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germany trip report part 3: of quaggas and quaffs

2006-01-21 - 2:50 p.m.

Note: This is part 3 of my Germany trip report. To start with part 1, Heidelberg and the Philosopher's Path, click here. For part 2, The Ghosts of Mainz and Wiesbaden, click here.

all photos © 2006 by Elaine Radford

kirschgarten ("cherry orchard") neighborhood in mainz
Sunday, January 15

Today I decided to clean up a few sights that I had missed on my first look around Mainz. As I strolled down the street, it began to snow, but it wasn't sticking. I headed first for the Natural History Museum. Since Sunday was the free day, there were a number of families with kids, but it wasn't overbearingly crowded and I could easily get to anything I wanted to see. Notable items included the stuffed family of Quaggas, which are now extinct, and a huge ammonite about four feet in diameter. The museum itself was in an old pink and white cathedral first erected in 1300. The front yard was a "Garden of Time," a pie of cobblestones with each of the wedges of the pie being made of stones from each of the epochs of geologic history, starting with the Cambrian and going through the Pleistocene. There was a huge pink stone sphere in the center, that some kid had slapped with a small blue dinosaur sticker.

Sometimes you just see something that really makes you wonder. Now this was a cute idea for displaying the butterfly in the insect room. Until you see the horned beetle!

Don't you have to ask yourself what made a postal service decide, yeppers, that's exactly what we need on our new stamp, a big old horned beetle that looks like an out-take from a bad acid trip.

I spent a long time in the bird hall studying their display of local birds, including the Treecreeper, Certhia familiaris. I was hoping they'd have a Short-Toed, C. brachydactyla to compare, but I never found it if they did. The German words for Turtledove and for Eurasian Collared Dove look quite similar, causing me endless fuss and cuss as I kept staring at a bird that I thought was labeled Turtledove and scratching my head to figure out why the heck it wasn't a Collared Dove. After awhile, I finally thought to check the Latin name, and then all was clear.

I had to walk quite a distance along the river from the natural history museum to the museum of the ancient Roman ships. Apparently, when they were building the Hilton a few years ago, they discovered six old Roman wooden ships, so they built a museum to tell about them. As I strolled along the river, I discovered that Mainz must have a healthy budget for public sculpture, because there seemed to be a new one every few yards. The lady looking backward might be my favorite, although it was more representational than their usual run of sculpture:

When I finally reached the ship museum, I was horrified by the size of the ships. They certainly didn't look as if they could carry much in the way of supplies. I guess they had to loot and pillage along the way if they wanted to eat.

Next I strolled through the old town down the foofy shopping street. German insurance companies must have an interesting attitude -- either that or there is damn little crime in Germany. You see, even though it was Sunday, and the shops were closed, they had windows with gold, gemstones, and silver on display, right there out in the open. Try that in the U.S. of A. and you'd have smashed glass all over the place.

I reached the medieval neighborhood of half-timbered houses, called the Cherry Orchard, thoughtfully named after all the trees they murdered to build it. I suppose it's the future. The only tree left is this:

Yeah, it's dead, has been for centuries, I suppose.

I stopped for lentil soup at one of the omni-present Italian restaurants. I started to order a second course, but I'm glad I didn't, since the soup contained a delicious but filling sausage.

Monday, January 16

Today I took the train into Frankfurt and then had to catch first the S-bahn and then the U-bahn to get to the zoo. But once I figured that out, I pretty much spent the whole day there. It's really like a combination of zoo and aquarium, although I guess the largest aquarium animal would be along the lines of the alligator snapping turtle or maybe the leopard moray eel. I wouldn't call it the best zoo for photography in the world, at least not at this time of year, because many of the animals are inside and under glass, but there was plenty to see.

The nighthouse was remarkable and made me wonder what happened to our nighthouse. I think maybe it was where the carousel is now.

They have quite a baby-making factory going on with the orangutans, lowland gorillas, and bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees). I sat for awhile and watched their photographer take pictures of the mother orangutan playing with a small baby. The baby really just played peekaboo while the mother swung around on an old Christmas tree. (I guess I haven't mentioned it, but discarded Christmas trees were everywhere in Germany, even just stacked on curbs in various town squares.) However, when an older juvenile came out, mother and baby went to another part of the exhibit, with a partition to divide them from the older child. I quickly saw why. He was a nuisance on wheels. He'd play OK on the tree for awhile, but then he would go over and swat the adult male to try to get him to play. The poor male actually put his hands over his face!

It was a happier story in the lowland gorilla cage. There, the young juvenile and the older one played together most affectionately. It was cute to see. The older one would lift the baby up and give him rides, and he (or she, I didn't inspect their genitals or anything) was really patient when the baby pestered for attention. The two pregnant mothers just sat back and looked miserable, like they were going to drop at any minute, so it's great that the kiddies could play nicely and keep themselves entertained.

my favorite birbs at the zoo were the self-introduced grey herons hoping to get some freebies

They had a nice bird house, with some notable birds being the Elegant Crested Tinamou and Bartlett's Bleeding Heart Dove, among other impressive species. Elsewhere in the zoo were such treasures as Kea, who stomped out and grabbed a piece of cardboard and stomped back in again, and a handsome pair of Snowy Owls.

The zoo was the only place I'd seen European Starling this trip, but there were quite a few singing there. The real self-introduced zoo bird was Grey Heron. They were everywhere getting into everything. I tried to photograph them stealing the fish from the Eastern White Pelicans, but they were too fast and all I caught was a blur. They'd got the choking-whole-fish thing down to a science.

