I am currently writing this entry on the airplane from Frankfurt to Calgary, after experiencing a very stressful morning sprinting between gates in Frankfurt. I have made a discovery while on this flight: if you have 8 hours with no internet access and minimal other distractions, blog writing gets a heck of a lot faster!
I could tell I was on a flight to Canada when I noticed someone wearing a lululemon t-shirt at the airport: I have been going to the gym in Berlin for 9 months and haven’t seen a single item of clothing from there. It’s a bit strange to be surrounded by English speakers again, since now I can understand every bit of chatter going on around me. I had gotten used to only understanding bits and pieces of what people said in nearby conversations, since it was always out of context. However, I have had a few conversations with Germans in today’s flights, and I feel that I am way more confident now that I would have been in September. Learning a language is basically an endless process, but I like to think that I am as fluent as I hoped to be when I began taking German classes three years ago.
I set out to write this particular blog entry as a summary of what I have experienced this year. It feels as though my time here has flown by, and yet when I look back at everything I’ve done, it feels like I’ve been here for an eternity. I know that it is practically impossible to summarize my experiences completely, so I’ll try to keep it brief. (Upon my completing this blog and transferring it to wordpress, I must admit that it is anything but brief. Prepare yourself!)
At the end of August 2013, I gathered my courage and boarded a plane to Berlin for nine months away from home. Unlike a lot of people who take on courageous new adventures, I was lucky enough to have my boyfriend waiting for me at the arrival gate. We spent three days in Berlin before driving to Köln (Cologne) so that I could begin my orientation for a year of working at a German High School. I had been part of an orientation the summer before, and was expecting a miniscule group of students; instead, I met hundreds of people from around the world, and got to bask in accents from Ireland, England, Scotland, New Zealand, and Australia. Everyone was welcoming and friendly towards everyone else, and I created a group of lifelong friends. The people from that orientation that I have stayed in touch with has changed over the year; while about 15 of us went to Oktoberfest together, there are about six of us that have remained close. However, I like to think that there are many people that would get in touch with me if they ever came to Canada, and this orientation had a much larger influence on my year than I would have ever expected
My work contract ran from September 1st to May 30th. In the first month, Sebastien helped me to deal with technicalities such as obtaining a bank account, registering where I lived, obtaining my proper visa, and joining a gym. Beginnings have always made me panic a bit, but everything went very smoothly. The other day, I was able to cancel my bank account without any issues (I like to think “I’m moving back to Canada” is a great reason to give for cancelling a bank account!) and Seb had the foresight to store my moving-out documents in a place where we could easily find them and send them to the right people once I left.
The end of September resulted in a slew of Oktoberfest activities – I went to an Oktoberfest in Berlin for two separate weekends, and also spent three days at an Oktoberfest in Munich. For the longest time, I didn’t think the trip to Munich would happen, because of the expense and the fact that there was hardly anywhere to stay. But thanks to the research of one of my British friends, we were able to pull it off by staying in tents and going during the week instead of on a weekend. The experience was unforgettable (feel free to read my blog all about it, if you haven’t already!) although I don’t think I will ever need to repeat it. Sleeping in a tent in October is not necessarily the nicest experience, and it was amazing how good it felt to sit on a cushioned bus seat instead of a hard bench by the end.
Since the first two weeks in October were a holiday for High School Students, Sebastien and I took the chance to take a short trip. We had a lot of different options in mind, but settled on Barcelona, Spain. We spent almost three days there, and were able to pack in lots of sightseeing. We hiked to a few good viewpoints, walked through the narrow streets, went to the beach, and enjoyed the fantastic weather. It was a great vacation for the two of us, and ironically enough it was one of the few chances we had to take a mid-week trip together (after that, I would either have work or he would have school).
At the end of October, I was feeling slightly depressed about missing out on Halloween, but was in for a treat when Sebastien and I went to a German Halloween Nightclub Event. I had always heard that Germans were not as much into Halloween as Americans are, but in general their concept is quite different. Instead of a mixture of all sorts of costumes, the Germans who chose to dress up were all gruesome and frightening. With fake eye-contacts and more fake blood than you can imagine, and a mixture of stapled-on faces and torn wedding dresses, it was obvious that they take their costumes very seriously. It was certainly different from any Canadian Halloween I had experienced!
