Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Cranky, Whiny Letters

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It's not all fun, games, and travel all the time, is it?

1. Hey coworkers, how about throwing your food trash away in the kitchen and not in our warm, enclosed draft-free (by your choice of course) office? Those of us with overly-keen senses of smell may not be digging the rotting-apple-core aroma.

2. Hey mother-in-law, how about not waiting two months to forward mail for us that comes from a collection agency? Or hey, how about not waiting two months, period? (Helpful historical reference post: collection agency issue)

3. Hey collection agency, how about using the address I sent to you instead of continuing to send things to my mother-in-law?

4. Hey hospital-where-I-saw-my-doctor, what the hell is up with you sending me refund checks saying I overpaid while at the same time having a collection agency chasing me down for nonpayment? It's one or the other.

5. And hey insurance company, I haven't forgotten your role in all this. Why didn't you pay the hospital like you said you would?

6. Dear Havana restaurant in Heidelberg, your food completely sucks, your drinks aren't very good, your service is ridiculously bad, and your patrons are irritating. Why do all the people I hang out with keep wanting to return to you!?

7. Dear Deutsche Post, I paid you to forward my mail when I moved. You forwarded less than half of it. The other half languished around at my old address until someone found it and left it in my husband's lab. One thing got sent back to the sender, all while you were to be forwarding. In addition, I no longer receive any mail worth waiting for thanks to you completely defeating the will of all my friends and family, with perfectly well-addressed (we think, but for some reason they will never tell us) packages being returned to them citing "insufficient address" - in some cases more than once. Thanks for taking one of the little joys away. I cling to every one I can get being this far away from everyone. So it really does hurt. Oh, and while I'm at it, why do you need to be closed for two hours in the middle of the day? Surely employees can alternate their lunch breaks? And who needs two hours to eat lunch anyway?

8. Dear Sigur Ros, I just can't get into you, even though everyone tells me I should. Sorry about that.

Grumble.
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Sunday, May 27, 2007

We finally went to Schwetzingen.

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Continuing on the same theme as Ladenburg, everyone has been telling us to visit Schwetzingen since we arrived here. And, we just kept not getting around to it, visiting all the things a little further out all the time and never making it to the things right next door. Today, we finally went to Schwetzingen.

From Heidelberg, there are several ways of getting there, but the easiest one is a bus that picks up once per hour (on Sundays - probably more often on other days) at the bus stop on the west side of the Hauptbahnhof. However, beware the bus driver. It was only a 20-30 minute ride, but I've never felt so motion-sick in my life. Unfortunately it was the same driver on the way back, too!

Schwetzingen has a couple of main attractions: its castle and the castle garden, and its asparagus - especially at this time of year. There was even a sculpture commemorating asparagus in the plaza near the castle, as well as several market stands selling various produce, but mostly asparagus. Little signs everywhere advertised fresh asparagus. Spargelzeit (aspargus season) is at its height right now.

We spent a couple of hours wandering around the castle gardens, which are really extensive. We hadn't heard much about the inside of the castle itself so we skipped that. Admission just to the gardens was 4 EUR each - although I never saw anyone check a ticket and I think we could have just walked right in! The gardens include a bathhouse (you must wear slippers to go in), a myriad of fountains and ponds, fake Roman ruins, and a little mosque. I don't think we even saw it all in two hours. The weather wavered between sunny and actually raining - but I was glad it wasn't as hot as the last few days. (I'm a wuss in the heat.) Check out the photos below!

Schwetzingen Mai 07
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Friday, May 25, 2007

Hmm, what happened here?

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From my old post Product Placement, a box of horrible "American" pizza from Lidl in January:


And from this week:



Looks like someone out there didn't appreaciate their smearing of the good name of, uh...McKennedy.

In other news I'm back in the land of the living after four days absorbing more epidemiology from 9-7 every day. Kind of like trying to take a sip of water from a fire hose.
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Sunday, May 20, 2007

Ottenhoefen im Schwarzwald!

