Sunday, January 29, 2012

Winter: Coming Soon?

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Winter's been a bit odd this year.  Perhaps the first sign that something was different was the little orange berries staying on the tree.  Every year, as winter approaches, a bunch of Amseln (European blackbirds) come and completely clean the tree of berries by the end of November. (They're awesome - they toss the berries up a little and swallow them.)  This year, they didn't come, and the photo above shows all the berries still hanging on the tree on a sunny day last week.

Then all the bulbs kept coming up, one after another, all through December and January.  Now I don't know if they'll come up and bloom in the Spring when they're actually supposed to!

Maybe all that has nothing to do with the weather - maybe the local Amseln all relocated and I planted the bulbs wrong.  But the weather has been warm.  Heidelberg's winters have always been warm as long as I've been here, at least by my standards.  (Which are slowly slipping.  I'm quite sure I'd never again survive an Iowa winter after getting all soft living here by the Rhine plain.)  However, this is definitely the first winter that we've made it to January 29 without having to ever turn on the heat!

Unfortunately, I think my dreams of a super-low Nebenkostenabrechnung (our method of paying for the heat) are going to be shattered later this week.  Wednesday's high is -2'C/28'F. I might have to get out the wool coat - I might even get to use the tweed scarf I made this summer out of all that tweed I forgot in Donegal!  (I don't know though.  That thing is REALLY warm.  Maybe I could survive an Iowa winter again after all, with that thing...)  Amusingly, the weather forecast on TV referred to the weather later this week simply as WINTERKALT.  (Winter cold.)  A special type of cold.  Cold-cold.

Stay warm, all.

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Saturday, January 28, 2012

Limburg an der Lahn

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Quite* possibly the best Autobahn view in Germany can be found on the A3. We first saw it in 2007 when we went past on a bus during a two-week tour that was part of my husband's fellowship. We passed it a few more times later, and it never fails to amaze. Most of the town is below you in a valley while you cross a high bridge over the Lahn River. On what seems to be a higher level, floating head and shoulders above all the rest of the town, is the beautifully painted Limburger Dom (Limburg Cathedral). You can't possibly miss it.

But, other than that, we never heard much about Limburg one way or the other, so we never specifically planned to go there.  We wondered if no one talked about it because there wasn't anything there but a cathedral.  Who knows?  But on our trip back from the North, as I followed the map and the clock, it actually started to look like a really good place to stop for dinner.  

So, we stopped, followed signs to the Altstadt, and parked right underneath a big hill.  It turns out, this hill is covered partially by a beautiful Altstadt filled with narrow streets, half-timber houses, and tons of little shops.  It's as lovely as any more-advertised tourist town in Germany - why hadn't we heard more about it before??  I'd recommend it in a second.  The hill on which everything sits makes it all the more attractive.  We walked up to the cathedral, and wandered around inside as it got dark outside (and inside!).  Afterward, we wandered the Altstadt for a cheap restaurant.  No Doener joints to be found, but we did find an Italian place that wasn't so bad and got a quick dinner before completing our journey to Heidelberg.

Limburg an der Lahn Okt 11

*I've been wanting to use this Q for a while...so excuse my awkward phrasing! ;)
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Friday, January 27, 2012

Electronic Residence Permits!

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Since last September, Germany has been issuing a new electronic residence permit. Instead of putting big stickers in your passport, they are now making a wallet-sized card for everyone with an electronic chip in it. The chip has all your personal info, including your biometric photo and fingerprints!

We just went in to renew our residence permits today, so we had to do the paperwork and stuff to transition to the electronic permits. Unfortunately, there's some wait time on them. With the old sticker system, we got our permits printed and put in our passports right there, and went home with them. Under the new system, cards are printed centrally in Berlin and mailed to the local office. So, right now we have to wait, and since our old permits have expired (we couldn't get an appointment earlier) we can't leave the country until they come. Apparently in about two weeks the Berlin office will send us a PIN that we can use two weeks thereafter to pick up our cards at the Heidelberg office. (I guess the two week wait is to be sure they've arrived already when we get there - ?)

The fun part about setting up for the electronic permit is fingerprinting! They now have a nifty little finger-sized scanner in the office to take fingerprints. I haven't been fingerprinted since I was a second grader in the days of the mid-80s kidnapping scares. Alas, what I learned is that I have really crappy, shallow fingerprints! She scanned my right pointer finger twice and it was rejected as not good enough both times. My right thumb turned out to be good enough, and then we moved on to my left hand. My pointer finger, thumb, and middle finger all failed to give a strong enough scan and she just gave up. Then my husband did it and the difference in his fingerprints - much clearer than mine - was pretty impressive. I hope nothing in my life ever depends on accurate fingerprinting.

