Tourist Info Desk

Welcome to Fernweh, a blog concerning the (mis)adventures of one Fulbrighter during a year spent in Europe teaching English.
If you'd like to know what's going on, please see the welcome message here.
If you're wondering what the book reviews are about, I direct your attention to the reading list/classic lit challenge here.
Thanks for stopping by. I look forward to hearing from you!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Welcome, Christmas, bring your cheer!

[UPDATE: Christmas market pictures now posted in my Picasa album!]  

The title is sarcastic. Um, sort of. Or maybe not? I don't really know.

This was a very easy week for me at school. I showed the original How the Grinch STOLE Christmas! movie to each and every class. On the plus side, this meant very little actual work for me, since the movie's about 25 minutes long and I only have 45 minutes total. The students seemed to enjoy the movie (I mean, really--who doesn't like Dr. Seuss??), and I was quite amused by some of the answers to the last two questions:

Q: What is your favorite thing about Christmas?

Student: Ente! (Duck!)

Student: That it will be over soon.

Q: What is your least favorite thing about Christmas?

Student: Presents.
Me: Giving or receiving?
Student: Both.
Student: I don't like going to church and celebrating the birth of Jesus.
Me: That's kind of the point...

On the downside, I showed the movie to every class. That means my poor mentor teacher and I watched that movie three times a day, every day this week. I'm pretty sure I can do the entire thing from memory by now. Also, I made the mistake of deciding to bring Christmas cookies to every class, which meant a lot of time spent baking.

In other news, I've been spending more time with the students in the Wohnheim. It's amazing how fresh cookies will get you at least a short conversation! One girl that I've talked to a bit came into the kitchen to get some food with a couple friends, saw that I was baking cookies alone, and hung out with me in the kitchen after her friends left to keep me company and show me pictures and video of her tractors. The downside to all this friend-making is that the two 2010 classes, which are the friendliest and most inviting, are both starting practica in January, so they'll all be leaving and I won't see them again.

To offset this, I'm trying to spend as much time with them as I can. Yesterday I had a linguistics class and an Italian class scheduled, but I bailed on both to drive to Weimar with some of the Hauswirtschaft students instead. The journey that takes about 25 minutes on the train took us about an hour by car. It didn't help that we took back country roads through rolling hills covered in dry, powdery snow; the wind was blowing hard, making dunes and ripples in the snow and piling up drifts where the road used to be. It's eerie, looking out the window at a purple-grey landscape made sickly by the distant reflection of orange city lights off the clouds, unable to discern where the interminable hills of snow end and the murky sky begins.

We made it alive to Weimar, but by the time we got to the Christmas market, we had only 15 minutes to look around before it closed. We split up for dinner; I had Chinese food with two other students while the rest had döner. We trekked wearily back to the cars and inched our way back through the wildly blowing snow to Stadtroda.

I'd barely made it back to my room and taken my coat off before someone was pounding on my door: another student from a different class, inviting Bethany and me upstairs for some Gluehwein. Bethany declined, but although I was exhausted, I plopped myself in a chair upstairs and did my best to converse intelligently, with mixed results. Möhre, the student who invited me, has discovered that I like to sing, and tries to get me to do solo performances whenever possible, which is usually when I'm tired and trying to focus and figuring out what people are saying to me. It's both flattering and irritating.

Anyway, Christmas is just around the corner, and that simply astounds me. The snow continues to fall determinedly, but Stadtroda is greeting the holiday season with its customary stoic indifference. I finally decided to take my mentor teacher up on her offer to spend Christmas with her, but I'll have four whole days between Christmas and New Year to do...well, I don't honestly know. The Christmas markets will be closed, and everything will most likely be deserted. Altogether, without Christmas parties, Christmas shopping, lights, decorations, music, companionship, family, and all the other trappings of the holiday season, I can't help but be a little bit apathetic.

In other news, my beloved Kindle is having issues, and by "issues", I mean, "Amazon says it's defective and I have to send it back." They already sent me a replacement, but whaddayaknow, the replacement has the same problem as the first one! Just brilliant.

I hope I don't sound too grumpy. I'm not really unhappy, just a bit...listless, maybe. Some meatloaf and festive singing will do me good, and that's the program for tonight! I hope that everyone who reads this has a wonderful Christmas and a warm, snug, enjoyable evening wherever you are. Miss you all.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Iberian Adventure: Portugal

[UPDATE: Pictures now available in my Picasa album!

Mm, Portugal. I had been determined, when this trip was in the planning stages, to go to Lisbon, despite the fact that it was actually pretty far out of the way. Now, I'm very glad we went, and I'd love to go back, but going to Portugal presented a new problem. Up till this point, my Spanish had been sufficient to get us by, but neither us spoke a word of Portuguese. Gestures and smiles, here we come!

Another day, another new city. We arrived in Lisbon and stared eagerly out the windows of the bus at the sun-drenched metropolis flashing by. The bus left us in the massive Praca do Comercio, presided over on one side by an enormous white arch and opening out on the other side into the water. We went to our hostel to check in, forgetting it was barely 10am and we wouldn't be allowed to check in, and instead dropped off our stuff and, on the recommendation of the clerk at the hostel, headed towards Belem.

Belem is a suburb/neighborhood/somehow or other a part of Lisbon, and is generally frequented by tourists for its beautiful church and cloister and its waterside promenade. There was a bit of a faff getting there (we missed the first tram, then the second tram stopped before Belem and we had to take a very crowded bus the rest of the way), but this turned out to be because of another mounted parade. We seem to have been stalked by mounted parades...Anyway, unlike the one in Madrid, this was some sort of military demonstration, complete with rifles and uniforms and horses and everything. We watched the band march around for a while and then wandered on, partly because one of the regimental dogs was barking incessantly, despite the efforts by his handler to make him stop. He was probably too hot in that long coat sitting in the sun, poor thing.

We stopped at a sidewalk cafe for lunch which, though touristy, was friendly and cheap. (Get your head around that, if you can!) We made it to the church/cloister and I left Bethany standing in line while I went to check out what the deal was. It took the guard a couple of tries to communicate to me that the entrance to the cloister was free before two o'clock. I went back for Bethany and we made our way inside.

The Belem cloister is one of the most gorgeous religious edifices I have ever had the honor to lay eyes on. The ornate two-storey structure surrounds a grassy courtyard with a fountain; above, the sky was pure and unblemished blue, and the midday sun dusted the white stone walls with gold. The cloister consisted of arched walkways facing the courtyard with intricately carved pillars and columns, each one different. Even in the shade, even filled with tourists, the whole place just radiated warmth and beauty and peace. It was an effort of will to force myself to eventually leave.

Since 1) we would have to pay and 2) there was a line, we skipped the church and headed straight down to the waterfront. Beside the towering monument to Portuguese seafaring explorers, the promenade sloped down into the water, and across a narrow channel, the green hills rose up from the waves. (Didn't know this, but Lisbon is built on the estuary of the Tagus river into the Atlantic; the Tagus spreads into a wide sea before narrowing into a small channel before it issues into the ocean. This was briefly disorienting, you know.) We slurped up some quick-melting gelato and then lay on the warm pavement with our heads pillowed on our backpacks, took off our shoes, and soaked in the sun.

Eventually, we had to peel ourselves from our comfortable spot and continue on our way along the water. Our next goal was the magnificent Tower of Belem, a fortress on the river. We explored from the dungeons all the way to the top of the winding staircase, where we curled up on the benches and admired the play of the sunlight on the sparkling waves. There wasn't much else to do in the Tower except admire the views and take dramatically angled pictures, but that's plenty to keep me amused.

By this time, it was getting later in the afternoon, so we began the long slow trudge back toward the tram. My foot was aching so much that we were forced to move at a painful limp, but that didn't stop me from looking at every single booth in the open-air flea market in the park between the Tower and the tram stop. I bought a few gifts before we finally made our way back to the center of Lisbon proper, although on the way back, I stopped for postcard stamps and had this delightful exchange:

Me: "I'd like three postcard stamps, please."
Younger lady who speaks good English: "Where to?"
Me: "The U.S."
Lady: *in Portuguese to an older lady behind the counter: something about Europe*
Me: "Will those go to the U.S.?"
Lady: "It's in Europe, yes?"
Me: ""
Lady: "Where?"
Me: "Um...America?"
Older lady: "America? America!" *digs around and gets me the right stamps*
Lady: "Isn't that in Europe?"
Me: "...No."
Proving once and for all that geographical confusion is not solely an American trait.

We'd not slept much the night before, and we were both exhausted, so when we finally checked into our room, I crashed for an hour or two. When I regained consciousness, it was dark outside, and both Bethany and I were very hungry. We consulted the desk attendant and got a recommendation for a nearby restaurant in the Chiado district, so I told Bethany to get us there (she was in a traveling-on-a-budget apprenticeship/crash course) and we wandered that way together. The place that we finally found was an almost literal hole in the wall--a tiny, warm, close-quarters kind of place that looked, to me, just fantastic. Even better, as we were looking about with the kind of pathetic pleading that begs for someone to offer to let us sit with them, we were invited to sit with three very friendly Canadian woman who instantly made us feel welcome. We spent a couple hours laughing and drinking wine with them and eating really wonderful food--I had a sort of seafood stew with rice. The three ladies were sisters who travel to Europe together every year. They gave us recommendations on what to see in the city (since I had no RFS to guide me!) and made me laugh until I cried--they reminded me of the kind of carefree, wacky joviality that my mother and her friends share.

The city, which had been sun-soaked and quiet during the day, was coming awake as we left the restaurant. The streets were bright, and many pedestrian alleys were almost completely blocked by the tables of restaurants spilling out into the pleasantly cool night air. Bethany and I strolled down the streets where the whim took us, admiring the facades of churches and the music of buskers playing for wine-sipping diners. We would've liked to explore more, but we were both very tired and had a long day planned the next day, so we wandered our way back to our quiet room and got some much-needed sleep.

We started our day with an amazing breakfast at the hostel: sausage and eggs, coffee and tea, toast and jam, all free (!!) and very delicious. Our first objective was to get tickets for a performance of fado, traditional Portuguese music, that night, but we hiked all the way up to the theater to find it closed. We finally got our tickets at a nearby mall and were ready to begin our sightseeing for the day.

