Category Archives: Travel

Europe and Tulsa: A Comprehensive Comparative Study

The end is nigh.

With two weeks to go, the regrets are just starting to sink in: why didn’t I go to Croatia?  why didn’t I teach a single student the Hog Call?  why didn’t my blog go viral?  why did I eat all the chocolates that were meant to be souvenirs?

So, in a last-ditch effort to make myself feel like I spent the year using my weekends to travel to far-off lands, I finally ventured over the border.  Twice.  Mind you, I live here:

which means the border is here:

which means that “venturing over the border” is the European equivalent of doing this:

Still, there are some differences between crossing the border to go to Belgium or the Netherlands and crossing the border to go to Tulsa.  For starters, day tripping to Tulsa does not necessitate that my travel companions and I pool all our piecemeal knowledge of French together as we did when we ventured into Liege, where surprisingly, refreshingly, little English is spoken, and where, needless to say, they were not altogether impressed by our rounds of Frère Jacques or by my ability to sing the countries surrounding France en Française to the tune of Jingle Bells (shout out to 9th grade French classmates!).

Another point of comparison: Belgian waffles are sugar-studded manna, whereas Tulsan waffles come from Waffle House.

This past weekend saw a dip into the Netherlands, where I visited a friend who lives in the loveliest spot I visited this year, Leiden, and took a day trip to Amsterdam, where I neither smoked pot nor visited a brothel, but where I fell in love with the city regardless.  It was a perfect place for a long wander: watching boats on canals, ducking into shops selling cheese and Delfts pottery, strolling

Hey! You! You there with the bike full of bikes, there are bikeless people in Tulsa!

around markets, wondering what acts of kindness Holland’s inhabitants committed in a previous life to get born here in this one.  The people are beautiful and every single one of them seems so naturally bilingual, the place is just as picturesque as you imagine, pickled herring is easy enough to avoid, they sell tulip bulbs in the streets, and they seem to have made a national sport out of transporting all three of your darling children, this week’s groceries, and your family dog all while on your bike, dodging obstacles like that other guy who’s biking while texting, as he pulls a second bike alongside him with his free hand.  Tulsa, meanwhile, has made a national sport out of being my least favorite road trip destination.

The view from Sara's room

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Family Ties

I, like all other women everywhere, have a notoriously bad sense of direction.  Joe makes fun of and, I think, dreads my tried-and-trusted-just-enough-for-me-to-keep-using-it “General Direction Theory,” in which, when placed behind the wheel of a car, I just feel the way to go.  It’s a very intuitive, almost spiritual practice, which you probably wouldn’t understand, what with your GPS systems and your maps.

This is why I was pleased to find myself placed, eight months ago (why isn’t my German better?!), in a small town practically made to be navigated by GDT, thanks to a plethora of prominent landmarks.  Need to get to the train station?

Ganked from Ross.

Just walk towards the river.  Need to get to the other train station?  Just walk towards the other river.  My favorite restaurant?  Right below that steeple.  My school?  Take a left at the castle.  My house?  Over the vineyard, and beside a second steeple.  I’m generally not the one to be trusted when your goal is to reach a destination, but with my family’s arrival looming, I was ready.  I was ready to impress them with my  knowledge of which cemeteries you can cut through to get to the Old Town, which windy alleyways and pedestrian tunnels you can use to get to the gardens, how I hand-picked our hotel thanks to its proximity to an ice cream shop.  “We have trained her well,” my parents would say to each other over very conveniently located ice cream.  “She is now ready to make her way in the world.”

Then we left Bingen.  Vienna is not like Bingen.  Plus, we had a car, which is not like a train.  The next two weeks, then, were marked by referencing and cross-referencing guide books (five of them), sorting through maps, guessing at what impenetrable street signs might mean, continually losing and finding each other, blind stabs at which way our restaurant might be, trying to follow the conflicting demands of both (both!) of our GPS systems, long train trips to remote city suburbs, trying to find a parking garage that always seems to be at the wrong end of a one-way street, and lots and lots of this:


I could wax poetic about how being lost is one of the best parts of travelling, life being about the journey and not the destination and all that, but eh, it’s not.  It’s really just sort of aggravating, not to mention time-consuming.  Still, it does have its moments; take Baden-Baden.

