…Düsseldorf. The First Three Months: September – November

The Roller Blading Paradise

Moving without taking my roller blades with me? No way! But what if my new home will not be suitable for this activity? Indeed, the first skating attempt was not really encouraging. However, skating along the Rhine river is a very safe and very scenic approach. In not too long, and with help of  Fahrradnetzplan (a network of biking trails), I “designed” a 30km route running along the Rhine, crossing three bridges, leading through Naturschutzgebiet (a conservation area), passing a golf course, with a glimpse of the Rheinturm and after a detour through residential area returning back to the beautiful Rhine. I am pretty sure my favorite route can still be modified to let me explore new parts of the city or skate even longer.

I already look forward to getting in shape for the April Inline half-marathon in Bonn and many other skating events which will be available once we survive the winter time. Let me close with some numbers: 547 km and countless breathtaking views along the way in bit less than three months.


The River Is Beautiful

And it is true at any time of the day. The pictures say it all.

 


MedienHafen Architecture Is also Extremely Photogenic

MedienHafen is a harbor loaded with modern buildings, each of them being unique. The attractive city skyline is in fact a nesting site for culinary facilities and for headquarters of three quarters of Düsseldorf companies. Nonetheless, the modern architecture there is accompanied by a surprising sense of humor (see the human-gecko building).


Chinafest: Der Drache tanzt in Düsseldorf (The Dragon Dances in Düsseldorf)

While I look forward to learning German language and getting familiar with culture of my new home, why to refuse opportunities to experience other cultures? Annually and since 2011, the Chinafest takes place in Düsseldorf and I arrived just on time, to make my third weekend in Germany a Chinese one.

I did not dare to try any of the Chinese food. Bowls overflowing with to me unknown stuff of various shapes and suspicious smells were accompanied by captions but only in Chinese or German and neither one was of great help to me. I thus focused my attention on Chinese tea, dance performances and Gemüseschnitzkunst (art of vegetable carving).


St. Martin Tag: Martinszug

The day of St. Martin is on 10. November and Germans celebrate it with numerous parades and zillion of lanterns. Obviously, the lanterns are available in stores but majority of children (especially older ones, 12+ years) presented their hand-made lanterns and many of them were true masterpieces, including lanterns in shape of buildings. Another components of the St. Martin evening is a replay of a scene, when St. Martin, 4th-century bishop of Tours, shared his cloak with a beggar when he was a soldier in Roman army.

Besides that, Martin Tag is the time when Weckmann pastry (alternatively Stutenkerl) appears in North-Rhine Westphalian bakeries and will be available throughout the Advent time. These guys are funny and delicious.


The Fifth Season: How I Saw Bit of Karneval in the end

The famous German Karneval starts on 11. November at 11:11 and it was the only German tradition I have heard before for sure. It was thus disappointing to realize that the day is not a national holiday. While I have to wait to see the grand opening live for almost a year, I did not miss the Karneval entirely. When downtown on the first weekend of Christmas markets, I was surprised by a little Karneval appetizer, which makes me extra excited about the Karneval finale in spring.


Weihnachtsmärkte

Christmas markets are nothing new for me – I have been attending since early childhood. But Düsseldorf showed me how much I have missed. In the city, there are seven markets at seven different locations. Obviously, range of products overlaps greatly but the atmosphere of each single market is unique. i) The Marktplatz market, which decorates the Düsseldorf city hall for the rest of the year and which shows the best wood carving work. ii) The Flinger Straße market, whose highlight  is mulled wine pyramid, which remembers me of my Grandmother’s decades old Christmas decoration. iii) The “Angel market” at Heinrich Heine Platz, which fits so well with the impressive building of Carsch-Haus department store. iv) The Scandinavian village built of cute white huts and carousel at Schadowplatz. v) And finally the market at Schadowstraße, whose unique features are smoked fish and ice skating ring. Two more markets (at Jan-Wellem-Platz and Stadtbrückchen) still await to be discovered by me and I cannot wait to do so.

Besides already mentioned wood carvings, sellers can be proud of their knitted accessories such as caps and mittens, glass and wooden Christmas tree decorations, paper stars which turn a light bulb into a piece of art, jewelery, candles and toys. Worth mentioning are obviously edible and drinkable good too: all sorts of Glühwein (mulled wine), roasted almonds and chestnuts, waffles and crepes, champions in some kind of sauce and many specialties whose names I simply forgot, such as the Dutch one.

… Ústí nad Orlicí Region, Czech Republic

June 24-June 26

EXPLORING ŠANOV, OUR TEMPORARY HOME (Friday)

Named after the Šanov creek, this tiny town did not have much to offer. Besides the already mentioned creek, there was a (most likely) closed (or soon to be closed) guest house, a restaurant with rather sporadic opening hours, a closed but well maintained church and a brand new guest house Ovčárna (meaning ‘sheepfold’) which provided a great lodging for two nights. Needless to say, such a small village has something more to provide both to visitors and its residents: peace and silence. Both being priceless.

Since a big hike was planned for Saturday, it looked like a smart idea to stretch and warm-up our muscles in advance. The destination was a nearby observation tower called Křížová hora (‘Mount of Cross’), in other words, up the hill. If I only knew how much more climbing would come in the upcoming hours and days! A late afternoon walk was a great ending of the day: it was not hot any more, wild blueberries providing enough of refreshment along the way, the valley literary bathing in the golden warming sunlight, grazing sheep talking to themselves (which I mistakenly interpreted as a greeting), surprise provided by wood carvings hidden along the way and finally, the view.

It is so great not to have to worry about anything and simply enjoy the world around!

DOLNÍ MORAVA and ČERVENÁ VODA (Saturday)

Further exploration of this region of the Czech Republic yielded the first discovery: it is a region of towns and villages with great names. First, the names make sense, second, they can be easily translated and finally, some are rather funny. On the menu for today there were ‘Lower Moravia’ (located at the very north of the country  but not too surprisingly just south of ‘Upper Moravia’) and ‘Red Water’ and we drove through a town of ‘Rabbits’ (not yet considered as a destination but this would change tomorrow).

Dolní Morava (‘Lower Moravia’) was a town of a ton of activities for people of any age. The reason for our visit was the Sky Walk, supposedly unique structure providing views of the region’s mountain ranges and maybe even all the way to Poland. Needless to say, to be ready to observe valleys and mountains, one has to get to the top of the hill first. There were two options: an aerial cableway or on foot. As we were no loosers, we decided to invest pain and sweat in return for additional views and hope of seeing MTB bikers making their way down the hill. Every single item could be checked off by noon.

In the altitude of 1,116 meters above the sea level objects down in the valley looked so tiny and the surrounding mountain ranges endless. The Sky Walk outlook structure must have consumed tons of wood to be built. Although it allowed its visitor to climb additional 55 meters, not a single step had to be dealt with. Thus the biggest challenge was the wind up there. I wonder whether it was “just normally windy” or “extremely windy.”

Another attraction was a bobsled run which relied on metal trails rather than an iced track. Right in the first curve I learned what the safety belts were meant for but other than that it was not nearly as exciting as the Sky Walk earlier in the day.

We visited Červená voda (‘Red River’) later in the afternoon and for one single purpose. Dinner. This worked out towards our big satisfaction. We even got fresh stamina for some more walking.

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KRÁLÍKY: Monastery & Museum of Internment

Sitting on the top of a hill (‘Mount of the Mother of God’), we had seen the monastery before and a rainy Sunday morning provided a perfect opportunity to visit it, too. As we navigated through hairpin turns, mist surrounding us grew thicker and thicker and whiter. When finally up there, it was drizzling as well and the monastery, which was forcibly turned into internment monastery (1950-1960), stood there as a lonesome witness of times when freedom and faith were forcibly suppressed, trials manipulated and fight for democracy was a crime. To remember this dark chapter of Czech history, a museum was opened there in 2012 (in Czech only).

