And all of this wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for the fact I had four months in a very centrally located country with an amazing (though quite expensive and ein bisschen monopolistic) train system and the existence of Ryanair. And also my travel buddies who are extremely talented at travel planning (and actually enjoy it!) as well as discount brands at grocery stores, especially in Germany.
This morning, I hopped on a train to leave my home forever, and didn’t look back. I realized there was no sense in thinking too much about it. I boarded the train from Track 2 in Vallendar station to Koblenz as I had done so many times during the semester that it all felt routine.
I’ve moved around before, but it was almost always back and forth from the places I called home. Whenever I left, I knew I’d come back eventually. This time was different. I never expected to feel such at home in little quaint Vallendar, but I did. The truth of it never hit me so much as it did tonight, after I settled into my lodging for the night in Stuttgart that I’ll probably never see Vallendar again. And even if I do return, it wouldn’t be the same. I’ll just be passing through.
Something I’ve always struggled with is the saying, “Home is where the heart is.” Can it be more than one place? What if I don’t feel anything for anywhere? Germany made me realize I could do something about this, that I made the mistake of merely adapting to my surroundings, thinking it was enough, and never trying to belong. There is a difference. Feeling you belong makes the place home, wherever you are. Otherwise it is just an address, simply where you live. All my life, I’ve been trying to balance out the cultural differences, trying to awkwardly fit in to both. At some point, I knew as hard as I tried, I would always be a mixture of at least two worlds, but I always saw the glass as half-empty and not half-full.
Germany taught me many things, but the most powerful and simplest of one was the great difference a small change of mind can be. I wanted to be European. I wanted to thrive in this new surrounding. I came here with an open heart and mind, freed myself all my emotional baggage upon arrival — and it made all the difference. Germany became home for me because I WANTED it to be.
Part of the reasons to study abroad is the demonstration and experience that one is a global citizen. One must be empathetic towards different cultures and find strength and harmony through those differences, rather than dissonance.
I know I am blessed beyond measure to have three places in the world that I can call Home. Slowly, but surely, I’m emerging from my self-induced dissonance, and truly making an effort to make music out of my eclectic identity.
P.S. I’m coming home (back to Hawaii) on May 20, at which point I will have time to really process my life over the past few months and (hopefully) give a intelligible account.
Another thing I learned/saw in action: All things do happen in some sort of weird, great design; one just needs time to make the connections.
At one of the first socials we had at WHU where we got to meet the German students, we asked them, “Which city do you think is the most beautiful in Germany?”
Yes, it’s an unfair question, but we figured we’d get a nice variety of recommendations for future travel plans. We did get a quite a few answers (Munich, Cologne, Berlin, etc), but one city kept cropping up.
Which I was planning on going to anyway.
So when one of the 2nd semester Tauschies casually announced that she was planning on going to Heidelberg for a day the following Friday, I jumped at the opportunity.
We all met in the morning at the Vallendar Mitte bus stop to go to the Koblenz main train station. From there, we worked the logistics of splitting up into groups of 5 in order to get the Deutsche Bahn group discount. (*TIP for traveling via DB) We got a day pass ticket that involved a lot of transfers, but it only cost us 15 Euro each.
When we got to Heidelberg, we got off at what looked like the city center, but it looked nothing like the Heidelberg postcard pictures we saw when doing research online. (*ahem* research on traveling) Nevertheless, we took a light rail to see the Heidelberger Schloss – the iconic Heidelberg Castle. As most castles are, it was on the top of a hill, so it was quite a steep trek to the top. Especially since my boots were a bit big, and I was so not prepared for a hike. But when we reached the castle, it was absolutely beautiful, and this is what we saw:
And THIS is probably one of the most postcard-esque pictures I have taken.
Unfortunately, we had to pay to actually go in and see the ruins of the castle. I think it was 4 Euros, but I know it is 6 Euros to take the tram (round trip) and for entry into the Schloss. That way you don’t have to hike up that hill. But it’s a very scenic way to burn some calories!
At that point, I didn’t have much to burn because I was getting hungry. Some of us stayed back at the castle, but a dozen of us decided to head to the historic city center to find the university and get food. And that was when we saw the sun.
