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!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Es ist so weit/It's time!

June 14th, 10:10 pm

Ah, here we are again. Here I am spending another night at the Waldklinikum in the cot by the door, headphones in, with Hamlet keeping guard over the bed, waiting for surgery. I've just taken a nice long warm shower, since I don't know when I'll get another chance.

Today was unexpectedly stressful; we arrived at the hospital at half past ten and the ping-pong began. It began with the paperwork and blood samples with a couple of very cheerful and friendly nurses. After waiting a bit (and being a little irritating) we got a meeting with the head doctor, who explained what they were expecting and intending to do. Then it was off to the anesthesiologist, who could barely speak English and yet tried to explain to us the various risks in English, although we had read through them in English already. After some more waiting, we went in to a speech therapist, who determined that my speaking, eating, drinking, swallowing, and all other functions were completely unaffected by the mass. We grabbed a surprisingly tasty lunch from the cafeteria, then it was off to the neurologist, who yet again confirmed that everything seemed completely normal; then finally, at 3:30, after another meeting with the head doctor, we were done.

The two meetings were the doctor were of course full of warnings and worst-case scenarios, since they have to plan for all contingencies. Plan A is to remove the tumor internally, through the mouth; if the initial incision is inadequate, they may also have to cut into my velum, which I really hope they won't do. Plan C, though, sounds worse; they may have to cut under my jaw and get to the thing from the outside, avoiding lovely things like the carotid artery and salivary glands and the nerves that move the tongue. All sorts of terrible scenarios were presented to us, and every risk examined from every side. The appartus used to hold my jaw open could damage my lips and teeth. My jaw might be dislocated and have to be put back into place. I might need blood if someone really screws up and nicks a vein. They might have to insert an interal line through my arm and thread it through the vein to my heart. If things really go pear-shaped, they might have to do a tracheotomy and punch a breathing hole in my neck, like a smoker.

I really shouldn't let my imagination run away with me, but I can't help imagining coming out of the anasthesia tomorrow like waking up out of the Matrix, with tubes in every oriface, whimpering and confused. I know for a fact I'll have a feeding tube in my nose, which is somewhere on the well-known continuum between "Dude, that's so cool" and "That is not going to be even vaguely comfortable."

The thing that bothers me most about this at the moment (outside the obvious pressing issue of surviving) is the various effects that the operation could have on my ability to produce language. My velum, lips, teeth, tongue, and throat are all involved, all of which are passive or active articulators and therefore directly involved in my future career as a student and teacher of language.

But speculation and worry are as pointless, as the Sunscreen Song says, as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubblegum. ("The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind--the kind that blindside you at 4pm on an idle Tuesday.") By the time I post this, the surgery will be over and most of these questions will have much surer answers. I shall defer asking them, then, until I have to. In the meantime, I'm going to watch Dara O'Briain for a bit and wait for my brain to slow down, and then I'm going to try to get some sleep.

June 15th, 10:10 pm

I feel like a starfish: my stomach's on the outside.

The surgery went off surprisingly well; all those worse-case we-might-have-to-cut-your-neck open scenarios were entirely unnecessary, and instead of the forecasted four to six hours, the operation took less than two. For the second time in just more than a month, I drifted out of anesthesia, feeling like I was slowly being pushed ashore by fitful tides. The day was mostly uneventful after that; I slept mostly, listened to my mother read to me and watched some movies.

The big problem right now--or rather, what I like the least--is the long white tube taped to my nose that goes through my nasal cavity and down the back of my throat to my stomach. As you may imagine, this does not feel good. In fact, when I swallow, the left side of my throat (where the tube is) hurts just as much as the right, where the actual incision is. Hopefully they'll remove the tube tomorrow, since all they've given me is tea anyway...although I'm not looking forward to the extraction itself. (Do they believe, like Bethany, that tea is a magical cure-all? Seems like it...) Dang, I'm hungry.

Anyway, I'm going to try for some sleep. The sooner unconsciousness comes, the better.

June 16th, 8:58 am

Well, during the night I got to experience what it's like to be fed tea with a syringe through a tube in my nose. It's not altogether a pleasant experience, but luckily it's one I won't be repeating for a while, since they took the tube out this morning, much to my relief. As anticipated, the moment of extraction was awful; imagine throwing up a slug through your nose--er, actually, no, don't do that. Anyway, my throat's still sore, but with the tube out I feel much better; I don't have to expend so much energy trying constantly not to gag.

I keep finding little things--abrasions on the inside of my jaw from the jaw-holdy-openy dodad, sore muscles in my neck, swollen lips. Also, my uvula (the dangling bit in the middle of your throat) has taken a beating and is quite black and blue, which makes pronouncing the uvular R a bit tricky.

But--and I should have mentioned this before--for the most part I feel great. The surgery went well, like I said, so they didn't have to incise anything besides the capsule itself, and the thing just came right out. (I have pictures!) So as I predicted, all those worries about waking up mute or unable to pronouce certain consonants were pointless; besides some soreness and awkwardness swallowing, I feel pretty normal and rather good.

I'm waiting now for my mother to come so we can walk around a bit. If I move well, I can take off the TED hose tomorrow. In the meantime, I'm watching music videos and eating ice cream--they like me here. :D

June 17th, 10:03 pm

Yet another day passes in idleness in the forgotten forests of Gera. I didn't mention that yesterday two representatives from the hospital chain's marketing team came to talk to Mom and I for a few reasons. First, because the tumor itself is so weird; second, because they wanted to play up the joint surgery between my HNO doctor and a spine surgeon from Heidelberg; but third and most amusing, I am apparently the first and only American they've ever treated here.

This explains much more fully the total amazement and confusion I encountered when I came here the first time, and while they're not exactly giving me celebrity treatment (what passes for "vanilla soup" here has almost the exact consistency and texture of raw eggs, except vaguely and unenthusiastically vanilla flavored), they do sneak me an ice cream now and then. I made the appropriate noises about how great the hospital is (I'm still hoping to get out early, after all), and the photographer staged a picture of my doctor looking down my throat with a metal tongue depressor and then asked me to smile. They didn't show me the resulting picture, but I'm sure I look like they had a gun to my temple just off-camera. (For the record, they didn't.)

I finally managed to hook up the Internet today, but then my computer ran out of batteries, so all this will finally be posted later. I have a new roommate who snores with gusto, so sleep seems unlikely at the moment. The last IV line was removed today, so maybe I can wheedle my way to an early release tomorrow. It's so frustrating to just sit in this place and watch the last days go by.

So, quick news summary: I'm doing fine. The throat's sore, obviously, but it gets better every day and the pain meds mean it hurts less than your average sore throat. I'm otherwise healthy and mostly happy. The news today was that the preliminary examinations of the tumor led to the conclusion that it's definitely not maglinant; what it, in fact, is, remains to be seen.

P.S. Did I mention I had pureed veal for lunch today? :S

June 18th, 8:47 am

Well, I was hoping they'd let me leave today but no dice. Sounds like tomorrow will be the day instead. I'm thinking Mom and I will just bail for the day (they don't ever bother to keep track of where we are anyway) and go shopping and stuff, and I'll come back later and pretend that I was following the rules. I feel great; I haven't taken any pain meds since yesterday morning and the pain is almost negligible. I've just spent too much of my life in this hospital and I'm past ready to be gone.

June 20th, 12:53 pm

Welcome back to Stadtroda! I got out of the hospital yesterday and strolled around Gera with my mother. Today, after a nice cup of coffee at my favorite coffee chain (Coffee Culture FTW!), we've arrived back in my complete disaster of a room. We've got to do some grocery shopping, then we'll be off to see the bees!

It's less than two weeks now until I depart. The time is getting close to get a visa extension (the suspense is killing me!) but the post-Germany trip is the stuff of daydreams and I really, really hope it works out. Considering that my flight home leaves from Lisbon, I'm not sure what I'll do if they don't let me travel.

I'm generally feeling great, except that this morning I verschlucked one of those foul-tasting antibacterial pills and scratched the back of my throat, so I've been gagging all morning. Other than that, swelling's down, healing's going well, and I'll be back to normal in no time, minus one Überraschungsei. Still no definite news on what exactly it was; maybe they'll tell me when I go get the stitches taken out later this week.

Thanks to everyone who's been praying for me, sending me support, asking about me, and keeping me in their thoughts. I love y'all!

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Ich Weiß Auch Nicht, Aber...

I've just finished watching the movie "Redlight", a documentary on child sexual slavery and trafficking in Cambodia. I would highly recommend the movie, especially if you aren't familiar with the topic; you can find the whole thing on YouTube:

There's no need to describe how heartbreaking it is to see these young children list with faraway eyes the horrors they've been put through. This is an evil for which there is no excuse.

I'm not sure why, but the issue of human trafficking and slavery has been on my heart a lot recently. It may be because of the indifference I've met in my students here in Stadtroda. The Fachschule has been getting teaching assistants for fifteen years, and I can't see that any of the students much notice or care. There have been before me, and there will most likely be for many years after me (if the world doesn't end on October 21st, of course) bright, privileged university students vying to come here. This school doesn't need me; there will always be someone overjoyed to be placed here.

Which got me thinking: I have the skills and the means to go where other people can't, or won't. I want to work with people who need to learn English not because they're being forced to but because it will make a difference for the better in the course of their life. And somehow, that brought me to rescued victims of slavery.

I can't teach these rescued women and children a practical trade, and I've never been a political activist or lobbyist, but damn, do I know my own language, and I have some vague idea of how to teach it, and I've got some experience finding my way around a strange culture and a new language. That's not much, but maybe learning English is a way for rescuees to help lift themselves out of the pit they've been so cruelly tossed into. If so--man, count me in.

There are problems. I've found a lot of organizations who work with governments, other organizations, and companies to fight for and free the victims; they're happy to help me organize a rally to "raise awareness" (a phrase I thoroughly detest) or to accept money to fund their efforts, but they don't seem in desperate need of English teachers. In fact, the Somaly Mam Foundation is the first I've seen to mention the need in the first place, although it seems to me that offering English would be a huge help.

Another problem: I'm a foreigner and an outsider. Would it be worth it to go all the way to Bulgaria or Cambodia or wherever, when I'd be almost as helpless as the rest of the students? And if not, how else can I help? Because I don't want to just sit back in my room full of books and clothes and food, content with tossing a small tithe of my riches to a good cause and moving on with my incredibly blessed life. I want to do something with my time and energy, heart and mind, to help people who really need it.

I've send the Somaly Mam Foundation an (extremely truncated) e-mail to this effect. I'll let you know what they say.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Life Recently

I was the only one to disembark from the already mostly empty train onto the deserted platform in Stadtroda. The night air was not unpleasantly cool, though I'd forgotten my coat in the hurry and sunshine of my afternoon departure. At the bottom of the hill, atop which perches our Wohnheim, I stopped as is now tradition to sniff one of the rich pink blossoms of the wild rose that grows at the corner. Even closed up tightly against the dark and cold, the scent of sweet lemons still hangs about the petals.

