Thursday, July 28, 2011

Die letzten Tage

Tonight will be my last night in Göttingen, Saturday will be my last night in Germany, and on Tuesday morning I will board a plane that will take me from Bologna over the Atlantic.  In other words, next time I write, it will be from America for the first time in seven months.  It doesn't feel like an end though.  This journey feels more like a beginning, as I have many more adventures to look forward to in the United States, both in and out of Saint Louis.

In the meantime, life in Göttingen has continued to be fairly consistent.  My class (which was today described by the Cornell philosophy professor I sometimes sit next to as an "endless parade of stereotypes") has been somewhat frustrating this month, but my German has become exponentially better than it was am Anfang (in the beginning), so I still have little to actually complain about.  I actually made a list the other day in class of why I am incredibly glad that I had the opportunity to come to Germany for two months and how this experience has been incredibly valuable.  There are quite a few things in addition to my improved language abilities:

1). The Goethe Institut has provided a unique intercultural experience, the likes of which would be difficult to replicate (hence, unique).  I have known that my classes have been diverse in every way from the beginning, with this month's group including four Libyan doctors, one Japanese and two Argentinian graduate students, a Costa Rican veterinarian, a Russian student of linguistics and music, a Finnish engineer, a Spanish high school English teacher, two Syrian students looking to pursue graduate programs (in computer science and painting) in Deutschland, and three Americans--two university students and a professor.   This has exposed me to viewpoints and led to conversations (all auf Deutsch, mind you!) that I would never have been able to experience had I not come to the Goethe Institut.  On the other hand, the diversity of the group becomes an afterthought after a day or so, and our everyday interactions do not differ greatly from those that I have with my much more homogeneous peers back at Wash U.
 This thought struck me especially intensely during my class's final lunch out together this afternoon, where the entire group of us was sitting around one long table, eating the same food, and having the same sorts of conversations I would be having with any other group: our travel plans for the upcoming weeks, what we thought we would like to do in the future, how much we missed our families, and why the food was taking so long to make it to the table.

2). During my two months at the Goethe Institut, I attended classes with five different teachers.  This gave me the chance to experience a wide variety of different teaching styles and methods firsthand, which has been very valuable experience considering that I am currently planning to pursue teaching English as a second language for at least a few years after graduation and I believe that the ability to understand and empathize with students is integral to being both an effective and a well-respected teacher.

3).  Spending the summer here gave me an opportunity to actually live in a small town in Germany and come to understand the pace of life here much more so than if i had spent only a week or two traveling around.  I also made a few German friends during my time here, and while they won't last much beyond the summer, speaking with them provided insight into what it is like to be a person about my age living, studying, and working in Germany.

4).  Living in the center of Europe also allowed me to travel more, which has also been fantastic.  I have a much better feel for Germany as a whole than I did at the beginning of the summer.

5).  During my time at the Goethe Institut I have made several very close friends from Wash U who I might not have otherwise met, and they will certainly make the next year much brighter.

6).  I am finally ready to go home.  When I left Bologna two months ago, I was not at all ready to go back to America.  In fact, I had a hard time believing that I would be ready to go back even two months from then.  While it is true that I still love Europe (and especially Italy) and would happily live over here for an extended period of time in the future, in the moment I cannot wait to catch that flight back to America and see my family and close friends again (eight months is a long time when I've known most of these people fewer than three years).  So while there will be a lot that I will miss about living in Europe (rhubarb yogurt, frizzy water, an abundance of heavily utilized public parks, rampant pedestrianism, etc.) I am looking forward to reacquainting myself with some of the things I am starting to miss about America (free water in restaurants being a big one).

Overall, I think that's a list that more than makes up for the frequent bouts of cold rain and a few boring weekends spent alone watching the aforementioned rain from my whitely impersonal room in the tower. 

See you on the other side!

Zurück in Deutschland...zu bald.