After being in Hawaii for so long and being so used to diving into shade under the trees, the sun had never looked better, shining over the quaint architecture and medieval ruins.
Oh, and did I mention the glorious pastries?
Of course, I succumbed and split a chocolate snowball (the little brown spheres at the top left corner of the picture) with two others. Chocolate on the outside surrounding some sort of angel food cake, with a chocolate-hazelnut creme center. It was divine.
We continued walking till we reached the river and the bridge. On the other side of the bridge, there was a hill where there are remnants of World War II history, a coliseum, and a monastery. The hill looked pretty steep, but the website promised us there would be “strategically placed benches along the trail.”
The story goes that we decided to go up the first part of the hill and see how we felt then whether or not we wanted to grab lunch after. More specifically after the first couple of benches or so. Fair enough.
Three minutes later of trekking up on a 50-degree incline of uneven cobblestone, I regretted it. So much. All we could think about was, “WHERE are those benches?!” Haha.
But when we reached the first bench (like a million years later), the view was amazing.
After climbing some more and asking some passerby who knew the hill better than we did, we surmised that the monastery and coliseum weren’t too far from where we were. So we decided to press on and find them before getting lunch.
The cobblestones disappeared and soon we were literally hiking through a forest on a dirt path. We were high enough to see the river wrapping around the hill and the sun beaming down on the little houses on the other side. It was perfect. The weather was warm, but cool enough to make the walk refreshing. In good time we saw a biker, who told us that both paths in the upcoming fork in the road would lead us to the monastery, which was close to the coliseum. We took the high way, the one that branched off and escalated above the path on the right. This hike was beautiful, scenic, and relatively easy considering this was completely spontaneous and unplanned and the fact none of us were in hiking attire.
“Relatively easy.” Or so we thought.
30 minutes later, when the trail started getting soft and muddy, and the trees were getting thicker, we realized we must have taken a wrong turn. The website said it would be 45 minutes from the bottom of the hill to the monastery, but even at the quick rate we were walking, we saw nothing, and it had been almost an hour since we crossed the bridge. Should we turn back? Keep going? Are we committed to finding this? When should we get lunch? But being the adventurers we are, we kept going.
At this point, I was EXTREMELY grateful for my previous decision of getting that snowball. Because that was the only thing keeping me moving.
Back in Vallendar, we knew the sun would start to set at around 4:30pm, so by 5:00, the sky would be nearly dark. None of us wanted to be stuck here at nightfall, so we decided to keep walking until a quarter before 3:00 to make sure we would be out of there by 4:00. We eventually turned back, and on our way downhill, we found the path we should have taken.
Which reminded me of: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, I took the one less traveled, and that has made all the difference.”
(credit, of course, goes to Robert Frost)
Even though we were tired, hungry, and unsuccessful in finding what we were looking for, it was one of the best hikes I’ve done, and it was totally worth it. Our little group bonded through our excursion, and we got lots of great views of Heidelberg we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. If I ever have the time (and proper hiking attire), I’m definitely coming back to find what we first set out to see. But that’s another story 🙂
I’ll conclude this post with one of my favorite pictures of all time (taken by yours truly)
I was originally going to combine the tales of our journeys through these two cities in Germany, but I love them so much that I think each of them deserves its own blog post.
(For more pictures, please enjoy my full album here.)
This is probably one of the first big, rather spontaneously planned Tauschie trip of the semester. All of us just want to go EVERYWHERE! And together. We announced that we’d be meeting at the Vallendar train station at 7:45AM to catch the 7:59 train, and pretty much thirty people showed up. It was cold, a little breezy, but the part that got me was how dark it was. The sky only started getting a tinge of blue 10 minutes before the train came (on time, of course).
For the train to Cologne, we were able to save money by buying our tickets in groups of 5 for the group discount that Deutsche Bahn (DB) offers. Another tip: we saw two Cologne stations on our way there. Don’t get off at the first one. The one you need to get off at is the Cologne Cathedral Main Station, or Köln Dom Hauptbahnhof. (Köln is the German name for Cologne. For a rough pronunciation guide, you can say it as KERN, as in “Kernel”)
We alighted in a massive steel web station, and once we got out, we saw this beholding sight.