EDIT: Apparently I misunderstood and the fingerprints are for the city's use, not for the residence permit.

Anyone have the electronic permit already? How is it convenience-wise - any noticeable difference?
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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Unfortunate Choice of Font

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Ask not whether someone pissed in the Cheerios of that grumpy person in your life.  They probably just ate Hater Muezli for breakfast.

For our non-German speakers, it's meant to say Hafer Muezli, a brand of oat muesli cereal (Hafer = oat).  Although muesli was originally made from oats by definition, you can get it with rye, spelt, and probably some other grains I haven't thought of too.
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Saturday, January 07, 2012

The Music Post, 2011

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You've been waiting for this day, right? ;)  Here's my yearly not-at-all-expat-or-travel-related post sharing the songs and albums I enjoyed the most this year.  I had a very poppy year this year so there's plenty of really accessible music here that you might enjoy.  I'm going to avoid YouTube links as much as I can, but will use them if necessary.  If you are using ProxTube for the first time to get around GEMA barriers, you have to click through to YouTube for it to work - it doesn't work on embedded videos.  Also note: if you are using a blog reader, you need to click through to the blog itself to see and play embedded songs from Soundcloud.

Albums - Mostly I just want to focus on songs, but some albums were spectacularly even and I don't want to give too much weight to just one song, so I am shouting them out as entire albums.

Cults - Cults
Cults - You Know What I Mean by cultscultscults
This is a new band from the US doing a sort of faux-oldies thing.  If you like poppy oldies, you might like it. 

Battles - Gloss Drop
Battles - Inchworm by tribes
Another US band, but this one's been around a while. People have been gushing online about them for years, but I never got into them until this album (which was supposedly less good than previous ones). I guess they're considered rock, but I don't find this particularly rock-y - maybe rock with a carousel as a band member? ;)

Plaid - scintilli
Plaid - missing (taken from new album Scintilli) by Warp Records
A British duo that's been around for many years, working in the unfortunately- and unhelpfully-named electronic subgenre IDM.  This isn't my favorite track from the album, but it was easily available on Soundcloud and the label seems to think it's a good representation. :)  It sounds like the lady robot from Wall-E having a bout of melancholy.

Tune-Yards - whokill
Tune-Yards - Gangsta by The Recommender
Genre: dunno, country: US. I don't love this album the way I loved her last one - but I never mentioned that one on the blog because I didn't discover it until after its year of release. So, this is like one of those after-the-fact make-it-up-to-you Grammys.  But actually, this album is amazing on its own merit, too.  (My absolute favorite of hers is "Real Live Flesh" if you like this and want to look it up!) I'd love for her to come perform at Karlstor!

Beirut - The Rip Tide
Beirut - Santa Fe (taken from the Album "Riptide") by 247QM
This is Beirut's 3rd full album. I miss the more Eastern European stylings from his first two albums (he himself is from the US), but this one has really grown on me. This is one of the poppier tracks from the album - for something moodier try "Goshen".

Al Lover - Distorted Reverberations (of Reverberating Distortion)

This guy is kind of a remixer - kind of. The original tracks are barely recognizable after he chops them up, distorts them, and puts them back together. Whatever, I can't stop listening to it. And the best part is that the entire album is completely free on his Bandcamp site.

Songs - Most of these are, of course, on great albums.

Cut Copy - "Corner of the Sky" from Zonoscope
Cut Copy - Corner Of The Sky by modularpeople
I remain a sucker for well-used bells, cow or otherwise.  This is a synthpop band from Australia.  I'm actually surprised I don't hear more of them here in Germany, the country where they still regularly throw Depeche Mode parties at clubs.

Orbital - "Never" (preview from upcoming April 2012 album)
Never by ORBITAL
I've been listening to Orbital (electronica, UK) so long, I'm not sure what low level of crap they'd have to release for me to not like it.  They are comfort music.  That said, even my husband thought this track was great, with no prodding from me.  I can't wait for the album, which will, oddly enough, be produced by Flood.  That's not a combination I'd have ever expected. You can download the track free from Soundcloud.

Björk - "Mutual Core" from Biophilia

I recommend headphones for the full effect of this song.  (Iceland, in her own genre.)


Veronica Maggio - "Finns det en så finns det flera" from Satan i gatan

This is pure pop from Sweden. When a happy song is needed, look no further. And if you, like me, don't know Swedish, you are free from knowing just how bad the lyrics might be (always a danger with pop...).

