Tuesday, September 29, 2009


When your child is done with school for the day at 12:10, he not only has enough time to do his homework, but also to begrudgingly accompany his mother on what was supposed to be a reasonably short hike. Thanks to remarkably poor signage (as the pocket Badische Zeitung hiking guide explains, many of the trail signs were stolen shortly after the trail was updated a dozen years ago), we ended up spending three hours on a six-mile hike--and that, an abbreviated version of what was only supposed to be a 9 km round trip. There were ruins involved, of course, but after today, I believe I can speak for both myself and Elias when I say we've had our fill of the dinky ones. As Elias said, "I wish we could see some ruins that were never ruined."

Today's destination was the Ruinen Schneeburg, located atop the Schoenberg, near the village Merzhausen, on the southern edge of Freiburg. Built in the 13th century by the Lords of Hornberg, ownership had transferred by 1349 to the leaders of Ebringen, a town owned by the Kloster St. Gallen. The Burg was abandoned by 1500 because the commanding authority had built a new residence down the hill in Ebringen. Like the Zaehringer ruins, Schneeburg (which wasn't so named until 1575) became a casualty of the German Peasants' War in 1525.

We didn't make it home until 18:30. Despite the relatively late hour (by German standards), the Tuesday farmers' market in front of St. Urban church was still in full swing. We wrapped up our evening pleasantly with a dinner of homemade ravioli (half pesto, half sun-dried tomato/mozzerella) with diced tomatoes, parsley, and fresh garlic--all from the market. After Elias was in bed, Rodi and Renate returned from their two-day tour of Burgundy, bringing tales of Romanesque churches and one non-ruined Burg after another. They also brough a bottle of red wine, which, after a few months of the local Spaetburgunders, was startlingly rich and complex.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Clay class at the Fabrik

Knowing pretty much nothing about the layout of Freiburg before we committed to renting our apartment sight-unseen, we somehow managed to end up living within walking distance to most of the things that are important to us. Thus this evening I was able to trot over to the cooperative collective, Die Fabrik fuer Handwerk, Kultur, und Oekologie (The Factory for Handicraft, Culture, and Ecology), for the first of a five-week long session of pottery classes. As far as I can tell, the Fabrik is the only place in town to offer wheel-throwing classes, and they offer a grand total of...one. I'm taking "Drehen ohne durchzudrehen" ("Turning without blowing a gasket," i.e. beginning and continuing wheel) in the hopes of acquiring some pottery vocabulary and keeping my hands in contact with mud.

Located in the back of the Fabrik on the third floor, the cheerful Keramik Werkstatt (pottery studio) has all of the basic wheel-throwing necessities, such as mostly functioning wheels, relatively uncontaminated recycled clay, and a sink. For better or for worse, it also obeys the German pack-maximum-stuff-into-minimum-space principle.* All you potters at home: know that you've got it good!

*I've written a lot about this principle already, but have failed to point out that of course it applies only to us plebes. Royalty traditionally has had no shortage of square footage or high ceilings (not that the Habsburgs or Bavarian nobility would have had kick wheels in their Schloesser).

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Organ lesson and tape worms

On Thursday, at long last, I met up with organ teacher Herr Doktor Professor D. By the end of my two-hour power lesson, I had learned a huge amount about pedal technique, lyrical French style, swell work, and how to have faith in reed-heavy French registrations, as well as how much work I still have to do on Franck's Grand Pièce Symphonique.

In exchange for that first lesson, I'm translating some text into English for Professor D., who kindly suggested that I don't need to replicate the "tapeworm-length sentences" so typical of German. According to Wikipedia, "Taenia saginata, the beef tapeworm, can grow up to 40 feet long (12 m); other species may grow to over 100 feet (30 m)." I thus thank Professor D. not only for the excellent organ lesson, but also for the most vivid yet accurate metaphor for German sentence length that I've ever had the privilege of hearing.


Once upon a time, back in the sepia-tinted olden days, Stefan was a student at the University of Hamburg, where one of his friends in the Holzwirtschaft program was named Matthias. Yesterday, Matthias, his wife Bettina, and their kids Jona and Lina visited us in Freiburg. We did the touristy thing and went on a double-loop downtown meander. In addition to the requisite farmer's market shopping trip, Muenster tower climb, Gummibaerchen purchases, and Schlossberg hike, we also enjoyed the annual bread market at the Rathausplatz, where Stefan bought a round loaf a good two feet in diameter, and Elias tried his very first, long-coveted "Spaghetti Eis"--vanilla ice cream extruded to look like noodles, with strawberries (tomato sauce) and grated white chocolate (parmesan cheese) on top.

