Saturday, December 29, 2018

Silvester in Germany

As New Year's Eve approaches I thought I would write about the local traditions which make this night special and memorable.

First of all, why is NYE called Silvester in Germany? For the same reason that December 6th is called Nikolaustag (St. Nick's Day). In the Catholic tradition, almost every day of the year celebrates a certain saint based on the date of that saint's birth, baptism, or death. That is the saint's Gedenktag, or feast day.

Silvester is the patron saint of housepets, cows, masons, and bricklayers. He was Pope (315-335 A.D.) during the reign of Constantine and when the Council of Nicea (Nicene Creed, 325 A.D.) was convened. He died on December 31, 335, and since NYE is Silvester's feast day, the last night of the year in Germany is called Silvester.

We follow the old Silvester traditions of the Germans - all except for the Feuerwerk, though we do step outside at midnight to watch the townfolk try their very best to set things aflame. We don't do gute Vorsätze für's neue Jahr (New Year's resolutions) either - we're realists and know we won't follow them more than a day or two.

Fondue was a thing of the 70s, but many people still do this or Raclette on Silvester. Those are perfect meals for an evening when you need to draw out the hours until midnight, since one is forced to eat slowly, cooking each bite-size piece of meat individually. We do ours in homemade beef broth, which we prepare in the afternoon with meat & bones from the butcher and vegetables from Mustafa, our Tuesday vegetable guy who is willing to deliver on holidays!

No German Silvester would be complete without the British comedy short Dinner for One, starring Freddy Frinton. This is a cult hit in Germany only, as few Brits and no Americans have ever heard of it. It's a ridiculously funny sketch celebrating yearly traditions: Miss Sophie is celebrating her 90th birthday, and her butler James has set places at the table for her four closest friends. With each of the seven courses served, Miss Sophie requests a different type of wine, which James pours for each of the guests. The trouble is, Sophie has out-lived all four of her friends, so James takes on their roles - and dialects - to toast with Sophie. As James gets drunker and drunker and has several run-ins with a tiger carpet, Sophie enjoys the fancy meal, the classy wine, and the fading memories.

We've done Bleigiessen a few times, but as of this year it's banned by the EU and you can't buy these kits anymore. Bleigiessen means "pouring lead," which probably makes clear the reason for the ban. Each person takes a piece of lead shaped like a Monopoly playing piece, melts it over a candle (or flambé burner, when you realize the tea candle will never get hot enough) and pours it into a bowl of cold water. It makes a cool popping sound as it solidifies into an unrecognizable shape. You then use the mysterious guide that comes with the kit to choose the shape you think most fits to your solid glob of lead. Each shape has a meaning and predicts something about your upcoming year. You know, if you believe in that kind of thing. Which we definitely do.

Bleigiessen is one of those activities that helps helped keep overtired kids occupied during the long hours till fireworks start.

In Swabia the Brezel is a beloved snack throughout the year, but on Silvester Swabians laud Neujahrsgebäck. The Neujahrsbrezel is a large braided pretzel made of Hefeteig, or yeast dough. It's sweet by German standards, and extra delicious when warmed and spread with butter.

It wouldn't be a German tradition without a symbolic meaning attached, so here we go: One explanation for why we indulge in large, sweet bakery at the start of the new year is that we have to build up our fat stores for the approaching Fastenzeit (fasting time). Fattening up isn't really an issue for most of us these days, so another theory is that evil spirits nibble on these treats and are appeased - and therefore leave us alone during the winter months.

Though there are other shapes of Neujahrsgebäck (wreaths, crescents, man-shaped), the pretzel is a favorite because it has no beginning and no end, thereby symbolizing eternity and bringing good luck.

Be careful if you're spending Silvester in Baden (the region of Baden-Württemberg that is not Swabia) - it's a tradition there to bake coins into the Neujahrsgebäck for good luck. Or bad luck if you break a tooth biting into the tasty treat. Most dentists are closed during the holidays.

We will also likely watch Angela Merkel's final Silvesteransprache (New Year's Eve speech). I can't claim that to be a tradition for us during the last several years, but it probably should have been.

Traditional good luck symbols in Germany are the Marienkäfer (Ladybug), the Schornsteinfeger (chimney sweep), the Glücksklee (clover) and the Glücksschwein (lucky pig), all pictured in my first photo above. The Glücksschwein has a Pfennig or Cent stuck in its mouth or on its back, and you can find edible pink ones made of nasty Marzipan, which takes like a combination of Playdough and earwax.
I haven't noticed any extra good luck from the Schornsteinfeger's visits- only the bill he leaves with us two or three times a year when he checks our furnace and sweeps the chimney. And yes, he does show up dressed like that - in all black with a hat or cap, and carrying the funny brush thingy. We provide the ladder, though.

