Saturday, September 7, 2013

Brussels & Amsterdam: June 27th-30th

This weekend I took off work on Thrusday and Friday to go to Brussels and Amsterdam.

Getting to Brussels was a bit of a feat. We left Wednesday around midnight from Hamburg on a train bound towards Amsterdam via Cologne (Koln) on the western border of Germany. Here we got off and transfered onto a ICE (high speed) train to Brussels via Aachen (but we had 15 solid minutes to go outside and take a picture of the magnificent Cologne Cathedral). Upon arriving in Aachen we had to wait on the train for a half hour (there was a train strike going on in Belgium right along the German border. After that half hr we went outside the train station and waited an hour in the rain for a bus to take us  to Brussels. What would have been an hour long train ride would now be a 3 hour bus ride. Its all part of the experience though.

All in all, Brussels was great. The amount of carsthere relative to germany was rather shocking, and I can only imagine my reaction upon returning back to the states, and driving home from JFK on the Long Island Expressway.... Brussels is a very metropolitan kind of city, reminding me a lot of NY. French was the predominant language spoken, although you see a lot of signs in Flemish, and can hear a little German too. We saw the Atomium - a giant structure in the shape of an atom built for the worlds fair in 1958, watched the Manneken Pis (a little cherub statue) do exactly that over a group of people, and got a tip about some cool street art and added a little touch myself. The trains in Brussels are much older then in Germany, and generally the city is dirtier too than german cities (much like NY). But the positive was that Brussels is more of a walk and explore city then anything I've seen in Germany. Berlin I guess is kind of like that but its way more sprawling. We had dinner at a nice Turkish restaurant, but subsisted mainly on Belgium Waffels and designer chocolate (and of course some ridiculous beer - some percentages went up as high as 12%!). Also went to an interesting pizza restaurant where you get your pizza by weight rather then slice. You just say "yea that size looks good to me," they cut off a section of pizza, weigh it and you pay. For lunch another morning I had a Durum, a turkish equivalent of a gyro/wrap which I am used to getting in Germany, but this one had fries on it!!! Just like a pirmanti sandwhich (missing Pittsburgh a little), also the place I got it from was super clean, and was definitely not half as sketchy as the places I've gotten it in Germany. Some other things we die were to get a tour of closed Opera hall simply because one of the other interns just asked about it. They were cleaning the crystal chandelier which only comes down for a week every two years! Also we walked around the EU and talked to some Croats about all things Croatian. They were there with exhibits because croatia is about to Enter the European Union on Monday.

If Brussels was great, Amsterdam was fantastic. Simply a beautiful city. And the public transportation is phenomenal. On top of that we had great weather! Just an all around wow. The trains had cool decorated walls on the inside, really artsy, and I think each one was different. The populace of Amsterdam is pretty diverse too, almost as diverse as Hamburg which I found out has people of something like 215+ nationalities represented. There are lots of white Nordic looking people of course (noticeably more red hair here than in Germany), and quite a few asian people too! After leaving the Van Gogh museum I walked into this free-lunch "get rid of food waste" event that is only held once a year (right in front of the "I AMSTERDAM" statue). Probably about 100 volunteers out cooking, cutting, cleaning veggies, and filling up water bottles for people. Its to use vegetables that aren't "beautiful enough" to go to grocery stores for people to buy, but still are entirely edible. From my understanding most of this food goes to sources like pigs feed, but I guess using human quality food as animal fodder is still in a way a waste. Very cool festival-ish scene. At this open air flee market I ate a snack of raw herring with raw onions and a homemade pickle, apparently thats a "must do". It was pretty good, albiet a little slimy and fishy. The onions really made the difference I think, and the pickel helped to get rid of the fishy flavor. We went to the Anne Frank house which was a really incredible experience and I went to the Tulip museum too :)

Besides that we saw a bunch of monuments, and really just walked around and through neighborhood and along canals. The buildings are all labeled with the dates they were built and the upkeep is incredible. In Amsterdam it was only appropriate that I drink my first Heineken. We strolled through the Red Light district with the crowds one night, and had to take the obscenely priced Night Bus back to the area of my little painted cabin. Like a 35 minute trip and then a 7minute walk. The campsite was pretty nice. We squeezed 5 people in a 4 bedroom one the first night (probably 3*3*2.5m^3) volume. And then we had 6 people in an 8 Bedder the second night. There were 1-euro token showers, and clean bathrooms, but no toilette paper. A lot of people were pretty young internationals from the states, canada, France, Belgium, etc. and you could smell Pot smoke wafting through the air around 10am. Suprisingly though Amsterdam is not cast in a hazy green smog. You smell it here and there on a few people, or if you walk by a "coffeehouse" (codeword, for place to buy/smoke) you can smell/see it coming out the doors. Otherwise, I'm pretty sure you'll smell more Pott walking around LA or SF.

