Journey with the Parents: München

The Great Parental Adventure continued with a four day stint in Munich, chock full of adventures.

We got into the city in the afternoon. Famished from a long journey, dad leapt at the first food vendor he saw, directly outside the Hauptbahnhof. He got a wurst there which was seemingly ordinary, but apparently it was one of the most delicious things he had ever eaten. Based on that first impression, we knew Munich was going to be a good time.

The Neues Rathaus in Munich.

After getting settled into our hotel, we immediately set off for Marienplatz, the heart of Munich’s old city. Our specific target was the fabled Hofbräuhaus. After some early missteps, we were able to find our way into the city center. From the first sight of St. Peter’s Church (Alter Peter), I was in love. There is so much beautiful and incredible architecture in Munich as well as history. To me, Marienplatz was totally overwhelming because it seemed like everywhere you turned there was something to see or explore or look at appreciatively.

The Neues Rathaus is particularly stunning. It’s most well-known for its Glockenspiel (one of Europe’s most overrated tourist attractions!) but to me, that was just a footnote. The building itself is just beautiful and so intricate, full of charming details that reward careful observers.

No touristy visit to Munich would be complete without a visit to the Hofbräuhaus, so we made sure that was one of the first things we did. We’re thorough like that. But the Hofbräuhaus is a must-see for obvious reasons. Yes, it’s crawling with tourists and saturated with Bavarian stereotypes. But you know what? It’s also ridiculously fun. The atmosphere is convivial, the music is entertaining and, most importantly, the beer is delicious.

The next day, we took a train out to Dachau in order to see the concentration camp memorial there. I was very conflicted about this trip. Obviously, this is a place that is powerful and worth seeing. But it’s still not an easy thing to commit yourself to, no matter how important you think it is.

Still, I am glad I went. The camp is very well-preserved and extremely interesting and moving to visit. It was much, much bigger than I expected – walking into the camp and immediately seeing the open square where the prisoners used to line up for roll call was a somewhat surreal experience.

I am quite glad that I got to visit the camp in April, instead of the summer when there might be more tourists. It was already a little too crowded for my tastes, and this was on a Wednesday in the low season. I experience places like Dachau better when there is more solitude, and it was quite distracting—and a little disheartening—for there to be so many tourists there who only seemed to want to take pictures, rather than take a second to internalize what they’re looking at.

The third day, we took a day trip to Salzburg, Austria. I was excited for this both to see the city—I had heard it was beautiful—as well as to actually leave Germany for the first time. Granted, going to Salzburg was not exactly a huge departure from what I knew in Germany, but still. It was a new country!

Overlooking Salzburg, with a glimpse of the Alps to the right of the fortress.

The weather was phenomenal and Salzburg certainly lived up to its reputation as a beautiful city. A friend described the city as “excruciatingly beautiful” and by the end of the day, I think I understood what he meant. It was all just almost too perfect—a historic fortress looking down at the city from a hill, winding streets through a thriving old city, wide squares with picturesque fountains and white marble buildings… seriously, Salzburg pretty much has everything you could ever want in an ideal European city.

We paid several euros in order to take an elevator up to the top of  a hill so as to get a better look at the city, and I think that was definitely money well spent. It was a great vista from which to appreciate the beautiful white-and-green motif that dominates the city as well as to get a look at the Alps in the distance. To sum it up, Salzburg is simply gorgeous.

The original plan for our last day in Munich was to go to Neuschwanstein, which is basically THE German castle to visit. However, it was clear that energy levels in the group were dwindling and none of us were particularly enthused by the two-hour train ride that would be needed to get us to the city of Füssen, from where we could obtain transport to the castle.

We decided instead to use Friday to see more of Munich, and filling the day was not difficult – again, there is so much to see in Munich.

We started with a tour of the Residenz, the former palace of Bavaria’s royal family. It was an interesting tour, but I’m not sure it was worth the money to me—it was just a lot of elegant rooms, many of which were reconstructions, since much of the Residenz was destroyed in World War II. The part I enjoyed most was actually seeing the display of the valuables that belonged to the family,, such as swords, crowns and gem stones.  This was actually a separate part of the museum that you could pay individually for, and I think I would have been just as contented if we had only paid for the treasury portion of the museum.

