Archive for the ‘Fun’ Category

Working hard, or hardly working?

November 4, 2011

Today was a good day at work.  And let’s face it:  we all need one of those now and then, don’t we?  For starters I got paid today, which is always a plus.  But the highlight of my afternoon was one of my tiny customers, as is often the case.  Two young women came in, each with a little girl in tow.  One of the girls was a one-year-old named Patience, and the other was a little girl named Morgan who looked to be four or so.  I asked the mothers if they needed a shopping bag to hold their products, and one of them jokingly said “No, but do you have a stroller?”  I replied “No, but I’ve got auntie arms.  I’ll hold her while you shop, if you’d like.”  Fortunately we weren’t busy at the time.

I came around the counter and held my hands out to the baby, and she leaned into my arms without hesitation.  The mother said she’d take her back if I wanted, but I told her I was perfectly happy to hold her if she didn’t mind, and she said that if I was sure, she’d be glad of the break.  So I settled the baby on my hip and started swaying, as all women seem to instinctively do when they’re holding a baby.  She stared at me for a moment, then started playing with my name tag.  After a while, she started squirming to get down, so I set her on her feet and offered her my hand.  She grabbed my index finger in a tight grip, and took off like a shot through the store.  I let her tug me around until she took a tumble, then I scooped her back up and danced with her a little bit, singing along with the Christmas music that was playing in the store.  She stared at me fixedly for a few moments when I was singing, then Morgan, who I think might have been her cousin, started dancing too, and when the baby caught sight of her, she let out the most adorable series of excited squeaks and giggles.  Eventually the mothers finished their shopping and left, taking the girls with them.  But they sure brightened my day.  That’s the kind of customer service I best love to do.

And the icing on the cake was an older woman I waited on just before I left.  She had some questions about different fragrances.  She was trying to find a substitute for a favorite of hers that had been discontinued.  I showed her some other options, and let her know of another outlet store where she could try to find her old favorite, and we got to talking about various things:  our favorite scents, the different notes in them, how much we disliked change, etc.  When I had to break away to answer another customer’s question, she thanked me, and said I’d been very helpful.  She said it was a relief to talk to someone who actually wanted to help, and wasn’t just trying to get her to spend more money.

It was equally nice for me to wait on someone who actually recognized what I was trying to do.  When you’re in sales, customers tend to make assumptions about your motives, but my goal is to help people find what they actually want, and to get them the best deal I possibly can.  I know the coupons and the sales, and I know how to combine them so you get more for less.  It’s always a pleasure to help someone who is genuinely grateful for that.  I need more days like this.

Baking Challenge: Coconut Cake

August 22, 2011

It’s two-for-one week here at The Gumball Machine.  I actually managed to bake twice.  I was motivated; I had a guest.  My uncle’s birthday is in two days, and since I won’t be with him then, we celebrated tonight.

I had a coconut cream cupcake from a “gourmet” bakery recently, and aside from tasting like coconut, it was remarkably similar to the plain white cupcakes I bake at home, only it cost more.  Since Uncle likes coconut too, I decided to play with flavoring his birthday cake to try and recreate it.  It was quite tasty, but I don’t recommend using it as a birthday cake if you’re going to have candles.  When Uncle blew them out, coconut flew everywhere!

Coconut Cake

1 white cake mix, plus what it says to add (usually oil, water & egg)
1 tsp butter extract
1 tsp coconut extract
1/2 cup sweetened shredded coconut, plus extra for top

Mix cake as directed on the package, except add coconut extract and butter extract before beating the batter.  I learned from a professional baker (via a mutual acquaintance) that when using coconut flavoring, adding an equal amount of butter extract brings out the coconut flavor better, so I took her advice.

When the batter is beaten, fold in the coconut.  Bake according to box directions, but watch your baking time.  This baked up faster than I expected.  Allow to cool completely, frost with Coconut Buttercream, and sprinkle shredded coconut on top.

