HelloEurope! Part 3: Wherein I discover the true meaning of pine cones

HelloEuropePart3 Welcome back to the Great Europe Adventure of 2012! Before we get to see what Germany: Week 2 was like (hint: more adventures, less complaining), I’d just like to take a moment to reflect on reflections.

See, you distance yourself from something long enough, and when you finally come back into contact with it, you have a whole new perspective of it. It’s like you get to experience that thing all over again, only as a different person. You learn even more about yourself back then than you did at the time. You surprise yourself with the little random details you remember, and get frustrated with the ones you’ve forgotten. You look at a photo and realize you see so much more than what the camera captured. Reminiscing can be pretty rewarding in that way.

Okay, weird, abstract thinking time over. Time to get back to the main program…

So we finished the weekend with a trip to Heidelberg, another historic town with a castle. This one wasn’t in the best condition, and didn’t come with a knowledgeable tour guide. But it was nice to walk around the ruins and soak in the view.

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At least I have a better excuse for not knowing anything about the place.

I guess with that picture, it would be a good time to bring up the fact that approximately half of the country was under construction when we were there. Every place we went, there was either a road torn up or scaffolding covering up part of a building. We never saw anyone work on anything; just places blocked off for future maintenance that seemingly never came. To this day, whenever my brother and I see multiple construction sites in an area, we jokingly complain, “What is this, Germany?”

Heidelberg itself was a nice looking town. The Neckar River runs through the middle of it, and the architecture there is just incredible. So many different styles all eclectically mushed together, but never tacky or obnoxious. Many of the other towns and cities we’d visit that week were similar. There’s just no comparison in America.

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Though the States are a bit better with the whole don’t-drive-where-people-are-walking thing.

Another pretty amazing thing we saw there was the second largest wine barrel in the world.

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So large, it won’t even fit in the shot.

Never mind where the first largest is… Just be jealous that I’ve seen, touched, and stood on top of the world’s second largest wine barrel and you haven’t.

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Just for some perspective… And yes, there is actual wine in there.

Speaking of beverages, the water situation in Germany was quite bizarre. In the States, water at restaurants is free and the waiter often pours you a glass while you’re scanning the menu. In Germany, we had to ask for it. And that day at lunch, we discovered you also had to be specific with what type you wanted, otherwise the default was sparkling. Let me just tell you, there is nothing less refreshing after a day of walking among castle ruins and giant wine barrels than carbonated water.

And thus ended our weekend, but the adventures kept on coming. The next day, Alex and I went to the Wilhelma Zoo. Looking back, I have mixed feelings about this. I’m undecided what to think about zoos in general, but this particular instance of going to one in another country seems questionable. Maybe if it had some kind of rare animal species or breed that you couldn’t find anywhere else, or maybe if it was renowned for some kind of unique exhibit or design, then it would’ve made sense to go. But going just because you don’t know what else to do seems like it might warrant another Pro Travel Tip warning.

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Brought to you by my beautifully intimidating friend the Snow Leopard.

However, we were able to pick up on some subtle cultural nuances that would’ve otherwise gone undetected. For example, we discovered that outside of California, Sequoia trees are a pretty big deal.

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This is actually my first and only time seeing a Sequoia in person. Some Cali girl I am, right?

As are farm animals…

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California cows are too busy leading the country in dairy production to be put on display.

And we learned that the Justin “Beaver” insult is actually rooted in German zoology…

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Obviously the most useful fact we could’ve gleaned from this trip.

Getting to and from the Zoo was a learning experience, as well. Up until then we had only been using the “S-Bahn” trains. The other type was the “U-Bahn,” and I don’t know the difference but for some reason we wanted to just stick with the one Uncle Eric had shown us how to use. Well, there was no direct S-Bahn to the Zoo, so we either had to transfer to a U-Bahn line or walk. We decided to walk. It ended up being a tragically long trek that involved us roaming through sketchy streets and getting lost in sudden parks. So while I may be hesitant to completely discourage visiting a zoo in another country (this one was pretty impressive, I must admit), I will go ahead and pose this. Pro Travel Tip #3: Know what transportation method is best for a certain situation. You might not be familiar using a train, for example, but compared to your terrible map reading skills it would still be more convenient than navigating on foot. A certain method could also be safer over another, or cheaper, or more rewarding, or more culturally acceptable. It’s just something you have to think about.

