Monday, December 20, 2010

Happy holidays!

Happy holidays everybody! The blog will take another short hiatus while I return to by birthplace for Christmas. Back in the New Year with more insightful commentary into random tourist topics. Did you know that Stuttgart is (unfortunately for me) one of the few cities in Germany where rather than employ a superintendent, the tenants take turns cleaning the sidewalk and taking out the trash from large apartment buildings? It snowed copiously during my week, just so I could have this experience.

Altes Schloss, Stuttgart

Thursday, December 16, 2010


My favourite part of Germany so far! From the end of November until a few days before Christmas, an outdoor market is set up dedicated to all things Christmas. There are stalls selling ornaments, gifty items, candy, gingerbread, chocolate covered fruit, Christmas-themed tableware, Glühwein (spiced wine) and traditional Schwäbisch street food (mostly different types of sausages). The one downside is that the market is super crowded and so gets a bit claustrophobic if you're trying to walk around. Stuttgart has one of the larger Christmas markets in Germany, and it attracts busloads of tourists. Now if only it were a bit warmer . . .

'Official' entrance to the market right by where the tour bus parking lot is.

Stuttgart Rathaus (city hall) overlooking the main marketplace. The enormous decorated conifer was actually cut down and brought to Stuttgart just for this occasion.

The rooves of all the stalls are decorated. I was at another Christmas market in the Stuttgart suburb of Esslingen where one of the stalls was decorated with taxidermied musk deer - slightly unsettling.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Museum am Löwentor

The natural history museum of Stuttgart is divided into two facilities. The extant collections are displayed in a palace in the centre of the park

And the fossil collections are displayed in the much less glamorous Museum am Löwentor

Okay, so the seasonal difference between the two pictures doesn't help make this building look less industrial
The mascot for the museum is Plateosaurus, shown here accumulating snow outside the museum

And in a slightly more hospitable environment in a diorama inside the museum

Plateosaurus is a plant eating dinosaur from southern Germany, and most of the specimens come from a single quarry. Animals of all ages are discovered, and many of the skeletons are articulated (bones are in association) making Plateosaurus one of the better known early herbivorous dinosaurs. The museum has reopened the quarry (it is their mascot animal, after all).

From this same quarry is the even more famous Proganochelys, the oldest terrestrial turtle, seen here glowering menacingly from behind the glass.

The museum has cool displays and houses many famous fossils, but I feel like I should ration out the details since I have replaced all those touristy afternoons wandering around the German countryside  with sitting in the museum basement measuring stuff. So, whenever I get stumped for blog content I'll trot out the gallery fossils.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The blog is back . . .

The blog took a brief hiatus due to personal problems, and the break was sustained due to the unfortunate fate of my digital camera (abandoned on a bus in Berlin) - but I think I have a grip now, and also a brand-new camera so no excuses. Also sadly no post about Berlin, since I didn't download the pictures before losing the camera.

I currently live in Stuttgart, and have since the beginning of November. Stuttgart is not a pretty city by any means, but is definitely growing on me. One of my exciting new discoveries - the radio station doesn't have any ads! It took me weeks to figure out what was different, embarrassingly enough. Same music (oddly more Arcade Fire), a bit less dj chatter (amazingly enough, they restrict themselves to band interviews and commentary directly pertaining to the music), same news and weather on the hour. . . .something's different but I can't quite put my finger on it. . .

Stuttgart is also very cold and snowy, which makes me wish my winter boots were not in my parents' basement. It also has those annoying salt rings that migrate from the slush up the legs of my pants. Argh.
City centre

View from my apartment of city centre

Monday, November 1, 2010

das Auto

Thank-you, North American Volkswagon Advertising Campaign, for making sure I can always remember the article of at least one German word.

Stuttgart is not exactly a tourist mecca: it is in fact a very industrial city. Both Daimler-Benz and Porsche are headquartered in the Stuttgart region, and have corporate museums here that are listed as some of the top civic attractions. It's the thing to do apparently, so this weekend I went to the Mercedes Benz museum, in spite of having only a minimal interest in motor vehicles.

Mercedes Benz museum, Stuttgart
The best thing about the museum was the architecture. It was absolutely stunning, and complemented the displays beautifully. The museum spent a lot of space documenting world events and how they influenced the company's designs, which was very interesting even if I didn't care about the cars.

