Friday, July 31, 2009


This story's only going to make sense if you can read a little German...

There's a word that's new to me that keeps cropping up in Harry Potter und der Feuerkelch: "söben."

Often when I'm reading, I gloss over words I don't know, especially if I understand most of the surrounding text. If I'm lucky, I can accurately figure out the meaning of a new word from context, as with "Verteidigung" in "Verteidigung gegen die dunklen Kuenste" (defense against the dark arts). But not so with "söben," and it really occurs all over the place. So I looked it up in my little Collins Gem German-English Dictionary.

"I don't understand how I could have gotten by all these years without ever having heard the word söben," I told Stefan.

"Söben?" he said, "I don't know that word."

"But it's all over the place in Harry Potter und der Feuerkelch. Söben."

He looked dubious. "Are you sure? How do you spell it?"

"Tsk, of course I'm sure. It's spelled s-o-e-b-e-n: söben."

"Söben? No, there's no such word in German."

"It's in my dictionary!" I insisted. "It means 'just now.' S-o-e-b-e-n."

Stefan pondered a moment--"S-o-e-b-e-n, s-o-e-b-e-n..."--then laughed. "Oh, you mean so-eben!"

Doh. I know the word soeben. And I had wondered why the typesetters had gone for the oe instead of an ö. Three cheers for another compound word!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

4929 Miles to Wall Drug

When I was a kid, my family took quite a few how-many-miles-can-you-drive-in-how-little-time vacations. On one memorable trip, we started from our home in Urbana, Illinois, and headed west, out to the South Dakota Badlands and Mt. Rushmore. That was the vacation when I got to see not only the Mitchell Corn Palace ("The World's Only!"), but also "America's Favorite Roadside Attraction" (turn left at the Jackelope), Wall Drug.

Munich is 4929 miles from Wall Drug. Freiburg is a little closer at 4811. But the point is, everywhere in Germany is a long, long way from Wall Drug.

Founded in 1931, Wall Drug made its claim to fame by offering visitors free ice water. Germany is a long, long way from free ice water. (That Germans don't put ice in their beverages is beside the point. We're a long, long way from free water.)

To drink water in a restaurant, you must order water. In a restaurant, "Wasser" usually means "Mineralwasser," which usually means seltzer--or "Sprudel" here in the south (although if you order "Sprudel," the waitperson usually asks "Mineralwasser?"). To drink non-fizzy water, you must specify "stilles Wasser." Like Sprudel, restaurant-grade stilles Wasser is gathered by hand from a pure mountain spring hidden deep in the Black Forest or high in the Alps, then gently cleansed and carefully siphoned into a pretty glass bottle anywhere between 0,2L and 1L in size. Your waitperson opens your bottle of bubbly (or stilles) for you, then pours it into a wine glass marked with a 0,2L line near the rim.

Stilles Wasser does not come out of a tap in the kitchen. Oh dear. That would be "ganz normales Leitungswasser" (totally normal tap water). Ganz normales Leitungswasser actually tastes quite good in southern Germany: cool, clean, refreshing, and chock full of chalk tasty minerals. You could order "ganz normales Leitungswasser" in restaurants, but doing so would be crass, and your unimpressed waitperson would accidentally forget you ever asked for it, so Don't Do It.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The one-second rule

Driving from Freiburg to Steinebach today, I realized I forgot to mention the "one-second rule" in my previous post about the Autobahn. The one-second rule is a useful aid for the aggressive driver. In simple terms, it means you should always follow one second behind the driver ahead of you--that is, regardless of what speed you're travelling, the front of your car should pass by a roadside object one second after the back of the car immediately in front of you passes it. This practice ensures that all cars on the Autobahn will stop en masse more quickly than if drivers were to waste precious pavement space by leaving larger gaps between vehicles. For some dramatic consequences of the one-second rule, consider this 259-car pile-up last week on the Autobahn between Hanover and Peine.

Monday, July 27, 2009


Some Schmetterlinge (butterflies) from Elias:

On the possibility that dirt might in part be comprised of cow poop: “That’s what haunts me about dirt.”

On fundamental forces: “That’s what I don’t like about gravity: If you’re walking downhill on a rocky path and gravity pulls you down, you can get hurt.”

