Sunday, June 15, 2008

Trains, Trains and More Trains

I'll be the first to admit that I'm a train geek. Yes, I really liked playing with my model train set when I was a kid and perhaps I never grew out of it. Even today, whenever I get a chance, I'll go out of my way to see a model railroad display (the one at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry is particularly impressive). I even "drove" the diesel locomotive at Monticello's Railway Museum (they'll let you play engineer if you pay them some cash). So it's no wonder that when I got back from Europe and unloaded my digital camera, I found that I had taken a lot of train pictures.

Unless you live in the Northeast corridor, train travel in the U.S. is not very popular. However, in Europe everyone takes the train. One reason could be that gas prices are much higher in Europe. But the most obvious reason is that train travel is just so much more civilized. Most intercity trains have a dining car that serves beer and wine, and an espresso cart comes down the aisle every now and then. Besides, Europe's rail network is so well developed, you can pretty much take a train to anywhere. Even though long distance intercity train travel is expensive, it's still well worth it to avoid the hassle (and expense) of getting to and from an airport. And of course, the long lines at airport security checkpoints don't exist at train stations.

As a designer, I have a keen interest in logos, identity and branding -- and the high standards of European railway graphics did not disappoint. Each country has its own national railway, complete with a distinctive logo and a well-executed identity system that integrates color schemes, uniform design, fabrics, interiors, glossy promotional materials and a fully branded web site. The web sites are so functional that one can plan detailed itineraries complete with transfers and track numbers. If you buy European rail tickets online from the U.S., they will mail you the tickets across the Atlantic. Automated ticket machines at stations are also available in English and are fairly easy to use.

But what impressed me the most was the design of the trains themselves. Depending on whether you're riding a local, regional or intercity train, the railway cars themselves could be completely different designs. Each country had its own aerodynamic, super-fast flagship "tilting" trains that can travel up to 200 MPH. The Swiss have the ICN, the Germans have the ICE, the French have the TGV (the fastest train in the world?), the Italians have the Cisalpino -- and they each have a distinctive look. Even the interiors have distinctive color schemes and layouts. The German ICE had the best seating arrangements. If you wanted to, you could choose a six-seat private compartment and close the door -- even in second class. We got lucky one day when we took the train from Basel to Zurich to check out a museum. Without planning for it, we rode the ICE to Zurich and the TGV back. We even managed to get our own private compartment on the ICE because the train wasn't very crowded. On another occasion, when the second class cars on the Golden Pass line were very crowded we were able to upgrade to first class for only $15 per person.

The German trains are all owned by Deutsche Bahn, the German national railroad. But the Swiss had both a national railway and privately owned regional railways like the Zentralbahn and the Jungfraubahn, each with their own branding and color schemes. The Jungfraubahn specializes in scenic and historic rail routes like the narrow gauge Schynige Platte line and several gondola lifts. They also own several hotels and lodges in their region, which we figured made good business sense since cheap hotels help sell train tickets. The Zentralbahn featured the Golden Pass line which runs the amazing scenic route from Interlaken Ost to Luzern complete with panoramic cars. Ticketing for all Swiss trains are available on the Swiss Federal Railway site regardless of which line you want to travel on, and the timetables are all coordinated to make transfers easy and convenient.

If you've traveled on Amtrak, you know that our trains never run on time. Not so in Switzerland or Germany. If the train is supposed to leave at 4:10, it leaves exactly at 4:10 -- to the second. I've watched this phenomenon again and again: about 30 seconds before departure, the conductor blows his/her whistle, the doors close, and when the second hand strikes 12 (and not one second later), the engineer releases the brakes and we're off. For some reason, the Italians aren't that concerned with promptness. In fact, because intercity trains often cross borders and make connections with another country's trains, the Swiss tend to blame to the Italians for screwing up their schedule.

Trains are great for intercity travel, but for local travel, take the tram (a.k.a. "street cars" like the ones in San Francisco). The major cities we visited -- Basel, Zurich, Berlin -- all had impressive tram systems. And where trams don't go, there are electric buses. Berlin had it all -- trams, buses, subway (U-Bahn), and the S-Bahn, an above-ground city train system. Ticketing on city transportation is based on a trust system. There are ticket machines at every station, but no one checks your ticket. Sure, there are random checks to keep people in line but those checks are few and far in between.

Train travel is so embedded in European culture that one can catch special train movies on late night cable TV. One night, as I was randomly clicking around, I stumbled across one channel showing an unedited video of an express train running at 200 MPH as seen from the engineer's point-of-view. It was raining the day the video was recorded, so the windshield wiper was going, making a rhythmic beat that mixed nicely with the sound of the rails flying by underneath. So I sat there glued to the TV, mesmerized by the scenery flying by for what seemed like an hour. As I sat, eyes glued to the TV screen, I noticed that I felt very much at peace and in balance -- with my mind emptied of random thoughts. Now that's train magic.