After the Residenz, we wandered over to the Viktualienmarkt to find some food. The Viktualienmarkt is basically a huge outdoor market where you can buy ready-to-eat food as well as things like vegetables, breads, etc. From there we went over to the beautiful St. Peter’s Church, which was largely destroyed in World War II and was then reconstructed in the aftermath.

I’ve really come to appreciate the devastation that actually ensued from WWII. We don’t really have any conception of this in the United States because there has never been any sort of assault on our soil that has caused such widespread devastation. Yet time and time again, I visit places—structures as well as entire towns—that were something completely different before the war. I can’t help but wonder what Germany would look like if WWII had never happened—so much history was lost amidst the onslaught.

Green space! People!

Our last stop was the English Gardens, a massive public park similar to Central Park in New York. The park space is absolutely massive from what we could see, and we really only saw a sliver. The University of Munich is situated along one edge of the park, which I think would be absolutely wonderful if you were a student. I was instantly jealous, suddenly no longer satisfied with grilling on the banks of the Lahn River in Marburg.

All in all, I absolutely loved Munich. It’s everything you expect it to be, but it does that so well. If you can get over the fact that it’s crawling with tourists and accept its clichéd charm, you’ll have a blast. And seriously, the beer is awesome.

Journey with the Parents: Bacharach

The tower of St. Peters Church

After Köln, we took a train to Bacharach, a small village on the Rhine. It must not be particularly well-known among natives, because every German I have spoken to has never heard of it. I swear it exists!

We arrived on a rainy Sunday evening, and the village was pretty much dead. Which wasn’t surprising, since most German towns pretty much shut down on Sunday, but I was nervous that a town as small as Bacharach wouldn’t be much livelier on a Monday.

We spent the next day exploring the town. It’s incredibly small – you definitely don’t need more than two days to feel comfortable that you’ve seen everything, and even that might be stretching it – but very cute, full of timber-frame houses and cute little shops. My parents’ main goal in visiting Bacharach was to do some wine tasting, but we were largely unsuccessful in these efforts. Most of the wineries were closed, since this is low season for tourists, and not exactly prime wine season regardless.

Still, it was a very pleasant town to walk around, with plenty of history to explore, such as the ruins of a 13th-century church. There’s also a castle atop a hill overlooking the village which is now actually used as a youth hostel. I think the walk up would be pretty below average if you had a heavy pack – it’s about 15-20 min, uphill the entire way – but hey, then you get to sleep in a castle. That’s pretty cool right? I walked up there just to explore, and it seems like a very nice place to stay. Moreover, it offered wonderful views of the town and the river valley.

All in all, if nothing else, Bacharach offered a great middle point between bustling, modern Köln and our next stop, Munich. It was a lovely chance to stop and enjoy the quiet life along the Rhine.

Looking down the Rhine River Valley from the vantage point of the castle.

Journey with the Parents: Köln

The Kölner Dom.

I apologize for my lack of posts of late – it was a combination of not doing anything particularly interesting for a short bit and then suddenly doing many things that were extremely interesting and which robbed me of the time and energy to update.

My language course ended on March 31st and the next day I took a train up to Kôln (Cologne), where I would meet up with my parents to spend a week and half traveling with them. Our former exchange student, Kiri, lives in Köln, and we were excited to finally meet her and her family in their home city ten years after she had come to live with us for a year in the states.

I was particularly excited to see her and her family again since I now have some German language abilities. Kiri’s parents had come to visit us in the states, but they spoke no English and we spoke no German, so when Kiri wasn’t available to translate, the exchanges weren’t particularly fruitful. Not so this time, I hoped.

I really enjoyed the train ride up to Köln. Part of it snaked along the Rhine River Valley, offering great views of all the adorable little villages nestled in the hills. Many of them had small castles topping the hills in various states of preservation, from ruins to near perfect. It just felt so German, so far from anything I would ever experience in the U.S.

This was also my first solo train trip since arriving in Germany, so I was also excited to test my traveling independence. Evidently, I was successful.

I arrived in Köln a couple hours earlier than my parents. I had hoped to use the extra time to wander around the city, but I quickly realized the combination of my heavy bag and inclement weather meant that my time would be much better spent using the free wi-fi at Starbucks.

