Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Fröhliche Weihnachten!

So my family is arriving in Frankfurt tomorrow so I will probably not be updating very frequently for the next two weeks. I'm really looking forward to the whole quality time, face-to-face-thing as we all spend Christmas together on a Christmas Tree farm in Remagen, a town south of Bonn. Here are some festive shots from my weekend in Nuremberg, capital of Christmas markets:

Thursday, December 18, 2008


As an addendum to my previous post about how much I love the way Germans celebrate Christmas:

(Note: All Germans speaking in this post are actually speaking in German. I just didn't want to translate all of it.)

Yesterday was the Steinmann-Institut für Geologie, Mineralogie and Paläontologie's Christmas party. Vincent (my French Lab-mate) and I didn't receive invitations because we aren't on the department listserv. Instead, Dr. Martin came around the day before and said, "There is a Christmas Party tomorrow at three. There will be Glühwein and beer. Everyone is welcome to attend." Vincent and I were pretty excited about the free alcohol and the chance to hang with the department, but we forgot to ask where the festivities were going down. "Oh, and you need to go downstairs and have your picture taken."

There are posters hanging around the Institut with pictures of all the current graduate students, professors and post-docs, so we knew picture day must be coming soon. We got our head shots, the process felt like grade school all over again (put your chin a little higher...good. Hold that...), then we went about our work.

Yesterday I was typing away when Vincent says, "Machew, we are late!" It was 3:07. The party had started to roll, but where? We didn't hear anyone in the hallway. The museum was decked out with evergreen, but no one was there. We climbed the stairs to the lecture hall and heard a single loud voice. We found the place. The problem was things had already started and the only door into the lecture hall is in the front of the room so, I put my ear to the door, listening to the German murmuring on the other side, waiting for a pause in the action or applause to slip in (Note: Germans do not actually applaud by clapping their hands together. Instead they knock their desks or the table in approval. At the end of every lecture or presentation, there is always a storm of knocking. You know class is over when it sounds like a stampede has just swept through the building).

As I crouched at the key-hole and Vincent waited expectantly, a German graduate student walked up. "You can just go in. They won't kill you. They don't even know who you are." True, I hadn't met much of the department outside the paleontology people, so I opened the door and ushered Vincent in right as Dr. Martin, who was standing in front of the room giving a presentation on the paleontology department's accomplishments for the year, said "...and Matthew Borths is a Fulbright Fellow from the United States, he is working with me on Jurassic mammals." I looked up at the screen and saw the pictures Vincent and I had taken the day before smiling down on us. The entire Steinmann Institut laughed as we sheepishly searched for a place along the wall. Now, they do know who we are.

Each research division (Geophysics, Sedimentology, Geochemistry etc.) gave similar presentations on new graduate students, faculty and research. Each talk was peppered with embarrassing photographs. It's Christmas and everyone wants to have a good time. After learning that they're trying to figure out how plate tectonics works, everyone trooped out of the packed lecture hall and cued up by a staircase, leading into the basement. Again, Vincent and I had no idea where to go, or what to do, so, like dutiful lemmings, we got in line, too. As we got farther down the steps we could smell the mixed aromas of Glühwein and waffles wafting up the twisting staircase.

At the bottom were two cauldrons of mulled wine, one spiked with spiced rum, the other just hot wine, served by the grounds keeper who was really pushing the rum. The waffles were accompanied by powdered sugar, applied by Dr. Martin and there was a grill set up with wurst and brochen. I talked with the grad students, discovering one of them had done fieldwork in Wyoming. Of course, stories of the Badlands and fossil collecting had to come out. After the waffles were finished off, everyone filed up to the museum to have Goulash Soup and Lebkuchen, washed down with Kölsch, Pilsner or Coffee. Needless to say, after all of this, I didn't need dinner. I talked to Dr. Wighart v. Koenigswald, a legend of German paleontology, about the best beer and wine regions in Germany and my struggles to learn German. His recommendation: find a German girlfriend. I said there were two problems: All German women already speak English and I should probably discuss the idea with my current girlfriend. To the first point, he said I should lower my standards and find someone who didn't do well in English class, and to the second, he said she would understand.

The party went on until at least 8:30 when I decided it was time to leave. But first I had to take some pictures of the museum's decor:

Santasaurus (actually a Pleisiosaurus with real mistletoe in his jaws)

Roast, suckling Ichtyosaur, a German Christmas delicacy.

Frohe Weihnachten!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Ich traume über wiess Weihnachts

(I'm dreaming of a white Christmas...actually literally it means "I dream about white Christmas" but I think my translation into German fits the meter of the song a little better than a more literal interpretation, don't you think?)

The Germans know how to do this Christmas thing. Every store is decked out in holly and evergreen, Christmas carols play over loudspeakers and hot beverages are always close at hand (if not snow).

Actually, interesting side note on this last point. It only snows on Christmas (Weihnachts) about every 15 years. This isn't all that weird for me. It's rarely snowing or even below freezing at home on Christmas. We usually need to wait until January and February to get some serious sledding in.

It is weird when you consider Bonn, Germany roughly shares its line of latitude with Prince Albert, Saskatchewan where they will be experiencing a high of negative 23 degrees Fahrenheit today. I sit roughly parallel to central Quebec and Newfoundland but probably won't see more than a few inches of snow this year.

It's all because of that wonderful Gulf Stream that drags warm equatorial water and air up from the south, otherwise we'd all be freezing out butts off here in Europe. One of the big questions as the polar ice caps melt, is what will happen to the Gulf Stream with a sudden influx of freshwater. All that less-salty, light water from the Greenland and Arctic ice caps could put a lid on the dense, warm, salty water traveling from the south, plunging Europe into a deep freeze. That's right, Global Warming could cause Europe to freeze (Prothero 2006, p. 248-249, 312). But we won't worry about that right now. It's Christmas.
One of the central features of the German Christmas celebration is the Christmas Market (Weihnachtsmarkt or Christkindlmarkt). As far as I can tell, every town in Germany sets up a series of stalls in the center of town. These wooden huts are populated by potential Christmas gifts ranging from quaint (handmade Christmas ornaments), to cool (complicated marionettes), to kitsch (day-glo T-shirts). From between the stalls rise massive luminary and Ferris wheels, creating a fair-like atmosphere. Furthering the Fair vibe are food stands selling wurst, fried fish, roast beef sandwiches and potato pancakes (Reibekuchen). A brightly lit food stand in the foreground and a Ferris wheel in the background with real Germans generally populating the all ground at the Bonn Weihnachtsmarkt.

Of course, if you're going to snack, you need desert, so roasted and glazed almonds and peanuts abound along with chocolate covered fruit and gingerbread cookies (Lebkuchen) that are usually in the shape of a heart with phrases like, "Ich liebe Dich" (I love you). Actually the Lebkuchen remind me a little of Necco Valentines Day hearts, only on a massive scale. These heart-shaped gingerbread cookies are roughly the size of a plate and come equipped with a ribbon that loops the thing around your neck for easy snacking while keeping your hands free to wrap around your Glühwein.

An exclusive Christmas market in Berlin that required admission. It wasn't too steep, but the line was enormous so I didn't get to see what the upscale markets of the capital look like.

