Monday, May 23, 2011

The End Where I Begin

I’ve been putting off blogging about Munich because it was the last city of study abroad, which means that the end was near.
Sadly we only had one day/two nights in Munich. From what we saw and experienced, it was only the tip of the iceberg of what the city had to offer. Like all other cities I visited, I wish I had more time to explore and observe the culture.

By the time we arrived in Munich, it was already 7pm, so we were all starving. We tried our best to settle in as quickly as possible, but that ended up taking longer than I wanted it to. First, all of the Berliners had to get our large suitcases that had arrived from Berlin. As I mentioned before, we had packed our suitcases and left them in Berlin before we flew out to Italy. Unfortunately for all 50ish of us, there was only one small elevator and too many suitcases. Fortunately, we also had some muscular boys with us, so my 70+ pounds suitcase was carried by one of them.

Everybody decided to go to a beer garden for the night, so we spent the next hour trying to round people up, figure out which beer garden to go to, wait around for people to get ready, wait around some more for people to get dinner... needless to say, I was getting cranky and impatient. We arrived around 9:30pm at Munich's largest, most famous, most touristy beer garden and hall: HofbrÀuhaus. So imagine this: group of 44 students, split into smaller groups, and split again, but still all trying to sit together. It was chaotic, and I was getting more and more aggravated by the minute. Finally I just picked a table and sat down and let everybody else argue and discuss how to get themselves situated.
Eventually everybody stopped bitching, and so we finally ordered liters of bier and brezen (pretzels) and varieties of wurst (sausage). Once I had some substance in my stomach, I was in a much better mood. We spent the rest of the night socializing and eating and enjoying the perfect weather. One of the other tables ended up playing a drinking game called Thumper, and because they were so loud, they attracted the attention of a couple of young German guys. They ended up joining in the game and played for the rest of the night.
I was feeling antisocial, so I left earlier than most people and hung out in the hotel room until I passed out for the night.

Saturday was an eventful day. We started off bright and early with breakfast at the hotel and then headed out on the U-Bahn to Olympiapark, designed by none other than Gunter Behnisch. The whole park is incredible. Frei Otto, the engineer of the project, was the master of tensile structures. When you see the complex, it's almost impossible to wrap your head around this massive project. It's so impressive. We were lucky enough to get a private tour of the park by two guides. We split into groups and toured around the different event halls and were given a history of the park itself. The area where the park now sits had gone through so many changes in the past century. The most amazing fact to me is that the hills in the park are covering all the debris of WWII. When we finished the tour, we sat/laid out on the grass and sunbathed by the man-made lake for a bit.

Our next stop was the Olympic tower. We got tickets to go up to the observation deck and see Munich from the top. The view was incredible. Unlike Berlin's TV Tower, we were able to go outdoors instead of taking pictures of awful reflections behind glass. Olympiapark is even more overwhelming when you can see it in its entirety. It couldn't have been a more perfect day. The sun was shining, the skies were blue, and I was with some of my best friends. I was so thankful that I had my friend Taylor with me. During the morning, I was in an off-mood because I kept thinking about Christmastime when Behnisch's Boston office got to fly out to Munich while the LA office stayed in LA... and it didn't help that Tyler kept talking about it (he interned this past fall in the Boston office), so you could say I was a bit jealous and annoyed. But after talking with Taylor, I was thankfully back to normal.

From the tower, we walked over to the BMW Welt (world) which was designed by Coop Himmelb(l)au. The architecture was pretty amazing, but I was more fascinated by the function of this building itself. It acts as a showroom, an exhibit space, a cafe (where we had our lunch break actually) and a store. People could test drive the cars or just drive off with a brand new BMW. Getting back to the architecture, I thought it was a nice space for what the program was. I was much more impressed with this building than their high school in LA.

