Saturday, July 30, 2011

Berlin Excursion - Day 3

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Not having a pressing appointment this morning, we slept in a little later and were able to eat an unhurried breakfast in the hotel restaurant.  The forecast on the lobby bulletin board called for rain today, so we all found raincoats and umbrellas.  Then, we all walked back to the Alexanderplatz station together.  Clo purchased a new umbrella at the station, but it broke clean in half the first time she opened it.  The store gave her another one, and we gave her a wide berth lest this one break as well.

We rode the subway to Gesundbrunnen station where we were to take a tour of an abandoned WWII civilian bomb shelter beneath the station (  In an effort to protect the population of Berlin during the Allied air raids, the Third Reich had constructed numerous fortifications around the city.  Most, like this one, were really just for show, the walls being too thin to survive a direct hit.  However, they were relatively gas-proof; Germans remembered how wide-spread the use of gas had been during the First World War. 

The bunker system was pretty elaborate, extending across several levels. In case of power outages, the walls had been coated with a phosphorescent paint.  Even after all these years, one could still see by the walls’ dim green glow.  The guide said he sometimes came down at night to try and navigate in the dark.

Defense systems like this one are still being discovered and excavated all over the city, especially in the eastern sector where the Soviets had not been as thorough with their cleanup. Still today, unexploded munitions from the war are occasionally unearthed and need to be disarmed. Every year or so, a few people are killed by accidental explosions.

Our tour guide was Swedish (or maybe Danish) which allowed for an interesting perspective on events.  He was rather frank about how terrible the “Germans” (i.e. Nazis) had been.  *He also said no pictures were allowed during the tour because tourists might post images of Nazi symbols online and bring the wrong kind of publicity to this place.*   I wasn’t sure how our German friends from Duisburg felt about the commentary and later comments about the Holocaust, but they seemed to be just as horrified as we were that people could do such terrible things to one another.

After the underground tour, we headed towards the city center.We stopped by the Berliner Dom, the city cathedral where climbed the stairs to the top of the dome.  Afterwards, we walked down Unter den Linden, looking at the impressive buildings.  We passed one of the city’s opera houses, the famous Humboldt University, a memorial to the victims of the Nazi dictatorship, and other sites. It was raining pretty heavily at this point, so we decided to take a short break before continuing further.

Clo on the roof of the Berliner Dom.

Gallery view of the interior of the Berliner Dom.
Berliner Dom altar.

Interior of the Neue Wache containing the Memorial to the Victims of War and Tyranny

We stopped for pictures and a short snack break at the Brandenburg Gate, the last surviving city gate and a symbol for the city during the Cold War.

Afterwards, we proceeded south along the former boundary of the Berlin Wall towards Potsdamer Platz.  We passed the American embassy (recently renovated) and paused for a few minutes at the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe.  The Memorial appears to be built on a hill with regularly-spaced, rectangular stone markers giving the appearance of Jewish grave markers.  However, the memorial is actually built in a depression which creates an optical illusion.  The central stones, which seem to rise slightly above the others as though on a low hill, are actually several meters taller.  Walking amongst the rows, the grey stones appeared almost black in the dim light and towered overhead like some primeval forest.  The rain made everything damp and heavy, and it wasn’t long before I felt that I should leave.

Arial view of the Memorial to the Murdered  Jews of Europe. (Source: de:Benutzer:Schreibkraft)
Further along the street was Potsdamer Platz, a major pre-war cultural and transportation hub which was divided by the Berlin Wall and has now been revitalized.  Among other things, Daimler and Deutsche Bahn have major centers here and Sony has constructed a large pavilion with shops, museums, and a theater. 

Potsdamer Platz in the rain.

We looked around the square before heading off the Gendarmenmarkt, a square with a long-running French influence.  In an effort to attract foreign labor, displaced French Protestant Huguenots were allowed to settle in Berlin around 1700.  Their congregation built a church on the square which was later given a dome to match the nearby Deutscher Dom and complete the appearance of the square.  We toured a nearby upscale shopping mall which included a branch of the Parisian department store Galleries Lafayette.  While we looked around, Prof. Chamoni ate ice cream in the mall’s café.  For a laugh, I wanted to ask the café’s jazz pianist if he knew “As Time Goes By”, but he didn’t seem to be taking requests.

