Even castles need makeovers

31 07 2011

Germany is full of castles, especially along the Rhein and Mosel rivers. You know, medieval times, lords and aristocrats, the real deal. One of the more famous castles in this area is the Burg Eltz. The Burg Eltz is one of the few castles in the Mosel Valley that has avoided destruction since it was built, and, as such, is very well-preserved. When I looked it up on Google images, it looked like this:

Actually, no princesses lived in the Burg Eltz... just ridiculously rich families.

Castles are a must-see in castle-dense Deutschland, so my host family took me to see the Burg Eltz! Except the Burg Eltz is old. Very old. So old that it suffers serious structural damage, damage that calls for rennovation.

It seems that I was a bit unlucky– the Burg Eltz was undergoing construction! Serious construction, enough to cover half the castle. In fact, to make up for this, the tour center gave out little tokens of compensation:

Cookies for the kids, souvenir coins for the adults.

Only the outside, not the inside, needed fixing. The inside rooms, which my host family and I toured, remained as unchanged as ever. And when I say “unchanged,” I mean it: The Burg Eltz is so well-preserved that the rooms are furnished with the original decor from the castle’s medieval years.

A hunter's room in the Burg Eltz. Nice rugs.

A ticket to the Burg Eltz not only gives you a tour through a small part of the castle, but also admission to the castle treasury. The castle was actually built by three families. Each family, by itself, didn’t have enough money to build a castle of their own. Thus, they combined forces to build the Eltz! After seeing the treasury, though, it’s hard to believe that the families didn’t have enough money to build three castles. Talk about unnecessarily luxurious decor.

A gold and silver statue in the treasury.

After seeing the castle, tourists can enjoy one of the two absurdly expensive restaurants at the Burg Eltz, or take a look at their small souvenir store.

There’s no shortage of castles on the Mosel or Rhein rivers. On the drive home, my host family stopped for a moment just so I could get a picture of a castle not under construction. A castle of this caliber is actually typical around here. A drive on the Rhein River will bring you past tons of these. The Burg Eltz, on the other hand, is a level of its own!

Random-yet-awesome castle we passed by on the way home.


Luxembourg has identity crisis

30 07 2011

First, let’s take a look at Luxembourg’s flag.

Luxembourg is best known for being “that tiny country” in the middle of Europe. It’s also known for being incredibly rich as a highly developed banking center. Perhaps less known is that Luxembourg was one of the founders of the European Economic Union (now the European Union) and one of the leading nations in the EU today. The European Court of Justice, Secretariat of the European Parliament, the European Court of Auditors, and many other primary EU functions are based in Luxembourg City. Residents typically support not only European unity, but also cooperation with the US and NATO abroad.

What does this mean? Luxembourg is international. There’s a little bit of every country in it. As Luxembourg City is somewhat close to the Moselle Valley, my host dad and I visited the other day. My initial impression:

And indeed, Luxembourg City exhibits influences from both countries. (More France than Germany, though.) A good example of Luxembourg’s inter-nationality are the casemates, a network of medieval tunnels beneath the city. Originally built by the Spanish as an underground defense network, the European nations fought over it frequently. As a result, the casemates have parts built by

The dimly lit casemates.

Luxembourg actually has not one, not two, but three national languages: French, German, and Luxembourgish, which is a combination between the two. In addition, English is compulsory in Luxembourg’s schools, meaning everyone’s a polyglot.

For the tourists, things are often written in German, French, and English. The primary written language is French, however.

And, like many European cities, Luxembourg has a little of the old and a little of the new:

Old castle.

Buildings in the new section of Luxembourg City.

They seem to embrace this fact:

The Musée d'Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean, aka the Mudam, or Luxembourg's museum of modern art. The building, designed by I. M. Pei, was actually built on top of three distinct layers of medieval fortress.

Here’s another tip: Looking to buy gasoline, coffee, or cigarettes? Buy them in Luxembourg! The tax on these items is lower in Luxembourg than in Germany, often resulting in this:

This petrol station in Luxembourg was crowded with German cars.

But I still can’t say it’s cheap.

That’s Europe for you. And you can’t get more European than pro-EU Luxembourg!

Moodier than a hormonal teenager

28 07 2011

When I first packed for Germany, I was an idiot. More so than usual. It seems like a given for most people, but I’m so used to hot summers that I only packed

Thank goodness YFU Germany sent a letter, then, saying

The weather here is temperamental. Capricious, you could say. The first week I got here it was sunny and warm, then the last two weeks it was rainy and cold, and now it’s somewhere in between. Back at home I never used umbrellas, but here they’re vitally important.

I’ve seen days start out sunny and warm only to yield to cold winds and heavy rain in the afternoon.

This summer happens to be particularly bad, though. My host parents say it’s more like  fall or springtime right now. Ironically, I’m missing a record-breaking heat wave in the Northeast for an especially cold summer in Germany.

So, for first-time Germany-bound travelers, be warned! I’ve seen temperatures range anywhere from 50°F to 80°F during the day, in the same day. The nicest weather can end in disaster. Layer up! Or perhaps I’m the only one who needed that warning– I don’t have much common sense sometimes.

Koblenz in bloom

27 07 2011

I really lucked out this year. Every two years, Germany holds the “Bundesgartenschau,” literally translated into “Federal Garden Show.” The host city of the Bundesgartenschau (abbreviated as “BUGA”) changes each time– but this year, it’s in Koblenz, a short 1½ drive from Monzelfeld.

It turns out that the  Bundesgartenschau is actually a pretty big deal. It goes on all season, from April to October. The government, expecting many visitors, invests a lot of money into the show. The only flower show I’ve been to is the one in Philadelphia– one week, completely indoors, confined to one building– but the Bundesgartenschau transforms the city.

Here’s just a few of the things Koblenz built for the show:

Huge lawns and walkways for visitors.

Vast beds of flowers.

Greenhouses, garden halls, and miniature exhibition tents. This hall, whose display changes every week, was displaying bonsai trees.

Stages for daily performances by local musicians.

Decorative sculptures.

New walkways through the local castle for visitors to enjoy.

Many, many cafés and dining areas.


I was impressed. At the ticket stand, I didn’t understand what they meant by “season tickets,” but now I realize just how much work Koblenz put into their… flowers. With nice results.

In the castle, there was even a floral arrangement exhibit. This week’s theme? Christmas.

The exhibit also had large, leather-bound books lying around for guests to sign it. The intention for these books was for guests to leave feedback, but since I have no common sense, I thought

Hmm. I might not be a kindergartener, but I sure have the maturity of one.

Maturity at its best.

Koblenz is actually the site of the “Deutsches Eck,” or the German Corner. It’s the place where the Rhein (Rhine) River meets the Mosel (Moselle) River. You can actually see the green, murky water of the Rhein mixing with the blue water of the Mosel.

At first glance, Koblenz looks like a normal city, but the garden show really spiced it up. Apparently, it brings in money as well: Koblenz is expecting to draw about 2 million visitors this year. You pay some, you get some, I guess. Sort of like hosting the Olympics or the World Cup. The only thing I wonder: What happens to all of this when the show is over? Because that’s a lot of plants.

Asian food, Deutches style

26 07 2011

Germany’s Asian population is lacking compared to America, so I was surprised to see a lot of Asian restaurants here. Fast food Asian joints are all over the cities, as are Asian restaurants and sushi bars. I’ve always looked at them with a bit of trepidation. As I and another Vietnamese exchange student put it,

But hunger calls, and fast food is fast, so my host family ended up stopping by a fast food Asian restaurant.

And you know what? It wasn’t that bad.

And it was run by Asians-- a sign of authenticity?

Mind, I think I may be in Asian-food-withdrawal. When my host sister asked me what I wanted, all I could say was

So I ended up getting a plate of fried rice. A large plate of fried rice.

And I ate the whole thing. Despite the fact that….

Also, I freaked out over the chopsticks. Which also freaked out my host parents.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m in love with German food. And German bread is definitely, most certainly, a worthy replacement for rice in my daily diet. But I’m Asian. I miss rice. It’s in my blood.

The best part is, I’m going to miss German bread when I get to America. Well, you can’t have everything, can you?

I’m in love with the city of love

24 07 2011

A couple weeks ago, my host dad asked me…

He told me that we could possibly make a bus tour of Paris. A bus would leave Bernkastel-Kues early in the morning. We would arrive in Paris at 2 PM, tour around for ten hours, and leave at midnight. The bus fare would be 50€.

So my host dad cleared it with my host mom and sister, and a couple weeks later he reserved the seats. Thus, last Saturday, we went to Paris.