I'm pleased to report that, having survived climbing the Muenster tower last month, I gamely climbed it again. I learned that it is much easier to climb steep, narrow stone stairs when you do it with other people, as instead of imagining plummeting through the protective wrought-iron fence onto the hard cobblestones several stories below, you are forced to focus on the Arsch ahead of you lest you bump into it.

Which reminds me that Elias's peer-taught cursing vocabulary has progressed from "Mist" ("manure") to the slightly more expressive "Mist Haufen" ("heaping pile of manure"). The Badische Zeitung had an article on Saturday that refered to the pastoral odor of the Bavarian town Wahl, where the early morning air smells specifically of "Kuhmist" ("cow Mist"). Apparently there's a vast array of different Mist bouquets waiting to be smelled in Germany.

The article on the village Wahl (where, barring accidents, they expect 100% turn-out of all seven or so registered voters) was in honor of the national elections (Wahl/Waehlen) being held today. Germans vote on Sundays, when few people work and almost every business is closed, so no one has an excuse not to vote--except Stefan, alas, for reasons having to do with changes of address, non-fucntioning websites, and a slow postal system.

<-- Blooming artichokes, Batman!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Love's Tempests

There's a certain sound that a door makes when it closes and locks behind you. When you are on the outside of your apartment door with your child, signing for a package from DHL at the building entrance, and you hear that click, and the DHL guy hears the click too and looks up wide-eyed from his electronic signature device and asks with concern whether you have your key with you, and you and your child are standing there, both in sock feet, and you say "um, no, but, um, we'll be OK"--that's when you're grateful for a neighbor like Frau Ht.

Our apartment building has one or two apartments on each floor. In the two months we've lived here, I've seen a grand total of six neighbors, four of them just once. Frau Ht. is our first-floor neighbor, so we see her somewhat regularly in the back yard. We invited her over for a glass of wine two nights ago, and because she is generous with foreigners, she insisted we abandon siezening right off the bat.

So today, after the door locked behind us, we paid Frau Ht. a visit, and she kindly took us in and kept us entertained for the next three hours. (Stefan had forgotten his cell phone, so my increasingly desperate phone calls to him at work were being received across the hall in our living room). Halfway through our pleasant, wide-ranging conversation, Frau Ht. paused and introduced us to (bestill my beating heart) "Glotze"--German soap operas.

The show we watched today (Sturm der Liebe, episode 923) had it all: the Dumped on Good Woman and the Evil Rich Woman with the Heart Defect (switched in the neo-natal unit as babies!); the Kind-Hearted Pretty Young Thing who was still attractive even when poutily miffed at her Sympathetic Boyfriend the Aspiring Hotelier; the Manic Depressive Who Wouldn't Take Her Pills; the Simple Bavarian Country Couple who served as a foil to all those nasty rich people and showed what it meant to be a loving family (who needs money and hotels anyway?); the Blossoming Bavarian Country Daughter, who, despite her simple attire, radiated with natural beauty; the Handsome but Geeky Blond Guy who had such an obvious fondness for the chaste Blossoming Bavarian Country Daughter that he happily spent an evening playing card games with her family next to the Kachelofen (tile oven) in the small wood-paneled living room with deer antlers and handmade regional pottery lining the walls and then (ha ha) spent the night on the sofa despite the Simple Bavarian Country Couple's hopeful insinuations that maybe tonight would be the night he would finally deflower the Blossoming Bavarian Country Daughter; the Ruggedly Handsome Doctor, who romantically danced in the woods without music with the Dumped on Good Woman (who resisted the temptation to answer her cell phone) but appears to be in cahoots somehow with her enemy the Evil Rich Woman with the Heart Defect (who is the mother of the Sympathetic Boyfriend the Aspiring Hotelier); two Power-Abusing Male Hotelier Elders, one of whom switched those innocent babies so many years ago (oh, how could he?) and the other of whom was once the lover of the Manic Depressive Who Wouldn't Take Her Pills.

Most educational for me was the iciness with which the Dumped on Good Woman and the Evil Rich Woman with the Heart Defect siezened. For his part, Elias learned that every time a phone rang, the music changed and you could expect the character answering the phone to dash out of the room without finishing his prosecco.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

A little friendly distance

Stefan's brother and sister-in-law returned this evening from their bicycle tour of the Black Forest. Thus I was fresh off a leisurely two-hour dinner conversation with Bavarians when I arrived at the Lutheran Church's choir practice and said "Gruessdi!" to my fellow Tenoress. "Gruessdi" is Bavarian for "Greetings to informal-you-singular!"

