It’s been a long time since I came home to Germany in July. I knew I needed to write something, but in between readjusting to being home, starting school again, and being at a complete loss of words for how best to sum it all up, I have put it off far too long.
My last few weeks in Germany were fantastic. There were many difficult goodbyes in Koblenz, and I almost couldn’t pack everything up for all the various goodbye parties and dinners. But at last, I boarded a train to Frankfurt and picked my parents up at the airport there. I can’t describe how happy I was to finally see them after almost 7 months away! They were so tired after their flight and all I wanted to do was talk endlessly and proudly show them what had become my home.
We made a whirlwind tour through Germany, and I didn’t update because we either didn’t have internet or I was too tired after the trek to write anything. But we saw everything–Dad drove us on the Autobahn from Koblenz to Heidelberg, Ulm, Schwangau and Neuschwanstein, Munich, Chiemsee, Rothenberg, Wurzburg, and Nuremberg. We saw castles and had lunch on Zugspitze in the Alps. I showed them things that I had discovered on my own and played tour guide at Neuschwanstein. Somehow they got tired of all the Ludwig II castles in Bavaria (perhaps my enthusiasm was a bit too much). We visited new things–Nuremberg is a new favorite city of mine; it was gorgeous and the castle there was different than any other I’d visited. Plus I finally made sense of the confusing history of the Holy Roman Empire thanks to that tour. In the end, it was difficult to leave. Let’s just say I practically had to be dragged onto the plane back in Frankfurt.
But that’s the thing: hardly anybody emphasizes how very difficult it is to readjust to life back in your home country. It’s Nobember–a good 4 months since I returned–and I’m still making that adjustment. The best way I can describe it is that it was like being tuned into the wrong radio station, that one just in between stations where you’re hearing two things at once and often with a great deal of static. Sometimes you hear the right station but you have a hard time making out what’s going on. That’s pretty much how my first week of classes were.
Initially some things were more difficult to adjust to than others. Hearing English–and Spanish–all the time was weird. I actually hadn’t heard much Spanish since I left the US so that was strange to see all the signs printed in Spanish and people speaking it everywhere. Huge stores and seeing giant expanses of nothing from the road. That’s weird. Strangely, nothing looked new. It was like I hadn’t left. But I could tell that I was different and that was odd. I must have offended quite a few people when they’d try to talk to me in public because I still operated under the assumption that strangers don’t speak to one another and it took me some time to notice people were talking to me! A lot of things were just as I left them. But the bigger impact past the first few weeks has been surprising.
7 months is a long time to live in a new place alone. I learned that if I could manage that, I could essentially live anywhere I wanted to and do anything with my future that I desired because I could not only survive it, but I would probably adapt and enjoy it. I’m not afraid of moving to go to grad school, and I actually like the possibility that I could someday move to a foreign country. It takes strength to stay abroad, but it builds even more by the time you’re done.
I’ve also gained new cultural perspectives that were impossible to get back home. Even western cultures have fundamental differences, and learning about those (often in unexpected ways) makes you question whether what you always accepted as “the way things are done” is really the only way to do things. (Hint: it’s not.) That’s not to say one is right and the other is wrong, but one might be better or worse for you personally. For instance, in Germany there are laws governing when stores can be open. Generally, everything shuts down on Sunday so that people can spend time with their families. Places also close a lot earlier over there (good luck eating after 8:00 pm). Is that better than our 24/7 culture? Subjectively, I’d say yes, because it gives people the time they need to spend with those that really matter to them (yes, people matter more than things.) It’s mandatory down-time, something that I really benefited from because I’m a workaholic. I’d have benefited from it even more if my family had lived there. But the point I’m trying to make is that perhaps what we take for granted as the way we ought to do things isn’t the only way to do them; there are alternatives which may actually be better for some people. It’s really interesting.
On that note, it’s hard not to mark one culture as better or worse than the other. The study abroad office warned us about this, and they were right: that’s a real challenge. That’s why, over these last few months, I’ve realized that one culture isn’t better or worse, but one might be better or worse for me, and not necessarily as a whole, but little parts on their own. I miss little things about Germany. Relaxing more and still getting things done, Biergarten culture where people don’t give you dirty looks for drinking a beer (and where the main goal isn’t always to get drunk), and public transport to name a few. On the other hand, I’m glad to have my family and friends back here. I love St. Edward’s and our faculty here, and even though I’m more sensitive than ever to our intense workloads, I really like this style of education.
On a whole, study abroad was an incredible experience and I strongly recommend it to anyone who is considering it. I miss Germany–it is like a second home to me, and I will be going back when I get a chance. I am still in awe of all the other places I got to see and the people that I got to meet. It hasn’t been long enough to say that study abroad is a life changing experience (although I believe it is), but I can say this: you won’t come back the same person. You’ll have changed and grown in so many ways.
And before I close this entry out, there’s something I have to say to anyone studying abroad in Germany:
PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE look up their trash and recycling systems before you go there. Trust me. They’re complicated and you can actually break the law for doing it wrong. Not that they’ll come after you until you’ve done that for a while but still, be acquainted with their laws. There are many.
Speak what German you know whenever you can. They’ll graciously switch to English but appreciate the effort. Don’t be shy. Establish a half English/half German rule with a friend to improve language skills for both of you.
Finally, don’t be afraid to travel. Go anywhere and everywhere. Go alone if you can’t find anyone who wants to come with you. Take a camera and backup batteries. Take a good book and read it on the train because you’ll learn a little from someone else’s adventures while having your own. Do things for the experience. Go to mass in the Cologne Cathedral because you can, even if you’re not religious. Stick around when you see a festival. Keep an open mind and open eyes because you never know what you’ll see and what you’ll learn.
Since finishing my presentations last week, I’ve been in some weird form of limbo. I’ve still got 3 essays to finish, but my classes are over. I’m waiting for my parents to visit in me in 8 days, and at the same time realizing that I now have less than 3 weeks left in Germany. Time is running fast and slow at the same time. I want to sleep but I also want to enjoy every last minute I have.
It’s hard to believe these 6 months are up. It’s hard to believe that I have lived in a foreign country for 6 months at this point, and at the same time even more difficult to believe that I will be returning to Texas soon. I’ve made new friends here, found new favorite foods and favorite places, and learned a lot more about the world.
Before we left for study abroad, the Office of International Education at St. Edward’s warned us that there would be a “Honeymoon Phase” for the first few weeks in our new
country. For a while, everything would be wonderful and new and exciting. Then, that excitement would wear off and we’d find things we didn’t like and start missing home. To be honest, I don’t know that I ever left the “Honeymoon Phase.” Maybe I did to some extent; Koblenz seems very familiar to me now, and very little is new to me anymore. But my excitement to be here hasn’t changed much, and just looking around at Germany I am constantly in awe at how beautiful and different it all is.
When I took the B2 test, I heard the other foreigners talking about whether or not they’d adjusted to life in Germany well. The general consensus was that they didn’t feel they belonged. Granted, I was the only one that wasn’t from Europe or countries close to Europe (they were from places like Russia, Romania, and Spain.) Still, although it’s almost impossible to shake that feeling of being a foreigner, I do feel like I could live here. I feel like a could belong. Maybe it’s on account of the fact that I always speak German to people I meet (eg. cashiers or waitstaff) but I’ve always felt very comfortable here, like there’s very little stigma about being a foreigner as long as you attempt to speak a little German.
But now I’m rambling. The point is: I’m coming home soon, but I don’t feel like I’m quite ready. Any homesickness I experienced is long gone, perhaps in anticipation that I will be home very soon, and I’m trying to process that it will probably be a very long time before I’m in Germany again.
Adjusting to life in a new country is difficult. What I didn’t anticipate being more difficult is adjusting to the idea that I’m going to leave that country. This could be a rough transition period, but I still have a lot to look forward to: showing my parents around and visiting Bavaria once more before I go!
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Ah, exams. A wonderful time of year anticipated by every student. Studying marathons! Lack of sleep! Diets consisting primarily of pasta and frozen dinners! The gorgeous scenery of your own 8×10 dorm room for days on end! What’s not to love?
