"My soul is elsewhere, I'm sure of that. And I intend to end up there." -- Rumi

Sunday, June 29, 2014

"Kept on looking for a sign in the middle of the night..."

So long and thanks for all the bratwurst.

I've finally made the decision to throw in the towel here in Germany.  My last day as an English teacher/freelancer in Germany will be July 25th.

This was an incredibly hard choice to make, and one that I think you know I've been struggling with almost since I got here.  At the end of the day, there is a lot that I like about Germany and I enjoy the teaching (if not the commuting), but despite long working days I was simply not making enough to sustain myself long-term in this country.  I explored all manner of various avenues to make things work, but as a slow spring turned into a slow summer, the deadness of August loomed and I realized that I'd soon be coming full circle, looking at a slow autumn where "people aren't looking to start classes now, everyone is focusing on Christmas... there will be classes in January... in the spring..."

You get the point.

So, I quit.  It's ironic to me that the one country where I found I couldn't hang had nothing to do with hardships, with pissing in a hole or suffering continual illness, or even facing a truly wretched teaching situation.  Germany -- the epicenter of Europe and the modern world -- was simply too much for me.  The almighty euro sent me packing where an entire year of "-ituses" couldn't get it done.

I'm very sad to be leaving.  But I also know that, at this point, it was the right choice for me to make.

And don't worry, there will be more to come on the details of my situation here, because if anything I'd like to help someone else avoid the many mistakes that I made.  But for now, this is all I feel comfortable saying.

However.  The one upside to this depressing-as-hell post is that I must -- simply must -- see the best parts of Germany before I fly.  It would have been handy to have made this decision while there was still a veritable slew of (unpaid) long weekends, but such is life.  I will do what I can. :)  Next weekend I'll be off to see the beauties of Nuremburg and Rothenberg ob der Tauber, so there's a little something for everyone to look forward to.

And where am I going, you wonder?  Do I have a plan?  As a matter of fact, I do.  But that reveal is for another day.

Because this post could use some levity, here's the song that inspired my title, and has sort of become a bit of a theme song for this transition.  Enjoy.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Weimar: Goethe's Key West

Sorry guys.  Lately I have not felt even the littlest bit like blogging.  You haven't missed much.  I've gone for some long walk/hikes in the various local parks, had some nights out, finally went to some German doctors for a couple minor but necessary things, and most of all, have been trying to get the German tax system into some distilled and comprehensive package that I can actually understand.

So far, I'm going to owe somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 euros on this year's taxes.  This number will of course go up the longer I work here.  Accordingly I should have been saving at least 500 euros a month since January for this purpose.  Probably more.  I find this blackly, bleakly hilarious, in a way.  Because my paycheck has been, on average, at least 500 euro lower than what I was promised before I was hired.  There has not been a lot of saving for taxes.  And frankly, I don't see it getting better.  The summer will be slow, and then we're looking at me closing on a year here.  The cycle starts again.

The days are long but the weeks are short.

What to do.

Well, what I'll do, for tonight anyway, is finally gift you, my gentle and patient readers, with the last day of Lisa's and my Thuringia trip well over a month ago.

Weimar, Day 6

Because I haven't mentioned them so far, I wanted to make sure I put in a good word for Labyrinth Hostel in Weimar.  Lisa and I both had a fantastic time here.  Staff was excellent, rooms were clean with a funky touch (no bunks beds!!), and the common area lively and fun.  Overall, a much better atmosphere and experience than Opera Hostel in Erfurt.  (Which wasn't bad, but you know.)

Weimar is, of course, very pretty and picturesque, and full of history.  Erfurt and Eisenach can claim Martin Luther, but Weimar has Goethe, and they are pretty spectacularly proud of him.  Also Schiller.

Goethe and Schiller, BFFs
Weimar has plenty of museums, but Lisa is not a lover of these dry and dusty corridors like I am.  Nonetheless, I convinced her to shell out for the kitchy and fun Weimar Haus, which is not a museum so much as it is a series of semi-interactive exhibits in which a faceless and nameless narrator winds you through the annals of the city's history.  Near the end, the narrator is shown to be none other than (natch) Goethe himself.

