Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Ringing of the Bells

In the spirit of the season...

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Fun with long camera exposures

Umm, about what I was saying regarding the lack of snowfall yesterday... nevermind.

Sure, it is not quite like what's going on in NYC today, but this was a hell of a lot more than I expected! Here's a shot just taken out of our bedroom window.

Looks like Herr Doktor Braun just hit 141.62227 kph

Went to see "Avatar" this evening at the Metropolis Theater.  I was pretty skeptical going in.  But despite some pretty terrible dialogue, I was amazed.  No 3D at this old school theater but that might have been a good thing.  As much as I would have liked to have seen it in 3D, I found myself getting a little motion sick somewhere in the middle of the film.  And at nearly three hours long, I don't know if I could stand to sit through it again, no matter how good it was.  An action film is an action film, and I don't find much suspense in seeing them multiple times.  Still, I am sure this thing will clean up when it comes to all the technical awards. It deserves it.

Possibly more impressive was that there were no major technical difficulties at the theater this time.  When the curtain opened before the film started, I knew we might be seeing something special.  Yes, they've had a few curtain issues in the past. 

And for the impressive trifecta, check this out.  Ok, a 3-0 win vs a team near the bottom of the table shouldn't be much to brag about.  But when FC Köln has only scored 10 times in 17 games, well, I guess it is worth mentioning.  Let's hope for a more entertaining second half of the season after the winter break.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Holidays (and snow) are Here

So much for the mild temperatures around here.  It snowed yesterday.  And it got cold this week, too.  So cold in fact that we learned a few different ways to express that in German class.  Have your pencils and notebooks ready.  These might come in handy.

Es ist... (It is...)
  • sehr kalt (very cold)
  • richtig kalt (really cold)
  • eis kalt (ice cold)
  • schweine kalt (pig cold)
  • tierisch kalt (animal cold)
  • arsch kalt (ass cold)
As for yesterday's snowfall, it wasn't much.  Well, according to my Chicago standards of snowfall it wasn't much.  Still, you wouldn't know that from all the sounds of the kids playing outside.  The ground was barely dusted with snow but that didn't stop two wishful little girls from trying to sled down the small hill next to our parking lot.  With barely any snow on the grass, all they wound up with were a couple of face plants on the slope.  And while walking to and from the grocery store today I watched so many cars driving extremely slow.  When people get this excited over so little snow,  I'm pretty sure I shouldn't expect much (if any) major snow here this winter. 

Monday was my first day back in German lessons after a month's absence.  I was back for one day, then woke up on Tuesday with a terrible sore throat.  I went back to school Tuesday but wound up taking Wednesday off.  Needless to say, that was a rough start back at school.  Today I'm finally feeling like I might be over whatever I had.  Still, that's the third time I've been sick in about four months time.  I'm a little worried about that. 

Now I know why we watched movies in school as a kid.  What a break for the teacher.  This week as my little gift to the kids in my English classes, I decided to show the classic 1966 version of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas."  Though I'm sure they didn't understand about 98% of what was said, they all seemed to enjoy it.  Another bonus to showing a film: sitting back and watching how many kids seem to think that because the lights are out they can pick their nose.

I hope you're done with your Christmas shopping.  We're not.  I think we'll head to the city center Monday in search of the last few items.  That place is packed on a normal weekday.  I can't imagine what that'll be like just a few days shy of the holiday.  Nevertheless, that should give us an excuse for one last trip through some of the Weihnachtsmarkts before they close on the 24th.  We've already gone a couple of times.  It's too bad they can't leave them open for the rest of winter.  It is nice to walk through and see so many people out and about in the cold, having a good time regardless.  Once the markets are gone, those large wide-open squares are going to feel a lot colder. 

Here's some (mostly blurry) photos from our previous trip through some of the various Cologne Weihnachtsmarkts.

From the square in front of the Dom


Mmmm, Glühwein...

Fresh grilled Champignons (mushrooms)

Yes, there's even a market on board a boat.  While I felt good that the admission price went to UNICEF, I would not recommend visiting this one.  The heat was cranked up so high that it became really uncomfortable.

On to the market in Alter Markt.

The dwarves help you find your way through this one.

In between the Alter Markt and Heumarkt Weihnachtsmarkts

Wish I had a better one of this sign. Need the bathroom? Look for the dwarf with the crossed legs.