Exams in Germany will last about a month for me, with 1-2 exams/presentations per week and 3 papers due at the end. As a result, I haven’t traveled. This blog hasn’t been updated. And I don’t really have anything interesting to say except personal progress, which I finally decided was worth an update.
Yesterday I took the B2 Prüfung. It’s a German language test designed to see how good your language skills are, and B2 is a pretty high level–one step higher than is required for German citizenship, if that’s any indication. The exam was required by St. Edward’s as part of receiving credit for a German language course I’m taking here (long story). Although I knew it would be difficult, I thought chances were, if I worked hard enough, I could at least pass it.
I don’t think I did. And I was devastated at first.
Although I’d done countless practice tests and paid special attention to my problem areas (grammar especially), I was unprepared for the extreme nervousness that I experienced during the test. Test anxiety is a real thing and I had a bad case of it. In addition, I had the bad luck of getting a reading comprehension article about back pain, its causes, and different causes like scoliosis and osteoporosis that I probably wouldn’t have understood in English, let alone in German. Medical terminology is not my forte.
But mostly, I don’t think I was ready for the B2 test. Maybe I passed it, maybe I didn’t. The thing is, my German language skills have not been developed to be functional in an exam situation like that. I’ve learned what I know not formally, but through immersion. I’ve only been speaking German for about a year and a half now anyway, and because 100% of that has been me being thrown into situations technically beyond my skill level, I’ve progressed incredibly fast. It was necessary. And as a result, I am much better in real-life situations (conversations, asking for directions, understanding signs and newspaper articles, etc) than in the classroom.
And that’s incredible. All that, in less than two years. Yes, my grammar isn’t very good, although it is improving. But to think that two years go, the only German words I knew were “ja” “nein” and “danke,” that’s a lot of progress.
Plus, wouldn’t you want to be able to function in real life situations rather than in the classroom? I’d much rather have a discussion with someone about travel, festivals, politics, or philosophy than to be able to remember the correct adjective endings.
So pass or fail, I’ve realized that it doesn’t really matter. Like any test, it would be great if I passed. But what matters is that I’ve lived for 6 months now in Germany. I attend 3 classes in German. I’ve made German friends who don’t speak English at all. I’ve traveled all over Germany, many times alone, and never had a situation where I wasn’t able to communicate clearly. I’ve given a presentation in German which my professor really liked, and I’ve got another next week.
I’m so proud of myself for what I’ve accomplished outside of that test. And in the end, that’s the most important part. There really are two kinds of language tests: the ones on paper, and the ones in everyday life. I’ve discovered that one is simply more important to me than the other.
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5 Months down, 1 1/2 to go. I can’t believe that I have lived in Germany for 5 months, or that I must leave so soon. Koblenz has begun to feel like home, and I’m really going to miss it. While 1 1/2 months is still a long time, it’s amazing how fast that time can go by–and most of it is exams, so it’s not all fun and games anymore either. Recently, I’ve been trying to get used to the idea that I’m going to have to leave–what will I miss, what will I welcome when I get back to Texas, what will get on my nerves? I wrote an article on what I’ll miss but believe me, it could be expanded with another 100 items, and I’ll probably find out more about that when I go back to Texas anyway.
Now, here are 5 things in no particular order that I know for sure I’ll like about life back in Texas!
(Warning: long rant about our kitchen.)
1)My own kitchen. The community kitchen in my dorm is easily my least favorite thing about Koblenz. It’s really dirty. If you clean it, by the next morning it’s trashed again. Depending on who has Küchendienst, it is either cleaned daily or not for a week. People smoke in there all the time, leaving cigarette ashes on the table and occasionally tobacco from rolling the cigarettes. People steal my food. Dishes go missing all the time–we currently have no scissors or pans for baking, which I found out only after preparing some chicken to bake and had nothing to put it in. Sometimes there are parties in there, and no one cleans up afterwards with occasional disastrous results (don’t get me started on the incident in February that caused them to re-paint the whole room). Food gets left out all day (don’t you want to save that stuff for later?). While I’ve seen worse (the kitchens in the St. Edward’s freshman dorms aren’t pretty) it’s the only option I have if I want to eat, and a lot of times I really don’t like it. Yes, it’s a student kitchen, but we don’t have to treat it like this.
Then there’s the community aspect of it. Sure, it’s good to meet people, but the shared aspect means I may decide not to eat dinner for another hour based on who’s in there or how many people are in there. I also feel really judged about what I cook in there. These students know how to cook and they’re always making really complicated meals with fresh fruits and vegetables. I really have never seen students cook like this. I, on the other hand, learned how to cook here in Koblenz. I eat a lot of baked chicken, Wurst, schnitzel (which I can make from scratch!), pasta, soup, and the occasional frozen pizza. Usually when I need to eat something quickly I’ll make spaghetti–on average, once a week. Some of the other students really give me a hard time about that and tell me it’s not healthy or ask me if I exercise a lot. I don’t think they realize that for American students, if you’re cooking anything besides Ramen you’re eating healthy. I’ll admit the peer pressure has caused me to eat healthier, but I still find it annoying because I’d like to be able to cook without explaining myself sometimes.
(I think it only fair to say that of the kitchens in the dorm, ours is only the second worst, and the others are a lot better supplied and cleaner than ours with locks on the cabinets. And I don’t hate my dorm–5 months of using this kitchen is just getting a little old.)
Speaking of food…
2) TEX MEX. Ask any American what food they miss the most in Germany, and 9 times out of 10 they’ll say Mexican food. Ask a Texan, and they’ll say Tex Mex every time. There just isn’t Mexican food here. I’ve heard there’s one place in Bonn that’s pretty good but in general, good Mexican places don’t exist, and they haven’t even heard of TexMex most of the time. The first meal I eat when I get home will be a big plate of enchiladas with rice and beans! Some queso dip and fresh corn chips too. Home is good Tex Mex.
3) Not feeling like I’m in a relay race at the cash register. I really like the grocery stores here. They’re smaller, easier to navigate, much less overwhelming. But the German cashiers here are so efficient, I barely have time to pull my wallet out of my bag before they’re done ringing up my weeks’ supply of food.You see, both customers and cashiers in Germany are extremely quick in the check out line. They probably know I’m American because I hold the line up while scrambling to put everything safely in my Abbey Road grocery bag. OK so it makes the shopping experience faster and you don’t dread the line, but I still haven’t quite learned how to work with it. If quick check-out lines were an Olympic sport, the Germans would win every time.
4) The sun. Texas has such beautiful weather. You don’t think about it much when you live there, but it’s gorgeous there. The suns shines almost every day of the year, I think. Maybe I’m exaggerating. I’m not sure that I am. But the fact that the suns shines less in Germany has been aided by the fact that apparently I came in the darkest/coldest year they’ve had since the 1960’s–in fact, it’s like that in a lot of places in Europe right now, not just Germany. It’s still not London bad here but, wow, I’d like to feel like it was actually summer in June.
5) St. Edward’s University. This has been my home for the past two years. St. Edward’s really is the perfect university for me. I miss my student organizations, the beautiful view from the hilltop, all of the free student facilities like the computer labs and gym, our on-campus coffee shops, the gorgeous Main Building, and all the gardens and
trees. I’m so excited that there will be a library again when I get back. I miss my friends and my professors, who were so supportive in getting me to Germany. I miss working at the FRC and the people I worked with there, and all the people who work at St. Edward’s in fact, from the janitor in Ragsdale to the Dean of Students, to the receptionist at Student Life who has always remembered my name from the day I first set foot on campus. There’s a career adviser who’s going to be really excited to hear about my adventures in Germany, and I know she will without a doubt remember who I am and where I was studying. I love that about our school.
