Sunday, May 15, 2011

Leah WITH a Map [for 2 weeks]

Ireland, North Ireland, England
Karlsruhe, Offenburg, & Return
   By midday on Thursday the 10th, I had still not been successful at finding anyone to travel with me to Ireland, or any place to stay, but I at least had people to meet there, and also somewhere to stay once I got to England. After much deliberation I decided I honestly could not pass up the trip I had been waiting for years to take, so I bought a ticket to Dublin leaving on the 14th. That night, as every Thursday night, the International Tutors from the university in Bamberg were meeting for drinks with other exchange students at a local bar, called "stammtisch". The last Thursday when I had gone, there was only one other exchange student, so I figured I would go again to see if any more had arrived. The night held many surprises, meeting students from Greece, Mexico, Iran, Britain, Ireland, Canada, the US, and of course Germany. Amazingly, 2 other girls from the US were really interested in going to Ireland, and we immediately got to making plans. The next day they had plane tickets, and the day after that a hotel was booked, as well as train tickets to the airport.
    Day 1: Monday: wake up @ 05:30, train station at 06:30, train leaves for Frankfurt at 06:45, then take the bus to Frankfurt Hahn airport (in the middle of nowhere & board plane (avoid creeper guy), fly to Dublin (minus 1 hour), grab taxi and finally drop bags at hotel at 5:30. 12 hours of trains, planes, cars, and people-watching while waiting. Our hotel was just outside the city, about a 20 minute bus ride from the city center, and the bus stop required walking through some grass to get there, and also running across a road on return from the city. The driving on the 'wrong' side of the road was only really strange when making a turn (and I discovered later that re-adjusting to driving on the 'right' side of the road was harder than first adjusting to the driving in Ireland/England). I will admit that while in Ireland, I ate a lot of potatoes. Also ''cheeseburgers'' - just because they were typically cheaper than anything else, but they were always far from the decked-out burgers with cheese, ketchup, lettuce, bacon, mustard or whatever else people want on them in America, and typically if you wanted anything more than ketchup on it, you got charged per each extra item.
    Day 2: After talking to the receptionist, we made a decision to take a tour out to Galway the next day, which required being in the city center at 7am. So once again, an early morning & a taxi ride later, an unmarked bus was picking us up on a dreary Irish morning. (Needless to say, our trip was turning out to be an adventure, but after a confirmation by the drivers ID, ticket scanner, and a few other early morning traveleres we were sure we weren't in any shady business. Also, its much more comforting to have other people with you in these situations, also to be able to laugh about it later.) The ride to Galway city was about 2.5 hours and we passed a lot of sheep along the way, but after picking up the rest of the tour group in Galway, we were underway to see the Cliffs of Moher (a.k.a the Cliffs of Insanity! (from The Princess Bride)), Dunguaire Castle, Ballyalban Fairy Fort, the Kilfenora Celtic Crosses, and the Poulnabrone Dolmen tomb (nearly 6,000 years old!). Our tour consisted of a mix of  people, mostly young travelers come to Ireland for the St. Patricks day festivities, including a pair of seriously hungover college guys from Arizona, who provided quite a bit of entertainment during the trip along with our guide and driver who were both Galway natives (they sang for us (incl. the famous 'Galway Girl' song (look it up if you dont alredy know it). The roads in Ireland can be a bit unruly, especially in the Burren region, and the back roads we were required to take to get to some of our stops for the day, but, to the relief of the driver and guide the weather was amazingly sunny and warm which made the drive a bit easier, and thus we ''didnt 'have' to wear our seatbelts.'' We even made a couple of un-scheduled stops to enjoy the view of the Aran islands and just to enjoy the weather (ref. pics of rocky cliff edges and me standing waaayy to close!). Should anyone make a trip to Ireland, or to Galway, I really do recommend the tour (it was cheap too!), and you can check it out at
    Day 3: Find a way to Wicklow! By recommendation, County Wicklow, just south of Dublin was a good daytrip, and also of personal interest for one of my companions who had some family roots there. However, the route to Wicklow turned out to be more difficult than originally planned, and we were forced to stick in the city center for just a few hours before returning to Dublin. However, even this short trip didn't fail to provide some story, as we got to witness a pre-wedding bachelor toast in a local pub, after getting some drink recommendations from cheery old Irish men, and watch as the pub became quite loud during the broadcasted horseraces. Also, we got a lovely recommendation for food from a friendly old lady and her fluffy dog. Wicklow, being on the east coast, definitely had more blue in it than the green and rocky west coast of Galway. On return to Dublin, we spent some time walking around the city, enjoying some of the nightlife and early celebrations,, and we even got to meet a Leprechaun. We also discovered that blow-drying hair without opening the window would set off the fire alarm…. Apparently.
     Day 4: ST.PATRICK’S DAY!!! We decided to wake up early to get into the city and secure a good spot for the parade. Our taxi driver recommended a café on the river for breakfast, The Eliza Lodge/ The Italian Corner, where we were treated to a traditional Irish breakfast of eggs, sausage, and toast. At 8 in the morning, the city was beginning to come alive in preparations for the days festivities, that began with the annual rowing regatta between UCD (University college of Dublin) and Trinity crew teams. It was actually quite exciting standing on the bridges over the river and watching the students and alumni fans cheer on their teams all decked out in St. Patty’s Day gear.  There was a family standing next to us, 2 girls and their mom and dad, who apparently were divided between UCD and Trinity. The dad was joking that whichever team lost, the supporter of that team would get thrown in, or they wouldn’t nominate a daughter to be thrown in for them, and he voted for the older daughter because she would make a bigger splash. It reminded me of my dad, and it was refreshing to see a family out together and enjoying themselves. However, on St. Patrick’s day this was not a scarce sight. 
     We picked a spot on O’Connell Street, down from the river and before the Millennium Spire, near where the parade would begin. By the time 11 rolled around we were already smushed against the railing by a rather large group, or family, of Southeast Asians whose young boys thought it was totally appropriate to crawl between people’s legs and hit each other with flags regardless of who was behind them. Needless to say, it was an interesting 4 hours. Once the parade started however, all attention was diverted to the amazing array of costumes, colors, props, and street performers. The theme of the parade was based off of a short story, ‘Brilliant,’ by Roddy Doyle, and each state of Ireland was given a chapter to interpret and perform. Disney’s got nothing on the costumes and props of the Irish parade. I’ve never seen anything like it before in my life. And I recommend to everyone making a trip to see this spectacle. And the crowds aren’t so obnoxious, unless you’re in Temple Bar after 9pm. We did venture to a few bars, I recommend Gogarty’s in Temple Bar as well as Arlington Hotel/Knightsbridge Bar, where we saw some River Dance, and also some highly entertaining (and good) Irish musicians, and I even danced a bit of Irish jig. Everyone has been in the city celebrating since the parade at 12, so by 7 or 8 a lot of people have already had their fun, or too much fun, and headed home. After that, its only the very hearty and capable celebrators that are still around and mostly concentrated in the bar-filled areas. For us, we were there from 8-8, without sitting, and we were done, not to mention I was going to be up at 6 the next morning to catch the train to Northern Ireland. It was an amazing day.
