Tuesday, December 31, 2013

December's Adventure: Day 3, Strasbourg, France

On our third day of our trip, we hopped into the car for a two hour drive to Strasbourg, France, which is south of Kaiserslautern. I've visited Strasbourg once before this spring but never did get to writing about it (oops!). The nice thing about my prior visit was that it saved me some research for this visit since I basically already knew the layout of town. In other words, I knew exactly where to go since I had already bumbled through some wrong turns during the previous visit. Yay for learning!

From my last visit, I knew that the wise thing to do with my car was leave it in the Park and Ride lot on the edge of the downtown. I chose the Rotonde parking garage which is just west of downtown. It's super convenient because the tram is just outside the parking lot and it's a quick journey into town. Even better yet? It's super cheap! To park in the garage and ride the tram into downtown and back is only 4 euros for up to seven passengers. It's sooo much cheaper and less stressful than parking in the city (more P+R Strasbourg info available here).

We didn't have a set plan other than visiting the cathedral and the Christmas market. After we took the tram into town, we came across the first Christmas Market at Place Kléber, a square. There were just a few booths and they were all non-profit organizations. We decided this would be an excellent place to drink some vin chaud ("hot wine"), the French version of glühwein. After all, once must drink hot, spiced wine at Christmas markets and supporting non-profits by purchasing it from them is even better!

Lovely vin chaud. Now, how to get the deposit back?
My cousins both speak a bit of French from learning it in high school so they ordered successfully. I tried to order some wine using French and it was a mess. Some of it came out in German and instead of 3 glasses of wine we received 2 glasses instead. Eep. We finally got everything sorted out and my cousins had their glasses of red wine and I had white. It was tasty and similar to glühwein. Finishing our glasses, we were then left to figure out how to get our deposit back. We even had to figure out if we had paid a deposit for the cups. It's pretty standard practice if the cups aren't the cheap disposable ones. We spent a while watching other people to see what they were doing and finally just took the cups back to the stand and handed them back. We were rewarded with our deposit being returned. Success!

We learned that each year, there is a special guest country to the market. This year, the guest was Croatia, being honored for recently joining the EU (as of 1 July 2013). There were some stalls in the Place Gutenberg set up with Croatian food, crafts, and information.

Then we moved on to the Cathedral of Notre Dame, a major landmark of the city. Part of the building was started in 1015,  but the Gothic spire was not completed until 1439, according to Strasbourg's Tourism website. We marveled at the amazing church, noting the astronomical clock inside and the elaborately decorated facade.

I made special note of the super creepy stained glass window showing scenes from Hell. I was especially alarmed by the white devil (? I think that's what it is) that bears some resemblance to Bumble the Abominable Snow Monster from the children's film Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Freaky.

Creepy creepy! Bumble, is that you?

Beautiful church facade, evil gnome poisoning the vin chaud outside (maybe not).
That was enough of creepy stained glass windows. As we toured the rest of the town, we found something else that I've since seen repeated in other European towns: Santa Claus in various stages of breaking into people's homes. More pictures of this phenomenon will follow, of course.

There is more to the visit to Strasbourg but that will be another entry since this one is super long as it is. The next entry will be full of additional excitement (! maybe): how we ended up (sort of) on French television in Petite France; saw gnomes gone bad (and it was bloody!); went mountain climbing in the French burrito restaurant; and went into giggling hysterics over weird mannequins. I'm sure you can't wait.

Monday, December 30, 2013

December's Adventure: Day 2, Heidelberg

Sunday found us having a leisurely morning as I cooked breakfast for my cousins. We talked about the next stop on our travel adventure: Heidelberg!

Heidelberg is about an hour from Kaiserslautern and is host to the oldest university in Germany (founded in 1386!). On the Neckar River, it is a picturesque city left intact even after the wars of the 20th century.

However, not all of Heidelberg has been left intact. In fact, the city's most famous sight, its castle, is actually partially in ruins! It has been struck by lighting and burned as well as subject to destruction during 17th century wars. Portions of the castle remain and are available for tours.

For our trip to Heidelberg, we decided that a visit to the castle was definitely in order. I've visited it thirteen years ago during my first trip to Germany, but haven't been since even though I visit a friend in Heidelberg somewhat regularly. We were in for a special treat this particular weekend at the castle: it was the one and only weekend of the castle's Christmas market, too.

My cousins and I took the train from Kaiserslautern to Heidelberg and walked to the foot of the Königstuhl mountain where the castle is located. We decided to take the funicular railway (more information about it here) up to the castle as the stairs are killer (the gradient is 45 degrees at one point on the funicular railway!). We waited with crowds of people then smooshed into the railcars with them and took a quick ride to the castle grounds.

Since the day before, I had been marveling with my cousins at how incredibly friendly the locals had been at the Christmas market. I felt like it was unreal. When we reached the grounds of the castle, I had my faith restored that I was still in Germany and all was as it should be: when I asked at a gift store about a tour of the castle, the lady was super blunt with me and told me (basically) that she would not have any information about tours because she didn't work at the castle's office. Ahh...there it was: German bluntness. I felt so much better after that, because I was wondering if the chatty friendly people in the woods were even real. I've had plenty of people who have been so kind and helpful to me when I've asked for help, but I'm also used to more blunt answers and no small talk. The super friendly, chatty people in the woods the night before must have just been happy from that beautiful Christmas market and glühwein.