This is the Cologne Cathedral, or the Köln Dom. Officially it’s called the High Cathedral of St. Peter, which gives it away that it’s Catholic. The Gothic architecture and rich history behind it makes it all the more imposing. Inside, it’s absolutely beautiful and so vast.
We paid a couple more Euros for the chance to climb the tower. I believe it was something like 500 steps. Felt like more, actually. I concede that I wasn’t able to make it up to the very top, but I got close! I seriously need to get into shape, haha.
In all seriousness though, this is a must-do for anyone in Cologne. Even if you can’t make it to the top, just visit the Cathedral. Who knows? You might even be treated with a special performance from these fellas. (They’re really quite good.)
Our next stop was the Lindt Chocolate Museum and Factory. Pretty much the next best thing after Willy Wonka. Lindt is probably one of my absolute favorite chocolate brand, so I was pretty excited to say the least. After an entertaining 20 minutes or so, walking around, looking for the river as a landmark, and asking for directions, we finally got there and got free samples upon entering! It was definitely interesting to see how the chocolates were made on such a grand level. As we toured the levels, we saw not only Lindt Chocolates, but essentially aspects of chocolate history around the world. For 4.50 Euro (or thereabouts) you can get your own custom made Lindt chocolate bar! If you go further in the tour, there’s an old-fashioned chocolate dispenser that gives you chocolate bar (milk chocolate) for 1 Euro.
At this point, we were starving, so our group of 15 (everyone kinda dispersed after the initial photo) went searching for food. The lady at the Lindt information desk gave us suggestions to go to a restaurant where they served authentic German food for decent prices. It also didn’t seem too far from Rudolfplatz, which was supposed to be very historical. Half an hour later, we finally got to the Früh am Veedel. The food took SUPER long to get to the table, but when it did, it was pretty amazing.
Oh, if you’re ever in Cologne, make sure you try the local beer, Kölsch. It’s kind of a big deal. It’s pricier than your average beer, but so worth it. (Sorry I don’t have a picture this time)
And then it rained. And then it poured. We passed by several medieval buildings that may or may not still be in commission. By the time we got to or what we thought was Rudolfplatz, it was so wet and dreary that we just decided to go back because we couldn’t find the Roman ruins we were looking for.
But the day wasn’t over just yet. We HAD to find the birthplace of eau de cologne. After getting disappointed from accidentally walking into a chain store/gift shop, we found the original 4711.
Our little group split up some more once we got back near the train station to do some shopping. So Cindy, May, and I ended the day with a Cologne specialty: piping-hot currywurst from a street vendor. It was a marvelous 3.50 Euro spent.
I will definitely be back in Cologne, if not on a personal planned trip, then definitely for the Köln Karneval. We’ll be going there on March 3rd, so stay posted! It’s going to be a good one!
I hope you are doing well. It’s been so long since I have written, but even longer since I have heard back. I know we’re all busy with other things, but I should have made this a higher priority. And I shall do my best, I promise.
It is currently quite early in the morning here in Germany. As you know, I’m not a morning person. I’ve never been used to waking up before sunrise – though I have seen the sun rise because I barely slept. But right now in Germany, daybreak is so late. The sky only begins to lighten up at 8AM. By 4PM, the sun has already approached the horizon. Small things that I certainly do miss about the island. However, I am grateful for the opportunity to see the sun rise and set beautifully everyday. I have never taken it for granted, and I will miss these things until I experience them again, but I realized that even if I never do–among other things–I will be fine. Life just rolls on, and you do too. A very wise person taught me that, and while I live with it every moment, I know I will never be able thank him enough.
I am going to have such a difficult time leaving this place. At least as far as this welcome week goes, it reminds me of the United States Senate Youth Program, where in one week, I met some of the best, most brilliant young people I ever had (probably will have) the pleasure to. To this day, and I’m sure for long beyond, I will continued to be inspired by these people. Even here in Germany, though the program is not as competitive simply because of its nature, the people here are pretty awesome. Of course, the club, beers, and dance floors brings out our other natures, but hey – I’m finally learning to live a little.
By the way, don’t get jelly, but many people before I came (mostly females, not surprisingly) have made sure I did not forget how lucky I am to be in Germany. By popular demand, I feel obligated to disclose – yes, there are indeed more males at the school, and yes, they are indeed on the whole very good-looking. But I digress.
I was able to successfully register for all the classes I need, thankfully. This was the less stress I’ve ever had to experience when signing up for classes. I think I should study abroad more often, haha. I’m not used to a block schedule, but mainly, I just think I’m not used to spending so little time at school, or in actual classes. The exam schedule is pretty confusing, and the worst thing is all my classes have grades that are 100% based on the exam. Some exams aren’t announced, and even the professor is unsure. That is because WHU (or Germany for that matter) does not believe in the American style of testing immediate after the content is learned. They think delaying the exam and giving students time after the class is over will give them the opportunity to really internalize what was learned. I’m not sure how much I agree with this. We shall see. But I gotta say, having no textbooks beats all of this. I’ll probably spend maybe 50 Euro tops for all the class material, which I simply print out from the copy shop just beyond campus.
We spent quite some time exploring the campus and surrounding cities and meeting people. So far we have made traditional German food on our own, tried to re-create a German Christmas market (hot red wine included), went on a mini Rhine boat ride, spent a couple (or even more for some people) nights in house parties and some legit German clubbing, and was forced to walk around and do a scavenger hunt in creatively-designed trash bags across the main parts of Koblenz. (Although, the looks on the passerby faces: priceless.)
In case if you were interested, here is an ongoing album of the pictures in Vallendar, the little town where WHU is located in, so I will be spending most of my time there.
And the time (on January 8) when a group of exchange students all went to Koblenz. You would love that city as well. I think Germany in general, in fact. You should go one day. I know you of all people will truly appreciate the historical significance of many of the regions we’ve been and things we saw. I bet you’ll pick up German in no time!
I’ve been extremely fortunate. There are many individuals who went out of their way and made my time here so great. The International Relations Office is so helpful and efficient, which is essential in reducing stress. Unlike most people, I was lucky enough to be able to meet my pre-assigned “Tauschie” WHU buddy even before I came to Germany since he actually did his mandatory exchange semester at UH Manoa. He is one of the most polite and friendly people I know, and he gave me such great advice and tips. I felt so bad when he finished his exams at UH so early that I did not expect to meet him yet, so we ended missing each other for like half an hour. But even then, after we met up, he was so very nice. It was great, and I introduced him to my co-workers (who also happen to be great friends of mine) at school, Honestly, I owe him a lot – including a beer for tonight…or last night? this morning? haha.
But by Jove, Europe! You have to go! We went to Cologne today as a MASSIVE group of Tauschies and of course later split up into much smaller groups. It’s a beautiful, colorful, extremely historic city.
Oh, and I figured out how to do postal, so I will be sending out actual letters and postcards soon!
Friend, it’s such a wonderful feeling to really know you’re doing something right, that you’re finally somewhere you thrive in and are meant to be. I’m learning so much about people, my field, Europe, life, and myself everyday.
Pronounced TOW-SHE (as in “towel” and the female pronoun)
That’s the WHU nickname for exchange students. I daresay I rather like it.
Most of my friends in Hawaii are wondering why in the world (haha, get it?) I had to leave home so early for Germany. That’s because our mandatory exchange student orientation was on January 3rd, which is practically the day after New Year’s for Hawaii.
So the night of the 2nd, a few of us Tauschies got seated at what we thought was a restaurant. Since we were a larger group, we had to bring an extra chair and moved around things a bit. But when we realized that it did not serve dinner food, we couldn’t stay and (rather unceremoniously) departed the place…right in the line of sight of the store owner. Oh dear.
Yeah. So the next morning, Cynthia and I walked down from Wildburg together and decided to redeem ourselves by purchasing our breakfast from that same bakery store. I had a chocolate croissant (chocolate inside). Warm and dee-lish. I like Starbucks, but it got nothin’ on this. Success.
