Friday, November 30, 2007

ZOMG!! All Coke Drinkers Are American!!!!!11

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J. at Germany Doesn't Suck recently made a great find: a list of behaviors Americans should avoid while in other countries because these behaviors signal that they are from the US, provided by a university's study abroad department. Be sure to check out the full list on his blog. Below I highlight a few that don't really apply in Germany:

1. Some clothing choices signal one as being a US citizen.
* Dressing informally instead of more formally, (ie. wearing sneakers, t-shirts, jeans, or shorts instead of slacks or skirts with shirts or blouses)

My big stereotype about all of Europe was that everyone dressed up more than in the US. Consequently I spent a lot of days at first feeling really freaking overdressed. Don't be scared to wear your jeans in Germany. EVERYONE else is. Your BOSS is.

2. A number of food related habits signal that someone might be from the US.
* Avoid walking down the street while eating food.

The number of German-speakers I've seen walking down the street gnawing on a little Ditsch pizza, eating a little paper coneful of Pommes with a tiny wooden fork, or enjoying some Eis far outweighs the number of English-speakers I've seen doing this. No need to fear the potential dire consequences of walking-and-eating here.

* Don't insist on drinking “Coke” with every meal.

You mean Cola Light, that thing Germans can't seem to live without? Coca-Cola, immortalized in more Bollywood than American songs? Yeah, that really signals that you're American.

* Avoid visiting US chain restaurants for every meal.

I've eaten in US chains 2 or 3 times since being here. I don't remember ever encountering fellow Americans in them. Lots and lots of German teenagers, though.

3. Be conscious of your behavior in public places. Here are some examples that could signal you are a US citizen:
* Be careful about folding and unfolding city maps in public spaces. Move out of the way to consult maps. It is best to plan your routes in advance of leaving your hotel and have the maps pre-folded so they may be easily accessed and read.
* If you must use a dictionary to translate a sign or menu, be discrete. For example, copy down the words of the sign and move aside to a less public place to work out the translation.

The overall tone goes from funny to what-the-fuck at this point. Hide your map! Hide your dictionary! Don't you know everyone hates your ass? Don't you know you could get stabbed for needing a map or a dictionary? Good Lord. I can't speak for other countries, but taking out a map or a dictionary in my corner of Germany is more likely to get you some help from a stranger rather than shunned. Keine Sorgen, people. The big wide world isn't always so bad.
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Thursday, November 29, 2007

So, about that US dollar...

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When we moved to Germany last year, one Euro was worth $1.21. Even then we found it a little harsh, starting out with no Euro(s? Does the plural have an s in English?) and having a $500 withdrawal limit from our US account, which wasn't so much anymore when withdrawn in Euro.

Now one Euro is worth $1.47 or $1.48 or so. We earn Euro. Pretty nice if we go visit the US, but not so nice for people coming to visit us. My mother-in-law complained that a cashmere sweater we saw on a sidewalk sale rack was expensive at 25 Euro. I thought it was a pretty good deal and was confused at her reaction until I realized she was making the calculation back to dollars in her head constantly. Prices in the EU don't go down just because the US dollar is sucking, see? (Even with the calculation I thought it was an alright deal, but she and I have been living in completely different cost-of-living areas for years.)

We still have money in an account in the US, which we use to pay some bills that are in dollars, like my student loans and our US credit cards, which we still use sometimes to buy gifts for people in the US online. And, of course we have an account here.

For a while it seemed like it might be a good idea to transfer some Euro into our US account while it's worth so much. Then when the dollar gets stronger again, we'll have more. We haven't done it yet because the dollar has just kept on getting worse and worse, to the point that we started to wonder if it was going to get stronger at all. I guess it will at some point, but when? I don't want to move money there only to have it become weaker.
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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Don't you people want an encore?

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Last night Damon and I went up to Frankfurt to see Rufus Wainwright in concert. It was held at the Alte Oper, which I was sort of excited to see the inside of, but it turned out that it was held in the smaller of two halls in the Oper (Mozartsaal). The room was incredibly small and looked like it had been renovated in the 80s by the looks of the icky gold railing around the balcony. However, the concert was very good. I saw Rufus in 2001, but don't remember him being as entertaining then as he was last night. His recordings and videos come off as overly serious and dramatic, but when he is live you can see it's all just for fun.

