Tag Archives: Museum

Travel Guide: Interlaken, Bern, Lucerne, Zurich

Over the summer, my parents and I decided that Switzerland was a reasonable “halfway” destination to spend the winter holidays. It’s not really halfway but it was so, so delightful! Now that I’ve been to Switzerland in the winter, I’d love to go back in the summer. And fall. And spring. This blog post will detail my travels through Interlaken, Bern, Lucerne, and Zurich, all of which are easily accessible by train. Be aware, though: Trains in Switzerland are not cheap. Timely, clean, comfortable, and efficient, but not cheap.


Interlaken

I was alone in Interlaken for the first two nights of travel. It was pouring for much of the first day but I found myself some glühwein (mulled wine) and waited for it to stop.

It was lovely in the afternoon when the sun came out.

I walked around town and took pictures of mountains, hardly able to believe where I was. I watched where the sun fell and tried to capture how it lit up the trees and the snow. It made me laugh how the grass was perfectly green but there was snow up on the mountains.

It also really tickled me to see the Catholic and Protestant churches right next to each other and to hear their bells ringing differently but at the same time.

The sun rose late (shortly after 8am) and set early (4:45pm) in Interlaken and Christmas Day was clear and cold. Around 9am I set off on a walk along the River Aare to Ringgenberg, a town about 5km away. The walk took me through little neighbourhoods by the water and in the hills. I passed a few other people along the way and perfected greeting people, “Good morning!” in German.

The main attraction in Ringgenberg was the church tower, which is open to visitors at any time. Services were going on when I arrived and it was a really special experience to climb the church tower alone and look out at the world while listening to songs that I couldn’t understand.

The sun was fully up as I walked back to Interlaken. I’d hoped for a coffee but settled myself on a log for some almonds instead.

After the best of the three rösti I had during my time in Switzerland, I spent the afternoon on a short walking trail called the Clara von Rappard loop, which took me up into the hills and the woods on the opposite side of Interlaken. There were eight historical markers with information about Clara and her life along the path, but I regrettably don’t speak German.

Once it got dark, I headed to the Ice Magic skating rink in the centre of town. I spent a few minutes watching the skaters before retreating into the tent of food and drink stalls, warmed by space heaters and fires. I stood with my glühwein at a small table in the corner and I watched and marveled.

Certain things make sense to me. Life shared with those around us, with laughter and goodwill, makes sense to me.

Bern

The following morning I took the train to Bern to meet my parents who had just landed from Toronto. The weather was cold and dreary but it was so great to see them. December 26 is a public holiday in Switzerland so much of the capital city was closed until evening when restaurants opened for dinner. We spent the day walking around and taking in the feel of the city.

We saw the little performance at the clock tower, watching the figurines in the mechanism move and dance as they have been for hundreds of years . . .

. . . examined the ornate fountains across the city, which had very cold water . . .

. . . and admired the exterior of Bern’s Minster while the interior underwent renovations.

We also went to the Einstein Museum because my dad is a math/science guy. There was a lot to read and a few videos that claimed to explain Einstein’s theories in “four easy lessons”. I have to be honest, I gave up halfway through lesson three.

Bern’s old town is built high above the River Aare and the graceful bridges made me feel like we were floating.

The next day we visited the Christmas market, which had been closed on actual Christmas. This was the first of several Christmas markets on this trip and while it was small, I was glad walking around and watching other people enjoying themselves.

Afterwards we walked out to Zentrum Paul Klee, not because any of us was interested in Klee but because the grounds are worth visiting. The walk showed us what the residential area of Bern looks like, too, which is obviously nothing like the UNESCO site old town. The museum was intended to fit into the landscape and become part of it, and there are functioning fields and gardens there in seasons other than winter.

We found a much larger Christmas market and food fair on the other side of Parliament later that day. We spent the evening there walking, drinking glühwein to stay warm, and tasting some of the many cuisines on offer.

