Oct 31, 2014

Top 12 Real Reasons Germany is a Great Place to Live

Germany ranked as the fourth most popular place to work abroad globally, after the US, UK and Canada respectively. One third of the 200,000 respondents surveyed said they'd like to move to the country.
-thelocal.de

What is it about Germany that makes someone like me learn German?
  1. The German economy, while flagging, is still a global powerhouse, providing lots of jobs like the one I was hired for.
  2. The cities are based around pedestrians, not cars. This fundamentally different attitude means more lively cities, places easier to access, less worry, less stress.
  3. There is an idea of following through commitments. People do the things they say they are going to do. Things happen on time. The bureaucracy is slow but it moves. 
  4. Germany happens to be in the center of Europe, with easy and fast access to great European cities.
  5. Quality matters here. Tools, objects, cars, food. There are still tons of independent bakeries and flower shops because apart from the huge footprint, there is a fear that malls and supermarkets streamline and degrade the product and the experience.
  6. Germans have probably the most time off in the entire world.
  7. Related to #6, relative to other countries, the emphasis is shifted less to commercial profits and more to human well-being.
  8. People appreciate nature here, from remote gardening patches outside the city centers, crowded sunny lawns, long nature trails, to the outdoor beer gardens everywhere, people just like being outside surrounded by green.
  9. There is a better social safety net. Women, as well as men, get paid maternity and paternity leave. There are many more protections for the poor and the workers.
  10. The bread, far more than the beer, is amazing.
  11. It's healthier to live here. People walk more, they eat better quality food, they spend more time outside, they take more time off.
  12. Wages are higher than most places in Europe, while the cost of most things is relatively low for Europe. This means the living wages are quite good, actually.
There's a lot of crappy, crappy things about living in Germany too, but I'm sure that gets filtered through the blog clearly enough. 

Oct 30, 2014

You Won't Believe What This Blogger Did After Reading A BuzzFeed Article!

A friend of mine sent me a link she though I might enjoy,
26 Reasons Why You’ll Never Be The Same After Studying Abroad In Germany
which was published by a BuzzFeed staffer who obviously spent two weeks in Germany. Here is the version without the photos and ads:
  1. Because Neuschwanstein Castle is the only place you could live like Sleeping Beauty. surrounded by thousands of tourists, who wouldn't want to be comatose?
  2. And Hohenzollern Castle will make you feel like royalty. I hear the outside is much nicer than the inside.
  3. Nothing else will compare after you go to Oktoberfest in Munich. true, where else can you have beer dumped all over you by Australian tourists?
  4. And American beer just won’t do after your first German sip. If you only drink BudLite
  5. Especially when you get used to an ice-cold Hefeweizen in a glass boot. nobody serves ice cold beer in Germany. Ice cold beer has no taste. If you like your beer ice-cold, then stick to BudLite
  6. Because fall in Heidelberg doesn’t leave any color behind. I could believe it
  7. And the Christkindelmarkts are truly a magical way to get excited for Christmas… probably true
  8. … especially with a piping-hot festive cup of Glühwein in hand…also probably true
  9. … topped off with crispy potato Kartoffelpuffers with ice-cold applesauce. all right, a solid four reasons so far
  10. Speaking of food, the bratwurst is incomparable. it's slightly better than what you can find in the US.
  11. You can’t get gingerbread hearts that say “I love you” anywhere else. probably, but who cares
  12. Because your sweet tooth will be satisfied whether you want something hot…five
  13. … or cold. six good reasons
  14. Because it doesn’t get any better than a glass of wine in Würzburg. street tacos in Mexico City. Boom.
  15. Because every city’s Main Street always looks straight out of a fairy tale. because it was all rebuilt after WWII. Some places are still charming though
  16. And Rothenburg ob der Tauber lets you live in the real Medieval Times. I think this is a variation of #15
  17. Because this is how Berlin does art.[photo of graffiti] and every other urban center in the entire world
  18. And this is how Hamburg does chocolate.[photo of stack of RitterSport] actually, this is how Stuttgart does chocolate since the factory is here, not Hamburg. But it's a valid point. Up to eight.
  19. Because there is nothing more grandiose than Cologne’s cathedral. except another 100 monuments around the world
  20. And the Black Forest couldn’t be any more serene. True.
  21. Because the Berlin Wall is truly breathtaking…the parts that are left are not quite breathtaking.
  22. And the Brandenburg Gate is awe-inspiring. Granted. Ten.
  23. Because a boat ride down the Rhine will take you back in time. I heard this is true.
  24. And Romantic Road will make you fall in love… Sounds specious
  25. … not just with your fellow students and teachers… as long as the school policies permit it
  26. … but with Germany itself. I'll be charitable and allow that the Romantic Road will make you fall in love with Germany. Twelve reasons. 
I should write a Top Ten Real Reasons You'll Never Want to Leave Germany.