Heidelberg Castle gate
We found the correct spot to buy tickets and decided to take a tour of the Heidelberg Castle. I would recommend it because visitors are allowed to visit inside the castle as part of the tour. Without the tour, visitors are only allowed to see the outside of the castle. Our guide was knowledgeable and personable. Since I've been studying German history and art, I chatted with him during some of the free time on the tour. I even amazed him when I asked him if the altar and the surrounding area in the chapel was wood (I had bet my cousins that it was, even though it looked like marble at a distance). He knocked on it, showing that it was indeed wood and asked if I had taken the tour before. Nope, I had a class this summer where our instructor taught us that in many churches and chapels, what looks like marble might actually be wood. The next time you're in an older European church that has been around since the Renaissance, look closely at the marble walls and altars. It might not be marble at all!

After the tour we visited the Heidelberg Tun, or the giant wine barrel, in the basement of the castle. It's huge, said to be one of the world's largest wine barrels. At one point, the castle employed a dwarf court jester, Giovanni Clementi, revered for his drinking ability, to watch over the wine barrel. Castle inhabitants called Clementi "Perkeo" because they'd ask him various questions, such as if he'd like another glass of wine and his answer was "perché no?" ("why not?" in his native Italian). It is said that he was able to drink vast quantities of wine but the day he drank a glass of water he died. A statue of him still oversees the barrel and Perkeo's legend lives on.

Even better yet? I have a picture of some guy in a costume from when I visited Heidelberg this fall during Herbst Fest. I now realize that this guy is meant to be Perkeo! Mystery solved.

We continued the tour of the castle grounds on our own and stopped by the Apothekenmuseum (Pharmacy Museum). There wasn't much time to see it but it's worth a short visit. Continuing outside, we tried to enjoy the Christmas market outside of the castle. It was so crammed full of people that we didn't stay long.

My friend who lives in Heidelberg met us after our castle visit and took us to her favorite German restaurant in Heidelberg: the Schnitzelhaus Alte Münz (Neckarmünzgasse 10, Heidelberg). It's a short walk outside of the tourist center and is a small, atmospheric restaurant (though not without some questionable art -- check out the poster hanging near the bathrooms!). The main attraction is the restaurant's offering 100+ different types of schnitzels. Beyond schnitzels, offerings are slim besides fries, salads, and käsespätzle, which is understandable given the descriptive name of the restaurant. I don't eat schnitzel, so my choice was the käsespätzle. It was typical käsespätzle and tasted good.

Everyone else ordered different types of schnitzels and were happy with their choices. The serving sides are HUGE so my cousin was happy with her decision to order the small portion (which also saved a few euros). We were all pleased with our meals, the good service, and the cute interior of the small restaurant. We were lucky enough to get seated even without reservations; however, since the restaurant gets busy, for a smoother visit reservations are recommended.

Full and happy, we continued down the Hauptstrasse (main street) in Heidelberg, window shopping and enjoying the festive environment with some additional Christmas markets along the way. We then said goodbye to my friend and walked back to the train station to travel home.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Six Tips for Enjoying the Romantische Waldweinacht at Haus der Nachhaltigkeit

Haus der Nachhaltigkeit

Are you interested in experiencing the lovely Christmas market in the Palatinate woods that I wrote about here? I highly recommend it, but before you go, here are some things to know:

1. Whatever you do, do not drive and do not park your car there. I am not kidding on this one. Take the bus! There is a special bus that leaves from Kaiserslautern, as well as from other places (which will be listed on the Haus's website), and it drops off passengers directly at the event.

There are very few parking spaces available anywhere near the market and the ones that are available are perilous as they're not actually spaces at all; cars were just parked on the side of the road, which is incredibly narrow. The buses that came through could barely squeeze past the cars. At one point, some passengers had to get out of the bus to help direct the driver through the tight squeeze!

There is no safe place to walk to the market from where the cars are parked and it's dangerous for everyone involved. Repeat after me: take! the! bus!

2. Look into buying a Tageskarte for an individual, which is a day's pass for the bus, or a Gruppentageskarte for a group. Usually this will be cheaper for the outward and return journey than buying individual bus tickets. They can be bought from the bus driver.

3. Check the schedule for events and get there early! We only had about an hour and a half at the market and it wasn't long enough. We also missed out on seeing the fire spinners. I wish I had planned better.

4. Try the bio (organic) or ökologisch glühwein. It is delicious and in my opinion, tastes much better than regular glühwein.

5. Try some of the food offerings; some of them are not readily available at other Christmas markets (such as the Wildschwein sausages).

6. Be sure to check out the craft fair inside the building, too.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

December's Adventure: Day 1, Part 2; Haus der Nachhaltigkeit Christmas Market

After spending time together in Frankfurt, I drove my cousins back to Kaiserslautern. We took a much-needed short nap at my house before our evening trip to the Haus der Nachhaltigkeit's Christmas market in the woods.

The Haus der Nachhaltigkeit, or House of Sustainability (which I'll refer to for the rest of this as the "Haus"), is a nature center, of sorts, located in Trippstadt, which is twenty minutes south of Kaiserslautern. For the last ten years the Haus has celebrated its "Romantische Waldweihnacht," or "romantic forest Christmas" on its grounds. It is truly a special Christmas market, quite different from most other German markets.

Offerings at this market are most often organic, handmade, and high quality. There are many local specialties, including some that are hyper local and put the focus on the forest: it's possible to eat venison and wild boar products made from animals from the very woods!

I used this market as an opportunity to introduce my cousins to the staple of German Christmas markets: glühwein, which is a hot, spiced wine (which also made many future appearances in our trip). Internally, I was a bit blasé about drinking more glühwein. I had some when I first moved to Germany, and it was overly sweet and tasted like it had cheap fillers in it. I didn't finish that first glass of it.

The glühwein at the Haus's Christmas market restored my faith in mulled wine. It was amazing! I think that the major difference is that this glühwein was a higher quality and was homemade by the winery selling it. Another bonus is that the supplying winery uses ökologisch growing techniques, which means that they are environmentally sound ways of growing the grapes (something along the lines of bio, or organic). It seemed like just wine with spices and no added "junk." My cousins loved it, too.

