Friday, 26 October 2012

And So It Goes

When I first started blogging about my European adventure I was on a plane over the Atlantic, winging my way to Germany. So it seems appropriate that I'm writing this as I begin my journey from Nuremberg back to Canada. At this moment I'm in the airport waiting on my first of three flights that will bring me home. I suspect that by the time I upload this post I'll be back on home soil.

The theme of my last several days her has been "The Last X". Virtually everything I've done for the past week or so has been done with a similar view: The last loaf of bread I need to buy, the last load of laundry I have to do, the last time I vacuum, the last time I'll eat Schauffele, etc., etc.. I mentioned this to my boss and he understandably told me to knock it off as I was making it sound like I was about to depart the earth altogether, rather than just leaving Europe. Fair enough. But the reality is that all of these day to day occurrences, from the mundane to the exotic, have defined my life here for the better part of the past 7 months.

As I wrote in my most recent post, it's been quite a ride. I can't say that I've enjoyed every moment from start to finish. But I will say that the experience is one that I am very glad to have had. My life would have been poorer without it and I am grateful to my employer for having given me the opportunity. I'm more grateful for Kate having encouraged me to take it on, in many ways the past 7 months have been harder on her than they have on me.

Thinking back it's very easy to evaluate my time here in terms of what I've seen and done. But looking deeper the whole experience of living on my own in a foreign country has really given me some quality time to reflect. It has given me a deeper understanding of what is really important. It has caused me to cherish the relationships that I have. It has made me realize how fortunate I am. Seven months after I started this adventure I feel like I know myself better than I have in quite some time.

On my last night in Nuremberg I made a point of stopping in at two of my favorite pubs/restaurants. Places where I've been getting not only great food and drink but perhaps more importantly, conversation and a sense of belonging. As I said my goodbyes at both places I received tokens of appreciation that made me feel that the relationships were more than simply those between proprietor/employee and customer but more so those of friends. As I said, I feel very fortunate.

Professionally there's a certain amount of uncertainty concerning my return. When I left it really wasn't clear what I'd be doing when I got back home. As one who is never truly comfortable with uncertainty I have to admit I have concerns. Far more importantly however, I'll be getting back to family and friends. Whatever the future holds I know everything is going to be great as long as I have them.

In order to truly complete this story I think I'll have to post once more regarding my transition back to "normal" life. Afterwards I hope I'll find something equally engaging to blog about. I'd love it if you came along with me.

And I absolutely must mention that my last meal in Germany, eaten in Nuremberg Airport, was sausages, a pretzel and a beer. And So It Goes indeed.

Thanks for reading,

Location:In Transit

Monday, 15 October 2012

Homestretch and Mixed Feelings

I can't believe it. In less than two weeks my work assignment in Nuremberg will be completed and I should be on my way back home for good. I can't wait. I've had enough of being on my own. I miss my stuff. I miss my children. I miss my friends. But most of all I miss my best friend for nearly 30 years. It's time for me to come home.
Since my last post I hit the highlight of the past 7 months. Kate came across and we did an 8-day self-guide cycling tour of Puglia, Italy with Randonnee Tours. First time in the region for us and we loved everything about it. I've said it many times and I'll say it again: If riding a bike is what you and your significant other love to do, there can be no better holiday experience than a bicycling vacation in Italy. With Kate's help I may do a more detailed post regarding our trip. Afterwards we came back and hung out in Nuremberg (with a one day trip to Munich for Oktoberfest!) and I got to show off my haunts, introduced Kate to a few of the people I've gotten to know over here and just really enjoyed her company. I guess that it's true what they say, absence really had made the heart grow fonder. I was so sorry to send her on her way back home when the vacation was over.
So, don't get me wrong. I have thoroughly enjoyed living and working in Europe this summer. What did I do? Well, among other things I:
- Attended the largest beer festival in Europe
- Competed in two Half Marathons in Germany
- Spectated at practice day for the German Touring Car Championship
- Toured the Medieval cities of Regensburg and Bamberg
- Attended the second largest beer festival in Europe
- Had a blast at the largest free World Music festival In Europe
- Watched the 3500 athlete Challenge Roth Iron distance triathlon
- Drove on the Autobahn at speeds that were reasonable and prudent
- Rode the heaviest share bicycles I ever hope to ride
- Cheered cyclists and triathletes racing through the Altstadt
- Refreshed long-dormant domestic skills
- Attended the largest City Street based beer festival in Europe
Sharp eyed readers may have picked out a theme. What can I tell you? It's Germany!
I will miss the foods, the beverages, my super sweet downtown apartment (I believe it's already rented out for next month), the public transportation system, the incredibly clean, safe streets and the orderly queues. But most of all I'll miss the people I came to know who made the place a little less "foreign" and who made me feel like I had a home here I Nuremberg.
But, all things come to an end and in this case the time is right. I'll try to get one last European post done before I head home. Until then,
Thanks for reading,

Location:Doha, Qatar

Friday, 7 September 2012

Punctuality - For Better and Worse

Is there any trait we associate with the Germany more than punctuality?

