Monday, January 11, 2016

Why travel?

Why travel? What’s the point after all? What are all of us travelers searching for in these foreign destinations? Thrill? New sights? Culture shock? Excitement? Challenges? Unique food? Independence? Inspiration? Self-discovery? Adventure? New experiences? 

I follow tons of legit travel bloggers on social media. And when I mean legit, I mean that they dedicate their lives to travel; they quit their jobs and are now traveling long-term as their profession. They make money through their blogs from writing freelance articles, advertising, marketing, campaigns, etc. When reading the “about me” pages and posts of all these bloggers, no one ever really talks about why they travel, they just explain how to travel. I guess everyone just assumes that the answer is obvious? Why not?

One day, Ajay, an Indian guy staying at the same hostel as me in Kiel asked me, "Wanna go to Laboe tomorrow?"

"You should really come!", Leila, a Kenyan girl also staying at our hostel said to me. Maybe you remember Ajay and Leila from my last blog post? Well at the time they asked me to go to Laboe, I had just met Ajay that day and I had only met Leila the day before. They also had only met each other that day but both had free time and were planning a day trip to Laboe, a small beach town on the Baltic sea. Even though I didn't know them very well, they were so friendly so of course I said yes and the next morning we set off on the ferry ride to Laboe. 

Laboe is nothing special, especially not in October when the sun basically doesn't exist in northern Germany and rain falls almost everyday. But it was Leila's first time in Europe and she found everything absolutely "amazing". Literally. She kept pointing at the sea and the buildings saying, "this is just amazing!!". It was nice to see someone so excited about a place that most people consider normal or even dull.

Ajay and Leila turned out being really funny and we all pretty much clicked immediately. We had a lot of fun that day, walking on the empty beach, taking pictures, eating fish sandwiches, checking out the Naval Memorial and the WWII German submarine. Laboe is no Berlin or Frankfurt or Cologne or Hamburg; very few international tourists have even heard of Laboe much less traveled there yet I had a lot of fun that day, solely because of the people I was with. The next night they also surprised me with an early birthday present of chocolate, caramel Müsli (probably my favorite German food ever). It was so sweet of them!

I love these cute, little pod-like beach chair things all over German beaches! 

Naval Memorial commemorating sailors of all nationalities that died during the World Wars

U-boat Nazi submarine

Müsli!!!!!!!! YES

A week or so later, a few days before my birthday, I was feeling a little sad because I knew Mihai would be in school and have German language lessons afterwards until 5pm so I would be alone all day. I asked Leila if she'd like to get lunch with me and she said she was busy on the actual day of my birthday but the day before she could meet! We went to a German restaurant that Mihai's host family recommended and got smoked salmon pizza. And when the check came, Leila insisted on paying for me because I was the birthday girl. I was so surprised, I had only met her a week ago. She was so kind and thoughtful and really cheered me up.

On the actual day of my birthday I was alone in the German countryside waiting to meet Mihai after his German lessons. I couldn't help being a tad bummed. It didn't even feel like my birthday. But that night I met up with Mihai, we went back to his house and he surprised me with a strawberry cake with those sparkler candles that won't stop burning and his whole host family standing around the table singing happy birthday and a few presents. One present was a hat that I had seen at a German market, which was a little expensive. At the market I said I'd think about buying it and keep looking. Later, I went back to buy it, only to find that someone had beat me to it and bought it already. I was so mad!! Little did I know that that someone turned out to be Mihai. After eating cake with his host family, Mihai and I went out for dinner at a sushi restaurant. Definitely turned out being a perfect birthday, all thanks to my perfect boyfriend :)

Before coming to Germany, I knew I'd be alone during the day while Mihai was at school. But then he found out he had a two week fall break from school in the end of October. We were thrilled! We'd be able to spend all day everyday together for those two weeks. Then we found out that Mihai had to go to German language lessons the entire month I was there from 1pm until 5 everyday, even during his fall break. We were upset to say the least. I often got really mad because the whole reason I was going to Germany was to see Mihai. But we did our best not to let this get in the way. We often woke up early at 6 or 7am to spend the morning together before he had to go to his lessons and always met up afterwards in the evening. We definitely did our best to spend every moment together! And now that I'm in Japan I even miss the hour long sleepy bus rides at 6 am with Mihai.

