Sunday, June 26, 2011

Day Trip: Liège (Luik, Lidje, Lüttich) Belgium

Earlier this week the president of Bryan's basketball team told us that the team van was available on Thursday and Friday if we wanted to use it.  Since we don't often have access to the car anymore and Bryan had a four day weekend, we took him up on the offer without really having any solid plans of taking the car anywhere.  But after waking up on Thursday morning, we quickly consulted Google Maps and searched for places to visit within a 2.5 hour radius, and settled on either Maastricht, Netherlands or Liege, Belgium.

A trip like this, where we generally pick a location or region and head there with no particular agenda or plans, we have dubbed "free stylin' travel" and it has been Bryan's dream to do trips like this for a long time.  I usually intervene his free stylin' plans and make concrete travel agendas for us, so he was pleasantly surprised when I went along with his idea.

1 hour later, we had packed lunches, Oscar's food and bed, an overnight bag anticipating that we would spend the night somewhere and we were on the road by 10:30 a.m.  About 30 minutes into our drive, as Bryan was making the comment of how impressed he was with our teamwork and packing efficiency, I said to him, "Don't we need our passports to check into a hotel?"

An hour later, after returning home to get our passports, we were once again driving through Oberhausen on our way to The Netherlands and potentially Belgium.  The good thing to come from our 1 hour delay was that Dylan fell asleep at approximately this point, giving him a solid 2-hour nap in the car before arriving at our destination.

We passed through Maastricht (didn't look like much was going on there) and continued on to Liege.  It was around this point where our Google Maps directions came to an end.  It's quite a difficult task to read our directions, which were in German, while also reading the street signs, which were in Dutch, and eventually French.  We kept seeing signs for 'Luik' 30 km's away, which was really confusing. Where was Liege?  To make matters worse, once we arrived in Belguim, the Luik signs became 'Lidje' signs.  (When we came home we told our neighbor we went to Liege, Belgium and he gave us a completely blank look.  Finally it came to him and he said "Ahhh, Lüttich!" This city apparently has many names.)

Somehow, we found the city of Liege/Luik/Lidje/Lüttich without any problems.   There seemed to be ample parking, and we parked at one of the first available spots.  There was good reason for the ample parking.  We were in the hood.  Bryan summed it up when he asked, "Are we in Belguim or Tangiers?" To which I responded "If this is a culture shock to us, then we will never survive Tangiers."

The ghetto was a neighborhood called "Huy", and all the stores were either doner shops, hair salons, clothing stores where traditional Muslim apparel and head covers could be purchased, or import/export "emporiums" where a few Arab-looking fellows were haggling with each other over the cost of a cheap lamp or mattress.  There were virtually no people out on the street and it appeared as though someone in every building had recently been evicted due to all the household crap laying on the sidewalks.  We took a brisk walk around the block and headed back to our excellent parking spot in search for a more populous part of the city.
Just arrived in Liege, ready to see the sights!

The "Huy" neighborhood, French for "ghetto"

The worst part was that we couldn't read the map to find a new part of the city.  So, we blindly ventured on, crossed to the other side of the river and voila - a bustling, populous city emerged that looked much more like the one we imagined Liege would look like.  We parked near the train station, picked up a map from the Best Western and quickly got our near bearings of where we were. Dylan, Oscar and I took a 20 minute slow walk around while Bryan popped into an Internet Cafe to try to find a cheap hotel for the night.  His search was broad and he looked in Liege, Maastricht and Aachen, but the best deal was 100 Euros/night at the Best Western, which was more than we were willing to pay.  So, we did what we like to do best in a new city ... wander around.
Wandering the city...

The weather in this part of the world has been really strange.  It's been in the mid-60s (sometimes colder) and every couple hours a rain storm comes through, downpours, then the sun comes out again.  About an hour into our wandering, exactly that happened and we had to duck into a sidewalk cafe for a drink while the storm passed through.  We were looking forward to trying to Belgian beers, so I ordered a Leffe Blonde and Bryan ordered a Kriek.  I was also really hungry so I ordered a ham sandwich, mainly because the only word I knew in French on the menu was "jambon."  Unfortunately, they were out of ham and most other ingredients, so my only options were the "American Sandwich" or something else that I didn't know how to translate.  Our waitress suggested, in French, something about an American sandwich and I said, 'ok.'

