Thursday, August 19, 2010

Twelve Months in Germany: A Review

I've been back from Germany for over a month now, but I've known for a long time that I wanted to write a sort of final statement to provide some closure for this blog. I know I already wrote a post for my final days and my gradual return to the Midwest, but I think it would be a good idea to summarize some of my adventures and acquired knowledge.

There's honestly a lot that I could write about: things about the USA that I missed while abroad, things about Germany that I miss now, the weirdest German words I encountered, the longest German words I encountered, the most helpful websites I used while abroad, my tips for travelling, my favorite German foods, and so on. I could do each, but I don't feel like the large time investment on my behalf is really worth it. If you are curious anyway, let me know. But I do want to share a few final words.

I'll start with my travel experiences. I lived in three cities in Germany: Köln (Cologne), Hannover, and Frankfurt am Main. I took something like 80 trips, depending on how you count. I went to 31 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, bringing my personal total to 47. [Edit 2010.09.26: The canals of Amsterdam have been added to the list, meaning I visited 32 sites and my total is 48.] I went to eleven countries, bringing my personal total to 19. I don't even know how many castles and palaces I visited, and I have no idea how many pastries I ate or trains I rode.

And within all of that, a few of those places stand out particularly strongly to me. Large metropolitan centers (i.e. Berlin, Rome, Paris, Hamburg, etc.) are too obvious to mention; almost everyone can find something to like about those places. Instead, I'd like to mention ten places that are a bit smaller or lesser-known yet surprised me with how much I liked them. In no particular order, I strongly recommend the cities of Würzburg, Lübeck, Luxembourg, Goslar, Weimar, Trier, Leuven, Heidelberg, Strasbourg, and Aachen. Each has particular treasures to discover, and most of them include a World Heritage Site. I could describe them further, but I've already written blog posts to do that. But let it be known that I personally recommend those places, even if they are a bit off the beaten path.

And now that I'm home, what are the things I miss? Well, the first thing that comes to mind is the food and drink. As a vegetarian, Americans often ask what I eat in Germany - don't they just eat a lot of sausages and Schnitzl? The funny thing is, Germans always ask me what I eat in the USA - don't they just eat hamburgers and fried chicken? Honestly, the vegetarian experience in both countries is quite similar. German restaurants tend to be slightly more vegetarian-friendly than American ones, but American grocery stores offer a slightly greater variety of specialized vegetarian items. But really, it's not hard in either country if you just try.

And then there's German beer - nothing can compete with that, even if the much-hyped Rheinheitsgebot (the famous German beer purity law) was repealed years ago and ignored for centuries before that. American microbreweries might offer a wide selection of specialty beers, but in Germany, even the giant brews are incredible. And they aren't as uptight about the whole thing - you can drink on the streets and no one really cares. It's not like alcohol abuse and drunk driving don't exist there, but it would seem to be much less of an issue. And the widespread public transportation makes things so much easier.

Speaking of which, public transit is probably the thing I actually miss most. I haven't forgotten how to drive, but for the past year, I literally never got behind the wheel. Never had to. For a Midwesterner, that's unbelievable. And the trains - they go everywhere, and they even usually arrive on time! Second only to the incredible transit infrastructure is the social care system. It might not be perfect, but I feel like Germans actually care about their fellow citizens. I can't tell you how many times people asked me why the USA does not have universal health care. They were mystified that we didn't care about each other's general health. And third is the serious concern for the environment: Mülltrennung (trash separation and recycling) is an important part of daily life, just as is collecting glass bottles to return them for their Pfand (deposit), and conserving water and other resources as much as possible.

On the other hand, I don't miss the fact that everything is closed on Sundays and nothing stays open in the evening. 24/7 does not exist in Germany. I don't miss paying to use the restroom (even if you are paying for legitimately clean toilets), nor the absolute lack of public water fountains, nor the disdain for offering free tap water in restaurants. I'm happy to be able to eat real Mexican food again, to be served spicy food, and to have good peanut butter available.

And despite all the differences, I still think the USA and Germany have more in common than they think.

It's weird to be back. I'm still readjusting, and I refuse to give up saying "Doch!" ("on the contrary!"). I've been searching for an apartment where I can walk to local stores and easily access public transit. I use as little water as I can while showering and cleaning. I complain about how much "crap" (fake sugars, dyes, assorted chemicals, and so on) is in the food here. And part of me still yearns to pack a suitcase, grab my guitar, and fly back to where I can have affordable health care and reliable public transit. German language, culture, history, music, literature, art, food, and beer will never cease to fascinate me.

