Monday, April 30, 2007

Ding Ding

This Married to the Sea-inspired comic I made a few months ago feels relevant after my painful bike home from work today. Sorry for the poor quality, and enjoy.


Saturday, April 28, 2007

Some New Albums...

3 comments try to make up for the lack of a post right now.
I had three friends visiting all week. On Tuesday we visited Hirschhorn, just up the river from Neckarsteinach:

Hirschhorn Apr 07

On Thursday we visited the Mittelrhein, including Bingen, Oberwesel, and St. Goar!

Bingen Apr 07

Oberwesel Apr 07

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Schwerin, Luebeck, Hamburg, London, Heidelcrime, Finding a Doctor in Germany, and Other Small Notes

A lot for one post, but I feel I will never catch up otherwise. I finally finished classes today, and tomorrow starts a week of hosting three friends from the US, so I probably won't be writing much then! So, here are all the things I had hoped to post fresh, but must now post a bit stale, and a bit in a hurry. I hope they still hold some interest to someone! Sorry for the lack of pictures within the post, but you can see them all on the photos site! (Click THE PHOTOS to the right.)

On the Middle Rhein and the train ride north:
Holy mother of Edison. I thought it was gorgeous where I lived, but I would relocate to Mainz or Koblenz in a second, just to have easy access to the Middle Rhein. There wasn't a good way to get photos from the train (we were en route to Schwerin on the IC), but it's just unbelievably beautiful. A perfect combination of river, rocks/cliffs, trees, vineyards, towns, and castles. I hope to go up there as a destination rather than a ride-through next time.
The IC wasn't a bad way to travel - a little slow, but we didn't have to connect - but I don't recommend the bathrooms. A bit on the nasty side.
Damon felt that as we continued northward through the Ruhrgebiet, the clientele changed to a more working-class look, and stayed that way for the rest of the ride. I thought people started to look even more like they do back home. (I come from an area that was predominantly settled by Germans.)
Speaking of looking like home, Niedersachsen does. It's really more like Illinois than Iowa, I supposed, but it all seemed very familiar.
On the way there we shared a table area with a former psychiatrist and his very young daughter. I asked him why he wasn't practicing anymore and said I'd noticed there seem to be a lot of physicians in Germany who are not practicing. He said about 50% of them do not practice! I wonder what the US figure is. He was also very forthcoming and honest in his answer about why he left the profession, which was a little unexpected, though I guess I should know by now to expect the real answer from a German (and I very much appreciate it).

On Schwerin:
* It's clearly got a tourist industry going on, but isn't as spic 'n' span as the other tourist towns we have seen. There's a hideous gravel parking lot right in the way of one of the nicest views of the castle, for instance. Things are in a bit more disrepair in general. The area around the train station is surprisingly uninteresting, with not much in the way of food/shops.
* Where are the crosswalks? Cars rule Schwerin and drive like crazy, too. We also didn't notice any bike lanes and there were far fewer bikers. Maybe it has no university.
* One of the interesting things was being able to see a town still in the process of renovating itself to tourist-attracting perfection. It felt so much more realistic than other places we have visited. The Schloss was all painted on the outside, but still only halfway done in the courtyard. The Dom had a few sections renovated, but some not at all, and the difference was really interesting to see. It would be a great place to go in the summer and if you had a car to really get around to all the lakes and engage in summery water activities.
* No photos allowed inside the castle. Why? Also, I got in trouble for taking a cookie photo at a bakery while standing in the train station. These were the first times I ever had trouble with photography in Germany.

On Luebeck:
* Brick, brick, and more brick! It also is slightly reminiscent of Strasbourg, as its old town is set in a river, surrounded by water. It was great to see such different architecture than what we are used to in our area. The use of brick for Gothic structures is apparently specific to this area. I'm not sure how well these structures hold up, though. They are very old, but all seemed to be a little tilted!
* Marzipan! Luebeck is the marzipan capital of Germany. Now we are asking ourselves, "Why didn't we buy more!??"

On Hamburg:
* We weren't here for long - we didn't think we were going to make in there but we ended up with a bit of time so we did get a few hours there. With limited time we ended up doing a kind of lame tourist bit of a walkthrough from the Green Guide plus a port boat tour, but it still was pretty fun!
* It reminded me of Chicago in some ways, perhaps because it also had a big fire and was rebuilt so it doesn't have much really old left, or perhaps because I've become so accustomed to living in smaller places now, and Hamburg is a huge city!
* And is not without city problems. First time I've been panhandled in a long time, too. And harrassed on the street. And why is everyone always spitting?
* Overall, however, Hamburg felt like a pretty good place to live, and seems to be at a good point economically, if all the construction going on is any indication. There were cranes everywhere. I wish I could say more, but it really was a quick trip through.
* No taking photos inside Hamburg's most famous site - the Michaeliskirche. This was getting to be a theme.