There was a clearly planned encore with 5 songs, after which the lights went up - and the audience immediately just packed up and left. No clapping and stomping for a true, unplanned encore. After we left Damon pointed out, I think accurately, that an American audience would have stood there trying for an encore for at least ten more minutes. The concert started and ended very early, too, so time (to make trains, etc.) wasn't really an issue. The audience seemed to like the show very much so I'm not sure why they didn't try. Encores are especially easy to wring out of a singer-songwriter type like Rufus. Oh well, in all it was quite fun anyway.

Rufus wrote his latest album while living in Berlin so three of the songs either have titles that reference Germany or are about German places. All three were played last night. Here they are! (Please leave me a comment if you know of a site where I can embed just audio files instead of putting up these videos. It would be nicer to stream the original recordings instead of digging around youtube for decent-quality live recordings when songs don't have official videos...which I generally don't care for either!)

Going to a Town (reference to Berlin):


Tiergarten:


Sanssouci:
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Sunday, November 25, 2007

We'll meet again, Dresden

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After our arrival in Dresden on Friday night, we met up with an old friend of ours from Boston. Like Damon, he's a postdoc here. They were PhDs in the same lab and finished the same year, and both ended up in Germany! From our hotel we walked into the heart of Neustadt, an ultra-hip neighborhood full of restaurants, bars, and DJ stores. Why haven't I found or heard of anything like this in Heidelberg!? (Analysis of this later.)

We ended up at a restaurant called Plan Wirtschaft. It was cozy and would fit right in in Cambridge (MA) or Seattle. Our waitress was the friendliest we've ever encountered in Germany - this became a theme in Dresden. It was so friendly! On top of that, she addressed us informally, which I have never heard in a restaurant before. The food was so much better than I expected based on the menu prices. Dresden = cheap!! At this point I was already wondering how I could make the move there. Afterward we had another drink at another cozy little bar in the Neustadt. I was a little annoyed by the smoke of icky cheap cigarettes from a nearby table, but the smoking bans will soon make it to Sachsen!

The following morning, we wandered over to the famous Dresden Saturday morning flea market along the Elbe. Our friend the previous evening had described finding all sorts of cool stuff there. I think it really was the best flea market I've ever seen. Damon couldn't help himself and walked away with a giant Krug with his family's name carved into it and two old geography schoolbooks from the Third Reich with some really crazy stuff in them (map of German races, anyone?!). I just tried to hang back to avoid wanting lots of stuff, especially since I have a typical American fascination with communist life and there was tons of old DDR stuff there. However, were I to go again, I would not dress like I did. I really felt overdressed in my long wool coat (and Damon in a black leather coat), and we probably got overcharged as a result. Dresden is super casual! I thought Heidelberg was, and it is, but Dresden is yet more so.

We dropped off our finds at the hotel and headed out to meet up with some other expatriate bloggers - the reason we braved the Deutsche Bahn on this particular weekend! It was pretty cool to see the bloggers I always read face-to-face. Kind of like meeting minor celebrities, in a way. (ie "OMGZ!!!!11 I just saw Ian from Letters Home to You in the hallway!!!!") Great write-ups on the personalities there were already done on some of these blogs - there are versions at Letters Home to You, Eurotrippen, and at Mausi's. After assembling in an Eis cafe, we took an afternoon cruise on the Elbe river, from which we could see lots of cool old castles and vast empty marshes, right in Dresden! Also, I learned that mistletoe grows in giant balls in trees. I had never even thought about where/how mistletoe grows before. I guess I assumed it was a tree of some kind. Photos are here:

Dresden Nov 07

After the cruise, we walked through Dresden's Altstadt, stopping near the Frauenkirche first. The Frauenkirche was, like most of Dresden, destroyed during WWII. The firestorm melted the stones and the dome collapsed, falling so hard it split the stone floor. It remained a grassy pile of ruins until German reunification in 1990. At that time the Dresdners decided to rebuild it. They sorted through the pile of rubble looking for usable stones and used the blueprints of the church (from the 1700s) to put the usable stones back where they originally were. It was completed with new stones from the same place as the originals and was finished about 2 years ago. Unfortunately, there was an event going on inside and we didn't get to go in! Still, just knowing the story and seeing the outside was very, very cool. We also saw the famous mural, which survived WWII, on the outside of the castle, the interestingly-shaped Catholic church, the famous Semperoper (opera house), and the awesome courtyard of the Zwinger, complete with more porcelain bells just like the ones we liked so much in Weimar. See all of this in the photo album!

