Friday, December 28, 2007

A Good Kind Of Burning

Instructions for a Feuerzangenbowle party: 1) make large bowl of punch from dry, red wine, cinnamon sticks, cloves, lemon, and orange peels 2) heat up punch over flame 3) extinguish flame with lid from a pot to avoid melting table, measure out smaller amount of kerosene, and relight 4) soak large cone of processed sugar with 108 proof rum and place on slotted metal platform over punchbowl 4) ignite rummed up sugar with a match and admire ensuing flames 5) serve punch to your friends and don't be stingy 6) watch movie Die Feuerzangenbowle 7) wake up following morning with headache.

Katie and I completed our first Feuerzangenbowle party at our friends' apartment in early December. Seven of us assembled around the living room table and cheered Marcus on as he ceremoniously prepared the punch and ladled it out. After a few cups of the fiery brew, I felt an irresistable desire to know more about the German electoral system, which Fabian kindly detailed for me. Once we exhausted the subject it was time to watch the movie. Die Feuerzangenbowle is a black-and-white about a fictitious author Dr. Pfeiffer who poses as teenage high schooler to prank teachers and perform other zany hijinks. The movie is alarmingly lighthearted for having been made in Germany in 1944, but one should never underestimate mankind's tendency toward escapism. After the movie and punch were finished we hopped on our bikes and sped home. Let me tell you, the two things that you want the most after a Feuerzangenbowle party are a large glass of water and your bed. Better keep a couple of advil on the nightstand too. Just in case.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007


Alright, I know what you are thinking right now but let's not rush to judgement. This is merely a picture of Sinterklaas and his two helpers known as Zwarte Pieten. That is, the Dutch representations of Santa Claus and Black Pete. Oh yeah, and Katie. She is playing herself in this picture, both figuratively and literally.

Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands by boat from his home in Spain (you might remember that the Dutch were under Spanish rule in earlier times). To all of you scoffers: his priestly robe and mitre are a nod to the original St. Nicholas who was a Greek bishop in Turkey in the 3rd Century. Same as usual, he comes and brings gifts to good children. As for the mischievous Black Petes, they are either slaves, Moors, devils, or simply covered in soot. Apologists have written plenty about these controversial characters, but I have neither the knowledge nor the desire to do so in this blahg.

The implications and connotations of the accompanying picture do not necessarily represent the views of The Transatlantic Monthly, its writers, or its parent company Viacom. Just kidding we're not owned by Viacom.....yet. It is a priceless picture though.

Christmas Markets

Beginning in late November and running up until December 23rd, the Christmas Markets are the best way to pass an hour or an afternoon or even a whole day on the weekends. In every town square, vendors set up wooden shacks and sell ornaments, clothes, candles, food and mulled wine. Katie and I hit up Bonn Zentrum, Bad Godesberg, Berlin, and Siegburg. Gluhwein, or mulled wine, is the name of the game and now every flat surface in our apartment is occupied by commemorative mugs from each village's market. Drop by our place and I will give you one. Seriously.

The Weihnacht Markt in Siegburg is medieval themed, which automatically bumps up the fun factor by 2. Instead of gluhwein we drank hot mead out of ceramic goblets and watched a burly blacksmith pound steel into rustic ten-penny nails. Maybe in the distant future we are all going to stand around sipping Cosmopolitans and watch an old, weathered robot assemble microprocessors. I can't wait.

Das Erntedankfest

Should you ever find yourself overseas for important American holidays, do not worry about missing out. Harvest festivals are celebrated on just about every corner of the globe, Germany included, and by the end of November we had observed Thanksgiving to the point of overindulgence. With all due respect to our avian guest of honor, we gobbled our way through five fantastic meals - several kilos of turkey, a cement mixer's worth of mashed potatoes, and enough pinot noir to buoy an aircraft carrier. Now I can see why the Pilgrims wore buckles around their hats instead of their waists. Also, the Law of Conservation of Gender Roles still applies here, as you can note from the pictures. Many thanks to our generous hosts: Nat and Jen, Lori and Ralph, the APC Women's Bible Study Group, the Fellowship Committee, and ourselves (including Tanya, Derick and Amanda).

