Europe, part 2: Munich

Munich/München is definitely the city on our trip I wish we’d had more time in just to wander. We only had one full day to explore the city, so we took a recommendation from my parents and did a bike tour with this company, who I can highly recommend. Our tour guide ended up being a guy who had been brought up (by his German parents) in Kerikeri, of all places, and moved back to Munich as an adult. Since moving to the US, I can usually count the number of other New Zealanders I talk to on the fingers of one hand in any six-month period, so it was nice to hear a familiar accent again.

The whole tour consisted of English-speaking tourists, which was a nice change for a few hours. I had tackled Germany with three phrasebooks, the ability to say hello and count to ten, and a reasonably good ear for languages. I quickly discovered that this mostly lead to people assuming I spoke German and asking me complicated questions, at which point we reverted to English (except for a couple of times when some mutual patience was required.) By this point, though, I could make my way through a basic food-buying transaction without totally embarrassing myself. Michael, on the other hand, had never been to a non-English-speaking country and turned out to have no ear for languages whatsoever, which was both bemusing and a little bit entertaining, because we were only in Germany in the first place on the grounds that the fact I spoke semi-decent French would constitute an unfair advantage in France.

The bike tour, after giving us some dire warnings about people who’d scratched the paint on Audis and ended up paying thousands of Euros – apparently it’s not uncommon for people to assume that the ability to ride a bike on a public street is not a prerequisite for a bike tour – took us around all the highlights of Munich. We saw the surfers on the artificial wave in the Isen River, a variety of large and old buildings, and of course the Biergarten in the English Gardens, which has a large pagoda-like structure called the Chinesischer Turm (Chinese Tower) which conceals an orchestra on the second floor (no, really) and provide shade for the drinking of beer and eating of food, mostly large amounts of protein. Beer is sold here by the “mass”, i.e., litre glass. I carefully ascertained the amount of fluid I’d already lost that day (it was 34°C, did I mention?), my tolerance for alcohol, and the story about the Audi, and had a Radler (half-beer, half-lemonade). The food was half a chicken, which was exactly the sort of thing you want when dining somewhere that sells beer by the litre. (Given that our tour group largely consisted of people on OE, I was impressed at the riding skills displayed after this stop, i.e., no-one fell off their bike at all.)

The Chinesischer Turm. If you look very very closely the orchestra is just visible on the second tier.

The Chinesischer Turm. If you look very very closely the orchestra is just visible on the second tier.

The Bavarian parliament building - all the glass is supposed to represent transparency of government, but according to the tour guide mostly represents overheating in summer and people organising meetings in other buildings.

The Bavarian parliament building – all the glass is supposed to represent transparency of government, but according to the tour guide mostly represents overheating in summer and people organising meetings in other buildings.

Ein bier.

Ein bier.

Surfing on the River Iser. It's banned, which is why there was a queue of people ten or twenty long waiting to do it.

Surfing on the River Iser. It’s banned, which is why there was a queue of people ten or twenty long waiting to do it.

Biking in Munich was extremely safe overall, but not wearing a helmet always makes me twitchy.

Biking in Munich was extremely safe overall, but not wearing a helmet  made me very twitchy for the first half-hour or so.

The Hofbrauhaus, which we didn't actually enter (except to use the toilet because the bike company has an arrangement with them, but I'm pretty sure that doesn't count.)

The Hofbrauhaus, which we didn’t actually enter (except to use the toilet because the bike company has an arrangement with them, but I’m pretty sure that doesn’t count.)

The Neues Rathaus (new town hall), which is newer than it looks and older than a building called "New" really should be (just over a century old.)

The Neues Rathaus (new town hall), which is newer than it looks and older than a building called “New” really should be (just over a century old.)

Our second day in Munich was spent on a day-trip to the castles of Neuschwanstein and Hohenshwangau, near the Austrian border.

It was a two and a half hour train ride to the village where the castles are, and appropriately for the area, there were an awful lot of wheat and hops waiting to be harvested.

