February 21, 2006

It’s That Time

Filed under: Travels, Personal, Germany — Alex Ravenel @ 7:15 am

Well, this is it. In less than an hour, I leave Tübingen. Last night, I went out with some friends for the last time. It worked out very well, with me seeing my two teachers from my summer Sprachkurs once more before leaving. It felt like a proper sendoff, and I’m glad it worked out that way.

All of my things are packed, and I’ll soon be catching the bus to the airport. I’m not looking forward to my 10.5 hour flight to Atlanta or my three hour layover once I get to Atlanta, but I am ready to get it over with–and certainly ready to get home.

I suppose this also means the end of regular posts here. I have a few more posts that I’d like to get up, so there will probably be a few more at some point, but nothing on a regular basis. If you’d like notification when I post something, sign up on the email list with the box to the right.

I guess that’s it then–my study abroad experience is over.

Bis Dann,

February 19, 2006


Filed under: Personal, Germany — Alex Ravenel @ 11:29 am

There are a lot of changes going on right now–with me, and with Tübingen. The most obvious is that on Tuesday morning, my time here in Germany is done, and I catch my flight back to the US. I’ve been busy getting things together, packing, cleaning, closing bank accounts and cancelling cell contracts. My room is bald, with nothing on the walls or bookshelf for the first time in six months.

Beyond that, it has started to feel like spring is peeking it’s head out in Tübingen. Yesterday, the thermostat almost hit 50, the highest it’s been since November. I’ve had my window open all day, and it’s a delight to get some fresh air–and hear the birds chirping, something else that’s been missing for a while. The creek behind my dorm has melted for the first time in several months, and the weather has become completely unpredictable in that early-spring way, when it will go from sunny to rainy to windy to sunny to snowing to sunny in the span of an hour. While it’s a bit early for the flowers to start blooming, it’s a small hint of spring, and I love it. It’s making me wish that I were going to be here to see it in it’s full glory, when the flowers return, the cafes reopen, the fountains lose their winter covers, and geese and gondolas once again move up and down the Neckar. Unfortunately though, that’s not big enough reason to make me stay.

Two days and counting…

February 12, 2006

Germany: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Part III

Filed under: Germany — Alex Ravenel @ 1:00 pm

It’s time for the third and probably last installment of Germany: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. You can read the first part here or the second part here.

The Good

  • The Countryside. The German countryside is just beautiful. Amazingly green, and covered in farm fields and quaint villages, it’s a supreme pleasure just to cruise through them. The Germans love their green spaces, and it shows. Most woods have hiking paths cut through them, and Germans thing nothing of a day spent wandering the woods. Sounds like my childhood.
  • Public Engineering. Now this is where the German stereotype of engineering comes into play. They love building train tracks, interstates, bridges, and other kinds of public works. And they don’t play around, either. Instead of maybe routing around that big hill in the way, they’ll just drill a several mile long tunnel straight through it. Or build some gigantic, towering bridge to cross a small valley on a rather minor highway. Maybe not the most efficient use of money, but wow, it’s impressive. And it makes getting around much easier.
  • Snow! OK, this is just a personal thing, but where I come from (North Carolina), we don’t really get snow. It’s great to actually see the white stuff on a somewhat regular basis. And hey, I’ll take snow over cold rain anyday.

The Bad

  • Interstate Signs. I’d say the German interstate system is one of the best in the world, except for one thing–the signs. Not that there aren’t enough, but they have seemingly done away with the compass. The signs don’t say “Interstate A-8, Direction North,” they say “Interstate A-8, Direction insignificant-town-no-one-has-heard-of.” If you don’t know the different towns, and what direction to go, you get lost. You practically need a co-driver just to sit there and look at a map the whole time and tell you where to go.
  • Business Practices. I don’t think Germans have ever heard of the mantra “the customer is always right.” You walk into most places around here, and they treat you just the opposite–like you need them instead of them needing you, and if you don’t like something, if you have a problem, tough. Customer service is non-existant. You get looked at funny if you ask a question or want someone to help you. Chalk it up to a cultural difference, but I don’t like it–I like knowing that a company will at least attempt to win me as a customer rather than treating me as an annoyance who needs to leave their store ASAP. Granted, many places aren’t like this–but it seems much more prevalent than in the US.
  • Lines. Germans don’t seem to have any problem queueing up into long lines for any reason at all. So in turn, many places understaff, and you end up waiting in a massive line for something small that would drive most Americans crazy. Maybe we’re just impatient. But it seems that everywhere I go, you have to wait in a long line to do anything. And no one complains, no one thinks that there has to be a better way–they just line up. I think this is related to the general European ability to tolerate massive crowds that would drive any American mad, but I’m not sure.

