Saturday, October 27, 2012

Now for something slightly different

It's been a fairly quiet, normal sort of week for me. I went back to school on Thursday and don't plan on any more surprise week-long vacations - rest is good, but I find that too much rest is just boring. I like to have something to do that feels worth doing.

In about an hour I'm headed to a tiny town in Germany called Mörstadt, where my great-grandmother was born and her extended family still lives, to visit my cousins. I seem to be related to three-quarters of the town, based on a ten-minute tour that included explaining my relationship to nearly everyone buried in the little cemetery. It feels odd to me to call everyone I come across "cousin," but so this visit will go. Several of my cousins of varying degrees grow grapes and make wine, and I wonder if I might be able to see the winery.

In talking to my friend J about education reform last night, I realized that the German education system remains a mystery to most non-Germans (including me). Keep in mind I'm no expert on this, and please correct me if I say anything wrong.

Like in the States, German school children begin their education between the ages of 5 and 6 in a primary school, called Grundschule. At age 10, they can go into one of two tracks: Realschule or Gymnasium. Actually there are more than two options, but every state in Germany has a different system and the systems are changing, so we'll stick to the two I know best from my own state. When a student finishes Grundschule, their previous work, grades, and parental preferences dictate if they go into a Realschule or Gymnasium. Realschule goes until 10th grade, after which a student goes into an apprenticeship situation based on their abilities. For example, a student who is good at math may go into an apprenticeship to be an accountant, with part of their time spent at school and part of their time spent in training at a company that uses accountants. Realschule students don't usually go to university.

Gymnasium, where I work, goes until 12th or 13th grade, after which the students take a large exit exam (Abitur), much like England's system. This exam is not, so far as I can tell, like the SAT or ACT in the States. Gymnasium students often do go to university and become things like lawyers, doctors, and teachers. Teachers in Germany are well-trained (6 or 7 years of training) and well-paid, making education a desirable profession.

An interesting thing I've noted when talking with my students is the lack of American Dream "what I want to be when I grow up" ideas. Even my 10th and 12th grade students, who are about the same age or a little older than their US counterparts, usually answered my question about their preferred employment by saying that they would know what field they would study after they took the Abitur exam and got their scores back. Of course I can't generalize to all of Germany or all German students, but the German system doesn't seem to put the same sort of emphasis on "doing whatever you want to do!" or "following your passion" - certainly some people seem to enjoy their jobs, but many others view a job as something you do to live and enjoy their lives after work. The German education system sorts students by capability and provides them training in a field in which they excel, but the students' own passions don't seem to be a big part of it. On the one hand, unemployment is very low in Germany. The government will ensure that you have a job that supports you, even if it's not a job you particularly like. On the other hand, I don't hear my students super excited about what the future has in store for them. This isn't unique to Germany - anyone who's talked with American 16-year-olds can report a similar vibe - but it does seem more pronounced here.

Like so many of the differences between the States and Europe, it seems to boil down to the realization that both systems work. Both systems also need reformation, however, and I wonder what we might borrow from one another in the future.

Thoughts? Questions? Proclamations? Creeds?

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Angels in Culture

I went to an event today called "Angels in Culture," which was not at all what I thought it would be. From its poster, I expected a discussion of the role of angels in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, with visits to the appropriate buildings to see the angels (or the lack thereof) within holy spaces. The event was nothing like that.

Instead, it consisted of a cookie-cutter six feet in diameter, singing children, and walking in a group of fifty plus all throughout the city. Turns out the whole thing was arranged by a sculpture artist and a woman's group dedicated to inter-religious dialogue.

Here's the sculpture. See the angel?
I arrived at the mosque (I didn't realize there was a mosque in my city, but indeed there is) early this afternoon and heard a reading from the Koran and brief homily, all in German. Then the sculptor put his sculpture on the ground and had the children in the audience help him fill it with some sandy/salty/grainy substance. We lifted the form away and left a temporary shape outside the mosque's main entrance. A girl's choir sang a song in German and a song in what I presume was Arabic, and we heard from the mayor. I'm not entirely sure how she got involved, but I thought it was really cool that the civil government was getting involved in both the event and its purpose. While there has always been immigration to Germany, in the last ten or fifteen years Germany has become home to a number of immigrants from a variety of Middle Eastern countries, especially Turkey. In fact, Germany's two street foods are sausage (of course) and a Turkish dish called döner kebabs: shredded chicken or lamb in a pita with lettuce, onions, peppers, and a yogurt sauce. As a result of increased immigration, a major discussion in Germany is what integration in German society looks like, and that has sometimes led to cultural tensions.

