Friday, January 31, 2014

This semester

I think the title sums up what's going on my life right now: school.

Well, I mean, work, being sick, and hanging out with friends have all occurred since the new year, too, but when I'm not doing that, school is on my mind. Heck, it's sometimes on my mind then, too!

I have German class again this semester. After this, I only have two more classes and I'll have an associate's degree in German. Our instructor for the class is the same one from last semester and half the classmates are from last semester's class. The other half were people I didn't know, except for a guy from the Berlin class I had in the summer; seeing him was a nice surprise.

Anyway, this class is a riot again. We tease each other, laugh, and learn. Our instructor still talks a hundred miles a minute but I'm used to her now so it's not so daunting and her perky, cheerful personality is always a good way to welcome the class. I don't take as many notes as I'd like but I'm definitely learning a ton.

We even had a session that I would call "Talk to a Real Live German." A German colleague of one of the students came to visit and we had to ask him questions using our new vocabulary, which was talking about traveling. He pretended to be the hotel clerk. One student asked him if there was an ice machine. The rest of us hooted with laughter. I asked the student, "did you just arrive in country? They don't do ice here."

I have to say that this is definitely the most difficult semester we've all had so far in German. It would make sense, considering that it's the third of four classes and it has a lot of complicated things to fit in. Our brains have been stretched to the breaking point after cramming in all the new vocab and the complicated grammatical constructions like subordinating conjunctions and the genitive case (I'm having more problems with the former).

I think that last night in class we went through similar emotions as those laid out in Kübler-Ross model of stages of grief; there was definitely denial, anger, bargaining, and depression. The only stage that we were missing was the last one, acceptance. One of our classmates had brought a giant bag of candy and as we worked through the grammar, that bag got passed along quickly for people to grab candy, making me think of nervous people chain-smoking.

I'm sure we find acceptance one day.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Roadside Candy Machines: Speyer

I saw this rather prison-ish looking roadside candy machine in Speyer earlier this year. I thought it was a bit of a buzzkill because it was difficult to see the treats inside because of the bars on it. Candy should be free! Set it freeeeeeeeee! Well, I mean, pay 50 cents for it or whatever, but don't put bars over the candy, man.

I did like this sticker on it: "Feed me. I'm famous."

Monday, January 27, 2014

December's Adventure: Day 8, Liège

On to day 8, which was the last day of the big trip with my cousins in December.

We had driven to Liège, Belgium the night before and stayed at a horrible hotel. Let's just say that the pictures made it look much nicer than it was and I didn't read reviews far enough back. We were happy to leave it in the morning and head downtown.

There were several nice Christmas markets throughout downtown so we wandered the city, stopping by stores and churches as we went. My cousins found another small winery that was selling its own homemade vin chaud and agreed that my hypothesis that vin chaud/glühwein that is homemade and/or organic tastes so much better than what most other booths sell.

I had picked up a Use-It Guide for the city and it recommended a hike up to the Coteaux de la Citadelle, which overlooks the city. We had some difficulty finding it since the stairs are set back a way, but we finally were on track and schlepping up tons of stairs. The view at the top was quite amazing! We found another set of stairs and those were quite steep as well.

Oh, look! A hill! We walked up and down this.
 These are the stairs we took. They were plentiful!

These were an option to get up/down the hill too. No thanks!

We trekked back down the hill, found some dinner, then decided to call it a day. Getting out of town was frustrating; I didn't take my own advice to park outside of the main part of downtown so it took 20 minutes just to drive several miles. Once we hit the highway, it was smooth sailing to drop my cousins off in Frankfurt to fly home.

It was a great trip! We ate delicious things, shared many laughs, saw artistic and historic sights, put 1,000 miles on my car, and walked our buns off in the cities. I'm so glad that my cousins were able to come out and visit.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

December's Adventure: Day 7, Part 2: Brussels

If I had to sum up the apparent theme of Brussels, I would use this word: peeing. No, it's not that I've seen people relieving themselves in inappropriate places. Instead, it is the Belgian city's odd fascination with sculptures of mammals relieving themselves that has made an impression on me.