I want to keep my posts as politics-free as possible and I do not intend to impose my views of the world to anyone. However, visit of this museum of exceptional and as such, calls for an exception very loudly. Everyone should visit this place to read about “approved corporal punishments” and about psychological abuse interrogators were capable of (most likely even required to perform), see conditions in which suspects and prisoners (but in fact innocent people with exceptional morality and ethical values) survived. To see scans of documents proving manipulation and lies committed only to hold the power, to see how the police power and system controlling citizens’ actions proliferated, and to read letters that the victims wrote to their loved ones but which never got delivered.

Everyone should visit. Every young person to remember what a life in totality looked like and to praise the freedom we have now and to fight to protect it. Everyone who claims that the era before the Velvet Revolution was great. Everyone who would attempt to make a country’s population uniform. Everyone who cast their votes to the communist party. Everyone who is pro-Russian oriented. Everyone who believes that people should be judged according to their religion or race. We cannot recompense the victims of communistic regime, we cannot bring lives back to those whose lives were taken by the regime but we can (and we must!) learn from history, transform their high sacrifices into our eternal fight for humanity.

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Down the alley, towards the future

… Metro Area. Roller Blading, Food Fest and Flowers & Lego United. Departure

ROLLER BLADING

Last week’s roller blading on a wet and slippery trail while raining finely did not annihilate my love for inline skating, so I was ready to do some more in my last few days in the USA. Out of three skating trips (and 32 more miles) two of them happened round the three lakes and especially the last one was particularly nice. I do not think it was that surprising. Knowing that something is done for the last time makes sky look more blue, wind more refreshing and waters of the lakes deeper.


MINNESOTA STATE FAIR

Due to completely booked flights, my stay became longer than originally intended and this way I made it to the Minnesota Great Get Together. At least that is what they say on TV. I personally believe that a nickname similar to Great Gluttony would be more descriptive. On the other hand, I have no idea where else you could get anything on a stick. And when I say anything, I mean anything. Cheese? Olives? Hot dish? Chicken? Shrimp? A pickle? Corn dog? Hot dog? Meatloaf? Cheesecake? Deep fried candy bars? Cookie dough? Even mashed potatoes? They got it all!

The Fair Grounds

The Fair Grounds

I am pretty sure that each of the tens (maybe even a couple of hundreds?) vendors have their own trick(s) to prepare anything-on-a-stick but I also have no doubt that one trick they all have in common. Deep fry it! This was the case for mashed potatoes on-a-stick, too. I was interested in trying them so much and then ended up disappointed so much. The grease was literally flowing out of the sample ball and the taste was nothing great either. Being spoiled by Mrs. M’s delicious mashed potatoes, it was naive to hunt for anything better.

While the potato experiment was not a success, there was plenty of other food that fully satisfied me. Frozen vanilla yogurt with blackberries, raspberries and chocolate chips. Mini donuts – still warm and so pleasing for my taste buds. I learned a new approach this year – a poor student and two tiny bit aging seniors is a trio just calling for mercy, i.e. food donations. This is how we got to try Australian buttered potatoes (probably my number one food). Honestly, it was some potatoes and a ton of butter but they were so good. For even higher culinary experience, two dressings were available. Another free sample came from a place called Duke’s Poutine. I had absolutely no idea what the name meant, neither could I be sure about the composition of this food. However, something in there looked too much like half-melted cheese and just a sight of it was enough not to even think of trying this one. It still was a great experience as I got a proof that food can unite people. The couple who offered the sample to us were nice companions from Louisiana and there was lots of chatting going on for a while. I was supposed to hear their different accent but two months down there were apparently not enough to help me with this part of English study.

Mini Donuts

Mini Donuts

Frozen Yogurt

Frozen Yogurt

The strongest impression of the Fair was that paying an admission allowed visitors to spend even more money – for food primarily but also for art and decorations, clothing or household tools useful to varying extend. I had a feeling that the only things left from the original farmers fair were the machinery that we ignored entirely and livestock we did not care for this time either. After all, I could imagine a huge pig already and poultry did not arrive this year because of the bird flu risk. But we did visit Creative Activities buildings and an art display.

Horse Stadium

Horse Stadium

I dare to say that Creative Activities should be a must of any visit to the Fair. Call me old-school if you want but I did enjoy admiring people’s skills as different as boat building and quilting, sewing and other needlecraft and complicated woodwork – bowls as well as pictures ready to be hung on the wall. And if you are as lucky as me and have guides to explain how the work was probably done, then you truly appreciate the authors‘ abilities.

To me, the Fine Arts Exhibit was little less interesting than the display of creative activities but nevertheless, I enjoyed it. Again, it was a mixture of variability: different painting techniques, photography as well as few sculptures. The exhibit did not seem to be organized in any way and that was good. I generally do not care for paintings so much and when I was about to get bored of too many canvases, then a refreshing photograph popped up. And sometimes I even got confused – some of the paintings were so real that I considered them to be photographs.

A final advice to anyone interested in visiting Minnesota is as follows: Go there when the Fair is on.


MINNESOTA LANDSCAPE ARBORETUM

Part of the University of Minnesota and spreading on the area of over a thousand acres, it definitely was the nicest arboretum I can remember visiting. It was not only enormously big but also beautiful, and both a walking tour and a ride by a tram were enjoyable.

When Buildings and Flowers Are in Harmony

When Buildings and Flowers Are in Harmony

We started our visit with the walking tour that covered not only some of the key gardens or plant collections (in the proximity of the visitor center) but also a short visit to the Anderson Horticulture Library and sneak-peek on Lego statues spread all over the place. While the guide (a volunteer) seemed to know quite a lot, it was rather obvious she was not a biologist. She, nevertheless, did a great job and whatever I missed was my fault as I made the tour a photography opportunity in the first place. Me, photographer and me, biologist were glad to check annual garden with its azaleas, herb and Japanese gardens, rose walk, terrace garden and probably several more.

New Species Discovered! Lego Dragonfly

New Species Discovered! Lego Dragonfly

When the tram ride started I was not sure whether it would be good for anything – again I heard the same story of the arboretum’s establishment. However, the tram covered much more of the arboretum, thus giving me a chance to admire plants I did not see in the morning and, obviously, listening to new information thanks to that. Sitting comfortably, I could briefly encounter various trees including oaks, willows and conifers, as well as shrubs and dahlias. Among sites I wish I could visit (rather than just pass by) were a maze and Sculpture Garden.

Fountain

I had a great time visiting the flowers and I was sure I could have spent a whole day there – I sure would have been tired but definitely not bored.


A FAREWELL TO MINNESOTA

At first, the change of my summer plans sucked but it turned out that during my time in Minnesota, I was enabled to visit several interesting places. In only two weeks I got little education in the state’s history as well as in several areas of Biology. I stepped on the ground of Wisconsin, too. In a short time I had more ice-cream than I normally have in an entire year and I also consumed an increased amount of alcohol – raspberry beer was my most favorite one and mango margarita was an entirely new drink to me. A chapter completely on its own was food. Of course. It was the States. I sure appreciated the chances to try new dishes (such as Australian potatoes at the Fair) as well as those that I had gotten to like earlier (onion rings as a great example). Thankfully, there was roller blading as a mean to compensate for all that.

Mexican Apetizer

Mexican Apetizer

From a beer country, yet I need more education in this field. Chocolate beer.

From a beer country, yet I need more education in this field. Chocolate beer.

Visiting those places was fun for most of the time but there were some tough moments, too – sort of “unexplored waters” to me. But in the end, I felt grateful for being with people who meant so much to me, who were role models in a way and who cared about me for several years. I saw time both dragging on and flying by. I experienced the pain of loosing someone and I was leaving with a lot to think about. Finally, I decided to cherish hope for a better future.

