Monday, June 29, 2009

My Experience in a German Hospital, Part III

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Back to the clinic for me. This time it was in full swing, rather than abandoned. I was examined pretty quickly after arriving, then had to wait in the hall on a cot waiting for some test results. While I was lying there, both of the doctors who I'd seen in my first hospital visit came by. They must just live there. They recognized me and were interested in what was happening. After the test results came back, the Oberarzt who did my operation consulted with the head of the department about my case and they decided to admit me to the hospital again for medication and observation.

I wasn't there for more surgery, but there was again no space on the wards for me, so I was admitted to a bed in the same post-op area I'd been in before. It was nice to already know the nurses, but I had a distinct feeling of not belonging there! The Oberarzt came by and sat down to tell us everything that was going on in detail. They wanted me to stay overnight for observation and have some medication.

That night I stayed in post-op due to the continued lack of space on the wards. Not much was going on with me but I appreciated their abundance of caution nonetheless. I actually suspect there was some friction between two of the doctors - the surgeon who operated and the doctor who was rounding - about whether I should remain in the hospital and how long.

The next day, I was moved to the wards. The room was really big and shared with two other patients. It was in an older building, but you couldn't tell at all from the inside. There was a table and chairs, which I really appreciated, because by then I was feeling too well to be sitting in the bed all the time. I also spent a lot of time in the hallway looking out the windows. Being in the hospital is very strange indeed. Life had come to a halt for me. I did Sudoku puzzles and wrote Christmas postcards and napped all day while everyone outside went to work, shopped for Christmas gifts, and drank Gluehwein in the Uni-Platz. I felt bad about feeling this way, though. I was clearly one of the healthiest people on the ward and had no room to complain.

My roommates were two older women, both as local as could be, with accents to match. One of them was nearly impossible to understand. I had to refer to them by last names, of course - very formal, despite getting to see their bums and pee-filled catheter bags and whatever else - it was interesting to cling onto that piece of dignity. Speaking of names, I was amazed that I never had an identifying wrist band during this entire experience. There was a label hanging on the end of my bed to identify me!! I think a system like this could actually cause a US hospital to lose accreditation.

Anyway, the women were both really nice and put up with my horrible German very gracefully. At one point one of the nurses had left our bathroom light on and as I was up walking around, one of the ladies asked me to turn off the bathroom light. These are very simple words that I know, but I could not for the life of me figure out what she was saying. She just kept at it over and over and I still had no clue. Finally the other woman, with her slightly clearer accent, told me that she wanted the bathroom light off. Then they proceeded to explain that one should not leave the lights on because electricity is very expensive. That was such a cute German moment, that they cared about the hospital's electricity bill, and they were going to make sure that I was informed on that matter. The woman with the clearer accent was a hoot, too. She loved to gab and gab, and her favorite word was gell, a sort of regional word that's somewhat like tacking "...right?" on the end of sentences. In her case, on every single sentence. When she talked I started to dream up goofy images of us all drowning in a sea of gells, being buried under an ever-growing pile of gells, gells oozing out from under our hospital room door, dodging swarms of gell bullets...you get the idea.

I was on the wards for two uneventful nights, being observed. I needed so little from the nurses, but this was a good thing, because one of my roommates needed direct attention from multiple nurses about half the hours of the day, it seemed. She had IV port troubles, bed sores, couldn't get up alone, etc. I had the sense that the hospital was very understaffed, nursing-wise - there were plenty of doctors. A couple of times when I did need something, I had to remind them again to finally get it...and that's only if I knew I needed it. At one point I was chided for not wearing anti-blood-clot socks, which I never knew I needed. Apparently this was a major breach of protocol, even though I spent most of the day wandering the halls and probably didn't have a very high risk of thrombosis. But, how would I know? It was an overworked nurse who dropped the ball there. They told me at one point my blood should be checked, but no one came to draw it. One of the other patients explained to me that competition in Heidelberg for nurses is pretty stiff because there are so many places for them to work. Overworked nurses are a big problem in the US too, where there simply aren't enough of them in the pipeline.

One of the nurses was obsessed with American presidents and really wanted to discuss them with me at every possible opportunity - in German, of course. (Not as many people on the wards were willing to speak English as in post-op.) I now thank my high school history teacher, Mr. Peterson, for forcing us to memorize all the American presidents in order, because this guy "tested" me on the presidents by asking me to name them by telling me their number in the sequence. Yay for managing not to perpetuate any stereotypes about Americans being stupid!

I think I was in the hospital too long unnecessarily, but again, when contrasted with the US problem of being kicked out of the hospital too soon, I'd rather be stuck there too long. It just amounts to less worry for me, despite knowing all too well that hospitals are probably not the least dangerous place a person could be.

