Monday, July 30, 2007

Discussion of Europe, Part 1: Trains

Things are winding down here at GTL. Finals are being taken (albeit not taken seriously), 6:45 am train reservations to get to Paris are in place, and plans have been made to go to the most ghetto McDonalds in Hartsfield-Jackson airport, order a large Coke, dump it down the drain for the hell of it, and get a free refill. Oh yeah. I don't know of anyone who isn't glad to be getting back to the US of A, even the most stridently progressive worldly-minded among us.

At this point, I think I have the experience to consider myself a reasonably experienced European rail traveler. I've taken trains in eight different countries, ranging from the crappiest regional Belgian train between Namur and Charleroi to the state-of-the-art German high-speed "tilting" train from Kaiserslautern to Munich. I've exercised my Eurail pass literally past the breaking point--I've had to apply at least three remedial staples to keep it attached to its cover. And I have but one more train trip to take before I can get to the airport and fly home. First, a few comments on the Eurail pass.

You might be surprised at what the Eurail Pass doesn't do for you. Clearly, it doesn't just let you hop an overnight train. You're going to have to pay a premium for those--20 Euro for a couchette bed seems to be the going rate. It might be a few less or a few more depending on who's operating the train and where the destination is. Is a couchette worth it? Generally if you're going to be getting what you deem a good night's rest, then yes. They're a little small, and the pillows suck, but you at least get a bed and a blanket. Often you'll get amenities too: a bottle of water is common, and if you're especially lucky you might get breakfast upon arrival. Oh, and don't be freaked out when the Italian train guy says "I take-a your pass-a-port." He's protecting you from it getting robbed over the night.

The other thing it doesn't do for you is get you on many high-speed trains. Germany's ICEs are free. In Italy, it costs a whopping 15 Euros for the exact same service. And everywhere else is anywhere in between.

On the other hand, you might be pleasantly surprised at what the Eurail pass does do for you. At one point, it became necessary to take a bus to the middle of nowhere, France, to a little town that doesn't have rail service. We observed other people showing their train tickets to get onto the bus for free, so we figured why not? The first person in my group to get on the bus showed his Eurail pass, and after several minutes of scrutiny, the driver said what I believe to be the French equivalent of "I don't know what this is, but I think it's okay." A few weeks later, in Geneva, we were welcomed aboard a Lake Geneva ferry with a hearty "bonjour!" by showing the Eurail pass. The German subways in every city are part of the Deutsche Bahn system, so they're covered too.

A big question is what sort of rail pass to get. In relation to the GTL program, it might be tempting to get one of those flex pass things, because after all, you're not going to be traveling by train every day of the summer. That only works, though, if you're sure you're only going to be traveling on whatever dates you set. Miss a train and have to try again the next day? Out of luck. It's possible to time the two month pass exactly right and only have to buy one additional train ticket, but it's a lot easier just to go with the three month, I think.

And finally, all trains are not created equal. German trains are remarkably efficient, and all of them are covered by the Eurail pass. They're clean and spacious, and every once in a while you're lucky enough to get an announcement in English too. Italian trains, on the other hand, are often the better part of an hour late (at one point, more than half the trains coming into Naples were delayed at least 15 minutes). They're not awful quality, except that you pay out your nose if you want to get anywhere remotely close to quickly. French and Belgian trains are unremarkable.

If you want service, though, Germany and Austria are the best places to go. Here's an anecdote illustrating the superiority of the Austrian train system over the French. A few friends and I wanted to book an overnight train from Strasbourg, France to Salzburg, Austria. We go down to the train station to do this, because there's no way that anyone can figure out to do anything online. My friend asks, "Parlez-vous anglais?" The woman responds "un peu." Things are looking up, because this is a lot more anglais than most French train people parle. "We would like to book a couchette from Strasbourg to Salzburg," my friend continues. The woman types "Stras" for the departure and double-clicks the arrival. Then she types in... "De" and brings up Germany? "No, Salzburg is in Austria," I volunteer. "Autriche."

The woman boredly hits backspace a few times, and puts in "As." Now, if I had to guess a country code for Austria, I think "As" would be a fine guess. This woman, though, should not be making a guess. This is her job. Eventually, she figures out that "At" is the right code. She looks at it for a while before declaring "No, it's not possible. All full." To be fair, this is reasonable. It's Tuesday, and we're looking to travel Friday night. Maybe it is full. "How about another way to get to Salzburg?" asks my friend. The woman says "No, the only way." I give her the benefit of the doubt and think that she understood the question as "are there any other overnight trains." So I clarify, "Are there any trains during the day on Saturday?" She doesn't input anything, but tells me "No, all full."