It was a two and a half hour train ride to the village where the castles are, and appropriately for the area, there were an awful lot of wheat and hops waiting to be harvested.

We diligently followed the internet’s advice to pre-reserve our ticket, and if you’re planning on going to these castles, do this. For one thing, it will save you a one to two hour-long wait in line, outside. For another, it’s pretty satisfying to walk straight past the one to two-hour long line and pick up your tickets.

There was still a lot of waiting in line. Did I mention that this tacky tourist-bait fan was far and away the best tacky tourist-bait purchase I made? It saw a lot of use.

There was still a lot of waiting in line. Did I mention that this tacky tourist-bait fan was far and away the best tacky tourist-bait purchase I made? It saw a lot of use.

The castles themselves are very pretty – Hohenschwangau is almost home-like, for a castle, built as a country retreat. Swans, a symbol of the family that built it, are a prominent theme.

A local swan demonstrating natural selection in action.

A local swan demonstrating natural selection in action.

Neuschwanstein – which is one and a half kilometres up a hill, I think on the grounds that you should be made to work for the view – is basically Hohenschwangau 2: Bigger And Swannier. It was built by the “Mad King” Ludwig II of Bavaria and only inhabited by him for six months before he mysteriously died (the possible madness and definite spending all of Bavaria’s money on castles with swan chandeliers may have confributed to the mysterious death thing). It was opened as a tourist attraction almost immediately – this was the late 19th century, tourism was a thing. It was a fairytale castle, literally, that never functioned as a castle…just as a tourist attraction for people seeking fairytales. But it’s still a genuine historical castle. It’s gloriously metatextual, if a castle can be metatextual.

Swans. Did I mention the swan theme?

Swans. Did I mention the swan theme?

Hohenschwangau castle, up close.

Hohenschwangau castle, up close.

Neuschwanstein, looking particularly pretty.

Neuschwanstein, looking particularly pretty and vertigo-inducing.

Evidence we actually went to Neuschwanstein and didn't just steal a picture.

Evidence we actually went to Neuschwanstein.

Next time, Switzerland: fewer castles, more mountains, and hilariously overpriced Big Macs.

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Europe, Part 1

I know this blog has been radio-silent for the past six months – this is partly due to being pretty busy with the whole PhD gig and partly due to being distracted by an actual real-life hobby. (Crazy, I know.) When I get around to it, I will subject you to all the clothes I have made this year, some of which are even wearable in public. It turns out that I hate clothes-shopping with a deep and abiding passion, but I really enjoy sewing. Mike claims this is because I want to be in control of everything. I think this is because most clothes are boring or unattractive or just don’t fit me very well. We may both have a point. I have the better point.

And by "wearable" I mean "unlike this jacket", because while it is very pretty, it's really only good for weddings and going to the opera, neither of which are regular activities for me.

And by “wearable” I mean “unlike this jacket”, because while it is very pretty, it’s really only good for weddings and going to the opera, neither of which are regular activities for me.

We started our trip in Frankfurt – eventually. I had vague notions of Lufthansa as one of those fancy European airlines, largely because in comparison to American airlines pretty much anything is fancy. I was nearly in raptures on the trip home because there was an entertainment unit in the back of the seat! That you didn’t have to pay extra for! And alcohol! Free alcohol! TWO GLASSES of free alcohol! And leg room! In economy class. If that sounds like a pretty ordinary nine-hour international flight to you, then that’s because you haven’t spent three years being beaten into submission by airlines who make you feel lucky to get a glass of water and a pretzel. A small pretzel. On a six-hour flight. Lufthansa had to be better than that.

Then, in short order, they proceeded to try to bump us off our connecting flight in Dublin altogether (“We have another flight that leaves in seven hours, or we can fly you to Munich instead.”) We were eventually grudgingly put on the flight – yeah, the same one that was “overbooked” – so that probably would have been passed over if we hadn’t had an aborted landing at Frankfurt due to “heat turbulence over the runway”, which I’m not even sure is an actual thing. I am especially unsure it is an actual thing since the landing was aborted at what felt like ten metres up and we were taken off by the emergency exits when we did land. This was capped by the discovery that our luggage had been left in Dublin after all. And couldn’t be brought to us until tomorrow, because it wouldn’t get to Frankfurt until 8pm and that was far too late to drop it off at our hotel. On the other hand, the toiletry packs they gave us for overnight weren’t too bad and had some seriously nifty folding hairbrush-mirror things. On the other other hand, they were Star Alliance branded, not Lufthansa, so I’m not sure Lufthansa get any points back for them.

