Wednesday, October 31, 2007

More on Schwarzfahren and the Birthday

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The German version of daylight savings time started this weekend, and man is it getting dark early! It's not even 5pm yet and I have to have the lights on in here (though admittedly my apartment is cavelike). I do love fall, though. Heidelberg was really beautiful today. On to the matters at hand:

* I asked some friends a bit about Schwarzfahren. One said that in eight years of riding trams, she had only seen an inspector once, and it didn't appear that too many people on the train were without tickets when it happened. She also had a friend who experimented to see which was cheaper: buying tickets as appropriate, or just riding without a ticket and paying the fine when caught. As it turned out for this friend, Schwarzfahren is cheaper. However, it's not without consequences, as a certain unknown number of offenses leads to a larger punishment - what, she wasn't sure. So, don't do it regularly!

* I finally replied to the birthday email from the secretary at work after she emailed me about it again and then came by my office in person to ask me about it. I suggested credit to a place that sells CDs, for lack of better ideas. Cash wasn't an option. So, I can get myself half a CD with it, if this works out. (Any recommendations??)

* I haven't come up with an idea of what to take in to work for my birthday, though, having been busy with a particularly nasty piece of homework. The whole office seemed to know about the birthday, so it really is my duty at this point to take a different 10 EUR and spend it on all of them. The problem is that I come from the sort of place where you don't buy something and bring it to a party - you make it. I can't seem to get past the nagging thought that it's uncool to get a cake at the bakery instead of making one. Plus, I kind of like to make something, because it's personal, and feels like less of a little token thing I have to do. However, being transplanted and not rich enough to ship my kitchen across the Atlantic with me, I'm lacking in so many baking necessities! I don't have the right cake pans. Then I thought about pie, because it's so American but yet doesn't taste too foreign to the German palate. But no pie pans, no rolling pin.... And since we don't know how long we will be here, and have all this stuff already, just not with us, it's hard to convince myself that I should buy it. However, I haven't checked with people to see if there are some of these things that I could borrow out there somewhere. My other idea was cookies, because we do have a pan that works as a cookie sheet, and Germans seem to like those, too. However, a couple of people in the office were iffy on that idea - it's not an event to eat cookies like it is to eat something that requires a plate and fork. Of course the last idea is to just get over it and go to the bakery and buy something already made. :) Whew, as if getting older weren't stress enough.
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Monday, October 29, 2007

Birthdays Past

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When I turned 7, I asked mom if I could have all the girls in my class (there were maybe 7 or 8) over for a party. She let me despite hating that sort of thing and even painted a big happy birthday sign to hang on the wall. (And she was my age then.)

When I turned 9, mom said she would decorate cupcakes for me to take to school. (We took treats to school on our birthdays - perhaps a tradition left over from everyone's German backgrounds?) Then she broke a glass while washing dishes and had to get stitches in her palm, preventing any sort of decorating activities. So instead she ordered me a decorated Barbie cake from one of the local cake ladies.

When I turned 14, my friends left a trail of big decorated notes and cards all over the school for me, strategically placed so I would find one every period.

When I turned 15, we went out to eat at the Haye Loft, and my little sister's friend was the first person to ever say I looked pretty.

When I turned 17, a senior in high school, my best friend and I invited all our out-of-town friends for a sleepover in the front room of my dad's gigantic machine shed, where we could blast my dad's 1970s stereo and make noise as late as we wanted. We passed around Hy-Vee Red Pop like it was a bong.

When I turned 18, my new college friends took me out to eat at a Greek restaurant in downtown Chicago. I was serenaded over custard with candles by an impressively large number of waiters - as were people at every other table in the room! Everybody was having a birthday!

When I turned 19, my sometimes-boyfriend, never able to be on time for anything, got up super-early and elaborately decorated the hallway outside my dorm room with pink streamers and duct tape.

Naturally they've gotten a little more boring now that I'm older (and my husband, wonderful in every other way, isn't terribly creative). Today I'll just play some Dan Deacon to get my cheery self on, go to work for a while hoping to duck questions about when I'm going to treat all of them to cake for my birthday, then come home and work some more on this godforsaken paper that's due Wednesday, all the while counting the years until my next weekend birthday. Hopefully all of this will be followed by some delicious restaurant food at a yet-to-be-determined location :) And a glass of wine to ease the pain of moving pretty solidly out of the post-college demographic. Whee!