Things are starting to seem a bit fishy. She's telling us that the only way to get to Austria at all on Friday or Saturday is on an overnight train that's full? We already know that's not true: we have a last-ditch itinerary worked out that involves taking ICEs across Germany and getting into Salzburg around 10 hours after we left Metz. That sucks, but it's at least a way to get there. My friend and I have a quick sidebar in English. We'd really like to go somewhere East, and we're not entirely set on Austria. The guy I'm with then asks the woman, "How about Budapest?" She considers typing in "Romania" and both of us automatically respond "Hungary." That's full too.

Another English sidebar, and we decide that we might as well resign ourselves to trains all day Saturday, but at least we might be able to get one for the way back. That's a Monday night, almost a week away, and during the middle of the business week. No way that's full, right? Alas, "It's not possible." At that point, my friend and I are forced to just punt and walk out. Now it's looking like we're going to have to travel all day Saturday and all day Monday, leaving only Sunday to see all of Vienna and Salzburg. We enact out last-ditch itinerary of "travel all day Saturday" and immediately upon arriving in Austria, we ask the OBB guy if we can reserve the couchette on the way back.

"3 beds?" he asks. "60 Euros total."

Currently listening: "Benzin" from Rosenrot, Rammstein

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Final Word in the Final Sentence no longer "scar." But we knew that a while ago.

Review, Discussion, and Plenty of Shameless Spoilers: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Come on, guys. If you haven't read the book yet, don't say I didn't warn you. And now it's time to have a little chat, in what I promise will be the last Harry Potter post for a long, long time.

Let's start with that "scar" while it's fresh on my mind. I can't quite comprehend why the last word wasn't "scar" anymore. I mean, it's not as if "scar" was erased from the epilogue--at least in the British version, it was on the very same line, for goodness sake. Rowling could easily have rewritten it to keep her ten year old promise to us. Instead we came away with "all was well."

Really, that unexpectedly weak last sentence underscored an unexpectedly weak epilogue in general. Samantha eloquently characterized it as "Grade F fanfiction." (As if there were some other sort.) Intellectually, I realize this is probably Rowling's attempt at a "feel-good ending" for all the little kids who got screwed up by all the Bad Things that happened during the book. Literarily, it was sort of a letdown after a powerful final installment that could have easily stood on its own without "awww, Harry and Ginny made some babies."

Now let's talk about the title. Thinking back on it, it was foolish to assume that we could guess what the title meant. There was no way we could have guessed what the "Chamber of Secrets" was based on the first boo. No way we could have guessed the "Goblet of Fire" from the first three, etc. And yet, the fan community was adamant that it knew what the Deathy Hallows were before reading the book. Half of it (myself too) thought it meant Horcruxes, half thought it meant Godric's Hallow, and both camps were completely wrong in a sort of interestingly half-correct way.

Thinking back to the earlier books in the series, remember how every book was considered "the darkest book yet"? The first one, sure, a few creepy things happened, but it was essentially a children's story. The second and third, creepier stuff happens, like possession. Then, at the end of book four, somebody finally dies. A couple more deaths, now significant ones, in five and six. And by maybe a third of the way into Deathly Hallows you find yourself thinking "wait, we thought a single death was 'dark' before?" The first three hundred pages or so of the seventh book were far more intense than the rest of the series, put together.

I think a lot of what made the series succeed in the past was the fact that there was a lot of "normal school stuff" balanced with "heroic saving the world." The seventh book had none of the "normal" stuff, which made it sort of weird. Like I've said before, one of the strongest points in the series has always been its immersive depth of setting, and Hogwarts was the critical element of that. People commented that it didn't make sense for Harry to go back to school, because he had more important things to worry about than Potions essays. The thing is, one of the reasons the books were so good in the past is because all of us have had our Potions essays to trudge through, our Draco Malfoys to combat, our Hermione Grangers to try and live up to. The first six books had some of their most brilliant moments in offhand comments made by some Weasley, in History of Magic lectures that you swear you've had to sit through, in Minerva McGonagall's mood swings.