One more tradition that seems fairly recent is the Silvesterlauf or Neujahrslauf. This is a mini-marathon held in cities and small towns to bring the community together and often raise some money for a good cause. At the end of the run everyone refills with pretzels and beer. That's too much sport for me, so I'm going to count our walk to the store on Saturday in search of icky Marizpan pigs (we searched in vain) as our Silvester exercise.

At midnight we toast the New Year (anstoßen) with Kessler Sekt from Esslingen, step outside to watch the neighbors' fireworks while M prowls around the house watching for burning embers landing on the roof, greet any folks from the neighborhood who also came out to watch the show and inhale the  sanctioned Feinstaub, then go back inside, blow out the candles, and go to bed.

We may not be the most exciting folks, but we enjoy our Silvester every year.

The common greetings for this holiday are:

  [Wir wünschen Euch einen] guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr! (up to midnight on Silvester)
  Guten Rutsch!  (lazy version of the above)

  Prosit Neujahr!
  [Ich wünsche Dir ein] gutes neues Jahr!
  Gutes Neues!  (lazy version of the above)

Prosit Neujahr!!

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Life in Swabia: Mülltrennung

I believe every foreigner living in Germany who writes a blog has written about Mülltrennung - garbage separation. I also wrote a post about this not long after I moved here. If your German is good enough you can find many articles online, such as this one, with instructions on how to do this properly or this one which includes a handy dictionary explaining all important words concerning garbage. 

Unless you live here, you would not believe the amount of time that can be spent pondering - and even discussing - the disposal of waste.

Each Landkreis (county) has its own special policies and procedures, so if you have moved to Germany and want to be certain you're doing it right, look up "Mülltrennung" for your county. We live in Landkreis Freudenstadt, which handles some aspects of garbage and recycling differently than Esslingen. We can put meat and bones into our Biomüll, for instance, whereas you can't do that in Esslingen.

This is a tired old topic, but one that keeps coming up again - recycled and reused, if you will. This morning I found myself perusing the 67-page booklet that arrived last week explaining the details of Mülltrennung for our area and then reading an article about it in the January issue of Deutsch Perfekt.

Seriously - this is what it has come to on a quiet Saturday morning. I am reading a booklet about separating garbage.
On the cover of the booklet is an ad for the AbfallApp (garbage app).
Why would I do such a thing? Why would anyone? Our county - and probably every county in Germany - publishes and mails to each household a printed annual guide for this business, hoping residents will read it and stop screwing up the system. We should dutifully research what refuse goes where, and when bins will be picked up. How on earth is anyone supposed to keep track of that?
Spoiler alert: There's an app for that.

M's phone dings once a month to remind him to put out whatever is being picked up in the morning. You read that right - once a month. Ok, Biomüll (compostable scraps) gets picked up every two weeks, and I recently read that in big cities it's all collected more often.

The magazine pictured above is Deutsch Perfekt. It's a brilliant magazine aimed at learners of German and includes a regular column called "Wie Deutschland funktioniert" (How Germany works"). As I mentioned, January's column is about separating garbage and recycling, and I read it with enthusiasm. The writer makes the claim that Germans love recycling and consider themselves Weltmeister (world champions) at it. 

And yet still there are those who don't get it. Case in point:

glass recycling containers: for white, brown and green glass
Those folks were just dicks. They showed up with bags of empty bottles but found the containers full to overflowing. What they were supposed to have done was take their bottles away, find another container, whatever - but not just stack them on top! They probably also committed their crime under the cover of darkness, ignoring the strict opening hours of the containers to restrict noise during the night and on Sundays, since no one would want to be caught in broad daylight being a Müll-Ferkel.
The "Garbage-Piglet" sorts his garbage/recycling wrong,
making the container area as messy as a pigsty.
Don't be a Garbage-Piglet!
When guests stay with us for just a day or three, the garbage separation business doesn't usually come up. My dad stayed with us for more than three weeks in the spring of 2017, though, and that meant a lesson on where to toss which garbage along with follow-up reminders. Honestly, it's nearly embarassing to me to do this to people - but since our space for garbage is limited, we need to do this right.

In extreme cases, there are even penalties for improperly disposing of garbage! If plastic or metal shows up in our Biomüll, we get a yellow card (soccer reference) warning. If it happens again we get a red card (also called the Arschkarte, or "ass card" in soccer), which means they will no longer collect our stinking bin of decomposing kitchen scraps. We then have to take it ourselves to the dump (no, it does not fit into the car upright, and for obvious reasons we wouldn't load it in sideways) and pay them to take it.

So...yeah. This shit needs to be taken seriously.

