Saturday, December 28, 2013

Grey, rainy, windy days in Berlin

Maybe there is a reason for all those black overcoats and parkas that Germans wear: The color most likely reflects their mood. It's a mood that befits the weather, and the faces that accompany the mood speak volumes. Sunshine changes people's outlook, as do lit candles and glittery things that sparkle and reflect a child's smile. Well, I've seen fairly little of all that over the past week, since leaving Freising and Dortmund. Judging by their parkas and faces, Germans are a pathetically unhappy bunch.
Happiness has a different face

Sure, there was Christmas Eve, spent with most of my immediate family at my bother's first ex-wife's place. Since it was also my dad's 82nd birthday, it was a festive occasion, and there were those candles, and my 15-year-old nephew, who lives with Prader-Willi Syndrome, smiled a lot. We spent a harmonious evening, with a catered turkey that I first mistook for a small ostrich, and copious amounts of wine. The distribution of the gifts was interrupted at strategic times to allow the adults to take a smoke break in the kitchen—you can't just step outside when you live on the second floor of a Berlin Altbau without a balcony. Two smoke breaks equal lots of presents. It was a nice evening.
My nephew Jannick with some of his Christmas loot
The rest of the time that I have spent here has been fairly dull. Thanks to a heavy cold that I caught last week and that just now, finally, is starting to ease up, I limited my outdoor activities to daily walks around the neighborhood, mostly to escape the particulate-laden atmosphere in my dad's apartment. The stench of cheap cigarettes pervades everything, and when one has a cold, even a youth spent as a non-smoker in a smoking household won't make a difference. Sorry, but there is no diplomatic way around it: Staying with my dad for this one single reason is really a sacrifice. I hate this stench.
Dad and my brother (plus a friend, rolling a cig) in front of a Polish tobacco shop
Cigarettes are not cheap. I have no idea what they cost in the US, but last night I saw in the supermarket that a pack of 20 cigs costs a whopping 5 euro, or just a tiny bit shy of $7. Ouch. So my clever clan once in a while makes an excursion to nearby Poland (about 100 km, or 60 miles) to buy tobacco products as well as some of that well-seasoned polish sausage. Cigarettes cost less than half as in Germany, and since there is a limit to how many cartons one can bring back per person my presence was put to good use as I increased the customs-allowed limits. Oh well. Sightseeing was not part of our excursion, outside of the depressing market where live fish and inexpensive haircuts are other attractions.
Live trout, carp (a Christmas delicacy!) and other fresh fish
It's all in the display ...
A Polish barber shop
So, if my Christmas break comes across as a bit of a downer, well, you read this post correctly. But dad is 82, and I know that the opportunities to spend some time with him are dwindling rapidly. Berlin certainly is not the Caribbean (and most definitely not at this time of the year), and wrestling with a nasty cold is not going to help, either. Once again I realize how difficult, no, impossible it would be for me to return to this environment for not just long but forever. Nothing like a healthy dose of reality once in a while.
The x-mas trees haven't started to fall from the balconies yet, but this mattress did.
Viewed right in front of my dad's apartment in Neuk

One wouldn't think one's in the capital of one of the globe's most prosperous nations.
Alas, in 48 hours I will be back in the air, finishing off this year's flight mile # 100,000 while heading back to Lubbock, where my home is, thankfully. I am looking forward to 2014, which I will ring in with friends on Tuesday night. I certainly won't cry any big tears when 2013 is finally done. Happy New Year to you and yours!