It's clear from the start that if the seventh book is supposed to succeed, it's going to have to carve an entirely new path for itself, utterly abandoning everything we already grew to love about the series. And that's not exactly a reassuring thought. Ultimately, Rowling succeeds in concluding her series, but at the cost of systematically breaking down each and every reason we read the first six books. Or is it "with the added benefit of redefining why we liked the first six books?" Tough to say. If she was going for "make you feel utterly hopeless by the halfway point," then she did a really good job. You know that Good has to triumph over Evil in the end, but around that halfway point, you're not entirely clear on how that's going to happen.

Rowling's greatest strength in this book, then, is making the reader feel exactly as demoralized or emboldened as the characters are at any given point. And at that halfway point, when we meet the white doe, the grand pendulum starts to swing out of "sheer desperation," for both the characters and the reader. Only then do Good Things start happening instead of death and flight everywhere. How incredibly significant that white doe seems when you think about it, and who it symbolizes, after you've finished the novel. Of course, that symbolism is Lily Evans through Severus Snape.

The other assertion that I've made about the series is that Severus Snape is the only interesting character. I don't actually think that's true, after reading the final book, but he was undoubtedly the most complex. And... well, I got my wish, didn't I? Snape, neither truly good nor truly evil. Working for the Good Guys, yes, but not because of a desire to do good. The book's most interesting issue to think about is Snape's ultimate motivation in his actions for the last fifteen years. Was Snape actually in love with Lily, or was it a sort of obsession instead? Did he actually want to honor Lily's memory, or was he instead disgruntled with/fearful of Voldemort and wanted a back-end way to work against him? I'm mostly satisfied with how our friend Severus turned out, although I do find one thing a little strange. Whether is was obsession, fear, revenge, or actual love, does it make sense to have one and only one goal drive all of your actions for fifteen years of your life? I can't see it, at least for myself.

And now, death. It's in the title, so you've got to be expecting it. I think the many deaths in this book can be roughly divided into a few categories:

1) Characters I expected to die who did. I thought some member of the Order would probably die, such as Moody, Lupin, or Tonks. Turns out we hit the trifecta. I thought some Weasley would die, because it's so improbably for all of them to have survived--probably Molly. We got Fred instead. Voldemort. Bellatrix (though I thought for a sense of poetic justice, Neville would have brought her down). And finally, Snape, no matter what side he turned out to be on.

2) Characters who I never saw it coming. Hedwig? Seriously, Jo? I mean, damn. She didn't even have a noble death--just green flash, squawk, thump, boom. And... Dobby?

Finally, I really appreciate the new dimension we got for so many of the main characters. Who'd have thought the exalted Albus Dumbledore would have been simultaneously into immortality and a massive coverup to hide his family secrets? And who'd have thought that Neville was actually a hero?

Currently listening: "Black Wave" and "Split Needles" from Wincing the Night Away, the Shins

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Eighteen Come April

You probably haven't heard of the English folk song "Seventeen Come Sunday." I hadn't until I played it as part of Ralph Vaughan Williams' English Folk Song Suite in concert band. On a side note, this is one of the best wind band pieces I have ever played or even heard... incredibly complex counter-melodies, "hummable" melodies, intriguing dynamic and solo work. If you have heard and liked Holst's Suites for Military Band, Folk Song Suite is more of the same, and probably better.

And even if you have heard of "Seventeen Come Sunday," probably by means of Folk Song Suite, you probably didn't know that it had words. I didn't, until one of those famous Wikipedia binges, where you start on "hydrofuran," end up on "Voltaire," and pass through "Mythology in Final Fantasy X" in the process. On one of those excursions, I discovered this, which lists all the lyrics to this song. They're absolutely hilarious. I figured that if it had words, they would probably be about war, because it was a march. Given that the title was "Seventeen Come Sunday," I figured it had a coming-of-age theme, and so I assumed that the narrator of sorts was off to join the army as soon as he was old enough. Turns out that's not exactly incorrect...

Here's the Reader's Digest version: some guy is walking through an English village one morning, and he sees a cute girl.
Guy: Hey, what's up?
Girl: Oh, not much, just doing some errands for my mom.
Guy: Right... how old are you?
Girl: I'm seventeen come Sunday.
Guy: Yeah, about that... do you really want to be doing errands for your mom?
Girl: Well, I guess not. Let's screw.

And now we turn our attention to the lovely Miss Emma Watson, who plays Hermione in the Harry Potter movies. She, of course, is eighteen come April.