Making friends
After Weimar Haus, we walked around in the pretty weather, taking photos of the city.  Decided against touring Weimar's Schlossmuseum (art), which I was slightly disappointed at but it was nice to be able to see as much of the city as we did.

Main square
Stadtkirche St. Peter und Paul

Weimar has a huge and gorgeous park, Park an der Ilm.

Schlossmuseum from the park

Goethe kept a second house here in the park, sort of his getaway retreat.

Goethes Gartenhaus

One of Goethe's sketches.  Dude was multi-talented
Goethe's standing desk.  Before it was cool.
I really liked the garden house, even more so because we ended up not touring Goethe's house in Weimar proper, due to cost and Lisa's dislike of museums.  We did, however visit Goethe's grave, except I'm pretty sure this was his family plot, but not entirely certain that Goethe himself is not someplace else.

Goethe family plot
Other random cemetery coolness
Russian Orthodox Church in the cemetary
Don't blink...
 The best thing to happen all day was our late lunch looking out at the Rathaus and Weimar's main platz.

And then Lisa and I walked back to the hostel, collected our packs, and Mitfahrgelegenheited back to Kassel.

What is Mitfahrgelegenheit, you ask?  And can it be used as a verb?  Well.

Actually, pretty much my entire German experience so far is summer up gorgeously in this mad, Ned Flanders-channeling genius.  Please watch all of this, and definitely do not stop when the ad plays at the end.  The grocery store bit is... special.

Can you tell I don't have much to give here?

Monday, May 19, 2014

Reflection, Naked

So there's this one scene in Forrest Gump, where Jennie is performing nude onstage with a guitar, and Forrest (bless him) just doesn't get it, not at all, and he narrates:  "She had realized her dream."

Or something.  I don't remember the exact quote, and that's not the point.  The point is that "realizing" your dream pretty much never looks the way it's supposed to.  A lot of the time, you feel as if you are naked up on a fucking stage, singing and playing for a bunch of catcallers and jeerers.

Anyone who lives abroad and says they have never missed home, that they've never faced a difficult situation that could be so fucking simple if only they could speak the language, and they don't acknowledge how frustrating this simple interaction is -- this person is lying.

Anyone who has volunteered for two or four weeks in a country and claims to have actually "lived" there, they're lying too.  Hate to tell you, but your extended vaycay really gave you zero perspective on what it's like to actually be wherever it was you were visiting.  Unless you've ever worried about filing a tax return on wherever it is you've been, just please stop posing and just call yourself a tourist.  There's nothing wrong with being a tourist.  I've been one in many countries, and have had a wonderful time.  Own it.

Living abroad, truly living there, even in a modern, efficient, first-world country where I can get sushi and organic body wash and decent Caipirinhas, is not always a walk in the park.  It seems like every time I turn around there is another financial surprise.  Germany has given me a beating so far, and it's not going to stop anytime soon.  They love rules like I have never even freaking heard of, and it all plays into this magnificent system that leaves me hemorrhaging out all available orifices.  It's not exactly comforting , and to be honest I sometimes can't see myself hanging on here for the long haul.  It hasn't been exactly what I'd been told to expect.  And while I'm (slowly, eventually) learning that nothing ever is, especially when living and working abroad, there also comes a time when you have to ask yourself if you can realistically see this working with a sustainable, long-term future.  I'm still... on the fence about that one.

But while I am here, it is important to remember why.  Because it is so easy to forget.  To acclimatize.  To get used to it.

To lose sight of the truth of it all.  To get lost in the little shit, the bureaucracy.  Paperwork.  Navigating half-truths, cultural missteps, and the occasional control game -- all in a day's work.  It hasn't been easy.  And every time I think I've got a grip on it -- that okay, I've come to terms with whatever the latest sucker punch happened to deliver, it's time for something new to make life interesting all over again.

But right now, I'm still in Germany.  I'm here.  In Germany.  You do understand what this means -- I have realized my dream.  Maybe not exactly as I thought it would look, but all the same.

That's huge.

