stevenpiziks: (Default)
A while ago, I heard about the book UND WAS HAT DAS MIT MIR ZU TUN? (AND WHAT DOES THAT HAVE TO DO WITH ME?) by Sacha Battyany. It's about a man who discovers that in 1945, his great-aunt, who was a countess in Austria, threw a huge party with her husband. Around midnight, she gathered the guests and, at her behest, they went down to a work camp, where they all casually murdered 180 Jews. Then they got into their chauffeur-driven cars and went home.

Battyany, a Millennial, had never heard about this part of his family history.  He started digging, and discovered that lots of people knew about this, and the incident had been widely reported in the local news at the time, but no one talked about it.  He wrote about his findings and the impact his search had on him and his family.

Battyany wrote in German, and the book isn't available in English until October.  I downloaded the sample chapters in German to my Kindle to see what they were like for myself.

I wasn't interested in another book about the Holocaust itself.  It's been covered extensively, and I teach MAUS every year to my seniors.  I was more interested in this book for the outsider's perspective.  What do you do when you learn your family was involved in something terrible?  Especially something most of your family knew about but never told you?  How do you live, knowing just a few miles away from your house, an entire population is being tortured and killed?

My own family has at least one dreadful person in it.  While researching the Drake family tree, I found the will of a cousin or uncle who owned slaves in the 1800s.  His will stated that although he had promised one of his slave women her freedom upon his death, he had recently changed his mind because of her "uppity ways" and he was instead willing the slave to his daughter.  It makes me sick to think we're related.

So I was interested in Battyany's findings and reaction.

However, German books are hit-or-miss for me.  German is a difficult language for non-natives to read, more difficult than Spanish or French, partly because of the structure of the language, but mostly because of the attitude of the writers.

English gives you the sentence in pieces.  In general, we start with the subject (who is doing something), then go to the verb (what happens), then we go on to other bits like prepositional phrases that tell us where and when things happen.  As an example, take Jimmy should go shopping for his mother in the the city tomorrow.  We build a slow picture.  First we see Jimmy, then see what he'll do (should go shopping), then who he'll do it for (his mother), then when and where (in the city, tomorrow).  We can mix things up a bit, but we still build the picture of what's happening in pieces.

German, however, is a big-picture language.  You have to get the whole sentence before you know what's happening.  The example sentence above would read in German Jimmy soll morgen in die Stadt fuer seine Mutter einkaufen gehen. This literally means Jimmy should tomorrow in the city for his mother shopping go.  Notice the word order.  Although we know Jimmy SHOULD be doing something, we don't know what it is until we get to the very end of the sentence, though along the way we learn his mother and the city are involved.  In order to understand the meaning, we have to hold the entire sentence in our heads until we get to the end and CLICK! We get the whole picture at once.

This takes some practice, if you didn't grow up doing it.  It's like being used to seeing a picture by assembling jigsaw pieces and then suddenly being expected to see it by having it snap into existence on the table.

German writers take an almost malicious glee in creating long, tortuous sentences in which you have no idea what's going on until the last three words of a 100+ word section.  In order to get my German degree, I had to read a lot of German literature, most of it written during the angst-ridden post-war years, and it was indeed tortuous to read.  It put me off reading German literature for a long, long time.

German newspapers and magazines are equally difficult.  Unlike their American counterparts, who keep to a simple, straightforward style meant to be easy for all readers, German journalists deliberately use an awful, long-winded, twisted style, complete with eye-wrenchingly (or jaw-crushingly) long words that no sane person uses in everyday conversation.  I don't know where this got started, but it needs to stop.  It annoys native Germans, in fact, but journalists keep it up anyway.

And there's the fact that I'm not fluent in German anymore.  I used to be, but years of being away from the country and lack of constant practice have rusted me.  My understanding is much better than my production, but German is still a greater challenge than it once was.

All this is a roundabout way of saying that I approached Battyany's book with a wary eye.  I could wait until October for the English translation, but that felt like cheating.  Besides, translations are never as good as the original.  So I downloaded the sample chapters in German to my Kindle and cracked it open.

To my delight, I could read it with ease.  Battyany, a journalist, avoids the awful German newspaper style and writes in a more conversational style, and I'm having no trouble following him.  I stumble across the occasional unfamiliar word (it took me longer than it should have to untangle a reference to semen donation, for example), but like I teach my students to do, I breeze past them unless it's clear I need to know the word or phrase to follow the passage--and in that case, the Internet gives me the translation in seconds.  I'm reading slower than in English, but faster than I expected.

Battyany's story is compelling, and when I reached the end of the sample chapters, I downloaded the full novel.  A little light reading for vacation!  :)


stevenpiziks: (Esslingen)
Remember when I went to Esslingen, Germany last summer as an exchange chaperone?  The program I went on is bringing twenty-some students and two teachers here this October.  One of the teachers needed a place to stay, and I offered to let her stay with us.  I already knew Sybille fairly well from the previous trip, but I had to warn her that she would be staying in the House of Men!

Before she arrived, we shifted the boys around.  Aran and Maksim will be sharing a room again while she's here, but that's fine--they shared a room for years and are used to it.  Aran lives a Spartan existence, so it was easy to move him, actually.

I realized that the boys had never dealt with a long-term guest before, let alone a female one, so I went over a few rules and procedures (remembering to close the bathroom door every time, no post-shower nudity, knocking and asking permission to enter any bedroom, it's okay to ask questions about Germany, etc.).

KL, the other American teacher in the exchange, met both Sybille and her partner teacher Nina at the airport and waited with them until the students were all picked up by their exchange families.  Then KL met me at a strip mall not far from my house so I could pick up Sybille.  The four of us had gotten along very well in Germany, and it was very nice seeing them again.  By now it was fairly late at night and Sybille was dealing with jet lag and travel exhaustion, of course--she'd been on the go for nearly 18 hours, all told--but was quite chipper.  At home, we got her settled in and shown around.  We talked for a bit, and then it was bed time.

The next day (Thursday) was a school day.  Sybille went with me.  The exchange students followed their host students through the day, and Sybille and Nina coordinated from the library.  After school, I stopped at the store, and Sybille and I chatted about differences between German and American shopping.  We also talked about different European archaeological sites we found interesting.  She's been to Crete, and I was envious.

