Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

An old Fix-er-Up

A few of the members in the club are getting together over the winter to fix up one of the old gliders. The old glider is a "Rhönlerche II", and needs to be completely recovered. This will take a few years to do, and I will probably be gone back to the United States by the time it's done, but I decided to help out anyway, since it is a vintage glider with lots of class. I never have seen this old bird actually fly. It was already grounded by the time I showed up last year. It sat unloved in the hangar for the whole flying season of 2008. Maybe by 2010 she will be flying again.

I set up a web site (using Google Apps, of course) so that the people who work on the glider (Mitchrampfer) could have some place to keep track of all of the work they do. They are meeting tonight to recover and refinish the elevator. The website is http://www.hb-664.ch/ . Here is a picture of Dänu after a flight in the Rhönlady.

Long Off-Season

October 27th was a while ago. That was the last weekend day of operations in the flying club in Bern. It's December now. I'm kind of frustrated about how long the winter can be here. Anyway, here is a video put together by Christoph Schlaeppi about the landing competition we had on the last few days of operations in the club. I managed to eek out second place! I couldn't do better than the winner who scored two perfect scores on his first two tries. This video is imbedded directly from Christoph's website, and I don't know if he has the bandwidth to handle it, so if it is a slower than what you expect from YouTube, I apologize in advance.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

My Daily Commute (by Train)

Many people in Virginia ask me, "What's it like in Switzerland?"

That is a huge question to answer. So I can break it out into small chunks. How about I describe my commute? Yes? Ok.

Northern Virginians can talk long and passionately about traffic. In Northern Virginia, the population has exploded in the past 2 decades, and the roads have not expanded to meet the challenges of the increased population. The state government in Richmond gladly takes the increased revenue from the growing economy of Northern Virginia, and promptly redistributes this wealth immediately to the impoverished back-water sections of Virginia. Thus, the life of a Northern Virginian can be described as "brief periods of life separated by long hours in traffic. "

There are days when I feel like my life in Switzerland could be described as "memorable periods of life separated by long hours on the train." This is mostly because I live in Bern, and work in Fribourg, and I hardly ever get the joy of driving to work. This would be a commute that most Northern Virginians would reply, "Your commute is 36 minutes by car with no traffic? That's pretty good! I wish I could do that."

Depending on the day and my mood, my commute could consist of many combinations of walk, tram, train, bus, walk; in that order.   I can be enthusiastic about this daily ritual, but after too many days of doing it, it starts to wear thin on me.  I really would like to live 10 minutes from the office for once in my life.  I haven't had such convenience since I lived in South Riding and worked in Chantilly. 

One day in the middle of September, I took along my camera, and documented all the steps along the way.  This was a day when I got out on time, but spent too much time goofing off and taking pictures for your benefit, so my timing on all the connections got messed up.   Let's start. 

I recommend you read through the timeline, then watch the slide show in full screen mode.  There is also a map showing where I took all my pictures along the way, if that can help you visualize. 

7:55.  I have to promptly leave the house at 7:55.  If I leave just a minute later, I jeopadize making the train in Gümligen.  One cool thing about the trains being nearly always on time, is I learn how to cut it close.  If I leave any later, I have to bike to work, or take the tram.  I prefer to have the 30 minute walk along the top of the hill, it is much more scenic, and I get a good bit of exercise, a little time to clear my mind and prepare for the day ahead.  My office has a competition where we track the number of miles we walk, and I have logged over 250 miles since we started in August. 

The trip starts out in a small patch of forest, and has me head uphill past a horse farm.  At the horse farm, there is this big black German Shepard that always comes out and barks at me.  I have yelled at it at the top of my lungs, and that usually stops him from barking at me.  When the mean dog is not around, usually there are two early 20's or teen-aged girls helping out on the farm, and they always say good morning.  Since nobody else is manly enough to do a hike up this hill every morning, I guess I have become sort of a regular thing for them. 

The path takes a steep turn up a gravelly rocky road where cars and motorcycles are not permitted.  There is evidence of regular horse riding, as there are many "road apples" along the way.  Some mornings the hill is more forboding than others, but as I do this commute up the hill more, the hill gets easier.  The hill is steep enough that one could not dream of riding a bike up it, and just simply walking up this hill with a bicycle in hand is also a dreadful thought.  Maybe the Swiss don't think it's so bad; maybe I'm just out of shape, or maybe I am just not used to the hills any more. 

By the time I get to the top of the hill, the gravelly path has joined a small one-lane road which has very little traffic.  Usually I see only one or two cars every morning.  The rest of this part of the journey is a gentle downhill slope which makes the walk to work easier.  Biking back up this hill going the other way is terrible.  I have biked this way home only once, to get home a sloppy sweaty mess, out of breath for a good 10 minutes after arrival. 

8:20. I get to the Schützenhaus der Gemeinde Müri, which has a very nice water fountain for me to get my hydration levels back up.  This is where the forest breaks, and there is either a grey sky above me (the usual scenario), or on this day, the sky turned into a brilliant blue.  There are more cars along here, but not so many that I fear for my life.  The Schützenhaus is where the Swiss, who own guns, do shooting practice.  There is a target range that you can walk under the live fire when they are shooting.  I have never been here when the shooting range is active. 

8:33.  If I make a good enough walking pace, I can grab the S1 line that takes me directly to Fribourg.  The train ride on the S1 is exactly 55 minutes long, and this is the fastest way to get from Gümligen to my office, bar none.  It also is one of the more uncomfortable rides.  The S1 is packed, so I don't get to sit until we get to the main train station, and most of the people get off.  I usually don't take this train.  I really have to walk quickly and not slow down for anything to make the S1 in 38 minutes from my front door. 

8:38. The S2 that goes to Schwarzenburg arrives at Gümligen.  I usually take this train to the Bern main station, where I then take the intercity to Fribourg.  This gets me to Fribourg 8 minutes later than if I was to take the S1.  So if I miss the S1, it is not a tragedy.  I have a back-up plan. 

8:40. If I manage to miss the S1 and the S2, there is a third fall-back.  There is a tram that leaves Gümligen and shows up in downtown.  A very brisk walk after the "G" tram makes it into Bern Zytglogge can get me to the 9:04 train at the main train station. 

This morning, I was so busy taking pictures for you, that I blew it, and missed all three connections.  This almost never happens.  i got distracted by taking some pictures of cows and mountains, and sights along the way, that I didn't realize that I had fallen so far behind schedule.  Oh well. This gives me an opportunity to show you what standing around the tram stop in Gümligen looks like, so you can get a glimpse of my everyday life.  Since I missed all three of the above connections, I also missed the intercity train to Fribourg that leaves at 9:04.  So the commute will take even longer now. 

Most of the Swiss spend their time on public transportation reading the free newspapers.  They are not the paragon of journalistic integrity, but they pass the time.  The articles are written in simple enough German for me to read (I have a really hard time reading the real newspapers, that use lots of words I never learned, and I would spend all my time reading the dictionary to get the meaning of the articles.)  Here, this day's newspaper describes the Stock Market meltdown, and also describes the new uniforms of the Swiss Ski team. 

The tram trip is pretty slow going, and is only a few minutes faster than it would be to drive downtown.  I get off at Bern Zytglogge, where the "G" tram ends.  In order to make the inter city train, I have to walk to the train station, about 8 minutes walk away.  Sometimes, I grab the #3, the #5 or the #9 tram, which all take me straight to the train station.  Since I have a lot of time to get to my 9:34 train, I decide to walk it and show you some of the pictures along the way. For those who don't know the rules of pronouncing Swiss words, "Zytglogge" is pronounced kind of like "TSEET-glock-kah" Along the walk from Zytglogge to the Bahnhof (train station), there are many shops along the way.  A few clothing stores, like H&M, Vögeli, and a butcher/deli.   I never do any shopping, so I don't have much idea what is actually in these shops. 

9:16. I arrive at the main train station.  I have no idea what Bern looked like before the great construction of 2007.  In 2007 through May of 2008, all of this area around the train station was a huge mess of construction and blocked roads, pedestrian paths re-routed, trams stopped.  They managed to finish all the work for the revamped train station just about a week before the UEFA soccer tournament began. 

A part of the massive construction that was done includes a new wing of the underground mall, where they now show some of the old city walls, enclosed in a glass display, showered with pink light.  There is no escaping the worldly influence of McDonald's, as there is one that is never empty right inside the train station.  I get to the train station meeting area, where there is a big blue display showing all of the trains that arrive and depart from Bern.  I already know what train I am taking, as do most of the people here this morning.  There are occasionally tourists studying the departure board carefully, or asking for directions.  There are also the locals waiting around for a friend to arrive; they use this area as a meeting point. 