Warmed up by the glühwein and trying to stay focused (which the drink didn't help), I led us around the grounds where we checked out handcrafted Christmas decorations, handmade soaps, and other quality items. My cousin was hungry so I suggested that he try flammkuchen, which is a common and beloved dish in this region.

It was then that I witnessed some behavior that is somewhat out of character for what I have previously observed in the locals: one woman in line made small talk with us (usually people don't really talk to strangers in line) and another guy let my cousin know he wasn't in line properly but kindly showed him how to find his place. The fact that the line was being respected blew me away. Folks here don't usually queue here in an orderly fashion, if at all!

Really, it was like the whole event was somehow magically blessed with happy, smiling, and friendly people. After we had sat down to eat the flammkuchen, I told my cousins that I thought we might have been transported to another dimension instead of just into the forest. I'm not saying that the locals are mean or anything; it's just that people normally mind their own business and don't make small talk with strangers.

As we finished the flammkuchen, we realized that the market was closing up for the night. We reluctantly made our way back to the bus, which offered us a packed ride home with many enthusiastic older people who were a little silly, probably from drinking too much glühwein.

The Haus's Christmas market is, without a doubt, my favorite Christmas market that I have attended. I can't wait to go again next year. I will definitely go much earlier to give enough time to fully enjoy the market and to see some of the free shows that it hosts (such as fire spinners, brass bands, etc.).

Thursday, December 26, 2013

December's Adventure: Day 1, Frankfurt am Main

Saturday, December 14

On day one of our epic journey, I met my cousins M and D at the Frankfurt am Main airport to begin the trip. They were lucky enough to have direct flight in from Detroit (thank you, Delta!). As we were leaving the airport through the parking garage, they were immediately struck by the Fraunenparkplatz. Of course, it's not hard to miss at the airport because it's painted this crazy Pepto Bismol pink, maybe to drive home the fact that it's parking reserved for women.

The first order of business (in my mind, at least) was to ditch my car and get on the public transportation, which was available at the Stadion Park and Ride lot just a short drive from the airport. We grabbed a Gruppentageskarte, which allowed us to take the train into town and ride the public transportation in Frankfurt for one rate.

Our first stop was Römerberg and we visited the cozy (reproduction of the original) square. Since I have been to Frankfurt once before in the fall, I cheated and took my cousins through the same tour that I wrote about here, except I skipped Sachenhausen. I also started to tell them about the "very special" local drink, Apfelwein, talking about how the locals are so fond of it. M and D were keen to hear more about it. However, I don't want them to make the same mistake that I did and try to drink the bitter stuff so I came clean and told them that it doesn't taste good at all. Even my German colleague, who lives in the area, has agreed how unpleasant we find it. With a name like "apfelwein," it brings to mind a sweet, fruity wine. It's definitely not! It's a bitter cider. Be warned!

After we cleared up the mystery surrounding apfelwein, we enjoyed the Christmas market in the Römerberg square and then moved on to Paulskirche. I also mentioned that in the linked entry, Paulskirche is where the first constitution of Germany was written. Luckily for us, it was actually open that day so we took a look around inside. There are displays on the walls (in German and English) that tell the history of the building and the German struggle for democracy.

We continued with a visit to the Kleinmarkthalle and then on to the horror of all horrors: Primark on a Saturday. It's a clothing store chain that sells excellent warm leggings. I prepared my cousins and told them that my plan was to get in, grab some leggings and pay, and get the heck out. As I had expected, it was pure chaos but we managed to complete the errand (though I screwed up and bought tights instead of leggings, but they're still warm so it was okay).

After that, we were all quite worn out from our wanderings and my cousins were tired from jetlag. I attempted to get us back to the Park and Ride. Though I've visited Frankfurt before, I won't lie: I found the Hauptbahnhof incredibly confusing (am I just dumb, or do others find it that way, too?). It seems like I always stumble along, trying to find the U-Bahn within the confluence of the S-Bahn, buses, and long distance trains. Getting back to the Stadion stop is confusing, too, because of the number of lines that stop there and getting the right one that actually makes the stop. After fumbling around, I finally got us back and we drove to Kaiserslautern and took a much-needed nap so we could attend the House of Sustainability's Christmas Market in the forest. There is more about that to come...

December's Adventure: a Christmas market trip

Two weeks ago, my cousins from the US visited me in Germany. I was excited to see them; after all, they're always fun travel companions and they're my first visitors of family/friends from the US!

I arrange a whirlwind 8-day tour for us. Below is our itinerary. Most of our focus was on visiting Christmas markets in each town. As I get time, I'll blog about what we did in each city and add pictures.

Saturday: Since they arrived in Frankfurt am Main, that was our first stop. Without giving them pause to catch their breath, I drove us back to Kaiserslautern and went to the House of Sustainability's fantastic Christmas market in the woods.

Sunday: we took a trip to Heidelberg. Though I've been quite a few times in the last year, this time I played tourist, too. My friend lives there so normally I play the role of semi-local.

Monday: we took a trip to Strasbourg, France. It's less than two hours away from where I live and is quite pretty, too!

Tuesday: we made our way to Cologne and stayed there until Thursday morning. Our main focus was the cathedral, or Dom.

Thursday: we stopped in what I call the "chicken strip" part of the Netherlands (seriously, it's just a small strip of land!) to see the Valkenburg caves and the Christmas market inside. We then continued to Brussels and stayed there until Friday night.

Friday: we continued to Liège and stayed at a ridiculously bad hotel. On Saturday, we wandered around town and then concluded the trip with dropping my cousins off at the airport so they could fly home.

