Friday, September 14, 2018

The Travel Bug: My First Trip to Germany

I mentioned in my last Travel Bug post that the summer I spent in Dublin was what sparked my desire to travel. It's completely true; I was there for only a short while, but everything I did and saw in those months felt bigger and more transformational than anything I'd ever experienced. These experiences include my first trip to Germany, which is where this post begins. 

Disclaimer: please excuse the quality of the photos in this post - this was before the days of smartphones and I had a brick of a Kodak camera that no amount of editing can fix (haha).
I had never been to Germany prior to my summer internship in Ireland. I'd read about it, dabbled in learning the language, and knew my family had German roots, but I never actively pursued visiting Germany. I liked German: it was an entirely unique language and completely different from the French I'd been studying for years. Gothic, not romantic. Different sentence structures. Different verb forms. A completely new culture with a whole new set of traditions, norms, foods, stories, architecture, history....the list goes on. I was the secretary of my high school's "Deutsch Club" (I did study it for three years) and loved watching German movies, cooking German foods, and celebrating the culture with other members in the club. We even went Christmas caroling (auf Deutsch) around the school before Christmas break!

And then I met Cleo.

Cleo was an exchange student from the northern part of Germany that I met my junior year of high school. She was in my French class and we started sitting together at lunch with a few exchange students from Japan, Korea, and Switzerland. It was so neat being friends with such a diverse group of people, and I loved hearing stories from their home countries over lunch. The better half of our conversations left us in misunderstanding and we were terrible at putting plans together because of language barriers, but we grew very close nevertheless. And then at the end of the school year, after we all went to Prom together, it was time for Cleo and the others to return home. I honestly thought I'd never see her again. We Skyped a few times after I graduated and went to college, but eventually we lost touch. It was devastating to lose such a great friend but I came to terms with having to let go of things and move on. It's part of life, and I did the best I could to embrace that. 

The Easter before I went to Ireland, I got a phone call. I didn't recognize the number at first, but I decided to answer anyway - and thank goodness I did! Cleo was back in Michigan visiting her host family and was wondering if I'd like to meet up for coffee. OF COURSE I WOULD! The voice in my head was screaming, I miss you!!! Unfortunately I went to school in Minnesota, nearly a thousand miles from home, and it obviously it didn't work for me to see her. But as I had already started planning for my internship, it hit me: I was going to Europe that summer. Germany was only a short flight away and I simply had to see her. We didn't have a solid plan, only that we had to make it happen somehow. We re-established contact over the next few months as I prepared for my internship, and the following weeks until our visit just flew by.
We'd decided on the Fourth of July weekend. We would have Friday through Sunday evening together, and Cleo said she had loads of things in mind for us to do during my first trip ever to Germany. It came before I knew it, and I had packed only a small carry-on for the weekend. I boarded the small Aer-Lingus plane and landed in Germany a short while later. When I did get to the airport in Hannover, Cleo met me at the gate. We hugged, we cried, and we just stood there for a moment in disbelief that we were actually seeing each other again. It felt like I was in a dream as we walked to her car, catching up on each others' summers thus far and what was coming in the next few days and months.