     Day 5: Northern Ireland Celebration. The train from Dublin to Portadown was gorgeous, half of the ride was right on the coastline and on the early morning train the day after St. Paddy’s there weren’t many people, so the view out of the window was spectacular.  I will say this: I wanted to spend more time there before I even saw anything or met the wonderful people. To give you a recap of how this trip came about, a friend in Jacksonville goes to Celebration church who has a sister church in Portadown. She put me in touch via facebook with Dave, who is one of the program leaders for Celebration church in Portadown. He picked me up at the station, and showed me around the whole day, and then introduced me to some of the other group leaders for Celebration at a small-group meeting in the hotel where the church has their services in Portadown. I have never felt so welcome, or been greeted so warmly by a group of strangers, who didn’t even know I would be there. After the 2 unnerving weeks of trying to get settled in Germany, it was heart-warming and calming to meet such nice people. *If anyone should travel to Northern Ireland, I recommend stopping by to one of their services, even if you’re not a church-going person, they are open-armed and friendly and have lots to share.   
    BUT, onto the days adventures: Dave had the whole day planned, starting with some Starbucks coffee, as he has had yet to meet an American who would turn it down, and we both shared an affinity for white-chocolate mocas. Then we drove out to the White Rocks beach, and ­­­­­Dunluce Castle, which was phenomenal with the ruins of the rooms, stairs, and fireplaces so that you actually walk room to room and imagine the castle as it was. What an amazing thing to live on the Cliffside in a castle such as that.  Then onto the Giant’s Causeway, which is a magnificent sight. Steps out to the ocean… the myth is that the giant Fionn MacCool was chasing another giant to Scotland and was building the steps to get there. The water spraying up and the different heights of the stones, as well as the view of the other rock formations coming out of the cliffs such as the Giant’s foot and the Giant’s Organ was really phenomenal. We hiked back up this outrageous incline and stairwell, that I cant deny left me winded.  Afterwards we headed to the Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge (!)… I was already shaken from standing on a cliff edge to look over the Giant’s Causeway, and now I was going to walk across a flimsy bridge made of planks of wood and ROPE – in the RAIN – totally comforting. It was a triumph to make it to the other side for sure, which was basically just a large rock island, where a fishing hut had been built in a tiny alcove and the rope bridge had been constructed to haul fishing loads across to the “mainland.” I could proudly say I wouldn’t melt in the Irish rain, as I stood and looked across the startling blue-green water and cloudy skies, relishing my victory over the bridge… until I realized that I had to walk back across it. 
    Needless to say, I survived otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this, but I was very happy to hear our next destination would be to a seaside town, Portstewart, for some ice cream (!) to wind down from the adventures. The ice cream parlor was right on the main road overlooking the “bay” and is owned by an Italian family that has been running the shop since immigrating to Ireland over 40 years ago. It was delicious! The shop overlooked the main road, which ran alongside the “bay,” and we were there at the end of the storm with the sun beginning to set creating a sight to see with waves crashing against the rocks in the cloudy sunlight. It was gorgeous. On the way to dinner in the nearby town of Portrush, we stopped by an open park, Rennigree Point, overlooking the ocean with pathways over the grassy rocks, and a great spot for a driving-range. A couple of houses were nestled discreetly in the park, on top of the cliff and at the base of it, and I couldn’t help but envy and also envision the life to be had living in one of them. So, dinner – another amazing spot, located in the port of Portrush, an Asian & Italian restaurant where I had the most delicious chicken and curry, but it didn’t compare to Dave’s pasta. Just outside the restaurant were the old docks, where immigrants during the famine took their last steps in Ireland before leaving for America – pretty humbling.   
    Next back to Portadown to meet with the Celebration group, which was just a lovely meeting, like I said before. I booked a room in the Titanic Quarter of Belfast for the night so I could catch an early plane to London, but when we arrived there, a huge crowd was swarming the streets (apparently the arena is right next to the hotel) and the boy-band BoyZone had been performing, leading to the swarm of thousands of tween girls running around and screaming at passing cars who may hold the band. The clerk at the hotel seemed to be relieved that I had no idea who they were when I asked what was going on. I had been sleeping soundly when the fire alarm went off and people started rushing into the halls. It was apparently a false alarm, only to be affirmed with a polite apologetic letter under my door in the morning, however I seem to attract fire alarms in hotels. I had hoped to see a bit of wear the titanic was built before catching my plane, but the whole port is under construction to make the attraction a bit more appealing to tourists. Alas, I was quite sad to say goodbye, with such a wonderful experience and great people, and also a bit apprehensive of the British Culture.
    Day 6: Upon arrival at London-Luton airport (there are 4 airports in London, all well outside of the city, and all rather difficult to get to, especially if you are on the opposite side of the city.  I took a bus and a train to get to the village of Flitwick (Harry Potter reference! (Not seen so by the locals.)) And was picked up by Maggie and her son Matt.
I guess I have to explain the back-story about how this trip turned out. A very old friend of the family, and coworker of my Dad’s, Brad, has been working in London for the past few years. When I made plans to go to Ireland, and had some extra time, my dad suggested stopping by England to see Brad and meet Maggie and family, as they would all be moving to the states in the summer. So, I made plans. I hadn’t seen Brad since I was a little girl, and once again I would be picked up by a complete stranger, Maggie, however we had chatted on the phone and I wasn’t too concerned about it. So, Maggie and her son Matt picked me up at the train station and we stopped by the store to get some supplies for the BBQ (YAY for visiting an American!) she and Brad were cooking that night.  Also, poor Matt, who works in London, but came home to visit for the weekend, needed to buy some casual clothes so he wouldn’t have to wear his work attire the whole weekend. It was quite hilarious to me, that you could buy jeans and clothes in an average grocery store (this was no Wal-mart people).
