Thursday, March 27, 2008

26 November: Goodbye Party, and What the IWC Girls Like About Germany

Brenda had been hounding Heather and I for the past several weeks to set a date for a goodbye party at her house. Finally, after much deliberation and about five minutes of planning, we settled on this Monday evening. It turned out to be a small affair – just me, Heather, Brenda, Shannon, Thuy, Emily, and Beth – but we had a wonderful time sitting around Brenda’s dining room table, chowing down on all the yummy snacks (Crackers and cheese! Veggies and dip! Stuffed peppers! Chips and salsa! Artichoke dip! Oreos! Cream puffs!) that everyone had brought and sipping celebratory champagne. Yes, even us pregos had a few sips; since Beth, Shannon, Heather, and I are all pregnant, it would have been tough for the other three to drink the whole bottle on their own!

I took out my little camera and put everyone on the spot by asking them what they liked about Germany. (The video actually turned out to be a really nice keepsake to remember everyone by.) Everyone had something unique and different to say. Shannon enjoys the opportunity to meet like-minded women who thrive on the international life. For Brenda, there’s nothing not to like about Germany…the people, the country, the food, the recycling and mass transit systems…Shannon quipped, ‘the accessibility of cigarette machines” (Brenda is a smoker)…I think she’s going to be here a long time. Beth had a different perspective, since she grew up in the U.K. and has spent most of her life in Europe. For her, Germany is very “European” in feel as opposed to the insular nature of the U.K. (Of course, she could have just she likes Germany because of her husband Axel, whom we all adore!) “And the wine industry,” she added, “which got me into this,” pointing at her bulging belly. Thuy loves the coffee, the farmers’ markets with their beautiful flowers, the castles, and the walking trails. Emily enjoys the relaxed pace of life (although she wouldn’t mind being able to shop on Sundays) and the availability of NPR and AFN via the army bases. She also married a German, so she must not mind it too much. Heather emphasized the strong family values – the fact that you don’t get worked to death and then go home to your family – and the culture of walking: “Even when its 0 degrees and snowing, people are out walking.”

And as for me? Well, like Brenda, I have very few complaints. Perhaps I would feel differently if I were living here permanently, but on a temporary basis, I haven’t found anything about Germany to be insanely aggravating. I often think back to our “culture shock” training and the discovery that John and I are more similar to Germans in cultural attributes than we are to our fellow Americans. The strict rules have never bothered me because I have my own pretty strict rules. I actually love the fact that people self-police each other when it comes to things like recycling and being quiet on Sundays. The little quirks that make life different here are also what make it fascinating. And one can never forget what I think should be Germany’s national motto: Betreten auf eigene Gefahr – Proceed at your own risk, which pretty much means that you are responsible for your actions, so if you do something stupid, don’t expect to be able to sue someone!

25 November: The Last Castle

Today was a bitter, blustery Sunday afternoon, but it was also the last weekend in November, and, as I stared rather dejectedly at the calendar, I realized that it was likely to be our final opportunity to go exploring in the German countryside (we had reserved next weekend for a last-ditch effort to visit Straßburg). I had wanted to visit Ruine Hohenurach near the small town of Bad Urach ever since Brenda told me about it several months ago, so for the last time we geared up in our hiking boots and rain coats and drove out into the rolling hills of the Schwäbische Alb in search of a ruined fortress.

We headed out of Stuttgart on the A8 and drove through Metzingen (celebrated home of many clothing outlet stores such as Hugo Boss), then followed the signs to the Hohenurach trailhead just outside of Bad Urach, parking in a mostly-deserted lot on the edge of the woods. The trail signs were confusing (as usual) so we just started off in a generally uphill direction, assuming that we would eventually arrive at the ruin at the top. The trail wound steeply at times through a sparse forest of thin gray trunks, punctuated by the occasional splash of defiant yellow leaves. Across the green valley below us, we could make out the thin streak of white that marked the Uracher Wasserfall, set against dramatic chalk cliffs. The waterfall is supposed to be quite photogenic, but alas, we didn’t have time to venture out to see its cascading waters today.

After perhaps a half-hour of walking, the immense form of the fortress came into view above us (photo, above). Hohenurach is a ruin in every sense of the term – just my kind of castle! It was first mentioned in the Book of Records in 1235, but its construction by the Count of Urach dates back to 1025. The fortress was expanded in the 15th century and converted into a prison in the 16th, housing innumerable nameless prisoners (and a few famous ones, including Donato Guiseppe Frisoni, the architect of the palace at Ludwigsburg) behind its dreary walls. Hohenurach was seized by the Emperor’s troops in 1635 during the Thirty Years’ War, and was demolished by the Duke Carl Eugen of Württemberg in 1765. It has lain in ruins ever since, and has all of the atmosphere one could wish for in an abandoned fortress, particularly on a dark and dismal day such as this.

A few other people were wandering around the grounds as we approached, but we mostly had the place to ourselves. We descended a curving staircase in the first tower (photo, above) and found ourselves in a pitch-black barrel-vaulted chamber deep within the outer ramparts. Peering out a graffiti-embellished window, we had a good view of the battlements and another enormous defensive tower. Just beyond the first tower, a section of flat ground afforded us good views of the outer defenses. From there we entered a long tunnel that took us into the interior. An unusually ornate stone well is the only structure still standing in the center of the courtyard. Another section of spiral staircase took us atop the crumbling interior walls, from which we were afforded excellent views across the mist-shrouded countryside. The clouds were spitting rain at us, and we could only barely make out the waterfall across the valley (photo, below) and our car parked far below. A nice couple offered to take our picture as we stood on the walls overlooking the ruins. On the other side of the castle, we got views down into Bad Urach, but the rain was starting to pick up so my photos don’t do the view justice.

We found another mysterious staircase to explore, which led down into the so-called “secret vault,” a small stone chamber built into the castle’s foundations. We clambored around a bit in the dim dampness, then came back up and explored the rest of the ruined rooms of the main castle. One large four-story section of wall remains, its empty windows overlooking the town of Bad Urach. I paused for a moment to sit on a stone bench in front of a Gothic-style window that was probably part of the chapel. We discovered yet another staircase leading downwards to still more darkened chambers, and tried to imagine what a bleak and hopeless place this must have been for its unfortunate prisoners.

As we were about to leave, the sun broke through the clouds momentarily and I was able to capture some memorable images of the castle and surrounding countryside (photo, right). Fortunately the rain had lessened to a sporadic drizzle for our hike down, and we weren’t too wet when we finally arrived back at the car. We kicked ourselves for not bringing Cody along – he would have loved it here! From the parking lot we took one last look up at the fortress, distinguishable from the surrounding rock only by its unnaturally smooth faces and curving tower walls, and then headed for home.

More images of Hohenurach:

24 November: The Biggest Thanksgiving Ever

The subject of Shannon’s email was “The biggest Thanksgiving you've ever been to and it's not even in the U.S.A” and she was right. More than thirty people and countless children representing multiple nationalities (American, German, British, Australian, French, Indian, Malaysian, Swedish, Filipino) turned out at Shannon and Todd’s house in Feuerbach for a marvelous IWC Thanksgiving celebration this evening. We broke with tradition by holding the feast on Saturday, but personally I’ve always wondered why Thanksgiving has to be on Thursday. My family and John’s are relatively small, so Thanksgiving is usually a quiet affair of 4-6 people. Thus it seemed rather odd that the largest Thanksgiving we’ve ever attended turned out to be this one, celebrated in Germany of all places!