For people who don’t celebrate Christmas, we were having a great time celebrating Christmas. Whatever is it that brings a community together in a way that exudes warmth and care . . . all of that is something I’m glad to be part of.

Lucerne

By the time we arrived in Lucerne the next morning, I had a pretty good feel for Swiss cities around Christmas time. And I liked them a lot. I really enjoyed Lake Lucerne and I’d love to see it in the summer. (Are you sensing a theme? Me, too.) I took a walk around the lake the second morning we were there and it was a beautiful change from the old town and surrounding city.

But let’s start at the beginning. Lucerne felt different from either of the previous cities because the old town’s narrow, twisting streets are peppered with little squares. The buildings are painted and tell stories of what Lucerne used to be. I loved looking at them and trying to make sense of the history surrounding us. I also loved eating fondue, which was our first meal here.

Lucerne is famous for its bridges and they’re as pretty at night as they are during the day.

I spent a lot of time around the lake the next day, from the aforementioned walk in the morning to a boat ride later in the afternoon. The historical narrative provided during the ride was interesting and time on the water definitely provides a different view of Lucerne and its surroundings.

My mum and I walked around at night, as well, and I really enjoyed seeing the lights and the way the colours of the sky and the water changed at the sun set. It felt like finding ourselves just peeking out from under a blanket and marvelling for the first time at the world around.

Zurich

Our last stop in Switzerland was Zurich, which was very different from the previous stops. Zurich is a big, fancy city and it feels like one with designer shopping streets and luxury hotels. Naturally, the old town is beautiful . . .

. . . but it also has the signs of life that remind you that it is a living, breathing, modern place. I liked that a lot.

We walked along the River Limmat in the sunshine (our first sun in days!) and visited the Grossmünster, Zurich’s largest church with two huge towers.

My dad and I climbed the narrow, twisting staircase of one tower, which involved some negotiation with people climbing in the opposite direction. The sun was fully out by the time we got to the top and the view was spectacular.

We also went to the Fraumünster, a smaller church that used to be a Benedictine Abbey. We wanted to see it specifically because Marc Chagall designed the stained glass windows. With only one exception, they depicted scenes from the Old Testament. No photos allowed, but go visit!

I think the best spot to see Zurich is at the Lindenhof, a park built on what used to be a Roman fortification. It’s a bit like a hill in the middle of a city. Apparently hundreds of years ago, recognising that whoever controlled the area would control the city, the citizens of Zurich voted to prohibit building on the land and it has been a park ever since. There were a couple groups of old men playing chess with giant sets and a bunch of tourists taking photos, but the people-watching would probably be excellent at any time.

The Sechseläutenplatz is Zurich’s largest main square and we walked there to see the Opera House, which is stunning. Like elsewhere, there were Christmas lights and food stalls, including a few selling glühwein for takeaway. Naturally I couldn’t resist.

The next day we visited the Swiss National Museum, which is probably the best museum I’ve ever been to. We allotted two hours when we initially arrived and then extended that an hour and then another thirty minutes, leaving only because we were hungry. There were permanent collections on the history of Switzerland; clothing, artifacts and fully reconstructed palace rooms; the city of Zurich; and a portrait gallery that I didn’t get to visit, as well as a few other collections. The temporary exhibits taught us about Switzerland’s relationship with Indian textiles, and nativity scenes from around the world.

The museum was fascinating not just because of what it contained but because of how the information was presented. Each exhibit was highly interactive including stunning programs on iPads that allow visitors to look at objects up close and take mini guided tours of portions of the exhibits. There was a lot to touch and physically manipulate, as well. We were extremely impressed and learned a great deal about Switzerland in a very short amount of time. I’d highly recommend a visit!

My mum and I walked along Lake Zurich in the afternoon and the light was so pretty on the water. It was New Year’s Eve and the markets were setting up all over again, which was fun to see.

Switzerland in the winter was a cold but magical placed filled with lights and good wishes. While I’d love to see it in the summer, I really enjoyed the atmosphere of the winter holidays and appreciated wandering streets that were probably less busy than they would be at another time of year. Early on New Year’s Day, basking in the week that had passed, we boarded the train to Salzburg. Stay tuned!