In case you don't remember from my previous Berlin post, Glühwein is German mulled wine, served hot in a souvenir mug that usually says the name of the town you're in. You put a deposit on the mug when you buy your beverage so you can walk away with it or get your Euro fifty back. The Glühwein is served from an open-air bar (remember, no open-container laws in these parts) where you can also pick up hot chocolate, beer, punch or order a Feuerzangenbowle. This is a rum/mulled wine punch that's made by soaking a sugar loaf in rum and lit on fire on a grate over a large bowl of Glühwein. The sugar caramelizes and melts into the wine with the rum and every one shares. The main attraction, I think, is playing with the flaming sugar. This operation is usually performed behind the bar, so I don't think it's ordered very often. The staple way to warm up at a Christmas market is to wrap your paws around a mug of Glühwein.
The ice rink is a staple of the Weihnachtmarkt. When I first saw this one, there were about four kids between the ages of six and twelve wallowing on the ice. As I watched, another three went down simultaneously. All those bodies falling in front of you must really test your maneuverability.

The Christmas Market is gets kick started at the beginning of Advent with the lighting of a Christmas tree. The whole fair runs through December, all day and well into the evening. Quite a production. Bonn's market winds through most of the downtown area. However, in larger cities there may be multiple Christmas markets that are separated from each other. This past weekend I met Erin in Cologne for mass at the Cathedral where the light and vapor combined to make these images possible:

Near the entrance. This shot was taken over the heads of dozens of Asian tourists.
Light filtering through the stained-glass windows.Looking down the west wing of the cathedral.

We then proceeded to hit all the Christmas markets of Cologne. They had the traditional markets set up near the cathedral, newer, trendier markets further out in the city, a medieval Christmas market set up by the chocolate museum and even a floating Christmas market on a cruise ship bobbing on the Rhine.

The gangway to the floating Christmas Market on the Rhine. My battery decided to quit on me, so I don't have a picture of the boat. Erin does though. Maybe I'll make a link...Regardless, note the very trim Santa welcoming everyone in. Apparently in the six hours he takes to get to North America, all those cookies and glasses of milk take their toll.

A train that takes you from market to market if you feel like shelling out a few Euros and getting chummy with your neighbors. Erin and I opted to take a brisk stroll around town.

Erin and I drank our fill of Glühwein, ate wurst and smoked salmon and ordered this: Dampfnudel

It's a bready dumpling doused in vanilla sauce and cherries that is, as you can see, roughly the size of your face. Oh, Christmas.

I was hoping to learn some traditional German Christmas carols by wandering through the markets, but instead they import Bing Crosby and Andy Williams to bring the Christmas cheer. I guess I'll just have to be content with Stille Nacht (Silent Night) and O Tannenbaum (Oh Christmas Tree), though I haven't heard either of these with German lyrics.

Even as I look out my window, I can see mistletoe growing on a tree outside (granted its a parasitic species and probably not that great for the tree) and have "We Three Kings" stuck in my head. My family and Carolyn will be here in less than a week to enjoy the festive Christmas spirit with me, German style.

I hope your preparations for the holidays are coming together and you have a Christmas carol stuck in your head, too.

Froh Weihnachts! (Merry Christmas)

P.S. Ohio is actually parallel to Southern Spain and Sicily. Crazy Gulf Stream. I hope it stays in operation long enough for me to see Copenhagen before it gets blanketed in glaciers.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Black Rider's Last Stand

Or, Why you should always buy a train ticket in Berlin

The first night I was in Berlin, while waiting at a bus stop, Jason slipped me the key to Berlin: A temporary transportation pass. Berlin is riddled with trains, buses and streetcars and Jason offered me the temporary pass he had been given by the university when he first registered. On a piece of flimsy paper, the pass states the bearer is a student and can ride whatever he wants whenever he wants. In bold, capital letters in also states his name. Jason has since received a more permanent card but keeps the temporary one around.

"You can just wave it at the bus driver. He usually doesn't even look at you, let alone at your ticket and name."

So the system was enter, wave the tattered pass and go to my seat. Simple. I entered the bus, performed the operation and rode to Jason's apartment. I used the temporary pass the next day on the bus and had it in my pocket when I got on the train.

As I discussed when I first arrived in Bonn, the ticket system here is very different than it is in the states. You don't swipe a card at any point when boarding the train. Instead, employees of the transportation department rove the trains asking for your ticket. When you're asked for your ticket, you've been "patrolled."

Personally, I have never been patrolled in Bonn. I don't know if it's a function of being a small city, or if I just have the luck to never be on a train they're checking out. I always have my student card with me, which gives me a free ride anywhere in Bonn or Cologne, but I've never needed to get the thing out. Jason had only been patrolled once in Berlin and the procedure was much like the bus. He got out his pass and the officer glanced at it from a distance, noticing he was waving a piece of paper, but not investigating any further.

Friday, we were on our way back to Jason's house to get dinner going before heading out to the goofy Berliner club. We were chatting on the train when Jason announced:

"Next stop's ours."
"Got it."

Back to chatting when suddenly a piece of paper was being waved in my direction. Earlier there had been a homeless guy looking for change on the train, so I put my head down and tried to ignore the imploring hand.

"Uh, Matt, you need to show them your ticket."

I looked up and saw a squat woman in a black parka brandishing a badge of some kind. Presumably it gives her the authority to check my ticket. Right then our train pulled to a stop.

"Oh, Entschuldigung." (Oh, excuse me)

I dug around for my wallet and whipped out the tattered piece of paper Jason had let me borrow, giving me free reign over the city. She squinted at it and took it from me, beckoning that I should follow her. Crap.

Jason and I were led from the train and onto the platform where another guy dressed in a black parka and a black beanie was waiting. Patrollers aways where "street clothes" when they go around looking for "Schwartz-Fahrer" or "Black-Riders." I think this is a very cool name for people who ride trains without tickets. At that moment I wasn't feeling cool, though. I was mostly terrified they might notice Jason and I apparently share the same name.

The guy on the platform was holding a palm-sized digital device that looked like a portable credit card swipper. The woman who had found me on the train handed my (read: Jason's) tattered pass to the second Patroller.

He held the piece of paper out and read the expiration date "13.11.1008." Just so you know, in Europe (and around most of the world) the date proceeds the month and year. This makes a lot of sense as it has the values in increasing order. The day first, then the month and finally the year. When you write the month it becomes "13 November 2008" conveniently separating the numbers from each other. No comma necessary. As you may have noticed from my writing, I am generally not a fan of commas except as breathing indicators. I'm not sure where our American order for the date came from, but I'm going to side with the Germans on theirs being the best way to write a given date.

Regardless of what I think about the order of the month and day, the point was it 13.11 had passed. He then began to lecture me about having an expired card and where I should go to get a permanent pass. I nodded and said my "Ja's." I also threw in a few "Yes's" so that I would come off as a particularly incompetent recent immigrant who wouldn't have noticed that the pass clearly enumerated the steps I should take to get a permanent pass. Things were looking pretty good for me. He didn't seem willing to dish out any penalties.

He then asked for my ID "either your passport" my eyes got wide "or any government ID." He repeated this in English as I hesitated. and made pleading eyes at Jason. As I said before, his name was clearly printed across the top of the pass. A very different name would be found on my documents (one with multiple "T-H" combinations which really seem to terrify the German tongue).

I shifted my weight uncomfortably, explaining that I didn't have my passport. This was a true statement. I also contemplated the penalties of identity theft. "Uh..." Then the female patroller, who was scrutinizing Jason's pass looked up and squinted at the temporary one, which lazily tilted the upper corner, and Jason's surname, straight into her line of vision. Crap again.

She grabbed the temporary paper, held it to Jason's and glared at me. Now what. Her partner saw what had happened. "Okay, ID, bitte." I deflated trying to express my deepest apologies in my body language as I dug into my wallet and got out my drivers licence. He then demanded 40 Euro, the standard fine for Schwartz-Fahrer-ing. I again dug into my wallet and handed over a little bit of Fulbright's stipend and Jason and I were allowed to walk away without incurring any further German scrutiny. Crime doesn't pay.

