Wednesday, July 8, 2009

As Baden-Württemberg flies by my window…

… I whipped out my computer and promised myself I would write a blog entry before  I transfer trains in Karlsruhe.

First off, I have to rave about the trains (like every other American tourist). They’re incredible – and a lot of fun (for me, anyways). Thanks to this Munich trip, I’m getting to ride my first high-speed Inter-City Express (ICE) train.

I have no concept of how to judge how fast we’re traveling. I think we’re passing cars on the Autobahn that I see in the distance, though. And seeing as there’s no speed limit on the Autobahn, I take it that we’re going pretty fast.

A lot of things stand out about the trains here:

- They are impeccably on time. Five minutes late for an inter-city train here is really late. A train I took in Switzerland once was 15 minutes late (a regional train, so different standards), but people were still visibly upset.

- Because everything is so punctual, and train stations are smaller than airports (though sometimes mazes in their own right), connection times are often just 5-15 minutes. I have only 7 minutes in Karlsruhe. It makes a one-hour airport layover seem like a joke.

- They’re quiet. It’s actually creepy how quiet this superfast train is. Surprisingly, though, it creates another problem. You can hear everyone else on the train. People talking, babies crying, businessmen typing, music leaking out of headphones (some kids really enjoy blowing out their eardrums) – there’s no ambient noise to drown any of it out.

- Train stations are surprisingly dangerous. Cargo trains often charge through the station at 50+ mph – one small step in the wrong direction or a little ignorance could be life-threatening. All you get for a warning is a quick announcement in German and an “Achtung durchfahrt!” message on the platform signage. But that’s not much, especially if you don’t understand German.

(Note: since the beginning of this entry, we’ve picked up speed like crazy. Wow. I guess I do have a concept of how fast we’re going.)

Next entry: Munich!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


After about 3 activities related to this ridiculous German song last week, I can’t get it out of my head.

So, I need to share it with you. Enjoy.

The song is about how this guy can’t find a parking spot and is late for meeting his girlfriend. Deep, I know.

Heading to Munich tomorrow to meet up with Jennie and Darren! Can’t wait!

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Making up for lost time…

Everything is still going well, except that I’m realizing how bad I am at consistently posting on this blog.

So, here’s a short recap to make up for the absence:

  • Last week’s German classes went well, but I thought they were a little bit too easy for me. So this week, I switched up a level, and I’m now enjoying the classes a lot more. Classes run from 9 AM to 1:30 PM (including 45 minutes of break time), so it’s a long day for just one subject. But, the classes are also really rewarding because you can learn a word for a vocab quiz and then use it the next day in conversation.
  • Last weekend I visited Basel, Switzerland. It was a great city to walk around and enjoy. It’s feel was similar to Zurich, but it wasn’t quite as beautiful, neat, or clean. I do hear that Basel is a more fun city to live in, though.

    The best part of the Basel trip: I went to the Kunstmuseum Basel (Basel Art Museum) to see an incredible Van Gogh special exhibit - “Zwischen Erde und Himmel: Die Landschaften” (“Between Earth and Heaven: The Landscapes”). It featured more than 70 landscapes from every stage of Van Gogh’s life. I never realized how tragic Van Gogh’s life was, nor how much his paintings changed as his life progressed. So – an overall great experience.

    The worst part of the Basel trip: Basel was just as irritatingly expensive as Zurich and Lucerne. Just to give you an idea of how expensive Switzerland is… a Starbucks grande latte costs about $3.75-4 in the US. In Freiburg, it costs about 3.75 or 4 Euros (about $5.60). But in Switzerland, the latte costs 7.40 Swiss Francs – about $6.85. So bas
  • Through the International Club of the University of Freiburg, I was able to find a “tandem partner.” The idea is that you meet someone that can help you with a language you want to learn, and in exchange you help them with a language they want to learn. So in my case, I help my partner with English and get help with German – we speak about half in German and half in English when we meet. It’s been great to meet a student native to Germany.

    On Thursday, we checked out the International Club’s Turkish culture festival. I met a bunch of other German students and got to speak lots of German, so I had a great time. (By the way, there’s a huge Turkish influence in Germany, since Turkish immigrants are by far the largest immigrant group in the country. People here are obsessed with Turkish food; there are Turkish restaurants and kebob places everywhere you look.)

Tomorrow, I’m going to make a trip to Strasbourg, France. More on that trip later, along with much more about life here in Freiburg!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Wilkommen in Freiburg im Breisgau

All’s been well since I moved to Freiburg on Wednesday. My host mother has hosted many students before, and even has two others in the house besides me right now – so she knows the drill well. I love the city and the people here – and of course I’ll write more about them later.

In the meantime, I’ll share two of the hardest parts about settling in here:

The first thing is the overwhelming importance of “Ordnung” (order) here. I read about how important order, procedure, and cleanliness is to Germans in my Germany culture guide, but I didn't realize how right they were until I moved into my host family's house. Everything here is very  neat and clean, and there is a structure to every procedure in the house. Being on time and planning ahead is very important. You all probably know that this is a big change for me – but of course maybe a good learning experience too!

The other thing is… the language. That shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but it still did. Language immersion in a language program is really hard, because even if you could get by with English, everyone insists you use German all the time anyways. The first day, I felt like my brain was in overdrive all day—processing all the German being thrown at me, and then trying to plan out my next response. I sturggled a lot yesterday – but already today, I am getting much, much better. After an hour long German exam, I successfully made some friends, shopped for a cell phone (“ein Handy”), and researched currency exchange rates at banks – all in German. Real German classes start tomorrow, and that of course should really help.

