Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Sunny day hike




As I thaw out from an hour spent shoveling four inches (and counting) of snow, it seems like a good time to further reflect on our recent Italian holiday.
Our last day in Vernazza dawned sunny with a promise of warmth. We were so delighted because we wanted to hike a section of the Cinque Terre National Park trail, which connects all five towns in the area. Monterosso al Mare, the next town, was quite close as the crow flies or as the boat sails. To walk there we had to climb up and over and out and around the mountains through olive groves, vineyards and even homes tucked in the steep cliffs. It was breathtaking- the vast sea stretching out in so many shades of blue under the sun, the surf crashing against the rocks far below us.
When we arrived in Monterosso, we visited the weekly farmer's market and bought picnic supplies, then ate on a bench where we could watch both the bustle of townspeople and the waves rolling onto the beach. Later we rolled up our pants and walked in the sand, dipped our toes in the water, collected sea glass and reveled in the feeling of having nothing better to do with our day. At a beachfront cafe, we joined other tourists at the outdoor tables for a glass of wine before starting our trek back to Vernazza. We got back in time to sit on the terrace above our hotel and catch a lovely sunset. It was a perfect day!
But it's still snowing here...

Thursday, November 25, 2010

A quiet village on the coast

Village of Vernazza- population 500 (+ tourists)


View from our hotel room balcony!

From Venice on the northeast coast, we drove to Vernazza on the northwest coast, near Genoa. We had no idea how mountainous and wild it would be. We felt like we were a long ways from everything. The road into town was steep, narrow and winding. Heavy rain had caused landslides so we had to detour on even tinier and more spine-tingling roads. There are no cars allowed into town so we parked and walked nearly half a mile (tough to find a flat spot for a parking lot) to the seaside fishing village. It was quaint and picturesque, just as you would imagine it to be.
In summer, Vernazza and the other towns that make up the Cinque Terre- Five Lands- are packed with tourists who flock there for the sun, sea and atmosphere. As we strolled into town on a rainy Tuesday in November, we wondered if we had made a mistake. The three ice cream shops were all closed and we came to find out that only a handful of businesses had regular hours.
But we slowed down and just enjoyed climbing up to the cliff tops for great views, lingering over a morning espresso, exploring all the narrow alleys tucked back in neighborhoods and watching the sun sink into the Mediterranean each afternoon. We pondered how they could possibly plant vineyards on seemingly impossible inclines and how they planned to harvest olives from trees barely clinging to the mountainside. We saw old fishermen repairing nets on the docks and watched women talking animatedly outside the market. Dinner was our evening entertainment. The restaurant owners took such pride in their food and wine. It was a delight to try the local specialties: just-caught seafood, homemade pasta, fresh pesto, and the best tiramisu I've ever tasted. The quiet simplicity of this town in the off-season seemed like it could cast a spell on you and make you never want to leave!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Venice- the floating (or sinking?) city

The main square- flooded by rain and tide!
It really looks like this!

View from our hotel room
We're home, plugged back into the real world, already reiminiscing about the wonderful places we saw in Italy and trying to work off a few pounds of pasta and pizza! Our first stop was Venice. It's the craziest city I have ever been in! We took a water bus (i.e., boat) from the airport to the city, which exists completely on an island intersected by countless canals. There are absolutely no cars- imagine every road in your town turned into a winding river, every vehicle turned into a boat and every crosswalk turned into a bridge. The city is a labryinth and it is impossible not to get lost. Many times we turned a corner only to find that our path was a dead-end at the water. So-called streets are as wide as sidewalks; in some we had to turn sideways to allow another person to pass. We often had to collapse our umbrella to avoid scraping buildings on each side. Everything seems mysterious and hidden away.
Apparently, Venice really is sinking. The city floods an average of 100 times each year, mostly in winter. We were lucky enough to witness the city on a "flood alarm" day. Boats full of sandbags roared past our hotel window early. Over the course of the morning, the water literally just rose up over the seawalls into the city. All over town there were wooden platforms at the ready, to be unfolded and stretched along the sidewalks when the water came up. Most first floor buildings had little flood gates across the lower half of their doors. The main square-normally a hub of tourist activity with cafes, cathedral and palace- became a vast wading pool, deep enough in some places to make even rubber boots useless. So all the tourists shuffled along on the narrow walkways, bumping into each others' umbrellas and trying to avoid falling off the side into the knee-deep water. It was a fascinating spectacle and fortunately it did not affect our sight-seeing plans too much. The following morning the flood alarm sounded again but we were already packed up and getting on a water bus to the train station. One day in a flooded city was enough!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Unplugging

Today Aaron and I are leaving for a two-week holiday. Though it seems we are always on the go, this is the first time that Aaron has ever taken two consecutive weeks off strictly for the fun of it. He's quite excited and I am delighted to have him to myself. We'll be taking a road trip through Italy so I will have lots to report when I return.

In total defiance of this 21st century world, we are not taking our laptop and we do not even own cell phones so we will be totally disconnected from the greater world. It's an uneasy feeling in this day and age but I think that it is important to slow down. It was not long ago that we never expected everyone and everything to be accessible 24 hours a day. Our vacation will be a good exercise in "being present in the moment," something I need to learn again and again. We'll see what la dolce vita is really like!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Where have I been?

I don't have much of an excuse for missing an entire month. I'm not sure exactly where the time went.

We did travel to the United States for the first time this year, spending a few days in Dallas (skyline behind me) and in Nevada (Aaron standing on red rocks at Red Rocks Canyon). It was strictly business, as I had a 4-day genetics conference in Texas and then Aaron had a 2-day conference in Las Vegas. We delighted in the Southern hospitality that met us in the Lone Star State. The welcome was big, the trucks were big and the meal portions were big! But we ate as much BBQ and Mexican food as we could and it tasted as delicious as we had been imagining all these months! Yum! There are lots of great things in Europe but there are just some things you miss from home.

Though I have been in Las Vegas before, this time it completely overwhelmed me. It is the epicenter of excess and I just couldn't reconcile myself to needing a map to navigate our hotel, paying over $40 for breakfast and seeing flashing lights 24 hours a day, both inside and outside. But strangely, the LV Strip is a relatively quiet and peaceful place to run at about 7 o'clock in the morning and I enjoyed the cool sunny mornings. We also enjoyed our last day, when we drove just 20 minutes out of the city into breathtaking desert and mountain wilderness. What a contrast from the lights and sounds of the city!

We had a very smooth and uneventful trip until we arrived back in Hamburg at 9:15 PM and our driver from Aaron's company was nowhere to be found. After traveling for nearly 24 hours and spending the night sitthing on a plane, this was a little more than frustrating. We waited for an hour, alternating between worry that he'd had an accident, being annoyed that someone at the company messed up the schedule and debating on who we could call and what they could do for us. Finally, at nearly 11:00 PM we rented a car and left the airport terminal. We ended up with a Smart car and barely fit our two small suitcases and ourselves into it! I could still see the humor in our situation despite the late hour and frustration so I snapped a picture of Aaron loading up our tiny auto. He was not amused but after a night's rest he could laugh about it. And it turned out that the driver had arrived to pick us up at 9:15 in the morning and no one at the company could sort out the mistake in the twelve hours in between. Hmm?
Oh well! If that's the worst that happened, we are lucky!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A 26.2 mile-long day!

