Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween Needs Bones

Happy Halloween! It feels weirdly un-Halloween-like right now, mostly because it isn't being celebrated. I think the holiday is treated in Germany the way we treat Cinco De Mayo in the States. No one is really clear what it's about, but it seems like a good reason to dress up and drink.

Anyway, at SVP two weeks ago, they showed a video called "We Are SVP." It's intended as an educational tool for the Society since "Vertebrate Paleontology" doesn't mean a whole lot to people. I usually have to clarify, "You know, stuff with backbones" blank look, "Like Dinosaurs and Wooly Mammoths?" "Oh, cool!"

Well, here's a video to let you in on the VP world. There are a lot of names and faces of scientists that I may have mentioned to you like Tyler Lyson, turtle and dino-mummy extrodinaire, and Dr. Luo, Mr. (or Dr.) Mesozoic mammal. Sam Waterson narrates, so you know everything in this video must be true. Enjoy!

Friday, October 24, 2008

How to spot a German #2: The Fanny Pack

There are fashions that come, then, thankfully, go. Brillo creme, acid wash jeans and trucker hats have, like the dinosaurs, had their hey day and thankfully vanished into the realm of embarrassing anecdote and ironic decadal theme party.

For the last dozen years of my life I lived happily believing the fanny pack was one of these extinct fashion accessories. Around 1995 someone came to the realization that we are proud placental mammals and an extra pocket at the waist is an evolutionary anachronism and fashion catastrophe.

I don't deny the versatility of a fanny pack. It frees up your hands that might be occupied with a purse, large bag or eucalyptus leaves. It's the perfect size for your wallet, tickets, keys and a cell phone. This is why the fanny pack will forever be tied (or clipped) to the over-stressed tourist who needs to keep track of multiple important papers and trinkets. But the stressed tourist is not on the cutting edge of fashion or trying to gain street cred.

The cutting edge and street cred are reserved for the cool kids standing by the newspaper stand making fun of the tourist and his maps. I used to think the fanny pack was reserved for the tourist. Until I came to Germany.

When I first arrived I was struck by how many of the clippable-pockets I saw on people riding the trains and walking the streets. Then I reminded myself that European tourist-traffic flow through Frankfurt, Marburg and Bonn is much heavier than tourist-traffic trough Cincinnati or Columbus.

But, not all of the people sporting their fanny packs on their hips were tourists. Many were slick European trend-setters with their hair gelled into a Euro-mullet dyed six different shades of red, rocking Chuck Taylor's with over cinched ball caps perched delicately over the whole ensemble.

When I walk home, I shoulder through knots of young people in trendy jeans and jackets, all proudly rummaging through their fanny packs. I'm sorry but if you are trying to pull off the hard-boiled product of the street, you can't pull it off sporting a bag around your waist. Your gang looks like my family on vacation in 1993.

If Europe dictates what the U.S. will be wearing next year, I don't think I want to come home. I wouldn't be able to keep a straight face. I also wouldn't be able to resist the urge to shoot my hand out and unsnap that buckle perched so temptingly on everyone's left hip.

I have several theories for the retention if not resurgence of the fanny pack in Germany which, like the Coelacanth, seems to have emerged from the security of extinction to plague the world with a dorky fashion statement.

1) Tight pants. It's a well known fact that if an American man wants to blend in on the European street, he needs his pants so tight he may never reproduce. The Germans, being a practical people, don't strictly live by this fashion dictate, but the "relaxed fit" is not as common on Universität Bonn's campus as it is at Ohio State. By pulling every feature of your lower anatomy closer to yourself than God intended, you also limit critical pocket space. In today's world a man can no longer get by with just a money clip or wad of cash carefully wedged into his ultra-slim jeans. He must also tote his cell phone (Handy auf Deutsch), his debit card, his train/bus pass, about 15 Euros in change and a wad of keys. You can either wear a looser pair of Hosen, or you can sprout auxiliary pockets. Perhaps the fashion savvy German prefers the later.

2) Pencil cases. The Germans are an organized people (some, and occasionally myself, would argue overly organized. I say that with love). German backpacks are a labyrinth of extra pockets and crevices. Wallets sport pockets for each denomination of bill and coin. When I sit down in class with graduate students and masters students, out come pencil cases filled with highlighters, pencils and pens in a variety of hues.

I haven't used a pencil case since...never. I had a desk in grade school where I kept my utensils. Sure, it was trendy to have your pencil case with six different unicorn erasers, but the case really wasn't necessary. Then in high school I had a backpack where I kept everything I needed, or I used my pockets (as I still do) for the one pen or pencil that I am likely to need for the rest of the day. Back-ups and specialty tools (a yellow highlighter, a red pen) are in my bag. But Germans still retain the pencil case and display their full battery of writing weaponry for every class they attend. Perhaps the fanny pack is simply a pencil case without a backpack to live in. It has broken off it's dependence on the larger receptacle and run solo, the Remora that has discovered the value of independent locomotion.

I wanted to illustrate this post with a picture of a German trend-setter, but I need to figure out how to ask to take someone's picture before such a portrait can be attempted. For the sake of warning everyone on the West side of the pond of the coming trends, I decided my observations could wait no longer. Something has survived and very soon it may be invading your shores. I leave you in charge of warding off the assault.

Deutsche Heutewort: Waschbär - Raccoon (masculine)

Sehen sie das Waschbär? Er ist die Größe meiner Mülleimer!
Do you see that raccoon? It's the size of my trashcan!

Note: Waschbär, as you might have guessed, literally means "Washing Bear." Raccoons are renowned for their adorable need to dunk everything they want to eat into the nearest stream, using their delicate little paws to manipulate the morsel.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Fossils in Cleveland

Last week I crossed the ocean for the only thing that could draw me out of Europe: Cleveland.

It’s true that I missed Great Lakes Brewing Company a bit, and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a pretty cool place, but the real reason I just couldn’t pass on a chance to see the Land of Cleves was because a bunch of fossil junkies were converging on the town. Cleveland was this year’s host of the Annual Meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.

The Society’s members include all of the fascinating researchers who study even more fascinating animals such as the fish that first decided land looked pretty tempting and the dinosaurs that decided the sky was pretty tempting, too. I think you would be bored by a detailed summary of some of the answers to these questions and a laundry list of people you’ve never heard of but I think are some of the coolest people in science right now, so I will list a few vignettes from the previous week:

1. Frankfurt. Katie, a fellow Fulbrighter, let me crash on her floor on her new inflatable mattress which meant I was in Frankfurt to catch a relatively early flight instead of waking hours before the crack of dawn to get to the airport on time. We wandered the city a bit a night so I could see the “massive” skyline. As I’ve noted before, the Germans call the city “Main-hatten” for it’s skyscrapers, an architectural structure you wouldn’t find in any other German city. The buildings are tall, but as Katie observed, they’re more mid-western than New Yorken. The city looks a bit like Columbus, or maybe St. Louis sans arch (though what is St. Louis without its arch, really?).

The highlights of the evening were: A) going to the church where the Emperors of the Holy Roman Empire were crowned while a contemporary music service played on. The church was destroyed during WWII, but the steeple remained intact making it a powerful symbol of German survivorship. B) Going to a tiny Spanish bar. It was literally a bar, as in there was the place to order drinks on one side and a shelf running around the opposite wall with stools and that was it. The clientele were apparently all regulars as they got into their backgammon game and put a tiny dog up on the bar. This dog is also notable for almost getting squished when I tried to hurry out the door to take a call from home.

