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Austin – A State Apart From Texas

Initially on arriving I wasn’t quite sure whether Austin would fulfill its promise to be in Texas, but not really a part of Texas. But after having been here a few days I’m ready to pronounce the capital of Texas a state unto its own.  It is a state of mind well away from the plains and reigns which are associated with the land around. Geographically, Austin is in what they call the hill country. Everything is bigger in the mind of a Texan. These aren’t so much hills as piles and ditches by most standards. But it’s not arid here like much of the state, nor is it overly humid like the coastal cities. It’s warm and pleasant tonight after a high of 90 during the day.

There’s a great outdoors area just south of the heart of downtown called Zilker Park. It’s packed this weekend since the weather is so nice. It’s free to come in and just wander around. There are many different areas but the one I was most drawn to was the Barton Springs Pool. This is a partially man-made rectangular-ish area with a diving board and life guards and a grassy hill on each side. But the water is constantly refreshed by a freshwater spring and at the opposite end it flows on down the river. The temperature hovers near 68F year round, which is just pleasant enough in the 85-90 degree days.

In downtown it’s strange to say but you’re not reminded as much of Texas as you’d think. Even though you’re in Texas and the state capital is at the center of the city, it just doesn’t feel like what I’d expected. Granted I haven’t spent a whole lot of time in the state, but most of it has been driving through desert or underwhelmed  Dallas and Houston. And just outside of Austin you get back to the sprawling suburbs and suburbanites that you expect from the state. But the city itself seems out of place. And that’s a good thing.

Much of that difference is probably linked to two factors – University of Texas and the city’s status as “live music capital of the world”. The first brings a constantly refreshed pool of youth and diversity. As an example, when I was here there was a festival going on at the campus called the Forty Acres Fest. Lots of students out walking around, booths set up for the various university clubs and organizations. Games on the side like inflatable obstacle course, climbing tower, slam dunk, etc. Talked with the folks in the Travel Club of Texas – a group dedicated to talking about where they’ve been, where they want to go and raising money to go.

And there were dozens of student union groups for different nationalities. I got a Malaysian drink and brownie from one fundraiser. Other groups included most of the nationalities of Asia. That’s surprising for a state often known more for its xenophobia than its openness. But this is Austin, not Texas.

And the festival featured the other feature Austin is known for, live music. There were some local groups and some comedy improv during the changeovers. The groups were good – even the ones during the day. And I didn’t hear any country and western music. One band was clearly in the pop-rock scene. Another an indie group. One was a weird funk band that was as entertaining to watch as to hear. But the real highlight of the show was Big Boi of the group Outkast. Another Atlanta boy in town for the weekend.

German General Weirdness

I’ve had an odd 24h in Germany so far. It’s mostly been experienced here in Frankfurt (am Main, nicht am Oder).

My first issue, and one I’ve had all across Europe, is that they have NO LAUNDROMATS in Germany. The hotels charge you a fortune ($3 for a pair of socks!) but the hostels will do it all for free.

Here’s another bit of weirdness: mobile phone data costs 220+ times here what it does in Poland. Now how does that work?! Germany is supposed to be a technological leader and yet the state to their east (whom they consider backward) has one of the cheapest and most reliable data networks I’ve found. In Poland it’s 0.02 PLN per 100kb on Heyah. The cheapest I’ve found here is 0.01 EUR per 1kb. And that is using my Irish SIM card! Other rates seem to be around 20-30 Eurocent per 1kb. It’s only $0.02 per 1kb to use my AT&T card from home.

Let’s talk logistics. I was trying to get from the Frankfurt (am Main) Hbf (train station) to my hotel last night. I took a cab because it was 3mi away and I was tired and it was late. I asked the cab driver if he knew the Sheraton at Lyoner Str. 44. He said “Yes” and so we went off to circle the Hbf a couple of times. 15 minutes later I figured the guy was lost when he pulled into the Radisson. Everybody knows that’s at Franklinstr. 65. But after I corrected him we were back on our way. Another 15 minutes later (and after having passed the Hbf again) we were at the right place.

Now tonight I was at the same place trying to get back to my hotel and, wary of the cabs, I decided I’d take the S-Bahn. Well I knew I wanted to head to the Niederrad stop so I went to the ticket machine and looked for it. It’s not there. Huh, that’s weird. So I went to the map on the wall to make sure of the spelling and on this map they spell it as F-Niederrad which makes sense when you consider that it’s in Frankfurt. OK, so now back to the ticket machine to find it. Still not there. They have F-Ndr-am Edulching Str. and F-Nieder-Frankensense and F-Nieder-Umlat, but my stop is nowhere to be found. So I wandered into a bookstore and, upon finding an English version of a Lonely Planet Germany book, researched how to get around in Frankfurt, thus doing a service to my gender the world over by not asking. It turns out that since Niederrad is in zone 50, you just have to get a Einzelfahrt Erwachsene ermassigt and you’re all set. Then you can get on the S7 to Reidstadt-Goddelau, the S8 to Wiesbaden Hbf (by way of Russelsheim and not Darmstadt Hbf obviously) or the S9 to Weisbaden Hbf (although it only runs once an hour) from one of the 28 platforms from which they may depart and you’re practically there already. How silly of me to miss such an obvious thing.

