Monday, January 19, 2015

A City Mouse

So, in a little bit of a break from catching up on my Real Adventures (current excuse: now Starbucks’ wifi is messing up, and my pictures won’t load. Oh, for the good old reliability of CofO’s wifi! …there’s a sentence I never thought I’d say…) I thought I’d post this. I’ve been working on it off and on – more as a bit of creative nonfiction than as a potential blog entry – for a few weeks now. Anyway, I thought it might be enjoyable.


I grew up with the story of The City Mouse and the Country Mouse. It’s a story with a pretty clear moral: life is better in the country, where it’s safe and good, rather than in the city, where all the excitement and riches in the world can’t make up for its flaws. And it’s a fable! Which means it’s basically the next best thing to scripture, and at least two steps above fairy tales. The half-subconscious idea that I got, naturally, was that only foolish or greedy people (or those who couldn’t escape) lived in the city. Good, smart people lived in the country, or at least in a suburb.
Now that I’m living in a city myself though…Well. I call bull.

I absolutely love living in a city. I mostly grew up in small towns and suburbs, and then from the age of twelve we lived in a farmhouse about seven miles from the nearest town. I wouldn’t say I’m a country girl, necessarily – I don’t have enough experience with various sorts of animal refuse to get my country girl bona fides. But I certainly have more than enough experience with trees and little creeks to keep me from saying I’m a townie either.

Regardless of experience though, I’m discovering that I’m a city girl at heart. The ease of access, the bustle of people, the way there’s always someone awake, about, and on the move… It’s like the fizz in a bottle of pop.

I love the city in the morning, when a few scraps of mist still cling to the spires of the skyscrapers, and the rising sun shines through and turns everything gold, pink, and pearly. The people flowing along, on their way to work and school and various appointments, breath fogging the chilly morning air. The waiter who always sets out the tables the same way, in the same order, every morning on the pavement, weaving in and out of the passing pedestrians like some kind of choreographed routine. The street musician setting up his corner. The taxi drivers standing idly outside Starbucks, smoking and leaning against their cars and waiting for their first fares of the day. The way a tiny breeze weaves around the corners of buildings, questing out little bits of paper to blow around. The pigeons that coo slyly in the eves of café awnings, their bead-bright eyes already watching for dropped food.

I love the city in mid-afternoon, when everyone has somewhere to be – elsewhere, and right now. The sidewalks are crowded with people all trying to get somewhere and only getting in each other’s way, the streets are full of frustrated drivers foolish enough to think that they had a chance at driving anywhere at this time of the day. Honking horns and the low rumble of conversation mingle along with the occasional shouts of street venders and the discordant music of various buskers. The morning breeze is gone, replaced by an ever-mixing layer of air that smells of baking bread from the bakeries, coffee from cafes, Asian spices, car exhaust, perfume wafting from expensive shops, and the battling scents of cologne and cigarette smoke. The shade in the park is a welcome relief from the sun that shines straight down between the skyscrapers, bouncing off miles of glass windows, leaving no shadows and baking the cement. Businessmen on their lunch breaks bowl on the green lawns while homeless guys watch and bet cigarettes on the winners.

But my favorite time in the city is nighttime. When the sun goes down and the lights in the thousands of sky scraper windows checker the night sky. Orange streetlamps, green-yellow-red stoplights, the whiter light from shop windows, blue glows from cell phones, the softer yellow light from restaurants: it all mixes to create a soft blue-and-gold glow over the street. Evening shoppers stroll by or hurry along laden with bags, couples laugh and take goofy pictures in front of local landmarks. Cars flash red and white down boulevards, grudgingly sharing the space with tired businessmen trudging home from long days at the office. The park is dark now, and not quite so inviting. Anyone who ventures onto its darkened paths hurries along with hands in pockets and eyes on the path. The subways are full of tired workers going home and young people going out and school children goofing off. The skyline is a checkerboard of black and deep blues and purples and golds, yellows, reds, and whites.