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This weekend we took a trip down to the Schwarzwald (Black Forest). This was our first trip to a place that we visited for reasons other than recommendations or seeing it out a train window - the town is where a branch of Damon's family immigrated from to the US, long ago.
We rode the Deutsche Bahn down the Rhine valley to a small town called Achern, then took a local train (diesel! one car!) down into the Acher valley to the end of the line, Ottenhoefen.
Damon had arranged a room at a Pension, which was a couple of kilometers down into another side valley and up the side of the appropriately named Huebschberg (pretty hill). The Pension is owned by a couple who also have their own Imkerei (apiary - beekeeping) and Brennerei (brandy-making). We dropped off our stuff and hung around a bit, looking into some of the brochures about the area that were in our room. The woman came down to invite us up for a shot of brandy! We took her up on it and sipped on some Kirschwasser in the kitchen while various family members stopped by. Their dialect was extremely difficult to understand, and if we didn't understand, they just talked louder. Just like being in the rural US, I guess :)
We went out to eat down the road at a little restaurant with the tiniest salad bar I've ever seen, a cat wandering among the tables, and decorations just like your neighbor-with-questionable-country-craft-taste would have in her house. The food was pretty good, though. After we got back to the Pension we realized we had remembered everything but soap. (It is not typical for that to be provided.) We couldn't get along without it so Damon went upstairs to see if there was any kind of shop around where we could still get some at that hour. In a story only he can tell, he had a very awkward moment of walking in on the family watching some folk show on TV, and the Frau offered us a bar of soap of her own (new in package). It was some Lava-like thing with a very medical name, but it was really nice of her. We felt kind of bad about it.
The next morning we had a huge breakfast at the Pension and then headed out to town. Ottenhoefen's claim to tourist fame, other than just being a rural escape in the Schwarzwald, is its old mills. So, after looking around town a bit and picking up some food and drink for later, we picked up the town's mill trail. Something at breakfast made me incredibly sluggish - it felt like I took Benadryl and I can't imagine what it was - so we were off to a slow start. Then, with only one mill down, Damon was sick enough that we needed to make it back to a restroom in town. It seemed like the whole thing was doomed but soon he was recovered, I felt better, and we were getting past several more mills.
The trails and towns were full of memorial statues, usually a piller with a little cage on top holding a Mary or other saint and maybe a candle or some dried flowers in a little vase. The memorials had gardens around them which we saw being maintained by the women of the town several times. We also noted that beekeeping and brandy-making were not specific to our Pension but are extremely common, with many places selling homemade brandy and honey. Along the trail were several self-serve beverage stops selling juice or water but mostly shots of brandy! Some were in fridges and others were cooled by springs. (There were springs popping up everywhere.) One place wasn't self-serve, and Damon ordered a shot of Kirschwasser from a teenaged kid with no shirt on, helping the family business. There were several farms along the trail as well - pigs, chickens, rabbits, sheep, deer. We saw a family herding sheep - the sheep were hilarious! It looked like a lot of work though.
The town had almost no tourists around, though there is clearly an industry as it was filled with Pensions. And we didn't hear a word of English the entire time, except from each other. Not one word. I think this was a first.
After the mill trail we were exhausted and had dinner in town before returning to the Pension. I got an awful rash under my socks - no idea what - and we were exhausted in general so we just showered and watched TV.
The next morning we had a breakfast that made me sluggish and fuzzy again (seriously, what kind of food can cause this?) and bought some Kirschwasser and honey (and got some Kirschwasser free, too). Then we discovered that the little diesel train's Sunday schedule was really sparse and we wouldn't even be able to get out of town until the afternoon! When we asked if there was a bus that might go back to Achern before then and they said no, but they would give us a ride there so we could catch a train out of Achern to Karlsruhe (big station near us) that left at 11:15! If anyone wants the name of this Pension, let us know :) We can definitely recommend it. (Just watch out in the shower. The hot water is really hot - I knocked my shoulder on the hot side of the tap when I was washing my feet and was left with a big bright red mark to remember the trip by!)
Back home to do some laundry - I have class this week so ...well, I won't be having any other life!

Ottenhoefen im Schwarzwald Mai 07
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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Eurovision Video Links...