The Ugly

  • The Post Office. I would have thought that they would have had a bureaucratic organization like this figured out, but I was wrong. Expensive, slow, and, the worst offender–half of the time, they just decide my address doesn’t exist, sending my mail back to the sender. And when packages are sent, they like to decide you “weren’t available for pickup” when you were there waiting the whole time, necessitating waiting in the huge line at the main post office. And I’m not the only one–I’ve never heard anyone say anything good about the place.

January 24, 2006

Pick Up The Phone

Filed under: Germany — Alex Ravenel @ 5:55 pm

OK, I don’t know if this is a particularly “German” thing or just a byproduct of living in a dorm divided into suites, but it’s annoying nonetheless. We have one phone in the suite, in the common area. I don’t know why, but that’s how it is. Those that use it split the monthly cost. I don’t use it because I have a cell phone and don’t want to pay for something twice.

Anyways, the problem comes when someone calls the phone. Most normal people hang up when no one answers after 4 or so rings; maybe even 6 since it’s in the common area of a 6 person suite, so it might take a bit longer to get to it. But I’ve never, ever, heard anyone hang up after anything less than 10 or more rings. It’s astounding. Even more astounding is that they almost always call right back.

News flash: If no one answered after 4, 5, 6, even 7, rings, an extra five more isn’t likely to increase your chances. And if they didn’t answer after ten or twelve rings, they sure as hell aren’t likely to magically appear and answer the phone if you immediately call back and do the same thing.

I’m leaning towards it being a “German” thing just because it happens so often and the callers always seem to be different people calling different suitemates.

January 23, 2006


Filed under: Random, Germany — Alex Ravenel @ 4:00 pm

Languages I’ve heard today:

  • German
  • English
  • English with a thick Scottish accent
  • French
  • Italian
  • Spanish
  • Turkish

How wonderful. It’d take you a year to hear that many languages in the US.

In other news, after having a bit of a warm streak for the last week, temperatures are cold again. When I left my dorm at 1PM, it was 25 degrees out. That was pretty much the high for the day. I’m hoping the Neckar river will start to freeze over again. Before our warm snap–warm being above freezing–the Neckar was completely frozen over, though it was a very shallow freeze. How nice it would be to see the whole thing frozen. When it gets 8-10cm thick, people can start to ice skate on it…

January 22, 2006


Filed under: Travels, Germany — Alex Ravenel @ 1:33 pm

The night before last, I got a call from Ralf, a German who had stayed in the US with my aunt when he had studied abroad a few years earlier on an exchange program. It turns out that, by happy coincidence, he lives in a small town about 20 minutes from Tübingen, in the village of Glems, population about 1000.

Anyways, we had been trading emails back and forth trying to figure out when to get together, and we finally worked things out, so he agreed to come pick me up after he got off work on Friday night and we’d head back over to Glems and get a few drinks. He was picking me up late, 11PM, because he worked the second shift, so the plan was for me to just stay the night over there and he’d bring me back the next morning.

After a fun time trying to describe where I live given that I don’t really know any street names around, we got into his small Audi and headed back to his village. It was a fun drive; I’ve always liked the German countryside with its rolling hills covered with scraggly apple trees and small farmhouses surrounded by massive stacks of firewood. It quickly became clear that his village was really small, as we wound our way through the curvy country roads, passing one small town after another. Eventually we got to Glems, and went inside to pick up his sister.

A quick note about language here. Both Ralf and his sister, who had also studied in the US, in Wilmington, NC, spoke excellent English. Normally when speaking with someone for whom English is not a mother language, you have to watch what you are saying, because (American) English is so filled with idiomatic expressions that non-native speakers quickly get totally lost, especially seeing as they were almost always taught British English, which is much lighter on the idiomatic expressions. This wasn’t so with these two. Both spoke excellent conversational English, and I had no problems speaking freely without having to pay attention and make sure that they weren’t getting lost. Their German however, was another story. They grew up in an area that speaks a very strong dialect of German, Swabisch. To imagine how different Swabisch is from Hochdeutsch, the normal German and the type you are taught in school, think about English Cockney. Ever seen the movie Snatch, with Brad Pitt as the gypsy that had to have subtitles because his accent was so thick? Or ever ridden in a London cab? That’s cockney. It, and Swabisch, are so different from their “normal” mother languages that even natives have a hard time understanding it. They saw the baffled look on my face when they started speaking German and quickly laughed at their accents, and tried to speak a bit more Hochdeutsch for me so I could understand and get some practice.

