You Get What You Pay For

Remember what it was like to be really scared?  Scared when you knew there was nothing to be afraid of, but you were scared anyway?  What is it that’s fun about that?  Yet we seek it out from the time we’re little.

Like hide-and-seek.  We know the people are out there, but when we find them, we’re often startled or even terrified when at last we stumble across those we seek.

Going to a Halloween haunt is a return to our childhood roots.  We know we are safe.  We know no one is going to hurt us.  Yet we go to be scared.  There’s an underlying hysteria to the whole process of gearing up for a haunt.

It starts with the gathering of the group.  And the group psychology is important to the whole experience.  There’s an optimal group size.  If the group is too big, there’s too much safety in numbers.  You can hide in the middle of the bunch.  If the group is too small, the contagious nature of fear is lost.  I think 4-6 people with a couple of total scaredy-cats is perfect.

It’s small enough that the fear of 2 can spread to the rest of the group vs. the swagger of several buoying up the rest of the group’s courage.

And, let’s be honest, as much as I hate to admit it, there’s a gender difference.  We women haven’t spent our live pretending to be brave.  We’ve been taught to be afraid for our safety in so many subtle ways; we’re more likely to be startled, frightened, and even terrified than our male counterparts.

We’re also more likely to fully enjoy the experience of a haunt.  This is also true of children–the younger, the more disbelief is suspended.

I ponder the attraction of being scared.  It’s a reminder of our vulnerability, a feeling of helplessness.  Why do we enjoy this feeling of not knowing what’s going to jump out at us?  Is it the rush of having experienced terror and having survived?  Is it significantly different from the rush of thrill seekers who sky dive, climb Mt. Everest, or go cave diving?

These images were taken on the haunted trail at the Acres of Darkness event.  I was hidden in the shadows, waiting for the moment when the victims were suddenly startled by the various actors on the trail.  While I can’t claim there great images in terms of lighting, framing, or composition, they captured a moment of true fear for at least some of the guests.

I laugh when I look at their faces.  I laugh because of the complete abandon of their expressions.  Is it macabre of me to enjoy having captured fear?  In my own defense, if they would have been in real danger, it wouldn’t be funny to me.  But these are “we got you!” moments.  They came to be scared and they were.

It’s photographic evidence that the haunt achieved what the audience paid for.

In a New York Minute

New York City is . . . You could finish that sentence with just about anything. For me, it’s mostly been a place I go for work or a place I go through on the way to somewhere else. However, there have been a few times when I’ve gotten to spend a justo here for fun.

The most recent time was a few years ago now. I stayed with a friend for the 4th of July weekend on a lagoon in NJ. Most of the Jersey shore lagoons are trapped in concrete and look like man made creations, much like the characters on the reality show (sorry, couldn’t help myself). But it’s surprising to someone who has spent as much time in “The Garden State” as I have just how much of the inner inner coastal areas are as dedicated to boating as the actual coastline is.

As someone who grew up as inland as it gets, the coast always seemed like a definitive line between land and ocean. In reality, the ocean gives way gradually to land, meandering its way deeply into every crevice. While me might intuitively guess at the movement of water, I tend to think of it as moving outward from the land to the ocean and had been oblivious to the interplay of water coming in.

My friend and I took a day off work and took the train from Brick, NJ to somewhere in New York City. We saw so many boats on the way, I thought we had taken a train to Miami.
Once we arrived in the city, however, the boats were all but forgotten. It’s hard to remember Manhattan is an island. It’s amazing it doesn’t just sink under the weight of all the sky scrapers it supports.

I suppose it comes as no surprise that of the dozen or so photos I took in the city, the majority were in the one park we stopped in. As much as I love visiting cities, I’m always relieved to find a bit off green space producing enough oxygen I feel I can breathe again. We were no where near Central Park, but Bryant Park provided exactly what I needed.
We had a fantastic dinner at a place that specialized in artisan cheeses and then headed to Times Square and Broadway where we saw Mama Mia–it had been running for so long, we had no trouble getting tickets.

The usher/bouncer yelled at me for taking a picture before the show had even started, so I put my camera away and enjoyed the show. I’ve only seen two broadway shows on Broadway, but it is way better than seeing the Columbus, Ohio version. Only London compares to New York for Broadway shows in my limited experience.

At about 11PM, we hauled our shopping bags from Broadway to the train and made our way back to Brick feeling like we couldn’t have stayed awake through one more New York minute.

January Spring

I take Tisen, our new foster dog, for a walk.  I leave my jacket at home because it’s 61 degrees.  The birds are in full-on spring mode.  Even the insects seem to have hatched.  I don’t know if 61 degrees in Chattanooga in January is normal, but it’s nice.  I’m disappointed when the sun starts to set at 6PM as if the warmer weather brought longer days.

As I watch Tisen prance along (if he were a horse, he’d be a Lipazzaner), looking more full of himself after 36 hours of being spoiled silly.  A runner passes us going the opposite direction.  He didn’t react to her at all yesterday–it’s the same woman.  But today, he lunges at her, growling a low warning.  Either the spring weather has him feeling his oats or he’s decided I’m someone he needs to protect from mysterious people running at us.

He reacts the same way 10 minutes later when two men run on a path that curves around and runs into ours.  Yet, they’re running away from us.  What makes runners look so threatening to dogs?  Even our gentle Bogart was not happy if a runner didn’t make a wide enough berth when they were coming towards me.

The spring weather has runners out in droves.  I don’t know if they’ve been running on treadmills and are thrilled for the change in temperature or if they have been waiting to start running since the New Year and the weather removed their last excuse.  Whatever it is, I have been walking these paths daily and I can tell you there are more runners out today than there have been since we moved here last August.

This is the “way up” phenomena, I suppose.  The “way up” phenomena in temperature changes plays out about the same as the “way down” phenomena in weight changes.  When the temperature is on the “way up,” it feels extra warm by comparison to the cold temperatures and so we suddenly feel inspired to don less clothing and exercise out doors even though, if the temperature were on the “way down,” we would be wearing layers at the same temperature.

Similarly, the “way down” phenomena in weight loss inspires us to think we look much better when we’ve lost a few pounds and to dress in clothing that, when we were on the “way up,” we would not have been caught dead in at the same exact weight.  Maybe that should be called the “weigh down” phenomena?