Baden-Baden is the town my family came from, and so when the whole crew (all nine of us) were gathered one night in Bingen, we made the decision over late-night conveniently-located ice cream to take a day trip there, guided by nothing but a sense of familial ties, hoping to find something.  I’m not sure what sign we were looking for – a statue to our great-great grandfather, clearly a town hero?  commemorative plaques?  our long-lost family, still dressed like Old World immigrants, unable to communicate with us but so pleased to find us that we’d spend a pleasant dinner together, and lacking conversation, we’d bob our heads and beam at each other over heaping plates of homemade schnitzel and spaetzle?

This did not happen, but what we did find upon our arrival (and after getting lost and hopelessly separated, and after weaving through all sorts of detours just for kicks) was a pristine spa town, too rich for our blood, which is probably why our blood left for America.  Once reunited, our GDT fully engaged, we headed off in the direction of the main cemetery in town, thinking this would be our best chance of finding some hint of a Binz.  Seven of us wandered through town and climbed single-file up the

Lacking a camera, this is the closest approximation I can get to what my family's search for our genealogical roots looked like.

long, steep hill to where the cemetery perched, lamenting in between wheezes that all our cameras were either lost, broken, or dead by that point in the trip, because it was gorgeous.  The cemetery was a  labyrinth of well-tended plots,  blooming with flowers I had never seen, the massive trees filled with birds, and with lovely Black Forest views.  My family fanned out in a blind search, part pilgrimage, part scavenger hunt.  We found nothing, and our hopes were double dashed when we talked to lady at the office who said that much of the cemetery had been reused to accommodate for those who had died in WWII, and furthermore, she said the cemetery was used largely for “how do I say this… high society.”  Not our family, being the implication.

So we didn’t find what we were looking for, but we at least found something new to contribute to family lore – we have the satisfaction of knowing that our family stretches back to a lovely little spot in Germany, and maybe we wandered the streets that they did, and saw the church they attended, and passed the shops selling Versace that they also couldn’t afford, and sat where they sat prosting with their own family, complaining about the same overpriced restaurants.

Prost!

Baby Berlin

So, my hiatus has lasted long enough.  I should have things to say.  I’ve been to Berlin and to Copenhagen since last we met, both wonderful places that I now associate with wonderful memories – an incredibly generous conference/hotel/all-you-can-eat buffet every night provided by Fulbright, no shortage of good food and sightseeing and company, a handful of speeches given by important people including the mayor of Berlin herself, and for real, Copenhagen is the scientifically-proven most beautiful city in the world.

And one of the windiest.

And most expensive.  And home to the most incomprehensible language that closely resembles but is most definitely not German ever conceived by man.

But actual events overwhelm me, and I don’t ever know how to approach them when it comes time to blog about them, which is probably the single suckiest quality I could have as a blogger; that’s why I prefer to stick solely to non-events and non-happenings, like trips to the grocery store and comparing Europe to Harry Potter way too often.  I think this aversion to the big topics stems from the boatload of English papers I’ve completed, the goal of which was always to narrow, narrow, narrow that topic down.

My English degree has made me a uninteresting writer.  Wouldn’t it just.

Anyway, so rather than tackling the real Berlin (I saw museums; I heard speeches, I “networked”), I’m going to tackle something much more manageable: Baby Berlin.

You see, when I first got to Germany, I was a bit overwhelmed (or underwhelmed?  Just plain old regular flavor whelmed?) by how, well, not difficult to navigate it was.  Sure, there are trains you can ride; sure, you can ride a bike here without the crushing fear of being crushed by SUVs on the rampage; sure, there are bakeries on corners and pedestrians in city centers – but adjusting to life here did not demand that I reorient myself to my world.  I didn’t need to change change, I just had to tweak here and there, when it comes down to it.