Early morning in Schwedeneck

One of our early morning breakfasts in Schwedeneck before Mihai's German lesson

Like I said before in a previous post, I was forced to learn how to spend a lot of time alone out in the middle of nowhere German countryside. This alone time also made me appreciate conversation and socializing so much more. Silke, the owner of the hostel stopped by often to help clean, make jam or get some other errands done. We'd also sit and chat while sipping on tea and I got to know her a little bit. After finishing gymnasium (German high school) she spent a year au pairing in Ireland. In university, she majored in English and art. She spent a year studying abroad in Canada/backpacking around the U.S. Silke then saved up money during university and after graduating spent a year backpacking around New Zealand, Fiji and Thailand. Silke is in her 40s so she did all of this traveling in the 90s, back when there were no cell phones, much less iPhones. I asked her if it was scary, not being able to call someone if she needed help, or look up directions with a GPS if she got lost. She said no and that she liked the freedom traveling gave her. She physically couldn't text or call her parents everyday and liked the independence. She also did all of this travel alone. She said she prefers traveling alone because she could do exactly as she pleased. She loves horseback riding and hiking. Originally, she wanted to be an art teacher but after staying at so many hostels around the world, she decided that she too wanted to open up her own hostel. Silke said she's done traveling and settled down with her boyfriend and daughter in Kiel but enjoys meeting travelers that stay at her hostel, like me, because it makes her feel like she's still seeing the world. Wow. Talk about inspiring.

One day when Silke and I were making jam together I mentioned that my birthday was in a week. She asked me what my astrology sign was. I told her that I was a libra and she said she wasn't surprised. "My birthday is in October too but I knew you couldn't be a scorpio like me", she said. "Why??", I asked. She said that she could never do what I was doing; traveling the world by myself at age 19. I argued that she had done nearly the same thing!! But she said she wasn't quite as young when she traveled independently (in her mid twenties) and is not as outgoing as I am. I found this to be such a wonderful compliment from such an experienced traveler like Silke.

One Friday, Mihai's host family went to spend the night in Hamburg to visit their eldest daughter/sister. They told Mihai he should spend time with me because I'd be leaving soon and I was welcome to sleepover while they were gone. We went out that night to some bars/clubs in Kiel. The next day we were pretty tired and spent our day sleeping in, drinking tea, listening to music and just relaxing. We expected his host family to be home at around 3 or 4 in the afternoon but they never showed up. Every time we heard a noise, we thought it might be them but it never was. We felt like parents anxiously awaiting our kids arrival back home. We kept joking that we'd taken over their house and owned it now and they were never coming back. Finally, his host mom texted Mihai saying they wouldn't be home until around 8pm. We then went grocery shopping and decided to cook a big, delicious dinner as a surprise for his host family when they came home. Even though we barely left the house, I think this might've actually been one of my favorite days in Germany just because Mihai and I laughed so much!

We found this bent up spoon in Mihai's host fam's kitchen and couldn't stop laughing

So you're probably wondering why I'm telling you all of these random stories from Germany? Well, all of these moments made me realize that more often than not, the people we spend our time with are more important than where we are. Northern Germany may not have been on the top of my travel list but it turned out being an amazing month because of the people I was with. And yeah, maybe Mihai and I didn't get to spend all day, every day together but we did our best! Plus, seeing him only for a few hours everyday will always be better than not seeing him at all.

This realization brings me back to the question, why travel? Why travel if, like I just said, the destination is irrelevant compared to the people? Well, ironically, I never would have made this realization if I didn't travel. That's what traveling does, it exposes you to new challenges, new experiences, new situations, new cultures and new people, which forces you to learn lessons that you'd never learn by just staying at home. And that's why I travel. Oh yeah, and because it's fun and I like foreign food ;)

Friday, December 25, 2015

Why do Germans have a cold stereotype?

When Mihai found out that he'd be living in Schleswig-Holstein, the northernmost region of Germany, he was a little bit nervous because everyone he had met through his exchange program, CBYX, said that north Germans are cold, closed and reserved. This stereotype is quite common; I had heard the same thing when in Italy. However, based on my experiences, this generalization could not be farther from the truth. I was pleasantly surprised by the friendliness and generosity that I experienced with all of the Germans I met in the Kiel area.

