Monday, November 30, 2009


This morning, I was standing outside the St. Petrus Canisius administration building next to the church, waiting for the secretary to arrive so I could pick up the organ key. The weather was cold, windy, and wet. Complainant Number Two shuffled down the sidewalk, hunched over her walker but looking surprisingly sprightly in her clear plastic rain cap and clear blue plastic slicker.

"What, is nobody inside?" she asked.

"No," I said.

"But they have Sprechstunden [visiting hours with the priest] starting at 9:00."

"No, starting at 10:00. It's 10:05 now."

"What?! They ought to be punctual!," she declared, indignant that I should be made to suffer so.

"Yeah, but it's cold, and it's raining. Someone will come."

She shook her head disapprovingly, wished me a "schoenen Morgen noch" ("nice rest of the morning"), and to my horror, she entered the church. Clearly she hadn't recognized me as the disrespectful organist who thinks the sanctuary is a practice room.

A minute later, the secretary arrived and gave me the key, and I went into the church to practice. As I walked past Complainant Number Two, I heard the gears click inside her head. "Ach, she's the organist," she muttered.

She shuffled up to the organ. I had already rehearsed what I was going to say to her the next time she complained, things about Psalm 150 and making a joyful noise with loud clashing cymbals, and it's right there in the Bible, so shut up and deal with it, you old bat. I braced myself.

"Excuse me, but may I say something?" she began, as she always begins.

"Yes, naturally," I replied, as I always reply.

"What do you think of the advent candles here?" The change in script caught me off guard. "They're white. What do you think of white advent candles?"

I looked at the advent wreath and observed, "white's the wrong color, isn't it?" Suddenly we were on the same side, united in our knowledge that someone who should have known better had screwed up. You don't mess with tradition.

"They're supposed to match the liturgical colors," Complainant Number Two complained gruffly, settling into her element. "They should be yellow or blue."

"Or purple. In the U.S. they could be purple."

"Purple? Really? What are these people thinking? White is for celebrating, not for preparing."

"Easter, right, not Advent. But I believe the rules about liturgical colors date back only to the 19th century, so it hasn't always been this way."

"I don't understand you."

"Sorry, I'm from the U.S., my German's not so good. But I think the rules about the colors aren't all that old."

"Hunh. OK. Well, enjoy your practicing."

And that was that. Maybe we'll find something else to complain about together next week.


One of the nifty things about Germany is that you can walk from any town to pretty much any other town almost exclusively on designated pedestrian and bicycle paths. And so, just because it can be done, on Friday morning I set out on foot for Heidelberg, some 190 kilometers to the north of Freiburg. I made it as far as Koendringen, north of Emmendingen, when Stefan and Elias pulled up and offered to drive me the remaining 170km.

On my walk, I confirmed that the Rhine flood plain is flatter than central Illinois; that engineers have made the river Elz just as disturbingly straight as the Dreisam; that downtown Emmendingen is depressed and a little seedy; that J.S. Bach must have been quite the athletic young musical genius in 1705 when he walked 400 kilometers from Arnstadt to Luebeck to meet and hear Buxtehude; and that I will never run a marathon.

We were headed to Heidelberg for a pun-filled visit with Hans-Walter and MB that culminated in an ex-pat Thanksgiving dinner on Saturday. In addition to catching up with long lost friends, enjoying their wit, culinary talents and beautiful home, and cooking and baking and eating and watching everyone else cook and bake and eat, we found time to explore Heidelberg a bit. We followed in the footsteps of professional thinkers by taking a walk on the famous Philosophenweg, where our profound thoughts focused mainly on finding Elias a drink of water and locating the multiple-degrees-of-freedom swing H-W had recommended. Afterward, we climbed down the hillside and crossed over the old Neckar bridge into the Altstadt, where we were overwhelmed by a tsunami of other tourists and lived to tell the tale.

Following a thoroughly tasty gourmet Thanksgiving meal, Hans-Walter wiped the floor with Elias.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Neuf Brisach and Colmar

We made a spontaneous visit to Colmar this afternoon. The Badische Zeitung has been plugging Colmar's Weihnachtsmarkt in assorted articles of late--we suspect Colmar's newspaper is likewise plugging Freiburg's market, all in the spirit of promoting international commerce--so we thought we'd go check it out and pass through Neuf Brisach on the way.