St. Edward’s really has given me incredible opportunities to grow and to explore, and I appreciate that now more than ever since I’ve been able to take advantage of those opportunities. And regardless of whether I enjoy being back in Texas or not, I am looking forward to taking a walk across campus and just sitting down with a book under one of the trees by the Main Building. I’m so excited to be a Freshman Studies intern again, and I hope to even lead my own club when I get back. Maybe I can get more involved in some more of their global/cultural events and clubs. The possibilities really are endless–and I’m only halfway done! Germany has been (and will continue to be) such an unbelievably beneficial and fun experience that I can’t wait to see how that changes the way I interact with my home university. One thing’s certain: I’ll have a new appreciation for the classes being taught in English.
Now, I regret to say that I have to get back to studying for my finals. Wish me luck!
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Exams in Germany hit all in one extremely unexpected and powerful wave. This entire semester I have been relaxed, probably encouraged by the fact that all I have had to do is attend class and understand the lectures as much as possible (3/5 of of them are in German). Occasionally I have to do some reading. Really, the workload has been significantly less than I am used to and I thought, hey, when final projects come around I’ll have worked on them for months.
Now I’ve got 10 days until my first presentation and I realize that I should have been paying more attention! To be fair, I did start on my presentations about a month and a half ago. I began reading the material, drawing up outlines, making sure I was aware of at least the subject I am covering. That’s about it.
Now there’s some more culture shock 5 months into my stay here in Koblenz. That is, college culture shock because the way they run things here is entirely different than they do at St. Edward’s. At least in the classes I am in, there is no homework or papers to write until the end. I read the material, show up to class, participate, and go home. Easy, for someone who normally writes at least 1 essay per week!
No, the real stress in this system is at the end, when there is a final presentation and an essay due. Now I’ve got 2 presentations and 2 essays in German, 1 more to go in English, and a German language examination. Yikes! This is really different than at St. Edward’s–not that that’s a bad thing, I’m just not used to it.
It also strikes me as a bit odd. Of course final exams are at the end of the semester–that’s why they’re “finals”–but for exchange students, we’ve begun to grasp that we’re nearing the end. It’s a live-every-day-like-there’s-no-tomorrow situation, because in this country, there aren’t many tomorrows left for us. Some of the other students are traveling more than they did in the beginning because they’re going to leave in a little over a month. I keep refraining from eating all the traditional German things I can’t get back in the States.
Oh, yet another story of an exchange student who spent too much time traveling and not enough time studying. Fortunately I have enough time to turn this around in my favor.
And with that, my 30 minute break is up. Time to go read some more German articles!
Posted inKoblenz|Comments Off on Exam Stress! (A short entry on exams as an American exchange student)
Prague is a city I’ve wanted to see and yet probably shouldn’t have seen. That is, I have five exams coming up and I probably should not be taking any more weekends off. But when a fellow exchange student asked me if I wanted to go to Prague, I couldn’t resist. Ever since I read Kafka my freshman year in college I’d wanted to visit Prague–I’d set my desktop background to Charles Bridge for a while, insisting that I would visit Prague when I got to Europe. I’m very glad I did, but it was one of the more unpredictable adventures I’ve had.
As a disclaimer, I’ll say that Prague is lovely. I really liked Prague and I would visit again sometime. And I think, a year down the road, everything else will seem like a grand adventure to me so I’m not too dismayed at the other events. They seem to be true travel initiation tales, stories I’ve heard from other people but never experienced before this.
What other things, you ask? Well, you see, I always try to travel as cheaply as possible. I find the Ryanair deals and use Mitfahrgelegenheit (a carpooling website) whenever possible. On the way to Prague, we used Mitfahrgelegenheit from Frankfurt, about a 5-6 hour drive. It went smoothly, and the driver makes this trip about once a week apparently so he knew the road pretty well. (I think he knew it too well because he kept checking his Facebook and that was scary.) But things didn’t really start until we reached our hostel.
You see, we’d booked the cheapest hostel we could find in Prague. With hostels, you really do get what you pay for. While the reviews only mentioned that this hostel smelled bad and as dirty (it really was, I won’t go into detail), what they didn’t mention was how sketchy it was. There was a creepy guy who kept muttering to himself in the lobby the entire duration of our visit. He never left the lobby. I hope he wasn’t the security guard the hostel website talks about. Then there was the fact that you have to manually lock your doors, so if someone else doesn’t lock the door when they go to bed, it’s a real security risk. I found that out the hard way.
The first night, we arrived so late that everyone else was already asleep in the dorm room. I hung my coat on the bedpost as usual and put my backpack by my head. I’ve done this in every other hostel. Everyone does that in hostels. The idea is, if you lock the door and put all your belongings where you can see them, they’ll be ok. That’s not exactly true. Someone came in around 2:00 AM and didn’t lock the door. In the morning, my backpack was missing and so was my jacket. Yikes. As calmly as I could, I went down to reception and told them that my things had been stolen, so they called the police. The receptionist didn’t seem overly concerned. I was just another tourist who got robbed because they were stupid enough not to rent a locker. I waited. And I waited.
Two hours later, the manager says they found a backpack and a jacket in the smoking room. The smoking room is a small courtyard area outdoors, covered in a tarp to keep the rain out and it is the worst smelling room I’ve ever been in. My backpack was there, sure enough, having been thrown from the second story window onto the tarp below. Presumably, the thief didn’t know there was a tarp there and had intended to bypass the security cameras by walking out of the hostel without the backpack and picking it up outside. Supposedly. I’m still not sure what happened. Anyway, my backpack had clearly been searched but most of my things were still there–my camera, the kindle, my clothes, my little yellow Kafka book, and my homework. My iPod was gone, and so was my watch ($20 at Target, hope they enjoy trying to sell that.) While I’m really upset that my iPod got stolen, I’m incredibly relieved that my camera was ok. I honestly don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t got my camera back. It’s been my best friend since I was 15 and it’s traveled the world with me. Plus I don’t have the money to replace it right now (nor would I want to, really, there’s too much sentimental value) so there would be no more pictures of Europe to share!
The police came just as we found the backpack, and followed us up to the dorm room to question the other guests. It was really strange: they loudly announced in broken English that they were searching for an iPod, and then pointed at each person in turn and asked “Are YOU the perpetrator?” These two girls from South Korea looked genuinely scared to death, although I think the police weren’t really being serious. As they left the room, one turned to the girls and asked,
“North Korea’s a joke, yes?”
And then they left. They also asked me where I was from and then talked about Chuck Norris and Walker, Texas Ranger for a minute. They then told me that since the door wasn’t locked, and the iPod wasn’t worth enough to be considered more than a misdemeanor theft, there was little they could do about it. I could spend 3 hours in the station with an interpreter if I wanted to. I said no. They said “Bye, Texas.”
Oh and afterwards, we figured out the lockers don’t work anyway.
So, lesson learned: put your things in a good locker or literally tie them to yourself. Even if you wake up to someone getting out of bed across the room, as I do, you may not wake up to a quiet thief.
Now, with all that craziness out of the way, how was Prague? AMAZING. Prague is a very old city, and unlike the majority of the cities I’ve visited so far, very little of it has been destroyed over the years, either by wars or by time. The city is full of lots of little alleyways and roads which turn in all sorts of illogical directions so that the only sure way of finding your way back to something was to follow the river or look for church spires. Of course that only makes the city that much more fun–I truly believe the best way to experience a new city is to wander about it and to get lost. You’re more likely to find something when you’re lost than when you’re looking for it with a map.
Naturally, I loved Charles Bridge and the Prague Castle. Charles Bridge, built between 1357 and 1400, is the most famous in Prague and is a huge tourist attraction. It’s the main way to get from the Old Town to the Prague Castle too, and something to see in itself: Gothic church figures stand watch all along the bridge, and bands play for the tourists in peak hours. It’s also enchanting at night, lit up with the castle in the background.
The Prague Castle is really more of a complex of buildings forming one “castle.” In fact, from a distance, most people think that the castle is actually St. Vitus Cathedral, even though that’s really in the middle of the Castle complex. We approached the castle in the middle of a ceremony of the guards, probably their changing of the guard ceremony but it was difficult to see because of all the people. Fortunately the crowds thinned out inside the castle, mostly because there is so much to see! There are at least two churches, a castle history museum, an armory and torture tower (yes that happened there), an art museum, and a treasury. The armory was really fun; the hallway full of suits of armor seemed to go on forever, and there was an opportunity to shoot a crossbow for 2 Euros (or 50 Czech crowns). I’m a terrible shot!
