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.

Tiptoeing Through the Tulips in Holland’s Keukenhof

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Holland may have a cold spring, but its hardy tulips are already blooming all over the place. I spent Easter weekend this year in Lisse, with the highlight of the trip being the amazing tulip festival at the Keukenhof.

We planned to visit the festival on Saturday only to find rain and clouds in the morning. So instead we headed off to Amsterdam for the day and saved the festival for Sunday. This ended up being the perfect choice – Saturday turned out not to be too wet after all but Sunday was full of sunny skies setting an ideal backdrop for one of the most famous flower shows in the world.

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I highly recommend this festival to anyone in Europe in springtime looking for something scenic but unique to do. The extensive Keukenhof park tumbles out a maze of meandering walkways, scenic waterways, and row upon neatly planted row of colorful tulips and many other types of flowers. This year the theme of the festival is Van Gogh, commemorating the 125th anniversary of the famous Dutch artist’s death. A special display of bulbs arranged in the shape of one of Van Gogh’s self-portraits forms a new “Selfie Garden.” The flowers haven’t yet bloomed but the shape of his old-fashioned selfie is clear.

Van Gogh "Selfie Garden"
Van Gogh “Selfie Garden”

And while on the topic of selfies, no modern tourist needs a special garden to prompt them. Self-obsessed visitors from all over the world, many with those selfie-stick things, can be seen clicking away all over the park. In addition, many people obnoxiously ignore the “keep off the grass” signs to have their friends take pictures of them standing up close and personal with every bloom in sight.

Cheese wheels for photo ops
Cheese wheels for photo ops
Clogs for every occasion
Clogs for every occasion

Tourist complaints aside, there are a lot of great encouraged photo opportunities set up throughout the property in addition to the beautifully landscaped outdoor gardens. Small themed areas of the grounds have props and sets visitors can use for photos like giant clogs, big plastic wheels of cheese, rowboats full of flowers, paint palettes and easels, and a climbable recreation of an Amsterdam balcony.

Inspiration Garden
Inspiration Garden
Insect Garden
Insect Garden
Orchids display
Orchids display
Sunflowers surround a Van Gogh's sunflower painting
Sunflowers surrounding a Van Gogh sunflower painting

Many areas of the Keukenhof hold particularly creative displays of flowers as well. The Inspiration Garden, for example, presents imaginative alternatives to traditional flowerpots and garden beds. Here flowers have been planted in dresser drawers placed on an antique set of shelves, the cushioned seat of an old chair, and the middle of a table built with scraps of a wooden fence. One of the many indoor exhibits scattered in various corners of the park currently displays orchids dripping from cakelike structures and lining a stretch of love-themed pillows. In another, still-life paintings by Van Gogh are surrounded by their real life inspirations.

Dutch folk dancing
Dutch folk dancing
Drying eels
Drying eels
Windmill overlooking more flower fields
Windmill overlooking more flower fields

Entertainment and delicious food round off the festival and help to turn it into a full-day event. We visited during Dutch Heritage weekend where music, dance, and demonstrations highlighted aspects of Dutch culture. Traditionally clad people crafted fishing nets, showed and explained how to dry and smoke eels, and sang shanties of the sea. Meanwhile children and adult visitors tried their hand at a hoop and stick game or sat perched on hay bales in the shadow of a windmill filled with more visitors. Each weekend of the festival between mid-March and mid-May follows a particular theme for its entertainment. The biggest events are around King’s Day on April 27. By that time even more flowers will be in bloom to enjoy as well.

Stroopwafel!
Stroopwafel!

I was also fortunate to discover Dutch Stroopwafels this weekend – a sandwich formed by two crispy round waffle cookies spread with a thick caramelly syrup in between. Earlier in the day we tried a savory bean mixture flavored with ham. You can top it with chopped onions and either a sweet syrup or a piccadilly sauce similar to mustard. Other stands in the park sell herring sandwiches, local strawberries, and standard fest fare like hot dogs, popcorn, and ice cream.

Kasteel Keukenhof
Kasteel Keukenhof

Before heading home on our last day of this trip, we explored the grounds of Kasteel Keukenhof, a castle (more like a stately manse) whose grounds once included the area of the current Keukenhof gardens. We didn’t have time for a tour of the inside of the castle, so instead strolled around the grassy lawns and forest paths dotted with the occasional modern art statue.

It turned out that we were lucky to have to go elsewhere for lunch (the castle restaurant was reservations-only for Easter Monday), because this led us to discover the charming Station Kasteel Keukenhof just down the road. This former train station turned quaint café was the perfect place to enjoy sandwiches, coffee, and a slice of Dutch apple pie  before ending our stay in Holland.

For visitor information on the Keukenhof festival, see their website: http://www.keukenhof.nl/en/

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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

Weathering the North Sea Zone

Hotel neighbors in Scheemda
Hotel neighbors in Scheemda, Netherlands

Four hours north of us (or a few more if you have to wait for the Autobahn to be declared safe again after a massive fire destroys a semi) sleeps the town of Scheemda in the Netherlands. It’s little more than a skip across the northern border of Germany, but both of the countries forming this region by the North Sea are a world apart from home in Mainz.

We pulled into the hotel close to 10 p.m. on Friday – a stately old house with a high-peaked roof within a neighborhood of similar but smaller houses, all old-fashioned in style but modernly built (many with solar-paneled roofs). Next door napped a cat in the sunny driveway surrounded by chickens meandering in the yard. I thought gardens were well-kept in Germany, but every house in this Dutch village boasted a garden more impeccable than the last.

Every restaurant in town was closed by this time, despite the fact that there were still a few customers and/or owners lingering with drinks on the patios outside in the warm late evening sun. We were finally pointed toward a pizzeria/grill and split a chicken shawarma calzone on top of paper placemats representing Dutch artist Pieter Breugel’s famous painting “The Peasant Wedding.” Villagers milled around on bicycles as the sun set around 11 at night.

Late night sunset
Late night sunset in the village

We spent most of the weekend in Germany in a heath town near the North Sea, visiting an aunt. While the common greeting in Germany is “Hallo,” up north it’s “Moin moin” or just “Moin.” This was as foreign for us as hearing “Grüβ Gott” in Bavaria and Austria. We automatically returned the florist’s greeting with “Hallo,” as we’re used to doing in our area.

Emden locomotive and mini trains
Emden, Germany locomotive and mini trains

And the northern particularities didn’t stop there, for this is a seafaring region. We stopped for dinner on the way back to the hotel in the port town of Emden, Germany. After getting a close-up of the large black locomotive that hid a miniature train display (maybe not so mini, as children and employees could ride on top of the trains), we chose a docked firefighter ship restaurant to eat in.

Feuerschiff Amrumbank - Fire ship restaurant & museum
Feuerschiff Amrumbank – A fire ship restaurant & museum

Of course we ordered the local specialty, Matjes, which we could tell from the menu was a fish dish served with pan-fried potatoes. What we hadn’t realized was that it was a smoked fish (read: seemingly raw) wrapped around a “housewife” sauce that was both creamy and chunky, containing chopped apples and pickles or some such mix.

Matjes
Matjes

I was so hungry that I ate most of the Matjes, but luckily (and perhaps inevitably), there was a festival in town going on as well. Immediately afterward we found an ice cream stand and walked around to the tunes of various rock bands, electronic carnival game music, and the many whirs and dings of the rides.