Friday, August 31, 2007

Weimar, a City Without Soap, and Buchenwald

Weimar isn't a place I probably would have thought to visit on my own, so I was glad to see it on our tour route. We left Berlin early and went straight to Weimar, went through a lot of traffic, and made it with just enough time to have lunch before meeting for tours. A few of us ended up at a combination doener/Chinese food joint. There was a lot of confusion regarding our orders. Then the Greek guy went to the bathroom inside and saw that there was no soap and everything was generally sketchy. In the end everyone managed to get the right food and no one got sick, so I guess the place was all right. (That day.) I had to use the restroom but didn't want to go there after the soap incident, so Damon and I went to get some goodies at a bakery and used the restroom there. It also had no soap. I began to think Weimar had taken on a soapfree policy of some kind. Then later, I saw a street called "Soap Street" (only in German). Perhaps that's where they are hiding it all!

Weimar Aug 2007

We were again offered both English and German tours and this time we took the German option. It was harder to understand and I probably missed a lot, but the group was smaller than 10 people so it was more manageable in general. Damon asked a couple of questions, though, and the guide seemed to treat him like he was stupid, so who knows, maybe English would have been better :/ See the photos for info on what we saw on the tour! The thing about Weimar is that most of what they showed us...actually, perhaps all of what they showed us was only famous because of who is associated with it - Goethe, Schiller, Bach, Luther - and not famous on account of being architecturally cool in itself. In that sense I think it was probably the least interesting place we visited, although it was still very nice as is obvious in the photos! Oh, and the drivers were insane. I almost got ran over by some people who then shouted obscenities at me. The friendly East again :) People did seem to be a bit more rough-edged in general.

Our hotel turned out to be nowhere near the town center, so after we checked in and had dinner, there wasn't really anywhere to go but the hotel bar, where we all paid too much for crappy cocktails and were merry.

The next morning we first visited Buchenwald, a former concentration camp. It was a work camp rather than a death camp, though over 50,000 people died there of overwork, starvation, disease, and at the hands of "doctors".

Buchenwald Aug 2007

We saw a movie there telling some history of the place and then had a tour with a very good, informative guide. What was the most disturbing about it was having to face the fact that people in Weimar and other nearby towns probably actually did have a pretty good idea that the conditions in the camps were completely inhumane. I always try to tell myself that people just didn't realize what was happening. Before the crematorium was built at Buchenwald, bodies were sent down to Weimar to be cremated. Within the period of time this was done, the number of bodies cremated from the camp was several times more than the number of bodies from the city of Weimar cremated - a clear indicator that people were dying there in unusually high numbers. They must have also seen the state of the bodies. So awful.

Our tour took us inside the crematorium. After it was built, they decided they liked it so much, they used it as the prototype for the ovens at Auschwitz. However, the ones at Auschwitz were destroyed, so many people come to see the ones at Buchenwald as a way of paying tribute to their relatives who died at Auschwitz. Inside the crematorium are several memorial plaques placed by families and organizations, flowers, and chains of paper cranes.

After the end of WWII the Buchenwald site was used briefly as a prison by the East German government, then it became a memorial to the communists who resisted the Nazis, a prominent one of which was shot at Buchenwald.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Finally Berlin!

Berlin was one of the cities I looked forward to most on our trip. I've never heard a bad word about the place so I was psyched to get to see it myself.

Berlin Aug 2007

We rode there on the bus from Potsdam, the new Berlin guide babbling all the way in three languages - English to the bus, Chinese once in a while to the Chinese on the bus (they knew English of course, but I think he was just being friendly), and German driving instructions to the driver. Shortly after leaving the Cecilienhof I fell asleep, waking up again just before we turned onto Berlin's Kurfuerstendamm, one of its major thoroughfares. And now, on a day when we'd already spent several hours on the bus from Wismar to Potsdam and from Potsdam to Berlin, we just continued in the bus around Berlin, the driver pointing out landmarks and giving directions to the driver, for at least two hours. This was both good and bad. It was nice because it gave us an overview of some of the things that are in Berlin, so we would have an idea of what we might like to do once we get some free time. Bad, because it was more time in the damn bus, in stop and go traffic and seemingly driving around in circles. He was trying to point out so many things that half of the time I could not see them or couldn't figure out which building he meant. I also got no clear idea of where any of this was located relative to anything else because we were turning so often! But, this trip was the only time I saw most things in Berlin, like sections of the Wall, cute neighborhoods, the Hauptbahnhof, Russian architecture, etc - and I would never have been able to see it all otherwise (though I took no photos from the bus). Also, the guide had an interesting sense of humor. He asked about whether several nationalities were on the bus but he never asked if there were Americans, so I don't know if he knew. He joked, while we were near some piece of the Wall, that "the thing you have to do when you have a bus full of Americans is park the bus straddling the line. Then you tell them that half of them are East Germans and half of them are West Germans. They really love this!" Somehow it was hilarious, though I don't know why. However, overall the tour was very overwhelming and I still left it with no ideas of which of the tons of cool things I ought to do the next day. But, by the end of this, it was safe to say that almost everyone on the tour was in a foul mood.

We followed it up with great food at a Chinese restaurant (in a former East German disco for only the coolest party types), but it was relatively quiet, with occasional snappiness about how many seats are left at the table or appropriate usage of the big round turning thing in the middle of the table. I think everyone needed a nap!

Afterward, we were finally free. Damon and I went for a walk to a giant CD store the tour guide had pointed out that is open until MIDNIGHT! (This is amazing in Germany.) So, I finally found the CD I had been looking for, and he found himself a cheap set of all Beethoven's sonatas. And for anyone who didn't already know, pop CDs are still a frigging fortune to buy. I wouldn't have even done it, but the only place I knew I could get it online was iTunes and I hate their file protection.

The following morning we had an awesome tour of the Reichstag - see the photos for details of some of the cool things we saw. We were able to see various things in the building and not just the big glass dome, and we also didn't have to wait in the long, long line to get in. And in a strange new experience, being there kind of made me feel....patriotic. Toward Germany. (!!?)

