Friday, November 21, 2014

Travel to Grenoble

Once again I am on travel, related to work. I never get tired of this, it is one of the nice aspects of academic work that it requires meeting with other scientists, in other countries, for discussion about technical ideas, concepts, solutions. I always enjoyed this, and I also like the process of travelling itself. Even though the joy of flying has greatly been diminished in the past two decades: the endless controls and checks, the long queues, the restrictions on luggage (a few years ago it was ok to take 2 suitcases up to 32kg, now one has to pay for a lousy 23kg bag), the reduction in service (no more meals on short flights), the joke of mileage programs (only when you pay more for a particular flight segment, then the miles are actually counted...). Yes, steep decline, as in many other aspects of life.

But it is still a thrill for me, when I sit in the plan, looking out of the window and see the landscape gliding by below. Nothing seems to beat that great feeling, despite all the hurdles and hassle.

Wednesday evening I did pack, it got after midnight until I went to sleep. At 3:30am the alarm clock wakes me, I need to get ready for driving to the airport. Fortunately the Leeds Bradford Airport (LBA) is not very far, just 25 minutes from the Leeds city centre. There is thick fog, which makes me drive slower. A few other cars drive even slower, causing me to crawl along the road. But at 4:45 I am at the parking lot. Get into the bus, where I realise that I did nit print out the boarding passes. Well, this does not seem to matter, they usually can do this at the check-in too, as long as I have already checked-in. While searching for those boarding passes in the bus, I forget to put my scarf back into the bag... I realise this when I am at the check-in desk. Well, this is not a good start of the day...

When checking in with KLM, the lady looks worried about the fact that my changeover in Amsterdam is only 55 minutes. Yes, this is tight, but the KLM booking website did give me those flights, hereby placing all responsibility for me missing my connection onto KLM. Hmmm, the lady does not look convinced, she remains looking worried. MAybe she knows something that I do not yet know? The fog outside looks still quite thick...

After the security check which goes quite smoothly I have a small breakfast. Just a croissant and a latte. Boarding from gate #9 a bit delayed. In the plane the announcement that we will take off a bit later due to air traffic control issues. Here goes my connection in Amsterdam...

We are rolling onto the runway, wait for a short while - the fog still looks thick. But then, with just 15 min delay, the plane starts moving, accelerating, and taking off. Through the fog, the clouds up into the morning sky. I close my eyes and sleep. A cold/flu has been trying to catch me in the past few days, so far I have not caught it yet, but I do feel overall tired.

After about 45 min I open my eyes, it is already daylight, we are flying over a thick layer of fog, apparently near the coast of the Netherlands, as my GPS tells me. The stewardess comes by, asks if I want a sandwich. Apparently I did miss the feeding session while I was dozing off. Naturally I want one, it actually tastes quite good, some kind of soft cheese. And I get a hot tea, good for my cold. I am also taking Strepcils, as I feel my throat a bit aching.

We are landing on time in AMS. The airport is huge, it takes a while until the plane has reached its parking position. Then with a bus to the gate. Just 15 minutes left until the boarding of the next flight starts. If there is a crowd as usual at the Schengen immigration control, then I am doomed.

But there is barely anyone. The pass control just has two people ahead of me. Great! I shall remember that Thursday in November around 9am local time it is ok to transfer to another flight as Schiphol. So I move quickly through the Schengen immigration control. Then security check, again my carry-on luggage with its electronic equipment, the cables, the chargers... causes suspicion as usual. But that is dealt with quickly, and a few minutes later I am "in Schengen" (= the rest of the European Community, except Britain). Now walking to the next gate. Of course it is one of the last gates at the end of a very long walkway... takes me another 10 minutes of brisk walking to get to there. But I make it, they have just begun the boarding process.

I am again falling asleep during the next flight, until after about 45 minutes I look out of the window and see - the Alps. We are flying above the French Jura mountains with a great view into Switzerland, the area around the Lake Geneve. A gorgeous view, the close mountains and valleys in a mist. I take my camera and try to capture this view. There are unfortunately some reflections on the window, but I try my best.

