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Struthof & Parliament: Polar Opposites July 6, 2012

Posted by Joshua Price in Travel Log.
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The Nazi concentration camp system of the 1940’s symbolizes what was and still is are some of the most disgusting and horrendous actions ever taken by one man against another.  In middle and high school we learn about the atrocities that Hitler committed in these camps, read books that describe a deportee’s life in one of these camps, and see horrifying pictures of extremely frail individuals who have been stripped of all material possessions and even their humanity.  But, all of this pales in comparison to visiting a former concentration camp, Struthof.

Struthof was the only concentration camp in France and was the first discovered by the Allies during the liberation of France.  It was the first clue that there were camps like these in Germany, until this point the concentration camps had maintained a very well-kept state secret of the Nazi Party.  When American forces discovered Struthof, it was deserted, all that remained were several bodies, everyone else had been sent to other concentration camp sites.  The gas chamber, the experimentation rooms, and the execution room and the crematory were still present in addition to the barracks where deportees lived after working more than twelve hours per day mining sand, gravel, and pink granite for the Nazis.

I cannot say that visiting the camp was a pleasant experience in any regard.  It did make me confront what people can actually do to one another even more so than I have had to do in the past in my history classes. In this sense, the camp was worth visiting even though there are areas of the camp where it is simply eerie.  One particular spot is where the Nazis conducted experiments on some of the deportees.  There was a room with at least six bunked beds directly besides an operating/autopsy table.  This table was the place where many people were treated essentially as lab-rats.  They injected them with different viruses, bacteria, exposed them to mustard gas, phosgene and many more despicable experiments.  Right down the hall, less than thirty feet away, was the execution room where deportees who tried to resist or escape or were thought to be in any way resistant, were executed by a gunshot to the neck.  Though all of these rooms are horrible individually, think of what it would have been like to live in that room beside the experimentation table.  At any time during the day you or one of your roommates could be taken and killed and then cut apart to see what the results of the Nazi “doctor’s” experimentation was.  In addition to this, gunfire throughout the night and day, knowing that one of your fellow deportees had died with each shot.  These situations are horrible and actually seeing how close together everything was makes you understand the fear, the dehumanization, the pain and the suffering of these poor people throughout the duration of the concentration camp system and the reign of Hitler.

It is important to see these atrocities as they actually were and pay respect to the victims so that something like this is never allowed to happen again.  By learning from the past and recognizing the atrocities committed by people of the same physical makeup as us, we are able to understand the need for global collaboration in preventing similar atrocities from happening anywhere on the face of the earth.

After leaving Struthof, we traveled to the European Union Parliament is the city of Strasbourg.  The architecture of the building is phenomenal and totally unexpected.  The building is exceptionally large, containing offices and staff offices for each of the more than eight hundred members of the European Parliament.  We learned about how the European Union works as a type of confederation with member states enforcing the policies of the overarching governing body of the European Union.

The highlight of our visit was actually getting to sit in on a plenary session of the parliament during which the floor was open for debate on the situation regarding free elections in Georgia and how to assist Georgia in holding free elections without being partial to a particular political party running for governmental seats.  As an overall statement, the European Parliament stands to promote democracy and human rights not only in Europe but also throughout the rest of the world.

The last thing that we did during our visit to the parliament was meet the Parliament from the region of France that we are currently residing in Lorraine.  Specifically, she represents Lorraine and several other regions in France that are adjacent to the Lorraine region.  Her main focus was on human rights and ensuring that the rights of all people in the European Union are protected including the rights of children.