That evening the exchange held a welcome party at a parent's house.  It was very nice.  We had lots of food and a bonfire.  The German students sang a pair of songs for everyone, which everyone liked quite a lot.

Friday morning, the exchange program vanished for a three-day field trip to see various sites in Michigan.  They come back on Sunday evening.  So far everything is going very well.  I do need to find a few entertaining things to do evenings this week, though! 
stevenpiziks: (Default)
July 24, 2011 (Sunday)

Today I spent most of the day down at the school on the computer, trying to catch up on work.It was slow going, but I got a chunk of material knocked out.Go me!

In the evening, C and M took me on a tour of the top of Esslingen.This involved first visiting the TV tower that perches atop one of the low mountains that surrounds Esslingen.We took the elevator to the balcony that rings the top.The wind was biting cold up there, despite the supposed summertime, but the view was unmatched.Miles and miles away, the Alps made a blue ring all the way around us.The Black Forest lay in one direction, with little tiny buildings for Esslingen and Stuttgart occupying the bowl in the between.

Eventually the cold drove us back down to the ground, and we headed for other sights on top of other mountains—a tower built in honor of Otto von Bismarck, a 300-year-old quarry that had been turned into a playground, a little concert hall built 200 years ago.All of them were put on top of the mountains that ring Esslingen, and the view was invariably stunning.

My German seems to be stuck.My vocabulary is coming back to me in big chunks, and I’m getting a better handle on the local dialect (though I will never, ever understand the school custodian’s Swabian accent), but my spoken grammar is horrible.I can’t get word order right, and my verb tenses are just horrible.I’m making elementary mistakes.Everyone tells me my accent is great, but I’m catching awful, awful grammar blunders.Ugh! It makes me self-conscious every time I open my mouth.I make myself go on—I won’t learn or improve by keeping silent—but it’s awful, knowing I used to be able to pass for a native and now I shout /AMERICAN!/ with every word.

July 25, 2011 (Monday)

Today the American students had some final activities at school—surveys to fill out for the exchange program, paperwork, instructions for the trip home.Afterward, we all went out for ice cream.It turned out that a couple of the flavors were made without milk, so I could have some even though I didn’t have any lactase tablets.Cool!

In Hamburg, I went to a custom shirt shop and had a shirt made up for KL that read /Beste Austauschlehrerin der Welt,/ or /Best exchange teacher in the world./I got all the students to sign it with a fabric marker, and I presented it to KL.She, in turn, gave me a Swabian cookbook with English measurement conversions in it.Many of the recipes involve potatoes in some way, so I know the boys will like them.I was very happy to receive it.

Then it was home.On the way, I stopped at a couple stores to pick up flowers and a thank-you card for C and M.I’d already given them other gifts, but wanted to do a final gesture.I stopped on an apartment house stoop to write a long letter in the card in my careful German (my written German is much better than my spoken) and then finished the walk back.

Then it was time to pack for the return trip.This was a long, arduous process, really.You never know if the airlines will enforce the weight limit on luggage or not, so you have to assume they will.I spent considerable time with the bathroom scale, culling things and moving stuff around and finally got what I figured the airline would accept just in time for bed.


July 26, 2011 (Tuesday)

Rose very early.The flight was to leave at 1:10, which meant we wanted the students at the airport by 11:00.I had to leave the house by 9:30 to ensure I’d arrive a little earlier than the students, so I was up by 6:00.Breakfasted and said good-bye to C, then loaded my stuff into the car so M could drive me to the airport .Arrived in good time, and it was a good thing we had everyone arrive nice and early—the airport good-byes took quite a while!

The rest of the trip home was fairly easy. No major snags, no hitches, just the usual tedium of air travel.I got hung up briefly for two luggage searches.I don’t know why.And at customs in America I ended up in the line behind a family of three who were having some kind of issue that took fully half an hour to resolve.No idea what the hell was going on or why they didn’t send them to an office to figure it out.But in the end it didn’t matter because once I got through customs, there was still a good ten minutes of waiting before the luggage showed up.Right when you really, REALLY want to get home is when the waits are the longest.

At last we were through everything.My mother-in-law picked me up and drove me home.The boys were still at my mother’s.I wanted to see them, but it was also nice to have an evening to unpack and settle back into the house.

And I was home!
stevenpiziks: (Esslingen)


July 23, 2011 (Saturday)

I’m reaching my limit.  I love Germany, but I want to go home now.  I miss the boys quite a lot, and I want my own house back.  I want my own kitchen, where I can cook food I want, and stores that I’m familiar with.  It’s also hard for me to be constantly “on.”  I meet new people every day, and I have to careful to be friendly, interesting, and entertaining.  It’s difficult or impossible to relax under these circumstances.  I can’t get angry or unhappy or be in a bad mood.  I’m not social by nature, so the constant influx of people gets difficult to handle.

It’s one of the disadvantages of going on an exchange.  It’s an inexpensive way to visit another country, but it’s a lot of work.  Even on the tours and out-of-town trips, I have to keep an eye on the group and figure out what the group is doing.  There’s very little down time. I’m also tired of having to take the bus all the way to the school whenever I want to get on the computer.  And that stupid woman still hasn’t paid for the laptop she destroyed, so I have the feeling I’m going to get embroiled in an international insurance fight.

Not meaning to whine; I’m just tired and want to be somewhere more familiar.

Saturday morning I slept way in.  It was the first night I’d had more than six hours sleep in a row!  We teachers had a group breakfast at C and M’s house (where I’m staying) to discuss a number of logistical matters.

After that, I fled.  I took the bus down to the school and wrote most of the afternoon.

In the evening, I met N and her parents (and KL) who were attending a performance of JEDERMANN (“EVERYMAN”), a famous morality play originally written in the 15th century and updated in Austria in the 1800s.  It’s similar to A CHRISTMAS CAROL.  A corrupt man is about to die and a number of anthropomorphized ideas visit him to help or hinder him on his way to redemption.  The performance we saw was done on an outdoor stage facing a church, which gave good acoustics.  I was looking forward to this, and it was pretty good.  The drag queen who represented Money or Goods was the most popular spirit.

