Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Big Beard: The Cons and Pros

There’s a surprising amount of grooming involved.
There are such things as “bad beard days”.
The maintenance.
The shedding.
The dandruff.
It covers most of my face.
It's wiry.
It's hot.
It's itchy.
It requires the use of "products". 
It grows in different directions.
It still catches me off-guard in the mirror.
It draws attention to me.
I get oil on my shirt collars
I look older.
I need a barber.
I need more time in the morning routine.
Strangers want to touch it.
Strangers comment on it.
Strangers want to talk about it.

It’s one damn, good-looking beard.

The shaved head/stubble beard has been my look for the past, oh, 25 years or so. When I started shaving my head in the early 90's, no one else was doing it.  People thought I had cancer.  I got called "Kojak" because he was the only bald white guy anyone had ever seen to that point.  I started the stubble beard in college at the request of my then-boyfriend, and I've kept it (for the most part) ever since.  I've never had more than a 5-day growth.  So last Thanksgiving, I decided to just stop trimming and allow my beard to grow full - just to see what it would look like.   

A full beard requires a lot - and I mean A LOT - of maintenance to look good (or at least mine does).  I have it professionally groomed by a barber once a month, and then need to do my own clipping/trimming/shaping on a daily basis.  Beards, just like heads of hair, can have minds of their own: one day it will lay perfectly and look great, then the next it's curling in different directions and reacting to humidity.  And not having hair on my head for the past 25 years has ill-prepared me on how to deal with the unruly.

And every beard-wearer has his own opinions as to the best way to care for a beard:

Wash it or don't? 
Condition it or not?  
Beard oil or just coconut oil?  
Oil it once, twice or more times a day?  
Brush it with a boar's hair brush or only use your fingers?  
Use balm or keep natural?
Touch it always, sometimes, or never?  

A by-product of having a (arguably enviable) full beard is the attention it invites.  To be honest, I didn't expect it.  Men stopped me on the street to compliment it.  Once, a car stopped at an intersection to allow me to cross because, as the driver yelled out to me, "I'm only doing this because you have a great beard."  I'm not one for the spotlight or attention.  And as nice as the compliments were to hear, they still made me uncomfortable.

I had my full beard for 6 months last year, shaving it off for a wedding in May (at one of the groom's request, no less).  It was nice not having it through this past summer; it can get hot and itchy sometimes.  Kevin requested that I grow it back for our trip to Europe, because he wanted a picture of me with my beard wearing lederhosen (picture at right).  He does so much for me, it was the least I could do.  I look quite Bavarian.

So once Hallowe'en is over (for which I typically am smooth-faced anyway), I'll be growing it back again, but perhaps not to the full length I had before.  But as my Mother has been telling me for years, I just seem to have one of those faces that looks better with something on it, or at least partially covered up.  And I'm fine with that.  Without the beard, I look much younger, but with a fuller beard, I look much older.  Somewhere in there is a happy medium.  Until I find it, I will just need to continue to not ACT my age.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Favorite Part(s) Of My European Vacation

After walking across the Highline once;
in front of the Ehrenburg Castle ruins in Reutte
Every few days during our trip, Kevin would ask me what my favorite thing had been up to that point.  And at the time, it was too overwhelming to pick something.  But after a little perspective, I think I am able to narrow it down.

Of course, my MOST favorite thing was doing it all with Kevin.  But since that is probably a given, I want to share the things from each place we visited that continue to stand out for me:

Berlin, Germany

Per my previous post, there isn't much in Berlin that remains prior to 1945.  Per history, Berlin was bombed to hell and back for the first 5 years of the 1940s, so little remains of any historical value. And what the U.S. and allied forces didn't take down during WWII, (apparently) ashamed/embarrassed  Berliners removed since.  The city is now full of apologetic monuments and memorials to Jews and the world at large.  But I would have to say that my favorite thing to see in Berlin was the Brandenburg Gate.

Erected in 1791, left in ruins after the war and its reconstruction stymied by its proximity to the Berlin Wall, the "Peace Gate" still stands as a symbol of freedom and unification.

Another favorite thing from Berlin was a wordplay we exercised throughout the rest of our trip.  The word "strasse" (German for street) is on the end of every word on a street sign.  So we added strasse to the end of some of our words too:  "Bun, is it time for dinnerstrasse?", "I'm going to pop into this shopstrasse", "God, more stairsstrasse!"

We're hilarious.

Prague, Czech Republic

There are two favorite things about Prague.  The first is simply the "oldness" of it.  After leaving newer Berlin and arriving in ancient Prague, I thought "yes, THIS is what I was looking for!" Cobblestone streets, weather-damaged statues, terracotta roofs, my first castle - Prague was exactly what I wanted Europe to be.  It was surreal to stand in a building that was erected in the 10th century as well as walk through the castle home of "Good King Wenceslaus" from the carol-fame.