It was very interesting to see the parliament, which happens to be the third time during this trip that I have visited a seat of a governmental institution.  The European Union is a new type of governing body in that it is made up of sovereign member nations.  Among these member nations there is some dissatisfaction about the effectiveness of the European Parliament and specifically how wisely they allocate the budget.  This raises interesting questions that national governments typically do not have to address, the sovereignty of member states.  If the European Parliament is to be more effective and have a larger reach, that means that the member states will lose some sovereignty in the process as they would not totally in control of their own affairs, they would be subject to the governing authority of a governing body that they are represented in, but do not control.  There are some interesting parallels here between what is happening with regard to the European Union and some of the governmental issues that have been raised in the United States.  Stats sovereignty was a key issue during the Civil War, and the European Union as it is right now looks a lot like the national government established by the Articles of Confederation, the first governing document ratified by America.  Today, we have a federal system which is different than the confederation system that we first adopted.  From the political atmosphere here in Europe, I feel, and this is a personal opinion, that there is some pressure for the European Union to become more federalized, though not to the extent that the United States is. There would be much more power at the member state level than at the national level in the European Union, but the same principle would apply, the only difference is that in the United States the National government is generally considered the more powerful institution.  It is a very interesting situation to look into and I certainly thought about it quite a bit during my visit to the European  Parliament on July 4th.

Interlaken: also known as Paradaise July 6, 2012

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Interlaken, Switzerland is far and away the most beautiful city I have ever visited.  I thought the Appalachian Mountains were wondrous, and they are, but the Swiss Alps leave them far behind. Snow covered peaks, bright baby blue glacial streams and lakes in addition to the beautiful green vegetation against the stark contrast of the snow-covered exposed granite peaks. Pictures may capture some of this beautiful city, but they can never do it complete justice.  No matter how great a resolution a two dimensional picture has, it cannot capture the depth present when you see a mountain that is 20 miles away with snow on top.  I’m going to include a few pictures to help my description, but my goal is to put the scene into words better than these pictures can describe.

First, why is this city called Interlaken? Because it is between two lakes.  I finally figured this out when we were about to get on the train to leave Metz.  Anyhow, of these two lakes there is one that is commercialized and one that is not.  One lake has beaches, the other does not.  One lake has roads, the other has paths, and I chose the lake without the beach and took the small path to find a gorgeous view of the Alps.

So, picture me sitting in a computer lab on Friday, using Google Maps to print out a good map of Interlaken so I can at least find my way around once I’m there.  I looked through the area quickly and tried to get as many road names as possible, other than that there was little purpose to my methods other than keeping myself from getting lost in a foreign country.  I settled on a map in 30 seconds, printed it off shoved it in my backpack and walked to the bus stop to take me to the train station.  I was traveling with two other GTL students who were planning to go hang gliding the next morning, meaning that I had at least two hours to explore Interlaken on my own.  Woo Hoo!

At 8am the next morning we split, I had little idea where the lakes were, which way best to get there, but decided to wander around the city and take as many beautiful pictures as I could.  So, wearing sunglasses, a backpack a polo shirt and shorts, I set out on my expedition of Interlaken. I would head one way, decide that wasn’t the way I wanted to go and then head back the other way.  Granted, I wasn’t really trying to find a lake at this point, I just wanted good pictures.  After a few minutes of walking North, I decided I wanted to find that lake that was on my map at the north-east corner of the city, this is the less touristy one that I mentioned earlier.

For the first mile or so there weren’t really any extraordinary views, just paved roads, street signs Swiss flags and mountains on every side.  Overall, a beautiful scene, but one that looked the same no matter which way you looker or where in the city you were.  However, as I kept going I found a river that was marked on my map.  I heard it first and immediately went to see it.  It was the most beautiful bright blue that I have ever seen in a river.  It was flowing swiftly and you could feel the cool air coming off the river like you feel off the rivers in the North Carolina Mountains.

