Thursday, January 31, 2008

15 September: BBQ on the Birkenkopf

John’s friend Sarkis invited us to his annual barbeque on the Birkenkopf this evening, so we took Cody for an early walk and then headed through the woods (moving at a slow pace for my benefit) and up the long, spiral trail to the top of the hill, the highest point around Stuttgart. Sarkis is a designer and a vegetarian so he sent out a really funny invitation featuring skewered animals (including a cat and a tropical fish) over a roaring fire. (The invitation to the “Grill Fest” goes on to list the items Sarkis and his girlfriend will be offering: sparkling wine and juice, veggie burgers, bread, a good mood, and fire. Invitees are requested to bring meat, perhaps salad, a “good or better” mood, still more fire, and anything else we might wish for.)

It turned out to be an absolutely gorgeous evening for a barbeque. A little on the chilly side, but sunny and clear. The view out over Stuttgart was simply stunning. We could even see a blimp flying above Gottlieb-Daimler stadium. I didn’t know anyone else there so I felt a little out of my element, but John didn’t know most of them either because the majority were non-Mercedes people (many of them were “refugees” from Smart who had gone on to other jobs when Mercedes closed the Smart design studio). But we had a good time and enjoyed the food – burgers, sausages, salad, cake, and cookies, all washed down with plenty of Sekt. (Sarkis and his friends had hauled a half-case of Sekt, two grills and a load of food all the way up the hill on a little rolling luggage cart!) We were treated to a spectactular sunset and then John and I headed home, since we wanted to get back before dark.

14 September: Did I Mention the Weather?

The sun came out yesterday. I was beginning to worry that we would have no nice end-of-summer weather at all. There is a crispness in the air that heralds the arrival of autumn, even though summer should technically last until the end of September. I don’t really miss not having hot weather this year, but I do want to have a nice fall. It’s my favorite time of year. I love the flowers of springtime, but there is something beautiful and sad about fall, when you know winter is just around the corner. I love the colors and the cool air and the way the light shines through the leaves in the woods. I can’t wait for the colors to start changing so I can go for my afternoon runs in a shower of golden leaves.

I’m still in major pain today. Going for walks with Cody is terrible but it is good for me to stretch out a bit. I feel crippled. I hope I can hobble all the way to the Birkenkopf tomorrow – one of John’s friends from work is having a barbeque up there. I’m curious to see how that works; it never occurred to me that people might just bring their own grills and have a BBQ on top of the rubble heap.

13 September: I Have a Muscle Hangover

It hurts. It really, really hurts. I can barely bend down to tie my shoes, it’s that bad. I mean, I knew it would be painful, but this is simply excruciating.

Evelyne taught me a great new word today. Muskelkater. In English the proper translation is “muscle strain,” but in German, Kater also means “hangover,” so from now on when I'm sore I’m going to say, “I have a muscle hangover.”

Since I can’t move, I’m reading a lot. I have really expanded my reading horizons in the past few months. I am reading my third book by an Australian author. I don’t think I'd ever read anything by an Australian before. I’ve read Almost French by Sarah Turnbull, Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay (which was made into a popular movie in 1975), and now I’ve just started Shiver, which is about a journalist who goes on an expedition to Antarctica. I also borrowed this book called Living Next-Door to the God of Love from Beth, which is the weirdest sci-fi I’ve ever read.

I had plenty of time to read today because John went to the Frankfurt auto show with several colleagues from work. He got to see Angela Merkel (the German chancellor, for those of you out of the loop of international politics) and tried to take some pictures, but they turned out pretty blurry because she was moving around a lot. Anyway, here’s proof that he saw her.

12 September: I Did It!!!

Is it possible to feel completely exhilarated and be in excrutiating pain at the same time? Apparently, yes. I actually did it; I took a jazz class for the first time in…let’s see…about 10 years! I showed up early and told the girl at the front desk that I wanted to register for classes. She asked if I wanted to take a trial class and I said nope, I want to go ahead and sign up for the whole shebang. So I had to fill out a form that would deduct the fee (15 Euro per class or 60 Euro a month) directly from my bank account.

This class was a slightly younger crowd than yesterday’s. Marilena yelled at us quite a bit and I felt pretty self-conscious. After class I went up to her and asked her rather sheepishly if I would be okay. She explained that most of the other students are in a professional training program so she has to be tough on them, but she thought I would do fine. It was really, really hard but a heck of a lot of fun. I discovered that my body doesn’t work quite the same way it did 10 or 15 years ago. I have certainly lost a few brain cells because I kept mixing up right and left, doing things the way we used to do them at Zohar (which of course was different from what Marilena was showing us) and couldn’t even begin to memorize the steps in the combination. But a lot of the old moves started coming back to me almost instantaneously, so even though it’s going to be an uphill climb, there’s hope for me!

