The World’s Most Amazing Spectator Sport

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What is the world’s most amazing spectator sport, you ask? Not bullfighting. Not Zorbing. Not even the crazy sport known as Wife-Carrying. It’s called the Concurs de Castells, and it is a championship human tower building competition that happens every other year in the Catalonian town of Tarragona, just south of Barcelona.

I emphasize “spectator sport” because I would never subject myself to this sort of strenuous torture, but damn, is it incredible to watch! These towers, called Castells (Catalan for “castles”), have been formed by the local communities for over 300 years and can be built as tall as 10 people high!

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This is a just measly 9 person tower.

The Castells are so deeply embedded in the Catalonian culture, that parents gladly send their nimble youngsters as young as 4 years old to train with the local teams without blinking an eye.

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She’s so adorable!

Allow me to convince you just why Castells are so damn cool.

1. First of all, the stadium is absolutely packed with Castellers and spectators alike, and each community dons its own local colors to show solidarity. This creates a beautiful mosaic on which the whole spectacle is created.

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A sea of Casteller colors.

2. The culture of the Catalonians. Technically, Catalonia is a region of Spain, but as you can see, these people are proud to celebrate their independent culture and heritage by making these magnificent structures. It was amazing to attend because the stadium was filled with locals, without a tourist in sight! (Except for us, of course.)

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Starting the show by singing and holding flags for the Catalonian independence movement.

3. Also, people climb on top of each other, and that’s just funny to watch.

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Don’t mind me! Just stepping on a few heads and shoulders.

4. It’s not just the same tower being built over and over again; there is a lot of variety. Teams get different points for the difficulty of each tower made. The points are roughly based on:

  • How many people tall.
  • How many people per level.
  • How many people support the second layer.
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I think this is a 9 by 8 tower.

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This is a 3 by 10 with extra support at the bottom.

5. Little kids put themselves in danger. Sure, this may not be considered a good thing in many cultures, but you absolutely have to admire these tiny fearless climbers. They are so agile and efficient because every second they are on the tower, they risk falling nearly 4 stories to the ground below.

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Notice how high they are in comparison to the spectators behind them.

6. And while they may be professionals, falls definitely happen. You can feel the tension in the entire stadium as a Castell begins to shake, then there is an audible gasp and moan when it finally comes apart and its participants come crashing down on one another.

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Roughly speaking, a little less than half of the towers in the competition fell. I happened to capture this one right as the fall started. 

7. Why else do I love it? Incredible team work. You are literally only as strong as your weakest link.

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Castellers getting ready to form the base.

8. Let’s not forget the fanfare! As every tower is finishing being built, the team band chimes in with a little diddy to signify that their tower will be judged for points.

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Not sure what the instrument is. Something like an oboe. 

9. The celebration! Once a tower has been successfully taken down, the entire stadium cheers that no one had to be brought out on a stretcher!

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This kid is just so happy for his community. 

10. The price! You wouldn’t believe how cheap the tickets actually were. Sure, I had to ensure I was online at precisely 10 am when ticket sales were open, try to navigate my way through the Catalan website, and frantically buy the tickets before the whole 5000 person stadium sold out in 20 minutes, but it only cost €12 per seat! It’s a bargain, if you ask me!

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Definitely worth it. 

So there you have it. That is why the Concurs de Castells is the BEST SPORTING EVENT EVER! But if I haven’t been able to fully convince you (or even if I have), check out the short video of the event below. If you like it, I strongly recommend you check out this video showcasing all of the Castells made that day. It’s 30 minutes of gut-wrenching fun!

Until next time, I leave you with some GIFs!

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What do you think? Have I convinced you to go to the next championship competition in 2018? Leave me your comments below! 

Switzerland Summer Travel Tips

Switzerland

I just got back from a breathtaking trip to the mountains of Switzerland, and, let me tell you, Switzerland quickly elevated to the top of my list of favorite destinations! Why? Easy – the views, the activities, and the hospitality. Here’s what you need to know to plan your visit!

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Pretty awesome, right?