My other favorite thing was Letná, a park located off the beaten path that I doubt many tourists visit.  Letná is a hill overlooking Prague historic center and the Vltava River near Prague Castle. Due to its position it used to be the venue for the largest Stalin statue in Europe. But the Stalin Monument, nicknamed "Queue for Meat" was blown up in 1962. What remains is a large stone platform that's been taken over by skateboarders, and the Metronome art installation that now stands where Stalin used to.  This sculpture can be seen from just about anywhere in Prague, which means that standing next to it provides some of the best views of the city.  Underneath where Stalin once stood is a space that was intended as a museum to Stalin, but instead because a space for potato storage, a bomb shelter, an underground radio station, a rock club in the early 90s, and even a fight club.  This area is now sealed off by the “Gates to Nowhere” and is only opened rarely for tours.

Munich (München), Germany

All I can say here is Oktoberfest, Oktoberfest, Oktoberfest.  For all I know, Munich is a football field-sized area full of beer tents.  If there is an actual city of Munich, we'll have to catch it on the next visit.  We went for Oktoberfest and that's what we did for two days.  We drank and ate and drank and sang and drank.  And what made it so much more special was the group of gorgeous, young Germans we met at the table next to us.  Philip, Basti, Melanie, Johannes, Andi, Markus, Melly, and Jakob welcomed us to their group and made us feel Bavarian!  We sang "Country Roads", we stood on benches, we PROSTed a million times, and we laughed a lot.  We are all connected on Facebook now, and they each have a place to stay if ever in Chicago.

Schwangau, Germany

Perhaps driving through the Alps after drinking for two days was probably not the best laid plan. However, our next stop was to see the two famous castles, Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein, the latter being my favorite thing about this day.  Just before our trip, we watched a PBS special on King Ludwig II and his building of Neuschwanstein.  It was all fascinating and wonderful to see in real life.

Reutte, Austria

The next part of our trip was completely unplanned.  Upon leaving the castles in Schwangau, we decided to dip down into Austria because "it was JUST right there".  We were initially just going to stop and spend the night in Vils, but chose to drive just a bit further, hoping to get a stamp in our passports (didn't happen).  Quite by accident, we stopped in Reutte (pronounced ROY-tah) for dinner, then found our cute hotel, the Hotel zum Mohren.

My favorite thing about Reutte, other than Reutte itself, was the hike up to the Ehrenberg Castle ruins and (in spite of myself) walking across the Highline 179, the longest Tibetan-style bridge in the world.  The ruins were beautiful.  And I am proud of myself for walking across the bridge.  It took almost all of my nerve and I opted not to make a big deal about it.  It was a reminder to me as to how I handle tough situations in my life by simply accepting what needs to be done and do it.  It was a rewarding accomplishment and one to say I am proud that I achieved.

Reichelsheim, Germany

Later the same day as the bridge walk, we drove into this small town, the town where I've traced my dad's family tree back to the year 1757 when my ancestor, Wilhelm Trautmann, left Reichelsheim for Philadelphia.  So now here I was, standing in the town where it all started - bring this line of my family tree full circle.  It's an experience many don't get to have and the importance and gratification of doing so was not lost on me.

And thankfully, the town of Reichelsheim is cute.  As cute as any of the small towns or villages throughout Germany.  It has narrow streets of cobblestone, half-timbered houses, and even its own castle.  And the name Trautmann is still going strong there.  We spotted Blumen Trautmann (a thriving greenhouse/nursery) and a truck for Werner Trautmann Landscaping.  I tried connecting with a few Trautmanns on Facebook before our trip, but nothing came of it.  But being there is something I have that the 7 other Troutmans/Trautmanns between Wilhelm and me didn't have - and it was momentous to stand in the same streets and see some of the same sights as he nearly 260 years later.

Trier, Germany

Trier sits near the border of Germany and Luxembourg and is one of the oldest cities in Germany, dating back to when it was still part of the Holy Roman Empire.  And also dating back to that time is my favorite thing about Trier, the Porta Nigra (or Black Gate).  Two-thousand years ago, Trier was a walled city, as were most at that time.  There were 4 gates that served as entrances to the city.  Porta Nigra, the northern gate, is STILL STANDING.  The foundation of the gate was laid in 40 A.D.  Once more for emphasis - 40 A.D.  That means Jesus Christ died just 7 years earlier.  And what's just as whacky is that you can walk through the building and touch walls that have been touched by people for over 2,000 years.

Ghent (Gent), Belgium

This city holds a special place in my heart because it's where Kevin and I celebrated our "10 years together/1 year married" Anniversary.  We had dinner at De Kuip Van Gent and walked around this beautiful, old, canal city.  And drawing on my 7th Grade U.S. history, we located the building in which the Treaty of Ghent was negotiated in 1814 (it's now an ESPRIT store).  My favorite thing about Ghent, though, was that every picture was a postcard.  The town is simply stunning.