I was really looking forward to having an American style sandwich, but when they brought it out, it was obvious that whoever put the menu together had never been to America and had no idea what an American sandwich should looking like.  It was basically a crusty hogie roll with a weird tomato paste scooped into the center.  There truly was nothing American about it.

Taking refuge from the rain at a sidewalk cafe

Kriek + Leffe + Peanuts = Yum!

The most un-American "American" sandwich.

3...2...1... Temper Tantrum!

It was really strange trying to communicate in a French speaking country after struggling so long to communicate in German.  French is a language that I know 13 words, total.  I can count to 10, say hello, goodbye and thank you.  Most of the time I forgot all 13 of those words and my communication was broken down to pointing and grunting, then saying "danke schon, I mean thank you, I mean ..... ummmmm ... merci!"  I'm pretty sure Bryan didn't even attempt to speak to anyone, as I did all the ordering and talking everywhere we went.

Dylan had his usual temper tantrum at the restaurant, so Bryan took him to a nearby park to let out some steam.  I drank both beers and ate my sandwich in peace, then joined the boys at the park.  We then made our way to the central part of town which was really cool.  Lots of sidewalk cafes, bars, shops and a  fair amount of Frites (French Fries / Pommes) stands.  It was around 6:30, so we got some fries and Dylan chowed down two foot-long curry wursts plus some fries during the hourly downpour of rain.  That's right - Dylan ate his age in curry wursts.

Dylan made two older kids sit down in the train while he "drove" it. 
The church in the town center.

Scooters...(Bryan's comment: What a random picture to add, Dear.) 

My free stylin' husband

Liege's cool town center...

One of the sights to see in Liege is this really long staircase that has over 400 steps and some historic significance of which I don't know (part of the drawback from free stylin' is that due to the lack of planning we have to read on Wikipedia the history behind all the cool sights that we see after returning home).  We couldn't decipher where on the map these famous steps were, but we found ourselves walking up a steep hill and thought surely this must run parallel to the steps and we'll be rewarded with a magnificent view of the city once we reach the top.  So higher and higher we went, taking turns pushing Dylan in his stroller up this crazy hill - even Oscar kept turning around to look back down the hill wondering where we were going.  Our effort didn't really pay off, except for burning a lot of calories from eating the fries, since there were some new construction homes blocking the perfect view.

Here we go up the hill...

Would have been a great view had it not been for those new homes!

And, back down the hill.

It was getting close to 9 pm, which was the time we agreed to leave and head back home, so down the hill we went and back to the car.  Poor Oscar passed our from exhaustion as soon as we got to the car, and was even so tired the next day that he didn't even ask to go for a walk until close to 11:00 a.m.  Dylan eventually fell asleep in the car as well, and we were home before midnight.

All said and done we spent about 60 Euros on gas and less than 20 Euros on food/fun while getting to see a new city and go to Belgium in the time it would take us to drive from Grand Rapids, Michigan to Detroit..  I would say it was a good day for free stylin' travel.

Also, Dylan saw this ad and insisted that it is a photo of his Mommy and Daddy. :)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Stupid Finger/ Stupid Bryan

My broken finger is feeling better these days, but it hasn’t without drama.

When I originally broke my finger in the first week of April, the Dr. put my finger in a soft cast and told me to come back in 10 days for a checkup.  In my cynical, American capitalist mind, I figured the Doctor wanted me to come back in 10 days so she could take a 30 second look at my cast, tell me to come back in two more weeks, so she could bill me and my insurance company for my extra visit.  At least that’s how it works in America.

So, for the next month, I decided to play Doctor myself.  The pain in my finger wasn’t going away, so I decided to forego the 10-day checkup and ended up coming back a month later, on my own prescribed timetable, when the pain in my finger still wasn’t subsiding.   When I finally saw the Doctor, she took off the cast and inquired why I wasn’t in two weeks earlier.