We returned to the hotel to change before dinner.  Most of the group wanted to return to Hackescher Markt for dinner, but I was feeling sick again and opted to avoid the rain by ordering from an Indian delivery service.  I found a good restaurant online and placed an order.  Around this time Kylace came down to the lobby, and not wanting to go out, asked me to order her dinner too.  Unfortunately, neither of us told Kylace’s roommate Ivy about our order, so when the food was delivered an hour later, she assumed the deliveryman had made a mistake and sent him away!  Once we realized what had happened, we reordered the food and explained the situation, but no one ever showed up.  After waiting nearly a total of three hours, we gave up and bought sandwiches from a gas station next door before going to bed.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Berlin Excursion - Day 2

Friday, 1 July 2011

This morning we woke early to keep our appointment at the Bundestag, the federal parliament of Germany.  Jörn actually worked for a Bundestag member from the Ruhr area back in 2007, so we were able to secure an invitation to visit the parliament and watch an early-morning session of the Bundestag.  We took a bus into the city center and Prof. Chamoni took the time to point out the major landmarks to me:  the Brandenburg Gate, Unter den Linden (a large avenue), Humboldt University, and several other sites.

Security at the Reichstag.
The modern Bundestag meets in the Reichstag, the great building which housed the parliament of the same name during the German Empire, Weimar Republic, and the Third Reich.  A month after Adolf Hitler was appointed to the office of chancellor in January 1933, the building mysteriously burned.  Communists were blamed, a move which directly led to the creation of the first concentration camps intended to house the huge number of political prisoners who were subsequently rounded up.  The building suffered further damage during the Russian siege of the city at the end of the war.  Troops flew the Soviet flag from the rooftop to signal the fall of the city and subsequently carved graffiti into the walls, traces of which are still visible today.  Following the reunification of Germany at the end of the Cold War, the German Bundestag agreed to move back to Berlin from Bonn and to once again hold sessions in the Reichstag building.  The building was renovated and now features an eye-catching glass dome and other modern upgrades.

We passed right through the security screening. While in Washington, D.C. we might have been patted down by a succession of black-suited agents with sunglasses, at the Reichstag we were merely escorted by a couple of long-haired and casually-dressed student types through a metal detector and given visitors´ badges.  The guards even took a picture for us! (Though not a clear one.)

Inside, we were escorted to an upper-level viewing gallery which projected right out over the plenary chamber floor. Within a few minutes, the sparsely-attended morning session was underway, conducted all in German of course.  I could make out some of the conversation while Jörn filled in the gaps.  Apparently, a senior member of the Bundestag was celebrating his birthday this morning and the parliament wished to recognize him.  However, he was not yet present!  The errant representative arrived a few minutes later to hearty laughter and applause.  Turning to more serious matters, the Bundestag took opened the floor to debate over continued funding of its long-standing internship program for international students, the measure eventually passing unanimously.

Next, we met with Jörn´s old boss, Herr Hempelmann.  He has been a member of the Bundestag since 1994 and sits on various committees where he specializes in matters concerning European politics and economics, especially those involving the energy sector.  Just the day before, the Bundestag voted to speed up the phasing out of nuclear energy in Germany by 2022, a result of the ongoing crisis in Japan.  Last year, the current ruling coalition staged a “revolution” to prolong the use of nuclear energy and yesterday the energy minister called for another “revolution” to phase it out.  His poor choice of words drew a number of comments and jokes from the other members. 

Herr Hempelmann then spoke about the need to develop all viable alternative energy sources including wind and solar.  I asked about the German position on Libya and the uncertainty over future oil exports to Europe.  He said that issue was of great concern, not only to Germany but the EU as a whole.   Decisions made in Berlin are increasingly shaped by decisions made in Brussels and one of the modern Bundestag´s chief tasks is to adapt the numerous EU laws made in Brussels into the German legal code.  Crises in places like Libya and Japan and the threat of Russia cutting off the eastern supply of natural gas at whim underscore the need for Germany to develop as many clean, alternative fuel sources as possible.