According to my map I still had a ways to go to find that lake, but I was very satisfied with my first find.  I followed the river to the train station and then had to take some roads to weave through the train tracks in order to get where I wanted to go.  Eventually I took a left off the main road and onto an old paved road that crossed the railroad tracks for a final time.  There were small houses on each side, a mountain in the distance and tall grass buzzing with the sounds of insects on both sides of me.  As I continued down the road, it narrowed to what was a gravel road probably eight feet wide at best.  I continued walking with tall grass on both sides and now glimpses of the lake between the trees on my right.  At this point, it was about 9am so there was still some fog in the air and the sun hadn’t fully penetrated all the way to the ground yet.  I took pictures left and right amassing a collection of 20 in just a few minutes.  It was a gorgeous walk, one that many tourists never find.  At the end of this trail there is another gravel road that takes you to the lake.  I walked down this trail and found the lake behind a small line of pine-equivalent trees.  Even with the sun hidden, the water was a bright blue, mountains appeared hidden in the distance and you could see the outline but no distinctive features.  I could hear the insects in the acres of tall grass behind me and feel a slight breeze, it was like I had walked to heaven, that it the best way to describe it.  I knew that I only had a few minutes before I needed to head back to the train station and meet the other that had been hang gliding so I decided against wading in the lake.

I retraced my path and met the other two at the train station before we headed back to the lake.  By now the sun had burned off most of the fog and the lake was brightly lit.  The mountains that were obscured in the distance earlier now revealed green sides and for the ones in the distance snow-capped peaks.  We decided to wade into the water, which was a chilly fifty degrees or so and skip rocks across the surface as two local kids played in an inflatable boat and a man floated on an inflatable mattress across the surface of this serene lake.  From a few feet into the lake, up to about knee-depth, it was possible to see just how hidden this location was.  Even just a few feet off the edge of the lake, the shore appeared to only be a few trees and a bench, nothing more.  After being in big and historic cities, the small town part of me just wanted to go out into the woods and have a chance to chill for a little while.  Switzerland and specifically Interlaken gave me this opportunity to be able to relax and enjoy the great outdoors.  If I ever make a formal bucket list, I will definitely include Interlaken.  Though it is a very touristy city by nature, there are ways to get outside the mold and see the great outdoors with your own two legs, you don’t have to follow a guided canyoning tour, go hang gliding or sky diving.  All you have to do is be willing to walk down a path that isn’t taken so often and see where it takes you.  This is an important life lesson.

If I ever have the chance to visit Interlaken again, I don’t know if I will follow that path I took before or find another; there is a lot of excitement in finding your own trail instead of following what this tourist guide or that tourist guide says is fun.  I hope this written description helps to describe Interlaken better than my camera could.

Before we left, I bought my grandfather a souvenir that I thought he might enjoy, a real Swiss Army knife, the model that they issue to soldiers today.  If there is any wish that I could make, I would take my family to Interlaken, it truly is an incredible place worth seeing.  It makes you realize how wonderful our planet and the creator both are.

ITALIA July 5, 2012

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At GT-Lorraine we have a 5-day weekend in the middle of the semester. For this weekend, we decided to go to both Venice and Rome, Italy, 2 very well-known cities.  Simply because of the amount of time that we spent in those two cities, this blog post may be the longest I have composed to date though I will do my best to keep it succinct.

We started out in Venice Italy, of the most well-known canal cities in Europe.  Geographically, it is located in the northern part of Italy.  If you view Italy as a boot, it would be on the upper right side near where the wearer’s calf would be.

Once we arrived in Venice, we went looking for food, we found pizza.  Quickly I discovered that Italian pizza is not the same as American pizza.  One of the best ways to describe Italian pizza is to think about homemade American pizza.  The crust was made out of something similar to unleavened biscuit dough and the sauce was a rich tomato base seasoned with oregano and basil.  As much as I wish I could provide a picture for you, I’m not the greatest at taking pictures of food; I’m usually too busy eating it.

After lunch we decided to explore the city and to do so crossed many, many canals via bridges that allow navigation of Venice.  In the canal system, there are many small canals and the main canal, which ranges from one to two hundred feet at its widest points.  The picture that I have of the canal is at one of its narrower points.  One interesting effect of the expansive canal system and lack of roads is the fact that residents, the few natives who are left, typically own boats instead of cars.  Restaurants are supplied by boats, not trucks, water busses not traditional busses are used for public transport and markets are based on the side of the canals where vendors use their boats as stands, not their vans.  The canal system leads to a totally different culture that is almost totally independent of the automobile, something that it was difficult for me, an American, to grasp.

