A wonderous weekend

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One of the best things about living abroad is that your loved ones (usually) want to come and visit you and when they do, the opportunities presented are vast.
Firstly, it’s an excuse to eat great food, whether it’s at the Bäckerei on the corner of my street or at a cafe on top of a hill (possibly referred to by others as a small mountain).
Secondly, it’s an occasion to explore new places. On Sunday we did the “touristy” things in Trier that I hadn’t done yet, such as going to Trier’s archeological museum (Das Landesmuseum) as well as discovering the Roman baths (Kaiser- und Barbarathermen). In the afternoon we walked to St. Matthias’ church, which is a popular site on the Jakobsweg pilgrimage from Cologne to Santiago de Compostela.
On Saturday we went on a drive along the Mosel, stopping at Bernkastel-Kues, Cochem and Daun. Although I’ve already been to the three towns, it was completely lovely the second time round and to be able to share it with mum. All in all, twas a wonderful time.

 

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It’s Karneval! (dadadaa.dadadadadada)

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Today was a great day. The NABU team met at Wiltingen train station where we slipped on and wrapped ourselves in an array of Karneval attire, i.e. anything colourful. We made our way to the high street where hundreds of locals waited for the parade. One of the first things we noticed was how generous everything was. Each float is loaded with people launching sweets, chocolates, crisps and all things sweet and sugary. Alongside the floats are people with jugs of Glühwein, wine and beer, topping up your cup as they wander by.

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Then there are the floats themselves. The general rule is that anyone can enter a float as long as it has been safely built, doesn’t exceed a certain size and can be pulled by either a tractor, truck or by hand. My favourite float was a Harry Potter one, pulled along by a small family of Weasleys.

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There were some political-focused ones too, as suits the Karneval tradition.

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“Lasst die Spiele beginnen” (let the games begin)

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Yes, that is Trump and Kim Jong Un holding hands and sitting next to missiles.

For most of the Umzug (parade), the demographic was predominantly made up of families. As we asked each other where the young people were, we saw a float come by (called the Oktoberfest Wagan) full of teenagers. One of our fellow parade goers said that he thought that young people found Karneval boring or lame, but they were absolutely loving it. Maybe this is because the drinking age in Germany is 16 so they all had beers in hand. Or maybe it’s because it’s a massive part of the Rheinland culture. Each village has a Karneval Club which prepares all year long for what they call the “fifth season”. Young girls practice dances to perform during the week of festivities (top right, blue outfits) and the floats take months of work and effort to build. Today marks the last day of Fastnacht and what a better way to start Lent than with a bag full of chocolates.

German volcanoes and the Eiffel Tower

Today is Rosenmontag in the Rheinland. That means that at midday, several thousand excitable (and wasted) Germans will parade through the centre of Trier. Right in front of our front door to be precise. Coincidentally I have decided to leave the city for the day and head to Daun in the Eifel region with a good friend of mine. We couldn’t have been luckier with the weather, the snow from the previous week having left an untouched layer of brightness around the lakes, which made for a magical winterwunderland.

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Daun is just under an hour from Trier and is well known for its Maare, a Moselle Franconian word referring to the volcanic crater lakes in the Volcanic Eifel region. About 75 maars were formed here in the last volcanic eruptions around 11,000 years ago and although there is no fire-engulfing mount doom, there is still volcanic activity amongst the mostly dormant volcanoes.

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The Eifel region is a low mountain range in western Germany and eastern Belgium. The name was first recorded in 762 as the Eifflensis pagi (pagus = district) were split up into different territories. Like the etymology of all place names, that of Eifel is disputed so I’ll only share the most favoured argument. It’s most commonly accepted that the word comes from Germanic Ai-fil, Ai from Aich (German = Eiche; English = oak), i.e. an area covered by oak trees; Fil from ville, most likely meaning marshy region or plain.

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Does the name ring a bell? Dijon born Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, the man behind the majesty of Paris’s most famous landmark, had German ancestors, whose real name was Boenickhausen. They moved to France at the start of 18th century and adopted the name from their home region.