Our final stop for the day was probably my favorite attraction of our Munich trip. We took the U-Bahn again and ended up at the Brandhorst Museum, designed by Sauerbruch Hutton. I have to say, after seeing two other buildings designed by this husband and wife team, I'm becoming rather fond of their work. If you look at the building in plan, it's rather simple, but if you look at the details in section and elevation, the building is amazing. The facade is made up of horizontal metal mesh strips that are slightly angled to create a zigzag effect. Mounted in front of the strips is a layer of colorful vertical rods. Aside from looking like a mass of pretty colors, the best is when the sun shines and creates shadows. It almost looks like the building is moving.
The interior of the museum is simple yet elegant. All the walls are white and the floors are wood, but on the top floor, the roof is covered in an opaque glass that diffuses the light and creates this beautiful quality of light in the gallery spaces.
As for the artwork, it was fantastic. I love contemporary art, so this was exactly my kind of museum. I was happy to discover an artist that I had never known about. Cy Twombly's paintings are actually part of the permanent exhibit. His work reminded me a lot of Jackson Pollock's paintings. It may seem random, but if you look closely, there's a method to his madness.

When we finished looking around, our professors all had a surprise for us. We gathered in the open green space near the museum where they brought out cakes and Prosecco (wine) and a bag of frisbees. You can't even imagine how happy all the boys were. It was like watching elementary school kids play with a ball; they threw their bags and cameras down, ran out onto the grass, and started throwing frisbees to each other. We called them back in for the snacks, where the professors made a toast and we all drank to the end of study abroad. Afterward, everybody hung around and played frisbee in a huge circle. Some of the professors even joined in!

As the day slowly turned into the evening, we walked back to our hotel and repacked all of our luggage. After being in Europe for three months, I accrued quite the amount of stuff. Everybody was trying to make sure their bags were underweight to avoid the overcharge, so everything was being shuffled around from bag to bag. I bought far too many travel books (I love my Frommer's) and architecture books that weighed my bag down. I also bought a lot of souvenirs from every city, and the most difficult to pack was all the alcohol I had bought. But have no fear; everything survived the flight.

After we finished packing, a smaller group of us (well, smaller than the night before) headed out to another beer garden: Augustiner. When we got there, it seemed that everybody else in our study abroad group was there as well. Regardless, our group found two tables outside and ordered bier and wurst and goulash (oh, how I miss the goulash). About half an hour in, we saw some familiar German boys walk into the garden. What a small world! We continued eating our food and drinking our liters of beers until we started playing some drinking games. First, we started off with "never have I ever..." Let me warn you; that is a dangerous game if you're not playing with a group of people you trust. After we ran out of ideas, we moved on to play Thumper, at which point we invited the Germans over to relive the night before. We ended up playing until they kicked us out. They turned off the lights, cleaned up the tables (including the table cloths) and then finally told us to leave.  Reluctantly, we all left the beer garden, but not before everybody grabbed a beer stein (except me; I had enough crap in my baggage).
The night continued back at the hotel where we enjoyed our last hours of Europe. I ended up caking one of the boys (who I won't name) who kept insisting that he wanted to have a cake thrown in his face, so that's what happened, haha. A handful of the boys went out afterwards, but I surrendered for the night and finally went to bed.

In the morning, we woke up with the harsh reality of the end. With every step, we dragged our feet, hoping to stay just a little bit longer. We started off the morning with breakfast at the hotel, savoring each bite and eating slower than usual just to enjoy the company and the food. With our free morning, we walked around the area for a while before a few people wanted to get their last meal in Germany... which ended up being doner (us Berliners grew quite fond of Turkish food since we lived in the Turkish area of Berlin). I refrained from eating doner in Munich because I didn't want to taint the perfect memory of the doner we had in Berlin.
After that, it was back to the hotel to check out and move all of our luggage on to the bus. This was quite the task. With a tiny elevator, everybody was trying to move all their stuff at the same time. I ended up jumping into the elevator and stacking everybody's luggage in the elevator with me, so I went from floor to floor, rolling large suitcases in, and then meeting people at the lobby to take it all out. Quite an operation we had going.
Getting everything to fit on/in/under the bus was like a puzzle. We took up every inch of free space there was and then had to fit the rest in the aisles with us.