Minnesota Viking Couple

Minnesota Viking Couple

… Along the Mississippi. Tour de Lake City – Wabasha – La Crosse – Winona – Red Wing – Hastings

DAY 1: COURSE SOUTHEAST 

After exploring the Minneapolis area for almost a week, Monday of week no. 2 was the time to see a little bit more of Minnesota and also to cross the river and pay a short visit to the state of Wisconsin. The final destination on the other bank was the city of La Crosse and thankfully, there were some nice American towns along the way. In other words, many opportunities to stop every once a while and compensate for sitting in the car – even though the view was just beautiful. Also, after weeks (in NC) of entire dependence on buses, roller blades and my feet, planning my trips and paying for them, it was nice to experience the freedom of a car – especially (and thank God!) as it was not me doing the driving – and follow a well-designed itinerary prepared by my hosts.

On the way to La Crosse, our first stop was Lake City, which I faultily assumed to be located on the shore of a lake. However, it turned out that so called lake Pepin was a more of broad section of Mississippi rather than a lake. No matter what, the city’s marina was a nice place to stop at and take some pictures of. Hadn’t it been so cold and so windy, I would have considered it a very nice stop.

Perl Buttons Store in Lake City

Perl Button Store in Lake City

It did not take us terribly long to reach our next destination: National Eagle Center in Wabasha. I understood it was one of only few places where the USA’s national bird can be bred and I liked this educational stop very much. First, it was warm inside, second (and more importantly), I had never seen so large live birds and finally, I learned a lot and I was never bored. In total, they had three bald eagles there and none of them had very happy destiny – their lives in wilderness included car accidents and lead poisoning. Thanks to the help from the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota, they survived and hopefully were helping their relatives out there, in the real world.

Bold Eagle...

Bald Eagle…

One of their eagles’ was called Angel and she was the eagle from the Minnesota licence plates. I always thought it was “just an eagle” – like any bird in any textbook, so after a few visits to the beautiful land of lakes, I felt pleased to reveal the truth and meet the model for the licence plate eagle. Am I ahead of some Minnesotans now? An essential part of our visit was about an hour long presentation about bald eagles – from their anatomy, behavior and breeding, to threats they faced in the past and still do. The height of the talk was Columbia (named to remember the space-shuttle disaster) feeding on a rabbit. I was surprised how red the meat was – I bet it must have been a wild rabbit. Although the volunteering  lady was funny and easy to understand (very important for me!), which made her lecture very enjoyable, I cannot avoid little criticism. Again, I had to handle an excessive use of the word cute. I am tolerant to this one when there is a kids audience but I do think that primarily adult audience can handle more complicated vocabulary. Because of her enthusiasm, however, I forgive her cute vocabulary as well as two minor mistakes I believe she made.

... and one of causes of its problems.

… and one of causes of its problems.

Toward the end of the day it was time to cross the river and visit the city of La Crosse for the second time in my life. The main goal was to meet B, who was a very nice companion and also a tour guide. A short walk along the river gave me another chance to freeze (after not so successfully trying to adapt to the North Carolina heat for weeks) but also some hope for nice pictures. A little tiny walk through the city was equally enjoyable and a nice appetizer before the supper at The Old Crow. Thankfully, it was B who suggested this American Gastrobar for tonight – I do not think I would have dared to go inside without a recommendation from someone who has spent 4+ years in the city. I am not saying the restaurant looked discouraging or something like that, the name just made me super cautious – in  other words, to expect a witch’s hideout with bats and spiders, suspicious vials and a pot with boiling poison, and a black cat somewhere in the corner. I was then almost disappointed not to find any of those. Their salad was a nice good night meal and probably my first healthy food in a week.

La Crosse

La Crosse

Having my tummy full, only night walk was needed for a good sleep.

Having my tummy full, only night walk was needed for a good night sleep.

DAY 2: COURSE NORTHWEST

Tuesday morning was a rather cold one (at least to me) but the blue sky promised some sunshine – I felt better immediately. The breakfast at the motel was another reason for a good start of the day: coffee and hot chocolate, Belgian waffle, an old-fashioned donut and even one single healthy item on my menu – yogurt. Having so much good fuel, I was set to be driven back to the Metro area. Thankfully, it was not a straightforward car ride but we had some stops on the way again: three this time.

First of them was the city of Winona, specifically the Minnesota Marine Art Museum located there. The main attraction was the temporary exhibit called Ocean Soul, a collection of underwater pictures by Brian Skerry, a National Geography photographer. Even if it had been the only exhibition in the museum, it would have been worth visiting. Dozens of large photographs were divided into four sections, depending on the “type of water” they came from: cold, cool, pristine and tropical. I liked every single picture and absolutely failed to pick my favorite one. A bright yellow fish peeking out of a soda can, a large manta ray flying by, attraction of colorful corals, baby seal looking so vulnerable in the infinite land of ice and snow – all of them and many many more photographs showed the diversity and beauty of oceans, and challenged my decision for a career in the lab.

The MMAM Building

The MMAM Building

While the Ocean Soul was my favorite exhibit, there was much more to see in the museum – another photography exhibition and several collections of paintings: Views of Mississippi, American art and work of European artists (C. Monet as well as early painting of V. van Gogh). The paintings did not necessarily include water motives but my top three did. Those were two pictures of sailboats “in action” and a picture with a sailboat resting in a navy port. Unfortunately the rest of art on display remained rather ununderstood by me and the only outcome probably was learning that paintings look better when observing them from a distance. However, I did appreciate to see the famous Washington Crossing Delaware. Though it was not the large canvas (that is part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (NY) collections), this piece nevertheless hang in the White House for three decades. Kinda special. I though it was funny that such a historical moment was captured by a German painter. And even worse, he did not avoid some mistakes. First, the (current) US flag in the picture was not officially approved until some time after the crossing. And second, one of the guys accompanying Mr. Washington did not actually join him centuries ago. I am glad I learned something unusual and had a chance to see this piece of art.

The following city to pay a short visit to was Red Wing, located right on a railroad and at the Mississippi’s bank. It was a rather short stop but long enough to allow us to eat the lunch in the Levee Park and check the famous St. James hotel. Besides the hotel, there were three restaurants, a few stores as well as (probably) some conference rooms in the same building.

St. James

St. James

The third and final stop was for the sake of refreshment only: dairy store in Hastings. It looked like they sold milk, cheese and other dairy products – possibly from local farmers – and I therefore decided to expect a good quality ice-cream, too. For a single dollar, one could have a cup (my volume estimation was some 300 ml) literally loaded with ice cream. What truly made it special was that customers poured the ice-cream from the provided machine themselves and mixing the flavors was apparently OK. Having said all that and impressed by the unusual house rules, I was not sure I liked the ice-cream’s taste so much. What I knew for sure, however, was that my pancreas would run out of insulin soon.

More ice-cream than you really need

More ice-cream than you really need

The region of Minnesota-Wisconsin I could explore over the two days was definitely a beautiful land. I sure was glad too see several charming American cities on my way as well as breathtaking views on the Mississippi river while traveling from one city to another; and moreover with minimal effort from me. I also appreciated the chance to gain new information about the US national bird and a couple of cool facts worth remembering about the famous painting. However, I am afraid that the most memorable moment was the time I could spend admiring Mr. Skerry’s photographs – both on display and in his book available for browsing.

… Metro Area. Embarassing Reunion & A Week of Exercise, History & Natural Beauties

MINNESOTA: IS IT STILL THE VERY SPECIAL PLACE IT ONCE USED TO BE?

I am afraid something has changed here…

And I hate to say that and the more I think about it, the less I understand the whole situation. Minnesota once used to be a place I could consider my second home (even more than Raleigh, no matter how many people would remember me down there!) without any hesitation. Although I do think it is a beautiful land, the strong feelings did not develop because of the lakes or forests there but because of two Minnesotans. It used to be a fun place to return to for a few years. And then I made mistakes and everything got complicated and I was not supposed to come back. Ever.

