Dinkelsbühl

Day 19, 07.12.2009

a hearty breakfast of potato salad with parsley and buttered string beans after a late night

It had been a long night. I woke up at 11:15 and was still exhausted. Sleeping late and waking up late just doesn’t work for me. I showered at 12:00pm, which felt so bizarre. My Gastmutter [host mum], Clara, and I went to Ansbach to kill some time while my Gastvater [host dad] visited his mum. We walked around the city, went to a Kirchweih, which is basically a carnival hosted by a church, and ate “gebrannte Mandeln”. Caramelized almonds–crunchy and sweet. After a giant Tüte [bag or cone] full of almonds, my jaws began to lock up from all the chewing.

kirchweihMy host father picked us up and we went to Colmburg. I fell asleep on the way there, still exhausted from the night before. And woke up to the most stunning landscape–a breadth of dense woods, a serene lake in the center, a small island of baby firs floating on the surface. A sheer veil of fog cradled the face of the lake. Then came a lonely white swan, drifting across, downcast and leaving dimples on the water. We zipped past this breathtaking scene, as i fumbled to get my camera to no avail. Beauty is only in passing.

Colmburg is an ancient fortress that sits atop a huge hill and from where you get a fantastic view of the German countryside. There was also a medieval toilet jutting out from the side of the wall of the fortress. You can look up the hole where the people of ye olden days discharged…stuff. What if someone crapped on you while you were walking? I shudder to think.

My Gastvater gave me a break down of the different names for puddle, pond, lake…well, there was an endless number of classifications for bodies of water! My mom finds the English language silly with all the classifications used for big cats (leopards, panthers, cougars, cheetahs, jaguars…etc.). In Chinese they just say 豹 [bao]. She’d have a hoot with German. I also got to see deer everywhere! So exciting! I’d never seen deer in the wild before. They peacefully nibbled on the grassy tufts sprouting along the fortress.colmburgcolmburg fortress

Our next stop was the quaintest town–you could get through all of it in 15 minutes. It’s called Dinkelsbühl. Dinkel + bühl = “spelt hills”. Hills of spelt, roughly? Dinkelsbühl is one of the only remaining walled medieval towns in Germany and one of the many stops along the Romantische Straße [Romantic Road].

dinkelsbuhlRed-tiled roofs bob up and down along the hills, cobblestones pave the way to pointed Gasthäuser [inns] with potted flowers hung over window sills. Because my host father is a huge history buff, he told me about how Dinkelsbühl was saved from destruction during the 30 Year’s War.

There was a woman who gathered all the children of the town and ordered them to stand guard at the front of the fortress, for when the enemy came. And when the enemy reached the city walls, they were met with singing children at the city walls. The commander’s heart softened, and so Dinkelsbühl was spared. Talk about a really gutsy move.

kinderzeche

Kinderzeche is an annual children’s and folklore festival that takes place in July in Dinkelsbühl. The festival celebrates the children of Dinkelsbühl and how they rescued the city during the Thirty Years’ War. Townspeople reenact the story and all participating children are given Schultüte, paper cones filled with goodies.

Rothenburg has an equally fascinating 30 Year’s War story that stays true to the seriousness with which Germans approach their beer. The Bürgermeister [mayor] challenged the leader of the opposing army to a drinking contest. The Burgermeister won, and Rothenburg was spared. Hooray!

Dinkelsbühl has the most delicious strawberry ice cream I have EVER had. It was creamy and thick like gelato, but didn’t have the “milkiness” to it: I could have sworn I was sucking on the juices of the plumpest, perfectly-ripe strawberry.

Before we went home, my Gastfamilie [host family] and I hiked up a rather steep hill, some 600m up. Panoramic view of Bavaria; I could see for kilometers. The plush, verdant landscape of Germany is something that I’ll never tire of.

strawberry ice cream

some afternoon tea and people watching

We passed the American military base on the way home, which made me think of the drunk Americans we ran into my first week in Germany. We got home around 19:30. For dinner we ate German burritos. Germans call them “tacos”. We used tortillas. Whatever you call it, it was delicious! We stuffed them with mushrooms, peppers, tomatoes…and essentially everything you could find in the produce section of a Whole Foods. I awkwardly asked for seconds, even though everyone was full after the first…not that i was actually ashamed at all ;).more german countryside

Nürnberg: A Wild Housewarming

Day 18, 07.11.2009

Die Einweihungsparty (house-warming party)

We left Berlin today, which was devastating given how much of a blast it was. I was really looking 19forward to playing some more President or Palace, but my friends just wouldn’t shut up about politics. It snowballed from gay marriage to the 2008 election, and eventually spoiled children. I stayed silent for the most part because I felt pretty insecure about my grasp on current events…(shamefully so). The train ride went by pretty quickly otherwise.berlin train home

Once we were back in Nürnberg, Abby said her sister was planning on taking her to the Disko, which I super duper über excited about! Yet when I called Abby about it, she couldn’t give me any details because, well, not even her host sister knew which Disko she wanted to go to! My Gastschwester [host sister], told me that Abby’s host sister can be rather indecisive. So we ended up not going. :(

house

cute house, right?

Everything turned out alright though, because Conrad, my Gastbrüder [host brother], and his friends picked me and Clara up to go to his house-warming party. They lived in Würzburg. Such a beautiful city! His house was situated on the side of this huge hill, where a fortress sat on the tippity top! Too cool. The hills were decked in miles of vineyards.

It was surprisingly and ridiculously cold that night: around 48F. I was totally unprepared and spent the first hour or so shivering. I was puffing out clouds of condensation. Even after Conrad had given me his jacket and this huge wool blanket, it still felt chilly. Everyone else at the party just sort of smirked at me the way everyone in the world smirks at a Californian who says it’s cold.