     Marston Moretaine is the English village (stereotypically) where Brad and Maggie live, and when I was there, Spring was just blooming. I would compare it slightly to driving through the upper-east-coast of the US, Maryland/Virginia area, with hills, and fields, and brick houses – but much less traffic, and much more flowers blooming everywhere. There is a lovely lake and park/recreation area in Marston Moretaine that Matt showed me around, while discussing the difference and stereotypes of Britains vs. Americans, tv shows (Super Sweet 16 just doesn’t exist in England), humor (dry British humor doesn’t catch on so easily in the states), etc. We also stopped by a local Pub to try some cider (which I actually enjoyed!), but Matt warned against spending too much time in the local pub, as it causes as much drama as a middle-school girls chorus group.
    Back at the house, Brad arrived home from a bike-auction in his amazing Van-converted-to-RV. He took an average, European style Mercedes work-van, gutted it, and transformed the inside into an RV, complete with kitchen, bathroom, sleeping area, and sitting space. At the same time, Matt’s younger brother Luke came home from soccer practice, and I had the pleasure of meeting the most feisty and fervent Chelsea Football Club fan. No grown, drinking, man could compare to the intensity of this 11-year-olds support of Chelsea. I could barely break it to him that I appreciated Chelsea, but instead Manchester United. He also has no idea how much trouble his accent will get him into with middle-school girls in the US. But that story has yet to play out, so we’ll see.  
      I was so excited for dinner, BBQ chicken and good American food. I loved their kitchen, it was a wideopen space, allowing for everyone to stand or sit and chat together while the food was being prepared or passed around. I also discovered their large jar of Skippy Peanut Butter, and I’ve never had such a craving! I hadn’t realized until then that it is virtually impossible to get American peanut butter without paying top dollar or sneaking onto a military base in Germany. It was at that time that Brad suggests taking a trip to COSTCO(!!!) so I could get some creamy Skippy peanut butter to take back with me. (My bag weighed almost 1 pound more, but it was sooo worth it.) OK, back to dinner, it was DELICIOUS. And some other friends came over, and we watched the Ireland vs. England Rugby match (which was fantastic! I loved it! I can appreciate it a bit more than American football actually, because the men actually have to be fit and strong in every position) then a poker match ensued. The company was quite amusing, full of British humor and a bit of small-town gossip, that didn’t help any previously discussed stereotypes. It was a “splendid” time.
     Day 7: The next day we took a trip to an Antique Emporium, in a tinnyyyy town, Ampthill, where all of the shops were closed outside of this 3-story, antique-itself house, full of STUFF. The most amazing thing I found was an old Nazi military jacket, that shocked me to see, but Matt explained that the Britain’s have a bit of a strange humor towards that paraphernalia and love to collect/buy it and use it for costumes or jokes. It was a quiet, relaxing Sunday, which I have to say I really appreciated compared to all of the running around in Ireland. It was nice to just sit and have good food, which we ordered Indian for dinner and it was really tasty.
     Day 8: Monday, Matt had to go back to London for work, so I caught the morning train with him into the city. We came into St. Pancras Station (which houses the international trains like the Eurostar to Paris), right next to Kings Cross station. Matt informed me however, that Kings Cross wasn’t actually used for the filming of Harry Potter but a complete separate station in the city. They did however put up a little scene in Kings Cross station were it looks like there is a luggage cart disappearing into the wall. The JK Rowing’s idea for Kings Cross station was that platforms 1-8 are in one room and 9+ in another section of the station, but there’s actually a whole wall and large separation between the two area, leaving the filmmakers without much material for an interesting platform 8 ¾ scene. Also, all of London is currently under construction to prepare for the 2012 Olympics, including Kings Cross station, making it rather difficult to traverse, so I skipped that tourist spot. After grabbing a biscuit and coffee, he showed me where the British Museum was and headed to work.
     The museum didn’t open for another 40 minutes so I ventured to take a picture with a British telephone booth and then browsed the museum’s info on their current visiting and permanent collections. Presently they have an exhibit on Afghanistan history and art, but it costs extra to see, so I flipped through the book they had for sale on the collection, and came across a photo that I recognized. When applying for my high school magnet program, I attempted to create an oil painting for my audition and had chosen a photo out of a magazine of the horses grazing in front of mountains in Afghanistan. This was only 2 years after 9/11, and I recall that the magazine article was about the effects of 9/11 on tourism and how Afghanistan stil retained some of the most beautiful countryside and natural monuments in the world. Anyways, 8 years later, in a book on a traveling exhibit of Afghanistan trying to raise awareness of the culture, art, and history of the war-torn country, is the same photo I had tried to re-create in paint. It was exciting to recognize it, but also a reminder that times have not changed so drastically since then – I myself may have changed drastically in that time period, but the world’s issues are still the same, and the same fights are still being fought in the same places with the same people; in direct war, or to bring awareness. 
      The rest of the museum was amazing; I got to see pieces of art that I had only studied in books, such as the Rosetta Stone, Ramses II, & the Standard of Ur. After the museum I just walked around the city. I wasn’t terribly interested in seeing the major tourist spots, so I just decided to follow the map (who would’ve thought!) around the city and see what I could see. I ended up seeing all of the major tourist spots, Parliament, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, and Buckingham Palace (although I have to admit, I was sorely disappointed that the guards no longer stand outside the gates, so I couldn’t mess with them L.) I met Matt again for lunch in Soho, where we tried out a traditional English Pub and I had a delicious Shepherd’s pie and I got to try a bit of British Fish & Chips. It was all quite tasty, I must say. I had to make sure though, that while in England I bought a Manchester United something, and found a comfy red sweater on sale. In the train station before catching the train back to Marston Moretaine, I discovered a cute bakery known for their cupcakes, and picked up a box for dessert. We had delicious Indian cuisine from the local Indian restaurant for dinner, which was interesting… very colorful, different textures of bread, and lots of spice.