In the mail I received the doctor's letters about the surgery and the second hospital stay. I received two hospital bills. Not multiple claim letters, not denied claims that had to be sorted, not long scary itemized lists. Just two pieces of paper, one for each stay. The surgery, the bed, the care, the medications, the meals, all just 10 EUR per night plus a 10 EUR fee per stay, for a total of 70 EUR. I paid it and that was the end of that. For follow up appointments, the usual protocol for doctor's visits was followed: you must pay a 10 EUR copay for your first doctor's visit each quarter - so four times a year at maximum. There's no copay for any further visits in that quarter. I was impressed! Damon and I were, at the time, covered under voluntary state insurance which matched what I got when I was employed earlier (I was not employed in December). For both of us it cost around 150 EUR per month. (When you are employed, you pay a portion of your insurance cost and your employer pays the rest.) After my experience in the US with health insurance - I had what's considered very good coverage there, but had to pay more for everything and they constantly made 'mistakes' on claims that I had to call in to argue with them about - I think the system is much easier to navigate here, and far less stressful. And everyone knows - stress is not good for your health. ;) Here's an interesting article on the positives and negatives of the German system.

Still, not everyone has experiences as positive as mine. I think there may especially be difficulties in the states of the former East. Here's a less favorable hospital story from Dresden (scroll past the first entry).

I know others who read here have also posted hospital stories. If you could give me the links, I will add them here. :) Stories from all countries welcome!
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AmiExpat's Bickbeerpfannkuchen Challenge!

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This weekend we had the time to remember to try to get back on the wagon for AmiExpat's next recipe challenge, Bickbeerpfannkuchen, or, as she translated it, bilberry pancakes.

First off, I have never heard or seen the term Bickbeere before. I have only known this berry as Heidelbeere. And to add to the berry fun, I have never heard the term bilberry before either! I only have called them huckleberries. (According to dict.leo.org, I might be wrong in doing that.) Either way, we didn't find any, and made this recipe with regular old blueberries instead.

Damon enjoys making pancakes and charged forward with the whole project before I even knew what was going on. Apparently it was quite easy, with the exception of beating the egg whites by hand, but we're getting used to these recipes always requiring serious mixing action. The only screw-up is that he was too gung-ho to read carefully and mixed the berries in with the batter, instead of adding them only after putting the batter in the pan. I doubt this made too much difference, but it did take a little bit of the fun away, as that was about the only thing unusual about this recipe.

They were good - pretty much the same as any good fruit pancake recipe - nice and fluffy. The powdered sugar was a good touch, to keep it from being too boring. Nothing groundbreaking, but simple and tasty.
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My Experience in a German Hospital - Part II

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Damon walked home alone through the abandoned streets of Heidelberg. There was my curry, sitting there on the counter. (That recipe still reminds me of going to the hospital.) I can't imagine how he must have felt, but I know that if I'd just had to leave him behind in an operating room, it wouldn't be pretty. He gathered up a few things for me - like a stuffed animal that later caused the nurses to remark that coming to my bed was like visiting the childrens' ward - and came back. He was there when I got out of surgery.

I was really shocked to wake up somewhere other than my own bed. I was being rolled down the hall to the post-op area. The first doctor I had seen was waking me up and telling me that everything in surgery went perfectly. Surgery? Oh yeah. Effing surreal.

They asked me if I had any pain. I did, a little bit, on the left. They told me there was a drain in there. Whoa. I thought I couldn't feel my right hand, but it turned out they'd stuck an IV port there in the back of my hand sometime during the surgery, and that was why my hand didn't feel right. (By the way, if anyone reading this is ever in a position to determine where an IV port is placed in me, I would like to make note that the backs of my hands are strictly off limits!) My legs were shaking like crazy and I couldn't control them. They said they were going to give me something for that, and before I could ask what, it was already going in the IV port. I wondered if it was Demerol, a drug I was pretty sure was used for this sort of thing, and a drug which the director of pharmacy at my old job had repeatedly tried to have removed from the hospital formulary (because of some side effects - but to no avail, the doctors were fans of it and for this use it's still considered fine by most people). Whatever it was, it worked like a charm.

By this time, it was about 2am and they again made Damon go home, telling me that I would sleep better without him there anyway. Very funny. I spent the entire night awake, counting the hours. I had a great nap under anesthesia and wasn't really tired. I can't sleep on my back, but had no other options with all the fresh cuts on my belly. I was shocked at what had just happened to me. The woman in the bed next to me clearly had much bigger issues than just post-op recovery. About once an hour or so, she woke up and began moaning loudly while shaking the side rails and the bar above the bed. It was really dreadful. Around 8am, I just started crying from lack of sleep and shock. The nurses were in such a hurry to make sure I wasn't in any pain that they just assumed that was the problem - I was trying to tell them it wasn't, but I doubt the situation was helping my German - and gave me an extra shot of pain medications. (Later I found out one of the other patients in the room was wondering why I was crying so much. What the hell? Is emergency surgery and being in the hospital not enough!?)

I was allowed to eat breakfast and have some water, which was great! The only thing on the plate they wouldn't let me eat yet was some dark bread. The surgeon who operated on me came by to chat about how it went. After lunch, I got to stand up with the help of some really great, patient, English-speaking nurses and wash up at a sink. No modesty here - it was an open area with four patients and plenty of nurses wandering around. Visitors aren't allowed at this time, though. They also took me down the hall to use the real toilet instead of the commode. Woo hoo! For this I got two hospital gowns to wear to be totally covered. The gowns were nicer-looking - big white poofy things - than the hospital johnnies we had where I worked in Boston. Also, I was surprised that my IV drips were just that. There was no pump. I did notice the woman across from me had a pump, though. Maybe I didn't have one because the drugs I had infusing weren't particularly dangerous. I don't know if the hospital where I worked before still ever did IVs without a programmable pump, though.