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Just In Time For Halloween

A couple of weeks ago we took the train into Köln to visit the largest music store in Europe. The music store was alright, but what really impressed me was this bar a couple of blocks away from the Dom cathedral. Check out the spooky animatronic accordion player behind me. Similar to Chuck-E-Cheese, this audacious fellow belts out your favorite drinking songs without a moment's warning. He made eye contact with me twice and furiously wiggled his eyebrows up and down. I looked in the trash can by the door, but that messy-haired bird was not lurking in there and waiting to pop out and crack a joke. Just garbage.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Open Up And Say "Ahr"

Last Saturday we made a pilgrimage to the Ahr valley, which is the northernmost mecca of red wine making. After a bitterly cold morning and unsuccessful perusing of the final flea market of the year, we piled into the Peugeot station wagon with our friends Jeanine and Markus and drove 25 km southeast to the village of Altenahr. Altenahr, like all of the other villages along the Ahr river, is a picturesque cluster of houses and restaurants that thrive on the business of elderly Dutch and German tourists who come to hike among the vineyards, drink wine, and sing songs with neverending choruses.

We started out by hiking up to the ruins of an old castle that towers above Altenahr like a church steeple above a town square. From there we walked along a ridge to the rotwein weg, or red wine path, which is a dirt walking trail that crosses through vineyards whose rows climb up the steep southern slopes of the Ahr valley. Along the path, vendors sell local wines out of the back of their cars to thirsty nordic walkers (people who hike with ski poles, not blond-bearded guys walking around with a horned helmets). We sampled the Federweißer (fresh, still-fermenting wine) and a lovely Fall rosé named Weißherbst. The sun was shining and the temperature never broke 55 F, which was fortunate because the brisk air was the only thing keeping me from laying down among the vines and taking a nap.

I learned that viticulture in the Ahr valley dates back to the 3rd century. Apparently the Romans were not satisfied with just drinking mead and beer, and transplanted some grape vines in strategic locations. I would have thought that the local Germanic tribes hassled the occupying Romans too much for them to do pursue any leisurely pastimes like grape cultivation and winemaking, but that just goes to show you how little I know. Who among centurions or barbarians could resist the bouquet of a fine pinot noir? Certainly not this american.

While the rest of Germany is lauded for reisling, the region through which we hiked is renowned for producing excellent Spätburgunder, the german word for pinot noir (insert favorite Sideways quote here). This is due to an advantageous geological situation in which the moderate temperatures of the greater Rhine valley, the slate covered slopes of the Ahr valley that hold the sun's heat throughout the night, and the deep cold-trapping river bottom team together to provide a suitable climate for red grapes. As we walked along the trail, the volcanic slate was constantly coming loose and sliding down the hill in pie-sized chunks, giving the odd feeling that those hills could never survive the sloughing off of its members, despite the fact that it had been happening for at least nineteen hundred years.

We followed the switchbacks down into the town of Rech. On the far side across the river is a converted barn that functions as restaurant for just four months out of the year. We took a seat around a barrel and ordered up some of Rhineland's finest spreads on homemade bread. Pretty standard fare: headcheese, liverwurst, congealed bacon grease with crunchy bits of bacon, blood sausage, and oddly enough a plain old slice of cheese. It may been the cold weather or the hiking but Katie made her most impressive showing to date in the category of foreign food eating.

A large group of middle-aged women were singing an unknown song as we waited for the train back to Altenahr. They stopped once we climbed aboard and settled down into the warm seats. We looked out the windows as the sun sunk behind the hills of the valley and the long shadows faded into dark evening tones. Out of the train, back in the car, driving towards Bonn, almost dark, and then finally dark when we arrived back at home.

I could have easily gone to bed, but the final game of Rugby World Cup was going to start in a few hours. Drat. Good day though.