We repeated the form-filling performance at the cultural center, synagogue, main Protestant church, main Catholic church, and "alternative" Catholic chapel. I don't know what alternative means there. It was an interesting experience with the occasional really funny moment - a group of children turning the angel outside the cultural center into a pile of sand and making a castle out of it, for example.

In other news, I discovered peanut butter yesterday!

Pretty pretty pretty
It's not quite American peanut butter, but it reminds me of home and is very comforting. I'm keeping it for a snack when I need a taste of the US.

Finally, a report on my cookies. They never set, remaining vaguely liquid and gloopy even after a time in the refrigerator, but are delicious eaten with a spoon. I'm told that I used too much milk. Let it be known, I should have put in 1/2 yogurt rather than a full one.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Kitchenless Cooking

Warning: I got sick. I'm fussing. Sorry.

When I got back from break I wasn't feeling very well. Sore throat, slight fever, headache, and a funny rash on my hands and feet were the only systems; the internet informed me I had Hand-Foot-Mouth disease. Turns out it's usually pediatric and harmless, albeit somewhat miserable to go through. It's also very contagious. I made the mistake of indicating I felt sick to my contact teacher when I went into school on Tuesday (the not-workday I wrote of previously) and she insisted that I go to a doctor and procure a note that said if I could or could not come to work.

Is this normal in the US? I've lived my entire life thus far in school, where a parent's note or an email to the professor was really all we needed if we got sick. I rarely got sick anyways, so this usually wasn't a problem. But I had to make a same-day appointment with a doctor (I don't have an official German primary care doctor, being not-German) and get the appropriate note. The doctor declared that I could not go to school for a week (next Wednesday) and wrote me a prescription for some homeopathic powder to put on my rash. I kid you not. This is apparently not uncommon in Germany: most doctors and pharmacies use a range of homeopathic treatments as well as more conventional medications. I haven't found any study on if this is better than the US systems, which does no such thing.

The two paragraphs of whining there are the introduction to today's foolery. I'm stuck in my room and bored, so I decided to bake something. I like baking - it's stress-relieving, fun, and produces delicious edibles! It makes me happy. The problem is, as the title suggests, I don't have a kitchen.

This is my kitchen.
 As you can see from the picture, I'm lacking an oven, toaster oven, microwave, or crockpot. I do have a hot water kettle and a two-burner hotplate, both through the generosity of my landlady, and both serve me very well. I can make soup, stir fry, sandwiches, and tea - 95% of my typical diet anyways. When it comes to baking, though, a stovetop doesn't usually do it.

So I went to the internet and found a recipe for no-bake cookies without peanut butter. Why without peanut butter? Because Europe doesn't have it. Sadface. I love peanut butter.

I got my ingredients (sugar, butter, chocolate, milk, oats) and checked my recipe, only to remember that baking requires measurements. I also don't have measuring cups. I really need to find a permanent place to live soon. Happily, I've been eating a fair amount of yogurt since coming to Germany, and so I had several empty yogurt containers. A little internet checking and voila! Vague yogurt-to-cups measurement conversion.

US to yogurt baking conversions
With that bit of problem-solving out of the way, it was time to start baking! First I arranged all the ingredients and eyeballed my yogurt measurements to make sure they sort of seemed to agree with my idea of a cup. They did.

All the ingredients, plus the measuring cup there on the left.
I actually need two yogurts of sugar, but there you go.
Yogurt #4 of oats.
So, I boiled everything up, added in the oats, and mixed it all together. With my trusty metal spoon I dropped small clumps of the mixture on to aluminum foil.

They seem a little liquidy...
Tangential paragraph: see the bottle in the upper right-hand corner there? That's Federweißer (ß = ss) and I wrote about it before. It's a drink also called "New Wine" and made by fermenting grapes for only a few days to a week, so it's still very sweet and not very alcoholic. Since I generally dislike alcohol this is perfect for me and I got a bottle. Only problem is, because the busily fermenting yeast is still in there, it's a little carbonated. Unlike soft drinks, where the carbonation comes from a finite amount of commercially-produced carbon dioxide that has been forced into the liquid, Federweißer still has yeast in it constantly producing carbon dioxide. As a result it cannot be stored in a sealed container because the build-up of carbonation would cause it to explode, so all Federweißer bottles have a hole in them. I knew this but totally forgot and tried to carry it home with me on its side in my bag, causing it to slosh all over my arm and left side. As a result, I smelled strongly of alcohol on the bus ride home and probably made all the Germans think I was a wino. Goody.