Tisen and I stop in our favorite store, Bone Appetite, for the third day in a row and pick up the oatmeal shampoo they were out of.  Tisen’s skin is getting less flaky and his coat is getting more shiny, but he still has red, irritated areas that he licks and chews at.  Between switching him to a high quality food, feeding him fish oil, bathing him in oatmeal, and treating him with “Nu Stock,” I’m hoping he’ll stop itching soon.

From Here to New Jersey

There’s no food in the apartment and I’ve skipped breakfast.  A meeting cancelled, opening up just enough time in my calendar to run out and eat, which my growling stomach has turned into a top priority.  Pat comes home just in time to join me and I suggest we go try an Italian restaurant we spotted the other day while out walking.

We head down the street, taking the shortest route to the restaurant.  When we get there, we’re slightly confused.  There’s a door on the right that walks into what appears to be a large kitchen area with 3 women standing around in it.  Then there’s a door straight ahead that looks like it goes into a cookware store.  We go in the front door and look around.  Yes, it’s a cookware store.  The women come around and I ask if they serve food.  They do not.  They give us their schedule of cooking classes and demonstrations and tell us about a wine dinner coming up.

This is all grand, but my stomach is growling and the clock is ticking.  We thank them and head back down the street.  Since I have Italian in my head, I suggest we go a little further to an Italian restaurant we know is a restaurant.  We get there and the place is dark.  They don’t serve lunch.

We head back towards home, deciding we will stop at the Urbanspoon Diner we passed on the way.  We open the door and discover a tiny little place with very friendly waitresses.  We’re seated and handed menus and brought drinks.  Just about then, a family of 6 walks in.  The waitress makes a fuss over them, pulling together two tables of four and arranging chairs and learning that they are from New Jersey.

I’m not sure why she finds the fact that they’re from New Jersey so amazing, but it’s clear she feels the need to be extra nice.  We watch while she gets the family seated, introduces them to a couple of regulars on the other side of the family’s table, takes their drink orders, and brings out their drinks.  By this time, we are also watching the clock.

Fortunately, the waitress notices our angst and excuses herself from the New Jersey family and comes over to take our order.  I decide to try the pecan-crusted chicken, which she assures me I will like.  Pat picks the pork and beans, which she tells him is her favorite.  She then tells us that one of the rowers from the Head of the Hootch asked for her favorite this past weekend and she told the rower she couldn’t recommend it because the rower was about to get on a plane.  Pat and I laugh, but I silently hope Pat isn’t going to be home much of the afternoon.

In the meantime, the father from New Jersey has gone over to the regulars’ table and gotten into a loud discussion about Joe Paterno.  The couple seems to think that a guy from New Jersey has the inside scoop because he lives in closer proximity to Penn State than Chattanooga.  But when the NJ father says he doesn’t think Joe will resign, they argue vehemently.  They end up betting $5 that Joe will resign and the guy from NJ promises to come back and pay it if Joe does resign.

For me, this whole conversation is a news flash.  I realize that I haven’t seen or heard any news beyond updates from the Wall Street Journal that pop up on my phone, which I have mostly been dismissing unread, for weeks.  Between being overly busy at work and having a lot of things to do and see outside of work, I just haven’t had time or interest in keeping up.  So, I am completely taken by surprise that there could possibly be any kind of controversy around Penn State and Joe Paterno, who for as long as I can remember has been considered the most upright guy in college football.

Normally, I would google immediately, but our food arrives before I have time.  The food is hot, fast, really good, and extremely plentiful.  While I work on my chicken, the NJ father tastes his sweet tea.  The waitress asks how it is and he says, “That’s good!  Better than McDonald’s!”  I assume he’s making a joke, but his son says, “Really?” incredulously.  It occurs to me that McDonald’s may be the only place to get sweet tea in New Jersey–it’s the only place I’ve ever heard of having sweet tea in Ohio.

I eat every bite of my dinner-sized lunch.  Pat reminds me that in the South, lunch is dinner and dinner is supper.  While this could explain the portion sizes, I think they have the same menu at supper time, too.  In any case, I enjoy the food–the chicken is moist and tender and I haven’t had chicken in a really long time.

When we finish up, we have to get back quickly as I need to get on a conference call.  But Pat’s hamstring has been acting up again; he can’t walk too fast.  The long strides seem to be what irritates his muscle.  I suggest he take shorter strides faster, but he thinks this will look stupid.  I visualize Fred and Barney revving up their Flintstone cars and tend to agree.

We make it back just in time for me to join my call on time.  As I settle back into my office chair and perch the back of my head on the neck rest, I lean back, take a deep breath, and wish we were in Spain where we’d now have time to take a nap before returning to work.

As the call goes off on a topic not related to me, I think about the New Jersey family and wonder what they will be doing this afternoon.  I think about the last time I was in New Jersey–in the beginning of my career, it was a place I went every two weeks.  Now, I don’t think I’ve been there since 2006.  I think back to a weekend trip I took out there to see a girlfriend.  We took the train into Manhattan and spent the day wandering around and then the evening seeing Mama Mia on Broadway.  But, then, someone says my name and I am pulled back into the conversation and back into my chair in Chattanooga.

Aquarium Revisited

After spending most of my day out on my bike, I return to the apartment and decide I am in desperate need of some restorative yoga.  Since I still have not bothered to find a yoga class, I get out my collection of yoga props and start practicing alone.  The lack of music reminds me that I still haven’t set up streaming to our receiver from iTunes–I’m pretty sure that’s not what I’m supposed to be thinking about during yoga.

I decide to do a couple of slow flows to warm up a bit.  This helps remind me to think about my breath instead of the infinite number of other things I tend to think about.  Then, I start into the long poses required for restoration.  Of course, I have no clock visible, so I have no idea if I stay in the poses long enough to get the full effect given that, in restorative, poses are often held for 10 minutes or more and it’s pretty darn hard to both breath and relax into your pose and mentally track time all at once.  So, I just hold them until it feels like my joints have space in them that they didn’t have before.

