Thursday, December 9, 2010

Late is better than never

I am not quite sure why it has occured to me while sitting in San José to write about something that happened in September, when I was still living in Immenstadt im Allgäu, but I am going with it. I just hope I am able to remember most of the funny anecdotes.

This story basically begins with Thomas and a few of his close friends trying to explain to me a tradition in the Allgäu when the cows come down from the mountains for the winter and there is a big celebration. I understood the basics: it was referred to as Viehscheid, it was a weekend long event, and it would include large amounts of beer consumption. In short, it sounded like quality entertainment if nothing else.

It must be said that around this time Thomas mentioned the idea of me writing a book about being an American living in the Allgäu. I entertain the thought of writing a book from time to time. In this case, however, my first response was that I simply didn´t have any material to write about. Ok, so it is different there when compared to Munich or Berlin where you can easily get around with no German skills at all; and yes Allgäuers are quite proud of their cheese and beer and everything else that Thomas claims they "invented". Little did I know at the time that the Viehscheid was about to provide me with new cultural insights to write about; and by that I mean funny stories about drunk men in leather pants, cows wearing wreaths around their necks, and farmers drinking beer from cowbells.

The festivities began Friday night with a party, where all the bartenders were teammates of Thomas (read: free drinks). Long story short: I believe the sun was rising when we were falling...asleep that is. I woke up around 9 am to the sound of cowbells and cow hooves making there way down our street to the big tent where the drinking, I mean celebration, was about to begin.

Thomas had to go work serving beer for six hours that afternoon, hangover and all. I, on the other hand, took my time getting in on all the action. I stopped by the tent about 3 pm to find a traditional Bavarian band playing and farmers, families, and people young and old sitting around long tables with benches enjoying their liters of beer. Of course, it wasn´t something I was used to seeing every day. I still laugh thinking of those huge farmers wearing their short leather pants, but besides that everything seemed to be as expected. Beer maids were running around, people were laughing, and there was still plenty of beer and sausage bread rolls left for everyone.

Then I came back a few hours later. It was the same tent with a far hazier atmosphere. This time around people were dancing on tables and singing. I saw one big dude who looked like he had been hit in the face. This is also when I saw someone drinking from a cowbell. As you can imagaine, a variety of people, even the biggest guys, were no longer capable of walking properly. I guess that is what happens after drinking beer for 8 hours. What a celebration. Yay cows for not falling down the mountain!?

I stood around enjoying the people watching and talking to Thomas and his friend, also Thomas. Soon enough I was approached by a quite old and quite drunk man who started talking to me. At this time, my German was good enough to usually pick up words even from the thickest of Bavarian dialect, but I had absolutely no idea what this guy was saying. Then again, I don´t think he knew either, but he kept on talking and laughing. All the while, he was trying (and sometimes succeeding) to touch my face. Apparently, he liked me. Of course he meant me no harm, so I just smiled and eventually he was on his way.

I didn´t stay until the bitter end that night, maybe I would have a few more stories to tell if I did. I know if I ever did decide to write a book, I would most definitely attend more events like these. I would also be sure to make it to the Viehscheid early enough to see who takes care of all these cows while the farmers and their families (and everyone else in Immenstadt) give their beer muscles a workout. How they keep the cows separated and where they all go remains a mystery to me.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

It rains Pavones

It was about a week ago that I left San José for Golfito, which is a small town on the Pacific coast near the border to Panamá. It used to be a hot spot for banana plantations, but it´s easy to see upon arriving that those days are long gone. The forest that is behind the town seems to be reclaiming it´s ground, but nobody seems to notice.

I didn´t go to Golfito to stay in Golfito; however, I also didn´t really know where I was headed. I knew I either wanted to take a ferry to Península de Osa and visit the famous Corcovado National Park, or go further south to Pavones, famous for (supposedly) the longest left hand break in the world. I was looking forward to see a part of the country that I didn´t have the opportunity to visit when I lived here. The fact that this part of the country is also a bit off the beaten tourist path was also enticing.

I arrived in Golfito to a torrential downpour, which isn´t really a good sign when considering trekking across a rainforest where river crossings are involved. So, because of that I decided to head towards Pavones. I found the bus with no trouble and started chatting with a local. He informed me that the bus probably wouldn´t be able to make it all the way to Pavones, but there would be a colectivo (shared taxi) to take us the rest of the way. "Sounds ok," I thought to myself. After all, there has been more rainfall this year than usual and dirt roads in backwater Costa Rica are not very reliable.

I wasn´t really looking for an adventure, but I quickly realized that I had found one when I saw a sign that read 32 kilometers to Pavones and we were maybe traveling at a speed of ten kilometers per hour. Hmmm, maybe this wasn´t the best plan? But too late now, pura vida.

So, literally more than three hours later I finally arrived in Pavones in a more than run down 15 passenger van. I still have no idea how we made it through all the mud and pond like puddles. I quickly found a place to stay, where I might add I was the only guest. At that time, I was too tired to be that concerned about the fact that the only public transportation to leave was that colectivo van, which probably only left when and if the driver thought he could make it out of town. I settled in for the night and so did the rain.

I woke up quite early the next morning to find that I was one of the only tourists there, the beach was full of debris, and there were no waves in sight, only rain clouds. I had a look around the town, which took about ten minutes, and then got something to eat. By that time, I realized that I wanted to leave, despite the fact that I had just arrived. I decided first to inquire about the colectivo. I asked a variety of people: the girl who worked at the supermarket, local gringos, the hostel owner, etc. In Tico fashion, I got a different answer every time, which led me to the conclusion that nobody knew what the hell was going on. Someone told me it depended on if they fixed the road, another person told me it depended on the rain and another person gave me the cell phone number of the driver. Hmmm?