My contribution to dinner consisted of an enormous bowl of cranberry sauce (my secret recipe calls for cooking down the cranberries in a large quantity of red wine infused with orange peel, cinnamon and cloves) and a platter of sweet cornbread. Both were hits, but there was so much cranberry sauce left over that I gave it to Jane, who was going to have to cook a whole ‘nother Thanksgiving dinner for her husband’s colleagues next weekend!

We had an enormous spread with all of the traditional favorites – turkey and stuffing provided by Shannon and Todd, plus an immense array of side dishes and condiments: gravy, mashed potatoes, greenbean casserole, Waldorf and green salads, pasta; and for dessert, pumpkin and pecan pies, cheesecake, brownies, and Apfelkuchen and Schnecke (similar to cinnamon rolls) for a German twist.

Shannon decided to forgo the traditional long Thanksgiving table in order to squeeze more people into her sprawling, multi-level house. She rented stand-up tables instead and set them up around her living room, so we could eat in an upright position and thereby fit more food into our stomachs! John and I ate with Beth, Axel, Jane, and Johannes, filling our plates until there was no more room, and then attempting to cram all of that delicious food into our bellies. Finally the women retired to the couch to digest while the men stood around discussing business.

Suffice it to say that a great time was had by all. In the end, a small group of us clustered around Shannon’s kitchen table, sipping tea and pondering what to do with several whole pies and cakes that had gone untouched. We all got to take home some leftovers, and John and I had Schnecke for breakfast the next morning!

Friday, March 21, 2008

22 November: The Last Book Club

This morning I cleaned up the house and arranged the dining room chairs in the living room as my last duty as book club hostess. Beth made cinnamon rolls for me yesterday so I didn’t have to bake anything, which was a good thing because I ran out of time. We had the usual crowd in attendance – Beth, Katrina, Jane, Brenda, Heather, Debbie, and Ulla, plus Anne came for the first time and brought along her daughter and a male friend visiting from England. (What??? A man in our book club? We decided to allow him entry this time, because he was a big fan of our book, Ender’s Game.)

It had been Brenda’s idea to read Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, and it was certainly a change from the usual book club selections. The book tells the story of a brilliant 6-year-old boy nicknamed Ender who is chosen to attend an elite battle school in space in hopes that he will eventually help save Earth from an alien invasion. It’s not your typical sci-fi – much more psychological thriller than action-adventure – and I enjoyed it, but it didn’t float everyone’s boat and had a rather bizarre ending. Ulla wasn’t a big fan, and I felt sorry for her having to slog through it!

The women brought Heather and I a couple of gifts since this was our final gathering (I don’t think I’ve mentioned that Heather is moving at the end of the month to Koblenz with her husband, who got a job with a Mercedes supplier). Debbie presented Heather with three bottles of fancy sparkling cider, and, since Debbie didn’t know until today that I was pregnant, I got three bottles of Kessler champagne! That was fine with me, since we plan to bring some German alcoholic beverages home with us. Heather and I also each received a copy of the Schwäbisch cookbook, signed by all of the members of the book club. I laughed when I saw it because it was one of the first things I bought for myself when I moved to Stuttgart, but I will cherish this “signed edition” dearly!

21 November: Fall Thoughts

Only twenty-five days to go. Fall seemed so fleeting this year, but I suppose that is the nature of the season. I try to savor every step of every walk through “my” woods, knowing that my days in Botnang are numbered. I’ve watched the colors change and the leaves fall these past few weeks, knowing it was the third and last time I would see the changing of the seasons in Stuttgart. A few weeks ago the freshly fallen leaves painted a spectrum of orange along the trails – colors straight out of a box of Crayola crayons. Now the leaves are rain-sodden and smashed to a uniform pulp of burgundy and chocolate brown. I still walk most mornings with Evelyne and Marlena, but somehow our conversations have lost their charm. I’m very tired and long to sleep in, but I know I should keep up my morning German practice as long as possible. It’s harder to concentrate when you are tired, and I find my mind wandering. I’m wondering when I should tell Evelyne I am pregnant, and how to break the news to her that I’m really too tired to walk for an hour every morning.

I’m nearing the end of my jazz classes as well…tonight I told Marilena that I’m pregnant and she was thrilled. I’m avoiding any big jumps so I didn’t do one of the sequences across the floor. I stood in the back with one hand over my belly and one of the girls (the only other one who isn’t in the professional program) gave me a little smile. I smiled back and whispered that I was pregnant, and she said, “I thought so!”

Thursday, March 20, 2008

20 November: A Non-Stop Day

Today’s jam-packed agenda called for a long drive to Debbie’s house way out in Donzdorf-Winzingen for an IWC Coffee Chat, followed by a visit to the WMF factory outlet in nearby Geislingen, yet another visit to Dr. Linckh to see how my little zygote is coming along, and, lastly, my final IWC dinner at the Ritterstube in Sindelfingen.

Debbie’s coffee was at 10:00 and I was giving Ulla (the German woman from our book club) a ride, so I wanted to be prompt. Ulla took the U-Bahn to Botnang and met me at my house at 9:15, then we headed out into the countryside to find Debbie’s house. Fortunately her directions and the E-Class’ navi were in agreement and we arrived promptly at 10:00, at the same time as Heather and Brenda. Debbie’s German husband is a schoolteacher and they have lived in their sprawling home in the little hamlet of Donzdorf-Winzingen for nearly thirty years. Debbie had prepared a beautiful brunch spread for us of meats and cheeses, breads and pastries, fresh fruit and, of course, plenty of coffee and tea. We chatted over our meal for an hour or so and then piled into our cars and followed Debbie to Geislingen. WMF (pronounced “Veh-Em-Eff”) is an internationally-renowned manufacturer of cutlery and kitchenware and operates an enormous factory outlet store called the Fischhalle (literally, “Fish Hall”) in Geislingen. The name refers to the seafood outlet that WMF opened for its employees in 1912. During World War I, the Fischhalle helped feed many of the families of Geislingen. The fish sale ended in the 1920s and WMF began selling its products out of the building, preserving the original name for posterity.

The warehouse really is huge, and for anyone who likes to cook, or just enjoys kitchen gadgets, it is a dream come true. I was like a kid in a candy shop and had trouble restraining myself to just looking as I took my first stroll around the store. John and I had been talking about buying a set of WMF silverware to take back to America, and I was pleased to find that they had a huge selection at excellent prices. I probably spent close to an hour browsing the cutlery, trying to choose a pattern and find the best deal. It didn’t help that John was in a meeting and couldn’t answer my phone calls. I finally settled on a set in the simple, elegant “Boston” style that came nicely packaged in its own briefcase – easy to transport! It was on sale for what I thought was a good price, but without John’s express agreement, I was a little nervous because it was still a lot of money. I wandered around the store a little more while the rest of the group made their way over to the bistro for a snack. Finally John was able to call me back and give me the go-ahead on the silverware. I also purchased a child's set of silverware and a very cool glass teapot that sits on top of a metal base, heated from below with a tealight candle. I thought it would be nice to have it in my office in Michigan so I wouldn’t have to go downstairs all the time to heat up my tea.