Thanks to the US Congress and the German Bundestag for sponsoring such a wonderful scholarship program. To all the wonderful people I met while living in Germany: I hope we meet again, either here or there.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Last Days As a European Resident

After our day in Marseille, we started off back towards Germany. I was heading to Köln and my friend just a bit farther to Düsseldorf. Our first train was a direct, high-speed, three hour TGV to Paris. That was a pretty smooth deal. Unfortunately, since we had to fight to get any sort of reservations on these trains, we ended up with a 4.5-hour layover in Paris before we could get on another train. Then again, think twice about that statement: we had four and a half hours to kill in Paris. That's not a bad deal at all!

First we had to get from the Gare de Lyon station in the south to the Gare du Nord in the north, and then we had to store our bags. After consulting a map, we realized that we were within walking distance of the Basilique du Sacré Cœur, which I had failed to visit during my last trip to Paris. Taking pictures inside is not allowed, but rest assured that it is beautiful. It's also on a hill overlooking the city, offering a good view of the vast urban expanses.

We still had plenty of time after that trek, so we headed south to just explore the city. We were hunting for pastries, particularly macarons, which we did eventually find (as pictured here). They are very expensive but incredibly delicious (and not to be confused with macaroons), so I ate just one (the pistachio one on the left) and saved the rest for a gift. We of course found plenty of other pastries. (What a civilized nation!)

We eventually had to head back to the train station, pictured here. We then caught a 2.5-hour Thalys train to Aachen, where we transferred to a German regional train to save a ton of money. Thalys is the highest-speed train in Europe and naturally rather expensive. It's a pretty darn nice ride.

I arrived in Köln that evening with just enough time to meet my former host family and watch Germany defeat Uruguay in the third-place game. I spent the short time I had in town hanging out with them - and of course, they were the recipients of my Parisian macarons. (This picture was taken back when I lived there, but I think it's once of the best I took while I lived there, and I didn't take any in my brief stay this time.)

The next day I finally went back to Frankfurt after a good long ten days of vacation. I actually just had one day to myself before another friend came and visited me during our very last few days in Germany. We walked all around town, met up with a few of my friends one last time, and I ate one last Falafel Surprise from my favorite Lebanese hole in the wall. And somehow in this time I packed and cleaned up my apartment. (This picture of Bankfurt is also one that I'd taken months before, but it's again one of the best and I hardly took any during my last days.)

This is the combined heat and power plant in my neighborhood. This is another picture from several months back, but I saw this very image quite often during my days in Frankfurt. This street is Bruchfeldstraße, and I lived just one block to the north.

And that was that. On July 14th, all of the participants of the program congegrated in the Frankfurt airport (just two S-Bahn stops away from my apartment) and we flew off. Getting through security was a challenge, as it always is, but I suppose I was asking for it by filling my backpack with 29 vinyl records, my laptop, and my external hard drive. I was just keeping a good eye on my best goods.

We all made it to New York successfully, and after our final seminar sessions, I met up with my sister and we somehow schlepped all my stuff to her apartment. We kept fairly active, but probably not as active as my previous time in the city, since I was a bit overwhelmed. This picture of the Statue of Liberty was taken from the Staten Island Ferry, which is free and awesome. We even made it up to Boston for a few days before I flew back to my home of Kansas City. I almost immediately was on the road up to Michigan to help move my other sister back to Kansas as well, and now I'm here again, preparing for the next phase of my life in St. Louis. It's a pretty crazy deal. Sometimes it's really hard to fathom that I just got back from living in Germany for a year. And I still often think in German.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Farther Along the Mediterranean Coast

After spending a few days in Cinque Terre, me and my friend started our journey to southern France.

First we had to transfer trains in Genova. We had an hour or so to kill, so we walked around town, found some food, and explored this church, the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata del Vastato. It's beautiful, but as you might be able to see here, it was damaged in the war, and the reconstruction leaves the contrast quite apparent.

Our second connection was supposed to be in Ventimiglia. The national Italian train company website indicated to me that there would be a direct train from there to our destination of Nice shortly after our previous train arrived. This was a lie. No such train exists at that time, nor at any time. Thankfully, I knew my geography well enough and we had Interrail passes, so we took a train to Monaco and from there caught one to Nice.

Once we finally checked into our hostel, we walked along some of the main drags, walked through some of the old city, and headed for Colline du Château, the site of castle ruins that overlook the city. This is a view of the city center and the beach. A bit farther along the beach is the Promenade des Anglais, the classy seaside promenade originally funded by wealthy English resorters.