A couple hours later, I finally ran into a couple of tourists who were talking to a guy about getting a 4x4 taxi to the border of Panamá. Although I didn´t need to go to the border, I did want to get back to the main highway. After some contemplation, I decided to go with them.

This turned out to be a two hour adventure, including a small river crossing where the driver got out of the car and waded across first just to see how deep it was. He also insisted on stopping and asking everyone about the condition of the roads and which way was the best to get to the main road. Once again, everyone had something different to say, but the general conclusion was that with four wheel drive anything was possible. 

It was a bumpy ride to say the least, but I made it to the main road in time to catch a bus to Río Claro and then another bus to Uvita, north of Golfito. It was already dark when I arrived in Uvita, but it wasn´t raining and that seemed to be a good sign. It indeed was.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Snapshot: Oh, the places I've lived!

"Oh, the Places You'll Go!" If I remember correctly Aimee gave me this book for high school graduation, or was it college? Regardless, it's a great little Dr. Seuss book and I recently thought of it as I was reflecting on the places I've lived in the last four years. Around this time four years ago I was living outside of Kansas for the first time in Sevilla, Spain. After that experience, I realized how much I liked living in Kansas (hint of sarcasm), so as soon as I finished my degree I moved to Costa Rica. As you know, for the time being I live in Germany.

Here is a snapshot of places I've called home.

Sevilla, Spain



          San Jose, Costa Rica

Wuerzburg, Germany


Immenstadt, Germany

Friday, September 24, 2010

Immenstadt im Allgäu

Sometimes when I go to a new place I fall in love with it immediately. This happened to me with Sevilla, Spain. I still remember that after spending one day there I knew I wanted to come back to live and study there, which I did a few years later. There are other places that take me more time to really appreciate, like Costa Rica. It took me about six weeks full of weekend trips to the beach to realize that I was living in one of the most beautiful countries in the world. After all, they didn't name it the 'Rich Coast' without reason.

Now I find myself in the Allgäu, a small region in Southern Germany which happens to be a popular vacation spot due to the Alps and the natural beauty in general. For me, the Allgäu falls somewhere between Sevilla and Costa Rica. By that I mean that it did take me a little bit of time to realize that I loved it here. My first impression was last Christmas, and of course I thought the snow-capped mountains were pretty and that Immenstadt was a quaint, charming village; but it was still cold, it still got dark before 5 p.m. and my snow boarding skills didn't really allow me to enjoy what the mountains had to offer.

During the past couple weeks I've had ample opportunities to really take in a small piece of what the Allgäu has to offer and appreciate the beauty that comes with living close to mountains. Just this week alone, I hiked to the Grünten (a neaby moutain 5,850 ft), went biking around the Alpsee (a lake in Immenstadt), hiked to the Nebelhorn (7,297 ft), biked to a town about 12 km from Immenstadt along the Iller (river) to see the Niedersonthofener See (lake) and still had time to enjoy the last days of Summer on the dock at the Alpsee. It's so beautiful here and the more I do and see, and simply the longer I'm here, the more I like it.

Of course, it must be said that everything doesn't always go as I planned when I set off on my own to discover something in the Allgäu. It took me a few wrong turns to find the path to the Niedersontofener See and the day I went to the Nebelhorn was a bit stressful to say the least. I was prepared, or at least I thought I was. I had the essentials: water, food, money, cell phone, map, and instructions from Thomas. So, I set off quite confident in myself; I took the train to Oberstdorf and walked to the Nebelhorn lift to find an hour wait to get on the lift. I waited in line with all of the retirees (the Allgäu seems to be 'the' place to retire in Germany) and finally crowded on the 30 passenger lift car. I got off at the first lift stop because my plan was to summit another mountain before making my way to the Nebelhorn summit (7,297 ft).

I easily found the path (hiking trails are usually well marked here) and started walking. About 20 minutes into what I expected would be two hours to the top, I realized that the so called path was vanishing before my eyes, or at least it appeared that way, and instead of walking up the incline I was walking along it. Then, I started questioning myself regarding if I was on the right path. Then, I looked at the steep incline to my left and panicked at the thought of falling with nobody around to help me. With some help from Thomas (thankfully I had cell phone reception) I managed to turn around and go back to where I got off the lift.

At this point, part of me just wanted to go to the restaurant that was next to the lift, have a beer and go back down. After calming myself down, I decided that I was already there and I wanted to hike to the top of the Nebelhorn. The only problem was that I wanted to make it to the summit before the last lift went back down to Oberstdorf, which was at 4:30. So, I was in a bit of a hurry but I made it to the summit around 4:10, meaning that I had gained 1,000 meters (3,280 ft) elevation in around 1.5 hours. The view from the summit made it all worth it; from there you can see over 400 peaks and it was a perfectly clear, sunny day.

Next time I want to go hiking in the 'real' mountains, I'm taking Thomas with me. I think we both temporarily forgot that I didn't grow up here; I didn't even grow up in the mountains period. Maybe that makes me appreciate my time here all the more.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Two weeks in Turkey

Let me start by saying, "wow" I have a lot to say. I guess I "shoulda" taken the time to write more while in Turkey, but sitting in an internet cafe when it's 110 F (90 F when there is AC) didn't really seem worth the sweat.