I spent time talking to a girlfriend of Conrad’s friend (who drove us to the party). She is a ballroom dancer and is also vegetarian! It was so fun talking to her because we were basically the same person. She and her boyfriend are dance partners, apparently. So cute!

house indoors

I hid in here for about an hour because I was so cold…I think the house was actually colder than outside.

The selection of music at the party was on point. Germans have such great taste in American music–which is kind of a funny sentence now that I read it. They had classics like The Clash and The Who, and newer bands like We Are Scientists (which I adore) and Kings of Leon. There were so many artists to choose from. I’m sure people living at the edge of the hills could hear us with how loudly the music was blasted. Everyone just rocked out around the bonfire. The flames licked the cool air at a height of 7 feet.

And boy do Germans know their bread [das Brot]. Conrad and his friends made phenomenal garlic bread. Oh my god. Crispy baguette, fresh out of the oven, with butter and garlic sauce dripping off the sides. Crunching on a steamy slab of garlic bread in the freezing cold was just perfection.

At one point, Goldfrapp’s “Strict Machine” came on–which is…full of sexual innuendo. One of the guys at the party, who was completely and utterly drunk, started grinding…with a wall. Totally uninhibited and probably unaware his dance partner was made of drywall. Nearly everyone at the party was drunk. The guys were hyperactive monkeys: happily rocking out to music one second, and faux-fighting the next. They kicked poor Miri in the face. There was also some pot-smokin’ going on. People were just rolling up joints like the pretzel dogs getting rolled up at Auntie Anne’s. I never thought of myself as conservative, but the dancing, drinking, and smoking with such wild abandon came as culture shock to me.bonfire

We got home at 3:15am. I dropped dead on the bed. Back at home, I would never go to bed without showering. My mom would flip out and have my entire bedroom quarantined for disinfection. But boy was it liberating to…just…fall…….asleep.

Berlin: Jewish Museum, Reichstag, and KaDeWe

Day 17, 07.10.2009

holocaust towerWe went to the Jüdisches [Jewish] Museum (if you care to read in detail in German), where for the first time my entire trip thus far I could understand the tour guide. She spoke in simple and slow German, whereas the other tour guides we had spoke in frustratingly brisk German.

The museum was architecturally intriguing.There was a room where the ceiling converges into a single corner, leaving you in complete darkness, save for this one shaft of light coming through the tip of the ceiling. The Holocaust-Turm [Tower]. Every decibel resonates through. An incredibly eerie experience of utter loneliness, helplessness, and desperation symbolic of the plight of the Jewish during WWII.

IMG_2791We were given time to walk around the museum on our own and there was a byzantine maze of 49 pillars called the Garden of Exile, or Garten des Exils, that is a must-see exhibit. Steel columns rise 6 metres above you, and the sloping ground makes it seem as if the world is slipping underneath you. Olive trees–a symbol of Peace and Hope in the Jewish tradition–line the corridors. The 48 pillars represent the year the state of Israel was founded in 1948; the 49th pillar in the middle represents Berlin.

There was a special exhibit of literally 10,000 faces made from sheet steel, that looked like the sad masks from Greek theatre. This was called Shalechet – Gefallenes Laub, which translates roughly to “Fallen Leaves”. Each face remembers not only those murdered during the Holocaust, but also all those sacrificed in the war. As you trek through the field of faces, each responds with a resounding clang–thereby giving back these faces their “voices”. A deeply profound and poetic message for many of us. For others, aka one of the guys in our group, a message worth stealing (he took a face!!).

IMG_2799It was pouring–again–when we left, like it had for most of the week in Berlin. We ate lunch at this Turkish restaurant where I had falafel for the first time. I had been missing out on a lot; this stuff was delicious. My friends and I played Mao during the meal, and one of them made us sing a song every time we put a card down. It was terrible. By the 10th card I put down, I had run out of songs and was singing “Mary had a Little Lamb”.

Completely out of context now that it’s been 6 years—but my travel diary noted that one of the guys called one of the girls a “fat f*k” and that we females served him a solid verbal beating. I would hope all men know this by now, but never call a girl fat, especially to her face.

IMG_2802We then went to the Reichstag and were forced to sit through this 2-hour long speech about how German politics work. It could have been interesting if I could understand the speaker and if she didn’t speak in a monotone. I fell asleep multiple times, jerking myself awake, as did those who weren’t even in our group. There were a lot of sleeping old people.

After the speech we got to go up Die Kuppel, a glass dome that overlooks Berlin’s cityscape. The dome symbolizes that the people are above the government, in contrast to National Socialism. We actually had to go through security check before we were let into the Reichstag; my friend with the metal contraband from the Jüdisches [Jewish] Museum set the metal detector off. When we were leaving, he got the face back from the security people, who had a good laugh about it.reichstag

H. Birkelbach gave us our last 10 Euros of the trip for dinner because we had free time to explore Berlin in groups. All 20-or so of us stuck together for the first 1~2 hour(s). We visited the Frauenkirche, shopped at stands (I bought a piece of the Berlin Wall!), and went to KADEWE [Kaufhaus des Westen, or “Department Store of the West”]. It’s 8 stories tall and so huge that it’s split into two different buildings across the street from each other. Mostly window-shopping and luxury brands.

