Archive for May 2012

Cologne, Urbanization & German Romance

Week two recap time! About to fall asleep sitting up though, so bear with me if it's a little incoherent. So last Saturday (the 12th) I ended up going to Cologne (still in the North Rhine-Westphalia region) and spent the day with N, one of the other interns, and her boyfriend K. They were absolutely lovely hosts, and I got a great tour and learned loads about this area, Germany, Mexico...
As soon as you exit the Cologne Hauptbahnhof, you're immediately overwhelmed by the sight of the Kölner Dom (Cologne Cathedral), a massive Roman Catholic church dating back from the 13th century. The dichotomy between the prominent structures (the station and the cathedral) right beside each other, one modern and high tech and the other Medieval and historic is kind of rad. Erosion, weather and time are obviously inevitable forces acting on it, so it's basically constantly undergoing renovation. It still looks amazing, but apparently a lot of the exterior isn't actually remnant of the Middle Ages. 
From the outside the cathedral is very dark and imposing looking - massive and intimidating, sure - but not particularly welcoming. It just kind of looks grey. From the inside though, it's another story. Huge panels of stained glass filter the light to a soft glow. Lit candles, ancient tapestries and numerous pews inhabit the interior. In a restricted access area is a shrine said to contain the remains of the Three Kings/Three Wise Men. Wikipedia says it's a UNESCO World Heritage site that attracts approximately 20,000 visitors a day. 
The weather in this entire area has been really insane the last week, effectively alternating through the course of basically four seasons in the span of an hour. It'll literally switch from massive downpour to perfect sunny day within minutes - and because the office is in a high rise building with a view of the entire city, we can literally watch the weather come in and differentiate between parts of the city that are sunny/stormy. N said it hailed in Cologne one morning.  
The Rhine meanders in graceful curves, looping its way through the region, but it's not super wide. There are a number of bridges that span the river. We trekked onto a large on in Cologne, where the fence blocking the pedestrian traffic from mechanic is literally covered by locks.

So apparently it's a thing - especially when people get married - to get a lock, have your names and the date engraved or carved, lock it to a bridge, then each take one of the two keys and throw it into the Rhine. The concept of a locked bond in which you've thrown away the key takes on a literal meaning here (and apparently there are such bridges in Italy as well?) The Germans may not have a reputation for romance, but they seem plenty romantic in actuality...

Heart-shaped doodads are readily available, PDA is commonplace, and there are a number of intriguing courtship rituals. May 1st, May Day, is a sort of celebration of the arrival of Spring. Young lads who've got a crush on someone will go and decorate a May Day tree outside her house with colorful ribbons and maybe her name. There are two potential outcomes: 1) she accepts the invitation and they go on a date or 2) she declines and her father buys her rejected admirer a drink. Win-win situation? This year's a Leap Year so apparently the girls got to confess their crushes like this too. On Saturdays you see a lot of bachelor/bachelorette parties around town as well. 
Some famous Germans ^. Statues are larger than life - some of them look like they have bullet holes in them, but who knows. K basically put Cologne as a city that's very free-spirited. Could kind of see that, from the hours spent there. For linner (dunch?) we actually ended up getting Lebanese food from a cute little place. On N's suggestion, I got Halloumi. I'm not always the most adventurous eater when it comes to trying new food, but this was actually amazing - it's basically fried goat cheese in a pita wrap with vegetables (and sauce?) (I've tried looking for it here, but to no avail yet.) The cash register at this place was insane - it was some vintage thing that was 150 years old and you had to crank it and the numbers would display!
We walked around for a bit, seeing Old Market, New Market, beer gardens (biergarten)... There was also a massive multi-level store with sports/outdoorsy ware that was pretty next level. On the bottom floor, there was a diving pool where people were taking scuba diving lessons. There was a hiking patch where you could test shoes, and a storm room which could simulate rain/wind so that coats could be tested as well. Takes "try before you buy" to an extreme. 
They recently found some remains from the 15th century just under the surface of the city, so the area around the Cologne Rathaus is currently undergoing archaeological excavation. It's speculated that many goldsmiths worked in the building, back in the day. We finished off the day by getting some Früh Kölsch (at the brewery?) - it's a multi-level building with a conveyor belt system and barrels of beer. 
Attended a panel discussion on urbanization Tuesday night, which was highly fascinating. The panelists had very diverse backgrounds, and a lot of interesting ideas were exchanged. It was also neat to see how a panel runs in German culture - slight nuances differ from North American (although it could be attributed to the style of this particular moderator for all I know). The catering for the reception was pretty good as well - there was Dom Kölsch, hors d'oeuvres/open-faced sandwich things, & some sort of peppermint strawberry thing for desert. 

