A Pause from my Normal Posts to Remember April 27, 2011

Before getting back to my overdue travel blog posts, I would like to take a second and talk about something that happened 3 years ago today which had a profound impact on the state of Alabama.  That would be the tornado outbreak of 2011.  While most of April was filled with deadly tornadoes across the U.S., the 27th was especially bad, and especially for both Mississippi and Alabama.  For those you you who aren’t familiar with this and want to read up on it a bit more, I’ll link to the wikipedia page here.  But for a lot of you, you already know the details.  Many of you may have even been in one of those devastated areas.  I have heard many interesting stories from many friends and family about that day, and luckily, no one that I knew was hurt.

 

But before I talk about my experience on that day, I want to talk about what it means to grow up in Alabama with such strong storms ever present on our minds.  It is pretty commonplace for youngsters to be able to read a weather radar and know what a tornado warning is.  I was able to point out exactly where I lived and where I went to school on a weather map at a young age.  Later I was also able to discern where my grandparents lived as well.  I remember on one instance, when I was quite young and my sister was babysitting me, she pointed at the tv and told me to tell her if our county in the bottom right hand corner of the screen turned red while she called our neighbors to come and get us and take us to their basement for shelter.  I remember being horrified when about 30 seconds after she left the room, it started flashing red.  I also knew how to read a weather radar from a young age and what a hook echo is.  And I am sure everyone in the South knows exactly what a tornado siren sounds like and what they should do, even though most people run outside and try to look for the tornado.  Some of us probably even grew up with those annoying weather radios which screamed every time it threatened to sprinkle in the neighboring counties.

 

Every child in Alabama is also taught at a young age what to do in case of a tornado.  Several times throughout the school year we heard both the signal for the fire drills (which we luckily never had to use) and the signal for the tornado drills (which on several occasions we did use).  We would always line up, thrilled at the fact that we were missing class for another drill, and file out into the halls.  There were always hushed whispers among students as we crouched next to each other, with the teachers hushing us and telling us to cover our heads.  And during the drills it was all fun and games, but when these drills were actually put into practice, there was a whole different atmosphere.  When I was younger other children would be crying as frantic parents rushed to school to pull their kids out and rush them home to safety.  Some days when the threat of severe weather was looming, they would cancel school altogether or send kids home early.  I know now that they are trying to avoid a law suit if a tornado does happen to directly hit the school, but I can’t help but feel that some kids are safer at school than they would be at home.  Many families in Alabama live in mobile homes, which not only seem to be a magnet for tornadoes, but are also one of the worst places to be in one.  Political opinions aside, I always grew up thinking this is normal.  That everyone grew up knowing how to read a radar and that every child had tornado drills in school.

 

And this is something that has been so drilled into my head, I sometimes subconsciously do things like pick out my hiding spot if there were a tornado warning.  I have even found myself doing that here in Germany, where there are practically zero tornadoes.  I have yet to even experience a decent thunderstorm here actually.  But I have been in my dorm or in my friends’ dorms and thought, here is where I would hide, and then laughed at myself for thinking I would ever need to take shelter from a tornado in Europe.  I have caught myself staring at the sky looking for wall clouds.  And to most of my friends here (and probably to most back home if I’m being honest), I seem overly cautious during the threat of a storm.  I have been raised to be prepared for these storms, which seem to hit Alabama more and more often and increasingly at bizarre times of the year (like November and sometimes December), likely due to climate change.  But it is not without reason.  I have had some close encounters with these storms, and some close calls when it comes to family members being caught in these storms.

