Monday, April 30, 2007

A strassenbahn named desire...

In the case, the desire being to get some train information at the main train station (bahnhof) in Heidelberg, and the desirer being my Stepdad. My desire was to avoid driving, so we jumped on the strassenbahn (tram or streetcar) at 11:00 or so and I was inspired to take a few pictures to document the trip for the uninitiated. So here you go, chapter 1 of "Strassenbahn Travel for Dummies".

Step 1: Figure out the schedule
The schedule is posted at most stops. In my experience, these schedules are divided into weekday, Saturday and Sunday/holiday time tables. Pick a time accordingly. The strassenbahns that pass in front of our front windows whiz by in both directions every 10 minutes during normal hours on weekdays, a little less often on other days (about every 30 minutes). As I mentioned in another post, our strassenbahn sometimes goes to the train station rather than the Bizmarkplatz. These times have a little "B" next to them.
Step 2: Find a strassenbahn stop
We have one about a 2 minute walk from the ranch. They look something like the picture below.

Step 3: Get on the train
If the tram doors closest to you don't open, there's a button you push to open them. Find a seat if one's available or hang on to one of the poles for dear life as this sedate looking conveyance accelerates fast enough to knock you on your butt (please don't ask me how I know that).
Step 4: Pay for the trip (or don't)
There are all kinds of daily/monthly passes etc., but you can pay for a single trip or roundtrip on the train with the driver (who generally speaks some English and always has change for small bills). Some of the bigger stops have automated ATM-looking machines for this purpose. I bought an all-day pass today (from the driver) good for 5 people for the paultry sum of 8.50 Euros. Does this pass allow me to take other strassenbahn lines? Can I also take the bus? I don't know. My approach is to go forth with gusto and plead ignorance as necessary. When I figure out the tram/bus connection, I'll update this post.
BTW, the strassenbahn basically works on the honor system. You don't have to scan or flash a pass to anyone. However, if you get caught freeloading by the strassenbahn ticket police, you'll be out 40 Euros (and suffer through an embarrassing encounter that only degenerates like me find funny enough to be worth the 40 Euros).

Step 4.5: Stamp your roundtrip ticket
If you buy a roundtrip ticket, you should stamp it in the handy stamping machines on the train (after the first leg of the journey I believe). I've never done this as the ticket doesn't fit into the stupid stamping machine slot. Guess there will always be some of us noncomformists that refuse to give in to "the man".
Step 5: Get off the train
A sign inside shows you the name of the upcoming stop. You have to push a button like the one below sometimes for the doors closest to you to open.
Hi-ho, hi-ho...

it's off to school we go. Tomorrow (Tuesday, May 1) is a holiday in Germany. I took today (Monday) off as well so was able to take the girls to school (Robert's school is closed and he's sick anyway). German kindergarten is for kids from 3 to 5 and is all about having fun. I'm sure they learn something from time to time, but that seems to be far from the primary goal.
We drop the kids off between 7:30 and 9:00 and pick them up at 14:00. You pay for kindergarten, but it's only about 60 Euros per child per month! Back in the States, Robert and Emily were in Montesorri at the same time and I was
selling plasma on the weekends to foot the bill (I really miss those doughnuts they served at the clinic!). By the way, if Ratso and/or Boxcar Ben are reading this, I miss you guys! (And yes, I'm kidding.)

Anyway, the school is less than a 5 minute walk from here. Robert's school is next door to the girls', which makes it pretty convenient. In kindergarten, the kids wear slippers. Cute touch, no?
Notice above the uncoached modeling instincts being displayed so naturally by Emily. Some people pay big bucks to learn this "first position" of footware modeling (it's all about the gentle angle of the non-load bearing leg). Note to self: No more "Germany's Next Top Model" for Emily.

I've said on several occasions in this blog that our neighborhood is full of conveniences. As proof, see below the cigarette machine on the kids' way to school. Emily saved the money she got from the tooth fairy to buy a pack of menthols for the holiday. Way to save Emily! There's something about cigarette machines in residential areas that feels really retro, and not necessarily in a good way. BTW, Emily lost her two bottom front teeth. The replacements were already coming in so you don't really notice it much.
While we're on the subject of feeling retro, here's a pic of the bar that's across the street from the girls' school. Gotta love German zoning practices! It's a small world after all.
Anyway, an update on Robert and B: both are going to make it. Robert is back to about 80% and B is too (although she doesn't want to admit it). I'm thinking about taking the parent folk to Strasbourg today. Will let you know how that goes.
Finally, here's the view from the girls' school. Nice thing about most German towns is that the main church steeple keeps you from getting lost (geographically speaking, anyway).