In the above photo you see many of the typical types of garbage and recycling a normal household deals with from day to day. All of what's there would go into two different bins in Wisconsin (USA): garbage for the landfill or recycling (paper, glass, plastic, all mixed together). But here in Germany... You don't get to claim to be Weltmeister at Mülltrennung just by throwing everything into one of two bins. The above items require seven different recepticles. Seven.

I'm not telling you this to be instructive so that you know where to toss things if you visit Germany. I'm telling you this to show you that something you don't give a nano-second of thinking time to (because you don't need to unless you live in Germany!) is actually something that matters here.

We'll start in the upper left. This is the little bugger I remember having to tell my dad did not belong in the tiny bathroom garbage can. Poor guy - he took it upon himself to change the TP roll himself, which apparently many boys and men can't be bothered to do, and I then had to tell him he was doing it wrong. Ugh. (Sorry, Dad!) Anyway, the empty TP tube belongs in the Altpapier (paper/cardboard bin), as does the booklet, when I'm finished reading it at the end of the year when the 2020 edition arrives, and the magazine. 

The lightbulb needs to be brought to the special lightbulb recepticle at either the local dump or at the entrance of our supermarket. 

I haul the empty wine bottle and its companions to the Glascontainer (glass recycling containers), and since it's not exactly brown and not exactly green, it goes in the green container - as does blue glass and yellow glass (don't ask, just accept). Drinking glasses do not go into the white/clear glass container, though - that's a special kind of glass and goes in the Restmüll (see below).

Left of the bottle are nut shells, representing kitchen scraps. Fruit & vegetable peels, apple cores, egg shells, meat scraps & bones, coffee grounds, etc. - just nothing liquid or soupy - goes into the brown Biomülltonne wrapped in newspaper. In the summer this bin stinks to high heaven, which brings flies and maggots. In the winter if it's too moist in the bin, whatever went in first freezes to the bottom and doesn't come loose when it's emptied. Fun times.

The lighter: I have no idea where the empty lighter goes. It's plastic, it's metal, it's liquid if it's not totally empty...We have a bag full of them stashed in a closet waiting for further instructions. I just asked M, and he said they probably go into the Restmüll (everything that doesn't belong somewhere else goes in here - it's our smallest bin), but not all of those at once. He means to toss 2 or 3 into the Restmüll every month when it's picked up, but he always forgets. That bag of lighters will probably still be there when we die.

In the bottom left of the photo we have a plastic-coated box of old Ricola lozenges. This requires three bins: the plastic wrapping goes into the gelbe Sack ("yellow sack" - stay tuned), the cardboard box goes into the Altpapier, and the expired cough drops go into the Biomüll.

The dirty tissue (please note: it's not actually been used) goes into the Restmüll or the Biomüll. Sometimes (though seldom) you have options, isn't that nice?

The batteries need to be taken to the dump, which is open for a few hours on Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings, or to the battery recepticle at our supermarket. We have a bag of these in a corner of the office, too, which we keep forgetting.

Lastly, between the batteries and the TP roll, you see a burned-out tea candle and styrofoam packaging peanuts. Those, along with almost all plastics and aluminium, lids to jars and bottles, and empty plastic bottles that can't be returned for Pfand (deposit) go into the gelbe Sack. Unlike with all the other types of garbage, we are not limited to a certain amount each month. We can put as many of these sacks out on pick-up day as we want. Do note, though, that not all areas of Germany have this gelbe Sack. I learned that from the Deutsch Perfekt article today.

We usually only fill 2 or 3 gelbe Säcke in a month.
This was shortly after our move.
Amazingly, we get these yellow sacks for free! Once a year the garbage guys put one roll of yellow sacks onto our garbage bin after they've emptied it. In apartment houses they place them next to the front door. Last week when I was at my Schwiegermutter's place, a pile of them - one for each household - was lying on the ground outside the front door. She scooped them all up "before they get pinched" and put them inside the locked door for residents to pick up.

I'm sure this all sounds complicated, and believe me, it is. But it's also just part of life in the Schwabenland. One becomes mindful of waste by living here, and most people make a conscious effort to produce as little waste as possible. We have things still in our basement (like the old sun room curtains, which we replaced four years ago with blinds, wire hangers ["Mommy Dearest," anyone?], and kitchen gadgets we don't need) because we don't know how to dispose of them!

A student of mine once called me pedantic. Friends have called me nervous and finicky. More than enough times I have heard "Relax! Let it go! It's not that big a deal!" And none of that was about sorting garbage. I can just imagine what any of those people would say if they stayed with us for more than three days and had to listen to my garbage-sorting instructions.

My parents are coming for about a week in Spring and my kids are probably coming for about 10 days next December for an early Christmas. In the event that they read this blog post to the end...

Please forgive me! It's not me, it's Swabia!