(See more train pictures)

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Germany's Rhine Valley

After a week in Italy, we're back in Germany to tour the romantic Rhine valley, also known as Germany's castle region. Our destination was Cochem, a small town in the shadows of a castle on the Mosel River (which feeds into the Rhine). Cochem is just a few hours by train to Basel where we fly back to the States in a few days, so it seemed like a good idea to make one last stop before our vacation was over. Our Ryanair flight took us to Frankfurt Hahn airport which is nowhere near Frankfurt, but it's a short bus ride from the airport to Cochem. So we waited by the bus stop for a bus, but a taxi came instead. The fare was cheap, so we hopped in for a dizzying, stomach-turning ride up and down mountain roads. Fortunately, the ride was only 30 minutes, but it seemed much longer than that.

In Cochem, our home was at Weingut Rademacher, a bed and breakfast on a vineyard next to the train station. As soon as we checked in, we rented bikes and started exploring the town. I even took the bike on a boat to Beilstein, the next town over and rode back along the Mosel River. The weather was good and life was easy. But as we looked around, we didn't see many people our age. It seemed that all the tourists in the area are retired folks in their 60s. And the food in the restaurants reflected this. It seemed that almost every restaurant in town served the exact same menu -- tomato soup, schnitzel, and bratwurst. Fortunately, we found a Turkish döner kebab place to tide us over until we got back to civilization.

I don't know why, but I'm a big fan of fairy tale castles. Maybe it's all those Disney movies I watched when I was a kid or maybe I'm just a hopeless romantic, but one of my favorite movies is Miyazaki's Castle in the Sky. To fulfill my castle fantasy, I wanted to visit Burg Eltz, a castle hidden deep in the forest near a town called Moselkern just up the Mosel River. This castle has been in the Eltz family for over 800 years and is one of the very few castles that was never abandoned or destroyed. According to Rick Steves, the hike to the castle from Moselkern was supposed to be magical and Burg Eltz was supposed to be Rick's favorite castle in all of Europe. Unfortunately, neither the hike or the castle lived up to my fantasies. The only way to see the castle was with a guided tour and it seemed like our guide was still in training. We only got to see a small portion of the castle, perhaps eight rooms at most. Although the history was interesting, the overall experience was rather disappointing.

Instead, the real highlight of the Rhine valley turned out to be a steamboat ride from St. Goar to Bacharach. Many boats go up and down the Rhine, but there is only one Goethe, a paddle wheel steamer built in 1913 and is operated today by the KD Line. The Goethe only runs once a day, so with a little planning, we timed our train trip back to Basel with a scenic detour on a historic river boat.

Stepping onto the Goethe was like stepping through a time warp. This was truly a boat built for first class travel, complete with original art deco motifs and outfitted with beautiful wooden interiors. We chose the most romantic section of the Rhine for this cruise and we were not disappointed. There's nothing quite like having a cold Franziskaner wheat beer while watching fairy tale castles float by. If I were to do this over again, I would have planned more time on this boat so that we could have a sit down meal as well.

The train trip back to Basel itself was a scenic journey itself along the both the Mosel and Rhine rivers. We rode a combination of local trains, regional trains and the super-fast ICE. The Deutsche Bahn web site was so well designed that we were able to plan this whole itinerary using the Internet.

When we got back to Basel, we stayed with Immanuel for one more night before saying good-bye and heading to the airport once again for the flight home. It felt great to be home again. I was away for four weeks -- the longest I've ever been away from home. And it's going to take weeks to process this amazing trip.

(See more pictures)

Monday, June 9, 2008

A Week in Italy

Unfortunately, if you're flying cheap, you might also be flying at inconvenient times. In order to catch our 8am Air Berlin flight to Milan, we had to get up at 5am. On the flipside, we were already in Italy at 9am with a full day ahead of us. Cheap European airlines also tend to fly into smaller airports, so we ended up in Bergamo, about an hour east of Milan. This was good for us because we had no interest in Milan anyway, so we headed straight for the Cinque Terre.

Long distance rail travel in Europe is expensive, so we rented a car from Budget instead ($229 per week with unlimited miles, no international license required). With a rental car, we had the freedom of traveling around Italy on our own schedule. Driving on the autostrada in Italy was not much different than driving on the interstate toll roads in the U.S. except that the signs were in Italian. The one major exception was the speed. Even though the posted speed limit was 110 KPH (about 68 MPH), everyone ignored it. And if you weren't moving fast enough in the left lane, you will be intimidated into moving over by aggressive tailgaters.

A partial explanation for this aggressive driving might be the coffee symbol that shows up on roadside signs about every hour. And since we were in Italy, a coffee cup symbol really means espresso and at every rest stop, the espresso counter was hopping. No time to rest here (we are on the autostrada afterall), got to push into the line to pay first (in Italy there's no such thing as an orderly line), then wave your receipt at the barista while shouting "macchiato." No time to sit, so we end up standing at the counter to slurp it down before heading back on the road. After a couple of shots of macchiato (espresso with a little milk), I was driving 90 MPH like everyone else.