A shocked expression crossed her face and she replied, "Wir siezen, bitte" ("we shall call one another formal-you, please"). Thereupon followed a quite educational conversation during which I tried to say, "I'm so sorry, I always get that mixed up in German, plus I was recently speaking with Bavarians. In English we have only one word for informal-you-singular, informal-you-plural, and formal-you-singular-or-plural, and that word is 'you,' unless one lives in the south, where one may also say 'y'all.'"

"No," Frau T. replied, "it is not at all complicated in German. You-formal and I are not intimate acquaintances. It is important to maintain a little friendly distance. Young people these days, they duzen [call one another informal-you] all the time. They don't understand that a little friendly distance is important. You can be friends with someone for thirty years without ever duzening. Yes, it is useful to keep a little friendly distance."

Meanwhile, one of the sopranos I met last week sailed past us and, seeing me, said, "oh yes, informal-you're Regina, right?" "No, I'm Liz," I corrected her; "and informal-you are...?" "Alex!" she said cheerfully, continuing on her way.

Introductions are important. It's generally OK to duzen with people who offer you their first names, but certainly you should siezen with people who tell you only their last names. Had I actually understood my fellow Tenoress when she introduced herself last week ("Ich bin frauzeh," she said, and I thought "well, I'll have to look up that adjective when I get home"), I would probably have been able to figure out that Zeh ("toe") was an unlikely first name--although, looking back on it, I'm sure I was siezening with her last week, because she's significantly older than I am, and courtesy dictates that you always siezen with your elders. So tonight I just messed up.

Complicating matters is that in Bavaria, when you meet strangers on a path, you are allowed to say "Gruessdi" (or "Gruess euch" if you encounter a group). Because you and your fellow wanderer both like to take walks, you have a special bond that permits such ebullient informality. If you are afraid someone will take you to task for duzening on the trail, you can play it safe and say "Gruess Gott" ("Grettings to God"), which in Southern Germany allows you to sound less like a foreigner than "Guten Morgen," "Guten Tag," or "Guten Abend." (Perish the thought that you would ever say "Gute Nacht" as a greeting--that's for late-night farewells only.)

One way to figure out whether you are supposed to siezen or duzen is to wait for the person with whom you are speaking to use a pronoun first. Until then, construct sentences that avoid pronouns altogether.

Perhaps the challenge young people these days have with keeping all these informal and formal yous straight is the reason that greetings have degenerated over the past twenty years from "Guten Tag" and "Gruess Gott" to the far cruder "Hallo." My fellow Tenoress agrees that "Hallo" is too informal and wonders what this world is coming to.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Interesting things fall out of the sky in Freiburg. When we first arrived, it was Lindenbaum seeds, twirling down like little dancing fairies.

Two months later, horse chestnuts are tumbling out of trees in vast quantities, and pint-sized Kastanien hunters are out in full force. On Friday, Elias's teacher told her 24 students to start collecting nuts: they would use them to count to and appreciate the number 1000. By Monday, Elias had found 19 on a casual walk to the park. A more dedicated classmate had found 700. Together, the class collected over 3000.

Horse chestnuts are bitter and slightly toxic. When they fall, they burst out of their spiky husks with an explosive pop. Pretty, shiny, and smooth, they beg to be picked up, like pebbles on a beach. Crowded together in a bucket or makeshift basket (folding up the hem of your T-shirt works just fine), they slide and knock against one another with a pleasing clunk. They're useful for arranging and rearranging according to size and shape, for counting and recounting, for evaluating according to ever-changing point-assignment systems, for rolling, tossing, and juggling, and for poking toothpicks into to build toy animals.


Now that Sommerferien is over, we are at last finding a balance in our lives between school, work, practice, and play.

This morning I practiced at the Lutheran church. The Braunschweig is kind of like a pre-adolescent golden retriever: its bark is relatively small and its feet a little oversized, but it's enthusiastic and eager to please, so you forgive it when its wagging tail whaps you. At precisely 11:30, the next organist came up to the loft, and I went my merry way back home, the falling leaves and light autumn breezes all the more lovely for the two and a half uninterrupted, productive practice hours. Right now I'm sitting outside, listening to the shouts of children enjoying Pause (recess) at the elementary school and to the church bells up the road chiming 12:00.