Cross the Rhine in Breisach and continue west a few more kilometers, and you reach Neuf Brisach. As the names suggest, France's Neuf Brisach is much younger than Germany's Alt Breisach. In 1648, France took Breisach from Austria; Louis XIV had the military engineer Sébastien Le Prestre, Marquis de Vauban, strengthen the town's fortifications. A 1697 treaty returned Breisach to the Habsburgers, so Louis gave Vauban the task of building a new fortress to defend the French border. Thus was born Neuf Brisach, surrounded by an octagonal defensive system of walls and gates that remains remarkably well-preserved today.

Neuf Brisach is probably right swell, but we couldn't find much to recommend it today. From the vast expanse of concrete that comprises the center square, to the piped-in organ music in the austere 18th-century Church of St. Louis, to the alcoholic in the Santa hat getting soused on a lonely park bench on a gray Sunday afternoon, Neuf Brisach offered one depressing view after another. Our ADAC guide to Elsass says the best way to see Neuf-Brisach is from a bird's-eye view, and we're convinced that's true.

We continued on to Colmar, where we drove around for half an hour with hundreds of other cars looking for a place to park. The Colmar Weihnachtsmarkt was clearly the place to be. Of course, it was the only place to be for miles around for those wanting to celebrate capitalism, since pretty much every regular store in Europe is closed on Sunday afternoons.

We barely dipped our toes into the market before deciding it was time to retreat. Whereas Freiburg's market offers an abundance of handmade crafts, Colmar's offers an abundance of factory-made seasonal kitsch. Whereas Freiburg's features real live buskers, Colmar's offers cloying pre-recorded Christmas music pumped through tinny speakers. And whereas Freiburg's offers a coordinated display of Christmas lights demonstrating German precision and restraint, Colmar's offers a multicolored array of blinking bulbs demonstrating a somewhat dizzying enthusiasm for the season.

Thankfully, Colmar also offers the stunning Unterlinden Museum, housed in an old abbey, where we withdrew for a glorious foray through 14th and 15th-century art. We especially enjoyed seeing how the gilded paintings and carved statues told us as much about Biblical stories as about 15th-century sensibilities. From one depiction to the next, Mary had long, wavy red-gold hair and pale white skin. The infant Jesus was always a miniature adult. Backdrops occasionally included European castles perched upon hilltops. In one panel, a unicorn resting in Mary's lap proved her virginity.

The crowning jewel of the collection is the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald. Originally designed as a set of overlapping panels with wings that folded open to reveal multiple scenes, the altar has been disassembled so that museum visitors can view all of the layers in succession. The details are vivid, and the images are simultaneously beautiful and grotesque.

Later in the evening, we had the good fortune of stepping into the Église des Dominicains, where the exquisite, radiant altarpiece "Maria im Rosenhag" (Mary in the Rose Garden) took our breath away. Painted by Colmar's own Martin Schongauer (ca. 1450-91), the central panel is surrounded by gold-leaf filigreed wings. It is one of the most stunning paintings I've ever seen.

Thursday, November 26, 2009


Towns all over Germany know exactly how to drive away the bleakness of interminably gray late-autumn skies: they open festive Christmas markets decorated with thousands of teeny tiny little lights, where you can find Gluehwein and gifts to warm your body and soul against the chill.

Situated primarily around the Rathaus plaza, Freiburg's renowned Weihnachtsmarkt commenced on Monday and runs until December 23. And believe it or not, the clouds parted this week, and the sun is shining upon Baden-Wuerttemberg once more.

I'm usually pretty cynical about capitalism-centered longer-than-advent gearings up for Christmas, but I'm finding the market a pretty and fun place to nosh and gawk. Most of the stalls match one another in size and color, their dark brown stained wood exteriors adorned with stapled-on forest green pine branches. The lights--mostly small white bulbs, but also large, pointed German-Moravian Herrnhuter stars--do a lot to generate cheer after the sun sets (well before 17:00 these days). The goods sold are predominantly (though by no means exclusively) handmade crafts, including functional and decorative pottery, fancy feather-quill pens, brightly colored felted wools and textiles, elaborate cookie press molds, natural soaps, and baubles, toys, and kitchen items made from gorgeous woods. Some items are made on site: hand-dipped beeswax candles, blown glass ornaments, elegant little lathe-turned wooden tops. The food is affordable, and in addition to the satisfaction provided by the mere act of eating, there's also delight to be had watching a vendor make you your very own warm-applesauce-and-cinnamon-sugar-filled crepe hot off the griddle.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the market is that it turns Germany's natural order topsy turvy. So powerful is the urge to celebrate, so strong are the forces of Christmas commerce, that the impossible becomes possible: the market is not only open daily until 20:30, it's also open on SUNDAYS.

