Family history

I don’t know much about my family history beyond my grandparents. I don’t even know much about that, it’s never really been a thing. But sometimes, at family gatherings, holidays, etc. stories get shared.

As some of you know, I am half French. My dad is German, my mom is French. I’ve been raised bilingually, spent many school holidays in France, up to four weeks at a time.
There’s more to it, though. My grandpa on my mom’s side used to be German. I knew he was from Husum, northern Germany, but that’s it. I never really asked, he was one of those impressive and a bit scary but also loving grandfather of 26 grandchildren1 in his lifetime. He wasn’t a huge person, his built was average, but his voice, demeanor and strictness scared most of us grandkids. He did have a soft spot in his heart for the German ones2, though.

He died a quiet death in his bed in 1997. I can’t remember if it was then or a few years later when my dad told me the story pépé ((French, affectionate word for grandfather)) had told him one night out on the porch, sharing a few beers.

Grandpa Rudolph was in the military, a stoker/machinist on a German submarine. Well, of course, he was born in one of the northern-most cities in Germany. I don’t know anything about that time in his life, except that the submarine was captured in Lorient, France, when the harbor was taken by the English. He ended up being a prisoner of war, tried to escape three times.
His first two attempts ended up with him being caught in a rowboat on the atlantic, and brought back into camp. On his third attempt he actually got all the way home, but the Mayor – who was a friend of the family, but still – had to send him back because he couldn’t produce any discharge papers from his prisonership. So he got taken back to France. That when he said “Fuck it”, and after being released he just stayed in France. By that time he must’ve gotten a fair command of at least French and English, so he made do with being a day-laborer.
At one point he ended up staying with a peasant for a while, essentially being a farmhand. The guy took a liking to him and in the end tried to marry his daughter off to him, so he’d have someone to pass on the farm. Pépé apparently didn’t like what he’d told my dad was one monster of a woman and fled during one night.

He later married my grandmother Gisèle and did a lot of different jobs from building to being a trucker, which got him to drive from Spain to Russia, from Sweden to Italy and pick up all sorts of languages. My mom apparently got some of the restlessness from him and spent time as an au-pair in London and Berlin, as a late teenager. Then she ended up spending some time in a tiny village in the Moselle valley, working as a waitress in the restaurant/bar my dad and the guys from the orchestra frequented at the time. He was 28ish, she was about 21. He asked her out, she went along to one of the orchestra gigs at a wine festival and nearly got scared off by the guys from the neighboring village telling her: “What? YOU WENT OUT WITH ONE OF THEM?”
In the end all went well, and when my dad told his mom that a) he was gonna be a dad and b) they were gonna get married anyway, she first freaked out and went: “I knew it! It was bound to happen, you always laid with her back in your room! I’m not gonna tell your grandma, that’s up to you.”
To which my dad replied: “FINE!” and went to his grandma, said: “Granny, I’m gonna be a dad!”
My great-grandma’s reply was classic: “Oh. Good. But you know, at your age this didn’t have to happen to you!”3.
My parents married in June 1981. I was born in October that year.

Footnotes
  1. my mom had 12 siblings []
  2. there’s 5 of us, my sis, 3 cousins and me []
  3. as in, don’t get stuck with a kid, you should be smarter than that. but not in a mean way []

Class trip to Tuscany

Something that everyone should get to do is those long arse bus trips to another country with their class, school band or similar group. Someone reminded me of the trips I took when I was at school, notably the one almost exactly 15 years ago.

It had been a long standing tradition at my school to do a trip the year before we’d take our finals and leave. The traditional destinations were either Avignon in France or Tuscany in northern Italy. The trip was called a field excursion where we were supposed to learn something about a foreign country: History, culture, art, that sort of stuff.

We just wanted to go on a vacation, have fun, maybe get wasted once. Or twice. Or every day. That and enjoy ourselves, celebrate, that sort of stuff.