Thursday, December 19, 2013

Snowflakes and a bit of Christmas spirit

December in Europe: If you have visions of Christmas markets,the sweet smell of mulled wine and freshly made cookies, and a dusting of snow—well, you've got it right, for once!
Munich's Marienplatz in Christmas splendor
When I flew through Helsinki on Tuesday on my way from Frankfurt to Munich (oh yes, there is a mileage-hog story behind that) I was pretty much disappointed when the Finnish capital was neither sparkling with cozy lights or hidden under a layer of snow. The outside temperature was 4 degrees Celsius, and it looked just like a dark, forgotten place. So much for running into Santa and the reindeer, I thought.
Approaching Helsinki—and no Santa in sight
When I finally got to Munich after 7,582 miles of flying, things were only marginally better—still no snow, but at least a hot mug of Glühwein, that red wine/rum/spices concoction that gives you a pleasant buzz while walking around a Weihnachtsmarkt. And that was what Sabine had planned for me immediately after my arrival: check out the local (i.e., Freising) Christmas fair where craftspeople brooded in their festively decorated hutlets, trying to sell Christmas ornaments, handmade pottery, or Nepalese hats and scarves. Just as the Freisinger Volksfest a few months back had been on a much smaller scale than its bigger brother, the Münchner Oktoberfest, this Weihnachtsmarkt was less populated yet more intimate than what we would see the next evening in the big city. Hey, Freising even featured an alphorn trio!
Crowded Weihnachtsmarkt in München
Last night, young Jonathan and I met up with Sabine at the Mariensäule in the dead center of Munich with plans for a stroll around the Christmas market, a relaxed dinner, and a concert for dessert. It seemed as if everybody in Munich was out last night, shopping and getting ready for the big celebration a week from now. It certainly was fun to play bumper cars with black-clad Germans out for a night on the town.
So many ornaments you can't see the tree!
Could that be Santa himself hiding behind the handicraft?
Munich is an expensive, posh place. All you have to do is look at the names adorning the various shops in the center of town, and you know that you can't afford to step in: Armani, Piaget, Louis Vuitton. But it sure is fun to stroll along and window-shop and wonder who will buy a quarter-million-dollar watch that's mere inches on the other side of that thick, bullet-proof show window. Good thing that we could afford dinner (barely) at Vapiano, a chique, hip, upscale pizza joint (located in the Fünf Höfe) that is one of Sabine and Jonathan's favorites. You can't beat a restaurant where you can pick your own fresh herbs from pots on your table.
PYOH at Vapiano—Pick Your Own Herbs
Does it get much better than that?
The concert was to take place in the Herkulessaal of the Residenz, the old royal palace. I had never been inside, and from what I saw I was a little disappointed by the lack of ornateness that similar palaces in other European metropolises display. But no worries, the concert was first-rate. Sabine had bought fabulous seats for the concert of the 39-member Moscow Cathedral Choir that was to perform traditional Russian Christmas songs as well as classical works. For all three of us it was the first time to attend a concert by a huge boys' choir, and I am still stunned by the beauty of their voices. To think that my old buddy Howard was a soloist of the choir in Winchester cathedral—I wish I could have heard that! The two hours went by much too fast, and even Jonathan begrudgingly gave his seal of approval—not easy for a 15-year-old.
The Moscow Cathedral Choir on stage in the Herkulessaal
By the time we made it back to Freising, it was after 11 p.m. Freezing fog had rolled in, and ice crystal were glimmering in the light of the street lamps. And this morning, when we looked out of the window, winter had arrived in the form of a 2-centimer dusting that left the city in a wintry-festive light. Enjoy these pics:

Later on this afternoon we will pack up our stuff and fly to Dortmund where Sabine's mom and brother live. We'll celebrate her bro's birthday on Saturday, and on Monday I will take the train to Berlin to spend my dad's birthday on the 24th with whatever family there is. Oh yeah, and it's Christmas, too!

Happy Holidays!


Monday, November 25, 2013

And then it was winter, suddenly

Good grief! Less than a week ago I was basking in the sun in Mexico, thinking that warm weather would never end. Seriously, I was still in serious summer mode even when I got back to Lubbock—after all, this has been a weird year for me with the broken leg, changes in travel plans, feeling seemingly a bit outside of the space/time continuum at times. It was warm in Cancun, it was warm when I was picked up at the LBB airport Wednesday night, and then it was warm on Thursday as well, so I rode my bike for 35 miles in shorts and a short-sleeve jersey—and less than an hour after I returned from my ride, a massive arctic cold front hit Lubbock. The temperature dropped 30 degrees in 15 minutes.

Wow, what a shock.