The stretch of parking lot leading to the Wohnheim's back entrance is almost entirely unlit, except for two motion-activated lights that I always try, without success, to avoid tripping. Away from the flickering glare, the sky was perfectly clear tonight, just as the day had been stainlessly blue. The Big Dipper was directly overhead, but I sought other familiar constellations in vain; Orion, it seems, is gone until next winter, and I don't have the imagination to connect the scattered points of light into other recognizable shapes. I wondered again if we still use ancient constellations because our imaginations have atrophied, or we're too busy, or simply don't look up enough, or if the ancient people of the world saw something different in the stars than we do.

The night wind carries a wonderful smell: like grape Jolly Ranchers and honey. Every night when I come home, I smell this wonderful perfume and wonder what makes it, but the daylight never reveals any obvious culprit. It's a stupid thing to treasure, maybe, that sweet scent on the cool breeze in a dark parking lot under dimmed and distant stars, but my remaining time here is short and I'm trying to gather all the memories I can.

The last few weeks of my life have been both enjoyable and frustrating. I may have mentioned that I've been consistently ill with various minor afflictions for most of May, a trend that will continue with my surgery in June. Despite that, I've been relishing the warm and fragrant springtime, conversations with new friends, frequent trips to Jena for Stammtisch, class, movie nights, dances, ice cream. My teaching time is minimal and I have more free time than I know what to do with, much less use responsibly. As Relient K says: "It's seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, routine, and here at twenty-three it's the same old me."

Bethany's departure at the end of the month also looms dark on the horizon, and neither of us are looking forward to it. I find it very difficult to believe that we'll soon separate and after this summer, the odds are against us ever seeing each other again. I'm not always nice to Bethany, which I regret, and very rarely anything approaching her definition of polite, which is half habit and half intentional needling, but I'm going to miss her very much. She inspires me to a kinder, less sarcastic and, dare I say it, more polite person, and plus, who's going to make me tea?

We've been trying to cram in everything we wanted to do before she left, so last weekend was our long-awaited trip to Wittenberg. Bethany kind of has a thing for Martin Luther, even outside of the fact that she's writing her dissertation on him, so she's wanted to visit Wittenberg for a long time. She mentioned this to the head of my school, Herr Präger, who grew up in Wittenberg and volunteered to take us around, which is how we--Bethany, me, and Victoria for good measure--ended up in his car driving through the rain at 8 o'clock on a Saturday morning. Herr Präger conducted us around the town, pointed out all the important sights, and bought us all coffee, then left us to head to Leipzig so we could explore on our own.

Of course we had to visit the church where the 95 theses were (putatively) nailed to the door, although the door itself, now engraved with said theses, was (in true tourist-thwarting style) behind hoardings. An overlong visit to the Luther House means that I learned more than I ever will be able to make use of about Martin Luther, almost all of which I've subsequently forgotten. The highlight of Wittenberg for me, besides its cozy, colorful, community atmosphere, was seeing the house where the Danish prince Hamlet supposedly stayed while studying at the university.

After eating an obscene amount of ice cream each, we waddled (by way of the Luther Eiche, where Luther burned his opponents' writings) to the train stations and got us a train to Magdeburg. On the way, we were plagued kept company by two young children who kept wandering from their supervising adults to talk to us, and by "us" I mean me. I'd begun, for reasons now lost to me, to read Pride and Prejudice aloud, which flabbergasted the two little ones, and eventually they got the courage to talk to us, ask to play with my Kindle, and make me show them pictures and video on my camera from Scottish Night. Bethany and Victoria unhelpfully (the supposed Kinderliebhaber!) sat there and watched sniggering while I entertained two (admittedly very adorable) German children for over an hour.

It was full night when we checked in at our hostel, but we went off to explore anyway. Magdeburg at night was oddly otherworldly...the unseasonable warmth, the ubiquitous orange glow from the streetlights, the clouds of gnats by the river, the imposing, vine-draped cathedral, and the well-maintained but very random ancient fortress next to it all made it seem like we had taken a step sideways in time. We were all tired and didn't stay out long, but our plans to make an early start before the train home that evening were dented when Bethany was violently ill that night.

Instead of all gallivanting around the city together, therefore, we left Bethany in a cafe to rest the next day, and together Victoria and I visited the world's biggest wooden tower (wow) and found the Sunday flea market quite by accident, where we bought irresponsible amounts of fruit. After reclaiming Bethany, our last stop was the cathedral, a vaulted sanctuary of pale cream stone and cool air. We strolled around the attached cloister and then it was time to sit on the trains for four hours back to good ol' Stadtroda.

Now it's almost two in the morning and I need to convince myself to go to bed. I've finished the last Schluck of the current bottle of Apfelschorle, which will now join the small forest of its fellows behind my door; by the time I depart, there will be a minor fortune in Pfand there. But best not to dwell too much on that now.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

I Guess I Owe Y'all An Update

Right, so, last you'd heard, I was maybe going to have an operation on Tuesday the 10th. As you can surmise, that didn't happen. So, let me catch y'all up a bit.

On Thursday the 5th, I got to go home, and that meant I got to spend the weekend celebrating my birthday. On Sunday, Bethany, Stefanie, Victoria and I drove to Zella-Mehlis, a town deep in the Thüringer Wald, for the express purpose of visiting the aquarium there. We also met Alison there, and spent a few hours wandering among eerily blue-lit tanks and peering into the grotesque faces of their inhabitants. We watched the alligators being fed and made faces at the tiger sharks (well, I did) and talked to fish of all shapes and sizes. I can't help it; I love aquariums. (Aquaria?) Lucky for me, it was my birthday, so my ever-patient friends had to put of up with it.

Reemerging into the warm afternoon sunshine, we drove back to Jena to meet two more friends for dinner. First, though, we dug into the delightful chocolate buttercream cake that Stefanie had made for me, then we went off to find a cafe. We ended up at this silly bio-obsessed place, but thankfully I wasn't too hungry anyway because of the cake, so we just stayed and chatted and ate our all-organic sandwiches. Alison had to leave after dinner to get her train, and the rest of us decided to see a movie. Nothing was on at the cinema, so it was off to Anja and Claudia's flat.

Anja is the kind fellow Spanish student who had brought me to the English conversation group the first time. Her and her sister have a lovely flat in a quiet corner of Jena, and in honor of the day at the aquarium, we watched "Finding Nemo" in German.

After Bienenkunde the next day, I returned to Anja and Claudia's flat for a movie night--namely, Rapunzel. I cannot explain to you why I love this movie so much, especially in German, but it is so wonderfully adorably and preposterously cheesy I just can't help giggling madly when I watch it, even though I've seen it at least 10 times now. After that, we played SingStar until I realized that I was about to miss the last train, so we went flying through late-night Jena and I bolted on the train just in time.

Finally, the dreaded Tuesday morning rolled around, and Frau Woehlbier called the hospital to see what the verdict was. They said that they wanted to first do a biopsy to determine the exact nature of the growth, then a second operation to remove it altogether. They also wanted to bring in a renowned neurosurgeon to take part in the surgery, so it wouldn't be happening any time soon. That was good, because not only did I have two classes to teach that day, I was also coming down with a cold.

I snuffled and moaned through Wednesday but managed to recover by Thursday, which was very good because that Thursday was the Scottish Dance Night. Professor Liston (alias "Chunky", for no discernible reason; he looks like a slender, Scottish twin of Aaron Eckhard) of the Anglistik department is from Edinburgh, and 60 people crammed into one classroom to hear him, now be-kilted, play the bagpipes and learn some Scottish dances from him. Eventually, it got too loud and too packed, so we spilled out into the square in front of the university buildings to dance in more space. As much as I hate club and one-on-one dancing, I love group dances; there's a wonderful pattern and logic to them, and there's no pressure to be any more graceful or clever than the rhythm and sequence of the dance demands. When every member of the group pays attention and does their part right, there's a delightful sense of harmony that comes from every person working together to form and enjoy something beautiful. Also, Scotland is love.

On Friday, after a double guitar lesson (I'm learning a song involving lots of bar chords, which means the going is torturous and slow), I put on a skirt (no clean jeans left!) and went to see Thor in Jena with Bethany. Got to admit, for a Marvel movie about a Greek god, it was surprisingly interesting and well-done. Also, it was visually stunning, not only because of the 3D (which seems to be generally pointless and distracting) but simply the colors, effects, and images. Anyway, there are worse ways to spend a Friday evening.

Saturday was spent with a classmate, Maria, in the library working on a presentation for that wonderful Tolkien class I mentioned before. After three hours of Tolkienness, we broke off for coffee and cake (a German institution) at a flat belonging to a friend of Maria's. It was very kind of them to invite me, but the friend also had two young boys (one and three years old), which put me out of my element. I excused myself after a bit and went shopping, arriving home just in time for the start of the Eurovision competition.

Now, I'd heard quite a bit about Eurovision from "My English Friend" Stephen, who watches it religiously. For those Americans who have never heard of it, it's basically a Europe-wide singing Olympics. Each country sends a band, group, or singer to represent them; through the semi-finals, the number of entrants is whittled down to 25, and on finals night, each act performs before a screaming, flag-waving international crowd. Just like any other obnoxious reality performance show, the audience can then vote for their favorite; after the voting closes, the hosts video-call representatives from each country, who announce the points they have awarded. At the end of the night, the country with the most points wins a victory for their national pride, a hideous trophy, and the dubious and expensive honor of hosting next year's competition.

There are two things that struck me as a first-time Eurovision spectator. The first was the unbelievable quantities of tackiness, boyband-level cheesiness, and general glitzy and glamorous ridiculousness, all taken with completely straight-faced earnestness. The competition began with a cute kid from Finland who looked about 15 singing a ballad about world peace; Ireland was represented by Jedward, twins with hilarious red-sequined jackets and gravity-defying hair who can't sing to save their lives but bounced around the stage like hyperactive chipmunks on pogo sticks; the Moldovans were dressed in enormous cone-shaped hats and yodeled into their microphones as a girl with a trumpet circled them on a unicycle; and it was completely impossible to pay attention to Ukraine's rather good song, since behind her was a Ukraine's Got Talent (is that a thing?) winner drawing shapes in sand on a lightboard. Personally, I voted for Greece, who had a split act: an absolutely terrible rapper and a gorgeous young bloke singing in Greek amid jets of flame. I have to admit that I'm glad Eurovision isn't broadcast or even well-known in America; if it was, tourism into Europe would plummet as Americans realized with horror just how insane the Europeans really are.

