Sunday, December 17, 2006

End of Act 1

Yep, my stay in Aachen is coming to an end. For now, at least. I've spent the best part of four months here now, and will return in January for the best part of five after a (hopefully) choclate-and-turkey-filled interval. I'm trying not to think about how fast my year abroad is evaporating, nor about how much my German is improving. It'll be worth it just for the Dutch I've learned, though, because although I say it myself my Dutch is now actually pretty good. A small group and an excellent teacher who conducts the whole lesson in the target language have been contributing factors in this, and of course the fact that the rest of the group (with one exception) are native speakers of German. This technically puts me at a disadvantage, because the languages are so similar - a very large proportion of words in the two languages are fundamentally the same word, spoken and written slightly differently. In actual fact, however, it spurs me on. I've never really tried to learn a language in a group in the UK outside of school, so I can't really judge, but I have a feeling that the pace would be far too slow for me to really sink my teeth into it. Here the pace is fast, as much of the language's grammar needs little or no explanation where in English it would need to be explained in detail. This is challenging, but ultimately more rewarding and enjoyable. My last lesson of the third course is tomorrow (Monday), and it may well prove to be my last ever formal Dutch lesson, as the fourth course won't go ahead unless eight people sign up. But I now have the tools to just go out there and immerse myself without drowning in unfamiliarity. Yay!

Another two Christmas markets have been visited, one in the town of Jülich and one in my local village/suburb of Brand. Jülich disappointed, but that was probably only because of the continuous drizzling rain. Besides, I had a wonderful Dampfnudel with hot vanilla sauce and cherries, so it wasn't all doom and gloom. Brand was the smallest affair so far, but picturesque. Three girls were standing on a little stage playing carols on flutes, which was cute. Plus it wasn't raining.

On Tuesday I'm off to see ETG's performance of Macbeth in Liège, and I'm really looking forward to it. ETG was AWESOME last year, and if the show's even two fifths as good as Taming of the Shrew it'll be worth the trip. Then on Wednesday I fly back to the UK. I don't know if I'll be blogging over Christmas; probably not, as there are so many more fun things to do. So I guess this is a temporary goodbye from me to all my loyal readers. That is, after I've finished with the...

Ritter Sport Ratings

Yep. They're back. Because there's a new flavour in town.

Whole Peanut: 6/10
I get the feeling that this is just the Golden Peanut from earlier in new packaging. And WHAT new packaging. OK, Ritter, you may have already used all the colours of the rainbow, but that doesn't mean that you have to use luminous orange! Ick. It made me want to vomit just looking at it. Eating it, on the other hand, was far more of a pleasure than I remember. I think I said it was an incongruous combination, but it didn't feel like it this time. Maybe they've tweaked it, or maybe I was in a better mood to receive it. Either way, this one now places at 6/10, between Amaretto Truffle and Hazelnut (white chocolate).

Bye for now, and I wish you all a merry Christmas and a happy New Year!

- G.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Escape from the Christmas Market of Doom

Christmas markets.

It's what you do when you're in Germany and it's, like, December, innit? I certainly did. Last weekend I headed into town and visited Aachen's bloated sprawl of a Christmas market, and I've just got back from visiting one in the much-cited picturesque town of Monschau. They're certainly popular. In both markets I found it difficult to move around in the crowd, and in both markets I ended up standing in a queue for an excessive amount of time when I decided that what I really wanted was something sweet and filling (Nutella crepe in the first case, waffle with cherries and cream in the second). Both markets also FUBARed the area's transport network. Take my advice if you're ever in Germany at this time of year: don't use the roads. If you can't get somewhere by walking/taking the train, don't go there at all. It is inordinately difficult.

Take today as an example. I got there just fine; it was getting back that was the problem. Conscious that there would be a lot of people trying to get out of the town when the market closed, I a) set off a little earlier and b) waited for nearly half an hour at the bus stop before the bus was due to come, so that if a queue formed it would form behind me. (This was a tactical error. I should really have remembered that Germans can't queue to save their lives. Instead they just mill around aimlessly and shove each other out of the way. Strange behaviour for a nation that's otherwise generally much more civilised than ours.)

Neither measure availed me. The problem was the park and ride service. Monschau, being a small town with very, very limited road access, decided this year to cut the town off entirely to normal traffic. This ban extended to all the tour buses that visit the town (and there were about 30 of them in the nearest car park up the hill). A park and ride service was being offered from several very large car parks just outside the town - and boy, was it necessary. During the time I was waiting there, despite a bendy bus coming about every five minutes, the number of people waiting for a park and ride bus back to the car park was never less than about 200. All well and good, I thought. They're waiting at a different bus stop. But when my bus finally came, about ten minutes late, it stopped at the park and ride bus stop - and people started getting on. About half of the people waiting for my bus ran across the road and piled on, while the rest, including me, kept standing there, thinking: It has to come to this stop. The stop it's supposed to come to. Right? Wrong... the bus drove off without me. Crap, I thought. There's only one bus left that goes back to Aachen, and it's in two hours' time, and it's bitterly cold. Plus, if this bus was bad, when the market hadn't even closed yet, what would the next one be like? The German word "sauer" is one that I'd never really understood before today, but standing there in the cold it was a shockingly accurate description of how I was feeling.

To cut a long story short, after briefly considering staying the night in Monschau and going back the next morning, I got a taxi home. It was the only other way. So I sat there, chatting to the taxi driver, watching a tour coach in front of me belonging to the unfortunately titled company "Bustouristik Fucker", and intermittently glancing at the ever-increasing kilometre count on the display. An expensive day out, all told. A large number of euros out of pocket, and entirely because of bad organisation. Gaaaah.

So, anyway. Christmas markets. The taxi driver couldn't really see the attraction, having lived in Germany all his life - and I could actually see his point. In fact, it's one I'd been considering since the previous weekend, in Aachen. Because what is a Christmas market, in essence?

There are little wooden booths. Some of them are fast food stalls. Big deal - we get those in the UK as well, and although the good quality stuff's probably better in Germany, the principle's still the same as at the dodgy fairground trailers in the UK. Not all of it's brilliantly original, although some is pretty special. In Aachen there was a lovely stall selling portions of fried mushrooms with a vast array of sauces. Admittedly I didn't feel like fried mushrooms at the time, and I can't really think of a situation where I would ever choose a portion of fried mushrooms on their own over just about any other type of food. But that's beside the point. It was an original and fun idea and put a smile on my face.

Some of the booths sell Glühwein. A lot of them, in fact. But what's Glühwein? And why do we persist in calling it Glühwein? It exists in the UK too, and is relatively common, and there it is called mulled wine. So I don't really understand why British people always call the German version Glühwein and get so obsessed with it. On the other hand, it is pretty nice, whether mulled or Glüh.

The vast majority of the booths, probably 60%, sell... trinkets. Made of glass, or wood, or plastic, or bone, or anything really, and ranging widely in quality. In the UK it's not so easy to get your hands on hand-crafted Christmas decorations, but they can be found, and in the same sort of qualities as in Germany. The German varieties seem to be bound by two main guidelines:

1. Items must be substantially overpriced for what they are.
2. Items must serve no useful function whatsoever.
(A less significant guideline is 3: Where possible, items should be of a consistency such that it is impossible to remove them to a distance of more than about 100 metres from the stall where you bought them without them breaking in your pocket/bag/hand/car).

The items are also very pretty, a lot of the time, too - and sometimes very kitsch. All in all, not a good enough reason to get a coach over to another country, in my view.

Finally, the remaining 10% of stalls tend to sell local produce. These are the ones that float my boat. I love seeing locally made wines, and honey, and mustard, and sausage, and lebkuchen, and all that... and if anything makes it worthwhile visiting a Christmas market, that's it. Because that's the sort of stuff that you can't find anywhere else, and is often really good to boot.