I was bored and the hospital was near my former (and now current again) office so I texted my friends and a whole bunch of them came to visit me, bringing fruit, plants, and magazines! I couldn't keep the plant with me because it was a post-op area and not a regular ward, though. They let me keep it in the hallway outside the room. At this point I should have been moved to a ward, but there was no space up there, so I was kept in post-op. This is an extremely common problem in US hospitals, or at least the ones I knew anything about. In the US, it's because many hospitals were closed during a certain period, when people thought the trend would be toward less hospital usage and more home care, and also because smaller hospitals in the US often cannot stay afloat financially. I don't know the reason for this problem in Germany.

Thankfully, the woman who was in the bed next to me was moved away and replaced with a different patient. This one was an American woman from the military base, here to get an operation which is apparently not provided by the American hospital (or she didn't want to get there, or something). She was very nice, but spent most of the time sleeping.

The hospital food followed a typical German pattern. Breakfast was bread and cold cuts or jam. Lunch was a big hot meal and dessert. Dinner was bread and cheese or cold cuts, a vinegary salad, and possibly a cold Wurst chunk. (Dinner was definitely the most depressing meal of the day.) True to stereotypes, the food was really terrible. I think the worst was a green soup with an entire Wurst sitting in it. Is that healthy?

I spent one more, much better, night in post-op. They had told me on Friday that they thought I'd get to go home on Sunday. But on Saturday, things looked so good they let me go home then. Later I looked up my procedure on the internet. In the US, it is an outpatient procedure and they send you home to deal with all the misery alone. You might get guilted into going back to work three seconds later, too. I got a letter from the doctor saying I should be excused from all school expectations until the end of January. I prefer the more conservative approach.

They sent me home with a little plastic cup with a couple of doses of paracetamol and another with a couple of doses of potassium. Electrolytes and paracetamol were, with the exception of surgery and the maybe-Demerol, about the only drugs I got in the hospital, too. They apparently don't move up to the narcotics for pain unless necessary. My instructions were to come back to the hospital in case of certain problems. That was it.

Certain problems came along at about lunchtime the following Tuesday.
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Sunday, June 28, 2009

My Experience in a German Hospital - Part I

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On the night of my mom's birthday, December 4, my husband had just come home from work. I was feeling vaguely unwell. He was hungry so he heated up some leftover curry we had made the previous night for both of us. While it warmed up on the stove, I felt progressively worse. I ended up never touching my food.

We took a cab to a nearby hospital. My husband had called them to let them know we were coming, so the woman at the desk was expecting us. I was limping in pain, and she acted like it was no big deal. She sent us to wait to be seen outside an ambulatory clinic in the basement. Damon helped me down the stairs, and we were a little surprised she just left me to try to get down them without any hospital help. Meanwhile, she called for someone to come see me.

The hallway in the basement where I had to wait was dreary and abandoned and the clinic was locked. We weren't even sure we were in the right place. I sat there for about 10 minutes, waiting, wondering if I was just being a hypochondriac or if I really needed to be there. Being sick when you're young sucks - you always wonder whether doctors/nurses just think you're crazy or attention-seeking, because who gets sick at your age? Is that why no one was coming? In reality, 10 minutes is nothing to wait for emergency care, but it felt like an eternity.

Finally, a nurse who was clearly suffering from some kind of upper respiratory infection sloooooowly made her way down the hall toward us. Slooooowly she unlocked the clinic door. We followed her in. Slooooowly she took my TK (insurance) card, my blood type card, and my other information, and she explained that if I wasn't admitted to the hospital I would have to pay a co-pay for coming to the clinic in the off-hours. I was sure she thought I was a hypochondriac because she acted like nothing could possibly be wrong. Then she sent us back into the hall to wait some more for a doctor to come. After a while, we heard the door and I got hopeful. No, it was just her again, to take my temperature. (Sloooowly.) Then more waiting. Again, it felt like an eternity, but was probably just 10 - 15 minutes. Finally a doctor came and they called me back in to be examined.

She did a lot of various things and asked a zillion questions, but was mostly quiet and looked a little concerned. I started to get concerned too, especially when she asked me how long it had been since I ate or drank anything, and whether I was sure. Then she said she had to call the Oberarzt - the head doctor. Oh shit.

The head doctor showed up pretty quickly, did all the same examinations as the previous doctor, and was halfway through explaining that I needed surgery immediately while quickly and painlessly installing an IV port in my wrist before I realized what the heck was going on. Damon came over to the side of the bed from his position off to the sidelines. He looked green, like he might pass out, throw up, or both.