On Friday morning, it was around 25 degrees (after Thursday's high of close to 75 degrees), and I was glad that I had had sense enough to put the hardtop on the Miata; after all, the plan was to drive to Waco to help officiate a cyclocross race this weekend. I left shortly after 10 a.m., and I was hoping to beat the "wintry mix" that had been forecast. Alas, I was a bit too late: Barely had I left the city limits that the sleet hit, hard. The wind was howling at 30 mph out of the north, and US 84 became an ice rink. It took me almost 1 1/2 hours to make the 35 miles down to Post. Cars were in ditches or, worse, wrapped around telephone poles. Of course some numbskulls in big bubba trucks thought that going 50 mph was the smart thing to do, endangering everybody else. In my rear view mirror I observed one such maneuver, with cars having to scatter off the road to avoid a collision.
Saturday's front page of the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal
Once off the Caprock, conditions improved—marginally. There were still patches of ice and snow, until things really got better (i.e., just wet) south off I-20 around Eastland. I made it to Waco after the cloud-induced early nightfall.
The Highlander Cyclocross race dished up authentic Euro conditions
The bike race, of course, thrived on the adverse, yucky conditions. 'crossers are an odd bunch, loving (yet hating) the muck, the cold, the snot that flows uncontrollably from the noses, the sheared-off derailleurs, and the challenge presented by the elements. For us officials it is a challenge, too, simply to stay warm enough during a day of mainly standing in the cold, occasional rain, and wind. The fingers get stiff, and scoring becomes difficult. We, too, have to fight the snotty noses, but we don't get to change into fresh clothing at the end of the 45- or 60-minute race but have to stay in position to score the next race, or, as was the case for me, keep a vigilant eye on the "pit," the area where the racers are allowed to exchange bikes or wheels.
Hecklers "helping along" one of the racers in the labyrinth
One nice thing about being stationed in the pit rather than scoring at the finish line is that one gets to observe the racers up close. Either you love the mud and the wet and cold, or you better stay at home. Riding in these conditions requires some real mental stamina, in addition to the physical type. And then there are the hecklers, usually your compatriots from other age groups or categories who are done with their race and "cheer" on the soggy bunch who are tyring to ride through yet anther mud pit. "C'mon, this is a race, why don't you pedal?" "That white skin suit doesn't help you now, does it? You look as if you've shat all over yourself!" "You're getting beaten by a little GIRL!" "Get off the damn breaks!" Did I mention that hecklers usually have a beer in hand and yell at the top of their lungs?
Nanook of the North, anno 2013
I had been smart enough to bring a whole bunch of clothes, and even so I had a hard time fending off the cold. I know I am fat, but I'm really not that fat: I looked like the Michelin man because I had a whopping five layers on top (long-sleeve wool undershirt, official's shirt [for what???], official's fleece, down jacket, and rain shell) and two pairs of pants, plus a rain hat on top of the beanie when needed; the gloves were the thickest I own (and there were two back-up sets). Thanks, Susanne Schmidt, for taking the above pic in my "office." That was shortly before Ian brought me my lunch: A hot burrito, a cold Lonestar beer, and a shot of Jägermeister. OK, I was a USAC official on the clock, but that Jägermeister could simply not be turned down. I wished it had been half a bottle!

How to destroy equipment the quick and easy way: cyclocross!
After two days of racing I was glad when the fun had an end. I had made arrangements to travel another 45 minutes south to stay Sunday night with Martha and Alan in Temple, and that turned out to be a good thing as the TX Department of Transportation was issuing all kinds of travel advisories, urging motorists to stay off the highways that I would have had to frequent to make it back to the South Plains. It took me most of the way down to Temple to thaw (even though the temperatures hadn't dipped much lower than maybe 33F or 34F, but the relentless wind and the oft-heavy rain had done their respective parts). Just to make sure that there wouldn't be any lingering aftereffects, Alan and I hopped into the outdoors hottub—bliss!
Warming up at the Howell Inn in Temple
This morning (Monday) I decided not to take any chances and hang here for an extra day. There is nothing pressing in Lubbock that requires my return today, and I'd rather drive home safely tomorrow than worry about an accident all the way home today. And it is nice to stay with my friends. Thanksgiving is on Thursday, and I have asked Smitty and Lori over for turkey a la kamado, and that will really feel like winter. With that said: Happy Thanksgiving to all of you, and thanks to M&A for your hospitality!