My train to Fribourg is the nice train.  This train comes once an hour, at the bottom of the hour, instead of the top of the hour.  This is the double decker train, with a very nice restaurant on board.  At 9:04, the train that goes to Fribourg is not nearly as nice, but still much more comfortable than the S1 that stops about a dozen times between Gümligen to Fribourg.  On the adjacent track is the Cisalpino train to Milan.  I have not had an opportunity to take this train yet, but will probably sometime in the next few weeks for a business trip to Turino. 

When the train arrives, there is an orderly shuffle without proper queueing to get into the train.  Many of the Swiss stand too closely to the door, as crowded passengers coming in from Zürich attempt to get off.  Since this is such a late train, it is not nearly as crowded as if I had gotten on this train an hour earlier.  I usually get on the car close to the restaurant, there are usually more seats further up the train, but it is never a problem trying to find a seat toward Fribourg. 

The double-decker train InterCity Express is incredibly quiet and smooth.  There is one car named "the quiet car", which is so quiet you can often only hear the rustling of newspapers.  There are usually tourists who get into the quiet car and inconsiderately start talking.  I seem to be more Swiss every day, as I usually give these rude talkers a very dirty look, but say nothing. 

The train arrives in Fribourg 27 minutes later, but this day, there was a seven minute delay.  In August 2007, there was some sort of landslide that caused the rails between Wünnewil and Flamatt to be unusable.  There has been construction on this line ever since.  In one small place on the line, there is only one track for both directions, which will require us to wait for a service in the opposite direction to pass.  The train I took on this day had to wait, and it caused a seven minute delay. The delay in this direction does not bother me much; especially since I have had so many other delays this morning, what is another seven minutes? 

I exit the train with nearly everybody else. A sea of people exit the train, and walk at an average walking pace down the ramp to the rest of the train station.  At the exit of the station, I hang around at the bus stop. It is usually only a 2 minute wait, but since we were seven minutes late from the rail construction, I waited longer than usual. 

The rest of the commute is not that interesting.  I take an empty bus to the edge of town, and walk another ten minutes to our office.  The morning is started by a fresh cup of coffee, as delivered from our Nespresso machine, which I adore.  This machine is great, especially as it does not give my coworkers the opportunity to be rude and finish off all the coffee in the coffee pot without refilling it.  Insert a capsule, put a cup in place, and press the button, and a great cup of coffee comes out. 

The amount of time I put into the daily commute does start to drain on me.  Emotionally, it has taken a serious toll in me, especially in this past week.  Time can be shaved off here and there; if I take my bicycle from the house to Gümligen, I can do the trip in 7 or 8 minutes.  I have to be walking out the front door by 8:25 at the absolute latest to bike to Gümligen and make the 8:33 S1 train.  In any event, I probably will remember the commute when I think back on my time in Switzerland. I might even look upon it favorably.  However, I will never look back memorably on my Virginia commute by car. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

New Look

For the past year, I have subscribe to a friend's pictures and paintings. She is the wife of fellow ex-pat Chris, who works in the office with me. First, let me show you some of the awesome pictures that the two of them paint. Yes, I said PAINT. ...with Brushes... and actual water-color. Even an easel!

Chris and Miz K both subscribe to something called Illustration Friday, where a website they subscribe to asks its patrons to paint something for the subject of the week. Miz K, the artist whose paintings I so thoroughly enjoy, has this strange fascination with squids. To the right, you will find her most recent painting, although not an Illustration Friday submission, a picture of two birds in a tree.

Miz K pointed me out to her father's blog, where she was commissioned to make a painting for her father's website header. I liked the look of it so much, I had to have one for myself!

I commissioned her for a painting, with no price set, "But you can now call yourself a professional artist.", I promised. So in case you are unable to correctly interpret the art, let me help you out. To the left, you will find the perfect representation of me, always away from the family, and off flying. Although I don't fly planes with engines, it is kind of hard to draw a glider and have people not respond with something dumb like "Where's the engine on this plane?"

The next snippet shows Jake (who is now much taller in real life -- he is taller than Stacy now. Anyway, you will find Jake and Cecilia rough-housing with Joshie, who is airborne. If you have ever been over to our house in the evening, you will know that rough-housing is a very important part of our bonding. Each of the kids had their favorite rough-housing game, usually involving throwing the kids onto the bed in one way or another. (This was all a really good work-out for me, too).

Finally, you will find Joey clinging to Mommy's side for attention. Doubtless, there are many days when this is really a perfect description of Stacy's life. Joey is growing up a bit, and not quite as clingy as the last year. However, when he is sick, the clingy-tendencies come back.

You may be wondering, "Why rabbits?", well I suppose Miz K found it appropriate, seeing as we have two pet rabbits who live outside our front door, Buck and Sunny. I think I also remember saying, "I don't like crabs so much, so please don't paint something with crabs. "

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Gondola at Stockhorn

Aug 3, 2008

Right after getting back from the US, and before the kids started the new school year, we took a nice Sunday trip to the mountains. I decided to drag the family to Stockhorn.

The Stockhorn is one of the mountains we can see from our patio, shown here:

This is one of Stacy's favorite mountains to look at, so this seemed to be an excellent opportunity for us to go out and see what it looks like from the top.
We were originally going to set out on the train, but with the collection of water bottles, snack, stroller, food, kids, clothes, shoes, socks, WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU DON'T HAVE YOUR SHOES ON YET?! WE'RE LEAVING IN 2 MINUTES! We always seem to drive instead. I don't think the inertia of the family allows us to leave for anything on time.

The car ride takes us south, toward Thun, then Spiez. We turn East, and go behind the mountains that we can see from our patio, under a tunnel, and down a narrow road with no way to pass if we get stuck behind a tour bus. Eventually, we stop in Erlenbach, and are guided to the last parking space in the whole town.

Within a few minutes, and 40 francs later, we are on the gondola climbing the mountain. I take some nice shots going up the hill:

We arrive at the first stop named "Chrindi" In case you are not familiar with Swiss German pronunciation of things, that "Ch" is not pronounced like "Chicken" or "Church", but as a voiceless uvular fricative -- or maybe it's a voiceless velar fricative, more like the ch in "Lochness Monster", as said by a true Scotsman. I'm not exactly sure, but it is one of those throaty phonemes that is lacking in the English language.

Anyway, once at Chrindi, we stop for an expensive lunch that the kid's didn't enjoy much. Stacy got the "Fitness Teller", and I got some sort of something that involved a lot of gravy and a schnitzel of some sort. It was awesome, but I think was probably too high in something tasty like cholesterol or fat. The kids ate mostly french fries. (They are impossible to feed). The restaurant had a nice view, at least.
Also at the Chrindi statin, there is a small playground with a big rocking horse that the kids enjoyed for a bit. I would rock that thing as hard as I could while they were on-board, and they would slide around screaming from fear [Video].

Between Chrindi and the mountain top, there is a lovely lake where lots of fishermen cast lines, and don't catch much. I never have really understood the point of fishing, but it looks like the people there who were fishing were enjoying themselves with a campfire, beer, and a cooler containing more beer. We set off for a walk around the lake. There were really cool rock patterns that look like they were carved from glaciers, some of the smallest frogs you've ever seen, zillions of little fish in a small pond, We came across a lady whose dog loved to play fetch into the lake, and as he emerged, looked like the Lochness Monster.

Of course, the kids complained of the exercise, and none would pose for pictures. What is a very annoying behavior that the kids have picked up, is to run away from the camera, or to cover their faces as they flee. They think it is funny, but it is grating on my nerves. They also enjoy blocking the camera as the shots are being made of the scenery. It was rather hot on this day, so they enjoyed splashing in a horse watering trough. I think we drank that water too, which looks worse than it was.

We circled around and came back to the gondola station Chrindi, and set out to the second leg of the climb. The second leg goes form Chrindi to the top of the mountain. At the top, there of course are spectacular views, a nice restaurant where we enjoyed the view and some ice cream. We walked up a small zig-zag path to the top of the mountain to soak in the view from all directions.

To the North, we could see nothing but clouds. The clouds did not penetrate into the valley to the South, where it was a pretty clear view to the rest of the Alps to the South. To the East, we could see Interlaken and Thun, when the clouds cleared out just enough. There was very obvious uplift along the mountain faces on both sides, as evidenced by the clouds being blown upward, and the birds soaring effortlessly along the ridge tops. There were no gliders to be seen, but I was definitely looking out for them. A Cessna flew by the restaurant at idle, as not to disturb the restaurant-goers.

The view to the North occasionally allowed us to see "Glory", an optical phenomenon when your shadow is cast upon a cloud. It is like a little mini-rainbow with the shadow of your head at the center of the rainbow. The pictures I took did not come out so well, and I could not really get the colors enhanced enough to artificially enhance what was more obvious with the naked eye. Here is a false-color image of that glory, with the hues enhanced, maybe it will help you find it more easily. The clouds were pretty far down below us, making it harder to see. I have experience with glory as a glider pilot. Occasionally, I can fly above the clouds, and the shadow of the glider is highlighted by this beautiful rainbow halo.

