Sunday, October 31, 2010

Marathon month recap, part 1

I'm home! I just spent the last four weeks on the road, and have finally returned to Munich. Most of the time was spent working, in meetings, or listening to/giving talks. Although this primary aspect of the trip was very successful and I learned a lot, I will not bore anyone with such details.  I did manage to spend a little time exploring new parts of Germany, the Netherlands, and Dublin and I'd like to share some of those experiences.  To avoid a lengthy post, I will break my recap into a few parts, one for each place that I visited.  First up, Irsee.

Actually, before I describe Irsee, I want to mention that I didn't bring my camera with me (nor did I bring it with me to Dwingeloo. Drats!) Fortunately another attendee, Aris Noutsos, had his (most of the photos that I've linked to are his) and was snapping photos throughout the event.  Aris is apparently quite the photographer; the pictures he took are fantastic. Many more than I have included here are available on his web page.  Have a look.
Group photo from the kick-off meeting, taken in front of the kloster.  Photo by Aris Noutsos.
I spent the first week of October in Kloster Irsee attending the kick-off meeting of my research group (DFG Research Unit 1254: Magnetisation of Interstellar and Intergalactic Media, The Prospects of Low-Frequency Radio Observations). The kloster (abbey), founded in 1186, is located in the foothills of the Alps to the southwest of Munich.  The monastery is no longer active; the grounds haven't been used as an abbey in almost 200 years.  From the mid 19th century until the 1970s the site was used as an asylum, and now it is a conference center.  Some parts of the history is rather dark, particularly during the 1930s and 40s when many of the 'patients' were murdered by the Nazi party.

The main entrance.  Photo by Aris Noutsos

There were many statues and and a lot beautiful art.  Photo by Aris Noutsos
The building and grounds were absolutely gorgeous.  I enjoyed taking walks around the buildings and in the surrounding forests during breaks or after our meetings were done for the day. The bedrooms were nice and spacious with high, ornately painted ceilings and large windows with small panes of glass that were wavy and bubbly with age. Bedside reading, including 'The Rules of St. Benedict' (in German), was provided.

At night we dined in the cellar which had a medieval feel, with low arched ceilings and knights armor scattered about for good measure.  Not surprisingly they served very good, locally brewed beer (called Klosterbraü Irsee). It seemed that the caterers were on a mission to fatten us up as best they could.  The food was quite good and surprisingly the menu was not entirely sausage-based.  Desert was provided all throughout the day.  Fun sized candy bars were available during the morning coffee break. Several deserts, usually including mousse, ice cream, cakes and cookies were provided at lunch.  During afternoon coffee they served large pieces of cake.  Then for dinner there was another assortment of desert, for example tiramisu or apple strudel. I only ate a small fraction of the available options, and it was still far too much.
The cellar restaurant. From the kloster website (

Armor in the cellar.  Not sure why.  Photo by Aris Noutsos.
Well, I don't have much else to discuss about Irsee.  The meeting was very busy, and the location was pretty remote, so I didn't do all that much of note. 

Tune in next time for a recap of my adventures in Holland.

Monday, October 11, 2010


This admission makes me feel like a pretty terrible Münchner, but we never enjoyed a Maß of beer at this, our first, Oktoberfest.  It wasn't for lack of trying, I swear.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Meet Aja!

We've adopted a dog!  Say hi to Aja.  She's a 6 year old Boston terrier/mini-pinscher mix. We adopted her from one of Amanda's new knitting buddies who found that while raising two young children, Aja (then Asia, but we changed the spelling to reflect Amanda's favorite Steely Dan album) wasn't getting the attention she deserved. Let me tell you, if attention is what Aja is after, she's come to the right place.

Aja is a ridiculously sweet little dog. She's very well behaved and loves going for walks in the Englischer Garten. There are generally a lot of other dogs in the Garten, and she eagerly greets each one we come across. She also enjoys chasing pigeons. 

She seems to be adjusting quite well to her new home.  She spent the first hour or so crying by the door when her previous owners dropped her off.  After we took her for a nice long walk she seemed to perk up a bit.  Today she has been much more curious and comfortable moving about the house.  She's found a few favorite spots to lay down already.  We were thrilled when she took to playing with one of her toy stuffed animals this morning.  She still hasn't eaten, which we hope she'll do soon.