 

Save yourself some money

Although the exchange rate of the Swiss Franc to the US dollar is close to 1:1, dollar for dollar, your money won’t buy you much in Switzerland. Hotels, transportation, and food especially can get very expensive, so you have to plan ahead. For example, a typical döner sandwich (gyro) in Germany costs roughly 3.50 to 4 Euro, but the same sandwich in Switzerland costs about 8 or 9 Francs. So, that’s approximately 8 or 9 dollars for the cheapest lunch option you can find. Likewise, you can expect a standard hotel rooms to cost around 200 CHF per night. Just make sure you have determined a budget ahead of time and be sure you can afford to do all of the things that you want to (including feeding yourself). Of course, there are some ways to make your stay a bit more affordable:

  1. Stay in hostels. Personally, this isn’t my preferred way to travel because my husband and I enjoy our privacy, but if you don’t mind sharing space with others, hostels can be great money-savers.
  2. Invest in a Half-Fare Card. Transportation is very expensive in Switzerland because the trains, ferries, and cable cars are all privately run and operated. However, the trade off is very clean, reliable modes of travel – in fact, none of our trips left more than a minute late the entire time we were there. The cost of a Half-Fare card (as of this posting) is 120 CHF, but it allows you to get half-off tickets on virtually all modes of transportation and is good for a whole month. Plan your excursions ahead of time to see if an investment in this card will save you money over the course of your trip. Another option is the Swiss Fare Pass which gives you unlimited travel by rail or waterway available for 3, 4, 8, or 15 days. More information on both passes can be found here.
  3. Bring food from home. Knowing that food was going to be expensive, we brought shelf-stable, non-liquid foods from home to supplement our meals. Trail mix, apples, and granola bars were mainstays in our diet during our visit to the Alps. Since we were hiking a lot, we would have wanted these foods anyway, but we saved a few bucks by bringing it from home rather than getting it at a local grocery store.
  4. Shop at the grocery store. For PERISHABLE items, it’s a great idea to buy from the grocery store. If your hotel/hostel has a fridge, you can buy meats and cheeses to make yourself sandwiches to eat during your travels. If there isn’t a fridge where you are staying, a pre-made sandwich from the store is probably still cheaper than anything you will find at a restaurant or from a street vendor.
  5. Fill up on breakfast. Plan to stay in accommodations that provide breakfast…and then eat as much as you can in the morning. Assuming the cost of the hotel isn’t much more than a hotel without breakfast, you can save quite a bit by filling up on all-you-can-eat toast and scrambled eggs. You may also be able to make small sandwiches at breakfast and take them with you for your lunch, but check with your hotel first, as some have strict policies against this.

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German-American culture clash (and crash!)

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Recently I had a (quite literal) run-in with a German lady that had me questioning where I fit in German culture. Now, before I begin my story, I’d like to acknowledge that this was just one encounter with one German woman and is not intended to be representative of an entire people. That being said, I do still think there are broader differences in cultural expectation that were highlighted by this incident and are therefore worthy of comment. So, here it goes:

As I was leaving work one day, I mounted my bike eagerly headed for home. Before even going 15 meters, a woman swiftly exited a building without looking and walked directly into the front wheel of my bicycle. I didn’t have enough time to brake, swerve, or otherwise make her aware of my presence, so we both went down to the pavement.

 

My expectation after the accident: 

Both parties: “I’m so sorry! Are you all right?”

Party who is clearly less injured: “Please, let me help you up. Are you sure you are OK?”

Injured party: “Yes, I’m fine. I’m so sorry about that.”

Less injured party: “No problem; it was an accident. I’m just glad you’re OK.”

 

The reality: 

German lady’s immediate response (rough translation): “Why are you on the sidewalk? The bike path is over there! Look, I have dirt on my pants. You imbecile! What have you done??!!”

Me, feeling defeated: “Sorry.”

German lady walks away in a huff of “Scheiße” and other unsavory words.

 

While she certainly had a point that I should not have been riding my bike on the sidewalk, even for such a short distance while I was picking up speed to merge to the bike path, this interaction left me fuming. I realized much later that I was really upset not because of the fall itself, but because what had happened directly conflicted with my cultural expectations – and it left me baffled and speechless. So, what exactly did I expect?

1. I expected to be treated like a person. The woman didn’t bother asking if I was OK. We both fell down , but my bicycle broke her fall while my hands and elbows were scraped by the concrete. However, she wasn’t the least concerned about my well-being; she was only concerned with reprimanding me.