The second thing that struck me was the oft-bemoaned (among people who care) fact that voting in the countries has little to nothing to do with the actual quality of the offerings and everything to do with the political and historical relationships between countries. Britain and Ireland voted for each other, as did Portugal and Spain, and Germany and Austria. But the main problem is that apparently, all the Eastern Bloc countries vote for each other, which is how we ended up with Azerbaijan as the winner. Really, now, how many people actually know where Azerbaijan is? I didn't--it's south of Georgia, bordering on the north of Iran, and if you just said, "Is that even technically Europe?" well, that's what I was wondering too, and since Israel also took part (what?!) I guess the definition of "Europe" is pretty loose at this point.

Anyway, if nothing else, it was highly amusing to watch--like a train wreck between an ICE carrying the sparkly costumes and sound equipment for Europe's Got Talent and a truck full of pyrotechnics. It was a cultural experience, at least.

Sunday was a trip to Gera with Victoria and Joe; we visited the Otto Dix house (some very odd paintings), played in a playground, then took the train back to Jena to meet Alison for a show at the planetarium. Going to the Jena Planetarium has been on my to-do list all year, and it didn't disappoint, although it wasn't anything I haven't seen in other planetaria before...except, of course, all the pinwheeling stars and beautiful galactic clouds were explained in German. Afterwards, we chatted over waffles at the Milchmix cafe about grammar, and I was thoroughly contented with my life.

This was unfortunately short-lived. After the first honey harvest on Monday and a class to teach on Tuesday, I headed to the English Stammtisch in Jena, which is the highlight of my week. But before I even got there, my left eye was starting to itch, and was seriously hurting by the time I finally gave up and headed home earlier than normal. This was so disappointing, since I had also been sick for last week's Stammi, and chatting with fellow language-lovers is one of the things I get the most joy out of.

By Wednesday morning, I could only open my left eye with stabbing pains and significant effort, but our Tolkien presentation was due so I packed up and shuffled off to Jena anyway, mostly blind. I made it through the presentation, but barely; it's extremely difficult to sound credible talking about heroic couplets and iambic pentameter with constantly watering eyes and a runny nose. After class, I found a doctor who prescribed me some antibacterial drops; I picked those up and headed to the train station, only to find the trains half an hour delayed. By the time I finally staggered back to my room in Stadtroda, I was exhausted and went straight to bed, having to miss entirely the goodbye barbecue party that the Stadtroda Stammtisch was throwing for Bethany.

Today, due to rest and medicine, my eye is better, but I can't help being a little irritated that I have managed to be sick with a different illness every week so far this month. The first week was the throat infection and tumor; the second was a cold; and the third is this cursed eye infection. I was perfectly healthy all winter, so my body seems to be taking revenge by making my life miserable now that the weather's nice.

Speaking of the tumor, here's the latest news. The surgery is tentatively planned for the 15th of June. My mother will be arriving here in Germany on the 9th of June so she can be there both before and after the surgery. The good news from today is that the insurance has confirmed that they will pay all costs, which I'm sure will be in the thousands of euro range. With the surgery still a month off, I have time to get over all the weird illnesses I'm suddenly susceptible to, and hopefully I'll recover quickly so as not to disturb my summer travel plans.

Now you know!

Sweet Harvest

I entered the Bienenhaus on a cool Monday afternoon and breathed in deep of that exquisite smell: the sweet scents of wax and honey mixed with the comfortable mustiness that one finds in old houses and yellowed books, with just a whiff of the golden forsythia that bloom in exuberant explosions around the entrance. That smell, golden-brown, warm even in the dead of winter, and delightfully sweet, seems to promise sunshine no matter what the season or weather, but now it's especially apt: we're harvesting honey.

Inside the long-unused honey room, the Schleuder (centrifuge, for lack of a better word) was vibrating noisily. It looked like an enormous tin can, squatting on three slender legs, its spinning contents a blur under its plexiglass lid. But out of a faucet at the base ran a steady stream of golden honey through two sieves into a yellow bucket proudly marked ECHTER DEUTSCHER HONIG (Real German Honey).

The harvesting process begins outside, of course, at the Bienenstand. Several weeks ago, the hives were each given an extra Honigraum (a Zarge, or level, filled with empty honeycombs) separated from the rest of the hive by an Absperrgitter. This is a grating through which the smaller worker bees can crawl, but which is too narrow for the larger queen; this prevents the queen from laying eggs in the honey room. The beekeepers outside look through the hives, making sure the queen is in good health by either spotting Her Highness or by finding Stifte, tiny white newly-laid eggs. From the Honigraum they take out the Waben (honeycombs) that are full of honey and bring them to us in the Schleuderraum.

The bees let the honey air until the right amount of water has evaporated--about 18% is right--and then they cover the honey cells with a thin layer of wax. Our first job is to take off this covering with a special fork. We set aside the uncovered honeycombs to wait to be spun. As they sit in a rack, the honey drips down the open combs like syrupy raindrops; you can catch the drops on your finger and taste right away. Honey doesn't get any fresher than this.

Once there's room in the Schleuder, four honeycombs are loaded into spring-cushioned cages in the centrifuge's silver belly. A tiny white motor at the top spins the combs, extracting the precious honey and doing minimal damage to the combs themselves. Ideally all the honey is removed, and apart from a few tears and smushes, the combs are perfectly fine and can be replaced directly back into the hives for the bees to repair and fill again with honey.

One honeycomb contained a few wax-covered brood cells. As I leaned in to look, I noticed that one of the cells was missing its cover and instead, the triangular head and waving antennae of a hatching young worker bee were visible. I set that comb aside and waited, and in a few minutes, the young worker reached out of her confining cell with dainty black legs and pulled herself free: first head, then the thorax covered in downy silvery-tan hair and adorned with delicate wings, then the long abdomen striped in black and dark gold. We took her outside, and hopefully she found her way to her own or another hive. We spun that comb anyway with the rest of the brood still inside; we'll see if any of the rest survived.

We worked for about three and a half hours and produced more than six buckets of honey. I even took a jar of it home. This is how every Bienenkunde will be spent for a while: the bees will work hard to stock up with honey for the winter, we'll steal it away and give them the empty combs back to fill for us to steal again. There are some concerns that the hot, dry weather we've been having means the bees will run out of pollen, which is one of the ingredients of honey...but that remains to be seen.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

A Short Hiatus

In the words of my much-loved and ever-direct mother: "What's taking them so long? If this were America, you'd have been scanned twice, had the thing cut out and be playing golf by now!"

And indeed, Day Five in the delightful SRH Waldklinikum Gera drifted by unhurriedly in the glow of the spring sunshine, and it does seem like they're taking their sweet time. At least I did actually have the CT scan this morning as promised; Mohawk Man from yesterday and his grizzled comrade drove me back to the same building, which still looked like a nuclear bunker under siege, and I took a seat, thankful that this time I had the sense to bring my Kindle.

In contrast to the half-hour auditory torture of the MRI, the CT was a cakewalk; the thing whirred and spun and made important-sounding electrical noises for about two minutes, then I was already done, probably with five years taken off my life in radiation poisoning.

I declined to wait for the Fahrdienst and got myself happily lost in the maze of roads and buildings. I just tucked my official red folder under my arm and tried to look like I knew where I was going, and eventually found my way back to my ward.

The final (sorta) verdict: The growth is some sort of boney thing. (If you just went, "Hey, that's pretty much no improvement at all over what the MRI showed," yeah, me too.) It doesn't seem to be too close to any major nerves or blood vessels and it's apparently not attached to other bones, so it should be operable without too high a risk. The doctors want to collaborate with some nerve and bone specialists, so they want to schedule the surgery for next week, and I'd be able to go home tomorrow.

After talking to my mother ("Why can't you go home today?"), I got to thinking: why can't I just go home today? There are no more tests to do. There's no reason for me to just stay another night. So I went and asked the doctor, who assented. When Stefanie and Bethany showed up to visit, I was already all packed, the IV out of my arm and a huge grin out of my face, and we waltzed out of there.

So. For the weekend (and my birthday!) I'm free, but early on Tuesday I'll have to call the hospital and hope they're ready to do the surgery. That's fine with me--I'd like to just have the thing out, for heaven's sake!

The Weirdness Geht Weiter

Originally written May 4th

I was awakened this morning by the cheerful news that I was not, in fact, going to have a CT after all but rather an MRI, which didn't mean too much to me so long as they did something. At 11:47 I was picked up by an apathetic Transport Services guy who had us wait for the special bed-sized elevator even though there was just the two of us, standing on our own, perfectly functional legs, and a entirely serviceable set of stairs directly behind us. I was shown to a van which trundled to another building about a hundred yards away and we all got out again.

I was brought to a waiting niche (it didn't have enough walls to be a "room") across the hall from a really epic sliding metal door behind which crouched the waiting MRI machine. Some blockhead had chosen to paint one of the hallway walls fresh-blood red and then light said hallway by shining diffused light onto the same wall, resulting in a haunting red glow which, combined with the ominous door, gave the whole area a delightful nuclear-submarine-under-attack sort of feel. When I first noticed it, I honestly thought that the red light meant the MRI machine was in operation or something, and went looking for sirens.

It turned out the waiting at the elevator and the stupidity with the van was actually a kindness on the part of the hospital because it killed 10 of the about 70 minutes I spent pacing around the niche waiting for my turn and wondering if I wanted to risk wandering away to find a bathroom. When my turn was called after a dude with a leg injury, I was greeted by some really lovely baby-English. "You, sitting down," the nurse explained eloquently to me. "Jacket taking out." When I asked her where the bathroom was, she told me to go to the end of the hall and "turning left," while pointing right.

"Do you understand a little of what I'm saying?" she asked me when I was back in the slow, simplified, talking-to-idiots German that I've had the luxury of not hearing for a while.

"You can speak to me normally in German. I understand you," I answered in German, hoping that would make her stop. I really hope I don't sound like that when I talk to my students.

Behind another epic (but sadly hinged) door lurked the huge cream-colored tube. The nurses stuffed pink earplugs in my ears, hooked the contrastive agent into the IV port in my arm, and wedged by head in place with foam. They both disappeared from view, the door sealed shut, and I slid into the surprisingly tiny opening.

They'd warned me it'd be loud. I tried to focus on staying completely still, and even managed to doze off once or twice, although the sound was like someone had left the beach invasion scene from Saving Private Ryan cranked up on full blast: machine-gun pulses of ten or so at a time that vibrated through my whole body. The frequency of the bursts varied and overlapped, and I wondered, half-awake, if anyone had ever considered using the sounds as the percussion for a rock song.

