As the trip is winding down, we were going to see more of the sights and sounds of Berlin. Today we went back to visiting a school, which we haven’t done in a while. This school was an elementary school for Jewish students. Arriving at the school in a double decker bus, the school was definitely older, but showing character and vital signs of learning. We were greeted by the principal and ushered into the cafeteria. Immediately we had what I believe were second graders who performed a wonderful musical performance for us. Following this, we heard a brief introduction to the school, before we were split off and visited different elementary classrooms. At the start of the fellowship, I had already given all of my elementary goodies away, so I was empty handed. I noticed in the 2nd grade classroom we were observing, the SMART Board would lift up or down accordingly to whether it was in use. We were going to watch a reading lesson. Since I couldn’t understand a thing that was being said, I decided to create a gift for a kid. I found a piece of paper and a pen and drew a picture of the creature from the book the students were reading. I also added a soccer ball, and the German and American flags. The little boy that kept wanting to see what I was doing received the picture. He was smiling ear to ear. Actually, I think Kimberly was more pleased by it as she almost cried… funny. The boy put it by his desk as he worked and the teacher saw it and smiled. After the lesson, we went back to the cafeteria and heard more about the school. The students took us outside to their wall of bricks. Each one had a name on it of a Jewish person who died in the Holocaust. Every exiting sixth grader would have to research one person and add this brick to the wall. I noticed two sixth grade girls who wanted to talk to an American sixth grade teacher. While the language barrier was there, we were able to have a fun conversation. It was hilarious when I noticed from one girl the outline of a phone standing out underneath her shirt and I politely asked if phones are allowed there. No translation needed, she simply zipped up her shirt and seemed to not want to talk to me anymore. I just wanted to know if they use them! Taking a train to the fancy lunch at the Federal Foreign Office. Nearby they had delicious chocolate for sale alongside a giant chocolate bear, Reichstag, plane, and Brandenburg gate. Passing through security at the Federal Foreign Office, we were once again reminded that to be on our best behavior for the sponsor and that whomever sits next to them, to not mess up. Perhaps one of my favorite moments of the trip involved the never ending elevator. It literally never stopped. It was crazy to see it move and see everyone nervously step aboard. It was crazy seeing it and jumping in, waiting for the number seven to appear when I would literally jump off. Katarina led us to the area where we were to have lunch. A large room with a giant table, immaculately arranged table sets, and a view high above all of Germany knocked me off my feet. Go figure when it was time to get our seats, it was like a game of musical chairs, I end up sitting next to Dr. Heinz Wirth. He was a very pleasant man who is in charge of German relations with United States and Canada. He was reserved in speaking, but from what everyone said, I more then held my own in keeping up conversations. I actually did enjoy the conversations, though the food while fancy as it was, I’m not one for a giant fish on my plate to eat for lunch. It was a meeting regarding the economics of Germany, which surprisingly to me, I really enjoyed it. I found out about Germany’s role in the European Union and Greece’s current problems. Following this, all the meetings were done and Jenny had taken us to a boat tour through downtown Berlin. Sitting with Jenny and Joe, I thoroughly enjoyed the open air and simply cruising along the river. We really didn’t see too much different from what I’ve seen in my previous ventures through Berlin, but going on a boat tour was a nice change of pace. Heading back, we were to get dinner on our own and Joe wanted to get dinner together. Jenny said if we wanted to meet by 8pm, she’d take people to see Checkpoint Charlie, which I wanted to visit. Service in Germany is much slower than the United States. I was getting worried that I’d miss the 8pm meet up time, though everyone at dinner said they’d go see it anyways. I didn’t trust them enough to risk not seeing it. I quickly ordered my currywurst to go, in a styrofoam container and ran back with my food, gulpingit in my mouth as I ran, making a complete mess. The sun was setting as we walked through Berlin, eventually arriving at Checkpoint Charlie, which for as known as the name is, was really an unspectacular place. Next to it was the epitome of capitalism, a McDonalds restaurant. We made our way to the familiar Brandenburg Gate and took a few more pictures before Jenny said she was going to start taking everyone back, seeing as it was 11pm. I asked the group and Joe if they would want to join me to see the Victory Column that peered in the distance. To my surprise no one was willing, but I should have known, it was 11pm and my phone said we had already walked 11 miles. I headed out on my own, in the opposite direction. I began to realize that the column was much farther than what I anticipated. There were sections of the streets where there were no lights, it was late, I was alone, and VERY tired so I decided to expedite the picture walk by jogging to the destination. I throughout couldn’t believe how far it was, meaning the column was only bigger than what I pictured. Being exhausted from the run and the time of night, I knew the pictures I took were sloppy, which they were. Now the realization came in that I’d have to walk not only all the way back to Brandenburg Gate, but seeing as I don’t understand or trust my use of the public transportation, I had to take an additional 2.5 miles back to the hotel. Jenny said it was simply a straight line, so I hoped she was right. The walk seemed to last forever as I got back at around 12:30, only to see Jeff and Amanda in the hallway. I went back to my room and crashed, not before briefly calling Kelly. I was tired, that was an unassuming busy day.
