Sunday, December 25, 2011
Friday, December 23, 2011
So when I say we had a most excellent trip, even with being sick, let that tell you something.
Some bits of the trip I will save for Jenny to detail (because Zach was half phlegmzombie for those parts, perhaps). Because this trip was her first time in Germany, so many of the wonders that to me had become more typical when I lived there were much more remarkable to her. (Also, she's kind of a crusader-history nerd. So I leave her the Aachen Cathedral.) But I'll give it the old heave-ho and get the chronicle started.
We left for Düsseldorf right after I got out of class on Friday, December 16. (Okay, we headed straight for Dublin Airport. But you know.) We arrived more or less on time, which was late in the evening, and my language abilities were put immediately to the test when I had to get both of us through immigration by explaining our residency status in Ireland. Whoo boy.
We headed straight for the train station end of the airport to catch the ten-minute-or-so train to the city proper. I had bragged to Jenny about German punctuality (like, for two years), about how German trains were more precise than Japanese watches, about how even the moon crashing to Earth could not delay the Deutsche Bahn.
The little sign said the first train was fifteen minutes late. Then twenty. Then twenty five. Then forty five. So we went to another platform. That little sign didn't even bother to guess how late its train would be.
So much for that. (To be fair, there was a snow storm trundling through Germany that night...which is apparently more catastrophic than a moon-crash.)
Finally we made it to D-dorf, where we got a nice extended nighttime stroll around the block looking for our hotel... which, as it turns out, was actually connected to the train station. But Jenny got to catch a glimpse of Germany!
We crashed pretty much right away. (Remember, I was feeling tickles in my throat!) In the morning, we were educated about/reminded of the glorious spread that is German breakfast. (Absolutely nothing like an Irish breakfast, and much better cold than its insular counterpart.) Brötchen, fruit, cheeses, yogurt...
We took the train to Hagen and transferred there to the Siegen-bound train. This route was my weekly regular for a year, and the first time I felt I was getting to introduce Jenny to the whole other world and time of my life that was living in Germany. And what a perfect day for the ride, too -- the snow grew ever thicker as we traveled south through the wooded hills and tiny towns that dot the rails.
Once we arrived in Siegen, I showed Jenny around a bit before we met some old friends. I showed her the vast expanse of the city center... about which there's not much else to say. We had coffee and tea at a cafe in one of the shopping galleries, again testing my linguistic capacity (Wie sagt man "lactose free milk" auf Deutsch, anyway?). Then we met Jochen, Petra, and Finn, who were my surrogate-German-family while I was there. Jochen and Petra looked precisely as they had three years ago, and Finn did, too... except for growing as boys will between being 4 and 7 years old.
We had coffee and snacks, then Jochen took us walking up the big hill in Siegen and to... the Weihnachtsmarkt! A fine and upstanding German Christmas market, complete with the traditional Christmas teepees. (Apparently they missed the boat on an ice skating rink this year.)
(Here's a video clip of the Dixie Santas, who plucked away the cold night charming everyone in the Christmas Market with their oompa-clink-clink sound!)
Then, after a tour of the rest of the hill, including the High Palace (the Lower Palace surrounds the Christmas market), we met Petra and Finn for dinner, along with some of the teachers from my old school -- Stephan (with his pregnant wife, Nadine) and Gaby (and her new husband, Rasim). We had glasses of Krombacher, the local beer, and Jenny and I both ordered plates of Siegerländer Krüstchen, the signature local meal. It's a schnitzel with a fried egg on top (translation: chicken-fried pork chop), served with fries and in this case (thank goodness) a salad. Yum.
That night, Jochen stayed up talking with us in his dining room for a good long while, telling us the history of his home and their plans for expanding into the neighboring unit. The house has belonged to the Haardt family since Jochen's grandfather bought it in the early 1900s. It survived heavy bombing in World War II, and when American and other Allied troops arrived in Siegen, they commandeered the building to house troops (first American, then Belgian) and store goods in the basement. (He remembers being a kid in the '60s or '70s and still seeing boxes in the basement labeled "US Army" and the like.) I'd never heard the history before, and it fascinated me.
We slept in said basement that night, and when we woke, the picturesque sliding glass door onto the back patio (they live on a hill) revealed the most beautiful and peaceful snowfall. It was not heavy or thick, but coated everything and continued to fall as we gazed out on it. Once we finally tore ourselves from the view, we enjoyed an even better German breakfast, quatsched for a couple hours, and then the family invited us on a hike through the woods. Jenny is better at describing scenery and landscape (and enormous deer) than I am, so I leave it to her!