Still, it was pretty impressive walking out of the Hauptbahnhof in Köln and immediately seeing the city’s most striking building – the Kölner Dom, a huge cathedral. I had seen pictures, but none of them could ever do it justice. The church is MASSIVE, and truly beautiful. It’s easily the coolest thing I have seen so far in Germany.

Spending time with Kiri and her family was wonderful. My German was not stellar, but certainly functional, and I did a reasonable job serving as a translator between Kiri’s parents and my own when Kiri was not available.

It was also very interesting to see where her family lives and works. Her parents own a butcher shop and actually live above the store, so every time we would come and go, we’d have to go through the shop itself, snaking through the line of customers. The building was also one of those classic European homes that are quite narrow and quite tall. The building had more floors than I had ever seen in a home, but there were only one or two rooms on each floor since it was so narrow.

Köln itself was unlike any city I had seen so far. It was distinctly modern, but still full of character. There’s plenty of shopping and restaurants to explore, but also some lovely park space, especially along the Rhine. There is also a delicious local beer called Kölsch, which I highly recommend. More importantly, however, I just got the feeling that everyone from Köln is extremely proud of their city and excited to share it with newcomers.

One thing I got to do while in Köln was participate in a pillow fight (Kissenschlacht) in front of the Dom. It was a sort of flash mob organized on Facebook, and it was a ton of fun. It lasted about a half hour and by the end of it, I was covered in feather residue (and kept finding stray feathers the rest of my trip).  It was so funny to see all the tourists who had no idea this was going to happen looking on in confusion, wondering how a pillow fight could just spontaneously erupt.

I really hope that I can return to Köln in the summer and see more of the city. It doesn’t have the old world charm of cities like Marburg or Munich, but it more than makes up for that in its overall joie de vivre.

The scene in front of the Dom - too fun!

Kassel

A museum in downtown Kassel.

On Sunday a group of us went up to Kassel to see what there was to see. We took an 8:30 a.m. train and arrived in Kassel around ten in the morning. Our first impressions of Kassel were less than glowing… basically the main train station in Kassel is situated in a not-so-nice part of the city, unless you consider strip clubs and erotic shops high-class, in which case Kassel is nothing short of glamorous.

We wandered around a bit without a real game plan – we just wanted to see what was in the city. We had intentions of finding some food but the combination of it being a Sunday and somewhat early in the day meant that choices were quite limited. We managed to find one café that was open and worked our way to the nicer part of Kassel’s downtown.

From what I’ve read, Kassel is an example of a city that had an extremely different fate than Marburg in World War II – around 80 percent of the city was destroyed in the war, meaning Kassel is severely lacking in old-world charm. The vast majority of the buildings in the city are relatively new and not necessarily the most aesthetically pleasing. Granted, there were some nice parts of the city, including a lovely little square of grass and a pretty museum building.

Schloss Wilhelmshöhe

Once we were satisfied that we had seen what downtown Kassel had to offer, we worked our way to the outskirts of the town to Schloss Wilhelmshöhe Park, a sprawling park with a palace built in the late 18th century. The German emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II used the palace as a summer home in the early 1900s.

The park alone was worth the trip to Kassel. The grounds were absolutely lovely, full of trees and well-maintained lawns as well as scattered neo-classical buildings and statues. You could spend hours wandering around.  The park also offered a nice view of Kassel, since it is situated high on a hill. The Schloss (palace) itself, where the emperor lived, is also quite pretty. The overall feel of the park was very idyllic – peaceful and full of nature.

The park is most famous for the statue of Hercules that rests at the very top of another hill facing the palace. The pictures I took don’t really do justice to the size of the statue or how high above the park it looms. You can walk up the statue if you are feeling intrepid, which some members of our group did. Others of us weren’t quite feeling up to it on that day, however, so we hung back and just soaked up the beautiful spring weather.

As is becoming common with our adventures, we all agreed we would love to come back again in the summer and picnic out on the lawn. Those of us who did not climb up to the statue would like to come back and conquer that challenge. Additionally, twice a week in the summer there is an artificial waterfall that runs from the top of the Hercules statue down to the base of the hill, which is supposed to be quite the sight to behold. So, expect another jaunt to Kassel in a few months.

Waaaay out there is the statue of Hercules, at the very tip of the point. So yes, a bit of a hike.