Afterward, we all retired to a restaurant with N’s husband and parents for convivial chatter.  I ordered an ice cream confection.  German cafes and restaurants serve a large variety of ice cream desserts, and none of them have heard of soft serve.  It’s one thing I wish we had more of in America.  I got something called a Volcano, which was vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, vanilla sauce, and a gravy boat of warm cherries to pour over it.  Wonderful!
 


stevenpiziks: (Esslingen)


July 22, 2011 (Friday)

Rain again, and barely 60 degrees.  Meanwhile in Michigan, it’s in the upper 90s and low 100s.  We need to slice twenty degrees from Michigan and send them over here!

Checked out of the hostel without incident and climbed onto the tour bus.  We spent the morning touring a German movie studio and movie lot.  They filmed DAS BOOT there, and several famous (to Germans) TV shows and movies.  In the afternoon, we toured the Allianz soccer stadium, which is the one coated with paper-thin plastic that lights up in different colors, depending on who’s playing.

By now I was having a hard time walking.  I have bad feet as it is, and the constant climbing was giving me serious trouble.  Everything over the last several days involved stairs or an incline, and always up, and by now I was limping badly.  At the stadium, the guide ended the tour at ground level, then told us to follow this ramp up to the main entrance, which then required us to go back down to ground level again.  I failed to understand why we couldn’t simply walk around the stadium to the bus.

And then we were on the back to Esslingen.

That evening I back “home” I took C and M, my hosts, out to a late supper at their favorite Italian restaurant.  The food was delicious, and the guy one table over was having rock-baked fish.  This involves coating an entire fish with about five pounds of salt made into a glaze with a couple egg whites and baking it for a long time.  At your table, the chef breaks the inch-thick salt coating open and carves the fish.  I’d heard of this dish but never seen it, and it was very interesting.
 


stevenpiziks: (Esslingen)


July 21, 2011 (Thursday)

Today we all set out to explore Munich.  First we had a couple of tours, one of which was on bicycles.  The tour guide was from Wisconsin. (!)  Munich, incidentally, got started because a local king built a bridge across the river, intending to charge tolls and raise some serious money.  However, there was already a bridge downriver that everyone was already using and no one used the new bridge.  And then the old bridge mysteriously burned down one night and everyone had to use the new bridge.  A city sprang up around it—Munich.

After the bike tours was free time.  I ended up with a couple of students.  At first I was a little leery, but then I realized they would be willing to do whatever I wanted (they were hostages to language, you see), and I wouldn’t have to do the “What do you want to do?” thing I’d been doing when I went sightseeing with the other teachers.  So off we went.

We explored the Viktualenmarket, a big open-air grocery store that sells produce and fresh fish and wildfowl and just about everything else edible.  My inner chef was going nuts.

Then we went to the Rathaus (courthouse), which is hopelessly Gothic.  The tall tower is festooned with gargoyles and grotesques.  We really wanted to go up in it, but was it possible?  A little exploring turned up a sign that told us it was!  You take a teeny little elevator to the fourth floor, where a woman in a plexiglass cage takes a couple euros from you, and you get into another elevator that takes you way, way up to the top of the tower.

The view was magnificent!  R and R (the students) and I were just stunned.  We could see the entire city.  The tower continued to rise up above us, and the gargoyles glared down, ready to drop on us if we misbehaved.  All three of us fell in love with the tower.

Across from us was the tower of St. Peter’s church, and a group of people were exploring that balcony.  How cool would it be to see the view from that perspective?  At that moment the cash register lady came up to let us know she wanted to close up, and I asked her about it.  She said the church closed at the same time.  Drat!

“They have no elevator, either,” she said in German.  “One must climb 300 narrow steps to get up there.  One must be quite fit!”

We also visited another Gothic church whose name I didn’t catch, and the Frauenkirche (the Lady’s Church), which is older than the baroque or Gothic ideas and is much plainer.  I liked it rather better, to tell the truth.  A beautiful fountain sits outside the Frauenkirche.  It’s made of blocks of stone that trickle water with mushroom-like sculptures in the center that spout more water.  It invites you to sit and cool your feet and think.  It was lovely.

A hat store caught R’s eye, and we went in.  Both R and R bought hats, actually, and I shamelessly enabled.

And then it was time to meet the rest of the group to head back to the hostel.  It was a late night.  The students were all riled up.  Quiet time at the hostel starts at 10:00, not long after we arrived there, and room curfew (per our own rules) is 11:00.  At 11:00 the other teachers and I ran a room check and got people back in the right rooms.  At 11:10, I caught a pair of students heading down to the shower room.  I sent them back to their rooms.  “You had an hour for that when we arrived,” I said.  “You’ll have to wait until morning.”

I sat in my room with my door open, and five minutes later, one of the same students, a German student, slipped out of his room.  I snagged him and got very sharp. “If I catch you out of your room again,” I told him in German, “you will spend the day tomorrow sitting on the bus with me, doing nothing.”

“Ja, doch,” he muttered, and went back to his room.

I was up until nearly one in the morning.  The life of a chaperone.
 


stevenpiziks: (Esslingen)

July 20, 2011 (Wednesday)

 In the early morning hours we boarded a tour bus and started a three-day trip to Munich. I was looking forward to this—I don’t know Munich at all and wanted to see this part of the country.

 Our first stop was actually along the way at Neuschwanstein. This is the huge fairy-tale castle on top of a mountain, the one that everyone thinks of when you say “German castle.” It was started in 1869 by King Ludwig II, who was much-hated at the time, partly because all the building of elaborate castles was draining the treasury. Eventually a plot to depose him was hatched. Doctors declared him insane and unfit to rule. Attempts were made to arrest him, and he snuck away with help. His body was found floating in Swan Lake the next evening, despite the fact that he was a strong swimmer. Neuschwanstein was never finished, and Ludwig himself only lived there a few weeks. Only 17 rooms were actually completed. A few weeks after his death, the local parliament said, “We have to make back some money from this disaster,” and they opened the castle to tourism. Now it’s Bavaria’s biggest money-maker, and Ludwig is highly revered. Go figure.

 To get to the castle, you can hire a horse-drawn carriage or hike. Guess which we did?

 The weather was cool and slightly rainy, and we hiked all the way up, accompanied by a steady stream of other tourists. At the top, we learned that the tour we were supposed to join wouldn’t start for 45 minutes. KL fretted. Should we allow the students to go up to the high bridge which overlooks the castle or make them wait down here?

 “I didn’t come all the way to Germany to stand around and look at a castle wall,” I announced. “I’m going up to the bridge, and any students who want to come with me may come along.” And I left.