Afterward Damon and I had lunch a couple of streets away from the horrors of the main tourist area around the Reichstag and Brandenburger Tor, then visited Berlin's well-done Holocaust Memorial (see photos). Looking at the Memorial from the outside it appears to be a sea of gray slabs with only slight height variation, but as you walk in, the ground slopes down and you find yourself in a huge, alienating forest of gray slabs taller than yourself. I lost Damon in a matter of seconds, and he turned out to be only two rows away. It wasn't easy to get out because several of the ways were blocked by stairwells down into the info center below. The look of it from the outside also reminded Damon of the old graveyard we saw in Prague.

We then stopped at KaDeWe, a giant department store out in one of the main shopping areas. This wouldn't have been a destination for us normally, but I was having a lot of problems at this point from walking around on a broken shoe so we thought we might find something. No luck with the shoes (still walking around on the broken one!!), but we did find the American food section on the sixth floor, which is a giant fancy grocery store/restaurant. We had a good laugh at the outrageous prices. For example, Ocean Spray Cranberry Juice (the big size) was on sale for 10 EUR (approx $13.60) from 12 EUR! Cans of Campbell's soup were 5 EUR! I had thought about picking up a couple because I have a lot of recipes that call for Campbell's soup, but not at that price, man. I can just keep eating bread instead.

We headed back downtown and saw the German and French Domes, two older buildings sitting on a large plaza along with a performance hall, and the Berliner Dom (of the three, this one is the only one that's actually a church). I also had to stop at Ampelmann, a little shop dedicated entirely to the cute little traffic signal walk/don't walk men which apparently originated in East Berlin. Very cute (but no buying). You can also find this sort of thing at Ostshops, little stores with all manner of things from the former East. We didn't get a chance to go into any of those, but saw them in a couple of different places on our tour.

In the evening we finally properly celebrated our anniversary, which is generally dinner at an expensive restaurant. There was one nearby in Prenzlauer Berg that was recommended in our guide book so we just went there. I thought menus like this were hard enough to read in English! The German one was so difficult I just told Damon to order me something because I didn't want to stare at it any longer! By the time dessert rolled around the waitress had figured out we were English speakers and brought the English menu instead. It was hilariously titled "Consumption time". Thankfully, neither of us appears to have gotten consumption from the experience.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

I keep mistyping it as Postdamn.

We probably didn't end our day in Wismar in the best manner considering that our departure time for Potsdam the next morning was the earliest of the entire trip. We met some fellow tourees at a bar down the street from our hotel called the Oasis, where we had champagne because at some point it had finally occurred to us that it was our fourth wedding anniversary. On our way out some other patrons made fun of our group for completely unknown reasons. Ah, the East, was all I could think.

We were nervous about getting up the next morning so we decided to set both our alarms. However, something went horribly wrong with Damon's watch alarm. Normally, when he sets it, it just gives a quick beep of confirmation. This time, the beep got stuck. On. It was well after midnight in our otherwise silent hotel when suddenly there was this ear-splitting noise. At first I thought it might be a fire alarm or something, but then I saw the look of horror on Damon's face and realized it was his watch making it! I can't believe that much sound can come out of a watch! We started to hear movement in the adjacent rooms but nothing he did could make it stop. It felt like we were in some horrible sitcom trying to figure out what to do. Damon ended up getting redressed and taking it down to the front desk to ask for ideas, and they held it for him. He had even suggested finding a place to throw it away where no one could hear it, but they were horrified by that idea. By morning it had somehow stopped and was all back to normal - functioning, even!

Then off to Potsdam. I slept through the ride and remember nothing of it. We got out at Sanssouci. I'd wanted to go there for a long time because the pictures I saw of it were always so amazing. Unfortunately in real life it's not like the photos - it's much more crowded! Still, it was beautiful, when one could actually get a look at anything. We walked through only a teeny tiny corner of the park in our very limited time, then continued on into the main part of town. See the photos!

Potsdam Aug 2007

In town we had about an hour to eat lunch and look around on our own. So brief. Our guide also was very insistent that we see the Dutch Quarter, rather far from where we were, because it was so neat and looked just like old Amsterdam.

Our first order of business was to find lunch, though. Now, I am generally not fond of shopping, so normally a run down a shopping street is of no interest to me. However, I was in the market for some new cool walking shoes (easier said than found) and a particular CD. On our run down the main street to find food, I saw the perfect shoes in the window of a store at nearly half-off. I knew we didn't have time for me to try them on and also eat and see the Dutch Quarter, so we passed them by, hoping for some time left at the end. We also passed a CD store. No time. No time! Lunch took longer than we thought and we raced through a nearby church and the Dutch Quarter, not really enjoying a second because we were running late to get back to the bus. No shoes or CDs! We made it just in time.....only to find out we had to wait for a guide who would be taking us to Berlin and he was late. But we couldn't go out again because we didn't know how soon he would show up. I will always think of this late guide when I think of those shoes...because I still haven't found a pair I really wanted.

So, to be honest, I was not in Potsdam long enough to have much of anything meaningful to say about it. I did notice that it felt very casual and I liked that quite a lot, being a bit of a frump myself. Not really because I don't like stuff that looks great, but I can't really deal with the stress of paying for it or spending hours finding it cheap, so while I'm not rich, I stay frumpy. The guide told us there was a lot of Neo-Nazi activity in the area though, which is not cool (especially when travelling as a busful of foreigners! Though I didn't hear of any incidents with our people).

On the way to Berlin, we also stopped with the new guide at Cecilienhof, where the Potsdam conference of 1945 (after WWII) was held to determine the fate of Germany. It was interesting and different to see some Tudor architecture, and the place was also surrounded by a huge park. We could see into Berlin from there - former West Berlin. When Germany was divided only Russian big shots could come in here - and the area was also surrounded by beautiful mansions, which also weren't seen by the public back then.

Then it was on to Berlin....

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

1.5 Hours at the Ostsee, and Wismar

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We headed out from Hamburg early the next morning for our big dramatic crossover into the former East.

Well, it actually wasn't that dramatic, but still there was a lot of discussion about it. When the road suddenly got worse, were we in the East yet? (Answer: no.) It looks abandoned! How about now? Are we in it? (Answer: yes.) The guide picked up the microphone around the former border and explained that people in the East weren't allowed to live within 50km of the border to the West (except some old people), at least in this area. Since it was abandoned, the area became home to a lot of wildlife. They have tried to mostly preserve this, so there was a lot of controversy about building the new Autobahn through it after reunification - the one we were riding on. They ended up building this Autobahn with lots of very long bridges on it to keep the areas on the two sides somewhat stitched together. I'd be interested to see the biogeographical analysis on that to see how well it's supposed to actually work.