Alongside the market, the downtown Christmas scene has been providing some mild local dramas. Controversies have included how late into 2010 the outdoor ice-skating rink in Karlsplatz will remain open, given the unseasonably warm weather (the compromise: mid-January); and how it could possibly be that merchants on Kaiser-Joseph-Strasse--the snazziest shopping street in all of Freiburg--are too cheap and disorganized to hang decorations on Kajo Street, denying shoppers a treasured seasonal joy for the first time in 55 years (tsk!), while smaller stores in li'l old Herdern have found funds to hang red Herrnhuter stars over a good stretch of Habsburgerstrasse. Public shaming in the media is extremely effective in Germany: the Kajo merchants are putting lights up this weekend.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

New Horizons in Schlager Appreciation, Episode 3

In 1999, when I was a professor of music theory at Big Plains State U., I was asked to teach a class called Music Theory for Non-Musicians. After a unit on motivic uses of rhythm, I asked my students to choose a short passage from a favorite piece and present it to the class. One student brought in "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and said, "in order to understand today's music, you need to understand the classics."

With this dictum in mind, I introduce you, dear readers, to Jan and Kjeld Wennick's 1959 Schlager hit, "Banjo Boy," which reached the number one spot in the German Hitparade and spent 29 weeks in the Top 40. Not bad for two young brothers from Denmark.

As is the case with other Schlager songs we have encountered thus far, "Banjo Boy" is cheerfully nostalgic for an exotic land far, far away ("Tennessee"). It includes some geographically ambiguous twangs that perhaps sound more tropical than suth'n or country, but what the heck, Other is Other, right? There's also a fine trumpet lick that alludes to the long jazz tradition that, um, Tennessee is so famous for. Yodeling would be semiotically inappropriate given the lyrics, but Jan and Kjeld never seem too far from their European roots. Enjoy!

Jeden Abend geht er durch die Strassen
In der kleinen Stadt in Tennessee,
Und die grossen und die kleinen Leute
Kennen alle seine Melodie...

[Every evening, he walks through the streets
in the little town in Tennesse,
and the big and the little people
all know his melody...

Sing ein Lied, sing ein Lied,
Little Banjo Boy
Banjo Boy, Banjo Boy.
Denn Musik, denn Musik,
Little Banjo Boy,
Banjo Boy ist unser Glueck.

[Sing a song, sing a song,
little Banjo Boy,
Banjo Boy, Banjo Boy,
for music, for music,
little Banjo Boy,
Banjo Boy is our happiness.

So ein sing sage dige dage
Sing song unterm blauen Himmelzelt
Ist das sing sage dige dage
Sing song Allerschoenste von der Welt

[So a sing-saga-digga-dagga-
sing-song under the blue tent of the sky
is the
most beautiful sing-saga-digga-dagga-
sing-song in the whole world.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Faces of Wiehre

Situated south of the Dreisam River and incorporated into Freiburg in 1819, the former suburb Wiehre recently celebrated its one thousandth birthday, having been mentioned first in written documents in 1008. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Wiehre experienced a housing boom that yielded some expansive Jugendstil constructions and revealed a stylistic penchant for faces under, over, and next to windows. Today, Wiehre is one of Freiburg's poshest neighborhoods.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Another brewer's star...

...can be found in Colmar. I think I'm going to start noticing these emblems everywhere now.

A mystery solved

A few weeks ago, I took a long walk from Herdern to Guenterstal, a village in the valley of the same name. As I passed through the Freiburg neighborhood Wiehre, I was on the lookout for Stolpersteine and sculpted faces on the sides of buildings; Wiehre has an abundance of both.

