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.
As if this couldn't get any more official, here's my TOP official brochure.
Here it is, in all it's detailed glory, the final itinerary packet. Be sure to check out all the exciting places I'll be visiting. 3 days left. Can't wait and still can't believe I'm going. Super excited. @topteachgermany
Students have finished working on their European research projects. I'm always excited to see and share their results and this year, students didn't disappoint. Students were asked to create an informative website based on their research, work collaboratively, make a Prezi with the famous land marks, post their information, and create a creative website for their country (which was the same as their Diplomacy country). Check out the websites here: Student Websites
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.