One of the most beautiful places in the castle is the Golden Lane, a small street with tiny, colorful houses which were used most often by castle servants but was also a residential quarter up until WWII. It’s a very cute area and you get a feeling for how these people would have lived in these incredibly small houses. Some of the stories of the people who lived there are happy, some are sad. A fortune-teller kept setting the table for two, even when her son did not come back from the war. She then predicted the fall of the Third Reich and they tortured her to death for it. On the other hand, one of the houses belonged to a man who hid Czech films from the Nazis and so preserved some of the Czech culture. Of particular interest to me was the fact that Franz Kafka, one of my favorite writers, lived
in a tiny house there for a year. Really, his novel The Castle (or Das Schloss) makes a lot more sense once you realize that Kafka lived in a castle himself; even if it is debated that this was the castle which influenced his writing, I think he could not have written the novel without thinking of it. Consider, for example, this quote from Kafka’s novel:
“It was neither an old stronghold nor a new mansion, but a rambling pile consisting of innumerable small buildings closely packed together and of one or two stories; if K. had not known that it was a castle he might have mistaken it for a little town.”
Now, to be fair, the Prague Castle is in fact an old stronghold, though it does not look like it. But I thought it was an interesting comparison, since Prague’s castle is not what one thinks of when one imagines a castle, and it is difficult to tell where the castle ends and the rest of the town begins. Speaking of Kafka…
KAFKA. SO MUCH KAFKA. I’ll admit it, I’m a huge Kafka nerd. I absolutely love Kafka’s stories, from shorter ones like “Das Urteil” (The Judgement) to his novels like The Trial or The Castle. Kafka is very important to me and is, in fact, very closely related to the reason I am studying in Germany in the first place. As a freshman in college, I read some Kafka short stories for the first time and was fascinated. I decided that I would like to read them in the original language, and although that was not the only reason I decided I wanted to learn German, I do believe it was the first time I’d considered it. So, I asked my German/Literature professor if I could take his German class and long story short, he put me on the fast track to learning the language so that I could be here now. I’ve advanced twice as quickly as I should, and after only a year of studying the language I am taking classes in it. But the real moment of success, when I felt truly accomplished, was in Prague. You see, I can not only read Kafka in German, but at the Kafka museum, I could read Kafka’s original manuscripts in German. It was unbelievable.
The Kafka museum was fantastic. It contains many of his handwritten manuscripts and drawings, as well as the famous letter to his father. It tells the story of his life chronologically in an environment which they tried their very best to make Kafkaesque. One hallway is lined floor to ceiling with file cabinets, labeled with the names of his characters and containing some 1st editions or handwritten pages. Throughout the museum, surreal music played–it was sort of alienating. It didn’t really bother me, and I enjoyed the environment. Most of all, of course, I loved seeing Kafka’s writing in person and learning more about him and his life in Prague. His handwriting was really beautiful, and I loved being able to read the parts of the letters which were not translated to English below them. I learned about where he’d lived in Prague (so many different places within the same city, many centered around Old Town Square.) I learned that the Czech Republic has only recently begun to embrace Kafka as one of their own, for several reasons: he wrote in German, and his works were banned until 1989 under both Nazi and Communist regimes. They weren’t even all translated to Czech until 2002. If I had one critique for the museum though, it’s that they took Kafka completely seriously. But some of his stories have really funny elements if you know how to look for him–they say Kafka even laughed aloud while reading them to his friends! (I can’t remember specifically which book he was reading, but I know some things in “The Judgement” are really funny.) Insofar as one can understand Kafka, and it’s impossible to truly understand Kafka so I could be wrong, they seemed to only understand one side of his writing. Still, they understood that much very well and I read every single thing in that museum. Finally, someplace where people like Kafka as much as I do!
I also bought a map of Kafka’s Prague from the museum. It turned out to be a really good purchase, because only one or two buildings where Kafka lived or worked are marked. Using the map, I was able to retrace his steps through Prague, for example, the route his cook would take him to school in the morning. In addition, I visited the Old New Synagogue where Kafka used to go in the Jewish quarter. It was also my first Synagogue so that was really interesting–I only wish I’d had the time to visit the others in the Jewish quarter too.
Another highlight of the Prague trip was that one night while we were there, all the churches were open to visit until very late. It was great to walk into all the old churches and hear the organ music. We also attended a short classical concert inside one church (Vivaldi and Mozart, primarily) which was very beautiful. Oh, and I also ate fried cheese because apparently that’s a Czech specialty. Fried cheese is very, very good, especially the kind they make there. It’s good I’m not studying in the Czech Republic or I would be eating that all the time!
The trip back was also pretty crazy. The same driver took us back to Frankfurt, and it was pouring down rain the whole way. At one point we got off the highway to drop another passenger off, and we were driving on an unlit road which was occasionally so thickly covered in fog that when the headlights hit it, it was as if the road was on fire. A couple times the driver swerved to stay in the correct lane, or on the road at all. What made it worse was that he was trying to drive quickly enough to get us back for the last train to Koblenz from Frankfurt, which apparently is a lot earlier on Sundays than I thought. He slowed down after we all decided to tell him that we’d prefer to live. We did miss the last train and had to stay in Frankfurt overnight at a hostel, which was better than the last hostel, thank goodness. The other passenger in the car said if we needed to, we could stay in his flat for the night. Somehow I think my parents would panic if they found out about that, and a hostel is better anyway.
After a long and very exciting trip, I’m finally back in Koblenz. And I hope to stay here until exams are over, not only because I really should be studying but also because I am beginning to notice that I don’t have much time left in Germany and I know I’ll miss it here.
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London has a special place in the minds of Americans my age. To us, it is a city of magic, a place where our childhoods rest regardless of whether we have set food there at all. It is from London that Peter Pan flew away to Neverland and where we depart for Hogwarts. It’s at the heart of the Doctor’s finest adventures and nearly every Sherlock Holmes case ever solved. In short, it is difficult to imagine what London must be like because it is difficult to separate fact from fiction. But in London’s case, the fact is just as fascinating as the fiction: in London Shakespeare wrote and performed his plays, and in London reigned some of the best and the worst monarchs of all time, from William the Conqueror to Henry VIII. For me, visiting London was the realization of a livelong dream, and both sides of it (the imaginary and the historical) have always fascinated me.
It was like one big history/fantasy/literature nerd moment.
I arrived at King’s Cross station after a beautiful train ride across Scotland and England (some of which was along the cliffs by the sea!). All I could think was “Harry Potter Harry Potter OH MY GOSH IT LOOKS LIKE IT DID IN THE MOVIES.” Actually I’m pretty sure those were my exact thoughts. Anyway, Platform 9 3/4 is actually not in the main area of the station as J.K. Rowling originally thought, which is probably good because otherwise nobody could ever get onto a train from platform 9 or 10. All the fans gravitate towards an area by the restaurants and shops instead, where a cart stands halfway through the wall marked “Platform 9 3/4”. There’s also a small Harry Potter shop nearby, where you can buy pretty much the same products as at the Universal Parks, plus a 9 3/4 ticket (which I did buy.) The guys outside by the platform were really nice and took my picture for free, because there was no line and I had my own camera. I think usually you have to pay. It was such a good start to my London trip, and now I have photographic proof that I’m going to Hogwarts!
I somehow managed to find my way through the underground and to my hostel. I stayed in the Chelsea/Kinsington area directly across from the Natural History Museum and about 10 minutes from Hyde Park or Royal Albert Hall. It’s a really nice area of town, full of embassies and expensive restaurants. It looks like the area Irene Adler lives in from Sherlock (although I know that was Belgravia). On my first evening there, I took a walk to Hyde Park, which was beautiful. London has amazing parks!
I got up early the next day and went out for a cheap English breakfast–well, cheap by London standards. Honestly, you can find cheap food if you look hard enough; it’s the pound conversion you’ve got to worry about. That’ll always get the best of you. Anyway, before anything was open and as people were just beginning to head to work in the morning, I saw Trafalgar Square and walked to the Houses of Parliament.
