Hot Off the Press

IMG_1585I’m fortunate this weekend to have a visit from my dad, which made being away from “home” for both Thanksgiving and my birthday this week less difficult.  James and I showed Dad around town and, among other things, had been waiting for this opportunity to check out the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz.  Johannes Gutenberg, credited with making mass print media possible with movable type, lived and worked in Mainz once upon a time.  We got an English audio tour of the museum on a mini-iPod-like device with headphones.  If you’re into history and/or bookmaking (fortunately, we all were) the museum offers a lot interesting information and artifacts about handwritten books, Gutenberg and his printing press, and early book printing and binding.  Unfortunately, our only photos-allowed opportunity was during the printing demonstration so pictures are limited for this post.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe exhibits were filled with wooden printing and book binding machines and tools, natural materials used to make paper and ink, and beautifully decorated handwritten and early printed books.  Where once a bible could be written by hand in two to three years, over a hundred bibles could be printed in a year.  After the invention of the press, bookmaking also expanded beyond religious texts to include writing about political and scientific ideas that could reach the masses.

From the type setting demonstration we watched, using the printing press still looked like difficult work.  The letters were set in rows, accounting for even spacing that we can now do with a layout or text justify setting on a computer.  They were then painted with an ink roller and the whole heavy machine was pressed and cranked to apply pressure from ink to paper.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In addition to information about printing in Europe, there were sections of the museum devoted to writing development in Egypt, printing techniques developed in eastern Asia, and the history of book production culture in the Islamic world.  Text and pictures were actually printed in China, Korea, and Japan long before Gutenberg’s independently developed inventions in Europe.  Some of the character molds were single-use, however, and an extremely large number of characters were needed for these writing systems.  In Islamic countries the idea of mass printing was initially met with disapproval, particularly by calligraphers who held a high level of status.  Each of these exhibits incredibly contained papers with text printed hundreds and, in one case, over a thousand years ago.


Ich bin eine Frankfurter


Reflecting on this day trip, I think if I had a week to travel around Germany I would probably skip Frankfurt.  But seeing as James and I are still without cars, we chose to hop back on the train on Sunday and traveled about half an hour northeast to pay a visit to this neighboring major city.  The regional train was jam-packed with passengers, most of whom had also brought a suitcase (or a cello) to travel back to the airport.  I thought that being squeezed shoulder-to-shoulder with everyone would make it easier to stand, but it turned out that I still needed to reach across and over several people to grab the nearest pole for balance.  Fortunately we weren’t standing in the bendy straw-like joint of the train – every time we went around a turn those passengers had to press themselves against the ribbed form of the shifting wall.IMG_1560

Like many of the recent days here, Sunday was chilly and mostly overcast.  It even sprinkled a bit, off and on.  We decided to introduce ourselves to Frankfurt by way of a Hop-On Hop-Off bus.  We sat on the upper level for a nice view of the Main River, museums, stock exchange district, and opera house.  There wasn’t anything of particular interest to hop off for, plus the rain combined with the cold made walking around uninviting.  Instead we listened to the English audio tour with plug-in headphones and learned a little about Frankfurt’s history.  Most of Frankfurt was destroyed during World War II so the reconstructed city has a very modern urban feel.  In fact, there are many areas of the city currently undergoing construction for the addition of brand new apartment and office buildings.IMG_1562IMG_1563IMG_1569

After the bus tour we did walk around a bit, passing through Frankfurt’s soon-to-be-opened Christmas market.  In true modern city style, Frankfurt’s wooden Christmas booths are mostly topped with a big tacky plastic Santa or candle like some Americans set out in their yards.  We also headed to Atschel for dinner, a restaurant/bar that serves apple wine, a local specialty.  I had tried apple wine once already in Mainz diluted with mineral water because it’s supposed to be an acquired taste.  This time I tried it straight, which was so-so.  It looks and tastes like hard cider but with a sourer flavor.  I also tried Frankfurter Schnitzel, a tasty variation of the traditional meat cutlet served with a green herb sauce.  We sat on benches at a long wooden table along with a number of other apple wine-drinkers from Germany and England.IMG_1578

Finally we headed back to the train station to make our back to Mainz.  Our final, and perhaps most exciting, adventure in Frankfurt involved thwarting a shoplifter just before it was time to board.  There’s not really much to that story, other than that we reported a young man who we saw walk out of a book store with an armload of winter hats.

