Saturday, September 24, 2011

Urban Forestry

Last night, Sara was out running some errands. Upon her return, which required a trip through Aachen's beautiful city center and Marktplatz, she exclaimed, "This city is so crazy! We turn our backs for one day and they cover the Marktplatz in wood chips and turn it into a forest!"

The International Year of Forests
So, we checked our trusty Aachen RSS feed (German only), which keeps us up to date on all the happenings in Aachen (which also explained why we weren't able to find the weekly market for the past three weeks). It turns out that 2011 is the Internationales Jahr der Wälder (International Year of Forests) and, to celebrate, Aachen is hosting a Waldfest (Forest Festival) today and tomorrow. What does one do at a Waldfest? Well...

One makes dioramas detailing the wildlife found in the Forest. (Each of the neighboring city/towns contributed a booth. I think this one was from Duisburg, but I could be wrong.)

One displays mushrooms and trees carved out of wood.

And, of course, one has a huge display of eagles.
I was quite surprised at how close we were to the eagles, and how big and truly powerful they look. Then they betrayed themselves by letting out a series of extraordinarily high-pitched screeches, much like seventh-grade girls.

Also, there was a log-cutting competition right in front of the 9th century Rathaus (town hall), with this massive chainsaw making short work of the log in just a few seconds:

For some reason, I like thinking about Charlemagne watching over the chainsaws from his carved throne on the city hall.

The whole purpose of this post is to show you how unbelievably cool Aachen is. So, when you plan your trip to visit us, check the Aachen RSS feed to see what surprises will await you!

(By the way, there are more pictures of the birds and the Waldfest on our Flickr site at Check it out!)

Aachener Rathaus

You may have gathered from our pictures and posts thus far that Aachen has two truly spectacular (and extremely old) buildings: the Dom (cathedral) and the Rathaus (town hall).* We walk by these buildings almost every day, and can see the roof lines from many places in the city.

On Tuesday Tyler didn't have to go into work until late afternoon, so we finally toured the Rathaus, as we've been wanting to do since we got to Aachen. I took a LOT of pictures. We took the audio tour (available in English, woohoo!), which lasted about 90 minutes, so we got a LOT of information. I am not sure how to translate all this into a blog post of reasonable length, but I shall try.

For centuries the Rathaus was the site of the coronation of German kings as well as the center of civic life in Aachen. Aachen eventually lost the coronation ceremony, apparently because the building fell into disrepair, but the city council still meets in the council chamber:


In addition to a portrait of Charlemagne,** this room holds portraits of Napoleon and Empress Josephine. Napoleon and Charlemagne are placed in such a way that they're locked in an eternal staring contest across the chamber. We got the impression from the audio guide, though, the Aachen has positive feelings toward Napoleon--he liked the city, so he made Öchers full French citizens and gave them back their trade rights and stuff. (I think. I'm a little fuzzy on this point.)

This is the Golden Book. It contains inscriptions from important visitors to the city over the centuries. And it looks like it came straight out of a young adult fantasy novel.


Here's the room where the book is displayed. It used to be the meeting place for the city's cloth merchants' guild. The export of fancy cloth was the cornerstone of Aachen's economy for several centuries. After the cloth guild went away the room was used as the mayor's office (up until just a few years ago). Nice office, huh?


I'm a terrible photographer, but I'm pleased with the way this picture turned out:


Now we come to the colored rooms, White and Red. They both have tons of history, too, but I don't remember enough to explain it in a way that will actually be interesting. The way they look is plenty interesting, anyway.




I love the headdresses on these guys.



The staircase afforded a great view of the Dom:


In an old city like this one reminders abound that humans (even Germans!) used to be much shorter than they are today.


This is the coronation hall:


Here are replicas of the imperial regalia. The originals used to reside in Aachen, but now they're in Nuremberg. (In the South! Oh, the shame!)


