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.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Federweissen and Good Folks

So when I first jumped on board for this whole Fulbright-year-in-Germany thing there were a couple choices to make. Should I regret never studying German? Yes. Should I bring my guitar? Yes (but it usually sits untouched behind me). How many books should I bring? A bunch, there's a lot of time on trains. Should I stay with a host family for the first three weeks after Marburg? In hind sight, Yes.

Originally they said there would be limited spots. I was worried that as a paleontologist who didn't really need to perfect my German, that I would take the opportunity from someone who really needed it. Turns out there were plenty of spots available. Oh well, I just need to find other ways to improve my language skills and explore German culture, namely be leaching off the contacts my friends have made. The first family I got to spend much time with was Schoenherr household in Wiesbaden.

A couple weekends ago, I went to Weisbaden to join the Ohio State Design kids who are studying in Germany for the Federwiessen Festival. This is the same group of students who let me tag along for Oktoberfest. Let me reiterate that they are wonderful people who seem to tolerate my fossil ramblings and let me in on the latest thoughts on industrial design. Click here for some images of the festival and the town (they're at the end, after the stuff about the previous two posts).

The town itself is lovely. Untouched by the war - rumor has it the American Generals wanted to preserve the golf courses - the churches and administrative buildings reveal the ninetieth century was a time of economic boom in the capital of Hessen. The town is also home to the US military base you always hear about when injured soldiers are lifted out of war zones in the Middle East and Africa. This means there is a large American population and football games are readily available at some bars. It was a Saturday, so the group of loyal Ohio State fans swung by "Yours" an "American Bar and Cafe" near the largest church in town and the world's largest Coocoo clock (we waited for it to go off and, to be perfectly honest, I was a bit disappointed. Two people came out on a track and went back in while the chimes half-heartedly went off. It wasn't even that large, just the size of the front window of the tourist kitsch shop that set it up. I'm tempted to go home and build my own world's-largest-coocoo-clock).

"Yours" was decorated with nostalgic memorabilia that apparently just begs to be nailed to the wall. Trombones, pictures of Marilyn Monroe and football helmets were suspended above us à la Ruby Tuesdays or Applebees. What was not to be seen was the Ohio State football game. It figures the one opportunity I'm in a bar with all the football channels beamed from the US, the Buckeyes have a by-week.

We also wandered through the snazzy new mall and the opera house where they'll be performing Tristan und Isolde next March. For dinner, we met Juliane, the lone German guide we had at Oktoberfest. She's a waitress at a trendy Japanese Restaurant in Wiesbaden. When she got off, we hopped on a train and headed to the Federweien Festival.

Federweissen is young wine. It only has 4% alcohol, still has grape skins and is incredibly sweet. In other words, it's delicious and way too easy to drink quickly and copiously. The festival itself was a quaint block party compared to your average church festival, let alone Oktoberfest. Each vineyard had its own booth, so you could experience all the varieties in their immature form and benches for everyone to gather around. It was one of the first wintry evenings of the year so we also sampled gluehwein, hot wine with spices for a cold evening. This German mulled wine is apparently available at all the Christmas Markets. I'll keep you posted. That night, it really hit the spot.

After we had our fill of "Feather Wine" we headed back down the Rhine to Juliane's house where her family graciously opened their doors and couches to all of us. The next morning we had a traditional German breakfast with plenty of bread, cold cuts, spreads and eggs for everyone. The highlight of the morning was chatting with Juliane's dad, Helmet, who has traveled the world. He is also a schnapps connaisseur. I be honest, I didn't know they existed, and he quickly filled me in on the correct tasting etiquette and what to look for in your really strong alcohols. One of the tricks is to hold the liquor in your mouth, let the burn of the alcohol dissipate and enjoy the flavor. Now you know. Lindsay, Chris and I then went on a brief flight through some of his selection, including one that had been handmade thirty years ago. It really was delicious.

