Wednesday, November 26, 2008

France, Day 5—Wine Tasting Through the Snow

We found the old man in his shed by following signs from the main road, signs that got progressively smaller and less distinct the closer we got. The man spoke no English and possibly not much French—most of our communication was through German and hand signals. His signs said he produced something called “Rouge de Ottrot,” Ottrot being the name of the nearest town. We managed to hand-wave our way to a tasting, and found it to be a light, fruity red. Six euros later and we had our own bottle, along with the only piece of information I managed to understand out of the conversation, which was that it was to be drunk at 16 degrees C.

Going wine tasting in Alsace was Cameron’s idea; despite having grown up in California, it’s not something I’ve done much of. But we both like wine, and this was a wine-producing region, and the tourist office had a map of a wine route, so it seemed like a winning idea. The key, of course, was getting an early start, and for at least one of us that was not a problem-- jetlag having picked this day to strike Cameron with a vengeance, leaving him wide awake to wander the streets of Strasbourg at about five am. He ended up on a mission to try every pastry in the city, and he also located some car rental companies. They weren't open yet, but it was a start.

By the time I got up, at a slightly more respectable sevenish (because, no matter how jetlagged I am, I have a basic moral objection to getting up before dawn while I'm on vacation*) and we made it out the door, a few snowflakes were floating down, causing me to react with the kind of childish wonder only seen in Californians in rare encounters with actual weather. And, I guess, children. I believe this remained amusing for a while, but I tried to dial it back before it crossed the cute/annoying boundary. By this time, the rental agencies were actually open, and after a couple of tries we found one that was willing to rent us something with an automatic transmission, in exchange for a large amount of money. Europe seems to be a lot cheaper if you can drive a stick shift. And so, armed with an array of maps, we set out into the thickening snowfall, which was quickly transitioning from charmingly fluffy to just thick and wet and cold.

Between the Canadian and the Californian, there wasn't much question of who was going to be doing the driving in the snow (gender roles aside), so I was navigator. Which was somewhat complicated by the fact that the "wine route tour map" we had picked up at the tourist office was kind of non-specific about what actual roads you were expected to take, so we had supplemented it was a full-sized fold-out map of the region, plus another detailed one of the city. Basically, what I'm saying is, it's really quite understandable that I happened to initially put us on the freeway going the wrong direction. But we figured it out within an exit, and it only took a little figuring to get back on in the right direction.

The trip really wasn't about freeways, anyway; we only were on that one for long enough to get us away from the city. Then it was off onto smaller local roads, going through a series of little towns with mounting adorableness. Honestly, there's something about France that seems a little unfair. Does any one nation really deserve to have that much of the world's supply of charming? And they just live in them like they're normal places. At one point we got slightly off track because one of the signs (there were signs for the wine route, though they were infrequent and rarely appeared at critical intersections) seemed to be directing us through a narrow, apparently medieval stone arch.

"We can't possibly be expected to drive through there," we thought, until we had driven a little way in the other available direction and it became clear that this was not the way to go. So back we went, and followed the rest of the traffic through it and into yet another perfect little country town, about the fifth in a series.

Interestingly, almost all of them seemed to have Chinese restaurants.

It took us a while before we actually found anywhere to taste some wine. At first we weren't finding any places at all, and the ones we did find were closed. It was very much the off-season, which can't have helped, and signage wasn't exactly a feature. So I'll admit that I was getting a little nervous about this enterprise as we approached the town of Ottrot.

To call the guy's operation "small" would be to stretch the limits of understatement. He had a shed. And about eighty-five percent of the shed was taken up with wine making equipment and what I believe was "stuff." There was a small counter in the front, where he poured our tastings into square, green-stemmed glasses, and we all did a lot of smiling and nodding.

Honestly, that experience alone would have made the whole day worth it but we weren't anywhere near done. We were just getting started.

*Or, really, ever.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Going Dark, Going Home

About to leave for a very long day of traveling, so no blogging for a while. I'll try to do some writing catch-up en route so I can post when I get home. (Sigh. Do not want to leave!)

By the way, if anyone is going to need some free wifi access in France in the next thirty days, let me know and I can hook you up.

Day 4, Germany to a Part of France That Used to Be Part of Germany

In order to maximize our time in Strasbourg, we got tickets on one of the earliest trains out of Stuttgart. This seemed like an excellent idea when we were making the arrangements, slightly less so when we had to get up in time to return the rental car before making our train.

