Tuesday, May 08, 2001

Mystic Crystals

I'm coping with a goofy German keyboard. The header almost came out "Mzstic Crzstals".

Innsbruck has been enjoyable (enjozable). I really am amazed at looking one way, and seeming the Alps right in front of me, and then turning around and seeing them in the other direction. Also, Innsbruck is a nice, old town with walkable streets and old buildings.

Today was the afternoon we had off from the conference for the excursion. The excursion was ostensibly to "Swarovski Crystal World," but the iron rule of any sort of bus tour is that you can never spend too much time in anz one place. It upsets the bus driver or something. So our first stop was the village of Hall. Hall was home to the old Mint. As the brochure says:

Competent personnel offers help and advice to guests and shares their pleasure when they create a durable souvenir of their visit to Hall in the form of a medal they can coin themselves by means of a powerful blow against the coinage die or an energetic jerk of the screw press.

Anzwaz...The Mint was apparently founded by Maximillian's uncle, Sigmund. The innovation due to it was to coin big silver coins rather than small gold ones; the innovation soon spread across Europe. This was good for Sigmund, since there's a silver mine nearby. The minting continued until Napolean invaded. Then, when the Bavarians "liberated" Tyrolia, they also helped themselves to the coin presses. Then we walked around Hall and looked at a couple of old churches.

Then it was of to the Crystal Worlds. Apparently Swarovski moved here from Bohemia 106 years ago because he had a great idea for making crystal, but was afraid somebody in Bohemia would steal it. Since this area was bereft of people who knew crystal, it seemed like a good place to start a crystal business. (That's my understanding, anyway.)

6 years ago, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the business, Swarovski commissioned a trippy techno "experience" (the type of thing Brian Eno would be involved in -- yep, he was involved in this.) Basically, you walk through about 6 different rooms filled with lights, crystal, and music, and are encouraged to ponder the meaning of it all. And they laughed at EuroDisney.

After those rooms (we were given over an hour; they took about 15 minutes), we were deposited in the gift shop. This seemed a familiar scam -- except for the fact that the gift shop was way cooler than anything else in the museum. Bunches of tiny crystals carved into parrots, dice and other wacky shapes. Really, really expensive chandeliers that you wonder who would actually buy.

It was nice to get out of Innsbruck. The mountains are really beautiful, and it snowed a couple of weeks ago. They say the snow will melt in a couple of days, but it's pretty while it lasts.

Monday, May 07, 2001

To Innsbruck

I got to the airport almost 2 hours early. At the ticket counter, they were still unable to give me a seat assignment, but they assured me I could get one at the gate. I waited in line for a few minutes at the gate, and then heard an announcement that we should just sit down and they'd call us with our seat assignment. I was advised not to play along, so I went up to the counter with my best confused-guy look. They took my ticket and gave me a seat assignment. I suspect they wanted people to sit down so they could dole out the superior seats to Premier fliers.

I ended up with a somewhat mediocre seat -- I lacked the extra legroom of Economy Plus, but I was on the aisle, and I did have a bit more room due to the wall in front of me. (Aside: do I spend far too much time writing about he plane flights and not enough about the destinations?) Unfortunately, the wall in front of me belong to the lavatory, which meant enduring some amount of people hanging out in my personal space while waiting for a free toilet. My personal space was doing fine, too, with two adjacent empty seats, until a flight attendant placed a couple in those seats after takeoff. Between that and a difficulty digesting all the salmon (I think it's a bit excessive to offer salmon as a main dish and then provide it also as a side dish. Hello? United? I have half a mind to pack my own meal next time.) I attempted to catch some shut-eye, but was woken up by a flight attendant who stepped on a water container that had fallen in the aisle and splattered my legs with water. Later, while I was attempting to sleep through breakfast, he was pouring water for the person next to me and spilled it on my arm. Anyway, I was not a happy camper arriving in Frankfurt.

But I began to feel a little better once I got off the plane, and it was time to wander around looking for my flight to Innsbruck. I found the gate number and headed in that direction, but I soon came upon passport control. I wasn't sure if I should go through German passport control when my final destination was Austria, so I walked over to the United counter. They sent me to the Lufthansa counter. Sometimes I feel silly for not knowing where I'm supposed to be. Lately I've been getting over that by looking at how confused everyone else seems to be. Here that was demonstrated by all the people trying to get to the counter via the clearly marked Exit/Ausgang line. The Lufthansa people issued me a boarding pass and let me know that I did, in fact, need to go through passport control.

The guy there glanced at my passport, mumbled "OK" and let me through. As a result, I didn't get my passport stamped in either Germany or Austria. This is the first time that's happened to me on a trip abroad. (Besides Canada, which doesn't really count.) :-(

I got on the prop plane to Innsbruck. I slept through most of that, which was fine given all the clouds obscuring the scenery. I was awakened briefly by the splash of coffee on my arm.