It’s beautiful.

Every time I walk out my door, no matter the time of day, the city is beautiful to me. If it’s raining, I love the way the rain dapples the stone walls of the buildings and sparkles off the road, reflecting headlights. If it’s sunny, I love the way the light reflects from glass-encased buildings and turns every street into a magician’s light-box. If it’s foggy, I marvel at the tops of skyscrapers, enveloped in wisps of cloud. If it’s snowing, I love the confusion of the pigeons and the way ordinary, dour business-people turn into grinning children. Every one of the city’s moods delights me – nearly silent Sunday mornings, when you can walk for blocks without seeing another soul. Busy holidays when thousands of people crowd the walks and it’s nearly impossible to get anywhere.

I love the short-tempered street cleaners, who have no qualms about shouting at you to get out of their way. I love the mothers on the playground who share exasperated smiles that go beyond language barriers. I love the bakery workers who toss your change on the counter and move to the next person with a smile because the line is out the door and down the block. I love the stringy artists who hang around peddling their canvasses and play music with the instrument cases open in front of them.

I love knowing that there’s a store two blocks away if I realize I forgot an ingredient. I love the subway, and being able to get off or on at any point and just go somewhere sometimes. I love the buildings that send jet streams of wind through the side-streets and the pigeons that are so fat and lazy they won’t even fly away – they just waddle a little faster. I love the bikers that zip through the crowds with no regard for people who don’t see them coming. I love the random jaywalkers who dart around the slow moving cars like fish around whales.

I love that it’s never entirely quiet. I love that you never feel entirely alone – even when you can’t see anyone else, you know that they’re just a wall or two away. It’s a secure feeling, a safe feeling.

And yeah – I do still like getting out of the city every once in a while. I like going for a hike in the nearby national forest and not seeing another human being for hours. I like being alone with just the birds in the trees and the chittering squirrels and the wind whispering through the branches and finding a little hidden brook.

But I also love being able to exit the national forest at the end of the day and catch a train back to the city. I love being able to throw a thankful smile at the train driver who held the train a few extra seconds so I could get on. I love being able to sit, my chin in my hand, and watch the country turn into neighborhoods, and the neighborhoods into the city proper, and then all of it vanishes as the train dives beneath the ground and enters the labyrinth of underground stations. I love taking the escalator back to ground level, breathing in deeply, and turning to head for home.

I come from the country – or at least the small town life. I will always love the trees and the woods and the creeks and the little furry animals that live therein. But now, as I sit in a warm café and watch the city turn grey with a cloudy dusk outside, I feel more and more that my heart belongs to the city, where the pulse of life is palpable and the energy never entirely fades but rises and falls in predictable waves with the punching of time clocks, the opening of shops, and the taking of lunch breaks. I feel like I fit – one more cog in an enormous clock, ticking and tocking away with insane intricacy.

So the Country Mouse had a bad experience. So her foolhardy cousin in the city had some bad ideas and got them both in trouble. But I think that the Country Mouse made her decision a bit too quickly – and even if the city wasn’t for her, I reject the moral that it’s not good for anyone. Thanks, Country Mouse – but I prefer the city.


Sunday, January 18, 2015


Fortunately, I'm still alive, and have 170 days to go!
Unfortunately, the kids were sick this last week and had to stay home.
Fortunately, they're better now!
Unfortunately, this last week was insanely exhausting and frustrating, and I haven't had time to update this blog.
Fortunately, I have the next few entries waiting in the wings!
Unfortunately, it may still be another day or two before I next post.
Fortunately, I have a new surprise for you as well!
Unfortunately, that, too, must wait until I get on a better connection.
Fortunately, I can tell you about it: I'm going to make a new page here and post a bunch of my recipes!
Unfortunately, they're kinda vague, play-it-by-ear recipes.
Fortunately, most of them are still pretty easy!
Unfortunately, they're also quite yummy and not so good on the waistline.
Fortunately, I should have that up and running soon.
Unfortunately, Blogger can be a bit of a pain, so it may not be the most ergonomic of interfaces.
Fortunately, I have time tomorrow to figure this out.
The end. :D
(Apologies to Remy Charlip for stealing his idea. :D The things you remember from kindergarten...)