This last stage, however, did not last terribly long and while in Raleigh, NC I was encouraged to travel up North again. My pride did not want to hear anything like that at first but whatever little good was in me, it won and made me come. Once I accepted the fact that two more weeks in the US would screw up some of the plans I had had for the rest of my summer break, I even started looking forward to visiting my beloved place and most importantly, people there. People, who were from a very scarce group of loving and caring ones without expecting any profit from themselves and people whom I owed so much and whom, I though, I loved so much. To top it off, I had not seen them for a year or even a couple of years, our shared past included plenty of wonderful moments (There should be more to come, right?) and there were reasons to assume it might be our last meeting (Sad, isn’t it?).

Two and a half hour flight from Raleigh to Minneapolis/St. Paul was short enough not to get too bored and long enough to do a decent amount of thinking – evaluating my stay in Raleigh, considering what decisions I have to make this fall, replaying the nice moments I had in the US during my previous visits and thinking about possible scenarios for this summer. Unfortunately the reality could not have been more different. Seeing someone dear only once a year at the most, apparently not being over what happened in the past (yet) and not being sure how to handle the consequences was truly a pole position. Add terribly cold weather (definitely for someone who spent two months in a terribly hot weather), little bit of sadness (Is there really a reason for it?), zero confidence of what is OK to do or say, strong suspicion that the nice treating was not honest but rather a result of obligation, and a pinch of feelings of betrayal and wrong (Were they really needed so badly?) and you have got a highly efficient recipe for a miserable time.

While I watched the biggest relationship crisis of my life growing from bad to worse, the first week of my only vacation this summer still offered a few highlights worth sharing.


EXERCISE

Roller blades being first produced in Minnesota by Olsen brothers, the state offering thousands of lakes and miles of trails along their shores and finally, me loving roller blading united and the outcome was three skating session and 32 Minnesotan miles added to my US mileage this summer.

The Lake on a Rainy Day

The Lake on a Rainy Day

My skates and me have visited a few places together and I therefore feel entitled to claim that the beautiful trio of lakes Harriet, Calhoun and Lake of the Isles is the best for inline skating: beautiful scenery, above-average surface of the trail, perfect level of hilliness (too little not to kill you but enough to avoid a boring flat ride) and people sharing the trail with you are generally nice and no one tries to kill you. Dogs are leashed!

Minnesota Sky Can Be Blue Too

Minnesota Sky Can Be Blue Too

Another sport-related activity was supposed to be a game of mini golf but I could not care less for the course I ended up at. It was a pure, boring putt-putt course. OK, the park with river running through it and lakes were very nice and the grass on the course was super green. None of those, however, make putting (I have done this once before and this is enough till the end of my life.) any more exciting than watching a game of football. I sure was glad for the nice scenery and I only regretted not taking my camera with.

The park was not a bad place at all. The sky was definitely impressive today.

The park was not a bad place at all. The sky was definitely impressive today.


HISTORY OF MINNESOTA

Having visited several museums in Raleigh, NC, I had been worried that I would not handle any more History lessons but, thankfully, I could not have been more wrong. The visit of Fort Snelling (St. Paul) turned out to be much better than any conventional museum. My time there was an enjoyable mixture of education, English practice and photography opportunities.

The Cannon and the Commanding Officer's House in the Background

The Cannon and the Commanding Officer’s House in the Background

I might feel too proud to come from a country whose history is so much longer than that of the New World, so it definitely was enriching to realize that there are some decently old buildings in the USA, too and that the Americans do care about them. Four buildings of this huge complex were the original buildings (while the rest were well-done replicas) and one of the originals was the Commanding officer’s house, the first house in Minnesota. What a pleasure to be there and take some pictures!

I knew about the dark history of wars with Native Americans and being somewhat familiar with Indian names for streets and cities in this area, I was not surprised to learn that Minnesota was involved in this controversial issue, too. However, what was a shocking discovery was the fact that there used to be slaves in Midwest. As awful as this practice was, I thought it was limited to the southern states “only.” There is always a lot to learn and for this purpose, the fort was the right place.

Just walking from building to building would have got boring at certain point, however, this was not the case as there were so many demonstrations taking place. There basically was something to watch (and listen to a nice narrative) every half an hour: from infantry drill to very impressive cannon shooting and hardly imaginable old-fashioned way of cooking. Once the meal was prepared, it was a higher-class lady’s turn to eat it and this was one of my favorite parts. Since my early years I was told not to put knife in my mouth and I always wondered why and most importantly, I could not imagine someone actually had done so in the past. Now I know it indeed used to be a part of table etiquette. It was Europeans who first stopped doing so and it took Americans a while to adapt to this new way of eating.

Fire!

Fire!

In summary, if I had to live in 1800s, then I would like to be an officer’s wife (or any social class higher than that) and I definitely would not like to see a doctor. Ever. I understood that from a great part, people used to rely on herbs (which is all right even today but you may need serious drugs at certain point), dentistry sounded just awful, I shivered when only imaging old-days surgery and I never even tried to imagine baby delivery two centuries ago and earlier.


NATURAL BEAUTIES

One does not need to disappear in a total wilderness in order to admire the nature of Minnesota. In fact, it may take as little as visiting the Longfellow Gardens and Minnehaha Falls in close proximity to them.

Rest in the Gardens

Rest in the Gardens

In order to get more unusual Biology-learning experience, there is Richardson Nature Center for you. To meet North America’s native plants, feel free to explore adjacent forest and meadow. And do not be discouraged by the walk’s name (Native Plants Hike) as it does not involve a whole lot of walking at all. In the center’s buildings, there are plenty of opportunities to learn about variety of life forms: amphibians and reptiles, raptors and other birds, bees and more insect. The peak of any visit, however, should be the monarch butterfly tagging. Pre-educated during my previous visits as well as down in Raleigh, I knew about declining numbers of this butterfly species and none of the facts that they have their favorite flowers, that they migrate terribly long distance to overwinter and are tagged as a part of studying them were new to me. Yet, it is very different to see a few pictures or watch a short video and to see the tagging in action. To test my patience, I ended my visit of the nature center with a fruitless attempt to take some cool pictures of this endangered species.

The Tagged

The Tagged


SEA LIFE MINNESOTA AQUARIUM at the Mall of America

Minnesota being sort of a land-locked state was not a reason to prevent me from encountering my beloved marine life this summer. To see animals as different as hermit crabs and huge sharks, it only takes a trip to the country’s shopping phenomenon, the Mall of America. The very first aquarium’s inhabitants to welcome us were corals, anemones, starfish and other more or less sessile and safe-to-touch organisms. The other “touching” section included rays and other fish species similar to them, such as guitar fish. The weird thing about the rays was that their backs were completely white while the video (a sort of documentary about building the ray exhibit) showed dark grey rays. Have the visitors scrubbed all their pigment or was it due to white sand at the bottom of the tank or was there any other reason?

Touch Me if You Dare

Touch Me if You Dare

Rays

Rays

Having said Good Bye to rays, there were no more chances to touch any animals but this did not bother me at all as I was fine with only watching anyways. During my visit I saw so many different species, often times from rather different environments, that it is impossible to pick my most favorite one. Let’s do top few then. I definitely was impressed by the jellyfish exhibit. It was highly informative while kinda surreal (see the video) and to me, it was the first time I could observe these organisms so closely. They looked so fragile – in fact, it seemed like there was no tissue in their bodies – but they are capable of stinging so badly. For a long time I was mesmerized by their tiny colorless tentacles and by their pumping yet graceful way of floating round the tank. It seemed like no effort to them to keep going.