Confession: It was NA beer
and he didn't drink much of it!



I really felt this happy but you should
have seen me try to walk. Ouch!



We did it! Sunday we ran the Berlin marathon, for which we had been training for over four months. It was all worth it. What an amazing experience!

There were nearly 41,000 registered runners from all over the world- Japan, Korea, South Africa, Brazil, Mexico, US, Canada and of course every European country. The race course was elbow to elbow the whole time. There must have been a million people lining the route- cheering, waving flags and signs, clapping, dancing. It was wonderful to see all the families and friends, standing out in the pouring rain in enthusiastic support of their runners. There were dozens of bands playing every kind of music. Thousands of volunteers gave out water, sports drinks and fruit, flagged the course route and generally helped make sure everything ran smoothly.
I can say so much about the day but I can't yet find the words to describe how it felt to cross the finish line after running 26 miles, training for 18 weeks and accomplishing a lifetime goal. It was a moment I'll never forget.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Looking for rainbows

We've been having the strangest weather lately. It has been windy and raining nearly nonstop for the last two weeks. I'm super-duper sick of it. I start to feel claustrophic; I get crabby and hard to live with, even for myself! Gray skies, damp air, harsh wind- even Pollyanna might have her spirits dampened after a while. But the really strange part of this weather is that five or six times a day, the wind blows enough of the clouds away to reveal a snippet of brilliant blue sky or a bit of sunshine. It fools you into thinking the storm is over and you can go out for a walk or hang laundry on the line. Then ten minutes later, sometimes with sunshine and blue sky lingering, it begins to rain again. It's almost worse than never seeing the clear sky at all. However, I have seen more rainbows in the last several days than I have ever seen in my life. They're so vivid and beautiful and I can't help but smile. A rainbow is so fleeting that to catch sight of one feels like being in on a secret, sneaking an extra helping of delight when everyone's back is turned. So while part of me is chanting, "Rain, rain, go away..." another part is remembering the saying "Without rain, there are no rainbows."

Friday, September 10, 2010

The meaning of dreams

Since moving here, my dreams have been haunted by ghosts of the past. It sounds a little dramatic but for some reason, people from different times and places in my life have been showing up pretty frequently at night. I'm tempted to psychoanalyze and figure out why this is happening and why certain people who I haven't thought of for years are suddenly showing up to help me bake cookies for my dog's birthday or competing against me in a surfing contest during a hurricane. By the way, I don't have a dog, know how to surf or have any deep fear of natural disasters. Man, dreams are weird!

Rather than delve into the innermost recesses of my psyche, I have been reflecting on the fact that my life has crossed paths with an awful lot of people in thirty-three years. These dreams make me realize that every friend, every classmate, every acquaintance, every neighbor has made a kind of indelible imprint on my life. And likewise, I have made some impression on every person I've known.

Imagine if we could really see these impressions, like stamps or tattoos on our bodies. We'd all be covered in the unique signatures of those we've known. Some might be tiny little stamps, like a nice (or mean) old neighbor lady who lived down the street. Some would be big John Hancock-like scrawls from the important figures of our lives- parents and siblings, childhood best friends, first loves, college roommates.

Looking back, I can only wonder what kind of mark I have made in people's lives but going forward I'm determined to be more aware that everything I do is part of the impression I leave in someone's life. The little things do matter because they are what make up the big things. Every smile and kind word but also every snub and snide remark make up my signature. Thirty years from now when someone runs their fingers over that mark, I want the memories to bring a smile to their face.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Finding Uncle Sam in Denmark

Denmark's second city, Aarhus, is just two hours north of us. We'd heard good things about it and decided it was a perfect location for a weekend get-away to celebrate Aaron's birthday. It was a festival weekend so downtown was hopping and we had a delicious dinner at a local brewery on Friday night. Aaron indulged in some bbq ribs, something not often found around here, and they tasted gooood!

On Saturday, we wandered the city and found this little place called The Cockney Pub. It was packed with locals before noon and as we entered we saw that they were celebrating American Beer Week. What a surprise! In Germany, you're hard pressed to find anything other than German beer but apparently in Denmark they embrace the whole wide world of brewing. Of course I chose something Danish and Aaron tried an English ale but this poster of Uncle Sam, whose face I have seen with alarming frequency since living in Europe, really made us laugh!

We awoke to a beautiful sunny morning on Aaron's birthday and had a lazy breakfast before heading back. When we arrived, Aaron set out to run 33 kilometers to mark his 33rd birthday. Then we ate tacos and chocolate cake, also part of the training plan! Ha!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Come one, come all, to see world-famous Rocks!


The realm of tourism is full of kitsch, replicas and false history. Real mummies, wax museums, medieval torture dungeons, etc. We’ve all seen them. Apparently, we humans can’t resist good fanciful fiction if it’s better than the facts. But I believe the greatest marketing coup of all time has to be selling rocks. I can almost see some shamster concocting a whopper of a tale about rare and ancient stones, charging people admission to see them and laughing all the way to the bank.

But rocks are serious business all over the world. Just think of Plymouth Rock, the Blarney Stone and the mother of them all, Stonehenge. It turns out that when we blindly chose to run a race in Salisbury, England, we were placing ourselves within ten miles of this mysterious ancient ring o’ rocks. We figured we better go see it and when we found out that a bus would pick us up in town and haul us out to the middle of the fields where said stones lay, we knew it wouldn’t get any easier. Away we went on a classic red double-decker bus, with tour narration entertaining and educating us all the way.

We queued up to get into the big grassy field, grabbed audio guides and circled the circle. You can’t get very close (unless you pay extra for an after-hours tour) so you walk slowly around the fence perimeter while listening to a lot of archaeological information that basically amounts to this: These rocks are really, really old and no one knows what they were for. Granted, it’s pretty amazing that primitive folks could haul these multi-ton rocks to their present location, especially when modern humans tried to recreate the river journey with a rock of similar size and their raft promptly sank. Plus, they schlepped them over land for miles before standing them upright in a very specific orientation. So, I say kudos to the Neolithic people.

Let’s face it though- rocks are rocks. I can’t say I was disappointed because my expectations weren’t too high. Stonehenge was exactly as I thought it would be and looked just like every photo I’ve ever seen of it. It’s just nothing much to write home about (except that I sort of just did).

Friday, August 20, 2010

Icons of London

Tower Bridge (not London Bridge, as I thought)

Big Ben- one landmark that lives up to its name!
(though Big Ben is only the name of the bell inside the clock tower)

This one did not go to
the Ministry of Magic- too bad!

