To and From Bonn

Friday afternoon I worked my way slowly north through the German train system to Bonn. A good friend of Anna’s from her study abroad days, Jutta, had invited me to come up for a visit. The plan was for me to come up Friday, and Saturday we would be joined by Jutta’s sister and niece(s) – we would then commence with the Christmas cookie baking. To cut through the cookie baking part and make it short, Jutta’s sister and niece(s) decided that, because north of Bonn snowstorms were starting up, they wouldn’t risk the drive down. Therefore, Jutta and I baked more cookies than really necessary. Also, in the German style of Christmas cookie baking, the cookies are baked on or around the first Advent, and then hidden from greedy cookie-eaters, to be eaten only on Christmas itself. So, in spirit of that I’m not touching the cookies until then (much to the dismay of my neighbor, Sonia, who, upon realizing I had returned home greeted me in German with, “May I have a cookie? Pleeeease? Just ONE??”).

See? Short.

Friday, afternoon to evening: The train ride up went well, considering it was four hours of me sitting on the edge of my seat in a panic that I might not hear the announcement of my stop and miss my connections. My 21,-€ trip went as such: Landau – Neustadt, Neustadt – Hochspeyer, Hochspeyer – Bingen, Bingen – Koblenz, Koblenz – Bonn, plus apprx. 10-15 minutes at each stop waiting for the next train. I managed to get to Bonn sans problems or an aneurism, with the exception of the train from Bingen to Koblenz. The ticket person came around and when I showed her my ticket she said I wasn’t supposed to be on that train. I said I was too, and showed her the print out I had been given at the station in Landau. I said that the man at the counter told me I would be able to take this train with the ticket I had (Rheinland-Pfalz Ticket). She said something along the lines of “Yes, but no.” What had happened was that I had taken the wrong train, even though it was going in the right direction. The train I was on was the express train, and my ticket excluded all convenient trains and routes, leaving me with the four-hour-wonder. I asked her if I had to pay anything right then and she told me if I got off the train at Koblenz, no, but if I stayed on the train (which would have taken me right to Bonn), I would pay extra. I got off at Koblenz. I figured it would be best to stay on the track I had planned out. The lady was nice as well, so at least I didn’t feel hassled, and didn’t have to pay any fines. At least I had a ticket.

The Christmas market in Bonn... HUGE. Unfortunately I didn’t see much of it, just walked through on my way and after meeting up with Jutta. It was exciting to see that many people and that kind of atmosphere. It made me look forward to the market in Landau, and other cities *closer* to us.

Saturday, early evening: Although Jutta and I spoke German almost the entire time, there were topics and concepts that I needed to express in English, because I completely lacked the knowledge to explain them in German. In the midst of cookie baking I was trying to explain something to Jutta about something, and officially forgot the English word for “Unterschied.” I remembered it only several hours later – the word is “difference.” My sentence had been in English, and the key word came at the end of the sentence – but I had to finish my sentence in German. Jutta laughed, and I felt kind of proud.

Saturday, evening: I started to miss having a real kitchen very, very badly. I want an oven like one wants to scratch a poison ivy rash. I want an oven so badly, that I might be inclined to act rather brashly toward anyone who gets in my way of scoring an apartment next fall. I NEED that oven, and I will HAVE that oven.

Sunday: Jutta and I head out after breakfast to Siegburg, where there is a “natural” Christmas market. What this means, is that at night, the entire market is lit up with candles, everything is run manually – no electricity, no commercial Christmas music –, all of the vendors are dressed in warmer-than-your-clothes-ha-ha medieval attire, and there are long-haired jugglers on stage heckling the crowd and being heckled. It was nice and pretty much like Jutta had described it. The only noise other than heckling and audience laughter was the sound of people talking and the natural sounds of a market setting. Jutta bought an expensive but chic (and very warm, according to her) hand-made wool hat. I bought... nothing but lunch and tea, but kept the glasses from the tea because they were interesting looking.

At markets during holidays or festivals, drinks are, more often than not, served in breakable cups or glasses. When you purchase a drink you pay for the beverage itself, as well as the container it comes in. For example: on Sunday, I bought a tiny glass of tea for €1, but paid €2 for it. This extra €1 is called “Pfand”, and is similar to the 5¢ return we get in the US for cans or 15¢ for plastic bottles. Here, for a small plastic bottle you get €0,25 refund – that’s more than a quarter, to you back home. That’s good return. So, at the festival or holiday markets, you can get money back for successfully returning the glass or cup to the vendors. Or, if you really like the cup, or just want to feel like you’re stealing stuff, you can take the cup or glass with you. It really doesn’t matter – either you get your money back or the vendors get to keep your money. Sometimes they’ll even remind you that you can keep the cup when you go to turn it in. It’s a really nice system, actually. Everyone comes out even. For Landau’s Christmas market, I’m going to have to do some cup “shopping” to find one that I really want to take back home with me. Good thing I have until the end of December to do so :)))