 

Several years back (2009 or 2010) in April a tornado hit about half a mile from my parent’s house, destroying a lot of our neighborhood, but luckily not injuring anyone.  My dad recalls being home for lunch that afternoon and taking all of the dogs to their bedroom closet with nothing but a motorcycle helmet to protect him should the tornado hit our home.  He didn’t have time to get to the neighbor’s basement even.  And in November 2011 I was caught on campus during a tornado warning.  This was particularly strange because it was on a Wednesday at 12.  Now for those of you who don’t know, that is when they usually test the tornado sirens.  I remember standing outside and seeing some pretty ominous clouds, but that is kind of common in Alabama, so I didn’t think much of it.  It had yet to start raining or lightening.  Then the sirens went off.  For awhile, I thought this was just the normal test.  Then I realized the deep voice which usually announces to the world that there is nothing to worry about was not present.  Then the heavens opened up a let forth the wrath that is an Alabama thunderstorm.  The tornado that day was pretty small, only destroying a few trailers in mine and the neighboring trailer park.  I still do not know how all of the the trees down managed to miss both my car and my trailer, but what I do remember is running home in complete panic after hearing where the tornado was in order to check on my dog, falling out of my trailer after seeing she was okay and that the trailer was only mildly damaged in order to check on my friend’s trailer and then going to the doctor to make sure I didn’t break my arm after hitting the concrete after about a five foot drop.

 

But none of this compares to the outbreak from April 25th to the 28th across much of the United States.  I was still in Auburn during this time, going to class as if it were any other day.  The weather was fine for much of the day where I was owing to the fact that I was in the southeast part of the state.  I remember waking up and doing some stuff on the internet before going to class and seeing a video of one of the first tornadoes of the day in Cullman, Alabama.  I honestly didn’t think too much of it, even though it was early in the morning.  Usually there is one wave of bad weather and then it is gone.  So I thought the danger was over for the day, at least for my family and friends in northern and central Alabama.  So I went most of the day oblivious to the peril, even brushing off the text from my parents saying the weather was pretty bad (they do tend to exaggerate these things in my defense).  I continues to ignore it until about 5 or 6 o’clock when I got a call from my sister, asking for me to check the weather radar for her.  This immediately put me on alert as she described what her day was like.  She had lost power, like most in the state, early on as they were hit by wave after wave of tornadic storms.  She had spent most of the day with her cat and in the bathroom trying to ride it out.  And every time she thought it was over, the tornado sirens would go off once more, and she would have to call my parents to let them know that the carnage was not yet over.  Eventually, even the weather sirens stopped working, which was why she had called me.  At this point I was in panic mode and raced back home to check the radar for her and frantically try to get a hold of my parents as well.  That was when I realized the complete devastation of the day’s weather.  Some of the hardest hit areas in Alabama being Harvest/Madison, Cullman/ Arab, Fultondale/ Birmingham, Phil-Campbell, Cordova/ Blountsville, Rainsville, and of course, Tuscaloosa.  Not long after this I had to pack an overnight bag and load Precious into my car because I then realized that the storms were headed for Auburn.  I remember thinking I had about 30 minutes to make it to my friend’s house after glancing at the radar, and then I realized, these storms were racing through Montgomery at an incredible speed.  By the time I had made the 10 or so minute drive to my friend’s house, the storm was already upon us.  Luckily for Auburn that day, the tornado which was produced in that particular supercell was north of us, and we were soon out of danger, but for many that day, that was not the case.

 

I am really glad that none of my friends or family were hurt during the 2011 tornado outbreak.  Today I pause to remember the complete devastation throughout the Southeast and hope that everyone back home stays weather aware this tornado season.  My thoughts are still with those communities which are still picking up the pieces three years later.

 

And anyone who wants to share their own story of the April 27th, 2011 tornado outbreak, please leave a comment below.