For me the most surprising thing about Venice was St. Marco square.  This square is at least 4 acres is size and is swarming with people and pigeons all day.  At the end of the square is an enormous church, much bigger than I would have ever expected to find in Venice.

The one night we spent in Venice, we stayed in a hostel on the island of Lido, one of the islands surrounding Venice.  Lido had beaches on the Mediterranean Sea that had relatively clean water.  We swam in the Sea for a while and then scoured the beach for some shells to take back to the hotel as souvenirs.  After a long hot day and 5 weeks of academics, the time on the beach was a much needed bit of relaxation.

When we tried to go back to the mainland to buy some souvenirs and catch our train for Rome, we experienced another part of European business culture that is difficult to find if not nonexistent in American business culture today, strikes.  The water bus drivers that took us to Lido the previous night were now on strike.  Thankfully, they guaranteed minimum service and we were able to visit a Leonardo de Vinci museum in Venice and catch our train to Rome without any major problems.

After arriving in Rome, we had a scheduled visit to the Vatican City at night.  We went through the several museums displaying sculptures, tapestries, and paintings before entering the Sistine Chapel, a sight that is absolutely phenomenal.  Every square inch of the walls and ceiling were painted by Michelangelo.  We spent at last 30 minutes staring at all of the paintings depicting stories from both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.  The Sistine Chapel is a holy place and for that reason pictures are not allowed, but even if pictures were allowed, there is no way that they would be able to do justice to the sheer area covered by paintings.

Later in our trip we visited St. Peter’s Basilica at night.  The square in front of the Basilica is enormous and is capable of holding many thousands of people.  Though I am not Catholic, I found my visit to the Vatican to be a very worthwhile experience.  I am Methodist and though the Protestant and Catholic churches split several centuries ago, there is still a long common history and many common beliefs.

The next morning, we went to see one of the most famous Roman sites, the Coliseum.  When it was used, it held 75,000 people and had a floor on which gladiators fought one another in addition to exotic animals.  The floor has since collapsed and the stadium seating has collapsed.  However, with a structure this large, deterioration over two millennia cannot hide the resources and the technical know-how that it took to construct this colossal stadium. We were able to walk around inside and even go up to the second level where you can clearly see the rooms that were located under the stadium floor. The coliseum is one of the sights that you see pictures of throughout life yet actually going makes you appreciate the sheer size of the structure.

Along with the ticket that we bought for the coliseum, we purchased admission to the Roman Forum.  From here, you can look out over Rome and see the skyline, which looks totally different than the skyline of a large American city.  There are no skyscrapers and no buildings that dominated the skyline; the closest to achieving this status is the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica.

This brings me to one of the most enjoyable parts of the trip, buying excessive amount of Gelato.  During our time in Rome, the temperature exceeded 90 degrees every day.  With the heat from the stone buildings and asphalt roads, it certainly felt like it was over 100 degrees.  Thankfully, this gave us a great excuse to get gelato multiple times per day.  I didn’t keep an exact count, but I’m pretty sure that we got gelato 10 times during our three days in Rome.   One gelateria stood out, Valentino’s, which was near one of the more famous fountains in Rome, the Trevi Fountain that we visited twice, once during the day and again at night.

Probably our most cultural experience in Italy was when Italy played England in the quarterfinal of the Euro Cup.  In one of the squares, I’m not sure which one it was, there was a large screen set up so that a large crowd could watch the game.  As regulation time ended with the score still tied at zero, we wondered what the outcome of the game would be and whether there was going to be a happy mob or a relatively upset mob.  There were Italy flags being waved in the air as the first and the second overtime began, but again at the end of both overtimes, the game was still tied.  Then, it was time for the penalty kicks.  After four kicks, Italy clinched the game and the Romans when crazy while we quickly found our way out of the crowd.  Locals drove around in their cars well into the night honking their horns and celebrating the Italian victory.  I’m not a fan of soccer, but the game was enjoyable and the atmosphere was full of energy.  I’m sure that this was not the only place in Rome that there was a large gathering of people to watch the game.  As I knew before coming to Europe, but that I have really seen while in Europe, the Europeans really do enjoy their soccer.

