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The European Union

a travel blog by lost_red_balloon

Living and studying in Germany, traveling all over the continent!
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The first few days...

Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany

Hormuz just got my internet working today!

So, the first few days have gone by in a flash. I arrived in Freiburg on Sunday (Austin to Charlotte, a red-eye to Frankfurt, then to Basel only to take a bus back into Germany to Freiburg) and went to my hostel, but couldn't check in for another three hours. I dropped my stuff off and, in a jet-lag-induced daze wandered about the city and somehow managed not to get lost. The hostel turned out to really be a hippie-commune (which verifies my plan, among other random ones, to open a hostel when I retire from some fabulous job) where we had communal living spaces and scheduled meditation-time. Dinner consisted of lemon ice-cream, because I was too overwhelmed to be hungry and too tired to care. The next day I dragged my two suitcases halfway across the Innenstadt/inner city to the IES building, where we had a brief orientation, they took our passports to establish residency for us, and got us a cab to our dorms. It wasn't terribly exciting, except for the prospect of a bed to call my own and meeting a few of my potential class-mates.

My dorm is on Charlottenburgerstrasse, but is called Berlinerallee (as in a Berlin alleyway) because that is the big street it is next to. Most of the building is a very vibrant orange, but some walls are yellow and green. I've determined that after a long day of classes, orientation, and getting around in German, nothing cheers you up like pulling up to the big square easter-egg on the bright red tram. This is, however, in stark contrast to the inside of the building. My room is completely white: walls, ceiling, bed, bedlinens, desk, wardrobe, and heater - all a freshly-painted white. The only exceptions are the stand on which the TV sits (which is a very light brown), the TV (which is a normal TV) and the floor (which is a very light gray). The kitchen is a little more colorful with blue tiling. And the view is amazing!

I live in a Wohngemeinschaft, which is typical German housing. Rather than having a living situation based around a suite or a hall, like many of ours, these are situated around common living areas. They are almost like big apartments. When one walks in to my WG, there is a fairly large dining area/kitchen. Then to the left one enters a small hallway, with the refridgerators, then a larger one with 6 bedrooms (singles) and two bathrooms. All in all it is a bit like having an apartment with a roommate, but everything is made to accommodate more people at once. Most WG's are co-ed, and two girls from my program are currently only living with guys. It is still hard to tell who all of the roommates are because the semester doesn't start for them until the end of September, so only people doing summer programs or internships are here. I only have two roommates right now: Rebecca and Lena. Both are very nice - Rebecca speaks to me entirely in German because I requested it, but Lena and I tend to switch from one to the other.

It is very different living here, though. It is still somewhat like American dorm-life, but it is a standard in Germany to keep the bedroom doors closed. In America, we all tend to leave our doors open so that people may come in and out, and a closed door means the resident wants privacy for some reason or another. Here, the doors are always closed. It is hard to tell when people are here or not, because lights are not used when not necessary, and the walls are soundproofed because the living is so dense. With no sound, no light, and no sight of a person, it is hard to know when anyone is home.

Freiburg is a beautiful town. I wish I could only tell you about things as I discover them, but everything is a discovery! For now you will have to content yourself with the gutters. Yes, I am going to describe the gutters.

There are gutters (called Bächle) in Freiburg that have only clean water (I'm assuming the ones used for sewage are underground, but they're not nearly as charming). Over 500 years ago, these gutters were built in the streets in Freiburg. They are just little man-made streams carrying water, and it's like a very angular river system. Big ones lead into little ones which lead into tiny ones, and vice versa. I have heard three different stories on this: 1) it was meant to provide the local artisans with the water they needed to work without requiring them to go down to the river to fetch it, 2) sewage purposes, 3) for fighting fires. Now they are just there because they always have been, but no matter where one goes in the Innenstadt one is followed by this very cheerful and charming babbling sound of the water flowing by. The Innenstadt of Freiburg is composed primarily of older-styled buildings anyway, so it has a very natural, earthy, and quaint feel to it. There is no way you could possibly be downtown in a city when you sit in the cafés in the squares and not hear the water go by.

There is also a superstition: if you fall in once, you have to marry a native Freiburger, and if you fall in twice, you can never leave. We're going to hope that my klutziness does not come through, because I do need to come home eventually.

Most of the past few days have been spent doing some form of orientation. The other day we did something called "Freiburg as Text" where we were split into groups of 6 and each group was given a task. One group had to explore cafés, and another one grocery stores. One group even was just assigned "people-watching." We were sent out to notice, observe, and take pictures. There was a big difference between the groups that were sent to enter a voyeuristic mode with the purpose of seeing and oserving, and the groups that were sent to experience things.

My group was sent to the Münstermarkt, or the big market around the main cathedral (Münster cathedral). It was pretty solidly split between the produce section on the right (leaving the cathedral) and the candles, spices, wooden goods, etc. on the left. It turns out, only locals are allowed to sell on the right, so the perishable goods all end up there. It was amazing. Everything was so vibrant; the produce was almost too colorful, and the smells too tempting and the sounds too intriguing. I didn't recognize everything, but part of our task was to ask people about the market, the goods, recipies, usw. So I did. My favorite incident involved an 8 year old boy.

There was a booth fairly evenly split between produce and flowers. Right in the middle between the two was

this plant that grew some orange thing. If you've ever seen a Chinese lantern shaped more like a heart than a circle, it was something like that. They were 6 or 7 centimeters long, looked like they were made of delicate and vibrantly orange paper, and stuck out lengthwise in a way that made it seem like there was a wire support underneath (hence the Chinese lantern reference - Stephanie, it looked like a miniature version of your red one). There were lots of these on one plant, and I had never seen them before. The booth was run by this elderly couple, but their grandson who was only 8 or 10 came over to help me.