A jazz combo playing to the passersby

Elvis and Madonna apparently take front seat to Queen Elizabeth, Blair and Sarkozy.

Back near the Dom, on our way home.

Last but not least, here's a little holiday tune for ya... click the small play button below.

Brett Dennen - The Holidays Are Here (and Were Still at War)

Brett Dennen - The Holidays Are Here (and We're Still at War) from http://innerstizzle.vox.com/

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Field Trip to Trier!

Yesterday we drove to Trier, reputedly the oldest city in Germany.  That's a little over two hours drive almost directly south from us. 

Well, it should be just over two hours.  Apparently the GPS system decided to give us the scenic route.  On our way south we encountered rain and snow and nearly ran out of gas.  We exited off the highway in pursuit of a gas station.  We hadn't seen one in a long time.  At first we thought we had spotted one.  Indeed we had.  The only problem was that it was behind the fence at a very large US Air Force base.  For a second, I pondered whether my Illinois drivers license carried any sort of weight.  We kept driving until we spotted some locals and asked for directions. They had us turn around and head in the opposite direction.  I'm not sure what the German word for "boonies" is, but we were definitely in it.

About fifteen minutes later we spotted a Shell station.  We filled up the tank next to a Canadian soldier who was pumping gas into his car.  The car sported Canadian plates.  I guess that's how it works here with the military.  Still, seeing those plates were about as odd as seeing Hawaiian plates on the Mainland.  At that point, we were so far off the highway, the GPS routed us through the local roads the rest of the way.  We passed towns with names like Dudeldorf.  I'm still laughing about that one.

It is amazing how quickly the geography changed during this trip.  Cologne is in the state of Nordrhein-Westfalen.  It is pretty flat around here due to the Rhine River.  From what I've learned, the temperature is also much more mild.  Almost as soon as we crossed into Rhineland-Pfalz (the next state south) it became hilly.  That's where the rain and snow began.  We passed several vineyards.  Taking the backroads into Trier from the gas station reminded me a lot of driving through northern Wisconsin or western Oregon.  Big rocky sandstone bluffs loomed over us the rest of the way as we zigzagged through the woods.

As you approach the city center, there are electronic signs indicating the number of available parking places at various lots.  Cologne has this too.  I wish I had taken a photo from the car.  This being a Saturday afternoon close to the holidays, the signs read something like this:

Lot A: 0
Lot B: 2
Lot C: 0
Lot D: 1
Lot E: Don't bother.

We didn't.  We found a free spot a little out of the way and walked towards the city center.  The reason for all the traffic was Trier's Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas market) and central shopping area.  All around, tour busses were unloading tourists by the hundreds.  I guess when you grow up in Dudeldorf or Luxembourg (mere kilometers away), what else are you going to do on a Saturday?  As we walked through town we heard several different languages spoken.

Trier's history goes back to the first century BC.  The population is just over 100,000 and I would guess its economy is now mostly tourist-based.  We found it rather easy to walk from one end of town to the other (and back again, much to Her delight).  We spent most of the day visiting Roman ruins.  There was much more I would have liked to have seen, but we simply ran out of daylight and visiting hours.  If you're going there for the first time, plan for a full day or two of sightseeing.  We really just had the afternoon.

Here's the obligatory photo break.

Porta Nigra, the city's landmark, is the last of four Roman gates that allowed entrance to the city. This is the northern gate.

Hordes of tourists make their way down Simeonstraße to the Weihnachtsmarkt.

We were a bit disappointed with the Weihnachtsmarkt.  Other than all the French tourists, it didn't seem to offer up much more than what we've seen in any of the Cologne markets, or the Chicago one for that matter.

  Fortunately there was a lot more to see.

Take the time to walk to the south eastern corner of the city center and you'll find the remains of the Roman Amphitheater.  It was large enough to hold 18,000.  This view is from the cheap seats.

"Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?

Back towards the city center is the Kaiserthermen, or Imperial Baths

You can almost get lost touring the utility corridors underneath the Thermen.

The Römerbrücke (Roman Bridge) crosses the Moselle River.  The bridge was built in the 2nd century AD. It is the oldest bridge north of the Alps still crossed by traffic.

Karl Marx's birthplace.  As you walk here from the Bridge (via Karl Marx Straße) you'll pass an awful lot of strip clubs and erotik shops.  Red light district, indeed!