On seeing the two-time Bulgarian national acrobatics champion at Circus Roncalli Saturday afternoon: “I used to be really good at that.”

On Sunday we hiked up Schauinsland, the highest mountain near Freiburg (1284m). “Schauinsland” means “look into the countryland." We chose one of the noisiest possible days to hike up, as there was an antique car race up the mountain and none of the cars had mufflers. We encountered two ADAC officials when our trail through the woods crossed the race road. The men suggested we should have known today wasn’t a smart day to hike, and Stefan explained we weren’t from around here. Their response: “what, you can’t read the papers?” Tsk. The race ended at the two gigantic windmills about two thirds of the way up the mountain, so things were a little quieter heading to the top.

Elias enjoyed his first cuppa decaf ("Kaffee Haag"--Haag is the brand name) when we made it back to our starting point in Horben, then bounced off the walls until 10:30 p.m.

Today we head back to Helen's in Steinebach, to visit her once more, to welcome our friend Susan (our first visitor from the U.S.--and we don't have our own place in Freiburg yet, alas), and to pick up the rest of our suitcases and Stefan's bike. Stefan will drive our stuff to Freiburg on Friday and will sign our lease. Elias and I will join him by train on Saturday, and then we'll call Freiburg "home" for the next few months.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Gottenheim and Breisach

Elias, in bed reading, wanted to know why he had to go to bed, whereas Stefan and I get to stay up late and drink Ovaltine. I told him it was because we’re grown ups and we have all the power. Seeking justice, he asked, “so will I get to stay up until 9:30 and drink Ovaltine when I’m grown up?” You got it, kid.

Now that his head has hit the pillow, we’re finally enjoying some quiet. From the moment Elias and I stepped out the door this morning, until now, he’s been chattering non-stop. Setting the bar high for most of his verbal communication today, he started by finding out how “Puff the Magic Dragon” would sound if he used his fingers to hold his tongue outside of his mouth while he sang. Then he lowered the bar.

After Stefan went to work in Freiburg, Elias and I walked from Waltershofen to Gottenheim—about 5km along the ridge of the Tuniberg, following paved bike routes that meandered past vineyards and fields of corn and overgrown asparagus. Upon entering Gottenheim, we discovered a park with a zip line. Elias could have stayed all day, but instead we headed down to the Bahnhof and caught a train to Breisach.

Breisach is on the east side of the Rhine River; on the other side is France. The town is an odd mix of the very very old (some bits and pieces go back to the 12th century), 1950s post-war modernism, and industrial storage tanks. About 85% of the town was destroyed in World War II.

High atop the town is the St. Stephansmünster, built between the 12th and 15th centuries, and restored after the war. Near the Münster, we found a small stone memorial and a chilling plaque: “To the memory of the Breisacher Jews, who on 22 October 1940, together with all Badisch, Pfälzisch, and Saarländisch Jews, were deported to the concentration camp Gurs in the French Pyrenees. We cannot alter the past, but the future lies in our hands” (2004). The Breisach synagogue, built in 1804, was burned down in November 1938, shortly after Kristallnacht; another memorial (which we didn’t go see) stands on that site. There's apparently still an active Jewish community in Breisach that serves the town and the surrounding communities.

After lunch, Elias and I played a round of mini-golf at the dumpy mini-golf course across the street from the RV park on the Rhine, then went for a walk around Breisach’s Eckartsberg. Eckartsberg is a terraced vineyard; its walls include parts of the original city walls dating from the 14th century, and on top are some remains of old city fortifications with the European flag flying in the breeze to symbolize unity.

The walk along the Eckartsberg is designated “Lyrik am Weg,” a walking tour that includes plaques with poems. We observed two genres of poems: those of the “O Rhein, your wines are so great” variety, and those of the “O Rhein, you separator of formerly fighting nations now at peace” variety. Among the former was this tidbit from Goethe: “Trunken müssen wir alle sein! / Jugend is Trunkenheit ohne Wein...” (“We must all be drunk! / Youth is drunkenness without wine...”). There's more to the poem, but I was greatful to Goethe for those first two lines. Perhaps 8-year-olds jibber-jabbered in his time as well.

