How do you say Merry Christmas in German? Or, how I spent a lot of down-time in Germany

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I love my parents.  I really do.  They always mean well, even when things don’t go quite as I think that they plan.  Case in point, the time that I spend a Christmas (sort-of) with my older brother in Germany.

I wanted to spend some time in Italy over the holidays with my friends that I had met while in Ireland, and in order to do that, my parents said that perhaps I spend Christmas itself with my brother, while he was stationed in Germany in the military.  Again, I am sure that they had the best intentions.  I am sure that they thought that he and I would spend a of lot quality time together bonding and driving around the countryside and generally having a lovely holiday, and for the most part, they were right.  They did, however, not take into account a couple of key factors:

1.  They gave the money for the trip to my brother, the person who thinks that if he has check blanks then he has money.  By the time that he picked me up in the rental car, I saw where most of that money went – the backseat, in the form of a few CD’s that he had recently purchased. And,

2.  No self-respecting 20-something guy wants to spend a ton of time with their kid-sister.  Ever.  No matter what the circumstances.  But especially not when they have a reputation of coolness to protect in the military.  I mean, honestly, I get it, and I agree and can’t blame him a bit. But,

That means that, after we spend some really harrowing hours driving on the autobahn (and by we, I mean that he was driving and I was praying that I would survive the trip in Germany and make it to Italy alive – he likes to use the accelerator, that’s for sure) and visiting a few of the really great highlights of Bavaria (including Neuschwanstein Castle and the Nurnberg Christmas Market) he would drop me off at my teeny hotel in a teeny village that had only one hotel.  Usually by five in the evening.

This village, by the way, was so small that there was nothing to do, especially since it was the Christmas season and everything was closed.  Not to mention that I didn’t have my own transportation to travel around in the evening and didn’t speak enough German to really get along.  This means that I spend a *lot* of time in the hotel, and specifically my hotel room, itself.  What did I do for that time?  Well, not a lot, really.  You see, back when Kindles weren’t around and people actually read real books, I wanted to save space in my luggage for souvenirs, so I brought only one book.  And this was the start of my trip, so I didn’t want to read the whole thing in the first few days.  So, i tried to ration it out and instead watch TV.  Except that the television only got about four channels, all of them in German.  Including MTV.

Did you know that apparently, even in Europe, MTV only rotates about five videos all day and night?  Yup, that means that I saw the same five videos (including J-Lo’s “Jennie from the Block” and something repulsive from Brittany Spears) about a thousand times.  I finally got a break by watching Evita (yeah, that one.  The one with Madonna), only because since it was a musical, it wasn’t dubbed into German.

It’s truly amazing how long a few hours can seem when you are sitting in a tiny room, as the lone guest in a hotel in the middle of nowhere in southern Germany with nothing to read and nothing to listen to (I left my CD player in Ireland) and nothing to really watch on TV either.  But, if you really want to make sure that you get your vacation time’s worth, I suppose that the fact that it feels like forever means that your vacation might seem longer?  Sigh.  Well, not better, right?  Just longer.

Meanwhile, I know that my brother was back at the base having a lot of fun with his friends, while I was stuck in the hotel.  I was still in Germany, which in and of itself was great, and while I was with my brother, I had a great time.  Walking in the woods around the castle, eating great sausages in the local restaurant nearby and walking around Nurnberg in the evening light.  Simply amazing (more on those parts later, I am sure).  But still, it was a little lonely in that hotel room.  Just sayin’.

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The Guessing Game in Papua New Guinea

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I was inspired to write this following a recent (trying and frustrating) experience trying to order and receive a package for a birthday.  Sometimes, no matter how much you plan and how carefully you try to make sure that things will go well when sending things through the mail or other delivery service, things just don’t work out the way that you would like.

This was especially true in PNG.  Part of the reason that I was there (other than the obvious, which was to experience something genuinely new and amazing that other people would never get a chance to experience in quite the same way again) with Glenn, my colleague and potential PhD supervisor, was to determine if there was enough human skeletal material in the area to base my PhD thesis on.  In order to do this, and to do the other archaeological work that Glenn was trying to work on, we needed out equipment.  Now, obviously, with the amount of equipment that were going to need (including buckets, shovels, gloves, levels, et cetera) we weren’t going to feasibly be able to just other another seat on the plane on which to plonk those pieces of equipment on for the flight from Australia.  So instead, Glenn very wisely (or optimistically, as I like to now refer to it), decided to send all of it ahead of us via the shipping giant, DHL.