We left Rome the next morning at 8am to begin our journey back to Metz, through Italy, Switzerland, and France.  The positive way to describe our travel back to Metz is that, because of some storms and specifically a landslide near Zurich, we took the “Scenic Route.”  We saw some very large wind turbines and a lot of farmland that was reminiscent of getting lost in the United States.  You can’t really say that we got lost; we just took a hodgepodge of busses and trains that got us where we needed to go.

In closing this blog post, I want to apologize for the length if you’re still reading this conglomeration of ideas and experiences.  But I would like to say that our trip to Italy was the most relaxing trip that we have taken so far.  The Italian way of life is much slower and more relaxed than the typical fast-paced American lifestyle. It is relaxing to experience this lifestyle, but for someone that leads a fast-paced life in America, I felt somewhat outside my element.  Italy has been fun, and hopefully my body won’t fuss at me too much for the massive amount of gelato, pasta, and pizza that I ate during my time in Italy.

Caen and D-Day June 11, 2012

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Compared to the other cities that I have visited during this trip, Caen is not very well known.  It is located near the eastern coast of France in the Normandy region.  Its location is quite strategic and military action in the city is not a recent development.  As early as the tenth century, there was a fortress built in Caen.  Today, much of the structure has crumbled, but there are still parts that are intact. The picture below describes the condition of it quite well.  The location in the picture is where non-combatant inhabitants would go during an attack on the fortress.  This is one of the oldest things that I have seen since arriving in Europe, it is approximately one thousand years old.

The main reason we went to Caen this weekend was because of the D-day anniversary last Wednesday.  In Caen, there is a memorial museum that highlights the sacrifices made on D-Day and the impact that this one battle had on the war.

The sacrifices I mentioned were obvious throughout the city.  There are many cemeteries and memorials that commemorate those that were deported by the Nazis or perished in battle.  Though we were mainly in an area that was significantly impacted by the D-Day invasion itself, it is important to remember that it wasn’t just one battle, it was an entire war, which gives a greater perspective as to the number of people that died defending their beliefs and ideologies, be it on the Allied or Axis side of the battle.  It highlights the fact that war is not pretty, it isn’t simple and it isn’t superficial.

One of the most striking things we found in Caen was a memorial at the Fortress that was built in the tenth century for those that died on D-Day and in the subsequent fighting that allowed the Allied forces to reach the city of Caen.  Specifically, the memorial is for all of the soldiers that died between June 6th and July 14th.  Here is a picture of the memorial with flowers located at its base.  The fact that people remember that day so clearly even more than sixty years later gives a greater perspective as to the importance of the day in ending the Second World War.  The memorial is similar in purpose to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the United States.

Knowing as you walk down the streets that approximately sixty years ago there were bombs being dropped, mortars being fired, the sound of machine guns, and the sacrifice of the lives of many young men is an experience that adds understanding of how brutal World War really is.

Berlin, the Former Home of Both Communism, Democracy, and The Wall June 11, 2012

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On our way back to Metz from Prague, we stopped for a day in Berlin, a very large city.  I wish we could have spent more time in the city, but there are time limitations to every trip.  The first thing we did was visit the Reichstag building, the home of the German Parliament.  This building was affected by Allied bombing in World War Two and much of the upper half of the building was totally destroyed.  After the war, the building was rebuilt, culminating in a glass dome on the top of the building.  Symbolically, this glass dome represents the openness of the parliament to the German people.  As one architect stated, “It’s about time that the German people can look down upon their government.”  This glass dome includes a spiral ramp that takes you all the way up to the top.  From the floor at the top of the dome you get a beautiful view of Berlin led by an audioguide that is supplied in many different languages, including English.  From the bottom of the dome, you can look into the parliamentary chamber and see the blue chairs that the representatives sit in when parliament is in session.  The chance to visit this building and walk up to the top was a great introduction to Berlin.