Writing all this in English is very relaxing and brainless. But, it’s also a little disorienting – it’s the first substantive English I’ve used all day, and now I have to shift gears again to German for school tomorrow. First day of real classes! I feel like I’m in elementary school because I’m actually excited about that.

Lakes, mountains, and cowbells

As of Saturday, I am now in Freiburg, Germany and am already living with my host family – all is going well. But I am really behind on the blog since I didn’t feel like paying for internet access when I was in Switzerland last week. So I am catching up first. Here’s my attempt to do justice to three busy days last week in 1 post….

Thursday and Saturday - Zurich

Exploring Zurich was incredible. Zurich has (by one magazine's measure) the best quality of life of any city in the world (see the article here). When you're here, it's not hard to see why. First of all, the buildings and streets are beautiful, as is the lakefront. Here’s a taste of the city:

A view of the city from the Lindenhof, a hill used as a former Roman military checkpoint


Small winding pedestrian streets in the Altstadt (Old Town)


It's striking how everything is so clean, organized, and incredibly efficient. Trains never run late - when they are 1 minute late (which is not even late by American standards) people are grumbling at the train station. Trams, cars, bikes, and pedestrians all share tiny streets, but everyone follows strict right of way rules and it all works out. Everyone on the street religiously follows pedestrian traffic lights. On crosswalks without lights, cars will always stop for you, no matter how inconvenient it is for them - but if you try jaywalking, you will be either be cursed at or crushed.


P1000151 P1000150

Sharing the road

All hail the pedestrian traffic signs

But there's a price to pay for all this beauty and order - literally, a price. Everything here is expensive – yes, even more expensive than the rest of the Europe.

Friday - Lucerne

The highlight of the trip was definitely Lucerne (Luzern). I’ve always wanted to hike with a view of the Swiss Alps, and so I made that my first task in Lucerne by traveling to Mt. Rigi.

My expedition to Rigi started off with a boat ride across Lake Lucerne on a historic steamship. The views were pretty stunning on the ride, as we passed little towns and huge lakeside mansions.

View from the boat on Lake Lucerne


Then I took a cogweel train halfway up Mt. Rigi. I got off at the station, and I heard this ringing sound. It sounded pretty cool, but I couldn't figure out where it was coming from. Then, a few minutes up the trail, I figured it out – there were cows with cowbells on the mountainside, the most stereotypical Swiss Alps scene I could have imagined.

Cows grazing on a mountainside – loved this view


The views kept getting more and more spectacular – here’s the view facing the north (away from the Alps).

The view to the north (and the town of Kussnacht)


Then I wandered around the city of Lucerne, especially famous for its famous covered bridge, the Kappelbrücke (Chapel bridge), which is still standing from the 14th century. It’s also famous for its frescoed buildings, may of which are also from the 14th century or earlier, and of course its own view of the mountains and the lake. I won’t bombard you with pictures of each of these here… but I’ll have a full album up soon on Picasa.

Before I can finish up this entry, I have to make a quick note about languages in Switzerland. It’s pretty amazing - everyone in Switzerland is multilingual (even moreso than other Europeans), since the nation has 3 major languages - German, French, and Italian (and a fourth if you count Romansch, though it's hardly used anymore). And of course, English is often a common middle-ground for locals and tourists alike. Then of course, tourists speak all sorts of languages. I heard tons of Hindi—apparently Indian flock to Lucerne. The total effect of this is pretty cool - walking around the city, you hear an incredible number of languages and dialects, even from locals. Many of the tourists I saw were actually Swiss, but they didn’t know German (only French and Italian) and were having a hard time finding their way around just like I was. Every major announcement is usually done in at least 2, if not 3 or 4 languages.

Last thought: The German spoken in Switzerland is very strange. The Swiss German (Schweizerdeutsch) spoken there sounds completely different from regular German - and it’s unintelligible even to fluent speakers of standard German (Hochdeutsch). Obviously, then, I couldn’t understand a word of real Swiss German when I heard it – but many people spoke a mix of standard and Swiss German, or just regular German, so I could get by.

That’s all for now!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Jumping on the blog bandwagon

(Wrote this post yesterday in Boston, but posting it now from Amsterdam...)

I haven't had a chance to start up this blog until now - at the airport.

But, while waiting for my (surprise!) delayed flight, and while trying to fend off a little Indian boy who keeps jumping onto my shoulder and kicking me under the armrests, I'm finally excited to say - yes, I'm jumping on that bandwagon and starting a travel blog.

Here's the general plan: I'll be doing a language program in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany for five weeks starting on Monday, and then traveling around Europe for two weeks with "Dice-land" Janson. In the fall, I'll be volunteering in India for two months and then traveling around to see family.

Right now I’m off to Zurich, Switzerland for a few days. Long story cut short, I was able to get a good deal on my flights by traveling to Europe midweek. So, I'll be spending a few days in Zurich, along with a day trip to Lucerne. I'm hoping to do some hiking near there... but we'll see.

I'll try to post here as regularly as possible. So, stop by this page when you can - and please comment and/or e-mail me and keep in touch!

Hope you all will stay tuned. I'm not sure what kind of internet access I'll have, but I'll try to post about Switzerland as soon as I can!