Now, under normal circumstances, this would be a perfectly good idea.  Indeed, DHL ships millions of pounds of everything from skiis to foodstuffs all over the world, every day of the year and rival FedEx and other major companies in their ability to get things to their destined locations on time, and in good condition.

Except for when they try to get anything to Papua New Guinea.

Why, you ask?  What could possibly be the issue there?  Well, on top of the fact that you have to assume, when sending anything to PNG, that someone, somewhere along the line might assume that it’s “cargo” and therefore pinch it entirely, there is the ever-present issue of weight.  As in, how much weight can be placed on their teeny, tiny, itty, bitty little planelets that they use to ship things around the main island, as well as a few of the larger outer islands that make up the country.  This is even more important during the time of the year that they harvest all of the vanilla pods, which quickly go rotten in the heat and humidity once they are harvested and need to be transported very soon after they are harvested.   Guess what time of year Glenn and I were in PNG?  Go on, guess.  If you said, “vanilla bean harvesting time,” you are right!  We happened to be there right at the height of the season, which meant that, one of the tasks that we got to do on a daily basis, and which actually provided at least a little bit of a break into an otherwise long and boring from the rest of the day on the mainland, stuck in a small hotel (more on that in another post, I am sure), was to travel to the small, inadequate airport, on the off-chance that the gear that we needed had made it onto the plane.

Most of the time, the people packing the plane would likely have taken one glance at our gear, another at the vanilla pods, densely packed into their crate, weight how much value each one had (vanilla being one of the main exports and sources of money for many people there) and not even given our equipment a second thought.  Onto the plane the vanilla crates would go, and for days on end, Glenn and I would wait hours to in the heat, the humidity and the crunch of unwashed, barefoot, eager people, only to be disappointed to see that, after all of that, our gear was somewhere still in limbo.  Where?  Honestly, I think that it’s best not to dwell on that.  For all that I know, it could have been sent to Siberia.  And it didn’t really matter.  All that mattered was that, having to wait for that equipment meant that it delayed and further delayed our trip from the mainland (Wewak) to Koil, the small island on which we would be doing most of our work.  It took almost a full week to finally get all of our gear.  By now, we were losing serious time and Glenn’s attitude was getting more grumpy by the day.  Couple that with the horrid, stifling humidity and the lack of anything decent to eat at the hotel after a few days; having depleted their stock of soda, pineapple, bananas and other tasty foods, and long having been left with almost exclusively papaya (and if you know me, you know that that is one of the few things that I cannot bear to even think of eating, so much do I dislike it), and the mood among our small group was not a good one.

So, it was with no cheer that we realized that, after all of that effort and waiting and hope, we (and by we, I mean Glenn) had remembered to pack the cigarettes (for himself and for bribes, I didn’t smoke), some rice (a real treat on the outer islands, where it wasn’t grown), and indeed, even the kerosene lamps…but no kerosene.  None.  Not even one container.

It’s amazing what you miss when it’s not there; buckets for sand and dirt for when you are digging; decent food at a remote hotel in the middle of the South Pacific; and light.  Any light.  Did you know that in the South Pacific, on outer islands, where the inhabitants have never even heard of electricity, when the sun goes down, it means that everyone and everything is immediately and completely thrown into total blackness?

What’s the lesson learned?  If you need anything in PNG during the vanilla harvest, it’s probably worth it to shell out for an extra ticket on the fight from Australia, rather than rely on DHL being able to stop the local PNG airline baggage handlers from prioritizing their vanilla over your theodolite.  Also, if you pack the kerosene lamps, just make sure that you *also* pack the actual kerosene.  Otherwise, they just make for very interesting “gifts” to give to the local kids on those outer islands, since they don’t really have any other uses.  At least, none that I ever figured out.