Honestly, words like picturesque, pristine, winter wonderland all seem lame compared to what we actually experienced. So for just a moment, try to imagine you are the size of a pea, running around the powder-sugared paddocks of a minty mountain bundt cake! Snow sloshed up past our knees! Finn slithered, slipped, and dived in and out of snow-drifts like some kind of arctic seal! Zach forgot to mention Tara, Finn's dog! A cuddly-wiggly black labradoodle who also blasted in and out of the tundra like a black furr-dragon!
Jochen also made sure to lead us to the spring, or the source of the River Sieg (on which Siegen nestles). I was told to drink several cupped handfuls of the spring water because those who drink from the source are sure to come back one day. I made sure to get my fill of water fresher than life itself!
Our snow-strolling took us to the ranger's station-equivalent where there was a gingerbread-like cabin with a cafe inside. Like Hansel and Gretel, Zach and I ordered a heaping mound of oozy-warm pancakes drizzled in fruit and syrup. We guzzled hot coffee and thanked our hosts again and again for a magical day. But they would not accept our thanks...just yet, for around the back of the gingerbread cabin, there was a feeding station for the deer who inhabit the nearby wildlife preserve. Lucky for us, the deer were hungry that day. We stood on the observatory deck and marveled at the nonchalant creatures with their graceful legs and moose-like antlers. Okay, "marveled" is way more dignified than what actually happened: upon seeing the deer, I squealed out with toddler-like glee, "Reindeer!"
That evening -- later than intended, but well worth the delay -- we took the train over to Cologne. Jenny the Gothicist got to see the Cologne Cathedral for the first time, and they're still picking bits of her jaw out of the pavement. (Heethzz not kidding. My jaw theeriuzzly droppethd.)
We checked into our surprisingly nice B&B hotel and went to check out the first of many Christmas markets in Cologne. Where Siegen's is more quaint and traditional, this one (set right against the side of the Cathedral) is more modern and burns with the fury of millions of tiny lights. We enjoyed more glühwein and food, browsed the stalls, and left promptly when we were kicked out because it was Sunday and everything closes early on Sunday, if it's even open in the first place.
Monday morning, we met our friends Gabe and Leighanna at the main station. Not only was Gabe an old school chum from my sister's class, but also I tutored him and Leighanna in German this summer because they were moving to Hannover for Gabe's graduate school. They came down to visit us, and we had a heck of a good time! We explored the same market for a while, then ventured inside the cathedral to poke around. We climbed to the top of one of the spires, which is I don't even know how many hundreds of steps, and enjoyed the views over the Rhine and the rest of Cologne provided by the highest points in all the city.
In continuing our beer quest, we had to have the traditional Cologne brew, kölsch. It's served chilled in thin 2 cl glasses, and in theory they just keep serving it until you signify you're done. (I still don't know the proper etiquette for indicating your belly is full.) Our waiter was a bit put off by something, I think, and so we didn't receive the typical Cologne bar service. But the beer was still excellent.
The rest of the day was more or less Christmas-market-madness. We visited the market in the Altstadt (old city), which appears more rustic and has a theme of gnomes. (That's where Jenny and I tried roasted chestnuts for the first time, and I introduced her to Reibkuchen with applesauce!) (hashbrowns mit applesauce!) We walked along the river and visited a market on a boat (where we got our adorable ski-girl and ski-boy!). We had more kölsch in another brewery, and then went to yet another market in the Neustadt. By then, I think all of us were worn down and tired of market food...
Gabe and Leighanna left for home, and we left for crashing into bed. But first -- well, we might have thrown a pebble or two into an old suspended boat to see how many pigeons were nested inside it. The answer: A TON OF PIGEONS.
Tuesday we got out of Cologne for a while and visited Aachen, over by the Belgian border. We traveled there on a high-speed ICE (inter-city express) train, just to experience the luxury of nice seats and a smooooooth ride. We both wanted to see the cathedral there, but particularly Jenny, because she's so well-versed in the religious and political history of the area.