I knew I didn't want to eat dinner and feel all full while on the plane the next day, so I had a late lunch at the zoo's Mexican restaurant. They had a fairly weird fajita special. Carrots and broccoli? Aren't those northern vegetables? Hell, they grow in winter in Louisiana. Do they grow at all in Mexico? I gamely tried them on one of my tortillas with the usual chicken, onion, pepper, and salsa, but no. They were fine picked out as a side vegetable. They just don't go on a fajita.

It was really too early in the day and I wasn't sure how tricky it would be finding my way back on the various trains both above and below ground, so I couldn't take advantage of their full bar. But I think it's a wonderful amenity. That's what our zoo needs -- a decent sit-down restaurant with a full bar. And I don't mean the hall they rent out for weddings either. I mean a real restaurant.

Our zoo still wins the prize for "zoo most easy to get great photographs in without lots of flash shadow" though.

Late in the afternoon, I arrived just at the right time to see the rhinoceros and then the hippo feeding. All of these animals were taking food right from the hand, up close. The hippo helper was actually peeling bananas for the baby hippo.

I barely got back to Mainz before the "Alles 1 Euro" (everything's a euro") shop closed, but I did make it just in time to grab a bottle of wine. Maybe it's a wino wine. I've got no idea. It's probably going to be a practical joke on someone some day.

As I mentioned, I didn't eat dinner, but, hey, no reason not to try the Happy Hour Mai Tai special at Besito's. The bartender confided that the chef didn't know it, but he had his own special recipe. I don't know if I've had a Mai Tai in years, but I think it was great. Give that man a promotion!

detail, lion, frankfurt zoo
Tuesday, January 17

I got up to leave the hotel, and it was snowing. I mean, really snowing. The train was nonetheless right on time, but the flight was delayed for four hours because our aircraft landed in Cologne because they were running out of fuel and couldn't land in Frankfurt. Then they had to refuel at Cologne and get clearance and a bunch of other planes were stacked up know the drill. What I liked about Frankfurt is that they actually brought out sausages, bread, sparkling water, and soft drinks that they gave away for free to the stranded passengers. I didn't eat the bread but the sausages weren't half-bad.

What I thought was weird at Frankfurt was that they had two security gates, and even after you'd passed through one of them, eventually you came to another one, and they were patting everyone down. They also tested my camera and binoculars. So it was a little bit of a delay. I didn't really think much of it one way or the other once I made sure that there was a ladies' room past the second security check, unlike some airports I could mention. (Cough, cough, charles de gaulle.) However, even so, when I did actually visit the ladies, a guard peeped in while I was washing my face and, when I emerged, he told me that I had to go out of the gate and back through security again. I might have felt a bit picked on, except that I noticed that they were doing it to everybody. And, when I got back home to check flyertalk, I saw that they're always super-security conscious. So it isn't like they had a message that the airport was going to be attacked that day or anything. It's just the way of their people, as Kinky Friedman would say.

Some of the posters at flyertalk huffed that they avoid FRA for that reason but I'll be honest. I sort by food, and the providing of free provisions way over-rides some extra security nonsense.

Anyway, since it was a daytime flight, I didn't try to do much sleeping. Instead, I watched three movies. In their selection of independent films, they offered A History of Violence, by that little-known director David Cronenberg. It's good to see how far Northwest Airlines will go out on a limb to get some exposure for the little guy, right? Ha ha. Anyway, nothing small or controlled about Cronenberg, as always, he pushed the limits of how far he could go over the top and still pass it off as a realistic film. Lots of fun.

I then watched In Her Shoes, which was chick lit, only a movie. What I hate about chick lit is what I hated about the movie. If you're going to have a scene where your sister is having sex with your boyfriend, who is also your boss, and the end result is that you lose your job and your boyfriend, then I really just don't feel the need for a feel-good "we are family, all my sisters are here with me" ending. Why can't it be a comedy and you still get out your rifle and gun down the slut sister in the end? Why wouldn't that be funny? Am I the only female who has seen Bad Santa?

The last film I selected was Lord of War, which was more my speed, and a pretty good airplane movie, although it annoyed me that they had to claim that it was "based on actual events" when it was, quite obviously, based on the main character's exceedingly active fantasy life.

I didn't have enough time to watch another entire film, so I eavesdropped on the flight attendants. After awhile, I figured out that one of them was from Mandeville, so I told her that I was from Mandeville too, and we talked about the only topic of conversation there is for awhile. The dude sitting next to me said that his brother's house flooded in Grand Forks, and he had to get mitigated. He said so several times in fact. Dude, no, you don't understand. You think you do, you're a nice guy, but no. The flight attendant had two other families living with her because she was the family member who didn't get wiped out. It's a whole other level of catastrophe.

Of course I'd long missed my connection with my first class seat. Sigh. Here's where not having any checked baggage came into play. Even after the hold-up in customs, because a plane from London landed at the same time, I was one of the first people in line for re-scheduling. The guy at the front of the line was distressed because he was going to have to fly on Pinnacle, instead of getting his first class seat. Frankly, I was ready to get home and would have sat on a damn wing if they'd let me. But it didn't come to that. They had a Northwest flight to Atlanta, where I could sit in first class. Then, on the Delta flight from ATL to MSY, she put me in a row where I had all three seats. Can't argue with that. I made a pillow out of my coat and slept all the way home. The only catch was that it was also snowing in the northern United States, and planes had stacked up everywhere, and the ATL-MSY flight was delayed 2 hours. I set my watch so I wouldn't just be laying there in an unconscious stupor when it was time to board the plane, stuffed coat in pillow, and curled up to sleep on the floor. Hey, by that time, it had been a very long day.

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