Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Bonn, Beethoven, Bundesrepublik Deutschland

We decided to take another day-trip this past weekend. This time we chose Bonn, birthplace of Beethoven. For the first time in a long time, the weather was pleasant! It was a little overcast but the temperature hovered around 50 all day and it didn't rain once.

Our first stop was Beethoven's house. Admission is only 5 Euros and the experience is worth much more. We entered through the gift shop and then purchased our tickets. We intended to begin at the actual house but as soon as we walked into the courtyard we were accosted by an employee who began to speak rapid-fire German. After several seconds she realized that our frozen, helpless smiles were indicators of our incomprehension. Effortlessly, she switched to English.

"Please, do come in. The show has not yet started. We will be having a show with his music and lights and in 3D. You will have an opportunity to manipulate the images."

We hadn't read our brochures yet so we were very confused about what she was describing. But she was insistent as she held her arms out toward a building so we went inside, shrugging our shoulders. Incidentally, we both needed to use the bathroom facilities and we saw a WC sign posted in the hallway.

"Do you know what she was talking about," I asked my husband.
"No," he replied. "Is it a concert or something?"
"I have no idea. But at least there's a bathroom. We'll just use it and go back to the actual house."
"Okay, good plan."

When we were finished, we began to make our exit and the insistent employee suddenly popped her head out of a room off to the side and excitedly said, "Here! In here!!" By now we are accustomed to being herded into different places and coerced into following random people, so we obliged.

The room was small, with two benches running along either side and a large projection screen in the center. It was already full so we took seats on a far end. As soon as we were seated, she shut the door and began speaking. We stole furtive glances at each other, wondering what we were doing in this room with all of these people. Finally, remembering our language barrier, the employee handed us two English-language information sheets. 

We were at the Stage for Music Visualization for visual interpretation of Beethoven's works. It is presented to the audience virtually, using 3D images and interactive devices. We still didn't entirely comprehend what we were going to see but it sounded very interesting.

The employee concluded her diatribe several minutes later and then she appeared to be taking a vote from everyone. Of course we were the final two to be asked and the question was, "Okay, do you like a short or long piece?"

My husband looked at me and I shrugged. He said, "Uhh, short?" I nodded, and patted his hand reassuringly.

She relayed our answer to the rest of the room and it was met with low grumbles. Then she turned to us again and asked, "Do you mind if it is a long one?"

"Sure," my husband said. We still didn't really know what it was anyway, so what's twenty minutes instead of ten?

Satisfied with our changed minds, she began readying the room for our experience. While she was handing out 3D glasses, a man seated on the bench across from us smiled at my husband and said, "You are democrat." 

For some reason, we immediately interpreted this statement as political. My husband smiled strangely and asked, "How do you know?" The man faltered a little, smiled shortly, and then looked away.

After we had our glasses and the lights were off, I whispered, "Do they think all Americans are Democrats or something? I mean, we could be Republican." 
"I don't know. I don't think we'll ever know what Germans really think of us," he replied as he put on his shades.

The show was fun. We listened to an opera and each of the characters were represented by different 3D images. The children in the audience were shown how to use joysticks and other tools to move the images around the screen. Apparently this exhibit is fledgling so I think it's cool we were able to experience it.

It wasn't until long after our tour of the Beethoven house that we realized the German man was not making a comment about our political leanings. He was trying to tell us that we were being democratic in changing our answer to fit the rest of the audience's vote. No wonder he was so confused when we responded by asking, "How do you know?!" Oh, well. Uncomfortable Situation #4,567. But who's counting?

Touring the house was fascinating. I couldn't believe we were walking around the house where Beethoven was born, in 1770. I always say it, but I still think it's amazing that all of these places have been preserved. It's such a pleasure to walk inside these old homes and imagine what life was like for the people who lived there. 

Once we were satisfied with our new-found knowledge of Beethoven, we made our way to a cafe and had lunch outside in a square. We drank Bananenweizens and people-watched for a while. It was the first time in a couple months that we have been able to have lunch outside comfortably. I hope this pleasant weather is a continuing trend!

Our next stop was the Haus der Geschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (House of the History of the Federal Republic of Germany). Admission is free and it was just under a 2-mile walk from the cafe. The route took us down Museum Mile. More than 1 million people visit each year. Bonn is home to museums of varied topics including art, history, and even zoology.