Sunday in Siegburg ended with a mini snowstorm. I left the Bonn Hbf (Hauptbahnhof = main train station) a bit after 6 P.M. because of train delays. At first I was frantic, because although I had thoroughly charged my iPod Friday, the batteries were shot by the time I was on the train to Koblenz, and I thought I would snap without music. Then I realized that, because it was dark, the train stations I didn’t recognize during the day would be even more foreign – which was proved by me pressing my face against the window at each stop and straining my vision to find some kind of sign with a city name on it. My last train pulled into Landau around 11 P.M., and although I had hoped to take a bus home, I was unable to. Buses stop running Sundays around 7 P.M, so I walked home. Lucky for me it started to flurry a bit, and then a lot. 30 minutes later I was back at my apartment door, covered in snow, key in lock, when Sonia came down the hall, asking if I had just gotten back (this was before the cookie scene). Then she saw that I was completely covered in white and laughed at me, then made me stand in my wet coat until she got a camera and photographed me. Then I ate, then I drank tea, then I slept.

Trip to Bonn status: Accomplished.


Tuesday Updates

A little update on my life in addition to the Sunday recap I posted a several hours ago:

This morning I got into an argument with our Hausmeister. Not smart, because this is the man who has ultimate access to any repair items I may need for my apartment, like light bulbs and such, as well as has ultimate access to the entire building. I feel that if I were to make him angry enough I may come back one day to find that all of my toilet paper and tissues are missing.

Anyways, I got into an argument with him over the washing machines; everything started out light-hearted enough, me saying "Es klappt mit meine Sache immer nicht" about the laundry facilities (=(basically) it never works for me), because I had successfully washed one load of laundry last night, but the second time around something went wrong -- I got to the basement to find that the door to the machine had not popped open like it was supposed to after the washing cycles. Hausmeister and I laugh a bit, and he puts a token in and overrides all cycles to get to the bit where the machine gives me back my stuff. He asked if the clothes were clean and I said I thought they were; however, after I got to my stuff, I inspected the stuff, and everything is very dry, and still very dirty. I can tell because I have white socks that double up as socks and floor-sweepers, so they are always very dirty on the soles. Socks were not clean, so I found the Hausmeister again and said the machine hadn't worked after all, so I needed a new coin. He looked at me funny and said that, when the machine starts, it works 100%. I'm thinking, "Apparently NOT 100%, because my socks/floor-sweepers are still dirty." So I start repeating that "Meine Wäsche ist immer noch trocken und schmutzig, und ich habe für jedes Münzen €1,50 bezahlen -- und für was? Nichts!" (=gimme a damn coin, H-meister, coz your machines are whacked-out!/My laundry is still dry and dirty, and I've paid for a coin that was worthless.) And he maintained that the machines are 100%, and I maintained that I had been screwed. So he finally said he'd give me another coin (he didn't seemed pleased about this, but I told him, "Ich lüge nicht" [=I'm not lying], because I had already told him that I didn't have time for this, I had things to do -- so why would I lie just so I could baby-sit my laundry for another 80 minutes? Ridiculous. So he said that we HAD to try the wash again, and in the same machine no less, because if the machine WERE defective, he'd have to call someone out to fix it. So he pops in the coin and the laundry starts up and he goes, "See? It's working." I wanted to tell him "It made the same stupid noises last night and didn't do anything, chuckles."

I'm glad I kept that bit to myself, and that I asked him about internet connection stuff earlier last week, because now I'll have to wait for another two weeks or so before I can go ask him for help if I need it. This one's going to need more time to wear off. He also keeps saying the simplest phrases to me in English. I talk to him in German, so I don't know why he keeps doing it.

Fun thing #2 today: Machines at the Bahnhof wouldn't take my American credit cards, nor my German EC (bank card) card for the ticket, so I had to use my pocket money from tutoring. Oh, the horror.

Fun thing #3: Prof. Wagner, after Kathy and I had asked him a few questions about our presentation coming up in January, pointed to me and my throat and asked "What's all this?" My voice is quite shot, and gets worse as the day goes on. He recommended that I drink a nice Hot Totty -- three parts (good) Irish whiskey and one part hot water. Not only do your professors suggest you medicate yourself with alcohol, but they'll provide you with the recipe free of cost. Germany works in strange ways.