The flight lands in Lyon 15 minutes earlier than schedule (was 11:05). Great, this will give me sufficient time for the continuing journey to Grenoble. But waiting for the luggate takes longer than expected. Fortunately my little suitcase is not coming last, so I am actually ready to leave the baggage claim area as one of the first from our flight. Now looking for the Thrifty car rental. There are signs only for other rental companies but not for Thrifty. I go back into the terminal, ask at the information booth. Yes, I shall take bus RP3 to the car rental place. As I go out again, bus PR3 just leaves. Ok, waiting for the next one. When that arrives, the bus still does not have any Thrifty sign. So I ask the driver. She looks up in a list and mentions "Hertz". Ok, so I have to get off at the Hertz rental. Works ok, still no sign of Thrifty anywhere. Maybe that is the reason the rental price was so cheap? Around 15 pounds per day is acceptable for car rental... In any case, I enter the building for the Hertz rental, and there I see for the first name the "Thrifty" mentioned in big letters. I get my car: a Citroen C1. Have the choice between a Fiat 500 and a Peugeot 107. Since I had the Fiat 500 already once (is a very nice car, can recommend!) I decided on the Peugeot. But then this turned out to be a Citroen. Well, does not matter, as long as in France I am driving a French car. Feels just more authentic :)

I begin driving around 11:40. Now I am driving on the French motorway. Very little traffic, due to the expensive toll. It costs 10.40 Euro to drive from Lyon to Grenoble. Beautiful sunshine, blue sky. Nice autumn trees, I wish I could stop to take a few pictures. Around 12:30 I reach the vicinity of Grenoble, as scheduled. Philippe and Christos will expect me at the train station around 12:45 and 13:00. I follow the directions which I printed from Google Map. But I should have programmed the GPS navi to tell me the directions to the station. As I am driving through city traffic, I look for an official sign which points to Le Gare Central. Nothing. So I drive way too much towards the south, when I finally decide that I need to go back north. I give Philippe a phone call at 12:48 that I am on my way. They will wait at the train station for me. Finally I make my way up to the train station vicinity. Park the car temporarily, then go to my hotel which is nearby. I leave my suitcase, as the room is not yet ready, then I park the car at the hotel parking and walk to the train station across the street. Nowhere are Philippe or Christos... I give them a phone call, nobody picks up. What happened? It is 13:00 sharp. I go back to the hotel, as for directions into the town centre where a first meeting point will be. I get a map and the advice to take a tram. The vending machine only has French instructions... no button for English. Ok, but I succeed to buy a ticket somehow. Then I take the next tram and drive into the town centre. At around 13:29 I arrive at Place Notre Dame, where the other meeting participants are waiting to give their Augmented Reality demonstration. I am there just in time, as the agreed meeting time was 13:30. Good.

For 2 hours we experience very interesting demonstrations of new Augmented Reality technology developments, walking around the centre of Grenoble through brilliant sunshine but quite cold temperatures (probably 5 deg C) and also going up a mountain (to the Bastille) with a cable car. Long walking through the town, then we join the others and drive to INRIA Grenoble, one of the famous research institutions which has made groundbreaking contributions to the world of computer vision.

The meeting lasts until 19:00. Back to the city, then having a nice French dinner with Christos. At 21:30 I finally check into the hotel officially, go up to my room, and fall asleep immediately. It has been a busy day!

Another long pause...

Sorry for not posting for quite a while. Sometimes it is nice to show and tell about things that are interesting, but sometimes one just feels better to remain silent.

Maybe I will post a bit more once again.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Monarch Airline: No more flights to Munich from UK this summer

I had already booked a return flight to Munich with the UK airline Monarch, but then, three weeks before the flight (just in time to avoid having to pay compensation) the flights were cancelled by the airline, without giving any reasons.

Quite upsetting, as I then had to scramble to find other, more expensive flights. Digging a bit deeper, it emerged that Monarch originally had offered flights to Munich during the whole year, but around on 10.April then suddenly stopped all flights after 28.April. Very annoying. And absolutely short-sighted and stupid. Because now in summer, the tourist season begins. Sure, in winter there are Alpine skiers who travel to Munich as a base for winter sports. But in summer, Munich is a very popular tourist destination. It is very difficult to see how this cannot be profitable for the airline, especially including the world-famous Octoberfest. Apparently, Monarch will resume flights again on 1.November. Which is a real stupid decision - because who in his right mind would fly to MUC in November? December, yes, there are the Christmas markets. But instead of flying in November, they should fly in September if the want full flights.