Now, Emma Watson being not quite eighteen, I obviously don't have a thing for her. Not until April 15 2008, that is. This is an unfortunate temporal arrangement, but it doesn't preclude me from planning for the future. Interestingly, hers is a very badly-written and edited website. It needs someone else to maintain it... me, for instance. And if I'm going to be applying for this job in 38 weeks, I'm going to need to do a little background research. Here are a few of Emma's favorite things, taken from the website, and with my own commentary added below.

1) Colour: pink
Fabulous. This suggests that she's girly, and that's instantly attractive.
2) Band: the Postal Service
Amazing. She likes good music, too. I'm holding out hope that she too detests the Black Eyed Peas.
(skip a few that I haven't heard of)
5) Musical: Chicago
Acceptable. I might have preferred something satirical like The Producers or Spamalot, but at least it's not something totally lame like South Pacific.
6) Actor: Johnny Depp
Excusable. For all the overhype he receives, the man actually does know how to act.
(skip a bunch about which I'm unqualified to comment, like fashion)
14) Food: spaghetti
Delicious. Who doesn't like spaghetti... and yet putting it as your favorite food is sort of gutsy.
15) Comfort food: Toast and hot chocolate
Intriguing. I'm going to have to try this.
16) Drink: orange juice and lemonade
Imaginative. As long as it's not "cheap beer" I have no objection.
17) Car: I don't know anything about cars.
Fine. Neither do I.
18) Holiday destination: France
Disappointing. Hopefully this is a product of "lack of worldly experience" and not "genuine love of France." Unless she's flutently bilingual, which would be totally hot.
19) Sport: field hockey
Unusual. Though not entirely bad. I wonder what she thinks of good old American football?
20) Animal: cat
Adorable. How can you not love cats?
21) TV show: Friends
Unfortunate. There's a lot out there that's a lot funnier.

And finally, she is apparently artsy, too, having drawn an illustration for her own website. Lovely. Of course, we already know that she's a sort of artsy, being an actress and all...

Review: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Let's be honest here, seeing the movie was not the primary reason I went to see the movie. It was so I could go the wonderful Utopolis theater in Luxembourg, which it turns out is an amazing little slice of America. Liter of Coke for 3 Euros? It just doesn't get any better than that. Well, okay, it does, but only in American grocery stores. In super-expensive Europe, that drink price is even cheaper than American theater drink prices! Add theater-style (read: drenched in butter) popcorn, and you've got a great reason to skip Thermo.

And even so, the movie turned out to be pretty good too. Primarily, I think it was as true a 2 1/2 hour adaptation of an 800 page book is going to be. And that's going to be the main reason anybody is going to want to see the movie. They're not expecting astonishing cinema; they want an adaptation. The movie had its strong points--the wizard duels were particularly convincing, and the Department of Mysteries was exactly as I think it should have been. It had its weak points, too--I take issues with how the centaurs are portrayed. In the books, they're supposed to be incredibly intelligent and rightfully offended when Umbridge calls them "creatures of nearly-human intelligence." In the movie, they're portrayed as just that; merely grunting and shooting arrows at her.

I don't have an eye for good/bad editing, but even I saw a few clumsy transitions and the like. A few scenes I think really should have been in the movie, like Harry's emo rage when he smashes all of Dumbledore's crap in the office, or when Harry finds Sirius's mirror, or when Harry and Cho start screaming at each other on Valentine's Day. Finally, the whole Cho thing seemed a bit odd; making her out to be the traitor tidied things up cinematically... except that it didn't, because of the equally as bizarre use of Veritaserum. In the end, though, that's probably a minor point.

I get it from a reliable source that Rupert Grint is supposed to be attractive, and I get it from an equally reliable source that Daniel Radcliffe is supposed to be attractive. My feelings on the matter? Rupert Grint looks sort of dorky--how else do you describe a guy whose hair comes down to his nose? And Daniel Radcliffe looks sort of geeky. Yes, there's a difference. A little more on casting decisions: my feelings regarding Emma Watson are well known. I think that Luna was cast perfectly (apparently Rowling thinks so too). She's young, but has lots of attractive-potential, possibly more so than the character warrants.

Next post, of course, will be the fourth Harry Potter-themed one in a while, where I very carefully discuss the new book without spoiling anything. Or completely open the floodgates on what happens and give my opinion on all of it; I haven't decided yet. At any rate, there's no point making predictions at this stage, when spoilers are probably abounding all around me anyway.

