Traveling Through Europe: Die Bahn

As far as I remember, getting around Europe and especially Germany had never been as tedious and complicated as relying on public transport in the States. A trip to Paris in 2009 had only taken me 3 hours by train from Mannheim. Flying out to Austria that same year was accomplished by taking a cheap and fast shuttle to the airport Hahn. Easy.

This time I didn’t want to rely on my parents’ car during my stay, so I remembered the easy-going, well-working public infrastructure and confidently checked my options for getting from their place to Heidelberg, which is a two and a half hour drive by car – depending on speed and traffic, that is. The only way to comfortably travel would be through a railway company called “Die Deutsche Bahn” (DB), probably comparable to the National Rail in UK and not comparable to anything Americans have (Amtrak included). DB offers discounted tickets and packages to get from one European city to another, such as when taking a train from Cologne to Amsterdam or Paris, which can be as low as 60 Euro per ride but only takes two to three hours at the most. A trip from the Eifel, namely Bitburg to Heidelberg and back, was in about the same price range, which is really not that much considering the high amount of connecting trains you have to catch as the Eifel is very isolated. So when I booked my ticket I was glad that I had gotten a better deal than driving a car down there as dealing with the horrendous gas prices, which were around €1.50/l (roughly converts to $8.00/gal, compare the NYC average at $3.75/gal!), would have cost me way more than relying on the train system.

The entire ride to Heidelberg was supposed to take 4 hours, and perhaps half an hour more on the way back, a Sunday evening.

It already started pretty bad good: The train entering Bitburg was 2 minutes late. This might not seem like a big deal to Americans, as their trains are constantly late. But in Germany every connecting train has a tight schedule to follow. With a 2 minutes delay I only had 4 minutes to catch the train to Saarbrücken in Trier. I even almost made it to the right platform and was about to laugh out loud at how lucky I was when the ICE zoomed right past me towards the Southern tip of the rail. As I had been ignorant of North and South, I had stepped off the Northern end and there was no way I would make it to the South within one minute. Sure enough, just as I sprinted across the platform and arrived at the rear end of the last wagon, the train shut its doors (so much to waiting for paying customers!) and rode off – leaving me looking about as stupid as it gets at a train station in the middle of nowhere. This time I was rather lucky, though, as the person handling customer requests was having a good day and switched my ticket to a fast train going over Koblenz but directly into Heidelberg, meaning I would not have to switch at all anymore during the entire trip. So after about 5 hours I made it to my destination and thought it couldn’t get worse on my way back.

Boy was I wrong!

Sunday evening approached and 20 minutes before the train was scheduled to depart a thunderstorm set in, sending buckets of rain to the ground. Almost as bad as hurricane Irene. So before I had even started my trip my train back home was already delayed. This time I was supposed to switch two times during the trip but I had to stand in line at customer service again, because I would have surely missed the connecting train in Mannheim (since I had seven minutes of time). The train was 20 minutes late, the customer service agent was about as unfriendly as she could get and only grumpily stamped my ticket after I had pointed out to her that I would surely be kicked out of the train immediately without this form of approval. The best part was when she almost spat at me in her Eastern German accent and my friend standing next to me, a former Eastern European herself, looked as if she wanted to kill her for misrepresenting her part of the country so badly. I still laugh at this image in my head today.

The 20 mins delay in Heidelberg

Looong story told a teeny bit shorter: I took my delayed first train, which went straight through to Koblenz (up North, before going down South to Trier again – don’t ask me where the logic is). As it turns out, this particular train was experiencing a few difficulties along the way and had to be rerouted across a different bridge when passing through Mainz. Especially this last reroute caused a delay of one hour when arriving in Koblenz. Of course my connecting train to Trier was long gone by then. As I made it once again down to the customer service booth, I saw a pretty lost- and confused-looking American standing behind me, who was going the same direction (to Bitburg) and didn’t have a clue of how to communicate with these people (their English was rather moderate). Since we were going the same way, they told us to take the last ICE that evening, which would arrive in 20 minutes (this one was another 20 minutes too late, I really wonder what was going on that day). From Trier, though, there would be no connecting train to Bitburg considering the “late” hour of 11 PM, so they wrote us a coupon for a taxi. A TAXI! When all I wanted to take was the train. A cab ride from Trier to Bitburg is another 25 minutes, I assume. After seeing that our very last train was late, too, I gave up and called my mother. She said she could pick us up in Wittlich, which is only 40 minutes from their house. The American was afraid he wouldn’t be able to get a cab to his destination with his moderate skills in German and we gave him a ride to Bitburg. Both of us were simply glad when we made it back home and were able to escape the horrors of this adventurous, tedious, ridiculous trip!

So, in conclusion: A four and a half hour train ride ended up taking me six (!) hours on the road. I wouldn’t have made it to my destination by train but would have had to rely on means of taxi and the help of others. Only because I was able to understand what customer service told me I understood the concept of adjusting to new connecting trains (imagine foreigners trying to understand the chaos going on that day! Awful!).

I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such an epic fail in public transportation in Germany. And I don’t think I ever want to do so, either. So the next time I’m planning on getting around to places which are less than 3 hours away, I will TAKE A CAR AND GLADLY PAY THOSE 8 Dollars per gallon! It’s better than having my time wasted and my nerves strained than having to go through something like this ever again!

Zänk juh for träwelling wis Deutsche Bahn.

