Mainz

If you’re considering a trip to the Rhine region in Germany, one of the stops I warmly recommend is the city of Mainz. It’s a state capital full of charm, history, and beauty. Also the weather over there is usually really good!

As the train from Hamburg makes its way further south, green hills and fields lush with spring replace our more modest spring landscapes. Everything is drenched in sunlight and it’s easy to see, as you near Frankfurt, why the Rhine river inspired so many poets. It’s also clear why the wine industry does so well around here, not only due to fantastic conditions, but because the scenery certainly adds to the enjoyment of consumption.

Mainz is lovely. The train station is busy and convenient and there are plenty of nice walks to be had on foot. Local attractions include various flowerbeds in a riot of colors, which burst with vibrance and that special springtime bloom.

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Right in the city center you will find the Gutenberg Museum, especially interesting for book lovers, but also in general for anyone curious not only about local history from Mainz, but Johannes Gutenberg’s mind-blowing impact on Europe’s printing industry for centuries to come. This is the man who invented the printing press in the 15th century. The museum also houses two original bibles printed by him and once you see them, you definitely feel the weight of how valuable they are.

Another beautiful walk worth taking is from the city center to the St. Stephan Church (St. Stephan zu Mainz). It’s a great opportunity to see more of the city’s architecture and explore various side streets with pretty views, plus see a cherry tree or two.

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The church, besides being a beautiful building, also holds an important historical place in Mainz, as well as housing some of the most famous European artwork of the 20th century. I’m talking about Marc Chagall’s unforgettable blue stained-glass windows. You try your best to do them justice with a few quick snapshots, so as not to disturb other admirers, but then you just join them and stare.

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Cap off the above with a stroll along the Rhine and Mainz will charm you for life.

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Frankfurt Winter Weekend, Part 2

If you’re thinking where to go out after arriving, especially if it’s closer to the evening, the Bornheim Mitte district is a good suggestion. Just a few minutes on the U4 subway line from the Central Station (Hauptbahnhof) and get out at the stop called…you guessed it, Bornheim Mitte. It’s a cosy, lively area full of cafés, bars, restaurants and shops, also great for meeting up with friends.

The next day is open to me and I can do whatever I want, so I set off towards a classic destination, the old town, planning to walk around and refresh my memories. Frankfurt’s city center around its cathedral, Dom Römer, had been severely destroyed during air bombings in the 1940s and painstakingly restored since then. Arriving at the square that is still relatively quiet for a Friday morning, I pause to take it all in. It’s a pretty sight.

I’m about to go all around the square first, but then when I start I walk past a sign next to the cathedral pointing towards the entrance to the tower. It seems encouraging and I make the detour. Hamburg doesn’t have a cathedral and I’ve had a hankering for visiting them ever since seeing Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame in my youth (yes, I know the book is vastly different) and going on my first trip to Paris shortly after. There’s a bit of construction going on around the ticket office of the Dom, I contribute 3 euros to preserving this historical structure and pull open a heavy metal door. It shuts behind me with a resounding bang after I enter.

The next 10 minutes that feel like half an hour are spent climbing a tightly spiraling narrow stone staircase, holding on to a rail on one side and gripping a rope on the other. A few other visitors make their way down as I’m going up and we carefully maneuver around each other, me pausing to let them by. One size stairs fits all! A sign next to a caged door that’s locked despite providing the first view of what seems like a balcony points upwards to the observation deck and I cover a few more flights. So that’s my morning workout and suspense kick sorted, but the views from the top of the cathedral tower are more than worth it. Like this classic one of the Frankfurt city skyline (contributing to the fact that many people think it’s a metropolis – there’s just something about skyscrapers):

Or this one of the Main river:

I love finding a place to get a good view of a city from above when I travel, it just adds something special to your day and provides some reflection time to scope out the area before joining the action on the ground. Going up the cathedral tower was more taxing physically then going down, but going down is also more likely to make you slightly dizzy.  Feeling proud of myself for being a good tourist, I walk around the square, going into every side street and passing a chattering class of French exchange students clearly just beginning their journey through snooty puberty.