And so at first, I noticed mostly the funny Americanisms that Germany displayed.  Ben and Jerry’s sold at the hot dog place; Lady Gaga on the radio.  When you’re away, similarities jump out at you, while a lot of the differences are much more subtle, and so noticing them came later, and are still coming, in slow, cumulative waves – a sense of a different approach to politics, a different aesthetic, different ways of greeting and different circumferences of personal space bubbles.  It’s a slightly altered normal, but it’s definitely a different normal.

That’s what struck me when I left my apartment yesterday.  Two girls were playing in the driveway in front of my house.  They had drawn “Berlin” on the pavement with sidewalk chalk, and were busy riding up and down what I can only assume to be Unter den Linden with their scooters.

It makes me smile every time I pass it (and by pass it, I mean stay on the right side of their chalked-on road, and adhere to the rules of their tiny roundabouts – I dare you to walk by this and not fight the urge to do the same) because I remember doing exactly the same thing with sidewalk chalk in the cul-de-sac outside my house growing up.  The idea is the same – a miniature of our respective worlds – but not the execution: I drew, naturally, what was normal to me, just as these girls drew what’s normal for them.  In other words, where they draw roundabouts, crosswalks, and bakeries, I drew drive-through Baskin Robbins.

Which somehow isn’t quite so charming.

The Perks of Being a Fulbrighter

Back in September, when I was but a wee fledgling Fulbrighter (a barely-brighter), I met the other just-arrived dewy-eyed ‘brighters for orientation outside of Cologne.  That half-week is now just a blur of workshops, talent shows, and “networking” (still no idea how people actually do that), and when I replay it in my head it sounds a lot like this: wah wah cultural understanding wah wah wah English instruction wah prestigious opportunity wah wah Winter Ball wah wa – wha?  Winter Ball?  My mind jumped immediately to visions of dress robes and dancing with Viktor Krum to the melodious strains of The Weird Sisters, but then I realized with no small amount of disappointment, as so often happens here, that Europe is not Hogsmeade, even though there are castles here.

But as the hope that we’d dance in an enchanted hall alongside giants and wizards began to fade, a new realization began to dawn: I’d have to dance.  And all I know is the Electric Slide and the box-step to a waltz.  Crap.

I arrived in Heidelberg for the weekend, met up with a long-lost friend (by sheer chance, we shared a hostel room together in Cologne lo’ those many months ago, and decided this weekend would be a good opportunity to relive

Not exactly Harry, Ron, and Hermione, but it'll do.

our hostel-sharing glory days), and got a bit more familiar with the city.  The night of the ball, our hostel was a flurry of too many girls to a mirror, sharing curling irons, and me begging for reassurance that no, my shoes don’t look dumb with my dress.  Even though the night started out promisingly enough, I realized upon our fashionably late arrival to the Heidelberg Town Hall that this was no senior prom.  There was a dinner with courses.  And I may not have been at the Yule Ball, but I was definitely in the company of giants and wizards of a different sort: these people were neuroscientists.  PhD candidates.  Artists.  The sorts of people who are consulted as experts and publish and speak and are presidents of boards and organize fancy-pants events like this one.

I’m a girl from Arkansas with a B.A. in English and extensive knowledge mainly of the Electric Slide.  Crap.

The music started, and I stood respectfully (awkwardly) to one side of the dance floor as people infinitely smarter and more accomplished than myself glided gracefully around to “Que Sera, Sera.”  With the next few songs, more people joined in, as did I when those happy sounds of “The Twist” began to play (hey! I can do this!).  The bad thing about “The Twist,” though, is that it ends, and as the DJ begins again to play songs without dance instructions embedded in the lyrics, I’m soon reduced again to aimless arm-flailing, trying to figure out which muscle to flex to move my legs to the beat.

Really.

Then I heard it.

come on donga bonga donga shake that conga

That beat.

music rhythms bonga donga gettin’ stronga

Those lyrics.  Three words infiltrated my mind: That. My. Jam.  (Actually, this is a song I’ve hated ever since this).  Then three more: Must. Lead. Conga.

And so it was.  For a few ridiculous minutes, I found myself leading some of the most intelligent, innovative people in Germany.  No, not in research, not in inventive approaches to enhancing cultural understanding, not in outreach initiatives or scholarly journal publications.  In a conga line.

