Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Stuff I Plan to Write About

Ha! I'm glad someone finds my last post funny (as marked in the checkboxes). I have to admit, if I were in a car and saw my accident happen, I might have laughed. Actually, I have kind of laughed thinking about how it must have looked. One second there's a biker over at 2 o'clock, and the next, the biker and bike seem to be getting sucked into a black hole over in the gutter...

Anyway, typing is a pain right now so I don't think I will be posting much in the next couple of weeks while the fracture heals. At which time, if I can remember anything about them, I will talk about the work Christmas party, the trips to get my wrist examined and fixed, and an upcoming Schwarzwald trip. Until then, guten Rutsch.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Black Ice

I just wiped out on my bike on the Neuenheimer Landstrasse. Damn, it's slippery out there! I thought about walking my bike home but a lot of the road was just wet. Well, this little section apparently wasn't. What really got me was that no one stopped! Cars everywhere but they just went by. I guess they saw that I was okay enough to start crawling off the road right away, then dragging my bike off, but still. There's something really lonely about hitting the pavement and no one seeming to care. I guess it would have been a traffic disaster if anyone stopped. Luckily I seem to be undamaged, except my wrist kind of hurts. Thank God. I wonder how many lives I have left now... this is not the first time black ice tried to kill me!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Best of 2009: Packaging

I was going to skip today's prompt, Best Packaging. Like the world needs another homage to consumerism, right? But I saw this today and had to share.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Daily Drop Cap!

I think I'm in love with the Daily Drop Cap blog, which I just discovered. Isn't this I beautiful? I found a great N too so I will have to start a post or paragraph with that letter soon.

I plan to do more of Gwen Bell's Best of 2009 prompts, but I was entertaining over the weekend (we had my uncle in town! :D ) and today I can't seem to bring up her blog to see what the prompts are! So, maybe more best of 09 later!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Best of 2009: Album of the Year (or: The Music Post, 2009)

Today's best of 2009 prompt is Album of the Year. Who can have just one? I decided to just make this into my yearly self-indulgent music post, wherein I put up some youtube links of my favorite songs that came out in 2009. (So far. I just discovered a 2006 album yesterday that I can't stop listening to. My exposure to 2009's music is certainly not over.) I'll try to stick with one song per artist.

Animal Collective go on about providing for family in "My Girls." It reminds me of my dad because he had only daughters. :) Breakfast at Sulimay's hates it.

Other good tracks from Animal Collective this year: "Summertime Clothes" - "Brother Sport" - "Bluish" - "Lion in a Coma" - "Graze" - "What Would I Want? Sky"

There was new Dan Deacon this year! You may remember me posting his stuff before. It is not for everybody. Definitely weirder than the previous song. I'm not sure about the title of this song. I downloaded it from emusic and it gave the title of this track as "Red F" - but it was floating around the internet before the album release as "Build Voice":

Also worthwhile and even less for everybody: "Woof Woof" - "Wet Wings" - "Jack & Jill" - "Snookered"

A huge favorite of mine, Beirut, also had an album in 2009! This time he recorded with a small-town Mexican band. I didn't like it as much as his two previous albums, but it has some nice tracks, including "The Shrew":

Also check out: "The Akara"

This one I'm a little confused about. I'm not sure if the album was actually released in 2008 or 2009. Let's say 2009 for the purpose of this post. :) This song is super-catchy and accessible - The Bird and the Bee, "Love Letter to Japan":

The Bird & The Bee - Love Letter To Japan

the bird and the bee | MySpace Musikvideos

A couple more addictive tracks from the album: "My Love" - "Diamond Dave"

Now for something instrumental. I'm teetering on the scary edge of new age here - I don't know why, but the song is somehow very compelling. Weather geeks should watch this just for the video. But maybe not if you're seizure-prone. This is the Bell Orchestre - "Stripes":

I almost didn't post this one because I really don't like the video. Maybe you will, but you've been warned. I love the vocals. This is Grizzly Bear - "Two Weeks":

Also good on this album: "While You Wait for the Others" - "Foreground"

Would you like to hear someone channeling Abba? Music Go Music - "Light of Love"

Telefon Tel Aviv had a great album this year. I never really got into their previous stuff. This album I listened to over and over and it's hard to pick a track to highlight. Here's "Helen of Troy":

Also check out "Immolate Yourself" - "Mostly Translucent" - "Stay Away from Being Maybe"

I'm pretty sure I posted this one before, too. I should save my videos for the end of the year. "Family Galaxy" - Tim Exile

Also good: "Pay Tomorrow"

Can't go without posting my favorite Iowa musician! "Mutiny" - William Elliott Whitmore

Also good: "Old Devils" - "Hard Times"

There's more, but I think that's enough to bore anyone already. Until next year!

P.S. Can someone explain copyright laws to me? I'd be a rich woman if I got a dime every time I couldn't watch a video or legally download a song "in my country" because of copyright regulations.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Best of 2009: Challenge (or: Sewing a Quilt in Heidelberg)

I've been meaning to post about this project for a while. At first I didn't because it was for a reader and I wanted to keep it secret - then after it wasn't a secret anymore, I was neglecting the blog a little. Finally, I will share the project I spent many, many hours on during the summer!

Best Challenge: Going from not knowing how to operate a sewing machine to making a quilt
Runner-up: Passing the thesis defense

I bought a sewing machine while I was still living in Boston. At first I just wanted to make some cool cards with stitching on them. I never even got around to that - before I knew it, we were planning an international move and I wasn't thinking about doing awesome crafts anymore. When we moved, we got a flat rate on a crate to be shipped to Germany, up to a certain weight. After putting in the stuff we knew had to be shipped, it turned out there was still room to add in the sewing machine. So, we threw it in and it came to Germany. Then it sat in the closet for 2.5 years, except for when my mom came to visit and used it to hem us some curtains. Here I should note that my mom is an obscenely talented seamstress so it's all the more tragic that I had this sewing machine just sitting around and never bothered to learn to sew from the master!! It's just that working with fabric has always intimidated me. It's all floppy, not easy to work with like paper. I have the same problem with paintbrushes vs. pencils. Paintbrushes drive me mad. Still, as I have no practical hobbies (or interests in the entire world...) sewing beyond fixing buttons and hems always seemed like something I really ought to figure out.

So, when I found out a very old friend was pregnant, I wanted to do something really cool and homemade for her new baby. Embroidery sounded cool. But, the above-mentioned practicality issue was bugging me. I wanted to make something that could actually be useful, if they wanted to use it. So, I decided it was time to learn to sew, with a little embroidery added in so I could have fun too if the sewing turned out to be torture.

First - getting the fabric. I asked my mom what kind of fabric would be good for the embroidery and also work in a baby quilt. She told me to buy muslin. In German it's called Musselin and only exists in fairy tales. Every store told me to try somewhere else and then when I got there they told me to try yet somewhere else. In the US, muslin is absurdly cheap and available everywhere. So, my mom decided to just send me some. While looking for muslin, I also checked out the other fabrics for some ideas for the quilt. This is how I discovered that probably nobody under 70 ever sews in Heidelberg. The selection of fabrics is even worse than your average Jo-Ann in the US, and let's just say I was never impressed by Jo-Ann. I think out of all the fabrics I saw, there were approximately 3 I found cute or interesting, and none of them were appropriate for a baby quilt. Thank god for Etsy. I found a set of fabric that would work nicely for either gender (they didn't find out in advance) and just ordered it online. And the internet is the opposite of Heidelberg fabric stores. There's more cute fabric there than anyone could look at in a lifetime. I only wish the local places stocked things like that so I could see it in person first!