In Istanbul, of course we visited the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofya (aka Hagia Sofia) and the Grand Bazaar. The Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya were quite impressive as far as size and architecture go, but you have to be willing to put up with the heat and the crowds for a good couple of hours. What I found most interesting about the Aya Sofya is that it's identity seems to be forever stuck somewhere between a mosque and a church. There are portions of the walls where iconic mosaics which were once plastered over are being uncovered, yet the minarets and the gigantic medallions with Arabic inscriptions reveal how much effort was put into converting the building into a mosque. Now that it's a museum I guess the point is to emphasize both identities.

The only memorable thing about our trip to the Bazaar was the small Backgammon that we bought. Within an hour of buying it, it was already giving us an easy way to chat with locals (we had to be sure that we remembered all the rules). Furthermore, we played at least once every day of the rest of our trip, and we weren't the only ones. We saw the game everywhere, especially at the popular tea cafes. For the Turks, tea and Backgammon go hand in hand, for the male Turks that is. These "gamers paradise" cafes were occupied by men and by that I mean usually just men. This wasn't so easy to recognize at first glance, but after a quick ferry ride to the Asian side of the city and away from the main tourist attractions it was quite obvious. 

It was on the Asian side of the city where I was also reminded that the calls to prayer weren't just for the hell of it, people were actually listening and going to pray. Thomas and I experienced it first hand when we happened to be visiting a mosque during prayer. I was really interested in seeing what was going on in there, but being a Westerner, I didn't really think through the fact that I would be stuck in the little room in the back for women. As it turned out, I couldn't really see that much at all, but I definitely had a good twenty minutes to have an intense self-debate about the role of women in Islam. In the end, I was frustrated, mainly because I wanted to see the beautiful architecture and because I somehow felt left out. When it was clear that more women were in the room than there was space for, I left, but not without trying to catch a glance of main area where all the men were.

Without getting too involved in the religious semantics of it all, Thomas brought up a good point after leaving the mosque that day. Simply put, he said that in a hot, busy city of nearly 13 million people going to a mosque for prayer must be a welcome escape. In other words, it's nice to take off your shoes, rinse off your hands and feet and go into a cool, quiet building where you can sit on the carpeted floor and maybe stop sweating for 30 minutes. But don't get me wrong, going to pray didn't seem to be a high priority for the majority of Turks, especially in Istanbul. I would say that Turkey is on the more liberal, Western side of Islamic nations, but then again speaking from personal experience I can only compare it to Morocco. Considering that Turkey is hopeful about getting into the EU also says something about the state of the nation.

It also says something about the state of the trains, which was shockingly good compared to what we took to get through Serbia and Bulgaria. After two days, one night in Istanbul we took the overnight train to Ankara, the capital of Turkey. I wasn't looking forward to yet another night train (the fourth in a matter of six nights), but I was thrilled to find that there were enough free seats to lay down. That was our only train experience in Turkey, but we took numerous buses which were convenient, comfortable and included tea, water and a snack for the longer rides, which was a very pleasant, unexpected surprise. Buses are far more common than trains and the huge otogar's (bus stations) are there to prove it.

As far as the capital city goes, I don't have much to say other than thanks to the worst map I've ever tried to use we walked around that city for about an hour before realizing that we were going in the wrong direction. Basically, the only streets shown on the map turned out to be more like highways, not helpful. We were trying to reach a hamam (Turkish bath) recommended by the Lonely Planet before catching a bus to Goereme. We did get there eventually, with the help of a taxi. I was fairly aggravated by that time, but getting a scrub down and a massage is a nice way to calm the nerves. A few hours later we were on our way to the famous region of Cappadocia.

Cappadocia is more or less in Central Turkey, which gives you an idea of how big Turkey actually is considering it took us a night train and another 5 hour bus ride to get there. It's famous for it's rough landscape of valleys and so-called "fairy chimneys" which look like rock formations of which many were turned into houses long ago. You can even stay in these cave like dwellings; I've never seen anything like it.

We stayed two nights in Goereme, which is clearly the tourist capital of the region. We spent some time there trying to plan our next move and catching up on sleep. Of course, we also saw the open air museum, which includes many churches that were carved into the rock formations as early as the 4th century and used as late as the 11th century. In a few of the bigger churches the Byzantine style frescoes have been restored. I think this is one place where it would have been helpful to have a guide, but also annoying to be shoved into the small spaces with a group.

By far, the more interesting thing we did in Cappadocia was go to Ihlara Valley, which is off the grid for the majority of tourists. We stayed only one night in this small village, which gave us plenty of time to hike down into the valley itself. It's a national park, so there are conveniently placed steps all the way down to the bottom of the valley, where you find a small river with trails on both sides and more churches you can hike up to see along the way. We walked about half the length of the valley, 7 km or so, and back again.

The next day we had an interesting "layover" in Aksaray while waiting for an overnight bus to the coast; I also like to refer to it as the day I pretended to be German. Aksaray is one of those cities that everyone skips. In other words, we didn't see any other tourists walking around the city; maybe that is why we got more attention from locals that day than any other day of our trip. First, we were invited to someone's house when we told him we were looking for an internet cafe. With time to kill, we accepted the offer (with no intention of actually using his internet). He asked where we were from, directing the question to Thomas, obviously Germany was the reply and I left it at that. Our new friend followed by saying that he likes German people, but not Israelis and not Americans. So it was good to keep my mouth shut after all. He also later showed us a photograph of his nephew stepping on an American and Israeli flag; he had quite a lot to say about various political situations in the Middle East. I was almost relieved that his words and eye contact were almost exclusively directed at Thomas. Meanwhile, I was entertained by his two daughters; the younger one showed me her dolls and the older one went straight for the nail polish after closely observing my painted toenails. Then, suddenly our Turkish friend got a phone call and tried to explain in broken English that he was coming back. After 15 minutes of waiting for that to happen, we tried to explain with hand signals and the Turkish word for bus station that we had to leave. As we made our way back to the bus station, we stopped in a grocery store where an old man looked at us and said "Deutsch?", which was followed by a short conversation in German. Then, while finally at the bus station a woman came and sat beside me asking again "Deutsch?". By that time I wanted to laugh, but I just said "ja" instead. I found the Turkish people to be friendly and helpful wherever we were, but Aksaray was really something else and I'm glad we had the whole afternoon there just to enjoy the people if nothing else.

After the overnight from Aksaray to Antalya, we took another bus to Patara and spent a couple of days enjoying one of the nicest beaches in Turkey along with some impressive Lycian ruins. I think it was there that I realized just how hot it is in Turkey, especially when I decided to see the amphitheater on my way to the beach. The ruins are closer to the beach than the town, which makes for a prettier, building-free beach but a 30 minute walk through death valley conditions to get there. It was easily 100 F by 8 a.m. and above 110 F in the afternoon, and not a cloud in sight. Luckily, our room in Patara had air conditioning. We found a lovely place to stay there, I say lovely mostly because the couple who owns the place offered me dinner on the first night, half of a fish fillet not just any kebab.

I'm happy to say that our last four nights of the trip were spent on a yacht. We really wanted to do a boat trip, especially after seeing that the coast was mostly lined by rocky land and not sandy beaches. Our plan was to leave Patara, go to Fethiye, the next big harbor city up the coast, and find a boat going even further up the coast toward Izmir, where we would catch our flight home. That didn't work out but we did find a place on a boat leaving the next day, just going in the opposite direction. We couldn't resist the opportunity, and I'm so glad we didn't.

It was such a great way to end the trip. We didn't have to worry about where we were headed, what bus we needed to catch, where would stay, etc. We just enjoyed cruising along, swimming, eating good food and of course some partying with the other people on the boat and the crew. The people that we met on board were all around our age and all native English speakers; we all had a great time together to say the least. The captain of the boat, a real character, made it perfectly clear that he was happy to have a fun group after two weeks with Italian families.

The boat trip ended on Sunday around noon, and we had to make the long journey to Izmir by the next morning. In short, we took a bus back to Fethiye, waited, overnight bus to Izmir, bus to airport, waited, plane to Munich, waited, train to Immenstadt. I was pretty out of it for most of that journey and by out of it I mean hungover and exhausted, but it's all worth it in the end and I have plenty of time to rest before I go back to work for two weeks this Sunday.

P.S.--I just realized that I wrote this whole thing and barely mentioned the food or the word "Baklava". Let me just say that if nothing of Turkey sounds interesting to you as far as sight-seeing goes, you should still considering going there just to enjoy the amazing cuisine they have to offer.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Train to Turkey

It seems to be a while ago that I left Germany, but I will try to give you more or less the breakdown of where I have been the last few weeks. The first stop was Slovenia to visit some friends (Hari and Bea) and their baby. They have spent the last four months living in the mountains in a small house, while Hari completed an internship. For three days we enjoyed some relaxing back to nature time, played with Zacarias and did a bit of hiking. It was a good to slow down before the long journey to Turkey.

On Friday (the 6th?) we took a night train from Ljubljana to Belgrade, Serbia. We arrived there quite early and we were able to manage booking the night train to Sofia, which meant we had the day to spend in Belgrade. The first priority was park napping of course, but then we found the energy to walk around the city and along the Danube river. Then, it was back on a night train to Sofia, but this time we had a sleeper car, which seemed to be an advantage at the time.

Come to find out the next day it was not as great as it seemed considering my camera and some cash was stolen from our locked 'room'. Then again the 'passport police' as they refer to themselves can open any door they want, and the window was open, which would not be a problem if the train was always moving. So, there was my wake up call. Hello! Normally I have a close eye on my things, but after a sleepless night I guess I was more concerned with sleeping.

Moving on, we had to stay a night in Sofia because the overnight train to Turkey was already full for that day. So, we grabbed a map from tourist information, found a place to stay and had fun trying to figure out the cryillic street signs. It also must be said that we spent at least an hour probably more trying to find a movie theater. There were some listed on the map, but clearly the map was outdated. We also had trouble finding a place open for dinner. There were surprisingly few restaurants there and it was Sunday and some just had signs saying closed for holidays (at least I think). But not to worry, we found a mall, with a McDonalds for Thomas and a Subway for me, and Inception playing in English with Bulgarian subtitles.

One more night train to İstanbul, save the longest for last. We had the sleeper car again but it was divided into girls and guys cabins, three bunk beds per cabin. I expected more local people to be on the train but it was just tourists, which just means more time spent at the border crossing.

So, last Tuesday we arrived in İstanbul...and that is where I leave it for now...more later.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

How goes it

Hey all! I guess it's been a while since I wrote something, or's all relative. So, tomorrow we leave for Immenstadt. It will be quite a change, but I'm looking forward to it. As I write this, Thomas is taking the final test of his university career, which is reason to celebrate this evening. The final step for him to get his degree is writing a thesis while doing an internship. He has this all set up in Immenstadt, which is why we are moving there.

As for me, July has been a great month thus far. I had the final two weeks of my German course and then I visited a friend in Coburg, where we went to a Samba festival. Of course, how could I forget that I watched a lot of football (read soccer) games those first two weeks of July. I'm glad to say that I really enjoyed the World Cup and learned a lot about football along the way. I also realized how serious it's taken here.

After the weekend in Coburg, it was off to work. The first day was rough, but it was all smooth sailing after that. The people I worked with were great and I found it more enjoyable and easy going than the other weeks. I think I was finally able to employ that whole "mind over matter" thing, and all the sunshine definitely helped me put on my rose colored glasses. It also helped that I knew I wouldn't have to work again until late August.

That brings us to this week, in which I have thoroughly enjoyed my free time by reading, going to the river, a little bit of this and a little bit of that. I'm beginning to play with new and old ideas about what I want to do post-October. I say post-October only because of the visa situation and because the chiropractic school back in KS needs to know by November 1st if I will be attending in January. Lots of big decisions to make, which makes me crazy at times. I have plenty of ideas, good options, and big dreams; in the end, it just seems unbearable to commit to one thing. (I think Hank relates to what I'm saying.)

I like the way things are going here in Germany, but I realize that could change like the weather, literally. I feel like I'm making some good progress as far as language learning goes and a big part of me wants to stay longer, learn more and really enjoy the benefits of speaking the language of the society I'm living in. I'll admit that I like that feeling of accomplishment (and that I recently realized how much I want to be able to speak three languages). Besides that, for those of you to whom I mentioned coming home early, you can forget that. I've come far in terms of adjusting to my life and job here and I want to see it through just as I said I would.

So, what will it be? Back to school in KS, more time in Germany, grad school in Spain, an internship in South America...time, I need some time to think about it. That and hopefully my upcoming trip to Vienna, Slovenia and Turkey with provide me with some new insights.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Twenty - 4 - Learning

I have the feeling recently that I am going through somewhat of a learning phase. It could be partly triggered by the language learning, after all sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with fragments of German sentences in my head. It's like I can sense my brain trying to organize and rearrange things for my third language compartment. On the other hand, it's also a more subtle type of learning, just learning more about life. Simply put, it's a good yet humbling learning process.

Other than that, I have been enjoying my time here. I am now in another German course, which is going quite well considering that I already missed a week of class due to work. We'll see how it goes after I miss the next two weeks. I think that will be more of a challenge, because I will miss more than 40 hours of classroom time.

Work is still work, and I try to not think about it when I'm not there. Enough said.

Right after my birthday I had the chance to visit Berlin for a few days. I enjoyed spending time with Nici and Thomas and his friends. I was also there at the right time to visit a really interesting Frida Kahlo exhibit. Then, just last weekend was a four day weekend due to some holiday so Thomas and I went to Munich for two nights and Immenstadt for two nights.

Although it was my second time in Munich, I don't really count the first time considering it was snowing most of the time and I tried to avoid going outside. This time was quite different of course. We stayed with friends of Thomas and had a lovely time on Friday walking around Munich, enjoying the sun.

By Saturday evening we were in Immenstadt laying on a pier on the Alpsee, which is a beautiful lake 15 minutes (walking) from his parents house. On Sunday we went on a 5 hour hike that takes you over 6 peaks and ends at the peak known as 'Mittag' which overlooks Immenstadt. After having a beer on the top, we took the lift down. It's a great hike and now I know why Thomas has done it 4 or 5 times. You get a great view of the bigger, snow-capped peaks of the Alps to the South and you can also see flat, green landscape to the North. It's like you are walking along the ridge where the Alps begin. For Thomas this is as home as it gets, what an amazing place to call home. I have to add that even the cows are prettier there, and you can hear them grazing on the mountains due to the large cowbells hanging around their necks. For whatever reason, I found this so charming. I thought cowbells were completed outdated. I'm really looking forward to spending more time in Immenstadt when Thomas finishes this semester in July.

Ok, that's all for now...I have to get on to doing some Turkey research, haha. We are in the midst of planning a trip to Turkey in August. Hasta la proxima.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Life back in Germany

So, I've been in Germany for three weeks to be exact, but somehow it seems much longer since I celebrated Billy and Julie's wedding and said goodbye to friends and family. My journey from the states was a bit more rushed and stressful than normal, for a variety of reasons.

First, I was surprising Thomas, who thought I was coming a week later. This was just a test of my self-control, because many times I just wanted to tell him how stressed I was trying to get everything packed and ready before the wedding weekend. I finished the packing on time and had Friday and Saturday to enjoy the wedding festivities, and enjoy them I did. I was exhausted by Sunday morning, going on minimal sleep, with still a baby shower and birthday party to attend before leaving for Newark in the late afternoon.

One should know that normally before leaving the states for an extended period of time, I prefer to spend most of my time just hanging around with my family. So, when it hit me Sunday afternoon that this was it as far as family time goes, I was very sad to be leaving. It didn't help that I had just had a blast with friends the past two days and now it was time to go.

Sunday evening, there I was sitting with Teri on our way to Newark where we would spend the night and take the flight to Frankfurt the following evening, or so we thought. I was flying standby on a buddy pass, which saved me a bundle of cash (Thank you Teri!!). By Monday afternoon, I was anxious and ready to get the long journey behind me, but when we went to check-in it didn't seem likely that I would get a seat on that plane.

There were plenty of free seats for standby passengers, but since Teri was working the flight I was not allowed to use a buddy pass. Thanks Continental for implementing a new rule and not informing your employees, awesome! Teri and I panicked with equally rising blood pressure, but in my mind I quickly resolved that somehow, someway I was getting on that plane. After and hour or two that seemed like awaiting a possible death sentence, Teri was able to talk to her supervisor and get an emergency drop on working the flight so she could "accompany" me on the plane. (Like I was some convict that needed supervision.)

Luckily for Teri, she got a first class seat there and back. She flew to Frankfurt and then got back on the same plane roughly an hour later to fly back to Newark and then MCI. So, not only did Teri and Brian let me crash on their bedroom floor during Spring Break at their lovely condo in Puerto Vallarta, now Teri was spending about two days of her valued time (leaving Brian in charge of Wyatt and his growing business) just to escort me to Germany. Wow, I felt like a complete selfish asshole. I can't say thanks enough to Teri and Brian, and I can't say enough good things about my family in general.

Ok, so there I was frazzled, excited and back in Germany, only a train ride away from surprising Thomas. Upon arriving in Wuerzburg, I decided to walk, bags and all, from the train station to the new place to wake myself up. I guess I didn't remember how long the walk was or how heavy my bags were, so I rang the doorbell as a sweaty, out of breath mess. Thomas didn't answer the door but he arrived downstairs quickly after with a somewhat blank expression on his face. Surprise! Mission accomplished.

I spent the greater part of the next week adjusting to the time change, sleeping more than I usually do, relaxing in the garden behind the house and strolling through the vineyards that surround the city. The weather was sunny and refreshingly warm. I saw the city in a completely different light compared to the gray dome of Winter. Then, before I knew it, it was time to think about the new, adventurous job I was to begin on the 26th in some small village in East Germany.

Not really knowing what the hell was about to happen, I read the emails from the Language Farm owner about what the week would include, what I needed to bring and a few other vague details about when to arrive, etc. I found myself thinking..."Damn, I wish I would have been able to attend the orientation weekend. Oh well, just go for it without expectations and you'll be fine."

The good news is that I did make it through my first week, more or less successfully. The other news is that I nearly lost my sanity along the way, didn't know if I could maintain the needed energy level to surpass another day, and lived in a state of sleep deprivation lows and caffeine highs for five days. In all honesty, there were more than a few times when I just wanted to say "I quit". But a quitter I am not, or something along those lines.

I was lucky to have a lot of help from the other counselors, who have worked there for at least a few years, and the group of kids was very well-behaved and fun to be around. Their English was good enough for normal conversation, which makes life a lot easier when you are cooking with six kids (age 13) for a group of 35 people or when you are preparing a skit. More or less, the key to enjoying this job and being successful is letting yourself be as crazy and theatrical as possible for extended periods of time. In other words, losing your sanity to sleep deprivation or whatever else is perfectly acceptable.

I arrived back in Wuerzburg Friday night and felt like I had been gone for a month to a strange English speaking land. I still wasn't even able to form complete thoughts about what had just happened the five days before and I still had dreams about work that night. After a few recovery days, I realized that working there for more than two weeks a month was completely out of the question, unless I wanted to become a raging alcoholic. So, for now I am keeping the Language Farm out of my mind until I go back at the end of May, hopeful that it will get easier with more experience.

Now, I'm faced with the question of what to do with all the free time that I have. Studying German is high on the priority list; however, my motivation to do so is not so high. I'm considering taking another German course which would definitely help me with the motivation problem. On the other hand, I could use that money to go somewhere...and everyone knows that I like to go 'places'. But I suppose I'm not just here for the sake of traveling around and continuing to enjoy my quarter life retirement, or am I? Puede ser...

Or maybe it's just back to that life lesson that my dad loves to preach. How does it go? Something about just enjoying the present moment, just being instead of always trying to 'do' something, ya I guess that's always something I could work on. I seem to be the master of this art when placed in the right conditions, read: beach, sun, waves, sand. Now, to internalize this simple concept is a challenge that will probably last my lifetime.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Distraction in Mexico

I've written this post in my head a couple times since arriving in Puerto Vallarta 12 days ago, changing the subject matter with each new attempt. So now that I'm putting my fingers to the keyboard I'm interested to see what thoughts surface and make it on the screen. To put it shortly, I'm writing this for my own amusement. Then again, that's what has kept this whole blog idea going. Although, I did start it for a variety of other purposes.

Ok, so after spending a week in Kansas and realizing that there was little to no opportunity for me to work and Spring wasn't right around the corner, I grew uneasy and anxious about what to do with all the time I had on my hands. With the encouragement of two of the closest people in my life and the go-ahead from Brian and Teri, I bought a ticket to Mexico. Why not?

I've been here four times before, but those were all pre-obsession and focused on tanning and tequila. So, obsession is probably too strong; it is more like a strange interest that developed while living in Costa Rica and maybe a little bit while in Spain. During my year in Costa Rica, I grew to enjoy and even look forward to using local buses to get to my destination. I found it to be such a fascinating way to see a new country. I've spent countless hours on buses to mountains, volcanoes, beaches, lagoons, lakes, and border crossings. All the while, I've seen the landscape of a big portion of Central America, I've had short conversations with locals and long discussions with close friends, I've enjoyed the sights, sounds and smells of the unfamiliar and I've had some unforgettable experiences.