At the top, I tried to get a picture with all four kids. I think I took about 25 shots in total, each time, there was a problem with at least one of the kids. many times, the shot would not come out because a kid was squinting in the sun, or there was a kid looking at his feet. Another time a kid was making a silly face.

Gnaargh! I need to do more kid picture training practice with the kids. Maybe I should get them to be goofy and playing for the first few pictures, to get it all out of their system, and then get the serious picture taking. Well the joy of digital cameras is you can make up for a lack in quality with an abundance of quantity. I took so many pictures, that some of them were bound to come out.

As the day was getting later, the number of people trying to cram into the gondola increased. We got one of the last few gondolas down, and the humanity was packed much like those crowded Tokyo subways. On the car ride home, it was difficult keeping the kids from falling asleep.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Backlog of Updates

Well, so I see it has been a while since I have written anything. A few people have been nice enough to notice, and even nicer to kindly remind me that they enjoy reading what I have to write. So thanks!

And some of them were even Swiss and didn't take the line about how I sometimes feel like it is a nation of noise-sensitive accountants. I am sorry about that. I was very frustrated when I wrote that. But you should know that some Swiss even agreed with me.

America! Heck Ya!
It has been a year since I have been to the land of WalMart and Cheeseburgers... I mean the land of the free and the home of the brave. I arrived in Dulles airport, and was greeted with a wave of unpleasant humidity and heat, as I exited the aircraft. The moist wall of oven heat smacked me in the face haunting me with the unwelcome reminder of why one should never book travel to the nation's Capital during the summer.

When I first sat in my seat on the way to America, I soon found that the window seat next to me was to be occupied by a college girl headed back home to Virginia. She was one of these sorts of people who like to have the window shade closed (these people should not be wasted on window seats), and was also the sort of person to go to the bathroom every 30 minutes (strike two! You should not be gifted with a window seat), and was, in her words , "Very Prone To Air Sickness!"


Now that I look back, my first experience with the heat of landing in America was the nausea that my seat-neighbor suddenly felt as she was nearly ready to return her meal to her lap. An approach into Dulles on a very good soaring day, with lots of turbulence from 9000 feet down to the surface. I wanted to look out the window and look for good soaring clouds. She could not tolerate that. With the turbulence, along with her closed window, along with the sudden rush of heat as we touched down, this was nearly all that she could tolerate. Of course, I had the air sickness bag ready to deploy in hair-trigger mode. Thankfully, there was no spewage.

Always in the Wrong Line
This was a full flight. And half of the flight has someplace else to be; Dulles was not their final destination. There were other flights also arriving at the same time. And they must have all been Jumbo Jets packed with weary stinky international travelers. Dulles International Airport was very clearly designed before the 9/11 revisions of security policy.

As these two jet-loads of passengers off-loaded, they were shoved into a very narrow hallway. There was barely enough room for two people to walk shoulder-to-shoulder. We moved along like cattle. I was reminded of the expression, "Unless you're the lead Husky at the Iditarod, the view never changes."

I had no need to rush, but I could see the frustration of the faces of those who were making connecting flights. They were bumping into me from behind, nearly stepping on my heels. It was crowded, and the pressure of making the connection was pushing me from behind. There was a fork in the path; some people went that way, I went to the left. I could not see the sign past the sea of people, and I could not go that way even if I wanted to; for fear of getting trampled.

We go down a flight of stairs, and I we are all funneled into a room. I stand in a large room with two lines. One for MURICANS! and one for dirty foreigners[*], who are all treated like suspected terrorists. These suspected terrorists, also known politely as "foreign nationals visiting the United States" get to stand in a much longer line with much fewer homeland security personnel, carefully scrutinizing all foreigners who wish to enter the country. Their biometrics are carefully recorded, including a hand-scan. Our country is safe, I know it. I am glad that I am in the line of people with their proud US passports.

I am bringing food into the United States. Going through customs is going to be fun. I declare it. When asked, I answered "Seven jars of preserves."

"Preserves? Like life preservers"

"No, like Jelly. You know. Jam." The border patrol guy doesn't seem to care much, and stamps my paper, and I'm on my way to baggage claim.

My old luggage used to have this big yellow stripe painted through the middle. It was a really crappy paint job too. I did it with a can of furniture spray paint, and it leaked, dripped. It looked rather like the white stripe on the back of a skunk. Clearly, no luggage thief would ever think of stealing this "skunk bag" And not even a blind man would mistake this horribly clashy ugly piece of luggage as his. This time there was no skunk bag. I did not have much time to even look at the luggage I was packing, much less paint a stripe on it. The original skunk bag got smooshed too many times, and had to be retired. This new monster bag is as easy to identify in a sea of identical luggage bags.

With the skunk bag, finding my baggage is usually pretty easy. I normally have a horrible track record with having my luggage sucked out from the luggage compartment and lost at sea somewhere over the Atlantic. Maybe the jet liner flies into a mini black hole, and my bag is the only thing sucked into it. I do not know. But I do know that nobody has as bad a luck with luggage as I do. With the skunk bag, if that bag is showing up on this carousel, I will surely find it. I will not ever confuse it with the zillion other bags circling around, unclaimed.

I stand a bit back from the luggage carousel. Everybody else stands right next to it, and when somebody else needs to get their luggage off in a hurry, the person standing directly next to the conveyor belt doesn't move, and gives a dirty look when the luggage being removed hits them in the knee.

I stand.

I wait.

I watch all the people I saw on my flight show up.

They get their bags.

They leave.

I wait some more.

The conveyor stops.

I wish I had the skunk bag.

I rummage through the several hundred other bags just to make sure that my bag is not among them. Without the powers of skunk-bag, this is not as easy as the task usually is. I finally give up, and am resigned to another episode of wearing the same clothes for several days while my luggage's contents are gathered from the bottom of the Atlantic.

I stand in the long line of lost luggage-ers, one Indian family with a screamy baby, one family headed off to Atlanta. One adult among a large group of children who were all traveling together with some sort of cheer-leading camp or band camp or some sort of school event overseas. I show my baggage claim check, and the lady behind the counter doesn't even type the number into the computer.

"Are you a connecting to another flight?" Wow. It is really nice of her to figure out that I might have a short connection and that she might rush a bit more.

"Why, no. This is where I am stopping" I reply.

"Sir, you got in the wrong line. You need to take a shuttle bus to the other terminal, then go through the other Customs line"

Oh. That is what that other line that I couldn't fork off to was going. I do a facepalm so hard, you might have heard the smacking sound from wherever you were at the time. She escorted me back through customs, where I sneered at the dirty foreigners[*] trying to enter my country. (ok, not really). Back up the flight of stairs, past even more people waiting in line. I finally get to the fork in the path on the too-narrow hallway, and find myself waiting for a shuttle bus. The last shuttle just left, and I am forced to wait another 20 minutes for the next one. It was an uncomfortable wait, considering that there was no air conditioning in this part of Dulles, or at the very least inadequate air conditioning.

I get to the "correct" line at Customs, and present my already stamped customs form, which immediately raised suspicions with the customs guard. I had to admit, again, that "stupid me got into the wrong line and came here once I realized my baggage was coming to this terminal." Facepalm again. He actually was a customs agent with a sense of humor. There was nobody behind me, so there was no pressure for him to get me through the line as quickly as possible. When he asked me about the "bringing drugs in the country", he quickly rattled off the list of all of the nicknames for any drug you had ever imagined.

"No Weed? No smack? No Crack? No Strips? No blips? No needles? No vines? No snuff-snuff? No Puff-Puff?" He said these all in rapid succession that I was rather stunned.

"Nope I'm clean!" He let me on, and stamped my customs form AGAIN. That is the funniest guy in customs I have ever seen. I thought these guys were not supposed to have a sense of humor. Maybe it was some sort of mind game they played trying to get me off guard to admit to something un-American. A clever strategy! I would not be fooled!

I am sure some customs agent reviewing all the submitted forms wondered how one of these could get two stamps. It could only take an idiot....

Driving Adventures

I have no idea what happened to my Virginia Drivers License. Good thing I have my Swiss license. I got my rental car at Hertz, and started the drive to my hotel in Sterling. The first thing I noticed was a three way stop sign just before exiting to the north of the airport. I realized then why traffic circles were so excellent. If there was a traffic circle here, nobody would have to stop. Since nobody is coming from the right side (EVER), all parties just swoop around the traffic circle, and are on their way, without an expensive stop. Do you realize how much gas is wasted by just stopping and starting a car? Clearly the US could use more traffic circles. Maybe I shook my fist in anger at this traffic engineer.

