A Weekend in Hamburg

Hamburg from a Height

A three hour train ride from Bielefeld is Hamburg, a port city located on the Elbe river. Hamburg has always had an international atmosphere due to its historic role as a major port between Europe, Scandinavia, and America. Now, it’s the hub of Germany’s media and the European headquarters for many financial and tech companies.

Hamburg is a popular weekend trip for Bielefelders. It’s close enough to travel with the football team for a match (HSV is a major rival), there is plenty to do, and it’s not overwhelmed by tourists like other big cities. Though we were there in the early Spring, I expect in the summer months (when the weather is good) it turns into a mini New York City.

During our trip, we saw Hamburg from every angle. We climbed buildings, walked the canals, and saw the city under a microscope. Now it’s your turn.

A Miniature Wonderland

Hamburg has tons of museums, but the most popular is the Miniatur Wunderland. The museum is located in the Speicherstadt, in an old storehouse used in the early 1900s. Now, it houses Germany’s largest model train collection (and most visited museum in the country). It is the most German museum I’ve ever visited.

We spent hours watching trains zip through tiny European towns, watched Pompeii erupt and cover an Italian city, airplanes take off, mini-Oktoberfest celebrations, and cars cruising the Las Vegas strip. We saw mini-people, dinosaur bones, protests, and concerts. It was like being a part of an I-Spy book.

A Glimpse of the Past

On Saturday, we spent a lazy morning in a Cafe before visiting the St. Nikolai Memorial. 5 Euros buys you entry to the museum, and an elevator trip to the top of the church tower.

The church is a memorial for Operation Gomorrah, a bombardment that lasted nearly 3 months in the summer of 1943. During the operation, nearly 70 percent of Hamburg was destroyed and 40,000 people were killed. The church remains as a reminder of the destruction. The only parts that survived is the basement and the bell tower. In the basement, a small exhibit describes the role the church had in the Nazi regime and the events around the bombing.

From the top of the church tower, a 360-degree view shows how Hamburg has rebuilt and progressed since then.

Hamburg’s Speicherstadt and Hafencity

We took a walking tour through the Speicherstadt (warehouse district) and Hafencity, a newly built area of Hamburg. The city’s history as a hub for commercial trade and business is very similar to Amsterdam; less emphasis on religion, race, government rule, and more focus on money, diversity, and prosperity.

Germany’s Best Kept Secret

Our last day in Hamburg was spent walking the observation deck at the Elbphilharmonie (it’s free!). I’m pretty sure we saw Hamburg in every way: miniature, birdseye, and streetview. It was diverse, and a good mix of history and modernity.

For tourists visiting Europe, Hamburg is a must. One of Germany’s largest cities, it’s often passed over by visitors for Berlin, Munich or other popular tourist destinations. But it has a lot to offer between history, architecture, sightseeing, and activities. There was plenty we didn’t do or see, and I know that any future trip to Hamburg has the potential to be completely different, with new quarters of the city to see and new places to experience.

High School in Germany

When I think of schools in rural areas, I think of Ohio.  Underfunded, old, and probably not the best education.  But honestly, I think of the same things when it comes to urban or suburban schools. Walking into the Sassenberg Secondary school was like walking into a corporate HQ…only this one was for learning.  My university wasn’t even this nice! Clean, open areas, windows lining every wall, full teaching kitchens, gyms with rock climbing walls, a cafeteria that looked like a casual dining restaurant, and every student equipped with a laptop or tablet to use for class. 

A 45 minute drive from Bielefeld lies the provincial town of Sassenberg, and it’s exactly how you would imagine a German village to be like.  The early morning drive was dark, and we wouldn’t know where we were if it not for Google maps tracking our drive.  The only thing we could see were oncoming headlights through the low fog that covered the road.  On the way home in the afternoon, the grey sky gave light to a foggy countryside of timbered houses, farmland, horses, and long stretches of two-lane roads dotted with castles and medieval structures. 