The Pension vs. the Hostel:
We spent one night in Schwerin at a Pension, and then two nights in Luebeck at a hostel. They were virtually the same price overall. But here's what we got:
* Pension: They provide towels. Hostel: You drag your own sorry towel with you.
* Pension: Breakfast laid out on each table specially for the number of people in each room, with an egg freshly cooked right before you arrive. Cute little old lady doing all this and cleaning up. Hostel: Buffet. Bus your own damn table. And hurry up, because there aren't any tables left and the family with the screaming baby who kept you up all night are on their way down.
* Pension: Your own bathroom. Hostel: Dorm-style arrangement. Good luck with the hot water. No paper towels, although there is an empty dispenser there to mock you.
* Pension: Hear 5 minutes of next-door-neighbor traffic in the hall the whole time. Hostel: Entire conversations from the next room are as clear as day. The yelling kids down the hall sound like they are right next door. Every person going up or down the stairs sounds like a herd of elephants.
* Pension: You have a key and you're an adult. Live your life. Hostel: Get here by midnight or we lock you out in the street until 7 am, kiddo.
* Pension: No weird rules. Hostel: No alcohol allowed on the premesis, whatsoever.
I'm sure it's obvious which I preferred. I'm sure I'll whine through more hostel nights though, since it's quite a bit cheaper than most other options. I think we got lucky with the Pension price because Schwerin is a little cheaper. And it's called a youth hostel, but I think I saw 4 other people under 30 the whole time. It was mostly families with lots of kids, single older granola ladies, and skinflint-looking older couples. (And us, the skinflint-looking younger couple.)

Up There in General:
* They are egg-crazy! It seemed like there were a lot more various egg sandwiches and such at the bakeries, including these open-face things with just a layer of hard-boiled egg slices and a little bit of garnish. Mm!
* I didn't believe it when people said it is less relaxed in the north, but it turned out to be true. People we interacted with seemed a bit more stiff and a bit less friendly overall.
* Where are the Rolladen!?? We didn't see them anywhere! I don't think there's a house without them down here!

On London:
* Finally, to be in a true city after so long. To be in a place where no one feels left out. To be in a place where you can think of probably anything in the world that you might want, and know you can find it.
* But, you pay the price in light pollution. It never gets dark.
* If a German had asked me if they could put up a sign for the exit that said "Way Out" I would say it's technically right, but a little silly and no one uses it, so it's not a great idea. How wrong I would have been. Apparently "Exit" isn't really used at all in London!
* I didn't realize how much I missed English. At first I kept trying to speak German to service people like the flight attendants. Then I realized I didn't have to! After a day of adjustment I felt urges to just start talking to anyone on the street, just because I knew that for the first time in months, I could. Luckily I did not act on these very unBritish urges.
* Everyone there looked absolutely sharp. It's nice for me to live in a place where there's not much going on in the way of fashion, because I can wear all my old crap without feeling like a frump and feeling like the scum of the earth for not being able to afford anything new. But, it was also nice to see people who were looking so snazzy. How do they afford it there, though!?
* So freaking expensive. Entrance to Westminster Abbey: 10 pounds (=14.72 EUR, =$20.03). Add another 5 pounds (7.35 EUR, $10.01) for a guided tour to see the stuff that the others can't see, and to get a brief reprieve from the maddening crowds, only to instead be assaulted by American tourists who want to share their great knowledge of Europe with the whole tour group while the guide bites his tongue and grimaces. And by the way, no photos in the Abbey. Entrance to the Tower of London: 16 pounds (=23.55 EUR, $32.05). At least the museums were free. And the sandwiches at the shops are cheaper than in Germany.
* To be a tourist or not? Who doesn't want to see Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London? But who can stand to be in them, when the enormous gawping crowds just make it feel like a faked-up amusement park? How can one really appreciate the grandeur and history of places like this when they're being poked ever onward by the dopes behind them who aren't really looking at anything but are here by some kind of tourist obligation, while hearing the racket of a screaming group of 15-year-old schoolkids?
* Getting between London and here is no small trip. The train might have been just as good! Our trip home was as follows:
Leave apartment and walk to find bus stop - departure 4:50 am
Bus ride to Paddington Station
Heathrow Express to Heathrow
Bus from gate to plane
Plane to Frankfurt
Bus from plane to gate
Bus from Terminal 2 to Terminal 1
Train from Frankfurt to Heidelberg
Bus from Hauptbahnhof to near home
Walk to house - arrival 1:30pm - over eight and a half hours later! And London is a short flight. It really makes me wonder about flying to other European destinations and how much vacation time I would need to allow.

