Last night, Christmas Eve, is known in Germany as Heiligabend (holy evening). For most of the day, I did nothing more than hang out at home, watch a bunch of movies and Graham Norton episodes, and crochet and recrochet a hat that just doesn't want to fit my head. However, come midnight I went down to the Aachener Dom for the Midnight Service.

I was sitting right next to this fancy-pants lectern!
Let me get this out of the way right now. I am not catholic. I have never been a member of a catholic church and only once gone to a catholic mass, and that was half my lifetime ago. Therefore, I felt pretty awkward going in. However, I was not going to pass up the chance to worship in a building as gorgeous as the cathedral. As I entered, I picked up a program and tried to spot a place where I could sit. I had arrived just a few minutes before 12, soaked through from the rain (Do you call that a blue Christmas?) Consequently, the place was pretty well full. I was going to content myself with standing when one of the ushers came by a couple standing in front of me and told them there were more seats in the front. I followed them. I am definitely glad I didn't try to find the seats on my own. You see, in the front did not means what I had thought it meant. In the front meant literally behind the altar where you'd expect the choir to sit. In an attempt to be nice to late-coming couples, I took a single seat right beside some candles and an eagle... I couldn't see anything but I didn't really care.

Waiting for the service to begin, I admired the music pouring down from above. Though I could not see them, a brass choir had taken up residence in the second story balcony. An organ built into the walls to half encompass the sanctuary accompanied them. They played a medley of Angles We Have Heard on High, Joy to the World, and other songs I could not quite place. Soon, a group of altar boys (Is there a term for that?) appeared and waved incense all about. To be quite frank, I held my breath as they passed. Incense and perfumes tend to make my head swim.

Then, whatever signal meant the congregation should rise occurred and I followed suit. The first song began, belted by the organ. I sang along, thankful for the notes printed there to help me with the completely unfamiliar melodies. It continued in this fashion until the time came for a brief sermon.

I am embarrassed to say that I found the sermon incredibly difficult to follow. Behind the altar as I was, I could not watch the priest's mouth, which almost always assists comprehension for me. Moreover, the echoes in the hall made me lose the endings of most of his words. I do believe though that the message had to do with Jesus being born. Pretty sure.

Nevertheless, the service ended the same way it always does at home: with Stille Nacht. That is my favorite Christmas song. Getting to sing it in its original language and in the country that it came from was glorious. At 2 am, I made it home and fell asleep still half humming it to myself.

Merry Christmas, and Frohe Weihnachten.

Break has Begun

Today was the last day of lectures until January 6th. My American readers may be thinking "What? Just 2 weeks of vacation? That can't be right." Well, thanks to the fact that Christmas and New Years occur during the lecture period rather than between semesters, a shorter break makes perfect sense. Personally, I'm glad the break won't last too long. Holidays have the one rather negative side-effect that everyone I know is going home.

Flying to America and back just for two weeks break was never really an option in my mind. The expenses, hassle, and frustration involved far outweigh any relaxation there is to be had at home. Even so, I can't say that I'm entirely enjoying the prospect of celebrating Christmas and New Years in an empty building...well empty except for the plants I've been asked to water.

I'll just have to make the most of it. I see crochet, yoga, and maybe even a tiny bit of the studying I've been procrastinating on in my future.

Medieval Market

Every year in the town of Siegburg, a medieval Christmas market is set up. As someone who plays dungeons and dragons and is learning to translate middle high German, I was more than a little curious. I made the 90 minute train ride to Siegburg. When I arrived, it struck me that I hadn't the foggiest where the market was. I decided to keep going straight and see what happened.

As luck would have it, I chose correctly, if not wisely. After a minute or so, I came across a sign indicating to keep going straight to reach the market. A few minute more and I could see the entrance before me. A banner exclaiming "Seyd Gegrüßt!" ("be greeted!") welcomed me to the collection of stalls. Although far smaller than any of the markets in Köln or the Christkindlmarkt in Chicago I grew up with, this market had a far friendlier feel. I could see a stage, though empty at the time, where hourly shows were put on. I passed a stall full of gorgeous candles where, for free, children could dip a plain white candle in pots of colored wax to dye it. Further on, a soap maker had set up a tent to display his wares. To my mind, the man in loose wool robes with a bushy grey beard and leaning a knobby wooden staff looked more versed in sorcery than saponification.

While on the topic of garb, I was quite pleased with the clothes I saw worn and sold by vendors. For one thing, I did not see a single corset. I don't claim to be an expert on clothes of any era, even the ones I've lived through. However, I do know that the externally sported, boned corsets so popular at renaissance and medieval fairs did not exist then. I was glad not to come across one. The wares they did have gladdened me even more. Real leather boots, cotton and silk gowns, and fine, thick, full length pure wool cloaks. Had the cloaks been anywhere near my price range, I would have bought one in a heartbeat. Sadly, they had the disturbingly fair price of 130€. I cannot justify blowing 6 months worth of grocery money on a fancy cape.

The people working there seemed to appreciate all their woolen clothing. They had no trouble coping with the winter chill, though some had an advantage in the heating department. A blacksmith's stall had a mini forge where an apprentice tempered the tips of tools before grinding them at a whetstone. Among the items for sale there, I even got to see a pair of medieval style scissors, basically tongs with blades instead of grippers at the end.

At the stall across the way, a man and woman sold lighters from various periods and even allowed visitors to try their hand at fire starting. I was given a chunk of flint, a piece of charcloth, and a fire striker, which reminded me of brass knuckles. By striking the steel iron striker against the flint, sparks fell onto the charcloth to get it sizzling. At least, that's the theory. I made a lot of sparks, but they kept appearing on the bottom side of the flint, not the side with the combustible material. Eventually though, I got it going. I can now cross "Start a fire with flint and steel" off my bucket list. Yes, I have an odd bucket list.

Due to the market's size, I only needed about 2 hours to see everything there and enjoy a basket of falafel for lunch. However, those 2 hours were definitely worth the 3 hours of public transportation. My only regret is that I did not ask more questions of the craftsmen. I'll have to be a little bolder in the future.

Some of the Little Things

Here is a list of some of the differences I've experienced in everyday life in Germany versus America.

  • Buildings
    • Windows
      • The Germans seem to have a strange affinity for fresh air. Even now in December, I'll walk into the kitchen to find the window cracked. The windows themselves are rather differently constructed as those in most of America. They have a handle that can be set to three positions. Down is locked; parallel to the ground allows the window to hinge open like a little door; up keeps the bottom edge of the window in place while the rest tilts inwards slightly.
    • Light switches
      • This is an excessively small matter, but all the light switches I've seen have been large square "pads" that you tilt down to activate. 
      • While I know this is not the only type of switch used in Germany, I like the design. It's very easy to activate when you're groping around in the dark. Moreover, it doesn't hurt as much as the more angular designs when you bump into it.
    • Locks
      • I keep coming across doors which do not have a turn-able handle on the outside. Instead, the door automatically locks and you can only open it with a key (or a credit card...)
      • Moreover, I can only turn the deadbolt using my key, even when I'm on the inside. Therefore, someone could quite easily lock me into my room. Fortunately, climbing out of the window is no problem!
    • Water fountains
      • There are none. It is a tragic oversight.
    • Bathrooms
      • Many bathrooms require a fee to be used. The fee ranges from around 20 cents to a whole Euro! If you're broke and desperate I recommend that you find a Starbucks. They seem to always have open access bathrooms. I do not know what the case is for other restaurants and cafes.
  • Shopping
    • Pfand
      • Many plastic and glass bottles have a slight extra fee attached called Pfand. Upon returning the bottles at a Pfandstation, you're reimbursed for this amount. The returned bottles are either rewashed and reused or melted down and recycled.
    • Bagging
      • In grocery stores, the cashier will not bag your items for you. Nor are the bags free. You can either buy the sturdy, long lasting bags there (usually around 10 to 25 cents) or you can do what I do and bring a backpack and your own bags.
    • Shopping Carts
      • The shopping carts have coin activated locks. When you insert a Euro into a slot, the chain binding one cart to another will detach. The coin is freed when the cart is linked to another one once more. This is not really an anti-theft measure so much as an anti-laziness measure. People in Europe put their carts back in the right place, darn it!
  • Transportation
    • Bicycles
      • Germany is very bicycle friendly. Aachen in particular has numerous bike lanes on the road, a section of the sidewalk designated for cyclists, more bike racks than parking places, and even stop signals specifically for cyclists. If you're a pedestrian, keep your eyes peeled and don't play chicken on a crowded road. Not a good idea.
    • Traffic lights
      • The traffic lights, unlike in much of America, hang on the same side of the intersection as the cars they are directing. This makes it far more difficult as a pedestrian to see what light the cars have. Moreover, most of the stoplights for pedestrians do not have a countdown. They are either red or green. 
    • Jaywalking
      • These light setups may contribute slightly to the German aversion to jaywalking. At an empty intersection in the middle of the night with no cars in sight in any direction, pedestrians will still usually wait for the light to turn green for them.
    • Buses and Trains
      • Tickets for public transportation can be purchased online for longer trips or at the train station / bus stop. This is usually done via an automatic machine, not by going to a ticket window. Even with the buses, you buy your ticket before getting on. Very occasionally, someone will come through the bus or train to check that everyone has their ticket. This system makes loading buses much easier. You don't have to wait for each person to flash a pass or hunt for the right change. The disadvantage (or advantage depending on your moral compass) is that one can ride for free at rather low risk.