Currently listening: Love, The Juliana Theory

Thursday, July 05, 2007


Think of the strangest 4th of July experience you could have as an American citizen. You may be having fanciful visions of oppression in Iron Curtain Europe, or malaria in the jungles of Panama, or subsistence in some remote African village where they may not even know it is the Fourth of July, or even care for that matter. And yes, you'd be right, those would be strange Fourths of July indeed. How about sitting in the common room of a French campus of an American university? This would involve colored mood lighting--not red, white, and blue, mind you, but red and orange. It would incorporate that most American of music genres, jazz, as performed by a duo of French musicians. The food would not be entirely out of place: sausage, chicken, and pork on the grill, but with a strange European twist of paprika-flavored potato chips. (This was later determined to be a conspiracy, as these tasted strangely similar to barbecue chips back from the States.)

And the day's entertainment? No fireworks, of course, but that can almost be excused on the basis of a rainy morning and afternoon. This rainy morning and afternoon, spent in the World War I battleground of Verdun. Verdun is a strange choice for such a day of American patriotism, as no American regiments actually fought at Verdun. One American was killed at the battle, an ambulance driver who volunteered with the French army, but the good old AEF would not enter the way for another year at that point.

More than just being a strange place to celebrate American patriotism, Verdun is a strange place to celebrate much of anything. I think the operative word here is "somber." Touring the inside of Fort Douaumont is at least historically interesting, and the memorial has plenty of military relevance in the form of artillery and old uniforms. Taking a look around, though, you see acre after acre of shell-shocked land, miniature hills and valleys that have been a part of the landscape since 1916 that nobody has any reason to think will ever go away. Then you come to the graveyard: row after row of "mort pour le France," "mort pour le France." Taking all of this in combination with weather that Seattle seems to have modeled itself off of, and you get a 4th of July that's more depressing than anything.

And apple pie? Forget about it, though there were some tasty apples available; imagine crust and cinnamon and sugar and you're almost there.

Tangent: I just found the drop-down that lets me access Blogger in English. This made me very, very happy, despite the cloud cover that is still reminiscent of an Atlanta February.

I know when I've been beaten, and it looks like time to clarify my position on the Harry Potter finale just a little bit. It's interesting how negative the reaction has been to using Norton's standards of "classic" to describe the Harry Potter books. Even so, I believe my argument remains essentially the same, even disregarding the entire "classic/not a classic" framework. To quote Nick's comment from the previous post, "there is substantial difference between a book that is enjoyable and layered throughout [...] and a book that sacrifices all of that hard work for the sake of a pat and satisfying ending." And to me, making Snape a clear-cut Good Guy or a clear-cut Bad Guy is doing exactly that: taking the only morally intriguing character in the series and defenestrating everything that was interesting about him.

One hallmark of a good piece of literature--whether a "classic" or whatever else you want to call it, is allowing the reader to consider what's happening in it and make his own conclusions about at least a few points. In Harry Potter, we're told virtually everything else outright; allowing her readers to make their own conclusions regarding Snape is the least Rowling could do.

One comment Gina made on the Book of Faces goes like this: "Snape is too intelligent not to understand the bigger picture and to have an opinion on it." Too true. And the only thing that makes sense, given everything that we know about his character from books 1-6, is that this "opinion" is "how do I manipulate everyone so that I come out the best for myself?" He's a Slytherin, so he's nothing if not ambitious.

One further comment by Gina: "If she does have him turn out to be good, it further enforces what Sirius (or perhaps Lupin) says in Order of the Phoenix, 'The world isn't broken down into good people and Death Eaters.'" This one I definitely disagree with. If he turns out to be a Good Guy (or a Bad Guy, for that matter), it shows that the world absolutely is broken down into Good Guys and Bad Guys. When I read that quote, I immediately thought of Snape. Virtually everyone else we know of it one or the other (aside from the people at the Ministry of Magic, who are probably the least compelling and developed characters in the series). I still argue that not only does the setting Rowling has created benefit immensely if he's somewhere in between, it actually suffers if he's not.

A final question on the issue: what does everyone think about having Snape's allegiance go completely unresolved? What if Rowling were to kill him off before we knew for sure? We already know that this isn't going to happen of course, but I'm interested how people would see that. A cop-out, merely a literary trick to escape making a tough narrative decision? Or an act of realism, a final stroke to give the reader something to think about once the book is finished?

Currently listening: "Kalimba Story," Earth Wind and Fire