Bruges (Brugge), Belgium

Ever since seeing the 2008 film, In Bruges, starring Colin Farrell, I've wanted to visit Bruges.  To quote a line from the film, "How can all those canals and bridges and cobbled streets and those churches, all that beautiful fucking fairy tale stuff, how can that not be somebody's fucking thing, eh?"  (See the movie - it's awesome.)

My favorite thing about Bruges was just being in Market Square.  This area is featured heavily in the film, and it doesn't hurt that the place is decorated for Christmas, either.  But even without all that, the area is still gorgeous.  Every medieval town has a cobble-stoned market square with a huge statue in the center, surrounded by buildings, shops, and a huge church or bell tower.  Bruges is no exception.  The Belfort (bell tower), also featured heavily in the film, is a tower consisting of 366 extremely narrow, winding steps up 272 feet, and housing 47 silver bells at the top.  Before we climbed, I wish I would have remembered this quote from the film:

Ken:  Coming up?

Ray:  What's up there?
Ken:  The view.
Ray: The view of what?  The view of down here?  I can see that down here.

Seriously, just see the movie.

Otherwise, the rest of Bruges really is like a fairy tale.  If you like your towns quaint, old with lots of shopping, this is the place.

Brussels (Bruxelles), Belgium

This was not a planned stop but rather a 3-hour layover while we waited to change trains from Bruges to the high speed Eurostar to take us to London.  Maybe it was the fact that it was raining (first time on our trip).  Maybe it was the fact that we were lugging our suitcases with us.  Maybe it was the fact that we just left the most charming city in Belgium and I was eager to get to London.  Maybe it was all or none of these things.  But I hated Brussels.

What really blew my mind was the big tourist attraction, Manneken Pis.  I've know this statue just about all my life because my Uncle Bill used to have this as a decanter on his bar that when you pushed a button, it would pee out booze.  The actual version of this is about 24" in height and located on a random corner.  He's not much more than a dress-up doll for the city. After seeing huge cathedrals and amazing artworks, I wondered what the big deal was.  It's super cheesy.

There's no one, true legend that tells the tale of this statue, and it quite frankly isn't even displayed well.  I mean, couldn't they have tried to hide the hose behind him a little?  Sheesh.

London, England

Our final stop was the city in which I most wanted to be, the city I've wanted to visit almost my entire life.  So much so, that standing in Trafalgar Square with Big Ben in my sight line caused me to well with tears.  We spent twice as much time in London then any of the other towns and I loved every second of it:  standing in front of Buckingham Palace, having tea in the Tate Modern, listening to a service in St. Paul's Cathedral, riding on a double-decker bus, and seeing a few shows in the West End.

But my favorite thing hands down was the day we spent at Tower of London.  I'd read so much about this place, its inhabitants (both past and present), its mystique, its darkness - I couldn't wait to get inside the gates.  We spent several hours seeing the Crown Jewels, the armor of past kings, the dungeons, the royal apartments, the chapel, the site of the beheadings, and the ravens.

For me, it was magical.

So there you have it - a very quick summation of our trip with the highlights of my favorite things. There were a few small towns that we popped into on the way, but I will talk about them another time.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Autumn Leaves

The falling leaves
Drift by my window
The falling leaves
Of red and gold

I see your lips
The summer kisses
The sunburned hands
I used to hold

Since you went away
The days grow long
And soon I'll hear
Old winter's song

But I miss you most of all
My darling
When autumn leaves
Start to fall

Since you went away
The days grow long
And soon I'll hear
Old winter's song

But I miss you most of all
My darling
When autumn leaves
Start to fall

                      -- Joseph Kosma

Monday, October 12, 2015

25 Observations From My European Vacation

I just returned from my first trip to Europe.  We were gone for two weeks and visited 6 countries.  As you can imagine, I have TONS to write about.  But as I collect my thoughts, here are 25 "observations" from my trip in no particular order:

