All posts by profdesai

Tschüß, for now

Pressed pennies and tokens filled our memory piggy bank.
Pressed pennies and tokens filled our memory piggy bank.

It seems like this blog could use some concluding thoughts, no? Assuming anyone’s here. Well for the record anyway. So here I am on the way home, waiting in Chicago for my delayed flight to Madison, traveling with our last suitcase (ski box with skis that Emily made, Maya’s skateboard, and who knows what else?) retrieved from a short visit back to GaPa. We’ve been back in Madison a bit more than a month, back in school, back to teaching, back to our selves, bad habits and all.

Being back to Garmisch for 36 hours was somewhat surreal. Not quite long since we left to really feel all that different or unusual. Conversations were had in German at stores. I could still be angry or make fun or tourists (like the airplane load of Finns wearing Lederhosen on the way to Oktoberfest – which despite being a super awesome party, I can still skoff at like a local).

But It did make me think about what we learned or missed. Sabbatical is like being at summer camp in some ways. It ends feeling like something changed. Lots of emotions, adventures, some that are even hard to describe. And hard to talk about negative things to someone back home when they ask “How was your year abroad, galavanting around the world?” So in some ways, nothing changed. Maybe not exactly summer camp, more like a survival wilderness camp. Because nothing comes prepackaged, and one is uprooting a family and their lives and every little detail from visas to schools to buying a car to work environment customs must all be navigated mostly on your own. So I suppose that’s a healthy thing.

With that, I think I’ll just conclude with a reflection on the things I miss and don’t miss. I tried to separate them, but then I realized for most of things I thought about – it’s hard to separate the two.

Free weekends – Obligation free weekends and a sense of “we’re in Europe, we can’t just sit around all day” led to a lot of day trips, hikes, ski runs and the like. But it’s nice to have more friends to visit and Shabbat programs for the kids and not feeling guilty about being downright lazy.

Unstructured time and half day schools – Work days and home days had far less structure for everyone. No teaching, school out at noonish everyday, very few after school activities. We all learned to be more independent and creative. But it wasn’t easy. There’s something nice to having a bit of adrenaline going between various activities of life. But it’s nice to have the kids free to roam back in Madison and 11 year olds make great babysitters!

Goat based traffic jams and other driving wünder – To survive the high speeds of the autobahn and the narrow streets of its villages, not to mention their complex driver’s tests, Germans tend to relatively law-abiding drivers (and pedestrians – Berlin excluded), which makes getting around predictable, even if hair raising when being passed at 200 km/hour or having to maneuver around a herd of goats or cows passing by your apartment (a regular thing), shepherded most likely by one of Maya’s classmates. But to have wide streets and cars big enough to load all of crap into and ability to actually take advantage of cruise control and gas that costs half the price – kinda nice.

Ski and bakery dates and hiking out the back yard – Monday mornings were reserved for ski dates in winter and bakery or hiking dates in the spring and summer. More vertical to climb on trails right outside our house than five Wisconsins stacked on top of each other! An entire meal out of dark, crusty, hearty Bavarian bread, nothing of which like it exists in America. Definitely miss these. Nothing to not miss here.

Renting – It sure was nice to not have to deal with maintenance or yard work or various utility bills. We came back to a house with new basement flooding spots, a bat in the bedroom, paint job getting worse by the minute, attic crammed with all our junk, and other endless things. On the other hand, the kids have their own rooms and bikes and are happy to be in them or on them and running around their neighborhood.

Beer – Bavaria has more breweries than just about anywhere else and each bar serves one brand of beer and each town has their own beer. Lots of history and folklore with breweries going back 600 years in some cases. 1/2 and 1 liter mugs. Low alcohol lunch time beers and beer mixes like Radlers (half lemonade, half beer). And yet, the lack of variety, ales, flavorings made many of the beers quite similar to each other. It’s nice to be back in microbrew heaven.

Lost in translation – There’s something nice about the clatter of languages, ignoring most of it, and the sense of being lost. It heightens the senses to pay closer attention to things and not worry so much about the small talk. Of course, this also meant very little small talk, random overheard conversations, and getting things done the right way the first time.

I learned a lot last year. Lots of old projects at work got finished and new projects got started, including some exciting new research initiatives. New friends were made. The kids became resilient and adpatable and excellent travelers. They speak another language. We saw our roots, culture, and heritage in Germany, Israel and India. At some point, each of us cried or missed something terribly. And at some point, each of us did something awesome or for the first time. And the University gets its money’s worth with renewed scholarship (I hope).

So thanks for following or reading. Maybe some short stories from the kids on their adventures in Iceland and a few trips not reviewed will pop up. I owe the blog a guide to gluten free eating in Garmisch. Maybe another random note on some idea or another.

And then whatever technological communication platform of the day exists in another 7 years – we’ll be there!

Ciao,
Ankur

Between the continents, in the land of fire and ice, we bid adieu!
Between the continents, in the land of fire and ice, we bid adieu!

T-4 weeks

Rumors of the disappearance of the badgers and their blog have been greatly exaggerated. We’re still here, still rooting around or whatever badgers do:

IMG_4527
Badgers feel up smooth baby bottoms in Prague…

It’s less than four weeks left in Bavaria and we have many stories to share since our Passover Passage to India. However, after reading Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad (free epub at the link), a very blog-like book about his attempts to walk (Alpenstock and all) through Germany and the Swiss, Austrian, and Italian Alps in the late 19th century, I feel I have little to add. I identified with many of his observations about culture, Alpine scenery, customs and language, even 130 years later. An entire appendix on everything wrong with the German language. How do I even come close to writing like that?