After all of this, I came home and slept for 10 hours on the evening of my return. I was tired!

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas from Germany!

For those who celebrate, enjoy the day.

In Kaiserslautern, I enjoyed a leisurely day of a late wake-up and cooking a pasta dish to take to my friend's gathering. It was 54 degrees F and raining. Thanks to my friend's hospitality, we had a nice holiday despite the gray Christmas.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

American food in other countries: Dresden, Germany

As we were shopping in Dresden, we came across Beyond the Pond, a cute little store that sells imported British and American foods. On the American end, there was plenty of our TexMex style foods. Of course, as imports, they were significantly more expensive than they are in the US.

2,30 euros; in the US the Old El Paso taco seasoning is about 89 cents.

3,65 euro tostada shells. I'm guessing they'd be about $3 or less in the US.

Eep! Pop-tarts for almost 5 euros.
The British portion includes things like Walker's crisps, British bacon, etc.There are books, craft beers, and wine too.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Cool trick! Free cell phone charging at Zeil Mall in Frankfurt

We stopped by the Zeil mall in Frankfurt. In the basement, near the Rewe, there is this cool locker thing where one can plug in one's phone to charge and lock it up. It says that it's free for 30 minutes. I didn't look at it closely, so I'm not sure if there's a catch, but it's a neat idea.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Ten Tips for Enjoying German Christmas Markets

For those living in or visiting Germany during the Advent season (end of November until Christmas), a must-see is the German Christmas markets. They are truly magical with many delightful things to eat, see, and buy.

Here are some tips for enjoying the markets:

1. Do a bit of research before you go. Usually there is information on the website of the city hosting the market. Find the opening hours, location of restrooms, etc. Some cities have more than one market (such as Cologne) so it's nice to know ahead of time where they are. Not all sites will have an English version, but Google Translate can be your friend.

2. They tend to be quite busy, especially in the evenings and on weekends. Decide if you like a packed environment that's festive but offers the possibility of being crushed by crowds of people. If you like more room, consider going earlier in the day, which is not as crowded.

3. Even though dogs are welcome almost everywhere in Germany, rethink bringing Fido along. It can be so packed at these events that he might get trampled. The few times I saw people with their dogs, I saw that they had to carry them. Save your dog the stress.

4. If you're going to bring a child to the market, have a strong game plan. I'm not saying that the markets are unfriendly for children, and it's quite a magical thing to see, but having your young one get crushed in a crowd of people probably won't be super fun. Also, if you have a stroller, you will probably bump into other people or run over their heels, which is also not super fun for the people you're doing it to. If it's an option, consider carrying babies in one of those baby slings. Think about visiting earlier in the day to avoid the crowds, or if there are two adults, have the child walk in the middle so he's a bit safer.

5. Be careful with your valuables! Pickpockets love the crowded atmospheres. Don't leave a wallet in an outside pocket. Ladies, keep a firm hold on your purse.

6. Learn about the regional culinary specialties and if they sound interesting, be sure to sample them! Not all Christmas markets have the same things (though things like glühwein and beer are quite common!). I learned this after I ate some delicious quarkbällchen in Dresden but didn't see any more in my travels on the west side of the country (though that's okay - I don't need to eat that much fried food anyway).

7. Carry local currency (but of course keep it hidden from pickpockets). Many vendors don't accept credit cards.

8. If you want to drink glühwein (traditional hot spiced wine common at the Christmas markets), try out the "bio" (organic) or the öko­lo­gisch (wines grown in an environmentally-friendly manner) versions, as well as those sold by the wine growers themselves. I found that they taste so much better than the regular version.

9. Have a plan for what happens if the group gets separated, such as where to meet. If bringing a child, be sure to tell him what to do if he should get lost.

10. If you are concerned about buying genuine, handcrafted souvenirs, ask where the products were made. For example, not all traditional German decorations (such as  Räuchermänner or Christmas pyramids) are made in Germany; some might have been made in China.

Dresden Christmas Market deliciousness: quarkbällchen

Since the end of November/beginning of December, Germany has been a Christmas wonderland. I'm not referring to snow as we really haven't received much of that yet (and I totally okay with that). The cause of the wonder is that the Christmas markets have been in full swing.

There are many traditional crafts to buy and delicious snacks to eat. In Dresden, I found something fabulous: quarkbällchen (little quark balls). They are soft and fluffy doughnut holes that have quark (pure deliciousness, a type of cheese used in similar ways for cooking in which cream cheese and ricotta cheese are used) in the middle. It's not so much that the quark is a filling; it is more like part of the batter. Either way, it's completely delicious. I ate one, since I usually don't eat fried food. However, I could see a person wanting to eat way more than that!

Thus far, I have only seen these at the Dresden Christmas market. I haven't seen any in the markets I've visited in the western part of Germany. I recommend trying some if they're available.

This guy is really happy about serving Grandma's quarkbällchen!

Willie der Weinachts-Stollen

Hoo-ee, am I ever behind on blogging! Yep, that's story of this blog's life.

Anyway, two weeks ago, a friend and I traveled to Dresden to visit the Christmas markets there. We saw advertisements for Willie der Weinachts-Stollen (Willie the Christmas Stollen [sweetbread/cakey thing]). I thought he looks more like a potato, but was amused nonetheless.

Apparently Willie is the star of Comedy Dresden's play about a Christmas stollen who was forgotten and had to make his adventurous way to the Strietzelmarkt (at least that's what Google Translate and my own basic German skills led me to believe what the website's description said).

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Germany, just don't do this

In the Deutsche Bahn magazine, I saw an ad for German sandals.

There was a special where the customer would get a free pair of socks with the sandals, and it was illustrated by a person's foot, wearing socks WITH the sandals.