The airport was a mess. It took forever for everybody to check in, and then there was an issue with carry-ons and personal items and checked baggage. People were afraid they were going to get charged extra for having a backpack and a carry-on (Nicole got the shit end of the stick; she was forced to pay an extra 40 Euros for having her backpack. Everybody felt so bad.). In the end, we all just took our backpacks off, left them in a pile, and checked in without them so they wouldn't see the backpack. After two hours of all that nonsense, it was time to say goodbye to Rolf and Joachim. They were awesome professors, and I couldn't have asked for a better experience in Berlin.

After going through security, everybody spent the remainder of the time in the gift shop, trying to spend the last of their Euros.
Finally we boarded our plane and spent the next eight hours flying backwards in time. I watched a movie, listened to music, napped here and there. Before you knew it, we were back in the states and back home.

Eight months later and I'm back in Boston.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Luckiest

The next/last two days in Italy flew by in an instant. We kept moving around so much that it was difficult to take it all in and enjoy where we were. I wish we could have spent more time in Verona, but I'm glad that we got to visit it briefly at least.

The morning we left Venice, all 50ish of us boarded a coach bus and headed to Vicenza to visit one very specific building: Villa Rotunda. Since freshmen year, this house has been drilled into our brains. Palladio designed a perfectly symmetrical villa situated on top of a hill. He used perfect geometries (squares, circles) to create this classic form. I loved the framing of views and the connection to the town and to nature. There were a few things that surprised me though. One: I thought the villa would have been dead center on top of the hill, but on all four sides, the portico opens out into something different. Specifically in the back, the portico comes out but then there's only maybe five feet of space before you hit the wall that surrounds the area. Two: the gate from the street isn't on center/parallel with the front of the villa. However, it lived up to my expectations (at least from the exterior). Unfortunately the interior wasn't open to the public that day.

After sketching and photographing, we all got back on the bus and drove towards Verona. We made a quick stop at a random gas station/bus stop to grab lunch and kept going. When we arrived, we quickly checked in, dropped off our stuff, and headed out to the piazzas to sketch and analyze.

Our first piazza was Piazza delle Erbe, the oldest square in Verona. It was actually a great space. In the center is an "island" where all the markets are set up, and then along one edge are cafes and restaurants. The other edge is dedicated to vehicular traffic going through the space. There are also monuments and roads which create a major and minor axes through the square.

From there, we followed the minor axis and went through two archways into Piazza dei Signori. Side note about the archway: hanging from one of the arches (the one closest to Piazza delle Erbe) is a rib bone of a whale. Legend says that the bone will fall when someone who has never told a lie walks under it. That'll be the day... Anyway, Piazza dei Signori was a much quieter space. I actually enjoyed it more because it was less chaotic and much more formal. Each entrance into the square was covered by an archway. All the buildings that enclose the square are historic buildings (I believe they're government buildings) and in the center is a statue of Dante (author of Dante's Inferno and Divine Comedy). When Dante was exiled in Florence, he fled to Verona and sought protection from Cangrande I during the early 1300s. He actually lived in one of the buildings that faces the piazza.

Time for a funny/gross story. Just as we sat down around Dante's statue and started sketching, a pigeon shit ALL OVER Sarah. It wasn't even like one plop or anything; no, this pigeon was messed up. The poop was bright, mustard yellow, and it was like a shotgun went off on the back of Sarah's head. It got all over her hair (poor Jeri helped to clean it up and gagged the whole time) and on her backpack. I missed the attack by mere centimeters because I was RIGHT next to Sarah. The minute I heard the noise and saw yellow on Sarah, I jumped away from Dante's statue. Ughhhh it was so gross, but I could not stop laughing. The ironic part is that Sarah HATES birds, and out of all the people to poop on, this pigeon singled out Sarah. Needless to say, Sarah headed straight back to the hotel and showered as thoroughly as possible. I took pictures, but I won't post them to save Sarah from embarrassment.

