Rather than bore you all with every minute detail of our trip (and to spare myself more MUST. POST. STORY. AND. PICTURES. NOW. anxiety), I've decided to pare things down and just share the stories and pictures that I find to be most memorable, interesting and noteworthy. I'll write about Germany today and then get to France tomorrow. But before I start, here is some background information to help you understand why we were even there in the first place.
Remember study abroad in college? Well, they have it in grad school too. Jon was able to knock out several credits for his MBA program in just a few weeks time by going on this trip, compared to taking a whole semester's worth of class. Sure, it costs more than a traditional class, but the fees cover your hotels and sightseeing as well. Plus, it allows you to take more classes in a shorter amount of time. Jon is hoping to graduate next summer, so this will help him towards that goal. Since this is such a sweet deal, students are only allowed to do two study abroads throughout their education and we're planning on taking advantage of the Asian trip next year. Very exciting!
During the weekdays, Jon and the rest of his classmates went on site visits to various European companies (including IBM and Vodafone) and usually ended the day with some free time in town. With the exception of two weekdays, I tagged along and while he and his classmates were on the site visits, I wandered around whichever town we were in. The two weekdays that I didn't tag along were the first (in which we didn't realize that I was allowed to come) and the first day in France (they visited companies that were situated in our equivalent of a business park so there would have been no where for me to go) and on those days, I stayed in the town where our hotel was.
As I hoped, I managed to blend in with the Europeans rather well. Too well, I might add, as I was stopped time and time again by locals and tourists alike speaking either German or French and I looked like a complete idiot when I had to fumble for the words "I'm sorry, I don't speak <insert foreign language here>". I was surprised that a lot of the German that I thought was long forgotten came back rather quickly. I was also surprised by the little bit of French that I was able to pick up thanks to the help of my little language guide. Both the Germans and the French really appreciated the effort I put forth in speaking their language, rather than expecting them to speak to me in English and I was actually quite proud of myself for being able to get around in a foreign country on my own. Now, onto the highlights!
Best Encounter with a Local:
Jon and his classmates were on a site visit in Dusseldorf, so I was left to explore the city on my own for several hours. Jon and I made plans to meet at a street corner near the town square at 6:30 PM. Dusseldorf was probably the best town out of all that we visited to be on my own. There was a huge town square with plenty of shopping and restaurants to entertain myself with. That day, however, I was on a shopping mission. One of the only souvenirs that Jon wanted from our trip was a large, glass beer stein. Not a touristy one, mind you, with pictures of Germany and the like on it, but rather a simple one with the name of a German brewery on it. One that looks like this:
This was our 4th or 5th day in Germany and we hadn't been able to find one yet. While in Dusseldorf, I had the bright idea of going to a bar to see if I could buy one. You can certainly drink out of them there, so why not buy one? I went into three or four bars, but none of them had the large steins we were looking for. After wandering several blocks away from the center of the town square, I came along a small hole-in-the-wall bar. I walked in and there was only the bartender and one lone customer, an old man, at the bar. In my broken German, I tried to explain that I wanted to buy a beer stein. At this point, most Germans would have cut me off and just spoken to me in perfect English since they all seem to know it, but neither the bartender nor the old man could speak much English.
We were, however, able to understand each other well enough that the bartender offered to sell me two glass steins (from different breweries) for about 8 euros. I was more than pleased at this as the tourist shops sell one stein for that price. I was getting my money out to pay when the old man said, "Nein nein, sit, drink!". I looked at my watch and I still had two hours to kill. I figured, what the hell, why not?! So I sat down next to the old man and we drank our beers and spoke to each other as best we could. I was able to figure out that he had been to the US, namely Vegas and Atlantic City and thus inferred that the man liked to gamble. I exclaimed, "Oooh, blackjack!" (which I guess is a universal term!) and with that, the old man began yelling at the bartender for a deck of cards. And that is how I ended up playing blackjack and getting drunk with an old man in a random bar in Dusseldorf. I won the first 6 hands and I could tell by the look on his face that the old German man was pretty surprised by this little American girl who was drinking head to head with him and beating him outright at blackjack. He taught me some other card games and the bartender joined in by teaching me card tricks. One other man had come to the bar at this point and his English was pretty decent. He told me that the old man had lived in East Germany up until the wall fell and for anyone who knows German history, you can understand that his life must have been quite hard under Communist rule.