We headed off to the bar, the Hirsch, probably the only bar in town. This was by far one of the coolest bars I’ve ever been to. It’s not a secret that I’m not a fan of clubs or “party bars,” places with flashy lights, loud music, where the entire point is to get as drunk as possible as quickly as possible. I’d much rather find a quieter place to sit around with a few friends, drink a few beers, and have some good conversation. This place fit the bill entirely. There were probably 15 people clustered around three tables, all just hanging out and talking. There wasn’t even really a bartender, just a guy that sorta worked there and sat at the tables too, talking and having a good time. If someone needed something, they’d call his name and he’d go get it for them, then return to sitting and talking. Some people didn’t even bother with this, and would just get up and go behind the bar to get another beer when they needed. Everyone knew everyone else, and people would freely walk from one table to another. I was sitting at a table with Ralf, his sister, and several friends of theirs. Most of them spoke some English, but aside from the occasional thing that them or I couldn’t get out in German/English, we spoke in German. It was good practice for me, and things went surprisingly well. At the end of the night, when we were the last ones there, the bar owner joined us at our table, and we kept on talking and carousing until five in the morning.

All in all, it was one of the best times I’ve had here. It was excellent to get out with some real Germans, hang out and talk and drink some good beer. We’re planning on getting together again when I get back from my Prague/London travels over the next couple of weeks.

January 18, 2006

On The German Language

Filed under: Random, Germany — Alex Ravenel @ 7:25 pm

It’s pretty well known that Mark Twain liked to write all sorts of damning comments about the incomprehensibility of the German language, most of them quite accurate. Here’s a similar comment, but one that puts it into terms non-German speakers might understand with a very pertinent example.

A shortcomment on this ongoingdebate I have. In German biglongwordsthatcontinueforeverwithnoendinsight there are. Bigdeal. Two biggerproblems there are. First, in the Germanlanguage, verbs at the end of sentences or clauses go. In normalconversation, which is a question or which is a declarativestatement vocalinflection indicates. But in the writtentexts, only at the endofsentences with a period or a questionmark when you the difference can tell isn’t it? Second, negatives the noun not verb modify.

What the ruleimpact of this in English try to imagine would be. We ever where until there we got would we know are going? Many famoussayings notmemorable would be: “Before you leap look,” “Notcart before the horse put,” two examples are. Richard Nixon would have said, “I a notcrook am.” Connie Chung to the Newtmother would have said, “Why not you to me girltogirl it whisper?”

If you the Billandhillaryclintonhealthplan indecipherableandhardtounderstand as it written was think, it not according to germanizedbureacraticliterarystyle with all the verbs at the endofsentences be glad written was! Otherwise, we Harryandlouiseprotest would have had to hear, “To this listen! They my choice away take! I my notchoice to keep get! And this muchminemoney will cost! This stinks!”

And letterstotheeditor really, really no sense with Germanrules would make.”

By Donald Sensing.

A truer thing has never been said.

January 16, 2006

Coming to a Close

Filed under: School, Personal, Germany — Alex Ravenel @ 3:22 pm

I haven’t made this terribly public yet, but most people already know it, so I figure it’s time to just put it out there, and explain my thought process on the whole thing.

Originally, I was planning on staying in Tübingen until mid August, a period of time of one year here. However, as I got further and further into my time here, I started to question whether this was the right decision to have made. About a month and a half ago, after some long and hard thinking on the subject, I decided that I would not return here for the second semester, and would instead return to the US after first semester here ended in February.

My reasons for this are many. Not least of which, I’m bored. I only have classes two days a week, which, while it sounds like a blessing at first, quickly becomes tiresome–I have nothing to do, ever. I’ve never felt so unproductive in my life. Sitting in my room, or a cafe, or the library, or wherever, while wonderful for a while, quickly becomes boring. I need to do something, accomplish something, and I don’t feel that I can do that here. Also, while having five day weekends is great for travelling, I’ve become somewhat tired of that, too. Living out of a suitcase, sleeping in hostels… I’m tired of it. I’ve also become bored with Tübingen. Tübingen is a wonderful town, and is intensely beautiful, but one can’t help get the feeling that there’s just really not much to do here once you tire of the cafes. And if I’m tired of travelling, but tired of Tübingen, I just can’t help but get the feeling that maybe I shouldn’t be here.