Buckingham Palace- big but not beautiful.
The flag was flying so we knew
Her Majesty was in residence.
How many books have I read that take place in London? In how many movies have I seen images of the city? And when I finally arrived there, it was just as I expected and even better.
We spent nearly three days hopping around the city- from Pimlico to Piccadily Circus, Westminster to West End, Soho to Southwark, Hyde Park to Holborn, Buckingham Palace to the Borough Market. We saw great landmarks, wandered in neighborhoods and sampled English ales in many dark, wood-paneled taverns including one that was a favorite of Charles Dickens.
I love being in cities that seem to equally embrace their history and their future. One of the most visited attractions is the Tower of London- a fortress, garrison, palace and prison that dates back nearly a thousand years- and it is right in the middle of the city, adjacent to the Wall Street-like business district. And there is not just one London. It seems that each neighborhood has its own unique flair and certainly a few days doesn't do justice to the many personalities of the city. I can't wait to go back... but there are just so many places to go!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

30 Long Kilometers


As part of our marathon training, we decided to run a 30k (that's nearly 19 miles) race. There aren't many of that distance but we found one in Salisbury, England. It was the local firefighters' charity event. So off we went last week for our first visit to the UK.
I didn't know that southwest England was so very hilly! This event was a trail run so it was literally through fields, forests and pastures- the cows were surprisingly calm as they watched me run through the herd, dogding pies and hoping they didn't stampede.
It was beautifully scenic with all those rolling hills through the countryside. One minute I saw a quaint thatched cottage at the edge of the woods that looked straight out of a Grimm Brothers storybook. Ten minutes later I was running past a bonafide castle, looking for a troupe of Jane Austen characters to step out of the garden.
This photo is after the race, which did eventually come to an end. We're standing in front of Salisbury Cathedral, which is really quite breathtaking behind the scaffolding. (When you ask a stranger to take a picture, you never know what you're going to get!) Anyway, the cathedral is 900 years old so I guess it's entitled to a face lift. Shortly after this, we were happily situated in a 18th century tavern replenishing fluids and calories with a celebratory ale and traditional English pub food. Aaah- life is good!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Those crazy Dutchmen!


For those of you who missed it, the soccer World Cup tournament ran from the second week of June through the second week of July. It happens only once every four years and is a VERY big deal in Europe.
This year the United States was in the tournament and won their group in the first round of games. Germany also played well, losing in the semi-finals to Spain, but winning third place. We were in Berlin for both of their last games and the town was painted black, red and gold! TVs were set up outside at cafes and pubs all over and there were crowds around all of them.
The Netherlands made it to the final game, which happened to take place the evening that Susan and I arrived in Amsterdam. We thought it would be fun to be there for the excitement. After we'd spent seven hours on 100-degree trains, packed in like sardines and dealt with two hours of delays, we were less enthusiastic about Dutch soccer. Due to the train delays, we got into the central station just one hour before game time and the city was in absolute chaos. Although the their flag is red, white and blue, the team color is orange in tribute to the royal family, whose last name is Oranje. So everyone and everything was citrus-colored and it was deafeningly loud with the South African vuvzela horns.
We waited over an hour for a tram to get to our hotel. We were tired, we were hungry and thirsty and we were in no mood for frenzied celebration. After we checked into our B&B, we found a tiny Surinamese restaurant where we had a great dinner and watched the rest of the game with the family who owned the place. Sadly, the Netherlands lost to Spain and we were glad that we were no longer in the city center, where many fans did not take the loss well. In our neighborhood, a deathly hush fell over the crowds at the nearby pubs and restaurants. But the Dutch spirits were not down for long; when the team arrived home on Tuesday and made a parade through the city on the canals, the 200, 000+ fans once again turned the town orange and shut down the city's transportation system! Second place is not too shabby!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Berlin Birthday

This year it felt like I had a two-week celebration while on holiday with Susan so the actual day didn't stand out too much from the rest of the fun.
But it was a hot sunny day in Berlin and I started by taking a run along the river and through the park. I got to spend time talking with Adrienne, my friend who hosted us for a couple nights. Then Susan and I spent the whole day walking around and exploring the city. We saw landmarks and monuments and went to a museum. We had to have cake of course, and this is me at Fassbender & Rausch, apparently Europe's biggest chocolate store. We lingered over dinner and talked until the long summer day gave way to twilight around 10:30. Finally, to round out the day we ate ice cream sundaes before jumping on the train to go home. Definitely a good day!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Training


This is my beautiful wife, right after she finished an 18 mile training run this morning. I know this life in Germany hasn't always been easy, but I am SO proud of her. Jackie has made the most of her time here. She cooks delicious and healthy meals, plans adventurous vacations, takes care of the household chores, teaches English at Atec and is training for the Berlin Marathon! Great job Jackie! I love you!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Hot summer days in Prague

Prague was fantastic! It had a historical feel different from anywhere else I've been. Though the city was heavily bombed by the Allies in WWII, the damage to the city was much less than that seen in Vienna, Berlin and other German cities. So maybe the different feel was authenticity. The streets were narrow and winding- a nightmare for navigation but a delight for sight-seeing and discovery. There was adventure around every corner.
It's hard to capture the feel of a place in words; I guess that is why people travel. We saw all the typical sights- the castle, the cathedral, the synagogues, the main market square, the pedestrian shopping district. But the mood on a hot summer afternoon in a shaded beer garden, the character of the people, the excitement of the tourists, the frenzied World Cup fans everywhere.
I finally found out who good King Wenceslas was. I tasted real Czech gulasch and dumplings. I drank the original Budweiser (Budvar) beer. I stood in a thousand-year-old castle great hall. I walked through a Jewish cematery with graves dating from the 15th century. I strolled through cobbled streets where centuries of people have carried on their daily lives. I felt the world grow yet smaller and at the same time felt that my presence in it is fleeting and insignificant. I am just blessed to be part of it.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Susan and Jackie's Big Adventure

A lot of things in my life lately seem like "once-in-a-lifetime" experiences and I'm pretty sure I've just had another one. My friend Susan met me in Prague and we spent two weeks traveling together, sight-seeing in the Czech Republic, Berlin and finally, Amsterdam. We were on the go the whole time and saw so much that I can hardly put it into words.

But even better than all the new places we visited was the time with an old friend. We hadn't seen each other in three years but it hardly mattered. We just picked up where we left off and gabbed until my throat was sore! We were amazingly compatible for traveling together- no small miracle since I'm an early bird and she's a night owl who was fighting a nine-hour jet lag. She tolerated my stinky running clothes and I tolerated her clothes all over the room, and even after two weeks of morning, noon and night side by side, we still like each other!

After two years as a "stranger in a strange land," relationships are all the more precious to me. It's not always easy to make new friends and there's no substitute for family. My head is still spinning from the last few months but I am so grateful for the visits from friends and my parents. It is truly a breath of life to Aaron and me.

As soon as I recover from my adventure, I'll share some of the highlights...

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Fun with Bureaucracy!

Well, it's that time again- another year has gone by and yesterday we found ourselves back at the "Foreigners' Bureau" to renew our residency permits and pay Germany a bit more money to allow us to stay in the country. Last summer, we were in and out within 15 minutes so we figured it would be the same routine. But of course it wasn't or I wouldn't have the story to tell.

First we waited in the hall for 15 minutes. Then we went into the office and talked with the same woman we've worked with for two years. But she passed us off to a colleague who gave Aaron a 4-page form to fill out and sent us out in the hall. The form is the same one we filled out when we first arrived in the country (at which time we had someone translate it for us). This time, alone and without a dictionary, we were stumped on a few questions. It took us another 15 minutes for the form.