Today we were visiting the Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees. After taking two different trams, we arrived at the building for immigrants to try to be incorporated in German society. Skipping past everyone through a padlocked gate, we sat at a large table to hear about Germany’s switch from being a country reluctant to help immigrants, to embracing being the second largest nation of immigrants. Germany has come a long way and definitely showed their commitment to making people transition to being a German citizen easier. Getting back on the buses, we made our way to the Turkish Hamtramck of Berlin, Kreuzberg. This area had a large population of Turkish immigrants due to after WWII and during the Cold War, West Berlin needed workers, but no one but the Turks were willing to come. The thing is they stayed. There seems to be still resentment with Berliners and the Turks as the Turks feel they aren’t true Turks and they aren’t true Berliners. After waiting with Jörge for the rest of the group, I noticed how much more graffiti Kreuzberg had than any other part of Germany. As we started walking through back alleys, we stopped to talk about a part of the tour when in the background were cops arresting 3 individuals. The fatigue was definitely setting in with the group as it seemed like no one was interested. The part that stood out for me was visiting my first mosque. This was accessed through a back alley where we had to drop our bags (my computer and camera) outside and take off our shoes before entering. The mosque was a renovated garage, with only two people praying. The carpet had arrows pointing towards Mecca. The guide was not a muslim and I thought it was surprising that we could all come in, hang out, and none of us were Muslims. At the culmination of the tour, we visited a traditional Turkish restaurant. I was extremely hunrgy, as I once again decided to forgo dinner in a hope to better enjoy the large German dinners we were having. Sitting with Michelle, Jenny, Kimberly, and Amy, we started with bread and tabouli. Next we had our main course which was to pick from behind the register from several main courses one selection. I chose the meatballs, which were not what I expected as they were in a somewhat sweet, cinnamony sauce. Being that they were only 5 small meatballs, I was still super hungry and left my first German restaurant unsatisfied. Afterwards, Jörge said he’d be willing to take the group to the East Berlin Wall. I was excited as I heard about this being spectacular prior to going. The wall is not original, but they hired artist to paint portions of the mile long stretch. Jörge took us on an enjoyable hike through the city, Michelle, Joe, Kristin and I. Jörge eventually departed from us as he ushered us to the wall. The wall was absolutely impressive. In an ironic moment, Germans not only recreated graffiti with graffiti art, but people eventually graffitied the graffiti. Some were so bad that they recommissioned the artist to put a fresh coat. Every wall was unique and told a different story, be it pop culture, a design, or a political message, it was all impressive. I was so thankful to have seen it. My favorite part was a message that said, Many small people who in many small places do many small things that can alter the face of the world. After finishing the long wall walk, we struggled trying to find the right bus, which I simply wanted to go and walk the rest of the short way back. Eventually a lady could tell we were lost and pointed us home.
Early in the morning, we headed to the University of Leipzig to hear about the Pegida movement. This is similar to the Tea Parties radical politics going mainstream. Two professors who are experts on immigration and how Germans perceive foreigners led the lecture. Immigration and the effects of radical conservatism were the topics of today's meeting at the University of Leipzig. It was an interesting seminar held by two professors who surveyed the views of 2,500 Germans to find out if they hold any negative opinion of certain ethnic groups. Their results concluded that there are roughly 25% of the population in Germany that hold some animosity towards ethnic groups like the Jews, Muslims, and Roma population. This worried the professors as this is an untapped group that could be rallied behind a political group and use these racist ideas to run the country. The cause of most of these thoughts have been ingrained in the culture due to it being passing on by parents. Interestingly enough, teaching important facets of German history like the World Wars. Only in recent years have they started incorporating this vital history into their youth. A young professor said that the idea of racism wasn't a subject taught in schools. Due to the increase of extremism against immigrants, many people are joining a worrisome movement called the Pegida movement. Departing Leipzig afterwards was bittersweet as Leipzig offered a fresh big city feel, chalk full of culture and infectious music. Getting all of my belongings, we reluctantly left the amazing Westin Inn. We had to walk about a half a mile back and something got into Brett as he was playing frogger with the busy traffic. He also hurried way ahead, far past where we needed to go. Jörge told him, “Brett, we aren’t walking to Berlin”. Before entering the train, I made sure to get some famous currywurst. It was exactly how it sounds, curry plus ketchup on top of a bratwurst. Not great, but not awful either. When the train entered in to Berlin, it was awe inspiring to see the magnitude of the train station which welcomed us to Berlin. We had to take three escalators just to get to the subway to the hotel. Jenny was so excited to be in Berlin, hyping it throughout the trip, but after Heidelberg and the beautiful countryside, I was skeptical, as I thought Berlin and all my preconceived ideas of it’s grittiness wouldn’t live up to the beauty of the aforementioned. The lights, the tvs, the advertisement overload, all screamed big city. The fashion as ever-present throughout our time on the train to the hotel in Alexanderplatz. We were staying at the Motel One, a teal hued themed motel. After the fifteen minutes to drop our belongings off, Katarina and Jörge would be our guides. Hopefully they’d be the whole time in Berlin as they live in the city. The first place we visited after taking a tram was to the Reichstag, Berlin’s capital building. It was gorgeous and there were similarities in presence to our capital building. The sky was bright blue, a picture perfect day. A renewed energy hit as we entered a new and our last city. Taking pictures outside the monument lasting a while, but we eventually made our way to the Roma and Sinti memorial. This was unique as there are little to no memorials for these Holocaust victims. They are essentially gypsies, people without a home. There was a serene park with a small circular pond in the middle. In the center of that was a tiny triangular dish with a flower on it. The flower will fall into the water at the end of the day, only to be replaced later. Moving on, we walked to the famous Brandenburg Gate. This was an auspicious site for Germany. I learned that this was the location that when Germany would fall under another control, this was the place that symbolically was important to capture. Napoleon took the crown off the head of the statue on top and took it to France with him and the Nazi’s hung their famous flags in the middle of each of the pillars to announce their arrival. Next we went and saw the homosexual memorial, which similarly to the Roma and Sinti, I doubt there are many mentions or memorials dedicated to this group. This was unique as I think the abstract meaning definitely made sense. There was a large, unassuming stone square pillar at the entrance of a park with a small black square hole in the middle. While this looked uneventful, it was only when you peered in the black square would you see a couple embracing on a green tv screen on loop. We made it to the Jewish Holocaust Memorial, which our definitely opinionated guides let us know that this memorial wasn’t as welcomed as you would think. Essentially this is a super abstract memorial, made up of some random number of rectangular stone blocks, lined in rows of various sizes for the length of a large park. People aren’t supposed to climb on it, but controversy follows this as people are doing just that. The ground floor is unlevel, giving you the feeling of unease. People think that this memorial is too abstract and a sham, also because they think it’s just an easy excuse for politicians to visit once a year nearby and be done with paying tribute. Next we headed past a small part of the Berlin Wall, littered with gum, which covered nearly the entire piece. My battery on my camera died, so I’m running off only the old fashioned memories here. We took in the sights of the rebuilt Potsdamerplatz commericial center which had three very large and impressive buildings. Katarina took us through the Sony Center where one could be mistaken to think that they were in a US city due to the abundance of American pop culture. The recently released Jurassic World was playing in IMAX in prominent display. Making our way to dinner, we headed to a Thai restaurant near our hotel. It was cramped inside. I tried a delicious curry milk meal that was very tasty. My streak of ordering good food continued. Finishing up the meal, we headed back, and due to my memory and my camera being out, I don’t remember if we did anything else. Either way, it was a long, amazing day.