I’m sure there’s something symbolic in there somewhere, but I really don’t want dwell too much on what it might mean.

longa bonga donga donga feel that bonga…

Wieder Allein

Disclaimer:  Excuse me for being a giant mushball in this post, but I’m just recovering from my blubbering stage.  And, judging by the amount of consolation chocolate I’ve been consuming, I’m entering my blubbery stage.

My three weeks of constant companionship, eating out multiple times a week, and wandering around beautiful wintry cities dotted with Roman ruins and neo-Gothic cathedrals are over, which means back to the grindstone, by which I mean blog.  Stone.  Back to the blogstone.  So, shake yourself out of your post-holiday slump, quit forcing down the Christmas cookies crumbled at the bottom of the cookie jar (they’re stale dad, throw them out), and tell the kids to gather ’round: Denglish is back.

And I mean that in multiple senses.  I’m back to blogging, certainly, but I’m also back to dealing with my own Denglish, which, after three weeks of neglect (the only German to leave my mouth being the occasional “Ich hätte gern ein Schoco-Croissant”), has crept back into the recesses of my mind, and shows no interest in being coaxed out again.

But more devastating than losing my German is losing  my Joe, who never once noticed if I butchered a word’s past participle in the moments when I did speak German, or if he did, nary a once mentioned it, good boyfriend that he is.  (As an aside, one of my favorite aspects of our relationship is that we majored in subjects on entirely opposite ends of the collegiate spectrum, he preferring an education that lends itself to things like jobs, so I can remain “the one who speaks German” unchallenged).

But there’s other reasons I love him, besides the obvious reason that he doesn’t speak German.  Reasons like he’s good lookin’, and I’m sure there’d be other reasons too if I sat down and thought about it.  And it’s reasons like this that make everything just a bit better, even those miniature disasters you inevitably encounter when travelling.  Waiting around for him in the Frankfurt airport for eight hours because his flight got redirected to and then cancelled in Zurich

Lots of people showed up at the Frankfurt airport to welcome Joe to Germany, which I thought was sweet.

isn’t quite so bad because, last I checked, Zurich is closer to me than Fayetteville is, and so it follows that Joe was closer to me than he was a day before.  In the same vein, waiting around with a boyfriend for four hours at a deserted train station in the middle of the night because somebody (won’t name any names except maybe DeutscheBahn) screwed with the timetable beats waiting around by your lonesome.  Waiting around with Joe was doubly better than waiting around by my lonesome because he has a Connect Four app on his phone.

And so it follows that if the crappy moments are even minutely improved  by good company, the good moments are bumped up to best moment status, and there were plenty of those: shopping for presents at the Christmas Markets; laughing at him (jaded local that I am) dash from one side of the train to the other like a puppy on his first car trip, trying to take in every castle on our first train trip up the Rhine; having our first Christmas together (which was made even better by the deluge of cards and gifts sent from home – thanks again, everyone); wandering from Roman monument to Roman monument in Trier; dodging rogue fireworks in Munich on New Years (what a war zone that place

The Munich skyline, ablaze with vigilante firework displays

turned out to be); watching his jaw drop as he first laid eyes upon the Cologne cathedral; celebrating my birthday at Hofbräuhaus, as all birthdays should be celebrated; ducking into churches and beer halls and museums (what a trifecta) to get in out of the cold.  Even that dreary, miserable, longer-every-time-I-walk-it trek between Bingen and Büdesheim was better because I didn’t have to spend those 45 minutes alone in my head, feeling like a crazy.

Marienplatz

But now he’s gone, and that’s that, and I’m alone again (wieder allein, one teacher so gently reminded me), getting reacquainted with that feeling that comes only from spending inordinate amounts of time with yourself.  And it’s not so bad.  In fact, there’s some comfort in it: I sat in a coffee shop today with a book and realized with some satisfaction that no one was around to remark on just how much sugar I put in my cappuccino.  Then I noticed the crazy mix of music they had going on in the background (Creed followed by that “how will I know if he really loves me” song – none of that namby-pamby acoustic dribble you’d hear in an American coffee shop), and realized there was no one around to mock it with, and it struck me again that I’m pretty sure this is going to be a long and lonely winter.