2. Wednesday I presented my poster, pictured below. The poster represents about two years of work as an undergraduate thinking about how some mammals survived the dinosaurs and how others bit the dust. I went to California, North Dakota and Michigan collecting specimens and contacted dozens of experts and read (maybe) hundreds of papers. Presenting this poster was my chance to get feedback from people who really know their stuff, who could blast holes through my reasoning and ultimately make this a better research project for publication. I was excited and nervous to find out what scientists would think. Or maybe they wouldn’t care at all.

Last year I went to this meeting with the singular goal of tracking down the people I wanted to work with in graduate school. It was an intimidating prospect, walking up to some of the greatest minds in the field to strike up a conversation and try to make my name and ideas memorable for when my application slid across their desk.

Debbie, one of Dr. Hunter’s graduate students who went with me last year, can attest to the fact that I was a bit on edge as I searched out people on my list and tried to compose my opening line.

This year, most of those people I tried to track down so desperately, sought me out, or at least were interested in my poster. People like Don Prothero, who has written several textbooks that are now standards in Paleontology classes and Ken Rose, who is Dr. Early Mammals dropped by to discuss my work, and I think I held my own in the discussion. At one point I had Dr. Rose and Dr. Padian, Dr. Bird evolution, standing next to me mulling over the implications of my work on mammalian survivorship and the idea that a meteor killed the dinosaurs. I was pretty excited (you can be excited, too).

Really, the trip across the Atlantic was worth just that moment as I stepped in to the world of vertebrate paleontological research and proved my questions and ideas are worth digging into (pun intended).

3. The welcome reception was held at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. This was primarily notable because I got to wander through a packed natural history museum (a pretty cool notion in itself), with a bunch of paleontologists (even cooler) while carrying a Great Lakes Brewing Company “Edmund Fitzgerald” (bringing it all together). There were conversations with Tyler Lyson, the wonderkind paleontologist who discovered Dakota, the dino-mummy (Link here), about the origins of turtles and I overheard tipsy conversations about why the Ceolophysis reconstruction was no good.
A drove of Vertebrate Paleontologists including, in the center, David Weishample, a famous dinosaur paleontologist who literally wrote the book (it's called "The Dinosauria"). He is also notable for being the only other vertebrate paleontologist to call Ohio State his alma mater besides Joe and myself.

4. I went to a Mexican Restaurant with the entire Hunter Lab (including Dr. Hunter) and ordered a beer for which I was not carded. The food was also delicious.

Joe, me, Jessica and Deb at the welcome reception. Joe, Deb and I have spent quality time together in North Dakota fighting wind, bugs and sparse fossils. Jessica is a grad student at BGSU who studies Ichthyosaurs or "dolphin reptiles." I met her last year at Berkeley and was one of our roomies at the conference. We're all buds (as you can tell 'cause we smile together while a Triceratops sneaks up on us.

5. I people-watched actively and there are a few conclusions I came to about attire: If you are wearing shorts and a field hat, you are probably not in academia. If you are wearing a t-shirt with an ironic statement and jeans, you are probably a master’s student or a PhD student in the early phases of your career. If you’re wearing a dress shirt that’s tucked into your nice slacks, you’re probably an advanced graduate student or post-doc looking for job opportunities. If you’re wearing a sport coat, you’re probably a professor. If that coat is made of tweed, you have tenure. I don’t know if this is true of all sciences, or even of all academic disciplines, but it seemed to hold true for people that study dinosaurs, mammals and fish.

6. A list of some things I learned: Beavers could once build crazy burrows. The first tetrapod to climb into the trees was related to mammal-like reptiles. Fish umbilical chords can be preserved in the fossil record. The bigger your eye, the deeper you can a point (if you're a seal). Dinosaurs didn't cause flowering plants to evolve and probably didn't really notice. You can study modern bones in places like Yellowstone and get a pretty good idea of the ecological processes at work without seeing the animals. Whales diverged from hippos...maybe. As tetropods necks got longer, so did their snouts. There are tons of questions that still need answering.

7. Meeting a hero. Last year I was overwhelmed by star-shock. Names that I had only every seen on classic papers, textbooks and on National Geographic and Discovery channel were walking by me attached to the people they belonged to. I wanted to pick everyone’s brain, but didn’t know how to begin. Debbie just shook her head at me.

I was more confident this year, but there were still people that intimidated me. This year I had Joe, another Hunter grad student, along for the ride. Joe, like me, grew up watching every dinosaur program he could find on TV and read every book targeted at young boys about the scaly animals. That’s not to say either of us is solely interested in dinosaurs (I do study mammals and have delved into the crinoid world), but in wandering through all that media about the animals creates a list of heros. One of these is Paul Sereno. Dr. Sereno is a professor at the University of Chicago. I first read about him in a book called “Hunting Dinosaurs.” The book is the journey of Louie Psihoyos, a photojournalist who has been published in National Geographic among others, as he visits the localities and people who were moving and shaking the dinosaur world in 1996.

Dr. Sereno was then on a quest in Argentina to discover the earliest dinosaur. Since then he has become a staple talking head for every dino documentary as he actively seeks to spread new discoveries to the public. This combination of active research and public education makes him the kinda guy I really wanted to talk to. The problem with talking to him is he has many other fans and it was difficult to catch him.

On the final night of the conference Joe and I decided we wouldn’t go to bed until we talked to him. Unfortunately he was always occupied as other researchers and other fans caught him. The other “fans” were particularly troubling. Termed “Dino-weenies” by a condescending crowd, these are the people who still love dinosaurs, but maybe haven’t learned to turn their zeal for Jurassic Park into cool academic distance and might have missed the memo on some key social skills. It’s funny there’s a nick-name for the “nerdy ones” in a community that is committed to the enthusiastic study of fossils, but there you have it.

The point is that Joe and I didn’t want to come off as “Dino-weenies,” but as the intellectually rigorous students we are who just wanted to discuss science and education with one of the leading minds in the field. We waited as an Argentine girl monopolized his time, snapping pictures with all of her friends. The night wore on, we talked to graduate students and the inebriated Patriarchs of Paleontology who told us, “John Hunter is brilliant!” and “This stuff is great!” before launching into stories about the meeting in the early days before there was a program or multiple sessions.

Finally, it was 2:30 in the morning. The bar had long since closed. We made our move, edging in next to Jeff Wilson, a sauropod researcher from Michigan.

Me/Joe: Hi Dr. Sereno my name is (introducing ourselves), we just wanted to catch you to thank you for responding to my e-mail last year about graduate school and for being the public face of this science for so many people. (He shifted his weight and looked uncomfortable)

Joe: Yeah, you really are one of the reasons I am a paleontologist. (More shifting and discomfort)

Dr. Sereno: Thanks, and who are you? (extending a hand to Debbie who was next to me. I was so flustered in the approach that I didn’t even notice she was there and suddenly felt guilty that he would think I had edged her out of the conversation). Where are you all from.

Us: Ohio State.

Him: Something about football and the University of Chicago. Spurring a particularly awkward part of the conversation.