Next on the agenda was a tour of the Reichstag dome.  The glass dome acts as a skylight for the plenary chamber below while also allowing heat to escape and be recycled into other parts of the building.  Additionally, a double-helix walkway allows visitors to ascend to the top and take in views of the surrounding city:  to the south, the massive, refurbished American embassy next to the Brandenburg Gate; to the southwest, the stately Tiergarten; to the east, Alexanderplatz and the TV Tower.

The group rests after the long trek to the top of the Reichstag´s dome.

Kylace, Clo, Meru, and I enjoy the view.
Having a little fun with the dome´s reflective mirror...

After our tour, we left the Reichstag and crossed the street to the Paul-Löbe-Haus which houses numerous offices and conference rooms for the Bundestag.  Jörn worked in this building during his time in Berlin and said that Herr Hempelmann´s staff had already tried to persuade him to come back.  We ate lunch in the cafeteria overlooking the River Spree, watching the tourist boats passing below.  

Interior of Paul-Löbe-Haus
In the afternoon we explored the surrounding area.  Passing the chancellor´s offices, we boarded a bus and drove into the Tiergarten, Berlin´s Central Park of sorts.  We climbed the Victory Column, a monument to Imperial Germany´s victories in the late 1800s which is decorated with the captured canons of Germany´s enemies.  A few hundred stairs led to a viewing platform with more nice views of the city.  Walking back towards the Reichstag, we passed the German president´s residence which had hosted the Chinese premier only the day before.  We took a stroll down the red carpet and Clo pretended to give an interview with a passing news crew. Dr. Chamoni fed her a German line for the camera, “Ich liebe Berlin”. 

Ryan gets the ladies...
BEST in Berlin!

Our afternoon boat ride took us  by the Chancellor´s office building.
The new Berlin Hauptbahnhof just across the river from the Reichstag.
We took a boat ride down the Spree past the Hauptbahnhof, the Reichstag, and the Berliner Dom (cathedral) until we reached a East-Berlin neighborhood near Alexanderplatz called Nikolaiviertel. There we took photos by a monument to Karl Marx (and Frederick Engels).  Dr. Chamoni then invited us to join him for a Berliner Weisse, a local mixture of beer and flavored syrup.  I couldn´t tell, but I´m sure Meruyert was secretly excited to finally find her “beer with juice” that she´s asked for at every bar from here to Duisburg!  The drink comes in two colors: red and green.  I tried the green which had a sweet, slightly-creamy flavor with perhaps a hint of melon.  Group opinion pronounced it by far the better of the two. 
 Afterwards, we walked to Hackescher Markt.  This neighborhood, only a 20-minute walk from Alexanderplatz, offers a variety of fashionable restaurants and cafes as well as chain clothing retailers.

For all its many faults, East Germany at least gave the world the charming figure called Ampelmann, a stylized walking figure used on all East Berlin crosswalk lights in place of the usual boring green and red lights.  In Hackescher Markt we visited an Ampelmann store which sells every sort of object imaginable adorned with the little green figure. 

After shopping, we walked to the hotel, changed clothes, and returned to Hackescher Markt for dinner.  Italian night.  We found a nice little place with good pizza and pastas and spent a couple of hours.  The fresh olives were a nice touch.  Afterwards, most of the group went to a bar where we had a few drinks in celebration of Clo´s birthday.

Berlin Excursion - Day 1

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Travel Day! But first class…

This morning we started another new course Institutions in the Making of Europe taught by Professor Markus Taube. With a name like that, we assumed that it would be another political history course, so we were in for a surprise when Prof. Taube launched into a detailed explanation of the fundamentals of game theory complete with diagrams of various thought games.

Fortunately, the topic was fairly interesting and the lesson was thirty minutes shorter than normal on account of our afternoon departure for Berlin.  As an optional part of the program, BEST offers a 2½ -day excursion to Berlin accompanied by Prof. Chamoni and a few other staff members.  At 11:30 we left campus and headed for the Duisburg Hauptbahnhof where we boarded an ICE bound for Berlin.  Ryan, Clo, and I sat at a table while Prof. Chamoni, Jörn, Malte, and Blayze sat opposite at another table.  The trip lasted approximately 5 hours, putting us in Berlin at around 6:00 that evening.  Time flew by with the train picking up speed as we headed east, eventually topping out at 230km/hr.  After a while Dr. Chamoni invited Jörn, Malte, Blayze, and Prof. Klein to join him in the restaurant car for a drink and generously covered the bill.  All in all, it was a very relaxing trip and a good start to our weekend adventure. 
Lena, Kylace, and Ivy are waiting for the train.