I joined the rest of the women after making my purchases, but before I could even sit down, I spied a bulging bag of Ritter Sport chocolate bars sitting on the table in front of Heather. Apparently they had a special deal on “imperfect” chocolate from the Ritter Sport factory (which is located in Waldenbuch, not far away), and they were selling enormous bags of chocolate bars for only 10 Euro. I couldn’t resist, even though you can now find Ritter Sport commonly in the States. I still remember when my dad used to make trips to the Black Forest when I was a kid and he would bring back these unique square chocolate bars for me and my brother.

After our snack, we said our goodbyes and I drove Ulla back to Botnang, dropping her off at the U-Bahn station. After stopping at the house to give Cody a quick walk, I had to get back down to the U-Bahn quickly to make it to my afternoon doctor’s appointment. This time I finally had some really good news: Dr. Linckh was able to identify my zygote, which looked like a little dark smudge on the ultrasound screen. I got a printout and everything. She said my hormone levels were looking good and I made an appointment for one more visit in two weeks’ time, when hopefully we will hear the baby’s heartbeat!

From the doctor’s office I took the U-Bahn back to Botnang, picked up my car, and headed straight to the IWC dinner in Sindelfingen. (Originally I was going to give Beth a ride but I couldn’t get a hold of her; it turned out that she was still stuck at the office, working late on a consulting job that she had decided to take on.) Brenda had selected the Ritterstube (literally “rider’s room”) a restaurant located just a few blocks from her house, at the local riding stable, for our monthly dinner. The dining room is uniquely situated between two indoor riding rings; you can look out two long rows of windows on either side of the room and watch the riding students at their lessons. We had a turnout of about twelve people for dinner, including Shannon, Eliza, Heather, Brenda, Thuy, and Judy. I had a wonderful plate of Maultaschen and showed off the ultrasound printout of my zygote. As usual, a grand time was had by all! It was a bittersweet evening for me, since I knew it was the last time I would be attending an IWC dinner, but I still have the annual holiday brunch to look forward to in December.

18 November: An Impromptu Hike & My First Facial

I rolled out of bed sometime after 9:00 and made it down to breakfast around 10. Some people had already left for their morning treatments, but there was a table full of IWC women still lingering over breakfast. We enjoyed the elaborate buffet (complete with crêpes!) and then I got to talking with Brenda and Katrina. They were done with their treatments and had the day to themselves, so we all decided to go for a walk together. Brenda had gotten a map of the town from the reception desk along with some rather vague directions for how to get to Kloster Limberg, a nearby monastery, so we decided to go in search of it.

We set off through town, which turned out to be quite a nice place, with a quaint shopping district and quiet residential streets. We saw a sign for Kloster Limberg and started heading up a steep road out of town, but there was no sign of the monastery. Finally we spotted a ruined tower looming on a hill in the distance, but we assumed that it was the castle, which the woman at the reception desk had also mentioned to Brenda. We continued up the road and passed another sign for the monastery. We finally realized that what we were looking at was indeed the ruined remains of Kloster Limberg, but we were separated from it by a deep valley and there was no way we were going to make it all the way over and back. We settled on walking up the road as far as a little clearing, where we found a picnic table with a nice view of the monastery, and took some photos. It looked like quite an amazing place and I wished that we had had more time to explore it. We turned around and retraced our steps back to town, having walked for a good two hours!

We ran into Anne and Shannon on the way back and ended up having lunch with them along with Marina, Gail, and Rosalie at a quaint little Weinstube in town (photo, right). The Sunday menu was written on a small chalkboard that we passed around, and we were waited on by a quintessentially German Frau who put up patiently with our limited German. I had a delicious salad topped with roast duck that really hit the spot. By this point it was almost time for my facial, so I had to hurry back to the hotel. I had arranged to keep my room for a late check-out, so I went upstairs and finished packing up my things before heading up to the spa. I was shown into the same room that I had been in for my back massage, except that this time the table was converted into a lounge chair. I put on a robe and settled in for my 90 minutes of indulgence: a gentle cleansing and a facial massage followed by a steam bath (which basically involves having hot steam blown on your face for twenty minutes with damp pads over your eyes), and then a crème mask was applied and left on for half an hour or so. This was all very relaxing except for the fact that the steam bath was a little too hot and I had to reach up and adjust the sprayers or else I might have suffered a burn (as it was, my neck was bright red afterwards!). They were also playing an awful collection of 80s pop hits that had been terribly morphed into “soothing” spa music. Just as I was finally drifting off, the spa attendant came in and removed the mask. By the end of it I was satisfied, but not overwhelmingly thrilled with my first spa experience!

I picked up my luggage from my room and went downstairs to the lobby, where the last members of the group were assembled. We shared a few thoughts about the weekend and were pretty much in agreement that next time they should try to find a dedicated spa hotel – perhaps in a true spa destination like Baden-Baden. The difficulty lies in finding a place relatively close to Stuttgart that isn’t too expensive and will allow a one-night stay on a weekend. I suggested to Anne that she contact some of the hotels that normally have a two-night minimum and try to work out a deal with them, since the IWC could promise to fill 10-15 rooms.

I met up with Brenda, Sibylle, and Gerlinde and we loaded our things into the E-Class. Before heading back to Stuttgart, we drove up the road a few miles to the castle to get a quick look at the ruins. It was almost dark so my photos don’t do it justice, but it looked like another atmospheric ruin, ripe for exploration. Night was falling as we headed onto the Autobahn, and we got home a little after 7:00. All in all, it was a fun-filled weekend with the girls and I would not have missed it for the world!

17 November: Girls Just Wanna Have Fun (The IWC Spa Weekend)

It’s time at last for the IWC’s first annual spa weekend! I have been looking forward to this exciting event for months, and I’m so glad that they managed to fit it into the schedule before I left. I’ve never been to a spa before – heck, I’ve never even gotten so much as a back massage – so I have no idea what to expect. I talked Katrina into coming and us newbies decided to sign up for a simple facial and back massage. The more experienced spa-goers are opting for elaborate treatments like full-body massages and wraps, but I wasn’t ready for anything requiring total nudity quite yet. In total, about fifteen of us are going from the club, including my friends Anne, Shannon, Emily, Brenda, and Rosalie.

The IWC selected the 4-star Hotel Mercure Bad Dürkheim an den Salinen for our members-only weekend of relaxation and luxury. Located about ninety minutes from Stuttgart on the outskirts of the small town of Bad Dürkheim, this was the only hotel they could find with spa services that didn’t require a two-night minimum stay. I offered to be a carpool driver since I had the E-Class at my disposal, so I ended up with Brenda and two German women, Sibylle and Gerlinde, in my car. Originally I was going to take Eliza too, but she unfortunately had to cancel at the last minute.

Brenda met me at my house at 9:30 on this sunny Saturday morning and then we headed over to the university campus near Vaihingen to pick up Sibylle and Gerlinde. The drive up to Bad Dürkheim went quickly and we arrived at the modern, nondescript Hotel Mercure just before noon. Our car was the last to arrive; everyone else from the group had already checked in. I had decided to splurge on a single room for myself but most of the women were sharing rooms. I checked in and received my confirmation for my spa treatments, then took my luggage up to my room on the third floor. The accommodations were simple and tasteful, and a spa robe, slippers and bath sponge were arranged on the bed. I had a view across the parking lot to a vineyard-covered hill topped with a tiny chapel (photo, above). Just beyond the parking lot were the burnt-out remains of the Salinen, which gave the hotel its name. Apparently this was some sort of mineral bath where people could absorb soothing salt-infused air, but it burned down last year – I never did get the whole story. After settling in, I wandered downstairs and followed the sound of laughing American voices into the restaurant, where most of the group was assembled for lunch. I found myself seated between several women I had never met; everyone was friendly and seemed excited about the weekend ahead. I wasn’t very hungry so I just ordered a bowl of tomato soup, but the sandwiches looked very good.