And on the other other other hand, we arrived at the hotel to discover we’d been upgraded to an actual suite with an actual name. To be fair, the name was the “Cleveland Suite”, which is not immediately evocative of five-star luxury, but the suite itself made up for that.

This photo fails to convey stuff like the other TV in the living room. And the general five-star we're-not-sure-we're-really-allowed-to-be-in-here-ness of the whole place.

This photo fails to convey stuff like the other TV in the living room. (Yep: one for watching in bed, one for watching on the couch.) And the general five-star we’re-not-sure-we’re-really-allowed-to-be-in-here-ness of the whole place.

So apparently what executives want in their suites is a telephone by the toilet, and I say this with confidence because we got upgraded to the "Executive Floor" at three hotels and they all had this feature. I found it...really kinda creepy.

So apparently what executives want in their suites, apart from marble-floored showers with hot water you can dial by actual temperature (YES REALLY) is a telephone by the toilet, and I say this with confidence because we got upgraded to the “Executive Floor” at three hotels and they all had this feature. I found it…really kinda creepy.

Frankfurt was, er, frankly, much more interesting than reading about travel in Germany had led me to believe. Yes, it’s a very business-oriented city, nicknamed “Mainhattan” for the high-rise towers along the Main river, full of suits and briefcases, but it has its fair share of medieval architecture and well-stocked museums.

The European Central Bank is located in Frankfurt. I'm sure the damage to this sign could be turned into some sort of metaphor, but I'm too lazy to do it.

The European Central Bank is located in Frankfurt. I’m sure the damage to this sign could be turned into some sort of metaphor, but I’m too lazy to do it.

An art installation outside the Städel Museum.

An art installation outside the Städel Museum.

The towers of Mainhattan, from the Main.

The towers of Mainhattan, from the Main.

The Paulskirche, where the first attempts at German democracy occurred. It was rebuilt after being bombed out in WWII. (That was a footnote to an *awful lot* of buildings in Germany. Christchurch please take note, IT'S OKAY TO REBUILD THINGS THE WAY THEY WERE.)

The Paulskirche, where the first attempts at German democracy occurred. It was rebuilt after being bombed out in WWII. (That was a footnote to an *awful lot* of buildings in Germany. Christchurch please take note, IT’S OKAY TO REBUILD THINGS THE WAY THEY WERE.)

You could barely drag Mike away from this water playground at the Palmengarten (botanical gardens). Admittedly, it was pretty awesome.

You could barely drag Mike away from this water playground at the Palmengarten (botanical gardens). Admittedly, it was pretty awesome.

My favourite thing at the natural history museum was this incongrous diorama of European elk, with a careful note that they were being depicted somewhere in Lithuania where there are apparently elk and beaches. I'm not convinced.

My favourite thing at the natural history museum was this incongruous diorama of European elk, with a careful note that they were being depicted somewhere in Lithuania where there are apparently elk and beaches. I’m not convinced.

After Frankfurt, we spent two days in Nürnberg/Nuremberg, which has some really spectacular medieval architecture. In particular, I loved the mostly-intact medieval city wall and the mostly-rebuit imperial castle, the Kaiserberg, on top of the city’s central hill. Like a lot of German cities, Nuremberg was reduced to small pieces of rubble during the closing phases of the second World War, and so was the castle. The rebuilt version has been done in red brick, subtly but obviously different from the original sandstone, so it’s possible to see what is original and what is rebuilt.

The wall, with me for scale.

The wall, with me for scale.

The castle - you can see the sandstone/brick line very clearly on the tower.