Back to the 50km zone, though, I found that very interesting. I don't suppose anyone actually believed they had a good government if the government had to keep them from approaching their own borders? Also, looking at a map, there are towns existing within the 50km zone. Were those towns abandoned altogether? If so, what do they look like now? Has anyone moved back to them?

We emerged from the vast abandoned area and drove off through some cute seaside towns, ending up in Boltenhagen, where we had an hour and a half to get some ocean exposure before continuing on to Wismar. Wismar is also situated on the Ostsee (Literal translation: East Sea, English name for it: Baltic Sea) but is on a harbor that is sheltered from the sea by an island. So, this was our only chance to hit a beach.

Boltenhagen Aug 2007

The weather was chilly but we all welcomed the chance to walk around in the sand and look at the jellyfish, of which there were hundreds floating around a long boat pier. We even had a little extra time to wander into the town, which was another one of these little tourist destinations that draw Germans only, much like Lam, Lindenfels, and Ottenhoefen. It was tiny but we did find some soft-serve ice cream and cheap postcards, so we went back to the bus happy :)

On to Wismar. Wow, this entry is already getting really long and I haven't even gotten to Wismar. I hope you can stick with me as I try to blog this whole trip before I leave on my next one!

Wismar Aug 2007

We were all pretty psyched to be staying at a four-star hotel in Wismar. However, when we got there, no one could believe it had that many. It wasn't as nice as the three-star place we stayed in Hamburg. The rooms were okay, but what was really appalling was the service! As soon as we arrived, the front desk complained loudly to our guide that check-in isn't supposed to be until 3pm and we were early. Then, they gave us and the Jordanian couple complicated and incorrect directions to our rooms. When we got lost, we asked an employee for help. He had been watching us fumble around and didn't offer to help until we asked. We spoke to him only in German, and not bad German I might add. Never a word of English slipped out. He seemed to not understand a word, which is a problem we have never had before. Finally he sassed, in German, "I don't understand you. I only speak German." Must...control...fist...of...death... Somehow, despite our horrible German, he managed to indicate to us where our rooms were and we found them. Later that evening we had a buffet dinner in the hotel restaurant. When we arrived, at the right time and all, we witnessed a staff member turn away from a conversation with our guide (who is super nice, I promise) and swear, "Ach, du SCHEISSE!" Later, it was discovered that they accidentally (?) put meat in the vegetarian dish. After everyone was done eating they brought out the correct food.

This wasn't our only horrible service example in Wismar, unfortunately. During our tour (with a really great, friendly, and knowledgeable guide, I might add!), a huge storm blew in and we all took cover in Wismar's only brewhouse, which was right nearby. After 15-20 minutes we had not been served at all, and someone only came to our table after the guide went looking for a server. She took our orders. Everyone thought she was rude at this but to be honest I didn't actually notice. After she took the orders she ducked into a closet right next to the table, for something or other. Immediately the tour guide started complaining quite loudly that she was sorry about the horrible service, and that the waitress was probably just some student or unemployed person who knows they're going to be out of work again at the end of summer! I couldn't believe it! She went on and on about it. I think she was quite embarrassed for us to see this side of Wismar on her tour. I'm sure the waitress could understand the complaints. She looked mighty pissed when she emerged from the closet and went off to the bar to get our drinks. We were probably all drinking spit or pee in our beers after that.

Despite the service horror stories, I loved Wismar. See the photos for yourself - and most of the information about the places is there. (To keep this post shorter - ha ha...) I loved its brick gothic architecture and its gabled houses. I loved its harbor. I loved the boats. I loved the restored buildings and I loved the unrestored buildings. I loved its little swatch of Swedish history. I loved the Grube and the churches. I loved the mix of the prettied-up and the run-down. I would recommend it to anyone who's not overly sensitive about service. It's too bad about the service, but perhaps as tourism picks up (they are a UNESCO World Heritage site, on the sea, etc) they will learn how to be pleasant to people and get it together.

Our Second Time in Hamburg

Back on the bus after Muenster, things were starting to take on a familiar feel. The bus driver selling drinks for a Euro out of his fridge and beverage machine, random whistling, the loud guy, the guy who looks like Mark Sandman, everyone referring to each other by their nationalities rather than their names. These all became hallmarks of the whole trip.

We arrived in Hamburg later than planned due to the delays earlier in the day, so we went straight to dinner at an Italian restaurant near our hotel. The service was ridiculously bad. The Spaniards we shared our table with started to get genuinely pissed! We all ordered off a very limited menu well in advance, but they didn't seem to know what we had ordered and weren't prepared for us at all. It was over two hours before we got our food, and then, there were half-hour differences in when people at the same table got their food! I think it was called Siciliana (but it might have been something else starting with S and ending with a), north of Planten un Blomen. The food was okay but if you are in a hurry, don't go there!

After dinner the guide recommended we check out the "water organ" in the Planten un Blomen park, across from our hotel. It's a fountain which is played to music in a short show each night. We caught most of the show. I honestly thought it was a little cheesy, like something a second-rate city would put up to try to attract people and prove that it's not a second-rate city. Hamburg isn't a second-rate city and doesn't need this sort of thing! But most people seemed to really enjoy it, so maybe I'm just a scrooge.

Hamburg Aug 2007

Our second day in Hamburg started with a field trip to DESY, the Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron, a short bus ride away. On the way the guide thought we should all stop at the Michaeliskirche since she didn't think we'd get a chance to visit it otherwise since it's slightly out of the way. We have actually seen it before and I have to say I didn't care for their photo policy and the bombardment of tourist items for sale right inside the door, so instead we went across the street to see the little preserved alley of what Hamburg used to look like, which we didn't catch last time we were there. (It's a little hard to find!) It was cute, but there isn't anything there but restaurants and tourist shops so it wasn't terribly interesting.

DESY was a pretty cool tour, and you can see several photos on the photo site. It was hard to hear a lot of the tour and I wandered a lot taking photos. I can't help myself, the stuff is so cool-looking. Afterward we were supposed to have the whole afternoon free, but everything was running late because of our stop at the danged Michaeliskirche. We had lunch at the DESY canteen and then the guide took us all on a ferry in the port. We didn't really have another option than to do it, even though we have already toured the port in the past and the ferry was actually not that interesting and didn't get close to the big boats like our tour did. We were a little annoyed to have our precious free time cut short, but, na ja. What can you do?

