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!

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!