The guys settle in for the five hour trip.
Clo playing Sudoku on my NOOK.
The new Berlin Hauptbahnhof was completed in time for the FIFA World Cup in 2006.  It features a stunning steel-and-glass multilevel design with trains arriving on the lower- and uppermost levels.  As we disembarked the ICE, the professors headed off to catch a cab, leaving us mere students to make do with the local trains.   We had a few minutes before our train to look around the massive station with a direct view of the renovated Reichstag, or parliament building, directly across the street. 

The regional train took us to Alexanderplatz, a well-known square located in former East-Berlin in the shadow of the TV Tower.  It began to rain, but our hotel IBIS Mittel Alexanderplatz was located only 3-4 blocks north of the square on Prenzlauer Allee and we were soon checked in a able to dry off.

For dinner the group headed northwest, deeper into the Prenzlauer neighborhood which is known for its wide variety of international restaurants.  Seeing an ad for all-you-can-eat schnitzel, we settled on an appropriately-named restaurant called Endlos (Endless).  While the food was decent, the service left something to be desired.  Despite their ad, the staff seemed reluctant to bring out more schnitzel; we ordered several just to make a point.

...and wrote on their sign.

After dinner we returned to the hotel and prepared for Friday´s visit to the Bundestag!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

BEST: Week 3

Monday, 27 June 2011

After returning from the station yesterday evening, we all slept in until 8:30.  Breakfast and the ride to class were uneventful; we were even dropped off in the right place for the first time since the new Kanu-Club staffer began driving us.

Today´s classes consisted of further sections of International Marketing with Dr. Klein and European Economic Integration with Sven Horak.  In Dr. Klein´s class we reexamined the case study from last week concerning Fillkar AG, the company considering going international with its line of uninterruptible power supplies to stem its financial woes.  Using figures given in the text, we ran simple calculations to determine that FillkarAG´s target goals were actually quite unrealistic given the strength of competition, but numerous other options such as partnerships existed which could increase revenue.  In Sven Horak´s class we held another quiz with each team earning 4 (imaginary) Euros towards our final total.

In the afternoon, Blayze and I again rode bikes to the REWE grocery store up the street past the Rheintorchenstraße tram station.  During our first visit we´d looked around, during our second we´d learned exactly where to return the shopping baskets, and today we learned the procedure for purchasing grocery bags at the register.  (They are not offered and the clerks make no effort to assist anyone even with large purchases)  Now we don´t need to carry backpacks and feel like we´re stealing our food when we leave!

For dinner I made a turkey and pepperoni sandwich with olives and cheese, a bowl of tomato soup with a dollop of cream, and two German bread dumplings.  The dumplings came from the store pre-formed in plastic wrap; I just soaked and boiled them and removed the packaging.   Over dinner we watched a movie on Ryan´s laptop.  Tomorrow we´ll try to watch Eurotrip which we bought at the store today after failing to find a copy to watch before our Amsterdam run.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Today’s classes included our first section of European Currency Union and Financial Markets with Professor Roland Döhrn and another section of European Economic Integration with Sven Horak.  Prof. Döhrn apologized for missing last week´s lesson; he was at a conference in Bratislava.  At this, Blayze and I just glanced at each other and tried not to laugh at the Eurotrip reference:  “No one will ever find me in Bratislava!”  The class is very similar to International Economics course taught by Dr. John Rezek at MSU with an emphasis on the Eurozone of course (and the *Impossible Trinity*).  We will cover the history of the European Currency Union and the effects of the current fiscal crisis on the weaker Euro countries like Greece, Spain, and Portugal.

Sven Horak's class (Sven is 4th from left).

In the evening we returned to the Kanu-Club and watched the film Roadtrip which came in a Doppelpack with the copy of Eurotrip that we bought at the Saturn electronics store yesterday. 