JUST SAY NO to socks with sandals!


It looks super dorky and is ridiculous. Here is my guide to wearing sandals: if it's hot out, wear them. If it's cold enough that one must also wear socks, it means that one needs to wear shoes. And, oh my goodness, if you wear KNEE SOCKS with sandals, I swear that I will faint in agony.

*Germans are not the only ones guilty of doing this. Engineers in America have an alarming propensity toward this.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Oh no he didn't!

My mom sent me this hilarious story about my nephew. I will call him N, for nephew, in this story she wrote about him. My mom is "Gma," since she is his grandma. Here is her story...

My son and his wife dropped off N at my house so I could babysit N. They had fed him so he was all set in the dinner department.  We were having supper and this is what happened next.

N came running into the dining room, bare bottomed, carrying his diaper.

Gma: N, what are you doing?  Why is your diaper off??

N: I went poop!  (I will call it #2 from now on)

Gma:  What? !, You went #2? GIMME THAT DIAPER!!!!!

I quickly took the diaper away from him thinking there was a load in it.

Gma: There's no #2 in this diaper!!  Where is it!!??

N: It's on your rug! (big smile)

I jump up and  look  in the living room but see nothing.

Gma:  There's no #2 in here! (whew)

N:  Look here, Gma, it's behind your chair. (BIG smile)

Gma:  N, what did you do?  That's not where you go potty!!  Come on, let's get another diaper on you.

I take him to the bedroom and start to clean him up.

Gma:  Oh N!  Why is there #2 on your feet??

N:  I moved my poop with my feet!  (grin)

Gma:  Sigh......

So, after a nice shower, PJ's, and a story before bed, AND rug cleanup, things returned to normal.  The End.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Santa just couldn't be bothered

My friend sent me these pictures from the Kaiserslautern Weinachtsmarkt. We both found them hilarious.

Off with his head, then replace it with a piece of paper! And, what's with Santa's black mustache?

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

I found out who the big bird is!

I did a bit of research (aka guessing, via Google) and found out that the Elwetritsch wandering around Kaiserslautern is actually the mascot of an electric company. There is some sort of promotion going on that if one spots her and (I believe) sends a picture of a good place for her to hide, there is a possibility of winning a car. At least that's what I understood by quickly perusing the company's website. It's something along those lines.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Saw this guy in Dresden

Cute cute cute!

He was on a humongous advent calendar on the side of a Weinachtstmarkt hut.

Monday, December 9, 2013

There are mythical Pfälzisch creatures about!

When I was walking around downtown Kaiserslautern, I saw a lady leading an elwetritsch around!

What is an elwetritsch, you ask? Well, it's a mythical bird known to the Pfälzisch region of Germany. It's like the Pfälzisch version of a snipe, I would assume. It's so famous that Neustadt has a fountain with quite a few of them in it (and I have pictures and more to say about that, but that's a whole other blog entry).

The interesting thing about the elwetritsch I saw was that its human leading it around was soliciting signatures for something. I was super curious about the whole situation but I still felt like an interloper because my German isn't good enough yet to ask about it. So, I just watched from a distance and took some pictures of the mysterious beast.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Stop in the name of kale!

I found a place to buy kale that is cheaper than the farmers' market downtown. There, kale is 5,99 euros a kilogram, which is rather expensive. I didn't buy any at the farmers' market during my shopping trip.

However, I later passed a Turkish produce store and the kale was only 1,99 euros a kilogram so I couldn't pass it up. I also couldn't pass up some couscous, either. I bought a huge bunch of kale and laughed with the store clerk as I tried to shove it in my bag and it stuck out.

On my way home, a German lady stopped me and asked me (in German, of course) where I bought the kale. I answered in horrible German but as she asked me more questions I got stuck. She then asked me more in English. Phew! I told her it was only 1,99 a kilogram and that it's much more in the farmers' market. She said that's why she stopped me, because she was looking for a better price. We both had a smile over our love of kale. It's the first time I've been stopped in the street over it!

Here's a picture of it, spilling out of the bag. I must have looked quite silly, schlepping the bag around with it poking out and being a walking billboard of sorts for the produce store.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Kulturmarkt vor Weihnachten: Christmas Craftsmarket in Kaiserslautern

In addition to the Weinachtsmarkt (Christmas market) in downtown Kaiserslautern, the Fructhalle, a concert hall also downtown, is hosting a market. Its German name is Kulturmarkt vor Weihnachten in der Fruchthalle.

It's basically an arts and crafts market. I stopped by last weekend and perused the fine art (i.e painting and sculpture) as well as ceramics, knitted items, jewelry, Christmas decorations, etc. Everything was quite nice and handmade. I picked up a ceramic soap dish for eight euros.

In addition to the arts and crafts, there is food for sale. I didn't sample anything, but saw freshly made waffles, desserts, and soups for sale.

The Fructhalle is located right across from the tourists' information office downtown. The market is open from 25 November until 22 December and is open daily from 12 p.m. - 7 p.m. On 12-13 December it is open until 8 p.m. There is no admission charge.

Friday, December 6, 2013

How NOT to eat a pomegranate

Here's a very helpful video on how to deseed a pomegranate the easy way.

Since I often screw up the simple things in life, let me share a cautionary tale on how I learned what is NOT the proper way to eat a pomegranate.

1. First of all, know your Greek mythology. Remember Persephone, who was stuck in the underworld for 3 months of the year (winter) because Hades convinced her to eat pomegranate seeds? That is a helpful hint. Don't be an idiot like I was the first time and attempt to eat the fleshy part inside the pomegranate and throw away the seeds. The seeds are your friends; the fleshy part is not. It's horrible and bitter.