Half an hour later (I won't torture you with the play-by-play) I staggered out, got dressed, and was sent back out to the waiting niche to be transported back to my building. Half an hour after that, I was starting to study a handy map of the hospital campus, figuring I could've walked back and forth half a dozen times by then and trying to plot my escape, when a blue-and-pink-mohawked Transport Services guy came in asking for "Frau MahnKEEN?" How could I say no to that?

When I got back, Stefanie was already there to visit. I'd just sat down to my long-delayed lunch (green bean stew, yum) when the head doctor trotted up to our table to inform me the the tumor/growth thing was benign and nothing to be scared about. I could barely smile and nod before he dashed off again.

Later, I cornered the nice English-speaking doctor for a more thorough explanation. She let me look at the MRI images, and I was surprised by the sheer size of the thing. Through all this, I hadn't actually seen the thing myself. The doctor finally had the sense to take me over to the mirror with a tongue depressor and a light and let me see for myself. I finally understood the GP's "du Scheiße" on first looking down my throat, since that was (more or less) my reaction, too. Behind and to the upper right of the uvula is a smooth purple-red lump about the size of an egg or golf ball. The rush to get me into surgery at first makes a lot more sense now, since if an abscess that large had burst, I would've been in real trouble. In any case, despite how grotesque and huge the thing looks (now semi-affectionately termed my "Überraschungsei", "surprise egg", after the Kinder chocolate eggs), it doesn't hurt, and apparently it's not out to kill me at the moment. It's invisible in the darkness of my gullet, and without the (apparently totally unrelated) throat infection that first prompted someone to look down there, it probably would've gone unnoticed for quite a bit longer.

Well, that was good news at least. The less-good news is that they still want to do a CT scan (augh), and then hopefully they'll cut the damn thing out of my face on Friday. Know what that means? That means at least four more days of observation in the hospital and eating through a feeding tube in my nose on my birthday. Yay!

I am really grateful, though, that this is something so minor. I'm basically complaining about having to do not much of anything except sit around, play games and chat with my friends, eat ice cream, and occasionally be injected with various fluids. I'm reading Schindler's Ark right now, and damn, do I have it good. Schindler's Jews, living in huts, fenced in by barbed wire, working menial jobs for hours every day, living on thin rations, having lost everything they owned from their families and houses and money to their very status as humans, were the lucky ones, snatched from the jaws of torture and merciless, indiscriminate death.

I, on the other hand, spent my afternoon and evening laughing and playing card games with the four friends who came to see me and bring me stuff to make the hospital stay easier. So, I'm being well taken care of, well fussed over, and with any luck, operated on on Friday!

Something Unexpected

Originally written May 3rd

This is not really how I'd imagined spending this week. Yesterday I was hoping that a good dose of antibiotics would be all I'd need to get back to my regularly scheduled life, and today I'm sitting at a table in a hospital with an IV hookup in my arm and no idea when I'll be able to leave.

My sore throat started sometime in the last night I was in Poland. As I made my way home, sometimes I'd forget it was even there, and sometimes when I'd swallow, it felt someone was poking a knife in the back of my throat. I went to bed convinced that I was coming down with a cold--not a happy thought but manageable.

Yesterday morning the pain was much worse, and I had, besides a headache and chills, no accompanying signs of a cold: no sneezing, stuffy nose, coughing. Guessing it was strep, I trundled down to the nearest general practitioner's in Stadtroda for an antibiotics prescription.

The GP was a bright, cheerful, friendly man with a soul patch, jeans and white Crocs who looked suspiciously like Toby Mac. He asked me how I liked Stadtroda and listened to my description of my symptoms, then pulled out a tongue depressor to take a look.

"Du Scheiße" (something like, "Aw, hell") was his first reaction. He took another, disbelieving look, accompanied by another, emphatic "du Scheiße!" I started to giggle nervously. Then he rolled straight back to his phone; I thought he was going to call an ambulance, but his still-jocular tone told me otherwise. He hung up and scooted back over to me.

He explained that I had a peritonsillar abscess, and he was referring me to an ear/nose/throat specialist in the nearby psychiatric hospital. Unfortunately, there was nothing he could do for me; antibiotics wouldn't fix this one.

An hour later, Bethany and I were waiting outside the ENT doctor's office. The doctor was at first brisk and seemed slightly miffed that I couldn't understand all her questions, then she took a look down my throat. Suddenly she was much nicer--not a good sign. She told me that she couldn't help me either; she was referring me to a hospital in Gera, where they'd have to cut open and drain the abscess.

Bethany and I trudged home again. I hadn't eaten anything yet, and was now forbidden to both eat and drink until after the surgery. Stefanie, a student and friend of mine, drove both of us to the hospital, where yet another ENT doctor--this time a friendly young English speaker, thank God--took another look and explained to me what the procedure would look like. They were going to try to fit me in for surgery that night, so I changed into the utterly unbecoming surgery gown and thrombosis-preventing stockings and settled into my bed to wait.

We'd arrived at the hospital at about 4:00 that afternoon; I finally convinced Bethany and Stefanie to leave and get something to eat at about 8:00. I had just pulled out my computer and started to watch Blackadder an hour later when a nurse opened the door and announced that it was time.

Away went my computer, and with my hair stuffed up under a shower cap and my stuffed dog Hamlet under my arm, away we went, me relaxing as much as possible on my wheely-bed and giggling in half-hysterical glee at just about everything. I was nervous for the surgery, yes, but this was, to my understanding, a low-risk procedure; I mean, I wasn't having heart surgery, for heaven's sake. I was happy because the thing in my throat would be fixed and I could start to heal as soon as possible.

The view from that wheely-bed was certainly surreal. We rolled through quiet halls of a stupidly happy shade of yellow to the elevator and came out in a world of white, mint green, and steel. The doctors all cooed over Hamlet; I felt like I was being transported back to when I'd originally had my tonsils out at 10 years old, except someone had messed with the settings and it was all in German now.

They attached sensors to my chest for the EKG so I could hear the nervous beat of my own heart both in my ears and beeping somewhere above my head. Someone took my blood pressure on my left arm while another clipped a monitor on my finger, then both my arms were strapped down. I couldn't seem to start giggling nervously. Then something was administered to the IV hookup. "You'll start to feel burning coming up your arm," they explained to me; this was the pain medication. "And now the anesthetic," someone said, and my last glimpse was of bright lights, a green-tiled ceiling, and the triangular mask descending toward my face.

I woke up sputtering, like surfacing from the bottom of a deep pool, feeling...well, drugged. My doctor was standing nearby. "Did everything go well?" I asked her--or tried to, as my mouth wasn't really sure yet whether we were awake or not--and I hung onto Hamlet, who had been tucked back under my arm by some considerate soul.

"I didn't do the operation," the doctor answered. "It wasn't an abscess. May be a bone."

This puzzled me to no end, but dozed off again, coughing whenever I came to. I was wheeled back into my room, given an IV, and left alone with no explanation.

After the anaesthetic finally wore off entirely at about 11pm, I was wide awake. Originally, I'd only had one roommate in the three-person bed; this woman was now asleep and snoring like a grizzly bear, and a new roommate, another middle-aged woman, and I exchanged exasperated glances. By the time I'd watched some videos and become vaguely sleepy, the second woman was asleep and snoring as well, albeit several orders of magnitude more quietly. I didn't sleep much at all.

Which made it all the more fun when I finally was really asleep and the nurses came in to wake us all up just past 7 this morning. The chainsaw snorer had an 8 o'clock surgery appointment, and she was wheeled away in the same getup that I'd worn last night. I finally had something to eat--the first food down my throat since the hotdog from a gas station in Poland--and went to see the doctor on duty as commanded by the nurses.

The first bad sign was that two nurses came in and asked if they could watch "out of curiosity." Like the others before him, the doctor put on his headlamp and peered down my throat, the nurses squinting in behind him. He poked a bit and then turned to dictate instructions to one of the nurses. I was getting irritated at this point, wondering if anyone was going to explain to me what was happening.

Finally, one nurse did, more or less. The problem is, apparently, they don't know what the hard, swollen lump in my throat is. The next step is to have a CT scan done to determine what, exactly, it is and what they can do about it. I was promised a scan appointment before noon.

I slept the whole morning (trying to make up for my sleepless night), had lunch, and came out to a quiet group of tables to write. Just now a nurse has come to tell me that the CT scanner is needed all day today for emergency/more important and urgent cases, and I'll have my scan tomorrow morning at 8:00.

They originally told me, back when they thought it was an abscess, that they'd want me to stay 3-4 days after the surgery for observation. If I'm not even going to have the scan until tomorrow, it looks improbable that I'll be out of here before my birthday.

I'm trying to be like I've always hoped I'd be under stress: friendly, cheerful, upbeat, positive. The pain is minimal and I can still walk, talk, eat, drink, breathe, see, hear, taste, feel, text, type--I'm pretty much totally normal except that I have an unidentified mass in my throat. That makes me a hell of a lot better off than most people in the hospital, for which I should be and am grateful. But the confinement chafes, especially when there's so much I want to be doing--teaching, going to class, meeting friends, going walking...celebrating my birthday. And the waiting to find out what is wrong is not pleasant.

For those out there reading this: I'd appreciate any prayers and thoughts you send my way. I'll keep you updated.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Big Step

This is going to be short, because it's late and I'm tired and I'm going hiking tomorrow, which I am very much looking forward to. Anyway.
The point is: today, reluctantly and with much moaning and wailing and general shameful crybabyishness, I purchased my ticket home. My official arrival date in SeaTac is the 25th of July--one year and one month exactly from when this entire madness began last year in Vancouver. (So much for "You're never going to come back!" I was kind of hoping that would come true...)
The only ray of light in this terrible development (except the prospect of seeing my mother, dog, and friends, of course) is that my flight departs from--wait for it--Lisbon.
Didn't see that coming, didja? Turns out there's this psycholinguistics conference in Porto (northern Portugal) in July, and long story short, I'm going. In the two and a half weeks or so between the ending of my Fulbright contract and my flight, I'll be making a small journey through Italy, Switzerland, and France, hopefully stopping to visit Bethany on the way, and end up in Portugal for the conference. Afterwards, I have a few days of cushy leeway to get myself to Lisbon and think about how much I don't want to leave Europe.
For now, life is good. The wind is warm and carries the scents of exuberantly blooming flowers; the days are sunny and the nights clear and quiet. Tomorrow the Bienenmeister is taking me hiking at the Leuchtenburg, which we visited briefly in the snow last November. Now I'm going to see it in the full glory of spring, get some sunshine and exercise, and enjoy the hell out of every moment.
But for now, oyasumi!

Thursday, April 14, 2011


Apparently my last post was a month an a half ago...oops. I apologize for this, especially for you multitudes that hang on my every word. How have you survived?