Mock Thanksgiving

We had our little mock Thanksgiving on Sunday. Saturday was spent shopping for the event; buying ingredients for dishes, buying dishes for the dishes, finding a turkey, etc. The turkey was bought at Wal*Mart – we had no other option, because to purchase a turkey from a butcher (I JUST remembered what the English word for that was...) it needs to be ordered 3-4 days in advance (which we didn’t have). So, per suggestion of the father of the girl I now tutor (more on that later), Wal*Mart was the winning provider of dead bird.

We started early Sunday morning, around 10:30. I was nervous about the turkey and wanted to start as early as possible to allow as much time to fix mistakes should they happen as possible. Kathy and I had a smashing time unwrapping our turkey, cutting off some funny flap of skin that was holding his legs together, removing a very frozen bag of giblets*, and naming him Reiner.

*In order to do this we decided Kathy should run hot water into Reiner’s stomach cavity in order to loosen up his bag-o-guts. Laugh or doubt all you want, but it worked.

For some reason Reiner’s heart and some other probably vital organ weren’t included in the bag-o-guts.

Reiner was then rubbed down with oil, stuck with a meat thermometer, and jammed lovingly into the toaster oven. I say with pride that 4 hours later Reiner came out a nice dark and golden brown color, smelling faintly of the honey/butter/paprika/salt glaze I thought would be fun to throw together and have Kathy baste him with. To break the rest of the day down, we danced, we sang, we cooked like we’ve (literally) never cooked before. Mashed potatoes (of which there were excess afterwards), classic green bean casserole with a twist per my mom’s suggestion (which, according to Sonia, people were obsessed with and saying, “I don’t know what that stuff with the beans and the chips is, but it’s GOOD!”), home made cornbread (Andi), wheat bread (Tina, the friend who leant Andi her kitchen), and wild rice dish per my dad’s recipe. Rice dish, which I spent late into the previous night starting and babysitting so as not to screw it up. Rice dish, that caused me a lot of nervousness and worry. Rice dish, that turned out AMAZING and that everyone liked. They didn’t expect it to be kind of sweet. They never do... heh heh heh...

Everyone who said they would show up showed up, plus one – that’s almost 20 people. Never in our lives have we had to cook that much food. I now have more respect for the old ladies who work in the kitchen at church, as well as any of my family members who has had to prepare a meal for many people. It’s an amazing feat. Dessert worked out, too. Andi had baked pumpkin pies and apple crisp, and Joanna helped her prepare whipped cream. Though, admittedly, it was kind of odd, because we were running back and forth cleaning things because we didn’t know what else to do. At our homes we usually talk, eat, talk, eat, sleep a bit, maybe eat a bit more, talk, then sleep. It’s very laid back. We don’t have anything like concerts or TV here for our guests, and we didn’t know if we should try to entertain them more or not. But everyone really liked it – the Thanks we got afterwards as people were leaving was genuine; they enjoyed themselves (free food in a warm room + wine and good company = who wouldn’t enjoy themselves?

It all brought about such good feelings – the turkey working out, the other foods worked out, we successfully organized and accomplished a many-people dinner party, and no one got sick. It only took moving to another country for a year and cooking a 13 lb. bird to figure this out. By the way, Reiner was a delicious turkey. Only problem we came across was that his back wasn’t cooked. It was still raw and somewhat bloody (we avoided those bits when we carved him up to serve). How to get around that, I don’t know. Unless at some point we were supposed to flip him, but I don’t think we were. It’s possible that the toaster oven we used doesn’t heat well from the bottom, or there was a setting we missed.

Our beloved Reiner, before and after.

Tutoring: If you want to feel like a total idiot but at the same time build up your German vocabulary for explaining things to other people, become a tutor for a grade school student. My new tutoring “job” is going well – the girl says that she’s understanding things (which is a good sign for me as well as her), and I get to occupy my free time somehow. It’s basically like revisiting my grammar lessons; I’m starting to have to explain to her why things work a certain way, and why, in some cases, even though people may say something one way, it doesn’t make it grammatically correct. I put into her lap the song we learned in high school German classes for verbs. I also told the mother about it, and hope that it will do some good. I don’t know what else to say about it. It’s a somewhat stressful thing to do, considering I’ve never done it before, but at the same time... At least the girl doesn’t think I’m scatterbrained. I learned the word for that (“schusslig”), and more or less accused her in a non-threatening or bitter manner of thinking I was, but she denied it. Being a 5th grader, her lying skills are probably not that well developed, so I’ll take her word for it.

I like earning money for laundry coins.


A Good Day

Earlier this morning I told Kathy I thought today was going to be a good day. And oh, how right I was!

