Thursday, March 27, 2014

Provence part 3

OK, let's see where I left off.  Oh right, we were in Comps sur Artuby and heading into the Gorge du Verdon.

The guidebook said to start early, because traffic would get heavier around 10, so we got a relatively early start, and after a short pedal, we had a fun looping descent and then we saw it, the Gorge.  The book called it the "grand canyon of France" and while it might not be as impressive as the Grand Canyon in the US (not that I've seen it except from an airplane), it was still very pretty.  We wound around one side of it to a bridge, that is effectively The Bridge, which was pretty impressive, and then we wound up the other side of it climbing up to the high point of the day.  It wasn't as much climbing as the first day, but it wasn't flat either.  However, in addition to frequent gorgeous views of the canyon, we also were rewarded at the top with Madeleines from some impressed French tourists who were driving up in their RV, and while Clara was waiting for the rest of us, she made friends with an older Italian and with her Spanish, they could kind of understand each other.
The problem with beautiful, bright sunny days is they make for harsh lighting for photos

The Bridge



From the highpoint, the road leaves the gorge but the scenery was still rather nice, and there is a big, blue reservoir that is rather lovely and pleasant for swimming (although only I can attest to that).  We stopped in a small tourist town, Aiguines, for a lunch break, but mostly ate food we'd brought, supplemented slightly with food from a small, expensive and unimpressive shop.  The town had an unusual chateaux, though, which was near the park we stopped in.
Unusual chateaux

Swimming!

We then headed North-ish up past the reservoir and crossed it where the river flows into the canyon.  The river is a bit wider there, and there were people boating on the turquoise water into the canyon.  It would have been tempting had we not had all of our stuff and bicycles in a not easily-securable manner.

That night, we made it to the town of Moustiers Ste Marie, which was absolutely lovely.  It is definitely "discovered" and I think we were many decades younger than all the other visitors, but it was well worth the visit.  The town is cute and perched above it is a pilgrimage chapel, and rugged hills reminiscent of Utah, so we went for a short hike before dinner (those of us who didn't feel like napping).  The only drawback was that all the restaurants were quite expensive, and we inadvertently picked an expensive but fancy one where the food was delicious but portions were, shall we say, not meant for cycle-tourists.  Oh well.  At least we found another amazing artisan bakery just next to our hotel.  Yum!
The view from our hotel room balcony.  Not too shabby.

Looking back towards town from our hike

Appetizer at the fancy restaurant. Yum! 

The next morning, my birthday, just happened to be market day!  I love markets, and this one was particularly awesome, if a bit small.  We got olives and cheese and sausage and fruit and candied dried fruit and cookies and would have got so much more if we hadn't had to schlep it all with us.  Alas, the downside of bike touring.  But artisan pastries, french cafe au lait, and market.  I can think of few better ways to spend one's birthday morning.

I wanted ALL those cheeses!! But only if someone else would carry them...

That day's riding was less notable than many (not bad, mind you, just no stunning gorge), and we ended in a larger town (Manosque) and stayed in an "extended stay" type hotel with kitchenettes in our room.  We wandered around town a bit, but largely spent our time there riding around the outskirts looking for the (very nice) bike shop to aquire  a few items we needed and get some minor service done...(just an aside, cyclists, if you ever want a fun Charades phrase, try chamois cream; we got funny looks and weren't successful at a sporting goods type store in Nice, but managed to both communicate our need AND get said product in Manosque).  We also managed to find a nice bakery and got some gorgeous and delicious pastries for birthday dessert.

The next day we were effectively switching between two recommended routes from our guidebook, and had a short day of riding.  One benefit of being off the recommended route was riding through a cute village totally off the tourist path.  There was a chapel at the top that we had all to ourselves and there was not a post card in sight anywhere in the village.  After we rejoined the book route, though, it's not like we were fighting the crowds either, though.  We stopped at a ruined monastery called the Prieure de Carluc and pretty much had the place to ourselves there, too.

Part of the Prieure.  It was really a fascinating place.  It is strange sometimes wandering around a place that has been ruined for centuries, imagining when those holes in the rock were filled with the roof beams, and the place was filled with monks.


