Wednesday, February 27, 2013

8 Minute Entry from Bolzano

Tonight (Wednesday) we're in Bolzano, the northern gateway to the Dolomites and our entry point to the Nordic World Championships This place is absolutely crazy. There are hordes of drunk Nordic fans parading threw the streets waving flags, getting into fights about the relative merits of their classic sprinters, etc. Ok well maybe not. But this is a great town, a South Tyrolinian mix of Germany and Italy.

The day started out comically again because I managed to forget the German Bahn discount card I had bought (you'd think I would have learned). But this was a welcome sight in the Munich train station (look, you can only buy so many espressos) ...

and the ride south of Innsbruck was beautiful. We got into Bolzano in time to tour their domo and also see Ötzi the Ice Man (the 5,500-year-old guy discovered in the Alps in 1991).

The restaurant we went to did not open until 7 (of course), so we killed some time at a book store. Jim, you get a mention two entries in a row. Your Manhattan edition of this series is going to have some serious competition. 

 We ended the night with this: 

Check back for World Championship updates. Thursday is the women's relay and the Americans have a great chance to medal. I'd rather be watching in the 50-degree sunshine with a limoncello than trying to figure out the wax.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

(Not Completely) Unlimited Skiing Amusement

Over the weekend we went to Oberstdorf, at the very southern tip of Germany and the northern tip of the Alps. The tourist board, in one of the German-translated-into English descriptions of such things that cause me to wake up laughing at 3 a.m., promised "unlimited skiing amusement," wrapping up its case by concluding, "You’ve just got to admit that the attributes of this ski area are almost unbelievable!" Now, obviously it goes without saying that one would have to be a complete &^%$ to actually complain about a ski weekend in the Alps, but in the spirit of ironic blogging, I must report that we did not have unlimited skiing amusement.

Our first omen, which came Friday morning about 40 minutes before our first train, was when I banged my head on our stairs after leaning down to put something in the recycling bin under them (remind me to be the ugly American and not recycle). After twenty minutes discussing whether the bleeding gash on my head warranted cancellation (was there a doctor in Oberstdorf available at 5:30 on Friday afternoon?; did I need stitches now?; would stitches work if I waited until Monday?), we fearlessly struck out for the train station, with time to spare to buy a 6 Euro bottle of antibacterial spray.

The first two trains were pleasant enough, and perhaps we should have realized that the third was too pleasantly empty for one going to a ski resort during the German holidays on a Friday afternoon. But surely we were on the right train. We had the visual evidence to prove it (dramatization: photo taken on return trip):

About 20 minutes after our train was supposed to arrive in Oberstdorf, neither of us was forced to cry uncle in our game of who-can-prove-that-he-or-she-isn't-Type A-by-not-expressing-worry -- the train simply stopped. We soon learned from the very kind conductor that the train had split in Immenstadt and obviously we were in the wrong half. (Ah, so that digital display in every car with the city name means something?). We were way West in Wangen, or, as you can clearly see here in the lower right corner, back in Baden-Württemberg, not in Bavaria (Bayern), the state Oberstdorf is in.

It then wasn't clear which was worse: our excruciating "German" conversation with the innkeeper in Oberstdorf, trying to explain that we'd be late, or waiting an hour and then taking the same train back to Immenstadt just to wait for another connection. Jeanine seemed a little frustrated that we were going to lose three and a half hours and not have a nice dinner in our resort town. But I pointed out that the train station has a Foodys, which I prefer when in Immenstadt. The gyrosteller was excellent.

Our hotel in Oberstdorf was a classic pension with a view of the mountains. The "rich and extended breakfast," as promised by Google translate from the innkeeper's e-mail, was just that. But it was a bit disconcerting that the innkeeper's skin was bright orange (apparently tanning is big in the Alps), and Jim, the pillows were the apotheosis of German bedding. Please, would someone tell me what I'm supposed to do with the combination of a folded-over brick and a mini down pillow?