Among the latter variety were poems such as this by Lina Ritter (1888-1981): “Warum trennt uns e Rhi? / Ass mir zeige chenne, wie / me Brucke bäut.” The poem is in Alemannisch, the dialect spoken in this region, so the sign translated it into Hochdeutsch: “Warum trennt uns der Rhein? / Damit wir zeigen können, / wie man Brücken baut” (“Why does the Rhine separate us? So that we can show how one builds bridges”).

The Eckartsberg walk took us close to the freeway over the Rhine, and Elias decided we should walk to France. Alas, the site of his first steps on French soil did not show the country in its best light.

Stefan met up with us in Breisach after work. After more wandering and dinner, we drove home—stopping off at the very fun zip line in Gottenheim, the highlight of Elias’s day.

Eee, fff, sss

The word Donaudampfschifffahrtkapitaensgattin reminded me of another cool thing you can do in German but not in English: legitimately stick three of the same letter together in a row in a single word. Consider, for example, Schneeeule (snow owl; thank you, Harry Potter und der Feuerkelch) and Flussschleiche (river bend). Of course, this occurs only within those fabulous compound nouns...

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Scoping out the 'hood

Today in a brochure about kids' summer camps, I read a word even longer than Hochsicherheitsgefangene: Asylbewerberleistungsgesetz. A whopping 27 letters to say "asylum seekers' monetary aid." I don't expect to have many opportunities to incorporate that into conversation (compared to the ever-practical Hochsicherheitsgefangene), but it's nice to have another specimen for the Museum of Impressively Long German Words--a phrase, incidentally, that Stefan says you can't effectively translate as a single word. Also in the museum is German's answer to "antidisestablishmentarianism": "Donaudampfschifffahrtskapitaensgattin" ("Danube steamboat captain's wife").

We saw our future apartment for the first time today. Grungy from the outside, but quite nice from the inside. Special bonus: an upright piano! The apartment is furnished and, to our relief, fully equipped with towels, dishes, etc. There's enough room to accommodate visitors, so start booking those airplane tickets. We move in August 1.

Saying Elias' school is right around the corner makes the school sound farther away than it is. Elias will have to walk out the front door, head left a few meters, then turn left into the schoolyard behind our apartment building. In addition to the school, there are two bakeries, two pharmacies, a grocery store, a farmers' market, and a hardcore bicycle shop within two blocks of the apartment building, plus the Stadt Garten (I was corrected today for calling it the Stadt Park) less than a kilometer away. We've clearly lucked out.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Rainy day news

I had a mix of successful and unsuccessful German-as-a-foreign-Sprache experiences today. The main challenge for me in Freiburg--aside from having to speak with complete strangers, as opposed to supportive friends and relatives who pretend everything I say makes sense--is that folks here speak with a Badensisch accent, which is very different from the Bairisch accent I've grown used to hearing over the past 20 years.

After Stefan dropped us off downtown, Elias and I found a quiet plaza to sit in, and I phoned the Hochschule fuer Musik to contact the Herr Doktor Professor with whom I hope to take organ lessons this fall. I stumbled over my carefully rehearsed polite opening, Hallo, meine Name ist... "Dang!," I thought, "that was supposed to be 'mein,' not 'meine'--curse you, O noun that ends with an E but isn't feminine like the vast majority of other German E-ending nouns!" That thought took up so much mental space that I couldn't quite follow the receptionist when he said Herr D. was in the concert hall--or maybe on a concert tour--or, well, doing something or being somewhere involving one of those long compound nouns Germans are so good at. I did manage to learn that Herr D.'s telephone number was private, which saved me the embarrassment of a second phone call. Thank goodness for email.

After that, Elias and I stepped inside a bookstore. The salesperson addressed me in English, and I responded determinedly auf Deutsch, successfully asking for and being cheerfully offered exactly the books I was looking for. Yay me!

In other good news, Elias observed brightly this afternoon, "I think maybe I will not fall in a gutter today." And he didn't! We also enjoyed some pea-sized hail, to his great delight.

