Monthly Archives: February 2010

Dear So-and-So, Stuttgart Airport Edition

Dear Stuttgart Airport PA system,

Could you please stop reinforcing my view of Germany as a place where 80s music still rules?

“Wouldn’t it be good to be in your shoes, even if it was for just one day” (especially because then I could change the radio station), NFAH


Dear Small town German gas station lady,

Thank you so much for just opening the bathroom door with a key when I could not understand your German instructions for using the coin operated toilet system. And sorry about the totally not understanding German thing.

Monolingual (mostly), NFAH


Dear Miss Bossy Pants (Sat Nav System in German Rental Car),

I really missed your voice as I was driving back to the car rental place today. Your live route maps were still delightful, but I don’t know how I managed to disable the voice instructions and I could not figure out how to get them back. But that thing where you took me on a wild goose chase trying to get back onto the motorway after I stopped for petrol, that was not cool. I did not know your program would allow you to direct me to a place where there WAS NO ROAD–had I blindly followed your directions I would have ended up in a creek.

Still loving how easy it was to navigate western Germany thanks to Miss Bossy Pants, talking or no talking,
NFAH


Dear Extremely senior colleague,

Thank you so much for sending your employee to pluck me out of the symposium, away from the sandwich lunch, and taking me to lunch today. I’m not exactly sure what you, the head of the institute, was doing making small talk about your town with lowly me over lunch (I had thought maybe there was some business to transact, but none came up) but I did enjoy the conversation. And I hope you realize that my not eating all of my food was not a personal affront, German vegetarian cuisine is a bit random and this was no exception.

Honored, NFAH


Dear eating place in random German town,

Seriously, the vegetarian lunch of the day was elbow noodles with dry spinach and chopped up hard boiled eggs? No sauce, no flavor, nothing?

I mostly starve in Germany (except the bread/pretzels), NFAH


Dear young colleagues,

I adore the fact that you put in lots of effort when I ask you to make me a few powerpoint slides for a presentation I have to give. But there is a new rule from now on: no fancy sh*t. No animations, no flying things, nothing appearing after a sequence of clicks. Nothing that requires any interaction except a movie and provide that as a separate file for me to test myself.

Flustered after having to improvise when two slides in my presentation just didn’t show up during the live slideshow (and yes they are still there in the slide sorter when I’m not in slideshow mode–they just won’t display in full screen mode), NFAH


Dear World,

That does it, officially I’m exhausted. After taking the Eurostar to Paris a week ago this morning, back late Sunday night, missing my flight Wed. morning, recovering and flying to Germany Wed. afternoon, driving through the “Naturpark” twice and now sitting in the Stuttgart airport waiting to fly back to London, I am officially done traveling. For. Um. 15 days. At which point I fly to the eastern coast of the US, connect to the UP in Michigan, work, return to the east coast, work, fly back to the UK, attend a conference for two days, speak at said conference jet-lagged, turn around and get on a plane for China less than 60 hours after landing back from the US, travel all around China for 12 days, come back, be at home for about a week before I leave for a workshop in Switzerland for two days…. SH*T. I’ve don’t it again, haven’t I. Let’s just see how tired I can get by the middle of April when all of this is over… I hope no one had anything urgent they wanted me to do between now and the last part of April, because I’m just not seeing it…

CLEARLY I never learn, NFAH


Greetings from remote western Germany

I never learn. Twice now I’ve had to come to a workshop in Germany immediately after having spent a weekend in Paris. At least last time it was Munich and an easy and familiar trip; I’m in the middle of nowhere right now. Which means this is the second time I’ve agreed to speak at a workshop in Germany in the middle of nowhere (the other time there was no recent Paris trip, though). And random middle of nowhere Germany adventures present me with the rare opportunity to drive in Europe, which is truly a silver lining for me. This one was actually worse than the last one, in that I had to drive about 250 km (see, I really meant REMOTE Germany) instead of 120 km. But it was better because I had miss bossy pants to tell me where to go, so the driving stress was relatively low. (Relatively but not totally, more on that in a minute.) That’s right, for the first time ever I rented a talking GPS unit along with the car, and left myself completely at its mercy to find my hotel.