Kölner Weihnachtsmarkt

Today, I journeyed to Cologne yet again, this time to see what its Christmas market had to offer. The market actually consists of several locations. each with it's own unique feeling. The first one I visited lay next to the cathedral just outside the main train station. The short but windy and drizzly walk over to it made me glad to have worn a hat and winter coat. The cold became slightly less noticeable inside the market itself. There ovens, lights, and the crushing mass of tourists helped to warm things up.

The first market had quaint wooden booths with tented red roofs. They were arranged in a rectangle on the outside and a four pointed star inside, which surrounded a central stage. Lights strung from the stage to the corners of the star made a glowing web above it all. The stalls had everything from food to handcrafts to all the Glühwein you could ever want. Had I decided to stick around a little longer, I could have attended a brief concert on the stage.

However, it was noon and I was hungry. I wandered past most of the booths. Although I found a variety of offerings, the most common were sausage, waffles, french fries, grilled almonds, and Reibekuchen (fried potato pancakes with apple sauce).

In the end, I decided on a Weihnachtswurst, meaning Christmas sausage. I had no idea what that entailed, but the name intrigued me. The price of 3€ wasn't bad either. If my post-sausage research is to be believed, the Weihnachtswurst is a relatively new creation, by which I mean it hasn't been around since the beginning of time like other classics. It is essentially a bratwurst but with bits of apple and a hint of caramel added to the mix to create an incredibly juicy and sweet sausage. I would definitely recommend it.

Hoping to find a bit more space to breath, I moved on to the next locale. The historical district market had a heartier feel to it. The booths consisted of dark wood with decorative carvings along the bases. Instead of red fabric tents, the roofs were decked with garlands and the occasional porcelain gnome. The market was divvied up into Gassen (alleys) with themes ranging from grub to gold. Each alley has a sign with both its name and a cartoon gnome surrounded by the appropriate item.

Okay, what's with all the gnomes? It turns out, they are called Heinzels. As the story goes, Cologne used to be a utopia of laziness. No one ever had to work because as soon as they fell asleep, the hard working Heinzels would appear and do everything for them. It was only when the tailor's wife became curious and set out to catch the mysterious helpers that things went south. She covered the floor with peas to make the Heinzels trip. Well, it worked. Alas, they ran away and never returned, leaving the city's lazy inhabitants the dread task of doing their own jobs.

My favorite part of this second market, apart from the Heinzels, was a carving station. Enormous wood figures of angels, cats, and owls were arranged into a ring. In the center, the carver chipped away at a new project. I enjoyed watching him work even more than I liked the statues themselves. I could have stood there forever, but I still had half a market left to see.

The second half, separated from the first by a few short alleys, consisted of some jewelry stands, a bunch of food and drink stalls, and a substantial ice rink. It looped around a large statue of men on horses, narrowed a bit to fit under a bridge for pedestrians, and then bulged outwards again on the other side. Tucked into one side of the rink was a place for playing Eisstockschießen, otherwise known as Bavarian curling. As far as I could tell, it was a cross between curling and bocci ball. Pucks with a vertical stick on the top are slid across the ice with the goal of landing as close to a center pole as possible. While I did not participate in either the game or the skating, I was pleasantly surprised to discover their presence at the market.

Eventually, with my energy drained to a minimum, I returned home to take a long and pleasant nap. I may return to visit some of the other market locations. I am particularly curious about one in particular: the Gay and Lesbian Christmas market. I have heard that the shops are all wrapped in pink tinsel and the goods often come in rainbow patterns. Why homosexual Christmas shoppers should want anything different from heterosexual shoppers is beyond me. It isn't as though the regular markets are full of straight porn or anti-gay paraphernalia. Moreover, I can't help but feel that decorating the homosexual market in glitz and glitter is just a teensy bit stereotypical. Then again, it's supposedly quite popular in the gay community. I'll have to reserve judgement until I can take a look around myself.


As I mentioned in my last post, Thursday I had a shift on bar duty for my floor's Sankt Nikolaus party. I arrived at 9 when the party technically began and asked what I could do to help set up. I received an assignment far better than I could ever have hoped for: Fancy napkin folding.

We required containers for salty snacks. To make things a little more festive, someone decided to use red napkins to make origami bowls. He hastily demonstrated how to fold one and set me to it. If you'd like directions, follow this link. I had not expected to be handed a necessary, creative, non-people oriented task. Score!

By the time I had more bowls than pretzels, a floormate told me I was needed at the bar. Oh boy. It's not that I have anything against bartenders. I just haven't a clue how to do it. I had to ask if rum and amaretto were the same or not. Fortunately, we only had a few options: beer, gluewein, and hot chocolate with the option to add a shot to any of those, along with soda in the fridge. Once I learned how much the drinks cost and where everything was, it became fairly simple. Loud, hectic, and cramped, but simple. Before I knew it, my shift was up.

Judging by how long the music continued after I had retired to bed, I'd say the party was a hit.

Saint Nicholas and Jelly Shots

As far as I can tell, German students breathe for the sake of parties. Practically every night, regardless of if there are classes the next day or no, you can find a party raging from 23:00 to 3:00, prime sleeping time in my mind. Then again, I did get up at 5 today for no reason...

Normally, I just don't go to parties. I dislike drunkenness, loud music, and trying to make small talk with strangers. However, our floor, in order to raise money for the building as a whole, is required to host one party per semester. We have decided to honor a tradition and put on a Niko-party this Thursday.

Niko refers to Saint Nicholas of Myra (or Nikolaus with the German spelling), a martyr who lived in present day Turkey around the beginning of the 4th century. A number of legends surrounded him, such as that he left small coins or treats in people's shoes in the middle of the night. Santa Claus and Father Christmas get a lot of their style from him.

The unofficial holiday takes place on the 6th of December. For the most part, only children and their parents take part. The children place their shoes and boots by their doorway the night before. In the morning, they find them filled with fruit and candy. Sometimes in schools or in families with the proper attire, someone dresses up in bishop clothes and a long beard and reads from a giant book whether the children have been good or bad. A man in a brown or black cowl sometimes accompanies him. He is known as Knecht Ruprecht (Servant Rupert). To the good kids, Saint Nicholas gives presents, and to the bad...did I mention Ruprecht carries a switch? In some traditions, he leaves a switch in bad children's shoes as a warning. In others, whoever dresses up as the saint interrogates the children about their behavior and give them a (nowadays fake) switching if they aren't up to snuff.

What's more, in parts of Bavaria and a number of alpine countries, instead of a single Knecht Ruprecht, Saint Nick is accompanies by hordes of devil-like monsters called Krampus. They roam the streets on October 5th and threaten to beat or even kidnap naughty children.
Nightmare before Christmas anyone?

Sadly, the party we are planning won't have anything to do with dressing up as demons and running around outside. Instead, we will sell glühwein and hot chocolate, give out green and red jelly shots to anyone with a Santa hat, and put out strategically salty pretzels. (A thirsty crowd is a lucrative crowd.) Everyone on the floor who can make it has to take a two hours shift at the bar. That means that from 9 to 11, I get to be a bar tender. That ought to go well...

to be continued.


While families all across America get together to celebrate turkey day, families all across Germany go about their daily business. Thanksgiving as we know it does not exist in Europe. The closest holiday in Germany, Erntedankfest, falls on a Sunday in October and causes considerably less brouhaha as the feast across the pond.

Now, I'm not all that picky about observing holiday traditions. I've had Birthdays without candles, Christmas without a Tree, and Easter without chocolate. However, what I will not abide is a Thanksgiving without the proper food. Of course, preparing all the classic dishes for just myself would be both expensive and ludicrous. Therefore, when my floor requested suggested for a floor-wide dinner on the 24th, I thought "That's close enough for me." My American Thanksgiving proposal was accepted and the planning began.

I decided that the necessary dishes included turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, biscuits, something with green beans, something with sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie, and apple pie. Given a rough budget of €60 and about 15 people to feed, I dared not add anything else.

As I've mentioned in previous posts, canned pumpkin does not exist in German supermarkets. It is not alone in its nonexistence. The following ranged in difficulty to find from annoying to impossible.