Anna and I woke up very early on our last morning in Paris and sleepily followed the directions Emma had left us to the train station.  Fortunately we made it with plenty of time and caught our train to Mannheim without incident. 

Once there, we learned that Mannheim is also without incident.  It's major claim to fame is having the largest John Deere plant outside of America, so I'm sure you can imagine what a touristic paradise it is.  That said, Mannheim has some fairly pleasant bits.  Anna and I only spent a few hours there, but we enjoyed some tasty falafel by a fountain in the reasonably picturesque main square.

The fountain.

A detail.
The other main attraction in Mannheim was the Wasserturm (water tower), so we figured we would stop by while we were in town.

Das Wasserturm

There were spinxes.

I made a friend.

From Mannheim, Anna and I took the twenty-minute train to Heidelberg, a more picturesque university town nearby.  It was pretty enough, but packed with tourists for inexplicable reasons.  It also didn't help that by then our feet were very sore from a weekend full of non-stop walking on cobblestone streets.

View along the Neckar river.

Main street in the Altstadt (old city).

Eventually we found a nice little restaurant where we enjoyed some German wine and "gebackener" (baked) Camembert, which turned out to be something along the lines of Camembert mozzarella-sticks but was still tasty.  It was certainly sufficient to tide us over for the three-hour train ride back to Göttingen for our last week of classes.

La France

Now I can finally say that I have been to France (or, more accurately, now I have actually been to a location in France other than Dunkerque or the Charles de Gaulle airport, neither of which really count).  This past weekend, Anna and I (have you noticed a traveling theme since I made it to Deutschland?) went to Paris to see the city and visit some assorted friends and relatives.

The trip began after class on Friday.  Long after class, considering that we were taking the night train and didn't even leave for the train station until almost 11pm.  We made the train with time to spare.  Our reservations initially had Anna and I sitting in different compartments (yes, sitting.  We were too cheap to reserve beds, which, as you will see shortly, made for quite an unpleasant night), but my assigned seat had a dog sitting in it and Anna's compartment had some empty space so I joined her.  The compartment was dark and stifling.  The heat had been turned all the way up, the windows and door were shut, the other three inhabitants of the compartment were sleeping with their shoes off, and the result was a rather fetid atmosphere.  We survived, however, and when I woke up for the last time and pulled aside the curtain I was greeted by a view of the Parisian suburbs passing by.

Anna's twin sister Emma met us on the platform, and the three of us made our way through the Metropolitan to her apartment on Boulevard de la Madeleine to drop our bags and recover a bit before striking out to explore the city in earnest.

The view from Emma's window.

Also from Emma's window: My first view of the Eiffel Tower (that counts)!

As it was still fairly early in the morning at that point, Anna and Emma and I walked into La Marais to find some breakfast, which turned into lunch by the time we finally ate.  After a lot of strolling through the winding streets, the three of us decided on a bakery.  There we found delicious tartes (as far as I could tell, they were undifferentiable from quiche), which we proceeded to eat in a little park in an out of the way corner of the neighborhood. 

Later that day I met up with Rob, a friend from Bologna who was spending the summer in Paris.  After some catching up over 2 euro happy hour cups of sangria, we met up with Anna, Emma, and Emma's roommate Valerie for dinner in Saint-Germain.  When I ordered le poisson, I couldn't help but think of the French chef in The Little Mermaid.  Once we had eaten, Rob and I again split off and walked over to la Place Dauphine for another glass of wine or so.  The (triangular) square was quietly beautiful, and from our little table outside we were able to see the beginnings of a spectacular sunset over the Seine.  Our waiter was also fantastic, allowing Rob plenty of chances to practice his French and allowing both of us to sample several of the wines before making a final decision.

Sunset over the Seine.

After briefly going out to with a few of Rob's French friends (including an amusing little episode in which the only one who spoke no French--that is, myself--was left with the only one who spoke no English.  We spent a lot of time politely smiling at each other and shrugging), I took the Metro back to la Madeleine to sleep of my cumulative exhaustion on one of the most comfortable pull-out couches I have ever experienced.

