Helgoland and Other Adventures

There are tons of photos this time, and spoiler alert, some of them are of baby seals, so… https://photos.app.goo.gl/RZdWyKSiiNo9eyxj8

After Mara and Maggie headed back to Hamburg, the first few weeks of January were really quite uneventful. I settled back into the school routine, pretty much. We finished reading a book with Daniela (one of the English teachers') advanced 11th grade course, and I started working more regularly with Ireen's 7th graders too. I got tricked by a few sunny days that enticed me out for a bike ride even though the path by the river was completely flooded…soggy Birkenstocks are no fun.

On the 15th (a Saturday) it was extra sunny, so I figured I owed it to myself to get outside for the day. I biked around to the other side of the river and walked around the very expansive IGA Park. I'll definitely be going back sometime when its warmer, since the sun didn't quite outweigh the bitter wind whipping off the water. It was still a nice excursion and I enjoyed the solo adventure and all the fresh air.

Daniela had mentioned that her birthday was in January, so as I was procrastinating on finishing the socks I had been working on knitting for almost two years, I decided to knit her a little apple, as sort of a "happy birthday/you are a good teacher!" present. I found a simple and free pattern and got to work. Knitting is my excuse for sitting around and watching Netflix or listening to audiobooks for hours on end, because that way I can tell myself I'm not really being lazy if I'm also making something.

I was on the phone with my German friend Ellen (my loyal readers may remember that she is the one who visited right after we moved to Gehlsdorf) and it occurred to me to ask if the association between teachers and apples was as prominent here. Her complete confusion was answer enough: not only is the connection not as strong as it is in the US, she had never heard of teachers and apples being at all associated with each other. Huh. Just when I get to thinking that Germany and the US really aren't so different at all, something that is so unquestionable to me is completely absent here.

It was good that I mentioned it to Ellen, since without my explanatory note, Daniela would have probably been super confused. Even with her long experience in the US, Selina later confirmed that she had never heard of the apple-teacher connection either. A cursory google search revealed that the association between apples and educators in the US comes from the frontier days when teachers didn't have salaries, but were fed and housed by donations from the local community, such as apples. Well Germany never had a "frontier" in the way the US did, so I suppose the difference makes sense. It's just funny to me how obvious the connection was for me that it took me several hours of knitting a tiny apple before it even occurred to me to wonder if maybe this custom wasn't as universal as it seemed. Daniela was pleased with it though, and it was sort of a cool cross-cultural moment, since she'd also never heard of the connection either and she liked the idea of "keeping the teacher healthy" with apples.

My knitted apple
It tuned out to be pretty cute I think

Midway through the month, Selina reached out and proposed working from my home for the last week of January, so that her visit could encompass two weekends without having to take time off to come see me. I was thrilled with the idea. After discovering what should have been obvious: that procrastination does not lead to cheap flight options, we decided I would have to break my "one international trip per month" streak for January. We instead made arrangements to make a longtime dream of Selina's come true: seeing baby seals in the wild.

Thus it was that on the 21st of January, I packed my trusty middle school backpack that has become my go-to weekend bag, and boarded the train for Hamburg. I showed up at Maggie's apartment and met her roommate for the first time, since even though I had been to visit her several times already, Sabine had never been there for me to actually meet. We had grand plans to go out and explore and whatnot, but since it was essentially dark by the time I arrived, we ended up being a bit lazy and just chatting in her room until it was time to head back to the Hauptbahnhof to meet Selina.

After some discussion, we dropped off Selina's luggage at Maggies's then went and got her and I covid tests. She needed hers for both the hotel on Helgoland the next day, and also that night's restaurant, since she didn't have her booster yet. At the last minute I decided I might as well schedule one for myself, since I hadn't ended up teaching that day's planned lesson, due to the whole 11th grade being in quarantine. We were both negative—whew!

We had some tasty Asian food—the restaurant was "Vietnamese-Chinese-Thai-Nepalese" so, a lot going on… It turned out to be pretty good, despite Selina's skepticism that a single restaurant could do all of those things well. We hung out and chatted at the restaurant for a long time, such that it was pretty much bedtime when we got back to Maggie's room.