* Getting a Doctor in the US:
- Get health insurance.
- Get list of approved primary care providers from insurer.
- Call special number for appointment.
- Get an appointment, probably about 2-3 months later.

* Getting a Doctor in Germany:
- You already have insurance because they don't let you live here without it.
- Go to insurance place to get approved list. They laugh and ask if you want to take their phone book. Go ahead, they have an extra. You ask if they can recommend anyone. They're not allowed to make recommendations.
- Call whoever suits your fancy in the phone book. Get seen pretty soon.

* Don't buy the red towels. You'll be cleaning a red dust layer out of every room in your apartment for months. Don't buy the white towels. The little hairs that don't come out of your clothes because you don't have a dryer? Yeah, those show up really well on a clean white towel.

* The GEZ is still stalking me under my nickname, which they only could have gotten by stalking my personal mail. GEZ, your methods disturb me.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

London Photos!

We finally have our London photos up! London experiences still to come. It's past my bedtime, and two more early morning trips to Mainz left this week...must sleep!

London Apr 07

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Learning to Spend Copper

I never spent my change in the US. Only the quarters were used for anything, and that was just the laundry machine. The pennies, nickels, and dimes just piled up in little containers I set aside for each of them. Then I rolled them up and took them in to the bank in exchange for "real money" - paper, of course.
Learning to spend even just the 1 and 2 Euro coins was a big change for someone used to dumping it all at the end of every day. It took a few more months to start spending the 50, 20, and 10 cent coins too. But the copper - 5, 2, and 1 cent coins - is still building up on my bedroom windowsill, while every day in the store the cashiers want to know if I have exact change instead of that 5 EUR bill I'm about to hand them. The last 5 people before me paid, painstakingly, in exact change, and now it's my turn. I really need to get this process down. First, how to store the change? A coin purse? I don't want to replace my wallet, but it's of the small American variety, and has no coin pouch like the German wallets I always see. Then, I will have to start finding the prices of things I buy so I can count up my exact change before I get to the front of the line and back everyone up sifting through all those little coins. Maybe this is why tax is already included in German prices.

Blogger seems slow this evening and I am short on time again, but I swear the other topics I mentioned will soon be addressed, in addition to some info on finding a doctor!

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Why am I always on a plane or a fast train?

As soon as we got back from Hamburg, it was less than 48 hours before we were on our way to visit our friend Stef in London. We got back this afternoon, and tomorrow morning I'm back in class in Mainz, every day including Saturday. I have a test Tuesday morning and a presentation Wednesday. On Sunday I'll spend the day in Frankfurt waiting for three friends from the US to trickle in on various airlines, then they are staying for a week. This is all wicked exciting but given more flexibility I don't think I would have chosen this schedule!

So, once again, no time to write a real post, and I haven't even gotten the London photos together yet. My hope is that by publicly declaring what I am hoping to post, that I will be motivated to still do it, once I have time.

I will post!:

* About the trip to Schwerin, Luebeck, and Hamburg!
* About the trip to London!
* About crime in Heidelberg - it does exist!

Okay, I've been up far too long for my sleep-loving self. (20 hours now.) Gute Nacht!

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

PHOTOS! Schwerin, Luebeck, and Hamburg!

I don't have time for a proper post right now unfortunately, because there's a lot I'd like to write about these places, but hopefully I will have time soon. But, I did want to share the photos! We took off on Friday morning, with reservations for one night at a Pension in Schwerin, and two nights at a hostel in Luebeck. We didn't know if we were going to make it to Hamburg, but we ended up having time to stop in and get a tiny taste of it on Monday, on the way back to Heidelberg.

Here are the photos:

Schwerin Apr 07

Luebeck Apr 07

Hamburg Apr 07

Thursday, April 05, 2007

German v. English, One-on-one!

I'll be off the blog for a couple of days. To ponder in the meantime - which of the following words do you prefer - the English, or the German? As I learn German I find myself picking favorites. "Oh, that's way better than the English word for that!" or "Ew...I'll take English on that one." What do you think? Submit your ballot in the comments!