The other side of the Porta Nigra

We stuck more to the Autobahn on the way home, although construction, rain, hail and nearly pitch black conditions made for more good times.

Last year when I visited over the holidays we made a day trip to Aachen.  Since then, I've been hoping to get out more to see the rest of the country.  Between our different schedules it hasn't been easy.  We had a great time exploring Trier however and agreed that we need to do a lot more of this.  Hopefully I'll have some more field trips to write about soon.

Tomorrow I return to school.  I've been away from lessons for over a month now.  I definitely needed the break.  But I know I'm more than a little bit rusty on my German right now.  I haven't exactly practiced as much as I had planned since returning from Thanksgiving.  I'll be stepping into the middle of a class with an exam at the end of this school month.  Fortunately, we have a rather extended break for the holidays.  I'd like to think I'll use that time to review and get ready for the exam, though I have my doubts.  

Finally, we have a score update: Kinder 14 - Me 2.  I actually had a somewhat productive afternoon with the kids.  A whole lot of students were missing in both classes so that may have had more to do with it than my own abilities, but I'll take my points any way I can get them at this moment.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Kinder 14, Me 0

So I got a job.

I think I hinted about this a little over a month ago.  I wanted to wait until things were more "official." I finally signed the contract last week so I guess it is as official as it can get.  It's not much to get excited about, only a little part time thing. 

I'm teaching kids English.  That's right, teaching.  I know what you're thinking: "My God, he can hardly write coherently! His use of grammar is atrocious! And now he's passing that on to kids?"  I thought the same thing too!  I have absolutely no qualifications for this.  When interviewed I said I enjoyed being around little kids.  If you asked me that now, I might have a completely different answer for you.

Did I think I'd be doing something like this before I came over here?  Not really.  Am I prepared for this?  Hardly.  Do I have a new found respect for teachers? You'd better believe it.

At the very least, it does come with a few advantages:
  1. With a little luck this will help change my visa status yet again; possibly extending it beyond next August
  2. For the first time in months I'll actually be earning money
  3. My alcohol tolerance is about to spike
  4. I have the opportunity to shape young minds
I only put that last one up there to make you think better of me.  Well, that's not true.  I guess I believed it when I started, too.  Now I'm not too sure.  As of today, I've now given fourteen lessons to four different classes.  Each class lasts only 45 minutes.  45 minutes!  How hard could this be?  Nevertheless, the results are always the same. Complete and utter chaos.

I've tried a few different approaches.  I've been the good guy and the bad guy.  I've tried to come up with some games to play like throwing a ball and asking questions.  I thought this would keep them quiet and would force each to take a turn.  Instead they just like to whip the ball at the next kid's head.  I've tried to let them "teach" by taking turns writing on the chalk board.  Big mistake, that one.

For the life of me, I can't figure out how to get these kids to settle down, pay attention and actually learn something.  Maybe at five years old, this is as good as it gets? Maybe they are learning something and I shouldn't be expecting so much.  But if that's the case, why am I walking out of school each day shaking my head? I walk in with so many good intentions, but walk out like I've just had a safe land on my head.

It doesn't help that my boss is completely unorganized.  We are half a year into the session and the kids still don't have their own books yet.  I also just found out that I'm supposed to have some sort of teachers manual that goes along with the kids' books. Unlike my boss, the book apparently gives advice on how to teach the next lesson.  Huh.  What a novel concept.  When asked why I don't have that book he said he knew I didn't have it, but that he didn't know if he had extra copies.  He said he might be able to order one.  Yeah, well, I guess that'll show up with the kids' books.

Next week is the last week of classes before winter break.  The break will be good but I've got a whole spring semester left to teach. This isn't going away.  Any more of the above mentioned chaos and I'm really going to start dreading this.

So now, dear reader, I humbly ask for your help.  Have you ever taught kids? Have you any advice? I'm desperate here. I'll take anything.  Drop a comment below or send me an email. It will be much appreciated!


Last but not least, rest in peace Flight of the Conchords, possibly the best comedy I've seen on TV since the BBC's "The Office." Think I can get away with showing this one in class?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

There is no "u" in "service"

Over the last two days I've gotten to experience real, authentic German "customer service."  This species, though similar in looks, behaves entirely different from its American cousin.  See if you can spot the German retail employee.

A: "Can I help you?"

B: "I can't help you. Please stop bothering me, idiot."