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Call'n us back-back...

A plague has fallen on the house of Prickril. Robert and B are really sick. We took them today to a clinic that attends to folks on weekends. With antibiotics, I think they'll be back at industrial strength in a couple of days. I'll be barricading myself in the neighborhood bar to contain the spread of this evil bug. Wish me luck.

While B was trying to rest, I took my parents and the girls to Baden-Baden. We walked around, discovered some new areas of this beautiful city, had lunch and headed back pretty quick. This place was made for Spring. I'll shut up now and let the pictures do the talking. (BTW, the picture I took of Emily in front of the Apotheke {first below} may be my best picture ever).
Yesterday there was a festival on our street. There was a nice band playing middle of the road stuff and there was no lack of food and drink. We hung out for a while, had a few beers and waited for the kids to ask to go home. By my estimation, that took about an hour. A few shots of the festivities below.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Dinner and some pics...

Last night we took my parents to the same area of Heidelberg now infamous for the "Absinthe Incident" (as it has come to be called). I must admit that much detail was omitted from my original account of this escapade to protect the not-so-innocent. Expect the rest of the story once the statute of limitations (on embarrassment) expires.
Anyway, we ate at the Italian restaurant across the street from Mercato, the place we had dinner with Franz and Maria. Trattoria Tuscana has great atmosphere but the food at Mercato was better. I wouldn't say either was outstanding, but it's all about location, and the shadow of the cathedral is prime real estate.
Last night the wind picked up which made it a bit chilly. After weeks of perfect weather, I guess that was all it took to scare Heidelbergers and tourists indoors. I still managed to take some decent long exposures of that area at night. I'll return soon to take more when I can concentrate a bit better (can you believe B was interrupting my picture taking during dinner!)

Tuesday, April 24, 2007


Greetings from Atlanta. As predicted, work has precluded my enjoying much of anything this fine city has to offer. I've walked through Centennial Park and have done a little bit of shopping, but the rest has been wall-to-wall salt mine. I have, however, seen the outside of the Georgia Aquarium and and the Coca-Cola museum. Despite its nickname, the weather here has been even milder than it was in Germany.

On the supernatural front, I had a déjà vu experience when I checked into my hotel. It finally occurred to me that I have probably seen it featured in multiple episodes of "Cops". While the amenities are not exactly five star (I think a SWAT team put the dents in my room's door), in compensation I had the rare and exciting experience of seeing a cab driver passed out in his taxi with the engine running outside the hotel's front doors. He was slouched over, half hanging out of the cab. I found his occasional groans oddly reassuring. As they say in the commercials, priceless.

Note to self: find out who booked me in this hotel and have them sacked (or at least have their meal card stamped "no dessert").

Yesterday I had the opportunity to go for a jog before 6:00 a.m. in downtown Atlanta (thanks to the combination of jetlag and a creepy room). Downtown jogging is almost always an interesting experience in contrasts. You see lots of yuppie types (like me I guess) running around in $100 jogging shoes, stepping around and otherwise actively avoiding some of less fortunate (and sometimes aggressive) denizens of the urban jungle. Puts a stay at a bad hotel in much needed perspective. Note to self: give a little to more to those who need it.

I'm headed back to Deutschland mañana and can't wait. What can you say about the family? As hellbent as they seem to be on completely extinguishing the the already scarce quantities of melanin left in my mop, I miss the little scamps (and their Mom). It will be great to see my Mom and Stepdad as well. I'm not exactly sure what my Stepdad and I will do while he's there, but rest assured that nontrivial amount of beer will be involved. I've been pacing myself in Atlanta in preparation.

At dinner last night I noticed that German beer is much higher on the octane scale than what's normally sold in the States. I had a couple of Dos Equis with dinner and literally didn't feel them. After a couple of Hefe's, I've been known to pick fights with bar stools (and end up getting my butt kicked).

