A Venture into Former East Germany

Modern university mixed with old church in Augustusplatz, formerly Karl-Marx-Platz
Modern university mixed with old church in Augustusplatz, formerly Karl-Marx-Platz

I wasn’t familiar with the term DDR. In English, our abbreviation is GDR. Deutsche Demokratische Republik = German Democratic Republic. The former East Germany.

I had started taking German lessons when I arrived with several goals, one of the main ones being to be able to converse with James’s relatives in Germany. This past weekend, I felt that this goal had been achieved. Of course, still with a lot of room for improvement.

We had been kindly invited for a visit by relatives in Leipzig, four hours or so hours east of us. Now retired, they were born during World War II and lived in the DDR until Germany became reunited in 1990. In DDR times, children learned Russian as a foreign language in school, and citizens could only enter West Germany with special permission even if they had family members there. (The rest of this branch of the family was, in fact, scattered throughout West Germany.)

The highlight of the trip, of course, was getting to know these cousins and learning more about family history from a completely different perspective. We also had the opportunity to tour Leipzig and learn about the historical context of the city firsthand.

Café with medieval tower and flags for the World Cup
Café with medieval tower and flags for the World Cup

The main downtown area is a complete mix of old and new. A medieval tower on the corner of a modern café; a shopping center with a bar that Goethe used to frequent (and included in Faust); parts of a church left in the center of a main university building.

Leipzig currently has a large university student community, and people-watching was particularly interesting while we had lunch along the Marktplatz square by the old town hall. Colorful stockings, brightly-dyed hair, black clothes with buckles. A colorful cast of other non-university characters drifted through the square as well.

Altes Rathaus = Old Town Hall
Altes Rathaus = Old Town Hall

From a Hop-on Hop-off bus, one of the first sights we saw was the remains of the Hotel Astoria (now closed), covered in graffiti and short an “S.” But not far away we saw many extremely modern hotels, expensive riverside lofts, and extensive public parks.

The Leipzig Hauptbahnhof (main train station) is the largest terminus in the world. Sachsen, or Saxon, and Prussia operated two separate state railway systems from different wings of the building in the earlier half of the 20th century. Bombings during World War II badly damaged the Hauptbahnhof, but the glass and other structural features have since been restored.

Part of Leipzig Hauptbahnhof
Part of Leipzig Hauptbahnhof

Leipzig is also home to the Monument for the Battle of the Nations. Standing tall over a long pool, it commemorates the defeat of Napoleon’s armies in 1813. Russian, Prussian, Austrian, and Swedish forces had triumphed over French, Italian, Polish, and some Rheinland soldiers.

Monument to the Battle of the Nations
Monument to the Battle of the Nations
Bach's grave in St. Thomas Church
Bach’s grave in St. Thomas Church

We visited two churches that we had seen from the bus tour: One related to the Reformation and one to the Revolution against the DDR government.

The composer Johann Sebastian Bach had worked in both churches during the 18th century. In fact he is buried in St. Thomas Church, where Martin Luther had led his Reformation movement about 200 years earlier. The world-renowned St. Thomas Boys’ Choir was first formed here some 800 years ago.

In 1989, St. Nicholas Church was where the East German peaceful freedom demonstrations began. People filled the streets and walked through the city, ultimately gaining rights as East and West Germany became reunited a year later.

DDR protest mural
Freedom mural

One of the most striking sights I saw was an enormous mural, still in progress, depicting this nonviolent struggle to independence. Colorful people cover every inch of the side of a building, displaying their unity. Their absolutely cartoonish appearance belies the powerful messages in the mural. Asserting, accusing, demanding.

We are the people.”

“Fat cats in production.” “Stasi in the opencast mining.”

“The Wall must go.” “Visa free till Hawaii.” “New forum.” “Freedom of the press.” “Free elections.”

“No violence.”