Pictures I took on the way to and fro (since I had plenty of time):

Didn't even know they still had these!
Village on the river Moselle on my way to Koblenz
A train station I never wanted to see

London in a Nutshell (Part II – Of Course)

Then I ran across some souvenir stores but couldn’t decide which one of those quazillion “I Love London mugs” to purchase so I ended up not buying any at all. The M&M store is quite unimpressive but the chaos at Piccadilly was enjoyable. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many ghetto German tourists at one spot outside of Germany. Before I feared of being transformed back home, I fled to a spot called Camden: An artsy area easily accessible via Piccadilly line off the Camden Town stop. Here you can find unusual useless things such as a fish pedicure (little fish nibble away the skin on your soles, supposedly it only tickles) and stumble across many creative items at the Camden Stables. The Brit had said I should check it out for an hour or two, but I ended up getting lost in its colorful jungle for well over 5 hours! As the myth goes the late Amy Winehouse had her house here, but I wasn’t really in search for that. I did manage to get annoyed with one Muslim cashier who I had thought gave me the wrong amount of change until half an hour later I discovered my own stupidity of not being able to distinguish between the 20pence and 10pence piece. Sorry love, won’t happen again (as you will only reluctantly serve people with an American accent in the future, I am sure!).

Fish pedicure, anyone?
Camden souvenir magic

I even had the desire to stray off the beaten paths and stumbled across Brit-cops who were arresting teenagers for something I couldn’t figure out. After running past some graffiti walls and an unexciting church I decided to finally take on my night-tour at dark and headed back to Green Park. And this I can truly recommend! If you want to see the pure magic of this city, the parts that might be hidden to you when you walk around, and the time of day you will obtain the best impressions, discover London at night! On a bus, safe and sound, and with a British tour guide! It adds to the feeling of originality. And be sure to tip the guy, as people in UK are struggling from the financial crisis, too. This guide took us past the Hyde Park, the Museum of Natural History, the illuminated Harrods’, past the Big Ben, London Eye, and Theater, over the Tower Bridge towards the Waterloo Station back over the London Bridge to the old part of town. And the history behind this old part is simply amazing, I can’t wait to read or hear more about it. One day I will walk those streets and see what they are about during day light.

With the bus tour being such a high success I was eager to cash in my second ticket I had purchased at the hostel: A ride with the London Eye! And this I did the day after.

But first, on my second day in this wonderful historical city, I went to Hyde Park, enjoyed watching the true Brits pass me by on horses and in a carriage (this has so much more flair than the touristy carriages in Central Park!), continued on to Green Park and eventually ended up at Buckingham Palace. Here my ultimate luck came into play, as it was the day of the guard change (this only happens every other day), and at 11 AM the first parade came marching down the street: Red uniformed guys with huge black bear fur hats, playing the trumpet while kicking their legs up in the air. What an act! I didn’t want to lose too many minutes, so I regretfully continued my journey after 20 minutes of watching. It was a spectacle, nevertheless. On my way to Westminster Bridge I passed through the business district of London, or so it felt. Fancy stores and shops advertising overpriced clothes; women and men in costumes and suits hectically walking past the tourist with the over-sized camera.
Then Westminster Abbey with the one and only Big Ben. Street performers impersonating the Queen on the bridge. And finally: the London Eye!

Carriage in Hyde Park

The ultimate tourist in front of Buckingham Palace

Despite the warnings my hostel attendant had issued the lines weren’t too bad. I passed some small groups and went to the express lane, which I had bought a ticket for at the hostel but it hadn’t cost me any extra. Before you enter the cubicles, they lead you into a 4D theater (sorry, cinema!) and for 5 minutes you get to see the an animated film about how great the Eye looks during all seasons year-round. I really liked the New Year’s Eve shot as it adds a nice touch to stand close to an illuminated blue wheel when fireworks go off above the city.

The London Eye offers an amazing view, I have to say. I recommend doing this but once you’ve done it there aren’t really too many reasons to do it twice. Unlike the Empire State Building platform you cannot choose how long to stay but your cubicle is in constant move and you have to adjust to all the new sites in front of you. London is expansive and it looked beautiful on that particular day. I enjoyed spending 20 minutes above the roofs of the city but also considered them a bit short.

After being the ultimate tourist, I checked out the Sherlock Holmes museum at tada Baker Street and went inside their cute souvenir store. Old-style phones and statues with magnifying glasses – definitely going to need those in real life!

Regent’s Park is right around the corner and worth the walk. I assume the Queen Mary’s gardens with flower beds are nice to look at during the (cold?) summer months. My last sight for that day was the historic St. Paul’s church: A piece of jewelry made out of stone and decorated with Roman style figures disguised as fountains in front. Gorgeous! The spot seems to be popular for old-school-Londoners taking in their lunch or reading the Evening Standard, as I spotted a few on the steps.

My last night out was a whirl of barhopping: A 30-people-bar on our way to Soho. Great for cocktails. A gay bar in Soho. Great for gay men. An Asian fusion restaurant around Picadilly. Great for fast food. A beer at a bar filled with drunks. Great for making fun of Brits. A walk past Hyde Park and back. Great for choosing which Lamborghini you want. And a last drink (whiskey and ginger ale!) at the only bar open at such a “late”hour: 24-hour-hotels! The Brit and I made it until 2 AM. Good-bye’s are always so sad!