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Today we sat for back-to-back sections of Banking and Corporate Finance in Europe with Professor Schierenbeck, a well-known Swiss professor who has apparently written a banking and finance book which is the standard textbook in many European universities.  He also has a really good tan.  Seriously.  Even Prof. Cassel commented as he walked into the classroom, “Prof. Schierenbeck, tan as ever, I see!”

Prof. Schierenbeck obviously knew his material and launched right in.  He first gave a brief overview of the German banking system.  However, when he attempted to have us work through a data spreadsheet to perform some simple calculations such as Return-on-Assets (ROA), we soon realized that many of the German financial terms used different translations into English than the terms we all used at home.  Perhaps something was lost in translation, but the issue made the rest of the afternoon fairly difficult to comprehend.  Next week we´ll have another two sections with Prof. Schierenbeck´s student and business partner.  We´re wondering if he has a tan too.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Weekend in Amsterdam - Part III

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Despite the previous night´s revelry, we had all agreed to wake up early and visit museums in our last few hours in Amsterdam.  The task fell to me to prod my friends along, but by 10:00 we had checked out of the hotel and were on our way.

Ryan made a new friend at the hotel.
We arrived at Amsterdam´s Museumkwartier and walked across the Museumplein (Museum Square) to take pictures with the giant I AMSTERDAM sign, a tourist landmark. 

Rijksmuseum with I AMsterdam sign.

Our first stop of the day was the Van Gogh museum where we immersed ourselves in the great impressionist’s works.  (Inside joke: No, Ryan.  None of the paintings were moving!!)  One of the most interesting exhibits was the gallery which explained the x-ray process that uncovered older paintings beneath some of Van Gogh´s works.  Many artists then and now reuse canvases to save money, and analyzing these hidden works has allowed researchers to better understand Van Gogh´s methods and artistic development.   The temporary exhibit on Van Gogh´s time in Antwerp and Paris further elaborated on recent scholarship into Van Gogh´s methods and reconsiderations of previously-held beliefs about some of his work from this specific period of his life.  The funniest section concerned the mislabeling of his painting “Wheatfield with a Lark”.  The bird in question is now believed to be a partridge and the exhibit contained a letter from a professional ornithologist decrying this absolute travesty and urging the museum to take action. (“While I understand renaming the painting “Wheatfield with a Partridge” could cause confusion in academic circles, I recommend at least adding a note ‘despite title, bird is actually a partridge’ or something similar in order to educate the public…”)

BEST students at Hard Rock Amsterdam.  We think the restaurant just replaces the $ symbol with €, making food here very expensive.

Later, we watched two men play chess in the square.
 After a lunch break at the nearby (and surprisingly expensive) Hard Rock Café, we headed for the Rijksmuseum, the Dutch national museum.  Having been looking forward to this visit the most, I have to admit that the Rijksmuseum was a bit disappointing.  The national museum and its one-million piece collection are housed in a massive Gothic- and Renaissance –styled building on the Museumplein.  However, since 2003, the building has been undergoing renovation, so only a small, 400-piece selection of collection highlights is on display in a smaller, adjacent structure. Visitors must still pay full admission.  Despite this disappointment, I still enjoyed seeing the museum’s collection of Vermeer and Rembrandt paintings. Nothing beats walking into the dimly-lit viewing gallery and finding Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” glowing softly on the far wall! I was also pleased to find a small selection of works by one of my favorite Dutch artists Hendrick Avercamp (1585–1634).  Avercamp’s works were featured in a special exhibition which I saw at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. last year, and I was delighted to see them again in their home museum.  Avercamp was a mute who, possibly because of the social isolation brought on by his handicap, excelled at winter landscape and town-scene paintings, capturing the trivial details of daily life which often go unnoticed by most people.

After the museum closed at 6:00, we split up, each wandering through the Centraal district towards the main station and our 9:04 ICE train.  Meru explored a small tulip market while I searched some grocery stores for a bottle of stroop, the Dutch sugar beet syrup we’d enjoyed at the Pancake Bakery, and a case of stroopwafels, the thin syrup-filled wafers which seem to come with every cup of coffee in this city. 