After lunch everyone headed off for their afternoon treatments. I had a few hours to kill so I went upstairs, made myself some instant hot chocolate using the in-room coffee maker, and spent some quality time writing (I had brought my laptop along just in case I had some down time). My first treatment was scheduled for 5:30 and I thought it would be the facial, so I prepared myself by washing my face and wearing loose, comfortable clothing. (Some people went upstairs in nothing but their underwear and a robe, but I figured they would let me change there if that was deemed appropriate.) The spa facilities are located on the top floor of the hotel, and it was obvious from the moment I walked in the door that this place was not originally intended as a spa. It looked more like a temporary set-up in what might have been a storage room at some point. The spa itself was built into the space beneath the eaves of the building, with a low, sloped ceiling and what looked like pre-fab fiberglass walls separating the individual treatment rooms.

Somewhat skeptical, I walked in and gave my name to the young woman who appeared from one of the back rooms. She informed me that I was actually having my 25-minute back massage this afternoon, not the facial as I had expected. This meant that I would not begin my facial until 3:30 tomorrow afternoon, so my driving mates would have to wait until after 5:00 to head home to Stuttgart. Unfortunately they did not have any openings for an earlier treatment, so I would have to check with everyone tonight and make sure that they were okay getting home a bit later tomorrow evening.

I was shown into one of the small white-walled treatment rooms, with a massage table in the middle covered in towels and tranquil music playing in the background. The young woman indicated that I should strip down to the waist and lie on the table; she left the room while I did this, which I appreciated. I know the Germans are totally comfortable with nudity, especially when it comes to their beloved “wellness” facilities like spas and saunas, but seeing as how this was my first time in a spa of any kind, I was feeling a bit self-conscious! The woman came back a few minutes later, rubbed me down with a warm massage oil, and proceeded to give me the wimpiest back massage you can possibly imagine. Don’t get me wrong, it felt nice, but it was like getting a tiny appetizer when you are expecting a generous main course. She hardly used any pressure at all and the whole thing was over just about the time when I was really starting to relax. By my clock it was done in less than 20 minutes. If I had spoken better German I might have complained, but since I hardly knew what I should expect, I decided to let it slide. Feeling a bit let down, I headed back to my room, thinking that I might take a swim in the pool before dinner. I ran into Katrina on the way; she had just come from the pool area and said not to bother because it was crowded with rambunctious kids. Hmmm….this was not turning out to be very relaxing or luxurious so far! Katrina had both her facial and back massage today and had the same experience with the massage, but fortunately her facial sounded pretty nice.

Instead of going to the pool, I took a long hot shower before going down to the lounge to join the rest of the group for pre-dinner drinks. As we gathered it came out that three of us were pregnant (me, Rosalie, and an American woman named Gail) – and all at about the same stage! Fortunately the bar menu included a virgin Caipirinha (Brazilian margarita), my favorite drink. It wasn’t quite as good without the rum, but it was a whole lot better than mineral water.

One of the girls I had met at lunch, a boisterous American named Kristine whose husband is a military dentist (I never realized there was such a thing!), shared her hilarious spa experience and had us all on the verge of tears, we were laughing so hard. I can’t possibly replicate her mannerisms, but I’ll try to summarize her story. Despite being a spa newbie, Kristine had decided to go whole-hog with one of the body wraps, so she stripped naked and lay down in the reclined treatment chair. They started wrapping her from the feet up, but stopped around her thighs and left her lying there, pretty much mummified from the wasit down but stark naked on top. The spa attendant offered to bring her some tea, which was then placed on a table nearly out of reach, and since Kristine was practically lying on her back, she couldn’t drink it without great difficulty. While she was thus immobilized (supposedly enjoying the deep penetrating effects of the wrap), she got really bored and desperately wanted to get her magazine, which was lying on a chair on the other side of the room. She finally swung her bound legs out of the chair and “hopped” her way over to retrieve the magazine (keep in mind that her top half was still bare), moving as fast as she could lest someone come into the room and catch her in the act of this rather embarrassing maneuver. Needless to say, it was a rather excrutiating 45 minutes and she was relieved when the whole ordeal was over!

Kristine’s story didn’t end there; she gamely decided to try out the sauna next. One of the rooms had a sign outside that said something involving frei (which usually means “free” or “available”). Kristine’s German is still in development, so she assumed that it meant the room was available. What she didn’t realize was that she was going into the co-ed nude sauna. The place ended up being crowded with naked men (there was some sort of business conference going on at the hotel this weekend) and she had to squeeze in on a lower bench right below some guy who was literally letting it all hang out. Kristine stuck to her guns and kept her towel on, but needless to say, she didn’t linger very long. Fortunately she seems to be a pretty tough cookie and took her first spa experience in stride.

We all filed into the dining area at 7:30 and found an enormous banquet table laid out for us in our very own private room. I sat between Katrina and Emily and across from Brenda and Kristine, so suffice it to say that I was well-entertained. Katrina and I shared a tomato and mozzarella salad to start and then we both had a nice plate of venison. Several people ordered a pasta dish that turned out to be store-bought tortellini smothered in bottled tomato sauce. It was really quite awful, so someone complained. One of our servers, a robust blonde woman with a good sense of humor, came back with one of the chefs to apologize and they offered the offended guests free tiramisu to make up for the disappointing meal. It turned out that they had seven servings of tiramisu left over, so several more of us had it too (including me).

While we were lingering over dessert, Emily suddenly exclaimed, “Check out that zoot suit!” She was staring down the hall towards the reception area, and sure enough, a very dapper-looking black man was standing there in a black-and-white pin-striped zoot suit and black fedora. I can’t say that I had ever heard anyone use the term “zoot suit” in casual conversation before, but this definitely fit the bill. “Do you think he’s American?” I asked, and Emily rolled her eyes in exasperation. A small group of us (Americans all) decided to go down the hall to investigate (strangely, the Europeans among us did not share our interest in the zoot suited-man). We found him milling around the lobby along with a Tina Turner look-alike and a motley assemblage of back-up singers and crewmen. It turned out that they were members of a musical act from Atlanta performing at the wine festival in Bad Dürkheim. We ended up having a nice chat with Mr. Zoot Suit and he even came back to our dining room for a photo op (photo, above).

After this excitement, about half of the group dispersed back to their rooms, but the night was still young and a few of us were interested in checking out the hotel’s subterranean nightclub. We couldn’t hear anything coming from down below so our expectations were quite low; imagine our surprise when we went downstairs and discovered the club crammed to the rafters! The dance floor was crowded with people, every table around the room was full, plus dozens of people were milling around the bar. The music was deafening, the disco ball was spinning, and the whole place was sparkling with tiny white lights. Who knew that the Hotel Mercure was the place to be on a Saturday night in Bad Dürkheim? Our group (me, Katrina, Shannon, Sunny, Anne, Rosalie, and Marina) pressed our way onto the dance floor and did our best to come up with appropriate moves for the less-than-groovy German pop that was blaring over the sound system. At some point the DJ got the crowd doing a line dance, which only Shannon knew the steps to. It was fun for a while but they kept doing it…over and over and over and over again! Emily and Sunny finally went to get drinks while the rest of us waited at a nearby table; a few minutes later, Shannon and I spotted Anne, Brenda, Marina, and Rosalie slipping out the door. We thought they were ditching us so we took off after them. It took us a while to track them down (this involved shouting up and down the elevator shaft a few times), and Anne and Rosalie had already made it back to their rooms and had changed into their pajamas when we finally caught up with them! After a lot of cajoling we made them get dressed and come back down to the club, where poor Emily and Sunny had been left guarding our drinks.