 Marienbrücke (Maria’s Bridge) spans a gorge some distance behind and above NSS castle, and Ludwig had the bridge built for the sole purpose of being able to enjoy the view of the castle. However, it did involve yet more uphill hiking. Oi! All of us (and yes, all the students wanted to come) hoofed it way, way up through forested pathways to the bridge.

 The bridge is wood and cable, and if you have vertigo, it’ll hand you a big plate of it. You look down a looooooong way to a narrow firehose of a river that pounds through rocks below. And beyond is the castle, in all its fairy tale splendour.

 We enjoyed the view and took a lot of pictures. I went to the other end of the bridge and found a mountain trail that coiled around the side of the cliff. Two other students and I followed it a bit. Signs in German basically said, “Only idiots leave the trail. No, seriously! If you break your legs, don’t come running to us!” But they didn’t say you COULDN’T leave the trail.

 And then I found the staircase. It was seriously cool, made of tree roots and stone. I very much wanted to climb it and see where it went. The signs didn’t quite forbid it, after all. But I had students with me and had to set an example, so I forebore.

 We hiked back down to the castle proper in plenty of time to join the tour. (Ha!) I liked the inside of the castle very much, and we got to see all 17 finished rooms. I only wish I could have stopped and examined them in more detail. Every bit of wall was painted with a scene or something, and I wanted to work out what they were.

 What amazed me was how small the rooms were. We’re taught (by Hollywood) that castles are supposed to have huge rooms you could play soccer in, but Ludwig’s bedroom really wasn’t that much bigger than mine, and I have more closet space (probably more clothes, too). Yeah, he had an actual toilet and a cold water tap in his room, but I have hot water on demand and a shower. Shows you how much luxury we live in compared to even the wealthiest king back then, you know?

 After the tour we trundled down to the bottom of the hill. That was a trip! Some of the students found a shortcut and asked me to translate the signs. I said it definitely a shortcut and was probably steeper. They decided to take it, and I followed. Hoooo! Going down was almost harder than going up! Our shins were burning by the time we reached bottom, and we were HUNGRY! I had sandwiches in my backpack, but I really wanted something hot. I paid four Euros for a hot dog and it the best hot dog I ever ate.

 Also along the way to Munich we stopped at a small town and took a boat ride around the Bodensee. Once again we were early and we had some free time. A bunch of us descended on a coffee house, and the proprietor was the only one working right then. She zipped around bringing coffee, tea, and cake for us.

 The boat ride was tranquil and pretty (and thankfully dry). Then it was supper at a Bavarian restaurant, and we were dropped off at the youth hostel. There was the Reading of the Rules (900 Euro fine for smoking or drinking) and the handing out of keys. And then bed.

 I actually got little sleep. I was the only adult male on the trip, so I had to supervise all 25 males. Yeesh.


stevenpiziks: (Esslingen)

July 19, 2011 (Tuesday)

 Today was Sporttag, what Americans would call Field Day. Our students were allowed to take part, and since most of our group in the tenth grade, we were put in with the tenth graders. The first event was a tug-of-war, and we destroyed all the other teams, reigning undefeated! After that, things didn’t go nearly as well. Many of the other games were unfamiliar to Americans. Even the sprints were different—Germans start them while lying flat on their stomachs. And one of our students pulled a hamstring. (Ow!) But the whole point was to go outside and run around, not win, and our team was given a friendship-and-participation certificate, which KL said is going into the display case back home.


stevenpiziks: (Esslingen)

July 18, 2010 (Monday)

 This morning I had to pop into the train station in Stuttgart to renew the exchange students’ transportation cards, the ones that allow them to ride the local trains and buses.  Unfortunately, I got tangled in a long line of other customers and then I didn’t make good connections back to the school, so the students had already left for today’s activity by the time I arrived.

 N, one of the other teachers, gave me instructions on how to catch up with them, but the next appropriate bus wouldn’t leave for another hour, which meant I sat at the bus station. Again. Ah well—I was able to read more page proofs.

 Finally the bus arrived and I wound through city streets into an industrial zone, where I finally arrived at the Zolle Backery.  It’s a huge commercial backery, and the students were getting a tour.  I asked around until I was able to find them. The tour was just about over, but the students needed their cards, so it was a good thing I was able to catch up with them. It was kind of an annoying day—I had spent almost all of it on city transportation or waiting in line, and I didn’t get the bakery tour, either.  But I got a huge bag of fresh pretzels at the end, so it wasn’t a total loss.  :)


stevenpiziks: (Esslingen)

July 17, 2010 (Sunday)

 Had a lovely late morning (I’ve been sleeping on E’s futon) and lounged around E’s house over tea and brötchen, talking. The two of us have managed to pick up our friendship as if we never left off, and we discussed any number of things—but mostly our children. :)

 At the appropriate time, E took me down to the Hamburg main station for my train trip home. (The flights back to Stuttgart were all booked.) We bid a long, fond farewell and waved to each other through the train windows as my train pulled away. I hope it’s not 25 years before I see her again!

 The train trip back was stupendous.  Leisurely, relaxing. Unlike airplanes, trains have lots of room.  I even had a table. I read page proofs for THE DOOMSDAY VAULT, gazed at stunning German scenery (mountains, valleys, rivers, lovely little villages), dozed, and read.  I love traveling by train, especially in Europe, and I wished the boys were with me so I could share it with them.

 Arrived home without incident and greeted C and M, my host family, and caught a chunk of the women’s world soccer cup.  (America lost to Japan, in case you missed it.) And then bed.


stevenpiziks: (Esslingen)

July 15, 2010 (Friday)

 Rose early and grabbed my prepacked duffel bag.  M had graciously offered to drive me to the airport so I wouldn’t have to take the train. So nice of her!

 I was nervous that something would be wrong with my flight, but there were no problems.  I zipped through security, boarded the plane, and an couple hours later, I was greeting E in Hamburg!

 I spent my junior year in college (1987-88) in Hamburg, sharpening my German and seeing what Germany was really like.  I was on scholarship, and lived as a dirt-poor student.  At one point I joined a theater group there, partly because I was acting at the time, and partly to make some friends.  E became a good friend, which was especially convenient because she had a car. :) In the her car she had a stuffed toy mouse named Mausi. I used to hold Mausi on my lap when E gave me a ride home from rehearsal and I threatened to keep Mausi.  E howled, “Nöööö! Das ist meine Maus!” On the day I left Germany, E presented me with Mausi on the condition that I put Mausi in my own car, when I got one. I did.