Near the corner of Zasiusstrasse and Brombergstrasse, I was surprised to see an ornate six-pointed star on the side of a building. I looked around for a plaque that would tell me something about the building and Jewish history in Wiehre, but I found nothing.

Later I searched the internet for various combinations of Wiehre, Juden, Davidstern, Zasiusstrasse, Brombergstrasse, and Cafe au Lait (the name of the coffee shop that currently occupies the space), and again found nothing. I thought it odd that so obvious a symbol wouldn't have some online documentation.

I searched again this evening, and when I left Juden out of the equation, I finally got a hit. It turns out the star isn't a Davidstern at all: it's a brewer's star, a guild emblem that has been used in southern Germany since the early 15th century.

In his 2002 thesis on the history of brewing signs, Matthias Trum explores whether there is a historical connection between the evolution of the brewer's star and the Star of David. He concludes that a relationship might indeed have existed, originating in an earlier, more widespread use of the hexagram as a symbol for protection. For Jews, the star became a military shield; for brewers, it was a shield against fire and demons.

This information of course changes how I see the Wiehre star. The cornucopia above on the left and the hops above on the right suddenly appear glaringly obvious. And that the structure formerly housed a brewery also helps makes sense of the three smiling faces over a door further along the side of the building. A satyr, Ceres, and Silenus perhaps? In any case, they look like they're having a pretty good time.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Cuckoo clocks

Today we saw the "World's First Largest Cuckoo Clock" in Schonach, next to Triberg, near Furtwangen. It was the first of its kind until it was preempted by the World's Subsequent Largest Cuckoo Clock, located who knows where. The good people of Schonach earn points for their honesty.

Unfortunately, by the time I saw the sign for the clock and pulled off the main road, Stefan had a raging headache, and Elias was tired and didn't want to get out of the car. Thus it was up to me alone to visit this important landmark. I grabbed my camera and trudged the half block from where we had parked, through the cold, damp, high-altitude air, only to discover that the clock is closed until "at least December 13." More points for honesty.

Despite my disappointment at not being able to enter this monument to kitsch, our trip demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that Americans don't have a monopoly on goofy roadside attractions. Indeed, you could probably fit quite a few jackalopes and world's-largest-hairballs inside Schonach's claim to fame.

Schonach was a likely place to find a World's Largest thing of this type. We ended up there because rain thwarted our plan to hike the Belchen. (According to all our tour guides, the Belchen "is reputed to be the most beautiful mountain in the Schwarzwald." I'm intrigued by the repeated use of "reputed" around here--as in "Freiburg is reputed to be the sunniest city in Germany" and "Linzer Torte is reputed to be the oldest known torte in the world"--as though no one can think of standards by which to objectively evaluate any of these things). We browsed through our reliable guide to the southern Schwarzwald and decided to take in a little local culture by visiting the Deutsches Uhrenmuseum (German Clock Museum) in Furtwangen.

Furtwangen has been a clock-making center for centuries. During the Industrial Revolution, the town's residents found themselves unable to compete with new factory-produced clocks. In 1850, Furtwangen's Baden Grand-Ducal Clockmaking School sponsored a competition seeking a more modern clock aesthetic--and thus was born the Bahnhaeusle-Kuckucksuhr ("wee train house clock"), a wooden cuckoo clock designed by architect Friedrich Eisenlohr and modeled on a railway signalman's house.

By the 1860s, Eisenlohr's design had pushed laquered metal shield cuckoo clocks and picture frame cuckoo clocks off the market, and had paved the way for the ornately carved wooden cuckoo clocks famous around the world today. The popularity of the clocks played a major role in pulling Furtwangen, Triberg, and other Black Forest communities out of poverty during the 19th century.

One of the many other interesting things we learned at the clock museum today was that prehistoric Stonehenge was a dangerous place to be a sheep.

Saturday, November 21, 2009


We've been having mixed luck with trans-Atlantic mail here. Items we send from Germany typically arrive safely in the U.S., but a postcard costs about $3.00 a pop, and letters cost about $7.00. On the receiving end, we're happy when snail mail from the U.S. reaches us here. But some items have gotten lost, some have been returned to senders after a few months en route, and some have gone to the customs office rather than our mailbox, with dire warnings about import taxes that we subsequently learned we didn't need to pay once we went out of our way to pick the items up.

