Monday, May 19, 2008

Friends, Family and Beer

Jon and I just got back from a 9-day trip to Germany. It was my first time back in 8 years and Jon's first trip out of the U.S., so it was very exciting for both of us. There was a lot to do and many people we wanted to see, so it was a very full week (as you are about to see - this is a VERY LONG post).

The breakdown of the trip over all: We flew into Hamburg at 7:30 am Saturday, May 10th, took the train to Luebeck on Monday, May 12th, took the train back to Hamburg Tuesday night so we could catch the ICE speed train to Stuttgart early Wednesday morning. On Thursday, May 15th, we rented an Audi TT and "flew" to the little Black Forest town of Triberg where we stayed overnight. We returned to Stuttgart just in time to change our clothes and go out for a nice dinner and great conversation with some old friends of mine from school. Saturday was spent with some family friends for lunch, a tour through the new Mercedes Benz museum (born and bred in Stuttgart!) and then at a few minutes before 8:00 pm, got back on the ICE train to Hamburg. My friend Isolde's boyfriend picked us up from the train station at 1:30 am Sunday the 18th, took us out for a last beer and schnitzel and then dropped us off at the Hamburger airport at 4:00 am where we waited for until our flight left at 9:00 am. We arrived later that same day at Newark airport at 11:45 am US time, switched planes and finally arrived at ATL at 5:00 pm.

When Chelsea picked us up from the airport, we were still wearing the same clothes we had put on Saturday morning in Stuttgart and worn the whole time we traveled via car, train and plane through Hamburg, Newark and Atlanta.

Here's the more detailed account:

Day 1 (Friday, May 9th):
Left Atlanta for Newark. We were put on an earlier plane because they were afraid delays would make us miss our connection. Switched planes and exchanged money in Newark - we were on our way to our European Vacation. We're both too excited to really sleep in the plane, watch "P.S. I love you" and part of "Mad Money." Jon prefers when they show the screen that shows where we currently are on a map and give times and distances. It's dark outside, so we can't see anything. Celebrate by having a little drink on the plane.

Day 2 (Saturday, May 10th):
Land in Hamburg at 7:30 am German time. We find out that our luggage has gone MIA, but at first it seems like no big deal because we had packed one day's clothes for just such an event. Jon is a bit rattled at the idea of having to stay up until at least 9:00 pm in order to forced yourself to adjust to the time change. Luckily, we are busy with friends and sight-seeing all day and we manage to happily stay awake until 11:00 pm.

My friend, Isolde, and her boyfriend, Achim, pick us up from the airport and get to talking and catching up right away. Even though Isolde knows English very well (she is an English teacher there) and most every one else's is quite good, I am personally driven to speak German and I begin my constant switch between English and German. It's a bit of a challenge, but I am so excited that it doesn't really bother me.

Jon is distracted anyhow with all of the old buildings, new and different cars (Fiat, Citroen, Opel, Lancia and even classes of Mercedes that we don't have here) and impressed that even the police drive Mercedes' and BMWs (Achim points out that they need those cars or else the bad guys would get away). They drop us off at our hotel, Steigenberger, and luckily our room is already available. We check in about our missing luggage with no success but every one is very nice and promises to get our luggage to us asap. We clean up while Iso and Achim go back to Achim's place where Iso's sister and my friend, Dodo (short for Dorothee) and her family are staying for the weekend.

This just so happens to be a very special weekend in Hamburg as it is their "Hafengeburtstag" (Harbor Birthday) that they celebrate every year with a festival, similar to Munich's "Oktoberfest." This year was the 819th birthday of Hamburg's harbor - over 3 times as old as the United States of America (the country, not the land)- can you freaking believe it?!? Jon and I wander out of our hotel for a minute and roam the neighborhood. As in all German cities, everything is in close proximity and squished in because there's simply only so much room for everyone. Right away we see a Starbucks and Jon wants to try one out. Of course, it tastes pretty much the same except that, as with all the coffee and tea drinks, it seems to have a richer and finer flavor than over here. We think it must be their water and better roasting & brewing techniques.

Down the road a bit we find a typical city grocery store and bakery. We buy a couple typical German sandwiches with salami and ham on wonderfully fresh & crusty rolls and a pretzel. I show him around the aisles and point out what's the same and what's completely different to what we have. And we really lucked out because German "White Asparagus" - something that you can't really find in America and even Germans go crazy for it when it's in season. You'll find restaurants will have completely separate special menus for their White Asparagus dishes and everyone we went to dinner with always asked, "Oh! Have you tried the White Asparagus yet??"