Friday, January 9, 2015

Austria: The Hills Are Alive – and that one tried to eat me

My host mom’s family is from Austria, mainly, and Christmas is the time when that whole side gets together – plus, there was a major birthday for one aunt or another – so the week before Christmas we packed up and headed for Austria. Well, indirectly. Oma took Daniel home first, and Anna and I followed with Elsa the day after. We spent a day at Oma and Opa’s house and then we headed for Austria. 

Austria was great. I didn’t take as many pictures as I normally would have while we were there, because it was a family gathering and I didn’t want to intrude or anything. We spent most of our time with Anna’s extended family – her mother has several sisters and a brother, and they each have spouses and kids and most of the kids had spouses/boyfriends/girlfriends and/or kids… And let me tell you this: Baptists have nothing on eating when going up against Austrians. Our first day, we went to lunch at this little restaurant – a four-course meal that lasted more than three hours. Then we all went back to one of the aunts’ house, and as soon as we got there all the women headed to the kitchen and started bringing out cakes and coffee… and as soon as that was gone, it was time for dinner! I have literally never eaten so much in such a short period of time. It didn’t help that I had a bit of altitude sickness, though, and wasn’t feeling very well.

The kids and Oma and Opa stayed with Anna grandparents – Oma’s parents – in their house, but there wasn’t enough room for everyone, so Anna and I slept at a little boarding-house-style lodging area. It mainly services Catholic pilgrims coming through on a pilgrimage to one of the churches in the region, and instead of just a room with a couple of beds, we basically had a little apartment: a kitchenette, bathroom, bedroom, and a fold-away bed for me.
The second day, it had snowed overnight, so Anna, Oma, and Anna’s brother Patrick took me up the mountain to a ski slope. We didn’t ski – there actually wasn’t enough snow for it, just enough for the kids to break out the sleds – but I got to eat Alpine snow. :D Also, I can now say that I was injured on an Austrian Alpine ski slope, because when we were walking back down I stepped onto a patch of snow that was concealing a deep hole. The hill swallowed my entire leg up to the hip and I punched the snow/ice hard enough that the next day, not only did I have a twisted muscle in my leg and a wrenched neck from falling, but my knuckles were bloody and bruised like I’d punched someone in the teeth. :D

I have to admit – I’m a bit proud of that.

On the way back down the mountain, we stopped at this tiny old schoolhouse – I think it was where Oma went to school as a girl. It’s pretty far away from the rest of the village, and when I asked why, she explained that this was the farmers’ school. It was fairly centrally situated for the various farms in the region. Apparently, about eleven kids made up a full class. When we got back in the car, Oma
joked that finally there had been a real teacher at the school – Patrick teaches at a high-school in Vienna.

I enjoyed this part of the trip – though it was somewhat stressful, being the one random outsider in a big family gathering. Everyone was really nice, but I tended to just hang about in corners and play with the kids so I wouldn’t have to talk to anyone. Partly because I was shy, and partly for the purely practical reason that Austrian-German and German-German are not quite the same language. It was hard sometimes, even when people spoke slowly, to understand what they meant because their accent is different, and the vocabulary often included words I’d never learned – or words that I had learned different words for. Imagine someone who’d just started learning English in Canada or England trying to communicate with someone from the back-country of Mississippi. :D But they liked my cookies and I came away with a few new recipes to try, so all’s well that ends well.

Next, I was off to Vienna!