I wish I could say the trip took us through spectacular countryside, dotted with charming villages where little children came out to wave to the train as we passed. But if I did, I would be lying, because we were traveling through modern southwestern Germany, which lends itself more to subdivisions and industrial parks. So I went back to reading my book, which turned out to be less about racing around the world than about using writing credentials to get a major publisher to pay for a really awesome vacation. I really need to get some credentials.

We arrived in Strasbourg and were immediately charmed. In retrospect, it probably wasn’t fair to Germany; like traveling from Houston to Montreal and judging the countries accordingly. But what can I say, I’m a sucker for France.

We dropped our bags off at the hotel, where the approach to security was of the, “Ya, just stick your things in that room over there. It has a door,” variety. But it was much to early for us to check in, and we had things to see.

I should note that Strasbourg is almost inconceivably cute. Half timbered buildings are hanging over tiny cobblestone streets practically everywhere you turn, with cozy-looking bakeries, charcuteries and weinstubs on every adorable corner. And it has both the French charm and German friendliness, which happens to be a very nice combination. It also has a truly spectacular cathedral.

I would try to describe the Strasbourg cathedral to you, but my knowledge and vocabulary would shortly fail me. So I’m just going to cop out and send you to my friend Marilyn’s blog, as she was there last summer and happens to be an art historian. I encourage you to go and read what she has to say, and imagine me thinking that.

We stopped for lunch at a restaurant specializing in Alsatian dishes, where I realized that it is not only possible, but very easy to eat yourself sick in France, and Cameron was sitting in a place where he could spend the entire meal staring at a huge ham covered with puff pastry. No points for guessing what he had for lunch.

The rest of the day was more of the same; wandering around staring at buildings, then back to check in and rest up, then out into the freezing rain for another huge meal (dinner). By the end of the day, we had decided it was silly to go back to Stuttgart any sooner than we absolutely had to, and were determined to change our return tickets from Sunday night to Monday morning.

Ludwigsburg, Part 3

The second castle in Ludwigsburg, Shloss Favorite, was built as a vacation home for the main castle. It’s about fifty yards away, across a main street. I guess in Germany, vacation must be more of a state of mind. It was set in a large parkland, which seemed to be somewhere locals liked to go to jog, though it looked to me more like somewhere you would be eaten by wolves.

The vacation castle, though attractively detailed and colorfully painted, was smallish, and when I peered in appeared to be set up as some sort of sad nightclub. So I did one short circuit around it and set off to look for somewhere to eat lunch.

The place I found was in the city Rathouse, which fortunately appeared to be entirely devoid of rats. Instead, it had a nice café, where the food was generously portioned and the menu was entirely in German. Of the two items I ordered (soup, sandwich), I probably could have gotten by with one. Though, by the time I had been there an hour and a half and was running late to meet Cameron, what I really needed was a bill. They aren’t big on bringing you your bill in Germany, but this place had it down to an art form. At the time when I was looking around hopefully, long since finished eating, putting on my coat and looking around some more, my waiter was engaged in cheerful conversation with the rest of the waitstaff, his back to me, on the other side of a pillar. After a few minutes, when it became clear that none of the other waiters were going to notify him to my position, and it became clear that I was going to be late getting back, I had to actually get up and go over to get him. In that case, contrary to my American inclinations, I did not leave a tip.

The conference ended in the mid-afternoon, so we had a little time afterwards to do some touristing by car. Guidebook in hand, I suggested the Mecedes-Benz museum, seeing as Stuttgart seems to be the center and origin of the German auto industry, and neglecting the fact that neither of us are car people.

Take away lesson: Two tired people, touring a museum on a subject in which they have not much more than a passing interest, will soon start skipping through the exhibits.

We made it back to the hotel through rush hour traffic without too much trouble, but once there succumbed to the insidious appeal of napping, waking up only in time to stagger downstairs and get some completely non-authentic food from the hotel bar. But that’s fine because this is only the start of the trip. Tomorrow, tomorrow is France.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

A Brief Interlude on the Subject of Airports

In order to make our transfer from the flying portion to the train portion of our flight to Stuttgart, we had to find the train terminal in the Frankfurt airport, check in and claim our bags there. That the check-in process was unnecessarily complicated and line-intensive I have already covered. Not complicated, however, were the customs procedures when we got our bags, which consisted entirely of the baggage handler guy pointing us towards two signs that said “nothing to declare” in several languages, and indicated that we should walk between them. There were also signs that said “goods to declare,” but they were blocked off and unmanned. Apparently, it was Nothing to Declare Day in Germany. In short, if you are planning to smuggle something into the EU, I highly recommend the Frankfurt airport.

