a medal because he was just doing what he signed up to do. He’s been to Iraq and he’s on his way back soon – doing some more training first in Germany. He absolutely loves what he does. He’s made friends with local Iraqi children. He’s seen his fellow soldier blown up by an Iraqi man who greeted them with warm welcomes and hellos everyday. He’s driven over IEDs unharmed, only to watch his friend’s truck blow up right behind him. The explosion that killed 26 men in their barracks was right next to the building he was bunking in. Jason has faced some hard-core war. He says the media doesn’t cover enough of the positive changes U.S. soldiers are bringing to Iraq. All this… at the ripe young age of 22. My age! He seemed so wise beyond his years. His character is that certainly earned my admiration! He has so much respect for people. He made my 9 1/2 hour trip feel like two hours… maybe. May God be with this amazingly brave young man!!!

I’m now at the Dorint Hotel in Mannheim… need to jump in the shower and head to Heidelberg!!

Passion in Chicago

The Passion event is touring the U.S. and will soon be appearing at venues across the world. I can say first had the event is time well spent! It’s a weekend of delving into your relationship with God while listening to great music from the likes of Chris Tomlin and Watermark and Matt Redman and others.
Louie Giglio gives one empowering speech after the next and John Piper delivers a though-provoking message as well, calling the youth to rise up and make their stand against the decaying morality of current pop culture. On a complete whim I met up with Audra in Chicago. She flew. I drove and picked her up at the airport. We crashed with my couchsurfing confident Dustin and simply had a wonderful weekend catching up (it’s been a year since we met in Greece!). I’m simply amazed at how knowledgeable Audra is in her faith. She’s without a doubt one of my Christian role models. In that short amount of time, I felt God working with me immensely and I’m so grateful Audra came to share that with me!

Heatin Up in Hotlanta!

Okay. It’s finally time to get caught up on Atlanta… especially since plans are in the works to rendezvous in Asia with one of the incredibly adventurous guys I met while in what’s affectionately known as “Hotlanta.”

I traveled to Atlanta to cover an EPIC E85 pump promotion for race week. The Petit Le Mans was scheduled for the upcoming weekend and this year the American Le Mans Series introduced E10 as an authorized fuel for the league. The pump promotion was great. I met two absolutely down-to-earth ALMS drivers, Peter Dumbreck, one of drivers of the Petersen Motorpsorts/White Lighting Racing’s #31 Ferrari F430 GT, and Tom Milner, one of the drivers of the Rahal-Letterman #18 Bell Micro Porsche. Peter actually races all over the world. He’s from Scotland, but lives in London. I spent much of the afternoon chatting with him about racing, growing up on a small farm in Scotland and just about travel in general. He’s totally sweet and fun to talk to. Tom is just as affable (seriously that’s the word that popped into my head. I’m such a geek!). He’s only 21 and he get to race a supped up Porche at break-neck speeds all over the U.S. Um, yeah. That’s one 21-year-old who’s got it going on! I had a blast kicking it with both these guys for the day! Oh yea, I also managed to snag a couple free tickets to the race (since this time my work with EPIC didn’t need actual race coverage). I was so excited. Especially since Peter’s Ferrari was at the pump promotion, growling and roaring. Up until then I had only seen cars flash by on a circular track. This was an open road race with cars much like the high-end sports cars you can find in the consumer market. My work done… it was then time to play! Tom offered to drive to where I needed to go… how nice was that!

That evening I met up with Arman, the guy I would be couchsurfing with for my remaining five days in Hotlanta. Arman is just awesome. He had just gotten back from a 2-week backpacking trip in the Italian Alps (in fact, he owes me some pics!). Arman is a well-accomplished lawyer with a sweet pad in Candler Park. Although there is no university in the area, Candler Park has a college town feel to it with lots of parks and green space and eclectic cafes and boutiques. Not to mention it’s right next door to downtown Atlanta. Arman lives with his dog Hoya and his cat Dewberry (crazy cat btw!). By the end of five days all of them felt like long time roomies. Hoya would even sleep in my room at the foot of my bed. He’s such a sweet old dog!