Finally, here is the front door of the Rathaus. Oddly enough, the otherwise exhaustive audio tour had no comment to make on the funny faces, but I love them.


If you come to Aachen, you too can tour the Rathaus! We'll take you there! And a Dom tour is next on our list!

*Both were originally constructed in the late 8th century as part of Charlemagne's palace--they were actually connected for a few hundred years. In each building part of the 8th-century structure is preserved.

**There is a portrait of Charlemagne in almost every room in the Rathaus. The audio guide has a 3-5 minute description of each one. I found this a bit odd (and excessive).

Friday, September 23, 2011

Tyler's Quick-and-Easy Guide to Speaking German Incorrectly

If you've spoken on the Skype with us in the past few days, you probably know that, linguistically, we feel like we're about three years old. Maybe three-and-a-half. Though the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation very generously paid for two months of German courses for both of us, and though we generally understand German well (both spoken and written), we're still slow at it and can't say much beyond what we want for dinner. (You're not surprised that we do well with food, are you?)

You may be wondering how a super genius like Sara and a moderately intelligent Tyler can struggle so much with communication? Of course, primarily it's that we've been here only 83 days. However, to make the case even more, here are Ten Things I Hate-or-Find-Mildly-Amusing About You, German Language, from the eyes of a Linguistic Three-Year-Old. (Warning: there is a fair bit of grammar in this post. If you want, you can just read the words in bold, then leave a comment that uses the word "Sparschwein" and I'll think that you read the whole thing in great detail.)

1. Your nouns have three genders. In English, when we talk about a book, a city, or a dog, their articles are all treated equally: "a" or "the." Not so in German. They like to have some nouns that are masculine ("der Hund"--the dog), some that are feminine ("die Stadt"--the city), and some that are even neuter ("das Buch"--the book). Now, that by itself wouldn't be so bad, but it's ridiculous when coupled with...

2. The gender of your nouns is often assigned arbitrarily. For example, while it's logical that a man is a masculine noun (der Mann) and a woman is feminine (die Frau), would you believe that a girl is neuter (das Mädchen)? Also, can someone tell me why country and city are neuter and feminine, respectively? ("Das Land" and "die Stadt.") Some rules would be appreciated. (To be fair, there are a few rules, like -e nouns are usually feminine, -chen nouns are always neuter (see "das Mädchen"), and -ung nouns are always feminine, but it just doesn't cut it in all cases, and Sara and I are often asking each other, "Das Hund? Die Hund? Der Hund? Wie heißt das?")

3. Your numbers are all backwards. While in English we say "twenty-three", German uses the form "three-and-twenty." Also, the twenty-first of September is the "one-and-twentieth of September." We're actually getting pretty good at this one, and laugh when people at grocery stores (or, let's be honest, pastry shops) try to speak in English to us foreigners and tell us that our EUR 2.95 bill comes to two euros and fifty-nine cents.

4. Your adjectives are crazy. In English, blue is blue and big is big and they never really change. In German, the adjectives change to match the gender of the noun AND the position of the adjective with respect to the noun and the article. If that's confusing to you, take heart! It's kills us, too. That's why I can't write more about it. (Sara gets it okay, I think. Maybe she can chime in.)

Die Sparschwein? Der Sparschwein? Sara, wie heißt das?* 
5. You have crazy (and sometimes pretty cool) compound words. Germans love to smash words together to make new, really long words with new meanings. Take "Arm" (arm) and "Band" (band) and smash them together and you get "Armband" (armband). Take "Uhr" (clock) and throw it on there and you get "Armbanduhr", wristwatch. To that you can add "Zeiger" (hand or pointer) and get "Armbanduhrzeiger", the hand on a wristwatch. And so on. It's not too hard, actually, and it's pretty fun. Our current favorite is a word I found in the ads the other day--Sparschwein. The verb "sparen" means to save (as in money) and "Schwein" is a pig, so "Sparschwein" is a saving pig--a piggy bank! I like to think of it more religiously, though: the pig that saves.