The group split up for a break and Damon and I had the idea to take a look for Christmas gifts as long as we were in a town that was so darn cheap. But, we ended up at the mall, which was hell, and ran back out. We then rode back to the Neustadt, which looked like it had some really cool stores, but they were all closed already. So, we explored the Kunsthofpassage, the inside of a city block all painted and sculpted by local artists and filled with shops and eateries. This is right up my alley. Again, Dresden rules. We warmed up in another super-friendly, super-cozy cafe with some heisse Zitrone (hot lemon beverage), then headed out to meet up with the group again for dinner.

Dinner was in a restaurant called Mama Africa, featuring lots of live music and harrassment in a setting including fake trees, fake birds, and a video of gorillas projected on the wall nearby. I got to eat crocodile (poor Schnappi!), which tastes like chicken and feels like fish, for those wondering. Also, they had cider, and that is always a plus for me. Afterward we wandered off to another Neustadt bar to cap off the evening.

The next morning Damon and I tried to go back to the Frauenkirche to see if we could get in again. We couldn't, but we did get to see the area in a little bit more daylight than before, which was nice. We said goodbye to the group at brunch and ran off to catch our train back to the other side of Deutschland. We had tickets to the symphony that night in Mannheim so we couldn't miss it! The strike was thankfully over, and it only took us 5.5 hours, connecting in Fulda, to get to Mannheim for the show.

Then we were back in expensive old Heidelberg. That's one of my theories as to why HD is less cool than Dresden. Even though it's full of students, they can't afford to do much here. Everything costs more than elsewhere, including rent. Of course, it could be that there really is a cool place like Dresden's Neustadt somewhere in Heidelberg, but I know a lot of people and if there is one, I'm really surprised I haven't been there yet, or even heard any mention of it. Maybe there just isn't any place with low enough rents to put up these sorts of shops and cafes. Also, a neighborhood like Neustadt isn't fueled so much by college students as by 20- and 30-somethings, and maybe HD lacks a bit in that department because of the cost of living. I really don't know. Maybe other HDers can help me out with some more theories...or by telling me where our equivalent of the Neustadt is!

I was also really surprised and impressed at the informality and community feeling in Dresden, such as the waitress who called us du/euch (informal you) instead of Sie (formal you). The already super-cute Tschuss was transformed into the even-cuter Tschussi, which I've heard here, but only among friends. Our old Boston friend theorized it might be a leftover from the days of communist comraderie, but we didn't have the same experience in other former East German towns we've been in (if anything some were the total opposite - like the nasty treatment we all got in Wismar), so I'm not sure. In any case, it was really nice. I would love to work in another trip there!
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Friday, November 23, 2007

Riding the striking Bahn

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We braved the Deutsche Bahn strike last Friday to make the long trip to Dresden. Before the strike, we were set to get there in about 6 hours by taking a train connection through Fulda. After the strike schedule came out, our shortest option was a 7.5 hour trip, connecting through Mannheim, Kassel, and Leipzig. OK - still within our acceptable limits, given that we had an extra reason for going to Dresden on this particular weekend. Without that reason, we would have rescheduled.

When we left our apartment, the sun hadn't come over the hills yet, so the valley was cold and frosty. We knew we were doomed if we didn't make our train because of the lack of connections, so we took a bus that got us to the station with plenty of time to spare, which we used to browse the bookstore. I found out that Voldemort's middle name in German is Vorlost.

Everything went smoothly - we got our connection at Mannheim and settled into our reserved seats, which - bonus! - were at a table! Very nice. Then, there was an announcement over the speakers not long before we pulled into Frankfurt. Rough synopsis of announcement: "If you were going to take the train from Kassel to Leipzig, forget it. It's cancelled. Get out in Frankfurt and connect to Leipzig via Nuernberg instead." This announcement was of course only in German, so a year ago we might have been screwed. I hope there weren't any affected parties who didn't understand German. (It's funny because they always make sure to make their hello/goodbye announcements in both English and German - announcements which are useless. Then if it matters, it's only in German!)