The skiing? Well, here it is in a nutshell: the beauty to terrain ratio was completely skewed. I mean, look at these photos:


But what they don't show is that the mountain (we skied the Fellhorn area) doesn't have very many trails and is seriously poorly designed. We skied down to Austria on one side (no passport required), and then took a gondola up. Very cool, and the best runs of the day. But seriously, only one run for all the terrain covered by a gondola? There is also only one piste (to be honest, that word still annoys me; just say "run" already damn it!) all the way down to the base, so the last run of the day was an icy, crowded mess. Actually, the crowds were by far the worst part, like downtown Mumbai in the snow. It would be a nice mountain on a Tuesday powder day, but on this occasion, the Germans we met confirmed it was brutally overcrowded (the Herr taking our picture: "Vee are giving up and having ein beer"). But hey, I guess we should have done as the Germans do. When the skiing gets crowded, and the temperature hits 20, it's time to sunbathe at the summit:

Things picked up back in the Guest Haus after I explained to the innkeeper's wife (also orange) that I wished to pay for the beer that I had liberated from the breakfast room fridge the night before (look, I was medicating the gash, and I figured since health care is free in Germany ...). She didn't understand me, of course, so instead of me paying her, she produced another beer on the house, which we proudly drank walking downtown in the manner of American undergraduates. [For the record, the frei beer was an Allegäuer Brauhaus Urtyp Export, much better than the medicinal Zötler Gold.]
Jeanine has a way of knowing when we need an especially good meal (I mean, crowded skiing in the Alps takes a lot out of you), and somehow she managed to find the Copper Onion of Oberstdorf.

This is becoming an exceedingly long entry, so I'll just say in brief that I found my own little slice of heaven on Sunday: the langlaufen trails one block from our hotel that culminated in the Erdlinger Arena (a World Cup venue) sandwiched at the base of several Alps. It was one of the prettiest spots we’ve ever seen, and no picture online does it justice (Jeanine's camera dies after about 4 pictures). The only thing missing was Erdlinger on tap at the arena, but luckily we found some amazing Käsespätzle on the edge of the trails and watched in astonishment as the locals downed beers and cake in between Nordic sessions.

On the first train back, the nice German women we were sitting next to seemed to say that the prison we were passing was the one in which Hitler wrote Mein Kampf, but a later Google proved this to be incorrect. Not sure if they were having fun with their new American friends or really didn't know. Said train also ran late and forced us to miss a connection ... which resulted in a bookending Turkish dinner in the Plochingen station. I've got to admit that the attributes of the doner with flatbrot were almost unbelievable!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

No Place Like German Homes

We spent a quiet last weekend in the Max Plank Guest Haus. For the first time in my life, I may have overdosed on watching televised skiing (God bless you EuroSport Germany). Here's a shameless plug for (and image of) up and coming American skier Noah Hoffman, who happens to write a great blog if you like skiing and European-dessert porn. His images of cream-filled concoctions are truly inspiring. I should tell you that it is very difficult to capture American skiers on the screen because the global feed blatantly discriminates against them.

On Friday we went to our first MPI happy hour, also Eric and Jessica's going away party. This being Germany (and a graphics lab with a large flat screen TV) a dance party courtesy of Dance Central for XBOX Kinect broke out. Someone actually brought big pretzels! Ha. And after a few beers loosened everyone's guard, we ordered pizza from Joey's Tubingen. Better for Joey to stay here than try to sell his pizza in the Bronx. Below are the two beers I had at the party, both of which are fantastic.

CREW India Pale Ale 
The one on the left brings us to no small matter. German beer consumption is declining, spurring one blogger to identify a "German beer malaise," and there is currently a debate here about whether the beer law (that's right, folks, the famous 1516 Reinheitsgebot) stifles innovation. For reasons I don't understand -- perhaps my brewing friends can chime in -- making an American-style IPA is hard under the law, so brewers have to get creative. But Crew seems to have pulled it off.

Man I will miss the Guest Haus's subsidized cafeteria, where all was known and the amazing creme-of-the-day desserts were 80 cents.

But even if Jeanine will, I won't miss the German his and her comforters and horrible German pillows

Today (just hours before our first joint German class), we moved to our (semi)permanent apartment down the hill. We got enormously lucky, considering this is a boom town and most leases in Germany run for two years -- thanks again Eric and Jessica. We're only about an 8-minute walk to Old Town, but our street and apartment are quiet.** Come see us: we have two floors-ish (a loft), two bathrooms (you can almost fully stand up in one of the two showers), and the requisite horrible German pillows. But we have a fantastic view of a quintessential German street, iconic European windows, and a balcony just waiting for spring so we can hang flowers from it.

** Quiet except for the fact that we hear church bells ring every 15 minutes. Look, I love their central-casting-ness, but the show seems to last from 7 a.m. until 6 p.m.; where can we lobby to make that 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. so that we can sleep like professors on leave without harming the overall chime quota?

Thursday, February 14, 2013

It Wasn't the Jetlag ...