The whole mural (part of the middle remains to be filled in)
The whole mural (part of the middle remains to be filled in)

The ABCs of Mainzer Johannisnacht


Johannisnacht (St. John’s Eve) is a time to celebrate the longest day of the year, the summer solstice. In Germany, of course, this calls for a festival. I thought it was a small festival being set up on the Mainz side of the Rhein River, but it turns out to be the biggest Fest I’ve ever seen so far. It outdoes the Christmas market in size, stretching along the Rhein in both directions from the Theodor-Heuss-Brücke (bridge) and spiraling into and through the Altstadt (old town). However, it only lasts for one long weekend. Here I describe this past weekend’s Mainzer Johannisnacht Fest – mostly with food – according to the alphabet.

Ananas und Apfel = Pineapple and apple. Here these fruits are covered in chocolate on a stick. If you don’t like either, you can also find chocolate-covered strawberries, bananas, grapes, melon, and other fruits.

Bratwurst. Typical fest food served with a roll or French fries.

Currywurst = Sliced Bratwurst drizzled with a curry ketchup-like sauce. This is also a very typical food and most commonly served with fries.

IMG_2898 IMG_2901

Dom = Cathedral. The Mainzer Dom at the heart of the Altstadt is surrounded by Biergarten areas, music, rides, games, and food stands during the Johannisnacht Fest.

Eis (pronounced “ice”) = Ice cream. Several stands brag of having “American ice cream.” This is also the first time in Germany that I’ve seen soft serve ice cream and slushies.

Fußball (ß means ss) = Soccer, Football. Because the World Cup is going on at the same time this year, just about every booth has a TV showing the games. On Saturday, Germany played Ghana and tied 2-2.


Glas = Glass. There aren’t many plastic cups here, so you pay a deposit of 2 Euros or so for a glass of beer, water, juice, or soda. When you return the glass, you get your deposit back. Erdbeerbowle, or strawberry punch, is the current seasonal drink and is usually available in a plastic cup at this Fest.


Herzen = Hearts. Gingerbread hearts with “Ich liebe dich” (I love you) and other cutesy phrases iced onto them fill many stands.


Imbiss = Snack. In addition to Bratwurst and fries, German Imbiss stands also sell snacks such as fresh-cut potato chips, fried potato pancakes with applesauce, Spätzle (noodles), cheeses, pickles, fried mushrooms, and a variety of small grilled meat dishes.

Jägermeister. A shot of this German herb-flavored liquor sells for a Euro.

Kunst = Art. Booths of jewelry, ceramics, paintings, wood carvings, and many more handmade crafts line the Rhein.


Literatur = Literature. One large spin-off area of the Fest houses a used book market and a printing booth that would make former Mainz resident Johannes Gutenberg proud.


Magenbrot. These small slices of iced spice cake, similar to gingerbread, are sold by weight in bags at the nuts and sweets stands.

Nüsse = Nuts. The nut stands define the smell of sweet and breathe deliciousness throughout the Fest. Almonds, cashews, peanuts, walnuts, pistachios, and more are roasted, candy-coated, and sold in cone-shaped bags. Coconuts (not actually nuts) are sold by the slice here too.


Orangensaft = Orange juice. Fresh squeezed, this is a refreshing Fest drink.

Popcorn. This is usually sold by the bag at the same stands as the nuts and other treats. It can be topped with salt, honey, chili, or chocolate.

Quintinsstraße = Quintin’s Street. One of the few streets in the old town area that the Fest doesn’t extend to. This is a good spot to take a break from the crowds.

Riesenrad = Ferris wheel. From here you can have a great view of the Rhein and the old town area of Mainz. And for about 60 Euros, you and five friends can drink sparkling wine and watch fireworks from a Riesenrad car on the last night of the Fest.


Schießen = Shooting. A popular game at many booths where you can use BB guns to shoot plastic flowers, metal shapes, and other targets for prizes. Other games include the claw machines, duck ponds, can pyramid knockdowns, and other standard carnival schemes.


Tanzmusik = Dance music. At least six stages of live music and a DJ booth provide entertainment with mostly American and some German rock & roll and pop music.

Ungarische Langos = Hungarian Langos (fried flat bread with sweet or savory toppings). These and other foreign foods are scattered throughout the fair amongst the more common German grills: Italian pizza, French crêpes, Spanish churros, U.S. beef, Thai noodles, and so on.

Volk (pronounced “folk”) = Folk, People. This is one crowded fest!

