18 November 2014

Fiddling Around

You may remember a post back in September when I told you about Jim's latest project - a violin.  Here's a link if you didn't see that post . . .

Luthier post

He's progressing nicely despite, according to him, being challenged by the scrollwork on the neck.

The violin is the highest-pitched instrument of the violin family in an orchestra.  The other two are viola and cello.  I'm not sure if he's going to make a viola or cello next :)

The violin was first known in Italy in the 16th century, but similar instruments date even earlier.  You've certainly heard of a Stradivari, but both Amati and Guarneri violins are also prized.  

It's not known who made the first violin, but it likely originated in northern Italy, the area near Milan.  A painting called "Madonna of the Orange Trees" by Guadenzio Ferrari is the first record of a violin.

This is it.

We got to see a real Stradivari violin when we visited Florence almost exactly 3 years ago.

Here's the photo I took that day.  We were in the Accademia Gallery museum which is also home to Michelangelo's David.

I think these "f" holes (or sound holes) have also been a challenge.

They look perfect!  

On our first visit to Venice, we went to a fantastic concert of stringed instruments.  

Here is a video of the same musicians we saw - Interpreti Veneziani - playing part of Vivaldi's Four Seasons.  

Until next time . . .

05 November 2014

Door Open

For five years and counting, we've had the good fortune to call Belgium "home".  We've also traveled to places we'd only heard of or read about, learned to understand and speak a little of a foreign language, and grasped the diversity and culture of another continent.

Unless you're a seasoned world traveler, you'll likely never come to Belgium.  Like most, who are lucky enough to travel, you'll go to Paris or Venice or London or Rome . . . 

We have too.

It's a bit unfortunate.  It's a hidden gem.  Belgium.

Often called The Battlefield of Europe because of its central location, it's not an instigator of war, but has often been right in the middle of one.  It may be one of the grayest of places, but it's also one of the greenest. Despite it being sate with castles and cathedrals, breweries and museums, it's never been a tourist destination.  In fact, most who live here might call it boring.

The whole little country is just 1/3 the size of Louisiana, but with a LOT more people.  Belgium has 950 people per square mile to Louisiana's 100 people per square mile.  Dense.  Very dense.

Sooo . . . our door is always open, but if you never get to Belgium . . . you won't see the roads we take, the countryside we drive through, the castles, the rivers, the cities, or the sea in this tiny country.

I discovered a really good video online and if you have about a half hour of free time, I hope you'll watch.

Remember to make the screen big by clicking in the bottom right corner and turn the volume up so you can hear the narration in English (subtitles are in Dutch).

29 October 2014

Bigger than Texas

Ross and I played a game the other day to guess the 39 countries bigger than Texas.  I thought we did fairly well in the time allotment of 6 minutes naming about half the countries.

I attribute having any success at all in this game solely to living in Europe.  That's because prior to moving to Belgium, I didn't know where Belgium was.  Sad, but true.

You don't have to be a beauty pageant contestant or be from South Carolina or South Africa to be geographically challenged.  Thank you, American school system.

As I've probably mentioned before - because I mention it from time to time - I think every school gym and/or playground should have a map of the world painted on it.  How easy and fun would it be to learn geography while kicking a ball around, jumping rope or skipping?

Anyway, the world map as you know it is thanks to Gerardus Mercator.  He was born in 1512 in a little town in Belgium about an hour from us.  He was a cartographer and is most famous for the world map he produced in 1538.

The Mercator map was based on sailing routes way back then, but it's still in use today.  The problem is . . . it's a bit distorted from the actual world.  

Here's what I mean . . .

This is the Peters map produced by Dr. Arno Peters in 1973 and it's a much more accurate depiction of the world's land masses.  Dr. Peters was born in 1916 in a suburb of Berlin in Germany.

So you can see by comparison between the Mercator and the Peters maps that we only thought half the world would fit in Russia.

If you'd like to play the "name the countries bigger than Texas" game . . . there's a link at the bottom of this post.

But first, if you have never seen this video, you really should see it now.  It's 48 seconds that will truly amaze you.

Bless her heart.

Click on GAME to play.

27 October 2014


Leaving Berlin, we drove into the rural area of western Poland.  This may actually be the highlight of this road trip.  

Just so you remember where Poland is . . . it's a big country - not much smaller than Germany and pretty much surrounded by countries that used to be part of the USSR.  

It is also very homogeneous - meaning nearly 97% of the population are native Poles.

We stayed in the little town of Lubniewice, Poland (population 1,924).  This whole area is very rural and incomes are fairly low here.  

