If you’re interested in travelling in Germany and don’t want to dish out the money for a train ticket, I would recommend Meinfernbus. Book early enough and it’ll cost you less than a haircut.
Just be aware that it will take you three times as long to get where you are going, mostly due to the fact that Germans need to stop about every 45 minutes to take a break. And if you’re hypothetically going from, say, Heidelberg to Berlin, this will end up being a 9-hour process.
You’ll meet great people like “Tanya”, the Chinese girl studying the same things as you. And you and Tanya will end up chatting away before Tanya gets a case of the shut-eye and starts to do the asleep-sideways-head-bob, just a fraction of an inch from your shoulder. She’ll want to go the 100% so badly; her subconscious already feels comfortable with you because of your deep conversation about American misogyny and Chinese farming techniques. And while you think Tanya is cool, you just met and if German culture has taught you anything you’ll know it’s a bit early to be lending your shoulder out to sleeping strangers like that. Plus you don’t know if she’s a drooler—not worth the risks involved. You decide to distract yourself with Tina Fey’s audiobook and the large un-sliced carrots you didn’t have time to peel, calling to you from the wet pocket of your backpack. You’ll start to chomp down, ignoring the carrot’s rugged, freshly-pulled-from-the-ground appearance, when you notice greasy-haired Ricardo giving you the stare-down from across the aisle, judging your primal food choices. You eye-scan the rest of the bus—there’s ADHD Susan who can’t stop getting up to ask the driver questions and has been eavesdropping the whole time on your convo with Tanya. You’ll eventually pull into an unusually nice rest stop, complete with organic buffet and gift shop with an absurd amount of books about the Kennedy Family. The bus will start to drive away, leaving ADHD Susan behind. The driver will realize this and stop just barely long enough for Susan to throw herself into the bus as it screeches out of the parking lot. The bus will advertise wifi but it won’t work, so don’t get too excited. There will be a constant stream of people walking to the front of the bus to purchase beer from a cooler disguised as a glove department. You will have a total of five different drivers but they will all look the same and will likely all make the same jokes. Practically a day later you’ll roll into your destination and smile at the money you saved and the characters you encountered, because you just don’t get these kinds of experiences when you take the train.
(Disclaimer: the bus pictured above is not a Meinfernbus, it is simply a bus I saw in Heidelberg last month.)
On Tuesday I headed over to the Heidelberg Theater around 2:00. The AJY Summer program kids had an opera workshop that I was supposed to photograph for AJY marketing purposes. I was running a bit late (as usual) and wasn’t sure where I would find them in the complex building that is the Heidelberg Theater. I approached the front desk and asked the disinterested man where I could find the “Opfer Workshop”. I described the group. His blank look of disinterest quickly turned to obvious confusion. He directed me to a back entrance. I tried again. I told the guy at this desk that I needed to photograph the “Opfer” kids. He, too, was puzzled, but eventually lead me to the right room.
Fast forward to the next morning. I’m sitting in a Tutorial for a “History of Germany Media/Economy” class. The tutor keeps talking about “Opfer” in the Berlin protests of 1968. I am confused. What does the opera have to do with political discord? I pull out my phone (dictionary app) and quickly discover my blatant error.
Opfer means “victims”.
“Oper” means opera.
Little “f”, big difference.
And here I was, telling everyone and their mother at the theater that I needed to photograph “victims” in the “victim workshop”.
Hence the confusion. So that was awkward.
(iron)ic breaking news
Last week I posted a photo about the love lock bridge in Paris, full of irony and controversy (see “iron”). This past Sunday, a piece of the bridge actually collapsed, bringing down thousands of tangible commitments along with it. I felt it was only appropriate to update you on this (iron)ic new development, as a breaking bridge (in my mind) qualifies as breaking news. There were no tangible injuries, although there may have been some broken hearts involved, authorities have not yet released the personal details. Click on the link above to read more.
American culture, especially at the university, is what I would call a “Productive Culture”. Students are expected to produce large quantities of work throughout the semester. German university life, however, is drastically different. I’ve alluded to this before, but I am experiencing this difference on a much more intensive level this semester. I have six classes and two Tutorials, all of which I need to take to be able to finish my two majors next year. In most of my classes, we are only expected to give one presentation and turn in a term paper, or simply take one exam. This one main “thing” is then the sole grade-determiner for that particular class. This is a slightly nerve-wracking system to adjust to, because with fewer smaller assignments comes more personal academic freedom, you are expected to “learn” on your own, on a regular basis, throughout the semester. You and you alone are responsible for knowing the information. Call me a structuralist, but I like the safety net and pre-packaged rhythm provided by our productive system. The German system demands a whole different level of self-directedness. You have to be self-disciplined in both your work and your rest. Work too much and people start to think you’re a work-a-holic and you quickly become burnt out. Germans take rest seriously (something I’m learning how to do). At times my semester has reached uncomfortable levels of busyness, levels not fit for this culture. I can’t do anything about my workload, so I’ve had to simply adjust my mindset…a constant and never-ending process. The other day I was running into the kitchen at my house to grab a handful of food before rushing off to my internship. I was exhausted and running late. My friend Dennis asked how my day was going.