You’re not going to see any photos from the school here…I didn’t want to be creepy 🙂

We arrived at 7:30, and students were rolling in (literally.  They have bike parking lots) and preparing for class.  Our group was the main event.  Schools throughout Germany take part in Project Weeks, a week during the school year where teachers take a back seat and the students get to participate in something that builds onto whatever it is they’re studying.  Some project weeks are Arts focused, Engineering based, or like ours, cultural experiences. 

Our main goal is to encourage English speaking, help them feel comfortable, and grow in confidence as an English-speaker.  The students don’t have to go to “real” class, so they love it.   We offer students a unique experience of interacting with a native English speaker (often for the first time), and learning about the customs and culture of the English-speaking world. Most of what they know about America they learn through music, Marvel, and Netflix.

Here are a few things about America that blew their mind:

  • We have to pay for healthcare.
  • Most places don’t have train systems or good public transportation.
  • We have school shootings.
  • Marijuana is legal (in some states).

The most common questions I got were:

  • Do you own a gun?
  • Do you smoke weed?
  • What do you think of Trump?
  • Have you been to Los Angeles or New York?
  • Do you know any famous people?

But my favorite part of all was that the students didn’t know I spoke German.

“Do you speak German?” they would ask me.

“This is an English class. No, I don’t.” They would smile slyly and start talking about something rude, or off topic or you know, high school. And I would smile back and then reply to them in English, fully knowing what they’re talking about.

“Hey, I don’t think it’s a good idea to be talking about what party you’re going to this weekend. If you want to talk about it, talk about it in English.”


Mind blown.

While the school system and the schools may be different, there’s one thing that’s always the same: high schoolers.  They are just like students in the States and all I can say is, boy am I glad I am not in high school anymore. The number of times I was asked about drugs or beer or parties…🤦‍♀️

Christmas in Germany

It’s been pouring all day, in true German fashion. But no one cares because they are all inside preparing for family and church. And even though it’s grey and soggy out, the constant ringing of church bells provides a festive reminder.

I’ve said before that I think Germans do a better job of celebrating Christmas. Sure, there’s cookies and candy galore, Christmas trees, and presents, but everything is just a little bit different. Allow me to take you through a typical German Christmas season…who knows, you might want to adopt some festivities into your holidays.

Christmas Markets

The last weekend in November marks the start of the holiday season with the opening of Christmas Markets. The Weihnachtsmarkt becomes a central meeting point for the community, where everyone comes together to drink Glühwein, eat Currywurst, and stroll the Altstadt. The typical Weihnachtsmarkt will always include a Ferris Wheel and some attractions for the kids (like a mini amusement park). This year, Bielefeld added an ice rink for Curling and skating.

Santa Comes Early

On December 6th, put your boots out because St. Nikolaus is coming to town. This tradition is observed in many European countries. Children leave their boots in front of the door, and wake up on Dec. 6th to find them stuffed with chocolates and oranges. If they are naughty, their boot will have a lump of coal. I asked a German friend about this tradition, and he said he loved getting oranges on Nikolaustag, since the fruit was so rare that time of year.

Advent is a Big Deal

I’ve been going to church since I was little, but none of the churches I went to really emphasized Advent. In Germany, it’s both a religious experience and something observed at home throughout the season. Every flower shop sells Advent candles and wreaths, and families gather every Sunday for Advent tea or dinner. Plus, everyone has an Advent calendar. These calendars typically have chocolates, but can also have beauty items, toys, and more. The surprise on Dec. 6 is always a chocolate St. Nick.

The Tree Stays Outside

While the Weihnachtsbaum is usually purchased in advance, it doesn’t usually get decorated until Christmas Eve. Until then, most people will leave the tree wrapped up on their patios. When it comes time to decorate the tree, it is similar to the US where everyone will have different ornaments and decor. Most trees will have candles, garland, and occasionally, dried fruit (you can even purchase trees with dried lemon and orange slices attached).