Things had been upgraded since the last time I slept on Maggie's floor however, since she had found a thick sort of exercise mat on the street on one of her runs in Rostock, and after thoroughly sanitizing it, I was able to more comfortably sleep. There was of course the inevitable chatting and giggling before any sleep actually happened though. Before long, Selina and my alarms were ringing in unison, and we had to get up, pack up and head for the train again.

We had time to stop at the grocery store (which was surprisingly busy for that early on a Saturday) and pick up some breakfast and picnic lunch supplies for ourselves before boarding our train from Hamburg to Cuxhaven. The ride was about 2 hours, and by the time we finished our breakfast and did some chatting, we were already pulling in to the station in the costal town that looked decidedly sleepy in January.

After a small moment of confusion, we eventually found the bus stop that would deliver us to the ferry dock. We were surprised to see that evidently some of the other passengers had been on board for a while, since we saw some empty plates in the dining area when I went down to stop off at the bathroom. After this though, we quickly scouted out a place above decks since neither of us wanted to tempt sea sickness.

All the benches were wet, and it was lightly raining and so windy and therefore rather cold. But we hunkered down into our scarves and once we were able to relocate to a spot somewhat sheltered from the wind and rain, we even managed to curl up around our luggage and let the waves rock us to sleep for a short nap. We even caught a glimpse of a rainbow as the clouds cleared.

Because I never managed to dig out a hair band from my bag in a bag in a bag where it was tucked away, my hair looked like a windswept…seagull nest? by the time we landed. But hey, we had gotten some fresh air and most importantly neither of us got seasick!

Kate and Selina with crazy hair after arriving on Helgoland
My hair is somewhat wild on the best of days, but this was a whole new level

Upon arrival, we ate some bread, cheese and tomatoes on a sunny bench by the water, before heading to check-in at our hotel. After getting the paperwork settled, we dropped our bags in our cute little top-floor room with a lovely skylight view of the water, and set out to explore the tiny island.

We used the voucher we had gotten from the hotel to take the elevator up to the upper level of the island, because why not? We then set off along the winding windswept path that traced the upper edges of the lovely reddish rocky cliffs. Seeing the fearless dining habits of the sheep delicately feasting on the very edge of a heart-stompingly sheer drop-off to the waves crashing below reminded me of being on the Shetland islands. We didn't witness any ruminants plummet to their death, luckily, but we did enjoy some stunning views of blue ocean and blue sky.

Eventually, we wandered our way down to a wide beach with a thick carpet of seaweed near the crashing waves. As it tuned out it also had a sandy surface farther in studded with a surprising amount of green, white and brown sea glass. We meandered along, collecting our handfuls of treasures as our fingers slowly turned numb and we breathed in delicious lungfuls of fresh sea air. It was nearly dark by the time we finished our circuit of the island and made it back to our room.

Sea-glass and a shell in my hand, with the beach in the background
We ended up with at least twice this many treasures by the time we headed back

After a quick mishap where we locked ourselves out of the hotel room (oops) we signed up for a time-slot in the hotel's sauna before setting out to grab some snacks. We crunched on some convenience store treats as we explored the restaurant possibilities for later that evening. We identified several promising prospects before it was time for our sauna appointment.

Upon being confronted with the staggeringly dry heat wave of the sauna, Selina (who had never been to one before) coughed and asked if I was trying to kill her. I assured her I wasn't and we eventually settled in for a short stint in the overwhelming heat. It really is an astonishing sensation: the cedar-y heat does almost choke you at first, until you learn to trust that you really can breath the shockingly hot air. We could feel our faces turning red, and a fine layer of sweat developing over our bodies. I normally don't like being overheated. I guess maybe I'm a product of the upper midwest: I prefer the cold, where I can always add more clothes to be comfortable over the heat where you can only take off so many layers. There is something wonderful about surrendering to the heat though—it's sort of freeing.

