Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Chapter 3, In which serendipity played a surprisingly large role

Greetings, salutations, and glad tidings from across the puddle! I'm sorry to say that this post comes (obviously) somewhat late, but hopefully it will make up for itself with content. This past week was largely uneventful, and given over to schooling, learning, and other droll things. However, the weekend was a long one -- we had Monday off on account of Whit Monday (if you don't know what that is, like me BEFORE reading this article, I recommend traipsing over to the Wikipedia article on the subject:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whit_Monday). I took the opportunity to catch up on sleep, and also to make an outing to the small town of Krefeld. I was expecting to visit the Deutches Textilmuseum, however that was simply not in the cards for the trip.

From my little town (Erkrath-Hochdahl) it's an 11 minute train ride to the main train station here in Düsseldorf. Then, it's a regional train from Düsseldorf to the small city of Krefeld. Upon arriving, you exit the train station, and if you should glance behind, you feel a bit confused:

Krefeld Hauptbahnhof
"Did I just teleport via train to that cathedral? Or is that cathedral actually a train station... gosh that's confusing."

In any event, it was then a simple matter of catching a local tram to Burg Krefeld -- the nearest stop to the museum. All in all, the trip took a meager 1 hour 40 minutes, including wait times at the train station. I may not have explicitly mentioned it heretofore, but the German train system is addictive. It's like candy. Except faster. And with better seats. And more people. All right, the metaphor breaks down quickly, but I claim rhetorical license. Moving on...

The feeling after getting off the tram was typical old European town ( I assume, as that's the association I have with this particular style of little house and cobbled streets with no cars and horse drawn carriages...). I felt a bit funny wandering around holding my high tech GPS enabled phone in my hand trying to find the museum. There was just this little problem: whenever I came anywhere near, these gates would get in my way, and I'd be told that I needed to pay money to enter some fair thing that was taking place. Eventually, after walking a pretty broad circle and finding all entrance streets to the local region closed off, I actually asked one of the gatekeepers. At that point, I was informed that the museum was closed, on account of the fair.

I figured that since I was already here, I might as well accept the workings of serendipity, so I ponied up the 8 euro entrance price, and was awarded a ticket:

(+3 venturesomeness. Does that goes towards INT?) 
The fair, as it turns out, was an annual event of epic proportions (in this particular case, the use of the word epic is an excellent case of foreshadowing, coupled with a subtle twist of irony based on the time frame the fair was based off of. *whew*). There were more than 200 stands, where a variety of peddlers/artisans/artists were either in the process of producing wares, or simply selling them. I saw woolen scarves being knitted, glass artwork being blown, clay bowls being shaped, wooden bows being carved, children's games being created, and even a blacksmith making iron tools. The selection was incredible, and all tinged with a certain "middle ages" feeling (hence the time frame irony).

To convey some image of the scale of the fair, have a picture:

The center of the fairgrounds in Krefeld, Germany.
You know what, have a few:

Lots of people. Take 1.

Lots of people. Take 2.

Lots of people. Take 3.

In terms of the individual stalls, here a couple of samples:

The aforementioned bow maker had several homemade  bows on display.

This was the first time I'd ever seen a real blacksmith at work.

This was a real artisan: he makes small slices in the paper, to make 3D folded paper shapes. Some are truly incredible!

A cane maker! This young girl is delighted -- he just helped her make her own cane, sized to fit. The process involved taking some really flexible wood and bending it into shape, then cutting off excess length to make it a perfect fit.

After a couple of hours of wandering, a purchase of some really excellent Halva (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halva), and a world class pretzel, I made my way back towards the main train station. But not before finding the dratted museum I was coming for in the first place!

Closed. Very closed.
I snapped a quick picture at the Krefeld train station before departing -- proof that I was actually here, and that I'm not simply a super-able Googler.

Me at the Krefeld Hauptbahnhof
I have another interesting entry planned some time this week -- it'll be a bit early to make up for my delay on this one. For now, however, I bid you adieu!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Chapter 2, In which I suffered a personal setback, and continued with my life

This blog is largely supposed to be a reflection of my experience here in Germany as part of the immersion program that I’m taking part in. This implies that it’s largely independent of the sordid details of my own personal life, and I’ll generally try to stay true to that. But I’m going to have to deviate here, for a brief period.

I initially began learning the German language at the beginning of 2011 because I had a German girlfriend at the time, and I wanted to be able to communicate with her (in German), and also with her family (who spoke little English). With this in mind, I set off on the path that led me to where I am today (namely, Germany). Unfortunately, life does like to throw us curveballs, and I am no exception. Shortly after arriving, my girlfriend broke up with me (this was about a week before the writing of this post), and that knocked me for a loop. I don’t plan on dwelling on it, either in my life or in my writing, but it has to be stated, so that you can understand some of what is stated here, and some of what is not.