The oldest, of course, is Manneken Pis, the statue of the small peeing boy put in place in the early 17th century. In 1987, Manneken got a little sister named Jeanneke-Pis, who also is relieving herself at Impasse de la Fidélité 10 (across from Delirium Cafe, for those who want to drink some beers and get the feeling she's having). She was dressed up for Christmas in a festive outfit as she squatted.

To complete the happy little family of children relieving themselves, in 1998 the city added their pet dog, Zinneke Pis, at Rue de Chartreux 31H.

In addition to the awkward sculptures, we saw the city's interesting emblem on trash cans: St. Michael is trampling the devil.

We then saw the city's Official Santa Transport mammal. Okay, maybe it's not official, but it's a restaurant's take on holiday decoration. I think it was some sort of...topiary (?) wrapped up with fabric and then Santa was given a leg up to ride the odd beast. There were Christmas lights, so it was very...festive.

Things that make me say "hmm..."

Thursday, January 23, 2014

December's Adventure: Day 7, Brussels

We enjoyed a pleasant night at our Brussels hotel and woke up refreshed on Friday morning. On our way downtown we stopped at the Carrefour grocery store two blocks from our hotel. To save money on my trips, I like to buy my drinks (if not filling up from the hotel tap) and some things to eat at the grocery store. Plus it's a great way to try out food that the locals eat daily! I was happy to find a couscous for breakfast, which was a slightly more healthful option than the various Christmas market foods I'd eaten. After some basic French by my cousins and some pantomiming by me, we convinced the helpful store clerk to give me a plastic spoon so I could eat the couscous.

Our first official stop was the City Museum of Brussels, or the Maison du Roi, on the site of the previous bread market hall located in the Grand Place. It covers the history of Brussels, including its art, architecture, design, culture, of all, Manneken Pis! There is a silly and cute documentary about the little statue. My favorite quote from the documentary is people, in many different languages, saying, "he is so small! I thought he'd be bigger." At two feet tall, he definitely not the towering "personality" that one would assume for a sculpture who has become the unofficial mascot of the city. In addition to the documentary, visitors can see many of M.P's costumes from different countries. There is even a computer where one can view a catalog of the costumes with more information.

I enjoyed the museum and would suggest if for those curious to learn more about the history of Brussels. The city itself has an interesting history and has been subject to many architectural changes. Also, it's fun to see the costumes of a "world famous" little peeing dude.

I did sit for a bit at the museum. After a week of extensive travel and walking at least 10 miles a day, my feet, even clad in my expensive and comfortable Christmas gift boots, were quite sore. We didn't take any public transport in the towns we visited after dumping the car; it was all walking. I love walking but after about 60 miles of it up to that point, my feet were saying they wanted a rest.

I was able to rouse myself for more sights and walking. Using the super handy and free Use-It Guide for Brussels, I had identified some things I'd like to see, do, and eat. My cousins very kindly obliged.

On the way we saw some interesting sights not on the list. For example, we found a small Christmas market tucked into a square. My cousins enjoyed some macaroons while I oohed and ahhed over a steampunk carousel. As vintage as it looked, it was built in 1999. How cool is it though? Many of the seats did interesting things, like the Pegasus that "flew." Here is an article about this magical contraption and its builders.

My cousins wanted to eat some more delicious quiches from a vendor they had found the night before in Place Sainte-Catherine, a nearby square. As they ordered, I stopped by the Brussels Use-It Guide location, also in the square. This was the first time that I actually went in-person to a Use-It office; normally I just print the guides from the internet. The office in Brussels is really neat; there is free wifi, friendly locals to meet, and free Use-It Guides, including other cities. I stopped by and told the volunteers how awesome I think that the guides are. And, just to be clear, I don't get anything other than the pleasure of recommending a good, free guide out of this :) I'm super impressed with the guides and the quality, non-commerical information written by locals. The volunteers at the office were pleased by my input and even offered me some guides that weren't on the general racks. As I left the office and looked at the Brussels guide, I realized that some of the people I talked to were pictured on the guide itself. It was a fun experience and great to meet some of the folks who made the guide happen.

