Sunday, July 31, 2011

Bloomin' Blumen in Koblenz

Special announcement:
If a picture is worth a thousand words, we're averaging about a million words per day. Unsurprisingly, we're taking so many pictures that it's becoming impossible to post them all, or even a small subgroup that illustrates fully what we're seeing out here. Since we want to share with all of you our travels and the things we're seeing, we've set up a super-duper Flickr account that allows us to keep all of our photos up for you to see. If you're interested, the URL is http://www.flickr.com/photos/Meldrumhaus/. I'm not certain how Flickr's privacy settings work, so it may not work immediately. If you want to look at the photos and you can't get them to work, email us and we'll see what we can do. Now, on to the show!

Sara and I are in the middle of a five-day weekend between sessions of our German course. On Saturday, we took a day trip down to Koblenz, a city of about 100,000 people at the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle rivers, about an hour's trip south of Bonn. Koblenz, like all the other cool cities (e.g., Aachen) that we've been in, has an assortment of odd sculptures, restaurants, and monuments. One example is Sara next to these marionette-statues that are part of a fountain; their joints actually move.
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There is also this fountain that randomly spits water well over its bounds at unsuspecting passersby. (He's allegedly the town symbol for Koblenz.)
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Also, this frightening shot of a massive sculpture for Kaiser Wilhelm. I can't really express how big this sculpture truly is. And scary.
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Here is a creepy little goblin-man-gargoyle on the side of a church that sits atop an ancient Roman temple. Sara thinks it looks like the fluffy creature Fizzgig from "The Dark Crystal".
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And what ancient German city is complete without a collection of eight-foot petunia tower? Or, as I like to say, Towers of Flowers. (Maybe not quite eight feet tall. Curses that my 5'8" frame is standing right there giving a scale reference. I mean, my 7'6" frame...)
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The remaining photos are too numerous to explain individually, so here's the brief rundown. This year, the city of Koblenz is hosting the Bundesgartenschau (BUGA), Germany's federal, biannual garden and landscaping festival. One you pay the admission, you can enter the main gate near the Rhine river, where there are beds of gorgeous dahlias, dozens of varieties of fuchsia, and fountains for kids to play in. Then you can take the cable car (gondola) across the Rhine and up the cliffs to the Fortress Ehrenbreitstein, a defense site dating back to 1000 BC, with the current fortress built by Prussia in the early 19th century. For the BUGA, the fortress and the grounds (a huge park area) were covered in flowers. The Flickr site has many more views of the flowers, but they were truly stunning. Quite reminiscent of Berkeley flowers, actually. There were vegetable gardens, rose gardens, flower beds 100 feet long, and, oddly, a cemetery/memorial/gravestone flower show/competition. (Pardon the multiple slashes, but I don't know really how to summarize what it was. Other than odd. And cool.)
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In short, Koblenz was awesome. We had a fun time and decided that a cool city and a beautiful flower show is a good date for both of us--Sara had to ask me to stop taking so many close up shots of fuschias. They're my favorite!

Millstone

For those who are wondering, the Bible is taken very seriously here. This is not just a metaphorical millstone, this is the real deal. DON'T screw with the little ones.

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A Few Things

We've been in Germany for just over 4 weeks now and there are a few things that we've done/noticed/thought of that don't fit nicely into a picture-perfect post, but are worth mentioning nonetheless.

1. It's been really cold here. Maybe it's just this particular "Sommer," but we're both freezing pretty much all the time. Perhaps Germany, like Berkeley, gets summer from August through September (or, perhaps, October).

2. Learning German is really fun and we're getting much better at it. Or, at least, the Missionaries at church said so today. Truthfully, we're understanding quite a lot now and we're deciphering street signs and advertisements and parsing new words frequently. We've also checked out some 4- and 5-year-old books from the library; the 4s are a little easy and the 5s are tough, so we're about four-and-a-half. With non-zero balances in our bank account. How sweet is that?
2a. Further evidence that we're doing well in our language learning--they skipped us both a grade ahead for the next session. Instead of A1.2 We're going to be in A2.1! Maybe we'll be seven or eight before we leave Bonn. 

3. The food is hit and miss. What we cook at home tends to be really good, even though the ingredients aren't quite as good as we're used to in Berkeley. (There is a seemingly eternal Pflaumenzeit--plum season--which we're enjoying quite a lot.) Also, the prices are comparable with what we were paying in Berkeley at grocery stores. Restaurants are pricey but generally good, so long as we think really hard about what we're ordering. Then, the typical lunchtime snack "Imbiss" is really cheap and can be really good. I'm loving the abundance of greasy Turkish food and Döner kebabs, Sara could deal without the grease.