“Crazy. Out of control. All over the place.” was my response.
He paused before pumping a fist into the air and saying, “No, you’re just unstoppable!”
Just like that, my mindset was re-set.
The biggest challenge of this semester has been learning how to be both an unstoppable force of self-discipline in my work, and structuralist when it comes to rest. But everyday it becomes a little easier to lean into both with confidence. Here, it’s not about productivity. It’s about the quality of one’s learning.
The biannual Schlossbeleuchtung is about as “Heidelberg” as Heidelberg gets. The castle is first illuminated by red flames before adjacent fireworks illuminate the entire river and castle grounds. The Schlossbeleuchtung frames summer, with one show in June and one in September. Tons of tourists pour into town for the show. I had spent the evening on the Neckarwiese, grilling with some friends. Mesmerized by Lizzy’s guitar playing and the way the trees had a Dunkirk-essence about them, I completely forgot to stake out a good spot for photos. I headed toward the new bridge with three friends in an attempt to salvage a spot a few minutes before the fireworks were supposed to start. I used some of my learned German aggression to elbow my way into a pack on onlookers, but that got me nowhere. I was separated from my people and wasn’t seeing any fireworks. The experience, however, afforded me an opportunity to notice the stillness of the crowd. Barely anyone spoke, and the stillness of the summer air seemed to establish an atmosphere of absolute calm. After the last burst of the finale, the crowd cleared out in about thirty seconds, leaving a mostly empty bridge. I photographed the after-show…a small boat gliding across the water (pictured in the second photo as a stream of light) and the packed river banks, illuminated by street lights and restaurants (pictured in the top photo). Looking back at the bottom photo, I realized I was somehow able to snag the last burst of fireworks in the distance above the castle.
Last weekend I paid a visit to my old stomping grounds in Plankstadt, the tiny village in which I lived with a host family two summers ago when I did the summer program in Heidelberg. My host mom picked me up at the bus stop. She grinned as I got off the bus and scolded me for bringing flowers before enveloping me in a giant hug. In German, she told me I was finally a real Heidelberger.
I’d been meaning to visit Uli sooner in the year but it just hadn’t worked out. We caught up about her recent trip to America to visit her daughter and grilled chicken while I played with her granddaughter, Chiara, who has grown several noticeable inches since I last saw her. It was a pretty remarkable experience to be able to converse with her casually and catch up on life, since I could speak almost no German when I lived with her before. She offered to drive me back when it was time to go, but I wanted to take the bus and tram. I wanted to take the route I took everyday during those first transformative days of German immersion. On the ride back into the city I thought about how much I have grown and changed over the past two years and how incredibly fortunate I have been to have had these opportunities. And now that a couple of my best buds are doing the summer program this summer, I get to watch the cycle repeat itself. Almost as wonderful as the experiences themselves are the moments in which I have been able to reflect back on all that I have learned, and none of this would be possible were it not for people such as Uli, who had to deal with my painful beginning German but never gave up on me. For me, the strassenbahn 22 to Eppelheim and the bus from Eppelheim to Plankstadt through rolling wheat fields will always be a literal memory lane that I won’t soon forget.
Ever since my first trip to Germany at age 12, I have been in a committed relationship with Birkenstocks. May through September means one thing for my feet: bliss. The sturdy German soles of Birkenstocks are perfect companions for my impressively high arches. Day in and day out, the shoes improve themselves, eventually forming a perfect mold for my feet. While one can find these gems in the States, American stores are unfortunately quite expensive and mostly only offer a boring array of brown and black two-straps designs. I got my last pair when I was here two years ago at a store in Berlin. Unfortunately our relationship came to an abrupt end over the weekend as the cork literally began to crumble apart. They could no longer stand the pressure I was putting on our relationship. Let’s just say, it wasn’t pretty. I’ve been going to the Birk store here in Heidelberg about once a week for the past month or so, scoping out the situation. When I walked in on Saturday, the hunched, silver-haired lady gruffly mumbled an annoyed greeting in my direction. I assured her that I was ready to make a decision this time. I left with a new pair of soles that will hopefully carry me through the next two years. What Silver Hair doesn’t realize is just how important of a decision this was for me. Birks are so much more than a pair of sandals: they represent German craftsmanship at its finest, miles upon miles of discovery by foot, happy soles, and nostalgia. Germans consider them house shoes, others call them “nerd” shoes, or hippie shoes. Call them what you will. I call them pure bliss, because a good pair of shoes is hard to find.