6. You do weird things when it comes to possessive articles. Take for example the simple word "his." His book, his story, his hair--all "his". Of course, in English we have also "hers" and "its", mimicking the gender structure of German (masculine, feminine, and neuter). However, in German the possessive article not only depends on the gender of the possessor, but also on that of the possessee. So, while "his book" and "her book" are "sein Buch" and "ihr Buch", respectively, "his coin" and "her coin" are "seine Münze" and "ihre Münze", respectively. (Notice the addition of the "e" on the end.) This gets particularly messy when you throw in...

7. You have cases. Okay, my background in Lithuanian led me to completely overlook this particular point of grammar, but it is difficult. Take the English sentences:
I throw the dog to him.
He throws the dog to me.
I throw him to the dog.
The dog throws me to him.
Each of those has a subject (the person doing the throwing), a direct object (the thing being thrown), and an indirect object (the person to whom the direct object is being thrown). In German (and Lithuanian), each of those grammatical roles, subject, direct object, and indirect object, requires a different case, meaning that the noun changes for each role. (More precisely, in German the descriptors that surround the noun, like articles and adjectives, change. In contrast, Lithuanian nouns themselves change in different cases.) So, our four original sentences are, in German:
Ich werfe ihm den Hund.
Er wirft mir den Hund.
Ich werfe ihn dem Hund.
Der Hund wirft ihm mich.
It's all very simple, really.

8. You are completely ridiculous with your plurals. There are about 117 ways of making a singular noun plural, and there is really no way to guess. "Stadt" becomes "Städte", "Buch" becomes "Bücher", and "Hund" becomes "Hunde." Sometimes you get an umlaut (z.B., "ü"), sometimes you get an "e," and sometimes you get an "s." But use like Forrest Gump taught us, you never know what you're going to get.

9. Your prepositions act strangely. Sometimes when you're doing something, like getting a pizza to go, you need a preposition, "zu." (That's mitzunehmen, by the way.) Sometimes you don't. But we don't know quite when. There are also prepositions that mean either a location or a movement, depending on the case of the noun that follows. And sometimes prepositions are indistinguishable from verb prefixes, so you get a giant mix of crazy, three-letter words that all get strung together to mean something. Usually it means that I'm about to use a crazy mix of four-letter words.

10. Your verbs get crazy with prefixes. Lots of people told us that German was weird because the verb comes at the end of the sentence. That's not really true, and it's not hard to deal with. (Note: in sentences with multiple verbs, one will usually come at the end, and it can be a little tricky, but it's not too bad overall. Think about "I'd like you to leave." "To leave" comes at the end and it's perfectly understandable and relatively easy.) The hard part is verbs with prefixes. For example, "einwerfen" (to throw in), used often when talking about people "throwing ads" into the mailboxes. Or "mitarbeiten", to work together. When those verbs are used in a sentence, for example "I throw the mail in the box" or "Let's work together!", the prefix comes off and goes at the end, producing "Ich werfe ein" and "Arbeiten wir mit!" Often it's not too terrible, since "werfen" and "einwerfen" are pretty close in meaning, as are "arbeiten" and "mitarbeiten". However, sometimes it's a real pain. For example, "nehmen" means to take, and "teilnehmen" means to share. So imagine you hear a mother telling her older daughter to share the toy with her brother. You'd hear, "Nimmt das Spielzeug mit deinem Bruder teil." (Or something like that.) Until the last syllable, you're thinking, "Take that toy with your brother... huh? what?". Then the last word "teil" comes and you realize that it's a totally different sentence. So you go back to the beginning, "'SHARE the toy with your brother!' It's so clear now." At which point you're three sentences behind in your conversation.