Then we were back in the office working with someone new. Since Aaron's passport expires next April, Herr Foreign-Office-Worker cannot issue a residency permit beyond that time. Since my residency is dependent on Aaron's employment and residency, I am in the same boat. But the issue made sense and we were okay with it. We'd just have to come back in the spring with Aaron's new passport and get new stickers. So Herr FOW printed out the stickers that go into our passports, only to discover, horror of horrors, that Aaron's book is full! Well, not really full. There are still pages left but apparently they are not the right kind of pages for a residency permit. Of course, Aaron was thinking, "Just put the stickers on a blank page and I'll deal with the U.S. if they don't like the placement. Besides, I'm getting a new passport in less than a year." Our new government friend just kept muttering, "Your passport is almost full. It's full." He went into another office and came back, confirming with other staff members that the book was indeed full.

We were sent to the basement to pay for the privilege of this experience, while he mulled over how to handle the situation. When we came back, suddenly I had to fill out a form, similar to the one Aaron had just filled out. I think he was stalling for time. By this point, we'd been there an hour. Finally, FOW came out to the hallway with our passports and a separate piece of paper for each of us. Since Aaron's passport expires in April and since there is no appropriate place to put his residency sticker in the current passport, we have a temporary three-month permit, in which time Aaron has to get a new passport and we have to report back to the Foreigner's Bureau for an extension.

Now we have to deal with the U.S. Embassy Consular Office to get Aaron's new passport. He'll have to go in person since he cannot give up his passport for 4-6 weeks (we're traveling to England and Puerto Rico in August). The office is open for a total of 16 hours a week, you can't make an appointment and it's a three-hour drive from here. Round Two, let the fun begin!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Sisi- still the queen of Austria

The royal legacy left in Austria is impressive- over 600 years of rule within one grand family, the Habsburgs. I've often thought I'd like to study European royalty but every time I get a glimpse of the complex and frighteningly intertwining family trees, I give up. But in Vienna there is no avoiding the presence of this royal family, even nearly a century after their empire fell at the end of WWI.

There are several "larger than life" figures among the rulers but none who image is as pervasive as Empress Elizabeth, known as "Sisi." The young emperor Franz Josef bailed out on his arranged marriage to Sisi's sister when he fell in love with her at first sight. She was married at age 16 and was known for her great beauty. She had a 20-inch waist, even after bearing several children, and obsessed about dieting and exercise. She was way ahead of her time in her daily regimen of exercise, keeping fitness equipment in her private suite. Her other great feature was her hair, which she kept at ankle-length. Washing it was an ordeal, requiring multiple servants and nearly a whole day. Her vanity was such that she refused to be painted or photographed after she turned 30.

But she was reclusive and moody from the beginning, avoiding royal court life and spending as little time in Vienna as possible. She was a poet and a romantic. Her husband was utterly devoted to her and indulged her wishes, though they were not popular with his family. Her first daughter died at the age of 2 and the Crown Prince died in a scandalous apparent suicide at the age of 30. She became even more reclusive. Sisi also met a tragic end, assassinated by an anarchist while traveling. After her death, she became more popular than she had been in life and now the legends and myths surrounding the beautiful empress are hard to separate from the truth.

You can read more about her and see her beauty for yourself here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elisabeth_of_Bavaria

Friday, June 11, 2010

Judging a city by its dessert!

I should probably be ashamed of how many photos exist of me with ice cream, cake and chocolate- but I'm not! You have to have some decandence in life and well, as vices go, I guess this isn't so bad.

We were told that an absolute must in Vienna is the cafe experience. The city is known for its cafe culture- people meet and linger at all hours of the day and night. Of course I was anxious to try Viennese coffee and the city's signature cake- Sacher torte. We found a fancy little place known for all their dizzying array of cakes and their fancy confections. As you can see, Mom and I took advantage! The cake was delicious and the atmosphere made it a great experience. It was an old building in the center of the city. As we entered, we could see the massive Hofburg Palace just a block away. The ceilings inside were tall, there was an old cafe counter, little marble-topped tables and lots of old ladies enjoying coffee and gossip.

So Vienna gets high marks for its cake and chocolate- maybe not quite as good as Belgium but way ahead of Korea where dessert is practically non-existent.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Day along the Danube






On our first full day in Vienna, we left the city for the country. We had good weather so we took the opportunity for a train ride into the Danube River valley and a scenic river cruise. Our destination was Melk, a small town that has a huge golden Benedictine abbey perched above it. The abbey was beautiful- impressive library, amazing ceiling frescoes and breath-taking Baroque church in which almost everything was gilded. The village was quaint and we sat outside and ate a traditional Austrian lunch. In the afternoon we boarded a boat that took us downriver. We sipped local white wine as we floated past castle ruins, picturesque churchs, lovely forests and more quaint villages tucked between the river and steep vineyard-covered hills. We landed in Krems, where we happened upon a local festival that included music, food, beer and wine, and lots of traditional costumes. It was an unexpected delight. We wandered the narrow winding streets, noting homes built in the 1500s, and found a place to eat dinner al fresco. By the time we boarded the train back to Vienna at 9:00 PM we were exhausted but happy. A very good first day!

And hooray for family!

Time is FLYING by and I feel like I'm barely keeping up! Obviously, I'm not keeping up with everything since it's been over three weeks since I last wrote. But I've been busy making memories with my parents. They came at the end of May and stayed two weeks. We spent several days here at home and fit a six-day trip to Vienna in the middle. In the picture above, we are sitting facing the Danube River waiting to board a boat cruise. It's one of the few pics we got of all four of us but not very scenic. Maybe I can use Photoshop to at least get rid of the car in the background...

During our time in Sörup we celebrated my mom's birthday with a dinner cooked by Aaron and topped it off with chocolate cake! Yum! Another night we had dinner overlooking the sea. Mom and I spent an afternoon shopping in Flensburg while Dad and Aaron took a 20-mile bike ride to the beach and back. But mostly our days were pretty low-key- reading, bike-riding, taking walks, playing games, talking. That allowed us to rest up for and recover from our days packed full of sight-seeing in Austria. More to come on our adventures there.

I feel so fortunate to have parents who are able and willing to make such a big trip to visit us in Germany. Our experiences here have made a big impact on Aaron and me and not all of the them can be conveyed with words. It is so nice to be able to share some of it with family and feel like we all know each other better for the time spent together. This was their third visit and most likely the last since the calendar for the next year is already filling up and we'll be planning our move back to the States next summer. Time really does fly by but I guess that's okay as long as you spend your time really living.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Hooray for friends!