In the end, Shannon, Emily, Sunny and I were the last standing. We went back upstairs to the lounge for another round of drinks and I instructed the bewildered waiter in how to make a Shirley Temple, since I was running out of fun non-alcoholic beverage ideas. It didn’t come out quite right, but it was close enough. At this point Shannon, Emily and Sunny had consumed quite a lot of alcohol and were feeling hunger pangs. Unfortunately the restaurant was long since closed and our inquiries at the reception desk came up with no food options other than a McDonald’s near the Autobahn. Apparently the Hotel Mercure really was the only place to be on a Saturday night in Bad Dürkheim. We finally retired to Shannon and Emily’s room, where they had some chocolate stashed away. It was getting on towards 2 a.m. at this point, and much as I didn’t want the night to end, I decided it was probably time for this future mom to call it quits. Let’s just say it was my last girls’ night out!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

16 November: Oda's Debate Class

Oda has been begging me to come to one of her English debate club meetings and we finally arranged for me to attend today. I was still feeling quite miserable from my cold but I didn’t want to disappoint her. We planned to meet at the Schloss-Johannesstraße U-Bahn stop at 1:15. I got there early and saw her coming; she was chowing down a pork sandwich slathered in ketchup. We walked a few blocks to her school, which is housed in a multi-story complex of nondescript post-war buildings. I think this is the first time I have ever stepped foot inside an “indoor” high school, as I went to school in northern California where it rarely goes below freezing and the school common areas are all outdoors. We went upstairs and down a hall to a small classroom, where a few of the debate club members were already hanging out. Oda introduced me and then we sat down with a couple of her friends, Therese and Vivica, and waited for the rest of the group to show up.

Their teacher walked in a few minutes later – a middle-aged German woman with long bleached-blond hair. She called the meeting to order and asked me to introduce myself. I told them my name and they all laughed, then I explained how I knew Oda. The teacher asked, “So you work with Oda’s mother?” and I said, “No, we just go walking in the mornings.” Then she asked, “So you have debate experience?” and I said, “Not exactly, but I worked for an organization in Michigan where I had to do a lot of public speaking and talking to reporters.” (Oda had told her teacher I was coming, but I got the sense that she was fishing for a reason to justify my presence.) Eventually the group broke in two to discuss the arguments they had prepared on the topic of women in positions of leadership. Oda’s teacher assigned me to the group arguing in favor, while Oda was on the opposing side. I found myself in a group of four surly teenage boys and one girl, none of whom had done much preparation because they thought their argument was so easy to win. Imagine my horror when I discovered that most of the boys in the group actually believed that women should not hold positions of leadership. A couple of them came across as real chauvinist pigs. It was quite an eye-opener, but I tried to keep my mouth shut and only helped them out with wording their arguments. In the end they didn’t have time to actually practice the debate, which was a shame. They spent a long time discussing their future meeting schedule and making arrangements for an upcoming debate competition, a weekend trip which several members of the group would be attending, including Oda.

On the way back to the U-Bahn I chatted some more with Oda and her friends. One of them had spent a year on a student exchange in Seattle and spoke perfect English with barely a hint of an accent. She told me that she had had a very difficult time when she first arrived in the U.S. because the American students all made fun of her German accent. I told her that they had no right to do that, since I was quite certain that none of them could speak a foreign language half as well! Even after four years of high school French, most of my classmates could barely carry on a simple conversation. I have been really impressed with Oda’s command of English and it surprises me that she finds herself struggling academically – she has told me that her teachers want her to read more English books and improve her grammar. Let me assure you, the German kids I have met put most American high school students to shame! I think I will help Oda out by getting her a copy of The Blue Sword, which was one of my favorite fantasy novels in high school. It’s not too long and should be right up her alley, since she loves fantasy and role-playing games.

Monday, March 17, 2008

15 November: Eliza's Pearl Sale

I walked over to Eliza’s after my morning walk to check out the pearl jewelry that she brought back from her trip home to Malaysia. Unfortunately she didn’t bring any of the really unusual colored pearls that she often wears, but she had some beautiful stuff and I had a tough time making my selections. Shannon had already picked out a couple of strands of green pearls and shell beads that I coveted! Beth and Brenda were also there and had picked out some very nice things. I ended up buying three necklaces and a bracelet.

Eliza can’t entertain without cooking up a feast, and she had prepared an amazing spread of scrambled eggs, sausage, fish ball soup, and fried rice. She was pouring Sekt for everyone and I had to decline, “because of my cold,” but Eliza gave me a funny look and said, “not because you are pregnant?” Obviously the girls know me well enough to question my refusal of a glass of wine. Finally we were all sitting around the table and the topic of pregnancy kept coming up and I looked at Beth and said, “I just can’t do this anymore!” I am a terrible liar, so I told them the truth, and of course Brenda said, “I thought so!” It was a relief to make it public; I know it’s still really early, but if something happens, it was meant to be and I know everyone will be very understanding.

14 November: Repatriating is a Real Pain & Heisse Schokolade at Deli

John stayed home again today (have I mentioned that he is a real crank when he is sick?) but we still had to go to Möhringen for our repatriation meeting at 11:30. This was the first time I had seen Susanna in the expat office since we moved to Stuttgart. She joked that we should be able to do this meeting in German now! Very funny. We met Monika, a new person from Professional Organizing, Daimler's relocation consultant (this is the third person we have had with PO, since Martina had a baby and I don’t know what happened to the last person that John saw back in July when we thought we were going back early). They went over the list of items that they will be taking care of for us – cancelling our phone and internet service, utilities, cell phone, dog registration, etc. and I gave them copies of all the necessary contracts. The only thing that I really have to do at this point is get us signed up for online banking so we can manage our German account from the States; we have to leave the account open for several months after we leave so that all of the final utility payments can be processed. We also need to get the final utility bill from the Dörrs, which usually doesn’t happen until March or April. We discussed the possibility of paying the Dörrs up front for an estimated amount so that we don’t have to wait for months to get it settled. This is important because John won’t receive his repatriation bonus until all the bills are settled with regard to the apartment. It's all a bit of a headache but hopefully everything will proceed smoothly.

I walked Cody early so I could go meet Beth at Deli this afternoon. Of course I missed my train by about 2 minutes and was late. I hadn’t told her the good news about my little zygote yet, so of course she was thrilled! I should have called and told her last night, because she spent three hours at the doctor this morning getting her glucose test, worrying that I might have lost the pregnancy. It was freezing out but wonderfully warm and cozy inside Deli, with little tea lights on every table. Darkness fell outside while we downed double hot chocolates. We finally had to drag ourselves away a little after 6:00.

