Sunday, August 31, 2008

Jet lag stinks

So I thought I'd beat the jet lag on the way back home to Canada the way I did when I went to Germany back in May. Unfortunately, I was wrong. This stinks.

Don't you worry, though, I still have lots to write about, about a half dozen posts in the works that I didn't get to complete yet from the summer, lots of ideas still, and pictures still to share from 4 months abroad. I just need to wait for my head to clear so I can write coherent sentences, and for a faster connection so I can get something accomplished. Stay posted. Stay classy.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


Bremen am Weser

Bremen is one of three cities in Germany that has retained independence as its own state (Bundesland) in the country. The others are Berlin (the capital, makes sense) and Hamburg (another huge city, also makes sense). But why is Bremen also an independent (and the smallest) Bundesland? Well that's history, folks.

Looking at the map of Bremen the fact that it was once a medieval port jumps out quite strongly, as the old city moat has remained largely preserved, and lies in the middle of a city park. Bremen was part of the medieval Hanseatic League (I have learned that in North Germany you can't escape this word) and as such became quite prosperous, and asserted itself as an independent city-state throughout almost its entire existence

The old city hall of Bremen is a UNESCO site and iconic of the city. Out front stands the enormous statue of Roland, a knight and sovereign of the city.

Bremen City Hall - Rathaus

More importantly than all that stuff, the sight that can't be missed in Bremen is the world-famous Beck's brewery. Forget the fact that so far as German beers go, it tastes like crap, I've been there!

Each one of those boxes is an entire crate of beer bottles. Jaw-dropping.

The conclusion to our tour

The Haake Beck Regatta

The day we landed in Bremen was coincidentally the day of the Haake Beck (local brew/brand put out by the Beck's brewery) Regatta. We caught Bremen on the day of this momentous event where brave souls compete to doggy-paddle up the Weser on inner tubes to claim victory over the other competitors. The prize? Guess.

The Bremer Stadtmusikanten

And no trip to Bremen would be complete without visiting (and groping at) the Bremen Town Musicians. These guys are from a Grimm's Fairy Tale that unfortunately everyone there but myself seemed roughly familiar with. All the same, they're cool guys. I'd sit down for a Beck's with them anytime.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

I learn

When I have done quite well (pat myself on the back here) in school all the way since I was young, I have started to ask myself more and more what makes me so much different? Why do I not seem to have the trouble my fellow students do with academics? Why, in my first year of college, did I ace every final exam without studying more than a few hours?

It's taken me a long time to come up with an answer to this, and I think I may finally have one.

I learn.

Others run, they read, they watch sports, they shop, they act, they build. The thing that I most enjoy doing is learning. And as a result, I think I'm well suited to the current academic system, which means that I am a lucky person as far as these things go.

Very lucky. Because, if I were born in a country that didn't have the sort of educational system that mine does, I probably would have fallen prey to some wild animal by now.

Being such a good learner is not always great, first of all you get jealous, competitive classmates in high school who hate you simply for doing better than them (thank God I'm not in pre-med), and going back even further, it makes for painful times on the grade school playground. It also means that when I'm not doing something that ends up being productive (i.e. caught up playing video games for extended periods, boring conversations, lectures about things I already know) it can get extremely frustrating.

I've taken to teaching myself when there's nothing there to teach me. Thus, this summer when my language instruction ended, I took it upon myself to learn on my own time, and now that I have got thus far, I intend to continue, because it is no good to be only one-and-a-half-lingual.

I have also taken it upon myself to learn about as much history, architecture, culture, and art and such that I can while in Germany.

I never really chose to go into science much more than went where people expected me to go. However, it appears that I'm quite lucky in that this is exactly the field I should be in, and I look forward to a lifetime of learning ahead of me. Should be a hell of a ride.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Things I have learned so far about food in Germany

1. Chocolate does not make for a great breakfast food. The sugar high lasts just long enough to get you to work before crashing.

2. Buying cheese when you don't understand the language can be a dangerous undertaking.

3. Gigantic German lunches kill productivity. The temptation to sleep through seminars becomes overwhelming.

4. No-name Nutella® is indistinguishable from the original, and half the price. Making #1 a lesson learned a second time.

5. Germany not only has strong beer; a cup of coffee in the morning can triple the speed of work. The concomitant jitters only cause twice as many mistakes.

6. Quark - something between cream cheese and yogurt, is delicious and filling.
6b. To make a German cheesecake, just add quark to a pie shell and bake it. Have not made up my mind on this yet.....