Did he really want to discuss the Buckeyes, or was he at a loss for what to say? I wanted to get his thoughts on the origins of dinosaurs or some perspectives on starting fieldwork in a different country. Instead I was babbling about sports while he shifted anxiously. It didn’t help that right before the conversation started, a glass had been dropped and the janitor seemed ready to sweep everyone out of the lobby along with the shards.

Also, it occurred to us later, it had been quite some time since he had a pee break. So, we were dealing with a man who wanted to get out of there for a couple of reasons. Were we another one?

The conversation didn’t quite go where we hoped, but at least it happened and Joe and I could finally get to bed before I met my family the next morning.

8) Because the meeting was in Cleveland, the Borths family was able to scoop up Josh, who had Fall Break this weekend and meet me for cocktails at the hotel on Saturday and for breakfast before dropping me at the airport. It felt surprisingly normal to be with my parents and brother. We shared stories. I got to hear about Josh's crazy life as a company member in Michigan's opera and as Cain in Children of Eden. I also ridiculed him for not visiting the University of Michigan's Natural History Museum. I made my dad look like a German by giving him Jack Wolfskin gloves for his birthday and made Josh look like a German by giving him a scarf form the Middle East. My mom now has a new crib set to add to the collection. The other major event was when Josh and I voted absentee together. Nothing brings a family together like the Democratic process.

I was also resupplied with my camping gear and all the spices necessary to make Skyline Chili in Germany. I’ll let you know how that goes.

It was a great trip back to the states and now I’m fired up with energy, ready to tear into the fossil record to figure out the history of mammals as they struggle to make it through an ever-changing world. But, before I can do that, I need to get back on this time zone…

Monday, October 20, 2008

Wanderin' Solo

The following entry was written on October 13:

Two weeks in Bonn. Two months in country. Two hundred German words remembered. Two thousand lessons learned. Too much to tell.

For the complete photo album click here.

Saturday I set out to explore the city. I didn’t have a destination for the day. I just set my feet in a direction and decided to find out what I would find next. It was weirdly liberating to travel alone. I love sharing the experience with someone, but to just take off without any real reasoning or discussion about where I was headed was a new experience and it led me to these places in pursuit of glorious Fall colors and a mental map of my new home.

The Bonn Art Museum, or maybe a Bond villain’s lair. It could be both. That’d be one evil megalomaniac who protected his world-taking-over apparatus with a massive collection of Rembrandts. I didn’t actually go in though. The sun was shining. Indian Summer (Roman Summer?) was in full swing and I decided to save exploring inside the museums for a cold, wet and rainy day (an inevitable feature of German winter).

The German White house. This was once the home of the West German Chancellor but now houses international dignitaries who visit the UN campus just down the road. Bonn is full of reminders of its former importance on the national stage. To be fair, it’s still important. There are still many national offices that didn’t relocated to Berlin after unification, but the massive museums and UN campus would seem out of place in any other, comparably sized German city.

This is outside the Museum Köning, a zoological museum in town that was started by the rich son of some noble who had nothing better to do than collect as many dead animals as possible, and I’m grateful that he did. At some point soon I’ll be diving into the collections. The place functions as Bonn’s zoo with animals in naturalistic poses and habitats, but you can find that at Cabella’s or Bass Pro Shop. What you can’t find at those other places are beaver gargoyles. And that is why this museum will soon get my money.

The Bad Godesberg. Every town in Germany has an iconic castle. This is one of Bonn’s, constructed in the 13th century and blown to smitherines by the Bavarians in the 15th.

This sign was along the trail leading to the fortress explaining the source of the random pimple of rock the castle sits on. Gotta love engaging geological signage. Of course I gave my one Euro to climb to the top and take a gander at the whole Rhein river valley which involved a series of steep wooden staircases suspended eighty feet above the brick floor. But the climb rewarded me with a sweeping view of the forest just starting to change hues. On the way back down the Berg I saw the unassuming chapel to St. Michael: But the inside was festooned plaster sculpture and fresco. It sits just below the castle and features a sculpture of St. Michael squishing the devil with his heel. The Germans seem to really enjoy imagery of St. George and St. Michael, I think because the artists really like fleshing out a struggling dragon or devil as a break from the more standard angelic and saintly figures.

The “Kleines Theater” or “Small Theater” on the border of a beautiful public park. The theater is putting on “My Fair Lady” in a few weeks, a tidbit I found out by striding into the theater office and asking the woman behind the counter for a schedule of performances (“Haben Sie eine Heft mit die…performance?...Datum, bitte?” "Do you have a booklet with the performance dates?. She just started at me blankly (as I expected). Then she continued staring. She didn’t as for clarification. I saw the schedule on the desk and slowly reached my hand out for it, feeling any sudden movements might stress her out more than my presence already had. “Ah, das ist perfect. Danke! Tchuss!” She didn’t say a word. Maybe she only spoke English? Or maybe she was trying to figure out if she could win a bet by improving my accent to Teutonic perfection.

I then wandered along the Rhein, biding my time for sunset. I watched a bit of Bocce, vaguely hoping to get in on a game. There’s a very specific technique everyone uses. You squat down and hold the suspend the ball in front of yourself, keeping your arm level and your palm down. Then you toss the thing with a backspin. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to correctly use the technique, so I wandered off to wait for the sky to change colors. I wasn’t disappointed.

On Sunday I went to Cologne (Köln) with the vague notion of going to mass at the Dom, the symbol of Cologne and an architectural wonder of the world. As soon as you step off the train the massive building swathed in buttresses and gargoyles soars above you. I was actually running a bit late for 10 AM mass and hurried up the steps. Inside a cluster of tourists were being held back by ushers dressed in red robes, preventing flashes from distracting the worshipers. I figured I could get in if I made it clear I was there for the service. Should I prove my Catholicism with the Sign of the Cross, or maybe by reciting the Hail Mary?

As it turned out, a knowing nod of the head was all I needed to get to the pews. As the choir sang the psalm, I could finally settle and let myself take in the staggering grandeur of the building. Hundreds of statues, dozen of stained glass windows all drawing my eyes upwards to the distant vault above me. These images can’t begin to convey the scale of the Dom:

After mass I only got to wander for about a half-hour before being shooed out by the ushers in anticipation of the next service. It’s free to get to Cologne. Needless to say, this place needs a couple of viewings to really let it all soak in.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

How to spot a German #1: The Closed Door

The Germans love closing doors. When I was little I was taught to close the front door behind me, or to make sure the bathroom door is closed, but the Germans take this affinity for locked thresholds to an extreme. When I walk down the hall at the lab, every office door is shut. This makes it difficult to know who is in, who's sick and who's gone home for the day, leading to frequent knocking and frequent tension with distracted office neighbors. Gone is the friendly wave as you stroll past a professor's door. You only see someone if you really need to see them. It's probably a more productive way to do things, but the social network is a bit harder to crack.

The dorm I live in takes this door-closing to an absurd degree. The place is a fortress, a concrete tower built to resist Mongol hoards and laptop thieves. Your room's door automatically swings closed behind you and locks itself. The same is true of the kitchen and the bathroom. None of the doors have rotating handles and can only be opened with a key. This means my wad of keys can never leave my pocket or neck when I'm at home.