As we were leaving the Reichstag building, we found the path of the Berlin Wall near the Brandenburg Gate.  I thought it would be interesting to say that I was in both East and West Berlin at the same time, so I decided to straddle the line, marked with stones and take a picture of my feet.

To hear about the berlin wall is history class is one thing, but to actually stand at the location where the wall once stood is a very meaningful experience.  Today, I can walk from one side of the line to the other easily without being searched or even impeded by a gate, I can just walk side to side.  But, just 22 years ago that wasn’t the case, people would risk their lives to escape East Berlin.  The hid in the trunks of cars, in old welding machines and literally inside the front seat of a car to get through the various checkpoints that connected East and West Berlin. Others were brave enough to make an attempt at climbing the wall, flying a balloon over the wall or making an attempt to escape East Germany by using a gas powered submersible device to swim from the shore of Germany to hopefully be rescued by a ship that would take them somewhere other than back to East Germany.  These hardships were highlighted in The Museum at Checkpoint Charlie, one of the more famous checkpoints.

As an American, it is easy to take the freedom to travel virtually anywhere in the world for granted, but this really opens your eyes to the fact that this is not a universal privilege.  There are many people today that face the same hardships that were faced in East Berlin during the time of the Berlin Wall.  Our trip to Berlin, though short, was quite meaningful in that it forced me to realize the incredible freedom I have as an American citizen that many other people simply do not have.  Why do I have these privileges?  Because I happened to be born in the United States. I haven’t done anything to earn or deserve them, yet I have them anyway.  Seeing firsthand the disparities in the world opens your eyes to the fact that we are truly blessed to have the privileges we do and we must remember that every other person is just as deserving to have the same privileges regardless of where they were born or how they were raised.  Berlin was certainly the most eye-opening experience to date that I have had in Europe.

Prague, Spires and Legos June 11, 2012

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Before embarking on my study abroad trip, there were many people in the United States that told me I needed to see Prague.  They told me it had a rich history and a great atmosphere.  However, it is difficult to truly appreciate these statements until you’ve been to Prague.  Prague is a city to be absorbed. Unlike Amsterdam, where we did many things in the city, in Prague, we walked around to look at the buildings, browse in local shops and get lunch and other snacks from street vendors.  I learned what a Klobasa was and had a dessert that was made by sugar-coating dough rolled on a large pole and baked over charcoal.  Both of these foods were incredible.  They didn’t taste like anything I had ever had before, but in a very good way.  In hindsight I wish I had taken a few pictures before eating my meal, but it was hard to think about taking a picture of your food when you are hungry and are holding the equivalent of a hot sausage sandwich and a very, very tasty dessert.

During our adventures in the city, we visited a building with a very interesting shape.  It is called the Dancing Building because of its unique shape.  If you look closely, you can see a man and a woman dancing in the design of the building.  This building certainly broke the mold of the common architecture in Prague; it is printed on many postcards and is relatively famous in the architectural world.

Another stop was at the castle, a fortress that is many centuries older than the Dancing building.  The castle is an enormous and spectacular work.  A picture helps to describe its size, but simplycannot capture the ornate detail that is seen all over the building.

Located around the castle is the Seat of the Czech Republic’s government.  Being able to walk around in the capitol of a foreign country is a totally different experience.  I’ve visited Washington, D.C. which feels natural to be there as an American citizen, you feel almost like a stakeholder in the government while in Washington, D.C.  But, in the Czech Republic, I was not a citizen and the feeling of being surrounded by the buildings of a government that I did not hold a stake in was a new feeling that certainly gives me a new perspective as an American in Europe.