 Now it was 24 years later. E and I have stayed in touch, at first by paper letter, then by email and Facebook.  We’ve both gotten married, had children, found jobs, moved around, gotten divorced, and through it all, stayed in touch.  She found me at the airport and we spent several moments hugging.  It was so great to see her again!

 We headed off to E’s house.  Her kids were visiting their father for the week, so I didn’t get to meet them, unfortunately, but when we arrived, I opened my bag and pulled out . . . Mausi! She had returned. E was thrilled. We ceremoniously returned her to the back seat of E’s car.

 And then we headed into Hamburg to look around.

 It was very interesting and strange visiting Hamburg.  Remember, I hadn’t set foot there for nearly 25 years, so it wasn’t as if I were visiting a place I came to often. A great many things were the same, and others were different, and it was weird.

 We started off by taking the train to the University of Hamburg, and we followed the same route from the station that I used to follow to get to class. However, a few things were a different, and I had to get my bearings. (E lived in a different part of town at the time and in any case, she drove to class, so she didn’t know the U of H from the same direction I did.) Once I did, memories kept jumping up. This sculpture. That building. This rooftop.  That street.  This building was a coffee house now. That building was still a bookstore. Incredible.

 The Philosophenturm, where E and I both had several classes, was largely unchanged.  We went up to the top floor, and the view from the windows shifted me back in time to when I was 20 years old and had no idea where my life was going yet.

 “I keep expecting to run into myself,” I told E.  “With my old black jacket and my red backpack and my leaky tennis shoes.  There are probably still fingerprints in this building that I left behind, and now I’m back to touch them again.”

 There was a sofa in a common area back then.  We both used to sit on it and talk, and we were half hoping it would still be there, but it wasn’t.

 We also snuck into the theater where I had performed on stage and E had worked back stage. We laughed about the stuff that had happened during the play.  I was struck by how little of the outer part of the building I remembered, but I remembered everything about the stage and the house.  The backstage area was locked, much to my disappointment.

 The Mensa, or student cafeteria, had moved and actually served edible food.  (!) Back when I was a student, the Mensa served rubbery boiled potatoes, some sort of gray goop poured over them, cabbage boiled into mush, and other horrors masquerading as food, but there were times when I had so little money, it was the only place I could afford to eat.  (One time I wanted to buy a particular book, and I went without lunch for a week to save up for it. Eventually I found a job tutoring English, and things got a little easier.) Now, though, the Mensa served fresh fruit and vegetables, salad, meat you recognized, even milk!  About time someone did something about that!

 I followed old muscle memory and came down an alleway that widened into a street.  On the corner was a café I liked. It was gone now. A stationary store was there now. But I was glad I found the spot.

 E and I also found a used bookstore we both had often browed through.  It was still there, and we browsed through it. How cool!

 We grabbed some lunch at an Italian restaurant, then retraced my old route home to the Wohnheim (dorm) where I used to live.  We got off the train at Lutterothstrasse, just as I used to every day for a year. The station was exactly the same, and when we emerged onto the intersection at Lutterothstrasse and Hagenbeckstrasse, I was again shifted back in time.  Everything on the street was exactly the same—the houses, the Eastern Orthodox church, the backery, the hair salon.  We arrived at Hagenbeckstrasse 60 and found the dorm was being renovated.  Scaffolds covered it completely, and the inside had been ripped out.  Well, dang!

 I still kept expecting to see myself. It was as if I could wait there for a while and eventually I would meet me coming back from class or from downtown and we could talk.  The surroundings were so familiar but so far away at the same time.

 By now it was getting late, so we went back to E’s house.  We thought about trying to catch a movie, but nothing was playing that we wanted to see, so instead we watched the German version of AS GOOD AS IT GETS on tape and ate popcorn. It was very enjoyable, actually.


stevenpiziks: (Esslingen)

July 14, 2010 (Thursday)

 Today was a day trip to Heidelberg, a city I visited for a weekend in 1988.  This was going to be pretty cool.

 It was, too.

 Heidelberg occupies a valley along the Rhine River, and it’s beautiful.  It’s a university town, and the university dates back many hundreds of years. (The composer Robert Schumann lived in Heidelberg for a long time in the 1800s and heard the bells of both the church and the insane asylum.  He wrote, “I don’t know whether to be a priest or a madman.” He later went mad, so you can see which he picked.)

 Heidelberg is THE picturesque city Germany, with narrow, winding cobblestone streets, endless little shops and cafes with flats above them, churches that ring bells at all times of day, and of course The Castle.

 The Castle is Heidelberg Castle, which was started somewhere in the 1100s and was added to for five hundred years, stretching out across the top of the valley like a red lion.  It was destroyed by the French and Swedish army in 1620 during the Thirty Year War and no one has really lived in it since. Now, of course, it’s a big tourist attraction. To the Romantics, it’s been The Castle or The Ruin, the absolute symbol of Romantic Germany.

 We all arrived in Heidelberg on the train, which desposited us on the station track and vanished into a picturesque tunnel in the side of the mountain, at which point we hiked to the center of the city.

 I kept stumbling over memories. Bits and pieces of the city, parts I recalled from 25 years ago, would strike me as utterly familiar.  Here was the wine shop where I got a really BAD bottle of white wine.  There was a street I got lost in. Here was a church I explored.  There was a cobblestone courtyard where another exchange student asked for my arm because she was wearing high heels. I kept wanting to stop and examine things more closely, but KL hauled us at a breakneck pace through town.

 Which, of course, meant we arrived early for our tour and we had to wait around for 20 minutes.

 We hooked up with a pair of tour guides, one who spoke German and one who spoke English.  Unsurprisingly, the American students chose the English speaker while the German students went with the German guide. I elected to follow the German speaker.

 It turned out to be a good choice.  Our guide was a little woman with a wide smile and a big voice, and she was a good storyteller to boot.  We followed her yellow umbrella all over Heidelberg, to the university library (which was extremely busy), to the tower where they imprisoned Witches for burning (now empty), to the two main churches (one Catholic and one Evangelical), to the bridge over the Rhine and its famous statue of the babboon on it, and finally up to The Ruin.