Embroidery floss I found at Kaufhof, of all places. They have Anchor floss and not the biggest selection ever, but it was good enough for this project. They also have a selection of 2 or 3 hoops (not types, actual number of available hoops) at any given time. I already had lots of needles.

The fabric arrived and first I fretted about whether or not to wash it. I wanted the quilt to be usable, so I decided I had better wash the fabric as hardcore as you would wash a quilt that a baby barfed on. The fabric was already cut into fat quarters (quarters of a yard if the yard is cut once each direction - I think) when I bought it and washing it hardcore like that really warped it and frayed the edges. Yikes! I lost some inches there and had to modify my plans a little bit. Then I fretted about cutting the warped pieces because they wouldn't be cut with the grain. I tried to cut them on the grain as much as I could. This was pointless and I'm not sure how I ever got that idea in my head. Later I had to trim them all because they weren't exactly the same. Sameness is more important than the grain. If they aren't the same it would be really hard to make up for that with the sewing machine, since you use the edge of the fabric to judge where to sew.

I sewed all my squares into little blocks of four squares. (By the way, I bought cotton thread in Munich! I hadn't checked everywhere yet, but mostly I'd only seen polyester thread here.) One giant mistake was made, but I ignored it because it was so small on the scale of mistakes I was expecting to make. I have no cabinet for my sewing machine, so I had to set it up on our dining table. Without a cabinet, the fabric always seemed to be pulling away from the needle, so I set up elaborate book piles all around to make a more even surface. I also fretted about the thread tension a lot. And it took me a long time to figure out just winding the bobbin. Really, really clueless.

Once I was sewing mostly straight lines, though, the top came together pretty quickly! I was glad I got the nice thread because it never broke. After the top was done, the search for batting could begin. This was actually not hard, because it doesn't matter what it looks like, so whatever the Pfaff quilting shop on Ploeck had was totally fine. I got cotton batting because it feels nicer than polyester - when it's inside the quilt, that is. That stuff is horrible to touch by itself! I don't know why, but I wanted to handle it about as much as I'd want to handle sandpaper. No one had touched it for a while, apparently. When the woman at the shop rolled it out to cut some off for me, a spider came running out. I also got fabric for the back at the quilting shop - it was plain and they had something acceptable - and for the binding. I read online about how you can buy binding all pre-cut and folded and stuff. I guess they didn't have that here because she just looked at me funny and cut me off some regular fabric so I could make it myself.

Putting the back and batting on was easy. I just tied the quilt with embroidery thread because there was no time to hand-quilt it and I don't have any idea how to quilt with a regular sewing machine! Plus, I actually like the sort of simple look of tying a quilt. I don't know if it was a bad idea or not, because I've never seen it done before and there may be a reason for that, but I made an x on the front of each spot where I tied it - in the back it looked like a stitch next to a knot. For the binding, I thought I was going to lose my mind folding and ironing and hand-stitching that thing on! In the end all I lost was a few skin cells that the iron hit, and I gained hella satisfaction from getting a finished product that actually looked like a quilt!! I couldn't believe it!! I actually made something useful! After the last stitch I had to run out the door to meet some friends for drinks and I took it with me because I was so amazed that I'd actually managed to pull it off. I finished it the same day the baby was born (a girl).

It doesn't look like much but just let me emphasize again that I couldn't wind a frigging bobbin when I started. I also tried new embroidery stitches that I never did before (and the process of learning is obvious from the difference in quality between the owls).


My second place challenge of the year was my thesis defense. It doesn't get first place because school crap is something we all do for years and years, so it didn't feel entirely new like the sewing did - and because it was, overall, a couple of years in the making. I never had an oral exam before so I was glad to survive and pass, though I think I could have done much better if I'd had some previous experience with the format. I got a little too conversational and not specific enough, and I should have clarified more when I was finished with my answer, or what exactly they were looking for (which was often not entirely clear, then they would accept my answer when it was only partially done and assume I didn't know the rest when I did). Still, I managed to pass and put the whole damn thing behind me. No more days spending all that time standing around Mainz Hbf waiting for another delayed train home after 10 hours of classes. I'll never go to school again.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Best of 2009: Blog Find

Blog find was yesterday's topic, but since today's is moment of peace, and I think my biggest moment of peace for 2009 is still to come, I'll catch up a little here. This category isn't for the best new blog of the year - just the best one that is new to you. I think I discovered these blogs within 2009!

Best Blog Find: Doctor Grumpy in the House
Runner-up: Sprite Stitch

Not sure where I came upon these two. Dr. Grumpy, a neurologist working mostly in outpatient practice, comes up with something laugh-out-loud-worthy at his job nearly every day and often several times per day. It's made me want to tune in to more medical blogs - but I know I don't have the hours to spend getting sucked into them!

Sprite Stitch showcases craft projects mostly using 8-bit video game characters - the perfect subjects for mediums like cross stitch, needlepoint, those little round plastic things, beading, quilting, etc! It's amazing how video games have filtered through culture to even these media. Very cool.

This is my 450th post.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Best of 2009: Night Out

I'm ashamed to admit I skipped best book yesterday because I don't recall having read a complete book all year. As a kid I read everything like a maniac. All reading contests were won by me. College changed everything and completely burned me out on reading. Even for me, 2009 was a bad reading year, though. I haven't totally given it up, but this year I don't remember anything that I read in its entirety.

I did manage to spend plenty of time with friends, though, so I can do today's. Tomorrow's is best workshop or conference or something. Sounds work-related to me, so forget it. ;)

Best Night Out: Cheap-ass hotel in Colmar, France
Runner-up: They are showing Eurovision after all in Tobermory, Scotland

In Colmar, we went with three friends to a winery in late afternoon and did a wine tasting with the intention to buy lots of wine and drink it that night. We were driving, so our venue was to be somewhere at our cheap-ass hotel out in a horrible industrial/shopping district. We got slightly toasted at the tasting, had a nice supper, then returned to the hotel. There was a restaurant terrace there and they let us sit outside even though we had no intention of ordering anything, and they even chilled our wines and opened them for us. So, we sat out there all night having a generally nice time. :)

In Tobermory, the awesomeness was simply that they were showing Eurovision at the local bar. My friends had never heard of it and I kept saying maybe we could find a bar showing it because I'm kind of addicted now, and they just laughed it off, because why would they be showing something like that?? Well, they were!! And everybody was watching! Combined with a post-vindaloo spicy food high, the night was pretty cool.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Best of 2009: Article

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This one was a bit harder. I read a lot of articles, and have so many bookmarked now that it would take me hours to go through them to figure out which ones are from this year and then find a favorite. I skimmed through all the links I posted on Facebook this year, but most are on small political or public health topics and aren't on big things that would befit a 'best' article. I found one that was a bit more broad.

Best Article: "Open Your Minds, America" - Rudy Ruiz, CNN

This is just a commentary on the American political climate, where everyone now just reads biased articles on his or her biased internet news source of choice and buys the party line. It's dull, depressing, dangerous.

For fun, more of a news story than an article, I nominate these dopes from Carroll as a runner-up, only because I grew up very close to there and damn, it's funny.

Best of 2009: Restaurant Moment

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Another catch-up because I like this prompt too. We're going back to Scotland again on this one...

Best Restaurant Moment: Mull Pottery, Tobermory, Scotland
Runner-up: Freinsheim Kulinarische Weinwanderung

Apparently scallops, bacon, and salad completely belong together. I had really been missing scallops too - I'm not sure I've ever seen them here, and in Boston they were a standard.

In Freinsheim I had Semmelknoedel with Pfifferlinge sauce while well-toasted and it was heavenly. I have been craving Pfifferlinge almost non-stop since then.