Coffee with a stroopwafel.
 We soon found ourselves in the Chinatown district, passing windows full of Peking ducks. Chinatown blurred into a sort of British Quarter, and passing a through a gay street party, we headed for the train station’s clock tower.
At Amsterdam Centraal we scrounged up some dinner and found the proper platform.   

Ticket and baguette in hand! ICE to Duisburg.

We had a table-place again for the ride to Duisburg.  Clo, Ryan, Blayze and I sat together while Meruyert sat across the aisle alongside a Turkish-German gentleman and his two young daughters, about 10 and 12 years old.  The two young girls soon wore each other out and fell asleep. Within minutes the older of the two proceeded to unleash an earsplitting snore which had everyone in the train car glancing around in a shared awkward moment.  Eventually, the father was forced to wake the poor girl in order to pacify the other passengers and, the matter settled, most everyone in the car finally went to sleep.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Weekend in Amsterdam - Part II

Saturday, 25  June 2011

The group had intended to wake up around 8:00, but after last night’s adventure, we only managed to leave the room around noon.  That was ok though, because the weather hadn’t been great that morning.  We decided that we needed to try some of the Dutch pancakes we’d heard so much about and settled on The Pancake Bakery ( two blocks north of the Anne Frank House on the Prinsengracht (Prince’s Canal).  This popular restaurant has attracted the tourist crowd (a fact reflected in the prices), but the restaurant’s reputation is well deserved.  I gambled on the chicken, cheese, and pineapple pancake:  an odd combo which turned out to be quite delicious when paired with caramel-flavored stroop (Dutch syrup made from sugar beets).  The omelets were also very good.  Still not feeling 100% from my illness the day before, I skipped coffee in favor of mint tea and was quite surprised when a tall glass with a huge sprig (stalk?) of mint was brought out.  The mint was so fresh I could practically taste the dirt from the garden (there was a definite earthy aftertaste which I could have done without).  While the tea was a little too much for me, by ordering it I made my favorite discovery of the weekend:  stroopwafels, thin syrup-filled wafers which the Dutch often serve with coffee or tea.   Overall, the meal was worth the trip!

The line at the Pancake Bakery at 2:00pm!

After brunch, we walked the two blocks south to the Anne Frank House.  We were prepared to face the rain, hoping that the other tourists would be kept away.  However, when we arrived we found the line stretching around the corner with an hour wait time.  Fortunately for us, the museum is open until around 9pm on Saturdays during the summer, so we opted to try our luck again later in the day.
Ryan is thirsty after the long walk. 

Map in hand, we headed across town to check out the Heineken Experience, an interactive tour of the old Heineken brewery (   Arriving around 3:00pm during a break in the rain, we found the wait to be only five minutes or so.  The Heineken Experience features a small museum covering the brand’s history as well as a 4D film, but the real highlight is of course the tasting room, or should I say rooms?  Visitors receive a small 0.3L glass of Heineken and are given an explanation of the beer’s qualities.  After the tour visitors may then head downstairs to the World Bar and enjoy two larger glasses and a strobe light-induced headache.  For only 15€/person, the Heineken Experience is a great way to spend an afternoon, escape the rain, and enjoy 2.5 beers (plus more for any spare tokens you can bum off other visitors, if you’re that cheap).

(FUN FACT:  During the tour, I couldn’t help but notice that the museum soundtrack includes songs from Neutral Milk Hotel’s record “In the Aeroplane, over the Sea”.  An odd choice for a brewery but great nonetheless given the album’s Anne Frank connection.  Best moment of the trip so far? Perhaps… Anyway, I've found my soundtrack for the weekend.)

Sorry, Blayze. Couldn't resist...
We then returned to the Anne Frank House to find the line just as we left it.  Still, the museum was a must-see on our list so we braved the rain and late-afternoon chill for 45 minutes.  To stay warm, we took shifts in line while one-or-two at a time went to a nearby kiosk to purchase advance tickets to the other museums we’d hoped to visit on Sunday.  
 (TIP: advance tickets often cost the same as regular admission but allow you to skip the line.  These may be purchased at various kiosks and souvenir shops around the city. Some museums offer discounted online tickets if you have the means to print confirmation slips.) 
Meruyert spent her time reading through the English and Russian guides for the museum.  As I’ve mentioned before, Meru is from Kazakhstan and speaks fluent Kazakh and Russian (her Russian is even better than her Kazakh since Russian is taught in Kazakhstan’s schools), speaks good English, and is now learning German though our course at BEST (which is taught in English).