7. You pay for the fat in milk, and not the removal. 3.5% = 0.68 1.5% = 0.62

8. If you are in North Germany, fish can indeed be traditional German food.
8b. If you are in North Germany, fish is indeed the traditional smell.

9. Not only beer, but wine and spirits are ridiculously cheap, which begs the question of how much of the cost of alcohol worldwide is actually just tax. It also begs the question of why there are not noticeably more alcoholics running around.

10. An extra serving of meat can, in fact, count as a vegetable.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Lingua franca

I'm glad I was raised in English, because working in the scientific field is much more accommodating to Anglophones. Those who naturally speak another language typically have to learn English to work in the scientific field, even if they are in a country where everyone speaks a different language.

In my lab, general conversation goes on in German unless there is a particular reason to include me or one of the other native English-speakers. However, once a presentation is taking place, the default language becomes English. Everyone who works in the scientific field pretty much has to learn English to get by, and I guess I am just lucky that it is my mother tongue. Or unlucky, because while here it means there's less incentive to learn a different language, as I can mostly get by in English.

So I have mixed feelings. It makes a career as a scientist much easier from my end, but I feel like I got ahead without trying when compared to my international colleagues. And I may in fact be losing out on the benefits of learning another language, simply because additional languages always aids understanding of ideas and processes.

I also have to wonder why, exactly, English is the language of choice? Before coming to Germany I did not realize that there would be so much of a requirement for students and researchers to speak English. I remain quite surprised to keep finding so many people who speak English, when in a lab back home almost all other students are monolingual Anglophones. Perhaps the history of science with the British Royal Society? Or the American influence in science in the 20th century? Or just luck?

I seem to recall Dan Brown had some idea about English being the language of science, but I'm not going to go there. I hope to keep the conspiracy theories to a minimum, unless, of course, they are MY conspiracy theories.

Question of the day: If WWII or the Cold War had ended differently, would we all be learning German or Russian to work in science? Or French? Or Japanese?

Monday, August 18, 2008

German Ingenuity

When the twist-off is regarded as something for the lower-class, the lazy, the North Americaners, the pop-top beer bottle dominates. And as necessity is the mother of invention, this means that the German Volk have invented multiple unique ways of opening bottles. Coming here I was familiar with banging a bottle off a table corner (Table Open), but that was a simpler time, and I was naive.

The quintessential way of opening you'll find here is the lighter. Meaning that many Germans who do not smoke carry around a lighter so that they can drink. Figure that one out. The method involves wedging the base of the lighter under the cap, getting some leverage, and popping the cap off that way. One must be a little brave as lighters have been known to (a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend-of-mine) crack and trigger a small explosion. Like Russian roulette but involving alcohol. Appropriately, this is the Lighter Open.

More impressive than that is opening a beer with another beer, the I'm Really Unprepared Open. It doesn't get much better than opening a cold one using another cold one. If you want a rewarding feeling, successfully completing one of these Opens provides just that.

Rumor has it of a way involving two bottles, some sort of theatrical jump and a kick, though I'm not sure how this works, and apparently it is so rare many Germans go their entire lives and never see it. Hence the name, the Bigfoot Open.

The exact way not to open one was discovered by yours truly, when only a spoon was handy. The Spoon Open involves sliced knuckles and is not recommended to anyone. Important lesson learned in Germany: You are not German.

Ask later how I managed to open a wine bottle without a corkscrew. I don't think even the Germans have figured this one yet.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Going Dark

This is it, my last week in Hannover. Next two weeks I will be headed around Germany, checking out some places I didn't want to be limited to visiting in a weekend, and trying to get outdoors a bit more, on my own, exploring some of the world-famous natural sites here, which I really haven't done that much of yet, and lends itself to the travelling alone I largely have to do.

"But what will I do with myself for two weeks without updates?" you ask? Well, don't you fear, my humble readers, because I've done my best to get some postings up and ready and they'll go live while I'm away. Post-dated cheques, if you will. Oh how the internet has changed the world.

So pretend like I'm there actually writing while you read but know that I am in fact hanging out on a beach on the Baltic or hiking the Alps. Jealous? Then I've accomplished my goal.

You'll know I'm back home because the tone of postings will change to bitter, exasperated and insomniatic. Such is the fun of jet lag.

Bis später, my minions.

p.s. I have accumulated many topics to write of that have built up over my summer here and have hardly scratched the surface in writing about them, and that will not stop upon arrival back home in Our Home and Native Land. One will simply have to pretend the narrator is still overseas.