And thanks to everyone who participated in the awesome birthdays past mentioned above. You guys are the best.
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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

This feels awkward to me.

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An email from the secretary at my job:
Dear (my name),

it's your birthday again next week - so what would you like for a birthday present? Everything is possible worth € 10,00. It may be a voucher also.

Regards

(the secretary)

Is this not a bit awkward? I even feel a little funny if family members ask me what I want!
One thing I am sure it means is that I will not get out of bringing cake in to the office.
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Monday, October 22, 2007

For Sara, Jen, and Mom

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Three people last week managed to somehow defy the Deutsche Post and get large pieces of mail to us! THANK YOU to Jen for the book, Mom for the hat, scarf, & gloves, and Sara for the exacto art calendar!! :) So we see that it IS possible to get mail delivered to us....we just aren't sure what the trick is yet. Or if there is one at all.
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Saturday, October 20, 2007

Schwarzfahren

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Well, the Betriebsausflug was actually very nice! We walked partway up the Heiligenberg from Neuenheim, then continued north through the hills, with great views over the Rheinebene (the plains around the Rhine) - the photo on the right, for example. I got to know the people I already knew a little better - but failed to recruit anyone for pub quiz, because it's on Mondays. They told me I should throw party at my house on Friday with my own pub quiz and then they would go. Argh.

We were to take the Strassenbahn (tram) back to Heidelberg from Schriesheim after coffee at a cafe there. We thought we could buy our tickets on the tram, but once we got on we realized that we couldn't. So, we had a choice - ride without a ticket, or get out to buy one at the machine and risk waiting for the next train (the driver was having a quick smoke).

Riding without a ticket is easily possible because no ticket is required to physically enter a station or a train. But, you may get caught riding without a ticket by inspectors. Riding without a ticket is called Schwarzfahren - or, in direct translation, "black riding" (sort of the same use of "black" as in "black market"). Most trains and stations have signs warning against it, and the fine is around 40 EUR if you are caught. You are also berated right on the train in front of anyone if it happens.

If this system was used in an American city, I'm not sure it would be effective, but apparently it works fairly well here. When we realized we couldn't buy tickets on the train, people looked truly apprehensive about it, even though I have never seen a ticket inspector on the Strassenbahn in any city I've rode in. Some people had tickets already (like a school-provided one). Of those of us who didn't, three of us got out to try to buy one before the train left. I'm such a goody-two-shoes, for one thing. For the other, I didn't want to get berated on the train in front of all my coworkers - although I guess some of them would be getting it too.

The first guy to get to the machine was a German coworker who I don't know very well. I tried to get him to purchase all three tickets at once, but it either wasn't possible or he just ignored me. (Actually I had to show him how to use the machine...haha) So, he got his, and as it was printing, we saw the driver put out his cigarette. He ran back to the train. Now the other two of us really had to choose - run back to the train without a ticket in plain sight of the driver, who now knows we definitely don't have one? (And probably doesn't care, actually, but...) Or miss it?

The other guy ran back. I stood there alone at the ticket machine and watched the train pull away. Argh. Luckily it was not a long wait but I'm kind of wondering if I look like the biggest nerd right now, or what :) I know that the train wasn't inspected, so I would have been fine.

I actually have ridden the bus a couple of times without a ticket when I really wanted to catch a train at the station in Mainz and couldn't spare the time to buy the ticket. It was only a couple of blocks to the station so I risked it. So maybe I'm not the goodiest-two-shoes around. Maybe just second place.
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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Betriebsausflug

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The Betriebsausflug is a little trip that everybody in the office/lab/whatever goes on. I think it must be required at our workplace that each group do one of these. My group's is tomorrow.

Some groups go on little day trips. We're going to walk from our office to Schriesheim. As a little part-timer, I considered just not going at all, and I doubt I would be missed. However, I thought that in the end it would be a better political move to go - and I might need whatever edge it will give me later in some work situation. So, tomorrow instead of doing my usual work-the-afternoons thing, I will get up earlier to join this walk to Schriesheim.