Before too long, the sips of cold water from my bottle were not enough, so we left the sauna and draped a strange array of clothes over our swimsuits before sneaking out for the short walk to the beach we had found earlier in the day. Well, it felt like we were breaking some sort of rule as we crept out of the hotel into the darkness in our strange mix of summer and winter-wear, even though we were actually doing nothing wrong.

The chilly January night air felt so refreshing on our overheated skin as we made the short walk to the bitterly cold North Sea waves that lapped up on the darkened beach. We carefully picked our way down the sandy path, Selina trusting me to lead the way, since only I had my glasses and phone flashlight. We made a bundle of our towels and outer layers on top of our shoes, then took a deep breath, held hands, and ran into the frigid waves, trying not to shriek too loudly. Neither of us wanted to get our hair wet, so we made it past the belly-button point, before our toes were already numb and we retreated. We both gasped and splashed our way back out, before agreeing that that wasn't quite enough to count as a real swim… So we dashed back into the icy surf and ducked down to our shoulders this time, suppressing our howls from the cold and dashing back out to our dry layers and a hasty trip back to the sauna.

The heat was welcome this time, after our freezing dip. It still wasn't long before we were overheated and ready for showers and some dinner. The showers hadn't done much to cool us down again so we were sort of looking forward to the chilly walk up to the restaurant we had found before. We shared an entree and an appetizer as we chatted, slowly returning to a normal body temperature as the meal wound to a close, and we headed back to the room.

We broke into the chocolate part of the snacks we had gotten earlier as we got ready for bed. I made myself do a few rows of knitting on the socks I had finally continued working on, since I had bothered to drag them all the way up to the island. We watched the first episode of "On My Block" which is a show I subsequently have gotten very sucked into, and am now almost finished watching all four seasons of, at the time of writing…We eventually brushed our teeth and snuggled into bed. Despite the fact that we had spend most of the day sitting on trains and boats, we still managed to get pretty tired between the walking, wind and drastic temperature changes.

We woke up early and the kind hotel staff let us start eating the delicious breakfast before it was technically open. We enjoyed the flaky mini-croissants, tomatoes, cucumbers, cheese, bread, eggs and even mimosas! We had made arrangements to check out early the day before, so we dropped off our key cards and stashed our bags in the luggage room before dashing down to the harbor. We jogged up only to find that we had juuuust missed the ferry to the other island for the seal-watching extravaganza. It was a lovely morning though, so we enjoyed the last glow of sunrise over the water as we waited for the next boat.

It turned out that "ferry" might have been a generous term for the tiny boat that took us and a few middle-aged ladies across to the "Helgoland Dunes" island. We were, as a rule a good 20-40 years younger than everyone we had run into on the island, aside from the poor boy who had been blushingly urged to share the elevator with the "judge Danmen" by his winking older companions the night before.

We made it to the neighbor island in a matter of minutes, and were walking over the pleasantly firm sand towards, we hoped, some seals. It didn't take long for us to notice the group of our ferry-mates gathered around something, so we turned back and squinted at the pale sand until we noticed that one of the lumpy rocks was wiggling a bit. It was a little baby! It's still-white fur made it blend into the post-dawn dimness on the west side of the island. We kept our respectful 30 meters of distance as we watched the little creature flop and flounder, trying, presumably, to get a little more sleep before facing the day.

We took the boardwalk up across the top of the dunes, reveling in the dazzling rising sun in the clear sky. It was shocking to come up over a rise in the path and be confronted with this little fellow, really quite close to us. We couldn't really have kept the 30 meters distance in this case, at least not without scrambling off the path and down the other side of the dunes. Instead, we just quietly watched he/she/it/they for a moment before moving on.

A close-up of a spotted gray seal
I mean what a cutie, right?

As we continued on we ran across increasing numbers of rocks on the beach that turned out to be a whole…bunch? of seals. Ok I had to look it up just now, but it turns out that, according to the internet, there are eight different collective noun options for seals! I will attempt to use them all here, so stay tuned. We were delighted to round a corner and come across a bob of seals sprawled out in their adorable blob-ish awkwardness on the sand.