So more stories will be shared eventually, maybe here, maybe in a correspondence in person where all tales can be exaggerated to proper extent, about the the not-so-lazy days of summer, including the family history tour and croquet match of Berlin, an excursion to Prague with Tante June and mostly other Americans, Austrian 40-story ice caves and an Italian frozen dead guy, our 22-km too-steep-for-non-insane-royal-types backpacking trip to King Ludwig II’s Turkish themed hunting lodge/opium den, not to mention his castles and his shallow-water “murder” site, Maya’s adrenaline rush and my sore arms from tackling the hardest verrückt course at the neighborhood high ropes park, why all pre-schools need giant wood chippers, and lots of picnics, hikes, and spending time with friends.

Right now, Germany is in full-throated, horn honking (an unusual thing that) World Cup fever, which will likely end very soon. We’ve even gotten into the act, providing asylum to Americans at our house:

Dual allegiances all around.
Dual allegiances all around.

And now we are in our last four weeks, pondering but putting off the pitiful pitching, packing, Prius-selling, and preparations of departure, which involves squeezing one last stopover in the volcanic western outpost of Europe known as Iceland, and then a New York reunion with Rob Zombie, a.k.a. the beast, a.k.a our minivan, and family, and one last road trip through the Midwest, which does not look like this:

Possible Wisconsin a few million years ago? Right now, a place we could walk to from our apartment is 7 hours, if one is willing to hike a mile straight up.
Possibly Wisconsin a few million years ago? Right now, a place we could walk to from our apartment in around 7 hours, if one is willing to hike a mile straight up.

But I suspect we’ll be happy to be back to our lakes and creaky insulation-lacking house, and neighbors and friends and family, and stores that are open on Sunday, streets wide enough for a car (or two!), small talk that’s a little bit bigger, compound words with proper use of hyphens and spaces, the ability to actually use cruise control and cheap gas, proper fake mexican fast food, and relaxing back home to the land of bratwurst, beer, cheese, cows, … hey wait a sec! 

Helau!

By Maya, Lela, Sarita, Emily, and Ankur

Fasching madness in Düsseldorf
Fasching madness in Düsseldorf

Helau! This is the phrase used in Düsseldorf for Carnival, also known as Fasching. When we planned our March break (also known as Fasching break) road trip, we somehow hadn’t really thought through the idea that we were driving into the cradle of Fasching, the Rhine valley, during its peak. It’s like going to New Orleans on Mardi Gras. We went this way primarily because it sounded like an interesting part of Europe, with a range of funky installations in former factories and mines (with a couple of cathedrals thrown in for good measure), which we figured would be a welcome change for the kids from the castles and museums of earlier trips.

Off we went to the Ruhrgebeit, which is essentially the rust belt of Germany and its only megacity (one of the largest in Europe). The region has more people (11 million) than Berlin, Munich or Frankfurt, but the many cities that make up the region are all under 1 million in population. Imagine if Pittsburgh, Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Buffalo, Akron, Toledo, St Louis, and Indianapolis were all a 1 hour radius of each other; that would be one big metro area!

So here are the highlights of our 8 country road trip!  Well, actually, it’s the entire road trip and more.  It’s more like our personal journal of the trip.  Feel free to skim it or skip it.  Hopefully, we’ll read this again in the future and wonder how we dragged a four year old and her two older sisters around so much.  Of course, there’s always the obligatory playground pictures to remind us of that.

Döner Friday
Carnival season actually runs from November 11 the previous year (at 11:11 am) until Ash Wednesday. But most of the events take place in the week before Ash Wednesday. Kids were showing up in costume at school various days during the week – though often not our kids, as we didn’t always know (a general theme for us and school). And this was true on Friday afternoon, the last day of twice a week afternoon ski school for the kids.

Sarita's ski teacher Bella gets in the Carnival mood on the last day of ski school
Sarita’s ski teacher Bella gets in the Carnival mood on the last day of ski school

The mood was already festive, though the last day of ski school was somewhat odd. Lela’s teacher Derrick spent most of the time skiing with an extra ski that someone had lost. Maya’s class barely skied at all as someone’s ski binding fell off during class and another girl hit her head. Sarita’s class had an extra kid who was not as speedy. I suppose that’s part of the Carnival atmosphere. But after-school ski school the past few months has been a real treat and we had fun on the final ski school party and races with Emily’s parents after we returned.

Maya at the races!
Maya at the races! (Photo from Jane Wulf)

We wanted to get a head start on our road trip and decided to leave immediately after ski school, for what we thought would be a short late evening drive to a hotel half-way to Köln (Cologne in English). We quickly bought a Carnival costume for Maya and face paint for everyone at our local office and school supply store. Then we had a quick dinner at a Döner kebab restaurant near our house (and which we always say we’d do on Thursdays for Döner Donnerstag, but hey what’s a one day error between friends, plus we corrected this oversight later (see below)), and took off for a roadside hotel in Karlsruhe. 