It's hard to re-imagine myself now as the woman I was sitting outside my Old Town Alexandria studio in 2010, looking out over the Potomac River and utterly unhappy, writing in my journal -- "I would leave this life if I could".

That was a watershed moment. That was the moment I truly admitted that I wanted change, a true, scary, and irrevocable change.  That I thought it would actually be worth it, to leave everything behind -- the people I loved and the life full of stuff that I had built.

At the time of writing, I honestly did not truly think such a thing was possible.  I thought I was trapped, fixed, into that life that I had chosen.  I didn't see a realistic way out.  But I wanted it to be true.

I wanted it so much that I made it happen.

Now, three years and nine new countries later, here I am.  Jaded and irritated, wishing for Mexican food and a gym that didn't feature naked German exhibitionist ladies in the locker room.  But I'm wishing for these things in Germany.

I'm grateful for that.

I have to remember that I made this happen.  That I worked for it.  That this was what I wanted.  And now, three years and a whole lot of learning later, it still is.

There's not much in my life that I can be proud of, really.  But I can be proud of this.

Dreams aren't pretty.  They often don't happen the way we hope they will.  But sometimes they come true.

This is me, naked onstage with my guitar.

And I'm ready for the next gig.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Buchenwald: at the going down of the sun

I've never written anything like this on here before.  Or... ever, really.  Because I've never done anything like this, not even remotely close.  On Easter Sunday, 2014, I visited the Buchenwald Concentration Camp Memorial.

I wasn't prepared.  I went with Lisa, and we took the bus, got our audioguides, made sure the cafeteria would be open later.  Usual things.  We walked though this gate, and got very quiet.

The gate, from the outside
"Each to his own."  Implied: "Everyone gets what they deserve."
What this scene would have looked like in 1944.
There's really not very much you can say, looking out over something like this.  In school, we're all taught the horrors of the Holocaust.  We know the numbers.  After a while, even the most horrific numbers, given enough repetition, fade into... numbers.  Even though they shouldn't.

240,000.  That's the number of people who were incarcerated and tortured here, in Buchenwald.  56,545.  That is the number of people who were murdered.

View of the gate from inside, crematorium chimney in the distance
Shoes, broken bowls, and other remnants
The fence separating "The Little Camp"
None of the usual play-by-play here.  You don't need to know what I ate or what the bus times were.  This is what I saw, one Easter Sunday in Buchenwald.

Crematorium basement.  Hooks were not for show.

This happened when my grandparents young adults.  My grandfather -- that same one who told me about drinking a Campari and soda in the Piazza Navonna -- was Captain of a submarine chaser during this war.  In a rare moment which I will never forget, he told me the story in which his ship torpedoed the last Nazi submarine to go down in WWII.

My point is -- this didn't happen in the time of Caligula, or Nero, or the Biblical Pharaoh of Egypt.  This happened within the last 69 years.

I walked around and around, feet crunching on gravel and wind whipping across the razed landscape, and I kept thinking, just... How?

You watch and/or read about crazy people, serial killers, religious fanatics.  You think:  "What could have gone wrong with their brains?"  A fanatic might persuade a couple hundred poor souls to drink the kool-aid, and that's plenty crazy  and tragic enough, but this was a madness that infected an entire sub-continent.  What kind of fanatic has the power to do all of that?

And just.... "how???"  I walked, taking it all in, and comprehending nothing but the insane cruel methodical senseless brutality of it all.  Modern humans have invented the internet and fucking spaceships, but sometimes it really seems like we haven't learned anything, really.

We all like to say: "I could never do anything like that."  But the truth is, really, is that so few of us have actually been tested.  When it truly comes down to it, we don't know what we would do in the face of such a giant, unstoppable monster machine.  We like to think we would be brave, heroic.  That we would stand proud and tall, shout the perfect Hollywood words, and turn the tide.  It's a very heartwarming thought.