All that said, we really like the language. It has plenty of ways to play around and to be expressive in ways that one can't in English, and it sounds pretty cool. For example, "city hall" is kind of boring, but "das Rathaus?" Now there's the place I want my municipal government to work. Hopefully, by the time you read this we'll already be speaking much better and will be exceptional, English AND German (and Spanish and Lithuanian) speaking tour guides for your visit!

*It's actually "das Sparschwein." Sara was asleep, so I looked it up.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Long Overdue Neighborhood Post

I've been meaning to write this post since we moved in (now 4 weeks ago). There are 3 main things I want to show you: our building, our street, and our immediate environs (mainly Jakobstraße). Part of the reason I put off this post for so long is that when we moved in our building was being painted. The scaffolding came off a week ago or more, so I am out of excuses. Here it is in its freshly-painted glory:


When I first saw it (on the day when Tyler got to see inside and I did not), it was all white. It also had graffiti on it, as so many buildings (even really nice ones) in Aachen do. So we were lucky to get the chance to photograph it looking shiny and new. Here's a picture of my favorite feature, the fruit in the facade!


Those windows sticking up on top of the building are ours.

The foyer is also very pretty. Ceiling:





The rest:


That flight of stairs is the first of 4 (each broken into a long and short piece) we must climb to reach our apartment on the Dachgeschoss ("roof story" or attic). I finally remembered to count the stairs this morning as part of my pre-post research. There are 79. We climb these stairs 3-4 times per day.

Moving on. These are the highlights of the view from our front windows:




We still have a church tower view! Woohoo!

Our street is called Hubertusstraße. The next block up the hill has a little playground watched over by what we like to call a Mauerstück--a piece of the old city wall. Napoleon had the wall torn down during Aachen's French period, but a few towers and gates were left standing. (More on Napoleon and Aachen in an upcoming post.)


(See the swingset in the background?)


The plaque reads:

Lavenstein (a type of stone? not sure), 14th century, outer ring of the city wall

Jakobstraße is our new Solano Avenue. The buildings are just slightly prettier:




I never get tired of looking at facades, so expect to see a lot of them! There's so much to notice. Here are some of my favorite details from buildings on Jakobstraße and other streets in our neighborhood.


That guy is either being swallowed by a bear or wearing a bear head hood. Either way, I don't get it.


This is the gate to St. Paul's (also on Jakobstraße). St. Paul only gets a little side street named after him. Sadly, there are too few parishioners, so services are no longer held here. It's still used for concerts sometimes.



This ridiculous building is right next to the laundromat we use, just up the hill.


Unfortunately, there are very few restaurants on Jakobstraße, and the ones that exist are out of our price range, so it really is no substitute for Solano. (Is there such a thing?) This place, though, sells delicious fresh ravioli from the counter that we eat about twice a week (at home). Notice the blankets provided with the outdoor seating. It's getting cold here, but do the Germans stop sitting outside to eat? They do not. They get blankets.


Finally, Jakobstraße is named after this church, St. Jakob.


We actually have a picture of it in a previous post, the one where we talked about the apartment we really wanted but didn't get. Turns out the apartment we ended up in is even closer to St. Jakob. Take that, landlord of the fancy apartment who didn't want us!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Bright Sunshiny Day

Today was a good day.
  • It started with Nougat Bits:
  • I'm finally getting caught up on my reading for my classes.
  • I have a rehearsal tonight! I'm now singing with Figuralchor Aachen, a choir of about 20 that sings primarily sacred a cappella music. This will be my second rehearsal, and I'm really excited about the group. Starting next week, Tyler will (probably) sing with us, too!
  • We have a bright and shiny new paint job in our kitchen:


It was supposed to be saffron, but it's not even close to saffron. It is YELLOW. We keep telling ourselves that we'll be grateful for it in the dreary depths of winter. Actually, we like it pretty well. It's just taken us a couple of days to decide that. Here's Tyler at work:


Sunday, September 11, 2011

Fed the Addiction

This post needs very little text, but it carries a lot of weight with us. Behold:


We caved. On Friday we found a package deal with Agricola, Farmers of the Moor, and the animeeples for only 50 EUR (~$70). We're feeling so much more at home now.