But this interest extends beyond just being a cheap, interesting way to see a strange land. I've always found that being in transit, whether it be by bus, train, plane, or car, is the easiest place to let my mind wander, and it almost always wanders to positive thoughts, creative energy, or what I'll refer to as the flow. The flow is a good place to be, where the sun is always shining and the glass is half full. In short, it's that state of mind that people try to reach through a variety of means (drugs, meditation, exercise, etc.). I just happen to find the flow on crowded, loud, uncomfortable buses.

So it follows that I decided to seek out some bus adventures here in Puerto Vallarta. Not only did I get my bus/flow/transit 'fix', I spent an afternoon surfing with a local, discovered a beautiful beach I've never seen before and found a hike that someone recommended me. Besides that I still had time to help Wyatt catch his first couple waves in Sayulita and sit back and enjoy life with Brian and Teri in their beach front second home.

One more full day here, then home on Tuesday.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

20 hours of sunlight

Quite a lot happened in my last month in Germany. After finishing the course, Thomas and I visited Berlin again and I was once again reminded of what an interesting and lively city it is. There is so much going on there. It's full of immigrants, students, activists, artists, politicians and so many people in between. It's a place where you can expect to hear three or four different languages spoken just by taking the U-Bahn (subway). It's also a place I'm looking forward to experiencing when the sidewalks aren't covered with three inches of ice and snow.

On our way home I had an job interview for a language camp for German children. I really got along with both people interviewing me and liked the idea behind the camp. It's called "Language Farm" and it's entirely in English with the goal being to teach the children English in a fun, non-classroom environment. I got the job, but tried to not get to excited because I knew I still had the visa issue to resolve. Thanks to the help of Thomas, it only took me a few days to get all the required documents together to apply for my visa. Preparing everything wasn't as stressful as I thought it would be; however, we still had to go to a couple different offices and be very thorough in everything. We took everything to the Auslaenderbehoerde (foreigner's office) on a Tuesday which happened to coincide with Fasching (Carnival/Mardi Gras) so the office was closed. We had already planned on leaving that day to go back to his hometown, which is exactly what we did, knowing we would have to come back to Wuerzburg a day earlier to finish the visa process.

In Immenstadt, staying with Thomas's parents, I found the sunshine and snow to be a refreshing change from the gray I was becoming accustomed to. We stayed for almost a week and it was a week full of firsts for me. My first "schlitten fahren" (sledding) experience from the top of a mountain, my first attempts at snowboarding and my first visit to a "schwimmbad" (unique German concept of swimming pools and sauna). It must be said that the very first attempt to snowboard left me crying in pain and frustration, but a few days later I was beginning to enjoy it. Although it didn't hook me like surfing did, it's still something I will try to improve upon in the future.

My last few days in Germany included going back to the Auslaenderbehoerde twice and packing. I was approved for the visa not even 24 hours before my flight home. It's valid from now until the end of October, which is when the camp season is over. Now, after saying goodbye to Thomas and spending a day above the clouds chasing the sun, I'm back home feeling a whole range of strange yet familiar emotions.

I'm excited to celebrate Hank's 21st birthday today, starting with him and I going somewhere to watch the KU game this afternoon. I miss Thomas, yet find it easier to push him away right now rather than facing the fact that we are back to skype phone calls and living in different time zones, continents and what feels like different planets. I feel the pressure (solely exerted by myself) to think about going back to school and what I really want out of my existence. Despite the fact that I am fully aware of my tendency to take life too seriously, I cannot seem to escape all the thoughts scattered throughout my mind. And despite the fact that I just feel like hiding, I am surprising myself by writing this for anyone to read.

With that said, I know my general state of uneasiness has no outside cause and therefore no outside cure.

"both help and harm come from within ourselves"

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Take a wider view

So, as you might know I've studied some German on my own and I started an intensive course this past Monday, which meets Monday through Friday from 10 to 2:15. It's been an interesting experience thus far. It's at a language school called Inlingua, and it's taught entirely in German. There are ten people in my class and every one of us comes from a different country. It's moving fairly slow, but I'm hopeful it will become a bit more challenging in the weeks to come. I enjoy learning something new and having some routine in my days. It also reminds of how much time and effort is required to learn a new language, and how much time and effort it took me to learn Spanish.

Besides learning a new language, there are many other small things that I've learned and adapted to since arriving in Wuerzburg. For example, "bread" has a whole new meaning. What we think of as bread in the USA is called "American sandwich bread" here and it's not very common. Bread is bought fresh and not sliced. There are bakeries on nearly every corner, and surprisingly they are all busy. Germans are eating all different kinds of bread, rolls and pretzels (with butter). A typical breakfast here would be rolls with your choice of butter, jams, nutella, or cheese and salami. Delicious.

As for the rest of the food here, I'm not so convinced. Of course there are a variety of sausages (wurst), salami and even a strange German version of meatloaf called "leberkase", which to me tastes like a hot dog. Enough about that.

Let's see, what else is going on here? Well, the air ventilation system is simply opening the window three times a day for a few minutes, even in the winter. It was strange at first to be opening windows (no screens) when there is snow on the ground, but now I'm used to it. The heating system is different in that each room has an individual radiating heater (hence the need to open the window for air circulation).