"Kann ich Ihn helfen?" he asked. Can I help you?

"Ja, bitte." I said. Yes, please. "Was sind die?" What are these?

He responded with a word that ended with "lampen," or lamps/lanterns.

"Oh," I said, and looked at them again, "und was macht man damit?" What do you do with them? Suddenly his expression, which had been one of a charming politeness only worthy of 10 year old boys, turned to a slightly scolding/panick-stricken look.

"NICHT ZUM ESSEN. GANZ NICHT!" he said, and shook his finger emphatically at me.

"Ach, ja," I said, somewhat shocked, and compared them to flowers, "also, sie sind mehr wie Blumen? Für..."

"Dekoration," he finished my statement with a knowing nod. "Aber nicht zum Essen!"

So apparently you can't eat them.

  • *for Stephanie's benefit:

  • little boy: "NOT TO EAT! NOT AT ALL TO EAT!"
    me: "oh, okay. So, are they more like flowers? For..."
    little boy: "dekoration. but not to eat!"

    there you go***

    permalink written by  lost_red_balloon on September 4, 2008 from Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany
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    My first week-end here

    Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany

    All right, my first week-end here is still in progress. As in, it's only Saturday morning and no one else is awake. But I went on today and I think Friday afternoon pretty much counts as part of the week-end.

    We finished with classes around 1 (because the other group still had some orientation to do, which we had done the day before) so we got out fairly early. Aymi and I decided we wanted to climb the Münsterturm (the spire in the cathedral), but a lot of people had already done it so it ended up just us. We went back to the dorm, dropped off our stuff, and headed back to Münsterplatz.

    This Turm wasn't as bad as others I have climbed (the Kölnerdom/Cologne cathedral is the tallest in Germany, and the stairways in the Duomo in Florence are much harder to manage and you end up on top of the duomo on the outside, which is freaky). So, minus the 418 very steep spiral-staircase style steps (alliteration!!!) it was pretty easy. The view was amazing. You could see almost the whole town (the town is nestled in a valley, and parts of it reach into other valleys which lends an odd shape to Freiburg on any street map), and to the South you could see the foothills of the Alps (that's what I labelled the really big hills anyway. Supposedly we're pretty close). It also helped us, by seeing Freiburg from above, to really understand just how windy the streets are. We're all on the verge of knowing how to navigate, but maps only help so much and we end up walking in circles a lot. It wasn't until I was up there looking down that I got a good idea of just how crazily the town is laid out.

    209 steps up, you can decide to go to the top of the Turm or the belltower. We did both, but only the Turm lended a good view of the city. I wanted to go to the belltower to watch the bells ring, but neither one of us felt like waiting 15 minutes so we left. It only cost one euro (there had got to be a euro key around here somewhere) to go up, so I'll go back and do it again.

    After leaving the Münster, Aymi and I decided to put our feet in some Bächlen. We've seen lots of other people walking or playing in them (the latter would be mostly children, though) so we knew it was acceptable, but we figured that we would reek of tourists if we were laughing and taking pictures as we waded in the Bächlen speaking English. So we decided to find a more secluded Bächle, so as not to embarrass ourselves in the town square (we figured every exchange student is allowed a week-end to be a tourist). We went to a street where I remembered there being a little one and not a lot of people (where my first picture of the little Bächle was taken) so we went there. There were a few more people, but it wasn't a big deal. (The water was REALLY COLD!)

    We then went for some good-old-gilatto, and headed back to the dorm. Dinner turned into a disaster - we decided to go with a few of the girls to get a bite to eat, but on the way out met up with some of the guys, and before you know it had a large group of people with no idea what they were doing. We waited outside Engelbergestrasse dorm for half an hour for some people, and the best part of it was the cat.

    Eventually it got so confusing that Aymi, Meghan and I just left to do our own thing. We got some Turkish food, then went to the Biergarten. All-in-all it was a decent night in the end.

    permalink written by  lost_red_balloon on September 5, 2008 from Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany
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    Pfaffenweiler, Germany

    Today was uneventful until the Weinfest. This whole area, from Freiburg extending up the Rhein River in western Germany, is known for its white wine, and it's the only region in Germany able to really support vineyards because of the Rhein. Whenever a harvest is brought in, the village responsible for the vineyards and resultant wine will have a Weinfest (literally, wine festival. I think you might have gotten that on your own). In fall, apparently, there is a new one practically every week-end, but today was the celebration for the village of Pfaffenweiler.

    We took the bus out there from Hauptbahnhof, and walked around the village for hours. Each bar is supplied with a standard wine-list, but the cheapest one is always the subject of the festival. So you have to buy a wine-glass (about ,1 l and good as a souveneir!) and you just take it around to different bars trying different wines and foods as you go. It was actually a lot of fun. It's a really big deal for the villages, so everybody comes out.

    I was utterly taken aback by the dialect. We were only a half hour (maybe) outside of Freiburg, but the speech was completely different. I could understand it, and what I didn't understand the villagers could easily explain by reverting back to standard German. But they wrote everything out in their dialekt, so even the menus were hard to understand. Flammekuche, one of my favorite foods (it's kind of like a German-style pizza) was suddenly spelled "Flammechueche," which basically means the k suddenly went gutteral and the u sounds more like an i. "Danke schön", a standard thanks, became "Dankasheen". It was pretty awesome.

    So mainly we wandered, drank some good old Freiburger alcohol (but not too much, of course), and listened to German music in some of the bars. And, apparently beer comes in meters and half meters. Who knew? I was confused when Joachim asked me if I wanted in on a half-meter. I thought he said half-liter, and thought that sounded like a lot of beer. Not that a half-meter is a lot better, but there were a lot of us there.

