Friday, May 27, 2011

Good times in Germany

    Germany was wonderful!  My second day in Koln I decided to head towards the cathedral.  It looked absolutely beautiful  in the pictures I had seen before I left home.  When I got there I was ovelwhelmed just by the size of it.  It's enormous.  I walked around the outside and decided to take a few pics when I noticed people coming and going in and out of the cathedral.  I hadn't even thought about being able to go inside.  As soon as I walked in I got chills and I found myself trying not to cry.  Crazy, I know;  I never thought a piece of architecture could bring me to tears but it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen.  My whole trip to Germany was worth just those first few minutes inside.  I knew coming into this trip I'd see plenty of amazing churches and castles but words can't even describe what it's like to be inside the Koln Cathedral.  I wandered around for at least an hour or two in absolute amazement.

When I left I knew it was close to sunset so I headed towards the Rhine.  What I love so much about Europe is that there's outdoor dining everywhere.  Small cafes and restaraunts are lined with tables and umbrellas for what seems like miles and miles.  I sat down at a table and quickly realized that the friendly waitress spoke no English.  I speak zero German.  She handed me a menu and I pointed to what I thought was beer.  A few minutes later I pointed to some dish on the menu and prayed that it would taste at least somewhat decent.  I hadn't ate since that morning and was starving.  I'm not sure exactly what I ended up with but it was absolutely delicious.  I sat there looking at the river, watching the sunset and listening to a man play spanish guitar under the tree in front of me.  I couldn't help but smile.  These are the sort of moments I look forward to on this trip.  I love having no idea where I'm at or where I'm going and ending up with these little pieces of  happiness.

I went back later to the cathedral to get a few more pictures and see how it looked lit up at night. It was magnificent.  There was a man singing and playing Let It Be on his guitar as I sat on the steps and watched the people coming in and out of the train station.  A few minutes later a very, very handsome man came and sat next to me.  He asked me my name and if I was alone.  Trusting my gut, I felt okay to talk with him but told him I was waiting there for my brother.  We talked for a very long time and it turns out he was a pulmonary surgeon from Russia in town for a conference.  When he found out I was an American girl I thought he was going to do a backflip.  He said he had only seen american girls in the movies and never thought he'd meet one in real life.  We talked for probably about an hour and had some good laughs. But as charming as he was I told him I had to go back to the train station and meet my brother (We had an awesome conversation but he revealed to me that he was married with four kids AND had a girlfriend back home). He would have been very happy to have my company for the rest of the night. Um no thank you.  I've met so many different people so far and everything has been a positive experience. Two of my roomates were girls who just graduated from high school in Bavaria.  They were very chatty and sweet.  We talked for a long time and giggled like it was summer camp;  One of the italian hostel workers told me about his travels all over the world and asked if I'd ever been in love.  We spent the night drinking beer and talking about life;  I met a girl on the train about my age from Romania who was studying for her Masters in Human Rights;  It's so exciting not knowing who I'll talk to next!!!

And then came Berlin.  Again, I had no real plans on what I would do when I arrived so while I was taking the metro on the way to my hostel I looked out the window to see if anything caught my eye.  I made note of a few different stops I'd like hop off at the next day.  I swear I've been so lucky with the random spots I've chosen to wander around at.  I found myself next to the river surrounded by tons and tons of beautiful buildings and monuments that looked like they had been there 1,000 years. It was warm and sunny so I took an hour long boat cruise throught the city.  They, of course, served beer on the tour.  Let me just say for the record that Germans really do take their beer seriously.  Almost everyone I saw walking around in the city, or sitting on a park bench or having a picnic on the grass had a beer bottle in their hand.  Everyone just seemed so laid back.  But what I found most interesting about the city was the differences in architecture.  There would be these delapitated, shambles of buildings covered in graffiti stuck right in betweeen two new modern high rise sky scrapers.  It was such a contrast and always looked so odd.  The highlight of the city for me was walking along the Berlin Wall.  It's hard to describe, but when I see things in person that I've looked at for so long in books and magazines, the feeling I get is just complete satisfaction.  It feels like such a huge accomplishment to stand in the very places I've daydreamed about.
Then came the trip to Poland.  About 2 hours into the 11 hour train ride the worker who checks your train pass said to me "We have a problem".  I didn't panic.  I looked out the window at the countryside and thought "well, if I get kicked off the train at least it will be somewhere pretty."  It turns out I'm an idiot and didn't realize that my train pass isn't valid in Poland.  Luckily I had enough Euros on me to buy a ticket and got to keep my seat.  It was the longest train ride ever.  There was no cafe on board like usual which meant I didn't eat almost all day long.  It was apparently running two hours behind schedule but because I don't speak Polish and I was in the land of no English I thought maybe I had missed my stop and was really going to be sleeping on the tracks in some foreign land. By the time the train stopped and I saw a sign that said Krakow it was dark outside and I was ready to eat my arm off.  When you exit the train station  (which is nothing like the modern ones I've been at so far) you can either exit towards the main square outside or into the biggest shopping mall ever.  Guess what I did---I ended up in that damn shopping mall feeling like a rat in maze.  I thought to myself that if I saw one more H&M store I was just going to lay down on the floor with my backpack and cry.  But after asking security how to get out, and then finding a hotel worker who gave me a map to direct me to the main square I had finally gotten close to finding my hostel.  Or so I thought.  As I walked into the square I forgot about how tired and hungry I was and just stood there for a minute and laughed.  It was nothing like I expected.  I felt like I had been transported back to the early 1900s.  It's hard to describe, but in between these incredibly old and beautiful buildings was a massive square filled with beer gardens, shops, flower and fruit stands and tons of people.  All at 11:00 on a Thursday night.  I'll have to take a video to show how utterly confusing and almost impossible it was to find my hostel, but the great thing is that after I found it, I was so elated I didn't even care about how long it took me to find it.  I figure if I made it through yesterday everything from here on out should be a piece of cake.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Pinch me please!