2. I expected to have the chance to apologize. It took me by complete surprise that the interaction went immediately to blaming and finger-pointing before I could even make amends. I wanted to express my regret for running into that lady, but she barely gave me the chance. Once I could finally say sorry, it probably seemed as if I was only admitting fault in response to her words, not that I felt it sincerely within myself.

3. I expected both parties to admit fault. Yes, I rode my bike on the sidewalk, and yes, I know that it is frowned upon to do so – I was in the wrong, definitely.  However, she also walked out of the door without looking to see who else was on that sidewalk. As we say in America, she should “watch where she is walking,” meaning to make sure she is not walking into someone else’s path or any other potential hazards. She didn’t look in my direction at all, only directly where she was headed. So, in my eyes, both parties were at fault.

What’s interesting about this (probably American) desire to tell Germans to “watch where you are walking” is that it is not isolated to this particular incident. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been elbowed in the supermarket and was NOT apologized to, or I’ve been walking down the street and a person walking from the opposite direction doesn’t break stride to make room for me on the sidewalk. Let me just just say that from an American lens, this is really frustrating; it makes you feel like you are invisible or less important than the other person. To put it bluntly – it feels rude. But hey, it’s their culture, and it probably seems really strange from their perspective when I smile and subtly move aside to make room for them instead.

4. I expected to be able to express myself. Had I completely understood her words and had the quick German language skills to make a retort after the accident, perhaps it would have been satisfying to tell the woman off after she yelled at me, but instead I felt completely powerless. That was the worst of it all. I was taken by surprise by her reaction and was then forced to listen to her verbal abuse without any ability to defend or explain myself.

I think that’s the really difficult thing about living in a different culture and not really speaking the local language. You find yourself in these situations where you have so much you’d like to say, but you just can’t express yourself. I used to feel much more quick-witted when I lived in the US, but here I can barely answer a question about where I live or what I do without sounding like a 2nd grade writing assignment. It’s one thing to be able to understand the language (which I do to an extent, but I’m not great), but it’s a completely different thing to speak eloquently and be able to hold a meaningful conversation without interruption of thought.

 

As for the woman on the sidewalk, if I had the words at the time, I would have loved to say, “Lady, everyone bikes on this sidewalk, and if you don’t have the half second to look where you are going, you had this coming!” Nah, just kidding. I wish I would have just said, “I’m sorry. I hope you are OK!”

 

 

Travel Diary: Bavaria!

In true American style, we took a 4 hour road trip from Leipzig to Munich to see as much as we could of Bavaria in just a day and a half (most Europeans would consider us crazy for this). In our defense, we actually traveled there to meet up with our good friend from graduate school who happened to be in Europe on business. Here are a few photos from the trip!

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Catching up over a German beer.

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The city of Fussen!

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The Fussen “Schneeball” (snowball) – buttery dough covered in sweetness! Recommended!

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A picturesque church near Neuschwanstein, the famous Bavarian castle!

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It was a bit hazy that day, but we were able to see the castle!

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Friends at Neuschanstein!

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Up close and personal with the castle.

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Neuschwanstein!

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After the afternoon was spent hiking up to the castle, we traveled to Munich for Lowenbrau’s Stark Beer Festival! (Like Octoberfest with only locals…and us.)

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Enjoying some Starkbier (strong beer) with regional music in the background!

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Beautiful Munich! Too bad we only got to see the city for a couple hours.

If you do get the chance, I definitely recommend going to the Starkbier festival, held in Munich every March/April. It was a blast, but make sure to pack your lederhosen! We felt quite foolish in our street clothes 😉

Until next time, Bavaria!


What should I be sure to visit the next time I go to Munich? Let me know in the comments!

 

The parking catastrophe

If there’s one thing about Leipzig that annoys my dear husband Craig, it is the constant battle with parking. Leipzigers seem to park anywhere they please, without regard for others. I surmise that this is because parking tickets are so cheap, so the people risk the fees and angering other residence to park their cars in a place that is convenient only to them.

I’m taking about cars parked on sidewalks, cars parked in Craig’s assigned spot in the lot, but worst of all – the one that gets Craig’s blood boiling – cars parked in front of our entrance gate.