I actually see this as a good thing, because I seem to write and ponder more when I have less to do; reciprocally, when my life speeds up, I don't spend so much time whining into the endless echoing chambers of the Internet. What I'm trying to say is...I've kind of actually been busy. Yay!

So, we have a few things to catch up on. First, you haven't heard at all about Amsterdam, which was the first weekend in March; I'll try to get some pictures and a summary up soon. Also, the Berlin conference and our weekend out in Leipzig/Dresden, two weekends later. I've made new friends, started new classes, enjoyed new weather patterns, and sunk deeper into a rut of agonizing indecision about what to do with my life...but more on that later.

For now, I'll talk about the last couple weeks, which have been wonderfully exciting. This is mainly because classes at Jena have started up again after a long month of nothingness. As usual, I was overambitious and tried to take too many, but now I've settled on four: Language and Cognition; Spanish, second year; a Tolkien seminar; and Sociolinguistics.

If any of you just went "LOL, Tolkien seminar," you should know there is an epic story behind this, and it goes back to two years ago in Marburg. I studied for half a year in Marburg as an exchange student, and while I was there, I took a delightful seminar about Lord of the Rings with a wonderful professor named Alan Turner. Dr Turner is one of those people who is just so English--he and Stephen Fry are my archetypes of well-spoken Englishmen. Anyway, the seminar was great, but as Shannon or other people who knew me after I got back from Marburg can tell you, it took me ages to finish writing the paper from that class.

Last week, I had my first class in Spanish. I mentioned that I was American (always a useful thing to do) and one of my classmates invited me to the English conversation group that evening. I met her and her sister for dinner--two very kind young ladies who have both spent time as au pairs in the US--and we went to a small bar to meet a surprising number of enthusiastically chattering students and professors. As a side note, it's such a relief to meet students who are enthusiastic and excited about speaking English; I feel like the apathy in Stadtroda is sinking into my bones. Anyway, imagine my surprise as I'm sitting there enjoying speaking with my new friends when Alan Turner comes in the door! I couldn't help bursting out with "I know you!" in sheer excitement, which I think startled him a bit, but he told me he was giving another Tolkien seminar, and of course I couldn't resist. We're doing The Hobbit and some of Tolkien's minor works, which is a nice change.

As I mentioned, I've started with Spanish again, at least a bit. I feel bad that I've abandoned my Spanish to slowly rot away, so I'm trying to salvage what I can and build it back up again. Although the class is not very helpful--the teacher seems content to just do the textbook exercises, one after another--I have met some new friends, and I get to hear and read and try to speak the language again, which is painful and embarrassing but definitely good for me. The problem is that my brain's default non-English language is now German, so I keep trying to speak Spanish with German grammar...

I mentioned the weather, as well. It's been getting nicer and nicer, warmer and sunnier and brighter, and the flowers are coming up and the wind is warm and it's getting altogether better and more enjoyable to live here. I'm looking forward now, especially that I have only 2-4 classes a week, to exploring more and more of Thüringen's beautiful rolling green hills. We'll see.

Anyway, I'll try to catch up soon. I have so much to acquaint you with!

Bin Doch Kein Fan

Originally written on March 19th

I bailed out of the car and hugged my friend, shouldering my backpack. The usually deserted entrance to the Jena West train platforms was blockaded and guarded by six or seven hulking policemen in riot gear, but this didn't surprise me at all. I checked my phone--if there was a train at 44 after, it would be here any second. I wandered up to the blockade and the policemen looked at me expectantly.

"Darf ich bitte durch?" Could I please get through?, I asked, trying my best to look nonthreatening and not at all drunk, which was easy because the champagne was four hours and two bathroom breaks ago.

"Wohin fahren Sie?" Where are you going?, one of them asked me, standing in my way.

"Stadtroda," I answered, taking by the blank looks on their faces that they'd never heard of it. I didn't blame them.

"Sind Sie vom Fußballspiel gekommen?" Are you coming from the football game?, another asked with a laugh. I guess I didn't really look like a football fan, so maybe it surprised them when I answered, "Ja."

"Sind Sie Erfurt-Fan oder Jena-Fan...?" Are you a fan of Erfurt or Jena?, the first officer pressed. I was starting to get irritated.

"Ich bin Fremdsprachenassistentin, ist mir egal," I said, thankful that I hadn't bought a Jena scarf at the game. I felt slightly guilty at disowning Jena so quickly just to avoid trouble with half a dozen armored German police, but only slightly, and that evaporated pretty quickly when they stepped back to let me past. I ran to the platform, where more green- and black-armored police kept an eye on the still-quiet station, to find that there was no 44-past train after all.

This escapade began yesterday, when I took the train out to Apolda to meet my friend Möhre, a now-former student who had organized this opportunity for me to go see a real German football game. Seeing a game live was one of my goals for this ridiculous/crazy/wonderful time here in Germany, and the one we'd picked was Derby--a third-league local game between blood rivals Erfurt and Jena. I spent the night at Möhre's house in a small town outside Apolda and about noon we headed into Jena for the game. On the way, we drank rose champagne out of plastic cups in the car, since the stadium was a no-alcohol zone.

The stadium, covered in Jena's bright blue-gold-white, was surrounded by imposing-looking police. Like I said, Jena and Erfurt don't like each other, and apparently it's tradition for all the hooligans to have a good post-game riot, thus the black-suited police with helmets and unfriendly expressions. All the people making their way into the stadium were Jena supporters, all sporting scarves or hats or gloves or shirts or something in Jena's colors; the Erfurt supporters had arrived earlier, presumably to avoid being mobbed, and were concentrated in a single section on the south end of the field in a rumbling red-and-white mass.

We found our seats and had some time to enjoy the sunny weather before the game began. The hard-core fans next door to Erfurt's block waved flags, screamed, sang and chanted, and when the game began the whole section was drenched in blue, yellow, and white smoke. Erfurt scored once during the first half, which most of the stadium welcomed with stony silence; in the second half, Jena played better and scored to the delight of almost everyone, with screaming, hugging, and high-fiving all around. It was looking pretty good, and then out of nowhere, Erfurt scored two more goals in the last ten minutes. We left the stadium sullen and despondent, with people mumbling "Das gibt's nicht, eh!" bitterly to each other under the watchful eyes of the riot cops. I was pretty happy--sunshine, a game, and time with friends is enough for me. I mean, I'm from Washington--I'm very used to the home team losing.

The game itself (summary, with pictures, in German), although fun, was a bit anticlimactic. From the concerned noises that people made every time I mentioned it, I'd had the feeling that we'd barely be able to see or hear the game over the fans howling team songs and throwing beer bottles and punches at each other. By the number of police, that's what everyone thinks. Despite that, everything seemed to be orderly and civilized--I can't decide if I'm relieved or disappointed.

I was pleased about this game not just because I got to go to a football game (always cool) and spend some time with my friend, but also it took my mind off the fact that the last week for the Winterschule is over and Stadtroda has become even more quiet and empty than it was before they came. You probably wouldn't be able to tell from the last few posts, but I've become quite attached to a lot of my students. We don't always have things to talk about, but just seeing familiar faces and being enthusiastically greeted in the hallway is encouraging.

At the students' Bergfest a few weeks ago, the liberal application of alcohol worked its wonders to get the English flowing, and I had a long, interesting, somewhat broken conversation with a couple of friendly first-year students who kept buying me drinks. One of them, a towering and slightly daft but amiable young man, made me promise to give him an American dollar. On Wednesday last week, I'd received the dollar from another American assistant (I don't actually have any) and I gave it to him at the grill party out the parking lot; he was pretty inebriated by that time and was immensely pleased, stumbling around to everyone in party showing them the dollar and asking if they were jealous. He kept coming back to put his arm around me and thank me, and the group of students I was talking with--from one of my favorite classes--would distract him long enough for me to slip away to the other side of the circle. That night is one of my best memories from this year: standing in the cold drizzle around a fire in the grill made from a broken-up pallet, chatting with Bayer and the Lukases and the Roberts, laughing and rolling our eyes and singing German songs.

The night before had been more of a private party; by the end of the semester, Möhre was inviting me up to her room for coffee every afternoon, and that day we just hung out, playing guitar and drinking champagne and chatting, the windows open to let in the unseasonably warm night air and the voices of those around another fire in the parking lot below and let out the endless stream of cigarette smoke. There was a feeling of peace and contentment, of being wrapped up in a warm blanket of easy friendship. Now I'm going through the same terrible transition that I have to make getting out of bed every morning, leaving happy dreams and warmth and stepping into the cold. I'm going to miss coffee with Möhre, and trying to teach each other songs on the guitar. I'm going to miss the cheerful voices calling good morning to me as I walk by the classroom doors on my way to English. I'm going to miss standing on the steps of the school in the sun, listening to the students chat around their cigarettes in the ten minutes before class. I'm going to miss dropping by Marco and Franz's room for a random discussion or singing practice. I'm going to miss the general chaos and ridiculous questions and silliness. But I think what is hardest right now is the thought that although I miss them terribly, there's no reason for them to miss me. They're all I have, what my life has revolved around for the last half-year, but for them I'm just one of a long series of Fremdsprachenassistenten. I guess I can hardly face the fact that I don't have any more chances to make friends, to get closer, to understand better, to learn more; it's over and there aren't any more chances, and I don't feel like I have much to show for it.

I'm really sorry about all this; I need to write it down somewhere to get it out of my head, and this is as good a place as any.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Utah sunrises and taking the trouble to practice

It's been very very cold here in Stadtroda this week; there's a light coating of snow on the ground, and every now and then we have flurries of tiny flakes, like God's sprinkling the world in powdered sugar. It's clear and wonderfully sunny and just above freezing now, but it feels like it's below. Still, it's quite lovely, and the temptation of the rolling hills was too strong yesterday, so I took a walk up one of Stadtroda's many valleys. I found a guest house among the trees along the half-frozen river most of the way to the next town, and was thoroughly frozen by the time I found my way back.

The days have gotten long enough now that the sun has risen before my first class starts, which goes a long way towards making that first 8am class better. Sunrises always remind me of one of the last days of the RV trip that I took with my mother and some friends many years ago--I was maybe 14 or so. We wanted to make good time, so before sunrise, while our friends still slept, my mother and I unhooked the RV and started off. I remember clearly pulling out onto a canyon road, with the sky neon yellow and orange, that rich fiery color that makes you think that if you could dip a goblet into it and drink it, it would taste like mead, warm and sweet. We turned on John Denver and sang "Take Me Home, Country Roads" and watched the sun rise, alone on the road. That song may be a bit cheesy, but it still is close to my heart.