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Once more on the Riviera Maya

Goodness, almost a week has gone by since our arrival here in the Ocean Coral & Turquesa, in heavy rain and across a road that now looks more like a bumpy canal. I'm glad I didn't bring a bike the way I usually do, because there wouldn't have been any way to ride it from the hotel to the main road. But as it was, after two days of unseasonably heavy rain the sun came back out, and since then Sabine and I have been eating and drinking too much and doing too little. Thus is life in an all-inclusive paradise that has little to do with Mexican reality.
The road from the main highway to the resort
Thankfully, after two days of more rain than not the skies cleared and we've been enjoying the various pools and of course the Caribbean, even though the rains and heavy swells have brought a lot of sea grass and general murkiness to the usually white beach and crystal-clear water. Still, you can't complain when lying in a soft chaise lounge, while the waves create that beautiful background noise of the oceans and the waiter brings yet another piña colada, spiked with a bit of amaretto. Or a mojito. Or a margarita....
The H10 Ocean Coral & Turquesa—still an amazing place to live la dolce vita
There were two highlights to our trip, and both came on the final two full days. On Monday, we took a day-long excursion to Chichen Itza, the mystical Mayan town that is considered one of the Wonders of the World. Years ago, Judy and I had traveled to Cancun with our then-neighbors, Tom and Trish, and we had rented a car to visit the ruins, but this time around we opted for a guided tour in a comfortable tourist bus. With an $85 price tag for a rental car alone (plus gas, toll fees, entry to Chichen Itza, lunch, etc.) it was a no-brainer to shell out $196 for the two of us and not to have to do at least six hours of driving ourselves. We were picked up in the hotel shortly before 8 a.m., and when we finally made it home it was a little after 9 p.m. (The catastrophic state of the roads to some of the hotels where passengers had to be offloaded was partly responsible for this long day.) Our on-board guide and host was extremely funny, telling us about the history and culture of the area in both Spanish and beautifully colored Spenglish. Sabine said that she now finally understands where some of my own sayings and intonations at times come from—she thinks I have listened to too many good folks like Alejandro (or, if you are his friend—which of course we all were—Alex).
This is not a tourist brochure—this is the pee stop halfway to Chichen Itza on the toll road

Before we got to Chichen Itza, however, ladies and yentlemen, we were going to stop at the cenote Ik Kil, a very big sinkhole where we were going to have a chance to swim as well as eat lunch. For some unfathomable reason, our tour bus was the first to arrive on this particular day, and Sabine and I immediately beelined for the cenote—and no kidding, we were the first and had this entire cathedral  of nature to ourselves for the next ten minutes before the hordes arrived and transformed serenity into frivolity. But by that time we had already soaked in the immensity of this underground cavern that has a 90-foot-deep pool and just a small opening at the top where the sunlight enters. (Visitors enter through a TNT-facilitated tunnel.) Wow, at least for me that was worth the entire trip.
Cenote Ik Kil: Entrance ...
... hole in the ceiling ...
... and 90-foot-deep water, as pristine as it comes before we entered