  • Annoying
    • sweet potatoes
      • Found: Rewe, Kaufland, Kaisers
      • Sweet potatoes aren't actually that tricky to find. I've seen them just about everywhere besides Aldi, Lidl, and Netto. The tricky part is that they are not stocked in particularly large quantities. They may be there one day and gone the next.
    • whole turkey
      • Found: Kaufland
      • I could find whole turkeys in the freezer sections of several stores, but they were at most 10 lbs (4 and something kg). Finally, I found a 13.6 lb (6.20kg) full turkey in Kaufland. This is the biggest grocery store in Aachen. The turkey came stuffed with the neck and some giblets in a plastic bag. However, the heart and some other unidentifiable innards were still attached. Watch out for that when dressing the bird. Moreover, it did not come with a pop-up thermometer. If you don't have a meat thermometer handy like we didn't, I'd err on the side of dry and have some gravy ready.
  • Difficult
    • baking soda
      • Found: Rewe
      • Backing soda is called Natron while baking powder is called Backpulver. If you're hoping to find a nice can or a hearty box of either one, forget it. Backpulver is sold in packages of 15g paper packets. Natron is also only found in paper, but not every store will stock it. Aldi, for instance, almost certainly won't.
  • Seemingly Impossible
    • cranberries
      • Substitute: Lingonberries (Preiselbeeren)
      • The only cranberries you're likely to find in Germany are dried ones. If you're up for rehydrating them to make you're sauce, be my guest. Otherwise, I found that Lingonberries boiled for a while and mixed with sugar made a fairly suitable substitute.
    • pre-made pie crust
      • substitute: make from scratch
      • Until this year, the thought of making a pie crust from scratch would have terrified the pants off me. Crust were always the hallowed duty of my dad, master of the rolling pin and pastry blender. However, I have come to learn that if you keep the ingredients cold and your surfaces well floured, making dough yourself is not only doable but fun. I highly recommend practicing with pasties though. If they come out odd on the first attempt, only you have to know.
    • pie tins
      • Substitute: springform pan
      • There are two problems with finding a proper pie tin in Germany. 1. Those lovely disposable aluminum packs we have in the States are nowhere to be found. You will have to buy a round Kuchenform either with nice slanted sides or make do with a spring form pan. 2. The standard diameter is not 8 or 9 inches but 26 cm. That's a little more than 10 inches across. Adjust your recipes accordingly.
    • canned pumpkin
      • Substitute: pureed Hokkaido or other round, orange squash.
      • Hokkaido seems to be cheapest and most readily available in Kaufland. I had the pleasure of using a ricer to simultaneously mash and remove tough pieces of baked pumpkin. I definitely recommend it.
    • brown sugar
      • Substitute: 2 tbsp molasses and 1 cup white sugar per cup of brown sugar replaced
      • Don't get me wrong. If you go into the baking goods section of a store in Germany, you will find something called brauner Zucker. This is a trap. Brauner Zucker or Rohrzucker is in fact raw/cane sugar. Instead of dark brown, sticky granules, you get hard brown crystals. The good news is though that brown sugar as we know it consists simply of refined sugar and molasses. If you beat the two together in the above mentioned proportions, you will get something adequately similar. Now, I did not have molasses and was not about to buy some for 1 meal. However, maple syrup or dark honey make good 1 to 1 substitutes. Personally, I think the maple added a nice tone to the pie.
On Saturday, I got started with the desserts and reheatable side dishes. The other American on my floor arrived half way into the process. We managed to whip up two pies, a batch of biscuits, mashed potatoes and some lingonberry sauce in just 7 hours! My feet and back were not happy with me.

It was the same story the next day, though a good portion of the time was spent just hanging out while the bird cooked. Due to having potentially three vegetarians present, we made stuffing with and without turkey juices as well as two types of gravy. Some members of the floor gathered about an hour and a half ahead of time to help out. I don't believe they realized that thanksgiving is a feast of preparation and timing. So...they were put on table setting duty. We got all the dish on the table while still somewhat warm (aluminum foil was our friend), and dug in.

The food was received well, the garlic mashed potatoes, biscuits and pies especially. Several people had their first experience with sweet potatoes that night as well. They kept wondering how I got the "carrots" to taste so sweet. After the meal, two of the residents got out equipment for making one of the more dramatic beverages I've ever seen called Feuerzangenbowle.

Essentially, you mix cinnamon and orange slices with Glühwein (mulled wine popular around Christmas) in a pot until warm. Pour that into a fancy glass bowl above an adjustable burner, lay a cone of sugar above the bowl, cover in rum, and SET ON FIRE. At one point, a drop of burning rum dripped down the side of the bowl, leaving a streak of blue flame against the glass. This is an alcohol-related tradition I can approve of, even if I don't know what it tastes like.

That's right. I did not sample the bubbling brew. I'm an all or nothing kind of person. I can quit something cold turkey, but handling it in moderation? Not really my strong suit. If I try something and like it, I will start letting myself have more and more until it becomes a problem. This phenomenon has happened with desserts, TV shows, and Sudoku. Imagine what could happen with a chemically addictive substance. Thus, I have sworn never to try alcohol. You can't miss what you haven't had. (Would that I had done that with chocolate!). Most of my friends and family are used to this. Explaining it to a bunch of excited Germans was different. I believe that was the first time I have ever actually felt pressured to consume a drug. I stood my ground however and drank apple juice instead.

Residence Permit Application Submitted!

At long last, I have applied for my residence permit. From late September to mid November, the newly arrived foreign students make the lines insufferable. Although the building opens at 7:30 and the foreigners' office opens at 8, the first students show up at 3 AM. Fortunately, that madness has subsided for the most part. I only had to show up at 6:30 AM to be fifth in line. (though I woke up at 5:00AM)

At 7, an employee appeared to write our names down on a list. At 7:30, we were let into the building and had our paperwork briefly checked over. Once my documents were approved, I received a ticket and an application form to fill out while I waited for the number on my ticket to be called. Strangely, one of the questions on the form was apartment size. Having no clue how big my room is in feet, let alone meters, I just left that one blank.

When my turn came, I stepped into the proper room and handed over all the necessary documents. If you receive a waiver for German health insurance, you will need to bring your insurance card or other proof of non-German insurance along. The officer had no problems with any of my papers except the biometric photo I submitted. Having taken it with a computer in a hallway, it was not the best quality in the world. However, the officer scanned it in anyway and seemed to pass muster, if only just.

After copying all my forms, he printed a few extra forms, had me sign, and electronically took my pointer fingerprints. That was it. He gave me back my original documents, passed me a booklet with info on the electronic identity card I would receive, and told me to wait about 4 weeks to receive my PIN and another couple weeks to get instructions on picking up the card itself.

I then hurried home and napped. 'Twas glorious.

Exchange Program Presentation

In order to promote the program that I am participating in, the staff members running the exchange gave a presentation on Tuesday explaining its organization, application procedures, etc. They also invited students that had gone to the States last year as well as the CMU students currently in Aachen to give quick presentations on our experiences and to answer questions at the end. Christine and I agreed to attend and put a powerpoint together. We made sure to include he most essential details: Pittsburghese, Primanti Bros, and Dark Knight Rises filming locations. Since the students were interested in studying in America, we opted to present in English. We also opted not to practice beforehand. This...is not my typical way of giving a presentation. I usually rehearse until I have inadvertently created a script that I follow without variation. However, the day before, on only my second attempt ever, I successfully made a pasty without even measuring ingredients for the crust. If I could wing that, surely I could give a casual talk without preparing, right? Yes, that was my actual thought process.

It turns out, that parallel was not entirely off. Sure, I might have tried a bit too hard to make some points funny. and we talked for 15 minutes instead of the expected 10. Nevertheless, we won some honest laughs and didn't go nearly so long as the representatives from the UC Davis exchange. 30 minutes of hearing how delightful California weather is a bit much. The end of the presentations was when it became truly awkward. Perhaps it was because we could not help with application questions. Maybe our speaking English had scared them off. For whatever reason, when the attendees came up to ask questions, only two came to talk to CMU exchange participants, and both wanted to talk to the returned RWTH students. Christine and I just stood there feeling redundant. Ah well. An excuse to go to bed is an excuse to go to bed.

Registration Hopefully Achieved

Well, despite the complications, it seems that my emailed list of courses counts as registration for the final exams. I still have yet to figure out how to officially register for my heat and mass transfer course. However, I shot a message to the secretary who hopefully has more to say about logistics than the professor.

Speaking of heat and mass transfer, I finally had my first "self-tutorial" for that course on Friday. The self-tutorial is where we show up, the TA gives us a problem, and we try to work through it on our own until he brings us back together to actually solve it. Judging by how far I got on my own, these exercises will be oh so very very helpful. It's one thing to understand the logic behind someone else's solution. It's a whole different game to come up with that logic yourself.

So, having seen how much exercise and self tutorial can assist me, and knowing that I had access to practice problems in my other classes, I spent the weekend...watching How I Met Your Mother. Yeah. I was in an anti-productive, anti-social slump the past few days. Fortunately, I sense a shift in the wind. Just the fact that I'm blogging indicates I've gotten up more motivation than I had all of Saturday. Just to reinforce the motivation, if I do not solve at least 2 practice problems for Dynamics, go to gymnastics practice, and finish reading up on medieval German verbs, I am morally obliged to kick myself in the face. And yes, while I mean it figuratively, it is possible physically.