We rode to the town of Apt and got there in time for lunch AND right as the market was closing.  We thus had to limit our market acquisitions, but riding up Mt. Ventoux was only a few days in our future, so we were starting to get careful about loading up our saddle bags, even with food, so we just got some bread and a melon and such. We ate lunch in a restaurant about a block off the main square and it was one of the best meals of the trip.  I had a lasagna that was not tomato-y at all, but creamy and meaty and delicious.  Since we were going to cut off a few days of the guidebook recommended route through the Luberon, Clara and I took an afternoon ride to visit two more villages, Roussillon and Bonnieux.  Rossilon is famous for its Ochre cliffs, but it was a zoo of tourists and tour buses, so we looked at the cliffs and then went on as fast as we could.  Bonnieux on the other hand was quite lovely.  We shared an organic crepe and went up the hill to a fancy church and, although we would have loved to wander the streets for longer, we had to cut our visit short to meet back up with our husbands for dinner, a dinner of cheese and bread and tomatoes and melon and such that, though simple, was so yummy.

OK, so we took tons of pictures, and all of those km of riding that I'm not describing were generally winding in oak forest or through fields (some lavender) and we could see mountains in many directions, and the sun was shining and we had tasty snacks and...so basically, yes, you should be jealous.  Until you book your own trip, that is. 

Our cute "off the beaten track" chapel

Bonnieux

The ochre of Roussillon


Friday, March 21, 2014

Nocturnal Biodiversity


Spring is here!  And it really feels like it here in Marburg.  On Wednesday, we observed one of the signs of spring - the frogs came to our local vernal pools to lay their eggs (vernal pools are are temporary pools of water that provide habitat for distinctive plants and animals, according to Wikipedia.  They look like puddles.  Okay, some are bigger than puddles.  But it depends on how much rain there's been.).

So, this blog post will be relatively short, and highlight some of the biodiversity one can see in and near the vernal pools of Marburg in spring:

First: the star of the night: Feuersalamander!  Or Fire Salamanders, for those of you that speak English (some words are just better in German, although the Latin Salamandra salamandra is pretty awesome too!)

The photos don't do them justice.  They look even cooler in real life!

The coin is a 1 Euro, which is 2.3 cm in diameter (for those of you wondering what that is in inches, switch to the metric system, it's better!)
Most likely a Fire Salamander larva.  Breeding takes place on land, and then the females carry the eggs and young larvae around for months before letting them loose into the wide world of hungry predators

Likely the Common Frog (Rana temporaria)


Frog eggs!
Even more eggs!

 Vernal pools also have invertebrate life.  Below is a diving beetle, and below that are some pictures of two spiders (you can see them at night by their bright green eyeshine!) and also a cool yellow slug.

Larger than life size

Larger than life size.  Otherwise there would be fewer mice.
Even in the water, you are not safe from spiders.

There are cool slugs in Germany.  This one was yellow.  I don't know if it will turn into the giant orange slugs we see later in the year.









Sunday, March 16, 2014

Pi day!!



I hope you all had a good pi day.  Now, pi day is not something traditionally celebrated in Germany.   Some could argue that it's not traditionally celebrated in the US outside of areas with high concentrations of math nerds (ie science museums and college math departments) but that's beside the point.  It really isn't celebrated here for 3 reasons: 1. Here, everyone writes the date differently.  In Germany the 14th of March, 2014 would be written 14.3.year instead of 3/14/year.  Clearly 14.3 isn't pi (and unfortunately 31.4 just doesn't exist). So that's problem one.  2. they don't pronounce it like "pie" but rather like "pee".  3.  pie just isn't a German dessert.

BUT, I am not a German, I am an American, and thus, if I want to eat pie on the 14th of March and celebrate the wonders of pi, then I will.  And since I try to keep Sasha and I from having a horrible diet (sometimes), I decided that my lab should celebrate pi day.  As I wrote to them in an e-mail, "There is pie. Free pie for you.  Are you really going to complain about celebrating a minor US holiday? I think not".  And they got more into it than I thought they would.  In addition to serving our pie at 1:59,  we had the "1st annual MPI for terrestrial microbiology Ecophysiology department pi digit recitation contest" for which Monika was the winner:


video

And we all ate pie (one is cherry, one is apple). And it was delicious. And very educational.  
Behold, the amazing number of pie, er, pi.






Sunday, March 9, 2014

Find a castle, March 2014

Spring is sprung here in Hessen.

It is spring here, and has been for almost a month now.  There are bulbs blooming and trees spreading their pollen and today I think I will go for a run in SHORTS!! I know some of you still have tons of snow, of which I am sort of jealous since we only got to go skiing a few times while in the US over Christmas, but I am rather enjoying today.