I get on to Route 28 to find myself in a traffic jam. This is typical. In Northern Virginia, this area west of the Capital Beltway expanded very rapidly in the late 1990s and early 2000's, and is still expanding. Of course, the Representative government of Virginia loves the extra income of the explosion of population. And they love taking that tax revenue and sharing it with the rest of the state. This means that there is a disproportionate amount of wealth put into the rest of the much less affluent state; and it shows in the choked traffic patterns of Northern Virginia. It is enough of an issue for some people to propose seceding Northern Virginia from the rest of the state. I, for one, am all for it. For one, I am tired of living in a state that always votes Republican in the Presidential elections. If you were witness to this traffic, you might even vote with me.

The List of Nine
While sitting on the plane, next to the easily-stricken with airsickness college girl, I wrote down a list of all the places I needed to eat while I was in Virginia. This list would have come so easily while I was in Switzerland around October of last year, when I was feeling kind of homesick. But now that I have gotten rather used to life in Europe, I don't miss those things so much any more. Here was my list, to the best of my recollection, in no particular order:
I had a coworker take me out to "anything on my list", a friend from the company drove me to Los Tol Tecos, where we enjoyed an excellent Mexican food dinner. Switzerland does not have many Mexicans, so the Mexican food there is.. well ... very French, and not very Mexican.

I found a way to get to everything else on the list, with the exception of the Main Street Mill, in Front Royal. I went to the gliderport to meet everybody and do some flying. Some friends suggested we meet at the Mill after flying, and they left early. By the time I had gotten there, they all had left. So no Mill for me. For the most part, people were so happy to see me, that they paid for my meals for me. So even though I was travelling on the company's bill, I still did not have many items to place on my expense report.

The food at all of these places was not as wonderful as I remember it. The nostalgia was more important than the actual lunch quality. I did really enjoy the Mexican food at Los Tol Tecos, and the burger at 5 guys was pretty good; but I could do just fine without these for another year.

Wandering Around the Office
As I arrived to work, my main focus was to meet up with the people I haven't seen in a year. I went floor-by-floor, office by office, meeting people that I really like, and having the same conversation over and over again.

"Hi! Are you back for good? Or just visiting?"

"Just visiting"

"I heard you were coming back [permanently]. "

"It's complicated. But for now, I'll be back in August 2009. "

"How is it over there? "

"(Sigh) Have you read my blog?"

"You have a blog?"

"Yes. "

"What is the name of the blog? "

"I am the only Piet Barber in the world, it's not that hard to find. " (There are some advantages to having that weird Dutch name).

"How is the family doing?"

"It's a pendulum. They hate it one week, and the next week they love it. Jake never has loved it though. "

Imagine this conversation about 30 times over a week. I should have just brought along queue card for the script. Or maybe a FAQ for the person before we have to talk.

Other Adventures and Notes in America
I'll just list these in brief:
  • The family and I took a day trip to King's Dominion
  • The family got taken out to dinner to Red Robin by my father (on the last possible day)
  • The family got invited to my sister's house, but only I went, since some of the family was sick.
  • I worked a lot, there was about 4 weeks of work that everybody tried to cram into my 6 days at the office. Not to mention all the personal time I needed with the various co-workers with whom I never see, and don't get to talk to.
  • Five Guys Burgers are as awesome as I remember them.
  • Virginia is hot in July and August.
  • Driving sucks in Virginia
  • Being forced to drive everywhere sucks. No wonder kids always want a driver's license immediately when they are 16.
  • Traffic circles would be a really excellent enhancement to traffic management in Virginia, but nobody in America knows the rules of the traffic circle, and there would be driving fatalities for the first few years, at least.

* I don't really feel that way about foreigners, it just seems that the Homeland Security Parade looks at the visitors to America in this way.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

To America (Just Visiting)

A part of my ex-pat contract allows for me to return to the US once a year. Getting me to go back to the US isn't so hard. Getting the brood back is the hard part. Thankfully, the contract says that the family gets a trip home once a year, too. Stacy and the kids took advantage of that, and headed back to the US for a very short summer break.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Week in Saanen

As you may have known, I belong to the glider club in Bern, http://www.sgbern.ch. As you also may have known, the family was in the US for the whole month of July, and I was on business travel to Stockholm and Lithuania for the end of June, early July. Every year, the flying club packs up all their gliders and heads to this little town in the valleys in the southern part of Canton Bern, right on the border to Vaud. That town is Saanen.

The club relocated for four weeks. For three of those four weeks, I was unable to do any flying; being in Stockholm, Lithuania, or being the on-call Systems Administrator at work. During this hectic week of being on-call, I have no personal life whatsoever, and flying is out of the question. So without any ability to make good on the first three weeks of Saanen flying, I tried to cram it all into the last week. I took off a week from work and planned to become the expert Alp glider pilot.

Saturday: Rain. Stayed home and played video games.

Rain. Stayed home and played video games.

Rain, I made some Johannsbeeren Jam.

Tuesday: I show up at the field at 10:20. "Sorry, you had to attend the meeting at 9:30 to fly. Today there are not enough instructors anyway" I did not know about this rule, so I am both heartbroken and disappointed. I do not argue. I drive through Vaud to Fribourg via Gruyeres, and go to work. Too bad, because it was the perfect soaring day. I did my best to not look out the windows, and stayed late at work to avoid seeing the nice weather on the way home. I did manage to get some quality work done.

Show up at 9:30, just in time for the briefing. I would have shown up earlier, but had a tour bus in front of a line of mile's worth of frustrated traffic, all driving slower than they wanted. Once the tour bus stopped, the cars flew out in front of me and I did not see them again. At the field, I managed to get an instructor and fly. More on that in a moment. I took so many pictures that another camera battery ran out of charge. Unfortunately, I could take no more pictures. Fortunately, I got some stunning shots.

I brought along my camping equipment to spend the night. I pitched my tent, in apparently the wrong place, and got a serious yelling-at by one of the locals. Typical. No signs, No nothing. Just tribal knowledge that me, the dirty foreigner had no way of knowing. Sometimes I think this country is inhabited by noise-sensitive accountants. I walk with such soft steps around the Swiss, but always seem to anger them by something I did wrong. Whether its taking out the trash the wrong way, or pitching my tent in the wrong place; it doesn't seem to matter. This is one of the quite frustrating parts of the Swiss Experience. When I go back to America, I promise, I will be much nicer to the foreigners. (The yeller, a club member, later apologized).

The town of Saanen had a big party with beer, raclette and steak and lots of people enjoying themselves. Unfortunately, every time something cool like this happens, work calls. Even though I was no longer on call, I was asked to explain the otherwise unexplainable. I quickly inhaled my pork chop dinner, being greatful that I did not drink too much bear, and spent the next three hours on-line finding out why a.root-servers.net was doing a traffic spike. (That's one of the many things I do, figure out what caused DNS traffic spikes on VeriSign's root name servers).

Thursday: It rained. Again. I did not sleep particularly well, my make-shift pillow was highly unsatisfactory, and I never could get quite comfortable. The ran that fell on Thursday was the sort of long awful depressing rain that turns the most devout tea-totaler to a life of the bottle. Prior to my departure on Wednesday morning, I knew it was going to rain all day on Thursday, but I decided camping through the rain was necessary to flying on Friday. On Friday it would be impossible to be late and miss the morning briefing. Besides, what else was I going to do? Watch TV? Play video games? Go to work? My RC Helicopter was broken, so that wasn't going to entertain me.

While wasting time that rainy day, I ate lunch inside my favorite café in Saanen, looking at the drippy world outside. I later visited The Museum der Landshaft Saanen in the city center. The museum had lots of artifacts from the 18th and 19th century. Many artifacts of the pre-modern era, and it was clear that either those people had lots of religious icons, or the religious icons were more durable and tended to last a few centuries.

The night of camping with a sack of socks and underwear was not a suitable pillow, so part of my day's agenda was to go shopping for a pillow in Gstaad. I found a flowery pillow for the very reasonable price of 10 CHF in a froofy store selling lots of stuff with potpourri. My tent no longer smelled like stinky wet clothes but now smelled of stinky wet clothes and potpourri. Not too bad I guess.

Thursday evening had the Saanenlagerfest. The morning started out with a call for volunteers to snap the ends off of the 18 kilograms of green beans. I volunteered, and sat with 7 or so Swiss ladies in their 60s and 70s snapping or cutting away. They spoke Bärndütsch with each other until one said, "Oh You probably don't understand ANYTHING we are saying!" (in High German). I responded "Nit nüüt" ("Not nothing", in Bärndütsch, which, in case you're curious is "Nicht nichts" in High German).