P.S. The EU has just banned the production of disposable plastic items such as straws, plastic plates, cups and cutlery, balloons, and plastic bags. This will be inconvenient at times, but I find it an excellent move. Why? Look at the last two photos in this article for a start.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Life Lately

I have really fallen behind again. This is a post I started a few weeks ago, and I'm publishing it now as a sign of life.

What have I been up to lately??


I took the train to Heidelberg for two days in mid-November to meet an old friend from Wisconsin. She runs a study abroad program for German and Swiss students who want to attend school in Wisconsin for a semester or a year, and she, her daughter (who was friends with my daughter when they were young), and a friend were here to interview interested students. Having exchange programs in common we had much to talk about along with catching up in general. Interestingly our programs are very similar except that hers costs €10,500 and ours is free beyond the plane ticket.

The next day I also met up with fellow midwestern expat blogger Mari. We meandered around town, took the Bergbahn up to the castle, popped in to visit Perkeo, the guardian of the 219,000-liter barrel of wine that resides in the castle, had lunch, and then she dumped me at the Bahnhof for my train ride home.

I also met my host mom and sister for coffee in Esslingen, a Syrian friend who likes to meet regularly to speak English, which he needs for his job training and a possible overseas experience in the USA or Canada (I'm pushing for Canada since I'm pretty sure #45's Muslim travel ban is still in effect), my Scottish student who invited me to a performance of Mozart's Requiem, my Schwiegermutter, and two teacher friends of mine. I was unusually social in November!

Falkner Adventures

M and I drove south to attend the last falconry show of the season at Schloß Hornberg, and in so doing met a new Falkner. I chatted with him a bit before the show and told him about my interest in becoming a Falknerin. He encouraged me to contact him and set up a visit to his Falknerei, which I did. M and I spent an afternoon with him and his birds, interacting with the birds we could and photographing the other ones. We each had an eagle on our arm at one point, the smaller Steppenadler for me and the impressive and very heavy Weißkopfseeadler for M.

Aischa, Steinadler (Golden Eagle)

Weißkopfseeadler (Bald Eagle)

Harris Hawk in the setting sun


I've made the exciting leap to Lightroom for organizing and editing my photos, and I now shoot only in RAW. I still have virtually no idea what I'm doing with all those fancy sliders, but I've been watching training videos and taking extensive notes. I have great hope that I will one day be almost as good as M at making good pictures better.


Despite the fact that I thought I would love this book, I dragged myself through H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald. I don't know how long I took to read it, but it felt like months. I finally finished it last night.

I've also been reading hunting magazines, my Jägerprüfung book, the local newspaper every day, and everything else that begs to be read instead of H is for Hawk.

Next I'll try a German book about a Falkner in 1184


Mainly emails. I also wrote an advertisement for the chaperone position we have available - to accompany our summer exchange students to my hometown for three weeks. Let me know if you live in the Esslingen area and are curious! (Our Verein pays for your trip.)

I also wrote our Christmas letter and am in the midst of writing cards.


We went to a cooking class a few weeks ago with the theme Wild, or wild game. It wasn't at our usual place, but rather at the VHS (community college). We didn't really learn any new skills, but it was enjoyable and we met some nice people.

On our own, however, we decided to see what we could do with 2.5 kg of Hirschgulasch M had bought from Metro (like Costco). This was a three-day event, and my contribution was clean-up. In the end it was delicious, and we have four leftover portions to help us through the winter. M prepared our taste test in the style of The Taste, a competitive cooking show we like to watch. (Hirsch = stag)

Hirschgulasch mit Spätzle und Preiselbeern

The Weihnachtsmärkte (Christmas markets) have been in full swing, and I have been to the ones in Horb, Esslingen, and Stuttgart. I enjoyed the Chocolate Festival in Tübingen at the beginning of the month, and I can still taste the out-of-season fruit dipped in dripping decadence.

I hope you, dear Readers, have been having a lovely and relaxing December. Don't forget to slow down and breathe, spread kindness, and be mindful.

Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Wir schaffen was!

Judging from a few other blog posts I've read lately, we bloggers who started out a few years ago focusing on the interesting differences between life in Germany and life in the homeland are running out of material. What was at first surprising, shocking, perplexing, frustrating or downright maddening is now just normal. Take this post from nearly four years ago. There's nothing listed there that is even noteworthy to me today.

My musings these days are turning darker, I suppose.

One pointed difference on a significant topic is immigrants and borders. On September 4, 2015 Angela Merkel welcomed the throng of refugees stuck at the Hauptbahnhof in Budapest who were seeking asylum in Europe. She basically tossed the immigration rule book out the window and made a decision in favor of humanity. The road from there has not been easy for her, her government, or for the refugees who have come to Europe, including many of my former students who have become my friends.