The error that kept blocking access to the exam registration portal has been dealt with. Hooray! However, When I checked the website, it looked as though the IT department deleted my previous record sheet. Oh well, I thought to myself, I'll just take a minute to set it up again. Apparently deleting the record sheet did not delete my data from the system. The site rejected my student ID code because "someone has already registered with this number."

So...It looks like I'll have to send more frustrated emails.

On the upside, the literature class informed me that I do not have to register for the exam. Since it is administered electronically, I just have to click the link on the course webpage on the day it opens up. Embarrassingly, the course administrator sent out the email explaining this minutes after I emailed someone else asking what to do. What's important though is that I got an answer.


If I have not mentioned it before, students register for final exams separately from courses. This has the advantage that more people can take the final exam than could attend the course that semester, which makes room for the students that failed or delayed taking the exam their first time around. It has the disadvantage that if you forget or cannot figure out how to register for the finals, you cannot get credit for the course no matter how well you know the material. This is particularly troublesome for students like me, an exchange student without access to the regular system who is also taking classes outside of her official major.

Initially, the deadline to register for final exams was the 11th of November. However, I received an email addressed to all mechanical engineering exchange students explaining that the separate web portal we had to use was not cooperating. Since 11:11 AM November 11th is the official kick off of the carnival season in Cologne, I suspect the computers decided to take the week beforehand off. As a result, I only got access to the portal Monday afternoon. Fortunately, the deadline to register was pushed back to the 17th.

The portal distinguishes between exams internal and external to the Mechanical Engineering department. To register for those offered internally, you simply select it from a drop down list. External exams are a bit trickier. You can manually type in what other exams you're taking so that the ME department has a record of it. Then, in order to actually register, you have to pester the professors to see what their respective departments require of you.

I am taking two external courses, Introduction to Literary Studies and Heat and Mass Transfer. The latter is identical to an undergraduate mechanical engineering course except that it is taught in English. It is offered as part of an English-language masters program and consequently counts as an external course. When I pestered the professors of both classes, they replied with "Write me an email." I did...and now I'm waiting...impatiently.

To make matters worse, when I tried to go back to the portal yesterday to finish entering in my classes, I received the following error.

We're sorry, but something went wrong.

I contacted the person that sent me the link situation, and he assured me that his people would look into it, but man! Can't any process be simple, direct, and bug free?

Museumsnacht Köln

This past Saturday, a number of museums in the city Cologne (Köln in German), open their doors from 7pm to 3am for the low price of 17 Euros. How could I stay away? Christine and I hopped on a train to Cologne, which thanks to our student tickets costs us nothing. When we arrived at the central train station and stepped outside, we saw the following.

entrance to the excavation site
That is a view of the Cologne Cathedral. Sadly, I did not have a chance to go in, but I did get to go below. After picking up tickets from a nearby, we made our way to the Kölner Domgrabung (Cologne Cathedral Excavation). The entrance to the dig is through a peculiarly shaped tunnel. The entire site had been sealed up centuries ago, so in order to break through, round cores of stone were extracted from the wall in the outline of a door. The process was sort of like opening a pumpkin by taking an apple corer all around the top.

Once inside, I felt almost like I was in a cave. The walls varied from brick to rough and uneven stone. The walkways consisted of metal grates that allowed us to walk over and look down into the ancient foundations. Guides dotted the catacombs to answer questions and share interesting facts about each area. The most memorable for me was one where I could see miniature columns in the ground below the walkway. When I asked about them, the guide explained that before the first iteration of the church had been constructed Romans had used the area for regular housing. The columns would have supported floorboards. An oven would then warm the air underneath, thus creating a heated floor system. I knew the Romans were clever, but it still amazes me what they could do all those millennia ago.

After the excavation, we headed to the Chocolate Museum. The first floor covered cacao bean production. It even had a small room meant to emulate a tropical rain forest. Having just come inside, the hot and humid air was a welcome change. Now, I do not know for sure if the plants were real or not. However, if they were then people with allergies had best beware of mangos.

The next stage of the museum got into chocolate processing. We saw machines for grinding treated beans into cacao butter and cacao mass, of which the latter goes on to turn into chocolate. Devices for heating, mixing, stirring, molding, and packing the sweets surrounded us. As a pair of engineers, we were kind of geeking out about the whole thing. She wanted to run a factory. I wanted to design the robots.

Eventually, we moved on to the next floor. We found ourselves plunged back in time. The section explored chocolate's history, starting with the Maya. (Okay, it actually started with some other culture in Central America, but I've forgotten its name.) I recall reading that human sacrifices were allowed the rare privilege of smoking tobacco and drinking chocolate beverages. The beverages were colored with red dye to symbolize blood. I suppose if you're going to die, drinking hot chocolate and smoking a pipe is not the worst way to spend your last days.

The history lesson continued into European imperialism. One display held porcelain from the 18th century when Europeans learned the secret to its creation. Having a special set for chocolate drinks seemed to be quite the fashion. Further along the timeline, we saw several unbelievably quaint vending machines.

perhaps a little impractical, but adorable nonetheless
After the chocolate museum, we headed back to the area around the cathedral. There we found the Museum Ludwig. This art museum had stricter entrance policies than the other places we visited. They felt up purses at the door to check for water bottles. All bottles had to be thrown out then and there. This would have bothered me less had there not been a cafe selling drinks just inside the doors. It seemed the regulation had more to do with profit than protecting the artwork. Before we could go to the museum proper, we had to lock up our bags and coats in one of the coin operated lockers. Put in a 50 cent coin and you can remove the key. With our possessions safely stowed, we could at last see some art.

The first display was photography. I would not call that my favorite medium. Quite often I cannot find a line between intriguing composition and a snapshot of junk on a table, and don't get me started on photos of other photos. One picture however caught my attention. From afar it looked like the leg of a ballerina on point showing the sole of the shoe. However, something seemed off. As I stepped closer, I realized that what I had mistaken for a tutu was just a wisp of pink gauze, and the leg itself belonged to some cloven hoofed animal. The artist had tricked me, and he had used a real image to do so. I respected him for it.

The next work to catch my attention would have gotten it had I been blind. It consisted of a large empty room painted red with slogans written in enormous letters in white over the floor and along the walls. Black and white photographs that all looked like they had come from the 1960s to me hung on the walls with captions below. They all said something along the lines of "We are forced to conform," with respect to various aspects of life. As if that were not dramatic enough, a recording of a man with a deep, sinister voice blared over it all. The sound of uneasy crowds or screams or vomiting played in the background while the man intoned "My people are better than your people. We invented everything," along with similar statements. Standing in the center of all that, caught between the hateful recording and the scornful walls, I felt cramped despite the size of the room. Part of my brain was trembling "This political and social commentary is judging me!" Another part screamed "The arrogance! Does this guy think that rehashed sheeple dribble and a few predictably poignant questions deserve to be blown up to such a scale like it's something new?" I got out of there fast, disturbed on two fronts. I suppose in that sense the art succeeded. It made me feel something.

Most of the other pieces were equally modern or post modern or pre-future or whatever the term is for art that does not try to mimic reality. One section though was devoted to Picasso and other cubist works. While I have never found late Picasso particularly moving or attractive, I admired the intelligence it must take to hold so many perspective in view at once. Me being me, I try to put the pieces back together to reconstruct the original. Perhaps I am missing the point there, but then who can tell me how to engage with art?

After exhausting the museum, which compared to the Art Institute in Chicago seemed only of middling size, we finally took the 11:15 back to Aachen. I collapsed into my bed and succumbed to that special kind of tired only museums can give you.

RWTH Night of Science

Friday, from 7 to midnight, the RWTH put on an event known as the night of science. Presentations, shows, experiments and displays took place all over the central campus. I went with my fellow CMU student. The first show we wanted to see was called 10 Minutes - Go! It was put on by students of British and American literature and consisted of 6 one-act plays. It started off...oddly. The first performance was a monologue from a woman who was either very disturbed by her own sexiness or was Medusa, the Gorgon. Either way, my friend and I exchanged confused looks afterwards. The other plays we understood a bit better. Our favorite involved Mojo Man, the man with the irresistible mojo. Will he use it for good or evil?

After the plays, we walked around the display areas. Engineers without Borders had a display as well as a "stamping contest." They had a bucket of sand and a long wooden rod meant to simulate the setup used in a country I did not catch the name of to grind up banana leaves for use as bio-fuel. The challenge was to see how many times you could pound the stick into the sand in 1 minute. I gave it a try and my goodness was it tough! My arms and shoulders were already complaining after fifteen seconds. While I did not break any records with my score, I did not disgrace the family name.

