Tuesday, May 8, 2018

What's in Your Carry-on?

I would rather not have my last blog post before flying to the States be a downer, so as I was throwing stuff in a pile to pack in my carry-on, I thought I'd write a quick one about packing.

When traveling to the U.S. I am a sloppy packer. I pack lightly and throw in the clothes I think I can't do without. Everything is so cheap in the U.S. (at least it is where I shop) that it's a good chance to stock up on the basics - jeans, t-shirts, tank tops, even socks, knickers, and BHs. Therefore I don't worry about clothes.

The carry-on items are more important because what's in there might keep me sane during the flight. Here's what I'm packin', in order of importance to me.

Passport & Passport Holder

The passport is the most important item in all of a travler's luggage, because without it, you go nowhere. I've been using the same ADAC passport holder for more than a decade - it has lots of pockets, slots, and zippered compartments, and I can usually find things quickly.

Noise-cancelling Headphones

...and an extra battery. The passport is technically most important, but these have preserved my sanity on more than one flight, and I would never fly more than 2 hours without them. They are my best friends in flight.

MP3 Player

Yeah, I still use one of those. I think everyone else uses their Smartphone, but why load music onto my phone when I have a tiny little device already loaded with everything I might want to listen to which doesn't suck the battery of my smartphone?

Two Books

Normally I have one in English and one in German, wait to determine which language my seatmate speaks, and pull out the one in the other language. This time I'm throwing caution to the wind and taking two mini books in German - perfect travel size! They are Der Junge im gestreiften Pyjama and Der Vorleser.

Reading Glasses

These are critical by now if I want to read, write, or even watch a movie. The screen is too close to my face for me to be able to watch anything in focus without them.


In case I get stranded in Zürich or need to look up a word while reading. In Wisconsin I'll also use it to check my step count on the FitBit app.

Tablet & Keyboard

I'll check my emails and Facebook on that while I'm stateside, and since I cannot type emails with my thumbs, I'll have the small travel keyboard for keeping contact with M and his mum back home.

Small Camera

I feel more talented with my bigger camera, but this one is better for traveling. I don't take photos with my Smartphone. We purposely chose a Smartphone with a less-than-great camera because I never planned on taking pictures with it.


For the various devices I have packed.

a Change of Clothes

In case my suitcase gets waylayed, lost, or re-routed to Madagascar. Or in case my seat neighbor spills coffee or beer on me.

Euros & Dollars

For obvious reasons. A credit card too, of course.


Just as I use a real camera instead of my Smartphone, I also use an old-school calendar instead of an electronic one. My mom started me on these Social Capers calendars during my college years, and although she has since converted enthusiastically to a Google calendar, I can't give up my Social Capers. Go ahead and call me daft, I don't care. In one glance I can see my whole week. I don't see the words "+2 more" on a day because the box is too small for all my plans. I see everything. Every day.


In this case leftover Lindt Osterhasis for my kids.

Wisconsin Driver's License

It actually doesn't matter if I have this because I can use my German Führerschein, but it's just easier for cashiers who have to check my age when I buy wine.

My Tax Return

Why mail it from Germany for €0,90 when I can mail it from Wisconsin for whatever a U.S. stamp costs these days? Expats get an automatic 2-month extension on the April 15th date (but I must include a letter explaining that). The U.S. is one of two countries in the world - Eritrea being the other one - that make their citizens file/pay taxes on their income regardless of whether they live in the country or not.

Other Accessories

2 granola bars

That's about it. Packing for Scotland is much more complicated because we bring all-weather hiking gear, stay in a self-catering cottage or flat where we do most of our own cooking, and spend most of our time on an island where shopping is...limited.

What do you pack in your carry-on
for a trip back to the homeland?

Monday, May 7, 2018

The Joy of Flying

Just kidding. This post is about Flugangst - flight fear.

In a few days I will be flying to the US for the first time in two years, and to Wisconsin for the first time in three. The occasion is my son's college graduation, and I am looking forward to seeing my kids and parents, some of the rest of the family, and friends.

I am not, however, looking forward to the flight, to say the very least.

I'm glad I don't fly Delta anymore, because I really hate landing in Atlanta
and being screamed at by personnel speaking Suth'rn.
It's not the fact that I'll have to scrunch myself into a spot fit only for small children in a straight jacket, or the length of the long flight from Zürich to Chicago (8 hours? 10? I don't know; I didn't bother looking.), or the fact that the asshole passenger in front of me will recline his seatback whether he's sleeping or not and will flash me the side eye when I ask him nicely if he would mind putting his seatback up during meals, or the diabolically filthy stench of the airplane toilets, or the other passengers who will annoy me in a thousand ways, beginning with speaking.