2. The youtube video above is really helpful for removing the seeds. Cut the pomegranate in half lengthwise and whack the pomegranate like it's part of a 50 Shades of Grey novel. The seeds will fall out. It's even better when they fall out into a pan that you had the foresight to put down ahead of time.

3. There is a caveat to step 2 though. If trying this at work, be careful when pulling the pomegranate apart as seeds and juice might fly out unexpectedly and make a horrible mess of the break room, leaving the person shocked and holding half a pomegranate but being extremely grateful that none got all over the white work trousers. I'm sure a slow motion video of this, and the look of shock on the victim's face, would have been hilarious. Cleaning up the mess was not hilarious.

4. Pomegranate seeds are quite delicious when one is able to survive eating the correct part of the fruit and deseeding it.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Restaurant Review: Metaxa, Ramstein-Miesenbach

Am Lanzenbusch 1
66877 Ramstein-Miesenbach

A small group of us stopped by a Greek restaurant for a pleasant dinner in Ramstein. I had read other favorable reviews and suggested the restaurant.

The restaurant itself is an interesting cinder block construction painted a light peach (aka pink, my least favorite color). Even so, the owners made it as cozy as possible with decorations and loads of houseplants. I felt as if I were visiting my cottage, which is also a cinder block construction, just without the musty cottage smell. That brings happy memories, strangely enough. Well, the musty smell at the cottage doesn't but at least the restaurant wasn't like that!

Anyway, we enjoyed a pleasant dinner. I ordered the appetizer plate (without meat) for 12 euros. First I was brought a bowl of soup, which seemed to be a chicken and noodle broth. It was salty but tasted good.

Then I was brought a salad. It did have what is typical in Germany: a ton of salad dressing (I prefer a very light coating). This dressing was the kind with a yogurt base that has a slightly bitter herb. The salad seemed kind of coleslaw-y as it had cabbage in it. 

My appetizer plate had these delicious fried eggplant things. They had a coating with herbs and various other deliciousness. The goat's cheese and the sheep's cheese spread were good as were the rice-filled grape leaves. One of the things on the menu was called "gigantes," which turned out to be large white beans. They were okay but in a weird twist of fate, I was a bit weirded out because they were served cold. I'm not sure where that came from but I think I would have enjoyed them better if they were room temperature.

My dining partners both ordered these, for lack of a better term, "meat packets." In other words, I forgot to write down the names of them. It was basically ground meat with a filling of goat cheese inside. My friends said they tasted quite good.

After dinner, our friendly server gave each of us a shot of ouzo and told us how to say cheers ("geia mas") and we finished the meal with some Greek liquid fire.

Though the ambiance of this restaurant is a bit skewed with cinder block walls, the owners have tried to create a cozy restaurant. With friendly servers and a bit of touristy fun, diners can enjoy a tasty meal.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Even dogs love the biomarkt!

Biomarkt = store with organic foods; often a health food store

In the past, I've written about "parking" dogs outside of stores. It's not uncommon for Germans to bring their dogs with them all over the place, and it's also common that many places allow dogs. However, supermarkets often don't, probably for hygienic reasons.

When we were visiting Heidelberg, we walked by a biomarkt and saw these patient guys waiting for their owners to return.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Restaurant Review: Pancho Villa, Ramstein

Restaurant Pancho Villa
Miesenbacher Straße 45 | 66877 Ramstein

I should just call this place Cantina Mexicana #2, or vice versa, I think. This restaurant is owned by the same folks who own that restaurant so the food and the set-up is quite similar. There are some differences and I think maybe the menu might be slightly different, but it's the same general feel.

Here is my review of Cantina Mexicana. I'm not going to go into huge detail about Pancho Villa since it's so similar. However, here are few details: they accept payment in the form of credit cards, euros, and dollars. It always blows my mind that Americans will even ask if places in Europe take dollars -- dude, it's Europe; get some euros for goodness sake! but this place does take dollars if one just can't bother to assimilate.

The restaurant is located on the edge of Ramstein and has a large (dirt with some puddles) free parking lot.

I had lunch there on a Sunday and ordered a chorizo burrito (that's the part of me that's not mostly vegetarian). It was good and somewhat in line with what's served in Mexican restaurants in the US. I also ordered an enchilada. The cheese they use is a bit strange, but it's not bad either.

My server actually made eye contact with/and or checked all of her tables to see if customers needed anything as she walked through so I was super impressed by that. It's funny because it's a standard thing to do in the US but I haven't found it to be the case in Germany. One almost has to hunt down her server most of the time.

I also had a delicious, large, and free glass of ice water. *swoon* It's the little things, y'know?

Anyway, it's not spot-on for the Mexican food that Americans are accustomed to but it's tasty and the service is good.

Monday, December 2, 2013

All Thanksgivinged out

After two lovely Thanksgiving celebrations with friends (one on Thursday and one on Saturday) I am now done celebrating Thanksgiving here in Germany. The last pie tin has been washed and the extra brussels sprouts that I didn't need for the festivities have been cooked and will be lunch at work this week.

The celebration on Saturday was with a different group of friends, this time in town with an easy walk to get there. Ten people crammed around my friend's newly bought IKEA table. This time it was mostly Germans but there were also people from India, France, Israel and Indonesia. That's what I really enjoy about group; everyone is so diverse, with a different story to tell. I grew up in a very homogenous area with little diversity so it's nice to spend time with people from all over the world.

I brought some Stovetop stuffing as well as some leftover pumpkin pie from the other dinner. My fellow diners were completely sad that there was no apple pie left. I guess I'll have to make it again so I can get more practice.