Monday, January 5, 2015

Hot Wine, Cold Toes

 So: starting off this rabid spree of catch-up blogging, let me finally tell you about Nürnberg! This is old news, really – I went to the Christmas Festival in Nürnberg on the first of December. Great way to kick off the holiday season!
The Christmas Market in Nürnberg is one of the biggest, oldest, and certainly most well-known Christmas market in Germany. To those unfamiliar with the concept, a Christmas market (or village, or fair, or festival, or half a dozen other terms, depending on where you are in Germany, Austria, etc.) is sort of similar to a cross between a farmers’ market and a state fair – only everything is Christmassy. (Actually, my southern Missouri friends, think Silver Dollar City during Christmas, only everything is outdoors and there’s alcohol.) There are usually a few small rides (like a seven-seater carousel or a camel – I really do mean small) for the kids, and then a ton of booths and stalls filled with every imaginable sort of Christmas gift. Baked goods, candles, marzipan, old-fashioned toys, ornaments, hand-knitted scarves, hats, and gloves – if you’re looking for it, someone is probably selling it, handmade and with surprisingly reasonable prices, on the whole.
I couldn’t let Christmas pass by without seeing the famous “Christkindlemarkt”, so I hopped on a bus at an ungodly and dark hour of the morning on December first and rode the three hours south-east to Nürnberg.
The bus was surprisingly comfortable, actually – once it actually got there. I started off the day nearly an hour late (for reasons never explained by our grouchy driver) but once we were finally underway, I enjoyed the ride. Honestly, the traveling part is always my favorite of any trip. The destination is all well and good, but I just really love driving. Or flying, or riding in a train, as the case may be. I listened to a Batman radio drama on the way (it ended literally as we pulled into the bus stop in Nürnberg) and when we finally arrived I was ready to explore.
It was super cold, even with all my layers (2 pairs of pants, turtleneck, t-shirt, sweater, hoodie and coat) but I managed to forget about that for most of the day. There was so much to see! In fact, I took so many pictures that the rest of this entry is simply going to be photos, with captions explaining what they are and their significance.

1.      This is the “Christkind” (say: krihst-kint), the symbol/host/mascot of the Nürnberg Christmas festival. Portrayed as a golden-haired angel in a white gown, she’s the star of the show and can be found all over – painted on ornaments, mugs, soaring over the streets, and even holding court in front of the church. The tradition goes back to Martin Luther, who was trying to avoid the Catholic veneration of saints and who told his children that the Christ Child had brought them their gifts on Christmas Eve. The Nürnberg Christkind morphed into a female figure by getting meshed up with the Angel of Annunciation from German Christmas plays, where angels are generally portrayed as female.

2.    The Pegnitz River (I think) and it’s evil, rabid seagulls.

3.      How often do you see Santa whiling away the days until Christmas by entertaining people at the Nürnberg Christmas festival with his mad accordion skills? With an elf-dog, no less!

4.      The Frauenkirche ("Church of Our Lady") which stands on the eastern side of the main market square. I ducked in here long enough to sing some German carols with a local church that had come in, and then escaped as the priest began the ceremony of Mass for the three old ladies who had actually come for the service.

5.      Here follows a few pictures of some of the prettier stands – I mean, they were all cool, but some were more eye-catching than others. This first was a stand of miniatures – something very popular at Christmas Markets. I think it’s an out-branching from the crèches people build at Christmas. I just wanted to buy everything in the shop!

6.      More of the miniatures.

7.      This entire stand was white-and-glass ornaments. It looked like Old Man Winter had set up shop selling icicles.

8.      Fantastic lamps, hand crafted from cut sheets of plastic.

9-10.      The antique nativity scene – or crèche, as they’re called here – outside the cathedral. The sign says: “Please refrain from throwing coins or other objects at the Nativity Scene. If struck, the antique figures might be seriously damaged! Beginning in 1935, on the initiative of Paul Seegy, then Building Director of the City of Nuremberg, this Nativity Scene was crafted by Bertl Kuch and Max Renner, two Nuremberg artists. 36 figures carved from Pinewood tell the story of the birth of Christ in a timeless and naïve way. The shepherds’ clothes are based on local traditional dress, adding a special Franconian touch to the scene. The design of Mary, Joseph and the shepherds reflects lade mediaeval Christmas representations, reminding us of Nuremberg’s heyday as a Free City of the Empire (Freie Reichsstadt) in the 15th and 16th century.”