When I got up to get off the train (picked a winner the first time, surprisingly!), a German guy of about 25 who’d been laying across several seats with his sunglasses on began shouting. At nothing in particular, just kind of yelling in general. Some people said he must have been drinking. Some simply stared. I just hoped the door would hurry up and open because he was laying very close to me with his shoes off for what must have been the first time in a month. Going down the stairs off the platform some guy tried to stick his foot out and trip me. Why, I couldn’t say, but he did. And talking to himself all the while.

With just a few more yards (or meters) to go before I reached my hotel I noticed Polezi motorcycles coming down the street in motorcade formation, with each rider racing to the next street to cut off traffic. I didn’t see any limousines or anything but then I started hearing a noise and seeing a flashing light like it was a biker with a helmet (not Helmut) mounted light. It wasn’t a biker, it was 3 roller bladers. And behind them followed about a thousand. Just out for a midnight rollerblade. So I stood and watched the procession as they passed – I could hardly do otherwise as they were obscuring my path.

Germany’s a weird place, man.

Portland Odds & Ends

It was raining in Atlanta this morning when I left for Portland, Oregon and not when I landed there. How appropriate. I was headed to the Pacific Northwest, widely regarded as the rainiest place in the continental US and the rainfall was backwards.

But you can win a lot of bets by disagreeing with that. For example, last year with the heavy drought that Atlanta experienced, Portland only managed .2″ more precipitation (they were about 4″ short of average). Sounds weird but its true. On average, Atlanta gets 14″ more rain a year (50 vs. 36).

So bookmark this entry on your cellphone’s browser and prove you’re right when you make that bet. Then post a comment and brag about it.

As we were flying in, we flew over three majestic snow caps. As we passed by them, I marveled at how they seemed to just stick straight up out of the surrounding land. Then I realized that these three mountains rise up from other mountains and seem to watch over them. It reminded me of the way the 8000 meter peaks stuck out so distinctly in the Himalaya. It was breathtaking.

I plan on doing some more sightseeing and hopefully visiting a brewery or winery. But time is short and I’ll be catching the red eye Thursday night. Yuck.

Minneapolis and Parts North

Minnesota is a nice place, for the most part. I had a good time while I was there. People are mostly nice, especially outside of the airport. But man are they dumb on the roads! I several times had to dodge cars stopped at a green light in the center lane in downtown Minneapolis.

There are a lot of bums in Minneapolis. “Hey man, can you help me out?” They all asked me to help them out, which is a bit different than how they ask in most other places. None told me a sob story and some didn’t even ask me to help them out; they just said “What’s up man?” each time I passed them during the night. Strange.

The Cities,” as the metropolitan Minneapolis-St. Paul area are called, are a sprawling pretzel of interstate highways. I-35, I-35 E, I-35 W, I-94, I-394, I-494, I 694. And there are a number of roads which, though not interstates, are large divided highways with limited access. Most of these become interstate highways off and on, but some just circle the city. All for a population of less than 3 million. Lots of pork barrel projects, it sounds like.

And their airport has two terminals separated by a few miles going by the signs on the road coming from town. But geographically they are much closer to each other. In fact, the road to each terminal lets you get to the other. So there is no point to having two separate exits. Especially when there is no indication of which airlines are served at each, which one has the rental car return, or any difference whatsoever between them. It’s madness!

For most of my stay, I was in a small town a couple of hours outside of the Cities. There, I found the food to be passable, but not great. And everything was covered in gravy. I only had two meals in Minneapolis, and they were a little better, but not a lot. Mainly they were different, which was good.

For dinner I went to a place called Club Havana. It’s a place on Washington Street in the strip club and sex toy district. But it’s a nice area. Strange. Anyway, I had one of their Cuban Martinis, which was really just a mojito with champagne and vodka instead of rum. It was mediocre and didn’t have the flavor coherence that the mojito has. It stimulated all of my taste areas, but didn’t blend them well. I’m not sure how to say it better than that. I had a salmon dish stuffed with avocado and crusted with crushed pistachios. The pistachios were too much and detracted from the flavor after several bites. The place won’t make you feel like you’re in old Havana town, but at least there was no Che memorabilia.

I should have eaten at a pizza place and bar called Pizza Lucé. The pizza smelled great, the beer was good, the ambiance and music were great (I heard The Black Keys and Manu Chao back to back!) and the service was overwhelmingly friendly. The patrons were similarly friendly and I met quite a few interesting and fun people. At around midnight or one AM, people came streaming in for pizza. They put up a rope barricade to keep the line from obstructing the rest of their business. In fact, people who were bar hopping came back at the end of the night to get a slice.

For breakfast I went to a little coffee shop that did some upscale breakfast thing. I had a glorified quiche with fruit on the side. The chile sauce they put over top was very nice and made the dish good.

All in all I like Minnesota. The people that I met there were all very nice and friendly. They felt very comfortable and no one that I met seemed the least bit pretentious. It’s a nice place to visit, but I don’t think I could live there.

From what I saw of housing prices, there’s no way I’d do that. A studio condo was going for $300k! I could get a house in Atlanta for less than that. Hell, I did! The condo didn’t even look that great, it was just another insta-building made to look like an old factory or warehouse. I can’t imagine what someplace cool would run.