In a mostly unrelated note, I was (finally!) asked by one of my students to help him with his English homework. As far as I can tell, this guy is kind of a teddy bear; he's smiley and friendly and laid-back and, heaven forgive me, farmer-y. I'm not sure how else to phrase it, but there it is. Now, I'm sure this guy is good at what he does, but English, at least, is not his forte. He's consistently lost and confused in English class and struggles to put even basic sentences together. Part of the problem is the aforementioned mixing of English levels, so that it's almost impossible to try to explain something to him without losing control of the rest of the class. I'm sure it's equally frustrating for both of us.

Now, school has always been my thing. I love being in schools, I love teaching and learning and studying and discussing things and I have trouble understanding why some people...don't. For me, a life of learning and scholarship sounds pretty darn good, whereas a job like, say, farming, would be like death sentence for my soul.

Anyway, after I helped him translate what we'd done in English, he had to pull out his computer and show me pictures of his tractor. They all inevitably do this, and I'd never understood it; how interesting can pictures (and video) of tractors possibly be? But listening to him talk--about how he was so glad that school was almost over, and how he couldn't wait to get back to work--I started to understand, just a bit. As far as I can tell, farming is his calling. It's what he loves, it's what he does best, and my kind of life would be just as strange and distasteful to him as his would be to me.

I've wondered a couple times--with, I must admit, insufferable arrogance, so I beg your forgiveness--why some of the intelligent, strong-willed, ambitious students who study here would ever want to spend their lives working on a farm. Is it because they have no other options? Not enough money to do something else? Is it just easier? The more I talk to them, though, the more often I hear that they simply love to do what they do. This guy yesterday, I could hear it in his voice. And I should know by now that everything is more complicated than it seems; if I've learned anything at all from Bienenkunde, it's that taking care of even the smallest animal is an exhaustive undertaking, demanding time and patience and skill and practice and years of dedication. My students--for very many of them, it's the same thing. Their craft is more complex and takes more acquired and natural skill than I'll ever be able to appreciate. It's what they want to do; it's what they love. I desperately don't want to sound condescending here; it's hard for me to comprehend the attraction of a passion different from my own, but I'm learning to appreciate their own feelings about their work and, by extension, the true worth of the work itself. I may get frustrated with them for their lack of enthusiasm for what makes my heart flutter and my soul leap, but the least I can do then is have respect for the calling that does the same for them.

It's still hard, nevertheless, to sympathize. I don't share their classes, their cares, their interests, their lifestyle; and this makes it hard(er than normal) to connect with them on a meaningful, personal level.

Part of this is that one facet of myself that is and continues to be a frustration and hindrance to me is my stunted ability to make conversation and, by extension, to get to know people that I want to make friends with. I have a blind terror of intruding on other people's private lives and thereby making myself obnoxious to them. As a result, I generally refuse, out of pure insecurity, to take the risk of seeking out others, and make friends instead with those who choose to come to me. If no one manifests the courage that I so markedly lack, I don't know how to bridge the gap to make a connection with another person.

I've been thinking about this a lot recently, because this painful and humiliating process seems to take, for me, about half a year. It takes me that long to get accustomed to other people, to get to know them a bit and to slowly gather the courage to knock on their door for no other reason than needing someone to talk to. Half a year--sound familiar? That was the duration of my exchange in Germany the first time, and how long the AUAP students stayed at WWU, and how long the Winterschule students stay at the Fachschule before they return to work. This means that consistently, I have gone through the long fight to make myself make friends, only to have them leave just when I finally am getting comfortable with them.

This is ridiculously frustrating, and I wonder sometimes if it's even worth the trouble; but I simply can't just sit in my room and Internet all day. I have to have other real people to talk to, to hear other voices besides my own, to be in proximity to other humans. It's like having a deadly thirst that can only be slaked by drinking molten lava.

This all reminds me of a conversation from, somewhat oddly (although appropriately), Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth Bennett is sitting at the piano and engages in a witty repartee with Mr Darcy on the topic of the reasons behind Mr Darcy's failure to dance with some of the ladies at the last ball:

"I certainly have not the talent which some people possess," said Darcy, "of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done."
"My fingers," said Elizabeth, "do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women's do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault--because I will not take the trouble of practicing."

Elizabeth's reproof is the solution to this problem: if you want to get better at something--piano, underwater basketweaving, or making conversation--you have to practice. In other words, there's no way to learn to do it other than doing it. This is exactly the last thing I would want to hear. As I learn the guitar, my fingers are clumsy and uncoordinated, and the strings buzz and twang and make all sorts of awkward noises. It's embarrassing and frustrating and it makes my fingers hurt, but there's simply no other way to learn.

I know this very, very well. I realize it and understand it and comprehend it but still catch myself hoping, at least a few times every day, that somehow I will find an easier way and suddenly I'll go from being quiet and awkward to being eloquent and brilliant and everyone will like me. Not likely...

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Hidden histories

Over the river and through the woods,
It's srsly five below
The wind's blowing strong
But I'm coming along
Because I promised to gooooo...

Over the river and through the woods
The snow is drifting down
My legs have gone numb
And I can't feel my thumb
How I'd love some Glühwein now!

Uh, so, I went on a hike today. Some very kind fellow members of the choir invited Bethany and I to go to celebrate a birthday, but Bethany came home from her skiing trip yesterday with a cold, so I went alone. Yes, it was five below zero, and quite windy, and I had lost feeling in my legs entirely by the time we got to their garden, where we summarily failed to light a fire but did get some nice warm Glühwein. Luckily we managed to see some nice snow-dusted vistas and quiet forests on the way, and I met some very nice people that I will hopefully be able to meet again for more hikes when it's not, y'know, subzero outside.

On the way, it was explained to me (twice) that there are remnants of old medieval towns out in the fields and valleys that for various reasons--bad agricultural results, lack of water, burning and pillaging (I assume)--were abandoned and left to rot. Not all of them are utterly forgotten, but for many of them, only their names remain in old records; their locations and their ruins have been forgotten. Frau Rode, who had invited me to come and whose husband had the birthday, was explaining this to me and mentioned that one of the other hikers who had come always carried something with him to look for the disappeared towns, but I didn't know the word she used. Having spent the last year of my university life with a few geology nerds, I assumed this was one of those magnetic thingies that can tell you what's in the soil, although that didn't sound too portable. I was finally introduced to the man, who was carrying what looked like a ruler with a hinge partway down, a screw in one end and a plastic handle on the other. Seeing my curious look, he explained in English: "Dowsing rod." I smiled and nodded and was luckily too cold to giggle incredulously.

There is no denying that Stadtroda is pretty darn boring. There is simply no community that I can see; there is nothing to do, nowhere to go, after dark and the shops close. But every now and then I find something amazing. Like these disappeared towns that are lying out there, worn away almost to nothing, long-forgotten. Course, that doesn't provide me with anything to do on a quiet Friday night.

Pictured: firewood.
Another something awesome: Take a look at this picture of the Fachschule. See the whitish pink building to the left of the main red-tiled structure? That's the addition, with a bunch of offices and classrooms, including the Sprachkabinet (Language Lab) where I spend all my time. It's kind of hideous because it was built during the GDR time, and although the school desperately needed more space, they couldn't get a building permit from the government. So, being practical, no-nonsense Germans, they just shrugged and built it anyway, on their own. They couldn't get the materials they needed to build the thing (it being, as mentioned, the GDR), so they stole them from wherever they found them in the town. To this day, that addition doesn't have the proper permits, but it's a government building now, so I guess they just all decide not to notice. Apparently they're all going to have to move out of the entire complex next year because it's not up to fire code or something, and I know at least one person who believes that the school will "accidentally" burn to the ground and have to be rebuilt. Holy criminy, the Germans are a bit devious, eh? So much for being rule-followers...

Anyway. That's really all for today. It's Sunday night, which means where will be life and sound and movement in the Wohnheim again, which is nice. And Bethany's back! Hooray. Tomorrow I'm starting my kids on telephone conversations...yippee.

Happy Sunday, everyone.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Ongoing Adventures of Amazon's Idiocy (among other things)

Have I done the Kindle rant yet? I'm too lazy to go look so I'll just assume I haven't.

As you probably already know, my mother bought me a Kindle for Christmas, the Internet on which worked for a month and then spontaneously gave up the ghost. The friendly but incompetent customer service lady said the poor thing was defective and sent me a new one, which had the same problem. (The one I sent back still hasn't arrived, as far as I know, so...eeurgh. Damn you, Deutsche Post!) When we called customer service again, another stubbornly incompetent lady told me that the 3G network is only for the Kindle store (and, apparently, Wikipedia, which still works too) but the rest of the Internet browser comes from a different Internet service that doesn't work in Germany.

This is clearly bullshit. I used the Internet easily for a month before it mysteriously cut out. The customer service woman claimed I was using a WiFi internet connection without knowing it, despite the fact that (1) it said "3G" in bold print at the top of the screen and (2) I was using the Internet in places where I know for a fact there is no WiFi connection, thereby implying that I was a technological retard, which I didn't appreciate. Also, if this is true, why does sell a 3G version of their Kindle? Which is the same that you buy from the American site? ARGH.

Anyway. Kindle II worked fine until England, when I charged it overnight and it subsequently refused to turn on. Sure that the damn thing was broken, I was getting all psyched up to call Amazon again, until I charged it again in Germany and now it works fine again. So I didn't get to test the Internet in Britain like I wanted to either.

More recent insanity: I've been using the $100 gift card from my grandparents to buy music and books, so I went on my account to check the remaining balance which was--ready for this?-- $298.58. What. Also, Amazon had mailed me a gift card for $142.04 for no reason as well. Why are they trying to give me money?! In any case, I e-mailed them today and they took away the $400 or so that their madness had credited to me by accident.

I considered not reporting the credit, but I didn't want to have used the money to buy merchandise only to find out that I would have to repay them for it.'s like stealing. So I am now back to my original balance, trying to convince myself that doing what I believe to right makes me feel good when I'm really thinking, "I could buy so much music with $400!" Ah well.

Right, so, other news. This week was hard--in places, miserable; just loneliness and homesickness and angst and other unpleasant things that happen to people who spend far too much time thinking about their lives. Remedies are hard to find because everyone in the building but me has real work to do (studying), so I can't go knocking on doors, and there is literally nothing to do that doesn't involve an hour-long journey to another city. Sure, I can read books or practice guitar or write stories or write e-mails or read webcomics or whatever, but what I really want to do is talk to real people and make friends.

If you're a keen reader of this blog (hah), you will be thinking, "But wasn't Tuesday the day that she was going to have Englischnachhilfe?" Yes, it was, and I did. Now, the worst didn't happen; three people did show up, two of which hadn't told me that they were going to come. But all but one of the people who told me they were going to come, didn't. I shouldn't be too upset about it, since it's not a party that I'm throwing but like a homework thing, but...still, it was frustrating.

