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.

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