One of the experiment rooms that we visited had a demo that particularly caught my attention: the fire tornado. The person running the demo poured some acetone into a dish on a turntable and then set the acetone on fire. When he spun the turntable, not much happened. Then, he put a tall wire cage around the flame. When he spun the table a second time, the flames spiraled into an ever growing vortex. The demonstrator then explained what causes the phenomenon. If you'd like to know the explanation, click this link. For a bit less science and a bit more fire, watch this video.

After checking out a couple other booths, we headed over to the main building where the university's big band put on a concert. Waiting for the concert to start, my friend noticed someone sitting just across the row. He looked...familiar. It turned out, he was a German student who had participated in the CMU exchange last year. We chatted and exchanged numbers in case we needed any help dealing with Aachen and the RWTH. Then, the music started.

The band really knew what they were doing. They were tight and together without loosing the all important swing. The vocalist that joined them had a voice that was half sass and half soul. My only complaint is that the pickup on her microphone was turned down, making her difficult to hear. However, all in all, it was a good way to end the evening.

p.s. I know this isn't exactly a tourist trap, but I've labeled it as such because the event is annual and open to the public. If you're in Aachen in early November, it's worth looking into.

Potatoes and Breakfast

As the date on this post will tell you, I have been a bit remiss in my blogging duties. This was mostly because I had nothing new to say. Friday was Allerheiligen, a religious holiday observed by law in the primarily Catholic state of Nordrhein-Westfalen. This meant no classes. What I did in my free time was, sadly, nothing. This laziness continued through the weekend. The only semi-productive activity I undertook was crocheting a hat and baking a double batch of pumpkin bread.

Yesterday, I discovered the difference between festkochende and mehlig kochende Kartoffeln. The terms literally mean 'firm cooking' and 'floury or mealy cooking' respectively. This means waxy or starchy. Waxy potatoes take longer to bake, do not get as fluffy, and stay generally firmer than their starchier brothers. I found that out after I tried to cook them. My attempt to make twice baked potatoes resulted in half-baked spuds with a filling whose consistency resembled potato salad more than potato mash. Oh well. Now that I know what I am dealing with I can prepare them properly in the future.

Today I did not have to worry about cooking lunch. Student Body general assemblies for all majors met today. To encourage participation, the Mechanical Engineering Student Body arranged for a brunch for those who actually attended the meeting. This is just another reason I love being a MechE. The assembly itself did not excite me much. New officers were nominated and then immediately elected by show of hands. Democracy at its laziest. The other officers went over their responsibilities and what they had done so far in the semester. The Treasurer reassured us that the organization wasn't broke. That was about it. The doors flew wide and a swarm of hungry college students flooded the hallway.

I had the good fortune to sit near the exit. I arrived at the cafeteria before most of the crowd and began loading up my plate. Brunch in America typically implies scrambled eggs, bacon, hash browns, and pancakes with perhaps some cold cuts and sandwich bread thrown in. German breakfast is different. It often consists of a roll cut in half and smeared with honey and nutella one one side and cream cheese and cold cuts on the other. Don't worry though; those halves don't get put back together. You eat everything open face, that is unless you use the roll as a bun for a Wiener Würstchen. the only hot food served at the brunch. If you guessed that this "little sausage" has to do with American "wieners", you're right. It is basically a hot dog, if a bit longer and containing more actual animal parts. The word wiener actually just means Viennese. A frankfurter (Frankfurter Würstchen), on the other hand, comes from Frankfurt and contains pork as opposed to the pork and beef found in a wiener. The subtleties of the sausage are without end.

Here is a visual aid for the German Breakfast.

Hooray for Homework!

For reasons currently unknown, two professors now have had problems giving me access to L2P where they post all their learning materials. They receive an error saying that I already have a pending registration. Given that they are the only ones capable of registering me, and they received that error on their first attempt, I can only assume that mischievous Pixlies are warring with the Electrognomes and have chosen my student account as the battle field. However, they must have had a brief ceasefire because my Dynamics registration went through. I will have to wait for the Photonaiads to mobilize their strong forces against the Pixlies before I can see the Literary Studies website.

When I got onto the Dynamics page, I found a dynamic system we had seen in lecture with the acceleration and velocity vectors written in. Helpful, but nothing all that special. Then I saw the folder labeled Aufgabenstellungen. With suspicious hope rising within me, I clicked the link. Wonder of wonders, it was homework problems! Well, homework that no one will grade or ask you to turn in. I have been struggling to think of ways to learn material without any practice problems. The teachers and TAs solve the problems given in the textbook, and doing an exercise you have already seen the answer to is like making an origami crane with the folds pre-creased. Now, at least for one course, I know where I can turn.

In another technical course, Regelungstechnik, I have discovered practice problems in the form of old exams. These have the slight disadvantage that they cover material for the entire semester. Since I already have essentially three recitations per week for this class, I think I will count that as enough practice during the semester. I can turn to the old tests when I have a bit more knowledge under my belt.

Pumpkin Shenanigans

Fall, my favorite season, is coming into full swing. This means apples, nuts, and squash. The squash of the week, and probably the squash of next week too, is PUMPKIN! Now, I am not much of a pie person. I beg you to forgive that grave gastronomical blasphemy. However, whatever passion I lack for pie I make up for with my zeal for quick breads. Thus, I spent last week sifting through various pumpkin bread and pancake recipes. The problem came when I tried to find canned pumpkin.

Unbeknownst to me, canned pumpkin is a very American invention. In Germany, you buy the vegetable whole and puree, bake, or grate it yourself. What's more, there are two main varieties as far as I have seen. You have your typical jack-o-lantern style gourds. Then, you have something called Hokkaido. These are smaller, around 1kg. This makes them convenient for smaller scale cooking. They also have a skin that you can eat right along with the flesh. I picked one up yesterday and put it to good use this morning.

I roasted up the seeds, about 1/2 a cup from one pumpkin. I then shredded a third of the veggie-proper for my bread and baked the rest to later puree in the communal blender. The bread is too beautiful to last long in this world. The puree...let's just say that the blender is special. It suffers from the classic affliction of throwback. Throwback, a term I clearly did not make up off the top of my head, refers to when a blender blends when you first turn it on, but within seconds all the ingredients in contact with the blades have been thrown out of their reach and the mixture is too fill the gap left behind. When this happens, the mixture will not blend unless you pulse push ingredients down, pulse, push the ingredients down, etc. This had 1 major consequence for me; the pumpkin skin I had left on because the internet told me to ended up in pieces small enough that I could not pull them out but large enough that I could not cook with the mixture. I spent a lovely half an hour pushing the pumpkin mash through a sieve to repair the situation.

If the German cooking show, Lafer! Lichter! Lecker! that I have grown addicted to has taught me anything, it is that stick blenders are the way to go. They are to regular blenders what a hand mixer is to a stand mixer. They might not have as much kick, but they have less fuss. Furthermore, since you can move the blender wherever you wish inside the bowl, it resolves the throwback problem.

Dance Fever

Well, I finally got my laundry card. It turns out that the office hours and the times the landlord are in his office do not line up. It's easier to call his cell phone and see when he'll be around. Germans in general seem far more phone-centric. So many offices have given phone contact information but no physical or email address. Then again, that might have to do with the fact that I have had to deal with offices and logistics more than at home.

So, laundry card: yay! All the machines are in use: boo! Tomorrow though, I will wage war against sweat and chocolate stains.

Apart from laundry shenanigans, I decided to visit the ESG dance class. Unlike the Salsa class offered on Mondays, the instructor lead us through several dance styles. "Us" refers to the three people that showed up, one dance-pair and myself. Apparently a big party had pulled most of the regulars away. This left me to dance with teacher. Now, I consider myself a level headed and practical person. However, I am not a robot. When the rather attractive instructor pulled me into a closed position and announced that we would start with Rumba I melted a little inside. However, I pulled myself together pretty quickly.

Despite having no knowledge of Rumba, the teacher got me up to speed on the basics rather quickly. He could really lead. He did not just step and hold his hand in the general direction he wanted me to go like a weak lead might. Instead, he kept a firm frame and pushed me gently through the moves. All I had to do was let him lead and move my feet.

After Rumba, he introduced a tiny bit of Cha-cha, which was basically Rumba with a triple-step thrown in, and then moved onto Jive. Here, I had some experience, though I did not know it. It turns out that East Coast Swing, a style that I had some exposure to in high school, is incredibly similar to Jive. I picked up the moves even quicker than before. All too soon we moved on to the next dance.

The last style we learned was called Discofox. I had never heard of it. However, a quick google when I got home told me that the style is pretty popular in Germany. It came about, not surprisingly, in the 70s and is related to the hustle. The slightly dorky music not withstanding, the dance was a fun mix of spins and direction changes.

Unfortunately, the teacher and students all usually have regular partners. If I don't want to put someone out, I need to find a man that can dance. I study mechanical engineering. Boys I have. Men? Iffy. Dancers? We shall see.