Okay, so moving on to the next day, where Uncle Eric arranged for us to stay at a nearby hostel. Apparently we would be staying in one when we visited Münich later, so he wanted us to try one out in a city we were already familiar with. Hostels, if you don’t know, are like dorms that you can rent while travelling. They’re typically cheaper than hotels, too, so it’s preferred among the thrifty, backpacking type of travellers.

We didn’t get any pictures of our Stuttgart hostel, so you’ll have to use your imaginations on this one. I was put in a four-bunk room with a small bathroom. One other girl was in the room with me that night. She only spoke German, and I only spoke English, so communication ended once that was established. Alex I think had two or three other roommates in his room across the hall. Overall it wasn’t too bad; I just wish someone had told me it was a bring-your-own-soap-and-towels kind of place.

After we had checked in early that afternoon, we went off to another car museum for the day. The Porsche museum was a little smaller than Mercedes since the company hasn’t been around as long, but it was still fun.

Not exactly a race car, but I'll take it.

Not exactly a race car, but I’ll take it.

We had breakfast the next day at the hostel. Breakfasts for us at Uncle Eric’s apartment consisted mainly of cereal, fruit, and tea. But at the hostel, we were treated to the full German spread. Cold cuts, bread rolls, more cold cuts, some cereal and fruit options, and… cold cuts. Being a pescatarian, Alex found some difficulties creating a substantial meal. And being a person that doesn’t enjoy meat in the morning, I was a little disappointed as well. I don’t remember what we did for the rest of the day after we checked out. Probably something really exciting like watching TV.

Then it was off to Münich. We couldn’t check in to the hostel until later that afternoon, so we decided to wait at yet another car museum.

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Guess which one.

The BMW museum was split into two buildings. The “Welt” had a lot of newer models on display that you could get in, including a motorcycle section.

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I’m telling you, I have a future as a racer.

The main museum was pretty much like the other museums we’d gone too. Lots of cars. I really enjoyed this one, but I still think my favorite is the Mercedes.

Though this car makes BMW a close second.

Though this car makes BMW a close second.

A few hours later and we could finally check in to the hostel. At this particular one, we were placed in a co-ed room that took up the entire top floor and must’ve held at least fifty beds. We didn’t interact with anyone, and because that sounds like such a lame thing to say, I have to make Pro Travel Tip #4: Talk to people. If you’re fortunate enough to be in a place where multiple cultures/ethnicities/countries are represented, don’t pass up the opportunity to get to know those people. Ask questions. Share your observations. Invite friendly discussions. Make new friends. And be grateful you’re not the antisocial loser in the corner.

The next day we went to the famous parts of Münich, the Rathaus-Glockenspiel and the Hofbräuhaus. The Glockenspiel is this old thing that plays music at certain hours and has little figurines that play out stories. The whole town square in front of the building was packed with people when it started playing.

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Honestly the most boring, overrated tourist attraction ever.

Finding the Hofbräuhaus proved to be our biggest fail yet. We weren’t interested in drinking there, we just wanted to see it and maybe buy a commemorative stein to take home. But the one little sign we found had an arrow pointing in a very vague direction, and long story short, we spent a good hour walking in a completely different part of town before giving up and going back to the city center. Uncle Eric eventually met us there, and then proceeded to drive us no more than a block away to the Hofbräuhaus.

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Okay, I give up on navigating.

After touring the beer hall, we than began our three-day road trip weekend. Now, I don’t want to rush through anything, but come on. I’ve been dragging this blog out for like a million years, and we’re not even halfway through the whole vacation, and my tangents are making babies cry, so let’s just skip all the fluff in between and look at the highlights, okay?