Industrial hotspot vs. fairytale town

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On our weekend trip to the two neighbouring baden-württembergische cities, Grainne and I discussed how Mannheim and Heidelberg left such different impressions. Mannheim (Mann = man; heim = home), first mentioned in 766, is known as the chessboard city, or die Quadratestadt (the city of squares) due to its grid layout. With one of the largest inland European ports, the city is located where the Rhine and Neckar meet. The city is also where Karl Benz invented the first car in 1886 and Karl Drais patented the first bicycle in 1817. Although Mannheim has almost double the number of residents than Heidelberg, it felt like a ghost town on Friday evening as we wandered the seemingly identical avenues.

 

This feeling was greatly contrasted by the cosiness of Heidelberg. Surrounded by forests, perched on the Neckar river and pretty much untouched during the second world war, Heidelberg is unsurprisingly considered by many as the prettiest city in Germany. “A fairytale fucking town”, Harry Waters might’ve called it (if it had been Bruges). The buildings are beautiful, there are plenty of cool (but affordable) cafes and it really feels like a student city … which it is … (Heidelberg University is Germany’s oldest university and dates back to 1386).

 

There are several theories surrounding the etymology of the city’s name. Heidel may refer to Heidelbeere (a berry common in the region), Heide (heather, the plant) or Heiden (meaning heathen, this relates to the Celt settlement established in the 5th century BC). Word lovers, please rejoice with me in realising that heather and heathen have the same ROOT (sorry), i.e. heath = uncultivated.

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The Vervet Forest

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In 1989, one of the soon to be founders of the Vervet Monkey Foundation was faced with an orphaned baby vervet. After going to the local authorities, he was informed of the lack of welfare facilities for these animals and that the “vermin” should be killed. The Vervet Monkey Foundation in Tzaneen, South Africa was officially founded and established in 1993 and today is a rehabilitation and rescue centre to more than 570 monkeys. 

On Monday evening, the co-director of the foundation Josie Du Toit presented “The Vervet Forest” at Trier’s art-house Broadway Cinema in Trier, a documentary by film-maker and VMF volunteer Kyle Salazar. My first question for Josie was how the film ended up in Trier. It was actually thanks to Frank Adames, an animal rights activist in Trier, who learned about the VMF at the International Animal Rights Conference in Luxembourg in 2015. The following summer he decided to spend eight weeks volunteering at the foundation and two years later, here he is helping organise and run tonight’s screening. 

Having watched several bleak documentaries that recycle phrases about how much we’ve messed up the planet, “The Vervet Forest” is a nice change as it is strung together with positivity. Salazar includes several interviews with local charities such as Soil for Life, a foundation which teaches people about permaculture and its affordable and practical methods in creating sustainable gardens with whatever available space there is. “Our hope for a healthy world rests on re-establishing the harmony between the earth and its people”, reads their mission statement. 

What I particularly loved about the film and about the foundation is its focus on not only vervet monkeys but also on nature and the environment as a whole. Their long-term project is called “the vervet forest”, the aim of which is to establish a several hundred acre wildlife reserve by buying land in which to replant forest, “which is lush and fertile, full of indigenous flora and fauna, which can provide natural food and nourishment for the animals that inhabit the land”. In the documentary we learn that the sheer amount of deforestation in the region has lead to animals, including vervets, having to move into cities in order to find food, where they are seen as pests and subsequently shot or brutally deposed of. But this grim reality is being transformed thanks to the kind and empathetic people featured in the film. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s7TJMlr5FS4

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photo by volunteer global

Why Karneval is more than Germans getting pissed in subzero temperatures

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As I wandered through Trier this morning I saw security gates up and guards checking bags in Trier’s main square. Video surveillance, more than 160 police officers and a ban on glass bottles make the security measurements of the Christmas markets look meagre. The high-security presence constitutes part of the Jugendschutzstrategie (youth protection strategy), which was put in place after the 2012 Karneval celebrations that resulted in many teenagers with alcohol poisoning. 

Today is Weiberfastnacht, which marks the beginning of the celebrations of Fastnacht. Also known as Weiberdonnerstag (Das Weib (singular), Die Weiber (plural) = archaic word for ‘woman’; Donnerstag = Thursday), this Rheinland tradition is said to have begun in Beuel (Bonn) in 1824 when a group of laundresses decided they were fed up with washing linen and clothes as others celebrated and decided to storm the town hall and take over the government. This tradition is performed today in cities around Rheinlandpfalz.

So what’s the history of Karneval and why is it such a big part of Rheinland culture?