The Form of Life I Can Understand the Least

The Form of Life I Can Understand the Least

Although the jellyfish set the bar so high, there were many more memorable moments. My favorite crustacean was a funny spiky crab (called porcupine crab) and I liked the horse fish, too – after all, I do not see them every day. Though most of the area was devoted to sea life, there also was a rain forest section, in other words, another ecosystem needing our protection. There, although a couple of caymans were impressive, I liked colorful and rather small frogs the most.

Blue Is Probably Not Good

Blue Is Probably Not Good

The key feature of the Minnesota aquarium was definitely a long long tunnel enabling visitors the great experience of having the life swimming all around them except the bottom of the tunnel. While I laughed at the funny creature picking up algae from the tunnel’s ceiling, there were sharks being fed on my left and a huge sea turtle would pass by on my right. There was always something going on there and I hesitate to give any estimations about the length of the tunnel or the number of species living there. It sure was plenty of them: countless fish of all sizes and colors, a few shark and ray species, as well as a hybrid of the two (so called ray shark), a very impressive sawfish and at least a couple of huge marine turtles. However, the ocean life was only one section of the tunnel. There also were species living in the Amazon and Sturgeon lake. The water there was much dimmer and the fish significantly less colored. Sure, the freshwater fish use the same adaptive strategies to survive in their environment but it looked like too much of a contrast to me after admiring the colors of oceans.


The first week of my return to Minnesota was also plenty of food. The only thing I can be sure about is that only minority of it was healthy. As for the bad (this does not equal to not good) stuff, I cannot make any clear statement – I fail to pick my favorite and I do not know (well, do not want to know) which of the treats was the worst one. However, here are my two favorites:

Cinnamon Roll. I love sweets and I thought I would never get sick of them. But it did happen - right at the Mall.

Cinnamon Roll. I love sweets and I thought I would never get sick of them. But it did happen – right at the Mall.

A Homemade Culinary Sin. Melt all the good and precious ingredients, mix them and let it cool down. You can call it a cookie than and you are gonna develop diabetes.

A Homemade Culinary Sin. Melt all the good and precious ingredients, mix them together and let it cool down. You can call it a cookie then and you are gonna develop diabetes.

… Raleigh. Last-Minute Downtown Orientation & Joining the Wolfpack for an Evening

I chose to walk to the downtown, so I would have a chance to see more of the Hillsborough Street, not just the junk right on the campus. From my previous bus rides down this street I knew there should be some photography opportunities and indeed, there were: few churches, several nice houses, a pipe store and a pancake house. However, before a started my urban hike, I stopped at the Starbucks on campus. The fact that they were open even on Sunday was only another evidence that the semester is almost here.

This was my only visit to the world famous coffee place and as a result of that I have no idea whether my experience was unique to a US coffee shop or whatever it would be the same let’s say Germany or Prague. In either case, I was supposed that the plastic cup for the coffee also served a sort of form. My name was put on it and also anything relevant to my order was check marked. My vanilla ice coffee choice was a perfect one and moreover, I would be leaving with a highly personalized Starbuck souvenir (or a piece of trash if you want).

Yummy and Personal. What more could I have asked for?

Yummy and Personal. What more could I have asked for?

Once downtown, the main project was a photography one. The Raleigh T-shirt I had got earlier has names of some of the downtown street, roads and avenues printed on it and I felt obliged to intendedly visit every single one of them and take a picture, so one day I hopefully would have a nice collage illustrating my explorations. The weather was merciful – it got little cloudy for the outdoor part of today’s trip, which was appreciated very much.

Above a US Intersection

Above a US Intersection

I also met a rooster on my way

I also met a rooster on my way

Afterwars, I paid one more visit to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Saying Good Bye to the whale skeletons on the ground floor, I headed up directly the topmost floor which I had seen rather briefly the last time. It was all devoted to arthropods, the world’s most numerous group of animals. I think they said something like a million of arthropods per each human on the Earth. That is a pretty good evolutionary achievement but such a number of insect and suchlike also sounds bit scary to me. Scorpion, centipede, ants, bugs, bright green caterpillars – they all were there.

A Caterpillar. It was huge

A Caterpillar. It was huge

Mosquito Weapon. In 50time its size it looks rather scary

Mosquito Weapon. In 50time its size it looks rather scary

I also stopped in the Living Conservatory and it was well worth it. The two sloths they had there were sleeping, i.e. hiding, which was slightly disappointing but other than that, the photographer in me could not have been happier. There were some unusual plants to take pictures of, including a pineapple plant I had had no idea how it looks like. The best of all, of course were the butterflies. It bet it was at least two dozens of butterfly species there – two of them particularly huge and all of them so colorful.

Another activity of my last visit to the museum was a kids-friendly lecture in the so called Windows on the World. It seemed like over the year, they focus on different topics, thus changing the little talk. Today they focused on amphibians and reptiles and the differences between the two classes. It was a nice review of my nearly-forgotten knowledge accompanied by a few living creatures to pet (except for the amphibians  of course). I did not go for that options but I still enjoyed seeing a frog, a cayman, a salmon and a funny looking turtle so closely. The frog was my most favorite one.

I liked the talk very much. I though it was engaging and most of the kids were really excited to pet the animals, including the most weird turtle I have ever seen. I could also see how much the lady who gave the talk enjoyed it which made the experience extra nice. Nevertheless, I identified one drawback there. Everything was cool, cute or sweet. I though that was a rather limited vocabulary the describe the beauty and diversity of life. But probably sufficient for primary school kids.

Downtown there was one more museum I have never been to and decided that the right time came today. It was City of Raleigh Museum located in one of the nicest building downtown. I understood that it moreover was the first multiple-story building in the city and a famous Briggs Hardware store used to be located there for years. Although it was the smallest of the three museum I have visited during my time here, it was nice as well. I might have even liked it better than some of the sections in the History museum.

Right upon entering the museum, I could admire some old motorbikes including a huge Harley Davidson one. The rest of the exhibit was devoted to the city of Raleigh. I had a chance to learn about a local man who was born a slave’s sone but towards the end of his life was involved in education in Raleigh. I consider such a life story a very inspirational one. Maybe it illustrates that no matter how hard the beginning is, the hard work eventually pays off. A display of downtown maps of varying age followed. I am not good at reading maps at all, yet I still could find the Capitol and some major streets in most of them.

I was not surprised to find out the last section’s focus was the war stuff. The only aspect in which it was different from the History museum exhibition was that its focus was not at the level of the state (i.e. NC) but it focused on the people of Raleigh. For some reason Americans seem to care about the past wars more than probably whole Europe does about either one of the World Wars. While I like the idea of remembering the sacrifice of the previous generations, at certain point it gets too close to boring (at least to a visitor like me). I think it is amazing that the Native American starting with a whole trunk, could make those large canoes while their only means were fire and some primitive tools. And years ago, people native to Alaska must have had a very different lifestyle to that of people cooking down in the Southwest. Why cannot I learn about these and similar topics when I go to a history museum?

The last activity of the day was the Rec Fest, an event organized by NC State Recreation. At the beginning there was one main factor that had made me consider taking part and that was the two words: free food. However, then I realized it might be my only chance to learn about the student life in the US better and my interest grew much bigger at that moment. Both the food and student life aspects were fulfilled partially but it still was worth visiting.

I came to the location more than 20 minutes before the fest’s start, assuming it is unnecessary. However, it turned out to be a rather late arrival. There already was a long long line of Wolfpack students and it took me more than an hour to get it, also meaning that I missed the university’s band march as well as cheerleaders’ and majorettes’ performances. Once there, it was some more waiting – for a T-shirt, for a sticker, for food.

In a Line for Food

In a Line for Food

The food part deserves few lines. I gained an impression that the length of the line at each individual food stand reflected the popularity of the food. Jimmy John’s got the longest one and they were the first one to run out of supplies. And I missed my sandwich so closely – only five or so people! Another popular food provider seemed to be the Domino’s Pizza but I did not care about that one at all. Instead, I tried the food from Sammy’s Tap & Grill, a fancy-looking restaurant awfully close to my temporary home. I was given some Mexican chips-like looking stuff, bearably spicy chicken and some kind of dip sauce. It was a nice start of my last supper in Raleigh.