Our Canadian friends from the night before had recommended that we visit an old church, only the skeleton of which remained after being destroyed in an earthquake, and an elevator that afforded a view of the whole city. We walked to the top of the elevator and had some very nice views from the bridge out to it, but they wouldn't let us up on the top viewing platform without a ticket. Screw that, we said (or I did; Bethany doesn't talk like that), and continued on.

We walked through the steep and winding streets down to the main square, Rossio, a very impressive public space framed on all sides by tall, pale, majestic buildings. Our aim here, though, was around the northeast corner of the square: a small hole-in-the-wall shop selling only cherry liqueur, which had also been suggested by our Canadian friends. We each had a taste (very sweet, with cherries floating in it!), bought some pastries at the bakery next door that had also been recommended, and continued on our way.

Our two main objectives of the day were the cathedral and the castle. Our map suggesting a walking route that connected the two through the beautiful Alfama neighborhood. I'd given Bethany the map for the day, and she got us safely to the cathedral, which was pretty but somewhat forbidding and gloomy. We didn't stay too long, since the day was bright and clear and we still had a lot to see. We wound our way through narrow alleyways between towering red-roofed white buildings, up and up the curving staircases, under laundry lines and flags, catching through narrow cracks occasional glimpses of the water shining in the sunlight below. We finally came out to a main street and marveled at the view: the jumble of red and white sloping away to the sea, crowned by majestic white churches in the distance. We paused here for a while to soak in the sun before continuing uphill.

We got a little lost, but a helpful security guard and a friendly Dutch tourist got us back on the right track, and we were soon inside the walls of Lisbon's castle. The castle sits hunkered down on the highest hill overlooking the city; the elevator that had seemed so high that morning was a small grey smudge far below. Bethany and I walked every inch of the castle complex: we visited the obligatory museum tracing the history of forifications on that spot; we visited every wall and turret in the castle itself; we visited a dig site for Muslim ruins; we even visited the cafe. The sun was bright and warm but not scorching, the sky a perfect blue, and the white city below, speckled with green and red and yellow, gleamed and shone. I could've sat up there all day in the sun, leaning on the warm stone, smelling the fresh air, breathing in the ocean and the sunlight and the beauty.

Time was short, though, and we needed to head out. We made our way back down the hill to our hostel, where we picked up our stuff, then we went by a grocery store and filled up our packs with food. Staggering back up to the Chiado district, we made our way to the theater and sat back to hear fado. This had been one of my priorities in Lisbon. Fado is a famous, very Portuguese musical style, full of sadness and longing, and the performance, though clearly aimed at tourists, didn't disappoint. Neither of us could understand a single word of the Portuguese lyrics, so we listened instead to the music of the words themselves. Fado would make any skeptic of phonaesthetics a believer; as far as I can tell, every word of Portuguese is euphonic.

From the theater we had to book it to the metro out of town. When we'd been planning our trip, I'd only really booked up to Lisbon, though we were planning to go on to Sevilla from there. Turns out that although Lisbon and Sevilla are geographically not far apart, and both major tourist attractions, there is no convenient direct transportation link between them at all, and taking either plane or train would lose us an entire day that we couldn't spare. The only solution was to take an overnight bus, departing from Lisbon at quarter to eight and arriving in Sevilla at five in the morning. Yippee.

After the plush, quiet theater and soulful music we had just experienced, it was a bit of a shock to sit in a garishly lit bus station, dreading the long trek ahead of us. We managed to find and get on the bus and settled in for a long night. I did not want to leave Lisbon at all, and watched as long as there were still lights going by. The seats were too small and, like airplane seats, seemingly designed to be as uncomfortable as possible, but sometime during the night we both managed to fall asleep and left Portugal behind in the darkness.

Snow and ice and snow...and ice

Well, winter has long since come to Thuringia. Two weekends ago was the first major dump, and there's been snow on the ground ever since. Of course, the first time it was magical; Washington gets very little snow normally, and even less that sticks, so we have rain and wind and rain and sometimes even freezing rain all winter. Snow is more dangerous than rain, but it's also much more fun and more beautiful, and I don't have a car anyway.

It started to get interesting, though, last Wednesday. I had to go to Jena for Russian class, and the walk to the train station is about 20 minutes long and (so not kidding here) uphill both ways. As I left the dorm, it began to rain, and by the time I was heading down the hill, the bricks of the sidewalk were all coated in a thin sheet of ice. I somehow made it alive and with my computer undamaged to the train station, only to find the same story in Jena. I tottered and slid to my Russian class and back, disgruntled and twitchy, and considering just going home and skipping our English Stammtisch.

The 20-minute walk to the restaurant where we have our conversation group took me about 45 minutes this time. Not because it was slick--oh, it was slick!--but because I was taking pictures. The rain had frozen, not just on the sidewalk, but on every leaf and branch of vegetation along the road, creating perfect imprints of the leaves' veins and making whole trees shimmer and shine in the light of the streetlamps. I imagine that if we ever figure out how to stop time, a rainstorm will look like the road up the hill did last Wednesday night: branches encased in clear crystal, raindrops frozen in the act of dripping. It looked like every twig had been dipped in molten glass. I'm sure I was quite a sight, oohing over half-dead bushes on the side of the road, and I never saw anyone else stop to look, which was a shame, because I got a lot of joy out of that slow walk up the hill.

It was still raining, and I stopped at one point until a tree to listen. All the snow was frozen over with a skin of ice, which made it shine oddly in the orange light. The falling rain made a gentle hiss, like white noise on a television, as it fell, but on the leaves above me, it clicked and clattered. By the time I finally made it to the restaurant, the rain had frozen and become...well, somewhere between rain and snow, without being hail. I tromped into the restaurant half an hour late and had a lovely time chatting with my companions and planning our Christmas party, and we left the restaurant an hour and a half later to find that the snow/rain had become straight-up snow, and a brand-new blanket about two inches thick had already fallen. So, now we had old, slushy snow covered in a sheet of ice covered by new snow. Thankfully, one of our Stammtisch companions drove us back to the dorm.

Now it's been warming up and melting, so the remaining snow has all been compacted into ice again. And now you know what the title of this post was about. Exciting, eh?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


I went to bed admittedly a little late last night; between internetting, taking a shower, practicing guitar, and reading a few chapters in my book, it was about 12:30 before I curled up to sleep. This didn't last too long.

In my dreams there was someone banging on the wall. I remember going out of my dream-house and seeing huge dents and wondering what had made them. Finally, the banging woke me up, and I realized that the jackasses in the common room next door were pounding on the shared wall. I could hear them laughing and shouting. I checked my cell phone: 3 am.

Tried to go back to sleep, but the pounding kept jolting me awake. I considered putting on some more clothes and going to ask them to stop, which in my imagination mostly involved shouting expletives in English until I got my point across. But these are big German farmers, drunk and clearly in high spirits; I wasn't sure what would happen if I intruded on that. Also, I was just hoping they'd stop eventually.

They about four. I got up at seven for my eight o'clock lesson and headed to school, having heard from Bethany that the same racket kept her up. I told my teacher about it, and got the answer I least wanted to hear: There's nothing you can do. Apparently, they do this every year as a way to blow off stress and have fun. They just don't give a shit that they're keeping other people awake, and even if I ask them to stop, they won't. They might invite me to join them, but they'll just keep on doing what they're doing anyway. This is how it's always been, from GDR times, and even then, calling the police didn't help, and it won't help now either. The message was basically, Get used to it, because this is just the beginning and there's nothing you can do about it.

Huh. Not what I wanted to hear.

I am therefore forced to acknowledge point-blank that this Fulbright year is not turning out as I'd hoped. I'm in a small, quiet town with not much to do. My students are for the most part apathetic and unwilling to put forth any real effort towards learning. They're not interested in me or my language. The few who are friendly, engaging, and fun are almost all concentrated in one class, which will be leaving at the end of January to do a practicum. What am I doing here?

Then I have to consider that I am very spoiled. I expect everything to go well for me, like it usually does, and when it doesn't, I don't know how to react. I haven't learned yet how to fight to make things better, because I've never had to before. Was this incident last night annoying, frustrating, infuriating? Absolutely. Is it the end of the world? Well, it feels a bit like it right now, but it's not really. I'm in a civilized, rich country that is at peace with its neighbors. My expenses are being paid just so I can be here to teach and learn--and this is definitely a learning experience. The countryside is beautiful and I have a three-day weekend coming up in which to travel to the Christmas markets around Thüringen with friends. I love doing Bienenkunde and spending time with the people who do it; I'm learning to play guitar with a wonderful teacher; I have a sweet, caring suitemate that I don't deserve; I'm warm and safe and I have friends and family back home rooting for me. Compared to all that's blessed and wonderful in my life, what's a missed hour of sleep on account of some farmers who have nothing better to do with their time than get drunk and piss other people off?

Nothing to cry about, that's for sure.

Mom comes to visit!

I've spent the last week and a half in the company of my wonderful mother, who flew all the way to cold and snowy Germany to visit me. It seemed we'd been planning it for ages, then suddenly it was time to leave to go meet her. Now, just as suddenly, she's back on the other side of the world.

Saying hi to the nice Bienenkunde guys.
Two Thursdays ago, I caught an ICE from Jena to meet Mom in Berlin. We'd planned to meet on the train after Leipzig, where she would switch to my train, so I sat tight until the train started moving again in order to avoid the umsteigening chaos. It was then that I learned that the train I was on had merely attached to the train she was on, and there was no communication between the two; I'd have to wait until we were on the outskirts of Berlin to get to her compartment. I settled back to wait, but got a call on my cell from, to my surprise, my mother, who'd borrowed her neighbor's cell to call me. At the next stop, I dashed onto the platform and then back onto the train and we were finally reunited.

At the platform in Berlin, we were met by Ben, the son of one of my mom's good friends. He and his wife Jessye are missionaries to athletes in Berlin, and they'd offered to let us stay with them for the weekend. We trooped back to their flat, dragging the heavy suitcase filling with gifts that Mom had brought along. Jessye welcomed us enthusiastically and fed us delicious food before we went to bed.