Maybe that's one of the reasons I find living here relatively easy. I'm someone who likes things to happen on time. It makes things easier to plan. It removes a certain amount of stress from my day to day situations. It's kind of how I was raised and it's become a part of who I am. Did I mention how much I appreciate the trains and buses here running exactly to schedule day in and day out?

If I may digress for a bit, it was pointed out to me that I haven't posted since my birthday. Over a month has passed and nada from me! How could that be? The short answer is that I was getting a bit burnt out on the blogging. I was also somewhat intimidated by a friend of the family whose travel blog was so incredibly well written it made me feel illiterate by comparison. But, as with many things, time is the great healer and I've decided to make a comeback. For better or worse. So I'm apologizing to my regular followers. All five of you.

Back to punctuality. I've been alone in the office a lot of this week. It's a fairly regular occurence in a small branch office, especially in the middle of vacation season. One morning I was charged with making sure a FedEx package got picked up. Unlike in North America the courier companies here don't have drop boxes on every other corner. Office pick-ups seem to be the norm and I was told this one would occur between 9 and 11am. No problem.

I rode a Share Bike to work that morning as has been my custom since June. I was running just a bit late but by pushing on the pedals really hard I could see I was going to make it to the office with several minutes to spare. So imagine my horror when I came 'round the corner at 8:56 only to see the FedEx truck waiting at the curb outside our building. Already carrying a bit of a sweat I went into full-blown triathlon mode and proceeded to do a fast transition (Triathletes - Be thankful that T2 doesn't generally require you to swipe a card and wait for your return to be registered by the system). I ran to the door, met the FedEx man, went well beyond the depth of my Tourist German language skills and the package was on its way. Taking a step back, what could possibly be more punctual than a FedEx pick-up in Germany.

Remember grocery shopping? I've adopted a more European style of frequent stops for fewer items so as not to overload my tiny refrigerator. Bread, fruit, cheese, yogourt, cereal are among the staples. And of course there's milk. Due to the vagaries of EU agricultural subsidies milk and dairy products are incredibly cheap here. Turnover is high and the best before dates are so laughably far in the future I got out of the habit of checking them. So imagine my dismay while making my morning latte earlier this week and several solid chunks toppled into my cup. Being a guy I of course had to taste test it (we're kind of stupid that way, WHY!).

Impossible! I was outraged. I had just bought that litre three days prior. But before I marched off to the grocery store for an argument (over a 60 eurocent litre of milk) I checked the best before date. Expired the day before. Curses!

Now admit it. In Canada we've been known to take a slightly "relaxed" attitude to "Best Before". Like the man says: "When yogourt goes bad, how can you tell?". Bread? Peanut butter? Quick look, sniff test, Good to Go! But in Germany, much like the trains and the package deliveries, THE MILK RUNS ON TIME. You have been warned. And sometimes, it seems, punctuality may not be a virtue after all.

Welcome back and thanks for reading,

Sunday, 5 August 2012

55 Today

I've tried to time my trips home so that they coincide with important triathlon training or racing dates. Thus far it's been quite successful. As a result I unfortunately missed Kate's birthday in May. Today the circle was made complete as I celebrated my 55th alone in Europe.

The day started off well. I slept in until 8am, had a simple breakfast and went for a long easy run. To be different I chose a route that I used from my previous apartment and haven't run since the beginning of June. It was nice, just over 9 miles in an hour and 20. It was quite humid but not too hot at that time of day. After stretching and showering I walked over to one of my usual outdoor restaurants for a chanterelle omelette which I was happy to wash down with a Hefeweizen (beer, Paul).

I have a meeting in Italy tomorrow morning so I flew to Milan late this afternoon. I'd been planning this for just under a week and had chosen a restaurant not far from the Novotel that got pretty good reviews on Trip Advisor. I like staying in Novotels but although the quality of food in their restaurants is OK, I find it very generic and unimaginative and not at all representative of the region in which the hotel is located. Not quite the birthday dinner I was looking forward to.

