The amazing drawbridges of New York

Interestingly, there are around 30 drawbridges that connect Manhattan to one of the other New York boroughs.

This is what they call an elevated drawbridge, because the center piece elevates. I am not sure which one this is – and I haven’t been bothered to look it up!

And this one is called a swing bridge – although if you ask me, rotating bridge is a more apt name:

My time in Драгалевци – living side-by-side with the Russian mafia

For a while I lived among the Russian mafia in a very usual neighborhood at the southern edge of the capital city of Sofia in the wonderful country of Bulgaria. The neighborhood was called Драгалевци, or Dragalevtsi.

Here is a view from Dragalevtsi looking towards downtown Sofia:

And here is another view looking down towards Sofia:

By the way, those are the Balkan Mountains off to the distance in the north.

But what does this have to do with the Russian mafia, you might ask?

Well, Bulgaria – next to Turkey – which itself is next to the Middle East – is not only infamous as Europe’s most corrupt country, but in fact infamous because it’s a major gateway into Europe for  illegal things like drugs, and a major gateway out of Europe for illegal things like smuggled women.

Of course, no self-respecting Russian mafioso would spend too much time in any of the hotels in Sofia, so they all lived in massive chalets they built in the neighborhood of Dragalevtsi. This made Dragalevtsi into something of the Beverly Hills of Sofia. I don’t think any of them lived here full-time – mainly, I assume, they stayed here during business trips.

Anyway, here is a snap of one of these chalets taken from my apartment:

I always thought it would be wonderful to count a few powerful Russian mafioso’s among my friends, so since I was living next to them, I did everything I could to meet them!

Sadly, with little success.

The Russian mafia are people like anyone else, and from time to time I’d see one of them shopping in the posh local Dragalevtsi supermarket, called Супермаркет МАКС, or “Supermarket MAX.” Whereas normal supermarkets in Sofia catered to the Bulgarian locals, who on average earned around EUR 250 / month – in fact this supermarket specialized in caviar and Cuban cigars and many other things that normal Bulgarians could not afford.

The mafia were easy to spot: in the parking lot I’d see a large, armored Rolls-Royce – engine running – with the driver wearing white gloves. More often then not my mobile phone would stop working – I think they carried mobile phone jammers in their cars. And standing next to them in the supermarket would be two enormous Russian bodyguards, with the obligatory black leather trenchcoats.

I tried. And I tried and I tried and I tried. And sadly, there was only a single time I could start a conversation with one of these guys. In fact, he came up to me, and in surprisingly good English he remarked that I looked like a foreigner – I told him I worked for Hewlett-Packard as an IT guy. I was hoping he would invite me over for a cigar and brandy.

But sadly, he just shrugged and walked away.

(Interesting aside: on the weekends I’d usually rent a car from Herz, then go exploring the Bulgarian countryside. The fellow at Herz told me that the rental cars will never be stolen, because of the Herz label on the back: the rental car companies all have contracts with the mafia. But, he told me, should the car be stolen, under no circumstances should I call the police. Instead he gave me a private telephone number, and he told me the car would be returned in less than 24 hours! It was a very interesting time for me – the Bulgarians are incredible, great, passionate people. But I also have more great experiences involving corruption than I could ever tell!)

The Niesen Supervolcano

For me this is no once-in-a-lifetime breathtaking shot – it was what I saw nearly every morning when I lived in the Berner Oberland:

What I never understood then and still don‘t understand now is where these unique colors come from. These purples were the standard morning colors.

Most scientists agree that when the Mount Niesen supervolcano (shown to the right) erupts again, all life in Europe will be eliminated. As with the Yellowstone supervolcano in the U.S., fortunately no eruptions are predicted anytime soon.

Padre Island National Seashore

Looking south on a cool summer’s day:

A beach is a beach is a beach? Not so. Padre Island National Seashore is the largest undeveloped, untouched barrier island, not just in the United States but in the world!  It’s long enough and isolated enough that, after even a modest drive, you are truly on your own: no mobile telephone services, and indeed no other human beings for 30+ miles in any direction.

Mixed feelings in Texas

I have very much mixed feelings about this blog post.  Sadly, Texas is the state where the largest proportion of residents have diabetes – at least count, over 60% of all Texas have diabetes. This leads to mobility problems and, ultimately for many suffers, huge numbers of people with amputated feet.

But in contrast to other countries or even other states, Texas stores do their best to enable their customers who are mobility limited.

This is no unusual sight at the entrance of any store in Texas, be it do-it-yourself store or supermarket or any other large store: a fleet of battery operated buggies:

And this is no unusual sight in any supermarket:

So you can see: it is a real tragedy that so much of the population suffer from health problems – but it is a real blessing that commercial enterprises have done their best to enable their mobility limited customers.

Stay in your vehicle in Texas

I can’t think of any other state than Texas that offers so many commercial opportunities via the drive-thru channel.