One of the streets in the old city, which eventually leads up to the Colline du Château. The whole area is quite pretty; we explored the ruins and the old city and ended up eating incredible ratatouille crêpes and drinking French beer while watching Germany lose the quarter-final game against Spain. (I think we were the only ones in the audience cheering for Germany, except for maybe the bartender. I couldn't understand enough French to really say.)

The next day we set out early and went to the Marché aux Fleurs (Flower Market). Of course, flowers are actually pretty scarce there; it's mostly food. Let me tell you: when I think of France, I always want to think of piles and piles of delicious pastries.

We went to the Musée des Beaux-Arts (Museum of Fine Arts) and then headed here, to the Cathédrale Orthodoxe Russe Saint Nicolas, which I think most of you should be able to figure out from the French. We couldn't get in, but it has a cool enough exterior.

We then headed back over to Monaco, this time to be tourists there. Originally, we had talked about spending a night there, but Monaco is the type of place that doesn't even have hostels. It's a seriously insane place. We saw a company whose windows ads listed airplanes going for up to $11 million. What kind of place puts an ad like that in the window!? Anyway, this here is the old town and castle built on a big rock.

Most of Monaco is just a strip of land along the coast. It's one of three remaining principalities in the world, it only has 30,000 inhabitants, it's one of the wealthiest nations per capita in the world, and most people know it for two reasons: its status as a tax haven (there are no property or inheritance taxes) and its casino.

The famous Monte Carlo casino. You know, the one from James Bond films and all that. I hate gambling, but I was interested in seeing the insanity, so I chanced entry. I got into the entrance hall, but any further costed 10€ and required a suit. Not interested. There actually were two other casinos nearby, but one was just a standard-issue boring American-style place. The other, though, the Hôtel de Paris, was apparently a bit classier. So classy, in fact, that when I tried to push the revolving door to get in, the porter held the door shut and shook his head. Clearly, no riff-raff in patched-up pants and a t-shirt was going to be allowed to waste any of their air conditioning!

Église Sainte-Dévote. Monaco doesn't have much room for churches.

The yacht harbor. This country is insane. 84% of the residents are non-native. An entire quarter of the country/city was built on land reclaimed from the sea, and the prince was planning to expand even farther into the sea until the recession hit. I will say that the old town is pleasant, but this is really a crazy place. When it comes to microstates and other small oddball countries, I still prefer Luxembourg.

We returned to Nice that night but headed to Marseille the next day. We were only able to swing things in such a way to be able to spend one day and night there, which is a shame, since it is a large city with plenty to offer. Our first course of action was to head here, to the Notre-Dame de la Garde, a large cathedral built on a hill overlooking the city. It was quite a hike to get up there, and again it was extremely hot, but it was pretty cool. That statue of Mary and Jesus is seriously massive - 11.2m (27 ft) tall.

This is the interior of the cathedral. As you might be able to see, lots of models of boats (and a few airplanes) hang from the ceiling. Not sure what that's about. The view from the outside is also great: you can see the the entire city as well as the Château d'If, made famous as the setting of The Count of Monte Cristo.

We walked around the city a bit, visited the Musée Cantini (a modern art museum), and headed over to the Abbaye Saint-Victor (pictured here), originally built around 415. After a few centuries, it was destroyed, and after a few more, it was rebuilt, but after losing its importance in the last few centuries, all that remains is now this church building.

The Panier is the old town center of Marseille. It was pretty quiet while we were there, but it is pretty.

This cathedral, La Cathédrale Notre-Dame de la Major, sits on the edge of the Panier, quite close to the sea.

This is the Vieux-Port, the old port. Off in the distance is the Notre-Dame de la Garde, and on the far right, just above the port, is the Abbaye Saint-Victor.

If I can compare, I think Monaco is on one extreme and Marseille the other. Monaco is small, rich, and essentially just full of big condos and resorts. I could never imagine living there, and I see no reason for me to ever go back. Nice is much more pleasant, but also full of lots of tourists and resorters. The local culture and charm make it several degrees more appealing. Marseille is dirtier and has a reputation for being rougher, but it's also bigger and so much more livable. It seems like the kind of place that you could keep exploring and finding new corners and little treasures. There were of course tourists there, but it wasn't overwhelming like in everywhere else I'd been in Italy and France. I wish I'd had more time there.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

All Roads Lead to Rome

Okay, let's face it: this blog is supposed to be about Germany, not Italy, and I've been back in the USA for about three weeks now. But - I did go to Italy as a part of my year living in Germany, and since Italy is a popular travel destination for Germans anyway, I suppose it only makes sense to at least briefly describe my time there.