After about an hour of yoga poses, I feel far more relaxed and any tightness I had from riding is gone.  I decide that I cannot stay home another evening, doing nothing but sitting around on the couch.  I remember my aquarium membership and my desire to try to shoot in the aquarium and decide this evening is a good time to give it a try.

I jump into the shower and immediately, the memory of the man I met during the bike tour today asking me if I’m retired jumps to mind.  I like to tell myself that I fully accept the fact that I’m aging.  Yet, it’s moments like this that I have to face the fact that vanity has no concept of acceptance.  I may be OK with aging as a general fact of life, but I am not OK with other people thinking I look like I’m aging.

This spurns a sudden interest in appearance.  Instead of doing my usual routine of throwing on some sunscreen, scrunching my hair, and pulling on my most comfortable walking shoes, I suddenly decide to blow my hair out straight, put on some make-up, and locate a cute pair of flats.

After determining that I look as good as I can without professional assistance, I decide to take my camera with one lens so I don’t have to carry my backpack and tripod.  I decide to experiment with my fixed length 100mm lens.  I put the necessary cards and cash into my back pocket, grab my house key, and head out, choosing the fastest route since I am wearing less comfortable shoes than usual.

As I enter the bridge, two men are walking towards me.  One of them, who is probably close to 60, looks at me and says, “Ma’am, you’re looking f-i-i-i-i-ne today!”  Now how did he know I really needed to hear that?  I laugh and say thanks as I continue on my way without slowing down.  I laugh because not only does the timing strike me as funny given my vanity crisis, but also because what was sexual harassment in my 20’s is now rare and welcomed attention in my 40’s.

As I cross the bridge, I look across the water and see people that appear to be standing on the water.  There is a low-lying pier that blends with the surface of the water due to the reflecting light.  I turn around and look back at our building and see the back drop of the hills and the foreground of the park and decide I should stop and shoot for a moment before going to the aquarium.  When I turn on my camera, it gives me the message that no one who has just walked 1/2 a mile in less-than-comfortable shoes wants to see:  “No CF Card!”  I groan, turn off my camera and head back towards home.

I suck it up and get the card and then return to the aquarium, stopping briefly on the bridge for a few shots, but the light reflecting on the pier is not the same.  Oh well, another shot missed!  I enter the aquarium members reception and get my free ticket.  I head towards the penguins.

The glass in front of the penguins is smeared and there is a wall of children pressed against it, standing on the benches in front.  The penguins are racing back and forth, leaping fully out of the water as they fly by.  I make an attempt to capture this, but I have several issues.  First, 100mm is too close for the situation.   Second, even at f/2.8 (as wide as this lens will go), there is not enough light for fast enough shutter speeds to freeze the penguins in motion.  Third, reflections and smudges on the glass confuse the autofocus and make getting any kind of clear focus next to impossible, even when I try to shoot the penguins standing still.  Since I am coming back here for a photography workshop in a couple weeks and I don’t have a lot of time before the aquarium closes, I decide to move on to the jellyfish.

Turns out shooting jellyfish with the macro lens is fun, but also challenging.  Even though they don’t move fast, they move enough that a slow shutter speed causes blur.  And with a wide-open aperture and close focusing, the depth of field is so shallow that I can only get a small area of the jelly in focus.  I play with this a bit and end up with a couple of shots that are interesting, although not quite what I was hoping for.

I move on to look for the alligators, hoping to get some good shots over the top of the glass.  Unfortunately, the alligators are hiding this evening.  Not one appears for a shot.  I shoot some turtles that appear to be cuddling on a log and a couple of birds, but then move on again.

Next, I go up to the atrium on the top floor of the river building.  I find a place to sit and watch for birds.  There is a feeder near my seat, so I figure it’s a good spot.  Eventually, a yellowish bird I don’t recognize comes and perches where I can see it.  I get a couple shots, but even after looking at the signs listing what birds are in the atrium, I cannot identify it.  I make a note to look it up later (I feel quite foolish when I realize it’s a female Scarlet Tanager–something I should be able to recognize).

On my way out of the building, I take a few quick “drive-by” shots of a sea turtle.  I overhear a father and daughter talking about the fact that this turtle is supposed to be in the other building, but he is in timeout for hurting a shark.  He is a huge turtle and there are a lot of small sharks in the other building, so I can see how that would be a problem.

I decide to see if I can find the Macaws before I have to leave.  I’ve forgotten which exhibit they’re part of and it turns out that they’re on a floor in the other building that I skipped today.  Since it’s almost “kick out” time and my heels are now blistered from my cute flats, I decide to call it a shoot and find dinner.

Instead of heading home to fix myself something, I decide to find a bar I can eat at.  This is a habit I developed when traveling alone on business.  I like to be around people vs eating alone in my room, but it feels weird to sit at a table by myself in the middle of a restaurant.  Eating at the bar usually guarantees that you’ll at least have a TV to watch and often results in interesting conversations with complete strangers you’ll never see again.

Tonight, I end up sitting next to Clyde.  He is also alone and we end up talking.  He’s in his 50‘s, unsuccessful at finding a suitable partner in life, and tells me a lot about the differences between women from Wisconsin (where he’s originally from) and women in Chattanooga (which he has called home for more than 20 years).

In the meantime, a couple sits down on his right and the woman next to him keeps talking to him when he’s not talking to me.  Eventually, she leans in, looks back and forth between me and him, and asks, “Are you all married?”  Clyde laughs and says, “No.”  She looks at me and says, “Are you on a date?”  I laugh and say, “No.”  Her face becomes slightly puzzled, “Are you just friends then?”  I smile again and say, “Nope.”  She looks really puzzled and then says, “You all don’t know each other; you just met?”  I nod and say, “Yes.”  She pauses for a moment, looks at Clyde and says, “She just sat down next to you?”  He affirms.  She glances at me, then back to Clyde and says, “She’s real purty!”

If the woman seemed more sober, I might have felt more flattered by this compliment, but I will take it.  Once again, the universe has answered my vanity’s call for affirmation–if only I could get the universe to help me out with more important things (like maybe letting go of my vanity all together)!