It was a longish walk to the restaurant and a few raindrops started to fall as I reached it - Closed on Sundays. I had to go back almost as far as I had come to get to the centre of town. As I walked the rain started to pick up and thunder and lightning closed in. As if by Divine Intervention a simple bus shelter appeared next to a roundabout just as the skies opened up. What was strange about this thunderstorm was that there was no perceptible movement of the clouds. The storm just seemed to sit on top of me in my bus shelter. My very own little dark cloud. I stayed in that shelter, open on three sides but with a roof, for about 20 minutes. Once the rain stopped, a very quick walk through the town of  Cardano al Campo (not one of Italy's garden spots) revealed only a couple of dodgy looking open eating spots. At that point I decided to cut my losses, walked back to the Novotel and had pretty much the dinner I had unsuccessfully tried to avoid.

I've had quite a few birthdays, 55 to be exact. Most of them have been very enjoyable. This year's didn't quite measure up. The amusing thing is that in all likelihood this is the one I will remember most vividly: Alone in a foreign country, away from friends and family, getting stuck in a thunderstorm and topping it off with a mediocre dinner. Next year I'd like to trade more memorable for more enjoyable. 

Happy birthday to me.
And thanks for reading,

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Music: The "World" Comes to Nuremberg

Main Stage at the Hauptmarkt at night
This weekend I had the pleasure of taking in one of the coolest and most enjoyable experiences to come to Nuremberg during the time I've been here. It's called Bardentreffen and it bills itself as Germany's largest free open air music festival. This year was the 37th annual edition and they estimate that 200,000 people took it in. I took a larger interest than I otherwise might have since the theme of this year's festival was "Canada in Concert". Hmm, how do you like that? The music from my homeland is World Music. I may have some thoughts on that in a future post but needless to say, as one member of a highly invisible minority I felt it was patriotic duty to take in as much of the festival as possible while paying special attention to the Canadian acts.
Looking down from the Alt Rathaus
The crowds move between stages
I can only liken the Bardentreffen to the Winnipeg Folk Festival but with a number of significant advantages. First of all there is no admission fee for any of the acts playing at any of the 8 main stages set up in the old city. Alcohol consumption is not "Allowed" or "Tolerated", it's an integral part of the experience. I saw no examples of public drunkenness, just a lot of people including families enjoying themselves. The fact that it is in the old city means that if the occasional shower happens (they did) or a torrential rain falls (it didn't), the festival ground doesn't turn into a quagmire. The whole area is easily accessed by Subway, Bus or bicycle and if like me you are lucky enough to live downtown, by foot. To walk between the two furthest venues would take me 15 minutes tops. And the crowning advantage? I could use my very own bathroom between sets! Top that Birds Hill Park.
Busking in the Street

One of the smaller stages
In between the main stages and all through the city there are buskers playing virtually any kind of music you can imagine. Many of the outdoor bars and restaurants had live musicians playing at their places as well. I'm not a music critic so I won't even try to go down that path. Just suffice to say that there is a wide variety of talent and abilities. At any given time the best music playing might have been on the street rather than on one of the main stages. You just decide what you think may sound promising and give a listen. If you like it, stick around, if not then move to the next one. Since you haven't invested any money there are no qualms about moving along if a particular band isn't floating your boat.

I never made it to the African food stand
and apparently it was my loss
I may not know who he is but I know
why he is smiling!
And then there are the food vendors. Well, this is Germany so count on at least one beer tent at every stage. Two or three at the more popular ones. Food vendors were also concentrated around the perimeter of the venues. Of course there are the ubiquitous grills with bratwurst and steak sandwiches and the usual Turkish fast foods. But there were also foods from India, Morocco, West Africa, South America, various parts of Asia and different German regional specialties as well. Cocktail bars, ice cream, crepe and candy vendors are also there in abundance so it's pretty certain everybody will find something they like to eat and/or drink. If not take your pick among any of the restaurants that also seemed to do very well during the festival. Yet another advantage to the urban setting.
I did have a few observations on the Canadian Content.

Lisa LeBlanc de
Nouveau Brunswick
Anyone from Europe or the US may have received a distorted impression of the prevalence of French in Canadian music and perhaps in Canada itself. I would say that well over half the Canadian acts were from Quebec or New Brunswick and performed in French. Having lived in Quebec for many years I think that's a good thing. Traditional French Canadian folk music really lends itself to the feel of this festival. I sometimes wondered why the performers thought that speaking broken English would be better than speaking French to a German audience. I guess English really is the unofficial second language here. They were very well received and the occasional German greeting or sentence really went a long way no matter how bad the grammar or the pronunciation. I really would have loved to have seen some traditional East Coast Music from Nova Scotia, Newfoundland or Prince Edward Island as well.