Old race cars
Museum giftshop / car dealership
They also had a section devoted to cars of famous people. Mostly dull, but look!

Recognize this one? I actually thought it would look more like a golf cart than a pick-up

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Rothenburg ob der Tauber

Instead of doing anything useful or productive this weekend, I went on a day trip to Rothenburg ob der Tauber. This is a walled city, and is typically a big tourist destination but late October isn't exactly high season so town was pleasantly empty.

Rothenburg ob der Tauber

Famous street view: look, no people!
We went on a little tour of the city, and then had some free time. My friend told me that I had to go into the Christmas store. There are Christmas stores found everywhere in Germany and open all year round. I had no idea this holiday was such a national obsession. The store we went to was two stories, and full of ornaments and decorations. It was located right next door to the Christmas Museum. Unfortunately, photos were not allowed, which is too bad because they whole experience was a bit surreal. I'm not particularly fond of Christmas, personally, and on some level just don't get this cultural aspect of Germany.

In massive contrast, the Christmas store was followed up by the museum of Medieval crime and punishment (i.e. torture). This was fascinating, if a bit morbid. Unlike the any other German museum on any topic that I have ever been to, the displays were in German, Japanese and English which was much appreciated as I could actually understand what I was supposed to be looking at.
Back in Schwäbisch Hall for an undefined amount of time not exceeding 10 days. I wish I had a better plan.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Bad Humour

I need a bit of escapism from the horror of apartment hunting - I've lapsed into the "I can move again in 6 months, how bad could this be?" mentality; always a bad sign. Only I still don't have anywhere to move from 6 months from now.
Most people won't get why I think these are funny, but I'm okay with that. If you don't get it, that means you're a normal, well-adjusted person. Congrats.

But do they serve chicken fingers? No.
I realize this word has many meanings, but the first one I learned is of course the most memorable.

So that's what happened to them . . . 
I finally saw a possibly wild Muscovy Duck - it's actually enormous. And check out those speedy Mallard * Domestic Duck hybrids in the background!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Solar power

Germany is not warmer than Canada. This is a myth I was clinging to with crazy optimism that turns out to be totally false. Don't know why I'm so surprised - Schwäbisch Hall is the same latitude as Thunder Bay, hardly a tropical destination. In late October, the forecasted lows are below 0ºC and the highs are well under 10ºC. Moral of the story: must bring my winter stuff from Ontario next time I'm home. So, in honour of cold drizzle, here are some pictures of solar panels - apparently heavily subsidized by the German government.

Solar farm outside of Schwäbisch Hall - it even had a tractor
I love the contrast of the old buildings with the solarized rooves

Saturday, October 16, 2010


Every city has its own little twists to the apartment rental process. For instance, in Montreal the fridge and stove, in a distressing number of instances, were not included in the rental agreement so you always had to remember to ask whether you had to provide your own appliances.

Stuttgart, likewise, has its quirks. They aren't so little. It turns out kitchen cabinetry is one of those bring-with-you items, like a couch but more awkward. If you're moving in with a roommate, you may have to buy out the departing tenant's investment in cupboards, which is obviously not cheap. Even weirder, many smaller apartments have a bathroom with a door that closes (as expected) but the shower is not in the bathroom - it is in the kitchen. No door. This is very common. Rental adds typically may something like "no direct sight line" to sell the concept, but it's still like bathing in public if you have a houseguest.

So much to figure out. I'm going to Stuttgart on Monday to assess the possibilities. Hopefully I'll only have to make the one trip, because it's a long train ride (1h 45min each way).

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Objets d'Art

More on small-town southern Germany . . .
I got on a bicycle for the first time in about 5 years this week to do a little cycle tour in the neighbourhood of Schwäbisch Hall. This mostly involved flat bits and farmers' fields, but the destination was a small town called Vellberg.

Vellberg was cute, lots of half-timbering, stone towers, etc. but apparently the residents were not content to draw on its obvious historical charms. Rather, weird large art was the most notable feature of the town.

