Saturday, December 31, 2011

Tracie's Top 10 of 2011

I'm taking a break from trip posts to wish everyone a happy new year and to give you my top 10 songs of 2011.  Now, to be clear:  these are my favorite songs that I discovered and downloaded in 2011.  They are not necessarily the most representative of 2011 or remind me the most of 2011.  In some cases, they might not have even been released in 2011 - there are a few that I think came out in 2010.  Anyway, I've been enjoying these songs this year, and I hope this list might turn you on to something new.

For those of you who know me, you know I don't really do "favorites," so coming up with this list was a challenge.  And, aside from the top three, these are in no particular order.  It took me weeks just to narrow down the 55 songs I acquired this year to 10; who knows how long it would have taken to put them in order!

A few observations:

1.  I really liked lyrics this year.  I'll mention some of my favorite ones.
2.  Overall, my favorite songs this year were not the most popular ones.
3.  I was given Mumford and Sons'  Sigh No More this year, and even though it was released in 2010, I really discovered them this year.  And, to be fair, their songs didn't peak in the US until February 2011.  Half of this list could've been Mumford and Sons, but I limited it for the sake of diversity.  Although it's probably my favorite, I excluded "Little Lion Man," as, according to iTunes, I purchased it in 2010.  If you haven't checked them out, you should.  Sort of Irish/folk rock with interesting rhythms and manic guitar with really intelligent, creative lyrics.  When the guitar gets going, it makes me want to turn up the volume and drive fast with the windows down.

So anyway, in no particular order:

10.  "Helplessness Blues," Fleet Foxes

I downloaded the whole album, Helplessness Blues, and it's great for work-listening, but this is really the standout.  Love these lyrics:

"If I know only one thing, it's that everything that I see
Of the world outside is so inconceivable often I barely can speak
Yeah I'm tongue-tied and dizzy and I can't keep it to myself
What good is it to sing helplessness blues, why should I wait for anyone else?"

9.  "Falling Slowly," The Swell Season

So, apparently this song came out in 2007 and appeared in the film Once; however, Pandora did not introduce me to it until this year.  Okay, I also did not start using Pandora until this year.  But anyway.  So there.

8. "Someone Else's Life," Joshua Radin 

Also from Pandora, also released in 2007.  I wonder if Pandora has made note that I "thumbs up" songs from 2007?  I also like another one of his songs "Only You" with Imogen Heap; the thing is, these two songs are almost identical, and that kind of annoys me.

7.  "Zorbing," Stornaway

What the heck is zorbing?  I don't know, but there are some nice harmonies in the song.

6.  "Sigh No More," Mumford and Sons

These are the lyrics I love from this song:

"Love; it will not betray you
Dismay or enslave you, it will set you free.
Be more like the man you were made to be"

If I had heard this song before our wedding, I might have included these words as part of our ceremony, or at least on our program.

5.  "The Cave," Mumford and Sons

This is probably the second most-commonly heard Mumford and Sons song, so, why not make it the second Mumford and Sons song on my countdown?

4.  "Anna Sun," Walk the Moon

I don't know what it is about this song - maybe it's the hopefulness, the building, something.  Also, for awhile I thought the song was "Alison," so I thought it would be an awesome theme song for my friend Alison if her life turned into a romantic comedy.  So, sorry, Alison - maybe we can just use our imaginations.  It really does sound like "Alison."

Ok, now these top three are truly my top three, although I will admit that the order of the three might depend on what kind of mood I'm in. Today:

3.  "Gravity," Sara Bareilles

I can't get enough of this song.  Who hasn't felt this way?  And although it isn't obviously a jazz number, listen closely to the timing of the lyrics - they're a little unpredictable.  Just a beautiful, heart-wrenching song, and I love the build near the end.

2.  "Forget You," Cee Lo Green

Yes, yes, I know.  This is not the original version.  But it is the version I downloaded because I listen to iTunes at work and when parents come to visit, and I think it's just about as fun.  This is probably the most "popular" song on my list.   Who doesn't want to dance when they here this?

And if you haven't seen the girl who performs the original, uncensored version for her sign language final, you should check it out.  This girl has some guts!  Be aware, this is NOT safe for work, small children, and other folks with sensitive ears.

1.  "Shake It Out," Florence + the Machine

I think it starts a little 80s, like she's going start singing about nearly 100 balloons or something, but I love the way it builds up.  And it has the best advice of 2011:

"And it's hard to dance with a devil on your back,
So shake him off!"

So, in 2012:
  • "Remember, what good is it to sing helplessness blues?"
  • "Love; it will not betray you dismay or enslave you, it will set you free."
  • Shake that devil off your back and DANCE!

What were YOUR favorite songs of 2011?