Oct 28, 2014

fall weekend

It is decidedly fall here. It dropped down to 4 Celsius this morning, and the early part of the week has been heavy coat and scarf weather.

The weekend, though, was lovely.

Saturday we ran around all morning shopping. I had heard from a former Mexican intern that one could buy mezcal at Galeria Kaufhof (such an imaginative name: Kaufhof = buying courtyard), so we swung by and found one bottle.

It was the San Cosme mezcal joven- the same kind that I bought the first time in Mexico City, mostly because it was a cheaper premium mezcal and because I liked the bottle design. Actually, and I think I wrote about it before, this is bottled specially for German export, so its really not a great shock to find it here.

As for tequila, their selection was limited to Corralejo and Patron Silver.

In the afternoon, we started making Dia de Los Muertos masks. Big ones to cover our heads. Mine is really big.

Sunday, we joined Saori's former roommate, S for a hike through the vineyards around the city. There are numerous trails that wander up into the hills and across the ridges to various hilltops and vinyards (no winery stops though). We started in Unterturkheim and hiked up and across all the way over to Esslingen, a distance of probably 12 kilometers, around 7.5 miles. Along the way, we stopped in at a circular mausoleum of the beloved Queen Katherine, a Russian monarch who married the local King Wilhelm. The high point was in fact, the highest point, a grassy hilltop where people flew kites, there was a beer garden and an observation tower. From there, one could see the Stuttgart spread below, as well as the distant Swabian Alps to the south.

Due to the odd warm weather so late into the year, the vinyards had only begun to change, so there was still a lot of green and yellow, and not quite the seas of crimson and orange yet. But the weather could not have been better.

That night, we were too tired to work on the masks more, and we had homework, so we took care of that.

Oct 21, 2014

plantzen

Last Thursday, I left work a little after noon since all the competitions had been packed and submitted. L had actually given me instructions to have the interns in the competition room clean things up and clean up the files, and if they got all that done, that they could leave at four.

I ducked downstairs and delivered the tasks. Except I told them that they could leave as soon as the tasks were done. Seriously, they had been given about 30 minutes of work and four hours to kill. Plus, we had all put in some serious hours this week already.

After work, I stopped by a middle eastern market and bought harissa paste and some flatbread and chickpeas to try out a new recipe for lamb couscous. I was surprised to find Saori already home when I got there at three.

She had just been having a really off day at work, so decided to take the rest of the day off. We were also both really tired so we did some German homework in preparation for our class, and then took a nap before heading back to the city center for class.

Friday we were both feeling much better, and invited our friend Apo to dinner after work. I made a huge mess making dinner. Harissa is my new favorite condiment. Used widely in north African cooking, especially Tunisa and Morocco. It's an oily paste made from  roasted peppers and chiles and garlic, and an assortment of other herbs and spices. I used it as a rub on the lamb, and its pretty wonderful. It's an oily orange mess though, which stains everything it touches. The recipe turned out to be Saori's new favorite.

Saturday, we went downtown and shopped around for a few more things for the apartment. At design store Magazin, we bought a small trash bin for the kitchen wet trash since we separate out paper, bottles, and plastic. We are plagued by tiny fruit flies here, so we have to be scrupulous about keeping things clean.

Apo picked us up outside the hauptbahnhof in a black mini cooper, his new company car. It was a spectacularly beautiful day, warm, sunny, and I was the only person out wearing shorts. We fought hellacious traffic out of the city to a cluster of big box stores in the suburbs. Actually, these were better than big boxes- the Pflanzen Kölle store was actually a series of giant greenhouses.

Saori has been obsessed with plants lately. It started with her 30th birthday, when one of her coworkers gave her a tiny fig tree plant. Then when I arrived and started talking about getting some orchids, she got really excited and we bought a few from Ikea. Then she got started on succulents, and just got totally hooked. She can spend hours just looking at the plants, and reading about them. The only trick is living in the city, the selection is limited, and expensive. So Apo, who is also very into plants, offered to take us out to the giant plant store.