Jason apologized. He figured the Patroller on the train must have heard us speaking English and examined our papers with a little more enthusiasm than they normally would. I was just glad to rid myself of the sinking feeling I had felt as I stood next to the Patrollers. Jason offered to split the fine as a consequence for his poor advice (It should be noted here that Jason was also the source that told me Tchibo was the best place to get a cell phone in Germany).

The next day, I bought my day ticket and rode public transportation completely legally. And that is the story of the Black Rider's last stand.

Die Hauptstadt (The Capital)

It’s time for the latest installment in an ongoing series of entries that should be called “Matt Feeds His Wanderlust," and here is the photographic illustration of the following events.

After a week of puzzling over fossils and statistics, I set out Thursday night for Bohemian, bourgeois Berlin, a town once called “Armer aber sexy” (Poor but sexy) by one of its mayors. The last time I visited, tagging the sauropod conference I just saw the natural history museum and a few restaurants. This time I had a hankering to do the full tour of the capital, visiting monuments and museums and hanging out with my friends from Marburg until I needed to settle once again into my lab space back in Bonn.

I stayed with Jason, a twentieth century German history grad student from Northwestern. He was fortunate enough to find a fully furnished apartment with an Ikea futon and soaring ceilings. He met me at the main train station and led me into the massive public transportation system that flows through Berlin to meet Katie, who was visiting for the weekend from Frankfurt where she studies accounting, and Halley, an international studies student in Berlin and Katie’s host for the weekend.

After sharing a drink at a little bar in a basement vaguely reminiscent of the dungeon bar (sans Muppets or old locals) we agreed to meet for a day of monument hopping on Unter den Linden, one of the main, swanky drags of Berlin.

Our first stop was the Brandenburg Gate, the symbol of Berlin may be comparable to the Statue of Liberty. The gate was built in the 18th century as one of a series of entrances into the city. Images of the gate grace Euro coins from Germany and images of the gate with fireworks in the background seem particularly popular calendar covers.

The gate was decked out for Christmas, with a large Christmas tree and hundreds of tourists. This meant street performers dressed as the Berlin bear, Soviet guards and American soldiers were wandering around looking for photo ops. Of course we seized the moment and took pictures of our own.

Near the Gate is the American Embassy where the Stars and Stripes are proudly displayed. We had a lot to see, so we passed on the opportunity to visit a little swatch of the good ol’ U.S. of A. The next stop was the Reichstag. The building actually isn’t large enough to house all the parliamentary offices, so more modern (read “glass and concrete”) buildings were set up in the area. The line to take a tour and see the view of the city from the bubble of glass at the top was pretty long, so we passed on the opportunity, opting to wander the lawn and take pictures while Halley, who has toured the building four times, filled us in on the details. For instance, inside you can still see Russian graffiti left by the invading Soviet Army in 1945. Apparently it’s a bit nasty if you happen to read the Cyrillic alphabet.

As we strolled I caught a whiff of marijuana smoke. I saw the knot of teenagers, huddled together passing something around. I recognized the moment as the first (and probably only) time I have ever stood near a national monument and smelled cannabis. Oh, Berlin.

The next stop was the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas). Inaugurated in 2005, the memorial is a grid of concrete blocks of varying heights placed on a sloping brick field. You can walk between the blocks and get lost wandering through the vast expanse of concrete along with dozens of other visitors. The monument actually doesn’t have a label or explanation associated with it. According to Wikipedia (the most reliable source, I know), this is because the creators wanted visitors to reach their own conclusions about “what it all means.” The memorial is also notable for probably having the lowest graffiti to concrete ratio in the entire city.

We then wandered around Christmas markets and down Unter den Linten, walking by museums and theaters before Halley stopped by a Ferris wheel at one of the markets. “Hey guys, do you want to? “ Well, who wouldn’t want to take a ride to the top of the city to get a good view? The ferris wheel had one of the fastest revolution rates I have ever experienced, making the whole event that much more exciting as we tried to snap of pictures with horizontal horizons that didn’t make Berlin look like it was in the midst of an earthquake.
A reasonably straight horizon. The view is into the former East Berlin which is dominated by the Fernseheturm (TV Tower), a symbol of East Berlin in the mid twentieth century.
Finally we went to Checkpoint Charlie where pieces of the Berlin wall and signs declaring the division between the two Germanys are still on display. It’s interesting to see museums and monuments to an event that only occurred eighteen years ago. Talk about living in historic times.

That night we went out with one of Halley’s friends for a night on the town in Berlin. Also in the group were Jill and Catherine, two more Marburgers. It was great to see both of them and catch up as we walked first to a Falafel stand then to the bar. Most of what I knew about Berlin nightlife came from seeing “Cabaret” and a vague knowledge of the city’s reputation for crazy nights so I wasn’t too surprised when we started climbing a fire escape to get to the entrance. We paid a one Euro cover, which sent off some warnings in my head. If a place charges a cover, it’s to promote a feeling of exclusivity that just the atmosphere is worth paying for. But a one Euro cover told me, “We really want to be cool, but are a little worried that raising the price might drive people away.”

You try to categorize this place. I'm glad I had the experience, but next time I may check out a different club.

The décor reminded me of someone’s living room, with random furniture and potted plants ringing the dance floor. Just by entering the place, our group lowered the median age by about ten years. It was also 70 percent male, though there were none of the signals that I had missed at Le Copain. The music was pounding electronica and techno (as I expected) and everyone kind of bounced to the beat. One of the nice things about Germany is everyone dances like an awkward suburbanite, because we all are. Just people watching in the place made the time fly by and soon we were back on the street, waiting for the train in the wee hours of the morning.

The next day (Saturday), Katie and I met on Unter den Linten again to check out the Deutsches Historische Museum (German History Museum). The museum spanned 2000 years of German history from the Roman occupation to the fall of the Berlin wall and subsequent reunification. I wasn’t prepared for the scale of the place. The Smithsonian is already overwhelming. Imagine tacking 1400 more years of history onto the exhibits. Highlights included original copies of documents such as Luther’s 97 theses, maps of the Prussian empire and the rapidly expanding world.
Arms and armor that probably came from someone's family collection. It's interesting to think of such artifacts as part of your direct history. In The U.S., armor is always presented as a kind of symbol of backward European values and economics. The more important question I want to deal with is when I can I try such a suit on?

Of course the twentieth century history is really the most fascinating as I learned about history from the German perspective on the origins of WWI and the rise of Hitler. Propaganda posters and caricatures were mingled with artifacts from the life of a normal German in the 1920s and 30s.
The Hitler Youth never really ceases to get me riled up. I see Boy Scouts a way to teach young people about conservation and independence. Sure, there's a patriotic aspect to the program, but the Nazis fundamentally undermined the values of scouting by making it an extension of a political party...oh I could go on but have decided ot spare you.

After all the tension and strife that characterized most of German history throughout the 20th century, there was something very satisfying of ending the experience with images of the Berlin wall collapsing into rubble and proclamations of a united, stable Germany. Leaving the final exhibit was like walking out of an inspirational sports movie.

The bustling Unter den Linden with the linden trees that give the place its name all decked out for the holidays.

That night we had authentic Mexican food near the Natural History Museum, prepared by Mexican immigrants who knew how to handle their spices (even if they didn’t quite know how to handle their time, as we waited for maybe an hour to finally get our food). That night we celebrated Jill’s birthday party and a small Marburg reunion ensued. It was wonderful to catch up with David, Marco, Chris, The Tates, Catherine and Jill, getting everyone’s perspective on life and work in the largest city in Germany.