     Day 9: London, Day 2. In the morning, my plans to meet with friends in the city fell through, so I took a later train into London, trying to use a cheaper ticket for residents after rush hour. However, 20 minutes into the ride when the ticket-taker checked my ticket, he asked for my residence card, which I didn’t have, and then charged me a fine for not having it… we wont talk about how much that was. It was a moment of growing for me; I just paid the fine, and chose to enjoy that the sun was shining, I had a map of the city, and I could go anywhere and see anything I wanted. Which is exactly what I did. London Bridge, Shakespeare Globe, and Trafalgar Square < which was phenomenal with the view of all the different directions and the countdown for the Olympics. Luckily, Matt was willing to meet me for lunch again, and we enjoyed a delicious Asian meal at Wagamama that was in the basement of some building and you sat cafeteria style on big long tables, and the food is served from a line quite quickly but was totally amazing. We need to bring this place to the US. 
     Spending the majority of the day alone, I really got to observe the city life; London is designed for workers & commuters: the eateries are all clumped together, there’s always extra footpaths and escalators, multiple entrances to places, and amazingly fast service even at sit-down restaurants. And everyone moves fast here, even if its not for work. Also, the underground is slightly intimidating… in some stations you have to spend 15 minutes just walking straight down a staircase under pipes and drains, before walking down a short ceilinged, slanted tunnel to get to the actual platform.  Needless to say, I was happy to get back to the small English town outside of the city, but sad to know I’d be leaving the next morning. 
      Days 10 & 11: Marston Moretaine -> London Stansted -> Frankfurt Hahn -> Heidelberg -> Karslruhe
In the morning, a sad goodbye, with promises to meet again in the states, and many thanks for a wonderful English visit (especially for the peanut butter), and then the trek to get to London Stansted airport, that required I take the train back into the city, change stations, and go back out to the airport. After getting back to Germany, I had to wait for the bus at Hahn airport (in the middle of nowhere) to take me to Heidelberg where my friend Roman, who was an exchange student in NY from the Pedagogische Hochschule in Karlsuhe, picked me up and drove the rest of the way to Karlsruhe. Back with my old friend, Julia we got to catch up, and prepare for her moms birthday weekend. The next morning I met Roman again for coffee and to see the library (aka jail) where all of my Karlsruhe friends have been holed up studying for their state exams for education. Happily, a couple of them, Simeon & Franci were willing to take a break for a couple of hours for lunch and to walk the city a little bit. My friend Bjorn met with Simeon and I for delicious ice cream in the Maxplatz, and then we followed the path from the palace to the soccer stadium for a charity football game between KSC and Hoffenheim. Being an unofficial game, it wasn’t too crowded, but their fans were quite excited, and I can say Ive been to a real German football game. Afterwards, we met back up with Julia, Simeon, and another friend Lisa for drinks, and attempted to go to one bar, where the bartender was not only slightly out of it, but did not know how to make any drinks. Needless to say we shared some drinks over some pizza, and then called it a night. Once again, I have to say, it is a wonderful thing to be able to meet with friends after spending so much time apart and feel like you just saw them yesterday.
     Day 12: Travels with Julia & Leah RETURN! On the train to Offenburg to celebrate Doris’ birthday, it was such a familiar sight to see the train station and their village, Zell Weierbach, on the hill above the city, right on the edge of the Black Forest. Julia’s mom picked us up, and had been practicing her English for my visit. When we got to the house, she had even put an American Flag in the spare bedroom. After saying hello to Klaus and Mitze (their cat), we took a walk to visit their neighbors, an old Doctor and his wife, who live above them on the hill, in this gorgeous beautiful old house full of treasures they collected from their years traveling around the world – when customs didn’t exist, and you could bring back exotic & priceless artifacts. They also have a pool on the edge of their property that looks over the whole of the village & Offenburg and in the distance the mountains & France. The sweetest couple ever, insisting on giving me a drink and being patient with my poor German skills. Herbi had asked Klaus to come over to help him fix his fax machine, but Herbi has self-wired the whole house when it comes to anything electric, which makes it very difficult for other people to fix things. After our visit, we headed back to the house for afternoon coffee with some family friends, 3 generations of women from the same family, the eldest being nearly 90 and perfectly capable to walk up the many stairs and have a sassy attitude when discussing men over coffee. The night was relaxing, getting prepared for the next days big dinner for the whole family and friends, and Doris prepared some grocery bags for both Julia & I to take back to school with us, even with some of her homemade strawberry jam which is delicious!
     Days 13 & 14: Happy Birthday Doris!!! Julia and I went on a hunt to find a yard game that she had discovered with some friends, an old Viking game, called Kubb, using wooden blocks and sticks that you use to knock down the blocks. We also stopped by her brother’s soccer game in a nearby village, which was actually a pretty intense game. Its always a bit amusing for me to see how hyped up Germans get, even for their local teams. The weather was a little cloudy, but still nice, so when her family arrived, we gave it the Viking game a try – and I quickly discovered that an overwhelming majority of Germans are amazingly athletically fast learners. Dinner was typical German cuisine, but the best part was the array of cakes and desserts. Fruit cake, strawberry cake, chocolate cake, and Julia’s [attempt] to make a Russian pound-like cake, which I thought was delicious but wasn’t totally cooked in the middle. All of her family knew me from my trip 2 years ago, but I was still a bit nervous to speak up in front of them – it’s a little intimidating being in front of an entire family, multiple generations of German-speakers and trying to explain things in broken grammar & poor vocab. Also, as most of you know, getting the family together means there is lots of fast & loud conversation, which I couldn’t always follow, and it didn’t help that I had been spending time in Frankonia/Bavaria where they speak a different German dialect, and then 2 weeks in English-speaking countries. Bad planning on my part. It was still wonderful however, and Julia’s grandma suggested that I get my German license & a car so I can visit more often (she didn’t know that I already had my license). It was so nice to see them all again, and where they live near the Black Forest the air is so clear and clean, I stood for a few minutes on the balcony that night just soaking it in before leaving in the morning. I was able to ride the train back to Karlsruhe with Julia but then we had to say goodbye for me to change trains and head back to Bamberg where my roommate, Olesya had arrived and to get prepared for the next 4 weeks of German language training and meeting new people…

