I know I said before I left for Germany that I was scared, but even after posting that on my blog and telling several friends, I felt like I hadn’t really expressed how scared I was. I was so scared that in the couple days leading up to my trip, I had a hard time taking deep breaths. I thought it was just because I felt unprepared, but as I was flying closer to Germany, I realized that my fear was much bigger than that. I still don’t really understand it, but it wasn’t like I was going to turn back.
It wasn’t until I had been awake for more than 30 hours and was so uncomfortable on my final flight that I was ready to face all of my fears and just get to Berlin already. I got off the plane and just kind of wandered around for a while, because I hadn’t moved my legs in eight hours and, also, I had no idea what I was doing. Finally, I sat down and borrowed some wifi to look up the hotel I saw advertised on the wall of the airport, booked a room, and took a taxi there. I was unwilling to spend my first hours in Berlin asleep, so I took a shower and then wandered around the city.
I’m not really sure what to say about my unpreparedness. I’m kind of a strange person who thinks some things to death and then leaves other things wide open. The day before I left, I realized that I had a much better idea of what I wanted to be doing in five years than I had of how I was going to spend the next week in a foreign country. I certainly could have saved myself some money by being better prepared, but there is something to exploring a new place with no plan and few expectations. Germany is the kind of place where you can be surprised by beauty everywhere.
I have never traveled like this before, so hours after arriving in Berlin, I was already setting up a life for myself: familiarizing myself with things immediately and then clinging to those familiar things as I ventured into the new. This is my coffee shop and that is my bench and this is my bear. As if it didn’t occur to me that I would be spending no more than 24 hours there. That night, after being awake for two days, I slept for 13 hours. Then I spent the morning wandering around Berlin some more, putting off the next unknown: how do I get to Munich?
I had planned to see more of Berlin when I returned a week later to fly home, but dragging my suitcase a mile or so to the main train station, I just happened to run right into Brandenburg Gate. I just stood there and stared for a while, and then I explored the surrounding area before I continued on my way to the train station. I snapped terrible pictures with my iPhone just so I could have something to ground my memories.
I had a lot of visions of what it would be like to take the train around Germany, though I have only taken a train a few times in my entire life. I’m from the West Coast–we barely even take commuter trains! So I just wandered around Berlin Hauptbahnhof for a while before I figured out how to purchase a ticket to Munich. Then I ate at Pizza Hut, because I didn’t realize it was Pizza Hut. Then, a little confused still, I got on a train that I hoped was going where I needed to go.
One thing that I was very clear about before I left was that I wanted to spend a significant amount of my time traveling alone reading and writing. Even when I had access to the internet, I mostly tried to ignore it. I wrote pages and pages in my journal, and read a total of four books, mostly on trains and planes. When I needed the company of conversation, I listened to podcasts, but mostly I listened to music or read in silence. I tried to look up as much as possible to see Germany passing me by.
The train ride from Berlin to Munich was a long one, and it was already midnight when I finally arrived. My trip was partly timed around Oktoberfest, but I was not prepared for what I saw when I got off the train. The train station was basically Vegas. Everyone was walking around with alcohol and singing randomly and sleeping on the ground. I didn’t hate it, but I had the feeling that it was just not where I wanted to be. So, though I had planned to spend the night there, I looked at the train schedule and realized I could leave as early as 5 am to Füssen to see my castle. I wasn’t tired, having slept 13 hours the night before, so I decided to just spend the night in the train station and head out early the next morning.
I wandered around, I drank a beer, I sat down to write something like, “Remember that time I spent the night in the Munich train station? It’s tonight.” The clear advantage of waiting until you’re 28 to travel alone in Europe is that you have entirely too much perspective, and even when you’re walking around the dark streets of Munich, dodging drunk dudes singing “Call Me Maybe,” you just feel like you’re collecting experiences. I was fine. I was happy. It wasn’t until a few days later that I read in the Lonely Planet Guide to Munich that it’s a pretty safe city except for the train station during Oktoberfest. Whoops!