View of the Alps from a hill overlooking a cemetery in Bern

Travel Guide: Amsterdam and Haarlem

The impetus for my trip to Europe was to visit my brother during his semester studying in London, but prior to meeting him, I spent time in Leiden and The Hague, Brussels, and Ghent and Bruges. We chose to meet in Amsterdam because KLM has a direct flight from Amsterdam to Singapore so it would be easy on both of us.

It was raining, windy, and unpleasantly cold when we found each other in Amsterdam’s central train station. I was reading a book next to a baby grand piano that invited travelers to sit and play, heard my brother call my name, and looked up. I hadn’t seen him since July and it was so great to reunite, give him a hug, and go off on an adventure in a place new to both of us. As travelers, we both enjoy just walking around and seeing what there is to see. So, after dropping our backpacks at a storage facility in the middle of the city, that’s mostly what we did for the couple days we were there.

Growing up in the Finger Lakes of upstate New York in a city built around a canal and a river, we’re both used to life along the water but Amsterdam was constructed differently from any city we’d been to. It felt like it was designed for people instead of people fitting themselves around the design. Being in Amsterdam made it easy to understand the emphasis on commerce and exploration that made the Netherlands a European imperialist power. Of course, we loved all the bikes and houseboats, too.

As we wandered, we spent a few minutes in the Begijnhof, the former residence of a Catholic sisterhood who took no vows lived like nuns . . .

. . . stepped into De Krijtberg to verify that it was indeed a church (the Jewish stars above the doors left us a little uncertain) . . .

. . . and walked through a lovely flower market. It’s April in Amsterdam, after all!

Before returning to pick up our bags to take them to our Airbnb, we snacked on Dutch waffles (very different from Belgian waffles) at Albert Cuypmarkt. It sells everything, as markets do, and is located in a cool neighborhood. Market visits are my favorite travel activity because of the diversity of people and products. Look through a market and you’ll know what people buy, what they eat, the cost of living, and how people get along with one another.

We were lucky to find Café Gollem Amstelstraat our first afternoon in Amsterdam and made friends with the bartender while enjoying the largest cheese plate we’d ever seen. I loved that the bar had wifi and people were there working on laptops. Reading the chalkboards on the walls, my brother noticed that they sold Westvleteren 12, often voted the best beer in the world (though this may be changing). Oddly enough, we’d talked about that beer earlier in the day and just looked at each other for a moment.

We asked the bartender if the bar indeed had it in stock. They did. We asked if it was actually the best beer in the world. He hesitated. He told us that it’s been called the most perfect beer and that it’s unique, special, and really indescribable. He confirmed that the scarcity and mythology around it only add to the appeal and assured us that we’d enjoy it, but that we should be aware that we were unlikely to immediately experience a “wow” moment.

At 10.2% alcohol, our second drink of the afternoon, and a price tag of €15, we figured we’d split a bottle. Koen, the bartender, poured the beer into two glasses that looked like wine glasses, reserving the last couple swallows to split into two shot glasses. He told us to wait until the beer warmed up a bit and to drink the shot glass pour, where all the yeast settled, slowly, alongside the glass of beer.

The first thing we noticed was the aroma. Koen was right that we wouldn’t be able to describe it, but it was indeed unique and special. As advertised, the taste of the beer was not a “wow, how delicious” moment; it was more like experiencing beer for the first time in its most perfect, pure form as in, “Oh, this is what beer tastes like.” The liquid in the shot glasses tasted and felt completely different; it had more texture and a deeper taste than the rest of the drink. The whole experience was new and interesting and one that my brother and I were glad to share.

Before we left, Koen told us he’d be hanging out at the bar that night if we wanted to stop by again. He taught us the word gezellig, which I had recently come across (though had no idea how to pronounce) in a book on language and emotion. It means feeling pleasant and cozy with friends, which is certainly how we felt leaving the bar and when we returned later that night.