Weihnachtsbäume line the streets at the Paderborn Weihnachtsmarkt

Christmas Comes Early

In Germany, Christmas is on Heiligabend, or as we know it, Christmas Eve. Shops close at 1:00 p.m. and the holiday begins. Trees are decorated, feasts are enjoyed, and presents are open. Last year, our building was joyful (and maybe a little buzzed) until the wee hours of Christmas morning. 🍻

Everything (as usual) is Closed

From the 24 until the 27, everything is closed. No grocery, pharmacy or Boxing Day shopping. Even the Christmas Markets are closed. Go to the markets on the 23rd to experience Germans preparing for the 3-day apocalypse. We ran out of food by the 26th last year, and spent the evening at a local pizza place. This year, we plan on making a tradition out of it. 🍕

Everything being closed is one of my favorite things about living in Germany. Especially around a major holiday, it helps relieve the stress of work looming over you when you’re enjoying time with family. But honestly, I think most Germans use the extra day for recovery (see above re: staying up all night drinking).

Frohe Weihnachten

Whether you’re celebrating tonight, tomorrow, or not at all, I wish you a warm belly full of Glühwein, and visions of Pfeffernüsse dancing in your head. Frohe Weihnachten.🎄

A Culture of Remembrance

Today is November 9. In Germany, this day is called Schicksaltag (Day of Fate). This day holds great significance in modern (and not so modern) German history; namely, it’s the day the Berlin Wall fell (1990), the day the emperor was overthrown (1918), and the day of Kristallnacht (1938).

Today, in Bielefeld, thousands have marched in protest to a Neonazi demonstration in the city. (The Neonazis march in Bielefeld every year on the 9th of November to protest the imprisonment of Holocaust denier Ursula Haverbeck. She is 91.)

The city, businesses, and people, are speaking out against Nazism. Everywhere in Bielefeld, you will find anti-nazi, pro-unity, and (my favorite) “Bielefeld ist Bunt” signs. (you can follow the events on Instagram with #bi0911)

Along with banners against racism, the crosswalks are now rainbow. Bielefeld ist bunt!

Stumbling into History

Throughout Europe, if you look closely, you might find a shimmer of brass in the cobbled streets. When you’re walking, you’ll feel a difference if you step on it. A smooth square of brass, etched with someone’s name, sitting in front of a house. These are Stolpersteine (stumbling stones), a memorial project to commemorate victims of the Holocaust.

Since 2018, 70,000 stones have been laid. Bielefeld is home to 153.

Every stone has the same information: The person’s name, birthdate, their “charges” against them, and most of the time, their date of death.

Here lived Wilhelm Kappe,
Born 1911.
Arrested May 1943
“Military Corruption”
“Political unreliability”
Self mutilation
execution 11.10.1943

It is not what is written [on the stolpersteine] which intrigues, because the inscription is insufficient to conjure a person. It is the emptiness, void, lack of information, the maw of the forgotten, which gives the monuments their power and lifts them from the banality of a statistic.

Joseph Pearson, Historian.

These stones are not just commemorating the Jewish people that were murdered during Hitler’s Reich, but any person that was marginalized by, or spoke out against the Nazi Socialist Party. Many of the stones in Bielefeld are for people that committed “high treason” and were subsequently executed.

For Richard Otto Senkel, his crime was marrying a Jewish woman. He and his wife were arrested, separated, and eventually murdered.

ARRESTED 1943. BORN 1893
MURDERED 31.8.1943

With the Stolpersteine, the people of Germany remember the horrors of the second world war and march to prevent it from happening again.

Remember when Nazis were bad?

One of my favorite parts about living in Germany is seeing how they remember their country’s darkest history. It’s a culture of remembrance, but also a culture of action. Yes, clearly there are still issues of racism and anti-semitism in Germany (and around the globe), but Bielefeld, and cities all over Germany are doing things to fight against repeating history.

What are you doing?

This post is just mushroom pictures

In the parks, hidden beneath the undergrowth and seeping out of old stumps, are mushrooms (Pilz). These fungi grow anywhere soggy and muddy, and come in all sorts of shapes and colors. In fact, Germany is known for its mushrooms and consumes the most amount in Europe (2.9 kilos per person annually). There’s even a Pilz App which helps with identifying mushrooms.

Mushrooms are such an integral part to the German lifestyle, that the word has taken on special meaning. Glückspilz (literally lucky mushroom or happy mushroom) is used to describe a lucky person. It means “lucky devil/sod/dog/bastard”…probably not the most polite word.