A Mexican Sample

A Mexican Sample

Done with the Mexican appetizer, I realized that (I have no idea why!) the Insomnia Cookies stand had barely any interested people waiting for the treat. It was such a sad view but a great advantage for me – a Macadamia cookie was a nice dessert for the time being. In an attempt to postpone the packing moment, I gave also a try to something called PDQ. I thought it was supposed to be a fresh fast food place (What the heck is all the other fast food made of, then?), however, I was mistaken. The right motto was: fresh food fast. This sounded much better, although it was not that fast today. It was a tender chicken, in some kind of batter and fried – of course. It tasted good though. Over the time, the situation did not improve at Insomnia Cookies, so I volunteered to pay them another visit. They apparently were desperate to get rid of their cookies as by now, the rounded, warm, nice smelling treats were handed as a couple. I came just on time to be served a Double Chocolate Duo. They were delicious but after a while, I was close to a point to reassess my so far extremely positive opinion about chocolate.

The main reason, however, was to attract students to university’s sport clubs and I sure was jealous of them. They had so many options! Football was a must, of course, followed by some pretty standard sports like volleyball and basketball. However, had I stayed longer I might have had a chance to try something not so common – e.g. sailing or equestrianism. A sport club particularly appealing to a Czech girl was female soccer team and they sure regret I could not join them!

Good Night, Raleigh!

Good Night, Raleigh!

… Raleigh. The Skating Total of 333 km & Childhood Fun

I decided that on my last Saturday in North Carolina I should go skating. I had two aims: to do at least 20 km (so I round my NC mileage to 300 km) and to visit the Walnut Creek Wetland Center.

My skating route included lake Johnson once more but I did not make the usual “almost round it” it this time, instead I skated along its dam where the asphalt is super smooth only for a short time and returned back to the Centennial Campus Trail. This one brought me to lake Raleigh and out of the campus, where it became Walnut Creek Trail, the one I have skated on so many times before. This time, however, there was no wildlife (neither dead wildlife) encounter and by the time I reached the Wetland Center it was not opened yet. I therefore decided to skate little more. This did not work out so well as it turned out to be a lot more skating. I almost reached the Neuse River Trail – I did not do only the final 0.5 mile as it there would be a downhill ride down the long wooden bridge on the way back and I was not up for pins and needles in my feet today.

Though I met some bikers on my way, I was the only visitor of the Walnut Creek Wetland Center the whole time I spent there. The center is located in a green building that can be proud of sophisticated features reducing the energy and water required as well as sustainable materials used to build it. This was probably the reason for its unusual design that I liked so much. There were at least four (but probably five) rooms, however, all of them but the lobby looked like classrooms. This kinda reduced the area to cover during my visit but even the single room (lobby) had quite a lot to offer. Thanks to a turtles poster I identified the turtle I had seen the other day (it was an Eastern Box Turtle) but failed to identify either of the snakes I had seen over the two months. The lobby’s masterpiece was definitely a so called touch table, where kids were encouraged to explore “materials of nature” such as butterflies, ancient shark teeth, snake sheds, turtle shells (the had such a fine ribs in there!), beaver pelt and many more.

The Touch Table. Can you see what used to be a beaver?

The Touch Table. Can you see what used to be a beaver?

There was a little bit to see outside, on the deck of the center, too: a few information boards, periodical pole which was impossible to see at this time of a year, a cistern to preserve rain water and holes created by carpenter bees. It was amazing that any insect can create perfectly circular holes without any tools and knowledge of pi value. There were two holes and both of them had a visitor into them. As I am consulting with Google know, I can confirm they were not the carpenter bees.

The Cistern for Rain Water

The Cistern for Rain Water

After the break it was little harder to get adjusted back to the skating movements but the struggle did not last too long and I finished the rest of the route with no problems, neither any excitement such as more snakes or coyotes. In total my last skating trip was good 40 km long. Raleigh Skating Mission accomplished.

It took my only a while to recover and after a lousy lunch (in other words, whatever was left in the refrigerator at this point) I started googling what stuff I have missed over the past two months and hopefully could rectify for that on my last weekend in Raleigh. Again I realized that the capital city is not automatically a synonym to ton of fun and/or long opening hours. I found out about an art place that looked interesting but it would close about the time I would reach it and would not be opened at all on Sunday. In the end, I decided to look for activities in the proximity of the campus, thus avoiding too much walking. In the case of both attractions I visited, I also did not run in opening hours problems and both of them were fun enough to make me feel that I complied with the Mrs. C’s wish to do something fun on my last weekend.

The first stop was the WRAL Azalea Garden right next to the broadcasting company’s building. I had noticed the TV building few times in the past but never paid any attention to it. Until today when I learned that if I want to a nice office for myself, I have to become a TV person for a US broadcasting company. Their property was pretty big and just overloaded with antennas of various sizes and shapes. Now I can also confirm that the transmission tower was theirs, too. As for the garden, it was not as spectacular as the arboretum (which I expected anyway) but considering the fact that a company founded the place, it was nice and of a decent size, too. Furthermore, it provided me with lots of opportunities to take pictures, including snap and snaps or a baby rabbit feeding next to a fountain. I definitely was glad to go there as it would be a huge shame to miss a place that was pretty nice and super close to my temporary home.

Are those Azaleas?

Are those Azaleas?

Fountain at WRAL

Fountain at WRAL

And My New Friends

And My New Friends

From the garden I headed to the Pullen Park again. However, unlike my previous visit, the primary purpose was not a photography but join the local kids and spend the Saturday afternoon in the way they do. To achieve that, I went for two rides – a carousel and a miniature train. The carousel was an extraordinary piece of work. The animals were well-done, with so many details on them and looking pretty real. A supposedly clarinet music was playing and I enjoyed my ride on a piggy’s back a lot.

Pullen Park Ticket Booth

Pullen Park Ticket Booth

Pullen Park Carousel

Pullen Park Carousel

Checking Myself before the Ride

Checking Myself before the Ride

And Here We Go: The World from the Piggy's Back

And Here We Go: The World from the Piggy’s Back

The miniature train ride was much much more scenic than the ride on an actual train last weekend. I saw the lake and all the wooden bridges across it, the carousel house and a playground. Although the train ride was not boring at all, I probably enjoyed the carousel little more.

Ready to Ride

Ready to Ride

Done with the rides, I still did not have enough, so I stopped at the Talley Student Union on the way back home. Good I did it – it looks spectacular from the outside and I liked the ground floor but had no idea there would be so much more hidden on the remaining floors.

Wanna Relax Here?

Wanna Relax Here?

The Wolf Must Not Be Absent of Course

The Wolf Must Not Be Absent of Course

Inspirational Staircase

Inspirational Staircase

As the Semester Comes Closer It Is Easier to Imagine How It Might Look Like When the Classes Start

As the Semester Comes Closer It Is Easier to Imagine How It Might Look Like When the Classes Start

And View from the Upper Most Floor

And View from the Upper Most Floor

I am glad I chose to be active today and I look forward to seeing what adventures tomorrow provides me with. I am also grateful I survived all my skating adventures in one piece, without any accidents (even though there was one close call today) and brought my mileage to nice 333 kilometers.

… Raleigh. Summary of Week 9

Life in the Lab

After two weeks, a Monday when I was not supposed to be in the lab early in the morning came but unfortunately there was no L’s lab meeting, so I could not take advantage of it and I though that was too bad. On Monday morning I struggled a bit with planning my tasks for the last week of my internship. I wanted to try finish the tasks I started but did not want to be done too early, thus increasing a chance of being either bored or depressed or both (most likely option). I also knew that Thursday would be a low productivity day (lab meeting in the morning and fun activity (more on that in a minute) in the afternoon) and I also hoped to attend the English Conversation Club on Friday once more.

