Monday, February 27, 2012

Oecher Alaaf!

You'll be happy to learn that we survived our first Karneval experience, though we are still largely mystified by many of the customs we observed.

First, some important terms. I hope I'm getting these right.

Fastnacht: The Thursday-Tuesday period that comprises the final and most celebrated days of Karneval. Many people take all four workdays off.
Rosenmontag: Literally Rose Monday, the day of the largest parades.
Veilchendienstag: Mardis Gras, literally Violet Tuesday. I don't know where these flower names come from.

Mystifying Custom #1: We started seeing costumed revelers all over the place a full week before Mardis Gras. They must have been going to parties, though we never saw any. The strange thing about this was that they were almost invariably perfectly normal-looking middle-aged people--dressed up as clowns and pirates. The trains were full of them on the night of the First Aid Kit concert. The young people out on the same night were not in costume.


Mystifying Custom #2: In addition to clowns and pirates, the city was swarming with people decked out in 18th-century French army dress uniforms. They are part of clubs or associations of some kind with long histories and many traditions. (As far as I can tell. I have no idea where these traditions come from or why these clubs exist.) Every year they have a full slate of events in the month leading up to Fastnacht--rehearsals, dinners, dances, etc.

On Karneval Friday they held a public party in the square between the Rathaus and Dom. We had seen posters on the bus claiming that the faux-French would "present their program" at the party, so we stopped by to see if we could figure out what it was all about. Sadly, it was very smoky inside, and as there was no sign of a program being forthcoming any time soon, we stayed only long enough to take a picture.


On Sunday our bus took an unusual route on the way home from church. We had to walk the last half-mile home because a parade was blocking the street. Karneval Sunday is the day that smaller towns have their parades and Aachen has its children's parade. As you can see, the snow was coming down thick and fast, so we didn't stick around to watch.

Rosenmontag was the day we had resolved to be festive. It was a beautiful sunny day and the snow was all gone. We walked a few blocks down the street to watch the parade in its final stretch. Almost everyone was dressed up, from infants to the elderly. I saw one old lady with glitter in her white hair.


Costumes ranged from the very simple--a scarf from the local soccer team or a silly hat--to the elaborate. Most were store-bought, but some (like beer-bottle-cap guy here) were clearly one-of-a-kind.


The first wave of parade marchers carried bamboo poles with cone-shaped pouches on the ends to collect money for Unicef and other worthy causes. There was even an extra long pole for the donations of the window-watchers.


The French guys were in the parade, too.


Here they are in action.

A major attraction of the parade is free candy (and waffles, and bracelets, and who-knows-what-else). The people marching or riding in the parade throw it to the watchers. Sometimes being on the receiving end was quite painful. When they threw hard candy no one even tried to catch it--we just shielded our heads. The window-watchers in the middle here had a strategy for making sure they got in on the freebie action.


Mystifying Custom #3: There is a celebratory exclamation particular to Rosenmontag in Aachen: Oecher Alaaf! (At least that's what I think I heard.) Oecher means people of Aachen; Alaaf is just a nonsense word. People in the parade yell "Oecher;" the crowd responds with "Alaaf!" That's when the paraders throw things at their heads.

According to our friend Marvin, many cities have their very own Karneval nonsense exclamations. He told us at least three others, but I can't remember any of them, as they're just syllables to me.


We had to leave the parade early to make our preparations for the church Karneval party. The theme was fantasy. Tyler and I chose the most low-maintenance costume option that occurred to us: with a couple of pointy paper hats we were Heinzelmännchen! (I made Ty wear a sweater, too, to look more homespun.) Heinzelmännchen are little elves (or "brownies") who do your work for you--notably in Cologne.


Monika the Clown told a story at the party.


The point of this game was to be the first to eat a huge chocolate-covered marshmallow without using your hands. I couldn't do it.

IMG_4563 IMG_4564 IMG_4565

We learned that musical chairs is called "Journey to Jerusalem" in Germany.


I know that's a lot of pictures of me in my silly hat. But it was a prize-winning silly hat--I won best costume (adult category)! Actually, I don't think it was the hat so much as the beard.