Best of 2009: Trip

Inspired yet again by the awesome No Apathy Allowed, I'm joining in on Gwen Bell's Best of 2009 series. I started 2009 with a very ominous feeling that I can't really explain. The number just struck me as bad, and it didn't help that a friend we spent New Year's with had the same feeling. True to that, a lot of crap happened in 2009. I lost my remaining two grandparents, was sick more than normal, and it was the first year I never set foot in Iowa. So, I would really like to take this opportunity to look back on the best things in the year with a few prompts so I don't get distracted back to the bad stuff. :) I have a little catch-up to do, as I don't want to skip the December 1 prompt, best trip!!

Best Trip of 2009: Scotland!
Runner-up: Stockholm

What I've learned in travelling is that nothing makes me relax more than being able to wander into a teeny tiny town that doesn't get a lot of tourism, where the cafe sells things that are really sweet and really cheap, and be able to communicate immediately* with everyone in my native language. No way would I ever limit my travel to experiences like this, but man are they rejuvenating, like going home while still being somewhere new and exciting.

Stockholm is an easy second place. So friendly, so beautiful.

*Okay, some accents were not easy. But they were still English, beloved English.

Cute Medieval German Villages

The final night of our vacation with the inlaws was spent in Dinkelsbuehl, a little walled town on the western edge of Bavaria. We wanted something relatively near Heidelberg, something that's easier to get to by car than train, and something we thought they would enjoy. What we really thought they might like is Rothenburg ob der Tauber, about 45 minutes north of Dinkelsbuehl, but we thought it would be easier and cheaper to stay in Dinkelsbuehl!

On our way there, we stopped in Rosenheim for lunch and took a few pictures. I have a friend who comes from there and always talks about what a little village it is. Hee hee. It's not small. They even have a Karstadt.

Rosenheim & Countryside Okt 09

Rosenheim wasn't terribly picturesque but it had a wedding-cakey church and a big wide pedestrian zone.

The photos aren't captioned this time. Really, our time was fleeting in these three places and I don't what most of the stuff I was looking at actually was! In Dinkelsbuehl, we were encouraged by a local to check out their Dinkelsbuehl war and peace museum, which was really a history of the town. The whole museum was full of wandering Montessori kids while we were there, whose chaperones found their inability to be considerate to other museum guests a wonderful sign of the kids' spunk and brilliance. So, we didn't really get as much out of it as we could have because we were just trying to keep from getting run over or mobbed.

Dinkelsbuehl was pretty, but there wasn't much for pedestrian zones, which was the only drawback. We were there only a few hours before running off to spend a few hours in Rothenburg.

Dinkelsbuehl Okt 09

Rothenburg ob der Tauber Okt 09

I had some reservations about Rothenburg, probably the most tourist-trodden location in Germany, maybe even ahead of Neuschwanstein. Germans warned me that it was like Disneyland - no one really living within the walls of the medieval town, existing only for tourism. The oft-cited idea that it was untouched by WWII is also incorrect - about 40% of the original town was destroyed in the war and had to be rebuilt.

So, I was surprised by a few things in Rothenburg!!
  • It was much bigger than I expected. Thus, it does not feel that touristy because you can slip off into a less-popular corner and be on your own.
  • People do indeed live inside the walls. We saw cars parked in places that destroyed the cuteness of the scene and laundry hanging on lines. It is actually still a place where real people live; it is not Disneyland.
  • It really does have a little something that rises above the hundreds of other adorable medieval German towns - it's just so large, so consistently cute throughout, and it has an unbelievable number of towers. This leads me to an important tourist tip.
Important Tourist Tip

Do not agree to meet your fellow travellers at the tower!!! With four people, we were waiting at 3 towers. (Damon and I were at the right one, of course. ;) )

So, at least in mid-October on a cold weekday, Rothenburg doesn't really deserve the sniffing-at it got from a lot of Germans I talked to. It was pleasant, with a lot of places to go, a lot of interesting buildings and squares, and a nice view out over the Tauber from the edge of town.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Public Service Announcement Regarding the Flu

This is not about swine flu, this is about The Flu, all strains.

If you have a fever, swollen glands, or other very obvious signs that you are unwell:

Do not come to work because "it's boring at home" or "everyone is just being paranoid". Do not come to work.

Do not spread it around.

You are not limited to the following two options:
1. Freak out, believe media sensationalism.
2. Ignore illness and spread it liberally.

There is a happy middle ground between paranoia and wantonly germing up your workplace. Just because you stay home and choose not to spread your illness, it does not mean you've bought in to media-induced paranoia.

Swine flu or not, the flu is always particularly dangerous for certain people. Everyone you work with seems healthy, right? It's okay for them to get the flu. Everyone is just paranoid.

Actually, there can be some health concerns your coworkers have that are not obvious to you that put them at higher risk for flu complications. Do you want to put them in danger just to show off how not paranoid you are? Just to keep from being bored at home? How about their relatives? Might your coworkers have children? Elderly relatives that live with them or that they see often? Might they have pregnant wives or friends? If you pass the flu to your coworker, you could be endangering these people in their lives, particulary if you happen to catch a strain for which it hasn't yet been possible to vaccinate everyone at high risk.

You don't have to prove that you're not giving into sensationalism and you're so cool and non-paranoid, and you don't have to give in to sensationalism either. This should be your approach every year: if you get the flu or obvious signs of illness such as fever or swollen glands, please do your coworkers and the at-risk people in their lives a favor and stop the spread. Your workplace can go on without you while you get better.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Hallstatt, Austria (and the way there)

We left Ljubljana for Hallstatt at mid-morning, stopping at McDonald's on the way out for breakfast food, which they turned out not to have. Filet-o-fish for breakfast, oh yeah! We'd read that Lake Bled, not far from the road back to Austria, was really pretty, so we made a quick stop there on our way out. I really mean quick - maybe 10 minutes max!

Lake Bled + Road to Austria Okt 09

It was long enough to appreciate the view and get totally messed up on the little tiny roads. It looks like a lot of tourism comes through the area. It's worth at least a quick stop just to see the lake!

Not far north, we passed back into Austria, paying all the exorbitant tunnel tolls all over again. As we ascended into the mountains, it went back and forth between rain and snow. A friend had warned me to take my boots and I didn't. I really should listen to her more often.

Just when we could barely stand another little twisty road, we arrived in Hallstatt. The town clings to the side of a mountain right on a huge lake. The road there comes in via a tunnel under the mountain - you suddenly pop out right in town! If you take the train to Hallstatt, you actually arrive across the lake from town and have to take a ferry the rest of the way. There is no train station in Hallstatt!

Hallstatt is a mining town - salt mining! On the mountain is the oldest known salt mine in the world, where salt has been mined since prehistoric times. They still mine salt there and will continue to mine it for at least another one hundred years or so. But, the town's main income source now is tourism. Almost everyone living there runs a Ferienwohnung; we stayed in Ferienwohnung Kerschbaumer and I can heartily recommend it. We got a whole floor of the house complete with a huge kitchen and bedrooms with views over the lake. The town is, sort of like Heidelberg, particularly jam-packed with Asian tourists - it must be especially emphasized in guide books there! (When Damon mentioned in his lab that we were going to Hallstatt, none of the people there had heard of it except the Taiwanese guy!) It, along with the rest of the area known as the Salzkammergut, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The weather was absolutely unpleasant, but wow. The setting is really beautiful, and probably would be in any weather. So, we wandered out anyway, with lots of stops at restaurants and cafes to warm up! Check out the pictures to see everything - I tried to put in a fair bit of explanation there too.

Hallstatt Okt 09

Didn't expect skulls? ;) Hallstatt definitely has some interesting quirks.