 I love castles. I could spend all my life in them. We followed the tour guide (and dodged other tour groups) as she pointed out various sights of the red sandstone castle.  It’s freaking huge, and I remembered all of it from over two decades ago.  A house overlooks the castle. It has a balcony with porch furniture on it. I’m curious to know who lives there, and if they ever get tired of the view.  I wouldn’t.

 After the castle tour came free time.  I went back down to the city proper and explored some more.  I love Heidelberg, and I think I could happily live there. The narrow streets and the overhanging floors of the houses above . . . yeah, I’m there. Completely.

 At the day’s end, I went home and packed for Hamburg.


stevenpiziks: (Esslingen)

July 13, 2010

 Today I spent a chunk of the morning dealing with computer issues, then went to our daily meeting with the American students. Late that afternoon, I went to a German class.

M, the woman of the house where I’m staying, teaches a class of German for foreigners at the local community college, and she invited me to sit in on a section. Interested, I tagged along. M gave me a little tour of the college, which is very well-appointed. It includes a cooking program, music center, and a child care area. The classes cost very little (as in a couple bucks per week per class), and those with a low income take them for free.

Germany recently started requiring that anyone who wants a long-term visa or citizenship must show at least a basic proficiency in German, even those who are married to a citizen. As a result, demand for the class has gone up considerably. The class consisted of adults from all over the globe—Japan, Ethiopia, Greece, Brazil, Portugal, Italy, France. No Americans, though. Today M started class with some practice—everyone had to ask the guest (me) a question.

I remembered to keep my German slow and clear.  I also asked them questions—where they were from, what brought them to Germany, whether they had children, and so on.

Then M went over some homework on money and banking and started a new unit on clothing. She did this by reading the story “The Emperor’s New Clothes” in German, which the students followed with varying degrees of success. Then came a short break, at which I ducked out—it’s a three-hour class, and I didn’t need to stay for the whole thing.

M is a good teacher and the students seemed into the class, too. It was an interesting time.

After that, I popped over to a restaurant for some supper and wandered downtown Stuttgart for a while before heading “home.”


stevenpiziks: (angry)


When I travel with a laptop I know how to minimize the risk of theft and damage from a computer being banged around or hit by viruses.  But no one ever goes into how to avoid having your computer hit by a Turkish woman's car.
 
We had all disembarked from the bus from Berlin and everyone's luggage, including my backpack, sat on the sidewalk in front of the school here in Esslingen.  A Turkish woman pulled into the very narrow street just as the bus itself was trying to leave, and rather than wait thirty seconds for the bus to clear out of the way, she suddenly pulled up onto the sidewalk and plowed through the pile of luggage.  She rolled right over my backpack.
 
When I checked, I found a number of things destroyed—a bread mold I’d bought at the windmill, a cool thermos I’d bought.  Weirdly, my Kindle escaped unscathed.  However, my laptop was destroyed.  The screen was shattered and the housing was cracked right up the middle.
 
I was furious.  Still am, actually, despite my tone here.  The woman was apologetic and tried to claim that because our luggage was in her way, she had done nothing wrong, but everyone there, students and teachers alike, quickly shouted down that claim and she finally admitted she had screwed up.  (I had backed up my data, at least, or I would have shot her.)  I didn’t speak to her much because I was too angry and was afraid I would say or do something regrettable, and I let C handle most of it.
 
In the end, we extracted her insurance information.  C said that her insurance will pay for everything, though I have no idea how long it will take.  The police were summoned at the woman's request, but they refused to issue a report, since the woman admitted wrongdoing and in Germany it's an insurance problem, not a police issue.

The biggest problem is that I no longer have a laptop for my stay here.  Also, the laptop belonged to Wherever Schools, so even if the woman’s insurance company cut me a check, I couldn’t get a new laptop because I have to turn the money over to the school.  I’m stuck using whatever computer I can scrounge up, and since this is a working trip (I’m under three deadlines right now), I have to change my schedule.  I can’t work a bit and socialize a bit and work a bit.  I have to work all at once, when I have computer access, and do the bitchy writer thing: “I’m sorry, I can’t right now.  Maybe later?”

I went home with C in a very bad mood, but had to be polite and hide it, which was very difficult.  I don’t know what the hell that stupid woman was thinking.  I would happily deport her to a place where women aren’t allowed in public.  She certainly shouldn’t be.
 


stevenpiziks: (Esslingen)


Sunday, July 10, 2011

We got up and loaded the bus with our luggage for the trip home.  Once on the highway, we drove for about an hour, then stopped in Potsdam, where there’s a palace garden kind of place.  The students had settled into the bus and were half asleep by then.

“Can we stay on the bus?”

“Do we have to go?”

“I’d rather just stay here.”

My response?  “You traveled thousands of miles and your parents paid thousands of dollars.  You can sleep when you’re dead.  Everyone off the bus!”

And everyone got off the bus.

The palace and garden area was actually quite pleasant.  You needed to buy a ticket for just about everything, but you could wander the woods and trails and grounds for free.  I gravitated toward the windmill. 

See, when I was little, I always thought it would be neat to live in a windmill, but I’ve never in my life actually been in one.  Now I could go!

This one was an original windmill from the area, eight or ten stories tall (counting the sails) and turning grandly in the breeze.  Inside on the ground floor was a gift shop.  To go up cost a couple Euros and I decided to pay it.  A wide spiral staircase up the center granted entry to the upper floors, which were a museum about the windmill.  I read a number of the signs (all in German), but didn’t linger--I could hear the machinery turning on the floors above.

The fourth floor was a machine room.  A huge cog occupied the center of the floor, and it was turning under the power of the sails outside.  Other wheels and belts turned and flowed.  It was a big plate of awesome!  A door led to a balcony that ringed the windmill outside, and I took advantage.  I turned a corner and almost got bopped in the face by a huge windmill sail that swept majestically past my head.  A rail blocked me from taking the final fatal step that would have taken my head off.  The view was fantastic!

Back inside, I took pictures of the machinery and felt my inner steampunk author jumping up and down with happiness.  An attendant was also in the room, but he seemed to grow bored and eventually he went downstairs.

Now . . .

There was another staircase, really almost a ladder, that went up to the very top floor, the attic of the windmill.  A sign strung across it said, “Eintritt verboten,” or “Entry forbidden.”  I hesitated only a moment.  Who knew how long the attendant would be gone?  I clattered up the stairs.