It's mainly the fact that I never took physics class and simply do not believe that tin can of a deathtrap with wings should be able to do what it does. I do not assume I am going to make it to the other side alive. I'm glad every time I do, and I'm not kidding when I say that the first thing I do after I pry my claws from the arm rests after landing and feel the plane begin to slow down (the first sign to me, after a multi-hour flight, that we might make it) is to whisper "Thank you" - to the pilot, God, mother nature...whomever I think might be listening.

I was not always afraid to fly. My dad had his pilot's license when I was a teen, and he took me on several flights in a 4-seater over our town, and on one flight over Lake Michigan to a wedding. I flew to Germany for the first time at age 17 and thought the feeling of taking off was really cool. I have flown back and forth between Europe and Chicago 31 times before this, a few times from Wisconsin to Florida in my earlier years, and since moving to Germany I've flown to Scotland and Berlin twice, Vienna, and Rome. So it's not like I'm an inexperienced flyer.

The above photo was taken during one of those death-defying turns when I do not understand why the plane doesn't keep flipping and just fall out of the sky.

Flying is a necessary evil for someone who lives six time zones and an ocean away from her family. And evil it is. If God had meant us to fly, He would have made us birds.

I don't know when the fear started, but it was definitely after I had kids. From that point on I had two someones who needed me, and I started to take mortality a bit more seriously. By now I'm just enjoying life so completely that I'm not ready for it to be done. I know I have no control over that moment. But I have far less control in a frickin' airplane! Frankly, I prefer the illusion of having at least a little control.

This is where I like planes - on the ground.
I always hope there are no children near me when I fly, not only because children on airplanes are usually even worse than their parents with regard to behavior and noise, but because I don't want to be responsible for the expansion of their vocabulary while they listen to me curse like a drunken sailor whenever there is the slightest turbulence. Seriously, one thump, and the "Fuck!" is out before I can bite it back. The repertoire of colorful language expands with each thump, bump, and air pocket plunge. I only hope the Almighty believes me when I look heavenward and offer a terrified apology for misusing His holy name before beginning anew.

Flying to and from Scotland with M is generally less problematic. The flights are short, and he's with me. "If we go, at least we go together, Luv!" as his English grandmother used to say to her husband.

Statistics only help when my loved ones are flying. I track their flights and am not afraid they won't make it. I get it that flying is statistically safer than driving - perhaps especially in our area, where I swear there is a fatal or near-fatal automobile, truck, or motorcycle accident nearly every week.

Plane crash dreams hardly even freak me out anymore because they're so common. Usually I'm watching the plane that crashes, but in the latest one from a few weeks ago, I was on the plane. I remember thinking, as the plane tipped like at the top of a rollar coaster drop, "Well, that's it then. I'm surprised I feel so calm."

Don't worry if you ever have to sit next to me on an overseas flight. Except for the barrage of profanity during turbulence and the shimmies and shakes of take-off and landing, I generally try to pretend I'm not terrified.

A few years ago I booked a flight for my dad and M with a pilot in the Wisconsin town where I then lived. The pilot was a former student of mine and the son of a good friend! The flight was over that town and then 45 miles east to fly over my hometown. I was not able to decide until the moment of boarding whether I would accompany them or not. My mom, who stayed on the ground because there was only room for four, captured my moment of indecision after peeking into the tiny box I'd be sitting in:
I believe my thought at that moment was,
"Are you f-ing kidding me?!"
I did go, and I'm glad I did, though the men enjoyed it more. They got some great photos, but with every turn I buried my face in M's shoulder, and I think I bit him once.

Sheboygan, Wisconsin from above
If it weren't for the take-off, the landing, and the turbulence, I'd be fine with flying. I actually also hate being on boats and would never in my life go on an ocean cruise. I simply prefer my feet on firm ground.

So for the three people I'll see who are still reading my blog, know that my restrained enthusiasm isn't because I don't want to come to the States or see you. It's because I am terrified to fly. The only thought that has ever helped me calm down a little during turbulence was, "At the moment, we're not crashing. So everything right now is actually ok."

I thought perhaps writing this blog post would help "get it out" and untie the knot in my stomach, but it didn't. Darn.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Germans and the Grumblies

It's 16:00, and I just got back from the supermarket where I shop regularly. It's Friday afternoon, so I knew it might be busier than at other times - but not as bad as Saturday mornings!

Since supermarkets in Deutschland are not open overnight for shelf stockers to do their jobs, that is done during the regular work day. Employees with big pallets on rollers drag the goods through the aisles, park them in the center, and get to work. This is inconvenient for the customers at times, but hardly a big deal.

