November 17, 2005

An Update

Filed under: School, Personal, Germany — Alex Ravenel @ 4:43 am

AuftenhaltsgenehmigungIt’s been a few days, so I thought I’d post with a quick update. I finally got my visa the other day, meaning I can now legally stay in Germany until November of next year. This thing is huge though–it takes up two whole pages of my passport, though I must say, I’d rather have it than two pages of generic, boring EU passport stamps. It also says that I can work 90 full days, or 180 half days, during that period of time. Nice gesture, but I doubt I’ll be finding gainful employment here when 10% of the native German population can’t find jobs. Anyways, the visa was my last “official” thing I had to do here, and it feels good to have all that paperwork behind me. No more reams of paperwork, funny opening hours, and long lines to take care of seemingly trivial tasks.

Also, the thought has been running through my head to come home for good after this semester, at the end of March. Things are great here, but I’m getting burned out on travel, and once I lose that, there really isn’t any other pressing reason for me to be here. I’m hoping that until March is long enough for my German to really pick up, but that’s something we’ll just have to see about. Also, if I leave early, I’ll be able to take both summer sessions at UNC, meaning I’ll be able to finish a German major without having to take two 18 hour semesters senior year. This isn’t a final decision to come home, but it is something that has been heavily weighing on my mind recently.

Tuebingen Stiftkirche, DetailClasses have been going pretty well for the most part. I’ve dropped my one “real” university class because I couldn’t understand anything the professor was saying. Our grades in that class would have been 100% based on a final, and I didn’t think that I would be able to pass it given my difficulties in understanding what was going on in the class. My other classes are going wonderfully though. I’m becoming much more comfortable with my German, and the classes are getting interesting. I have two projects I’m working on right now, although only one is really “work”–the other involves me going to different bars around town and then writing about what makes each one distinct. I did the first “research” last night.

I’m hoping to pick up my travel schedule significantly soon, realizing that if I do decide to go home early, there’s still a lot I want to see. I’m going to try to go to Vienna next weekend, and then probably Würzburg, Bamberg, and Nürnberg the next weekend. Hopefully there will be plenty more posts from such places…

November 9, 2005

Germany: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Filed under: Germany — Alex Ravenel @ 9:00 am

Note: This post is part of a series. See the second post here and the third post here.

I’ve been here a few months now, and noticed lots of things about Germany that are great, not so great, and some that just plain suck. As I’m sure that I’ll notice more things as time goes on, this will probably turn into something of a series. For now, here are (a few) things I’ve noticed from the last few months.

The Good

  • The Beer. As if this one needs explaining. This is a stereotype that is true—the beer in Germany is great. Even the cheap stuff tastes better than a lot of the swill you get in the States. That’s not to say that there isn’t good beer in the States—quite the contrary. I love Sierra Nevada, or Sam Adams, but those are premium beers in the States. Here, the normal, everyday stuff is just awesome.
  • The Chocolate. German chocolate is on par with Swiss or French. For 35 cents, you can get a 65% cocoa bar that is light years better than anything you can get for less than $5 in the States.
  • The Coffee. Germans drink more coffee than beer. Considering it’s hard to find coffee in sizes larger than 6 ounces, and beer comes by the half liter, that’s saying a lot. Suffice it to say, like most of Europe, they know how to brew a good cup.
  • The Travel. Germany is right in the middle of Europe, meaning you can easily travel to eastern, western, or southern Europe. And Germany itself has plenty of things to see. Germany is often wrongly one of the more overlooked countries in terms of European travel, but that just means less tourists to deal with for those of us that do travel through Germany.
  • The People. People say that Europeans, but Germans in particular, are cold and unfriendly. This isn’t true at all—they’re just not as “falsely” friendly. By that I mean that they aren’t as likely to small talk with you at the bus stop. But when you actually do talk to one, they are incredibly open, outgoing, and friendly. They take it seriously when you ask “How are you?”, and they listen just as seriously to you when they ask it.
  • The Environment/Parks. Germans love their forests, gardens, and parks. And just as much as they love die frische Luft, they are fanatical about protecting these green spaces. Conservationism and environmental protection is huge here, and it shows.