Anyway, that's Aja.  I'm sure we'll have many more photos to share in the future.  For now, check out some of the others that we've taken over at our Picasa page.

Changing topics, I don't know what the weather is like in the U.S., but Fall has arrived here in München. The trees are afire, and the air is crisp and cool.  The smell of baked apple deserts has been filling our hallway, and one of these days I'm going to kick down someones door ready to plunder.

Our street is lined with hazelnut trees and over the past couple of weeks they have been showering the sidewalks with hazelnuts and the fuzzy green packages that they are wrapped in.  Just when Amanda and I were discussing harvesting some, we saw a couple with buckets full of nuts foraging along the side of the road.  Pretty cool.  We also found some trees down the road that must be some kind of cherry relative.  The fruit is cherry colored, but small and oblong.  Amanda said they tasted like sour Kirchen (cherries).  Maybe we'll have to harvest some of those as well.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Alpine Mountaineering...Now with More Cows!

On Sunday, Mike and I joined a work friend of his and assorted friends of friends  - eight of us total - at the central Munich train station at 8 am.  This was very much not in keeping with the whole Sabbath philosophy around here, but that's fine.  We hopped on a regional train down to Kochel am See, about 70 km south of Munich.
Kochel is ridiculously quaint and scenic in that "typisch Bayerisch" - typical Bavarian - way.  The "am See" refers to the large lake upon whose banks the village is situated.  Actual cow bells tinkle all around.  There are, you know, Alps in the backyard. 
Cutting between pastures, mere steps
from the train station.

The hiiilllls are aliiiive, etc
From there we began our climb.  If you like, Google Maps will kindly show you the beginning (Kochel) and end points of our hike.  If you draw a line that dips a little bit to the south between them and through the word "Benediktenwand" you can see our route.  (Pay no attention to the driving directions).
Basically, there was a friendly, gravel paved bit:

This included pretty trees.
Then a fairly steep climb alongside a big open would-be-snowfield:

You can see little light dots along the trees on far the left if
you squint.   Those are people.

The "snowfield" from the opposite perspective.  That little
hut is where the previous picture was taken.

Some more friendly terrain:

Chocolate and water pit-stop at the first
break in the tree line.  There are giant
crosses on all the peaks.   Don't know why.

Taking in the view.

Theeere's a cow.  On a mountain.  This
made us feel out of shape.
and then all-out slippery scrambling for the last hundred years hour or so before we reached the first summit.  We ate lunch, and Mike and I got made fun of for our obviously American peanut butter and banana sandwiches.  After a short time we were getting kind of cold in all the foggy wind, and headed out along the ridge line.  Turned out that we were only part of the way there.  What followed involved a lot of wind-sucking and gritting of teeth.  But the scenery was breathtaking.

We were really trying to push the whole way because we knew the gondola line that would hopefully carry us down to the town where we needed to catch our train only ran until 5:00.  And wonders never cease...we made it with only minutes to spare.  We passed the beer hut (and more cows) with a wistful sidelong glance as we hustled to catch a ride down the mountain.  It wouldn't have been quite the end of the world if we'd had to hike down - only an hour or so more...but man, it would have been a bitch.  
As we rode down, there were paragliders following the lift line.  They were pulling some pretty impressive maneuvers, including corkscrew dives.  I didn't get the camera out until we were on the ground, and we were hurrying to catch the train, so forgive the quality of this photo:

So there's one, in the upper left quadrant, and then the speck
 just above the trees in the right third is another one.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

How I learned to stop worrying and love slow service

Amanda and I were eating out fairly often during our first couple of weeks in Germany and we both noticed pretty quickly that the service you get at a restaurant or cafe is, well, different. At first, I was inclined to say that it was bad, and I would complain about it often. 

The issue is that the servers are generally inattentive. Beyond the ordering and subsequent delivery of our meals, we would typically have no interaction with the waitstaff.  That is to say, no unsolicited interaction. You are not checked up on to see how the meal is, nor asked if you want refills. Even getting the check was difficult at first. We would sit around for a long time with our drinks empty and plates cleaned trying to make eye contact with the server, until finally we would succeed, or give up and just flag the person down.

We quickly learned that if we want something, we simply need to be a bit more forceful about it. This allowed us to get out of the restaurant a little bit more quickly, but I was still appalled by the lack of attention. 

