Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Germany: The Final Frontier

or, at least the last big trip during my time here.

A couple weeks ago, I was sitting in a cafe having a glass of wine with my friend Laura, talking about how I was thinking of going to Geneva for a weekend (I wanted to go to Escalade-- a festival sort of like Carnival, except that it celebrates the defense of the town in 1602) and she said that instead of going to Geneva by myself, I should go to Germany with her, her husband, Mikko, and a friend of theirs from Finland.  A couple hours-- and a couple more glasses of wine-- later, I had booked a flight to Stuttgart.

We met up with Kristina, Laura and Nikko's friend, in Stuttgart and headed immediately to get lunch. I decided to start off with as traditional a meal as I could find (or, have interpreted for me-- I speak absolutely no German.  I generally wouldn't go to a foreign country so absolutely unprepared to communicate, but this was short notice.  I didn't have time to learn any of the language.  And, really, I mean any-- I can basically say no and thank you in German.).  We went to Brahaus, a cute eatery

where I ordered a dish of lentils, sausage and spatzle. 

It was really quite good, though I'm not sure that the picture does it justice (German food doesn't photograph well-- I discovered this more and more as the weekend went on).  From lunch, we headed to the Christmas Market.  German Christmas markets are imitated everywhere in Europe (see my post on the Christmas market in Birmingham, England)-- I'm not sure why the Christmas markets are considered a German thing (I'm sure there's a history on this I could look up), but if in Germany around the holiday season, it seems the thing to do to go to a Christmas Market. (Or, if somewhere else in Europe or the UK, to go to a German-style Christmas market.)

It actually looked quite a lot like the Christmas market in Birmingham-- but didn't feel quite as big. I think that's because it was more compacted with the loads of stalls put into a smaller space.  It was festive, with Christmas scenes sitting atop almost every stall

and a large train set

which also included a larger train running around the perimeter that kids (and their parents) could ride on.

The thing to get at a German Christmas market is gluhwein (which literally means glow wine).  It's mulled wine-- either red or white-- that can then be further spiked with other liqueurs.  In Stuttgart, the options were amaretto or rum.  (Later, in other cities, there were offerings of gluhwein with vodka and other alcohols-- it's basically alcohol with more alcohol, but hot so that it's comforting while walking around in the cold.) I had white wine with amaretto-- it was quite strong, especially at the bottom where it basically became all amaretto.  But, it's the thing to do-- there were even nuns hanging out drinking gluhwein (though it's hard to tell from this picture that's what they're doing. I was trying to discreetly take the picture since I couldn't figure out a polite way to ask nuns if I could photograph them drinking-- especially not in German.).

From the Christmas market, we all got on a train and headed to Tubingen, where we were staying. 

Tubingen is a little less than an hour away from Stuttgart.  It's not where you go for a touristy visit to Germany, but it's a really cute town and does give a better sense of what "normal life" is like in Germany than a tourist city would.  Since I was sort of a last minute addition to the trip, I was staying with a friend of Laura's in the old city center while the others were staying at another friend's house in the "suburbs." (I'm not sure that's really what you would call it in Germany, but that's basically what it amounted to.)  The house in the suburbs that everyone else was staying at was really nice-- luxurious, really (it has a stunning gourmet kitchen, a bathroom with a sauna in it, and an absolutely huge wrap around deck-- though it was too cold to enjoy the deck).  Where I was staying was not nearly as luxurious, but Norbert, the friend hosting me, acted like he was running a B&B. When I arrived, there was a bottle of mineral water, an apple, and chocolates awaiting me in my room.  And, the next morning when I got up (every day, actually), breakfast-- with yogurt, cheese, meat, jams and jellies, and fresh bread from a local bakery-- was laid out on the table and coffee was ready to be percolated.  It was really quite amazing-- and well beyond the free bed to sleep in that I was expecting (I really can't say enough about Norbert's generous hospitality-- it was way beyond what I would ever expect to be done for me, a total stranger crashing his home.).

Our first night in Tubingen, we went to a Greek restaurant where I got lamb fillets.