Good Company on the Train to Austria

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I was on a trip through parts of Europe, including Eastern Europe a few years ago, and at this point in the trip, three countries in, I had experienced both wonderful things and ones that I would rather forget (all of Hungary, for instance – I think that I might still be traumatized by that whole experience).  I had seen people eating mayonnaise on pizza, and others that introduced me to the wonderful baked delights of Croatia.

I was on the train from Slovenia to Austria, through the most picturesque landscape that I had seen in years, filled with lush valleys, rugged mountains and the cutest, quaintest villages of colorful houses that I have ever seen this side of Norway.

The trip itself was only a couple of hours, and I thought that I had the car to myself, since I had gotten there early and no one had joined me in the four-person car in almost half an hour.  Suddenly, outside my window, I see a grandmother with what appeared to be her daughter and toddler granddaughter at the station platform; the older woman bugging the two younger ones and waving and blowing kisses as she walked toward the train.  A few moments later, she appeared in the doorframe and walked through, sitting opposite me.

She didn’t speak a word of English, just Austrian-inflected German, as I quickly found out when I said hello to her.  She almost ignored me totally at first, too busy waving goodbye over and over to the little girl outside the window.  She smiled at me, and continued to wave, all the way to the point where we could no longer see the station or the little girl and her mother.

She settled in to her seat and smiled at me again, giggled a little bit and said something to me that I couldn’t make out.  Whatever it was, I could tell that this was a person that I wouldn’t mind spending a couple of hours with, happily just staring at the passing countryside, anticipating what I would encounter in the next country (Austria).

I had managed to snag some extra green grapes from my final breakfast at the hotel in Slovenia and brought them out to munch on a few.  I offered some to the woman, and although she demurred at first, a little nudge was all that it took for her to join me in finishing them off in a matter of a few minutes.  She took a few, then a few more, thanking me and again giggling and saying more things that I couldn’t quite make out.  I managed to understand enough to know that she was telling me a little about her granddaughter and that she asked me something about myself, but all that I managed was my name.  She told me hers, but as I have never been great with names, I can’t recall it.  I did manage to take a photo of her enjoying the grapes, though, smiling and with the same glint in her eye as my German-American grandmother.  Actually, she reminded me so much of her that for a moment, I almost thought that my grandmother was with me on that train.  It was a very comforting feeling.  We then spent the next couple of hours just enjoying each other’s quiet company and watching the countries, the villages, the houses, slowly change from one to another; the sun shining and a slight breeze moving the trees in the distance and creating ripples on the water of the lakes that we passed.  It was a truly lovely experience.

When the train arrived at my station, I said goodbye to her and thanked her for being such a lovely travelling companion, and then waved to her as I walked by her window.  She actually smiled back and waved to me as I left the station to find a cab to my new hotel in Vienna.  She, most likely, was off back home or somewhere equally comforting.

I have no idea what ever happened to her, and I likely never will.  But, I have a photo of her to remind me of her giggle, her smile and that delightful trip through the mountains and valleys of Slovenia and Austria.

Thank you, kind woman.  Whoever and wherever you are.

La Fromagerie

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I spent a few years of my life (not my most enjoyable years, either, by the way) not being able to properly process cheese or most other dairy products.  Therefore, I spent a long time ordering pizzas without cheese, thereby confounding the person on the other end of the phone taking my order, not to mention entertaining those who saw me eat what was essentially bread and ketchup (with a little Canadian bacon for good measure).

However, by the time that I went on first real vacation in almost eight years – to Paris – I was fortunate enough to have overcome that hindrance and once again be able to enjoy, at least in moderation dairy products, from yoghurt to milk to cheese.

Now, I know, everyone knows that the French love and know their cheese.  I mean, really know their cheese.  In fact, this post was inspired by a book that I recently read on a woman from Wisconsin who, after my own heart, travelled all over France indulging in the still-traditionally-made cheeses of rural France.  This is a country that boasts no fewer than 300 types of cheese by most counts, and perhaps twice that many.

I was a little hesitant at first, I admit.  i had only recently been able to truly eat cheese itself without a lot of, let’s just say, digestive discomfort.  So, as you can imagine, I didn’t want to over-reach what my body might be able to handle.  At least, not the first time.  But like they say about drugs, it’s the first time that can really hook you for life.  And in my case, not only did it hook me, but it ruined me at the same time.