It wasn't so bad today, although I had to navigate around a few slow folks, around a pallet in the cheese aisle, and reach over a box of boxes to get to my favorite Grauburgunder.

Then it was time for the Kasse.

Not infrequently there are long lines here, and by "long" I mean 2 or 3 customers in front of me. Again, this is not a big deal - at least not when I've got no ice cream in my cart. Today there were 5 lanes open, and there just happened to be a ton of people with pretty full carts who needed to shop at that time, and I could see the wait would be longer than a commercial break. I picked a lane, settled in, kicked myself for not having a book in my purse (then looked for it anyway, just in case), and starting reading the messages on the pacifying TV screen above the Kasse.

The elderly German man in front of me was dancing around looking from lane to lane, twisting himself in knots, and looking for someone to be as exasperated as he was. He caught my eye and muttered, "Das ist eine reine Unverschämtheit!" ("This is an intolerable effrontery!") I just flashed him my vacuous American smile to show him he'd get no sympathy from me, and he moved on, dismissing me as clearly useless.

This is not an infrequent experience at this supermarket, that an elderly German gets his knickers in a knot because he has to wait 5 minutes at the busy Kasse. Never mind that he stood in the coffee aisle chatting with his neighbor about the other neighbor's stupid cat, or that I overtook him 7 times in my frenzied odyssey through the store as he ambled along blocking shelves with his cart while staring intently at the goods perhaps wondering what it was his wife told him to pick up in the dairy aisle while I waited patiently for him to make his selection. Waiting at the Kasse? That is intolerable!

I've decided I'm going to be ready next time and respond with, "Na ja, wenn das Schlimmste, was mir heute passiert, ist dass ich ein Paar Minuten an der Kasse warten muss, ist der Tag nicht ganz im Eimer."  ("Ach, if the worst thing that happens to me today is that I have to wait a few minutes at the check-out, the day isn't totally in the bucket [shot to hell].")

We all have our pet peeves, and I am far from the most patient person in the world. But I find myself often wishing I could sprinkle a bucket of happy dust over the folks waiting to check out. Relax! It was just dumb timing, that's all. I assume the schedulers put the number of Kassierer at the registers they think is needed for each shift based on trends. They didn't conspire to rob you of 4-6 minutes just so they could throw your day into the bucket. And it's not the Kassierer's fault - so, Sir, do not grumble at her. She's doing her best, and the world doesn't revolve around you, sorry to say.

That is not to say that I am happier in a long lane in the U.S., where strangers take the opportunity to chat up those around them with a sense of comradery and mutual despair. I came here to shop and leave, not chat.

I also want to say that my point is not that Germans are unfriendly. He wasn't unfriendly toward me - he was just annoyed at a petty inconvenience. It happens to all of us.

To avoid sounding too judgemental and high-and-mighty (as if I have no pet peeves), I'll share some of the things that make my eyes roll:

  • drivers who don't keep their eye on the stoplight while waiting for green
  • drivers who use their cell phones
  • people who park at our little bank branch and block the driveway to the Feuerwehr (fire station) because they apparently can't walk a few extra steps
  • airplane passengers in front of me who put their seat back when they are not sleeping
  • people being loud on trains and buses 
  • not being able to bag my own groceries in the U.S.
  • wasting food
  • finding typos in one of my published blog posts

Things that don't annoy me (but which draw eye rolls, guffaws, and angry snorts from others around):
  • a shopper forgetting to weigh her bananas (it's happened to me, too)
  • a late bus (please tell me how on earth a driver can stick precisely to that schedule)
  • a late train (that's the trade-off - either risk my life and take the car, or risk being delayed because of unforeseen problems with public transportation)
  • slow people walking through the supermarket (just because I can walk fast doesn't mean they can)
  • rain (rain means we don't have to spend €€ watering the garden!)
  • German winters (Try Wisconsin. Just try it.)
  • a driver driving 85 km/h when the speed limit is 100 (maybe she's as terrified as I am)

It's human nature to get easily annoyed when life in general is pretty good. Sometimes I think we look for things to grumble about. 

What gives you the grumblies?

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Book Review: The Awful English Grammar

"If I looked like Mr. Bean, I would cry myself to sleep every night."
"Too true."
"This is an example of the second conditional."
"It is?"
"Yes, it is. We use the second conditional when we're talking about a situation in the present that is plainly untrue or very unlikely."  

I have written before about how much I love bookshops and how important I think it is to shop locally rather than always using the convenience of Amazon. This week I took the bus to Nagold to have coffee with an English teacher friend of mine who had just returned from the US with students, and since I had an hour to kill before my bus back, I treated myself to a wee peek in the bookstore. I left the store with four new books and had finished one before the afternoon was over.