The next day, Jessye volunteered to show us around the city, so we hit all the major sights: the Brandenburger Tor, the Reichstag, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the site of Hitler's suicide (fun stuff, eh), and Checkpoint Charlie. Unfortunately, our access to the first two was blocked by a lot of stern-looking police with machine guns because the Russian president was coming to call that day. We finished off our day by walking down the East End Gallery, a long stretch of the Wall that has been painted by artists invited from around the world. That evening, I got a text from my mentor teacher saying she would be sick until the following Thursday, which meant that all the days I thought I would be teaching through to the afternoon were now totally free for sightseeing.

Our second day, Mom and I set out by ourselves. Beginning in the Hauptbahnhof, we were walking toward the Reichstag when we were distracted by a crowd watching something. Peering through, we were suddenly assaulted by the thunderous screeching of an F1 car, which shrieked into view, roared around in some donuts, and then took off back in the direction of the Brandenburger Tor. From another spectator, we learned that this display was to celebrate Sebastian Vettel's recent World Championship victory...although the German spectators were, well, less than enthusiastic. They watched keenly, but didn't clap or cheer. Maybe it was just too cold. We walked along the cordoned-off track toward the gate, where I saw something much more interesting than some German kid and his Red Bull car: a blood-red Audi R8, crowned by police lights, that was being touted as the "security car." Hello, precious!

We walked through the Tor (now open) and down Unter den Linden, popping into the Christmas markets, memorials, and various buildings along the way, including the lovely cathedral, and by dark had made it to the huge Alexanderplatz market. We got some dinner, did some Christmas shopping, and took the train back to Potsdamer Platz for a little more Christmas market goodness before heading back to Ben and Jessye's flat.

We packed up the next morning, said farewell to our generous hosts, and eventually departed on Sunday morning. Instead of heading straight back to Stadtroda, we headed to Potsdam for the lovely buildings, another Christmas market, and the palaces and pleasure grounds that we got to stroll through for a while. When we finally got back to Stadtroda, we headed straight to the Wohnheim and I installed Mom in her cold but quite nice accomodations on the top floor.

We had a slow morning on Monday, reluctant to leave the dorm because of the thick blanket of snow that had fallen during the night and continued to fall the whole day. Finally, we got bundled up and I took Mom on a tour of Stadtroda--which was, as may be imagined, quite short--and took her into the Fachschule to check train schedules. We dropped by the bee house to say hello to the Bienenmeister and the other Imkern, then we trotted and slid down to the train station to check out Jena. I showed Mom where I have classes and where we had visited before, and we wandered around the market in the main square before returning home to hang out with Bethany for a while.

Tuesday was traveling day. We took the train to Weimar for the market there, which was, although altogether not bad, not too impressive either; to my amusement, it was considerably smaller than the Zwiebelmarkt (onion market) that I had visited in October. We finished in Weimar early and, not ready to go home yet, continued on to Erfurt. I have really liked Erfurt every time I've been there, and this time it was even more beautiful blanketed in snow. The best bit was the medieval market, that had the best food and most interesting merchandise I've seen yet. We finally headed back from Erfurt and trudged back through the snow to the dorm.

Wednesday was supposed to be freaking cold, and was, so we stayed home. We cleaned my room (at Mom's insistance!) and made delicious stew to stay cozy in the cold. We also planned our trip to Nuremburg for the following day...

My mentor teacher texted me the next morning to let me know that classes were canceled for that day too due to an administrative snafu. Mom was disappointed, having wanted to see me teach, and I wanted her to meet Katrin, so we headed off to school to say hi. Turned out that they rescheduled a bit and I did get to teach one class, which placated both of us, after which we packed up and headed to Jena to catch the ICE.

Or so we thought: due to bad weather and trees on the line, all the ICEs heading that way were canceled. Since there was no place for Mom to stay in Stadtroda, we stayed in Jena for the night and wandered around the city some more. In the morning, we returned to the train station to find out that the problem still hadn't been fixed, and although the trains were running, they were being detoured around Jena. We took a train to Weimar to try to catch our detoured train, but although it started at being only 10 minutes delayed, it ended up being over an hour late. Frustrated, we decided to change our ticket altogether and go to Leipzig instead, which had the advantages of being closer and accessible. I was very disappointed that we wouldn't be able to go to to Nuremburg, which has the biggest and most famous market in Germany, but Leipzig wasn't bad either.

We found a reasonable hotel in the city center and set about exploring. In the main square, we found a hut housing a very friendly and enthusiastic young man selling cookies. The longer we stood there, laughing and talking with him, the more cookies he fed us, until we barely needed to eat dinner at all. That evening, battling the cold, we went to a concert/evening service at the Thomaskirche (where Bach was Kantor for a long time) before turning in for the night.

I have to stop here for a moment to comment (stop groaning and rollling your eyes--it's my blog!) about Germany's somewhat fanatical obsession with its national heroes. It seems that there is something--a street, a shopping center, a building, whatever--in every German town named after either Goethe or Schiller or both. For heaven's sake, there's a Goetheweg in Stadtroda. Sure, these guys were brilliant and stuff, but this is a little extreme. There aren't Shakespeare Streets all over England (I don't think?) or Mark Twain Drives slathered over America. (Although, granted, we have an inordinate number of things named after Washington.) Is this because Goethe and Schiller are the only German writers that people really know? Does anyone really like their works? (See this parody of "Thriller" about how terrifyingly difficult Schiller is to understand.) It seems to me that they're a lot like German Shakespeares: brilliant but outdated, difficult to understand, and dense. Yet the Germans name everything after them; every house in which they (or Martin Luther, or Bach) ever set foot has a huge plaque proclaiming the fact. I'm rambling on about this because the Thomaskirche in Leipzig is where Bach served as cantor for many years. Therefore there's a huge statue of him outside, a museum to him nearby, and a plaque on the wall of the church; his grave lies just below the high altar, in the choir. Even the church's symbol is his name with the A as the steeple of the church with a cross on top. It's a similar story in Eisenach, where he was born. Good lord, this is literally hero worship.

Anyway. The next day we took a bilingual bus tour around Leipzig, which was interesting but a bit headache-inducing, trying to listen and remember in German and then supplement the English translation with extra information for my mother. After that, we walked around the city some more, visiting the markets that we hadn't seen yet, and visited the Cookie Man again for more samples and to buy a couple more bags of cookies. We found a nice restaurant to have our last dinner together, and I discovered that it is possible to make Brussels sprouts taste good (shock!!). We tromped around in the snow a bit more before heading back.

Last day together. We walked around the city a bit more, looked inside the Nikolaikirche that we hadn't been able to see yet, and bought a few last gifts. We also took lunch to the Cookie Man and said goodbye for the last time. In the afternoon, we headed to the train station to shop a bit, and we had coffee together at a cafe. I finally put Mom on the train to Frankfurt (thankfully on time) and then took the RE home myself.

I'm so glad my mother got to come and visit. Germany at Christmas is the best, even with the snow and cold. It just seemed to go so fast--and now she's already back on the other side of the world. It impressed on me how far I am away from...well, the people I love. I was going to say "home", but...

Monday, December 6, 2010

Playing with bees in the snow

Going to Bienenkunde today, I thought we were going to do something winter-ish, like watch a video about bees, or build more honeycomb frames, or something like we've been doing for the last few months. Uh...nope.

I came into the teaching room right at the beginning of a lecture on Oxalsäure. What exactly Oxalsäure is is not entirely clear to me (Leo says "oxalic acid" but that doesn't help at all), but that wasn't too important since I'm not sure what half the things we use in Bienenkunde are called in English anyway. It's kind of better that way. In any case, der Bienenmeister explained to us that we would be mixing distilled water, sugar, and Oxalsäure to make a thicker-than-water, highly poisonous concoction that we would then give to the bees. Apparently, the water dissolves both the sugar and acid crystals (this doesn't sound good), so that when the water evaporates, the bees eat and store the resulting crystals. The Oxalsäure is apparently not poisonous to the bees, but it is to the Varroa (a red-copper mite no bigger than an asterisk), which can kill off a hive during the winter if they're not treated. The varroa get into the cells with the larva and kill them before they can hatch. We had to treat for them now because the bees are not currently laying new young, so the mites won't be able to survive.

However, what this means is opening up the hive. It was warmer today than it has been recently, but the snow is still thick on the ground, and it was cold for even us. Imagine for a second...

It's comfortable in the warm, humming darkness inside the hive. The workers take turns beating their wings to generate heat, swarming in a clump around the all-important queen. The dark, furry mass migrates slowly around the hive, working their way gradually through the precious stores of food they've industriously stored during the summer. Inside the styrofoam boxes, they are safe and warm, content to stubbornly wait out the chilly winter outside.

Sorry, meine liebe Bienchen.
Then, like the ending of the world, there is a loud crack, and their warm, snug home splits open. The cold whiteness of the outside world spills into the hive and the workers buzz frantically as their hard-earned heat disappears into the freezing air. The bees cling to each other, stumbling confusedly as the shock of cold numbs them; a few take to the air, rocketing around their attackers' heads, but their aggressiveness is suicide. Once they leave the hive, it will be shut behind them and they will absolutely die. It doesn't take long; some last longer than others, but all eventually plummet into the snow and struggle weakly against the remorseless cold until their meager warmth simply vanishes into the winter air.

If you feel just a bit sad and horrified, that's how I felt today. We cracked open every hive to douse the confused bees with our concoction, which had to be dripped right on them to be effective. They didn't like it much, and I don't blame them at all.

As you may imagine, the first hive was the worst. The hives are built of several levels, in most cases three or four: a bottom level full of combs (Waben) that also has the hive's only entrance and exit to the outside; a second level (Zarge), completely open to the first, also full of combs; and sometimes also an extra level that earlier contained the sugary feed (Futter) that the beekeepers give them to replace their stolen honey; and last, the styrofoam roof (Decke). At the first hive, Manfried (one of the other beekeepers) didn't realize that the bees would be clinging to the bottom of the second level, and instead of just tipping it, he lifted the whole thing off and swung it over the snow. The bees were scattered, dropping dazed and twitching in the snow, and the shouting began. The Zarge was replaced, and we rescued as many bees as we could from the snow with a dustpan and a bird's wing, but the whiteness was still pocked by little black specks. Then the Bienenmeister doused them with the chemical and we moved on. I felt a little shaken. For heaven's sake, they're bees--but it's still heartbreaking to see them fighting to crawl out of the deathly cold, waving their legs and fluttering their wings, freezing to death, and know there's no way to help. I took to killing the ones that lay helpless in the snow. I don't know if they felt pain as the winter stole their tiny whiff of life away, but I tried to make it fast.