Also, while you’re there, you should really get some sausages from the stand just down the hall. They’re delicious.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Ludwigsburg, Part 2

Having, in my own way, taken the pulse of the city, I retired to a café, where I had a really disappointingly bad pretzel, like white bread in a pretzel shape, along with some not-at-all disappointing hot chocolate. It wasn’t that I needed the snack so much, but getting it bought me a table in the café for as long as I wanted it, and I was looking for a place to sit and read, so it seemed like a reasonable deal. The book I was reading, The Ridiculous Race, chronicles the attempt by two TV writers to race each other around the world without using airplanes. The irony of reading a book about traveling while traveling, and doing it instead of any actual travel-related activities is duly noted.

Not long after I sat down, I was joined on the bench next to me by what I believe was an old lady, but may have been a man in an old lady costume, based on the voice and bad wig. She (possibly he) ordered some tea and proceeded to read the paper semi-aloud, in a whispery voice, to herself. The waitress, with whom I communicated primarily with hand signals, said “Have a nice day” when I left.

Interesting fact: Cafes in Germany that have outdoor seating do not eliminate the option in November. But they do set out fleece blankets on the chairs.

At noon, Cameron and I met up again, determined that he had more people to talk to and a free lunch to eat, and I was once again set loose on the city. This time, however, I had found a map, and determined that there were not one, but two castles just a few blocks away, including one that I believe I saw described somewhere as “the largest German baroque palace in the country.” This, of course, I had to see.

It was indeed large. If I was going to direct someone to the Residentialshloss in Ludwigsburg, Germany, large is definitely one of the words I would choose. I might also say baroque, but between you and me, I’m not entirely sure what that refers to. If it has to do with the presence of lots of kind of Greek/Roman-looking statues in the vicinity, then yes, definitely Baroque.

I started by wandering around the formal gardens in front of the castle, which you could access by walking through the open gate, just like the locals who seemed to use it as a kind of crosstown shortcut. I don’t think you can expect much from gardens in Germany in November, but I was pleasantly surprised by the roses. It must take a fairly hearty variety to bloom under these conditions, but there they were, blooming away, with top marks going to something called the “Elmshorn.” I recommend it for all your Northern European, late fall, rose-growing needs.

I had expected that was all I was going to get to see of the castle, but as I was making my way along past it I found there was another entrance, also free, that allowed me to go in and explore the huge central courtyard and peer in through the windows at the locked-up palace around it. Also, there was a gift shop, where I was able to purchase that travel essential, the cheesy tourist tchotcka to put on the shelf over my desk. (An mini ceramic beer stein, with the Ludwigsburg castle illustrated on the front and Frankfurt, Munich and Berlin given somewhat shorter shrift on the side.) As I left the castle through the other side, I happened across a small aviary, displaying various Birds of Asia, plus a couple of mourning doves. I hope they had somewhere warm to hide.

Whew! Lots still to cover, and I’m not even to lunch yet. Looks like this is going to be a three-parter, folks.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Germany, Day 3: Ludwigsburg, Part 1

I had grand plans for the places I was going to go and the things I was going to do while in Stuttgart. I had heard of a spa town somewhere nearby, off to the west in the Black Forest, and there was another medieval town highly recommended by the guidebook away to the northeast. In the end, though, tired out by my solo adventures of yesterday, I elected to take the easy way and go with Cameron to Ludwigsburg, the town where his conference was being held.

Cameron was presenting this morning, so we had to get an early start. I understand it’s bad form to show up late to your own presentation. Yesterday he had some trouble finding the place, to the tune of two hours of driving around Ludwigsburg, braving the public payphone system and eventually getting directions from a friendly English-speaking Enterprise employee (all due to some very bad directions from the conference venue). But I was able to benefit from that experience, because we made it there with no trouble at all, and some time to spare for breakfast.

After breakfast, Cameron headed back to the conference, and I took off to explore Ludwigsburg. It didn’t exactly make my guidebook, so I was going in blind, but I managed to amuse myself pretty well. There was a nice little downtown right near the conference venue, with lots of shops, some old buildings with attractive brickwork and even a mall, where I picked up a compilation CD of European bands and a scarf at H&M, having left mine behind in the hotel and regretted it. (I’ve suspended the buying freeze for the duration of the trip, for obvious reasons.)

(Have to leave for Strasbourg now, will resume later, assuming I can find internet.)

Tubingen, Part 2

On the plus side, I did manage to find most of what I was looking for, mainly because if you are wandering randomly over a very small area for long enough, eventually you find everything.