On my last morning I managed to pack my stuff without forgetting a single thing in the room and scooped in one hour at the British Museum. Now one hour is pathetic for so much history at one spot, but I still got some nice shots and I also saw the ultimate goddess among the antiques: Rosetta Stone! Boy, was I proud of myself!

Venus hiding from the eyes of an intruder

The return to Germany is blurry, as I remember stepping on a dozen British feet when hurrying along busy tube tunnels to fetch my bus at Victoria Station. One lady got very mad with me as she heightened her voice and pointed out that this had been the third person already I had shoved out of my way. I think I failed to accurately respond and correct the number upwards.
The shuttle to Stansted took us almost 2 hours, which well over one was spent in London. I guess it can take a long time to get out of this city. And the flight, well, the flight… Ryanair is a different story, to be told in a different post!

Things never to forget:
The mean brush that had almost made me cry when it wrapped itself around my hair and I almost considered having it cut off before the nice Asian British girl stepped in and helped me detangle it. Thank you!
The high amount of French (fast) food found on practically every street corner: Pret-a-manger and crêpes being among the British favorites. Yummy crêpes at the Camden Stables being among my favorites. They might have a weak spot for French food, the English.
The oyster card I lost on my last day and the 5 pound deposit I had to pay when obtaining a new one. Of course I never had the necessary time to return it and actually get my money back, as the run to the bus was too hectic.
The nice employee at the British Museum who took my suitcase considered “overweight” by the garderobe department and stored it in the kids’ department for one pound only.
Other things are best kept in London…

London in a Nutshell (Part I – Of Course)

Ice-cold guiness. Stiff Brits. Centuries of history to digest!
My trip to London was about as eventful as it was confusing, as impressive as it was intimidating, as much fun as it was sad to leave again. To date I still ask myself how stupid I was to dedicate only 4 days in the Brit-Capital, whereas one week wouldn’t have been enough, but at least I got to see the metropolis before I returned to the American continent, which had really been one of my long-burried dreams. As you might recall, I was curious to know how London’s 8 million citizens compared to New York’s 8 million inhabitants. After being there and seeing it, I still can’t give you a satisfying answer to this.

The general impression I got from the crowd on the tube, in the bars, on the streets, during tours and sight-seeing was simple: Brits might seem stiff at first, with their fancy little suits, dressed-up attitude, and carefully highlighted hair but they are really nice and polite people. The generation I was digging the most were the people above 60 years of age, for I consider them the true gentleladies and gentlemen. It has some sort of appeal talking to these old veterans when standing in a line to a supermarket and trying to figure out their opinion on various countries or on their perspective of London. I issue a special thanks to the very patient couple at Ryanair airport who didn’t grow tired of repeating the innumerable ways of transport from Stansted to the city and getting around the city centre. The same goes to the lady employed by the National Rail who repeatedly mentioned several tube names and stations I had to take to get to my destination (she was in her 30ies, so I guess generations are irrelevant).

Completely disorganized I had failed to look at a map before I entered the country, so I was a bit at a loss at the airport already. When my flight arrived an hour too late, the clock showed 8 PM and taking a bus or shuttle was not really a comfortable choice for me anymore. My friend was supposed to meet me around Russell Square, so I waged my options and took a fast train towards the Tottenham Hale stop. From there it was easy to take a tube to named square and all I had to do is wait until the Brit picked me up, for I was completely unsure which street to take from there on (I had finally managed to get a hold of a subway map but still didn’t own a map of London’s street names and crossings). He was very nice, this guy, and gladly walked me to the hostel I was staying at: The Generator Hostel!

I spent a total of three nights here and my first impression hasn’t been taunted by the following impressions I gained over the course of time: A huge building hosting around 1000 people from all walks of life but youngsters being the majority, constituting a haven for parties, booze, and fun. I don’t really stay in hostels too often. This had been my fourth one (yes, despite me liking to travel). I shared a room with 9 other people and I have to say that it worked out quite well. The first night I came home I was greeted by two Italian guys and the three of us were trying to pull our stuff from underneath the bed without waking the others (lights were turned off). The flashes of our cell phones in our hands, wandering across bed sheets and sleepy faces, must have looked about as spooky as it must have been hilarious to an outsider. Then there was this 70-something man staying in our room who had to go back to London once every six months for extending his visa to India. After his retirement he had made it out to Goa and I could have listened to his picturesque descriptions about the beaches, people, food, and life style forever. I also really hope the Argentinean girl made it to her next destination safe and sound, and maybe she will have a great stay in the Big Apple next year. What was truly surprising to me, even though I had mastered three other hostel experiences before, was the randomness of groups of suited-up individuals in their 30ies or even 40ies, who had obviously rented out a room and were staying in a YOUTH hostel. Maybe I should become as open-minded as they when I am in my 40ies.

My first night out was already an accumulation of London’s exotic diversity in terms of cuisine: The Brit invited me for an ice-cold guiness at a local bar (I have to admit it truly tastes amazing when ice cold) and then we went for Indian dinner in the Soho area (forgive me if I am wrong, as I didn’t really have the areas right during my first stay). Even though this restaurant was not high-class it looked pretty fancy from the outside – a misperception, as my friend pointed out, but I was still thrilled to dine in such an environment. After ordering one main dish and splitting an appetizer, which I could of course not finish, I was really carried away at how fine Indian dishes taste in London and I doubt I will be able to eat this authentic anywhere else (the same goes for Mexican food outside of Cali and Mexico). We ended the night with a late-night beer at a typical Irish bar called O’Neill’s, before we got kicked out at 11PM already. Yep, they stick to those closing times, the Brits! But to be honest, I was dumb-founded at the speed the drinks were devoured and poured into booze-hungry throats so that I am not too surprised when seeing stumbling Brits at 10 PM in New York anymore. I guess they have a different understanding of enjoying a drink or two, these Islanders, and our pathetic New York day-time-drinking won’t measure up to their standards.