The expectations of the Westin were somehow far exceeded. The relaxing bed, the cozy environment, the melt your body away lounge chair, the exquisitely refreshing bathroom, to the 26th floor view overlooking Leipzig, no hotel was going to beat this experience, sorry Berlin. After waking up, I checked my camera and saw my long time-lapse from my room showed an amazing sunrise over Leipzig. The breakfast offered a smorgasbord of every breakfast food you think a fancy restaurant would offer, i.e. no waffles. The ambiance was one of luxury and I felt like wanting to savor every fleeting minute in the hotel. Today we were going to tour Leipzig, which already showed great promise for a wonderful stay. Like everyplace we visited in Germany, the city was unique in architecture as the buildings were much taller, much newer, but still had a German flair in the architectural design. Leipzig like Mannheim was heavily damaged from WWII, only later to be rebuilt. There is some controversy that all the money pouring into rebuilding the city and paid by the west, now is more advanced and better off than the buildings in the west. No public form of transportation was needed either today as after crossing the main downtown busy roads (with the lovingly awesome Ampelmännchen Mario and Luigi crossing guards), we were in the downtown area. The buildings towered over us as we headed to our first stop, the Leipzig Forum of Contemporary History. Walking through the streets along the way, you couldn’t help but soak in the numerous sideshow musicians of seemingly every genre, most likely playing their interpretation of Bach. It was Bachfest apparently in the town and they had erected in the marketplatz a large city stage for presumably a large show production of a Bach concert at night. Before going to the museum, we stopped by and entered an angelic looking church, which was in the midst of a service. I snuck some pictures with my GoPro as this church was jaw droppingly gorgeous with its pale pink, white, and sage green color scheme. The music also was the most beautiful music my ears have ever heard. The Leipzig museum finally offered something to help us hear the soft spoken guide, an ear piece. Hazzah! Especially after Point Alpha Memorial, I’ve been so intrigued by the Cold War (though I wish that more discussion and learning about WWI and WWII would have happened) and this museum was all about that area. Like every museum, everything was primarily in German, so luckily we had a guide. It was amazing to think that this could happen in a civilized country like Germany. Going along with Tankman, Gandhi, and Mandela, the TOP application question about Leipzig uprising I thought would add to my holy trinity of peaceful protesters, but unfortunately it was only sparsely mentioned. Seeing the immediate raising of the wall was surreal as how can anyone actually think what is happening is going to be a wall that will divide a country for over 25 years? It was an enlightening tour learning about the GDR. When we finished, I couldn’t believe my ears, we were given 3 hours of freedom before our next tour. I couldn’t believe it, freedom! I split from everyone and relished every quiet moment to myself. I’d like to say I did something super eventful, but getting gelato, and visiting random sites several times along my long walk isn’t super crazy. I went back to the St. Thomas Church we visited last night and I noticed a decent amount of people watching the rehearsal of students on the balcony above, but only this time I could see and hear them. I headed out shortly after stopping in, but realizing I had time to kill and sitting for a little bit was too enticing for me to miss. I went and watched and savored the performance, which tickled the senses as you could feel the religious aura they presented in the historic church. Heading back to a large church we visited earlier as a group, I entered again now that service had ended and took some pictures of the most beautiful church I’d seen in all of Germany. Wandering around town, I took Manny’s advice and stopped back in the Leipzig Forum of Contemporary History from earlier and took a self guided tour through both floors. Each room had enough English for me to understand the topic and the intimacy of a near empty museum further let me feel at peace and recharge my battery, before having to meet back up with the group. Outside the museum we reconvened and headed down the Leipzig cobblestone streets to the Museum in the Round, aka the Stasi museum. I was fatigued and it took a while for the tour to really capture my attention, but eventually it did big time. Essentially this is the only museum about a secret service as all the others are still a secret. Shortly prior to the Wall falling, the people protested and shut the building down, effectively freezing the records and work of the paranoid, controlling government. Shockingly, any East German can request for free to see if their was a Stasi file on them, which they are still collecting information and adding new files. Families turned on each other and paranoia ran rampant throughout East Germany. The spy materials used were also unique yet excessive. One can only imagine how much more intrusive the NSA is gathering information on us/me. They are probably reading this right now. Why hello. Anyways, after the meeting, we went to a fancy restaurant located below the streets. When my three meat meal came in a cast iron skillet, I was so hungry. I believe it was veal, steak, and pork, cooked to perfection. Surrounding it was what looked like a hot mess, but the quasi mashed potatoes meets spinach artichoke dip side dish was mouth watering. Afterwards, we headed back. Alas, this was the last night in Leipzig and more disappointing, the wonderful Westin. I made sure to savor the good night sleep to its fullest.
Breakfast was a limited choice of cold cuts and eggs at the castle. Sadly we were only able to spend one night here in the beautiful scenery. Point Alpha Memorial was an eyebrow raising listing on our original itinerary. I had never heard of the place, though the description mentioning the importance for the Cold War captured my attention. After a short bus ride from the hotel with our belongings stored at the hotel’s conference room, we headed to Point Alpha Memorial, located in the Fulda Gap. Compared to most of the other TOP fellows, I didn’t essentially live through the Cold War like they did, so this seemed to mean more to them, though I tried to catchup. In as remote of a location as we would be on the trip, we arrived in the middle of the German countryside, pulling up to a bright blue building with white trim, easily standing out from any traditional German building we had come across prior. The day was hot and we were finally able to wear our casual clothes. Our tour guide Sebastian was helpful in explaining the importance and significance of the Fulda Gap in relation to the Cold War. Essentially and shockingly, if WWIII was going to start, it was going to start right in this location. Battle plans were drawn up and uncovered from both sides, explaining how they would have attacked. There were also several close calls where we were mere seconds from war. Afterwards, we headed down a path which was No Man’s Land. No one from either side would pass and you could see the opposing watch towers staring at each other. On the Eastern side, there would also be small bunkers hidden along the path. The reason this area would have been the start of WWIII is because it was a gap that if either side made it’s way through, would split Germany’s resources in half. Making our way to the end of the path, we headed left up towards the American side, and up an observation tower. The view was breathtaking as you could see the serene beauty for miles. Looking down, you could see the American troop’s barracks, now converted into a museum and cafeteria. Slowly, this location has become more of a tourist attraction. We were treated with a buffet style lunch of Mediterranean olive oil pasta, what I believe to be a pork steak, and potato salad. It was hot being out in the sun, but it also felt great at the same time. I also was able to see the barracks, which bizarrely was all about America’s involvement and had copious American patriotism throughout the building. Outside were tanks, jeeps, and helicopters which were at one point stationed here. It’s amazing to think of the wasted resources from both sides of the Cold War spent guarding the borders, which could have been put to much better use. Finishing at Point Alpha, we headed back to the conference room at Fulda. There, we listened to a lady who experienced living in East Germany and explained her accounts of life in East Germany and how things have changed. One thing that did stand out was how you can get a Stasi file to see if the government spied on you before. There was a lot of paranoia going around in East Germany throughout the Cold War. After her presentation, we boarded a bus for the train station, and made our way to Weimar. This was an important location for the often mention Goethe. We were going to stay in a hotel which served as a residency for him. I offered to take a taxi with Jörge to help move everyone’s luggage. Inside the hotel, it was a typical room; two twin beds, a tv, and a comfortable atmosphere. Once again, we had only minutes to go and relax before heading back out. We followed our guides through the cobblestone streets towards the restaurant which would serve Italian cuisine. The restaurant was posh, with an outdoor setting seemingly throughout the entire area. We were served great appetizers of various meat. I had for dinner a 4 meat platter; bacon, pork, beef, and lamb. It was amazing to say the least. It continually amazed me how time would fly as these very long days seemed like they were only hours. We always did so much.