One stop from the Brussels guide that I felt was a must-eat location was the Comus et Gasteria ice cream shop at Quai aux Briques 86 (in St. Catherine's Square). Oh. My. Goodness. That ice cream was divine! I ordered the salted caramel that the guide recommended. I also ordered lavender ice cream. It was fragrant and delicious. The guy who ran the place was a bit grumpy but I didn't even care. The artesian ice cream was fabulous. Ignore the proprietor's surly demeanor and make a trip there.

I decided to follow dessert with a lunch/dinner from the Christmas market at the square. I chose "poylee savoyarde," which looked similar to German  käsespätzle. I'm not sure if the blobs in it were potatoes or egg noodle* based like the German version, but the cheesy dish was was delicious.

This entry is getting long so I'll finish up the details of our Brussels day in another post.

*hehe. I'm getting quite Germanified here because when I first type the word "noodle," I wrote it with the German spelling. I'm finding myself doing that sometimes with other words too.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Being sick: be careful what you wish for!

Monday was a day off for us since it was MLK Day. I originally wanted to take a 3-day weekend trip but my normal travel companions were either sick or unavailable and I wasn't feeling a lot of motivation to do anything. Instead, I made a doctor's appointment to get a refill of medication. In the back of my mind, I was thinking, "gee, it's a shame to make an appointment for just this instead of doing the routine stuff when I'm there because I'm sick so I can only have one doctor's bill." It's expensive to go to the doctor as an expat (heck, it's expensive in the US, too), even though I have insurance (and I'm grateful for it, but's expensive). I like to get as much done at the doctor's at one time since I'm there about 2-3 times a year (darn sinus infections).

It's eerie how many times I've thought about how it would be interesting if things went this way or that...and then it actually happens! I understand coincidence and all, but sometimes the synchronicity is there, methinks. I made the doctor's appointment last week when I felt perfectly fine. By the time I went to the office on Monday, my ears felt stuffed up and I was feeling slightly feverish. It turns out I was sick, after all, with the  dreaded sinus infection. Even though it was early in the sickness, the physician's assistant I see gave me antibiotics. My sinus infections work like clockwork and by the next morning I had a raging fever and could barely get out of bed. So, the doctor's appointment and staying home this weekend ended up being very fortuitous.

To add to my "fun" recovery from my sick adventure, I sneezed and threw my back out. Thankfully, I had some pain pills to take. However, I knew that it would take a long time to get better because of back spasms making everything worse. I had a painful night of sleep where I could barely turn over (even with painkillers) so as soon as I woke up, I made another doctor's appointment. I've had a faster recovery in the past by getting a muscle relaxer and steroids shot and the physician's assistant concurred that it would be a good idea.

The shots had me walking around a bit better. I still hurt but at least it's not excruciating any more. The only goofy thing is that where I got the shot in my arm was swollen and looked as if I had a muscle on top of a muscle. Apparently they had to inject a lot of the fluid there. It's gone down now. I'm just thankful that I can get up to fetch a glass of water and walk much better. It's back to work tomorrow for me. I'm not super excited about that as I'm still feeling not so great, but I've been gone for two days and need to go back.

Monday, January 20, 2014

December's Adventure: Day 6 Continued, Brussels

We left Valkenburg in the Netherlands on Thursday evening and drove to Brussels in Belgium. I purposefully arranged the schedule so we would arrive past rush hour; in this case, it was 7 p.m. However, it was still a mess with congestion and driving lanes that would converge with no warning then spread out again. The government in Brussels is actually considering closing down parts of the city to auto traffic because of congestion problems. It's recommended to take public transportation in Brussels and not drive, for sure!

We finally found our hotel and dumped the car at the underground parking at the hotel across the street. The parking was 23 euros per day, which seemed a bit steep after being in the other cities, but I was feeling so tired and frazzled by that time that I just wanted to be rid of the car so it was worth the convenience.

We checked in at the Hotel Villa Royale (more detailed review to follow, at some point). It was freshly decorated with small but comfortable rooms. Since it was still somewhat early, we headed out to the main part of downtown, the Grand Place. It took us about 20 minutes to walk downtown. Once we arrived at Grand Place, we enjoyed the Christmas light and music show. It's quite pretty.