After dinner, we played Apples to Apples, which is essentially a word game. Having been given my game in the US, it is the American edition.  Ha ha. Apparently not all things are universal, it seems. Some bits of hilarity ensued. Some things even I, as a native American (but not a Native one!), can't even explain. Some cards that I played and were hilarious to me got turned down. That's one of the very small drawbacks of not sharing a cultural heritage, I suppose.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

That's it! I'm done

I decided to do NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, for November. It's a month of writing something every day. I completed the challenge and here it's December 1 so I can stop. I was so awesome that I actually wrote seven extra entries (sorry, for anyone who actually tries to read everything I write here, if such a person exists).

Anyway, that was fun enough. I'll admit that I'm a bit disappointed that apparently such events happen every month so it's not like November is particularly special for blog posting, but I wanted to support my friends who do NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. Anyway, that was fun stuff. Now back to planning some upcoming trips in December with friends and family!

Uncle Paul's Delicious Pie Crust Recipe

As I was growing up, I watched my Mom do all kinds of domestic things, like cleaning, cooking, and sewing. From her, I learned the cleaning part, mostly because I was forced to take part in it (oh, the humanity! ;)  I'm thankful, though, because I know how to clean things really well and how to be picky about cleaning. Such knowledge does not mean that my apartment is spotless; it just means that I know how to make it spotless.

Unfortunately, the cleaning part is the only thing I learned super well from her. I did a little with baking and can sometimes make passable baked goods but I pretty much missed out on the sewing bit. As strong, educated, professional woman, I originally thought I didn't need domestic skills. After all, I'm too busy with my career!

However, now I wish I had paid more attention. I think that there is much to be said for someone who is like a Renaissance (wo)man: to be educated but also to have a wide range of other skills, too. I'd love to be able to sew totally awesome clothes for myself (mostly because clothes to wear when going out dancing or something never have pockets and I'd like to make something that does!). I'd also like to make awesome gourmet dishes to impress friends. I wish I knew how to make great cocktails and how to serve tea properly. Oh yeah, I wish I were also better at accounting, computer programming, and foreign languages.

Anyway, I promised my friend that I would make a pumpkin and apple pie for our expat Thanksgiving dinner. These would only be the second and third pies I've ever made so I was a bit nervous. However, I knew that at least the crust would be delicious because I was using my Uncle Paul's recipe. He makes his family's pies every year with this light and flaky crust. When my Mom doesn't use this recipe and instead makes a Dutch crumble top for her pies, I always get a serious case of the pouty face because Uncle Paul's pie crust is just that good (and I also dislike the crumble topping).

Anyway, here is the recipe that is helping to propel me toward being more domestic and can help you too:

Uncle Paul's Pie Crust
1 and 1/2  cup flour
2 - 3 Tbs. sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
-Mix, then add:
1/2 cup canola oil
3 - 4 Tbs. milk
Mix and roll out very thinly between two sheets of either wax paper or Saran Wrap. Don't handle it too much - the cooler it stays, the better. Press into pie pan.
Make your pie the usual way. Cover the edges of the pie with tinfoil to prevent them from getting burned.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

An expat Thanksgiving...times two

For Americans, Thanksgiving is a time to spend with those who are special and to be thankful, of course. Thanksgiving is a truly American holiday and besides Christmas, it's when most* US stores and businesses are closed so people can spend time with family and friends.

This is the second time in my life when I've been thousands of miles away from my family for Thanksgiving. The first time, I was a student in a suburb of London (England). I spent the evening with two of my friends, who also happened to be American. We took the train to London and ate dinner at Cheers (yes, it's based on the show!). As we walked through the park and to Buckingham Palace after dinner, I called my family to wish them a happy holiday. It was a neat experience.

That was thirteen years ago. I now live in Germany and faced another Thanksgiving far from my hometown. It was not a lonely Thanksgiving, though; thanks to the connection that expats feel and to my friend's kindness, a bunch of us gathered at her place for a lovely meal on Thursday evening. We had a late dinner since only the two Americans had the day off. It was to be quite an international event, with Americans (just two of us), friends originally from the UK (the largest group there, strangely enough, and I teased them that we had this holiday because the Pilgrims had been trying to get away from their forefathers), a Romanian, and some Germans. It was really fun to share our holiday with them.

In the wonderful way that merging social circles goes, my friends from town were also invited along. My two groups of friends met through a party at my place and then at subsequent events.  We left for Heidelberg a bit early and dropped off the pies that I made (more to follow about them in a future entry!) and some of ingredients for the other dishes I was going to prepare. Then, we headed to downtown Heidelberg to take a peek at the Christmas market. It hadn't officially opened yet but the booths were open, regardless. It was very pleasant to wander through them and not have to fight crowds.

Since it was going to be a few hours yet before dinner and I hadn't eaten much all day, I grabbed an ice cream cone from Gelato Go. It was quite cold out so it makes total sense to eat something even colder, huh? I don't always make the wisest choices in this regard but I didn't care because the ice cream was delicious! I ordered a scoop of marizpan (I think) and a scoop of Spekulatius, which had bits of chopped cookie of the same name. I forgot how huge the scoops of ice cream are there so I had quite a bit to eat! Some people complain about the price for the ice cream (mine was 2,20 euro for the two scoops) but I don't think that the prices are bad considering how much they give per scoop and that their offerings are organic. There are even vegan offerings!

We walked around a bit more and I did some scouting for the upcoming trip that I'll be taking there with my cousins, who will be visiting from the US in December. It was then time to head back for the dinner.

In addition to the pies I made, I prepared green bean casserole (which I personally detest, but it's such a typical dish that I felt that I needed to make it or else I'd be denying my Midwestern roots). I also made a dish of seared brussels sprouts with gorgonzola, pecans, and cranberries from this recipe. If I were to do it over, I'd probably bake or steam the sprouts first, then sear them in a pan, adding the cranberries almost at the end. I felt that they were slightly bitter since they didn't cook as much. The cranberries split open so that's why I'd add them later. It was a tasty dish, nonetheless, and I wouldn't mind adding it to my painfully slowly expanding repertoire of things I cook for events.