As I tried to answer her, I tried to move my finger.  I couldn’t move it!  I couldn’t move it at all!  Was it still broken?  What was happening?   I started to panic.

It was at this moment that the Doctor started to yell at me in German.  “This is really bad!  This is totally bad.  Why didn’t you come in earlier?”  She stormed out of the room leaving me alone with an immobile finger.

I sat in the room alone trying to move my finger.  It hurt now worse than even breaking it in the first place.   Would I ever be able to move it again?  Was it still broken?  Did it heal wrong?  I remember breaking into a huge sweat from both the pain and stress of thinking I was done playing basketball and would only have to live with this pain for the next 50 to 60 years of my life. 

After a couple of minutes of sitting alone, the Doctor and her assistant stormed back into the room.  She said that if I ever wanted to move my finger again that I would wrench on it every day until I got movement in it.  There is nothing more scary than, 1. Someone yelling at you in German 2. A Doctor telling you that you may not be able to ever move an important body part for the rest of your life. 3. Not knowing 100% if you are understanding what you are hearing correctly.

Any thoughts of not understanding what I was hearing became clear a couple of seconds later when the doctor grabbed my finger and began to push and pull on it to a point where I thought for sure that she was trying re-break my finger so we could start the healing process over again.  As tears swelled up in my eyes (I am almost 100% I swore at her) she finally relented, gave me some final yelling instructions ('Immer Bewegen' or in English, 'Always Moving') and stormed back out of the room, leaving her assistant standing there shrugging her shoulders at me.  She told me to come back in two weeks and that she 'hoped' I would be able to move my finger by then.

Technically, my finger wasn’t broken anymore, but, because I left my finger immobile in a cast for too long, my capsule became inactive and it needed to get reactivated.  For the next two weeks, I would have to push and pull on my finger until either a.) I couldn’t take any more pain and/or, b.) my finger would swell up too much and become too tender to touch.  The next day, the swelling would go down and I would repeat the process.

Exactly two weeks later, I was back in the Dr. office to show her my progress (I wasn't going to test her on the timetable again.  I am terrfied of the Doctor now).  I had regained about 90% mobility in my finger since I had seen her last.  She was really cold to me at first, but was really happy to see my progress.  I even thought that she might actually even care about my well being (I also learned that you don’t even need to pay a copay to come back for a re-visit, so it wasn’t a revenue making scheme in the first place.)  She shook my hand as she was leaving and told me that I could start playing basketball again.

Since then, I have regained a total of 95% of my total finger mobility, which is not perfect but a far cry from my time a month ago in the Doctor's office.  I have started to practice basketball, and my finger hasn’t given me any problems.  In fact, the extra time off helped my ankle recover more fully.  It’s nice to be healthy again (knocking on wood right now) and I can't wait for the new basketball season.  

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Happy Father's Day

I am been quite absent from writing anything decent on the blog as of late (Dana has been totally absent, but says that she will start writing again when she is done reading “The Girl Who Played With Fire” by Stieg Larsson.)  She doesn’t want to be interrupted until it’s done (by anyone or anything).  I am the PhD student.  Why is my wife the dorky one of the two of us?

Anyway, we are enjoying a nice Father’s Day together.  Germany’s weather in June has been more like March weather, so we are stuck inside listening to another lame Nickelback song on on another 60 degree rainy afternoon while Dylan takes his long afternoon nap. 

Yesterday, we went to our friends pig farm for the day for a tour of the farm and a barbeque.   Dylan was not too excited to see the pigs, goats, and chickens as he was too preoccupied with riding a kid sized tractor around the farm.  Unfortunately, we currently have no pictures from our excursion due to an ‘exhausted’ camera battery.  

German’s really know how to do a ‘barbeque.’  This was our 3rd or 4th barbeque of the year, so we knew what to expect.  Our first BBQ had some surprises as there are some significant differences between a German barbeque and an American barbeque.

First, there is a lot more variety in a German BBQ.  American BBQ’s traditionally stick to hamburgers and hot dogs.  German’s start with bratwurst and move into a large varieties of different meats.  If our hosts are thoroughly prepared as they were on Saturday (or a trained chef, like our first BBQ here) the meat has been marinating in different kinds of sauce.   Variety advantage goes to Germany.