Lykke Li - "Youth Knows No Pain" from Wounded Rhymes

I don't know what this song - another pop song by a Swede - is really about. I like to imagine an old fart like myself telling some younguns that they don't know how good they have it. All juxtaposed over a happy beat as if we're trying to be nice instead of passive-aggressively condescending and jealous.
If you like this, also check out Beck's remix of her song "Get Some".  Lykke Li has risen from the ashes in my mind.  She had a song a few years ago - "Little Bit" I think it was called - that I found so awful I actually deleted it, an exceedingly rare measure of disgust in my little iTunes world.

Honorable Mentions

Albums:
Pearl and the Beard - Killing the Darlings : US, folk pop.  Even better is their 2009 album, but this is also quite worthy of a listen if you like this genre.
Patrick Wolf - Lupercalia : British, classic pop. It was the year of Patrick Wolf for me, so I couldn't leave him off even though this year's album is my least favorite of his. (The classic singer-songwriter trap of putting out a jarringly cheesy album during a happy period in one's life.)  According to last.fm, Patrick Wolf enjoyed the distinction of making my most-listened-to song this year, but it was a track from his 2009 album.

Songs:
Alexander - "Truth" from Alexander : US, folk pop.
Shabazz Palaces - "Swerve... the reeping of all that is worthwhile" from Black Up : US, hip-hop.
The Vaccines - "Nørgaard" from What Did You Expect from the Vaccines? : British, pop punk.  This was my first exposure to this band.  The rest of the album was pretty disappointing.
Yellow Ostrich - "Whale" from The Mistress : US, "indie" something. If you like, also check out "Libraries".
Hoots and Hellmouth - "Wizened" from Salt : US, country? I couldn't find a link to play it anywhere.
Oregon Bike Trails - "A Summer Thing" (no album): US, faux-oldie pop.
The Weeknd - "The Birds (Part I)" from Thursday : Canadian, R&B. If you like this and haven't heard about it yet: The Weeknd released three completely free albums online this year.  They can all be downloaded from his website. (Note: one of the album covers at that link is NSFW, not safe for work.)
Airlines - "Burial Grounds" from Visions : US, kind of that 80s throwback thing that's going on, but better than most of it.
Peter Bjorn and John - "Tomorrow Has to Wait" from Gimme Some : Swedish, pop rock.

Also Ran

Songs:
  • The Submarines - "Shoelaces": US, cutesy pop. 
  • TV on the Radio - "Caffeinated Consciousness": US, rock.
  • Keep Shelly in Athens - "DIY": Greek, electronic.
  • Future of the Left - "Polymers Are Forever": British, rock?
  • Nicholas Jaar - "Space Is Only Noise if You Can See": US, minimal electronic.
  • Dam Mantle - "Movement": British, rather cinematic.
  • Purity Ring - "Belispeak": US, some newfangled racket.
  • Panda Bear - "Afterburner": US, do all things Animal Collective have their own genre?
  • Lana del Rey - "Video Games": US, pop ballad. This song had to come in somewhere because of the fascinating dichotomy.  In the US it's a song swooned over all around the internet and indie music blogs, but in Germany it's a #1 pop radio smash hit. I don't see that often!
  • Glitch Mob - "Warrior Concerto": US, the fine line between awful and amazing electronic.
  • Fleet Foxes - "Helplessness Blues": US, folk pop. Mostly here on the merit of their first album and the ease with which anyone can relate to this song. This album did not sit well with me; it felt false. I think Fleet Foxes were better off singing less personal songs, like my beloved "Mykonos".
  • Electric Six - "Psychic Visions": US, goofy-ass rock.

Please share some of your favorites of 2011 in the comments, or thoughts on the ones I posted!  I love hearing people chirp about their favorite music, even if it is Lou Reed & Metallica....
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Thursday, January 05, 2012

ProxTube: Don't let GEMA get you down

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My yearly music post is underway, and it might involve a few YouTube videos. Over the last couple of years, YouTube has become a minefield of sneery, finger-wagging "YOUUUU can't watch this video" moments for anyone living in Germany. Very frustrating, but I finally found a way to get around it without connecting to a VPN or browsing entirely via an IP-hiding website. There's a free Firefox add-on called ProxTube which automatically uses a proxy only long enough to let you access a video.  It's definitely made my usual internet browsing a bit more pleasant and I recommend it for those of you who use Firefox!
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Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Bourtange

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This was my friend's first time in Europe, so we hoped to nip over the border into the Netherlands on our way back south so she could get at least a tiny taste of another country.  We weren't sure where to go, so we brought it up with one of the women working at our hotel.  She suggested Bourtange - it's just across the border and conveniently marked on the Autobahn.  The name rang a bell - a few months ago, I'd been looking at some town near the German-Dutch border on Google Maps and noticed the border was a bit funny-shaped in that area.  Interested, I started following the border and discovered this incredible star-shaped fort thing just inside the Netherlands.  It's very impressive on Google Maps but I had managed to forget about it in the meantime, figuring we'd never get somewhere so remote anyway.