This only really occurred to me about half way through the trip–the fact that I was being perhaps a bit too trusting. The roads seemed awfully narrow and windy and everything was so very dark around me. Now that I look at the map I can see what must have happened: miss bossy pants took me on the most direct route, which happened to be through the middle of a “Naturpark” instead of staying on the main roads and going way out of my way but on big, well-lit and well-traveled 4+ lane roads, the way Google maps would have had me do. Which is all well and good except that somewhere in the middle of said “Naturpark” it started pouring. So it was winding and dark and hilly and narrow and pissing down. And my rental car was a Citroen, which I had never driven before. And oh yes right in the middle of all of this miss bossy pants started complaining that her batteries were low. I actually had to pull over into a trucker rest stop parking area to sort that one out. Finding (a) the cable, (b) the port to plug the cable in on the GPS unit, and (c) the whatever-you-now-call-the-thing-that-used-to-be-the-cigarette-lighter in the car proved to be too much to do while driving. And of course prior to those three one had to locate the car’s dome light switch. Exciting times. I had a flashback to my Aussie adventure of just over a year ago, when we were out on dirt tracks in the bush in a Hyundai with no extra water and I was sure we were going to end up in some Blair Witch Project-like hopeless situation and be found dead years later. It occurred to me today in said “Naturpark” that perhaps I should not have been doing this drive solo especially at night. But then again, it’s all just part of life’s adventure. And miss bossy pants did do a great job, got me right up to the door of my hotel in 3 hours total, even if I have issues with her route selection given the conditions.

And why was I doing this in the dark, one might reasonably ask. And the answer is that I have a headcold and managed to sleep through my alarm this morning, thus missing my 8 am flight. I was awoken by the car service who normally take me to the airport. But this was 6:30 am, and I was supposed to be picked up at 6. I’ll never know why they waited 30 minutes to ring, as if they had rung earlier I might have made the flight. As it was, even with 10 minutes only to jump into some clothes and grab my previously-packed (thank goodness!) bag, when I got down to the car the driver gave me a less than 10% chance of making it and I gave him some money for his troubles and went back upstairs to try and decide what to do. As tempted as I was to listen to the little shoulder devil and just bag the trip entirely (and not tell anyone, such that I would have three whole days to myself to get work done with no meetings!), the little angel sitting on the other shoulder reminded me that doing things like this was actually my JOB and I should probably get my act together and figure out another way to Germany. A quick browse on travelocity.com showed that there was a direct BA flight from Heathrow at 1:40, which left me about an hour to get organized to leave for the much longer trip (8 am would have been from a much closer airport). Fortunately I was able to use my BA silver status to buy the flight with mostly miles instead of cash, so it was not a huge financial hit and of course I can sail through priority check-in and security for that reason too. So I left London about 6 hours later than planned, which led to me driving through the “Naturpark” in the dark. Not exactly ideal. But fortunately for my return trip on Friday afternoon that should not be necessary. I doubt even I could miss a flight at 7 pm.

Which brings me to my next realization. I wonder if the stress dreams about missing flights will stop now that it’s actually happened? For years I’ve had anxiety dreams tied to running through airports and being stressed out about timing. Once at Gatwick my name was paged on the overhead system to “please report to the gate immediately” but that had been the closest thing to actually missing a flight as I had ever experienced. So maybe the fact that I did miss a flight — and yet the world still went on and things were more or less okay but I recovered — will allow me to stop having those dreams? I used to dream about car crashes quite often, but almost ten years ago I lost loved ones in a crash and I’ve never had the dream since. I guess that’s the thing about anxiety, once something happens you know what to do and how to react and you realize that you can move on. We’ll see about this one. It would be great to stop having airport dreams. I spend enough time in airports awake! But none of this alters the fact that I have been having a harder and harder time waking up in the morning lately, and I need to put some sort of solution in place. The cell phone alarm clocks are proving too easy to ignore. And one of these days there will be more serious consequences to my not having awoken in the morning when I was supposed to. For now, to bed to nurse my head cold, a talk to give tomorrow and a return trip adventure for Friday. Then a blissfully quiet weekend to do as I please, which let’s just guess is going to involve sleeping in…

On Trains and Paris

I just looked down at my watch and realized that although I’ve been back on UK soil (from Paris) for over 24 hours, I have not yet adjusted my watch. I managed to get through the work day–and a busy 12-hour one at that–without ever looking at more than the minute hand. It was practical, as there were meetings at various points throughout the day (o’clock, :15, :30 etc.) and I roughly knew what hour it was from the computer clocks and/or the other physical clocks in the rooms around me. But I shall now change my watch back before I make a big mistake tomorrow. Or I’ll leave it tomorrow since I have to leave for Germany early Wednesday morning. We’ll see. It’s that time of year. Insane European travel phase for me, when the watch changes take place more often than any sane person would like.