I collected my luggage, which showed up suprisingly quickly, and realized I had no idea how to get to my hotel. On the assumption that it wasn't 2 blocks away, I took a cab. I think this is the first time I've gotten a woman as a taxi driver. Huh. She dropped me off a block away from the Goldener Adler, as much of the old city was closed off for a marathon.

It was only 10 AM, so my hotel room wasn't ready, but the receptionist talked me into an Innsbruck Card, which allowed one-price access to all of Innsbruck's attractions for the next 24 hours. It seemed like a good way of keeping to the always-a-good-idea but never-really-feasible "stay up all day" method of fighting jetlag.

My first stop was the Maximilianeum, a museum devoted to the Emperor Maximillian. Max was the Hapsburg who really started to consolidate the Austrian Empire. He used strategic marriages to gain territory across Europe. Unfortunately, in his last visit to Innsbruck, he was chased out because his credit was no longer welcome.

At first I was impressed by the Maximilianeum's audio technology. They gave me headphones, set them to "English," and whenever I was near an exhibit, I'd hear the appropriate flavor text. So, while I sat through the 20-minute introductory movie in English, others were listening in their own languages. It seemed to be superior to a similar system at the Tate Modern in London, in that I didn't even have to punch in a code for each exhibit. Unfortunately, the scheme fell apart in the (tiny) museum itself. The headphones worked by a very very short range radio broadcast, which caused a great deal of moving around one's head and body trying to pick up a signal. It got even more awkward when someone else was trying to do the same thing. Fortunately, the exhibits were more or less a rehash of the film, so I wasn't missing much.

Next it was off to the Hofburg, which was some sort of palace for Hapsburgs over the years. It was nicely furnished, but the (German) captions on the displays really didn't give much context. After this, I made my way carefully around the old city (avoiding the marathoners), only to discover that the 3 other things in the area that the Innsbruck card got me into weren't open on Sunday afternoons. Further, the trolley that would take me to other parts of Innsbruck ran right through the marathon course, so I wasn't going to be able to take that. So it was back to the hotel to check in, ride a somewhat disconcerting elevator to my room (there are no set of interior doors on it, so you really see the floors go by), and take the inevitable nap.

After that I went to the Congress Innsbruck to register for the conference and enjoy the opening reception. I ran into a guy I've known since we were 12-year-olds taking summer math classes, and we went with 4 others for a late dinner. I had some gnocchi, and after much calculating, we were able to settle the bill. Despite all this, I managed to sleep last night from 11 pm to 7 am and haven't fallen asleep in any of this morning's talks.

Sunday & Monday in New Orleans

Greetings from Austria. Let me tell you about...New Orleans. I'll finish this off (I wrote it on the plane) so I can later get on with telling you about Innsbruck.

Sunday began with a Jazz Brunch at a hotel in downtown New Orleans. It was the type of fancy-schmancy all-the-caviar-and-shrimp-you-can-eat-my-humble-apologies-sir-that-I-put-onions-in-your-omelet-let-me-make-you-another-one buffet that everyone should be able to indulge in every once in a while. The jazz was cool, and the view of New Orleans and the Mississippi from the 11th floor was impressive.

From there, it was a street car ride (neat!) to Jackson Square. The statue of Andy Jackson had been built by the locals prior to the Civil War and then carved with the words "The Union must and shall be preserved" by a Northern general during the occupation of the city. (You tell 'em!)

We attended a special Girl Scout Mass at St. Lous Cathedral. Normally not on my "to do" list for New Orleans, this event featured the older 2 of our hosts' 3 adorable daughters. My mind swam with trite observations. Gee, Catholics really seem to like ritual. Uhh. But nice cathedral, and congrats to the Girl Scouts on earning their Catholicism patch.

Afterwards, it was off to Cafe du Monde, for the famed beignets. Despite somewhat indifferent service, our beignets arrived, and I accompanied mine by some hot chocolate. Mmm. Fried dough goodness. Afterwards, when the 9-year-old was asked by her mother whether she needed to "powder her nose," she pointed out her sugar-covered clothing and said, "But I've already powdered by dress." Aww, how cute.

Monday morning we went off to the Aquarium of the Americas. Despite warnings that it would not live up to the National Aquarium in Baltimore, I was impressed. If you shaved off the dolphin and sea lion exhibits from the National Aquarium, I think you'd get somnething fairly comparable to the A of the A.

After that, it was a tasty lunch at the Napolean House, followed by a final walk along the river before saying farewell to the Big Easy. An hour-and-a-half drive back to Baton Rouge allowed us to return the rental car ("You might want to check the air in the tires.") and head back to DC.