Karneval is specific to the Rheinland, whilst Bavaria, Austria and Saxony celebrate Fasching (“Fasting”). The word comes from Latin carnelevale (to get rid of/ take away meat). The Christian festival is celebrated in many countries and in the Rheinland area it’s laced with satire. Parades meander through cities and amongst the “Jecken” (jesters) are floats mocking politicians. In 1794 the French revolution took over the land west of the Rhein. The Teutonic Rheinlanders took advantage of the Karneval celebrations by using it as a time to ridicule their leaders. 

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Float in Düsseldorf (photo = the local)

The Karneval season begins on 11th of the 11th month at 11 minutes past 11 and each city celebrating Karneval has an Elfferrat, (council of eleven people that organise the six-day festival). Although the German people poked fun at those in charge of their country, they respected the motto of the revolution: égalité, liberté, fraternité, whose abbreviation “elf” is the number eleven in German.  

Judging January – reflections on the start of 2018

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I was ready to come back to Trier on January 7th after a wonderful time in England with loved ones. It felt weird not knowing when I’d be coming back but I knew I wanted to make a go of things here. I’m constantly reminded how sensitive I am to other people. Since I’ve been back, I’ve been particularly aware of how much I appreciate the friends I’ve made here. Time spent with them in the day helps me sleep well at night.

A small thing with a great reward has been my two-hour weekly shift at the Weltladen (a fair trade shop, which shares a building with several charities). Not only have I had heart-warming interactions in the shop, but it has also lead me to an internship with NABU (Naturschutzbund). In August I’ll start an FOJ (freiwilliges ökologisches Jahr = voluntary environmental year), which will be based at the NABU office above the Weltladen and at an eco-friendly vineyard in Kanzem (on the Saar, 15km from Trier). This means that I’ll be in Trier until at least August 2019 and I can continue to make Trier my home. I don’t think it’s good for me to pick up and move every ten months. I also quite like it here. I’ve met nice people, it’s beautiful and there’s fresh air and countryside right outside a happy-sized city. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.

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I also had my first visitor of the year, my dear friend (and loyal running companion), Emily. We spent the Saturday running and wandering around Trier and its fine eating establishments. On Sunday we did the same but in Luxembourg. I’m touched that she came to spend a weekend here and it reminded me that my loved ones aren’t that far away. I love being a tour-guide for a day and showing people round. It gives you the opportunity to be really proud of where you are.

 

Looking forward, the short month of February will be sweet. I have some trips and events planned and will remember to factor in room for reading, running, chilling and gemeinsame Kaffeepausen (meeting up with loved ones for coffee). I want to continue exploring, keeping my eyes open for opportunities all around and hum about the day.

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A drizzly day

On a rainy Thursday afternoon a women came into Trier’s Weltladen. She mooched around for a short while and then approached the till with three bananas and a pack of biscuits. She asked me to translate the ingredients that were written in English into German. I explained that I didn’t know some of words in German. “Where are you from?”, she asked. “You must be a student?”. We chatted for a while and she told me about her experiences as a Russian migrant, “I find the Germans very tolerant of other languages”, she said. “Do you find the Germans nice?”, I replied. “No, that’s not what I said. You mustn’t generalise”. I thought she’d acted quite cold at first and then her tone changed. She looked out the rain-soaked window. “You must be used to this weather, coming from England. But as long as it’s warm in here”, she said pointing to her heart, “then it doesn’t matter what the weather’s like out there. It doesn’t matter if the sky is beautiful and the sun is shining if you’re bad in here”, she said with her hand now sitting on her chest. “A bit of philosophy for a Thursday afternoon”, I said and then laughed awkwardly, fully agreeing with what she said but not knowing what to say. “Before I leave, is there anything I can do for you”, she said. I found this gesture so sweet and felt that my impression of her had completely changed since her first moment in the shop.

What I talk about when I talk about running – Haruki Murakami

 

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Just before Christmas I received a very thoughtful gift from a friend: Murakami’s running-centric memoir What I talk about when I talk about running. “Free time is at a premium” so do what you love is the basic message of the book. 

One thing that particularly stuck out at me is the way Murakami writes about being on one’s own. “I’m the kind of person who likes to be by himself, to put it to the finer point, I’m the type of person who doesn’t find it painful to be alone … sometimes, however, this sense of isolation, like acid spilling out of a bottle, can unconsciously eat away at a person’s heart and dissolve it. He describes time spent alone as a “double-edged sword, “it protects me, but at the same time steadily cuts away at me from the inside”. 

