A trip to the Polish Forest

Aileen read a website years ago, called Idle Words. It had a post about visiting a primeval forest in Poland with lots of wildlife. The forest he described sounded intriguing, but the process of slow death due to blood-loss to mosquitoes sounded less appealing. So Aileen and I, by some process, decided that the thing to do was to visit in winter. Because, you see, in winter the large animals which one might want to see are still active. The mosquitoes, in theory, should not be. So we booked a trip to Białowieźa Forest for February.

Accordingly, last week, we hopped on a plane and flew to Warsaw. There we were met by a guide from the company we booked a tour with, Wild Poland. From Warsaw we took a long van ride, interrupted by a lunch of “polish dumplings” (dude, we know what pierogi are!). We also stopped at an oddly well lit petrol station.

Gas Gas Baby

We arrived in Białowieźa at our accommodations, which were a lodge, normally used by biologists and photographers.

Froggy Lodge

The downstairs had taxidermy and antlers mounted to the walls. The upstairs was frog -themed.

The trip was two days of wildlife touring, then a drive back to Warsaw, where we spent a few hours checking out the old town there.

The first day we went out in the morning before breakfast to look for bison. We very quickly found a few, one of whom posed very nicely for us. BlogPhoto-4.jpgI suppose by “posing” I really do mean “showed us his butt.” But I live with a cat so that’s really quite normal behavior for me. Apparently the bulls (which this guy was) are quite unafraid of people, and mostly ignore them unless you get to close. Then…

So better to stay away. More on that later. We also saw a fox later that day. He was running through a field as we drove by in the van (my least favorite fact of the trip–we were riding around in a small group in a van) so I didn’t get a great photo. But he looked pretty fox-like.


After this we had a nice walk in the woods, starting by following the track of a narrow-gauge rail that the Russians put in during World War I so they could get timber out of the forest. We came across the remains of a red deer that a wolfpack had totally stripped – all that was left was some of the bones and the skin. Our guide said sometimes, if it’s a lean winter, they even eat the skin.


We continued walking deeper into the forest, and went to a bison feeding location where a webcam is set up. Sadly, no one wanted a midafternoon snack, so the feeding station was empty. However, on the walk back, we spotted a larger herd, deep in the forest. There were about ten animals, cows and calves, but they were more shy than the males we saw in the morning, so they ran away. In the fresh snow from the storm overnight, we saw the tracks of: wolves, raccoon dogs, foxes, squirrels, badgers, pine martens, roe deer, red deer, mice and voles. We had our lunch break and one of the other travelers sent his drone up to get some footage. He reported that the footage was pretty boring (“just trees as far as the eye can see”, which was sort of the point, but whatever). We went back to the hotel to warm up and dry off. After dinner, we went on an evening walk to spot some more animals. We spotted only tracks (this time deer, fox, boar and hare) but it was great to experience the hush of the forest and Justin took some star photographs.


On the second day in the forest, our pre-breakfast wildlife drive yielded a rare gray woodpecker and two bison.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter breakfast, we got to visit the part I was most excited about: the strict biosphere reserve. This section of the forest is a UNESCO heritage site, and the trees have been untouched for thousands of years. You can only enter with a local guide, and you have to have a permit to go beyond a small corner of the reserve. Most of it is used for scientific study, to examine an ecosystem that was once prevalent in Europe but now really only exists here. Irek, our guide, is a biologist who tells us that his current study is plant tracking, but that it’s very easy right now, since the plants are mostly covered in snow. An unexpected thing about the forest, besides the giant trees (the oldest is ~600 years old), is how much of it is bog. A large part of our walk is through alder carr, BlogPhoto-6a type of forest where alder grows even though it is frequently submerged. Irek also tells us that they can tell where the partisans hid during World War II, because that’s where birch trees grow (as in the picture at left). Birch trees spring up where there’s a clearing, but are generally shorter than other trees so they eventually lose out on the competition for light that governs the structure of the forest. So only where humans have disturbed things in the relatively recent past does one see birch trees.. During our walk, we added the middle spotted woodpecker to our animal list.