The Cinque Terre is five well-preserved villages located on the west coast of Italy in the area known as the Italian Riviera. Isolated for centuries between the mountains and the sea, access to the villages was available only by boat until the 1920s. Of the five villages, Vernazza is the most charming, so we decided to make it our home base for the next four nights. Vernazza doesn't have any hotels, so all the rooms are in historic buildings and rented by locals who simply put up a sign saying "rooms available." If we had a cell phone, the process of getting a room would have been easier. But after ringing door bells and hoping someone was home, we looked at several selections and chose an apartment with a kitchen off a narrow side alley.

During the day, Vernazza is filled with tourists who arrive by train or boat. But in the evening, things quiet down and Vernazza becomes a tranquil village frozen in time -- a great place to hang out. All the Cinque Terre towns restrict automobile traffic to just service vehicles, so we parked our rental car in a free space off the side of the road and didn't touch it again until we left for Tuscany.

The five villages are connected by scenic walking paths along the sea, some easy and some challenging. With a little planning, one can walk a path one way and then return by train or boat. During the next four days, we managed to walk all of the paths and visited all five villages, each with a distinct personality. The view was spectacular and there was even an espresso stop between Vernazza and Corniglia, the next town over. There were plenty of restaurant choices of all types in every town and even with the Euro exchanging at 1.5 to the dollar, eating out was affordable.

After four nights in the Cinque Terre, we drove to Tuscany stopping in Lucca because it was on the way. Lucca is a charming walled city where we rented bikes and spent a few hours exploring the town as well as riding on the top of the walls. We wanted to stay longer, but we had a room reserved in San Gimignano, a well-preserved medieval town in Tuscany. San Gimignano could very well be the most charming of Tuscany hill towns with 14 (out of 60) of the original medieval towers still standing. From a distance, the town almost looks like a modern city with skyscrapers.

Our room in San Gimignano was in a historic building called the Palazzo Tortoli. Our jaws dropped when we saw our room: it was on the third floor overlooking the main square and furnished with antique medieval furniture. There were high ceilings and original rock walls and the view from our window was amazing. Too bad we were only able to stay two nights here.

Unfortunately, we found the food in Tuscany to be more expensive and much less tasty than in the Cinque Terre. The much hyped wild boar that was the specialty of the region tasted no different than regular beef but much tougher. Even the wines we tasted in Tuscany didn't compare to some of the local wines we tasted back in Corniglia. But being in a medieval town and staying in a beautiful historic building made up for the disappointing dining experiences.

The next day, we drove 30 minutes to a neighboring hill town called Volterra and stopped at the Guarnacci Etruscan Museum and an Alabaster workshop. The drive was beautiful and Volterra was just as charming as San Gimignano. After six nights in Italy, we had to head back to Bergamo to catch a morning flight back to Germany. But that didn't stop us from making a quick stop in Florence just to poke around.

We arrived in Florence on Sunday and drove right into the center of town. Florence was packed with tourists and the prices immediately went up at least 50%. Even with limited time, we were able to visit the Piazza della Signoria, the famous Duomo (cathedral), walk cross the Ponte Vecchio (old bridge) and tour the Giardino di Boboli, a manicured garden with fountains and statues not that different from our own Allerton Park. But the most impressive sight in Florence was the street artists who made their living selling paintings on the sidewalks. Sure there were typical portrait artists and plenty of paintings of Florence landmarks. But some of the other street artists were extremely talented and were showing work that really should be in galleries.

Our last night in Italy was at a hotel near the Bergamo airport. The next morning, we hopped on a Ryanair flight to Frankfurt for the last part of our vacation -- a quick tour of Germany's Mosel valley.

(See more pictures)
(Also see Smile Politely food column)

Monday, June 2, 2008

Two Nights in Berlin

After my Swiss Exchange program was over, my wife and I took the opportunity to travel around Europe for two weeks. With limited time and a limited budget, we had to choose our destinations wisely. Fortunately, was there to help. We researched which cities were served by those cheap European airlines that advertise "flights to London for €0" and mapped out our route. Of course by the time you pay for taxes, fuel surcharges and checked luggage, the cost is no longer $0. Still, it was cheaper than traveling by train and we got good deals by booking way ahead (i.e. from Milan to Frankfurt on Ryanair was only $36 per person). So our itinerary took us from Basel to Berlin, then to Milan, then to Frankfurt and finally back to Basel for our flight home.

We've heard that Berlin is the cultural capital of Europe and the hottest city of the moment. Fortunately, Easyjet flew from Basel to Berlin so we decided to spend two nights and one day in this vibrant city. Since our friend Julie from Dublin was going to join us in Berlin, we decided to share an apartment in the former eastern bloc of Berlin called Apartment Mitte (run by the same people that run Pension Peters). Our Russian friends Katya and Dima also joined us in Berlin, so we all met up for dinner on Saturday night and brunch the next day.