Alas, a three hour drive turned into a five+ hour drive, as a major accident on the Autobahn led to a multi-hour road closure with a more than 5 km back-up. The kind where you turn off our car and get out in the middle of the highway in the middle of nowhere and hang out with everyone else. Though that night, only the smokers came out of their cars. Luckily, the younger kids were already asleep and the temperature was not so cold. Sometimes no speed limits is not a good idea.

A Saturday made for the Dutch
After less sleep than we hoped, we headed out to find the Autobahn absolutely filled with station wagons from the Netherlands, with packed rooftop carriers and trunks stuffed with comforters. I learned from my Dutch colleague, that at any one time, a 1/6 of the Dutch are on vacation, love testing their cars on the Autobahn, and bring everything with them when they do.  Curious.

Finally, we made it to Köln to check out a chocolate museum and the cathedral.  We learned earlier that the chocolate museum was closed for Carnival, but we figured the cathedral would still be fun. Köln is the land of Carnival for Germany – home of the biggest parades and most boisterous parties. Saturday is part of the “crazy days“. We drove in, right alongside a marching band parade, amazingly found parking in the center of the city, grabbed some Sushi (with gluten-free soy sauce – a big shoutout to http://gfgermany.de, which features prominently on how we found nourishment on this trip), and headed off on foot to the cathedral, past throngs of costumed revelers.

But we got there to find the cathedral grounds  packed with Waldos, Pirates, marching bands, broken beers bottles, and the party aroma of urine and spilled beer, and it was only mid-day (the partying goes all night). And not surprisingly, the cathedral had locked its doors tight (we tested all of them), as they were closed for carnival week too, a fact we only later found buried on the website.

Nonetheless, it was impressive on the outside, and we got a cathedral fix later in the week (see below). We did get to walk by the original home of Cologne, the fragrance, and enjoyed people watching and street music (the jazz combo made it feel just like Mardi Gras in New Orleans!) and a gluten free almond torte. After that, we took off for Essen (which means food in Germany – so many puns and jokes the kids made of this…), where we had rented an apartment.

Are we in New Orleans?
Are we in New Orleans?
4711 - home of the original eau de Cologne.
4711 – home of the original eau de Cologne.
Finding Waldo at the Cathedral was not hard
Finding Waldo at the Cathedral was not hard

Sunday at the factory
Sunday, we went to see a play in a former coal processing factory, Zollverein, now a UNESCO world heritage site that consists of performance spaces, museums, a casino, and rusting machinery. We saw a kid’s play called Rumpeldipumpel, a comical re-take on Rumpelstiltskin, that combined the UK and Germany versions of the tale. Did you know he is called Tom Tit Tot in UK? Neither did the seamstress, or us clueless Americans!

Maya was excited because she understood everything and even answered a question to the audience about translating from English to German, “What does ‘My Name Is’ mean?”

Will the real Rumpelstiltskin please stand up?
Will the real Rumpelstiltskin please stand up?

Well, with us forcing child labor in a factory on a Sunday, we were bound for some workplace injury. Lela cut her head open when she tripped, getting the same kind of cut she got two years ago in Florida. But this time we skipped urgent care and just bandaged it well. After the play, we had lunch in a former factory building, checked out a large, but ultimately uninspiring, spiral shaped art installation in a warehouse, looked askew at a playground paired to its industrial environment, and wandered the somewhat staid Ruhr museum.  While the exhibits were not so interactive, we were impressed by the museum’s environment (inside a former coal sifting plant) and Maya liked the cheery 360 degree movie about Rhine-Ruhr industry in a theater with funky swivel chairs.

This wheel was just asking to be climbed
This wheel was just asking to be climbed
Child labor!
Child labor!
Lela can fly!
Lela can fly!
Playground of the future in the land of the past
Playground of the future in the land of the past

Then we went to dinner choosing the most interesting sounding place on gfgermany for Essen. We ended up at a small, vegetarian African cafe that felt like we were suddenly on the east side of Madison. The owner was also the cook and server with two new employees in training. We did get forearm-bumps and talked to the owner about his upbringing in Guinea-Bissau. But a one-(apparently attention deficit)-man-show took a while for food – a long while. So we had a two hour dinner and Maya missed her Skype date with Rachel. But the African curries were really good with amazing GF french fries (more like hot, fried potato crisps)

Rosenmontag
Monday is known as Rosenmontag (Rose Monday) – the day when the big parades happen (unlike Mardi Gras, aka Fat Tuesday). The three big parade towns are Köln, Düsseldorf, and Mainz. We decided to join the 800,000 revelers in Düsseldorf, just a 30 minute, very packed with drunken revelers, train ride away from our apartment in Essen.

We followed the crowds onto the U-Bahn, first buying more costume enhancements at the subway costume store. We were relieved to see the youth peel off to street corners (or stay in the subway platforms) to drink, while we got a prime spot to watch the parade and dodge lots of candy – as the custom is for floats to throw candy at children who then attempt to collect them all while avoiding the floats pulled by tractors. Lela liked the music from the marching bands except the two that were only drumming when they got to us. Maya liked the floats. Emily liked the political satire. Maya was a good candy catcher and we learned why Germany doesn’t need Halloween. The cool part of the big parades is that all the parade watchers are also in costume.

An inadvertent Eagles fan?
An inadvertent Eagles fan?
German's view of America lately
Germans’ view of America lately
Memories of Martin Luther are only several centuries old
Memories of Martin Luther are only several centuries old
A fabulous parade
A fabulous parade
Parade
The next Euro crisis?