 11.      Coming up on the south (I think?) side of the Nürnberg castle – that is, the Berg that the town is named for. :) I didn’t get to go inside (didn’t want to spend the money on a ticket – I’m a total Scrooge) but I explored the grounds and such.

12.      This is the main courtyard of the castle, just outside the oldest still-standing buildings. (Castles, like non-for-profit hospitals, were constantly being added on to, rebuilt, and reimagined by each successive generation of owners.) This was, at once point, the women’s tower (behind me) and in this courtyard the canonized Empress Kunigunde planted a lime tree. It’s had to be replaced over the years, of course, but the tree in the center is still a lime tree.

13.      This courtyard was special because if you had committed a crime, you could find sanctuary here for three days. No one could touch you in that time, giving you the opportunity to get evidence defending you, or at least to put your affairs in order. Unfortunately, no one would necessarily bring you food or water during those three days. The tour guide told us that there was a story about a knight who escaped by riding his horse and leaping from the courtyard to the roofs of the houses outside the castle walls – an amazing story when you consider that the roofs indicated are at least 150 feet away and about 20 feet lower down. But hey – who knows. :D

 14.      These are the aforementioned roofs. :D This also happens to be a view out over the city of Nürnberg. The Frauenkirche is (I believe) not the nearest set of steeples, but the larger ones in the distance.

 15.      Hey look! It’s my face!

16.      Murder holes! This is a tunnel leading under the walls to the north (?) gates of the castle. I was ridiculously pleased to see the enormous murder holes (through which things like boiling oil and hot rocks could be dumped on the heads of invading armies). I have a weird sense of what’s cool, ok?

 17.      The north (?) side of the castle, looking up the cliffs to the at-one-time-menacing berg crouching atop the mountain.

 18.      Albrecht Dürer was a Nürnberg native, and so there is a statue to him here as well as… (next picture please)

 19.      …his house, which is now a museum. I considered going in, but my Scrooge-ishness and the massive group of Italian tourists who went into the tiny building just as I got there discouraged that idea.

 20.      I took refuge from the cold in one of the smaller churches, St. Sebald’s. It was a bit run down inside, and you could see where ongoing restoration work was being done. Apparently, this building was nearly demolished when Allied forces bombed Nürnberg, and it’s still not entirely repaired. There were placards set up in various places showing right-after-the-bombs pictures and including sections from a poem called “St. Sebald – a monument for peace” in several languages. This one line just really struck me: “Peace – what is peace? / That we can go through the ruins / without fear of bombs?” I’m sure it’s better in the original German, but even in English the wording grabbed my attention. I won’t go all English Major on this, but if anyone is interested I Had Thoughts. :D

21.      A fallen angel. *bursts out laughing* Ok, ok, sorry – I couldn’t help it. This was a crèche inside the Frauenkirche, and somehow the Angel of Annunciation had been knocked over. I just laughed quietly to myself and took a picture before the curator could come and fix it. 

 22.      My first (and last) Glühwein. It was hot, which was good, and I got to keep the little frosted mug (set me back about six Euro, but ok…) but the wine itself -- *shudders.* Blarg. Glühwein is a mild, low-alcohol mulled wine, very fruity and a traditional Christmas market treat. I got the raspberry sort and quickly decided that I would like wine very much – if I couldn’t taste the alcohol. LOL. But it was hot going down and warmed my hands, and it was An Experience, so that’s all well and good. :D

 Farewell, Nürnberg Christmas Market!