Halfway up the mountain, you can visit the salt mine for a hefty entry fee of 20 EUR per person. We really hemmed and hawed over whether to do it, but finally decided to go - first, because the mines are the reason the area has UNESCO status, and second, we had heard salt mines were worth visiting.

I'm not sure it is worth 20 EUR. I guess it really depends on how you see everything there, and what you're expecting. The first step is putting on protective clothing over your regular clothes. Everyone gets to look super-dumpy but feel they are doing something special. Then, into the mines. First, the whole thing was rather rushed. Our guide clearly hated her job, and explained almost nothing. (The tour was in both English and German.) Really, the whole thing would not have needed to actually take place in the mine, because we mostly just went from one display to the next that could have been set up anywhere, we had 3 seconds to look at them, and then we were hurried along. The highlights:

* An underwater lake. I don't think she said much about why it was there but it looked neat for the 2 seconds we saw it.
* A laser show which is in some ways worth the money just for the laughs. On the wall of the mine, accompanied only by music, they just showed pictures reminiscent of cave art, with a big chunk of salt (represented by a bunch of cubes) appearing again and again much like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was a riot.
* Slides - they have two long slides that you take from one level down to the next. On the second, longer slide they actually use a speed radar and everyone can see how fast they went down. (Lighter = faster - my short mother-in-law blew us away, and my tall husband was super-slow.) But again, it's like an amusement park, not something you really visit a UNESCO site for. So, while that was fun, it wasn't what I was really looking for.

The sun didn't come out until the last day of our stay, right before we left for our next destination. We managed to get a photo or two where it was shining, and the clouds were gone long enough to show all the frosty pine trees up on the mountains. Awesome.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

English at Work

The language of science in the west is English. (I specify west because there are more Chinese-language journals in the world than English-language journals.) About 95% of the articles published in my department are written in English. The proportion of English-language conference presentations given by my colleagues is probably the same. They can go to conferences in Japan, in France, in Finland....they are in English, English, and English. You can't go into science anymore and expect a certain level of success without knowledge of English. I didn't make it this way, it just is this way. I'm not being an arrogant native English speaker. I am only describing the state of things as they are. It just happens to be lucky for me that the language of science is my native language. Imagine what would happen to scientific progress if it were carried out only in the languages of the home countries, no communication between countries, no international collaboration.

As a result, science departments and labs all across Europe, usually filled with scientists from countries on every continent, conduct their seminars in English. The works are written in English, presented at conferences in English, the scientists in the departments and labs have mixed levels of knowledge of the local languages, and it's good practice to talk about the topics in the same language in which they are written and internationally presented. There are several terms in epidemiology for which many German epidemiologists barely know the German equivalent - the English is used.

My department is an exception. We have students from all over the world - MANY from China, and also representation from other Asian and African countries, not to mention me, so we are like other science labs and departments in that regard. But we also have a strong team of documentalists who aid in research and in many cases do not need to know much English. They all know quite a lot of it, but don't need it. So when it came to vote one day before I joined the department - should our department seminars be conducted in English only like so many other places are doing? - this didn't pass my department. Seminars are conducted in either English or German, the preference of the speaker - as long as slides are in English. They let it slip if they're not.

Imagine you got here from China a week ago. You have to work really hard to bone up on your English to write those 7 articles you'll have to get out over the next two years so you can get a job after your PhD. You took a quick German class in your minuscule bit of spare time before you arrived. Now you're in a warm, crowded room with the lights dimmed listening to your department seminar - you're supposed to be grasping this stuff - and it's all in German. Yeah, you're getting sleepy.

Many students from countries where English is not the native language already have to spend inordinate amounts of time on their English to survive in science and I think we ought to cut them some slack if their German is not up to snuff. If my English was sketchy and I moved to Germany to complete a PhD in two years, you can bet I'm not going to have a lot of free time to become some kind of German expert, when I know that English can get me by long enough to get my degree.

So I just wanted to say I think people are being dicks when they make unqualified comments like "When you are in country X you have to speak X-ese." Yeah. Next time you take vacation in Slovenia, hope you've spent years getting fluent in Slovene. If you visit the Faroe Islands, hope you boned up on months and months of Faroese. If you go to a conference in Japan, hope you know Japanese.

Cut people some fucking slack.

And I think the seminars should be in English. The documentalists never have to present anyway. They are the ones who make this "you should speak German in Germany" type of comment and they are the ones who send out department-wide emails in German only and write at the end "it would be nice if someone would translate this for the non-German speakers" (yeah, it would be nice, thanks for looking into that before sending it off to some poor Hungarian who just got here a month ago and doesn't even know the word for 'fire' yet) and they are the ones who make Betriebsausflug (work field trip) plans with the intention to exclude non-German speakers from some of the activities. Get with the times - at least a third of your department is now made up of foreigners who, for at least the duration of their training, have to focus on their English to survive, and that number is increasing quickly year by year. Excluding them just means Germany pays the money to help educate them (depending on their funding source, yes) and then they feel pushed away and don't stick around.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Adriatic Day Trip from Ljubljana!

1 comment
We got a slow start from Ljubljana, heading out for the coast to arrive there in time for lunch. The GPS couldn't really help us since it didn't include Slovenia, but there were lots of road signs for towns we knew were on the coast, plus I'd printed out some maps from Google. We'd done a tiny bit of research and thought it would be cool to start with a coastal town in Croatia called Poreč, and then move on if it didn't suit us.

About halfway there, as we drove through hills and past cute villages, Damon's mom realized she had forgotten her passport. Croatia isn't in the EU yet, so there is a border check at the Slovenian-Croatian border - a passport is definitely necessary. Not wanting to return to Ljubljana or squash our dreams of exciting border crossings, Damon's parents offered to visit a town on the Slovenian coast, Koper (because it was on signs and Damon remembered it being on the coast), and let us take the car further on to Croatia.

We dropped them off in Koper, Slovenia, which is on the very northern tip of Istria, a peninsula on the Adriatic Sea which sits mostly in Croatia. Then we headed south to Poreč. As we went south the landscape started to look different - dark red dirt, vineyards, skinny evergreens planted around like in Italy, and little gray towns with steeples sitting on hilltops. NICE!!! The border crossing was easy and friendly.

I didn't read up too much on Poreč so there would be some surprises, but I was a little nervous. Sometimes coastal towns can be touristy in an ugly, modern way. I think Poreč might have been like that around the periphery, where huge, hideous resorts could be seen lining the coast. The center, however, on a little peninsula jutting straight out to sea, was beautiful!

Poreč was to us what every tourist seems to be looking for. It was beautiful, small, and there weren't many other tourists there (out of season I guess). Cheaper than Slovenia - we took out 50 EUR (the equivalent thereof, anyway - Croatia has its own currency) and had most of it left over after lunch, a cafe stop, admission to a bell tower, and a couple of little souvenirs. People were friendly. It was just empty! We climbed a tower that used to be part of a town wall, visited a basilica with 6th-century mosaics and climbed its tower, sat in a cafe on the seaside, and had calamari for lunch - and she prepared a sauce for them from scratch right in front of us. There were souvenir shops, but overall there really wasn't the feel of a place overrun with tourism and looking to get your cash at every turn. We actually felt kind of bad - it was so nice, and the place where we'd dropped off Damon's parents hadn't looked as good from what we saw.