This evening, I learned that the Muenster was one of the few buildings in the Altstadt not to be destroyed in World War II. The present-day "old town," modeled on medieval city plans, includes several reconstructions of original buildings, with the rest of the new construction in a congruent style.

Having learned this, I'm trying not to feel so embarrassed by the big McDonald's sign on the gate over Kaiser Joseph Strasse, since reconstructed historic integrity isn't quite as precious as the real thing. Or is it? Still, the sign is cringe-worthy.

The cobblestone walks are all relatively new, and they're charming. Many of the mosaics indicate what the adjacent stores sell: a pretzel for baked goods, scissors for haircuts, and a goose Many of the designs have endured longer than their corresponding businesses, so you might find a toy store with a mosaic pair of scissors on the sidewalk out front. The sidewalk stones are all quite small--ranging in size from about an index finger to a pinky.

Not just any socks

Part of the process of starting a blog includes choosing a url. then searches its records to determine whether your desired web address has already been taken. Wouldn't you know, and pretty much every conceivable variation of [kaes]spaetzl[i, en, n] are in use. (We didn't know that in Baden-Wuerttemberg, Brotzeit is called Vesper; for the record, is also unavailable.) So Stefan started suggesting culturally relevant words that only a privileged few would know. Thus was born

You can tell from the L without a neighboring vowel that "Wadlstrumpf" is a Bavarian word. Other Germans spell Wadl "Wade[n]." Stefan says it is difficult for Bavarians to say "Wadde," so they say the much easier-on-the-tongue "Wadl" instead. Besides which, other Germans don't wear Wadlstruempfe anyway, so Bavarians can call them whatever they want. "Wadl" means "calf"; "Strumpf" means stocking. So a Wadlstrumpf is a calf-stocking.

Note that the men in the photograph are not wearing Wadlstruempfe: they are wearing socks. Wadlstruempfe are for the calves only. Take away the grey part below the bottom green stripe, and you have a Wadlstrumpf. You see a lot more socks than Wadlstruempfe in Bavaria. How's that for a concept familiar to only the privieleged few?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


We've been in Freiburg for two days now, and are thoroughly enamoured with this city. The vibe is a mix of Asheville, NC, and Portland, OR, with maybe a little Berkeley, CA, tossed in. Freiburg is grungier than Munich, but in a welcome, earthy way. Elias and I have spent two entire afternoons at the Stadt Park near the old city center and have heard people speaking German, English, Spanish, Italian, French, and Russian. The park is the hangout for laid back jam-sessioning musicians, shirtless young men tightrope walking, aging hippies with more blond dreadlocks than clothes, college student frisbee players, bicyclists, strollers, joggers, and to Elias's great delight, lots and lots of kids of all ages. As afternoon merges into evening, the park fills up with more and more people, but it hasn't felt too crowded yet.

I took the photo above (the Vodafone gods are smiling upon our internet connection tonight!) on Sunday evening, so the square around the Muenster was relatively empty. Check out all those cobblestones! The Altstadt streets and sidewalks are paved with stones, many of them arranged into mosaic designs (mostly white borders, but also pictures of faces, coats-of-arms, and scissors). There are also small canals running along many of the streets. The canals are much like the ones I saw in Malaysia when I visited my parents there in 1990, except they're shallower, paved in cobblestones, and not filled with stinky garbage. Yesterday, as Elias was hopping back and forth over one of the canals, I predicted out loud that he would fall in a canal at least once before December. He managed to check that off the list about 10 minutes later, pretty surprised and pretty drenched by his tumble.

We hadn't planned on visiting the square today, but while Elias and I were climbing up and down the Schlossberg this morning (a big hill near the park, with a lookout tower on top), we heard bagpipe music wafting up from the old city. After a month of Lederhosen, I wanted to see kilts, so we walked over to the square after our hike and found--lo!--no bagpipers, but a gigantic farmers market with meter after meter of fruits, veggies, cheeses, breads, meats, jams and honey, wooden shortbread cookie forms, handwoven baskets, jewelry, etc. I guess the sound that farmer's market sirens make to lure wayward travellers to their financial doom is bagpipe music.