Where do I start?

On Tuesday afternoon I said goodbye to my family at the airport. As hard as that was it still didn't quite feel like all of this was really happening. I had been trying for weeks to imagine how I would feel as I boarded the plane but even after I had been up in the air for hours I still couldn't believe I would be in Amsterdam soon. Towards the end of my second flight the older woman sitting next to me asked where I was headed. I explained to her that I would be backpacking all over for the next few months. She reacted the same as almost everyone else has - "You're doing this by yourself?! You're so brave!". The funny thing is that I don't really see myself as being brave or crazy because of the fact that I'm traveling for so long alone. What I've always feared the most is not accomplishing my dreams of seeing the world rather than negative situations that may or may not happen along the way. No matter how many bumps there are along this road I know that they will be worth all of the moments I find myself smiling in the places I've daydreamed about seeing my whole life.

Amsterdam turned out to be so much more than I had expected. I'll admit that my first
night there I was feeling a bit overwhelmed. I felt like the new kid in school worrying if I'd make any friends. It seemed like I was the only person there traveling alone and I already was missing my family and friends. I decided to get some rest and hoped that I would feel better the next morning. I did. I wandered around the city for hours. I was surprised to see that almost EVERYone rides a bike to get around. Women in high heels, men in their business suits, parents with their children strapped into a small bucket seat near their lap. And the bikes all look like old school Schwinns with big wheels and decorated baskets hanging from the handlebars. It was then that I realized I was in a whole other world. It was beautiful. I still needed to relax a little bit though. Lucky for me Amsterdam is the perfect place to indulge. I got myself a "special" muffin from a local coffeshop and headed towards the Van Gogh Museum. About halfway through the exhibits I found myself giggling for no reason and had to sit down for a while. It was just what I needed and I was happy as can be.
I ended the night at the hostel bar. A great place to have a few beers and meet other travelers. I made friends with a guy from LA and we spent the whole next day together. I usually try to stay away from touristy attractions but I'm so happy we went the places we did. Anne Frank's house was amazing. To stand in the attic she hid for so long in and see her actual diary was very emotional. It got me wondering how I'll handle visiting Auschitz. Moments like this make me feel an overwhelming sense of gratefulness and gratitude for this life I'm so lucky to be enjoying.
Only because I felt safe with my new friend and I knew that I might only have the opportunity to experience this one time, we decided to treat ourselves to some "truffles". For all of my moms reading this I don't want you to worry about me making what you may think are bad decisions. This was a one time deal and it was AMAZING. We went to Vondelpark which is a more beautiful and picturesque version of central park. We walked all around, laid on the grass by the water, climbed a treehouse and people watched. It was one of those perfect days you just never want to end. We stayed until dark (which isn't until at least 10:00 at night) and headed towards the red light district. It was almost comical to watch these huge groups of drunken men hooting and hollering at the women in the windows. It was late and we were hungry but all of the restaurants weren't serving food any longer. So we found a small bakery and ate pastries for dinner. It was the perfect ending to a perfect day.
The next morning I headed to the train station and made my way to Cologne, Germany where I'm writing from now. Exhausted from walking what seems like a million miles the last few days and not getting very much sleep, I decided to stay in last night. I have a smaller room than the last hostel and only 2 other girls shared it with me last night. Needless to say it was pretty quiet and almost a luxury to not have to share a shower with 15 other people! I woke up early and was hoping to get some food to cook in the huge kitchen here but apparently the markets are closed on Sundays. I did however accomplish the huge task of figuring out how to do my laundry in the washroom here. Let's just say I'm incredibly thankful I've been able to go with the flow and not let all of the confusing moments so far frustrate me. Figuring out how to do the simplest things here on my own has been incredibly rewarding.
Right now it's cloudy and rainy, but it's supposed to be nice this evening so I'm hoping to walk to the Der Kolner Dam and then have dinner somewhere near the Rhine River. And tomorrow I'm off to Berlin!!