Today would mark a big day for the group. We were about to experience the full power and might of the German train system and hope to survive it. In an effort to make things a little less chaotic for us, we ended avoiding the train right away and departed with a coach bus to Karlsruhe to visit the Industrie- und Handelskammer (IHK) Karlsruhe, the Chamber of Industry and Commerce Karlsruhe. We made it faster than anticipated and were able to take some pictures infant of the mammoth yellow Karlsruhe Palace. Unfortunately it was under construction and we had only limited time to view it. This building has the task of representing general interests of businesses located in their district to promote industry and trade. They give proposals, expert opinions and reports, and working to maintain the principles of decent and ethical business practice. They prided themselves on their relationship with the school systems and businesses, i.e. the dual system. Afterwards, we boarded our coach bus and made our way to the nearby translation. This would be the first real time we would have to travel with all of our belongings. Not realizing how much room my souvenirs from Heidelberg would take, they now caused me to not only drag around my suitcase and wear my backpack, but I also had to now carry my camera bag on my shoulder. It definitely was not going to be easy. At this point we said so long to Alexander and Asterid and waited for our train. We were coached on doing a bucket brigade with our suitcases, which 5 guys including myself volunteered for. We had two minutes to do this. Eventually we squeezed through the hallway and somehow found our luggage. They reserved for us three separate rooms. I was with Laura, Kris, Amanda, Jeff, Christina, and Kris. Arriving at next stop, as soon as we departed from the train, we were greeted by a voice who said, “Hello Matthew”. Who was this who already knew me I wondered. It was Katarina, our new guide, accompanied by Jörge. Both of them were much younger than the previous guides, but both with their own sense of style. Katrina immediately showed her lively spirit and Jörge was more in the background, wearing all black. They took us through the train station to the coach bus, which would take us to the next city, Fulda. Along the way Jörge mentioned that he thinks it’s interesting that Americans are so obsessed with taking care of the American flag; how we have to fold it a certain way and burn it when we no longer need it. Walking through the train station, we saw a man wearing a sombrero, Hawaiian shirt, sunglasses, and a wig, accompanied by his buddies. He can pandering for some money in a jovial way, which we all were in shock and I’m sure a little bit scared what the crazy man wanted. I mentioned to Jörge that he thinks we are strange with the flags… he smirked and said, “Good point”. The coach bus took us through the countryside of Germany, further into what seemed like a much more remote area. Arriving in the small city of Fulda, adorned with more cobblestone roads and flanked by quant German style homes, unique in architecture compared to Heidelberg, we pulled in to the castle which was to be our residency for the night. A castle, seriously, how cool is that?! Entering in the spacious lobby, you could see far into the countryside and the small town beyond. Walking down the renovated castle corridor, the large open lobby in my floor’s entrance was a unique feature I’ve never seen at a “hotel”. My room had the similar setup where in order to have the electricity on, you needed to have your checkin card in the door. I think this is an amazing feature that subtly helps the environment. Inside my room was a large ceiling, a modern bathroom, a twin bed tucked perfectly into the wall, plenty of space, and a huge window with white drapes, over looking the parking lot. After spending the required 15 minutes to get ready, I headed down to the lobby to wait. The bakery on the outside looked like a welcoming ma’ and pa’ store. We were immediately ushered through to the back of the store where there were tables placed in the concealed outside patio. The bakery workers made us wear plastic hair nets and a plastic apron, all the style you can imagine. Entering in the part of the bakery where the bread is made, it was dimly lit, with large steel ovens, three large mixing bowls, and a couple of props for the head baker use. Jörge translated for her. She was so animated and proud of her work and her family’s story. The bakery is one of the oldest bakeries in all of Germany, continuing through the Cold War in East Germany. She did mention that she is struggling with the increase of large supermarkets and that working at the bakery takes a lot of work. She said that unfortunately the centuries old bakery will most likely close in a couple of years unless her daughter finds a husband willing to take on the bakery with her. Once we finished listening to the presentation, we went to the tables in the court yard and were given a plate of marshmallow like cheesecake, a brownie, and some salami with bread. We ended up walking down the nearby hill into a beer garden. We were told dinner was on us, so I got a bratwurst and french fries. Before eating, we were treated to some men playing large horns, similar to the Riccola commercial. My naivety made me feel like every song sounded like Amazing Grace. It was just the 18 of us at dinner and the five horn players sitting nearby, in what could be mistaken for someone’s back yard. It was very peaceful to eat and socialize at the restaurant. I went with Jenny to take some pictures of these goats at the nearby fence. I kept getting better and better shots as I moved closer to the goats, especially a baby goat. As soon as I got the best picture of the group, ZAPPP, I go flying backwards. No one told me this was an electric fence. I immediately looked at my hand, no scars, just a heavily beating heart. The look on Jenny’s face was of fear, but I was able to laugh it off. I finally had a rush of energy and felt like I finally got over any remaining jet lag. Back at the table, I sat next to Kimberly and easily made her laugh the whole night and started referencing her covering her face with her sweatshirt as a “Ninjaface”. Awesomely, even Jörge went along with the action. Finally, I headed back to the castle, laughing my way up with Michelle and Kimberly. It was another great night in Germany.