Today I was making dinner and needed to run to my room to grab a bowl. I closed the kitchen door behind me and heard the lock snap into place. I padded down the hall to my room, unlocked my door and grabbed my swanky new muesli bowl. As I walked out the door I checked for my keys by feeling the pressure from my right pocket on my thigh. It felt heavy and metallic. I walked out the door and heard the lock click. At that exact moment I realized the metallic poultice wasn't my key ring, but a ridiculous amount of change. I haven't quite figured out how to handle all of my coins. Usually my pockets are bulging with enough currency to go on a cheap date (I could treat a decent night out in the States with the current exchange rate) and can feel like, well, a ring of keys for one.

I stood staring at my lock realizing I was trapped. There was no one else on the floor. The kitchen was locked, the bathroom was locked, my room was locked and if I wanted to go to the elevator to somehow get help I would have to go through a hallway door that also locks. I couldn't even leave the building because - together now - it locks.

When I was originally shown my room, my guide told me to make sure I locked my door with my keys which engages the deadbolt. Otherwise someone might be able to open the door with a credit card. That would be one persistent thief to get all the way to my door and he would need some impressive lock picking skills, but I needed to acquire those skills quickly.

Before I left for Europe I stripped down my wallet, only taking cards that I would absolutely need, but one of them needed to be sacrificed. My Scuba certification card promptly plunged between the jam and door, searching for the catch. It was no good. The locks are solid German construction and PADI skimps on the quality of their certification cards.

At that moment someone appeared in the hallway. He saw me crouched by the door with the card, my bowl on the floor and no shoes on my feet and immediately understood my predicament. His name is Ernest and he's a Ghanaian graduate student who also happened to know this amusing tidbit: the housing supervisor who takes care of the keys was gone for the weekend and wouldn't be back until Monday at 9. But, more helpfully, he also told me about The Fork.

In the drawer of every kitchen is a fork that has its tines bent into a lethal-claw, cutlery as imagined by Tim Burton. This tool can be used to jimmy the latch provided you apply a skillful hand, a bit of patience and liberal swearing. I apparently didn't employ one of these fully because the door stood solidly in place. Suddenly another floor-mate appeared. He saw Ernest and I shoving silverware at the lock and offered to try his hand as he'd done this before. I was more than willing to watch a master at work.

There was much elbow waving, gnashing of teeth and cussing. Finally, click. And the thing reluctantly gave way. I think the key skill (pun intended) was swearing in two or three languages, as my floor-mate did. Regardless, the keys are staying in my pocket as long as I live in this fortress and never will I leave a room without making sure it's difficult for someone to get back in.

I can be a good German. I can learn to shut the door (provided I can get back in).

A Proper Welcome

Last Sunday I needed to find a church. I'm in Europe so there's a lot of them around, all of incredible historic and architectural significance. I hope to sample each church around Bonn before I head out of here next year.

While it's easy to wander into a church and take a gander at the decor, it's a very different thing to be there for a service, to hear the carefully constructed nave echo the organ's music and hear the choir's chorus rise up to God's ears.

To get things started, I headed to the evening service at the Münsterbasilika, the huge church in the middle of town. Beethoven's glowering statue is nearby, so you know the place must be important.I filed in with a surprising number of folks. I was about ten minutes early and the pews were already packed. As I cast my eyes up and down the rows, a friendly looking woman with rosy cheeks thrust a candle into my hand with an enthusiastic "Bitte schöne!" along with a special program book for the mass. I wracked my brain for what even we might be celebrating, knowing we're in the doldrums of Ordinary time (Green Time). I came up with nothing.

I finally wedged myself in next to a guy who looked around 25. He had long, wild black hair and a nose ring. He was wearing a greenish revolutionary jacket with copious patches including one on his left bicep identifying him as a member of St. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (thence why "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" was on mental loop for the last four days). On his feet he had a pair of well-worn (read: well-loved) Chuck Taylor's Converse. I was surprised to see this man at mass, then even more surprised to hear his enthusiastic "Kyrie Eleison"-ing. Oh cultural stereotypes, why must I use thee?

The mass got started with a fanfare, as in, a literal fanfare. There must have been six horns in the choir loft trumpeting the arrival of the bishop and an army of other priests and a dozen alter attendants. In case there are any non-Catholic readers who have gotten this far, this is not your average Sunday service.

During the homily, I was able to put together the significance of the day. It was the feast day of Bonn's patron saints: Cassius and Florentius. With a little additional Wikipedia-ing I now know their story. The brothers were Roman legionaries in the third century. They were from Egypt (probably) but wound up on the northern borders of the empire fighting the various barbarians that wanted to rough up the empire as barbarians are want to do. They were executed for their Christian faith in Bonn. According the legend, they were decapitated, leading to the 2002 installation of a bizarre public statuary: two enormous heads, each the size of a VW bug, lolling in the plaza outside the church.

It's pretty heady stuff and I don't want to get a-head of myself.

After the Eucharist people started getting their jackets on, but we still hadn't done anything with the candles except juggle them as we knelt, shook hands and blobbed up to communion (remember, Germans are not fans of lines). The bishop disappeared into the back for a while. There was anticipation of something, but I, of course, had no idea what was going on.

The fire started to spread from candle to candle. Sergent Pepper got antsy and whipped out his BIC lighter and sparked his candle and offered me a light. Do I wait for the flame spreading closer and closer, originated by the Easter candle, or do I accept a friendly offer as if I needed a nicotine fix? I ended up being a good neighbor and accepted the BIC, but felt a bit awkward when the gentlemen in front of me turned to pass the flame and saw my candle had somehow spontaneously ignited itself.

When the bishop reappeared (with another fanfare) he was followed by two pairs of alter attendants. Each pair had a bust of a soldier-like figure between them, supported by staves propped on their shoulders. The priests followed with incense and a slow procession around the basilica began. When the busts passed me, I could see each was labeled, "Cassius" on the first "Florentius" on the second. Near the base of each sculpture was a round petri-dish like medallion holding a sliver of bone. Relics of Bonn's patron saints.

I eventually fell into rank with no idea of where we were headed. For all I knew we were about to walk the streets until midnight, or climb to some castle in the hills. In reality we just did a lap of the building as the organ, chorus and brass heralded our movements. Then I noticed everyone ahead of me seemed to be descending into the ground. Where to next?

A crypt lies under the alter for quiet meditation. Somehow most of the congregation packed into the small basement. I'm not sure what would have happened if one of the two hundred candles had caught something flammable while we were all packed down there. Fortunately that thought didn't occur to me until after I reached the street again, unsinged.

I couldn't see very well, but I heard the bishop recite a prayer and chant something as the organ dramatically ceased at the peak of its crescendo. The cleric banged the base of the crucifix on something hollow and metallic on the floor, then we were moving again. As I shuffled closer, I saw people descending into the floor. At this rate I would be crawling through the sewage system of West Germany's capital with the bishop and his team of relic-hefting alter boys.

I waited, examining the mosaics and artifacts until I could approach the new pit. Two brass/iron doors had been swung open in the middle of the crypt and a narrow staircase descended. The devout were going down, tracing an irregular loop and coming back up. In case you've never tried descending a 1500 year old stairway while an eighty-year old woman with a cane climbed in the opposite direction, know that it is a very difficult process.