First night over, first real day to start: Sight-seeing! I knew my time was extremely limited as soon as I finally opened up a real map I had obtained at the hostel reception. Boy! I was pretty glad to see my “babysitter” for lunch again, as I was desperate to ask him for the hotspots I could see during the following two real days. Well, first I went off to King’s Cross and St. Pancras, a nice hotel built next to the station. Harry Potter’s 9 ¾ platform is a bit disappointing, I dare say, and Kings’ Cross looks like a normal train station, but I just had to check it out.
Russell Square, on the other hand, is a nice area to stay, as it is central to the tube and buses that take you almost anywhere. From there you can also comfortably walk to the center of the fun, meaning to Soho, Piccadilly Circus, and the rest of the entertainment. I think I would stay here again if I had the choice.

Russel Square
tony and guy

After exploring several parts of Soho already, and stumbling over the ultimate Toni & Guy salon (unintentionally but when I did I just had to peek in), I met the Brit for British lunch: Fish and Chips.

So this is the deal: You can’t just stuff a French fry into your mouth and shove the fish after. You have to carefully pour vinegar over the entire dish, dip the fish into the tartar sauce and then indulge in what isn’t bad at all. I like it! I only had it once but that one time was very convincing! While being distracted by London’s bar culture during lunch, my friend circled a few areas I should see and handed me the map. First it went off to Chinatown, which I have to say is prettier than New York’s Chinatown. And Chinese people do speak English there; unlike in the Big Apple, where you can get around on your Mandarin or whatever other dialect you’re speaking. I took these nice shots after a short rain shower (I noticed these tend to happen at 3PM in the afternoon).

Magical Times at Schwetzingen Schlosspark

Heidelberg by itself has a lot of history and several interesting cultural sites. I am not trying to take away the beauty of this student city to anyone who has never been or who loves it there.
But another good thing I have come to appreciate about Heidelberg is its proximity to other amazing villages, towns, and cities. Take Frankfurt International Airport for example. It’s a one hour drive away, and so is the Schwabencapital Stuttgart. Mannheim with its historic castle, high nightlife, and other attractions is a rough 20 minutes by car (depending on speed and traffic).

And then there is a small town called Schwetzingen right in between. It takes you only 10 minutes at the most to get there. When I had actually lived in the area, I hadn’t known too much about this town. I used to go there to have my hair trimmed and maybe stop for a scoop of delicious Italian ice cream in its cute pedestrian zone, since I was there anyways. For some reason I had walked past its castle (Schloss) many, many times before but had miserably failed to check it out or notice its beautiful assets hidden to my one-sided mind.

The castle! Surprisingly familiar to more people than one would assume at first for the popular German soul band “Söhne Mannheims” (Sons of Mannheim) with the well-known singer Xavier Naidoo have performed here on several occasions already. They call their acts “Wettsingen in Schwetzingen” (this is a funny German word pun roughly translating to “Singingly competing in Schwetzingen – it rhymes in German) and their beautifully composed songs reverberate from the historic halls of the Schwetzingen Castle. If you’re interested, check out this video, it conveys the gist of it all. Just seeing their performance can give you goose bumps. They are a great band!

When I checked out Heidelberg during my last visit, I also dedicated some time for a day-long stay in Schwetzingen. Now eight hours are surely not enough to meet up with friends, visit a flea market and see the entire castle, which closes at a certain time on Saturdays. However, eight hours turned out to be enough to meet up with friends, visit a flea market and see a small portion of the unique castle garden, which is open until 11 o’clock in the evening. We happened to eat at a restaurant right across from the castle. For those who are into Schnitzel with Cordon Bleu (really tasty French blue cheese) and good German beer, I can highly recommend this spot.

Italian ice cream
Schnitzel and Beer

While indulging in our typical German food, we got the idea of pretending to be complete tourists and doing some sightseeing. How much could we scoop into this quite sunny late-summer day (remember, we are still in the first week of September)? Well, the castle garden seemed like a great compromise since it was already past 6:30 PM and, as we found out, the entrance was half-priced in the evening, meaning it cost €2.50 per person (usually it costs € 5.00, which isn’t too bad, either).

So we entered through the old-style metal gates and stepped into a world which had been hidden from our eyes for too long already. What a great time we had here! I will let the pictures below speak for themselves, but before I do this, I will give you some interesting facts and figures:

The garden was designed under the supervision of several kings but notably it attained its biggest influence in the second half of the 18th century by a landscape architect called Nicholas de Pigage. Rumors have it that the many side entrances and the maze that can be found in the garden were intended for hide-and-seek-games with the current king’s mistresses. The entire gardens measure 30 km (19 miles) in length, so it would take you forever to walk this piece of Eden on earth. I am not sure if you can rent a bike or bring your own, you might want to check into that, as it facilitates matters. Many hidden paths and other beautiful ornaments revealed themselves to our curious eyes when we stepped off the main path and we got to see at least three wedding couples on this day – one of them who was shooting a video and who will probably have us in the background, sadly.