1. typical v. typisch
2. pumpkin v. Kuerbis
3. butterfly v. Schmetterling
4. helicopter v. Hubschrauber
5. Germany v. Deutschland
5. Cologne v. Koeln
6. Venice v. Venedig
7. licorice v. Lakritz
8. polar bear v. Eisbaer
9. discover v. entdecken
10. fish v. Fisch :)

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

It All Flashed Before My Eyes

Not my life, thankfully. My German knowledge. This happens to me every time I encounter a language situation where I am not the instigator and I don't know where it's going to go. The other day a man came up to me in the street after having clearly not gotten good information from someone else he asked, making a "please help me find something" face. My brain: "Oh God... links.... rechts... bis.... geradeaus... will I remember all these words, will they be enough, what if I can't understand his accent..." To my enormous relief, all he wanted to know was whether the street we were standing on was the Sofienstrasse. It was. I didn't even have to formulate a complete sentence. Then, a block later on the bridge, it happened again. My brain didn't even know where to start in its guesses of what words and structures might become necessary because they didn't seem to be lost. Luckily, I saw the camera in her hand and she handed it to me. Okay. Say you'll do it. Take a photo. As I took the camera she rambled into another sentence. The only word I understood in the entire thing was "technological". I just smiled and took the picture. Thankfully the camera worked and I got away, once again, without needing full sentences.

I don't think it's a good thing that, six months in, I'm still considering my real-life encounters with Germans who aren't waiters/clerks/German teachers as something akin to near-death experiences (near-language-failure experiences?). But, there it is. I know I should practice, but it's frustrating both for me and the Germans I speak with to try German when we both know their English is far and away above my German. And thus everything continues in English.

Today a new girl in our lab, also from outside Germany and not great yet with German, and I had to go to another building across town. We got on the bus and she asked for a ticket to the stop we were sitting at right then! The bus driver looked at her like she had lost her mind and the passengers were looking at us funny, too. When he tried to tell her in German she didn't understand and asked him in English to repeat it. At this point I realized what was going on and asked for the correct stop. She was able to just laugh off this experience by the time we found a seat, but I think I would have passed out. I really need to be more like her and not care if I look like an idiot, but when being thought of as stupid is one's second biggest fear (hey, nothing beats death), it's hard not to care!

Must stop caring! Then maybe I would try more.

In the meanwhile, Germans think, and are probably right, that Americans are just so awful with languages. In one example, a friend with a short "oo" sound in his name can't understand why Americans simply never get it right, but the British can do it. Americans are just pathetic pronouncers. I don't know if the British use the short "oo" in their English or are just better exposed to foreign languages. In another example, a coworker rambled on and on to me for about 10 minutes about how Americans just don't pick up German like people from other countries, and how she knows an American woman who has lived here 20 years and still can't have a truly good conversation in German. She blames it on the fact that you can get around here in English. I guess it's a combination of a lot of factors. And being American, I'm guilty of all of them - falling back on English, not enough exposure to foreign languages early in life, being afraid of looking stupid. (Is that last one American? I really don't know.)

In other news entirely, Damon went to book tickets for our trip this weekend today and discovered that there were no reserved seats remaining on any trains back here Monday. None. This is really disastrous - it's about 6-7 hours and with no seat (and not a good place to stand, either - the trains aren't built for that) it will be really hellish. 20% of the seats on the trains are left unreserved but you can bet those are very hard to find. We are debating whether to try and find a place to stay an extra night to see if we can get a better train situation on Tuesday...but I really need to get in some work hours that day, so I don't know. Moral of the story: Book early!!!

Monday, April 02, 2007

Birthday Blues & Other Tidbits

* In the US, at least the abuse of being one year closer to the standard life expectancy on one's birthday is cushioned by the fact that people do nice things for you on your birthday. Maybe some cutesy gift, maybe treated to lunch or drinks after work, or maybe someone in your department sneaks in a cake mid-afternoon. Unfortunately, German society strives only to make the blow of getting older even more painful by requiring the birthday person to bring their own cake in to work - and it's in really bad taste not to do it. Poor Damon planned to make his own cakes, but we were so busy doing what we darn Americans do - celebrating his birthday yesterday - that it didn't happen. I guess he must have bought one somewhere to take it. Lucky for him, he only has to take in 2 or 3 cakes because he shares his birthday with the Swedish dude in the lab. Otherwise he'd be on the hook for 4 or 5 cakes to feed all those greedy bastards. This tradition is very strange to me. Not only is it weird to put stress on the birthday person when traditionally in the US you bend over backwards for them (my personal idea is that one's birthday should be a paid holiday from work for everybody - you shouldn't have to do anything), but it's sort of tooting one's own horn a bit, in a way that we allow only a few people to do in the US. Like little kids. (They get to bring candy to school on their birthday. Fun for them, pain in the ass for the parents.) Oh yeah, and rich businessmen, and sports stars. But no one else can toot their own horn.