I know, I know.  It is difficult to tell them apart. They are both talking about helping you, the Customer.   Still can't figure it out?  The answer is B.  Note that the quote was not a question, thereby indicating that the employee had to be sought out by the customer.  This may have also been a bit of a trick question because both employees pictured are smiling.  If I could have found a candid photo of a German retail employee, you'd clearly notice the lack of a smile.

We went grocery shopping yesterday afternoon.  As is usual, we made our rounds to various stores.  (Grocery shopping is generally a two or three store trip.)  On display in the main aisle of the second store were boxes of plastic Christmas trees.  We've been debating whether or not to get a tree at all this year.  Unfortunately for us, there was no price listed on the trees.  We sought out the nearest employee.  She was stocking shelves with Christmas decorations just a few feet away from us.

Customer: "Excuse me, do you know how much these are?"
Employee: "No."

[brief pause for cricket sound effect]

Customer: "Could you find out?"
Employee: "You can bring them to the information desk and they can tell you."

Indeed we could, if we wanted to drag a four foot long box through the store just to find out the price.  Needless to say, we passed on buying a tree yesterday.

That incident probably wouldn't be worth mentioning if it were a one time occurrence.  However, that is pretty much the vibe you get anytime you ask a store employee for help.  Even when they aren't engaged in any foreseeable activity.

But wait, retail shoppers, there's more.

Today we ran out to Praktiker, a big-box hardware store.  Although not as big as a Home Depot or Lowe's, I was impressed.  This place was big - it even had two floors!  We went there in search of some funny sized light bulbs and a new toilet seat.

Mission accomplished, we returned home to replace some bulbs and fit the new seat on the ol' throne.  As soon as I opened the box for the toilet seat I thought "uh oh."  All the parts were plastic.  It definitely looked and felt cheap.  And sure enough, it didn't fit the toilet.  Back we went.

I've heard rumors about this part of the retail experience and I certainly wasn't excited about seeing it firsthand.  As we pulled in to the parking lot, I asked Her if "this isn't going to turn into some sort of major hassle?"  No, I was assured, because we had a legitimate reason for returning it.

[Side note: What isn't a legitimate reason for returning something here?  Apparently price.  If you find a product cheaper elsewhere and try to return it to the original store you will be laughed at.] 

We showed our receipt at the customer service desk. They made a copy of the receipt for us to present upstairs to the other employees.  We were also told to carry the toilet seat upstairs.  Uh oh.  Normally I'm used to the front desk telling me to leave the product with them, grab a new one and return to the desk for an easy exchange.  It seemed to me that an inspection was coming.

We got upstairs and talked to the first employee we could find.  He was by far the youngest person working in the store.  We explained why we wanted to return this one.  Without hesitation, he opened the box, inspected the contents and said "You've got to be kidding." The lid appeared smudged, as if it had been used.  Our receipt was not even an hour old at this point.  If there were smudges, it was from unwrapping and trying to install it.

He called his colleauge over for backup.  It quickly became apparent that this older man had taught the Kid all he knew about customer service.  Right away, Old Man told us that this should fit and that if it didn't, there was something wrong with us, not the seat.  He showed us how it adjusts for different sizes, which we knew and tried.  All we wanted was a new one.  A better quality one. One without cheap plastic parts.  One that we'd be willing to PAY MORE MONEY FOR.  That didn't matter.  What mattered to him was what he would have to do with this opened product.

My German isn't good enough for an argument at this level and I felt totally helpless.  I've seen situations like this from the other end I know what they'd be thinking if I did try to help.  I'm the dumb foreigner who can't even speak the language; no wonder I couldn't put the seat in properly.  But She fought valiantly and finally convinced the asshole Old Man to let us get a new one and go on our way.

We weren't more than five steps away when Old Man began talking about us with the Kid.  I didn't hear what he said, but She did.  She stopped in her tracks, turned around and proceeded to give him hell.  (I was later told what he said was a much more direct assault on our collective intelligence.) She asked for his name and we marched back to the customer service desk to launch a complaint and get our money back.

This is where returning things gets really weird.

The clerk paged the manager who showed up instantly.  He was a tall guy, dressed in a suit.  He seemed to look like he'd take this seriously.  As soon as She told him what had happened he sprang to life.  The Manager wanted to talk to us in his office.  Here's where I figured the apology and ass-kissing would take place.  Soften the blow from the idiotic employee in the hopes that maybe one day we might return to the store.