After it got dark, we spent some time in De Wallen, Amsterdam’s infamous red light district. For obvious reasons, photography isn’t allowed there. (Though everything else seems to be, so maybe it’s not that obvious.) The red light district is full of bars, weed cafés, and shops selling all sorts of interesting objects. And women beckoning provocatively behind glass doors. And promoters advertising shows of all kinds. It took me until much later that night to accurately articulate my reaction to what we’d seen. Without knowing it, and as a result of its absence, I realized that I had expected the atmosphere to playful; it was anything but. Human bodies were up for sale and people were shopping and buying. Sex is an industry and one can buy, sell, and commoditize any and every part of it. The whole thing becomes really dark and grim when you realize you’re walking through a flesh market alive and well on city streets.

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We got up late the following morning and decided to escape the city for a while. We took a train to Haarlem, just 20 minutes west of Amsterdam. After the busy day and late night were glad to be in a much quieter, sunny little town. We stopped for hot chocolate, the special kind where you choose a real piece of chocolate and stir it into steamed milk, and followed my usual plan without a plan of walking towards the tallest building. We found the town’s central square and toured St. Bavo’s Church . . .

. . . and then spent our time wandering through the cobblestone streets and looking into windows of shops and restaurants. We mostly just enjoyed being away from the hustle and bustle of Amsterdam and looking at pretty gardens down little alleys in front of homes and small businesses.

We also enjoyed the architecture outside of the Cathedral of St. Bavo (Bavo was born in Ghent but is the patron saint of Haarlem) . . .

. . . and only stepped inside for a moment to see some very interesting stained glass. Hebrew and other Judaica are very common in Christian buildings if you know where to look, but somehow always surprise me.

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Our bartender friend suggested we check out one of his favorite bars in Haarlem, and naturally we did. My tiramisu stout was delicious and my brother had his first sour. Of course, there was cheese to go along with it.

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Haarlem also had a bit of an attitude, which made us laugh:

The sun was still out when we walked through Kenaupark along a canal on our way back to the train station late that afternoon. We agreed that Haarlem would be a lovely place to live, both because it’s really nice and because it’s close to a real city.

Back in Amsterdam, desiring to maintain some of the peace and quiet that we had experienced in Haarlem, we followed the canals towards their source in the tributaries off the North Sea. The sky had grown cloudy but I was glad to be on the docks with the boats.

The next morning, we brought our bags to the same storage facility in city center and made our way to the Rembrandt House Museum. I really love seeing how people lived way back in the day. Rembrandt’s life looked quite comfortable and, as my brother pointed out, it’s rare that an artist was so celebrated while still alive.

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Amsterdam also has a really cool statue dedicated to Rembrandt in the aptly-named Rembrandtplein, the city’s central square:

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Feeling cultured, we decided we’d visit one more museum that day. On our way to the museum district, we walked through a flea market selling clothing, shoes, and cool pieces of art . . .

. . . which led us to a statue of Amsterdam native Baruch Spinoza (the birds were symbolic, but I can’t remember why) . . .

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. . . and a memorial to the victims of World War II. . . .

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“O that my head were (full of) waters and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people.” – Jeremiah 8:23

Amsterdam has a historic Jewish Quarter but we didn’t spend much time there. We happened across the Portuguese Synagogue one evening and meant to come back, but that’s the day we went to Haarlem instead. Normally, we would have visited the Anne Frank House, but it was unfortunately closed for Passover until the night that I left. Lucky brother went without me.

Our plan for the last afternoon was to visit the Van Gogh Museum in Vondelpark, full of people on the first warm day all week. On arrival, though, we learned that new rules meant tickets were timed and only available online. Unable to get tickets for that day, we opted for the Rijksmuseum just across the park, which houses very famous Dutch art, including several pieces by Rembrandt we’d learned about that morning.

There were street musicians playing in the covered museum courtyard and we stopped to listen. I’m always impressed with just how talented some people are and it reminds me over and over how difficult it is to make it in the arts worlds.