Just like raw oysters, I am convinced Crusader history is an acquired taste. So for those who do not savor it as I do, suffice it to say that the cathedral in Aachen is the epitome of the kind of elegance and splendor that inspired, girded, provoked, and bolstered the barbarous Crusaders who ventured out of modern day France (mostly) and went all the way to Jerusalem thinking they could liberate it from Muslim control. The effect is like this: let's say the fanciest place you've ever seen is a Hilton hotel. Then you travel far away from home and you wander into the lobby of the Ritz Carlton. Yeah...that's what it was like for the Crusaders when they went from their Gothic cathedrals to the Byzantine-inspired cathedrals of the east and farther east. Check out these videos we took while inside the Aachen Cathedral and tell you don't get a little dizzy from all the jeweled and gemmed mosaics! Just don't get so dizzy you go off and pillage some faraway land...
Last fun-fact about Aachen: it is the final resting place of Charlemagne, or Karl der Grosse!
Jenny by this point had started to morph into a phlegmzombie too, so we began the next and greatest linguistic challenge yet: describing symptoms and understanding medications in a foreign language. (Fun fact: mucus = Schleim. Sounds like "slime." Sounds about right.) That evening, back in Cologne, we went to a very fun little restaurant/cafe/bar around the corner from our place, where we got to enjoy the Käsespätzle, which is like German mac and cheese. I don't know what it was about the little place, but we really enjoyed the vibe of it. (That is, once I could decipher the hand-written menus.) (And, and, let's not forget that after days of being surrounded by a foreign language I did not speak, I managed to order my meal and drink in German! Proof: Zach is one of the best German tutors you can get!)
The next morning, Wednesday, was the beginning of our day of departure from Düsseldorf Airport. So naturally, we decided to visit Bonn.
They had another cathedral, which felt more provincial than Aachen's (though that's not saying much) which we wanted to visit. We took a walk through their Christmas market, though I think we were still too sausaged-out to have anything more than pretzels. We decided, because why the heck not, to find Beethoven's birth house and give it a gander. Yeah, that didn't go so well. (Not our fault. The signs guiding us that way pointed in some very inaccurate, and im-Germanly-precise, directions!!) At least we saw the exterior... after we re-emerged from the 1970s!
We caught the train then to Düsseldorf, and because we had several hours still to burn before our flight, we took a walk around the town. We saw a bit of the Altstadt, which is probably the more beautiful part of D-dorf, but honestly, by this point we neither one were feeling up to much. We of course had to have dinner, and of course with it we had to sample the Düsseldorf brewing specialty: altbier, the antithesis of kölsch.
But the real discovery came, ironically enough, in an Irish pub. We wanted something warm to drink, mostly for our throats. So we ducked into this place, and the Englishman behind the counter said he could cook us up a mean hot toddy. Changed our lives.
And that was more or less the end of that. We flew back to Dublin, took a bus back to Sandycove, and fell immediately and soundly into bed. We walked through the land that is, ultimately, Christmas and made it back again, just in time to celebrate the real holiday together. I'm pretty sure we plan to do so with hot toddies in hand.
Saturday, December 10, 2011
Sunday, December 4, 2011
Sunday, November 13, 2011
Monday, October 24, 2011
[Yes, this blog post is about four weeks late. I'm catching up.]
I had no idea what Jenny was planning for my birthday near the end of September. I figured she had it all sorted out, though, and was just waiting to spring it on me.
Which she did. Sort of.
You see, Jenny had come up with two ideas so different, and yet both so thrilling, that she simply could not decide between the two. So she presented both options to me not long before the day of jubilant celebration, and made me pick. I'm an indecisive fellow, so I took my time. The decision-making process was rough and brutal, because both options were stellar. And in the end, I opted for the tour of Newgrange and the Hill of Tara, both ancient sites very important to the archaeological, anthropological, and spiritual history of Ireland.
(What was the other option, you ask? Well, you think we'd let such an excellent second option go unfulfilled? We'll write about it -- when we find a beautiful day to accomplish it!)
As it turned out, I made the right decision, not only because the sites were exceptional, but because it was the rainiest day we had yet seen in our four weeks in Ireland. We spent a chunk of the day on the tour bus itself, which was guided by an anthropologist who detailed the history of the land surrounding us, whether we were still getting out of Dublin or were tootling through the rolling green hills and old stone walls of the countryside. She was quite informative, too, and a pleasure to listen to (when she wasn't gurgling snot through her sinuses--seriously, lady, take the microphone away from your face when you do that!).