About 50 students aged 18 to 19 and 3 teachers met up on the night of May 1st, boarded a large double-decker bus and the party started.
Sort of. Some already were drunk or had a stash of the forbidden fruit1 in their backpacks because, well, May 1st. We’d been threatened with the usual “if you seem drunk before entering the bus you stay here” but…eh.
May 1st is not only a public holiday in Germany, but – especially in our region – an occasion for local youth and young adults to go camping, bbq and drink a lot.
Anyhoo, we all were pretty excited and got hauled 600 miles through Germany, Switzerland and Northern Italy. It took us 15 hours and a few brief stops and only one student almost sent back home when the teacher found out he had a bottle of Vodka in his backpack.

I still remember how we arrived in Marina di Massa at around 11 a.m., everyone was eager to get out and groaned when our teachers announced they wanted us to stay on the bus and wait until they’d sorted things out.

About an hour later they came back. Turned out the hotel that we’d booked had been demolished.
Oh.
The new one, the replacement? Under construction. You should’ve seen our faces. Of course no other hotel had any vacancies as tourist season was in full bloom.
Our teachers told us to go out and grab some lunch and be back in 90 minutes. Which is what we did. Me and a bunch of close friends went to grab a few bruschetta. I had a budweiser.2

We drank to travel catastrophes and to hoping we wouldn’t have to turn back. No chance of that though, since our bus driver was legally obliged to rest anyway.

It took all of the afternoon and some of the night until they had us all squared away. They put most of the girls into a few spare rooms of the nearby youth hostel. The guys were put into … well, I wouldn’t want to use the word ruins, but there were some unused buildings in the YH’s backyard. They cleaned out a few floors, put mattresses and sheets down in the old beds, distributed blankets and told us to stay out of the 3rd floor. “It’s not safe!”
Some of us were really annoyed, even wanted to go home. I thought of it as a sort of adventure and minor inconvenience. I was just glad we didn’t have to go home.

It turned out to be the best thing that had ever happened to us. We were far enough from anyone so there’d be no noise complaints. We had a huge balcony in one room that hosted a party of cheap wine, beer, booze and silly games like therapy pretty much every night.
In one night we’d jumped fence and spent the night at the nearby beach, waiting for the sunrise.3. One of us fell asleep at the beach and woke up with a massive sunburn on his belly. Well, not his whole belly.

And, because we’d paid for hotel in advance, we got some additional luxury to make up for the derelict accomodation, the showers on the other side of the compound and the shock upon arrival.
Breakfast was awesome. Dinner was even better. Pasta, salads, sauces, all kinds of seafood. Free beer on our last night.


A couple of bottles of wine on each table and a nonchalant “Sure, take an extra bottle for each table when you’re done!”
They filled up the pool.
They paid all of our guided tours in Pisa, Siena, Florence and Lucca. A boat trip to Cinque Terre. A several course meal at a fancy restaurant. We had to walk the last two miles up hill because the bus was too large for the narrow turns and low hanging branches and a waiter dropped a large ravioli in my glass of water, but still.

We sang, partied, had fun.
We drank the Vodka someone of the group had bought while he wasn’t there. Bought him Tequila instead.
I especially remember that one night on the balcony, when Sara poured Vodka into paper cups and handed them out. Shouted “Cheers!” and downed it. We followed suit. About 3 ounces. Ow. How about some Sambucca? We drank that too, My throat hurt after that, so I downed two 11oz cans of Coke ((diet coke. caffeine free. vile stuff.) afterwards and belched so massively that you probably heard me, wherever you were at the time.

In short, we had the time of our lives. We partied without and with our teachers. Took group pictures. Did dumb stuff. Spent money. Sang to our teacher playing the piano rather brilliantly.

I wanna be 18 again.

Footnotes
  1. booze. []
  2. lol []
  3. yes, we were on the west coast, shut up []

Let there be light.

A couple of years ago we’d moved into our shiny new office building. It had fancy stuff for temperature control involving ceiling panels and excess heat from our server room. And motion-activated lighting in corridors, kitchens and bathrooms.

Shortly after people complained about the timer those were connected to being to short. Yes, the ones in the bathroom specifically.

This prompted the usual kind of office humor ranging from Poop faster! to Don’t fall asleep in a stall.

The complaints apparently persisted, because at one point an email to the whole company appeared in our inboxes. From one of our bosses.