History at the museum we visited begins in 1945, at the end of World War II. The history of WWII was comprehensive and accompanied by photos, videos, and historical documents. There were graphic photos of the atrocities at concentration camps. At times, you could hear Hitler's voice resounding through old recordings. It was chilling, to say the least. I thought it was a very thoughtful and thorough demonstration.

The museum is massive. It took us almost an hour just to sift through the WWII section. Another interesting item was a fragment of the wreckage of an American U2 spy plane shot down by Soviet missiles in 1960. The museum covers much more than war. The evolution of Volkswagen is on display, as well as relics from the 1954 World Cup. 

Unfortunately we did not have time to go through the entire museum but I am looking forward to a return trip. I would even venture to say that it could take more than an entire day to explore this massive exhibition. 

We began our long walk back through Museum Mile and took some photos along the way. Bonn is situated on the Rhine and I loved the view.

Bonn has been one of my favorite German cities so far. I thought it was extremely accessible and I know there is much more to see than we were able to manage on our first trip. 

Hopefully we will continue to be "Democrats" during our time here!

Friday, February 24, 2012

Karneval in Germany!

The Karneval season has ended but we were fortunate to have spent it in two countries this year! Having missed the parade in Maastricht, we decided to go to the one in Sittard on Sunday afternoon. This sleepy little village was transformed into a crowded, celebratory place filled with red, yellow, and green and lots of people creatively-costumed.  

The floats were magnificent! It is obvious that lots of time is spent conjuring up a theme and then bringing it to life. Most of the floats seemed political and unfortunately we are not attune to local politics or Dutch language yet, so we just stood by and admired the craftsmanship. What also struck me were the bands. All of them played beautifully and the members were both young and old. Watching them proudly march through the cobblestone streets of Sittard made me want to begin my grade-school clarinet lessons anew. 

The afternoon in Sittard was perfect and sunny. The only time we felt cold was when the wind started blowing. Interestingly, as soon as we began our drive back home the windshield was pelted with sleet. We arrived at our house just in time for it to begin snowing in earnest. This lasted several minutes and then suddenly the sun was shining again in a cloudless sky. I will never understand the weather here.

Luckily Rosenmontag (Roses Monday) was sunny all day long! Ulrike and her mother graciously invited us to watch their villages' parade. We arrived early so Ulrike could paint my face. We were also able to watch some of Cologne's Karneval parade on TV. Apparently is lasts for hours! It reminded me a little of America's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, albeit more political and lasting much longer.

Soon Ulrike donned an amazing, handmade costume and we walked down the street to line up for the procession. The mood of the event was reminiscent of my hometown's Fourth of July parade. Everyone was decorated, festive, and excited for a fun day away from work. 

The crowd caught their first glimpses of the approaching floats and soon after all were shouting, "Alaaf! Alaaf!" and extending their bags to collect all of the candy, chips, and popcorn that were continuously thrown from the parade's participants. Once again, costumes were elaborate and the floats were fascinating and clever.

After the parade we went back to Ulrike's house for coffee and pastries. The table was decorated beautifully and all of the sweets and coffee were delicious! We felt honored to be invited and we were happy to spend a holiday with a family again. Ulrike acted as translator for the afternoon. I imagine her mother must be very proud of her as she listens to her young dauther confidently switch from English to German. Though our languages our different, it is amazing how many gestures and expressions are universal. Of course, smiles and laughter always go a long way and they were both easy to come by at this house.

I really enjoyed our first Karneval season! We made new friends and saw lots of interesting things. It was thrilling to see everyone dressed in costumes and hear them singing along to Karneval songs. 

Now that I've been initiated, it's time to take things a step further. Next year I will definitely be in costume and perhaps even find my way into a parade!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

New Friends and Carnival in Maastricht

We have experienced Carnival! We went to Maastricht yesterday afternoon to watch the festivities with some new friends. As soon as we drove into the city, I immediately noticed all of the trash and broken glass in the streets. Maastricht is generally a very tidy city so I was surprised to see so much debris littering the cobblestone. Obviously Carnival was off to a rowdy beginning!

We met with our friends at Vrijthof Square and began a walk around the city. Carnival has been confusing for us. There are lots of little events and ceremonies that lead up to the last days. They take place all over the city and most of the time we aren't sure when and where things are happening. We just follow the crowds and that seems to work well. The city was a little quieter than I imagined. Revelers from the night before were sleeping their hangovers away, preparing for a few final nights of debauchery.