Wahrsagerin/Wahrsager = Fortune teller (literally, truth-sayer). In a few secretive booths, you can learn about your future.


XXL, IntoXX, und eXtreme Rutschen = The XXL takes riders around and around and upside down; the Intoxx is the swinging pirate ship; and the extreme slides provide a quick and bumpy ride to the bottom. Other rides throughout the fest include bumper cars, teacups, swings, merry-go-rounds and other kiddie rides, and many other rides that spin and twist.

YOLO = You Only Live Once. Yes, they have that expression in Germany too. It’s a good attitude for this summer Fest and it brings me to Z for…


Zuckerwatte = Cotton candy. The most classic of the street festival sweets is handspun and I found it the best way to end the Mainzer Johannisnacht Fest!

Rainy Day in Rome

“Check, please.”

“Eh?!” The waiter gestured toward the window and shrugged the question and the answer with his whole body.

Twenty-four hours earlier, James and I had been stretched out on beach chairs under a big umbrella on Lungomare, Fiumicino. But Sunday brought sheets of rain, so we had ventured into Rome to see history indoors. And the waiter was right; we would have to stick around inside the pizzeria a little longer if we were going to get anywhere dry with just an umbrella.

Busts in the National Museum of Rome
Busts in the National Museum of Rome

Eventually the rain slowed and we made our way to the nearby National Museum of Rome. It was a perfect way to spend a rainy afternoon. From the comfort of modern hallways filled with ancient art, we could see rain still falling in the inner courtyard over an artistic arrangement of orange trees. Most of the halls and rooms were filled with busts of emperors, Greek and Roman gods, athletes, philosophers, and other elite. One floor housed collections of mosaics, frescoes, and reconstructed rooms of an excavated Roman villa. The basement was mostly dedicated to displaying changes in currency over time up to the modern Euro.

Seafaring fresco
Seafaring fresco
Wall and floor of mosaics
Wall and floor of mosaics
Art made from bits of marble
Art made from bits of marble

We waited in the lobby for a while around closing time for another break in the weather before heading to the Basilica Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri (St. Mary of Angels and Martyrs). The crumbling brick exterior gave it the appearance of a ruin, but the inside was marble and gold and statues. A baptism was taking place at the altar, not far from an enormous sculpture of the decapitated head of St. John the Baptist.

Entrance to the Basilica
Entrance to the Basilica
In the Basilica
Domed ceiling
Domed ceiling
Baptism at the main altar
Baptism at the main altar

By evening, only the clouds remained and we were able to take a walk around to some of the other sights. The Trevi Fountain is currently being renovated, but that didn’t stop crowds of tourists from flocking to see it empty and surrounded by a wire fence. Sadly, pickpockets, scam artists, and panhandlers could be seen (and I have no doubt many were unobserved too) everywhere. The train stations and main squares were the worst, where crowds and confusion provided distraction. We had mostly avoided this threat all day by staying indoors in uncrowded areas, so had to stay more alert on our evening explorations. Knock on wood, our wallets and cameras survived the trip.

Empty Trevi Fountain (I put my camera through the fence)
Empty Trevi Fountain (picture taken through the fence)

For a late dinner, we ended up sharing a seafood assortment that turned out to be an elaborate work of art. The wine bar we had stopped into was showing the World Cup match between France and Honduras (final score: France 3-0), and had live music from two guys playing the guitar. Despite the weekend ending in rain it was hard to leave Italy, with its cross-at-your-own-peril traffic safety, expressive body language, delicious food, and generally relaxed attitude toward people and rules.

TGIF Chronicles: 10 Things I Stopped Asking Myself at the Supermarkt

After seven months of shopping at the sparse but efficient German Lidl (motto: Lohnt sich = Worth it!) and Aldi, the Supermarkt seems less foreign. Today I reflect on the differences I have now come to accept (more or less).

Unlocking a cart with a coin
Unlocking a cart with a coin

1. I’m here but I can’t just walk in? What do I need to do first?

Just like at the post office and several other must-visits in Germany, many grocery stores have a sign to say we’re on the honor system for parking, usually limited to an hour. I have to put my plastic parking clock on the dashboard to show when I arrived to the nearest half hour. Then I fish for a Euro coin (or sometimes a two Euro or fifty cent coin) so I can unlock a grocery cart to bring in. This is not so much to ensure that I don’t steal it like in the U.S., but rather that I bother to return it to its ranks when I leave. Of course, I’ve already brought reusable bags so I don’t have to buy plastic ones when I check out.