After lunch at the hotel, we headed back out, looking for wolf tracks. We saw some fresh tracks in the snow that fell this morning, but didn’t find a wolf. We did find two Tawny Owls, who our guide drew out by knocking on their tree, startling them more than intended. We visited a badger den, but Mr. Badger was off defending Redwall or looking for worms. It started to rain, so we headed back to the fireplace at our warm, dry hotel, stopping only to see a beaver dam, and then for some bison in a field. This visit yielded our best bison photo.


It also yielded our best bison story, as another tour group saw our van pulled over and alsoBlogPhoto-11 stopped. They apparently hadn’t gotten the strict instructions we had (no closer than 50 meters, if the bison wags its tail, grunts or paws the ground, flee) and proceeded to get very close. The bison pawed the ground, and we vacated his field ASAP. Our last view of him from the van was a triumphal pose, having successfully driven the puny humans from his territory. Then it was back to the fire and the bison beer.

After that, the next day we packed up and went to Warsaw and Krakow, which will maybe be the subject of another post. But we will leave you with a photo from Warsaw:


Bad Bloggers. Bad!

So it turns out we don’t do so well at keeping up with this blogging thing. So this entry will attempt to cover, well, all of 2016 I guess. When we last left off in March Aileen was complaining about dictionaries being priced unfairly. Much has happened since then. I’ll mostly cover our travels, because those are probably the most interesting bits with the best pictures.


This trip was a short one. I am, for reasons unclear to almost everyone, a big fan of brutalist architecture. So I was browsing Pinterest one day (as you do) and saw a picture of a church. I thought it was neat, and tried to find out more information. Eventually after some google image search detective work I determined it was a church in Neviges. Google maps then told me that this was 15km away, and I had ridden my bike through it before. So I decided we had to visit this church. So one snowy day in January we met up with Juan Carlos and Nuria, and drove to Neviges. The church was an absolutely giant concrete monstrosity. It was weirdly spectacular, especially in the snow. So I’ll just let the pictures speak for themselves.

Belgium and the Ronde

We had a bit of a travel hiatus until spring, when Aileen as a birthday present for me, booked a trip to Oudenaarde in Flanders. On the weekend of the Tour of Flanders. So we rented a car, packed up our bikes drove down Friday evening and met our Airbnb host. We were his first guests ever, which was kind of neat. And he greeted us by offering us two bottles of Westvletern 12. Which was spectacular.   The next day we ambled into town, and saw that the amateur ride of the Tour route was happening. So we jumped in. Partway through Aileen had a small mishap on some cobblestones, so she treated her wounds in the proper Belgian fashion, by stopping for some beer and Frites. I continued on, learning exactly how nasty it is to ride over Flandrian cobbles at (not even racing) speed. Then the next day was race day. We watched just after the feed zone, and not only did we not get a musette or a bottle, we had our little Flandrian flags (seen in the photo below) stolen by a couple kids in full Ettix Quickstep team kit.


In April our super-cool friends Kacy and Steve and their daughter Paige came to Amsterdam, and we met them there. The original plan had been to go to Brussels, but we rebooked to Amsterdam due to misgivings after the terror attacks in Brussels. So as a consolation prize we brought Belgian beer we’d acquired while in Oudenaarde.

Many adventures were had in Amsterdam including putting a child seat on a rental bike, eating lots of pancakes, and playing a smartphone-based version of charades. And once again, here are some pictures:


This is already a lot of photos, so to avoid complete overload I shall close for now (it’s also dinner time) and continue the wrap up in a second post.  Or possibly a third.


Discrimination in Dictionary Pricing?

I was thinking about getting a pocket German-English dictionary. I was looking at the classic yellow Langenscheidt ones, and I noticed that there’s both an “Englisch” and an “Amerikanisches Englisch” one. However, I noticed something alarming! The Amerikanisches Englisch one is €11.99, while the regular Englisch one is €9.99. Why the disparity? I even compared page numbers (about the same), and publishing dates (a year apart). Hmpf. Oh well, either was more than I wanted to pay, so I left dictionary-less.


Vignettes from German Class, Part II

I started a new German class a couple weeks ago. It’s the A2 Intensiv level, 3 hours a day for three days a week. It’s been interesting getting back into the swing of intense German grammar, which really rearranges how you form sentences. I told someone “I must to the grocery store go” last week and I wasn’t entirely kidding, that’s sometimes how my brain makes sentences now.