We splurged a fair amount, for a plant store. We bought many many cheap cacti and succulents, I bought a bird feeder and seed, and also some pots and soils. Now we have a much greener house.

Oct 16, 2014

sprechen sie deutch?

Monday was the first day of German classes. The classes are really close to my office, in a historic building. I have permission to leave work early to get to classes on time, which is good. I saw Saori there, starting her class, and went off to find my own classroom.

It was strange to be back in a school setting. Kind of a fun nostalgia to find your name on the list, find your classroom, introduce yourself to your fellow classmates. The woman who sat next me was an Indian working at Bosch, which applied to 75% of the class of fifteen. Actually there were two other Indians, but they worked for Daimler, breaking the stereotype that all Indians work for Bosch.

The guy on my other side was an American, a military analyst from D.C. working for AFRICOM. He lives close by, in the city center, pretty from the base, mostly because the government heavily subsidizes his housing. They found him an apartment, and paid for most of it. Or I should say, I, we, pay for most of it since military is taxpayer funded.

Anyway, interesting classmates! I think I'm in the right class level which is good, but I need to play catch up with grammar.

The rest of this week was late, late nights at the office. Last night, I took a cab back at 1:30AM. I am so fried from work and travel.

Volksfest

What a week. Got back from Geneva saturday night. Sunday early afternoon I went to the Volksfest Wasen, the second largest Oktoberfest in Germany, and possibly the world, with the Mexicans plus Oscar, so, the Mexicans. The nice thing about Volksfest is you can take the U bahn, step off, and you are within 20 feet of a booth right off the bat, in the middle of the festival grounds.

It was packed, but not terribly so, since it was sunday very early afternoon, and the people who went last night were still probably sleeping it off. We got into the Stuttgarter Hofbrau tent, a giant tent with probably a thousand people jammed inside. It must have been high school day since the tent was particularly filled with the under 20 crowd (the legal drinking age in Germany is 18, 16 for beer).

Not too surprisingly, a particualry roudy group of teens dumped some beer on a buddy on the table, and ended up accidentally splashing poor Paola. You don't want to dump beer on anyone's girlfriend, but especially not a Mexican's. Rafa, one of the most laid back, calm, peaceful people I know here, got up in the kid's face. I thought 'there's going to be some action here.' But no. The table of kids apologized, including the poor bastard who had the beer dumped on him in the first place. We changed tables and Paola went to the bathroom to towel off the rest of the beer, most unhappy.

We each finished off two maß of beer, nominally two liters, but actually closer to a liter and a half. It's still a staggering amount of alcohol, and stagger we did through the park, taking a few rides before calling it an evening before the crowds got thicker and rowdier.

Oct 14, 2014

Columbus

Monday was Columbus day in some cities of the US. Social media and internet media outlets took the opportunity to build on a rising tide of criticism of the holiday and the eponymous explorer.

Let's be honest, Columbus was a pretty awful person by any standard of conduct, by any primary source on the man. Actually, I don't know how the Italian-Americans can rally behind him.

What seems to be forgotten in the race to crap on Columbus is his historical context. Europe was controlled by rulers in an religious and political arms race with each other and the Islamic empire, and a new continent meant a new source of converts, economic spheres, and revenues. Not one single European was ever recorded in the 17th century saying, oh we should let these natives alone.

To the leaders of the western world, the native Americans were like wild pigs, to be exploited as slaves at the minimum, as colonial vassals and religious converts at best. The leaders of Europe sent arrogant, violent, ambitious, and merciless shits like Columbus because they were precisely the kind of men you need to bring a continent to its knees for the raping.

I'm not sure how you can call the killing of 90% of two continents populations "progress", let alone dance away from the term "genocide." Actually, the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth rock had an easier time of their arrival because the village where they landed had already been cleared by European diseases.

Oct 13, 2014

Genf

So I got back to Stuttgart from Venice very late at night Sunday, and then went into work monday afternoon. I'd actually requested the entire day off, but we had a major competition due so I felt like I should put in a least a half day.

Wednesday afternoon, the company decided to send me to Geneva for a meeting on friday, so I quickly bought rail tickets and booked the cheapest hotel I could find. I didn't have to stay: the meeting was going to be quick and I could have just hopped a train straight back, but its six hours by rail each way and I usually like to explore a new city a bit, especially if the transit is paid for.

So Friday morning, I caught a 5:45 am train out of Stuttgart, lugging my meeting materials and a backpack with a change of clothes. When I crossed the border into Switzerland at Basel, I had at that point been through four European countries in five days.