Here is a drive thru bank. You stay in your car, and real people (called bank tellers) pass money to you via pneumatic tubes:

America is highly segregated into areas that reflect the financial class of the residents. So here is a similar shot at a much fancier bank in a much more affluent neighborhood:

Need to hand in your cowboy boots for a good cleaning or a bit of repair, handy if you can stay in your three-axel, 6 wheel, 300 HP pickup truck to do it:

And last but not least, it does make a lot of sense that – particularly if you are sick – you stay in your automobile while you get your medication from the pharmacy:

Sadly, I don‘t have a snap to show, but some states have quite impressive drive thru liquor and beer stores. In Pennsylvania it was illegal to buy individual cans of beer – a case or 24 cans or bottles was the minimum size you could buy – so you‘d drive your car into what looked like a garage, where someone would load the beer into your car. Never seen one of these in Texas, however.

Keeping your hands clean in Texas

Not just in Texas, but this is increasingly a common sight in many places in the United States:

In Texas we might say something like: This ain’t worth a hill of beans.  The overwhelming majority of easily transmissible infections are URI’s, or upper respiratory infections – and the overwhelming majority of them are caused by viruses, not bacteria, that are not affected by topical alcohol.

When bad things become good things – 3

Continuing the series, it is interesting to find examples where things themselves do not change after decades or even centuries, but how these things are perceived changes. Usually, the trend is in the negative direction: a mobile phone is better than a rotary dial telephone. But sometimes the trend is in the positive direction.

And that‘s when bad things become good things.

For a long time throughout history, parts of Switzerland had a very challenging, difficult life for the residents – as anyone who has read the novel Heidi or seen the movie knows.  Cheese was predominantly a staple that allowed people to survive over winter – and I am quite confident they‘d rather spend the winter eating other things, if only they could.

Nothing about the cheese itself has changed, but now that Switzerland has become affluent, the cheese made high in the Swiss Alps (Alpkäse) has become trendy, as this poster for a „cheese tasting“ shows.


Florentine Cobblestones

Or rather, cobblestones in what has become known as the Florentine (or Belgium) pattern:

No strange sight to anyone living in Germany, France, or Switzerland – but I‘ve often wondered why people would take time to do this?  I have not been able to find any documentation – but my own personal guess, based on other things I‘ve read when studying this, is that a non linear pattern like this holds up especially well against regular linear traffic, such as would be caused by horses and carriages.

I took this snap in the amazing city of St. Gallen in Eastern Switzerland.

Refining in Texas

The United States is the largest producer of oil in the world, and Texas is the largest producer of oil in the United States.

So if Texas produces a lot of oil, it makes sense that it would have a lot of refineries – and it does.

Interestingly, refineries in Texas are often huge polluters. The refinery operators often have excellent contacts with the local politicians, so it is very common to read about things like an accidental release of toxic gases that occurs once per month like clockwork.

Anyway, here is one huge refinery near Floresville, Texas:

Normally I do no post-processing of my snaps except for cropping, but in this case Google helped me to assemble multiple shots into a single panorama.

Nagold tree – 3

Continuing the series, here is a nice tree next to the mighty Nagold River in Germany’s Schwarzwald:

The German words for river (Fluss) and creek (Bach) really confused me when I started to learn German.

I love Germany, so don’t misunderstand what I have to say, but Germany has no rivers like in any other country, such as the Nile or the Amazon or the Mississippi.  The German equivalent of river, or Fluss, such as the Nagold River shown here, would be a creek in any other country.  And the German equivalent of creek, Bach, would be such a tiny little stream it probably wouldn’t be named! In fact, German has one level below this: Bächle, which I guess in any other country would probably be referred to as a little puddle.

Little Alsace in Texas

Texas is an amazing, amazing place. Not a lot of people know this, but it was founded by thousands upon thousands of European immigrants that settled here in the early 1800’s, bringing their language with them and creating miniature villages of how they lived back home. There were Irish villages, Norwegian villages – sadly, most of these are now just ghost towns (but you can visit them, if you know where to look).

But a few of these European villages do not just survive but thrive. Depending on the village, here you will find Americans, born and raised in these villages, that do not speak English as a first language, but rather speak Alsatian or French or German or – believe it or not – Schwiizerdüütsch.

Castroville, a tiny village just outside of San Antonio, was founded by Alsatian and Swiss settlers, and a significant number of the old timers are Americans who actually speak English as a second language to their native Alemannic.

As you head into town, you’re greeted by an authentic Alsatian bakery, selling authentic Alsatian baked goods, in an authentic half-timbered house no less!

While visiting this village with my father and I had the honor and privilege to meet Connie, a 90-year-old native speaker of Alsatian and Allemanic – and I could confirm, she spoke fluently and would be right home in Alsace or even Switzerland! In fact, she was kind enough to take my father and I on a tour of Castroville, where she shared her memories growing up here in this Texas community where there were essentially few or no English speakers.