After I eat, I say my good-byes and head back across the bridge.  I call Pat and we talk as I walk home.  This is supposedly a security measure, but I tend to think I’m safer when I’m not on the phone just because I’m more alert and, therefore, look less vulnerable.  But, I suppose Pat could call 911 if something happens.  In any case, I make it home safe and sound and it’s only 9:30PM.  Looks like I will still be spending some time on the couch tonight!

Getting Older

I have spent 6 days back in Chattanooga.  Pat spent 2.  He returned from his trip up to Columbus Thursday night and had one day in town.  Today, we will drive to Indianapolis.  My nephew is turning 18 on Tuesday.  We will spend the weekend there and then go on to Columbus Sunday night where I will work and visit as many friends as possible.

It’s funny how other people’s children become a measure of time for me.  Even my own nephews, whose birthdays I keep track of, progress through time at a rate that constantly shocks me.  Their birthdays somehow shifted from being a fun opportunity to delight and surprise a child to a reminder that I’m aging.  I’m not sure if this is more because of the delusion I suffer from that I am not actually getting older or if it’s because they stopped getting so excited about their birthdays when they entered the realm of double-digit birthdays.  Whatever the cause, it surprises me to realize that their birthdays have ended up being about me.

We load up in the car and head out.  We have a ton of gear for this trip.  We pack more for this road trip than we packed for two weeks in Germany.  But, I am taking a slew of electronics and work clothes as well as play clothes.  And, to the fill the suitcase even more, the temperature in Columbus is in the 50’s and it’s raining.  Funny how much more space sweaters occupy than T-shirts.

The drive to Indy is about 35 miles shorter than the drive to Columbus, so we are actually only adding about 150 miles to a trip to Columbus by going to Indy first.  We head up through Nashville and Louisville to get there.  As we approach Louisville, we decide to stop to get something to eat.  I find a restaurant that doesn’t sound like a chain and we pull off the freeway.  Unfortunately, there is a massive street fair going on at the stop we choose.  Traffic is backed up and there is no where to park.  We can’t get to the restaurant we’d selected and we decide to head on back to the highway just to get out of the congestion.

On the way back to the highway, we pass our second-choice restaurant, a fish fry place.  It has ample parking, so we pull in, get out, and walk in.  The place is tiny.  There are 2 ice cream parlor tables sitting just inside the door that block part of the area available to stand in line at the counter.  About 8 people can fit inside the door standing in line if they like each other.  There are 4 ahead of us now.  To the left, there is an old TV mounted up near the ceiling, pictures all over the walls that make me think of an older person’s living room, and 3 tables with 2 small chairs each.  One table is open, so we stand in line.

When it’s our turn to order, we ask if they have restrooms since this was an ulterior motive for stopping.  They have none.  This shocks us–in Ohio, it’s not legal to have a restaurant with sit down tables and no bathroom.  Pat pleads, telling the woman that we’ve been driving for hours and had no idea the street fair was going on.  But she is afraid of setting a precedent with so many people from the street fair stopping in looking for a restroom.  I contemplate suggesting that if she make the restroom available to customers only, she might sell more food, but decide that she is firm about the bathroom and that it’s not worth the argument.  Since we are both able to wait, we decide to go ahead and eat while we’re here and find a restroom after.

The food is probably fantastic if it’s something you were raised on.  For us, it’s just greasy and flavorless.  There is no good reason for having stopped here at all; the only result is that our bellies are full, we feel slightly sick, we still have to pee, and our arteries are probably more clogged.  Oh well.  We head on down the road and stop at the first rest stop.

When we arrive in Indy, our first order of business is to attend a soccer game.  My nephew plays in a recreational league and my brother coaches his team.  We all head out to the soccer fields together, me with my camera, big lens, and monopod in the hope of getting some good action shots.  I’m not really that much of a fan of shooting sporting events in general, but when it’s one of my nephews, I take a sudden interest.  I guess it’s pretty obvious that I’m not a sports photographer when you look at my shots–they’re all of my nephew rather than following the ball.  I get some practice panning and play with various shutter speeds to see what kinds of effects I get, and, my brother’s/nephew’s team wins, so it’s good all the way around.

That night, we decide to walk to the Mellow Mushroom for dinner.  It’s too cold to sit outside, so we pile into a large booth.  Pat and I decide to share a pizza, but the pizza doesn’t come and doesn’t come.  Finally, the waitress brings our pizza about the time everyone else is almost finished with their dinners.  She apologizes and explains that another server took our pizza for their table, which caused the delay.  We are famished by this time.  We eat our pizza loaded with greasy cheese and greasy pepperoni with a relish that belies the amount of “greasy” we’ve already had today.  I end up ordering a beer to wash it down.  I was trying not to because my brother is buying and I don’t want to run up his tab, but I learn that Pat and Paul bought Corona and that Mello Mushroom has Oberon on tap.  So, not looking forward to Corona, I order an Oberon to enjoy with my pizza.

When we return home, we celebrate with “homemade” chocolate cake and ice cream.  In a rare demonstration of  . . . not sure what . . . Scott practices waltzing with his mother around the kitchen.  Maybe all the sugar in the cake and ice cream got to him?  After dancing enough to demonstrate the waltz to the rest of us, we all retire downstairs to watch “The Event.”  I fall asleep about 10 minutes in and we all go off to bed after the episode is over.

Dinner with the Family

Pat and I are in downtown Karlsruhe finishing delicious slices of cake. It’s 4pm and we are meeting Pat’s family, including two uncles and their wives, at our hotel at 4:30. We finish up the final bites and quickly and rush to the closest S-bahn stop. The S-bahn is not exactly a high-speed train, stopping every couple of blocks or so, but it still gets us back to the stop by our hotel at 4:20.

We walk the short block to the hotel. No sign of the family in the parking lot yet. We dash inside and upstairs to our room so we can change clothes, brush our teeth, etc. At 4:29, we are counting down trying to get out the door. We finally get outside, walking out the front door of the hotel about 2 minutes late, and find a family gathering in the parking lot plus one man. When we step outside, Jim (Pat’s father) and the stranger walk over to us, reaching us while we are still halfway between the hotel and Pat’s relatives. He’s a very friendly man who speaks English well. It turns out he is a friend of Jim’s. He greets us both and the starts talking. I find myself torn on whether it’s more rude to stand there talking to him and ignoring Pat’s family or more rude to cut him off. Fortunately, Renate joins us and end the dilemma by saying that we need to get going. We tell the friend good bye.