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We had a very late lunch after the museum and wandered around a little while longer, enjoying the canals and the sunshine, before I took a train to the airport. There was a lot I enjoyed about just being in Amsterdam because the people of this city have something to say and want to be heard.

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As usual, I appreciated the flavor and feel that street art and graffiti lend to a city. It’s a way of getting to know the people of a place and understand a bit about who they are and what matters to them.

In all, we really enjoyed being in Amsterdam. A city built on canals and for bicycles feels different than many places I’ve been. The graceful bridges and buildings that go right up to the water lend a lot of beauty to the city and I think the locals have a right to be concerned with negative impacts of tourism. Our Airbnb away from city center helped us understand what it means to live in Amsterdam and made me like it a lot more than I did in the crowded tourist areas. As usual, I haven’t seen everything yet, which means I’ll have to come back. Amsterdam, thanks for having us!

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Travel Guide: Washington, DC

Last week, I spent three days in Washington, DC with the seventh grade students at school. The most difficult part of the trip for me was not knowing any of the students I was chaperoning. It’s hard to manage a group of 60 when I’m constantly trying to describe what I’ve seen or overheard to other colleagues because I don’t know who I’m talking about. For example:

“Three boys with glasses and brown hair are standing in the back of the bus.”
“A tall skinny girl is crying in the hallway.”
“I think two kids were out in the hall after lights out but I don’t know if they go to our school.”

Etc.

But DC itself was fun! The highlight for me was seeing my brother, who is a sophomore (second year, for those not attuned to American school slang) at a university just outside of DC. He joined us for lunch and a trip to the National Archives one afternoon.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. How did our 60 students spend three days in DC? We ate a lot and visited a lot of washrooms, but managed to take in a few cultural sites, too.

Washington, DC is about six hours from New York City by bus, so we left first thing Monday morning. Our first stop upon reaching DC was the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which I cannot recommend enough. It opened in September and it’s quite difficult to get tickets – and I completely understand its popularity. The museum is designed so that visitors begin at the bottom, in the “belly of the boat,” as it was explained to us. From there, visitors work their way up through the darkest hours of African American history in the United States, including the slave trade and the aspects of America that were built on the backs of slaves. The exhibits devoted to the civil rights and Black Power movements were fascinating, too. The museum ends in sun-soaked galleries highlighting achievements in sports, the arts, and politics, as well as a look at how discrimination stills plays a huge, ugly role in American history and culture.

The design reminded me a lot of Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, and the stories run parallel to each other in dark, sad ways. When we “other” the people around us, we lose our collective humanity and we do terrible things to each other. That’s the sorry moral of the story that society has yet to learn.

I truly wish we had time in the museum without students. I could have read every single artifact description, all the names of slave ships etched on the walls, all the names of those sold at auction. Like when visiting Holocaust museums, I felt this pressing need to pay my respects to those who died at the hands of people who didn’t consider them people. I’d love to go back on my own when tickets are easier to get so I can spend more time learning than I was able to on this trip.

That evening, we took a boat cruise on the Potomac and I was completely in my happy place. I love water and boats and it was sunny and the kids, though not the best museum-goers, were excellent DJs.

The next morning started with a visit to the US Capitol, which I don’t remember doing the only other time I was in DC about seven years ago. We had a really interesting tour and learned about the architecture of the building. There’s an awful lot of patriotic symbolism in there! And, no surprise, there were differences in political opinion each step of the way, lately regarding selection and placement of statues, which are gifted by the states but placed by the federal government.

I was responsible for picking up House and Senate passes from our local Congressional representative, which was fun because the Congresswoman’s aide gave me a behind-the-scenes tour of the underground connecting hallways of the Capitol when she brought me back to my group. She told me how the whole underground structure was redesigned after 9/11 to allow safe access from the Capitol to other government buildings across the street.