Whoa!  How cool!  This was where the machinery connected to the sails outside.  It was grand!  I could see and understand the machinery much better here.  It was enormously cool and satisfying and informative and exactly what I needed to see.  I zipped back down the stair-ladder, no one the wiser.  Perfect!

To make up for my transgression, I bought from the gift shop a bread mold made of wood pulp.  It’s round with a sun design imprinted in the bottom.  You let bread rise in it, then demold it and bake.  I’ve never seen such a method before and really wanted to try it.  It came with instructions in multiple languages, and I’m dying to try it.

And then it was time to get back on the bus for the rest of the trip home.


stevenpiziks: (Esslingen)


Eventually we headed toward the Berlin Cathedral, the agreed-upon meeting place.  I love cathedrals (a forbidden pleasure to a Witch?), but it was unfortunately closed because services were going on, so I couldn’t go in.  I contented myself with poking around outside.  At 5:50 the bells started ringing for Vespers and they ran for a full ten minutes.  You could just see the bells themselves in the tower.  I spent many fruitless minutes trying to discern the identity of a saint enshrined on one wall.  She had a serpent wrapped around her right hand and held a mirror in her left.  I couldn’t figure out who the heck she was, and it was driving me crazy.

Next up was the boat tour down the Spree (“spray”) River.  This was a nice diversion, but by now we’d had so many tours that the information largely repeated itself, though we heard a great deal about various bridges we passed under.  One guy on the shore was mooning tour buses and boats as they passed, which amused the students greatly.

After the tour we headed off for supper at Der Alte Fritz restaurant for supper.  It was delicious--boiled egg soup and chicken and potatoes and apple strudel.  The waitress brought water to all the tables, too, something European restaurants don’t generall do.  We were all dying of thirst after being out in the hot sun all day, though, and weren’t shy about asking for it!

I spent the next chunk of free time with R and B, a couple of students in the group.  We wandered up and down Kufuerstendamm, watching more street performers and avoiding the roving bachelor and bachelorette parties.

The roving bachelor and bachelorette parties are a new thing in Germany, an English import, according to the locals.  The bachelor/ette and friends all don the same shirt and/or hat (usually the shirt says something like “Christian’s last day of freedom” with the date) and stampede up and down the Ku’damm being silly or annoying.  The friends make the groom/bride try to sell things like kisses or candy to passersby.  One groom was wearing overalls with circles drawn on in marker.  Women paid a Euro to cut a circle out.  The first time you see one of these groups it’s funny or cute.  The fifth and sixth one are seriouls annoying, and you’re willing to murder the tenth.

R and B are interested in science fiction and fantasy, and we talked about a number of authors.  They thought it was kind of cool that I know a number of writers, including ones R likes.
 


stevenpiziks: (Default)

Saturday, July 9, 2011

We got to sleep in a little--8:00!  By 10:00 we were at the Holocaust Memorial.  You may have heard about it. It’s the one made of cement blocks on a grid.  When you go into the memorial, the ground slopes down and the blocks get taller.  If you’re with a group, you lose people because the byways are narrow.  It’s gloomy and rigid inside.  Eventually, if you keep walking, the ground slopes upward, the blocks get shorter, and you’re out in the sunlight.  A number of interpretations exist about the memorial--it’s the Jewish experience of the camps, it’s a timeline of the war, the blocks are tombs, they are similar to desks of bureaucrats and Nazis, and so on.

Beneath the memorial is a center with a number of exhibits.  There are the usual timelines and photographs, and also a room of letters in which you can read (inscribed on the floor) letters and postcards written by Jews in or near the camps.  One was written by a little girl who knew she was about to die.  She said she was scared of death, especially because she saw how other children had been shoved into the mass graves while still alive.  It made me cry.

After that, we went past Brandenburg Gate and all the street theater gathered in front of it.  Lots of people dress in costumes and offer themselves up for photographs.  I can understand the historical soldiers and people in statue makeup, but Darth Vader and Yoda?

Then it was on to the Reichstag, which is the German congress building.  The outside is an enormous and imposing palace of columns and stone, but inside it’s all glass and marble.  We were brought up to the visitor’s gallery above the debating chamber, where we got a 45-minute speech from a very good speaker who was unfortunately quite difficult to translate because of the speed at which he spoke.  I could understand him but not really translate him very well.  We also went up to the huge crystal dome above the debating chamber.  A ramp spirals around the interior, and I climbed all the way to the top, drinking in the view of Berlin as I went.  Everywhere you look is an historical building.

We had a smidgen of free time here and the grownups got lunch at a cafe in town.  We got into a very spirited discussion about politics and it was extremely interesting.
 


stevenpiziks: (Esslingen)

Friday, July 8, 2010

Breakfast was at the hotel, a buffet of hot and cold foods, for which I was grateful, and then we boarded our bus again, along with a tour guide who would give us a running narrative of sites around the city. KL had asked for a guide who could speak both English and German (since many of our students are only in second year German), but we ended up with a guide who spoke very limited English. This was problematic for J, the male chaperone, who speaks no German at all. KL asked the guide to speak slowly and in simple German, and this he said he could do.

So that J, at least, wouldn’t be completely left out, I sat just behind him and translated what the guide was saying. I’d never done simultaneous translation before. I finally caught on to the trick of just unhooking my mouth from my mind and not worrying that I was talking over the guide. 

The Berlin tour was very interesting, especially since I hadn’t been here since the reunification, and the city has restructured itself. Berlin has a completely different flavor from Esslingen. Like most of Germany, it’s a mishmash of old and new, ancient and modern, but it’s also a mixture of Soviet and Western. It’s also dirtier than the smaller towns. And huge. It’s one of the biggest cities in Europe, both by land area and by population. The more you see, the more there is to see.

After that tour, we went on a tour of Berlin Underground. Berlin created an enormous warren of bunkers during World War II, and they were expanded during the Cold War. During WWII bomb raids, people dashed down into them and spent hours or even days underground. However, there was never room for more than 8% of the Berlin population. Some of the doors were designed to close by pushing people out once the interior of the bunker was full. There were so many air raids that after WWII ended, thousands of Berliners committed suicide out of what we now recognize as PTSD.