Thursday, March 24, 2011

ATTN: All Passport Holders! Have ALL Documents Ready!

      That headline is possibly the most important thing that all travelers; exchange students, vacationers, workers, and movers alike need to remember. Yes, it seems rather common sense, but do NOT underestimate these words. If not just to remind you to be prepared, or to give you a warning of all the requirements yet to come. For instance, 'Passport Holders' really is warning you that there will come a time when being a Non EU (European Union) Passport Holder is very different than an EU Passport Holder, such as in airports. *READ and FOLLOW airport signs very carefully!* Also, when referring to documents, yes of course your passport, visa or residency paperwork, school acceptance, military orders, but what they really mean is MONEY. Without a doubt, make sure that you have access to a proper (whichever country), working, and fully-stocked bank account. There are countless hidden fees everywhere (especially when its something that seems cheap), and you will need to have spare cash, or access to cash, for those 'emergency fees' (which are more regular than emergency).
      OK, thats my tidbit of advice for today. Hopefully the rest of this blog, with explain a little bit why the above is so important, but mostly, heres an update of that first few days in Germany - Bamberg, and getting settled in.
      Arriving in Bamberg went smoothly... despite the amazing amount of luggage I managed on the train. The next couple of hours, and couple of days, were a mess of running around, getting paperwork, filling out paperwork, turning in paperwork, and attempting to meet people although there was a surprisingly limited amount of english-speakers, and most offices close at noon for the day, or are closed for 1-2 hours for lunch, and then close by 4.
      My first encounters were at the International Office at the University where I paid to 'rent' some bedding for the semester (15€), and then we had to drive across town to another studentenheim (student apartments) to pick it up. But first we went to the apartments to check in with Herr Englisch (no joke), the Hausmeister (landlord) and drop off my bags. Meeting Herr Englisch was like driving down a highway in Florida in August when you hit those patches of intense rain and wind and you cant see 10 feet in front of you, and youre going about 25mph but it feels like youre flying through the rain, and then you a hit a sunny spot, no rain, calm, just to hit another patch of turbulent rain again a few minutes later. This is also how he speaks. A rush of words, then a big gasp, then a rush of words, did I mention a lisp? AND, he doesn't speak a word of english. Go figure. He looks like a typical 'Bavarian (though I found out later he is actually Frankonian (another subgroup of German, but which is a big deal/difference with Bavaria), tall, stocky, rosy-red cheeks' generally happy looking, until he starts talking, and then its just overwhelming.
     So, after some paperwork, and determining that I would have to open a German account so that the apartments could take out my rent themselves rather than me hand them a check, we went to see the room. 8 flights of stairs later (no elevator)... on the 5th floor (what Germans call the 4th, because the ground floor is 0), or roofish area, is my room! Now, why the builders decided to put the rooms on the right hand side of the hall I dont know, because the left hand side has the spectacular view of the old city skyline. The view from the rooms inside arent bad, just the next door buildings. So, enter the apartment and you have 2 wardrobes, 2 bedrooms, 1 bathroom, and a tiny kitchen area complete with mini-fridge, sink, and 2 stove burners. Luckily for us, whoever had lived there before left all of the plates and pots and pans so thats one expense I didn't have to worry about, though I did invest in some Dish soap and scrubbed all of them before use.
      When Herr Englisch opened the door to my room, I was really excited, but the first thing my tandem partner and I noticed was the smoke smell - it was bad, like walking into a club. You could only smell it dimly in the kitchen, but it was really bad in my room. I didnt want to say anything, as my first impression, I definitely did not want to upset or insult the landlord, but my roommate said something to me, and then tried to ask the landlord about it... being nice like 'I didn't think people were allowed to smoke' - and he took it the wrong way, got upset, and stormed out of the room. This all happened in German, so I was standing there and had no idea what happened, but he didnt come back, so I thought he was really upset. Needless to say, after relocating him in his office, it was worked out that they would come and paint my room and the kitchen the next day, as there were no other free rooms, and there was really no other solution. And it worked out since there was no carpet for the smell to stick too, and they replaced my mattress as well. (The next morning, I brought Herr Englisch a note in German saying thank you for his help, and to apologize for the stress, which he seemed to appreciate amidst all the gasps and sputters talking about I dont know what.) He did show me where the laundry room was, on the 2nd floor of my building across a roof connecting to the next building, down the hall, around the corner, up some stairs, and into the attic where there are 2 washers and 1 dry, which cost 1€ per wash/dry and you cant open the doors without having to pay again. Also, these washers are about half the size of a normal American washer and wash slower, to be more economical. Oh Germany...
      Then we went to pick up the sheets. We had to find the Hausmeister in one of the first-floor apartments, and we were greeted by a group of people who didnt speak much english and led us to a room down a hall where there was a pile of pillows, blankets, and sheets you could choose from. We were told that they were all freshly cleaned, so I picked what I thoguht would keep me warm and looked the least-used, until I had the time to go and buy somethings for myself. It seemed a rather ''sketchy'' operation, but my tandem partner and I just had to laugh about it.
       I was so sure I was pretty prepared as far as paperwork and banking goes, and I had, to a point. You have to open a German account, because you cant link an American account and a German account (via online or whatever) because they use a different system of numbers. And on top of this, to get money into the German account requires either multiple ATM withdrawals (of which US banks charge a percentage fee for the currency conversion) or a wire transfer which costs anywhere from $35-$50 dollars, acting as a 'direct deposit.'
       Also, where offices are, typically the doors are closed and there are no windows, so the hallways are very quiet and I was never sure if anyone was actually working... you have to knock on the doors, and even if someone responds, you can still get yelled at for coming in. (I know from experience.)
      I really have to say, those first couple of days were tough. It was overwhelming and intimidating, and I really had to question what I was doing. I really knew I was far from home, and I couldnt just call my mom or a friend when I didnt know something or when I was frustrated. Not to mention most students were either already on holiday or still in exams, so the apartments and the city were very quiet. And I really cant say that things 'began to settle down' and I 'got used to it after a few days' - it really happened immediately. It had to, things are what they are, and I had to make a choice to freak out and stress out, or to deal with it and move on. I chose the later (after much deliberation ;-P), and its worked so far. :)
      The next few days were spent of wandering around the town, witnessing the Fasching, or Carnivale parade in the towncenter consisting of local groups and their home-made floats... and everyones wild costumes, also meeting the International 'tutors' - students from the university here who help plan and prepare events for exchange students at the university. I found the good places to shop for groceries and toiletries, and also some good cafes and a couple of good bars. I spent a couple of days visiting my good friends at the university in Karlsruhe, where I had a wonderful meal of the French cuisine raclette - which I highly recommend to everyone to try. It was great to see everyone again, I have really come to appreciate when you can see someone after so long and pick up as if no time or distance had passed. Back in Bamberg, it was back to meeting some more International students, and discovering the wonderful German tradition of 'after-hour' or happy hour for CHEAP dinner and drinks, and making plans for Ireland. I have learned, quickly, to get over any shy-thoughts about meeting people, and I dont think I will ever turn back. In one night, I met an Irish guy, and a group of friends all traveling to Ireland together for St. Paddy's day, and a couple of girls studying in Bamberg from the states who were interested in going with me to Ireland. Have no fear people! Talk, ask questions, theres always a story to share, either between each other then or one you share together later! :) And with that, I leave you until next time, where these experiences help take me to the next journey... and the adventures there :)

Home for the Semester, Bamberg
Raclette @ Simeon & Lisa's in Karlsruhe
"Fat Tuesday" Fasching Parade in Bamberg

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Auf Wiedersehen Österreich, Guten Tag Deutschland!