Wrong Side of the River?

IMG_1534     IMG_1539   Over the Rhein River from Mainz lies the city of Wiesbaden.  While they are next to each other, each city is the capital of its respective state:  Mainz, Rheinland-Pfalz and Wiesbaden, Hessen.  And the residents of each strongly feel that their city is better and that everyone else lives on the wrong side of the river.  Yesterday James and I took a break from studying for our driving tests to further explore Mainz and then introduce ourselves to downtown Wiesbaden.  Actually this also helped us review the street signs we had been learning and was much more interesting than reading the tedious manual (James literally fell asleep one day reading about traffic laws).  Among the signs we saw was the Residential Area sign that indicates streets where pedestrians have priority over vehicles.  It’s much cuter than any street sign I’ve seen in the U.S.:  a stick-person adult and a stick-person kid kicking a ball back and forth next to a house with a car in the background.IMG_1530

We had first taken a pleasant but uneventful walk to Mainz Oberstadt, a mostly residential area a little further out than the shopping and cultural centers of Mainz I had visited before.  There were some nice parks filled with trees and falling yellow leaves.  On the way back we saw an old-fashioned looking train that was used for tour groups driving just ahead of a modern street car.IMG_1531

Next it was over the river to investigate downtown Wiesbaden on a comfortable thirteen minute train ride.  At €5.20 roundtrip, it was about comparable to a weekend-rate trip on DC metro.  My first impression of Wiesbaden was that it is a larger and more populated city than Mainz, with wider but fuller streets.  The tall-towered Marktkirche cathedral loomed over Wiesbaden’s almost-ready Christmas market.  Wiesbaden’s Christmas booths are painted light blue and topped with yellow stars or moons, setting them apart from Mainz’s unpainted wooden barrels and sheds.  Most of the Christmas markets in the area start next week and remain open for about a month.IMG_1535IMG_1537IMG_1554

I thought the highlight of downtown Wiesbaden was the Kochbrunnen, or boiling fountains, in Kranzplatz.  Wiesbaden has long been known for its sodium chloride hot springs which you can see erupting from several sources in this town square.  Because the outside temperature was about 5°C (40°F), billows of steam rose continuously off of the water, which reaches 66°C (almost 151°F).  The water is clear but when the minerals in it reach the air it appears yellow and leaves a red residue on the stone fountains.  From Kranplatz, the spring water is directed to be processed at Kaiser-Friedrich spa and then on to other parts of the city.  It’s used to heat the city hall and other buildings, and is believed to have health benefits for various ailments.  James and I felt and, of course, tasted the water.  As you might expect, it has a salty taste and left a rusty residue on our hands.IMG_1547IMG_1553

Saturday Afternoon in Belgium

IMG_1498Back in the U.S., a 2 ¾ hour drive northwest of home might land me in the area of Deep Creek Lake.  From the hotel in Germany the same length trip found me, James, Steve, and a few other friends in a Belgian abbey this afternoon.  There were no frills about entering a new EU country – just a sign on the Autobahn like the signs used to mark the entry point to a new U.S. state.  When we rode into Belgium we were almost immediately greeted by a thick fog.  It was only in specific areas though, so as we drove out of it the rest of the drive consisted of sunshine, blue skies, and farm country dotted with cows.  Val-Dieu Abbey is located in the town of Aubel, Belgium, near both German and Dutch borders.  The primary language there is French, although most of the signs and products in and around the abbey were written in French, Dutch, and German (but not English).

Large and stately, 17th century Val-Dieu Abbey towered over us and a church bell clanged noon as we arrived.  The abbey brewery reopened about fifteen years ago, retaining the monks’ tradition of brewing delicious Belgian beer.  We had lunch at Le Moulin de Val-Dieu, a restaurant across from the abbey inside of a mill.  Our table was next to some of the mill gears (in motion) closer to the door than the fireplace, which made for a chilly visit.  The cozy setting, tasty French-style food and abbey-brewed beer, of course, made this well worthwhile.  I probably hadn’t had to speak French since the 6th grade, but I got by at lunch with “Bonjour” and “Merci.”IMG_1499IMG_1501IMG_1506