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April 12, 2014: It’s a Holiday Post (Part II)

So the ride to Saas Fee was somewhat long (about 6 hours and most of the journey was by bus).  It was, however, very nice scenery, so time passed fairly quickly.  That and I was pretty excited about going to the Alps.  We ended up transferring to a train in Zürich, at which point we entered into some kind of weird time warp.  We had about 45 minutes until our train and I suppose most of that time was spent searching for a bathroom, which was pretty far off it turned out.  We looked at the time while considering finding a bit to snack on only to discover we had 10 minutes to get to our platform, which was of course on the other side of where we were.  Two giant suitcases and skis trailing along behind us, we booked it to the other side of the station, only to find a decently crowded double decker train.  We ended up leaving the luggage downstairs because who really wants to carry it up the stairs to the proper luggage rack and then have to stuff it among the other suitcases.  But that aside, the train journey was pleasant in and of itself.  We were sitting across from a girl, who was dressed in some pretty frumpy clothing, and for about an hour she proceeded to use what must have been an entire bottle of eye liner and mascara as she constantly fine tuned her make-up.  I couldn’t help but stare, probably making her obsessive need to do her make-up worse.

 

Once we got in to the station we exchanged some money and waited for our friend Tom to arrive so that we could catch the 40 minute bus up the mountain to where we were actually staying.  The ride was pretty curvy to say the least.  I am really glad I have a strong constitution, otherwise I am sure I would have been downing the Dramamine like there’s no tomorrow.  Oh, and let me give you an idea of what my face must have looked like for the first couple of hours in Saas Fee.  I have grown up in North Alabama where there are plenty of round topped hills, covered in thick woods, but I had never before seen such mountains!  They were absolutely breathtaking!  If it were raining, I probably would have drowned with my big gaping mouth pointed up to the sky.  And there was so much snow!  All of the times I have ever seen snow would never even compare to how much I saw on those peaks.

 

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So by the time all of the initial wonderment wore off it was time to learn how to ski.  It was my first time even seeing skis, much less putting them on and trying to move with them.  It was pretty awkward for me.  Our ski instructor was pretty nice and the group was fairly small: me, Tom, and a family of four.  The first day was pretty good.  We worked on parallel turning down what the Germans call the Idiot’s Hill (or the baby slope).  I could ski down the bottom half pretty well.  I fell a lot but always got back up.  I was never taught by this instructor on how to snow plow (or pizza), which is a pretty important skill in my opinion.  So I managed to crash into a bench full of people before calling it a day.  I really should have kept at it and ended on a good note though, because as encouraging and nice as everyone was, a small pigeon hole formed in my confidence dike, which on the next day completely broke down.  We immediately went to the slightly more challenging Idiot’s Hill the next morning.  And without fail, I managed to fall every turn.  And by the time I was moved to an easier class, I was so upset with myself and frustrated at not being able to do anything I was able to do just one days time before, that I couldn’t possibly learn.  So the next day I decided to take a break and rest from my skiing adventures.

 

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Tom, who started off in the same class as me but was quickly moved up, was at this time skiing down some of the hardest runs in the place with absolutely no fear.  We were pretty much exact opposites when it came to skiing.  He was Stan Darsh, racing down the K-13, and I was Ike, French frying when I pizzaed.  Fortunately for me, Donald offered to teach me in the afternoons, and lesson 1 was how to pizza.  This really helped because instead of relying on my lack of turning skills to slow me down or stop, I could just wedge my skis together.  I even developed a harmless rivalry with another lady on the slopes who, like me, pizzaed the entire way down the slopes.  She ended up beating me on the last day.  I knew I should have tripped her up on that last run and she skidded by me in a perfect pizza formation, smirking down at me as a slid on my bum to the finish.  I all actuality though, she probably didn’t even know I existed.  And by the end I was not as bad as I could have been.  I was finally starting to get my confidence back by the end of the trip, when we sadly had to leave.  Next time I go I will hopefully get to ski on something a bit better than the Idiot’s Hill, but we’ll see.  My brain just doesn’t think I should be going that fast with two slender pieces of plastic and my own coordination keeping me from what my brain has interpreted as certain death.

 

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Other interesting things to note on the trip: I met almost all of Donald’s family in one go.  And of course, like Donald, they were all incredibly nice (and pretty hilarious as well.  I’m not sure I’ve ever laughed so much with a group of people.)  His mom cooked for everyone several times and with the price of food there, that in and of itself was awesome.  Which brings me to the insane prices of anything up there.  Granted I know we are in Switzerland, and I know we are on top of a mountain, and I know that most of the resort is on a glacier, but damn.  Most food at a restaurant was around the $30-$40 mark.  I never quite convinced myself to splurge on buying actual meat, even though I originally wanted to make a casserole for everyone.  I just couldn’t bring myself to spend that kind of money on meat.  We did manage to make fondue one night, which included the worst bottle of wine I have ever had the (dis)pleasure of tasting.  There were only two labels.  One on the front reading, “Vin Blanc” and the one on the back reading, “Assembled in Switzerland from wines across Europe” (i.e. This is the shit no one wanted anyway). It tasted fine in the fondue though, so no complaints.  Aside from skiing and cooking, we played a decent amount of cards together and just generally enjoyed each others’ company.

 

Overall it was a really nice holiday with some really nice people.  And even though my skiing was shoddy at best, I even ended up enjoying that.  It’s too bad Alabama doesn’t have any skiing options because I will probably have to wait until I come back to ski again.  But I look forward to the day I can actually ski with people and not bore them out of their minds.  And photo of the trip:

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Photos courtesy of Donald.  Also a special thanks to Eva, who graciously loaned me her skis :)

April 5, 2014: It’s a Holiday Post (part I)

So it’s been a couple of weeks since I last sat down and wrote a blog.  The first week of silence was intentional considering I didn’t really do much during those weeks.  But now it is time to play some catch up and talk about my super eventful week and a half or so!  Considering how eventful my travels were, I’ve decided to divide them into two posts: part I, my trip to Munich and part II: skiing.  Yeah, you read that right, skiing, but more on that later.  First, beautiful Munich!

 

Last time I went to Munich I was only able to stay for one night, and considering how much there is to do in such a big city, I decided to go back.  This time I went with Donald because he had never seen Munich outside of Oktoberfest and it was already on the way anyway.  So we ended up staying at my friend Eva’s again.  Sadly she didn’t have too much time to hang out because I was a bit late in figuring out our exact plans, but we did eventually get to hang out.  The first day we sort of took it easy and left in the afternoon.  There was really only one thing worth mentioning on the train.  When we got on the train from Nuremberg to Ingolstadt (we had to change trains there) we noticed two very obviously non-German guys surrounded by three German officials who were interrogating them about their passports in what was at least on one side, very broken English.  The officials even went so far as to search one of their bags in order to try and find a specific document, later scolding the young man for not having understood their request sooner and producing the document himself.  Even though the issue was resolved, it made me reflect a bit.  I am also a foreigner in this country.  I have to have a visa and I had to fill out a decent amount of paperwork and jump through the required hoops.  And I probably got through the process a bit more easily because I am from the U.S.  But that still does not change the fact that I am also a long term resident in Germany.  That being said, I have never been harassed by any official here.  Not when the cops pulled me over on my bike (yes, that is a thing) and not even when I went to the hospital.  Now maybe it’s because I am on a student visa or maybe there are some other factors I haven’t really taken into account and maybe there was really a problem with these guys’ visas, but why on Earth were there random officials on this train checking their visas to begin with?  I have never seen anyone on a train checking passports.  It was just bizarre and even if it was not the case, the outward appearance of the situation would lead most to believe the darkness of their skin may have come into play at some point.  It also made me think of Louis C.K.  That aside, we made it safely to Munich at around 6 in the evening and since we needed to wait for an hour or so to go to where we were staying, we decided to wait in a nice little park by the justice building.  After that we managed to navigate the public transportation and arrive at Eva’s, where her brother greeted us.

 

The next day we decided to go to the Olympic park since the weather was relatively nice.  And while the gray sky didn’t make for the best photos, the weather was nice and warm.  So once we got there another somewhat curious thing happened to us.  We were walking along and this lady in a motorized wheelchair comes speeding towards us asking if we could take her to the Olympic Tower in the middle of the park (in German of course).  Of course we agreed since we were already headed that way and so we set out.  Only I think she was in some kind of a hurry as she had her lever pressed so far down if must have been the equivalent of flooring the gas pedal of the car.  We practically had to jog in order to keep up with her.  And on random occasions she would turn around and say something, and even though we were clearly struggling to keep up, she maintained her speed.  This went on for close to five minutes before we reached the tower.  At that point she thanked us and then proceeded to speed off in the opposite direction from the tower.  Outside of that event the rest of the day was pretty touristy and unremarkable.  We climbed to the top of the large hill in the park, where we could see the entire city.  We took several panoramas along with many regular photos and then leisurely made our way around the park.  We were hoping to see a couple of paddle boats in the pond lose a few of their louder crew members to the water as they jumped from boat to boat, screaming as if they were aboard the sinking Titanic, but we had no such luck that day.

 

At the top of the hill in Olympic Park

At the top of the hill in Olympic Park

 

After that we walked around the city for awhile.  We went to one specific place Eva’s brother recommended, but I don’t remember what it was called anymore.  It was pretty neat though.  There were all of these museums there which were built in a sort of Roman architecture.  So we took some pictures and eventually made our way to a McDonalds, mostly for a bathroom break, but then we felt obligated to actually buy something and take a short rest.  So frozen milkshake disguised as a coffee in hand, we sat outside and enjoyed the wonderful view of passing cars.  After that we wandered over the to town hall and saw the clock play, which usually included several figures dancing around as the clock chimes.  Then we made our way over to a nice river with a man-made island and walked on that for awhile.  It was really pretty.  After walking around that area for awhile we met up with my friend and went to the English Garden to enjoy a nice beer with some overpriced food at the Chinese Tower.  Food was eaten, beer was drunk, and the company of friends was enjoyed.  We then proceeded to continue the party at a Mexican joint not far away with half priced cocktails (which by American standards are still somewhat expensive).  But it was good fun.

 

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The next day, and our last full day in Munich, we got up and after having what can only be described as a breakfast of champions, we ventured to a little castle called Nymphenburg.  And while we didn’t actually take a tour of the palace, which would have been nice but probably much like any other Baroque palace I’ve seen, we picnicked on the grounds and then wandered around for at least an hour.  There were geese, swans, and a various assortment of other water foul.  We even saw a fight between several swans on an island in the middle of one of the ponds.  The grounds were pretty nice, but not everything was in bloom yet, so it is probably a bit nicer when everything is green.  And like the previous day, it would have been nicer if the sky wasn’t the color of slate.  But we enjoyed ourselves nonetheless.  Then we went to back to the center of the city and I showed Donald several things which Eva showed me on my previous trip to Munich (churches, the Residence, etc.)  We also managed to find the surfers at the English Garden.  There is a canal which runs through the park and at the very edge, there is a sort of permanent wave made by the water flowing from underneath the bridge which surfers like to practice on.  We watched for about 20 minutes, mesmerized by their skills.  Some of the surfers were even children, and trust me, they were kicking ass themselves.  Then we met with Eva and some of her coworkers for another beer.  We sat around and chatted for awhile before deciding to go eat at a burger place.  Luckily for me the list of veggie burgers was extensive.  I finally settled on a Mid-west inspired creation with black beans and avocados.  I was not disappointed.  In fact the only veggie burger I can think of that beats it is the black bean burger severed at the Hound.

 

Nympehnburg

Nympehnburg

Surfers in the English Garden

Surfers in the English Garden

 

And that pretty much sums up my second edition of Munich.  The next day we breakfasted, and then hoped on our bus to Switzerland, skis in tow.

 

2014-04-05_09-51-28Photos courtesy of Donald :)