Monday, August 11, 2008

My certificate of adequacy

I now consider my grasp of the German language "adequate".

At lunch, I was recruited to translate between German-speaking servers and English-speaking customers. Aren't I proud.

"Kannst du Englisch?"
"Why yes, yes I do."

Even better is that they had to ask that question after I talked for a while in German. My disguise is almost complete.

Sunday, August 10, 2008


The University Auditorium

Skipping some other places for now to get closer to the present, this weekend* I got myself to Göttingen, the self-described "City of Science" (Stadt der Wissenschaft). As Hannover is only an hour train ride away I basically had to make it there this summer or regret it in the future. Yes, I am a nerd. I have given up denying, and have decided to embrace it.

Model of the solar system, with the planets proportionate sizes and distances away from each other down the street. Pluto was in a neighboring city.

As you might imagine, it has a particular draw for people like myself, but very little for other travellers, and so I enjoyed an essentially tourist-free weekend. Most if not all other sightseers were Germans. This isn't to say there weren't English-speakers around; quite the contrary as I would say I heard the most English walking the streets there of any German city so far. Presumably, this is because the city is full of students (about 1/5 the population) and English is slowly becoming the international language of choice, aided by its position as the lingua franca of science.

Not a barber shop, this was in fact St. Petri's Church

The city claims its title due to the world-renowned Georg-August Universität which is located in the centre of the city. Gauss, Riemann, and Hilbert all had positions there, and the city boasts 44 Nobel prize laureates.

Because of the university, and what one of my sources referred to as a sort of "mutual understanding" between the British and Germans, Göttingen was spared completely during the war, as were Heidelberg, Cambridge and Oxford. Thus the city still has many original buildings, including lots of 16th-century half-timbered houses. Medieval architecture also appears throughout.

Just outside the downtown, featuring the Schwartzer Bär Pub in the foreground

A memorial to Gauss was set up at the southwest side of the city, though I don't know whether to laugh at or be annoyed by the work of some vandals....... (look closely at Gauss's left hand if you can't see)

Gauss Denkmal

The city is also home to the "most kissed girl in the world" - the Ganseliesel (goose girl). This fountain in the middle of the old city square is traditionally kissed by every graduate of the University. It has been illegal for years, but no one actually cares.

The Ganseliesel

All in all, a pretty cool town, recommended to any who find themselves in central Germany and have an interest in the history of science.

Man, I'm a geek.

*Not this weekend at all anymore, started writing this long ago. Ugh, I can't keep up......

Friday, August 8, 2008


Trink Keinjaegermeister!

And all this time I thought that the best drinks were the ones that don't involve pastel colours.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Die Hannoversche musikalischer Kanaldeckel

So a few times returning to Hannover, I happened to notice there appeared to be music coming from underground. No big deal, I thought, probably someone busking in the subway underneath, or something. After a while I became accustomed to it, and it just became part of the scenery. I even started to wonder what in particular was producing the music, as it plays 24 hours a day. All the same, I never really gave it too much thought.

Until a friend visited this weekend and asked why a group of teens were sitting around a sewer grate in the middle of the pedestrian walkway, and then I finally realized that yeah, a sewer grate that plays music is actually pretty odd. The funny thing is that other students in this city had independently come across it and had a similar experience. Apparently it is just one of those things in Hannover that everyone notices but passes off.


And the craziest thing is the complete and utter lack of explanation. See here. Something a tourist here would never find. I guess I can consider myself at least partly Hannoverian.

"Wer die liebenswerten, augenzwinkernden Besonderheiten von Hannover kennenlernen möchte, sollte sich den Kanaldeckel nicht entgehen lassen."

Whoever wants to get to know the lovable, quirky characteristics of Hannover cannot avoid the Kanaldeckel.

Friday, August 1, 2008

The key to imortality as a scientist

No, I don't mean the Philosopher's stone.

I mean having people know your name after you're gone. Sure the big guys have got popular for their discoveries; Einstein, Galileo and Newton are all household names, but they had to do a lot of work to get there.

Think instead of Bunsen and Petri. What did they discover? I don't know either. But, we know their names because they invented a stand for a gas flame, and a circular dish, respectively. Those guys knew how to achieve longevity.

Forget trying to cure diseases, contributing to the advancement of society, or the search for pure knowledge; just invent something useful in the lab and your name will live on in the scientific literature for centuries.

Eppendorf® and Falcon® figured this out a long time ago.