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.

Small Town Tradition: The Lorchhausen Kerb

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As usual for Germany, it’s been a month full of festivals. A Harley Davidson festival full of bikers who had ridden in from all over Europe (including England), the typical summer Rheinland wine festivals and wine hikes, street food festivals, horseback riding tournaments, Wiesbaden’s big summer Wilhemstraβenfest, the enormous but short-lived Mainzer Johannisnacht to commemorate the summer solstice…

But the most interesting festivals for me are still the small-towniest of the small town festivals. And recently the sounds of a brass marching band and the sight of a few street festival rides and booths dragged us in to Lorchhausen at just the right moment to experience the highlight of their annual Kerb.

We pulled up to see every able-bodied man in this Rhein-side village carrying a massive tree – freshly cut, stripped of its bark, and decorated with ribbons and a pine wreath similar to a May pole – on their collective shoulders. After a swig of local white wine doled out from a large stoneware pitcher, they hemmed and hawed for the next half hour to raise the post. Clearly the entire process had been carefully planned and perfected over the years. Lashed wooden ladders and struts of varying lengths were systematically employed and replaced as the iconic tree shifted gradually into its correct position. Ropes attached were adjusted along the way, with long-handled hooks being necessary now and then to untangle them from the branches of living trees lining the path.

The rest of the townsfolk stood a safe distance back, mostly facing the Rhein just behind a row of long wooden picnic tables and benches, beer or bratwurst in hand, cheering on every success in the process. After all the hard work had paid off, the brass band started up again and the rest of the wine in the big pitchers was sloshed out to tree-lifters and bystanders alike.

Several other towns on the Rhein have these Kerb festivals, but Lorchhausen is proud to be the only town that preps and raises the post entirely by hand. Their celebration always takes place the first weekend in June. Primitive in its origins, complex in its execution, this was quite a unique festival that we happened to stumble across.

Setting up the fulcrum
Setting up the fulcrum

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Success!
Success!

A New Year in Deutschland

Castle view on New Year's Eve
Castle view on New Year’s Eve

Paper wrappers and cardboard tubes littering the streets. Wooden sticks and the occasional odd pop in the distance. At first glance a heavy fog lay over all of Germany on January 1, but at second glance I realized it was firework dust hanging around us like a thick blanket in the air. Like a bomb had gone off in the night. And it was as though it had at midnight last night, with every single inhabitant lighting off their own personal arsenal to mark the passing of the old year and the issuing in of the new.

We spent this Silvester (New Year’s Eve) with some friends who live on the edge of a vineyard in the Rhein Valley. From our fireworks launching point by their house we had a perfect view of an old castle on a hill, lit up at night not only by ground spotlights but by a barrage of fireworks. Once again, Silvester provided a 360 degree view of personal pyrotechnical displays. Although this year I noticed a lot more pre-New Year’s practices throughout the week and especially on the day leading up to the main event.

Lighting the fuse
Lighting the fuse
Fireworks near and far
Fireworks near and far

I have so many things to be thankful for from the past year, which saw us new and then eventually settled in to living in Germany. I’ve learned a lot of German so far, met people from all over the world including parts of the U.S. I’ve never visited, gotten to know many of James’s German relatives and through them gained a better understanding of German culture, traveled to many German cities and other countries in Europe, and learned to say at least “thank you” and “cheers” in every country we’ve visited.

So what lies ahead for 2015? More travel and language learning, that’s for sure. Lately I’ve been watching Archer in German and picking up some more… colorful… expressions. We already have some travel plans in the works to kick off the new year right: In a few weeks we visit Austria, where James will snowboard and I will try skiing for the first time with the help of two days of lessons. In February we travel to Ireland – a first for James and my triumphant return after my first visit six years ago in which I traveled the tiny countryside on my own for about three weeks. I also plan to work hard to keep in touch with everyone – family and friends in America, Germany, Italy, and elsewhere. Technology like Skype and WhatsApp make it a lot easier to keep in touch with people internationally.

2014 was a great year of experiences and accomplishments and I’m ready for what 2015 has to offer. Guten Rutsch ins Neue Jahr! / Happy New Year!

p.s. If you haven’t already, be sure to watch “Dinner for One.” For more on this odd German tradition, see my 2014 New Year’s post.

The ABCs of Mainzer Johannisnacht

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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!

Rheinsteig Hike

Views like this throughout
Views like this throughout

So far we’ve seen picturesque views of the Rhein by car, by boat, from various castles, and can now add by train and even more up-close-and-personal along a hike. Last weekend James, Steve, and I bought a group day pass for about €9 to take the train to the small town of Lorch. From here we trekked about 15 kilometers (9 or so miles) to the equally quaint Rhein-side town of Kaub. The journey in between was filled with gorgeous scenery, sunny but not sweltering weather, and a smattering of surprises.

Tiny church on a hill, tiny town below
Tiny church on a hill, tiny town below
Same view from another angle - imagine riding down this hill
Same view from another angle – imagine riding down this hill

This was my first taste of the Rheinsteig trail, an epic 320 kilometer hiking route between Wiesbaden and Bonn. Our comparatively small segment was a perfect day-hike: challenging at points but not overly strenuous and not as absurdly steep as some of our previous ventures. It began with a climb that was made pleasanter by the sight of butterflies alighting among Queen Anne’s lace, buttercups, and lilacs. We saw many other hikers along the way – using ski-like poles to show they were really hiking, picnicking, taking pictures – many with dogs or babies in tow.