I don’t have the actual email anymore, but it explained how the lights in our bathrooms were motion- and audio-activated, so if sudden darkness due to prolonged expulsion became a problem, we were advised to clap our hands or say something.

The lights are NOT audio activated.

I’m pretty sure our boss knows but also I’m sure he wasn’t joking. He probably was distracted, or caught up in something and randomly added it, probably even believing it at the time.

Great laughter ensued. And jokes about what one might say or how one might otherwise be noisy in the bathroom. And most of us didn’t believe a word of the audio-part. Still, in the days following, you could sometimes pass the bathrooms and hear a faint clapping sound or random exclamations.

Hey! Hello! *clap* Damn.

The best part of this? Unless it’s pitch black outside, it’s not even dark in those restrooms. They are along the outside wall of the building, and there’s windows just below the ceiling to let some light in.

Papillon

A while ago in a twitter conversation about lifechanging books, @CairnRodrigues mentioned Henri Charrière’s Papillon, a book I have read.1
That book actually has some relevance for me when you think about turning points in life. Somehow.

13 years and about a month ago I was about to take my oral and final examination for my Abitur2.
The subject was geography. I was neither worried nor comfortable with it. I never had any phobic reactions to exams but I didn’t go into them as if it was nothing either.
In theory, this examination could cover anything we talked about in the final two or three years at school. In fact, the three students that had to go through this exam, me included, had a meeting with our teacher and we got a few subtle hints on what to prepare for.
And, of course, the usual “keep up to date with the news, it’s always good to work current events into what you have to say”.

Tradition had it, that during the two days of the examinations the students of the year before the final provided cake and coffee for those being under the scrutiny while waiting and preparing. So a few of us sat there, waiting, munching cake without much appetite, until our respective teacher came in, led us to an empty room and handed us a sheet of questions to think about for about 30 minutes.
After that they put a collar on us and led us to the gallows3.

When I entered the room, I noticed a few things.
The front desk, where I would sit.
All of the schools current geography teachers, including the headmaster and one teacher who always made fun about geography but apparently wanted to see how I’d do ((he was my history, German and philosophy teacher at the time)) were looking at me. Oh dear.
There was a map and the blackboard.

My geography teacher led me into the room, ushered me to the front desk and said: “Feel free to use the map or blackboard if you want to show or visualize something!”

What I said was something like “Ok” or “Thanks”.
What I thought was “I’m not going to get up from this damn chair until this ordeal is over!”

Next I talked for maybe ten to fifteen minutes about the questions and information they gave me to prepare, a little bit about US oil policy, climate in different locations and I think agriculture in Northern America.4

After that I answered a few questions, responded to a hint or two. Then the teachers grilling me looked at each other. “Ok?” “Yes.” “Good.” *nods all around*
Then one of them asked me the final question: “Is there anything you want to add, maybe something you read in the past few days…?”

I knew what they were talking about, but I have always been bad keeping up with current events and even though I knew it might be relevant, I never bothered during the wait for the big day. I pretty much went about my days the way I’d always done. I read through my materials about the topics relevant for the exams, but that was pretty much it.

My answer to the questions provoked a few things. One of them made a “He didn’t really just say that face”, anotherone just grinned, and then my teacher said: “Ok, thank you, you’re done here. You will all get the results tomorrow at 4PM.”

What I said was: “Papillon, but I doubt that will help me here!”

I got 12 out of 15 points, if anyone cares.

Footnotes
  1. woo! []
  2. the secondary school certificate  required to study at a university. which I didn’t. []
  3. examination room []
  4. Germany approaches Geography in a very global way, it not only covers locations of places, but also economy, climate and maybe even politics and the way they might be affected by geographical conditions. It’s a coincidence that this year NA was part of the topic []

English was my favorite subject in school

Today I am somewhere upstate New York, so here’s another prescheduled one. Hope you like it. :-)

English WAS my favorite subject in school. As you probably know by now, even if you just got here, I am German.  Not everyone knows that I have been raised bilingually1, German and French.

In my fifth school year I started learning English, and having learned my first foreign language pretty much from day one, the third one came easy to me. I never really had to do anything to pick it up. I just listened, read, did my homework and learned it.

