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[Today a Month Ago] The Familiar and the Unfamiliar

December 17, 2014

There’s not much to say about this day – it was Monday, Cyan had to go to work, and I had to head out on my own. As much as I often worry about doing unfamiliar things, being in unfamiliar places, riding trains and buses is something that’s very familiar, and I decided to start this week of doing things by myself by doing something else that’s very familiar: going to a botanical garden.

I remember it took me a bit to get my bearings in Golden Gate Park, but I made it to the botanical garden, and then… well. Plants. Pictures. Too many pictures of plants. And so, so many plants I had never seen before. I’ll only post a tiny fraction of my pictures now, but I’m sure I’ll post more about it later on.


Baby’s tears (Soleirolia soleirolii) growing in the cracks of a wall… here, it’s only to be found as a houseplant (one that I haven’t tried, because it seems like it wouldn’t deal very well with my irregular watering.)



Staghorn fern, another plant I’ve never seen growing outdoors (and I rarely ever see them in this size).



Okay, I admit, they are kind of cute… but European squirrels are still cuter.


An unfamiliar palm tree and very familiar ivy… that picture feels very symbolic of the whole Bay Area for me, that odd combination of the familiar and the totally unfamiliar.



In the beginning, I still went down every tiny little path – and it’s a big botanical garden! – but I evenually had to stop doing that, because I was running out of time (and also growing tired, and I’d run out of food).






At one point, an older man asked me to take a picture of him with his huge camera… which, between me understanding neither his camera nor his accented English very well, was a little frustrating for both of us. He reminded me a lot of my father, with his bad English and his hair and beard. My father may have been a professional photographer, but I can’t remember him taking pictures outside of work since I was very small, so it can’t have been that. We talked a bit, about where we were from – he was from Vietnam, and when I said I was from Austria, I got the, “Oh, yes, I have friends in Sydney.” I should probably not find it this funny when people confuse Austria for Australia… but I find it very entertaining.



Sometimes I just had to stop and go, “no, no, no, plants with daisy-like flowers can’t be trees! That’s just crazy!” All members of the daisy family I’d seen before – known of before – were herbaceous plants.


Speaking of daisies… daisies and dandelions, like you’d find them in pretty much every lawn here, side by side with baby’s tears, which is, as I said, only to be found as a houseplant. Yes, I even got excited about weeds.



Sparmannia africana. It’s always a little frustrating when you’re glad to have found a plant at an affordable price and then you just see it casually growing in the park, about fifteen times as high as your own…


And how odd to see these familiar guys in Golden Gate Park…

[Today a Month Ago] Fantasy Dinner Party

December 16, 2014

One of the things I think sometimes is how other people talk about their fantasy dinner parties, about the writers or celebrities or whoever they’d invite, and then I think about how us Smarchers get to do just that, to hang out with Tad Williams over drinks or a meal. Or, in this case, be invited to his house.


A picture that doesn’t have anything to do with anything else – loading cranes in the port of Oakland that supposedly inspired George Lucas. I’ve only seen Star Wars once, but I can see the resemblance.

Cyan and I picked up Jeremy and his brother, and made a stop at the beach in Santa Cruz first.



Of course I was also sent to dip my feet into the ocean – I may complain about being attacked by a higher-than-expected wave, and being a little damp for the rest of the day, but it’s true, it would have been a shame to have travelled all this way and not do it.

And everyone talks about how cold the water is, but no, not really – I’ve been in much colder lakes and rivers here in Austria.


I would happily have spent more time at the beach. The boardwalk, on the other hand, was a little too noisy for me.



I was already a little headachy from the boardwalk when we got to Tad’s house, which was already full of people.

I find it difficult to really say anything about this day. Partly because I was simply overwhelmed with too many people, too many voices, too many conversations to keep track of, let alone participate in – and especially, so many people I didn’t know, or at least not well, and new people in large quantities are difficult for me. I wish I had talked more, especially when Deborah showed me around her garden, but I just couldn’t make myself.