The first time I saw Big Ben I let out a squeal of excitement, which caused several passers-by to give me strange looks. Honestly I’m surprised I didn’t outright scream. It was amazing to see in person! Hearing the clock strike 9:00 made me so happy. I can remember when I first started learning piano (I must have been 6 or 7) one of the earliest songs I learned was called “Big Ben” and it was just one of the ones meant to help you learn your notes. It sort of imitated the chimes to help you learn how to count. Just remembering how long I’ve known about that was amazing to me.
Next, I made my way over to Buckingham Palace for the Changing of the Guard. Two hours early and there were already loads of people waiting! Fortunately I was able to snatch a single spot by the fence so that I could see better–one more benefit of being a lone traveler is that you always fill in the odd space and get better seats (or standing places) for just about everything. I was standing next to a family from Pennsylvania who seemed really disinclined to talk to me though. Fortunately there was no need to make conversation once the changing of the guard started. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it was really cool to watch. I especially liked when the band played towards the end. It really was like a concert though; people were pushing and shoving to get to the front and kids were literally climbing the fence posts just to see. Calm down people, it’s every day at 11:00.
The Tower of London requires at least an entire afternoon to visit. Fortunately I gave it that much time, and I was so glad I went. The history that happened in that one spot is just incredible! I went on a Beefeater tour, which I highly recommend not only because our guide was hilarious but also because you learn a lot about the Tower that simply isn’t posted anywhere. Some of the highlights of the Tower include the place where executions took place, including that of Anne Boleyn; the English Crown Jewels, which is impressive but you are on a moving belt so I went through the exhibit twice; the White Tower, which contains a museum with lots of armor, coin-making tools, and other items from the Tower’s history; and the various rooms near the outer walls which were used at one point to house prisoners of the Tower. In fact, I found those rooms the most interesting because some of the people who carved their names into the walls were being kept their for their
involvement in the Throckmorton Plot. This particular plot was orchestrated to dispose Elizabeth I and place Mary Queen of Scots on her throne. It of course failed, and the conspirators were arrested and many of them executed. I am also related to the Throckmorton family so it was really cool to see this piece of history directly related to my family! Even if my ancestor did get beheaded for it…
After seeing the Tower I headed over to Shakespeare’s Globe to see King Lear. Shakespeare in London, how much better can it get? I’d actually bought tickets for Lear before I realized that the Tempest was the next day, starring one of my favorite stars from TV, Colin Morgan. Given you can’t return tickets, I decided to just go to both. It was a good decision! The two were really different. King Lear was done by a group of traveling actors and, while keeping the script true to Shakespeare, wore more 1940’s style clothing and had minimalist sets. Usually I don’t go for things that are untraditional like that; it seems against the spirit of the play. However, I have to say this was a wonderful group of actors. Some of them played two parts (one actress played both Cordelia and the Fool) very well. It was funny, it was tragic, it was a good night out in London. And it was a very tastefully done modernization on the original, something that I will rarely admit to liking.
The Tempest, on the other hand, was very traditional, complete with period costumes, sets, and effects. It was the best play I have ever seen and I really wish I could see it again! First of all, the acting was superb. Roger Allam played Prospero, and he was brilliant! It’s amazing how much of a different it makes, seeing the play performed as opposed to just reading it. I’d read the Tempest and admittedly did not understand it or think it was funny as when I saw it, and I know a great deal of that is thanks to the great actors.
Of course my favorite was Colin Morgan. He played Ariel and really brought a lot to the character. He flitted across the stage, climbed everything, danced, sang, did cartwheels, hung from the top of a platform by one hand as if he were really only floating there, and at one point descended from the ceiling on a rope. His acting, the way he said his lines and the way he responded to the other characters, also made me want to learn more about Ariel. If only Shakespeare had written more! If only there were a novel to accompany it! Ariel was perfectly fairy-like, non-human both in his movements and in his relationship with the other characters, and yet it seemed as though he wished he could have been one of them and belonged, as if, when he saw all the love and the hate and plotting of revenge and murder, he was experiencing human emotions and only beginning to understand them for the first time. At one point in the play, Ariel witnesses Ferdinand and Miranda fall in love and, looking at them wistfully, turns to Prospero and asks “Do you love me, master? no?” and after a bit of silence, Prospero does not answer. The crowd laughed a little and then all stopped and let out a little “aaawww” because we could see and understand, it wasn’t really funny. The most magical part of the play was when Ariel tells Prospero about his friend Gonzolo’s suffering, saying, “His tears run down his beard, like winter’s drops From eaves of reeds.” And after that line, everyone in the theater paused and listened. The rain was falling heavily on the thatched roof of the Globe.
And of course, what is Prospero’s final speech without the Globe itself? What an unforgettable experience! Did I mention Colin Morgan has a beautiful singing voice? Or that the thunder effects were rolled behind the audience and so sounded like real rolling thunder? Or how at least 4 cast members had guest starred on Doctor Who? I could talk for days about how perfect that play was. I also found Caliban and his companions hilarious. They were the only ones really allowed to interact with the audience, without deviating from the script or character. Except for one time–being in modern London, we had quite a few planes fly by above, and Caliban paused at once point to watch it fly above us in wonder, before saying in a dazed voice “He’s gone!” and continuing with his dialogue. I thought that was pretty cool, and he was easily the funniest part of the play too. During their scenes, Caliban, Stephano, or Trinculo would inevitably end up in the audience, either standing in their midst, or drinking their beer or cider. I imagine it would have been like this during Shakespeare’s time and it added a lot of humor to the play. For pictures, check out the Globe’s Facebook page. You can also get a good look at the costumes there. And here, I will stop short of going on about Colin Morgan’s costume and say simply that it appears they all had a wonderful time, because during the dancing after the play (as is traditional at the Globe) he was grinning from ear to ear.
I had planned to visit both Westmister Abbey and the British Museum in one day, but made a very bad mistake at Westminster Abbey which caused me to delay the visit to the next day. Germany is one hour later than the UK, you see, and I hadn’t reset my watch, so I thought they had inexplicably closed the Abbey when it turned 9:30 and the doors didn’t open! It was really only 8:30. You’d think being so close to one of the biggest clock towers in the world I’d get the correct time, but apparently replacing my morning coffee with the more British breakfast tea was not a good idea.
The good news is, I did get a whole day at the British Museum. You’d need a month to see everything though! According to their brochure, the museum houses more than 8 million pieces, and they’re all free to see, so everyone is there. I swear. THE ENTIRE POPULATION OF LONDON. Maybe I’m exaggerating. But there were a lot of people there. And who can blame them? I saw (for example, among the millions of things I must have seen) an Easter Island head, tons of mummies and Egyptian artifacts (they even have a piece of the Sphinx), Chinese pottery and jade, and of course the Rosetta Stone. I can’t describe how amazing, and how overwhelming, it all is. I left in a daze, my head swimming with new facts about world history.
On my last day, I had until 14:30 to catch a bus to the airport, and I wanted to make the most of that time. So, having been granted boundless energy for the duration of the trip, I decided to visit Westminster Abbey and 221b Baker Street. Right. So, I headed down to Westminster Abbey for the second time and actually stayed until 9:30 this time.
Westminster Abbey is awe-inspiring. It’s beautiful, and so much history has happened there. I mean, every coronation since 1066. Wow. But what’s really weird about Westminster Abbey is that it’s more like an indoor graveyard than a church. You see, in the middle of the Abbey, they have the places of worship and all the beautiful things you see on TV when someone is married or crowned there. Yes, that’s all amazing and I stayed quite a while in those areas, soaking it all in. But what surrounds that is graves. Lots and lots of graves. Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, Sir Isaac Newton, Winston Churchill, Elizabeth I, Mary I, and I believe every English king since William the Conqueror or something. Honestly, it’s hard to tell, because the graves are everywhere. I’m sure I missed someone important. The tombs are elaborate and beautiful, and the carvings are incredible. There was an actual competition between Elizabeth I’s tomb and Mary Queen of Scot’s. (Quite understandable, I think, and fortunately they’re not in the same room.) You’re even stepping on somebody’s grave if you want to walk somewhere. It’s just unavoidable. Another interesting thing they have is St. Edward’s Chair, where the monarch sits when they are coronated. They have a deal with Scotland where they bring down the Scottish Stone of Destiny (their traditional coronation chair, and yes it is a big rock) to put under the St. Edward’s chair for coronations, and I was glad to have seen both components. All in all I actually like seeing where important people are buried, and standing where so much history takes place, so I liked Westminster Abbey. As a church, though, I think it is overshadowed by the graves.