I'm probably being a little too nuts-and-bolts in my analysis of German christmas markets, here; but the fact is that I'm baffled as to why people come from abroad on coaches. Christmas markets are very nice, yes, but are they really THAT special? Judging by the fact that people keep on visiting them, I guess they are. Then again, I reckon at least two thirds of the voices I heard at the Christmas markets were speaking English, French, Dutch or some other language rather than German. Being so completely Europolitan, the Aachen area isn't a great example for this purpose - but it still shows that the vast majority of people visiting Christmas markets are foreigners. Maybe it's something you learn to take for granted. Maybe I'm in the process of learning to take it for granted - I have visited markets in Strasbourg, Freiburg and Munich as well as the two that I visited this year, after all. I don't doubt that I very much enjoyed my two afternoons out this weekend and last. But I enjoyed them in the same way as I enjoy a play or a film - and would the average person travel 1000 miles on a coach to see one of those? Perhaps so. The simple pleasures can't be underestimated, and the German Christmas markets certainly are a celebration of the fact that Life Is Good.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Casino Royale

I went to see the latest Bond film yesterday evening.

It was certainly a step up from Die Another Day. No more hilarious technologies and ridiculous characters. This is a pared-down Bond film, and is much darker and more realistic than some of its predecessors as a result. Whether this made it a good film, though... the jury's still out.

The poker scenes tested my patience. As well as being clumsily cut, such that I didn't really know if the action had moved forward or not, it had Bond's associate "narrating" the game in a most tedious manner. Fair enough, for a general audience it couldn't really have been done any differently, or it would have been too opaque; but it's a good reason not to have a card game at the centre of a major film. At least it wasn't Shithead. I was looking forward to some double, triple and even quadruple bluffing, too, but in the end I was treated only to one fairly half-hearted and predictable double bluff from Le Chiffre. Which brings me on to another thing...

The characters were not only believable in this film, they were more than a little bland. Le Chiffre made a poor villain, in my opinion. He was uninteresting, even with the "special quirk" ubiquitous to Bond villains, in this case the crying of blood. I read White Teeth by Zadie Smith only a couple of weeks ago, where this trait is also used for shock value, so it did nothing for me. Nor did his predilection for "interesting" torture, in the form of some excessive testicle-bashing, "do it" for me. OK, he's a bit of a sadist weirdo... just like all the other Bond villains. Le Chiffre compounds his uninterestingness by inconsiderately getting himself shot in the head about three-fifths of the way through the film, and after that the entire film seems completely aimless.

On the plus side, Daniel Craig makes an interesting Bond. I don't think he'll outshine the others (except Lazenby), but it really depends on what you're looking for in a Bond. He reminds me a bit of Timothy Dalton, but less gentlemanly and more physically believable... but that could just be because Bond shows emotions again in this film, something that Pierce Brosnan never really got the chance to do, with the exception of a bit of righteous anger here and there. Whether this is a good thing or not... I'm undecided.

There were also two wonderful action scenes at the start of the film, which managed to impress even me, jaded big-screen adrenaline junkie that I am. So not a loss of an evening, all told.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

More chocolate, more trains

Hello everyone! I'm not going to apologise for not posting for three weeks. Well, I'll apologise for not posting for two weeks, but really, if I'd posted on the 4th-5th weekend I would have been incredibly boring, because nothing happened the weekend before and nothing much happened that weekend either. So I actually did you a favour by not posting. At best you would have got a rant, but it wouldn't have been a particularly impassioned one, as I didn't have anything much to rant about.

Last weekend was a different kettle of fish, though - and in fact the last two weeks in general. I've been so busy that in that time I haven't really had the energy to post until now. On top of my Dutch classes on Monday and Wednesday evenings, I've been going to a theatre group on Tuesdays, and I've met my Konversationsparterin twice, so a lot of long days. In the meantime, I've been accepted as a full moderator on Tazlure, and posting there has been taking up a lot of my time.

Last Saturday I hopped on the train to visit Lynsey in Giessen. I'd been warned by multiple people that it wasn't the prettiest place in the world, having been largely flattened in the war, and those people proved to be more or less right. It was however made a million times prettier by the fact Lynsey was there, and seeing a familiar face for the first time in two and a half months made me very happy. But I get ahead of myself.

Due to my long and exhausting week, I was hoping that the three-and-a-half hour train journey would allow me some time to rest and recuperate. It was, however, not to be. To my horror, the train was packed to bursting with people in silly costumes, drinking beer (yes, on the train, in large quantities, at 9am - many seemed to already be drunk) and singing loudly. A few seats behind me, some shameless bastard had brought a ghetto blaster onto the train, which was pumping out crappy German folk-pop anthems, and periodically a group or other would start to "sing" along and clap their hands. I later learned that that day, 11/11, is traditionally the start of Cologne's Karneval season, which culminates in February. Germans being (largely) the sober, rational lot they are, they don't stay pissed throughout the whole three-month period but mark the start and end with bouts of temporary and excessive bladderedness. Luckily they got off at Cologne, and I was left to find a comfy place for myself amid a garden of discarded beer bottles.

Exactly the same happened on the return journey, except that people were more drunk and more subdued. The German inability to queue was made even worse, as I found to my cost when trying to buy a sandwich at a bakery in the station (I had to change trains on the return leg). After three groups of people pushed past me in the queue and ordered by dint of shouting loudly and repeatedly at the guy serving, I finally lost it, and, I'm sorry to say, did the same myself. I wasn't going to get anywhere by doing anything else, and I had a train to catch. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em... or just beat 'em by joining them. :)

The whole experience made me realise how much I hated "festivals", "carnivals" and any of these events where people feel that it is their God-given right to stagger around being loud and drunk and disregarding the norms of basic courtesy in the name of "having fun". Even more sadly, I feel like I'm in the minority here. I just can't possibly have fun when there are people around me like that, and I can't do it myself. Singing loudly and tunelessly, being pointlessly aggressive in minor ways and drinking too much just isn't my idea of a good time. Maybe I'm simply betraying my weirdness here, but frankly it saddens me that people feel the need to act so brainlessly. Every now and then something will happen that makes me feel joyful about being a human being - usually it's seeing some great work of construction, like a magnificent railway viaduct or a great church or cathedral. But then I'll bump into a crowd of people like those I've mentioned, and it's instantly counteracted. It's a terrible thing to say, I know, but it makes me realise that I only really give a shit about - at a guess - 10% of the world's population. The active, intelligent 10%, the ones who try, and think, and move things forward. It says a lot for their efforts that in my mind they succeed in counterbalancing the ignorant, turgid uselessness of the other 90%.

It's an extreme view, I know, and not one that I hold the whole time - the exact ratio varies from day to day. ;) And what do I advocate doing about it? Well, on a general scale, nothing. We can't just kill them, or send them to Australia, or something. So my personal take on it is to avoid them as much as possible. Does that make me a bad person? I'm not sure. All I know is that I've grown up surrounded by "normal" people, and have ALWAYS wanted to get away from them as far as possible. That's why I've never been happier, on the whole, than when I'm in Cambridge. O' course, not everyone there's the kind of person I want to associate with... but there's certainly more chance of meeting such people there. At the end of the day, though, I'm satisfied with my choice. It's nothing more than a preference for friendship, and I don't and won't go out of my way to rubbish, ridicule and be rude to the others... even if they do it to me on a monotonously regular basis.

Aaaaaaanyway, me and Lynsey had a nice chat and a meal, wandered around Giessen for a while, and visited the Mathematikum - an interactive museum with lots of neat geometrical puzzles and stuff. A place for kiddies, really, but still awesome fun. :D On the way back I bought the book Memoirs of a Geisha, by Arthur Golden, because I'd been foolish and left my own books at home. During the long, dark train journey I burned through more than half of it. I'm still reading it, and enjoying it greatly. It's a wonderful book.

This weekend, yesterday, I took a trip to Cologne. Another bombed city, other than the cathedral there's not much exciting visually there either. The cathedral itself, although beautiful externally, was a disappointment from the inside. It was badly lit, and there was a service going on, and the entrance foyer for viewing was packed, so I didn't stay long. I headed on down the Rhine to a chocolate museum, a mighty institution with its own little chocolate factory where you could walk around and follow the whole process from crushed cocoa bean to packaged product. Lovely.