At the beginning of November, Sebastien and I took a road-trip using his parents’ car. Our first stop was the city of Weimar, where we were able to see the amazing Herzogin Anna Amalia Bibliothek. After that, we continued on to Erfurt for two nights, during which time we went on a hike and were able to walk around the city at night enjoying the sights. The slight nip in the air by then, along with the gradual setting up of Christmas markets, made me start to get excited for the holidays. The next day, we continued on to Eisenach and the fortress at Wartburg where we were able to see where Martin Luther once spent time while translating the bible. I had visited these places once before with my eleventh grade class, but this trip was different – not just because it was only two of us instead of 110, but also because I had learned a lot more about history by that point.
When I first arrived in Berlin, I had joined an orchestra with Sebastien’s mother, playing the double bass. I had not played this since High School, and even then it was only in jazz bands as opposed to with a bow in an Orchestra. Early in November, this Orchestra hosted a Christmas concert. I played my bagpipes for one song, and managed to keep up with the band on my bass for the rest. It’s been quite a while since I performed, and I forgot the satisfying thrill that comes with playing for an audience. I was presented with flowers at the end, and was so happy to have had this chance to play music.
I was also asked to play my bagpipes for the Christmas concert at the school where I worked. I was extremely nervous before the event itself, but had a lot of fun getting involved in activities outside of the classroom. My mom was in town for my actual performance, and she accompanied me for my practices and came with me for dinner before the big show. Her and Sebastien were in the audience for the performance itself, and I was once again exhilarated at the opportunity to perform for such a large audience.
As I just mentioned, the arrival of December coincided with the arrival of my mom in Berlin. It was so great getting to explore all of the Christmas Markets with her, and getting to show her all of the different aspects of my life in Germany. During the second weekend of her visit, we went with Sebastien’s parents to Dresden. While this trip was accompanied with extremely cold weather, it was also an amazing cultural experience. It was easy to get into the Christmas spirit with booths selling handmade goods and glühwein, and we walked around the Christmas Markets for hours. We also got to see a bit of Dresden besides the markets though, with visits to churches and a tour of the Opera House. I was sorry that I would not be with my parents for Christmas Day, but it made a lot more sense for my mom to visit a bit earlier in the month. Flights aren’t very hectic at the beginning of December!
I loved the Christmas holidays in Berlin. While we have a few Christmas Markets in Canada, they are often indoors and involve pricey, artsy works for sale. The ones in Germany are more about being able to grab a seasonal bite to eat, and getting seasonal decorations and gifts. You hardly ever have to pay entry for Christmas Markets in Berlin, and I went to many notable ones over the month of December. When friends from Calgary visited Berlin, we took them to the scenic Christmas Market at Schloss Charlottenburg (I’m sorry that there isn’t a picture of them here, but we had a terrific time!)
Christmas with Sebastien’s family came along with its own traditions, including opening presents on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas Day. Both our house and Sebastien’s parents’ house were warmly decorated for the holidays, and I thoroughly enjoyed taking part in a new Christmas tradition (although I am looking forward to enjoying my own traditions again this Christmas at home!)
New Year’s Eve in Germany was fairly similar in Canada in regards to the partying…but the major difference was the fireworks! I know that fireworks can be used as a way to celebrate in Canada, but during the few days before the New Year, the purchase of fireworks becomes legal for everyone. Starting early in the day on New Year’s Eve, people start lighting fireworks from sidewalks, street corners, parks, backyards, balconies…our neighbourhood is usually quiet, but you didn’t go long without hearing fireworks all day! We went out to celebrate in the evening, and at midnight the skies went insane. When we went home late that night, there were remnants of fireworks at every step.
The next big event for me was my birthday. Sebastien took me to Tropical Island just outside of Berlin, and we spent the day relaxing inside of a huge, tropical dome. The next day, I was extremely touched by the amount of people that came out to help me celebrate my birthday. Sebastien’s sister also baked me a delicious cake!
At the beginning of February, Sebastien’s mom and I went to Grüne Woche. This is a yearly event that takes place in a large building, and there are lots of things to see; some rooms sell outdoor goods like fireplaces and watering cans, and there are rooms with huge displays of flowers. There were sections where you could explore different cultural booths, and there were also places featuring animals like sheep, goats, pigs, cats, and dogs. It was a great way to celebrate the fact that Spring was on its way!