That said, a quick bit of background info is needed first. Our road trip was planned along what’s known as the Romantische Straße, or the Romantic Road. It’s supposed to connect all the pretty, historical sites in southern Germany for tourists like us. We didn’t feel like going all the way to the end, in Füssen, so we just started at the next stop, Schwangau.

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Oh joy, more construction.

You probably don’t recognize that castle because of the freaking construction. So here’s the view from the back.

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This involved a hella ton of climbing to see, so you’d better appreciate it.

Look familiar now? Neuschwanstein is a pretty well known castle, and it was built solely for looks and not function. The word is Disney based Sleeping Beauty’s castle on it. Because no one ever lived in it, we skipped touring that one in favor of Hohenschwangau, a functioning castle on the adjacent hill.

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Can no one make a castle that’s stylish AND comfortable?

That night we ended up in Augsburg, a city with a lot of pine cone imagery everywhere. Consulting my Germany guidebook for the first time, I learned that the pine cone symbolizes fertility. And because that’s hilarious, we went into a gift shop and got an assortment of souvenirs with pine cones on them.

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And took pictures of every pine cone we could find because we’re mature like that.

Uncle Eric stayed at a hotel while Alex and I went to another hostel. Our rooming situation here was more like the one in Stuttgart. Because I had decided against taking a shower in the co-ed Münich hostel, I took one here. To my conservative horror, the shower doors were completely see-through. See through, people. I had to shower next to an elderly lady with only a slightly fogged up screen for protection. Oh Germany….

The next day we drove up to Dinkelsbühl, a quaint and charming little village. And yes, you may giggle at the name; it is pretty funny.

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So are these, er, detailed signs we found…

We walked around the whole outside village wall, toured some dungeons, and climbed a church tower.

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Dinkelsbühl is just so stinkin’ cute.

After Dinkelsbühl came the last stop on the not-very-romantic tour, Würzburg. We checked into another hostel for the night, this one built inside an old stone building right beneath a castle. Alex and I shared a small room just between us. The showers (and toilets as well) here only had a flimsy curtain for privacy, in case you were wondering.

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Germany: the land of ruining picturesque moments with dumb cranes and scaffolding.

We toured the Würzburg Residence the next day. You might recognize it from the Three Musketeers movie with Orlando Bloom a few years ago.

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Or you might not because you’re not a cool movie geek like I am.

This is also where you can find the world’s largest ceiling fresco. The Sistine Chapel actually isn’t the largest, because it was done in sections and pieced together. You’ll see what I mean when we get to the Rome post (if we get there…).

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I don’t have a picture of the ceiling, but I do have this one. Germany Cat Count: 2.

We took a quick detour to Nürnberg before heading back to Stuttgart. I don’t remember much about this part, only that I desperately needed to pee and the bathroom (called Water Closets by the locals) I finally found had a little gate that required you to put in coins before entering. A similar situation would later happen in London, and I just can’t for the life of me figure it out. I feel like I can accept a lot of cultural differences, but paying to pee? Are you serious, Europe?!

And now, at long last, the Germany stories come to a close. It was quite the first-time-out-of-the-country experience, but you haven’t seen anything yet. Once Alex and I reached London and met up with the rest of our family, things went from weird and adventurous to wild and crazy.

Pictured: two kids who have no clue what's coming...

Pictured: two kids who have no clue what’s coming…

HelloEurope! Food Gallery

HelloEurope! Part 1: Wherein I embark on the most epic adventure of my life with only 4 hours of sleep

HelloEurope Let’s take a trip down memory lane, shall we?

I’ve never considered myself, or my family for that matter, very travel-y. Sure, we’ve done the Disneyland thing a few times, and ventured out-of-state to the wild and distant land known as Oregon. But I’ve never been to Yosemite. Or the Grand Canyon. The one time I went to Vegas was with my dad on a business trip, and it was pretty freaking boring. My family’s “big vacation” every year was to the same small town on the coast – which is my favorite place in the world, mind you, but the only part of the Pacific Ocean I ever saw for the longest time. And this is just typical West Coast stuff. Forget cross country road trips and time zone changes. As a family, we just didn’t go anywhere.