    Aymi and I decided to stay later than the other IES students, because, as they were all getting on the bus about 8 o'clock, all the Germans were getting off the bus. So we figured the party was just getting started. We were right. We wandered around, but everything became much more crowded, and there were a lot more people our age. We went into one bar where two guys, who I guess are local hero/musicians, were playing, and it very distinctly reminded me of the Flogging Molly concert I attended in February. I was pushed, picked up, jumped on, and otherwise pushed around while trying to get to the back. And they were playing some really cheesy German music (it wasn't traditional music, but it would not fit into any "hip" or American music genres). It was intense, but I really enjoyed it. It was cold and rainy, though, and I'm going to have to get some kind of raincoat/fall coat soon. I've never needed a coat before...

    permalink written by  lost_red_balloon on September 6, 2008 from Pfaffenweiler, Germany
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    Wolfssteige im Schwarzwald

    Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany

    You, my dear reader, are about to get picture overload.

    We went hiking today. Half of the IES students went to Schauinsland, which is Freiburg's house peak. Out of our two options, though, it is the more tourist-y one, so I figured I could go back to do that one on my own. I opted for the more obscure St. Peter/Wolfssteige trip.

    We met at Hauptbahnhof, took a train to a little town outside of Freiburg, then hopped on a bus up to St. Peter. Five minutes out of Freiburg we were very distinctly in the Black Forest/Schwarzwald, and our bus was winding around miniature-mountains and in and out of quaint little villages. St. Peter is a village VERY high up, where there is a baroque church built on the site of an old monastery. I must say, I'm not big on baroque architecture (it strikes me as overly extravagant) but no one can deny how much craftwork and labor went into the building of this church way up on a hill in the Black Forest.

    It was pretty amazing, all in all. Apparently they have a gorgeous library, too, but it's closed off to the public.

    After leaving St. Peter, we headed down, or up, the Wolfssteige trail. It's about 7 or 8 km long, or just under 5 miles. Imagine the Sound of Music, and you get the general idea about the scenery (except smaller mountains and bigger forests).

    You know those movies where there are really epic scenic shots of the characters walking along these ridiculously high ridges and hills with unbelievable backdrops? That was me. Also, I got to frolick in fields, which is less epic, but no less amazing.

    At the end of this VERY STRENUOUS hike, we visited the ruins of a 1.000 year old castle. I've never really seen ruin ruins (all the castles around Koblenz are relatively whole. As in, you can see the walls fairly distinctly). I still really enjoyed it. We were in the middle of the Black Forest, went up a ridiculously steep hill (I mean, very athletic and hiking-accustomed people were falling down this hill it was so near vertical) and suddenly we were surrounded by old stone walls covered in ivy, with tree roots weaving in and out of the stone. A lot of the others thought it was a bit anti-climactic (and not worth the climb), but it was absolutely gorgeous in its ruin. It's as enjoyable to be able to imagine what was there, who lived there (and how they got up that hill on a regular basis!) than to see it. It was dark there, and kind of dank because it rained last night, and the ground was covered with roots. It was creepily fairy-tale-ish (Grimm brother style).

    We then had dinner at the IES center in the garden, and pasta really isn't terribly exciting, but I did meet a professor. I have two classes scheduled at the same time on Monday (but they're different the rest of the week): Europe and the Muslim World and Migration: Ethnic Minorities in Europe which I think would compliment each other really well. This lady is teaching the Ethnic Minorities course, and I talked to her, and she said she wasn't sure if Mondays really worked for her either and, if I really wanted her to, she might get it changed. I may be in both classes!!!!

    When I got back to my WG, Rebekka was at the table. I haven't gotten to see her much, and she seems really cool. She asked what we did today, and we had this whole conversation in German, and she invited me out with her and her best friend Tuesday night (when their summer semester ends). I'm really excited!! It's so hard to get to know Germans here because the culture is so different, but I really want to make some German friends! I feel like I'm not getting as much language practice or cultural immersion because I always end up hanging out with Americans.

    permalink written by  lost_red_balloon on September 7, 2008 from Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany
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    Strasbourg, France

    We had our first field study trip today, to Strasbourg! In France!
    We actually had class first (bummer, right?) so we didn't get to leave for Strasbourg until 1:30. The bus ride was only an hour or so, and Aymi, Meghan, Katie and I climbed the very front seats on the upper deck, so we could see everything! It was really cool at first, until you realize that the highway isn't that much more exciting from 5 feet higher. Although overpasses did seem dangerously low...
    So we got to Strasbourg and went to see the Parlement Européen, or European Parliament. It would have been a lot cooler, though, if the ceiling hadn't just recently collapsed and the entire building been shut down as a safety hazard. You know, if we didn't just get to go into the courtyard and listen to some guy tell us all about what we could have been seeing... I'm not complaining, though, all of the information was stuff I pretty much knew anyway, and it was probably a lot shorter this way.

    We then went into Strasbourg itself, to the Dom. The Dom is huge! It's slightly bothersome, though, that it only had one spire. One spire cathedrals are awesome when the one spire is in the middle and the building looks like it's only supposed to have one spire. This one had it off to the side on a corner, meaning there was supposed to be another one at the other corner, and it was supposed to be symmetrical. Other than that, it was amazing. They also had this awesome clock! In one corner, there's this huge contraption. There are three separate faces - the bottom one is a calendar that takes into account February and leap years, and the middle one is a flat out clock that runs off of a solar day (so it's sometimes a little behind a normal clock, but it all evens out in the end). The top one has six little golden balls that represent the six main planets known at the time of its construction, and tracks the movement of these planets in real time (so, if Saturn takes 30 years to rotate the sun, so does the little ball. These little miniature planets turned out to only be seconds off from the actual revolutions, as well). Above the top face is a sphere that sticks halfway out, and half of it is gold and half blue. That tracks the moon, so you can tell from this clock if it's a new moon, full moon, or waxing or waning.