As is typically the habit, people will be speaking Bärndütsch, and as they scan the room for feedback, once they notice I'm there, they quickly switch to High German. Invariably, three sentences later, they revert back to Bärndütsch without realizing it. Or it becomes a mix between High German, but uses many oops words that they don't realize are not High German. I don't mind. I have to learn it anyway, and it is more rude of me to expect that the whole region conform to my needs, than me to conform to their customs.

When the dinner was ready, the tables were set for us. Each place had a name tag in the form of a Post-It note. Mine was "Pit", which in Bärndütsch, you would pronounce like how you would normally pronounce Pete. If it was "Piet" Bärndütsch rules would dictate that it be pronounced like "PEE-yet." The Swiss always think it is strange when I introduce myself as "PEET", a name they are not familiar with. They expect the German pronounciation of "PAY-ter." The Bernese, and presumably other Swiss Germans like to mess up somebody's proper name to Swissify it. Peter is "Pesha" Kurt is "Kurtli," and so on.

All of the placemats were hand-made for this event. Each place-mat was a spread from the Swiss equivalent of Tiger Beat magazine. Why waste perfectly good paper for a disposable place mat? The corners were carefully cut round, and before dinner, there was a good conversation piece. My page was clearly from a teeny-girl magazine, and describe the different ways you could accessorize for events like "going on a Safari", or "going to the Jungle" or "going to the Beach."

Some of the people to the left had crossword puzzles. My flight instructor, "Pol" (Paul) had a biography of a very beautiful young woman, full-nude. Her particulars were protected with a half of a Post-It note and the word "Zensur" inscribed. I guess the Swiss equivalent of the Tiger Beat magazine has nudity, too. Europeans don't get so freaked out about these things. Everybody had a good laugh about it. The post-it note was flipped up many times. "So! Sy isch Brazillian!" one commented.

The food was excellent. I went back for seconds on the green-beans, but also enjoyed the other stuff that came along with the beans. There was this big hunk of wurst of some sort, dried pears and the dessert was a donated pair of cakes suitable to feed 40. This was a meal to remember!

Of course, the whole thing was in Bärndütsch, and I am really glad I decided to start taking lessons to learn this dialect starting around November of last year. I have finally cut the corner of comprehension, and can understand, for the most part, what the heck these people are talking about.

I'm getting better with this, and if I paid attention really closely, I could make out 70% of what they were saying. We went out for drinks afterwards. Ivan spoke of a tale of living in Thun. He spoke (in Bärndütsch) of people coming from all over Switzerland to a huge conference. The conference featured these people showing off their strange devices. I did not understand what this device was, and I did not interrupt. "there were green ones and big ones and awful ones and ugly ones" He went on for a while. "They were so proud of these awful machines." I smiled and nodded in that way of "I have no idea what you are talking about." I simply lacked the cultural reference to know what he was complaining about. The others at the table roared with laughter. OK, I was pretty left out.

Ivan (who speaks English quite well) stopped and saw I wasn't following, and filled me in with the information I was lacking, with a short lesson in English. Ivan was talking about a Barrel Organ, "Drehorgel" in German. Now I can only imagine how entertaining it must have been to see this conference, with all the goofy different Drehorgeln. After Ivan filled me in, I laughed the same volume and tone, only delayed by the required description of what a Drehorgel was.

Friday: The clouds were too low. The only instructor present at the field wanted to pack up his camper and head home. I packed up my junk and headed home. Finally, some replacement parts came for my broken helicopter, so I put them all together and did some flying for the first time in a month. In case you were curious, the replacement parts were for a broken the rotor hub and lost the fly-bar -- it separated in-flight and is lost in the rose garden somewhere, just before I headed off to Stockholm.

Saturday: No formal flying operations at Bern. Packing up all the junk at Saanen. I spent the day chatting with people in Bern, and had dinner with everybody at the party after the relocation to Saanen. While bored in the hangar, I sat in the cockpit of the DG-300 to get comfortable, and read through the glider's manual (all in German). The evening had a large dinner for a very reasonable price of 5 CHF (somebody donated lots of money to the cause). The food was excellent.

Sunday: I was the Barakenchef, and kept the clubhouse clean while nobody flew. The weather was marginal, and the clouds were gathering for a great storm. At the nearby Gurten mountain, there was a big concert forming. The chief of the days operations warned us sternly to avoid flying over the concert. Although the flight activity was minimal, I managed to convince the Chief Officer to let me do some flying. I got 3 flights in the DG-300. For this club, in order to solo any aircraft you need to have four familiarization flights. I managed to get out three of them.

The DG-300 is a very nice glider, no surprises, easy to fly, is quiet at high speeds, good balance between rudder and ailerons, although I had a tendency to skid. The seating was also quite comfortable. To demonstrate my precision landing ability, I had a hard time seeing the part of the grass field, which didn't help with my ability to prove the spot landings. The chalk and gravel has been overgrown by grass, and is impossible to see clearly on final approach. The third flight was a release at 250 meters on the downwind leg, and the rain was coming down hard as I landed. Operations were canceled for the day as a thunderstorm soon rolled in. We used old windshield wipers to clean off the rain from the wings.

Monday: On a plane to the USA, starting at 5:45 AM. My neighbor was very nice, and so nice that he volunteered to drive me to the airport so early.

Flying Report:
In total: 5 days leave from work, 1 flight in Saanen, lasting three hours. Three more flights in cloudy rainy weather in Bern totalling 41 minutes in total.

Was it worth it? Heck Yeah! Wait till you see the pictures!

View pictures in Map mode

I told my instructor "Pol" to give me a demonstration to flying in the Alps. We towed up to 1000 meters above the airport, to about 2000 meters above sea level. We held on a bit longer, towing up to about 2200 meters, before we let the towplane go. The turbulence was moderate right next to the moutain peaks on tow, but once we were off, things smoothed out.

We sniffed around for lift, but finally settled on a thermal that he was very familar with; that house-thermal that every local instructor knows about. In this case, it was not a house, but rather a restaurant at the top of a ski lift. During the winter, this ski lift would be filled with warmly-dressed skiiers enjoying a Latté on the top of the mountain. On that Wednesday, the ski lift was empty. Too bad, because the Latté drinkers would have gotten quite a show. We circled just upwind of the restaurant, and climbed well above the ridgeline within a few minutes.

We would head south to go see the other mountains near Gsteig more closely. With no lift there, we headed back to our faithful thermal over the Restaurant. We headed back over there a few times, and I even asked Pol to do some of the flying so I could get some pictures.

Of course, these photos don't do any justice to the actual views I experienced.

After about two and a half hours, Pol started craving a cigarette, I could tell. I warned him if I had it my way, we would be flying until sundown. We did a steep approach with a very strangely shaped pattern; a VERY LONG downwind leg, almost a 180 degree turn for a base leg, and a very LONG final approach, with deadly consequences if we landed short of the runway's edge.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Johannisbeeren Konfitüre

(Pronounced like yoh-HAN-niss-BARE-ren, not like Joe hayn niss beer rin)

(Ribe Jam)

First, About the Garden
Our garden is an amazing expression of nature. The owners of the property (and previous tenants) clearly put a lot of work into this house and the garden to make it beautiful. There are roses everywhere, and all sorts of other plants that I do not recognize and can not identify.

This inability to recognize and name plants goes for the weeds, as well. As an American without a flora identification book, I can not distinguish between the flowers and the weeds. What to do with all these plants growing in the garden? Is this a weed? Is this some flowery plant we don't have in the US? What kind of plant is this?

"Let them grow" said a friend in the flying club. "You can later decide if you want to keep that plant or not if it has flowers." Great advice.

Now, About the Weeds

Unfortunately, this gave time for one weed, which I do not know its name, plenty of time to gain a foothold in the garden. I had to call it something; "that weird sticky plant" just didn't satisfy me. So I had to come up with a German name for it. I call this the "Teufelpflanze" (Devil's plant). It does not have any sticky glue on its leaves and stems, but it sure acts like it does. It is a weed with a very small root system, and a very excellent ability to stick to other plants and grow like crazy. It chokes out all the other plants as it takes over.

The good news is that they are easy to pull out. The bad news is that when you pull them out, their seeds drop into the dirt ensuring the next generation. These weeds are an excellent demonstration of evolution in action. The perfect storm of weediness. Survival of the most annoying and insufferable weed. Darwin would be proud. I spend many Saturdays fighting, cursing, and uprooting these awful flora.

"Don't bother composting these weeds, they are too terrible. Throw them away" was the advice I got about these Teufelpflanze from a local. Too late. I had composted these plants by the heaping arm-full. I figured it would be a great fate for these plants to rot with bunny poop and old kitchen scraps. I may regret this.