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

11 September: My Final Big Step

I can’t deny that I’ve kept myself pretty busy these past two years. Maybe I didn’t do as much writing or mountain biking or knitting as I’d hoped, but I’ve certainly had a lot of fun in other arenas. Nevertheless, something’s been nagging at me. Dance has always been a very important part of my life – I started ballet at the age of 8 and took jazz dance through high school and college. The last time I took a formal class was in grad school nearly ten years ago, but my attempts to find a decent dance school for adults in my corner of southeast Michigan have proven pretty futile. Stuttgart is known for its cultural scene, including nationally and internationally recognized opera and ballet companies, so it made sense to take advantage of these resources and seek out a dance school. One of my German teachers recommended the New York City Dance School to me last year, and I even went so far as to download their class schedule, but I just never got around to pursuing it. I suppose the idea of dropping in on professional dance school and signing up for classes, in a foreign language no less, was pretty daunting. But I finally decided that I had been granted these last three months in Germany as a gift, and if I didn’t give a dance class a shot, I would probably regret it for the rest of my life.

Last week I looked up the New York City Dance School’s website again and noted that they were closed for the summer holidays, but would be re-opening with a new fall schedule this week. I also saw an announcement for an open house at the school this weekend, where you can check out all of their classes for half-hour sessions. I was going to wait until this weekend for the open house, but since the new classes were starting this very week, I figured I should go ahead and sit in on a full class. There are two jazz classes being offered on Tuesday evenings at 7:15. One is called GK/I and is more basic, the other is Level I, for “amateurs with experience.”

There’s no time like the present, as they say, so this evening I hopped in John’s car (to make use of the navi) and headed to Feuerbach. I spent some time working out what I wanted to say beforehand. John said they probably would speak English but I really wanted to do it in German. It turns out to be really easy to get to the school – I simply drove along the ridge road that separates Botnang from Stuttgart for several kilometers before dropping into Feuerbach. I just had to make two lefthand turns and I was there. The school’s website indicated that they had parking but I didn’t see any signs for it. I pulled into the lot for a rug store behind the school and asked a woman who looked like she might be a dance student if she knew where to park. She said to park “im Haus”, gesturing vaguely across the street, but warned that I would have to make a big circle to get there. I drove around the block and came back to the school; the only Parkhaus I could see was indeed across the street, under a business hotel. It looked like it was open to non-guests so I went in, noticing that the garage charged an unlimited all-day fee of 5 Euro. Hmmm…5 Euro parking per class…this is not going to be cheap. There’s a U-Bahn station across the street but the U-Bahn would take at least twice as long and cost me 4,60 Euro roundtrip, so it still made more sense to drive.

The front door of the rather dilapidated post-war concrete-and-glass building housing the New York City Dance School is prominently marked with a six-foot-tall bright pink replica of the Statue of Liberty on the roof. The school was founded in 1975, the year I was born, and offers a complete suite of classes including ballet, tap, jazz, modern, hip-hop, and Latin. I haven’t got the slightest idea where the New York theme came from, except that New York is considered very cool by Germans and obviously has a big dance scene. I climbed the stairs to the reception area on the second floor. A severe-looking bleached-blonde woman, who I recognized as the school’s founder from her picture on the website, was talking to someone at the front desk. I wish I had gotten the chance to talk to her, but I had to approach the equally bleached-blonde teeny-bopper who was serving as the receptionist instead. I told her I wanted to enroll in a jazz class but didn’t know what level would be right for me. I mentioned that I had five years of ballet and five or six years of jazz experience, but that I hadn’t taken a dance class in ten years. The girl suggested that I check out Level I and then go to the GK/I class if Level I seemed too advanced. She directed me down the hall to studio 5 at the back of the school to watch the Level I class, which was starting in about five minutes.

I felt like I was on a movie set. This was nothing like the small dance schools I had attended in California. Zohar, where I took jazz, had two studios and maybe two or three classes every night. The NYC Dance School has five studios and a crammed schedule of classes running from early afternoon to late evening, five days a week. The corridors were packed with girls and women ranging in age from about 5 to 50, all talking and laughing and stretching and generally looking like they were completely at home. The place even has its own café. I walked into the studio and squeezed myself into the corner near the front of the room. I had read that the teacher, Marilena, had studied dance at the University of California, so I knew she must speak English. She greeted some of the students like old friends and sought out the new students to say hello. Marilena looks like she could be about forty, of some exotic descent, although she’s obviously fluent in German. She’s shorter than me, with thick wavy hair and is a bit on the stocky side – which just goes to show that jazz dance takes all kinds. That’s one of the things I like about it.