4. Public transportation here rocks. We've rarely had to wait more than 5 minutes for a bus for wherever we're going. The regional trains are efficient and relatively cheap--our day trips so far have cost around 35 EUR for both of us for the whole day. (Excepting the gondola ride over the Rhine--more on that to come!) And the DB Navigator app for the iPhone is amazing--up to the minute departure times, arrival times, station locations, and more for *every bus stop in the country*. Not only is it free, it's priceless.

5. This is a civilized country. We can pay tithing (a donation to our church) online! We can even set it up to deduct automatically from our bank account on the first of the month. Two years without thinking about tithing? Yes, please!

6. We've been put to work just a little bit at the church in Bonn: I played piano today in our first meeting (that seems to be the first test for every new person in church: playing piano) and Sara said the closing prayer in Sacrament Meeting. I'm also playing piano for the next three Sundays in Sacrament Meeting. They're going to get something out of us before they send us off to Aachen. Of course, we're happy to help. We really like the ward in Bonn.

7. We're still excited at how old things are here. Seeing houses with 18th century dates and castles from the 8th century still makes us grin.

8. This is a completely uncivilized country. There are no drinking fountains*, and drinks are insanely expensive in restaurants. Of course, this isn't a surprise to us, but it still stings every time we think that getting two Coke Zeros while we're out will cost up to $7. How do these people stay hydrated? We've taken to carrying around our water bottles and, when necessary, using them even at restaurants. Hopefully it's not too rude. Certainly not as rude as demanding some tap water.

9. Sara really misses American pillows. Here, there are two sizes: long and skinny and huge and square. Neither fits her sleeping profile well. We contemplated buying a new pillow for her the first week we were here, but we still could only find European sizes and they were 60 or 70 EUR ($90-110). We've since seen ads for cheaper pillows, but how does a country function with $100 pillows? Do people not sleep?

10. We miss our friends at home. And an apartment, but mostly our friends. Hopefully both will be forthcoming soon.

*Unsurprisingly to those who know, the Mormon church in Aachen has a drinking fountain. We haven't found the one in the church in Bonn, but it has to be somewhere...

Monday, July 25, 2011

First Taste of Aachen

We went to Aachen twice this week to look at apartments. The first apartment we saw was crappy. The second was lovely, but there were about 40 other people at the viewing, so we're not holding our collective breath.

Although apartment-hunting is stressful, we're feeling very excited about Aachen itself. There are lots of beautiful buildings and it seems like a lively town. The restaurant scene seems to be more varied than Bonn's, for which we are very grateful. Aachen is also much older than Bonn. This is the famous cathedral. The middle section ("The Octagon") was built for Charlemagne circa 800 AD.


In this model of the cathedral it's easier to see the shape of silhouette, which is a symbol of Aachen.


Yes, we did go inside the cathedral, and yes, it is extremely cool. Charlemagne's bones are in there (in a big golden box). But we took no pictures of the inside. We're going to save that for another time, when we go on the guided tour and can tell you more about the cathedral's history.

Charlemagne also built Aachen's town hall. The first twenty meters of the tower on the right are from the original 9th-century structure. From peeking through the door I know that the building is beautiful inside, but there's an entrance fee, so we're saving that, too.



Here's another building on the town hall square that I liked. It was built in 1344. It started out as somebody's house; now the ground floor is a bakery.


Aachen has a lot of fountains and statues. I like this one.


There is a creche on this building. It does not otherwise seem to be a religious building.


This is a chunk of the old city wall, dating from the 12th century or so. That actually is Tyler in the archway. I should post a picture of him some time in which you can see his face.


This is a beautiful church we saw on Sunday just a couple of blocks from the apartment we really liked. It's in such a great neighborhood. Oh, how I hope we get it!


We'll be living in Aachen in a few short weeks. We'll soon have an apartment (hopefully) where people can stay with us. So start planning your trips!

P.S. One thing I love about Germany is that there are pieces of playground equipment scattered about the cities. Not full-blown parks, but slides, or climbing structures, or sandboxes set among the churches and sidewalk cafes. We found this slide just up the hill from the cathedral. It's really quite fast. I shall be going back.

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Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Fanciest Castle Ever

Okay, so this was only my second castle ever, but it's really really fancy! Anyway, this is the first place we've been that we feel totally committed to showing to visitors. It was so, so fun. Come visit us and see!

First, Königswinter, a charming town half an hour south of us down the Rhine. These hollyhocks grow all over the place in the Bonn area.



Next, the Drachenfels. Königswinter not only has a ridiculous castle, it has romantic ruins just up the hill. Drachen means dragon--there's apparently some dragon legend associated with this place, but I don't know what it is because none of the signage was in English. Maybe the legend has something to do with the volcanic activity on the hill that I'm pretty sure one sign described.