One great strategy I found against the Teufelpflanze is to get a pitchfork and stab it into the patch of these plants. Twirl the pitchfork like a fork twirling up spaghetti. Take the pile and put it into the compost heap. Another strategy that has proven effective is to just whack the pile with the pitchfork, and make the sticky-quality of the weed act against its self. You can flatten a whole bushel of the weeds and make the weeds at the bottom hidden from the sunlight, doomed to die a fate of darkness. After a week or so, you can remove them all with the spaghetti technique I mentioned above. The weeds are not always easily reached, as they are on a ledge not easily accessible to people.

Stinky Compost Heap
Our compost heap is an environmentalist's dream. We recycle almost all food scraps (not meat), and the bunny poop too. Also destined for the pile are the weeds and any grass-clippings from my small lawn. Within a few weeks, all traces of food are turned into dirt. I haven't had the chance to make use of any of the excellent soil from this output, but I will be sure to make Stacy shovel it out of the heap. There is currently a tomato plant that has taken advantage of the rich soil and is growing out of the side of the container.

The heap is not stinky, unless I have just added a fresh batch of bunny poop. The only really disgusting thing about this heap is when we let some of the vegetables go for too long in the little kitchen composting box, (called bioabfälle eimer or rüstabfälle eimer) If we wait long enough, the contents will liquefy and settle; causing a mushy slurry of decayed and stinky vegetables to slip from the green bioabfälle bin.

Among the roses (which I have to admit I don't like very much), there are other plants. Some wild strawberries that have disappeared before I have gotten a chance to eat, Johannisbeeren (Ribes), about three bushes full, mint, some sort of ferns, other weird plants I have never seen before that may in fact be weeds that have enough flowers to fool us. (Another interesting evolutionary adaptation that would be). Of all of these plants, my favorite are the Johannisbeeren.

As far as I know, they are pretty much unknown in the US. At least I had never heard of them before coming to Switzerland. Last summer, we bought a nice little box of assorted berries: Raspberries, blueberries, and these weird berries we had never seen before. We sampled them and occasionally Stacy would shout "WOO!" when she gone one that was a little too tart. These little guys are not very sweet, and have a lot of zing that I really enjoy.

I was at first not sure if this bushy plant was a weed or some sort of plant. There were no flowers. The only indication that I had that this was not a weed was that some of the bushes were tied up to stakes with some string that looked like it was very old. I patiently waited for the development of these strange plants. There are apple trees in the backyard which I will get a chance to harvest starting in mid to late August.

Around early June, these little green berries started to form on the plants. I found them to be a familiar shape, and looked around the Internet to find out what they were. I had correctly identified them as "Johannisbeeren" and was excited for the eventual ripening and output of these bushes. I hate the rose bushes; their thorns scratch me as I mow the lawn, and my poor remote-controlled helicopter crashes into them occasionally, causing me to reach into the bushes to draw back a bloody scratched-up nub of an arm with undamaged helicopter. They give me flowers that are OK, but the thorns I hate too much. These Johannisbeeren, on the other hand; They give me these awesome berries.

Berry Exciting
The week before I headed to Stockholm, the first batch of berries were ready to be harvested. I scoured the bushes to find a bowl's worth of berries to triumphantly bring to the kitchen. I washed and cleaned them, and Stacy and I enjoyed them with a batch of blueberries, strawberries, and home-made whipped cream. Jake joined in on the berry action. We enticed him to try the Jo'beeren by saying "They taste just like Nature's Sour Patch Kids." He tried them and enjoyed them as much as we did.

I left for Stockholm, the family left for the US, and the berries ripened. When I returned from Lithuania, there were way more berries than I had ever dreamed could come from these little bushes. I quickly gathered bowl after bowl of these red jewels. With nobody around to help me eat them, and their prime time berry joy quickly fading, I had to find something to do with them.

Making the Jam
One of the bowls I gave to the neighbors one night when they invited me over to dinner. Those neighbors speak many different languages, but English is not one of them. That evening's conversation was all in German, and I think I did a pretty good job in keeping up with the conversation, with not too much frustration at not being able to explain myself. The only part I had a hard time explaining myself was to describe my job. I had never had the opportunity to talk about what I do to people who are not computer literate. It is generally a hard time to explain what I do to people who don't know much about the Internet, or computers, or networking in English; let alone German.

With seven bowls of freshly picked berries, and time running out, I had to find something to do with them. Why not do what people did in the old days to preserve fruit? Put them into jelly! I searched the Internet high and low to find a Johannisbeeren recipe, or a ribes recipe, or something that would help me out. I had never done anything like this by myself before; so this was going to be a great learning opportunity for me.

I finally find a how-to general guide to making preserves/jam/jelly. Although nothing specifically about these berries. I give it a shot and make use of the empty jars I had just bought.

First step: Clean up the Berries. These berries you can not easily pick from the branch without getting all sorts of non-berry items: Twigs, leaves, dirt, bugs, etc. So I took the spaghetti strainer, and emptied out bowls of the berries into the strainer and washed out the berries carefully. I sprayed everything off with the sink spritzer, and separated the non-berry components, and any berries that weren't satisfactory.

I put a few spoons into the freezer to chill them down. It sounds weird, but there is a reason for this. Then I took one batch of berries a time, and added them to a sauce pan. With one of the specialized tools for making smashed potatoes, I squished the berries in the pan until they were a slurry of juice, seeds, and berry slush in the pan. With low heat, I added large amounts of sugar and stirred constantly. A little bit of lemon juice just in case this is the sort of berry that doesn't have enough pectin naturally, and lots of stirring. I take a taste to see if it has enough sugar. The trick is to not add too much sugar; it still has to be tart.

When the juice has started to thicken after boiling off for a while, take a spoon from the freezer, and pour some of the jelly into the cold spoon. Place it onto a clean bowl, and put into the refrigerator. Let it sit in the refrigerator for about 5 minutes, while still stirring the pot. If it has cooked long enough, you will find the jelly on the cold spoon will congeal and have jelly/jam consistency. It should slowly slide off the spoon just like you're about to put it on toast. If it is too watery, cook it a little longer and take another one of those cold spoons from the freezer and try again.

While stewing the berries, have your jars ready for the introduction. I washed the jars with soap and water, then sterilized them by putting them in the oven at 150°C for 20 minutes or so. It is also important to note that if you leave it in the oven for TOO long, the jars will be too hot, and the jam you drop into the jar will sizzle. If you put a 150°C jar into boiling water, it still will be too much of a temperature difference, and the jar will shatter (ask me how I know this).

While stewing the berries, and while baking the jars, take the lids for the jars and throw them into a pot of boiling water to sterilize them. Once all parts are ready, carefully pour out the stewed berries into the jars. Remove the lids from the boiling water if you like, or keep them in the vat of boiling water. Place the jars with the jam into a pot of boiling water and let it simmer for about 10 mins or so. Make sure that the lid of the jar is clean from jam that has gotten on the side by your sloppiness.

Take the lids out first, then take out the jars, and lid the jars quickly. the lower air pressure inside the jar will get even lower as the fewer air molecules inside the jar start to cool, and reduce the air pressure. If done correctly, there will be a partial vacuum on the inside of the jar. If you have one of those lids that pop up when the jar is opened, the little button will eventually pop-down as the jars cool.

Ta-da! I now have something to give to people when I go back to America for a week on Monday. Since we can not import live berries to America, this is the best way I could come up with sharing these berries with my friends and family back in the US.

Here are the pictures I took:

Here are pictures of the various flowers and plants in the garden.
No pictures of the Teufelpflanze, which I think I should include to see if somebody out there can identify its real name for me.

Another thing to mention: my American accent rarely shows through my German, but it definitely shows when I say "Johannisbeeren." One of the locals thought I was talking about Johannis bären, the bears named "Johannis." I will have to work on that pronunciation.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Monday, July 7, 2008


It's not every day that an American gets to go to Lithuania. As a part of the upgrades done with Project Titan, I had a short trip to Kaunas Lithuania on the way back from Stockholm. The trip was planned rather suddenly; so let me first explain the events that led up to my spontaneous trip to LT.

But First... More About Stockholm
Much like the trip to Amsterdam in May, the business trip to Stockholm consisted of long work hours, day after day of working, and a tireless, thankless effort. The shining moment of this trip was that as we were escorted daily to the bunker, our escort would also tire of sitting in the data center for so many hours, and kindly request that we pack it up and leave. Fortunately, this kept the days from being too long.

For the first few days in the bunker, I was painfully bored, as I was waiting for the networking team to hook up all of our equipment to the network. It is so loud from al the machines and cooling units that a normal conversation must be held at full volume shouting. I passed the hours by trying to do other types of office work; but instead of the comfortable environment of an office, it was attempted in a very loud and cold data center.

In fits of boredom, we discovered that some of the foam packing material hovered a few millimeters over the floor air vents. This data center had perforated floor tiles to let the cold air circulate and keep the computer equipment nice and cool. The hovering packing foam would not stay there for long, and would eventually fall off to the side, to one of the unventilated tiles.