After a couple of months, and some discussions with the natives, we have come to learn that the waitstaff are not (usually) negligent, but that there is a different philosophy behind table service here. The customer is left alone to enjoy their meal in peace. Dining is much more of a leisurely activity here than in America. It is a bother to be constantly asked "how is everything?"  I've been told by a friend that he even finds it annoying when an American waitperson refills your beverage without asking. Can you imagine? This is one of my basic criteria when assessing the quality of service. 

I've also heard that this effect may be due to the difference in pay/tip structure.  Here, waitstaff are paid a living wage regardless and do not depend on tips.  They don't have any incentive to rush customers along, or try to inflate their bills with more food and drink.

Either way, the plus side of all of this is that you can sit in a restaurant or coffee shop all day, having ordered nothing more than a cup of coffee, and no one will say a word. You are never asked "did anyone save room for desert?" You are also not really expected to tip nearly as much as in America. The biggest drawback, now that we've realized what to expect and what is expected of us, is that it is nearly impossible to go out for a quick dinner at a sit-down establishment. That has only made me slow down and appreciate my meals out more, and eat out less. Both are good things.

In conclusion, I've learned to accept and even appreciate the German attitude toward table service. That being said, I do not think that it is the optimal system.  The typical American service is not ideal either. I prefer a flexible waitstaff. Basically, I want the waitperson to wait on me, not to ignore me or rush me out the door.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Lazy Sunday

It's another lazy Sunday here in Bavaria.  Everything apart from eateries and museums is closed on the sabbath, so we are forced to rest and relax.  I wasn't much of a fan of this practice at first ('What's this day of rest shit?') but as of this weekend I can say that I've come around.  It's something I now cherish, guilt-free relaxation!

In other news, it is legitimately cold today.  I just returned from the coffee shop where I was doing a bit of reading.  Sitting at my table on the sidewalk I wore a t-shirt, long sleeve shirt, jacket with hood pulled over my head, and a warm wool knit hat (hand made by Amanda, of course).  It is still August, right?  Germany is just 6 hours ahead of EST, not 6 months?  Just checking.  The current temperature is 55 degrees at 7:45 and there is a cool stiff breeze.

Friday, August 20, 2010

So we finally have functional bikes, which is rather exciting.  The process of getting them up and running was a challenge, go figure, but now we are free at long last.  Since our only other means of locomotion have been public transit and hoofing it, we've quickly gained an appreciation for the relative speed and ease of cycling (not to disparage the public transportation system here; it is excellent).  Even though these are secondhand, heavy-ass, 100 Euro commuter bikes...they get the job done.

It's been raining a lot here, but this past Sunday morning there was a happy confluence of sunny-but-cool weather and the aforementioned functionality of our Fahrräder.  So we went exploring in the Englischer Garten that is so conveniently located directly behind our apartment.

See Mike bike.

Having packed a picnic lunch we headed north, away from the city, following the mighty Isar.  We found a small lake (German: "See") a couple of miles away.  It was replete with its own bier garten, and ringed with a path and benches.  It, like all bodies of water in Munich right now, was semi-opaque and light green.  You should see the speed with which our teakettle is calcifying.  Anyway, we hung out and ate our lunch, wandered around for a bit, saw the shadowy outlines of some frighteningly large fish, and then hopped back on our bikes. 

You can see the lake off to the right if you look carefully, though it does blend with the plant life.

From there we cruised on back down to our neck of the woods, and the large dam just south and about a mile east of our U-Bahn stop: 

From which we could see people laying out on the gravel bars, some of them devoid of clothing:

A short while later we made our way back home for a rousing game of Scrabble...and then my knitting group...because we are old people.

I guess that about does it for today.  But I leave you with a word of caution:

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Bavarian Birthday Bananza

Last weekend was my birthday (thanks to everyone for the birthday wishes, by the way) and coincidentally, after a week of lousy weather, we finally were able to enjoy a couple of clear and sunny days. We decided to take advantage of the sunshine and spend the day at the Botanischer Garten by the Nymphenburg Palace here in München. The garden is gigantic and the diversity of plant-life is pretty impressive. Here's a little show-and-tell of our trip. And yes, I'm aware that 'bonanza' is misspelled. Stick with me...