Once Sarah returned, we finished sketching and just hung out around Piazza delle Erbe. I did some souvenir shopping and ate a fruit cup as I wandered around. Once everybody was finished, we walked a few steps over to Juliet (Giulietta)'s house which is completely touristy. As you enter the courtyard, the walls of the entrance are covered in names of "lovers" (such a funny word to me). Supposedly by writing each person's name, their love is supposed to be everlasting. To the right side of the tunnel is a metal enclosure with little holes where people can drop off their letters to Juliet, and to the left is some sort of photo viewer (the description/instructions were covered by peoples' names). In the courtyard is Juliet's balcony (where she famously asked "O Romeo, O Romeo, wherefort art thou Romeo?") as well as a statue of Giulietta herself. Legend says if you rub her right breast, you're supposed to have good luck in love. So naturally, we made like tourists and posed with Giulietta. On the opposite side of the balcony is a gate that's covered by locks. I've seen locks on various objects (usually bridges) in a few cities around Europe, and they're supposed to represent a couple's love. Usually names are written/engraved on the lock and the key is thrown into the river/ocean/something. And conveniently next to the gate is a gift shop, where a lock is 7 Euros! Silly.

We went back to the hotel to rest up for a bit and round up some people for dinner. It ended up being a small, intimate group, and we went to a very random restaurant off of Via Mazzini (one of the main streets). I finally tried prosciutto and melon, and after thinking about it for two weeks, I've decided that I don't actually like it. It was a very strange mix of flavors and textures, and I usually hate mixing fruits with meats (like Hawaiian pizza). Anyway, we had a fun night just talking and telling stories (and venting about our respective study abroad groups). We also chatted up our waiter and exchanged info with him.
To end the night, we all went to our hotel rooms and sketched... lame; I know, but our sketchbooks were getting graded the next day.

In the morning, we only had one destination: Castelvecchio. This is a castle-converted-into-a-museum, renovated by Carlo Scarpa around the 60s. Just like the Querini Stampalia Museum, there are fantastic details all around. My favorite design is a set of steel stairs. Each step is the shape of a J. The short side is bolted into the wall, and the long side is bolted at the top into the floor plate. The first three steps before the landing are mirrored vertically; the long end goes straight to the floor and the short end is again bolted to the wall. Plain and simple, it was sexy.

We had some free time after exploring the castle, so we finished souvenir shopping (I bought a mini statue of Giulietta!) and bought some snacks for our afternoon bus ride which would last seven hours...
In the middle of our commute, we stopped by a town in northern Italy (no idea what it was called). It was a nice little town, not really touristy. I found it interesting that most of the people spoke German, which was comforting to hear after being away from Berlin for a week.
Finally, we arrived at our final European city: Munich.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Save Tonight

From one Venice to another... funny how life works.
I have to admit; of all the places I visited, Venice is in the top five. There's something so magical about being surrounded by canals without a single whisper of a car or scooter. Nighttime's my favorite because of all the reflections of light along the canals. The whole city is completely walkable too, which is an added bonus. But of course, if you're tired, there's public transportation (called the Vaporetto) in the form of boats! A truly romantic, fascinating (albeit touristy/fake) city. On to my visit!

By the time we arrived in Venice by train from Rome, it was already 5pm. All 22 of us (20 students, 2 professors) hopped on a Vaporetto towards Ca'd'Oro and made our way towards the hotel (Hotel Bernardi's). As we all waited in the alleyway, we saw a couple of our friends from the Montpellier study abroad group pop their heads out of the windows. Yes, the 22 of us plus the 24 of them would all be together until the end of our trip.

Once we checked in, Jeri, Sarah, and I were on a hunt to find our friends from the France group. Unfortunately, the France group was split between two buildings owned by the hotel, and all the people we love were in the other building. We followed a map that was in the hotel lobby and managed to find the building... but we didn't know how to get in or contact them. We stood there like idiots for a few minutes, occasionally calling out some names. Then, as I turned the corner of the building, I saw Taylor and Tyler come out from the door, and I screamed and ran/jumped into Taylor's arms. That's some shit you see in movies... but after spending 2.75 months with the same people in Berlin (I was reaching the end of my rope), it was such a relief to finally be with new people, especially some of my best friends.