It was fun to notice the colony become more active as we watched them. Every once and a while one or a few would break off from the crash and galumph their way towards the waves, inevitably forming a mini harem halfway to the water when their ungainly land-transportation became too exhausting. Once they actually got to the water, their body shapes suddenly transformed into a design so obviously graceful that it was hard to reconcile them with the blundering lumps on shore.

As we kept strolling around the perimeter of beaches, we also got to see the transformation in reverse, as they left the water, their fur now sleek as they emerged to rejoin the herd sunning themselves on the sand. It was extra cute to see them greet a member of their pod as they flopped themselves back up the beach. We only saw one other baby in one of the smaller rookeries farther along the beach though. Apparently baby seals grow up fast, since they are normally born between November and January, but in late January we only saw two white-furred little ones, in all the springs of seals we saw that day. Maybe they had set off to form their own "kids table" of seals somewhere?

Bob, Colony, Crash, Harem, Herd, Pod, Rookery, Spring

The 8 collective nouns for seals

After completing our sunny and windy circuit of the island, we got back on the tiny ferry once again and headed back to the main island. Once there, we picked up our bags and started towards the big ferry. We were somewhat early, so we decided to duck into a cafe for a quick drink before boarding the next boat.

Selina opted for a latte I think, but since I had been seeing signs advertising the "Helgoländer Eiergrog" which I imagined to be some sort of specialty eggnog, I had to go for that. I always try to order the weirdest thing on the menu and/or the thing I wouldn't be able to get anywhere else, so it had to happen.

By the time our drinks showed up, we didn't actually have all that much time before we needed to get on the boat after all. This made it quite the challenge for me, generally a notably slow eater/drinker to rapidly guzzle my…yah, it was definitely a cocktail, especially since it turned out to be extremely foamy, with tiny flecks of egg yolk and lots of rum. Quite the combo. Glad I tried it, but I don't think I'll be repeating the experience.

I just now looked up a recipe and the YouTube video said "You could have one or maybe two of these, but three is really the limit, unless you want to be dancing on the table in your underwear." I certainly just had the one, but drinking it quickly on an empty stomach…well lets just say I tottered my way to the boat and had a nice long nap curled up with my backpack on the deck.

The funniest part though, was that right after we paid and were setting off with our bags in tow, following the general stream of people toward the docks, I was discussing the flavor of the drink with Selina. In the middle of my sentence the most gigantic burp snuck up on me, and had rumbled forth before I could close my mouth. It was so loud. Selina nearly fell over she was laughing so hard. I like to think that was why so many people were staring at us…

The ferry ride was sunnier than the trip to the island had been, not that I was awake for much of it…Selina went inside the door so she was still on the top deck but out of the wind to finish her book while I napped.

Upon arrival back on the mainland, we took the bus only part of the way back up to the train station in Cuxhaven, so we also got to stroll through the cute little off-season tourist town. We made it back to the Hauptbahnhof (or maybe the only Bahnhof, actually, it is a pretty small town) in plenty of time, even after a bakery/bathroom pit-stop.

The ride was rather lengthy since both of the trains (from Cuxhaven to Hamburg, and from Hamburg to Rostock) were RE or "Regional Express" rather than ICE "Inter City Express". Frankly, I think they just tack the word express onto the name of the regional trains to make you feel better, because it's really express in name only. They serve everyone in the region, so they make lots of stops. As someone who grew up in a small town, there is part of me that really appreciates that there are trains here that stop in the little villages, allowing public transit to be actually useful to everyone. But when you're just going from one big city to another…

I recently learned another expression for referring to regional trains from Gabi as we chatted over coffee after school the other day. She said those trains "stop at every milk can" which is from a time when the farmers used to collect their milk into those big cans and the train would apparently stop and load up all of them. This is added to the expression that made me laugh way back in high school when a classmate said we shouldn't take a particular train because it "stopped at every fat tree." I guess maybe Germans are impatient, to have multiple saying expressing the slowness of certain trains, but it is kind of frustrating to travel a long distance, especially when it's late and you are tired from the trip and just wanna be home already but you have to make so. Many. Stops….

