Friday, January 25, 2008

Board on Sweet Chariot


After New Year's in Paris, I took a train to Zürick, Switzerland to meet Fr. Avram. Unfortunately, his traveling plans were foiled by booked Italian trains, and I spent the night in Zürick. My camera was still in the possession of a raving band of rogues, who were most likely too concerned with flashing lights and moving pictures to realize what it was. But don't worry, the French police force assured me that they would do everything in their power once they started to care about Americans.

I was excited though to arrive in Switzerland, knowing that the US dollar was stronger than the Swiss Franc. My hopes were dashed when I found that Switzerland, despite its weak currency is still one of the most expensive countries in Europe. Everybody who travels Europe has their standard product by which they gauge how expensive the country is. For some it's a can of coke. For others its a newspaper. For me it's a Big Mac Meal. The Big Mac in Rome is 6 euros, in the States it's 4 dollars, in Britain it's 4 pounds, in Paris it's 5 euros and in Switzerland it's 11 FRANCS! I paid 18 francs for a pizza that was 3 times worse than the pizza I buy in Rome for 6 euros. Ridiculous.

The next day, Padre and I met in Luzern and took the train to Engelberg. After passing the quaint city of Wolfschlitzenheimerstraussen, the train began the steepest climb I've ever seen a train make. It must have been a 30 degree climb. We arrived in the small resort town of Engelberg around 10 pm. Carrying our bags over the iced roads, we began our search for the Benedictan monastery that we would be staying in (Fr. Avram is plugged into the divine network of priestly connections. Sounds like the Matrix. He even looks the part.).

The monastery is the tallest building in the town, and is surrounded on all sides by snow-capped Alps. We had quite the view out of our rooms... My room came fully equipped with a throne. Not bad accomodations. The monks were extremely hospitable, as they allowed us to eat, celebrate mass and pray with them each morning and evening. The days began around 6:00 for morning prayer (this was there Christmas break, so they were waking up late!), followed by mass at 7:30 and breakfast afterwards. I tell you, a shower before 5:00 am is the most heavenly shower you will ever take. After breakfast the first morning, we walked out to the slopes only to find that there were 100 km/h winds on the hills! They shutdown all the slopes except for the bunny hill. We discussed whether we should pay 50 francs for a day on the bunny hill, and decided that since my skill was hardly competent we would spend the day on mechanics.

Unfortunately, the Swiss defied their congenial stereotype and we spent the day vying for position in line, or more properly put, the swarming masses. It was vicious! I had middle-aged Swedish women planting their ski poles in front of my board and pulling ahead of me! Avram and I considered at one point just making an 8-foot barrier with our snowboards. Since the lines started really wide and trickled down to a single file, we had people cutting in at our sides at every opportunity. At one point I even took sympathy on an 8 year old girl and let her pass, and the cut the line off by putting my arm on the fence. Another little girl snuck under my arm! And all this mass hysteria for a 45 second run down the bunny hill. I felt like I was training for World War III.

The second day we nearly got a full day on the hill, but towards the end of the day, Avram took a mean crash and hurt his arm. It put him out of commission and we called it a day. Unfortunately, the runs were closed the next day too, because of massive rainfall. We were able, however, to snap some killer pics before.

As you can see, we tried to remain as somber as possible, knowing that the scenery was second rate at best. The libations I poured the night before, however, didn't work, because we spent a weekend in Switzerland, surrounded by Alps, and only snowboarded once. It did allow us, however, to spend the rest of the day in the spa, although the European concept of modesty had escaped us...

The monks were great to us, and allowed us to take part in the monastic life. One evening, we even got to see Beethoven's 3rd and Strauss' Metamorpheses from the organ loft, because we had the Benedictan press pass. Also, on Epiphany we had a big feast with the priests and brothers, and they served a dish that was called "Kangaru" in the German. Neither Avram nor my German can be considered spot-on, but it did bear a striking resemblance to some English word... Neither of us having seen any kangaroos obstructing the hills in the Alps, we were slightly skeptical. We asked one of the priests what type of meat it was, and he told us, "You know, the animal...hoppity hoppity. So I can now say that my first experience with kangaroo was while staying in a Benedictan monastery on a weekend snowboarding trip.

That wrapped up our weekend in Switzerland, and we took the early morning train back to Rome with hopes that there would be redemptive snowboarding effort in the near future. There are murmurs of a trip in northern Italy, but nothing is set in stone. I know it's been a while since my last post, but I will make sure to keep everyone updated these next few weeks. Right now I'm in the midst of finals week (yes, in February), so keep me in your prayers. I'm on the pass/fail system, so a C- is just as good as an A! So prayer for an A, and maybe God will meet you halfway.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Friends, Romans, Countrymen...Lend me your ears!