I make my way towards the Kleinmarkthalle on foot, everything is close – it’s a covered marketplace that I’ve briefly been to years ago and decide to explore more after a tip from my friend. But first there’s a bookstore right by the entrance that pulls me in. While the massive volumes about Vogue shoes or Hitchcock’s blondes are way out of both my budget and suitcase range, it’s fun to leaf through them, and then I spot a small discounted daily desk calendar for 2019 with screenshots from Disney animated films. And what do you know, I actually don’t have a desk calendar for this year yet. Thank you, Frankfurt.

The market is filled with people, but it’s easy to move along, and colours, food, smells, sounds all take up my attention for a while.

Plenty of stalls offer lunch, and I settle on one that promises homey food. “Here you go, my dear, enjoy and come again,” – well, thank you. The breaded salmon with fried potatoes and a minty green sauce is delicious and it’s fun to listen to what the other diners around me are talking about. After that I treat myself to some homemade chocolates and conclude the day’s walk by doing that thing all the tourists here do.

Frankfurt Winter Weekend, Part 1

The first month of 2019 is coming to an end and even if I already live in a big city, I felt like a city weekend in another city. That’s enough times saying “city” in one sentence! So Frankfurt it is, with the added pleasure of having friends living there.

6 AM rising and successful arrival at the train station in Hamburg with 20 minutes to spare. One of my friends once told me with a smile, incidentally one of the people I’m visiting this time, “The train will not leave earlier.” That’s true! But you never know how other elements of getting to your platform will work out. If you’re going from Hamburg to Frankfurt by train, some of the options available are leaving either from the Central Station (Hauptbahnhof) or Dammtor station. The former is always busy and bigger, the latter is usually quieter and it’s a smaller space.

My early morning train choice was cancelled, something I found out only upon arriving at the platform. Not to worry, my organized (German) thinking switched on. Down to the travel center (Reisezentrum) of the Deutsche Bahn I go. I get a free ticket and a free reserved seat for another direct train. My first adventure of the day, practically a classic for any train traveler, has been mastered. I while away the remaining half hour in the bakery next door and reward myself with a cup of hot chocolate for my common sense. It’s not 8 AM yet, but the station is already bustling with commuters and other travelers rolling their suitcases past me. I think once again that as much as you love playing tourist in the place where you live, it’s good to get out of that zone every now and then by being an actual tourist.

I have a spot at a table by the window, the sun is shining and all around me people are quietly working on their laptops, or reading and watching stuff. There is Wifi, halleluja. I wonder if I’m the only one heading to Frankfurt for a vacation, since it’s the kind of city that typically attracts a steady stream of business people, many of whom take the train due to the good connection as far as long distances go.

Hamburg’s familiarly flat landscape has given way to hilly forests wherever we are now, and so far I see it has snowed here too, like it did in Hamburg last night. I’m not sleepy at all, though very comfortable, and it’s nice to think I didn’t panic one bit when I saw my original train was cancelled. “Oh, so this is what’s happening now, OK.” Looking forward to Part 2.

Swimming Snippets: Pool Ponderings

Soooo… I was swimming today and arrived at the thought that there seem to be two types of lap swimmers.

Type number one acts like they own the pool. People wade in and throw themselves into swimming laps without a glance in any direction, because the idea of other swimmers in the vicinity is just ludicrous, I guess. Preferred swimming styles include backstroke or the front crawl, and of course goggles and swimming caps add to the feeling that it’s just you in the pool. Get out of the way, all you other peasants with your heads above water!

Type number two carefully steps in, moves to the side so as not to be in the way of anyone reaching the end of their lap, then spends a few seconds looking around, picking a lane. They then elegantly lower their body into the water and strike out, taking care to keep enough distance between themselves and the feet and hands of other swimmers. If, God forbid, they do end up brushing limbs with someone passing by, they actually take the time to turn their head and at least mouth “Sorry”.

Type number one are also frequently noisy swimmers. You might not see them once you’re in the water and focusing on your own stroke, but you’ll hear them. I understand there’s a lot of action involved in what they do, there’s water around and that certain physical manifestations in the form of sounds escaping them is unavoidable. But blowing your nose, sniffing and clearing your throat with unrestrained relish that carries perfectly thanks to pool acoustics, and all this while swimming, seems a bit much.