Sunday, we met David and Marco for brunch at a trendy little cafè in a trendy part of town. Katie had to catch her train at 3, but I wasn’t planning on getting out of town until 6 or 7 which left just enough time to check out the Pergamon Museum before heading home. David and Marco decided to join me in Berlin’s massive monument to ancient art. The museum is most famous for its reconstructions of ancient buildings on a monumental scale. German archeologists took apart the Pergamon Temple in Turkey, then put all the statues and columns back together inside the museum.
The pieces of the temple were cut along those lines and reassembled in Berlin. Of course if and when the German government will return these pieces to Turkey is a matter of much debate.

The same was done with a Roman market entrance and the Ishtar Gate, the entryway into Babylon.
A relief from the Ishtar Gate. Does it look just a little bit familiar? Dozens of these lions and mythological, griffin-like creatures lined the entry way into the city, covered in turquoise and lapis. This is what the conquered Hebrews saw when they first entered the city during the Babylonian exile, the event that finally promoted them to commit their shared experiences to paper (the origin of the Torah).

Photos really don’t to the scale of any of these monuments any justice, but I wanted to have my own images of the classic Babylonian lions and Greek statuary.

Naturally, David and Marco were museumed-out before I was, but they let me cover most of the exhibits and put up with my running commentary, so we headed to dinner. We walked by Baroque churches and performance halls and saw Neo-Classical buildings lit up at night, not to mention dozens of exclusive designer boutiques with the “Armer aber Sexy” vibe that Berlin loves to cultivate. Marco had used the website mitfahrgelegenheit.de, a ride sharing website, to arrange a cheap trip home to Dusseldorf. He found out there was an extra seat in the red Golf we would be using to cross the country, so we had a few more hours to kill cooking a meal and discussing research and graduate school (only the most thrilling of topics, I know).

We finally met our car at midnight. I stumbled through a German conversation, acutely aware that I should be able to arrange my thoughts in German much more readily then I was able to. The experience has really galvanized me to work on my language skills while trying to work on my fossils. After a rough night of trying to get comfortable in the back of the small vehicle, we made it to Dusseldorf and finally to the train back to Bonn. I decided to get an early start on the day, but regretted my decision when I felt like a dirty, greasy mess around 2 that afternoon. I have since recovered my sleep schedule. I really enjoyed Berlin, but Bonn has a much smaller, dare I say more German, vibe. Berlin is an international place with people representing nearly every country on Earth. Bonn is a place that typifies modern German culture and I’m excited to get to know it better (hopefully with sharpened language skills).

I hope your weekend was lovely and you are as excited for Christmas as I am. My family and Carolyn will be here in less than two weeks!


Friday, December 5, 2008


(The images to accompany my two Thanksgiving meals and my wanderings through Zürich are here)

I haven’t been home for Thanksgiving for two years now. Last year I was in Brazil presenting my research on crinoids at the University of Sao Paulo. I was surrounded by other Ohio State researchers, but most of us had just met, so it wasn’t exactly a family meal when we gathered for our Thanksgiving churrasco. This year I was away from the Borths/Kemble family table on the fourth Thursday in November yet again. I think of Thanksgiving as the family holiday so it was tough missing the feast for a second year in a row.

Many of my fellow expats felt the same way, so I was invited to two Thanksgiving celebrations, one the weekend before the official day, and the other the weekend after. The first was organized by the Ohio State design students who let me tag along for Oktoberfest in Munich and the Federweisenfest in Wiesbaden. Their Thanksgiving celebrations were the same day as the Michigan/Ohio State game in Zürich, Switzerland. Ian, one of the design students, is studying there for the semester. Since I wanted to be surrounded by Buckeyes for the big game and I wanted to get some turkey in my system, I bought my train ticket to Zürich and headed south.

Ian lives in a dormitory that has two large communal kitchens for the entire building and large common spaces for mingling. While it might be tough to share a kitchen with a couple hundred people on a regular basis, the set-up was perfect for making all the fixin’s for Thanksgiving. I would never be able to host such an event as I have a very small kitchen and the common area in my dorm wouldn’t be able to accommodate all the guests. All us American interlopers slept in the attic of Ian’s building which had extra mattresses and six couches. Again, perfect place to host a bunch of people.

I arrived Friday, exchanged my Euros for Swiss Francs and puzzled over the bus map with Lindsay and Chris. A note on Swiss money: Switzerland is not part of the Euro zone. As always, the Swiss want to stay out of the affairs of the rest of Europe in just about every way. They don’t want to be exposed to the economic fortunes (and misfortunes) of the neighbors. By hanging onto the Franc the Swiss have made themselves one of the wealthiest and thus most expensive countries in Europe. This makes it a nice place to visit, but I’m glad I’m living in the more affordable Bonn. As an illustration of the expense: It’s about 1.20 Swiss Francs to the dollar. A meal at McDonalds in Switzerland costs 15.00 Francs. Crazy. Eventually Chris, Lindsay and I were met by Boron, an Ohio State students studying in Potsdam. He led us to the correct bus, then on to Ian’s building.

Saturday morning it was snowing, leaving a powder sugar coating over the city and surrounding hills. Because I woke up in the attic in a building rooted into one of these hills, I had a spectacular view of the valley and Lake Zürich. I can’t tell you how badly I wanted to yodel across the rooftops, but thought that might not sit well with people trying to sleep in on their Saturday. I wanted to get out and explore while the snow was on the ground so I went grocery shopping with Boron and Ian. I admired all the premium Swiss-made cheeses and chocolate and helped schlep the makings of the feast back up the hill. Ian and Boron were our main cooks for the day, so the rest of us were free to explore the city a bit.

As we wandered into the old medieval part of town, a little sign labeled “Scotch Shop” caught my eye. I joked that on a wintery day, that didn’t seem like a bad place to hang out. Chris agreed and headed towards the small wooden door. I followed, fully aware that I didn’t know a thing about whiskies but was probably about to learn something.

The shop was run by a small, Swiss woman who was ready for any question we had. She knew every bottle in the shop as if it were her child and is proud of them all. Chris and I had an opportunity to taste a few varieties and compare the “smokiness” of different batches. I sampled a few from bottles I won’t be able to afford for another decade. I tripled my knowledge of single malt Scotch in the thirty minutes we were in the store. The proprietor asked where we were from. When Lindsay and I said Cincinnati, she was excited to say she knew the city because a troupe of Cincinnati businessmen frequent her store when they’re in town. At least the Cincinnatians have good taste.

After the Scotch stop we picked up two other Ohio State students, Tylon and Katie, who were coming to join the feast. I met Tylan at Oktoberfest, but hadn’t met Katie. She joined us right as we entered a Swiss Army knife store, so there weren’t formal introductions. As we left the store and strolled along the lake, I introduced myself. “Oh sorry. Hi. Yeah, I know you are. You’re in all the pictures. I forgot we hadn’t met yet!” I suddenly felt even more accepted into this group of designers.

When I go into a new city, I’m usually paying attention to signs for museums, but industrial designers have a different search image. Swiss and German design runs rampant through the boutiques and furniture shops, so I was given a crash course in design fundamentals as we went into different interior design stores and kitchen appliance retailers. It wasn’t so much a shopping experience as a tour through an art gallery with the designers evaluating and critiquing each piece on display.

Finally it was time for turkey. We headed back to the dorm and helped set out the spread. Ian also invited his entire design department to the meal so they could experience a real American Thanksgiving. The room was packed when we started serving the turkey and the bird was reduced to bones in less than twenty minutes. By the end of the meal, everyone was fed, but no leftovers remained, a first in my Thanksgiving experience. The meal wound down just in time to start watching the Buckeyes clobber the Wolverines. Ian’s dad had his computer set up in front of the TV in Columbus and we watched on Ian’s computer via Skype. Oh the wonders of modern technology.