It took us a week, but we finally figured our why we were feeling sluggish. Turns out the instant coffee packets we bought and drank several mornings (look, you can only buy so many espressos) were decaffeinated. I was expecting to see the word ohne (without) somewhere on the package, but the word for decaffeinated is actually entkoffeiniert. Then again, I had trouble remembering the German word for "yes" yesterday, this despite passing a PhD foreign language exam in German (more than a decade ago ...), so it's not like I have any German instincts. But really Jeanine, in my defense, the dense history article I had to translate for the exam about socialists in New York in 1920 didn't contain dialogue with the word "yes" ... Our his and her language sessions start next week.

We never would have discovered our error if the (otherwise delicious) Gaststätte Loretto, where we were eating with Betty and Ella and Eric and Jessica (whose apartment we are taking over), had not hilariously and proudly included the decaf packet along with its so-called "decaf cappuccino." Even Betty's German hit the wall trying to convey the idea of an actual decaf espresso shot.

In any event, I've been making up for the caffeine deficiency via the Dream Machine 2000 in Eric's lab. I thought 90 Euro cents was a good deal, but here the espressos are as strong as you can make them and 25 cents! And given that it's a computer science lab, of course they rigged up an IPad and wrote an app that tallies each addict's tab. If you look close enough you can see the two columns with little icons for espresso and latte:

So life is good. We were able to seamlessly transfer Eric and Jessica's internet (we think), we've found the requisite good Turkish fast food, and we finally pulled the trigger on a gym. (Clever Fit was decidedly less clever with fees when we brought along a German speaker.) And Joe and Betty continue to educate us on Swabian food. Last night it was Maultaschen--giant meat-filled dumplings--made by Ella's genuine German grandparents:

Ella's seen Maultaschen many times but still seemed surprised (well ok every time she sees the camera her smile fades ...):

Ok back to talking Croatia with our new Croatian friend Matt in the communal kitchen (love the dorm living). Then back to our The Killing marathon.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Our First Expedition

Today Jeanine and I and Betty and Ella (Betty and Joe's super cute 6-month-old) made an expedition (as my great-aunt Rhoda used to say, and she knew expeditions, having been to Nepal in 1931), to Lichtenstein Castle, a 19th-century structure built by the nephew of the King of Württemberg. I rather like the culture of excursions in Swabia; although the people are all sporty, they don't seem to like to exert themselves too much -- in contrast to the outdoor culture in, say, Utah. So after the tour it was time for lunch (though being the middle afternoon, around these parts the occasion really called for cake), followed by a mini walk around the grounds. Recovering from frostbite and on one of the longest hiatuses from running in 5 years, I think I'll aim for more such excursions. And perhaps we'll join Easy Sports Fitness, the name of which perfectly captures the aesthetic. (It's either Easy Sports Fitness or Clever Fit. I mean, is there a gym in Europe without the cheesy English name? Today on the drive through Reutlingen we passed one called McFit.)

Regardless, I don't think today's expedition, topped off with Schweinebraten, burned off much of Joe's famous Käsespätzle mit Zwiebeln (see below) combined with Nuremberg sausages, the closest I've seen here to the iconic American breakfast link (unfortunately I didn't have a camera to do justice to the combination). Importantly, I think we served to bridge cultures at this dinner. The director of Jeanine's lab and his wife are about as fun and worldly as any people can be, having lived and taught in the States and Korea and Switzerland, but even they still suffer from the stereotype that Americans don't have good beer (imagining that Sam Adams is the height of our craft). So it's not surprising that I was served a beer, Zwiefalter Exclusiv, that brags about doing away with hop bitterness. As if German Pils are bitter!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

First Images from Germany

No need to write much: these pictures pretty much sum up why I'm going to like it here (Jeanine is going to, also, but for perhaps more pragmatic reasons like the quality of the virtual reality, etc.). We're at the Guest Haus at the Max Plank Institute for now, until we move into our apartment in ten days or so, but we already have a German bank account and even know where to get good Indian food (thanks Betty for guiding us through our first few days in Tubingen).

In the interest of sparing you cliches I do NOT include a picture of any German beer (yet).

90 Euro cents for an espresso 14 steps from our room:

Biathlon was on 2 of 9 channels today: 

The view from our room at the Max Plank, very European Institute-like:

Monday, February 4, 2013


I’ve been thinking a lot about winter this winter. We've had fantastic snow and unusual cold in Salt Lake after no winter last year, and I enjoyed the luxury of being able to ski nearly every day for a month. I even read this book:

Gopnik is a fantastic writer, and somehow here he makes five cobbled-together lectures-turned-essays touching on everything from the birth of romantic winter in Europe to arctic exploration to the history of hockey work beautifully. It's worth reading, especially given that embracing winter has practically become a political cause. The atmospheric scientist who writes the Wasatch Weather Weenies blog reports, "Mountain Dell sits in the crosshairs for climate change, but there's enough variability in the system that there will still be some good years ahead. Take advantage when you can." So I intend to.