Back to the baking - as I write this I'm waiting for the cookies to set and hoping that they'll become solid after an hour or so, as my recipe indicates they should. Then I can bring some to my upstairs neighbors, who have both been very kind to me and deserve baked goods. Fingers crossed. Actually, fun German fact: the German version of crossing your fingers is "pressing the thumb," so you might say "we're keeping our thumbs pressed for you" or something similar.

So, fingers crossed and thumbs pressed.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

I'm Late! I'm Late! For a Very Important Date!

Gather 'round everyone, while I tell you the (picture-less) tale of Jessica and the Horrible Not-Workday.

It all started when she was a bit ill - nothing too serious, but maybe should stay home from school instead of going her first day back after break. This does sound rather suspicious. It is the truth. So she made the mistake of emailing her contact teacher and telling her of the situation, adding that she wasn't certain she was still contagious and could still come into school if needed.

The teacher suggested that she go the doctor to determine if she was okay. Only problem: she doesn't have a German doctor and the internet did not point her to any walk-in clinics. Happily her family is made up of medical professionals and so she asked them. They told her that with regular hand-washing and good hygiene, it shouldn't be a problem. So she tried to go to school.

The first problem came with the trains - she usually takes the :08 train into school, because they run every hour. That day (yesterday), however, she thought she'd get to school a little early and attempted to take the quarter-hour train, unsure if it was actually right but almost late for it anyways, so she couldn't stop to ask anyone. She listened carefully to the incomprehensible overhead announcement and didn't hear the name of her stop, so panicked, decided it was going the wrong way, and got off as soon as possible. It turned out that she got off at the littlest-used stop in the city, from which there were two trains: one train went back the way she'd come, and the other went the she wanted to go, but wasn't coming for another hour. Her class started in forty-five minutes. The train ride to school is only twelve minutes or so, meaning that as long as she could catch the right train it was no problem to get there on time.

So she took the train back the way she'd come and hoped she was in time to catch her trusty :08. No such luck, that train had already left the station. Frantically reading the train schedule, she ran for the next train and got on it, breathing hard, only to find she hadn't needed to run because she had a few minutes before it started off. She calculated times during her short ride and concluded that she couldn't get to the school in time if she walked. Thankfully there was a taxi stand just outside the train station, so she could take a taxi to school. Far too many euros and minutes later, she arrived at the school three minutes after classes had begun.

Normally this particular teacher was a little late, but today it seemed she'd gotten in on time. Jessica hurried upstairs and into the classroom, where she apologized and took up a place in the back. The teacher then told her that the students had a test and she wasn't needed in the class that day.

Emotions somewhere between frustration and hilarity, Jessica spent her next free hour productively and then headed down for her last class of the day. When she arrived the wrong teacher was there and the students informed her that their grade now had a different schedule to follow: that particular hour was French. Thoroughly deflated, Jessica went to go find the teacher of that class only to discover she had left a bit earlier. So, Jessica went to the store and took the train back home. This morning she learned that she did indeed need a certificate to come to school, now that she'd informed someone at the school that she was ill, and so she is writing this post and procrastinating the terrifying phone call to a doctor's office in German to ask if she can be a patient there.

Terror. Terror. Terror.

Monday, October 15, 2012

I See London...

English author Samuel Johnson* once noted "When one is tired of London, he is tired of life." England's capitol is a very large city and was once the center of the largest empire in the world, though the country has come down a ways from 19th century imperial glory. It's still big - I had a forty minute train ride and a fifteen minute walk to get from the center of London to my friend G's house in one of the suburbs.

I left Cardiff on Wednesday at the crack of 9am and traveled three hours by bus back to London. Once there, the first stop was my absolute favorite musical, Les Miserables, at the Queen's Theatre in the West End.

My heart, it aches.