The next morning Anna, Emma, Val, and I walked over to the 9th arrondissement for a lovely brunch at a cute little bakery run by a British ex-pat.  Drinking a pot of Lapsang Souchong made me miss Molly Moog and wish that she were there to share it with me!

After brunch, we walked past the Paris Opéra (Opera House), which is the setting for The Phantom of the Opera.  I wish that we had had time to see the inside as well, but the outside was spectacular by itself.

L'Opéra de Paris

Unfortunately, that was the last bit of beauty that Anna and Emma and I were able to enjoy for quite a while, as we spent the next almost three hours at the train station trying to obtain return tickets.  There was no space on any train going anywhere, it seemed, let alone to Göttingen (we found out later that it was because we had happened to pick the weekend in which the Tour de France would be ending in Paris to come).  After lots of conversation (all through Emma, since the woman behind the counter didn't speak much English and Anna and I didn't speak much French), phone calls, poring over maps, and bringing out the manager (several times), we managed to secure reservations for a train leaving early the next morning for Mannheim, which is about a three-hour train ride from Göttingen.  It was quite an ordeal, but fortunately the woman working with us was incredibly helpful, consistently going out of her way for us and shattering Parisian stereotypes in the process.

Exhausted after so much time in the sterile, train station environment and realizing that we we had some serious tourism to fit in if we were going to be leaving almost a full day earlier than we had anticipated, we decided to make our way over to Saint-Chapelle, a private chapel commissioned by Louis IX to house his collection of precious relics and a breathtaking example of Rayonnant Gothic architecture and brilliant stained glass.

The interior of Saint-Chapelle.

The starry ceiling.

The large rose window on the back wall.

An exterior view.

Fortunately for our tourist-selves, the Notre-Dame happens to be right around the corner.  We didn't have the time or the money to go inside, but taking a turn around the exterior was spectacular enough.

Proof I was actually there.

The facade, with a glimpse of the steeple behind.

A small corner of the famous rose window.

Flying buttresses!


By that point we were all quite hungry, so we made the trip back to la Marais in search of crêpes.  We found them, and it was well worth the wait.  I sampled the miel (honey) and a savory crepe full of cheese and mushrooms, complete with a crown of crispy cheese spilling from the edges.  Delicious!

We had initially planned to complete our touristic spree with a stroll down the Avenue des Champs-Élysées (Avenue of the Elysian Fields), which finishes at the Arc de Triomphe, before making our way south to have a small picnic dinner under la Tour Eiffel (the Eiffel Tower).  However, it was at this point that we became aware of the presence of the Tour de France (when we emerged from the Metro to find barricades, policemen, and enormous crowds in yellow baseball caps), so we decided to skip the Champs-Élysées and head straight over to the Eiffel Tower.  We met up with Gabby, a friend of Anna's from Wash U who lives in Paris, there and enjoyed a lovely meal of baguettes, cheese, and wine while watching the sky slowly darken around the Tower. 

Anna and I picnicking.

The best part?  Enjoying a long conversation in Italian with Emma with this in the background.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Lederhosen? Wirklich?

Last weekend, Anna and I made the journey from Göttingen and central Germany down to München (Munich), which is in southern Bayern (Bavaria).  After four hours on the fast train, we arrived at the Hauptbahnhof (central train station) and set out to find our hotel.  No, that was not a typo.  We actually stayed in a real hotel this time.  Our original plan was to stay in "The Tent," which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: a giant tent on the outskirts of Munich where a spot on the floor (with unlimited blankets) costs 7 euro.  However, Anna's mother was a bit trepidatious about this plan (to say the least), so her solution was to book a hotel for the two of us in the city center.  Quite an upgrade, eh?