This weekend and last weekend, it stopped raining long enough that Sasha and I thought we could play a few rounds of "find a castle" without risking hypothermia while poking around in the woods.  We are 3 for 3 for March so far, and the castles ran the range of ruinedness. 

Last weekend, we picked a ruined castle symbol on the map near towns called Friedensdorf and Buchenwald.  The ruin even had a name on the map, so that seemed promising.  Although the name was "Hohenfels" which translates more or less as "high rocks", so perhaps I should have expected what we eventually found...

We took roads and then the bike path for a while before we had to cut in on a hiking/mountain biking trail.  I suppose now would be a good point to mention that we had road tires on our bikes and it had rained a good amount the previous week and there was major logging going on on said hiking trail.  Oh well.  We'd had the foresight to take running shoes too, so we were prepared for this:

Perhaps mountain bike tires would be more appropriate
 We got up to the top of the ridge and found a sign telling us that it is illegal to deface the ruins, but where were they?  We wandered around the local maximum and convinced ourselves that there were some manmade earthworks and maybe a wall, but it was underwhelming. 

At least we are allowed to climb around unsupervised when the ruins are unexciting.
 So we ate a snack and rode onward, trying to make our way back home.  Luckily, we picked a good direction, for we found a sign explaining the ruins!  There were indeed fortifications on 2 local maxima, dating from the 1200s or so, and indeed the 2nd of the local maxima had much more satisfying ruins.
If you want to read about which Landgrafs and which Konrads and Heinrichs are responsible for this castle, here you go.
Indisputably human made.

And look at those walls!

Now, Dad, if you are reading this, I am sure you are shaking your head about your crazy daughter's castle obsession.  But answer me this: wouldn't you like to go on a several hour bike ride through fields and forests, and isn't it nice having an excuse to go some new direction to explore some new woods?  And if such a journey goes by an award winning bakery that serves raspberry cake AND hot cocoa, would you still protest against castle journeys, or would you perhaps join in our enthusiasm?
I like cake!
OK, so that was last weekend.  Yesterday, we wanted to go on another adventure, but since Sasha had been out of town for a week for a conference, we decided against going anywhere too far away, so decided to bike the stretch of the Lahn from here to Giessen.  This also involved trying to get up to two castles that we have seen from the train.  OK, so since we could see them from the train, it wasn't the usual gamble about whether or not we'd find them, or whether they'd be castles or just remnants of rock walls, so perhaps this round wasn't quite the same challenge, but hey.  The weather was so warm I got to ride my bike with a short sleeved jersey!!  The downside to the nice weather was that the bike path (which we were on for a good part of the day) was crowded.  The nerve of all those other people taking advantage of the weather.

The first castle was in Friedelhausen and was quite nice, and more of a manor house than a stereotypical castle.  It was very private, unfortunately, but at least the fence/hedge was low, so we could get good views. 
Look, there is skin showing on my arms!! (yes, that's skin, not pasty white arm warmers)
From there, we went on to the town of Staufenberg, which has both a lovely castle that has been turned into a hotel (a 4-star hotel no less, not that I have ever figured out who gives a hotel stars, or what they mean), and some satisfying ruins for clamoring around, including a tower with a spiral staircase.
the hotel part of the castle

Ruined tower with a nice view
Now, if only the hotel/castle restaurant had had cake, it would have been perfect. Alas, we had to settle for pretty good.

From Staufenberg, we rode back down to the bike path along the Lahn, and rode the rest of the way into Giessen and caught a train home.  Since Sasha likes birds, you will be pleased to note we saw a few birds, although nothing incredibly worth noting from a birders perspective.  However, as further proof that spring is upon us in this Deutscher Land, there were baby geese!!! Yay for spring and cute balls of fluff! And warmth! and sun!  May such things reach your corner of the globe soon if you don't have them yet.

Babies!!

Mom or Dad. In case you are curious, these are Egyptian geese, which have been introduced here, but are now quite common in our part of Hessen.



Friday, March 7, 2014

ABCs of German life

Hello friends and family!

We've been in Germany for well over a year now, which is really hard to believe.  This seems like a good time to reflect on life over here and how it is different from the States.  I'm going to go through some of the things that I've noticed living here in Germany that have taken some getting used to, some obvious, some less so.  Sometimes, the German way seems better, sometimes worse, sometimes just different.  Some of these things would be obvious in a short visit, others became more obvious only over time, but hopefully this will be interesting to you. I'm going to do it alphabetically, and (to make the letters work better) am going to switch between the German and the English. Blogger's prerogative.