But at the same time, even though I don’t feel as if I really got to know any of them, it was nice to put a face to so many names I’ve known a long time, and get so many signatures for the Smarchmap, and to meet all the dogs.


The other reason why I find it difficult to say anything is… well. You don’t really go around typing up conversations with friends and putting them on the internet, do you? That would be a little creepy. So the few things I remember are things that I’ll talk about when talking to people in person, but not publicly on the internet, that is the line I’ve drawn for myself.

So all that I’ve left to show you of this day is a picture of not quite everyone that had gathered at Tad and Deborah’s that day (one couple with baby had already left at this point):


I guess that’s the most people the Dragons of Ordinary Farm cover has been photographed with so far.

Soon after this picture was taken, it was time for all of us to leave, and I still can’t think of that without laughing about the sentence, “Save the Pope!” But I guess that’s a case of “you had to be there.”

[Today Yesterday a Month Ago] Dothraki and the Dogly One

December 16, 2014

There are many reasons why I feel sorry for people who are fans of anyone else than Tad Williams – the Dogly One, as we sometimes call him. Because most of them will probably never get what we have, getting to have dinner or drinks with Tad, calling him on the phone, getting invited to his home, free books, inside information, or, as in this case, free tickets to an event.

I know, I know. Tad would tell me, “you’re friends, not fans.” But still, that is how we all started out – and how many people get an e-mail from their favourite author’s wife saying, more or less, “Tad is going to be interviewing Steven Erikson in Menlo Park tomorrow, do you want to come? I can get you free tickets.”

I haven’t read anything by Steven Erikson yet (so many books, so little time!), but of course we weren’t going to turn that down.


Tad and Steven were the last of four things on the program of the Sci Fi/Fantasy Day at Kepler’s Books, and since it made more sense for Cyan and me to go there early to avoid the worst of the traffic, we got to see two others.

We missed the first one, called “Other Worlds -Andy Weir (The Martian) in conversation with Matthew Jobin (The Nethergrim)” while having lunch at a Mexican restaurant, but since we knew neither of these people, we didn’t mind.


(Yesterday, I wrote about vegetables I didn’t know… this was one of those cases, neither the name “jicama” nor the taste being the slightest bit familiar, and upon googling it a few days later, I found that this was indeed a plant I had never heard of.)

The first thing we went to was “A Class in Dothraki with David Peterson” – David Peterson is the guy who took the few words of Dothraki that George R. R. Martin put in A Song of Ice and Fire and expanded them into a whole language for the Game of Thrones TV series (which I still haven’t seen. Sometimes I think about it, but again, always so much else to do.)

Since I love languages, both real and made-up, this was really interesting for me – I wish I had taken a lot more notes than I did.

It was also interesting because Dothraki had come up in one of the panels we’d gone to at WFC – I love all those connections.

Most of the notes I have were written about two weeks later from memory…

As far as I remember, for the pilot, HBO just had the Dothraki speaking gibberish, but that didn’t sound too good. They asked GRRM if he had any more of the language, but he told them there was only what was in the books, he only made up the words he needed. So they had a competition to decide who would get to work on the language for HBO, and David Peterson won it. I think he talked a bit about analysing the bits and pieces from the books and building a grammar from them, which worked astonishingly well, considering that GRRM doesn’t seem to have put a lot of thought into it. The only thing I remember how there was one phrase that showed that adjectives have to come after nouns (I believe it was “a strong son” or “a strong prince”, but it’s been too long since I read A Song of Ice and Fire, I have no idea where that might be found.) Though it’s also possible that the reason I don’t remember much about this is that he simply didn’t say much about creating the grammar.

What he did talk about in detail was pronunciation. Again, I didn’t take any notes at the time, but I wrote down as much as I remembered when I was back home. I found it rather interesting, because he often talked about “this is what you do with your tongue to make that sound” and “If you chopped off your head and looked into your neck, you could see your vocal cords doing this.”