That’s why the summer of 2012 was a pretty big deal for my family. For some reason, as soon as it was announced that London would eventually be hosting the summer Olympics, my dad had it in his mind that we were going. As the years went on and we began to save and daydream more, the plan expanded to include “nearby” places like Rome (a weekend in Paris was on the list at one point but we later opted for the less-stressful Cambridge, which – foreshadow alert – ended up being stressful anyway). My uncle had recently moved to southern Germany as well, so Dad decided to send my brother and me over there two weeks ahead of the rest of the family, because why not? In the year of turning 18, graduating high school, and acquiring a driver’s license, this was supposed to be the best thing that had ever happened me.

And, spoiler alert, it pretty much was.

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Though poor Luna would probably consider it the most tragic thing to ever happen.

Now, I considered London to be the heart of the trip, so that was what I talked about and planned for. The other places seemed cool, but I didn’t know what to expect (and didn’t really feel like researching) so I figured I’d let Germany and Rome surprise me. But in retrospect, I could have really done with some research on Germany. I knew nothing about the country outside of history lessons. The only German word I knew was hallo, and I’m pretty sure a two year old could guess what that means, so it doesn’t count as any level of language proficiency. I didn’t even know what we would be doing the whole time. German things? It was a mystery, and added a level of ambivalence, to be quite honest.

That said, I was still pretty excited to be traveling, and thus barely slept at all the night before. Later, as I would begin to get my feet wet in college and try a whole assortment of new experiences, I would find this to be a pattern with me. First day of school tomorrow? No sleep tonight. Job interview the next day? Not gonna sleep. Whether I’m excited, nervous, or a little of both, the thought that something new is going to happen, something I have no experience with, just sucks all the sleepiness right out of me.

But anyway. No sleep. Airport early in the morning. I felt great. Completely clueless about what was coming, but eager to embrace whatever it was anyway. Alex and I sat around the Fresno Airport Terminal (a stunningly bland name until you look at the initials and burst into a fit of juvenile giggles, which I totally did not do) with Dad for what seemed like forever, only to go through security and then wait around some more. Apparently that’s the thing about airports, if you’ve never been in one. It’s all about waiting. Check in early, and then wait. Go through security, and then wait. Board the plane, and then wait. Land, and then wait. It’s pretty insightful to see how certain people handle their impatient-ness, because let’s be honest here, nobody is perfectly fine with that amount waiting. For example, there are the pacers and the fidgeters. Then there are the snackers, and closely related, the I’m-just-going-to-keep-going-to-the-bathroom-until-it’s-time-ers. You’ll also find the sleepers, the talkers, the gamers, and every once in a while, the complainers. It’s all very fascinating to witness. Maybe that’s why I later ended up being an Anthropology major….

I don’t remember the exact times or anything, but eventually we got to board the plane. It was just a small connecting flight to LAX, where a much longer flight awaited, but memories were still made on that little puddle jumper. Once we took off, I discovered that I loved flying. All the other flights I’d take on this trip would just reinforce my enjoyment. I can’t explain what it is, but I just really, really love flying! The rollercoaster-like thrill of gaining speed and taking off. The occasional turbulence that reminds you of being in the heart of Mother Nature. The perfectly portioned sugar and cream packets they give you to pour into your complementary tea. Mmm. I’m getting warm fuzzies just thinking about it. Of course, this particular flight also provided a beautiful bird’s eye view of California, which if you remember from like an hour ago when you began reading this post, I hadn’t previously seen much of. I’m sure my plane ticket price went toward things like aircraft maintenance and worker salaries, but I’d like to think I really paid for the view.

