Thursday, September 25, 2014

Beer and More Beer: Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany

I checked a major item off of my bucket list this weekend: Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany! I absolutely could not study abroad in Germany in the fall without going to Oktoberfest. The world's biggest festival is like a nation-wide holiday here: thousands of people travel to Munich during the celebrate German culture and, of course, beer.

Many other cities in the world hold their own versions of Oktoberfest, but none are as grand as the main festival in Munich. Located in the southern German state of Bavaria near the Austrian border, Munich is full of stereotypically German culture and traditions. Think old style architecture, cobblestone paths, beer, pretzels, bratwurst, and Lederhosen. Basically, Munich is the perfect place to hold a festival celebrating Germany.

Ironically, Oktoberfest doesn't actually take place in October, but over a 16-day period starting in late September. Since my friends and I are going on excursions through our study abroad program for the next two weekends, we had to attend Oktoberfest on the opening day (Saturday, September 20). On Friday night, my ten friends and I caught a night train from Berlin to Munich and settled in for an 11 hour ride. Getting a good night's sleep on a train is not easy, but we managed to catch a few zzz's before arriving at the Munich Hauptbahnhof (main train station) at 8 a.m.

After I grabbed an authentic Bavarian sandwich with Leberkase and pickles at a bakery (sounds gross, but tastes great!), we headed though the rain to the Oktoberfest grounds, which is basically a meadow with enough room for the beer tents, carnival rides and souvenir stands. The main attraction at Oktoberfest is obviously the beer tents, which are huge indoor rooms filled with long, cafeteria-style picnic tables. Munich builds 14 separate beer tents just for Oktoberfest each year. The most famous beer tent (Hofbraeu Tent) holds almost 10,000 people! 

Besides beer tents, Oktoberfest also has lots of carnival rides and souvenir stands that sell beer mugs, German trinkets and
"Lebkuchen" (heart-shaped gingerbread cookies with love messages on them). Tons of people at Oktoberfest wear Lederhosen and Dirndls, traditional German clothes that you've probably seen at costume shops. I considered buying a Dirndl myself, but I couldn't bring myself to shell out 60 Euro for a dress I'll probably wear only once. 

My nine friends and I were planning on exploring Munich a bit before finding a tent, since we arrived on the grounds at 9:30 a.m. and the festival didn't start until noon. Once we reached the meadow, though, we knew we couldn't spend the morning doing tourist-y things. All of the tents were already full of people! We walked through four different tents and couldn't find a single seat available. Just as we were starting to worry, we noticed that some tables outside of the Ochsenbraterei  tent were still open because of the rain. We pounced at the opportunity, took the table, and huddled together under three umbrellas until Oktoberfest started at noon, only getting up to check out the passing parade.

At around 11:45, a waitress came around asking how many Maß (liters) of beer we needed, since beer is sold by the liter and costs 10 Euro in every tent at Oktoberfest. However, the liters are super strong, so the money is well spent. Each tent only serves one kind of beer, kind of like a "house speciaility," and I'm sure all of them are bound to taste pretty good. At noon on the dot, twelve gun shots rang though the air to commence the start of Oktoberfest. Crowds erupted in festive cheers as waitresses swarmed thorough the doors of the tent carrying armfuls of beer – ten liters at a time just like you see on TV! German ladies are strong!

As soon as everyone at my table got a Mass, we dug into our drinks. I'm not typically a beer person, but I've never been disappointed with beer in Germany! The light-medium beer at Ochsenbraterei was really good, and so strong that I was set for the rest of the day after a liter-and-a-half. The rain had stopped by the time we started drinking, and the outdoor atmosphere was actually very fun! I think more people are crazy-drunk and loud inside of the tents (some of my friends saw men standing on tables and drinking out of their shoes..) so I enjoyed the relatively smaller outdoor area.

My friends and I spent four hours talking and drinking in the tent, which was a completely unforgettable experience. We took turns buying huge soft pretzels (a Bavarian speciality!) for 5 euro each. Those pretzels were seriously amazing- and as big as my head! Combine pretzels with liters of beer and you get a carb overload... and dehydration!

One of my favorite memories of the day was when the dreary, gray clouds finally gave up their struggle and the bright, shining sun peeped out. All one-thousand-plus people sitting outside the Ochsenbraterei starting screaming and cheering in drunken unison. I was reminded of a crowd of drunken men cheering as their favorite team wins an American football game, except that I was cheering along myself (which rarely happens at football games!) The lines to the outdoor bathrooms at Oktoberfest were terrible, though. Chugging liters of beer obviously makes people have to pee, and once someone "breaks the seal," the urge to pee never stops. I waited in three separate 15-minute bathroom lines over the course of four hours, which ate up a good 45 minutes of my afternoon. Not fun!

At around 4 p.m., someone in my friend group decided that we had enough of the tent, and we should go on the carnival rides instead. Happily full of beer, we all followed blindly, stopping at yet another bathroom on the way. We ended up at a "swing" ride, where pairs sit in large swings that rise high above Oktoberfest and spin around a tower. A couple of people in my group, including myself, braved the heights and got an incredible view of Oktoberfest.