Ross looked up the minimum wage in Poland and it's $515 per month.  That's $2.97 per hour.

Here are some pictures of houses taken as we drove into town.

Before heading to the hotel we stopped at this grocery store to see what sort of things a Polish grocery store sells.

Here are a few things we bought.  The Pierniki cookies were delicious and reminded us of cookies our friends, the Walters from France, used to send to us.  I sent some of the goodies to Randi and family.  Jim ate those sardines.  And survived.

The store was fairly small, but they made room for a very large display of vodka.

We bought wine, vodka and a beer to try.  The wine isn't Polish, but the beer is from the oldest brewery in Poland and the vodka is apparently famous.

As we were heading toward the town of Lubniewice, we passed this cemetery and decided it was worth turning around and going back.  It was.

It's called Cmentarz Komunalny and it was pretty amazing.  Nearly every grave was adorned with flowers and trinkets and almost all had a little bench for family and friends to sit when they come to visit.

I've definitely never seen anything like this.  Seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

Each grave is very close to the next one and you can see it went on and on.  Many had candles and nearly every one had a crucifix.  Poland is 90% Roman Catholic.

Did you know that all female names in Poland end in "a"?  Popular girls names are Aleksandra, Paulina, Anna, Karolina . . . popular boys names are Mateusz, Jakub, Michac, Jan.

Many of the candles were lit as if someone had come by earlier in the day to light them.  Very interesting and apparently a very revered place.

This is the hotel we stayed in and although there were a few other guests, we felt sort of like we were on the movie The Shining.

We nearly had the whole place to ourselves.  Here's Winslow making himself at home.

This is Jezioro Lubiaz or Lake Lubiaz.

This nice pathway ran from the hotel alongside the lake.  We took a long walk and the weather was really nice that day.

It seems the lake is popular in the summer for water sports and vacationing.

We could see this building from across the lake so we decided to check it out.

It appears to be a church, but it must not be in use at this time.

This guard made sure we didn't get any ideas about going into the fenced area.

I have enough trouble making out signs in Dutch, and certainly have no idea what this says, but our best guess is that the EU has funded this project to attract visitors to this lake area.

It is definitely beautiful and peaceful and quiet and very remote!

You would definitely need GPS to find this place.

These are boats belonging to the Wodne Ochotnicze Pogotowie Ratunkowe or in English . . . the Water Volunteer Rescue Service.

Before heading out of town, we drove around a little, visiting a little store and the Post Office.  This building is also the bank.  One window for each - very convenient.

This is the City Hall.

It's basically a one horse town and also a nice place to visit.

As we headed back into Germany, we kept seeing cars pulled off and parked along the rural, wooded areas. 

Turns out the owners of those cars were out picking wild mushrooms.  We passed by some for sale and turned around to check it out.  We asked if we could take their picture and the younger woman seemed embarrassed and didn't want to be in the picture, but this lady was just fine with it!

I snapped the other woman's picture anyway as we made a purchase.  I think they were probably mother and daughter.  There was no way to communicate. They didn't speak a work of English, but seemed happy with the 5 Euros we paid for the mushrooms. 

Jim really wanted to cook them, but by the time we got home with them, it had been a few days. He's famous for trying nearly anything, but thankfully, even he didn't think eating them was a good idea.

We stopped in the next closest and largest town and snapped this photo at a real estate agency.  In Poland, the currency is the zloty and is more or less 1 Euro to 4 Zloty.  That house on the poster would cost about 50,000 Euro (or $64,000) and their website says the houses in that area are anywhere from 1,000 sq ft to 1,900 sq ft.

Back to Germany, it wasn't long before we saw lots and lots of windmills - there are about 22,000 of them here.  

We put "avoid motorways" in the GPS so we could drive down some beautiful roads like this one.

From the GPS, we could see this lake so we veered off to have a look.

It's hard to tell, but the water was crystal clear.

On the back roads again.  What a nice barricade to keep you from being killed by a sycamore tree.

We may never get the chance to return to Poland, but I'm sure glad we got to go this once.

24 October 2014

Road Trip East - Berlin

Our next stop on our road trip east was Berlin.  

We found the capital of Germany (pop. 3.5 million) to be a very progressive, modern, clean city . . . 

and the entire place was under construction.

This picture was taken as as we drove into the city.  We were so surprised at how little traffic there was . . . at first.  Eventually that changed and it took us nearly 2 hours to go about 2 miles.

We decided to take the "hop on - hop off" tour bus.  We've done this a few times before and in a big city, it's hard to beat the convenience and the price - plus the bonus of a tour guide who speaks English!