The next morning everyone packed up and started heading to the trains. I wanted to explore the city a bit, so I bought my ticket for late that night and spent the next couple of hours roaming Zurich. I checked out the Swiss National Museum that houses everything from the earliest Stone Age artifacts of Switzerland, to Cold War memorabilia. The early archeological history was particularly fascinating. As an American Anthropologist I have primarily been taught about the prehistoric cultures of my home continent. Images of Native Americans erecting lodges and building canoes are very familiar. But to see similar dioramas with blond-haired people that look like my family members, making flint arrowheads and carving elk horns was arresting, a part of my history I hadn’t thought about very much before. Somehow European history, as I was taught it, just begins with Classical Greece and spreads north as the Roman Empire. The pre-Roman cultures usually aren’t discussed much.

I also saw the earliest known complete wheel. The incredible invention was just sitting there, with little fanfare in an exhibit about early transportation. I wasn’t allowed to use my camera in the exhibit, but know that it was a fantastic artifact.

The museum also had reconstructions of a medieval convent , a palace and collections of Roman gold and pottery. I rushed through the museum a bit because I wanted to walk along Lake Zürich and see the Alps rearing up along the skyline before the sun set around 4:45. I sprinted through the requisite “Arms and Armor” displays and headed out into the brisk afternoon. The wind picked up a bit and I was very glad to have my warm pea coat to snuggle into as I walked along the shoreline snapping photos of the mountains and the idyllic city with its regular bridges, boats and clock towers (it is Switzerland).

The next weekend (last weekend), the West German Fulbrighters gathered at Ashlan’s house for a Marburg reunion and turkey. She also has a pretty impressive living arrangement in an apartment with a couple other students. Their kitchen has every appliance and utensil you could possibly need. If my meal the previous week was a time to give thanks among friends, this week felt like a meal with family. There were common jokes and experiences to relive and catching up to do as we shared stories of life in our post-Marburg cities. Everyone is doing well but wrestling with similar struggles as we search for German acquaintances and try to figure out what exactly is going on with our research projects.

Everyone was responsible for a different side dish. I volunteered to make corn bread, before I even knew if corn meal was available at the grocery store. I was lucky to find out the Germans do have the stuff, but there’s only one brand, and it was hidden among the more common German cooking starches such as Spätzle mix. I also volunteered to bring Skyline Chili dip as an appetizer. My mom gave me two precious cans of Skyline when I met my family at SVP in Cleveland. I was saving the cans for a special occasion and this seemed like the right time to sacrifice one of them. Back in Marburg I sung the virtues of Cincinnati-style chili and wanted to share it with the Fulbrighters who had never had the privilege of sampling chili made with chocolate (among other things).

At the grocery store I found the cream cheese (Philadelphia cream cheese, no less) and eventually found the cheddar. It’s not a very common cheese in Germany, as I found out when we made burgers in Aachen, but there it was, tucked in the upper corner of the cooler, pre-sliced and a bit more expensive than the more traditional cheesy options.

The dip was a hit (even though I couldn’t find plain, salted tortilla chips and had to serve the dip with Paprika flavored tortilla chips) with everyone commenting it was weirdly sweet. I agreed and explained Cincinnati chili isn’t exactly your average bean-stuffed, spicy Texan variety.

When Marco’s beautiful turkey was finally ready, it was time to feast. This time the amount of food overwhelmed us. Every side you could want at a Thanksgiving table was served. Then there was pumpkin pie, apple pie and brownies to deal with. It was wonderful to be together again. It’s amazing how quickly you can make good friends when you’re thrown together in a new country with a little culture shock and a few language problems. This weekend I’m headed to Berlin to see even more Fulbrighters to reminisce and make new memories.

I hope you can spend some time with family this weekend, either surrogate or biological. Maybe you can even share a big meal together, unless, of course, the Thanksgiving love and Thanksgiving calories from a week ago are still sustaining you.


Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Le Copain

So one of the problems with constantly hopping out of town on the weekends is that I really haven’t gotten to experience the nightlife of Bonn all that much. There’s a bar near the Institute called “Havana’s” that we go to every Tuesday after the department seminar, but it’s more of a restaurant than a bar. I’m usually around on weekdays and I save my evening for catching up with home, practicing my German or guitar (I know I could also go to the bar and practice German, but that’s a goal for next semester. Right now I would be a boring conversation partner to say the least) and I don’t head out for a brew.

Thus during the conference when I was suddenly confronted with a group of international graduate students who wanted to explore the bars of Bonn, I didn’t know where to take them. The German and Bonner grad students went home (another reason I don’t go out on weekdays, as they are really my only friends) and I was left the sole tour guide. I confessed my ignorance of the bar scene to Mike, a PhD student from the University of Michigan who studies the relationships between sauropod groups (I also stayed with him last year when I interviewed at Michigan), Phil, a doctoral candidate from the College of London who works on sauropod biogeography, Lara, a PhD student from the University of Alberta who works on T. rex skulls, Pohan, a doctoral student from Thailand who’s studying sauropods in France, and two other French graduate students named Jacqueline and Anna. Like I said, an international crowd. Everyone was up for just wandering town until we found a bar that looked like a good spot to hang out, have a drink, maybe chat with a local and roll on.

We started in the center of town, near the Beethoven statue, where we saw a lot of restaurant/bars that seemed pretty packed and a little expensive. Near the edge of the old town we saw a bar that seemed to be populated by locals. Mike and I headed for the door, but Lara hung back. “It’s just a bunch of old guys in there.” I hadn’t noticed, but she was right, “It looks like the kind of place where my butt will get pinched a few too many times.” So we rolled on, discussing the different bar search images used by men and women. The next place seemed like a lot of older couples out for a night on the town without the kids, so we kept walking, getting thirsty and I became more apologetic that I didn’t know the best spots.

Then we found a promising window. The sign was a Jever Pilsner logo, one of the non-regional beers, and a sign of a smaller, local watering hole. The front window was a checkerboard of small, thick glass panes lined with red Christmas lights. What we could see of the interior through the slightly fogged windows was a narrow bar with a lot of locals bellied up. It looked like a good spot, and it wasn’t crowded so Lara could watch her rear. We decided to go for it. Lara opened the door and everyone’s heads shot up and stared at us. I thought this was probably because they weren’t used to people under the age of forty entering the premises. The clientele was mostly male with two older women at a table near the back edge of the bar, but there was a booth in the back. Not wanting to seem like a bunch of rowdy college kids, we put our heads down avoiding eye contact with the regulars and made for the oaken booth in the very back of the establishment. After we settled into the booth, we could finally take a moment to size the place up.

Behind our booth hung a colorful rainbow flag. I know what such a flag stands for in the States, but the whole place was pretty colorful, so it was probably just part of the theme. The bar tender came to the table and asked if we wanted anything. He seemed bemused by our presence, but not hostile. I ordered in German, but broke down when I couldn’t figure out what Pohan wanted as he asked for a “digestive.” We couldn’t decide what this was exactly and the bar tender interjected in English that he would bring a whiskey. I guess it helps digestion…

After he left, I noticed the sailor motif around the booth complete with a seascape, lifesaver ring and sailing hat. Mike noticed the gay pride flags over the bar. “Hey guys…I think this is…” “It’s a gay bar,” interrupted, Lara. “Look.” Hanging on the wall was this poster:

Suddenly “Dancing Queen” by ABBA cued up and all the clues fell into place. The stares of the clientele, the décor, the colorful lights adorning the whole otherwise oaken interior, the flag.