Poreč Okt 09

Koper Okt 09

In late afternoon we returned to Koper to pick up Damon's parents, thinking we needed a couple of weeks to come back to properly explore Istria and maybe some further points south on the Croatian coast. We thought we'd take them to a nicer town on the Slovenian coast (a look at our book while we had some time that afternoon made Piran sound nice) for dinner, but when we arrived in Koper they'd decided they wanted to return to Ljubljana for dinner. I guess their experience wasn't quite as nice as ours - Koper's prices were like Ljubljana's so they didn't get the nice break we did. I thought going back to Ljubljana for dinner was a mistake, though. Again, we had trouble finding a restaurant within the limited guidelines I explained in my last post. We ended up at some overpriced Italian joint on the river. No one was there, because all the restaurants (within the guidelines) were empty. Then, his dad was craving a crepe. We looked all over the center for a crepe and finally found a place that had them on a menu. It only had outdoor seating but we decided to deal to finally get that crepe. It turned out they were out of crepes. Argh!! Ljubljana: not fun for eating. A pretty town though, and it was nice in the center with some live music going on and all the buildings and bridges pleasantly lit. We didn't stay out too late - we had a lot of driving in store for the next day - off to Austria!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

My Mom and Dad

They are awesome.

Mom sent me these; they were a total surprise!

My dad wrote this on the back of the "You're 21!" card he sent:

They rock.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Ljubljana! (+ the way there)

Ljubljana is the capital of Slovenia, a little country of two million people just south of Hungary. It's only about the size of Des Moines! To approximate the pronunciation, you can just pretend the Js are Is (so Liubliana) and it will be easier, although not perfect to the ears of a native Slovene speaker - I can't really even hear the L in this example. It has a German name - Laibach - but I've never heard anyone use that.

Damon's parents were visiting for a week and a half and left it up to us to plan a vacation within certain terms - it had to be by car and stay under 70 EUR per night per couple for accomodations. We hoped to make it all the way to the Adriatic sea, but driving that far and still having a nice time is a bit of a challenge. The Alps are in the way, making everything take longer, and the route takes one through the most clogged sections of the Autobahn (and right now, kilometer after kilometer of construction). They also wanted to visit a concentration camp at some point during the trip.

We got the camp out of the way immediately by visiting Dachau the first morning of the trip. For the night before, I stayed under the price limit by booking outside of Dachau (which is kind of expensive because of its proximity to Munich) at a little place called the Koanznhof north of Markt Indersdorf. The day we left a Bavarian friend of mine told me she thought it was going to snow because her toe hurt. Apparently, her toe is still tuned into Bavaria. There was no snow in Heidelberg, but there were reports of snow all over the radio on our way to Markt Indersdorf, and about 10 minutes from our destination we ran into a minute or two of pretty big hail!! The following morning, we woke up to frost on the windows.

I wrote previously about a concentration camp visit so I don't have much more to say about Dachau. It was the first camp and housed a lot of political prisoners. It has a good museum which talks about all the different groups of people who were brought there. It's enormous, though, and it's easy for a person to run through it reading only the parts they want to see and thereby maybe still not learning much. With a lot of time, though, it really is educational and thorough. We left the camera in the car.

Then it was off to Ljubljana, a 4.5 hour drive from Dachau. Loooong. We ate at a rest stop. It snowed on and off through Bavaria. In Austria, we began to pass south through the Alps and it was snowing in earnest. I had actually checked to make sure the roads would be passable at this time of year and they were, but wow! Winter just doesn't hit this soon over here in sunny Heidelberg. Luckily there wasn't much traffic. Maybe everyone else knew better and stayed home! They missed out on some beautiful snow-covered trees then.

To drive on the major roads in Austria you have to buy a special road pass. You can get them at rest stops in Germany - at least the ones near Austria. Unfortunately, the pass does not cover the enormous tolls on tunnels in the Alps. We went through at least 3 tunnels over 6km long, and two of them had tolls - I think one was 6.50 EUR and the other 9.50 or so. Brutal! The major roads in Slovenia also require a special road pass called a Vignette (Vinjeta?), also available at German rest stops.

We found an apartment in Ljubljana through Apartmaji Sobe. The apartments, though not terribly cheap, are a much better deal - by a landslide - than any hotel we could find online. Ljubljana apparently suffers from a shortage of accommodations. For stays under four nights, though, there is an additional percentage charged, up to an additional 50% for one-night stays. So, we stayed three nights in Ljubljana (an additional 10% over the base price) and made it our base. Our apartment, Martin, was conveniently located near the center and great for us with two bathrooms and two bedrooms! (And a balcony, but the weather didn't cooperate for that.) There were some parking snafus but otherwise the stay was totally problem-free.

Ljubljana Okt 09

So, about Ljubljana!

  • By a landslide, this is the most well-off looking former-East city I've seen. Shiny cars, fancy clothes and restaurants, and just a generally fresh appearance compared to Budapest, Bratislava, or even Prague or any German city in the former east.
  • To go along with that, Ljubljana is not cheap like other eastern cities. Prices in the center are the same or higher than Heidelberg prices, plus the accommodations problem I mentioned earlier. The restaurant where we ate the first night, Sokol, had jacked up its prices about 30% since the 2007 publication of our guidebook. (And the food was not worth the prices, although the atmosphere was alright!)
  • They don't seem to eat out. We had a hard time finding sit-down restaurants that weren't super touristy/expensive - but there are kajillions of cafes with just drinks/desserts, and they were all busy. We did see stands for ultra cheap not-sit-down food, but with the inlaws along this wasn't really an option for us. (By the end of the trip I was really craving one of my usual vacation doeners!!) Leaving the center might have solved this problem, but again with the inlaws they preferred to get around on foot but not get tired out, so our radius was limited. (Also, as in Bratislava, it might have raised a new problem - no English menu and a lack of a complete Slovene language food guide on us.)
  • You can see all the tourist attractions (other than museums) in less than a day. It's just that small! The castle isn't very exciting - it's very modernized - but entrance to the courtyard is free and there are nice views over the city and country from there. Even better views can be had by climbing the tower for 2 EUR. The churches were mostly locked. At the market you can talk down the prices easily.
  • See the photos for more, including lots of graffiti pictures and pictures of all the Art Nouveau buildings we checked out!

Coming soon..... we go to the coast!

Friday, October 23, 2009

AmiExpat's Kaninchen mit Pilzen (Rabbit with Mushrooms) Challenge!

Sorry to be a little late on Monday's recipe!! We decided to take the plunge and try AmiExpat's rabbit recipe. I never had rabbit before, but I'm a huge fan of Pfifferlinge (chanterelles) and we decided to take on this adventure. Well, more like, Damon agreed to deal with the rabbit parts because I can't stand raw meat and would probably still be a vegetarian if I had to do all the cooking myself.

We got the rabbit from the farmer's market in Neuenheim. It was fresh, skinned, with the liver left in and the head left on. Yes, I am a pansy who finds having an animal head in the house kind of weird. It went first and was in the trash can until this whole procedure was over and we took it out, but thankfully Damon sort of buried it in there so I never had to see it while I was throwing other stuff away. Whew!! In the photo you can see Damon peering into the innards to check it out. He looks like a hunchback because our counter is so low. (Also, our cupboards are too high. Somebody very odd designed our kitchen.)

The recipe said to cut up the liver into small pieces if it was present, and it was, but then it never said what to do with the liver. We assumed it meant to cook the liver along with the rest of the rabbit meat, so we did that. Damon had to look online to find out how to cut up a rabbit. Lots of gruesome scenes in the kitchen trying to get through the sinewy bits and take it apart.

Everything else was relatively easy after the rabbit was disassembled. We served the rabbit with pre-made spaetzle (the fancy kind, but dried nonetheless) to Damon's parents, who had just arrived from the US a mere hour or two before! Everyone liked it - they even said later in our vacation that it was probably the best meal they had here, better than any of the restaurant food we had. Flatterers!

Here are the rabbity songs mentioned in the previous post!