Then there are the personal aspects. I’ve yet to really meet any Germans, one of my primary goals in coming here. Germans are notoriously “cliquey,” and while every one that I’ve met has been friendly and outgoing, I’ve yet to strike up anything resembling a friendship with any of them. In addition, many of the Germans here go home on the weekends, or at the least to Stuttgart, leaving the town dead for 3-4 days a week, and it makes it even more difficult to meet anyone.

It was a hard decision to make, however. I was, and still am, worried that now is my greatest chance to travel, to see things, and that I may be throwing that away by heading home. However, like I said, I’m tired of the travelling, and have already been lucky enough to see more than many people twice my age. London, Paris, Rome, Venice, Berlin, Munich, soon to be Prague and potentially Vienna–I’m very lucky to have experienced all these wonderful cities. But through it all, I can’t shake the feeling that they aren’t mine, that I am just a visitor, that despite my best efforts, I can’t call them, or anywhere else on the continent of Europe, home. It’s all becoming a blur to me, and when you start to lose that magic spark of travelling, when you wouldn’t cross the street to see another Monet, when Paris is “just another city,” I think it’s time to head home.

If nothing else, this experience has led me to realize what I have at home and how lucky I am. It’s put a new perspective on myself, my life, my friends and family. I know more now about what makes me tick, what I want out of life, and how important the relationships of those close to me are, even for someone like myself who tends to have a loner streak. I am thankful for this; this is perhaps the best thing to come out of it all, even beyond all the incredible cities and sites I’ve gotten to see over the last six months.

Anyways, I still have over a month here. My flight back to the US is on February 21st, and before that date, I’ll be travelling to Prague and London, and hopefully going skiing as well, so there should be plenty up here in the meantime. I’d also like to cram in a trip to Vienna, but I’m not sure that will happen.

For better or for worse, the decision has been made, and at the moment, I’m glad I made the decision I did. In the future, I may post more about my thoughts on Tübingen itself, and why it is a great town to visit, but not one I want to live in, among other things.

January 15, 2006

Germany: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Part II

Filed under: Random, Travel Tips, Germany — Alex Ravenel @ 11:44 am

This post is part of a series. See the first entry here and the third entry here.

The Good

  • The Trains. Germany’s rail system has the reputation of being the most punctual in Europe. I must say, this seems to be true. The trains are almost always on time, and it’s typically quite easy to get anywhere in Germany on the excellent rail system. Seven minute connection? No problem, your train will pull into the station just on time and give you enough time to get to your other train.
  • Sales Tax. The sales tax in Germany is included in the price. If something says it costs €3, it costs €3. No funny change at the end because of some 6.5% sales tax or whatever. Of course, the sales tax here is much higher, but at least it’s already in the price…
  • The Wine. And not just German wine–of which there are plenty of good ones, mostly white. But in general, I’ve found good wine to be much more accessible and cheaper than in the States. I don’t know what it is about the wine industry in the US that makes it extremely difficult to find even a decent table wine for less than $8, but here, decent wines can be had for €5. You can even find several places that will let you fill up a liter from the barrel for €3 or €4. The availability of affordable, drinkable wine here is astounding. Great wines are still expensive, but good, drinkable wines are cheap and readily available.

The Bad

  • Washing Machines. German engineering at it’s finest. The washing machines, at least the ones in all the dorms, suck. First, they are tiny. You can fit about two pairs of pants and a couple of shirts in them before they are full. Which means that it takes several machines to do a load of laundry. Second, they are slow. It takes two to two and a half hours to run a load. Third, they don’t do a very good job, and oftentimes your clothes still have a bit of soap in them. And then they don’t really do the whole dryer thing here, so you have to air dry everything. Laundry is an all-day affair here.
  • Credit Cards. No one takes them. Most hotels do, but that’s really about it. Everywhere else, everywhere, you basically have to pay in cash. Germany is the single reason there is a 500 euro bill. You go to the Saturn, the German version of Best Buy, and buy a 3000 dollar television, and have to pay in cash. I guess they don’t get too many impulse buys…
  • The Trains. Yes, also a good thing. But good lord they are expensive. I have a BahnCard 50, which gives me 50% off all German rail travel, and it’s still expensive. With it, it cost me 42 euro round trip to Nuremberg, a mere three hours away. Without it, it would have cost me 84 euro. To go three hours away. Ouch.
  • Beer Selection in Bars/Restaurants. This isn’t to say that the beer is bad, but rather that it’s hard to find anything different. I haven’t confirmed this, but I’m pretty confident that the bars and restaurants here must sign a contract with a beer distributor allowing them only to sell that brand of beer–I have never, ever seen a place that sold more than one brand of beer. Meaning that every place has a pilsner, a hefeweizen, maybe a kellerbier, and this time of the year, possibly a bock. That’s it. No selection. None of the places where you can stroll in and pick from 15 different beers. And because of the reliance on regional brewers, normally a good thing, sometimes it can be hard to find a beer from a company that you haven’t already had, a hundred times over. Sometimes you just want something different.
  • Water. Not the stuff out of the tap in your apartment, the stuff in restaurants. They don’t do the whole tap water thing here. If you want water, you’ve gotta pay €4 for the stuff in a bottle, frequently carbonated. Some places will grudgingly give you tap water if you ask for it, but they don’t like it, and some won’t give you refills. Other places flat out tell you they don’t allow customers to order tap water. I’ve been known to take a water bottle with me to eat because I don’t want to pay exorbitant prices for something I can get for almost free from the tap.