Upon looking at the directory, the three of us immediately knew which floor we were going to first: the chocolate [Schokolade] floor. It was heaven. I had never seen so much chocolate in my life. I bought 4 boxes of Lindt and a bag of Haribo gummy bears for friends (I swear!) and a bag of stracciatella Lindt that my friend introduced me to on our trip. Literally the best flavor of Lindt.

kadeweIt was still raining when we stepped out of KaDeWe. My pants got wet–ugh. We made our way back to the Brandenburg Tor, where our group split up. Clara, Laura, Abby, Jon, Cory, and I wanted to go to this bar with spiffy graffiti and a beach-like setting we’d visited the day before and the rest went off to do their own thing (I don’t remember what). Then began another downpour, so we took shelter at a nearby store. When the rain eased up a bit, we ran to the Hauptbahnhof and ate at Burger King for dinner. Ain’t nothing wrong with french fries for dinner.

I was pretty disappointed when we got to the sand place because I was expecting to see a band playing, like last time, but alas, no. There was also not that many people. Nevertheless, we settled down and everyone else but I got drinks. Clara, Laura, Abby, Cory, and Jon started arguing about gay marriage again. The debate continues!

There was no dancing either: I was bummed because I was hoping the place would be like a Disko [club]. Phooey. Cory and Jon got vodka because the lady who ran the bar didn’t care if they were 18 or not. After Clara and Laura got tired of arguing with Jon, Cory started arguing with him about Obama being voted into office, because Jon is a total Palin/McCain fan. Their argument got really heated and after a while, Cory just got up and heaved a frustrated sigh and went, “UGH, MEN.” And the Americans/Germans who were sitting in our vicinity laughed about it. As for me, I quietly sipped my water.

firedancing

Whaaat? Impromptu fire show!

Eventually, the rest of the group that initially objected to going to a bar, showed up at the sand place. They sat on the other side of the bar though. It was hilarious because when they saw my friend with a drink in his hands they all glared at him or watched him anxiously. They’d also check up on him everyone 20 minutes or so, going “Drunk yet” or “Please tell me you’re not drunk“. He and my other friend drank so much hard liquor that night that even my friend with steely tolerance said she was feeling a little tipsy. My friend was red, but not wasted like he was at the Zitadelle. He did break a bottle on the way back to the hotel though, and it almost hit one of the girls. Eek!

We played concentration on the U-Bahn. It was fun and I fared surprisingly well! I remember playing Big Booty with Glorystar–my middle school choir–and losing in like, the first second. Clara also taught us this hand game similar to slide called “Schokolade” [chocolate]. I rocked that.

My last night in Berlin: nostalgia setting in before I had even left. A truly epic week.

Berlin: Checkpoint Charlie, Pergamom, and SOAP

Day 16, 07.09.2009

you are leaving

Checkpoint Charlie–the infamous crossing point between East and West Berlin, a symbol of the Cold War. It was almost surreal walking back and forth past the giant sign that says, “You are now entering the American sector”–translated into Russian, German, and French–, without a second thought. Simply unreal to think that there was a time where American and Soviet tanks had standoffs on either side of this sign. And here I am, being a tourist: taking pictures of “officers” dressed in Russian, German, and American uniforms and buying “original” pieces of the Berlin Wall.

checkpointcharlieThere was one “American” officer who had the strangest accent–like 1940’s English/New Yorker accent–and who was selling “passports” with the original stamps for each country/sector like the DDR and stuff. I coughed up 7 Euros for my passport to freedom.

Escape stories in the Checkpoint Charlie Museum are riveting. One man was shot 10 times trying to escape–can’t remember if he was successful or not. There was also a woman who hid in conjoined suitcases and another man who hid in surfboards. Highly recommend paying the €12.50 to walk through the exhibits.

chaperones in hatsMy friends each bought a fuzzy Russian hat and a North Korean hat, respectively. They were late in meeting up with the rest of the group, so H. Birkelbach and H. Reynolds’ punishment for them was that they had to hand over their hats for the rest of the night. They were 20 minutes late, and H. Reynolds flipped out on them: “When we say viertel vor zwölf [15 minutes before 12], we f*ing mean viertel vor zwölf.” Hadn’t seen him that angry the entire trip thus far.

We then wandered to Museuminsel [“Museum Island”]; our goal was the Pergamom museum. If there is anything you must go to, this is it. I am by no means a museum or history buff, but for the several hours you could spend in the Pergamom museum, you will become one. Even if you don’t bother reading a single plaque, it is such a spectacular collection of ancient history. ishtar gate

The Ishtar Gate and Processional Way were reconstructed here with their original bricks. The Processional Way lines an entire corridor of the museum, towering over us at somewhere around 14 feet high. Colored with most royal of blues, majestically laced with golden lions.

pergamom altarAnother highlight of the museum is the Pergamom Altar. It was originally situated at the top of a hill that overlooked the Aegean Sea. To walk up the stairway, past the frieze depicting battles between Olympian gods and the Giants, and look down once you’ve reached the top, with the vision of a sparkling, deep blue Aegean Sea has such grandeur to it. This was all, of course, done with sweaty palms, shaky hands, and wobbly legs because people were sitting by the railing and I had nothing to hold onto. I can’t imagine what ancient life would have been like for an acrophobic.

market gate of miletusThe Market Gate of Miletus is another magnificent marble monument to explore. Most of it was destroyed in an earthquake, so its reconstruction involved new material. Fantastic to walk through nonetheless.

islamic art

isn’t stunning?!

The Islamic Art Exhibit was also really cool–tons of intricately-painted domes and prayer rooms. I was on my own for most of the time we spent in the museum. I have a habit of going through museum exhibits rather quickly… I had seen most of the museum 20-30 minutes before our designated meeting time. So I sat on the steps and waited; my feet were tired anyway.

Afterwards, I really wanted to go to the Berliner Dom, so we did. Just…gorgeous. In a really outlandish, gold-everywhere, decked-out-in-more-shiny-things-than-a-chandelier kind of gorgeous.

