Friday, December 23, 2005

Merry Christmas!! It is a bit early, I know, but as Arr! and I will be joining the rest of the family in Frankfurt for a cruise up the Rhine River to Amsterdam, I figured I'd write now and wish you all a very happy holiday and a wonderful New Year. In celebration, I thought I'd post my letter from my old friend Father Christmas, who is no doubt a bit busy right now. I wrote to him a while back and he very thoughtfully responded to both me and J!. J! was a bit confused when he got his letter--he couldn't figure out how St. Nicholas had gotten his address.

Ein frohes Weihnachtsfest und alles Gute zum Neuen Jahr!


Even the envelope is cute!



It is hard to see in this picture, but the house behind him has "Post" written on it and the little symbol above the door is the Deutsche Post emblem!

The letter reads:

Dear Darcy [handwritten!]
Wow!! What a wonderful surprise it was today when the doorbell rang and the postman handed me your letter! I read it straight away and really enjoyed it! Because I know how exciting it is to receive letters I am writing back to you at once.
I believe you're looking forward to Christmas as much as I am. We're already counting down the days here. However you need all the time you can get at Christmas--I need every single hour so I can grant the wishes of all the children. Sometimes though even I don't have enough time; although I do try my best! Hopefully you won't be disappointed if you don't get everything you want.
However you can have a small present from me today. I've put some colourful Christmas cards in the envelope for you. I'm sure you have friends and relations who would love a handmade card and a few lines from you! Please don't forget to say hello from Father Christmas as well!!

Oh! The elves are calling me--a heavy new sack full of Christmas lists has just arrived!

I wish you and your family a very special Christmas!

Your old friend,
Father Christmas

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Arr! and I recently enjoyed a lovely jaunt down to Venice, Italy. I'll let Arr! give you all the details of the trip, but for myself, it consisted mostly of trying to figure out where we were and pointing out to my brother all the places I used to buy stuff. Fascinating stuff for him, I'm sure. Actually, it was a great trip and we even made it all the way out to Torcello, which is an island in the lagoon that has the oldest Venetian church and a really beautiful wall mosaic of the last judgement. Torcello also has a tower, so you can climb up and see practically the whole lagoon. We were really lucky--it was so sunny we could see the Dolomites, so the view was amazing. He'll post photos, I'm sure.

Perhaps just as good as visiting Venice, though, was finally getting to experience first-hand the wonders of Ryanair!! When I first arrived, just about everyone I met told me about Ryanair (which I originally thought was spelled Rhineair, since Mainz is along the Rhine River) and the Frankfurt Hahn airport. Ryanair is probably the cheapest European airline--it is the EU's equivalent of Southwest, only even more budgety. The Frankfurt Hahn airport is a.) not anywhere close to Frankfurt, b.) not close to anything, in fact, and c.) tiny. But, it is also Ryanair's major hub, so you can take a flight for basically nothing to practically anywhere. Our flights to Venice cost a grand total of .01 Euro cent. This came to about 40 Euro, after taxes. The flights back were 29.99 Euro each.

There's a good reason for the cheap rates, though. This is an airline where you have to bring your own vomit bag. Actually, I bet they would give you one, but you would have to ask for it because there isn't even a pocket on the back of the seat where they could put one even if they wanted to. This means, unfortunately, no Sky Mall magazine either. That's right--you can't shop at 37,000 feet in the sky for those great fake yard rocks that you've always wanted. But, even better, Ryanaire brings around a cart full of goodies after the beverages and snacks have been served (yep, you have to pay for those, too). They'll sell you a purse, teddy bear, perfume or aftershave and you don't even have to wait 6 weeks for delivery, like Sky Mall! If you don't have room in your carry-on for some eau de toilette, though, you can always participate in Ryanair's on-board gambling. 2 Euro will get you a scratch ticket with a chance to win an Audi TT or flight vouchers. The worst part about this is that once you've bought one, they've hooked you for the flight back since you've already invested money in it. Arr! and I didn't win, but when we entered our super secret codes at www.flytowin.net, we got a $45 credit for PokerParty. All we had to do was give them our bank info . . .

One more thing I really enjoyed about Ryanair--their fabulous safety record. No crashes in 18 years, which is pretty good. I think they must be doing so well because flyers are so well informed about the plane's safety features. Having no seat pockets, they've decided the best place to put the escape route drawings are right on the back of the seat, above the tray table. Exactly at eye-level, I might add. This means that no matter where you stare in the plane, you are bound to be looking at the safety guide. Walking down the aisle, you are confronted with about 120 safety guides staring back at you. So reassuring.