The Ugly

  • Smoking. Everyone smokes here. Everyone. Far moreso than in the US. To make it worse, they don’t really do the smoking/non-smoking sections here–they’re just all smoking. And the bars… Most of them are built into old cellars, so there isn’t much ventilation, and when almost everyone in them is smoking, you can’t see the person sitting next to you. They’ll even smoke on the trains here. I’ll never forget my trainride to Munich for Oktoberfest, with over 200 people crammed into a train car meant to sit 100, when the train broke down on the tracks, and everyone started smoking. Nothing like tons of smokers in a traincar to make you unable to breath. Not to mention I’m tired of all of my clothes perpetually smelling like smoke despite my not being a smoker.
  • The Bureaucracy. I know I already said this in the last one, but it has to be said again. The German bureaucracy has to be seen to be believed. It takes forever for anything to happen here, because 47 different bureaucrats have to sign 92 pieces of paper to replace a roadsign, or something else as trivial. And the blind insistance upon following every rule to the letter is maddening. No one will bend a rule, no matter how silly the rule or how light the bending. Want to send that package that is 11 grams over the 500g airmail weight? Sorry bud, not happening. Open it up and pull out the equivalent of a couple paperclips worth of stuffing paper. Since I’m sure that plane is going to crash because I had 11 grams too much in my airmail box.

Thats it for now. I’ve got a few more brewing, so there will probably be another similar post in the future…

January 12, 2006

Christmas Trip: New Years

Filed under: Travels, Germany — Alex Ravenel @ 2:38 pm

Note: This post is part of a series:
Christmas Trip: The First Days
Christmas Trip: Venice
Christmas Trip: Rome, Part 1
Christmas Trip: Rome, Part 2

We made it to Stuttgart without any fuss, on what was, despite being a budget flight where all five of us flew for cheaper than the fare for one person from Charlotte to New York, a nicer flight than most of the “big name” ones I’ve been on. A pleasant surprise. We landed in Stuttgart in the early evening, and made our way into town, before getting totally lost trying to find the hotel. Thank goodness for GPS–I don’t think we ever would have found that hotel.

By this time, it was around 9 and we were all hungry, so we headed out to find something to eat. All being tired of German food, and wanting something different than Italian, we wandered into an Arabian restaurant and enjoyed an excellent meal, with an excellent beer (Andechs double bock), and were even treated to a bit of belly dancing–interesting, to say the least.

Not having any plans for the evening, we decided to take it easy and head back to the hotel after dinner. Just at midnight, as we were about to get in bed, we started hearing popping, bangs, whistles, explosions, shouts–looking out the window, we were treated to the most incredible fireworks display I have ever seen. This wasn’t some massive city sponsored show, but was all small, personal fireworks. The kicker was that everyone was shooting tons of them. Everywhere you looked, the horizon was just filled with rainbows of exploding fireworks. From our 5th floor windows, we could see it all, and just sat there, taking it in, for 30 minutes. The street below us was filled with celebrators, and we could see bottle rockets bouncing off cars, people, and buildings–one even hit the window next to me. The sheer number of the fireworks going off overtook any professional display I have ever seen. It was, by far, the best fireworks “show” I’ve ever seen–and maybe even the best New Year’s I’ve ever had.

That was really the end of our trip. The next day, we ambled around Stuttgart’s meager sites, Wilson went ice skating, and then we just hung around. Not much to report on there. The next morning, I caught the train back to Tübingen, and the rest of the family headed to the airport to fly home, thus bringing a close to our Christmas trip.

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