There were fifteen or twenty people in the class, all women, ranging in age from about 15 to 50. One girl who stood in the front of the room was very thin and wearing lots of eye makeup, which she kept checking out in the mirror. I know the type – they think they’re hot stuff, but I could tell that she hadn’t had a lot of ballet training because her movements were all gangly. When the class began, I knew I had made a wise decision in coming today, because Marilena was teaching them an all-new warm-up to start out the fall season. This was something I had been very nervous about, because it’s very difficult to learn a new warm-up when everyone else in the class has it memorized. I generally liked her music choices – funky, good beats, and, thank goodness, no hip-hop! I hate hip-hop music, and I hate dancing to it even more. Marilena’s style is classic jazz leaning towards modern with lots of long, smooth movements. As I watched, I realized that the warm-up was much more complicated and faster-moving than anything I’d done before. It would be tough. I also realized that I would be seriously sore after my first class. I’m confident that my body can do most of the moves, but I haven’t done any of this in years and I will have to take it slow. I didn’t have any trouble following what Marilena was saying – she spoke about 75% German and 25% English. Since dancers often travel to other countries in search of work, I’m sure they consider speaking English to be part of their repertoire. I even got some of Marilena’s jokes.

I especially liked Marilena’s floor warm-up, which was slower-paced with plenty of good stretches. Some of the women in the class were pretty flexible but plenty of them couldn’t do the splits. No problem there – in a few weeks I should have my flexibility back. When it came time to go across the floor, everyone went to the sides of the room to put on their shoes. I was glad to see that a few people had old-school suede-soled jazz shoes like mine, but most of them had these really clunky-looking shoes with split rubber soles. I didn’t like the looks of them because I like to be able to really point my toes. Marilena started them out with a couple of series across the floor that were all very familiar – yes, I can do this! She scolded when some of the students struggled to do a double pirouette – that’s OK, I can do a double pirouette in my sleep! “This is Jazz I,” she said in English, “Not beginner. You have to be able to do a double pirouette in Jazz I.” I figured I would fall in the middle somewhere in terms of skill level. Marilena yelled at people a couple of times for not showing enough energy or looking at the ground – a sort of tough love approach, which I can respect. Her combination at the end of class was pretty scary – an odd six-beat rhythm and very fast, but I liked the moves. I never felt the need to go watch the GK/I class, and even though I know this class is going to be a serious challenge, I think I’m up for it.

When the class ended at 8:45, I went over and introduced myself. I started in German but said I was American and Marilena immediately told me to speak English. It turns out she studied at UCLA so I told her I went to UC San Diego. She asked me what I was doing here and I explained my situation. I told her about my dance background and that I would only be here another three months, but that I really wanted to start dancing again. She said it was a good time to start, but warned me that the class would get tougher over the coming weeks. I said that was okay, that I was looking for a challenge. Best of all, Marilena teaches the same class on Wednesdays from 5:30-7:00, which is a better time since it won’t conflict with the IWC dinners. I told her I would be there tomorrow!

10 September: A Lovely Monday Morning

After doing my Kehrwoche sweeping this morning, I sat on our balcony with a mug of tea, enjoying the sunshine and the crisp fall air. It is rarely the “right” temperature to sit outside in the morning here – the sun is usually too hot in the summertime and it’s too cool the rest of the year, but today was just about perfect. I am trying to savor every one of these moments while they last.

8 September: Dinner at the Weindorf

John and I walked with Evelyne and Eiko this morning because Gert went to judge a hunting dog trial. Evelyne is really disappointed that we are leaving soon and asked John if there wasn’t some way we could stay longer. He explained that it just wouldn’t work out with his job, but we joked that maybe he could find a job with another German automaker. Of course Evelyne took this very seriously and thought it would be quite grand if John went to work for Porsche so we could stay in Stuttgart. John had to explain that Porsche’s design department is very small and it isn’t the best place for a car designer since they only make a few different cars.

We had arranged to meet Beth and Axel at the Weindorf this evening for dinner. They were running late so John and I stood at the entrance to the Altes Schloss on Schillerplatz for a while, watching the world go by. I just love the festive atmosphere of the Weindorf at night, with the tents all lit up and everyone happy, laughing, eating, and drinking. When Beth and Axel finally arrived, Beth was shuffling along quite slowly and immediately revealed to us that she is 17 weeks pregnant! She was really sick over the summer and had a scare that required hospitalization. She was afraid for a long time that she was going to lose the baby, which is why she hadn’t told me earlier, and she is still getting around very slowly, trying to be careful. I knew she wasn’t feeling well back in July when we went to see the Harry Potter movie and it turns out she spent most of her time in Sweden in August recovering from that entire trauma. Fortunately she is doing much better now.