Recently, as Craig was coming back from hockey practice, a car was yet again parked in front of our entrance. Despite there being a sign stating no parking, this seems to happen about once or twice per week. It was late, and Craig was tired and angry.

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There’s no possible way in!

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How could it be more clear??? Translation: Keep clear, exit used day and night.

So Craig sat in his car, outside the entrance, and did what anyone would do in this situation and called the cops…the German-speaking cops.

Craig looked up the phone number for non-emergencies and gave them a call. The conversation went something like this:

Craig: “Hallo. Ich habe ein Problem. Jemand hat in meinem Parkplatz geparkt.” (Hello, I have a problem. Someone has parked in my space.)

Police officer: (Fast, incomprehensible German)

Craig, guessing at what to say next: “Ich wohne auf …” (I live …)

Police officer: “Weiderholen die Adresse bitte.” (Repeat the address please.)

Craig: “Ich wohne auf …” (I live …)

Police officer: “Bitte warten Sie ein Moment.” (Please wait a moment.)

Police officer #2: (Fast, incomprehensible German)

Craig: “Wie bitte?” (Come again, please?)

Police officer #2: (Fast, incomprehensible German)

Craig: “Es tut mir leid. Ich verstehe nicht. Meine Adresse ist …” (I’m sorry, I do not understand. My address is …)

Police officer #2: Lets out an exasperated sigh and then hangs up the phone!

In the end, since the call to police was unsuccessful, Craig had to wait 30 minutes outside the apartment until the inconsiderate ass finally returned to his car and moved it. Needless to say, when Craig got into the apartment, he was exhausted, frustrated, and harboring a new resentment for life in Germany.

The best of the Holy Land: Jerusalem

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My one regret about my trip to Israel: not spending more time in what may be the holiest of holy cities, Jerusalem. The city is a mix of the three major monotheistic religions with overwhelming old world charm. Whether you are religious or not, there is undeniably so much history and culture to absorb in the city, and I definitely plan to return for a second helping sometime in my life.

Unfortunately for us, the one day we had dedicated to exploring Jerusalem was cold, windy, and rainy (with bouts of hail as well), and we were severely under-dressed for the weather. Therefore my memories mostly consist of shivering, cursing, and trying to remember what my limbs feel like! It may be in the Middle East, but Israel does get cold! However, despite our unfortunate weather, Jerusalem still made a lasting impression on me.

 

Beautiful Markets

All around the city there are markets lined with colorful textiles and jewelry. Of course there are also plenty of kitschy tourist shops along the way, but I really enjoyed just walking these narrow pedestrian streets and feeling like I was in an old world market.

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I wish I had more time to spend perusing these markets!

 

The Western Wall

This one is a bit more personal for me, as you know I converted to Judaism a year and a half ago. As the only remaining piece of the original Jewish temple, the Western Wall represents the holiest site in the Jewish religion. For me, visiting this location was a bit of a pilgrimage. Like the rest of the visitors, I made my way to the appropriate side of the wall (it is separated by gender) and patiently waited my turn to touch the wall and pray. As a skeptic, my expectations were low, but I swear, as soon as I touched that wall I was overcome with tears. Not painful tears, but overwhelmingly cathartic tears. It was a very powerful experience. I can’t say it will be the same for every person, or even every Jew, but for me it was completely revitalizing, like nothing I had ever experienced.

For non-believers or non-practicers, I encourage you to visit the wall, but urge you to do it respectfully. The wall is a very interesting place for people watching, especially if you are unfamiliar with Hasidic Jews, but take it easy with the pictures and remember that it isn’t a spectacle, it is a place of prayer. In fact, you shouldn’t take your camera up to the wall, and you absolutely should not take a selfie of you touching the wall. I’m not saying you shouldn’t take pictures at all (clearly I did), but respect the believers when you do so.

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The Western Wall before the dome of the Al-Aqsa Mosque

 

The Holy Sepulchre Church

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed visiting the Church of the Holy Speulchre. The church is located at the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and is shared between 5 Christian denominations (6 if you include the Ethiopian sect that is right outside the church). The church itself is dark and dingy, probably from thousands of years of candle soot, but I think that added to the mysticism of the place. Within the church you see precious relics such as the stone on which Jesus’ burial preparation took place and the hole which is thought to be the location of his cross. I recommend visiting with a guide so you understand the significance of all of the items in this decorative and revered church.