All in all, it's been another week of fascinating exposure to German living. Cheers!

week one recap

Crazy to think that I've been here in Deutschland for a little over a week now. Alas, I haven't been doing very well on keeping up with recording everything (or taking photos for that matter - e.g. the other day I saw a cluster of like 15 people riding on Segways while waiting for the bus and didn't think to take a photo. I mean, I have an iPhone - no excuses! I'll try to do better from now on.) But anyway - I'll just recap week one for now (so until Friday the 11th). 

Started the internship on Monday. It's been great so far - I'd kind of expected to maybe go through orientation, get eased in - but we just jumped right in! The people are great, the material is interesting, everything about it is pretty awesome right now. 
Been doing a bit of wandering around in the city core/area around the Hauptbahnhof (Central Station) after work lately. Saw these Berliners and immediately thought of the times S relayed that story about how JFK once said, "Ich bin ein Berliner." Bought 5 of these babies. (They had Amerikaners too hehe)
I'm kind of weird when it comes to birthdays. I'm big on maturity and independence, but at the same time, I'm not in a hurry to grow up. This was a big one, the 2-0, two decades. Looking back, I seriously wonder - what have I really accomplished in these past twenty years? What have I done with my life so far, what am I doing with it now, what do I want to do with it? I think about the magnitude of the world and feel insignificant in comparison. 

Turning 20 was anti-climatic, but I suppose I was kind of expecting that. (If anything, moving to Europe by myself a couple days prior was the bigger milestone in terms of growing up; an arbitrary day, artificially calculated by humans, felt simply lesser in comparison.) Woke up not really thinking about it, stayed at work until 6:30pm, pretty meh. Snapped this photo of some graffiti near the bus stop after work - "Consume, Be Silent, Die." 

I walk by this every week day, and it really makes me wonder. Who left it there? What does it mean? What did [the artist] intend it to mean? And I can't help but speculate. Is it a referral to society, how we're silent consumers who do what we're told, leading complacent lives that inevitably end in death? Is it a critique of the human life? Is it a command for what to do? Is it meant to be satirical, implicitly urging people to raise their voices and live? I have no idea - but I really do hope there's something more to life than that.  
Maybe there's a little too thinking that goes on when you move to a foreign city by yourself without knowing anyone there. But is there such a thing as too much self-reflection when we live bustling 21st-century lives? Or do we simply delude ourselves into thinking that our lives have meaning when we're really just caught up in the monotony of the artificial, trivial, seemingly significant events, day in, day out? At the end of it all, maybe our existences are pretty banal.
This sounds kind of depressing so far, but I don't mean it to be - I actually am enjoying being here so far. The buildings are very historic and pretty breathtaking, the people have been pretty nice so far, on the whole, and seeing the entire city laid out from the canteen of the top level of the skyscraper is fairly shattering. 

It's only been a week, but so much has already changed. How much more will paradigms shift over the weeks to come?  
This entire experience is about being willing to try new things, perhaps jump in head first, eyes wide open, in ways that I may not otherwise. So since I'm considering maybe doing some CouchSurfing later this summer, I figured I'd go to the local CS meet-up on Friday. Met up with E (who was a total sweetheart) about half an hour beforehand, and we headed over to La Victoria, a relatively new pub, together.

There was live country music (in English)! Eventually we all ended up in the back room because the music was pretty loud and eventually there were a lot of us (maybe around 15 people?) It's kind of amazing the sorts of random lifechats it's possible to have with complete strangers!
First German beer! On E's recommendation, I got a Peters Kölsch, which is local to this region. (About 15 seconds later, I opened it wrong and sprayed myself in the face a little - tried to surreptitiously wipe my forehead - graceful, I know. E was kind enough not to laugh at me, but an hour later she did advise me to open it facing the other direction next time to avoid the spray haha). Met a lot of interesting people for sure - a lot of locals, a couple well-traveled people. There was a Polish woman who'd been from Vancouver to PEI. A German man who'd lived in the US, another who'd lived in the UK, and many more who've traveled lots. Definitely great to meet and chat with such a diverse range of people!