We went to a Turkish restaurant for dinner. So much ethnic food I had never had! It was really good. I was hooked on this pita-bread-thing. There was also some great dinner conversation. One of the guys kept staring at the lights because he thought they looked like boobs and at these two girls sitting across the room because he thought they were lesbians..?!

berlin domeAnd in a slip of the tongue, he called my friend and I “him”s and told my friend that he couldn’t believe she was a woman. Wait–what? Whoa. She was about to rip him apart when he quickly followed with “…I can’t believe you have the burden of bearing children”. Okay then. After the meal, we somehow decided to call my friend (who’s female) Geoff Nikolsky because apparently Geoff’s a pretty gay name and she’s the “gayest” “man” alive. I’m quite positive our group collectively shattered and violated any fragment of political correctness in the month we spent together.

hip hangout place

this hip, young-people hang out place we passed through

H. Birkelbach arranged for us to go to an acrobatic show by the name of SOAP at the Chamaeleon Theatre and it was awesome. It’s kinda like Cirque du Soleil, except it’s on a smaller stage and everything is soap/bathtub/washing related. All the girls enjoyed it immensely because, well, there were hot, athletic guys running around doing crazy ballet moves. One of the acrobats grabbed onto a pole and raised his body so that it was perfectly parallel to the ground and hold it for minutes.Insane.

The girls were giddy and the guys slightly disappointed because there were no hot girls. I thought the lady acrobats were amazing too though! One of the guys and H. Reynolds kept arguing that all of the guys were probably gay because straight men can’t do ballet. You just gotta roll your eyes when you hear that kind of stuff.

soap oper

lights…camera…action!

There was also one hilariously inappropriate intimate scene between…feet. Oh the sounds. First it was cute because the foot that was supposed to be the guy gave flowers to woo the “girl” foot but then it moved onto…feet banging. All of us were gasping for air because we couldn’t believe we were allowed to watch a show so raunchy as 11th graders. Continue reading

Berlin: Sanssouci Palace and a peek into East Germany

Day 15, 07.08.2009

sansoucciWe left the hotel quite early to catch the train to Sanssouci. Everyone else filed into the same car, but we three musketeers decided it’d be a great idea to steal all the space in the back and be separated from the rest of our group. Unfortunately, the train ride to Sanssouci is about an hour–and 6 stops in, the train was already packed. I struggled to catch glimpses of our group in the front. Fortunately, one of the guys is 6’6″, which made it easier to keep track. My paranoia set in after a while, so I joined the rest of the group in the front. The other two are lucky that I remembered they were in the back and shouted to them that we had arrived, otherwise they would’ve been lost in Berlin forever.

marble statuePalace Sanssouci was stunningly lavish. A conglomerate of courtyards, pavilions, marble and gold. The inside of the palace looked like it had been touched by Midas. There was a different color scheme to each room. The extravagance straddled gaudy and classy–including a beautiful “Chinese” dome that was anything but Chinese. I figured out how they managed to maintain these grounds when I had to use the restroom and paid a whopping €1.50.

After a couple hours of running amok on royal grounds, we took the train back to Potsdam. A lunch cruise down Wahnsee had been planned for us. While most of our group decided to hang around in the cafe waiting, the three musketeers made intelligent decision #2 of the day by spending the 20 minutes before the cruise exploring Potsdam. There sadly wasn’t much to explore. And then began a downpour so aggressive it could rival Niagara Falls. The wind lashed watery whips at our faces.

Scrambling to find shelter somewhere, we finally came across a child-sized picnic bench with a baby umbrella. Unfortunately not enough to cover 3 high schoolers. So we counted to 10 and sprinted back to the meeting place, where there was a restaurant. I was running blind: there was so much water hanging from my lashes.

sansoucci train stop

you can see the clouds moving in…

H. Birkelbach and H. Reynolds greeted us with smug looks on their faces, joking about how warm and dry and comfortable they had been at the restaurant. But they made it up to us by sharing some french fries.

Ironically, it stopped raining about a minute after we reached the restaurant. I was drenched–a wet rag. There is nothing worse than wet undergarments and soggy, squishy socks. And I had to board the cruise 10 minutes later with sopping shoes.

Instead of sight-seeing, we played cards the entire cruise. So I have no idea what there was to be seen from the lake. I ordered some noodles with veggies for lunch, which were…okay. I won several games of president, and lost a lot of games of palace.

After the cruise, we all stopped at this fruit stand and bought fruit. The three of us split a basket of strawberries. I’ve seriously contemplated moving to Germany just for their amazingly sweet, juicy, and fragrant strawberries. They’re so tiny, but good things come in small packages!

berlin murals

some great art in East Berlin!

East Berlin was kind of a sketchy place. Gritty, adorned with graffiti, and home to all varieties of people. Our group split up from our chaperones and our German host siblings. After about 5 minutes of walking together, four of us decided we were interested in different things and split up further.

Three of us went one way and the other girl went off on her own. Our friend entertained us by claiming he could make up a song for any word we chose. One of us chose “rollerskates”, so he started singing something about an old man at a tree and if you skated to him you could see him fart–the actual song was a lot stranger if you could believe it. I chose banana hammock and the song went something like “oh please let me sprinkle cheese! some cheese!” and swinging in the banana hammock. I don’t think he knows what a banana hammock really is…

My friend wanted to buy a gas mask, so we stepped into this store that sold gas masks and Communist memorabilia. While fascinating, the other two of us wanted to keep exploring. So we moved on. East Berlin would be a scary place to get lost in if you were a young girl traveling without parents for the first time (me). Thankfully we didn’t get lost.