My internship at Deutsche Bank essentially ended at the end of June, but my flight back to the USA wasn't until July 14th, so me and a friend decided to head south for about ten days. The internship, for the record, finished up quite well; I composed the German texts for my Kleptography plugin in JCrypTool, I gave a final presentation of the plugin to my department, I gave a lecture on obscure but important English grammar, and I got to hang out with my coworkers several times before departing. I even baked vegan brownies for them all, which got eaten up quite quickly.

And on the next day, I rode a high-speed ICE train to München and trasferred to the City Night Line to Rome. I met my friend in the train station, we checked into our hostel, and we headed straight for the typical tourist destination: the Colosseum. Even if there isn't much going on there, it is without a doubt very cool to walk around.

The Spanish Steps, another major tourist hotspot. There's some good pizza to be had around here.

The Fountain of Trevi. It's ridiculous and drinkable. Italy scores big for me in terms of having fountains with quality drinking water all over the place. (When will Germany learn?)

The Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II, the first king of a united Italy. It contains a museum of Italian Reunification.

Trajan's Column, commemorating the Roman emperor Trajan's victory in the Dacian Wars. This lies at the end of the Trajan Forum and near to several other expansive ruins of Roman fora. The whole area between the Capitoline Hill and the Colosseum is filled with Roman ruins. After spending a year in Germany hunting down the minimal remains of ancient Roman settlements (i.e. in Köln, Trier, Aachen, Mainz, and Bad Homburg), it blows the mind the come here and be surrounded by it.

The Palazzo Senatorio (Senatorial Palace), used as the city hall of Rome since 1870. The stairs were designed by Michelangelo.

On the left side is the Theater of Marcellus, another ruined Roman theater. (Another!) Past the theater, straight ahead, lies the Jewish Quarter, home to incredible food. (Fried artichoke is but one wonderful local speciality.) And as for the elevated carriage in the foreground, I have no clue.

Santa Maria (or the Basilica of Our Lady's) in Tastevere, one of the oldest Christian churches in Rome, let alone the world. It was first built around 220 and redone in this general form in about 340. The entire neighborhood around this church is known as being a center of dining and nightlife. This was the best place to get great food at vaguely reasonable prices.

The entrance (today used as the exit) to the Vatican Museums. The Vatican City has some serious walls to protect it from all those... Italians? Anyway, this is one of two ways that the average person can enter the Vatican City, the smallest sovereign state in the world and one of the strangest in nearly every capacity.

The Cortile della Pigna, which I think translates to "Court of the Pine Cone". Is that not a pine cone atop that fountain!? Anyway, this is one of the inside courts of the Vatican Museums. It may be expensive to get in, there may be a long, long line in the hot, burning sun, cutting might be extremely prevalent, it might be busy and crowded, and parts of it might be arbitrarily closed off, but let me tell you: it's worth it. This place is one of the largest and greatest museums of the world.

In the Vatican Museums. They have everything here from Egyptian to Roman to Renaissance to modern art. Oh, and they have the Sistine Chapel. That's pretty cool.

The stairway now used as a one-way path from the gift shop to the exit of the museums.

The other main draw to the Vatican City: St. Peter's Basilica, featuring the largest interior of a Christian church anywhere in the world.

Found off to the side of St. Peter's Basilica.

The bridge is the Ponte Vittorio Emanuele II and the building on the left is the Castel Sant'Angelo, a former Roman mausoleum, later used as a fortress and castle, now a museum.

Piazza del Popolo. And that's already plenty of Rome. I was there for about three days, most of which I spent simply walking around and marvelling. The only other museums I entered were the National Gallery of Modern Art and the Catacombs of Domitilla. The Catacombs can only be entered via a short and expensive tour, but it was worth it: that's an incredibly cool part of history.

After Rome, me and my friend took the train up to Cinque Terre, literally meaning "five lands", a beautiful World Heritage Site comprising five villages built along the Ligurian coast. We stayed in Monterosso al Mare, the northernmost of the villages. This picture was taken from outside the Church of Capuchin Father San Francesco, which overlooks the village and offers a view of the other four. If you look very closely, you should be able to see, from left to right, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore.

The "old town" of Monterosso, as opposed to the "new town" on the other side of this bulge to the left. The new part features a large beach, but the old part is prettier. The only connection is a single tunnel.