Vowels – mostly what I remembered about this was “more or less as in German”. But since that won’t be very helpful to most of my readers, this gives the following examples: a as in “father”, e as in “check”, i as in “machine”, o as in “mow”. All vowels are pronounced individually, so “ae” is “a-e”, not a single sound, and “oo” is “o-o”, not as in “moon”.

Th: always a soft th, not a voiced one (so say my notes. This is one area of English pronunciation where I always really notice it’s not my native language. I remember learning how to pronounce a th in school, but I don’t think I learned there are two different ones until long after I was out of school, and still can’t really tell the difference.)

H: is always pronounced, even if it’s at the very end of a word.

ZH: is kind of a harsh “sh”. He talked about how, if you put your fingers on your throat while you pronounce it, you can feel your vocal cords vibrate.

KH: is the sound of German “ch”. Which most English speakers have trouble with (a lovely sound to have in your name when you’re travelling), but David Peterson says many of them actually use it sometimes, just not in words, but as a sound to express annoyance, a sort of harsh exhalation. (He also mentioned that the Dothraki language was supposed to sound “harsh”, and usually what people mean when they say that is that it should have this sound in it.)

(What was also really interesting for me is that he said English actually used to have that sound – the “gh” for example in “knight”. The “k” used to be pronounced too, making the word sound very similar to German “Knecht”. Which means “farmhand”, but there is also the word “Waffenknecht” (“Waffen” = weapons”), meaning “man-at-arms”, so there does seem to be a connection there.)

N, D (and I think some other letters I forgot): for those, the tongue is placed a little differently than in English, further to the front of the mouth, against the teeth. Which is also, Peterson said, one of the subtle differences betweeen English and Spanish – I remember him using the word “donde” as an example, which doesn’t sound quite right if you pronounce the d and n the English way. (Which led to me spending a lot of time muttering English and Spanish and also German words to myself and realising I pronounce d and n a little differently in each language – which surprised me a little, because it’s not something anyone ever taught me.)

G: always a hard g.

Q: this was really interesting to me, because it was another one of those letters where Peterson explained “here, this is where you put your tongue, this is how you move it”. If you pronounce a “k”, you put your tongue against the roof of your mouth. Pronouncing a “q” is very similar, but you put your tongue further back, against your uvula. (Which was interesting to me mainly because I guess the Qanuc in Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn might be using the same sound.)

R: as in Spanish. It was a relief to me that there were many people in the audience who, like me, can’t roll their r’s. And I had to laugh at “I’m going to give you some advice that doesn’t really help, but everyone gives it, so I will too” (or something like that). Which was something I’ve found myself when I was still taking Spanish at school – I can roll r’s if I exhale really strongly, but not in a word.

Double consonants are always pronounced individually, so a “tt” is “t-t”, for example.



After the pronunciation, he went over some vocabulary, which I’ve remembered nothing of, then showed some pictures and the first person to correctly name the pictured thing in Dothraki could win a replica coin. (But I don’t do well under pressure, so I didn’t even try.)

He also mentioned the Dothraki haiku competition he runs every year, and that the same person has won it for three years now, and since that is something that was mentioned at WFC, Cyan went up to him afterwards and said, “The guy who keeps winning the haiku competition – he’s Finnish, right?” Too bad I wasn’t around to see his look of “How do you know?”

I know there were some Smarchers there when I got back from the bathroom, but I can’t for the life of me remember in which order they arrived, so I’ll just move on to the panel that followed: “Face-off: Sci Fi Versus Fantasy. (What’s the Difference and Which Is Better?” with Marie Brennan, Chaz Brenchley, Ellen Klages, and Pat Murphy.

Marie Brennan and Ellen Klages had been at WFC, not that I remembered seeing them there (I’m not good with faces), but they talked about it. It was rather funny sitting in the audience thinking, “oh, hey, me too!” – because really, what’s the chances of being in the same place again, a week later on the other side of the continent? (But still, not as crazy as that one encounter at WFC last year.)