That's why Wednesday and Thursday were much better. I'd made cookies for the Nachhilfe, so I took them to people I like in the Wohnheim and bought myself some actual conversation time. Yes, I'm still at the point where I feel like I need to give people stuff to justify me talking to them. Headdesk.

On Thursday, I went to Erfurt to have some pizza with some of the other assistants. I think we need to get together and talk more often, not just for companionship but for the very simple reassurance that we aren't crazy. All four of us talked about the awkwardness of trying to talk to large groups, the embarrassment of not being able to express ourselves, the frustration of struggling to make friends, the loneliness of being an outsider. I can't express the relief I felt at hearing that I wasn't the only one feeling ignored, awkward, and lonesome. We are really going through the same thing, but it seems harder because we're going through it alone.

While still in Erfurt, I got a call from one of my students inviting me to a birthday party at the Wohnheim, which I eventually attended after I staggered back into town. I'm still not sure whose birthday it was, and I'm pretty sure half the people crammed into that tiny dorm room either didn't know or didn't care. At the Wohnheim, "it's Monday" is considered sufficient reason to drink, smoke, and shout into the wee hours of the morning; a birthday is almost overkill. Anyway, I spent some time standing awkwardly by the door, trying to hold conversations with the people around me over the pounding music in German and breathe in the smoke-laden air simultaneously (not easy, I tell you) before I was comfortable enough (and there was enough space) to sit down. I ended up having a very nice conversation with a student--the same who'd called me--who has been consistently friendly, proactive, and generally wonderful, and we discussed me going home to visit her family again and driving a tractor. Some of my best and most treasured memories from this year won't make it to a blog post or Facebook status because they weren't anything objectively extraordinary--just a word or an invitation or a smile that told me, for a second, that I wasn't entirely an outsider anymore. So it was all okay in the end.

Except that it's not over; life goes on. Friday came around and everybody left, guitar class was canceled, and I found myself with a whole evening with nothing to do, again.

I'm very sorry that you're sitting through all this griping about loneliness, genuinely. I don't like writing about it but I want to remember it because it's an important part of my experience here. I've had so much time to myself to think that my brain has worn tracks in the wilderness, and I always seem to drift down the same well-worn paths that don't lead anywhere. I need input from another mind to wander off in new directions, and I just feel stuck.

So. Life is terrible, and life is wonderful; one day is endless silence and the next day is deafening laughter. I'll probably never get used to it.

Thursday, February 10, 2011


Well, yesterday was my Bergfest. Thank goodness it was a good day, eh?

Bergfest ("mountain party") is the celebration of the halfway point; you've climbed to the top of the mountain and now you're heading down the other side. The students celebrate it for those of their number who are halfway finished with their time at the Fachschule. For me, my Bergfest means that it's been five months since I arrived in Stadtroda, and I still have five more months before I go...wherever.

It's a very odd feeling to be at the halfway point. On the one hand, it feels like I just here and I can't believe that I'm already halfway through. On the other hand, I can't believe that I've been here what feels like most of my life and I still have another half again to go through. Isn't it odd how memories and perception of the passage of time work?

The somewhat odder feeling that's been plaguing me recently--that I'm about to tumble off a cliff of activity and noise into a void of nothingness--is because the Winterschule groups that arrived in October will be completing their classes in March (in five weeks and two days, as I was reminded by a student) and will all leave for practica or work. This means that everything will return to how it was last fall: namely, quiet, peaceful, slow, and really really boring. Also, almost all the friends I've made are in the Winterschule groups, and I feel like I'm just starting to get to know them a little better.And they're leaving in a month, which is practically tomorrow and also a really long way off. Isn't this confusing?

To assauge this somewhat, I'm trying to start something I should've done a long time ago: start an Englischnachhilfe meeting. More students than I expected have shown interest, so I'm going to try to set up an out-of-class meeting/study session/party to (maybe) speak English and (hopefully) have a fun time. That's next Tuesday. I'll let you know what happens.

Before I forget, I should tell you how the rest of Hamburg went. After I posted my last post, I was hanging out in the kitchen and started chatting with a nice woman from Madrid. Of course she tried to speak to me in Spanish, and I got all embarrassed that the only non-English words I could dredge out of my brain were in German. Then we both started talked to a Japanese girl sitting there as well, then another American asked me what state I was from, and then we all started exchanging travel stories with a couple of Australians who'd come in to eat their ramen, and before long it was 11:30 and we were being thrown out of the kitchen, which should've closed at 10.

Next day I didn't have too much in the way of plans, so I consulted my computer and decided on the Hamburger Kunsthalle (the Art Gallery). It started promisingly enough, with old masters and David Caspar Friedrich (I really like his paintings!), but eventually it degenerated into modern art (yech). When I left, it was pouring just like it had been when I'd gone it, except now it was dark, and I simply couldn't make myself trudge through the rain to another museum, so I had dinner in the train station and went back to the hostel to relax a bit.

As I was reading my book about English history, I got a text from a Couchsurfer that had been unable to host me but had offered to meet for drinks or something while I was in Hamburg. We'd tried to connect and hadn't been able to find a good time, but now she offered to meet me in an hour with some friends, so off I went. Together with her, another German friend of hers, and a guy from Vancouver (lol), we found a bar with a nice place to sit (despite the pounding music and pea-soup smoke) and chat for a while. One of them told me that I spoke German almost without an accent, and although I know that's not entirely true (the music was really loud), it still made me feel all happy inside.

We split up with plans to meet at the Fischmarkt (Fish Market) the next day, and I went back to the hostel and crashed. Although I'd been planning to get up early, that never works out well for me and packing took longer than normal, so I barely made it to the Fischmarkt before it closed. Still, this meant that the vendors selling meat, cheese, fruit, fish, and all manner of trinkets and clothes were trying to offload their goods at low prices, so I got some cheap fruit and the very last fish sandwich and tromped off happily through the rain back to the train station. I finally arrived back in Stadtroda that afternoon, and immediately set to work planning my lesson eventually got my lesson planning done around midnight. Ah, life back to normal.

This is now the last week of classes in Jena, which means everyone's taking tests and I'm trying to get my forms signed so I can not get credit for anything. (What? I know, don't make no sense.) This means Russian class is over (YAAAY) and so is linguistics (booo). I've already sent in the money for next semester so I can keep my free train ticket card thing, so now I just have to wade through the ridiculously overcomplicated course list from hell that is the Jena Vorlesungsverzeichnis to find my next classes.

So that's my life right now. I've been fighting with myself and agonizing over whether I should return to the States to see my family and friends or if I should stay in Europe and travel, and although I know they're not mutually exclusive, I still haven't come to a reasonable conclusion. I think, though, that I'd really like to visit home. I just don't want to, y'know, stay there.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Lasers, Cream Tea, and Rainy Afternoons

It's a rainy, windy, sit-inside-with-a-good-book-and-a-cup-of-tea weather right now. Basically, it looks like a typical winter day in Washington, or England, or anywhere else, for this matter, near the ocean at this particular latitude. Of course, my jeans are still wet halfway up the calves and my coat's hanging up to dry because I went out tromping through the rain anyway. But more on that later...

Two days ago, on a greyish Tuesday morning in London, I met Stephen outside the Victoria Palace theater doing what Brits do best: queueing. You see, if you go early in the morning to the theater, you can get cheap tickets for good seats for same-day performances, and that was what we were attempting to do, and sure enough, we secured two third-row tickets for Billy Elliot for £19.50 each--not bad. But that was for that evening, and what we were tackling that day was Greenwich.

Some very few of you may remember that this was not my first sojourn in Greenwich with Stephen. Almost exactly two years ago, I visited London for the first time in early January with Jewell, Chelly, and Edith. We were all on a budget and asked Stephen to take us to a cheap restaurant, and he said he knew one in Greenwich, which sounded good to us. However, Expert Guide Stephen got us off the Tube at the wrong stop, and although we got a good look at the O2 Center (which I lovingly call the Impaled Jellyfish, since it looks like a white jellyfish impaled on a yellow anemone), we had to hike for at least half an hour although dark roads through fields to get back to Greenwich, when the DLR stop we should have used was just around the corner from the restaurant. To top it off, the sweet-and-sour that Stephen and Edith ordered made them both feel queasy. We've never let Stephen forget it, and Greenwich has had...interesting memories attached ever since. On the plus side, we did get to see the brilliant green laser marking the Prime Meridian piercing the mud-colored sky overhead.

This time around, Stephen got the Tube stops right and we took the DLR train out to the right station. For the Whovians: I got very excited going through the Canary Wharf stop, laughing and pointing and generally embarrassing Stephen as I looked for signs of Dalek attacks. Unfortunately, when the Doctor sealed up the hole in space, all traces of alien invasion seem to have vanished. More's the pity.

We stepped out of the station in Greenwich to a nice English drizzle. From what I saw, Greenwich is a rather sweet collection of small shops and curvy streets on the banks of the Thames; it doesn't feel much like London at all. The trinity of blessings to the budget sightseer are the National Maritime Museum, the Queen's House, and the Observatory, all free admission. We popped into the museum first, looked at one exhibit about nautical exploration, and then Stephen decided he wanted to take the guided tour of the Queen's House, so we left again and went next door.

Apparently, the Queen's House is so called because it belonged to a couple different queens whose names I have forgotten (Wikipedia it if you want to know!) and was used to host parties and such--which, incidentally, it still does; you can rent out the house for weddings and such if you have £7,500 laying around). Now it is mostly empty, displaying a tiny percentage of their collection of nautical paintings--mostly dramatic pictures of boats. The major lulz here is that the house is built directly over a main road, with two wings on either side and then a bridge over the road so the masses could still use it as, y'know, a road. Apparently, the queens used to watch the commoners go by and, presumably, contemplate how glad they were to not be unwashed, ignorant peasants.

(Side note: Ski jumping is on in the background as I write this, and I didn't see the whole thing but it looks like one of the skiers' skis--there's no better word for this--exploded when he landed. Holy crap. I mean, if you're in a sport that consists entirely of skiing off cliffs and trying not to break every bone in your body when you land, the least you could expect is that your skis won't freaking explode when you touch down. The guy's okay, somehow. But still, damn.)

Anyway, it was lunchtime, so for old times' sake, we went to the same cheap Chinese place that had been so much trouble to get to the first time 'round, and Stephen very pointedly did not order the sweet-n-sour. With fuller stomachs and no trace of nausea, we braved the cold back to the NMM to look at more fancy boats. (The pieces of that guy's ski are still just lying there at the bottom of the run for other skiers to ski into. This is a sport for the spectacularly suicidal--no, that's not right, it's run and organized by serial killers. "What, after you ski off a ledge and fall hundreds of feet, you want to land on a smooth surface? Dude, we're looking for ratings here. The demolished pieces of ski are an extra challenge." WTF?) However, I'd heard that there was a planetarium show narrated by none other than David Tennant on, so we hiked up the hill to the observatory.