Because this blog is always about honesty, for good or ill, I'll come out and say that I don't know what I would do.  I don't know, because I can't.  There's simply no frame of reference for me.  I can imagine, and I hope (Hollywood-style) that I would go out in a fierce blaze of glory, protecting those that I loved most, and making a difference.  But if I realized anything on this day visiting Buchenwald, it's that reality doesn't offer much opportunity for epic hero moments, and that simply surviving, for a day or an hour at a time, giving your bread to someone a little more starving than you, can be more heroic than the most poetic battlefield rallying cry.

We are always so close.  This is what I learned, in a place named for a beech forest, on a mild spring day.  At the end of things, there really is not much atmosphere separating the world of our quiet existences, our winetastings, our hostel reviews, our kickstarter forwards, our well-meaning Facebook memes -- from Buchenwald.

We're never that far away.  From the fanatic with charisma and a promise.  From the ends that will supposedly justify the means.  Anytime anyone begins to separate people into us versus them, and them into numbers, that slippery slope starts to appear, leading to the one choice that everyone hopes they'll never have to make.

So hey -- enjoy life.  I know I try to.  Life is beautiful.  Just don't... get too comfortable.  Because there is no reason this couldn't happen again.  Anytime, anyplace.  It's happened already -- in Soviet Russia, Cambodia, and Rwanda, just to name a few.  I'm sure we can all think of more.  In some parts of the world, it's happening right now.  Just... keep that in mind.  And don't ever forget it.  The scrim is pretty damn thin.

This was a thing that happened.

Look.  Remember.

And learn.

"At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,
We will remember them."

Monday, May 12, 2014

Erfurt: The Traveler takes a new Companion

In what seems to be the beginnings of an emerging pattern, once again I've just come off of a rainy weekend in which I've completed a series of quiet little life tasks, none of them worth blogging about.  As predicted, my April invoice was pretty much the most depressing thing I've seen since I handed in my first invoice back at the end of October.  I truly love being here, I do, but I've been singing the same song for the past seven months and once again -- I'm just not sure how long I can keep hanging out here if something significant doesn't change.  I have an intro meeting with a tax advisor on Tuesday, so am hoping to finally be able to get a clear picture of what I'm looking at in terms of income taxes and who knows what else.  (Said tax advisor is hardly free, btw, however German tax law is so unbelievably complicated that I've been told by no fewer than 20 people that this is an absolute necessity.  It's a good thing Germany keeps ponying up with the castles and bratwurst, because I sure wouldn't put up with this nonstop bureaucratic shenanigan-fest to live just any old place.)

Not much else going on.  Ate some good Turkish food on Friday, at Tat Urfa near Am Stern.  Best Turkish I've had so far in Kassel.  Conversely, Lisa and I recently tried out a new restaurant near my house, Eigenart, and it's safe to say that I don't think we'll be back.  Food was okay but expensive, but the drinks were astronomically priced for their size and skimpy on the pours.  Service was a train wreck from the moment we walked in the door -- and I mean a train wreck from European standards.  Hey, I should do a Kassel restaurant review post sometime. :)

No plans to travel, although Berlin is starting to seriously call me.  I might put off day and weekend trips for a bit in favor of saving for a longer stint in Berlin at some point.  We will see how realistic any potential savings plans are come Tuesday afternoon.  And then there's actually venturing beyond Germany's borders, which hopefully will happen eventually.

But for now, let's talk about some travel I have done.  It's Friday, April 18th, and we're back in Erfurt, Thuringia.  (Cue TARDIS noise.  And... a Companion.)

Day Three:  Erfurt

The morning before Lisa arrived, I decided to indulge in a quiet little luxury not often so-much present on most of my trips.  I did nothing.

Well, that is to say -- I slept late, showered, enjoyed breakfast coffee in the kitchen, and read.  I was supposed to be on vacation, after all, and at this point I was not yet aware of the extent that the week following would pretty much be an (unpaid) vacation as well.  At around 2PM, Lisa arrived, checked in, and we headed out for two of our mutual favorite passtimes -- selecting a restaurant, and then eating there.

We selected an Italian place that had been recommended by a couple fellow hostellers, rather incongruously named Charleston's.  Food and service were above average.  It started raining, so we lingered extra-long as Lisa tried their tiramisu and I opted for a dessert of limoncello (not homemade).  And then the rain stopped and we headed out.

The bottom picture is the Krämerbrücke, or Merchants' Bridge.  It's like a little German Ponte Vecchio, and is full of craftsman and artisan shops selling everything from jewelry to art, fresh dried herbs, handmade wooden toys, and chocolate.

Lisa at Goldhelm Schokoladen.  The pralines were to die for.
This tiny place was packed, but right then a couple vacated one of the shop's few tables and we were able to score a seat!  Rick had recommended trying their hot chocolate, which we did.  And Oh.  My.  Goodness.

As I've probably mentioned, I'm not usually one for sweet things (and actually couldn't even finish this incredibly rich cup of pure liquid milk chocolate), but this was delectable.  (I also really loved how they had a bowl of raw sugar on the table... in case it wasn't sweet enough??)

After our very sweet break, we ended up just walking around some more.  Saw a church or two, and found Erfurt's famous Old Synagogue, but didn't go in due to impressive ticket price.

Lisa in front of the Stadtmuseum.  The outside is more interesting than the inside.

Old Synagogue
The Old Synagogue is interesting because it dates from the 12th century, but after the Middle Ages, pretty much everyone forgot it was a synagogue and it was used for a variety of purposes over the years, including a Nazi dance hall.  It wasn't until the 1980s that people realized what it truly was, and began to restore it.

Come 6:00, I was really excited to take Lisa to Modern Masters for happy hour.  We ended up having a pretty excellent time, and staying a touch longer than a mere hour!

With my "Blood, Sweat, and Tears."  The green leaves are salbei, which Google Translate just told me is sage.
After Modern Masters, we stopped at a random Czech place for a late dinner, and headed home.

Day Four:  Erfurt and into Weimar

For Lisa's and my final day in Erfurt, surprise surprise -- we walked around and took pictures of cute history.  Visited the cathedral since Lisa hadn't seen it, and then checked out the nearby Petersberg Citadel.  Ended up not visiting the military museum here, so it was just a quick stop.

Then, it was just a pleasant stroll through the town, with our ultimate goal being the Augustinian Monastery where Luther signed on to be a monk.  Walked through the Krämerbrücke again, did a winetasting of some local Thuringian vintages, and even did a little shopping (!!!).  Climbed up the tower at Ägidienkirche, on the east end of the bridge.

At the far end of the city is St. Augustine's, the monastic home of Martin Luther.  Unfortunately, even though Rick promised we should be able to pay to tour the site on our own, only guided tours were offered, at nine euros, in German, with the next one beginning in over an hour.  We did not end up seeing the inside of the monastery.

And finally, we just sort of ended up on the Krämerbrücke yet again.  Had a glass of sekt at the wine shop from earlier, and bought a bottle of Thuringian red to enjoy together on the last night of our trip.  At around 3:00, we headed back to the hostel for our backpacks and then humped it to the train, for one of the shortest train rides of my life at 15 minutes.

We were trading Martin Luther for Goethe.

But first, one of the saddest posts I hope I ever have to write is coming up.  The following day, Lisa and I would visit Buchenwald Concentration Camp.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Eisenach: One big castle on a hill

So, here's a funny story.  Back when I was planning and booking the trip, my original thought was to spend my two solo days checking out an additional town before meeting up with Lisa on Friday and seeing Erfurt.  Both Eisenach and Gotha sounded promising -- Gotha has a cool tram that winds through the Thuringian forest and ends up at a gypsum cave, and Eisenach has a big beautiful castle and some Martin Luther claim to fame.  However, when I researched train tickets online, for all appearances it seemed like a train ride to either Eisenach or Gotha did not exist.  I was very confused and frustrated, but then discovered that budget accommodations were scarce in both towns, and decided I'd go straight to Erfurt instead, taking a day trip on regional trains to one of the towns in question.

Okay -- why is this a funny story?  Because my train to Erfurt passed right through both Eisenach and Gotha.  Why these destinations had not been available on bahn.com will always be a gigantic mystery to me, but what can you do?  Well, what I did was continue my merry little way along to Erfurt, to do some backtracking the next day as I chose Eisenach over Gotha (castle beats cave), and went to see what I could see.