For this, I did take notes:

Chaz: “SF is a subset of fantasy” → Marie: all fiction is fantasy
“SF is harder, you have to be cleverer”

“if you had to draw the line [between science fiction and fantasy], where would you draw it?”
Ellen: “It would be a Möbius line.”

Pat: reads stories in class and lets students guess [whether they’re sci fi/fantasy]
→ start of Kafka’s Metamorphosis
→ “that’s fantasy, but that’s not where it’s shelved”

→ “Kafka is one of ours”
→ “we’ll take Kafka, we’ll take Twain”

Ellen: writes the things sci fi readers like, but doesn’t write sci fi
→ real science in the real world

Ellen: some people refuse to read books because of genre
(I believe this is where WFC came up, because they talked about the cab ride to the airport, and talking about sci fi/fantasy, and the cab driver saying, “no, I don’t read that stuff” in what I remember as a rather dismissive way – despite knowing they are both writers! Not very nice.)

if it’s YA, it’s all YA, no further distinctions are made

“it’s chic to be geek” (bookstore employee who was moderating)

Pat: stuff has to be shelved somewhere in a bookstore → defines audience
with movies, there is less of a division, because in cinemas or on tv, they don’t need to be shelved
→ superheroes

people who grew up reading sci fi – “I can make that real” – look at your phone, a few decades ago that was sci fi

Pat: sci fi/fantasy readers are willing to accept they won’t understand everything – not so much “suspension of disbelief” as “suspension of understanding”
→ non-sci fi/fantasy readers get stuck on details they don’t understand

but don’t throw in too much your readers don’t understand all at once, or too many similar names
(I think there was an example sentence somewhere here, something like “He took the wufflebing across the ghalgoo to get the dirgle” – with different nonsense-words, of course, that was just me pressing random keys until something vaguely word-like came out.)

Marie: “When people say, ‘oh, writing fantasy is easy, you can just make stuff up,’ I want to throw the contents of my nonfiction bookcase at them, in alphabetical order by subject.”

Ellen: “I like research more than writing”

Pat: “Boiling Dog Hot Spring” (don’t you love notes with absolutely no context? I think he told a story about doing research by actually going to places, looking for a hot spring in which a dog had allegedly been boiled to death, only the land now belonged to… I want to say Google, but I might be making that up. In any case, I found the name funny. Maybe I’ll use it in a story some time.)

“favourite research: the kind where you go out and look at things”

Chaz: for one book he wrote about where he lived at the time, so he didn’t need to do any research
(From memory, again, there was a story about how he was talking to another writer, talking about research, and that other writer told him about talking to police officers, I think, and finding out how to make Molotov cocktails (I think – I say “I think” a lot, don’t I), and Chaz said, “Oh, I just went to that kid who’d broken into my house a couple of times and he told me how to make them.” – followed by a lot of questions from the other panelists, “This kid broke into your house?” – “Several times?” – “And you still went to talk to him?”, and Chaz was all, no big deal, that was just the sort of area he lived in at the time, things like that happened.”
Fantasy: the nice thing about the internet: if you need to know how fast/how far eight men can carry a girl in a litter, and post about it, eight men will build a litter, put a girl in it and run around in a field with it

things that aren’t sci fi sold as sci fi, because the characters “have a sci fi attitude”

sci fi: “your future is outdated” – when real-life technology surpasses what has been written about
solution “history diverged in the 80s” → to avoid having to rewrite everything

“the past doesn’t change”
→ Marie: “but our understanding of it changes”

“robot fairy”
(again, notes with no context are such a lovely thing…)

Marie: sci fi could happen, fantasy couldn’t
but science always changes

Marie: fantasy(+horror): the world is responsive to people
sci fi: the world is mechanical

Audience member: “How do you write all these stories?” – some panelist quoting Asimov: “I love to type.”