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...for those of you who didn't watch or couldn't watch.

The French one I voted for:


The Serbian song that won:


The crazy Ukrainian one:


I also liked Georgia:


Slovenia with the freaky light-up hand:


UK, why??:


Cringing for Ireland:


Damon's favorite, Sweden:


I guess I better include Germany too:
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Sunday, May 13, 2007

Eurovision!

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This year marks the first time I ever heard of and got to watch the phenomenon that is the Eurovision Song Contest. The contest happens once a year. Countries within a certain broadcasting area (which actually extends beyond Europe to Northern Africa and part of the Middle East) are invited every year to submit a song to the contest. There's a semifinal round and then a final round, which we watched last night. The final round has 24 songs all performed live on channels in every country. Then at the end, everyone can vote by phone or SMS for their favorite, though no one can vote for their own country. Each country gets to give points to ten other countries - the top three getting 12, 10, and 8 points, and the remaining 7 getting 1-7 points.
The show is awesomely cheesy. A really quick breakdown of our thoughts on the final 24:

* Bosnia-Herzegovina - Boring ballad cheese. Really bad backup, uh, dancing. More like arm-swaying.
* Spain - Really bad Spanish boy-band. Bad singing, bad dancing, really bad!
* Belarus - This was good relative to the first two, but still goofy, with backup "dancers" splaying their black-dressed selves all over some white blocks in the background. Really goofy English too - some line like "yadda yadda power, you have the key to let me into your tower"...hahaha
* Ireland - I felt embarrassed for this poor band. The lead singer looked and sounded terrified. It was really awful. I don't know how they made it to the finals.
* Finland - Wins the whiniest lyrics award hands-down: "Leave me alone, I want to go home, and I feel like dying" or some such. Ugh. The music was pretty poppy though - it was the first song I thought could actually fly in the US.
* FYR Macedonia - Ballet dancers flopping around in the background and really forgettable music. I had to go look up the song to even remember it.
* Slovenia - Opera singing over dancy pop, and the chick had lights embedded in her glove which she lit up her face with. So easy to make fun of...yet I kinda liked it.
* Hungary - Hungarian blues. Nothing really good or bad about it. *shrug*
* Lithuania - A band named 4FUN, which had neither 4 people nor was it fun. Boring.
* Greece - Dancy pop lead dude with four horribly dressed bad backup dancers. Oh lordy. The song was mildly funny, but the presentation was just awful.
* Georgia - I can't remember why, but I kinda liked this one too. Pretty good singer with decently catchy song, and ridiculous male backup dancers wearing swords on their backs, which they danced with later. Hilarious!
* Sweden - This was not bad, actually, either, though still pretty goofy, with a big spinning disc the singer splayed himself on, etc. I guess the dude is a transvestite? He reminded Damon of Freddie Mercury somehow. I think it was Damon's favorite.
* France - I voted for France. Clearly I have bad taste because I think they got second-to-last. They kind of seemed like the French version of OKGo to me. All male, in black and hot pink outfits. The drummer had on fuzzy wings and one guy had a stuffed cat strapped around his neck. Well, I thought it was kinda cool....
* Latvia - Six choral dudes in top hats singing in Italian. It sounded nice but wasn't anything amazing.
* Russia - Chicks in head-to-toe black (outfits wouldn't be revealing enough for American pop culture) did a tune I think would catch on in the US...except for the really bad English lyrics. Did they seriously sing something about "my bad-ass feelings for you"???? hahaha... This is how I heard it and I couldn't stop laughing every time it was said!
* Germany - A guy doing a swingy song. It was actually just fine but there wasn't anything stand-out about it so it didn't do well in the end. It was so cute though at the end when the points were tallied, our little German announcer getting all excited whenever Germany got a point or two from some other country.
* Serbia - A chick with a great pop voice, but dressed in a suit, with short hair and a little bit of a double chin. Let me tell you how glad I was to see a woman with a great pop voice who didn't make herself look all glammy or like a tart. The performance was really kind of weird though, with some chicks with gravity-defying hairdos making goofy ultra-serious faces and putting their hands together to show off heart shapes they had painted on them. Eh?
* Ukraine - HILARIOUS. See video here: http://www.eurovision.tv/addons/mediaplayer/video/ukr.html . (All other videos are also available at the eurovision.tv site.) I almost voted for them. (There's my bad taste showing again - although Ukraine did well in voting.)
* United Kingdom - Really bad...I was embarrassed for them too. The band was dressed in flight attendant gear and pushing carts around the stage and making stupid innuendos.
* Romania - Twee group of six guys singing in six languages about the universalness of love. Yipee.
* Bulgaria - I like Bulgarian singing so I kinda liked this one...until the guy kicked in on the mic with some ...sounds...of some kind...then it was all over. Don't give that guy the mic, dude.
* Turkey - It was like the Turkish Ricky Martin.
* Armenia - Who TPed your tree, Armenia? Lame ballad, TPed tree. Worse than UK and Ireland.
* Moldova - Eh, catchy. At this point, who cared...it was getting so long...