From the observatory's perch, we had a good view of the Docklands and Canary Wharf, with the Gherkin and St Paul's just visible as silhouettes in the misty distance. We found out that the show cost another £5 or so, and so we opted out and looked at astronomy pictures instead. We also got sucked in by a fun little simulation/game where you had to build and test out some kind of space probe, and if you did it wrong the computer would go on and on about how silly and incompetent you were. We even dragged one of the staff over to play with us and successfully launched a comet probe. We then finally got to see the house where the Greenwich Laser shoots out toward the Impaled Jellyfish and stood on the line marking the Prime Meridian, which was much more exciting for me than for Stephen.

Eventually the observatory closed, and we took a stroll in the direction of Blackheath to get a look at the church that Stephen will be married in. (Ask him, I don't know.) We took a bus to Waterloo and from there back to Victoria (over Westminster Bridge; no matter how many times I see it, the sight of the Eye and the Houses of Parliament lit up at night makes me very happy, especially from the front seat on the top deck of a red bus). At Victoria, we had a quick dinner at Wagamama (I didn't read the menu very closely, apparently, and missed the part where my soup was going to be spicy) before we headed back to the theater for our musical.

Billy Elliot is a musical, as mentioned, about a boy for a family of miners in Durham who turns out to have a great passion and talent for...ballet. Not expecting that, were you? Now, I assume many of you are Americans, and when I wrote "Durham" you just assumed that was some place you've never heard of and went on to the part of the sentence about ballet. That's fine, because pretty much all I've known about Durham for most of my life is that it has a hospital in it (because Stephen applied to do an internship there) and that it is somewhere north-ish. Now, this is key: it's in the north. Still nothing? Okay.

I really hope I'm not going to be stabbed by a bunch of English people for this, but like all dialect families, English in Britain is less like a jigsaw puzzle of distinct accents and more like a watercolor painting, where the accents all bleed into each other with certain distinguishing marks in different places. Yes, apparently, British people can place each other to a specific city by their accents, so there are some clear markers, but there are also general tendancies, from the famously posh and traditionally southern RP (think the Queen and Stephen Fry) up to Scouse in Liverpool and Geordie in Newcastle and on to the Scottish. In between is a whole continuum of accents. Am I boring you? I'm sorry. The point is, Durham is in the north, and the northern accent sounds nothing like the southern accent and is often unintelligible to me. Almost every character in the musical (accept for some comically posh southerners) spoke with this accent. If not for the months I've spent listening to Bethany, it would have taken much longer to figure out what on earth was coming out of these people's mouths.

(Bethany, if you ever read this: Yes, I know your accent is totally different from the Durham accent. Yes, I know that you are from Noath Yoaksher. I'm trying to illustrate a point here.)

Anyway, once I got over the shock and settled into the rhythm of the thing, the accent wasn't so hard to decypher. Apparently back in the day (not sure of the exact time period, but last hundred years-ish?) Durham was a big mining town, and there was a huge strike/class war over the miners' rights/pay/something important, during which time poor cute Billy was learning to dance. Of course, his dad wasn't having any of that rubbish, but finally learns to support his son and help him get into a ballet academy. Everyone is happy--well, actually, the miners' union gives in and the strike ends unsuccessfully, so all the miners have to give up and go back to work underground, and Billy leaves all his friends and family to try and make it as a ballet dancer as an underprivileged, undereducated, working-class, low-prestige-accent-speaking kid in a Royal Ballet Academy on his own. But, y'know, he's following his heart and all, so I'm sure that went without a hitch...

The next day, Stephen and I met at Victoria to catch another train--this one to Canterbury. I'd planned on doing Canterbury the first time I was in London and, like with Greenwich, never found the time. The centerpiece of Canterbury is, of course, the cathedral, which has been the seat of the archbishop of England for, like, a super long time. Way back in 15-something, Chaucer was writing about the pilgrims on their way to Canterbury; I'm sure you've heard of the Canterbury Tales. Have you ever wondered why the pilgrims were going there, though?

I'd always assumed it was because it was the archbishop's church, but that's only half the story. A long time ago (in a galaxy far, far away...), Henry the Something-th (second? Third?) was squabbling with Pope and the Church about something (can this get any more vague? I'm sorry) and he wanted to have an archbishop on his side. He appointed his friend and adviser, Thomas Becket, to the post, but this did not go as planned. Becket got religion and became an outspoken defender of the Pope and the Church, enraging the king who'd put him in that position of power. After a while, the King burst out with a not-very-subtly-phrased wish that someone would get rid of that damn priest for him (possibly accompanied by some winking, nodding, and nudging) in the hearing of four of his knights, who promptly went off and killed the heck out of Becket by stabbing him and chopping the top of head off in his own church. But after they buried Becket, miracles started happening, and a cult grew up around the guy, who got sainted just a few years later. Thus the pilgrimages.

ANYWAY. Very pretty cathedral; big and soaring and full of stained glass, like a cathedral should be. We wandered around and petted the cathedral cat and took pictures, and Stephen ran into some people he knew from his hometown (England is a really small country). Any guesses what we did next? That's right: TEA. Stephen had found a teahouse online, so we went for cream tea with scones and clotted cream and jam. The whole world could do worse than adopt this food for daily consumption; it tastes like summertime and happiness. Anyway, it was getting late, so we hurried to the Roman Museum to look at some of the cool stuff they'd dug up from Roman Canterbury; apparently the Nazis helped with this by demolishing a lot of the buildings that stood over the remains, though I'm sure the inhabitants of these buildings weren't too thrilled with that at the time.

Stephen took an earlier train back to London, so I wandered on my own through the darkening streets of Canterbury. I found an Oxfam bookstore and treated myself to three new books, since my Kindle's acting up again and is unusable. I got dinner at Boot's and headed back to London and to my hostel to pack.

When I'd planned this trip, a flight at 6:25 am from Stansted sounded like a good idea. I would arrive in Hamburg before 9, so I'd have the whole day to explore instead of wasting the time en route. Great, huh? Yes. Except. For international flights, you're supposed to arrive two hours early; two hours before gate closing was 4am. It's an hour from London to Stansted, so I'd have to get one around 3 or a little earlier; and the bus left from Victoria, so I'd have to leave time to get from my hostel to there. All together, this meant leaving my hostel at 1am. I tell you, the guys at the front desk sure gave me weird looks when I presented myself before them at 1:05, all bundled up with my pack on my back and my arms full of my stripped bed linens, announcing that I wanted to check out.

Long story short, I got to Stansted at just after 3am, wide awake and wishing I wasn't. My bag, I was sure, was far too heavy. At check-in, I tried to make it look light by slinging it on one shoulder, and the guys at the counter didn't bother to ask, so I thought I was home free. Imagine my horror when we started boarding the plane and the guy at the counter had a scale sitting there and was asking people with bags smaller than mine to weigh them. One woman said that she'd just take her coat out of her bag, which was fine with him, but doesn't make any sense--you're still taking the exact same amount of weight onto the plane for the same price, so what difference does it make? Anyway, he had already pulled two people out of line to reconfigure their luggage, and I was bursting with impatience to get through before they rejoined the line, since there wasn't any room around the scale. The guy barely glanced at me and let me through no problem. I can't wait to get home and weigh the thing to see how much extra weight I got away with.

I slept fitfully on the plane and staggered back into Germany sleep-deprived and disgruntled at not being in England anymore. I got off the bus in Hamburg and found my way to my hostel, where I was way to early for checkin. Maybe it was how I was tottering and slurring my words, or maybe it was the bags under my eyes, but the kind receptionist checked me in anyway, and I went up to my room and collapsed into sleep. So much for extra time to explore. I am never doing that again.

I peeled myself out of bed around 4pm, feeling hungry. On the map, the town center didn't look too far away, so I started off walking. I detoured briefly out to a park with a view over Hamburg's harbor: the sun was just setting, a dirty gold on the horizon, mirrored in the thousands of orange lights sparkling over the water. The shipping cranes towered over labyrinths of shipping crates like enormous steel giraffes as a few ships went puttering serenely past.

The street I was on was mostly uninteresting until it suddenly transformed into the Reeperbahn. The Reeperbahn is Hamburg's main tourist attraction besides the harbor--it's the entertainment, clubbing and *cough* red light district. I was a little nervous and a little curious to walk through after dark, but since it was barely 6pm, the crowds hadn't gotten going yet.

Since I had no particular desire to see the inside of a strip club or sex shop, I kept going, getting hungrier as I went.A good two hours after I left the hostel, I arrived, footsore and rather hungry, at the Rathaus. Unfortunately, the Rathaus is located in what is, apparently, the main high-class shopping district, so there wasn't much in the way of affordable restaurants. I wandered through the streets, increasingly despairing of finding somewhere to eat, until I found a cute little Italian restaurant full of kind Italian staff who seated me right away and brought me some lovely tortelli. I don't know if it's rude to read a book when you're in a restaurant by yourself, but I did anyway. I took the S-Bahn home.

So, that brings us to this morning. My goal today was to take the free walking tour, but although yesterday had been clear, today was, as stated at the beginning, cold, drizzly, and windy. There were only six people, including me, who showed up for the tour, but our fearless Dutch guide led us through the wind and rain to all kinds of interesting buildings in Hamburg. We saw the Nikolaikirche, which had been the highest tower near the harbor in WWII, and as a result was the reference point for Allied bombers and was itself destroyed, leaving only a tower, now a war memorial, and a few ruined walls. We saw the building where a pest-control company made the Zyklon B gas, a form of cyanide used to murder people in the gas chambers; the two company heads had participated in the genocide, but the employees hadn't known what their product was being used for, and were horrified to discover it after the war. We saw the offices of a shipping company with a statue of a poodle on top, because the owner's pet name for his wife was "My dear poodle" because of her hair; apparently their ships are still called "poodles." We saw where the Great Fire of Hamburg started in 1842 because some jackass set a tobacco manufacturer on fire and subsequently destroyed 45% of the city. We heard about the firebombing of Hamburg in WWII that killed tens of thousands of people, because the dry weather and incendiary bombs created a firestorm over 800 C so that people trying to escape would sink into the melting pavement. And we saw Hamburg's work-in-progress, an orchestra house that the city hopes will become a symbol of the city like Sydney's operahouse, except some architects think the powerful winds from the harbor will blow it over.

After the tour, I made my way to the Hauptbahnhof to find tourist information for some recommendations, but the info guy was thoroughly unhelpful and I left no more informed than I'd entered. I decided instead to come back to the hostel and get warm and write this, which has taken rather a long time. So I'm going to get some dinner. Bye!