So we're glad that the wonders of modern technology have produced Skype. The software is free, and computer-to-computer calls are free as well. Calling from Germany to a land-line telephone in the U.S. costs mere pennies. Still, we use Skype only for special occasions, as our Vodafone internet service is predictably flaky. There are only so many disconnections we're willing to tolerate before giving up.

We're especially glad that we can use Skype to hook Elias up with friends in the U.S. When he got bullied in the park here the other day, we put in a call to a friend back home who has experience with such things. Quinn offered some advice ("whatever they do, just say 'back atcha!'"), and then the kids proceeded to more important topics. And really, what better therapy is there for an eight-year-old than a good half-hour video call consisting almost entirely of underarm farts and booger talk?

Friday, November 20, 2009

Linzer Torte

Having previously stereotyped Bavarians, the Edeka grocery store's regional Sunday advertising supplement now lays claim to one of the oldest cake recipes in Europe: Linzer Torte. We had assumed the torte originated in Linz, Austria, what with the name and all. The Linz tourism website agrees and provides a brief history of the torte, along with a recipe. But the Edeka flyer declares the torte "Ein Gedicht aus der Region" ("A Poem from the Region") and suggests the region is Baden: "It is reputed to be the oldest known torte in the world and is a Badisch pleasure-highlight--the fine Linzer Torte."

Origins aside, I saved the recipe, as my attempts to realize favorite American desserts in Germany have been falling flat, literally. I assume this has to do with differences in available ingredients. Consider:

Baking powder: The key ingredients in baking powder are baking soda (a base), an acidifying agent, and a starch. Differences in acidifying agents make German Backpulver single-acting and American baking powder double-acting. Backpulver produces bubbles when it meets liquids; American baking powder produces bubbles when it meets liquids and also when it meets the heat of the oven.

Baking soda: In Germany, sodium bicarbonate is called "household soda" and you use it to counter acid in rhubarb, to soften water, to drink as an antacid, and to clean surfaces. If you put it in a banana cake, your guests will try not to look too horrified when they sputter, "really? You really put Natron in the cake we're eating? The cake we're eating right now?"

Butter: German butter comes in 250g packages. It has a higher fat content than American butter (about 83%, versus 80%), which makes it quite soft even when cold. It's often made from cultured sour cream, which contributes a nice flavor. It's lecker (really yummy).

Brown sugar: According to, Brauner Zucker "is the collective name for sugars that are brown in color." The bag we have says it is "made from select sugar beet and cane sugar syrups, which give it its vigorous aromatic flavor." It doesn't pack, and frankly, it doesn't taste all that vigorous. In the U.S., brown sugar is typically quality-controlled by cheating--by adding molasses to refined white sugar. It packs, and its moisture content differs from that of German brown sugar.

Vanilla: Vanilla extract is liquid in the U.S., made by soaking vanilla beans in alcohol. In Germany, you use Vanillezucker--dry white sugar with vanillin mixed in.

In addition to differences in ingredients, there are also differences in how those ingredients are measured. Americans measure by standardized volume: cups, tablespoons, teaspoons. A cup is a cup is a cup, regardless of what fills it. Germans measure ingredients by weight, volume, and guesstimates: grams, liters, teaspoons, and Messerspitze (knife tips). The volume of 200g of nuts differs from the volume of 200g sugar, so you need either a kitchen scale or a special measuring cup that has different marks for different ingredients.

I have made several banana cakes this fall, and they've all turned out like buttery banana pound cakes--tasty, but not up to Joy of Cooking standards. I did succeed in making cornbread out of polenta meal, but only because I added a ton of Backpulver and threw the pan into the oven right away.

So when the Linzer Torte recipe showed up in the Edeka flyer, I decided "when in Baden, do as the Badisch do." I couldn't find a pastry wheel or a proper baking form, so my Linzer Torte wasn't as pretty as the one in the photo accompanying the recipe, but it tasted mighty fine regardless.