At the end, there were 15 minutes for everybody to vote. I considered myself a truly objective outsider so I thought it was my duty to submit a non-political vote. In the end, though, I had a hard time choosing between France and the Ukraine and in my brain I was secretly asking myself, "What do I hate more: that the Ukraine gave us Oksana Bayul, or that there's always dog shit on the sidewalks in France?" Then, "No! I must not be political. Ukraine's song was hilarious but an overly obvious grab for the camp vote! I will give my vote to France's slightly-less-campy-camp!" Then France bombed. Serbia won, with Ukraine second.
Next year I hope to go to one of these Oscar-party-style Eurovision parties that people have, or maybe even host one myself. I love cheese.
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Friday, May 11, 2007

Die Betriebsarztin

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The Betriebsarzt is the German equivalent of occupational health in the US. Here I will describe my first appointment with the Betriebsarzt, as well as my first appointment with occupational health at my last US job.

Occ Health in the US:
Meet nurse in an office. Show proof of all necessary vaccinations and most recent tuberculosis test (it was a hospital). Express whether I want a Hepatitis B vaccine or not. I pass because I don't work with blood. Say I don't work with radioactivity. Go back to work.

Betriebsarzt in Germany:
Meet doctor in an exam room. Fill out a four-page medical history, including crap like menarche. Go over entire medical history with doctor, page-by-page. Tell her I'm vaccinated to "the usual things" - no proof needed. Say I don't work with radioactivity. She asks me why I am turning red. I say I don't even notice that anymore because it's some sympathetic nervous system thing over which I have no control, but it happens any time I am the center of attention. Not really all that unusual, right? It's awkward and I'm really annoyed this was brought up. Then she takes my height, weight, blood pressure, and checks my throat, heart, lungs, and spine. And NOW I can go, because "I don't work very much". Jeez, what more would there have been if I did work there full-time? Blood tests? Crotch check? I'm rather mystified as to why my employer needs me to do this.
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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Das Kino

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Last night we finally made our first trip into a German movie theater! We had intended to do this a while ago, but the (English-language) movie we were going to see turned out to be dubbed instead of subtitled and as it was supposed to be a complicated, arty movie, we didn't think we could handle it in German. No trouble with this last night, though - the movie of choice was Spiderman 3. We figured this would be simplistic and visual enough to be no problem to understand in German - and we were right.

The theater had mostly the same food as an American theater, only it offered only sweet popcorn and not the buttery, salty kind. Also, drinks came in bottles instead of paper cups, and you could of course get beer. The theater was filled with trash cans and drink cases for the used bottles. The seats were really soft and comfortable, and about half of them were actually loveseats, I guess to facilitate mid-movie PDA sessions.

Edit: Nathan reminded me! There was also an intermission. It was really disruptive. They got more sales, though, because we got popcorn and pop during it. I hope American theaters don't pick up this crappy habit. ALSO, there were cigarette ads before the movie!! If I've ever seen a moving, with-sound cigarette ad in my life before, I don't remember it. They were kind of like car ads.