Insert Frustrated but Determined "Ohm" Here

The title describes how I feel about the people I need to contact to get anything done in my apartment. I still have yet to get the card that lets me use the laundry machines. I can get it either from the landlord or from a certain resident. Well, I have yet to find the landlord in his office during office hours, and the resident is in his room...when he is in his room. To make matters worse, it turns out that washing the hand towels was part of kitchen cleaning duty that I had this weekend. I had somehow gotten it into my head that the person in charge of taking out the trash also had towels. Nope. In addition to the laundry card, I also need to somehow put money onto my printing balance. I only have to pay 2.50 cents per page, but it's a debit system, not credit.

To combat these logistical stresses, I went to the yoga class offered by the Evangelical Student Community. These are the same people that put on Salsa classes. I arrived slightly late due a long walk from my last class.  Normally, tardiness annoys me to no end. However, as a previous yoga instruct pointed out to me, why tense up about being late to relax? When I did arrive, I found the room lit by tea candles in the center of the floor. The instructor and a few students had made a circle around the candles with their mats. I quietly joined them. The practice focused primarily on undoing the tension caused by constant computer usage. We massaged our faces and temples, stretched our upper backs and shoulders, and finished in Shavasana as almost all practices do. The instructor even provided blankets, since the body temperature tends to sink quite a bit in Corpse Pose. While I cannot count this as a workout, it was definitely a pleasant experience. It may warrant revisiting.

Surprise Money and Residence Permit Answers!

Yesterday, I received in the mail a most peculiar document. It stated that I had paid the semester fee twice. By filling out the attached form with my bank information, I could get the ~230 Euros back. I read the letter several times through. I know that I only made the payment once. Heck, I only had 250 Euros in my Sparkasse account when I made that payment. The only explanation I can draw is that CMU covered the charge. I have yet to find a paper trail, so I see some emails in my future. However, asking why I have gotten money is by far preferable to asking why I have to give money.

While submitting the filled out refund form, I decided to drop in on my dear friends in the Foreigner's Office (Ausländeramt). I have had a rather confusing time trying to figure out just what counts as financial support. My self written letter of parental financial support had been turned down. Then, someone in the office said my parents had to get a Verpflichtungserklärung for me from the German embassy in America. When my dad asked around, the American office said they did not give out said form for study reasons. I sent an email to the Ausländeramt stating that, and they said "um...that's new." Okay, not in those words, but effectively.

To make matters both better and worse, another student said that she just showed a statement from her American bank and that had bee sufficient. However, on the info sheet for students it had said that a simple bank statement was not sufficient! Otherwise, I would have just done that in the first place!

You can understand, therefore, why I felt ready to tear my hair out if I got another conflicting answer today.
After a 10 minute wait that felt like an eternity, the man I had emailed was free to speak with. After I made the whole situation clear, he said that I could show my bank statement, preferably along with the account contract. So long as my savings total about 7000 Euros, or 700 Euros per month of my stay, I should be in the clear.

First Week Finished!

I have successfully survived the first week of classes. I only had one class to visit today, Treffpunkt Regelungstechnik. It is a more practical, deeper look into the concepts we discuss in the ordinary controls lecture. Since today was just an introduction, the TA running it decided to have some fun. He demonstrated how, if you mapped the audio from a video of the South African World Cup in 2010 into the frequency domain and removed all sound at, say, 233 Hz, you could remove most of the annoying vuvuzala noise.

In addition to messing around with sound, he decided to demonstrate what would happen if you messed with the controllers in a home-made segway. For this, he needed a volunteer. Not surprisingly, no one was too eager to try it out. He had expected this and upped the stakes by offering a jumbo bag of gummy bears to the guinea pig. How could I refuse? The segway worked just fine. No injuries to body or pride to report. However, when he showed what would have happened if he had used a less ideal controller, the segway had a seizure. (I was safely in my seat by then.)

Right after class, I dropped by the Studentenwerk and filled out the form to set up my automated rent. It took all of a minute. After that, I had nothing pressing until 5. Then, I had Intercultural Training to attend. This was a three hour session where we discuss different cultural models, some descriptive features like direct and indirect or independent and group oriented. All in all, it was nothing new. However, the instructor was pleasant, and having a multicultural class definitely contributed more than I had had in previous experiences. For example, the Chinese students explained that you don't just ask a teacher a question directly. You have to go about it indirectly through other students or tutors. There is a set hierarchy. I know that part of the training's purpose is to show that there is no right and wrong. only different. However, I don't think I would last long in an indirect, hierarchical culture. I would die of frustration first.

One Day More

I have one day left in the first week. However, seeing as both classes tomorrow are recitations and have little to no material to go over, today feels more like Friday than Thursday. The second dynamics lecture today got into path-following coordinate systems and all that jazz. So far I have been able to follow along without much difficulty.

I still have yet to hear back from the professors I've emailed regarding, you know, access to the electronic materials. I purchased the reader for Introduction to Literary Studies, but I haven't the foggiest what I have to read from it for Tuesday. The same goes for Regelungstechnik. One of these days I need to sort out when and where the professors hold their office hours. Sadly, that information may very well be on the websites I need access to...

On a more positive note, the class I had feared most may turn out to be the most fun. Novellendichtung (Writing of Novellas) frightened me for a number of reasons. For one, it is bound to have lots of reading assignments of questionable difficulty for me. For another, I did not know how much novella writing of our own we would have to do. While I like creative writing, I am certainly nowhere near college level, at the very least not in German. Finally, how well could I follow and contribute to discussions? If I have no idea what the teacher says, I can hardly respond. However, once the teacher showed up (something delayed her by a good 15 minutes), my doubts started to dissolve. She spoke engagingly but clearly enough that I could follow her without effort. She explained that the class would have one major written assignment that we could work on from the third week up until the end. Usually I dislike having one large assignment over many smaller ones. Eggs and baskets and all that. However, one assignment means I will have the opportunity to ask for feedback and revise before the final submission. Silly linguistic mistakes will be easier to catch. As for my ability to contribute and to keep up with the reading, the girl sitting next to me allayed my fears on those fronts. She mentioned that she had found Aristotle's "Poetik" difficult to read. This was the first work in the Intro to Lit Studies Reader. I had taken a look at it earlier, and was definitely no walk in the park. However, I could get meaning from it. If she had found it tricky too, maybe there's hope for me yet.

Books and Baked Goods

Today, since one of my lectures starts next week for some reason, I only had one afternoon class to attend. As a result, I decided to try and get some things done this morning. Namely, I wanted to get some textbooks and set up an automatic monthly withdrawal for rent.

The bookshop that carries the Mittelhochdeutsches Taschenwörterbuch (Middle High German Pocket Dictionary) that I need is called Mayersche. I had heard that the bookshop I went to yesterday was a smaller outlet and that I wanted the big shop. I did not realize just how big. Imagine Borders or Barnes and Noble. Now imagine three of them stacked on top of each other with two cafes included. I took my sweet time finding what I needed. Wandering through all the different sections was just too entertaining. In the fantasy and science fiction section, they had a table labeled "Game of Thrones, etc." Various Game of Thrones related texts and a few other well known high fantasy series littered the display. Finally, I discovered the text I needed on the top floor. 20 Euros. So far, it is the most expensive text I've had to get. In total, I imagine the texts for this semester will only set me back around $100. Compared to the $500 or so a regular semester in America might cost, I am pretty darn satisfied.

Next, I went to the Studentenwerk office in Peterstrasse and set up my rental payment to work with my Sparkasse account. Or rather, I intended to. I had forgotten that Wednesdays the Studentenwerk has no office hours. Oh well. I picked up the eggs I had forgotten to get yesterday, headed home, and read a bit of the script to Mittelhochdeutsche while I waited for my first and last lecture of the day.

Dynamics: this is another 1000 plus class. However, rather than beginning with something high tech like a segway, it began with an overhead projector and transparencies. How quaint. Nevertheless, a dry erase marker and projector turned out to be far more practical than a white board for a class that size. Once again,I found myself following the math and reverse translating from there. It seems the more technical the class, the easier to understand as a second language learner. Of course, we'll see what happens when we move on from basic Cartesian Coordinates and into something I haven't learned ten times over.

After class, I messed around, semi visited Rhönradturnen practice (I wasn't in the mood and left early), and waited for it to be 8 o'clock. What was I waiting for you ask? The "Onion Tarts and Federweisser" Party. While I could care less about the weird young wine offering, the onion tarts grabbed my attention. I had secretly hoped they would be free. Alas, they cost 1 star. Stars refer to the little stars printed onto a ticket indicating how much bar credit you have. I got 5 Euros worth of credit when I signed up for internet, so I put those to good use. The tarts looked something like what you see below.

They were entirely delicious. In fact, I picked up one to heat up for breakfast tomorrow, which drew confused expressions from the German girls I was hanging out with. Apparently left over onion tart is not normal breakfast food. To all those who assign food to specific meal times, I say poppycock. I will eat onion pie for breakfast, muesli and yogurt for lunch, and an omelet for dinner. Just try and stop me.