Gah. Without the Ritter ratings, I really don't know how to end a post. Maybe I'll just do it like this.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

River valleys, bright lights, stupidification and the end of an era

Last Sunday I set out on my most ambitious walk yet. My starting point was Monschau, the picturesque little town I mentioned earlier - which, on second viewing, gets an upgrade from "picturesque" to simply "beautiful". Stopping briefly to grab a few Brötchen for the day's lunch, I set off down the Rur valley.

The river Rur was to be my companion for the next 20 miles as I followed its development from streamlike status into a vast reservoir providing much of the water and power for the Rheinland. The first few hours were some of the most lovely of all. Dew still sat on the fallen leaves on the path underfoot, and the air still held that refreshingly sharp, prickly quality peculiar to rural mornings. Most importantly, for about 8km downriver from Monschau there is no road in the deep valley. Having grown up in the UK, where almost every valley of any size has its own metalled road and the accompanying insectlike buzz of traffic, I immediately fell in love with the place. Another Vorteil for Germany.

After meeting a road, the path crosed the river at a bridge and then rose up onto the wooded hillside on the other side, hugging the contour. At a particularly spectacular viewpoint I stopped for a Streuselbrötchen (German speciality: a shortbread-encrusted bread roll. Sounds weird but is delicious). From this point onwards villages started to emerge in the valley. A good while later, about lunchtime, I arrived above Einruhr, where the reservoir proper begins. Here, again, I got to follow a path along the edge of the lake, watching cyclists zip past me and the occasional boat chugging through the water. 5km later I was in Rurberg, where a dam separates the upper from the lower reservoir. I grabbed an ice cream and pondered my next move.

The problem was that the path along the lakeside was awfully long: 13km, to be specific. The map clearly showed a more direct route over the hills, so this was the one I took. Mistake? I suppose I'll never know. In any case, the ascent, about 500m of height in 1.5 km up the hillside, was ache-makingly persistent, and combined with the bright sunshine nearly did for me. Still, the views from the top were amazing. The Rurtalsperre reservoir is incredibly wide at its end point, and in its centre is a wooded, uninhabited island, of the sort you just want to grab a boat and row out to. I descended the hillside by way of a bendy mountain road, and after being passed by at least 50 motorcyclists I reached the Rurtalsperre dam, an incredible edifice. On one side is a beautiful view of the lake; on the other, the valley floor, a dizzying distance below, makes it clear just how deep the reservoir really is. From this point it was only a few more k to a little railway station at the end of a branch line to the middle of nowhere (Heimbach).

In other news, I'm writing this from an Internet cafe again, as my home connection is broken, a mere few weeks after being set up in the first place. The man at tech support seemed to think it was to do with the modem being switched off at the mains every night. I personally think that it's fair enough to do so, as the modem doesn't have its own on/off switch and bright lights in a room where I'm trying to sleep really annoy me. Leaving it on while not in use (as seemingly advocated by Alice tech support) is a waste of energy as well as an annoyance. This particular bugbear is one I've been fighting against for years. In my room at home I have a stereo, and an expensive one, too, with a little light that stays on even if you press its off switch. The only way to kill it entirely is to switch the thing off at the mains - which has as its side-effect the loss of all radio station settings. I had to live with it, in the end. In my opinion, though, it's just bad design to create appliances which aren't allowed to lose power. It is irritating to the consumer and a waste of energy, as I mentioned, but it also displays an incredible lack of foresight on the part of the manufacturer. In Derbyshire, at least, power cuts are far from uncommon, and nowhere is entirely safe from them. (For example, when I was in London the Haagen-Dasz cafe I visited was pretty much taken out of action by an outage in Leicester Square). Surely it can't be that hard to make appliances which need to store information actually store it, as in computers?

One rant is over; another begins. This one's about literature, or, more specifically, a tendency in literature: the tendency to present people as "simple".

I first came across this when I was working on a production of Shakers, by John Godber. I loved the play, the director, the cast, the adaptation - but there was something about the characters that bugged me. It was this: they weren't very clever. Now, don't get me wrong, I have absolutely no objection to lack of intelligence. What I objected to in this case was that entire scenes of the play seemed to be predicated on a certain "simplicity" on the part of its protagonists. Laughs were being drawn from it. Not hearty guffaws, but polite, elegant chuckles at the basic nature of these cocktail waitresses and their "amusingly" blunt or insightless statements.

This came up again when I was in Paris at the Sorbonne. We were reading a text by Maupassant about the commoners of his (rural) region going to market. The course teacher asked us if Maupassant was laughing at these "simple", "basic" people. NO! was of course the answer that was required. Maupassant has, of course, much affection for them, and is simply reporting things the way they are. But I wanted to stick my hand up and say YES! You can't write about how simple and basic these simple, basic (hereinafter referred to as SB) people are without a certain imagined superiority creeping in. Even the implication that these SB people's minds were somehow closed to "higher" things reveals this. I was only prevented from saying this by the fact that my French really wasn't good enough to discuss that kind of thing back then.

I put it out of my mind for a few years - until I read Captain Corelli's Mandolin.

Now I could devote several blog posts to a full explanation of why I hated this book, but the linchpin of my many diagreements with it is the characterisation. Not a single character in the book was believable to me. The village in the book was clearly the sort of "pastoral idyll" inhabited by SB people that I can't stand reading about. You've got the SB communist, the SB royalist, the big strong SB man, the young, carefree SB man... a full cast of them. There are, of course, exceptions. The young, zealous Nazi who comes to realise that what he's doing is wrong. The bold, cheerful, dashing, stiff-upper-lip British officer whose honour proves to be the end of him. These are just clichés. Then we have the central characters, Corelli and Pelagia, each of whom would in roleplaying terms be described as a "Mary-Sue" (or, in Corelli's case, perhaps a "Gary-Stu"). They can do no wrong and are devoid of any particular failings whatsoever, save those which are excusable as fundamentally human. As protagonists they simply managed to infuriate me through their constant, tedious perfection. The nail in the coffin is Pelagia's father Iannis, a man who has travelled the world and holds a doctor's qualification yet shows no signs of any kind of irony when he advises his daughter Pelagia against moving to Italy on the basis that they can't make good meat pies like the Greek can. Hm. Seems that once SB, always SB, no matter where you go or what you learn. He was the hardest to swallow of the whole two-dimensional lot of them.

At the moment, I'm reading "White Teeth" by Zadie Smith. An enjoyable, insightful book in many respects, but even here a bit of SBness creeps in, such as when Joyce Chalfen, an Oxbridge-educated middle class woman, asks a pair of lesbians who've been brought round to visit by a friend whether they use each other's breasts as pillows.

I'd love to say that I have absolutely no idea why writers do this, but the truth of the matter is that it's all too clear. This "affectionate" presentation of SB people is there for cheap laughs. So that the university-educated reader can sit back in his armchair and internally go "Ho, ho, ho. These SB people and the things they say. I'm so glad that I am middle-class, educated, tactful and well-rounded, and all in all a level above these SBs. But I do love to read about their delightful little antics."

Rural people suffer the worst from this (which I, as someone brought up in a small village, strongly resent), but the last example shows that urban dwellers are not immune to it either. However, my experience shows there are very few communities of SB people. In fact, there are very few SB people, period. People have different priorities, different motives, of course! But the sort of shit-headed SB oblivion that "good-hearted, affectionate" literary fiction portrays is virtually non-existent. Writers: pack it in. These people are not a fair target, whether existent or not. The truth is far more complicated. People are far more complicated. And I for one would like to read about real, perceptive people, rather than being assailed with stupidification intended to elicit a few cheap laughs and a fleeting feeling of superiority.

Ritter Sport Ratings

Rum, Raisin & Nut: 8/10
I was surprised to find that I preferred this one to its non-alcoholic counterpart. The rum hits a taste register that otherwise remains unused, in effect adding another dimension to its taste. Not just crunch and squish, but crunch, squish and oooooh.