(last 30 seconds of video potentially disturbing)

Damon prefers this one:

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Who Could Win a Rabbit? or: Where'd you put the keys, girl?

Big points to whoever recognizes the two songs in the post title, both of which ran in and out of my head while we put together AmiExpat's rabbit dish for next week! Alas, I think I will be posting it a couple of days late, but hopefully everyone will join in for some "oh god there is a rabbit head in my trash can" fun next week!!

In the meantime, English-speaking expats in Germany can weigh in:
When you see Germans use the term 'so-called' in their English (that you are reviewing because it's for their paper or what have you) and they are not being sarcastic, do you change it?

Monday, October 05, 2009

September: Muenchen/Munich, Heilbronner Weindorf, and the Freinsheim Kulinarische Weinwanderung

Muenchen Sep 09

The first weekend of September, we went to Munich for the 2009 expat blogger meet-up. It was incredibly well-organized and we enjoyed learning more about Munich, a city we never really found as interesting as Berlin. After this trip we came to see it as a great place to live - excepting, perhaps, the high cost of rents and difficulties finding apartments.

Heilbronn Sep 09

The following weekend we checked out the Heilbronner Weindorf, a wine fest in Heilbronn, about an hour up the Neckar by train. This wine fest doesn't involve any vineyards or walking, but is set up in Heilbronn's town center. Each stand is very elaborately decorated and there are hundreds of wines to try. Their church, Kilianskirche, was also having an open house, with free Sekt (champagne) for anyone who climbed the tower for a great view over the fest, Heilbronn, and the surrounding countryside!

Freinsheim Sep 09

We then took one weekend off from all the debauchery, skipping Bad Duerkheim's big fest, then were back out for our favorite, the Freinsheim Kulinarische Weinwanderung. The sky was clear, it was warm, and there was all kinds of great food and wine to have. I'm really sad to think this could be our last time at this fest - I look forward to it all year. We don't really know what the future holds. It's quite frustrating to not be able to concretely plan any farther than about three months out. I'm not the kind of person who likes to have her whole life planned out - that would be boring, and I like having a lot of possibilities ahead - but I think this is a bit too far in the other extreme. However, it's the nature of academics for anyone who isn't tenured yet, and it's especially bad in Germany where contracts in this field are kept so short. I can honestly say I don't have even the slightest guess where we'll be or what we'll be doing a year from now. NONE. NO GUESS.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Two things I have to say

1. I love fall.

2. I have having a serious problem right now with over-romanticizing Ireland. I see a damn map of Ireland and feel all choked up that I will never live there. What is the cure for this problem?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Germany Is Not Spain

I can't really put my finger on it, but trust me.
Blowing up shit here, or threatening to, is not going to put the far left in power.
(Actually, don't studies show that people vote more conservatively under threat? Or does that only work on Americans? It certainly makes me think more conservatively.)
I don't really believe terrorists think their threats will change things. (Or are they really that stupid and childish?) They just want to be able to blame the victim for whatever they end up doing out of sheer hate and bloodthirstiness.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Nine, nein, oh nein

My mom via Skype today:
How is everything going? The *funny* around here yesterday was that it was *no, no, no * day in Germany - you know - 9- 9- 09!!

Monday, August 31, 2009


The train ride to Stockholm was pretty uneventful after the initial awesomeness of going over a gigantic bridge from Denmark to Sweden. Mostly pine trees interrupted by the occasional red farmhouse, lake, or town. Interestingly, the train announced the temperature at the next stop.

When we arrived, we made it easily to the place we were staying - a room found through guestroom.se which is an enormous savings over the usual expensive accommodations - because they had included very explicit instructions in the booking confirmation email! Yay! By the way, I can't emphasize enough how great that website is. You look over some rooms, choose your favorites, and email them. They'll book you in the highest one on your list that is available, and if none are available, they will offer you something else to your specifications!! Most of them are in great locations, too - ours was a bit further out because I was late in booking.

We immediately liked Stockholm better than Copenhagen. When we stepped off the bus in the neighborhood where we'd be staying, we saw a falafel joint and McDonald's which were both way cheaper than anything we saw in Copenhagen. The area, near Odenplan, felt like a real city.

We stayed in a room in the apartment of an older artist and shared her bathroom. The building had mail delivery to each apartment individually! Our room was a bit cluttered but comfortable. We went back to the falafel joint and got two falafels with bread, fries, and a drink to share for the equivalent of 8 EUR. It was like an enormous burden was lifted.

Breakfast the next morning was pretty similar to a German breakfast - cold cuts, egg, and bread - only the bread was really different from German bread. There was also a cookie and a bit of evangelism from our host. You never know what you're going to get when you stay with an artist.

We took the train to the center - it's the equivalent of 20 EUR for an unlimited 72-hr ticket in Stockholm county - and checked out Stockholm's old town, Gamla Stan. It's situated on a small island. Water is everywhere - on one side of the island, it's fresh water, and on the other, salt water. Gamla Stan is beautiful, and in the morning, it wasn't too filled with tourists yet. Check out the pictures!

Stockholm Aug 09

By the way, both in Copenhagen and Stockholm, they just sell the coolest stuff. Really cool papers, for one thing. I guess they are into paper - I've never seen so much great paper anywhere. They also sell these little paper cutout things called scraps or bookmarks that you can collect/trade. Interesting! I love paper and splurged on some origami paper there and that was the end of my buying - bigger paper would have been hard to pack.

We wandered off toward Södermalm, a large island south of Gamla Stan which is supposed to have lots of cool restaurants, shops, and venues. Well, we didn't go too far before finding something better than a cool restaurant...a fast food Tex-Mex restaurant! I've never seen one of those in Germany. We had tacos that were totally middling, but we take what we can get! :)

After lunch, we decided to check out City Hall. It's situated on the tip of Kungsholmen, an island just west of the mainland, and you can climb the tower for great views of all the islands. I can't think of a nicer place to have a building. Along the water is a plaza where you can just sit and look out at the water and islands. Pretty arcades face the plaza from the courtyard. We couldn't climb the tower because they were closing early and only 30 people are allowed in at once - we left it for the next day but ultimately never had time. Still, it was more than worth the visit. The views are amazing even from the ground. Stockholm is just incredibly beautiful.

We had coffee with a friend who lives in Stockholm, then had Indian food in Södermalm. So far everyone had been as friendly as could be and that never changed throughout the trip, with one possible exception - on the train that night there was a super-jolly trashed guy who just started talking to us in Swedish and wouldn't stop, even after it became clear we couldn't speak a lick of it. He seemed friendly but by the end he was almost certainly mocking us, despite not acting like it! I tried so hard to understand anything because when reading it, a lot of Swedish is close enough to German that you can pick some things out. But speaking? Forget it. It's completely different!!

The feeling of friendliness that Stockholm exudes might be a little bit more so for Americans because the Swedish word for 'hello' is 'hej' - and it sounds exactly like 'hey'! So any time someone says hello, it feels very familiar and casual and like they are really glad to see you! And saying 'hey' back puts me in a good mood too, kind of fooling myself into thinking I've found an old friend.

Friday was our museum day - we hit the two most-recommended museums, Skansen and the Vasa Museum.