Alright, so I know its been awhile... but I think I have just been a bit overwhelmed with processing my recent move. There has been so much to take in, and having to constantly think and remind myself about everything, I haven't been wanting to write it all down again afterwards. So here goes:
The rest of my days in Austria were awesome! I absolutely love it there, which I think most people would find surprising, considering its a very small town, very quiet, and yes some of my family members own cows (and lots of them) and sheep and various farm animals. But really, I think its the people. Its another home, and another family. :) To recap a few important events:
     I nearly got blown off of a mountain by the wind.
     I saw a "professional" basketball game, which was closer to what we would consider a college basketball game, however it wasn't as big, but every bit just as loud. The fans were crazy! And get this - there are American players ont he team! You could tell which ones they were by how they played, with unique trick shots and "street" ball style... and they spent the majority of the time on the court. A couple of the players even became Austrian citizens so they can play on the Austrian national team! BUT, the referees are AWFUL!!! Really, we think we have bad ref's, but really we just dont like the calls they make - these guys are really bad! 3 of them ON the court, not on the sidelines, and in the way of the players the whole game. They even stopped a couple of the players to make them tuck in their shirts, thus, missing a couple of other guys make a foul.
     I went to a fest in a huge concert hall where the coverband played "Cotton-eyed Joe" twice! (WHATS UP Country music??!) But really, this song is popular for their carnivale/fasching celebrations. They played some other good classics, but other than that, I have to say it was a bit... unusual. I just turned 21, and you know what that means for good ole' Americans. DRINK!!! ALOT!!! Right? ....Well, although 21 isnt so special here in Europe, I exercised my right to buy a drink, but I couldn't exercise being 21 because I was surrounded (literally) by 13-16 year olds that were completely sloshed, thus making me feel old beyond my years. And not necessarily old, just very out-of-place. None the less it was a good night, fun to be with my cousins and enjoying the local "scene."
      My last day in Burgenland was quiet and nice... the weather was good and I was just happy to have a few hours with my family before leaving again. On Sunday, my cousin Tanja and her boyfriend Dominik picked me up and brought me to their flat in Vienna, which was beautiful! The districts in Vienna are shaped in circles around the city, and where she lives is in the 22nd district, which is currently being "remodeled" with brand new apartments and townhomes designed specifically for young people moving to the city. The prices are super cheap - Vienna's way of advertising for people to move in from the rural areas, as long as you dont make over a certain amount and are under a certin age, u can rent, and even rent-to-own. I especially like her flat, because its only a couple of metro-stations away from the soccer stadium! Dominik also bought an "American style" refrigerator (you know, man-size and not mini-size like the rest of europe) which has a very handy feature, a trap door on the front that you can open to get drinks out of without having to open the whole refrigerator door. He made us schnitzel, some of the best Ive had so far, before we played UNO over some cheap champagne and cake, and we had to go through the deck 5 or 6 times until someone finally lost!
       Vienna the next day, I asked Tanja to show me the Vienna she knows and not all the tourist-y stuff. Which was great, we just walked - went to the Naschmarkt (one of the original markets of Vienna having some fo the most exotic and foreign foods), saw the smallest house in Vienna (basically just the corner of a building), had some hot cocoa at a cafe where you can buy the furniture on which you are eating, went to Jukius Meinl a famous coffee/wine and foreign goods shop,  walked through the museum park (saw a guy holding a sign 'I want to become a millionare' (personally, I think hes going to make it with his high-standard occupation), and then went ice-skating in front of the Rathaus! Oh it was so much fun, and instead of just a plane rink they have paths of ice and small inclines/declins to make it more exciting... or more challenging for those of us not accustomed to winter sports. And to make it better, my Austrian cousin had not ice-skated before, and I had! Oh it was such good fun!
       To end the night, we met some of Tanja's coworkers for after-hours drinks, get this - in a Courtyard Marriott hotel lounge(!) (I didn't find this out until later), and then had dinner in the city center. Her coworker Doris, knew a lot about Vienna and brought us by one of the oldest churches in Vienna - still standing from the 11th century! Amazing! And we saw it at night, which made it even more spectacular. You could see the stairs in the bell tower, still made of wood, and the vines creeping up the side... just cool to see.
      Alas, it all had to come to an end... which resulted in a restless sleep for me, thinking about how on earth I would get my 2 suitcases and a backpack on and off 2 different trains! But, in the morning Tanja accompanied me to the train station, with the help of Dominik who very gentlemanly helped carry my bags, and Tanja even helped me get them onto and situated in the train.
      It was actually really sad to leave Austria... my family, and the wide-open spaces. But, I couldn't help but be excited for what was ahead. And, I couldnt even focus enough to write. For nearly 6 hours, I just stared out a train window, from the mountainous areas of Vienna, through Linz, and then over the border in Passau, through the flat and barren farmlands of south-eastern Germany.
      Then, the big moment in Nuremberg: 20 minutes, 3 bags, 10 platforms later, and 3 callouses later, I made it safely on the train to Bamberg. I was a nervous wreck, but after that I was fine. And in 1 hour, I was meeting my tandem partner from the university on the platform in Bamberg safe and sound.

       However, the next few hours alone require their own blog, so that installment must wait - but just a few days. ;)

Unterschützen <3
Wien <3
From Wien to Nuremberg (then Bamberg)


Sunday, February 20, 2011

Alles Gute in Österreich!

So, already my 3rd day in Austria - where has the time gone? I thought I would have time to post a blog the day that I left Florida, or the day after, but noo... too much excitement=not enough time! Haha.