I have to admit it: I made an extra trip to Speedy’s for lunch. For those of you who don’t watch Sherlock, Speedy’s is the cafe outside Sherlock Holmes’ and John Watson’s flat. It’s the actual site of some of the filming and the exteriors for Baker Street are shot there, even though Baker Street is another 2 underground stops away. Anyway, Speedy’s was a pleasant surprise. In a city that robs you daily, I was able to get a sandwich and drink for 3 pounds. Hooray! It was pretty good, too. Unfortunately it’s a small cafe and it simply does not have the room for all the attention it’s receiving so I had to sit outside. I did notice that inside they had lots of pictures from the Sherlock filming and even named a wrap after the show! It was like being on a set, except no one was filming, and that was surreal.
Finally, I went to the Sherlock Holmes Museum on Baker Street for a couple of hours before I caught my bus. It’s a funny museum located as close to 221b as they could get it, since there is actually no 221b address. They’ve decorated the place like it really belongs to the Sherlock Holmes and John Watson from the books and treats them they like are real people, displaying newspaper articles about their cases and so on. I’d say it’s a must-visit for fans, but if you’re not a huge Sherlock Holmes fan, I’m not sure how much you’d appreciate it. I love all the little details–that they had a fire lit in the living room, real candles burning, Watson’s medical case sitting open in the chair, a big “VR” shot into the wall, that the furnishings and wallpaper were just as I imagined them. I’ve read a lot of the original stories, as my sister got me a huge compilation book with of them in it a few years back, but not nearly all of them, so some of the references were lost on me. Nevertheless, I appreciated the museum and thought it was kind of cute. The gift shop was nearly as interesting and had a lot of funny Sherlock Holmes related things for sale. If only the deerstalker hats hadn’t been 30 pounds! The staff there was also really nice, taking extra care to point out my bus stop to me, which I missed anyway because I have no sense of direction. Oh well, they tried!
London was fantastic! I couldn’t possibly have seen everything important while I was there, but I certainly tried. More than anything I enjoyed the history that is preserved there and seeing so many famous landmarks in person. What’s great is that London lived up to my expectations, which considering I’ve had expectations of London since I can remember, is a pretty amazing thing. It was, as I said before, a good break from the traveling in continental Europe, but I’m still glad to be back in Germany after all. And I’m happy to say, my enthusiasm for studying for my German exam and presentations is much better now, having given it a rest for that week in London. I focused only on the history, the sights, the exploration, and that was something I needed.
I’ve been traveling again! I can’t even describe how amazing it was to finally visit the UK. Originally, when I first knew I was going to St. Edward’s, I had wanted to study abroad in Edinburgh but Germany clearly stole my heart. Still, it was good to visit a city that I had been waiting to see for a while. For 3 days I explored Edinburgh and then took a train to London, where I had another 3 days to attempt to see as much of that big city as possible. I’ll cover Scotland in this post and London in the next, since the two deserve to be separated and would probably prefer it that way anyway.
Little European airports are super chill. What a relief after flying around America, with their huge x-ray machines and aggressive TSA agents! I flew out of Frankfurt-Hahn to the Edinburgh airport with Ryanair, a cheap European airlines known for allowing travelers on a budget to travel anywhere in Europe, and for sticking very tightly to rules regarding baggage limits. Everything went really smoothly though: security was just a passport and bag check, and I actually walked onto the plane from the tarmac via a set of stairs like in the old movies. It was so much fun!
Landing in Edinburgh was a bit of a shock. It was raining, as I expected, and everything was in English. I haven’t been to a country which primarily speaks English since I left the States. And I thought the difficult thing would be understanding everyone around me, but it was actually the signs. The Shell gas station had signs in English. I understood all the advertisements, and when I walked up to people at desks I simply had to ask my question in English. It was really weird, and I walked around in a daze the rest of the night. It affected me in ways I couldn’t have predicted. I bought a coffee and walked out after I paid–without the coffee. This is going to be a lot of fun when I get back to the US. I felt so stupid! Fortunately everything was fine the next morning.
Edinburgh is beautiful. There are little Scottish pubs everywhere, and the buildings are made out of heavy grey stone. It had a really warm feel to it, despite being colder than Germany and rainy besides. My hostel was located just at the foot of the Edinburgh Castle, and it too was decorated like a castle on the inside! There was a game room, a “posh” lounge where you could sit and read by the fire in a winged-back chair, and a record room (with over 200 LPs, I swear!) It also turned out to be one of the most social hostels I’ve been in (more on that later.) So, Castle Rock Hostel is the place to be if you’re ever in Edinburgh. And no, they didn’t pay me to say that.
I spend almost the entirety of my first day at the Edinburgh Castle. There must be 5 museums there, plus the view, a tea room, and the historic rooms of the castle! I learned a lot about the history of Scotland and the Castle (did you know it was once used to house Colonist “traitors” during the American Revolution, and that some jail rooms used for their own soldiers look suspiciously like college dorm rooms?). I saw the room where Mary, Queen of Scots, gave birth to King James VI or I of England. The Castle also houses the Scottish crown jewels, preserved since the union of England and Scotland in 1707 as part of the conditions of unity. They were incredibly beautiful and it was a great opportunity to learn more about Scotland as a kingdom, instead of regarding it simply as part of the UK. I could write so much more, but it seems enough to say that the history there is overwhelming, you have to stay for the 1 o’clock cannon, and the view is unbeatable.
It started raining and I was exhausted after the castle so I went back to the hostel and rest a while before dinner. Instead, I met some American girls who are studying abroad in London and they invited me to climb Arthur’s Seat with them. As a lone traveler, it is not often that anyone invites me to join them for something so I jumped at the opportunity, even though it was clear it would pour down rain on us by the end. And rain it did.
The hike up to Arthur’s Seat, an extinct volcano which overlooks Edinburgh, was long but not particularly steep. About halfway up we noticed some rain clouds heading our direction, obscuring the view but not destroying it–you can see so far from up there! We continued upwards, despite the clouds, and made it to the top just as it started to rain. While the view was great up there, the most frightening place you can be in the middle of a storm is the top of a mountain so we quickly made our way back down. Let’s just say despite our best efforts, I felt like I’d jumped into a lake by the time I arrived back at the hostel.
For dinner, one of the hostel employees suggested that I eat at a new chicken wings restaurant, just open on weekends and hidden to anyone except the locals. No one has ever been more right! I had to turn left down an alley next to a Mexican restaurant, into something that looked like somebody’s garden. There was no indication of another restaurant other than a blue door marked “Pull.” Hoping I didn’t accidentally end up in someone’s home, I opened the door to find the tiniest hot wings restaurant I’d ever seen. There was one long table and two shorter ones with a cash register and a TV for playing Mario Kart. There was nowhere for me to sit by myself so a guy at one of the smaller tables invited me to sit with him, and his 2 friends when they got there. It was the best dinner I had on that trip! Not only were the wings amazing and cheap, but I got to have a great conversation with 3 complete strangers. One of them was from Scotland, the other was American but studying there, and the third was another American friend on a visit. Though they’d been waiting for this dinner together all week, they never left me out of the conversation. We talked about football, traveling, Germany, Scotland, local food, and half a dozen other things. It was amazing! Definitely the best thing you can do while traveling is to find one of these little places. And, if you’re lucky, you’ll find great people there too.