This time the adventure came to us, with the arrival of our good friends from Kalamazoo a few weeks ago. We've known them since their son, now eleven, was a baby and before their daughter was born. We were part of each other's day-to-day lives for several years and we have missed them dearly. So we were delighted when Uncle Sam provided them a nice tax refund and they bought tickets to Germany.
We played hours and hours of games, we laughed until we cried, we walked all over until the kids started complaining (and then a little further), we ate dozens of sandwiches and generally enjoyed every moment of our week together. We showed them our little town, took them into our nearby city on the train, toured the local castle (complete with dungeon) and walked along the Baltic seashore.
Though the whole time was great, I think all six of us would agree that the highlight was our outing to the original Legoland amusement park in Denmark, where the Lego bricks originated. We spent our first hour in the park just looking at the Lego Miniland, which had amazingly accurate and realistic replicas of European cities, castles and landmarks throughout the world. There were even rivers with working locks and dams and real landscaping with miniature plants and trees. Among the American replicas were a Hollywood film set, the Kennedy Space Center, the Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore! And of course all the replicas of famous landmarks had tiny replicas of tourists too. We spent the rest of the day walking around the themed areas of the park- Pirateland, Indiana Jones-style Adventure Land, Western Legoredo town and Knights' Kingdom. We rode rides, watched a 4-D movie, toured the aquarium and admired more Lego creations at every turn. The day was capped off with a visit to the Lego Shop where the kids picked out some cool souvenirs.
As it always does when you are having fun, time flew by and it was time for them to head home again. I had plenty of laundry and cleaning to do after they were gone but the house seemed way too quiet and lonely!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Into the DMZ

I think this experience will remain vivid in my memory for many many years. To be honest, I didn't know civilians could enter the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, nor did I imagine that I would want to take a tour to do so. But several people highly recommended it so we called on Saturday from our hotel and found ourselves on a coach bus headed north on Tuesday morning at 8:00.

Korea fought a civil war starting in 1950 when Soviet-controlled Communist North Korea invaded U.S.-supported democratic South Korea. An armistice agreement officially ended the conflict in 1953 but Korea has been divided ever since and conflict has flared many times over the last 57 years.

Our morning looked at the Past, Present and Future of Korea. But first we had to get in. Our bus was boarded by a Korean soldier for a passport check allowing us into the 20-kilometer Civilian Control Zone. We were stopped again as we entered the 2-km DMZ that stretches to the border. At that point we were officially out of South Korea and in a United Nations-governed area. Then we started our tour with the 3rd Tunnel, discovered in 1978 at 240 feet below ground and reaching well into South Korea. It is large enough to move thousands of North Korean soldiers in just one hour and points directly toward Seoul. North Korea denies responsibility for the tunnel. Three other presumed infiltration tunnels have been found and many more are suspected.

Next we looked at the Present by going to the northernmost observatory into North Korea. It was terribly foggy but we could see the outline of Propaganda Village, a prosperous-looking little town at first glance until you look through the telescope and discover that there is no glass in the windows and no cars and no people. We could also see the huge North Korean flag flying on a skyscraping flagpole that dwarfs the South Korean flag just across the border.

In 2002, the ever hopeful and peace-loving South Koreans completed construction on a beautiful new train station less than 1 kilometer from the DMZ boundary line. Relations between the North and South were going well and reunification seemed within reach. A sign inside reads, Not the last station from the South but the first station toward the North." Relations between the two sides have since deteriorated and the station has remained mostly empty for eight years, a sad reminder.

Our afternoon tour (following another traditional Korean lunch with metal chopsticks) was the most intense part of the day. We entered Camp Bonifas, the UN military base that sits at the border between the two countries. There we had our passports checked again and had our clothing and shoes inspected. Torn jeans, t-shirts, sleeveless tops, shorts, sandals and skirts are not allowed. The North Korean government uses photos of sloppily or "scantily" dressed tourists as propaganda, proclaiming the poverty and loose morals of Western culture. We then transferred to a military bus and remained under military escort throughout our visit. We signed a waiver acknowledging that we were about to enter the hostile Joint Security Area (face-to-face with North Korea) and that we could be harmed or killed by enemy action. Okay, not your average tourist attraction.

We drove then to Panmunjeom, the small village on the border that is the only place where North and South Koreans can come into contact with each other and where all talks take place. At that time we were under strict instructions not to take photos, not to point, look at or gesture toward North Korea or NK soldiers. As we exited a building and crossed the path to the blue building above, we noticed a NK soldier standing on the steps of the large gray building opposite with binoculars trained on our group. Yikes! The tension in the air was palpable. Inside the blue building, we saw the conference table that actually straddles the border and could step across the room into NK territory. In the photo above you can see a small raised concrete barrier halfway down the building- that is the border. We didn't spend much time there and we were happy to leave. It felt hostile.

On the drive back to Seoul, our tour guide told us about her family whose home was in North Korea. Her aunts and uncles are still there and for sixty years they have had absolutely no contact- no letters, no visits, no phone calls, no e-mails. Many North Korean people defect every year and bring reports of a harsh dictatorship, poverty and famine among the people. The South Koreans want reunification mostly because they know their countrymen across the border need help.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Korean wedding or two

There were huge flower displays in front of the church.
They were all unique and had writing on the ribbons;
I think they were gifts to the bride and groom.

Pretty standard-looking Christian church
and pretty typical "Western" wedding ceremony.
Just to the right of the bride and her father, note the
mother and grandmother in traditional Korean gowns.
Aaron and I sometimes marvel at the interesting situations we find ourselves in, not the least of which was sitting through two weddings in one day on our vacation in Seoul. It all began with Mr. Bahng, the Korean representative for Aaron's company. He's a very kind and conscientious man who I think felt some responsibility to make sure we were taken care of during our stay. When Aaron invited him to come to dinner with us one evening, he made a counter-offer inviting us to join his family for a wedding and lunch reception at their church. They're Presbyterian (he later informed me that there are about 10 million Protestant and 3 million Catholic Christians in Korea, and while most of the rest of the country claims Buddism as their religion, only about 10 million practice faithfully). Of course we worried about being "wedding crashers" but apparently it is very normal for people from the community to attend weddings even when they don't know the families. A large number of guests indicates an important event so the bride and groom are happy; and the guests are happy about a free lunch.
He picked us up at our hotel and we went directly to the wedding lunch, which we ate before the ceremony. Their church has outgrown their banquet hall space so the reception happens in two shifts. We stood out as the only white people in the room and felt a little uncomfortable not knowing the customs and traditions. More stainless steel chopsticks here- oh bother! There was an unbelievable amount and variety of dishes, including a fish as big as a table (I'm not exaggerating this) that they were cutting up and serving sushi style (raw) in the buffet line. Wow!
The ceremony seemed pretty standard- father walks the bride down the aisle to the groom; we pray; the pastor talks a lot; the bride and groom say their vows; there is some nice music; the pastor talks more and then there's the recessional- dah dah da dum dum dum dum...
I gotta say that it loses a little something when you can't understand a single word that's being said.
After that wedding, we took a break at Mr. Bahng's apartment nearby, watched some golf on TV (he even showed us how he practices his swing in the living room) and then took a short driving tour of downtown Seoul. Then we were back to pick up his wife and her friend at church and we drove for what felt like hours to get to another wedding across the city. By this point Aaron and I had had more than enough for the day but didn't really know how to get out of it. At the second wedding we didn't get to eat anything and we just stood in the back of the room during the ceremony. It felt a bit like being at prom, officially the action was inside the banquet room but everyone was hanging out and talking just outside. We didn't stay long; apparently it's enough to show your face and give them some money.
You'd think that the day would finally be over then but we still hadn't been to the tailor shop to order the custom-made suit that Aaron wasn't sure he quite wanted or met Mr. Bahng's son and wife (with their dog in tow) out for another traditional Korean dinner! More to come...

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Stainless steel chopsticks...