We used our free time to check out some things we didn't get to see our first time in Hamburg. We felt lucky we had been there before so we could skip the first-tier stuff and head straight for the second-tier stuff, since we had so little time. We walked through Planten un Blomen in the daylight and were really impressed. The park is full of really interesting plants, little ponds with lounge chairs set around them, and some water games.

Afterward we rode the U-Bahn (always fun to try different ones) to the Nikolaikirche and rode to the top. On our last trip we only saw this ruin while running by to the train station to catch our train back to Heidelberg, but I'd really wanted to get the nice view over Hamburg. It was really beautiful despite sort of cruddy weather. The top of the tower also has a lot of information about the WWII destruction of Hamburg. While up there we ran into the Japanese couple from our group who said they were going to go for sushi since it's all bad in Frankfurt. I realized how long it's been since I had any sushi!

Next we wanted to see the Reeperbahn so we walked over there. We read that in addition to all the sex shops and strip clubs that it had a high concentration of restaurants so it sounded like a good bet for dinner. But, nothing really looked good and overall the street was probably the most touristy and lame part of Hamburg that we've seen. We did find a sushi place on a side street - the Japanese planted the idea in our minds and we couldn't let go! We weren't sure whether to go in because as we walked past it, we saw the sushi maker in there putting on his shirt. Not sure why it had been off. We went in anyway because we wanted to avoid getting any hungrier/crankier. The place was tiny. It could fit maybe 6-8 people, but we were the only ones there. The waiter was nervous as hell. We really thought he would crack right in front of us. After bringing us our food he turned away and let out an enormous, impossible-to-miss sigh of relief. The sushi tasted good but was a little messy (looks are half of it, right?). In all it was rather awkward so we were glad to leave.

Afterward, we walked north from the Reeperbahn toward our hotel. By now we had already eaten and it was late enough for stores to be closing. What a bummer, then, that it was at that point that we found a really cool neighborhood full of interesting stores and restaurants!! If only we'd known about it earlier we would have definitely skipped the Reeperbahn altogether. Next time we'll go there first! I hope there is a next time. Of the three really huge German cities, I think I would choose Hamburg to live in, hands-down. Good size, good atmosphere, not as touristy as the others - more real.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Dernau (in the Ahr Valley) and Muenster

After our whirlwind see-Bonn-in-1.5-hours adventure, we were whisked away on the bus to the Ahr Valley, a tiny, beautiful, steep valley near Bonn. We drove the long way to get a good look at the landscape before stopping at a winery in the town of Dernau.

Dernau & More Aug 2007

The winery is run by two young sisters and their father, who has expanded it greatly in recent years. Due to the expansion, the actual cellars have moved away from the main winery area. The cellar has been converted into a nice, cool, candle-lit dining area, where we tried something like 10 wines, with a short break for Abendbrot (light supper mostly consisting of bread, cheese, and cold cuts). The Ahr Valley is Germany's northernmost wine-growing region! It also seemed rather expensive, at least compared to most wine we've bought in our own area. The most interesting points were the Fruehburgunder and the Merlot. The grapes used for the Fruehburgunder are only grown on 200 out of 100000 grape-growing hectares in Germany! It's pretty good (and really expensive we later discovered at a store in Muenchen). The Merlot, a joint project between this winery and another in South Africa, was notable in that I couldn't stand it and actually had to dump it (after giving it three chances). This is only the second time ever I seriously couldn't stand a wine! (Not picky here, heh...) I had another notable experience - I took a soft cheese at dinner that was completely nasty and had no redeeming qualities. The evening really was lovely and a great time, it just happened to have two interesting personal lows :)

We stayed overnight in Bonn and were up early the next morning to head to Muenster, where we would be having a two-hour tour, free time for lunch, and then hopping back on the bus for Hamburg.

Muenster Aug 2007

We got caught in traffic and were late in arriving to Muenster. The only bad effect of this was that we did not arrive to the Dom in time to see its astronomical clock do its little performance at noon. Despite not seeing it, the astronomical clock was still a highlight. They never fail to fascinate me.
Tours were offered to us in both German and English. Less than a quarter of the group chose German, resulting in a very large English tour group. Damon and I resolved to do the German tour the next time.
The tour was interesting - see our photos for some details on the sights we saw! In addition to its interesting history, Muenster is also impressive for its sheer number of bikes. I thought Heidelberg had a lot of them, but it doesn't come close. Very cool! After the tour we only had one hour free and used the whole thing to find some lunch at a bakery - some Flammkuchen, which was a little different than what we call that down in these parts, but still delicious. I had been hoping to go back to the Dom a second time to get a look at the cloisters and maybe see if they had a small book about the clock, but we just didn't have time. (This was to be the nature of most of the trip, as we soon realized!)

Bonn, and some trip background

Before a slew of posts with bits of info on all our recent travel experiences, here's a quick rundown of the nature of the trip we went on:

Who: Fellows of a foundation based near Bonn. Basically, a bunch of academics from various fields and their spouses/partners. Our bus had over 30 people on it, and there were 11 buses in total.

What: A two-week Germany tour on a bus. Each of the 11 different buses had a different itinerary, though we did run into other groups now and again, especially when staying in the larger cities.

When: August 13-25, day in, day out!

Where: Our itinerary took us through the following: Bonn (one night), Muenster (quick stop only), Hamburg (two nights), Boltenhagen (quick stop only), Wismar (one night), Potsdam (quick stop only), Berlin (two nights), Weimar/Buchenwald (one night), Bamberg (two nights), Nuernberg (quick stop only), Muenchen (two nights), and Mittenwald (one night). Of course a lot of time was spent asleep on the Autobahn! Most groups followed a similar itinerary. Interestingly, no group's itinerary, not even that of those living in the northeast, included any stops in the entire southwest of Germany. This whole section of the country (which I am a little partial to myself) is ignored! It's okay for us because we live down here anyway and can easily get to places around here, but what a loss for the people coming from more distant parts of Germany. I'm surprised that nothing down here is considered worthwhile.

Why: I think the foundation provides the trip because they are afraid people will just stay in their labs without getting out to see Germany, part of the point of the fellowship, so they force everyone to do it! They hope everyone will learn some German culture on the way.