Despite us walking for almost three hours past some carefully designed flower beds and fountains, we didn’t really get to see much of the Schwetzingen Castle Gardens, maybe an estimated 10 percent. I find it a great place to work on your photo skills and to shoot pictures of unforgettable value.

And Schwetzingen not only has a castle, medieval churches, stores, and tasty Italian ice cream, but it is popular for its asparagus, too. White asparagus, that is. Asparagus season is only for two months each year, and if you miss it, then you won’t be able to eat freshly planted, local goodies. I believe asparagus season in the Southwest of Germany is from the end of April until the end of June, but this can vary, of course, depending on how warm spring season starts off.

Asparagus statue in Schwetzingen

The First Impressions: Back in New York

I know it’s not a big deal. Returning to the city you voluntarily choose to live in for a good amount of time already. But this had been my first time I had left the Big Apple for longer than a week. After more than two weeks, I had already forgotten about some things here. How to use the metro vending machine, for example. How to be patient when talking to JFK employees who are rude to you. Or how to deal with those insane stares these strange men give young girls on a crowded subway.

I’m sure you have gotten the gist of my general opinion from previous writings already. Despite many advantages and cultural events this city has to offer there are some major problems I was hesitating to deal with and which have poked out even more when coming back in September. Don’t get me wrong. I love New York. But I also despise certain aspects. While I had really thought Germany would give me a culture shock when it didn’t, I wouldn’t have imagined it would take me more than one week to adjust back to Manhattan and Brooklyn. I didn’t understand many things when I got off the plane and went through customs. For example, I took the subway, not a cab. On the subway there were these two black girls who were checking each other out and, I felt, competing with each other for something I couldn’t see. All of a sudden their loud attitude, exaggerated demeanor in pushing their way through and their looks made perfect sense to me. I don’t think I had seen two individuals who were more self-conscious than them in a while. And I also got tired of it. All the times I had to deal with these people being rude to me or showing me attitude because they feel bad about themselves. All those many times I had gotten angry about people in the train who were impolite and had almost let them ruin a perfect morning or afternoon to me, all those times I should have seen that the only problem they have is with themselves.

The way the people dress here really got to me, too. I’m not anyone who follows Fashion Week or the latest trend too closely. But Europe and Europeans seem to be well-dressed for a fact, so seeing the difference in attire after only two weeks of abstinence was hurtful. Slung-over baggie pants, torn, stained shirts – some of the clothes people walk around in here who aren’t even homeless. Where is the fashion sense? I feel that you can certainly find the best-dressed folks here but also the worst-dressed, only which one overtakes the general impression is the question.

People are more selfish here than anywhere else
, I believe. My first day, jetlagged, tired, and just wanting to get back home, was filled with thoughts on people I had surrounded myself with throughout the past one and a half years and who I consider not worthy my attention anymore. After being home in Germany, encountering friends who are actually HAPPY to see me and who greeted me in such a warm manner that I couldn’t help but blink my tears away, I sort of expected a different welcome here. I’m starting to wonder not only which path to take but who to take it with.
Only half a year ago, after not being around sane people for a while, I was increasingly blaming myself for these impressions and I had a hard time dealing with the disappointment of never being able to form close friendships here and never being able to trust someone 100 percent other than myself. But in this first week I was back, I saw it all too clear. I saw the dirt of this city, I saw the hideousness of the people’s personality, I saw the way they interact with each other because they consider themselves not worthy. Their projections of this onto yet another person who is supposed to become angry just to satisfy the deeper needs of their inner sadist.

I don’t know. I guess I don’t have too many good things to say about my first impressions in New York. To me, a city is about its people. Now New York might have many opportunities no other place in this world might have, but it can be a very lonely stay here if you decide to take on those opportunities. It’s a constant competition with everything and everyone around you.

And yet, underneath all of the confusion of a culture shock and readjustment to something I should be used to, underneath all of the pre-judgment, these harsh feelings and disappointed thoughts, underneath this all, I do have hope. A glimmer pushing itself through the darkness and desperation towards the surface. I see people being nice to me for now reason. I see people with a heart and a soul when standing in line at Trader Joes. I see the magic of New York’s random encounters when going out at night. I see the beauty of being able to do whatever you want to do. I see the ultimate freedom you can achieve in a city like this.

And so the overall phrase proves to be true once again: New York has the best of people, New York has the worst of people. Time to make my selections of who I want to surround myself with.

HeidelBERG not HeidelBURG

This is the deal (sorry Makya, had to steal that!). Most Americans, Europeans, and tourists from countries other than Germany get the name of this city mixed up. Heidelberg means a city with mountains and hills (-berg), whereas Heidelburg (which doesn’t exist, by the way) refers to a city with a castle (=burg). Short introductory German course, here. To complicate matters, aside from Heidelberg having a few hills it is also popular for its medieval castle. For some reason especially Americans always think lovely H-town is called Heidelburg; but I believe this slight misunderstanding can be led back to problems in pronouncing German words. You want to know the right way of intonating this city’s name? Hide-l-bark.