Skansen is an open-air museum where traditional settings from all over Sweden have been recreated using actual old buildings which were taken down and rebuilt piece-by-piece in the park. So they're not fakes, but the actual thing moved to a fake location. It's full of actors pretending to live out the regular daily lives of the people who originally lived and worked in these buildings. It sounds corny as hell and I was a little skeptical - past experiences with this involved horrible accents, scenery-chewing actors, and boring moral lessons - but actually it came off really well. The actors were very well-cast and not overdoing it at all. Some of them were so friendly - they wanted to talk about not just the setting where they work, but some sports event going on in Germany or Swedish pop music or whatever you felt like gabbing about! Some of the jobs looked really hard - women were cutting tiny one-inch pieces of wood off logs with a tiny knife and hammer and making linen from raw flax! Check out the pictures to see some of the buildings. I was really impressed with an 1850s farmhouse which was filled with original murals in all the rooms. What a cool place to live! The only place that was really subpar was the zoo section (filled with native Swedish animals), but I usually find zoos depressing anyway. The gift shop had very cool stuff but it was really expensive. Sadly, I left Sweden with no Dala Horse. They are painted by Swedes, not people earning nothing in a third-world country, so they are expensive for a good reason.

The Vasa Museum is incredible. It was built just to show off a ship called the Vasa which sank in Stockholm's harbor almost 400 years ago. The ship was on its maiden voyage. It had been built with two gun decks, but the design did not compensate for this fact with a wider hull with room for more ballast. So, as soon as a little breeze touched the ship on its way out to sea, it went down. It was found by a hobbyist in the 1950s, and 333 years after it sank, it was hauled up from the floor of the harbor. For decades it was restored and something like 95% of the ship is original material! The rest has been replaced with new parts. Even knowing what to expect, walking into the musuem is, dorky as it sounds, a 'wow' moment.

We asked our bus driver on the way back to the main part of town for a bookstore recommendation and he had a great one. They had a good selection of name books. The most academic looking one was unfortunately out of my budget at the equivalent of 40 EUR (who is going to pay that for a name dictionary!?) but I got one that looked pretty good for 16 (again with the hardcover - weird!). The bookstore had way more English titles than any German bookstore. Maybe since Swedish is a smaller language some things are never translated.

For dinner, we had Swedish food at a place near our accommodations that was recommended by our hostess. It was nothing to write home about, but just fine, and it didn't break the bank. Sadly, the next morning we had to leave, despite having a zillion more things we wanted to do there. The Arlanda airport terminal was beautiful and well-designed and actually a pleasant place to be! Best airport ever.

I love Stockholm.

Sunday, August 30, 2009


In Hamburg, we caught the train to Copenhagen. It was a little bitty ICE (fast train) with only three cars! Why so small? This train has to fit on a ferry!

The train goes to the little town of Puttgarden on an island that is still part of Germany. There are tons of train tracks at the Puttgarden station, but most of them looked weeded over and disused. Then it rolls right into the bottom level of the ferry. The ride takes around an hour, then it rolls right off and back onto the tracks in Denmark!

We didn't really know the procedure for the whole ferry thing so we really tried to listen while the announcer went over it on the train, but ran into one of these odd aspects of human behavior. While the announcer was going over everything in three different languages, the people on our train car were yapping, yapping, yapping. We couldn't hear anything. When the announcement stopped, everyone got quiet. We decided to follow the old ladies sitting near us because they always know what's going on. ;)

On the ferry, everybody has to get off the train and go to the upper decks. It's a madhouse - you come out of the stairwell into a narrow hall full of perfume shops - the hall packed with other people who don't know where to go. It's like being in Heathrow. Damon got a little seasick (oddly enough...usually it's me) so we just sat out the ride in one of the cafeterias.

After the ferry ride, it's two more hours to Copenhagen. The train station there is really cool (see the pictures). It's all maroon and looks like it's completely wood. We were so tired when we arrived, and wanted help figuring out our best transit option to where we were staying, so we went to the tourist info office, which is only about a block from the station. There, when we asked, she gave us the brilliant answer, "Take the train." Then she just looked at us like that would be all we needed to know. We pried for more information and got an idea of which train to take and which stop might be best.

As it turned out, it was totally the wrong train station. The station was close to our place, but there was no exit on that side of the station. It took us about half an hour to walk there. At this point we were already feeling a bit crabby with our hostess - we were staying in someone's house to save money because Copenhagen's accommodations are revoltingly pricey - for not putting directions to the place on her website. So imagine how we felt when we finally arrived, as it was starting to rain, and no one answered the door. We called and no one answered the phone. We were in what felt like a suburban wasteland and now we didn't know what the hell was going on with our room! We tried the door one more time before I started to cry, and finally she answered. She was genuinely surprised we were there - apparently there was some confusion about the time and she thought we were coming later. (It was already past 8pm.) Then she asked us to wait outside in the rain for a few minutes while she did something. Unglaublich!

I think she was simply inexperienced. The room was nice (except there was no bathroom rug) and she gave us helpful information when we asked. We got the idea that her mom also does this and was encouraging her to do it too. It's a great alternate market for accommodations in Copenhagen, and when we had the right information about public transit, it was only a 3 minute walk to the bus and 10 - 15 minute ride to the heart of the city (about 3 EUR per person). Still, the location was really awful. We were really hungry by the time we got there and she recommended one of the closest restaurants. It took us half an hour to walk there through an industrial area. Note: tap water was free at this restaurant, and I took that as a hint to order just water on the rest of the trip to save money. We each had a bowl of pho, a beer for him and a water for me for the equivalent of 21 EUR.

We spent the following morning walking around a route suggested by a map we picked up at the tourist office the day before, with a diversion here or there to get a bakery snack or look at something that seemed interesting but wasn't on the route. Lunch was 14 EUR for tiny bits of really bad Chinese food and for Damon, a beer. I was using the dehydration policy to keep us from spending the whole vacation searching for clean toilets.

In the afternoon, we took a boat tour from Nyhavn. A friend recommended this and it was the best thing we did. At 8 EUR each for almost an hour and a half, it was also the best deal we got the whole time. A guide talked about everything in Danish, English, and German. The tour covers the canals in Christianshavn (a neighborhood across from the main part of Copenhagen), boats and modern architecture around the harbor, plus some other things. You can see a lot from the water and the views from there are especially nice. Copenhagen really is an attractive city overall! It's also fun to go under the bridges, which are all very low, and at high tide, you might have to duck!

København Aug 09

After the tour we went over to check out Christiania, a supposed commune in Christianshavn where the laws of the EU do not apply. Honestly, I had some reservations about going to look at a freaking commune that bills itself as a tourist attraction, and alas, it was approximately as lame as I expected. There's one section where they don't allow photos, purportedly to protect people who are making drug deals there, but there was nothing to take pictures of except them hawking Christiania t-shirts to tourists. Yay? Damon's assessment was that it looked like a "party that went on too long". If you imagine an outdoor music festival that just sort of never ends, and starts to get kind of boring and dirty, that does sort of describe it.

At this point, despite my dehydration efforts, I really had to pee. We tried a bakery and they had no toilet, but the ultra-friendly workers there told me there was a public toilet in the library across the street. We went over there and waited 10-15 minutes while someone locked themselves in the restroom and shot up. NICE. The library just ignores it because there is nothing they can do except install a needle drop box in there.

We then searched around for my usual souvenir - a name book for my collection. Another ultra-helpful girl, this one running a coffee kiosk, told us where to find the biggest bookstore. She also assured us that "Everyone speaks English" in Copenhagen, thus beginning our dilemma. Is it more offensive to ask someone if they speak English and insult them because they think only an idiot wouldn't, or to not ask someone if they speak English and be a presumptuous asshole native English speaker? Three years of experience says: You can't win.

At the bookstore, they only had one name book. It was hardcover (read: expensive) and focused on babies rather than being a good dictionary, but since it was all they had, I got it anyway. When we asked for help finding the book the guy looked at us like we were nuts and kind of tossed it at us when he found it. Then the girl at the desk was rude when she discovered I didn't speak Danish. I guess next time I should pretend the book is for a friend who speaks the local language.