We got fairly lucky once we finally did arrive in Rostock though, since we didn't have to wait at all for the tram, and only a few minutes for the bus before getting home at last. We where too lazy to set up the guest bed, so even though we both had work in the morning, Selina bunked with me and we started the routine of staying up way too late chatting. The whole week honestly felt like one big middle school sleepover in that sense—it was great.

On Monday, we quickly learned that if either of us were going to get any actual work done during the day (editing a research paper for her, and lesson planning for me) we had to be in separate rooms, because otherwise we would just talk. They were fun distracting discussions about everything from politics to books to inequality in the world, but it was not conducive to being productive. So, falling back on our college study habits, I snuggled up with my laptop in the cozy living room chair, swaddled in a blanket. She swore she would fall asleep if she got too comfortable, so she set up camp by the window in the kitchen instead.

We got into a nice routine of eating a late lunch together after I got back from my afternoon class, then getting a couple more hours of work done (some days were more productive than others.) We even did some of my yoga and her workout videos too, since the weather did not encourage going out to explore the town too much.

We did finally manage to venture across the river to explore the Altstadt a bit on Wednesday. We combined some preliminary wedding dress shopping with craft night, because why not? It was quite the experience.

I have rarely been in a place that screamed "classy and girly" so loudly, with all of the blush pinks and rose-gold accents, lace, and flowers. Upon arrival, after showing our vaccine passes, our coats were hung up for us and we were led to the "Gold Room" where we set the rest of our stuff, before browsing through the tall racks of elegant white dresses.

The Gold Suite at the bridal shop
It certainly seemed to be styled like it's American counterparts, which was somewhat ironic, since that's the place the wedding will actually happen.

After selecting an array of gowns in the vein olf the ones Selina had shown me the night before while we accidentally let the vegan oatmeal cookies (our contribution to the coming craft night feast) burn into horribly hard little hockey pucks. Seriously, they were awful. I normally try to eat even my worst baking disasters, but after sampling one I put them straight in the compost. I do have a theory that two ingredient cookies might have been too good to be true, even if we hadn't inadvertently tripled the baking time though. But ANYWAY, we had looked at some photos the night before, so I would know the styles of dresses she was interested in and looking for. We therefore selected an array of similar styles as well as a few random ones just to see how they would feel.

What we learned: her instincts were correct, and she liked wearing what she thought she would. Most lace is horribly itchy. Trains are hard to walk in. Veils can actually be nicer than expected. I was the designated documentary photographer, and had a nice time munching on the elegant tower of chocolatey snacks they provided us with, between dresses.

Once we emerged from "Bride Stories" back onto the windy streets of the old town, we had a little while to tour Selina through the main sights of the city center, even though it was dark by that time. We fought our way through the wind on the harbor, which included an epic mask-chase when the wind whipped it off my wrist and I had to run after it all the way to the water's edge where it had finally gotten caught in some bushes. It really felt like something out of a silent comedy movie: I would almost catch it, and another gust would whisk it out of my reach. After these adventures, we eventually made it to Amber's, that week's craft night host.

We introduced Selina to everyone, and met Amber's coworker Diego, who would be joining our crafting ranks. Burritos were enjoyed by all—a very welcome treat after being essentially cut off from trustworthy Mexican food for months. As the much more successful lime-ginger vegan shortbread cookies I had made that morning to replace the oatmeal banana abominations were passed around, I taught Selina to knit.

About half an hour and and several successful rows later, she declared knitting very stressful "there's so much to keep track of!" and while I promised it got easier as your skills improved, she decided she needed to take a break. I was just impressed at her progress. It turns out it's a lot easier to teach adults how to knit than third graders, as I attempted while subbing last year. 8-9 year olds attention span, frustration threshold and fine motor control are just much more limited.

The excessive wind meant we couldn't take the ferry home, but the tram/bus combo did the trick without issues, since it wasn't a Monday protest day. We finally managed to get to bed early-ish that night, since my 8am class that day had caught up with me.

