Saturday, October 25, 2008

Home!

OK, so we're home, but you've seen enough pictures of our place in Moscow, so I thought I'd put up one more blog post about our time in Germany. We had a great time there, though we're glad to be back home on the way to resolving all our paperwork issues (until next year, of course, when we have to do it all over again!). Anyway, this last week we left my family's place in Mundelsheim and went over to visit a friend of ours, so we'll catalog our last week in Germany in these pictures.

One of the things we enjoyed most about being in Germany for this time was actually getting a "fall" season. In Russia, it seems like it goes almost directly from summer to winter, with a brief transition period thrown in there, and we miss the gradual cooling and leaves changing that you get everywhere else. Of course, this threw B into a photo-taking frenzy of leaves, and I'll leave her to put up a post with all her "fall color" pictures. However, I liked these ones of the boys, so I thought I'd throw them in:

No socks and shoes! Our Russian friends will probably freak out, but it wasn't that cold. Then, she took advantage of Matthew starting to sit up to get this one:

Steven went through a brief phase after our journey where his favorite things were trains, but now he's all about tractors. He even tried to drive this one.

So, after staying for almost 4 weeks with my family in Mundelsheim, we received our visas and went for a long weekend with our friend Anne, who lives near the Czech border in Bavaria. She is hoping to come work with us after she completes her training, so it was really good to get to spend some time together.

Fortunately, she was on break from her classes, so we got to make a few day trips out to see the countryside. The first day, we drove down to visit this castle in the town of Kulmbach.

This is the view from the top up there, with B and Anne:


When I was little, my family traveled through Germany on our way back from Indonesia, where we'd been living. We have a picture of my little brother inside a cannon from a visit to a castle, with just his head sticking out. We couldn't find a big enough cannon to replicate the shot, so we put Steven on top of this cannon instead. He got so excited!

Inside the castle walls the ivy in this courtyard was changing color to a brilliant red.

We enjoyed the Bavarian food while we were there, as well. I took a picture of our feast from our trip to a local restaurant. On the left, there are pork chops and bread balls (impossible to explain, but excellent!) in a horseradish sauce, then the omnipresent wurst and sauerkraut, then on the right is a roasted pork leg and potato balls. All of it was delicious!


One of the other things we did there was just to tour the town of Hof. They have a landmark collection of street signs from all over the world. Here I'm pointing to a sign for a town called "Brasilien" (I was born in Brasil) and B's standing near "Amerika," which is also apparently a town somewhere in Germany. If I had more space, I could post a bunch more pictures of all the signs, including one from Rocky Mount, a town near where B's parents live.

We also enjoyed a trip to the zoo. Steven might have enjoyed the slide even better than the animals:


He did enjoy the animals, though. He's been learning all the animal noises lately, so he got to practice a bunch of them and learn some new ones. Here he's feeding the goats.


Matthew didn't get into it too much, but the monkeys that ran free inside the conservatory-thingy looked him over carefully. Finally, we realized that they were captivated by his rattle, so B offered it to one. He almost took her up on it, too.

Steven hadn't experienced a trampoline before, and even though he can't jump yet, he loved being held while we did. When do kids get big enough to jump (from a level surface), anyway? It seems odd to me that he can run around without problems but can't get it together to get both legs off the ground at the same time.

OK, so that's about it. I'll leave you with this picture of B and the boys and the answer to last week's question. No points for anyone; we only had one guess!

The sign in question was the "no speed limit" sign. They actually still have them on the German autobahn. We got to experience a little of this, as our friend's dad actually came to pick us up in his Audi Quattro. I had never been above 105 miles/hour (about 170 km/hr) in my life, but he quickly put that to shame. We averaged around 130 m/hr (200 km/hr), I'd say, though he briefly went up to 160 + mph (260 km/hr). It was unbelievable to me that you can drive that fast legally, but people seem to be very good drivers and we didn't see any major accidents ourselves. I just remember a friend in the US paying lots of money to have a "NASCAR experience" and not going over 150, so I had to laugh that we got to do it for free there.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Harvesting Grapes

I can confirm that rumors of our demise have been greatly exaggerated. Well, mildly, at least. Greatly exaggerated is probably pushing it.

