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!