Later, I will go out with Elias for our regular go-grocery-shopping-almost-every-day-because-your-fridge-is-small-plus-you're-a-Hausfrau-therefore-you-have-time-to-shop-every-day experience. Grocery shopping in Germany is BYOEFB (bring your own ecologically friendly bags). Because you don't buy very much stuff at any one time (how many times must I remind you, your fridge is small), the check-out counter is only 4 feet long, giving you about two feet to put your items down and two feet for the checker to ring them up and push them forward and for you quickly to bag them before the next customer needs the space. As you bag your items, you think about how the small check-out space balances not only with the small fridge at home but also with the population-density-demands-packing-maximal-necessities-into-minimal-spaces rule. Because roads are narrow and cars are cramped, you also appreciate that there are four grocery stores, a fruit store, and two bakeries packed within easy walking distance.

Occasionally you will meet an eccentric German who likes to buy in bulk, like Stefan's mom's hairdresser. He throws up his hands at the diminutive packages of Philidelphia (as Bavarians call American cream cheese) sold at Tengelmann, and instead buys the two-kilo tub at the German Costco equivalent. He stores it in the large refrigerator in his shed, because the fridge won't fit into his kitchen.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Daily life continues

This morning I took my mother to the closest of the two corner pharmacies to help her buy a new bottle of potassium supplements, a prescription drug in the U.S., over-the-counter in Germany. The straight-laced, soft-spoken pharmacist smiled faintly, apologized that they didn't manufacture such small doses in Germany, and politely suggested my mother try a glass of apple juice instead. When we returned five minutes later with the right dosage information, the pharmacist pleasantly sold us the box of previously-offered tablets and, because this is the way of things in Baden, tossed in a complimentary packet of tissues. The most unusual thing about the experience was that the pharmacist was not a female wearing a white lab coat, like the vast majority of German Apotheker(innen), but a man wearing a fuzzy light brown suit.

I dropped my parents off at the bus station for the next step of their Grosse Reise (Grand Tour). Getting to the station is straightforward, but getting home is complicated by one-way streets and downtown pedestrian zones. I cleverly gave the Altstadt wide berth--so wide, in fact, that I got to see part of the highway to Offenburg, most of the University clinics on the outskirts of town, and a mysterious foggy suburb I'll never be able to find again.

Monday, September 21, 2009

After school

While we were making dinner this evening, my mom asked, "Is there anything I can do for you?" Apparently we don't say that enough around our house. Elias's jaw dropped, he looked with awe at his grandmother, and he gasped: "Oh, do something special for us!"

Elias's school day ends no later than 13:00 every weekday, which means that in theory we have lots of afternoon free time to spend in culturally or physically edifying ways. In practice, Elias is tired of edification. We have finally found a compromise between his desire not to go anywhere and my desire not to stay inside being driven nuts by a hyper child: the school playground.

Most of Elias's new buddies attend a very laid-back after-school program at his school. There was no room for Elias, but the director said the playground is public space and he should come by and play with the kids when they go out to play, from 15:00-17:00 every day. As I'm still responsible for him, I can't stray far, so while he's busy playing monkey-in-the-middle and jumping rope, I jog circle eights around the block and across the school yard. Preliminary data suggest that if Elias falls down and breaks an arm, he won't have to wait more than 3 minutes and 35 seconds for me to pass by. Today I did about seven miles. The scenery wasn't as varied as up in the hills, but I did get ample opportunities to observe the goth Realschule (middle school) kids experimenting with cigarettes, iPods, and budding sexuality at the bus stop.

Mist postscript

OK, I was trying to keep this a family friendly blog by sticking with the most polite synonym for "snap" that I could find. But as Nancy rightly commented, it means more than "drat." Stefan adds that I mistranslated "Mist" as well. He says Mist is the manure one shovels out of a stable ("usually mixed with urine and wheat straw"). So oddly, Mist literally means what snap only figuratively alludes to in order to convey something even more uncouth. Perhaps there's a linguistic terms for such a twist?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Schwarzwald Kloester

Our Best-of-the-Schwarzwald-Accessible-by-Car Tour (my dad has bum knees) continued today, taking us over Schauinsland and down into picturesque Todtnau. The name Todtnau has nothing to do with death (Tod), but rather was the last in a long line of variants starting with Toutenouua, presumably meaning "all new"--which perhaps it still was when written records first mentioned it ~1025 A.D. We stopped there because it was pretty. Little did we know that Todtnau was the birthplace of Karl Ludwig Nessler, inventor of the permanent wave, a historically interesting tidbit that we saw no evidence of at the little Italian cafe where we had lunch.