I had, as ever, a lovely time in Paris. I am quite enamoured of the fact that I can get there by train. So I have done it several times since I’ve lived in the UK. Plus once to Belgium. But it’s hard to shake the fact that Eurostar is a bit of a mess at the moment. Compared with flying, and this can not be emphasized enough, it is a dream. But I did have a bit of an adventure on my return trip. Some details appear here, although it was not quite the full story. I arrived for my train, about 75 minutes in advance of check-in (always more than enough in the past) and found that they had closed check-in for Eurostar completely, and there was a magnificent queue full of clueless people. The only overhead announcement stated that “due to an earlier security incident, check-in for the 19:13 train (mine) would be delayed” and it took some time to put facts together and realize that the train two earlier than mine still had not left the station. I will never know the truth, but the gossip was that there was an abandoned bag issue that caused security to be shut down temporarily, and departures had been halted completely for some number of minutes. I dutifully joined the queue, as I was instructed to by a young Brit who lives in Paris and hates the French. More on that in a moment.

The queue was by this point spectacular, stretching across the entire Eurostar upper level platform, down the stairs, curling around the Gare du Nord main level, out the door, and back in again, and circling round the platform at ground level. I tried to take photos but they did not do the queue justice. After some time of standing completely still, operations eventually resumed and the queue went from a stand-still to a slow crawl. Where it continued for the better part of 2.5 hours, in my case. The only information coming to us in the queue was from a “telephone game” network of others in the queue repeating what they had heard from others. Those travelling in a party of several (myself excluded) had the luxury of sending someone up the queue to try and figure out what was going on. I relied on the kindness of strangers and Twitter. So we waited. After two hours in the queue, sensible announcements started to come over the PA, but only after a Brit in line next to me had talked to the managers while his wife/partner held the place in line and told us what was really transpiring. We would be loaded onto trains in the order we were placed in the queue, with no regard for original seat assignments, so they could get us through and to London as fast as possible.

For the most part, aside of the information gap, I was quite impressed with how they handled the problem. They clearly had a system in place. I was given a new seat assignment, and an assignment for boarding to the “white” train (as opposed to the yellow or blue one) and once I had this magical sticker, after standing in the queue for 2.5 hours, I proceeded through immigration and security faster than I recall doing at the Paris end previously. (They need to upgrade their facilities a bit to compete with the relative efficiency on the British end, where the facilities at St. Pancras are all new and quite spacious. And who thought I’d ever be complimenting British efficiency on this blog!) I ended up on a differently scheduled train from the one I was supposed to be on, but the schedule had pretty much been thrown out the window by this point and we were all just trying to get back to the UK.

And here’s where I got lucky. By being at the station in Paris at the time I arrived, and by joining the massive queue when I did, I avoided the catastrophe of the train that died outside of London and had to be rescued. That was the train directly after the one I landed on. So my 90 minute delay in arriving started to look good in comparison. I actually wonder if I saw the ‘rescue’ train depart St. Pancras, since there was a completely empty Eurostar train leaving right as we arrived at 22:something, which would be consistent with the stories that went around in the press today.

I’m not going to pretend the experience was pleasant. Being in a 2.5 hour queue was hard on the feet. Being alone meant there was no opportunity to get a drink of water or visit the conveniences. Abandoning my luggage to do so was not an option, since that was the original issue that caused the delay in the first place. At one point I did step out for 10 feet to grab a landing card for UK immigration, but only after securing the services of a friendly co-queue person to watch my bag and know my intentions. I was away for all of 30 seconds, and I can assure you that the queue did not move.