Sunday, October 14, 2007


Imagine yourself in early nineteenth century Bavaria during the month of October. You were lucky enough to get your name on the guest list for Prince Ludwig's marriage party and now you are sitting on a cushioned chair in a lovely garden area outside of Munich and having a pretty good time. People in frilly starched outfits and powdered wigs are sitting around listening to latest works of Beethoven and complaining about how Napoleon has turned a progressive democratic nation into a neoimperialist power. "I have heard rumors that France is going to invade Russia," someone says, "supposedly they have intelligence that the Russians are destabilizing Europe." "Disgusting," you say, but with little conviction because your attention is really focused on the peasants in the nearby field who are are trying to set up for the big horse race tomorrow but keep on getting their utility wagon stuck in the mud. A servant comes around with more wine, so you refill your glass and wander over the to ballroom where the noblemen and noblewomen are mincing around with clasped hands aloft, their bodies rotating mechanically in predetermined steps like music box figurines. One of Ludwig's second cousins lurches out from the middle of the dancing crowd and leans out over the marble railing, convulsing in a fit of gutteral expulsions that sound to you like Dutch. He wobbles back into the ballroom a few minutes later with watery eyes, straightening his wig and dabbing the corners of his mouth with a silk handkerchief. Someone rings a bell and all the guests slowly make their way to the dining hall, and you hope that you don't get stuck sitting next to the random couple from out of town that nobody knows. Still, this party is a pretty good time and maybe even ranks in your top five. Who knows, there may even be another one next year?

Now fast forward to modern times. You emerge midday from the tightly packed subway car and ride the escalator up towards the light, arriving in front of an archway announcing "Wilkommen Oktoberfest!" You walk through and find yourself in a sea of people on the giant parking lot known as the Wiesn. To your left are rows of amusement park rides and carnival games, and to the right are rows of massive white beer "tents".

Deciding on a large clockwise loop, you stroll past rollercoasters and vendors selling shots of vodka and check out the other festivalgoers. Lots of guys in red checkered shirts, lederhosen, and feathery caps. Women in dresses that range from the conservative length traditional peasant wear, to the more common strappy sexed-up miniaturized dirndles. Gangs of teenagers in oversized mad hatter party hats pass by every few seconds, with their arms linked and singing "ole ole ole ole..." Most everyone is standing upright or at least propped up by a friends, except for the guy sprawled out in front of the phone booth, who is wearing a commemorative Oktoberfest/movie t-shirt that reads "300: Tonight we drink in Hell".

Feeling brave, you and your friends wait in line in front of one of the larger beer tents. After 30 minutes, the security guard lets in a group of you, plus the guy in the wacky hat that has been pleading non-stop. Inside is a massive room of wooden tables and benches with people, mostly Italians and Australians, standing on them. A band is leading the beer drinkers in what sounds like a Mexican Ranchero music sing-a-long. This looks like interesting, so you wander the aisles looking for an open space at a table. After combing the entire tent while silently cursing the no table no beer rule, all you can do is sigh and head though the haze of tobacco smoke to the door. Too bad, even the guy dressed up in a women's dirndle got a place at a table.

You are back out in the sunshine, but it could be worse. Prospects for getting a spot at other beer tents are looking slim considering the long lines just to get into the places. You overhear someone say that only the people there before 9 in the morning had a shot at getting a seat. Still, the carnival stuff was fun and you tell yourself that with some proper planning, next year's trip will be more successful. Feeling wiser but with twinges of disappointment, you sidestep a puddle of vomit and cross under the archway that says "Auf Wiedersehen Oktoberfest!" and head for the subway.