Between November and February, I was able to take part in a German Language Course at Sebastien’s university. In the grand scheme of things, this course was quite short, but I still think that I learned a lot from it. You never know where you’ll learn the words that stick with you, and this course helped me expand my vocabulary a lot. I also think my grammar got a bit better, and in general it was helpful to speak German non-stop for three hours a week (and that’s not counting my Orchestra practices)! I feel like this class was a great bonding experience for everyone involved (there were about 15 students) and it was interesting to meet people from all over the world that had come to Germany for their education. There was one girl that I grew fairly close to, and we continued to get together throughout the rest of my time in Germany.
Near the end of February, Sebastien and I took a trip to Prague. It was a fairly short trip, but we managed to pack in lots of sightseeing during our time there. Prague is an absolutely gorgeous place, and I loved being able to see a number of historical libraries amongst other sights. We did a fair amount of hiking, and spent a memorable night dancing at Europe’s Largest Night Club. We timed our trip really well, because even in February the city was quite busy – we didn’t want to imagine what it must be like during the warm summer months!
During a bright and sunny March day, Seb and I took a day trip to Potsdam. Potsdam houses a large historical park (Sanssouci Park), and we enjoyed walking between the different historical buildings. One of these buildings was where the Potsdam Conference was held, where treaties were signed after WWII. Many of the buildings in this park were built for Frederick the Great, who had his summer home there – these buildings include an “orangery” and a Chinese tea room.
St. Patrick’s Day turned out to be a fairly minimal affair in Berlin. One of my British friends mentioned that there was a St. Patrick’s Day parade going on, and according to the website it was a fairly big event. Seb and I arrived, and found that the parade consisted of the Berlin bagpipe band, along with “St. Patrick” chasing around a big snake (aka: four people under a sheet). There were lots of people walking alongside the parade doing nothing (including us) and the whole thing was slightly silly but still fun. I found out that the Berlin pipeband has a pretty cool bass drum, with the Berlin bear playing pipes.
At the end of March, my dad arrived for a visit! We took a short trip to Amsterdam, and had a great time there absorbing the culture. We were able to visit both the Van Gogh Museum and the Anne Frank House, and we came home with lots of cheese and tulips.
During the rest of Dad’s time in Berlin, we made sure to check out all of the tourist highlights, including the Television Tower and the government building.
Over the Easter Weekend, Sebastien and I took a short trip to Magdeburg and Leipzig. These towns were quite easy to get to, and it didn’t take very long to see everything that we found interesting there. Both of these cities experienced a phase of historical importance, during which they were as popular as Berlin is now (Magdeburg was first, and then Leipzig). One of my favourite things to see on this trip was the Monument in Leipzig, which was erected in memory of the battle of Napoleon that took place there 200 years ago.
Around Berlin, I was lucky enough to visit a few Easter Markets, which were surprisingly similar to the Christmas Markets. The main difference was the lack of glühwein, and also the weather!
At the beginning of May, I went with Sebastien and a group of others to a Wine Festival going on in Werner, which is a town just outside of Berlin. We went to this festival two weekends in a row, and got to enjoy cheap, fruity wine while taking in the sunshine. There was a stage with live music, and lots of festival foods available. There were also various rides and electronic games, which reminded me of the Calgary Stampede.
The last trip that Sebastien and I were able to take during this amazing year in Berlin was to Usedom Island, just over a week ago. Usedom Island isn’t very well known amongst Americans as far as I know, but to Germans it is a fairly common vacation spot. While Usedom itself is in Germany, the island contains parts of Poland, and we enjoyed going across the border for our dinners while there. We visited Peenemünde, which is where Wernher von Braun and a team of engineers built rockets during WWII. Besides this, we got to enjoy time on sandy beaches, and also got to see lots of farm animals in the small towns on the island. The trip reminded me of all my favourite things about Portree (Isle of Skye, Scotland), Victoria (British Columbia) and Nova Scotia. It was a lovely, relaxing experience for Sebastien and I, and I am so glad that we had the chance to take that trip before I left.
So what comes next? In four days’ time, I will go to Nova Scotia for a week-long trip with my mom. While there, I am hoping to take a look at the Dalhousie University Campus, since it is where I will be spending my next two years completing my Master’s in Library Studies. I have started a librarian blog, and am hoping to write in there more often from now on.
I have no idea when my next trip to Europe will be, but I am hoping it will be sooner rather than later. I’m having a hard time believing that my nine months there has officially come and gone. It has been an unforgettable year, and my life has been enriched for the experience.
Thank you so much for reading this blog. I am sorry that it went on for so long! I did a fair amount of things over the course of the year that I will never forget. I hope that you enjoyed reading about them as much as I did writing about them.