Pat: tv/movies: you don’t have to create it in your head, it’s a different sort of processing

speculative fiction
→ as an umbrella term
→ to dodge the dreaded sci fi/fantasy (authors who don’t want to be seen as genre writers)

some things are not sci fi or fantasy because they were written by literary authors

(and then the last line in my notes is: “it’s no longer not to respectable to write speculative fiction” and I don’t know if that means “it’s no longer not respectable” and the “to” just doesn’t belong, or if I completely changed track in the middle of the sentence and it’s supposed to say “it’s no longer respectable”… which would be a rather different thing)

Even if the name of the panel had asked, “Which is better?” all the panelists agreed that both were good – so no dramatic fights. (Although I seem to remember there were some swords on the table.) At the end, the audience got to vote, too, and most people also voted for “both”.

More Smarchers arrived then, and Tad and his wife Deborah Beale (it feels weird using her full name, but I suppose I should, for any readers who aren’t Smarchers).

And I remembered my role as the inofficial Smarch camerawoman (although I wasn’t in the best seat for it, and didn’t want to move to the front and sit there by myself – I can be heard whispering to Cyan about that in the first video.)

There are some small bits missing, because I had a bad experience at WFC 2013 when I recorded a whole panel, and the video turned out to be unusable, and I didn’t have time to test my new camera enough to know that wouldn’t happen. So I decided to only record ten minutes or so at a time, just to be save. (And at one point my battery died, so one of the videos is even shorter.)

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

Part 5:

Part 6:

Part 7:

Tad and Deborah had to get home to their family, but our Smarch group – redNathalie, Auros, Jeremy, his brother, Cyan and me – went out for pizza afterwards. It was a small enough group for me to not feel shy and awkward (even though there was a bit much background noise for my liking, but what can you expect in a crowded restaurant?), so I remember that evening fondly, even if I can’t remember a single thing we talked about.

[Today a Month Ago] Cucumber Culture Clash

December 14, 2014

My lessons in getting around on my own continued with “how to get to Cyan’s workplace in Oakland”, in case I ever needed to. I also met some of Cyan’s colleagues, but as with GCD the day before, I was still feeling rather shy and awkward and found talking to them quite difficult.

Cyan’s assistant drove us to Chinatown in Oakland, where we wandered around a bit, had wonton soup for lunch, and I was fascinated by all the vegetables I didn’t know.



Actually, the pictures don’t do a good job of showing all the things I didn’t know. The things on either side of the green onions in the second picture, and several of the root vegetables in the back, and I think many more that aren’t in the pictures (because, as so often, I felt a little awkward about being a photo-taking tourist.) Cyan recognised some of them (although I’ve forgotten their names again by now), and I knew kohlrabi, which she hadn’t known, but neither of us had any idea what this is:


Also, I really like the idea of these diagonal crosswalks, and I would like to have them everywhere, please (since I drive very rarely, I approve of anything that makes cars wait and makes life easier for pedestrians.)


After also walking through a farmers’ market, we took a shuttle to the waterfront and walked around there:





Jack London’s cabin.


Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon. I’m too lazy to look for the leaflet I was given, but that’s what Wikipedia is for, right?

At some point while we were walking back to Cyan’s workplace, Cyan turned back to me and asked, “Why are you taking pictures of weeds?”

Because it’s an Oxalis, and I don’t care if it’s a weed, it’s pretty, I like Oxalises, and since I can’t bring it home, I have to take pictures at least.



As far as I can tell from a bit of Googling, this is O. pes-caprae.

This must also have been the day we did some shopping – my journal is still a mess, but this is the only day we would have had time for it.

There was some fabric shopping, during which Cyan told me about all those other awesome stores we could have gone to, which made me rather jealous (not that I ever actually sew anything, but if I ever wanted to follow through with any of the vague ideas I have, it wouldn’t be easy to find fabric for it). But then she also talked about all the fabric stores that closed, so the situation in Baychester isn’t really that different from here.