...are ridiculously slippery! I should have been practicing weeks, if not months, ago. Of course I've used chopsticks before and thought I was reasonably adept with them. But it had been a while and I had never encountered stainless steel. Of course Aaron, who has spent several weeks in Korea in the last year, seemed to have no problems, while I struggled and dropped things and just failed to get anything into my mouth.


Korean dinners involve about a thousand different little dishes covering the entire table. Everyone just reaches across for what they want. That means that whatever you've grabbed has to hover in midair while traveling across other dishes, other people's drinks and bowls before it ever reaches your own territory. It's intimidating! The first dinner I had was with Aaron's colleagues- five Korean men, one German, Aaron and me, the only female. Of course I wanted to make a good impression and seem cultured and worldly. But alas my neighbor at the table saw me fighting the dreaded chopstick cross-over and asked the waitress to bring forks. So discouraging! But then it was a matter of pride so I refused the fork and continued my efforts. Eventually I got full. Or maybe I just got tired of trying, I can't really remember which came first.


The food was good but I couldn't tell you what most of it was. There were so many different things, literally dozens of bowls. I saw some tentacles with little suckers all along one side so I'm pretty sure it was a squid or octopus. I ate it because it was easy to pick up and it tasted fine, just a little chewy. We had a bowl of little crunchy dried fishes. They tasted fishy. A lot of the food was spicy, I mean really spicy, and it was mostly seafood, vegetables and noodles. Every Korean meal I ate contained kim chi, which must qualify it as the national dish. Kim chi is fermented vegetables flavored with red pepper paste and fermented fish paste (or something like that). There are many variations but it was absolutely essential, so much so that the Air France meals of chicken and noodles were accompanied by kim chi. The Koreans have to have it.

As much as we enjoyed our meals of traditional Korean food, we could not eat it for every meal. But big cities have good food of all kinds so we tried a great Thai restaurant and had some delicious Chinese food. We even went to Kraze Burger, which was a pretty good representation of an American burger joint. We went to an Italian place for lunch one day and a French bakery another day. So we ate well, which in my mind is one of the best aspects of traveling.


I'll sign off for now but I have lots more to tell about my Asian adventure. Meanwhile, I'm going to practice eating oatmeal with chopsticks- next time I will be ready!

Monday, April 26, 2010

A week in South Korea

Whenever I travel, I think I will write blogs along the way but never seem to fit it in. I'm sorry about that. I'm just back from my first visit to Asia! Aaron was in Korea on business for the fourth time, and probably last time for this project. He has found it very interesting there, so different from Western culture. I don't know when I'll ever have another opportunity so I decided I would meet him there at the end of the work week and we would spend several days exploring. We started in Incheon, where Aaron's customer was and then stayed five days in the center of Seoul.

This is what I always imagined an Asian city would look like (probably from too many movies)-rows and rows of brightly colored signs along narrow streets. It's even more overwhelming at night when all the signs are lit. After nearly two years of rural life, cities can cause sensory overload for me. There are so many things to look at, so much noise, so many people moving fast in all directions, traffic zipping by, the stink of exhaust and city sewers, etc. Seoul might even make the heads of some European city dwellers spin a bit. It's the eighth largest metropolis in the world, with about 20 million people in the city and surrounding area. And it's dense. It seems that everyone lives in a highrise apartment complex. I guess when you live on a peninsula, you just start stacking up.

They are coming up with another solution to the lack of space, though. They're filling in the Yellow Sea. It's called "land reclamation" and they basically drain the water out and fill in the space with dirt. Can you imagine where they get that much dirt? The whole area where Aaron was working sits on reclaimed land, which was underwater just over five years ago. Now it's a planned city that is half filled with sleek silver skyscrapers and corporate buildings while the other half holds vast fields of dirt, weeds and trash. All the municipal infrastructure is there- nice brick sidewalks, pretty parks, six lane roads with stoplights- but no people! It's a very strange place at the moment.

But in Seoul there are plenty of people! They have a great subway system and we read that over five and a half million people ride it every day. I believe it. The only time we had a place to sit down was when we rode to the airport at 5:45 AM. But it's fast and cheap and goes everywhere so we took it all over the city. Normally we prefer to walk around a new city to really get a feel for it but Seoul is just too big to see on foot. Thanks to the subway, a tour bus and Aaron's business colleauge we were able to pack a lot into our week. I'll tell you all about it...

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Now that's a church!

It's so tall you can't get it all in one photo.

Here you can get a better idea of
the scale. Look at the tiny van!

A few weeks ago Aaron and I spent the weekend in Köln (that's what the Germans call Cologne and since it's their city I figure we should use their name). The absolute centerpiece of the city is the Cathedral. It is the 3rd tallest church in the world (516 feet) and in the top 10 largest churches in the world (over 85,000 square feet).
I arrived in town by train and as I stepped out of the station, the cathedral towered over me and the entire city center. The exterior is a quite ornate Gothic style but I couldn't help feeling sad about how dirty it was. If you don't believe in air pollution take a look at the second photo above. All the way on the left you can see a column that looks like it was recently scrubbed- that's the real color of the building!
Like most churches we've seen in Europe, it has been under construction for most of its life. It was started in 1248 but wasn't completed until 1880. Amazingly it survived WWII bombings fairly well, unlike the rest of the city which was 95% destroyed.
We even took the dizzying, crowded and claustrophobia-inducing walk up a 509-step spiral staircase to the spire. We had great views of the city and the Rhine River. Near the top we saw the church bells, the biggest of which weighs 24 tons and is called Fat Peter. I can't imagine how they got it up there.
Inside, the church is cold, damp and vast but in spite of all that, I still felt reverent. The sheer size is meant to humble you and reminds you of how small you are compared to God's greatness. There was some really lovely art but we missed some of the best pieces. We learned that Lent is not the best time to tour a Catholic church -the thousand-year-old crucifx was draped and the altars were all closed.
We also went to a chocolate museum in Köln! Maybe I'll tell you about that next time! You know how I am about chocolate...

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Red Light therapy

It's not what you think! Though the red light district in nearby Hamburg is legendary, I'm talking about something completely different. I was sick last week with an awful cold- sneezing, runny nose, aches, etc. Our friends were insistent that I use their red lamp and that it would cure me within a day or two. The idea is to sit in front of this hot red light for 10-15 minutes every hour or so and it will take care of all your sniffles. I tried it out at their house because they basically sat it right in front of my face and I couldn't exactly say that I thought it was a bunch of hocus pocus.

I had to close my eyes because the lamp was so bright and I felt pretty silly trying to participate in conversation while blind and spotlighted in red. It didn't help that Aaron was singing The Police song, "Roxanne." You know the words, right? All the while I was wondering what possible difference it could make that the light was red versus any other color? Does the nose know?

After ten minutes I was very sleepy, my face was very warm and my nose was very drippy but I felt just as crappy as I had before. They sent the lamp home with me and- shhh, don't tell- I didn't use it again! But you know what? Two days later I felt better anyway.

So, I'm trying not to be disparaging of their attempt to help me and I am sure there are some home remedies of dubious efficacy that I've tried before. I guess I'm just a skeptic- there's not much I believe in without a double-blind, controlled study. Must be the scientist in me!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Someone wants to be my pet!