Second Day: Lit and Lang

Tuesdays are "light" for me. A 90 minute lecture in the morning and another around 4. However, the content might just burn holes through my head. The first class, Introduction to Literary Studies, has a professor that speaks blessedly slowly. However, she also has a handheld microphone that wanders to and from her mouth. I will have to sit directly in front of her and pray that the students behind me don't chatter if I want to catch everything she says.

I am still waiting to get access to L2P, the site where assignments, material, and announcements are. Until I have access, I can neither start on the readings or look over the lecture slides. Another exchange student taking the class said she had the same problem. Fortunately, the class only meets once a week, so I have a little time before matters become desperate.

Apart from those troubles, the material in the class seems interesting. We will discuss three fundamental sorts of literature: Epic (meaning works of a certain length that tell a story, not just Beowulf and the Odyssey), Lyric, and Dramatic. We will learn how to approach the historical and analytical aspects of each group and use mountains of example texts to do so. I will be buried in books. There are worse ways to go.

Speaking of books, I had a minor panic attack when I saw that the required lit for my second class of the day was required for the first lecture. I had an hour and 15 minutes before my class began to try and print off the script and buy a textbook. Since I had yet to print anything, I decided to go for the textbook first. However, when I arrived at the bookstore, they told me that I would have to go to their main office to get it. Even if I had known how to get there, I would not have had time. Nevertheless, on my way to the shop, I passed a copy shop. I had the script and the first day's text on a USB-drive with me. When I walked in, I simply handed the woman the stick, told her which files and what colors I wanted, and the pages fired off shockingly quickly. The price also shocked me. I had expected to pay 15 Euros or more for the print job. Instead, printing 58 pages single sided put me out just 3.35. The first page costs 50 cents, and every subsequent one 5 cents. I'll have to remember to print in bulk.

Once I had the text printed, I had just enough time to head back to campus and locate the classroom. The class, Translating from Middle High German, is quite different from my other courses. For one thing, it is tiny. Only three students including myself showed up for the first day. Not only that, but the class itself has no graded work or test at the end. It is technically an Übung meaning a practical exercise rather than a lecture. Most people attending did so either out of interest or as preparation for a masters or teaching exam that included some translation.

As it turned out, I did not actually need the script and textbook for today. After a brief explanation of the course's structure and goals, we jumped right into translating a text. For context, Middle High German was the language used mainly between the 11th and 14th centuries. It resembles modern High German about as much as Chaucer resembles modern English. Translating it poses a number of problems. Do you focus on the style or the meaning? Did words that still exist today have the same meaning back then? What do you do when a verb could be past or present tense? We muddled through a few verses with the professor guiding us and explaining the meanings of various unrecognizable words. It was fun but exhausting. I had to work to understand, not just the text, but the explanations and answers being given in a second language. Alone with the professor I would have no issues asking for clarification. However, I have sat in classrooms held up by one student before. I did not want to hold the others back.

Fortunately, I got a rather helpful email right after class. The professor said that, as far as he could tell, I had kept up pretty well. Should I need it though, I should not fear to ask him to slow down or explain again. We could even meet before class and go over any particular problems or questions I have. Woohoo! I have a four hour break between my previous class and this one. Meeting beforehand will not be a problem. Life may have gotten a little bit easier.

First Day

My first lecture, Introduction to Psychology, took place at 10:15am in a building far from the main campus. I successfully snagged a bus to get me there with plenty of time to spare. At 10:05 I decided to go in to get a good seat. Apparently everyone else had the same idea. I ended up in the back row. At first, the teacher had a microphone and I could hear without trouble. Then, he decided that he preferred to speak on the other side of the classroom from the mike. Understanding rapid-fire German is troublesome enough. Understanding rapid-fire German when you only hear half of it is considerably trickier. However, as he was mostly talking about the different directions a psychology student could take in their studies, it did not much matter.

He ended class early enough that I had time to ask how I could register. Exchange students do not have access to the same electronic registration program as ordinary ones. However, he rather unsympathetically explained that the class was full and that I could not participate. Honestly, I am a bit relieved. On the one hand, getting credit towards my German major and the cognition requirement for Mechanical Engineer in one class would have been nice. On the other hand, not having to fly from one side of the city to the other in half an hour (the only half hour I would have for lunch) will definitely make my life easier.

I did, however, manage to hop a bus to the Audi Max building where my next three classes would take place. Those three classes are Controls: Review, Controls: Lecture, Controls: Other Lecture. 1000 other students and I get to sit in the same lecture hall from 12:15 to 3:45 with 15 minute breaks in between "classes." This is not even the entirety of the class. On Thursdays, I have a 1:30 hour recitations, and Fridays offer a three hour tutorial on MATLAB and practical applications of what we learn. On the upside, if I get the material, attendance is not mandatory. If I don't get the material, I have plenty of opportunities to ask for help. On top of the classes, the professor and TAs have in person and electronic office hours every day. Seeing as I have to pass this class with flying colors to stand a chance of resolving my senior year schedule, I can use the help.

However, not only do I think I'll pass the class; I think I'll enjoy it as well. The lecture today started with the professor, Dr. Abel, riding in on a segway. He had a male and female student try it out. Neither had used one before, but within seconds they got the gist of it. Dr. Abel explained that the segway remained balanced by adjusting the wheel speed to compensate when the driver shifted his or her center of mass. This was a convenient segway (aren't I clever) to simple control loops.

I had had some exposure to controls through my Intro to Robotics class last year. It was incredibly basic, but also incredibly helpful today in establishing vocabulary. I knew what the simple diagram meant. As the professor explained in German, I had a point of reference to hold on to. The same held true as he wandered away from diagrams and into the Taylor Series and differential equations. I know what the equations represent. I just have to fit the German terms to the symbols.

All in all, the lectures went well. I did not entirely follow every last detail, but Dr. Abel speaks slowly and clearly enough that vocabulary is the primary hurdle. To overcome it, I'll have to study, a good habit to get into in any case.

Tonight, since my wrist still periodically twinged from yesterday's Gymnastics, I decided to skip the wheel workout and attend Salsa lessons instead. The Evangelical Student Community (ESG) hosts informal salsa lessons every Monday. The moves were manageable, the music fun, the partners pleasant. When we started getting into the Rueda, things really picked up. I feel somewhat more justified in the slice of marble pound cake another student shared with me.

Here is a link to a Rueda video. We kept to the first few moves, but I look forward to learning some of the others!

Letters and Literature

Tomorrow is the first day of the semester. I have written down my schedule, located the most confusing classrooms, sent emails to professors to "register" when necessary, and can only hope that I have prepared myself enough. Time will tell.

However, today I felt like I had an excess of time. Out of laziness and forgetfulness I ended up not going to church. Thus, the only thing going on was open gym from 1 to 3. My wrists are aching from it. I get the feeling I won't be doing any flip-flops at tomorrow's practice.

After the workout I returned home and checked my mailbox. Two letters! That surprised me. I had been expecting my debit card, but what was in this other envelope? As I looked at the return address, my stomach sank. Bundeszentralamt für Steuern or "Federal Central Office for Taxes." If I had to pay taxes I could kiss fruits and vegetables goodbye.

It turns out the letter simply contained my "tax number". It seems to serve the same purpose as a social security number. You only get one, you keep it your whole life, and you use it to identify yourself in official paperwork. Having one does not mean that you have to file taxes, thank goodness.

On the way back upstairs from the mail room I passed a box in the hall labeled "Free Stuff." I like free stuff. More specifically, I like free stuff that I intended to buy. From this box, I pulled a beach towel (good for workouts or as a floor mat), the "first" book in A Song of Ice and Fire and Otherland: City of Golden Shadow, both translated into German. If I keep going at this rate, I'll have an entire library of lucky finds. Bringing them back...well easy come easy go.

Zertifikat Internationalles and Stickstoff

Yesterday (I seem to be on a perpetual 1-day lag) I attended a meeting regarding the Zertifikat Internationalles. This certificate is issued to RWTH students that demonstrate sufficient engagement in intercultural activities. Boy do the Germans like documentation.

At the info session, I received a list of required and elective components to the certificate. Having joined the BeBuddy program as a mentee and attended a language course with Goethe Institute, I'm already practically a third of the way done. One of the required components is an intercultural training session. With any luck, I can attend one next week! Other elective components range from attending certain classes to helping organize Aachen's "Tag der Integration" or integration day. I'm personally interested in attending a career center course on how to apply for jobs in Germany. Call me crazy, but that seems practical.

For full information on the program, click here.

On the way back from the info session, I made a very good choice. I decided to take a back way to my dorm rather than following the main street. As a result, I happened to walk by the chemistry building just as a gaggle of students came out laden with juice, coolers, and buckets. I wandered closer, asking what was going on. "Sie machen Stickstoffeis," a helpful onlooker explained. They're making stickstoff ice? What's stickstoff? I thought. Peering at the table they had erected, I could see students diligently stirring bowls of juice. As they worked, they occasionally poured what seemed to be liquid nitrogen into the mix.