That night I went out with Arman and his friend (I’m kicking myself for not remembering her name right now). Anyways we went to a local dive, had a few beers, chowed on some fried pickles and lit up the dartboard. Well, they did. I’m not much of a darts expert. Right from the start, I felt comfortable with Arman. He’s so easy-going and laidback. I found myself wanting to just be around him because he has a knack for making you feel calm. The girl he brought along was great. Super sweet.

I had plans for the next day to meet up with another couchsurfer and go explore downtown. Ben and I met at the Flying Biscuit, which is famed for it’s breakfast and rightly so! It was a delicious start to what would become one awesome day. Right away I knew Ben was of a different breed, my breed. He filled me in on his plans to head to Asia and just hop around, rock climbing and traveling and checking it out. He’s there now. I threw up a post about him earlier. You really should check out his blog detailing his adventures. Anyways, after a yummy morning meal, Ben and I headed downtown with no real plan at first. Somehow, we ended up at small retail art museum hidden in a small street nook. We had read the museum had photos from National Geographic photogs on display, and thanks to Ben’s GPS, we somehow found the place. There were some incredible photos on display. It was not your typical stop, but a treasure nonetheless! Next we headed to Centennial Olympic Park, the once hotbed for Olympic games and events. After milling around a little bit, we decided to head to the CNN World Headquarters building located on the park grounds. Yeah, it’s every bit of impressive. We forked over about $20 bucks for the tour which gave us an inside look at the production and broadcast of CNN programs. We got to listen in to the Control Room, look in on the newsroom, and watch CNN live in action. I also got to show off my broadcast skills at the mock CNN desk they had set up with a cam and prompter. We were with an older tour group, so there wasn’t much of a fight for who would get to try out the anchor’s chair. But, wait. It seems like she’s done this before… after I pretty much nailed it the group erupted in applause. That’s when I owned up to “technically” being a professional… though I’m young, and the “broadcasts” I do are far from traditional and far from anything my broadcast professors would have thought I would have gotten paid to do, even just a couple of years ago. I was expecting Ted Turner to walk down and offer me a job… kidding! The other cool highlight about that tour is getting to ride the longest and tallest free-standing escalator in the world. Pretty cool!

After that, Ben and I made our way to a rock climbing gym. It was Ben’s turn to show-off this time. He’s been climbing since his first trip hosted by a teacher in the second grade. For every one run up the wall I completed, Ben completed two. His routes were much more technically advanced than mine as well. Basically, he’s a stud on the wall. It was so great to be back at it. It had been more than a year since I had climbed. The time we spent at Atlanta Rocks definitely left me thirsty for re-engaging the sport.

Then, it was back to Arman’s to clean up and eat some leftovers. Arman came home and we made plans to meet him out near Piedmont park. Ben and I were headed get an early start in that direction in order to catch the last free improv comedy show for the summer, of course, with a bottle of wine and 6-pack of beer in tow. The whole picnic-in-the-park-with-comedy experience with Ben was a blast. The weather was perfect. The setting was perfect. I really enjoyed Ben’s company.

After improv in the park wound down, Ben and I headed to a local bar/club where Arman met up with us. All three of us had a few drinks and just kicked, chatting about anything and everything under the sun, including an incredibly involved and remarkable story of the kidnapping of Arman’s brother. It was way crazy. The entire day was just random, crazy fun with two absolutely awesome guys.

I spent most of the next day being lazy with Ben, catching some rest after some days jam-packed with tons of fun. We also hit up Trader Joe’s for some yummy eats like chicken sausage and hummus. That evening I just kicked it with Arman, watching the ol tube and getting some down time.

The day after that I played catch up with work and spent most of the day at Arman’s hanging out with Hoya and Dewberry. Then, that evening I met up with an old Israeli soccer buddy from Mizzou who now lives just north of Atlanta. Yevgeni took me to this absolutely exquisite Persian restaurant who’s food that is indescribably savory. It’s actually north of Atlanta in Sandy Springs, but well worth the small commute. Rumi’s Kitchen is a must when dining in Atlanta.

