13 June 2012

Adventures: Eutin Bicycle Gang

Eutin is not too big. And it's not too small. Like that perfect bowl of porridge, it's just right. Large enough that walking from one end to the other (from home to the train station, for example) would take a good 30 or  40 minutes, making it impractical in a morning rush. Small enough that it doesn't make sense for there to be a bus system with more than a couple of stops or in which the buses stop frequently enough for it to be convenient to use on a regular basis. As such, there is really only one solution for carless travelers such as we are: bikes.

What a crew. I'll let this photo speak for itself.
On Sunday we took a little bike trip to get out of the house. First, to a flea market where I bought a book in French. If I can't speak it with anyone I can at least read it, or I will forget it. Then we came back to the house, ate something, had a sing along with Martin and his guitar skills, and then cobbled some bikes together and left for the Eutin water tower in hopes it would be open for climbing. The reason we are walking in the above photo (which I'm not in because I took it) is that there weren't enough working bikes for everyone. We were on our way to my host family's to pick up Sara's bike and my bike had been left downtown. After Sara left, Josh ran along with the bikes like a champ. Or like the president surrounded by secret service.

Eutin seen from the top of the water tower.
The water tower was open, as the above photo evidence proves. After this we wandered towards town to pick up my bike and then ended up getting milkshakes, which were more milk than shake. Like half American-style milkshake and half milk. On the way back we passed the Döner shop and stopped to take more pictures. 

Proper tourists take pictures of everything.

11 June 2012

Adventures: Waking Up

It can be hard to wake up on Monday morning. But one thing that makes it easier is when you have a room on the east side of the house and curtains that only cover about half of the windows so that nature's alarm clock sends its bright rays in to awake you whether you like it or not. Then when the slight mist over the lake outside your window is so intriguing that you can't help but go out on the balcony to take a picture and the temperature out there is about 50 degrees and the concrete balcony is cold under your bare feet, you are slapped into wakefulness by the briskness of it all. 

Am Kellersee, 6:30 AM.

Today is the first day of the rest of your life.
Funnily enough, it's pretty easy to get sleepy again on the 45-minute train ride gently rocking you through the northern German countryside. So you might close your eyes for a minute, intending to rest them, and find yourself at your destination sooner than you thought possible. The problem with getting to the end station is that you then have to get out of the train and walk to the bus. And the problem with getting to your bus stop is that you have to get off the bus and walk up the stairs to your job. But once you get to your job, there are no more problems, only solutions. Or colloids in this case?

08 June 2012

Adventures: Minimalism

Photo used under Creative Commons from kevin dooley
I like the idea of minimalism. This summer I tried to pack extra-light, using the suitcase intended as a carry-on size instead of the giant one. I try to minimalize where I can but so far I have just been dabbling here and there and getting used to the idea of less being better. It could take a while to retrain myself, having grown up in a society where more is generally considered best.

So I had a surprise minimalist adventure on the first Friday of my internship. I had spent most of the day out of the workshop, instead looking around the laboratories. I  left my stuff in the workshop because I didn't want to carry it around with me and I was going to go get it at the end of the day. To my surprise and immediate concern, the workshop door was locked when I came back. This was the moment when I learned about an important German cultural phenomenon, the early Feierabend. On Fridays, Germans tend to leave the office a couple of hours early. Somehow in the excitement of being finished for the week my Germans had also forgotten about me and locked the workshop without coming to get me first!

My first reaction was to go to the information desk upstairs to see if they had a key. They thought they had a key, but the one they gave me didn't work. Neither did the next three. At this point they were calling people who they thought might have the key, but they didn't have the phone numbers of my coworkers, and neither did I. I ended up spending about an hour quietly freaking out while hoping they would reach someone who could unlock the office for me. I had to get back to Eutin by a certain time for a class, and after a while I decided I should just leave my stuff behind and take the train back. So I used the information desk's computer to find my host mom's phone number and told her what was going on, then borrowed money for a train ticket and ran to the bus stop. I actually felt kind of powerful running to the bus stop with nothing in my pockets. I made it onto the train I needed to take, and during the nearly hour-long ride back, I had some time to think.

Everyone has a certain set of items they never leave the house without. For me, this had included my wallet, keys, cell phone, iPod, lunch, rain jacket, and a slew of other items. On the train ride back, since all of this was locked into the workshop, all I had were the clothes on my back and my train ticket. Stripped of the items I usually considered essential, I realized that I didn't even need most of those things. They are convenient to have and some provide entertainment or comfort value (like the iPod and the jacket), but I didn't need them. When I arrived back in Eutin, my host mother was in the train station parking lot to pick me up and she had already arranged a house key, bike, bag, wallet, and so on that I could use for the weekend. This really highlighted the fact for me that even those items we think are essential are replaceable and some are totally unnecessary. I also found it interesting that my foremost emotion during that long, podcast-less train ride back was gratitude for the people at the information desk who spent so much time trying to help me and who lent me money out of their own pockets, not ever having even met me before. (Of course I did pay them back.)