As most other Americans, I grew up eating cheese.  In fact, I remember many times when I would ask my mother for a snack after school or before bed and she would just cut a huge chunk of cheese off of a larger block and I would gnaw away on it for a while.  Happily indulging in it.  I also ate my fair share of grilled cheese sandwiches, made with the ubiquitous American cheese slices that melted so perfectly (or Velveeta wedges, if we were really good and Mom had remembered to buy those large blocks of creamy, salty goodness).  Little did I know, though, that there was a whole other world of cheese out there.  Real cheese.  Cheese that transcends the bland, dry “Mexican blend” stuff that is so familiar in the US.

The first night in the city, I discovered that there was a Fromagerie just a few dozen meters from my hotel.  I had walked by it earlier in the day, without noticing it, since it was closed and in the shadows.  However, by nightfall, as I walked by again, on the way back to my temporary home for the week, I strolled passed it and noticed the light on and saw an amazing sight:  Shelf after shelf of cheese!  Like I had never seen before in my life!  There are no such places in the US.  No stores where you can walk in and be overwhelmed by the smells of the salty, briny, rich cheeses that reside therein.

This was an epiphany.  I stepped through the door to the small (the size of a smaller-than-average bedroom) shop, populated by an older woman and the proprietor; a lovely middle-aged gentleman who didn’t speak more than a few words of English, which was actually far more than the amount of French that I spoke.

I think that I literally stepped in and immediately closed my eyes to take in the smells.  It was almost overpowering, but in the most blessed way.  And the cheeses!  from bright white to deep orange; from round wheels to bricks and slices; from stinky to tangy and from creamy and smooth to crumbly and bleu.  I couldn’t believe my nostrils or my eyes.  I didn’t know where to start, so I walked up to the owner and with a few hand gestures managed to purchase a small chunk of what turned out to be my favorite, a chevre.  Goat cheese.  Briny, a little on the off-tasting side (but in all the right ways) and perfect for spreading on a fresh baguette (which I happened to have just purchased from the local bakery down the block).  I took the chunk and the bread home and spent a few, very contented minutes just savoring the cheese and the crusty, flaky-crusted bread while watching the French version of some news show.

For the next nine days, I managed to eat my way through nearly every single type of cheese that they had.  I made it a routine.  I would stop by the boulangerie on my way home for the evening and pick up a loaf of baguette.  Did it matter that it was from the morning and all French people buy their bread in the morning, for maximum freshness?  Nope.  We Americans couldn’t make bread this good if we tried.  And we have.  Let’s just say that it’s not our strong point.

I tried every type that I could identify and many others that I couldn’t and still couldn’t to this day.  Brie, Camanbert, chevre; cow, goat and sheep cheese.  Oozey, gooey cheese.  Sharp, hard, sliced cheese.  I would buy a few ounces of each and spread them on a whole baguette so that every few bites were a flavor of a new cheese.  And I only ate the same one twice.  It was that first one, from the first night, that I loved the most.  Every night, therefore, I experienced just a little bit of Heaven on Earth.  There is just something about that simple combination of foods that makes you realize that it’s the little things in life that can make you happy.  That make you forget the smoking people in the streets; the dog poo on the footpaths; the closed museums that you spent ages trying to find.  It just makes like worth living just a little bit more.

And you can’t get those cheeses here in the US.  Why?  They are not pasteurized.  None of the ones that I tried were.  And now I lament that.  I lament that I can’t go into a shop, a supermarket or anywhere and get cheese like that here.  I try it sometimes; with mixed results.  We can get decent Danish brie, but truly, it’s nothing like what I had in Paris, and I miss it.  I dream of it.  Sometimes, I think that I can still taste it, if I think and focus hard enough.

But then, as I always say; always leave something to come back for.  I feel like taking another trip to France.

A Night Train in Egypt

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I was late.  The Air France plane that I was on from London to Paris was delayed, and despite half of the other people on my flight having booked onward passage on the flight from Paris to Cairo, Egypt, the airline refused to hold the plane for the ten minutes more that it would have need to escort us to it and onward to our respective journeys.