We found an open table in one of the tents and settled down in front of hearty plates of Maultaschen, Kartoffelsalat and potato pancakes with applesauce. John and I had glasses of Lemberger and Spätburgunder and Beth had Neuwein (the seasonal “new wine” which has not yet finished fermentation). John and Axel seemed to hit it off pretty well – Axel also works for Mercedes and his job was seriously impacted by the “de-merger” so they had plenty to talk about. It started sprinkling while we ate so we decided to stay put at our cozy table rather than go out to find someplace else to have dessert. John and I had small glasses of Kerner Spätlese and we all had the Apfelküchle mit Vanillesösle (apple fritters with vanilla sauce; written with the Schwäbisch diminutive “le”).

Beth and I were quite fascinated during dinner by the large group of young American women at the table behind us. We couldn’t help but notice how loud they were; it’s no wonder Europeans think Americans are noisy and obnoxious. I guess I've been here long enough to really start noticing these things. You could here these girls clear across the room! They were all flashing big diamonds and we guessed that they must be officers’ wives out for a night on the town.

We finally settled our bill with our waitress (she seemed relieved that this was the last big night of the Weindorf – she said it’s much easier to serve beer at the Volksfest, when you don’t have a million different wines to keep track of!), then strolled through the Weindorf towards the Rathaus. Beth was feeling hungry again so she ordered a dish of Schupfnudeln (potato noodles with sauerkraut and bits of ham). We eventually parted ways at the Rathaus U-Bahn station. All in all, it was a lovely evening!

7 September: One Hundred Days & So Much for Summer

I’ve been thinking for a while that I should count out our final one hundred days in Deutschland. I finally got my calendar out yesterday and, lo and behold, if we leave the weekend of December 15-16 as planned, then today, Friday the 7th of September, marks the beginning of the end!

I’m worried we aren’t even going to get an Indian summer at the rate the weather is deteriorating. It was clear and crisp this morning, but by about midday it had clouded up and was cold and drizzling by the time I took Cody for my afternoon run. I wore long pants to go running on Tuesday and today, for goodness’ sake! By my calculation we had about two weeks of real hot summer weather this year, and that was back in June when my mom was visiting. Where did the summer go???

5 September: Lunch at the Weindorf

After the IWC meeting this morning, Katrina and I went downtown and had lunch at the Weindorf, Stuttgart’s annual wine festival. Katrina had never been to the Weindorf so it was fun to show her around. As usual on a weekday afternoon, the place was pretty quiet and we had no trouble finding an open spot in one of the cheerful restaurant tents. We shared a Pfannkuchen, the traditional Schwäbisch thin-crusted pizza topped with sour cream, onions and smoked ham, along with a serving of Ofenkartofeln, roasted potatoes with creamy garlic sauce. We washed it all down with glasses of Weißweinschörle, white wine mixed with sparkling water. (I know most wine connoisseurs would be appalled to hear of this popular German refreshment, but when the wine is as cheap as it is here, you just can’t say no to a nice cool Schörle on a warm summer day.) I can’t say our meal was all that healthy, but it sure tasted good!

4 September: My Final Deutschkurs

It is hard to believe that after a year and a half of weekly tea parties with Stefanie, my valiant efforts to broaden my grasp of the German language are finally coming to an end. I baked chocolate chip cookies as a special treat, but Stefanie will have to wait a bit longer for her farewell surprise: a pink-and-gray ribbed scarf that I have been knitting for the past six months. Unfortunately I am only about half-way done with it, so I’d better pick up the pace. I don’t think I will ever make a very good knitter because I’m just too darn slow. Knitting is pretty boring, so I like to watch TV while I’m working. Unfortunately that doesn’t work here because I can’t listen to German TV and knit at the same time. Watching TV requires my complete concentration, so that I can try to decipher what is being said from visual cues. The same thing goes for ironing – if I tried to watch TV and iron at the same time, I’d probably end up with a lot of burnt fingers. Unfortunately this means I haven’t been watching as much German TV as I should. Instead, I usually watch a movie on our laptop while I iron, then afterwards I knit my way through the end of the movie. That means I only get in about an hour or so of knitting every week, which doesn’t get you very far when you’re making a scarf on #7 needles.

Stefanie brought treats for Scotty, a doggie chocolate bar for Cody, and a 2008 German cooking calendar for me. I had never gotten around to showing her my photos from our final day in Africa, so I did that, since she was interested in hearing about our visit to the slum. Then we talked a bit about the future and what I might do when we move back to Michigan. Before she left I took some pictures of her and Cody. It was a tearful parting – I felt like I was saying goodbye to a friend, therapist and mom all rolled into one. Of course it wasn’t really goodbye, because we’ve agreed to go to the Mercedes museum sometime and I told Stefanie that we wanted to invite her over for dinner before we leave. Still, it was very strange to think that my remaining weeks in Germany will be devoid of my usual two-hour dose of German conversation. On the bright side, it means I don’t have to clean up the house every Tuesday morning and I’ll have that much more time to write!