Before I knew it, I had drank 3 beers (remember, these are in large German beer steins) and it was almost 6:45 PM. I felt like I was Cinderella when I looked down and checked the time on my watch. I jumped up and thanked both the old man (who wouldn't let me pay for any of my drinks) and the bartender and grabbed my bags and ran like lightning to meet Jon. I was several blocks away from our meeting point and I knew that he would worry that I had been kidnapped. Luckily, he was sitting at a restaurant with other MBAers right near our meeting point and I got there just in time for another beer and dinner. Even though I had taken a picture with my new German friends before I left the bar, I made Jon walk back there with me just to prove that it really did exist because the whole thing was so surreal!
On our first Saturday in Germany, we had a full day of tours lined up. Our first stop was at Schloss Johannisberg, the oldest Riesling vineyard in the world. I'm really not a Riesling drinker, nor is Jon. They're generally too sweet for my liking but then again, I've never turned down a glass of wine. This vineyard was absolutely amazing though! Their wine cellar dates back to 1721 and it's filled with enormous wine casks and a musty, dank smell. At the very end of the wine cellar, there is a so-called "wine library" where the vineyard keeps their vintage wine, the oldest one dating back to 1748! Truly amazing. We even got to do a private wine tasting of three of their Rieslings in the old cellar. They were actually quite tasty, sweet yes, but delicious nonetheless. One of the other reasons I liked this vineyard so much is because it was only about 15 km from where I lived in Germany! Unfortunately, I couldn't quite ask the bus driver to make a detour just for me but I felt really nostalgic being so close to my old town.
Oooh, I ate and drank so many wonderful things, so I'll just list a few of my favorites out here.
For those of you who have been to Germany, you may remember that they are enamored with asparagus, particularly the large (huge!), white asparagus that they call spargel. Don't get me wrong, I love asparagus. I even enjoyed several bowls of cream of asparagus soup while on this trip. Just don't order it as your meal. While in Johannisberg, we had lunch at the vineyard's restaurant. We were offered a prix fixe menu with three options: Weinerschnitzel with potatoes, ham with spargel and potatoes or spargel and potatoes. As I don't eat veal (weiner=veal), but I wanted something more than just vegetables, I opted for option #2, even though I don't really like ham either. Simply put, my meal was AWFUL. The ham was fatty. The potatoes were simply boiled, white potatoes. And the spargel? They were about a foot long each, and horribly bitter. My meal came with a side of melted butter, which I used to drown my entire meal in. Yeah...have I ever mentioned that I don't have a gallbladder and subsequently, anything greasy that I eat is bound to go through me within a matter of thirty minutes to an hour? Lovely.
That half hour to an hour caught up with me in the next town, where one minute Jon and I were shopping for souvenirs and the next minute I was cursing at Jon to stop walking so fucking slow because DUDE, I'VE GOTTA GO RIGHT NOW! I managed to find a tourism office where I stopped and asked for directions to the nearest W.C. Apparently my German was so fabulously flawless (ha!) that the woman saw fit to respond to me in rapid-fire German, which really, I may be able to ask you a question in German but I sure as hell can't understand the response! I thought I heard a "left" in there somewhere so I ran out and walked frantically in a westbound direction. Finally, I saw a sign for the W.C. Good glory hallelujah, I wasn't going to crap my pants after all! That is, until I turned the corner and saw that the W.C. was really just a port-a-potty. SERIOUSLY? I didn't care though. My normally laidback husband said, "I'm not using that!" to which I replied, "I don't fucking care, I've gotta go!" And go I did in a nasty German port-a-potty. Thank god for antibacterial hand soap! Incidentally, one of Jon's classmates had the schnitzel and had quite the similar experience, though her's happened at our next stop where the entire group had to wait for her while she was in the castle's bathroom. She was, no lie, known as Schnitz for the rest of the trip.
Raise your hand if you've been to Epcot. The designers of the German town in Epcot must have come to Beilstein for their inspiration. It's the quintessential German town, with the exposed beam houses and iron-work signs. Then there's the view from Burg Metternich, the castle that sits on a hill atop the town. It offers a sweeping panoramic view of the Rhine and the surrounding towns. Truly breathtaking.
One More Reason to Love Germany
The Germans adore their dogs. They take them into restaurants, stores, basically everywhere they go, their dog comes with them. Most shops keep water bowls at their door so that no dog will ever go thirsty. I found this beautiful hand-painted sign outside of a restaurant in Beilstein.
As you can imagine, I have tons more pictures to share, but I didn't want to overload you all (or my blog!). All of my pictures will be up on Flickr very soon and I'll probably put together a "Best Of" post too of my favorite photos from the trip. I'm hoping to recap France tomorrow so stay tuned!