There is also a rivalry in Carnival between Köln (which usually has 2-3 million spectators and live national TV broadcast) and Düsseldorf (half as many people, regional TV broadcast), perhaps something like New Year’s Day parade in NYC versus the Mummers Parade in Philly.  So, in Düsseldorf, you say Helau when floats go by, while in Köln you say Kölle Alaaf! In Köln, you drink Kölsch (a top-fermented beer only brewed in Cologne, and quite tasty), while in Düsseldorf, you drink Altbier (similar fermentation, but darker and sweeter). There was lots of political satire floats in Düsseldorf, but a giant naked copulating couple float in Köln (that we caught on TV after we returned to Essen).

Anyway, it started to drizzle and get cold and Emily is not a fan of big, tight crowds, so we left after we had our fill and before the subways got crowded again. Lela liked the soy sauce shaped fish we got at the train station sushi stand, which we added to our full candy bag. Back at Essen, we caught the tail end of the Essen parade, where very few parade watchers were in costume (just the drinkers at the train station), so we were glad we dragged ourselves to one of the big ones.

Shrove Tuesday
Tuesday is the last day it is still acceptable to walk around outside in costume. In Munich and Garmisch, most people leave work early for a final night of partying. But we were done with Carnival, and continued our industrial tour. We drove half an hour to Witten to go see Zeche (mine) Nachtigall (nightingale) – a former coal mine, then brickyard, now museum where you can explore part of the mine.

There were very few people there, so we ended up getting a personal family tour of the mine, after they initially wouldn’t let Sarita go because she was too small. Maya liked rubbing coal dust from the coal seam in the mine on her nose for good luck, though the kids did find it a bit claustrophobic.  They also had a cool mining and barge shipping themed playground.

Do you hear the lumber creaking?
Do you hear the lumber creaking?
About to enter
Child laborers still need mine safety talks

In Witten, our expected gluten free lunch place was closed, cleaning up from Rose Monday. So after a quick soup meal, we drove another half an hour to Dortmund to find a children’s museum we read about located in Westphalia park. It was a free children’s museum inside a park you had to pay to get into. MondoMio had exhibits themed on how children around the world live (in developing countries) and the global manufacturing and shipping of textiles and food. It had lots of little rooms with dress ups from various countries involved in global trade of goods with Germany.  Curiously, it was missing any ‘how we live here’ section.

Lela thought it was fun. Maya liked the dress ups and the rooms for different cultures and the Brazilian themed play fruit stand (with play cocoa pods with real chocolate smell in it). Emily liked the hammock chair next to it. Afterwards, we went back to Witten to the restaurant that was closed for lunch and had a lovely dinner with Dortmund style Altbier and Pilsners (beer is very regional here).

Just a pair of country kids
Just a pair of country kids
Teaching consumer guilt at an early age!
Teaching consumer guilt at an early age!

Ash Wednesday
Gray skies met our ashen day, the abrupt end of carnival season. We left our apartment in Essen and drove to Aachen. Initially, we planned to stop in Düsseldorf again, this time to see Tomás Saraceno’s “in orbit”, an art installation that has you to wandering around on top of nets hanging from the ceiling. But since access to the nets is limited to age 12 and up  and the museum didn’t have many other exhibits that would be fun for the kids, we opted instead to go to another abandoned factory with playground in the next town over from Essen, Duisburg.

This time, a former iron works factory has been converted to a climbing park called Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord. A slide and climbing wall were built into a former retaining wall of the bunkers used for storing raw materials. I-beams and pipes have been turned into a ropes course. They don’t build playgrounds like this anywhere except Germany as far as I know!

None shall pass
None shall pass
Maya tries to escape the factory
Maya tries to escape the factory
I wish my work had a slide
Ankur wishes his office building had a slide on the outside

We then drove down to Aachen, had gluten free (and decent regular) bagels at a Dutch-based coffee shop chain Bagel and Beans and dashed over to catch the 2 pm English tour of the cathedral at Aachen, where Charlemagne reigned and dozens of German and French kings have been crowned. For the most part, we have avoided guided tours of old buildings, since the kids lose patience with them, especially if not in English. Emily really wanted to catch this tour to find out why this particular building was worth visiting  instead of just gazing at the details, especially as we missed getting into the Köln cathedral.

Of course, when we arrived for the tour, a large extended family of French people had also signed up for the English tour.  With the the tour guide knowing both languages, and the French speakers having four times as many adults, the 45 minute English tour became 75 minute bilingual tour. I suppose it was ok, as it allowed us to space out and listen to the church organist while admiring the stained glass and octagonal shaped ceiling, but it will be an added challenge to convince the kids to do another tour.

But the tour is the only way to see Charlemagne’s throne and get up close and personal with his burial shrine. Our guide seemed to know a lot about the throne, which apparently Charlemagne might never have sat in. While the cathedral dates to the late 700s, there have been additions and renovations and repairs all the way through WWII. Further, the Vatican and Charlemagne have always had an uneasy relationship (he was canonized by an Anti-Pope).