The castle – you can see the sandstone/brick line very clearly on the tower.

This was a photo of the streets near the castle in 1945...

This was a photo of the streets near the castle in 1945…

...and this is what that same street looks like today.

…and this is what that same street looks like today. (The 1945 photo is a close-up of the houses in the bottom right corner.)

Rebuilding was a theme in Nuremberg. The German National Museum, a surprisingly large collection of items related to German culture and history from the pre-Roman era through the modern day is built around the remnants of a medieval monastery, also badly damaged during the war.

The medieval monastery buildings were integrated into newer structures, with skylights replacing lost rooves.

The medieval monastery buildings were integrated into newer structures, with skylights replacing lost rooves.

The largest structure in the city, though, is probably the forever unfinished Kongresshalle, intended as a new Parliament but only partly built when World War II began. Part of it now houses a very thorough – and thoroughly depressing – musem about the rise of the Nazi party, which focuses on how it was possible for such a regime to arise in the Germany of the thirties. It’s worth seeing, if seeing that sort of thing is on your holiday list.

A panorama of the inside - the building was meant to have a roof, and be twice as high. Megalomania certainly is mega.

A panorama of the inside – the building was meant to have a roof, and be twice as high. Megalomania certainly is mega.

And the outside, at the entrance to the museum.

And the outside, at the entrance to the museum.

After that it was off to Munich/München. We took trains everywhere we went in Europe, and it was amazing; so fast, so easy, no security lines or waits, just show up at the station fifteen minutes before and board. The stations themselves were impressive, too, huge vaulting arcs of glass and steel above dozens of train tracks headed everywhere in Germany and further on. Spending two weeks somewhere where we only travelled by foot and public transport reminded me precisely how dependent we’ve become on cars, in this part of the US; I don’t think anything now of a half-hour drive, and “far away” is somewhere three or four hours away. When I lived in New Zealand, even dealing with similar distances, that was a very long drive indeed. There really shouldn’t be any reason I can’t catch a train to New York city from where I live – and indeed I can…as long as I don’t mind the fact that it only goes once a day and takes far longer than driving would. If I could import one thing from Europe to the US (okay, apart from kettles in hotel rooms and UHT milk and TEA WHENEVER I WANT IT) it’d be the trains.

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For the Birds

“Grill season” doesn’t (un)officially start in the US until Memorial Day weekend at the end of May – like Labour Day weekend in NZ, the time when you’re supposed to dust off the BBQ grill, put on your first pair of shorts, and start planting out the warm-season vegies. The weather for the last few weeks, however, has been firmly in the New Zealand summer range (and was up to 32C today, help), so we dusted ours off considerably earlier. We used the BBQ inconsistently last year, but buying an instant-read meat thermometer has revolutionised the whole enterprise. No more guessing! No more trying to estimate time based on how hot the barbie feels when you hold your hand a few inches away from the surface! You just stick the probe in and take the meat off when it hits the right temperature. Genius.

Spring, having sprung. (There was still snow on the ground six weeks before I took this photo. Spring happens *fast* here.)

Spring, having sprung. (There was still snow on the ground six weeks before I took this photo. Spring happens *fast* here.)

Normally my hands-down favourite thing on the barbeque is your standard lamb loin chop, but since the ones at the supermarket cost approximately the price of an acceptable restaurant meal (and that’s barely a mild exaggeration) we’ve been trying other things in an experimental spirit, to wit, the spirit of “can this thing in the fridge be cooked on the barbeque”? Googling yesterday for suggestions on how to cook a whole chicken – our BBQ is not nearly fancy enough to have one of those rotisserie things – I came across “beer can chicken”.

As weird as it sounds, this is apparently not just a thing in America, it’s a big thing - though I’d never heard of it before. In its simplest form, it just involves propping your chicken upright on a half-full can of beer and cooking it in a closed BBQ, the theory being that being upright allows the skin to brown properly and the beer in the can keeps the chicken moist. Most of the basic recipes are something like this one. If I had to guess, I’d imagine its invention involved the following ingredients: a chicken, a barbeque, and a bunch of hungry people standing around drinking beer. This is not the sort of thing you’d come up with totally sober.