One of the reasons I'm uncomfortable with it is that the one person I work with regularly, "PD", has always been great to work with, but never made any effort to make me feel like I belonged socially in our group. Maybe this isn't really his job, but I guess I'm coming from a country where taking the new person to lunch the first day or at least showing them around to meet everyone on the first day is the norm. On my first day of work, he told me he wasn't ready to meet with me yet and that I didn't have an office, so I should just go sit in the kitchen. I sat around in the kitchen with nothing to do but act like my planner was super-fascinating for about 45 minutes, until the secretary happened to find me out there - and it turns out I DID have an office and computer. PD just didn't show me or tell me the secretary knew or anything. He goes to lunch regularly with a group of coworkers, but I was never invited (and I only found out about it from someone else). He didn't tell me when seminars were or where to find the schedule or introduce me to anyone, but was surprised later every time he asked me if I knew so-and-so and I said no. The only people I know are two that I met in class in Mainz, one that I went to English-language orientation with, and the 3 with whom I share an office. How would I know anyone else? Most people are brought around and introduced but I just never was. Especially when I arrived here knowing so little German, I felt I was in no position to go throwing myself into everyone's closed offices to make myself known. It's just left me feeling like I don't fit in and no one wants me to fit in. So, I sort of feel like I shouldn't bother with the Betriebsausflug, because it's sort of a lost cause. I've become used to being the little quiet mouse in the office - although this was certainly never my role in my last job in the US ;)

Well, that was more whiny/ranty than I was expecting, but there it is. It might actually be fine. The people I do know, I really like. I just feel awkward around PD in a non-work environment, and around all those people I don't know who always have their office doors closed. On the other hand I'm looking to put together a pub quiz team and maybe I'll be able to recruit people.....nah. It's on Monday nights, and I don't see that happening with this group.
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Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Deutsche Post works in mysterious ways.

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Yesterday Damon and I left the apartment to run some errands around 11am. I checked the mailbox on the way out and found a little card saying that we had received a package, and it would be waiting for us at a Packstation* way across town (definitely not the closest one) after 6pm. We were home all morning, and the package is addressed to our street address, but they never tried to deliver it to us by ringing our buzzer. They just put it straight in the Packstation. I don't understand why this would be. We do have a Packstation address which is different from our street address, but it's at a closer Packstation, and this package was not addressed to it. (I guess it should have been, but it is confusing for our friends and family that we have one address for letters/cards and one for packages, and I don't blame them for that!)

* A Packstation is a big bank of locked metal boxes that sits in an always-accessible place, like the post office outer lobby or at the side of the road. If you have a code to use one, or a barcode from a delivered "you've got mail" slip to scan, you can retrieve packages from it. You can send packages from them too, but I've never done that. They are a good solution for large mail that is delivered when you're not home...but we were home, so in this case I wouldn't call it so great!
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Saturday, October 13, 2007

Would you eat food you found on your doorstep?

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On Thursday when I left for work, there were two bakery bags sitting outside the front door of our building, which seemed a little weird to me. They were sealed closed with stickers that said the bakery hoped to gain the receiver as a customer after they enjoyed the delicious freshness of the goodies inside. (They kind smelled like Kaesebroetchen.) They had the last names of two other tenants of the building scrawled on them so I left them there. When I came home, one was still sitting outside. I brought it inside the door and left it by the mailboxes because I thought having them out on the steps was a little strange. I don't think I would eat food left on my doorstep (there's that American paranoia kicking in). The intended recipient still hasn't picked them up so I guess they probably aren't so fresh and delicious at this point. Is this a common marketing scheme in Germany? It just seems strange to me.
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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Mosel v. the Rhein

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We spent the next day, Sunday, on the Mosel, and the following day, Monday, on the middle Rhein. Damon and I (and his mom) had already spent some time on the middle Rhein previously, but we had never seen the Mosel before. Damon and I had heard a lot of great things about it so we were really looking forward to going!
Bernkastel-Kues & More Sep 07

The Mosel starts in France somewhere, forms part of the border between Germany and Luxembourg, then goes past Trier up to Koblenz, where it meets the Rhein. Wine is grown all along the river, sometimes on ridiculously steep banks that require it be harvested by hand. In some places there are also rails going down the hills through the vineyards - I don't know what these are exactly - maybe to hoist the harvest up and down? Some of the steep vineyards, especially nearing Koblenz, are truly amazing. The valley has a lot of tourists - mostly German ones - but doesn't come close to the Rhein in terms of tourism overload.
Kroev Sep 07