    Now, on either side of the calendar, there is an angel. The one on the left is holding a bell and stick-thing, and the one on the right an hourglass. Above the moon-sphere there is a glockenspiel set-up (with figures that rotate) and, right in the middle, a skeleton holding a bell. On the glockenspiel bit there are four characters - a young boy, a teenager, a grown man and an old man, and each holds a similar stick-thing to the angel. At a quarter after the hour, the clock lights up and the angel on the left hits its bell, then the young boy hits the bell the skeleton is holding, then the angel, then the boy, then the glockenspiel moves over one spot. On the half hour, the same process is repeated except that, due to the previous rotation, the teenage boy is now hitting the skeleton's bell, then it rotates to the man. At a quarter till, the angel rings his bell, the man rings the skeleton's bell, the angel again and then the man, and then one more rotation so that, on the hour, the old man is always alternating with the angel ringing the bell. The point is that the clock tracks life - from childhood through adulthood and eventually an elderly age. At every hour, as the old man passes the skeleton (representing death, of course) the angel on the right flips his hourglass, stating that another hour of life has passed us by. Typical German morbidity, I guess, but it's intriguing. This will be much better with a picture.

    We had an hour-long tour of the city, including petit France which i still in its basic medieval form, and a lot of it hasn't ever been destroyed (we see a lot of cathedrals and buildings that have been restored but "retained its charm." These were just flat-out the real things, which was awesome). I loved walking down streets knowing that hundreds of years worth of people had actually touched the same stones I had. That for hundreds of years children have been playing on the cobble-stones, and families have taken refuge inside the houses, and the same goods have been sold from the same buildings. It turned into an intense connection to history. Nothing has changed there for centuries.

    Then we went for a good old traditional meal of Flamkuche, which wasn't nearly as good as the Flammkuche I've had near Koblenz, but we were in Alsace so it could be different.

    Then we went back to the bus, hopped on, and waited. For a very long period of time.
    The bus wouldn't start. We all piled out again, and the guys literally tried to push the double-decker charter bus a couple metres to try to get it started, but that didn't work either. The company had to send another bus all the way from Freiburg, which meant we had an hour to wait (this is after we'd been sitting on the curb for at least a half hour/45 minutes already while they tried to fix it), so IES treated us all to drinks at a nearby bar. We didn't get home until midnight.
    And I caught a cold.

    permalink written by  lost_red_balloon on September 11, 2008 from Strasbourg, France
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    Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany

    permalink written by  lost_red_balloon on September 12, 2008 from Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany
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    German course trip

    Speyer, Germany

    Today was the day that every German course went on a separate trip. The basic course went to Heidelberg (which is gorgeous!) and the intermediate to Lake Konstanz. My class went to Speyer. It was a very nice break from the traveling we've already been doing, simply because, including my professor, there were only 9 of us. When you travel around in a group of 30 or 60 and go out at night with a group 0f 20, even when you only start with 4, having only 9 and no possibilities to add people is very refreshing.

    Speyer is a fantastic city. From what I can tell it's fairly small, and not a lot of people have heard of it. It was originally founded by the Romans in 10 b.c. (ish), then became a seat for the bishop. It was originally built on the Rhein River, but the Rhein's course has changed so it's now on a little tributary thing.

    The main cathedral is gorgeous. It's a catholic romanesque Dom. Oddly enough, it's part of the reason I think Speyer has an interesting approach to religion. This Dom was also refreshing - after visiting so many amazingly elaborate cathedrals that took hundreds of years to build because they were so beautifully intricate, seeing a nice, aesthetically-pleasing, block with a dome on top was kind of cool. And it was gorgeous in its own way (and I am, by no means, hating on the cathedrals I've been visiting). Interestingly enough, because Speyer is still the bishops seat, and the cathedral is the center of this, the tour guide was not allowed into the cathedral. The territory of the city and of the church are so separated that, simply by being an employee of the city, she could not cross the threshold of the cathedral. So she had to tell us all about it outside and then wait for us. Apparently some stipulations have been removed, but the church used to be a refuge from the authorities because they were not allowed to cross that very threshold in pursuit of people.

    We also visited an Episcopalian church, which was in more of a baroque style. It was odd to see a protestant

    church that looked more like a catholic one, while the catholic one could have easily been a protestant one. It was a little bizarre.

    The tour also took us though the old Jewish quarter (which I thought was going to be a ghetto, but wasn't). There was a certain part of town that was the center of the Speyer Jewish community, which had a synogogue and a ritual bathhouse. In the general burning of Speyer (I don't remember when) the synnogogue was destroyed and partially rebuilt, then destroyed again in WWII. I think. So the synogogue only has a few walls still standing, but they're the same walls that have been around for hundreds of years. Even cooler was the bathhouse. It was underground, so it wasn't destroyed with everything else and pretty much remained in its original form from the middle ages. Being rather poorly lit, and having the eerie air of centuries of ritual, it was a little creepy. But also really cool.

    After the tour, we just walked around. If it wasn't so cold and rainy (and if I hadn't forgotten a jacket) it would have been okay. And I was in the worst part of my cold from Strasbourg. I still had a blast - I enjoyed being with my class and only my class so much that I hardly noticed how aweful I felt until the train ride back. We decided on the ride back that Mexican food sounded awesome, and Christiane (our professor) directed us to a Mexican place.