Whole Almond: 4/10
Nah. Having tried the Hazelnut varieties so recently, I found that almond is a poor substitute. It's that bit squeakier between the teeth, and its crunch is feeble compared to that of the mighty hazelnut. Not a winner.

Diet Half Dark Chocolate: 1/10
Eeeeew. Ritter, WHAT WERE YOU THINKING? This is just as dry as the non-diet variant. In addition, it tastes of nothing very much, except possibly bicarbonate of soda. Ick ick ick. What a terrible way to end a great series.

End, yes. This is the end. For, ladies and gentlemen, in my two months in Germany so far I have now tried out every brand of Ritter Sport available in German supermarkets. The league table is presented below. Fear not, for I will try my damnedest to get my hands on others, because I know others exist. In Munich, for example, I remember sampling a Cognac flavour Ritter Sport, and of course the legendary Baileys flavour. Sadly my memory is not good enough to compare one I ate three years ago to one I ate today. But I will hunt them down and bring them to you, my dear adoring public!

League Table
1. Rhubarb, strawberry and yoghurt: 9/10
2. Milk Chocolate: 9/10
3. Alpine Milk Chocolate: 9/10
4. Crunchy Biscuit (Knusperkeks): 9/10
5. Nougat: 8/10
6. Cappucino: 8/10
7= Hazelnut (milk chocolate): 8/10
7= Hazelnut (dark chocolate): 8/10
9. Fine Dark Chocolate (Edel-Bitter): 8/10
10. Rum, Raisin & Nut: 8/10
11. Marzipan: 7/10
12. Blood Orange: 7/10
13. Raisin & Nut: 7/10
14. Vanilla Liqueur Truffle: 7/10
15. Knusperflakes (Crunchy Flakes): 7/10
16. Sunny Crisp (sunflower seeds): 6/10
17. Espresso Crunch: 6/10
18. Half Dark Chocolate: 6/10
19. Amaretto Truffle: 6/10
20. Hazelnut (white chocolate): 6/10
21. Dark chocolate with Creme a la chocolate mousse: 5/10
22. Jamaica Rum: 5/10
23. Kakaocreme (Cocoa cream?): 5/10
24. Peppermint: 5/10
25. Whole Almond: 4/10
26. Golden Peanut: 4/10
27. Yoghurt: 4/10
28. Lemon: 3/10
29. Coconut: 2/10
30. Diet Half Dark Chocolate: 1/10

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Winter Sets In In Aachen (2)

A short post this week, mainly because it's late and I don't have all that much to say. Dutch classes have started again, and I've been busy with that, although my Dutch is coming on a treat. Two new members of the group for the second part of the course: an old man, must be in his early sixties, and a young Italian girl who speaks no German whatsoever, which is interesting and at least makes me feel good about myself (especially as she's been living in Germany for a while now). We also all get the chance to laugh at the fact that she pronounces every word ending in a consonant with a final -e (ik-e woon-e in-e Aken-e). Yeah, it's harsh, but it's also funny and she doesn't mind ;)

Today I watched V for Vendetta on DVD. A good film, I must say, all the more surprising because me and Muso Dave had watched the trailer on the internet and agreed that it looked rather lame. I now suspect that we came to this conclusion because, like most trailers for such films, it only focused on the action scenes - which were actually quite few and far between. While the political content was nothing I hadn't seen before, really, and certainly nothing very profound (there was a surprising lack of any kind of real moral ambiguity; the bad guys were very definitely bad guys), it was still quite refreshing. Hugo Weaving does a damn good job as V despite never getting to use his face, and Natalie Portman keeps the side up despite being (I think) a bit miscast in this role. The real star is Stephen Rea, who does a lovely turn as the hard-bitten inspector who slowly comes around to the side of the terrorist he's trying to track down.

Last weekend I went on a little walk to a nice town called Kornelimünster. As well as exploring some wooded hills, a ruined Roman temple, an art exhibition in the old monastery and a disused chalk kiln, I went to the restaurant "Bahnhofsvision" in the old station house. For a train buff like me it was heaven, and the food - a Leberkäse (meat loaf) and Sauerkraut (pickled cabbage) lasagne - was very rich and enormous. There was even a dialect poem in the menu, written in Öcher Platt (Aachen Low German). Here it is:

"Os Mönsterland"

Schön lit et - kot bei Oche,
freuer de au Lü - die sproche
jär do va - et wod jenant,
os Heimat - et Mönsterland.
Mönster, Brenich, dr Bäresch on Vönwäje
ös, wie jesaat - hill schön jeläge,
enge met dr angere - warr bekannt,
än os Heimat - äm Mönsterland.
Me hel zesame - me kom beijee,
dat kannt me nät angesch - dat mott esu see,
de Meiesch, de Schmäzze - se warre verwandt,
esu warret freujer - äm Mönsterland.
Sich ze besökke - dat warr e Verkiihr,
kom da noch Pastur - mein Jott, wat en Ihr,
ver Känger jeve - däm noch de Hand,
esu warr dat freujer - äm Mönsterland.
Me stäng noch frösch op - me warr net ze mö,
se hodde fast all - Schof, Mägge en Köh,
de jo Botter - die war ä Oche bekannt,
se wod jestosse - äm Mönsterland.
Ä Mönster, do wäd - de Oktav jefihrt,
op dr Luckas jehaue - dr Konälles jeihrt,
ä Brenich, do jäddet - on dat ös bekannt,
de beizde "Brettwosch" - vam Mönsterland.
Die wäd hü noch jässe - bis op de leizde Fissele,
doför nennt me os hü noch - de "Brenijer Pissele"!
Vam Knöppche nom Bäresch - do hat me nät witt,
onge äm Lauch - dr Balkan litt,
do wohnde dr Därres - mät singe Trödel,
de enzije Wetschaff - die hott dr Vödel.
Va Vönwäje - do weeß me ze berichte,
do jängener or - va Brenich bischte.
Esu ös os Heimat - de Lü send va Kär,
he sett me ooch atenz - "Läck mich de Brär",
et ös om Oche - de schönste Kant,
et jeeht nüüs övver - os Mönsterland!

Ritter Sport Ratings

Alpine Milk Chocolate: 9/10
Surprising what a difference alpine milk can make. This one is a lot thicker and stickier than the plain milk chocolate, but what the two have in common is that they are both amazing. Denser, drier and stickier, this one. I very much enjoyed sucking it rather than biting into it.

Kakaocreme (Cocoa cream?): 5/10
This one was the boring one I've been waiting for. Another one where I didn't know whether to keep it in the fridge and have the cream solidify or to put it in the cupboard and have it excessively melty. This doesn't add anything to the basic quadrant formula, just replaces some of the chocolate with a relatively bland and boring creamy stuff. Yawn.

Raisin & Nut: 7/10
A classic combo the world over, and successful here, although lacking in the novelty common (!) to most Ritter varieties. The combination of crunch, squish and mmmm is a basically admirable one. Look out for the Rum version of this one next week!

Half Dark Chocolate: 6/10
Good chocolate, but too dry. Eating it dried my mouth out completely. It still went down a treat, though - even the worst Ritter Sport, remember, is worth most of the world's other chocolate bars put together. Qualitatively, not quantatively. Well, when you quantify the quality and then add them all together quantatively, anyway. Look out for the Diet version of this one next week!

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Winter Sets In In Aachen

Well, sort of. The weather seems to be maintaining a strange but pleasant ratio of darkness and rain on weekdays, sun and breezes at weekends. I can live with that.

Last weekend, for example, I went for two lovely walks, both ending up in the same place (Stolberg) but starting from two different points. The first started from my front door and went through my local nature area, the Brander Wald (Brand Wood). This nature area doubles as a military training area, which is somewhat weird, as every now and then you come across a rusty old tank. Even weirder is the fact that you're allowed to walk across it at all. In England such places are invariably fenced off and out of bounds to the general public. In Germany, however, they are available to (and freely used by) the public. The necessary health warning is provided by the signs around the perimeter that state, in more words than this: "You can use this area freely until nightfall. We accept no responsibility if you get shot."