Afterwards we toured the inside of the abbey church with its vaulted ceiling and beautiful stained glass windows.  By the time we took a walk in the garden behind the abbey, the fog had drifted there and gave the appearance of the place a muted and dream-like quality.  Before leaving, I enjoyed a hot chocolate and bought some Belgian waffles to bring back to Mainz.  The waffles taste more like sugar cookies than anything else, but have that fluffy waffle texture.  Looking forward to many more international day trips in the weekends ahead!   IMG_1513 IMG_1512

Around Town / In der Stadt


Unlike other times I’ve traveled abroad, this time I’m living here.  This means adding the challenges of a language barrier, currency exchange, measurement system conversion, and cultural differences to all of those regular mundane tasks involved in moving to a new town.  It’s been very interesting, although fortunately for me, many Germans speak English well and there are many Americans that work here.


The German phone numbers are a bit confusing.  They consist of a long string of numbers of seemingly arbitrary lengths instead of the standard ten digits we have in the U.S.  Getting set up with a new cell phone should have been the easiest task here.  I went to a store that catered to Americans and decided to get the least expensive plan with a discounted new phone.  James, in fact, also left the same day with a new phone and a slightly better plan.  There were a lot of customers in the store at the same time and due to a mistake, the salesman activated my new account but set it up with the wrong plan.  In Germany, the Telekom communication company limits the number of accounts a new customer can open in place of conducting a credit check.  So since my plan was already activated (in error), the company wouldn’t accept what looked like my request for a second plan.  Canceling the error, which rarely happens because salespeople are not supposed to activate the plan before a customer checks and signs everything, takes about ten days.  I’ll be negotiating a better discount on the phone once I’m able to finally pick it up.

Der Waschsalon:


After a week here I located the closest Waschsalon, or laundromat.  Fortunately this also gave me the opportunity to visit the town square near Mainz Cathedral in the Altstadt (old town), where giant wooden barrels were being transported for a future Christmas celebration.  The Waschsalon was empty when I arrived with only a phone to call for assistance and a number of large posters with directions in German.  There were also two letter-sized papers posted with some directions in English.  As in the U.S., I suspect that every Waschsalon has slightly different routines to get used to.  At this one, the way you paid was similar to ordering from a vending machine.  I had to insert Euro coins or bills first and then push a number or letter button for the washer or dryer I wanted.  For 50 Euro cents, I could also buy powdered detergent for each load that was dispensed from a machine into a plastic scoop.  I couldn’t figure out how to use the only large Waschmachine at first because the “on” button was under a STOP sign with a list of things I couldn’t read.  After I put two people’s week’s worth of laundry into four tiny machines, I realized that the list probably had to do with things to avoid putting in the machine.  Lesson learned.

The dryers were actually large enough for all my laundry.  A few middle aged ladies came in as I was reading on a bench around lunch time.  They were there only to use the dryers for wet sheets and towels they had brought from home.  I had heard that European dryers take an extremely long time to dry clothes and that many Europeans don’t have dryers at all.  One of the ladies asked me something after I had moved out of her way.  After my confused look, she asked again in English whether I wanted my seat back.  When she left I wished her a good day – “Haben einen guten Tag.”  IMG_1493

Apartment Search:

Searching for a place to rent has been the most fun aspect of the move so far.  The apartments and houses are significantly smaller in general than American homes, but there are a number of large places too.  James and I are setting appointments to view a few homes next week.  At an information meeting, I learned that German homes receive visits from a chimney sweep even if they don’t have a chimney.  While chimney sweeps still dress traditionally with a black cap and suit, they seem to be more like utility maintenance workers, checking things like heating ducts in addition to chimneys.  It’s considered good luck to touch a chimney sweep’s gold button – a superstition I think I’ll skip.

For the most part, utilities are paid directly to the landlord or the utility company.  Everyone, so I’ve been told, sets up direct deposit for this rather than using checks.  On December 15, a new system will become standard so we’ll have to transition our payments soon after we set them up.


IMG_1486IMG_1487So what is there to do for fun in Mainz, you ask?  First of all, as in many towns, the area surrounding the train station seems to provide a lot of entertainment.  Mainz is home to many college students who all seem to live or travel in through that area.  On my first walk to visit the train station I noticed not one but several hookah stores and bars, casinos (which seem to be prevalent all over Mainz), and a Thai massage parlor.  Of course, there are also many international restaurants and shopping there as well.

