Untold Stories from Year 1

Travels in Europe so far

November 8, 2016 marks the anniversary of our third year in Germany already. As I’ve said countless times, we’re beyond thankful for the opportunities we’ve had to experience culture and history, travel, and get to know people from all over the world.

For the first year everything was new: festivals, travels, adjusting to a new culture, and establishing new circles of friends. The second year found us feeling settled, and was filled with many visitors that we got to show our new home to. In our third year, we began to think outside of the box: We helped to restore a castle, finally explored Scandinavia, and I started learning Romanian after my experience teaching there the summer before. Somehow along my German language-learning journey I went from learning to order in a restaurant to reading Goethe’s Faust.

I’ve tried to capture most of our adventures both in travel and in discovering numerous cultural differences in this blog. But, of course, not everything has made it in. Here are a few “scenes” from the first year I recently came across that didn’t make it online but capture some different kinds of first impressions.

First Round of Seasons on the Rhein – June 2014

There’s nothing exotic about the Rhein. There are rivers all over the world, after all.  And with a handful of well-trafficked bridges spanning it to connect two major cities, two state capitals with only the river dividing them, it almost seems like no big deal. Almost.

I’ve crossed the Rhein just about every day for the past six or so months. And even though I usually see it through the thick window of an abnormally warm and stuffy bus filled with other commuters, it never fails to take my breath away. Whether it’s one of the fifty percent of cold winter mornings when the river itself is almost invisible beneath a thick white wall of fog, at sunset when the last pink and gold rays of daylight shimmer on top of its rippling surface, or on late spring afternoons when families and neighbors bike and stroll along its banks – it is simply stunning.

The warm summer weekends Rhein-side are my favorite way to experience the river.  On the Mainz-Kastel bank (not actually part of Mainz, but of its rival Wiesbaden), the sweet gritty smell of weed-strewn grass and tiny charcoal grills fill the air along with the sounds of children playing, friends laughing, foam spars clashing, and Frisbees, soccer balls, footballs, and wooden Kubb pegs being thrown through the air and across the grass. Everyone is in line at Tony’s ice cream truck, the white van that can’t possibly hold enough gelato for everyone enjoying the refreshingly sunny afternoon but somehow does.

It’s nostalgia incarnate, but the year is 2014.

XXX: First Trip to Amsterdam in August 2014

The rest of the details of this trip have been simmering in my head like the homemade pea soup that I sipped out of a small Dutch oven on my first of several overcast and scattered rain-filled days in Amsterdam.

The capital of the Netherlands is a horseshoe-shaped city that fills out the spaces between a complex system of canals.  I would say that tourists go there for one of two reasons: to experience history and beautiful scenery or to indulge their socially questionable vices.

There was no mistaking when I had entered Amsterdam’s infamous Red Light District. No sooner had I wandered in, before even glimpsing one of the many storefronts filled with freaky sex props or women on display, I was greeted by a different sort of spectacle: A large middle-aged man lay sprawled face down across the width of a narrow cobblestone street, hands clasped behind his back in handcuffs. A small circle of police officers prompted him to stand and steadied him as they guided him into a waiting ambulance. As soon as he lifted his head, I could see that his face was covered in blood.

I should note that this scene took place in the late afternoon in virtual silence. Many passersby slowed to gawk but many passed through the remaining puddle of blood apparently unaware that anything had happened.

My disturbing introduction to the area, however, seems to be the exception rather than the rule. The Red Light District is actually pretty orderly – an open but regulated neighborhood of the oldest profession with a buzzed celebratory feel similar to Bourbon Street in New Orleans. The district lives up to its (for many, morally shady) reputation: sex stores, lady entrepreneurs showcasing themselves in display windows, not to mention the drug shops and coffee shops (all of which have marijuana for sale as well as typical café fare) that can be found throughout Amsterdam.