Nice walk, though, as was the next day's walk. This one was another section of the old Vennbahn railway track to follow, and it was really peaceful and beautiful. The paths and tracks paralleling the railway were hardly thoroughfares, and followed the course of a very rural little valley. It was great fun, until the end , when I ended up in a quarry.

Quarries, whether British or continental, appear to have mastered the art of protesting rights of way. They don't actively waste any energy doing anything as silly as complaining about the age-old path running through the middle of their operation. Instead they simply make it as unpleasant as is humanly possible for anyone to use said path: mounds of black grit, rusting machinery, lorries rumbling past with wheels twice as tall as you, even (and this was an experience I had in the UK) an overhead conveyor belt crossing the path and carrying rocks which frequently fall off onto the ground below!

I made it out the other side, and arrived in Stolberg. It's another beautiful town in the German mould: deep in a valley, castle on a rise in the centre of the town, with the old town clustered around it. (I always wonder how there come to be so many cool places to put castles in Germany. It's not fair on the rest of the world that there are so many dramatic mounts overlooking dells containing an abundance of natural resources.)

There was a harvest festival going on in Stolberg, which scuppered my plans of simply going somewhere and having a quiet Apfelschorle. Instead I had to settle for a noisy Apfelschorle and a piece of Apfelkuchen, albeit in the castle courtyard, where a quaint harvest market was taking place. All sorts of local produce was on sale, from wine to apple juice to fruit and vegetables to honey to arty-crafty things. It was beautiful - and the place was so busy. This only reinforces my view that the Germans in general are far more community-minded than the British at least.

In the streets below, there were many bands playing on podiums (podia?). Not good bands, but fun bands, playing old folk songs, most of which I couldn't understand because the dialect was too strong. I strolled around admiring the place for a while before getting the train back to Aachen. Train isn't the quickest way, but I really wanted to travel on that stretch of track, as it's all that's left of the old Vennbahn I've been harping on about. There were a few very excitable children on the train, and when the driver arrived they pleaded so eloquently that he let them into the cab with him as he was driving. Again, would never happen in England. All in all, a lovely day out.

Ritter Sport Ratings: HAZELNUT SPECIAL!!!! OMG!!!!!!11111

Hazelnut (milk chocolate): 8/10
This is a pretty 1337 R1tter 5p0rt. There are so many hazelnuts... and they crunch just right. Glorious.

Hazelnut (white chocolate): 6/10
Well, I had to admit it at some point. I'm just not too big a fan of white chocolate. It's a bit sugary, and not as elegant as dark or milk. This one isn't exactly the same as the other two, though, oh no. It also contains some random crunchy things. Why? I don't know. They don't help the cause of this quadrant. It only gets 6/10 because the hazelnuts themselves are great and because chocolate (of any kind) and hazelnuts are a good combination.

Hazelnut (dark chocolate): 8/10
Again, it's kinda the 5h1tz0r. Can't decide which is better, this or the milk chocolate. No, I really can't decide. Go away.

STOP POKING ME!!!! (what do I look like, an Orc?)

Saturday, October 07, 2006


After what seemed like an insurmountable series of obstacles and an excessive amount of time, I'm finally going to get my home internet connection on Wednesday! Yaaay!

I'm overly excited about this. With it comes a phone line with which I can make free calls to any European land line, so if you want to talk to me, just ask me to ring you!

This week was Tag der Deutschen Einheit - German Unity Day. It celebrates the reunification of East and West Germany, and is a national holiday in Germany. As with most national holidays, everywhere was closed and the weather was crap. Ah well. It was nice to have a lie in and a free day.

On Sunday I walked about 23-24 km to my local picturesque town, Monschau, starting out at Raeren where I ended up last week. Theoretically I was still following the route of the old railway, but in practice I was only following it in spirit. The line does some silly things at that stage to avoid steep terrain and to serve larger settlements, so I cut quite a few corners.

Monschau really is picturesque in the best German tradition. It's situated at the confluence of two rivers, in a very deep wooded valley, and the old town quarter is incredibly well preserved. Inevitably it's a tourist honeypot, something I've learned to live with. Governing one side of the valley is a ruined tower, and on the other is an impressively intact castle. Within the castle is a youth hostel, which I think is incredibly cool. I went up to both the castle and the tower, and otherwise wandered around soaking up atmosphere and eating ice cream. (Chocolate ice cream while wearing a white sweatshirt. Error.)

For the last two days at work I've been one of only two people in the office, which has been interesting as I've had to deal with all the English queries that the more senior people usually deal with. I spent most of that time proofreading a 222-page document written in English by a Dutchman. It was not only full of the classic German/Dutch-into-English mistakes including e.g. the use of e.g. where it shouldn't be (e.g. the preceding); the subject material was also utter tripe. It contained the word "synergy", which is always a warning sign, and proceeded to talk about leadership "functions" and teamwork strategies.

It made me feel like I had to qualify what I said in an earlier post. I do love systems, but only when they're real systems, representing something that can and should be systematised. I loathe artificial systems constructed purely with words that attempt to formalise something that is for the most part self-evident. This is invariably the case with anything to do with management, marketing, and consultancy of any kind. It makes me furious that people are earning a fortune through sitting at PCs thinking up this crap, using new words to describe age-old ideas and concepts that are blindingly obvious and then selling their fabrications as new "theories" of people management.

I won't say there is no skill in this kind of formalisation. There is, but it's a pale, bloodless, pointless skill. The fact is that people do not need elaborate guidelines on how to deal with other people - or even simple theories. People need ideas, and they need practical help. And no, the sort of buzzword-ridden jargon-loaded "models" I've been discussing are not "ideas" and do not present "ideas". The seeming interchangeability of ideas and idle modellings and systematisations is a serious problem with the modern age. I suspect it is mainly down to people having easier lives. After all, it's impossible to imagine someone popping up during the time of the Black Death and saying "It's okay, people; all you need to do is follow my handy five-step avoidance model". In those days people just got on with it, because they had to.

Much as I hate to say it, it's probably a postmodern phenomenon. I hate to say it because "postmodern" is one of those words/concepts that tends to be used for all sorts of things by the sort of pretentious, parsimonious arseholes who pump out exactly the kind of crap I'm talking about. But one of its assertions, that medium equals message, highlights the problem nicely. Medium should not equal message. There are ideas, and then there are "models", and the existence of a model formalising an idea does not validate the model, just as it does not validate the idea.

Ritter Sport Ratings

Coconut: 2/10
With its incredibly thick layer of coconut, this quadrant is a must-have for any lover of the white stuff. I, however, am the opposite. I dislike coconut and only ate this one to complete the series, knowing that I'd have to do it some time and hoping that it wouldn't actually contain much coconut. Sadly I was wrong. Eew. It's mushy and crunchy and wet and dry at the same time, and it tastes like washing powder. Eew.

Yoghurt: 4/10
Given my unique relationship with yoghurt, you might have expected a higher rating for this one. The problem is that this just doesn't taste or feel like yoghurt. It tastes like some random filling that's been put into a Ritter Sport. While it may work as a background to some other flavours, on its own it is just a bit weird.

Jamaica Rum: 5/10
See last week's comments about liqueur chocolate. This one packed the most punch of the three liqueur flavours so far, and so in my view was the least enjoyable. It's still good fun and tasty, though, and feels a bit naughty to boot.

Marzipan: 7/10
I'm not a major marzipan fan, to tell the truth, but Ritter have done themselves proud with this one. The dark chocolate - an excellent choice - hugs the marzipan beautifully, supporting it and becoming one with it in your mouth. The proportions are absolutely spot on: neither the chocolate (a powerful flavour) nor the marzipan (which can be stodgy and texturally overwhelming) is allowed to dominate. The two are fightin' on yer tongue, but they're also making' love. An unexpected winner.