The movie was entertaining enough. The best part is how when Peter turns evil, they just make him look emo. Hilarious! There's also a ridiculously cheesy scene where Spidey poses in front of an enormous Perkins-sized American flag, made all the more absurd by the foreign setting and language in which we were seeing the movie. I hope it was supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, because everyone was just rolling and clapping with laughter at it. Maybe if I were still in the US I wouldn't have even noticed this scene but it really stuck out like a sore thumb here and seemed a little misplaced. The Germans I went with really hated the movie, but I have seen much worse so I thought it was alright.

In other news, I have an appointment with occupational health today. At least, I think it is the equivalent of occupational health, but I don't really know. In typical German fashion, no one has told me anything. I just got an email saying I needed to set up an appointment with the "company medical officer". I called to set one up and they just asked me if 3pm was okay, and asked me if I worked with radioactivity. Yes, and no. No other information, except that it should last half an hour. Half an hour with occ health? I can't imagine. I used to work at a hospital where there were lots of extra occ health concerns like TB tests and still never had to meet with them for half an hour. So, hmm. We shall see.
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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Die Friseurin and Other Tidbits

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* Yesterday was my first trip to the Friseurin - the German hairdresser. It was of course far overdue, as I've been here almost 8 months now. I have hair that is part-curly and part-straight and it's a nightmare to get it cut even in the US where there is no language barrier, so I really put off going here. However it started to get pretty ragged-looking recently and I really had to go.
It actually wasn't that bad. Her English was better than my German, so English it was. I know, this doesn't give me any practice, but I really think haircuts are important and I didn't want a major miscommunication. I actually think the experience was better than most of my American haircutting experiences. She did, like all American hairdressers, comment on how weird my hair was. (Is it really that unusual?? I can't be the only one.) But, unlike American hairdressers, she thankfully did not tell me to straighten it.
She also asked me if I was from ENGLAND! I'm not sure if she really thought maybe I was from England or if she was just trying to not offend a potential English or Canadian person by suggesting they were American. (This happens - often.)
Anyway - haircut survived. Whew.

* Having been raised in the psychological environment of the US, I respond with fear to sensational news topics just like they want me to. I wish I could shake this. The latest is these damn ticks which spread FSME - Early-summer Meningoencephalitis. It makes you brain dead (per rumor regarding what happened to a friend of a friend who got it) and you get it from a tick as tiny or tinier than the ones in the US that spread Lyme disease. Great. Pretty much everyone here is vaccinated, but of course being a foreigner I am not. The full vaccine is given over a year so even if I start it I won't be completely protected until next year at this time. And the vaccine causes a 40-degree fever! Sounds fun! It can also cause arrhythmias, which I already have, so I don't really want more of them. But, given I don't know what my chances are of getting one of these ticks, and what proportion of the local ticks carry the disease, I guess getting the vaccine since everyone has it might be a good idea. I can't really win - it's the terror of the possibility of going brain dead from some stupid tick, vs. the terror of sitting through a 40-degree fever and arrhythmias. Whaa, the whole thing makes me irrational.

* New Bjork today! Her (excellent) new track "Wanderlust" may appeal to some of the expats out there (and to others, it won't).

i am leaving this harbor
giving urban a farewell
its inhabitants seem too keen on god
i cannot stomach their rights and wrongs
i have lost my origin
and i don't want to find it again

* What's up with the medical names of products in Germany, such as toothpaste and lotion? In the US, toothpaste names are anything that might give a crisp, fresh idea - and lotion names are supposed to sound soothing and natural. Here, there are names like Blend-a-Med and Elmex for toothpaste, and Bepanthol for lotion. And these aren't products just for the elderly who like their old-school stuff, they are the regular products. I don't think these overly-medical names would market well in the US. (Though the US does have some doozies - Pepsodent comes to mind - fresh, yes, but still rather medical with that "dent" ending.)