We got out in Frankfurt and had a little time before getting on the train to Nuernberg, so we tried to find out at the desk if there was still going to be a way for us to get to Dresden from Leipzig, given that our old schedule was out the window now. They said they couldn't tell us anything for certain and gave us a little bag of candy (see left). We got on the train to Nuernberg having no idea whether there would be any trains taking us further once we got there!

From this point on, I couldn't get this song out of my head: "Es faehrt ein Zug nach Nirgendwo". Approximate translation: There's a train going nowhere. Enjoy this Schlager gem below.



The train was a little crowded to Nuernberg but we managed to score seats. When we got there, it was confirmed that the train to Leipzig was still running. Yay! But the platform for said train was very, very, very crowded. We probably weren't the only ones who got bumped from other routes to Leipzig.

It was three hours to Leipzig on the train from hell. We had seat reservations on our original journey, but not on these trains, of course. Not for lack of trying - we tried at the machine in Frankfurt, but it was too late to make them. There were people in the aisles by the seats, piled up in the halls by the bathrooms, in the doorways, and everywhere else a person could squeeze. We ended up standing/sitting alternately in the narrow hall next to the trash cans. I hate being in everyone's way, but there was no way out of it. A drunk woman crushed my foot and someone came by to throw away a bag of barf. I was starting to feel a bit ill myself - somehow being on the floor increases the feeling of motion sickness. The people nearby who brought fish sandwiches from Nordsee onto the train and then proceeded to eat them halfway through the ride, filling the car with fish reek, didn't help the matter. After two hours, we finally managed to nag a seat for the remainder of the trip. My ass thanked me. Those floors are harder than they look!

Leipzig was until recently (with the opening of the new one in Berlin) the biggest train station in Germany. When we arrived, there were only two trains sitting in the entire station, ours included. The schedule boards were empty. There was a tight mob of people staring out at the tracks. I'm not sure what they were looking for. Probably a train that was never going to come. One person stopped us to ask where the train we just got off was heading, and our answer, Hamburg, was apparently not what he was hoping.

We found a little desk where Deutsche Bahn staff were writing with markers on big paper pads all the trains and buses that were departing Leipzig for various points throughout Sachsen and beyond. Thankfully, there were not only two more buses leaving for Dresden that night, but even a train was going to be going there! The bus went first, though, so that is what we decided to take.

We went out of the station and joined a huge crowd waiting for busses. Everyone wanted to go to Dresden. When a bus for Dresden finally pulled up, it was insanity. I haven't seen such a transportation-related mob scene since the days of the Delayed Blue Line During Rush Hour in Boston. It was kind of scary. And all the madness was for nothing - our bus pulled out of Leipzig with four seats still free! It was a cozy tour bus with an ultra-friendly driver and his assistant. An hour and a half later, we finally made it to Dresden. We hit our hotel at 8pm - 11 hours after leaving our apartment in Heidelberg.
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Monday, November 19, 2007

Happy End

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This photo appeared in my photo albums back in the spring of this year. Reposted today for the benefit of those who didn't catch it then. :)
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Thursday, November 15, 2007

I need to unionize

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Seriously, dude. The Deutsche Bahn drivers want a 31% pay raise!

And they'll probably get it, too, if they continue to make everyone's lives miserable like this.

I used to get 2 or 3% in Boston every year. That was for being a good employee. If I had gotten mediocre reviews, I wouldn't have even gotten that much (they had a complicated formula for it all worked out). It didn't even keep up with inflation. And Boston was considerably more expensive than any German city. But analysts can't unionize...I think there might have even been some kind of rules against it. I need some ultra-specified skills! Like train driving. Or nursing...they were allowed to unionize and as such had better raises, better health insurance, better time off, and better everything.

Also, I would like to point out for the benefit of people who don't live in Germany and hold the general belief that train travel is a cheap way to get around that the Deutsche Bahn is seriously expensive. They have deals, but they are hard to find. Deals are available either only at the desk, or only online at some site that you can't figure out and not the regular site, etc. Also if you get a deal and miss your train, you can't use it and have to buy a new ticket. This is even if missing your train is the fault of the DB. If we lived in a city with an airport, flying would probably always be cheaper than taking the train, but as it stands, we have to take the train to get to the airport. So, in the end, it comes out about the same, or the flight savings are reduced to an amount that isn't worth saving (because flying is a pain). Why are the trains so expensive? And where's it all going if these drivers are so badly underpaid? Is it going to cost us even more if they get the raise?