When I say it’s a big thing, I mean you can buy equipment to make the process easier. Some of it is pretty fancy. There are books . There are heated debates about how well the technique works. It’s practically an industry.

As advertised.

As advertised.

And when I tried it, I have to admit it worked pretty well (although I’m going to put a lot of that down to the meat thermometer letting me take it off the heat exactly when it was cooked, which is so crucial with poultry.) Confession, though: I didn’t use a beer can. Or beer. We do have beer in the house, but I don’t think there’s any American beer sold in cans that I would drink (or at minimum pay my own money for) voluntarily, and most of the imported stuff we buy comes in bottles. We didn’t have beer can chicken so much as cheap-sparkling-wine-in-a-lemonade-can chicken (I feel like the “cheap sparkling wine” bit preserves the spirit of the whole thing.) While this discussion does emphasise the danger of the recipe, honestly, if you remember the basic facts of barbeque safety, i.e., Stuff Is Hot, Be Careful With It, it’s no more dangerous than cooking anything on the barbie. Unless you forget to open the beer can before you put it on, but that’s edging pretty close to Darwin Award territory. (On the other hand, this is a country where people have been known to kill themselves through trying to deep-fry turkeys by putting a pot of oil on the barbeque. So.)

Honestly: I can’t say it was noticeably more delicious than a chicken roasted in the oven, but it was definitely more entertaining.

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Some History

One of the things I still get a kick out of here, even after nearly three years, is driving past the town signs (every little bit of land in Massachusetts is part of some sort of town or city, jurisdictionally speaking, and the signs let you know when you’re passing from one jurisdiction to another) and seeing the founding dates – 1759, 1661, 1677, 1718. When some of these towns were settled, Europeans barely knew New Zealand existed – and Maori had only come to Aotearoa three or four centuries before that. It’s a whole different scale of history.

The University of Massachusetts, Amherst, on the other hand, is on quite a comprehensible scale. This week they’re breaking out the party hats (for which read: embarking on a very insistent course of asking for donations, because in the fine print of the enrollment forms for US universities is an agreement to be harassed for money for the rest of your life) to celebrate the university’s 150th anniversary. This makes UMass only a decade older than the University of Canterbury – although UC caught up quickly by graduating its first female student only two years after its first male students graduated, while UMass took another twelve years to admit women at all.

Celebratory banners on the Fine Arts Center (itself a fine display of UMass's devotion to the Cold War Soviet school of architecture.)

Celebratory banners on the Fine Arts Center (itself a fine display of UMass’s devotion to the Cold War Soviet school of architecture.)

cherrytree

Sort of made up for by some spring foliage. (To be fair, they’re also planting a whole lot of trees to celebrate the anniversary, it’s not *just* about fundraising.)

Let’s face it: it’s not easy being the flagship state university in a state which has more world-renowned private universities than you can shake a stick at. Not that UMass was always a university. It was founded in response to the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act of 1862, which sought to fund and encourage the foundation of agricultural and military colleges. 1862 was, of course, during the American Civil War, which helped get the Act passed by removing many of the states whose senators opposed it from the Senate. (The current political climate in the US almost makes that state of affairs seem tempting.)

The then-named Massachusetts Agricultural College was officially founded in 1863, but didn’t actually get any students or start classes until 1867, which makes 2013 sort of dubious as an anniversary in my opinion. (Roald Dahl’s Miss Trunchbull may have thought the best school was one without any students, and fighting your way through crowds of undergraduates can lean one towards this opinion, but they are sort of necessary for the definition of “school”.) It got upgraded to being “Massachusetts State University” in 1931, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1947. (There are other campuses – Boston, Lowell, Dartmouth, and Worcester – but people tend to forget about them unless they actually go there. This led to rather a lot of panicked corrections on the part of UMass Amherst two weeks ago when Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was reported to be a student at “UMass”. He was, but at the Dartmouth campus near Boston, not Amherst. The distinction is not usually quite so important.)