A: "Amt" or "anmelden": an Amt is basically a governmental office, and anmelden is the process of registering with the government any time you move.  The government gets to know all sorts of details that to me seem like none of their business, like my religion.
  Yes, we have the equivalent of Amts in the US (think RMV/DMV, etc.) but I swear there are way more here.  Now, if any of you are scientists and have come to Germany to give a talk, you probably were surprised at how easy it was to get your honorarium; at some point you were probably led to an administrative office and handed an envelope of cash.  This might lead you to believe that the bureaucracy is less in Germany than in the US where such a simple task could be quite frustrating.  Not so if you actually live here.  I think there are forms and rules for the forms and rules.  Luckily, however, there seems to be much less enforcement than regulation, however.  Which is good, since I'm sure we've missed some form or another that I don't even know about.

B: bike paths: Boston has been voted a bike-friendly city by some magazine or other, and they're crazy.  In the states, people paint a bike lane on a heavily used street and call themselves bike friendly (as if turning cars and opening doors on parked cars don't exist).  Germany is actually bike friendly, which is good because in this college town, there are bikes everywhere.  I think the hills keep many people from biking into my work, but a survey we read in German class said that biking is the most popular form of exercise here, and I believe it.  In addition to bike lanes on the streets and/or sidewalks throughout every town I've been to, there are bike route signs and dedicated bike routes throughout the surrounding countryside.  And not just one rail trail, we're talking hundreds of km in Hessen alone.  Now, I may complain that it's hard to guess from the map which are paved and which are dirt (which matters on a road bike during mud season) but still, it's awesome here.  Biking is really accessible to everyone.

blast doors: OK, so most windows have these crazy metal things, and many Germans roll them down over all their windows most nights. They're basically just shutters, but they make Sasha and I think that there may be storm troopers lurking nearby. Hence our nickname.

C: currency: We don't pay for things in dollars, but rather, in Euros.  And I get paid in Euros, too.  I still have to double-check all the coins when I'm paying for something, even though the coins and bills are more different from each other than those in the states.  I mean, the bills are even different sizes to match their worth.  If they ever made a million Euro bill, I think it would be the size of a legal pad or something.  When I was in Germany for 3 months in 2002, the exchange rate was almost exactly 1:1, but with inflation in the states and the weaker US economy, it isn't any more.  I still think about the prices as if I just switched the currency symbol, though; I'm not good at doing exchange rate math in my head, or about remembering that I ought to.

D: dogs:  As many of you know, I'm not a dog person.  They smell, they're loud, they jump on you, and most importantly, they are really scary if they are mean and are loose when you are just out for a bike ride or roller ski.  After a year dealing with country dogs in upstate NY, my fear of un-leashed dogs while riding is at an all-time high, but I'm amazed that I really needn't worry so much here.  The dogs are actually polite.  Usually, I can ride by any dog, and it will not even bother looking up at me.  If a dog barks or anything, I swear I hear it getting a lecture after I pass, on the order of "you are a German dog, you don't do that to people. It's not polite."  Awesome.

E: effusive greetings: something the Germans just don't do (well, except for a subset of college women).  Sasha's waved and said hi to people we pass in the streets, and they look at him with this scared expression like "who is this wierdo talking to us? We don't know you!"  You are kind of allowed to stare at each other in a very impolite (by American standards) way, but don't wave or say hi.  But it's also funny in that if you don't say hi to EVERYONE that you pass once you get to work (even random people in other labs who you don't know), people think you don't like them or are antisocial...still figuring out the unspoken rules, and who knows how specific they are to my workplace, etc.  When do I not get to say hi, and when is it rude not to say hi? Tricky.

F: forests: Hessen seems to be a fairly agricultural state, but there are also large regions of managed forest, especially the hillier bits of land directly around Marburg.  This is great.  I can walk through the woods every day on my way to work, and the woods are full of birds and deer and wild pigs.  The woods are FULL of hiking paths and roads that are open to bicycles, so that makes exercising quite pleasant.  What really takes me by surprise, though, is the way the forests are managed.  They don't seem to clear cut, but instead pick an area and heavily cut/thin the trees, and we're not just talking about areas of forest that are far from town, but the area with a designated fitness path near our house even gets logged.  To me, it feels like if the Middlesex fells (Boston people) or Theodore Wirth Park (MN people) were logged, in terms of how close the logging is to town.