When you learn a language at school in Germany, you start with the usual basics. Telling someone about yourself, describing things and people, one adjective, noun and verb after another.

At some point you get to working with texts, fictional and non-fictional, and barring the occasional grammar lesson, you gradually transition into a sort of literature and culture class that is held in a foreign language.2.

Being a natural, I started reading English books for fun when I was around fifteen3.

Shortly after I began working funny stuff into exams, because…well, I don’t know, I just got inspired. One of the exams was about an interview that someone conducted with Aldous Huxley, and we were supposed to pick up how they viewed certain things differently on account of having grown up in different time periods. I had been listening to a lot of Running Wild at the time, so I used their song title “Prisoners Of Our Time” to describe the idea in a more colorful way.

In another exam about how language plays a role in George Orwell’s 1984 I used a joke I knew from one of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels4.

The highlight of my English exam shenanigans was one of our last exams, about William Shakespeare’s Hamlet5.

It was our final year in school, we were a small class and our teacher was pretty relaxed and  didn’t pay much attention to us. At one point one of my best friends, Alex, turned around to me and said, proudly: “I just used the word vortex in my essay!”
I replied: “Ha, I can beat that!” and found a way to incorporate maelstrom into mine.

Philipp, sitting behind me, piped up: “What’s this going to be?  A competition?”

We wondered if our teacher would mention it upon returning the exam, but he didn’t. So we actually asked which of the two words puzzled/annoyed him more, and what can I say…it was close, but mine was more horrible!

Thanks to @CareyTorg for reminding me of this episode and inspiring me. Follow her on twitter, read her blog and be nice to her, she’s awesome! Also buy her book in December, ok? Thanks!

Footnotes
  1. my mother is French. In a way. That’s a story for another day, probably []
  2. in theory []
  3. I bought Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather on a class trip to Munich because I didn’t want to wait a year for the translated paperback []
  4. the one about the Inuit having 100 words for snow but none of them worth printing []
  5. see my limerick blog post for additional unrelated entertainment []

every trip has an inside joke – @wacie – #gatortail

And it’s true. On pretty much all the trips I took with friends we had an inside joke of sorts.

Fun fact: I don’t think I had an inside joke on the trip I took with my ex.

One of the inside jokes I will always remember fondly is “Miss Death Valley”.

In 2007 I went to the United States for the first time.

The story of how I ended up going with one of my internet friends (we’d met twice in person before going on that trip) is funny enough on its own.

Here’s the short version:

Jess via IM: “Hey, what are you doing?”
Me: “Looking up offers for holidays, but the single room surcharge is kind of off-putting”
Jess: “Where to, and when?”
Me: “Western US, this summer”
Jess: “I’ll come with ya.”
Me: “Yay!”

Said and done, we’d synchronized time off, booked, met up at the airport, shared rooms, saved US$350 each and had a blast.1

We flew into Las Vegas and had a day off to explore while part of the group2 had booked a day trip to Death Valley.

At breakfast next day we overheard part of the group chatting.
“So how was Death Valley?” – “Uh, ok, I guess. A little boring. Nothing but heat, sand and rocks.”

We really did have trouble containing our…let’s say glee. And Miss Death Valley3 was born.

It still comes up in conversations 7 years later. “Remember Miss Death Valley?” – “Yeah, haha! What did she expect? Rollercoasters? It’s not called Death Valley for nothing. ”

For those who are still not clear about the subject here’s a visual guide:

Not Death Valley

Not Death Valley

 

Actually Death Valley

Actually Death Valley

The trip I’ll be starting tomorrow4 won’t have Miss Death Valley, but it will have gatortail. Yup. An Alligator’s tail. Battered and deep fried.
There’s not really much to it, I guess, if you look at it from an objective point of view.

But it is something exotic to me, and when @wacie promised to take me to eat gatortail, it became a symbol of my pre-trip excitement.

GATORTAIL!

Footnotes
  1. we had enough fun to do it again when I had to find a replacement to go on an already booked holiday with me instead of my ex []
  2. yes, it was one of those prebooked group trips, don’t judge me []
  3. who turned out to not be the brightest, but very entertaining at times []
  4. I’M SO EXCITED []