He's not German but he's still pretty too cool

From the beginning, Silke, the owner of the hostel I worked/stayed at, had been more than generous with me. I had very little work and essentially a free place to stay. She often gave me rides to Kiel and back to Schwedeneck so I didn't have to take the hour long bus ride. She even left me a surprise birthday present of elderflower juice and chocolates. She cooked a traditional German dinner of raw, salted mackerel, apples and potato in a mayonnaise sauce for Mihai and I one evening. She even drove him to the bus stop that night so he didn't have to walk alone in the dark. She prepared breakfast for me one morning and invited me along with her and her 8-year-old daughter to play mini golf. She bought me a fish sandwich for lunch that day too. She let me take home a jar of the homemade elderberry jam we made together. She is an extremely kind-hearted woman and I'm so grateful to have met her!

The meal Silke made for us :)

Mini golf with Silke!!

Mathilda, Silke's 8-year-old daughter

Mihai's friends had a party and invited me to come too. As soon as I got there, everyone was so welcoming, friendly and talkative! A couple other times I hung out with Mihai and his friends and they were so nice. Mihai's one friend, Niklas, once waited two hours for us to finish eating dinner so we could all ride the train together. He also bought us subway cookies once!

New German friends!

By the last week in Germany, I got a decent amount of guests staying at the hostel in Schwedeneck. Nina and Frederike were two 16-year-old girls from Berlin staying in the countryside for a week during their fall vacation. And Johst was a 19-year-old guy from Hamburg who was staying in Scwedeneck for three weeks while he did an internship with a blacksmith. Nina, Frederike and Johst were all extremely talkative and were always hanging out together. Although, I was often busy cleaning and going to visit Mihai in Kiel, the three always invited me to join them in bike rides, meals or late night walks. Nina and Frederike even asked for my phone numbers and invited me to come visit them in Berlin sometime!

Midnight stroll in the middle of nowhere

Frederike, Johst and Nina

When Silke made dinner for Mihai and I at the hostel in Schwedeneck, it turned into a little mini party. Normally at night in the hostel it was just me, myself and I (hyperventilating in the dark from a nightmare about someone sneaking in and murdering me) but that evening there was Silke and her daughter, Mihai and I, Johst, Frederike and Nina and also two construction workers. Definitely a party compared to what I was used to! When I first welcomed the construction workers to the hostel, they kind of intimidated me. They were the typical construction workers: big, burly and gruff. As soon as they got into the kitchen they began unloading bottles of beer, vodka and whiskey. Silke had warned me they might be a little rambunctious. Oh boy. But that wasn't the case at all. The two men sat with the rest of us in the kitchen, sipping on their beers, talking and laughing. One guy offered us a piece of his own homemade salted eel (not my favorite food; super oily). He also pulled out his phone showing us picture of his wife and children. Shows you can't judge a book by it's cover! That tough guy construction worker was a  huge softie inside!

The two construction workers

Enjoying his alcohol haha

Barbara (Mihai's host mom), Jorn (host dad) and Merle (18-year old host sister) basically adopted me into their family as a second exchange student. After our first dinner together they invited me to come back anytime. I went over at least once a week for dinner and spent nearly every Friday and Saturday sleeping over. Jorn once joked that I only came over for the free food and was eating them out of house and home (not true!). Mihai and I were so happy that his host parents allowed me to sleepover! I couldn't believe it! These people had been strangers to Mihai less than a month ago and were now welcoming both him and his girlfriend into their homes as if we were family. I know that my old host family in Italy would never have permitted such a thing. Mihai is really lucky to have such an amazing host family. They're also a perfect fit for each other because the whole family eats healthy, Jorn and Merle do crossfit and Jorn always takes Mihai on long bike rides and runs.

For some weird reason, I don't have a picture of Merle but this is Barbara and Jorn!

Baltic sea!!!