Coconut Buttercream

1/3 cup butter or margarine
4 1/2 cups sifted powdered sugar
1/4 cup milk
scant 1 tsp vanilla
scant 1 tsp coconut extract
scant 1 tsp butter extract
Additional milk and/or powdered sugar if necessary

Beat butter until fluffy.  Gradually add 2 cups of the powdered sugar, beating well.  Slowly beat in the 1/4 cup milk and flavorings.  Slowly beat in remaining powdered sugar.  If icing is too thick or thin, beat in additional milk or powdered sugar to reach spreading consistency.

Coconut Cake

Happy Birthday, Uncle!

Rock, baby!

July 3, 2010

Scene:  I’m sitting in a plastic wading pool in the backyard with my six-year-old nephew and his dad, surrounded by bits of broken water balloons.  My nephew (who knows his way around an iPod) suddenly sings a fragment of “Fire and Ice” with all the enthusiasm, styling and mannerisms of a stage pro.

Me:  My nephew’s gone pop star!

Him:  I’m singing rock, baby!

Fröhliche Weihnachten!

December 26, 2009

Merry Christmas, everyone!  The sentiment’s a bit late due to my sporadic internet access, but it’s sincere.  I hope you all had a wonderful holiday.  I did.

At first my week was rather lonely and boring.  For once in my life, I genuinely, wholeheartedly missed being in school.  I always had such a good time conversing with my teacher and classmates, and with everyone I knew flying off in every direction to spend Christmas with friends and family, I felt rather deserted.  But I did what I always do:  I kept walking through my days (just like mom always told me to), completed whatever tasks were necessary, then cuddled up under my duvet with a movie or book.  And I looked forward to Christmas.

I was invited to spend Christmas Day with a family from the church I’ve attended a few times.  It’s a non-denominational Protestant church with an English service (thank goodness) called MICC (Munich International Community Church).  They paired you up with a volunteer family if you were away from home and didn’t want to be alone for Christmas.  You can always count on church folks to feed you, literally and spiritually!  But in all seriousness, I was very grateful.  They were so kind and hospitable to me, and the food was delicious.  So I had a merry and blessed Christmas, and I hope you can all say they same!

Notes from Nürnberg

December 21, 2009

American exportation is everywhere.  It’s inescapable.  Every radio I hear blares American pop music.  Every train station I arrive at has a McDonald’s, a Burger King, or both.  The central train station in Munich has two Burger Kings.  Seriously.  They are literally within two minutes’ walking distance of each other.  Subway, Pizza Hut, KFC, Starbucks, they’re all here too.  It surprised me a little at first.  I knew these chains existed in other countries, of course; I just didn’t realize they operated on such a large scale.  Many of the Europeans I’ve spoken with say they abhor all these American chains, but someone must like them, because they’re booming.  So I’ve gradually gotten used to seeing the logos of American enterprises tucked in between the cozy Bavarian pubs, restaurants, and bakeries.  Then, just when I thought I couldn’t be surprised by my own country anymore, I went to Nürnberg last Saturday and saw the very last American chain I ever expected to see:  a Sally’s Beauty Supply.  I stared at it as I walked by, thinking to myself, “What’s that doing here?”  I was a business major for Pete’s sake!  I took D 301 (International Business Environment).  It should come as no surprise to me that multi-national companies are so successful, but somehow it still does.  Guess I should have taken D 302 after all.  My professor is probably chortling somewhere.

At any rate, someone else can have the burgers.  I’m too busy enjoying all the excellent German food.  I had a fantastic dish at a restaurant not far from the Sally’s Beauty Supply.  It was seared turkey pieces cooked in a sherry-mushroom cream sauce and served with spätzle.  It was so delectable it would have been sinful if I hadn’t spent the whole day walking off the calories.  The flavor of the sauce reminded me of another dish I love.  My Peruvian readers may remember Grant Street Bar & Grill, which has sadly been closed for a few years now.  They had a seared fillet of beef in a brandy-mushroom cream sauce on their menu.  It was delicious.  So tender and flavorful.  Okay, I’ve got to switch topics now.  I’m making myself hungry.