The best part of all this was that Tyler got to stay home on Monday and Tuesday. Mystifying or not, we'll take it.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ein Zweig in Aachen

By popular demand (or, more precisely, grandmother's request) I'm taking time away from my stimulating cataloging homework today to tell you about the Mormon church in Aachen. The Aachen Branch (meaning small congregation; "Zweig Aachen" in German) has about 60 members that come regularly. The congregation is a pretty diverse group. We have members from West Africa, Mexico, Peru, the Netherlands, and the Philippines. We meet in a nice new building in the Aachen-Brand area, 30 minutes by bus from our house.

The church on a very, very cold morning. It may be a boring standard-issue building, but there is no burlap on its walls. For this we are grateful.

The multipurpose room/chapel during the Karneval party (more on that in a later post).

My calling (church job) is teaching the youth Sunday School class--in German, of course. When the branch president (pastor) asked me to do this job, he told me that he was given the same assignment when he spent a summer in Kansas while in his twenties. "It was a challenge for me, and it'll be a challenge for you," he said. And though it is still a challenge, after three months of teaching the class it is no longer the nerve-wracking ordeal I feared it would always be. Most of the kids speak good English, so if I don't know a word I need or don't understand what they're saying I can just ask. I still spend a large part of every class in verbal bumbling, but they're very patient about it. Sometimes they get into arguments about the best way to say something in German. It's cute.
Here I am with the lone regularly-attending girl in the class. She is happy to have another female around.

Last Sunday we had a big group. There are usually two to four kids in class.

Tyler's calling is playing the organ. Though this requires no German, it does require us to get to church half an hour early every week so he can practice. One perk of this calling is that he now chooses the hymns for the congregation to sing--meaning we only sing good ones.

We have been warmly welcomed into the branch. The first Sunday we came, back while we were still living in Bonn, our upcoming move to Aachen was announced over the pulpit with great excitement. Members of the congregation have given us Christmas cookies, bread, towels, and even a bed frame. Perhaps best of all, we've found board-game buddies. Harald and Mirjam (below, with their children) enjoy Dominion and introduced us to Dixit. They also happen to be the bass and alto to our tenor and soprano. On Sunday we sang "Be Still My Soul" in church as a quartet.


We're very lucky to be part of such a wonderful community. However, Tyler is having trouble in one area in which he normally excels: winning over the children. Six months in and the three-year-old on top of the family pile above still won't give him the time of day. Perhaps it's the accent.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Valentine's Day with First Aid Kit

We grew spoiled our last couple of years in Berkeley. Among other ways (eating out whenever we pleased being chief among them), we got used to seeing great concerts quite regularly. In 2010 alone we went to She & Him, Band of Horses, Jonsi, the Bridge Benefit Concert, and Lilith Fair, just off the top of my head. As far as we're concerned, there is no better way to spend an evening.

Since we've lived in Germany, we've longed to go to concerts in Paris, Brussels, Berlin--but haven't been able to get over paying three times the cost of the tickets for transportation, not to mention lodging. So when we found out we could see a group we love in Cologne and pay just the same amount for the train as for the tickets, we jumped at the chance. As an added bonus, the concert happened to be on Valentine's Day, which saved us from spending what's supposed to be a romantic evening on our couch watching The Wire.

Of course, the real inducement to go out in the cold and rain was the band: a duo of Swedish sisters who call themselves First Aid Kit. My friend Barbara introduced them to me on our second-to-last day in Berkeley with this gorgeous cover of Fleet Foxes' "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song":

If you're thinking, "Wow, they look really young," it's because they are. They recorded that video in 2008 at the ages of 15 and 18. During the concert, one sister recalled a previous trip to Cologne a couple of years ago. "I remember they put "First Aid Kid" on the poster. That happens a lot for some reason." The other quipped, "I don't know why. We're not kids." At 18 and 21, they are still baby faced:



How did we get such excellent pictures? By standing right up against the stage! It was a small venue and a very low stage. I'd never been that close before, but I highly recommend it.