At Noon, we met back up with Iso, Achim, Dodo, her husband, Paule, and their daughters, Mia (10) and Anna (almost 4. when you ask her when she will turn 4, she replies "On my birthday."). We begin what becomes a week full of walking almost everywhere. Europe truly is a pedestrian-oriented land and those who aren't on foot are on bicycles. Almost all sidewalks in Hamburg are divided between the pedestrian side and the bi-pedaled side. And while you will most certainly hear it from the bikers if you get in their way on their side, they pretty much own the sidewalk and will wheel right around you, even on your side.

There's a certain flow to traffic in Germany that we simply don't have here. Everyone, the motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians all fall into a fairly neat pattern of organization. Everyone seems to have a keen sense of who/what is around them and because everyone knows what they should be doing, the others around them can anticipate their actions and act accordingly. This is especially notable at intersection where you have cars turning, pedestrians crossing and bikes wheeling all around and it all works like a little orchestra. We only saw a few incidents where someone was swiped by a handlebar or a overzealous bike had to quickly swerve around a stopped car. And although it can be a bit much sometimes - there is almost always someone you have to get around or they are trying to get around you - still, there's that flow and pattern that we sorely lack in America.

So we trodded along Hamburg's huge harbor through throngs of (German) people, street vendors selling "Hamburg" t-shirts, wursts on big swinging grills, fried fish sandwiches and of course, BEER. Every city has at least a few different breweries and "Jever" is Hamburg's biggest brand and is the sponsor of the event. We had a glass of Jever, walked down to the car tunnels that cross under Hamburg's port and wound up on a big ferris wheel overlooking the city.

Jon was constantly amazed by different some things were from America and yet how many other things were really quite similar. But the main thing we never got over was how old everything was. Churches that had been built in the 1500's and somehow survived (barely, sometimes) two world wars and streets that once carried royal families in carriages - for people with a country that's barely over 200 years old - it's just pretty astounding. Especially when these historic buildings are side by side with very modern sleek buildings - it's quite a contrast!

After a while we headed back to the hotel to rest and freshen up before we went out to dinner with Iso and Dodo at a great restaurant called "Eisenstein." Jon enjoyed the German white asparagus and I finally had Pizza Tonno (Tuna), which I had been drooling for since I had last been in Germany 8 years before. I don't know why American pizzerias don't make it - ti's just tuna, onions and capers or celery and it's wonderful.

We also found ourselves talking American politics pretty quickly. Europeans can't wait for our elections and are excited to see if we actually get a black man or a woman as president. Either way, they'll be happy Bush is gone. For a while after the 2004 elections many Germans were angry and amazed that we "re-elected" Bush but then I think that in the meantime they realized and remembered what it's like to have a government that is not really in line with the will or desires of it's citizens and so have become mostly sympathetic towards Americans. The interest in who wins is very strong - every time we sat down and chatted with people, even strangers, it only took 5 minutes before they were asking about Obama and Hillary. Jon and I were glad to talk with them and share our thoughts and equal excitement for this great opportunity for change.

Day 3 (Sunday, May 11th):
The first day you arrive they always say that you have to stay up until at least 9:00 pm to force your body to adjust to the time change and we managed to eat, drink and talk our way to 11:00 before we finally crashed in bed. The next morning I woke up pretty early and was immediately hungry for a great breakfast spread. I think my favorite German meal is breakfast and the hotel where we stayed offered a top notch example. There were baskets of fresh and hearty rolls and breads, a variety of sliced meats and cheeses as well as jellies, jams and fresh-squeezed juices such as mango, blood orange, banana, carrot and coconut. I am pretty sure I had three servings of everything.

Then the gang came bay to pick us up and the boys (Jon, Achim & Paule) set off to go see a St. Pauli soccer game. This is Hamburg's B-team, but it's still a huge deal and the stadium was packed. The girls (me, Iso, Dodo, Mia & Anna) headed towards the park where the Anna played, Mia read the american "High School Musical" magazine I brought her and Iso, Dodo and myself really got to chatting. Okay, so it was me talking most of the time, but they reassured me that it was okay because I had "a lot to tell."

We could hear the cries of the soccer fans in the distance and enjoyed coffee and cake, like good Germans would. It was very nice to reconnect with my old friends to hear everything that has been going on in their lives since I moved away 16 years before. For some topics, it really felt as though hardly any time had passed. And there was also a lot of reminiscing to our younger days when we would tell our parents that we were staying at each other's houses but stayed out the whole night in the city instead (we were only like 15 years old - what were we thinking?!?). Now we looked to Dodo's 10 year old daughter and shudder to think if she ever got such stupid ideas in her head.

That night we went to Hamburg's "Sternschanze" quarter and met up with some of my Aunts and Uncles for dinner. It was Uncle Klaus, his new wife (as of last weekend!), Beate, my Aunt Sandra and her husband, Bjoern (also newlyweds as of a month ago!). It was a great Italian place where we got pasta carbonara and pizza with parma ham. Yummy! The conversation was also great - turns out Beate has been practicing calligraphy for over 10 years

~~ More to come!~~