Quick Update: End-of-Year Seminar

Just checking in to let you all know that my End-of-Year Seminar starts today in Berlin. There's a lot planned for this 4-day seminar, including a visit to the German parliament and meetings with the representatives who are responsible for this program. Most of all, it will be interesting to compare my experiences to those of the other exchange students I'll be with. I'll check in when I get back and hopefully by then have some interesting food for thought!


How to Visit a German City

In my 10 months in Germany I have done a fair bit of traveling and learned a lot--not only about the history and culture of cities, but also about how to best visit a German city. Here are a few tips:

1) Inform yourself. The most important part of an interesting and fun visit to a city is, in my opinion, having the right information. A little bit of basic history (Wikipedia is enough) is often helpful for a framework during guided tours that sometimes rattle off lots of names and dates.

Even more important is knowing what is worth seeing wherever you're going. Sure you can find a list of museums at a tourist information center, but how will you know which ones are worth visiting? Check out sites like Wikitravel, Rough Guides, and Lonely Planet
to see what the best Sehenswürdigkeiten ("things worth seeing", one of my favorite longer German words) are. Consider what you're interested in and plan your visit around that!

2) Walk. Most cities I'm familiar with are very pedestrian-friendly and can be visited very well on foot. Almost all have a pedestrian zone in the middle where no cars are allowed at all. In most German cities you can find the Altstadt, the historical district, somewhere near the center. Plan an afternoon stroll and get some ice cream or take an evening walk to get a beer or two and see more of the city.

While walking, you have the time to look around and get a feel for the city and the people there. You also save money and get good exercise!

3) Take public transportation. As I have often mentioned, German cities have the advantage of excellent public transportation. Buses, subways, and streetcars will help you get around quickly and fairly comfortably. Some streetcar lines might be a good alternative to a tour bus if you just want to take a comfortable ride through the city. Look into all-day or 3-day passes that let you ride as much as you want to.

4) Take your time. Plan enough time to properly see the city--one day is not really enough for most cities. Don't plan too many activities on a single day, because at some point your brain just can't take in any more information.

5) Try the local _____. Every German city has at least one local specialty. Many have breweries that are famous in the region and a tour of the brewery would be a great way to spend an evening. Try the local food, drink, or dessert, like Spätzle or Weißbier in Southern Germany or Altbier or Killepitsch in Düsseldorf.

6) Ask. German cities are, in my experience, very tourist-friendly. Most signs in German train stations are multi-lingual. You will be able to find signs and instructions in English in many places. There still are, however, many other places where only German will help you out. In this case, don't be afraid to ask! Most Germans can speak at least some English. Pick someone who doesn't look like they're in a hurry and ask them politely if they speak English and are willing to help you.

For all the other people here who have experience traveling in Germany: what do you think about these tips? Any other recommendations for people traveling to Germany?


May 1st

May 1st, also known as May Day or International Worker's Day, is a national holiday in Germany. In the name of cultural research, I decided to accompany my classmates and friends during the Tag der Arbeit. This holiday corresponds to Labor Day in the United States.

May 1st is celebrated in different ways around Germany. In bigger cities, May 1st is marked by demonstrations and parades organized by worker's unions. Where I live, people ride their bikes on a Maitour to a meadow or park and celebrate there.

I first met up with two friends from my town to bike over to a friend's house in Gütersloh, where we met other friends for breakfast and started celebrating the "Day of Work".

After a hearty breakfast and a few glasses of Weizen, we set off to meet some other friends in the middle of Gütersloh.

The troop is getting bigger...

After meeting up with yet another group, we left the city in a band of about 40 people. As you can imagine, this requires frequent stops to reorganize the group. In this picture you can see the wagon with some of the supplies for the tour.

Messing around at the Wappelbad, a park next to a river. Here we lounged, chilled and hung out with many other kids we know.

All in all, the "1. Mai" was a lot of fun. I still can't find a connection between the history and the tradition in this area, but there are some things you don't have to question.


Trip to Berlin

I'm back with some pictures and thoughts about my trip to Berlin. I spent four days the week before last on a Bildungsreise, an "educational trip" in Berlin with Nick, another exchange student, and Wolfgang and Birgit, his host parents.

I was actually really lucky to get to go along on the trip. Every exchange student from my program has a sponsor in the Bundestag, the German Parliament. Nick's sponsor invited him and his family to go on the trip, but Nick's host brother couldn't afford to miss so much school. So, I got to visit a wonderful family in Düsseldorf for a weekend and spend four days in Berlin.

The Jäkels and Nick

The trip turned out to be very interesting. Most of what we saw was focused on the eastern part of the divided Berlin during the socialist East German regime. One thing that stands out on a visit to Berlin is that it has been shaped by its recent history--World War II, the Holocaust, the division of Germany, and the reunification. If you know what to look for, you can see history everywhere in this city.

A row of bricks traces sections where the wall used to be.

Almost all of the wall was torn down immediately after the reunification. A few sections, however, remain standing and have been painted over, most famously the East Side Gallery.

Another aspect of Berlin's history that has left its mark on the city was World War II. Traces of this time are found all over Berlin today, be it the over 1,000 Stolpersteine, which stand in front of houses in which Jews killed during the Holocaust used to live, or be it the scars remaining from World War II.

Picture from Stern magazine

This shows the Reichstag, where the German Parliament meets, at the end of World War II.

This picture shows the Reichstag as it looks today.

Not all of Berlin has been restored. The Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche was left a standing ruin as a reminder of the war. Another building was built next to it, but the damaged tower, called der Hohle Zahn (the hollow tooth) is still a landmark in Berlin today.

We then visited the former headquarters of the Staatssicherheit (state security), the East German secret police whose tens of thousands of employees spied on, question, and imprisoned East German citizens. All of the files they kept laid end-to-end would be about 100 miles long. Ever since the reunification, more and more of the files are being made available to those who were spied upon. Some find that friends, coworkers, and even spouses were informants for the secret police.

We also visited a former prison of the Stasi. Here prisoners were tortured psychologically, being questioned every day and not being allowed human contact other than with the interrogators.

The prison grounds.

An example of a van with which the secret police would inconspicuously take captors. Painted on the side of the van are the words "Obst und Gemüse", making it look like a delivery van for fruits and vegetables. Inside are four tiny cells and a seat for a guard.

After a lot of walking and soaking up information and a several pleasant evenings in Berlin, we hopped back in the train to Düsseldorf. Here you can see Birgit and Wolfgang sitting comfortably in the ICE with the display in the background indicating a speed of 250 km/h (155 mi/h).

I'll be back soon with a report from my favorite holiday so far, May 1st.

Has anyone else been to Berlin? What were your impressions?