As part of rapid post-WWII expansion in the 1950s, a new science building was constructed and named after the Vermont senator who had sponsored the original Land-Grant Colleges Act. Most universities and colleges founded with the money from that act have a Morrill building somewhere on campus; ours still houses the Microbiology department, although half the department is moving this summer into the very newest science building on campus, which has untold luxuries like windows and break rooms and a floor plan that conforms to human logic.

Any map which has to be captioned "Don't Panic" is a map depicting something that went wrong somewhere.

Does not conform to human logic.

On the other hand, we still have the nuclear fallout shelter.

Slightly less comforting than all the "VERMONT YANKEE EVACUATION ZONE" signs you find if you drive a little way north (Vermont Yankee being the nearest nuclear power plant.)

Slightly less comforting than all the “VERMONT YANKEE EVACUATION ZONE” signs you find if you drive a little way north (Vermont Yankee being the nearest nuclear power plant.)

So if nuclear war ever does break out, those of us who are staying in Morrill – and missing out on the windows and break rooms and so on – will be much closer to safety.

NLSB4

North Korean saber-rattling aside, I’d rather have the windows. (I know this is an artist’s sketch, but it really does look just like this.)

Then again – there’s the map. We’ll have to find the fallout shelter first.

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Swings and Roundabouts

It’s been a curious sort of week from where I’m sitting in Western Massachusetts. I always tell people in New Zealand that I’m in “the part of Massachusetts that isn’t Boston”, but whether you like it or not (and a lot of people out here don’t like it, especially when it comes to the always-contentious transportation budget) Boston is the center around which Massachusetts revolves.

As evidenced by this display at the top of the Prudential Center, the good people of Boston sometimes take this a *tad* literally.

As evidenced by this display at the top of the Prudential Center, the good people of Boston sometimes take this a *tad* literally. Also: nice to know New Zealand ranks below Antarctica.

Apart from the five days I spent there in my first week in the US, I’ve only been back to Boston three times in the last three years, and one of those trips was to be dropped off at the airport, which hardly counts. I was there, though, on Saturday, attending the amazing annual Microbial Sciences Initiative Symposium at Harvard, where the university feeds us and lets us listen to brilliant microbiologists talk about their work. The third Monday in April is a public holiday in Massachusetts, Patriot’s Day, celebrating the beginning of the American Revolution; a lot of my friends and colleagues who came to the symposium stayed, taking advantage of the long weekend to hang out with friends and family in the big city.

So the bombings at the marathon on Monday afternoon brought a lot of checking Facebook and texting, and wondering that something this horrific should have happened in Boston, of all places, which wasn’t really a famous American city in the way that New York or Washington D.C. were, at an event that was so thoroughly innocuous. I don’t visit Boston often, but it’s psychologically close, and so is this horrible event.

But then, improbably, Parliament TV provided one of the best antidotes to senseless violence that you could possible get: purposeful righting of wrongs. I cried when I watched this, like a lot of Kiwis. It’s so rare that politics produces something so unambiguously right.

And this morning, the daffodils in the garden started opening.

Okay, "garden" is pushing it, but it'll get there.

Okay, “garden” is pushing it, but it’ll get there.

People do stupid random acts of violence for stupid reasons, and troll the entire country about whether they like gay people enough to vote to give them rights (yes, that means you, Chester Burrows), and people get up in Parliament and sing, and sometimes there are daffodils. It’s a strange week.

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The Blizzard of 2013

It might have caught the attention of some of you that we had a little bit of snow here in New England over the weekend. We actually got off pretty lightly here in Western Massachusetts, and by “lightly” I mean “only two feet of snow”, and also that our street was ploughed by midday Saturday and we never lost power (I don’t think anyone in Western Mass did, or only an isolated few). We still had chest-deep drifts and everything shut down for two days, but that’s small peanuts compared to what hit coastal Connecticut and eastern Massachusetts. We have had decent snowfall in the last three years – our first winter here gave us two or three feet on the ground for months running – but this is probably the most in one fell blow. And it was pretty fell.