    Upon arrival in Freiburg, we set out in pursuit of said Mexican restaurant. Most of us were there (I think two students did not come), so it was a nice compact group. The key to the directions, however, is that there are multiple Müller stores. So, after wandering around, soaking wet, with a cold, in the rain when it was in the 50s for half an hour, we finally found a place, but they only had seating outside. It was decided that I was going to sit in the driest place and in the middle (I'm not sure if it really helped me or not) and I was given the candle to keep my hands warm. We had an absolute blast. The margaritas were basically straight tequilla with a piece of lime (I couldn't finish mine) and the nachos had real jalapenos. MMMM. It was so worth the cold just to be with these people at this place.

    We then went to Schlappen, which is a bar that sells beer by the two-liter boot. It has become popular enough with the IES crowd that "schlappen" has now become a verb participle/adjective. As in, "we're about to get schlappened" or "are we going schlappening tonight?" or "he's so schlappened that..." Again, I probably should have gone home and gotten dry clothing, but I didn't. I did get kind of spacey, though part of it was that we met 15 other people and I got stuck at the boy's table. Joe and I did manage to establish that we've probably met each other before through Liz and the Holiday House crew, which was really bizarre. FInally Aymi decided to go back to get ready to go out to a club (it was a Saturday night, after all) and I decided to go back with her and probably go back to bed.

    Outside Schlappen, Aymi disappeared for a minute to go try to get a cigarette from a group of men. She was gone for a while, but I could hear her talking and laughing, so I didn't go after her or anything. Next thing I know, German men are coming up to me going "you want to come to our Bachelor Party with us?" I had to politely refrain many times, explain I was sick, cough, show my pile of kleenexes that had accumulated in my pocket, and pretend to be unbearably sleepy (as well as endure many hand-kisses) before they finally let me go. Aymi and Meghan went out that night, I slept.

    permalink written by  lost_red_balloon on September 13, 2008 from Speyer, Germany
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    Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany

    permalink written by  lost_red_balloon on September 14, 2008 from Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany
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    Ich bin ein Berliner...

    Berlin, Germany

    We had to meet at the train station at 6:30-ish to catch our train to Berlin. Despite being sleepy, I was somewhat amused by the reluctance of everyone to ride on a train for 7 hours, simply because 7 hours here gets us from the very southwest corner of Germany to Berlin in the northeast. 7 hours back home gets me to Laredo... from the middle of Texas. I wasn't worried about it, but as the trip progressed, many seemed to be getting cabin-fever.
    The scenery was really interesting to see. It was my first really extensive exploration of Germany, so all I'd seen before was the Rhein Valley, which is all hills, castles, and vineyards, and the Black Forest which, coincidentally, is all forest. As we moved eastward, though, things began to flatten out, but it was all mostly farmland. We were in nicer cabins - the kind that seat six people within an enclosed area. In my cabin, though, there were only five of us. Which means strange and increasingly-younger German men kept coming in to sit with us. I felt bad for all of them, just because they had to deal with us becoming increasingly slap-happy.
    Eventually, though, we got to Berlin. It's amazing what kind of things will turn me into a giddy, 5-year-old girl. Being in Berlin is one of them. Even as we stood outside the train station looking at more German billboards, I had an inevitable grin on my face.
    It was a strange trip initially, though, because we were split up for the first time. There are 60 IES students, and we all have to take a class entitled PO350 - Integrative EU Seminar or something along those lines. There are 4 sections, and we'd been told that on our trips we would travel in two groups. PO350s A and B were one group, in which the students tend to gear towards the political science area, and PO350s C and D were the other group who tend towards economics. I am, of course, in B, because economics is not quite up my alley. So AB and CD stayed in different hotels, had different tours, went to different lectures, etc.

    Our hotel was in former East Berlin (that inevitable grin I wrote about? Yeah... it got bigger). I am not yet an expert on Berliner architecture or the city layout or anything, but walking down the street to my hotel, I couldn't help but think that East Berlin was somehow exactly how I had envisioned. Things just looked a little run-down, and it struck me as exactly how East Berlin should look and should feel.

    We dropped our stuff off in our rooms, then went down to take a city tour. Of course, we only really made a point to stop and talk about the big sites - the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, the World Clock in Potsdamer Platz and we went to Alexanderplatz. It was amazing. For me, anyway. Shanthi told me at one point that she didn't really like Berlin too much (Shanthi, I've concluded, has her own comfort zone which she is reluctant to leave, and Berlin, as a big city that, in many areas that aren't tourist-y can seem a bit shabby, doesn't quite fit), and asked me why I did. It was somewhat harder than I would have expected to explain to her exactly what I loved about Berlin. A lot of it is just that I read spy novels. I love the Cold War, and I'm intrigued by the identity-crisis the division of Germany has caused, and so many of the characters I have loved, hated, respected, and pitied have been in this very city I was walking around in. So much of how I have developed until now is wrapped up in this city I have, until now, never been to before. Imagine trying to explain to someone who only sees the peeling white-washed walls and cracked sidewalks that every corner of this degenerate city has some spectre haunting it, and I've been waiting my whole life to experience each and every one.

    We ended up around Potsdamer Platz, which has a huge display on the Berlin Wall, but only shows pieces exhibiting the western side (there was no way in the East anyone could get close enough to graffiti without getting shot):

    Our tour guide left us with some advice about what to eat. She recommended restaurants for people, then said "Well, if anyone is interested in having a truly Berlinisch meal, they should try currywurst. I know where you can get the best currywurst in the city, and it's on my way back home, so anyone who wants to come is welcome to follow." I said yes (surprised?) along with Meghan and, surprisingly, Warren and Anthony (neither of whom we know very well).