Lucky for us, Katya's friend Anne was in town and she became our local guide for the weekend. Knowing nightlife in Berlin would be hopping on Saturday night, I asked Anne to book us a show. I requested something edgy and fun and uniquely Berlin, so Anne obliged by getting us tickets to a "variety" show called Chamäleon. This group turned out to be a hip, urban version of Cirque du Soleil with energetic acrobats who loved to be in the spotlight. One of the acts, a "lovers duet" on ropes was sensuously romantic and erotic as well as playful. And the post-modern "clown" act was brilliant in its simplicity -- a video camera was pointed at a raised set that was tilted at 90 degrees and the entire performance can be viewed both as a upright projection and a freaky gravity-defying acrobatic act.

Another highlight was a five-hour bicycle tour of Berlin with Fat Tire Bike Tours. Led by a very knowledgeable Canadian with a sense of humor, we toured the major historical sights including Checkpoint Charlie. Our guide explained that Berlin was a bankrupt city with abandoned construction projects that ran out of money before they're completed. There was plenty of evidence of this as we saw many buildings and facades draped with large digital prints "previewing" what the finished project would look like. A trip to Berlin would be incomplete without a stop at a beer garden, and our tour guide obliged by taking us to one in Tiergarten Park. Packed with colorful locals and complete with musicians playing accordions, the beer and bratwurst never tasted better.

At Anne's recommendation, we had dinner on Saturday night at an excellent Argentinian tapas restaurant called Pata Negra. Brunch on Sunday was even better at Cafe Vebereck on Sonntagstrasse, far away from the tourist neighborhoods. Both meals were extraordinarily dining experiences and the prices were surprisingly affordable even in Euros. True, our Berlin stay was far too short and we barely scratched the surface of this very vibrant city. But Italy awaits...

(See more pictures)
(Also see Smile Politely food column)

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Swiss Culture

We usually aren't conscious of it in the States, but U.S. culture is greatly influenced by the Swiss. It is popular folklore that Swiss watches are more precise (perhaps), that Swiss cheese has holes in it (not always), and the Swiss Army knife is really versatile and functional (true). But what is not really known is that every male Swiss citizen is required to serve in the Swiss Army (and they really are issued a Swiss Army knife). Depending on what unit you're in, you could be asked to serve at least two weeks a year until you retire. Immanuel is in the infantry and he's had to do mountain patrol in the middle of the winter (not fun). All infantry are issued a rifle and Immanuel showed me his (yes, it was big). Although not everyone enjoys their army experience, the common wisdom in Switzerland is that the reason there has been over 500 years of peace in Switzerland is because of the presence of a strong military force.

The Swiss reputation for precision and order is well deserved. In Switzerland, the trains not only run on time, they leave exactly as scheduled -- to the second. Schedules and maps for public transportation are precise and detailed. However, it was explained to us that the Swiss don't really think of themselves as innovators. Instead they prefer to take an existing product and make it better. The Swiss watch is one example. Swiss chocolate is another. In fact, I was not aware that Nestle was a Swiss corporation which certainly helps the Swiss economy in terms of a keeping a positive trade balance.

Swiss graphic design also had a great influence on U.S. designers, especially in the 1960s and 70s. The Swiss sense of order as applied to the grid system and typography became known as the "International Typographic Style." Swiss designers like Armin Hoffmann and Wolfgang Weingart have many followers worldwide. But the greatest graphic arts influence is perhaps the typeface Helvetica which was first published in 1957. Originally named Neue Haas Grotesk, this typeface was designed with utmost economy -- the shapes of the letterforms visually convey a clean and straight-forward look that communicates trust and integrity. Often imitated, but never improved upon, Helvetica is still one of the most used typefaces in the world.

Another interesting fact is that Switzerland is one of the few direct democracies in the world. This means that the elected representatives of the legislature are required to vote the will of the people. So before elections, every citizen receives a detailed package in the mail explaining the issues being voted on in the next election. Immanuel says that the Swiss people are fiercely protective of their voice in the government despite the fact that changes in policies take longer to implement.

When traveling in the Swiss Alps, we also saw something interesting -- just about everybody had a Swiss flag flying on a flag post. At first we thought this must be a national holiday, or perhaps mountain people are particularly patriotic. Both assumptions were wrong, as it was explained to us that raising a flag simply signifies that you are home. This is important in the mountains for rescue operations in case of an avalanche. But the tradition survives even in the summer.

The traditional way of life in the Alps of raising cows for milk to make cheese is a dying art. Milk or cheese can be produced cheaper on flatter ground or imported from elsewhere. Yet the government still subsidizes this way of life so that small family farms can survive. Immanuel had a theory about this. He suggested that keeping these traditions alive is a smart decision in case of a major environmental catastrophe. After all, the ability of a country to feed itself is one of the basic tenets of survival.

Immanuel also told us of quirky Swiss habits such as das znüni, a morning coffee break right around 9am when people are just getting to work. Although on the surface, it appears that there's no work being done, das znüni is considered by many as an opportunity to connect with your fellow workers and talk shop informally.