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Thousands of crosses carved into the walls of the Holy Sepulchre Church

 

What I would have done differently

I had a fantastic time in Jerusalem, but if, nay WHEN, I go again, here’s what I’ll do (and I suggest you do):

  1. Bring a raincoat. I would have been far less miserable if I had only prepared for wet conditions. I’m not sure how often it rains there, but I think this is good travel advice wherever you are visiting.
  2. Spend at least 2 days in the city of Jerusalem. There is simply too much to see in a day. You could and should spend an entire day just getting lost in the markets.
  3. Tour the Muslim quarter. Going back I would definitely want to have a closer look inside the Muslim quarter and Temple Mount area.
  4. Celebrate a Sabbath meal with a local. We looked into opportunities to do this through Shabbat of a Lifetime, but ultimately chose not to. That’s my second regret.

And so this concludes my series on the Holy Land of Israel. Be sure to check out my other guides on Tel Aviv, The Dead Sea, The Golan Heights, and The Negev Desert. I leave you now with just one photo that captures Jerusalem and Israel perfectly – the silhouette of a Jewish man standing in the narrow streets of Jerusalem.

 

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My favorite picture from the entire trip.


Tell me what you think. Have you ever been to Jerusalem before? I love to hear your comments!

 

When Legida hits close to home

For over a year now, a far-right political group originating in nearby Dresden have been organizing protests against immigration, Islam, and other policies that, in their view, cause detriment to the German people. The group is called PEGIDA (Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes, or “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West”). Though they started as a small group, their numbers steadily increased, at one point boasting over 20,000 participants at their weekly protests.

The protests spread beyond Dresden to neighboring cities in eastern Germany, including here in Leipzig. Starting even before the immigration crisis became a popular topic of conversation, the Leipzig PEGIDA branch, LEGIDA, was shutting down the city center every Monday night for protests. More recently, the protests have slowed to only the first Monday of every month. Luckily, most of the demonstrations have been relatively calm, with only a few arrests. However, there have been issues in the past with rioting and stone throwing both with this group and the counter-protests against them.

We have mostly been able to avoid the demonstrations by staying away from the city center on demonstration days, since we live 10 minutes away by foot. However, this past week’s demonstrations hit a bit too close to home for comfort. As we were commuting home, we saw hundreds of police cars gathered around neighboring Westplatz in preparation for the demonstrations. After we sat down to dinner, Craig glanced out our back windows and noticed some commotion. In the enclosed courtyard behind our apartment, there were dozens of German policemen in SWAT outfits corralling Legida protesters.

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Legida protesters surrounded by Leipzig police in SWAT gear

While I was happy to see that the Leipzig police were prepared for the demonstrations and kept the protesters under control, it’s a scary thought that these protesters were right outside our window, especially knowing the damage they are capable of. It’s also upsetting to see these bigots shutting down large parts of the city and commandeering city resources on a regular basis. Thankfully the group is now only gathering once a month, which I’m sure relieves a large burden from the citizens and the city, but personally I’ll be happier and feel much safer when the number of monthly protests reaches zero.


Have the Legida protests interrupted your life in Leipzig? Share in the comments. 

The best of the Holy Land: The Golan Heights

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In the north of Israel lies a fertile plot of land home to many farms and wineries known as the Golan Heights. Although it is particularly contentious, as this land was seized from the Syrians during the Six Day War and never returned (as many of Israel’s other conquests were), it is worth a visit to hear from the locals what this land means and understand the strategic, yet controversial, reasons Israel still lays claim over it.

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The best of the Holy Land: The Dead Sea

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The Dead Sea is quite possibly one of the coolest places on earth. If you travel to Israel or Jordan, you absolutely MUST visit and go for a swim in the Dead Sea! Not swimming is not an option! We went in winter and felt fine. Plus, there’s really no risk of drowning because you CAN’T SINK.

As a scientist, I understand the physics behind why you float in the Dead Sea, but I admit I was still skeptical! I did my best to actually TRY to allow myself to go under the water, like wrapping myself up into a ball, or forming a perfectly straight pencil, but nothing worked. You just can’t sink – and that sensation is remarkable!

 

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