Large disembodied ear
Apple core dwarfing a tree
I suppose it worked - Vellberg was transformed from just another tiny town to something memorable. And there was a certain sense of self-mockery about it, which added to the fun (below)

Historical clock tower playing off the Rapunzel story
Ahh, feeling a bit overwhelmed by German language and culture by now in case anyone was wondering. I miss you Canada!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Quarry time

On the recommendation of a friend (not a paleontologist, I should point out), I went to visit a stone quarry / gravel pit outside of Schwäbisch Hall that is actively quarrying / crushing Muschelkalk. I apologize for yet another rock/fossil themed post, but I am who I am. I walked there, which was fairly time consuming but resulted in my seeing some countryside and getting minor sunburn

The Comburg from a different angle; I have no sense of the horizontal
with my camera
Quarry! All the dirt-looking layers are actually very soft shale
The quarry was great: the Muschelkalk is really heterogeneous; I didn't realize parts were extremely soft shale - Schwäbisch Hall gave me the opinion it was all blocky limestones. Obviously the blocky limestones are the financially viable part of the operation.
Business end of the quarry combined with pretty fall scenery.
Yes, I went all the way to Europe to look at a gravel pit
I didn't go into the quarry itself, but there was plenty of spoil around the outside - obviously just the softer layers, since the harder ones were crushed into gravel. There was a nice thin layer full of really small bones / scales / teeth (microsite), and there were also layers full of plant material and some with shells. Not wanting to burden myself with literal rocks (as opposed to just metaphorical ones) in my luggage, I left it all behind except for a lovely crystal that is now readjusting the flow of energy in my room, or waiting to be properly washed, depending on how you look at it.

What a beautiful day . . . and rocks!

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Canadian Thanksgiving, everyone! I'm very sad because it's really my favourite holiday, and I have no one to celebrate it with here. That and the fact that the residence does not have anything even remotely resembling an oven rules out almost 100% of the traditional food.

I decided that I was going to make pumpkin soup instead, since that seemed very seasonal. Remember that because everything is closed here on Sundays, I have to plan meals well ahead of time on weekends and then stockpile groceries. I went to the market to get a pumpkin. I found a pumpkin and went to purchase it, but the vendor wouldn't sell it to me because . . . pumpkins aren't edible. They are only for carving. Could someone please tell me if there is a special variety of German pumpkin that looks normal but tastes awful, or if it just isn't a vegetable eaten by Germans? Honestly, he looked at me as if I had suggested that I wanted to eat maple leaves.

As my German language skills weren't up for an argument, I bought the other kind of squash he recommended. I don't actually know what it is - I hope it tastes more like pumpkin than butternut squash, or the recipe won't work.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Knights in shining armour

One of the great things about touring around so many churches, monasteries and castles is that you get a good feeling for sculpture - and also see some funny ones because, especially in rural areas like Schwäbisch Hall / Hohenlohe, it seems like they couldn't always summon the best talent.

For instance, the Abbey Schöntal is the burial site of Götz von Berlichingen (the Knight with the Iron Fist - a very literal nickname stemming from his prosthetic arm) and his descendents. However, rather than sculpt armour fingers, there was a long period in the history of the Berlichingen clan where they were sculpted wearing metallic mittens. Whether this was the actual style at the time or a deficiency on the part of the artist, I can't say, but the results are entertaining.

Knight of the Berlichingen family. Wagon wheels are part of the Hohenlohe coat of arms

A later Berlichingen descendent
Although this later knight of the same family has fingers on his gloves, his head looks like it's trapped in a beer stein. The pointy toes on his shoes were all the rage in knightly fashion at the time, this got more extreme later on (below; Conquistador-style German knight).

Lastly, the goofiest one of them all, this one almost certainly of modern attribution from Schwäbisch Hall proper. The moustache/codpiece combination is really too much.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010


Last week was a bit crazy, which sadly affected my blogging ambitions, but now I'm back for round two (slightly-less-introductory German) at the Goethe-Institut, Schwäbisch Hall. Unfortunately my residence hall is being closed down for the winter, so I have to move again. By mid-November, I will have relocated four times in four months, which keeps my arms strong. I feel like a criminal who has to practice escape drills and be ready to leave any second to avoid being caught by the authorities. This is similar to the way I imagine that when I go to a crowded market or busy square I'm starring in a spy thriller like Mission Impossible or the Bourne Identity and have to make a drop or meet a contact. It's probably a good thing that I don't have a TV anymore.