  1. Stairs - There are no elevators in Europe.  Or so it seems.  But realistically, most old historic buildings do not come equipped with elevators or lifts.  So be prepared to climb.  At one point, I joked ("joked") that I would dub this vacation "The Staircases of Western Europe".  Heed my warning.
  2. Children Ruin Stuff - It's wonderful that people want to expose their children to history.  But some kids just aren't into it.  And they rebel - loudly!  Ask yourself when you were 7, was walking down uneven cobblestone streets and looking at old buildings your idea of fun?
  3. Tourists Suck - Regardless of where they're from or where they are, tourists are horrible.  They block the path and block the view and seemingly have absolutely no spacial awareness.  We ALL want the shot, okay?  Learn to take your quick turn.
  4. The Euro - One unit of currency throughout many countries is a great idea.  The UK and the Czech Republic should get on board.
  5. Selfie Sticks - The selfie stick is alive and well in Europe, particularly among Asian tourists.  They selfie themselves in front of everything, several times in the same pose.
  6. Glamour Shots - And speaking of Asians and cameras, they seem to think that every shot should be a glamour shot.  Without embarrassment of shame, they will pose in front of just about anything like its a step-and-repeat at a movie opening.  It's amusing until Number 5 and Number 3 get in the way.
  7. Smokers - There are certainly more smokers in Europe than the US.  At first I thought I was just exposed to them more since the smoking bans are different.  But no.  I had lots of smoke blown in my face in every country. 
  8. Bicycles - I used to think the Europeans cycled around their cities in order to promote health.  But I learned that cycling is more out of necessity.  It's the only really convenient way to get around some of these towns with their tiny, curved streets.  Driving in Europe is a nightmare.
  9. Every Little Town Looks Similar - They are all charming in their own way, but in reality, every little town throughout Germany and Belgium (in my experience) looked pretty much the same.  They all have a market square surrounded by beautiful buildings and a tall tower.  Still wonderful, but similar.
  10. Cobblestones - In some towns, it's difficult to know if an open space is a street, a sidewalk, a parking lots, a market square, etc.  There are few clear delineations to help one know where to walk to drive.  Apparently if your car fits, you can drive there.  It makes walking in open areas rather tricky.
  11. Cobblestone, Part 2 - Cobblestones are murder on roller bags.  After 10 days, I lost a wheel on my luggage.  Cobblestone streets are lovely, but not practical.
  12. Bruges Loves Shoppers - While Bruges is a wonderful place to see charming buildings and canals, it's also world class shopping.  If you like your history with a side of Marco O'Polo and Ann Taylor, this is your kinda place.
  13. Schwangau - This tiny town that houses two glorious castles is basically given in to tourism.  I was surprised that these places had become commercialized.  I just expected to drive up some winding roads and park at the castle entrances.  Not so.  There are ticket halls, hotels, restaurants and of course, shopping.
  14. Reutte - We drove to Austria on the spur of the moment and landed in a small village of Reutte.  It's an adorable town that's heavy on the charm.  It is indicative of all the towns in the Tirol state.  Plus it has two castle ruins, a fort, and sports the highest Tibetan-style bridge in the world according to Guinness.
  15. I Look Bavarian - The young group of German revelers we met at Oktoberfest swore I was from Bavaria.  The full beard most likely helped.  Plus I am of German descent.
  16. Rüedesheim am Rhein - This is a small wine-making town that we popped into between Wiesbaden and Trier, and is more a testament to going off your path now and then to see what lies on the perimeter.  
  17. Letna Park - This is a hilltop park in Prague that I doubt many tourists visit.  It can be seen from a distance due to the giant Metronom sculpture on the horizon.  There was once a 50-foot statue of Stalin where the Metronom now stands, but it was blown up in 1962.  The park offers amazing views of the city.
  18. Brussels - It ain't all that.  The only thing this city has put out is Tin Tin, Poirot, Jean Claude Van Damme, and a tiny statue of a boy peeing.
  19. Oktoberfest - I wasn't quite sure what to expect in the compound, but I was not prepared for the carnival-like atmosphere with rides and games.  Fun for the whole family.
  20. Reichelsheim - After years of researching my dad's family tree, I managed to trace them back to this small town and visiting it was a high point for this trip.  Coming full circle on my dad's behalf meant everything to me.  And I was happy to find a cute, quaint little town, much like the others we'd seen but more rural.  I'm proud to come from there.
  21. Woodrow Wilson - I only saw one American President's name during my trip, but I saw it two times in two places.  Once in a German train station and once on a street sign.  I found this to be interesting.
  22. Treaty of Ghent - Although this was not the reason we went to this town, I remembered from high school history that something to do with a treaty involving a war with the US took place in Ghent.  Sure enough, we located the building where the Treaty of Ghent, ending the War of 1812, was negotiated.  There was a plaque on the building and everything.  It's now an Esprit store.
  23. The Autobahn - I drove the fastest I've ever driven in my life:  160km/hr or 99.4mph.  And cars passed me like I was standing still.  It was exhilarating.
  24. T-Mobile is da bomb! - I've been with T-Mobile since 1999.  Without knowing it, T-Mobile is a hot network in Europe, so I had free unlimited data and texting the entire time we were on our trip.  Calls were $.20/minute.  
  25. Troutman Mix Doesn't Travel Well - My mom makes a version of Chex mix that Kevin calls Troutman Mix.  And he LOVES it.  My mom made three bags full for our trip and Kevin has one half gone before we left Chicago.  Despite packing it well, Bag #3 was mostly crumbs and powder.  Kevin ate it anyway.
And there you have it.  More to come...