Day two was another treat: I got to hang out with a friend from St. Edward’s! One of the great things about St. Edward’s being so involved in global education is that my classmates are now scattered across the globe, and we can visit one another as we travel. We went to a local pub for lunch (fish and chips!) which turned out to be one of the pubs where Hare and Burke would pick up victims to murder and then sell their bodies to the medical school in Edinburgh. Hey, how’s that for some history? But really, it was a joy to see her and to hear about what it’s like to study in Edinburgh. It’s amazing how different our study abroad experiences are–and I guess you’d expect that, given the different countries, but each experience is truly unique.
Upon returning to the hostel, I met some girls from Canada who were traveling around Europe. They were so friendly and we shared a lot of interests. (Yes, apparently British television can bring people together from all over the world.) So, we went out to dinner, joined by an Australian from our room, and it was probably the most fun I had the whole time in Edinburgh. You see, I really enjoy traveling alone, there’s a lot of freedom in it. But, when I get the chance to meet new people and have some company, it’s the most amazing thing in the world, because we’re complete strangers from different countries and yet we ended up at the same hostel and thought, hey, let’s wander around this town together because we’re all travelers. Oh, and after talking to them for a while, I found out that 2 of the Canadians were homeschooled! We swapped stories about that for a while too. What a small world!
The next morning, I left Edinburgh for London’s King Cross Station. But before that, I joined my new friends for breakfast at a little Scottish cafe not far from the hostel. I cannot describe how much I miss breakfast food. In Germany, most of the time I make my own breakfast, but for some reason they don’t have bacon here in the American sense, nor have I found oatmeal. And when I travel, most of the time I find cold cuts and bread are the traditional breakfast food. Don’t ask me why. I have no idea. But I’ve never liked it much. That said, I ordered a big bowl of porridge and a coffee. Both were amazing and most welcome!
Oh, and one more thing about breakfast: the Scottish breakfast is amazing! Traditionally, it’s baked beans, a tomato, mushrooms, over-easy eggs, sausage, haggis, black pudding, hash browns and bacon. Wow that’s a lot. Anyway I was brave enough to order it one morning. And by brave I mean I actually ate the black pudding. I don’t know who first thought, “hey, we’ve got some leftover blood so let’s fry it up with some grains mixed in for texture” but that’s pretty much what it is. Yeah…strange stuff. I mean, it tastes kind of meaty but the real problem is just thinking about it. I’m eating blood. And that makes it pretty nasty so I won’t be eating it again, even though by all means it’s not disgusting in taste or texture. Haggis is much more appealing (sheep’s lung, heart, and liver) and I ate it twice while in Edinburgh. So, there’s your Scottish food information for the day!
Visiting the UK was very refreshing. It was like coming home without coming back to America. That is, while Edinburgh and London are not at all like Austin–I still had the experience of visiting someplace new–at the same time I found some comforting things that I had missed in Germany. I didn’t have work through a foreign language on a daily basis, a process that can be more tiring than you realize. I ate a cheeseburger, macaroni and cheese, and chicken wings. I guess I didn’t exactly eat healthy but I had missed those things! I experienced a history and visited places more familiar to Americans because they are, in a way, also our history because we find our origins in the UK. And I think I needed all that, not because I’m tiring of Germany but because I am getting tired. I’ve been here for four months and that’s a long time, especially for my first time outside the USA. It was a much-needed break and a long awaited journey.
London entry to come soon!
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After four months of living in Germany, I’ve done quite a bit of traveling. I’ve seen royal palaces, Roman ruins, Stone Age dwellings, mountains, lakes, and big cities both old and new. I’ve also met people from all over the world–Jordan, Turkey, Bulgaria, Russia, the UK, Ireland, Austria, the Netherlands, Hungary, France, China, Japan, Italy, and Spain to name a few countries of origin. People really are one of the most interesting things about traveling. And I do mean “interesting” in both a positive and negative way. There’s an important difference between “traveler” and “tourist,” you see.
The traveler is interested in learning about where they’re visiting. They want to experience the culture, learn about the history, and generally have respect for the places they’re visiting. As a result, they’re usually quite pleasant to be around and will have good stories of their own to tell.
The tourist is loud. They either know hardly anything about what they’re visiting, or they like to talk very loudly about how much they know. More often than not, they’d rather the locals get out of their way so they can see a landmark than learn from the locals.
I don’t like tourists. And I desperately hope I am not one.
I thought it would be really interesting to tell some stories about the people I’ve met on my travels or at school. As a disclaimer, these are always generalizations. They’re my opinions, and not everyone falls into these categories. I could be completely wrong. But they are my experiences. (I’m leaving names out for privacy purposes.)
The bravest traveler I ever met was from Japan. In general, Japanese tourists travel in packs. They are everywhere. They take tons of photos–and wouldn’t you, if you traveled across the world to see something? They seem to enjoy themselves a lot. There are running jokes about Japanese travelers being the majority at any tourist destination, but I think it’s really cool that they’re so interested in seeing everything. Now, the Japanese traveler I met was alone. He was backpacking across Europe and was staying at my hostel when I visited Neuschwanstein. Looking back on it, I don’t think I’ve seen too many lone Japanese tourists; they really do need groups to travel in. Maybe that’s why he started talking to me when we arrived in Schwangau to buy tickets–he needed someone to tour the castles with. He spoke very little English, and what he did know was self-taught, but he seemed to understand what I was saying to him. I made sure he got through the ticket-buying process ok and that he found his tour at both castles. On the way to Neuschwanstein, we picked up a few other travelers from Spain and Bavaria, and I had to translate their accented English or German to something he could understand. It was actually one of the best experiences I’ve had with other foreigners, walking up to Neuschwanstein with people from Japan, Spain, and Germany. And ultimately, I really admired that Japanese traveler–he was all the way across the world, alone, without knowing the language, but he still did it.
Australians are another group that seems to be everywhere. They get the award wanting to learn about the places they’re visiting. The Australians I’ve met, as a general rule, don’t seem to know much about the places they’re visiting, or at least not about all of them. That could be because they’re backpacking everywhere and just don’t have the time or means to read up on stuff. In Munich, they knew about the beer and that was about it. But what’s great is that they show an incredible amount of interest in learning about a place, if someone will only take the time to tell them. At two separate times, I’ve given Australians a brief history of King Ludwig II and the history of Germany philosophy. Well, they at least seemed really interested. They’d ask questions, and their faces light up when I say something that interests them. They’re an adventurous group. They go everywhere for months at a time. I’m kind of jealous of their ability to make these prolonged backpacking trips!
And then of course, there are the Americans. Ah, what can I say about my fellow Americans? In all fairness, I’ve met some really great, knowledgeable Americans (travelers!) in Amsterdam and at Neuschwanstein. The one in Amsterdam was a redhead and we had a funny conversation about redheads all over the world, and what happens once you reach the age of 50 or so. The great thing about Americans is that, in general, they are really friendly if I approach them and start a conversation. Americans abroad don’t seem to mind sticking together, even if they’re strangers. But during my six days in Munich, I got truly tired of Americans. Guys, you are really loud. For example: during those six days, I stayed in a 12 person dorm room. Everybody kept coming back late and drunk. The Italians were loud but they went straight to bed. The French talked to one another in low voices by flashlight. I never heard the Japanese even open the door they were so quiet. The Spanish woke me up but were fine after 10 minutes. But the Americans were the only ones who turned on the lights and attempted to play a drunken game of cards at 2am. This event led to the invention of my favorite game: convince the Americans that I’m actually German so that I can justify yelling at them when they do that. It works. Americans out in public are the loudest tourists I’ve heard, although the British seem to be just as bad about that (sorry). And they seem to assume that no one else understands them, but we totally do, and wow those are some really rude jokes you’re telling. Why?!
The most adventurous person I’ve met lives in my dorm. He is, of course, from Germany. Last summer he took a paddle boat with his friends all the way from Koblenz to Istanbul. That’s 2,413 km by car–I have no idea how many more by boat! But to me, that’s just amazing. What an adventure!