But we are alive, anyway. It's weird. The internet doesn't work for like three or four days and all of a sudden we have multiple emails implying that we've been lost in a fiery explosion, or possibly kidnaped by terrorists. The readers apparently have active imaginations. ´

First, for those of you who have been thinking of us: we got word yesterday that our visas are in, and they're supposed to be in the mail today! Yeah! It even worked out for us to get all four visas without a trip back to Moscow for me, which is a huge plus. Not to mention that our friend of a friend of a friend negotiated a lower price from the embassy so we didn't have to pay as much. Could it get any better? Thanks again for all your thoughts, they had a real impact on our lives this time. There's really no limit to his goodness, is there? We plan to return next week after a quick visit to a future coworker and pick up on our Russian study again.

OK, so on to what we've been doing while we waited: helping with the harvest!

B is turning into quite the photographess! I'm no expert on photo composition, but I really like this one with all the perspective-y stuff and whatnot. Plus, it's cute.

But enough of that. As you'll recall from our last post, we were in Germany waiting for our visas to arrive so we can go back home. What was originally scheduled to be a brief 10-day stop has turned into a 25-day stop. As I've mentioned, we finally have heard that everything is finalized, but our poor family here have had to put up with us for quite a while now.

I want you to imagine that some distant relatives who you've only seen twice in your life call you up and ask if they can stay with you for 10 days while they get some paperwork processed. OK, you think to yourself, we can put up with their two small children for that long. We can move one of our boys out of his room to give them a place to stay, and we'll even pick them up from the train station.

Now imagine that your visitors' paperwork hits some snags, requiring them to stay with you for almost a month. A month of screaming children at the dinner table, a son living in another room, etc. This will give you some idea of what my poor family has been through. And they've been great about it, even though it's their busiest time of the year!

Naturally, we've tried to help out as much as possible while we're here to lessen the burden of our unexpected stay. Since they are farmers, this has meant putting in time in the apple orchards and vineyards, where we've been most days for the last 3 weeks. And so, in case this situation ever happens to you, I have prepared an introductory course on grape-picking for the readers:
The first, and most time-consuming portion of the grape-harvesting process, is the picking of the grapes. As with seemingly all fruit farmng, the critical thing in grapes is sugar content. When the grapes are totally ripe, the sugar content is at it's highest, meaning you can make better wine and therefore more money.

Grapes, apparently, are Democrats. I had always thought that grapes were "purple," at least the non-white ones, but it turns out there are many shades of purple. Basically, the bluer the better, so as you snip off the clusters to put in your bucket, you want nice blue ones like those pictured above.
These grapes are too red. In this case, you need to throw them out. Just snip them out of the bunch and throw them onto the ground. Of course, you're standing on a near-cliff, so I would suggest throwing it somewhere you've already worked so it doesn't make you slip as you work.
There are several kinds of things that afflict ripe grapes, and the most common is shown here. It's a sort of mold, I guess, and the internet calls it "bunch rot." It usually forms on the inside of a large bunch. Most of the time, you'll find that part of the bunch is OK and part is rotten, so just snip off the rotten grapes and pitch them, the rest is perfectly fine.

A lot of grapes are grown on really steep hillsides. These hillsides offer two advantages. One: you can grow some kinds of grapes only on steep slopes, and these kinds are apparently in higher demand and make better wine. Second: the German organization that controls the production of wine has a limit on how many liters you can make per hectare, and the amount is higher on a sloped hectare (it makes sense if you think about it - on a slope you actually have more surface area for vines per hectare, which are measured straight across).

Serious grape farmers (as opposed to hobbyists, of which there are many here) run tracks up the slope, which they can then use to move this machine up and down the slope. We poured our buckets of grapes into white boxes, which were then loaded onto a device like this one for transport to the tractor.