“Oh goodness.” I think Phil spoke for us all.

We are all paleontologists who spend most of their days searching for the subtle clues to life’s past. We are detail people. We really should have put things together a bit faster, but I guess that’s why we’re still students. I think our incredibly slow uptake also shows how willing we were to see the flags and sailing gear as a weird German thing instead of using our own cultural morays to figure out where we were. Honestly, the sailing stuff was just too blatant, and yes, the rainbow gay pride flag is universal.

I’ve never seen a table finish their alcohol so quickly. Let me clarify, we aren’t homophobic people. We just weren’t ready to explain our mix-up to a curious German guy from the bar. We already felt awkward and self-conscious because we were clearly not supposed to be there, or necessarily welcome, based on the stares we were getting from the bar. Male and female, we just wanted to find a comfort zone.

When we finished our alcohol and paid the still-bemused bartender (who probably recognized a bunch of clueless foreigners when we walked through the door) and gathered on the street. We looked up and saw the name of the establishment printed overhead:

“The Buddy.” Well, it’s certainly not a place I would have found on my own.

Mike and I figuring out that we might not be over the rainbow, or near a pot of gold.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Biggest Names in Germany

Two weekends ago, Dr. Martin Sander, “the dinosaur guy” of the University of Bonn, along with his research unit, hosted an international conference on sauropod paleobiology. Sauropods are the massive long-necked dinosaurs that usually greet you at major natural history museums. I got to volunteer to run the projectors for the research presentations which meant I participated in all the dinners and coffee breaks where all the real science happens.

There were more than paleontologists in attendance. There were ecologists, physiologists, and biomechanical engineers all lending their field’s insight into the outstanding questions of sauropod biology. Many of the questions sound like something a little kid asks when he sees the bones for the first time, “How did they get so big?” “What did they eat?” “Could they rear back on their hind legs?” “Did they live in herds?” It’s really kind of overwhelming how much I learned in the three days of the conference. Now I genuinely feel I could hold my own in a debate with specialists on the neck posture of the animals (Here’s the paradox, the neck vertebrae of animals like Brachiosaurus (see photos) clearly indicate it held its head up like a giraffe. However, the heart of the animal would have taken up most of its chest in order to create the kind of blood pressure necessary to get blood to the brain. People have suggested the animals had auxiliary hearts in the neck and have discussed how much blood would need to get to such a tiny head, but the point remains: If you want to get blood to go up 5 or 6 meters, you need a hell of a ticker).

One of the best parts of the conference was the opportunity to meet an international crowd of experts on these animals and Mesozoic biology. I chatted with Jim Farlow, an expert on dinosaur tracks, Paul Upchurch, an expert on their phylogeny (how they relate to one another), Matt Wedel, an expert on their massive lungs, and Brain McNab, an expert on warm-blooded metabolism. I also had time to hang out with my fellow students and the future of many of the debates I listened to. Check out the next entry for student stories of bar crawling. For now, I’ll stick to the daylight hours…

The whole conference was paid for by the DFG, the National Science Foundation of Germany, where they fund “Pure Research” that is, research that doesn’t necessarily have an obvious practical goal such as particle physics, astronomy and paleontology. The format, as conceived by Dr. Sander, encouraged discussion and debate between the attendees. He wanted the final day to bring together a synthesis of “What we know” and more importantly “What we don’t know (but may be able to figure out).”

Then we took off for a field trip across Germany to look at her most famous sauropod dinosaurs. In North-central Germany there’s a national monument preserving an ancient trackway from 130 million years ago. It’s a coastal environment and the footprints (Spuren) include the massive prints of sauropods and Iguanodons. Surrounding the national treasure is a private park called “Dino Park.” The park is filled with life-size reconstructions of ancient animals. The park was first built in the ‘60s and you can see the old models with kangaroo-like T. rexes going for pudgy, pig-like Triceratops. These models evolve into the slimmer, more athletic and bird-like animals we recognize as dinosaurs today. Here's the link to an album of photos from the park and, yes, there will be a quiz on the names of all the animals.

Also housed at the museum are the remains of Europasaurus. The animal was discovered a couple years ago in a quarry near the park and the town of Goslar and described by Dr. Sander. It looks a lot like Brachiosaurus (spell check just thought I wanted to write Brontosaurus. It's time to write an angry e-mail to someone about Apatosaurus being the only correct spelling), one of the tallest dinosaurs ever, except he’s only the size of a cow. Back during the Late Jurassic, Europe was an archipelago of islands that looked like the modern Caribbean (I thought it was still like that. Why else would I want to live here for a year?). When large, warm-blooded animals get stuck on islands, they tend to shrink through geologic time. Thus one of the mightiest dinosaurs to ever stomp became a cute, horse-sized animal. The fossils were found in shallow tropical marine limestones and they are gorgeous in their preservation. Usually dinosaur pieces are scrappy and weathered, but these bones are fully intact. You should share that tidbit with your friends tomorrow at lunch.

We got to examine the bones ourselves and check out all the other material they’ve discovered, such as pterosaur (flying-reptile) pelvises and turtles, all exceptionally preserved. To wander around looking at fossils, eavesdropping on the highly technical discussions that surrounded me was a fantastic glimpse into the debates that surround these animals.

(Here's a link to more pictures illustrating the second phase of the excursion)

That night was spent in Goslar, a classic small German town. Unaffected (physically) by World War II, the town retains medieval homes, churches and castles. The site is famous as the home to the oldest, continually used silver mine in the world. It was opened in the 10th century and was still mined through the 1960s. Dinner was at a cute rustic hunting lodge of a restaurant where they served elk, boar and venison. The menu was in about six different languages, so despite the humble exterior, you know they rack in the tourists.

After a walk around town the next morning, one of the first bitterly cold days of winter, we headed to the quarry where Europasaurus was found. The place is a limestone mine with massive beds of material that have literally been turned upside down through mountain forming processes 50 million years after they were laid down. The material is really hard and must be quarried with dynamite to bring down the blocks. The DFG hasn’t given Dr. Sander funding for a scientific excavation of the site, so paleontologists must content themselves with scrambling over the fallen boulders searching for fossils exposed in the fallen blocks. It’s not an ideal situation, but trained eyes can recognize which layer a block might call home, allowing correlation of the material to the slanted walls.

I really haven’t done that much fieldwork in commercially developed sites, but in Germany, every paleontologically interesting locality doubles as an active economic quarry. I’m glad to know that most of my future excursions will be far from the heavy machinery of mining, even if bulldozers are useful when you need to remove a couple tons of over-burden.

From the quarry we rolled on to Berlin. Most people to visit Berlin go for the hip nightlife, trendy galleries and the cutting edge of European fashion and art. We wanted to go for the fossils. To be more specific, I wanted to go for two fossils.

The Berlin Brachiosaurus mount is illustrated in nearly every book on dinosaurs I’ve ever seen. The towering animal with slightly flexed forelimbs is equivalent to "Berlin" in my brain. In 1906 a German exposition to Tanzania brought the animal to Deutschland along with thousands of other bones and everything was quickly mounted to show off the physical scale of German scientific achievement. The animals dragged their tails on the ground and looked a bit crocodile-like in their posture and anatomy. Nearly 100 years later, the museum decided to update the display with animations of the animals in action. They also wanted to get the tails up off the ground. A graduate student at Bonn was recruited as the scientific adviser for the project. Kristien Remes literally stood on the ground as crews of workers hoisted the bones into position. He would call out, “Put the scapula a little higher!” “Make the femur straighter!” A yoga coach for animals dead 130 million years.