Anyhow, Heidelberg is one very beautiful town. I used to spend 2 and a half years in this city because I completed my school degree there and have come to love the town instantaneously. It’s a mix of people, geography, historic sites, and of course the weather that has fascinated me from the very first week I moved here. You should know that the warmest spot in Germany lies only 30km (half an hour drive) away, thus making Heidelberg a truly sunny, warm, and sometimes humid spot during the summer while casting a relatively mild climate onto the city during winter months. Now I am no one to complain about German weather. But after living in Florida and then in Heidelberg for an extended period of time, I do wish I could be around this weather a bit longer, especially from December to March.

Aside from the climate, Heidelberg offers unique bits and pieces of history. It is home to the oldest university in Germany, which was founded in 1386, and its campus is spread all over the old parts of town and the Neuenheimer Feld, which you can reach by bike when you pass the bridge.
The Altstadt is my favorite part about Heidelberg. You find many historic churches, museums, small entry-ways, cute cafés, fountains, and other statues here that make it hard to choose what to take in first. Much history lies in those few streets, and I recommend going off the beaten paths. The Haupstrasse is the longest continuing shopping street in Germany (the longest, not biggest!), and it leads past many shops, restaurants, theaters and souvenir shops. Don’t hesitate to take that left or right turn and to sneak down a seemingly empty cobble street to see what could and will surprise you.

Heidelberg's pedestrian zone
Small cobble stone side street leading to another historic church

Now to the castle: Built before 1214, it has been ruined from the 16th century on by natural disasters and wars, and its remains continue to look impressive on top of its hill, which is a slope leading to another historic site called the Kaiserstuhl. Germans happen to differentiate not only between a hill and a castle but also between different sorts of castles: Schloss and Burg. Since the English language does not make a significant difference between either, I’m struggling to explain it to you. A Schloss has more ornate elements, is beautifully made up, and was invented for purposes of pure representation while a Burg is a rough-looking building simply meant for defense and was built a few hundred years before they came up with the idea of a Schloss. Here are two pictures emphasizing the difference:

Schloss Schönbrunn in Wien/Vienna
Burg Eltz at Koblenz

As you might not be able to tell, Heidelberg has a Schloss, not a Burg, but it looks like a Burg because its Schloss was ruined during various ages which have left it destroyed to a good amount of deal. So every summer the city celebrates its castle with something called the castle illumination (Schlossbeleuchtung) for three whole times from June to September. The castle looks quite beautiful when glamoured up by a fake fire inside its ruins and firecrackers breaking the silence over the old bridge. I consider this event a magical moment.

Heidelberger Castle during one warm summer day

Aside from the hills, the town is also likely to be called the Philosopher’s Town for many poets, writers, and thinkers have made it out here at one point in their lives. There is a path called the Philosopher’s Walk which leads around Bergheim all the way on top of a hill and from there you have a beautiful sight onto medieval churches, old buildings, and the aforementioned one and only castle of Heidelhill. I hiked this path once with my friend who was visiting me and who was eager to do the walk. I don’t think I’ve ever been in so much pain when slouching uphill before. But the scenery unfolding in front of us was really worth the battle! So if you ever want to do something you might feel proud of, do this!

My time in Heidelberg was limited during my last visit. I only had four days of time to meet up with old coworkers, old friends, old students, and folks I didn’t know existed until I had to bitter-sweetly say my good-byes again. We managed to go out on almost every night I was there, even on a Thursday, which I had rarely done before. I guess the party is happening where we are because we had an excellent evening filled with fun events. I managed to visit my old work in the Rohrbach part of town and was happy to see how things had changed and how they had stayed. Since I had worked in the wine industry, my former boss even gave me a good bottle of wine, which I happened to forget at my pregnant friend’s house, but she will surely use it to celebrate her baby’s birth. Or so I hope!

I didn’t think I would have such a good time in the old city and I cannot wait to go back for another visit, maybe for a bit longer the next time! Among the towns to see in Germany, I consider this to be on the very top of that list (after Munich and Berlin perhaps) because it offers so many historic sites on one spot.

Heidelberger Bismarckplatz
Random street

The Old Bridge

And who knows? Maybe one day you will lose your heart in Heidelberg… And get a student kiss or two! Mwah!

Heidelberg Student Kiss retail store
Historic tram at the Bismarckplatz

Deutschland: The First Few Days

After this tremendously stress-free flight I jumped off the plane in FRA International Airport – well-rested and ready for the culture shock I thought I would experience after one and a half years of abstinence from Europe. Wrong! It never hit me, I have to admit. I thought it would take me at least a few days to adjust to the small roads, small cars, small everything in Germany but I guess I had already prepared myself mentally towards this or perhaps New York is not too different from Europe after all. The first thing I got was a cheese/egg/lettuce/cucumber/ and tomato sandwich from a German bakery at the airport. So good! That was truly the one thing I missed the most: The healthy food you can find practically everywhere without even having to look very hard. Freshly baked pastries, tasty delights. Oh how hard it is to get this quality in flavor over here!

My mother picked me up on that day and we both voted for stopping in Koblenz on our two-and-a-half hour drive home. Even though the first of September usually means fall in Germany, the sun was shining quite warm on this day and the following days so I didn’t mind soaking up its last rays before I would be left in the cold, which I knew was coming. Now Koblenz is a city whose history reaches way back into the early 800 BC (and, believe it or not, this is not that old in terms of Europe). You can look up all the facts on wiki here, but what I want to tell you is that is about the only city that has two major rivers, the Rhine and the Moselle, flowing through it which both unite at a point or rather a “corner” in town called the Deutsches Eck. This spot along with its medieval Castle Burg Eltz has made this city so popular for school trips and educational excursions, as I recall my childhood time when our teachers wanted to drag us to Koblenz for an extended weekend.