Everything happened very quickly. I signed papers consenting to surgery, saying that I acknowledged all the risk and dangers that go along with surgical procedures and general anesthesia. I could get an embolism, I could have a deadly allergic reaction, I could need a blood transfusion that gives me a disease, etc. I should mention here that I used to work in patient safety when I lived in Boston. My job involved reading all the reports when things did go wrong in the hospital. It will suffice to say that I'm terrified of surgery and general anesthesia. But, it seemed there was no choice; the risks were far greater if I didn't have it. It's probably best that it was an emergency, reducing my time to fret to mere minutes.

They provided all the information in English to me. I got a sheet explaining the procedure, with the disclaimer that I might not have time to read it anyway before going in. I had to go to the toilet, but wasn't allowed, because I could pass out. (I hate to think what happened when the anesthesia kicked in...) I had a lot of questions, only because of my former job, another aspect of which was to drill into patients that they should always be a part of their own health care and ask questions! They took it to mean that because I was an American, I looked down upon the German health system and didn't trust them to do a good job. They assured me that they were very experienced, the hospital had all the best technology, and that this was the best and least invasive procedure for my problem. All of which I had never had any doubts about.

I was wheeled into a pre-op area where I got a hospital gown and special anti-blood-clot socks and they took all my jewelry and stuff away. I recalled all the reports I'd read at my old job about people's personal belongings getting lost in the hospital. Then they told Damon that he could not wait there and that he might as well just leave. I thought I was going to die of misery. The nurses, however, were so sweet and sympathetic.

Damon disappeared and I was wheeled off to the operating room. It was well-staffed but so, so cold. I was still in a lot of pain - nothing had changed there. So I was shivering like crazy and guarding myself and they thought I was a nervous wreck. Well, not that I wasn't. They had me lying there all ready to go and the surgeon (the same Oberarzt who examined me) had to run to quickly attend to another problem. All the OR people spoke to me in English and were really friendly. They gave me a big hot blanket and then, because they thought I was so nervous, told me they were giving me a little drug in my IV port while we waited for the surgeon that would make me feel sleepy. I didn't get sleepy. They gave me more. Still not sleepy. I wonder if it was a placebo. I am, sadly, somewhat placebo-resistant.

Finally, they said the surgeon was on his way. Anesthesia time. Ugh. Before looking at the big green mask they told me to look at, I glanced at the clock. It was almost exactly midnight. Just in case of surgical disaster the likes of which you only see in the news, I tried to think of my family, but the nerves were totally scrambling my brain. Then I went under.
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Thursday, June 25, 2009

So, uh, Heidelberg...

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...what's up with the bright green lighting on the tower of the Heiliggeistkirche? It's been up for a while now - is it temporary? Was it a mistake? Because it looks really goofy. We thought the Old Bridge's new lighting was too cheesed up, but this would take the cake. This photo doesn't even do the goofiness justice (it's that green thing that appears to be to the right of the castle):


The weather has been really cruddy this week, but on the upside, it caused a rainbow today in Heidelberg while I was walking along the river! I took a photo on my cell phone, but I can't figure out how to get it on my computer or if that's even possible with my phone/phone plan. As I held up my phone to take it (I always think people look like they're doing something really ritualistic holding up camera phones like that) a guy whizzing by on his bike yelled at me to take a picture of the rainbow. I couldn't tell if he was mocking me because that's clearly what I was already doing, or if maybe he really was thinking I might not have seen it and was just taking a picture of all the nice hills.

In other news, my coworker remarked to me last week that she gets "only 20 days of vacation a year" (this is in addition to all the German public holidays). Hahaha! Oh, Europe.
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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Commencement

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This morning we went to a friend's PhD commencement at the University of Heidelberg.

Graduation is not a big thing in general here like it is in the US. For instance, I've never seen graduation cards or displays in stores (but am open to correction - maybe I haven't been looking hard enough). So, we thought it would be interesting to see what a graduation here does involve - one type of graduation, anyway. She got her PhD in epidemiology, which falls under the medical faculty, so the ceremony was also for those earning their MDs.

Graduates sat in the front few rows, and each got to invite three people to come see them go up for their diploma. There wasn't any checking of tickets or anything, though. The graduates just dressed nicely - no funny robes or hats. There was one Scottish guy in a kilt. The program opened with some Beethoven on a piano. Nobody processed in, everybody was already just sitting there. Next, a guy with a cool bow tie and hat - the only guy who had any remotely academic costume going on - welcomed everybody, presented something to a couple of the graduates (frankly, I didn't find this part important enough to bother trying to translate it in my head), and introduced the main speaker.

We thought the speaker would say something relevant to the occasion of graduating, receiving a higher degree, education these days, the philosophy of the practice of and research in medicine, or something. But, the talk was actually about dementia. Not that dementia is not an interesting topic, but I totally failed to see how it fit with graduation. The speaker was totally full of himself, but it was at least amusing to watch him up there making animated academic-looking gestures, the likes of which you normally only see in comedy, quoting Latin and English, and being generally dramatic.

Halfway through his incredibly long speech, unfortunately a woman in the audience actually had a seizure and her friend called for a doctor. I think 3/4 of the room stood up. We were also entertained by some cute little bat that found its way into the auditorium and then just couldn't get out again.