Maya has now asked for a timeline, as our recent trips have mapped out a good bit of intro to Western Civ, from Greeks and Romans to Byzantines to Charlemagne to the Holy Roman Empire to the Hapsburg’s to Napoleon, to Germany’s industrial revolution, WWI trenches (see below), up to the bombing raids of WWII and the evolution of modern post-industrial Europe. If we put a quiz on the end, does she get course credit?

Ogling Octagons
Ogling Octagons
Many monarchs have sat here, but not necessarily Charlemagne himself
Many monarchs have sat here, but not necessarily Charlemagne himself
Charlemagne lies here
Instead, Charlemagne (or 90 or so of his bones) lies here
Post-WWII bombing stained glass with a list of sponsors on it
Post-WWII bombing stained glass with a list of sponsors on it
A bat on an eagle, on which the Bible is supposed to cover, to ward off the evil
A bat on an eagle, on which the Bible is supposed to cover, to ward off the evil while preaching

Road-trip Thursday
After a quiet dinner in an Italian place with not particularly good gluten-free pizza and gnocchi and a stay in a hostel on the south side of Aachen and, we woke up Thursday for our 8 country tour, with a plan to try to do something in each country, though we’d have to fight the sunlight since it was still early March. Thursday was our day to follow the contours of the German border south through the “BeNeLux” countries and end up in Alsace.

In the Netherlands, we went to the Dreilandenpunt (Dutch for Three Country Point), where you can stand in Belgium, Netherlands, and Germany at the same time and play in a playground where all the rides have a theme of the number three.  As Emily says, yay for random geographical oddities (of which we have visited many, I recommend the “Exact Center of the Northern Half of the Western Hemisphere” off the side of a rural highway in central Wisconsin at 45 degrees N, 90 degrees W).

Abandoning the children in three different countries
Abandoning the children in three different countries
A swing built for 3
A swing built for 3

We followed pastoral hilly two-lane roads through Belgium and ended up in Verviers to tour a Wool and Fashion museum in a former factory, where we learned that back in “the day”, the best method to remove the oils from wool after shearing was with ammonium and the best source of that was urine from humans. The pee was collected (and taxed) in buckets from villagers, and even tasted to make sure it wasn’t watered down. Of course, after that lovely story, we had to get some chocolate pralines. Alas, not enough time for Belgian Ale and frites, though we can get much of that at two places in our own neighborhood in Madison.

So soft!
So soft! I have an urge to pee on it.

Leaving Belgium, we entered Luxembourg, the land of cheap gas, road detours, and traffic jams, as they don’t have much in way of divided highways into the main city. But we enjoyed a quick walk through the ramparts of Luxembourg city.

Smile for the grand duke!
Smile for the grand duke!
This giant L stands for Lela, not anything else
This giant L stands for Lela, not anything else

As we crossed the border into France, we knew we’d be fighting the sunset to get to our last stop – to see some of the remaining trenches from World War I, located on top of a mountain in the Vosges range. The monument there is called Vieil Armand in French or  Hartmannswillerkopf in German. 30,000 people died here in trench warfare that lasted over a year, as the peak was alternatively taken over by French and Germans. Eventually, as the line became entrenched (ha!), troops just lived in the trenches on both sides for the next three years until the Germans and the Central Powers finally gave up as the Western and Eastern Fronts held steady.

Alas, we made it just as dusk was ending and had to drive around a barrier since the road up the peak was not maintained for the winter (thankfully the warm winter made this an easy decision…). We did manage to walk through part of a trench and see the monument in the dark, but the kids were cold and hungry. In many respects, being in a trench at night in the cold overlooking the city lights 3,000 feet below made it perhaps easier to understand  what it might have been like as a young soldier, not knowing who is running up to you.

But after a few minutes reflection, we left and dodged deer on the road down to our hotel in Mulhouse, France and opted for finally having Döner Donnerstag at the fast food joint next door.

Yeah, it was dark, alright!
Yeah, it was dark, alright!

The End
Friday, we left early from France, crossed the border at Basel, Switzerland and attempted to find an interesting sensory-themed hike (Sinnespfad) in a small Swiss village, Gipf Oberfrick. We did manage to find it using our intuition, some poorly cribbed notes from the quick internet searching we did in the morning at the hotel, and finally asking a family on the street. The hike was a 3 km walk around a lovely Swiss meadow and forest with stops to explore our sense of direction by walking in a maze with our eyes closed, our sense of touch with a barefoot walk over different surfaces, and so on.

Three blind dachsen, see how the run a maze
Three blind dachsen, see how they run a Swiss maze

We left our meadow behind, buying gas station sandwiches to eat in the car, inadvertently driving through Zurich (instead of around) because of the 9 year old street maps on the navigation system of our 2005 Prius, getting back on the highway hugging beautiful Lake Zurich, finally entering back to our familiar Alps and crossing the border into the doubly-landlocked principality of Liechtenstein, which is easy to miss on the road if you blink (it’s as small as the island of Aruba). By now, we were anxious to get home and drop off Emily at her next stop, so we only stopped there to take a quick photo or two, get Swiss chocolate to feed the kids, buy the required Austrian toll vignette, and then leave for Austria, where we repeatedly ignored the Navi and gorgeous views, choosing instead mile after mile of tunnels.

Looks, it's Liechtenstein!
Looks, it’s Liechtenstein!