If you'd like to make your own authentic Badisches Genuss-Highlight direct from Linz, Austria, here's the recipe:

50g ground walnuts (walnuts make my tongue hurt; I used almonds.)
200g ground hazelnuts
200g flour
1 heaping teaspoon cocoa powder (heck--I used a whole tablespoon.)
200g butter
150g raw cane sugar (I used Brauner Zucker.)
1 packet bourbon-vanilla sugar ("bourbon" meaning real vanilla, not that imitation stuff. Use 1 tablespoon liquid extract.)
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 knifetip allspice (I didn't have any around and the torte was fine without it.)
1 knifetip ground cloves (all I could find in the pantry was "ground mace nut," which I presumed was nutmeg, so I used that instead.)
1 teaspoon single-acting baking powder (I guess I'd reduce the amount if I were using double-acting powder. Linzer Torte isn't supposed to be fluffy.)
2 eggs
1 eggwhite
4 tablespoons Kirschwasser (I honestly don't think this does much for the torte, as the spices, nuts, and raspberry jam dominate the flavor. Maybe you're really supposed to drink the Kirsch instead of mixing it in.)

200g raspberry jam
1 egg yolk + 1 teaspoon cream, for brushing on before baking (Stefan accidentally threw out the egg yolk, so we skipped this part altogether)
1 teaspoon powdered sugar for sprinkling (feh, skipped that too)

Baking form (~26 cm)
Baking paper (feh, reduce waste and just butter the pan)

To abbreviate the details: mix the dry ingredients together, cut in the butter, add the wet ingredients up to and including the Kirschwasser, smush it all together with your hands, and stick it into the fridge for at least an hour to chill. Divide the dough in half. If you want to be elegant and you can find a rolling pin in your rented kitchen, roll out two rounds; put one into the baking form, and use a pastry wheel to cut the other one into strips. (Can't find your pastry wheel? Have you checked your pottery toolbox? Maybe run the wheel through the dishwasher before you use it for the torte.) Or just press half the dough into the pan and use the coil method for the strips. Slather the bottom crust with the jam (a little extra never hurts), arrange the dough strips artfully on top, glaze if you really want to put in the effort, and bake ~25 minutes at 175 oC. If you're going to sprinkle it with powdered sugar, you need to let it cool first; otherwise, you can start sampling it while it's still warm.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Fists, knives, and guns

The Badische Zeitung is reporting today on a crime in Bergkamen, near Dortmund, Nordrhein-Westfalen. A 16-year-old 9th-grader who had been suspended from school burst into his classroom yesterday, accompanied by a 14-year-old companion. They were armed with Schreckschusswaffen, gas pistols that look threatening and make a lot of noise when fired, but that don't shoot bullets. In front of the other students, the perpetrators beat the teacher and then fled. They were quickly apprehended.

Since our arrival in Freiburg in late July, we have read numerous newspaper articles about teenagers robbing people on trains, and about teenagers beating up people on and off trains and beating up the good Samaritans who come to the rescue. There have been fatalities in some these beatings, including a tragic case in Munich in late July.

We have read about murders. In the hotel on top of the Blauen, where we comfortably ate french fries and ice cream a few weeks ago, a Swiss man in his 50s was recently stabbed to death by another man in an act of jealousy over a woman. And in a case that drew international attention, a Dresden court recently sentenced a man to life in prison for stabbing a pregnant Muslim woman to death and seriously wounding her husband inside a courtroom last July, when he was on trial for defamation against the woman.

Knives seem to be the weapons of choice for lesser crimes as well. Earlier this fall, a robber held a cashier at knifepoint at one of the Lienhart bakeries in Freiburg; the robber was taken down by a punch to the jaw from master baker Christian Lienhart.

Occasionally we read about school shootings. There was one in Winnenden, Baden-Wuerttemberg, in March 2009, when a 17-year-old killed 15 students and then died in a shootout with police. But attempts by German students to do one another in don't typically involve guns. In mid-September, in Ansbach, Bavaria, a teacher and nine students were seriously injured when an 18-year-old student attacked the school with five Molotov cocktails, a knife, and an axe. Burning schools down also seems to be relatively popular amongst Germany's disenchanted youth, especially when they're drunk. Many people in nearby Merzhausen were shocked recently when two teenagers who set the Hexentalschule on fire in February were sentenced only to 60-120 hours of community service.

My thought reading the newspaper article today was that had the crime happened in the U.S., the weapons would have been guns with bullets, and the teacher and probably a few students would be dead. The homicide rate in the United States is roughly four times that in Germany; the U.S. rate of homicides involving firearms is six times higher than Germany's.