Here is tiny Tyler with the main chunk of the ruins, and me with another piece.



There are amazing views of the Rhine valley and surrounding hills from up there. We could see all the way to Köln and could even make out the cathedral (not pictured). I'm a bit surprised the Köln cathedral isn't visible from space.




On to the main event. This castle was built between 1882 and 1884 by the son of a Bonn innkeeper. He had done very well for himself in speculation of some kind. He was made a baron in 1881, before he started building his castle, but I think he'd already started planning it before he was technically an aristocrat.


Doesn't it look more like someone's idea of a romantic castle than an authentic castle? Even to my extremely inexpert eye there seem to be some anomalies, like these guys (around the base of the bow window). They look like they belong in a Polish church from the year 13o0 or something.


It seems this guy just took all the palatial elements he could think of (such as golden stags), chose the ones he liked best, and used his new money to make it happen. But that's probably what makes it so fun to see.


This is the main staircase.


Here's a really cool ceiling. We didn't take the guided tour (because it was in German and would've been a waste of money at this point in our studies) so we couldn't go into all of the rooms, but we could peer over the thresholds.


A beautiful bookcase in the library.


This is the ceiling of the drinking room. Seriously.


There is a polar bear on the floor. I think there are also some fancy slippers in the background. At some point when our German is better I want to go back and take the tour so I can see these things up close.


The castle remained in private hands until the early '80s, when it was donated to the state and extensively refurbished. The final touches were just finished last year.

P.S. On our way back from Königswinter we spotted this extremely important piece of news:


Gummy bears have surpassed Beethoven as Bonn's #1 export! I'm not sure what this means, exactly. Was Bonn previously exporting more Beethoven-related stuff than gummy bears? Or are the gummy bears now the greater tourist draw? We may have to go to the Haribo factory to find out. Stay tuned...

Week in Review

Hello! This is another post on somewhat-interesting-things-we did-this-week. It will be followed shortly by a post on the really-interesting-thing-we-did-this-weekend. If you prefer to skip over this post, you are excused. But you should know that it contains another edition of Animal I Spy (because I think it's fun).

We finally walked through the cemetery that's right behind our house, and learned that German graves are extremely fancy and well-tended. I'd never seen anything quite like this, but Tyler says the graves in Lithuania are even fancier (though the people are poorer).


On Wednesday we finally went to the Beethovenhaus. This is a view from the courtyard in the rear. Beethoven was probably born in the upper-right attic room. (He was definitely born in the house, but they're unsure of the room.) The Beethovenhaus apparently has the largest collection of Beethovenania (their word) in the world, but it wasn't exactly bursting at the seams. There were some interesting things--I particularly liked seeing letters and manuscripts he wrote. (Beethoven's musical notation was much more legible than Mozart's, I learned.) Probably the thing I'll remember most about the museum, though, is that it has the loudest floors I have ever walked on. They didn't look original, so why they keep the world's squeakiest floors in a museum is a mystery to me.


We also went to a botanical garden. (We think there are two in Bonn, but we're not sure.)


It's located behind and around this palace, the summer palace of the Prince-Elector, I believe. Not the most palatial palace you've ever seen? Well, that's coming in the next post!


The gardens were very pretty and the weather was very nice, not raining as had been predicted. Tyler had fun with the camera.



This is a wild bee house, but I mostly wanted a picture of it because you can see close up the slate tile roof that is typical of buildings in Bonn.


Here is the promised Animal I Spy! This one is much easier than the parrots.


After the botanical garden we went and got haircuts in a combination of English, German, and Spanish. (My hairdresser was Spanish-German. I think she went a little overboard with the thinning shears, but it was fun to get to speak some Spanish. I was hopelessly confused for the rest of the day and couldn't keep my languages straight.) Tyler's hairdresser artfully spiked his hair, but that is not how it looks on a day-to-day basis.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Spaghetti Ice Cream

Just when you thought things couldn't possibly get any better (viz. previous post on Brezel vending machines), behold! Spaghetti Ice Cream!
 This particular confection is ice cream extruded through some device that renders it in the shape of spaghetti. The "spaghetti" is topped with various sauces, making it look like, well, spaghetti. We weren't quite brave enough to try it, but we were brave enough to photograph it.

There are other variants of ice cream delights, all available at one of the many Eis Cafés around town--outdoor areas with 30-100 tables for people to come, eat crazy ice creams, and to enjoy the beautiful weather. The M&M and Mickey Mouse ice creams look particularly delightful...



Sara and I were brave enough to try pistachio, chocolate, cookie, hazelnut, and coconut surprise (perhaps the surprise was hazelnut, but we'll never know for sure). So far, so good. But boy, Mickey Mouse. I tell you what.