Aurora Tower, standing over and between the two parts of Monterosso.

We opted to follow the traditional trail from Monterosso to the next village, Vernazza (pictured here). This trail connects all five villages and was once the only way to travel between them on land. There is now a train that runs between them as well as roads, but the trail sounded appealing. This stretch happens to be the longest and roughest, but despite the incredible heat, it was fun.

We cheated by taking the train from Vernazza to Manarola (pictured here), skipping Corniglia.

The trail from Manarola to Riomaggiore is much different than the other ones; it is smooth and constructed. It is known as Via dell'Amore, "Street of Love". Much like the Hohenzollernbrücke in Köln, there is a traditional of couples attaching "love padlocks" to the railings and throwing the keys into the sea.

Making the Via dell'Amore easily traversable must have been something of an architectural challenge.

Riomaggiore, the southernmost of the five villages.

Beyond the incredible sights of Rome and Cinque Terre, the best part is the food. The streetside pizza is the best you'll ever taste, and the restaurants, albeit perhaps expensive, offer all sorts of fantastic creations. In Cinque Terre, we opted to picnic for most of our meals: the local pesto, focaccia, tomatoes, and wine are each and all probably the best I've ever eaten. (The grapes were good, too!) I couldn't get enough of the Italian food - this is the real deal and a vegetarian's paradise.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Last Weekend Trip in Germany

I'm actually back in the USA now, all the way back in Kansas City. My last couple weeks in Germany were very busy (and actually hardly spent in Germany!) and in the last two weeks I've been in a few different places in the USA, and I'm not slowing down... yet.

I'll be honest: I'm losing energy to write up these posts, especially since these things happened weeks ago and I'm kind of ready to move on and reintegrate. But, in the spirit of leaving a complete document, I'll at least write up some summaries.

For my last weekend as an intern in Frankfurt, I went with another intern and two of his friends to Stuttgart and Ulm. A friend of mine was doing the IBIE in the area, which I also did two summers ago, so I met up with her as well. While I was doing the IBIE, I actually went to Stuttgart twice - once for the Mercedes-Benz Museum and once right at the end to catch my plane back to the States. In both cases, I didn't actually get to spend much time in the city, and hence I was open to returning to see a bit more. And Ulm, well... I'd regretted not going to Ulm before, and so I really wanted to take the opportunity before it was too late.

This time, I decided to go to the Porsche Museum. It's a pretty good museum, documenting the history of their development and of course displaying plenty of their coolest cars, although there's no doubt that it comes in second after the Mercedes-Benz Museum. That place is another whole category of museum.

An old Porsche firetruck.

It turns out that I didn't end walking around Stuttgart all that much this time, either, but I did get to see a fair amount; more than I had previously, at any rate. This is the Neues Schloss (New Palace), the royal residence of the ducal family of Württemberg. In the area are several other museums; I ended up going to the Kunstmuseum (Art Museum), featuring one of the largest Otto Dix collections in the world.

The Hauptbahnhof (central train station) allows you to climb to the top of the clocktower for free to get a view of the city. Naturallly, I took advantage of the opportunity. The main street you can see here is Königsstraße.

The view from our hostel.

The next day we went to Ulm, home of Albert Einstein. There are two little momuments in his honor; this is one of them. Little else documents his life here. His life is better documented in his more famous homes of Bern and Princeton, NJ.

The Ulmer Münster (cathedral), the tallest in the world. This would be the second reason I wanted to visit the city. It is an incredibly impressive cathedral, right on par with the ones in Köln and Aachen.

The inside of the cathedral.

The view to the back. The organ is grand, but then check out the creepy and massive statue of St. Michael hiding in the shadows underneath.

Of course I had to climb up the steeple. This is not a task for the faint of heart. I've climbed up my fair share of steeples, and this one incurred acrophobia more so than any other I've climbed. (It is, after all, the tallest...)

The view from the top. On the bottom left is the Rathaus (city hall). The pyramid structure is the central library of the city. The river is the Donau (Danube), which I seem to spend my life tracing.

More of the Rathaus.

This side of the Rathaus depicts all of the states with which Ulm had trade relations in the 16th century. Most are German, but there are several exceptions, such as Frankreich (France), Venedig (Venice), and Engelland (presumably an old spelling of England).

After walking along the river and through the old Fischerviertel (Fisher's Quarter), we sat down to watch the big Germany-England game. Germany, of course, won 4-0, so it was pretty exciting. You can see some of the crowds in my picture above of the cathedral.