Our plan was to drop off Emily in the town of Imst to catch a train to Innsbruck while I took the kids home, as there is a shortcut to Garmisch from Imst. Imst turned out to be quite a hilly, roundabout filled, confusing (but pretty) city, so that by the time we figured out where the train station was, it was too late and we opted to drive Emily to Innsbruck.

Why Innsbruck? To make her own skis! Emily signed up to do a design and build your own downhill ski workshop in Innsbruck for the weekend. She made her skis alongside a colleague of mine’s wife, who lives in Innsbruck.

Apparently, skis are mostly made out of glue
Apparently, skis are mostly made out of epoxy

Since we’ve been to Austria many times, we didn’t have much need to do anything more. While Emily toiled in the workshop sanding, cutting, pressing, and gluing wood into skis, the rest of us got back to our mountain home and spent the weekend unpacking, relaxing, and getting a little sledding in  Wankbahn, the gondola a short walk from our house, which is normally closed for the winter, was open for the week, with a nice sledding hill on the top of the mountain.

Good to be back
Good to be back

And that’s how to spend a week in March in Germany, and 7 other countries. And probably the longest blog post we’ll ever write!

February Daze

This badger is stuffed!
This badger is stuffed!

A few of you have asked about blog updates. Turns out February was a blur, with a parade of visitors, skiing, cheering for locals in the Olympics, and the day to day rhythm known as routine that creeps in and settles onto all things as they age. But not to worry. Maya is working on a post about a ski day with her friend. And we’ve all started working on a joint post about our recent March break 8-country road trip. Stay tuned!

We did have a lovely time with all our guests, which started in the beginning of the month with a visit from the Copelovitches, our friends from Madison on sabbatical in Berlin. They had their their mid-winter break a month earlier than us, so they came down for some hiking, (kosher) Weisswurst, and a weekend joint road trip to Bamberg, home of smoky “Rauch” beer that tastes something like liquid bacon might, with a side adventure to the Audi factory in Ingolstadt. Their version of events are here.

Every hike with kids has a few diversions on the way
Every hike with kids has a few diversions on the way
Proper Bavarian hikes end with beer and sausage.
Proper Bavarian hikes end with beer and sausage.
In between trying to sample some of the nine breweries in town, there are amazing buildings in Bamberg
In between trying to sample some of the nine breweries in town, there are amazing buildings in Bamberg

Next up were the Swift family, our neighbors in Madison, on sabbatical in Barcelona. The Swifts came for some sledding, remembering how to ski again, and a few other adventures, including a trip into a salt mine.

Mike and Suzanne are put to work for their beer!
Mike and Suzanne are put to work for their beer!
Same rule as hiking (see above) applies to sledding on the Zugspitze.
Same rule as hiking (see above) applies to sledding on the Zugspitze.

Finally, our former neighbors in Madison, the Perelli-Harris family, flew down from their current digs in Winchester, UK to ski and hike (sense a theme among our visitors?). Maya and their daughter Aralyn hadn’t seen each other nearly 7 years, but they (and the rest of the gang) hit it off pretty quickly.

Three in a tree!
Three in a tree!
Smile, you're about to fall off the side of a mountain!
Smile, you’re about to fall off the side of a mountain!

And now it’s March, where the days have gotten much longer, as the sun doesn’t set right behind the tallest mountains so much. Emily’s parents visit next week and then I head off to a short meeting in Berlin. In the bits of time I do spend in the office, I’ve started a new research paper on the weather patterns that led to this very warm winter (and similar ones in previous decades) for the northern Alps and its relationship to the Arctic and the weather patterns in North America (cold!) and the UK (wet!) and what that all means locally for mountain grassland ecology. Skiing is still good, but with temperatures pushing 55 F lately in the valley, a bit of spring fever (and beautiful flowers) is creeping in.

More later.

Not broken Sochi Olympic rings, rather a latte done right by Audi.
Not broken Sochi Olympic rings, rather a latte done right by Audi.

Föhn-y Days

Sorry for the slow posting. It’s hard to believe that it is now more than four months since we’ve been here. And ski season is here! Well, mostly here. While eastern North America was trapped in a ridge of cold air recently, Europe has been on the other side of it. Trees are budding in parts of Germany, birds are confused, and supposedly there will be no ice wine this year (maybe they’ll just bring back the glühwein stands). And here in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, that means an unusually persistent föhn with bright blue skies, even with the sun going behind the mountains around 3 pm in winter.

turrell
Blue skies. Though this one is from a skyspace installation of James Turrell at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem

What’s that you say? Purse your lips on the ö and say “feh-ohwn” – or something like that. Föhn is a strong downslope wind. As winds blow over mountains and descend, they tend to accelerate, dry out, and warm up. The most similar example in the US are the Chinook winds off the northern Rockies, Cascades, and Black Hills. Santa Ana winds are a close cousin. Here in Garmisch, a stationary ridge of high pressure has meant the winds have been blowing from the south every day with very little deviation since late December.

meteorologie-wetter-foehn-104
Textbook föhn from BR media

In Europe, the föhn is associated with moods. It apparently makes people grumpy! Yes, dry, sunny skies makes some Germans irritable. While the föhn has been scientifically studied since the 1850s, if not earlier, there’s no scientific evidence of mood effects. The closest  I’ve seen is enhanced periods of trapped air pollution in Munich caused by the cold valley air being pushed out from the Alps into the city and creating strong inversions (like you get in Denver or L.A.). At this point, it’s probably psychosomatic or placebo response as much as anything, or at least a good excuse to explain away winter blahs.