As I’m sure you’ve all noticed, angst over swine flu is everywhere.  Upon arrival, I received not one, but two tip sheets from the school about how to avoid it, and what to do if I thought I might have it (See a doctor and don’t come to school.  Logical, no?).  Many restrooms now have pages of instructions on how to avoid it tacked on the wall, all with the same basic theme:  wash your hands.  One hopes people do that anyway, but maybe that’s being overly optimistic.  Anyway, not to be left out of this furor, the shopkeepers in Nürnberg are also taking appropriate precautionary measures.  See below:

A Fortnight and a Half of Miscellanea

December 13, 2009

Sorry for being MIA so long; it’s been a stressful week on several fronts, but I’m ready to get caught up now.  Over the years, I’ve gotten in the obsessively frequent habit of writing long notes and lists for myself to remind me of things I don’t wish to forget.  This can be a blessing and a curse.  I’ve been keeping a detailed list of things to blog, and it’s starting to get long, so now I’m going to plunge in and purge it all at once.  Here goes.

A Concert

A little over three weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend a classical concert.  The music was by Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Bartók, and was performed by Die Münchner Philharmoniker, with piano solos by Alice Sara Ott.  It was unbelievable.  I’d had a rough day, and was feeling down on myself because I wasn’t picking up German as fast as I would’ve liked.  All things school-related have always come relatively easy to me with minimum effort, and learning German has proved to be something of an educational ego bruiser at times (which is probably a good thing).  At any rate, I felt much better after the concert.  The music was so powerful and uplifting, and the piano soloist was unbelievable.  She was only 21, and she played everything from memory with perfect precision.  There wasn’t a single key on that piano that she didn’t use.  She extracted every note, every sound possible from the instrument.  It was incredible.

A Castle, A Tangle, and a Pastry

The following weekend, I visited Schloss Neuschwanstein with a group from school.  I’d already seen it once in 2007 and, having forgotten how strenuous the walk up to the castle is, I decided to go back.  I was under the weather that day, having just come down with a sinus condition of some sort, and the mountain climbing required to reach the castle just about did me in.  I decided early on that my second tour of Neuschwanstein would very likely be my last.  But that aside, it is quite amazing once you get there, and I do recommend seeing it if you’re ever in Deutschland.  The train trip was two hours each way, but we had plenty to keep us occupied.  One of the students from Finland often knits socks during our train trips.  She had acquired a giant pink ball of discount yarn somewhere, and it had quickly morphed itself into one big knot.  I offered to help her with it, and three of us spent the entire trip down and back untangling it and rolling it into balls for her.  I told her afterward that she owed us all a pair of socks.  🙂  I don’t know why yarn and thread skeins are always like that, but whenever I do needlework, I seem to spend as much time untangling as I do stitching.  I was interested to learn that needlework is often taught in European schools.  Perhaps if I’d studied here, I wouldn’t have been considered such a nerd.  Oh well.  Speaking of balls, I also tried a new sweet that day, a specialty from Rothenburg ob der Tauber called a Schneeball (snowball).  It was basically a wad of pie crust about the size of a baseball with various flavored glazes.  I chose coconut.  It was interesting.  It tasted good, but as desserts go, it was a little on the dry side.  And messy.  I left a Hänsel-type trail of crumbs through Füssen.

Boys…

…will be boys.  Case in point, a recent outing in Augsburg, where the men of BWS enjoyed the latest marketing strategy from Vodafone.

A Random Act of Kindness

Late one evening I was standing in front of a ticket machine in the subway station, trying to figure out which ticket I needed to get me home.  You can purchase multiple types of public transportation tickets for various time frames and areas.  Normally I buy a weekly ticket for central Munich, and then I’m covered, but that week I hadn’t for some reason.  Anyway, a woman who was leaving the station asked me if I needed a ticket, and then gave me hers.  She’d bought one that morning which was good for a whole day of travel within Munich and outlying areas, and was apparently finished with it, so I got to ride home for free that night.  It was such a thoughtful thing to do.  I really appreciated her kindness.