German BBQ Variety
Secondly, the pace of a German BBQ is much slower than an American BBQ.  I learned this lesson the hard way on our first BBQ here.  There, I ate a ton of meat as soon the first round of meat came off the grill as I would in America, where it becomes an every man for himself free-for-all as soon as the food is served off the grill.  I didn’t understand at the time that this was only the first round of many and the key was to pace your self, and not initially gorge yourself.   So, I sat there for the next three rounds of meat trying to eat on an already full stomach.  I get indigestion just writing about it.  

Now that we have a little experience under our belts, the staggered eating is quite nice.  In addition to enjoying a nice conversation with those around you, it’s nice for someone with a big appetite like me to secretly eat a lot of food over the course of the meal without drawing a lot of attention to myself.  Advantage: Germany.

Finally, American BBQ’s (at least as I know them) revolve around a football, baseball, or basketball game.  There is no association to a game being played on TV in the background in our German BBQ’s.  Until we start having BBQ’s that have Dortmund games in the background: Advantage, America. 

Our trip to the farm confirmed that I really want a ‘Schrebergarten.’  A schrebergarten is a small plot of land desiginated as a summer garden and a small guest house, normally equipped with a small kitchen and bathroom.  From a distance, it looks like a village for ‘small people.’  (Actually, that’s what I would always tell guests when we would pass a schrebergarten community on a train.  I kind of believed it myself.)  After eating home-grown strawberries, cherries, lettuce, and veggies yesterday has me really wanting to grow my own fruits and veggies.   I have already searched a couple of places online for our own weekend garden.  

Happy Father's Day to all of the Dad's out there. 

A Schrebergarten in Germany, 

A 'little people' village.  

Not a BBQ, but we got together with our neighbors for an evening Germany Euro Cup Qualifier Soccer Match. 

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Back on Track

It has been nice to get back into a normal schedule this week after the last five weeks of Dana and D in America and me in Austria.  I arrived home from Austria just in time for Dylan's 2nd Birthday.  We had a nice party with some of Dylan's closest friends for a couple of hours on Sunday in the evening.  Dylan loved playing with Amy and Erik and the three of them ran around our house on a two hour sugar high.  Dylan had so much fun, he has asked for Amy and Erik to come back every afternoon since his party.

Even though we were all back in Borken, I had to work in Munster every day last week from Monday through Saturday.  I didn't get home until 8pm on Saturday night.  From Sunday to Tuesday this week, we have all been at home enjoying a long three day weekend, thanks to Pfingsten?!  I am not sure what the holiday is or what we say to people as we pass them on the street.  'Happy Pfingsten?'  Either way, its a day off and we are happy about that.

I woke up with Dylan Sunday morning, giving Dana a well needed break. The sun rises at 5am these days and goes down at 10pm, which means Dylan is awake anywhere from 6-7am these days.  Borken is located at 50 degrees N latitude, putting us well north than Grand Rapids, Michigan which is only at 42 degrees. And to think you don't learn anything reading our blog.

We have a short work week (3 days) both this week and next week.  We will likely hang out around this part of Germany, but it will be good just to spend time together as a family.

Dana and I had our 9th Anniversary on this week, but we are waiting to celebrate on Friday night when we can get a babysitter.  I guess you can delay these kinds of celebrations when you have been married this long.

That pretty much catches you on things around here.  More details to come when I can sit down and write more.

Dylan and his new 'einkaufswagen.'  Isn't much easier to call it a 'cart'?

Dylan's new bike. He is quick to correct us when we say, 'bike.'  'It's fahrrad, Daddy.'  

Triple trouble at Dylan's Birthday Party

Sugar rush

Dylan even let his girlfriend open the presents.  

One bite down and only bite to go.  This was right before he stuffed the rest of the cupcake in his mouth. 