G: German: the official language of Germany is German and it's what the people speak.  You'd think I'd get used to this, but working all day where the important conversations mainly happen in English and then coming home to an English speaking husband, there are days where I speak very little German.  On those days, I wander by people and feel surprised all over again to hear German coming out of their mouths.  I think what gets me is that I couldn't separate Germans from Americans from a line-up, so I always assume people are more like me than they really are.

H: half-timbered houses: you can picture them, the stereotypical German house with a tile roof, darkly painted wooden beams, and plasterwork between the beams that's painted white and sometimes has flowers or other designs pressed into the plaster. When I'm riding along some road in the woods, there are moments where I feel like I could be anywhere, and then I crest a hill and look down at a farming village, and the German-ness is unmistakable.  Most of the farms around here are also in remarkable shape given the years carved into the beams; a far cry from some parts of rural US, where you're as likely to see run-down mobile homes as anything else.

I: ice cream:  It's different here.  I can't exactly explain how, but it is.  Also, you buy it differently.  If we go to an ice cream shop, you pick however many flavors you want, and then pay about a euro per scoop, and each scoop is pretty small.  Don't get me wrong, I love Bedford Farms and Kimball farms in the Boston area, but it is nice to just have a little bit of ice cream if you're in the mood for something sweet and not to have a small that is so big that you feel sick for an hour after eating it.

J:jogurt:  it starts with a j in German because they don't really go for those Ys.  I like the yogurt here better than that in the states.  I can't really tell you why, maybe the texture is nicer.  It's liquidy and smooth, and comes in nice flavors and usually isn't too sweet.  I like it with Muesli for breakfast. 

K: kalium: that's German for Potassium.  Our chemicals in lab are sorted by the name on the bottle, which means that sometimes (if the label is in English) Potassium whatever is sorted under P, and sometimes (if it's in German, which is most of the time) it is under K.  This kind of fits under German, but it just seems funnier in the lab, since we mostly speak English all day.  Making solutions, though, does sometimes turn into a German test...quick, what's the German name for urea, and which letter does it start with?

L: the Lahn.  the Lahn is our river here in Marburg and it is very cute.  We are trying to bicycle from one end to the other, and once we have, Sasha will tell you all about it.  I don't know, maybe it's not particularly distinctive as rivers go, but it's here and it's cute and it starts with the letter L, so there.

M: Market/Markt.  There are markets here, and they are awesome. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, there are markets in a few places in town, but the bigger one is over in the Sudviertel.  It's not a farmer's market like in the states; it's more like people set up a bunch of small, portable shops.  There are cheese shops and fish shops and bakeries and butcher's and people selling fruits and vegetables and flowers and honey and olives and all sorts of delicious things.  I try to go on Saturdays.  While not all of the produce is local, I think they must cut out a middleman or two because even the imported stuff is usually fresher looking than anything at the supermarket, and there are several stands with really nice local produce.  It's starting to be apple season again. Yay!  Also, there's my favorite butcher's stand, and they must have 20 different kinds of sausage of all sorts, sliced deli style or in lovely rings.  I have my favorite, the Krakauer, that is kind of like a Kielbasa but not.  They also often have hot ones with fresh crusty rolls and mustard.  Yum!

N: north. I always forget that Europe is much further north than I think it is.  I don't feel like Germany is far north (I mean, it's way south of Stockholm, and Stockholm is pretty far south in Sweden, so there's a lot more Europe north of here) but we are.  We are at 50.8 degrees North here, and for perspective, Roseville, MN is on the 45th parallel, Boston is at 42.36, and Presque Isle, ME, which felt really far north, is still only at 46.67.  That is nice in the summer with nice long days, but the winter is dark. And wet. (see R).

O: outsiders.  I sometimes wonder if we moved here for good if we'd ever really feel accepted.  Don't get me wrong, my labmates are nice and we've made some German friends at church, but there are still people we've been sitting near at church for over a year now who have never said "hi".  Granted, we aren't exactly extroverts ourselves, so perhaps we have only ourselves to blame, but I definitely will try to make more of an effort once we get back to the states to try to be more intentional about being welcoming and friendly to newcomers.