If Canada was the featured country you would not know it from the time slots they were given to perform in. Two nights in a row there were Canadian acts at 7pm at the largest stage in the Hauptmarkt (Main Market Square). There was an OK turnout for both but the really big crowds turned up for the shows around 9 pm. Most of the acts at that time were from Germany or elsewhere in Europe.

The headline Canadian act was scheduled to be Yukon Blonde from Canada's west coast. Although I know the name I'm not familiar with their music. They cancelled their appearance on relatively short notice and were replaced by Lisa Leblanc from New Brunswick. I thought she was a good performer with two excellent back up musicians. I just wasn't that knocked out by her songs.

Felix Award winning Nicolas Pellerin from Quebec
If you ever have the opportunity to see Nicolas Pellerin et les Grands Hurleurs or a band called Genticorum, do not miss them. They are both traditional Québécois folk trios with slightly different takes on a similar theme. They are also terrific entertainers. I promise you will not be disappointed.

I saw and did so much over the two and a half days that I could probably go on forever but I won't. I'd just say that the Bardentreffen is a wonderful festival and a great experience. I'm not sure I would fly over from Canada just to take it in but if you do happen to be in Europe at the time it's on I think it warrants a trip to Nuremberg. I think you'll like what you find.

Thanks for reading,

Saturday, 28 July 2012

When is a Triathlon Not a Triathlon?

I arrived back in Nuremberg on Thursday following a 10 day visit home. As always, it was wonderful to see friends and family. My sister in-law made her first ever visit from Quebec after 15 years that we've been here. Kate and I even went on a Dinner & A Movie date. I can't remember the last time that happened. Four Okanys saw The Dark Knight Rises in a span of three days.

But the highlight of the visit had to be the Kenora Borealis Triathlon, two days after my return from Europe. Ever since the Phoenix-like rise from the ashes of the Triple Threat Triathlon Club several years ago the team has used this race as a road trip to train a bit, take part in the race and do some great socializing. This year we scored big in the last category with more members and Significant Others than ever before at the pre-race dinner (team only) and the official post-race lunch. The dinner was particularly memorable as it spanned three generations and ages from newborn to.... well, a gentleman never tells and I don't actually know the precise answer so I'll leave it at that.

So, to the competition. Apart from the Noris Share Bikes I have zero opportunity to ride here. I run regularly and make somewhat sporadic visits to one of two local pools. In order not to embarrass myself on the bike several weeks ago I threw an offer down to my teammates. I would swim and run for one or preferably two relay teams if there was any interest. Boy, was there! I swam for a Sprint Team and ran for an Olympic. I like to think I even had some influence on the entry of two additional teams. This was my first time ever competing in a triathlon or duathlon as part of a relay team.

Let me start off by saying that I think relays do have a part to play in triathlon. Our family's first ever exposure to the sport was when Kate ran 10k as part of a team at the Mt Tremblant Olympic distance tri (There were no sprints then. Seriously). Before the advent of the Try-aTri I think this was how the majority of new triathletes got started. I suspect that a significant number still come in that way.

So how was my first exposure to triathlon relays from "the inside"? Well I really enjoyed the camaraderie. Getting the rest of the team members mentally prepared on race morning was fun. And I certainly felt like I had far fewer things to be concerned about. Goggles - check, swim cap - check, Speedo - Whew!(just checking). Good to go. And then after a very long wait make sure my running shoes, tri-shorts and top, sunglasses and hat are on, grab the timing chip, run to the turnaround and then come back to the finish chute making sure to cheer on all the TTTC folks I encounter. Job done. Time to pack up and go.

But, to be brutally honest, to me it's not triathlon. I missed that mental process in the last 100m of the swim where I start preparing for the start of the bike. I miss the transitions. I miss that feeling in the first few hundred meters of the run when I'm not sure my legs will be able to make the switch from cycling to running yet somehow they always do. I miss having to measure my efforts throughout the swim and bike in order to have a strong run and minimize that final time. And I miss racing head to head over the total distance knowing that my competitor and I have covered the same course under identical conditions with the winner being the best prepared and having the better executed race plan.

So yes, I will race a relay again if circumstances lead me that way. But it will always be a second choice. So next month at Riding Mountain, ready or not, I'll be racing the full Olympic distance race. I'll let you know how it goes.