Around 2 am, I ate in a restaurant where I saw a mouse, and instead of freaking out, I just left as quickly as I could. I was tired by then of wandering around, so I purchased my next train ticket and then sat down against a wall (they are not big on benches (or public bathrooms)) among a bunch of sleeping people. I wasn’t there for long before a German guy came to talk to me, because he also couldn’t sleep and had some time to waste before catching his train. When he asked, I told him I had an hour to wait, and he told me he had a half hour, but we both actually had three hours and we ended up talking that whole time.
Before the sun came up, I caught a train to Füssen. I hadn’t quite mastered train travel at that point, and didn’t realize that I had to switch trains, so I was confused when suddenly everyone got off at one stop, but I followed along. That gave me some time to walk around a small German city and read for a while as the sun came up. I had one of those Vonnegut moments of, “if this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.” An hour later, I caught my final train to Füssen.
The ride through Bavaria was so beautiful that I could hardly believe it. I tried to remember the names of each city we stopped at, as if I planned to revisit them all. The reason I wanted to go to Füssen is because it is the city closest to Neuschwanstein, which is the castle I have been dreaming about since seventh grade. I arrived exhausted and walked into the first hotel I saw and booked a room. I had some time to wait before I could check in, so I put my suitcase in a locker at the train station and spent the day walking around. There was so much to see and after taking a million pictures, I sat down on a curb to rest for a moment, and when I looked to my right and saw a beautiful church, I said out loud, “Really?” It’s just too much, Bavaria.
I wasn’t mentally prepared to visit Neuschwanstein while so tired, so I ate dinner, bought a beer in a vending machine (a proud moment), and went to bed when I could no longer keep my eyes open. I woke up early the next morning and grabbed some scalding hot coffee (that seems to be the way they do it) and a pretzel (amazing) before catching the bus up to the castles. There are two beautiful castles very close to each other, but I only had time for Neuschwanstein, so I bought my ticket and then hiked up there. I had some time before my tour started, so I just sat and stared and took pictures and even some self-portraits.
There’s this thing I already suspected, but was proven to me in Germany: in big moments, I’m not that introspective, and I don’t know what to say. I pulled out my journal only to write, “I’m at Neuschwanstein. What am I supposed to do with my life now?” On my whole trip, I was so distracted by everything I was confronted with that I didn’t really know what to make of anything. I figured I would spend the next several weeks at home assigning meaning to everything. But while I was there, I tried to just be there and see everything I could.
A thing I knew about Neuschwanstein: it’s not very old. A thing I didn’t know about Neuschwanstein: it was never finished. It was made into a museum very quickly, and the unfinished rooms were left unfinished. On the tour, they show you only what was finished, which includes a bunch of murals depicting scenes from Wagner’s operas. I think the most stunning thing about the castle is its exterior and its location in the mountains. You can stand by the windows and hear a waterfall. It was everything I wanted it to be. As I sat waiting for my bus back to Füssen, I stared up at the castle, ate another pretzel, and wrote postcards. The air in Füssen was so perfect, which is not a thing you think to care about until you can’t ignore it.
I caught the noon train out of Füssen and back to Munich. I felt like I hadn’t really gotten a sense of Munich only seeing it at night. I spent the afternoon wandering around the city in the rain, seeing what I could. I took special delight in the weather of Germany, which was very Fall-like and cool without being cold. I got to wear my pea coat and scarf, which is all I really need in the world. After too little time in Munich, I caught a train to Heidelberg. My only sense of Heidelberg was that it was beautiful and academic, so I had to go. I saw only a bit of the river and was nearly run over by several bikes before I called it a night and went to sleep.
The next morning, I stored my luggage at the train station and went wandering around Heidelberg in the rain. I had seen a lot of pictures of the old bridge that crosses into the city and the way the castle ruins sit on the hill above, but when I actually saw it for myself, I couldn’t believe it. I stood on the bridge and stared at the town and the castle. I walked through the narrow streets where people were eating outside even though it was raining. As the rain continued to fall, the streets grew more and more quiet until I felt like I was the only person there. I immediately started thinking of who I could convince to let me live there while I write my dissertation.
Every 24 hours in Germany was so full that I kept thinking that I must be getting to the point in the trip where things would slow down. Things couldn’t possibly continue to be so amazing, and I had already witnessed so much that I felt like I didn’t need them to be. But they just continued that way. I had originally planned on heading to Frankfurt next, but I thought about instead spending another night in Heidelberg. Then, even as I was walking around trying to figure out how I could live there, I realized that I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see Cologne. So I headed back to the train station and got on my way.