In Germany, all the TV shows and movies are dubbed into German (rather than being subtitled) which, while promoting the Germany language, is much less entertaining for me. I will have to become a fan of dialog-minimal movies (e.g. films featuring natural disasters, large deadly animals) that don't really involve any emotional, humorous or intellectual components and can be understood without the benefit of words (Supercroc, anyone?).

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Ingelfingen - part II

The reason I went to Ingelfingen in the first place was to see the Muschelkalk Museum which is housed there. I expected it to be quite small, given the nature of Ingelfingen itself, however I was pleasantly surprised to find out that it was three floors and very thorough. Unfortunately the displays were all in German, so I couldn't really expand on my knowledge of the European Triassic, but some of the fossils were really quite spectacular.

The Muschelkalk is a Triassic limestone (more or less 230 million years old) and was, so the theory goes, deposited in a shallow sea. This led to the deposition of various evaporites (aka. salts), which were then mined commercially in the Middle ages. This was the major industry in Schwäbisch Hall, and explains its existence as a town. The Muschelkalk is also the #1 building stone in Schwäbisch Hall - everything from the town walls to the Goethe-Institut to the modern art gallery to the retaining walls and decorative boulders in the parks are built using this stone.

Gratuitous photo of bridge . . . made out of Muschelkalk
The Muschelkalk is truly delightful from my perspective because it is so highly fossiliferous. Different layers have different fossils, and in Schwäbisch Hall, crinoid ossicles and massive deposits of shells feature prominently. Muschelkalk actually translates as "Mussel limestone" so the number of shells isn't really surprising.

An example from the park, of shelly Muschelkalk
However, because finding fossils just doesn't get old for me, I was extremely excited to find this reptile bone along my running route, and now I have a compulsive urge to look at all the retaining walls and building stones where ever I go. Success has clearly gone to my head.

Okay, so it's not much to look at but I'm easily pleased.
So, this is why I went to Ingelfingen, to see what the really good Muschelkalk fossils looked like - those that haven't been dressed into building stones or stepped on by 100 years of pedestrian traffic. I'm going to see if I can go for a tour of the quarry in Schwäbisch Hall next month. What would I do without obsession? I'd have to learn to knit or something.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Ingelfingen - part I

So much to write about, and no time - it's a bit stressful in my life right now. Wait, you say, you thought I was just hanging out in Schwäbisch Hall, taking classes in the morning and sleeping in the park all afternoon? How can that be stressful? Turns out there has been a few unexpected twists recently and it's dragging me down, especially combined with the lack of reliable internet access evenings / weekends.

Therefore a post about my recent expedition to Ingelfingen (30km from Schwäbisch Hall, clocking it at an hour and a half trip - I still haven't adjusted to the distance thing). Why did I go? I'm a geek, and have become obsessed with the local geology (more later). I timed my visit to coincide with the wine and fall festival, assuming that other than the museum there wasn't loads to do in Ingelfingen, which it turns out is correct. The festival was a bit of a bust, but there were some highlights in the world of weirdness.

I should preface this by saying that there is no Sunday shopping in small-town Germany, for groceries or for anything else, so I think it's possible that a lot of the local retailers took advantage of the festival to boost the bottom line. How else could you explain that, amongst the candy, cake, würst, beer, wine and craft stands, pony ride and brass bands [there were three - no occasion in Germany appears to be complete without at least one] there was also a booth selling washer and dryer sets, a separate one selling doors, and one selling cars? However, in spite of the retail miscellany there was no café open, bar one. We [I had dragged someone else in to this bit of insanity] had to go to one in the seniors' home.

Oh Ingelfingen, the bar for small-town crazy has been effectively raised.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Inverts - addendum

Previously mentioned poster of tick diversity - still not sure if all varieties are in Southern Germany (some of them certainly are). The reddish one at the bottom looks most like the one I found, although the Latin name [and Wikipedia] imply it's North American.