If there is no analyst or epidemiologist or nerd union, I need to change my field of work! I'm not even being facetious. I want to unionize.

News link: Biggest German rail strike in history starts to bite

*Interesting but unrelated note - the strikes are much worse in the former East, where we are going this weekend. They showed a map on the news and it seriously looked like a map from 1985 with a big line drawn right where it used to be. What's with that? We thought maybe that politically strikers have more public support in those areas, but that's our only guess.
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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Slightly less schrecklich

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Ok, so it got better right after I wrote my post. Who knew all I had to do was say something? The sun came out, followed by some cool weird sleet-like weather, followed by more sun leading up to a decent sunset. I went to work and there was new stuff for me to do so I don't feel so useless at work anymore. And there's snow on top of the Koenigstuhl (Heidelberg's highest hill)!

I did have a German language failure on the way home, though. A guy asked me for directions. Normally I can do this in German but this time I couldn't even think of the first sentence (they were slightly complicated directions, but come on!). Luckily he could do English so I hope he found what he was looking for. Also, I hurried home to catch my sister online, but it turned out she had to go to work an hour early today, so I totally missed her anyway. Blast!
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The word of the day is: SCHRECKLICH*

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I've not ridden the Deutsche Bahn for over a month, yet somehow it turns out the drivers decide to strike right on the day I want to make a particularly long trip across the country, adding another hour or two to the ride and getting us there considerably later than we planned. Argh! I was very close to bailing on the trip. Right now I need a haircut badly and am having the worst breakouts I've had since....I don't even remember when, but it's been at least 5 years. The weather has been dark and terrible for two weeks, and I haven't been feeling very useful at work lately. My sleep schedule is completely screwed up because sunset no longer has any sort of recognizable relationship with bedtime, so without the cues from the sun and since I work afternoons, my night owl tendencies have really set in. We're only 7 degrees further from the equator than in Boston, but it seems to be a huge difference.

Where is the cheer, man!?!

*Schrecklich = horrible
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Monday, November 12, 2007

Heidelberg Stays Up

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I don't know if this is a country-wide or just a local phenomenon, but there's a bit of a craze for stay-up-late events in Heidelberg - and I'm not talking about dance marathons for charity. Several months ago, there was the "Long Night of Museums", when local museums kept their exhibits open super-late. A week and a half ago we got the "Long Night of Shopping", during which stores stayed open on a Saturday until midnight. And this past weekend, there was even a super-nerdy "Nacht der Wissenschaft!" This translates sort of to "night of science", though the definition of Wissenschaft is a little more broad than the English definition of science - it encompasses philology and philosophy, for instance, which most people in the probably would not consider science. (The literal translation of Wissenschaft is something like "the business of knowledge", which is freaking cool.) The night included lectures, tours, and other geeky stuff until 2am on Saturday.

Die Nacht der Wissenschaft was hyped a lot at my work since I am in research, and one of my coworker friends even gave a lecture. (In a showing of brilliant German openness, he informed me that he was nervous about it by saying, "I get diarrhea every time I think about it!") I thought about going to find out more about who and how many people go to these things - mostly uni students prodded by professors? People from the general public? Do they fall asleep or show up drunk or...? Also, I wanted to support my friend. Or laugh at him. In a friendly way, of course. However, I was feeling a bit under the weather Saturday in more ways than one - I was both sick and the actual weather outside was incredibly miserable - so I didn't make it. Maybe if it had been free I would have made it, but there was a hefty fee that didn't seem it would be worth it unless I attended multiple events. If anyone went, tell me how it was!
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Thursday, November 08, 2007