It was early evening when I arrived, and the only thing I knew I wanted to see in Cologne was the Cathedral. What I didn’t expect was that I would walk out of the train station and it would be right there. I was looking down at my phone, trying to find my way to a hotel when I looked up and, more than any other time in my life, truly couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I tried to get far enough away to capture the whole thing in a picture, but couldn’t. I stopped. Kept walking. Stopped again. Stared. Then finally left for the hotel. I stayed only a block or so away, so I walked back toward the Cathedral to grab dinner. Then I walked back later to see the Cathedral at night. I went inside and talked to God for a while. It was the closest thing to a religious experience I’ve had in a long time. In the whole trip, the only time I was sorry to be alone was when I was staring at the Cathedral; I just wanted someone to be there for a second so I could turn and say, “Are you seeing this?”
I spent some more time the next morning exploring Cologne and then I caught a train to Amsterdam. It is really tempting when you travel all the way to Europe to want to see every city, and I tried to focus only on Germany, but when I saw that Amsterdam was so close and realized I knew someone there, I just couldn’t resist. Ellen has done VEDA the last two years, and I felt like I knew her already and we had talked a lot about getting a beer together in Amsterdam (we only had wine, so I guess I’ll have to go back!). The first thing we did was take a canal tour, which was amazing, though we talked so much that I probably missed a few things. I didn’t mind.
Amsterdam is one of those cities you probably have a fairly accurate picture of in your mind, but if you’re anything like me, then you didn’t realize that it was what you were imagining to the tenth power. Canals and bridges and brick everywhere! When we were walking to Ellen’s place, I said, “I have no frame of reference. This is not like any place I’ve been before.” We spent the evening eating homemade pizza and drinking red wine (fastest way to my heart) with Ellen’s boyfriend and talked some more. Meeting internet friends in real life, especially in new cities, never gets old.
The next day, I explored the city on my own, and went to see the Anne Frank house (but didn’t go inside because the line was so long). I was at the train station getting ready to head back to Berlin before I realized I should really drink a Heineken. I tried to enjoy my last train ride, reading and writing as much as I could. An hour before getting back to Berlin, I realized this would be the last time I’d arrive in a (mostly) unfamiliar city at night with no idea where to go next. I ate dinner and then took a terrifying taxi ride to my hotel. I was tired and by the time I finally got the door of my room and saw that the door knob was unlike any I had seen before and I couldn’t get it open, I had a moment of thinking, “After a week of everything new and unknown, this is one new thing too many!” I took a deep breath, took off my jacket and scarf, and figured out how to get the door open.
I woke up early the next morning and headed to the airport. I had a short stop in Brussels, where everyone was drinking even though it was only 10:30 am. I decided to fit in and have a Stella. It is no small thing to get to Europe from the West Coast, and even though the time difference worked in my favor on the way back, it was still more than 24 hours of travel. At one point, I thought that if Peter, the nice guy sitting next to me, bumped my arm one more time, I was going to elbow him in the face. Sorry, Peter. I finally got home, by which I mean walked through the door of my apartment on Friday night, and I didn’t know how to feel. I still don’t.
I didn’t know what to expect of Germany before I got there. I started to wonder right before I left if the going had been the real thing for me. As if I had never thought beyond that point. When people have asked me over the last year why I wanted to go to Germany, I have given a different answer every time, because the truth was that I didn’t really know. There are many good reasons to travel to Germany, but for me it was no more complicated than I simply wanted to go. So, I did. And it was something even more than I wanted it to be. And, if I’m being honest, more than I needed it to be.
I am happy I saw Germany the way that I did–as much as I could and yet with no real plan. I thought that traveling alone would give me an opportunity to see a lot of cities, however briefly, and then I would have a good idea of where to return on future trips. But, the problem I see is that I loved every city. So I guess it’s a good thing that I can’t wait to return to Europe.
On Saturday, I woke up in my own bed, and after sleeping in a different place every night for the previous eight days, it was the first time I thought, “Where am I?”
You can see all of my totes artsy iPhone pictures here.