How: Every group gets a bus, driver, and a guide who is neither affiliated with the foundation nor a professional tour guide. Then we just have to travel like mad.

Our group met in Frankfurt and consisted of people working in Frankfurt, Mainz, Heidelberg, Marburg, Giessen, and Kaiserslautern. The fellowships are for foreign academics, so every person there was an expatriate living in Germany. Levels of adjustment among this group of expats were even more widely varied than I might have expected, from those considering staying here to those trying already to leave. English was the common language though only three of us were native speakers. Some people didn't even know enough German to order in a restaurant. Others preferred German to English. Countries represented included the US, Canada, Spain, Poland, Brazil, Tunisia, Armenia, Italy, India, China, Nepal, Greece, Hungary, Romania, Japan, Jordan, and Thailand!

Our first stop was Bonn to wine and dine with the foundation. We had about an hour and a half to run out from our hotel into the town center to see a few things before being whisked off to dinner and wine tasting in the Ahr valley, so the photos are limited, but I think we did pretty well in the short time we had!
Bonn Aug 2007

Bonn is the former West German capitol and nowadays is primarily just a business center, and not touristy at all. We visited Beethoven's birthplace, which is now a museum including original music he wrote, family information, instruments he played, and his life and death masks. I didn't realize that photos weren't allowed until the very end, when I accidentally used flash and one of the employees came running from three rooms away. So, there are some photos from inside the museum up! We also stopped briefly in the Muenster, which has some cool paintings inside and like many of the Romanesque cathedrals around here, ridiculously old (11th to 13th centuries). The squares of the town were very busy for a Monday afternoon and it was a generally pleasant place.

More soon! Unfortunately I must go make my glorious return to work now....honestly I can't even remember what I was doing before I's Sunday night dread multiplied hundreds of times. Boo!

Saturday, August 25, 2007

What can you expect from a German hotel room?

We've just returned from a two-week bus tour of Germany, provided by Damon's fellowship foundation to all fellows and their spouses/partners. We're in the surreal post-vacation period, wherein we have little to no concept that work is just around the corner, laundry is piled everywhere, there's not much food in the house, and over a thousand photographs have to be sifted through! As an easy first post back, a rundown on the hotels we experienced. Generally we only can afford to stay at hostels and pensions so it was interesting to see what hotels here are like!

Number of different hotels we stayed in: 8 - from two to four stars.
Number of hotels with free bars of soap: 3 - one of which was eucalyptus-scented. Bizarre.
Number of hotels with a combination soap/shampoo dispenser in shower: 7 - the other had a bottle of body wash just sitting in there.
Number of hotels with a free tiny shampoo you can steal: 1
Number of hotels with a free shower cap you can steal: 3
Number with a free sewing kit: 2
Free notepaper: 7
Free pen: 7
Free pencil: 1
Number of hotels with 2 separate beds that can't be pushed together: 1
Number of hotels with chocolate croissants on the breakfast buffet: 4
Number of hotels with real keys instead of key cards: 5
Number of hotels with candy left on the pillow/nightstand: 3 - and a fourth handed out a box of candy at check-in.
Number of hotels with a bathtub in the room: 4
Number of hotels with more than two bath towels in room upon arrival: 0
Number of hotels with signs telling us to please not make them wash the towels every night: 8
Number of hotels with no hand towel in room: 1
Number of hotels with a method of doing laundry: 1
Cost of that method: 3 EUR per pair of socks to have it washed for you. Prices went up from there.

Overall they were all very nice and of course much better than we could ever afford on our own, with the exception of the Hotel Ibis in Berlin, which was less nice overall than the others, seemed unprepared for the descent of our bus and five others on the breakfast buffet in the morning, and had showers with extreme uncontrollable temperature variations. But, the staff were very friendly. There was quite a lot of variation within individual hotels, though, it seemed. In one, all the double rooms had very nice large bathrooms with bathtubs and huge areas with extra furniture, while all the single rooms had no space at all, and only a hose in the wall for a shower! Very interesting. Overall, there were a lot less freebies and space than in US hotels (in general), but of course this also leads to less waste so I'm generally cool with that.
Hopefully soon we'll have photos up and some info on all that we saw and did! For now...more laundry, more moving out of the suitcase, and some sleep in our own bed :)

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Foreign Money!!

I was washing dishes tonight. Damon was in the living room packing. Suddenly I heard, "Hey! A quarter!"

I thought I misheard at first.

"I found a quarter."
"A quarter?"
"It was in this suitcase! Wow, look how thin it is!"
"Ooh, let me see!!, neat!!"

A North Dakota quarter, even. Foreign money is cool.

What's up with the RNV?

Last night we went to a party in Rohrbach. We checked the schedule and found that a 23 tram, run by the local transportation gurus RNV, went there from the Bismarckplatz very frequently, so we figured this would be a pretty easy trip. (The route of the 23 as shown on the map and on schedules is from the Bismarckplatz to Leimen.) So, we went over to the Bismarckplatz to wait.

We missed the first scheduled 23 because we were still trying to get a ticket out of the machine, which would take neither a card nor cash. Basically it was unusable, but it didn't say so until you got to the payment screen. Very annoying.

The second 23 scheduled said "Stadtbuecherei/Betriebshof" on it as a destination instead of Rohrbach/Leimen. But, it's a 23, right? No sign, schedule, or map anywhere ever says the 23 goes anywhere but Leimen. And it's scheduled to go there. So it should. So, we figured those were just on the way and got on. Then we found out that the train actually wasn't going to Leimen at all. We got back off. So did at least 20 other people who had also been fooled. We all waited for the next scheduled 23.

When it came, it again said "Stadtbuecherei/Betriebshof" on it. Maybe it's just a mistake, we thought. How can two scheduled trains in a row not go to their intended destinations and leave us all standing here like idiots? We got on and tried to make our way to the front to ask the driver if the train was going to Rohrbach. Before we could make it that far, the doors closed and we took off. Then we found out it wasn't going to Rohrbach either. Luckily we could continue to wait for our train at the next stop. We and quite a few people got off there to wait for a real 23.

Finally it came, after about 40 minutes of waiting. The real 23, going to Leimen.