The Awful English Grammar/Die schreckliche englische Grammatik, by Jeremy Taylor, is a bilingual book with the English text on the left-hand pages and the German text on the right. I added the book to Goodreads, and you can read my description and review of it there. The book is a conversation between a British guy (Barry Buggins) who wants to teach English in Germany but realizes he doesn't know how to teach English despite being a native speaker, and a teacher trainer (Mr. Sully) who helps him prepare to teach.

I find this to be a brilliant book for anyone who teaches English to German speakers, a German speaker who wants to brush up on her English, and English-speaking expats living in German-speaking countries. Since Goodreads doesn't allow half-stars, I gave it four because of a few glitches I would consider mistakes: 2-3 typos, an incident of "There's a bunch of students...", and the translation of "No, really" as "Nicht unbedingt" (not really). Those are minor, but in a book about language, I'd rather there were no mistakes. And yes, I realize that is pedantic.

The conversations are mildly amusing at times, realistic in that they get off topic briefly now and then, and enlightening. The teacher's explanations are simple and easy to follow, and I like the way he leads Barry to his own understanding by asking "checking questions" and making mistakes Germans commonly make, getting Barry to correct him. Then they discuss why something is correct or incorrect.

The genius of this book is in its bilingualism. I have taught German to many Americans who are not experts in their native language. For a student of German reading this book, when he comes to a complicated construction ["If I had known how difficult English grammar was I wouldn't have taken this bloody course."], he can look on the right-hand page and find that sentence in German [Hätte ich gewusst, wie schwierig die englische Grammatik ist, dann hätte ich diesen verdammten Kurs niemals belegt."] That construction is called "third conditional," by the way, which is something a TEFL teacher (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) needs to know!

Yeah, I'm one of those who highlights and makes notes in my books.
M calls this "vandalizing," but please don't judge me. It's how I learn.
The grammar topics covered in the book are:
  • verb tenses: forms of future, present and past
  • conditionals, or the subjunctive mood
  • prepositions (only a few because they'd require a whole book)
  • countable vs. uncountable nouns
  • mistakes commonly made in English by German speakers 
Lastly, the two characters use idioms throughout the book that are interpreted very well, which language learners can adopt. Idioms are fun! "You're pulling my leg!" Every native English speaker knows what that means, but a learner of English would picture the action literally. The German equivalent is (this was new to me) "Willst du mir einen Bären aufbinden?" An English speaker learning German would see that as "Do you want to untie a bear on me?" 

Both characters are British, so there are several moments where American readers will wonder. Here's one example where Barry corrects a "mistake" Mr. Sully makes:

  "Does [your sister] go to school on the weekend?"
  "You mean AT the weekend!"

Americans say "on the weekend" and Brits say "at the weekend."

If you are an English speaker learning German, a German speaker learning English, or a native English speaker considering teaching English to Germans, I encourage you to read this book. It doesn't take long - I read the English half in a few hours with interruptions - and it's a fun read for a linguaphile.

I even learned some things I didn't know before. For instance, English is one of the few languages with two forms of the present tense (p. 60). Can you name them or give examples? I also learned how to explain the subtle difference in meaning between "I work at McDonald's" and "I am working at McDonald's," which is something I'd never thought about before. 

"I think you'll find [German learners of English] are very smart people, and many new English teachers get eaten for breakfast by German students who know a lot more about English than their English teachers." ~Mr. Sully (p. 198)

Monday, April 16, 2018

Falknerspektakel Hohen Neuffen

I've often written about how much I like Sundays in Germany because stores are closed and in Swabia, at least, there's a Sonntagsruhe, meaning you basically need to be quiet. Sunday is a day of rest and for family.

So what on earth can you do if not yardwork or shopping?

One very enjoyable outing is driving to a Burg (castle or fortress), walking up to it - most fortresses were built on the tops of hills - exploring and learning about the fortress's and area's history. If you choose wisely, you might even be treated to a Falconry show!