12 November: Really Good News!

John developed a fever overnight and ended up staying home sick today. (That's obviously not the really good news.) I spent most of the day organizing the results from the furniture sale and otherwise wasting time (honestly, I don’t know where my time goes these days). We had to take John’s car in at 5:00 to get his winter tires put on (just in the nick of time, too!) so we didn’t get back until nearly 6:00. I called the doctor’s office and spoke with Dr. Linchk directly, which was a relief. Imagine my surprise when she told me that my hCG was over 400! She said this was very good news and scheduled me for another ultrasound next Tuesday.

I went online and did some research about hCG levels, the hormone that they are looking at in my blood. It turns out that I was well within the normal range with a count of 115 at three weeks along, and the increase to 400 within 3.5 days is very good, as the number is supposed to double every 2-3 days. I was so so excited, overwhelmed even! Last night I had been quite depressed and had pretty much convinced myself that it was all over. It is just incredibly hard to believe that I am actually pregnant. It would be wonderful to be able to tell my kid that s/he was “made in Germany” (and, even better, went on the Nürburgring as a zygote!), and the timing could not be better with us going back to long as I don't develop really terrible morning sickness in the next month!

12 November: Back to the Doctor

I was smart this time and took the U-Bahn to the doctor’s office; there's a stop only a block away but I had to change lines to get there so it took a good half-hour. My test results weren’t back yet so I had to sit in the waiting room for nearly half an hour. Finally I was shown in and Dr. Linckh told me that my hormone levels were very low – only 115, when she expected to see 800-1000. She said that I was either off on the date of conception or it was possible that the zygote had aborted. They would need to take another blood sample and see if the numbers went up. She did another vaginal ultrasound but still couldn’t see anything, although she did notice something called a Myome, which turns out to be a fibroid - a benign mass of cells in my uterus. She said it should not affect my pregnancy because it is not bulging out into my uterus, but she did print out an image from the ultrasound that I can take back to Michigan. She told me to call tomorrow after 5:00 for the next round of test results. So I didn’t have much to tell the parental units this evening – more watching and waiting! It was getting dark by the time I was heading home; John said he was coming home early because he wasn’t feeling well, but I asked him to walk Cody for me so I could pick up some groceries on my way back.

10 November: It Snowed on our Sale!

We woke up to quite a shock out the window: blowing snow! Talk about raining on our parade. This is not the kind of weather that inspires people to go to a furniture sale on a Saturday afternoon. John walked Cody so I could do the last-minute tidying up, then I printed out the bid sheets and went around the house sticking them to all the furniture. I was just heading down to the front gate to put a sign up when our first visitors arrived – John’s colleague Uwe with his son and a couple of friends. Uwe’s son is moving into an empty apartment so he needs a lot of stuff – just my kind of customer! They ended up bidding on quite a few big items, including the TV and stereo, the china cabinet, and the small sofa in the office, so we were off to a pretty good start. Then a woman named Axelle arrived – a new IWC member – and she bid on a ton of stuff too. She wanted a bunch of things we were giving away for free, including the barbeque, and she left with our Christmas tree and ornaments. Next came the Holzapfels, the couple that is buying our winter tires. They gave us 300 Euro in cash for the tires, which we decided was fine – we just wanted to see them gone! They wanted to look around at our stuff too and ended up bidding on a couple of smaller items. Evelyne and Oda came by a little later and Evelyne expressed some interest in the red rug for Birk’s room; Oda left with a small side table from the office. Finally Jürgen and his friend Sonja arrived, and they pretty much saved the day – Jürgen bid on most of our glasses, both coffee makers, my black & white photos of Delicate Arch, Monument Valley, and the Grand Canyon (this was very sweet, because he took a trip to the Southwest with his dad and recognized the locations), a couple of rugs, and some tables. Sonja bid on the big red sofa in the living room, the desk chair, and some other things and she left with a bunch of smaller items, including two of the paper lamps, which we were giving away for free because they are damaged, the towel rack from the bathroom, one of the standing metal lamps, and most of my candles and table decorations.

In the end we didn’t do too badly, with the exception of the bedroom – we only sold the bedside tables and lamps. No one bid on the three big dressers, bed, or closet, so we are still stuck with trying to get rid of those. On the bright side, we sold the big-ticket items like the electronics. It was frustrating to put all that effort into getting the house ready and then only have a few people come through, but we did well enough, especially given the weather. It just doesn’t seem like Germans are very keen on buying used stuff. They have no concept of that classic American tradition, the garage sale. I think it’s a cultural thing – they buy their stuff new, and then expect it to last forever.

9 November: My First German OB/GYN Visit, High Tea, & a Besenwirtschaft

I decided to drive to my doctor’s appointment in Stuttgart-West and took John’s car so I’d have the navi. This ended up being a colossal mistake. I circled the block twice trying to find a parking space and ended up scraping up against a blue A-Class as I tried to back into a parking space on the street. Someone was waiting behind me, which always stresses me out, and the parking sensors didn’t go off. (John hit a concrete post in the parking garage of SI-Suites when we were on our look-see trip because the parking sensors didn’t go off. Apparently they aren’t very good at detecting objects at the corner of your car.) I got out of the car and didn’t see any damage to the A-Class; I didn’t even think to look at my car to see what I had done. I didn’t know what to do and no one was around, so I left. I ended up parking really far away from the doctor’s office, but at least I found a space that I could actually fit that enormous boat of a car into.

Dr. Linckh’s office is on the second floor of an old building (coincidentally located on Frauenstraße), with a small waiting room paneled in dark wood. I checked in with a young Indian woman at the reception desk, filled out my name and personal information on a tiny slip of paper, hung up my jacket, and sat down for a few minutes. Then they called me into the Labo where the Indian woman asked me a rapid-fire series of questions in German. The first one totally stumped me – I finally figured out that she was just asking when I had my last physical! I also had no idea how tall I was in centimeters, which she seemed to think was rather odd. Most of the other questions I could figure out well enough, but she didn’t offer up any English. She took a blood sample and I went back to wait again (thankfully I had brought my knitting).

Finally I was shown into the doctor’s office and met Dr. Linckh, who I recognized from the picture on her website. She’s middle-aged and quite cheerful, for a doctor. She knew that I had requested that she speak English, although her English seemed a bit rusty. She asked me some questions and then showed me into the examination room. I went into a tiny closet-like changing room and stripped from the waist down. Then I had to walk across the room half-naked and take a seat on the examination chair – a little different from America, where it’s all about modesty and you get a nice paper sheet to lay over yourself before anyone enters the room!

Dr. Linckh did a vaginal ultrasound, which Beth had fortunately warned me about in advance. It was very strange to sit there and look at the fuzzy black image on the screen for the first time…there’s your ovaries, there’s your uterus, etc. She couldn’t see anything definitive on the ultrasound but I am only about three weeks along, so that is not surprising. I told her that I was very happy to have gotten pregnant so quickly. She jotted some notes on my chart and I saw that she wrote down “glücklich” (happy). She also has a degree in psychology so I was pleased to see that she was interested in my mental state as well as the physical. She asked me to come back on Monday for the test results.

I called Beth on the way to my car and filled her in, then drove over to her place to join the ladies for tea. I was trying to pull into a tight spot outside her building and I got the rear wheel hung up on a little metal fence. I did a real number on the wheel. Here I’d been in Europe for over two years without a single incident and now I had hit two things in one day! While I was tallying the damage I went around to the front of the car and saw a small streak of blue paint. Oh, brother!