There are quite a few upset people who have voiced their anger about the cancelled flights on Twitter - just search for Monarch and Munich. I found at least ten other people who had their flights cancelled. 11 people, with a UK Twitter rate of 1 in 6, makes statistically 66 unhappy people who had their flights cancelled.

And on 9.April, one day before the official cancellation, the Monarch Tweeter apparently was not yet aware of the fact that these flights to Munich would be cancelled one day later, as the Twitter communication with one potential passenger shows.

Sometimes I wonder what goes on in the minds of those people who make such decisions, as to cancel flights to a popular tourist destination during the main tourist season.

Last year, Monarch and the Leeds-Bradford Airport (LBA) had celebrated that this new connection directly from Leeds to Munich was inaugurated, and still on 3.April this news story was on the LBA website.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Long pause...

... in my blog writing activity. Or should I write "passivity"? I have not written anything in this blog a long while, not because of lack of topics, themes, or events, but just because I did not have the time nor the incentive.

Many things have happened in the past few months since May 2012. My Facebook friends have been well aware about all my activities, and I find using Facebook for updating everybody about what is happening very intuitive and casual. Posting pictures and "checking in" to places tells a story in itself, without many words. And brief status updates leave a trail of small thoughts, connecting places and events. In comparison, writing a blog seems almost old-fashioned. One has to collect the thoughts to write something meaningful. And I appear simply not having the time for this.

Nevertheless, here a brief update: At LeedsMet, the summer semester ended, I wrote a new project proposal together with my colleagues, and actually won the proof-of-concept. At the beginning of August I attended the ISMAR program committee meeting, where we selected the papers for the upcoming ISMAR conference. I had never before been in Atlanta, so this was also a nice new place to explore. In August I visited the family in Germany. For the third time I drove in the 1997 Mitsubishi Space Wagon, which never had any problems during the trip. The best car purchase ever, best £600 ever spent!

Then in September the new semester began. This time 2 weeks earlier, because LeedsMet has changes the schedule this year. And now I am in the midst of the semester, preparing lectures and tutorials, managing the proof-of-concept project and the EuroPLOT project, supervising PhD students, writing a paper for an upcoming symposium. Many things to keep me busy.

I hope to be able to write once in a while again a blog post; but I know that I nowadays have less time to do so, compared to previous times.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Einstein on the Beach - Opera at the Barbican

When looking through the London culture calendars for an event which I could attend during my three-day work-related stay in London at the 2nd weekend in May, I found that the opera "Einstein on the Beach" would be performed during that time. This sounded interesting, and I was in the mood for something contemporary, instead of "the usual" museal 19th and 20th century regurgitation of classical music works which I already knew by heart. So without much further research, I booked a ticket online.

The composer of the music is Philip Glass. I do not know much of his music oevre, but I knew that he is a proponent of "minimal music", in contrast to "maximal music" (such as by Mahler for example). One of his compositions I had enjoyed many years ago: the music to the film Koyaanisqatsi from 1982, which at that time I actually saw in a movie theatre. This film and the music had impressed me very much, the rhythms and cycles of nature and man-made world were excellently visualized - and Glass put this into his repetitive minimal-music very fittingly. So I expected something similar to be in this opera. It was also announced as being plot-less, which I was looking forward to.

This opera had been written in 1976, together with Robert Wilson, who seems to be a nice bloke - even has his own Facebook page (btw, also Philip Glass has his own page on Facebook). The opera is supposed to show scenes from the world of Albert Einstein; a summary of this work can be read on Wikipedia. This production is now going around on a tour through Europe, and now was for the first time in the UK.