In addition to a variety of public parks and town squares, there also several museums here.  This week I visited the Naturhistorisches Museum whose feature exhibit is currently about rats.  The exhibit had a few live rats and mice in elaborate habitats, a coloring station for kids themed on the Pied Piper, and many pictures with all kinds of information on rat behavior, related animals, and so on.  The museum building itself consists of a tall modern glass tower and a connected church building.  It was fascinating to walk through a vaulted church hall lined with taxidermied animals.  The original natural history museum was actually located in another building in town over a hundred years ago, moved several times, destroyed during World War II, and eventually rebuilt in its current location.  The best part of the museum was the animal exhibits on the upper floors.  These held more stuffed animals grouped by habitat with labels, so I used this visit as an opportunity to learn a variety of new animal vocabulary words.  My personal favorite:  der Waschbӓr (literally “washbear,” as it looks) as the word for raccoon.

Veteran’s Day Castle Visit


While eating breakfast each morning I’ve been watching people walking by along the Rhine River to get an idea of the weather.  Mostly people have been wearing just coats, although yesterday many had hats and gloves so I knew to expect a colder day.  This morning a lady walked by wearing a white powdered wig and a Napoleon-esque suit and hat.  A few minutes later a man walked by in a similar colorful old-fashioned outfit, carrying a small horn.  I wasn’t sure what this meant I should wear.  I went with just a coat and scarf, but stuck a hat and gloves in my pockets just in case.


Steve picked me and James up in his new red Mustang and drove us northwest to Cochem Castle (or Reichsburg Cochem, in German).  The ride itself was lovely – about an hour and a half of roads that wound through fall foliage-studded hills into the Moselle valley.  Reichsburg Cochem was well worth the drive.  Situated on top of a small hill so it looked out over the valley, it was everything you would expect a medieval castle to be – stone towers and archways, cannons, coats of arms, etc.  Built in the year 1000, it changed hands several times and was destroyed by the French in the late 1600s.  In the late 1800s, a new owner from Berlin had it rebuilt so that the outside retains a medieval look while the inside reflects 19th century style.IMG_1450

The majority of the tour was in German but we had an English handout to read along the way.  Reading ahead was actually a good way to learn new vocabulary because then I could listen for the German words for useful as well as more interesting things like “well” (Zisterne) and “Witch’s Tower” (Hexenturm).  A few highlights (aside from the spectacular views of the surrounding valley town from every window) included beautiful furniture decorated with inlaid wood and ivory, the mounted head of a 400-pound boar, a suit of armor from an Austrian knight who was seven feet tall, and 5 liter (1 ½ gallon) tankards that once contained the amount of wine monks could drink in a day.


I was glad that the walk back would be downhill, until I realized how steep it was.  Walking slowly and leaning back on the cobblestone path, we noticed many more details on the way back to the car.  For example, even the metal guardrails were decorated with medieval flair.  Each bar had a dragon head on one end and a spade-shaped tail on the other.  At the bottom of the hill, one part of the rail even had a knight fending off two dragons.  I think it will be hard for other castles to compete with Reichsburg Cochem, although I’m looking forward to seeing how they compare.IMG_1481

A Cat’s-Eye View

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd so the adventure begins.  While settling in and gradually recovering from jet lag, I thought I’d start this blog with the first American/German difference I encountered which had to do with the cats.  Traveling internationally with pets was the most stressful part of the journey but I was surprised by the contrast between the treatment of pets between the two countries.  Don’t even get me started on the hassle the American military vet, who I have no intention of ever using now, gave me when I wanted to pre-order prescription food beforehand.  I thought Americans were pretty obsessed with pets, but it turns out that Germany is much pet-friendlier (at least in my experience).