Ah winter, he waxes poetically in the spirit of Gopnik. A time for freakishly wonderful urban blizzards (like the ones people who grow up on the I-95 megalopolis experience) that lead to skiing in random parks and dorky pictures. And icicles as big as houses.

 And perfect conditions at the ski-club-groomed Nordic area

And man weekends at a cabin in Midway with Jason and John 

[Thankfully no photo provided]

And skiing amidst moose in a timeless wilderness (photo credit: Katie)

And … filthy unhealthy inversions?

Before and After:

And your car stupidly buried in a parking lot at the U for three days because you didn't take the blizzard predictions seriously?

And frostbite?

[Thankfully no photo provided]

Yup, that’s right, frostbite. It seems that all those years living in Minnesota did not in fact make me immune to the cold, and that in fact standing around teaching 5-year-olds to ski in single-digit weather IS cold, and that doing races with start temperatures of 0 degrees is colder still. And to paraphrase Obama, faux-toughness is not wisdom. I’m not exactly sure how it happened -- I’ve had some ill-fitting boots [which indeed contributed, but was it the downhill, skating or classic?; they all seemed to hurt this year] and so I’m not sure what day exactly the red-every-day-from-being-crammed-and-cold toes turned black. But the podiatrist confirmed it about a week ago. He didn’t exactly say “thou shalt not ski again this year” -- and for the most part, the damage is already done -- but he shut me down for now and encouraged me to route for warm weather in the Alps in the coming weeks (of course I refused to tell him that I would be standing in the woods in the snow at the Nordic World Championships for fear of what he would say to that). 

So I guess I should be careful when I ask for unceasing, unadulterated winter. But it was fun while it lasted. Every time I ski with Jeanine I feel incredibly lucky (and I would even if she wasn’t now kicking ass on skate skis), and I loved getting Brian and Katie hooked as well (when she wasn’t too busy chasing moose). I also made some racing progress (skip ahead to next paragraph to avoid boring ski results), or at least learned that I’m a much better classic skier than skater (as it’s much closer to running). This year I moved out of the wonderfully weak 35-39 age group (in which I could flirt with skate-race medals) and entered the 40-44 Group of Death. But whereas in the two skate races I could get in this year I finished 10th out of 13 of 7th out of 11, in a classic race (first since 1992), I finished 4th out of 8. Still, I did improve my skating relative to the Olympians, coming in only 40% slower than Billy Demong as opposed to about my norm of 50% the past couple seasons.

If you’re reading this on the East Coast and imagine that it’s always either snowing or sunny with blue skies in the West, like something out of a Coors commercial, you should Google “Salt Lake City inversions.” Before we moved, we had no idea how bad it can be out here -- really, air quality worse than Beijing’s a couple days? -- and man I wish I could take every anti-environmental lawmaker in the US House who whines about excessive enforcement of the Clean Air Act and force them to spend a couple days breathing our air during an inversion. Which does not make me an environmental angel, needless to say. I wrote the first draft of this post on a plane, and I bet I fly a lot more – and thus leave a larger carbon footprint – than the Verizon Truck guy, who, after 30 minutes idling on a 40-degree day, including sitting down with his latte in the coffee shop where I was working [part of our friend Sheila’s and my ongoing project to find the best SLC coffeehouses], became the first-ever victim of a Hoff citizen’s inversion intervention (a successful one, I might note). Look, all I ask for is a little ironic self-awareness of environmental impact, and perhaps merely an effort to carpool on red-air days, rather than this guy’s remarkable ignorance, given how much the media here covers the inversions, or true scorched-earthism. Why doesn’t some sociologist at the U study the mind-set of people who idle during inversions? 

So what else should I report? Jeanine had a work trip to DC, so I tagged along (we managed to get out the day of the rare Salt Lake ice storm, after a mere three-hour delay). I’m not sure it was worth the small fortune (my that's a lot for parker rolls, not matter how good they are), but the tasting menu at CityZen was a pretty spectacular way to celebrate Mom’s 75th Birthday, with Gene and Dina as well.

Because Jeanine was in grant duress most of January and too busy to look up, Sheila and Jason kindly hosted a going-away party so we could finally see everyone (thanks!). Put another way, I just pressed “post” on this entry from Tubingen, where we have safely arrived and already found the internet in the kitchen area at the Max Plank GuestHouse. We'll talk to you after we sleep a while ... In the meantime, take it from me: don’t skimp on socks or ski boots. Please excuse typos here ... off for our first guided walk of the MPI (and spellcheck is now in German).