After the speech, there was another piano piece, followed by an opera selection from The Marriage of Figaro. Again: huh? The singer and pianist were great, but the relevance of all this was still failing me. Then the graduates received their degrees. First the summa cum laude graduates were called up individually and received diplomas placed inside black folders. Then the rest of the graduates were called up four at a time and received their diplomas stuck inside a plastic sleeve with binder holes. Even though they were called up alphabetically, no advance effort had been made to seat the graduates in any sort of order, so they had to clamber over each other to get up to the front when called. There had also been no effort made to ask the graduates how their names were pronounced, so the MC had to stumble through them on his own, and it wasn't pretty. After this, yet another irrelevant opera selection, then we got to have some champagne and pretzels in the lobby (best part!!!). In all it took two hours.

We saw a group of four students put on mortarboards afterward and get their photo taken. The people behind us commented that they must be Americans. My friend (disclaimer: she is not German so this is more-than-secondhand hearsay) said that in Germany they used to do the whole robe-and-hat thing, but due to student protests at some point, they ditched it. We can only guess at why students would want to get rid of academic dress/ritual - to quit the pretense? If that is the reason, then why do they do such seemingly pretentious things as have opera performances and separate out cum laude graduates with different diplomas and by calling them up first and separately?

I can only compare the experience with undergraduate ceremonies in the US, because we left the country before the date for what would have been Damon's doctoral commencement when he got his PhD. (Graduate degrees are definitely not as big a deal in the US as undergraduate, when graduation ceremonies are concerned, but I don't have any personal experience, so I'm not sure what the differences are.)

At my undergrad commencement, we had to process in, wearing black robes and mortarboards (it was really hot!!), behind some guys playing bagpipes and a whole bunch of university officials wearing full academic regalia - the doctoral robes, hoods, and cute hats they earned when they got their graduate degrees. If you know a bit about them, you can tell what school a person graduated from and what field they were in from the costume. We were arranged by college and name, so we could be efficiently called up one row at a time to walk across stage and get our degree. The degree came in a leather folder. Everyone's name was prepared in advance - they asked us how we wanted to be called. There were two speeches by fellow graduates and one speech by a guest speaker. Our guest was Hanna Holborn Gray, who wasn't so much of a guest because she used to be president of the University - but this guest speaker is at many universities a famous personality, including even the President of the US if your school is into that sort of thing and you are lucky! The speeches were all relevant to graduating, the state of education, our school, and what an awesome distinguished group of alumni we were about to join. Then we all processed back out (way less formal than the way in) and had champagne. Pretty much everybody in the class was there, and the whole shebang even has its own website. My husband went to a larger university, and his was a little different. The colleges of the university each had separate graduations because it was so large. As each graduate received his or her degree, they also mentioned what the graduate's future plan was. (Everybody clapped when someone had secured a job working as Mickey Mouse at Disney World...as a job for a graduate of the College of Agriculture...) He had a robe and mortarboard too, plus some ropes for graduating with honors. Many students at his university didn't bother to attend college graduation. His was entirely pretense-free - alas, with the bagpipes, mine probably wasn't - but I did like them!

I guess the robes and stuff are pointless, but they can be kind of fun. Not really any more pointless than opera singing and speeches about a single medical problem.
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Thursday, June 18, 2009

I see France!

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Last weekend, we got together with three friends to rent a car and drive to Colmar, a town in the Alsace (German: Elsass) region of France, just beyond Strasbourg. We didn't really know very much about the town, except that every once in a while someone in Heidelberg mentions having gone there and raves about it. With five people, renting a car saved tons of money over taking the train.

On the way there, we managed to get lost somewhere near a town called Schutterwald, which sounds a lot like Shittywald if you're not paying attention. So, it took us almost three hours to reach our hotel north of Colmar, the Fasthotel. It was only 39 EUR for a double room!! Of course, it was clear why, as the hotel is located in a depressing shopping and industrial zone nowhere near Colmar. The rooms are tiny and the bathrooms are little plastic pods with towels about one third the size of what you'd expect. It looks like it could burn down any second. But, the price was right and the guy at the front desk was super, super nice and helpful!

We drove into Colmar and parked in a free tourist parking lot near the center. Yay for free parking, which does not exist in Germany! We were immediately latched onto by some guy on a bike who rode around trying to get money from tourists by orienting them as they arrive in the parking lot. Actually, it did help us get our bearings and he gave us a map which we would have had to walk across the center for otherwise.

Colmar Jun 2009

We spent the day wandering around Colmar, enjoying some Flammkuchen for lunch and taking lots of photos. The place was jam-packed with tourists and the weather was sunny and perfect. Colmar rivals Strasbourg in cuteness and...photogenicity? Is this a word? It's very photogenic. It's also considered the wine capital of Alsace, hence our grand plan to taste some wines, buy a whole bunch, and then take it back to our hotel to imbibe.