And speaking of music, this evening we enjoyed an organ concert at the Muenster: Zuzana M.-Maria Ferjenčiková, from Wien. We were too cheap to buy a program, but I could identify Bach (Aus tiefer Not), Mendelssohn (Sonata No. 4), Schumann (Six canons in the form of an Etude), and Liszt (something with a lot of B-A-C-H). Virtuosic playing, but the Muenster organ makes me appreciate how good the organs at Duke Chapel are.

Other signs that this is going to be a great place to live: tons of bicyclists everywhere; and clean public restrooms. Would you believe the public restrooms in the Stadt Park have a toilet brush in every stall?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Welcome to my blog

For the record, the previous post was written on Sunday, not Monday; it just took a while to get the text to upload properly. I'm still figuring out how this blog software works. I was hoping to upload some photographs too, but the internet connection where we're staying this week--in a basement studio in Waltershofen, outside of Freiburg--is too weak. I guess Vodaphone has a hard time receiving satellite signals through concrete. The poor connection also means I can't upload any images showing actual Bavarian Wadlstruempfe, so an explanation of the blog name will have to wait. Welcome anyway...

Roadtrip to Freiburg

I’ve just come off two hours of listening to an eight-year-old sing the same one and half phrases of Puff the Magic Dragon over and over, non-stop, out of tune and with a mix of original and newly invented words. The kid scores points for enthusiasm; his parents score points for endurance. Thank goodness we’re finally in Freiburg.

We left Steinebach this afternoon a little before 1 p.m. and took the Autobahn to Lindau, the city farthest west in Bavaria before you enter Baden-Wuerttemberg.

Driving on the Autobahn is just like driving on American highways, except that every driver gets to choose his or her own speed, regardless of the posted speed limit. For example, if the speed limit is 120 km/hr, you might drive anywhere between 60 and 140km/hr, unless you are driving a Ferrari, in which case you get to drag race with other Ferraris at 200km/hr. Be sure to check your blind spot before changing to the fast lane, as cars too far away even to be seen in the side-view mirror will be on top of you in the blink of an eye. In case road construction necessitates merging, do not take advantage of the driver who’s trying to let you into her lane, but instead wait with all of the other fast cars so you can all try to change lanes together at the last possible moment.

We pulled off the highway in Ueberlingen in the hopes of finding a cafe, but found something even better: ripe, fresh fruit, everywhere. Miles and miles of immaculately pruned pear groves and apple orchards; fruit stands offering strawberries, blueberries, and cherries; and vineyards and fields of hops. We bought enough fruit in Ueberlingen to supply us for our first few days in Freiburg, and then ate most of it before we reached the end of the Bodensee.

From there it was up onto a plateau to Donaueschingen, source of the beautiful blue Danube (Donau), and into the Black Forest, which is neither black (as expected) nor exactly a forest (unexpected). Turns out the Black Forest is more a region than a contiguous forest; many of the trees on level ground disappeared, probably centuries ago, to make way for farm land. The long, steep descent into Freiburg was more in line with expectations, with stunning, steep cliffs and dense forest.

And then we arrived in Freiburg. We strolled through the center of the old town, over mosiac cobblestone streets and past the Muenster with its pealing bells (announcing that it was 7:47 p.m.?), and found dinner at a middle-eastern restaurant near the University. We enjoyed inexpensive falafel and hummus and--bestill my beating heart--copious and myriad fresh and crispy vegetables! Hooray for university towns!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Cultural highlights from Bavaria

We've been staying with Stefan's mom, Helen, in a Dorf outside Munich since June 23. On Sunday, we'll head to Freiburg for the first time to start making living/work/school arrangements.

Despite a temporary setback in the weather--it rained all day today and temps were only in the 50s (oF)--the clouds that we enjoyed when we first arrived in June have lightened up a bit, and warmer temps have paved the way for gigantic prehistoric mosquitoes from Hell. Stefan located one of their breeding sites in Helen's plugged up gutters and eliminated a few hundred from the gene pool of millions. Open a window or a door for half a second and they swarm inside in search of fresh warm blood, eager to bite through socks and long sleeved shirts. Poor Elias won the prize for Most Mosquito-Bitten Torso, with about 75 bites (we counted). Screens might help, but Germans don't do screens, so instead we wave our arms around and swear a lot.