We went on to the next hive, then the next. Some were alive and abuzz with anger when we let the cold in; some sent out kamikaze pilots that flew at our faces, and one even stung Rolf; some were tiny groups, huddled determinedly around their queen and meekly accepting their chemical baptism; and two of the hives were ghost towns, all of the bees dead, frozen or flown or killed by varroa. Only once more did one of the beekeepers make mistake and spill the bees into the snow, but it wasn't so many as the first time. My job was mostly to follow and watch, or help clean the snow off the top of the hives to open them, but a few times I got to take the bird wing and gently sweep the staggering bees back into the hive before it closed again, crushing them or stranding them to die.

Like I said, this was more than a bit heartbreaking. It seemed cruel, too, to disrupt their warm seclusion, even though I know that the varroa, untreated, can destroy the hive. I picked one fallen bee out of the snow and it crawled on my finger, its tiny feet gripping my skin, its feelers wavering feebly. I tried to flick it back into its hive; I don't know if it made it or not. I hope so. Today's lesson made me look forward all the more to springtime--and swarming season...

Monday, November 15, 2010

Christmas list and Sunday dinner

Random things today. Lisbon will be up later, I promise.
I don't have anyone to tell this to, so I shall post it on the Internet in general, which cares even less than anyone else, being an impersonal global network of electronically encoded information, but, y'know, whatever, eh?

Christmas List! <3
-DVDs: Sherlock, Top Gear, How to Train Your Dragon, Inception
-Gift cards to Amazon (for Kindle books and music!)
-Poster of the IPA
-A BahnCard
-A visit from my mom :)
-A new pair of boots

Um...that's all.

I'm very worried about my grandmother, who is not recovering well from a recent shoulder surgery. It's frustrating to be so very far away and unable to do anything to help and comfort my family. Luckily, should the need arise, I can get a round-trip flight for about $1000, the downside being that it's about 18 hours each way, plus jetlag. It would be worth it, though, if I were needed. I just feel like of selfish and useless.

Anyway. Yesterday was an absolutely delightful day; I spent a few hours in the morning tutoring my mentor teacher's daughter in Japanese, which is an adventure for both of us. I have trouble remembering which language I'm supposed to be speaking in, and my Japanese is pathetically rusty. Still, my pupil is eager to learn, and we have a great time talking together about anime and such. After that, Bethany and I were picked up by Claudia, one of the Fachschule students, to visit her home for Sunday dinner. We went to see her horses, visited the town's surprisingly spacious zoo, and had an absolutely fabulous home-cooked German meal.

Claudia's stepfather is from Yorkshire, so he and Bethany got to commiserate extensively on how wrong everything (food, TV, holidays, etc) is in Germany. I had to focus carefully on what he was saying to understand him sometimes! Claudia's mother is a sweet, generous woman, and she was kind enough to speak simply and clearly to me so I could understand her. And the food was so delicious! I wish I could cook like that! Perhaps the best part for me, though, was that I felt genuinely welcome in a German home--only the second time since I've arrived.

Also, Claudia and her family invited me to stay with them over Christmas, which brings my total number of invites up to four. Ah, me...what shall I do? I'd like to clone myself, send off the clones to each house, and then unite back into one person so I could have the experience of each. (There is precedent for this.) Given that that is, unfortunately, impossible at present, I'll have to make a decision. Yuck, decisions. I think I'll procrastinate on this one.

I only had to teach one class today, but I have Bienenkunde at 2pm. My lesson consisted of reading a text about my experience in Germany/learning German, and then asking them what they think about English. There were a lot of "boring" and "hard" sentiments expressed, and many mentioned that they want to learn more vocabulary. I find this somewhat amusing, since the statement "Today we're going to be learning some new vocabulary!" is usually met with groans of agony. Ah well.

I'm off to lunch, then to deliver our Operation Christmas Child box, then to Bienenkunde in the wind and rain. Wish me luck!

ADDED: Forgot to mention that I finally got the e-mail notifying me that tickets to the filming for Top Gear are now available. I sent my request in right away; we'll see what happens! If I don't get the tickets--which is much more likely--I'll still get to spend the week with "my English friend" Stephen. (The quotes aren't there for sarcasm. The phrase implies that Stephen is my only English friend, which he isn't anymore, but he was when I started calling him that. The quotation marks show that the phrase is now an honorific title instead of a expression of reality.) We were thinking of traveling somewhere in Germany together, depending on how it all works out. If I do get tickets, I requested two, so Stephen and I can both go. Either way, I'm very much looking forward to February! :D

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Iberian Adventure: Spain, Part II

[UPDATE: Pictures now available in my Picasa album!]

But first: Wow, has this been a long weekend.

On Saturday, we had Imkertag (beekeeping day), which was basically a conference of top beekeepers from Thueringen, Sachsen, and Sachsen-Anhalt, with a couple people from Berlin and Brandenburg, too. And I discovered on that day the German love of long, monotonous speeches. Pretty much the entire day was a series of presentation after presentation; about a third of the way in, my brain started shutting down--you know, maximum overload, where your brain simply can't process more new information and strikes in protest. I learned a few new things, but I spent a good bit of it reading my Kindle.

Sunday I went with Bethany to visit Victoria in Ilmenau. We ate Vietnamese food, shared pictures from our vacations, and munched on cookies. It's so nice to have a friend to go visit, even if it takes two hours on the train to get there...again, Kindle.

Today was a free day off class because it was the official opening ceremony of the Fachschule. And yet again, more long and painfully unintelligible speeches, from 10am to 4pm with just one hour break in the middle for lunch. I didn't last as long this time; I only made it through the first presentation (something about agriculture as relates to politics or something) before my brain saw what the second one was on (genetics and breeding) and went "Aw, hell no," and bailed. It was a long seven hours. I was there for the whole thing because I was supposed to be officially introduced, except the head of the school forgot to introduce me at the beginning and didn't get around to it until the closing remarks. The only redeeming feature was hanging out with the fun Hauswirtschaft ladies and drinking copious amounts of coffee.

Anyway. Back to the adventure!

Our plane to Madrid was delayed (of course), so we got in later than expected, but the kind tourist info lady at the airport got us back on track quickly. We took the Metro into the city center and strolled through the sundrenched streets to our hostel. The reception was pretty janky, but the rooms were brightly colored, with a tiny balcony looking out onto the pedestrian street.

Bethany and I were starving, so we immediately set off in the direction of our next stop, the Prado Museum, in search of some food. We found...nothing. Well, nothing affordable, at least; there were no cafes or sandwich shops that we could see. We ended up...I'm ashamed to say this, but we got take-out from Burger King and sat out in the sunshine in a park. I was surprised how delicious that hamburger was.

The Prado is like Spain's Louvre, except much smaller and containing mostly paintings by Spanish artists. We got an audioguide, but seriously, all of the paintings sort of blurred into each other. I did like some of the works by Goya, and it was fun to see the real Las Meninas instead of Picasso's wacko caricatures. After a few hours, we were both willing to be done, so we headed in the direction of El Parque del Retiro.

The park is one of those enormous, perfectly groomed, so-pretty-it's-fake parks that Europeans seem to love so much. We wandered down the tree-lined lanes as the sun wandered toward the horizon; finding a nice little lake, we bought some drinks, sat on the steps of an enormous monument and watched the sun go down over the water while I learned from Bethany about British royalty. Bethany has a great head for history and is a good storyteller, and I'm always up for a good story.

With darkness falling, we headed out of the park and up the Gran Via on our way back to our hostel, where we asked for directions to a good restaurant. They pointed us to a place that did little tapas things on toast (so yummy!) and gave us free glasses of sangria. We returned to the hostel for sleep, although Bethany was kept up by some obnoxious Americans who were prepping for a night out clubbing and, completely ignoring the fact that there were people in the room trying to sleep, kept the lights on and their voices up until they finally left around 1am. Gah, some Amis give us all a bad name.

As usual, Bethany popped out of bed way before me and had to convince me that being awake is actually a good thing. Our first task of the day was following RFS' self-guided walking tour through the city. We started in the Puerta del Sol, a large and beautiful public square that, at 10am, was almost completely empty. We headed into the streets and found ourselves in another wonderful pedestrian square, Plaza Mayor, where the cafes were just beginning to set their chairs out in the sun. Dropping by a market, we made our way onward until we stopped outside a church to witness a random parade.

There were men in uniform on horses, and women in traditional dresses, and people carrying gold and silver staffs and ornately decorated banners. We stood around gawping for a while, and a camera guy took some footage of us standing there looking mildly bemused, but no one we asked could tell us what was going on beyond, "it's some kind of religious procession." Yes, I can see that, thanks.

After a bit, they started singing and parading and such, so we followed along and split off from them at our original end destination: the royal palace. The audioguide took us through ornately furnished room after room, explaining to us in meticulous detail where each piece of furniture came from, who had designed and built it, and what artistic movement who had inspired it. Some of the rooms were very lovely, but as opulently beautiful as these palaces are, they have small windows and not much sunlight (can't be getting all weather-worn like those peasants!), and they feel like a circular maze, so that the rich and royalty just go around and around and eventually forget that the rest of the world isn't covered in silk and gold. Anyway, after glancing through the armory (look, another suit of armor! Wowee!) we bailed and headed to the cathedral right across the plaza.

The cathedral was singularly unimpressive from the outside--well, compared to many other cathedrals I've seen. Inside, the most impressive thing was the psychedelically beautiful rainbow ceiling, painted with fantastic colors in complex geometrical patterns. The underside of the dome had its four walls painted like the four elements, and the sunlight shining through the stained glass bathed the crucified Christ in rainbows. The only slight weirdness was one of the transepts, which was devoted to an enormous golden altar to Mary.