I had marked my calendar because today was going to have a unique tour. We started our day by heading to Adelsheim, a city about an hour away from Heidelberg. We were visiting Landesschulzentrum für Umwelterziehung, the State Academy for Environmental Education. This was a unique setup where teachers essentially learn how to incorporate environmental awareness in their lessons and will often times bring their students back at a later date to experience these lessons. This is similar to Camp Michendo that a lot of 5th graders attend. The setting was in a woodsy area, with about 5 large dorm looking buildings, many transferred from their original boarding school facility to house environmental education opportunities. In the conference room, before my eyes was the oft-rumored bavarian pretzel, handmade at a local bakery. Before indulging myself, I noticed it was cut in half and layered with rich creamy butter. Yum! Inside the school facility, we saw numerous rooms, equipped to teach educators various environmental lessons. Some of the rooms had students presently experimenting with their teacher. Upon finishing the tour, we stood outside for a group picture, followed by a walk through the school garden, where an elderly man was planting flowers. This was my type of garden. One that lacked conformity and organization, rather it played by nature’s autonomous rules, let it be. The garden was wild and inviting. Here I was able to film some more interviews for my 3 Thoughts About Germany piece. After completing our time at the academy, we headed to Schwäbisch Hall, a nearby city. I had never heard of Schwäbisch Hall so my expectations were lower, though the city more then delivered beyond expectations. Pulling our coach bus down the crammed main street roads, I noticed numerous houses having beautiful rose gardens on display. It was now time to visit the Haller Löwenbräu brewery. I had never heard of this brewery, but I found out that for the most part in Germany, each region seems to have their main beer. The guide for the tour looked like he belonged in a motorcycle tv show, but was nothing but pleasant throughout our visit. Unfortunately, most of the tour was inaudible as the sounds from the machines mixed with him seemingly whispering, making it nearly impossible to hear much if anything. When it finally came time to sample the beer, it had a crisp refreshing taste, although not my ideal type of beer. Our last stop had us visiting on a tour of Schwäbisch Hall city. Like every city in Germany, this was no different with the unique houses and buildings. These seemed to be taller and looked like they belonged in what I imagine a shakespearian village in England for whatever reason. In the downtown area, we saw a large church that was turned in to a performance stage. Alexander pointed out that the man at the bottom of the large set of stairs wearing a cap was a famous German actor, rehearsing for the play that was to start later that evening. Along the cobblestone path, we headed past amazing buildings, with modern recognizable stores like H&M located nearby. The most scenic part of the tour was when we walked past a bridge and could see in the backdrop a variety of colorful, old-fashioned buildings. Finishing in Schwäbisch Hall, I felt that it was perhaps more clean and crisp than any other city, though I think something about Heidelberg has me liking that area better. Making our way back to Heidelberg, we were going to have our last meal together there. The large gothic looking building which we passed several times, was going to be host to us on this night. Before eating, I figured I should run and get some souvenirs, which I got a stein, a shot glass stein, and a postcard. Inside, this was one of our fancier meals. I sat next to Alexander and were able to share a great conversation that night regarding German and American perceptions of each other. I ordered the Beef Stroganoff with spätzle. I’ve never been treated to such a presentation. When our food arrived, they came out with a large metal dome on top. As tough as it was not to peak when it was 9:20 and I didn’t have lunch, I waited for everyone to be served before the big unveiling. On my plate were several morsels of beef in a semi-sweet sauce, later to be topped with my favorite, spätzle. Afterwards, we ordered a crème brûlée, which radiated decadence. This was a somewhat somber night for me as I felt that there is no way that the remainder of the trip could somehow come even close to topping the majesty and aura of Heidelberg.
The adjustment to the time difference was finally setting in, though adjusting to the arduously long yet amazing schedule was a whole separate ordeal. After following the same breakfast routine at each hotel with the same food that was available, I met with the group in the lobby to hear our itinerary. It was going to be another action packed day as we to an interesting location, the John Deere Deutschland factory. The last thing I think of when I think of Germany is John Deere. We hurried along to the train station, that unbeknownst to me, was right next to our hotel (it looked like an office building). We took a train to Mannheim, a nearby, neighboring city. Along the way we noticed the landscape shifting to a more industrial setting. Arriving in Mannheim, we had to walk only a few blocks to reach the John Deere plant, though we took Mercedes taxis to the factory anyways. It was this day that it seemed Alexander and I struck up a wonderful kinship as I threw my limited, but odd knowledge of German pop culture his way; referencing Werner Herzog, Downfall the movie, Klaus Kinsky, and the lot. When arrived at the factory, it finally struck me that several colleges cleverly dressed up in their bright green outfits to match the John Deere aesthetics. The main purpose of the visit to John Deere was to see the cooperation and relationship between the vocational program and the companies working with them. On the outside of the building was a mammoth bright green and yellow crop combine, which dwarfed over the entire group. Inside the building, seemingly every model of tractor, combine, and agricultural equipment was on display. We were greeted by a man who is in charge of the plant who was proud to share the successes of not only the factory, but of the program that they had with their interns. In Germany, all interns not only get their learning experience, but they also receive a stipend. It seemed like the businesses were providing so much, with little monetary returns, but this didn’t seem to phase the factory manager. He mentioned that they have to turn down the majority of the applicants as this is a sought after job. Though, anyone who does get the internship, they hire 99% of the people they train. This creates a stable workforce that will work at John Deere for many years. Germany is a leading manufacturing company, but what sets it apart from other leaders like India and China is that they pay their employees much better. In return, the quality of the products from Germany is often seen as a much higher quality. When walking around the factory on a tour, we had several different stations where we would go and see the different skills that students are learning. It was very impressive to see the hands-on learning and practical learning that was occurring. The kids were using real equipment that was being put to good use as they were working on the tractors or parts from it. There was also an engineering and electronics station, so it was only mechanical work. After the tour we saw a presentation that was great from the factory manager. He explained how important the interns were, yet mentioned how expensive the program was. After finishing at John Deere, we went to the Training academy of the Regional Chamber of Trade and Crafts. Here we sat through a translated presentation regarding how trade and crafts are being less and less sought after jobs, yet the academy stressed their importance. This would be jobs like hair cutting, plumbing, mechanic, painting, chef, massage therapy, etc. We took a tour of the building and of the students learning. Afterwards, we went back to the train station and had 45 minutes to grab some lunch. I wasn’t super hungry at the time, which I would later regret, as we didn’t eat dinner until very late this night. I sat with Amy, Kristin, Kimberly, and Michelle as they had Thai food. When everyone finished, I quickly bought a postcard and joined the group on the tram, which brought us to downtown Mannheim. Downtown Mannheim was far different from where John Deere was stationed at it had numerous historical buildings, shopping center, and people walking around the streets. We had a guided tour of the area from a kind woman with grey hair. She took us first to the wonderfully spectacular Mannheim Castle first. This was the