Tune in next week for a Hazelnut special edition of the Ritter ratings!

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Chocolate and bureaucracy

Not much to say this week. That is, although lots of things that are useful to me have happened, none of it's very exciting. For instance, the bank transaction I've been waiting for for weeks has finally come through, so I've been able to order my phone/internet package (which will arrive in 3-4 weeks... grr). Also, I've finally got confirmation of my health insurance, so I've been able to register as living in Germany, something that I need to do in order to pay tax (yay!). In short, I'm nice and settled in now.

The first part of my Dutch course has come to an end, although there are three more parts, all of which I will definitely do. We celebrated by buying the teacher a bottle of nice red wine, which he kindly shared with us during the last lesson.

As I mentioned, of course, we also went to Maastricht. Surprisingly, I can't think of much to say about that. The countryside in Limburg (the stretched-out bit at the very bottom of the Netherlands which borders onto Aachen and contains Maastricht) was surprisingly nice, mostly rolling farmland with lots of little paths and tracks. I'm going to have to go walking there some time. It's a nice town. We wandered around, saw lots of old buildings including a working mill with a waterwheel and the remains of three town walls of different eras, then sat down for a drink. It's on the river Maas, and you can get a boat to Liège, which takes about 45 minutes.

One thing I forgot to mention last week: Belgium's tractors are all really old and quaint.

Another Vorteil this week: German drivers tend to give way to pedestrians. For instance, if you walk across the mouth of a T-junction drivers will usually stop and let you. I'm used to the English mindset, where they won't, so I usually end up annoying drivers by coming up to the junction and stopping at the same time as they do, resulting in neither of us wanting to cross first. It's all very civilised.

Ritter Sport Ratings

This week I had a training course in Grünenthal GmbH's document management system, CLEO. It was fairly simple and dull, but the course leader was giving out mini Ritter Sports for correct answers to his questions! I fear that I might have got a reputation as a nerd during that course for the way my hand shot up every time, but it was worth it. I got three! :D Pity that winning chocolate doesn't make you any friends. Unless you offer to share the chocolate around, of course, and I was, like, so totally not prepared to do that. I'm not going to review the mini varieties here, as I feel that the quantity sampled was insufficient for a fair evaluation.

Vanilla Liqueur Truffle: 7/10
Vanilla is a good flavour to go with milk chocolate, and so this was pretty delightful. I do feel that all the liqueur varieties pack a bit too much of a punch flavour-wise; it's not that I don't like liqueur chocolate, but a whole Ritter Sport of it is a bit much, even if you eat it slowly and over a long period of time. Hence the non-perfect rating.

Knusperflakes (Crunchy Flakes): 7/10
I liked this one, but... I just remember it being better. In actual fact, it was just a little bit too crunchy for me. Maybe I'm a wuss, but I preferred the milder crunch of Espresso Crunch and Knusperkeks. With this one, the flakes tended to scrape a bit when going down my throat, although the feeling when biting it is fun.

Milk Chocolate: 9/10
I've extolled the virtues of the creamy, succulent Ritter milk chocolate before, in relation to other varieties, but I must confess that I was expecting to be a little bit bored by this one. In actuality, it says a lot for the punch it packs that it's the only flavour so far where I've been unable to restrict myself to at most 5/8ths of a quadrant per day, instead guzzling the whole thing in one go. I don't know how they do it, but this is awesome. Big up to Ritter! This now comes in at second place, knocking Knusperkeks down to third, and is only a smidgeon behind Rhubarb & Strawberry Yoghurt, which holds onto the top spot through novelty value.

Amaretto Truffle: 6/10
The same mostly applies to this as applied to Vanilla Liqueur Truffle. It's a bit much. This one isn't quite so successful, as the almondy flavour doesn't quite have the lay-down-and-die subtlety of vanilla. In addition, the dreaded squishiness makes its reappearance, making this not as rewarding an eat as it could be.

Saturday, September 23, 2006


Last week's post didn't really have much to do with what I've been up to, did it? It was self-indulgent tripe, really, wasn't it? Well, this one is going to be more of the same. Sorry, but I don't get up to that much that's interesting. I work 9 hours a day Mon-Fri, and have Dutch classes for two and a half hours on Monday and Wednesday, which means that I'm working 50 hours a week. In consequence, I tend to mostly sleep the rest of the time, although I get to go on a few outings at weekends. Tomorrow, for instance, I'm heading to Maastricht with the others on the Dutch course.

But anyway, this is all getting too relevant to my actual life, so I should probably start writing about the subject of the post: railways. I love railways, and have never really managed to figure out why. OK, my dad's a big fan, but that doesn't really explain it. It might be to do with the fact that I still connect train journeys with family outings and special events. Or there might be some more interesting explanation.

Perhaps it links back to what I was discussing in last week's post, my love of systems. A railway network is the ultimate system. It's always maximally efficient, as far as I can see (referring to the track here, not the trains themselves!), and incredibly uncompromising; a railway line always goes by the most direct route to where it needs to go.

Perhaps it's to do with the scope of them. Standing next to a railway I always feel as if I'm in the presence of something vastly more important and influential than myself, and, as those who know me will know, I consider very little to be more important and influential than me. When a train flashes past, someone in one of the carriages might briefly catch my eye. To that person, all that I am, was or will be is reduced to that single still frame. Meanwhile, that person has his or her own life - a life whose current chapter might have commenced in Fort William, say, and continued in London, from Euston station. And on that train there could well be hundreds of people, all with their own "plotlines", but all I see of any of them is that one brief glimpse. It's an incredibly humbling feeling, but uplifting at the same time.

Sometimes, very occasionally, I feel the same about coins. You can look at a coin and see the date (1977), and see that it's a bit grimy, and see that it's a 20p and thus extremely valuable for Cambridge purposes. But that coin has a story of its own, one that it can't ever tell because it doesn't have a mouth or even a mind. Maybe it was given in change by a London greengrocer who'd got it from a bank in 1977, then used five minutes later to buy a bus ticket to Wood Green. The bus driver then gives it to another customer as change outside Kings Cross, and by the end of the day it's in Newcastle. There the lady who had it drops her purse, and the contents spill out. The coin in question rolls into the road, and the lady decides that it's not worth bending down and picking it up (she's wearing a short skirt). The next morning, at 6 am, an old man who has trouble sleeping spots it on the way back from buying his newspaper and morning pack of cigarettes, and it makes his day. He shows it to his wife, who's not as impressed, so he sticks it in a pot by his bed. There it remains for the next 22 years. At Christmas 1999, the old man, now well into his nineties and unable to go out and pick up his own paper, decides to give a tip to his paper-girl. He scoops it out of the pot and presses it into her hand. The girl isn't impressed; most of her customers have a better grasp of the concept of inflation than this particular old man, and have given her at least a quid. Still, she puts it into her purse, which she loses later that day in a mound of soft toys and finds again in March. Not a big spender, in fact very clever with her money, the girl keeps the coin, along with many others, for a good while, and eventually spends it on a pack of Sainsbury's Basics "Cookies with Chocolate Flavour Chips" in Cambridge, where she's now studying Economics. The week after, it's picked up as change by me, and I use it for the Castle End dryer, totally oblivious to any of this except the last bit.

Incidentally, I feel the same when I'm on trains. I get a kick out of just gazing out of the window, feeling my senses being bombarded with more information than I can ever hope to take in - and that's not even considering that everything out there has a past, and a future. But I can try, and I can just let myself float away on it. It suits my self-appointed role as "observer" of all things. On a train I'm "safe" inside a capsule of metal and weatherproof glass and can watch the world go by. Trains, and railways, are therefore very much a meta-phenomenon for me. (Pseud, yes, I know.) They aren't part of the world itself, just an overarching system for observing it, and for facilitating the observation of different bits of it. A sort of heavenly realm.