To fill you in:
    Lufthansa is not as great as everyone says, unless you have millions of dollars or thousands of sky-miles and can afford a $5,000-$10,000 ticekt for business or first class. Cramped seats, no foot space, no individual tvs. We Americans really are spoiled, this is true per our American airlines, they are the epitome of 'American-comfort'. But I will say, Lufthansa had better food.
    If you fly to Frankfurt for a connecting flight, make sure you have well over an hour, probably two between flights. There are 4 terminals, and to travel between them takes 2 or 3 security checkpoints as well as multiple staircases, a long underground tunnel, and sometimes a bus-service out to the plane.
    AND even though Lufthansa has a near-monopoly over service at the Frankfurt airport, they were not able to find a way to get my bags to my next plane, even though I found my way. Das ist schlecht.

Anyways, it is so good to be back in Austria! It really has become another home to me (along with Orlando and Jacksonville), the places and faces are very familiar, I could almost find my way around.
    To anyone who has never been to Austria, I really recommend it. But don't stay in the cities - just visit for the day, or maybe two, and then travel through the countryside. It is more beautiful & with more history. Also, the people are much more kind, though you may want to bring a German translation pocketbook with you, in the farmlands not everyone speaks such good English, unless it is a young(er) person. Every house you go to there is food - and lots of it. Fresh! From the gardens, or freshly baked, even in winter and every day.
    Slowly my German is getting better, on the weekends (wochenenden) everyone is at home so I have been visiting with a lot of family. The older family are helping me practice my German, whereas some of the younger ones either are too shy to speak with me at all or want to practice their English. In Austria, the German is a dialect that is much different than what you would here in Berlin, Hamburg, or even Frankfurt. It is most close to the Bavern, or Bavarian, dialect which is an old-farmers language. Spoken so quickly, I cannot unerstand anything. It has been a lesson in patience and confidence - to sit at a table and know nothing of what is being said. Or when there is an awkward silence because no one knows what to say and they are aware you are there. Ich weiß nicht (I don't know, or, I know not)... but, I am learning (without school), so this is good. :)
    It is not as cold as I thought it would be, there is only froyen patches of snow on the ground here in Unterschützen. However, on the way here from Vienna, we passed through the Steiermark, and everything was white! The hills & mountains & trees and it was so so gorgeous! I've never seen anything like this in my life except in photos or the movies. SO beautiful! I hope to actually go out in some place like this before it warms up or I leave!
    Ah, last note, and then I will stop babbling. In order for my bags to be in weight, I left out my pea-coat, or nice black coat because it is so heavy and yet not as warm as the ski jacket I borrowed from a friend. HOWEVER, it is really obvious that this is a ski jacket. And did I forget to mention that it is purple? Yes, lavendar and dark purple. Now, I love the color purple, and I truly appreciate the warmth, BUT the looks I got when I went to the bar with my cousins were... well, far from flattering. One might describe the scene as if seeing the Purple-People-Eater walk in and sit down for a drink. (I am not exagerrating.) This is no offense to that jacket, but merely to that fact that I made the choice to wear it out to a bar. Oy-yay....
So, until next time....

Monday, February 14, 2011

In the midst of it all...

It is now 4(!) days out from departure. AH!
    Friday, I got to catch up with an amazing old friend who I couldnt be more proud of, and then I had a few awesomely wonderful friends drive all the way down from Jax just to spend a couple of hours hangin and dancin at Cowboys even though it was totally dead! I couldn't believe it, but it was actually really fun (Cowboys always is, this just proves it!) the rest of the crowd that night was a hoot to be around. I am really lucky to have such great friends.
    Things are coming together, but with every item checked off the list, there seems to be another one appearing. However, in the midst of it all, I seem to be keeping a level head. It's been crazy, don't get me wrong, and when I think about it for too long the anxiety and nervous-excitement definitely build, BUT I'm not worried. Maybe a little stressed, but not worried. I'm confident I'll be packed in time (within the weight limit) and have (most) of my paperwork in order... so hears to hoping!
    For those of you who know of my recent adventures with packing... I did get talked into bringing my backpack. So if anyone knows anyone else traveling in the Orlando, Frankfurt, or Vienna airports, or riding the DeutscheBahn in the next 1-2 weeks, they might tell you that they saw the most hilarious thing: "I saw this thing pulling 2 suitcases with another bag under it's arm, it was moving rather slow hunched over with a big hump on the back - I swear that it was a Turtle! Looked just like it - Imagine! A turtle carrying luggage through the airport (on a train)!"
UGH. Backpacks.
No offense to anyone that has a backpack, but I am just [obviously] not a fan.
    Now, besides that. I believe I have just spent 2.5 hours with my sister's tech-savvy boyfriend getting my phone set up to work in Europe. I'm not exactly sure how it works... all of the paperwork and prompts are in German! Haha, but soon enough I will know it by myself, no translation needed! Thanks again to my Amazing friends, Simeon & Julia, for thinking ahead for me :).
    Next on the checklist: [Lightweight, waterproof, non-slip, breathable boots = Check. You have no idea how hard these are to find.] Wake up reeeallly early (not today) and go get my 21-yr-old license =). Then get my International Driver's License. Then, back up (NOT move) files on external hard-drive, for safe keeping. And Email, Email, Pack, Email, Pack, Pack, Email, And Pack some more.
    I can't decide whether I am bringing too much, or not enough. As it is, I'll be buying quite a few things over there, but I'm beginning to think I need to downsize my items again (despite the 6 times I've already done it), juuuust in case. Maybe I'll post pictures of the before and after.

Goodness, where has the time gone.

    Please, pray/ask for patience and some extra-amazing organization skills for me. Or some sort of epiphany that I should go with only the clothes on my back! 