I know how lonely it can be, being the new kid on the block. And apparently this little guy feels it too. We recently got some new neighbors on our street and their cat, who seems to be strictly an "outside" pet, has been hanging around our house more and more.

It's really friendly and vocal, sitting by the door meowing to get our attention. And since many of our windows are full length it follows us around the house from the outside, watching us eat dinner in the kitchen and then looking at us sitting on the couch in the living room. Really funny!

My days at home can be long and we've missed our cat since moving here. This cute kitty seems to be begging to be ours. It's really tempting to open a can of tuna and leave the kitchen door ajar...

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

German Super-Babies!

My friend was telling me that she hopes to have her daughter out of diapers by the time she starts daycare in August. She's still got plenty of time to work on it of course but I'm still skeptical.

Why, you ask? Because her daughter will just turn one in June!!! I thought she was joking when she told me this but she showed me the tiny potty that actually fits Emma's little nine-month-old Po. And then I got to witness Emma actually using the potty. Sure enough, we sat her down, gave her a book to "read" and a few minutes later- ta da!

My friend does things a little differently so I still wasn't sure if this was a mainstream approach until we were talking to a neighbor whose nine-month-old son is also using the potty. What the heck?! Why aren't we onto this in the States? Are we the only ones that don't know about this? Are the Germans the only ones who do? I don't know anyone who misses the diaper days when they're gone. Maybe my million-dollar idea will be to import the tiny toilets to the States and hold "Potty Training by Age One" seminars. On second thought, I guess I should wait and see how things go for Emma over the next few months!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

St. Paddy's Day 2010!

I can't believe I forgot to take my camera last night! The official mission was to entertain business customers- one American, seven Italians- but Aaron and I were determined to continue our St. Patrick's Day tradition from last year of going to the English pub in Flensburg. We picked up one of Aaron's colleagues and the American customer and headed to McMelson's for a pint of Guinness before meeting the rest of the crew for dinner. I just love how they can make a shamrock in the foam on the top of a glass! We even got scratch cards and I won- a top hat that looks a bit like a glass of beer but has a brim shaped like a shamrock. Wow! Cheap junk of course, but doesn't winning something just make your day anyway?

Afterwards we headed down the street to meet up with Aaron's boss, more colleagues and the Italians for a big traditional German meal: mountains of meat, sauerkraut and potatoes. All the guests were delighted, which was of course all that mattered. After dinner, we sang. We were treated to a surprisingly good rendition of "O Sole Mio" from the Italians and several German folk song solos from Aaron's boss. We Americans realized that we didn't know many folk songs but we did manage "Swing Low Sweet Chariot." The Italians wanted us to sing Bruce Springsteen or Elvis or Frank Sinatra. Ha! There is plenty of good American music but maybe not so many true traditional folk songs. We rounded out the evening with "Silent Night," sung simultaneously in three languages. You can imagine how lovely it sounded!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

My new sport- AquaLauf

A few weeks ago while Aaron was in Korea, my neighbor (whom I've only spoken to a handful of times) came to the door and invited me to join her women-only fitness class. Yea! Something to do, and maybe a friend! I understood that it was some kind of water aerobics but otherwise I really had no idea of what I was getting myself into. This seems to be the story of my life lately- always an adventure!

We got to the fitness center, changed into our swimsuits and headed to the pool. I first noticed that Nicole and I were bringing the average age down quite a bit- like decades. I assumed I would be able to handle the intensity without a problem; no offense to grandmas who can outswim me! Anyway, the pool is pretty small, just made for aerobic activities I think. So about 10-15 women make two concentric circles and, led by our slim male instructor who stands at the edge of the pool, we start to AquaLauf.

Everyone wears a flotation belt and floats around their ankles. Then, in the deep end, you move in circles while doing various exercises with your arms. Lauf translates to either run or walk. I think it means run for most of the women in the class but pretty much means trying to achieve forward motion for me. It seems roughly like treading water, which I can do indefinitely but apparently I'm missing the part where you propel yourself. Those instructions must have come in the first few weeks of the class that I missed.

So, I'm doing my best but somehow my efforts to GO seem to be plunging me under water. I'm sinking and sputtering while trying to act cool, stay in the circle, follow the instructor's directions and smile at him to let him know that everything is fine (which it is a total lie). Meanwhile, the German grannies are passing me by and I eventually move out to the "slow circle, " where I still cause traffic problems. I can't believe it but I'm actually breathing hard and looking at the clock to see when this hour will be over. Ugh- still twenty minutes and we haven't even used the arm weights yet!

At the end, I admit to my friend that it's "a little harder than I expected." In my head, I am trying to console myself and maintain belief that I really am fit. I mean I just ran a half-marathon last weekend; I do yoga, strength training and I walk or bicycle everywhere I go. Not to mention that I love swimming and spent half my childhood splashing around in water. It really seems like this AquaLauf business should present no challenge to me. It must just be a difficult technique to master. Yeah, I'm sure that's it.

Monday, March 1, 2010

We did it!

The snow melted off the streets and the rain stopped just before the race started. These were good omens for the Kiel Half-Marathon that Aaron and I ran on Saturday. The sun even peeked out a few times. And it was a great day!
Aaron is fast and I'm- well- not fast, but we both met our time goals and felt great after we finished. The race was along the Kiel Fjord so it was nice to look out over the water as we ran. We even went past a Marine Life Institute and all the seals in the outdoor pool were poking their heads out of the water to see what all the commotion was about!
It was a big accomplishment for us both. I had never run such a long distance and as I've mentioned, our training conditions have not been great over the last two months. But it is amazing what our bodies are capable of when we don't let our minds get in the way!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

America's greatest export?

Since we don't have cable or satellite the weekly TV guide usually goes straight to the recycling bin. This week I was thinking about inviting myself over to a friend's house to watch the Olympics so I fished it out of the bin to see what kind of coverage they have here in Germany. As I browsed, many English words caught my eye and I was astounded to see how much of the programming comes directly from the U.S.A. (well, via a dubbing studio, which also means that nothing is from the current season).

At primetime, Germany has the pleasure of viewing such hits as Law and Order, House, Monk, CSI, Desperate Housewives, The Simpsons, 24, Stargate, Big Brother, Crossing Jordan and Heroes. Imagine if all you knew of America were based on these shows- scary!

On daytime and late night TV they can watch such American treasures as Golden Girls, Who's The Boss, Columbo, The Nanny, King of Queens, Two and a Half Men, Gilmore Girls, Malcolm in the Middle, Star Trek and even good ol' Perry Mason. Imagine basing your opinions of our country on these shows- even scarier!

But I am sure that everyone here knows, just as we do in America, that TV life is nothing like real life. Everyone does know that, right? ;)

Monday, February 8, 2010

Bread and life

Yesterday I made some whole wheat bread from scratch with flour from the mill pictured here, which is about 2 miles from my house. I like the feeling of knowing where my food comes from in a very concrete way and knowing exactly what is in it because I made it myself.