We started at our pension in Bekond and stopped in a few towns along the way - see the photos to learn more about the individual places where we stopped! Our first longer stop was in Kroev, where they were having a wine festival. It wasn't like the one in Freinsheim - it was contained in a small courtyard and community center. The whole town appeared to be there, drinking and listening to a sort of horrible band. We drank, looked around the town, and grabbed lunch there.
Marienburg & More Sep 07

A bit after lunch, we made another stop, this time high up at the top of the valley at a old convent, which now has a large cafe. Damon's dad took a nap in the parking lot while we climbed up to the cafe and enjoyed the view.
Cochem Sep 07

We were starting to get pretty burned out by the time we stopped in Cochem for some photos of the picturesque (but not very old) castle and ice cream. This town was so packed with tourists (all holding cameras, so easily identifiable as such - but all Germans) that Damon's parents asked us if they were having a festival too. I would guess it was the good weather!
Kobern-Gondorf and Niederfell Oct 07

We were all tired so we settled for the evening in the town where we would be staying, Niederfell, and had some wine and cheese before dinner. (At our hotel's restaurant - which was amazing - Kastanienhof.) We did miss one of the major sites on the Mosel, Burg Eltz. I suppose we could use it as an excuse to return to the area, but I don't really need an excuse. I'm pretty much ready to move to Koblenz at the first opportunity, just so I can go to the Mosel Valley any time. I used to say I wanted to move to Koblenz because of the Rhein! The Mosel is an even better reason.
Boppard Oct 07

Our day on the Rhein was slightly less eventful. Damon's mom was more interested in a boat cruise than almost anything else as her main desire on her trip to Germany. For a while, it was up for debate what river it would be. We thought the Rhein was a good choice because we've already seen it, whereas staying on land is a nice idea if you want to be able to stop in towns, as we did on the Mosel. So, the Rhein it was - plus there are just more options there as Rhein boat cruises are quite popular. We stopped in Boppard and picked up a tour boat there.
Rhein Cruise Oct 07

We rode to Oberwesel and back, being tortured both ways by an unfortunate choral recording of "The Loreley" while riding past the big rock. I think we were the youngest people on the entire boat by a fairly large margin, with the exception of a couple of small children. It was pleasant, though it wasn't particularly informative. They had only a couple of announcements about things we passed, but most places weren't mentioned at all.
Bacharach Okt 07

We then drove from Boppard south along the Rhein, stopping in Bacharach for a look around, since we had heard good things about it. We had only a hurried look at it, but it was very pretty, though it didn't seem to have as much pedestrianized area as it needed. There were cars everywhere!
We ended the day in Bingen, which hasn't gotten any more exciting since we were there in April ;) We did find a nice place to eat dinner, though, and had another drink at a Weinstube next door afterward. Our waitress there horrified Damon's dad by reporting that she couldn't come out right away when we wanted to pay for a take-home bottle because she had been "on the toilet". Hehehe.

Over the final glasses of wine, Damon's dad had everyone write down their top 5 things from the trips we took, ranking them. Then we pooled the results, with each person's top choice getting 5 points, 2nd choice getting 4, and so on. Freinsheim won, with Esch-sur-Sure, Burg Lichtenberg, and lunch on the roadside near St Gallen all scoring very high marks. And the Mosel completely crushed the Rhein.
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Monday, October 08, 2007

Part I of Part II: Kusel, Burg Lichtenberg, Trier, and Luxembourg

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On the second leg of our trip with the in-laws, we were a little slow out of the gate because MIL still hadn't visted the castle and did it that morning. I suppose this could have been done in the two hours she spent very slowly checking her email at our house (spends a lot of time on it for someone who never seems to be able to get back to our messages!) one of the other days, but what can you do?
Kusel Sep 07

Our first stop, not planned, was in the town of Kusel to pick up some picnic fixings. It was here that I found the first Stumbling Stones I've seen - I read about them in the past, so this was an interesting find for me. You can see them up closer in the photo album. The artist decided to make these when he overheard a German once saying that "none of the victims of the Holocaust lived near here anyway!" and the project is meant to show that they did, indeed, live near you.
Burg Lichtenberg Sep 07