We also saw the new house Juliane will be moving into that is overlooked by the Hexenturm or Witch's Tower in a small town that reminded me of a flatter Marburg. She even has a creek and woods in the backyard. It's her first home and she already has everything I've wanted in a residence since I was four. We swung by the house one more time and I got to thank the family for so graciously opening their home to us. They were excited that I used a little German and invited me back to practice once all the Ohio State people have gone back to the other side of the Atlantic. I have to say I wouldn't mind a bit, though there's another family that I also need to talk about that I visited the next weekend...

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Deutschland Rocks

(You knew the title was only a matter of time)

One of the perks of being a geologist is you can never really be bored. Even if you are in the middle of nowhere, there is always a story under your feet. In fact, many rock people would argue that the more remote and unexplored a place is, the more fascinating it becomes. One of the problems of being interested in rocks and dirt (besides the obvious need for frequent bathing and social isolation) is you are always desperate to know the age of the rocks you’re looking at. I frequently find myself examining outcrop along the highway, hankering for a good geologic map. In the United States, this map rests comfortably in my head in gross generalization, but in Central Europe, I’m at a loss.

An example of befuddling European geography, complete with castle for scale.

But, if you were briefly worried about my intellectual welfare, fear not. I am currently enrolled in a introductory paleontology course. Of course, it is completely auf Deutsch. This means I now know such useful words as Seeigel (See urchin, or literally “Sea Hedgehog”) and oberdevon (Upper-Devonian).

A field trip to the Eifel Mountains was mandatory for all students in the class. We were told explicitly to bring our hammers. We were also told explicitly where we were headed and to bring a lunch. The first was meaningless since I had very little sense of my wider geographic position and the second got lost in the shuffle.

Our trip began with everyone piling into a nice tour bus. In the States I think such an excursion would have been coordinated with vans and personal vehicles, but here in Germany we roll to the outcrop in style. The first stop was to an overlook of the Eifel Mountains. Dr. Martin, my adviser, launched into an explanation of what we were looking at. I caught key words like Karbon (The Carboniferous) and Berg (Mountain) but that was about it. Dr. Martin speaks very quickly and without any other visual aid, I realized I may need to track down the history of the region on my own.

To be perfectly honest, I’ve had to work a lot harder in my classes than I first expected. When I signed up for Intro Paleo and Mammalian Osteology, I assumed the key vocabulary, the endless Latin and Greek nouns that dominate the field, would be pretty much the same. I neglected two factors. First, pronunciation makes things a bit slower to process, even if the word is exactly the same. Second, Geology and Anatomy are some of the oldest sciences with Geology finding its roots in Prehistoric mining and Anatomy in butchery. Thus, the Germans had their own relatively technical terms for rock types and muscle groups that haven’t been replaced by the English versions I’ve learned. This is the bummer of studying in a culture that has been pursuing questions empirically for as long as my own.

Fortunately, Irina, a post-doc, offered some translation and summary to help ground me (pun intended) in the wildly dipping beds held vertical to the ground after Africa slammed into Europe the first time. One of our stops included a visit to the oldest coal bed in the world. Coal is the organic remainder of plant material and the coal preserves the first land plants on earth. Their pretty simple reed-like organisms, but they represent a revolution that rearranged the way water flowed, rocks eroded, even how the atmosphere is composed. Of course I took my hammer to the rocks and searched for evidence of these terrestrial pioneers, along with the rest of the class. Because it is an introductory course, there were a lot of new hammers striking the rock face, their sheen and stickers still intact. I’m not used to being treated as an older student (I certainly don’t look it), but after people saw the scratches and scars on my hammer, I was asked repeatedly what my doctoral research was on.

The next stop was into a limestone quarry. The rock is primarily used to produce concrete and massive earthmovers are used to transport tons of rock. As our tour bus rolled up to the quarry, an operator of one of the massive vehicles literally gaped in slack-jawed wonder. I don’t think he is used to luxury tour busses dropping by with a couple dozen students ready to stream over the rocks looking for shells, but there we were and that’s what we were hoping to do.