Well, the city surely revealed its glamorous side when I stopped by as the Bundesgartenschau (in short: BUGA) was going on: The national flower show held once every two years from April to October. Supposedly Koblenz was hosting it in 2011 and we strolled past many colorful flower fields and creative designs laid out on the ways along the river Rhine. We hesitated to buy a ticket as we only had three hours before it closed for the day and I eventually decided against this but I am sure it must have been a great event to witness if you were to have at least half a day of time. If you are into these things, you should make a trip out there before it ends in October… Or come back next year!
Koblenz has many more things to offer, of course, and here are some great shots of random lovelies I’ve stumbled across on our walk:


Inside the church
Random wine cellars we walked by
Wine cellar
People of Koblenz enjoying the day along the rhine

We ended our “short” trip with an Italian meal at a random café laid out on the river and I really enjoyed my quattro-formaggio-pizza while Mom got an order of pasta flavored with a mushroom sauce. Both of us couldn’t eat up so we took our left-overs home.

The next day I was in for a night out in Trier with two of my close friends from high school. Trier is really nothing special to me anymore, as I’ve grown up in the area and had to endure long shopping trips, a few party nights and other random events you get to do between child- and adulthood. I know it well and that is probably why I fail to see and appreciate its beauty sometimes.

Trier is the oldest city in Germany. It has many Roman sites such as the Amphitheater, the Porta Nigra, which used to be white but has turned black over the course of centuries, the Roman baths and and and… The list goes on! Aside from Roman architecture you can take a good look at Christian buildings in forms of churches, domes, and cathedrals. It is quite beautiful, I suppose. And for historians it is a true treasure for so many different eras are covered beneath those cobble stone ways.
So that particular night my friends and I walked past the Dome, which happened to be shining brightly in the moonlight and I took a picture of this. We ended up going to three different bars at first, then an underground club in a basement, another bar, and taking a random tour with drunken guys, past the Karl Marx house, into a laid-off bar where only drunks hang out and eventually driving back home, only a car ride away.

Dome of Trier highly illuminated by night
Paintings in the hallway to the restrooms at a random bar
Us enjoying cocktails
A random guy we walked past and who had obviously partied unitl he dropped...
The Karl Marx House in Trier

The evening was fun for I got to see my friends again but I have to say that Trier’s nightlife was disappointingly empty on that particular night. This fact might be the main reason why I consider this city to be boring, for if you cannot have fun in the evening then it’s hard to get a hold of its flair during the day.

But please do not get a wrong impression, as I failed to mention the most important asset of this region:

For those of you who like to drink, Trier lies next to the Moselle, which is known for its great wines, and the towns and villages around it host wine fests throughout the entire summer until early September. So if you ever make it into this area, be sure to get a box or two of finest Moselle wine, it really is a great treat!

The Beginning – Flight


I’m not gonna lie. The entire trip already started pretty well. I had booked my flight via Singapore Airlines, which was a premiere to me as I hadn’t experienced a voyage with them before. At first I was quite apprehensive, trying not to think about the disastrous flight Air India had provided my friend with on his way over to the US. “Asian airlines are hopefully not all the same,” I prayed and hoped to not get squashed in a narrow seat in the back of the plane with bad-tasting container food and finding no way to sleep.

But luckily, all my fears vanished when I approached the counter! A polite steward checked in my underweight bag (yes, this is always a problem for me, packing the right amount of things without going over the limit!) and I was able to stuff some more relevant presents and pieces things into the suitcase before handing it over to him. Since I hadn’t ordered a vegetarian meal 48 hours ahead of time, I didn’t really get my hopes up about this matter. But his superior, who was standing behind him, smiled at me and assured me that I wouldn’t starve on this flight back home. The guy checking in next to me was desperately trying to upgrade his seat to a window view. I couldn’t help but laugh, secretly wishing him good luck and shaking my head about his stubbornness.

JFK airport is disappointingly unimpressive, regarding its reputation of being the biggest airport in the metro area. It is quite easy to get around it, too. Therefore, after walking past dozens of unexciting duty-free stores and observing the different types of people bustling around the airport, I settled in a seat near the gate, mentally more than ready to board and to maybe get an hour or two of rest. All of a sudden an employee of Singapore Airlines called out three persons who were meant to come to the check-in desk immediately. My name was the last one of these three and I sort of expected to be told that the plane was overbooked and I would receive some extra money for waiting another day or so until the next flight went out. Great!

Airtrain to JFK
Workers at JFK securing bags
One of those stores...

Yet when I got to the counter, the clerk briefly looked at my ticket, switched it out for another one and handed it back to me with a big grin on his face. “Welcome to Singapore Airlines,” he said, “Enjoy your flight!” I was confused at first and glanced down, not realizing the difference in color instantaneously. Then I read more carefully and deciphered the word “Business Class” on the token, but still did not understand what this really meant. “Does this mean I get more storage room for my feet and bags?” I thought, “Well, that shouldn’t be bad, right?”