Our LPG tanks probably give the best visual estimate of snowfall, i.e., A Lot.

Our LPG tanks probably give the best visual estimate of snowfall, i.e., A Lot.

This was our front door. Pro-tip for people building houses in New England: the doors should not open outwards.

We didn't even bother trying with the back door. Depending on snow melt, we might not until spring.

We didn’t even bother trying with the back door. Depending on snow melt, we might not until spring.

Continue reading

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Colds

I think I said something last week about it being really cold. Everyone: I was wrong. Now it’s really cold. The wind chill tomorrow morning is supposed to be -15F. If I didn’t have to leave the house FOR SCIENCE! (and, let’s be honest, because with the experiment I’m running the earlier I get in tomorrow the more likely I am to be home before midnight) I would be very tempted to not leave it at all.

Fortunately, I have recently been introduced to a traditional New England remedy for both being cold, and, allegedly, winter ailments of all descriptions: ginger brandy.

Well. Ginger "flavored".

For once, the internet isn’t very informative about this probably-dubious alcohol; this is all good traditional word-of-mouth (although Google auto-suggesting “ginger brandy for colds” as a search suggests that this is a well-spread word-of-mouth.) It’s nothing fancy; none of the bottles in the liquor store go for much above fifteen dollars, unless you’re buying quite literally litres of the stuff. My guess is that it’s just low-quality brandy that’s had ginger steeped in it until it takes up the flavour – ginger would reliably cover a lot of low quality.

What I am told by my friends – neither of whom are actually from New England, to caveat accurately – is that ginger brandy is renowned for stopping an incipient cold in its tracks if taken judiciously before it worsens. I haven’t had a chance to try this out, although I know perfectly well that viruses are entirely unbothered by alcohol when it is applied orally to their victim, and the story definitely wasn’t “clean your doorhandles and other often-touched surfaces with ginger brandy”. But as cold preventatives go, it sounds tempting.

It’s also supposed to help warm you up when the weather is trying to kill you quite cold out. From a purely scientific viewpoint, this is also unlikely to be true. From a folklorish  standpoint, the combination of alcohol (seems like it should warm you up! does just the opposite!) and ginger (the hottest form of flavouring traditional New England cooking recognises) should keep you nice and toasty. Something to do with how humans are really, really awesome at making specious associations between unrelated things and then using them to try and kill themselves.

Thing is, though: on a cold winter’s evening, this stuff is damn tasty (and is the perfect way to alcohol-ise any ginger beer you have on hand, for maximum gingery goodness.) That’s worth any number of scientifically dubious excuses to drink it. Especially when the weather is trying to kill you really cold out.

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Taxonomy By Night

We had a brief thaw here last week, enough to melt almost all the snow (though it was replenished quickly enough). Turns out one of the side-effects of “warm” (translation: above freezing) temperatures and low winds on an area with decent snow cover is very thick fog.

For the record, fog with snow is pretty eerie.

That doesn’t, however, stop it being winter, and winter brings all the little creatures who’ve survived the year scuttling into our house to escape the cold. The ladybirds which cluster around the lights and wander haphazardly across the kitchen table are a harmless manifestation of this phenomenon. The chipmunk which spent the summer taunting our cat just outside the window and some of last winter rummaging around inside the walls was less so, a) because of the noise and b) because of the danger to our electrical wiring. (It left, eventually.)

It’s worth noting at this point that Tia, our cat, for all her enthusiastic stalking of anything small and moving which wanders into her field of vision, has never proven particularly good at catching anything. Her New Zealand record was one mouse. Which is why I was a bit surprised to be woken up one night by her insistent meowing in my ear, and find her very proudly offering me this.

At least it wasn't: dismembered, disemboweled, or right under my hand when I flailed around to figure out what the cat's problem was.

Small dead mammals on my bed at four in the morning are one thing, but small dead mammals I can’t identify are quite another. After poking it gingerly with a biro to make sure it was dead, I negotiated it away from the cat and stashed it on top of the rubbish for later identification (i.e. at a time that was not four in the morning, when I could remember to put my glasses on.)