Starting a new class is always an opportunity to meet lots of new people. My class has students from Iran, Nigeria, Guinea, Iraq, Brazil, Spain, Mexico, Poland, Ukraine, Turkey, Bulgaria, Sri Lanka, and Egypt. I am the only American, and people are really confused when I say “Ich komme aus den USA” (I come from the USA), and usually I have to follow it up with “Ich bin Amerikanerin” to really get the point across, or “Ursprunglich komme ich aus New York” which seems to help. I wasn’t so strange in my last class, because there was another American, and the class before that one, none of us had enough German to really ask questions.

Now, I often get a really skeptical “Warum lebst du in Deutschland?” (Why do you live in Germany?) Most of the people in my class are fleeing wars or looking for jobs not available in their homeland, and they assume that coming from a stable, economically-ok country, I would not have any reason to move to Germany. Saying that my husband works for a German company appeases people, but I still get some strange looks.

Typically, I sit between an Iraqi woman wearing a hijab, and a Polish nun wearing a veil. I have joked that I need to get some sort of characteristic headwear to fit in. The best suggestion from my American friends so far is a “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” hat, which would certainly be comical.

Our German textbook tries to give cultural context along with grammar lessons, and sometimes this is pretty funny. The second chapter is all about trash separation -as a springboard to talk about life in apartment buildings here, furniture, consumer goods, etc. Still, it’s pretty funny to spend a week of classes talking about what types of trash you separate, how there are fines if you don’t separate the trash correctly, that you need to bring the glass to the containers on the street and separate it by color. One day we even brainstormed all the compound nouns that had the word for trash (“der Müll”) in them.

The upside is that we get to discuss the cultural contexts we come from, and so I’m learning lots about the homelands of my fellow students. Sometimes this can be heart-wrenching, as when Maysun Ali (from Iraq) shows me pictures of her sister’s house before the war (normal middle eastern house with garden) and after the war (pile of rubble). Sometimes it’s a little more comic, like when we discussed hostess gifts. In Spain, when you bring a bottle of wine to dinner, it’s expected your host will open and serve it. Our German teacher found this custom quite funny, since to her it seems like you are judging the host’s taste in wine. It’s great to experience these international moments, which are the reason we moved here.


Anecdotes from Life in Europe

My Bulgarian coworker needs to move some furniture this weekend. He found, via the Internet, a man with a van to help him. He called the guy, and they spoke in English. After hanging up, the coworker said “I think he’s Bulgarian. I’m going to call him back.” And thus, he called him back, and after a short conversation, turned to me and said “He’s Portuguese.  But he speaks Russian.”

On Mistranslation and General Confusion

On the whole, Germans speak excellent English. They start learning it in elementary school, so they develop much better accents than we Americans do when learning foreign languages. In Munich and Berlin, ordering something in accented German usually gets a response in English.

Aside: my German teacher was asking me about if I had noticed how Berliners tell the time (it’s a little different from standard German dialect) and I had to explain that no one in Berlin would speak German to me. Here in Essen, people are not so confident about their English, but will use it if needed. They are happy to let you practice your German, and in fact I often get encouraged to speak German by people who are excellent English speakers.

The dark side of this general English proficiency, though, is that sometimes a bit of overconfidence strikes. This seems to happen most often in translation of food and menus. One culprit is that the German verb “braten” can be translated as, variously, “bake”, “roast”, “fry”, “sauté”, “broil”, “braise” or “grill”. This adds to a lot of confusion on menus, where you need to investigate the context to determine what you’re getting.

However, there’s no linguistic reason for the translations Justin’s company inflicts on users of its cafeteria. Here are a couple of examples:


That “Wok” option should be translated as “pork strips with vegetables in sweet and sour sauce”, but instead, the powers that be decided “Schweinefleischstreifen” (literally “Pork-flesh strips”) should be “Porkbeef”. You may also notice they only take a cursory stab at translating the desserts, and don’t really understand that the compound nouns in German separate in English.


Again, the “Wok” is our unappetizing culprit, with the slightly more correct “Turkeymeat” substituted for what should be translated “Turkey breast strips”. Also, again they cannot be bothered to separate the dessert compound nouns. No photos are immediately available, but we’ve also seen the related “Beefmeat” in previous menus.