The plan worked out pretty well. Right in town you can visit the Karcher winery and try some wines any time they're open. We went in and it was empty. We tried to see if the guy would speak English or German to us, but he reported only that he spoke perfect French, and served up our first sample. He seemed grumpy, but the samples were pretty generous. Five or six later, we were more than happy to buy up and the guy was liking us more, too, and even using some English. We ended up buying six bottles for possible consumption that night - 2 Riesling, 2 Rose, and 2 Gewurztraminer, plus another bottle someone bought to take back to Heidelberg. Then we had a really great dinner at a restaurant along Colmar's adorable little canal (well, adorable in the touristy spots anyway...kind of stagnant and gross in places though) that the wine guy recommended to us before we left. We picked up some plastic glasses and snacks at a grocery store and then went back to our hotel.

The awesome Fasthotel front desk guy was still there. He and a guy from the bar opened our wines for us and let us sit on the hotel restaurant's patio even though we weren't ordering anything. Yay! Alas, we were all exhausted and only made it through three bottles. Damon and I paid the full amount on the other three and brought them home! :)

We'd decided we'd seen enough of Colmar and the next morning at breakfast, we randomly chose a town off an Alsatian wine map we picked up somewhere the previous day: Kaysersberg. We knew even less about it than we'd known about Colmar, but we hit tourist gold. It was packed too!

Kaysersberg Jun 09


The weather held up pretty well most of the day and we enjoyed yet more Flammkuchen and picture-taking, plus another wine tasting. This one wasn't as nice - nowhere to sit and the samples were about a third the size of the place we went in Colmar. But, we all bought some more wine to take home. We really need to replace our stock because we take wine to parties and serve it here a lot. This is a habit we're going to have to ditch if we ever go back to the US, where wine is much, much more expensive than it is here. :(

On our way north back out of France, we wandered off to one more stop, a castle called Haut-Koenigsbourg. We knew nothing about this either but figured it would be up on a hill and we could get a nice view over the valley from up there. We ended up having to walk about 15 minutes uphill from the parking lot, then we discovered that it is actually a really huge, restored-to-look-medieval castle which has a 7.50 entry fee! I was expecting some kind of half-assed ruin that you can just wander around for free, a la half the castles in Germany. But, it did look kind of cool and we needed some refreshments, so we paid and went on in.

Haut-Koenigsbourg Jun 2009


The cafe inside is a little too expensive but overall the castle was interesting, and worth at least 5 EUR of the entry fee. The only problem was that it seemed to have a very serious bee problem going on. They were swarming all over the place. We had great views over the plains of Alsace! I am surprised we never heard of this castle before.

On the way home we got lost again. I think it's because I am the best navigator but I was stuck in the backseat because there was another person taller than me who needed the front. ;) Tee hee. Enjoy the photos!
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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Never slow down on your blogging.

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Lesson learned! Still, I'm quite busy, so this little blow to my ego is going to have to go ignored anyway.
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Sunday, June 07, 2009

AmiExpat's Blankenhainer Kirschkuchen (Cherry Cake) Challenge!

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Okay, we're getting back in line with AmiExpat's cooking challenges this week with Blankenhainer Kirschkuchen! Per the recipe, it was the favorite cake of Germany's beloved Friedrich Schiller. (I mean beloved. Every German town and city has a Schillerstrasse (Schiller Street)!) Would this cake turn us brilliant as him? Time to find out!

First, we had to decide whether we wanted to invest in a cherry pitter. I looked around online for any suggestions of how to quickly pit cherries without one. There were plenty of ideas, but most places seemed to say that it was just worth it to buy a pitter, even despite the fact that it's annoying to store the thing all the rest of the year when there are no fresh cherries. We searched all over Heidelberg, finally buying the last cherry pitter at the Kaufhof in the Bismarckplatz. It was a little on the expensive side, but at that point we'd invested too much time in looking for it and just got the damn thing. (Although there is no logic in that, is there?) We got our fresh cherries from some grumpy dude selling them on the Hauptstrasse across from Butler's (where we were looking for a pitter).

Pitting the cherries was a breeze with the cherry pitter. (The German name for this instrument is Kirschentkerner - awesome word.) Getting the egg yolks and sugar all foamy was not bad. Beating the egg whites stiff was getting into painful territory! We both took turns at that and finally managed it. (We have no mixer or handbeater, which I am sure has already been mentioned at some point in this recipe series!) To the right you can see pretty much all the cake contents lined up to go - cherries, yolks/sugar/flour/cinnamon mix, beaten whites, and ground almonds (found in the baking section in the German grocery store). No butter in this recipe!!

After this everything is just folded or mixed together and then baked! Very easy! It took about 10 extra minutes in the oven over what the recipe said. At the end, we dumped some sugar on top. I was hoping the cake would be more moist and the sugar would stick to it, but it actually just sat on top.

The cake was pretty good - the nutty flavor and juicy cherries were really fantastic. I had been expecting it to be more moist, though, for some reason. I think if we make it again maybe we'd cut the cherries in half to spread them out a little more. I also wonder if using brown sugar would be good. It definitely needs something. Sorry, Schiller!

EDIT! It's the next day now and I think the cake seriously improved overnight! The cherries might have oozed some of their moisture into the cake. It's much less dry now and I approve. :)
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We can vote!

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Or, I should say, we could have. Election Day was today. (A Sunday, so most people aren't left out of voting because of work.)