It is interesting, and sometimes fun, to be living this simple rural life but it doesn't seem like it's really mine. In some ways I feel that when I quit my job and moved to Germany I stepped out of my own life and into someone else's; like trying on new clothes and walking around the store in them to see how they feel. Maybe the pants fit but they're too long or the shirt pulls across the shoulders or the fit is just perfect, except it's just not you. I understand that it is a privilege and a luxury that I do not have to work right now. I certainly have gotten used to some of the perks like- no one is the boss of me, I don't have to be somewhere at 7:30 every morning and I don't have to wear panty hose.

But somehow I cannot reconcile this German Hausfrau with my idea of who I am as a person. This troubles me. I'm not sure if it is a shortcoming on my part or just a result of a life circumstance that just doesn't quite fit me. Much easier to say it is the latter of course. Meanwhile, I cook and I bake and I knit and I hang clothes out to dry and I continue to work at being at peace with where I am and who I am right now. Some days it is easy to find the joy in all the little ups and downs that are the substance of life; some days it's harder.

In another year and a half when I change back into my "old clothes"- reentering my career and life in the States, I have a suspicion that I'll find that they don't quite feel comfortable anymore either. I'm thinking that life is a continual process of changes and adjustments, and maybe there is no "perfect fit."

Friday, January 29, 2010

What can I say to this?

Nine inches and counting, layered
over a half inch of solid ice.
Worst winter in 15 years.
How lucky we are.



Wednesday, January 27, 2010

My deep dark secret

Deep dark chocolate secret, that is. The first part of the confession is that over the weekend we bought a kilo (that's 2.2 pounds) of handmade truffles. That's quite a bit of chocolate, even by my standards. But you can't get them around here and we really savor each one- spending time contemplating our choice, never knowing what delight hides inside. They should last a long time. It was a completely justifiable purchase. Seriously.
But Aaron is leaving for a ten-day business trip soon and I'll be left here at home alone- with the chocolates. Part two of the confession is that I am pretty sure that I won't be able to resist eating them while he is away. Belgian chocolate makes me happy and I will be by myself all day every day in the midst of this rotten winter. I'll need it.
The problem is that we get a little childish over these. As as kid, I remember having a friend over and pouring us each some Kool-Aid. I'd get down at eye level with the glasses to make sure they were exactly even. It's like that. Normally we are very generous with each other but not when it comes to truffles. If Aaron eats two, I get two. It has to be fair and equal. In retrospect I'm not sure why we didn't each get our own box but it's too late for that. Yesterday I mentioned to Aaron, "I'm a little worried..." And that's all I got out before he broke in and replied, "I'm taking mine with me!" I guess that settles that!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy!

John Denver was right. Do you see that reflecting off of our glasses and our pale Northern European faces? It really is SUNSHINE! We had to drive six hours to find it but it was well worth the trip.

We spent a weekend in Antwerp, Belgium- a city that captivated Aaron when he visited on a business trip almost three years ago. It lived up to his memories and his description. The old city is dominated by a huge cathedral, which looks completely out of scale with all the surrounding buildings. Quite a sight, with really amazing art and architecture inside too. The most famous local artist is Peter Paul Rubens and we saw a lot of his paintings in the churches and at his home/museum.

The Belgians seem to love socializing and there were cafes and pubs on every block, all packed with smiling people. So refreshing to see! We had some great seafood, great beer, great chocolate- and in addition to our Friday afternoon in the sun it was the perfect formula for a mid-winter getaway!

Unfortunately, the snow didn't melt while we were gone. Just in case you were wondering.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Hey- Michigan winter! Who invited you?

This is the view from my front door, which is actually on the side of the house, but whatever. That's my neighbor's shed and compost bin. The point is -SNOW! Lots of snow for a sustained period of time! And I am not amused.
I'll admit that I was feeling pretty smug about the mild winters here in northern Germany. We didn't even bring our snow shovel, leaving it instead for the sorry sucker who bought our house on the steepest hill in Kalamazoo with the steepest driveway on the street. Last winter was quite obliging. We had a few dustings of snow but no more than an inch at a time and it always melted away in a couple days. The wickedly wintry white Christmas of the upper Midwest was tolerable knowing that I would return to a dark, dreary, damp but snowless winter at home.
But then...we had a "big snowstorm" on January 2 and it never melted. It has been below freezing for the whole month (so far) and it just keeps snowing. I didn't like winter in Michigan but I expected nothing less than relentless snow and cold from November through March. Here I feel as though I've been duped. I asked my neighbor if this was normal (just for confirmation that I was justified in feeling put out) and she said it had been many many years since there was this much snow. See?
I know I shouldn't complain because I'm not likely to get sympathy from you who live in the Midwest, and my friend who is experiencing Life in the Artic Circle will most certainly call me a big cry-baby! Everyone tells me that I would miss the seasons if I lived somewhere warm but I would be willing to try it and experience at least one green Christmas!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Nothing says "Have a great day" like lox!

At the grocery store on Friday, upon checking out the cashier handed me a packet of smoked salmon as a small token of good fortune in the new year. What an... interesting... customer appreciation gift! We enjoyed it, though I could not find any bagels to go with our lox and cream cheese.


After a year and a half I am pretty well accustomed to my day-to-day environment. But I still have many moments like these that surprise me and I think, "Wow, I live in a foreign country!"

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Photos from New Year's Eve

This is how we looked two hours into the new year.
Welcome 2010!

The metal figures with the melting spoon.
Still a bit concerned about the meaning of my
resulting metal lump.

Okay, you can't really tell that this is
fireworks against clear sky and full moon
but it was really cool.
I fell victim to a nasty flu this week (I always blame it on the foul air on planes- ick!) so I'm taking the easy way and just posting some pictures instead of a real blog. My week has consisted of sleeping my way through the original Star Wars trilogy- not much to say about that.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Happy New Year!

Gutes Neues Jahr! It was our first New Year celebration in Germany- last year we were in the States with family- and we enjoyed learning about more traditions and customs.

We noticed that the wishes for the new year included, "Good luck," and many lucky images are associated with the holiday. Clover, mushrooms, chimney sweeps (chim chim chiroo), pigs, hedgehogs! I don't know why they're considered lucky but then again, I don't know why we think horseshoes and rabbits' feet (yuck) are lucky.

Part of the tradition is to take small metal figures of these lucky objects, melt them on a spoon over a candle flame and then dump it in cold water to see what shape forms. Based on the resemblance, you look up your fortune for the coming year. Our friends introduced this to us and we had some laughs trying it. Unfortunately, all the objects came out as unrecognizable blobs and 2010 remains murky. Guess we'll just have to wait and see...

Trick-or-treating is also popular on New Year's Eve (but not on Halloween). Kids and adults dress up and come to houses singing songs and asking for "sweets." The kids want cookies and candy of course and the adults want alcohol. They all sing pretty long songs, some of which are made up just for the evening. How can you say "no" to such creativity?

At midnight, everyone goes outside to light off fireworks. It seems uncharacteristic of the safety-conscious Germans but at nearly every house people stand in the street with their drinks in one hand lighting off, sometimes quite large and impressive, fireworks. It's quite festive to look around the sky and see it lit up in all directions. I don't think anyone in our town could have sleep through the new year!

So here we are, in a new year and a new decade looking forward with excited anticipation to what adventures the year will bring. I hope you enjoyed a festive celebration and that this new year will bring many good things your way too.