Halloween: Leipzig 2014

Gemütlichkeit. A feeling of comfort that you feel, particularly, I would say when sharing an autumn evening, a fire, and a kettle of Glühwein with a close-knit circle of neighbors. So spent James and I our first Halloween in Germany, back in Leipzig with the cousins we had visited earlier in the year.

After driving through many green-turning-yellow-turning-orange lined kilometers of the Autobahn, we began the evening sipping homemade pumpkin soup at their kitchen table. Interrupted every few minutes, of course, by bands of little ghosts, witches, and monsters trick-or-treating (or rather, “Süβes oder Saures”-ing). One or two in each batch – usually the smallest – would rattle off one of several carefully rehearsed poems in exchange for the whole group to receive their treats. Halloween has become more popular in Germany with children every year for the last several years. But because it’s not a tradition the candy givers grew up with, it still has a foreign feel for the adults.

Down the block with a basket of Wursts, sauces, and mugs from the kitchen, we huddled around small fires on benches and folding chairs carefully arranged in a large circle. All the neighbors who didn’t have children to put to bed or who weren’t out partying at the Disko stayed late into the night. Grilling meats, chatting, and occasionally singing along to the German and American pop songs that played on a radio in the background. The main fire crackled in a washing machine drum, periodically fueled by the dull dry thud of an added chunk of wood or the rustle of a handful of dry pinecones.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about our adventures as much as I’ve enjoyed planning, living, and writing about them so far! We plan to continue to enjoy the time we have left in Europe to the fullest: learning, eating/drinking, and castle- and festival-hunting our way through some new cities and countries and a few old favorites.

Click here to read more about the Rhein, Amsterdam, and Leipzig.

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Double Dutch: Q&A with a Pair of Flying Dutchmen

Much more on this trip coming soon – for now, enjoy a few fun facts about Amsterdam with this Q&A. On our last night, Nora and I met two local pilots who enthusiastically answered many questions we had come up with during our time in their beloved hometown.

Scene of the Q&A: Café 't Smalle
Scene of the Q&A: Café ‘t Smalle

Q: What typical Dutch food do you recommend?
A1: Pancakes!
A2: Oh, and this place over here on the corner has the best apple pie in all of Amsterdam. [Pointing to a café called Winkel]

Q: Dutch is spoken in many areas of Belgium, too. Is the culture there more Dutch like in the Netherlands or more similar to the French-speaking Belgian culture?
A2: They only share a common language with people from Holland. The Dutch-speaking people in Belgium are Flemish, which is similar to Dutch culture but not the same.

Q: Sorry, do you only call it Holland then? Not the Netherlands?
A1: Yes. Our country is Holland.

Q: So about the Red Light District… What services exactly can people buy?
A1: There are different levels. At the first level, you can put coins in a machine to see a peep show. At the second level, you can watch a live sex show. At the third level, you can watch a banana show – that’s like a sex show, but just women with bananas. And at the fourth level you can, well, you know… have sex with a prostitute. [disclaimer: I have no idea how accurate this is.]

Q: We only saw women of the night. Are there male prostitutes too?
A1: Ah, not really.
A2: Hey ladies, you found them!

Q: Haha. Isn’t it uncomfortable being there with other guys?
A1: Yes, it’s weird.
A2: No, it’s not a problem.

Q: In addition to legalized prostitution, the Netherlands – sorry – Holland has a lot of liberal drug policies. How do you feel about that?
A1: The laws are too lenient. I think too many things are allowed.

Red Light District at night
Red Light District at night
One of many canals - an Amsterdam highlight according to these locals
One of many canals – an Amsterdam highlight according to these locals

(I only regret that I somehow forgot to ask them my most pressing question:
Q: Why are the stairs in Dutch houses so steep?!?! Wouldn’t it be safer to go up a ladder?!

I doubt any explanation of this would satisfy me. We had to climb four flights of these treacherous steps to get to our hotel room. And when I say “climb” I mean more like sneak on tiptoe, because they were not only steep but unbelievably narrow.)

Hard to tell here, but these steps are as close to perpendicular as stairs can be
Hard to tell here, but these steps are close to perpendicular