Castle Restoration Project

Getting to work at Burg Tannenberg

Grabbing hold of vine-tangled tree limbs under each arm and dragging them along behind me around the bend in the forest path, I imagined this change-of-season task being completed by many different workers over hundreds of years. Who was responsible for maintaining the castle grounds when it was built in 1210? What about the periods of time when the robber barons’ Burg (castle) Tannenberg was destroyed and slowly fell into ruin? And what about the first members of the local heritage and restoration club who took up the work again 40 years ago, joined by their common interest in local history?

Model of Burg Tannenberg at the Heimatmuseum
Model of Burg Tannenberg

James and I had traveled to Seeheim-Jugenheim near Darmstadt and hiked through the dregs of fall’s foliage up the Tannenberg Mountain at 9:00 last Saturday morning. Along with some other Americans, we joined the town’s castle restoration club volunteers. The restoration project is entirely volunteer-based so the club’s members, including a few expert surveyors and landscapers, are essentially castle enthusiasts. They organize full-day monthly restoration work sessions throughout the year, with the exception of the winter months. Our work day, though, was shorter as it was the last for the year.

We spent a strenuous but exciting three hours hauling away branches and organizing usable firewood cut from trees by a landscaper. Among the 20 or so volunteers, those who weren’t with us raked the main path and the castle courtyard clean and periodically passed by with wheelbarrows full of leaves or wood to dump. Some of the older volunteers collected wood in a truck to take away.

Volunteers raking

While it was a chilly November morning, we weren’t there long before we had worked up enough warmth to throw off our coats. I regretted laying them on a stump, however, as when I went back to get them afterward, I found fat gray spiders crawling all over them.

During a very hot day in summer, James had taken part in another work session and helped to unearth part of the castle’s outer wall. Since then and now, he was able to see how much those remains had been reconstructed with the stones they had dug up. In their digging, one volunteer had even unearthed a piece of pottery that is currently being cleaned and catalogued in preparation for display in the homely local history museum.

View from the Burg Picnic view

After we had wrapped up our work, and as James was explaining the changes he noticed since his last work session, the primary surveyor came over to chat with us about the castle. The older gentleman carried a large grid paper under one arm on which his measurements of the entire property were meticulously marked, and commented that it was always fun to work on the castle project. He showed us that from where we stood, we could see Frankfurt faintly on the horizon – a distance of nearly 30 miles (about 48 kilometers) away. On clearer days (fall is often hazy), you can see even further.

Eventually we made our way back into town for a lunch of goulash and a dessert of baked apples hosted by the castle restoration club. We sat on benches at long wooden tables in a converted stone barn. In true German fashion, the club leaders had prepared kind words of recognition for everyone from the main project organizers to the volunteers to the cooking staff; presented carefully personalized gifts to a select few; and handed out printed copies of their restoration schedule for 2016 with an added invitation to attend a pre-work kickoff event.

I’ve enjoyed visiting castles and learning about history here in Germany, but being able to feel and take part in a piece of history was an unforgettable experience.

Castle tower ruins


Paris Tribute

"Liberty Leading the People" by Eugène Delacroix
“Liberty Leading the People” by Eugène Delacroix

It’s hard to believe that three weeks ago I was sipping wine in cafés, touring museums overflowing with masterpieces, and wandering around the streets of Paris with a group of très chics ladies that I grew up with.

Life is ever unpredictable. Yesterday a coordinated series of unspeakable terrorist attacks has turned the world’s attention on Paris like never before.

I wasn’t quite sure how I wanted to organize this post originally, and am even less sure now. In the end, I’ve decided to present Paris in pictures, captioned with some of the lyrics from “In Paris” by Elton John to celebrate the city, its culture and people. May safer times lie ahead.

Van Gogh


Listen to me, let me speak of
Wondrous works of art
That dwell within that fabled city
Its architecture fills my heart


Comic stand

Let me tell you I have seen
Where great ideas are born
Illuminating all the darkness
In the corners of the world



…And walk in wonder through the Louvre
Across the Seine to the Sorbonne



In cafés we will feed our heads
With absinthe and philosophy
Engage the students of Voltaire
And damn the aristocracy


Notre Dame

Notre Dame
In Paris the bells of Notre Dame ring out
In Paris we’ll trade our soft voices for shout
I’ll not rest until the ramparts of that city
Stand before us bright and clear
Penniless in Paris is better than the life we’re leading here


Paris subway platform

I’ve heard that there’s infernal noise
The stench and cut-throats out to rob
The hungry crowds that fill the street
Where anarchy consumes the mob…



We’ll rent a room above the din
Somewhere along the Boulevard…


Eiffel Tower

Two Years Down the Road Less Traveled

Two years after “two roads diverged in a yellow wood…”

The idea of keeping this blog was born at some point before I moved to Germany exactly two years ago today. I wanted to use it to keep friends and family in America up to date on my adventures around Europe, learning about German culture, and everyday life abroad (my most-read post to date is 10 Things I Stopped Asking Myself at the Supermarkt). I told everyone I knew about the idea, including people I met shortly before the move through the writing workshops and ESL volunteering I became involved in while the big day became delayed and final preparations dragged out. I figured this was the best way to hold myself accountable for actually bringing said blog to life.

As far as the theme or direction of the blog, I just let my experiences lead the way. At first, everything was new and interesting to write about: not only visiting castles, celebrating new holidays, and traveling to new cities and countries; but also learning to use a ventless washing machine, learning German, and managing an unreasonably complicated system of recycling. As time went on, particularly after living in Germany for about six months, I began to feel adjusted to living here. I had to look a little deeper to recognize things that had surprised me at the beginning, as I had begun to take many of these cultural/language/money/measurement system differences for granted. By that time, I could communicate enough to feel comfortable living here: able to understand strangers who asked simple questions at the store or on the bus, able to manage shopping and basic travel situations easily, and able to be a polite guest and host.

In August of this year, my life (and, subsequently, my blog) took an interesting turn as I took on a two-week job teaching in Romania. The experience was like starting over in Germany, only filled with starker contrasts in culture and ways of life. It reminded me of why I wanted to live abroad in the first place: to experience new possibilities and broaden my understanding of how and what life could be.

I still let the winds of adventure steer the direction of my blog, and am just as interested in small cultural differences as I was when I first arrived. I just have to look more carefully through the cultural lens I had at the beginning of this experience. It particularly helps when American friends and family members visit, because it draws my attention to practices that I’ve become used to. I’m still traveling as much as possible, though I often don’t write about the short day trips – including several additional trips to Belgium, one of the closest border countries to where I live.

Time is my biggest enemy for blogging, especially since part of becoming more settled has meant, of course, steadier work and a busier routine. In this next, and foreseeably last, year abroad, I would like to make time for writing about my experiences more regularly again. I’ve found that writing these posts helps me to more fully understand what I observe and feel as I continue on this journey. What began as a type of postcard home has become a way of internalizing and appreciating this experience and the possibilities it has opened. Not only observing what is, but understanding what it means and what it could be.

I’m reminded again of the poem I chose as the title for this blog, and find that it becomes more true each day:

“I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference”
– Robert Frost