So I went into the theater with high expectations. I had never before been to the Barbican; on the map it looked like a park with some lakes, but when I came closer, following the signs, I realized that there was no natural park, but instead there was an assembly of thick straight concrete buildings, placed around a rectangular pond. A typical 1970s architecture, dark, already weathered concrete, a far cry from the current post-modern design-fetishist decorative architectural style that pops up everywhere. But honest in its purpose-ness - no false pretenses, and I actually like the spatial arrangement and proximity of residential areas with a culture center.

The performance was scheduled to be 5 hours, without intermission; so I had a bottle of water with me and a few cheese sticks. The theater was filled almost completely. Already while the audience was taking their seats, the "performance" had begun: a few performers outside of the curtain area did some counting.

Then the curtain went up, and the action began. First I enjoyed the visuals, the movements of the actors, the never-ending music. But then I got lost somewhere, as things began to be repetitive, stretched-out in time, and veeeery slow. There appeared no connection, no reason for why the actors were doing what they were doing. This went on through all the acts. Some of the lighting and the effects were quite nice, but to me this appeared to be just a very meaningless aestheticism, instead of a true meaningful scenario (which for example Koyaanisqatsi did have). I was not missing any plot, but was missing a coherence. The only reference to Einstein was that a guy who supposedly looked like him (actually he looked more like old Edvard Grieg), sat at the side of the stage and played a violin, the same few notes for more than half an hour. In the main stage, there was twice the scene of a trial, but it was not clear who against whom, and what the crime was. Some trivialities in the text "these are the days, my friends, these are the days. My friends. These are the days..." and similar. Maybe quite shocking to a 1970s audience, but today, where was the punch? Other highlights of the texts are the singing of numbers, or singing "do re mi fa so..." to the notes. However, in one part they were actually wrong (appeared to be a minor scale instead of a major) - they should have studied the "Sounds of Music" better where this was done correctly.

Twice there were dance scenes, which actually worked quite well, together with Glass' music. But the second time it appeared a bit repetitive, showing in principle the same dance movements as before.

The final scene had some gigantic machine being operated by people. What was that machine? What were the symbols that were shown? Do these circles mean anything? Yes, it looked nice and impressive, but for what purpose?

What I would have expected to see: a plot-less visualisation and musification of some aspects of Einstein's theories. Relativity would be a very rich theory which has plenty of things to show. Time travel. Atomic structure. And those "Gedanken-Experimente" which Einstein often made to illustrate things, for example what if a train travels at the speed of light, and one walks in the train... there is plenty of interesting stuff! But none of that was seen in the opera. No reference to it, no hint. Instead, there was just some empty monologue, repetitive, deliberately meaningless, given by often robotic figures. It appeared that everything was just there for a plain, vain, visual aesthetic effect. And for nothing else. And that is a pity. There was much more potential, in the topic, in the music, in the staging, but this potential was not realized. Musically there was actually a highlight: there was a solo for saxophone, followed by a short piece for organ. And here Glass did show that he indeed can be a master of modulations which do not simply have to be repeated forever, but which actually go somewhere. This appeared to be the musical climax - but nothing was made of it in the stage play and the libretto.

After the first hour, I slowly fell asleep for a few times, either due to the hypnotic character of Glass' music, or due to the uninspiring stagnant development on the stage, or simple because two full days of work meetings had taken their toll on my ability to concentrate. But, according to Glass himself, it is ok to fall asleep during this work, because when one wakes up, the work will still be going on. And I would add: not much would have been missed, as there would not have any progression have happened on stage.

There was another highlight, although not on the stage: in the audience, one elderly women took out her iphone and did some texting. I had switched off my phone, out of courtesy to others, but her activity appeared encouraging. Then she did something that I was actually also itching to do: she took a few pictures of the stage action. This was expressively forbidden, but the rebel in me approved her action (although not going as far as getting my own phone out and following her example). Behind her there was a younger woman, who did not approve: she tapped on her shoulder and talked into the older woman's ear, probably telling her that she should not do this. But the woman continued, took a few more pictures. The young woman then seemed to get more aggressive: she leaned forward and wanted actually to take the iPhone out of the other woman's hand! Cat fight! But the older woman just bent more forward and continued, ignoring the young aggressive one behind her. Then she stopped and put the phone away. This little episode had more drama and entertaining value than the whole opera!