Our next stop was to buy some chocolates. I've been to Brussels before so I suggested my favorite store: Corné Port-Royal. We each bought some delicious chocolates and enjoyed the rich, fresh taste, as good as I remembered it from my visit in 2008. The other wonderful thing about the store is where it is located, in the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, a beautiful 19th century shopping arcade.

We then went to visit Brussels's famous statue: Manneken Pis (literally "Little Man Pee). There are so many legends surrounding this small statue who is also a fountain, but the residents mostly love him (or roll their eyes). The funny thing is that the statue is quite small at about two feet tall. He was naked when we saw him but he does have a huge collection of fancy costumes to wear and even a city employee to dress him. To find him, instructs the curious to find him at "...Rue de l'Étuve/Stoofstraat and Rue du Chêne/Eikstraat. To find it, one takes the left lane next to the Brussels Town Hall from the famous Grand Place and walks a few hundred metres southwest via Rue Charles Buls/Karel Bulsstraat." Getting tired after our Brussels fun, we walked back to the hotel.
 Delicious chocolates in a gorgeous 19th century shopping arcade? Check!

 Cheesy tourist attraction? Manneken Pis: check.
 My astute cousin D. pointed out this Cactguy after I told her the disconcerting story about the Cactguy I know.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

December's Adventure: Day 6, Valkenburg NL & Brussels

On Thursday morning, we packed up our bags, retrieved my car, and made our way to what I call the "chicken strip" of the Netherlands, a narrow projection of land between Germany and Belgium. Our destination was Valkenburg; we were to visit the Christmas market in the city's caves.

We parked up the hill from the city at the parking lot for the Holland Casino (Cauberg 28, Valkenburg). I think it was about 7 euros to park for the day. The casino is at the top of a very steep hill so it might not be suitable for everyone to walk up and down it to get to town.

We found the Gemeentegrot at the bottom of the hill. It is one of the caves and we bought combo tickets to enter that cave and the second cave, the Fluweelengrot (the Velvet Cave). As we entered, we realized that this is no German Christmas Market. Well, of course, as it was the Netherlands, but...the Christmas markets in the caves were very disappointing. Pretty much everything was cheap quality and most items weren't related to Christmas! I felt as if we had descended into an underground flea market, almost as cheesy as Traders' World is. 

One of the only true Dutch things we saw in the caves was stroopwafel, which are thin, round waffle discs filled with caramel. There was a vendor selling fresh ones so we each had a tasty waffle, hot off the grill.

The other cave, Fluweelengrot, was no better. In fact, it seemed as if most of the vendors were repeated. My cousins said that they were glad to have gone to the beautiful Christmas markets in Germany first; if they had first impressions from the Valkenburg markets, they would have been concerned about the other markets.

I have heard that on the weekends, it's unpleasant in the caves because it gets so crowded that it's hard to move. I have a colleague who said when he was there, police were walking through the crowds, reminding people of pickpockets. I'm glad that it wasn't insanely crowded when we were there because the caves are a little claustrophobic as it is.

Exiting the market, my cousin D said that she had to satisfy a craving she gained from a previous trip to the Netherlands: Dutch soft serve ice cream. She said it is amazing and delicious. I needed no prompting (ice cream is my favorite treat) so we found a snack shop. I was totally amused by the snack shop we visited; it served Asian snacks, Dutch snacks, ice cream, and even döner!

We each had a cone. Oh my goodness, was it ever good! It was so rich and creamy. I don't know what the difference is from regular soft serve; all I can guess is that it has a higher fat content or something. Anyway, I highly suggest getting a vanilla cone for those passing through the Netherlands. 

Walking off the ice cream we ate, we visited more of the town and found very expensive restaurants. After a disappointing and salty dinner of ravioli, I suggested we pack up and make our way to our next destination: Brussels. 

On the way out, we reflected on our visit to Valkenburg. The Christmas markets in the caves are not recommended at all. However, if one were passing through the area, she might want to consider visiting the caves during their regular opening season. There are tours through them, either by foot or by train. The caves were mined by Romans looking for building materials and there is interesting artwork inside.

 This snowman is so embarrassed by the cheap junk for sale in the caves that he's trying to hitchhike out.

Entrance to the  Gemeentegrot.