I just got back from Christmas break vacation, and as always, it was a whirlwind. 3 days in Dublin, 4 days in Rome, 1 day in Nice, 3 days in Paris, 1 day in Zurick and 3 days in Engelberg. Talk about chaos! From New Years in Paris to snowboarding in Switzerland, it has been some good times. Unfortunately, I can't provide any pictures since my camera was stolen near the Arc de Triomph on New Year's Eve. That was right before we got tear gassed. More of that later. For now, you'll have to rely on my colorful commentary as a guide.

After laboring for days to find a train from Rome to Paris from several different train stations, I finally found a ticket that went to Nice. Unfortunately, the ticket attendant couldn't tell me whether there were any trains to Paris from there. So I gathered my lucky rabbit's foot, my tail of newt and the shoe that homeless guy gave me and set out for Nice. I arrived in Nice the next morning with enough sleep to healthily power me for 30 minutes. I showed up to the ticket counter with no clue whether I would make it to Paris or be stuck in Nice for New Years by myself. First train that day. Nothing. Second train. Nothing. Third train. Nothing. At this point I was sure that I would be stuck in Nice, but lo and behold, the next morning there was a 6:00 am train with one spot on it. So I kissed my lucky shoe and set out for Nice.

Nice is a beautiful resort town in France on the Mediterranean Sea. I'm sure there are cultural attractions too, but on a 70 degree day in December, the part of my brain that could handle culture had fried, and I headed straight for the beach. With my American historicentricism in full force, I never expected to be able to sleep on the beach on Dec. 29th, but that day I shattered any ill-informed Minnesotan preconception of the world outside the Great White North.

I was early to bed and early to rise to catch my train the next morning to Paris. First order of business: get cotton candy by the Eiffel Tower with Byake. Paris was a zoo. I think a quarter of the world decided to spend New Years in Paris. And far too many connoodling couples. No man should be subject to that much face-sucking. Anywhom, our accommodation situation was slightly complicated in that we had none. Byake had just woken up from a nap on a park bench, just to illustrate our focus on quality. We aimlessly wandered the town, and struck gold with a hotel for 55 euros. Unfortunately, they only had availability for that night, but at that point we would take anything. We soon found out that the reason our hotel had no availability was due to the fact that no hotel had any availability. For Byake, this wasn't a great difficulty because he flew out of Paris at 6:00 am. I, however, was in Paris until the 2nd. Figuring that the roses were just budding on the Spring of my youth, I decided to rough it until I could check into a hostel the next day.

That evening we were able to catch an evening service at Notre Dame. I think Notre Dame rivals the Vatican in terms of cathedrals. The atmosphere of Notre Dame is the polar opposite of the Vatican or anything that you'll find in Rome. Paris was a stronghold in the Middle Ages, whereas Rome was still suffering from its collapse until the Renaissance. Notre Dame, therefore, is perfectly Gothic. The interior is peppered with steep colonnades that guide the community upwards into the vaulted ceiling. The purpose of the austerity was to focus on the majesty of God rather than His personal nature, as you see in the smaller churches of today. The Vatican, and any other cathedral built during the Renaissance or Baroque period, tries to emphasize God's proximity to us. That's why it's more ornately decorated as opposed to the undifferentiated grey in Notre Dame. Even though the Vatican is monstrous, it was intentionally built replete with optical illusions that make the cathedral seem smaller than it is. It's only a personal preference, but I love Notre Dame.

Byake and I were talking before the service began until the organ silenced us with a deafening blast. Honestly, there's nothing you can say after you get silenced by a medieval organ. If I were a parent I would take advantage of that. Getting silenced by an organ is like having God and his choir of angels pissed off at you. The service was very nice as far as my French intuition can tell though.

We also were able to devote an afternoon to the Louvre, which was extremely rewarding. The Louvre is awesome. Sheer, unbridled awesome. It totally destroys the Vatican Museums or anything in Florence. David may be able to take down Mona Lisa, but not when she's surrounded by Winged Victory and Cupid and Psyche. It's huge too. Of course, there's the Venus De Milo, but there are also countless other ancient sculptures and artifacts. The Code of Hammurabi is there, which is remarkable. It's the first recorded set of laws, and it's all written on a large rock. I had a picture...of all this stuff...

Finally, New Year's Eve rolled around, but we had no clue what we were going to do. In true dude fashion, we hadn't planned a thing, but just assumed that the party would find us. Paris had their underground metro running all night for free, so we took great advantage of that. After scouring the town and finding nothing, Byake and I retreated to an Irish Pub in Montmarte to regroup around 8pm. The bartender recommended we go to Champs-Elysées, which is a wide road that leads to the Arc de Triomph. I believe it's the nexus of fashion in the world...blegh... Anyways, Champs-Elysées is the exact place that a few French guys told Byake he shouldn't go, because it's dangerous. So of course we went there. We arrived at Champs-Elysées around 11:15 and realized both why we should go there and why it was dangerous. The entire street was packed, body to body, all the way from the Arc de Triomph to the river, probably about a mile.