A quick adaptation to the packing foam with a pair of scissors, and we could get it to sit there all day; but only while spinning. Boredom does strange things to me. At least I know how to pass the time. The networking guys got their equipment up, and quickly the boredom turned into a break-neck fast pace of trying to get everything up and running, with no time for anything else.

Unfortunately, due to the delays of getting the network up, and the shortened work days from the tired escort, The work still had to be done, prolonging the business trip over more 3 more days. What had originally been planned for 5 days long ended up being 8 days. I had only packed 7 days worth of clothes without rampant re-cycling. Since the family had already left to the United States on Saturday morning, there wasn't much sense in me rushing back to an empty house in Rüfenacht, since the very nice neighbors were looking over the house and our rabbits. I looked into a day trip to Lithuania, which was "on-the way home" from Stockholm. I picked up a new camera battery in the Stockholm airport, so I could take lots of pictures of a country I may never get to see again.

The servers I needed to tend to are in a little town called Kaunas, in Lithuania. Since most of my readership is American, I will assume that none of you have heard of this city before. It makes sense, as there are not a lot of Americans who travel to Europe to see Kaunas. Also, Americans as a general rule are terrible at Geography. As graduate from George Mason University with a BA in Geography, I am quite sure that the content of study consisted of at least 40% carping about the state of geography education in the United States. This somehow reminds me of my favorite quote from Ambrose Bierce:

War is God's way of teaching Americans geography.

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Short Geography Lesson
Short geography and history lesson: Lithuania is a country in the Baltics. No, not the Balkans. The Balkans are those countries like Kosovo, Yugoslavia, Croatia and Montenegro. I'm talking about the other side of Europe. The Baltics are east of Denmark, North of Poland, West of Russia, South of Finland. Three countries and a Russian Oblast (An Oblast is kind of like the Russian equivalent of a state) (and lots of times people don't include Kaliningrad as a part of the Baltics) are a part of these Baltic states. The Kaliningrad Oblast (belonging to Russia), the nation of Lithuania, further north is Latvia, and the northernmost is Estonia.

Kaliningrad used to be inhabited mostly by German speaking people, until they were mostly kicked out by the invading Russians at the end of World War II. Lithuania has about 3 million people, all speaking Lithuanian. In Latvia, people speak Latvian. In Estonia, they speak Estonian, which is very similar to Finnish. (Dear fellow American: they speak Finnish in Finland).

Lithuania used to have a very large territory in the 15th century, extending all the way south to the Black Sea. They were occupied sometime in the 19th century up until 1918, when they declared their independence. At the beginning of World War II they were occupied again by the Soviets, and in 1944, annexed into the Soviet Union.

The United States never recognized Lithuania, Latvia or Estonia as a part of the Soviet Union. Lithuania was the first of the Soviet Socialist Republics in 1990 to say "We have had enough of this Soviet rule!" and declared Independence. The United States never needed to have this relations-straining problem of recognizing Lithuanian independence, as it had never recognized Lithuania as a part of the Soviet Union in the first place. After Lithuania made its announcement of independence, the other Soviet Socialist Republics soon followed, and by the end of 1991, the Soviet Union was finished.

Short Language Lesson
Lithuanian and Latvian are not like any other languages you may have heard. Both are classified as Baltic languages. Lithuanian is a very old language, not much different from its original form in the last 800 years. Linguistics researchers believe that Lithuanian has more similarities to the Proto-Indo-European language than any other living language today.

The Lithuanian language consists of all your standard Roman alphabet characters, with some accent marks in places you may not expect. This language is not like French; if there is a letter there, it is pronounced. Thankfully, reading out the words allowed me to find many English cognates, and that was the only hope I had for understanding the language for my two days there.

Lithuanian Adventure Begins
The town of Kaunas is not particularly large. There is no airport with scheduled service. In order to get there, one must fly into a neighboring city. The best option for me was to fly into the capital city, Vilnius, which is about 100 km away. When I did my research into the trip, I did not know about the train service between the two cities (which I would have really enjoyed), so I used the inter-city bus.

Amazingly, there was a direct flight from Stockholm Arlanda to Vilnius, which left at 0845. The day I flew to Vilnius is also the first day of the Stockholm public transportation strike. All of the bus drivers in the city decided they were not getting paid enough, and went on strike. Thankfully, there was a train between my hotel in downtown Stockholm to the airport called the Arlanda Express, so I was not affected by the strike at all.

Now I am a strong believer that a travel adventure is the most fun when there is no preparation beforehand. This trip was no different. I do not know the language, the locals do not speak English, I have only a small slip of paper with the address of my destination, and another small slip of paper with a description of the hotel that I booked only the night before. I have no local currency, and what currency I have is Euros, and not much of it. I have no bank card, and only a credit card that I haven't called the company back in the US to say, "Hey! I'll be in this country called Lithuania for the next few days. Please allow transactions from there. Thanks"

Nope, travel preparedness is for the weak. My ability to "wing it" is only worthwhile if I get to put it to the test. On the other hand, perhaps this sense of adventure through unpreparedness that I have only reinforces the world-wide perception that Americans know nothing of the cultures and countries they visit.

I show up in the Vilnius airport with only a small knowledge of Lithuania, the recent history, nothing about the language or currency. I know there is some bus somewhere that I have to take to get to Kaunas. I believe that driving a rental car would be a catastrophe, so I never reserved one. I knew nothing about the train station or the train to Kaunas.

One of the penalties of not knowing exactly where you're going is that it takes a long time to get your bearings. I do not recommend this form of travel if you are short on time. Upon arrival, I stood outside the airport observing. There were some public city buses that came to the front of the airport, and all the locals got on. There was no money being given to the bus driver. There was no money machine on the bus (from what I could see) and no money machine outside to buy tickets, as far as I could find. I found that the number 1 bus took me to the bus station. The number two did not. The number two comes every 10 or 15 minutes, the number one bus comes only once every half-hour. I just missed the number one bus.

Screw this. I'm taking a taxi. The clearly bored taxi driver and I negotiate where I am going. Unlike Geneva, where the French-only waiter did not understand "bus" said with an American accent, German accent, and only recognized "bus" when I said it like Inspector Clouseau -- this taxi driver knew right away where I was going. But that was the extent of his English skills.

As we arrived at the bus station, I showed my wallet of Euros and asked "Euros?". He got that disappointed look and pulled out a note pad and started saying lots of words that I did not understand. He wrote on the paper 37 Lta. He said "Thirty Seven Liters!" I said to myself, "There is no way we just used 37 liters of gasoline to get only 5-7 kilometers to this train station. This guy is going to jip me off, and I can't complain because I don't know the language!"

It was then that I realized that 37 Lta mean 37 Lithuanian Litas; or about 16 USD. Whew! I gave him 20 Euros, and he gave me change in Lithuanian money. Lots of change. Enough money to buy lunch! It was about lunch time.

I wandered down the rows of buses looking for one that said Kaunas. I stood in line for a few minutes in a hot and not-well ventilated room with lots of anxious people. It turns out that this was some sort of package drop-off office. Thankfully, I had figured this out without having to get to the front of the line and ask for a bus ticket. I wandered around some more, and found that international sign for "buy your tickets here"

For 20 LTL, I get a bus ticket to Kaunas. What a deal! I use the credit card and it works (whew!). I check my cell phone (which I use as a pocket watch) to see that it is only 11:35, and the bus leaves at 12:45 -- so I have some time to kill.

I wander around the bus station, and decide to buy some lunch, as it is going to be a long bus ride, and I didn't have any breakfast. I wander into a Café, and navigate my way to the lunch-line. The lady behind the counter stood in front of all these foods that I don't recognize. The lady pointed out each of the items, and somehow, knew the English word for lots of them. "Beef Goulash" Mm. sounds good! "Potatoes" Oh good! "Beef... ehhh. " she pointed at her lower stomach. Eww. Cow Intestines. No way.

"Beef Goulash!" I order. She piles a nice helping onto the plate, and some salad, some other sort of salad like kraut made of cabbages. Along with a coca-cola, it comes out to a very respectible 10 or 12 LTL. (Cheap food!) I sit at a table by myself to enjoy my lunch.

As I start to much, I wonder. Hmm. I wonder what time it is back in the US. Subtract 6 hours, oh probably too early to call home. I was feeling home-sick. This country is awfully far to the east, I wonder if it really is 6 hours ahead of the US East coast. I look at my phone again. The Cell phone towers relay time information so the time on the clock is always very accurate. But I wonder -- Hmm. I wonder if Lithuania is in that time zone east of Switzerland and Sweden. I wonder if the clock on my cell phone got adjusted when I landed here.