We went into the German dollar store to get some water. It was kind of frustrating that even though we’d speak to the cashiers in German, they’d only respond back in English. Just give us a chance!eastberlin

We also saw this giant condom ad–a phallic cardboard cutout–that was advertising vibrators and other unmentionables…And right across from it was a store for gay men with posters of naked men plastered over the display windows. Europeans are so open about sexuality. My friend took a bunch of photos of all this to show to H. Reynolds, because he hates anything that screams “I like men”.

After walking around East Berlin, we all met up and settled on this African restaurant for dinner. I ordered some fried rice dish with some salad and this strange flour-roll thing. It was so, so delicious. I really wish I had taken down the name of the place. There was zebra, crocodile, and impala steaks, just to name a few of the strange items on the menu.

africanrestaurant

amazing first experience with African food…anyone know where this is?!

We all split up after dinner because the host siblings wanted to go get a drink, one of the girls wanted to go back to the hotel, and the rest of us wanted to explore Berlin a bit more. H. Reynolds took us to the Holocaust memorial, which is something like 1000 blocks of cement rising out of the ground to symbolize the many who died.

holocaust memorial and berlin wall

so much awkward posing…

While a sobering concept, it was a total maze and kind of fun to just walk through. My friend was trying to take a picture, but another was standing in the middle, so he politely asked, “Could you please move?”.  She flipped her head around and yelled, “F*k off and DIE.” It was hilariously unwarranted and we all ended up cracking up–likely coming off as disrespectful, obnoxious teenagers to anyone else visiting the memorial.

Postdamer Platz  was the next stop, where we took turns getting shots of pieces of the Berlin Wall. Then it was time to visit the Brandeburg Tor! My chance to finally get my own postcard-worthy shot of the famous landmark. I also wanted a shot of the Siegsäule [victory column], which sits in middle of the street with a golden figure on top, but that was a bit of a walk away.hitler's bunker

We then made our way to Hitler’s bunker, which is pretty much this small patch of grass with a sign that says “Führers Bunker” or something like that. We also walked down some of Unter den Linden: the upscale, upper class street of Berlin. Some of the guys needed to pinkeln, so they went down some small street and chose some bush. I wonder if public urination is a violation in Germany…

brandenburg gate

simply majestic

As we skipped under the streetlights and past the glimmering lights of Louis Vuitton, Zara, and various other brand names, we all sang “I Feel Pretty”. Very loudly.

My roomies and I had some girl when we were back in our room. We all picked out Breakfast Club-like stereotypes for the guys in our group: the nice one, the quiet one, the know-it-all, the diva, and the rebel.

Berlin: The Ultimate Gypsy Brass Rock Concert

Day 14, 07.07.2009

Disclaimer: This post is best read through the lens of a naive, goody-two-shoes junior in high school who liked [and still does!] to take notes of daily events in excruciating detail. ;)

freie universitatThere was too much excitement bubbling within me that first night in Berlin. I finally gave up on trying to fall asleep at 7am. My roomies and I went down to breakfast and were surprised by the scale of the breakfast buffet for such a tiny hotel. There was fresh bread, cookies, danishes, fresh fruits, a cold-cut and cheese platter, cereals, and Nutella everywhere. I snagged a flaky butter croissant and a cookie. One of my roommates was on a Nutella binge and if she had the time, she probably would have cleaned out the buffet’s supply of Nutella.

a gripping powerpoint on college in germanyAfter breakfast we rode the U-Bahn, then the S-Bahn with the rest of the group to Freie Universität, which I think is the largest university in Berlin (?). Or perhaps the most famous? We didn’t have a chance to tour the college at all; instead, we were all herded into this room where we sat and listened to the admissions people market the university to us for an impossibly long 3 hours. Powerpoints and all. I was bored to death and fell asleep a number of times, jerking myself awake every 15 seconds. My friend and I resorted to playing hangman in German and once we exhausted that option, we began drawing people from our group.

old vs new buildings

I thought the contrast between old and modern was interesting.

It really was a shame that they didn’t give us time to walk around Freie because it has a really pretty campus. By the time the presentation ended, it was time for lunch and all of us were forced to get into groups with at least 1 German host sibling because they had our lunch money. I stuck with Clara, of course. The cafeteria was huge and had a pretty good selection…if you weren’t vegetarian.

I chose a poor man’s minestrone soup and some antipasti veggies, neither of which was very good. The soup was like drinking needles in watered-down ketchup and the veggies were sour enough to be used as bug repellent. The mousse had too much cream and the cake was a bit too dry. The strawberry soda, however, was amazing. Strawberries in Germany are inexplicably delicious–each with the sweetness and juice of a hundred of the sweetest and juiciest. I ended up eating my friend’s french fries and they basically saved me from starvation.

KaDeWe: the premier department store

KaDeWe – the Harrods and LaFayette of Germany

There was a book sale outside the cafeteria, so all of us went to check it out. Lots of classics in German–I think I tried reading The Divine Comedy in German…which is about impossible. And then one of our comrades stole a giant, 1000-page book in Russian. I share the shame for being a silent witness–watching him stuff it into his backpack–but I was genuinely curious if he was serious about leaving the campus with a stolen book. But at 2 Euros, it wasn’t much of a steal anyway.