We walk the rest of the way across the parking lot to greet Pat’s Uncle Horst and Aunt Elvi as well as his Great Uncle Erwin and Aunt Emmi. I have met all four of them once before, but our greeting is awkward. It’s been many years since we’ve seen each other–it was before Pat and I got married, actually–and with limited ability to communicate, it’s not like we really got to know each other at the time. The lack of familiarity makes it hard for me to decide if the customary cheek kisses are appropriate or not. I follow each of their leads and go with handshakes for the men and cheek kisses for the women. The four have come in two cars since each car will hold only 4 people. We are meeting Pat’s cousin Claudia and he new boyfriend at a restaurant on the Rhine that is difficult to get to other than by bike or car. Pat and I ride with Horst and Elvi while Renate and Jim join Erwin and Emmi in their car.

When we arrive at the restaurant, Claudia is already there and her boyfriend has just pulled into the lot. He introduces himself as Alfonso and as we arrive at the table, because he speaks English well, I am seated on his left, across the table from Pat who sits next to Jim. Claudia sits in the corner across from Jim and on the other side of Alfonso. Pat and Claudia catch up in German. Alfonso, it turns out, is one of those chatty, entertaining people who likes to tell funny stories. It also turns out that German is his first language in spite of his Spanish genes and English is not as comfortable for him. As a result, the stories are told in German and Claudia and Pat have a good time while Jim smiles along and tries to look like he understands. I am too tired to pretend. Alfonso periodically turns to me and speaks English, clueing me in to the subject of the conversation.

After a while, Pat decides to change seats and catch up with the other end of the table. I use this as an excuse to walk down to the river and shoot the sunset. As I stand there watching the light change, a man walks by with a similar camera to mine also trying to capture the perfect angle of the sun to the bridge. I notice that neither one of us has a tripod. We exchange only smiles as he passes me by.

When I return to the table, everyone is cold and has decided to move to a table inside. It’s actually colder inside that out, but since the temperature continues to drop outside, I guess we figure it will eventually be warmer inside and sit down. We have had dinner and drinks and it is only about 6PM now. Even though I ordered the smallest dinner on the menu, I am so full from our late lunch that I feel like there is a giant anchor in my belly. I have no desire to eat or drink anything else. The conversation continues in German. No one has the energy to make the effort to speak English by now–the conversation is flowing and trying to speak a second language always disrupts social events. Pat occasionally translates for me and I follow the conversation as best I can, knowing what they’re talking about whenever Pat is telling a story simply because I was there. Sometimes I laugh before the funny part of the story because I am playing the story in my mind and it’s moving faster than Pat is telling it. But, at least it keeps me from looking bored. It’s hard to make a good impression on your husband’s family when you don’t speak the same language. I want them to feel comfortable having fun and catching up with Pat in German without having to worry about me–I figure it’s the best I can do.

After a while, Horst invites everyone back to their house. Alfonso has to go do something related to his children and Claudia takes off, but the rest of us caravan back to Horst and Elvi’s house. They have an amazing collection of things from Africa. Horst also has butterflies that he used to collect, although I am told he no longer believes in killing butterflies. He also has a collection of bird books. This gives me an opportunity to check on some of the birds that we’ve seen throughout our trip. Pat translates a description, Horst makes a guess at what we saw and shows me the bird in a book. I agree that it’s the correct bird and then google the Latin name to find the English name for the bird. In this way, I discover we have been seeing Gray Herons all over the place along with a hawk that Europeans call a “Buzzard.”

In the end, it’s a lovely evening. I entertain myself flipping through bird books and exchanging information with Horst even though neither of us speaks the same language. Pat has enjoyed catching up with his relatives–they are all favorites of his. We walk from Horst’s to the hotel–he lives only a few blocks away. In the cool, night air, I am revived. I start thinking about trying to learn German again. This happened the last time I met Pat’s family. I regret not speaking German and get motivated to learn it, but then have little opportunity to speak it again and lose interest until the next visit. We’ll see.

Oktoberfest

As we walk from the train stop to Oktoberfest, more and more people wearing lederhosen and drindl crowd the streets.  We pass a collection of port-a-potties and decide to stop.  At this point, I am envisioning a large collection of big white tents (like the kind people use for wedding receptions in the US) in a field with thousands of drunk people staggering around drunk.  Having not given a thought to restroom logistics, the fact that the Germans want to stop at a port-a-potty on the way there now makes me worry that there will be no restrooms at the fest itself.  This worry is reinforced when we pass a man urinating in the bushes just 20 yards from the port-a-potties.

When we arrive at the entrance to Oktoberfest, I am surprised to discover that it is much like arriving at the Ohio State Fair.  The grounds are smaller, the rides are bigger and more sophisticated, rivaling the rides at permanent amusement parks, and the crowd is far more dense (in terms of number of people per square foot of space; I have no evidence to compare IQ levels).  Another interesting difference is that the people look like the same people we’ve seen all over Germany rather than the bizarre part of the US population, usually kept hidden from view, that mysteriously gathers at the Ohio State Fair.  And of course, the fact that at least half of the attendees are wearing traditional lederhosen and drindl just to be wearing it and not because they are participating in some act makes the crowd seem more interesting as well.

When we get inside the entry, first we discover there is no fee to get in.  Second, we find there are plenty of places to spend money to make up for the free admittance.  Each brewery has their team of draft horses standing around waiting for me to pet them.  I’m not sure who called ahead to arrange this, but I appreciate it.  It’s been a lot of years since I spent time with horses; having the opportunity to scratch some giant heads makes my day.  As we walk away from the horses, we see a group of young men coming out of one of the beer tents.  Two of them are supporting a third who has clearly not paced himself well.  As we pass them, we understand the value of wearing lederhosen with suspenders.  This guy is wearing only lose jeans and they have slid down over his rear end, leaving him leaning against his friends with his bare butt hanging in the wind.  We all look and laugh, tipping off the guys friends that he needs a little help.  They pull up his jeans and make a joke in German.  Everyone laughs and we go on our way.  As I look around, I realize that no one else in the vicinity is staggering and I am surprised.