P: pigs or pork.  I don't know where they all live, but Germany must have a heck of a lot of pigs given the amount of pork that's consumed around here.  While in the US, I feel like there's a good mix of hot dogs and hamburgers and brats going onto grills, here the mix tends to be: pork sausages, pork steaks, and thick-cut bacon wrapped around a stick.  Yes, sometimes people will bring in chicken pieces or cheese or vegetables, but the predominance of pork is fairly representative of what's available in the grocery store (and presumably what most people eat).  Here, I think it's chicken that would be called "the other white meat".  Yes, we do eat chicken and beef (and do eat meatless meals sometimes) but we definitely are eating more pork than we would have in the states. 

Q: Quelle. Quelle means source and Germans like their water from a source, and usually a carbonated one.  I don't know how much of it is "mineral water" from springs and how much of it is just tap water that's been filtered and had CO2 added, but in any case, it is really hard to get a glass of tapwater in a restaurant.  OK, I mean we know the word for it, but half the time, the waiter/waitress looks at us like we're crazy for asking, and then half of that time, they bring out glasses so small it would take half a dozen to be satisfying.  OK, maybe just 3.  People here drink sparkling bottled water, and many people think that "still" water is gross.  I find sparkling water rather sour tasting, and not at all refreshing, not to mention it seems like a waste to spend so much on water when it comes free out of the tap and tastes fine, but oh well.

R: rain.  It rains A Lot in Marburg.  I swear it started raining in November and didn't stop until May.  I would trade it for a cold but sunny MN winter any day. On the plus side, though, the crops all look healthy and bountiful, and at least the summer wasn't as rainy.

S: smoking.  SO many people here do it, especially young people.  AND, cigarette vending machines and cigarette billboards are legal.  At least now most restaurants are non-smoking inside, which wasn't so often true when I was here 10 years ago.  When the weather's nice, though, most people would rather sit and eat at the outside tables, which is nice, but we often do a calculation about the location of the open table relative to other tables and the wind direction to see if we can risk sitting outside without breathing in icky cigarette smoke.

T: Tiere (German for animals). There are sheep!  I see them while riding and they are fuzzy and adorable.  And sometimes there are goats!  Also adorable.  I keep asking Sasha if I can take one home, and he keeps saying no.  Something about not having any space on our balcony.  OK, so there are sheep in the US, but I see them more often here.  Sasha, are you sure I can't have one?

U: Umgebung. Umgebung means surroundings or area.  I don't really have a point to make, it is just a fun German word to say. Umgebung. You try it.

V: Villages.  Driving riding or training around the countryside gives a misleading perspective.  Germany is sort of close to Montana in size but has a population over twice as big as California.  And yet, there is so much farmland and forest, everywhere.  It's because the land is just settled differently.  Many, many people live in apartments or multifamily homes, and the people with their own houses have very small yards (and small houses) compared to the US.  Also, instead of each farmer having an isolated house surrounded by fields, the houses are all clustered in small farming villages, leaving the farmed or forested lands in bigger patches.  I like it.  I think the US model where so many people strive for huge McMansions in the outer suburbs and then drive an hour each way to work is unsustainable and inefficient use of the land.  That said, I do want my own house and think many Germans do, too, but no sense having acres of grass to mow surrounding that house. 

W: walking. Germans love to walk.  We'll be riding through forests or fields, many km from any village and see Germans out walking around.  Where are they going? Where are they coming from? Beats me.  It is healthy, though.  I also find myself walking a lot more here.  Probably this is largely because it rains a lot and we don't have a hose/nice bike washing station, and partly because the hill we live on is so steep, walking is much more pleasant than riding sometimes.  Plus, why would I want to wait for a bus when I could just walk and leave when I want and get there around the same time?

X:  so I can't think of any X words that fit. Neither German nor English uses the X much, but I guess that's a similarity instead of a difference.

Y: years.  It's been fun watching the seasons change here, and watching ourselves settle in to our work and our habits and surroundings.  Some days I can't believe we've been here for so long already, and othertimes it seems like we've been here for forever.  Well, maybe not quite, but you probably know what I mean.  I guess that's always true with the passage of time, but I think our time in Germany will always be special to us, wherever we go from here (although we'll be here for at least 1-2 more years, so there's still time to visit, hint hint).

Z: ze accents.  It's funny how much American accents are magnetic now.  Like I said, I speak English all day, but mostly it is English spoken by non-Americans.  By and large, their English is amazingly good, but still, if I hear another American at a seminar or even just in passing on the street, it's like part of me immediately homes in on them and thinks "there goes one of us."  I don't even have to exchange words, but I get this warm feeling towards a person that I never will speak to and may never see again just because for a second, it is like a taste of home.