In additional to be a stage favorite, Les Mis is a very long book by Victor Hugo, of “Hunchback of Notre Dame” fame. It’s a beautiful story of redemption, with questions of grace, justice, and goodness, as well as pretty pretty songs. My seat partner, an Australia post-doc on his way to Duke University to start a job studying vision in lizards, noted that multiple scenes gave him shivers up his spine. I quite agree. If you haven’t seen it, I can’t recommend it highly enough. (There’s a Les Mis movie coming out at Christmastime, for which I am cautiously optimistic. No matter how it turns out, I’ll likely buy it. Just doing my part to support the film industry.)

I also got to talk with the tech people because I was sitting in the back – their board is very high-tech and the number of different faders and pages they have to keep track of is dizzying. There was a little bobble with one character’s mic coming on a few seconds late, but otherwise the sound was great, even with such a large number of mics on stage. That’s a tricky balance.

Wednesday evening I made the aforementioned journey to my friend's house outside of London, where his family was very kind and welcoming. Thursday morning we made the forty minute trip back into London to go to the British Museum. I’d been to the museum two or three times before, but it’s so large I’d only ever gotten to a few of the bottom floors. This time I went up to the special exhibition to learn about “Drinking in Asia” – rituals and beliefs associated with alcohol, tea, and water in various Asian countries. The similarities between India, Nepal, Mongolia, China, Japan, Korea, and the Phillipines were interesting, but the differences especially so, because I’m guilty of lumping all of Asia together and assuming their cultures are basically the same. Even when they did trade ideas, materials, religions, and ceremonies, each has their own distinct cultural mark. India has a very distinctive liquid-carrier made out of a hollow gourd (and later metal in the shape of said gourd) that is vaguely pear-shaped, where Korea’s liquid carrier is much more round. Both, however, have spouts out of which you can drink. I don’t recall if one gave it to the other. Tea ceremonies in China and Japan are totally different – China traditionally used a powdered tea whipped into a frothy drink in a specially shaped glass, while Japan developed an elaborate tea ceremony. Things like that.

A man making a funny face/"In intense religious devotion"

Very shiny 12th century sword that will kill you.
London is known for its architecture, both modern and ancient. I don’t particularly like the more modern buildings and I really dislike the height of their newest one, but I know the city has to grow upwards now that it has no further room to grow out.

A building I don't like so much. It's called the Shard.

A building I do like very much. It's called the Gherkin.
On Friday I went to Greenwich, home of the median line that marks the center of the world for time.
Greenwich is also home to part of the Olympic stadium and several lovely houses. The town of Greenwich boasts a lovely little market, the Royal Navel College, and the restored tea-ship the “Cutty Sark.”

Center of time, right here.
This little thing made the crossing from England to India and was one of the fastest ships in its day. I can’t fathom that trip in such a small vessel.

The Cutty Sark

Former Royal Naval College, now a museum.
On the grounds of the formal college, I saw the lovely “Painted Hall” as well as a very Baroque-style chapel.

Very ornate.
And to finish, one of my pictures from the Doctor Who Experience:

Saving all of time and space. That's right!

*(Samuel Johnson's quote comes to me by way of a friend from college back in the States. J is witty and very intelligent and studying at Princeton, so I would be be doing her a disservice if I didn't cite my source material.)

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Cardiff, Day One

I arrived in Cardiff Sunday night after five hours of travel (whine whine) and explored several highlights of the city yesterday with a friend yesterday. I realize that names are more helpful than “my friend” in these kinds of stories, but a mix of paranoia and privacy means I’m loathe to put up very many details about other people. I’ve settled on initials, so "B" took me around Cardiff and showed me some favorite spots. This post will be particularly picture-heavy, so be warned.

First up was Cardiff Castle, originally built even before the Normans showed up in the 11th century. Most of the original castle looks a bit crumbly, but the area is still lovely and typically British (or specifically Welsh, in this case).

Outside the gates

Inside. You can see the gate straight ahead.

What remains of the inner keep atop an earthen mound

The view from the top of the inner keep

View towards Cardiff itself
In addition to promenades and fortifications, the castle boasts some gorgeous rooms inside and a terrifically cheesy film recounting the history of the area in a series of ridiculous shots, including a group of rugby players turning into Norman (or perhaps Roman or something else) warriors.

Inside the "Arab Room"

Inside the banquet hall

The ceiling inside one of the rooms. I don't remember which one.
The castle also keeps falcons and owls. Their signage assured us that they have been bred in captivity and are accustomed to being tethered, but I’m not sure I could keep a falcon. They are beautiful, though.

