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)