A month or two ago we got brochures in the mail along with some kind of voting card. The brochures were about voting and I figured they had just made a mistake in sending them to us, since we're not German. Then I realized the brochure was in three languages - German, English, and Turkish - so it couldn't just be for Germans.

It turns out that Heidelberg has a Foreigners' Council, which can advise city council and organize various intercultural things, and the members of the council are voted on by Heidelberg residents who are not citizens of an EU country. Pretty cool, eh?

We didn't vote, though. I think this is the first time I've been eligible to vote for something and didn't do it. The council is a cool idea, it just didn't seem like anything influential enough for me to do all the research about in time to vote. I never heard of this council before now, and certainly don't know anything about who's running. Still, it's great that there is such a thing and they can be chosen by actual foreigners.
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General Notes from the Scotland Trip

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Tips for travelling in Scotland

* Allow plenty of time for driving, especially in rural areas! Like, maybe an extra day or two more than you expect! You may be itching to just step out of the car now and again not just to explore, but to have a break from the bumpy, twisty roads. Passing is often difficult, too. People warned us the same thing about Ireland, but we turned out to have extra time there. So, we didn't heed the warnings for Scotland. In our experience, the roads in Scotland were much slower to get around than Ireland.

* Ticks! Don't be like me and forget, now doomed to obsessively monitor that spot for funny rashes. Sheep and deer make the Highlands tick city. Use repellent, tuck pants into socks/shirts into pants, check yourself for ticks at the end of the day, and bring tweezers or a tick removal tool with you just in case.

* See a gas station and mayyyyybe need gas soon? Get gas now! Gas stations are few and far between (apparently this is a general UK problem). You'll be sorry you didn't spend the extra couple of pounds on more expensive gas when your car is running on fumes with no town in sight!

* If using the train, try to book at least 24 hours in advance for a better shot at cheaper fares.

* Small towns no one has ever heard of = cheap and friendly. They may be half shuttered up and not be that generally interesting, but they will probably treat you more nicely than the average person trying to get down the sidewalk quickly in the city and it won't cost much!

Funny things we noticed

* More than once, we actually saw signs hanging in places reminding customers not to abuse employees. The first time it was just kind of funny, but seeing it more than that, we really started to wonder. It imparts this image of the UK as a country full of bullies just waiting to abuse some hapless person whose job it is to be nice to them. That's not cool. Really, is it a big problem there?

* CCTV EVERYWHERE! There's no public place you can go without being watched by cameras. Even the trains all have them. While we were there we caught a news report about how they were catching and punishing litterers using CCTV. And, it was pretty clear while we were there why there would be a litter problem - garbage cans are really few and far between!

* Diesel trains! What's up with that? There's a huge gap between the train and the platform a lot of the time too - no wonder the "mind the gap" thing.

* After Edinburgh, if I never see plaid again it might be too soon. Although we liked it, the sheer touristiness did take a little bit of the sense of adventure and excitement out of it.

Actually, Scotland may well be fictional

Scotland boasts what may be the world's highest concentration of Places and Things That Sound Fictional. First, the fort we visited in Kilmartin Glen, Dunadd? That was the capital of the ancient Kingdom of Dalriada. This existed?? It sounds straight from fantasy. The Isle of Skye - are there unicorns there? Later, after we'd already discussed this topic, we were walking around Edinburgh when we saw a sign that said Midlothian on it. Damon: "Wait...there's really a place called Midlothian?" It started to get a little hard to distinguish Scotland from Middle Earth at this point. As for the Stone of Destiny, yeah. That sounds like something you'd have to sink 80 hours of RPG playing into to finally earn.

Scotland doesn't have a monopoly on these places though. We thought of some more. Add to the list, will you? :)

The Isle of Man - sounds like a philosophical concept rather than a physical place.
Moldova - easy to confuse with that fictional water-logged country in Dilbert.
Transdniester - and it doesn't sound any less fictional when you actually read what it is.
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Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Notes from Edinburgh

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The drive to Edinburgh was much shorter than I expected. Scotland really isn't that wide. We didn't want to mess around with having a car in the city, so we'd arranged to drop it off at the airport upon our arrival. Then we took a super-convenient airport bus into the city - it stops all over, runs every ten minutes or so, and only cost 3.50 GBP!

We got out at the Haymarket stop which was only 2-3 blocks from our hotel, the Ballantrae West End. The hotel is on a quiet, completely residential crescent-shaped street. At check-in, they upgraded our room for free! We went from a 'junior double', whatever that is, to a double with a leather couch, fake fireplace, and jacuzzi. It was in the basement which is a little weird, but it was as bright as any hotel room. And, the sink had a mixer tap! These are a little too hard to come by in the UK. :)

We left the hotel and wandered up to the castle via about three million stairs from the back side. We were immediately struck by the sheer numbers of tourists, and secondly by how many of them were American! Up until this point, we had been around tourists, but not hordes of them - and we'd only run into one other group of Americans the whole time. Most of the other tourists we saw were English. There were also plenty of other Europeans, especially French.