Hill of goats
Hill of goats

The amount of castles lining the Rhein is unreal. There are castles as far as the eye can see to the next castle. Every time we passed one, another would come into view. We also passed along the rim of many hills filled with various unique scenes. On one particularly sheer drop beside a church, we witnessed an elderly man riding a piece of farming equipment downhill to maintain the property. Another rockier slope found us face to face with a herd of goats relaxing in the sun. As we approached Kaub, we discovered many tidily arranged vineyards dropping off from along the path.

Rest stop
Rest stop

As I mentioned, the hike was not grueling but it did, of course, have more of an upward stretch again in the middle that required more effort. About halfway up this part we saw, as if a mirage had appeared in the woods in front of us, a rustic wine and beer stand complete with actual glasses, long wooden picnic tables with benches, and stools surrounding barrels serving as smaller tables. The mom and pop who realized this business opportunity are my heroes. A beer, a Riesling, and an apple wine later (one drink for each of the three of us) we were fortified to complete the rest of the upward climb and continue on our now merrier way.

In the thick of the forest
In the thick of the forest

By the time we reached Kaub, our Wanderlust had been satisfied and we were ready to find a seat on the next train home.

Burg Pfalzgrafenstein, Kaub's castle in the middle of the Rhein
Burg Pfalzgrafenstein, Kaub’s castle in the middle of the Rhein
Burg Gutenfels, castle overlooking the town of Kaub
Burg Gutenfels, castle overlooking the town of Kaub
Vineyard by Burg Gutenfels
Vineyard by Burg Gutenfels

Rhein in Flames

Anchors away!
Anchors away!

Fire crackled and boomed over the seven Rheinland mountains, echoing like thunder off the mountains of the opposite river bank. We were right in the thick of this dramatically named May festival, aboard a dinner cruise ship from Bonn to Linz and back. Setting off in the early evening, we had many hours of daylight before it eventually became dark a little before 10 p.m. In true German fashion, the fireworks were scheduled to start at ten to thirty minute intervals so that our ride back took us straight from one display into another. The banks of the river were marked with evenly-spaced eerie red lights and a more scattered array of smoky bonfires, camper gatherings, and various town wine festivals. We cruised to the tunes of the DJ of our ship and of the neighboring cruises, as well as the spectators’ oohs and ahhs, the international sounds of firework appreciation.

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Two Tiny Rhein Towns

Rheinfels castle
Rheinfels castle

Last Sunday James and I visited St. Goar (“Sankt Gwar”) and Bacharach, two small Rhein-side towns not far from the Marksburg castle we had visited the weekend before.  We had originally planned to tour the ruins of Burg Rheinfels, a once-huge medieval castle and fortress that looms over tiny St. Goar.  Unfortunately this winter the castle is closed for repairs so we couldn’t walk through it, but we were able to see the impressive remains of the outer walls and some beautiful views of the Rhein and the castles on the opposite bank.

Middle Rhein as seen from Rheinfels
Middle Rhein as seen from Rheinfels
More Rhein from Rheinfels
More Rhein from Rheinfels

From here we trekked like billy goats down a steep hill on a long winding dirt path to the town of St. Goar.  As this seems to be a town that thrives on tourism, almost every store had a sign saying it was closed for the winter season.  The only exceptions were a couple of souvenir shops with a mix of pricey intricate wood and metal works and cheesy German gifts.  And, of course, a few hotel restaurants.  We stopped into one these, the Hotel zum Goldenen Löwen (the Golden Lion Hotel).  In true German fashion, we had tea and a slice of creamy cheesecake (almost a whipped cream filling) around 3:30.  As we left, the last light before the sun began to set cast a golden film on the hills and cliffs across the river.

The entire town of St. Goar
The entire town of St. Goar
The path to St. Goar
The path to St. Goar

 

The Golden Lion Hotel
The Golden Lion Hotel

St. Goar and the side of the Golden Lion

Rhein view after tea time
Rhein view after tea time

From here we took the more direct but much steeper main road back to the car at Rheinfels, caught our breath, and set off for a short drive along the Rhein to the somewhat larger town of Bacharach.

A main road in Bacharach
A main road in Bacharach
More downtown Bacharach
More downtown Bacharach

Again, most of the town was closed for the non-tourist winter season but we enjoyed walking through it and seeing its unique sights.  The main attractions could be seen by hiking up another steep hill, this time alternating between worn stone steps, uneven stretches of slate rock, newer wooden steps, and patches of mud.  We first passed the Wernerkapelle, the intricate remains of an old chapel standing out against the pink sky at dusk.  Next we came to Burg Stahleck, a medieval castle-turned-modern-hostel.  From the top of the hill we could see more great views of the Rhein and the town below, now turned dark.  For dinner we took a tip from the Rick Steve’s guidebook and went to Gasthaus Jägerstube, a quaint but cozy restaurant with a small crowd of locals and tasty German food.

Wernerkapelle
Wernerkapelle
First view of Burg Stahleck (now a youth hostel)
First view of Burg Stahleck (now a youth hostel)
View over Bacharach in the evening
View over Bacharach in the evening
Burg Stahleck view on the way back down
Burg Stahleck view on the way back down