Grumpy
What a grumpy person might look like 

One reason perhaps to be grumpy for skiers, though, is that after our cold and snowy start to December, we’ve had one of our driest Decembers on record, followed by an unusually warm January. Sunny skies have prevailed, which are hard to complain about (unless you’re German). But much of the snow at the base of the ski areas has disappeared, save for snowmaking. You’d have thought the groundhog has already come and stayed to party.

groundhog
Sometimes one has to *be* the groundhog. Or in this case prairie dog in the biblical zoo of Jerusalem.

Luckily, there’s nearly 7500 ft of elevation gain in town, so the upper parts are still in decent shape and glacier skiing has been great. And the kids have started after school ski school twice a week, since school ends before lunch and the Hausberg Gondola, where lessons start, is a 7 minute drive from our house.

SitaSkiSchool
Speed demon awaits her first lesson

So skiing keeps us busy. What else? I’m now in charge of the PhD summer school to be held here at my institute, getting sucked into a few new projects, and almost ready to submit another paper. We are officially residents of Germany, and can occasionally pass off as locals. We even watched and understood the gist of the season premiere of the crime drama “Garmisch Cops” (think CSI: Small-town Alps). We like hanging out and skiing with our ex-pat friends and neighbors, the Wulfs (who have their own blog). The kids’ German fluency is increasing daily; mine, not so much. And we have survived the onslaught of Advent season, including much ado about Sankt Nicolaus:

Mayabooth
Maya grows horns
Silent Nacht, with real candles!
Silent Nacht, with real candles!
AdventSita
Waldkindergartners do Advent best. In the snow.

But then they caught onto us and we were briefly kicked out of town. Well, not like that. So Christmas week is high season in town and our landlord had rented out our apartment for this time period before we signed our lease (and we knew that). So we packed up all our belongings into an extra room in the basement and moved out for two weeks, when Garmisch gets pretty crazy anyway. And we went far away from Advent and Christmas… 

To Israel, where both Christmas and New Years are just regular work days; school days even! Luckily, we even missed the epic Jerusalem snow storm and just got to witness its aftermath of downed trees and piles of snow under warm, sunny, Mediterranean skies. And meet up with our college friends Mike and Bat-Ami and their two kids who live in Modi’in near Tel Aviv, hang out with Emily’s mom near the Lebanon border, float the Dead Sea with my parents and sister, and even arrange to run into our Madison neighbors, the Swifts, who happened to be in Jerusalem the same time as us! (BTW, get another sabbatical perspective from their experience in Barcelona)

Finally, real sabbatical!
Finally, my kind of sabbatical!

Traveling is a bit like the föhn. Packing, airports, lines, confusion in foreign languages, exhaustion, jet lag, getting lost, bad meals, unplanned excursions to the interior of the West Bank (!), strange beds, are all strong downslope winds of grumpiness. But it misses the bigger picture of being exposed to beauty, culture, and adventure. So whether that’s

moving half-way around the world with an untold number of suitcases
Polishcake
attempting to conjure gluten-free 20-layer cake in Narewka, Poland
Holywater
testing the holy waters at an Eastern Orthodox shrine outside Warsaw
Brandenberg
snacking with the tired leg set at the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin
Fairytale
getting up close and personal with the somewhat disturbing fairy tales of Germany at the Freizeitpark Märchenwald in Wolfratshausen
Schoenbrun
imagining “we are royals” in Vienna
GFworld
learning why Italy is paradoxically gluten-free heaven
tidepool
exploring toilet-bowl flushing like tide pools on the Mediterranean shores of Israel
Turkishbath
feeling the steam of an ancient Turkish bath of Akko
chocolate
making chocolate on a Kibbutz
scanvenger
scavenger hunting for history in the Old City of Jerusalem
hebron
having our Jewish settler driver give us his narrated tour of Hebron in the West Bank of Israel/occupied Palestinian territory
Yatir
wandering past the barbed wire into a colleague’s research forest at the edge of the Negev desert (Yatir Forest)
haggling for food amongst the crowds of the Jerusalem shuk
getting nutty tring to haggle for food amongst the crowds of the Jerusalem shuk
Masada
debating the authenticity of paint in ancient ruins
masada2
feeling the creak of one’s knees 700 steps down Masada fortress
Domerock
or having exactly 2 minutes after a one-hour wait to wonder at mosaics and shrines built upon foundations of buildings built upon ruins at the Temple Mount

 

it’s all about attitude.

And coming in April – a trip to India! So next time sunny skies get you down, well, remember, clouds and snow are always just around the corner!

zugspitze

Immersion

Immersed in a bird!
Immersed in a bird!

One of the challenges of learning a language solely by immersion is that while vocabulary comes quickly from reading signs or listening to someone while looking for context clues, grammar comes much slower. Articles, conjunctions, prepositions, suffixes for gender/plurals, order of a sentence (wait, why did the direct object just show up in a random location!) do not come as easily. Yes, I probably should actually take a class or do an computer language course, but that assumes I have the patience for that. You see, professors make terrible students.