As for Swiss ingenuity gone wrong, Immanuel told the story of recent earthquakes in Basel that were caused by the power company drilling for geothermal energy in 2006. Swiss engineers wanted to pump water into the earth in order to harvest steam to power electric generators. Instead, they caused a series of earthquakes measuring up to 3.4 on the Richter scale. The project was immediately abandoned at a cost of millions of Swiss Francs. A scary event for a city that was almost completely destroyed by the great earthquake of 1536.

Other quirky things we noticed was the fact the no one had screens on their windows. Despite the fact that everyone had these modern windows that opened in two directions, flies and bugs would get in the house whenever one opened a window. The solution? Fly swatters. But this didn't stop the stop the mosquitoes from coming in at night if you choose to leave the window open.

Another surprise was standing in line to buy train tickets at the station. With multiple windows open, one was forced to choose which line to stand in -- a crapshoot at best as we almost missed our train once because the lady in front of us was having such a good time chatting with the clerk. In the States, there would be one line for all the windows and the first person in line would get the next available clerk. A small thing, I know, but I was surprised at the lack of Swiss efficiency here.

Friday, May 30, 2008

The Swiss Alps

Immanuel was kind enough to take a week off and take us to the Swiss Alps. Our first stop was Schynige Platte which can only be reached by a historic narrow-gauge railway that was built in 1893. The well-preserved antique trains slowly climbed the mountain at 8 MPH until it reached its destination at 6500 feet. The view from the train was spectacular, but nothing could come close to our first hike up to the Oberberghorn peak where it felt like we were at the top of the world.

It was our intention to stay overnight at the railway-owned Berghotel, but we changed our mind at the last minute and traveled on to Grindelwald. Both Schynige Platte and Grindelwald were in the Jungfrau region of Switzerland which is one of the most touristed area of the Alps. However, Grindelwald does make a good home base as there are plenty of hotel choices and restaurants. It is also centrally located with easy access to several scenic train and gondola lift lines.

We opted to stay at the railway-owned hostel called Downtown Lodge for $36 per person which includes breakfast. The managers were very friendly and offered us all kinds of tips. Based on their recommendation, we took the gondola lift to a mountain top called First. From there, we hiked to Lake Bachalpsee which was still frozen. On the way down, we rented stand-up scooters and glided down the last third of the mountain on paved mountain roads.

After two nights at Grindelwald, we met up with Immanuel's friend Ywo in Luzern. Ywo's family has a cabin in Gitschenen, an untouristed area of the Alps. We took a short train ride from Luzern to Flüelen, then hopped on a Postal Bus around Lake Urnersee, then up a narrow one-lane road up to St. Jakob. At St. Jakob, we got on a small self-service gondola lift up to Gitschenen. That night we did a barbecue with homemade barbecue sauce and the next day hiked up to another mountain top. On the way down, we met up with a group of alphorn players who were serenading the cows. Now this was a perfect day.

Unfortunately Ywo and Immanuel had to get back to Basel. But we loved Gitschenen so much we decided to stay another night. So we moved down the road to a bed and breakfast. That evening we ate dinner at the local lodge and met up with the same group of alphorn players again. After dinner, the alphorn players brought out their accordions and clackers and soon the music started flowing again.

The next day, we took one more hike around the valley and then headed back to Basel. My two weeks in Switzerland was over, but Italy awaits.

(See more pictures)
(Also see Smile Politely food column)

Monday, May 26, 2008

Basel School of Art & Design

Basel's Schule für Gestaltung was the home of world renown Swiss designers Armin Hoffmann and Wolfgang Weingart. Recently the school was swallowed up by the University of Applied Sciences/Northwestern Switzerland, but the independent spirit still thrives at the school.

Housed in a historic Bauhaus-inspired building, the school still provides the foundation classes for students entering the art and design professions. In addition, they also offer an international non-credit "Basics in Design" program taught in English.

My first contact with the University was a lunch with the head of the International Office in Olten. The Olten campus is also the headquarters of the University and they are located about 30 minutes south of Basel by train. There were two other American exchange participants in Switzerland and we all toured the campus and had a great lunch together. During lunch, we discussed the Swiss education system which differs from the U.S. in the sense that high school graduates do not go to college immediately after graduation. Instead, they begin work as a paid apprentice in the profession of their choice for up to two years. This way, the student can make sure that they have chosen the right profession before going to college and investing time and energy in their studies. In this system, there are very few drop-outs and most people complete their college careers with a degree.
After the Olten meeting, Immanuel set me up with an appointment with Professor Martin Wiedmer, head of the Institute for Research in Art & Design. As part of a masters program, Mr. Wiedmer's Institute collaborates with the other departments at the Academy of Art & Design and creates documentation for various projects like public art and performance art. His Institute also works with sponsors and donors to help obtain the funding needed for various projects. An example of a recent research project is the study and documentation of the power of images. We toured the historic building and afterwards, Mr. Wiedmer suggested a second meeting with Peter Olpe, head of the foundations program at the Schule fur Gestaltung.

