HelloEurope! Part 2: Wherein I very briefly live my dream of being a professional race car driver

HelloEuropePart2 Previous episode recap: Dad sends my brother and me off to our uncle in Germany, I do nothing to prepare, I enjoy flying more than is socially acceptable, and I arrive with only four solid hours of sleep and a half-hour of spotty napping on a plane.

That last bit is significant. Apparently it makes jet lag that much worse, because despite my uncle’s best efforts to keep me on a normal schedule, the day after we landed I literally (like, literally literally) passed out from fatigue in the middle of the afternoon. I woke up around dinnertime, ate, and then went back to sleep for the night. So Pro Travel Tip #1: Don’t travel to the other side of the planet with only four hours of sleep. In fact, I’ve heard that it’s best to change your schedule to that of wherever you’re going a few days before leaving (while you’re still at home, presumably not doing anything important). I’ll try out this technique before my trip to London in a few weeks and let you know how it goes.

We spent two whole weeks in Germany, mostly in Stuttgart where my uncle lives, but we also travelled to some other places around the south (within Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria, for you geography enthusiasts). If you’re as big a geek as I am, you might remember Stuttgart as one of the locations in the first Avengers film. Well, little fun fact: it wasn’t. They said they were in Stuttgart, but really they filmed it in Cleveland, Ohio. Dumb, right?

Anyway. Quick disclaimer: those two weeks in Germany were packed with new experiences, and while I do remember a surprising amount of details, some things are a little fuzzy. It’s been three years, so cut me some slack. I’ve managed to find the names of places online, and piece together some of the timeline based on pictures. But I’m sure there’ll still be inaccuracies. I had hoped to use my travel journal as a reference while writing this, but after searching everywhere for weeks, I can’t find it. I’m so upset. I don’t even remember what it looks like. I just know it has priceless, information gold. Now lost. Hang on, I need to go cry.

Okay, that’s out of my system now (not really), and it’s time to get on with the stories! So strap on your patience seat belts, kids. Here we go with Germany: Week 1…

Uncle Eric, my dad’s older brother, had moved to Stuttgart a few years previously to work on the U.S. military base there. He continued working while we were there (since Dad just kinda threw us on him), so Monday through Friday until dinnertime Alex and I were on our own. Uncle Eric was a gracious host, however, and plopped us right into the heart of Stuttgart on our first full day, leaving us to fend for ourselves.

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Living in suburban Fresno just doesn’t prepare you for this level of shopping

The “Königstraße” (könig meaning king, and straße meaning street) is like Stuttgart’s Main Street, essentially a shopping district mixed with some businesses and historic-looking statues. Alex and I wandered numbly among them, still emerging into the culture shock phase of our travels. You wouldn’t think Germany could be too different to a white American (of some distant Germanic descent, as it were), compared to, say, an Asian or South American country. But cultures are often different in unexpected ways, and it’s even possible to experience culture shock within your own country. For us, navigating the trains, paying in Euros, deciding which of the two buttons to push on the toilets, and seating ourselves at restaurants were some of the many little things we had to get used to. And many were things they don’t prepare you for in guidebooks (not that we really read ours, but I imagine there aren’t any sections dedicated to the intricacies of European toilets).

What is this madness?

What is this madness?

Additionally, neither my brother nor myself were particularly fond of shopping at the time (for the record, we are now; just ask our bank accounts). So we passed by most of the stores and buildings and just sort of took everything in. And ended up in places we shouldn’t have been. We accidentally walked into an art museum that required you to pay. We accidentally sat in an outdoor restaurant with lunch from a different eatery. We accidentally wandered into a courtyard that was being set up for some kind of event. We were probably not supposed to sit on the public park benches, either, because an old lady came up and started reprimanding us in German. Or maybe she was just paying a compliment. It was hard to tell. You might also remember the screaming British school kids from the flight over. They were there, too. Still screaming. We avoided eye contact with them as much as possible.

Oh, and here’s something you might find interesting. When we got back to the apartment later that afternoon, we thought some TV would ease our culture shock struggles. While there were several channels in English (the Disney channel and Friends reruns became our go-tos) we did check out the German ones, too. And… we came across this little beauty:

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Um… what?

If you can’t tell, it’s the German version of Sesame Street (Sesamstraße), with its own set and puppets and completely in German. At first we were entertained. Then we became a little weirded out and decided never to watch it again.

You might also be interested in the food we were presumably eating. Germany is known for its sausages, sauerkraut, and beer. So what was I eating? Hamburgers that didn’t really look like hamburgers, baked potatoes that didn’t really look like baked potatoes, and boxes full of pasta. That’s right, you heard me. I went all the way to Germany and ordered Italian food.

So this leads me to Pro Travel Tip #2: Don’t order Italian food in Germany. This is literal and figurative. If you go to a country that has its own cuisine, then get that country’s cuisine. Don’t get some other country’s food. Don’t go to McDonald’s. Don’t stick with your hotel’s room service. Accept the fact that you are in another country, and eat the food that country is known for. There are only a few exceptions to this rule, but I’m not even going to mention them because you should never focus on finding exceptions. Stop trying to be special and just follow the rules, doggone it!