The Bad

  • Opening Hours. Things here don’t stay open as long as in the States. There’s no such thing as 24 hour stores, and almost everything is closed on Sundays.
  • The Travel. Yes, I know this is also listed as a good thing. But because Germany is in the middle of Europe, none of the big western (France, Spain) or southern (Italy) things are real close. It’s nice being able to do pretty much everything, but sometimes it sucks when you realize that most of Europe’s big sights (Paris, Amsterdam, Rome, etc) are 6 or more hours away. Nothing is far, but nothing is close, either.
  • The Internet. Internet connectivity in the dorms here doesn’t seem to be quite the necessity it is in the States, though this is changing. And you can get DSL that’s twice as fast as in the States for almost half the price, so that redeems it somewhat, but still doesn’t help in the dorms.
  • Americanism. Germany is probably the most “Americanized” of the European nations, probably even moreso than Great Britain. Naturally, a good bit of this is to be expected, given that Germany was occupied after the war, but they continued on with it afterwards. This isn’t all that bad of a thing, but sometimes you wish things were a little more different. I came here to travel and go somewhere new, and when things feel just like at home, it makes me feel I’d rather just be back home than here, away from my friends and family.

The Ugly

  • The Bureaucracy. They love it here, maybe more than beer and coffee. Trying to get anything done feels like an exercise in futility. I’ve never seen so many papers that have to be signed by so many different people. It annoys me even thinking about how difficult it is to do anything official here. Which brings me to my next point…
  • The Economy. It’s no secret the German economy sucks right now. But this affects things in more ways than you would think. Case in point—they are installing internet in my dorm, and we have been warned that things might take a little longer than normal because the workers are likely to deliberately drag things out to keep work longer. And the fact that it takes forever to do anything official here certainly isn’t helping at all.

So, that’s it for now. I’ll continue to compile more things as I notice them.

November 5, 2005

Burg Colmberg, Rothenburg

Filed under: Travels, Germany — Alex Ravenel @ 4:54 pm

Castle ColmbergI just returned from my travels for the weekend. On Thursday morning, I hopped a train to Ansbach, and then from there a bus through endless green farmfields to Colmberg, a sleepy Franconian farming town just inside Bavaria. You immediately notice the castle sitting on the hillside, surrounded by fields on one side and forests on the other. It’s a most impressive sight–all the moreso because I knew I was staying there for the next two nights.

Castle Colmberg, ApproachAs I walked up the hill and into the castle, I became more impressed with every passing minute. The place just oozed character, from the 14th century stones to the green moss on the trees. I checked in and walked to my room, continuing to be impressed by the castle as I wound my way up the stairs to my room. After dropping off my bags, I proceeded to explore the castle, trying to see every bit possible. Castle Colmberg, SunsetThen, noticing the sun going down, I went out to watch it dip below the sunset from the castle walls. That evening, as I was walking around, and through the restaurant, I heard two people–the only two in the restaurant at that time–speaking the strangest combination of German and British English. I noticed this and started talking to them, asking them why that was. They explained that they were married, and that they both spoke the other’s language, though when speaking, they just sorta mixed it together in whatever jumble it happened to come out in. Castle Colmberg, Derrek and HeidiAs we started talking more, they invited me to sit down with them, and treated me to a glass of wine as we continued our conversation. We discovered that we had several things in common–them with relatives in Maine, and a love for Charleston, SC; in fact, they are going to Charleston for Christmas, while my family is coming here. Seemed an odd switch to all of us. They soon invited me to dinner, and insisted on paying, treating me to a wonderful pumpkin soup and venison steak served in a peppercorn sauce. It was a delicious meal, and I enjoyed it all the more having such an interesting conversation with such an interesting–and generous–couple.

Castle Colmberg, ViewThe next day, I wandered around the castle some more, this time camera in hand. There was a thick fog and it felt like it was going to rain, but this only added to the atmosphere and made the place seem even more real. I trapsed all around the borders of the castle, then headed back inside to read for a few hours in one of the common areas I had all but claimed as my own.Castle Colmberg, Lounge Something about the room really resonated with me; I think it was the combination of the high, dark, exposed wood cielings combined with the furniture and the old bookcases crammed with old books, and the view out the windows into the castle courtyard. I read half of my 900 page novel sitting here over the two days I was at the castle.

RothenburgThe next morning, after thoroughly relaxing and enjoying my time at the castle, I departed, catching the 8:00AM bus to Rothenburg ob der Tauber, a notoriously touristic–though gorgeous–medieval German town. Luckily I got myself there early, and enjoyed a couple of hours of quiet, winding cobblestone lanes before someone opened the floodgates and Rothenburg, City WallI found myself suddenly crushed between throngs of Japanese tourists running around trying to get pictures of themselves in front of every possible building, fountain, streetsign, and storefront. Tour busses. Anyways, I enjoyed a nice cup of coffee and small lunch, then walked to the town walls and walked around the tops of them for a while, where I found it much quieter and more relaxing. Besides, it’s always interesting to get up close to something like that, and the views it afforded were quite rewarding as well.