Good lookin', musing on just how over-the-top sad that last sentence was.

Still, despite all my mopings, I’m glad to have a routine again, and lots to look forward to: friends and family coming to visit, a Fulbright winter ball and a week-long conference in Berlin, Karneval, classes to teach, posts to write, grad schools to get into, German to learn.  Schönes neues Jahr, e’erbody.

Bacharach of Ages

Several months ago, when I was still stateside and still perfectly competent in the language being spoken around me, my friends and I (shout out!) took a little day trip through the  Ozarks, stopping at the usual sites: Mystic Caverns, a roadside diner, a medieval fortress construction site.

And now, a plug for my favorite roadside attraction: overlooking the fact that present-day Arkansas is neither Europe nor medieval, the Ozark Medieval Fortress is as authentic an experiment as we can get in medieval construction

The potter leads a horse to pasture, which is euphemistic for absolutely nothing.

techniques, from carpentry to pottery to, um, quarrery, plus contemporary safety measures, minus serfs.  It’s an (almost) self-sufficient little family-friendly village, if you keep Junior away from the forger’s fire, that appeals to the Harry Potter fanatic and the Ren Fair frequenter buried within us all, and I’d really encourage you to stop and take a look around if you’re ever in the area, and chances are, you’ll be close enough to justify a visit at some point during the project’s duration.  Projected build time?  Twenty years.

So, flash forward a few months, and I find myself come full circle: from a fake castle being authentically built, to a real castle fallen into authentic decay (isn’t history funny?).  I am, after all, stationed along the Rhine in an area known particularly for being dotted with castle ruins (a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I might add), so yesterday, I coughed up the 2 Euro train ticket, weathered the twenty-minute train ride, and found myself in St. Goar, home of Burg Rheinfels, the largest and most well-preserved ruin (if a ruin can be said to be well-preserved) on the Rhine.

And that train ride was worth it.  You know when you tour something, the most interesting bits are always roped off?  Like, take Graceland – you’re not actually

I know you wouldn't think so to look at me here, but during the taking of this picture, Monica (shout out!) had to physically restrain me from launching myself over the paneled wall into the room beyond.

content just looking at the Jungle Room while your audio guide explains the significance of that green carpeted ceiling.  That is far too sanitized an approach to something so atrocious!  You want to feel your feet sink in that shag carpet yourself; you want to experience sitting your own bottom on that tiki-inspired leopard-print barstool (or whatever); you want to be more than the voyeur judging Elvis’ terrible taste – you want to know what it’s like to be the bearer of such terrible taste yourself: you want to be Elvis.

Well, I mean, I do.

But Burg Rheinfels is no Jungle Room.  For one, it doesn’t look like great-grandma’s living room reimagined by Rudyard Kipling.  For two, you’re not kept at a frustrating distance with all those other ogling tourists who just don’t

Burg Rheinfels

understand; you’re given the freedom to wander, and wander you do (with handy explanations courtesy of my man Rick Steves): through courtyards and a slaughterhouse, through a dungeon and an echoing warehouse of a wine cellar, through a moat and through a winding, claustrophobia-inducing McDonald’s PlayPlace of tunnels, dug to store weapons and the soldiers who used them – and through tunnels that once housed little but explosives, a minefield meant to be detonated when ransacked by those pesky French.  It’s nothing but one-fifth of its original size now, being used over time as a quarry of stone to build the town below, and is now in large part reclaimed by nature; in places, it’s difficult to tell what is castle, what is mountain, what is grassy courtyard, what is moss and ivy growing back over this huge outcrop of human effort and human history.

Rheinfels, regrown

After this excursion, Beth and I stopped into another nearby town, Bacharach (pronounced, wonderfully, bock-uh-rock, which inspired astute commentary like, “If I had a backup band, it would totally be called The Bacharachers”), which may or may not have ties to my man Bacchus.  Actually, it’s probably Celtic.  But there’s still lots of wine.  So, this city has all the charm Eureka Springs wishes it had, all the authenticity Disney World wants, all the timbered houses an American imagines when he imagines Germany, all the tourist shops a spoon collector could hope for.  Bacharach, not to be outdone by St. Goar, sports its own castle, but this one is converted into a youth hostel, and sits above the town, lit up at night like Hogwarts keeping watch over Hogsmeade.