Since we were now quite hungry and it was well into the afternoon, we stopped by an overpriced, touristy cafe for lunch and then continued to our next stop, an Egyptian temple. When we arrived, it was closed, but the posted schedule said it would reopen in 45 minutes, so we enjoyed the view into the city and took a nap in the deliciously warm sunlight. An hour later, we managed to peel ourselves from our comfy spot and totter back to the temple, only to find we'd read the time wrong and the thing was actually closed for the rest of the day. Oh well.

We set off instead in search of our next goal: a chocolate shop recommended by a friend of mine. On the way, we stopped by the Corte Ingles department store, where Bethany gave me a heart attack by wandering off and losing me completely (this is like a 10-storey store, too). With no way to page her (the help desk refused), my cell battery dying, and no idea where she'd gone, I was just starting to formulate how to say, "Please help me, I think my friend's been kidnapped" in Spanish when we found each other again. Whew! By now, the streets that had been quiet and empty were starting to swell with people, so we took ourselves off again and eventually found the chocolate shop. There we enjoyed churros con chocolate, a yummy treat involving churros (strips of deep-fried dough) dipped in thick, pudding-like hot chocolate.

From there, we headed back to Puerta del Sol. That morning, it had been quiet, bright, and almost deserted; now, with the sun setting and the lights beginning to glow, it was filled with people, tourists and locals, listening to bands, taking pictures, chatting, enjoying the atmosphere. Bethany and I sat by a fountain to enjoy it, but after we were each approached by older gentlemen determined to converse with us, we decided to move on. We wandered looking for a restaurant for a bit, but my foot was aching, so we eventually took RFS's advice and found a tiny little tapas place that served gazpacho, which my grandpa had recommended, and we had a delicious dinner followed by gelato. It was getting late by then, and we had yet another early-morning flight the next day, so we took ourselves off to bed.

I have to say that I really loved Madrid. My impressions of Barcelona had been mixed, but somehow Madrid felt to me much smaller than it really is, and very open and welcoming. Maybe it was the warm weather, the cheerfully conversing crowds, the wonderful pedestrian streets and sidewalk cafes, and maybe it's because my great-grandmother's family was from Madrid. Whatever, I felt very comfortable there. I was impressed and surprised, and continued to be throughout the trip, by how much I loved and enjoyed almost all the cities we visited, and how sad I was to leave them.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Iberian Adventure: Spain, Part I

[UPDATE: Pictures now posted in my Picasa album!]

But apology.

It was recently brought to my attention that it's now been a month since I've written anything on this blog. I'm very sorry to the three or four of you who actually read it. I'd like to say I've been busy, but that would be so much of an exaggeration to be untrue. Since my return from Spain, I've certainly been more busy with many new classes, but I still have quite a bit of free time. I'm beginning to think that it's inevitable.

I've mainly been delayed by the fact that I wrote drafts of both Barcelona and Madrid, which have subsequently mysteriously disappeared. (Update: found the part on Barcelona!) So, I'm going to try to catch up by giving you, quite belatedly, the exciting story of our adventure in the Iberian peninsula. It may take me a few installments, but I'm going to try, okay?

Our adventure began on Tuesday, October 12th, when we left the Wohnheim with our backpacks to catch the train to Altenburg. The weather was cold, drizzly, and grey, and we were desperately hoping for better on the other end of our flight. First, we had to wait for a few hours for the bus to the airport, so we did some shopping in a half-awake little shopping mall to pass the time.

The airport was typically tiny--like someone had set up a check-in desk and a couple of X-ray machines in an oversized shed--and we settled down to, once again, wait, talking sporadically with a nice German girl heading back to Barcelona for her half-year study abroad. From her report, she wasn't too impressed with Spain; she complained about the Spanish midday siesta and their supposed inability to take anything seriously or do anything urgently. Personally, that sounds good to me.

Our plane was supposed to leave just before 6pm, but by then, the plane hadn't even arrived. When it finally did arrive, and they had disembarked, cleaned it, and let us on, we were already quite late. We settled into our seats and waited. Finally, the captain came on the intercom to tell us that would be able to start the engines in about 40 minutes. After about half an hour more waiting, we were informed that due to "problems" (i.e. strikes) in France, we would not be allowed to enter French airspace and were looking at a delay of about three and a half hours. It was now dark outside, and we were getting hungry and thirsty, but apparently they aren't allowed to serve any food or drinks until in the air, so we sat there and waited. And waited. And waited.

Like a miracle, at about 9pm, our captain informed us that we could take off. We taxied to the runway, and I saw the rows of lights stretching away into the darkness, pointing our path into the sky. And we sat there, not moving, just waiting, as I rocked back and forth, clutching my half-dead copy of A Tale of Two Cities and doing my best impatient-Jeremy-Clarkson impression: "Let's go! Come on, come on!"

The whine of the engines built to a roar--the most wonderful sound I've ever heard--and we accelerated into the sky. Two hours later, we arrived in Barcelona in wind and rain, only to stagger onto a bus for the next two hours into the city. At the station in town, I was suddenly confronted by a problem that my sleep-deprived brain could hardly surmount: a cabbie asking me, in Spanish, where I wanted to go. I told him the name of the hostel, and when that didn't work, tried to tell him where it was, failing entirely to remember the words for "intersection" and "nineteen." I showed him the address, and we finally arrived, tottered in, got our keys, and wandered off to bed.

We began our exploration of the city with a walk down Las Ramblas--a wide, tree-line boulevard connecting the newer Eixample neighborhood with the harbor. Apparently, in the summer Las Ramblas is swarming with tourists, pickpockets, and those annoying living statues people, but for us it was quiet and mostly empty. Partway down, we turned off down some narrower, twisting streets to arrive at the scaffold-bedecked cathedral.

I've said before that churches, no matter where they are, are oasises of cool peacefulness amid noise, heat, and stress. The Spanish churches are a bit different, though; walking in, the clamor of the street is replaced by the familiar comforting murmur of prayerful awe, but instead of coolness, these churches are full of warmth. And the smell! The first church we dropped by, off the Ramblas, was scented by the rich aroma of warm wax from the prayer candles burning in each chapel. When I smell the sweet, musty perfume of old books, I think of knowledge and learning; wet stone and moss smell of age; but warm wax smells of holiness.

Unfortunately, the cathedral has done away with real candles and replaced them with frankly pathetic electric ones, and the peace was disrupted by construction noise, but that didn't make the tall pillars and magnificent arches any less beautiful. Also striking was the tomb of a young girl, who was tortured and martyred by the Romans for her faith. She's now the patron saint of the church, and her ornate tomb lies under the high altar. I can't help but wonder what she would think to see all that pomp and honor for her. Of course, the church also can't pass up the opportunity to make some money: to turn on the lights to see the tomb, you have to slide in a coin.

The best bit about the cathedral was, by far, the cloister, enclosing a small garden, a fountain dedicated to (and sporting a very small statue of) Saint George, and thirteen white geese. While the cathedral, while beautiful, felt a bit kitschy (I mean, paying to turn on the lights? And electric candles? Really?) the cloister was full of that cool serenity that characterizes churches.

We dropped by the Deacon's House, now the Archives, for the a look at their pretty courtyard and enormous palm tree (which had to be tied to the surrounding building to stay upright) before going to seek some lunch. We rejoined the Ramblas and followed it the rest of the way to the harbor, where we sat by the water to eat. On the way, we passed the Colombus monument, topped by the man himself pointing out to sea. It doesn't cross my consciousness too often that Colombus was Spanish. Huh.

After lunch (and a quick chat with a nice old Dutch couple), we headed back up into the city through the Barri Gotic and made our way to the Picasso museum. Factoid of the day I didn't know: Picasso actually could paint well. Like, real, recognizable faces and landscapes which, although unremarkable to me, look quite nice. The museum focused on his early years (i.e. before he went all four-year-old-on-LSD-y) and by golly, the man could actually paint. This just made it all the more ridiculous and horrifying to see the hideously deformed block-people he began to paint instead for no obvious reason. Did the "making sense and having good taste" gland in his brain just spontaneously crawl out of his ear in boredom after the thousandth sketch of countryside rooftops? I like to imagine, though, that the conversation went like this:
"Hey, Picasso my man, whatcha paintin'?"
"Oh, I'm doing a reinterpretation of Las Meninas, widely regarded to be one of the best paintings of all time."
"Uh...are you sure? I'm pretty sure most people's eyes aren't stacked on top of each other. Where would the nose go?"
"...Under the ear. Obviously."
"What ear?"
"Oh, well, in this case her ear's actually on her forehead. And purple."
"That's ridiculous and possibly insane."
"Well, luckily for me, apparently the art scene is so desperate for innovation that 'ridiculous' and 'genius' are indistinguishable..."
(Except all this would be in Spanish. Obviously. And, er, apologies to people who understand/appreciate Picasso...)

All that this proves, I'm sure, is that I'm just not sophisticated enough to appreciate Picasso's genius. To which I guess I have to say, um, yes, and if sophistication means liking Picasso's wonky doodles, then no thanks.

To recover from the museum, we took a break in another warm, wax-scented church, then headed to the concert hall, designed by a guy named Gaudi. From what I can tell, Gaudi designed half of absolutely everything in Barcelona (churches, concert halls, parks, lampposts, etc), but this is okay with me because his style, although definitely odd, is kind of fantastically intriguing. Anyway, we scored some cheapish tickets for a concert that night, so we dashed off for a quick dinner of tapas and wine before returning for the music. The two-part concert was very nice--the piano/violin combo was better than the woodwind/brass quintet, I thought--but the concert hall itself was the main attraction, designed with fanciful sculptures and unlikely colors, along with the odd random Pegasus. After the concert, we made our way back to our hostel via another coffee shop, where I had my 4th coffee of the day. Mmm, the coffee is just delightful...

I was awoken by Bethany, my human alarm clock, and we eventually headed out. (I hate mornings.) We began at La Bouqueria market, a riot of colorful fruit, twitching crustaceans, and assorted animal parts. We strolled through the aisles, sipping fruit drinks, before heading for the Metro.