Rothenburg, CathedralSo, after deciding that I was tired of schlepping my luggage around and feeling somewhat tired, I walked back towards the train station, making sure to pass once more by the cathedral to admire at how it had been seemingly built in the air, with the road going underneath it. Four hours later, back in Tübingen; time to start planning a trip for next weekend. As always, make sure to check out the photo gallery for more images.

November 2, 2005

Burg Colmberg

Filed under: Travels, Germany — Alex Ravenel @ 3:12 pm

Tomorrow, I’m going to Burg Colmberg, a castle hotel in a town about 2.5 hours from here. It’s been a rough couple of days, and I need some time to just relax and try to clear my head. Hopefully this will be just the thing. Watch for a post about it when I return, either Friday or Saturday.

November 1, 2005

Duck A L’Orange

Filed under: Random, Germany — Alex Ravenel @ 7:41 am

Yesterday, while walking through the Marktplatz in the center of town, I came across one of the butcher’s stands that setup there a couple of times a week. Peeking in through the display, I found something I had been looking for since getting here–duck breasts. Immediately buying one (€8.80 for a .44Kg, roughly 1 pound breast), I headed home and started pouring over recipes to decide how I wanted to cook it.

Eventually, I settled on duck a l’orange, mainly because the ingredients were easy to find. You need a thick, somewhat sweet sauce to go with duck, and this fit the bill without any obscure ingredients that would be very hard for me to find. A quick trip to the grocery store later, and I was ready to cook.

The thing that surprised me the most about cooking it was how much the breast smoked when cooking. Duck has a thick layer of fat under the skin, necessitating scoring the skin with a knife before cooking so the fat can drain out. Combine that with the relatively high heat needed to get the skin crispy, and there was plenty of smoke. Good thing there aren’t any smoke detectors, because I certainly would have set them off. After getting it nice and crispy, I threw it in a barely warm oven to keep it warm while I worked on the sauce, a reduction of carmelized sugar, water, orange juice, chicken stock, sherry vinegar, orange peel, and, the reason I cooked the duck breast first, drippings from the cooking of the breast. After letting it reduce down into a sauce-like consistency, I sliced the breast into thin strips, fanned them out on the plate, and spooned the sauce over them. By far the best meal I’ve had since getting here.

And the best part is, I still have half of the breast in the freezer. I’ve gotta decide how I’m gonna cook that one…

October 29, 2005

A Few More Fall Photos

Filed under: Random, Germany — Alex Ravenel @ 6:48 am

Tree, PlatanenalleeI went out again yesterday, back to the Platanenallee, to try once again to capture some of the fall colors. Things weren’t as successful this time around, but I still came out with a few good ones. As normal, head over to the photo gallery through the link above to check them out.

October 27, 2005

New Photos — Fall Comes to Tübingen

Filed under: Random, Germany — Alex Ravenel @ 2:56 pm

Family, PlatanenalleeWalking home from class yesterday, I noticed the warm fall afternoon light filtering though the golden leaves of the sycamores along the Platanenallee, the island park in the middle of the Neckar. I decided I would return today, camera in hand, and see what I could do. The light was gorgeous, but unfortunately I was a bit late, and the one really good picture I could have had was spoiled by a couple of different things. No worry; I’ll return sometime soon, maybe tomorrow, and try again… Nonetheless, here are a few I did get…

October 26, 2005

First Day of Class

Filed under: School, Germany — Alex Ravenel @ 8:11 am

Yesterday was my first day of classes. I had three classes yesterday, two of them through the international studies program, and one regular university class. The first two went well; the latter not so well.

The first two classes, both ISP classes, are geared towards non-native speakers of German. They don’t speak English, but they do make sure to speak clearly, without strange accents, and without speaking in a high “intellectual” manner. The first class, “Ein Quasselkurs,” deals with German smalltalk and the differences between the German we had been taught in class and the way Germans actually speak it. It was a very interesting, and at times funny class, and I think I’ll definitely be enjoying it. The next class was called German Everyday Culture, and deals with German culture from a layman’s perspective–this isn’t Beethoven and Goethe, this is why Germans are such fanatical recyclers and what they do in their freetime. Again, this was interesting, and I had no trouble in the class.