Tour overload

On Sunday we (the language course participants) went on a hike to Spiegelslust, a 19th-century watchtower. It’s also known by the name Kaiserwilhelmturm (Kaiser Wilhelm’s Tower) but Marburgers dislike this name, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me.

I can see the arguments for both sides of the uterus-or-heart debate.

The hike up wasn’t much of a hike at all; it really only took about 15 to 20 minutes. It was nice to spend some time in the woods though. It’d been a while since I had really been in nature.

The area surrounding the tower provides some wonderful views of Marburg. I didn’t go up the tower itself (it cost a couple euros), but you really don’t need to if you just want to overlook Marburg. The front of the tower is adorned with either a heart or a uterus (depending who you ask – see the picture and decide for yourself) that lights up at night when you call some certain number. So whenever you’re walking around the city at night, if you look out into the hills you can usually see the tower brightly lit up.

We sat down to enjoy the outdoors at one of the cafes near the tower. I opted to just have a hot chocolate – the food there was way too expensive, in my opinion. I try not to spend more than 5 euros a meal and am usually successful in this.

The hike back down was somewhat more eventful. Those of us living in the dorms that were in the vicinity of the tower split off from the rest of the group, sent off with vague instructions of what the right direction was. As we began walking there were multiple forks in the path and we weren’t certain we were heading the right way at all, but eventually we came out on a familiar street and were able to figure out the way home. I’m certain there had to have been a better way than the one we chose, however.  But I’d really like to go back to the tower sometime, especially on a sunny day, when I’m sure the view of the city below is much nicer.

On Wednesday we went on a group excursion to Wiesbaden, which is the capital city of the state of Hessen. It was about an hour and a half bus ride, and we got into Wiesbaden around 10:30 a.m. We immediately went to the Landtag, the seat of Hessen’s state government, for a tour.

I had the option to take an English tour, but I decided that I needed to start challenging myself more and so I went on the German tour instead. This was definitely a good choice – it wasn’t nearly as challenging as I had feared, and I would say I understood about 80 percent of what was said – not bad.

Inside the old part of the Landtag.

The tour itself was very interesting. Part of the Landtag is the former home of a prominent German duke in the 1800s, so this part of the building is very beautifully and ornately decorated, with richly painted walls and ceilings and dazzling chandeliers. The newer part of the Landtag houses the actual Plenarsaal, where the representatives from the different cities debate and pass legislature. This building was a harsh contrast to the older parts, being starkly white and decidedly modern – very simple and bright, with many windows to let in as much natural light as possible.

After the tour, we had about an hour and a half to wander about to find some food. A few of us stopped to get some wurst, taking in the various shops, cafes and restaurants we passed along the way. We didn’t go into many, but in general Wiesbaden seemed to be a fairly chic city, at least in the areas around the Landtag – many nice restaurants, shoe stores, purse stores, clothing stores, etc. It definitely would be a great place to shop.

Still, Wiesbaden had an extremely different feel than Marburg or Frankfurt. Marburg has a lot of old-city charm, at least in Altstadt, with cobblestone streets, timber frame houses and narrow, winding ways. Wiesbaden streets were wide and stone-paved, and the buildings themselves were pretty much all from the 1800s or later. Frankfurt is some sort of fusion of the two – parts of Frankfurt are hundreds of years old, other parts strikingly modern. I’ve now only seen three different German cities, but each has been decidedly distinct.

After the lunch break, we all met up again to go on a tour of the city. Again, there was the option to go on an English or a German tour, and, with my confidence boosted by the tour of the Landtag, I once more opted for the German tour.

However, I soon realized that I have a maximum amount of German that I can handle in a single day, and I quickly hit my cap. It’s tiring enough schlepping all around a city, but adding the additional strain of understanding a foreign language throughout it all can really wear you out. Halfway through the city tour, I was pretty drained and understanding far less of the tour than I had earlier in the day at the Landtag. I think many of my fellow students experienced the same level of exhaustion – you don’t realize how tiring hyper-attentive listening can be until it hits you like a brick wall.

So, I got something out of the city tour, but not nearly as much as I probably should have. By the end of it I was totally disengaged, just following along with the group without really making an effort to listen.