For those of you who don’t know the cats already, I named Oriole (later nicknamed and known exclusively as “The Scootch”) and Raven after the baseball and football teams when I lived in Baltimore.  The Scootch is a very large tiger-striped cat who, like most tiger cats, is friendly and outgoing in a pushy way.  Raven is gray and a little smaller, sweet and cuddly, but extremely shy.  He always hides whenever guests are in the house.  When they go to the vet, they tend to switch personalities with Raven nosing around the office and The Scootch refusing to come out of his carrier or hissing at anyone in the room.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

So our flight preparation began at the United Airlines Cargo Center, a short drive from the main building of Dulles Airport outside of DC.  A handful of staff stood behind the desk and a handful of customers sat or stood around the small office with their dogs, some in carriers already and some on leashes.  Soon after being ignored by everyone working there I asked what I needed to do to check in my cats.  I began filling out paperwork at the desk and was soon called over to a different area of the desk by an older lady with small thick glasses.  She typed on her computer without looking up at me or James or asking any questions, and we continued with the forms.

Finally the woman asked, “So you’re going to London?”

“What?!  No, Frankfurt.”

“I don’t see Frankfurt here,” she said, pointing down at a typed list of passengers and flights.  “You’re John Hammond?  Traveling with two dogs to London?”

Keep in mind that our cats remained in the carriers behind us.  It turns out there was a second page to that list that did include our Frankfurt flight.  The woman continued to type away with a look of bewilderment frozen on her face for a long time.  At one point she held up a photocopy of my passport and driver’s license and asked, “Is this your passport?” looking at James.  “I’ll also need your driver’s license.”

Somehow the final printout that needed to be attached to the cat carriers contained all of the correct information at the end.  Well, except that James’s last name had z’s for c’s and a few too many vowels.  Fast forward through check-in, checking bags, racing through security, and an almost eight-hour flight.

Picking up the cats on the other end started out looking like a similar story.  We asked a few different airport staff members after exiting the airplane where we should go to pick up our cats.  They all asked where we were going (I guess because Frankfurt is a major airport for connections?).  The final correct answer was that they were in a separate cargo center again.  Fortunately, when James’s friend Steve picked us up, he had arranged a van with a driver who knew the whole cargo pet-pick-up deal.

The Lufthansa Cargo Center was a totally different experience from the United Airlines one.  Very clearly organized.  In fact, a few days later I came across an article in The Wall Street Journal that commented on its excellent service for pets.  The first staff member we encountered let us know at the beginning that the cats were waiting in the “Animal Lounge” with food and water, so we wouldn’t need to worry about rushing.  Which turned out to be a good thing because we had to go to a series of different offices, returning to the main office after each stage was completed:  Go down the hall and then come back with your receipt.  Take these swipe cards to the building 200 meters away and bring your paperwork back here after it’s stamped.  Now go downstairs and come back here when you’re finished.  And so on.

After the last step, we just needed to wait in the parking lot outside to have the cats brought out to us.  This took quite a while.  Finally, a lady from the downstairs office came outside alone and said, “We have both of your pets.  But there is a problem.”  She paused slightly and my imagination ran wild.  They would have had to tell me at the beginning if one of the cats hadn’t made it or something, right?

It turns out that the problem was that they couldn’t get one of the cats to go back into the carrier.  They wondered if James or I thought we could get the cat to come out without stressing it further.  I assumed it was The Scootch and asked James to see if he could get him.  The last time we had gone to the vet The Scootch had even swatted at me when I was near him and I was in no mood to be attacked.  He agreed, then said, “Wait, which one is it?”  When they answered that it was the gray one, I changed my mind.  That would be easy.  I had to dress in a paper lab coat and booties over my shoes to enter the quiet animal shelter-style lounge.  Sure enough, Raven was crouched in a corner and let me pick him up right away and put him back in the carrier so we could leave.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Hilton Hotel in Mainz, where we’re staying until we find a place to rent, has proved to be pet-friendly so far too.  We have a door hanger that says “Hautiere sind Wilkommen/Pets are Welcome” and have worked out a schedule with housekeeping upon their request so that the pets will be safely tucked away or supervised during their short daily visits.  James had asked if we could close them in our walk-in closet during that time instead of back in their carriers.  Apparently there is not really a word for “closet” and this area is known as the “cupboard” here.  On the first morning when we came back from breakfast to let the cats out, Raven raced out and we found The Scootch nestled in between the bags of food on a shelf just above our heads.  The second day, they broke out while we were away and we had to call housekeeping to reschedule.  They seem to be enjoying the city view from the wide windowsills, particularly of the pigeons that land outside our 4th floor room.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA