Travel

Die Wäsche Waschen!

The front door to my apartment building in Neukölln, Berlin.

The front door to my apartment building in Neukölln, Berlin. My favorite part is the second “5” peeling off the address label. But, through this door and up 87 stairs, is a quaint little apartment that I call home!

I’ve been in Berlin for a week now, and I’m finally settling in.  I know my way around my neighborhood, so I feel comfortable with standing at a street corner and thinking, I should be able to cut down this street and end up on Sonnenalle.  And then, I follow my gut and end up exactly where I thought I would!

(By the way, you can click on any picture to zoom in and get a better look.)

A glance down my street.

A glance down my street.

A burger joint that would make American chains jealous, the BerlinBurger International (BBI) name is a play on Berlin's over budget and delayed project to build a new airport, Berlin-Brandenburg International (BBI)

A burger joint that would make American chains jealous, the BerlinBurger International (BBI) name is a play on Berlin’s over budget and delayed project to build a new airport, Berlin-Brandenburg International (BBI)

On the other side of this bar, there was another sign that said "Had a good day?  Have a drink!"   Either way, you're having a drink!

On the other side of this bar, there was another sign that said “Good day? Have a drink!” Either way, you’re having a drink!

Moreover, I was at the Hauptbahnhof (Central Train Station) yesterday and decided to walk to my archive.  It was a 20 minute walk, a little longer than I anticipated, but I didn’t end up lost in Poland or anything, so I take that as a victory.

Berlin's billion euro, glass Hauptbahnhof.

Berlin’s billion euro, glass Hauptbahnhof.

When you walk inside, there are trains coming and going above, beside, and below you. And of course, you can get a taste of America's finest cuisine: McDonald's, Burger King, & Starbucks.

When you walk inside, there are trains coming and going above, beside, and below you. And of course, you can get a taste of America’s finest cuisine: McDonald’s, Burger King, & Starbucks.

VERBOTEN: Damnit, you can't grill out on the front lawn of the Reichstag (the seat of Germany's parliament).  The Germans take the fun out of everything.

VERBOTEN: Damnit, you can’t grill out on the front lawn of the Reichstag (the seat of Germany’s parliament). The Germans take the fun out of everything.

But, this is the State Institute for Music Research, and I think this high-stepping, dancing Federal Eagle makes up for the ban on grilling in front of the Reichstag.

But, this is the State Institute for Music Research, and I think this high-stepping, dancing Federal Eagle makes up for the ban on grilling in front of the Reichstag.

But, that’s not to say that I haven’t had my moments of utter confusion here in the Bundesrepublik.  And one might think that an episode at border control, or instances of digging though archival material, or even trying to maneuver Germany’s trash/recycling system, might provide some moments of confusion.  But, NEIN!  I’ve got those down pat by now.  The two things that have completely stumped me are far more sinister and complicated than that.

Come, let me spin you a tale…

I’d just spent 4 hours, pouring through German newspapers, journals, and leaflets in the archive, and by the time I got home, I was tired and just wanted to plop on the couch and catch up on The Voice.  So, instead of cooking anything, I pulled out the trusty frozen pizza from the freezer, set the oven to preheat, and then went to get my computer set up so I could just veg out for the rest of the night. About ten minutes later, I headed back to the kitchen to plop the pizza in the oven only to realize that the oven’s not hot.   At all.  At first I thought that the whole thing was broken, but I refused to give up so easily.

Now, let me back up a second.  This stove/oven is German, which means that it’s overly-complicated and you must be able to control it to the EXACT specifications of your choice (Ordnung muss sein!).  To even get to the knobs that control the heat, you push these little buttons, and the knobs for the stovetop or oven pop out. I found the one for the oven, and turned the temperature to 200 Celsius.  But, like I said, nothing happened.

But, upon further inspection, I realized that there was a sixth little button, so I pressed it and another knob popped out.  And then, tears welled up in my eyes as anger and frustration took over, because I didn’t want to answer these riddles – I just wanted cheap, unhealthy, frozen Hawaiian Pizza!

Oven from Hell slash Germany

The encrypted oven from hell/Germany

There were 9 different options for this new knob (10 if you’re counting the off position), and being that the manufacturers of this wunderbar machine decided to go back to hieroglyphics instead of the written language, I had no idea what these settings did.  There were options for a mountain range, two mountain ranges, what I could only guess was melting snow, then there were some Tetris lines, something to do with nuclear fusion, and bio-hazard symbols next to mountain ranges.

So, as much as I hate to admit it, I had to come back to my bedroom and Google “How to use a German oven.”  Again, Germans just need to control exactly how their food is cooked, I guess. Because, as it turns out, these are controls for regular heat (but it can come from the top, the bottom, or both), convection oven (by itself, or with regular heat from top, bottom, or both), and broilers (you got it – from top, bottom, or both). So, once you get that all set and call Cape Canaveral for clearance, you can choose your temperature and then it’s go for throttle up.

Luckily, the pizza was worth it.  Plus, the folks I like on the Voice nailed it, so I was done being bothered by over-complicated German contraptions.   Until the next morning.

Because the next morning I decided to do the laundry (die Wäsche waschen).

I thought that I was so smart because I had planned ahead:  most Germans don’t use a dryer, so I knew that I couldn’t wait until I was completely out of clothes because it’d take a day or two for my clothes to dry since the sun has decided to go on it’s winter hiatus.  Feeling smug in my intelligence, I shoved my clothes in the washer, and then finally paid attention to the control panel. Familiar pangs of frustration rose from deep within…

Ordnung muss sein!

Ordnung muss sein! (There must be order!)