Since Monday was a holiday (Pentecost) I went for three days without my most essential items, and I still had a good weekend, visiting Lübeck and Hamburg and spending a lot of time hanging out with the other interns. By the time Tuesday morning rolled around my original frustration and bitterness towards my coworkers had worn off, so I didn't call them out like I had originally planned. Instead I chose to see the whole thing as a learning experience. And I will never forget to leave the office early on Fridays.

07 June 2012

Language and Culture: Gesundheit!

Photo used under Creative Commons from William Brawley
My internship in Germany is in a hospital basement. The written directions I was given to find the Dräger office for the first time indicated the street address, building number, and then simply im Keller, or in the basement. If it seemed a little sketch then, it seems a little less sketch now, especially since they have finished construction of the front door area and I can enter the building where it actually looks like an entrance instead of through a side door with a big temporary Eingang sign over it.

I recently heard about a new etiquette rule that has been imposed in Germany by an unnamed etiquette czar. It's one of those things that everyone has heard about but couldn't tell you who they heard it from. I'm assuming that these types of rules are imposed by a secret etiquette czar and that they are regularly released to a select few very talkative individuals who help the rules to trickle down until they reach even the oblivious Americans.

The particular rule I'm referring to here is that it is no longer to polite to say Gesundheit after someone sneezes. The theory behind this is that the act of doing so would draw attention to the sneezer and further embarass them. I'm all for politeness and etiquette, but the one thing I'm missing here is why it is assumed that the sneezer would be embarassed. I guess if the czar wants sneezing to be embarrassing, then he or she has the power to make it so.

30 January 2012

Cara Cara

I love grocery store surprises. Like the time I walked into a Hen House with my mom and discovered orange bell peppers on sale for 50 cents each. Sometimes you don't know what a great bargain you are getting until a little later, though.

This week during my regular grocery shopping I decided to stock up on citrus to fight off a cold I could feel slowly making its presence known. They had bags of some kind of oranges I had never heard of for two dollars, which seemed pretty good, so I bought one of the bags. Later when first slicing into one of the oranges I realized I had found something special: Cara Cara pink navel oranges. They not only taste better than normal oranges (almost as good as blood oranges but with less mess), they also have a really nice color.

So that was my fun discovery this week. I also had an interesting time trying to cook with artichokes for the first time and made artichoke soup. I'm still not sure whether I like it or not but maybe it's an acquired taste. Other recipes this week: peanut butter honey oatmeal bread, Italian S-shaped cookies, salt and pepper "cookies," swordfish with spinach, brownies from scratch, improvised fried rice with some random ingredients from my pantry. For me there is no better way to spend a weekend day than in the kitchen whipping up lots of recipes for the week ahead.

Other things I have been enjoying recently:

  • Warm weather: my bike lock has stopped freezing up, but I am kind of wishing for snow, if only to kill off the mosquitoes so they aren't as bad this summer.
  • I really want to make these.
  • An interesting upcycling storyabout finding solutions, which reminded me of Cradle to Cradle on a small scale.
  • Another innovative idea in education.
  • Robert Reich on public institutions.
  • An essay on the quotative "like."

22 January 2012

Lessons in Music and Life from Yo-Yo Ma

"Do you believe in magic?" "Yes," she replied.

Yo-Yo Ma, world-renowned cellist, addressed Wei Shen, the second of three Kansas City area cello students who performed at a master class at the Kauffman Center in Kansas City Saturday. A master class allows music students to work with experts for a short time, often providing new insight and inspiration. The class on Saturday included a high-school student, a master's student, and a doctoral student, KU's own Hyerim Jeon.

During those two hours unfolded one of the most magical musical and educational experiences I have ever witnessed. Yo-Yo Ma transformed the playing of Alyssa Aubuchon in just a few minutes by getting her to engage with the audience and to focus on expressing specific emotions in her playing. He demonstrated the elegance that befits the Tchaikovsky piece played by Ms. Shen, escorting a little girl from the front row of the audience around the stage and pretending to greet various invisible friends, transforming the almost empty stage into a fancy party in the audience's mind. He encouraged Ms. Jeon to take rhythmical risks, and he made the historical perspective of the Elgar concerto she played come alive.

At one point he complimented Ms. Shen on her hard work, and then began to delve into a subject that he felt was important for future professional musicians, but that is just as relevant to the rest of us. He encouraged her to ask herself every day why she was going to be a musician today, and then to come up with magnificent reasons each day for doing what she does. This practice, Mr. Ma asserted, would lead to magic itself.