So yeah, those first few days I made some pretty embarrassing food choices. But I did eventually learn and started ordering sausage and spaetzle and “bäckerei” items. I created a gallery of the food we took pictures of for all you foodies out there. I’ll be updating it as I go along, so be sure to check back.

Navigating the trains turned out to be a piece of cake (food reference unintended), so our next adventure was taking one out to a little medieval-looking village called Esslingen. I don’t remember much about this place besides not knowing what to do. The museums we found were all closed, including the visitor’s information booth. We ran into the British school kids again. So we just wandered around for a bit taking pictures and then left.

Esslingen

1) Wall and moat, 2) Church door, 3) Random courtyard

The next day, however, was much more successful for our spur-of-the-moment sightseeing (Uncle Eric would basically give us a brochure of something the night before of a place we could visit the next day). This day, we were off to the Ludwigsburg Palace. I wish I could remember the details of when it was built and who all lived there, but we’ll just have to settle with ooh-ing and ah-ing over the beauty of the architecture.

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My new dream home.

Alex and I completely walked past the entrance, which is hilarious because it’s kind of hard to miss.

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The R stands for “…Really?”

We got probably half way around the property (a lot farther than it sounds) before backtracking.

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At least we got a view of the backyard.

Once inside the gate, we booked an English-speaking tour and were led around with a small group of others to view the Palace. We weren’t allowed to take pictures in certain areas, but the ones we got should give an idea how marvelous this place was.

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If you don’t have statues on your staircase, you aren’t decorating your Palace properly.

I vaguely remember walking down a long hallway full of royal portraits, though I couldn’t tell you which family or from what time period. It was at least whenever they still used chamber pots and dumped buckets of perfume on themselves to make up for the fact they hated taking baths.

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To help you get over that unsanitary image, enjoy this ornately decorated ceiling…

So that was a nice day. Next on our travel itinerary, thanks to Alex’s interest in cars, was the Mercedes-Benz museum. Did you know they have museums for car companies? I didn’t, either. But it ended up being one of my favorite sites and I’d definitely go again.

So. Many. Cars.

So many cars, and we’re only half-way up on the elevator.

It’s hard to tell in that picture, but the museum’s designed as a spiral. You start at the top, with the first Mercedes models, and wind your way down through the timeline to the modern Mercedes at the bottom. Every floor also has a small room off to the side, showcasing special sets like service vehicles and celebrity cars.

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Example: the Pope’s pimped out Mercedes

When you get to the end, there’s also a section for the Mercedes race cars, from back-in-the-day until now. Formula 1 is a pretty beloved racing series in my family, so we quite enjoyed this part.

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And as I fit perfectly into the model of Mika Hakkinen’s car, I discovered my secret dream of being a professional racer might not be that far fetched…

If my timeline thus far is accurate, we’ve now made it to the weekend. On Saturday, Uncle Eric took us a bit outside of Stuttgart to spend time exploring Hohenzollern Castle.

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We did not miss the entrance this time.

Because it’s way up on top of a hill (as all great castles are), we had to climb a freaking ton of stairs to get there. In high altitude. For my untrained body, it was torture. And apparently being too winded to speak made for good comedy, as Uncle Eric and Alex teased me about it. “Look, more stairs!” would become a running joke among the three of us. Needless to say, by the end of my travels, I was a stair climbing master.

Started from the bottom...

“Started from the bottom” has never been a more appropriate caption

Another inside joke that sprung up at this time was “But dad, I wanna build a castle!” Once we got inside (no pictures allowed), and put on these big slipper things over our shoes so the floors wouldn’t get scuffed, we went on another educational tour. Again, I don’t remember many details, but I do remember the place was built because a prince whined about not having his own castle until daddy gave in. See? History can be humorous.

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And also terrifying, as evidenced by this tunnel of prison cells.

And because we weren’t allowed to take photos inside, I’ll go ahead and leave you with a little collage of the Hohenzollern’s outside.

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It just doesn’t get more castle-y than this.

By the end of the first week, I had learned more about cars, German history, and what not to do when in a foreign country than I had ever imagined. But despite these amazing sites and experiences, I was struggling. Reliance on my uncle to give me things to do made me hesitant to get out and explore on my own. The language barrier and residual culture shock kept me on edge. I missed my bed and my cats. My acne had spread rapidly, making me look like I had some kind of disease. I felt unprepared, bored, anxious, and totally out-of-place, which then made me feel guilty because I wasn’t as excited to be there as everyone else was. I can look back now with fondness and laughter, but at the time I wasn’t sure what I had gotten myself into.

I don’t mean to end on a downer; I just want to be honest. I was immature and inexperienced back then. I had a bad attitude about some things. I regret that now, but that’s kinda the good news. Three years doesn’t seem very long, but I feel like I’ve grown so much. I learned a lot from that trip, and I’ve learned a lot since. Maybe I didn’t appreciate things as much as I should have, but I definitely do in retrospect. And that puts me in a better position to go on new adventures and make new memories that I won’t regret.

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Also, speaking of cats, a surefire way to judge the greatness of a new place is by how many cats you see. At this point in the story, the Cat Counter is at 1.

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