From Todtnau it was on to the town St. Blasien. St. Blasien has been the site of a monestary since the 9th century. After a fire in 1768, architect Pierre Michel d'Ixnard designed a new church. At its completion in 1781, the early neoclassical dome was the third largest in Europe: 36m wide and 62m high. The interior white marble glows in the light that pours through the windows, even on cloudy days like today.

After pausing for some gelato with odd bits of unidentifiable papery stuff in it, we piled back into the car and headed over to the Kloster St. Trudpert in the next valley over, the Muenstertal. Nestled on a hill, the abbey is surrounded by beautifully tended gardens, with an array of flowers still in bloom even this late in the season.

St. Trudpert was an Irish missionary who arrived in the southern Schwarzwald in the mid-7th century to start a hermitage. A knight who was supposed to help him instead murdered him while he slept under a pine tree. A lovely Baroque onion-domed church now stands (so the story goes) over the site of his murder, and a healing spring bubbles forth below one of the Kloster's chapels.

Having grown up near the University of Illinois's experimental farms (now the site of their veterinary medicine school), I couldn't help but notice the earnest winged cow inside the church. Poised to gallop into the air, she and her heavenly animal kin pull a golden chariot. Riding in the chariot, left arm raised, is someone we did not have time to identify before the church closed.

Tip of the day, offered by my wise mother high atop Schauinsland: You're destined to make many mistakes in your life, so you might as well get started now.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Autumn mist

My parents have been here for about 24 hours, and my father has already struck up more conversations with the natives than I have in my entire three months here--and in English, no less. Yesterday, we walked over to the farmers' market on the corner, and it happened that one of the local candidates for the SPD (Social Democrats) was there schmoozing for votes. His supporters--dressed in bright red and handing out bright red pencils, balloons, and political info--were happy to chat with the camera-wielding tourists about how great it is that Obama has cancelled plans for an American missile shield in Europe and to ask why Americans can't get health care right. At a Thai restaurant in the Altstadt, my dad struck up a conversation with the Philippino waiter about linguistic similarities between Tagalog and Malay. Oh, to be an extrovert.

Today's itinerary included a stop at the Lienhart bakery to see if my blog-reading mother could tell the difference between Kuchen and Torte; and the Best-of-Ruins-Reachable-by-Car tour, featuring Hochburg and Kastelburg.

Thanks to a week of school, Elias now knows how to say "snap" in German. For those of you who came of age a generation or more ago, "snap" is the current American elementary-school version of "drat." German kids say "Mist." (I looked up "Mist" in a German-English dictionary, and the dictionary said it meant "Bugger! [Brit]." I haven't told Elias what "bugger" means, but he heard the word and now thinks "Mist" means "booger," a substitute he finds sufficiently scatalogical).

Friday, September 18, 2009


My parents arrived from the U.S. this afternoon for the start of their Grosse Reise (Grand Tour), and they brought presents!

Ode to the dishwasher

Germany has a population density of about 230 people per square kilometer, compared to about 30 people/km2 in the United States. Unoccupied space is precious. As a result, Germans are the world's masters at packing a maximum of stuff into a minimum of space.

Consider the kitchen, which has every modern appliance a person might need. I have already mentioned the three foot high refrigerator, an invention that encourages living for the moment rather than planning for the future. There's also the diminutive oven, into which grateful turkeys all over Europe will never fit, and the pull-out hood over the stove. But the appliance I like the most in our kitchen is the dishwasher. It is just the right size to clean a day's worth of dishes.

In particular, I am verliebt (enamored) with the top rack. Rather than unceremoniously dumping your silverware into a basket--a basket that occupies prime real estate that could otherwise be used for at least two bowls and maybe also a plate--you thoughtfully place each piece of silverware on the top rack. The utensils have to be placed sideways: lay them flat and they collect water. Loading the rack gives you an opportunity to greet and appreciate each delicate dessert fork, each silver dessert spoon. For the obsessive compulsive, there is a certain soothing quality to placing all the butter-covered knives neatly between the tray's plastic prongs, and to aligning all the dinner forks and soup spoons--never touching!--in the same direction. The sharp and serrated cutlery rest safely perpendicular to the other utensils--you will never cut yourself reaching blindly into an overfilled basket--and despite the rack's short stature, it always welcomes the odd ladle or lonely spatula. And then comes that special moment, after the dishwasher is done running, when you pull out the rack and all the silverware glistens quietly below your gaze, and you are at peace with the world.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Wind instruments

The mighty 1957 Braunschweig: two manuals, pedals, 15 ranks. All two reed stops are in the pedals. Thanks to the Lutherische Kirche for permission to practice on it.