For most of the week I kept fighting with the challenging cloning that I started for the first time almost a month ago and that brought me to the lab the last Sunday. The most time-consuming part was the overnight incubations (and as a result sleepless nights when I was thing about my bacteria). This of course slowed the whole process terribly yet I was so glad to move a half of my mini-project further than I could imagine in the mist of PCR that did not work at all only a few weeks ago.

I did quite some PCRs this week and seeing bands of the right size and in the right samples always felt so good (agarose gel in UV light)

I did quite some PCRs this week and seeing bands of the right size and in the right samples always felt so good (agarose gel in UV light)

The final week, after all, provided me with more work and more (even though small) success and excitement than I planned/hoped for on Monday morning. Except for bringing the cloning project to a semi-end, I also joined J for a subsequent reaction to create an even fancier DNA construct. An analysis of my effort followed and, surprisingly, the outcome was not bad at all. Moreover, for the first time in my life I ordered a sequencing service, and right in the USA. Cool! Having the sequence is, of course, just a beginning and some follow-up computational work is inevitable. Mrs. C was a great instructor for this part but I did not quite finish the whole process. My hopes are that Monday will be a great day to finish it.

As a result, I happened to be super busy on Friday. I had planned another qPCR experiment which turned out to be my most favorite of all. It is was very grateful one as it always kept me busy for a huge part of the day – searching for primers, diluting them as well as my samples, pipeting the samples for so long and pipeting the master-mixes for so long, followed by setting everything for the analysis of the result and then finally, the analysis itself. There is no way to be bored, neither a chance to regret yourself (for leaving Mrs. C’s lab) as you need stay absolutely concentrated most of the time – definitely during all the pipeting steps. Somehow, I also managed to analyse the bacterial colonies resulting from the aforesaid reaction following the cloning step and afterwards, I started new bacterial cultures (however, I do not know who will inherit them and thus all the remaining work, too).

On Friday I also went through all my stuff with Mrs. C showing her where it is – two freezers, one growth chamber, few plates with bacterial colonies and several pots with Arabidopsis plants. Some of it was not needed any more and got trashed (so painful to through away something you worked on for weeks!), some got new labeling and my hopes are that most of it will be useful in the future.

Wednesday was another special day of my final week. Mrs. C – who barely finished her writing and reading tasks – was nice enough to devote lot of her time being a carer counselor to me. Patiently and honestly she discussed possible career options with me and also shared her personal experience with me. At first I felt overloaded with information, however, by now I am sure that her feedback and recommendations will help me to decide for the best career for me – i.e. a work that would by fulfilling to me and beneficial to others.

Happened out of the Lab

Have someone thought of using a bagel as a burger bun or were the Americans waiting for the Czech girl to come in make the discovery?

Have someone thought of using a bagel as a burger bun or were the Americans waiting for the Czech girl to come in make the discovery?

Being rather free on Monday morning, I made a deal with Mrs. C that I could go skating and probably come little later to the lab. I definitely was not the last one to show up and yet I still managed to add 30 more km (more than I had planned) to my NC roller blading records. I though this was a great start of my last week in Raleigh and to enjoy the morning even more I stopped at the Bruegger’s Bagels where I got a cinnamon raisin one. A visit to my most favorite food-related place gave me a lesson. When ordering a cup of hazelnut coffee, I failed to say hot clearly enough not to end up with a cold thing. I still do not understand how I could achieve that but the message is clear: Your English is not perfect.

Another Morning at Lake Johnson

Another Morning at Lake Johnson

Tuesday was the only day when I did not come terribly late which made me hope to squeeze in 90 minutes of skating before the dusk. However, I gave up as early as after getting dressed and doing no more than five minutes of walking with my roller blades still in my hands. The sky did not look too encouraging – the storm that was predicted since Monday arrived finally. It was not terrible and rather short, yet ruined my planes. And I was so glad I was not outside.

Seeing clouds like that makes one change their plane rather quickly

Seeing clouds like that makes one change their plane rather quickly

Wednesday was a baking day, well afternoon, for me. I wanted the folks in the lab to experience a little bit of Czech pastry and thought that my last lab meeting would be a great occasion to present my undiscovered skills. Meruňkový koláč s drobenou (apricot pie with streusel) was the recipe of my choice. First, the amount of ingredients was mostly in cups and second, this must be very Czech. The recipe said I should have be done in less than an hour and the whole time I regretted I did not time my effort. I am pretty sure it was at least double the time. I had very little trust in the American self-rising flour and the cake recipe on the back of the package asked for three-times sifted flour. I did it once and by that time I was exhausted already and the whole kitchen was covered in fine white dust. Under these circumstances, I decided once would be enough. Indeed, it was. While the thing was baking I got pretty stressed seeing it to rise and rise. The remaining steps of the baking procedure were less demanding – I only head to find something to substitute for a bowl and a spatula. The apricots were not great but enough to use them for baking. Things were developing great until the streusel step. The amount of buter was given in grams instead of fractions of a cup and I apparently did not guess it quite right – to get the right consistency (at least according to me) I had to use much more flour than what the recipe asked for. Thanks God I tasted the mixture before sprinkling the top of the cake with it. It was so salty! I assume the taste came from the butter that. by the way, claimed to be good for baking. Apparently not baking of cakes. Anyway, a ton of sugar worked and I could finally put it in the oven. This part also took longer (like an hour instead of “40 minutes at the most”) and thanks to my extensive control it never got burned. Yay! If I fail as a scientist, I may go for a career in a local bakery or teach Americans how to make proper bread.

Ready to cut it into pieces

Ready to cut it into pieces

The outcome could have been worse for sure

The outcome could have been worse for sure

The out-of-the-lab peak of the week and one of the most memorable moments of my time in North Carolina was the Thursday afternoon which was a time of fun and good food: a game of putt-putt (another Southern (or N Carolinian only?) expression to take home as a souvenir), i.e. miniature golf, followed by pizza dinner at Trophy.

The trip to the mini-golf place was an excellent occasion for a cultural shock to develop right in my last week. The course was a part of huge amusement center called the Adventure Landing and I could not believe my eyes. Its main part were arcade games and the whole area looked like a casino way too much. The kids version of slot machine were flashing with lights of all imaginable colors and they were extra noisy, too. Some of the games involved shooting balls on targets and there was a basketball game (with real ball and real basket). Most of the activities, however, were much more concerning to me – I thought that some of the slot machines resembled the real things too much and the shooting star wars game and car race among dinosaurs – those I have no words for. The arcade games brought two question in my mind: What percentage of adult have gambling problems as a result of this childhood exposure? And can some of the most stupid arcade games underlie the high incidence of shooting events in this country?

Shark Welcome to the Amusement Center

Shark Welcome to the Amusement Center

Arcades - Motorbike Simulators in the Back

Arcades – Motorbike Simulators in the Back

Shooting down the Clowns

Shooting down the Clowns

Star Wars and Some More Action

Star Wars and Some More Action

Anyway, once Mrs. C, Mr. R and their little I. joined us, the arcades cruise was over and we were ready to go putt-putting. The 18 hole mini-golf course was an outdoor attraction and it looked so different than the local course back home. The surface of the tracks was a fine green carpet (or something that looked like a carpet) but I was not sure it was the best option to keep the ball’s trajectory. I also realized that they were much less creative when designing the tracks – there were no volcano-like hills, no mazes or no pipes to shoot the ball through. The work they saved here was compensated for when designing the surroundings. Apparently, mini-golf would not be enough of fun if there had been no elephant, giraffe and long-legged water bird statues, ponds and wooden bridges across them, and caves. Also, for some reason, background music was needed. However, I have to admit that the pirate/lost island look was very attractive and very well done.