 This was one of the few booths that had Christmas stuff, and even then, it was cheap Walmart-style stuff.
 It's 007 Santa!
 Somewhat creepy artwork, yes?
 I didn't understand this one. I don't really care if Santa Claus likes hot showers!

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Animals are useful too & weather musings

In our corner of Germany, the weather has been so mild this winter, especially compared to last winter. On my break today I went for a walk with just a fleece sweatshirt on. I enjoyed the blue skies and sparse white clouds in 52 degrees. It is usually so gray and cloudy during the winter that it felt absolutely amazing to soak up some sunlight on Friday. I couldn't stop smiling.

Last year around this time, it was in the 20s or so with some snow. I was still looking for an apartment and walking around in the cold during my search. I didn't have a huge wardrobe with me so I found myself getting quite cold on my walks.

I had this revelation about being cold when I heard of family and friends in the US getting copious amounts of snow around the holidays:

A dog's armpit is the right size to stick one's foot under to keep warm and a cat's armpit is the right size for one's hand. Coincidence? I think not.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

December's Adventure: Day 5, Part 2: Cologne

St. Ursula Church
Ursulaplatz 24

Earlier on day five, we huffed and puffed up and down more than a thousand stairs at the Cologne Cathedral as mentioned in Part 1. That was a beautiful trip to the cathedral. We were then ready to see something unusual: the Golden Chamber (Goldene Kammer in German) at the Basilica of St. Ursula. It's an ossuary filled with decorative arrangements of human bones.

We silently perused the church, taking in the architecture and adornments. However, we didn't see one thing in particular: the ossuary! I turned around and looked toward the main entrance to the church. There were two doors on the side. One was locked and quiet. A woman walked up and opened the other door, which turned out to be the ossuary. For about two euros a piece we were admitted and spent about ten minutes taking in the room. Photography without a flash is allowed so these pictures have an odd hue.

I would say that it's definitely worth a visit to the Golden Chamber. It's very unusual, interesting, and of course, a bit macabre. There is a legend about St. Ursula and the 11,000 or 11 virgins (that's quite a difference!) who died with her during an attack of the Huns. Supposedly those are the bones used to decorate the Golden Chamber. A very bored-sounding gentleman who worked at the Domforum said that the bones were actually from the Roman graveyard that was removed to make way for the current church to be built.

Whether these bones are legendary virgins (11 or 11,000? Gee, maybe the legend got distorted like a game of Telephone!), or just from ancient Romans, it's an interesting visit that encourages some memento mori.

She may just be hiding bones in that belly!
This Mädchen either had brain surgery...or she's hiding bones in her head! Either way, she seems strangely happy.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Seen in Cologne: some McIrony

We saw this in Cologne and laughed:

 A McFit gym is next door to McDonald's.

My cousins asked me if McFits were always placed like that and I laughed even more. Nope, they aren't, per se, but it's a funny juxtoposition.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

How Moo celebrated the new year

I wrote about how I celebrated the New Year but I didn't mention what Moo, my cat, got to do. On NYE, unfortunately, the poor little guy had to celebrate alone since I was in Heidelberg. He stayed in the bathroom/hallway so I'm hoping that the fireworks weren't too loud for him.

When I came home, he greeted me, happy and purring as always. I'm assuming the night wasn't too traumatic. However, I felt kind of guilty, even though he's a cat. To make up for being gone, I gave him wet food as a treat, catnip, hung out with him, and even played his favorite game, feather (basically moving a feather around and letting him pounce on it, which he thinks is the best thing ever).

He was so pleased after all of this that it was ridiculous. It's funny to think of a cat being happy but I swear that if he could smile, he would have.

Monday, January 6, 2014

December's Adventure: Day 5, Cologne

For most of day in Cologne, we spent time at the Dom, or the Cathedral. We took the hour long tour offered at the Dom for seven euros. I highly recommend it; there is so much to learn about the cathedral and with the tour, it is possible to enter the locked area near the altar where the shrine of the three magi stands. Without the tour, one must just look at it through the bars.

Our tour guide, Sandra H., led us around and gave us a lot of interesting information about the Dom. In a small amount of downtime as we were heading to another part of the church, I asked Sandra more about her tours. She is a PhD student writing her thesis on Art History. She works for herself as a tour guide (I understood that to mean that she is a contractor).