Just days ago the president of my homeland had asylum-seekers at the US-Mexican border tear-gassed.

I understand there are no easy answers, but frankly, I prefer the humanitarian approach.

Merkel uttered her now-famous words "Wir schaffen das!" ("We can handle this!"). Where there's a will, there's a way. Thinking positively. How very un-German.

In Nagold this week there is an exhibit of posters sponsored by the Diakonieverband Nördlicher Schwarzwald entitled "Wir schaffen was" ("We are accomplishing something"), a play on Frau Merkel's words. The posters highlight refugees in the area who have made something of themselves, have learned German and found jobs and friends. A student and friend of mine, who was in the main station of Budapest on that September night in 2015, is featured on one of the posters. I am very proud of him!

Fotos: Fotografie © Birgit Betzelt
  used with permission

For a number of reasons, including selfish ones since I have made quite a few friends due to her action, I am glad for Frau Merkel's compassionate approach.


While I'm taking what might be my last shot at comparing life in the USA vs. in Germany, I thought I'd share some numbers I came across just today.

Population 2018355,724,39082,353,315
Refugees & Asylum seekers 201684,989280,000
Refugees & Asylum seekers 201729,022186,000
Refugees & Asylum seekers cap45,000not applicable

In terms of land area, Germany (357,386 km2) could fit into the USA (9,834,000 km2) 27.5 times. For an enormous country that was once seen as a land of immigrants ("Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses..."), the number of refugees and asylum seekers it is willing to accept today is pathetic and embarrassing.

Set aside the argument about illegal vs. legal immigration: How many human beings fleeing war, poverty, inhumane conditions, corruption, and persecution is the United States government willing to allow into this "great" country? 45,000. Since 1980 the limit has been established by the president each year, and #45 chose this historic low for 2018. For a country so rich and prosperous, is that not a bit sad and selfish?

"Charity begins at home. We should focus on our own." There are poor, hungry, and homeless people living in Germany as well, and still Germany accepts multiple times more refugees and asylum seekers than the US each year.

Be honest. The reason is likely more along the lines of "Who cares about them? They look different, they don't talk English so good [sic], and they have strange customs. What if they take the jobs none of us want? What if they move into our neighborhood?! What if they commit crimes? What if they breed? Then there will be more of them, and...OMG...those children will be US citizens!"

America, I'm not impressed.

But tomorrow evening I will feel more positive. I am going with Mohammad to the opening of the exhibit "Wir schaffen was" where we will listen to a few speeches, meet the photographer and the person in charge of the project, and see the rest of the posters that have been displayed around Nagold. The exhibit will then go on tour, beginning in Stuttgart.

For more information, see this article (in German only).

From the opening on Thursday evening:

Mohammad's friend Kais also
participated in this project

Saturday, November 3, 2018

A New Adventure: Der Jagdschein

I am on the brink of starting a new and daunting project, and I’m going to good-naturedly “blame” Tanja Brandt, Ingo, Poldi and Rüdi for this.

About a year ago I came across Tanja’s first book about Ingo and Poldi, and since then I have read everything that comes out about them – and the rest of Tanja’s troop of dogs, owls, and Greifvögel (birds of prey). Since then she has published four books and produced postcards, calendars, and bookmarks, and in her online shop one can also order shirts and knickers, bags and sofa pillows, cups and posters. I also just found a link to several videos about animal photography featuring Tanja, Ingo and Gandalf – just in time for Christmas, as M sits here next to me filling out an order form…

Poldi on the cover of a photography magazine

But what is my daunting project? I am going for my hunting license. Wait…Whaaaat? How are these two related?

In Germany in order to become a Falkner, one must first earn a hunting license. I don’t want to shoot a gun – like, ever – and I don’t want to hunt. But I want to work with owls and birds of prey, and M wants to photograph them. Maybe one day we’ll even see about getting a Harris hawk or a Steinkauz.

Harris Hawk
But that’s a long way away, since I first need to tackle this:

The class I need to take consists of a minimum of 130 hours of instruction - theoretical and practical. In Wisconsin the optional (for someone born before Jan. 1, 1973) hunter education class is  approximately 10 hours.

I made contact with a Jägerschule near Stuttgart, and they have space in a 3-week Blockkurs in April. I have since re-thought that plan and will probably register at the Landesjagdschule instead. Their course is stretched out more during the summer months, giving me time for self-studying in between weeks of class. I bought a study book for the Jägerprüfung a while ago already, but now I’m digging in in earnest. I started the other day with chapter one, which is all about Jagdrecht (hunting rights & laws). Yikes. I abandoned that chapter and skipped to something I can better handle for now – dogs. 