Maybe my mind is just too small to understand the intellectual significance of this opera. It appeared that most of the audience, in contrast to myself, did have the mental capacity for this: there were standing ovations and loud applause, many of the audience having a face glowing with enthusiastic praise. I then joined in with the applause, not for the opera, but for the cast, who actually gave a remarkable performance.

Maybe next time when searching for a music event, I will go to one of those museal 19th and 20th century regurgitation of classical music works which I already knew by heart.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Audio in HTML5

For the reorganisation of my music website, I have decided to use the <audio> features of HTML5. This new tag allows browser-independent access and streaming of audio, without the need of a plug-in. Makes it easier for the web user to listen to music files.

There is a lot of info on the web on how to do it, so just do a search on Google. In my opinion, the most significant aspect is that it allows to use functions/methods/attributes of the audio and control it programmatically through Javascript.

This is in principle how it is done:

<audio controls="controls">
<source src="song.ogg" type="audio/ogg"></source>
<source src="song.mp3" type="audio/mpeg"></source>
Your browser does not support the audio element.

One advantage of this HTML5 audio player method is that it shows a player interface that is built in to the browser. However, there are inconsistencies: each browser shows its own player interface. Here in the upper left of this segment is the Chrome player (as of Chrome 16).

The Microsoft Internet Explorer 9 audio player is the largest one - this fact that the players in browsers have different sizes makes it difficult to put them into resizeable web page templates; so as a consequence, the webpages will look differently on each browser, which is a major shortcoming. On the other hand, this Microsoft IE9 audio player shows also the playing time (although incorrectly for VBR-encoded MP3 files).

Apple's Safari web browser shows the smallest audio player, which is good for space-saving webpages. It also works well on the Apple iPhone - no wonder, since Apple has been pushing HTML5 for a while, as replacement for Flash.

Firefox is the browser with the most problematic support of the new HTML5 audio: first of all, it does not support MP3 files directly. On my PC, Firefox normally would play MP3 files through the Quicktime plugin. But directly playing them through the HTML5 audio player is not (yet?) supported, I guess for MP3 licensing issues. Instead, Firefox requires the files to be in the odd-ball OGG format. Is actually not so unusual, as music files on Wikipedia also are in OGG. This is because OGG is free, no licensing fee required, whereas when MP3 technology is being used, there is the threat of a law suit regarding possible licensing fees looming. This means that each file that is available as an MP3 file also needs to be there as an OGG file - double work for the web hoster. Another issue with Firefox is that it does not seem to support the methods of the audio tag: I was not able to control play(), pause(), or volume. Not really crucial at this moment, but quite strange, especially since Firefox has gone from version 4 sometime in April 2011 to version 10 now (February 2012) - the Mozilla developers must currently have different priorities.

I have not been able to get this HTML5 audio working on the new Windows Phone Internet Explorer. The visual player interface shows up, I can press the play button, but nothing happens. It might be that this has to do with a lack of support for the explicit control of the methods play(), but I have not yet done any further experiments. If Windows Phone is supposed to be second in the mobile market place by 2015, as suggested in press articles recently, then the Windows Phone developers have to go back to work and solve these issues quickly. Playing MP3s is nowadays essential for the success of a mobile phone, and HTML5 audio is the way to do it properly.

On my website I did implement a few things: first I made the sound to fade-in / fade-out, when the play/pause button is clicked. I always hate it when the sound suddenly starts or suddenly stops, and many of the commercial music distributors such as Amazon have implemented this fading, probably on their server side. Using the HTML5 for this is a bit problematic: the fading does not work very smoothly, as the volume change is apparently only applied when the next chunk of audio data is played, making the volume change a bit choppy. And when pausing it, there is a short audio gap, before I override the pause button and make it play again with a fade-out. Not very elegant, but works for now ok.