He wears his Dom on his sleeve...or maybe on his tunic!

I used to find history class boring in school but now it has come alive as I'm seeing the actual sights and learning about how everything fits together (i.e. the Hohenzollerns, Hapsburgs, Burgandy dynasty, etc.). I was especially thrilled to find out that "our" (i.e. Kaiserslautern's) Friedrich Barbarossa has ties to the Dom. He is the one who took the relics of the three magi from Milan to Cologne. Oops, maybe that is not something to be proud of?  Regardless, I always get excited when I hear about Ol' Redbeard since he is kind of a big deal in Kaiserslautern.

After the insightful tour, we were invited to see a video about the Dom, included in the cost of the tour. It is across the Dom's plaza in the Domforum. I was hoping for additional information about the Dom but it was mostly a photo montage with some goofy narration. It's not a must-see.

The real trial of our day awaited us: we returned to the Dom to climb the tower. To find the tower, look to the right of the front doors. There are some stairs that lead down to the ticket booth. Prepare your lungs, your legs, and your vertigo; pay the admission fee; and be on your merry way up the 533 stairs.

Be forewarned though: climbing the stairs isn't for those with health/balance problems, claustrophobia, fear of heights, impatience with obnoxious teenagers, and blah blah blah. My issue is that I have started to experience bouts of vertigo at times. It is especially pronounced in winding staircases, which was the whole climb. I was thankful that these stairs were somewhat wider than most others though. There was room for someone to climb up the stairs while someone walking down could move to the side. A few alcoves along the way offer a spot to catch one's breath, but it's a tight squeeze.

We huffed and puffed and reached the bell tower portion of the tower. The corridors around the bells are very narrow so claustrophobics, beware. We left in at the right time because about five minutes later the bells started ringing.

We climbed more stairs and came to an open area with the yet another set of stairs. These are what bothered me: it was set up like a scaffolding and the whole thing moved slightly as we stood on it! If the stairs had been see-through, there is no way I could have made myself climb it as walking on grates frightens me. Thankfully the stairs were solid so I mentally kicked myself in the hiney for some courage and puffed up the stairs. We finally made it to the top of the tower! The views were amazing and it was interesting to get a closer look at just how big the decorative finials are.

Then it was time for the winding trek down the stairs. This was actually where I was concerned because I tend to get dizzy as I'm descending so many stairs and there is worry that I'll get disoriented and slip. My cousin D was feeling dizzy too. It didn't help that I heard a herd of rowdy teenage boys thundering up behind us. In fact, one almost crashed into me. I turned around and very sharply growled at him, "hey!" He got the point and backed off. There is no point in rushing down the stairs because they are busy and it's dangerous for everyone with traffic flowing both ways.

We safely made it to the bottom. Phew! Our next trip was to see St. Ursula's Church, which was featured an ossuary. More about that will follow.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

December's Adventure: Day 4, Cologne

Cologne, or Köln, was our destination on our fourth day of vacation. We arrived in the early afternoon and unloaded the car at our hotel, the Alt Deutz. I then needed to park the car so we dropped it off at the Luxness arena around the block.

Later on, I'll write a more detailed review of the hotel. It was old but clean with some interesting accents, such as what I termed "dead Muppet carpet" (the pattern looked like Muppet fur) and super steep stairs (seriously, the handrail was vertical in one spot!). We actually found the hotel comfortable and strangely charming for all its budget-friendly quirks.

We then headed out for lunch and found a Mexican restaurant just a few blocks away. I hate to turn down the opportunity to eat Mexican food as it's my favorite thing. I am always guardedly optimistic that it'll be good. Unfortunately, the offerings in Germany are usually just "okay."

Our meal at Cafe Especial in Cologne was the best Mexican food I've had in Germany so far so it was a success! It wasn't perfect, but Mexico is far away so I'm okay with that. I'll write more in a review later, too, but we liked the rustic interior with wooden floors and a huge open seating area. Service was standard and the food was good (though not authentic...more like German TexMex -- GerTMex?).