We took our fixings to a nearby castle on a hill, Burg Lichtenberg, to eat. There were ruins there, as well as a hostel, church, two museums, and a house! This was also a completely unplanned stop, but a very nice one. Actually, I'm not really a castle person (!! a major sin among American tourists), but picnicking is generally pleasant and it's nice to see everyone else get psyched up about a castle.
Trier Sep 07

One of the two main things Damon and I had wanted to come in this direction for was Trier - oldest city in Germany, full of ridiculously old Roman goodies, and a place we've heard a lot about in general. Because of our late start, though, we got about an hour in Trier, right before sunset, to run through and see about three of the zillions of significant things we could have seen there - the two major churches and the Porta Nigra. (See photos for info on all this.) Damon's parents weren't impressed with Trier at all in our one-hour stop. His Dad called it "the Missouri of Germany" based on the fashion sense of those walking around. That's no compliment coming from an Illinois person. His Mom thought it looked too fake because it was so nicely painted. I'm not sure where she'd been for the rest of the trip through zillions of other nicely painted towns. Neither is all that interested in history so I guess that did not redeem it for them. So, off we went, with a few pictures to show for it. Maybe we'll have to make another trip to see the inside of the Konstantin-Basilika and all the baths, as we were disappointed at the briefness of our stop.
Luxembourg (City) Sep 07

We stayed at a pension on the tiny town of Bekond near Trier. The parents were horrified at the lack of soap and old carpet. It was hotels only from then on. (I was just glad to be in something better than a hostel. And kind of impressed at the good state of the pension since it clearly hadn't been updated since the 60s.) The next morning we went off for a one-day tour of the entire country of Luxembourg.
Damon's dad made Liechtenstein jokes and French jokes, then spent the morning hanging around near where we parked d/t his bum knee. We had two hours to see everything we wanted in the entire city. Damon became cranky at this. I can be a very efficient tourist/picture taker if necessary but his mom is more deliberate so the shortness of time was not a good combination with her thoroughness. He was afraid to become upset with her about it though, so I got to hear about it instead. (Do parents realize how much we let them get away with without saying anything? Especially compared to how we treat our spouses? Do they exploit it?) We made it through Notre Dame - very nice to see a church with a somewhat different style from those in Germany - and the Bock Casemates - more info on these in the photos. We were late getting back to his Dad, and then we had lunch in an Italian chain cafe and took off again.
Esch-sur-Sure Sep 07

Our next stop, recommended by Lonely Planet of all places, was Esch-sur-Sure, a tiny town that sits on a loop in the Sure river. We spent about 45 minutes there, climbing up to its old crumbling castle ruin and checking out its church and strange gift/candle shop.
Echternach Sep 07

On our way back into Germany, we stopped in Echternach, right on the German border. The sun even shone for the first time that day. Then we returned to Germany for dinner at a restaurant somewhere near Bekond. Damon's dish turned out to be three whole cold (cooked) fish! I wish I'd remembered to get a photo of them all stacked on his plate.

Coming soon: the Mosel and the Rhein. Cast your bets now on which one each person liked better.
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Sunday, October 07, 2007

Life is back to normal!

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As normal as it ever is, anyway :)

The in-laws bade us goodbye on Tuesday, and we had a day to recover before two friends of ours dropped in to visit for a couple of days after they visited Bamberg, Munich, Neuschwanstein, Liechtenstein, and Zurich. They left yesterday, and I have finally uploaded all the photos from our trips with the in-laws.

They arrived on a Friday evening, and we took off right away the next morning on our first adventure. First we stopped in Worms. Damon's mom is the ueberLutheran so she was very interested in going there. It was nice to have another chance to see it without being on a guided tour. I like the informative nature of tours but they usually make me feel a little cramped. Our visit was brief - just the cathedral and the statue of Martin Luther (currently under restoration).
Worms Sep 07

We then continued on to Freinsheim, site of a wine festival that was one of the first great things we did after we moved here just over a year ago. Damon's dad was with cane as he'd recently twisted his knee, but we still managed to drink our way through half of the vineyard trails, including a stop for the same Saumagen we enjoyed last year. We saw the Jesus Shovel again, but didn't make it as far as the giant head. It was, again, a really great time. We haven't found another festival quite like this one yet - if anyone knows of one, please let us know :)
Freinsheim Sep 07