At the base of the stairs were slabs of marble and granite lying on the floor of a small cell. The walls of the alcove were well-worn, with inscriptions and carvings discernible through centuries of residue. I wasn't sure where I was or what I was looking at. I just knew people didn't get to go down there very often. And everyone was very solemn. That made quite a bit of sense when a helpful brochure later told me that was the final resting place of the city's patrons'.
I consider the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go through the doors in the floor of the Münsterbasilika a warm welcome from Cass and Flo.

But I wasn't finished following people blindly. When I walked out of the church, a stream of people was headed to the center of town to the Beethoven statue. Naturally I did as well. This is what I saw:

A whole suite of classical music set to lights and water. Of course, Ludwig was heavily featured. They even sprayed a fine mist which worked as a projection screen for all the sponsors logos. It was like going to see fireworks, except the falling debris was a little less dangerous, and the view obstructed by umbrellas.

Apparently Bonn's city festival was kicked off by the Mass and will go through the week, celebrated with food, Kolsch and...fountains? Welcome to town.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008


To properly read the Oktoberfest story, you need to start with Part I (go figure). This is the third post down. Then you hop up to the next. It's awkward, but you'll get the hang of it if you really want the whole epic tale. Might I suggest using the post toolbar on the lower right to jump to the story you want to read?

Oktoberfest Part III: The Awkward Morning After

Click here for the album that illustrates many of the adventures here detailed.

The morning dawned cold. I had my 20 degree (Fahrenheit) mummy bag. Lindsay did not. I was a little warm when I woke up. Tylan was not. Despite these discrepancies, everyone slept through the night and wanted to continue snoozing. Please remember I was running on all of three hours. Lindsay was running on one. I can't speak for the others, but none of us were fully prepared for the previous day.

Eventually we had to get up to check out, leaving the tents and trailers to the next wave of young tourists. It should be noted that no one over the age of thirty seemed to be staying in the campground. Also, it was an incredibly male-dominated place. In fact, Oktoberfest is a very guy-oriented thing. I know it really shouldn't surprise me, considering it's a beerfest and stereotypically that's not a drink women go in for (go ahead, ask me about the evolutionary implications of female bitterness intolerance). The combination of camping and Oktoberfest meant the men's showers and bathrooms were a wreck simply from being over-used. As always, the women's facilities were pristine as the cleaning-lady attended to the girls stalls. I wouldn't have been phased to here the women had a Jacuzzi to boot.

Burdened with our packs, we had to spend a lot of time waiting for the train, dodging vomit puddles, and finally wending our way to the main train station where there were lockers beefy enough to handle our gear. By this point it was past noon. We wandered around the city center again, this time crammed with bodies on a Saturday, the combination of Oktoberfest revelers and Saturday bargain-hunters straining the alleys and streets like an Oktoberfester's bladder.

Eventually we found Donisl, a traditional Bavarian place with a fast moving line. It moved quickly because it's the only place in Germany where the waiter has ever brought the bill before it was requested. I ate a bunch of roasted meat right off the bone. I was good to go for the rest of the day.

Then the shopping began. To be perfectly honest I've always been a little confused during this conversation:

Me: Where'd you go this weekend?
Them: We went to Chicago!
Me: Really? Did you go to the Field Museum to see Sue the T. rex?
Them: No...
Me: Did you go to the art museum to see George Seurat, or Wrigley to see the Cubbies?
Them:, actually we did a lot of shopping. I went to __ and got ___...(and so on)

I don't know what to do in a city besides go to museums, shows, or maybe sporting events. I've always been skeptical and reluctant to spend vacation shopping, but this trip was different. This trip would be to C&A in downtown Munich, the one department store in Germany that carries racks of traditional Bavarian costumes. They have mannequins decked out in lederhosen and the same model who was photographed in her lingerie in the women's section, laughing as only a clothing model can while wearing the latest in dirndl design (This Year With More Lift!).

After puzzling over the sizes for a few minutes - is that number the waist in centimeters? That doesn't seem right. Maybe it's - we picked out our favorite floral/leather combos. Here's the result:
It was actually pretty comfy. And pretty expensive which means my poor traveling student budget said this would be a bad purchase. But know that next time I head to Oktoberfest I will both have a pair of these on and a reservation in the Lowenbrau tent. Take that for what you will oh family-or-friend-most-likely-to-be-with-me-on-such-an-outing.

I was most temped by the shirts, linen affairs with loose open collars and lacing up the chest with just a little metal and filigree as accents. If only this was still the get-up of your average Bavarian. I like to think my ancestors wandered around the Alps looking a bit like I do in this picture, but for all I know, they came from Hamburg or Belgium...

Then we didn't know where to head next, so, like moths to a zapper, we went back to Oktoberfest. This time the sky was blue and the crowds were friendlier. If I had a few hours to kill, I would have waited to finally see inside a tent. Instead we ambled the Fair a bit, casting idly for a place to sit to have a final drink and chat before catching our respective trains out of town.

Miraculously I saw an open table outside the Paulaner tent with room for our entire party. I couldn't believe my eyes and hurried back to round up the others (which took some time and effort. If it seems like not a lot actually happened while I was in Munich and there was plenty of time for everything, you're forgetting that as a group increases in size linearly, it reduces its average velocity exponentially). I expected to find three other groups warring over my table when I finally rallied the troops, but there it stood, ready for us.

Then I got a good look at the table. Before I had just seen empty spots. Upon closer inspection I saw the standing puddles of water on parts of the benches and an eruption of spicy mustard in the middle of the table. Hyenas have been known to defecate on their kills to drive away scavengers that might think about taking a bite of the hyenas' meal. As we used cardboard and plastic bags to make the place sittable, I expected a pack of 'Festians that went to the bathroom en mass to come charging back, expecting their mess to leave the table free of scavengers like us. Fortunatly no one else appeared, predator or otherwise.

On the way out I bought a green hat, a traditional style for Bavaria. If I couldn't have lederhosen, I would at least have the hat. At the station a drunken German pointed at me and I heard, "Du bist Roman!" Well I've been called a lot of things - a dork, a twelve-year-old, a mess, late - but I've never been called Roman. I stared blankly. He repeated. Then Juliane nodded and said, "With the hair and the green jacket, you really do look like Robin Hood." Gotcha. Well, now I have next year's Halloween costume sorted out, I just need to figure out where I can get green tights...

The train out of Munich was packed with exhausted Oktoberfesters. We (Lindsay and I) hadn't bothered to reserve seats - that costs extra dough - so we sat between the doors of the car on our packs and chatted while watching a group of young men gather into a knot in the middle of the car next to us. They started singing and chanting. Here's a brief sample.

Eventually their racket became part of the background noise of the train shifting and children crying. Suddenly I looked back over my shoulder and saw all of them standing, doing a kind of Simon Says in English. I couldn't make it all out, but the leader would say something and everyone else would repeat it and do it. For instance they chanted, "Take-off your shirt!" and this happened: By this point they had the full attention of the train. It isn't everyday you see half-naked people on the train chanting together and when you do, it's usually a good idea to pay attention. They would repeat everything they had said before, the chant building on itself. Everyone on the train was keen to hear what the next command would be. They all chanted, "Point at Coach!" and they indicated someone in their midst. Yet another team, much like the one we started our journey with.