As a result, I got a whirlwind tour of Paris, as the airline made us all stay overnight in the capital awaiting the next possible flight to Cairo the following morning.  However, my misadventures in Paris that first time that I saw it (see:  trying to find the Bastille, even though it no longer exists) are a topic for another time.

I write this, because I recently re-found the object that triggered this memory for me.  Since I was booked on a group tour, compromised mostly of fun Australians, a Kiwi and one lone other American, and since the tour was meant to be kicked off in the south of Egypt and work its way north via felucca, missing that connection that day meant that I was forced to catch up to the rest of the group by taking a series of interesting “planes, trains and automobiles” literally.  First, the day-late connection from Paris to Cairo, packed with other people just as frustrated as I was, along with my first visions of women completely clad in black, but for their eyes, seated next to stern-gazed gentlemen.  Then, the hired car (from the tour company) whose driver I swear never took anything like a driver’s test to get his license, and who managed to narrowly avoid knocking over a bevy of pedestrians on the way from the airport to a temporary hotel (I was there only a few hours until the night train was scheduled to leave) and then to the night train.

Ah, the night train in Egypt.  First of all, the trains allow nearly anything to be accompanied onto the cars by those that had purchases a ticket, from goats to chickens to leaking packages smelling of spices and day-old meat.  I was lucky enough to have had my tour company find a space for me in a higher-class section, complete with *almost* reclining seats.  I say almost, because there was the assumption that at one time they perhaps did recline, but over time and with neglect of upkeep, they no longer functioned properly.  Instead, they were stuck somewhere between upright and slightly forward, making any position uncomfortable.

I was already tired, having been travelling for a day and a half at that point, and having tried to make the most of my unplanned layover in Paris by getting only a few hours of sleep and walking too much around the city I so easily got lost in.  Now, after being shepherded around Cairo by a crazy car driver, being held in a makeshift hotel in  a dodgy part of town for a few hours, all alone, and having to have complete trust in the people who had told me that they were part of the tour company, I was now swiftly (as the train was about to leave) escorted to a broken seat in this car for an eight-hour ride to the south of the country, through dead-black night; the desert seeming to suck up all light into its endless darkness and silence.

I made myself as comfortable as possible for where I was forced to sit and attempted to try to get at least a few hours’ sleep.  However, that was not to be.  Although there was another woman and her husband (?) next to me, the real problem came from the gentleman sitting directly across from me.

I should state right now that I am from Minnesota and that the phrase “Minnesota Nice” has many meanings; one of which is that we have a tendency to not be able to say no to a conversation when it comes from someone who seems well-meaning.  This a severe illness that I happen to suffer from terribly.

The gentleman, noting that I was obviously not from around there (how much could one woman possibly stand out?  Well, I am a head taller than even the taller men, so white that I glow in the dark and of course, I was wearing khaki trousers and a tank top, due to the heat – not exactly traditional Egyptian women’s wear), started to speak to me.  First in German (huh?  really?  German?  Okay…) then in English.  When he realized that I understood what he was saying in English he pounced on the opportunity to talk to me.  Endlessly.

Now, this happens to happen to me a lot, actually, but more on that later.  Normally, though I get people telling me their entire life story (this just happened again on my way to Finland).  This time, though, the gentleman was not interested in telling me about himself.  Instead, I was forced to spend the next roughly eight hours listening to him tell me about the advantages of Christianity (assuming for some reason that I had never heard that from anywhere before…being raised Lutheran and all), how wonderful Jesus was and how I needed to be saved.

Okay, I was alone, at night, in a foreign country, not being able to speak more than a handful of words in Arabic, and I was stuck in a small train car next to a couple that clearly weren’t going to come to my aid in getting me out of this conversation, and I was at a loss as to what to do.  I couldn’t pretend to sleep because no one could pretend that in the positions that we were forced to sit in, and I couldn’t run away, since it was a train.  I was forced to listen to this, nod my head and attempt to at least drift my thoughts away as much as possible, and dream of the sights that I would see once I connected with the rest of my tour group.