Our plan was to continue on to reach Liechtenstein the following day, so after a short wine-recovery period we continued on in that general direction, passing by Stuttgart. No hotel rooms had been booked so we were in a rush to find something (I don't recommend this approach unless you are planning on travelling only in the boonies.) We thought of aiming for Tuebingen, a cute Neckar town we've been wanting to see, but didn't expect to find a room there. Instead we ended up pulling off in a Schwaebisch town called Herrenberg that none of us had ever heard of. We couldn't find it in any of our books, either. It had an unattractive main road that looped past a really cute old town center. We had dinner in the center at a pretty good restaurant in a huge old half-timber building. At the end, the waitress asked us if we were from England or Holland. Do people never guess US to avoid offending non-US people by calling them that? We told her we were from the US and she said our German was really good. (Come on, restaurants are easy! But it's still encouraging.) On our way out, a German guy with great English heard us, and stopped to chat us up with his whole professional history. It was strange. He worked up to name-dropping some famous cyclists, who, unfortunately for him, we had never heard of. We tried to act impressed. Then it was back to our hotel. The bathroom appeared to have been recently renovated, but had only a bathtub with a shower head, and no curtain!
Herrenberg Sep 07

The following morning we went back to the center to look around in the daylight, then continued on to Konstanz, where we checked out the cathedral (they were having service so we didn't get to look around the inside) and the lake and sat around the square drinking hot chocolate.
Konstanz Sep 07

We drove south from there through the Swiss border, where we weren't even stopped (this was a theme the whole time - never stopped at any border). We went on toward Sankt Gallen. The drive was beautiful, with apple trees, farms, and cows everywhere. Somehow it manages to look very different from driving through Germany, though I expected them to be the same.
We stopped for lunch at a little restaurant on the side of the road just past Sankt Gallen. There was a big family party going on and kids running everywhere. The food was amazing and we were entertained by cows with bells wandering closer and then further from the restaurant. After we ate we had the terrible realization that we had no clue how to tip in Switzerland.
Bell Cow Rest & Liechtenstein Sep 07

Finally we arrived in Liechtenstein and spent quite a lot of time trying to find an affordable hotel with availability. At this point it was decided that rooms would be booked for the next trip so we didn't eat up daylight driving around looking for hotels. We finally found something in Triesen, near Vaduz.
I'm not sure what we expected to find in Liechtenstein, being that it's main attraction is its novelty, being a tiny country with only 34,000 inhabitants. But, whatever we expected, we didn't find it. We walked out from our hotel looking for something to eat or an interesting place to check out. It felt like we'd walked for miles, and we never found a thing but construction sites, apartment buildings, and offices. There weren't people walking anywhere and there was nothing to see, as far as we went. We saw only one restaurant, a pizzeria, the whole time - and it was closed. There's a castle, but you can't go in because the royals still live there. Defeated, we went back to our hotel and ate there. The next morning, we made a final attempt to find anything nice to see, but didn't find it. The modern art museum might have been cool, but we had no time to try it. The in-laws just wanted to get out of there and it was the butt of jokes for the rest of the vacation.

We were to be in Basel by 1p so Damon and his dad could take a tour at one of the big companies there. They offered Damon a job in the Netherlands, but he wants to stay in academics, so alas, we may never find a way to keep ourselves in Europe. While they toured, his mom and I took a look around Basel. It was beautiful, though we found that service was even less friendly than Germany. That night we met up with Damon and his dad again, and a rep from the company, and they took us out to dinner.
Basel Sep 07

The next morning, we headed back to Heidelberg. I had to make it to work. On the way, I hoped to stop in Freiburg, another supposedly great place we haven't seen. I was, however, overriden, and instead we winded an hour into the Black Forest to a little town called Triberg. We only had about 20 minutes to check it out because we'd used so much time getting there and had to get back on the road. It's a cuckoo-clock town. Don't go there. Well, it does boast 'Germany's highest waterfall' - but we didn't have time to see it.
The next two days were spent in Heidelberg so Damon and I could get some work in - then it was off on leg two of the "with the in-laws" adventure, which is coming soon!
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