We went down a set of steps as if we were going to a subway and then abruptly went into a side door and found ourselves in an underground fortress. We saw sleeping areas and medical bays and toilet facilities and generators and air filtrations systems and miles and miles and miles of corridors and rooms that stretched in all directions. From above you would have no idea that any of it existed. When we finally emerged, it was from a door in the wall of a subway station, and the door was painted to look like part of the wall, so we sort of popped out of thin air, which the students found wonderful.

The guy who led the bunker tour spoke also very little English, and his German was fast. He also talked about specialized stuff like how generators and air filters worked. And the bunkers echoed very badly, meaning his words piled up on top of each other. The net effect was that I was able to follow about half of what he was talking about, and could translate very little. Still, it was a pretty cool tour.

After that, we had an early supper at the Hard Rock Cafe and the students were turned loose for an afternoon/evening of free time. I wandered around with J, and we both shopped for souvenirs for people back home. Berlin’s Buddy Bears were back home, too. Each bear is a life-sized statue that started out identical but was painted by an artist from a different country to represent that country. The USA bear, for example, is done up like the Statue of Liberty. The bears stand on the sidewalk of Kurfuerstendamm and are used to promote international goodwill and charity. Some artists went for an overall symbol (like the USA bear) and some went for intricate detail (like the bear from Thailand that had dozens of little scenes painted on it). I took a picture of every single bear, with special attention to the bears from Latvia and Ukraine.  I'll post photos later.

J and I also ran into several street performers. A bunch of 20-something guys were doing gymnastics and breakdancing in a square. Musicians played a variety of music. One cafe J and I passed had hundreds of chairs that were all turned to face the sidewalk, and everyone was staring at us as we walked by.

 “Don’t you feel like you’re on a stage?” I said to J, and right at that moment we both realized that two steps ahead of us a mime was following a woman and mimicking her. He was the object of the cafe’s attention. The woman had no idea what was going on, either. J and I pulled over to one side to watch as the mime imitated a number of passers-by, to the great amusement of the cafe customers.

After a long day of bumming around Berlin, we all ended up back at the hotel. Once again there were no major shenagnigans that we heard about. Yay!
 

stevenpiziks: (Esslingen)

Thursday, July 7, 2010

 Rose bright and early for the Berlin trip. C drove me to the school, which was nice--saved me an hour’s sleep!

Arrived at the school and met up with the other teachers. We were bringing the American students, but not all the German students could get away, so only about half of them came, creating a group of 40 students in all. We boarded a huge tour bus driven by a Big Burly Bus Driver (BBBD), who showed great skill at manuevering the enormous tour bus through the narrow streets of Esslingen, and off we went.

We started off beautifully, crossing over long stretches of beautiful Germany countryside. German law forbids billboards, so the view is unspoiled. The bus crossed over a valley that must have been half a mile deep. The houses below were tiny. We also passed countless wind farms. Alternate power meets so much resistance in the United States. Over here, it’s a standard, and it’s quite clear that it’s not widespread at home because oil companies want it suppressed.

I want to take German rest stops home with me. They are large and they have restaurants with real food in them--salad and roasts and fresh sandwiches and fresh fruit and oatmeal and whatever you might want, all freshly made. No fast food, no junk, no crap. It’s awesome!

 Then we hit the traffic jam. Over two hours of near-motionless driving. This caused a problem. By German law, the BBBD can only drive a certain number of hours per day and must have a break after a certain amount of time behind the wheel. The time cannot be extended, no excuses. Because of the jam (which was caused by an accident), we were in danger of not making it to Berlin before the BBBD would have to simply stop driving for the day.

We soldiered on. In the end, we made it to Berlin with absolutely no time to spare. It meant, however, that we couldn’t take the students swimming--the BBBD couldn’t drive us, and the only swimming place that was open was too far away to walk. Berlin has public transit, of course, but we weren’t up to handling three transfers on the U- and S-trains with 40 students. In all, we spent 13 hours on the road. Oi!

Check-in at the Ludwig van Beethoven Hotel went smoothly. I got my own room. (!) I think it was because the only double-rooms had one bed in them, and there would have been rebellion if the other male chaperone and I had been asked to share a bed, and a room with two beds would have been more expensive.

Once we were all unpacked and settled, S and N, the German teachers, announced we were going across the street to Hasenheide Park for a nice long walk. This we did. It was a nice enough park. There was a huge statue of the guy who founded gymnastics in Berlin in the 1800s and was so beloved for it that the German word for gymnastics (turnen) was adapted from his name. The students were more fascinated by the two guys who lounged at the base of the statue smoking marijuana, though.

All of us wandered about the park some more, but ultimately it was just a park, and they became rather bored.

We turned them loose for supper, told them to eat where they liked. Most everyone ended up at an Italian place not far from the hotel. J (the other male chaperone) and I got a table to ourselves and ordered pizzas. The waiter assured us each pizza was for one person, but they were huge! Thin crust or not, I could only eat half of mine. It was great pizza.

After that, it was bedtime, really. We adults stayed up to patrol, but nothing untoward happened, and we were happy.

 


stevenpiziks: (Esslingen)

Wednesday, July 6, 2010

 

Today was a weirdly normal day.  I went to the school, the students went to class, KL and I went out to a cafe and for some shopping around Esslingen until lunch.  We also did some research into some stuff to do in Berlin.  We wanted to find a place to take the students swimming on the day we arrvied as a way to relax after the long bus ride, but every place we found was closed for the summer.  You read that right--closed.  The current fashion in Berlin seems to be to close swimming pools for the summer to encourage (force) people to go to the beach.  I don’t know what they do when it rains.

 

In the evening I wrote and also phone Erika, who I’m visited in a couple weeks.  It was great to hear her voice, and when we talked, it was as if we’d always been talking, though we haven’t actually spoken in over twenty years.  I was a little nervous about that, to tell the truth.  I was afraid that we would be really effective as friends after so long, but that wasn’t the case.  At least, not on the phone. It’s going to be really great visiting her.

 

Also gave C the gift I’d brought him--an autographed copy of one of my novels, Dead Man on the Moon.  He set about reading it and I caught him reading the ending. (!)  I asked if he always did that, and he said he did.  Hmf!  His wife M agreed that this was indeed the case.

 

At the last minute, I remembered that I still had to pack for Berlin.  Oops!  I rushed about getting everything together.  Then it was bed.


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