We slip inside a beer “tent” and are surprised it’s not a tent at all but a permanent building with massive beams supporting the roof and a wood floor.  We’re surprised and ask our friends about the buildings being permanent.  They tell us that no, the site of the fest is a park and that the “tents” go up about a week before the fest starts and are gone again within a week after.  We look at the structure again and are amazed at what it must take to erect this building in a week,–when we go to the restroom and discover a huge room of flush toilets, we are even more amazed.

The original plan for Oktoberfest was that we would have a reservation for three hours at one of the tents.  We would be served all we could eat and drink for those three hours and then we would have to give up the table.  However, Dieter and Giesala had friends tell them that a reservation wasn’t really needed and that we could show up at any time, so we did not have a reservation.  This worked well from the perspective that it allowed us to switch days on when we were going with the rain and cold weather, but not so well in that even on a Tuesday afternoon, the tents were packed and finding unreserved tables with open seats was not easy.  At the first beer tent, we were able to sit at a reserved table where the reservation didn’t start for several more hours.  We ordered a round of beers and sat sipping away.  I practiced my new beer holding technique–my wrist was already tired from the beer earlier in the day at the Haufbrauhaus.  We sit and watch people.  There are an overwhelming number of people to watch.

I watch the drindls and lederhosen, fascinated that while the basic look is always the same, they come in wide varieties.  Most interesting to me is the shoe choices of women wearing drindls.  I don’t know what the traditional show would be, but each woman seems to have made up her own mind without consulting tradition or fashion on what footwear choice works for her.  I see one woman in rubber Hunter boots with her drindl.  Another with 4 1/2 inch spike heels–the heels are literally spikes, made from metal.  There is everything in between, although ballet flats seem to be the most popular.

After finishing our beers (once again, I am unable to finish mine and I share with Pat), we start strolling through the park again.  We stop at some shooting galleries where Giesala and Jim try out the shooting skills.  The guns don’t shoot straight and it takes a while to adjust.  Once Jim gets the hang of it, he makes every shot, having been a sharp shooter in the military.  After spending something like 10 Euro on shooting, he wins a prize and allows Giesala to pick from the choices.  She selects a small teddy bear, which she decides should go to me and fastens him to the zipper of my rain jacket.  He bounces along as we continue our walk down the strip.

Eventually, we find ourselves in the Haufbrauhaus tent.  Here, the unreserved tables are jammed with people and the reserved tables are blocked off so they can’t be used even when no one with a reservation is there.  We wander around not sure of what to do.  Eventually, we find a table out in the beer garden.  It’s jammed up against the tables on either side so that when we sit down, we are literally using the people behind us as back rests.  No one whose been sitting there a while seems to notice.  The people already at the table we join are laughing and talking with the people at the next table over.  It seems like everyone knows each other with people switching tables frequently to visit with other people, but I think this is just the atmosphere of the fest.  We are surrounded by people from different parts of the country.  A guy with an odd long-haired wig on sits behind me.  He has a cart with what looks like karaoke machine in it sitting next to him.  Jim offers the guy 10 euro to sing.  The guy turns out to be a local personality there with a guy with a camera and they decide this will be a good bit.  They have Jim hand the guy 10 euro on camera and the guy sings.  Supposedly it will be on TV in Munich.  I find myself wondering what they are saying and hope that it’s not too embarrassing for Jim.

Before I can worry too much about the TV bit, a large group of Scottish guys in kilts arrives.  They greet the guy with the wig and walk around to join his table.  One of them immediately attaches himself to Pat’s mother and can’t seem to stop hugging her and telling her he loves her.  We end up in a conversation with him.  It’s a sort of odd transition, but we end up talking about Scotland and Pat’s own experience with wearing a kilt for a wedding.  This, of course, leads to discussion about what one wears under a kilt.  We learn that the Scots are traditionalists and the offer to prove it; Renate stops the one closest to her when his kilt is at about mid-thigh.  Back on the subject of Scotland, he tells us that we can have it–it rains too much for him.

It’s getting late in the day and Dieter wants to return to our country hotel in Wald.  We are trying to drink up so we can leave.  Pat and I are splitting a beer this time instead of me pretending I’m going to drink one myself.  I try to polish off the last bit of my half, but even half is a strain.  Pat takes an few extra sips for me and then works on helping Jim finish his beer.  I do some math and realize that I’ve had 1 1/4 beers since the first half beer at the Haufbrauhaus in Munich. But it’s 1.25 liters of beer, which is approximately 40 0z of beer or 3 1/2 US beers.  That’s a lot of beer!

We return to the train station at sunset.  We skipped the port-a-potty on the way, having all used the restroom at the tent.  But, it was a long walk from the Haufbrauhaus to the train station.  Pat needs a restroom now.  There are 7 minutes until our next train; Pat decided to risk it.  I will omit some of the more sordid details of the events of the rest of the evening, but Pat did not find a restroom, but did cause us to miss our train.  Having to wait 20 minutes for the next one with all of us having consumed much beer, that 20 minute wait led to much discomfort across the board.  Then there was the 30 minute train ride to to the park-and-ride and the discovery that the restroom there was closed.  Let me just conclude that we were pleased that the parking lot was surrounded by dense woods and there were very few people around by the time we arrived there.

When we returned to the hotel, we sit and allow Dieter to drink.  He had the least beer of all, having cut himself off early in the evening since he was driving.  The hotel is no longer serving dinner, but now we are hungry.  They fix us a spread of meats and cheeses that we enjoy with homemade bread.  Tired and full, we all retire as soon as the food is gone.

Return to Neuschwanstein Castle

When we wake up, it’s raining steadily. The temperature makes the rain feel bitterly cold. Up in the surrounding mountains, it’s snowing. But we will not be going that high. I layer up with silk long underwear under my jeans and an extra warm Underarmour shirt under my sweater. I put on my thin leather jacket and then pull my rain jacket on–loose enough to fit over everything, it will keep me dry as well as help trap my body heat. I even dig out the thin pair of Windstopper gloves I shoved into my bag just in case. We all pile into the mini-van and we are off.