While it is legal to pick mushrooms in Germany, it’s only allowed in designated areas (parks ain’t one of them). Plus there are over 60 poisonous types that grow in the wild, so I’m not going to test my luck. I’ll stick to getting mine at Weihnachtsmarkt, battered and fried, please.

Instead, please enjoy this random collection of photos of mushrooms I’ve encountered.🍄

With all these mushrooms, Gnomes have got to be lurking nearby.

Back to Hogwarts

The real reason we went to London

Just like our trip to Berlin had ulterior motives, our trip to London was really just a means to an end. Honestly, the only reason we scheduled the trip was to visit the Harry Potter Studio Tour, AKA Hogwarts.

Comment below and let me know what Hogwarts House you’re in!

A short train ride outside of London brings you to Watford, a city that for ten years, was the homebase of the Harry Potter films. It still houses the UK’s Warner Brothers Studio, a working film and TV studio that has shot films like Inception, Fantastic Beasts, Wonder Woman, and plenty of Bond films.

When the Harry Potter franchise finished filming in their lots at the studios, pretty much everything was put into storage: costumes, props, complete sets, you name it. Since 2012, the Harry Potter Studio Tour has been open to the public, with rotating exhibitions all about the Harry Potter film series.

The safest place in the world for something you want to hide

During our visit, Gringotts Wizarding Bank was the main attraction, and we got to see all the details that went into creating the perfect bank Goblin, the LeStrange vaults, and the dragon. We even saw a mysterious package left in Vault 713…🤔

Photo from www.filmtourismus.de

The Studio Tour is an expansive journey through the wizarding world, with everything from Platform 9 3/4, to Malfoy Manor and the Forbidden Forest. With an audio guide and a Wizarding World passport, we were free to wander through the studios. There are plenty of interactive activities along the way, like green screen photos playing Quidditch or riding the Hogwarts Express. While we didn’t do any of those, we did stop for a Butterbeer. 🍻

It’s all in the details

My favorite thing about exploring the studios was getting up close to all of the props. They are intricately made, and the process of creation was explained in detail on the audio guide. There are so many winks and nudges to the book series throughout the films that don’t get mentioned at all. For example, some of the props in the Gryffindor Common Room included a copy of the famous wizarding book, The Adventures of Martin Miggs the Mad Muggle, and a portrait of Professor McGonagall as a young woman.

Each carriage on the Hogwarts Express was decorated for a specific movie, and you can visualise the scene as you walk through.

Can you guess the movie?

Muggle Studies

There was so much to do and see at the Harry Potter Studio Tour, I could have easily spent all day there (and we pretty much did). It was an immersive experience that made me feel like I was actually in Diagon Alley, robbing a bank, or relaxing in the common room. Moreover, I learned a lot. As someone who would definitely identify as being obsessed with Harry Potter and knowing too much about the books and movies, I learned new things through the audio guide experience.

While the tour shows tons of props and sets, it does a great job explaining the craft and engineering that went into creating the wizarding world. I got a crash course in mechanics in the magical creatures exhibit, and learned all about architectural planning and drafting while touring the Art Department.

Hogwarts, A History

I think by now, if you’re reading this, you know how much I love Harry Potter. I have read these books a dozen times (even in German!), and each time I read them, I find something new. I make a new connection, discover sneaky foreshadows and callbacks, and fully dive back into the Wizarding World. Seeing the sets and props from the movie just cemented my love for this series and made me realize how much of a phenomenon Harry Potter is. People were visiting and geeking out (just like I was) from all over the world.

Sure, the Harry Potter books are done, and the movies are almost 20 years old, but they still hold their value for millions of people. If J.K. Rowling isn’t remembered as one of the most renowned contemporary authors of our time, I will eat my witch hat.

Hogwarts, Hogwarts, Hoggy Warty Hogwarts, teach us something please.