In relatively flat vineyards, or places where there is no track, someone will strap on this contraption and walk down to where the pickers are. Then, 4 or 5 buckets are poured into the pack, and he hauls it to the tractor manually. I found this picture on the internet, so it's not someone we know, but I think you get the idea of the "grape backpack."
B missed most of the grape-harvesting, since it was too steep to bring the kids, but she did manage to get them out here one day when we worked on a flatter vineyard. You know what they say: The family that picks grapes together, stays together. Or something like that.

OK, so we have lots of other pictures of the fall colors here and the boys being cute, but since those are B's specialty, I'll let her post them on another post. Maybe we can get our videos to cooperate and we'll put a few of them up next post as well. For now, choos (I'm sure my German readers will be disappointed with that spelling, but it's how it sounds) and hopefully we'll get back to this blog in a shorter period this time.

Oh, and, back by popular demand, we'll end with a What Is It™. This sign is commonly seen around these parts. Can you guess what it means?

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

This is the Life!

OK, so sometimes, it's tough being the Wandering Family. You know, suffering for the kingdom and all that.

This is not one of those times. ;-) I'll go straight to the pics:



If you tuned in for the last episode, the family, being the victims of an epic plot to make their lives a document-laden disaster, had to head for Germany. All seemed lost, or, at the very least, all seemed like it would be a very big headache. Basically, we were having some problems with out paperwork, and it would require a trip to Germany to sort it out.

The trip did not bode well for the rest of the stay. As you can see in the above picture, we used the standard 'lay out a blanket in the train station and form a wall of suitcases around the sleeping child' technique. People look at you weird, but trust me, children sleep only on rare occasions during travel, and you're going to want to prolong those as long as possible. In any event, it was a long, tiring trip.

And then, after the train journey (incidentally, trains are Steven's new favorite thing too, Marth) and a night flight, we arrived here:

Lovely Mundelsheim! As we mentioned, my gradmother's cousin lives here, and we've managed to keep in touch with the family through the years. They live in a wonderful house in the farming town, and own vineyards and orchards as the family business. It is such a wonderful place to visit, and they were nice enough to have us even in the middle of the harvest season.
Steven showing off the local produce ...


I think what I'll do is the apple harvest pictures this time, and the grape harvest next post. Of course, we've been doing both concurrently, with B staying home to cook for the family while I'm out in the fields with them most days, but we've both managed to get out some.

The first step in apple harvesting is to knock them off the trees. Here at the farm this is accomplished first with a two-stroke machine that looks like the offspring of a weedeater and a pipe wrench, which shakes the branches in an attempt to knock the apples down. The remaining 20% or so are knocked down by the old-fashioned method - a guy with a long stick whacks them.

Then, the machine seen above goes around sucking the apples off the ground and putting them in the bin on the back. It then dumps them into a giant container, where someone sorts through to remove the rotten apples. Then, the giant container is loaded onto a tractor and taken to the juicer. Voila - apple juice.

So far, I seem to be good at the stick-whacking, which rewards being tall, and bad at the apple-sorting, which penalizes it. Steven, meanwhile, is an expert in his own mind at sorting (sorry, I can't seem to get the video of him 'helpfully' throwing away perfectly good apples to load).

Of course, B is also an expert sorter, and has spent several afternoons out in the orchards.

Anyway, that's about it for now. Thanks to all of you who have been lifting us up. It did seem that we were in for a rough time for a while, with all of the confusion about our paperwork. It's certainly a long way from being resolved, so please continue to remember us, but there was a point at which it really seemed a tall mountain to climb.

And, to top all of this off, we then found out that our paperwork was rejected because of a HIV test that we had been told we didn't need! However, just when things seemed at their grimmest, and we were looking at multiple flights back and forth to Moscow, a friend emailed and said that he could work it out through a personal contact!

We're soooo thankful for that. Now, it looks like we can have everything done in another couple of weeks or so, and then we'll have long-term permission to stay in Moscow for a while.

I'll leave you with a picture of Steven contemplating the mysteries of an apple tree.