In other wind instrument news, Elias is practicing for a future career as Alphornist by blowing up balloons through four-foot-long cardboard tubes.

Last night, the stream of visiting relatives began. Stefan's brother and sister-in-law came for an overnight stay before heading off this afternoon into the rainy Schwarzwald for a multiple-day bike tour. Statistically, Freiburg is the sunniest city in Germany, but the forecast this week is for almost constant rain. We'll have a warm bowl of Flaedlesuppe waiting for them when they return.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

German engineering

Because Stefan is in our bedroom cursing about "idiotisch" German over-engineering ("wie kann man nur so 'an Scheiss konstruieren!"), I should probably say a few words about the quality of German products.

Pretty reliably over the years, whenever we'd lug a new box home from Home Depot containing, say, a power saw or a lamp, we'd lay out all the pieces on the floor and follow the assembly instructions only to find that a part was too big or too small or missing a hole, or that the nuts didn't fit the bolts, or that the wiring was frayed, or whatever. And pretty reliably, Stefan would furrow his brow and mutter angrily about the design flaws and the shoddy construction. "Typical American quality," he'd say. I'd reply defensively, "hey, you don't know that this was made in the U.S." And inevitably, the box would say "Made in the U.S.A."

In contrast, the phrase "Made in Germany" signifies precise engineering. Everything fits to a T. Pieces are precision cut, materials are long-lasting, and designs are aesthetically pleasing. Yet such industrious thoroughness has its faults.

Consider, for example, the sleek but humble toilet. If you're lucky, the reason your toilet doesn't work is that the only accessible Dichtung (how I love that word) is leaking. You buy a new gasket for a few Euros, replace the old one, and continue with your life. If you're unlucky, you're only option is to replace the entire tank, for the complex labyrinthine inner workings of German toilets are neither standardized nor do-it-yourself reparable. "Himmel, Arsch, und Zwirn."

Then there's the stainless steel toaster, glossy and proud, able to toast two thick slices of Vollkornbrot and gently warm a crusty Semmel all at the same time. It will never break. Nor will you ever be able to clean out that accumulating pile of crud in the bottom, unless you have a precision screwdriver handy, as the crumb tray is tightly attached to the appliance with four elegant, teeny tiny screws.

The current object of Stefan's disdain is a bed frame. The frame was designed to hold together with a mere twelve wooden pins and a couple of screws. So confident were its creators about its durable construction that they didn't leave any way to access the screw heads after years of changing humidity loosened all the joints. "So was bloedes."

The practical benefit that I reap from German design, of course, is learning how to curse auf Bairisch.

Peanut butterfly

Over lunch today, Elias and I were reminiscing about the nutritional convenience of peanut butter. Although one can buy it here, Germans don't really do peanut butter; they do Nutella. But you don't get to extrude your own Nutella at German health food stores, the way you get to extrude peanut butter in the states. As Elias explains, "Whole peanuts start at the top of the machine, and they go down and down, and they keep getting smaller and smaller, and then at the bottom, peanut butter comes out the nostril." Yum.

Monday, September 14, 2009

First day of school

Elias began third grade today at the public elementary school on the other side of our backyard fence. He is delighted to have regular contact with other kids again. This morning, several kids from his two-week summer camp materialized as if from nowhere and said cheerful Hallos before disappearing again into the first-day chaos. Elias's teacher seems friendly and confident, and the classroom is bright, comfortable, and spacious.

Parents don't seem to do the same amount of hand-wringing here as in the U.S., and the teachers don't seem to be under the same autonomy-crushing degree of curricular over-prescription. No proof of vaccinations is required; administrators figure if the kid hasn't caught anything awful yet, he's good to go.

On Mondays and Wednesdays, school starts at 8:40 a.m. Every other weekday it starts at 7:50 a.m. On Tuesdays, it lets out at 12:10 p.m.; every other day it lets out at 1:00 p.m. "I've never had such a short school day!", Elias said brightly this evening. Oh dear.