A Weekend in London

All Turned Around

After a year of living in a non-English speaking country, I finally was able to take a trip to the birthplace of the English language: England. The Motherland. Home of such greats as Shakespeare, Bronte, Rowling. You might have figured out by now that I am a bit of an Anglophile. As a child, I was obsessed with British culture and literature, always dreamed of going to the UK, and have probably seen every British film made in the past 2 decades. But being there was completely different than what I had imagined.

Question: Can you get culture shock from hearing your native language? After a short flight from Germany, we arrived in London and began our journey from Heathrow airport into the city. People stopped to speak with us, asking about the trains, trying to help us (presumably), and I had no idea what they were saying.

“Bitte?” Oh wait… no… “I’m sorry, excuse me?” That’s better. 🤦‍♀️ I had to take my German head off and replace it with my English one. (I will say, I was not entirely successful… Someone did get a “danke” and there definitely was a “tschüss” said.)

Happy to be here

The plan for the weekend was to have no plans, just explore and do what we felt like doing: eat Indian food, go to museums, sit in parks, get books (in English!! It’s the little things in life, my friends), and meet the Queen.

We scheduled a tour for Harry Potter Studios, and I’ll definitely be telling you all about that in another post.

We took the underground and the double decker busses, walked the city and spent time looking at things without an agenda. It seemed like every street was familiar, like I had been there before, probably from watching so many films and Royal processionals. The feeling of being there for real had me literally clapping for joy.

Now, I realize, like all major cities, that London is not a true representation of the country as a whole. It is the largest city in Western Europe, and quite frankly, would probably do well as its own country. It’s overpriced, overpopulated, and overvisited (probably not as bad as Amsterdam though).

While it didn’t feel very crowded while walking around the city, the population density can easily be felt riding the underground during peak hours. These trains come every minute, with people 20 deep lining the platform ready to squeeze into a train car that’s already ready to burst. It’s insane. But it’s orderly and polite, and eventually everyone gets to where they’re going.

On the street, taxis and busses compete with pedestrians, everyone walking and driving on the… LEFT. My brain could not handle this. The UK must be used to silly foreigners jumping into traffic because every crosswalk had “LOOK LEFT” or “LOOK RIGHT” painted on the ground.

I bet you’re expecting a door to be on this side, huh? We’re all turned around.

An Accidental Walking Tour

We spent the day in Downtown London, our first stop: the British Museum. The Museum holds famous items such as the Rosetta Stone, Parthenon sculptures and Hokusai artwork.

After the museum, we walked around London, seeing Trafalgar Square, Hyde Park, St. James’s Park, Buckingham Palace, Westminster, and everything in between.

We didn’t plan on this, we just kind of started walking and pointing, “oh, look! What’s that over there? Let’s go see!”

Our walking tour continued with Downing street, the London Eye, Parliament and the Supreme Court buildings, Big Ben (under construction), and of course, Waterstones.

The Best Souvenirs

During our visit, we walked 66 km (41 miles). We ate accordingly, gorging on fish and chips, Japanese food, and the best Indian food I have had in my life. With full bellies and sore feet we were ready to make our way back to Germany, but not without some commemorative trinkets.

That’s right: Books. In English. Awww yiiisss. One stop at Waterstones later and we added another carry-on to our luggage. Good Omens, Once Upon a River, and Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince.

When in the UK, read British authors.

Might I also suggest some tea while you read? I hear it really brings out the character development.

Postcard Teas: tasting room and super tasty teas.

This trip to London was a good introduction to the city.  I am already planning other visits to explore more of the country outside of the typical popular tourist destinations.  Plus, it would be nice to have a real Cornish Pasty. 

The Cologne Cathedral

Always Lookin’ Up

The trains coming into the Cologne train station take the scenic route, crossing a bridge over the Rhein, cruise ships floating below.  Along the river are modern, attractive skyscrapers.  If you’re nose deep in a book, or sleeping in your seat on the train, you might miss one of the most spectacular sights in Germany:  The Cologne Cathedral, Kölner Dom.  It doesn’t matter if you’ve lived in Germany all your life; every time you get off the train in Cologne (Köln in German), your eyes will travel skyward, just to make sure the cathedral is still there.

