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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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.”

“Democracy.”

Freedom.”

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