It ended up taking five trains to get to Geneva, but I eventually got there, and took care of the business I'd been sent to do, and then had the rest of the afternoon and next day free. After my meeting I went straight to the hotel since I was totally exhausted. Geneva has a small red light district, and I was bemused to discover my hotel was on its edge. Actually, the store next to the hotel was a sex shop, and from my window I could see the hookers on the street corners, and once, a drug cache pickup. For all that though the hotel was nice. Low cost, but no flophouse by any stretch of the imagination. The hotel also included a public transit pass for the city and breakfast, which substantially lowered my food costs.
On the free wifi, I arranged to meet my old coworker Sergio for dinner that night, since he was going to school in Lausanne.

I struck out in the afternoon for the main UN building and took a tour of the buildings. It was nice, kind of fun to be in the center of international diplomacy land, although I found myself humming the theme from National Geographic over and over. In the end, though, the UN campus lacks a kind of identity because it is really just a stage for things to happen- its an ornate vessel. The guided tour was good- the guide was animated and interesting, but very matter of fact and diplomatic. She dryly reported that Russia's seat on the security council had recently blocked eight resolutions on Syria. Security was not as bad as I had expected- check of my passport, a bag xray, and they printed me a special visitor badge with my photo on it.

Anyway, after the tour I went back to the hotel and slept for a few hours before meeting Sergio downstairs for dinner. We walked over to a recommended (for its quality and low cost) Lebanese restaurant and I got some grilled lamb. We got caught up over what the we'd been up to in the intervening year and a half since we parted ways in Mexico City. It was surreal to see him there in Geneva. We had a beer in a plaza near the old city center and called it a night.

Friday, I took advantage of the continental breakfast to load up for the day. I went to explore the other big Untited Nations buildings in the area, taking photos and walking around. All the architecture was transparent glass boxes, emphasis on glass.

Crossing town and the Rhone, I browsed the luxury stores on Avenue du Rhone. My search for Mezcal turned out to be fruitless, but I found an international beer store in the train station after I checked out which was a treasure trove. I bought probably two liters of beer, including Red Stripe (Saori's favorite), some Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Karhu (Finnish), and some Belgians. Another big score was a kilo of Argentine yerba mate.

Got back to Stuttgart just with one train change in Zurich, and made it home Saturday night before 8:30.

German is not the most lovely language, but the things it does to other names is especially awful. Venice, Venezia becomes Venig in German, and the lovely Geneva, Genéve, is truncated to a stumpy Genf.

Oct 10, 2014

Veniceland

When you arrive to Venice by bus or car, there is a very small area which is drivable where the parking garages etc are, basically a big parking loop actually, and a big ticket office, information point, etc. And then you can either board of the vaporettos, the small ferries which run around venice (1 day pass: $28), take a water taxi (more like a water limousine, and you don't even want to know how expensive), or take the bridge into the city proper.

We opted for the bridge. It's one of those great bridges, one of the three or four which crosses the grand canal, newly opened and designed by starctual engineer Santiago Calatrava. Going up and over, you leave behind the world of cars, of reality, of the dismal postwar European cities, and cross over to a baroque Italian fantasy.

You get the butterflies in your stomach, like you are entering Disneyland and walking down Main Street USA, except you see the canals and the green domes and the gondolas and you think holy crap, I'm in Venice! Not Venice Beach, not The Venetian Hotel in Vegas, but the actual sinking city itself.

What Venice does best is to look fantastic. It's a period theme park made real. When I was backpacking Venice, I took more photos there than anywhere else. It's a city that looks like a model ready for a photoshoot. Most people don't even make it over the bridge before the camera comes out. You take pictures of everything, everywhere. It wasn't until this trip that I realized that Venice is a city where everywhere you look there is something interesting. I mean everywhere- you can close your eyes, turn to a random direction and look up at a random angle, and some fascinating detail or view will present itself.

The best thing to do in Venice is to simply explore it on foot and by canal. You can't get too lost because the city is so small and you always run into water, but its a delight to lose your way. Only the main streets are wide- most of the city is a network of narrow alleys and small streets, and by small streets, I mean streets so narrow, its only two people wide. With the heights of the buildings around you, the city is a labyrinth.

Venice is a city for tourists: during high season I imagine that on a given day, the tourists outnumber locals 3:1, and probably 5:1 at night. However, there are still people who live here, and not just those working in the tourism industry. The best moments for me is to come across parts of the city where the locals live, which is just as picturesque but in a different way. Saori and I came across some residential blocks where the street was entirely shaded by the fluttering laundry hung to dry.