One important thing that I also have implemented is to have a more direct control over protecting the MP3 files. This would probably also work without HTML5 (I did not try), but using HTML5 gave me the opportunity to change how the MP3 files are accessed. Instead of directly putting the music filename into the src field of the audio tag, I put a link to another PHP script. In there, I read the file (hereby hiding the real filename and the location folder from the user) and stream it out. This allows to stream only a certain part of a file, which could be the first 30 seconds or a random part within the file. I also have implemented a kind of authentication scheme, which ensures that the file is accessed only through proper authorisation. This scheme is based on a "secret" calculation of a code, which needs to match a code that is associated with the MP3 file. Works fine so far, and I can even control selectively the file access. For example, those who come to my site through Facebook and have "liked" my facebook page, will get more free access to music. Hopefully this will add more fans!

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Getting Wintertyres in UK

The last two years, winter here in UK had been abnormally "harsh". For several weeks, snow blankets covered large parts of the country, and much of the traffic was at a standstill or only moved slowly. So how will it be this winter? Could this be a part of the general climate change, or were these winters just freak random events, which will be compensated by this years record-warm winter?

The press had made wild predictions about another snowy winter, but they have really no clue - weather cannot be predicted for a longer period than 3 days, and in recent weeks I have even got my doubts about the ability of weather forecasters for this short period. Nobody knows. But this year, I am actually less worried. Why? This year I got winter tyres on my car.

These past winters I just had the same summer tyres on my vehicle for the whole year. And yes, the car did slide all over the place on those un-cleaned side roads with their snow-covered ice. Nobody here in the UK drives with winter tyres: there is usually no necessity to put on winter tyres for those two days of some wet snow drizzle. But the last two winters have shown that winter in UK can also be different. When I lived in Germany, we did have lots of snow in winter, and I always had put on winter tyres because they really provided better traction, cornering, and stopping. Now since recently, it is actually compulsory in Germany to put on winter tyres. These tyres in general really work already better in any condition from below 7 deg C, so this should be fine on many days in the UK winter too.

Since October, there has been some awareness campaign by tyre retailers to convince customers to buy winter tyres. The only problem is: there are almost no winter tyres available anywhere. I did check the major tyrer retailers, and they do have either no winter tyres at all, of maybe one single noname brand of which I never have heard from before. Even doing an online search did show that most tyre dealers did not sell any winter tyres. But then I found one online retailer: They have all possible tyre manufacturers, from cheap tyres at around £ 40 up to £ 90 per tyre. In my opinion, the tyres from Dunlop, Goodyear, Continental, Michelin are the best (as tested by the ADAC). But for myself, I opted for a lower-cost tyre, which including fitting cost £ 60 per tyre: Debica Frigo 2 (made in Poland). Should be good enough for my cheap vehicle. The test results on TyreTest (actually submitted by owners of the tyres) appear to be much more lenient than the ones by the ADAC, but at least the Debica did fare better than some of the other low-cost tyres.

Quite interesting, how the URL of the Tyretest page has the German word "pkw_winterreifen" in it... and the German connection goes even further: Turns out that the company is part of the German company Delticom AG. The tyres, after I ordered them online, would have been sent to my home in Leeds directly from their supply depot in Germany! But instead I chose them to be delivered to one of their recommended fitters here in Leeds. Shipping is for free, and the fitting added about £ 15 per tyre for fitting, so the total price including the fitting came to £ 60 per tyre. Yesterday on Saturday, I did the fitting, and now I am ready for any snow storm here in Leeds! The weather report for Monday already predicts some chance of snow flurries - I am prepared, and I am looking forward to the strongest longest winter ever!

Sunday, November 06, 2011

In the former "Sudetenland"

Most people with an awareness of European history in the 20th century connect the name "Sudetenland" rightfully with events in 1938, when the Munich Agreement regulated that this area of Czechoslovakia was annexed by Germany. But there is a bit more to know than just this single year of Sudeten history. The name "Sudeten" is quite old and refers to mountains at the Northern border of Bohemia and Moravia. German settlers had been invited in the Middle Ages to settle there. Since around 1918 they are called "Sudeten Germans", although this term no longer was limited to the actual Sudeten Mountains, but to all Germans who lived within the borders of Czechoslovakia, after this country was established in 1918. In the years 1945-1947, most of these Sudeten Germans around 3 Million) were expelled from their homes and fled towards West, where most of them settled then in Germany.