Yesterday we went to the “Moar Alm” (Bavarian for "Maier Alm," which means the Maiers' summer house), a house owned by some of Helen's friends (not Maiers), in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps. The current owners have traced the house back to 1603, but they think that at this point only the foundation and parts of the first-floor walls are still original. The house has no plumbing or electricity, but it puts every mountain cabin I’ve ever visited to shame. It’s BIG. Alms are where you go in the summer with your herd of cattle, to let them graze. The Alm originally was used for cheese-making--so the basement is pretty amazing--and later a stall was added for calves. Cows still graze in an adjacent field, and every one of them wears a differently tuned bell. The garden is immaculate--the American ideal of a green lawn and flowers must have been inherited from what happens naturally in Bavaria. Most of the mountain is either wooded or used for grazing, and a short walk down the road leads to assorted hiking trails. We saw a total of one mosquito on our attempted hike up one of the peaks.

On the hike we were reminded of the importance of feeding cranky kids. Elias and I drafted a mental postcard in German to his friends back home (translated into English for your reading pleasure): “Dear friends, Greetings from Germany. Today we hiked up a mountain and I hated every step of it. All I wanted to do was sleep, but my stupid parents made me go. Wish you were here, Love, Elias. P.S. I ate a banana and then everything was better.” We were using an outdated map, so we ended up on the wrong trail and never made it to the top. But we got to see woods, meadows, rivulets, and lots of cows.

Right when we were ready to leave the Alm, a rescue helicopter landed at the end of the long driveway, in the middle of the road down the mountain. The mountain rescue team was picking up an injured parasailer. How's that for service? Since we couldn't drive down, we drove uphill instead and had dinner at the Wirt Alm (inn), where the proprietors specialize in Brotzeit. Ahh, Brotizeit. Brotzeit is Germany's most cherished meal; we must speak of it with great respect, or we get in trouble with our in-laws. It consists of evenly sliced, hearty, not quite dry-as-dust German bread, plus Something. For the vegetarian, that means dry bread plus sliced cheese, or dry bread plus sliced tomatoes. The other 20 menu items are for the carnivore: for example, dry bread plus a slice of fried Leberkaese ("liver cheese," which doesn't actually have any liver in it), or dry bread plus sliced wurst and onions in vinegar. In order for dry German bread to taste good, you have to slather it with butter, and the butter here is really tasty, so that’s a bonus. Note that you do NOT get to combine vegetables with proteins; thus if you have Tomatenbrot, you get only tomatoes and dry bread: no cheese allowed. If you’re lucky, when you order a protein Brotzeit, you get a little piece of vegetable to go with the dry bread. This little piece of plant-form appears to be mainly for color, to contrast with the pale cheese or the pale meat. Radishes are especially useful for this purpose: unsliced, they add bright red to a plate; sliced, they add delicate red circles, while their white centers match the rest of the food.

Stefan, who is sitting beside me right now, is defending Brotzeit: "You have to understand, it's the social aspect that's important. You sit together, you've exercised, you have a cold beer. Those are the important things. And it's something you do particularly in Bavaria, and particularly in the mountains. It's hard to get stuff up there. So you get the simple things." The view from the Wirt Alm, of course—mountains, meadows, cows, Alpenglow—was great; you can't get that at home. But I guess what strikes me most about Bavarian restaurants is their remarkable consistency. You'd think if you could lug gallons of beer and wurst up a hill, you could lug some non-white foods up there too, or that one restaurant might lug up a few carrots, say, and another might lug up a few beets. "Yeah," says Stefan, "but what are you going to do with those?"

In the interest of marital harmony, my accurate description of Brotzeit must stop here.

I'm learning lots of useful German by reading Harry Potter auf Deutsch. My favorite word so far: Hochsicherheitsgefangene--24 letters and just one word to say "high security prisoner"! Compare that to English, which takes a measly 20 letters and divides them over an uneconomical three words. I was a little disappointed that German couldn't fit "Verteidigung gegen die dunklen Kuenste" (defense against the dark arts) into one word. Rest assured, I'm also learning words that I've been able to incorporate into daily conversation, such as Efeu (ivy), Flur (hallway), and Zauberstab (magic wand).