Damnit if there weren’t an infinite number of setting combinations for your washing.  I’m used to “Colors, whites, or delicates” and “start.”  There was no way that I was going to Google “How to use a German washing machine” (though, I was kind of hoping that the NSA would be snooping on me and send someone to help out!).  So, I just opened the drawer to pour in the detergent.  And, you guessed it: over-complicated.

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So, I just did a quick game of eeny-meeny-miney-mo, poured the detergent in, pushed a couple of setting buttons (I chose “Energy Saver” in the hopes that the German gods would grant some of their green, eco-friendly love and favor down on me), and just hoped for the best!  The machine ran for a little over two hours, so I was sure that my clothes were being ripped to shreds or merging into one, greyish color.  But, as it turns out, they’re alright!  They’ve been hanging on their drying rack near the window for two days now and are almost 40% dry! At this point, I’ll get to wear them again next week.

I consider myself a rather intelligent person (if, at any point, I feel my intelligence threatened, my go-to defense is: Oh, yeah?! I’m working on my PhD!), but these machines damn near had one up on me.  Advanced degree or not, waschen the Wäsche can be a humbling experience!

Categories: Humor, Travel | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

From Boston to Berlin

It’s a nasty day here in Berlin – cold, gray, and drizzling  – that kind of drizzling when you can’t see it from your window, but by the time you take two steps outside, you’re already wet and wishing you had brought an umbrella.  In other words, it’s a typical fall/winter day in Germany.  In a few hours, I’ll have to bundle up and head out there, on my way to the Schwules Museum archives.  Until then, I’ll sit in here where it’s warm and wish I had bought some coffee to brew this morning.

My apartment is in Berlin’s Neukölln district, southeast of the government district.  I’ve only been here a couple of days, but I could tell from the moment I stepped off the bus, jet-lagged and dragging my bag behind me, that it’s an alternative, young, multicultural place to live.  And when I first arrived at the apartment building, stepping over dog shit to unlock the graffiti-covered front door where one of the 5’s of the building’s “55” street address was peeled off and barely hanging to the wall, I thought Well, this is going to be an interesting month.

But, after sleeping off my jet lag, I took a stroll around the neighborhood, and it’s awesome (or “the hammer” as those crazy German youths say).  Neukölln is a hodgepodge of cultures.   According to Wikipedia, the god of instant, albeit sometimes questionable knowledge, about 60% of Neukölln’s population is ethnically German, and the other 40% are immigrants from all over the place: Europe, the Middle East, China, India, America.  When I left home, I was worried about not being able to eat Indian food for the 5 months I’ll be in Germany.  A half a block to the east of me, there’s a cheap Indian restaurant (whether it’s good or not, I’ll have to find out soon!) and two blocks to the west, there’s an Indian spice shop so that I can cook Indian at home.  Between here and there are an American burger shop, French pastry bakery, Taiwanese food, a pizza joint, a milk shake shop, Greek food, a hookah lounge, and a handful of bars, cafes, and, of course, döner shops.  There was one restaurant where everything was in English, and nothing but Americans and Germans speaking English in British accents sitting out front, huddled under the canopy while smoking their cigarettes.  Most of these little places are barely large enough to fit five people (and their dogs) in, and I love it.

To make things even better, I can hop on a bus right outside my door and get off 25 minutes later right outside the archive.  Or, I can take another bus and be at Potsdamer Platz in 10 minutes.

And now for a little advertisement:  If any of you travelers out there haven’t heard of or tried Airbnb.com yet, you should really check it out. This website allows individuals to rent private rooms or whole apartments for various lengths of time.  How it works: People who have spare bedrooms, own vacation houses, or folks who will simply be out of town for a while and want to make some extra money, rent out their room, apartment or house via the website.  You, as the customer, can book the space just like you book a hotel room: go to the site, select a city and put in the arrival and departure dates, and presto! you have a list of housing options.  You can even customize the search by selecting only private rooms, shared rooms, or whole apartments, and you can set a price range, too.  It’s really convenient that you can often choose to pay by the night, week, or monthly.  The people on both sides of the deal have to go through an identification process to make sure that you are who you say you are.  This helps eliminate fraud on both parties’ part.  Payments are also made directly through the website’s secure system.  With locations in over 34,000 cities in 192 countries, you’re sure to find a spot that meets your criteria.

That’s how I found my apartment here in Berlin – and it’s great.  Since you’re travelling, you can’t bring everything that you need/want to feel comfortable while you’re away: sheets, towels, pots & pans, etc.  So, why not use someone else’s apartment that’s fully furnished and fully stocked?  All I’ve got to do is go grocery shopping and stock up on the food I like, and I’ll feel right at home.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Last night, I was thinking: I had just gotten finished with a Skype call to home, and I realized that I had complained about my flights from Boston to Berlin.  The first flight was delayed due to mechanical issues.  We were given a new plane, but experienced turbulence across the entire Atlantic.  Despite my attempts to fall into a medically-induced coma for the trip, the woman beside me (who told me at take off that she was petrified of flying anyway) kept waking me up so she could, I assume, run into the bathroom and cry hysterically.  The lines for immigration and security at London Heathrow Airport were so long that, despite a 2.5 hour layover, I almost missed my flight to Berlin’s tiny Tegel Airport.

But, as I lay there last night at almost 2am (realizing that I definitely had not gotten over my jet lag yet), I thought:  What am I complaining about?!  Look at what I just did:  I sat my fat, white ass in a huge hunk of metal that FLEW THROUGH THE SKY AT ALMOST 600MPH and took me to another continent…in 6 hours.  Then I used public transportation (the directions for which I already had in my pocket, thanks to a computer/Internet program that essentially has the whole globe mapped out, able to provide personally-tailored, real-time directions), to arrive at an apartment that I had booked two months ago without ever getting out of my pajamas.

Then I thought to myself: Self, when you put it that way, I don’t guess there’s much to complain about!

And then I thought: I don’t have coffee for in the morning.  

Life’s a bitch. 

Categories: Travel | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Deep in the Archives

archives

I recently won a spot for the German Historical Institute’s Summer Archival Seminar in Germany, so, I’ve been in Germany for a few days now, and we’ve been taking paleography lessons to learn to read old German handwriting (I’ll do another post on that later…It’s hard and I don’t want to even think about it anymore right now.

But we’ve been having the lessons at the Landesarchiv (state archive) in Speyer.  We’ll do the lessons in the morning, and in the afternoon we have other stuff to do – presentations on the best way to find research information – or the ten of us take turns presenting our dissertation projects and get feedback.

Picture 1

But today, the director of the archive (the same guy giving us our handwriting lessons) gave us a break for a little treat.  He brought out a few of the archive’s gems to show off to us.  First he pulled out a book from around the year 825.  It was a codex from an old German cloister, in which they recorded all of the daily going ons of the cloister – how much land they had, how much stuff they sold at markets, who worked for them, etc. etc.  It was in pretty good shape for a 1,200 year old book!  All of us history nerd were going crazy.  He also showed us a royal decree that was personally signed by one of the Holy Roman Emperors, plus a few other books that are centuries old.

He then explained how there was a change in paper production in the 1800s (or maybe he said late 1700s, I don’t really remember) that really had a drastic effect on the way history will be preserved.  Because more and more paper was needed by an increasingly more literate population, a cheaper method was produced, but the new method involved a lot of chemicals.  Because of those chemicals, paper (the paper we use today) cannot stand the tests of time. So, he told us that paper produced after 1800 will disintegrate one day.  That means that all of the record we have of things since then – from the world wars, form science, etc, will decompose, no doubt about it.  But he also said that the paper made before the 1800-ish divide (which is not made out of wood, like ours is today) will last forever, as long as it’s kept in a cool and dry environment.  Moreover, old ink was made differently – (with more iron I think he said) – so, even if it gets wet, it doesn’t bleed.  

And THEN (and yes, this nerd fantasy continues), he took us on a behind-the-scenes tour of the archives.  We had a demonstration of how they restore old material – how they dry and wash off old mold and mildew – and how they even make new paper to perfectly fill in the holes that mold has eaten through.  They showed us one book, form the early 1500’s that was like the personal journal of an important bishop, that required over 300 man hours to completely restore.  But now, it’s reinforced with the type of paper that will never disintegrate.

My favorite part, though, was when the director took us into the vault, where they keep all of their most important and oldest books.  He told us about the security system that’s in place…It’s not meant to keep people out necessarily (though you do have to have a key card), but it’s to protect the books themselves from fire.

If a fire is detected, an alarm sounds – and anyone in there has 45 seconds to get out of the vault.  And then the door seals and pipes begin pumping CO2 (carbon dioxide) into the room to suffocate the fire (without oxygen, there’s nothing to feed the fire).  AND, that way the books don’t get wet.    And after a certain amount of time goes by and the fire still hasn’t gone out, sprinklers will engage as a last resort.  Because even if those old books get wet, they’re made out of the sturdier paper and ink, so it won’t be so catastrophic.  And then after the fire’s gone, the books would be freeze dried to kill mold spores before they’re re-stored in the vault.  

But, obviously, books are more important than peoples’ lives – you’ve got 45 seconds to get out of there before the book defense suffocates you!

But – it was a really, really awesome tour.  Archivists are really the behind the scenes guys and gals that make historians’ work possible.  If they weren’t there to preserve everything, we’d have nothing to study!

Archivists are the protectors of history, standing guard against time and decay.  I tip my hat to y’all! 

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Berchtesgaden

Below are entries from my travel journal that I kept during my year abroad.  I’m dusting off my passport and heading back to Germany tomorrow for two weeks, and it made me think about my trip to Berchtesgaden:DSC03639

Tuesday 3/3/09

Train: Würzburg to Berchtesgaden 

Well, I find myself again on a train, heading into the deep south of Germany.  I’m three weeks in to my semester break and when I was making my list of places to visit, I noticed that almost all of them were in the south of Germany.  I want to see the north too – and at least I’ve seen Berlin and I plan on going to Dresden – but I just can’t help it; the south is just so beautiful.

This time I’m heading just about as far south as you can go and still be in Germany: Berchtesgaden.  None of my friends had ever heard of it when I told them I was going.  And that’s one reason I chose to come; it’s definitely not one of the top international tourist spots.  From what I’ve gathered, it’s a picturesque town in a valley in the German Alps.  The pictures I’ve seen are beautiful and there is a pristine lake, the Königssee.  And I’ve always wanted to see the Alps, so I’ll finally get that chance.  But of course, Berchtesgaden has a Third Reich history that’s also leading me there.  It’s the town where Hitler had his private residence, the Berghof.  The Berghof is now destroyed, but a smaller building, which was given to Hitler as a birthday gift, is still there: the Eagle’s Nest.

So, I’m excited to see Berchtesgaden, but I had been looking forward to, and am now enjoying, the trip itself.  I’m finally taking a “Jake Trip” – a trip by myself.  When I went to Nuremberg alone back in November, I loved it, so now I’m taking a three-day trip by myself.

I’ve now been underway for 4 hours and still have about 4 ½ to go.  But I’m not dreading it; on the contrary.  I’ve enjoyed every bit so far.  I’m not on the slow, regional trains.  I’ve already traveled part of the way on an ICE (Inter City Express, a “bullet train”).  I’m now on an IC, one step down from the top-notch ICE.

DSC03487

The luxury aside, I’ve had (and will have) a lot of time to read.  In the past week, I’ve essentially been a hermit – just staying in my room and reading.  It’s been SO nice!  I’ve already finished two books, and have brought two more with me.

Most people in my dorm have already gone home for the break, and those that are still here have papers to write; so it’s been pretty quiet.

Okay, even though the seat in front of me has a table that I can use to write on, the train is still wobbling and making it harder to write.  So, I’m going to get back to reading…or maybe just sit and watch the landscape as we go rushing by.

Tuesday 3/3/09

Hotel Hoher Göll, Berchtesgaden 

The first stage of this trip (actually getting here) went very well.  The second phase (time actually spent in Berchtesgaden) however, didn’t get off to a great start.

It quickly became apparent, while still on the train, as we entered the region that the weather was not going to be the most cooperative.  The mountains, which I had traveled so far to see, were completely hidden behind the low clouds.  There was/is about a foot and a half of snow on the ground, and that wasn’t going to be fun to walk around in.

But I was excited to arrive and got off the train with a smile.  Uncharacteristically of Deutsche Bahn (the German railway company), their info desk in the Bahnhof was closed, so I made my way to a tourist info shop.  I just needed to know which bus was the best to take to my hotel.  A bulletin board outside caught my attention, so I stopped to read it.  The first notice that I saw read: “Starting at the end of October, the Eagle’s Nest and the road leading there will be closed.”  My heart sank and I frantically looked for more info.  My eyes fell upon another notice: “Due to the lake freezing over, no boats are allowed on the Königssee.”

I couldn’t believe it!  The three things that I came to see: the Alps, the Eagle’s Nest, and the Königssee Lake, had all been blocked in 5 minutes of my being here!

DSC03498

I was so flustered that, when inside asking for directions, I stumbled over my words so badly that the woman ended up speaking English to me.  Then I realized that I didn’t have any cash to pay for a taxi or a bus ticket.  So I had to walk what seemed like miles uphill into the Altstadt to find an ATM.

The whole time I was fuming mad.  Mad at myself.  First off, mad for not remembering to withdraw cash in Marburg.  But mainly I felt stupid for coming here.  I just felt so naively excited to come here, expecting magical, breathtaking views, that I never once stopped to think that I was coming during the beginning of March – still heavy winter here in the Alps valley – which meant that of course the lake would be frozen over.  And given Germany’s tendency to be drearily overcast during the winter, I should have known that the mountains would be blocked from view.

Instead, I did what I always do: hop on a train with essentially no plan.  And normally that works out for me.  And I’m sure there was somewhere on the Internet that, if I would have looked deep enough, would have told me that the Eagle’s Nest was closed due to the winter.  But as far ahead as I got was booking rooms and checking the weather.  Luckily it did say that there’s supposed to be a little sunshine tomorrow; I sure hope so.

By dark, I finally found a taxi and was brought to my hotel, which is essentially a large bed and breakfast.  It’s got about ten rooms and a married couple runs it.  I ate in their restaurant downstairs and Oh my God was it fabulous! (Of course good food would cheer me up!) The decorations were great: all old wood, with old farm equipment and other things like beer mugs on the wall; it was all lit with candles and lanterns.  The wife cooks everything herself and I had the house specialty: Spareribs.  Yeah, I know, so traditionally Bavarian, right?  But several people recommended them to me and they were Fantastic!  The sauce was, of course, homemade and delicious, although it was definitely unlike any Southern spareribs I’d ever had before.  They were served with warm bread and homemade garlic butter, a salad, and an ear of corn.  I was given a knife and fork with the ribs (which seemed like half the pig!) and I thought “Oh no; they expect me to eat these with utensils!!!” But then the husband sat down another china plate with a moist towelette.  “That’s for your fingers after your done,” he told me.  Alright!  There was my permission!  Needless to say, I ate until I thought I was going to die.

And now, I’m up in my cozy little room, unwinding for the day.  I still feel like I “wasted” a trip to Berchtesgaden since I came at apparently the most inopportune time (and had I checked it out further, I probably would have found out that summer is the best time to come), but I’m feeling a lot more optimistic now.  Just because the Königssee is frozen over and I can’t take a rowboat out on it doesn’t mean that I can’t at least go see it.  And the weather does call for some sun tomorrow, so just maybe I’ll get to see the Alps after all.

I just know that, even though the circumstances might not be the best, I’ll enjoy myself still by making the best of the opportunity.

Wednesday 3/4/09

Hotel Krone, Berchtesgaden 

This morning I woke up, warm in my big comfy bed, and I thought to myself, “Well, it’s going to be easier to be optimistic today!” And then I pulled back the curtains to get a look of the day.  Oh.  The fog was so thick that I could see the road, and that was it.

I got up, got dressed, crammed all of my stuff into my backpack and then went downstairs for breakfast (which the wife of course cooked herself), even though I was still full from last night.  Because of the bus schedule, I had to eat quickly, which I never enjoy.  After that, I said good-bye to the owners, both of whom have thick Bavarian accents.

I put most of my stuff in a locker at the train station because I knew I didn’t want to lug it around all day.  Since the fog was so thick that I could only see the base of the mountains, I decided to go to a museum up on the Obersalzberg mountain.  The museum/info-exhibition was all about Obersalzberg/Berchtesgaden during the Third Reich.

The right bus didn’t come for another hour, so I headed up to Berchtesgaden’s Altstadt, which really could be called the Oberstadt, like Marburg’s, since it is literally over the rest of Berchtesgaden.  After walking around a little while, I found a church and decided to sit in there until it was time for my bus.

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Whenever I came out, I stopped on the sidewalk, but it took me a second for me to realize what seemed out of place: I was squinting.  The sun was shining!  I looked up and there was a big patch of blue, with the forecasted sun pouring through.  I still couldn’t see the mountains, but a little sun was a good start.

But, in the 15 minutes that it took me to walk down to the Bahnhof, ALL of the fog had burned off and that’s no exaggeration.

And MAN, what a sight!  Berchtesgaden really IS in an Alps valley!  I couldn’t help but laugh out loud.  It seemed so strange that the fog would burn off so quickly.  Not being able to see the mountains yesterday and then having the sky open up like that was like opening a present…a really huge present!

I was grinning from ear-to-ear as I put on my sunglasses (something that I hadn’t done in a long time) and I wasn’t sure where to look first…so I just walked around in circles for a while, trying to take it all in.

The bus ride up the Obersalzberg mountain was intense; partly because I was still breaking my neck trying to see all of the German Alps around me; partly because the road was so steep, narrow, and winding.

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The museum, or Documentation Center as it was called, was actually very good (and of course, free for students).  It didn’t have the usual generic information about the Nazi Regime, but instead highlighted the particular Nazi connection to Berchtesgaden (especially Hitler’s act of choosing it to be his private retreat and 2nd headquarters of the Third Reich).  The “finale” of the center was the fact that visitors could go down into the vast network of bunkers deep inside the Obersalzberg.  Not all of the bunkers were completed, but you could still see where large generators, bathrooms, and communication centers were once located.  It was damp and cool.  It was strange being there, knowing that it was built to protect people like Hitler, Göring, and Goebbels.

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 After I finished in the bunker, I asked the Frau at the front desk if it was possible for me to see where the Berghof once stood.  If the Eagle’s Nest was closed (which, as it turns out, was rarely visited by Hitler), I at least wanted to see the remains of the Berghof, Hitler’s large villa located on the Obersalzberg.

I was told that I could take a small path through the woods and I’d see a sign; it shouldn’t take but about five minutes.  I was ecstatic because I thought I’d probably have to take another bus somewhere; I didn’t realize I was so close.  So, I found the path, which was now trampled snow, and headed out.  I had to be careful, because it was apparent that other people had taken the path, compacting the snow, and thus making it really slippery.  I reached a point where most of the footprints stopped (all but two pair, it looked like).

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Warning: Snow and Black Ice – Enter at your own risk!

With the next step, I sank up to my knee in the snow.  As a reaction, I brought forward my other leg, and it too sank up to the knee.  Not thinking, I put my arm down to push myself up.  Of course, it sank and all I got was a face full of snow.  Obviously, at that point I thought about going back.  But I knew that I was over half way there, and plus, the snow was not wet, slushy snow like in Marburg or Berlin; it was dry, fluffy mountain snow.

So, I barreled my way through, trying not to sink, but to no avail.  I stopped and rolled up my jeans, thinking I’d keep them from getting wet.  Bad idea.  Apparently snow on naked skin burns (something my raised-in-the-South-never-seen-snow-before upbringing didn’t teach me)!  Every time I took a step and sank, the cold snow would just rake against my legs (Now on both legs, up to my shins, looks like I got a bad case of poison ivy!) Needless to say, I ended up putting my jeans back down and sacrificed them being wet for the sake of my legs.

The whole time, I just couldn’t help but laughing: yesterday I was some super-grouch, thinking I wasn’t going to see the Alps.  And today, there I was knee-deep in snow, searching for some crumbled walls of a building that were probably hidden under snow.  The whole situation was just so ridiculous!  (Though, I like the German word for ridiculous, “lächerlich” which has its roots in the word “lächeln” which means to smile)

I finally found the site of the former Berghof and saw that it once had a magnificent view of Berchtesgaden below and of the other mountains across the valley.  The only thing remaining of the Berghof were some foundation walls, and that was it.  By that time, I was freezing but my shins were on fire.  I finally saw the end of the “trail” and I wanted to run, but by that time I was sinking up to my thighs, so I just slowly trudged on through.

When I made my way out, I wasn’t real sure where I was (and I definitely wasn’t going back the way I came), and even after looking at my map, I still wasn’t sure how to get back to where I needed to be.  I saw one building, but it said “Private Property” so I stayed away from there.  I found a dry patch of ground (it had obviously been cleared for something), took off my shoes and sat down in the sun to eat one of the sandwiches that I packed.

I sat there, with the Eagle’s Nest up on the mountain behind me, for a while before deciding to try and find my way back.  I knew it couldn’t be far, so I started walking down the little mountain road.  Every now and then a car or a truck (once a bus!) would drive by and glare at me, as if I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to be there.  After some winding, I finally found a bus stop and took a bus back down into the city.

On my journey down the mountain road, I noticed that clouds were starting to fill the sky.  So, I decided not to take a break and instead head straight o the Königssee (Kings Lake).  I knew I wouldn’t be able to take a boat ride, but I still wanted to see it while there was still sunshine and blue skies.

The bus ride there itself was memorable, but once I got off, I made my way down the street lined with shops and restaurants, and arrived at the mouth of the lake, and I was blown away.