FYI, the 2-player version is different from the 4-player one, but it's still fun. And Sara and I are tied, both having won one game, but Sara's margin of victory is greater than my own.

Oh, and so you can understand why setup, in particular reviewing our cards, takes a little while longer than it used to...



We really do require about 20 minutes to understand our cards. The good news is at least we understand them (with the context gleaned from over 200 games played in English). We're so happy.

Assorted Aachen Outings

Since we've been in Aachen (2.5 weeks now) I haven't done nearly enough schoolwork (or BLOGGING), but I have done a lot of cleaning, grocery shopping, and cooking. (I should probably be embarrassed to admit this, but we are currently on a 15-day streak of not eating out, by FAR the longest of our marriage, and I'm feeling pretty proud.) I've managed to fit in a few fun things, too. In particular, I've made a couple of excursions with the lovely Katie Stapleton, an American who, along with her husband and two adorable boys, moved into the Aachen Branch the same week we did. (They are leaving in about a week, but they may come back early next year, and we really, really hope they do!)

Our first trip was to the Carolus Thermen:

I didn't know what to expect from the Aachen baths--being washed by a stony-faced old woman? naked communal soaking?--but I couldn't have imagined the Carolus Thermen. Granted, it's the most upscale bath house in Aachen, so it may be that the others are different, but this one is extremely fancy. This is just the central pool; we went in 3 or 4 others, 2 of which were outdoors. It's unlike any other pool or spa I've ever been to. There are no lap pools, but there also are no real hot tubs--all the pools are different levels of warm. They're the right depth to play in, but children under 6 aren't allowed. One pool has a current. All of them have various spouts and jets and places to sit. The procedure for stowing your belongings and getting changed is quite complicated. At the reception desk you get a plastic coin. You take it first to a tiny locker where you stow your valuables and get a key that straps onto your wrist. Then you go to the changing rooms, which are between the hall and the locker room. Once you're changed, you go through to the locker room and find the number that matches your tiny locker. Then you go to the showers, where you can leave your towel in yet another cubby. (Or, if you're like us, you realize at the showers that everyone else has brought their own towels and you go to customer service to rent a hand towel for 2 euros.) That was way more detail than you needed, but I found it entertaining, once I got over being intimidated by the system. Now, if you go to the Carolus Thermen, which I highly recommend that you do, you won't have to be intimidated.

My other outing with Katie was to the Lindt chocolate factory in West Aachen. As with the Haribo factory in Bonn, we expected to tour the factory but found that the only place visitors are allowed is the factory store. So I bought a giant Trauben Nuss bar and we took some pictures.



Yes, there was a giant golden horse. We weren't sure if it was in fact a chocolate horse. Wie heißt das auf Deutsch, you ask?


Why, Goldpferd, of course!

Aachen seems to have a lot of events going on, which is great. Last weekend Tyler and I went to a giant craft fair that was set up all around the Rathaus and Dom. On Wednesday I went briefly to the Domspringen (cathedral jumping) event. This is an annual pole vaulting contest that usually takes place in one of the squares adjacent to the cathedral. This year it was held in front of the Rathaus, instead, for reasons that my German was not good enough to comprehend. I must say, I was a bit disappointed, because I had heard of this contest and thought it had something to do with jumping off the roof of the Dom, which, you must admit, would've been more exciting. It was still cool to see pole vaulting in the middle of the market square, though. The rainbow umbrella person walked right into my perfect action shot, but this picture gives you an idea of the scene.


The vault is behind the umbrella, if you couldn't tell.

Up next: our apartment building and neighborhood. They just took the scaffolding off our building, so I need to take a picture of it in its freshly-painted, graffiti-free glory. We hope to have some indoor painting to report soon, too.