Part of my interest in this occasion was in people-watching the other passengers. Directly in front of me in the queue was a British woman who appeared to be travelling with 5 children under the age of 13, and they caused some chaos. Going up the stairs to the Eurostar platform was a particular adventure, as she maneuvered an empty stroller/pram (MacLaren, of course) while the ~2 year old child ran up and down and occasionally screamed bloody murder. At one point the ~ 8 year old kid tried to (and did) pick up the ~ 2 year old on the stairs, thus risking an early death for both of them or us should we all tumble down. The mother seemed uninterested in the cries of the ~2 year old. The eldest, a young teenager, struggled with two enormous wheeled bags on the stairs. An ~ 10 year old had another. Good Samaritans around me tried to take over, sensing the imminent disaster, but the children were determined to prevail and the mother was disinterested in assistance. I was stunned. I am not a parent, but the risk of grievous bodily harm to the many assembled children seemed higher than I would normally expect to see in this sort of situation, not to mention the potential chaos if one of these little urchins did actually fall down the stairs with the full brunt of their weight + gravity creating inertial loading for the many of us standing down the queue. It was an interesting evening.

Another interesting observation was in the constant disparaging remarks made about the French by the British people around me. I have no strong feelings in this regard. But my experience here in the UK has led me to believe that there is truly a love-hate relationship going: the Brits I meet are either enthusiastic Francophiles, speaking the language and spending every possible spare moment in France, or people who completely detest everything about France, the French, and everything related. I admit, I’m standing from the distance of an American placed in the situation I was in. I would have liked it if the Eurostar staff or the Gare du Nord staff more generally had explained what was going on–but of course, I had my iPhone and turned on Twitter and talked to people around me and that was worth more than 100 PA announcements over the loudspeaker. But I thought the French staff handled the situation quite well, with the exception of the information dissemination. And the Brits in my immediate surrounds who clearly were prejudiced to hating the French already, they were not so generous. I have not heard such bitterly nationist (I hesitate to use the word ‘racist’ in this context even though popular in Euro-speak when referring to countries, especially given the common history of the Normans) thoughts expressed in such clear and direct language in quite a while. Some Brits around me really seemed to have a problem with the French. Which begs the question of why they were there IN FRANCE trying to catch a train for Britain.

In the end, I got home. I was about 2 hours later than intended, but I figure compared with typical flight delays, it is quite worth it to travel by train. My trip back was not too unpleasant, and I’ll head to Paris on the Eurostar again. Probably soon. It’s becoming my favorite ‘Escape from England’ tactic due to the fact that I’m loving trying out my high school 3 years of French on poor unsuspecting waiters in cafes across the city. I had my new camera and thus an excuse to try and do the city justice, which I most certainly did not. But I tried. This trip, I went to the Louvre and inside Notre Dame, both of which were new to me. I loved the former, and could not believe I had waited so long to see it. The museum is worth the price of admission just for the building, even if there were no Venus de Milo or Mona Lisa. The latter, I’ll pass. Notre Dame no longer felt like a church, it was such a tourist trap and I did not enjoy it much. Although I was staying near the Eiffel Tower, I still did not manage to get up onto the highest levels of it, so I have an excuse to go back to Paris yet again, hopefully soon.

On visitors and visiting

My sister left mid-day, and aside from the fact that my kitchen looks like it was hit by Minnesota tornados, and the fact that I have photos to prove it, it’s like she was never here. Which is sad. I have so much fun with her–she’s the only person who has religiously visited me every year that I’ve lived here, 4 visits total. I generally hate this feature of departing houseguests–it’s a bit tough at times organizing your normal busy life around them, but it’s so empty when they leave. It’s really one of the funny things about 21st century travel. I am still amazed when I get on an airplane in one place and leave the plane in a completely different place, and I’m still fascinated when people come to visit and show up for a while before disappearing again. The last few weeks have been quite exciting for that particular feeling, since Dad was here only a few weeks ago and now my sister’s been as well. Welcome to the wonderful world of “if you’re an American expat in Europe, expect a deluge of visitors in Feb. when tickets are cheap, and none in the summer.” Not that the British summer is all “Beach Blanket Bingo” or anything. I don’t exactly blame them.