We got to walk through the exhibit with now Dr. Remes as our guide. In the same room is a darkened alcove with the word "Archeopteryx" printed over the entrance. Inside is a fossil that has become synonymous with “evolution” and the “missing-link.” The Berlin Archeopteryx.

Evidence of the animal was first discovered in 1860. A lone pinion feather was found in the Stolnhofen limestone in northern Bavaria. Scientists at the time thought this was very interesting because it meant birds were sharing the world with dinosaurs. Then in 1861 a skeleton was found at the height of the debate over Mr. Darwin’s new ideas about the history of life. The fossil seemed to be a small reptilian dinosaur, but around the arms and tail were the clear shapes of feathers. The animal was described by pro and anti-evolutionists when it was brought to London, but the fossil was a little scrappy. Then in 1876 another fossil was found. This fossil preserved nearly every bone in the body and the imprints of feathers around the wings and tail. No one was sure if it should be called a reptile or bird. It was a perfect missing link. The fossil wound up in Berlin and has graced the covers of books on evolution, featured in documentaries and now I could finally enter the alcove and examine the fossil myself.

The animal is gorgeous with each delicate claw and tooth perfectly in place. Many people complain that it’s a bit flattened, particularly the skull, but they miss the point. The detail preserved in the rock, right down to the feathers revealing true flying abilities is evidence of the amazing creative force that is biological evolution. I stood in awe trying to soak up every three-dimensional detail that does not appear in photographs. One of the reasons I wanted to do research in this country was because I wanted to see this animal. It was worth it.

Then we descended into the “Knochenkeller” or “Bone cellar” where the large bones of mammoths and sauropods are stored on the shelves and nooks in a subterranean vault. Scientific debate raged now that the actual evidence of these massive animals confronted the physiologists and paleontologists. I still tried to put the scale of these animals into some kind of understandable context.

The rest of the museum was a hodge-podge of old and new displays. The exhibit on the ocean, the formation of the planets and modern animal diversity were well-lit with engaging explainations and diagrams for all age groups. Unfortunately the sections on fossil not connected to Archaeopteryx and Brachiosaurus were probably put together in the 1970s and haven’t been touched since. We’ve learned a lot about the past in the last thirty years, so hopefully the displays will catch up soon, giving all Nature’s evolutionary experiments their due moment of wonder.

After a hustle through the displays, it was time to pile back onto the bus and begin the seven hour trip back to Bonn. Conversations still went on as questions bombarded my brain and I furiously tried to write down all the stuff I needed to read about my field when I got back to a library and online databases. I might have over-dosed on massive dinosaurs, or I might have found a new field to wade into. We’ll see what I’m up to in twenty years.

Friday, November 28, 2008

What I'm thankful for

...that I feel a rush of excitement when a bunch of numbers and graphs start to reveal the workings of an ancient ecosystem and the engine of creation.

...that technology enables me to be across the Atlantic Ocean, but still feel connected to my loved ones, even if I still feel a homesick longing to sit down to turkey with my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, mom, dad and brother.

...that while I haven't been home for two Thanksgivings I was able to experience other cultures in celebration (in Brazil and Germany) and in normalcy. That next year I will be able to participate in setting up the tree and finally watch "It's a Wonderful Life."

...that I have made friends of Germans, Americans, French, Canadians and Belgians. That they welcomed me and have helped me with the language, making this place a home for year.

...for the endless questions that continue to bombard me. That I grew up in a family that supported my thunks and encouraged learning something new every day.

...that in less than a month I will see my family and get to show them the place we called home once upon a time before our ancestors set out for a life in America where they created families privileged enough to come back and visit.

Thanksgiving makes a lot of sense now. The pilgrims didn't know what they were in for, but were committed to making it work. They found guides and support from the locals who wanted to share their own culture. Sitting down together in friendship and struggle - I feel I can start to tap into that joy.


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Achin' for Aachen

Here are the illustrations for the following post on my fantastic trip to Aachen (Note: I'm never quite sure if this should go at the beginning at the end. Is it distracting to put it at the top? Do you click on it, go through a few and never come back? I don't know...).

Aachen is the western-most city in Germany and borders Belgium and the Netherlands. It is also where Erin, one of my fellow Fulbrighters, is living. She is a chemist from Cleveland and keeps a blog of her adventures as well called "The German Adventures of the Erex." My original plan was to meet her in Aachen on Friday, take a trip to Maastricht in the Netherlands or maybe Brussels, then stay with her host family for the weekend. Unfortunately, the famously punctual Deutschebahn (German Trains) let me down (coupled with my own navigational ineptitude) and I didn't arrive until late in the afternoon.

We roved through Aachen. A high point was a visit to the Aachen Cathedral: The central shrine of the cathedral was built by Charlemagne. Unfortunately they charge for the right to take pictures, so you'll just have to accept my description (or go look it up). The chapel is that central hexagonal structure. The interior almost looks Roman (Charlie's goal) with white and black marble and mosaics of the saints and Charlie's entourage. Also housed in the cathedral is the throne of Charlemagne where the first emperor of the Holy Roman Empire was crowned along with his successors, including Pippin (I had "Corner of the Sky" stuck in my head for a few hours). Chuck was want to rove over his empire and had palaces set up all over France and Germany so he could keep a direct eye on things. But in the winter and in the years proceeding his death he like to hang in Aachen. His tomb was in this cathedral. When he was canonized (a sainthood that apparently isn't widely accepted), his bones were exhumed and now sit in a golden casket behind the alter along with the sacred relics of the cathedral which include Mary's cloak, the cloth that was wrapped around John the Baptist's beheaded head, Christ's swaddling cloths (put on before he was laid in a manger) and Christ's loin cloth. It's interesting that none of these relics are a body part, as is the more popular custom. Instead, it's a kind of fashion show of Roman Judea every seven years when they take out the relics and let every one take a look.

The rest of the cathedral has been slowly accumulating new chapels and vestibules since 792 when the emperor's chapel was begun. There's a baroque chapel, Gothic spires and windows from post-WWII. The treasury was closing down for the day, so we couldn't see all the goodies Chuck brought to the town when it was his home base.

After leaving the cathedral we walked by some kind of protest that involved the U.S. flag and money. It was the weekend after the election, so I was confused about this persistent anti-American feeling, but didn't feel like asking the protesters what was up. They were pretty subdued and were generally ignored by other wandering Aacheners. Erin and I sampled Printen, the city cookie of Aachen that tastes like licorice and gingerbread, a taste that might take some time to grown on me.

We also stopped by a Tchibo. I had never braved entry into the store since my bakery incident in Marburg. They offer very trendy accessories and clothing and coffee that smelled pretty good. Then Erin pointed out a stand near the register: cell phones. Here's proof that the baker in Marburg should have been a little more understanding when I wandered in and asked, "Haben Sie eine Handy, bitte?" Okay maybe it's still weird to go into a store and ask the proprietor, "Do you have a cell phone?" In a real Tchibo, though, you don't even have to interact with anyone. You can just pick up a new phone!

After coffee and strolling around town a bit more, we headed out into one of the small towns that surround the city where Erin lives with Roger and Claudia, her host family. I had known about Roger and Claudia since Erin first heard from them back in September when she was told she would be living with sheep, rabbits, cats and horses. Naturally I was jealous has it had been weeks since I had contact with my favorite anthropomorphized fuzzballs back at home (my earnest dog, Lance, the cynical cat, Gwen, and the brassy cat, Avalon). Now I finally got to meet the wonderful family that kept the menagerie I had heard about.