After they pointed they repeated everything ending with "Drop you Pants!" and every one's jeans went to their ankles, a bunch of Germans standing in second class in their underwear. The next chant was inevitable. I don't actually know what they said, but everyone on that train knew there would be about twenty butt-naked Germans in about three seconds. Some averted their eyes, some glared angrily, some looked like they were watching a train-wreck.

And there they stood, everything around their ankles drunkenly chanting. That's a moment I will never forget. In fact I think it's burned into my brain, even if I wanted to forget it. There are some people in this world who should never parade themselves around in public without their shirts off, let alone their underwear. Some of these people were on this team.

And that is how my Oktoberfest experience came to a drunken, rowdy end.

I hope your weekend was exiting, even if it didn't involve naked soccer teams, massive carnival rides or liters of beer (that's probably for the better)!


Deutsche Heutewort: ausgepowert - exhausted, worn out (adj.)

Nach dies Wochenende ich bin ausgepowert und ich muss viele Wasser trinken.
After this weekend I am exhausted and I must drink a lot of water.

Oktoberfest Part II: The Shin-Dig

Click here for a link to an album of photos illustrating the event whole weekend.

We hopped on the train and started to acquire more and more passengers, the men mostly festooned in lederhosen (the German overalls), the women in dirndls (the apron and bodice combo usually accented with copious...bosom). We weren't quite sure which exit was the best for the festival, but the crowd was. We joined a river of humanity up over a bridge, past a bunch of Clydesdales hauling kegs and up to the main entrance:
Note: In this picture that hoods and umbrellas are out and up and the sky is a bit ominous. It can only be a memorable day at the fair.

The festival is really like an enormous state fair with less 4-H competitions and more public drunkenness. There were expensive games that were probably impossible to win, unhealthy snacks (though I think candied, roasted almonds might be a little better for the heart than deep-fried Twinkies), and massive rides that seem especially exciting because you may actually be putting your life in danger by strapping yourself in.

The main attractions at Oktoberfest are the beer tents. Every brewery in Munich (and many from the surrounding Bavarian cities and towns) set up huge semi-permanent tent/beer halls that hold 6,000 or so people around sturdy benches and tables. They have to be sturdy so wobbly, middle aged tourists can do a polka without breaking something important. The "tents" themselves are up year round. Building a real, massive beerhall would be a bit pricey, so calling it a tent lets people know that it may be a bit drafty. There was a Paulaner Tent, a Lowenbrau Tent, a Hacker-Festzelt Tent, a Spaten-Franziskaner-Bräu tent and so on.

Despite having so many tents and so many benches, it's a good idea to put in a reservation at one of the tents, much like it's a good idea to reserve a room years in advance. That way, if it's raining when you arrive, you'll have a ticket and can get to shelter with a sort-of solid roof above you. Again, this was a spur of the moment trip. We had no such tickets and our group was about a dozen people. When we got to Oktoberfest we trooped up to a beerhall as the heavens opened and we were told by the bouncers there was no way in hell of getting in.

Really, the only way in without a ticket, is when someone leaves. The tents don't have bathrooms (again, to be real buildings selling alcohol, they would need such amenities) so you get turnover when someone has had one liter of beer too many. There are plenty of horror stories of people just letting loose where they stand rather than leave the revelry in the tent. With lunch fast approaching and the rain pouring even faster, no one was going to give up there spot, let alone a dozen spots, so we moved on.

The next hour or so was spent inspecting the elaborate facades and exteriors of the beer tents, many of which featured moving figures and neat logos of the various breweries. None of them featured places to sit and even less had places to be dry. Finally, a group of us threw in the towel and found a small restaurant at the fairgrounds that served food and beer. It was at "Der Bratwurst" that I finally had my first Munchen beer. You order it either as "Mass" or "Kleines." A "Mass" is a liter. "Klienes" is a half-liter. Normally when you go to a bar your options are "Gross" (large, 0.5 L) or "Klienes" (small, 0.3 L). No one messes around with 0.3 L at Oktoberfest. We stayed snuggled in that warm restaurant, summoning up the will to wait outside more tents for more elusive seats. We made awkward friends with our table-mates, an older couple that helped us translate various Bavarian dishes on the menu while maintaining slightly bemused smiles at our sheer American-ness.

At this point, Juliane was our only native German. The others had arrived earlier and gotten into a tent, or by this point had found a way to get in. This left me as the only other person willing/able to smash together a few German words and phrases. The other Americans didn't have the benefit of a crash course in Marburg. Fortunately, the festival and city are well prepared for a bunch of English speaking tourists and language problems wouldn't crop up until later in the evening...

After a lunch of Käsespatzle, basically Bavarian Mac and Cheese and basically delicious, and two rounds of beer, we were ready to walk back out the door and up to the tent where the rest of the group had managed to weasel in. We stood at three different doors for an indeterminate amount of time, getting excited ever time they opened, and crushed every time they snapped closed again, defended by security guards clad in leather gloves. It's tough to take someone seriously when they're wearing leather pants (lederhosen). It's simple to take someone seriously when they're wearing leather gloves.

A man suddenly appeared at my elbow promising to get us in for cash. We warily asked for more information. He snapped up two members of the group, asking for payment and promising to come back for the rest. He didn't. Five of us remained. The most I had seen of the inside of one of these gargantuan structures was through the open kitchen door when waiters, clad in warm coats, scampered in and out bringing refreshment to people sitting at the outdoor benches, despite the drizzle. If we had a smaller group, or a warmer group, I might have lingered and finally gotten in after a few hours of waiting, but this wasn't the time or group.

We wandered off. Now what? We found a slightly covered biergarden serving Paulaner. As we stood waiting for a decision, a dude with a crate of filled classes offered them round. I bit. We wandered on. I spent the rest of the day hiding my glass in my jacket, trying to make sure my new souvenir didn't wind up smashed in the street. It was a difficult task, but I'm happy to say that my Weissen glass sits on the shelf above my head as I type.

At this point we headed into the city, giving up on Oktoberfest. I left the place without once hearing the sounds of Polka or a chorus of "I don't want 'er you c'n have 'er, she's too fat for me." But I was in good company, enjoying roasted almonds and the Spice Girls painted on colorful carnival rides.

Our journey into the city lead us first around the city center. By this point the light was fading and the stores had closed. But there were a few signs of life including someone selling buckeyes.

One of the first questions I remember asking my parents was, "What's a buckeye?" and I had always been told, "It's a killer nut. It's poisonous. That's why it's such a good symbol for our state and largest university." "Oh, that's weird." Well, I'm here to tell you that in Europe - where they do many numbers of strange and wondrous things - they eat buckeyes. It's a special breed, of course, and it's roasted until it pops out of its shell. It has a very starchy texture, something like nutty mashed potatoes, and are best enjoyed while listening to a street band play a little Klezmer clarinet. We still didn't have enough alcohol in our systems for a group that had been to Oktoberfest, so we found a restaurant under the City Hall, a massive, reconstructed Medieval-ish building that squats over a huge subterranean restaurant that had a table readily available. It was warm. We could sit. We could chat. Then we got up again, searched out another bar, ordered another round and waited for the rest of the group that had actually gotten into the tents to join us for the voyage back to the campground. We stayed in that bar until everyone was falling asleep in their steins. Juliane shepherded us back to the train station and we miraculously found the correct track. We settled in for a long ride, anticipating our sleeping bags while praying the tents we rented had actually repelled all the rain we had stood through.