Thursday and Friday were fairly uneventful and rainy, so we just stayed in and hung out. Friday was the epitome of a night-in-party though. We made some mushroom risotto for dinner, while rocking out to a variety of nostalgic and new dance tunes. The risotto turned out rather gluey since we apparently cooked it too long, perhaps because we were too busy dancing and drinking the dirty martinis that Selina had wanted to try for a long time, to notice how long we had been stirring and stirring and stirring the rice…We ate in nevertheless, and at least the flavor was good, even if the texture was off.

We then took our martinis into the living room, pumped up the jams, and continued our dance party. We took advantage of the space available, not being in a crowded club, and boogied all over the place. By the end of the night Selina was becoming convinced that she might want to have dancing be part of her wedding too, so maybe no elopement after all…

Saturday brought an impressive wind-storm, even for Rostock, where gustiness is the norm. It was so intense in fact that Selina's Sunday morning train back southwest to Frankfurt was delayed and then canceled. She eventually had to go west by first going east to Berlin.

The week after Selina left was pretty standard. I redeemed myself by making risotto of the proper consistency when I hosted Wednesday night's craft night though, which was nice. It was also fun to play salad bowl with Gabi's 11th graders, with the focus on German stereotypes. Fascinating to see what they thought were typical German things, versus what I would have said.

We had been talking about national identity with the class the week before, and I had also done a really interesting activity (if I do say so myself) where they positioned themselves in different corners of the room depending on if they identified more with being a "Mecklenburger," (someone from Mecklenburg-Vorpommern) an East German, a German, or a European. I was fascinated by how many identified as either European and East German, which I wasn't expecting. I guess just because there is no "North American Union" in the way there is a European one, so I had never even considered my identity on a continental level. Also interesting that so many of the students identified with a former country that had never even existed in their lifetimes.

Daniela invited me to watch the 12th grade play on Friday evening as well, which was quite fun. I was looking forward to it even more when I found the mini champagne bottles she had stashed on the outside windowsill of the language office lounge to have it nice and chilled for after the show.

This is such an interesting insight into the much more relaxed attitude toward alcohol here, were the drinking age for beer and wine in 16, and the subject is far less taboo in general. When Gabi heard about it, she just chuckled and wished us a good time, which needless to say would not have been the response if a department head found a staff member stashing alcohol on school premises in the US. To be fair, the room stays locked whenever there isn't a staff member in it, so it's not like any of the students could have gotten to it even if they had know it was there. And anyway, half the students in that building could legally drink it anyway!

A windowsill in February is as good a place as any to chill champagne, right?
You know it's almost break when teachers are bringing the party to the school

Since she was headed out early the next morning for her much-needed vacation (we have the middle two weeks of February off) Gabi couldn't make it to the play, so instead her and I walked over to a nearby bakery/cafe and had some pastries and warm drinks after school. It was nice to chat with her, as always, and she pointed out some prime hiking spots on the map she had lent me for my upcoming hiking adventure.

The play was quite well done. It's always neat to watch students that you see everyday take on new roles onstage, and they did a great job leaning-in to the dark psychological thriller side of the story of "Der Sandmann." It's one of those stories that walks the line between hallucination and reality, and it's often unclear what is really happening, and what is a representation of what's going on in the characters' heads. There was impressive sound and lighting as well, and even a dry-ice machine! I can't remember the last time I saw a live show either—certainly pre-covid—and the palpable energy of having the performers in the same room is always exhilarating.

After applauding and congratulating the students, a few of the teachers headed upstairs to sip some of the champagne out of what are normally our coffee mugs—a bit of a surreal experience. Daniela (ever prepared) even had some pretzels for us to munch on while we relaxed and chatted about school and the upcoming break we were easing into. Daniela was kind enough to drive me home after we wrapped up. A lovely way to end the week and begin the vacation.

And that, folks, is me caught up on my blog. Whew! That was a long one, thanks for sticking with me. At last that brings us to today, a few mostly uneventful days later. I talked to a few friends, did some yoga, went on a short bike ride, got some new yarn and most of all, did a lot of blogging.

Right now I sit waiting for the last of my laundry to dry, listening to odd instrumental covers of pop songs so the lyrics don't distract me as I wrap this up, and move on to packing for yet another adventure. But that's another post.