Mr. Olpe and I met for about an hour and he shared the curriculum structure of the foundation program along with examples of assignments from his classes. We were also able to visit one class that was in session and I was able to talk with an American student. At the end of the meeting, Mr. Olpe suggested that I contact Rolf Thalmann, the curator of the Basel Poster Collection. Lucky for me, Mr. Thalmann was available that evening, so at 5pm I headed to a secret entrance at Spalenvorstadt 2 and rang the bell.

Rolf Thurmann welcomed us and spent two hours showing us examples from his collection. Mr. Thurmann has been the curator of this collection of 50,000 posters for 25 years, so he had intimate knowledge of his collection. Thurmann knew many of the poster designers personally and told stories that can't be found in history books. It was obvious from his energy and excitement that he personally cared very much about this collection and really enjoyed sharing his knowledge. At the end of our appointment, he offered us a rare book, Swiss Posters from Historism to Computer Design, authored by him and published by a Japanese publisher. This book, containing 450 examples, is currently the closest thing to a catalog available for the collection.

(See more photos)

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Basel Museums

For a city of only 190,000 people, Basel has over 40 museums for visitors to explore. Yes, there is a very good art museum, but then every major European city also has a good art museum. So instead we focused on exploring the unique museums that only Basel can offer.

First on our list was the Basel Paper Mill, located in the same building as an original paper mill from the 1500s right off the Rhine. Because Gutenberg invented movable metal type in Mainz just up the river, his invention spread very quickly south and Basel became one of the first major printing centers in the late 1500s.

The museum has preserved many of the original printing equipment from the days of Gutenberg to today. Many of the exhibits are live demonstrations -- from the water-powered mill used to beat cotton rags "to a pulp" to the tools used in the cast-and-mold system of making metal type. The hands-on exhibits allow you to make your own sheet of paper, set metal type by hand and have the type printed on a letter-press as you watch.

Also unique to Basel is the Museum Tinguely which is dedicated to the lifework of Jean Tinguely (1925-1991), a Basel native best known for his kinetic sculptures. Whimsical and raw, his sculptures capture the spirit of fun and delight with child-like wonder. When we visited the museum, there was a special exhibit called "Art Machines/Machine Art" which featured a range of works inspired by Tinguely. Among my favorites include a very noisy musical machine and a mechanical arm that drew the same random lines repeatedly. Also included in this exhibit was a series of digital art generators.

However, the ultimate "museum" experience was by appointment only. The Basel School of Design has one of the largest collections of Swiss posters dating from 1880 to the present. The archives are hidden in the basement of the old Gewerbemuseum and viewings are available only by appointment with Rolf Thalmann, the curator. Dr. Thalmann was kind enough to spend two hours showing us selected originals from the collection, always explaining in detail the significance of each poster along with anecdotal stories that only someone who has been caring for these posters for 25 years would know. This is the kind of treat that graphic designers dream about and I feel very lucky to have been able to have this experience.

We also discovered that Zurich had a design museum and decided to take the train there for a visit. The featured exhibit was a very humorous show called "Wouldn’t it be nice… wishful thinking in art and design" where designers take their utopian concepts to the extreme.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Arriving in Basel

In October 2007, I hosted Immanuel Willi when he came to the USA and now it is my turn to visit Switzerland. Flying to Basel was easy as I booked connecting American Airlines flights from Champaign to Chicago, then to London, then transferring to British Airways to Basel. The transfer in Heathrow's new Terminal 5 was seamless as all the airport personnel were extremely friendly and helpful despite being British. The British Airways stewardesses were also much friendlier than the grumpy ones on American Airlines. And best of all, there was enough time to have lunch at T5's Wagamama, a Asian noodle shop that's very popular in Europe.

My first contact with Swiss culture was arriving at Basel's EuroAirport. For the first time in my life, I did not have to wait for the baggage to arrive as they were already waiting for us at the baggage claim carousel as we got off the plane. Talk about Swiss efficiency. As expected, Basel's buses and trams ran on time. The routes and transfers were clearly marked and maps and schedules were posted everywhere. Even the money was well organized: smaller coins were worth less, larger bills were worth more. When stacking bills, one can see the value of the each bill in sequence since a number was also printed along the edge. Some sidewalks and the paths at train stations had raised grooves painted on the concrete so that blind people could easily find their way. I was also amazed at their very modern window design -- a system that allows for a window that can open from the side or from the top depending on the position of the handle. Yes, Switzerland's reputation for order, structure and precision was not exaggerated.

I was warned that Switzerland was very expensive, but it was still shocking to see the prices for myself. Even though the Swiss Franc was exchanging at 1-to-1 with the dollar, everything was at least twice what we would pay in the States. Eating out was painful: a cup of tea was $7, a plate of pasta was $30. Fortunately, Immanuel bought me a half-price subscription for transportation so taking the tram was a reasonable $2 a trip. There were sales at the grocery store, so eating in was not a terrible shock to the wallet. Wines in particular were very reasonable and very good.