2. Wait, wasn’t I just here?

Yes. I was probably here two days ago if not yesterday. My refrigerator is small, many products have short use-by lives, I have to pay in cash (or with a European pin-chip card), and there are only two check-out lines if I’m lucky. Often the two people at the registers are the only two people working at the store. There’s no need and no good reason to stock up on anything or waste time here. So several short trips in a week does the job. I just have to make sure each week that I have enough food for Sunday, when every grocery store is closed.

The middle row of "stuff" at Aldi
The middle area of “stuff” at Aldi

3. I don’t need a kayak or an espresso machine. Where’s the food?

The German grocery stores (in my area anyway) are tiny! And yet they somehow manage to be even more junked up with “stuff” than those back home. But it’s all limited to a wide middle aisle. The perimeter of the store has everything I need: cereal, bread, produce, meat, dairy, baking supplies, and hygiene and cleaning products. The next loop in has the rest: snacks, canned goods, frozen foods, and drinks.

Bakery at the Lidl with bread slicing machine on the far right
Bakery at the Lidl with bread slicing machine on the far right
Vending machine-style bakery at Aldi
Vending machine-style bakery at Aldi

4. How do I get my bread and rolls?

All of the bread in Germany is delicious and fun to buy! I’ve seen two ways in different stores: a cool way and a cooler way. The first way is to use a small rake to guide the rolls or loaf of bread to a rut on the side of the bread case. The second involves not seeing the bread at all but only pictures of the bakery choices. It’s similar to a vending machine: I press the button next to the picture of what I want as many times as I want that item. In both cases, I bag the bread and put it in the cart. UNLESS I want a loaf sliced. Then I take it to the bread slicing machine – the coolest thing since sliced bread itself. The bread goes in, I close the lid, pull the handle, listen to the machine go, and then bag the sliced bread.

Pork and more pork
Pork and more pork

5. I don’t like pork that much. Now what?

Well… There are other meats, but pork products are by far the most prevalent. Salmon is also very common and very good. As most of the country is land-locked, it’s also usually the only fish that can be found. Beef can get very expensive if not chosen carefully. I usually look for chicken or turkey but do find myself buying pork or salmon more often than I did before. So in short: Learn to like it.

"Vampire Hunter" garlic sauce
“Vampire Hunter” garlic sauce

6. Where was that thing I saw here last time? I want to buy it again.

There’s not really a good answer for this one. Produce is basically only available in season and product selection in general is limited. This can actually make shopping easier sometimes because I don’t have to consider and compare too many (if any) choices. Sometimes a particular item will be on the shelves for a few days or a few weeks and then will disappear. This mostly applies to soups and snacks, but definitely happens with fruits, meats, and every other kind of food as well. If I see something I really need or want, I have to pick it up now. And if I want something specific that’s not here, the other option is to go to the butcher’s shop, the bakery, a specialty store like the Italian supermarket, the farmer’s market (held almost every day somewhere in town), or a roadside stand. The Supermarkt is strictly for convenience shopping. What you see is what you get.

In the drink aisle
In the drink aisle

7. Erdbeergeist means strawberry ghost, right? Is it as awesome as it sounds?

It is not. It’s a clear liquor that smells like sweet ripe strawberries but tastes terrible, incredibly without a hint of strawberry flavor. I can, however, also buy beer, wine, sparkling wine, liqueurs, liquor, or any other kind of alcohol you can think of at the grocery store. Or I can find them at the Getränke (drinks) shop, a separate store in town that sells at least equal amounts of water, soda, and other non-alcoholic drinks.

Unrefrigerated eggs?
Unrefrigerated eggs?

8. Why aren’t the eggs in the refrigerator section?

I don’t know enough about eggs or food safety to answer this one, but it seems to be okay. Anyone have an answer to this one?