First, we arrived at the Hill of Tara by late morning. The Hill is one of the highest points on the island, and on a clear day you can see about three-quarters of Ireland's counties from its summit. (We did not have a clear day, and still the view was impressively vast.) We climbed from the end of the road to the top of the hill, which is a fairly wide, relatively flat expanse. Man-made mounds and trenches cover much of the summit, and these served various purposes in the ancient religions of the land. The Hill was believed to be a center of spiritual energy, and is therefore still revered by certain mystical types today. The Hill is also where all the old pagan kings of Ireland were crowned, both because of this spirituality and because of the commanding view of the island.
We got rained on pretty heavily, but the wind was even nastier. Still, Jenny and I disregarded the suggestion of the guide that we stay off the paths due to slipperiness (ah, youth!) and we experienced a couple perspectives that no one else on the tour saw. Frolicking across ancient ceremonial grounds in the wind and rain, with your love by the hand: magical!
(Also, there was a very impressive stone phallus on the hill. I posed with it for a picture, and partook of its energy. Not that I needed it, but what the hell, right?)
Then we drove through the Boyne Valley on our way to Newgrange. The Boyne was the site of a critical battle with England, but more than that, it's a gorgeous valley molded by a small, calm river. We could feel the energy of this place. It is still one of the more beautiful sights we have found in Ireland.
Newgrange itself is both the oldest and largest example of a ceremonial burial mound in Ireland, and is apparently the oldest standing man-made structure in the world, older than both Stonehenge and the Pyramids by several centuries. Don't be misled by the term "burial mound," though--while there is evidence of funereal activity here, the site was clearly more than a place for sticking the dead.
We arrived at the visitor's center and ate a yummy lunch of soup. The visitors to Newgrange are strictly limited each day, and so thankfully our tour ensured our entrance to the site. The only way to go into the mound is through this center, walking a bridge over the Boyne, to a shuttle bus that drives up to the ticket window in front of the mound, and then walking up the hill to it. Of course, it was raining again at this point, but that took nothing away from the sight of the mound. Its front has been restored using original stones, and it's a great wall of quartz with a small entrance in the middle. There are various carved stones standing around the site, and from the front you can see a couple other much smaller mounds dotting the landscape.
Our half of the group was the first to enter the mound itself. Claustrophobes beware: the entrance is tight. You squeeze through some very narrow stone passages, climb ever so subtly uphill, watch your head on the cross-stones, and suddenly you enter the main chamber. Considering the size of the mound, the interior is very small, but incredibly high. Ancient geometric carvings of swirls and chevrons decorate the stones (as well as carved graffiti from as far back as the 1800s, before entrance was more recently regulated), and three very small chambers go off from the main chamber. The ceiling is an ever narrowing stack of rocks with one enormous capstone peaking it. (More than five thousand years old, and the roof has never once leaked.)
Standing there, you can smell the stone. You can sense the earth surrounding you. You can't help but reach out and touch one of the ancient carved stones.
The guide (a site-specific one here, rather than our bus guide) discussed the architecture and the history, and then dimmed the lights to give us a taste of the solstice experience. You see, the ancients knew their astronomy. This mound was designed to line up precisely with the winter solstice. So at dawn on the shortest day of the year (and two or three days either side of it), the sun rises and throws its beams directly through a small window above the entrance, through the air above the passageway into the chamber, and then for a few brief minutes, the chamber is brilliantly lit from the floor up.
We had a simply wonderful time. Wonderful doesn't actually cover it. We nerded out, loved every moment of it, and it was a delightfully thrilling way to spend my twenty-sixth birthday. Then, of course, we topped it off with a birthday pint at our local, the Charles Fitzgerald, which thankfully serves Beamish (better than Guinness!), and then home for a delectably (warm!) meal of leftovers.
I know that sounds like a lame way to end a birthday. Leftovers? But this stir-fry was made by Jenny, and it was the perfect taste I craved to end my fantastic birthday of ancient adventures.
It was when we turned back that we saw a vibrant rainbow spanning the estuary. Soon after this discovery, rain fell like spittle from the looming black clouds encroaching from the south. We hurried off the beach and snugged up inside a coffee shop just as the rain began to pour down in earnest. We gave our feet a much-needed rest, warmed up with some frothy Italian-style coffee, and filled our bellies with a brownie--sent all the way from Cravin' Cookies.
Saturday, September 24, 2011
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