First stop is Neuschwanstein, the castle started by King Ludwig II of Bavaria intended to capture the opera The Rings in architecture. However, the castle was only 1/3 complete when Ludwig died mysteriously by drowning in a lake with his psychiatrist at the age of 40. He had been declared insane and removed from power only days before. We came to this castle years ago, but had taken the German tour. I’m happy that this time, we will take the tour in English. First, we must park. Then, we must walk part way up the mountain to buy tickets. Then, we must get ourselves from the ticket office to the castle, which is estimated to be a 40 minute walk up a very steep incline. There are three choices: walk in the rain, ride a bus, or take a horse drawn carriage. We head for the bus, but the line is so long to get a ticket that Dieter and I (at the head of the pack) think we must walk. But, a chorus of protest rises from behind us and we turn and go back to get a horse drawn carriage instead.

We start off in front of a couple walking arm in arm. Two average-sized horses pull the wagon loaded with 10 adults slowly up the steep road. The couple falls slightly behind, but when we are halfway, we pause to give the horses a short break and the couple nearly catches up with us while we wait. But then we are off again and either the horses are so revived that they move faster or the couple is so fatigued they move slower, but we leave them far behind.

When we arrive at the end of the wagon ride, we are told that the walk to the castle is 15 more minutes. But it is not too strenuous and we make it in less than 10. We are 15 minutes early for our tour. We stand under the arch of a giant gate leading to the courtyard, huddled together with about a hundred people from nearly as many different countries. When it is time for our tour, a lighted sign in the courtyard displays our tour number and we move back into the rain briefly to walk through the cattle gates with the rest of the English speakers on our tour. The girl who leads our tour speaks loudly and slowly, over enunciating each word, but in the first room, her voice bounces off the tiles and echoes so that it’s nearly impossible to understand what she says. The Germans in our group do not think she is German, as her accent sounds so strange. I ask her where she is from originally as we walk to the next room and she tells me she is from here originally; I assume Schwangau, the small village near the castle. That doesn’t explain her strange accent, though.

We learn a bit more about the crazy king who wanted his life to be a fairytale. We see rooms on two floors, starting in the servants quarters and ending in the concert hall. Unfortunately, there was an actual concert recently and the floor is completely covered to protect it. We did get to see the mosaic tile floor in the receiving room–we’re told that there are over 2 million tiles that were individually laid in the floor. The crazy pattern has a mixture of animals I can’t make sense of, but perhaps if I were an expert on Wagner operas, it would all become clear to me. Our tour guide offers no explanation for the decor choices and is too far away with nearly 50 people on the tour for me to ask. We are told that the tour is over and we should check out the kitchen on the way out.

A narrow spiral staircase takes us down four floors to where the king’s meals were prepared (with a detour through the gift shop, of course) and we wonder if he ever had a hot meal given that his dining room was at the top of the stairs. The kitchen is enormous and, apparently quite modern for the times. After looking at the signs, trying to figure out the layout, we return to the cold and rain outside.

Next, we walk back down to the drop off point to take a wagon back down. We are shoved into the back of the wagon with a strange man between me and Giesala who clearly doesn’t understand English or German. Then, three more people join. The four are all Asian, but the strange man is Japanese while the other three are Chinese. The strange Japanese man introduces himself to Giesala, but then keeps repeating her name. He won’t look up and remains in a hunched position, eyes on the floor. Then, when no one is talking to him, he starts muttering to himself. I don’t know lots of people from Japan, but I’ve never seen anyone act like this from any country that didn’t have some kind of problem going on. In any case, we are distracted by the group from China. They tell us they are from the Tsing Tao museum and the man produces many beer labels and gives them to Pat after Pat tells him that be likes Tsing Tao beer. We really aren’t sure if there is a museum or if they were from the brewery, but we laugh with them the whole way down the mountain. The man and Pat got into a beer belly contest with each of them pulling up their jackets and extending their bellies to show . . . well, I’m not sure what they’re trying to prove. Pat won in any case. Then, the man’s cell phone rings and his conversation has the two women he is with in stitches. One of them explains that the person on the other end of the phone had told the man to hurry up and he replied, “It’s not up to me, it’s up to a horse.” We all laugh, too. Pat asks if he can buy the man a beer since he’s given us so many labels, but he and his colleagues have to rush off.

We decide to wait to eat lunch until we got to the second castle on today’s itinerary–Linderhof. We walk back to the mini van and take off in the rain.

Wandering Freiburg

On the morning of our last full day in Freiburg, I awake feeling much like I’ve been run over by a train a few times. My head aches, my throat is on fire, my body hurts every where. When I stand up, my calves remind me how much up and down walking I’ve been doing by spasming painfully. I look in the mirror to discover a large spot between my upper lip and nose. I get out my reading glasses and determine it’s a giant zit that could only be more noticeable if it were on the end of my nose. There is a certain irony about having to put on reading glasses to determine a foreign body on your face is a zit, but I cannot say I find it amusing.

I splash water on my face and drink some from a glass in the room, breaking my no tap water rule. I am glad that we have spent so many days in this small town–I don’t feel rushed to see all of it in a day and feel the freedom to relax into our trip gradually as my body adjusts to the time change and, hopefully, defeats whatever virus it is that I’ve picked up on the plane. I check the time and it’s nearly 9AM. Pat is up and we make our way towards breakfast with me moving slower than usual.

I take my iPad to breakfast with us today since we haven’t yet figured out what to do today. Pat suggests going hiking again, but every part of my body screams “Nein!” at this suggestion. I suggest we hit a couple of museums and do a casual stroll down to the Dreisam River, now that we know where it is. We plot out a broad rectangle through town, wrap up breakfast, and head back to the room to finish preparing. I make the mistake of sitting down on the bed to read while Pat is in the shower, finding myself nodding off and slow to get moving again. It’s nearly noon by the time we get out the door. I remind myself again that we don’t have to try to do and see everything and this is our 4th day in this town–if we didn’t see anything else here, it would be OK.

We wander down a street we haven’t taken before–when we looked at the map, we were surprised to find that there were a few of those left. We point ourselves at the Anthropological Museum, hoping for dinosaurs and wooly mammoths, I suppose. When we arrive at the museum, we recognize the park in front of it and realize that we’ve been by several times before. The building isn’t big enough to house dinosaurs, but we go in anyway.