What better way to ensure a good start to the year than walking over to the Evangelische (Protestant) church for a service? German schools alternate the opening service every year between Catholic or Protestant churches. Because these are the two dominant religions in Germany, and because they run well-organized ships, they have a constitutional right to help educate the country's youth (and to tax Catholic and Protestant citizens)--thereby ensuring they will remain the two dominant religions.

Tuesdays and Thursdays Elias will get 45 minutes of religious education. Elias can choose between Catholic and Protestant, but since the Catholic third graders are all preparing for first communion, the school recommends he go with the Protestant kids. Or he can opt out and do, I dunno, something else during that time. (Regarding this, the principal said, "it's very convenient that he lives so close to the school!"). The reasoning is that religion is so integral to German culture and history, it has to be taught in the schools for everything else to make sense. Wonder what German Jews, Muslims, and other religious minorities--including Christian ones--think about that. Probably the same thing Native Americans think about being taught Christopher Columbus discovered their continent. (Incidentally, we have a Freiburger to thank for America being called America rather than Columbia, but that's a story for another time.) Officially, Germany separates church and state; thus priests and pastors, rather than teachers, handle religious education in the schools. Oh dear.

Summer vacation draws to a close

Friends have commented that Elias must be learning a lot on this trip. I think the central lesson for him so far--beyond learning to recognize Angela Merkel and subconsciously acquiring new vocabulary at an amazing rate--is that southern Germany is one big recreational paradise, created just for him. To help fuel that perception, we rode the Seilbahn (cable car) up to the top of Schauinsland on Saturday, then spent the next eight hours hiking down.*

Schauinsland is kind of like a 1,284 meter high Whitman's sampler for the civilized hiker. Not sure what you'd prefer? Try a little of everything: grass and wildflower covered meadows; steep forested ravines with babbling brooks; Baroque churches nestled on hills overlooking grazing sheep; easy-to-access peaks with panoramas of the Rhine river valley. Too hot? Move to the damp, windswept side. To cold? Move to the sunny, dry side. Hungry? Sit on a bench in front of some cows to eat an apple, or hike down to a village for coffee and cake.

We're now almost halfway through our six-month visit to Germany, and the time has come to shift gears. Today, Elias begins school, and tomorrow, Stefan and I have an appointment to apply for visa extensions for me and Elias so we can stay in the country legally beyond next week.

*For those with a fear of heights, the enclosed cable car cabin is far less scary than climbing to the top of the Freiburg Muenster.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Bayern in Baden

Just like American newspapers, the Sunday Badische Zeitung includes lots of ads (not that you can actually go out and buy anything in Germany on a Sunday, of course). The Edeka supermarket chain has a flyer in today's paper that sheds some interesting light on southern German culture.

The cover tells us the theme of the week: "Feiern wie in Bayern" ("Celebrate as they do in Bavaria"). A smiling, curly-haired young man holds up a glass of Bier. He is wearing Lederhosen and a Trachtenhemd--a special shirt to be worn with Lederhosen. The combination of beer, Tracht, and celebrating Bavarians can mean but one thing: it's time for Oktoberfest, the 16-17 day festival that starts in September and runs until the first Sunday in October.

Ah, but the Trachtenhemd is a giveaway: these are not real Bavarians, but Badisch depictions of Bavarians. The shirt has those fake-horn buttons that make Stefan's mother Helen cluck her tongue disapprovingly, and the photographs on the following pages have similar subtle clues to their inauthenticity.

Take the smiling young woman on the next page. Her blond hair is in braids, and her kitschy Dirndl (see below for some non-kitschy ones) is adorned with jim jams and trinkets. She holds a tray with five glowing beers. But something is not right. Were she a real Bavarian working at Munich's Oktoberfest, the glasses would be mugs, and she'd be holding perhaps as many as four in each hand--eight liters total--which would require a little more muscle on that slender frame.

The next page cuts to the chase. What signifies Bayern better than a Bretz'n (soft pretzel) and a headless, Dirndl-foisted bosom? Carol Adams, the author of The Sexual Politics of Meat, would probably have some interesting things to say about the placement of the phallic Weisswurst (white sausage) below the waist.

And now for some images of real Bavarians in action. Way back in July, Helen's village, Steinebach am Wörthsee, hosted this year's Huosigau Fest. The Huosigau is the region of Bayern centered in Weilheim, south of the Ammersee; it includes Steinebach and the towns around the Wörthsee. The Fest featured a long parade of the various local wind band societies, with everyone dressed in their own very local, traditional Tracht--far more elegant and modest than Edeka's stereotypes.