The train station, a modern glass building similar to most of Köln, sits right next to the Dom.  In August, I followed the sea of commuters and tourists making the exodus out of the station.  From underground and undercover, I found myself all of a sudden in bright sunlight standing in front of a behemoth of stone shooting into the sky.  The Dom is HUGE. I felt completely insignificant in its presence, and all I did was walk out of the train station.

Cologne cathedral

A Symbol of a City

I wasn’t in Köln very long, less than 24 hours, as we used the city (like most people do) as a stopover on our journey from Mainz to Amsterdam when my parents came to visit.  We took a walking tour through Köln, learning the history and culture of the 2,000 year-old Roman city that is now a cultural epicenter that rivals Berlin.

Cologne tour tiny house Köln
Köln: home to the first tiny house.  Now one of the most expensive properties in the city.

Cologne Kolsch Köln
Kölsch: the type of beer brewed in Köln.  Also, Kölsch: the German dialect spoken in Köln.

Smack-dab in the middle of all this history, war, cultural and religious revolution: The Kölner Dom.  The Dom became a place of pilgrimage for millions of Catholics and has shrouded the city in mysticism and mystery.  Notably, it houses the remains of the three Wise Men, who, in German culture, are referred to as the Holy Three Kings*.  Their crowns feature on the city’s crest.

Kölner Wappen
The Kölner Wappen: 3 crowns, and 11 flames for the martyr St. Ursula.

While not everyone in the city is Catholic, everybody in Köln turns Catholic on 11/11 at 11:11, when Karneval starts**.  Josh had the unfortunate accident of being in Köln on the first day of Karneval and it was complete insanity.  Mass parades, parties, singing and dancing, people dressed in costume.  And it carries on in this fashion until Easter.  Do they not have jobs?!

three kings cologne cathedral
The Tomb of the Three Kings inside Kölner Dom.

A Tour through Time

My parents and I spent the rest of our time in Köln exploring the Dom with thousands of our closest friends.  The Dom gets about 20,000 visitors each day, but when we went (once in the morning and once at night), it didn’t seem overly crowded.  I mean, the place is ginormous.  We opted for a tour guide, provided by the Dom, and joined a group of about 10 other people on an hour-long journey through the cathedral.  We heard the organs play and the tower bells ring; sat in pews so uncomfortable they forced repentance, and gazed heavenward at computer-generated stained-glass windows.

Exterior Kölner Dom Cologne Cathedral
The Kölner Dom is home to falcons and has its own ecosystem. Photo cred to Josh.

Kölner Dom Cologne Cathedral exterior
The view of the Dom from the train station. It’s always under construction.

Stained glass cologne cathedral interior Kölner Dom
Most of the original windows were removed during the war for their protection.

Candy cologne cathedral Kölner Dom
A pretty sweet cathedral.

This Could be a Place of Historical Importance

Outside of the Cologne Cathedral is a large plaza.  When you’re busy looking up, you might miss what’s written in the stone.  Off to the side, caddy-corner to the cathedral, is an artist’s engraving.  This could be a place of historical importance.

cologne cathedral exterior gif
Thanks for the thinkpiece, Braco Dimitrijević.

Could be?  Do you think we can remove the doubt?

  • A nearly 2,000 year old cathedral.
  • Survived the bombing of Köln during WWII that destroyed 93 percent of the city.
  • Is a symbol of Köln (Germany, really), and recognizable worldwide.
  • Receives 6 million visitors annually.

This is the history we gave it.  So yes, I’d say it’s a place of historical importance.

pinterest cologne cathedral Kölner Dom

*According to the Catholic Church.  These “remains” were brought to Köln from Milan in 1164 as spoils of war by Barbarossa.

**Karneval is Germany’s version of Halloween, kids and adults alike will dress in silly costumes and parade in the streets.  Some cities (cough, Köln) are more festive than others.  In Bielefeld, there is Karneval and also St. Martin’s Day (also 11/11) when kids go door-to-door with paper lanterns and sing for sweets.