Tidbits that I can share with you:

–The oldest structure in Wiesbaden is the remains of a Roman aqueduct built in the 300s, called the Heidenmauer.

St. Elizabeth's Church

–Wiesbaden has thermal hot springs running throughout the city, which you can touch and even drink from via various fountains and basins throughout the city. You are advised not to drink more than a liter per day. This is why Wiesbaden rose to prominence in the 1800s; it became a popular destination for people seeking to benefit from the restorative health properties of its hot springs.

–There’s a really cool Russian Orthodox Church located on top of a hill. This was at the end of the tour, when I was tuckered out, so I don’t have a lot of details here. According to wikipedia, it was built in the 1850s after the death of the Duke of Nassau’s wife, who was a Russian princess. But it’s pretty, and the land it’s located on was apparently ceded to the Russian czar. So I think I also visited Russia on Wednesday?

Despite being so worn out at the end of the day, I would like to come back to Wiesbaden – probably not until the summer, though. There is a lot of green space there that I think would be particularly lovely on a sunny, warm day. But since it’s located within the state of Hessen, train rides there are free for me, meaning it wouldn’t be too hard to make another trip in the future. Hopefully I can make it happen!

Some assorted observations

Life is definitely starting to stabilize. On Tuesday we began our intensive language course (sprachkurs). Now every Monday through Thursday we will be receiving language instruction for four hours a day. Yikes! But I know the course will be incredibly helpful as far as gaining fluency in the language, and thus far I have found it to be quite enjoyable. The course level I was placed in is perfect for my abilities, and I can already tell my German competency is improving.

It is getting disorienting moving between German and English, though. I’d like to begin to speak more exclusively in German, even with my fellow international students, but that’s not really possible with all of them because they have varying levels of German experience. So, English can’t be eliminated completely, but I hope I can begin to rely on it less and less.

I’m excited for some of the opportunities we have as part of the course. We will be meeting this Friday for a night out in Marburg’s bars, going for a hike to a 19th-century Prussian watchtower on Sunday, and making a group trip to Wiesbaden (the capital of Hessen) next week. So although I am becoming more settled here, the opportunities for exploration are still far from over.

Assorted observations about life in Germany

Water Fountains: They don’t exist. Period. I have yet to see one here. I mean, I’m sure they exist SOMEWHERE, but they are nowhere near as prevalent as they are in the United States. This seems particularly strange to me, because it seems that water fountains have a wide appeal – why wouldn’t people want immediately accessible, free water? When I pose this question to Germans, they say you can just drink from a bathroom faucet if you really don’t want to buy water. And while I realize the water coming out of the faucet is probably just as good as what you might get out of a water fountain, that still just doesn’t seem like a satisfying answer.

Side note – I have also had an incredibly hard time finding a replacement water bottle here, such as a steel/aluminum bottle or a plastic nalgene. People just don’t use those here – they either buy a new bottle of water or reuse and old plastic bottle.

Recycling: In a display of true German precision, recycling is a big deal here. When trying to dispose of an item, it’s common to be confronted with several bins, each intended only for certain items – single-stream recycling is apparently not en vogue here. There are bins for paper, plastics, garbage, green glass, brown glass, clear glass… they’re into their recycling here. I think I am supposes to sort my own trash in my dorm room. We’ll see how that goes.

Cigarettes: Smoking is far more prevalent here than it is in the United States. There are areas inside the university’s union building and cafeterias for smokers, and it’s impossible to go out to a bar and not come back reeking of smoke. They also have cigarette dispensers throughout the city streets, which I think is very strange, specifically because it means ANYONE with money can buy them – even children.

University perks: There are a lot of things the other American students and I have become accustomed to at our home universities in the United States that are simply not the case here. One obvious example – internet access. Only some of the dorms here have internet access (and I think when they do it’s just through an Ethernet cable, not wireless) and I am not in one of those dorms. So if I want free wireless access, I have to take a bus down to one of the university buildings, a 15 to 20 minute ride. Except then, I am limited by the hours the building is open – on weekdays, the union is open until 8 p.m.; on weekends, its hours are severely limited (the library is at least open until midnight every night, although it is a bit farther out than the union). Back at Marquette, all dorms and university apartment buildings are wired, and many of our academic buildings are open until midnight (our library is open 24/7).  Many (although not all) American universities offer free gym memberships, but here in Marburg that would cost 80 euros a month.