There was an attempt at buying a houseplant for Cyan, but oh my god, I’ve never seen such a pathetic selection as at that Home Depot. It wasn’t just that it was small, but the plants were also in terrible condition. Well, maybe not terrible, they were healthy as far as I could see – no bugs, not drowning or too dry (wait, I think some of them were too dry, but that’s easily fixed) – but just not looking good, with lots of torn/bent leaves.

And then to the grocery store, which actually had a better selection of plants, but no price stickers that we could see, and the plants were placed so stupidly that we couldn’t get any of the interesting ones out. (And by interesting I mean plants that Cyan would have a decent chance of keeping alive, not interesting to me. Houseplants don’t seem to differ much between here and America, and it was all stuff that I already have or have had. The interesting stuff for me was growing outside, just along the side of the streets…)

Grocery shopping was a little… exhausting for me. I’m not good at making choices when I’m not familiar with any of the options (and I don’t like going to stores I don’t know even here at home), and when faced with too many things to choose from I just freeze up completely. Seriously, why do you need so many different kinds of milk? Why?

I was telling my best friend about this yesterday when we picked up some groceries on our way back from the Christmas market, and people stared at me as I stood in front of the dairy shelf, gesturing wildly, going, “No, you don’t understand, it was all the way from over there to where we are standing, and it was all milk! So many different kinds of milk!”

And then we had a little culture clash over cucumbers. Because apparently in America, these are “normal” cucumbers:

100_2946 Cucumis sativus

Sorry about the blurry picture – I would take a better one, but here in Austria, I won’t find cucumbers like that until the summer (this one was one of my own balcony-grown ones from a couple of years ago, a Harvest Monday picture that I never actually posted.) What you will find year-round, always shrink-wrapped (and also in my fridge right now) is this:


It wasn’t a very dramatic culture clash, but it was another one of those things that you just don’t expect, another one of those ways of feeling a stranger, when you spend all your life seeing and buying the same kind of cucumber, the same two or three different kinds of milk (I should bring my camera to the grocery store some time) and then you’re told, “That’s not a cucumber.”

But I suppose that’s not a bad thing. This is what travelling is for – if I wanted everything to be the same, I could just stay at home, right?

[Today a Month Ago] BART and Art

December 13, 2014

Since Cyan would have to go back to work during the last week of my stay, I had to learn to get around on my own. So after a day of rest, the plan for this day was for me to learn to use the buses and BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit).

The first part, taking the BART to Powell Street, went according to plan, but then instead of taking the bus, the guy Cyan is dating (henceforth referred to as GCD) picked us up with his car and we had lunch together. I think I didn’t talk very much, and I feel a little bad about it. (I always worry that I might seem rude or disinterested. But I just need some time to warm up to new people – a lot less now than I used to, but still more than we spent with GCD, especially when I was also trying to adjust to being in another new place.

A new place I should maybe have prepared for the previous day by deciding what I wanted to do and see, but I hadn’t, so any questions about what I wanted to do after lunch were answered with, “I don’t know.” But we managed to come to a decision eventually and GCD drove us to the de Young museum.

I’m trying to remember if I’d ever actually gone to an art museum before, and I don’t think so. I was always much more interested in words than in pictures. But this was a really interesting experience.

I mean, most of the things we looked at have already blurred into an indistinguishable mass of paintings and odd and unfamiliar Oceanic art. But there are a few things that will remain in my memory for a long time, like the one painting with the unrecognisable animal – not unrecognisable because it was a species we didn’t know, or because of the painting style, but because the painter apparently sucked at painting animals. He might have been good at painting people, but I still have no clue if that was supposed to be a dog or a cat or a particularly short-eared rabbit or what.

And this painting:

Frederic Edwin Church - Rainy Season in the Tropics - Google Art Project

Frederic Edwin Church – Rainy Season in the Tropic

This doesn’t really do it justice. That rainbow… That rainbow is so realistic, so vibrant, I had to actually lift my hand to it, only just not touching it, to check there wasn’t any light falling on it from somewhere. It’s stunning.

