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...