The tour ended up costing a little more than I expected, though. Bus fare was 50€, but the bus company had some special offers available as part of the tour: A ticket to the top of the Tour Montparnasse for 10€, a boat ride on the Seine River for another 10€, and dinner in a French restaurant for 30€.

And for the price?  Completely worth it. The bus came with a comprehensive tour guide, who talked nearly the whole trip even before we got into Paris. (He informed us on a champagne region we passed by in France and Luxembourg City, for example.) Naturally, though, this was all in German, so for most of the bus ride I looked like this:

After a 6½ hour bus ride, we finally reached Paris! First, the bus drove around the city and passed many of the major attractions. Unfortunately, it was raining, which in combination with the glare of a bus window does not make for good photos.

The rain cleared up a bit, though, so we went to the Montparnasse, the tallest skyscraper in Paris. This dark, modern building stands out in rustic Paris– so much, in fact, that two years after it was built the city banned the building of any more skyscrapers.

The Montparnasse.

The Eiffel Tower as seen from the Montparnasse.

After we drove through the city some more to the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur, or the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. Located at the highest point in Paris, this church is a major tourist attraction:

The view helps draw tourists as well:

See that black building sticking up out of the city? That's the Montparnasse. And that's why Paris no longer builds skyscrapers.

By then, it was time for dinner. The bus drove us to a French restaurant, which was both incredibly touristy and highly amusing.

Escargot is actually pretty tasty.

This accordion player entertained us for the whole meal. He even played German folk songs, which our bus group received with loud singing and dancing. Oh, tourists...

After dinner, the bus finally, finally took us to see it: the Eiffel Tower.

We only had 15 short minutes to look and take photos, because we had to catch our boat ride on the Seine. For the 10€, the boat made a 1-hour loop around the Seine, passing by some of the most famous highlights in Paris. The sun was setting and the Seine was windy, so at this point the weather was absolutely freezing. But you can’t stop an Asian from taking photos.

The Notre Dame from the Seine.

Parisian buildings on the Seine.

The greatest part? Seeing the Eiffel Tower’s sparkling light show at night.

The Eiffel Tower, since 1999, displays this sparkling night show every hour on the hour.

And then, far too soon, it was time to leave. Paris has the right to be called one of the cultural centers of the world. Being in Paris for a day only made me want to go there even more: the Louvre! The Grand Palais! Drinking water from the Wallace fountains! Even a week in Paris couldn’t cover everything I would want to see and do. I hope that, one day, I can go back– but for now, I’m incredibly lucky to have gone in the first place.

Stereotype checklist

22 07 2011

When I told people that I was going to Germany for the summer, I always received one of three reactions:

Now that I’m here, I get to see which stereotypes are true and which ones are not. Let’s take a look…

1. “Germans eat lots of sausages.”

More than the US, anyway. Supermarkets sell way more sausages here than in the US. Popular street vendor food includes brotwurst (sausage and bread) and currywurst (sausage with curry sauce.) The sheer amount of types of sausage is overwhelming, as well– Wikipedia claims that Germany hosts over 1200 different types.

Sausages in a local Lidl market.

2. “German kids party hard.”

I’ve heard stories, and I know “discotheques” are popular here. You have to be 18 to get in (I’m 17) and out here in the country the very few clubs are strict about it. Kids here do party, but not everyone and not all the time, I think. I don’t go to school here, though, so I haven’t had enough contact with teens to confirm this. I’m not much of a party girl, so the lack of clubbing is no big loss.

3. Germans drink lots of beer.

And do both at the same time.

After a local soccer tournament, a team enjoys some beer together.

Germans are proud of their beer. Drinking together at public events is common. Also, everybody here plays soccer. It’s common for each village to have its own soccer team.

So when my host sister and I went to a local soccer tournament, there was a beer stand. Thus the tournament went something like this:

Soccer can get boring after, you know, five hours.

The area I’m in, though, is all about wine. I’m living in the Mosel Valley (“Moselle” when anglicized) where the hills are all grapevines and vineyards. Every region is defined by its own exclusive type of wine. Frankfurt, for example, is famous for its apple wine. Heck, the other day I bought wine-flavored candy.

As for American stereotypes? One American stereotype that completely surprised me is the perception that

One exchange student, the first time he phoned his host family, was asked,

I haven’t been subjected to much of this stereotyping, though, perhaps because I look more Asian than I do American. But I find it hysterically funny rather than offensive. I just don’t have the hardcore patriotism to get affronted, I suppose. And the only guns I own are water guns.