When people in Freiburg ask me where I learned to speak German, I tell them "mein Mann kommt aus Bayern" ("my husband is Bavarian"). This once elicited the response, "ha, really? But Bavaria isn't in Germany--it's a separate country--and we're happy for it to stay that way!" While Freiburgers might say this facetiously, Bavarians would say it proudly.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Ruins paydirt, part II

The second ruins on our pilgrimage today were the Ruinen Hochburg, which put all the other ruins we've visited so far to shame. While most ruins make you think about how cold, cramped, damp, and dark life must have been high up on that isolated hill, Hochburg makes you think about what skilled artisans those stonemasons were, and what nice views those rich folks must have had out the windows of their multiple third-story privies. (Which reminds me to mention that Elias's current favorite bathroom reading material is The Economist. It's in English and has pictures.)

Hochburg is situated on a large hill covered with apple orchards, woods, and vineyards, located outside the town of Sexau, near Waldkirch. According to our Badische Zeitung pocket hiking guide, written documents first refered to Hochburg as early as 1127. Unlike Kastelburg, which changed lineal hands multiple times, the Margraves of Baden-Hachberg owned and expanded on the site from the 12th century until the 1600s. In 1636, during the Thirty Years' War, Habsburg troops conquered and destroyed the bastion. The margrave Friedrich VI had the castle rebuilt beginning in 1660, but his successors vacated and destroyed the new fortifications to prevent an attack by the French in 1681. In 1684, the upper portion caught fire; and in 1688 the French occupied the site and demolished what was left.

For all of that knocking and burning down, a remarkable amount still remains for tourists to view through a romantic lens.


No, not the food of the gods: Ambrosia is the German name for common ragweed. As uncomfortable as breathing is right now, I think I nevertheless have to be impressed that the planet provides an abundance of allergens on every continent.

Ruins paydirt, part I

There are some brilliant folks in Waldkirch (pop. ~21,000, ~16 km northeast of Freiburg). As if large and well-preserved fortress ruins aren't incentive enough to get a kid to hike several switchbacks up a steep hill, the local Ruins' Restoration Initiative has added carved wooden knights, and signs with historical tidbits, at regularly spaced intervals along the path, ensuring that kids will outpace their parents the entire way.

Rather than hiking several hours to feed our newest habit, today Elias and I took it easy and drove. Our first destination: the Ruinen Kastelburg, overlooking Waldkirch. According to the wooden knights, the Burg was built by lords of the Eschenbach, Schnabelburg, and Schwarzenberg clans in the early 13th century as a show of might. At the same time, they founded Waldkirch in the valley below so there would be a town to protect. (You'd think they might have done it the other way around--founded the city first, and then built the castle to protect it--but the sign says what the sign says). Martin Malterer (knighted in 1361) purchased the Burg and the city in 1354 for 2,140 silver pieces. He owned a complete suit of armor that cost him 45 cows. As a knight, he had to keep his word; protect the citizens of Waldkirch; assist the defenseless; fight evil-doers; judge wisely; be generous to the poor; and obey the faith and the commandments.

No knights trail would be complete with just a good guy. Thus enters the cruel Count Hermann von Sulz, who arrived at Kastlelburg in 1396. He wreaked havoc wherever he went and took all he could from the citizens of Waldkirch, down to their very last drops of blood. He fought with cunning, and he waylaid rich merchants, throwing them in prison until they paid a ransom. He and his warriors marauded the entire Elz valley, taking all they could obtain. ["This sign sponsored by the Consortium against Vandalism, 2004." I'm not kidding.] His chain mail had 40,000 tiny iron rings and weighed 14 kg.

At this point in the story, the wooden knights end and the ruins begin, so we must turn to other documents--like our little Badische Zeitung pocket hiking guide--to know what happened next. That the fortress is now in ruins makes clear, of course, that someone eventually lost, big time. During the Thirty Years' War, the protestant Hachbergers conquered the Burg from the Habsburgers; taking it back in 1634, the Habsburgers pillaged and destroyed it, so there.

One of the most impressive parts of the Kastelburg ruins is a tall, square lookout tower. My fear of heights kept me from climbing all the way to the top of the wooden staircase (the railings of which are well polished by years of people holding on for dear life). While I sat in a window one flight up, keeping my knees from shaking by practicing how I might say over my cell-phone, in German, "Hello, I'm at Kastelburg, my one and only beloved child just tumbled from the top of the tower over the cliff, please send help!", Elias strode boldly upward and took lots of photographs from the very top so I'd know what I missed.