Marburg also has 100 percent more castles than Marquette.

But there is a critical flipside to this, and that is the cost of tuition. We get a lot of perks at our universities in the United States, but, compared to German universities (and most other European systems), we pay dearly for it. German students pay about 500 euros a year in tuition (though they don’t even refer to it as such; it is paid as semester fees). Compare that to the $10,000 a year (with scholarships) I am paying to go to Marquette.

We (the Americans) complain a lot about everything we’re used to that our university here in Marburg just doesn’t provide, but I don’t think I’m too far off when I say there are probably a lot of American students who would gladly forego all the conveniences of their American education if they could simply graduate college without tens of thousands of dollars of debt.

Helau!

Yesterday was easily my best day here, and very unexpectedly so.

Four of us met up this morning to head to the train station to spend the day in Frankfurt. We get free train rides within the state of Hessen as students in Marburg, and I figured if we didn’t have anything better to do, why not bum around Frankfurt? It doesn’t exactly have the best reputation in Germany as an exciting, scenic place to visit, but I know there are some parts of it that are kind of pretty, and again, it’s not like we were paying anything to make the trip. Plus, it only takes about an hour.

Confetti bursting in the air, with the Römerberg in the background.

We got into Frankfurt at about 10:30 a.m. and just started walking with a vague sense of direction, which eventually proved to be faulty (shock). I was trying to get us to the Römerberg, Frankfurt’s old city, but I was ultimately unsuccessful in these efforts. We worked our way back toward the train station to find a Starbucks so I could use the wifi to look up a map on my iPod.

On the way back, we kept noticing people dressed up in costumes, which seemed a bit odd.  We also began to hear loud music and noticed increasing crowds of people – clearly, something was up. There were barriers that had been set up along the roads that we thought had been left from a previous event, but we began to realize that something was actually happening today.

I began to figure that Frankfurt was probably having a Karneval celebration, something the city of Köln/Cologne is best known for, but which other cities and villages also celebrate. We immediately realized this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see a uniquely German celebration, and we abandoned our plans of wandering around, instead finding a place along the barriers to watch the parade.

It was pretty cold out, and we stood for a LONG time – I would guess a total of 3 ½ or 4 hours – but it was incredibly fun. It’s not clear to me exactly who made up the parade participants, but it seems that there are hundreds of organizations throughout the city who create their own floats and performances for the parade route, dressing up in silly costumes, handing out candy to children and playing traditional Karneval songs. Many of the songs were well known by the parade watchers, who would sing along. Apparently Sweet Caroline is a popular Karneval tune, and we heard it several times during the parade.

One of the many, many floats in the parade.

In addition to the traditional songs, all the parade participants would constantly call out to the parade watchers, “Frankfurt! Helau!” to which the crowd which shout back, “Helau!” I guess this was some sort of traditional Karneval greeting – we thought they were saying “Hello!” but we eventually realized it was different.

One aspect of the parade that I thought was interesting was its use of some racial imagery in ways that would never be acceptable in the US – there were groups done up in blackface with images on their floats depicting caricatures of blacks that would be offensive to most in America, and other dressed in ponchos and sombreros as part of an overall Mexican theme. I realize that different societies will have different taboos, and it’s certainly not as though the parade participants themselves were entirely white, but I just thought it was interesting that what some Americans might find deeply offensive apparently doesn’t even register with Germans.

Other highlights of the day included: trying currywurst, a bratwurst chopped up with some sort of sauce poured over it and curry powder sprinkled on it; trying Glühwein, a hot spiced wine that is absolutely phenomenal on a cold day; and making friends with Patrick, who currently lives in Frankfurt and works as a dog trainer (he had an adorable dachshund with him and his parents trained German Shepherds – how German!).

It was just such an unexpectedly fun day – we were going down because we had nothing better to do and I wanted to get more familiar with Frankfurt’s train station, since I hope to be making many more trips during my time here. Yet instead we stumbled on a uniquely German celebration, essentially a giant party in the middle of Frankfurt. We didn’t quite make it to the old city today, but this was absolutely a day well-spent in Frankfurt. And hey, it’s not like we can’t come back another time.