large castle in Mannheim which was colored brownish-red with yellow/gold lining. The building was magnificent in its size. After taking some pictures outside, we learned what would be a common theme with several cities and buildings in Germany, that this castle was severely destroyed after WWII. Mannheim was a strategic location for the allies to attack since they manufactured weaponry nearby. We only were able to see inside the church portion of the castle, where Wolfgang Amedeus Mozart would play. Inside, it was another glorious church, unlike any I’ve ever seen. It had a colorful painting adorning the ceiling and a large area where the priest would preach. After Alexander pointed off that a lot of this was rebuilt due to it being heavily damaged, he showed how it was a poor mans job at recreating the original look. This is totally understandable since the sheer amount of money needed to rebuild one church, let alone a whole city and country is unfathomable. We went through the city center of Mannheim, saw how old meets new culture with the posh shopping stores next to seemingly old buildings. We finished our tour at the famous Mannheim water tower, which could have happened any sooner. We took the tram back to the hotel, had 15 minutes to get situated, and headed back out to get dinner. It was 9pm when we started to eat, but it was worth it. We went to a small pub in Heidelberg, teaming with rich German culture. In the basement they played traditional German drinking songs and you could hear the people singing, laughing and dancing below. Even Asterid got in to the swaying and singing with us. I ordered a delicious steak and enjoyed the conversations with my table. Mannheim was a city of rich history and home to hard working people.
After a whirlwind first day, I couldn’t wait to see what lied ahead. After setting my alarm at 6:30 in order to not be late for the 8:00am meet up in the morning, I was still feeling the lingering effects of jet lag combined with a long day prior. I would always arrive at breakfast with no shame by being the only one to show up in gym shorts and a random shirt. Everyone else waiting until they were changed and dressed before heading down didn't work with my routine of eating as soon as I woke up. I headed to the basement breakfast area and saw a nice line of food to put on my plate. I grabbed what would become my breakfast for the next 4 days; a roll, butter or jelly, some salami, eggs, and juice. The only atypical item for Germans for breakfast seems to be the abundance of cold cuts and yogurt. Hurrying up once I finished breakfast, I got all of my camera equipment ready to lug around the country for the day. It definitely wasn’t light, but would prove invaluable at documenting my time in Germany. The day’s agenda had us visiting a unique German school, which was 2 hours away in the city of Sindelfingen. From the outside, it looked like your typical USA school, built in the 1960s. Walking on the damp day to the entrance, I noticed the random graffiti strewn across the school walls at Gemeinschaftsschule im Eichholz. As I walked with the group to our destination, we were able to see students of seemingly all ages. We arrived in a large room, suitable for presentations. The principal welcomed us with a German coffee cake, chocolates, and fizzing water. In Germany, their educational system is very different from ours. While the dream for most in the United States is to complete high school and to attend a university, in Germany there are different tracks students can follow. After sixth grade they can head towards a vocational career path or they can head towards a university track. We were inundated with talk once we arrived regarding how companies partner with the school system in an effort to help students who are in the vocational path to have a sort of internship. 2/3 of everything they learn in school is regarding the vocation and the rest is about general knowledge. Many Germans it was also apparent were taught several languages and were able to hold their own when we would talk to them. Another big difference is that all schools teach religion. Religion is funded through taxes and you can elect to pay for a religion tax or not. If you don’t have a religion to be taught, you can be taught an ethics course. There was also, much to my surprise, a partnership mentioned between the unions and the public officials. A partnership between unions and unions being seen in a positive light is unheard of in the USA. My goal for the day was to shoot the German version of 3 Thoughts about the USA. I had received pre-approval to do so and I was able to meet several somewhat shy Germans who did a great job answering the questions. I was surprised by what they said about USA. Many people brought up New York and fast food. ‘Merica. When we finished visiting the classes, we were introduced to the mayor, who seemed like an affable man with poor English language abilities. After his brief welcome speech, we had a forum conversation with several students from earlier in the day. Their questions for us were comical, asking about uniforms, sports, and homework. Our last part of the day at the school had us dinning on the school’s cafeteria food. The first thing I noticed was we were served bottled fizzy water. Next, we were served on glass plates with silverware. This continued to reinforce Germany’s insistency of being a green environment. We ate lasagna-esque spätzel, dumplings that were as good as cafeteria dumplings could be, less than desirable to my liking sour potato salad, and topped off for dessert, a goopy mess of yogurt with peaches. I was definitely still hungry after the school visit. Along the way, charmingly, Jenny had mentioned she had a surprise for us. She said we have a chocolate factory tour we could attend. The look on her face expecting reciprocating jubilation only to see exhausted adults was comical. Without speaking, we said to just go back to the hotel. Once at the hotel, we were able to have some free time to do our own thing for the night and that dinner was on us. I stayed behind to get caught up on pictures, sleeping, and simply catching my breath by about an hour. I also wanted to get some walking in so I walked alone to the downtown area, hoping to be able to find it on my own. Luckily, all I had to do was look towards the sky and I could see the castle overlooking the city. Upon arriving in the city’s downtown area, it was so peaceful to be able to break free from the group and have some alone exploring time. I headed down the main stretch where there were countless stores, which if I had more time, money, and room to carry, I would look into shopping at. I eventually ran into Kris and Christina, who told me that everyone was meeting at the bar down the corner block. I headed to the location and inside the dimly lit and packed bar were half of the familiar TOP member’s faces. I sat with Jenny, Tom, Michelle, Lou, and Amy. Michelle and I had agreed to split a meal and I was so thankful that she had wanted to try schnitzel cordon-bleu. It would be the single best meal I ate on the trip and I definitely wished I didn’t have to share it’s amazing flavors. The taste was out of this world with the fried veal and crust, infused with bleu cheese and ham in the center. After finishing dinner, I offered anyone who wanted to do a nighttime picture walk. I assumed Amy would join, but she was still hurting from an accident she suffered days ago. She offered me her camera and told me in about 45 minutes the sun will set perfectly behind the castle. I assumed no one else would be interested, yet to my surprise, Lou was willing to go. Lou was game to join me and we walked through the now familiar streets, through side streets, having a wonderfully surprising conversation. She definitely was open minded to a lot of new ideas and I appreciated her effort to enjoy the world. We eventually made our way to set up the tripod on the Heidelberg bridge. The shot was going to be amazing. I figured I could still get a cool looking time lapse. The sunset time was off, as I kept having to tell Lou we’d be done in 5 more minutes over the course of an hour. This is due to being told the sun would set an hour earlier than when it eventually did. I was able to get some spectacular pictures, showcasing my new investment in the camera. We headed back, continuing our conversation. Along the way, we got lost for two blocks in the wrong direction and some German hospitality arrived right on time. Looking like fish out of water, a kind stranger got us back on the right path and Lou couldn’t have been more laid-back regarding my ill fated directions back to the hotel. Arriving back at the hotel at about 11:30 didn’t help me catchup on the lost sleep from two days ago. Hopefully the next day would help out a little more.