    So the four of us set off with this tour guide, who took us on the subway and on a bus that passed a section of the wall that is still erected, to Konnopke's Imbiß, which, we learned upon getting lost later, is way way up northeast. She also taught us how to order, because there isn't really a menu. Currywurst itself is a kind of sausage with a particular sauce on it (kind of like a spicy ketchup... anyone had Rudy's spicy bbq sauce?) and, in typical European fashion, you can get mayo on your fries. Menü weiss (literally white menu/meal) is the currywurst, fries with mayo. Menü rot is currywurst with fries and the currywurst sauce all over. I got Menü weiss, which you can see below. It was the best wurst I've ever had.

    Apparently the lady who now owns it (who is definitely at least 60) inherited it from her father, who founded it over 70 years ago. So this business has survived the Second World War and the Cold War, supposedly without ever changing its menu or its taste. It's infamous among people who actually know Berlin. The Imbiß is, quite literally, a little kiosk in the middle of a really complex intersection underneath the line for the street cars. So it's loud, gritty, graffiti-covered, and utterly amazing.

    The four of us ate (standing up, no places to sit were anywhere around), then decided to explore a bit. So we just walked. We went into thrift stores, retail stores, grocery stores, book stores, everything. We talked about Berlin, and school, and music and graffiti. It was a lot of fun. The boys, of course, wanted some alcohol so we stopped into a store and I had to help them translate a bit (Warren was confused by the concept of Kräutlikör... or cabbage liquor?) so he bought it. We made our way back to the hotel eventually, and hung out in their room where the two of them quite literally talked about what they were wearing to our meetings the next day while drinking Kräutlikör (which is like a slightly better version of Jägermeister, which I hate). Warren definitely has Grateful Dead ties. Good times.

    The next day was a meetings day. I wish I had more pictures (I have to steal them from all my friends' cameras). First we went to the Reichstag (where Aymi and Katie were actually greeted by Angela Merkel as she walked by), which is a very very German looking building. But it's kind of cool. It was actually destroyed (fire, among other things) and then the area became East Berlin, and the DDR government never fixed it up, so it just sat for years. Now it's the main government building. Right when you walk in, you see these walls covered in notes in the Cyrillic alphabet, which seemed a little random. The guy who met us there explained that when the Russian soldiers finally overtook Berlin in WWII, the building was in pretty bad shape, so they all picked up stones from the ground and wrote notes in charcoal. Some of them were understandable (someone's name and a year) and a couple had different names but the words surrounding the names were identical, so I'm assuming it was something along the lines of "so-and-so was here." Either way, the German government found these notes when renovating the building and decided to keep them there as a reminder of the German past, so they only washed off the offensive ones.

    We were shown to the SPD conference room (the SPD is the social-democratic party, or the centre-left party, generally a little bit further left than our democratic party) and an SPD representative just did a question/answer session with us. It was pretty cool, he cut through all the waffle that politicians always give, and said exactly what he thought about everything. Very refreshing.

    We then got to go up on the roof of the Reichstag (which one normally needs to wait in line for a few hours to do). This big glass dome was built on top to signify a new era in German history. The idea of it is that people can walk around on the roof around this dome, and there's a really complex series of mirrors in it right over the main meeting room in the building. It is all supposed to signify a transparency of government - that no matter what, the people walking around above are visible and can see what is going on.

    We then went to the German Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Defense (on different days, technically). The Foreign Ministry guy was basically just a paper-pusher (no offense to him, of course... I may end up one) but he really just followed the Foreign Ministry line and didn't answer anything straight. Which is probably his job. It was frustrating. The guys at the Ministry of Defense, though, were really cool.

    Then we went wandering around Berlin. I had to stop by in a Vodafone office because my phone locked me out and I needed to change my number. I handled the entire conversation in German, which was pretty good considering it involved both colloquial speech and technical jargon, but as I left the guy told me, in German "Don't ever forget your pin again!" Like I'm that stupid. I just spoke to you in German because your English was worse! Grrr....

    That night we went to Potsdamer Platz, then just walked. At about midnight we decided to get cocktails, b/c we passed a cocktail bar that looked pretty cool. No one was in it, so we just chilled and talked to the bartender a bit, who was only a little older than us. At one point he came over and said "I'm going to change the music. Any requests?" So we asked what he was going to change it to, and he said "Well, I was thinking..." and said the name of some group none of us knew. So he said "it's electronic tango. It's really good." So he put on electronic tango for us. It was a lot of fun, but we had to make our way back to our hotel without public transportation at 2:30 in the morning....

    I love Berlin!!

    permalink written by  lost_red_balloon on September 21, 2008 from Berlin, Germany
    from the travel blog: The European Union
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    ... They Kick You?!?!

    Tallinn, Estonia

    So, it's really only a 2 1/2 - 3 hour flight from Berlin to Tallinn... the amazingness of planes. Although, as Henry J. Tillman said, "The saying 'Getting there is half the fun' became obsolete with the advent of commercial airlines." For the moment, I'll bypass this statement, and choose to focus on the fact that I was in Estonia. Who goes to Estonia?

    So, Estonia's actually really interesting. We got there about 10:30 pm, so everything was dark and we couldn't really see anything. That first night was fairly uneventful. Our lectures were pretty sweet, though, especially our last one. The thing is that Estonia enjoyed a very short-lived independence after centuries of being occupied by Germans, Russians, Norwegians, Swedes, Danish, usw. and right before being occupied by the Nazi forces and then "liberated" and subsequently annexed by the Soviet Union. So if you want to know what a young country is, go to Estonia. The Baltics can, simply because of this, automatically be distinguished from a lot of Eastern Europe - most countries considered behind the Iron Curtain in the Cold War were independent, but communist and very dependent on Russia. The Baltics were a part of the Soviet Union.

