Saturday, February 2, 2013

Trains, Planes, and Automobiles

I have, over the last thirty-five days, traversed three countries, ten time zones, and somewhere in the neighborhood of 14,200 miles. That is almost the equivalent of halfway around the equator. I have seen the Baltic, the Pacific, and Baikal. I have taken five planes, several buses, and an uncountable number of trains. I have eaten more pirozhki than I care to remember and done laundry fewer times than I care to admit.

But it is a long story, and therefore I shall begin at the beginning.

Part I: In the Land of Milk and Honey

The Kaliningrad airport is a small landing strip in the middle of the Baltic marshes, most of its flights connecting only to Moscow and St Petersburg. This is why, for final destinations outside of Russia, most Kaliningraders opt for nearby Gdansk International, which has much better connections. Gdansk is also local Russians' city of choice for their major shopping, as the clothing, electronics, and foodstuffs in Poland are both cheaper and better quality than goods in Russia. The upshot is that bus transit between Kaliningrad and Gdansk is quite convenient, provided one doesn't mind waiting an extra hour at the border for one's fellow travelers to descend upon the duty free shops like so many locusts on cheap alcohol.

Thus, several hours after departing Kaliningrad at the end of December, and several more after sitting in the Gdansk airport for most of the day, I finally landed in Frankfurt to Maelia's beautiful familiar face, my fellow Lewis & Clark history major and Fulbright ETA in Germany. As we took the regional S-bahn back to her home of Mainz, a smallish city on the Rhine about thirty minutes from Frankfurt, I joked about the two terrible 1980s Kurt Russell films I'd been tortured with on the bus that had been horrifically dubbed into Russian by one solitary voice actor. Before I knew it, we were climbing onto a city bus, and then she was showing me the luxurious apartment she rents with a roommate. My dorm is fairly nice after the renovations were finally done, but having a full kitchen at my disposal for a whole week was something closer to heaven.

The next day, I got the proper tour of Mainz, which is the capital of the state of Rheinland-Pfalz, and stands on the ground of an old Roman military camp, established in the last few years BCE. As the Romans left in the fifth century, a new settlement developed and flourished along the rich banks of the river, which makes for excellent wine growing country. I had been expecting to enjoy a week of German beer, but since the local specialty of the Reinland is indisputably vinicultural, I couldn't refuse. Although the majority of Mainz's medieval center was destroyed in WWII, the rebuilding was was of such quality, both in terms of restoring damaged buildings and in constructing entirely new ones, that it was a bit of a shock to my Kaliningrad-accustomed self. In Mainz, the war is so far behind; in Kaliningrad it still feels just around the corner.

Mainz has a cathedral too -- only a thousand years old
What remains of the old medieval center is now the shopping district

Mainz's main celebrity is Johannes Gutenberg, who was born and lived there while inventing the moveable type printing press in the mid 1400s. This press allowed for the rapid and (fairly, depending on the typesetter) accurate mass production of printed matter, revolutionizing movement of ideas and paving the way for the Renaissance, Reformation, and development of scientific thought. Gutenberg's printed Bibles, forty-eight of which still exist today, are some of the most valuable books in the world, both in terms of monetary and historical value. Mainz has a wonderful Gutenberg museum, in which the typographically addicted may salivate for hours over the dimly lit glass-cased specimens of several hundred years of printing history -- of course, the cardinal exhibit being one of J.G.'s own Bibles, displayed within a walk-in vault.

Having thus seen the local sights, we day-tripped to Frankfurt and hit the museum embankment (Museumsufer), named due a truly indecent concentration of museums along the river. Unfortunately constrained by time, we began in the Historisches Museum, a bizarre maze-like building with exhibits seemingly derived from the donations of whatever wealthy city patrons happened to collect over the years. Only here can you visit a room of different kinds of plastic, try on a vest that weights the same as a suit of armor, view a miniature painting of a sleeping traveler being robbed/peed on by monkeys, and measure your height in meters all in the same building. Thus thoroughly amused, we continued on to the Städel art museum, a much more cohesive collection, if also equally more crowded.

A grey day in Frankfurt

As the last hours of 2012 waned, we hopped a long succession of regional trains down to Munich to spend a blitz New Year's with more friends. I was introduced both to Raclette (a way to eat melted cheese that I didn't know about!?) and to Dinner for One, which for some reason is a German New Year's tradition. As midnight neared, we climbed a giant fake hill made of garbage with a single windmill on top, dodging errant fireworks and drunken Germans (the latter being the source of the former) and appreciating the spectacular panorama view over Munich. The few single fireworks scattered across the city and visible to us as small bursts of colored light quickly multiplied, the sound increasing from distant thunder to deafening barrage. At the peak of twelve, the entire horizon was exploding with tens of thousands of fireworks, and we could only look at each other and muse that if someone from the middle ages could stand where we were, they would think the world was ending. I suppose a city under bombardment would sound similar. I have never seen anything like it in my life.