Eisenach:  Day Two

According to my various guidebooks, it is possible to hike up to Wartburg Castle from downtown Eisenach.  I, however, chose to take a bus.  Said bus was right across the street from the train station, left in ten minutes, and cost less than two euro.  And let me tell you, this would not have been an easy or short hike.  Hooray for smart choices.  Or at least, lazy ones. :)

Wartburg Castle
Cute wee Eisenach down below
 Wartburg Castle only has one English tour a day, which I missed by eight minutes because I was taking these photos.  (For YOU!!!)  If I'd bothered to read my guidebooks more carefully, I would have seen that Rick very clearly and kindly stated the start time of the English tour.  But I did not, which means I got a tour in German.  Could have been worse; at least I got to see it.

I hate to say this, but I wasn't blown away by the restored rooms inside here.  Because the castle was in use up until pretty recently, most of the rooms were preserved in their most modern incarnation, which frankly is just not that interesting to me.

For example, the castle's chapel, above, was last decorated in the 1950s.  Woot?  The one exception here was the remains of the 13th century fresco on the other side of the altar, showing some of the apostles.

The most beautiful room on the tour was doubtless the Ladies' Chamber, covered in gorgeous mosaics from the 19th century.

Knight's Room
A famous someone's bedroom
 As you may have noticed, the tour was kind of lacking in info on Wartburg's biggest draw and most famous guest -- Martin Luther himself.  As I mentioned in the last post, Luther fled persecution to hide here for a few months and translate the New Testament into German for the very first time.  Whether you're religious or not, this was unquestionably a pretty huge watershed moment for Europe.

All in all, I'm afraid I can't give the (expensive at 9 euros!) tour an enthusiastic thumbs up.  The castle also offered a "kurz" (short) ticket, and at almost half the cost,  this really might be the better option if you're on a budget.  The short ticket included the one big ticket item, which came next.

After the tour, there was a small museum, and then you got to see what everyone had been waiting for -- the room where it all went down.

So, this is the spot.  Luther sat here, translated, and doubtless played many hours of 15th century minesweeper and solitaire like we all do when we are definitely not procrastinating on writing a huge paper.  (These days it's probably candy crush and fruit ninja though, I guess.)

After my castle tour, it was about mid-afternoon.  I debated getting lunch in the very pictureque cafe next to the castle, but also wanted to get down and see some of the town before I lost much more of the day.  So, took the bus back down and wandered for a bit until I found a sidewalk cafe I liked, sat and had a flammkuchen, which is kind of like German flatbread pizza.

Eisenach is, natürlich, incredibly cute, which seems to be what German towns do best.

In town, the big-tourist-ticket items are Martin Luther's house and Bach's house.  I wasn't over the moon about seeing either but thought I should check them out.  I didn't have the slightest bit of a map, but Eisenach is tiny and I was able to find Martin Luther's house ten minutes before it closed.  So, I was spared having to go in. :)  However, Bach's house was open an hour later, so I found that, paid, and got myself some Classical culture.

The house/museum was pretty interesting, but rather sparse for the price (8 euro I think?).  The coolest thing they had was this room, below, where you could sit in these mod little pods and listen to sample of Bach's work.

Oh right -- apparently contemporary Bach lovers were so desperately keen to find out what the composer looked like that they exhumed his body so they could take a cast of his skull and fill in the appropriate flesh and muscle.  I don't even.

I finished up with Bach and headed back into town for some more walking around.  I was strangely tired, so ended up making my way back to the train station and heading back to Erfurt.  I wanted to head out for a bit, maybe back to Modern Masters, and eventually find a snack for a late dinner.  But I was so beat that I ended up just staying at the hostel and having a very early night.  It was like I really had hiked up that hill to Wartburg!

And that... was it for Eisenach.  Beautiful, full of history, and most definitely worth a side trip should you find yourself in the area.  As is sadly the case all too often in Germany, the tourist sites are undeniably pricey.

The next day would be Erfurt once again, as I'm joined by the always-lovely Lisa, and we enjoy some truly magical hot chocolate.