The next class, my last class of the day, was an overview of medieval history. I love medieval history, and so was really looking forward to this, but the differences here in the German were far to great. While he spoke clearly, his sentences were so long and complex that I would often find myself understanding most of the individual words said, but not being able to get any meaning out of them. My brain was in overdrive the whole time trying to keep up, but in the end I walked out two hours later with three lines of notes on my paper. Not a good sign. And given that to get my grade (the German school system doesn’t require grades quite the same way the US system does) I’ll have to take the final, and that this will 100% be the decider of my grade, I don’t think this class is going to work out. I’m looking for another to replace it, but I’m not sure I’ll be successful. Worst case, I’ll stick with my three ISP classes and just have to take one extra class next semester.

Today, I have my third ISP class, “Panorama Deutschland,” another German cultural class. This one deals with things like the political systems here, differentiating itself somewhat from the other German culture class I’m taking. We’ll see how it goes–I’m not expecting anything bad, but it’s three hours long, which might test my mental capacity translating German.

And one thing I’ve noticed is that the mental effort expended in understanding a foreign language makes you tired. I collapsed into bed yesterday after class, barely able to move. Hopefully this will change as my German improves–I don’t want to be nonfunctional at the end of every day.

October 23, 2005

The Students Arrive

Filed under: Germany — Alex Ravenel @ 10:10 am

It’s the end of October, meaning several things. First, I’ve been here almost two months, something I find hard to believe. It doesn’t feel like I’ve been here two months at all. It’s only when I look at a calendar or realize how accustomed to life here I’ve become that I realize that I might indeed have been here that long. Secondly, it means that classes are starting. And this means that the 20,000 students of the Universität Tübingen have arrived.

My first inkling of how much this would change things came on Thursday night, when I went to a party sponsored by the university and thrown at one of its student-union-like buildings. I’d been into this building several times before, usually to get a cup of coffee during breaks in our Sprachkurs, and its slow, drowsy demeanor had done nothing to prepare me for this party. The sheer number of people that had managed to cram themselves into this building was astonishing. It was the sort of thing where in order to move, one had to literally shove his way around, stepping on toes and pushing people into each other and all in a vain attempt to part the Red Sea. I stayed there for about an hour with the friends I had come with, and then decided that I had had enough. Little did I know that it would take me 15 minutes to work my way the 20 meters to the door. The door was one of the standard swinging doors that you would see at any such establishment, except the problem was that it was seemingly the only open door in the place, and there was a mass of people trying to squeeze their way in as well as a mass of people trying to squeeze their way out. As you got closer to it, you lost all ability to move on your own, and were instead moved about in whichever direction the seething mass of people crushing the air out of your lungs decided to move. You would lean into the person in front of you, pushing as hard as you could just to keep from being moved the opposite direction, being successful as often as not.

I finally made my way out and back home. I don’t even want to think about what would have happened had there been a fire–not an impossible occurance, given that everyone smokes, even indoors, and therefore there are no smoke detectors anywhere. I don’t think I’ll be going back to any similar party; I find it hard to enjoy myself when I’m being forcibly smashed into the masses around me. It’s claustrophobic.

Another sign that things are filling up are the dorms. My dorm, once a wasteland reminiscent of the top floors of Davis Library on the weekend, is now full of people. All five of my other suitemates are now here, and I can actually hear other peoples’ voices on a regular basis. Also of note, all of my roommates are girls, something that has been an interesting experience, and something that I don’t expect to become any less interesting in the near future. There was one guy here living over the summer, but he must have moved out at some point–there is now a girl living in what was his room, and his posters on the door are now gone. Unfortunately, the side effect of having people in the dorm is that my internet connection, a shared wireless connection to a DSL modem, has now become unbearably slow, with it often taking minutes for webpages to load. Thankfully, campus internet is coming, but I don’t know how much longer that will take.

Anyways, classes start for me on Tuesday. I still would like to add one more to give me an easier semester in the spring, but that shouldn’t prevent me from keeping my Tuesday/Wednesday schedule, complete with five day weekends every weekend. Go ahead and start hating me now :) Also, Derwin Dubose, a good friend and fraternity brother of mine, has now started his own website that I have been helping him with. He’s already put out several insightful articles in addition to the articles he wrote as a columnist for the Daily Tar Heel, and I look forward to many more. Check it out.

October 20, 2005

My First Conversation

Filed under: Random, Germany — Alex Ravenel @ 5:04 am

Yesterday was a momentous occasion. My first true conversation in German. I was cooking dinner, when one of my suitemates walked in. At first, it was just the standard, “I dont speak German very well, so we’ll just do the hi, how are you” routine, but we ended up talking for about 20 minutes about all sorts of things. It was the most incredible feeling being able to, for the first time, hold (and understand!) a full conversation with someone in the language you’ve been studying for the last couple of years.

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