I've realized that I don't like seeing things in a big group. A group is slow to get going, slow to see a lot of things, and I'm not really into taking group pictures and buying beer and wine in the supermarket to drink to save money. If I'm going to have a beer its going to be in a good place, and a local beer, and surrounded by some native people. I did my own thing Sunday and had a blast, I think I'll keep doing that in the future and then meet up for meals or evenings.

Chicago-Hamburg Business Forum & Adventures

June 4. Best Day.

So today I went to a Chicago/Hamburg business forum that focused on sustainable cities. I woke up at 6:20, made it to the train station to meet my mentor Anke at 7:45 to take a 7:55 train, but I couldn't find her on the platform. I knew we were going to Veddel (Pronounces "feddle" like meddle) on an S3 train so I figured maybe I'd meet her on the platform there. Just as I'm getting on the train she pops up from the inside of the car and welcomes me in. Foolish me went to the main train station to meet her instead at a different one we had agreed on (Jungfernstieg). And it turns out she was mistaken about Veddel, we really were getting off in Wilhelmsburg.

Wilhelmsburg is one of the largest if not the largest islands in the middle of the Elbe River. Technically part of Hamburg, as I understand it, most people really only consider the North Shore Hamburg. In WW2 the air raids that bombed Hamburg came from the south an so Wilhelmsburg received a lot of damage from bombs dropped too soon. A lot of ruins still remained until a decade or so ago when they were cleaned up to redevelop some areas. The population of the island is much more diverse then the rest of Hamburg with lots of middle Eastern and African people. (Additional fact - when I got lost Tuesday night I overheard that Hamburg has one of the if not the largest Iranian populations in Germany/Europe/world). So I met Anke and her friend and former student Janina (pronounced yea-Nina) on the train and we went to Wilhelmsburg to hear some lectures at the conference and take a tour of IBA (an international building expo Hamburg put on) and later that night to take a boat tour al of the river. Next to the IBA was an international Garden Exhibit - one of 80 gardens around the world. 

The IBA consists of all these new apartments and a few other buildings designed to use 50% less energy then conventional buildings and are geared towards a middle class market (at least I think I caught that correctly). We went to this new hotel (paneled all over in wood - rare in Europe in being used as a building material), checked in, picked up some literature and then sat down and waited for the lectures to start. During this time I tried a Rhubarb-soda-juice that was strange. Not bad, but not a flavor I'm used to. I'll try it again sometime but I think it'll be a bit before then. The lectures were good - some German presenters and one or two Americans, but I was tired (5hrs of sleep) and I already knew some of the information so I had a bit of trouble focusing at first. One American presenter, this young guy named Peter, was pretty high up for their energy efficient buildings sector. The company CNT advises new homeowners on how to improve the efficient of their new homes (to take out extra money when getting a loan for the morgage for capital improvements that will have operational cost benefits), they do energy audits, install smart meters, and do "Tupperware parties" in communities to raise building performance awareness. They are building focused, not so much community focused (at least in practice) but the engagement piece is there so that's interesting. :) after a coffee break the lecturers were joined by 3 other members of the Hamburg/Chicago Chamber of commerce for a panel discussion. The moderator, a German journalist with a tiny face gave excellent questions. On the panel was a woman named Lois who is a LEED Fellow, Chief Sustainability Officer for a large company, an AIA member, and one of the top people in Greenbuild. I asked her and the rest of the panel a question pertaining to the implementation of Smartgrids and what has been implemented in Chicago beyond smart meters and I'm guessing sensors. The answer I got was that right now it's mostly data collection...

Lunch was a served buffet of soup and gnocchi/potatoes (I had beef stoganoff and rosemary potatoes) and desert was like a parfete and I chose lemon with Fresh German strawberries ontop (apparently they just came into season). Furring lunch I talked to Peter, a man named Daniel who is a Carnegie Mellon Alumn of Physics and is now a patent lawyer (he was president of BETA back in his day, but I steered the conversation away from that topic). I also talked with a man named Jurgen, who invited me to a dinner the next night put on by the American International Society in Hamburg (more on that soon). And then we all went on a tour of the IBA. Some really cool buildings - one that does photosynthesis with algae panels, one thats concept was that apartment owners would build their own walls and be able to completely design their apartments themselves (so the building would be all different colors) but that doesn't look like its happening. Also part of the tour was going around Wilhelmsburg to check out a few of the really cool energy projects they have done so far on the island. There is an old WW2 Bunker the Nazi's built that the British tried to blow up with TNT after taking Hamburg but to no avail. Now inside there is a giant water storage tank to contain heat in the summer to be released in the winter (part of their district heating system. And ontop are tons of solar panels. We also went to "Energy Hill" where there are a bunch of solar panels and a few wind turbines over what used to be a toxic waste dump which has been contained. At night we all went on an all you can eat and drink boat tour of the harbor where I had somany really great conversations (one with a German head-hunter for Green Tech. companies). I got to see giant cargo ships being unloaded by huge cranes, went past the Airbus factory, and saw a really cool biogas digester plant!

Great first week!