The most interesting cultural connection I’ve had was with a student from China. She’s studying at the University in Koblenz, and I met her while visiting Burg Eltz with the international group. The amazing thing is that the common language is usually English rather than German, and her English was pretty good. But what would an American have in common with someone from China? “Big Bang Theory” apparently. Yes, we had a whole conversation about Sheldon, Leonard, Howard, and Penny! It was fantastic! Not only did we share similar opinions on the characters, but we understood the same jokes. I’m still really surprised how one small American TV show could have crossed over into other cultures, giving us something to share, something to talk about, something to laugh about.
I’ve met a guy from Hungary who once ate a whole pizza and lasagna for lunch. The Turkish girls love to take photos in front of beautiful works of architecture, and I went with one of them to an art museum in Munich where we must have seen 1,000 pictures of Jesus. One student from Greece is incredibly kind, welcoming in all situations, and might travel to Paris with me. Four of our exchange students come from Jordan and they are some of the the nicest people I have ever met; one traveled all the way from Remagen just to eat tacos with me for dinner.
I am so glad to have met all these people, both while traveling and within the exchange program at the Hochschule. I’m learning about their cultures, their languages, and yes, their travel habits. I get the feeling this will be one of the things that I will miss the most when I go back home! Looks like I’ll have to get more involved with the international groups at St. Edward’s.
Posted inTravels|Comments Off on Oh, the People You’ll Meet!
Looking back at all my posts, I always seem ridiculously happy. “Traveling is so much fun!” “Oh, look at this quirky cultural difference” “Wow the bread here is REALLY good.” All of that is 100% true, but study abroad is not without its challenges. I started classes in March and while I like them all very much, it’s been a very tiring first month (first with international orientation and then classes.) A lot of these challenges were expected, and some I had not anticipated. What I find most challenging is….
1) The language.
I could already speak German fairly well before I came here, but my education was more sink or swim: I’d only studied it for a year in environments where I was immersed in something several levels above where I should be. As a result, I understand quite a bit more than one should after a year but also make a lot of mistakes since I still haven’t spoken it for a very long time. Learning more is one of the greatest joys and also the greatest challenges of studying in Germany.
The language can be particularly frustrating as my knowledge of German seems to fluctuate on a daily basis. One day I can have a long conversation with someone in German at a restaurant or party, leaving very happy with myself for my continuously improving language skills, and the next day I will forget how to order dinner. It’s really strange and it is the one thing that hasn’t gone away after four months in Germany.
One thing that is fortunately better now is the stress of always hearing German. At first, I would have given anything to speak to someone from America, the UK, Canada, or Australia. Just as long as they were native English speakers, that’s all that mattered. It must have had something to do with being in a foreign environment for the first time, and regardless of how well you speak the language, it can be quite stressful hearing something that is not your first language all the time. Now I love speaking in German and I prefer it to English most of the time, simply because I want to learn. The only time I want to speak English with someone from, say, the UK is when I need to talk to someone about Doctor Who because for some reason they don’t watch that in Germany.
As much as I love Germany, if I didn’t miss Texas a little bit then I should be a very poor example of a Texan. Homesickness is a natural part of studying abroad, one that I haven’t addressed much on this blog because it is often not very bad and definitely not a highlight when I do feel that way. Travels are much more fun to share. But I do miss a lot of things from Texas–my friends and family most of all. I’m going to have a big party when I get back! But there are only a few very important things that I miss about America and Texas other than my friends and family.
I miss the food, especially Mexican food. German food is great, and they have wonderful Asian and Italian food here too. The beer is better than in America and the Coke is too (must be the sugar). But one thing they can’t do here is Mexican food. They just can’t. In fact, they don’t even know what Tex Mex is–poor souls have never had real enchiladas. I remedy this by making Tex-Mex for the other students whenever I’m feeling particularly homesick. The latest adventure involved tacos, and because I couldn’t find tortillas I had to make my own, which is better but much more work. I couldn’t find a rolling pin so I used a beer bottle instead! They keep asking me to make tacos again so it must have been a success.
Free bathrooms. That’s one thing you don’t appreciate, ever, until you’ve had to pay in every city you’ve visited. You even have to pay in restaurants, train stations, and museums. Oh America, you’re so free, with your free water and free bathrooms and stuff. Did I mention we have to pay for water too? Instead of saving money by drinking water, you save money by drinking nothing. I sense a problem here.
Stores that are open 24/7. A lot of things close here by 8:00, or 9:00 if you’re lucky. Grocery stores are closed Sunday, along with just about everything else in Koblenz except restaurants. Berlin was incredible because they had grocery stores that were always open, something I take for granted in Texas. It’s just so weird to be in the city at night because you can walk for blocks without seeing anyone. There’s just nothing to do after a certain hour.
All in all, though, I’ve fared a lot better with homesickness than I thought I would. It’s gotten so much better that I’m beginning to think my subconscious has decided I’m staying in Germany forever and adjusted accordingly. I really don’t want to leave!
3) Sorting through a different school system.
This could be really boring for everyone so let me make this short: there’s a reason people don’t often study abroad more than once. The transfer credits are a pain to work out! Now, both International Offices have been incredibly helpful, but I’ve sent in at least 3 different learning agreements so far and I feel like. Classes aren’t currently offered, they’re half the credits I thought they were, they’re not worth credits at all and have to be challenged, course descriptions have to be translated, oh this one’s a master’s course….yeah.
In addition to the transfer credits, classes are just handled here differently. In the school of social sciences, you have to take 2 separate classes to get your 5 ECTS credits (3 US credit hours.) Homework is pretty rare, but you do have to come to class and do a big exam or presentation/paper at the end of the semester. Also, no one takes classes outside their area of study unless they’re an exchange student like me, so it’s really hard to make different schools (eg social sciences and business) work together. I made it, though! I finally have all my classes figured out and now all I need to do is focus on passing them.
4) Making Friends.
This is another one that was more of a problem in the beginning, but is still relevant. If you’re studying abroad, I can’t stress enough: try to be social. I am not the most social person. I would be quite happy to stay in my room when I get back from the Hochschule, but I do actually want to meet people. That’s important, not only because it helps me to get to know people from other cultures, but also because I do actually need friends/social interaction.
At first, people are really friendly and will invite you everywhere. It’s a common misconception about Germans that they’re always cold and won’t let you into their personal lives if you’re new. If you’re an exchange student, a lot of the other students really want to make you feel welcome. The hard part comes a few months down the road when it’s your turn to keep the new relationships going, to actually ask them to go somewhere with you for a change. Otherwise, they’ll assume that you want to be left alone. Like making friends anywhere else, it requires effort from both parties.
I do actually like traveling alone. I’ve been some places with my new friends and I had a great time! So, I try to keep a balance of which trips I make alone and which ones I do with other people, because each method has its own advantages and disadvantages. If you travel alone, you get to go where you want to at your own pace and eat what you want. You’ll see a lot more and waste a lot less time, and maybe blend in a little better because you won’t always be speaking English with your friend. But if you travel with other people, you get more pictures of yourself and your friends, plus memories that you will share together for years down the road. It’s all about keeping a healthy balance of both, and I’m glad to have made friends to travel with and to sometimes have a nice day out in Koblenz!
For the most part, studying abroad has been a lot easier than I thought it would be, in terms of adjusting to the culture and dealing with homesickness. I think a lot of people have unrealistic expectations for what will be challenging and what will be a typical day for studying abroad. For example, a lot of people feel you shouldn’t be watching movies while you’re studying abroad, but instead spending every free moment taking in the culture. That’s exhausting. Yes, you shouldn’t spend an entire day watching movies in your room, but if you need that one day while you’re there, don’t feel bad. We all need days to chill, to just “reboot” in a way, especially when staying in a country that speaks another language. Essentially, I’ve moved to Germany for seven months, and it’s been an amazing experience just feeling like this is my home for now. I have a local grocery store and I know where all my favorite food is. I like Apfelschorle (apple soda) and I know which brands I prefer. Even the challenges have been more exciting and fascinating than frustrating. As with everything, it is a learning experience, and the most enjoyable one possible!
Posted inKoblenz|Comments Off on The Challenges of Study Abroad: Surviving 7 Months in Germany