Anne Frank Museum. (Photo:

The Anne Frank House ( is the actual business/warehouse where the Frank family and others hid from the Nazis from 1942 until 1944 when they were betrayed and sent to the concentration camps.  Only Anne’s father Otto Frank survived the camps and returned home.  Anne’s diary of her early life and the years in the “Secret Annex” were discovered by family friends and returned to Otto who published them and spent the rest of his life promoting peace and humanitarianism.  
The museum is small and the rooms are, at Otto Frank's request, left bare.  Small models of the building plans show how the rooms looked during the years the Franks occupied the secret upper floors accessible only via a stairway concealed by a movable bookcase.  In the 1940s the building housed Otto Frank's business, a small manufacturer of the ingredients for making jams and preserves.  His coworkers and employees agreed to shelter the family following the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.  As I mentioned, the Secret Annex is rather small, but compared to hiding places of the period, it was rather spacious and safe.  The family had only to remain quite during the day to avoid the notice of the warehouse employees below.

I admit this visit brought back a lot of memories.  I once visited the house many years ago and was quite moved by the experience.  All these years later, these rooms still felt familiar.  In one of the rooms,  I noticed a large picture of Otto Frank taken during one of his return trips to the Secret Annex after the war.  I can only imagine how he felt walking these rooms again, what memories they stirred.
We left the museum around 9:00pm and after walking in circles for about an hour, arrived at the Dam, the central square of the city where the royal palace and New Church are located.  We ate just off the square at a Mexican restaurant called, appropriately, The Mexican.  The enchiladas were very good, but the chips and salsa were a little unusual.   Here and at other restaurants where we’ve ordered chips and salsa, the chips were smaller and thicker than those back home and were covered in a chili powder while the salsa was more of a chili glaze than the thin liquid with diced tomatoes that is served in the States.

The evening grew late and we decided to explore the neighborhood a bit further before returning to the hotel.  A few twists and turns later, we found ourselves in De Wallen, the city's notorious red light district.  There is something strange about such a sordid industry taking place in such a picturesque setting. The gaudy red neon from the clubs and working girls' stalls (literally stalls, or "cabins" in the trade terminology,with little more than a bed, a glass door, and a curtain) along the canal reflected in the water and cast an eerie glow on the night's proceedings.  We weren't alone; hundreds of our fellow tourists had been draw to the district to gawk at the merchandise.  Most seemed all talk though.  The Scots seemed well represented; I guess due to the short commute.  I left soon after in hopes of catching a tram while the others found a bar and took their chances on finding a night bus.

De Wallen at night (Photo: Rungbachduong at Wikipedia)

I found nothing glamorous about De Wallen.  Despite the lax regulations on prostitution which are meant to legitimize the industry, sex trafficking is a still a serious problem here.  Half the women look to be Eastern European or Asian. I've heard that the city government is making an effort to clean up the district.  In the last two or three years new regulations have been passed, limiting the number of "cabins" in the district and allowing some areas to be redeveloped with restaurants and boutiques.  Time will tell if the city's efforts will pay off.

I became lost while trying to navigate my way out of the back alleys of De Wallen where the cheaper (older) women reside.  Sure enough, by the time I found by bearings I had missed the last tram and was forced to walk through the rain down to Leidseplein and the first night bus of the evening. 

While the trams with their electronic route displays are great, I have found the buses in Amsterdam to be terrible.  Both this night and last, I have been forced to ride the bus out to the final stop and then half of the return journey in order to reach the hotel because the driver didn't stop at our hotel though I had pressed the stop-request button.  It would seem one must have memorized the route in advance AND know the secret handshake AND press the drop-off button three stops in advance to get anywhere!!   The others stumbled in around 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, exhausted from having bartered a ride from a shady motorist after experiencing similar problems with the bus service.

Weekend in Amsterdam - Part I

NOTE: Apologies for the length between posts.  Between our frequent field trips and the lack of free WiFi away from campus and the Kanu-Club,  its been difficult to post updates.  However, I have been keeping up with my writing in a MS Word doc, so the next few days will see frequent posts of material from the last few weeks.