Near the end of his speech (how did he get the energy to talk that long?), he handed me something.  That’s the something that triggered the memory.  He handed me a small, business card-sized laminated picture of a Saint.  I still don’t know which one it is, having been raised in a faith that didn’t think much of Saints or icons.  But, out of Minnesota politeness and niceness, I took it, smiled and thanked him and slipped it into my wallet, where it fit snugly.  It was the wallet that I had purchased while in Florence, Italy and the one which I have used ever since (Italians really know how to make leather goods, I have to admit).

I don’t know why I chose to leave in there, or why I have never taken it out, no matter how many times I have cleaned out my purse and wallet.  Maybe it’s a desire to have a reminder of a trip that I took so long ago.  Maybe I am secretly afraid that God will smite me if I discard it.  Maybe I fear that he will somehow know that I discarded it, wherever he is now, and be sad and upset at me or all Westerners to whatever.  I know honestly know.  What I do know is that, I put it back.  Back right where it has always sat.  On it’s own, in it’s own slot in my wallet.  Just like it has for the last twelve years and likely where it will remain for at least another twelve.  Sometimes you don’t know why you do things, like talk to strangers on a night train, or keep seemingly random, meaningless tokens.  But sometimes you just need to.  At least, I do.

In Praise of the Cinnamon Roll

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DSC01413I recently got a chance to journey once again to another new place in the world and experience all that it had to offer (much of it closed or too rainy to enjoy, thank you very much).  Well, on the down side, Finland was cold, rainy and wet for the majority of the time that I was there.  Even though I watched the weather forecasts for weeks beforehand, I was still caught off-guard by just how cold it was, and was totally unprepared (note to self:  even though you want to try to squeeze your luggage into the carry-on space, it will not be to your benefit to cut out your winter jacket on the off-chance that *Finland* will be reliably warm in September).

Despite all of the issues that I had while I was there, I did discover a few positive things about the experience (visiting my good friend aside, since I knew that that would a great experience).  Mainly, the Finnish, even though they apparently have a food reputation on par with England (i.e. bad, bland, tasteless food), know their food.  And I mean *know* their food.  I fortunately got a hotel with a small fitted kitchen, so that I wasn’t stuck eating out all the time and for that I am extremely thankful.  Because of that, I got to shop at the local supermarkets and discover the foods that the Finns really eat.  Everything from reindeer sausage (delicious) to moose meat cold cuts (even more delicious) to the amazing, cinnamon roll.

Let me just say right now that I have eaten my fair share of cinnamon rolls.  I make them a lot, and not the Cinnabon kind, either.  The real, genuine, amazing, homemade version.  But these were on a whole other level.  Coming back home, I looked it up and realized that the Finns and Swedes apparently were the originators of the cinnamon roll, so it makes sense that they know what they are doing.  So much so, that even the versions that were in packages at the supermarket were far superior to what you normally find even in high-end bakeries here in the US.  The ones that I got to try at Fazer (see photo below) were sublime.

And they come in an amazing amount of varieties, too.  I counted no less than 15 kinds that I could readily distinguish as being unique, but beyond that, there were subtle variations on those that were everywhere.  Some with a sweet glaze, some with toffee filling, and others with huge chunks of confectioners’ sugar balls on top.  All them delectable and soft, puffy and full of cinnamon flavor.   You can eat them by peeling away the sometimes gooey, sometimes challah-ish layers, or you can cut into them with a fork like the locals do.  either way, the light, fluffy bread breaks away to a sensory perception on par with what I imagine a practiced wine taster experiences when they taste revered vintages from France and Italy.  There is nothing childish or Cinnabon-like about these treats.  They are eaten at all times of night and day, from breakfast to dessert, and are often accompanied by the liquid gold that is Finnish coffee.  No matter you eat them, or what variety you have, I promise you that you will be at a loss for words in describing their perfection.

I may have been cold and wet, and I may have gotten a cold while there, but I will be darned if I didn’t enjoy every single morsel of cinnamon rolls that I ate….every single day….every single chance that I got!

Turku, Finland

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Turku, Finland

This is the last remnant of a medieval road located in Turku, Finland, which is one of the few places in Finland with remnants of medieval times. Most of Finland lacks that.

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