As an example of how I need to prepare for the test, I need to be able to recognize and know the attributes of at least 34 breeds of hunting dogs. In German. Fortunately for me, identifying dog breeds has been a fun pastime of mine since I was young, and therefore I knew more than half of them already. I need to know how the dogs hunt (a pointer hunts differently than a hound or a terrier) and what they are expected to do before and after the hunter shoots. Illnesses, general dog care, training methods & tools, breeding… All this despite the fact that M and I will never have a dog, but it’s part of what a hunter in Germany needs to know. If I understand correctly, for most types of hunting in Germany, the hunter is required to have a “brauchbarer Hund” (suitable and well-trained dog) with him or her.

I recently found and printed off the 117 questions from the pool of questions* on the test for Baden-Württemberg about dogs. M bought a laminator two weeks ago for a different purpose, but now I also have 34 laminated flashcards of the dog breeds to aid my studying (some shown in above photo). I can confidently identify all but 5 of them, and probably I’ll have those identified by the time I publish this post.

*There are 1250 questions in the pool for the entire test, covering five different subjects. The whole "dogs" topic is one section of one of the five subjects.

The thing that makes this project more challenging for me as an expat is that I am not only learning the Jägersprache (hunter’s language, which all potential hunters need to learn), but there are also a lot of regular German words I need to look up along the way. That gets frustrating, especially when a word is not unfamiliar to me – I should know this word, but I don’t.

I don’t know if there is such a thing as a Jägersprache in the US. These are words that are not even familiar to Germans unless they hunt, and they usually don’t appear in a regular dictionary: Brackieren, buschieren, spurlaut, Waidlaut, bogenrein, schnallen, schliefen… And since these words are special to the Jägersprache, there is often no fitting English translation available, or none at all. Sometimes I come across a word that is used in regular German, but it means something else or something more specific in the Jägersprache. An example is "stöbern". In regular German that means "to rummage," but in Jägersprache it is a certain type of hunting that a certain type of hunting dog does.

At any rate, this will be quite an adventure and a challenge, and I'm both freaked out by the sheer amount of stuff I have to learn and eager to learn it.

I spent four hours recently with the former Landesjägermeister of Baden-Württemberg and his wife, who are family friends. Landesjägermeister is another word that doesn't translate into English because, at least in the US, there is no such person. He was the master hunter of the state for many years. In other words, concerning all things hunting, the buck stopped with him. He helped me come to some decisions about how I can tackle this project, and his wife served Hirschgulasch for lunch (the Hirsch shot by him, of course!). I am incredibly grateful for their help and advice.

This is my end goal:

...perhaps minus the cool medieval leather dresses. But I want to work with Eulen und Greifvögeln and get involved with a Falknerei. I want to learn more about these majestic birds and also how to help sick or injured wild ones - who are often victims of automobiles or wind turbines - and rehabilitate them.

Tomorrow we're heading to Burg Hornberg for the Flugvorführung of a new (for us) Falkner! I need to keep my eye on the end ball, so that I hopefully do not lose my nerve or my resolve along the way.

Wish me luck. In Jägersprache, that's...


Sunday, October 14, 2018

Worldwide Photo Walk

photo credit: M
Earlier this month M and I did something very unusual for us – something social involving strangers! You have no idea how far out of our comfort zone this was. To add to the nerve-racking adventure, we took the train! That’s nothing to me, but taking public transportation raises M’s danders and defenses. It was a quiet ride until we reached Rottenburg and a gang of middle-aged Volksfest-goers got on. They were loud, shrill, wearing Dirndl and Lederhosen, and clearly heading for a good time. 

The event we were going to join was Scott Kelby’s Worldwide Photo Walk. This has been going on for 11 years, but I only recently heard about it. In mid-August Kelby announces the walk and opens his site for registrations, and the walk takes place on the first Saturday of October. Volunteers who are interested and willing apply to lead a walk – in any city in the world! – and then people can sign up to join them. For a while the closest one to us was in Ulm, but more recently a walk in Tübingen popped up. That’s a mere 40-minute train ride from our village, so we signed up!

What’s the point? You can go to this FAQ page for lots of information I don't need to repeat here. Basically it’s an opportunity for folks interested in photography to meet each other, get together, talk photography, and take pictures while ambling through a town or city. The advanced version is to try to take pictures that tell a story of some kind. This is going on in cities all around the world on the same day. Something worldwide and peaceful - imagine being a part of something like that! 

At the end of the walk the group may decide to go together for a meal or drinks, and a few days later there is an optional contest for walkers to submit their best photo. The photo must be one taken during the walk, though - submitting one from a different day or even time of day that you like better is cheating! All the photos in this blog post were taken during our walk, even though I have hundreds of other pictures from Tübingen, many of which are better than what I took that day.

Worldwide Photo Walkers in action
This year there were 932 walks and 17,464 walkers registered around the world!