And then there were a lot of objects from… yeah, from where, actually? Papua New Guinea, I think, and Indonesia, and also Africa, sculptures and masks and tools and chairs and so much more I don’t remember, a blur of dark wood and strange shapes in my memory. They made me have a lot of thoughts that are very hard to put into words.

The easiest one to put into words is probably the lack of context for these things. All the things made by western artists had signs with some background information about why and when and by whom it was painted, but these things… they only got “mask” or “bowl” and a country and an age, and it left so many questions unanswered – is this a typical bowl for when and where it was made? Or an exceptional one? Why was it decorated this way? When and why was this mask worn, and sometimes more importantly, how was it worn? I think this was the one we looked at for a long time, and talked about a lot afterwards, about how heavy it would have to be, and how it would even stay upright.

But also much harder to articulate thoughts about how I’ve grown up surrounded by art that tries to be as lifelike as possible, and this is such a completely different way of representing the world, in symbols more than lifelike pictures, and how this is such a completely foreign way of thinking and making art for me, and how I wish I could understand it.

And then that turning into other thoughts about how, as a fantasy reader, the books I enjoy are full of nonhuman races, and yet they are still all rooted in out western culture and have never felt as foreign as this.

I didn’t remember to take out my camera until we got to the observation tower:



One thing I recognise, far off in the distance:




After that, I finally got my lesson in taking buses in San Francisco and we made our way back to Cyan’s home.

(I think that is all that happened that day. My journal is a hopeless mess. After a few days of not writing, there is a chaos of “this is what’s happening right now” and “this is what happened a week ago” and completely random musings and things that happened twenty years ago.)

[Today a Month Ago] All The Ways to Feel a Stranger

December 12, 2014

(We didn’t really do anything this day, after arriving in Cyan’s home late the night before. Just sleeping and eating and a bit of laundry and reading and, in my case, a bit of blogging. So no adventures to report in this post….)

I want to preface this by saying that Cyan has been a wonderful host, and did everything she could to make me feel at home in the Bay Area. But when you’re this far from home, there are so many things that are different, some of them expected and some of them completely surprising.

There are things you are prepared for when you go travelling.

You expect to be surrounded by a language that is not your own – but, given that the language was English, that wasn’t a problem for me.

You expect to be confused by the money – which is something I’m probably a lot less used to than older generations of Europeans, since in pre-Euro times, I was too young to travel on my own (and perfectly content to let my parents handle the money when I travelled with my family.)

You expect public transport to work differently, when you grow up with the way of buying tickets differing from one transport company to the next.

You expect the food to be different, and (apart from my struggles with ordering food because I simply hardly ever eat out, and my body was being very peculiar about what I could eat without feeling nauseous), I didn’t just eat things I hadn’t eaten before, like dim sum or persimmons, I ate things I hadn’t even heard about before.

This was one of those things that emphasised the feeling of “I’m very far from home”, and one of the things I hadn’t anticipated: vegetables that I couldn’t identify by name or appearance or taste.

Which ties into another thing I probably should have expected, but didn’t: how many plants there would be that I didn’t know. It already started in DC. There was still some overlap with Austria, but especially among the shrubs and trees, there were plenty I didn’t know.

But once I got to the Bay Area… it was so disconcerting for me, being surrounded by so many plants I didn’t know. There were still some I did know, many of them plants you can only grow in pots here in Austria, like oleanders and bougainvillea, and so much plumbago sprawling along the freeways, and a few that grow even here, but also so much I had never seen, never read about, never considered might exist… but that is something I’ll get back to when I write about the botanical garden.


The view from Cyan’s window is a perfect example of the botanical strangeness… a palm tree of some sort, certainly not hardy in Austria, side by side with a birch tree, so common here, and some other tree I simply don’t know.