Thursday, September 23, 2010


Schwäbisch Hall has a surprising number of creepy crawlies - for some reason [can't fathom why] I though that Europe would have a little bit less insect life. Turns out I was wrong.
Some is harmless (large spider + web in bathroom), some is pretty (orange bugs that always cluster together in the same place at night but have a creepy affinity for dead mouse carcasses),

Some is a bit icky to step on (gigantic orange slug) - I couldn't get a picture of one with his eye-stalks and head out; they pull it back in like a snail which is kind of silly considering there's no shell involved.

The five cent coin is for scale. I didn't realize normal people do not include coins for scale until friends made fun of me, so if you happen to be in a situation where you're trying to blend in with non-biologists, it is a good idea to omit this from the photo.

Lastly, it turns out the German countryside is crawling with ticks. So horrible. Don't know why I thought Europe was exempt from this plague, but I was so wrong. Anywhere involving grass involves tick checks. There was an educational poster outside an insurance provider with about 10 tick species on it plus the diseases they carry, and I thought it was for educational purposes for people traveling internationally, but now I'm pretty sure they are all local. Charming.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

More churches

Schwäbisch Hall is in the Hohenlohe region, which is extremely rural. However, there seem to be more than a normal concentration of Baroque churches, which is great because it's my favourite style - so excessive, you can see why the farmers rebelled against the monasteries and destroyed many of them. We did a bus tour of the Hohenlohe, and one of the stops was a Cistercian monastery, in a small town called Schöntal. Perpetual poverty was clearly not one of the goals of the order - I had assumed that monks all lived in fairly subdued surroundings to focus on spiritual matters. Apparently I was wrong.

Chapter Hall, note amount of gilding

Monastery Church
 The church itself is committed to the Baroque style - you could see Barbie living there.

Gold + pink marble: a winning combination
Creepy little faces carved into the gilded [of course!] grate

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Oktoberfest report

Oktoberfest actually starts in mid-September, as the weather is nicer. I went to the opening in Munich, and discovered that this is not the event for me. In the morning was the opening parade, when all the marching bands escorted the horse drawn wagons of beer casks into the festival grounds. It was fun to see everyone dressed up in their traditional gear, both in the parade and especially the spectators (I had no idea that so many people would dress up), and the parade was great, but later the crowds were really overwhelming even outside the main tents and the smells and garbage and drunk people and carnival rides/ flashing lights all combined to be an almost of nauseating sensory overload.
Neues Rathaus, Marienplatz


I am far happier with the beer halls, which were much more civilized (mostly just allowed for more personal space).

Friday, September 17, 2010

Banking success!

I have successfully opened a German bank account - Commerzbank is awesome. They will even give me 50 Euros if I stay with them for 3 months. I didn't mention that the other banks didn't want me as a customer at all, let alone pay me for supporting them, when I went for my appointment.

The black arrow is pointing at my residence house in Schwäbisch Hall. It's not in a cute old building.

Have an awesome weekend everyone!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


Postbank rejected my application for a new account this morning! Only took them two weeks to say they could not possibly deal with me as a client before the foreign office had finished processing the documents saying I'm foreign and temporarily staying in Schw. Hall. Next up: Commerzbank. This time I'm getting an administrator from the Goethe-Institut to go with me, so maybe I won't get jerked around.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The hedgehog vs. the kestrel

I have more than a passing interest in natural history, and so some of my posts will be on this topic instead of the more alien aspects of German culture, language and administrative headaches. Today, I wanted to show some pictures of my best wildlife sighting so far, a wild hedgehog . . . eating a falcon

I can honestly say that I never thought I'd see these two species interacting in this way, kind of thought it might be the other way around. European hedgehogs are supposed to be principally insectivorous, but also eat pet food so maybe this is scavenging? Or the hedgehogs are training for world domination?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Fedoras - not just for palaeontologists anymore!

Stereotypes were adopted for a reason, and this afternoon I was delighted to come across this group of people playing Alphörner while dressed as Bavarians (e.g. wearing Lederhosen and fedoras). For the record, though, Schwäbisch Hall is not actually in Bavaria or in the Alps, but this is of minor importance.

I really feel that my German cultural experience is now complete. This was almost as great as when I moved to Alberta and realized that some people really do dress like cowboys.

Alpine horn ensemble
Close-up of the stylish uniforms
Zoomed-out view of St. Michael's, the city center church in Schwäbisch Hall