The buffet-style lunch in this out-of-the-way place featured cochinita pibil, a pork stew that involves slow cooking in banana leaves and that brought back memories of last Thanksgiving when Martha, Alan, and I feasted on this Mayan delicacy at their now-sold residence in Lubbock. Good, very good stuff! Thanks to the on-board free beer, expertly dispensed by a happy-to-serve helper, we were able to off-gas a few cochinita  burps before arriving at Chichen Itza. Alejandro, aka Alex, made clear how much time we would have, that we were to have English and Spanish-speaking groups with their respective guides, and that the bus would leave at 4:30 p.m., so pleece, ladies and yentlemen, be rrready! As a true Yerman, I kept taking mental notes never to pronounce a G again and rrroll every “r” in sight.
One of the so-called Wonders of the World—don't Wonder why
Chichen Itza has changed since my last visit, about a decade ago. Back then, one could still clamber atop the big pyramid, and I remember having somebody take a pic of a twenty-somethingish Jürgen as a sacrifice to Chac Mool, on my first visit to the Yucatan. Alas, as Dylan crooned, the times they are a-changin’. Apparently, not so long after our visit with T&T some visitor stumbled on those steep, uncannily precise and mathematical steps up (or more likely, down) the pyramid, started to roll, and ended up screwing things up for everyone to arrive after her: One death (and possibly a lawsuit) is enough, said the government, and now we can actually see all the ruins because they are people free. Fine and good—but what about the hundreds and hundreds of hawkers inside (yes, in-, not outside) this Wonder of the World? Only one dollarrr, sirrr. Verrry good quality! Last chance! At least in the past they’d have proudly proclaimed that everything es hecho a mano, handmade by their blind mother-in-law and their crippled children. But I guess they can no longer do so since all that kitsch must have been produced in China. Yikes. So, please, continue to keep us tourists off the rocks but ask the vendors to vacate the premises.
OK, so maybe I looked like this in my days as a gainfully employed lecturer....
Our guide, an older gentleman with the aristocratic name of Luis Ortiz Rendon, was obviously amazingly knowledgeable about the Maya in general and this site in particular, but unfortunately he suffered from a severe case of PD (Professor’s Disease). After we had remained in the same spot for 20 minutes (far away from the ball court) with him pontificating about the hip armor of the ball players, and gentle nudges did not have any effect on his geographical location whatsoever, Sabine and I continued our 2-hour tour of this magnificent site on our own. Occasional heavy showers hit us, and immediately the entire place started to steam; there was a rainbow; and there were poncho-hawkers, damn them. We managed to look at most of the exposed and reconstructed ruins (my goodness, how much stuff must still be hidden under that subtropical vegetation!) and came away with a sense of how small and short-lived our current “civilization” is—these dudes stuck around for more than 3,700 years, and that without air conditioning or iPhones.
Caracol—one of the few circular structures at Chichen Itza
We weren't sacrificed to the gods, but our legs were chopped off, nevertheless
Late in the afternoon, even rubble looks dramatic
Chac Mool is waiting for your still-pounding heart to be placed on his midrift
On the way home, we had a 10-minute stopover in Valladolid’s zocalo, or main square, just enough to smell Mexico and see what one misses when one stays in resorts and takes to organized bus tours. I’m starting to have more and more of an itch for another “real” trip, like the one to Machu Picchu last year.
Sabine, about to board the vessel of choice for her first open-water dive
The second highlight came yesterday, when Sabine dived for the first time in open water. Upon my encouragement and, OK, urging, she had started and almost completed a certified divers course in Yermany last year, but she never quite completed the whole thing since open-water check-out dives in Yermany’s notoriously cold lakes in the middle of the winter are quite sucky. But here we were able to do a two-tank “Discover Scuba” dive that took us about 30 feet below the surface for about 50 minutes each, and now I think she is HOOKED! To take a skiff to the outer reef in the Caribbean and descend to the world of lobsters, rays, and turtles (all of which she got to see on her first two dives!) is quite different from going to the local swimming pool and pretending that you are out of air. Better yet: We were the only passengers on the boat, with a very kind and emphatic French dive master by the name of Ivan, and thus the entire experience was simply superb. Half-way through the first dive we looked at each other, and the sparkle of her smiling eyes through the mask was simply blinding. And no BS here: I don’t think I have ever dived with anybody with fewer than ten open-water dives who was as adept at buoyancy control and general etiquette as Sabine was. Very, very impressive, and superbly promising for the future as there are lots of oceans beckoning to be dived.
Taking the plunge for the first time—dude, this is virgin territory!
SCUBA: Some Come Up Barely Alive! Sabine far left, moi far right
So, four hours ago (after encountering a flat in our taxi thanks to the huge potholes in our road and an ensuing transfer into a private taxi that happened to stop) we arrived at the Cancun airport. About 90 minutes later we bid each other our farewells. I’m typing these last few words on the approach to DFW and will go "live," I hope, in the Admiral’s Club once I clear customs, and Sabine is on the way to Yermany. This was a great trip to our neighbor to the south. Viva Mexico!
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La ponchada
Next trip: Waco and a cyclocross race. And then it's turkey time. As if I could eat anything after all that float and bloat....