The weather, as usual, was dreary. We made our way into a cafe for some beers and people-watching. The music inside the cafe was the traditional Carnival soundtrack. It sounds something like a mixture of polka, techno, and 80s pop music. A large group were seated behind us and they were singing along with the words and dancing in the aisles. A grandfather and his young granddaughter were very charming as they danced together and he whispered the words to her, no doubt making sure the tradition of Carnival lives on in the next generation.

We made our way to the City Hall to see the key ceremony. This is when the mayor of the city hands the key over to Prince Carnival. We are still not sure what we saw, as this ceremony was supposed to take place at 1:11 and we did not arrive in Maastricht until 2. But we definitely did see lots of smartly-dressed men (city council leaders?), bagpipers, and the Prince. We still don't know what they did but it was very interesting.

On the steps of City Hall

I'm still confused about the bagpipers.

Distinguished gentleman leaving City Hall

Prince Carnival arrives!

The Prince hopped off his chariot and waved to the crowd. He approached City Hall and went inside for a few minutes. At this point, we thought whatever happening was over and we began walking away from the square. Luckily we realized that the crowd was shifting toward a new location so we followed. And thank goodness we did or we would have missed the traditional hanging of the vegetable wreath. This is by far one of the oddest things I saw at Carnival. The Prince stepped up on a ladder as the crowd applauded. He lifted a large wreath high above his head and turned around several times to give the gathered mass equal views. Then solemnly, he turned toward a statue and hung the wreath around its neck. 

When this ritual was complete, the crowd and the Prince moved on and we stepped forward to take a closer look. Much to our surprise, the wreath was festooned with fresh vegetables. From afar, I thought some type of shrub adorned the bottom of the statue. Upon closer inspection, I discovered it was a bed of broccoli florets. We took some photos and then scratched our heads for a few moments, wondering what all of it meant. We shrugged and decided it was time for our own vegetable feast so we made our way to the Cafe de Momus for lunch.
We lingered over our food and drinks, speculating about what all of these traditions meant and what was going to happen next. Soon the waiter told us that this round of drinks would be our last. Large speakers were set up in front of the cafe so booming club music could be blasted into the street. 

By now it was getting dark and more people were milling around, beginning another long night of drinking, dancing, singing, and breaking glasses in the streets of Maastricht. We found ourselves at a huge concert in front of one of the churches. It was a funny juxtaposition: an ancient, beautiful church rising behind a makeshift stage filled with costumed performers singing "Sex on Fire" by Kings of Leon (in Dutch). 

Several groups performed and the crowd became more and more festive. Popular, modern songs were followed in sweet earnest by traditional Carnival favorites and everyone was singing along. Impromptu conga lines formed every few minutes and soon my husband was caught up in a circle of merrymakers doing some kind of strange dance. As I lifted my camera to take a photo, I was also grabbed by one of them and swept into the dance. We linked arms and moved forward, backward, and sideways. The man beside me leaned over and shouted something in Dutch. I assumed it was some type of direction so I yelled back, "Oh I'm sorry! I only speak English! I don't know what we're doing!" He laughed as our group spun around several more times. When the song ended, the dance troupe broke up but not before I was sandwiched between two costumed men who each kissed my cheeks. One ran away while the other, the one who attempted to talk to me while we were dancing, almost tearfully turned to me and said, "I will never forget what you have done for our country!" I didn't know how to respond so I just smiled and nodded as he trotted off to dance the night away and kiss some more girls.

We stayed on for several more songs. The night became more and more surreal. The polka-style music accompanied by strange costumes made it feel as if we had stumbled into another world. I felt like I was Alice stepping through the looking glass. 

Despite all of the beers consumed and the anonymity afforded by masks and costumes, the crowd was very well-behaved and orderly. I didn't see any mosh pits, shoving, or fighting. There is no doubt that Carnival is celebrated boisterously, but the sense of tradition and history is also ever-present. 

Tomorrow we will be going to the parade in Immendorf so we will experience Carnival in the Netherlands and Germany this year! We'll be watching the parade with my new friend Ulrike. She has been reading this blog and offering insightful comments and welcomed clarifications for the past few months. Finally we met for drinks on Wednesday and I'm excited to have a new and wonderful friend here!

Carnival continues until Tuesday and I hope to have many more interesting things to tell you about it. Until then, Alaaf!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Red, Yellow, and Green... and Snow!

We've been keeping ourselves busy with regular household chores for the past several weeks. The weather has been frigid and windy so it isn't pleasant to be outdoors. We did brave the cold Saturday for a shopping day in Maastricht. My husband has been looking for a nice coat but everything here is so expensive! We spent most of the day searching and the most reasonably-priced coat we found was 269 Euro.

