Our adventure began with an all-nighter. Please note, I never had to pull an all-nighter in college; who knew my first would be as a YAV.
We took a taxi at 12:30 a.m. to the bus stop, got the 1 a.m. bus to Dublin Airport, slept for a few hours at Dublin's Terminal 2 airport (boy was it nice and quiet!), checked in at the automatic Aer Lingus ticket machine at 5 a.m., realized that we were in the wrong terminal, walked over to the extremely chaotic Terminal 1 (further realizing that we lucked out for heading to Terminal 2 originally), and got to our gate a little after 5 a.m.
The next two hours were spent people watching. (At least one person - not too sure whether he was Irish or German - was drinking a beer. It was 5:00...)
The Aer Lingus flight was great; I was asleep by take-off which was a little after 7 a.m. Whew.
Upon landing in Germany, we met up with Allison's friend Amy, who has lived and worked in Germany for six of the past 7 years. She lives in a town called Wilnsdorf, which is northwest of Frankfurt, close to Siegen, and a short train away from Koln.
We spent a week hanging out with her, enjoying the scenic German countryside, reveling in the quaintness of the small German towns, admiring the gi-normous German pine trees (Chronicles of Narnia style), wading through several feet of snow, eating lots of German food, learning a few key phrases of German, and just thoroughly enjoying the cultural experience. (And fully appreciating that even though Belfast is in a foreign country, at least we can understand what traffic signs say.)
Allison and I ventured up to Koln [pronounced and often spelled Cologne] over New Year's Eve. This was automatically going to be an adventure as Allison and I had English, French, and Spanish covered - and only really, really limited German. So we took the train to Koln. When one walks out of the Koln Hauptbahnhof in mid-winter, the majestic spires of the Koln Dom rise into the low-lying sky. We wandered around the rather crowded cathedral, then headed towards the tower to climb up it. (We weren't too sure how much we were going to see on such a cloudy day, but we wanted to try it anyway.) Well, lo and behold, the Dom tower was closed for New Year's Eve and Day. We couldn't actually read the German sign, but since it had the two dates listed and the doors were locked, we inferred that this was the case. So, we decided to check out the near-by Roman-times museum. Turns out that was closed too. We then decided to wander over to the Third Reich museum and check in with the Koln Tourism office on the way. As our luck would have it, the tourism office had closed the hour before - and was closed for the rest of the weekend. At this point, we decided that the Third Reich museum was probably going to be closed too and that we might as well head out to our hotel.
Due to the high demand for hostels over New Year's Eve, we had found a cheaper hotel that came highly recommend by Amy, that was a short S-bahn train ride out of the city. Following small misfortunes of incorrect directions from the hotel's website, small difficulties with using the ticket machine, awkwardly remaining on the train which had reached it's last stop as the driver yelled over the intercom in German for us to get off (another key lesson: when everyone else gets out of the train car, one probably should get off too), and having about a mile walk from the train stop to the hotel, we had arrived. Phew. It was a memorable experience.
The evening was more of an adventure as many restaurants were booked solid with people dining out for the holiday, but we eventually found an Italian place to eat dinner, enjoyed walking around a bit more of the city, then headed back to the hotel to watch fireworks on tv. We survived! (The city did have a vibrant atmosphere about it... perhaps emphasized by quite a number of open beer and wine bottles. Germany.) Best part of the trip home was one of the trains heading the opposite direction had been decked out on the inside with tons of streamers. The people on it seemed to be enjoying the holiday.
The next morning was a bit nerve wracking as few enough trains were running that we couldn't tell from the electronic signs if any of the S-bahn trains were running at all. But sure enough, a train eventually showed up to take us back into Koln. (The hotel was in the town of Frechen, a village on the Western side of the city, past the University and past vast tracts of snowy parks.) While waiting for the train to show up, we wandered into the main part of town and were regaled by the cathedral bells calling the residents to New Year's mass. Yet another cool, small German town.
Once back in Koln, we walked around a bit more and had a wonderful lunch of a HAMBURGER. (First hamburger I have had since being here! Even came with cucumbers on it. The steak-frites were amazing too.)
Caught the train back to Siegen, and our adventure smoothly concluded.
Overall, my experience with Germany was an extremely positive one, and I very much look forward to going back - especially after I have learned a bit more German.
It was a true vacation as well as I got to read two books - finished Three Cups of Tea about Greg Mortenson's work building schools in rural Pakistan/Afghanistan and also continued reading a collection of letters/writings by William Stringfellow (an American lay theologian from the later Cold War period). Both very interesting and challenging books.
One of my favorite things about Germany was honestly the food. Lots of lovely chocolate pastries, potato products, bread products, Italian food, doner, currywursts, and more.
One other highlight of the trip was having dinner with two of Amy's friends. They were about my age (went on a months-long trip around the world last year!), so it was interesting to hear their thoughts on German culture, history, the world, and life in general.
Our trip home was relatively uneventful. Our flight was not at oh-dark-700, but rather later in the morning, so we arrived back to Belfast more rested than when we left.
Many thanks to Amy for taking us in and being our tour guide more than graciously. It was a wonderful vacation, and I am so excited to see more of Europe!
Stay tuned for more pictures and further reflections concerning life in Belfast!
In peace and grace, Happy 2011!