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Hey look, the Hollywood sign! I wonder what landmarks I’ll see in Europe…

We arrived all too soon at LAX. I remember Dad going over with us the week before how to get from our landing terminal to the international one. Something about an island and a shuttle? It all seemed very confusing, but ended up being incredibly simple. That’s the other thing about airports: they are full of long hallways and signs with big arrows that are really hard to misinterpret. Though it’s foolproof in getting you where you need to go, for someone like me who likes to get a “big picture” look of wherever I am, it’s a little disorienting to blindly follow arrows all the while ignoring all the other hallways and doors and places because if you dare feed your curiosity about them, you’ll get horribly (and probably illegally) lost.

The LA airport involved, you guessed it, more waiting. We couldn’t even go through security and stay at the gate for a while, so we just hung around the terminal. Sparing you the more boring details, we basically just ate at an overpriced Panda Express and browsed through random shops (I bought a discount copy of TRON: Legacy on DVD, because adding an extra, unusable item to my luggage was a smart thing to do, obviously). We were also convinced, for some reason, that we would see someone famous there. LAX is a popular airport so surely a celebrity will be going somewhere international while we’re here, was our line of thinking. It turned out to be very wishful thinking, and this was the closest we got to making it come true:

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A motorcycle racer nobody’s heard of. This will go far in the bragging circles.

After going through security (which, I’d like to briefly mention, is not as bad as everyone likes to believe) and finding our gate, Alex and I discovered that our seats were in completely different parts of the plane from one another. That’s right, ladies and gentlemen. My dad, who has more travel experience than the rest of our family combined and then some, somehow overlooked the seating arrangements when booking our tickets. I personally wouldn’t have minded sitting all by myself, but Alex insisted we get it sorted out. Through some sweet-talking, and more waiting, we were able to snag two seats smack in the middle of the plane. No legroom. No window seat. No problem. Even through a long flight, I was happy. We were flying British Airlines, so the flight attendants had accents and wore ascots. Every seat had its own screen, so Alex and I took advantage of this independence by choosing the exact same movie and hitting play at the exact same time. I don’t remember anything else about the flight except that I still couldn’t sleep, and that Alex got a special vegetarian meal that smelled weird.

We landed in Heathrow, and would later rub it in my parents’ faces that we, technically, were the first ones in London. I don’t remember the exact timing anymore, but I do know that a whole day had passed despite having only been in the air for… well, I don’t remember how many anymore, so let’s just go with ten. Ten hours, but it was the next day. Time zones are trippy, man. We followed some more arrows and passed through another security check and did some more waiting, and then we got on our final flight to Stuttgart, Germany. On board with us was a troop of young British teens, part of a school trip it looked like. They screamed practically the whole time. It was very annoying. (And a detail that will become relevant again, so lock it in your memories, folks.)

The view, however, more than made up for it. The biggest thing that struck me about entering Germany was how green it was. Trees everywhere. Even the farms had sprawling grasses and hills. Land in California (especially here in the Central Valley) seems to consist of a few spotty patches of green, surrounded mostly by various shades of brown. We also noticed several solar farms, large areas filled with rows of solar panels. I’d never seen anything like it. Germany would prove to have many more beautiful, novel, and somewhat odd sights see.

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Guess the country by color.

As I (finally) wrap up this introductory post, I would like to point out that these airport exchanges for us went very smoothly. Alex and I were pros at figuring things out calmly and cooperatively. The two of us hadn’t really fought since we were in the single digit age range (though “fighting” really just meant throwing slices of bread at each other and tattling to mom; we were very mature for our age). So there was no drama, no communication issues, no public scenes being made. Just a brother and a sister making their way through the world hand in hand. Not literally, of course, because that would be gross. But figuratively, because that’s sweet and touching and will later help prove a point when we join up with the rest of our family and all hell breaks loose.

PS: You probably didn’t expect to read a whole post about airports, not after being tempted with a such a juicy title. But if you’ve managed to wade through and get to this point, hopefully you’ve seen how the journey can be just as important as the destination. From here on out, though, it’ll mostly be destination stories with just a few journey anecdotes. Promise.

Up next: mouthfuls of letters

Up next: details about the German train system you’ve always wanted to know