Random Acts of Unkindness

With the notable exception of the waiters in Hofbräuhaus (who I think have spent too much time with drunk tourists; they all need vacations from the service industry), most everyone I’ve met in Germany has been infinitely congenial and good-natured.  Whether they be teachers, retail personnel, or random people on the street they are, as a rule, friendly, cordial and helpful.  Of course, there are exceptions.  The Monday after I arrived, my first day of school, I was standing in Sendlinger-Tor-Platz with my sheaf of Google directions, trying in vain to locate Hauptfeuerwache.  A young blonde twerp dressed “punk” style, perhaps 13 or so, walked by with another boy.  He ran his fingertips over my elbow and said “dicke,” and he and his friend walked away laughing.  Mind you, I didn’t understand much German at that point, but I knew what “dicke” meant.  Fat.  Not cool.  I was reminded of that incident on the night of the great gelatin debate.  As we were walking to the grocery store, we met two large, boisterous Italian men who were playing with a dog.  One stepped sideways to allow us to pass, then yelled something after us in Italian (which, as I later learned, begins with “b” and ends with “itches” when translated to English).  Fabiana threw some irate-sounding Italian back over her shoulder at him, then explained what had happened.  I have no idea what we did to irritate the man, but seeing as he’d just exited a pub, I imagine he was three sheets to the wind.  Or maybe he was just a jerk.  It happens.  But looking on the positive side, I’ve been in a foreign country for 7 weeks now and had only two unpleasant encounters, which are more than balanced out by dozens of pleasant ones.  Mercifully, the scales tip heavily to the favorable side.  I love it here.

Yet Another Grocery Rumination

I’m sure you’re all getting tired of reading about the novelty of grocery shopping in a foreign country (what is this, the fifth time?).  If so, feel free to skip this section, because I’ve found this subject to be a deep well of curiosities, wonderment and cultural contrast.  The typical American supermarket is a massive complex with infinite variety.  The choices for every product are endless (perhaps sometimes excessive).  Most of our grocery stores cannot be called “minimalist” in any sense of the word.  Even the biggest, most diverse grocery stores here carry only a fraction of the choices the average American could expect to find as a matter of course.  Products that have entire aisles all to themselves in the states (breakfast cereals, chips and baking products, for example) have only a moderate rack or a few shelves dedicated to them here.  Instead of fifty choices, you’ll have five or ten.  Or one or two.  But in contrast, there are also areas here which offer much more variety (and sometimes more quality).  Meats and cheeses, for example.  At home, we combine the two with a few inedible noodle salads and prepared foods and call it “the deli.”  In larger supermarkets here, meats and cheeses have separate counters, and they are massive.  Instead of two kinds of salami, there are a dozen or so.  My favorite example of quality and variety here is the chocolate.  Galeria Kaufhof has a section the size of Rhode Island dedicated to chocolate.  I reveled in this the Monday before last when I went shopping for an advent calendar.  There were dozens to choose from, and they weren’t the cheap, flimsy affairs with small lumps of milk chocolate one finds in the states.  Well, some were, but most weren’t.  Most were gourmet chocolates from well-known candy makers such as Lindt.  One calendar could cost up to 30 Euros.  I went with a middling one for 15.  Perhaps it was a little steep for what is, essentially, a glorified 24-piece box of chocolates, but I haven’t been disappointed.  Every new day reveals a little piece of sweet, chocolaty bliss.  Merry Christmas to me!  I may be “dicke,” but at least I’m jolly!

St. Nikolaus Cometh

Speaking of jolly, we must have been good students, because St. Nikolaus and his… umm… “unique” angelic assistant paid BWS a visit last Friday, and we all got some goodies.

 

All-American: Thanksgiving and Peanut Butter

November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!  I am so thankful to have all of you in my life, and I wish we could be together today, but I’m also very thankful for the opportunity to learn German, and I’m deeply grateful to everyone who played a part in making this trip possible, especially my family.