All in all, I must admit I don't miss the States much. The same can't be said (of course) for many of the people there. That probably sounds harsher than I intend, but I'm really enjoying Germany so far and am looking forward to continuing our adventures there. This time tomorrow I'll be crammed into an aluminum tube with hundreds of other unfortunate souls screaming toward Frankfurt. In a strange way, I'm looking forward to it.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

What, me focus?

No big news this weekend and I am most grateful. I'll therefore regale you with a desultory list of disjointed minutia that one would only string together in a blog (or a very annoying drunken phone call).

I got home last night (Friday) to an elated B, who had finally replaced the dishes etc. that the movers left in our dishwasher in Redmond. Note to self (and those who will be moving soon): update "moving out" checklist.

The moving company offered to pay for or ship these overlooked items not realizing B wouldn't hear anything after the word "pay". Thomas Edison looks downright uninspired compared to B when she needs to stretch a Euro. From the insurance settlement on the dishes etc., she managed to replace our dishes, glasses and silverware. If she can find replacements for the abandoned pot lids, she'll buy a new dining room table (yes, I'm serious). Kids, do not try this at home.
B also found some really cool liqueur glasses that I'm sure will be overflowing with Amarula in no time. While I was getting my camera ready today, I noticed the glasses casting interesting colored shadows on our window ledge. Is it just me or this a really cool image?
As a point of reference, the glasses really look like this:
I also took a cool panorama of our apartment. I can sense you're getting dizzy, but I warned you this post was all over the place...
Today (Saturday) we went to a little plaza in Leimen, a town about 10 minutes from here (see this previous post about Liemen). A quick Google reveals that Leimen is the cement center of South Heidelberg. The citizens of Leimen really should consider electing a new chamber of commerce.
Anyway, Wolfgang reminded me the other day that Boris Becker is from Leimen. There you have it: our brush with greatness for this week. There's a very cool fountain in the middle of Leimen's plaza that kids can play in and on. There are also a few restaurants around the edge of the plaza with tables outside.
Sandra and I knocked back a couple of beers while B and the kids stuck to coke and ice cream and eventually a pizza. This little plaza is an absolutely great place to kill a few hours on a gorgeous Spring day.
The kids had a blast playing in the water. We're still not sure if they were supposed to treat it like a full on water park, but no one called the authorities (that we're aware of),
Speaking of Spring, the hills of Heidelberg have erupted in greenery virtually overnight. I wouldn't have imagined it would make such a difference, but the scenery from the car and our apartment (see below) is noticeably more Summery.
It turns out B and Sandra are becoming the Big Sisters (in the Orwellian sense) of our neighborhood. Our street is pretty busy with people coming and going at all hours. Having tons of windows and a second floor vantage point, not too much gets by these two. If you spend much time on the Schwetzingerstrasse, consider yourself warned.

On the home front, they've started working feverishly on our building's garden. The dentist's office on the first floor should open on May 1st (or probably the 2nd as the 1st is a holiday here). The landlord told us that a massage therapy clinic may go in directly below our apartment. Nice. Hanging yet another "Crazy Ivan" in this post, I'll be headed to Atlanta on Sunday for a few days to attend a conference. I was hoping I'd have time to see their new aquarium, but it looks like work will prevent that from happening. (And yes, I'm turning into an old fart who is interested in aquariums). If anyone knows of good restaurants and/or bars downtown in "The Big Peach", feel free to hook a guy (me) up.

Finally, my parents will get here on Tuesday for 10 days or so. I won't be here for the first couple of days of their visit, but that should leave them plenty of time to soak in the grandkids. It's been quite some time since they've seen each other so I would have been kind of superfluous anyway.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Good morning Vietnam (and China and Singapore)…

In a previous post, I asked for someone to hook me up with a hit from Asia (and I’m not talking about controlled substances Mr. Gonzales). This blog has since been blessed with visits from this fascinating region of our planet. Many thanks to the “hitters” and facilitators!
Sometimes Bad is bad…

We spent the first half of Saturday last weekend trying to crawl out of our absinthe-induced stupor. I took the kids to the park where, despite blinding sunlight and incessant high-decibel shrieks, fun was had by all. We had arranged to go out to dinner that night with Wolfgang and his wife so we spent the afternoon doing a little shopping and resting.