* When friends and rented a paddleboat in Washington DC (hard to forget - it was Sept 10 or so, 2001) we all had to ride out in these puffy, hot, bright orange safety vests. They wouldn't let us get in the boat until we had them on.
They have paddleboats on the Neckar too. No safety vest on a single person. People stand up and dance on them, too! Is it a culture of safety in the US? Or a culture of not getting sued? (ie Is there a law that they must be worn, or is the company doing it to cover their asses?) Whatever it is, they don't have it here.
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Monday, May 07, 2007

Bike Ride to Ladenburg

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Yesterday we took advantage of the continued beautiful sunny weather to bike over to Ladenburg. Ladenburg is a little town just down the Neckar from Heidelberg, and it is purported to be one of the oldest towns in Germany, being settled sometime around the birth of Christ. Because it's only about 11km away, we took our bikes through the fields between the towns (thank God for German zoning - no crappy ugly sprawl, just wheat and strawberry fields, bikers, walkers, and kite-flyers).

Ladenburg had been really pumped up for us. We were meaning to go for a long time, as it is one of the first places recommended to us to visit when we very first arrived to Heidelberg, by a university professor who told us to just walk over there. (I think that biking is a better option here!) Then we kept hearing gushy rave reviews about its greatness from various sources. When we got there, we found a cute town with narrow streets, old walls and ruins, and adorably painted half-timber houses. In short, a lot more of what we've been seeing in other places lately, and not a bright beacon of wonder like it had been built up to be. I think I am just getting a little burned out on travel after the past month of running around to Dilsberg, Neckarsteinach, Schwerin, Hamburg, Luebeck, London, Bingen, Oberwesel, St. Goar, Heppenheim, Bensheim.... Nonetheless Ladenburg was a really nice place to spend the afternoon. It also has a really great Doener joint near its main market square, where they made the flatbread for our Doener from dough right in front of us! The bread was perfectly fresh and crisp when we got them. We also tried Eis at a couple of different places, but still no Eis we have gotten anywhere in Germany has matched the deliciousness of the Eis at Eis Cafe Venezia in Heidelberg. They have the best Eis and the best cones, and for this they don't even charge any more than the standard Heidelberg scoop price of 70 cents.

We want to go back to Ladenburg sometime to eat at Die Kartoffel, a restaurant you can see in our photos below. Not only for the awesome name (The Potato) but also because it's supposed to be really excellent. Maybe a good place to take the parents!

Check out the photos and judge the amazingness of Ladenburg for yourself:
Ladenburg Mai 07
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Thursday, May 03, 2007

Contact Lentils and Lens Soup

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Travel and literature aren't the only good reasons to learn a second language. A second language is also another window into word origins and sometimes another window into your own language, if they are related!

Somehow the use of the same word in Contactlinsen (contact lenses) and Linsensuppe (lentil soup) completely escaped my notice until Damon said something the other day when we were walking past an optometrist's office. We then wondered if the words came from the same origin or if they had converged from separate origins. A quick web search later: They come from the same root! The Latin lenticula, from lens, meaning 'lentil'. Lens is also the genus name for the lentil plant. Lenses are so named because they are the same shape as lentils.

Language is cool.
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Wednesday, May 02, 2007

More Wine Drinking in the Sun

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Damon and I went on an excursion with the University Guesthouse yesterday, forgetting our sunscreen, to walk through the vineyards of the Hessische Bergstrasse tasting wines and enjoying the views. The Hessische Bergstrasse is an area just north of Heidelberg (in the state of Hessen) on the Rhein. On May 1 each year (a holiday here - Labor Day) they have a festival where stands of wine and food are set up along a long trail through the vineyards, and everyone hikes up into the hills to eat and drink. You can collect stamps at each stand along the way, and if you make the whole 20km trek and get stamped at each place, you can get a free bottle of wine or something. The walk was really gorgeous, although about 3 stops in the novelty wore off and most of our group was just tired of the crowds and feeling worn-out from all the sun. (Not much shade in a vineyard.) Luckily the plan was only to do 4 stops, although we could have continued. Damon and I, the Whitey McWeeniesteins that we are, though, really wanted to get out of the sun. Check out the photos to see the vineyards and other little interesting things about the festival!
Hessische Bergstrasse Mai 07
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Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Happy Feeling

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I am sad to report that the Duschgel featured here did not make this morning's shower the happiest of my life. But hey, I guess it tried.
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(Read the bottle, under Duschgel.)
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