Instead, he has the Old Man paged and brings him into the office with us.  Suddenly, the Manager is now playing Judge and Jury, listening to both sides argue over whether or not Old Man called us stupid.  I am asked a question or two and again feel utterly useless and can't say much without sounding like an idiot.  From the look on the Manager's face, this whole scenario had to be the highlight of his day.  In the end, nothing is really resolved.  We get some half-hearted apologies from the Manager and are able to get our money back.  All this over a toilet seat.

We left furious and vowing never to shop there again.  (I hope you don't either!)  All She wanted to do was go home.  I had to gently remind her that unless she doesn't mind hovering, we still needed to solve this problem because we had already thrown the old toilet seat out.

As we drove, we passed an ad for a nearby hardware store called Gottschalks.  She had never been there before but we decided to stop in.  So that you don't think every retail experience here is as described above, we were greeted as soon as we entered the store.  We found what we needed, then browsed the store a little bit.  We were even asked if there was anything else we were looking for or if we needed help! 

I guess good customer service does exist here.  Just don't go around expecting it. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Wir sind zurück in Köln

(We're back in Cologne.)

Truth be told, we've been back for a few days now.  We're still walking around like zombies.  It seems like each time it takes a little longer to get over the jet lag. (Note the time this entry is being written!)

That was a much needed break.  We visited a lot of friends and family, I spoke very little German and we gorged ourselves on food we can't find over here.  Unfortunately, we weren't able to see everyone we wanted to.  I guess there's just never enough time for that. 

I've been trying to think about what I would write in the first entry since returning.  I still don't know.  In some ways, it didn't feel like I was gone all that long.  At first it sort of felt like the only change was the weather.  One day it was summer, the next winter.  In between was some long dream about living in Germany.

But the more we drove around, the more we noticed something rather unsettling.  Shops, restaurants, even some big name retailers are closing up. I suppose had I not moved, this would have seemed more gradual and not as noticeable.  Instead, it seemed like entire shopping centers were dark.  And the number of guys waving signs on the street corners advertising store closings and liquidations have certainly multiplied. It felt like some sort of alternate reality.  Everything's familiar, but just a little different.

What else felt different?

Commercials.  Holy cow.  The amount of commercials and the frequency of commercial breaks in the US are staggering.  It always felt like a lot before but I could tolerate it.  Now, however, I found both the TV and radio nearly unbearable. 

Gas.  Wow is that cheap.  No wonder we keep driving everywhere in the US.  I had done the math before when in Europe on vacation.  But no matter how expensive it seemed, it was always vacation and I wouldn't dwell on the price so much.  A full tank of gas over here can cost you nearly $100 (yes, that's in dollars).  I'm not sure we paid more than $30 to fill up the car in Chicago.  I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.  Those of you complaining about the rising cost of gas in the US, I think you need to reexamine your priorities. 

Customer service.  Ok, at times I started to find the overly cheerful American sales clerk or waiter a little annoying.  Still, I'll take that any day over his German counterpart who seems to feel I am interrupting his work day by asking to purchase something. 

Here's some photo highlights from the trip.  Unfortunately, I didn't get that all important shot of deep dish pizza.  By the time I thought of taking a picture, it was already devoured.

View of the Chicago River from Michigan Avenue bridge

John Hancock building covered in fog

Ice skating in Millenium Park

Water Tower on Michigan Avenue

Italian Beef sandwich

Menu from typical hot dog shop

The double char dog with everything.  By "everything" I mean "no ketchup." Also note: No fries. Chips.

Chicken burrito, rice and refried beans from Taco Village in Des Plaines. Six months ago, I would have finished that no problem.  Unfortunately, I could only finish about three-fourths. Awesome.

You don't need to go to Germany for a German Christmas market.

However, I guarantee you the Currywurst is better in Germany.

Complete with actual Germans working at the market!

One last shot of the market and Picasso statue in Daley Plaza.

I've also uploaded some much asked for photos from Thanksgiving.  They aren't great shots, but you can get an idea of what it is all about.  Food.  (Its also about family, but I wanted to keep this somewhat private!)  Click on the Thanksgiving entry below to see them.

And last but not least, a hearty "Wilkommen" to a newly arrived expat and fellow blogger in Frankfurt.  You can follow her adventures using the link to the right.  Click on "Natural Habitat" to see what she's got to say.