We darted in and out of shops to stay warm. Some of the store windows boasted sales of 50% off. We assumed these places were for bargain shoppers. Turns out, the 50% was knocked off of items originally priced at 700 Euro or more. We saw people our ages trying on clothes and then modeling for their friends/family who were sitting outside of the dressing rooms sipping champagne. Who are these people and what do they do for work?!

We had lunch at Sjinkerij de Bobbel, a cozy cafe on a bustling side street. While we were enjoying our beers, a delightful French party sat beside us in the available seats at our table. One of the men spoke fluent Dutch and English (of course). I know I mention it often, but all of these people who speak so many different languages continue to astound me.

I'm getting very excited about Karneval! I'll be attending my first event Wednesday night. A children's parade was held yesterday in Sittard. We saw the remnants as we were driving to the movie theater. Lots of people were dressed in elaborate costumes while others donned outrageous wigs or hats with a touch of face paint. Flags of red, yellow, and green are hanging from people's balconies and lots of windows are decorated with Karneval cartoons. It's a very festive and unique atmosphere. I'm excited to see the parade in Maastricht on Sunday!

It's snowing again and I'm heading out to shop for Valentine's Day. I wasn't sure if Valentine's Day would be celebrated here as it is in the U.S. but so far it seems like it has the same significance. Plastic hearts are hanging from ceilings in shops and underwear with "LUV" emblazoned on the bottoms are on display. Decorations associated with Karneval are still the main focus so it's a mixture of yellow, green, and red stripes and red and pink heart balloons. It's a very interesting combination.

I've been told that the weather should be improving soon. I think lots of Dutch people use the Karneval season as their measure. Whenever it ends, the temperatures gradually begin to rise and the skies are sunny again. I hope so! I keep picturing Europe in the spring and I know it will be as lovely as I imagine.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Hanging Out in The Netherlands

Yesterday and today have been extremely cold. Snow is still on the ground because the temperature is so low. The good news is that the sun has been shining brightly for two days! I usually walk to the Rewe (grocery store) but today, admittedly, I drove. I was completely bundled up, just like Ralphie in A Christmas Story. Despite all of my layers, my hands felt as if they were going to fall off and my face was almost frozen by the time I made it back to my car. I am definitely unaccustomed to frigid weather.

We have been spending a lot of time in Maastricht and I think I might actually be picking up some Dutch. We were given a Dutch phrasebook as a Christmas gift and it's very useful to consult for translations regarding food and numbers. To my untrained ear, Dutch is a humorous language. It sounds a little Dr. Suess-ish. I've learned how to say thank you by listening to others. It's very cheerful and sounds something like this: donkey-veil. Blanche, my GPS, is always funny when she pronounces the names of roads. In her breathy, Southern drawl she says things like, "Turn left on Boom-boo-key-vegg."

In my experience so far, I've found most Dutch would rather speak English to me rather than me attempting to speak Dutch to them. I've heard so many people here switch from Dutch to German to English. It's mind-blowing. I feel lucky because English is my first language but I also wish I had several languages on the tip of my tongue.

I've seen two movies here and the theater is very nice! I was surprised to find that popcorn and drinks are reasonably-priced. This is a welcome difference from a night at the movies in the U.S., where you might as well skip dinner beforehand since snacks at the theater cost nearly as much as a nice meal at a restaurant. Another fun difference is the selection of beer and wine! There is also an intermission, no matter the length of the movie. I was confused by this the first time it happened. When the lights brightened and the movie stopped, I thought something was wrong with the film reel.

We watched Mission Impossible III (not my choice) a couple weekends ago and encountered an interesting dilemma. The movie was filmed in English, of course, and there were Dutch subtitles. Everything was fine until characters began speaking Russian. We missed some crucial parts of the plot because all we heard was Russian and all we read was Dutch. That's a strange problem to have. But then something really great happened. The movie setting shifted to Prague and I thought, "Wow, it would be great to actually go there." Then I remembered I'm living in Europe and one day soon I will be able to visit Prague!

I'm getting very excited about Karneval! We've received some great suggestions about the best cities to go to and the most entertaining parades to see. Karneval was one of the first things I investigated when I found out we were moving here so I've been looking forward to it for a long time. I'm sure it will live up to everything I've imagined.

Until then, I'll be braving the cold and brushing up on my Dutch! Donkey-veil!