The big news is the China plan’s starting to come together, so I’m lucky in that I’ll see my sister again very soon. I will fly out to Shanghai in about 6 weeks for my first ever China visit, which will be a last hurrah for her before she repatriates to the US this summer (at least for now, I have a feeling she’ll feel the lure of expat life again some time). Sis and I spent many hours with the guidebook, a handy printed table I made with the dates of my visit, and maps a-plenty trying to figure out how much of this amazing country I’ll be able to see in 12 days. My goal was to be sure to catch the obvious “must see” places but still add a few interesting destinations that she had not yet seen. I’ll keep you posted. There will be photos. The trip will be shorter than my maiden Australia voyage (already over a year ago, shocking!) so I don’t know if I’ll manage to beat my record of over 1000 photos on a single trip, but I’ll try 🙂 Memory’s cheap and my new camera rules.

A highlight of my sister’s visit was actually another blog-friend-meet-up with Kat from 3 bedroom bungalow–Kat and I have discovered that there is a neutral location between our two towns of residence that is relatively easy to reach for both of us. I’m half tempted to move there. In my newly-adopted role as Aunt to Kat’s kids, I feel like it would benefit us all if I was closer to them. So my sister got to see that I have actual flesh-and-bones friends in the UK, and I got to spend time with my sister AND Kat AND Kat’s little ones all in one cathedral-packed afternoon, which also included a playground as shown here. Who misses the exuberance of childhood when you see this photo?

f00d pr0n

My sister has been visiting, which means we have been in the kitchen quite a bit. We have oddly both turned into wannabe-foodies, which is pretty odd given our midwestern upbringing and its decidedly unsophisticated culinary leanings. I don’t think I’ll risk offending anyone with that statement. As much as I love me some midwestern classics, when one of my friends has joked that I could win “Iron Chef: Battle Velveeta” or “Iron Chef: Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup Battle” he’s got a good point.

I suspect a few things are true. Both my sister and I live abroad and travel widely. We also both have jobs of a similar sort that are associated with job-subsidized housing, leaving us a bit more disposable income for dining of the sort finer than “TGI Friday’s” (again, not that there’s anything wrong with Friday’s). But we do have some good reasons for avoiding your classic multi-Michelin-starred French cuisine, in that neither of us eat meat and my sister has developed a dairy allergy. Thus, on this trip we’ve been cooking mostly-vegan plus fish, which is actually proving to be a remarkably healthy combination as far as I can tell.

And oh, I got a new camera. Oops. Anyone interested in a DSLR but needing something quite portable at times (as I do when traveling for work) should check out the new micro four thirds format. See if you can spot which photos were taken with my old Nikon Coolpix versus my new Olympus PEN.
Veggie dumplings of the Chinese sort, since Sunday was Chinese New Year:

Mushroom gravy, the recipe for which was on this site previously:

Today, if you’re American, it’s Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras. If your British, it’s Pancake Tuesday. The Guardian is running a feature on “must have” tools for pancake wizardry, which includes many items that Alton Brown would scoff at as being useless unitaskers in a mulitasking world. I have to agree with him, whether American style or French style, there is almost nothing easier to cook with only the things that are normally in a well-equipped kitchen. But hey, it advertising special pancake pans attracts customers into the stores, far be it from the Brits to be any different from the Americans in promoting a holiday!!!

Dear So-and-So, Frantic Friday Edition

Dear World of Work,

You do realize that if you set all of the deadlines for the same week, even if everything does miraculously get done it will not get done well or with the care it normally would have been given, right? And oh yes you can take your Friday close-of-business deadlines and put them somewhere that the sun doesn’t shine, I am not going to bust my gut to give you something that will sit on your desk in an empty office over the weekend. You’ll have it all by Monday morning. And yes I am writing dear so-and-so letters instead of finishing another incremental paper shuffle and I’m aware that I’m doing it.