Cheaper by the... wait a minute
Cheaper by the… wait a minute

9. And where are the other two?

… I thought a dozen was the definition of a standard unit of eggs, but the cartons here and in the fridge only have room for ten. Explain that! Maybe it’s an extension of the metric system. Anyway, it took me a while to realize the discrepancy.

"That was worth it.  Thank you for your shopping."
“That was worth it. Thank you for your shopping.”

10. That’s it? How did I save so much money?

I guess I used to buy a lot of snacks and shortcut kits. Think about it: Here I just buy bread, produce, meat, dairy products, and a few other things. It’s not particularly expensive to buy only the essentials and combine them into meals. There aren’t that many pre-prepared or frozen foods or snacks, and of those that are here there are only a few choices. So a handful of way more expensive items from a small selection that I may or may not like is not worth it.

Now to get that Euro back from the cart and be on my way! Bis bald, Supermarkt! (See you soon!)

When in Ancient Rome…

Weekend in Italy Part 1 of 2: Ostia Antica

Via delle Tombe
View from Piazzale della Vittoria

Now overgrown with wildflowers and tourists, Ostia Antica once sat at the mouth of the Tiber River less than twenty miles from Rome, Italy. The river itself has grown away from Ostia, but a detailed outline of the once-thriving port city remains. Crumbling arches, elaborate mosaics, and stone foundations tell its story dating back to 300 or so BC.

James and I visited the remnants of this ancient Roman city last weekend and were astounded at how much of its layout is preserved. We wandered various routes along ancient roads of massive cobblestones under the murderous summer sun and were able to see a fair amount of the unearthed city. The excavation of Ostia Antica had begun in the early 1800s, was put on hold during World War II, and eventually continued afterward.

Baths of Neptune mosaic floor
Baths of Neptune mosaic floor
View over Baths of Neptune toward barracks
View over Baths of Neptune toward barracks

We passed unroofed remains of barracks, a gymnasium, baths, temples dedicated to Roman gods, and much more. One particularly striking area is where an amphitheater looks out over a field that was once a piazza of commerce. Floor mosaics can still be seen along the rectangular perimeter of the piazza, indicating the nature of each business represented there.

View from the theater over Piazzale delle Corporazioni
View from the theater over Piazzale delle Corporazioni

Many enormous mosaics line the floors and some walls, incredibly preserved and some in the process of being restored. An information board revealed a sample of the layers involved in each mosaic: gritty base material, design sketch on finer material, and tiles. The example consisted of a two-toned design with one color of tiles raised so that the blind could experience the mosaic as well.

A cat inspecting a wall mosaic
A cat inspecting a wall mosaic
Close up of the same mosaic
Close up of the same mosaic

I’m also told that the ancient heating system is preserved here. But I refused to be bullied by the elderly multilingual woman who insisted she could show it to us if we paid for a tour, so I can’t comment on it.

Interestingly, modern art is lightly interspersed with the statues that have stood the test of centuries and millennia. An exhibit of sculptures by modern artist Francesco Messina is scattered among the ruins and stands side by side with history in the Ostia Antica museum. It produces an interesting and thought-provoking effect.

If you’re interested in reading more about the history of Ostia Antica, click here.

Part 2 of this vacation will be posted on Saturday. Stay tuned for how we faced rain, pickpockets, and uniquely Italian culture in Rome itself.

TGIF Chronicles: Playlist for the Autobahn

(A little late due to technical difficulties in Italy this weekend – more on that trip later in the week!)

Buckle up, roll the windows down, and get ready to cruise the Autobahn in style. Crank the radio up, then quickly flip through the stations as you get bored of hearing every American hit ever made (is that selfie deal even a real song?!) when you came here to drive fast and pump German music. Take two. Try the jams below instead for a better, more authentic experience. These are a few of my favorites and/or most-heard tunes:

9. OMG

German rap? Omg indeed. Personal and social speculation about right living are pretty light in this song but the novelty of the style makes it hard to ignore. Rapper Marteria asks himself in the hook, “Oh my god, this heaven / Where the hell should it be?”

8. Atemlos durch die Nacht

A song I hate to love, but can’t help dancing along to. Helene Fischer sings a typical pop love song (“Breathless through the night”) to a super catchy dance beat. My most vivid memory of hearing this so far was during Fasching/Karneval inside a tented club, where the crowd went crazy when the DJ put it on.