A Weekend in Mainz

Mainz on the Rhein

A short train ride from Frankfurt sits the ancient roman city of Mainz (pronounced like “mines”).  When my parents came to visit, we started our vacation here, with a weekend on the Rhein, exploring Mainz and neighboring river villages.   The funny thing is, when we told our German friends our plans for our trip, which included visiting Köln, Amsterdam, Bielefeld (obviously), and Mainz, everyone responded the same way:

“Mainz?  Why would you go to Mainz?”

The Rhein river, which runs through Germany from the North Sea, is a major thoroughfare for shipping vessels and river cruise ships.  Mainz is a popular stop for these cruise ships for two main reasons: The Mainzer Dom and the Gutenberg MuseumMainz is not a major tourist destination, but rather works as a jumping-off point for other places.  Many cruises start, stop, and visit there, but it doesn’t seem to be a main destination.  There were still locals there, and the economy didn’t seem reliant on tourism.  (Mainz is also the capital city for the state of Rheinland-Pfalz, so it’s got that going for it.)

Mainz Germany

Really Old Stuff

Being American and coming from such a young country, seeing things that were built hundreds of years ago is still mind-blowing.  I don’t think it will ever get old. Our first day in Mainz, we walked through the Altstadt, the old town.  There were buildings that were from 1450! 🤯  The Mainzer Dom was built over 1000 years ago! 🤯🤯

Haus zum Aschaffenburg: Oldest half-timbered house, built 1450.

Mainzer Dom mainz cathedral germany
Mainzer Dom: Founded in 975 or 976.

And let’s not forget about our boy, Johannes Gutenberg, who was changing the world in 1452.  You can see 2 original Gutenberg bibles, learn about the Gutenberg printing press, and the evolution of the written word at the Gutenberg Museum.

For someone like me, who has a degree in Journalism and English, loves anything about printing/books/publishing/etc., seeing the first mass-produced book raised the hair on my arms.  It’s absolutely beautiful.  And completely illegible. It’s not a book, it’s art.

To see even more old stuff, take one of the many river cruises up the Rhein.  No need to book beforehand, they leave daily and offer hop-on-hop-off services up and down the river.

Cruisin’ the Castles

One of the easiest ways to see the crazy number of castles that line the Rhein is by river cruise.  We took a short boat ride about an hour from Mainz to Rüdesheim am Rhein, drinking Pilsner and enjoying the views along the way.  Don’t be fooled by the blue skies, it was cold.

Eltville am Rhein
Eltville am Rhein: Known for their Riesling and Champagne. That sandy looking wall is the original Roman city wall.

Rüdesheim am Rhein
Rüdesheim am Rhein: this town offers a gondola ride for views of the Rhein valley.

Rüdesheim am Rhein
Rüdesheim am Rhein: Drosselgasse, a 2m wide alley that gets over 3 million visitors each year.

We opted for the warmth of a train car for our return back to Mainz, and my parents got to experience what I like to call a “Knight Bus” on the way back to the hotel.😂

“Take it away Ern!”

A Warm Willkommen

Dear German friends, I’m going to answer your Why would you go to Mainz? question now (in case you haven’t already figured it out).   Mainz offers an easy transition into “German” life for the first time visitor.  It’s not overly crowded, it’s easy to navigate, and it has a familiarity for Americans who might have a more romantic expectation of Germany (castles, cobblestones, and cafes).

Also, it’s kinda cute.

Mainz Germany Rhein
Mainz or Milan?

A Weekend in Amsterdam

Dam Tourists

Last week my parents came to visit.  It was their first time in Europe, and we tried to do and see as much as possible in the short time frame they were visiting.  One of the destinations: Amsterdam, Netherlands.  I had never been to Amsterdam before, and knew little about it.  The only images I had in my head of the Netherlands were of flowers and stroopwafels.  Here’s the thing about Amsterdam:  I don’t think any locals live there.

The Netherlands (aka Holland) is home to about 17 million people.  Amsterdam is the most densely populated city in the country with 1 million people, and attracts about 18 million tourists each year 🤯. Compared to other capital cities in Europe, Amsterdam is tiny and jam packed.