This is in the center of a huge roundabout.  It's called the Berlin Victory Column and was built in 1864 to commemorate the Prussian victory in the Danish-Prussian War. Prussia is more or less Germany before it was Germany.  That's Victoria on top - Roman goddess of victory.  Believe it or not, this thing actually stood elsewhere in the city and was moved to this spot in 1939.

Construction site.

This is the Berlin Parliament building or Reichstag.  The term Reichstag isn't used by German parliament any more and it's known as the Bundestag - something akin to House of Representatives.

You can see people walking around in that glass dome.  We didn't go up there.  Probably should have.

Construction site.

You've probably heard of the Brandenburg Gate.  This is it.  It was built in the late 1700's as the "start of the road from Berlin to Brandenburg" - about an hour by car.  It has been completely restored since, like most everything, it was heavily damaged in the war.

Construction site.

Of course, practically everything is new in Berlin because almost nothing survived the war, but they've mixed the modern with the classic when constructing new buildings.

This is the River Spree which runs through the city center.

Construction site.

We were not the only tourists that day - about 500,000 tourists visit Berlin every day.  This is the Bellevue Palace and is the official resident of the German President - no, not Angela Merckel.  She's the German Chancellor.  Joachim Gauck is the President.

Construction site.

In addition to the Brandenburg Gate, you most certainly know of the Berlin Wall.

More on that later.

Construction site.

This is the gardens outside the Pergamon Museum.  It's the most visited art museum in Germany.

Berlin has what is called "Museum Island" and this is part of it.  It's a really beautiful area.  This photo is taken early in the morning when most of the city was still asleep.

You can see it here in this aerial photo I found online.

Construction site.

Jim with a very large beer.  It's a Hofbräu.

This is actually a very nice TV tower called the Fernsehturm (which is German for TV tower :)

We got up early and walked around as the sun came up.  This is the Berlin Cathedral.  It was originally Roman Catholic, but is now Protestant.  Re-purposed, if you will.

It's been built, bombed, burned and rebuilt since 1445, but this particular building has been there since 1901.

I just liked this photo. 

Construction site.

This is Checkpoint Charlie.  The name given to the most well-known checkpoint between East and West Berlin.

The Berlin Wall.  It's hard to believe this city was divided until 1989.  Mauer is German for wall.  FYI

Here's a map - thanks to Wikipedia.

"This flag is based on the fundamental thoughts of peace and unity of all . . ."

This is the part of the wall called the East Side Gallery.  It's about one kilometer of art by artists from all over the world.

So why was there a "wall"?  Its purpose was to keep people from East Berlin from crossing the border into West Berlin.  Sadly, over 100,000 people tried to escape and more than 600 were shot and killed.  Keep in mind this continued until 1989.

This painting is one of the more famous.  It's by Russian artist, Dmitri Vrubel and depicts Leonid Brezhnev (head of the Communist Party from 1964 to 1982) and Erich Honecker (head of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany from 1971 - 1989).

As I understand it . . . at the end of WWII, the Allied powers - the U.S., Great Britain, France and Russia divided Germany into four zones.  This same thing was also done to Berlin with a reunified Germany as the intent.  However, the allied powers' relationship became divided and it came down to Democracy versus Communism.  

The U.S., Great Britain and France combined to form West Germany and the Soviet Union occupied and formed East Germany.

Here's where it's gets more confusing - the same division happened within the city of Berlin.  Because the city originally sat within the Soviet zone, West Berlin became a democratic island within Communist East Germany.

Anyway, it's all history now, thank goodness.

These huge billboards were everywhere and here's how they get there.  What a job!

See that iPhone 6 billboard in the background?  It's huge!

Oh, and  . . . 

another construction site.

One of the hotels has an area where tourists can pay 3 euros for a bird's eye view so we did that.

Our timing wasn't perfect since the sun was shining really bright on that side of the building at the time.

So it was a little difficult to get really good, clear photos.  It looks like there's smog, but it's not.

You can hardly tell from here that the whole place is under construction!  But it is.

Construction site.

Random fact:  

Why do we English-speakers call it Germany and the French call it Allemagne when the Germans call it Deutschland?  

Well, first of all, Deutsch is German for the German language.  Germans speak Deutsch.  Basically there have been a lot of different tribes in the area now known as Germany.  Whichever tribe people from surrounding areas were associated with is what they called the region. English speakers first heard of the Gaul tribe so English speakers call it Germany.  French speakers called the people of the German region, Alemanni so they now call Germany - Allemagne, and so forth.   

Thanks, Ross!

Berlin, Deutschland
For a big city, it's really nice.