Monday, August 2, 2010

We meet ein Golem

Thank you, Rabbi Löw.

It was pouring rain last Saturday, so Mike and I thought it would be a good opportunity to check out museum(s) in town.  Because we didn't really feel like spending the entire day at it, we decided on the manageably-sized Munich Toy Museum.  The museum is in a tower at the Altes Rathaus (old city hall) in the middle of Marienplatz, which is a little weird to begin with.

The exhibits span four floors of the tower - each room is maybe 20'x20', with displays around the perimeter and a display case in the middle.  The floors are sort of arranged by theme, or at least the cases are...the crowning glory being an artificial Christmas tree in the center case on the top floor, decorated with all manner of bizarre ornaments, and surrounded by teddy bears in various stages of (dis)assembly.

Oh the horror

More exciting even than dismembered bears, though, is the special robot exhibit - especially the Golem pictured at the outset.  I really liked this guy as well: 

There are also all manner of wooden and pressed tin handpainted toys, and articulated dolls which are evidently highly sought after by toy connoisseurs.

I found the whole atmosphere to be pretty macabre, in a way that seemed appropriate for a rainy day in Germany.  Really just reeked of the Brothers Grimm.  Allow me to illustrate:

Check out our Picasa album for more photos if you'd like.

Thursday, July 29, 2010


The last bite of a very fresh, very ripe strawberry tart.

So we've been eating a lot of great food lately, which it seems is one of the perks of living in Europe; go figure. My own (ahem) lack of employment has also been a factor, as I've actually had enough time to rediscover the proverbial joy of cooking. Consider yourself warned: if you're not preoccupied with food and eating, you'll probably find this post boring.

Friday, July 23, 2010

At least there's always beer.

Our first glorious half Litres, enjoyed alongside a babbling brook in the Garching Biergarten

It's been an interesting first few weeks here in Munich (München to the locals). Mike and I have come to believe that it will take no fewer than three attempts for any company here to successfully keep an appointment. I spent seven hours yesterday afternoon waiting for the Deutsche Telekom man to come open our interweb tubes only to be stood up for the second time in as many days. I'm pretty sure the diminutive lady who helped me at the Telekom store on Thursday morning and Mike today will forever remember us as The Angry American Giants. Similar situation with our Ikea delivery: it took two missed appointments (God forbid they call us to say they couldn't/wouldn't make it) and a second trip to Eching so we could harangue the only poor customer service guy fluent in English before we finally got a bed to sleep on. I've heard that sleeping on the floor is good for your back, but after a week and a half of it I tend to disagree.

Despite the fact that literally nothing has seemed to go painlessly since we arrived, Bavaria is an undeniably charming place.

This, for instance, is Garching's Maypole, painted in Bavaria's white and blue and hung with depictions of Things That Are Important In Garching. Pretty much every town center has one. It's something of a sport to coordinate the stealing of a neighboring community's maypole. If a group is successful in this undertaking, tradition dictates that it may then make a demand of the town for the Maypole's ransom. The typical demand is that a party be thrown in the group's honor. Charming, no?

Amber waves of grain: the city of Munich and its surrounding suburbs are extremely bike- and pedestrian-friendly. During our first week here we got to know the paths between the Max Planck guesthouse and Garching proper quite well. We encountered people of every possible age and description biking here among the barley fields.

Hmm...what else? There was Christopher Street Day last weekend. We happened to head into the city center early Saturday afternoon and it was bumping. Just shoulder to shoulder people, some of them in amazing costumes:
I didn't have my camera on me, but here is a photo from Abendzeitung - more here, if you're interested:

And that reminds me: we see tons of people in traditional Bavarian dress...the whole getup. Surely some of them are either on their way to or from work - waitresses at many of the downtown restaurants don the traditional dirndls (think St. Pauli's girl, only usually not so sexy), and Oompah band guys wear lederhosen - but it seems like a fair number of people are just wearing them around casually. Oh, and we've encountered many a glorious handlebar moustache.

In other news, I've found an English-speaking knitting group that meets weekly at a café downtown. It's hard not really being able communicate properly with people, and I'm a long way off from really understanding the subtleties of it's been sort of a relief.

Anyway, let's go ahead and bring this thing full circle in closing:

Enjoying our obligatory Hofbraü Haus Litres

In these trying times, when all else fails...there is always beer.