    They still have a lot of issues with this - for one, Estonia is right on the border with Russia and even has some contested territory still with Russia. They also have a Russian minority (and other ethnic minorities who speak Russian and are sympathetic to Russia). And no one really knows what to do about it.

    Our hotel was actually right down the street from the park where the infamous Bronze Soldier statues stood. These statues were erected years ago as a memorial to the Soviet troops who died in the "liberation" of Estonia from Nazi Germany. Only last year, it was decided that, because the liberation essentially meant annexation into a repressive communist regime, the statues would be removed and sent to a random cemetery somewhere in the city (no one could give us directions there...). This incited huge riots by the Russian minority and those Estonians who are more sympathetic towards Russia. It was a really big deal. Because of this rocky history, there is a HUGE differentiation between peoples in Estonia, and the Estonians can be touchy about it.

    Our first day in Estonia, we headed over to the University of Tallinn. If you were to envision a post-Soviet city, Tallinn would mostly be it. Everything was rickety and run-down where we were. We meant to take the tram/street car to the university - a plan which should have worked. And, in theory, did work... until it took us back to our hotel. So we got off at a random stop, tried to get on another tram... which didn't go the whole way there. Turns out most of the trams in the entire city are either not working or not going to the right place. Whoops.

    So we walked to the university, which was interesting. Tallinn has a really odd mixture of really old buildings (the Old Town of Tallinn is essentially undisturbed from its medieval structure because it was never destroyed during any wars) and old Soviet buildings. We got lost (thank you, professors) and walked for half an hour to 45 minutes... which, had we been going in a straight line, would have taken us well out of Tallinn. Finally, we made it, though. One of the students had volunteered to help us by setting up a "Tallinn as Text" program. So we all had to get into groups, and pick a theme to follow out of her options. I really wanted to be in the group about Social Disparity, which actually involved going into a really old market which really displayed the way a lot of people in Tallinn, especially the older people, still live. Tourists don't go to that part of town, so the group that did go didn't take any pictures because they stood out already, but everything looked very impoverished. I really wanted to go the next day while we explored, but some of the people who were going around with us the second day weren't entirely comfortable with that (I am increasingly repelled by "tourism," which I've always felt uncomfortable with, and really interested in finding kind of sketchy but interesting, diverse, revealing adventures.... but I'm one of the few in the group).

    Anyway, my group's task was to explore the "Russian influence," which amounted to going to the palace that Peter the Great built for his wife and children as a summer retreat. But it's actually built in more of an Italian style, and, in a rather graceful move, I thought, he opened up the grounds to the public, so now it's a really big park. This palace used to house the presidents offices, but then a new palace was built not far away for the president. The paper we had told us to go find it, though, so we set off. We found another palace, but had no way of knowing what it was. There were two guards by the door, so Aymi and Katie decided to go ask. Apparently, though, you can't actually get on the steps, or the guards bang their machine guns on the ground and glare at you. Kind of intimidating...? So Aymi, halfway through asking in Estonian if he spoke English, peered around him to the plaque, said "Oh, look, it is the president's palace," looked shyly at the guard again, then ran back to us. It was pretty entertaining.

    So then we had a lot of time to kill, but we saw water in the distance, and I was determined to find the Baltic Sea. Which it was. It was actually very entertaining for us to hear the presentations back at the university about what each group did. The first group said "we did this and that, and we saw the Baltic Sea!" and showed a picture of the Sea from a distance. The second group said "well, we did this and that, and we touched the Baltic Sea!" and showed a picture of everyone with their hands in the water. Then we had to go up. Thanks primarily to my determination (and insanity, especially considering I was sick), we got to say "well, we visited this palace and that palace, and we went in the Baltic Sea!" and showed a picture of us all splashing around in it. I definitely got to point down to my pants and say "I'm still wet from the Baltic Sea!" Those waves get you every time.... It was a lot of fun, though. It was about 50 degrees outside, though, and the Sea had to be even colder. It was a bad decision for my health, I found out later, but more than worth it.

    Other than the lectures and the "Tallinn as Text," though, we mainly just wandered.

    We ate a lot at this restaurant that was really cheap and served traditional Estonian pancakes (which are like really thick, delicious crépes) and the beer there is fantastic. We also tried Estonian vodka, which is the best vodka I've ever had (and, thanks to Sally, vodka is now pretty rough for me) and Valla Tallinn, some traditional liquor from Tallinn. We also had a really amusing conversation with Warren where
    HE ranted about how unfair things were for girls, because we had to do so much to get ready to go out and all of these things were expected of us in public, whereas guys get to be guys. Period. I found it really amusing. We also talked about lots of other things, and it turns out Warren is actually very observant. A lot of things we talked about, ex: about me, didn't surprise him and when I asked why that was he said "well, a long time ago when we were kicking a soccer ball around in the group (which was maybe a month ago and we didn't know each other at all then) you told us about what traveling you had done before. And something about the way you talked about it, and about the kind of stuff you liked to do... I don't know, you just seemed so worldly that it makes sense you would have done all of these things..." It was kind of weird... but nice, I guess.