Monday, October 8, 2007

One For All

October 3rd is Deutschen Einheit, which means that everybody gets off work and spends the entire day milling about in the sunshine in celebration of Germany's unification. I suspect that a significant part of the population spends the day grumbling about all of the stores and banks being closed on the only days that they have to run errands. As for myself, I say "hey, alright". Let the cheques bounce and the morning bowl of cereal be milkless, these holidays are about being with family and relearning how to hold a conversation.
We visited the nearby Sülz vineyard, producer of excellent reislings and other weisweins. Outside the farmhouse, wooden tables and chairs are set up in the grassy yard for visitors to sample the wines and local delicacies. I am loathe to use the word quaint, but cutesy fails to capture the feeling as we sat in the yard, admiring the nearby long-haired cows and their lazy grazing, next to the older couple cutting tubers for the house potato salad, and toasted to the unification of East and West Germany. Idyllic is probably a better word.
Grape smuggling is a crime in Germany, but don't tell that to Katie. No amount of sulphur dusting could keep this woman from sampling the varieties on the vine. We walked around the steeply pitched rows and examined the plants, pretending to know more about botany than we actually do. I envisioned grafting hops plants onto vine stock and wondered who would be bold enough to drink my resulting wine-beer chimera.
The inertia of this midweek holiday caused us to take the rest of the week off. This may sound slothful, but please keep in mind that we have Fridays off anyway. Plus, things are brewing for the upcoming weekend...

Thursday, October 4, 2007

There Be Dragons

Sunday afternoon, we set our sights upon the Drachenfels, or dragon's remains. Perched atop one of the Siebengebirge overlooking the river, the Drachenfels is a former 11th century fortress and current pile of rocks, about which a veritable slew of dragon legends have been told.
We recruited friends Tonya and Derick and bicycled over in the mild autumn sunshine to the base of the mountain. Along the way we were momentarily sidetracked by a biergarten by Bad Honnef and the subsequent exploration of the island it is on. Neverthless, we tarried on and soon found ourselves walking up the hypotenuse of a 321 meter high mountain. Halfway up I snapped a few pictures of the schloss Drachenburg, which we might have spent more time if it had the more climatic top-of-the-hill spot.
Up at the top, we marveled at the statues, plaques, restaurants, and coin-operated binoculars. A handful of people, including ourselves, climbed around the ruins and pretended to be dragons or stood at the edge trying to figure out the panoramic function on their cameras. Katie and I reenacted Wagner's famous battle between Siegfried and the dragon Fafner. Having satisfied all dramatic and sightseeing needs, we returned to our less legendary and non-magical apartment.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

America's Next Top Model

Last Saturday night we participated in the grand spectacle known as the International Charity Fashion Show. Members of the APC, UN, and their friends collaborated to raise funds and awareness for children's charities in Germany, Kenya, Peru, and India. Under the white hot lights, models decked out in their home country's garb strutted their stuff in front of a sold out audience at the Bonn International School gymnasium. Suprisingly enough, not a single beat of Right Said Fred's catwalk anthem was heard the entire night. Go figure.
Katie modelled the finest in Wyoming cowgirl wear, donated by our lighting director Lisa. I was a member of the stage crew, which really meant that I ran around for a couple days trying to borrow socket wrenches so that I could work on the wood and metal catwalk.
The three hour event was a smashing success, and people shimmied and shaked their way through the night at the afterparty in the school cafeteria. During this time, I was in the gym breaking down all of the elements and wrapping cables, which was also fun in a different, final way.

Natural Environs

We ventured out last week to explore some of Germany's natural features. The Kottenforst-Ville Naturpark borders the western edge of our village, Bad Godesberg. A scant ten-minute bike ride put us at a dirt path, where we made a curvy ascent through the pines onto a plateau of beech, larch and oak trees. On top, we jogged through the network of crisscrossing foot paths and logging roads and looked for animal life, the largest representative being an unidentified raptor.
As with all places that have been inhabited by humans for a long time, the Kottenforst is a mix of old and new elements that are in various phases of regeneration (or degeneration). Where a 10th century circular wall formerly stood is now a ditch in a continuous state of erosion. Other areas that have been clearcut relatively recently are being repopulated by ambitious junior trees and their sapling cousins. Nearby, pyramids of cut timber announced their ownership with spraypaint: Schmitz, Lehman, Müller.
Wooden stands, rustic versions of the ones that the judges sit upon at Wimbledon, are also interspersed throughout the forest. One can either sit upon these and enjoy the sights and sounds of nature, or take aim at a deer and dispatch it with the cool professionalism of a Forest Service employee, who are uncoincidentally the only people allowed to hunt in Germany. Being a new transplant in this land and not wanting to step on any toes, I opted for the former.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Back so soon?