Some people ask me I run to think over problems or issues. It’s true that if you’re feeling less than adequate, running does “physically exhaust that portion of discontent”. But to articulate why I love running, I’d err on the side of positivity. Being on your own can be empowering and give you the chance to think and reflect, the action is contemplative and meditative. “I run in order to acquire a void”, he says. “My own cosy homemade void”. On the one hand, you think about the same sort of stuff you’d think about whilst wandering or daydreaming, “when I’m sad I think a little about sadness. When I’m happy I think about happiness”. 

I think this is how I feel half the time. There’s a time to be with others and there’s a time to be alone. Running is the sort of “me-time” that can be so liberating and if I am feeling lost or alone, “running heals the loneliness … and puts it in perspective”.

Sometimes there are days, such as today, when it rains all through the day and I don’t really fancy leaving my snuggly flat to venture into the cold, but I always feel good after running, so although it’s a drag to drag myself out, it’s always worth it for the void.

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Hamburg, hygge, Sprudel and more

As I lumbered off the train at Hamburg Hbf after a thirteen hour journey, I was thrilled to be met by Lea, a friend of Johanna who I’d met in Southampton last year. We quickly found ourselves in a Kneipe and waited for Johanna to join us after work.

I tried my best to slot into Johanna’s life, although I know she made some compromises for me such as taking me to one of the most popular hamburgian sights that was the Elbphilharmonie. An extremely popular building amongst locals and tourists, the concert hall is one of the tallest buildings in Hamburg and boasts impressive views over the city. Our visit there inspired us to drop into a string orchestra rehearsal at the Resonanzraum.

Wandering through streets we saw all sorts of spectacles including a man in a clown outfit sweeping hundreds of bottles caps as his peers jeered, drank and threw more caps. This is an old German tradition, particularly seen in the north. Whoever is unmarried on their thirtieth birthday must sweep the stairs of the town hall (or in front of it) until he receives a kiss or his family and friends grant him mercy.

I’m continuously interested in the differences between German and English culture and this weekend was a good opportunity to enquire into these differences. At a party on Saturday night two things jumped out at me: women/girls were clad in elegant, modest and relaxed outfits and the student flat was gorgeous.

So, number one, German girls. It’s well-known that if you don the role of flaneur in a British city from around 9pm you will witness the phenomenon that is the British party-girl. Rain or shine, she is often seen outside wearing very little to shelter herself from our infamous weather. This is an aspect of our culture that my German companions were well aware of. “But why do they dress so?”. I guess my theory is something along these lines: since school children in the UK have to wear uniforms, the weekend is their chance to express themselves, whereas the German students wear jeans, jumpers and the girls wear very minimal make-up so this becomes the norm.

I googled a bit and found that British women have one of the lowest self confidence levels in the world. Combined with the influence of social media, which diffuses images of what women should look like, this might explain why they wear what they do but why is their confidence so low?!

The other thing that struck me as different was the cosiness and Gemütlichkeit of the pretty much spotless student flats. Breakfast saw fresh brötchen from the bakery with an array of spreads and coffee which created a gorgeously hyggelig atmosphere. This is recreated in cafes and bars and on Sunday evening we went to watch Tatort (“crime scene”, very popular in Germany) in a cafe, where forty people snuggled on sofas, strangers slumped together, amongst kakao, chai and tea.

Final observation for the day … It’s very difficult to get tap water in a cafe, bar or restaurant and nearly everyone buys Sprudel (fizzy water) in bulk. Again, after reading a lot of frustrating forums explaining the reason as being because “it just is”, one person suggested the preference was that during and after wartime Germany water was so heavily contaminated to the point that they were forced to buy bottled water. It’s very cheap here and with the Pfand you can get roughly €0.25 back when you recycle a bottle. Although Sprudel is heavily ingrained in German nutrition, there are still those hoping to see tap water to take over. In my internet search I did find one very amusing comment:

“Hello everybody, we are a group of Germans who are discussing this topic in our English lesson. We think that German tap water is excellent quality. Research has found, that bottled water isn’t superior to tap water. In fact, tap water in Germany is better controlled than bottled. Taste it and save energy and the environment, not to mention money for the good German beer!”