We booked an apartment with AirBnB, by far the cheapest option for sleeping on the island for a group of five. Rafa told us we needed to look for Abraham, the Israeli, at the foot of one of the main bridges crossing the grand canal. Abraham was not difficult to spot. A huge Israeli, with a hisaidic beard and dressed for the high holy day on which the weekend fell, he stood out, even in the multinational mix of tourists. His associate, a quiet, nervous looking woman (girlfriend? business partner? cleaning lady? all three?) also met us there, and together we walked to the apartment. On the way, he chatted about this and that, pointed out the historic Jewish Ghetto and happily broke out his Spanish when he discovered the Mexicans.

The apartment was nice, comfortable. One bedroom and a living room with a cot and a big fold out bed. No random guests that the host failed to disclose. We drew straws for the bedroom. Saori and I lost, but Apo got the cot.

It was late afternoon by the time we struck out, trying to find our way to an out of the way palazzo Prada which was hosting an exhibition "Art or Sound?" We lost the Mexicans on the way, since they were tired and hungry. We were too, but too excited to see some of the Biannale sideshows.

The exhibition was interesting and the palazzo was lovely, and we hurried through in about an hour before it closed. From there, we slowly made our way to the giant square at the center of the city, St. Marks. Saori was really excited to see the palazzo since its one of the places, or really, an ensemble, of buildings and plazas, which we studied in school and which she remembered distinctly. We roamed the palazzo a bit before heading back to grab a super mediocre meal near the apartment.

Oct 8, 2014

The Road to Venice

A few months ago, the six of us, the two Mexicans, the two Greeks, Saori and I, were sitting having drinks at night outside of a city center bar. Paola was nursing a bright orange cocktail called Aperol spritz, and the conversation turned to Venice, from whence the drink was known. We decided there to plan for a trip, to see the city and the architecture biennale.

So, after scrambling like mad the week before to finish a competition, with little sleep and less planning, I threw together a backpack and met Rafa, Paola, and Apo in their car downstairs around 5 am friday morning. The five of us jammed in to the small BMW, Paola's car, and we took off in the darkness out of town.

I have a hard time sleeping anywhere but my own bed, let alone jammed in awkwardly to a European backseat, so there was not much sleep for me on the way there. We stopped a few times for gas, to pee, and once for food, at a McDonalds outside of Innsbruck. This McDonalds was the most beautiful one I've ever seen, a huge curving restaurant perched on the hilltop with an amazing panoramic view into one of the alpine valleys. It was also packed with Germans also on holiday.

Our route took us from Stuttgart, past Ulm, and into the land of mountain castles, to Innsbruck, where we cut south to cross the Alps via the Brenner pass. Passing through one of the mountain tunnels into Italy, the sky opened up, and gray gave way to warmth and sunshine. I am not taking poetic license here: it was actually sunnier and warmer the moment we crossed into Italy.

From the Brenner Pass, it was another four hours or so to Venice, highways all the way. The music on the radio was terrible. Worse in Germany. As Americans, we never stop and wonder what happened to all that terrible pop from the 1960s-1990s. What happened was it was all exported to central Europe. I heard a solid contender for the worst song. Not a bad song, the worst song. Even I was impressed.

 We finally crossed the causeway and pulled into the parking garage about nine hours after we left Stuttgart. Rafa had a reservation for the garage, which is apparently necessary here. For all the visitors and commuters to the city of Venice, there are only two or three parking garages, and only one small area which is drivable. Venice is a lot like Disneyland in this way. Actually, a lot of Venice reminded me of Disneyland- a fantasy city, dazzling to explore, exorbitant prices, mediocre tourist food, and packed, packed packed.

We booked an AirBnB apartment in Cannaregio, close to the train station, and across the canal from the Jewish ghetto. It was a bit far from the main attractions, across the entire island from St. Marks square, but many more locals lived here and north of here on the island. We didn't mind the distance so much actually, since the city itself it the main attraction, and the best way to see it to cross it by the less populated routes.

This was not my first time to Venice. I remember as a backpacker that after I got over taking photos of everything, I was not that impressed with the city, its lack of things to do and see, its expense, and the hordes of tourists. This trip, I fell in love with the city again, perhaps with the distance of seeing more cities around the world, and with older eyes.

Medium is the message

I moved the blog again. I deleted the Tumblr account and moved everything to Medium.com, a more writing-centric website. medium.com/@wende...