This was our hostess's first time cooking a turkey. She made a gourmet turkey, taking the time to prepare it in a brine. I don't usually eat meat, myself, but I took a small bite and it was quite nice, flavorful and moist. The meat eaters raved about it.

As we sat down to eat, I told the guests that we had to do our very special and typical American Thanksgiving ritual: a special prayer, okay even for the nonbelievers. We even taught the guests the super important hand gestures too. It went as follows: rub a dub dub (rubbing one's belly); thanks for the grub (holding hand out); yea god (doing jazz hands). I wish I could have had a video of this.

We then commenced to eat way too much and it was entirely delicious! Our hostess made a wonderful meal, pulling out all the stops with homemade cranberry relish, cornmeal stuffing, mashed potatoes with bacon (for which I will always make an amendment to my usual disinterest in eating meat), homemade cornbread muffins with bacon and sundried tomatoes, a lovely salad, my side dishes, and for dessert, a cheesecake she made and my pies (pumpkin and apple).

The company was lovely and the food delicious. My friends commented that they didn't that they have ever been so full before! Just before midnight, the three of us who live in Kaiserslautern waddled back to the train station to go home. I was in bed by 2 a.m. It's funny because the last time I celebrated Thanksgiving abroad, I was out really late too. In the US, I'm usually in bed by 10 p.m. after Thanksgiving festivities, probably because of the food coma.

The fun doesn't stop here, though. Another friend invited me to his Thanksgiving celebration, which will be today. Most of the other guests are Germans so it made sense to have it on a day that they wouldn't be working or in school. I purposefully didn't eat much on Friday because I needed a break in between two days of feasts. I must say, though, that I feel lucky to have such great company :)

*too bad it's not all of them! This is an example of where the US can really take an example from the Germans and allow everyone to celebrate holidays with their families instead serving corporate greed.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Getting it WRONG: street buskers and regalia

Germany has had a fascination with American Indians for quite some time, especially after German author Karl May wrote stories at the turn of the 19th century about Winnetou (a fictional character) and the American West.

It's not surprising, then, to see some street buskers dressed in what is supposed to be American Indian clothing. However, it is a strange juxtaposition as the performers, who are not American Indian, wear cheap knock-off costumes meant to look like ceremonial regalia. This is rather disrespectful to the American Indian culture, to create a cheap knock-off of special dress that has spiritual importance. The music is not accurate, either.

We saw a group in Heidelberg doing this. It especially bothers my friend. I hadn't really thought about it much before; I tend to ignore buskers. However, I see her point.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Three things that no man needs

The sign below was hanging in a store. I understood most of it, except for the last word, when I first read it (and was quite pleased with myself). The last word is idiomatic so I don't feel so bad about that.

Three things that no man needs: dish brush, toilet brush, and a prickly character [the word also means a wire brush].

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Some More Art Learnin': Symbolism

Symbolism began as a literature movement in France in the 1880s and the art movement soon followed.  Jean Moréas’s manifesto, published in the Le Figaro art supplement in 1886, helped to inaugurate the name “Symbolism” for the movement (Myers). It was a reaction against Realism’s triviality, the crudeness of materialism and “the conventional mores of industrial and middle class society” (Kleiner 819). 

Symbolist artists sought to move beyond the superficial surface of things and find a deeper reality. They painted a fantastical and imaginative world where the artist’s subjective experience, including emotions and ideas, was paramount. Artists incorporated “…exotic, mysterious, visionary, dreamlike, and fantastic” elements into their paintings (Kleiner 819). 

Even before the term “Symbolism” was used, artists such as Pierre Puvis de Chavennes, Gustave Moreau, and Odilon Redon initiated works with elements in the style. Pierre Puvis de Chavannes did not call himself a Symbolist, but Symbolists considered this French artist the “prophet” for the movement (Kleiner 819). In his painting, Sacred Grove, Puvis painted “statuesque figures in timeless poses” in a “tranquil landscape with a classical shrine” (Kleiner 829). With the unnatural stillness in the scene and shallow modeling of the figures, this painting is the antithesis of Realism. Puvis appealed both to the French Academy and the government with his classicism, as well to the Symbolists because he moved beyond the current, material world and looked into an imaginary world (Kleiner 820). 

Gustave Moreau was another contributor to the Symbolist movement. His 1874 painting, The Apparition, shows the Biblical character and femme fatale Salome dancing before her stepfather Herod. She desires the head of St. John the Baptist. To drive home this point, the head, in a hallucinatory manner, floats above her, staring. Moreau’s style is very original, with a “combination of hallucinatory imagery, eroticism, precise drawing, rich color, and opulent setting” (Kleiner 820).  His works are a precursor to the paintings of the Surrealists in the 20th century.

A third Symbolist was Odilon Redon. His painting, The Cyclops, shows Polyphemus rising from the sleeping Galatea. With Impressionist techniques, such as the same color palette and stippling brushstrokes, Redon painted a fantastical image about a dream that could have come from a dream itself (Kleiner 820). Redon rendered imagination as an image, which was very groundbreaking at the time.

Works Cited
Kleiner, Fred S. Gardner’s Art through the Ages: a Global History. Vol. 2. 14th ed. [Australia]: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2013. 

Myers, Nicole. "Symbolism". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/symb/hd_symb.htm (August 2007)


Also, here is my disclaimer: the following is copyright 2013 by Around the Wherever. Do not reproduce in any way (especially if you're writing a paper for a class; don't be academically dishonest and copy this in any form).