I came with some preconceived notions of how I’d be spending my time, and I now find myself redefining the experience, which is hard. It is somewhat more difficult for me to drag myself out and about, to do all those lovely touristy things we all wish we had the opportunity to do! Nevertheless, I’ll be making a concerted effort to keep living, and so that living is what I’ll be sharing here.

My classes continue apace, with no seeming reduction in pace or content – I find that I’m learning at a minimum tens of words per day (although my German usage has declined, as I’ve been making a rather large number of English phone calls home). The classes run for about 4.5 solids hours, but I find that it is anything but boring. There’s something very exciting about communicating in a language other than your mother tongue. If, like me, you’ve only ever been monolingual, it’s an amazing sensation, and addictive.

Outside of class, we were given a holiday this past week. I took the opportunity to go and explore a local Schloss (castle), called Schloss Benrath in the vicinity of Düsseldorf. For those of you that haven’t been to Europe, there’s a general sense of age to some of the things here, and this was no exception. Some of these buildings were here while the United States was still changing its metaphorical diapers! I even managed to take some pictures (even though in some cases I wasn’t supposed to), and those’ll be sprinkled through the text.

When I arrived at the Schloss, I was greeted by the following sights:

I paid 5 euros to for full admittance to the premises, and a guided tour of the mansion itself, pictures above. When we actually came inside, I was informed that I shouldn’t take pictures, so I only have a few. In the main dining hall, I captured the tour guide!

For any of you who have ever had the pleasure of watching Muzzy for a language program, this man was Corvax. He looked a bit like Corvax, sounded like Corvax…it was uncanny. Except he wasn’t evil. I think. In any event, as we explored the house, I realized that it was just a tremendously beautiful place. Imagine sitting in your receiving room with this ceiling above you:

It’s quite something! It was simply breathtaking in person. The backyard was perhaps equally striking:

It was a gorgeous day, and the gardens were really very pretty. The swan I (and several others) happened to meet agreed!

Before I returned home for the day, I realized that my phone actually had a rear facing camera, and took a quick shot of myself, for any who are wondering what I look like. This is me, at Schloss Benrath!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Chapter 1, In which I arrived and began my studies

Some people say that endings are difficult, but I tend to believe that that isn’t quite accurate. For me, beginnings are definitely the hardest. At the start of anything, you have no idea what’s going on: you don’t know the rules of engagement, as it were. And this, of course, applies to my time here in Germany. So, let’s begin at the beginning (for that is a very good place to start (for any reader who enjoys The Sound of Music)).

My arrival date in Germany was set for 7 May 2012, so I naturally booked my travel from Pittsburgh to Düsseldorf on the 6th – I was to travel from Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) to Chicago O’Hare (ORD) and then finally to Düsseldorf (DUS). Of course, the key word here is ‘supposed.’ I set out on Sunday at about 12:30pm, to catch a 3:30pm flight – plenty of time, or so I thought. After waiting at the corner for an hour for the 28x bus to take me to the airport, I aborted my plan, and called a taxi to bring me to the airport. The taxi picked me up at about 2, and brought me to the airport around 2:45pm. I figured I was set (it might be tight, but I’d make it). After clearing security and the like, I found that my plane had been delayed (at the time, only 15 minutes) on account of some bad weather in Chicago. So I sat and waited…and the plan finally boarded (an hour late). We made it to Chicago just fine, but while in the air I realized I’d be arriving in Chicago a meager 20 minutes before my flight for Germany was to depart. That’s not a lot.

And when we landed…? Turns out the plane in our gate was taking a bit of extra time to depart. To make a long story short, I missed my flight to Düsseldorf, was rebooked to Frankfurt, and then to Düsseldorf, and ended up arriving at around 2pm, rather than 9am. *whew*

In Düsseldorf, I took a taxi directly to the Goethe-Institute, and began my testing (you read that correctly, no break, no sleep, no food, just TESTING – and I thought my finals were over!) I was placed into the B1.1 level (here at Goethe, the levels are divided as follows: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2, from A to C. Each level has 2 parts (hence B1.1), and each part takes 4 intensive weeks to complete – studying about 4 solid hours per day).
After that, I was finally given my place of residence, and set loose (this makes the Goethe Institute sound a bit cold, and I admit I am dramatizing a bit. The people were SUPER nice, the test wasn’t TOO bad, and I was actually fairly happy by the end). I’m living with a host family here in Germany, in the vicinity of Düsseldorf (about 10 minutes out, by train). So here I came, and as it turns out, the host family is wonderful – I’m really looking forward to the up and coming couple of months.

Some quick information: my host family consists of the mother and father, and their two sons (9 and 12, respectively). My class at the Institute has 7 people in it (which is really super), my teacher’s name is Frau Föllmer, and I think I’m going to love it here.