Her house wasn't far, only a short drive to her beautiful neighborhood in a town called Langenhagen. We grabbed a quick snack of German brot and a few fruity beers, then headed off to Hannover. The majority of our weekend was spent exploring the city: we walked around downtown, visiting a few different cafes and bars including "Jack the Ripper", where we met a few gentlemen who were watching the Fussball game. The World Cup was going on, so every place we went to was showing the games as they were played. 
Cleo also showed me some of the unique parts of Hannover, such as a "love lock" bridge, a few of the government buildings, some ruins from WWII, and bookshelves randomly placed throughout the city for people to "take a book, leave a book". It was so different from Dublin, and incredibly different from anything in the United States. I was in love. The city, the architecture, the people, the transportation...everything. We went to the Herrenhäuser Gärten, a large garden leading up to the Herrenhäuser Palace, where people now put on events and even weddings. It was modeled after the Garden of Versailles, and having been to both, I can say they were very similar but completely unique. We loved it.
After the Garden, we went to a flea market (Flohmarkt), where I bought a German mug and Fussball scarf, Cleo bought a kilo of cherries, and we both bought brightly colored, extremely comfortable pants from India. We had an amazing time browsing around, seeing all the knick-knacks that people brought to sell. It was a nice day out, and we walked around for what felt like hours. It was like she'd never left Michigan: I half expected the bell ring and for us to 'head to class' like we had years before.
From the Flohmarkt, we went back to her house to have dinner before heading out again. Germany was playing France in the World Cup that evening (the second-to-last match in the entire tournament), and Cleo wanted to take me to a traditional Biergarten to watch the match. When we arrived, I was blown away by the amount of people donning black, red, and yellow gear! Everyone was showing German pride and it was an absolutely electric atmosphere. The game was on a giant screen at one end of the Biergarten, so after Cleo and I ordered our drinks (Tequila shots and Kirsche - cherry - beer) we found a spot and settled in. Germany won (of course) and the entire place erupted. We had a few more drinks before leaving, and the Germans were celebrating hard. Flags were being draped outside cars, people were running around with their faces painted, and drivers even honked at each other in celebration. Even Michigan doesn't get that excited when the Lions win...
We had a relaxing night that evening, watching Wolf of Wallstreet (Cleo and I share a passion for a good Leo flick), having some wine we picked up at Edeka, and just talking. Then the next day it was back up and about, soaking in every minute we had together. We drove into town and went to a Schutzenfest (Shooting Festival) parade, both sporting our new pants from India. It was hot out, and we were amazed to see the heavy costumes worn by those in the parade. I'm fairly certain I would have passed out if I'd been wearing so many layers!
The day passed quickly, and before I knew it Cleo was driving me back to the airport. It was an incredibly short visit, but we were both thankful for the time we had together. And since that trip, Cleo and I have kept in touch - through snail mail, Skype, Facebook, you name it - and I've even been back to visit her a few times (more Travel Bug posts to come!). For never having thought that I would visit Germany, it made an enormous impression on me. After just that first trip, I knew I'd go back. I had to. And I did.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

The Travel Bug: My Summer on the Emerald Isle (Ireland 2014).

If you had told me my junior year of college that I'd be spending the following summer in Ireland, I would have laughed. At the time, I was working 40+ hours per week, taking a full load of classes, struggling with a difficult relationship, and trying to cope with the horrible decision I'd made to live off-campus (the first place I'd found so I could stay at school over the summer). I wanted to be 'grown-up' and start figuring things out for myself. But at the time I really wasn't doing such a great job, and it was hard to admit that my parents were right. I should have gone home for the summer, enjoyed the time with family and friends, and left that relationship sooner rather than another four months down the road.

However, if I'm honest I don't regret how difficult that year was. Sure, I was extremely unhappy and overworking myself to the point of exhaustion, but it brought me to a breaking point where I realized that I needed something else to focus on. I needed something that would take my mind off of how impossible life seemed at the time. What did I want? What could I do that would benefit me in the long run? What was I working so hard for? After much thought, I made the decision to find an internship for the following summer. I didn't know where to start, but I did know that I wanted to travel. With luck, I found an opportunity that seemed perfect: based in London, it was an eight-week program that guaranteed me great hours at a job that would be matched to my major and interests. I was sold (or rather, it was sold, to me - it was an unpaid internship with a program fee). I started my research and tried to crunch out the numbers. And then, between many emails with my parents, we figured out that London just wasn't going to work. Between the flights, the exchange rate between the USD and British Pound, the program fee itself, the visa fee, and then the overall fact that I would be spending money for two months instead of making money, I just couldn't make it work. Big deal, right? Move on. Find something else.