After a few more hours, which included dinner and souvenir shopping, we headed back to the Munich Haputbahnhof for the long commute home. We left Munich at 11 p.m, transferred trains twice, and got back to the apartments at 10 a.m the next day. I immediately settled in for a power nap, because spending two consecutive nights on trains really makes you tired! 

I am extremely grateful that I was able to attend such a fun, world-famous event. I am definitely interested in going back, if I'm ever in Germany again during the fall. Maybe I'd even buy a Dirndl!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Living Like A Princess: Potsdam Castle Tours


Just call me Kate Middleton. I got the princess treatment this past weekend when my study abroad program spent a long day touring castles in Potsdam, a cute little town just outside of Berlin. 

The first palace on our agenda was Schloss Sanssouci , the summer home of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, in the 1700s. Our group got a guided tour of the castle to learn about its fascinating history and Rococo design. Frederick was known for his love of the arts, and this love was reflected in his extremely ornate, flashy palace, which I heard rivals Versailles in France. The decor is literally jaw-dropping —the walls are adorned with shiny gold and flashy silk wallpaper, and the furniture looks too expensive (and uncomfortable) to use. 

We also got a glimpse of the gardens and vineyard, which stretch more than 724 acres. Colorful flowers and green trees lined walking paths, which led down from the castle in steep hills. A fountain was in the center of the garden. 

The gardens led to a Chinese Tea House. An interesting fact is that the statues in front of the tea house look more Mongolian than Chinese, since rarely anyone in 18th century Germany knew what a Chinese person looked like.

After lunch, we went to Schloss Cecilienhof, a former Hohenzollern castle and the site of the Potsdam conference of 1945 where Harry Truman, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin discussed Nazi German punishments and other post-World War Two plans. The castle wasn't as elaborate as Schloss Sanssouci, but the historical aspects were still very impressive. We even saw the infamous table where the world leaders met. 

Ive been to a couple of German castles before (Neuschwanstein and Schloss Heidelberg), but the ones in Potsdam were different and unique. I've learned that no two castles are the same and I'm excited to see more!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Six Hours in Hamburg

This past weekend, my friends and I took advantage of our free time and hopped on a train to Hamburg! I had only been in Berlin for two weeks, and my initial days were booked with classes and orientation events, so this was my first official trip out of the city.

I've been to quite a few places in Germany before (Frankfurt, Heidelberg, Munich, Trier, Roethenberg), but have never ventured up north to Hamburg. One of my goals of studying abroad is to explore Germany and Europe as much as my time and money will allow, so I jumped at the chance to tag along with nine of my new friends on the excursion. In preparation, we bought special train passes that amounted to 8 Euros per person for the round-trip. Cheap travel is the best travel!

Our train departed from the Berlin Hauptbahnhof (main train station) at 7 a.m., but due to an extremely inconvenient subway strike, we had to leave our apartment complex at 5:15 a.m. Exhaustion worked its way into our systems that morning- we nearly missed our train due to some confusion with delays. Once we were finally boarded, we settled in for a long four-hour ride with one transfer. Of course, we had to choose the train car with a crying baby and obnoxious drunk men shouting nonsense about "choo-choo bahns" at 9 a.m. Only in Germany!

I really didn't know what to expect in Hamburg, but the city exceeded all of my expectations. The cobblestone sidewalks and beautiful architecture looked stereotypically European, and the harbor was glistening against the clear skies. My group, which consisted of four girls and six boys, walked through Hamburg with our hands glued to our cameras, trying to capture the beauty of the city. Parts of Hamburg reminded me of SoHo in New York City, and other parts were more reminiscent of Venice, with cute buildings perched on the edge of the river. Modern-looking buildings were intermingled with historic ones, which was an interesting and beautiful contrast that is pretty prevalent in European cities.

After a carb-filled yet delicious lunch at a bakery, we payed 12 Euros for a boat tour in the Elbe. Although the tour was in German and I struggled to understand the fast-talking tour guide, I really enjoyed seeing the city landscape from a distance. The tour also took us through the actual Hamburg Harbor, right up to the freight boats and cranes, and I was shocked by how big the trading center was. Now I can see why Hamburg is such an important business city!

Somehow or other, my friends and I ended up in the Red Light District for a round of drinks. I've never seen so many sex shops in my life! The sidewalks were lined with racy window displays and "gentleman's clubs," which would never appear on a public street in the U.S.

We left Hamburg at 6 p.m., after spending seven short hours in the city. On the way home, the ten of us got lucky and had an entire train car to ourselves, complete with a table and comfortable chairs. As we were driving through the German countryside into the sunset, a thunder storm surrounded us, throwing down lighting in every direction. Seeing the bright bolts light up the countryside was truly breathtaking, and we took turns standing with our heads hanging out of the open window like dogs, dodging the rain pellets and taking in the view.