In fact, she and her father wrote the very first ever American / Alsacienne foreign dictionary!

There are plenty of other historic buildings, including a Catholic church. This is what it looks like from the outside:

And this is what it looks like from the inside:

But the highlight has to be an authentic half-timbered house that came from Alsace itself; it was taken down piece by piece, sent to America a few years ago, and re-assembled in the village by handworkers from France:

I hope to return to Texas soon, and visit a unique French village, where the number of Americans who have French as their first language is shrinking fast.

Underwater Art

Lake Zürich, known to the locals as Zürisee, has such clean, clear water that it is certified to be drinking quality.

Gazing down through an almost unbelievable three meters of this fresh Zürisee water off the pier at Burkliplatz is a work of street art, or perhaps in this case underwater art is a more fitting term:

I‘d love to be able to explain this to you – or share my theories about what the artist intended. But sadly, why this German expression (Kopf hoch – or keep your head up) has been positioned next to a number of other concrete blocks remains a complete mystery to me!

FAKE: Bumblebee on iridescent flower

This one is not far from the truth, but it is still a fake: it’s what Google did to enhance a snap I took of a bumblebee, hard at work gathering his lunch in September, in Zürich:

Just for the record: the photos I post are never in any way retouched or enhanced or changed – except for cropping.

But in this series of blog posts entitled FAKE I publish some rather interesting images I have enhanced in some way.

Bass Pro – the Disneyland of outdoor sporting stores

Anyone not familiar with America is likely to also be not familiar with Bass Pro Shops – an store that sells outdoor sporting goods.

Well, the term store is not the right word – mind blowing wonderland is more appropriate.

And the term sporting goods is the right word either – massive collection of boats and four-wheel-drive-vehicles and tents and guns and more guns and even more guns is more appropriate.

Here is what some of it looks like from the outside (the huge collection of over 20 boats are behind me and not visible in this photograph):

Inside the store, this snap does not even show 20% of what there is:

There is not only an archery section, but also an indoor archery range where you can freely try out any of the gear:

Sadly, this Bass Shop lacks the usual indoor gun range, as well as the private room that have historical antique guns costing tens of thousands of dollars – and usually, my favorites, big bore elephant guns used if you want to shoot real elephants!

But this one still has plenty of guns on display – and many, many more locked in a safe (tip for experts: if you are looking for a particular make and model of gun, always better to ask. Could be they will have it, but not on display at the moment!):

What’s really terrific is that the people working in the gun area are usually older, retired gentlemen, and even if you are not a serious buyer, they are happy to let you handle any guns of your choice – and they’ll spend hours with you, just chatting about firearms:

This Bass Pro shop also lacked an indoor hunting area where – and I am not kidding – you can hunt wild stuffed animals using a laser equipped rifle. Sorry, no laser hunting here, but I’d say well over 200 stuffed animals all over the store:

Now, I’ve never see a Bass Pro shop where you can actually fish – but there are plenty of fish and in fact an entire indoor waterfall:

So, if you are planning a trip to the United States, I highly recommend you see if there are any Bass Pro shops near to where you are going to go!

World’s most stupidest train

Sometimes, I see things that are dumb.

Occasionally, I see things that are really, really dumb.

But every once in a very rare while, I see something that is so incredibly, mind-bogglingly stupid that I really makes me question how something so ludicrous could even be thought of by mankind, much less implemented!

And here is one of those things, a little train that runs back and forth in Terminal A of the Detroit International Airport.

Here is what it looks like from the outside:

And, not being able to resist trying out something so incredibly stupid, here is what it looks like from the inside:

Now here comes what the famous magicians Penn and Teller call The Reveal, when I tell you why this is so stupid.

Many large airports have little automated trains – actually, one of the first was probably the train at the Dallas Fort-Worth airport, which I remember from back when I was a little kid.  Airports are huge but with well defined stopping places, so a train is an ideal way to get around.

But in this case, the train only plies Terminal A, from Gate 1 to Gate 70.  That is not a big distance to walk – with the rolling  floors, I think I required no more than about 7 minutes to walk / coast the distance.  But worse that than, this train has only three stops: at Gate 1, at Gate 35, and Gate 70. Plus the train is elevated.

So that means for anyone wanting to shave off a little time from their gate-to-gate journey . . . no way they can do this!  They have to schlep their luggage up to the platform, wait 5 minutes for the train, then take it to somewhere where, unless you are lucky, walking will be required anyway.

I could think of no usecase in which this train would save anyone any real time – and in fact, most of the people riding it seemed to be like me: curious folks with a four-hour layover and plenty of time to kill doing stupid things. And I could think of no usecase in which this train would benefit the mobility limited.

My best guess: this was a project intended to channel public money to the right private parties, such as the company the makes the train.