Last night I did a little baking in the school kitchen (I don’t have an oven in my apartment, unfortunately).  I made peanut butter cookies and lemon bars to share with my class, and today we talked a little bit about the origins and traditions associated with Thanksgiving while we ate them.  We always have fun talking together.  I couldn’t have hand-picked a better group or teacher for myself; that’s such a huge blessing.

Shopping for my baking project was a little stressful.  Everything I needed was in the store; the problem was recognizing it.  I’ve always taken for granted how very easy it is to shop for groceries when I’m home.  I don’t have to stare at each item for ages, reading every word (sometimes consulting a dictionary), and wishing the manufacturer had thought to put pictures of the contents on the package.  I recognize what I want immediately, usually by the logo of whatever my preferred brand happens to be (the marketers got me, Dr. R!), and I just grab it and go.  In and out.  Not so Tuesday night.  I spent about an hour and a half shopping for 15-20 items.

The only product I had no trouble  identifying was the peanut butter.  I’ve bought peanut butter twice now (in Germany, that is), and I find it endlessly amusing that the German marketers/manufacturers go to so much trouble to make the packaging scream “American!”  It’s as though they want to be absolutely certain everyone knows they bear no responsibility for the creation of such a product.  The labels are invariably some combination of red, white and blue, and sport a U.S. map, or flag, or both.  One jar had the Statue of Liberty and the New York skyline on it.  As far as I know, New York has no more to do with peanut butter than any other city  (George Washington Carver certainly wasn’t from anywhere near there, and while he didn’t actually “invent” peanut butter, he is certainly responsible for improving the recipe and popularizing it), but for some reason Europeans seem to associate all things American with New York.  Whenever I tell someone I’m from the U.S., they’ll say, “Ah; New York!” and ask me how far away I live, and whether I’ve been there.  Fabiana is dying to go.  New York was a nice place to visit, I grant, but there are many other places I would visit before I’d go back.  I’m not sure what all the fuss is about.  Certainly not the peanut butter.

Cultural (Con)Fusion

November 22, 2009

As I may have mentioned previously, I’m having a great time now that I’ve gotten used to being here.  My teacher is fantastic.  He’s always patient and thorough, and has a great sense of humor.  Class is always fun, and I’m learning a great deal.

One of the most interesting things about studying abroad (obviously) is the opportunity to learn about different cultures:  in my case, not only German culture, but so many others.  There are students in my class from Ireland, Italy, Switzerland, Albania, France, Brazil, Mexico and New Zealand (I think), and whenever we discuss a topic, we get to hear different perspectives and learn how things are thought about/done/said in other countries.  It’s really fascinating.

I’ve become fast friends with another student from Italy named Fabiana.  She was so sweet and helpful to me my first few days, and now we might as well be joined at the hip.  We go almost everywhere together, and we always have a great time.  Our friendship is full of laughter, partly because an Italian and an American speaking German together creates so many opportunities for comical mistakes and misunderstandings, and partly because we often find different aspects of each others’ cultures so amusing.

Our friendship is a cultural exchange program unto itself.  We correct each others’ pronunciation of Italian and English words, and we entice each other to try things we normally wouldn’t have.  Fabiana taught me that I’ve been pronouncing the vast majority of pasta types wrong my whole life, especially gnocchi.  She also got me to try heisse maroni (roasted chestnuts) for the first time.  I’m sorry to say I wasn’t impressed.  When I bit into one, the texture reminded me strongly of Lima beans, which I hate.  Oh well.  As for American culture, Fabiana is eternally amused at the correct pronunciations of various American things and places, especially Cincinnati.  I also introduced her to peanut butter and banana sandwiches, which she loved.

Next week I’m going to hunt up some cottage cheese so she can try it with canned peaches (a favorite snack of mine; thanks, mom!), and Fabiana is bound and determined to see to it that I’ve eaten “real” Spaghetti Carbonara (one of my all-time favorite meals) before I return home.  Cultural exchange rocks.