An Elephant at the Putt-putt Field

An Elephant at the Putt-putt Field

The rules were different than the Czech way, too. We divided into two teams and each member of the team had a ball of unique color. I was wondering if that was really so important. Well, it was. First, each of us (in the team) stroke once – so there would be like five balls on the given track at once – and than we took turns depending on whose ball was the furthest one from the hole. It was a new concept, little like a pool, to me but it was fun. Little I. who would occasionally grab a ball and through it into the hole made it even more challenging.

Each of the 18 tracks had a par number at it and I am pretty sure all of them were supposed to be completed with two strokes – this pretty much illustrates the difficulty level of them. However, I still needed 50 strokes to deal with 18 holes. The final track made me particularly happy as I nested the ball with a single shot. Without attempting to do so, of course.

The dream met of E, E, C, R and Z (and a little I. as a mascot) beat the other and putt-putting the American way was lots of fun. The only factor that decreased the enjoyment level a bit was the Southern climate. It was unbelievable how sweat one can get during an activity that is not physically demanding at all.

The Trophy place has supposedly the best pizza (based on my personal experience, I would not be surprised if it was true) in the whole of North Carolina and moreover, it is a brewery. I gave up the beer as I did not want ruin my reputation by getting drunk neither want I to fall asleep on the way back. However, some people had their beers so I still got somewhat familiar with the funny names they gave to their products – e.g. Million of Peaches (this one sounded too much like a juice name to me) or French Broad (while this one made me think of wine). Thankfully, different people were trying different types, so I had an opportunity to admire the variety of shades beer can come in – from something really looking too much like a juice to beer that was darker than any beer I had seen before.

As for the pizza, I stuck to what I considered the least extravagant or dangerous combination of toppings and I enjoyed my choice very much: roasted chicken, basil pesto and honey were the key ingredients of this one called Most Loyal. In the context of what other pizzas contained, the Most Loyal’s name could not have been more true for me. Another pizza that ended up on our table had a higher than acceptable amount of rucola on top which discouraged me from even trying. In the case of the third one, I was unable to identify any of the ingredients. I was pretty sure about mozzarella but I had no idea what the black toping was. Also, there  were some dark chunks which I suspected to be figs. Those Americans have weird taste preferences!

Once again I was taken out and once again the event was affected by rain. Am I really such a bad luck? After all, it was not too bad (even though there were no umbrellas or roof in the outside seating of that restaurant) and the waiter brought boxes for our pizzas that thus became the driest of all the participants.

On the Way back Home on Thursday Evening

On the Way back Home on Thursday Evening

… Raleigh. I have found another home

After a week of no skating it was time to get the wheels rolling again! And it brought some nice but painful moments.

First, when skating along the lake Johnson’s dam I met the guy who talked to me about roller blading a couple of weeks ago. Still feet away from him, he was greeting me already.

An obvious follow-up step after a morning exercise was the visit to the Bruegger’s Bagels. And there she was, the bagel lady who took care of my simple enough order not a too long time ago. She remembered that and she even knew I did not need a bag for my bagel as I had my backpack.

Today morning I finally realized how much like a home this place has become. It is going to be painful in a week from now.

NCSU

… New Hill, NC. Let’s Ride a Train!

When I was afraid I might finally have some time to get bored, Mrs. C came with the following offer: a train ride. And I accepted it and enjoyed it very much.

New Hope Valley Railway was located in the town of New Hill, about 22 miles southwest of Raleigh, and I struggled to google anything about it. The primary reason for going there was some kid’s birthday party and I hoped to see some of the town after the train ride. Based on my preliminary research about the town, there might have been nothing to see and I thus ended up being in a company of more American families than ever before. And it was not a bad alternative at all – I got a whole new exposure to the American culture, especially when it comes to families with small kids.

The rides by Triangle Train seem to be rather popular and it is therefore smart to book the ticket in advance. That is exactly what Mrs. C did. Yet, once on the spot our receipts were exchanged for real tickets to hand to the conductor on the train. So far so good. It looks like Americans have a clue how train rides work.

New Hope Valley

New Hope Valley

Next to the ticket booth, there was a railway model with a few trains. Two of them stood out to me: m&m cargo train and the one whose engine had eye moving in the rhythm. Poor American kids – they will be in a terrible disillusion one day. That is what I though to myself, later Mrs. C told me it was supposed to be a popular cartoon character here. OK, hopefully they will be fine.

Outdoor Railway Model

Outdoor Railway Model

They had a steam engine there but we got on the diesel one “only.” However, it did not make much difference to me and the little I. seemed excited enough no matter what power source was employed. The ride was described to me as scenic which alerted me immediately. Good I did not expect to much – there was no room to be disappointed then. I did catch a glimpse of a few US houses – well mostly shacks – but most of the view were trees, trees and trees. Some more trees came later on. A Czech person would go hiking there. So what is so exciting about having a train ride here? However, in not too long I realized it was fun to be on train just for the heck of it, without having any destination in mind (such as school or airport) and without being stressed about a delay. Just ride! Moreover, in a company of such nice people – little I. even decided to sit next to me for like half a minute!

Yeah, I definitely was the oldest kid (Am I technically a kid at all?) on the board and had a slightly embarrassing moment there. From all of the sudden, a cute girl with blond hair showed up and decided to give me hug. She was so nice but I had absolutely no clue what an American child expects to hear or to be done at a situation like that. A somewhat older girl decided to check the stranger little bit later. Wearing her Batman T-shirt, she proudly showed me her Superman sweatshirt. That girl definitely needs to set her priorities. But since she decided to talk (in the contrast to the first companion), it was a nice brief visit.

I have no idea how long the ride took but apparently it was long enough to require taking snacks with (a little one’s parent’s description). Big girl fortunately did not care at all and off the train, she was ready to take some pictures: the leaving steam engine (And it whistled and puffed out black clouds!) as well as carriages of various purposes spread all over the place. The train eventually left and there were no more carriages to take pictures of, so the only activity left was the lunch. Mrs. C was nice enough to think about me once again and prepared a sandwich for me. The truth is that, by mistake, I got the baby one while I. had to handle what was supposed to be my lunch. However, I think we were both satisfied in the end.

Steam!

Steam!

Southern

Southern

While working on the sandwiches, the birthday party got finally prepared. Indeed, the family of the three-year old birthday boy rented a railway carriage to held the party there. I never checked it but it looked like it was primarily a refreshment storage and all the eating and chatting took place outside. What I saw from the birthday menu was so American: sandwiches and goldfish. On the other hand, some fruit was provided, too.

Birthday Train Carriage

Birthday Train Carriage

What I though was cute was that all the important stuff was inspired by train. The place of the party, the T-shirt of the birthday boy, the cake and finally, all the invited kids got train gifts to take with them.

The Whitecomb

The Whitecomb

The very end of our time there was short visit to carriages parked all over the place, namely caboose and mail car. The older guy (I bet he was a volunteer) in the caboose knew lots of interesting information he was more than glad to share with us and the mail car was one of the most picture-suitable objects of the day.

A Little Detail from the Caboose

A Little Detail from the Caboose

And Some Old Mail

And Some Old Mail

Thanks to Mrs. C’s invitation, I got an exposure I would have otherwise hardly gotten. It was a bit of English practice to talk to few adults as well as listen to kids’ English. Besides that, it was interesting to compare the way of upbringing of 1990s Central European child and 2010s American kids. I am 100 % sure some things would not work in my home a couple of decades ago, yet the parents did not seem to be stressed at all (which does not mean my parents were/are!).

Later in the afternoon, my Friday resolution was fulfilled. I took care of a little task in the lab, so I can actually work on my last Monday – rather than wait for bacteria to grow. Let’s hope for some more progress in the upcoming days, so I can say that Mrs. C has been feeding for no purpose!