We enjoyed the party and a few of us took a look at the schedule to go back to the Bismarckplatz at the end of the night. It looked like it came every 30 mintues. Scheduled 23s. Doing the 23 route. The route of the 23 on all schedules is between Leimen and the Bismarckplatz. NO OTHER ROUTE IS LISTED OR SHOWN ON ANY SCHEDULE, MAP, OR SIGN. So of course this train, coming only every half hour, is going to take us where all schedules, maps, and signs tell us it's going to take us, right?


It took us to the freaking Hauptbahnhof instead, where we had to wait 20 minutes for a barf-smelling Moonliner to take us to the Bismarckplatz.

RNV, what is your deal, eh? You have a tram called the 23. It has a route. Why doesn't it go this route, 3 times out of the 5 that we tried? Why is there no note, ever, anywhere, that you might just take some other route and leave us high and dry? Are you just screwing with the routes so you can go park your tram/bus/whatever at the Betriebshof? Then these routes should not be scheduled as regular!! You can't say a train's coming at 12:54 to take us to the Bismarckplatz, and then just not go there!!

You suck!

In other news, we're about to go on a little trip that requires dress clothes. We finally had to buy an ironing board after 9 months ...actually more than that now, 11 months of never needing one. And we'll probably go another 11 months without needing one. Unfortunately for us, the cheapest ironing board available at Woolworth (closest place, we have no car) was 30 EURO. God, the world hates those without money.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Blowing Up Like a Balloon

I came to Germany with three pair of jeans, every one of them already getting rather old. One was a black pair that I had never liked - in the store and through the first couple of wearings, I thought they were dark blue. One was a pair I bought back in 2004 when I had counted calories and dropped a size. The last was a pair I bought a few months before I got married, faded 10 shades by now and starting to disintegrate.

Since moving here, I've spent more time in jeans than I have since college, now that I can wear them to work and I live in a frumpier town than Boston. So, the wear has been greater. Then comes the other little problem.

Expatriate weight gain. Is it just me? Maybe it's just a slowing of the metabolism instead. Whatever it is, I've suddenly blown up like a balloon. Perhaps I've been in permanent it's-vacation-and-you-should-eat-what-you-want mode since landing in Germany. I know I've been walking at least as much if not more than I did in Boston. I haven't been playing DDR anymore, though, because it turns out the second dance pad was also broken in shipping (in addition to the first one, which we threw out long ago). So maybe I get a little less exercise than I used to.

So, the jeans I got when I was at that calorie-counting point are painful to wear. The disintegrating ones are getting worrisome. And forget the black ones (not to mention, they're uncomfortably tight too). Time to get a new pair of jeans. So I went to the local department store, after finding out H&M jeans are 40 EUR anyway and figuring I could get something better for only slightly more.

First note: The German friend who, when asked where the best place to buy jeans, told me "America," she wasn't kidding. Maybe I'm just fuzzy on the pricing because it's been so long, but they seem to cost more here. I'm probably fuzzy on the pricing. All my jeans in Boston came from Target or Filene's Basement.

Second note: Good God. I have never felt so fat in my life. Actually, I have probably never been so fat in my life. Nothing in my previous normal size fit. Everything with a low-cut waist felt like it was just ending right under the biggest, fattest spot and would never stay in the right place. Also, there seems to be a big "slim thigh" thing going on - no dice, dude, the thighs are not slim. And the new 80s-style slim-all-the-way-down jeans? Who are these flattering on?? Thankfully, things are not yet so bad as they could be - the next size up is slliiiiiightly too big. By another week of my rapid blowing up, they ought to fit just right. *sigh* But sadly, I ended up with a pair skirting the border of "mom jeans", because they didn't make me feel like I was hanging out all over. Damon says they look nothing like mom jeans, but I don't know. The waist is disturbingly high. But at least it seems to keep the big giant new me more in check.

After all this miserable trying on of jeans, I felt like a giant, lardy, getting-stared-at-for-being-so-huge bull-in-a-china-shop lugging my big old self around the store, trying to find Damon, who went downstairs to see if they had any really small ironing boards. I even noticed I looked a little pink in the dressing room mirror, embarrassed to be in front of the anti-shoplifting cameras with my pathetic attempts to get into my usual size of jeans. I had found two pair on sale that were acceptable and wanted to find Damon to get his opinion, so I bumbled off to the escalator with the jeans in hand. Big mistake. Trying to take the as-yet-unpurchased items off that floor caused all kinds of sirens to go off. Suddenly about 5 people (felt like 50) were staring at me, wondering what on earth I might be thinking, trying to walk out of there with that stuff! The clerk kept saying something to me over and over in German, but through the fuzz of horror at having all eyes on my new fatter self carrying my new fatter jeans I couldn't figure out a word of it. I think she was telling me I could just buy them right there, or asking if I wanted to buy them there, and I tried to say in German to her that I didn't know if I wanted to buy them yet, and she just looked at me like I was crazy, and I started to wonder if I might just pass out and die of embarrassment right there. Another clerk then asked me where I was going, and I just couldn't do German. All English came out. I told her I was looking for my husband who was downstairs and she let me go. So I went. The sirens went off again at the top of the escalator, then again at the bottom. I thought Damon was on the bottom floor and I couldn't bear the idea of going through 4 more of the damn sensors so I called him. We met up again and I bought just one pair of the jeans. And I had to go back to the same damn desk I'd just embarrassed myself in front of.


But, the new jeans are much more comfortable than those ones from when I was skinnier.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Frijoles! and Other Tidbits

* Thanks to Aunt Suzanne, who sent us Wholly Frijoles: The Whole Bean Cookbook in response to my complaints about the lack of refried and other canned beans in Germany :)
When the envelope arrived I noticed that it looked a little funny and I couldn't figure out why. Then I realized it was because it had no customs declaration on it! And, it got here faster than any previous mail from the US, in only 5 days. Hmm, could this be this a new trick to get mail to get here fast and actually make it to our door? Might be risky....

* Saturday night we were in Frankfurt. We were supposed to be meeting up with Nathan and Michelle, but after we got all the way there (at IC/ICE rates no less) they bailed. It wasn't a total loss because we got to hang out with a class friend of mine, Yesim, though she comes to Heidelberg every two weeks so I didn't really need to go up there to see her. Anyway, there was a huge festival going on and as the three of us were walking through, Yesim (who is Turkish) saw a guy completely covered in tattoos. She said to us, "Look at that guy's tattoos! He must be American." Hahah, I had no idea that full-body tattooing was seen as a particularly American thing. I don't know much about the history and fashion of tattooing, though.