Mihai's host family is also extremely family-oriented and slightly quirky (but in a good way). They eat dinner together every night and linger for at least an hour (sometimes two) afterwards in conversation. They have their own unique family words that they invented, for example schnabel is the word they invented for when they have a really small amount of food leftover. They eat a huge breakfast of bread with various toppings (similar to Danish smorrebrod but less fancy) such as pickled herring (fish), smoked salmon, sausage and other meats and a variety of cheeses and jams together every Saturday and Sunday morning at 10am. Then every weekend they take at least one outing all together as a family. I joined them too a few times! Once we went to a fall market in Surendorf (countryside) and another time we walked around the beach town of Eckenforde.

German breakfast mmmm

Hard candy factory

Flags from each district of Germany


Of course it was raining, what's new

The thing about German people, though, is that they are blunt, relatively private and don't talk if they don't feel like it. These are the only reasons I can think of that may explain why they're considered "cold". For example, Johst (the guy from Hamburg staying in the Schwedeneck with me) once saw my hairbrush and said, " You should really clean that..." Then when Mihai and I went to Hamburg, we asked this couple waiting in line if they'd take a picture of us. The couple was just standing in line, not doing anything, waiting for a bratwurst but they looked at us and flat out said "no". Not even "no thanks", just "no". Then they smiled and turned their backs on us. It was such an odd encounter. Germans don't really beat around the bush; if they don't want to take a picture of you, they're not going to do it just to be polite.

Oh and a random thing about Germans, they love contraptions for their boiled eggs. They use egg holders and have another thing for cracking a boiled egg and then two more devices for slicing their eggs. Totaling 5 thingamabobs just for boiled eggs. Back when I was in Italy, my German friend Christian even had egg holder in his camper. I guess he was munching on a lot of hard boiled eggs during his camping trips and, of course, being German, would never use anything besides the designated egg holder.

Egg holder! Don't have pictures of the other things though :(

But the good thing about Germans always telling the truth is that you know they mean what they say. I know Jorn and Barbara weren't just being polite when they said they didn't mind driving me and Mihai to a restaurant. They really just didn't mind. That's another thing, from what I experienced, German people are extremely laid back. I never once saw Jorn and Barbara stressed much less upset about anything (not even when I accidentally used salt instead of sugar in the apple pie). If I did something wrong at the hostel, Silke never got irritated either, she'd just calmly explain the right way to do it. Oh my gosh, quick side note, German bed sheets are SO WEIRD. It took me forever to figure out the right way to make a bed. Okay, so there's the normal bottom sheet that wraps around the bed (nothing different to the American one) but then things get strange. Germans don't use another bed sheet over the tops of their bodies and then a comforter. Instead, they just put a sheet around their comforters. Then they wash this comforter-wrapper sheet instead of the whole comforter. Typical efficient Germans. Why have a sheet and a comforter when you could just combine the two?? Except it makes making a bed a pretty difficult task because you have to shove the comforter inside of it's wrapper sheet.

The even weirder thing is that double sized sheets, comforters and mattresses simply don't exist. Germans simply put two single-sized mattresses side by side and each person has their own comforter. This is a prime example of how Germans value their privacy.

Found this pic on Gail Gaymer Martin's blog

Mihai told me that in the mornings before school he'd always eat breakfast with his host dad, Jorn. In the beginning, Mihai said he'd always try to make small talk with Jorn but Jorn would just reply half-heartedly and return to reading the newspaper. Mihai was worried that Jorn was angry with him or something because normally he was very sociable. Later, Jorn told Mihai that he simply didn't like talking in the morning. And that was that, Mihai never talked to Jorn again in the morning. Silke also told me that her boyfriend disliked talking in the morning. Maybe it's a common trend among German men to drink their coffee in peace and quiet?

I also took a day trip while Mihai was at German lessons to Lübeck, a city renowned for it's gothic architecture, about an hour south-east of Kiel. Definitely my favorite German city so far because it had so many historic buildings compared to Kiel (a lot of Kiel was destroyed during WWII).

One last thing before I end this post, if anyone is curious/interested in traveling the same way I do, don't hesitate to contact me! I love helping and giving advice :) Just leave a comment on this post or message me on Twitter or Facebook!

Holsten gate

Inside St. Mary's church

View from top of St. Mary's

Huge marzipan shop called 

In love with this townhouse