Meanwhile, type twos are basically this:

I have picked my side…

 

Hamburg Heat Wave Decoded

Today is once again the hottest day of the year and since the evening shows no signs of cooling down thus far, there seems nothing better to do than blog in the peaceful sanctuary of my darkened apartment, with my small fan plugged in, reliably churning the air, and in an outfit I wouldn’t show myself in outside. Could this bliss be more introverted? In-between typing I’m switching to watching WIRED YouTube Videos in which various celebrities answer the Internet’s most searched questions about themselves and laughing my head off.

The combination of being a list-making redhead who is voluntarily influenced by the German way of life means I’ve got this particular summer’s routine all figured out. And may I just point out that in my almost ten years living here, this is the FIRST summer in Hamburg which has lasted way, way more than two weeks in a row (someone was telling me ferverntly just this morning it’s been going on since April, that’s what’s happening to our minds now). So I actually had data for developing said routine.

You wake up in the morning and peel off whatever stuck to your skin during the night (get your minds out of the gutter right now). You open some windows in a hurried attempt to take advantage of the morning coolness, which you know won’t last long. You make a mental note to DEFINITELY shut the window before you leave for work, because the last time you forgot, and you came back to the predictable oven. You get yourself ready for the day and try to make breakfast consist of more than chugging water. Then you slap on sunscreen and walk to work, and you know exactly where all the shady spots are during your route, so you feel a sense of accomplishment, and when you reach your destination, your sense of accomplishment changes to feeling smug, because really, this was quite pleasant.

The day goes on and by lunchtime you’re seriously debating whether you’ll go outside. Again. Ever. The heat is snaking its way in. You’re not even thinking about the trip home, because it’s so far away in the future and there are more pressing concerns. You drink the amount of water you subsequently sweat out, and so the cycle continues. You also shower the same amount of times as the water bottles you emptied during the day. Unsticking your skirt or dress when you get up with a dainty grasp (not) of material between thumb and forefinger becomes second nature. Sleep is a gamble and then…see the beginning of this paragraph.

There were, of course, other things I could have decided to do after my supervisor told the department we could leave earlier as it was 36 degrees Celcius outside. Beach bar around the Port of Hamburg? Nah, based on experience all the spots in the shade would be taken, and I’ve become such a pro at avoiding generous sunlight that I don’t want to break my winning streak. Steal the office picnic blanket for an evening and stretch out in the shade of Planten un Blomen park? Nein, I went out earlier in the afternoon for a break and being in the shade felt like walking in to a wall of chicken soup. Go to the pool? Again, good luck finding a spot in the shade to lay down my stuff and I’m sure every pool in the city is bursting at the seams. It’s too hot to traipse around packing up to go somewhere out of town and clearly if one thing is obvious, it’s that I AM good at saying no (to myself), which the Internet says is an important survival skill.

Fragments of what I read in the local paper online between productive bouts of work in an office which hasn’t seen the light beyond our window blinds for what feels like months flit through my mind. Fish are, sadly, dying in the Alster river and the Alster swans were moved all the way to their WINTER quarters in what is still AUGUST by Hamburg’s very own swan father Olaf. I don’t know which of these two bits of information was more convincing, but in stealthy survival mode I crept along the shaded side of the street on my way home, stopping only to satisfy one wish in an air-conditioned shop. Because chocolate, like revenge, is also a dish best served cold, so in the fridge it goes. I’m once again experiencing a sense of accomplishment.

The French and German Way of Life

Germany is where I live and France is where I go regularly. True, I don’t know all of Germany, I know a certain part of Northern Germany best, and there is still so much to discover. I don’t know all of France either, as I mostly travel in one particular direction when I do go, though I have been to a few different cities. But in the last decade, through this combination, I have been fortunate to experience for myself parts of the French and German way of life. And for me one of the most telling bases of comparison for the two is the impression I’ve gotten from both nations in their approach to managing time.

I think those last two words, the choice of them, is already indicative enough of the strength of the German influence on me, which joyfully melds with my own character set-up. It seems Germans see time as something to be treasured, respected, a luxury to strive for, a tool to plan with, a sought-after component of leisure, an opportunity not to be wasted. For there is nothing more frustrating than time that is wasted. The French, meanwhile, always seem to be sure that whatever happens, there will be more time, becase la vie est belle and so is France, and why don’t you sit down, have a glass of wine and some cheese while you wait, you uptight German person.