But as it turns out it was a bit more than that. I waited ten minutes instead of half an hour to board the plane. I got two seats that had so much room in front and in back of them I could have comfortably pulled my entire seat back if I had wanted to. I was politely greeted by my own personal flight attendant, or so it seemed, as she was responsible for only five more people in the section. I got to choose between ten different kinds of newspapers and magazines but settled for “only” two. And the very best was that my dinner consisted of a three-course meal, starting with a fresh salad followed by an Asian eggplant dish, and finished off with a well-flavored blue-berry cheese cake. Only four hours later my breakfast consisted of two courses. We even had a MENU listing all these delicacies for crying out loud! Altogether there were 10 varieties to pick from, not to mention drinks, snacks, sandwiches and other goodies in between.

On top of these meals we could choose from free champagne, wine, or beer or all three together throughout the entire flight. I opted to stay with one choice of alcohol and downed my first two glasses of champagne before the plane took off. It was a very enjoyable flight, as you can imagine! And the entire time I felt like a queen, to be honest.
Supposedly Business class nowadays is equivalent to what it used to be First class years ago, so now I am really starting to wonder what an upgrade to First class would have looked like… it must have been like paradise! On the entire 7 hour flight I got to sleep a good 5 hours and watch movies that had just come out in American theater. We could pull of our shoes and put on some slippers, rub our hands and faces with warm, wet towels, and enjoy other sorts of luxuries.

The cutest flight attendants ever!
The menu to choose from
three course dinner
Me enjoying my eggplant dish!

Throughout the flight I struck up a conversation with the girl sitting three seats next to me. As it turns out she happened to be German, too, and she had also received an upgrade from Economy to Business class. “Well, lucky us,” I thought, and was glad it had happened. She had been waiting for four days for an opportunity like this, though, as her flight on Sunday had been pushed off to Thursday because of the hurricane (which seems to have happened a long long time ago from now) and she was simply glad to be on her way back home. I guess we all were.

I believe to date this was the only flight I have truly enjoyed and I highly recommend Singapore Airlines for anyone traveling further distances than domestic flights.

And, to not worry you, Economy class on my way back might have been less luxurious but nonetheless also very comfortable for this amount of time. What really got my attention was their 32 kilo limit on one bag or two bags weighing each 23 kilos (compares to 70 lbs and 50 lbs but you might want to verify this with their Web site!) you are allowed to take with as free checked luggage. In a time were airlines try to charge you for everything and nothing, I think this is about the most decent deal I’ve ever found.

Thumbs up to the only airline I’ve flown with in over four years which really seems to care for their paying guests!

Back Again, Back Again, Once Again I Am Back Again!

Loaded not only with an extra bag or two of chocolates but also weighed with memories worth a ton I return to the American continent. As for today, I’ve already slept the obligatory 12 hours after two days of restlessness and now I should be good to go. 18 days might seem long at first but they were really too short in hindsight as time has flown by in a wink.
Quick hours in the medieval city of Koblenz, a brief stay in Heidelberg and Schwetzingen, a glorious trip to the British capital, and a one-week-period of seeing family and friends again have made this excursion back home unforgettable. A bittersweet taste still lingers on my tongue as I try to sort out my thoughts on various trips and experiences. Overall, it was fantastic to reconnect with old and new people but of course it is always sad to say goodbyes in the end. Especially since I truly never know when I will see these people again.
Now, just let me figure out how to put these thoughts in words and colorful pictures and then I can’t wait to share with you all the great impressions I was able to accumulate in two very different countries. Fall in Europe – surely one of the best times for a visit!

PS: I couldn’t happen to notice an abundance of nice blog posts I’ve completely missed out on throughout the past two weeks! You’ve surely been creative, I have to say. Looks like I will take some time to read all the exciting things you guys have come up with recently!

Time to Say Good-bye

The time has come to conclude this week’s posts with a good-bye, see you soon writing.
Irene has flooded, hurdled, and winded New York a bit and even induced the temporary closing of JFK for an entire weekend ( I hope Irene is very proud of herself!) but she has not managed to delay my flight to FRA (Frankfurt International Airport) today. Therefore, I will be getting out of this despicable dirt hole whirling madhouse city called the Big Apple in less than 24 hours, which is this night, September 1st (I know, most ideal date to fly!). The plan is to come back on Sept 18 (There, I even gave you the EXACT date! Hah!), but who knows if I ever decide to take that plane back… Homesickness is still there. Well, until I made up my mind, I am nonetheless planning on rejoining my very different life in the city of New York on Sunday in two and a half weeks.

Since I am going on a vacation, I doubt I will be able to update you with new stuff from the continent of Europe. However, don’t hesitate do click on here once in a while, as there are many old posts that deserve some reading. For the ultimate list of highlights, check out this link.

And if you get bored with reading through the most recent posts and the top ten, how about you do some discovering on your own? Especially for those subscribers who have joined me pretty recently in the past few weeks, just go here to start from the beginning. 18 days is a nice time to read through one post after another, you could do it two posts a day, three posts a day, or no posts a day – however you want.

The plan is to go home for a week, then visit old friends at my former university town until I hit London up for a stay of four days (I know, waaay too short). Thus, I’ll be seeing at least one new exciting place, as I have never been to UK before, and I’m sure it will be an interesting adventure. I am actually itching to know how the Brit capital compares to the biggest metropolis of the US, but I have the feeling these two cities do not like to be compared to each other, after all…

See you soon, folks! Hope I’ll have some new pictures I’ll be able to show you soon and some funny stories I can share with you. Arrivederci, Au Revoir, Auf Wiedersehen, Good Bye and tune in for more news in September!
Winke Winke!