The reason our unscrupulous friend stole the book was so Herr Reynolds, who worked as a translator in the Army during WWII, could translate. We watched, eyes sparkling with admiration, as H. Reynolds translated the first page and taught us how to say “fight” [pronounced “boi”?] in Russian. He then somehow segued into a story of how he drank so much beer once that he scrambled to the restroom in desperation for bowel relief–only, the cleaning lady had just cleaned the toilets. And I quote, “the porcelain was sparkling…you could still smell the cleaner…and I painted that sucker brown“.

outside parliament

Parliament

A tour bus picked us up for a drive around the city. The tour guide was kind of a dud. She droned on and on and I felt like I was in a Charlie Brown short. So I turned my attention to snapping photos of the sights. We stopped at Parliament, which is totally gorgeous inside–doric columns, red carpets flowing down a grand set of stairs–only to be shown to a room where we were again subjected to powerpoints and grown-up talking.

Paintings of the fall of the Berlin wall stretched around the walls. I would have much rather walked over to the real Berlin Wall (which was more like 2 panels of it), that was right across the street. Most of the graffiti has been chipped off and sold by street vendors for 5 Euros per small piece. I’m a sucker for tchotchkes and caved into buying one.

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As boring as our guide was, I must thank her for informing us of a 150-year old chocolate shop in Gendarmenmarkt: Fassbender. Our bus stopped at a random souvernir store for some odd reason; the only attraction there was this model of the entire city of Berlin. I bought a pretty pack of chocolates with the different castles around Berlin. We, including H. Birkelbach and H. Reynolds, all ditched the boring lady after the store. I have no idea what she ended up doing. But we all took the U-Bahn to the last stop of the day: the Zitadelle.

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The Zitadelle used to be a fortress but is now used mainly for big events like concerts. My first non-classical concert! I was pumped. There was an hour or two to kill before they started letting people in, so my friend and I walked around the Zitadelle, while others went to sit by the river and just chill. It was on our walk that I learned that “pinkeln” is slang for “to pee”. Because my friend really needed to and there was no restroom in sight. That was probably TMI; a good word to know, nonetheless.

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The Zitadelle, must have been an awfully secure fortress because it floats in the middle of a ginormous lake, with only one entrance. Our walk around the right side of the Zitadelle took only 20 minutes. So I went off by myself to explore the other side of the Zitadelle. I was bored, so I figured, why not? Let me pretend to be a ballerina and do grande jetés. Many stares and odd looks where shot my way from people walking on the bridge some 500ft away.

By the time I got back, H. Birkelbach was handing out the tickets and money for dinner, which was about 20 Euros! We had to go through security check and my Klean Kanteen gifted to me by a dear friend was temporarily confiscated :(. Thankfully, I could pick it up after the concert. As expected, there wasn’t anything I could eat. I wasn’t hungry though (or maybe I just convinced myself I wasn’t). I did, however, need to [pinkeln] and was forced to use a port-a-potty. As a germaphobe, I was sweating at the thought of not being able to rinse my scummy hands, in spite of the fact that I had hand sanitizer. So I spent an unfortunate 3 Euros on a cup of water to do so.

IMG_2466Not going to lie, the music was definitely an acquired taste. But incredibly energetic. I’d ballpark it as the strange lovechild of hard rock, polka, and dance/techno beats. No headline is long enough to fit the names of our fantastic headliners: Goran Bregovic and his Wedding & Funeral Band, and Shantel & Bucovina Club Orkestar. A couple of us stood in the back at first and even sat at a table for a bit, but finally decided to mingle with the raucous crowd. After pushing, burrowing, and squeezing our way through a sea of bodies, we made it to the rest of our group. And then everyone else besides 3 of us decided to go get drinks, leaving us to babysit our spot. Our group never came back.

[ At this point in the narrative, the focus shifts to detailed documentation of a first and close-up encounter of what drunk people are like. Feel free to read on, but I ran out of pictures to break up the text :P. ]

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On the road to Berlin

Day 13, 07.06.2009

spree river sunset

Sunset by the Spree Fluß

As my Gastvater [“host father”] was chanting in anticipation of our trip to Berlin with the AATG group, “Berlin! Berlin! Wir fahren nach Berlin!”. Translation: “we’re going to Berlin!!!!!!!!!!!”. Our train was sometime after 10am, so Clara and I still had to go to school before we could head out. With all our luggage. Mine was especially cumbersome to be lugging up and down the 7 floors of the Gymnasium [“high school”]. It was a heavy, large, orange suitcase. Really quite silly in retrospect not to have brought a duffel bag or something collapsible for excursions. A wonderful friend of Clara’s helped carry both of our luggage while we were at school.

I would have hired him for the day’s help if I could. Needless to say, I had my first lesson in weight training heaving this monstrosity all over the streets of Nürnberg. Hungry from all the exercise and with the knowledge that no food would be sold on the train, I bought some fries at McDonald’s. Apparently condiments are sold separately in Europe, so I had to eat my fries dry and without ketchup. Ew.

ICE bahn

Double decker ICE!

It was an amazing experience to ride the ICE aka “Intercity Express” aka Germany’s bullet train. Frau Graunke, my high school German teacher, would always be singing praise about the ICE. And we did indeed ride in luxury. Really expensive, but I would do it again for the immense savings in time. It normally takes about 10 hours to travel from Nürnberg to Berlin, but with the ICE it’s only 3-4 hours.

The seats were big and comfy, and it was so clean and so new. The doors and bathroom facilities were automatic, which was simply mind-blowing 6 years ago. There were even tables for you to eat or do work on!

berlin train station

The Berlin Hauptbahnhof [“main train station”] was stunning

First thing my friends and I did was grab a table to play Kemps. I guess my beginner’s luck had run out since we lost miserably to the rest of our group. Our signals were all messed up and I couldn’t tell if she had Kemps and she couldn’t tell when I was signaling Kemps. Eventually we got tired of playing Kemps and our group broke up to do other stuff. I grew up without having played any card game other than “Go fish”: my time in Germany was like a class in card games, on steroids. Besides Kemps and Mao, I also learned “Spit” and “Egyptian Ratscrew”.