The House wasn’t in session (what do they do, exactly, aside from pass healthcare bills that will ruin all of us and then promptly exempt themselves from regulations?) but the Senate was! After yet another round of metal detectors, locking up all of our belongings, and still another metal detector, we were let into the gallery overlooking the Senate with strict instructions to remain silent. For a few minutes, all we could see were pages fetching water or sitting around and talking to each other. Senators occasionally entered the chamber and walked through it to one of the three or four doors along each wall. Just as we were about to leave, Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey began to speak. From where I was sitting, all I could see was the cameraperson filming his speech. Without that speck of a visual, he was just a disembodied voice, though one speaking very passionately about healthcare. The strange thing, at least to me, was that he was speaking to an empty chamber. He addressed the presiding officer who was seated on a dais looking out over the Senate desks. A few minutes in, Markey noted Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s entrance to the chamber and gave Schumer the floor. Again, Schumer spoke into a camera in a room empty but for pages, Markey, and the presiding officer. It appears that the senators often watch speeches from the comforts of their offices rather than on the floor. Who knew?! Schumer, too, lambasted the Republican healthcare bill and it was so exciting to hear him. Especially because I know I was not alone among our trip staff in voting for him!

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We lunched in the Sculpture Garden across from the National Archives and that’s where my brother met us. We fed him and he joined us for our exploration of the Archives. As a former student of history, I love old documents. It’s fun to piece stories together and to find accounts that corroborate and contradict each other. I still remember the thrill of finding the source when I was writing my undergrad thesis on the Hitler Youth movement. There are some really amazing memoirs out there by people who were children in Nazi Germany! The National Archives are a lot of fun because they freeze moments in time, moments when key decisions were made that shape the history of this country.

Every school trip to Washington, DC includes visits to the monuments. We started at the Lincoln Memorial . . .

. . . which is where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech . . .

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. . . and provides a great view of the Washington Monument, which we did not visit because it’s closed.

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A lot of the kids were tired after the Lincoln Memorial but about half wanted to see the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and we gladly obliged. The kids know very little about Vietnam and they’re not alone in that. While most students can talk about World War II starting in elementary school, the vast majority of students I’ve taught know nothing about Vietnam until we bring it up in class. And they have a lot of questions. One of my favorite lessons involves Vietnamese textbooks that explain the Vietnam War in very different words than the (*cough*) big name, biased, overly simplistic, corporate, Texas-influenced US textbooks (*cough cough*) use. Having been to the War Remnants Museum (formerly known as the Museum of American War Crimes) in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam since my last visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, I had a different understanding of the pointlessness and devastation of Vietnam. Land was burned, lives were lost, and stories were buried. That’s what shame means, I think. And that’s why the memorial is important. It’s a black expanse of wall that lists names of the fallen, explains nothing, and invites questions for everything. The kids asked those questions and I was glad for the opportunity to answer them.

I was also glad to spend a moment at the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, which I hadn’t seen before.

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The next day, we spent the morning at the Newseum, which was full of flashing headlines about the FBI. As good a time as any to talk about freedom of speech (and the press and religion and assembly and petition)! Now that I’ve lived in Malaysia and Singapore, neither of which have all of those freedoms, I find myself wondering about the merits of such a free society. For instance, freedom of speech in the US led to an acceptance of hate rhetoric, which led to Trump. So I wonder.

Before hitting the road for our drive back to New York, we stopped at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, which was a nice bookend to the National Museum of African American History and Culture that started the trip. Martin Luther King, Jr. was my professor’s chosen case study for a required college course on rhetoric and argumentative writing, so I am very familiar with King’s life, writing, speeches, and civil rights partners, including the SCLC, SNCC, and the NAACP. It was really powerful to see his words carved into stone, especially because of their implications for our choices and policies today.

One of my coworkers kept laughing at my penchant for taking pictures with my well-traveled Converse and suggested I try one with my hand instead. So I chose to photograph my hand with the word that seemed the most meaningful, the most important, the most pressing.

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At the end of the day, that’s what we’re working for.