More work catch up the next day until another evening dining out. This time it was with one of my most recent roommates Ashley. She moved to Atlanta with her fiance just after she graduated in May. They both have excellent jobs in the Buckhead area and they just bought a beautiful house in a rather affluent neighborhood. The best part is what I like to call the “Japanese jungle vines” crawling throughout the backyard. Ashley and Josiah took Ben and I out for an excellent dinner at… Rumi’s Kitchen. Trust me on this one… I WAS NOT COMPLAINING! The food there is excellent. My stomach is growling as I write this… Mmmmmm. After dinner we bar hopped a couple of places throughout the Atlanta area and met up with some of Ben’s friends before returning to Ashley and Josiah’s to crash. It was so great catching up with Ash and Jo. I was excited to see how well things were going for them. They are also getting a new cat that can apparently jump 7 ft. I’m going to have to come back and see that one for myself!

On Saturday, it was off to the races! Yevgeni joined me on the trek to the Petit Le Mans – a 24 hour race at Road Atlanta. Good thing it was 24 hours, because Yevgeni and I got a late start, then got totally lost in the exact opposite direction (my fault). It was crazy to see four different classes of cars racing on an open road, zipping around curves and flying over hills. After snapping some pics (didn’t have much time b/c the sun was going down and the light was getting bad), I went to see if I could track down Peter or Tom. I didn’t find either of them. Unfortunately, Peter crashed earlier in the day and his car was out of the race. Tom, on the other hand was busy securing 3rd place despite the three flats his team had to come back from. I did spot Chris though. Chris was is a mechanic for Peter’s team who was also at the pump promotion earlier that week. He let Yevgeni and I step in and get a close look at Peter’s busted car.

Later that evening Yevgeni and I met Chris, Peter and a ton of other guys with that crew out at this western club stuck in the middle of nowhere up North. The guys were a blast to hang out with… Chris and I lit it up on the dance floor. Just being crazy. I’m glad we got to kick it with them.

Finally, Sunday, it was time for me to go home. I didn’t want to… why would you? I was having one crazy awesome time after the next. But, all good things must come to an end. It really felt like Arman and I had become roomies… it almost felt strange leaving. I’m so grateful for his hospitality!

Petit Le Mans 2007

La Llaga

There is rusty metal wall in Tijuana that not only marks the border between Mexico and the U.S., but visually defines the sharp division between the two countries. Large portions of that wall, on the Mexican side, are canvassed with crosses, coffins, memorials, even altars honoring those who have died by simply trying to cross it. Los Tijuaneses know the wall as La Llaga, or “the festering wound.” And behind that wall, there is another. The other wall is taller, stronger, sterile. It is guarded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

One of our hosts, Fr. Tom, brought us to the border, to the walls. Walls that represent a horrifying amount of suffering and loss. As we simply drove by it, I couldn’t help but feel oppressed by it, taunted by it. I wanted to cross it just because it’s very presence was telling me not to. But I can cross it. Freely. And those that can’t cross it… or those that must risk everything to cross it… have a real reason to try. They risk losing their lives… so they can have a chance at living.

When we visited that wall we saw names; names just like those honored on the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington D.C. And these weren’t just the names of men. I also saw the names of women, children, infants. Yet, what’s most disturbing… is this is a living memorial. More and more names belong on it each day. As we drove away from one part, we witnessed a group of Mexicans jumping over the wall in the very spot we were standing just minutes before. Seconds later they came scrambling back. But we were assured these men would have went for it if they had seen a real opportunity. Our group was baffled. Why there? Why risk it? It seems so secure.

Fr. Tom shared more of the realities of the border with us. I have some great audio but apparently blogger doesn’t offer audio hosting. I am still trying to figure out how to get audio up on this site… and I’m getting frustrated because I really want to share his comments with you.

Listening to Fr. Tom speak, I become less hopeful, more disturbed. But then Donna Eisenbath, the leader of this trip, reminded us “that walls do come down. The Berlin Wall did.”