Beth met me at the door and said that she’d told everyone that I would be late because I had a doctor’s appointment, but of course the ever-astute Brenda had instantly asked if I was pregnant. I went into the bathroom to give myself a moment to think about what I was going to say. I had this brilliant idea – I’d just tell them about my irregular heartbeat and that I wanted to have it checked out since I’m trying to get pregnant. I walked into the dining room and was immediately the center of attention, but the heartbeat story seemed to do the trick. Brenda, Eliza, Thuy, Judy, and Beth were all there; Shannon was sick. They’d saved some food for me, so I pigged out on Beth’s homemade scones with clotted cream and strawberry preserves, followed up with cucumber, egg salad, and smoked salmon sandwiches. I declined a glass of champagne, which garnered a few suspicious looks. Brenda, Eliza and Thuy left around 12:30 but Judy and I hung out until 2:00. I decided I didn’t mind telling Judy, and I just couldn’t not talk about it any longer! It turns out that she didn’t know Beth was pregnant until today, so she got quite the double-whammy.

I finally had to drag myself away so I could go home and finish getting the house ready for our furniture sale tomorrow. I ended up vacuuming, mopping, and cleaning the bathrooms but I had put the laundry and ironing out of sight. I started working on the bid sheets too (we're going to do this silent auction style) but I will have to finish them in the morning.

This evening we met our German friends Uli and Markus for dinner at a Besenwirtschaft about halfway between Stuttgart and Pforzheim. As you may recall, a Besenwirtschaft (literally “broom business”) is a family-run restaurant usually located at a vineyard or farm which only has a permit to be open for a few months out of the year (usually in the spring and fall). They cater to a local crowd and offer simply country food accompanied by cheap wine in large quantities. The reference to the broom in the name comes from the tradition of leaving a broom outside the door to indicate that the place is cleaned up and open for business. We drove out into the countryside to Enzweihingen, not too far from our kennel in Unterriexingen, and watched out for signs to the Berghof, which was the only information that Uli and Markus could give us, since there was no street address! We ended up spotting the signs pretty easily and found our way up a narrow country lane to a small farm on top of a hill. Inside, the place was already packed to the rafters but we found Uli and Markus in a small room in back, squeezed in at a long table with another party. Sharing tables at a Besenwirtschaft is customary and it is not uncommon to strike up a conversation with your neighbors.

We had a great meal of traditional Schwäbisch delights and shared a couple of large carafes of Lemberger. (I tried not to make it too obvious that I wasn’t drinking much, since it was still a bit too early to tell Uli and Markus that I’m pregnant.) Uli and Markus told us more about their trip to South Africa, including their roadside encounter with a large bull elephant. We thought they were quite brave to have rented a car and explored the bush on their own. We also chatted with one of the hosts for a few minutes, a large jovial man, and when John and I mentioned that we had been out to that neck of the woods before to take our dog to the kennel at Schloss Unterriexingen, he replied, “Oh, yes, I know Herr Ratibor!” It was a wonderful moment…there we were, sharing a traditional meal with friends out in the countryside on a chilly November evening, speaking German for several hours on end, and we had a found a common acquaintance with our host! After dinner we had to say our final farewells to Uli and Markus, whom we have really enjoyed getting to know over the past two years. I fondly recall our early spring hike in the Schwarzwald, when we began our first tentative conversations in German. Uli actually got teary-eyed when we all said goodbye, which was very touching. I hope we will see them again on one of their trips to the U.S.

Postscript: The blue paint came off the E-Class’ bumper with a little mineral spirits.

7 November: Ich bin Schwanger!

I took the pregnancy test first thing this morning. It’s Clear Blue Easy, which is this very hi-tech digital thing, battery and all. I can’t say that I was at all surprised when it said Schwanger. John was downstairs and I said, “Uh, I think maybe you should come up here.” It was quite unreal. I called Beth later in the day and told her I needed the name of her doctor. She offered to call and try to make an appointment for me because she thought it might be tough to get in without a referral. She ended up getting me an appointment for Friday, at the same time as her English high tea. I suppose that finding out if I am really pregnant is far more important than drinking tea and gabbing with the girls, right?

I passed on the good news to all of the parents and in-laws this evening. Actually, I told them that I had taken a pregnancy test and that “Ich bin schwanger,” but none of them got it. Then I said, “Well, it’s either schwanger or nicht schwanger, so what do you think it means?”

I know how many things can go wrong in the first few weeks and it is too early to know what is going to happen, but it’s hard not get excited!

6 November: Some Excitement on the Home Front

Success at last with my Winterreifen! As you may recall, I had hoped to sell them to a woman who parked her smart forfour in front of our house back in October. Her husband, Herr Holzapfel, had come by the following weekend to look at the wheels and tires and seemed agreeable, but he wanted to check with his dealer to make sure that the Brabus wheels would fit properly on his car. (He wasn’t even sure if he had a real Brabus or just the appearance package, and I couldn’t help him because he had come in a different car to look at the tires.) I had given up hope on him because he never called me back, and John and I just went through the stressful process of posting an ad for the tires on German EBay a few days ago. It was hard enough figuring out how to post the ad on the all-German site; we also had to decide whether or not were would be willing to ship them. I didn’t want to deal with the hassle of shipping four tires and I was quite sure that there was an option on EBay for you to indicate “pick-up only,” but we couldn’t figure it out, so we had to put in an amount for shipping. We had no offers yet but someone sent us a question about the tires this morning. Then Mr. Holzapfel called later today and confirmed that he wants to buy them after all! He apologized for not calling, but said that they had been out of town for two weeks. So I win on both counts – we get 350 Euro (we had started the bidding on EBay at 275) and I don’t have to ship them. Herr Holzapfel arranged to come pick them up this Saturday, which is the same day as our moving sale.

I went over to Beth’s apartment in Stuttgart-West today to talk about my book and start teaching her to knit. I found her building again without any difficulty (I gave her a ride home after lunch last week) and made my way up the five flights of stairs (not as bad as it sounds, because the staircase is full of light and quite pleasant, although I don't envy her when she gets to be 9 months pregnant!). Their place is small but really nice – light and airy, with gorgeous views out over downtown Stuttgart and up to some vineyards and beautiful homes on a hill over the city. They have a lovely balcony off their kitchen with lots of plants.

The first thing I said once I was in the door was, “So…how do you say pregnancy test in German?” Yes, it looks like there’s a good chance that I might be in that “delicate condition.” I am trying not to get too excited about it yet, but we were really hoping that we might get pregnant before leaving Germany. I thought Beth might have a spare test left over from when she was trying to get pregnant, and she did. So that topic ended up occupying us for a good long time, but we eventually sat down for tea and cake and talked about my book. We spent the last 45 minutes or so on knitting. She had bought some fuzzy black-and-white yarn at her local yarn shop to make her first scarf but I got her started on some practice yarn that I had brought along because your first knitting attempt is never exactly neat. I didn’t have time to show her how to cast-on so I did that for her and then showed her how to start with basic garter stitch. She caught on pretty fast and was able to do a couple of rows before I had to leave.