We stepped blinking into the sun to behold before us a fantastical display of Jesus and genius gone mad. La Sagrada Familia (the Sacred Family) is a church, covered in scaffolding and presided over by watchful cranes, but not for renovation: begun over 100 years ago, the church is still being built. Designed, like everything in Barcelona, by Gaudi, the building looks like someone built the most exuberant, mind-bogglingly intricate exposition of Christianity--including all symbolic animals and people from the Bible--out of wax, then left it outside too long in the Mediterranean sun. Far from solemn, but somehow possessed of a sort of wacky, melty dignity, it's nothing if not striking.

We entered through one of the side door, featuring a much more subdued portrayal of Jesus' life than the Nativity Door's lavish effervescence, paid our 10 euro (?!) to get in, and wandered around. The interior is mostly barren except for the construction equipment, but somehow the fact that the cherry-pickers look tiny next to the enormous stone forest of tree-pillars holding up the half-finished roof doesn't hurt the church's awe factor at all. I can't wait to see what this place will look like finished, if they finish it in my lifetime! For now, I have to be content with those beautiful pastel stone trees, bathed in the soft light that the rainbow-tinted windows allow to enter. What a brilliant church!

Regretably, we had to keep going, so we left La Sagrada Familia behind and strolled through the city, stopping briefly for lunch, on our way to a park that Gaudi had also designed (surprise!). The park afforded lovely views of the city stretching down to the sea, and we got to see the adorable mosaic lizard guarding the entrance to the park. We dropped by the bookshop and then, as we were both getting very hungry, we decided to head back into town.

We found a good restaurant and took a break with some good food and sangria. My feet had been aching for a while, so it was wonderful to sit back and rest...until I found that my wallet was missing. Damn. Anyway, we then walked back through the Eixample to our hostel, since we'd have an early day the next day on our way to Madrid...


Monday, October 11, 2010

Happy Mensiversery to ME!

Last Thursday was my first mensiversary in Stadtroda. It's been four weeks since I arrived, a bit lost and lugging my bags, on the train platform and met my mentor teacher for the first time; four weeks since I met Bethany; four weeks of trying to get apathetic students to laugh and stumbling through lesson plans. Four weeks in the same town.

You know what this means: Time for a vacation! Hey, how about Spain?!

Ryanair flies three routes out of the small airport in Altenburg, which is within reach of my all-Thüringen ticket: one to London (Stansted), one to Alicante, and one to Barcelona. Hey, I've heard of Barcelona! Let's go there!

Tomorrow we (Bethany's coming too, poor girl) will take a flight to Barcelona and begin our Iberian adventure. (Has a nice ring, doesn't it?) We'll stay three nights in Barcelona, then move on to Madrid for two nights, then to Lisbon for two more. After that, it gets a bit fuzzy (maybe I should plan this, eh?)--I think we may stay a day and a half in Sevilla, then go to Tarifa for the night, and spend our last full day in Morocco. On the 22nd, we fly out of Malaga in south Spain to Wroclaw, Poland. Why Poland, you ask? Well, it's cheaper to fly into Poland and take the train back to Stadtroda than it is to fly into, say, Berlin or Frankfurt. Plus, I have wanted to go to Poland for at least two years, and although we'll only have a day to see a bit of one town, I'm looking forward to it. Plus, it's not that far away, so we can always go back for a weekend or something. :)

As we're preparing for this trip, I find myself getting a little apprehensive, as well as very excited. It's hard to believe that I'm actually going to go to Spain. Spanish was the first foreign language I studied, and although I've never really had the passion for it that it deserves--perhaps because I did begin so long ago, so it doesn't seem so special to me--it played a big role, along with Latin, in getting me into linguistics, so I owe the language, as an entity, at least some respect and gratitude. It's a little frustrating to realize that despite the seven-odd years I spent in Spanish classes, I can't speak more two words in sequence, although I'm hoping that I'll be able to read and understand at a baseline-functional level. Who knows--maybe this trip will inspire me to take up the language again! Finally going to Spain feels like the culmination of all of that--for so long, it's just been a mystical, gold-and-red place full of sunshine and bullfighters, and now I'm actually going there.

The apprehension is because Spain feels like, well, a foreign country. No, don't laugh--actually, go ahead if you like, it does sound daft, but let me explain. All of the countries I visited this summer I'd been to before, so I was returning instead of striking out into the unknown. We did visit a lot of places that I'd never been before, but the country, the culture, the languages in most cases, were familiar to me. I spent most of my time in Britain, which is hardly a foreign country at all! No, I kid, Britain is definitely European and, well, quite British, but the shared language gives at least an illusion of familiarity. So, although I was traveling in foreign countries, hearing foreign dialects, eating foreign food (haggis, remember?), it didn't feel quite so...foreign.

Spain, at least in my head, is a very foreign country. The language is "familiar", but I doubt, realistically, I'll be able to say or understand much. I've never even been close before; I don't know much of anything about their history, and my cultural knowledge is all mixed up with what I know about Latin America. Like I said, Spain in my head is a magical land where people get charged by bulls on a regular basis, people play flamenco music in the streets, and everything is washed in golden light. I really feel like I'm going somewhere new, and it's a bit terrifying.

Speaking of terrifying: did I mention that we'll probably day-trip to Morocco? Morocco, if you don't know, is just nine miles across the Straight of Gibraltar from Spain, but it's...Africa. And Muslim. These are two words that put me a bit on edge. Yes, yes, cultural understanding, people are different everywhere, open-mindedness, I know, but I can't help being a bit nervous. I've never been to Africa or a Muslim country before. This is most definitely something new.

On the other hand, I'm the one pushing to go to Morocco at all, for the simple reason that we can, and when will we ever have an opportunity like this again? Maybe never. Unlike some very open-hearted and courageous people I know, I've never had any particular interest in going to Africa, but being that close and not seeing at least a tiny piece of the Mediterranean bit seems a shame.

So, the lesson in all this is: don't stick Jennifer in a small town in the middle of nowhere for too long, or she'll fly off to Africa first chance she gets. Or maybe it's Don't let Jennifer choose her own mensiversary presents. Or maybe You can never travel too much.

I'll keep you updated. Wish me luck!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Happy Birthday, Deutschland!

The Fourth of July is kind of a big deal in America. In keeping with the millennia-old tradition of celebrating by imbibing copious amounts of alcohol and blowing stuff up, the Fourth is (at least where I come from) a jovial occasion of outdoor barbecues, beer, guests, bunting, fluttering flags, and fireworks. For weeks running up to it, all the stores are packed with gaudy, flag-oriented paraphernalia, and families make their annual trek to the Indian reservations to buy, usually, enough explosives to reduce their garages to shrapnel. It's a chance to enjoy the hot weather (at least you hope for hot weather in Washington), have a good time with your friends, make some craters in your driveway, and reflect with satisfaction on how some upstarts and rebels took on an empire and stuck it to 'em. Watching the fireworks blaze the darkness makes you feel just a bit shivery thinking of all our country's been through, and just a bit warm and fuzzy, feeling like you're a part of it.

Today was Germany's birthday--the Germany in the shape and form that we now know is two years younger than me. Der Tag der Deutschen Einheit ("The Day of German Unity") is an official government holiday celebrating the day that Germany was official reunited from East and West into one nation. As usual for a Sunday in Stadtroda, the streets were mostly deserted, and despite the surprising gift of a warm, sunny day, all was quiet and empty.

I took the train to nearby Jena, looking for some sign of patriotism, and found only two things that could even begin to qualify. First, the only sign of the German black, red, and gold was on the poster for some sort of anti-nationalism rally in a small square outside Jena's movie theater. The protesters--or rallyers, or attendees, or whatever they were--sat rather peaceably listening to a calm, measured voice reading some kind of political speech over a loudspeaker. The proceedings were conducted under the half-wary, half-exasperated gaze of a rather sizable contingent of black-uniformed, no-nonsense Polizei. I moved on from this quickly.

I proceeded past all of the blank, dark, unadorned shop fronts with the amplified voice echoing after me until I came to the market square, where at last I found the second and more welcoming-looking celebration of the Tag der Deutschen Einheit: a small stage, a beer stall, and a sausage cart. The cafes facing the square were open with tables in the sun, and I looked around for a bit before running into an English acquaintance--another ETA--and settling at a table to sip a strawberry juice and listen to the music. Some speeches were made that we neither understood nor listened to; there were no cheers, no clapping, no enthusiasm at all. I eventually just headed home again.

On the one hand, this seems odd to me--perhaps not that this particular German holiday is not enthusiastically celebrated, just that it is barely (or, in Stadtroda, not) celebrated at all. I speculated at first that this lack of interest and enthusiasm might be an East German thing, but was then reminded of my first full weekend in Marburg two years ago, which had similarly shuttered shops, deserted streets, and no signs of life or participation on the same holiday.

Nevertheless, I am inclined to suspect that at least part of this is because of the East/West divide. I asked my mentor teacher about the local attitude to this particular holiday, and her answer was that it depended a lot on how each person fared after reunification. Some, especially those for whom intellectual and artistic freedom was of paramount importance, embraced and desired it; others, who were content to follow the rules and be taken care of by the government, suffered from and resented the governmental switch. I'm reminded of buttons that we saw in an "Ost-Shop" ("East-Shop") in Weimar depicting silhouettes of either West or East Germany before the reunification, emblazoned with "Schön war die Zeit..." (literally "Nice was the time..." but more like "Those were the times" or "The good old days.")

Also, I'm reminded of something I've heard before, but in Japan, upon noticing that there are almost no Japanese flags: that the Japanese associate the Japanese flags with the government in World War II and are ashamed to fly it. I wonder if the same thing is true in Germany. And does a similar premise explain, perhaps in part, why British and English flags are so rare (going back to British Imperialism)?

In any case, the whole holiday felt somewhat surreal--I knew it was supposed to be happening, but Stadtroda seemed to have collectively shrugged, rolled over, and gone back to sleep, while Jena saw it as an excuse to do the proper German thing, i.e. eat sausages, drink beer, and have some nice music. It seems to me that considering the horrors of the recent past, the trauma of separation, and the awkward and mismatched reunification, Germany has a lot to be proud of in terms of progress made. During my years as a German student, I've been struck by (and occasionally fed up with) the near-obsession with rehashing and re-examining, in detail again and again, all of the horror and agony that the 20th century brought to Germany. Rarely, it seems, is much attention paid to Germany's long and illustrious history before the world wars; living down the Nazis seems to consume the German national psyche.