I wrote in a previous post about our dinner at Da Vinci. I didn’t mention that Wolfgang picked an excellent wine from a village in Tuscany he took the Mrs. to while they were still footloose and child-free (and for you wiseacres in cyberspace, I’m talking about his Mrs.). Although I enjoyed it, I switched horses very quickly to my latest passion (obsession? addiction?), Hefeweitzen. What can I say? ‘Though daily I toil cutting crude swaths through the corporate jungle, it’s quite easy to spy my (light) blue collar.

On Sunday, we began reaping what we had sown (insert your own fertilizer joke here). What I failed to realize is that slight hangovers are contagious, and our kids apparently have little resistance the common German hangover (referred to hangoverus germanus in most medical texts). What I’m trying to say is that we were all, to a person, in a bad mood (save Sandra, a.k.a. "Wondernanny"). Unfortunately, we were unable to escape the shadow of this foul cloud as we raced at un-Chrysler-like speed toward Bad Wimpfen, an almost Disney-like city about 30 minutes East of Heidleberg (as the bat out of hell flies). By the way, no one sports a bad mood like Emily. The little girl from the Exorcist was an amateur.

Bad Wimpfen is a beautiful little town with plenty of German charm. It has a nice view of the river than runs through it and some nearby towns. The drive there was at times breathtaking. The pedestrian area is quaint and well kept and we certainly couldn’t have asked for better weather. However, Bad Wimpfen, much like us on Sunday, lacked a certain spark. We hung out in BW for an hour or so before we decided to cut our losses and head back to our compound in Kirchheim. B, as usual, was being completely unreasonable. I, as usual, was a paragon of patience and virtue. Why can’t B be more like me? Ouch! (Did I really type “ouch”?) B just jammed a ballpoint pen in my ribcage.
On the way out of our Bad trip (get it? "Bad" trip), we saw an interesting restaurant with an artificial pond in front of it. We stopped there and paid the tourist tax on some mediocre fries and ice cream. The menu was mostly traditional German fare and we were not in an experimental mood (“bad trip” references notwithstanding).

A speedy retreat put us (mostly) out of our misery. I spent Sunday afternoon with Robert and Emily on their bikes. The next cross street up from us is blocked off so kids can play without dodging the Formula-1-drivers-in-training that are our German neighbors. Not a bad way to end a Bad day.

Higher res pics here.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Analyze this...

A few days ago, I enrolled in Google analytics. This service is a great way to get some insight into who's visiting the sites you care about. The executive summary gives you a pretty good idea of how many folks are hitting the site daily and how many of them represent "repeat business".

My favorite report is the map overlay (detail below). I see that someone from the Pacific Northwest (Portland) finally read this blog. Is that you Ted?

By the way, I'm looking for a hit from Asia, preferably China. Can someone hook me up?

Finally, we went back to Da Vinci last night. I know it seems like we're in a rut, but they've set up tables outside which makes for a great (new) experience. As hard as it may be to believe, I think I prefer the inside. Anyway, last night was probably the warmest this year. We had a very nice dinner with Herr Hilpert and his wife Tine. They mentioned that there's another good Italian restaurant down the street so maybe we can change things up a bit the next time we're in that neighborhood.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Absinthe minded…

Last night we went to old part of Heidelberg with my office mate and his girlfriend. We went out for dinner and drinks once before with Franz and Maria while we were still in Bad Schönborn. This time around, we arrived at the Bizmarkplatz by strassenbahn at around 20:30. I almost never spend time there except on Sundays and holidays, so it was nice to see it hopping for a change.

Last night, the weather was perfect -- mild enough so that those of us that are warm natured needed no jacket. People were out in droves enjoying the incredible streak of weather we’ve had. I can’t remember the last cloudy day.

We walked a kilometer or so from the Bizmarkplatz to the big cathedral near the Kornmarkt. On the way, there was a group of seven or eight teenage girls (from South Africa I believe) singing what sounded to me like African hymns (à la Ladysmith Black Mambazo). They weren’t asking for money, just walking around singing beautifully intricate harmonies to the surprise and delight of the entire street. We were treated to another performance right beside our table during dinner. Guess you never know what you’ll see in Heidelberg.