Then the train came to a halt somewhere half-way between the middle of town and our destination on the fringe. We were informed that the train was closed and we had to find another way home. Thus began a relay race to the taxi stand. By this point there were eight of us, and they don't have many nine-seater vans in Germany (or at home), but we tried to search one out anyway and frustrated the cab drivers. Some members of our group were not in a very coherent state of mind, so explaining options and decisions wasn't very effective. We just needed to get everyone in a car and get home. I lead one group as I could tell the driver where to go (sort of). In the land of the blind, the one-eyed-man is king (or to blame if the blind wind up abandoned in the suburbs outside Munich).

By some stroke of stupid luck we made it back to our cozy soccer stadium, stumbled through the cold and the puddles, and zonked out, Oktoberfest a distant, wet memory.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Oktoberfest Part I: The Journey

The first time I ran into the word ‘Oktoberfest’ was around age seven. I was learning how to spell the names of the months and days of the week (Wednesday of course being the toughest to remember). I saw a poster for Cincinnati’s Oktoberfest, and asked my mom why they misspelled the name of such an easy month. She told me it was a German festival. I didn’t completely understand that the German’s would spell months differently and thus from an early age assumed the Germans to be a goofy people.

Three days ago I set out to Munich to see if Oktoberfest was really all it was cracked up to be. I’ll spoil the end…it was.

I was invited by my friend Lindsay to join her and a group of OSU design students who are all studying abroad in Germany. They tell me Germany is the place for design, if not for window screens (Reference explanation: For some reason the Germans have an aversion to screens meaning in the summer and early Autumn there are copious insects flying through buildings. Not sure why the screen hasn’t quite caught on here, yet.). Lindsay was in my class that went to England in the Fall of 2004 and Athens in the Spring of 2006. I’ve seen Big Ben (an international symbol of England) with her and the Parthenon (an international symbol of Greece) and she was kind enough to invite me along to see a Stein of Beer (an international symbol of Germany).

Friday was a national holiday (Reunification day, when the walls came a tumblin’ down) so the group was planning to gather as early as possible in Munich so we could get into one of the beer tents, massive structures erected by each Baverian brewery where oompa bands play, the house beer flows like water and lederhosen is the most fashionable get-up around.

Unfortunately that meant catching a train from Bonn at 3:30 in the morning. At such wee hours on a national holiday the public transportation of Bonn is shut down. Thus after about three hours of sleep, the last I would get before experiencing the full force of Oktoberfest, I was hoofing the seven kilometers from my dorm to the train station. I was hoping that once I got onto the train, I would be able to catch a snooze. I underestimated the enthusiasm of my fellow passengers. When I boarded the high speed train in Cologne, bound for Munich, it was about 4: 30. Already there were people getting the party started, cracking open cans of Kolsch and Weisbeier. I began to doubt how much I would nap.

I met Lindsay on the train. She’s studying in a Essen, a town just a bit north of Cologne (or Köln to the Germans) so we caught up for a bit and tried to get comfy in our seats. I like to think I’ve acquired a particular skill for sleeping on public transportation. At the beginning of high school when I would take the bus in to St. X, I would zonk out as soon as my butt hit the seat, no matter how loudly the MND girls behind me discussed the weekend party scene. In Kenya I made a solid first impression by falling asleep on the Unimog, a monstrous transport vehicle, as it bounced through the mountains north of Nairobi.

None of these experiences fully prepared me for sleeping on a train with rowdy, pre-drunken Germans. As soon as we settled in, the singing began in the next car. There were probably fifteen to twenty voices that all knew the same songs and they belted them at the tops of their lungs. Lindsay and I decided they must be a rugby or soccer team, which made asking them to hush up at 5 in the morning a bit intimidating. One of the songs they shout/sang was the bass line from The White Stripes “Seven Nation Army”

Bum BaBum Bum BaBumm Bum (If you don’t know the tune, you should look it up. It became the anthem of this trip).

At 9 AM when we finally rolled into the main station in Munich. I still didn’t have much more than four hours of sleep under my belt. Adrenaline and stamina would just have to sustain me. At the station we waited for Juliane, a German Design student who studied at OSU last winter and spring. Last year the American design students introduced her and her colleagues to American college life. Now she’s returning the favor.

Can you spot the lederhosen?

While we waited, I got to experience my first pay-as-you-go bathroom. The entrance fee was 70 cents and you weren’t allowed to use full Euro or two Euro coins. There was a conveniently placed change machine that would help you convert your bulkier money into smaller coinage. The problem was most of the people that needed to use the bathrooms and change machines were, until very recently, Oktoberfest revelers which meant their fine motor skills had gone the way of their dignity and their inside-voices. As I stood in my line/blob I watched a rain of change hit the linoleum as people first missed the slot in the change machine, then missed the slot by the bathroom door. Finally an attendant, rolling his eyes in frustration, stationed himself by the change slots and guided drunken hands to the appropriate spot. Welcome to Munich.

Soon Juliane and Chris, Lindsay’s boyfriend, arrived and the four of us set off to find our accommodations for the evening before doubling back for the party. Hotels and hostels are incredibly expensive and must be booked by your third birthday if you want to stay within walking distance of the fairgrounds. Considering I didn’t even know I would be in Germany until last May, other arrangements were made. Juliane reserved three tents for our group at a camp on the outskirts of Munich.

After taking the train to the edge of town, we piled out and began wandering the parking lot, our directions being “follow the white sign.” We saw no such sign. We asked passers-by if they knew of a campground nearby. All were confused. None were helpful. After a few more distressed calls to the people running the site, we were told we were on the wrong side of the train tracks. As soon as we were pointed in the correct direction, we saw a single piece of computer paper with the words “Wissencamp” inked across it in 30 pt. lettering. I don’t know how we could have missed it.

We crossed a field as it started to drizzle. Entering through a cattle gate we saw this:

A soccer stadium wrapping around a couple hundred dome tents. I felt like I was at a scouting camporee. Then we entered the registration tent that doubled as a the camp bar. Jagermeister paraphalia adorned the walls, while Aussies, Kiwis and Italians adorned the benches. It was around 10 AM, but most of them were already clutching a stein of booze. Not quite a scouting camporee.

Outside there were portable bathrooms and showers that looked like they’d been airdropped by the UN for refugees. When I saw people stumbling out of the shower, wrapped in a towel to ward off the 45 degree chill, the scouting similarities completely evaporated. There was no way in hell the Scouts would voluntarily bathe.

Then we turned and set our sights on Oktoberfest…

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Level 2: The Paperwork Jungle

My last post was a bit dreary. Rain and copious paperwork will do that. Yesterday was my first full day in Bonn. I'm happy to report that I am now an enrolled student at the University of Bonn complete with a student ID that gives me free access to all the public transportation.

A note about public transportation: On all the regional trains there is always a ticket taker who moves up and down the cars searching asking for your Fahrkarte (train ticket) and "danke"-ing you when you present it at the correct time. That's pretty much how things work at home.