So while I’ve been getting better at understanding people at work, in stores, on TV shows (though Seinfeld with dubbed voices is bizarre), I’ve been more reticent to speak much beyond “Nein, Danke”, “sprechen Sie Englisch?”, and “Ja, Genau!” in person. And this leads me to hesitate before going out to do things that might require more conversation in places where switching to English is not likely, like school or personal care services. Not to mention a phone call. For the last few weeks, that would be getting avoiding getting a hair cut.

I decided, though, it was time to take the plunge, as the other day at work over coffee, I was labeled a mountain man for coming in with my untied winter boots (haven’t bought haus shoes yet), unkempt beard (well that’s just me being lazy), shaggy hair, and untucked plaid shirt. Hearing this from PhD scientists is even more poignant, because scientists are not known for their good dressing habits.

Computer simulation of what I might have looked like
Computer simulation of what I might have looked like

So I finally made the plunge to the local walk-in Frisseur. Emily helped me look at websites of pictures of balding men, and we finally found one of “Roger” from MadMen on a site called “artofmaniless.com”

Quick, grab me another scotch!
Quick, grab me another Dunkel Bier!

I brought that picture along with some practiced translations of “Would you cut my hair?” “How long is the wait?” and “Can you cut my hair like this?”.

And it worked! I didn’t make any small talk, not even sure if that happens here. I don’t make much conversation at salons at home, either, as I’m usually in a hurry between something or another, showing up in my winter biking gear with my laptop and coffee, and mostly I complain about grading papers or talk about kids and lice. The latter because it gets a rise out of everyone at the salon. It’s a forbidden word in a hair salon, so I like seeing how people react.

Runaway!
Runaway!

In particular, I find myself getting quieter when I am unsure of what to say and natürlich that just makes it harder to be understood. It’s something I’ve noticed in some of our international students at UW too. Nearly half of our applicants to our graduate program are international, mostly from China, with smaller numbers of India, Korea, Japan, Turkey, Iran, and Russia and even fewer from the EU. Most of the students we admit do very well, but often talk about being isolated from the rest of the department or unsure of the appropriate level of interaction with faculty or other students and generally don’t go about town outside of ethnic enclaves.  So, with my newfound tongue-tiedness, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I approach new international students in my lab, being more mindful of their reticence to speak or in particularly to speak loudly and with confidence, and what I can do to improve their experience and language acquisition. Grad students, even in science, write and talk a lot – conferences, pre-lim proposals, dissertations, manuscripts, and so on. Weak communication skills are often a greater impedance to progress than quantitative or analytical skills. This is true for domestic students, too.

It’s also interesting in that English is the universal language of science for presentation and publication (Math is the actual universal language of science, but that’s another story). In any institute of science or research conference in the world that I’ve been in, as soon as a room gains at least one non-native speaker, people generally automatically code-switch to English. We (scientists) are, as a consequence, very used to a wide variety of grammar and fluency, though most PhDs in science generally also have had good schooling in English. I also think spoken English is far more loose with grammar than other languages. I tend to drop articles when I’m speaking German, and while phrases like “Speak English?” or “open yet?” are just as understandable as “Do you speak English?” or “Is this store open yet?” in English,  I wonder if that is not so helpful auf Deutsch.

Lately, people at work are not switching from German to English when I sit down at their tables for coffee. Probably because they are used to me being around (why does this mountain man keep showing up for coffee and asking us about our research?) and assume I have some fluency. But it’s probably a good thing in forcing me to pay closer attention. Lately, I have started to find myself pay less attention to German dialog  and less interested in working hard to understand something, just relying on Google translate and rebelling with English language TV (yay, internet!) and radio (Armed Forces Network Radio Bavaria is hilarious, even all the US Government PSAs they play bring back nostalgia).

But as the German phrase of the day calendar reminds me – “Aus Fehlern wird man klug” – “One becomes smart from mistakes”. True in my research. True in my language immersion experience.

And the Friseur after having seen my Mad Men photo and finished cutting my hair, said, there, now you are George Clooney:

Let's go rob a casino!
Let’s go rob a science museum!

Well, no, but thanks. I couldn’t let go my American desire to tip all personally rendered services and she was surprised by my extra Euro, but she did have a piggy bank all ready for it, so I’ll still not sure what the proper tipping protocol is. And now I’m less mountain man, more science man:

Oooh, a selfie!
Oooh, a selfie!

Thankfully, the kids are picking up words and concepts much faster and spend more of their day entirely in German. I can see that while they’re still not talking a whole bunch, they are understanding much more and feeling much more comfortable in everyday experiences. And since most of you read this blog mainly for pictures and stories of them, here are a few highlights of recent adventures. Ciao!

Hiking the Orme dei Dinosauri dinosaur footprint trail in Revererto, Italy!
Hiking the Orme dei Dinosauri dinosaur footprint trail in Revererto, Italy!
Unicorns in Salzburg, at the same steps the Von Trapp children sing DoReMi.
Unicorns in Salzburg, at the same steps the Von Trapp children sing DoReMi.
Hot chestnut on an open fire season. Goes well with glühwein!
Hot chestnut on an open fire season. Goes well with glühwein!
Laterne Festival of Sankt Martin at Waldkindergarten
Laterne Festival of Sankt Martin at Waldkindergarten

(See also: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bMlhg8B2bpg&feature=youtu.be )

Waltzing to our homemade dice-generate tune at Haus der Musik in Vienna
Waltzing to our homemade dice-generated tune at Haus der Musik in Vienna