Well, there was the small fact that I had impulsively paid the $800 non-refundable deposit without telling my parents. Whoops.
Phone calls began. I was panicked, hopeful that the company could somehow refund me the money or that my parents would change their minds and let me borrow more money. There was just no way for me to get the deposit back, and frankly I felt like a complete idiot. But finally, the program coordinator I was working with told me that if I was willing to switch locations, the deposit could be transferred to another one of their programs that didn't cost as much. I could pick another program in a country whose currency was closer to that of the USD and most importantly didn't require the $1200 VISA. I was so excited. And as it turned out, the only program that fit these cost cuts was the one for Dublin, Ireland. The planning for my summer internship on the Emerald Isle began.

I poured myself into work. Any spare shifts that were available on days I wasn't already working, I picked up. Any overtime I could get, I took. I even skipped a few days of classes so I could pick up early-morning shifts cashiering or helping to unload the truck (I worked in retail). My entire focus shifted. Instead of spending my (now few) free evenings with friends, going to the gym, or even just relaxing, I was creating spreadsheets, payment plans, packing lists, notes of places I'd want to see, schedules...I wanted the summer to be perfect. I pushed myself to my limits, had an extremely limited social life (though I did grow quite close with my coworkers), and was stressed to the point of tears more times than I'd like to admit. I was a workaholic. And I was only 20 years old. But despite it all, I felt like I was working towards something. There was an end in sight. Before I knew it, I was speaking via Skype with my future boss, a lovely man with a thick Irish accent, learning about his company. It was a marketing start-up that specialized in contextual advertising, and they worked with countries around the world to provide the best advertising solutions whether on a computer or on a mobile device. It seemed like a perfect fit for someone majoring in International Business. He even shared an interested in my French language skills because of course they dealt with French-speaking countries. My heart! And then before I knew it, the spring semester was over and it was time to go meet him in person. During the week prior to take-off, I finally went home (something I neglected to do on previous school breaks because of the promise for more hours at work). I could sleep again. I could breath. After a rush of a week, during which I spent nearly every minute with my family, celebrated my 21st birthday, and packed only a suitcase and a carry-on for the entirety of the summer, I was off. I was on the plane. And all of a sudden, I was landing in Dublin.
The company hosting my program - Global Experiences - provided lodging for all 30+ interns there on our summer internships. We nearly took over a high apartment complex covered in vines, and my 8 roommates and I shared a flat on the 6th floor. It was a very small space for so many girls, and we quickly learned that the apartment building had awful water temperature control. On top of that, the interns formed "clicks" very quickly, and not being much of a joiner at the time, I spent most of my free time chatting with locals at cafes or blogging rather than interacting with the other interns. I did become quite close with a few of my roommates (whom I still keep in touch with), so it was nice to have a few people that quickly felt like friends in a foreign city. The very first day we arrived, our program coordinator took is on a mini tour around the city and do some grocery shopping. I felt like we were thrown into the past: people crowded the sidewalks, pigeons were everywhere, the streets were rough, the buildings were old and rose high above the streets, and there were even horse-drawn carriages waiting among the taxis on the sides of the streets. Throughout the summer, we also noted street performers were very popular, particularly on the pedestrian-only Grafton street. I heard at least a dozen different languages simply walking around. 

We quickly learned that St. Stephen's Green (a large park with tons of birds, a beautiful lake, and a statue of Oscar Wilde) was the 'place to be' on a beautiful day. There was a shopping mall nearby with "TK Maxx" and a department/grocery store combination Dunn's. We learned to love KC Peaches (a sandwich/salad bar/cafe), do most of our grocery shopping at Tesco, and became accustomed to evenings enjoying Bulmer's apple or pear cider. We were starting to find a routine to life abroad.
The internship itself was interesting. My desk was next to the second-in-command's, a very friendly woman from Brazil. She was the "mother of the office" (which by the way, was very small, situated in the back of an antique shop!) and kept us all up-to-date on neat things happening in the city. Other interns in the office were from Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Austria, and Germany (So glad to have met my friends Kristina and Theresa there). I did get to use my French and Spanish language skills to help conduct business, and being in such a culturally diverse office made for some very interesting lunchtime discussions. My adoration of Friends was not understood by my European counterparts.