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Ulm Munster

Before we headed out of Ulm to our last big stop, Munich, we embarked on a climb to the top tower of the Ulm Minster.  As the tallest church in the world, you can imagine what kind of feat this is.  How many steps to the top of the tower?

You can't see the top of the tower in this picture.
800.  800!!! We were brave, though, and went for it.  I've climbed a few church towers in my life, but this was Kevin's first.  It has also been many years since I climbed a church tower, or I might have had second thoughts.

The thing I hate most about climbing church towers, aside from the pain in my legs, shortness of breath, sweating, and fear of heights, is the scary spiral staircase.  The staircase isn't even so bad going up, but to me, it's terrifying coming down.  I am always just certain that I will have a misstep and tumble head over heels down 700-ish cold, wet stone steps, bones cracking the whole way.

Kevin took this without me knowing because he knew I wouldn't want to forget these terrifying stairs.
I mean, is a railing to much to ask?  And even then, what if someone comes up while I'm going down?  See how narrow the stairway is?  And how slender the inside of the step is?

Some of the views going up were quite nice.

The Christmas Market

The Danube
At one point, you could go inside to a room above the bell room (I'm sure there's a more official term for this), where you could look down and see the bells.  Hanging around the room were drawings of many of the other great churches/cathedrals of the world, and it was fun to pick out the ones I/we had been to.  Kevin was more interested in the bells, of course.

Every time I see this picture I get the theme from Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame stuck in my head.
This is the view from the highest point of our ascent, again, of the Christmas Market:

Once we came down, we toured the inside of the church, then split up to do some souvenir shopping.  Funnily enough, there wasn't a lot of "Ulm" merchandise to be had - Ulm is just not that much of a tourist destination,  Still, I purchased a few items with sparrows, as the sparrow is the Ulm mascot, and there are sculptures of them everywhere, kind of like we used to have all the crab sculptures in Baltimore.

Then, the strangest thing happened. We were standing outside of the Ulmer Weinachtsmarkt on the only sunny day we'd had since arriving in Ulm, and thought it would be nice to have a photo of the two of us in front of it, perhaps to use as our Christmas card.  We looked around for other tourist-types to ask to take a picture, but since it was nearing lunchtime on a Monday, most people were dashing purposely and we didn't see anyone we felt we could stop.  Then, we noticed a young woman standing near us - maybe in her late teens or early twenties, somewhat sullen looking (so, she was probably a teenager ;-)) with headphones on.  She was just standing around as though she was waiting for someone or something, so she seemed like our best bet. 

"Enshuldigen zie," I said politely.  This is German for "Excuse me."

She looked at me.

I held up my camera, smiled, gestured at Kevin and myself in the universal sign language for "could you take our photo," and said questioningly, "Photo?" 

She glowered at me, and spat out, "No."

I was so bewildered, I thought she might have misunderstood me.  I held up the camera again, and with a confused smile, gestured again and said, in English, "Could you take our photo?"

She shook her head and with a bigger scowl said again, "No."

Ok, I realize now that I should have:

A. Learned how to say "Could you take our picture?" in German ahead of time.


B. At least asked her if she spoke English and apologized for my bad German, first, which I had really done for about everyone else I talked to the rest of the trip.

 I don't think that she misunderstood me at all.  I don't see how she could have.  Who hasn't asked or been asked to take a photo with the universal gesture of holding up the camera and pointing?  I had obviously offended her in some way, or she is just a super, super grouchy person, or was just in a really, really terrible mood.  I was just really kind of bewildered by it for the rest of the day. 

So, just imagine that Kevin and I are standing under the sign in this picture.

Ulm, Part II

Ulm proved to be just as lovely as a town by day as by night, despite somewhat miserable weather.  We started off for a walk along the old city wall, past tiny quaint houses to find the Einstein statue.  Ulm's one minor claim to fame is that Einstein was born there.  However, his family left the city around the time Einstein was one year old, so I don't know that he felt as much of a connection to Ulm as the town feels to him.  In any case, they honor him with this monument:

Pulling Einstein's tongue is apparently the thing to do.  We didn't take a picture, but the top, dome part of the statue is pretty cool, too, with random shapes and symbols that we supposed was an imagining of what was floating around in Einstein's brain.

We then ate lunch in the Einstein Cafe, which was a great spot for tourists to have lunch.  It was very bright and modern, with an English menu and a variety of entrees.  Kevin got some kind of salad with deep-fried feta, and I tried a burger, just out of curiosity.  The burger wasn't that great, but Kevin's deep-fried cheese salad was super!

We wondered down to the old fisherman's village by the Danube and walked along city wall.

That is the Leaning Tower of Ulm in the background, apparently.
We ended up back where we were the previous night and took some daylight photos.