Another aspect of Prague is the beauty of the cityscape. When looking out over the city, the orange-colored terra cotta roofs vanish into the horizon.  Many of the buildings follow a similar architectural pattern that allows the building to fit together like the pieces of a ten thousand piece jigsaw puzzle.

Once the sun sets on the city, the building light up.  At night Prague is gorgeous, buildings glow against the black night sky, which gave me an even greater sense of their age. Unlike many cities in Europe that were devastated during the First and Second World Wars, Prague was spared, meaning that many of the buildings in the city are historical.  Back in the United States, some building are 300 years old, here in Europe a 500 year old building is not special because of its age, it is special because of the artistry and the number of years that skilled laborers put into its construction, adding not the basic structural elements needed for stability, but also the statues and the stained glass windows that still strike people like me as incredible hundreds of years after their design and construction.

The biggest surprise of our trip to Prague came during an excursion where we followed the advice of some of our staff members here at Georgia Tech Lorraine.  They told us that we should explore the city without really looking for anything.  We should just walk around and see what we saw, which equates to getting semi-lost in the city.  Needless to say, we found a Lego museum, the Mecca of many Georgia Tech students who played with Legos when they were young.  When we arrived at the museum, there were only 45 minutes left before it closed for the night.  We went through the museum, taking picture after picture and admiring the volume of models located in the museum.  I took around three hundred pictures in those few minutes and as one of my friends pointed out, came out sweating; this is a moment when you know you are truly an engineer.  Some of their most notable models included the Death Star from Star Wars, an ATST Walker from Star Wars, which I helped model in 3D using Inventor during an engineering graphics course, and the Space Shuttle.  The best way to explain this find is simply awesome.

Prague was a city we experienced and enjoyed.  It is a beautiful yet lively city that I hope to return to in the future.  Gaining an appreciation for the beauty of the cities is important, but seeing a new way of life in Europe, and specifically in Prague, has been an eye-opening and a broadening experience for me.

Amsterdam, City of Canals June 11, 2012

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I haven’t posted the last few weeks so I’ve got a little bit of catching up to do.  I started typing this on a French-style keyboard, which is arranged a little differently than American keyboards.  Here is attempt number two:

This trip, my first meal included a croque-monsieur, a French version of a ham and cheese sandwich, and a Coke.  Coke is apparently a much more pervasive brand in Europe than I expected.  Just in case you are wondering, this was in the Metz train station before we left for Holland.

Along our train ride, we stopped in several German train stations throughout the night.  A few of the train stations had enormous neon signs at the end of the platforms that displayed the name of the city in which we were arriving.  There were more words, but I don’t know any German so I couldn’t tell what they meant.

One we arrived in Holland the next morning we walked through the streets to go to museums and other local attractions, but more importantly initially to find breakfast.

The streets, like those in Metz, were much narrower than those in the United States, but despite the tighter allocation of space, the city didn’t feel cramped.

Our first museum was a Catholic church called “Our Lord in the Attic.”  This place of worship was constructed secretly during a time period where Catholicism was illegal in Holland.  Considering the location and all of the efforts that it took to construct and maintain this rooftop church, it was a very special place.  We were told that more than two million trips were made up the stairs to the church during the time it served as a place of worship.  The altar of the church is impressive and gives you an idea of how large this worship space really was.   Because of the name I initially thought it was going to be a small space, it was not.  It had a twenty foot high ceiling, was approximately 35 feet wide and 90 feet long.  It is hard to convey the feeling when you walk into this space after walking up small staircases and relatively small rooms.  In this case a picture really does say a thousand words.

Our next stop was the Amsterdam Tulip Museum.  Holland is known for its tulips and this seemed like a great opportunity to go learn about Amsterdam’s tradition with the tulip.  The museum was much more interesting than it initially sounds.  Specifically, there was a section that showed the many different kinds of beautiful and unusual tulips that have been bred in the last few years and a scent-test that let you experience several flower scents and try to figure out which one was actually a Tulip.  So, apparently I didn’t really know what a Tulip smelled like, do you?  This is one small museum that gave us a taste of Holland that we would have a lot of difficulty finding elsewhere.