Burg Hohen Neuffen is a 50-minute drive from Esslingen. It's actually a Burgruine (ruins), which I find more interesting than fancy palaces. The walk from the parking area up to the castle takes probably 25 minutes for normal people. M and I were on a mission to photograph Greifvögel and Eulen, so we overtook families with small children, grandchildren and their dad pushing Oma up the hill in a wheelchair, and one man wearing shockingly green trousers, and made it in 15 minutes. It's not strenuous if you pace yourself. There's a restaurant at the top and plenty of places to sit and recover.
Falkner Show area with Harris Hawk photo bomb
We'd explored the Burg on previous visits, so this time we focused on the falcon show. Falkner Wolfgang Weller brings his beautiful birds here every Sunday and holiday between Easter and the end of November, and the shows are at 12:00, 14:00, and 16:00. Adult admission is €5, and for a donation after the show you can hold an owl, hawk, falcon, or Golden Eagle on your arm. Donations support the care of the birds and owls as well as the rehabilitation of injured birds that are nursed back to health and re-released into the wild - an important part of the world of Falknerei!

The show begins with dramatic music and Falkner Weller announces to the crowd the purpose of the show: to demonstrate die Kunst mit Vögeln zu jagen (the art of hunting with birds). His assistants have the Wüstenbussarde (Harris Hawks) on their arms, and at his cue they let them loose one by one until all three or four are in the air. They fly right over the tops of the spectators' heads, up to the walls of the fortress, back to the glove, grab a treat and repeat. So impressive! You need to be a better photographer than I am to get great photos, and besides, I wanted to watch the show!

Harris Hawk returning to the glove for a tasty reward
I cannot tell you how impressive and graceful these birds are. Before the show they rest tethered with Langfessel to their Sprenkel or Block, and sometimes they flutter around or squawk looking impatient to get going while guests gawk at and photograph them.

sassy Harris Hawk on a Sprenkel
If you're thinking they shouldn't be tied but rather allowed to fly free as birds love to do, don't worry. We've learned that birds and owls in the wild fly for only three reasons, and "for fun" isn't one of them.  Either they need to hunt, or defend their territory, or find a mate. That's it. And why do the birds return to the Falkner after being set free? Because they know a meal or snack provided by the Falkner is a sure thing, but hunting is hard work and often not successful. They are free when the Falkner takes them out, and they choose to come back.
Ketan the Steinadler
Ketan the Steinadler (Golden Eagle) has a Flugverbot (flight ban) at Hohen Neuffen because the Burg is in the Biosphärengebiet Schwäbische Alb (Biosphere Reserve) and Steinadler are not native to the area. Therefore if this enormous eagle were flying about, he might very well scare off birds that are native to the area, which wouldn't do. Since he doesn't need to hunt, defend the area, or find a mate, he gets shown off - and if you're strong enough you can hold him on your arm after the show! - but otherwise has a siesta at the Burg while his companions have to work.

After the Harris Hawks are back on their Sprenkel, Falkner Weller invites a young volunteer to join him as a junior Falkner, and he explains some of the equipment a Falkner needs: Ledertasche, Federspiel, Langfesseln, Bellen, and the Falknerhandschuh, worn on the left hand/arm (because in traditional Falknerei the Falkner rode a horse holding the reins in his right hand, so the bird was always on the left). Incidentally, the right hand is needed today not for holding the reins, but rather for pulling pieces of Eintagskücken out of the Ledertasche to entice the birds back to the glove. That Sunday the brave volunteer was "Prinz" Othgar*, who was then invited to sit on the king's chair in the middle of the "stage" for the rest of the show.
*name changed

Falkner Weller also showed us how he trains with the Federspiel - a feathered lure with fresh meat attached to a long rope. They released a Lannerfalke, a Gerfalke, and a Wanderfalke (Peregrine Falcon), and the last two soared and swooped dramatically while the Falkner swung the Federspiel. They kept swooping and diving at it until he let them catch it one at a time to bring them in. Clearly this was hard work for the Falkner as well - he was huffing and puffing afterwards!

Here is another trailer for his Falknerspektakel showing the Federspiel.

Then he pointed out that Herzelinde the Lannerfalke was the smartest of them - she had flown straight up to the top of a castle wall and just sat there watching the other two falcons burn themselves out.

She's the oldest and most experienced of them, and she's learned to sit back while the young pups...er, falcons...do the hard work. When they were spent, Falkner Weller coaxed her down from the wall and she swooped impressively at the Federspiel a few times, always returning to the wall as if to ask, "Oh, come on. Must I?" In the end she caught it in the air with a tremendous thud, brought it to the ground, and was rewarded with the chunk of meat attached to it.

Believe it or not, I could go on! Falkner Weller told funny anecdotes, gave us a lot of information, and told us what not to do if we find an injured Greifvogel in the wild. As with the other Falkner shows we've seen, it is obvious how passionate the Falkner and their assistants are about the birds and owls. Falknerei is serious and hard work; it is not just a hobby. I think we are very fortunate to have the opportunity to see these majestic birds and owls up close and learn about them.

Uhu Susi




Gerfalke auf einem Block