Here follows a list of the wonderful experiences that somehow crammed themselves into one weekend:

1) Meeting the horses. The cats were a good reminder of home and a welcome opportunity to discuss the evolutionary history of Felidae (you know you wish you were there), but I was most excited to see Ronja and Fleur, Roger and Claudia's horses who are stabled a short distance from their home. I have always loved horses, and I can't exactly say why. I wasn't exposed to them at an early age (Tokyo and the West Side of Cincinnati don't have a lot of ranches), I'm a recent fan of the western, but wasn't obsessed with cowboys when I was little, I was a fan of knights and dragons, so it's possible horses go to me there, but I can't quite put my finger on why the animals get me so excited. Perhaps it's related to wanderlust, the idea of riding into the open, relying on grass and water to get from A to B.

What I do know is I was excited to meet the animals and even more enthralled by Claudia's suggestion that I go for a ride. Of the two animals, Ronja is the most amenable to the saddle. She is a beautiful red-brown animal who was trained as a trotting horse, that is, she raced with one of those little chariot/carts attached to her. Now she's in retirement and happily under Claudia and Roger's care. She shares her stall with Fleur, a slightly larger, dirty white horse who had a rough history of abuse and neglect before she was rescued by the lovely couple I was staying with.

We let the animals out of their gate, brushed them, cleaned the stall, refreshed their hay and saddled Ronja for a late night stroll around the surrounding area. The moon was nearly full and casting shadows in the forest. I was riding Ronja who was being lead by Claudia. Roger and Erin were walking with Fleur who isn't too enthusiastic about having people are her back (though Claudia is working with her). After getting comfortable with guiding Ronja around turns and obstacles, Claudia let the two of us lose in a well-lit corral so I could try riding solo. Here's proof:

2) Amerikanische-Wahlkampf-Party. The main reason I went to visit Erin on that particular weekend was because Roger and Claudia were hosting a American Election Party. It was the weekend after the election, so it could have been a bummer of a party if things had gone differently on the 4th. Instead, there was plenty of reason to celebrate with authentic American Cuisine. Erin and I were in charge of the menu.

Roger is on my right, Erin is in purple and Claudia is taking the picture at the party before the burgers were ready.

The most American food I know if is a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich. Peanut butter is America's condiment, though it has made some tentative forays across the Atlantic. But finding people who have tried it on bread with grape of strawberry jelly is very rare. Of course, these sandwiches don't make very good appetizers so I went a little further into the Great American Cookbook kept in my brain and came up with Ants-on-a-log. If Europeans think peanut butter and jelly is a weird combo, they think peanut butter and raisins smeared across celery is downright bizarre.

It turns out I was on the right track. Claudia went to Oregon (Washington state?) when she was younger and was served this standard American camper treat. It's always stuck with her. To go with the ants we also prepared garlic and basil hamburgers (finding a German equivalent to meltable American cheese was tough. I wanted this to be backyard cookout American-style, not pseudo gourmet with Gouda on the burgers), butternut squash, chips and muffins: Two notes: First, in the glass you see what may be Coke, an American invention and favorite to be sure. It is actually Guinness because Roger had a supply of Irish Stout and I hadn't had it for a while. I tell myself it was testament to my roots as I sat in Germany, drank like an Irishman and felt very American. Second, soon after this picture was taken I decided something was missing, so I went into the kitchen for the bag of chips (potato chips or crisps) to accompany my lonely burger. The combination of items was deemed truly bizarre. None of the Germans had heard of eating chips with a meal. Perhaps they're seen as purely snack items? Roger jumped on board. We then watched Obama's acceptance speech and McCain's concession speech. Then it was bed time because the next day was...

3) A day at the races. Claudia works as a programmer and Roger is a mechanical engineer. Claudia's office has begun a competition to encourage group unity and fitness. Regularly, various employees sign up to participate in Volkslaufs in the region. A Volkslauf is basically a "Fun Run," community sponsored five to ten km runs with events for every age group. Employees get points based on the cumulative number of kilometers they've run and their place.

Erin had given me the heads up to bring my running gear, so I was ready to race first in the 3.5 km run then in the 9 km run. Very weird distances combined with a small field of other runners lead to a very interesting race experience. There were maybe a dozen people in the 3.5 km run and for the first half, I was in second place. Honestly, it really bothered me. I'm not that fast and I wasn't comfortable with the idea of being out in front with who-knows how many other people closing on my heels. I'm much more comfortable closing on other people's heels.

During the 9 km I was in a slightly larger group and settled into a comfortable fast pace. Unfortunately, I hadn't stretched out very well the night before and my legs were still sore from riding Ronja. I don't usually do much lower-body exercising beyond running, so my thighs were tight and sore. Now I was trying to power along with them and they didn't really want to cooperate. I was also dealing with real race strategy for the first time in my life.

I ran cross-country in junior high, but there we just ran as fast as we could. In the triathlons and Flying Pig races I've participated in, everyone is strung out and basically competing with themselves. During the Volkslauf I had serious competitors who didn't know that I cared little about my place. For at least four kilometers I was drafted by two guys. One finally dropped back, but I had a forty-five year old man huffing in my left year for the entire middle-portion of the race. Drafting is used by serious racers as a way of breaking wind resistance. You run or ride close by a leader who creates a bit of a wind shadow and lets you save some energy. It's the same principle used by migrating geese. But my drafter sounded like he was ready to collapse into a heart attack. His breathing was chopped and irregular. I tried to tune him out, but all I could think about was his hacking and wheezing. I became so frustrated that I imagined pushing him into every tree and puddle we ran by, just to get him to stop and catch his breath. I tried to surge ahead, he kept up I tried slowing my pace to make him pass, he would slow, too. Eventually I was able to break away, but the effort left me sore for a few days afterwards.

My annoyance was rewarded during the awards ceremony when I was given a medal proclaiming I had finished third in my age group. I'm not sure how many were even in my group, but I got hardware, which made everything feel better (if not the awkward public exchange with the MC who was trying to figure out what town I was from and why it just said a company's name on the form. He didn't use any of the standard vocabulary. I stared blankly. All gathered had the stereotype of the stupid American confirmed).

4) Riding Tandem. For our final voyage to see the horses before I left we hopped on bikes. I had been eyeing the tandem bicycle Roger and Claudia keep outside their kitchen. I've aways wanted to try riding such a contraption. Erin was game to try. I have seen cute old couples riding their tandem along bike paths all over the place, so I didn't think it could be that hard. Then we tried actually starting. A lot of coordination and communication is necessary to stay on course and slow down, though it would be nice to go for a ride and talk to someone. Erin decided one lap around the block was enough, so Roger and I rode to the stable on the bike with no major mishaps, though a bit of stress as the person in the back can't see very well and always feels a little off balance. Next time maybe I'll try a triple!

What a weekend. There was also down time to discuss Roger's volunteer work with the Red Cross, training life-guards by putting together complicated rescue situations that involve actors with prosthetic wounds (his specialty is the fake glass shard). He is also a distance swimmer and knows the words to West Side Story and My Fair Lady. We got along very well. Claudia taught me words like Schnabeltier (platypus) and lent me her basic biology text book so I can work on my German biological terms. She is also keeping a blog called "Host Family." I would recommend checking out her take on the whole German-American cultural exchange.

After I came home and didn't post for several days (was out of town looking at sauropod dinosaurs, but more on that next post) I began receiving text messages and e-mails from Roger and Claudia who were worried about my whereabouts. I have a real family over hear who actually care where I am and what I'm doing. Wonderful. Now I need to start picking Claudia's brain about how to best begin getting into the world of horses...

I hope your Thanksgiving plans bring you together with your own family, surrogate or biological who care just as much about you.