We were only one plane away from an Audi TT!!

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Heidelberg is a gem in Germany's crown of "enchanting towns." According to our many German guidebooks, tourists regularly fall in love with Heidelberg's winding streets, the riverfront and the towering Schloss (castle). Most of the guidebooks, however, fail to mention that Heidelberg also has Germany's most confusing bus system. After finally making it to the Altstadt (which is almost a mile away from the Hauptbahnhof!! Clearly an oversight on the part of medieval Heidelbergians), we walked around the local Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas Market) and noted that the local handmade crafts sold in the little stalls were surprisingly similar to those found in Mainz, Frankfurt and Weisbaden. Must be a regional thing. Surely they don't just buy all these beeswax candles and tiny nativity scenes from factories in China.

Heidelberg is a truly beautiful city, though. At least, the older section of it is. The town covers both sides of the Neckar River, which makes for a great waterfront, but the highlight is clearly the huge Schloss. The castle sits above the town part way up a tall hill, which is now capped by a large tv tower. The Schloss is no longer inhabited and quite a bit of it is ruins. But, it is nice to see the different stages of building that took place as parts of the castle were destroyed and reubuilt over the centuries. In fact, the castle was, at one point, used as a quarry and much of it was carted down the hill where the stones were used to build houses in the Altstadt.

Apart from a very interesting Apothocary museum, the Schloss is also home to the world's largest wine barrel. The pictures don't really do this barrel justice--the thing was enormous. The curators were very clever, too, in properly setting you up to appreciate the size of the Gross Fass. When you first walk into the hall you see a rather large wine barrel and take a few pictures with it, secretly thinking to yourself "well, it isn't really that big." Then you turn a corner and feel like a fool because the Gross Fass in front of you is so large that it requires its own personal staircase. If you go up the staircase, you'll find a nice little patio area on top of the Gross Fass, where, one imagines, you either perform vinological experiments on the quality, color and aroma of the local brew, or you set up some chairs and tables and have a snack and a chat while sipping wine that came out of the very barrel you're resting on.

My other impressions of Heidelberg: cold. Very, very cold. Especially cold on top of the hill near the tv tower where a horde of Germans were out for a daily constitutional in the Wildpark. We figured the place would be deserted (there being snow on the ground, after all) but we kept having to move off the path to make room for mountain bikers.


The Gross Fass and some guy we don't know, for scale.



J!, Arr! and some girl who walked into the picture.


Heidelberg Schloss



J! and I on Heidelberg's main street.


Beautiful Heidelberg

Monday, December 19, 2005

Just to let the rest of the DOTDE travel team know: I've happened across a Dogsled Adventure Special just north of Oslo. Two nights, Three Sleds, and 15 dogs all for under $100. The only catch is that we don't get a guide (we do get a map), and we have to provide the food for the dogs (they sell some at the base hut). What do you say?

Thursday, December 15, 2005

As my newly aquired, German national pride-filled, church bell specialist friend told me, "I think Americans are a bit...um...lazy...when it comes to learning other languages", and he's absolutely right because of the simple fact that I get along just fine devolving back to a simpler (yet more universal) form of communication involving grunting and hand waving. I've learned that you can travel around successfully in Germany knowing only one or two German words, and if you don't want to eat anything along the way, it gets infinitely easier.

Things you might want to bring:
Miniature American flag or patch - Just to get it out of the way. Attach it to the front of your shirt where clerks can see it, so they skip unecessarily akward German congenialities and get right to the pointing.
"Big Pimper" T-shirt - Again, give them no reason to actually want to try and communicate with you verbally.
Large denomination bills - You'll see why in a minute.
A good pair of comfortable sneakers - Fast and unimpaired getaways are key here.

The Hbf:
The Hbf stands for Hauptgfn....Hatmanf...Hoffbanff...its a bus station. Not just any bus station mind you, its the bus station, at least for the city that you're in. In the words of a bad metaphor, its like a place where all busses come to a central station, stop, and then leave again. Here lies your first bypass to human interaction, the automated ticket machines (New with English!). From these yellow beauties you can buy a ticket anywhere, provided you can figure out the time, stop, location, bus number, direction, duration of validity and whether or not your teacup poodle is allowed to ride with you, all in the alloted time before they return you to the welcome screen. I like to buy two or three different kinds just to be sure.