We follow the displays of ancient artifacts ranging from tiny remnants of weapons and tools to large pots. The signs are only in German and the English translation booklets are all gone. Pat has trouble translating the signs, not knowing many of the words since they are not commonly used in conversation. I wonder if it is a deep character flaw on my part that when I see these types of displays with their little signs purporting historical significance that I immediately want to lay down and take a nap. We make it through two and a half small floors of displays of similar items. Some displays are models of what life looked like at each represented chapter from history. One has a tiny woolly mammoth in it and I smile. But upon closer inspection, I see that it is a child’s plastic rhino covered in fake fur to look like a mammoth–apparently model mammoths are hard to come by.

Returning to the bright sunlight outside the museum, we walk a little further and find a much more exciting sight–the university library is being torn down. A crane takes bites of concrete from the massive structure, leaving exposed rebar along the edges. We retreat to a safe corner as we watch and a man standing there strikes up a conversation with Pat. He has returned to Freiburg for the first time in 20 years and is amazed that they are tearing down the library. He tells Pat that he watched it being built when he was a college student there in 1977. Other than the building being ugly, I can’t determine why they would be tearing it down by looking. I stand there watching the crane at work as Pat and the man continue their conversation. I catch bits and pieces and realize they’re trading stories about travel, but at last Pat turns to me and says, “He’s doing what we want to do–he has no home.” Later, I learn from Pat that the man graduated from college and started living out of a VW bus, traveling all over Europe. He also spent about a year doing the same in the US. He never settled down and continues to live on the cheap as he moves from place to place. He tells Pat that he gets an occasional job but he eats from the grocery store, buys used clothes, and spends very little money. I find myself wondering who “we” is in Pat’s statement.

We wander on down to the Dreisam “river” and realize why we couldn’t find it the other day–we probably crossed over it without noticing. We walk down to a pedestrian path along the water passing groups of teenagers who pass joints back and forth between them, the smell of pot lingering in the air. Pat tells me to be careful in case we are mugged, but I imagine we would be in more danger if we were carrying a bag of fries than carrying my camera. We walk on by un-accosted.

A beer garden sits on the edge of the river in front of an active group of ducks fluttering around on the water. We stop and think we might have a snack, but the waiter doesn’t come and finally Pat goes inside, returning with two Pilsners and no food. When I ask about a snack, he tells me the kitchen was a cluster, so he just got beer. We had breakfast only two hours ago, so I figure we should survive the deprivation, but I worry about drinking strong German beer without any food. Pat has to answer an email, which takes him a long time on his iPhone. I sit and wait for him to finish, watching a silly dog dive into the knee-deep water and try to chase the ducks, hopelessly thwarted by the resistance of the water.

A man gets up and points out a large heron of some kind sitting on the bank across the stream. It looks related to the Great Blue Heron of home, but I wish for the second time that I had purchased a German bird book before coming over. I also wish I’d brought my telephoto lens with me today instead of leaving it in the hotel, but content myself with shooting with the lens I have.

After finishing our beers, we walk on along the river, passing a pair of lovers on a park bench. They are young. He sits in the bench while she lays with her head in his lap. They see nothing but each other and he reaches out and strokes her face with the tenderness of young love. After we pass, I tell Pat I wish I could shoot that moment without interrupting it, he looks at me oddly and says, “They’re dirty and homeless and they look like they’re high.” I guess we all see things differently–or maybe I really did need to have food with my beer.

Returning to the city streets, we find ourselves some ice cream and wander along towards the modern museum of art. We find a large church on the way and stop to peer at it between the bars that keep it closed to the public but open for gawking. Pat says, “They really make it hard to get close to god at this one!”. I laugh, but since I think we’re closer being outside than in, perhaps it’s not as funny to me.

We wander around some more, deciding to stop and eat a flatbread pizza-like thing that Pat says first appeared in Germany about 15 years ago and seems to have grown in popularity since. He doesn’t like Flamkuchen himself, but thinks he should give it another try. We sit outside once more, this time in a small courtyard between what might be office buildings. The Flamkuchen is not any better than Pat remembers it, but the beer is good. We sit in the sun feeling very European–or maybe French or Italian–letting the afternoon cruise by as we relax with no place to go.

Finding the small amount of energy I’d rallied flagging, I suggest we skip the art museum and return to the hotel for a nap instead. Pat agrees and we make our way back to the hotel. We decide to watch an episode of Damages on my iPad and I fall asleep ten minutes in. Pat goes through two more episodes while I doze before he, too, falls asleep.

Waking nearly 3 hours later, I am groggy and confused, but hungry. We decide to do our usual wandering for dinner exercise. I get myself sorted and we decide to try to find the restaurant we ate at our first night in town. We both think we know where it is, although we don’t agree. We wander around for an hour with it being in neither of the places we thought it was. Eventually, we settle for a place we haven’t been before where I try a traditional German version of macaroni and cheese. It’s made with spaetzle noodles and rich cheese and cream sauce and topped with toasted onions.

While I eat, I watch two French men sitting behind Pat. Tonight, they are the “loud Americans,” talking and laughing loudly and ogling each woman that walks by with an openness that I haven’t seen in the states in 20 years. One of them wears a polo shirt and khakis that look almost American. The other wears a black leather biker vest, a long dangling earring in one ear, and his mostly missing hair in a pony tail. If it weren’t for how they held their knife and fork, I would think they were Americans playing a joke by speaking French. Then, the biker guy pauses in his eating to run his tongue down the length of his knife, removing every remnant of whatever he’d been cutting with it. I have never seen anyone do this from any country, although having only been to France a few times, I can’t claim to be an expert on French etiquette. I’m pretty sure this is not standard French dinner behavior, however.

Finishing up dinner and skipping dessert, we drag our still tired selves back to the hotel for the final time. We set the alarm for the first time since we arrived, needing to get up early to catch the train to Berlin in the morning. As I get ready for bed, I carry my iPad around with me trying to catch up in the episodes I slept through. Getting caught up, I suddenly feel wide awake. We end up watching one more episode before falling asleep. I wonder if our German neighbors can hear the iPad through the walls as I drift off to sleep.