The three of us followed the two boys as they went in search for some alcohol. When we returned, Tyler entered the hotel room first (where the rest of our French group friends were), and introduced us with "we got a surprise for you guys..." Cue lots of girls screaming and hugging. At last, we were reunited. Bottles of champagne were popped and drinks were shared as we quickly caught up.

Eventually we made our way out to dinner as a group of 13. We somehow managed to find a restaurant that could seat all of us outside, and we just binged on pizzas and pastas and lots of wine. At the end of our dinner, more Berlin/Montpellier students found us and our group just expanded. We ended up getting gelato (naturally) and spending most of our time outside in a random square. There were lots of stories being shared, games being played, ridiculous photos being taken... definitely one of the best nights of the trip for me.

The next morning, we were up and out by 8:30am. The first thing we did? Take a gondola for 50 Euro cents to cross the canal! The ride only lasted maybe a minute and the gondolier didn't serenade us, but still nice to experience the gondola in addition to the Vaporetto.

First destination to analyze and sketch: Piazza San Stefano. It was much like all the other squares we saw in Rome, but there was definitely a hierarchy among spaces. For instance, two facades of one building conveyed a completely different language depending on what it was facing. I didn't find anything too significant so I don't remember a lot about it.

Our next stop was Andrea Palladio's Church of San Giorgio Maggiore. What's special about this church is the facade. For a Christian church, Palladio used the form of a classic temple. The facade contains two pediments: the larger covering the side aisles, the smaller covering the area of the nave. As for the interior, the only thing I distinctly remember is the way he played with perspective using the floor tiles. We were fortunate enough to go up to the cupola and see a view of Venice from a high point. From the top, you can clearly see the canals and how the whole city works.

After a brief lunch break (more pizza sandwiches and gelato for me), we went and checked out Piazza San Marco, the most famous square in Venice. Before entering, we spent some time in the Piazzetta di San Marco (the square next to the canal). We discussed the two enormous columns that acted as a gate into Venice as well as the facade of the Doge's palace. Finally we mustered up the strength to break through the crowds and get to Piazza San Marco. The area was packed with tourists and all sorts of vendors. Initially we were supposed to sketch and analyze the space, but it was just too hectic. Children were running around chasing large flocks of pigeons (flying rats) while vendors were coming up to strangers and selling who knows what and other tourists are asking you to take their picture with all the chaos that's happening. It was just too much. Instead, we just admired the Basilica and Campanile.

From there, we made our way to Campo S.S. Giovanni e Paolo, our last stop of the day. Of course, we sketched and analyzed again, but this was probably my favorite space in Venice. The shape is actually a backwards L, and because of that, it creates two very distinct spaces. One space, along the canal, belongs to the church, and the other belongs to the neighborhood. Then there's a statue that's placed just between the two spaces to connect them.
We actually got to go into the church and check out the interior. I was more impressed with this church than I was with Palladio's. The rib vaulting was beautiful and so was the apse. What's also funny is that Jeri had to wrap a red sheet around her legs because her shorts were too short. It was like The Scarlet Letter and she was Hester Prynne.

When we finished inside the church, we went back outside to sketch. While I sat and sketched, I saw some kid catch one of the several pigeons in the square. First I was impressed, but then I was a bit disgusted. Those birds are filthy. Anyways, we were done for the day, so a few of us sat down at a cafe and drank macchiatos as we sketched. How very Italian, don't you think?