The lower murder rate here can be attributed to a variety of cultural and historical factors, including that Germany has some of the strictest gun control laws in the world. That difference makes the idea of staying in Germany permanently quite compelling.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A flock is born

Photo: Two American delegates (left) greet the newly hatched flock of the Freiburg Huehnergesellschaft fuer Kunst, Kultur, und Vegetarismus.

Warning: Do not lick the German chickens. Six of them are coated in a toxic glaze, chock full of copper and barium. I chose the glaze because I saw it adorning various bowls and mugs on a shelf at the Keramik Werkstatt, and it looked like it had character. Someone In Charge probably should have told students that lining bowls and mugs with heavy-metal laden glazes is not a good idea. Since the chickens are not food surfaces, I think they're reasonably safe to Hendl.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Freiburg to St. Peter

As a community, St. Peter came into existence with the founding of a monastery in the late 11th century. The present baroque church dates from the 1720s. While the exterior of the church is rather reserved, the recently renovated interior is bright, airy, and ornate--the best of the baroque.

Because my husband is kind and generous, and because he's finally back after a two-week stint in California, I was able to hike from Freiburg to St. Peter today. I didn't intend to do that when I set out for a walk early this morning. Had I planned on it, I would have taken the topo map that includes St. Peter, rather than the one that includes the Rhine valley; I would have headed to St. Peter directly from Herdern, rather than first walking a few miles north to Zaehringen; and I would have brought some water along. But thanks to my handy GPS device, my cell phone, and Stefan's willingness to meet Elias after school and then come pick me up, a spontaneous idea became a reality. And so this morning I ended up tromping along the Kandelhöhenweg, a trail that follows mountain ridges and connects Freiburg to St. Peter.

The early part of my hike was on the path beside the train tracks from Herdern to Zaehringen; this was because I initially meant to revisit Heuweiler. But at a T-intersection, a road veering east beckoned, and I headed through Wildtal instead. This turned out to be quite worthwhile, because otherwise I never would have gotten to see the American Saloon and Buffalo Ranch located in the figurative middle of nowhere deeper in the valley.

Where the paved road ended, the forest trails began, and I headed to the top of the nearest ridge, the Wildtalereck, and then on to the next highest point, the Hasenkopf (608m).

I had phoned Stefan from Wildtal to make sure that if I ended up on the wrong side of a ridge or broke a leg or something, he could be home in time to meet Elias after school. I was passing a sign that mentioned St. Peter and half seriously/half jokingly suggested we meet there for lunch; but Stefan said he needed to work. Oh well. Then, past the Hasenkopf, as the first Kandelhöhenweg sign appeared on the trail, Stefan called back and suggested we meet in St. Peter after all.

But St. Peter wasn't on my map, and I hadn't been following any signs toward St. Peter since Wildtal. Stefan googled "Kandelhöhenweg," looked up my GPS coordinates in Google Earth, and got me headed in the right direction. After that, I was able to follow trail signs the rest of the way.

A fascinating feature about trail signs in the Black Forest is that the distances they indicate have very little to do with the distances you actually traverse. For example, a sign might say that St. Peter is 8km away. A mile later, the next sign will tell you St. Peter is still 8km away. Half a kilometer further on, your destination might have drifted an additional kilometer away or leapt a few kilometers closer. It is encouraging to find a sign that tells you St. Peter is a mere 2.4km away, but somewhat disheartening, after you emerge from the woods and walk an additional twenty minutes down the road, to encounter a sign that tells you that you are no closer--or that St. Peter would be equally close if you went back the way you just came.

As I approached St. Peter, the forest gave way to verdant meadows dotted with horses, cows, and sheep. At last, the two towers of St. Peter's baroque church poked out over a hill, and the town gradually came into view down below.

It was a lovely day for a hike. All morning, the weather alternated between rain and commendable efforts at sunshine, and the trail varied beautifully, ranging through grass covered meadows, along rocky leaf-strewn ridges, through evergreen and deciduous forests, and along muddy logging roads, with occasional vistas of the valleys down below.

I waited for Stefan near the Kloster square. He drove up, looking debonair in his spiffy biking duds and with his road bike in the back seat of the car. After lunch, I drove home and he went for a 62km ride through the Schwarzwald. There's a lot to be said for being on sabbatical.