The food was pretty good, once mine got to the table.  I felt oddly invisible all night-- everyone else got food and was nearly finished before mine finally arrived. And, after dinner, the waitress brought ouzo to the table-- and served it to everyone but me.  I'm not sure if it was because I was the only one didn't speak German (and, so, was relying on others quite a bit to order for me), but after a while, it was kind of like I wasn't there.  In the end, I got my small "revenge" though-- I accidentally wound up not tipping.  While many credit card companies in the US have advertised that their credit cards will be accepted anywhere I want to be, it turns out that many places in Germany-- or, at least in Tubingen-- don't want to take a credit card (I used a credit card for my meal in Stuttgart... so perhaps it's only in smaller cities that credit cards aren't used). They want cash.  (In fact, I don't think I used my credit card after that first afternoon in Stuttgart.)  So, I paid for my meal at the Greek place in cash-- and took back my change when the waitress gave it to me, expecting to leave my tip on the table.  However, when I went to leave a few euro, Laura leaned over and politely asked, "so, are you just going to leave money on the table?" in a way that suggested this wasn't the right thing to do. Apparently, you are supposed to ask the server for only the change you want back, and include the tip when you initially pay. It's rude to leave money on the table-- I'm not sure why, but you don't do it.  So, apparently, it was less rude to leave no tip than to leave money sitting there which I don't quite get because it seems to me a tip on the table is better than no tip at all-- but, that didn't seem to be the case in Germany.  (It's also apparently rude to tip in smaller change-- like you're throwing the change you can't use at someone.)

The next day, Laura had a photo shoot (she's in a band-- the photo shoot was a large part of the reason for the trip to Germany in the first place) in Reutlinger, a town about 25 minutes from Tubingen.  While Laura and Mikko went to the photo shoot, Kristina and I went shopping (mostly for clothes for Kristina).  Reutlinger is a fairly wealthy town-- I don't think we were where the truly rich live. 

The city center, which is a fairly small square area surrounded by modern looking stores and conventional city buildings, did look quite traditionally German-- or at least like what I think Germany looks like when I picture it in my head.

Since I was told several times that this is where the wealthy people live, and I don't often think of the wealthy as tradespeople, it was surprising to find this really intricate monument to trade craft in the city center.

Every section depicts a scene of a different trade craft or profession (like shop keeper). The detail in each section was really quite amazing- like in this cobbler section.

After several hours in Reutlingen, we went back to Tubingen to get ready for a holiday dinner with a group (about 14 people) of Laura's friends (which included a white elephant gift exchange. It's a little daunting buying a present that will wind up in the hands of one of a group of strangers-- I went with buying chocolate from a fancy store in Oxford.).  The dinner was at a pub in Tubingen, though it was a fancier meal than I would have expected from a pub.  (I don't know that's what I would have called it-- I think I would have just referred to the place as a restaurant.  But, pub seemed to have a more general meaning in Germany than it does in England, where it refers to a relatively specific kind of place.)  Fortunately, everyone at dinner spoke English-- they didn't speak it to each other, but they were kind enough to include me in conversation and speak English for my benefit.  (And, again, I'm amazed at how uneducated Americans, and I obviously include myself, are in this area-- everyone there spoke multiple languages  because they are taught multiple languages from an early age in school.  English is clearly dominant world-wide-- there haven't been many times when I have encountered moments when I couldn't get by with English [though the story of one such moment is coming up], but I still think we're quite foolish not to be encouraging kids to learn multiple languages in a world that is increasingly "shrinking.")

The next day was Sunday-- a day when just about everything is closed.  So, we were planning to have brunch at Sebastian's house (the house where Laura, Mikko and Kristina were staying).  I had met up with them there the day before when we were headed to Reutlingen, and so thought I had the bus route mastered.  I was completely wrong.  I headed to the bus stop and read the bus schedules to figure out which bus (there were two that would get me to where I was headed) I wanted to take. I was very proud of myself for figuring out that the first bus was only going to go as far as the central bus/rail station-- it's not that it's so hard to read a bus schedule in any language since they all basically work the same way, but that the German names of places look like gibberish to me (German, in general, is really confusing to me- nothing is spelled the way it sounds, though I did get better at reading names of places and food as the weekend went on-- hence how I was able to recognize the name of the bus/rail station stop.). I was feeling good about recognizing that I shouldn't get on the first bus that came, but the one that came right after it which was going to drive the entire route, until we went past the stop before the one I wanted and then continued to some stop I'd never heard of.  It certainly wasn't the one I was expecting to come to next-- so I hit the stop button (or, halt button as it says on German buses) and then, when the bus stopped, tried to ask the bus driver why we hadn't stopped where I was expecting. This didn't go well-- I basically wound up pointing to a piece of paper with the name of the stop I wanted since the driver didn't seem to understand what I was asking and then he replied with something that may have been helpful, like directions for how to get where it was I wanted to go, or something quite rude, like calling me an American idiot who didn't know how to read a bus schedule (it turns out that the bus schedule did explain this different Sunday route-- but this explanation was in very tiny print at the bottom, which made it seem unimportant. And, it was in German-- so even if I had recognized that the tiny print was important, I wouldn't have understood what it was telling me.).  Either response from the driver is entirely possible since I had no idea what he was saying; I was told many times that everyone in Germany speaks English, but really, it's everyone who is considered educated (and then, they do speak virtually flawless-- and virtually unaccented-- English) but not those who drive buses or taxis.  I decided that no matter what the explanation was for why I was not at the stop I recognized was, it was better to get off the bus than continue going the wrong direction.  I was hoping that if I crossed the street and stood at the bus stop going back in the direction I had come from, a bus would come along and take me to the stop I wanted-- or at least back to where I started.  So, I stood there for a while, on a suburban street corner with no one around to ask whether or not my plan was a good one...