Buses and subway trams work a bit differently. You are supposed to buy a ticket from the driver on a bus or on the tram, but no one ever checks if you did. You can just step onto the tram in the back, ride until your stop and get off without ever laying any cash down. Every now and then someone goes through the tram or bus checking tickets. If you don't have yours, you get a hefty fine. The advantage here is that there are no turn-stiles or ticket scanners so foot-traffic to and from the bus or train moves quickly and efficiently keeping them running in perfect time. The disadvantage is the city is presumably losing a bunch of change to people who take a free ride. I have yet to see someone checking tickets on the Stadtbahn (the tram/subway). Weird.

For the last two days I've been bouncing from office to office getting the correct signatures from the correct officials. I had to go into town to sign my housing contract, then back to the dorm to present the contract and get my keys. Then I went to the international student office, then the insurence agency, then the office in charge of fellowships. This had to be done in the correct order so that I would have the correct stamp and signature when I arrived at my next destination. Screw it up - game over.

I felt like I was in a video game, a real-life reenactment of Zelda as I collected the correct key to enter the next room where I was faced with some puzzel (in this case: communicating my needs through German). Once the puzzel was completed, I could enter the next room where a wise wizard told me what to do to get to the treasure chest (my free transport pass) or acquire a magical new ability (access to the internet).

This analogy falls apart a bit when you consider my quest involved less killing of bad guys or rescuing princesses and more of waiting around in offices on my butt. My quest is almost complete. Soon I will beat the game, have the internet and all the paperwork allowing me to take classes and live in the city. Maybe there's a cheat code I could have used to cut to the fun parts...

Yesterday I was also introduced to my office-mate, Vincent. He's a French Post-Doc working on enamel (the stuff teeth are made out of) structure with Dr. Martin. Very cool guy who knows more of the lingo then I do, but will hopefully put up with my gratuitous German mistakes.

Today, a mini quest ensued with Dr. Martin as we set up my workspace. I now have my own microscope, a box of fossils and modern skeletons to look at and all kinds of questions to answer, but more those later. When I can upload pictures, I'll give you an introduction to Bonn, a city of 250,000. That means there are more neighborhoods to become familiar with, museums to explore and restraunts to discover than I had in Marburg (Oh, how quickly we move on).

Tomorrow I will be leaving bright and early for the biggest party in Germany (besides Carnival): Oktoberfest. Obviously stories will be made and told.

Until then, I hope you have a wonderful weekend and you can take pleasure in the scavenger hunts that drift your way.



The following post was written the afternoon of October 1st, my first day in Bonn:

So, a few weeks ago I made a poor choice. I purchased new towels from the coolest new store in Cincinnati: Ikea. The towels were pleasant sparkling Crest toothpaste blue. I packed them into my rolling suitcase and trucked them to Germany. About a week later, I took a shower and realized I was covered in blue fuzz and my hands had a slightly bluish tinge. Apparently I should have washed the things a couple of times before putting them to work.

I took the object that was threatening to turn me into a slightly downbeat Grover to the shower. I blasted it with hot water and slung it against the wall and twirled it around itself trying to get the running dye to come out and the extra fuzzies to fall off the fabric.

Satisfied it had received a de-bluing beating, I hung it over my door in my dormitory and left it to dry. When I came back, I was greeted by the grisly aftermath of a Smurf homicide. A blue puddle had formed across my room, the residual, stubborn dye left in the towel making my room look like Babe’s stable after a hard night out with Paul Bunyan.

The subsequent six weeks were spent periodically scrubbing this spot, usually with hot water. I didn’t have a soap abrasive enough to really get the blue out of the rubberized linoleum on the floor.

Today the Hausfrau came to my room to check the place out. I scrubbed the desk and stove burners as best I could without investing in cleaning equipment of any kind. She frowned as she scanned the floor, noticing my blue blob. “Was ist das?” Damn.

She ended up keeping my security deposit because she isn’t sure how much it will cost to get the stain out. She’ll send me the difference if it’s less then the 100 Euro we anted up. It wasn’t a great way to start the day. This is way I’m not an Ikea fan right now.

After signing the necessary paperwork I rolled down the hill to catch my train to Bonn. It was starting to drizzle. At the Frankfurt main terminal I found out my train was delayed by ten minutes. Not a huge problem except I wasn’t sure if my connection to Bonn would work out. Normally train delays and plane delays don’t really get under my skin. I can’t do anything to make them go away so what’s the point of wasting energy stressing? But I had a meeting with my International Tutor, Natalie before 3:00. After then she had to be somewhere. I wasn’t sure what would happen if I missed her. She had e-mailed saying she had my key. I had her number, but somehow didn’t feel like waiting in the lobby of a dorm on the outskirts of Bonn for Natalie to rescue me after her 3:30 appointment. Plus it was raining.

I made my connection, I arrived shortly before 3:30. We then waited outside an office on the ground floor of the dorm I was assigned. A harried woman was working with an entire family and it took a while. I was suddenly very embarrassed of my German, but was reluctant to cheat and use English to chat with Natalie while we waited. Instead we just opted for awkward silence.

Finally the office cleared and the older woman popped out her head to tell me that I was not in the system. I showed her my e-mail stating that yes, I was in the system and even had a room number. She shuffled papers and mused. I started to wonder if I should start asking about hotel rates in the area.

She finally acquiesced, handing me a set of keys while demanding I get back to her before noon the next day with my housing contract. She also told me that I may need to move rooms as a result of this snafu. So now my stuffed luggage waits in apprehension of tomorrow. The day still wasn’t going well. It was still raining.

I dropped my stuff off and ran back to the city transit to get back into town. I had arranged to meet Dr. Martin as soon as I got checked in and I was running a bit later than I expected. It’s never good to be late to an appointment with a German. I wasn’t in his office, but there was a not on the door saying he was in a seminar room, the same one he teaches in. Maybe he was getting stuff together for classes next week. I knocked on the door and cracked it open. Right in the middle of a seminar. Hello department, remember me? I’m the kid that barged into the room the other day!

I started to turn around and Dr. Martin beckoned me in. Okay. I was in the right place. The seminar turned out to be a lecture on the California vacation two of the grad students took over the break. They had pictures of La Brae and Yosemite. With the pictures I could get the gist of what was going on and felt a bit more confident in my German. But only a bit. I knew my introduction was coming and I might be required to introduce myself auf Deutsch, something I have been taught to handle, but speaking in German to a group of people I’ll be seeing for the next year was a bit frightening. It was still raining.

I made it through the introduction. I received my key and got to see my office for the year. Things were going well. I grabbed my rolling suitcase of stuff that I’d left in Dr. Martin’s office and went back to the dorm. In the train station instead of an escalator, there was a slopped moving sidewalk hundreds of wet feet had slickened the thing up. I stepped onto it and my bag started to take off. I tried to stop its momentum. Instead, it started mine. I was jerked forward, and losing my footing I went down hard on my tailbone. The woman behind me made sure I was okay and told me the ramp can be slick (I think). I assume outside it was still raining.

The Germans have a word: Schadenfreude. I first learned it from the musical Avenue Q. It literally means “The shame of someone else.” It’s the satisfaction you take in seeing someone else screw up. I don’t think what I told you is really a tale of woe. I think it’s Schadenfreude. I know things will perk up. I know tomorrow I’ll get everything sorted out. I just wanted to let you know I had one of those days. I hope you didn’t and can enjoy my misfortune. But, maybe you had one, too. Take comfort in the shared experience. I should let you know that it stopped raining.