Getting around in Germany is safe and easy with either the train or "car-sharing", which is a sort of pay your way carpool. The train can be expensive, and many times looking online and finding a car share is cheaper.

As for what's going on with me, besides the language course I am searching for employment options for myself here and trying to learn about applying for work and residence permits. I'm still not sure if I want to live here, but I at least want to know how I could make that happen. It's all been a bit discouraging thus far, leaving me frustrated and very confused. Hopefully I have some better news next time.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

An attempt to 'catch up'

So, I guess I have been slacking on the blog posts since arriving in Germany. It's not because there is nothing to tell, but rather because Winter fell upon me as a dark blanket that I can't seem to find my way out of. Maybe it's because my last 'Winter' meant sun in the morning, rain in the afternoon (opposed to sun all day in the 'Summer'). Enough of that, now on to what is going on in Germany...

I'm not sure where exactly I should begin, but my first few weeks here were fairly uneventful. It took me longer than expected to adjust to the time change, in other words I was sleeping more than usual for my standards. I spent a lot of time with Thomas and when he was busy with school, I was finding my way around the city, reading, or talking with the couple Thomas lives with. Oh and how could I forget, eventually I started to search for a German course, but it was too late to start before the holidays.

The weekend before Christmas, we went to Munich to visit some friends. I should add that the main purpose of this visit was to make a short movie that Thomas's group of friends has wanted to do for some time. I was excited to meet the friends I had heard so much about and to see someplace new, but I quickly realized that it was too cold to enjoy seeing or doing anything.

Friday night, we went out with his friends and then Saturday. was the filming day. It was really entertaining to watch the whole process unfold, which began Friday night when Tino (the guy who provided the camera and lighting equipment) played with the lighting in the kitchen where the filming would take place. Then, Saturday during the day there was the discussion and writing of the script. To give you a better picture, the movie was about a group of coworkers eating a typical Bavarian breakfast together after completing a team building seminar. Imagine six guys sitting around a table all playing very thought out, specific characters with different dialects (or accents) from around Germany, with the 'boss' at the head of the table. The twist comes at the end when there is only one sausage left, the lights flash and the boss is chewing. Then, the lights flash again, the boss is gone and everyone else is chewing. haha. But really the funny thing was watching, even though I didn't understand everything. The filming started around 5 pm and ended almost twelve hours, 50 sausages, and many beers later.

Thomas and I came back to Wuerzburg on Sunday, and left on Wednesday to spend Christmas with his family in Immenstadt, which is in the very south of Germany almost to the Austrian border. I was a little nervous about the whole idea of meeting the family and not being able to communicate with them, but they were really nice and welcoming so I got over it. In the four days that we were there, Thomas showed me his hometown and the rest of the time his parents showed me photo albums of their vacations around Germany and other family albums. Haha, there is more to it than that, but really I did look through many photo albums.

Here Christmas is celebrated on Christmas eve, so Christmas eve we had dinner together with his parents and his brother before going into the living room to open gifts and enjoy an endless supply of Christmas cookies that his mom made. On Christmas day, we had another full day of meals together, and coffee and cake in the afternoon. Coffee and cake around 4 pm is typical here in Alemania. In between all the eating, Thomas and I discovered Scrabble and Backgammon.

On the second day of Christmas (the 26th), we went to a 'Russian BBQ' on the river with some of his friends. It basically consists of a few friends gathered around a small fire, and everyone has to bring meat to grill and vodka to drink. It's a funny concept and a good excuse for some friends to get together after all the family festivities of Christmas. Of course, it was really cold (hence the vodka, right?).

So, that was my first Christmas in Germany, in a nutshell. Another train ride and we were back in Wuerzburg for a few days before going to Berlin to bring in the New Year. Again like going to Munich, I was excited to see someplace new and hopeful that I would be able to explore Berlin while I was there. However, the cold (and snow) again got the best of my attitude the first few days there and I didn't see much of anything until New Years day when Thomas and I walked around some of the main tourist attractions for an hour or so in the afternoon. I say afternoon, which is ironic because it was around 4 pm and already dark outside. It was nice to see the Brandenburg Gate and such, but it wasn't really what I was interested in doing there. Plus, it didn't help that after walking outside for thirty minutes my feet were wet from snow soaking into my shoes.

I guess I wanted to see more of the alternative side of Berlin; I don't know if that is the right way to put it and I don't really like using the word alternative for some reason. Maybe it's better to say that I think you can get more out of visiting such a big city if you know someone who lives there and can show you something a travel guide wouldn't pick up on; and surprise, surprise I know exactly the right person for this. On the 2nd, Thomas went home, and I met up with my friend Nici (who I met in Guatemala last Summer).

We had a really great time catching up. I got to hear about the rest of her travels in Latin America and her new adventure in Berlin, and I told her about the road trip and what I thought about my first month in Germany. On Sunday, we wandered around a couple of flea markets (where I found a pair of dry shoes), she showed me a famous 'squat house', and later we went to an open stage night at a run-down but characterful bar. It was a great weekend and a great way to start the new year.

There is much more to tell, but I thought starting with the basics is necessary. Now, I am back in Wuerzburg, looking forward to start a German language course on Monday, realizing how fast time is going, and finding myself concerned for what comes next for me (seems to be a reoccurring theme despite my attempts to focus on the present). Now you more or less know what I've been doing since leaving Kansas, and I hope to post more of my thoughts about Germany, etc. soon.