But even this is a bigger thing, something I should have expected. What I really wanted to talk about was the tiny things I didn’t anticipate at all. The things you take for granted until they are different.

Like bird voices. It’s not like I know bird voices as in being able to tell what bird it is that I hear, in most cases (crows and pigeons, yes, cuckoos and gulls, magpies and lapwing, but most birds, I don’t recognize by their voice). But still, bird voices were always a familiar backdrop of sound… and suddenly, they weren’t, suddenly, they were such alien sounds. And standing by the window, looking out at those trees, and suddenly thinking, wait, was that a hummingbird just now? Another thing I hadn’t considered I might encounter… from childhood on, hummingbirds had been something faraway and exotic, and suddenly they were real.

Or the way the air smells. That was the first thing, arriving in San Francisco, taking a first deep breath after too many hours of airports and planes, and the air smelling so strange. I don’t know what it smelled of, but it was the first thing that made me think, “yes, I’m very far from home.”

Or the way the water tastes. In DC, it tasted like a swimming pool, unpleasant but familiar from many summers in Italy. I’m used to water tasting a little different everywhere, it’s not even the same between here and Vienna (and it’s always so nice, that first glass of water at home), but nowhere I’ve been in Europe has the water tasted as different as in Baychester. Not bad, just very strange…

How can you help feeling a stranger when even the elements, like air and water, remind you that you are?

[Today a Month Ago] Sunrise and Seed Catalogues

December 11, 2014

Our last day in DC. We got up very early, to take advantage of the beautiful early morning light.


Smarchers on a mission

DoOF cover

This signed cover of Dragons of Ordinary Farm has been travelling the world since 2008, but this was the first time that we actually took a picture of it in a famous place, which had been the original plan.

DoOF cover 2


As much as I hate getting up early, it really was worth it, for the beauty of sunrise and because there were so few people around.





Another “we don’t have these colours at home” picture…


Smarchers and random other tourists.


Of course we also had to walk past the White House…


… and of course, I had to take a picture of the world’s most famous kitchen garden. (I actually wrote a post for my German balcony gardening blog that more or less went, “look where I am, at the world’s most famous vegetable garden. What, you don’t recognize it? Look at that building back there behind the trees. Do you recognize it now? Well, now you know why I don’t have time for blogging.”)

It was only after this that we went for breakfast, at a bakery around the corner from the Willard that we referred to as the bookshop (because all the bakeries in Firsfron’s Memory, Sorrow and Thorn game only sold books, but no baked goods.)


A daytime look out of our window.



The lobby at the Willard, supposedly where the word “lobbyist” comes from. But what I will remember is the sentence, “Smells like lobby.” (For the first two days, there were a lot of lilies on that table in the middle, and their scent was very noticeable everywhere. No need to look at which floor the elevator had stopped on – if it smells like lobby, it’s time to get out.)

The lobby always made me feel like I’d sneaked into a place where I had no right to be, even more than the rest of the hotel.

This reminds me of Cyan saying she felt weird checking in in her Batman shirt… but then Firs and I were in the elevator with a guy wearing a faded Superman shirt under his suit…


The Willard from the outside.


I like contrasts between buildings like this. And isn’t that the Starbucks we went to on our first day?

Trying to get where we wanted to go proved a bit difficult that day, because the Mall was closed off for a concert, and we couldn’t find a way across – until Cyan had the brilliant idea of taking the Metro underneath it.


The Smithsonian Castle.

I was getting a little too tired to figure out if there was a common theme to what seemed like a rather random collections of objects that were displayed inside, from Napoleon’s napkin to taxidermied birds…


… to old seed catalogues.





We wandered around the gardens for a bit, and then, all too soon, it was time to return to the hotel, pick up our luggage and get on the shuttle to the airport.

All too soon, time to say good-bye, to DC and to my friends – less hard for me than for Firs and Ylvs, as they had to go home and I got to go with Cyan, but still… I still miss you!


And then, through the darkness, to San Francisco, where even the air smelled strange…


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