The Transatlantic Monthy earned its name this week as Katie scuttled back to Ohio to complete the last step in the ordination process: ordination. A generous benefactor from the APC gifted me with a last minute ticket to Dayton, so Tuesday morning I made my way across the pond to surprise Katie - which I did with a flourish, firstly by an unplanned appearance and secondly by hiding under a blanket in her parents' living room. Surprise!

It was certainly no surprise that Katie passed muster before the Miami presbytery, securing the majority vote to become a Pastor of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church USA. The following afternoon we had the ordination ceremony at Katie's home church and voila, instant pastor (just add 8 years education, 1 year as a Inquirer, 4 ordination exams, 3 month chaplaincy internship, 6 months church internship, a sermon, review by committee, and a final examination by an auditorium full of cranky Presbyterians).

We are now heading back to Bonn on separate flights. Truly, the whirlwind 36 hour tour is the only way to see the States. Time to board...

Monday, September 3, 2007

First Contact

It turns out that living inside our austere, tidy apartment building are austere, tidy tenants. Yesterday, I answered the buzzer at the door to find an elderly neighbor who immediately rattled off a complaint. I explained that my understanding of german was not great and she waved her hand in the air like she was backhand swatting a fly and said in german that it was "not a problem". As I followed her downstairs to the parking garage, she constantly repeated the The Complaint: a bike was blocking her garage and she could not get her car out.

We arrived downstairs and it became apparent I couldn't do much for The Complaint. The blue bike encroaching upon the white garage space was not mine (note exhibit A). Don't think that I got off easy, because after I explained to her that the bike wasn't mine, she said "excuse me" and immediately followed it up with the lecture intended for the perpetrator.

I feel good about this encounter. It is a reminder that the system is still in place, and compliance with its strict yet simple rules will leave one in the good graces of the others. Providing, however, one figures out all of the rules ahead of time.

Touchdown on Planet Körnerstraße

With the help of a few kindly souls (Blessiou, Hilary, Iosif, Steve, J. Martin, Andrea, Marian, Ulrike) we moved into our apartment on Saturday morning. To get a sense of the difference that appliances make in a German apartment, please note the before and after kitchen photos.
This is not the quaint Parisianesque loft that we had envisioned, but rather a carpeted, spacious four room Wohnung, fit for a troupe of Romanian tumblers. The bedroom and living room share the same porch platform but are divided by a wall. This is a good thing, because we all know the kind of porch-sitting that one does from the bedroom does not jive with living room porch-sitting.
After moving, we walked over to the international festival in the Rheinaue park. My hat's off to Vietnam and the Phillipines for their delicious food, but the grand prize goes to the Indonesia tent - a veritable peanut and garlic wonderland.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

It Has Begun

Today we have officially been in Germany for two weeks. So much has already happened that it feels like two months. We are currently living on the eastern (and some say the nicer) side of the Rhine in Niederdollendorf. The seven mountains that rise above us are the Siebengebirge, home to the oldest nature preserve in Germany.
Tomorrow we move to our apartment in Plittersdorf or Bad Godesburg - I'm not really sure exactly but they are both suburbs of Bonn. Highlights so far include our trip to Köln to see the Dom cathedral, dinner at the Sion Brauhaus, steak Tatar and blütwurst, cycling the Rhine bike path, hanging out with the truly amazing students that attend the APC Bonn, African Sunday at the church, and experiencing the hospitality of Germans and global nomads.
The weather is brisk and sunny. An early Fall perhaps? Either way, it is beautiful. Let us pray for clear skies for the sake of the helpful people moving us unto into our place Freitag and Samstag!