For dinner, we had pizza, beer and wine at an Italian restaurant beside the big cathedral. Virtually all restaurants have tables outside where people eat, drink and people-watch by candle light. It is incredibly beautiful and romantic. Once dinner was over, the festivities were kicked into high gear. Franz asked us if we’d ever drunk absinthe. We answered "no" and were off to a bar on the Untere-strasse to give it a shot (several shots actually). Warning: my recollection starts to get fuzzy from this point in the story on.

Absinthe is an interesting liquor only in that there is nothing particularly remarkable about it except its historically bad reputation. It reminds me of ouzo, in that it has a strong anise flavor. I must admit that it also reminded me of Nyquil! After drinking several shots, I can assure you that its purported hallucinogenic properties are not merely overrated, they're untrue (unlike NyQuil). People claim that it gives you a different sensation than "regular" alcohol but I wasn't feeling it (the different sensation that is). As is standard absinthe ritual, the shots were served with small pitchers of ice water -- a nice touch when you're drinking almost pure alcohol!

The bar where we imbibed the absinthe was very cool, playing traditional and some new metal at a volume high enough to discourage idle banter with anyone more than a half inch away from you. The place was mostly filled with college kids but people of all sorts were packed like sardines inside and outside. We left this place feeling little pain and proceeded to an Irish bar. After a few Hefeweitzens, stouts and Cosmos (I'll let you guess who ordered what), we were off to catch a taxi back to the ranch. I'm not sure, but I think we got in before 2:00.

I'm sure we'll go out with Franz and Maria again, but next time I hope I remember to clear my schedule for the following day. I'm getting old, and while my heart is still in it, my body takes every opportunity it gets to remind me that I'm not in college anymore.

Now that I've seen it for myself, I can highly recommend the nightlife in Old Heidelberg. I think I would have enjoyed it even without the aid of "absinthe goggles"!

Monday, April 09, 2007

Get on the funicular train!!!

Today we woke up, ate breakfast and with unprecedented organization and speed went to the old part of Heidelberg to go to a kids’ park on the mountain (hill?) above the castle (Schloss).
By 10:00, we had boarded a train designed to scale the steep face of the hills around Heidelberg.It was in researching this trip that the term "funicular" entered our vocabulary (as in funicular train). A free Hefeweitzen (in Heidelberg) to the first person who can work this word into casual conversation (the exaggerated attention this word has received in this post has given you about as much entré as you can reasonably expect).

You can take the funicular train to the castle, but we were headed for even higher ground. Cruising around in cyberspace, B found a “fairy tale” park at the top of Königstulh, the aforementioned hill (mountain?).

The park was one of the few activities that we’ve done lately that was purely for the kids. They enjoyed cool rides, trampolines, a mini-train ride and ice cream at the Märchen Paradeis. I’m glad we experienced the train but next time we’ll head up in the truckster as this option is essentially free. Today we paid pretty good dough to take the train as well as parking for the car down below. From what we can tell, if you show up early, there’s plenty of parking right outside the park.
On the way down, we saw a man trying to paraglide. While his first aborted takeoff elicited oohs and ahs from the crowd, it seemed no one had the patience to wait for his second attempt. Judging from the trees at the end of the runway, I’m guessing this takeoff strip separates the men from the boys (or the sane from the suicidal).
After spending the entire morning at the kids’ park, we descended to the parking garage in Heidelberg’s Kornmarkt. This plaza is situated at one end of Heidelberg’s most famous pedestrian area (Hauptstrasse); we normally arrive by tram at the other end, the Bismarkplatz. Today being a holiday in Germany, the Kornmarkt was brimming with folks having lunch and sipping beer. The weather today was absolutely perfect! Warm in the sun and cool enough to require a jacket in the shade. We walked to the Neckar river from the Kornplatz and saw a solar-powered boat that B had researched on the internet. The site said they were closed on Mondays but I guess sometimes (gasp politely then clutch the pearls) sites on the internet lie. We decided this was the perfect end cap to a virtually perfect day.
The boat trip lasted 50 minutes. Other tours last three hours but were clearly not designed with our hyperactive brood in mind. Being electric, the boat is essentially silent. This is a great way to see Heidelberg in my opinion. If you don't believe me, see the pictures below.
Due to the incredible weather, people flocked to the banks of the Neckar in an area we now call Heidelberg Beach.