Among those were my maternal grandparents. However, I myself grew up in Western Germany and never felt any close connection to that Sudeten region. The "Sudeten Germans" were in my view mostly old people who spoke a strange dialect, cooked a hearty food (meat with "knedl"), went into the woods to collect mushrooms, and met all once a year at a big meeting to remind politicians of their fate.

After the death of my grandparents I collected some of the old photographs which they had brought with them - they are online here. And now when I had the opportunity of travelling in the Czech Republic, I decided that I would pay this region of my ancestors a visit.

After driving towards northeast away from Terezin (which is also linked to the same fateful period in history), the first thing that appeared were large chemical factories. I passed a large "Glanzstoff" factory. Then the road turned into a very rural region, with marked the beginning of that hilly region with its characteristic small post-glacial mountain peaks. Quite impressive and unusual, very bucolic. My first stop was at the little village of Zichov / Schichhof, which I had identified on those old photographs. When driving into the village centre, I felt as if I drove back in time. The houses looked very much the same as they did in the 1930, with the exception that the small chapel had probably become a victim of communism.

Schichhof Village Square in 1936

Zichov Village Square in 2011

Schichhof Village Square in 1937.

Zichov Village Square in 2011.

Some of the houses were newly renovated, while other buildings showed the traces of time. I sat down in the centre of the village and looked quietly around. Some people were working in their yards, I heard some hammering, probably renovation work. One car came along, stopped near one of the houses, a couple got out. They looked at my with some distrust, not quite knowing what a stranger would do here in this remote place. I got up and walked towards them, putting my most friendly smile on. He did not speak or understand English. I took out my phone and showed him the old photograph of his house, I thought he might like to see it. He looked at it, smiled slightly awkwardly, then went away into the house without further comment. Maybe he thought I want the house back?

I moved on to the next town on my schedule: Bilina / Bilin. The buildings were all still there, slightly modernised, but recognisable.

Bilin, winter 1936.

Bilina, autumn 2011.

It began to get dark, and I drove on, because I wanted to reach the hotel before nightfall. I had booked a room in the nearby town of Teplice, formerly Teplitz, and I found it without any problems. The price per night was very inexpensive: 20 Euro including breakfast. When approaching the hotel, I saw why the price might be a bit lower than usual: right behind began a large industrial complex with two huge chimneys. But now on weekend they were off. The hotel itself is actually quite nice, with a few strange quirks: at the reception during check-in, I had to pay upfront for the night. And I had to book my breakfast in advance, from four choices. Next to the reception sat two young women, chain-smoking. They were still there after I had brought my stuff up into the room and had a one-hour nap - the travelling and the sites today had made me quite tired.

I headed out to find something to eat for dinner. First I drove to another town, Osek / Ossegg, from where I also had a few pictures. But the town was larger than I expected, and in the darkness I was not able to identify anything familiar. There was a kind of restaurant, I peeked through the window, but its neon-lit large room looked empty, there was only the chef and one waiter sitting around bored. An elderly couple walked along, they seemed also to look for a place to eat. They also checked out the place, and I decided that I would go into this restaurant if they would. But also to them this neon-lit room did not appeal to them very much, and they moved on. So I also decided to drive back to Teplice and try there my luck.

Frantisek who also had studied in Teplice, had warned me that some parts of Teplice may not be very safe; and it looked like I was just now driving through one of these parts near the train station. But a few blocks southwest, there was the old town centre, and I parked the car there. Saw a very fancy looking restaurant, and they did have a very good and reasonably priced menu. No goose, but I did order the duck.

Later that evening, I made good use of the free Wifi in the hotel to upload some of the pictures I had taken.

Next day the fog had lifted, and the weather was sunny. After breakfast I went again into the town centre of Teplice to have a look at it in daylight. Then I drove on towards North, up the mountains to the border with Germany. A cold wind was blowing over the lonely hill crest. Strange shops where you could buy wheel caps (who needs to buy wheelcaps in the mountains?). I took a small road through the forest down south and moved again to Osek. Then drove further to Duchcov, Bilina, passing the significant Borek mountain (Borschen), Zichov. Czech drivers seem to know exactly where they want to go, and they want to be there as soon as possible. This is slightly opposite of my approach now, as I am not quite sure where to go, nor am I in a big hurry - so I often turn to the side to let cars pass.