We were a group of six: 2 Germans, 3 Americans, and a Brit! We all had DSLR or mirrorless cameras (though there’s nothing that says you can’t do a photo walk with just your smartphone). We were a rather eclectic group, and we got on well together. I guess you never know with a group – there’s usually “that one guy” who is annoying, or “that one woman” who won’t stop talking… But this was not the case for us! At the Brauerei at the end we exchanged contact information and agreed to stay in contact.

We all took general photos of the corners of Tübingen our leader, Frank, took us to and through, but also went for artistic shots of bicycles, benches, baskets, and Blumen (flowers). And although I thought I had already seen most of the pretty spots in Tübingen, Frank, who has lived there since his college days, showed us places unfamiliar to me!

One of our group, Jim, writes a photography blog in which you can see his creative photos, how he sets them up, and the settings he uses. His portfolio is impressive as well - and less reading for those who just want to see great photos! Frank does photography at mainly concerts on the side of his "day job," and he had some tales to tell about that scene! James also has a website of his photography and the services he offers. James took a class from the great Ansel Adams years ago and shared some of what he learned from him with us as well as some stories. When he first shared that, this was me: "Wait...You met ANSEL ADAMS?!?" What a dork (me, not Ansel).

Looking at truly exceptional photos taken by real people I've actually met has rather inspired me to finally really learn how to use my camera rather than stumbling around and hoping for the best, and to get around to becoming comfortable with Light Room / Photoshop. I am going to do this! It's long past time for me to stop handing my memory card to M and asking him to tweak a photo for me...

Although we were only 6 walkers*, we got quite some looks from people sitting in the Straßencafés as we passed by with our big cameras, long lenses, and tripods. Since most common folk are content with their smartphone photos, they tend to think people with cameras like ours are journalists. I've been asked more than once which newspaper I'm with, and it always makes me grin. If they only knew how clueless I am...
*My son tells me the zombies in "The Walking Dead" are also called "Walkers"!

a deep discussion about...something I didn't understand
Before we left for Tübingen I wrote to my dad in Wisconsin and told him what we were up to. When he woke up he got online and found a walk registered about an hour from him. From his description the experience wasn't quite like ours. but he's glad he did it.
photo credit: mein Vater
Cedarburg, WI USA
We're already talking about next year. Esslingen just screams, "DO A PHOTO WALK HERE!!!", and I proposed to my dad that it might be kind of fun to add a sister-city twist to the photo walk. So M and I organize a walk in Esslingen, my parents do one in Sheboygan, and we share that as a sister city activity. Schau'n mer mal. We'll see.

After I earn my Falknerschein, then wouldn't it be cool to organize a "Worldwide Photo Walk with a Hawk"?!? Yeah, I'm full of ideas.

In case you read this far, here are my tips for participating in Scott Kelby's Worldwide Photo Walk:

  1. DO IT!!
  2. Find a walk somewhere near you, and if there isn't one check back often - walks are added every day.
  3. Register on Kelby's site so the leader of your walk knows you're coming.
  4. Join the WWPW Facebook group. It is so cool to see how many different cities around the world are represented and the often brilliant photos people post afterwards!
  5. If you realize you can't make it, go back online and unregister so the group doesn't wait for you. Though if you register for my or my dad's walk, don't worry about it - we won't wait for you anyway if you're late.
  6. Watch what the other photo walkers are taking pictures of, especially the walkers you sense are skilled photographers. Good photographers have an artistic eye that the rest of us often lack. This is a link to James' photos from our Tübingen walk. How many people would think to photograph that bench? I certainly walked right past it without even seeing it. Both James and M saw it, though! A bicycle among flowers caught both Mark's and M's eye, while I stood there saying, "Gee, too bad for the bike - I'd otherwise photograph the flowers." Learn from the others!
  7. If your leader has organized a meal or coffee afterwards, join in! 
  8. Share your photos with whatever social media platform your group organizes. Our group used Instagram, and though I don't have an account, I can still view the others' photos, and I sent a few of mine via old-fashioned email.

That's it! 

What do you think? Would you do a Photo Walk? What about next year?
Next worldwide walk: Saturday, October 5, 2019

photo credit: M

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Eagle Island - Mull

In the months leading up to our week on the Isle of Mull, we joined the Facebook group "Scotland from the Roadside." Members there post beautiful photos from all over Scotland - scenery, wildlife, crowded or early morning city streets, mountains, waterfalls, and birds of prey. The folks and their photos have been an inspiration to us, and we had visions of capturing wild birds with our DSLR cameras and fancy lenses.

posted with permission
Photos like the above are what I had in mind - a Seeadler (White-tailed eagle) having just caught his dinner! This is not one of our photos, however. Ryan Wemyss is a talented photographer who frequently posts photos of beautiful Rotmilane (Red kites) and Seeadler - the latter from Mull!