On my part, sometimes the things I see in the grocery store confuse me. A sterling example is this gem:


Squid is definitely not popular in the USA, and I’m not really sure what “American Sauce” is. Some Googling indicates that it’s likely some variant of Thousand Island Dressing, which makes this even more mystifying – it sounds pretty gross to me.

On German Apartments

Justin’s company provided us with six months of compensation for rent when we moved to Germany, and they set us up with a lovely furnished temporary apartment. We thought “Six months! How generous!” and assumed that would be plenty of time to find an apartment. We dawdled, settling in for January, deciding in February whether we wanted to stay in Essen or move to Düsseldorf, and finally got into the hunt for an apartment in earnest in May.

Let me provide a little background here: Germany is a nation of apartment renters. 52% of Germans rent their residence, and I’ve been told that they stay in that residence for on average a decade before moving again (but I can’t find the figure for that number). Expectations are totally different for renters here than in the US. For example, as I was writing the first draft of this entry, a painter we hired was painting the rooms in our new apartment. We were compensated a month’s rent by our landlord for this, but it was required that we paint the apartment at some point during our residency. On the upside, this meant we could paint it whatever we want. On the downside, the previous tenant painted the windowless hallway dark red, the spare bedroom a weird yellow with white borders, and shoddily painted over an existing pink stripe in the master bedroom with blue. We’re also expected to clear snow in the winter, and sweep the cellar storage area and attic clothing drying room on a schedule. If something breaks that requires a plumber or a carpenter, we call and set up the visit, and pay for the first 100 euro of any repair. A friend’s lease tried to stick him with the entire repair costs for any repair, but that’s not as common (I hope!)

Apartment kitchens are getting their own paragraph, because they are CRAZY. Where in most places you would get a kitchen that comes with your apartment, in Germany you are only guaranteed a room that’s got the utilities such that it could be a kitchen. Frequently, when people move here, they take their kitchen (and light fixtures!) with them, and moving companies here specialize in that kind of removal and installation. You can look for apartments with ‘einbaukuche’, which means that the kitchen is staying with the apartment. Typically, this means that you need to come to an agreement with the previous tenant on the worth of the kitchen and compensate them accordingly. I’ve seen ‘einbaukuche’ fees ranging from 200 euro to 5000 euro. We really impress our friends when we tell them we got our ugly but functional kitchen for only 250 euro. Unfortunately, one of the door shelves on the refrigerator broke, and it’s missing all its drawers, so we are currently refrigerator shopping. We are debating whether a Slovenian fridge would be better than a Polish or Turkish one – the Germans will tell you that you should always buy the good German brands of Bosch or Siemens. There are also no built-in closets in any German apartment, so you have to buy a giant IKEA wardrobe. It could be much worse, though – a friend who worked in Poland said there you rent an apartment and it has no finishes – just cement floors and walls.

Justin and I looked at apartment after apartment. We’re not too picky about apartments, but there was another problem: we’re not German. Specifically, we don’t have the deep German credit history that other people looking at apartments had. Additionally, you need to decide fast. There’s no waiting, looking at more apartments for a week, and then getting back to the one you want. If you want the apartment, you must say so as soon as you see it. Otherwise, someone (probably with better credit history) will claim it. Additionally, some properties allow the current tenants to help in the decision-making process. This muddies the waters further since you can negotiate with the current tenant, saying you’ll pay them X amount more for their kitchen/washing machine/leftover furniture/etc. and then they can recommend that you get the apartment to the landlord. We looked at one glorious, inexpensive apartment with a garden, but it was clear we weren’t going to get it because a. there were about 10 German couples at the viewing and b. one of those couples was a coworker of the current tenant, and he was clearly partial to them.

Finally, we found an apartment, said it was good and we would take it the day Justin viewed it, and passed the credit check. It doesn’t have the outdoor space (garden or balcony) that we were hoping for, but it is in a good neighborhood, has a spare bedroom to serve as an office for me, and the previous tenant not only sold us the kitchen for a fair price, but also the sofa, coffee table, TV stand, bed, closet and kitchen table. It also has a garage, so I am enjoying not cohabiting with four bicycles for the first time in 5 years.