The first thing I found was the marktplatz (translation somewhat unnecessary, as seems to happen sometimes with German). And, in keeping with its name, the weekly farmer’s market was being held there when I arrived. It was all very pleasant and rustic, though I suspect some of the farmers may have been selling foods that they did not personally grow, seeing as they were pineapples (the foods, not the farmers). I wandered around a bit, took it all in, then consulted my map and set off in the first of many absolute wrong directions, and the only one that involved climbing a very long set of wet stone stairs.

For lunch, I went to one of the few places my guidebook was helpful about. (My guidebook, as I have mentioned, is generally uninterested in the greater Stuttgart area.) It was a fine and cozy little restaurant of Swabian specialties, with one elderly waitress who spoke no English and clearly wasn’t starting now. (Myth to debunk: that all Germans speak perfect English. They don’t. Many of them speak only German.) I ordered via the time-honored method of pointing to the only item on the menu with a word in it I understood (“sauerkraut”) and received, to my relief, a tasty lunch of entirely identifiable food items.

After lunch I wandered some more, this time with stricter attention paid to my map. I still got lost, but only because there are so many churches.

I finished my day at the castle that dominates the hill over the old city, where I wasted some money on entrance to an archeological museum where I could not read any of the informative notes on the items. For all I knew, I could have been looking at someone’s collection of cereal-box prizes from 1947-1983. Assuming German cereal companies went in for fake Roman artifacts, including entire amphoras.

So it was four euros down and not in the best mood that I got lost on the way back to the train station, hurrying now because I had to walk from the stop in Sindelfingen back to the hotel, and I didn’t want to do it in the dark. I did, of course; I got the world’s slowest local train to go the thirty miles from Tubingen to Stuttgart, and before I even got on the subway it was pitch black. Fortunately, the route to the hotel was direct and well-sidewalked, and there was an accident along the way that stopped traffic so bad that I was actually going faster than the cars. I realize that sounds like a heartless thing to be pleased about, but at the time it was very satisfying.

As I have mentioned, when I got back I was very tired, so instead of blogging I took a nap. Then Cameron came back from the conference and we went and I had dinner in the hotel bar, because he had already eaten and I was too tired and footsore to be able to be excited about going out and experiencing local culture. I did have some local beer with my club sandwich, though.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Germany, Day 2: Tubingen-- Part 1

For the first two days of our trip, Cameron’s time is taken by the conference, so I’m on my own for exploring. Today I went to Tubingen (two dots over the u), a small and ancient college town on the banks of the River Nektar. I traveled there by train, first on the local line from Sindelfingen, and then on a long-distance express from Stuttgart. This gave me ample opportunity to examine the German countryside, which I took, because not looking out the window made me feel a little carsick.
It wasn’t exactly inspiring scenery; not so much ugly as plain, in the way of a prosperous place that didn’t get where it was worrying about its looks. Some things, like the river that ran parallel for a while to the tracks, or the vineyards marching up the hillsides, might have had significantly more charm under blue skies but, though it never rained on me, the skies remained cloudy and gray the entire day.
(Detail of interest primarily to Mom: They seem to have no problem with putting their sewage treatment plants right on their rivers here.)
(Detail of interest to a broader range of readers: People shouting into cellphones in otherwise quiet environments seem to be a universal phenomenon.)

The old town part of Tubingen is tiny, probably no more than a quarter mile square, but upon entering it I found myself instantly lost, even more than usual. It has exactly the sort of tightly packed, half-timbered medieval buildings one sort of expects of Germany, all towering over narrow, hilly, orientation destroying cobblestone streets.

Not Dead, Just Resting

Only two days in, and already falling behind on updates? We have a new record! Seriously, I would but I'm tired. Soon, I swear.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Germany, Day 1: SFO to Sindelfingen

Have arrived in Stuttgart, or, to be more precise, Sindelfingen, where the Marriot is, after a shockingly long day. We began at SFO, where we had arrived with plenty of time to spare, more than enough to get through security, find our gate, find a store that sold European plug adapters, call both our dads to determine that the computers could operate with only the plug adapters, and we did not need to find voltage adapters (my dad won that one), buy books, magazines and hand wipes and have lunch at the Japanese restaurant. So we went for margaritas at the Mexican place, on the theory that, when traveling by air, it helps to have a relaxed attitude.

The first real disappointment of the trip came when we boarded the plane, and discovered that our “Luftansa” flight was actually on United, which struck me as a significant failure in disclosure. So instead of the fancy euro-accoutrements I was hoping for, we got the same old crummy seats, lousy food and sullen service familiar to any American air traveler. Sigh. Not helping matters was the fact that I was seated right next to the kitchen, where the stewardesses kept the lights on and the chatting going all through the overnight flight, or that I had carefully packed my eye mask in my suitcase. Which I checked. So the sleeping thing was kind of a non-starter.