After a it of wandering we managed to find the place, and after enduring a few suspicious looks from the doormen as they eyed our skinny jeans and hiking backpacks we managed to check in without too much difficulty.  Our room came with two twin beds pushed together to make a double (with, rather mysteriously, separate blankets for each) and little chocolates on the bedside table.  We took to referring to it as our honeymoon suite.

Our luxurious "honeymoon suite."

We didn't have to walk far before we discovered an excellent Brauhaus for dinner.  Das Weisses Brauhaus (the White Brew-house) to be exact.  They even had vegetarian options!  We sat outside at a big table with strangers, as is typical in Munich, and ordered the Spinat Spätzle (a type of egg noodle with spinach).  It was delicious, but so rich that we could barely finish.

After dinner, we explored a bit more.  Our first stop was a walk-through of the famous Hofbrauhaus, which was packed not only with tourists (of which there were plenty), but also tables full of men wearing Lederhosen and drinking Maße (the "ß" is pronounced as a double S), which are the one liter beer glasses typical of Munich.  In fact, Lederhosen (literally, "leather pants") and Dirndl (traditional Bavarian dresses worn with aprons and plunging necklines) abounded during our weekend in Munich.  Anna and I never did quite figure out why there were so many being casually worn (we heard that there was a festival of some sort occurring, but we saw no signs of it and I couldn't find anything written about it on the internet later), but we never did tire of seeing them.

Action shot from inside the Hofbrauhaus.
Sage advice from the Hofbrauhaus: "Thirst is worse than homesickness."
A display window showcasing some especially fancy Dirndl in Marienplatz.

Our walk eventually led us through Marienplatz, the main square in downtown Munich.  The main sight to be seen there is the soot-darkened Neues Rathaus.  Considering that it is called the "New City Hall," the Neues Rathaus looks pretty alt (old).

Flags in front of the Neues Rathaus.

The Mariensäule (Mary's Column) and Rathaus-Glockenspiel.
The crowds around Marienplatz pretty quickly became too much for us, so Anna and I struck out in search of a Biergarten we had heard about that supposedly had a golden bull and a hedge maze.  We found the Biergarten without too much trouble, but we also found that we had been deceived.  Not only were the only patrons in the entire place one table full of old men, the hedge maze was approximately two feet tall and there was no golden bull to be found anywhere.  So we gave up and left in search of a more happening spot.  What we found along the way was a giant pile of outdoor bean bag chairs surrounded by bookshelves full of books for perusing on the aforementioned bean bag chairs.  What a wonderful thought!  So, of course, we spent a few moments lying on the bean bags ourselves until someone came to stack them up for the night.  Traurig (sad)!  From there we made our way to the Paulaner Brauhaus, where we enjoyed a rude waiter (somebody had had a long day full of tourists) and a half-pint each.

As we were sitting outside speaking English to each other, a man at a nearby table leaned over and asked us (in English) where we were from.  It turns out that he was from Canada and, even more strangely, was studying German at the Goethe Institut in Munich.  Anna and I didn't know quite what to do.  The Goethe Insitut had followed us!  We couldn't escape!  Since we had already been discovered, we decided to stick out the experience and go with the group of them (the Canadian man, a Russian man in his early 30s, and two Spanish girls and an Italian girl about our age) to a nearby bar they recommended.  It turned out to be, if not quite a disaster, at least a very painful experience.  The place was over-priced, the mediocre pop music was being played so loudly there was no chance of a successful conversation (this effect was only intensified by the various language barriers around the table), and men and women in club clothes (mostly white, for some reason) bobbed around at their tables since there was no real dance floor.  What a nightmare.  Anna and I decided to stay for one drink for politeness sake, but by the end of that we were more than ready to poke our eyes and ears out.  Fortunately, we escaped before we were driven to do anything too drastic.