Basel is a very cosmopolitan European city near the French and German border. But surprisingly, I saw a lot of Turkish and Eastern European immigrants as well. In fact, Turkish-style "döner" kebabs have established themselves in Basel as everyone's favorite fast food. Just about everyone spoke some English, so communication was not a major problem. But there were exceptions. For example, the grocery store clerks were mostly French people from Alsace which is right across the border. They commute to Switzerland to work and they spoke only German and French. In fact, one hears merci more often than danke in Basel. And at least once, a server smiled politely and offered "good appetite" in English.

To experience the local culture, Immanuel took me to Basel's Kleinhüningen 100 Year celebration festival. Kleinhüningen was a fishing village that was later incorporated into the city of Basel. Today it is a working-class neighborhood and the crowds at the festival reflected that. On Friday night, we saw Stiller Has, a local band with a very large devoted following. On Saturday night, we saw Das Pferd, an electric-drum-and-bass-punk duo that is Immanuel's favorite band. There was plenty of bratwurst and other types of sausages to eat along with lots of beer.

The Swiss are very tolerant people and Basel even has its own little red light district. In fact, upstairs in the same building as Immanuel's apartment are two brothels with fairly exotic names on their doorbell. However, panhandlers and homeless people are rare as there are numerous social services available to help the poor. Even dogs are allowed in most restaurants and on trams (but they have to pay half fare). As much as I admire the Swiss, Immanuel also admires the States. In comparing notes, Immnauel pointed out that in the US, all the doors open outwards for easy exit during emergencies. In Switzerland, there are no such standards and one can never quite predict whether a door will open inwards or outwards, sometimes causing traffic jams.

(See more pictures)
(Also see Smile Politely food column)

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Two Weeks of Fun

Yesterday, we dropped Immanuel off at O'Hare airport where he caught a flight to New York City. Armed with a recommended list of fun things to do and places to visit in NYC, we said our good-byes and saw him disappear into the security check area.

Here what we ended up doing the last two weeks in Champaign-Urbana, St. Louis and Chicago:

> Sat 10/13 - arrive in Chicago, transfer via shuttle bus to Champaign; dinner at Baccaro; live music at Cowboy Monkey; a pint at Blind Pig
> Sun 10/14 - reception: meet friends and colleagues
> Mon 10/15 - lunch at Farren's; discovered Dexter on DVD
> Tues 10/16 - visit City of Champaign's IT dept; dinner with Amish family in Arcola IL
> Wed 10/17 - visit City of Champaign's IT dept; dinner at B-Won
> Thur 10/18 - visit Parkland's IT dept; "Facades" art opening at Krannert Art Museum; dinner at home
> Fri 10/19 - Papa Del's for dinner; War of the Worlds at Virginia Theatre; Barn Dance followed by live music at Iron Post, Rosebowl, Phoenix
> Sat 10/20 - drive to St Louis: Ethiopian lunch at Meskerem; Henry Rollins concert at Pageant; late night at Pops
> Sun 10/21- St Louis: Whole Foods, Arch, river boat ride, dinner at Wonton King
> Mon 10/22 - steak dinner at home
> Tues 10/23 - visit Volition's IT dept; homemade Indian food at the Red Herring
> Wed 10/24 - visit Wolfram's IT dept; Swiss dinner at home; dance performance at Krannert Center
> Thur 10/25 - drive to Bolinbrook: dinner at Best Buffet in Kankakee; Across the Universe at typical suburban cineplex
> Fri 10/26 - Chicago: lunch at Frontera Grill; Yuri Yunakov concert at Old Town School of Music; Astral Project at Green Mill
> Sat 10/27 - Chicago: lunch at Happy Chef Dim Sum House; fly to New York City

(See pictures of Immanuel's stay in the USA)

Monday, October 15, 2007


Last night's reception was a great time. 25 people enjoyed the music, food and conversation. And what music! Maria Merkelo and Dorothy Martirano played everything from gypsy music to polka to Nino Rota. Rock Maffit couldn't resist and joined in for the fun and played percussion on several songs. There was dancing, singing and great conversation. (See pictures)

Monday, August 6, 2007

Amish Dinner & Tour in Arcola

We now have dinner reservations for 10 people on Tuesday October 16 to have a private dinner party in an Amish home. The arrangements were made with the Illinois Amish Interpretive Center. We've been promised "absolutely the best made-from-scratch food you can find." The schedule is below:

• 5:00 pm: Leave Champaign (see directions)
• 5:45 pm: Arrive at the Amish Interpretive Center in Arcola
• 6:15 pm: Guided combo tour of Amish home and farm
• 7:45 pm: Dinner