Which was too bad, because the flight was only step one of our four-step travel schedule. Step two was to take the train from the Frankfurt airport to the Stuttgart train station (a step that was actually included on the ticket from Luftansa), which involved going through a fairly complicated and arduous check-in process, in order to get a boarding pass that no one ever looked at (the German approach to lines seems to have less to do with who got there first, and more with who can shove their way to the front) (also, based on today’s experiences, I would have to say that the rumors of German efficiency seem to have been somewhat exaggerated) (but we did have some tasty sausages from a booth in the train station).

The train trip was about an hour and a half through a countryside that mixed the residential, industrial and agricultural with wild abandon. Most of the houses looked like ordinary mid-century subdivisions, though there were a few stretches of tiny, almost shanty-looking places crammed along the edges of fields and up against the railroad fences that I’m still not entirely sure were homes.

One might think that, having arrived in Stuttgart, our presumptive destination, we would be all set. But no: the rental car was at the Stuttgart airport, another half an hour away by the subway system (for which, once again, we waited in line to purchase tickets, and once again no one ever looked at them). We made our way to the rental car counter and picked up the keys for the car, for which the instructions for finding went something like this: “Go to the end here and turn right. Then go across here and take the first moving walkway. Then take the second moving walkway and get off and turn left. Then go down in the elevator to the first floor and find Athen street in the parking lot. Then go over here, or you can cut through these spots, and you will find your car. There is a phone here if you get lost or you have a problem with the car. Any Kvestions?”

Shockingly, we did manage to locate the car eventually, without even having to send up a flare. Then it was on to the autobahn, where you can famously drive as fast as you want to, assuming “as fast as you want to” is the same as “the speed traveled by all the giant trucks around you (about ten miles an hour).”

Finally, we made it to Sindelfingen, where the Marriot is conveniently located next to the Cheverolet/Opel service center, just down the street from nothing in particular, and where we then proceeded to take a four-hour nap, and eat dinner in the hotel restaurant. It’s been a day.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Pre-Trip Freak-Out

I'm leaving for Germany in about five hours, so of course I am panicking, just a little bit. You know, worrying about what I haven't done and/or packed, what I still have to do/pack and all ways I could manage not to catch my cab. Plus general free-floating anxiety. Everything is fine, of course, but that never stopped me.
Not helping matters is the fact that when I was driving home last night, in my newly-reacquired car, the engine light came on and stubbornly refused to turn itself back off. (I checked the engine. It's still there.)
Barring disaster (anticipated or otherwise), I plan to blog and twitter extensively for this trip, so watch this space. (And that one.)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Dress I Don't Need

This dress is the reason I needed to go on a buying freeze:

Not the specific reason, of course; that would be the car and the move and the shrinking savings. But this, well, it's beautiful and elegant and different and I want it and I have absolutely no reason to need it. I do not have the kind of life that requires dresses like this, and I can't even pretend that I'm ever likely to. I'm not even saying I would have bought it if I wasn't on the freeze, it's a little out of my price range even on a good day, and I've never actually tried it on, but it's the sort of thing I would make excuses to myself just to own. And, since I am good at those kinds of excuses, I already have perhaps a few more dresses than someone with a jeans-and-t-shirt life truly needs. Which is why, as tough as it has been, this freeze is a good thing for me.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Switzerland, Finally Sick of Neutrality, Declares War on Rational Thought

First up: laws regarding the protection of the dignity of plants. (I encourage you to click through the related reading, if only to encounter the subtitle "Moral Consideration of Plants for their Own Sake")

Next: Does Walking Make Dirt Cry?: The Bipedal Transportation Acts of 2009.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

What's an "Olan Mills," Anyway?

I have no idea what this is about; I just know it's funny.

(Stolen, of course, from Dave Barry's blog.)

(Speaking of which, you should totally go and read this article he wrote about the election and its aftermath. I think it's terrific, and I don't even like gin.)

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Cross-Cultural Understanding and the Suburban Apartment Complex

My new apartment is in a large, multi-unit complex in San Mateo, about a block and a half from my old one. (I may have already mentioned this, but I'm too lazy to go back and check.) Among its many amenities, though not perhaps chief among them) is a monthly newsletter that goes out to all the residents. It seems to be composed of whatever the newsletter version of clip art is, plus the occasional reminder of office hours and what not to do with your trash. This month, one of the helpful sidebar items was this language lesson:

English: Leave me alone.
Spanish: Dejame en paz. (DEH-hah-meh ehn PAHS)

What I want to know is, exactly how helpful do they intend this to be?