Then we started “Palace” and I legitimately had some curse on me for getting really terrible hands. So more losing. Then we started Mao again and I managed to win twice. However, I was unaware that the Chairman was allowed to make up ridiculous rules such as: requiring players to sing “Funkytown” and say “sandpeople eat little children” or “eat your cookies”. Kids are so weird, I know. That game lasted us until Berlin.

hotel ludwig van beethoven

Our hotel: Hotel Ludwig van Beethoven

After struggling up more flights of stairs to get out of the train station, we finally got on our bus to the hotel. And I realized I had lost my umbrella. Great.

Three of us snagged the triple-bed bedroom, which means none of us had to squeeze together on the same bed. We toasted ourselves with some Mineralwasser [“mineral water”] to a week of awesome that lay ahead. We all met at the lobby around 5pm for dinner. Herr Birkelbach took us to an Indian restaurant, which was…an interesting choice.

I don’t believe I ever had Indian before then and found it odd that they put cheese in curry. I absolutely love Indian food now, but I was not at a point in my life to try exotic things. Unsurprisingly, there was nothing for me to eat since I had cut cheese out of my diet (no paneer! :( ).

indian restaurant in berlinThe environment was nice and colorful, though. Service was helpful. I sat across from Jon and next to Mariette and Cory, near H. Birkelbach and to the left of the German kiddies. Everyone seemed to enjoy their meal, but I thoroughly did not. Herr Birkelbach ended up helping me finish, which made me feel like I was being too picky. But it was so incredibly salty and thick–like all they used was salt and corn starch.

The salad was good though, so I ate more of that. My dinner buddy and I started arguing about whether being vegetarian was hypocritical (because “plants and bacteria are living things too”), which escalated to politics and it got heated really quickly. We shockingly finished our meal still on good terms, but neither satisfied with the answers we had provided each other. I also desperately needed to use the restroom halfway through our debate. Even worse, everyone finished dinner and I never got the chance to use the restroom. The next 1.5 hours were spent in extreme discomfort. Luckily my experience in China has led me to develop an iron bladder.

berliner dom

We walked along the Spree River [“Fluß” in German] and I absolutely fell in love with the Berliner Dom. The sun was setting and cast a warm glow on its otherwise dramatic features. There was also a DDR [Deutsche Demokratische Republik, the state of East Germany] Museum on the way, which would have been a fascinating stop if we had the time.

What took me most by surprise on our walking tour was how conspicuous bong shops were. One store in particular was selling glow-in-the-dark bongs–which I guess is cool, but literally the most indiscreet accessory you could have for cannabis-smoking habits.

snapshots of berlin

So we finally arrived at the Fernsehturm [“TV tower”: Fernseh + Turm], at which point I was finally able to relieve myself. Possibly TMI, but that is a memory that shaped my first experience in Berlin.

ice creamWith 20 minutes to kill, it seemed like everyone suddenly had a craving for ice cream. Others of us rode up 207m to the observation tower of the Fernsehturm. I was surprisingly not the one freaking out about heights this time!

We went downstairs after maybe 15 minutes and waited for the others. The guy running the elevator smugly asked one of the guys in our group, “Wollen Sie hier sitzen, eh?” (do you want to sit here?) while patting his knee. Jokingly, of course, and all in good fun.

After we all reconvened, H. Birkelbach treated all 20 of us to two enormous scoops of ice cream!! I got mango and strawberry.

NÜRNBERG: GEMEINDEFEST (II)

Day 12, 07.05.2009: More potlucks!

good company at the festival

I love how frequently these Gemeindefest [“community festivals”] pop-up in Germany! Such a happy place to live. If the opportunity arises to join one, you definitely should! Lovely people, fun activities, and best of all, delicious Kartoffelsalat–potato salad. This time around, there was more Kartoffelsalat that was vegetarian than last time. So I really indulged myself and probably disgusted my host family and all their neighborhood friends with how many helpings I had…

tasty cherry crumbleNot to say that stopped me from additional servings of some Nachtisch [“dessert”]. There was an open bar of cakes, custards, cookies, crumbles, crisps, and all other forms of captivating culinary sweets. After about 15 minutes of indecisively hovering over the desserts table and making others uncomfortable, I finally settled on a cherry crumble and raspberry yellow cake.

deliciously soft raspberry yellow cakeOne of the most unexpected and most interesting activities was the option to operate a tractor(?!?). There was a plot of land that everyone who wanted to learn how to use a tractor could continuously dig into and backfill. Totally fun and definitely not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of games at a festival. I undeniable struggled with operating the claw and am grateful no one was hurt in the process.

me driving a tractor

That’s me!

Clara introduced me to a fellow exchange student from London. Both of us were rather shy, and after making some small talk, simply sat next to each other awkwardly and ate our food in mostly silence. My young, girlish dreams of meeting a charming Englishman and escaping to the English countryside were kind of dashed at that point. Chemistry can be so disappointing. I ran into another exchange student while we were there. They’re everywhere! He was also from California, which was a good starting point for a much less awkward conversation.

The musical and dance performances provided a clean segue for us to turn our attention to other activities. We were treated to traditional Bavarian folk dance and music by dancers bravely dressed in Dirndl dresses (for women) and Trachten (for men) in searing heat. The dance is called Mühlradl [“Miller’s Dance”], where people dance in a sort of ring-around-the-rosy fashion and bounce off from partner to partner.bavarianfolk

The rest of the day was spent at home packing for Berlin–the highlight of our month in Germany. I was oozing excitement out of every pore and hardly slept a wink that night. Either thankfully or unfortunately–I can’t decide–my enthusiasm was tempered by some sober reading of Grapes of Wrath for my AP English class.