I'm starting to get nervous, and my beef goulash is starting to get cold. There are no clocks to be seen from my cafeteria seat. I use my cell phone with Internet access to start going on the Internet. Google takes me to a page called timeanddate.com. On that page, you can plug in any city name, and it will give you the local time. OK. Wait for the page to load. Oh noes! it is 12:44. I look at my bus ticket again. 12:45.

If Lithuanian buses are anything like Swiss Trains; it is too late. I inhale my Beef Goulash and not enough of the salad. I take my tray up, and bring my unfinished Coca-Cola along with me. I rush out to the buses, and my bus is not there. Slot 35, where bus was supposed to be -- is gone. Rats!

I sheepishly take my unused ticket back to the ticket counter to see if I could get another one issued. No such luck. Another 10 LTL and I have a bus ticket for 13:05. That'll teach me! My cell phone is one hour behind the rest of Lithuania.

At around 1 pm, I get onto the bus, which is more like a full-sized 20 passenger van, and we are off to Kaunas. The countryside reminded me of east Texas. Mostly flat. Occasionally lots of trees -- occasionally long plains. Power lines that extend off into the distance. I bet I could show you pictures of East Texas from the highway, and pictures of Lithuania from the highway and you couldn't tell the difference, either. It is possible that I have been in Switzerland so long that I just simply have forgotten what flat land looks like. So I will let you judge for yourself. I have several pictures on the way back in the slide show of Lithuania.

To the Hotel
From the train station, I take a taxi ride to the hotel, the Perkuno Namai. This hotel is in a very nice neighborhood. The neighborhood consists of many old-growth trees, beautiful homes, modern cars, no graffiti, no trash on the streets. It reminded me of the suburbs in Northern Virginia, mostly around Falls Church, where the houses are older, and not so "modern" looking like in Ashburn or South Riding. I check in and make myself comfortable with a coffee. I send some emails over the phone to my point of contact at the University of Kaunas to set up an appointment for the next day. It is almost 4 pm by then.

The reason I chose this hotel is its proximity to the data center where the servers I must attend to are located. It is a short enough journey on foot, so I pull up Google maps on my Blackberry (cell phone) to give me precise directions. I get a good idea where to go, and I write my point of contact for directions on foot.

I get back an email describing the journey, and the landmarks along the way, and I set out on foot for reconnaissance. Along the way, the first landmark I come across is a soccer stadium, followed by a monument, with two guys who are wearing some sort of pilot-looking head-gear. I did not know the history of the individuals, so I kept walking. I took a few pictures for later reference.

It turns out these two guys are very famous people to the Lithuanians. I remembered the 10 LTL note, which has two pilot-looking guys too. These guys are located near the bottom of the monument, but in prominent position.

After further research, I discovered that these two guys are Steponas Darius and Stasys Girėnas, two pilots who attempted a crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, and ended up crashing somewhere in Germany (now Poland). Steponas Darius helped fund the stadium that is next to this monument, and the stadium was later named after these two pilots. It's no wonder they made this big monument for these two guys!

I wander through this beautiful park, past a sculpture of a Bison, and find my way to a few buildings which I suspect are where the data center are. One of the buildings as a really excellent sundial, that I showed up too late to view (the sun had gone behind the wall, making it impossible to show what time it was).

I walked back to the hotel and had built up a significant thirst. I find my way to the bar and see this local beer on tap. "I'll have one of those! Yes! The big glass!" 0.5 liters of delicious local Lithuanian beer and 4 minutes later, and I am ready for the second. That beer was incredibly awesome. I sit to dinner and enjoy one of the most excellent meals I have ever had. It is a terrible shame that I had to enjoy this dinner alone. And by alone, I mean the only guy in the restaurant. There were two what I guess to be Polish tourists in the restaurant when I first got there, but they left early. The gravity of my solitude starts to hit me squarely in the chest.

My family has left for the US for 4 or 5 weeks, and my return to my comfortable house in Switzerland will have me just as lonely as here in this restaurant. Nobody really speaks English, so I spend a lot of time on the cell phone calling people, writing random friends messages to pass the time. There is no wireless Internet access that I could find, so my portal to the Internet was all through the phone.

When I got the bill, I couldn't believe the price. A mere 66 LTL (30 dollars) for a meal and service of this caliber. It has been a long time since I have crowed about the power of my US Dollar. This restaurant and this country makes me feel like my dollar is worth more than inky rags.

Working, Again.

The next day I meet Tomas, who shows me to the data center, and I start working on my equipment. We break for lunch and talk shop. He runs the Lithuanian Registry; so everything that ends in .LT shows up in his office. He had just come from the ICANN meeting in Paris just the previous week, and we dropped names to see who we knew in common. I've been in this field for a long time, so there is much common ground between us, and it made for a delightful conversation. The food was good, the environment was nice, and the conversation was thought-provoking.

We had lunch at this lovely café on the pedestrian street in downtown Kaunas, next to some large church that I now think was the St. Michael the Archangel Church of Kaunas. (I might be wrong, though)

As with all of these site builds, I spent most of the day working, (even though this was a much smaller build than the Stockholm site), and I spent so long getting my equipment working that Tomas was ready to go home. He left, while giving instructions to his co-workers to let me see myself out. I left the office about 6 pm.

Watching Television
One great way to get an idea about a country you are visiting is to watch the local TV. Often in hotels, they have special channels that are only available to the hotel, and do not really give a good indication of the channel selection. Thankfully, the hotel did not have one of these specially computer-driven services with satellite television.

There were two channels, the first two -- in Lithuanian. I could understand nothing. They looked mostly like US films from the 1950s that had been dubbed over. The next channel was Polish, followed by 3 in Russian, that I could not view (blacked out and unviewable). There was a wasteland of unwatchable channels, and then, at the top of the dial -- the German-language stations. These channels I am familiar with! I watched Spongebob in German.

On the night before check-out, I stayed up to watch this awful movie. It was an action movie that had some hot chick with purple hair on a motorcycle dodging bullets and crashing into helicopters. The computer graphics of the fight scenes were terrible, but it was at least something I could watch. What a terrible knock-off of the Matrix movies. Of course, all the dialog was in German, but that doesn't bother me that much anymore. I can watch German-language TV almost as easily as English TV.

Just as the thinly-constructed awfulness that vaguely resembled a plot started to get interesting... the movie cut out. It was abruptly replaced with another movie. In fact, this movie was on a different channel. It was about midnight.

I can see from the bug in the bottom of the screen that the new channel is "Hustler TV", and this new movie is usually something you would have to pay top dollar for in a hotel. Oh! She is very flexible! But most of all: Hurray! they are speaking English!

The plot was even thinner than the previous movie with motorcycle-driving fast-shooting purple hair Matrix chick. But for this movie: I knew exactly how it was going to end. It was kind of rude how they abruptly ended the purple hair gun chick right as it was starting to have a plot. Oh well.

I later found out that this movie (with the purple-hair chick) is named "Ultraviolet", and I can't believe the users of IMDB would rate this heaping pile of doo a 3.9 stars out of 10. I never found the name of the movie on Hustler TV, but I don't think the name of that movie is very important.

A Few Hours in Vilnius
I departed early the next morning, mostly because I didn't know how long it would take to get me to Vilnius by bus. The bus ride home was the same sort of vehicle, but had what must have been busted out shock absorbers. I bounced the whole way back to Vilnius. Maybe they only pave the western-bound sides of the highway, and not the eastern routes. Anyway; it was a bouncy brutal ride home. My ride home was also made uncomfortable by the very stinky guy who was two seats in front of me. Whew! Cut back on the onions and garlic-drenched herring from your diet!

My flight was going to leave at 14:45, and I showed up in Vilnius at 10:30. How to spend this time? I left the bus station and found the train station right next door. I found a locker and locked away my luggage for a few hours as I wandered around. There is no escape from McDonald's. They had one right across the street from the train station.

As I wandered the streets of Vilnius, I found this big building that lots of people were filing into. So I had to investigate. It turns out that this was a huge department store. It looks like something I had seen from the old propaganda films of how excellent Soviet life was. Except this had lots of stuff on the shelves. There was one aisle with meat of all sorts. So much meat, in fact, that I had to make a hasty retreat -- it seemed like if I had stayed any longer I might have become a vegetarian.

Here is the slide show of the pictures I took in Lithuania.

Return Flight
The flight back was pretty uneventful, other than the flight attendant who noticed me reading the Michael Moore book "Stupid White Men", which is really "Liberal isn't liberal enough" (and had me believing it by the end of the book). In the other hand, I had a German newspaper that I had picked up while boarding. I suppose it is kind of strange to see an American with a German newspaper. "He misses American Football and Baseball." Uh huh. I understand. The football part, at least. She lives with her American husband in Basel. She seemed genuinely interested in the book, and I had finished it as we flew over Poland, I think. As I was exiting the plane upon arrival, I gave her the book.