Monday, February 7, 2011

Sweet Caroline/Don't Stop Believin/Heal the World/Forever & Ever Amen

      Oldies = Goodies, in the way of: Old friends, classic rock, original country, first pet, first car, etc. I have been reunited with a few of these during my time at home, or at least had instances which remind me of them. It really goes to show, that although some things you can't get back, as long as you maintain and update the things you still have, they stick around for a long time. :) (Reminds me of the song "Shoebox" by Chris Young. Check it out.) Catching up with friends, I once again realize how lucky I am to know such people that are motivated, genuinely happy, and well in a few cases, genius.
       During this past week at home I have come to enjoy walking to the store to pick things up for my parents, including other errands like the bank and pharmacy. I guess its good practice for Germany :). I've also gone for a couple of runs and a bike ride, and spent some much-needed time playing with the dogs. I envy how excited they get over the simplest of things. I am going to miss having them keep me warm.. but I won't miss the 6:37a.m. daily wake-up call that they so lovingly utilize in order to trick me out of bed space. Needless to say, I love the mutts (term of endearment).
      There have been some hurdles to jump over while being home, and more than anything, my patience has been tested. When I am in school and working, I can focus on exactly what needs to be worked on, and what I need to work on personally, be it patience or what. But, at home, with so many distractions it has been more difficult to keep in mind my daily practices of patience and mindfulness. And it's most obvious when my parents... well, when they act like my parents (questioning and bossy). They have every right to do so, but needless to say, I am working harder than ever on patience vs. reaction. And one day, just like countless other things in my life, I will appreciate my parents for their [inadvertent] "training."
       And to be honest, it's been a bit of a challenge to keep myself prioritized. Each day is different rather than being on a set schedule, so there has been much more free-time, and much less obligations. I don't know what to do with it! I'm much more organized when busy, haha. Regardless, there has been so much to do to get ready to leave. And even more to do once I get there. No one tells you about all the fine print associated with each little step (Then again, when have they ever?); insurance, scholarships, paying tuition after credit conversion, exchange rates, visa, residency, housing, passport, flight, luggage, luggage restrictions, train timetables, class approval, credit conversion, phone numbers, bank accounts, and lets not forget trying to fit everything u could possibly need for 6 months into 2 bags. However daunting this seems though, it cannot cap the sheer excitement of actually being able to do this. I can't wait! (At the very least, to finish packing!)

Monday, January 31, 2011

Wranglers... Thats all I have to say.

      The last few days have been wonderful. (The George Straight/Reba/LeeAnn Concert was AMAZING!) Unfortunately, they've been a bit sad too.. I had to say goodbye to a lot of people, that I wish I could take with me. But - I WILL be back, so its possible to stay positive. The past few days have given me so much to be thankful for, and made me so aware of the many wonderful gifts in life that are so often overlooked. And although words will never be enough, here are a few thanks:

My parents. For being supportive despite my biggest dreams, and being there for me without having to be asked twice.
My friends. They accept me regardless of my many faults, and are helpful even without being asked. And they keep me laughing during the roughest of times.
My jobs. I have been blessed to work for and with some of the most phenomenal people I have ever met. This once-in-a-lifetime opportunity would not be possible if it were not for them giving me the opportunity to work, giving me their support, and being overall positive and inspiring influences.
My "little brother." He is a constant reminder of what should be important in this life, an inspiration to be better, and the highlight of my week.
UNF (professors & staff). If it weren't for the university, and all of the people that work hard to make it what it is, there wouldn't be any opportunity (or as much motivation) at all for me to do this.
My grandparents. Without them, and their ceaseless wisdom and caring, I would not be where I am today. 
Wranglers. I don't really need to explain this one. Those who know, appreciate them the same as I do. 
And lastly, I think I owe some thanks to God. There have been moments in my life this past year, where, if it weren't for the grace of Him, myself and those close to me would be living a very different life right now.

      I have been home for 1 day, and I already know that these two weeks are going to be... straining... but they will fly by. I had to force myself to get out of my comfy bed and out of the quiet house - so, in preparation for all the walking I will be doing in Germany, I walked to the bank, the pharmacy, and the grocery store rather than drive. And I have to say, I'm proud of myself because walking outside in 80 degree weather in semi-downtown Orlando isn't necessarily "fun". But it was worth it, despite all the crazy drivers and people staring, because apparently you just DONT walk anywhere here unless you're a certain type of person.
       Being aware of how apparently "strange" it was for me to be walking, I walked with my head down, keeping to myself. But, I realized that walking with my head down I missed a lot of things. Everytime I looked up, I noticed something new about a place I had just walked by. This beautiful house around the corner from my parents' sits on a large corner lot and Ive walked, driven, and run by this house so many times, but today I noticed these beautiful rose bushes in the back - covered with pink, white, and red roses that were small but beautiful! Ah, to just open your eyes. [Oh, and here's a hint: smile at people, they either stop looking at you or give a friendlier response than if you were to just disregard them. Brightens your day and theirs (Thanks Alice!).]
       Also new today, I am the proud owner of my very first credit card! Now most people my age have had one for a couple of years already, but to those of you who know me - this is a big deal. Lets all pray that it doesn't go to my head. :)

Monday, January 24, 2011

Beginning Thoughts

I think I am reaching a turning point here. The past weekend/week I have been slowly beginning to pack my life up here in Jacksonville... and I do mean slowly. Late Saturday night I finally just started putting stuff in boxes, and today after work and waiting to go to dinner, I decided to pull all of my clothes out of my closet. Luckily, I had already started 3 piles when doing my laundry this weekend; take, maybe, and leave behind. Packing for 6 months is going to be hard. I can pack for 2 weeks or even a month - but 6 months... is proving to be a bit of a challenge.
      Thankfully, my dear friend Alessa came to the rescue [after our delicious dinner of New Orleans cuisine at Gumbo YaYa's - TRY this place - prices, food, and service is GREAT!], she willingly sat and went through my piles and now i just have 1.... that may have to be wittled down again. There were laughs, scares, scowls, and a few tears, but I parted with a majority of my well-worn clothes, to be packed and stuffed away somewhere for the next 6-7 months... sigh... Hopefully, I won't have to take too much more out of that 1 pile.
       In less than 1 week now, I will be moving all of my things back to Orlando and re-packing my things for Germany. (AHH!) I only have to pack the rest of my kitchen, bathroom, and clothes, and then finish some paperwork, work a few more days, load up the car and go. EEK! (are you catching on to my anxiousness?) Its funny, right here before getting ready to leave it feels like there is so much going on and so much I'll miss. I guess a lot of people would say thats how it usually is, but I am going to miss Jacksonville, UNF, my friends, family, and yes even work (at least my coworkers). It is a brand new year for me, in so many ways, and there hasn't been one semester thats been the same as another yet, so I guess this is just another semester... except I'll be thousands of miles away... and very cold...
         Haha... Alas, well at least I have been told that I seem to have everything together, though to me I have no idea exactly what I am getting into. Oh its going to be a strange & awkward yet wonderful & awesome adventure... =)