The first thing I did was meet Kathy in the city center, then go around the market buying ingredients for homemade salsa and guacamole. Again, I am surprised at how much one can buy with so little – when it comes to food. For one lemon, one bulb of garlic, two chile peppers, two avocadoes, and four tomatoes I paid less than €5. Six eggs cost me €1,20. A jar of the best, and strongest, Dijon mustard from France cost me less than €1. If I had a cold coming on, I don’t anymore; my sinuses are clean as it gets.

I’ll reiterate from previous posts: eating (healthy) here is so cheap it should be illegal. Plus, the vegetables are always good quality, and unless it’s at the Mini Markt-mall, shoppers aren’t allowed to poke and prod the produce. You tell the shopkeeper what you need/want, and they take care of it for you. At first it seems kind of awkward because it almost feels like you’re ordering them around, but it makes sense after a while. You’re being personally taken care of; if it’s a busier time and there are several people, the shop workers still know who came in first. It’s a nice feeling.

So, shopping in the market was fun. On the way back up to campus for lunch we ran into Sonia (my Italian neighbor), then also ran into Sebastian, who was one of the students on exchange to Coe last year. Further up the road to the inner part of campus, a woman in a van stopped us (no, John, we didn’t get a ride from her...) and asked Sonia to tape up a “help wanted” notice to the board in the atrium of campus, because there are no more spots left in the parking lot. Sonia takes the sheet and some tape, and then we kept going. I look at the sheet, and it’s a notice asking for a tutor/helper for a 5th grade student in English. I immediately rip off a tag with the phone number, and we decide Sonia will put the notice up only tomorrow, after I’ve called. The prospect of a job, even if it’s a part-part-time job, is exciting.

Kathy and I moved on to lunch at the Mensa, which now has moved up from the one lunch line to three: the main meal line, the vegetarian main meal line, and a salad bar line, where you pay €0,12 for each 100g of food. Vegetarian line was shorter (as usual), so we took that, and it was good. I found a piece of feta cheese in my salad. Lunch was a good time :)

Our class wasn’t for a few hours yet, so we hung around the library for a bit, then met up with Ula (one of the Polish ERASMUS students), then walked down to the center again, where our class would be. As Kathy and I are sitting in the Rote Kaserne (English and other dept. building), pleased that we are 30-35 minutes early for the course, Kathy takes out her book to see which classroom the course meets, and I look up to see the professor of said class, Herr Wagner (also our contact prof. here in Landau) walk by us – ON HIS WAY TO CLASS. Class actually met on campus, so all we did was get some more exercise in. We run out of the R.K., pass up Prof. Wagner as he’s checking out the menu for a local bistro, Leo’s, and make it to the intersection as the walk signal turns red. Wagner ambles up beside us, we turn and say “Hello!”, all “surprised.” “On your way to Literature and Literary Theory, perhaps?” we ask. On the way back to campus we talk with him and find out that even though the cap for the Lit. and Lit. Theory course is 60, about 120 students have signed up – the class now has another section meeting Fridays (which no one wants to do). Luckily, both Kathy and I already have a class at 2 on Fridays, so Wagner told us we could stay in the Tuesday section.

Not only do we now have secret information no one else has, but we also arrive in the classroom to see three other people. Score! We snag seats, and 10 minutes later the people start to pour in. Like I said, the day was going well. We had seats at tables, we were allowed to stay in the course, and Prof. Wagner pointed in our direction any time he mentioned Coe College or the US.

After class I go back home, make guacamole (tastes good, too), take a nap, and wait for 6:30 to roll around. When it finally rolls, I head out for Instrumentalensemble, which only lasted about 15 minutes because all the conductor had us do was fill out an information sheet, tell us who was meeting next week, then sent us off.

When I got home I made salsa – I’ll know how it tastes in two hours or later tomorrow. Then I bucked up and called the number for the tutor request. I wrote down some key phrases like “in Hinsicht” (= in regards to) and “Gesuch” (=request) earlier, and used them *almost* flawlessly when someone picked up the other end of the line. I explained why I was calling, that I was an exchange student from the US, and then was passed on to the woman who had put up the notice. I repeated my explanation, saying that I was an exchange student, so my German isn’t perfect (the woman said it didn’t matter), but that my English is. I also let her know that I’ve only worked with kids as a counselor in a children’s camp, but never as a tutor. The student is 5th grade girl, and although she tries to help her with her studies, the mother suspects that her daughter isn’t convinced she’s being helped correctly. She needs help mostly with grammatical studies. I’m hoping it has nothing to do with prepositional phrases and misplaced modifiers. They didn’t even teach us the finer points of grammar until 9th grade. So... Thursday at 4 the woman is picking me up for a trial run. If that doesn’t work out, Müller is looking for part-timers to stock the perfume section shelves.

Oh, and I don’t have appendicitis. Things are looking good for me.