* I found out from my coworkers that we are encouraged to use our work email accounts for all our correspondence. They prefer this to having us access other accounts like yahoo via webmail while on the job. This is completely backwards from my former experience. In the US we are warned that our work email is not in any way shape or form private so we better watch what we are using it for. I would hand out my work address sparingly. Now I'm supposed to use it instead of my seven-year-old personal account? Hell no! I don't think after all the horror stories in the US that I could ever be convinced to use my work email for anything other than the most exceedingly work-relevant messages, no matter how they say they don't want me checking my webmail.

* Yesterday as we walked along the Neckar toward Karlstor, we were looking off toward the water when we heard a laugh. There wasn't anything particular about it that I could put my finger on, but I knew it was American. I looked over at the source, a woman with her husband, and saw he was wearing a golf shirt. Yup, American. After they passed, Damon said, "That was an American laugh." haha, I have no idea what it was about the laugh, but we both found it American right away.

* I just love the service at restaurants and bars here. They take your order, they bring your stuff, then they never. Bother. You. Again. They don't ask you if everything's ok. They don't ask you if you're doing fine. They don't ask you if you want anything else, over and over and over. They don't start pushing you out the door. They don't make passive-aggressive cranky faces if you are only ordering drinks, or only ordering dessert, or only ordering one drink. They don't shove appetizers and overpriced cocktails and dessert at you. They don't keep asking you if you want another drink until you get one that you aren't sure you want, just to shut them up. Sure, sometimes it takes a little longer than you might want to flag them down when you do want something, or want to pay, but man is it ever worth it.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Our Trip to Dilsberg and Neckarsteinach; Damon Turns Way Old


Not only was today Damon's birthday, the weather was great, in stark contrast to the rain we had yesterday! To celebrate, we took a trip to visit two nearby towns that we've been meaning to see for a long time, Dilsberg and Neckarsteinach. To the right, you can see Damon as he is in the process of turning way old in Dilsberg. Dilsberg is, unlike your typical German town set down in a valley, set up on the top of a hill. The old part of town (the part we visited) is completely surrounded by its old town wall.

We rode the S-Bahn to Neckarsteinach and crossed the Neckar on a footbridge over their wehr/hydroelectric plant. We then walked through the woods up a hill. The old part of Dilsberg lies at the top of this hill. It feels like you've made a special secret discovery as you begin to see it appearing as you near the top - even though it isn't, because you can drive up there and it's loaded with tourists. The path wasn't busy at all, though. We saw a lot of little plants just springing up, and tons of my favorite plant, moss!

In Dilsberg we walked the narrow streets and headed first for the castle ruin, at the highest point in town. Not that the castle and the views from its top aren't noteworthy, but the highlight of the trip was a fellow guest! He was an older gentleman in a suit and tie with a big shock of white hair, hailing from somewhere where they say "Gruss Gott!" instead of "Guten Tag!" (Bavaria, Swabia, Austria...) and jolly as all hell. The best part of all was his tie which featured SQUIRRELS. This guy rocked, and he said "Gruss Gott!" to strangers, which isn't the local way at all (to acknowledge strangers, I mean).

After the castle we walked around the town wall, park, and gate, then stopped in a cafe for a snack and bathroom trip before heading back down the hill to Neckarsteinach. There we walked through their old town area, past some half-timber houses and two churches all decked out for Easter, and then on to two of the town's castles. Neckarsteinach has four castles, one of which isn't accessible to the public at all, one of which you can only see the outside, and two which are ruins you can climb around. The two we saw were Mittelburg, which one can only walk around, and Hintenburg, which is a big messy climbable ruin with a sign saying "enter at your own risk"! Very cool! Be sure to check out the photos of all this by clicking THE PHOTOS at right!

Afterward Damon and I had dinner at a Turkish restaurant near the Kornmarkt. We'd been there before and it was again excellent, though on the pricey side. Time to crash - April is going to be a long month.

Dilsberg and Neckarsteinach Apr 07