Yo-Yo Ma has the gift of being able to approach people at the right level and challenge them to move beyond themselves to a greater plane of being. He has the ability to make connections between people and to reach out to the audience while performing. His willingness to be gracious, funny, humble, and ridiculous at times yet completely serious at the right moments is what makes Mr. Ma so magical. He seems to embody the best of humanity, radiating an aura of love, humility, and pure joy that infectiously spreads to everyone around him.

While listening to him play the Dvořák Cello Concerto with the Kansas City Symphony on Saturday night, I was quite literally at the edge of my seat. Yo-Yo Ma is as relaxed and familiar with the cello as if it were an extension of himself. He barely looked down at his instrument, instead maintaining constant communication and contact with the conductor, orchestra, and audience. During the third movement of the concerto, he had a big smile on his face as he played the theme. He was enjoying himself so much that the audience could not help but be pulled in.

There is a big lesson to be learned from watching Mr. Ma at work. We humans seem to be in the constant search for happiness, and I don't think I've ever seen someone as happy doing what he does as Yo-Yo Ma. He must be following his own advice, finding magnificent reasons every day to reaffirm his calling. Do you love what you are doing? Are you doing what you love? Question yourself daily, and eventually magic may come of it.

06 January 2012

Intense in a Good Way

I went to a local Indian restaurant for lunch today with my brother and my dad. At the restaurant there is a man who greets all the customers who come in, seats them, and then proceeds to bring every table extra naan, pour chai, and bring out special dishes like naan infused with hot peppers. Let's assume that this man was the owner, based on his greeting everyone and the fact that he was wearing a nice shirt and tie. Talking to the owner was a little intimidating. He seemed so eager for everyone to have a positive experience that in his whirling around, wishing everyone a happy New Year, asking how  many were in each party, quickly and efficiently placing each party at a table and so on, it was difficult to respond or try to have a conversation. Despite this he left a good impression because he was just so friendly. He was very intense about his job, but in a good way.

I've definitely encountered others who are intense in a good way. Lots of these have been former teachers, whether at school or of music or various other disciplines. It seems to me that part of being intense has to do with having intentions. A music teacher intended for us to play the best we could, produce the best sound possible, and play together with the best ensemble we could generate. A history teacher intended for us to have a deep understanding of the connections between different events in American history and be able to analyze historical documents with quality writing. The Tae Kwon Do instructors intended for us to be able to defend ourselves effectively and for us to understand what it means to practice martial arts.

Like them, the owner of the Indian restaurant intended for all his guests to feel welcome and to have a positive experience. Each of these people could sometimes be a little intimidating but this is because they would have lost their effectiveness by being lax. They each had a vision of an outcome that they wanted us, their students, to live up to, even if we had a long way to travel before reaching this destination. They would stop at nothing to inspire us, scare us a little bit, or whatever it took to help us along the way.

If you have a great vision for yourself or others, don't be afraid to be intense about how you pursue it.

03 January 2012

Regretting Something That Never Happened

Do you ever have those dreams that you really believe are happening while you are dreaming them? I don't think I'm talking about lucid dreaming because it doesn't exactly feel real. I mean the dreams that you wake up from slightly surprised that what you just dreamed didn't really happen. Previous examples from my personal experience include dreams where I forgot to do something important or accidentally failed a class. Usually during the dream I reach a point where I realize what has just happened, and then I am as reasonable as possible, deciding to deal with the consequences in the best way I can while wondering how it is that I could have neglected whatever it was that caused the problem in my dream.

I had a dream like that last night. A couple of days ago I decided to participate in a Facebook Sabbatical since I probably waste more time on Facebook than I realize and the idea came up on a blog I was reading. I'm not calling this a New Year's resolution since it's not something I'm trying to do all year. I'm just not going on Facebook for a month (until February 1). In light of this I had a dream that I did go on Facebook without even thinking about it and then after a few minutes I remembered about the Facebook Sabbatical and was dismayed that I could have accidentally logged on to Facebook just out of habit. Of course accidentally getting on Facebook would have had much less severe consequences in my dream world than accidentally failing a class. But I was still glad to realize it had been a dream once I woke up.

Maybe the reason we have these dreams is to alert ourselves to possible mistakes we could make before we make them so that we live more conscientiously and with more awareness of our actions than we might otherwise. I could easily see myself accidentally clicking on the Facebook app link on my Chrome New Tab page, which is why I deleted the link before I started the sabbatical. So far the only urges I have had to get on Facebook have been when I came across an interesting story on the internet that I wanted to share. Now I suppose I will have to share those stories here instead, where I might actually write something about them and think more about them than I would if I were to just post them on Facebook without much preface.

With that, I'm off to enjoy reading a book. Now that I would not consider a waste of time!