When we finished our coffees and the boys finished their cigars, we headed back to the hotel, making several pit stops at stores. We rested up for a bit, and then the usual five of us (Sarah, Jeri, Kemal, Erblin, and I) went in search of dinner. Along the way, we ran into Doug and Jake, who were also looking for food, so they tagged along with us. We ended up finding this off-the-road little restaurant that made delicious, authentic Italian food. I ordered a meal for 13 Euros that included grilled vegetables, pasta with cuttlefish ink, and pork covered with gravy. I also ordered a drink called spritz, which is a mixture of Prosecco, some bitters, and sparkling water, and tiramisu for dessert. It was all good. I felt bad though because Kemal ordered the same 13 Euro deal, but we didn't realize that it would be pork (it was called scallopini so we assumed it was scallops...) and Kemal can't eat pork because he's Muslim; he ended up taking a bite before I did and making that realization. Eeek. We didn't know!

After dinner, Jeri, Sarah, and I tried to hang out with our Frenchies, but they were already asleep at 10:30pm! So instead, Jeri and I hung out with some of our boys outside. We ended up just talking, drinking wine in the square next to our hotel. It was another fun night with good people.

In the morning, we visited an old Venetian palace that was now a museum. Beautiful architecture and tile work. The view wasn't half bad either... I don't remember much about the art, but I do remember that they had some nice sculptures.

From the palace, we took the gondola again to cross the canal. In the area where we get off the gondola is a market; they sold the freshest fruits I've ever smelled. A lot of people bought strawberries and shared with the class. They were perfectly sweet.

Our next stop was the Querini Stampalia Museum which was renovated by Carlo Scarpa. The entrance was done by Mario Botta, which I should've guessed because the stairs reminded me of SFMoMA. The part renovated by Scarpa was the ground floor and the garden area. He also built a bridge on the exterior. I'm a huge fan of Scarpa because of his attention to details. Every door frame, joint, opening--they're all uniquely Scarpa. My favorite aspect is that he brought the water of the canal into the building. Whenever the water level rises, it fills in the lower part of the ground floor, creating this moat-like boundary around the walkable area.
The rest of the museum was great too (no photos, of course) but the highlight was definitely the architecture.

We had a couple hours of free time so the first thing we did was find lunch. We found a pizza shop and I got some random pie-esque thing with prosciutto and mozzarella. So good. From there, we did some shopping as we walked back to the hotel. I had to rest my legs (specifically my knees) so we took a quick break before going out again. We decided to head straight to our meeting point and spend the rest of our free time there.

The area we ended up in was definitely not the touristy part. There were lots of residential buildings around and a large green space, which everybody took full advantage of. We all got gelati, and I got a cafe latte to help me get through the next part of the day.

In the late afternoon, all of us (and by all, I mean the entire Berlin and Montpellier group) met up to go listen to a lecture. I forget the name of the lecturer, but he's a professor at the local university. He talked to us about the Venice we see versus the Venice he knows. He claimed that Venice is very fake (which I can agree with) and how it's just overrun by tourists. He has a point... The lecture was very good, and I even managed to stay awake through all of it (a true triumph).

After the lecture, a small group of us Berliners went in search of dinner. We walked along the canal and found ourselves in the area of San Marco. I wanted to stay in the area to take night photos, but half of the group wanted to go to the restaurant we were at the night before, so we split up and I ended up with Sarah and Kemal. The first thing I was looking for was a mask. Souvenir shops were closing and I didn't want to leave Venice without buying a mask, so I was panicking a bit. I had found the perfect one earlier in the day, but it was scuffed in the corner, so I didn't buy it. I finally found one that was close enough to perfect, so then we continued our search for food. We didn't want to stay around San Marco because prices would be sky high, so we kept ducking into little side streets and found a small restaurant. I ordered calamari while Kemal and Sarah both ordered pizzas. It wasn't the best Italian food, but it was still decent.

When we finished dinner, we walked over to Piazza San Marco and took some night pictures. I was expecting the Basilica and Campanile to be lit more than they were, so that was a little disappointing. It was a beautiful night though so I can't complain. We decided to walk back to the hotel instead of waiting for the Vaporetto. Of course, with so many little alleyways and bridges, we found ourselves going around in loops for a little while.

I had a quiet night in and watched a movie. The next morning, we briefly passed by Santiago Calatrava's new bridge as we were on the Vaporetto and on a bus to our next destination.