...and now, here's what you've been missing!

Friday, 24 June 2011

Friday morning I woke up feeling miserable due to a headache and sinus issues.  With the day´s weather looking terrible and the German course still working on introductory phrases, I decided that I would be better off staying at the canoe club for the day. 

Later, with a few more hours of sleep and a strong dose of medicine, I set about finding a hostel for our weekend trip to Amsterdam.  Given the terrible weather forecast, the late hour of our arrival that evening, and the fact that no one besides me had ever been to the city, I would have preferred to have a place to stay before setting out, but it wasn’t to be.  On a summer weekend, Amsterdam was booked solid.

After a quick discussion with Blayze, Ryan, Clo, and Meru when they returned from class, we decided to take our chances and set out for the Duisburg Hauptbahnhof.  Snacks in hand, we boarded our 6:26PM Intercity Express (ICE) train and settled in for the two-hour ride across the Dutch-German border.  We’d reserved cheaper 2nd class tickets and were fortunate enough to have facing seats with a table so four of us could sit together while Meru’s ticket placed her across the aisle from us at another table.  The journey was uneventful, save for a chance encounter with a young dancer from California who was traveling with her mother after touring Central Europe with her dance company.  Katie, or ‘KT’ as she preferred to be called, chatted with us most of the trip, departing at Utrecht.

Around 8:45pm we disembarked at Amsterdam Centraal the city’s main train station which for some bizarre reason known only to the city’s planners was built on the harbor, cutting off the city from its own waterfront.  This, combined with construction on the canal fronting the station, made for a less-than-ideal arrival in this famously picturesque city.  However, as we crossed the maze of Centraal’s tram lines and entered the bustling streets just off the plaza, there was no mistaking where we were.  

Our first canal!
The city planners may have bungled the design of their train station, but they got the rest of the city center right.  Amsterdam’s famous concentric rings of canals were added in the 17th century to assist with transportation, defense, and water management, and unlike Venice, Amsterdam’s canal system leaves room for streets on either side. While this means that distracted tourists do run the risk of being struck by a passing car or tram, the real danger comes from the bicycles.  Amsterdam has an extremely well-developed bike path network complete with stoplights, and the locals have no patience for any bumbling tourists too busy admiring the high, narrow houses lining the canals to heed the warning bells.
Pretty nice for a shopping mall, am I right? You can see all the tram and bike paths in the foreground.

The scenery was nice, but we still needed a place to sleep.  Knowing that hotels in the city center would be expensive and crowded, we purchased 48-hr. tram passes and proceeded down Damrak, a wide boulevard lined with tourist shops and restaurants offering late-evening discounts.  At some point we stumbled into a tourist center where, after a long wait, we were able to book two rooms in a 4-star hotel for only 80€/person for the weekend.   The normal bus station was closed and a large sign had been posted in Dutch.  Dutch is near enough to German and English that I could discern that the stop had moved down the street, but I couldn’t tell where.  I used the old trick and asked the nearest hotel doorman for directions; problem solved.   

We found the bus stop and rode 20 minutes out of the city center to the Dutch Design Hotel Artemis (  Our group of five checked-in around 11:30pm and found our rooms only to discover that one room was already occupied!  We caused a scene in the lobby, received a refund for the already-occupied room, and crammed ourselves into the second. Thus, our hotel expenditure was slashed to only 40€/person.  5 people + 1 four-star room = Good Times! 
The Dutch Design Hotel Artemis.  A very nice place though a bit removed from the city center.

 Not wanting to miss out on our first night in the city, we ventured out to Leidseplein, a large square to the southeast of Centraal with a busy nightlife scene.   We eventually ended up at a quieter, albeit crowded, bar off the square called The Saloon. The bar was situated in wedge-shaped building where a long pedestrian street intersected a canal path at a low angle; the narrow interior enhanced the crowd, but the patrons were friendly enough.   Apparently, it was more of a local bar because the Dutch were surprised to see foreigners there.  Happy to avoid the tourist crowd, we stayed awhile before continuing along the canals and returning to the Hotel Artemis around 2:00am.