Never one for arbitrary-ness, especially in paperwork, NFAH


Dear Subconscious,

May I express my displeasure at your having invented a new recurring anxiety dream this week? I already had the whole ‘airport going to miss my plane’ thing and the whole ‘flying-heights-falling’ thing but now the ‘show up to give a lecture/performance/recital unprepared’ thing too? I really did not need this (although interesting how clearly it reflects the current state of things…)

Needs less dreams, more sleep, NFAH


Dear British Schools,

As usual, I find there to be something deeply interesting about the way you react to things–in this case, banning Valentine’s cards to avoid students having hard feelings. As several bloggers in America have noted recently (this from CalifLorna being but an example) the American reaction is to encourage the students to give something to everyone in the class, not to ban the holiday altogether. I think I prefer the inclusive latter solution, although it wouldn’t make for as exciting a headline.

Hearts and cards and chocolates for all, NFAH


Dear Microsoft,

You won this round, I had to break down and buy Office for my laptop after a series of misadventures with Open Office, involving the dropping of greek letters and the refusal to properly pdf anything that had the characters “fi” next to each other in a Times New Roman font. The nice manager in the Apple store disappointedly knew nothing about how to use equations in iWork Pages and playing around made it look like a no-go at least in terms of a short learning curve.

Someday I’ll be able to quit you, but unfortunately so far that day has not arrived, NFAH


Dear Grandma,

It was so good to talk to you this week and to be able to wish you a Happy 93rd birthday! And I’m sure you’ll forgive me for not confessing that I very nearly forgot, and was saved by someone at work making an offhand comment about elderly parents which then got me saying I have a ninety–whoa Grandmother whose birthday is today eek better remember to call her! And no matter how much you try to tell me that you’re not the adventurous type and don’t know how I can live abroad, I will continue to refuse to believe you on the grounds of that whole fantastic 1939 World’s Fair adventure plus that whole bus to the west coast adventure–your 20s were pretty adventurous even by modern standards.

All my love from England, NFAH


Dear Bloggy Friends,

If I’m quiet for a few days, both here and on your blogs, understand it’s because my sister will be here and real people trump people in the computer.

I’ll be back, NFAH


Baking, part 2

There is nothing easier to bake on the weekend than bread. It only takes a few basic ingredients (flour, water, yeast, salt, maybe some butter or margarine but you can live without them) and it’s both cathartic and smells really good. You have to be home to do the “work” of the bread at several points throughout the day, but it actually is not that much active work overall. The secret is to make a sponge before you want to make the bread, so combine a cup of water and a cup of flour with a packet of yeast the night before you wish to spring the bread activity into action. (Cover with foil for the fermentation.) In a pinch, 3 hours of fermenting will make for better bread than if you did a “modern” recipe without a fermentation period. In a lull, up to 72 hours will do. But 12 is my normal overnight thing and that is what I did this time. After the sponge has had time to do its thing, you add another packet of yeast and another cup of warm water and as much flour as is required to form a dough. This is admittedly the tricky bit. Only practice allows for a good judgement on when there is enough flour, no measurements can help. I knead mine in my Kitchenaid mixer with a dough hook, and the speed of the mixer is related to the amount of flour needed. It’s easy to add too much flour and to knead too little. A nob (1-2 T) of softened butter added after the dough is in place and kneading will aid in the longevity of the bread, so I typically do add this. (French baguettes ignore this step but they are set up to be purchased daily.) I leave it in a buttered large bowl for a first rising, with no particular judgements about when I’ll call time and go to the next phase. Here is today’s rising dough:

Once it’s about to take over the kitchen, I form it into loaves or rolls or whatever and leave it to raise again. During the entire rising process I tend to have the oven on even though I am not baking yet–the local warmth increase in the kitchen is significant in the winter months (it was 66 F in my living room this morning but 75 F in my kitchen with the oven on 200 C, as per my trusty probe thermometer). Eventually I toss the loaves or rolls or whatever into the oven and take them out when golden brown.

The image shows two loaves, one made with an American loaf pan (imported) and one with a British version. In both cases, I use an ingenious parchment paper wrapper (like a muffin cup) purchased here: it fits the Brit loaf pan perfectly and the American loaf pan imperfectly but is the single greatest innovation in bread making that I have seen in the last few years. The final results are here:

Taller but squatter British loaf on the left. And I don’t care. I have no interest in the loaf geometry, just in the quality of the bread and it is excellent. With a little bit of time, home-made bread is easy to do and easy to optimize. And it provides me the ideal displacement activity when I really don’t want to be working all weekend yet again.