I don't know exactly when the ball dropped on the New Year, only the general moment based on the shouts and cheers from the crowd. There were people from all over the world. I think there were some guys in a mosh pit waving a Portuguese flag. After a quick shower in champagne to cool down, I saw a big group of guys come by chanting, "Bonne Annee, Bonne Annee," which means Happy New Year's. So of course the impulsive, unstable, thrill-seeking...stupid but yet so awesome, part of me decided to join in. It took me very little time to realize that their mosh pit of dudes was less of a celebration and more of a gang display. It took me very little time because I was immediately challenged to a fight by two guys. While confused as to why they would challenge me to a fight, another guy bumped me from behind and gave me a "Hey, my primal virility is superior to that of yours" look. Immediately after, I checked my pockets and realized that Mr. Primal Virility had evolved past the hunter/gatherer stage of development. Needless to say, it put a damper on the moment.

I didn't have much time to kick myself, because that's when the fun began. This was this point that I made the rational assent to anarchy as a detrimental form of government. I heard a loud bang, and turned to see that someone had thrown a dynamite-like firework into the middle of the crowd, and that it had nailed some guy in the back of the head. Mass hysteria. The crowds swarmed the sides of the streets, and then began the all-important competition: which side of the street can hit the other with champagne bottles. Bottles came raining from the sky and were breaking all over the street. And that's when the riot police began to futilely quell the crowd. They walked out into the street, fully equipped with body armor, leg and arm padding, helmet, club, riot shield and some sort of firearm, to clear the street of any vapid stragglers that had failed to realize that the sky was raining masculinity gone wrong. It wasn't the greatest idea, because they just became target practice for the champagne enthusiasts. Literally, people were marching into the street and throwing bottles directly at the police, and there was nothing that they could do, because they were outnumbered a billion to 12.

Now Byake and I wanted to be close enough to see the action, but far enough away to not get clubbed in the head by angry riot police. Fortunately, it wasn't me but the guy directly next to me that was clubbed to the ground. Despite all our efforts to not end up the center of the action, somehow we had stumbled into the hornet's nest. As I giddily stood watching, suddenly, tears began to uncontrollably stream from eyes, which was then followed by a complete inability to breathe. Forgetting about Byake, I blindly sprinted in the other direction. I heard Byake say, "what the heck was that," and grabbed his shirt as he led me out of the fray. No pity necessary though. I think there was a point where a I choked through my tears, "This is awesome." How many of you have been tear gassed? I win.

After we escaped, we headed up to the Eiffel Tower to pass the night away with a bottle of champagne. From about 1am to 6 we passed the time with a group of stereotypical Frenchies, a couple South Africans and an Arabic guy who's English extended to the high-five and no further. Topic discussions ranged from how how horrific Tony Parker's rap is to how if pitted against each other in a fight the Statue of Liberty would obliterate the Eiffel Tower. Needless to say we advanced each of our personal quest for the satisfaction of our innate, insatiable desire to beckon truth from the shadows. Nyer.

That morning Byake flew back to Rome to catch a connecting flight home. His salty wit and roguish charm will be missed. I was doomed to wander the streets of Paris until 4 pm when I was allowed to check into my hostel. At 8 am, I attended New Year's Day Mass at Notre Dame. I was really excited because I thought it was going to be a big ordeal. Unfortunately, the French lived up to the stereotype of their fervent religious dedication. The parishioners didn't even sit in the actual pews; they sat directly on the altar. In total, there were no more than fifty people. In a small, American church, fifty people is bad, but not unbearable, but fifty people in Notre Dame is like throwing a hot dog down a hallway. I bypassed my sleep in order to see La Chapelle de La Médaille Miraculeuse where the incorrupt body of St. Catherine of Laboure lies. It's a small, hidden church, but it's important because it is the place where St. Catherine had a vision of Mary, who told her to create the miraculous medal. The church is a popular pilgrimage destination, and the church sells blessed medals in bulk to visitors.

Unable to see the Rodin Museum and Napoleon's grave, I headed back for my hostel and collapsed around 7 pm. The next morning, I woke up at 6am to catch my train to Zürick, but because this post has put Lord Nestor to shame in its length, I'll save the story of Avram and I snowboarding for my next post. I hope everyone had a blessed New Year, and at least three of you made the New Year's resolution to send me cookies. You're all in my prayers.