Now imagine every single one of those lights is a firework

After returning to our Mainz headquarters (trains the next day were a much less happy affair, packed with grumpy hungover people facing the prospect of work), our next day trip was an easy afternoon jaunt down to Speyer. Also on the Rhine, Speyer began as a Celtic settlement before becoming a Roman town around the same time as Mainz. Aside from the medieval Altpörtal ("Old Gate") tower in the town center, Speyer's main attraction is its Romanesque cathedral, begun in 1030. Rightfully listed as a UNESCO heritage site, the cathedral has been expanded, destroyed, rebuilt, and re-expanded almost continuously since its beginnings, resulting in a unique and truly impressive piece of architecture. Also of amusing interest in the local ecclesiastical past, the city's Protestants completed a new church in 1904, and, not to be outdone, the Catholics built their own right next door.

Glühwein and bratwurst galore 
Speyer Cathedral
You know it's imperial because of the giant crown
hanging from the ceiling

The golden standard of Roman towns, however, is Trier, three hours' train ride to the west. Thanks to its strategic crossroads position, Trier became the capital of the Western Roman Empire, and the city still has the greatest concentration of Roman ruins in Germany. These include: the Porta Nigra, one of the fortified gates, now blackened by time (2nd century); the Roman bridge across the Moselle, which is still in use (2nd century); an amphitheater (100 CE); the spectacular ruins of three Roman baths (2nd to 4th century); the beautiful and remarkably airy-feeling Trier Cathedral, another gradually-evolving Romanesque architectural behemoth (begun in 4th century); and the Constantine Basilica, once the throne room of the Roman emperor, later partly incorporated into the nearby (hideous) Electoral Palace (early 4th century).

Trier is also home to the Rheinisches Landesmuseum, one of the most fantastic repositories of Roman antiquities north of the Alps, from absolutely stunning mosaics to huge marble carvings to small personal items. I don't know why I never realized the Romans had glassware, for instance, but of course they did. I was overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of it all, many of the carvings still with the original paint partially decorating the marble. The museum itself is also is abnormally well laid-out, which was refreshing after our earlier experiences. We left in awe and could have happily spent another couple of hours.

The Black Gate is guarded by more than just orcs. There are tourists here
that do not sleep.
The stone pilings of this bridge are over 1800 years old, and still in use!
If the ruins of the baths are this beautiful, I can't even
imagine what they must have been like in their day
The cathedral is actually amalgamated onto a baroque
chapel extension to the right
The impressive bad taste with which the palace was adjoined to the
basilica is almost Russian in scale
Fortunately, the basilica's interior more than makes up
for the indignities foisted upon its outside

It was thus with some great lamentation, pockets full of discount Christmas marzipan and in no small degree of exhaustion, that I boarded my plane for Moscow and left Germany behind to return to the родина. I seem fated to always explore Western Europe after having lived in Russia for a long period of time, which has the effect of making me over-ecstatic about such things as drinkable tap water, bus schedules, and mandatory recycling.

As my week in Paradise drew to a close, I couldn't help but reflect how easy everything had been. Germany may not be quite the same as America, but coming from Russia, it's pretty damn close -- the language barrier is functionally non-existent, things are done in a familiar and logical manner, and physical distances are manageable. Daily activities require no extra effort to complete due to any of the above reasons, which is nice on the one hand, but on the other, it's familiar before it has a chance to be foreign. Russia, however, is never easy, but also never boring. Trying to navigate everyday life is always an adventure -- so (dare I actually admit this?) while Germany is a fantastic place for a vacation, I'm glad that I'm living in Kaliningrad instead.

(Stay tuned for the next installment!)


  1. Privet! I stumbled upon your blog while researching the Fulbright in Russia (I'm a finalist for next year) and am now an avid follower. Just wanted to let you know I'm enjoying your accounts of life in Russia and am VERY jealous you got to do the Trans-Siberian! Looking forward to hearing about it.

    1. Thanks very much, I often feel like I'm just spewing into the internet, so it's good to hear feedback :) best of luck with the selection process! I recall that they took FOREVER to get back to us


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