A weekend in amsterdam pin

We arrived by train from Köln, and after navigating the insides of the train terminal, made our way onto the streets, towing luggage and playing frogger with passing bikes.  It was a Friday afternoon and the sidewalks were crowded with people. 

Mass Tourism brings Mass Hysteria

The massive amount of people, the noise of bell bikes, and the smell of pot from “coffee shops” left me feeling disoriented and anxious.  Not even New York or Berlin had this many people in one place!  Streets came out of nowhere, slicing narrow paths between even narrower buildings, as if the city was built to take up as much room as possible with no regard to order.  

Amsterdam is to Europe what Vegas is to the US.   Sex tourism, pot tourism, Ripley’s Believe it or Not, Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, and other “chain” museums are available here, perfect for bachelor parties and the like.  While we were there, the university was having its annual greek life rush week, so the city was filled with college students running and chanting fight songs, setting off fireworks, and hosting parties.

Stroop, there it is

I’m probably not painting the best image of Amsterdam, am I?  Once you stuff a warm Stroopwafel into your face, the hanger fades and you see Amsterdam in a sweet, honey glow.

All aboard the Stroopwafel train!

The Secret Annex

We visited the Anne Frank House on our first night in Amsterdam, lining up in a light drizzle with about 100 of our closest friends.  We started our tour with a private explanation of Anne Frank’s life, how her parents met, why they moved from Germany to Amsterdam, and what was happening politically during her life.   After our WWII download, we grabbed audio guides and began climbing through the secret annex, a house tucked behind Otto Frank’s workplace where 8 people hid for 2 years before being discovered by the Nazis (raise your hand if you thought Anne hid in an attic🙋‍♀️) .

I didn’t feel comfortable taking a photo of a building where people hid in fear. Here’s a photo of the canals instead.

I highly recommend going to the Anne Frank House.  It’s not really about Nazis.  It’s about so much more.  It’s about a young girl who wanted to be a writer.  It’s about a family.  It’s about living in fear. It’s about a father searching for his daughters.  It’s about the people that risked their lives to bring food, messages, entertainment.  It’s about the helpers.

  “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” -Anne Frank

Anne Frank
My souvenir.

Of Sound and Color

I have been a Van Gogh fan ever since I was a child, and my parents took me out of school so we could go to LACMA for a special exhibition (educational hooky!), so coming to the Van Gogh Museum, which has the largest collection of his work and personal letters, was pretty freakin’ awesome.  The museum has worked hard to limit the number of people in the museum (see earlier comment about massive crowds), and required all tickets to be ordered online, with entry at specific times (Anne Frank House is the same way; we booked both museums 60-90 days prior).

This museum has all the Van Gogh classics:  Almond Blossoms, Potato Eaters, The Bedroom, Japanese prints, basically every portrait, and even a Sunflower or two.  My favorite part of the museum was seeing how vibrant the colors were in person, and then learning that (due to age, poor restoration techniques, etc) the color should actually be brighter.

Dang, Vincent, you wild.

We also discovered some new (to us) paintings, and everyone came out of the museum with a new favorite.

Van Gogh Seascape near
Seascape near Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer | Vincent van Gogh | Credits: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Streets Seen

Our visit wasn’t all indoors.  We took a walking tour through Amsterdam, which broke down the city’s rich and vibrant merchant history; explained the unique housing style; and basically said anything goes in Amsterdam, as long as it makes the city money.  After walking for hours, we decided to sit on a boat and cruise the famous canals that cut through the city.  I fell asleep.  It was too relaxing.

I would not want to live on the top floor

We ate asian food in Chinatown, got more Stroopwafels to go, and ended our trip the next morning with Dutch pancakes before the crowds woke up and joined us on the streets.  Overall, an enjoyable (if not shell-shocking) visit to Amsterdam.

The OG Dutch pancake

The Dam Truth

Here’s the thing about Amsterdam:  The city is currently struggling with a major mass-tourism issue, and it’s pretty obvious.  While it has plenty that’s unique to the city, I would recommend braving the cold and trying to visit off-season.  Or, see what else the Netherlands has to offer.  I mean, the second-largest Van Gogh collection in the world sits just 2 hours outside of the city.

bye bye, birdie.