Or how about this one? Again a Seeadler soaring majestically in uncertain skies...

posted with permission
Here's my first attempt. It's not an eagle, but a Mäusebussard (common buzzard).

Nailed it!
Uhm, so...yeah. Not quite what I had in mind. Undeterred, we set out as often as we could, content with buzzards but hoping we'd see eagles. Mull is called "Eagle Island," after all!

To give you an idea of the wing span of these Greifvögel (birds of prey), we include this photo from inside Glengorm's Nature Center (next to the coffee shop). The Seeadler's wingspan is longer than mine and longer than M is tall! And when you compare the size of the Seeadler and the Mäusebussard, it's hard to imagine mixing up the two when you see them - but when they're soaring in the sky it's hard to judge how large they are.

I also picked up some new books and a laminated pamphlet in the bookshop in Tobermory to take on our walks to help us identify the birds we hoped to see.

We ventured out to Glengorm's nature hide on Loch Mingary, a sea loch in the north of Mull. Not long after we got settled, M noticed a large bird fly into the trees. I grabbed my binoculars and he set up the tripod. Sure enough, two white-tailed eagles were sitting together on the same branch! They were at such a distance that we weren't sure at first they were eagles, but when they flew off - about an hour later - it was clear.

I was rather pleased that we were able to see eagles on our own rather than on a tour with a local and/or wildlife expert pointing them out to us. We did book an outing with Mull Eagle Watch, which we enjoyed. We were actually further from the birds than on Loch Mingary, so I won't include the photos we have. We did learn quite a bit from the ranger, Meryl, and we were glad to have the opportunity to visit their hide as well. She had a good scope, so we were able to see the two eagles, Hope and Star, clearly.

But seriously, how do we get photos like Ryan's?? We could retire, move to the island, and spend every day on the coastline of Loch Na Keal, where some of the eagles hunt. Not realistic. We could buy wellies and wetsuits and try to get closer to the birds when we see them at Loch Mingary, but we do not want to disturb them! So also no. We could spend €13,000 on a more powerful lens, but I wouldn't be able to lift it, and if I fell with it into a bog I'd be lost forever.

I eventually found the answer. I contacted Ryan to ask what camera equipment he uses (and to get his permission to use a photo or two for this post). It's not all that different from ours. I also found out from the Facebook group that we can book a boat tour ("Oh no, not again") with Martin Keivers of Mull Charters. He knows where the eagles spend some of their time, and it is possible, if the tour is timed right, that we might see the eagles hunting for fish rather than just sitting in trees. Sounds good!

I really, really don't like boats. Next to airplanes, they're my least favorite method of transportation. I like my feet on firm and solid ground. Even a bog will do if it must, but water or air, no thank you! If you want to fully explore the beauty of the Scottish islands, however, you need to get your ass on a boat. I've been to Iona, Staffa, and Lunga on two different trips and survived. So, next year we'll do this. To see the eagles more closely and to get the photos that I have in my mind.

On our last day on the island we returned to the hide on Loch Mingary. Skipping to the third of our nearly three hours there (we are very patient when we know what we want), I spied a suspicious lump out near the coast. Here:

That is basically what I saw with my naked eye, but my binoculars helped. There was clearly a large bird, and as another flew in we were able to see that there were actually four there! I don't think adult eagles hang out together, so we guessed they were a family.

No kidding, one by one three of them flew from the coast, pretty much right over the hide. I was breathless. The first two were clearly - by now we're such experts... - juveniles. We'd learned from Meryl that juvenile white-tailed eagles don't have white tails (and juvenile golden eagles DO!).

juvenile White-tailed eagle
Then one of the adults flew overhead as well, and circled a few times. This is what I meant in an earlier post when I said that Scotland and its wildlife will reward those who are patient. You can't expect to spend 10 minutes in a hide and expect to see the beauty and wonder of this place.

adult White-tailed eagle

If he looks a bit shabby, it's most likely because he's in the Mauser
I am so lucky that M has always been interested in photography and that his interest in Greifvögel has grown with mine. We have been to Mull six times including last year and have photographed many bits of the northern part, but we were never even slightly interested in birds of prey until this year. Yet he is willing to tromp through forests, bogs, and rivers carrying his fully-laden camera backpack and tripod just in case we'll see an eagle, a Turmfalke (kestrel), or even buzzards.

Our photos may not yet be at the quality of Ryan's, but we're not dissatisified with our efforts, especially since we saw them alone without help from a wildlife expert. And M is looking forward to a boat trip next year to get even closer to these beautiful birds. I know I'll enjoy it as well, once I get over the whole "being on a boat in the ocean" thing.