In my French class we recently started a new lesson built around the subject of le train. Much was said while we collected the vocabulary we already knew. Our teacher explained the one marked difference between the German Deutsche Bahn and the French SNCF. Punctuality? Non. Plus, plenty of people in Germany complain about Deutsche Bahn. Non, it is le ticket! If you have your German train ticket, your platform is printed on it, and usually c’est vrai! Meanwhile, in a French gare you have to go stare at some information screens to find out where you board your train. It is not unusual to not have these details even 15 minuts before departure (being German). This was precisely my first experience taking the train from Paris-Est station to Strasbourg and the memory still makes me snort like an impatient horse.

I had to ask my teacher one burning question. Are the French relaxed about this fact and all Oui, c’est ça, or are there actually people in the country who are irritated by this? My teacher shrugged with that characteristically elegant, but nonchalant air, her eyebrows going up and her lips puckering in sync with the movement of her shoulders. Certain circumstances allow you to get a refund for your train ticket, she said. But what about your destination, the plan to be somewhere at a certain time, I sputtered. Another shrug.

I was recounting this story to a German friend, after we had made lunch plans, which we neatly laid down like we always do, despite knowing each other for ten years. We had included the possibility of being SPONTANEOUS in deciding where to go if it rained, because we planned to walk. But in case we didn’t get to, we were prepared!

Being a middle child, maybe this is what it’s about for me, a constant melding and co-existence of the stable and the new, the tried and tested injected with occasional joie de vivre, the satisfaction and gratitude of something working our as planned (or better) against arriving somewhere two hours later, but your favourite cafe is still open, and you get dessert on the house because your group is friendly and happy about seeing each other.

I know that the French and German way of life will both stay as they are. I know that I will continue feeling as if a bus or a subway train arriving on time as per my prior checking online is a present just for me. I know that (sometimes) it’s OK to stop thinking about time as such and live in the moment. And occasionally I will prepare dinner as a three-course meal. After that I will memorize the platform number printed on my train ticket AND check it on the information screen in the station.

Discover Northern Germany: Husum

Husum is a beautiful historic town in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein worth checking out if you want to discover Northern Germany. Lovely walks along streets lined with old brick houses typical of the area and everything being reachable on foot make for easy planning while you’re there.

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Cold winds blow in January from the North Sea nearby, brilliant sunshine might be expected and there are lots of places to stop by for a cup of tea – popular beverage here. The traditional Brauhaus Husum in the Neustadt street is a recommended stop if you’re interested in the local beer culture, and there’s even a proudly sold local brand of mineral water, Unser Gutes Husumer.

The local castle is a good place to start if you want to get a town history fix and the park around it fills with crocuses in the springtime. Even now in this cold winter weather tiny ones are sprouting up from the earth. The Schlosscafe, located right in the castle courtyard, serves tasty (and cheap) dishes, as well as delicious, generously sliced cake. It’s a good way to finish the visit to the castle (which follows a route noble guests were expected to take in the olden days – you might get a guide from the stern lady at the entrance and don’t even think of saying no). I didn’t know Czar Peter the Great visited Husum during the Great Northern War (dim memories of history lessons in school), or that the town used to belong to Denmark. Many signs in the castle and other places are written both in German and Danish.

Husum is also the birthplace of Theodor Storm, an important influencer of the country’s 19th century literary scene and connected to the development of realism in German literature. After walking through all the rooms of his house, which has stayed largely unchanged since his death, through two world wars and despite other owners, it’s amusing to find out that Storm collected and penned ghost stories (Spukgeschichten), which had been unpublished for a long time before being discovered. The receptionist tells me about children huddling around a fireplace in kitchens during dark evenings, while that cold wind raged outside in streets that weren’t yet lit the same as nowadays. They would tell each other these stories, both drawing from what they had heard elsewhere and making things up as they went along. This certainly creates quite an image in my head!

Just like in Hamburg, people say Moin in Husum. Another gem in Northern Germany.