Following the meal, we walked west to downtown. I was pleased to see that our hotel was only a 15 minute walk to the Cathedral (Dom). What I did not think was so cool was that people littered the Hohenzollernbrücke on the way with tons of the love locks. It's supposed to symbolize unbreakable love when a couple puts a lock on the bridge and throws the key into the river. To me, it symbolizes immaturity; vandalism of public property; and littering (and the possibility of harm to wildlife in the form of keys thrown into the river). The locks actually damage the bridge, causing it to rust faster. Removing the locks is also damaging too. I'm sure there are far better ways to show one's devotion.
Not cool.

Egads, someone is insecure!
When we reached the Dom, or Cathedral, we walked through the Christmas Market there. It was lovely, especially with the Dom as a backdrop! Even though it was a weeknight, it was still quite busy.

My cousins mentioned that it was their wedding anniversary. I guess I also must clarify when I use the term "cousins," lest people thing that two blood relatives married each other! My cousin by blood is D, the wife. Her husband M is my cousin by marriage :)

They hadn't made any particular plans for celebrating, so I decided that I'd buy them wine and some nice things to eat. We lucked out; there was a Galeria Kaufhof in Cologne. Galeria is a department store with many offerings. The bigger stores include a gourmet food section. We lucked out doubly because the Cologne store had a huge and lovely section in the basement. We oohed and aahed over all the delicious things and ultimately chose some delicious chocolates, French soft cheeses (thankfully not stinky!), crackers, and two bottles of wine from the Pfalz (where I live).

As we were leaving with the delicious treats, we checked out the store windows, which were amazing. An entire animated Christmas wonderland had been set up. There were many Steiff teddy bears and other animals. Someone posted a Youtube video with a previous year's display here. We were fascinated by the display and looked at it for quite some time. It was both magical...and a little bit sinister, but not like the bloody gnomes in the window in Strasbourg. I think that when anything inanimate, even a cute teddy bear, gets animated/mechanized, it can be slightly creepy. Either way, though, it was a fascinating display that must have taken quite a bit of work to put together.

See? It's a line of monkeys jabbing a carrot into the face of a woodland creature. I'm not sure why.

We returned to the Dom and decided to have the little anniversary party in the small park in front of the Dom. We didn't have any proper cups, let alone wine glasses, for the wine we bought but made do instead with two glühwein mugs for my cousins and an empty water bottle for me. To serve the cheese, we put its wrapper on a park bench and used a plastic spoon I had thought to save from an earlier meal. The chocolates did not need any special handling.Thank goodness none of us were high maintenance!

It was a wonderful feast and we giggled quite a bit about our elaborate table setting. Of course, the two bottles of wine we drank also contributed to the giggling! I thank German laws that allow for public consumption of alcohol in a responsible manner. I also thank Galeria for the great selection of gourmet stuff that tasted great and surprisingly didn't break the bank. Ahh, the benefits of living in Europe!

Our delicious feast, served in such a fancy way.

We were ready to traipse back to the hotel after our lovely meal but I wanted to stop by the Hauptbahnhof to visit the ladies' room first. Let me tell you -- that bahnhof is like a MAZE! My goodness. I am sooo glad that I really paid attention to where I was going and also naturally have decent navigation skills. When my cousins were waiting for me, I actually exited through a different door to the WC than where I came in so I didn't see them. I knew that there were two entrances but got disoriented. I then had to navigate basically in a square to find them. The surprise they showed when I popped up behind them was hilarious. Seriously, though, pay attention in that train station. 

We made it back to the hotel with no problems (though probably not in a perfectly straight line, by any means). I had super steep, dead Muppet stairs to climb to get to my room so I sent my cousins a Facebook message to let them know that I made it to my room safely. It had been a really fun, silly night.

Friday, January 3, 2014

December's Adventure: Day 3, Part 3, Strasbourg

Seeing the weird and abused mannequins earlier wasn't the end of seeing unusual store displays. As we continued visiting the Christmas market and strolling through Strasbourg, we came across an extremely odd window display in a pharmacy called Pharmacie de la Rose: gnomes who appeared to be attacking each other! No, seriously! They were bandaged and bloody.

 Are the gnomes in a battle?
 Oh my goodness! The gnome on the right has a broken leg and the one in the back has a knife.