Over the course of the summer, I learned that there was so much more to do and see than one might think when visiting Ireland. I could probably write many blogs on my summer there (and I did, actually - I blogged the entire time I was there, on a past blog, which has since been deleted...I suppose I'll just have to go back one day and do it all over again!) A few of us took a "Hop on, Hop off" bus tour, and spent a day touring the Guinness brewery, several churches including Trinity Church, the various bridges, and more. One day there was an "intern outing" and we all took a ride on a DUKW and drove through the city, then popped onto the water and continued our tour. Another outing involved a day trip to Kilkenny and Glendalough (which reminded me of the beautiful scenery in Lord of the Rings). And then there was a day a few of us decided to take a trip all the way from Dublin to Galway, stopping at a few shepherding towns and seeing where parts of Braveheart were filmed along the way. There was so much packed into the summer. And coming soon in another Travel Bug post - I even spent a weekend in Germany and another in Paris! 
 (It honestly felt like we were in a fairytale!)
My summer in Dublin had many firsts. It was the first time I ever got drunk at a bar with friends and walked home with them, loudly singing in the streets. It was the first time I ever walked to and from the grocery store (hauling a massive burlap bag back and forth). It was the first time I'd ever gotten to use my foreign language skills in a professional setting. And it was the first time I ever went vegan. There was just something about being in a new place that encouraged (and forced) me to come out of my comfort zone. 

And my roommates and I ended up having more in common than we thought. Evenings were occasionally spent sitting around our kitchen table, each working on her own blog. One of them came with me when I went to Paris. Another decided to spend a weekend in London going to the Harry Potter theme park. We all loved travel. At one point I looked up Zumba videos and we all rocked out to Pit Bull and Shakira together. I had so many experiences I could have never dreamed of prior to going to Dublin, and looking back they all seem so normal: so natural. I really couldn't imagine having spent that time any other way.

Parts of Dublin were challenging of course. Living with so many people ranging from 18 to 25 was often frustrating (Who bought toilet paper this week? Why is she taking so long in the bathroom? Why are they smoking in here? For the love of God, who is this random man sleeping on our couch!?!?) Sometimes we argued. Sometimes we acted like total girls and just gave each other the silent treatment. And then there was walking to and from work, the grocery store, any outings, etc. every single day, only adding to the frustration by having feet covered in blisters. I would be lying if I said I didn't call my mom in tears on more than one occasion! But all in all, it was a huge period of growth and self-development. I had a huge recoil from family about going vegan, and while it could have torn me up and made me change my mind, it gave me a stronger desire to learn more and make it work. There were days at work when my boss didn't have anything for us to do, so the other interns and I busied ourselves with random research. Sometimes it rained on a weekend and there was literally nothing to do without getting absolutely soaked. And then the day I had to leave to go back to the US, I had to walk nearly two miles in the rain to the bus stop, everything crammed into my one suitcase and one carry-on, and of course it was raining. I never hugged my mother so tightly as I did that day at the airport, and I think its a moment neither of us will ever forget.
I loved Dublin. It was a new culture with a new history, and a new atmosphere that I had never experienced before. Intern living was less than ideal, but it made me learn how to be a better communicator and forced me out of my comfort zone. I learned so much in those few months in Ireland and wouldn't trade the experience for anything. And while yes, it would have been nice to have spent those same months working and actually being paid for it, I was able to live comfortably because of all the work I'd done the year before. The stress had paid off. The hard work, the long shifts, the spreadsheets...everything had come to fruition. And while today I'm not necessarily in a position that uses anything from my internship in Dublin, that summer - even more so than the 10 days in France - began my strong desire to travel. It started a four-year streak of travelling outside of the United States, and fueled me to visit more than one country on a given trip. Something about boarding a plane, being greeted with the sweet ignorance of a new culture the moment you arrive, and feeling the challenge of assimilating into a new place just strikes a chord with me and makes me so happy. I thrive on it.

I didn't learn Gaelic or memorize any Irish jigs, but my summer on the Emerald Isle was one I will never forget. I could write more. Way more. But....I think you've got the highlights. And I'll be back one day, I'm sure of it. Slàinte!

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