The rest of the night, however, did not go much better.  The Russian and the Canadian tagged along with us on our search for Die Registratur, a chill bar that played indie music we had heard about (much more our scene, in other words), misdirecting us every few minutes with a comically ineffective GPS app.  Eventually, we just gave up and went into the first place we did manage to find.  While it was better than our first attempt (not that it really could have been worse), we still put with awkwardly delivered German pick-up lines and lagging conversations that never quite got off the small-talk ground.  Admitting defeat, Anna and I snuck out while the Russian and the Canadian were taking a cigarette break, only to find that they were either very well hidden or had ditched us first. 

As we headed back toward the hotel, the German guy with whom I had been (rather unsuccessfully) having a conversation of sorts came running up behind us, intent on explaining that while he had initially told me that the river was in this direction, he had been mistaken and it was actually that way.  Slightly bewildered by the fact he had run three blocks to inform us of this, Anna and I thanked him and explained that we were not, in fact, trying to get to the river but to our hotel.  After a brief period of uncomfortable silence, we headed, once again, our separate ways.

The major consequence of our less-than-stellar first night in Munich was that the experience could only get better.  The next morning we woke up in our fantastically comfortable beds, ate a sumptuous breakfast (described as such by the hotel itself), and took turns showering and wearing our complimentary bathrobes while watching Barbie cartoons (apparently there are such things) auf Deutsch (in German).  Once we did manage to get out of the hotel, we spent the majority of the day in the Englischer Garten (English Garden), which is a large public park in the center of Munich.  We had a variety of adventures there, including stumbling upon a group of surfers taking turns riding a rapid in one of the many small rivers criss-crossing the park and attending a traditional Teezeremonie (tea ceremony) at the japanisches Teehaus (Japanese tea-house) conducted entirely auf Deutsch.

Enten und Gänse (ducks and geese) im Englischer Garten.


There was quite a line.

Advice that was blatantly ignored: "Swimming Forbidden: Mortal Danger"

Interior of the Teehaus.

A more all-encompassing view.
Meine kleine Süßigkeit (my little sweet treat) from after the ceremony.

Worn out with exploring and looking for some food, we realized that nothing vegetarian was to be found at the Viktuelianmarkt (a large food market) back in downtown Munich, so we grabbed a quick Falafeltasche ("Tasche" literally means "pocket") before heading back to the hotel and napping for a while.

We woke up just in time for dinner, which we ate at an adorable combined fondue restaurant and Weinladen (wine shop).  The fondue for two was unfortunately about 20 euro out of our budget, but we still ate unbelievably well for a decent price, considering we split everything from our bottle of Austrian Lemberger wine to our vegetarian Spätzle entree to the bowl of Kartoffelsuppe (potato soup) we had for an appetizer and the Apfelstrudel (apple dumpling) we had for dessert.  On our way out, as we were discussing what to do next, Anna and I were descended upon by a group of eleven Italian men who wanted us to go to the discoteca with them.  After being jokingly warned by the others that "the two in the red shirts are dangerous" we came to realize there was some truth to the statement (just replace "dangerous" with "unbelievably persistent") when after all but pushing them into the U-Bahn stop and walking away down the block we (once again) heard the patter of running footsteps coming up behind us.  This time, we had to resort to actual pushing to get them to go away. 

The rest of the night was happily spent at Schall & Rauch (sound and smoke, which is both a literal description of what can be found inside and the German equivalent to the English phrase "smoke and mirrors"), a university bar relatively near to the area in which we were staying.  The music was low-key and there was plenty of German conversation to be had (with occasional lapses into English), so all in all it was pretty ideal (and certainly much better than the previous night had been).

The next day, after a quick stop by the iconic-yet-currently-covered-up-by-scaffolding Frauenkirche (women's church), Anna and I headed back into the Englischer Garten.  We just couldn't get enough, apparently.  That day Japanfest was happening in the area around the Teehaus, so the crowd was interesting mix of tourists, people wearing kimonos and happi coats, teenagers dressed up in full-on animé costumes, and the by-now-usual crowd of Bavarians in Lederhosen and Dirndl (and one misplaced man in a Kaiser costume).  We spent an enjoyable time looking at floral displays, listening to live music, and watching karate demonstrations before escaping the crowds and heading deeper into the Englischer Garten.