Thanks for reading,

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Challenge Roth Triathlon - Observations

Marshalling the Swim Start
As one who considers himself a triathlete and a fan I could not pass up the chance to spectate at this year's Challenge Roth triathlon held this past Sunday. It is held in and around the town of Roth, Germany which is a 12 minute train ride from where I'm temporarily living in Nuremberg. So on Sunday I woke to my 4am alarm (much like many of the competitors I suspect) and headed off on a day-long adventure. I won't dwell too much on the transportation and logistic challenges presented to would be spectators, I'll just say that with the Start/T1, T2 and finish areas all being in different areas I would consider it mandatory to have a bicycle available as your prime means of transport. The distance between the start and T2 is approximately 10km. Fine if you're a competitor and your 180km ride happens to finish at a point other than where it started. Not as much fun if you're hoofing it alone with no one to transport your "gear bag" (water and snacks in my case).
From the T1 Exit. You can't quite makeout the crowd on top of the
bridge spanning the canal, 3 and 4 deep watching the start and swim

The back story around Roth fascinates and delights me. I have no ill will towards the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC) and their Ironman brand. In my experience Ironman puts on superb races and they create a wonderful experience not only for the athletes but also for their supporters, the volunteers and the spectators. Ironman has created a successful business model and for many reasons they should be commended. Read the history elsewhere but the race now known as Challenge Roth was for many years "Ironman Europe".  Over the years it developed a reputation for being one of the highlights of the triathlon season and a "Must Do" race. I think the attraction was a combination of the beautiful and fast course, the volunteers, the Teutonic efficiency with which the race is put on, the wildly enthusiastic fan support and the aura of Ironman. History leads to a very clear conclusion as to which factors most contribute to the events success and it's unique vibe.
Enjoying food and a beverage before the runners come by for their
first of two loops
Back in the early 2000s there was a divergence of views between WTC and the organizers. The race went from being Ironman Europe to Challenge Roth. Now there is one thing I do dislike about the WTC and that is their complete intolerance of events that compete with their Ironman branded races. As we have seen elsewhere in the world the WTC will use some heavy handed tactics, perhaps not to kill these competing races but certainly to diminish their size and status. Ironman Germany was created shortly after the break between WTC and the Roth organizers. It's normally held on the same day in the region around Frankfurt, roughly 200 km away.

Not normally given to hyperblole.
 In this case the banner fits.

So what's the difference between Challenge Roth and Ironman Germany? The latter has spots for the IM World Championships in Kona. Challenge Roth has everything else.This year Roth had to limit entries to 2900 individuals and 600 relay teams. That's nearly 5000 competitors for a long distance race only. The split has taken nothing away from this race. It turns out Roth's attraction had very little to do with the WTC and Ironman. It's all about the area and the amazing people that contribute to the atmosphere. One need look no further than the legenday Solarer Berg to see what I mean. Solarer Berg is approximately a 1.2km climb going out from the town of Hilpoltstein. Data says it averages about a 5% grade, not exactly Tour de France Cat 1 territory. But don't try telling that to the competitors or the estimated 25,000+ spectators cheering them on. DJs get the crowd whipped up and the athletes get cheered by name. At the lower level there are barriers and signboards to pound on. At the higher level the spectators fill the road, parting at the last moment to let the athletes pass, cheering, clapping, cowbelling, hornblowing, thundersticking, you name it.It's one of those"You had to be there"experiences. 

I was able to witness similar outpourings of enthusiasm at the Start/T1, Eckersmuehlen (Site of the cycling "Beer Mile"), T2 and the section of the marathon route through the old city of Roth. The race culminates in a temporarily erected bleacher stadium where every finisher is greeted by a deafening roar as they make their way down the red carpet. I would be re-miss if I neglected to mention that each of therese areas (except the start) contains at least one Biergarteen. So you won't forget which country you're in.
Solarer Berg - It's not just about the athletes and cheering them on.
One needs sustenance for an endurance event!
So is Challenge Roth a Must Do event for me? Does it make my Bucket List? My honest answer is "No". I'm really itching to have another go at IM Canada in Penticton and I'm already hearing great things about the upcoming IM Mt Tremblant not far from our former home in Montreal. I'd like these to be my next long distance races. But if our life circumstances are such that I/we are looking to travel overseas to race long course, Challenge Roth will be my first choice.

Thanks for reading,
Just how popular is pro Timo Bracht in these parts? Here's his Fan Bus.
In the finish arena there's a grandstand for his fan club. Timo finished second
to James Cunnama. If you asked a local today about Sunday's Men's race I
suspect they will tell you "Timo finished second to some South African guy"