The cost is $23 per person.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

A Week in New Glarus

As part of our research in preparation of going to Switzerland, we thought we'd take a week off and go to "Little Switzerland" (aka New Glarus, WI). We rented a self-catering farmhouse so that we could take our dog. Although the town itself was a tourist trap, the Swiss Historical Village was a highlight. Among authentic pioneer log cabins (one was discovered inside a modern house that had been built on top of it), one-room school houses and other period buildings, old-timer guides in their 80s told stories from their personal experiences and family histories. Another highlight was the excellent beer from the New Glarus Brewing Company (sold only in Wisconsin, so we brought home a couple of cases). A big disappointment was the local restaurants -- poor quality traditional German cuisine marked up for the tourists. Our own Bayern Stube (in Gibson City, IL) does the same dishes with much more flair and with much better value. But we did discover Landjaeger sausages which we've never had before. Side excursions to Madison and Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin filled up the rest of the week. (View photos)

Saturday, July 14, 2007

IT Job Shadowing

In his application, Immanuel stated that he wanted to see complex IT environments and how people deal with complex problems. So far, I've made contact with the following companies and organizations requesting a "job shadowing" opportunity. All four contacts welcomed Immanuel and invited him to come observe how IT is done in the USA.

City of Champaign: Fred Halenar (Information Technologies Director) set up two half-days for Immanuel -- Butch Johnson (Network Engineer) from 12noon to 4pm on Tuesday October 16; and Brenda Reed (Network Technician) from 12noon to 4pm on Wednesday October 17.
Volition: Rory Prendergast (Network Administrator) will be hosting (Tuesday October 23).
Wolfram Research: Ken Miller (Network Operations Specialist) will be hosting (Wednesday October 24 from 9:30am to 5pm).
Parkland College: Connie Macedo's department will be showing Immanuel around (Thursday, October 18 from 8am to 12pm).

Friday, July 6, 2007

Eating Out

Should opportunities arise for eating out, we've compiled this list of recommended local restaurants with a heavy slant towards "American" flavors:

Kennedy's: Upscale dining at an off-beat location (expensive)
Milos: Unique and creative food in a comfortable atmosphere (reasonable)
Beef House (Covington IN): Has the reputation as the best steak house in the area
Jackson's Ribs N Tips: Authentic southern cooking in a no-frills atmosphere
Apple Dumpling: A down-home country joint with good "comfort" food
Seaboat: Everything is fried, but it's still quite tasty
First Fruits (Mahomet IL): A small lunch place focusing on fresh, locally grown food

Although we'd much rather frequent locally owned businesses, the American experience would be incomplete without a visit to:
TGI Friday's: Really well done bar food, professionally packaged
Famous Dave's: Decent re-creation of the Southern experience
Hometown Buffet: A "family" restaurant where overindulgence is encouraged

When American food gets boring, we recommend these international flavors:
Radio Maria: Inventive cuisine and daring combinations
Lai Lai Wok: Arguably the best Chinese restaurant in town
El Charro: The only place for authentic Mexican food
Sambar: Great homemade South India cuisine (only on Tuesday nights 6:30-8:30pm)
B-Won: Excellent authentic Korean cuisine
Ko-Fusion: A trendy Asian bistro

And few Chicago restaurants we like:
Frontera Grill: Celebrity chef Rick Bayless re-invents Mexican cuisine
Penny's Noodle Shop: The best of Asian noodle cuisine in a clean environment
Phoenix: Good dim sum is only available in larger cities and this is one of Chicago's best
Ed Debevic's: A diner theme park for the tourists (but loads of fun)
Maxwell Street Market: The closest we'll get to a Latin American open air market, great place for really authentic Mexican street food (Sundays 7am-3pm)
Soul Queen: An authentic south side experience

Friday, June 29, 2007

Initial Contact

On May 18, I found out that I was accepted into the ICISP short term international exchange program. A few weeks later, I received a letter with contact information for my exchange partner. His name is Immanuel and he is a 23-year old IT support person at the University of Applied Sciences Northwest Switzerland in Basel.

I couldn't be happier as I am a graphic designer and Swiss design has been a big influence on my own work as well as in the history of design. Furthermore, the Basel School of Design is where influential designers like April Greiman studied. And it was Basel teachers like Wolfgang Weingart who inspired Greiman to jump start the post-modern graphic design movement in the USA.

I wrote Immanuel an email introducing my wife and I along with photos and links. Immanuel responded telling us that he lives in "big" Basel as the city is split in two by the Rhine. His English is very good, but he told us that in Switzerland there are four "official" spoken languages: Swiss-German, Italian, French and Rhaeto-Romanic. Since Basel is located in the Swiss-German part, everybody will be speaking German despite the big difference between Swiss-German and German. I guess, I better brush up on my German.

In Immanuel's application, he mentioned liking movies, art, music and travel. One of his goals is to see other IT departments in the USA and how they deal with complex situations. Based on that information and several email exchanges, we agreed to a rough itinerary. Immanuel responded positively to the itinerary and specifically mentioned being excited by going to a drive-in movie (unfortunately the Harvest Moon closes on September 30) and going to Chicago. He is also planning to go to New York City for a week after the exchange.