So, was Stickstoff some weird alternative word for fruit juice? While I puzzled over the new word, a boy grabbed the cooler, a water filled bucket, and beckoned to the students to gather round. Not too close though. I could guess what was coming. With a flourish, he emptied the cooler's contents into the bucket and a plume of fog surged forth. The old dry ice and water trick never gets old. Once the roiling vapors had settled down and I had grabbed a cup of juice slushy, I headed home. Here, the good old internet answered my question regarding what I had just eaten.

Stickstoff- is the German word for Nitrogen. Sticken means to asphyxiate, and stoff basically means stuff or substance. Nitrogen earned that name because when it displaces oxygen...well we certainly don't last long.

Some other fun German versions of element names are:

O - Sauerstoff so named because oxygen was once thought essential for making acids (Säuere)

C - Kohlenstoff so named because coal (Kohle) is mostly carbon.

H - Wasserstoff so named because hydrogen is a key element in water (hydro is also greek for water)

Na - Natrium and K - Kalium The origins of these words are not German. I just include them because it finally makes sense why Sodium is Na and Potassium is K. We simply use the English terms instead of the Arabic ones that gave them their symbols.

Accidental Discoveries

Today I received my semester ticket. This card allows me to use all public transport in the Aachen region. This will come in handy for getting to classes. I looked up the locations of all of the courses that I intend to attend this semester. For the most part, they are in the main RWTH campus near Templergraben and Wüllnerstraße. However, it would seem the psychology department wandered off a ways. My Intro to Psychology class is on the southeast side of the city. According to Google Maps and my own experience trying to walk it today, it takes a little over half an hour to get from there to my next class, control engineering. Naturally, I have exactly 30 minutes between the end of psych and the start of controls. Hopefully, the train that supposedly shaves 10 minutes off the commute arrives on time.

While attempting to find the psych lecture hall in the first place, I did make two pleasant discoveries. First, I came across a shop named Würfelkiste meaning Dice Box. As I walked past, the classic image of a robed figure wielding a sword atop a mountaintop caught my eye. Could it be? It was! A gaming shop. Although I do not expect to buy much (read I horde money like a dragon) I have high hopes of networking. The sooner I join a D&D campaign, the soon I will feel at home.

After finding the lecture hall and heading back home, I made my second discovery. I happened to notice a plastic bag on the ground. Inside the bag were six somewhat aging books. I scanned the area again to see if they were part of some donation program. After all, I had passed a used clothes collection point not a block earlier. Nope. The books sat at the base of some glass recycling bins. Well, I had intended to get books in Germany. Why not free ones? Below are their titles.

Geflügelte Worte, (Winged Words) Georg Büchmann
Der Fragebogen, (The Survey)Ernst von Salomon
Die Geächteten, (The Ostracized )Ernst von Salomon
Der Sowjetmensch, (The Anatomy of Soviet Man)Klaus Mehnert
Das andere Ich, (The Other Me) Heinrich Spoerl
Freund sei einer dem Andern, (To Be Friends With One Another) Hermann Kloke

The first two, according to the internet, are actually rather well known. At the very least, they are the best known works of their authors. All in all, I consider it a good find. Should I decide I don't want them, perhaps I can find a second hand bookstore that does.


I belong to a breed known as the domineering introvert. When left to choose between staying home and meeting new people, I will likely stay home. When I mix in a crowd of strangers, I tend to stay quiet and deferential. However, the moment I feel comfortable in the situation, just try to shut me up.

Last night, I had to make one of those social life choices. Did I want to stay in and solve Sudoku puzzles, or did I want to go to Cafe Lingua, an event hosted by INCAS once a month? In the end, the promise of snacks got me moving. When I arrived at Humboldt Haus where all INCAS events take place, I saw various tables labeled for different languages. English, Spanish, French, and German were all represented. I took an open seat at the German table and promptly received a handful of M&Ms. For each color M&M, I had to talk about a corresponding topic. Red for hobbies, Orange for family, etc. After that game, the group played two truths and a lie, and thereafter a game where everyone has the name of a person on their forehead and must guess who they are by asking yes or no questions. All in all, I enjoyed myself. The M&Ms certainly didn't hurt my opinion of the event either.

Today was a bit less social. I spent most of the day watching ZDF programming and messing around on the computer. I also enjoyed chocolate pancakes with a molten butter and chocolate syrup that I made without a recipe. (To me, cooking without precise measurements is like building a house without blueprints. I'm only just coming around to the "tastes right" approach.) However, at 3 the time came for my second stint in the Rhönrad. This time, I was the only newbie there. I therefore received the undivided attention of the instructor. We tried doing a basic roll one handed, one legged, turning around while upside down, and what struck me as some seriously complicated spinning around. The last included the move that cost me some blood on Monday. However, with the instructor applying the breaks, I had no problems. I did bleed though. Apparently the tops of my feet aren't used to straps. I got a blood blister even through my shoes. That combined with the calluses I'm reforming on my hands makes me feel like a gymnast again.

Just Roll With It

Yesterday, at long last, Christine and I managed to meet up with the woman in charge of the exchange program. We had previously been unable to register for classes. With one week to go before lectures start, we were quickly descending into panic. In our minds, meeting with our adviser would set everything in stone.

That...is not the German system. In smaller humanities classes there may be fixed registration dates. They can only manage so many students in their sections.In the lectures, some say that you have until a month into the class before you have to officially register. Others give you the entirety of the semester to "register". Even then, registration really just means that you get access to course materials. In a class with group projects or small recitations, you'll be assigned to a team or section. For those courses that have only one exam at the end of the semester, you could just sign up for the test, never attend the class, and still get credit if you pass the test. Moreover, as exchange students we could not register electronically anyway. We have to write the professor (or the TAs that really run things) and request access to L2P, the RWTH equivalent of Blackboard or Moodle.

Thus, our adviser's advice was simply to show up to the first day and see what happens. The professors all have their own rules regarding attendance, assignment to sections, etc. More and more I understand why in German you don't say that you "take" a course; you "visit" it.

After our meeting, Christine and I decided to take a slight detour on our way to our dorm. This detour led to the Lindt factory's outlet. It is a dangerously short walk away. Chocolate perfumed the air around it. When we entered, I nearly melted at the sight. The room was as large as a hocky rink and filled wall to wall with sweets. Dark, milk, white, hazelnut, caramel, cherry, apple, everything a "Naschkatze" like me could hope for. I let out the occasional longing groan as we wandered past particularly appealing products. However, I had set myself a limit. No more than 2 Euros. It turns out, that did not limit the selection by that much. Plenty of products cost 1,90 Euros. In the end, I knew that everything there was quality, so I may as well maximize quantity. White chocolate and coconut bar, a small dark chocolate mint bar, and a dark chocolate "stick" worked out to 1,90 exactly. They are now gone. Perhaps looking up the factory's location was a bad idea...

However, I did at least attempt to redeem myself by going to Röhnradturnen practice. That is the wheeled gymnastics practice I so gleefully mentioned previously. My first lesson was how to use the binds. Beginners, you see, do not start off totally loose in a giant wheel. The feet get strapped in, and by twisting and pointing in a particular way, friction does the rest. The first move I learned was how to roll in what felt like a slow motion cartwheel. Once the teacher approved of that, he showed me how I could roll backwards and forwards while facing the wheel rim. He then tried something very frightening with me. One foot stays strapped in. The other swings behind me to get me rolling backwards. When I am upside down, the back leg swings forward to keep me going, and I stand upright again with my hands free of the wheel. The terrifying part in this was the constant conviction that my bound foot would slip right out of the shoe. Next, came an assisted "belly roll". This involves hoisting myself up against the rim, sweeping downwards with my hips against a bar, folding over it as I lift up again, and then rolling around to stand inside the wheel once more. It sounds awesome, and it would be if I did it at full speed. The instructor kept things very, very slow. After a few passes, he told me that I could get one of the more advanced students to help me out, which I did. I then did something stupid.

Everyone was busy, and I wanted to try something other than the two basic rolls I knew. However, hanging from one foot had scared me far more than the belly roll ever had. So...I thought why not try that? Just the beginning. Surely, that wouldn't be so bad. I had absolutely no conception of just how much they had been slowing me down. My body rolled to the ground. I saw the floor coming at my face, and I had just enough time to think "Huh, stopping isn't really an option" before my too low lying chin and lips kissed the floor. The wheel stopped awkwardly, the instructor exclaimed "nicht alleine machen!" (don't do that alone) and I stood up with a bleeding inner lip.

That was it for my rolling that night. I got an ice pack, washed the blood off, and tried not to shrink into an embarrassed ball. It did not hurt, it simply made me feel foolish. However, horses and falling and all that. I think I'll go back Wednesday.