There had been a back-up plan for if I got lost-- I had Kristina's iPhone with me. Her phone will dial internationally.  Mine won't. (When I first arrived in Oxford, I went to get cell phone plan and asked at the store if the plan I was getting would allow my phone to work outside the UK and was assured that it would. This has turned out to be partially true-- no matter where I am, I can receive calls and texts.  But, outside the UK, I can't dial out or sent a text or access data-- I didn't discover this until I went to Brussels and tried to answer a text one of my students sent me. Outside the UK, this renders my phone relatively useless as anything other than a camera. Fortunately, this hasn't posed a problem-- until now.)  But, the back-up plan failed. Kristina's phone battery had died-- this didn't intially appear to be a problem since I had my iPad charger with me and had charged her phone before I set out. What I didn't know is that the battery dying caused her SIM card to lock-- so, now, I was standing at a deserted bus stop (though, deserted in the sense that no one was out, not in an unsafe way) with two phones that wouldn't allow me to call anyone for help.  And, it started to rain.  (When I finally got to where I was going, my friends tried to look on the bright side, commenting that at least it hadn't been raining during this whole ordeal.  Much like a tragic cartoon character, it seems I had my own personal rain cloud that was hovering only over me.  It was really the only time it rained-- we got really lucky. The forecast for the whole weekend had said there was a 90% chance of rain at every hour, but while it was often overcast, it never really rained.  Except at this moment-- but that does add a fortunate further dramatic element to the narrative.)  I stood on the corner feeling quite bad for myself, picturing the rest of my life stuck at a bus stop (which I get was totally exaggerated-- but there was a chance I would be there for hours), wondering how long it would take for anyone to try to call my phone (after I didn't answer Kristina's-- a locked SIM meant I couldn't receive calls or texts either) to find out where I was.  It was a low moment in traveling.

Eventually, a bus did come along (I probably stood there for about 40 minutes) and did take me to the stop I wanted (it was actually only one stop away-- it turns out I was pretty close to where I needed to be the whole time. But, I was standing on an unfamiliar street with names I didn't recognize and landmarks I had never seen before, so I didn't know. There was no way I could have navigated my way to where I wanted to be.) and I met up with my friends-- who had just finished brunch and were just starting to wonder where I was (they thought maybe I had slept in since we had been out late at the Christmas dinner the night before and had decided to have yet another lovely breakfast at Norbert's-- I had actually forgone the lovely breakfast which had once again been set out for me because I knew I was going to brunch, so by the time I arrived, I was quite hungry which was not helping my mood any.)

After I ate (and tried to reframe the whole ordeal in my head-- it worked out in the end and I wasn't hurt or dead-- so that I wasn't upset anymore) we all headed back to the city center of Tubingen to get a good look at the city in daylight and go to the castle. 

The city itself is really lovely, especially along the Neckar River.

The actual city center is filled with gorgeous buildings, including this one, one of the oldest in Tubingen, built in 1584.


Tubingen has also been home to a lot of great German thinkers-- it's something of an intellectual center-- including Hegel, Howard Hesse, Alois Alzheimer and Goethe, who is said to have thrown up on passers-by from this window (this is what passed for funny to him-- it takes the estimation of him as a "great thinker" down a little...).

The sign below the window actually says Goethe puked here in German (Hier kotzte Goethe). 

The castle, Schloss Hohentubingen, is located at the top of a hill (Tubingen is really hilly) and offers great views of the whole city.

The castle itself was built around 1050 for the Count Palatine of Tubingen. It served as a residence and stronghold for several hundreds of years but has been fully a part of the University of Tubingen since 1816 (Tubigen's university is quite large-- students make up about 10% of the population in the city.).

We walked back from the castle on a slightly different route, through streets that felt a little more residential, passing interesting-looking houses along the way-- mostly interesting for the way they were melding with nature or decorated on the outside.