The hostel atop Bacharach

So, as if that’s not enough to recommend Bacharach, we also had the good luck to stumble smack-dab into a St. Martin’s Day Parade.  St. Martin’s Day is a holiday celebrated here, part harvest celebration, part feast day to commemorate a St. Martin, a Roman soldier who gave half his cloak to a beggar in the snow.  It’s marked by a week of sugary pretzels and man-shaped pastries and parades, in which the children of the town carry colored lanterns through the streets singing songs, until, often, they all end up at a bonfire – and this bonfire was the single biggest bonfire I’ve ever laid eyes on.  It was astounding.

No, that kid is not being sacrificed. Note the butterfly lantern in the foreground.

My parents and my man Joe (shout out!) spent the weekend camping together, which makes me both incredibly happy and incredibly jealous.  But, I’m happy to say, I at least have them beat on the campfire front.

The St. Martin’s Day bonfire

Speaking of Joe, just a short five weeks until he gets here, which means – yes, you guessed it – I’m reappropriating the purpose of this blog from account of my experiences to countdown calendar.  You’re welcome.

All Roads Lead to Mainz

In light of recent elections, the teachers have been asking me to teach a lot of American history lessons – I guess they’re hoping I’ll be able to lend some perspective and context to what America is and why that’s so, as though the ye olde Tea Party can explain, well, the Tea Party.

But something about the quick-and-dirty timeline I’ve been passing out to the students seems, somehow, increasingly more laughable with each copy I make.  Sure, that’s partly because it starts with Columbus, as though America just materialized from the European imagination there on the Atlantic horizon, and sure, it skips from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War, wham, bam, thank you ma’am – but when you’re allotted the time I have and allotted the attention spans I’ve been given, well, I had to make some editing decisions, or butchering decisions, call them what you will.

But that’s not the reason, not entirely.  Mostly, looking over this silly little timeline, it makes me realize how… how… cute our history is*.  It’s so little!  I jush wanna pinch its wittle cheeks!  Awaska hashn’t losht its wittle bay-by fat!

…ugh, I suddenly hate blogging.

My point is this: in Mainz (neighboring town of that’s-where-I-bring-my-laundry-to fame) is built on Roman ruins.  So much so, in fact, that there’s a conflict between preservation and development efforts – builders are afraid to build for fear of striking gold, by which I mean a Roman bath or mosaic or  what-have-you, because this means halting construction while archeologists do their nit-picking through ancient ship remains.  Sometimes this unearthing is incorporated (like the  monument erected to Roman general Drusus, surrounded nesting-doll style by a 17th-century citadel), sometimes it is compromised (like the temple preserved underneath a shopping mall), sometimes it goes ignored entirely (like that time the railroad plowed through the middle of a theater).

So the effect is this city built like a parfait, except not so stratified, so not really like a parfait at all: a Roman crust, a creamy layer of the Middle Ages, some Renaissance fudge, a hearty helping of 1960’s post-war fruit that you sort of scoot to one side so you can get to the chocolate, a dollop of Rococo whip cream, and a Marc Chagall cherry on top.  And, of course, if you want to overextend this metaphor, let’s not forget a spoon of a war that dug through it all and left a sad trail behind:

The shell of St. Christophskirche - which, just to add to this medley of history-upon-history, was where Gutenberg was baptized

So what am I getting at?  That American history/architecture/parfaits can’t hold a (Roman) candle?  No.  I guess all I’m saying is that an American city simply can’t attain the sort of aesthetic you find in a city like Mainz where ancient abuts the modern in a very livable way, and you probably wouldn’t trip over  an aqueduct poking out of the ground like a tree root.  In other words… places are different.  Travel highlights that.

So much for my grand conclusion.  I guess that’s the danger of musing on something like Roman ruins: essentially, you always just wind up at some derivation of “wow, that’s old.”

*Despite my blatant use of the word “cute” and my subsequent baby talk to America, I don’t actually mean to trivialize American history. Really.  I love it too.