It’s difficult to find anything open on a Sunday, but today I had planned well and James and I went to Marksburg, a medieval castle about an hour southeast of us. I had expected the GPS to take us most of the way on the Autobahn, but instead almost the entire drive twisted and turned up and down a single lane mountain road. The view alternated between bare winter forests and rolling fields and farmland dotted with the occasional town. Each tiny town was a cluster of steep-roofed houses overseen by a taller church tower somewhere in their midst. At one of the higher points, we even saw the remains of a snow that had not reached our area. With many signs warning of sharp turns, falling rocks, wild animals, and one specifically warning of squirrels just before the castle, I drove more cautiously than usual.
The castle itself towers from the highest point over the Middle Rhein town of Braubach and is the only castle of its kind to be essentially undamaged through time by nature or war. After driving up a guardrail-free path wide enough for one car (with a few pull-over areas to accommodate two-way traffic), we parked and walked up a steep set of narrow wooden stairs to reach the main entrance. From this height we had beautiful views of the sleepy town below as well as the Rhein River.
Our tour guide was very young but also very confident and knowledgeable about the castle. The 50-minute tour was in German but we used a free English booklet from the gift shop/ticket counter to supplement what we heard. In the early 13th century the castle had only one entrance: the Iron Door, which still stands and was one of the final sights of the tour. Today there are an additional three entry points: the Drawbridge Gate, Arrow-Slit Gate, and Foxgate. Inside the castle we explored the wine cellar, kitchen, bedroom, great hall, chapel, and more. Many of the rooms had deep window areas with benches for sitting and seeing (pre-electric lights) activities like literally and figuratively spinning yarns. In addition, outside we could see cannons pointed out of windows overlooking the Rhein, an herb garden with plants for “witchcraft and magic,” and the outside of a keep once used as a dungeon.
Most of the new year so far has been spent settling into a fantastic new apartment and getting used to daily life in Germany. I just completed an extremely well-taught German class (five mornings per week – the perfect routine while still applying for jobs) and signed up for the next session which begins next week. Back at the apartment, I’ve been getting used to using an induction stove and oven in degrees Celsius, converting recipes measurements to or from the metric system (we measure butter in cups but here it’s in grams, which aren’t even comparable units), and adjusting to a German washer and dryer. When James and I first looked at the laundry area (which the Italian restaurant downstairs also uses for one of their refrigerators) on our walkthrough, I saw the water hook-ups but asked where the vent was for the dryer. Here, however, the dryer collects water in a compartment that you have to empty after each load and doesn’t need a vent. The washer and dryer are much smaller compared to those in America and are high-efficiency, which also translates to requiring almost two hours per machine.
We are very fortunate to have a great deal of built-in storage in our apartment, which is unusual here. In addition, like most German apartments, we have a storage room in the basement (der Keller) for things like suitcases and bikes. I was wondering if the cathedrals have a giant room like that to house all of the Christmas market stalls during the other eleven months of the year. We also have floorboard heating which is, interestingly enough, rather common here. Our apartment even has a Wintergarten, which is a sunroom that can be used for as much garden as you care to take care of.
I have no complaints about living here but the most complicated aspect of daily life so far has been, without a doubt, managing the recycling. Behind our building outside there are containers for four different types of waste, and that doesn’t even cover everything we’re responsible for sorting. Similar to in the U.S., there is a container for paper (Altpapier = old paper), packaging (which mostly includes plastic containers and metal cans), and trash (our garbage can inexplicably has a sticker of a velociraptor but no label). Additionally, there’s a container for Biorubbish, or fruit and vegetable peels, etc. Plastic bottles, however, need to be returned to the same store we bought them from in exchange for change back. And the glass is another story. The nearest glass recycling receptacles are about a kilometer away. Once there, the glass has to be further sorted into one of three containers: white, brown, or green (which can include any other colors of glass as well). As you can imagine, all of these categories really challenge my love of recycling and make storage at home convoluted. I haven’t found anything more efficient so far than a small trash can, Biorubbish container, and paper/packaging container in the kitchen, in addition to a crate for plastic bottles and a box for glass bottles in the closet.
In Germany, New Year’s Eve is known as “Silvester” as in the cartoon cat, or more likely maybe a tie to a saint by that name. James and I ushered in 2014 at the house of a local cousin’s friends. As midnight approached we lugged a crateful of firecrackers and a bottle of champagne to the top of a hill from which we had phenomenal view of the evening’s main event. At the stroke of twelve, quite possibly every person in Germany set off one firework after another. The Mainz skyline in the distance appeared to moving, and I soon realized that the lights I thought were from windows were actually fireworks. Every way we turned we could see fireworks at the edges of the field, accompanied by a steady rumble punctuated with shrill whistles and blunt pops. After maybe half an hour the roars and flashes had dwindled down to a few strolling partygoers carrying sparklers.
Our hosts had also told us that Silvester in Germany is not complete without watching “Dinner for One.” Oddly enough, this is a British black-and-white film clip that has become a German cult classic tradition. It consists of a stately elderly lady who celebrates her birthday with a dinner party accompanied by four imaginary guests. Miss Sophie instructs her butler to serve each course along with a wine using “the same procedure as every year.” This involves the butler playing the role of each guest and drinking his wine. As the short scene continues he of course becomes drunker and less coordinated, frequently tripping over the head of large tiger skin rug. Finally, the absurd dinner concludes and the lady and her butler walk arm in arm together upstairs for “the same procedure as every year.”
Well as they say here, “Guten Rutsch ins neues Jahr” which translates literally in English as “Good slip into the new year.” This has been an interesting start to what I’m sure will prove to be a year filled with new discoveries, travels, and adventures.