From touring the city, we went to see a children's Christmas play. (I hadn't initially planned to go, but Norbert, my host, didn't make it back from his grandmother's birthday party in time to go since the play was at 4 pm, so I used his ticket rather than have it go to waste, though I don't think my taking his seat really stopped it from being "wasted.")  I thought that maybe since this was a children's play and it was a musical, I would least be able to follow the action and understand what was going on.  I was very wrong-- the play was absurd and surreal (and, I was told later, contained a lot of word play that probably would have been difficult for some of the German kids in the audience).  It all basically took place in the head of the main character (I at least got that there was some kind of dream-like thing happening-- that's as far as I got, so I can't really tell you what the play was about, though I gathered from Laura, who explained a little of it to me afterwards, it had some kind of moral about accepting yourself for the talents you have) and there were very few actual musical numbers (there was a lot background music, but it wasn't a musical in the way I was thinking).  I have to admit, I dozed off quite a bit-- the theater was warm, it was dark, between my bus ordeal and walking around, I was quite tired and eventually, the dialogue all sounded like white noise to me.  That said-- the costumes were really good.  So was what existed of a set (though, that was pretty minimalistic). 

From the play, we went back to the city center (really, only a few blocks from the theater-- Tubingen proper isn't that big) to wander the Christmas market (which was open even though all the shops are closed on Sundays) for a couple hours.  It looked a lot like the market in Stuttgart, though it was more spread out.  And, since it was night, the fun Christmas lights were on display.

We had dinner in the pub at the bus/rail station (I was a little skeptical since my experience is that bus stations don't necessarily have the best food-- but it was really good and much nicer than I would have expected a restaurant at a bus/rail station to be). 

I had a chicken and pasta dish-- not really German, but I had already had several sausages (I bought one from a street vendor in Reutlinger when we were there for lunch as well) and the pasta dish sounded good (and, I did order a German beer to go with it, so I figured that counted as continuing my German culinary experience).

It was good-- though I have noticed that there isn't much color in German food (which is why it doesn't photograph well). It's a lot of browns and off whites.  It tastes good-- there just isn't the emphasis on color that I hear discussed a lot when I watch cooking shows (I've realized that I've missed most of Top Chef this season-- I'm not terribly disappointed since last season was a bit ridiculous. But, it's part of the reason I have this impression that color is important to cooking.)

Our final day in Germany, I was largely on my own-- Kristina's flight left really early and Laura and Mikko were off to have lunch with friends in another city.  So, I headed back to Stuttgart (which made it easy to get to the airport to meet Laura and Mikko for our 5 pm flight) to wander the shops a bit and to get a better sense of the city. Stuttgart is mostly a modern, European city-- there were lots of popular and expensive clothing stores.  However, it does have a palace right in the middle-- I think it's the town hall now.

It also has these strange looking trees everywhere.

They might not look as strange in the spring-- but, I kept trying to figure out why they ends of the branches were so knobby.  

I went back to the Christmas market to get lunch-- it allowed me to point at what I wanted rather than try to order from a menu. And, I like "street food."  I had a baguette with pizza toppings, which was ok (it wasn't hot enough, but I couldn't figure out how to ask the woman working the stand to heat it up more) but what was really great was the chocolate skewer I got.  All weekend, we had been passing stalls selling chocolate-- there was chocolate of all varieties, but what seemed really popular were these skewers of fruit of all varieties (including unexpected fruits like grapes) covered in dark, milk or white chocolate. It was my last day-- I had to have one, so I bought a skewer of strawberries and bananas covered in dark chocolate.  And then, I was sorry that my willpower had lasted so long. I should have been eating chocolate covered fruit every day.

What I really wanted to find in Stuttgart was some kind of souvenir shop, someplace that had sweatshirts with Germany written on them or lovely postcards or watercolor pictures.  But, that doesn't exist-- I'm sure it does in someplace like Berlin which attracts more tourists, but there really is nothing touristy to buy in Stuttgart (or, Tubingen or Reutlingen for that matter).  I thought that since there is such a large train station in Stuttgart (it's really a busy station with a lot of lines coming and going), and it seems like a lot of people have to pass through there on their way to somewhere else, there would be at least a couple stores that sold souvenirs, but I was wrong.  So, I left Germany (after successfully navigating my way to the airport--which also didn't sell souvenirs of Germany-- on my own!) souvenir-less.

And now, in exactly a week, I will be back at Heathrow to fly back to the States.  I don't think I'm traveling anymore before then-- I had thought about going back to Birmingham because I didn't to see all of it when I was there a few weeks ago (and, I kind of want to visit the aquarium and maybe the Cadbury factory), but I have to admit I've become a bit travel weary.  It's been a fabulous 4 months, but really hectic-- and there's a part of me that likes the idea of just spending my last few days in Oxford.  That may change later this week-- I may get a rush of feeling like I should be doing all I can with the little time left and decide I need at least one more day trip. But right now, being "home" in Oxford sounds like a nice way to spend my last week.

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