Again the hammers came out, but so did the helmets. I now have a couple Devonian snail shells and brachiopods sitting in my room. I’m envisioning packing them up to send them home, the Deutsche Bank cashier hefting the box, “What’s in here, a bunch of rocks?” “Yup.”

The final stop was to a cave in the mountains which once held Cave Bear fossils, Cave Hyenas, and, most importantly for us, humans. The floor of the cave preserves successive layers of human habitation including Neanderthals and European ancestors. Maybe not as old as the human remains I saw in Kenya, but there’s a thrill in exploring sites that preserve my more direct ancestors who settled down in Europe to carve out a living. It’s enough to tempt me back into paleoanthropology, but then the allure of tacking a few more zeros onto my dates starts to draw me back in time.A skylight used by humans for, literally, thousands of generations.

I hope you spend some time exploring the history under your feet, wherever they may take you. Just don't forget to bring a hammer.

Catch-up (But not for Fries. A German would prefer Mayo)

There is an inverse relationship between the amount of wonderful stories I accumulate and the amount of time I have to chronicle them, so let me assure you that everything you haven’t been hearing about has been fantastic.

Here is a link to a photo album I’ve put to together with pictures running from SVP in mid-October to my trip to Weisbaden with the Ohio State crowd. I’ll fill you in on the details now…

After SVP I was anxious to finally get my science on in
Germany. Dr. Martin took me to the Forschungsmuseum Alexander Koenig, the huge zoological museum here in Bonn that I originally included in my essay about why this city was a great place to study a bunch of tiny bones. I was introduced to the curator of mammals, saw the collections where I will likely be spending many hours in the coming months and was told the reptiles are all in storage. This is a bummer because I need to know about lizard and turtle feet to figure out mammal feet, and all of the reptilian material is languishing in a disorganized storage vault somewhere in the city while part of the museum is renovated. I looks like I may need to take a few more trips to Frankfurt to check out the collections at their natural history museum.

After meeting all the dead animals that were first collected by a Alaxander Koenig, a wealthy bureaucrat who expressed his love for the animal kingdom by systematically shooting and stuffing it, and later by more earnest conservation and wildlife biologists, I was given free rein through the exhibits.

The place presents itself as a zoo with a smaller footprint. Rare animals are mounted in detailed dioramas that illustrate the diversity of habitats an
d animals on this planet, so of course the main guests are school groups. Docents roamed the exhibits, answering questions and leading herds of little people to the next animal. The students seemed genuinely engaged, but once they were allowed to explore on their own, the didactic value of the place eroded and the excitement of not being at school took over as groups of friends chased each other through the bird exhibits.

One of the more gruesome exhibits showing two dead animals, but one looks decidedly more dead than the other.

For my part, I’m always fascinated by how taxidermists decide to mount the animals. The most popular image, as always, is the prey pursed by predator. The thrill of the chase is always a great center piece for any exhibit. Animals strolling across the landscape don’t quite draw you in, but it also creates a kind of vicious image of nature red in tooth and claw. Nature can sure be bloody, but it can also be tender, and, more often than not, pretty boring to watch (if you don’t know what you’re looking at or for).

A more peaceful family scene. I'm told if I wander into certain German woodlands, I'm likely to run into one of these animals. They can be a bit rough around the edges, so I would prefer to have such an encounter from a distance, but still, wouldn't that be cool?

I’m really excited to get back and work with the bones they have at the museum, but first I need to figure out how to use geometric morphometrics and linear algebra…

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Proud American in Deutschland

Two years of anticipation, analysis and debate with friends in class, at parties and in the badlands. Hours spent reading opinion columns debating racism in blue-collar, white America. Sleep lost watching talking heads discuss experience and rhetoric.