Barely caught the bus back (as in I sprinted; the bus started moving; door finally opened - phew. In a week, I've seen numerous people literally hit the open door button only to have the bus/tram drive away without them.) In addition to stores closing really early (and staying closed on Sundays), public transportation also stops running just past midnight. 

All in all, a fascinating first week here :)

mishaps getting to Europe

Looking back, you realize a lot that could've been done differently. In hindsight, it probably would've made more sense to take some time off, go home, etc. before the bam-bam-bam process of exams-packing-moving-Europe. (This entire entry will probably leave S feeling very validated, ha.) In between the sleep deprivation & mental exhaustion, there's been a ton of... not very bright moments over the last couple days. But maybe you guys can gain a little what-not-to-do knowledge from my mishaps. 

Last 2 nights in Toronto, crashed with M & A, respectively. Both were absolutely amazing hosts - thanks again, lovely ladies :) Although M's suburban house differs greatly from A's bachelorette pad apartment, they both had an individualistically distinct feeling of home to them. Glad to have had a bit of that, not being able to go home and being literally alone in a foreign continent for the next few months. 

So anyway, getting to Pearson was okay - after a slight mishap of accidentally locking A out of her own apartment (sorry!), rushing back to the new place, grabbing McD's & my bags, TTC to Pearson... got off at the wrong terminal. Yeah, idk why it didn't occur to me to check which terminal I was at first. Oops. Was panicked, but luckily made it with plenty of time to spare. Customs, security, the usual, then flew to Metro Wayne in Detroit. 
The walkway between concourses was pretty epic - it's like a elongated tunnel with swirling colored lights on the sides and calming music playing. Kind of like being underwater. Again, uneventful, boarded the plane for the next leg of the journey - was in the seat literally at the very back of the plane, which was slightly unfortunate. Sat beside a guy from Amsterdam though, which was cool. 

Schiphol was significantly more hectic. Plane landed slightly behind schedule, & it took ages to get off (being at the back). Went through what I thought was security, but was apparently customs heh. Then, over the intercom, "Passenger [D], you're holding up the plane." Then something about luggage would leave without me. D: That was kind of embarrassing. Booked it over, made it with time to spare still, phew. 

Managed the airport bus & streetcar from the airport to the hotel/B&B pretty successfully, all things considered (most important being that things were now all in German). (Considered taking a cab, but a) I'm a cheap university student - 40 vs 7,20 = more travel/shopping money & b) 1 backpack + 1 luggage? would've been a cop out.) 
So anyway - the hotel was pretty nice - view from window ^ - the buildings, etc. definitely have that distinctively European flair to them. When the front desk first gave me the key (#26), I headed up in the elevator & stopped in front of a narrow door labelled 26 with a sticker of a French girl & "toilette" in script font. I open the door. It's a puny toilet + sink. I shut the door, heart racing, mind whirling. I'd booked a 'single room with shower + sink, & separate WC'. I open the door again. It's still just a bathroom. Had I messed up & booked just a bathroom for the night?! 

It turned out my room was around the bend, also labelled '26' haha. The entire B&B had a really rustic feel - wooden tools on the walls, dried crops, animal furs/skulls/paintings, etc. Showered, passed out on the bed. Wake up. Key turns in door, big German woman comes in, babbling at me. Uhh, what is going on? She looks at my booking, says "it's gut!" & leaves. 

I'm beyond baffled. Decide to charge electronics. Take out what I'd bought at Shoppers, a contraption which I'd thought was a power converter, but now realize is only a plug adapter. Uh oh. Head downstairs, front desk tells me there's another guest named [D] from Canada who's coming tonight. Uh... Apparently there'd been some confusion in calls between the booking people, front desk, my parents (separately) & for whatever reason, they thought I hadn't arrived yet. 

Streetcar back into the city, wander around for 4 hours, get lost, and find no power converters anywhere. (Also, getting directions from Germans is different from Canadians... "oh it's just 300m that way" + vague point). Upon my return to the hotel, check the voltage capacities for the 3 electronics I bought... they're all capable of handling up to 240V. Just the plug adapter is fine. Wow. 

So yeah, my trip & first few hours here have been kind of crazy. Still getting used to the time difference & basically sleeping all over the place, it's whack. It hasn't really sunk in yet that I'm in Germany, in Europe. I think because I've wanted to visit Europe for so long, it's all very surreal. That, & the bustle of the last couple days have left me totally out of it and barely able to focus on one thing at a time. 

Need to be coherent by tomorrow though :)

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