Amsterdam also has canal tours of the city.  During this tour, it became apparent that Amsterdam lies below sea level and without various technologies that have been implemented over the last five hundred years; the city would be submerged under about six feet of water.  Also, the canal tour gave us the opportunity to see the city from a unique perspective, from the water.  Speaking of the city and its physical features, it has many, many bridges as a result of the extensive canal system.  This can complicate navigation because most intersections look identical; there are two streets, one crossing a canal and another running parallel to the canal.  For Americans, we consider bridges to be landmarks, but in Amsterdam, learning where the bridges are isn’t the best way to try and learn the street plan of the city.  As an example, there is one point during the canal tour where you can see seven bridges at the same time.  The picture is small and the vanishing point makes it very difficult to see all seven, but they are all there.

Our last stop was at the Van Gogh museum, which was certainly worth the visit.  We saw many famous Van Gogh paintings and saw the progression of his paintings from the time that he started up until his paintings began to deteriorate as a result of a neural disorder.  Sadly, photography was not allowed in the museum, so I took a picture of the sigh outside the museum instead as a photo souvenir of our time there.

The architecture of the city was surprising, there were many building adorned with ornate spires and intricate roofing.  One example is the spire of the West Church, which includes a blue crown-shaped ornament.  This decoration is meant to represent the crown jewels of Holland and was given to the city as a gift.  As an American citizen, I have never been exposed to the idea of a royal tradition like so many countries of Western Europe have.  I think it is fascinating to see how these Royal artifacts are present not only in Holland, but throughout many different parts of the European Union.

On our way out of Amsterdam one night on our way to the hostel, we saw a windmill beside the road.  The windmills are famous as I saw them all the time portrayed in picture books when I was growing up, but I never thought that I would get to see one in person.  These windmills were meant to power pumps to drain the city in the event of flooding.  Today, they do not fill their intended role thanks to barriers that are now constructed between Amsterdam and the North Sea.  However, they do still stand as a reminder of the past and contribute to the historic yet lively feel of the city.

Amsterdam surprised me in both its diversity and tradition.  We saw many museums including one that highlighted the history of the city and the history of Holland from per-colonial times until the present day.  The history, architecture, and atmosphere of Amsterdam were great and I would call this trip a success as I learn more about European culture day-by day.

As a side note, we also learned that Holland has great peanut butter, a fairly scarce commodity in Europe that I am eating right now.

Metz, The First Week June 11, 2012

Posted by Joshua Price in Travel Log.
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This weekend we stayed close to GTL and explored Metz, a city of approximately 300,000 people and the capital of the Lorraine region.  It is home to the Metz-Cathedral, one of the largest Cathedrals in Europe.  Its stained glass windows are absolutely gorgeous.  Below is a picture of the exterior of the cathedral, it gives an idea of the immense scale of the structure.

We found an interesting way to explore the city on Saturday, by paddle-boat.  We were able to go up and down the river seeing the Temple Neuf, a protestant church, from a unique perspective.

This is a picture of the Anc Temple de Garnison.  This is what is left after a fire prompted in the demolition of the rest of the structure.  On the Metz skyline of historical structures, this is certainly the most prominent.  It can be seen from many points within the city and as you get closer to it, you realize its immense size.  In this picture, it is difficult to see the ornate stonework on the sides of the tower, but this type of detail is present throughout the city in the historical landmarks and shows the amount of time and effort that was put into building these incredible structures.

 

This weekend has been about the discovery of Metz, a city easily overlooked because of its location so close to GTL.  This is really a great example of the wonderful location in Metz, which is located only 400 miles from 6 national capitals.  In addition to exploring the history of the region, we have learned about the French culture through our experiences at CORA, a supermarket, and our interaction with local vendors in Metz.  Overall, this weekend has shown us a taste of Europe and given us a chance to settle into our new home away from home, Metz, France.

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