We walked around some more, through some pretty gardens and to Kastellet, a well-preserved fortress north of the center. In the gardens, we saw a bunch of guys, too old to be doing this, very obviously and continuously mocking a woman who was doing yoga stretches there. Then on the bus on the way home, two girls (again, too old for this) were loudly, obviously, and continuously mocking Damon for looking at the bus map.*

For dinner, we walked around until our feet were sore looking for something affordable. We saw a Mexican restaurant. A burrito was 20 EUR. At another, chicken cordon blue was 25 EUR. It came down to deciding between paying 4 EUR each for soggy old convenience store sandwiches, or 12 EUR each for the most basic dish at a Thai restaurant. The sandwiches were so utterly depressing that we went for the Thai. They charged us extra for rice and tap water. Yeah, tap water.

In the morning, we stopped at a place called Cafe Bjørg's because they advertised free wireless in the window. We really needed to find some internet access because I'd forgotten to print out our flight itinerary for our return to Germany and didn't even know the time of the flight. Before ordering Damon confirmed with the waiter that they had free wireless. Guess what? It didn't work and we paid 15 EUR for two bagels and a coffee and tap water. Again, they charged us for the tap water. The waiter argued that the tap water price went to charity. Also, it turned out that around the corner in the restaurant was a terminal with free internet access, but he never saw fit to tell us about it, even though we had been asking him for help with the connection since it wasn't working. By the time we saw it, some regular had settled in for a long morning of staring at the screen.

At this point, we were not pleased with Copenhagen. Every moment we were worrying about paying for food and trying to find something cheaper rather than just enjoying ourselves. People like this waiter and the people at the bookstore and the jerks in the gardens and on the bus were not helping. Our next destination was going to be an expensive Scandinavian one too and we were getting pretty cranky thinking about spending three more days like this. I feel terrible about it. Copenhagen is a beautiful city, and would be a great place to live if you were rich (really nice shopping). Also, it seems it's a great place for kids. Kids and shops selling kid stuff were everywhere. But our experience was seriously mixed.

We walked around some more - walking is free - and had 10 EUR left to spend on lunch before getting on our train out of there. We got some horrible thing called a "French hot dog" at the train station, along with a drink.

Then we got the hell out of Copenhagen.

*Lesson: In Denmark it's okay to be a total dick. Is this true? Of course, it probably isn't. These people never asked to be representatives of their country, but it turns out, that's what they were anyway. People should really always be thinking about who might see their shitty public behavior. We modifed the lesson to come up with this Danish experience: the nice people we met - as an example, the helpful bakery and coffee ladies, but there were more - are the nicest people you might ever meet. And the jerks are the biggest, most pathetic and miserable jerks you might ever meet.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Friedrichstadt, the North Sea, and a little bit of Denmark

We had booked a room in Friedrichstadt, way up in Schleswig-Holstein, for that night, so we had a ways to go. The GPS took us right through Hamburg, which is always awesome because you get to see glimpses of the big port there!

As we went further north, it started to feel more and more like the end of the the earth - lots of empty country. Friedrichstadt sits on the Eider river, pretty near to the North Sea coast. (To be fair, Schleswig-Holstein is pretty narrow, so pretty much everything is sort of near the coast.) We can credit a combination of Regensblog and PapaScott - based on this post and its comments - for the idea to visit this town. I'd originally been looking along the coast and was having a hard time finding something cheap and available. That was no problem in Friedrichstadt.

Friedrichstadt was actually settled by the Dutch and is very different from the other towns we'd seen. It's full of canals and the main part of town is a perfect grid of perfect brick houses on perfect brick sidewalks with perfect stone streets.

Friedrichstadt Aug 09

We stayed at Gästehaus Mertens, in a sort of 50s-looking neighborhood outside the oldest part of Friedrichstadt, but still within easy walking distance of it. The room was only 17 EUR per person per night because the bathroom is shared, but it's only shared with one other room and is a really nice bathroom! I would definitely recommend staying there. The whole neighborhood appears to be populated by retirees who rent out their rooms for something to do.

It was way too humid in Friedrichstadt, but Frau Mertens told us that in Heidelberg the weather was in the upper 30s, so we were happy to be away from there!! (When we returned to HD there was a lot of dead grass along the river - guess it really did get hot!) We walked around town and found what appeared to be the cheapest non-doener meal in town at a place called Black and White.

The following morning we had a nice breakfast - the only problem being that I prefer hard-boiled eggs to soft-boiled, and you never know what you are going to get at a German Pension. I think Germans prefer soft-boiled. I know that every time I open an egg to the disappointment of finding it soft-boiled, a German is opening his or her egg and is filled with glee to find it soft-boiled. In another only-in-Germany moment, we discovered there weren't salt and pepper shakers on the table - only salt and salt!! :D

We decided to go cross the Danish border to find a town I had just learned was the hometown of one of my great-great-great-grandfathers on my mom's side. It looked to be only about an hour away according to the GPS, so why not? The town, Abkaer, turned out to be really small and barely a town. It kind of reminded me of a lot of places near where I'm from, except that it had no bar or cafe or postbox. We also visited nearby Haderslev, where we walked around the center hoping to find a bakery, but had no luck. The center was completely dead and closed down, as it was Sunday. We did find a bakery on the drive out of town, though! Delicious baked goods ending up being lunch!

Abkaer, Haderslev, & More Aug 09

We came back to Germany and put Nordstrand in the GPS. We thought it was the name of a town, but I guess it's only the name of an island, because the GPS took us right to the heart of a town called England in the middle of an island connected to land by a wide causeway covered with grazing sheep. The town even flew English and UK flags! They had some kind of minor festival going on, so we decided to stop.

Ahoj ahoj ahoj ahoj ahoj! After leaving England, we wandered over to the waterfront at Norderhafen, which wasn't much of a waterfront at all! The tide was low, and it was mud flats as far as the eye could see. Cool!

More Schleswig-Holstein + A Couple in Hamburg Aug 09

There's not much in Norderhafen - some resorty-looking giant buildings, and some small restaurants. We moved back to the mainland to check out the Eidersperrwerk, flood gates between the Eider River and the North Sea to prevent flooding and the buildup of silt along the Eider. By the way, the whole time it was windy as hell. Considering all the wind turbines, I'm guessing that's a permanent state in Schleswig-Holstein! We watched a little tiny sailboat go through the locks on the flood gates to return to the Eider and they seemed to be having a bit of trouble in all the wind!

We then moved on to St-Peter-Ording, hoping to find food. We never found it. St-Peter-Ording probably has some interesting spots in it, but they must have been on the other side of the dike*, and we never made it that far. It's the type of town I dread finding out I've planned to visit, only to discover it is a resort town with nothing historically interesting at all....only lots of new and uninspired buildings, summer houses, expensive restaurants, and hordes upon hordes upon hordes upon hordes upon hordes of slow, ice-cream-eating tourists. Auuugh!!! (Damon wasn't so harsh on it, though.) We went back to Friedrichstadt for dinner at the Hollaendische Stube, which was not too exciting but pretty alright - and we got a complimentary appetizer. :)

*The whole peninsula on which SPO sits was land created from mud flats by building dikes all around it! So there is something historically interesting, but you don't need to go to SPO to appreciate that, since the peninsula is big and has plenty of other stuff.

By the way, there is this really adorable blue and white china pattern which seems to be endemic throughout northern Germany - there are copies of it all over. It's interesting that it seems to be so widespread and copied. Anyone know anything about it? Here's a picture - but this is actually from England, so I guess it might not even be a German pattern. Here's another.

The next morning, it was time to turn in the car and hop on the train for the next leg of our adventure - so it was off to Hamburg Hbf (train station)!!