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Achensee Austria Trip

I am back from our ‘work’ week in Austria.  I had a really good time and it was really nice to get to know the 11 students as well as my colleagues.  This group had a lot of really smart guys with a lot of potential.  I can’t wait to see what they are able to accomplish after graduating the Master’s program. 

Highlights of the week included white water rafting (Austrian style), playing some Apline golf, losing in 2 on 2 beach volleyball, watching the Germany/Austria Euro Cup Qualifying match, and wandering through nearby towns (Achenkirch, Maurach, Pertisau).   

We rafted on Tuesday just outside of Innsbruck through 18 km of rapids.  I had previously rafted on the Colorado River on our Senior trip in high school but had never experienced rafting like I did last week.  My overall goal of the trip was not to fall out of the boat.  I am not that strong of a swimmer and just preferred not to swim in the really cold rapids if I could help it. 

That goal was broken in the first 5 minutes of our trip when the instructor made us all jump out of the boat 4 people at a time after a short tutorial (in German) of how to fall out and jump back into the boat.  From there, we proceeded to play games that included standing on top of the boat and trying to walk around the raft while going down the rapids.  If I had to guess, we all fell out about 3 times each playing various games in between the really intense rapids.  I don’t believe you would be able to do this in America where the rafting companies are likely to be subjected to a more litigious legal system.

To cap it all off, at the end of the excursion we were instructed to purposely tip the boat over, swim to safety and help the instructor flip the boat back over in order to finish the trip.   I was happy that it wasn’t too traumatic to get back to the boat and flip it back over.  Needless to say, I was happy to reach the shore alive when the trip was finished. 

Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures of the rafting (and me wearing a very attractive looking wetsuit.)

I will explain the rest of the week in pictures.  

View from my Hotel room

Our Hotel

Hiking trip to Hochplatte on Sunday. 

View from Hochplatte (1800m)


Gotta love the self photo from Pertisau.

Breakfast.  More bread than you will ever want to consume in one week. 

Nice view from the driving range.

Professor Langer and me. 

Andreas and me.  I agreed to carry his clubs up and down the hills if he let me use his left handed clubs.  I saved €20.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Austrian Hospitality

I am in Austria for the week with some Masters students for a Summer Seminar class.  Each student has 4-6 weeks to work on a paper about a particular finance topic that they choose.  This class has about 12 students in it, and each of the 4-5 ‘Mitarbeiters’ (PhD students) help coach the students and grade their papers.  For this class, I have 3 students that were willing to write their papers in English on Momentum Trading Strategies. 
Each student hands in their paper 3 weeks before the trip.  That gives us time to grade the paper, give each student feedback on their results, and give them 2 weeks to prepare a presentation to share with the group during the trip, which counts for 40% of the grade.
That means, we are ‘working’ this week and not totally on vacation.  But it also means we have plenty of time to have fun.  

Achensee, Austria

We arrived in Achenkirch, Austria (located in the Alps and on the Achensee/lake) Sunday morning after riding in the bus overnight.  After breakfast (and a 45 minute nap) we took a 6 hour hike to the top of one of the mountains.  Achansee is located about 900m (3000 feet) above sea level.  We climbed to about 1900m (6000 feet.)  The mountains were beautiful and it was perfect weather.  By the time we ate dinner, I was done.  The bed felt really good and I slept like a rock for 11-12 hours.  

Hochplatte was our highest point of Sunday's hike.

This morning after breakfast, I decided to travel to some of the nearby cities alone.  I received a guest bus pass from our hotel, which meant I could ride any time for free.  I had the bus schedule in my hand and knew I needed to get on the 4050 headed to Maurach, the nearby city I wanted to visit.  

When I came to the bus stop, the Bus 9850 was arriving.  The bus said “Maurach,” but I figured I should wait for the 4050, just to be sure.  The 4050 was on the other side of the street, and I assumed that it would turn around and come to me because we were on the last stop of the route. 

He never turned around.  We just looked at each other for a while.  I finally said, “I thought the 4050 would be here.  Aren’t you the 4050?”  He explained something in German that I didn’t understand. 

Finally, I understood.  He wanted me to come with him on the bus.  Ok, I thought, now we are getting somewhere.  Maybe he was taking a 5 minute break and we would resume the trip when he was ready.  It never occurred to me that I was the only person sitting on this bus. 