These lonely narrow country roads, of which there are still many, seem to lead directly into the past. I slowly drive along, enjoying the beautiful hilly region of this area.

I am glad that I visited this place. Now I can associate some visuals when there is talk about the "Sudetenland". I may come back again some other time, to explore further, as time was quite limited during this visit.

Here two further links, with very interesting content:

An interview with the two Czech authors Matej Spurny and Ondrej Matejka about their books about the Sudetenland. They are members of the Czech group AntiKomplex.
In Germany there is a research group at the Carl-von-Ossietzki-University Oldenburg which is concerned with research about Bohemistic and Sudetistik.
It is such activities which can bridge divides and can bring people together in mutual understanding.

In Terezin / Theresienstadt

I think that the history and significance of Terezin/Theresienstadt is well known to everybody, so I will not present it here. Since my route up north would pass this place, I decided to include it in my travel plans.

The weather on Saturday was determined by a thick foggy cloud cover, which seemed to make everything grey and depressive. This set the proper frame for a visit of this place of sadness. Coincidentally just 4 weeks ago, I had attended a concert with music of composers who were in Terezin, and on Friday evening, I learned that also cellist Frantisek Brikcius is participating in this project to keep this music alive and make it more known to wider audiences.

Terezin is an 18th century military fortress. I had expected to find fences and barbed wires, but the town is actually open, and people live here. This seemed strange to me, and the whole atmosphere is a bit weird: there are shops and restaurants (advertisement for a pizzeria shows up), but most visitors walk solemnly around. The area is quite large to walk by foot, and I was not able to see every corner of the town. But I visited the central museum, which does provide a very good documentation. There is a room with just the names of all 10,000 children. There are also many exhibits with original documents which described everyday life and procedures.

If I had more time, I would have also have visited the auto museum which is located between the small fortress and the parking lot: they seemed to have a nice selection of classic buses. But I think that somehow such a mundane "attraction" feels misplaced here in Terezin.

After about 1 1/2 hours I drove on, towards my actual destination for today, not very far north from Terezin: the area known formerly as "Sudentenland".

Saturday, November 05, 2011

In Jihlava

When planning what to do during the two days after the EuroPLOT meeting, I immediately considered visiting the town in which Gustav Mahler had spent his youth: Jihlava. I was curious to see the town which has shaped him and to see the same environment that has brought out the creative talent. And so I booked one night in the Gustav Mahler Pension. I also had the choice of staying at the Gustav Mahler Hotel, but I went for the less expensive option. Seems that the good tourism folks there in Jihlava have discovered how to milk the fame of their famous citizen - there is also a Gustav-Mahler-Cafe. Neither of these accommodations has in fact anything to do with the composer - the houses in which he grew up are a few blocks away. The Gustav Mahler House is one of these - he spent there his first 12 years.

After my arrival around 23:00 I went soon to sleep. The Gustav Mahler Pension is in fact quite a nice accommodation: the room is nicely appointed, like a little suite, and the breakfast buffet is very good. 11:00 is checkout time, so I planned to do my walking around the town right after breakfast. Walking through the grey cold autumn morning, the town Jihlava seemed slightly unwelcoming. The sometimes slightly crooked buildings on hilly streets seemed to find their equivalent in Mahler's sometimes slightly crooked harmonies. I could imagine how the small-town mentality felt somewhat limiting.

But then, the exhibition in the Gustav-Mahler-House showed a different aspect: there was a lot of music activity in the town, and also the nature around was inspiring to young Gustav. The exposition in the Mahler house is very interesting: some replicas of equipment that was used in the house when it was his father's liqueur shop. Also there are details about Mahler's bad grades in high school.

I am glad that I got at least a brief impression during this visit from the environment in which Mahler grew up. If I had more time, I would have explored the outside environment, the hills, valleys and forests around Jihlava. But my time schedule was tight - my next stop would be north of Prague. So back in the car, filling it up with petrol, then driving north. Once again driving through the vicinity of Prague, but not touching the center this time. Instead, following just the signs for Teplice and Usti nad Labem.