* This article was in the news earlier this week: Cardboard Children Used to Slow Neighborhood Speeders. I thought it was interesting because just last weekend in Unterried (in the Bavarian Forest) we saw a big cardboard kid at the side of the road. It was a little smaller than life-sized and it was facing the road directly rather than facing incoming traffic, but at the time we couldn't guess what it might be other than a method to slow down traffic coming through the tiny little town. The drivers out there really didn't seem to slow down for anything so it made sense that they might be taking these sort of measures. So perhaps this guy in Florida isn't the first one to think of faking out drivers with fake kids playing by the road!

* Despite many attempts, we still haven't gotten the name in the elevator changed. No one will admit to it being their responsibility, or they avoid our attempted contact altogether. Next step: tape a piece of paper with our name on it over the previous tenant's name. This is sure to annoy the shit out of either the person responsible for changing it, or one of the other tenants, who might complain and get it fixed for good.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Ikea Snille Chair and Other Things People Want to Know About

Time for the latest episode of "Weird Web Searches That Led People to My Blog"!

* snail smash sandals - No, don't do it!
* slugs, do they poo? - I like how this one came complete with punctuation.
* orange german slugs - I haven't seen these ones!
* keep pants from getting caught in sandals - Sounds like someone's a fashion victim.
* I don't know why labone keep sending me bill - Yeah, I don't either.
* hairdos for women with double chins - Well, mine's short & curly, seems to be ok.
* do eels eat slugs - Perhaps if they got the opportunity.
* trim ring of light fixture smells like fish - I do not envy your strange problem.

And this one isn't so weird, but it's incredibly popular: ikea snille chair. Everyone wants to know something about this chair, but probably aren't getting much info from this site, where I just mentioned it in passing. So, to ameliorate that, here is my review:

The Ikea Snille chair is very cute and looked great in my apartment. However, it's a piece of shit, and if you plan on sitting in it for more than just a couple of minutes a day, run far, run fast. We had ours about 3 months when it started to show a lot of strain where the chair pops into the base. Another couple of months, and it was seriously cracking open. Niiice. Ikea, why must you do such a crap job on the cheap office chairs? I got cheap crappy office chairs in Boston at Target, Linens N Things, etc, that lasted way longer than your stupid Snille. They weren't as cute, but in the end cute is no good if you have to toss the thing anyway. Alas, Snille is Ikea's only truly cheap office chair. When we had to stop using Snille we moved up to the next cheapest, and it cost twice as much. Boo!

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Prague, Prag, Praha, Praag, Praga...

Learning the word for Prague in nearly every European language was a pretty easy task. Just look around any cafe at the book titles that the tourists at every table are holding. The variety is huge!

We hopped on the Bayern-Boehmen (Bavaria-Bohemia) Express at Cham and this time found seats for the ride to Prague. The train isn't really much of an express, it's actually a regional style of train that just happens to not make many stops. It's certainly no ICE.

We arrived in Prague in late afternoon. The train station was a complete assault on the senses, especially after two days out in the middle of nowhere! There were people with enormous backpacks everywhere, people approaching us to try to get us to stay at their hotel/hostel/whatever, a constant stream of unintelligible overhead announcements. There were little to no signs in English, low ceilings and weird lighting. First we couldn't find an ATM, so we gave in to getting ripped off by the currency exchange counter. Then we couldn't find the way out of the damn place!

In the end it probably took us at least an hour after getting off the train to find our hostel, where Nathan & Michelle were waiting, having flown in from Munich earlier. We went out to explore, but got caught in a cold rain. We ducked into a brewery that billed itself as the smallest in Prague and all had a beer, then decided to head back out, only to be rained on some more. We wound through the streets having no idea where we were, then ended up escaping the rain in a crappy, expensive Italian restaurant. We didn't know yet at the time how close we were to the most major tourist routes, or what kind of prices to expect in Prague, so we paid way too much for really lackluster food. Lesson: it pays to have a clue. Afterward, we headed back out and the rain had finally ceased, so we stopped looking for places to hide and started really looking at the surroundings instead.

I really didn't do much research before going, so I didn't know what kind of things to expect or where to expect them, so it was really a jaw-dropping moment to pop out of a crowded tourist-filled narrow street and suddenly see, across the river, an enormous cathedral on a hill. I pretty much suck at describing what this was like, so I will stop now...

That same night we found a bar not far from our hostel which had beer for only 18 crowns...approximately 70 EUR cents. It wasn't even a divey bar. It was totally fine. An equivalent beer at the shitty Italian restaurant earlier had been 65 crowns! I've never seen a city with such a wide price gradient. Nathan and Michelle did the American rite of passage of drinking absinthe in Europe, and couldn't stand it. Michelle ended up ordering a 7up and diluting it out so she could finish.

The next morning we found a bakery and picked up food for the day. Most pastries were under a Euro! A croissant was 7 crowns. Later in the day, in the heart of the tourist zone, I saw a croissant for 49 crowns. Unbelievable. After the bakery we headed off to the cathedral - part of Prague Castle. The lines were crazy and the entrance prices were a little steep - not reaching the horrific London fees, but still a bit of a shocker especially compared to the rest of the costs in Prague. (I mean, everything costs a damn fortune in London so it's just expected.) Hint if you go to the Prague Castle: The restroom that is in the garden, on the river side of the castle, is freaking awesome. Brand new, has soap, has towels, has really private toilets, has hot water.... after dealing with a lot of public and hostel restrooms in various towns over the previous days this was heaven.

We visited parts of the castle until ready to collapse. I think we missed the Picture Gallery only. Almost everything was worth buying the "long tour" ticket, with the exception of our last stop, something called the "Golden Walk" or some such. According to the castle brochure it really is an old street where castle employees used to live. It has a very fake, Disneyland feel to it. You must have a ticket to get in, but the whole street is full of typical tourist stores selling 9-dollar bars of super-smelly soap and such. The other part of the area was a small turret with some torture instruments inside, which is better than the street, but overall the area just left a bad taste in my mouth and I was sorry it was the last thing we saw.