About halfway through the concert they came right up to the front of the stage to play "Ghost Town" without mics or an amp, and asked everyone to sing along. Since we've been listening to their first album somewhat obsessively since we moved to Aachen, I knew almost all the words. It was pretty magical.


We didn't record the performance, but here's the song in its studio version:

Many of the songs they played were from their second album, which came out in January. I've been listening to this song, "Emmylou," on repeat. I cried when they played it.

What I love most about them is how they really sing. They use some vocal effects for expression, yes, but mostly they just pour out these beautiful, beautiful voices. I found it very affecting to watch. Here are a couple of cool action shots by Tyler.

These hippie dresses looked even uglier in person.
 On a couple of songs they headbanged their long hippie hair all over the place. It was cute.
Last (and admittedly least) on the list of the concert's joys: they spoke English. Flawless, American-accented English. Understanding the introductions and humorous asides at a public event without any effort was truly luxurious.

P.S. This post wasn't intended to be an ad, but it came out sounding like one. I can't help it. I think they're really, really awesome, and they're only going to get better. Yay.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Netherlands are the Betterlands

At least in terms of food, the Netherlands have beat Germany. And here's how we know.

With the onset of the real winter, I decided to get a monthly bus ticket. It costs almost 50 euros per month, but not only allows me free trips to and from work, but on evenings and weekends Sara can ride with me. Since we were spending over 30 euros per month just getting to and from church, we thought this not a terrible deal and went for it. On the first free weekend of the valid period of my ticket, we took a trip to Vaals, the border town just 15 minutes away (by bus) from where we live. And there we saw:




These are just some of the foods that we can find in Vaals that we can't find (or that are ridiculously expensive) in Germany: canned black beans (that aren't canned in some hideous chili sauce), large jars of peanut butter, and CHEDDAR cheese! Not only do they have all of these things, but they're much cheaper than we would have expected. It must have been quite a sight for anyone watching Sara and me walk through the store, mouths gaping wide as we saw all of these treasures that we thought were gone for some years yet. We have the makings of Mexican food once again! Sauce for orzo! Cheese for macaroni! All the things that make us happy.

As if that weren't enough, we found one thing that thrust our happiness through the roof. Behold, Speculoos Pasta:


We had tasted this spread (as one of the many spreads that these Germans are serious about) with Franz and Doro in Munich. It's something like Nutella, but instead of chocolate providing the primary flavor, it tastes like cinnamon-gingerbread cookies. Yes, indeed, it is spreadable cookies for breakfast. Can breakfast get any better? I submit that it cannot. (Unless, of course, you include the actual speculaas cookies, from which the paste is made. I bought some of those cookies and made a speculoos/speculaas Oreo-like cookie sandwich. Best. Thing. Ever.)

Since that first and fateful trip to Vaals, I've been back once by myself and I'm heading back again tomorrow. It's really so much cheaper than the food in Germany, so we (or, if it's not a weekend or an evening, I) go to stock up other cheap things, like Kettle Chips, green beans, peanuts, and stroop waffeln. Sara and I are both feeling more confident in our culinary survival time on the continent. Thank you, Netherlands.

Sunday, February 5, 2012


Last Monday we woke up to snow--on the rooftops, on the trees, and on the tower of St. Jakob.


It snowed tiny sifted-flour flakes all day. And since then, it's been so cold that the snow has stayed. (Tyler says that though snow hasn't melted, some has sublimed. I've watched several kids try to throw snowballs at each other that disintegrate into powder in midair.) We've had highs in the teens for a week straight. (This is a big deal for a wimpy Californian like me.) Most of those days, though, we've had sunshine and beautiful blue skies. Yesterday we woke up to fresh snow on the roofs again. I love waking up to snow. (But I don't love how the skin of my hands has become like sandpaper and the static electricity in my hair could power a small appliance.) This is how our train station looked this morning on our way to church:


As I type this, the heat is on high in the two main rooms and we're both wrapped in blankets. This week the temperature is supposed to creep up into the twenties during the day. Wish us luck.

P.S. Whenever Tyler looks at the weather in our former home, he says, "Shut up, Albany!" The weather has been perfect there pretty much the entire seven months we've been gone.