I’m pretty sure that it was a northern short-tailed shrew, which made me extra-glad it was dead, since they apparently have a poisonous bite. What it was doing in the house is another question, as Wikipedia claims they spend most of their time in underground burrows. But there have been some very suspicious squeaking noises from under the oven, and the cat has suddenly taken to spending a lot of time in the kitchen, staring at the oven. This often coincides with the squeaking noises. Sometimes at four in the morning. As yet, however, there is a distinct lack of dead shrews at that hour or any other, for which I think I am grateful.

What I would be most grateful for, however, is to never run into the inevitable result of many small mammals running about an ecosystem: a small-mammal-targeted predator. Like…this.

Yeah. That.

It maintains my thesis that small mammals are inherently evil: they attract snakes, what more evidence do you need?

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Twenty Below

The serious part of winter has arrived here in Western Massachusetts – we got a foot of snow between Christmas and New Year’s, and it is, admittedly, very pretty.

Snow. Lots of snow.

It’s also sticking around, because along with the snow, we’ve also got to the “really, ridiculously cold” part of winter. By “ridiculous”, I mean that when I left the house this morning it was -2.

-2 degrees Fahrenheit.

I’d sort of forgotten, what with last year’s mild winter, how much extra effort this sort of cold involves; every time you go outside, unless you’re very brave or very stupid or absolutely 100% keys-clutched-in-your-hand certain that you will and can be going inside in a period of time that can be measured in seconds without using both hands, you have to gear up. Okay, it’s not Antarctica, but the ten-minute walk to my bus stop (too cold to bike all the way in, and the bike racks freeze to the buses at anything below -5°C) requires at least three layers and as much skin coverage as possible. This morning, my sunglasses fogged up; when it didn’t clear after a few minutes tipped further down my nose, I took them off to investigate further. The thin layer of fog had frozen to them. That’s what we’re dealing with, here.

Strong wind after a fall of powdery snow creates great swirling veils around buildings as the snow blows off the roof in fine sheets and eddies around them.

These were the circumstances when we picked up a friend from the airport yesterday and took her back to her house – we’d been cat-sitting – to discover that it was a bit chilly inside. No problem; we turned up the thermostat. She offered us a cup of tea.

Everyone sat down around the kitchen table and resolved to wait for it to warm up; they had a central heating system powered by an oil furnace in the basement, it just needed a little bit of time. In a classic inversion of the frogs-in-boiling-water fable, each of us sat and drank our tea and chatted and pulled our outdoor gear back on piece by piece, because it would be terribly rude to complain of being cold when the other two people weren’t saying anything.Besides, the analogue thermostat was reading about 52°F, which is cold but not ridiculous. And it was going to start warming up any minute now.

Two hours later, we established that a) the furnace had run out of oil sometime in the last two days, and b) the actual temperature in the house was pretty close to freezing. I think the last time I was in a house that cold, I was visiting student friends in Dunedin. We managed to rustle up enough electric heaters to keep the place liveable overnight, before the oil company could come the next day, but it was a salutory lesson in not putting off having your heating supplies filled up until after you go away for the h0lidays. At best you might freeze your pipes. At worst, you’ll freeze yourself, and that’s no fun for anyone.

The snowmobilers - much-denied last winter - were out in force last weekend.

Technically, this isn’t even the coldest week of the year on average; that’s the next three weeks. Then we might make it back up to New Zealand winter temperatures by the end of March. The novelty will wear off sometime in February. Till then – hey. It is beautiful.

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Merry Christmas, Everyone

This is the view from my kitchen window.

Not featured: snow.

This is the forecast for Christmas Eve/Christmas Day:

I am mentally willing those accumulations up.

Many, many Christmas-related movies have taught me that it is common, nay, traditional, for the “white” part of “white Christmas” to be withheld until late on Christmas Eve or even Christmas morning, for maximum heart-warming emotional impact. But, you know, I’d be good with minimum heart-warming emotional impact. Anticipation is overrated.

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