Gigantic, rocky mountains towered over the icy lake on all sides.  It made me feel miniscule; but not in a threatening or overpowering way.  It’s just that I became awesomely aware of Mother Nature’s grandiose presence.

The lake was crystal clear – or at least the parts which weren’t covered by ice and snow.  I would have loved to travel by boat down the mountain valley.  I got to the lake just at closing time for the shops, so the chatter of people was soon replaced by the sound of ducks looking for food around the edge of the lake.

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The Königsee Lake, frozen over

I will not try to further describe the lake and its surroundings, because I know that by trying to put it into words, I’ll be denying the reality of it.  But I will say that it was one of the most deeply beautiful and awe-inspiring places I’ve ever seen in my life.

I quietly walked back up the street, not wanting to leave.  But the sun had dipped behind the mountains and darkness was coming.

I made a stop at the Bahnhof to get my things out of the locker (and thought I was going to pass out after I smashed my head on the door) and then caught a bus to my hotel.  Back when I was deciding where to stay, there were two hotels that I couldn’t decide between.  So, I just decided to stay one night at each.  This new room is nicer, and the view from the balcony (yes, I have my own balcony!) is awesome!  Directly across from me is the Obersalzberg, with the Eagle’s Nest perched on top.  And the mountains, of course, stretch all around, and I just stood there and stared for a while.  I just had supper in the restaurant downstairs (Nuremberger sausages, sauerkraut, bread and beer – pretty German!) and now I’m dead tired.  My legs are sore from walking/climbing, and they burn from the snow “attack.”  My train back tomorrow isn’t until three o’clock, so I’ll have some time to really see their Altstadt.  But I better go get some sleep and save up some strength.  Gute Nacht!

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The view from my balcony.

Thursday 3/5/09

Room # 229, Marburg

11 pm

Well, I made it back to Marburg but am just too tired to write about today.  The trip back from Berchtesgaden, though actually one hour shorter, seemed much longer than the trip there; I’ll write more tomorrow.

Friday 3/6/09

Room # 229, Marburg

Now, after a good night’s rest, I feel more like writing.

I’m glad that I got to have a full day of good weather on Wednesday because yesterday the weather got ugly again.  But that’s alright; it gave me an excuse to stay inside cafés and bookshops all morning.

I had breakfast at the hotel, checked out, and then headed to Berchtesgaden’s Altstadt.  It’s honestly not all that spectacular (I think I’ve been spoiled by Marburg’s Altstadt), but then again, people don’t go to Berchtesgaden for the architecture.  The sky had returned to the familiar German dreary gray, and it was drizzling.  I had five hours until my train and I spent it strolling around, stopping in shops where something caught my attention.  (I somehow managed to go into a bookstore without buying something.)

Speaking of books, I’ve been reading Harry Potter in German the last few days.  I finished the first one last week and was able to read half of number two on my trip.  I chose that series to read in German because, since I’ve already read them, it’s okay if I don’t understand every single word (I also chose them because I just wanted to read Harry Potter again!).  But I’ve been surprised at just how much I do understand.  It’s so exciting to sit there, reading a book in another language.  On Wednesday night I also read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and I have to say that it’s a very creepy story.  The way Stevenson writes is just chilling.  I actually had to watch some TV before I went to sleep after reading it.  Silly, I know, but the story gave me the creeps.  It was an excellent book.

While the train ride to Berchtesgaden was the best trip I could have asked for, the train ride home was less than ideal.  For the longest leg of the trip (Munich to Frankfurt), I was stuck next to three businessmen, all noisily typing away on their laptops and making phone calls.  The train was full so I couldn’t move anywhere else.  It was an ICE, however, so we were able to make the trip pretty quickly.  At one point, the screen said we were going 300 km/h (187mph)!

So even though it was really too loud for me to get some good reading done, it did give me some time to think back on my trip.  One of my favorite moments of the trip was on Tuesday when we neared Berchtesgaden.  I noticed that my train had slowed way down and so I pressed my face to the window.  My heart skipped a beat; we had reached the Alps.  We had slowed down because the train had to start winding its way up and through the wooded mountain pass into the valley where Berchtesgaden was located.  It was so exciting to be slowly going through snow-white forests with mountains all around.  It was almost as exciting yesterday – except for the fact that I was leaving instead of coming.

I realized this morning that while on the trip, I only heard English twice: at the information center, and once very briefly on a bus.  That was so different from the other places I’ve been, where you hear groups of tourists speaking English all the time. All of the tourists in Berchtesgaden were German, there to see the scenery or to go snow skiing.  Something about only hearing German (even, or especially, if it was the thick Bavarian accent) made the town seem more authentic.

After being there, I can see why Hitler chose Berchtesgaden as his private retreat and second seat of power for his Reich.  The town is quiet and small, today with a population just under 8,000.  The Alps surround the town and allow you to feel removed from the outside world.  The tie to Nature there seemed to be closer.  So that would have appealed to someone like Hitler.  But now I see that he didn’t just choose some place with a pretty landscape; he chose to be surrounded by massive, towering, seemingly powerful mountains.  It makes me wonder if that’s the feeling that Nazi architecture was trying to recreate.

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The German Alps, with Berchtesgaden visible in the valley below

I’m glad I got to take that Jake Trip and see the things I did.  Berchtesgaden is beautiful and I’m glad it was one of my stops during this year, while I’m leading this pampered life of an American student in Europe.

However, I’m glad that my next few trips will be with someone.  It is great to travel alone and get some time to yourself, but it’s also great to share those moments with somebody.  Because as much as I can tell people about the trip, it’s not the same as being able to talk about the view, or the taste, and hear how they felt, or what they were thinking.