This analogy is the only thing that comes clsoe to explaining the feeling I get when I see abandoned railways. I can't really engage with it, not like I can when a person, or an animal, or a rainforest, dies, or even when a building is knocked down, as it isn't really part of the same world. But at the same time it fills me with a strange sadness, like I'd somehow seen the death of an angel. It's something that shouldn't happen, and shouldn't be able to happen.

As I'm someone who gets off on inexplicable feelings, I was pleased that there was a dismantled railway line running through my village in Germany, about 500m away from where I live, and that I could walk along it to work - it's been converted into a footpath/cycleway, and in about 35 minutes I can emerge right outside the front door of the building where my office is situated. It's not the fastest route, but it's definitely the nicest, and the one that makes me think the most.

But of course there's a yin to every yang, a coffee to every cream, a Jarvis Cocker to every Michael Jackson, and so it is that this particular railway also goes in the opposite direction, into the countryside. On one of my first weekends here (the very first, or maybe the second), I headed out that way, as the map showed the path continuing on for another five miles or so, a nice evening's worth of walking. In fact, as I think I mentioned, it didn't stop where the map said it would, but continued on, so so did I. It's a lovely line, passing through rolling countryside with a few really quite dramatic viaducts. The best part of it is that afer a while it joins up with another line, one which hasn't been dismantled but clearly hasn't been used for a few years (despite the map (published 2004) saying that it was used for summer passenger traffic), and the path continues alongside it. This is a Good Thing. Abandoned railways are the absolute best kind, and the most heart-rending. It's as if the angel's corpse hasn't disintegrated and dissipated into the aether like they're supposed to, but remained there, decaying and being defaced like the average mortal's remains. I followed the line along to a place called Walheim, and as it was starting to get dark I got the bus back.

Today I headed out there again, determined to walk further down the path. Unfortunately, halfway through Walheim the path proper comes to an end. I didn't want to walk along the still-intact trackbed (well, would you trudge along an angel's body?), but this didn't stop me, and I followed the course of the line as closely as I could, along paths, tracks and main roads. Eventually I entered the northernmost reaches of the North Eifel Forest, an enormous area of mixed woodland stretching across western Germany and eastern Belgium and containing few settlements of any size. It was a sunny day, and the course of the railway track, about a hundred yards away, appeared simply as a line of sunlight. Eventually I came out of the woodland, passed a sign telling me I was in Belgium, and emerged in a small town/large village called Raeren. Raeren had a station, so I went to visit it. It was a sorry site. Carriages had just been left to rot, and locomotives too, although they were all holding up heroically.

Bah, that's enough about railways. Suffice it to say that Raeren was quite nice. It was very quiet, except in the middle, where a wedding had just taken place and everyone was celebrating noisily. I felt very out of place there, pressing through the crowd to get to the bus stop, wearing my "This is my happy face" T-shirt.

Let's talk about Pink. I must confess, I never gave her much thought for a long while. That was until she started bringing out tracks that were "different", like Don't Let Me Get Me and Just Like A Pill, which I immediately classified as caterwauly power-pop of the worst kind. I always appreciate artists who try to defy genres, but as well as rebelling they also have to produce good art, and Pink seemed to be doing the absolute opposite.

Since then I'm ashamed (sort of) to say that I've lost touch with the charts, so I haven't had much of an opportunity to give her a second chance. I started thinking that I probably should when J. K. Rowling mentioned her on her website (something about "Thin Girls"?), but didn't do anything about it. However, here in Germany I have 30 cable TV channels, including music channels, and I've seen the video to her new charting single, "Who Knew", a few times now. I have to say that it really is very good. It's still melodramatic, and just a little bit rebellious (the line about "I'd stand up and punch them out" makes me snigger), but it's also a very well-crafted, nicely sung song. It has guitars and strings, a Good Combination in my book. I'd really suggest giving it a listen. The video is also good - quirky, and emotional, and the girl herself doesn't look half bad, in a quirky way.

Ritter Sport Ratings

A high scoring week this week, probably because I've been eating some more tried-and-tested flavours.

Crunchy Biscuit (Knusperkeks): 9/10
Epic. This one looked like a milk Choco Leibniz, only with chocolate on both sides, and that's what it was - with the addition of a thin layer of delicious creamy stuff in the middle, serving as a tasty and welcome lubrication to an otherwise dry combo. Not as interesting as Rhubarb & Yoghurt (and Strawberry, I found out recently), so has to settle for second place, but a firm favourite for me.

Fine Dark Chocolate (Edel-Bitter): 8/10
What it says on the tin. All just solid, quality chocolate, so unfaultable - except that my palate has become a little jaded by so many exotic flavours, and so this one was just a little bit dull for me, I'm ashamed to say. It's also very dry, as dark chocolate tends to be. All in all, a very good product, but I eat Ritter for the interesting varieties and this one isn't quite so engaging.

Nougat: 8/10
Much the same as the above applies to this one: it's not fascinating. However, it is very, very tasty, and nougat goes well with the creamy Ritter milk chocolate whose virtues I've already extolled many times. The problem with this one is storing it: if you put it in the fridge it gets too hard and crunchy, and it tends to be a bit gooey if you just leave it in the cupboard. Still one of the most satisfying varieties overall, though.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Between three countries

Yesterday I got a bus out of town and walked through a few miles of beautiful mixed woodland crisscrossed with many, many ancient paths and tracks until I got to the Dreiländereck.

It's a reasonably exciting place, sitting on top of a wooded ridge. As you can guess from the name (or not if you don't know enough German), it's the place where three countries meet: Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands. In fact, for a short while from 1918 it was the Vierländereck, as the autonomously governed area of Neutral-Moresnet was set up to prevent the Germans and the Belgians from knocking six bells out of one another, and met the other three lands at the corner. What's there nowadays? Well, there's a memorial to a soldier who died aged 20 in the battle of the Ardennes in 1944, there's a tall observation tower with a lift going up it to give you a better view of the three countries (which I didn't go up; too touristy, and besides, it cost money), there are several cafés, restaurants and information centres, and there's a stone plaque on the Dutch side of the border stating that at 327.5 metres this is the highest point in all of the Netherlands.

Being able to understand the information presented in four languages (Dutch, French, German and English) around the stone, though, gave me a massive kick. What? No, that doesn't make me a very sad individual. Let me explain.

I've devoted a fair bit of my short life to learning languages. It's a challenge, really. I'd say that active acquisition of languages other than one's mother tongue is one of the most difficult activities it's possible for the human mind to undertake. A simple comparison of language A-levels with others serves to prove this: while an A-level in, say, Maths, already qualifies you for a fairly wide range of jobs, an A-level in French only proves that you can do (at a considerably lower level) what 60 million people in France alone can already do.

Systems are what I enjoy. I like getting my head inside a system, working it out and mastering it. That's what drew me to maths, and languages, and what fascinates me every time I come into contact with computer languages. But even the "simplest" human language used as a mother tongue by some group of people is orders of magnitude more complex and defined than the most advanced programming language. Languages are the greatest systems there are.

Am I blowing my own trumpet here? Perhaps. I don't do much of that, generally, so I'm probably entitled to, here and there. What I'm doing is more for my own satisfaction than for anything else. By and large, learning languages is a pretty thankless task. Native speakers tend to be extremely impatient with stumbling non-native learners. But sometimes, rarely, it pays off big-style. Like yesterday, when I was confronted with an information board in four languages and had the choice of any of them in which to read the information.

Sometimes I get a faint whiff of wistfulness when I talk about my course to people doing other degrees at Cambridge. They say things like "It must be so great to be donig something as concrete as language learning". It's true, sometimes. After three years at Cambridge, students of, say, English, or History, or Maths, have very little to show for their efforts - they may have a nice shiny degree certificate, but deep down there's always the doubt that they haven't done anything worthwhile at all and that they may have learned nearly nothing. You can't say that with language learning. There's a definite target from the beginning - fluency - and progress down that path is eminently measurable, even if at times painfully slow and blind. And the rewards when you feel yourself getting there are great.