I'm It

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I was tagged by Caffeinated Cowgirl for this "random facts about yourself" meme that's been going around. (Thanks for thinking of me!) I did a really similar one back in June so I will try to avoid repeats from that one!
  1. I hate the American tipping system, I have never worked as a waitress, and I know what it's like to be pinching pennies. However, for some reason, when I see people undertipping, it completely destroys my opinion of them.
  2. This won't mean anything to most people who read this. I had a crush on Leon in college.
  3. My favorite color is brown. I think Zunes are cuter than iPods.
  4. I know good fashion when I see it. I know bad fashion when I see it. I have more artistic talent than the average person. However, I could not put together a good outfit by myself to save my life.
  5. According to last.fm, these are the 12 artists I listened to the most in the last 5 weeks: Iron & Wine, Morphine, Rufus Wainwright, Orbital, Beirut, Bjork, M.I.A., of Montreal, Caribou, The White Stripes, Devendra Banhart, and Dan Deacon.
  6. I figured up the above using Excel. I am a big data geek. I like to use it for fun. I also use Access for fun. I'm working my way up to using SAS for fun.
  7. I forgot how much I liked jigsaw puzzles until a friend gave me one of Germany for my birthday. Since Saturday I've put it together and taken it apart again three times. And I still can't put Sachsen in the right place until the very end.
I will tag:
The Big Wide World
American im Odenwald
Kulturvergleiche

Here are the rules.
1. Link to your tagger and post these rules.
2. Share 7 facts about yourself: some random, some weird.
3. Tag 3 people at the end of your post and list their names (linking to them).
4. Let them know they've been tagged by leaving a comment at their blogs.
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Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Why living in a valley is fun:

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Now you see it:

Now you don't:
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Thursday, November 01, 2007

Assorted Tidbits!

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Today is All-Saint's Day, so people in this state (in the Catholic south) have the day off. Normally I work holidays because there are fewer distractions at work and I'd rather have a day off when everyone else is working, but my work computer is currently crunching data day and night under someone else's login. So, I figured I may as well take the day off. It's especially nice because I just finished that horrific group homework project that was hanging over my head all summer, so I can use the little bit of extra time to finally get organized with lots of other things I want to do in the coming months!

And now for the tidbits promised in the title:

* The other night I was waiting for a friend outside one of our large department stores, Galeria Kaufhof. She called to let me know she was running late, so since it was cold, I went inside the store to just wander around. I've been to Kaufhof several times for various things, but never really just went in to browse. I was perusing the travel and language books when I came across a four-foot wide floor-to-ceiling section labeled "Briefmarken" (stamps). Things for sale here included stamp-collecting books, packs with paper, envelopes, and a selection of different canceled stamps, and big plastic tubs (maybe 3-pint size) filled with nothing but an international selection of canceled stamps that had been cut from envelopes (only 10 EUR)! I've never seen anything like it. For one thing, stamp collecting must be really popular, because I think that sort of thing is a specialty item in the US and you probably couldn't find it at, say, Younkers. And are you really collecting stamps if you're just getting a tub of them at the department store? Also, where do they get all those cancelled stamps? Are there people who just send them in from all over the country? Does the company have reps all over the world just getting stamps cancelled? Very curious...

* Also noted at the department store - a selection of calendars that crushes all other calendar selections I've ever seen. I thought the US was pretty calendar-obsessed. I've even been to those calendar-only shops that sprout up in US malls around the end of the year, but I don't think I've ever seen the sort of variety they have here. There are art calendars that are only 3 inches by 3 inches, birthday calendars that don't include year/day of week on them so they can be reused every year, calendars made out of bookmarks, and a huge variety of do-it-yourself calendars, where the dates are printed in, but there's room for your own photos or artwork. And, of course, an enormous selection of desktop and school calendars and planners. At work, our secretary even orders desk calendars for the whole department!

* It's the season for roasted chestnuts again!! Yeah!!!!!

* Germans also seem more interested than I remember Americans being in seasonal plants. When chestnuts started falling off the trees, there were chestnuts decorating restaurant tables and windowsills and chestnuts sitting around in people's houses, sometimes along with some fall leaves or some kind of dried-up fall seeds or flowers. In fall you see people carrying handfuls of big fall leaves, and in spring handfuls of blooming twigs (hurry to get the ones that are easy to reach!!). Our seasonal decorations at home were always just silk and plastic.

* The other day Damon and I were browsing the dollar bin outside a used book store when a couple walked by. The girl started to gravitate toward the bookstore, causing the guy to react thusly, in the best ultra-accented American English: "Come on baby! You know we don't read!"
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