Peering out from my window seat on the plane, the surreal view of looking over and seeing the island of England, the English Channel, and finally overing over Germany was like a dream. I knew I needed to garner as much sleep as I could, but I also knew that was going to be a challenge. If I was lucky, I got 3 hours of sleep and the 6 hour time difference was definitely going to be a challenge. As the group got off the plane in Frankfurt, it seemed instantly we all had a rush of adrenaline and were ready and eager to start our venture through Germany and Heidelberg. It was almost instantly that I realized what would become a familiar feeling. Safety and security was present whenever I was near my English speaking TOP bubble. Venture off too far away from the group and I would begin to feel unease in a foreign country which speaks a different language. The airport was rather empty, but it was also early in the morning, 8am German time. After everyone who needed to got their currency exchange sorted out, their morning coffee, and/or bathroom breaks, we met our two guides, Alexander and Asterid. I was unsure of the role of the guide, whether they would be with us for a day or for a duration of time. Alexander was as debonair as could be in his loud purple jacket, green button up shirt, and matching green scarf. He had a very welcoming and friendly appeal to him. Asterid was the complete opposite personality, more typical for what I predicted most Germans would be, serious and logical. Our guides led us to our first mode of transportation, a Mercedes coach bus. We rode this out of Frankfurt and to Heidelberg. I was amazed yet again at the amenities provided by TOP as this was a Mercedes coach. Not as it was much of a surprise, but peering through the window, one could be mistaken to think they were still in Michigan as the sight of lush trees and large stretches of farmland doted the highway. Our ride took us about an hour and a half when we pulled into the IBIS Hotel in Heidelberg. It was familiar to me since I had previously scoped out all the locales with Trip Advisor. The hotel wasn’t ready for us to check-in, but allowed us to put our belongings in the conference room in the basement. Ever-so-slightly you could see fatigue setting in with the group. It was funny to see the mad scramble and confusion as everyone tried to hop on wi-fi. Through the back window I saw the train system, which graffiti adorned the walls. As soon as we got everything together, we boarded the tram system. This would take us to the nearby downtown area of Heidelberg. The leaders continually warned us of the perils of boarding a train, but getting on was super quick and easy. Little did I know this wasn’t the high speed train Jenny was referring to. When we took our train to the downtown area, we could see the giant dinosaur metal mammoth piece of artwork from the adjacent building. Alexander told me that in Germany, while it’s not required, they ask that companies donate 1 to 3 percent of the building costs to the development of the arts. This mentality would never happen in the states on a wide reaching scale. Heading towards the downtown, I was excited to put my new camera to use for essentially the first time. When we got off, the guides said we got off one stop further than planned, though it allowed us to see more than we had originally anticipated. The cool breeze mixed with the Michiganesque summer weather made for the start of an amazing tour of Heidelberg. Walking past some of the buildings immediately caught my eye. I don’t consider myself easily impressed by architecture, but I was aghast at the astounding buildings seemingly down every road. The buildings all seemed to have their own story to tell. They took us past a subway entrance covered in graffiti, but unlike the American version, this actually looked stylish. The graffiti did seem out of place, contrasting against the seemingly countless historical monuments. We headed down the main strip and I put my camera to work almost instantly as I couldn’t get enough of the beautiful buildings. There was a large bridge which we would be a rallying point throughout our time in Heidelberg. From there you could clearly see Heidelberg castle looming over the city. It was brown bricks and had the far right tower blown off from the foundation, laying next to the castle. Along the bridge, accordion music was being played by two different women sitting on separate parts of the bridge. Both had a dog next to them wearing a hat. Every alley way we passed also presented a picture perfect photo opportunity. The guides took us to the area where we could grab some lunch. While everyone seemed to think we all had to go to the same confined Schwarma place, I went with Michelle and Laura to the neighboring Lebanese restaurant. It was apparent the limited German I spoke would cause moments of confusion as we were unable to easily communicate our orders. I saw a number on the menu above and ordered a steward and water. Luckily I saw the water that Laura ordered and realized that when you order water, it’s carbonated. I’m a huge water drinker and this definitely was going to be an issue for the duration of trip regarding my thirst. Luckily Jenny came by and helped us order “still water” or “quiet water”. It appears that Germans have to drink everything out of a glass bottle, though the tap water is supposed to be clean. The schwarma was a great meal to start off the trip, though it wasn’t what I figured to be a typical German meal. When we all finished eating, we met our guide for Heidelberg near the Heidelberg bridge from earlier in our day. Our guide was an older woman who had a style with panache similar to Alexander and Asterid. So now we have four adults looking over us, Jenny, Alexander and Asterid, and the Heidelberg lady. It didn’t take long to notice that it must be a German custom or that years of blasting music had ruined my ears, but the majority of German speakers would only talk loud enough for the person next to them to hear. Fumbling around with my camera, I was continually in and out of earshot of the guided tour. We walked through the city, past the marketplatz with a large beautiful church as the focal point. I was shocked to hear that Heidelberg is one of the younger cities in Germany, at only 500 years old. We took a cart up to the top of the castle grounds and continued along the cobblestone roads. From here, we walked past other tourists and locals as we took in the sights from the beautiful castle. We walked to the ledge of the castle and were able to see all of Heidelberg from high. The building’s orange shingle roofs, the church, marketplatz, and the bridge were breathtaking to witness from this vantage point. It was interesting that while normally I would savor the time and moments from this view, continually we had to keep moving in order to get lost from our group. Walking past, we got a close up look of the tower which was destroyed due to the French filling the tower with ammunition and setting the explosion. Little did they realize just how thick the walls of the castle really were. When we go to actually walk inside part of Heidelberg, we saw the world’s largest once used keg ever created. It was so large that we were actually able