7. Lieder

In this earnest-sounding tribute called “Songs”, Adel Tawil drops names and title lyrics all over the place to tell the story of musical influences from his childhood in the 80s and 90s. Even if you don’t know any German, listen for references to David Bowie, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Kurt Cobain, and Prince (lila Regen = purple rain).  Click here for U.S. link.

6. Und wir waren wie Vampire

“And we were like vampires” has the feel of a classic German folksong set to a house music beat. As odd as the title sounds at first, it’s actually not that strange. After all, vampires and young people (I can only assume the now 69-year-old Jürgen Drews is reflecting on his youth) stay up all night and live forever.

5. Aber bitte mit Sahne

I appreciated this song early on solely because I could understand the lists of fruits, sweets, and ladies’ names followed by the title lyric “But please, with cream.” The message is something akin to wanting to have your cake and eat it too. From the 1970s by Austrian singer Udo Jürgens, this song is rarely on the radio but has also been remixed into a weirder metal version by the band Sodom.

4. Mit dem Salz auf Unserer Haut

I find this one particularly charming as it is sea shanty, unusual to hear on the radio but nevertheless relatively often played. The lyrics are similar to what you would expect a sea chantey in English to be: “one duffle bag per man,” “we pull through the storms,” and of course the title lyrics in the refrain: “with the salt on our skin / and the wind in our face.” All talk of sticking together through bad weather, living among the waves, and banding together with fellow sailors performed by the band Santiano.

3. Traum von Amsterdam

Axel Fischer and “Dream of Amsterdam” embody my stereotype of disheveled, guitar-toting, hitch-hiking, hostel-hopping European young people. It is idealism and optimistic love set to a hoppy beat in the clandestine capital city of the Netherlands.

2. Time Warp

The most well-known single of Rocky Horror Picture Show fame is inexplicably popular here. True, it’s an English song but it’s British and from the 70s. I never understood Rocky Horror but I guess it’s just a cult classic thing I never picked up on. I certainly have no idea why it acquired international fame. The first time I heard it on the radio in Germany was also the first time I drove past Burg (castle) Frankenstein on my commute to work. It was completely eerie and fantastic timing.

1. Rock Me Amadeus

I wish I could say I have the chance to rock out to this more. Frustratingly, I’ve usually been stuck in traffic or creeping through town at a mere less than 50 kilometers per hour (it’s slower than it sounds: about 30 miles per hour). Falco, the musician who developed this 90s hit about Wofgang Amadeus Mozart that somehow gained success in the U.S. as well, hails from Vienna, Austria where I recently traveled. Vienna was also, of course, once home to Mozart himself.


Hope you enjoyed the ride and the tunes!

Wein + wanderung and other great German combos


German is fraught with long, complex compound words. This Saturday I learned one that brings together two of my favorite weekend activities: wine + hike = Weinwanderung. It’s exactly what it sounds like: A leisurely 5K hike through vineyards along the Rhein marked with wine stands along the way.


Summer arrived here overnight and the weather for the hike was hotter than anything James and I experienced in Germany so far. We brought a couple of water bottles and took the train with a small American crew along the Rhein to Rüdesheim. For twelve euros, we got a 0.1 liter tasting glass and a yellow passport-esque pass to be stamped at each of the ten wine stands en route in exchange for a tasting we chose from printed lists. The glass looked tiny, but after several tastings combined with the beautiful scenery and endless summer sunlight it was easy to lose track of time (including lunch time and dinner time). I woke up the next morning with sunburned shoulders, blistered feet, and a light headache – sure signs of a good weekend.


Today, on the last day of the weekend (Pentecost is a day off here), I’ve thought of a few more of my favorite German compound words:

Burgfest = castle + festival, like the one I went to yesterday that featured a great Queen cover band

Meersweinchen = sea + piggy = Guinea pig

Rathaus = advice + house = town hall

Aberglaube = however + belief = superstition

Granatapfel = garnet + apple = pomegranate

Krankenschwester = sick + sister = nurse (or for the male nurse, Krankenpfleger = sick + keeper/caregiver)