The castle was pretty impressive. It's more like a big fort with lots of different buildings inside, much like Prague but without the big cathedral. There's only a tiny chapel, and also a relatively modern war memorial. The view from the perimeter is amazing on all sides. You can also wind your way through a maze of murals to see the Stone of Destiny and the crown, scepter, and sword of Scotland.

Edinburgh May 2009

After taking in the castle, we wandered down the famous Royal Mile, a stretch of road that goes down the spine of the giant rock on which Edinburgh's Old Town sits, leading from the castle to the Palace of Holyrood. The density of tourist shops is completely overwhelming. We have never seen anything like it in any other city we've visited. Even seeing the throngs of tourists, I still cannot understand how this one city can support so many whisky, kilt, crap-with-your-clan-name-on-it, mug, fudge, bagpipe music, and t-shirt shops. It's truly amazing.

After eating dinner at some pub along the Royal Mile, which was surprisingly cheap, we went to the Waverly train station to buy tickets for our return to Manchester the following day. The train station sits at the foot of the giant rock, under a bridge leading from the Old Town to the New Town. It cost 51.50 GBP each for the tickets! So, the trains there are no cheaper than Germany! But, at the desk they did say if we'd arrived before 6pm we might have been able to get a cheaper rate. So, if you plan to buy train tickets in the UK, get them in advance.

We then wandered into the New Town and walked along Princes Street. It's famous for its shopping and its truly striking view of the Old Town. Right now, it's all torn up as a tram is being installed (cool!!) but this doesn't hurt the views at all.

[Later, back in our hotel room, we found The Village playing on TV. Wow, it really is as bad as they say. That plot could have been so much better handled.]

On Wednesday morning we had continental breakfast at our hotel. Only cold breakfast is included in the price of the room; hot breakfast can be ordered for a pretty steep price. We were able to store our luggage at the hotel to avoid paying to store it at a train station.

We wandered over to Blair Street to book a tour of the South Bridge Vaults with Mercat Tours. South Bridge was built to connect the giant rock with the outlying university neighborhood. After it was built, buildings were built right up against it, and the spaces (vaults) under the bridge were completely enclosed (with the exception of one, which a road goes under) and used for various purposes over the years. They were excavated in the 1980s and now are parts of clubs and restaurants. The part we toured belongs to the tour company and is mostly empty. There wasn't much to see down there, but the tour guide was very knowledgeable about the history of Edinburgh so it was interesting. The same company does a lot of "spooky" tours of the vaults as well, if you're into that kind of thing. We went for the straight-up ghost-free historical tour.

For lunch we went to an Indian buffet near the university, Suruchi, for only 6 GBP each! Not bad, at least right now while there's not a big difference between the pound and the Euro. We then walked down the Royal Mile to Holyrood (we hadn't made it that far the previous day). It was closed, but some kind of changing of the guard was going on, so we hung around to watch it before going back into the Old Town to wander around some side streets and little alleys. Edinburgh is full of tiny alleys called closes, which are really just little passageways with the buildings right over them. It reminded me a lot of Lyon!

Not long after we needed to head back to the hotel to pick up our stuff before taking the train to Manchester. I think one day was plenty to just get the gist of Edinburgh, but of course city tourism is always much better when you have extra time for museums and outlying neighborhoods, and best if you know someone who lives there and can show you some of the really cool things they've learned about the place. City tourism can be sort of unpleasant without that insider to help you out - city dwellers are usually a lot less fond of the people traipsing all around their place and getting in the way than people in smaller towns. I guess I know because I've lived in a tourist city myself - Boston. And, I didn't find Edinburgh to be so friendly. I even got flipped off taking a photo. It's just that it's a regular city, not a place where you want to have a naive tourist air about yourself, you know? Still, I liked it a lot. Cities are better when you live there and aren't a photo-snapping dork from somewhere else. I would go again. I would already did encourage my husband to try to find a job there.

The train ride back to Manchester was uneventful. I actually slept through most of it. Our hotel at the airport, Bewley's, was much nicer than I was expecting, given the price relative to the other airport hotels. It was completely pleasant. A hotel shuttle with an especially jolly driver picked us up right from the train station. It was perfect for our needs - getting in late, and getting out early (7am flight!).

The airport was terrible, though. They now have these giant dispensers selling plastic bags for your liquids/gels/pastes/whatevers for one pound per bag. Please! Someone was telling us even lipsticks and glosses have to go in a baggie. A woman in front of me asked about the lipsticks in her purse, and they told her to buy a bag. I have a lip gloss in my purse all the time and always take it on planes. I decided it wasn't worth a pound to me, so I didn't get a baggie and just went right through security. They never checked and I still have my gloss and didn't lose a pound. What a freaking racket. Then after security, we had to walk directly through a giant duty free shop to get to the gates. Some lady tried to offer me a spritz of perfume. At 6am? Please, I can't stand that stuff at a good time of day. Gah!! Another damn racket. Like Heathrow, they don't announce your gates until right before boarding so you'll hang around the shops and maybe buy something. Oh, how I hate airports. Our Lufthansa flight was just lovely as always, though. :)

Whew. Finally, two weeks later, done with all the grisly Scotland details. A summary post to follow then we can get on with whatever other topics come to mind. :)
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