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. 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.