While I definitely wish I could've stayed longer to explore, I think I got a great sense of Hamburg. I'm glad I was able to fit the day trip into my busy schedule. These weekend trips will be hopefully be a regular thing for me!

Friday, September 5, 2014

Ramblings From Berlin: First Week Of Classes

Hello, everyone!

I still don’t have Wi-Fi in my apartment, so updating my blog regularly while abroad isn’t working out so well. I never realized how dependent I am on Wi-Fi until I was forced to live without it. I can’t call my parents, text my boyfriend, check my e-mail, update Facebook, look at the weather, search for directions... That, combined with the tiny call-and-text-only phone I bought that looks like a complete flashback from 2002, means I’m completely tuned out to the world right now. I signed up for an international phone plan while abroad, but I only get 100 megabytes of data. That’s nothing! As you can probably guess, I’m saving those precious megabytes for emergencies only.

My study abroad experience in Berlin has still been amazing! I just completed my first week of classes. The way my schedule works out, I have three separate three-hour classes on Monday (intermediate/advanced German language, German history, German Cinema), which means I’m on campus from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. But although my Mondays will require lots of coffee and motivation, I’m done with class at noon on Tuesday­–Thursday. No class on Friday! Since I’m enrolled in a program designed for American students, the amount of homework and the difficulty of classes is nearly the same. I’m determined to use my extra time to explore Berlin and Europe.  

Besides starting class and making new friends, my week has been mellow. I went on a group field trip earlier today to Sachsenhausen, a former concentration camp that housed thousands of Jewish and political prisoners during World War II and the Holocaust. I’ve never been to a concentration camp before, and the experience was emotionally intense. Seeing the actual location of such traumatic events first-hand is definitely different than reading textbooks or visiting a museum. Even so, I’m glad I got to visit the concentration camp and try to wrap my mind around the history that happened there.  

Since this post is basically a random string of thoughts about my time in Germany thus far, I think I should ramble a bit about grocery shopping here. Since I studied German for seven years and learned lots of food vocabulary, I was expecting grocery shopping to be easy. Wrong. The first time I went to the local Aldi, I didn't recognize a single food brand and couldn't find half of the items I was looking for. Eggs were unrefrigerated and milk was sold in cardboard boxes. I couldn’t read any of the food labels and didn't really know what I was buying… I ended up with “bread noodle balls” and some interesting cheese. I had to pay 10 cents for every shopping bag I used, and I even had to put money into the grocery carts. My new friends and I were completely overwhelmed and culture shocked. Fortunately, shopping is easier now that I know what to expect. Every time I head to the market, I’ve been picking up a few German hard rolls to eat with salami and liverwurst. I’m completely in love with German bread… let’s just hope all of the walking I’ve done will keep the carbs from catching up with me!

Monday, September 1, 2014

I'm Back! And Full Of Bratwurst

It’s been a solid week since my last blog post, but I have a pretty legitimate excuse: I haven’t had Wi-Fi! When I arrived in Berlin for my semester abroad last Monday, I had every intention of writing posts about my first week in Germany. Unfortunately, the Wi-Fi in my apartment complex has been a little sketchy and none of the residents have been able to access the Internet. I’ve had to trek down the street to McDonald’s for the two-hour free WiFi in order to Skype with my friends and family back home. Hopefully I’ll get back to regular blogging as soon as possible.

My time abroad has been great so far! I was full of nerves when I first arrived on the Freie Universität campus early this week; being alone in a foreign country thousands of miles from home can really trigger some anxiety. I met some great people within minutes of arriving at orientation, which really made the whole experience more manageable since I had people to grocery shop and eat a pizza dinner with (we were ready to bring on the bratwurst and potatoes, but our apartments are isolated and we had to choose between pizza or taking a bus further into town).

The next few days were all about exploring Berlin. The 150-student program was split into groups, and we took a beautiful boat tour through Charlottenberg and a walking tour through the historic center of Berlin. I’ve been to Berlin before, but the fascinating history and beautiful architecture are still breathtaking. I saw the Brandenburg Gate, Hitler’s old bunker, the Chancellor’s office, the Berlin Wall, majestic old cathedrals, and an ancient royal castle in one day.

Of course, I got my first taste of Berlin’s impressive nightlife. People are very serious about their pubs and clubs in this city. Apparently clubs don’t start filling up until well after midnight, and people sometimes party until 1 p.m. the following day! The beer culture is also huge here; people are holding beer bottles at all times of the day on the trains, on the streets, on bikes. One of my orientation events was actually doing a pub-crawl with the study abroad program assistants! While I haven’t checked out any clubs yet due to an unfortunate event involving a stolen wallet (more about that in another blog post), I got to visit some nice pubs.

My classes start today, and I’m extremely excited. My courses focus on German language, German cinema, and European history. I have an extremely easy schedule, with three-day weekends and no class after noon any day except for Monday. I’m going to have loads of time to explore Berlin and the rest of Europe, hopefully starting with a trip to Dresden or Heidelberg next weekend with some friends. I’m extremely lucky for this incredible experience!