to go and stand on top of it. We found out that the peasants used to drink wine more than water, since the wine was safer to drink. They’d also put wine in their water in order to make the water safer to drink. Part of the taxes people would have to pay at one time was with wine, which would then be mixed with everyone else’s wine. Finishing the inside of the castle, we waited with the group as everyone had a quick rest. When we finally made it back to lower Heidelberg, we continued our tour to the church in the center of Marketplatz. It was a towering church, with dark gothic tones. There was a sense of seriousness as soon as you walked into the church. There was a service currently going on, but we were still able to take pictures. The next place we visited was another nearby church, though it was strewn with white and gold throughout. There was a different sense of serenity compared to the other church. We finally wrapped up our tour in Heidelberg with our guide and followed Alexander to the tram, heading back to the hotel. What would become a seemingly absurd, yet warranted difficult task, we were asked to get our belongings from the conference room, check-in, and be ready for dinner in 15 minutes. FIFTEEN MINUTES!?! Though this was difficult, I rather this than to not get things done. At this point, the reality of being on someone else’s schedule set in, though I was more than willing to go along with the program. Getting changed into comfortable clothes in the short time meant I would have to rip apart my meticulously packed luggage in order to scrap my way towards the bottom. My room was nice and the bathroom was super tiny. It reminded me of a cruiseship bathroom as it had a little hole to look out to and it was super small. When everyone met back up in the lobby, I totally understood what Jenny was doing. She was trying to get us acclimated to the timezone difference by pulling an ironman day. It was now 6pm and everyone was running on fumes. We went back to the tram and arrived in the same starting position as last time. Down we walked on the cobblestone roads, past the same beautiful buildings, to our first dinner at a beer garden. My love of eating outdoors was met as we walked past a busy eating area outside and had a long table reserved for us. I sat with Asterid, Kristin, Kris, and Christina. We all made a deal to share each other’s food. The wait staff gave us menus in English, which considering the traditional German menu choices, didn’t help as much as I expected. I got the vienner schnitzel, shared some white asparagus (which I found out earlier is the big item to eat this time of season in Heidelberg), homemade meatballs, and some other random foods. I was in heaven as the meal hit just the right spot. Upon getting back after a LONG day, I briefly talked to my wife Kelly, but was too exhausted to explain in detail what I had experienced. I knew how tired I was and how early we were going to start tomorrow. I had to adjust my body clock quickly.
After breakfast we made our way back to the TOP Institute, with our luggage in tow. Once again we were greeted by Wood and Jenny, as well with a variety of refreshments. They warned us today was the meat of the presentations and hinted that it wouldn't be as much fun. Listening to their presentations, I really felt more secure and safe heading to Germany in this group as they definitely have their act together. We learned basics of German language, the rules of the trip, what to expect, some culture and history, and a game plan for the day. Throughout the day I kept trying to balance what my game plan was going to be regarding sleeping, though I never had a solid answer. During a break, I went with Amy, who appeared to be my new photography buddy, on a hike towards downtown Washington DC after we had lunch. DC was heavily under construction still, so their really weren't any opportunities for a good picture. We made it back just in time to get our bags and head out. Outside, Wood had the group get together for one group picture. I was surprised when outside I saw a coach bus taking us to our destination. I hadn't ridden a coach bus in years and I can't remember if ever when it wasn't directly related to a field trip. I figured we would have ridden the subway. The drive took about an hour but we got to Dulles International Airport and I was amazed at the size of the airport. Getting through customs was quicker than I thought. The group waited outside the gate for about an hour. Continually I kept thinking this was unreal of an opportunity. The plane was humongous and pleasantly nice, for a plane that is. Now it was time to sit back and wait. Wait for me to finally arrive in Germany.
So my trip finally begins to Germany. Can't believe this is happening. I've waited for so long and worked so hard for this opportunity. Will definitely miss my wife. I woke up super early to arrive on time for my plane. I was half awake and tried to get as much sleep in as possible when I could. I figured it was going to be a long day, trip. Was this going to be enjoyable? Was I going to mess something up? Was I going to lose something? I had backed as light as possible per the recommendations and took the smaller of our two suitcases and a packed to the brim, heavy backpack. On my way through security, I whizzed though and arrived right when boarding started. There wasn't much wiggle room, but luckily I didn't have to wait a long time prior. The hotel was very nice and it felt great to sit in my room and relax after traveling all day. Looking out my window in downtown DC was hinting at the new experiences I would see in a whole new country. Using Facebook, the TOP group made plans to convene in the lobby. I was one of the first. The impact of social media was ever present as it was like we already had a little background on each other. After sharing brief pleasantries, we headed to the Goethe Institute, only a couple of blocks away. The Goethe Institute was welcoming with drinks and refreshments. Instantly I could see that TOP was going to put forth considerable effort in making everyone happy just by looking at the nice spread of food and drinks. Walking upstairs we were greeted by Jenny and Wood. For Jenny, it was like we already had a long relationship due to all her correspondence with me. The chairs were laid out in front of a large projector screen saying, “You are now leaving the American Sector”. Strewn across the chairs were folders and our name tags. It seemed like every detail was well thought out. Slowly the rest of the group got together and it definitely was an eclectic group with varying backgrounds, ages, experiences, and personalities. We completed an ice breaker activity that humorously you could see the teachers who had to get each question completed. Everyone was very pleasant. Wood and Jenny went through an overview of the program and gave us some brief information. We finished with an outstanding Lebanese dinner, and headed back to our hotel rooms. It was a successful start to the journey that will lie ahead.
About Matthew Cottone
Experience the World! This is my creed I bring to my classroom and my life. I'm a World Studies teacher at Van Hoosen Middle School and I have a passion for learning and experiencing the world.