Friday, November 1, 2013

German ruminations

One of the many typical Bavarian churches, this one in Rudolfing
Since my long weekend in Prague, I have been whiling away my time in various parts of Germany. First, there was a week in Freising, punctuated by mostly beautiful weather and a few cultural happenings. Since Sabine had to work for most of that week, I was on my own to pedal around the lovely landscape surrounding this old university town. On one particularly gorgeous day I rode something like 55 miles, through a bucolic fall landscape that could not have been much more scenic. The colors—all those reds and yellows of the leaves combined with the deep blue of the sky and the saturated greens of fields with winter forage—were picture perfect. But what place does not look spectacular in sunlight?
Fall cycling at its best
For our cultural fill we spent an evening at Munich's Künstlerhaus, listening to a concert that had been billed as a fusion of  "classical virtuosity and jazz improvisation," or something of that nature. True, the four musicians were technically brilliant, but somewhere the spark was missing and the improvisation—hallmark of jazz—never materialized. We left somewhat disappointed, even if the venue was spectacular and the music pleasant. Quite different was our visit to the amateur theater in Freising, which celebrated its 25th anniversary (and the 125th anniversary of the town's volunteer fire department) with a performance of the local-dialect comedy Das Wunder des Heiligen Florian. If I understood 75% of the heavy Bavarian dialogue, it was a lot; even Sabine admitted that after living in Bavaria for most of her life she still didn't get it all. But the performance was tremendously enjoyable, the actors did a fabulous job, the theater was so Old World, and the mayor's address after the performance was so heartfelt that I didn't mind the 25% that I missed. Now, that was really local flavor, especially since all the local glitterati and movers-and-shakers showed up in their finest traditional dress (no, not Lederhosen—fancy Loden suits and tastefully embroidered long dresses were the norm).
Lederhosen were worn only on stage

A few days ago I left Bavaria and headed for Jena, the place that is world-renowned for its Carl Zeiss factory and its glass factories. Two years ago I had stopped over here to see my old mentor and friend, Dr. Dennis deLoof, whose classes I had taken during my university days back in Trier. We spent an enjoyable afternoon/evening catching up with each others' lives, and there was much to chat about. Dennis had arranged for my room at the Steigenberger Esplanade, from where I looked upon the dome of the Zeiss astronomical observatory. Jena is certainly not the most exciting town for a tourist visit, but that was not the purpose of my trip anyhow. It sure was good to see you, Dennis!
A room with a view in Jena: The old Carl Zeiss observatory center right
On Tuesday I took the ICE to Berlin, a short three-hour trip from Jena that was extended by 25 minutes when a new train crew was delayed because of a major storm in norther Germany that had paralyzed most train connections overnight. It didn't matter—the train was comfy and I had no time schedule.
A fellow ICE passing us, inch by inch, while both are barreling along at 100 mph
Since arriving in Berlin I have been spending time with my dad, whom I hadn't seen since early May. He still smokes and coughs, he's getting around just a little slower, and he still loves political satire and talk shows, so the current NSA brouhaha provides just the right kind of material to poke fun at the inability of the politicos to keep their own spies in check. The news are continually revolving around the scandal that really broke loose after it was revealed that Chancellor Merkel's private cell phone has been tapped for a decade or more. It's quite a show.
Two giant pugilists in the river Spree, with red-hot lofts and the TV tower in the back
Since I keep a single-speed bike (my first, steel Ritchey) here in Berlin I have been able to go for a few rides. Even if they were fairly short (because of the low temperatures as well as the heavy traffic), they nevertheless give me a chance to exercise at least a little bit. The part of Berlin where my dad lives is certainly not the most scenic, but it is interesting to occasionally stop by for a dose of reality. And, let's not forget it, I'm not here for the sightseeing but to spend some time with my dad, even if that means countless hours in front of  the TV set. Who knows how many such visits are left for us, as dad is pushing hard toward his 82nd birthday.
The view from my dad's balcony: the 24-hr beer stop and the tattoo place next door
A few more days, and I'll finally return to the US and my own life. Obviously I enjoy these trips to Europe, but they also help me realize time and again that my home is somewhere else, even if I do enjoy running away from it maybe a bit more often than most of the people I know. It sure is a privilege to be able to do all of these things, and I am not taking any of them for granted.