    One of the first nights we were there, Aymi, Dannielle and I got hopelessly lost. We were so disoriented from the trams not working and our professors getting lost while walking, that our mental navigation was essentially useless. We were trying to get back from the Old Town to our hotel (which turned out to be 5 minutes straight shot down one of the main roads), and it turned into us wandering for 45 minutes in really shady parts of town. Finally, while standing next to a really small train station where we are fairly sure drug deals go down, we stopped a middle aged couple that looked nice enough to ask for directions. IT was quite literally, "Excuse me, do you know where Hotel Uniquestay is? It's really big, with a big orange U?" The lady didn't speak English, but the man spoke very well, so it turned into a 20 minute conversation in which he would try to explain in English and consult her in Estonian. It got complicated, and kind of absurd. Apparently there was no easy way back, we were so lost, and directions would have been useless. Finally, they talked in Estonian a bit, and the man said "Well, our car's right over here, and we would be more than happy to give you a lift. It would just be easier for everyone, I think."
    A lift? Really?
    We said yes. To this day, i couldn't tell you why we said yes. But we did.
    So, at midnight, we followed a couple we had only known for 20 minutes or so to their car. In a dark, shady part of town. At one point we were walking and the woman was off to the side, kicking leaves up as she walked. Dannielle leaned over and whispered "I can't tell if that's really cute or really creepy." I concured.
    It got even more awkward when the man left to go pay their parking fee, leaving us in the car with this woman. The whole car ride to the hotel, Dannielle (who was next to the door, I was in the middle) had a grip on my arm on one side and a grip on the door handle on the other. Just in case. But they were really nice, and dropped us off at a Hotel UniqueStay. Keep in mind, A Hotel UniqueStay. Not our Hotel UniqueStay. But we said thank you, in Estonian, and they drove off. Then we realized it wasn't ours.
    I dashed inside to go to the bathroom while Aymi and Danielle got directions at the front desk, and it turns out our hotel was only a ten minute walk or so away. So we set out. And got lost. In unlit streets full of old Soviet-housing. We stopped in the only open cornerstore to ask directions, but the guy didn't speak English, and also looked like he might be hiding a gun behind the counter from the way he acted. FInally, outside, we stopped a guy about our age walking by with a laptop case, assuming he spoke English. He gave us directions easily. It was then that we realized that all of this old Soviet housing had been turned into student housing. It's really bizarre to see these run-down, concrete block style buildings, but to look in the windows and see plasma screen TVs.
    So we found the hotel. And didn't tell any professors how we got back.

    Aymi is teaching me the art of bumming cigarettes. For one thing, we've learned that we have a habit of getting lost at night, and, being 2 girls alone in a city at night, a lit cigarette is actually one of the best weapons/protection devices you can have. So we've gotten into the habit of going up to people (mostly guys) and asking if we can buy a cigarette or two, and offer them money. Most of the time they don't take the money - it's not polite in Europe to expect payment for cigarettes, we learned (when Aymi has cigarettes, though, she lets others bum them, so it's even). If you're looking for a good bar or restaurant, it's also a really good opportunity to ask the locals. Overall, good plan.
    So, the second night there, we wanted to go out because we didn't have to be up really early the next day. Aymi, Katie, Meghan, Danielle and I went out together, and were looking around. Finally, Aymi and I went up to a group of five Estonian guys to bum a cigarette and ask advice. It turns out one of them (his name was Haiko...) was actually turning 22 that night. They said they were heading to "Club Hollywood," which was the hot-spot of Estonian night-life and really expensive, so they never went. But they had heard that when it was your birthday, you can get ten people in for free, so they were going to all try and go. They were five, we were five, they invited us along. Turns out the rumor was true, so we got into the most popular Estonian club for free, and hung out with Estonians all night, and got to skip the line in.
    This is where the oddly segregated Estonian mentality comes into play again. Russians go to this club, too, obviously. So we were all waiting to check our coats, etc before going in, and some drunken Russian comes up to us, speaking in Russian. Aymi tried to say she didn't speak Russian, sorry, whatever. Haiko shows up and says "No, don't talk to the Russians," and tells this guy to go away. The dialogue essentially went as follows:

    Haiko: No, don't talk to the Russians!
    Aymi: Why not?
    Haiko: You just don't. They are bad people.
    Aymi: But... but why are they bad people? Why can't I talk to them?
    Haiko: Do you not know about Estonia and Russia?
    Aymi: No, I do know, really. But you weren't really alive then. Your parents, yes. But why do you hate them?
    Haiko: They are just bad people.

  • *at this point in the conversation, as part of the offered explanation, Haiko pretended to kick something.

  • Aymi: They kick you?!?
    Haiko: No.
    Aymi: You kick them?!?
    Haiko: Never mind. Just don't talk to them.

    We haven't figured out yet if the Russians kicked the Estonians, or if the Estonians kicked the Russians, or if he was telling us WE should kick the Russians, or if that was just his way of expressing anger. No clue.

    Of course, when we left the club, three guys from our group were waiting outside to get in. They asked how it was, and we said "Eh, it was okay." They asked how much it costed us, and we said we didn't know, we got in for free. They asked how much the drinks were, and we said we didn't know, the Estonians had bought us drinks all night. By the time we actually left, Warren was mad. Which was even funnier, considering the conversation we had already had at the pancake place.

    My last good story about Tallinn was the last night we were there. Aymi and I went out to wander around, and ended up finding a hookah bar. So we sat in this hookah bar (which was really a bar in a concrete box that happened to sell hookah) for hours. We got stuck in between two groups of Estonian teenagers who seemed to know each other, so we felt awkwardly in the way, but it was really nice to be able to rant about anything and everything over hookah in Tallinn.

    permalink written by  lost_red_balloon on September 22, 2008 from Tallinn, Estonia
    from the travel blog: The European Union
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