View Larger Map

But, now we had a chance! Bourtange was easy to find, just as she said - there's a sign on the Autobahn, then you follow a small road right into the Netherlands.  Oddly, it gets even smaller when you cross the border, almost as if they were trying to discourage Germans from coming in! ;)  Then Bourtange is only a turn or two down the road.

Visiting Bourtange is free, but if you go through the visitor center, they will try to sell you tickets to see a movie and display about it.  It was vague enough that we thought we needed tickets to see Bourtange itself and almost bought some before we figured it out - so be careful. :)

We'd expected a mere cool fort formation with a few neat features, but it turns out there's an entire little village of shops and things inside the fort!  Surprise!  They were selling standard tourist items and nothing to write home about, but wandering the radiating pattern of cute little streets was worth the quick stop.  The whole place has actually been restored in the past 30 years or so - photos in the visitor's center lobby show it looking not unlike any old town in the 60s. We got pannenkoeken for lunch at a little cafe, then crossed the border back into Germany and headed southward toward home again.

Check out the Picasa photos for more details on what's in Bourtange!  The windmill photo in this post was taken by my friend, but all Picasa photos were taken by me.

Bourtange Okt 11
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Monday, January 02, 2012

DHL made a mess of what should have been awesome

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Where to begin?

On December 5, my dad & his family mailed us a Christmas package at our Packstation address.  My dad called and asked if I would be free on the 17th to open it at the same time as my sisters (one was going to be home that weekend) since we all got something that's the same.  I marked my calendar and hoped the package would show up on time.  Historically, it seemed that it would.  When my other sister's arrived at her house in Seattle, Dad started getting all excited that he was going to "get away with" his plan.

The 17th came and went.  Dad called a few times and we checked email obsessively hoping for the little Packstation notification saying it had arrived at the last minute.  It didn't arrive.  Dad decided to have my youngest sister, the one who was home, open hers and swear secrecy - then my Seattle sister and I could open ours together when mine arrived.

The days went on.  No notification from Packstation.  We even went there a couple of times and tried our card to see if it was there but the notification didn't go through.  It wasn't.  On the other end, my dad and his family didn't want to harrass the tiny local post office too much, so they decided to wait until after Christmas to try tracking it down, if it still wasn't here by then.

Christmas came and went.  They decided to have Seattle sister open her package and swear secrecy too.  Then another week came and went.  On Friday around 5pm, my dad emailed me the USPS tracking number for the package.  I checked the tracking number.  It gave the following result:

December 5: Processed by USPS in Des Moines.
December 6: Left Des Moines.
December 7: Arrived and processed at USPS facility in Chicago.
December 15: Arrived and processed at sort facility in Germany.
December 15: Customs clearance 9:17am, customs clearance 7:05pm, customs clearance processing complete 7:06pm
December 17: Addressee requests own pick-up - Item being held, addressee being notified.

December 17.  It arrived on time.  But the addressee was NOT notified.  Of anything. At all. Ever.

We thought that the tracking information indicated it had passed customs and that "own pick-up" was referring to the Packstation, so we figured they must have it.  So, first phone call was to Packstation.  They told us to call another number.  Called there.  After giving them USPS tracking and our Packstation info, they said they had never seen the package and that it must be in customs.  Customs didn't pick up the phone.  By then it was 6pm and everything was closed for the weekend.  So, we had to wait until today.

At this point, Dad sent a scan of the mailing label from the package.  It vaguely declares - this was supposed to be a Very Big Deal Secret, of course - that the package contains "Various Christmas Gift, Food, Clothing".  I can't read the monetary value on it. Maybe there isn't one. But the idea that customs would stop the package seems likely given the vague declaration.

Monday morning.  Customs won't pick up the phone. My husband decides to stop there on the way to work.

Customs informs my husband: "We did have it.* We only hold packages for two weeks.  No one came to pick it up, so we sent it back."

They sent. it. back.

And, they blamed the Post for not notifying us, since it's apparently their responsibility, not customs.  Of course, how do we know if the Post was ever notified?  I can't believe it.  I can't believe it!!!  They had two weeks and we would have been there to pick it up in a second.  And yet we got no information whatsoever from anyone by any means at all.

I don't know.  I just need to know: Who the hell is going to make this up to me??  Who do I complain to??

*(It was held because of the vague form and because they wanted us to pay taxes on value over 45 EUR.)
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