Despite the huge load of guilt the entire country seems to carry, the nation has pressed on: just today, Germany's finally paid off the last of the loans they took out to pay the reparations mandated by the Treaty of Versailles. And here I am, sitting in my room in an old GDR-era building, freely sharing my thoughts, with posters from Britain on the walls and American music on the stereo. When talking to a new German friend, I sometimes am swept away by a sheer sense of gratefulness and awe: only two decades ago, we would've never been able to meet, and there are times in recent memory that we would have been hated enemies. Yet here we are, talking, laughing, correcting each others' pronunciation, learning and sharing freely. It is an absolutely wonderful thing.

So, although the people here don't celebrate with the openness and enthusiasm I might've expected, I'm happy with the progress Germany's made. I'm grateful to be here, and still sometimes a little stunned by it. This country has a way to go yet...but so does any 20-year-old. For goodness' sake, she's barely out of her teens!

Happy birthday, Germany, and many happy returns.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Book: Persuasion

Author: Jane Austen
First Published: 1817
Original Language: English
Themes: the opinions of others, etiquette, selfishness vs sacrifice, patience

In A Nutshell: Poor Anne Elliot is mostly ignored by her family, being the gentlest and plainest of the three daughters of Sir Walter Elliot, a careless and vain baronet. Due to Sir Walter's extravagances, it becomes necessary for the family to remove to Bath and let their house, Kellynch Hall, to Admiral Croft and his wife. Unbeknownst to almost anyone else, Mrs. Croft is the relative of one Captain Wentworth; although now a successful and rich sailor, his prospects were less certain when he was engaged to Anne eight years before. Lady Russel, Anne's friend and adviser, persuaded her to break the engagement off for the sake of duty, and the two were sundered in anger and regret.

Now Anne is forced to renew her acquaintance with Captain Wentworth, who is still dashing and charming but seems to have no interest in her. Anne spends much time with the Musgroves, her brother-in-law's family, where the captain is very popular, and seems to be developing an attraction to one of the Miss Musgroves. During an excursion at Lyme, this Miss Musgrove injures her head accidentally and Captain Wentworth withdraws, allowing another captain to win her heart. Although encouraged by this news, Anne finally goes to Bath to be with her family but finds the rank-obsessed parties of Bath stagnant and uninteresting. A cousin of hers, Mr. Elliot, shows great interest in her and means to marry her, but an old friend, Mrs Smith, warns Anne that he's false and self-serving. Finally, Captain Wentworth can contain himself no more and professes his enduring love for Anne, and after those eight long years of regret and pain, they can finally be joyously married.

Thinking Makes It So: I should say from the outset that I am disinclined to like Anne Elliot. She's one of those sweet, gentle, obliging creatures who take no notice of themselves, who let other people command and override them with no apparent inclination to stand up for their own thoughts, feelings, or desires. She's so perfectly, submissively, wonderfully, angelically gentle that you just want to scream...if you're me, I guess. I can't help thinking that the whole silly painful awkward situation could've been avoided if Anne had stood up for herself and asserted her own wishes in the first place.

That said, Anne is surrounded by a lot of obnoxious, self-obsessed, overbearing people. Her father is so absorbed in himself and his gentility that he's gotten their family into debt, and he treats less fortunate people with disdain and scorn, as does his arrogant daughter, Elizabeth. The youngest daughter, Mary, is even more insufferable; she constantly wheedles, guilt-trips, and manipulates people's emotions by professing herself ill or very ill-used whenever something doesn't suit her fancy or she feels too neglected. Somehow, out of all of this, Anne emerged as a gentle soul, primarily concerned with maintaining the peace and comfort of others.

The selfishness of others is less obvious. Mr Elliot had formerly scorned an acquaintance with his relatives, but when he suspects that Sir Walter may remarry and thereby jeopardize Mr Elliot's position as heir of the Elliot title, he insinuates himself into their family with flattery and good manners to make sure it doesn't happen. In fact, there are very few major players in the whole story that are at all worthy of a positive opinion, since everyone seems to be operating out of purely selfish motives--even Captain Wentworth, who admits that everything he does through the whole book is motivated by his love for Anne. The only one apparently totally free of this vice is, again, Anne herself, whose first concern is always to make sure that everyone around her is happy at the sacrifice of her own happiness, contentment, solitude, or companionship.

I knew how this book would end when I started it--I knew that Anne would eventually reconcile with Captain Wentworth--so all I really needed to know was how they got there. Although I didn't dislike it, I didn't like it much, either; there was far too much of Anne being confused and upset but sacrificially hiding it so that no one might have any idea that, I don't know, something important might be going on in her life. Although granted, since almost all the people around her are self-absorbed snobs, they probably either wouldn't care or treat her as a nuisance, so maybe she has a point.

Although I assume Persuasion is, indeed, about persuasion, it seems to me that it's also a good close look at the different types of selfishness and pride in this particular rank and style of life at the time, and how the character of Anne defies what was, I imagine, rather typical of the time. Anne is humble, charitable, and giving; she visits a poor friend in need; she does chores and volunteers for work that other people don't want to do so that they can enjoy themselves, and she gets little thanks for any of it. I guess the problem for me is that she's so perfect as to be a bit irritating, compounded by her apparent inability to assert herself. Really, I prefer Emma.

That You Must Teach Me: I think, given that I'm now sure that I won't be teaching any of these books in the foreseeable future, I'm going to discontinue this section, since I can do research later if I have to. I would say, though, that if I were to pick one of Austen's books to teach, it wouldn't be Persuasion; there simply isn't enough happening, clever social commentary or no.


September 23rd

While working at my computer by my open window, I heard over my music a voice shouting, but it took a good few seconds for it to register consciously. Someone out of the view of my window was announcing something important about the Realschule in a megaphone, something that I couldn't quite catch. Bethany and I both poked our heads out in curiosity, but as nothing seemed to be on fire and there were no screams of panic, we shrugged and went back to work. This only lasted until strains of music began drifting in some minutes later. Leaning out the window, we found that a marching band was coming down the street, playing brightly, accompanied by brigades of fireman in their black-and-reflective-yellow gear and followed by a long parade of people of all ages. Most of them, from adults down to young kids, were carrying lanterns or, more often, lit firebrands. I'd seen enough; I grabbed a coat and my keys and dashed from the room to check it out.

Bethany and I stepped out of our dorm and joined the firelight flow of people, which must have comprised the entire population of Stadtroda by the size of it, in a circuit through the apartment complexes around the Wohnheim. We tried to ask what the parade was about, but all I could gather was that it was for the "Feuerwerk" (firework), which made some degree of sense, given the torches, but still wasn't entirely clear. We strode along anyway; I was burning with curiosity, and was just starting to contemplate the most subtle way that I could steal a torch from an unsuspecting child when a bright light flashed somewhere nearby. I looked around for the camera, but that mystery was solved a few seconds later by an ominous rumble from the darkening sky. And sure enough, soon fat raindrops were plonking us on the head, and within minutes it was an outright downpour, complete with atmospheric lightening and thunder. I couldn't help feeling a rush of deja vu and wondering: for Heaven's sake, what does God have against lantern parades?

We trotted on after the rest of the parade through the rain, and shortly we turned into a small field near the Wohnheim, where sausage and beer stands had been set up (anyone surprised?) and the arriving paraders tossed their torches into an enormous pile of brush and firewood piled at least 12 feet high. Party, anyone?

Bethany and I dashed back to the Wohnheim to get proper rainjackets and cameras, although the heavy rain had quit before we stepped through the door and settled instead on a drizzle. It seems God knew what He was about, though: by the time we returned to the field, the pile of brush and torches was an enormous raging bonfire, like a miniature volcano with a baby dragon at its heart, blowing clouds of sparks defiantly up at the unfriendly skies--so all told, it was probably a good idea to douse everything thoroughly first.

Having not yet eaten dinner, I got in line for a bratwurst while Bethany (a vegetarian) went to find some popcorn. I finally worked up the courage to ask some nice ladies in the line behind me and found out that the party was for the Feuerwehr (fire department), which seems both beautifully appropriate and wonderfully ironic, and explains either way the surplus of tough-looking guys stumping around in neon-lined boots and jackets and casting baleful, watchful glares over the bonfire. I got my bratwurst, Bethany got her popcorn, then we shared a perfectly ginormous cotton candy that was melting in the rain as we ate it. Finally, we both bought some Gluehwein and stood back to watch the fire burn spectacularly.

The entire thing was completely surreal in its suddenness and sheer randomness. It was like everyone in Stadtroda, having not a whole lot better to do on a cloudy afternoon in late September, looked at each other and said, "You know what would make this so much better? An humongous raging bonfire. We can have little kids carry the lit torches! To, y'know, celebrate the Feuerwehr and drink some beer or whatever." And the concensus was: "That sounds brilliant. I'll go get the grill and some kerosene!"

I love Germany.

September 25th

I slept in late today (11 at least) and finally managed to drag myself through the cold drizzle to the train station just in time to miss the train to Jena entirely. Luckily, I always come prepared, so I just pulled out my copy of Emma and waited for the train going the other way instead. This was how I ended up in Gera, a big-ish town about 20 minutes from Stadtroda, wandering in circles trying to figure out which street the signs to "Zentrum/Tourist Infos" were pointing up. I never did find either the city center or the TI, as far as I know. I just set off in the right general direction and wandered into any open shop doorway that looked interesting.

There were a lot less of these than you would think to find on a Saturday afternoon, and not for lack of interestingness but rather for lack of openness. While Saturday is I'm-not-working-today-so-let's-go-shopping-or-do-something-interesting-for-Pete's-sake day where I come from, apparently it's I'm-going-home-at-2-today-because-I-feel-like-it-so-if-you-wanted-to-buy-something-you-should've-come-during-the-week day in Germany. Many of the shops were dark and locked, although in their defense, the wide streets were almost deserted, and the whole center had a ghost-town vibe about it, especially on the rare occasions when I did pass another pedestrian, almost inevitably with their eyes fixed on the pavement and in total silence. It was somewhat creepy.