The day was a pretty full one. We started at 9:00AM and it was one information session and documentation preparation after another. We all lined up to submit our information disclosure agreements and health insurance documents to get our student cards that double as access keys to school facilities and IDs. As for residential permits, we had until Friday, January 10th (a week from that day) to register at the town hall a few steps away from campus. The town hall is a blocky, orange (peach?) colored building right behind the restaurant Die Traube [see photo gallery] on Hellenstrasse. It’s big, orange, and labeled “Rathaus.” You can’t miss it.
(If anyone is interested in knowing, the 5-month permit costs 50 Euro, and the 8-month permit [also requires an electronic application] is 100 Euro).
After figuring out the initial nuts and bolts and how to legally stay in Germany for the duration of the semester, we were schooled on how to register for classes. Unlike other exchange programs I’ve heard about, WHU students don’t register until the weekend before the first Monday of the semester. Some classes don’t open up until a few days, or even weeks later. Until the classes open up, we can “pre-book” the desired course, which places it on our personal calendar so we can check the class times in relation to other classes. This was extremely helpful because I found three classes that overlapped with each other before I officially registered for them. So so so so much less stressful than registering at UH Manoa. Here, most classes don’t have a cap, so students pretty much get all the classes they need and want.
Then came the German placement tests. There was an info session where the German teachers gave an overview of the program and encouraged everyone to take German. It’s all for free, and it won’t be held against you even if you fail the final exam (and therefore the course). For those interested, students can take the exam and be certified for a specific proficient level. There are four levels offered to exchange students: A1 (Beginning), A2 (Intermediate), B1 (Advanced), B2/C1 (Very Advanced). The teachers (all female, so “Lehrerinnen” or “Professorinnen”) stressed that the subsequent class/level assignment after the exams were only recommendations; we were free to choose any level we felt comfortable with.
Since I technically took three years of German, I decided to try out the placement exam and interview. I had little hopes for myself because my three years were discontinuous and I repeated first-year German when I entered college. On top of that, I never spoke it other than the few opportunities in class. As for my placement, I expected to be in A2 at best, but somehow I got B1! I know it’ll be a stretch, but I decided to go for it anyway, since I do intend on becoming literate and partially fluent in German. Fingers crossed that I’ll survive.
We did some more exploring and checking out facilities during our free time between the orientation and the evening activity. On our expedition to find the campus gym (in Building D), we got locked inside one of the glass buildings because the inside access key scan pad wouldn’t work, even though we were able to get in. We got out the back door, and it turns out the Gym building was pretty much right there, so it was a happy mistake!
We gathered at the main Burgplatz (which is like the main Quad, center of campus) at 7:00PM under the dark sky for our campus tour. Strange, I know. But most of the things to see were indoors, so it didn’t make much of a difference. The facilities are really quite excellent. Very much so, in fact. There is a chapel, Harry Potter-esque staircase, multi-story library, a large 24/7 gym, lots of study rooms, and modern lecture halls with seats that might be too comfortable!
At 8:00PM that evening, the welcoming student committee (called the Vallendar Integration Program, aka VIP) gave a rundown of Welcome Week. It sounds better and busier than anything I expected. I don’t know if I should go too in-depth, but let’s just say these kids really do know how to party. And they do it all the time. *winky-wink*
And the fun already began that night. After a late dinner of pizza, about 60 Tauschies went with the local kids to a club in Koblenz. I didn’t go, but I heard they had a good time.
CLUBBING TIP: Apparently there’s a coat charge (about 1 Euro) and an entrance overhead fee that you have to pay WHEN YOU LEAVE, not at the door, so you don’t realize you need to get charged. I heard it’s 7 Euro, but it might vary from club to club.
*Note of caution: While Vallendar is a safe town, it gets very dark very early, and it is super quiet. I almost got lost trying to find my way back to my dormitory from another location other than campus my first night because it was so dark and there were hardly any street lights. But it’s very small, so even if you’re not sure where you are, it won’t take you long to find your way. And you’ll know the place well soon enough.
(There is a duplicate post in my personal -other- blog. Still trying to get the hang of this. Sorry for the confusion!)
From the Home of the Brave, to the Fatherland, and back to the Motherland