The still visible part of the Frauenkirche.

Quite the mixed crowd at Japanfest.

Königen-Strelitzie (Birds of Paradise) are my favourite.

Karate demonstration.

We walked all the way from Japanfest at the japanisches Teehaus to the Biergarten am chinesischen Turm (the beer garden at the Chinese tower) at the other end of the park.  There we found another mind-boggling scene before us.  Under a 25-meter high tower designed to resemble the Great Pagoda in the Royal Botanical Gardens in London, an oompah band in full Lederhosen was in full swing and women in Dirndl were waltzing away in pairs in front.  It felt like a performance at the Oktoberfest area of the Busch Gardens theme park.  This feeling only intensified as we headed past the dancers into the heart of the Biergarten.

So much tuba.

More casual Lederhosen wearing.

Inside (which is a misleading term, since all of this was actually outside), there were probably close to 100 long tables packed with men and women in Lederhosen and Dirndl, drinking Weißbier from massive Maße and eating soft pretzels larger than my face.  Anna and I didn't feel that we could handle a whole liter of beer at one in the afternoon, so we went in for the (still generously portioned) half-liter and settled in to people watch.  At one point, a man walked by with probably twenty of the giant pretzels on each arm.  When he saw my jaw drop (I couldn't help it), he raised both of his arms at me and yelled "großer Hunger!" (basically, "I'm really hungry!").  It was wonderful.  After being briefly but mercilessly hit on again (a guy just sat down at our table and said "Mädls!", which means something along the lines of "girls!", before insisting that we all move over to his table).  Fortunately, our imminent train served as an excellent excuse and we cleared out and made it over to the train station without incident.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Krankheit =/= Spaß

I have been extremely fortunate that over the past semester the vast majority of the adventures that have been filling the pages of this blog have been viel Spaß (much fun).  However, there have been a few downers along the way as well (having my apartment broken into as I was recovering from a concussion comes immediately to mind), and these have served as a (sometimes all too potent) reminder that adventures and formative experiences aren't always (and often aren't) especially enjoyable.  The past week or so at the Goethe Institut has been another such reminder.

Overall, I am still having a very good time here; I really am.  My German has improved immensely since I arrived, and I hope that the trend will continue in the coming weeks.  However, I have been spending rather more time than I was expecting in German Kankenhäuser.  Yes, that's right.  Hospitals.  One hospital, in particular.

I'll start at the beginning (after first reassuring everyone that I am, and intend to remain, perfectly healthy).  One of my very good friends here, Joe (you may remember him from previous entries), has been laid low the last few weeks with a horrible (and persistent) sinus infection.  I have therefore spent the past few weeks making tea and dinner and trying (without success) to be a healing influence.  This Ziel (goal) of mine has led me to accompany Joe on two of his recent trips to the doctor.  These were learning experiences.  Here are some things that I learned:

1). Pretty much anything health-care-related in Germany is free.  (Wooo, Socialism!)

2). A yellow and brown color scheme does not create a comforting atmosphere.
3). Children's puzzles in waiting rooms can sometimes be difficult.
4). Cosmopolitan is even funnier in German.
4a). Especially the horoscopes.
5). Sinus infections can be much worse and more  prolonged than I ever imagined.
6). Many older German doctors do not speak much English.
6a). Medical German is difficult and not taught in university classes.
7). Never trust automatic hot drink machines.  They promise tea, they deliver hot Kool-Aid.  Something like that anyway.
8). Hospitals are cold.

9). Hospital visits take a long time.

So other than hospital-visiting and tea-making, I haven't been up to too much other than class these days.  I have afternoon class these two weeks (13:30-18), so that doesn't leave time for much else.  Hopefully I'll have more to report soon!