A Few More Photos

November 22, 2009

I’ve got over 500 now; it’s getting harder to narrow them down!  These pictures were taken in Regensburg, Dachau, and Salzburg, and there are also a couple from Neuschwanstein Castle.  They’re out of order for some reason; I haven’t yet learned to bend WordPress to my will.

A Very Full Weekend

November 16, 2009

Friday

Friday night I went to Hofbräuhaus, a very famous brewery and restaurant, with a couple of friends.  I ate a pretzel bigger than my head, among other things, and had the following conversation (half in German and half in English) with a man at our table who was from Denmark, but had lived in Australia, and was currently working in Munich.

International Man:  Are you having fun in Munich?

Me:  Yes; it’s fantastic!

International Man:  But where is your beer?

Me:  I don’t drink alcohol.

International Man:  I’ll ask you again: Are you having fun in Munich?

And later…

International Man:  What languages do you speak?

Me:  Only English fluently, but I’m here to learn German.

International Man (pointing to his stein and speaking very slowly):  Das ist ein Bier (That is a beer).  Would you like to stay in Germany?

Me:  Maybe, if I can learn German.

International Man:  Noch einmal; Bier! (Once more; beer!)

Me:  Yes, I’m well aware that beer is important in Munich.

International Man:  Well, you’re halfway there.

A math teacher in high school once told me I only needed to know two words in German:  Bier und brötchen (beer and bread-roll).  Take my word for it:  he was wrong.

Saturday

Saturday I took the train to Dachau with a couple of friends from school.  I was a sobering experience; there aren’t words to describe it.  I’d researched the Holocaust a little for school in the past, but to walk through the museum and read the personal accounts and descriptions of what occurred…  It’s almost unfathomable that such things can happen.  Psychology tells us we all have the potential for violence and cruelty, but what is equally important to remember is our capacity for decency and integrity, and the fact that we all have a choice between the two.  Because amidst all the horrors I read about were other stories.  There were also examples of pure goodness in the face of pure evil:  prisoners who reached out to help those around them, often at great risk to themselves.  I remember reading one in particular about a doctor who was imprisoned.  The camp had a doctor and an infirmary, but in reality did nothing to help the sick and injured, and often made them worse.  During an outbreak of typhus, if I remember correctly, the imprisoned doctor remained day and night with the sick, helping them in any way he could, and eventually succumbed to the disease himself.

My senior year of high school, our term paper was based on William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies.”  The assignment was to decide whether mankind was basically good or basically evil, and defend your position.  I chose good.  For once in my life, I didn’t get a very good grade, and someone told me later that my whole premise was flawed (thanks, mom), but I still believe that.  Right and wrong is a choice, and I believe that the majority of society makes the right choice when it really counts.  I can only hope my belief is justified.

Sunday

Sunday I went to Salzburg with a teacher from the school and a few other students.  It’s a beautiful city.  It has a lovely cathedral (just like every other reasonable-sized city in Europe), and a very old fortress that sits atop a hill.  We walked about halfway up the hill and got a good look at it, plus we had a panoramic view of the whole city spread out below us.

It was good that I had to exercise so much climbing that hill, because I had a very ample lunch.  I had potato cream soup to start (it was fantastic), followed by beef goulash with a knödel (dumpling).  The goulash was quite different from anything I’d had before.  It consisted of a peppery reddish-brown sauce that tasted a bit like chili, and in it were beef pieces akin to pot roast.  It was very good.  To finish up, we all shared a nockerl, a traditional Salzburg dessert.  It’s a bit like a meringue, but the texture is thinner and more liquid underneath.  It also tastes sweeter, and it has berries in it.   It was good, but I agreed with the teacher when she said you only need to try nockerl once in your life, and after that you don’t have any particular desire for it anymore.

I may go back to Salzburg another weekend.  I’m interested in touring the salt mine, and I also want to see the Silent Night chapel and museum, which is in the area, although not in Salzburg itself.  We’ll see.  I spent about half of the two-hour train ride back to Munich doing my homework so I could go straight to bed when I got home.  It was an exhausting weekend, but it was worth it.  Tschüß!