I think a peacock, wandering the ground.


Cute little owl

Another cute little owl. Or maybe a falcon.

A falcon, I think

And a big owl. He kept squawking.
After the castle we went down to Cardiff Bay and the Mermaid Quay. Regrettably, no mermaids to be found. Finally, we went to the Doctor Who museum to fan-squee-out over the glory that is Gallifrey and the TARDIS. Or maybe that was just me. We walked through an exhibition of the Whovian worlds – Daleks, the TARDIS, the Weeping Angels, and nods to Spaceship UK, The End of Time, and The Big Bang. It was fabulous. I was glad to have a friend along because the Weeping Angels forest – with strobe lighting and darkness – was truly frightening.

Then came the museum exhibition, featuring props and costumes from fifty years of Doctor Who. It was very interesting to see how the Doctor’s clothing changed over the years, from the very formal almost-tux of the late 1950s through the leather jacket of the 2005 reboot. Also on display were various monster costumes – most Who villans are played by actors in costume instead of computer-generated effects. I got to hide inside a Dalek and move it around. I also learned how to walk like a Cyberman and a Scarecrow. We finished up the day by posing for pictures with the TARDIS as the background and I hope to get those pictures in my email sometime tomorrow morning. I’ll share them once I do.

A Dalek made of Legos!

Me and the TARDIS. No big deal.

Number Ten!!
That wraps up most of my pictures, but I will share the ridiculous "floating Jessica with a sonic screwdriver" pictures as soon as I have them.

Monday, October 8, 2012

City of Dreaming Spires

I spent a year in Oxford during college studying British literature, and I have some friends from the States on the same program now. There's only one thing to do when my past and present collide: go and visit!

A friend's picture. Breath, stolen. Every time.
Oxford was just as lovely as I remember, though it was a bit odd not to see the same people in all the places I remember. I got cream tea, ate at a pub, and explored Magdalene College. It is, in my opinion, the prettiest college in Oxford, though I'm not really qualified to give that opinion (and a friend from Balliol may disagree).

The obligatory RadCam shot.

Inside Magdalene

With shared crests over the chapel door
Glorious glorious books in English

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Visiting a Castle

Thanks to my kind upstairs neighbor and her generous parents, I got to visit some particularly Romantic parts of Germany: the town of Colchem and the castle of Burg Eltz. Which is actually like saying “castle castle Eltz” because “burg” means “castle.” Anyways. 

We started off with Colchem, a cute little German town about an hour’s drive down the Rhine. It has all the required aspects of being a cute little German town, including a lovely old city, buildings from the 15th century and earlier, churches, and tiny shops. Also tiny streets, down which buses somehow drove.

This bit of gate was from the 17th century, or something like that.

A lovely house in the main market square.

The entire market plaza, with a number of wine shops selling local wine.

All towns (and cities) along the rivers have problems with flooding, and Colchem was no exception.

Flood levels from the eighteenth century

After visiting around the town we went to a weingut – a sort of restaurant connected to a winery that serves simple food and excellent wine. There I actually enjoyed a rather dry Riesling (as a true American, I usually only like foods that are sweet) and had a nice conversation with a man from Maine who came over to Germany in the seventies and never left. His German was very accented – I wonder if I sound like him to native Germans?

We ended the day with a visit to Burg Eltz, a castle with centuries of history and a lovely treasury to show for it. I got the chance to look at the various gold and silver objects as well as take a tour of the living area of the castle. During this tour we saw things like chests from the 16th century and a bed from the mid-1400s. It sometimes just takes my breath away to think of being almost close enough to touch something so old, that has seen so much life lived around it.

A picture from the walk to the castle.
A castle. A real castle, with turrets and stuff!

See, turrets. And stone walls.
Burg Eltz is nicely situated on something of a mini-mountain, fairly inaccessible from all sides. This is doubtlessly wonderful for its defense but did mean that we had a thirty-minute walk from the car to the castle. The way there was mostly downhill but the way back was uphill and slightly rainy. It turns out that there are two parking lots. One is for those who wish to hike and one is for those who want to use the shuttle. Guess which one we accidentally picked…

It's starting to be fall.

So pretty!
Very windswept gothic. Verdant windswept gothic, at any rate.

The views were lovely, though, and the entire day was great fun.