The day has come. I can say "I voted for President Barack Obama."

Coupled with that statement I can now say "I am an Ohioan" without needing to duck my head from German, French, Kenyan or Britsh fists. I almost got thrown out of a cab in London for the way my state voted in 2004. The global community did not agree with America's (and Ohio's) choice. If I had a regret about going to Germany (beyond being away from loved ones for a year) it was that I would miss the battle for Ohio, the opportunity to volunteer for a candidate I believe can deliver on his campaign promises and the chance to meet the candidates in person.

Now I just wish I could be at home, celebrating this moment with people who have hungered for it as long as I have. The scale of the historical moment is mind-blowing.

This year, the world was firmly behind President-elect Obama. Here is a map put together my The Economist of how the world would vote if there was a global electoral college. Obama has a global mandate.

However, I don't believe international opinion should determine the United States' national governance. The politics of the United States is too idiosyncratic for citizens of other countries with different political systems to fully understand, informed solely by local media outlets.

Explaining that "fiscal conservative" in the States is the same as "economic liberal" to the rest of the world is always a blast. Especially auf Deutsch. Explaining the history of the Electoral College is a perennial favorite of many an ex-pat. There's also a lot of verbage necessary to explain why McCain had support at all. German coverage wasn't exactly balanced. Obama is a fascinating figure and was discussed far more frequently than his rival who was generally seen as George W. Bush, end of story. The "Maverick" brand didn't make it across the pond, I think because it required knowledge of how the legislature functions in the United States and what it means to be willing to "cross party lines." I don't know how many Germans would actually be able to discuss the policy issues that separated the candidates.

Germans were absolutely knowledgeable about Senator McCain's running-mate. Many didn't know who Obama's running-mate was. Again, Palin is a more fascinating figure. But she is an example of stereotypical America (to the international community). For many of the students and faculty I talked to, she represented the America that let them down in 2004, that charged into Iraq without international support, that continues to fixate on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage - issues that haven't seen the European political spotlight in fifty years. And, most importantly, she seemed utterly ignorant of the fact there was a world beyond the borders of The Union. To Palin America is the only country worth discussing. Naturally, this doesn't play well to an international audience.

Yesterday I had to deal with the frustration of the 6 hour time delay. I was awake hours before the polls even opened and had to wait patiently for information to finally start pouring in around midnight. I started the evening at a Cuban bar with a group of graduate students from the institute. I was a little leery of going to a place called "Havana" on election day, but decided the opportunity to mingle with Germans the day before the elections, shoring up my credentials as a supporter of the candidate they favored, was more important than trade embargoes. Plus they served a drink called "Ernest Hemingway." Naturlich the "Obama" shirt I was wearing sparked a great deal of conversation and anticipation for what was going on on the other side of the Atlantic.

I left to continue working on my NSF proposal and statements, but was distracted by checking every news outlet I could type into my address bar. I then joined Felix, a German student living on my floor who lived in Virginia for the last year, to watch the results slowly accumulate into the wee hours of the morning. I wanted to enjoy the American democratic process with traditional American cuisine, so on the way back to the dorm I picked up Budweiser, the Czech lager, not the American (turns out no American beer is imported to the grocery store near my house), Pringles and chicken wings.

Around 4 AM Ohio rolled in and Obama's lead climbed. Then Florida. Then it was bed-time. I awoke at 8:30 to make sure nothing catastrophic had happened while I slept. I was greeted by headline after headline declaring the victory of Barack Obama while detailing the historical scale of this moment.

Thank you Americans for voting. Thank you for showing American democracy is a peaceful process where political rivals trust the people's final decision. Thank you for showing that we are a country that cherishes innovation and doesn't get bogged down in the trivial issues of race, religion or gender (unless you're a political commentator).

Finally, thank you for helping me avoid the physical harm that might have befallen me in the streets of Bonn if things had gone differently.

So excited. So proud.

God bless America.