 This poor guy has a bloodied foot and is about ready to be stung by a bee.
Dude has a head wound!

I'd love to know the backstory on this place. Does someone have it out for the gnomes? Did the gnomes get sick of Christmas cheer and go crazy on each other? If you know why this display is like this, leave a comment!

We found the display somewhat amusing, but definitely disturbing! To our relief, a sidestreet offered a window display that was charming and drew us in: bubbles were softly blowing and we stopped in front of the following window. The picture doesn't really do it justice. It's "La Maison de Hanssel & Gretel" and there were beautiful ornaments in the window.

It was a nice way to end our Strasbourg trip after the strange gnome window! Tired, we took the tram back to the car and then I drove us back to Kaiserslautern. However, next time I would definitely pick a better route home instead of where my GPS took me: we drove through narrow, winding roads literally in middle of the forest (Pfalz!).

Thursday, January 2, 2014

December's Adventure: Day 3, Part 2, Strasbourg

Here's part one of our trip to Strasbourg.

After visiting the Cathedral, I took my cousins to see Petite-France, a lovely district in Strasbourg full of medieval half-timbered and Baroque architecture. It is truly worth a visit, even though the name of the area does not have such a charming provenance. According to Wikipedia (yeah, I know, not always the most authoritative of sources):

"The name Petite-France ("Little France") was not given for patriotic or architectural reasons. It comes from the "hospice of the syphilitic" (Hospice des Vérolés, in French), which was built in the late fifteenth century on this island, to cure persons with syphilis, then called the "French disease" in German, Franzosenkrankheit."

 Well, even with that bit of not so pretty history, it's still possible to enjoy the very scenic neighborhoods. I wanted to visit the Square Louise Weiss, which is on a quay that forms a pleasant little island. There was some sort of official person and an open (removable) gate at the entrance to the island. I watched several other people walk in so we did too. Farther in the park we saw a crowd of people and some sort of elaborate set-up. Of course I was incredibly curious (nosy) so we drew closer and realized that some sort of tv show was being filmed! We joined the crowd (and thus probably ended up on French tv. Hi, mom!) and watched the hosts cooking something.

There was another segment being filmed in a different area and a guy was holding some sort of chicken. I could see the writing on the wall for the chicken! I just hoped he wasn't going to off the poor bird where we could see it. 

We left to walk around the neighborhood some more, then have dinner. My cousins chose a restaurant in the tourist area and they had cheese, wine, and snails (!). My cousin had finished the snails and left the butter sauce. With hand signals, the French waiter showed him the importance of eating the leftover butter with bread since I'm assuming that one who would like the taste of snails would also like the remaining butter on bread. Oh goodness. 

I let go of the thought of snails when we left to find my dinner: I wanted to have a burrito at La Cocina, a Mexican restaurant near Petite-France. I ate here last time I came to Strasbourg. The burritos aren't bad but they're a little bit bland. However, the ingredients still taste good and it's adequate for someone needing a Mexican food fix (which I pretty much need all the time. sigh). Plus, I wanted to show my cousins the crazy steep stairs to the bathroom. Seriously, I feel as if I should crawl up them instead of walking up them. The tread is also narrow so I kind of walked sideways since my boots make my feet seem even bigger. 

This picture doesn't do the steepness justice!
As we left the restaurant we saw yet another Santa Claus attempting to break into someone's house. Naughty Santa!

Even better yet was a store's display farther down the road. There were the weirdest mannequins inside and we spent five minutes examining them and giggling furiously (while being a little weirded out by them, too!). The clothes were odd as well.

Bald mannequin, poorly painted on facial hair.

Uh...dude's face is broken, and why on earth does he have super long girly eyelashes?

This sweater is ridiculous.

Leather shirt, anyone?

The jeans were really the worse: ruched, distressed, and weird. So is his facial hair: it's shaped like an anchor!

That wasn't the last of weird mannequins, either. Another nearby store had mannequins who were taped back together. How weird! Maybe the mannequins from the two stores got into a fight with each other when the humans had gone to bed?

Her arm is held on with tape. Why??
This wasn't the last store with a strange display. Tomorrow I'll write about the gnomes who had met misfortune.