OK, mine isn't the only reason for wanting to learn a language. Many - most - seem to consider the language a key to understanding peoples, cultures, history. That's fine, but it's not what I'm in it for. I'm not in it for career reasons, either. As far as I'm concerned, learning languages is not just a means to an end. It's a satisfying end in and of itself.

Ritter Sport Ratings

Golden Peanut: 4/10
I can't fault the execution of this one. No issues whatever. Peanuts, thickly coated in chocolate. The only question is: Why? Why do this to chocolate, and to peanuts? I like chocolate, I like peanuts, but this really is a silly idea for a novelty Ritter Sport combo. It fully deserves to sink without a trace after aficionados have had their chance to bite into it and think "Oh. OK".

Espresso Crunch: 6/10
Tasty. The crunch is good, and reminds me of the mornings I used to spend in 6th form getting my caffeine fix for the day from grinding chocolate covered coffee beans between my teeth. My reservation with this one is the same as with many other new combos - I think that the type of chocolate here is wrong. While the smoothness of cappuccino suits Ritter's soft, creamy milk chocolate, I think that with a sharp, suave flavour like Espresso dark chocolate would have worked better.

Peppermint: 5/10
I'd been looking forward to this one. I kind of expected it to be a giant After 8, and that's what it proved to be, simply put. Dark chocolate - spot on, here - with a filling of pepperminty goo. Sadly, the proportions were all wrong. The ratio of chocolate to peppermint was skewed in the peppermint direction, which meant that at times eating this one I couldn't help getting the feeling that I was ingesting toothpaste. Another millimetre or two of chocolate on the inside and this would be approaching perfection. Currently, though, this is just too squishy to be counted among the legendary flavours.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Geroge Walgden

was the name on a letter I received today. According to the Grünenthal company doctor, Mr. Walgden is apparently in fine health.

Really. You'd think that they'd get it right at least once. I've been Waldgen up until now, so I suppose it's a step in the right direction. Now all they need to do is devoice that velar stop, and Bbo's your uncle.

I've started to learn Dutch at the Volkshochschule (German evening class type place). I missed the first lesson, so not only do I not have the advantage of German as a first language, I also spent my first two-and-a-half hours catching up. Well, it's five hours a week, so I should pick it up fairly quickly.

Bureaucracy here is worse than I had anticipated. The following things are necessary for other things:

a) You need health insurance to offically live in the country.
b) You need to officially live in the country to legally earn money.
c) You need to have a German bank account to get health insurance.
d) You need to have a German bank account to legally earn money.
e) You need a job to legally earn money (of course).
f) You need a job to have a German bank account.
g) You need health insurance to have a job.
h) You need to have money in a German bank account to get health insurance.
i) You need to have money in a German bank account to get an internet connection.

All of the above means that it's a bugger trying to get settled in in Germany. And whatever you do, don't try and move over here without a job. The state will leave you to rot.

Not many new Vorteile or Nachteile. On the plus side, the ice cream is of course quality and cheap. On the minus side, maps are rubbish. The map of my area showed a train service that hasn't been running since 2001 and a path that supposedly stopped in the middle of nowhere even though it actually just kept going. Oh for Ordnance Survey.

Ritter Sport Ratings

Blood Orange: 7/10
Lock up your daughters when this chocolate's in town; it's a crazy rollercoaster ride. There's a distinct bite to it, and it's as tangy as you might expect. As with lemon, it might have done better with dark chocolate, but that's only a minor quibble. I'd wholeheartedly recommend this full-bodied quadrangle.

Sunny Crisp (sunflower seeds): 6/10
An interesting idea, this one. Full marks for creativity. As a crunchy variant it measures up well against the classic Knusperflakes, although it isn't perhaps such an engaging eat as some, lacking the epic flavour of rhubarb and yoghurt et al. There's also the problem that the sunflower seeds have a tendency to drop out of the chocolate and land on the floor, and are thus (after approximately 3 seconds) rendered inedible.

Cappucino: 8/10
This was simply magnificent. The soft, creamy texture of Ritter milk chocolate lends itself well to such combinations. This one was in fact so melt-in-mouth-tastic that I sucked most of the pieces instead of chewing them, wanting to get the maximum sensory experience. Even the fact that I'm not really a coffee drinker didn't significantly affect the pleasure I got out of this one.

An apology
The long and silly word that was the title of last week's entry should have been Unfallschadenbegutachtung, rather than Unfallschädigungsbegutachtung. I mean, obviously. I'd like to apologise to the good people at the shop down the road for any distress that this misrepresentation might have caused.

I'm not going to edit the original post, though, as the original erroneous version is slightly longer and sillier and therefore a smidgeon hilariouser.

Sunday, September 03, 2006


No, really. It's written on a shopfront at the end of my street. It's a very long word and symptomatic of all that is silly about Germany.

Welcome back to my blog! It's been defunct now for about 11 months, but since I'm in Germany for my Year Abroad now I thought I should use it to keep everyone informed as to what I'm doing, so now it is refunct.

I'm living in a lovely flat in Aachen-Brand, which is 33 square metres with a kitchenette (hobs but no oven... pasta for a year, it looks like), a bathroom (my own bathroom. I've never had one of those before!) and prints of works by Kandinsky on the walls. It is furnished, at least in theory, although two problems have arisen:

1. Nothing approximating to a desk. Coffee table just doesn't cut the mustard. So I went to the other side of Aachen, a trip involving two buses and a 15 minute walk, to get one. I then had to get it back to the flat, which proved to be an absolute swine, as it is big and heavy. I even got on the wrong bus out of the city centre, meaning that it took me about three and a half hours to get the accursed thing from the shop to the flat.

2. I was told to bring my own bedclothes. This I duly did, only to find that the bed was one of those silly (but nice) oversized German beds, and the ones I'd brought wouldn't fit. Luckily the previous owner had left some behind. They're a bit pink, but I'm secure in my manliness (and am not about to spend €100 on a new set).

In case you don't know, I'm working in the Language Services department of the pharmaceutical company Grünenthal. I've been to work once, to look around the place, and will be starting properly tomorrow (Monday). It's fairly exactly how I imagined a big company to be, but the people in my department seem very nice.

I was planning to walk to the Dreiländereck (the place where Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands meet) today, but when I got up it was raining cats and dogs, so I didn't. Apparently the weather is very changeable here, and it rains a lot. Just like in Cambridge and Derbyshire, then. Instead I mooched around for a while and then came and posted this blog entry. I'm in an Internet cafe at the moment, but I should have my own Internet connection at home fairly soon, and entries will become more regular after that, if anything interesting happens to me.

Deutschland - Vorteile und Nachteile

Ritter Sport. Quadratisch. Praktisch. Gut. The public transport kicks ass and is cheap. Food is good and cheap.

You can't get mansize tissues for love nor money. All you can get are those little tissues in packets. There aren't very many post boxes around. Water comes in two levels of fizzyness: fizzy, and fizzier. Almost all the taps are those damn mixer taps. The keyboards have z and y the other way round.

More Nachteile than Vorteile so far, but hopefully that will change.

Ritter Sport Ratings

Lemon: 3/10
What a weird concept. Does exactly what it says on the tin, but tastes rather incongruous. I think it would have been better with dark chocolate rather than white chocolate; keep the whole thing bitter instead of trying to offset it.

Rhubarb and yoghurt: 9/10
It's difficult to imagine a better flavour. Whoever came up with this concept was a genius. It was around when I was in Munich, and most of the more unusual flavours I tasted then have since disappeared. This one hasn't, which is a testament to its quality. The two go together beautifully, and the white chocolate is spot on. And no, this has nothing to do with my particular fondness for yoghurt. I think. Regardless, "Will you be the yoghurt to my rhubarb?" is a chat-up line that just has to be tried.

Dark chocolate with Creme a la chocolate mousse: 5/10
I'm in two minds about this one. Quality chocolate, obviously, but the creaminess of the chocolate mousse cream feels a bit out of place with the bitterness of the very dark, dry chocolate. Another combination that doesn't quite press my buttons, although it's not at all bad.

Stay tuned for more, including blood orange flavour!