So, my trip to Berchtesgaden was great, and I’m already looking forward to next week:  ISTANBUL !!! (Read my post about Istanbul here.)

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The South: A Photo Essay (the final part)

A Place Called Home

This is actually the picture that inspired this little project.  It was the beginning of May and I was driving along Highway 82, headed from Cuthbert to Shellman, when I looked over and saw a field that I had seen close to a million times before.  But there was just something about it on that day that made me pull over on the side of the road and snap a picture.

The field had just been plowed, so the red Georgia clay was fresh on the surface.  The pecan trees had sprouted vibrant green leaves, which any Southerner knows, is the final sign that winter is over and spring has arrived.  The dainty wildflowers along the highway were also doing their best to welcome the warmth and sunshine of spring.  And it goes without saying that the Georgia pines were still standing tall and green.  But what I think makes this scene so wonderfully Southern is the old wooden barn.  Who knows what it used to store, or who used to work inside its wooden walls.  Today it sits there, weathered by the sun, wind, and rain, slowly rusting and deteriorating while larger and newer barns house larger and newer machines.  It’s just like a grandfather passing along his place to his son or grandson.

Scenes like this one are the South.  The South is a region with large cities such as Atlanta, Charleston, and New Orleans and it is slowly modernizing, though perhaps reluctant to urbanize.  Rural culture and agriculture have been the heart of Southern culture from the beginning and remain so to this day.  That’s why if you couldn’t ride around and see farmland for as far as the eye could see, scattered with old barns and houses, you wouldn’t be in the South any more.

*****

            I will be the first to admit that the South that I have portrayed in this photo essay is a rather idealized and romanticized version of the actual South that we live in from day to day.  Because I am well aware that the real South also entails racism, homophobia, extreme literalist religious sects, far right wing conservatism, along with the lowest education scores in the nation.  I know all of this, and for these reasons, it sometimes seems that the South doesn’t love me back as much as I love it.

But the South that was shown in the last sixteen pictures – the South of porches, warm smiles, and Family, the South of iron-clad friendships and love that transcends boundaries – also exists, and this is the South that I grew up in.  In all my travels, this is the South that I reminisce about and tell people of.  This is the South that I call Home.

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The South: A Photo Essay (pt. 10)

Room to Roam

Perhaps this aspect is more rural than Southern, but one thing I love about home is having nearly unlimited space to do what you want.  I’ve almost always lived on or near a farm, so there was at least a hundred acres to walk around on or explore.  You can ride four-wheelers, have a bonfire, or even plant a garden if you want to.  One of the things I miss – and maybe it’s a little crude – is being able to pee in my yard without having to worry about getting in some kind of trouble.  Talk about freedom!

I know that having wide-open spaces is Maggie’s favorite part of living in the South!  She has reluctantly adjusted to living within the city limits, but she knows that she gets to ride in the back of the truck whenever possible.  And just look at her face: smiling, wind blowing in her hair; it’s unbridled joy!

I love visiting big cities like Atlanta, or Boston, or Frankfurt – and especially the larger ones like New York City – but after a while, I’m craving the countryside.  Even if it’s only a park, I feel like I can recharge as long as there is some grass underneath me and hopefully a tree or two around.

I’m now living in a city, but at least I do have a miniature backyard and I’ve already scouted out the parks that are near me.  And going to the park may hold me over, but I know that I’ll be glad to visit home for the holidays and be able to drive out into the country where I don’t hear any sirens or cars and don’t see any people.  Then, at least for a few days, I’ll have room to roam and a place to sit and stare off ou’chyonda.

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the South: A Photo Essay (pt. 9)

The Magic of Fire

Picture this:  sitting outside under the night sky with a group of friends.  Besides the silvery luminescence of the universe overhead, there is no light to compete with the dancing fire in front of you.  Maybe you’re laughing your ass off, or maybe you’re all just staring into the fire, listening to the wail of Southern Blues coming from the stereo.  Either way, you probably have to fall into a quick and tense silence in order to hear the coyotes crying nearby.

Sitting around a campfire is one of my favorite things to do in the world.  It’s a perfect place to have a drink and trade tall tales, or as we like to say, “tell stories and listen to lies.”  Time holds no authority around a campfire, and if you’re lucky, you may even get to witness one of Papa’s magic fires that hold you spellbound with all of the colors of the rainbow.  And one of the best parts: you wake up the next morning and you still smell like campfire smoke.

Campfires are by no means a solely Southern thing; they light up the darkness and draw people together in the countryside all throughout this nation and the world.  There’s something about staring into the liquid flames, something about knowing that our most distant ancestors ended their days by staring into the same flames.  Fire to them was life; it provided both light and warmth; it gave them a place to congregate at night, to mingle and trade ideas, to grow.

Fire is a powerful force, both devastating and beautiful.  It gives life and it destroys.  It was here before humans walked the earth and it will be here long after we are gone.  Fire is nature’s magic.

(Part 9 of 11)

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the South: A Photo Essay (pt. 8)

Where the Gods Live

You will see that the Southern sky (okay, the sky in general) holds my attention like almost nothing else.  To me, it is where the gods live, where Nature unfolds and shows herself to us, her children.  The sky harbors sunrises, sunsets, brilliant shades of blue, and terrifying storms.

One thing I missed about Home while I was living in Germany was the clouds.  I don’t know the atmospheric science behind it, but the clouds in Marburg were never big enough to take up the entire sky like they do here.  Once I returned, I was again shown just how gigantic and impressive the clouds in a Southern sky can be.  They may start small and wispy and then build to be huge, billowing and white.  In the heat of the afternoon, they’ll turn black and unleash a torrent of lightning and thunder that will stop you in your tracks.  And then at the end of the day, the clouds will work in tandem with the sun to provide a radiant and spectacular sunset.