Nevertheless, I've been on a mission for the last few weeks: to find and buy a Sheepworld pencilcase. You see (those are the opening words of a story you most likely won't care two socks about, so feel free to skip the next couple sentences), I bought one last time I was in Germany and loved it dearly right up until it unceremoniously disappeared sometime between winter and spring quarters this year. Although I found one in Cologne, I foolishly assumed that I'd be able to find them everywhere, and have been searching for them in vain ever since. To my joy, I found just the one I'd been looking for, and bought it with a minimal amount of the prerequisite dithering that accompanies every purchase over 4 euro.

To suppliment the somewhat unreal feeling of the deserted streets of the rain-drenched city, I emerged from a shopping center to find that Milka (the chocolate company) had a little...booth/exhibit thing set up, where they were letting passersby play Milka-related computer games, sample their chocolate, and pet a stuffed purple cow. The best bit was the giant inflatable cow atop the main trailer, which looked a bit odd to me, mostly because it wasn't upside down.

September 27th

Mm, my fingers smell like beeswax. Yum.

Today was Bienenkunde day, but ever since the Feuerwehr Day downpour, the weather's gone from sunny, warm, and gorgeous to cold, wet, and miserable. In fact, it feels almost entirely exactly like Washington--fancy that. Anyway, apparently the bees really don't like it if, after all the trouble they go to keep their hive warm and dry, you go about pulling it apart and letting the water in, so we weren't allowed to peek in the hives today.

It seems I've simply been adopted as the new apprentice beekeeper. That's fine with me, although I regret that I can't understand nearly as much as I would like, since it's all explained to me in German. At this rate, I'll have elevated nodding and smiling strategically to an art form. This also means I don't actually know the English names of half the things I learned about today, but I'll do my best.

My main task today was sorting the Waben, which are easily removable and replaceable wooden frames in which the bees build the wax cells for storing food or raising young. Because the honey is extracted from the Waben without destroying them, they can be reused when the bees become more active again next spring. I learned to identify the difference between Futterwaben (Waben with, uh, Futter in them, which is, I think, like nectar) and Pollenwaben (Waben with pollen and honey in them...the distinction is harder than you'd think). I started to learn to tell apart cells built by workers (Arbeiterinnen) and drones (Drohnen)--the drones' cells are bigger, and ofter have specially-shaped cells for a new queen--and I had to keep a lookout for the larvae of the Wachsmutte (wax moth?), which lays its eggs in the Waben, and when the eggs hatch, the larvae eat through the wax and destroy them. The Wachsmutte has to be killed wherever it's found, although apparently, the earwigs that I found in several combs are good, because they eat the Wachsmutte larvae. Eurgh--spiders and bees and such I can handle, but I really don't like earwigs. They're worse in German: Ohrkriecher (ear-crawler).

Jürgen, the head bee man, seemed to be apologetic that today's tasks weren't nearly as exciting as last week's, but the way I figure it, whenever you get a new pet, you get to name it and play with it and coo and take pictures, but you also have to learn how to take care of it properly. I guess he just doesn't want me to give up on the oh-so-glamorous world of beekeeping because of the boredom of sorting through boxes of wax looking for larvae and brushing away earwigs. I thought it was interesting, I got to practice my German, and the smell of those Waben is absolutely lovely.

If I ever do build that dream house that I'm designing in my head, which already has a red Dublin-style Gregorian front door, a Japanese tatami room with sliding rice-paper doors, and German windows, I may have to have a little styrofoam tower of bees in the backyard, too.

September 28th

Oh, have I mentioned that I joined the church choir?

This is the best opportunity so far to actually speak some German and meet other people in the community, although the first session, two weeks ago, was unportentious: I'm totally out of practice with minor skills like, say, reading music and singing in tune/harmony, and the first practice was a whirlwind of German music terms and songs I don't know. Bethany and I kept exchanging overwhelmed glances as we tried to catch the rhythm, sing in tune, read the notes, and pronounce the German lyrics simultaneously. I didn't go last week partly because I was feeling sick, and partly because I didn't want to go through the frustration.

Bethany convinced me to go again tonight, though. I felt like I could hear my harmony part more clearly (I am really miserable at singing in harmony) and the other girls in the choir were very kind and helped me keep track of where we were. After an hour, we took a break for a small potluck dinner, and as we were eating, more people arrived, almost all significantly older. Apparently there's a second choir (?), and we were all going to practice together. This was just as confusing, but after a good hour and a half of fighting with music I'd never seen before, we adjourned and were warmly greeted by all the sweet ladies, who had also brought cake for someone's birthday that they eagerly encouraged us to try. One lady in particular struck up a conversation with me, and she invited Bethany and me over to house for coffee repeatedly, saying that she was all alone now that all three of her kids are grown.

Being treated with friendliness, interest, and warmth is certainly a welcome change. I've decided that I officially dislike German dorms on principle, but really, it isn't the building's fault (entirely; it is in part). The students are either too shy, too lazy, or too disinterested to actually come seek Bethany or me out, or even really talk to us when we meet by accident. I'd almost started to think that we were doing something wrong, but from the choir's friendly welcome, I must conclude that the students are just self-conscious and busy young adults. That's rather sensible, isn't it?

Also in music news, I was accepted to the music school for guitar lessons (YAAAAAAY!). The only downside at this point is that the lessons are one-on-one, so I won't be able to meet other Germans interested in learning the guitar. My own beloved instrument is still in WA, but Katrin's son has kindly agreed to let me use his, so soon I'll be recklessly annoying anyone who dares to come within hearing distance with my painstaking twanging noises. I start on Friday!

Tomorrow I'll take the train to Jena to meet my university Tutorin, who's been corresponding with me about starting uni and how to matriculate. She's been kind enough to agree to come and meet me and go to the office with me. I'me excited to meet her, although I was a bit embarrassed to find out today that although she addresses me as "du", I should be addressing her as "Sie", and I haven't been. Oops. Curse you, L2 politeness distinctions, for being so confusing!

While I'm here, I wanted to mention the students again. As anyone who's ever been in more than one class session in their life knows, every class group has a different personality, made up of not only the students' individual personalities but also their attitudes, past experiences, willingness to talk, willingness to act, and their interactions with each other and the teacher. Some classes simply click, others simply don't, and the teacher can only improve a curdled classroom to a certain degree.

I have one class that I particularly love that is especially effervescent. There are two students in the class who don't care much, but four of the students are reasonably competent in English and willing to talk, one is shy but willing to participate, and two are low-level beginners. The disparity in ability makes this class tough, but they're all such fun that it doesn't matter as much. I definitely look forward to working with them, and I hope to get to know some of them outside class as well.

Unfortunately, they're pretty much the exception. The attitudinal temperature of the other classes ranges from lukewarm to downright subzero. I haven't encountered any outright hostility yet, but there seems to be an American/German culture gap over the acceptability of talking while the teacher's talking that had me really pissed off today. I'm determined, though, to try to think of more engaging activities so the students won't be as likely to look for amusement elsewhere.

September 29th

The reason this is taking me so long to post is that my Internet is still down, and the tech guy for the Fachschule seems to have no interest in fixing it. There's a monthly 1 GB limit which I unknowingly overstepped, but a few days after he fixed it, it stopped working again, and although I've sent him an e-mail, it's still kaput. Luckily, the end of the month is only two days away now, so I should be able to survive until then. The upside is that I get to bed much earlier, since I don't have the temptation of wandering down the Internet's many twisting alleyways until the wee hours of the night. Also, I can't check my Facebook every half hour.

On the topic of frustrating delays, ARGH German universities are so silly! I understand the need for health insurance certificates and other such guarantees, but whereas American universities (well, mine, at least) seem to be able to condense all the registration and information exchange processes,  the German ones seems to delight in making them as complicated as possbile.

I met my tutor, Kati, at the train station, and had a delightful time talking with her the whole day (in German, too! Go me!). She took me to the immatriculation office, where the lady explained to me in clear, simple German that I still had to send in more paperwork and pay the semester fee before they'd give me the student card I could already see lying tauntingly in my folder. Having not accomplished much except having recieved a whole lot of new info-papers, we set off again. To pick up my free planner, we had to take a voucher to a small office tucked away in a different building; to sign up for my e-mail address and log on to the university system, we had to visit a completely anonymous office in yet a different office building; the library was on the other side of the town center, where we discovered that not only would I have to sign up for yet another account, I couldn't do so until the official start of the semester on the first of October. Does this seem needlessly complicated and vaguely sadistic to you, too?

Take, for example, the library. Like I said, I can't register for an account at the library until Friday, so I can't even go in yet. (What?) Also, the library doesn't let you bring any food or drink or anything, and I guess they're afraid you'll try to (somehow) smuggle books out or something, so they provide lockers where you have to leave all the stuff that you aren't going to actually use in the library--your backpack, coat, wallet, etc. This seems to me like a completely pointless precaution; I know that I've ordered pizza for a group project in the library at least once, and somehow nothing caught on fire or was wantonly destroyed. You may think that this was to protect the clearly new library, but the university library in Marburg was as new and as aesthetically pleasing as a warthog carcass, and they had a similar system. They have those scanner things that you have to walk through, too, so stealing books'd be tough. So, seriously, WTF?

I can only conclude that American universities feel like they have to treat their students well (ish) and make things convenient for them (ish) because we have to pay so blasted much. The uni fee in Jena is like 500-600 Euro, Kati told me--whether that's per year or per semester, it's still facepalmingly small compared to American tuition. I didn't even mention that I have to sign up for this thing called Onleila, which is the interface that allows me to register for classes, but my tutor can't tell me how to use it because it's different from the one she uses. The motivation behind these inane complications must be spite, fueled by having to give away an education practically for free. It's the only logical explanation.

Alright, enough with the griping. I may or may not have mentioned before (and I can't check, because my Internet doesn't work) that Bethany and I attend an English Stammtisch (discussion group) on Wednesday nights. The group gets along well; they're all adults wanting to practice and improve their English. Tonight we talked about the word "Fackel" (say it out loud and you might see why it's so funny), whether or not to pronounce the "h" in "herb", and the American words "nuke" and "floored" and their British counterparts. Tonight the group even considerately offered to make one night a month a German night so that Bethany and I can be sure to get some practice in.

Also, tomorrow I'll go to my mentor teacher's house to start teaching her  daughter Japanese and pick up my guitar. Hooray!