We followed up the castle with beer and dinner at U Fleku, some brewery/restaurant that was recommended in both our German and Nathan and Michelle's English travel guides. Here the food was much better and cheaper than at the Italian place the previous night, though they tried to con us into purchasing things we didn't order, including some kind of cinnamon apertif. I didn't take it, and no one else was going to either, until finally the three of them just felt too much pressure to not do it. (Yeah, I'm a total skinflint...) It was a bit pricey later when we found out the price of it. Afterward we checked out some black theater, which was recommended to us by a German friend, and got some beverages.

On our last full day, we visited the Jewish Quarter, Prague's other major attraction. It was just as expensive as the Castle - actually it may have ended up being more. It was over 10 EUR a person just to go into the tiny Old-New Synagogue, then we were not allowed to take photos inside. I got one anyway...for the price, I felt I should some kind of memory of going into the place, and without a photo I probably wouldn't. It was an additional approximately 10 EUR to visit all remaining open museums, synagogues, and memorials. This was worth it for the Spanish Synagogue (again no photos - and here, I got caught by a cute old guy and felt really bad), the Holocaust memorial in the Pinkas Synagogue, and the amazing, piled-up old graveyard. The place was, again, jam-packed with tourists. We got lunch nearby at another overpriced place (though the lunch "menu" - a preselected set of appetizer, entree, and dessert - was relatively cheap) that was so-so. The garlic spread they brought out with bread was really awesome, though.

After seeing the rest of the Jewish Quarter and wandering along the river for an hour or two, we had supper at Cafe Slavia. The food was great and only around 6 EUR for each of us! There was definitely some a reverse correlation going on at the places we ate between the price and quality of the food. Afterward we went back to the first brewery we visited when we got to Prague to bookend the whole trip with their good beer. The next day, it was back to the Bayern-Boehmen express, and Michelle and Nathan went off to Amsterdam. (We were stuck in a compartment with a couple that couldn't keep their hands off each other - all the way to Nuernberg. The joys of the DB.)

Praha Jul 07

I'm pretty much ready to move to Prague...with the one complication of the seemingly impossible Czech langauge. So cheap! So beautiful! Everyone should go!

Friday, August 03, 2007

The Depths of the Bayerischer Wald

A week ago today, we set out on a trip across Germany to the Bayerischer Wald (Bavarian Forest), the area that some of my ancestors came from (and where some of their other descendants still live). The trip was a two-night pit stop in Lam on the way to Prague, where we met up with Damon's brother and his wife for a three-night stay.

On the eight-hour trip we of course encountered all manner of fun Deustche Bahn experiences. I had to pee at the first layover in Frankfurt. The restroom reeked of pee and had no warm water or soap, but to get in I still had to pay 70 cents. I thought this was a lot, until I realized at the next layover in Nuernberg's hideous mall-like station that I had to pee again and found that the price there was 1.10! Hence I acquired the miraculous ability to hold it until Lam (peeing on the train - with the rank smell, water all over the floor, and powdered soap - is only for the truly desperate).

The trip included the full range of train environments. We reclined our wide comfy seats on the ICE, freezing in the air conditioning. We sat across from two loud people with marble-mouth accents that seemed grating. Only after they got out bottles of milk and mounds of dry cheese sandwiches and then continued to talk loudly with full mouths did we realize how lucky we had it when they were simply talking loudly without food. I couldn't wait to get off that train at Nuernberg. Then it was on to the Regional Express, where we sweated with a bunch of other smelly people, all carrying luggage the size of their own bodies, in the bike car, because there weren't any more seats available. The train was delayed, so it was a mad rush at Schwandorf to connect to the cute little Oberpfalzbahn, a shiny new yellow and green one-car train that ended out at the end of the world according to the Deutsche Bahn: Lam.

Lam & More Jul 07

Lam was our home base, but I wanted to visit several small towns in the area that are featured in my family history. We did some research online before going to Lam and saw that the area is well-networked with busses, so we figured we would just figure out the exact specifics when we got there. We probably should have researched more. We only had one day, Saturday, to see everything before hopping back on the train to continue to Prague. Then we realized that most of the buses only ran once a day, so really I could only see one other town besides Lam. Then we misread the schedule and missed the only buses that could have taken us anywhere else. Defeated, we asked at tourist information about just walking to the nearest one, which she said was only a half-hour walk. Okay, I would see two family towns. Not the five or so I was hoping for, but better than nothing. We had considered car rental when planning but couldn't find anything local online. We asked about this too, thinking there would be nothing, but she told us there was a possible place to rent a car - and it was right on the way that we would be walking to the next town anyway!

We ended up shelling out 75 hard-earned Euros for a car rental, but it was worth it. We visted several little towns from the family history, got photos to prove it, and even found some family graves, though not any direct ancestors. Thankfully Damon knows how to drive a manual, because I would have been toast. He did stall three times in the parking lot before figuring out the tiny difference between 1st and 3rd in the car, though ;) We then successfully drove from town to town. In one cute small-town interaction, we were having Kaffee und Kuchen in a resort cafe when a guy from Dresden decided to practice his English on us. He was adorable. He asked us if we were Americans "on a trip around the world." We wish, dude.

Arnbruck Jul 07

Oberried, Unterried, Schwarzenbach & More Jul 07

This also gave us the time and opportunity to visit the main area attraction, the Grosser Arber, the highest mountain in the Bayerischer Wald. On the way there we stopped at the Arbersee, a lake in the mountains, but it was cold and not too exciting. At the Grosser Arber, everything was ridiculously overpriced. I found out later it's owned by the Hohenzollern family! Yeah, they're still throwing some power around, eh? Anyway, we had to go for it anyway so we paid something like 9.50 each to ride the scary-ass Bergbahn hanging ski-lift thing up to near the summit. It rocked back and forth and the wind whistled through the doors. Also it stopped at one point and we just hung there. Could have used a drink before that! But we got up there fine and it was just a short, rainy, cold, windy walk to the summit. While we were up there it cleared up a bit and we could see quite a few little towns, including some in the Czech Republic only a few kilometers away.

Grosser Arber & Arbersee Jul 07

The next morning we returned the car and rode off on the Oberpfalzbahn to Cham, where we would catch the train to Prague - the same full, sweaty train we rode before between Nuernberg and Schwandorf. We decided to leave Lam early for a long layover in Cham, where we wandered around a bit. It was pretty quiet, full of churches, not very touristy, but with some potential. We grabbed some snacks in the train station, then it was off to Prague! More on that soon!

Cham Jul 07