Standing under clouds that seem to stretch for thirty miles or under a clear and pristine sky that has no end, one receives the humbling and necessary reminder of how small we are.

I hold the Sky in reverence, and it holds me in awe.

A Florida Sunrise 

Some may say that Florida is part of the South, and others may not.  While it may lie further south than even Georgia, I have to argue that Florida is not really part of “the South.”  Its culture is simply too different.  Perhaps it’s because Florida was settled by a different group of Europeans, or – more probable – because Florida is the retirement destination for our nation’s northern Yankees.  Whatever the reason, Florida’s culture differs from that of the South, though it does share some similarities.

Florida is a land where cowboys still exist, waking up hours before the sun rises to saddle their horses and ride out to round up the cattle.  Florida is still very agricultural, competing with California to provide the best citrus fruit to the rest of the nation, while at the same time providing places like Miami Beach, Disney World, and the University of Florida, one of the largest research universities in the world.

So, Florida may not be part of the South, but it does share some Southern characteristics: conservative values, focus on family, food & fellowship, and a large agricultural base.  Florida is where I was born and I still have a lot of family there, so it’s definitely helped shape this little Southern boy.

Scenes like the one depicted in this picture are common for central Florida: the sun rising slowly in the morning over a pasture, casting light on the livestock, the palmettos, the oaks & Spanish moss, and the sandy soil.  It’s a beautiful sight, but you better get your work done before noon; once the sun burns off the Florida morning fog, the temperature will rise just as high as and faster than the sun itself.

A Sunset Gives Way to the Southern Night Sky

Sunsets around the world are magnificent; from the beach shores to the mountaintops, and from the vast deserts to the sprawling rainforests of the globe, sunsets inspire us to stop and take in the natural beauty.  Southern skies are no different.  When the sun meets the horizon, it may throw an array of color into the sky, or simply slip gracefully out of sight.

Once the last trace of light has faded, you can really appreciate a rural Southern night sky.  Seeing the “big stars” is never a problem, but on a clear night when the full moon isn’t bathing everything in its silver light, you can count every single star of the Milky Way.  Lord knows you’ve got the time.

Fire in the Sky

Sometimes you may look out your window at the end of the day and have to catch your breath.

The sky is on fire.

 Calm Eternity 

Sometimes sunsets may not be fiery or billowing or extravagant at all.

They may be subtle, smooth and soothing.

Thunda’ Head Rollin’ In

There’s almost nothing more awe-inspiring to me than a good thunderstorm, or a “thunda’ head” as Southerners call them.  In the summer months, there is no shortage of them.  I love the way the temperature rises, as if in anticipation, and then suddenly drops as the storm’s winds arrive with a howl.  I love witnessing the majesty of Lightning that can penetrate even the darkest of nights, and hearing the growing rumble of Thunder as it approaches from the heavens and then explodes, shaking the very foundations of the Earth.

Mother Nature has many sides.  She has gentle, rolling hills and breathtaking landscapes that can be blanketed with the pure white of snow.  But with a spark of distant lightning, she can announce the arrival of her other side.  She’ll forcefully, yet humbly, display her energy and raw power, her frightening beauty.  Within minutes, however, she’ll provide the gentle and calming sound of rain to reassure the Earth of her care and replenish the soul of anyone who would but listen.

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The South: A Photo Essay (pt. 7)

Throughout the South, mansions and plantation homes, old tobacco barns and dilapidated slave houses still stand as a reminder of the South’s decadent and checkered past.  Some of these homes are in irreparable decay; others have been restored to their original splendor.

This is my house in Cuthbert.  If its haunted-looking walls could talk, they would tell stories of hot summers with the curtains blowing in the scarce breeze; of dark desolate nights when only the crickets break the silence; of parties, dancing, and music; of standing tall while the Confederacy declared its independence and then lost in America’s bloodiest war.  Yes, if this house could tell us of its past, it would recount tales of children laughing and playing in the yard; it would tell about Christmas mornings, huddling around the fireplaces; but it would probably also mention the slave bell ringing, signaling that the mistress of the house required warm water.

This house acts as a perfect symbol of the South’s mixed past: built high and mighty in the era of Southern affluence, the foundation is still strong, but the chipped paint and patchwork reflect the modern time of economic downturn that hits the South particularly hard.  But like many Southerners themselves who may seem a little worn or rough around the edges, it stands as a reminder of what once was and what could be again.

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The South: A Photo Essay (pt. 6)

Down that Red Dirt Road

There is nothing quite like the mixture of these colors: the red Georgia clay, the springtime green of the pines, and the dreamy blue and white of a perfect, wished-for sky.  This scenery isn’t particular to one spot; dirt roads intertwine all throughout the South.  This specific dirt road is special, however; it leads to the Farm.  The road from Cuthbert leaves town, weaves through the country, and then…it simply ends.  There is no warning, no sign urging caution.  The pavement simply stops, giving way to this red dirt road.  That is how you know when you’ve arrived in “the middle of nowhere.”

You keep on going, deep into the pine forests, feeling that you have suddenly slipped back in time.  You look up in the rearview mirror and the cloud of dust traps the worries of the world back with the asphalt.  You drive on, winding around the curves, up and down the steep hills, cross the bridge, and then finally get your first glimpse of the Farmhouse.  Now, it’s just time to go and sit on that porch I was talking about!

Some people think “over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house we go” is just a nursery rhyme…

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