Instead, the bus driver drove down a side street, pulled over and turned off the bus.  Uh-oh, I thought.  What is he going to do with me?  He then instructs me to get off the bus.  We head over to a smaller transporter car.  “Very economical,” I thought as we walked over there. I figured maybe they take a smaller vehicle if they don’t have a lot of people riding.  I was wrong.  It was the bus driver’s car. 

I assumed that I was getting a personal lift to the destination that I wanted.  Unfortunately, I didn’t really have a destination.  So, I looked on the map and told my personal chauffer to stop at the first stop of Maurach.  He asked why that stop, and I told him, “I don’t know.  I am just looking around.”  We small talked (all in German) and we drove to the end off AchenKirch (the city where we are staying.)  He said, ‘this is my house’ and stopped the car.  For a minute, I thought there may be a chance I will never be heard from again.  

As we got out of the car, we were a few yards/meters away from the bus stop.  We had gotten in front of the 9850 bus headed for Maurach and he was dropping me off so I could take that bus.  He waited with me at the bus stop and spoke to the bus driver about where to drop me off.  Now that’s service.  

Unfortunately, the stop I randomly chose was not in the city and worse, there was no walking path to get there. The bus driver of the 9850 insisted that I get off at this stop and convinced me this was the right place.  I waved my hands, ‘no’ and tried to explain, ‘I know, but I would like to stay on longer.’  After some back and forth we continued on to the city center of Maurach.  There, I was able to get a cup of coffee (that’s really all I wanted) and walk around the Lake (See).   

Austria is a beautiful place. I will keep you posted as more interesting stories come along. 

The Hotel we are staying this week.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

A Taste of My Own Medicine

Our trip back to Germany from the US last Tuesday went fairly well.  Dylan wasn't quite the superstar traveler that he was on our way there, but all in all, we survived it.  Thankfully, there were a few extra seats on our long flight, so as soon as we were airborne, a stewardess asked the man sitting next to us if he wanted to move so Dylan and I could have more room (otherwise Dylan would have sat on my lap the whole flight). I've never seen anyone move that fast on an airplane as that man did as he vacated his seat for less cramped, quieter quarters.

Our layover in Amsterdam (a city 2.5 hours away from our home via car) was 3.5 hours long, and the flight to Dusseldorf was only 30 minutes of air time.  It was really irritating that the layover time was longer than the amount of time it would take to drive home, but for whatever reason it was less expensive to end our trip in Dusseldorf than Amsterdam.

Another irritating thing about Amsterdam's Schipol airport was the security check for people coming into the country internationally.  I don't mind having to do the conveyor belt, metal detector thing again, but what I do mind is watching a TSA agent take Dylan's half-empty sippy cup with water in it (that she watched him drink from!!!) and remove it from his clenched little fist causing him to scream and cry and freak out, and pour it out in front of him because it is their "policy" to not allow any liquids to come in through the security check. I gave this lady a look of death straight in the eye and said "He's literally drinking that, and you're still not convinced this isn't a hazardous substance?" Her response was a weak "It's our policy."

So here is my message to TSA if anyone from any airport authority ever reads this:

"Please get your heads out of your butts and use some common sense!"

Good representation of TSA and its "policies"
Now to tie this rant-filled blog post into the headline - a taste of my own medicine - only four days after returning and finally feeling somewhat normal, Bryan headed off on Saturday night for Austria for the whole week with a team of colleagues from his work.  Somehow spending a week at a lakeside, mountain lodge in Achensee, Austria is actually part of a class that students can take.

So here we go again being apart, except this time Bryan is off having fun.  So Dylan and I (and Oscar) are doing our own thing this week, which basically means we're not doing much at all. Bryan said he wasn't all that excited to go, but I don't believe him.  He's going hiking, golfing, to the beach, water rafting - oh yeah, and it's in AUSTRIA. How could you not have fun in this place?

Achensee, Austria 
More Achensee, Austria

Not the "lodge" Bryan is staying at, but in Achensee nonetheless