Note how the houses are pretty much built right in the water.

Supposedly the "most crooked house in Ulm."
The "most crooked house" at night.  Still crooked.
Hey!  Something that says Ulm on it!
Speaking of, imagine our delight at finding Ulmergasse, or, Ulm Street (or Alley, I guess).  Wait, you don't have to imagine it!  Take a look for yourself:

Am I thrilled, or did it just sink in that *I* am an ULMES???

 We'll wrap up Ulm with our attempt to climb to the top of the tower of the Ulm Munster.  Will we be successful?  Wait and see!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Ulmes in Ulm

We all assume that Kevin's father's family was, at some point, from Ulm.  We know that he has German heritage, and the names match up, so there you go.  I'm sure Ulm would never have been even a passing thought if it wasn't for the questionable family connection.  Ulm was listed in the travel books I picked up, but I don't know that it would've caught my eye as a destination if we didn't think we would find Kevin's long lost family castle (or even just brewery) there.

Regardless, Ulm ended up being a nice place to visit!  A little bit of a smaller town, but decent-sized with a serviceable downtown area and one of the more picturesque old towns.  Not to mention...

The Ulm Minster is the tallest church in the world, and for awhile was the tallest man-made structure in the world.  To be honest, looking at it, that statistic kind of surprised me.  For whatever reason, the Cologne Cathedral seemed taller.

Can you believe I actually had to borrow this from the interwebs?
(As a side note, when you look at the Wikipedia article for the Ulm Minster, notice that at the bottom they have a timeline of tallest buildings..  I just thought that was really interesting and a really good way to end up wasting a day.)

In any case, Ulm was so charming and festive at night...

Ulm was kind of a German Venice.  That's the River Blau.

We tried to have dinner at the place above, as it was highly recommended, but discovered when we got there that we needed reservations.  The least touristy city we stayed in, and we needed reservations.  It all worked out, though, because we ended about a block away at Allgauer Hof, which featured pfannkuchen, a.k.a.....


They really had dozens and dozens of pancakes, both savory and sweet, and they were literally the size of a large pizza.  To clarify, though, they were really more like crepes than American pancakes.  I had a spicy vegetable pfannkuchen, and it was DELICIOUS.  Really hit the spot.

On a slight tangent, I wanted to mention the attitude I took towards eating out in Germany. which I admit might have been a little...ill-advised.  So, as you might know, people in Europe tend to be less overweight than in the U.S., and there are far fewer obese people.  I also observed that no one got to-go boxes in restaurants.  Additionally, I know that people in other countries tend to be less wasteful than Americans, so I could only surmise that Germans probably don't leave much behind when they are out, which leads to my conclusion that German restaurants must serve just the right amount of food, and I was meant to eat all of what was on my plate.

Thoughts? Good theory?  Let's just say that while I abided by it for the most part, I wasn't willing to get on the scale that was in our Munich hotel.

But, suffice it to say that I ate my entire pizza-sized pfannkuchen topped with spiced veggies. Veggies are healthy!  We also got to try the local beer, Gold Ochsen. Kevin would have loved to tour that brewery, but of course, it was closed the two days we were there.  How would we ever entertain ourselves?  Stay tuned!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Blue Pot

If you know me in real life (and I imagine that everyone who reads this does), you know that we've been back from Germany for several days, and you also probably know that I always fall behind on this kind of thing.  I am determined to finish blogging about our trip, though!

Our next stop was Ulm, but right after our train got in, we made a side trip to the Ulm suburb of Blaubeuren. Blaubeuren is probably not a place you've heard of, and we weren't able to find it in any tourist books.  I discovered it by accident when I was looking for Ulm hotels.  When I was searching, I saw a few adorable-looking hotels, then saw the distance was something like "9 miles from city center."  Without a car, that wouldn't really work for us in Ulm, but what was this Blaubeuren place with these quaint hotels?

If you bothered clicking on the Wikipedia link above, you saw that the Blaubeuren was pretty much non-existent.  Truthfully, this site is much better, but you have to have your Google Translate installed and ready to go.

Anyway, Blaubeuren is a small, quiet town just outside of Ulm.  Their main attraction is the Blautopf, or "Blue Pot," which is a deep, bubbling spring that is a startling shade of blue.  We didn't quite see the vibrant blue at first, and attributed it to being an overcast day.

I mean, the water is definitely a nice shade, and that mill is quite quaint and picturesque, but the "Blue Pot" is supposed to B L U E.  Like this:

Not my photo.
You might have noticed that these photos are taken at different we also realized that the B L U E part of the Blautopf was not in front of the mill, but behind it.

My photo.

Definitely a lot bluer.  The Blautopf is tucked back in what seems to be preserved nature/historic area.  After passing through the town on our way there, we came across the Blaubeuren Abbey.