The Christmas Market:
This should always be your first stop. If you're like me (you are following my guide aren't you?), it will have taken you no less than three hours to get to this location and it will be around the hour of lunch. This is fortunate for those travelers who like to consume gigantic sausages and alcohol because the dispensation of these two items is primarily what christmas markets are all about. I have for a period of a week now been searching for the wenches but have been disapointed in finding their lack of representation in these festivals. I'll keep you updated on any further progress on that front. Ordering food at these markets can be tricky, so you'll want to follow these directions very precisely. First of all, adjust your American flag according to counter height to assure that it is visible. Secondly, if there are any old people waiting patiently in line (there shouldn't be, this is Germany) you should abandon all notion of politeness and forcefully shove them to the ground. Don't worry, this is normal German custom as far as I can discern and I have not seen a single senior rebound with any real intention of violence. Once you have established yourself as the 'next person' (I hesitate to use that phrase as it has no German equivalent), you should then try and draw as much attention to your flag as possible. I like to pretend I'm scratching my nipple. After the service worker has clearly identified you as a foreigner, then you can proceed by mumbling something ending in "vurst" and making a gesture towards one of the fallic looking objects displayed in front of you. At this point I have found that it is best just to say 'yes' to everything that follows hereafter in order to keep things moving along until the cashier stares at you blankly, a sure sign that it is time to pay. You'll want to complete this transaction with nothing less than a 50 Euro bill just to be safe. This will not only prevent you from having to let them take the money from your billfold themselves but also you will have medium sized bills with which to buy postcards later on. Repeat this process for any combination of alcoholic Christmas beverages that you desire.

The Bite and Sprint:
You might be tempted to sit down at a bench or stand at one of the tables nearby, and while this seems like a leisurely way to enjoy the festive atmosphere, it could be disastrous. Tightly rolled sausages have a tendancy to shoot supersonic streams of steaming hot grease directly into the unblinking eyeballs of German rugby players, so you'll want to remain highly mobile.

The Cathedral:
Every Christmas Market is located at the doorsteps of one or more local cathedrals or churches. This is fortunate because not only does it provide a sanctuary from half blinded adrenaline junkies, it is also quite a breathtaking place to enjoy your food coma. Now is a good time to pray that your pursuer gets his other eye squeeged by some unwary tourist less informed than yourself.

The Museum:
If you're not exhausted yet from your leisurely trip into town, you might want to visit a museum. Every habitation, be it village or metropolis, has a historical museum. These museums offer an interesting look into the...well...history of the city. If you enjoy looking at the progression of maps through out various stages then these are exploratory goldmines filled with seemingly informative and well written plaques, often in German.

So just when I thought English was a little secret between me, my friends, and my family on the phone, I'm back in Massachusetts for two weeks hanging out with the almost-forgotten but primarily-English speaking world. I might actually go hang around train stations and bus stops successfully asking questions and successfully getting answers, just to practice...

But before I get to here, let's consider the great international service offered up by Air France: after consuming one French beer, a glass of white wine, a salmon and tri-colored pasta entree, chocolate mousse, and a blueberry muffin, I played a few video games (Chess and Caveman Crash), caught up on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (it was nicely bizarre, but a little unsatisfying with all that dentist garbage), and read a little Mayer. I heard they might even clear out a few rows for a dance floor on my New Year's Eve return.

On the homefront, WestMass might get another winter storm tonight and my parents have been doing the Snow Dance since yesterday. I'm hoping to catch a basketball game while here (for the drama and side stories, of course), and I'll be heading up to Mass MOCA to report on a few German artists hanging on the walls.

Early signs from D and Arr! say that they'll be heading to Venice this weekend, so I'm sure they'll send something on that front. And then, on my return, the three of us will trip it on the first full weekend of January. My vote goes towards flying North and mushing on some dog sleds for a couple days, though the Californians would rather experience quaint Italian island life. What do you think (and do you know of any two day European dog sledding adventures for three people, for under a total of $100)?

Monday, December 12, 2005

I consider myself extremely fortunate that D and J have allowed me to grace the digital pages of dotde during my stay here in Mainz. My intentions aren't anything so self-indulgent as to believe that the rabid readers of this blog are frothing at the mouth to view the scraps of information I might record about our travels through out Germany, but rather are to keep you updated on various situations in which I embarass myself. I hope you enjoy my shame.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Very few events convince me to skip my weekly ultimate practice. In case you're in town:

"Thursday, December 8, 2005

Evening Reading: Lomo-Buchbar, Ballplatz, Mainz, 19h

Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Carla Harryman, Rodrigo Toscano, Barrett Watten

"Language Spaces: Postmodern Poetry und Performance Art"

Four American "language-centered" poets/performers will present their recent work."