Also, this seems like such a silly thing to note, but I had a fried egg for the first time in two weeks. Do Germans eat a lot of fried eggs? I feel like I should know that answer having lived there for a month, but perhaps it was just my host family that wasn’t big on fried eggs. In any case, if you ever get a hankering for some fried eggs, the magical term is “Spiegelei” or “mirror egg”. Spiegel = mirror and Ei = egg. :)

Rothenburg ob der Tauber, 2009

Day 11, 07.04.2009: Rothenburg

My Gastfamilie [host family] took me to Rothenburg: a quaint, medieval town along the Romantic Road. Or, as it arguably is better known as, the town that sells Christmas souvenirs 365 days a year. Since it was only an hour away from Roßtal, we took the train there instead of driving.

IMG_2242We had a 15 minute layover in Ansbach, which was enough time to check out the Hofgarten [court garden] there. There was a rather long building built by the prince so he could house his fruit trees, which I thought was awesome because I want my own orchard someday. My Gastmutter [host mum], who loves art, brought us to an art exhibit nearby and struck up a conversation with the artist herself. It was kind of mind-blowing how everyone in Germany is so amicable.

IMG_2230I feel like in America, it’s far and few in between that you meet, say, a cashier at the supermarket who’d be willing to make eye contact, let alone small talk. And everyone is so busy getting somewhere. My host mum, however, strikes up hearty conversations with any clerk or cashier she meets, all the time. Not a grumpy face since I left the U.S.  It’s actually pretty heart-warming to see people take the time to slow down and have a chat.

rothenburg-copyright-melody-linStepping into Rothenburg was like a walking into a pop-up fairytale book set in the Middle Ages. The city wall, if I remember correctly, is the only city wall in Germany that’s still standing and complete. And you get to climb the wall! Going up the stairs was slightly terrifying because the steps were so small and so steep. But I didn’t want to be a party pooper, so I muscled my way through.

We strolled along the skirts of Rothenburg before getting off the wall. The stairs down were even worse! They were slanted downwards at a 15-degree angle. How did people climb this in the winter?!

As our tummies started grumbling, we stumbled into this random cafe. The only thing vegetarian option was Spätzle…literally just the cooked noodles. Because meat gravy. Not going to lie, it was pretty damn bland. I probably had 3 days’ worth of salt just to bring out an inkling of flavor. After downing most of the salted noodles, Clara offered to finish it for me. She said it was good with the gravy. Welp.

rothenburg-apfel

Thankfully, we ordered dessert and I got ApfelStrudel mit Vanilla Eis [apple strudel with vanilla ice cream). Like wow. I don’t know if it was because my entree was so unsatisfying, but 6 years later, and I still salivate at the thought of that Apfelstrudel with ice cream–you can’t not have the ice cream. The strudel was warm and the apples still crispy but coated in ooey-gooey cinnamon and sugar. The vanilla ice cream was like eating a vanilla bean. So pure and creamy: slowly melting and flooding the nooks and crannies of my strudel.

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My host mother also convinced me to try a Schneeball [literally, “snowball”], which kind of looks like a yarn ball. Layers of flour, deep fried, and dipped in chocolate or sprinkled with powdered sugar, nuts…etc. It was pretty good but difficult to eat because I got one dipped in chocolate and the chocolate was melting as I ate it. Messy eater problems.

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No photos allowed, so I could only get the truck outside!

As my host mum went off to visit bookstores, Clara took me to the infamous, all-year round Christmas stores in Rothenburg. They have such tiny storefronts, but as you go deeper into the store it unfolds into a 2-3 story building! It’s bigger on the inside! (Doctor Who, anyone?)

Delicate and intricately handcrafted wooden ornaments. I wanted all the pretty things. And there was a huge, fully-decorated and lit Christmas tree in the middle of the store that reached all the way up to the ceiling. I wanted to take a picture so badly but it was prohibited and there were people watching.

There were also snowflakes made just from wood shavings (?!) and carved windmills that run on rising hot air from candles that you light from within it. Sooo cool. I bought this really cute ornament with a snowman, reindeer, and Christmas tree on it. It cost around €9, which was like USD $12 at the time, but who cares? I was in Germany!

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平溪 Pingxi, Taipei, 2012

sky lanternsThe famous host village of the Sky Lantern Festival–Pingxi 平溪. Another quaint village that developed during the Japanese Colonial Era. A typical recommendation is to stop and sightsee at all the towns along the Pingxi Railway as a day trip (such as Shifen 十分), but my mom and I unfortunately didn’t have time.

on the way to pingxiDaylight is short in the mountains, even in the summertime, so after spending some time at Houtong and taking the train, we had only an hour or two before dark to return to Taipei. Also, the weather was just not picking up. I would definitely advise going to any of these small towns in better weather and even maybe on the weekend–despite the fact that you would have to elbow your way through a thick forest of people. Most of the shops are closed on the weekday, and as soothing as the calm and quiet is, there’s not much to see.

Pingxi old streetWe did do our part as tourists and walk down 平溪老街 [ping xi lao jie], or Pingxi Old Street, though. Sparse sustenance for our rumbling bellies in these parts.

sky lantern shopAnd while our regrettably short visit left me feeling unfulfilled and with a lot of 遺憾 [yi han], or “regrets”, we did find a lonely sky lantern 天燈 [tian deng] shop! My mom wasn’t up for decorating a big one, so we bought a couple of souvenir sky lanterns to take home with good wishes on them. She was particularly interested in the one with 學業進步 [xue ye jing bu], or “may your studies improve”. Chinese parents, go figure.

Til next time, Pingxi!