 It's not necessarily captured in these photos, but this whole compound was very expansive and peaceful.

Blaubeuren was the first of our side-trips, and a very pleasant one.  We were there on Saturday and much was closed, but there still didn't seem to be many shops.  A few restaurants and hotels, though.  Ulm is only a 10 minute train ride away, so I could see this being a quiet alternative if you were traveling through the area.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Return to Heidelberg

Heidelberg is the first European city I ever visited, back during a 1998 whirlwind Chorale tour of Europe.  We visited 5 cities in 16 days, something I would encourage anyone should do...once.  Fascinating, eye-opening...and EXHAUSTING!  In any case, I was excited to return to this charming town, although the experience of a two thirty-somethings booking their own stuff and figuring out their own rail transportation is quite different from being herded with 50 other college students on a tour bus.  This time, I saw Heidelberg more as a real city and not just a idyllic European town.

We got into Heidelberg mid-afternoon and wanted to take advantage of what seemed like would be limited nice weather.  We took off across the Necker River and climbed the hills across from Heidelberg to Philosopher's Way (Philosophenweg).  It's a strenuous walk, rewarded with a beautiful view as you climb the hills.  As we hiked up, I was reminded of the travel journal I kept during that Chorale tour, in which I wrote, "Those philosophers must have been in good shape!"  

Heidelberg from Philosopher's Way

Sun setting on Heidelberg as we walked down
 Schlanegenweg (Snake's Path).
We had a traditional German dinner at Brauhaus Vetter under the recommendation of my friend Brian, and it was delicious!

The next day we visited the Heidelberg Castle.  Parts of it in are in ruins, while parts of it are still intact and open for tours, which we skipped this time around.  We just explored the grounds on a ticket that combined a trip up the Heidelberg funicular with entrance to the castle.

An example of the castle ruins.

Kevin and the castle.

Tracie hanging out of a tower with Heidelberg in the background.

The former "big barrel" for storing wine,
which wasn't quite big enough...

So here is the new, improved, bigger barrel!  See Kevin
on the top?

Included in our admission was entrance to the Apothecary Museum, which essentially showed the development of the pharmacy in Germany.  You can still see remnants of that history today, with real pharmacies ("Apothekes") being separate from what looks more like an American drugstore, and looking very official.  I was most entranced by this scene of a historic apotheke:

Complete with rats and kitties to catch them!
There was also an evening Christmas Market on the castle grounds, which was really lovely.  It probably had more handmade goods than any other market we'd been to.

Castle courtyard at night.
I had flamlachs...salmon staked to a wooden plank
 and cooked over an open flame.  Yum!

And, of course, some gluhwein!
And then...onto Ulm, of course!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Across and along the River Rhine

Before leaving Cologne, we crossed the railroad bridge to the other side of the Rhine River to get the best views of the city. Take a look at this railroad bridge:

Kinda looks like a glass mosaic, doesn't it?  Or, at least, that was my first impression.  Now, look a little closer...

They're locks!  "Love locks," which I had never heard of, but are apparently a somewhat new but widespread tradition.  How sweet!  If only we had known!

Once across the bridge, Kevin took 75 photos that essentially amounted to this:

And, the previous night, we had also crossed and took the exact same photo, only it was dark:

During the day, while Kevin was taking his 75 pictures of Cologne, I became fascinated with a puppy trying desperately to get his person to play with him, while she was busy texting.  He stopped being as persistent as soon as I got out my camera, of course, but this is still pretty cute:

It was time to move on to Heidelberg, but not before the most exciting part of the trip so far (for Kevin): riding the train!

Waiting excitedly for the train.
We had decided it would be most economical and convenient to get a German Rail Pass.  Luckily, Deutsche Bahn had a promotion that allowed us to splurge for first-class for pretty much the same price as second-class, which came in super-handy with our two-weeks worth of luggage.  Kevin and I could both wax poetic about the convenience of European rail, but I think that's for another post.  

Tracie likes the train, too!
After her experience with German rail this summer, Kevin's cousin had strongly recommended reserving seats on the train (which costs a few euro extra), but we threw caution to the wind and had absolutely no problems (yet).  We were the only two in a first-class compartment for six, and it didn't seem that anyone needed to share with strangers.  Of course, this was a weekday during the (somewhat) low season, so it certainly might be different in the summer.

We took a longer, more scenic route along the Rhine to Heidelberg by making sure to route our trip through Mainz.  This was definitely worth it.  It took about an hour longer, but we passed through several scenic villages and a number of castles atop the hillside.  It was too late in the season for us to do a Rhine castle cruise (they seem to only run through October), but this was a pretty good substitute.

Next stop: Heidelberg!