4 November: Katharina Kapelle and Finally, the Fernsehturm

Even though it was a rather dreary day, I insisted that we do something because we are rapidly running out of weekends. We decided to drive out to the Katharina Kapelle above Untertürkheim, the memorial that King Wilhelm I built for his beloved Russian wife, who died at the tender age of 30. The chapel was completed in 1824 on a hill known historically as the Rotenberg. This site, set strategically above the vineyards of the Neckar Valley, was once home to the ancestral fortress of the Württemberg royal family, dating back to the 11th century. The family seat was moved to Stuttgart’s Altes Schloß at the beginning of the 14th century, but the fortress remained, rebuilt again and again over the ensuing centuries. King Wilhelm broke with this tradition by razing the fortress and replacing it with the classical chapel that stands today.

We made our way up a winding road to a small village set at the foot of the Rotenberg and braved the hordes of Sunday walkers to squeeze into a parking space on a narrow residential street. Despite the poor weather, hundreds of people seemed to be swarming around the chapel on their requisite Sunday stroll. We walked up a long paved path through the vineyards to a grassy clearing at the top of the hill. To our dismay, the chapel had closed to the public on October 31st – yesterday – and would not reopen until spring. But the view from the top was worth the trip – vine-covered slopes fell away on all sides, displaying a rainbow of fall colors, from yellow to red to deep purple. A nearby hillside was covered with quaint garden plots – the kind that city residents with no yards rent so that they can spend their weekend afternoons outside. We could see all the way across the Neckar Valley and the big “Daimler” banner was clearly visible on one of the office buildings in the enormous Untertürkheim complex, along with the Mercedes Museum and Gottlieb-Daimler stadium.

We decided to continue our tour of Stuttgart vantage points and finally made it to the Fernsehturm (TV tower) near Degerloch. Completed in 1957, the tower is one of Stuttgart’s claims to fame, as it was the first concrete television tower in the world and the model for similar towers around the globe. At a height of 217 meters, it offers unsurpassed views of downtown Stuttgart, the Neckar Valley, the Schwäbische Alb, the Schwarzwald, and, on a clear day, the Austrian and Swiss Alps. While it still functions as a transmission tower for TV and radio broadcasts, it has also become a major tourist attraction. John actually made it up here on a Stuttgart bus tour when he came out to interview at Mercedes in the fall of 2004 and he kept telling me that it was worth the trip, but we never seemed to find the right time to do it until now – when time for such outings is quickly running out.

It cost 3 Euro each to take the 36-second elevator to the observation platform. The view of downtown Stuttgart was terrific – even better than I expected. We could clearly see the Neues and Altes Schlößer, the Stiftskirche, and Schlossplatz. Despite low-lying clouds, it was actually quite clear and we could just about make out the pointy hill of Burg Hohenzollern and the distinctive profile of the Schwäbische Alb. We could see our own neighborhood in Botnang and could just barely make out the Birkenkopf and even our street. It was bitterly cold and windy up there so we didn’t linger very long. Back on solid ground, I found some great Stuttgart magnets in the gift shop – including one that says Stuttgart: Hauptstadt der Schwaben (“Stuttgart – Capital of Swabia”).

More photos from today:

Friday, March 14, 2008

1 November: Our Thrilling Farewell to the Nürburgring

November 1st (All Saints’ Day) is a national holiday in Germany, and ever since our disastrous visit to the Nürburgring in October, we had been eyeing this holy day as potentially our last opportunity to return to the Ring before winter set in. (Well, disastrous might be a bit too strong, since we didn’t crash the car or anything, but it was a terribly disappointing way to end our string of otherwise-successful trips to the track, and John was determined to tally up a few more laps.) Fortunately our fearless Ringmeister Jürgen was able to get away for the day as well, so the three of us met up at the Grüne Hölle one more time on this damp, gray Thursday morning. This time Jürgen came in his old Honda hatchback with his 7-year-old son Timo in tow. Yes, Timo was going out on the Ring today! (In his car seat in the back seat with a helmet on, of course.) The first thing we noticed when we arrived was that the parking lot was about half as full as usual and there were hardly any motorcycles: good sign. Jürgen explained that many motorcyclists in Germany have seasonal licenses that expire on October 31st, so our decision to come today was quite fortuitous.

Suffice it to say that the day turned out just about perfectly. John began his first lap following Jürgen, who quickly got away from us. Yes, you read right, Jürgen tore off in his crappy Honda. At one point I could swear that one of his rear wheels came off the ground. Over the course of the day, I put in three solid laps and John did five, putting his lifetime Ring total at 21 laps and mine at 20 (he had to have more than me, you see). Traffic was minimal and accidents were few. The clouds didn’t lift much over the course of the day, but the road stayed dry. I had an annoying exchange with an old seafoam green Opel whose driver apparently didn’t like being passed. I passed him, he passed me, and I passed him again. Some folks just don’t know when they’re beaten. John had one very exciting lap in which he chased down a silver BMW Z4. The BMW driver was obviously new to the track and kept taking a bad line, so even though his car was much faster than ours, John had a good chance at overtaking him. Unfortunately this meant that every time John got close to passing him, the BMW did something stupid (there’s nothing more dangerous on the Nürburgring than an inexperienced driver with a big ego in a fast car). I kept telling John not to follow too closely, because I was terrified that the BMW would make a catastrophic mistake and we would get tangled up in the mess. Finally John’s patience paid off and we successfully passed the Z4 and were able to gain some considerable ground ahead of him by the end of the lap. A Ring photographer managed to capture the moment on film, and we now have a memorable head-on photo of the SLK taking a sharp left-hand curve with the Z4 close behind.

We had our traditional lunch at Bike World, where we partook one last time of the excellent Schnitzel and browsed the cool rides in the shop. In the afternoon we needed to buy one more two-lap ticket so we could each get in our final laps. While we were waiting in line, a German guy came around offering to sell us a two-lap ticket for 30 Euro (a savings of several Euro). John was very suspicious so we had the guy at the ticket booth confirm that there were indeed two laps left on the ticket. On our final lap, I took some video clips, which I have strung together to provide a partial representation of a lap of the Ring. You’ll hear me reading instructions to John off our track notes (I’d like to point out that reading track notes and taking video at the same time is no small feat). At around minute 3:50 you will see a note appear on the video referring to an orange flag (which isn’t quite visible in this low-resolution version) and you can barely hear John say, “Put that down,” because he doesn’t want anyone to see that I am holding a camera. (Taking pictures and video while on the Ring is strictly forbidden, but I decided to take the risk on our last go-round.) At that point we passed an accident, but this lap was actually one of the cleanest we ever experienced on the track. You’ll only see four other cars in the whole video (three Porsches and a Suzuki). The video is about five minutes long and covers about one-third of the entire length of the track.

It was an exhilarating day and we didn’t want to leave. We knew that we would not return to the Ring for a very long time, if ever, and never again in our “own” car. (Next time we’ll be the ones in the “Rent-a-Racecar” that the locals jeer at.) The Nürburgring is like no other driving experience on the planet, and we will savor the memories of our five visits there (in three different cars – the smart forfour Brabus, E-Class, and SLK) with great fondness.

Jürgen had invited us to join his parents, who live about an hour away, for an early dinner after our day at the track. We met up in a small town near the Autobahn and had a lovely meal in a traditional German restaurant. Jürgen’s father was an English teacher in Finland when Jürgen was young; he sat next to John and they spoke English all night while I spoke German with Jürgen’s mother! It was an enjoyable meal and a nice way to end the day. After that, we said our farewells and made the three-hour drive back to Stuttgart.

More photos from the Ring: