Deutschland and beyond

Living in Germany

Cologne (by Jessie)

First off, it is imperative to say any adventure with the O’Connor family will inevitably be a good one.  So I was sad to see Dr. O’Connor and Cala return stateside as the rest of us left Munich for Cologne.  I cannot speak for the others’ time in transport because I took different trains than they did.  I know what you’re thinking: who cares about the transport?  To which I respond: apparently I do (yes, this was a bit of a surprise for me as well).  While taking trains may seem mundane, they constituted an essential part of my German experience, providing many cultural lessons about the country.

I traveled from Munich to Frankfurt, Frankfurt to Wurzburg and Wurzburg to Cologne between 12:30 and 21:10 on one day.  In Frankfurt, I had two minutes to get off the train and board the next one.  Two minutes.  I didn’t believe Colleen when she said the arriving train would arrive at exactly the right time and the departing train would leave at exactly the right time and I would be just fine, so long as I hurried. I honestly didn’t believe it was possible.  Guess what?  It is.  I am still amazed as I write this retrospectively.  From then on, I simply set an alarm for ten minutes before the train’s expected arrival time and would prepare to get off the train when the alarm went off.  The order of it all was baffling and fantastic.

I also enjoyed being able to people watch from within the train and view the sights outside of it.  Things I now know about thanks to people on the trains include: German children are adorable; everything in Germany is done very systematically; and apparently until I open my mouth or look confused, I could pass for someone who knows German.  The latter lesson proved embarrassing on a couple of occasions, but tangentially led me to learn a significant proportion of Germans speak English very well.  Something I now know thanks to looking out the trains’ windows: small German towns look exactly like towns a “type A” preschooler draws in their coloring book.  I guess I should explain that statement.  Houses tend to be very linear, with pointed roofs rising to a point exactly in the middle and equidistant space between them.  They also tend to be in bright colors, although side by side the effect is coherent and planned rather than random.  At the very least, these towns—nestled in a sea of snow—were very picturesque. One last good thing about the trains: napping possibilities.

Appearance-wise, Cologne has quaintness to it which the larger Munich did not, though it is undoubtedly a major city in the way Wurzburg isn’t.  Think Munich : Chicago :: Cologne : Boston.  Since we all arrived in Cologne late in the evening, we spent the rest of the night relaxing in our hotel room, reading and watching Monsters, Inc.  Every viewing of a Pixar movie is a fantastic one, so needless to say it was great.

I could go on and on about Cologne, so in order to spare everyone, I’m going to provide highlights/observations from the next few days.

  • The Cologne Cathedral is very impressive, both in its interior and exterior appearances and in its location.  Adjacent to the train station, the Cathedral simply rises majestically out of the town square, with the Modern Museum and Greco-Roman Museums at its back, entrance to the shopping avenue on the opposite side of the train station and an open square at the front.  Even with the modern infrastructure surrounding it, the Cathedral is by far the largest, and commands the attention of the entire scene. (see Colleens previous Cologne blog for a picture of the church)
  • German food and beer is awesome.  I am suffering withdrawal.  We had a fantastic lunch one day with traditional food and great wheat beer, followed by espresso and coffees to warm everyone up before venturing back into the cold.  The food, environment and company were wonderful.  Another food lesson: non-German food in Germany is equally awesome.  I had a taste of America in the form of a barbecue cheeseburger and fries and an amazing NYE dinner.  But I’ll explain that separately.
  • Cologne is—thankfully—home to a Chocolate Museum.(note from Colleen: I neglected to take pictures of my family while they were here but I have no less than 12 pictures from the chocolate museum)  Since going, I am very knowledgeable about the making of chocolate, the trade routes of chocolate, the biggest consumers of chocolate and the nutritional properties of chocolate.  Don’t challenge my chocolate knowledge.  That aside, the most exciting part of the museum was by far the area where you could see chocolate being made.

    the machine which caused us a lot of stress

    Most people walked through the room in about twenty minutes or so.  Not Colleen and I.  We had to figure out exactly how it worked, because when the chocolate wasn’t right in some of the phases, we were worried it would be thrown out.  It was very, very stressful.  I know reading this you won’t be able to grasp how stressful it was, so I guess you’re going to have to trust me on this one.  Colleen and I were literally running around, following specific pieces of “problem” chocolate (aka chocolate which didn’t fit in the mold perfectly or didn’t fall out of the mold perfectly onto the conveyer belt), to assure they were not thrown out.  Luckily, we discovered a large majority of “problem” chocolates were simply re-melted.  The magical robot arm knew when there were problem chocolates, and they were released into a churner of hot, melted chocolate.  There was one exception, in which case the problem chocolates were thrown into a bucket, presumably to be tossed away.  I don’t like to think about it.

  • Shopping.  Cologne is known for being a wealthy city containing lots of shopping.  We didn’t really indulge, but a walk from our hotel to the city center required walking through the shopping area.  The streets of the shopping area were mobbed, thanks at least in part to post-Christmas sales.
  • New Years: apparently we under-celebrate it in the US.  Because in Cologne, everything was closed New Years Eve day and New Years day.  This included the museums being closed and even the cathedral not giving its twice-daily guided tours.  While this created a bit of a stumbling block in our planning, as we had anticipated going to the modern museum, it provided for some very nice reading and relaxation time.


  • I couldn’t have planned a better NYE.  (Thanks, Colleen, for doing it!)  We went to a great Spanish restaurant which had a five course set menu for the evening.  Good wine and great food ensued.  The plan was to head out to a bar or club after dinner (we finished our scrumptious chocolate mousse around 11:30), but apparently Colleen and I have turned into old and boring people in less than a year since graduating from BC.  We opted instead for a bottle of champagne and ringing in the new year on the street.  It seems as though everyone (us excluded) purchased fireworks in anticipation of the holiday.  The fifteen minutes leading up to midnight, everyone came outside and lined the streets.  As the clock struck, fireworks went off from every which way.  They were so many in number and so big in size, by 12:10 you could barely see more than thirty feet in the distance.  It was very exciting and a great experience to be a part of.  I can’t believe the sheer size of the fireworks people were setting off every which way!  Definitely not high on the safety list, but it was an incredible experience.

I am very glad to have had the chance to experience Cologne and its wonders, even if some of these wonders were closed during our time there.  Cologne provided the relaxation and fun, laid-back experiences I craved during my holiday.  I know I’m responsible just for writing about Cologne, but I want to say the entire Germany experience was a remarkable one.  Coming from Cairo, I wanted to travel to an atmosphere which felt like Christmas.  (Seventy degree weather in a Muslim-majority state isn’t very conducive to Christmas cheer.)  Both the ambiance of Germany—the snow, the sights, the food—and the wonderful and caring company of the O’Connors made this Christmas holiday a very memorable one.  I can’t express my gratitude toward them enough!


January 20, 2011 Posted by | Germany | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


So, one of my resolutions is to keep up on updating. I actually thought I did pretty well up until December, but really I wasn’t near a computer for the last half of the month so not completely my fault. My family and Jessie came for Christmas and New Years which was absolutely great, and I’ve forced them all to become guest bloggers for various parts of the trip. So, as the reports trickle in I’ll post them. Until then, here’s a quick catch-up of what’s been going on:

zurich at night

Second weekend of December I headed down to Zurich with my friend Nadiya to stay with a friend of hers. Zurich is ridiculously expensive (in comparison to what I’m used to in Germany) but apparently people earn much more there so it all balances out. From what I experienced in Zurich, I liked it, but I don’t think I could live there permanently. It’s a hub for a lot of businesses and of course has tons of the infamous watches and chocolate. We were lucky enough to take a day trip to Luzern (Lucerne), about an hour away from Zurich, which is absolutely beautiful. It’s still in German-speaking Switzerland (thankfully) and the views are wonderful due to the lake and backdrop of mountains. A side note about Swiss German, or Schwitzerdeutsch- it is nearly impossible to understand if you’re not from Switzerland. The Swiss can easily understand the Germans, and everyone understands one another if you speak Hochdeutsch (high German, which is taught in the schools and is what I learned, no dialect), but Swiss German might as well be another language.


Back in Würzburg, school rolled right along until Christmas break (which didn’t start til the 23rd!), but during my conversation lessons with the students, I did learn a great deal about Christmas in Germany. It’s celebrated on the 24th, instead of the 25th, and the 25th and 26th are two observed holidays. So, really, Christmas is 3 days long. Awesome.

There’s a pretty distinct North-South divide when it comes to the Weihnachtsmann (the equivalent of Santa Claus) or the Christkind (has the same role as Santa, but is an angel with long blonde hair, or the baby Jesus; my students were always split half and half on how the Christkind looks). Anyway, bottom line is the kids still get their presents from this foreign, magical source but they get them on the 24th. Apparently sometime after church (which is attended on the 24th as well), back home all of the children have to leave the living room and the doors are closed so they go watch tv or something. Then, magically, 15-20 minutes later a bell rings from the living room. The bell means the Christkind/Weihnachtsmann has come and the kids can come into the room and open their presents. This is where I have a problem. What?! Presents on the 24th? Okay, I could deal with that. But no build up of anticipation, dancing of sugarplums in their heads, waking up at 6am to race down the stairs and see what Santa brought? No. Not to mention the complete lack of imagination involved here (a bell, that’s it?). Somehow it still works. Good for them.

And while we’re addressing slight cultural differences, New Years here is called ‘Silvester’, named after a Pope who apparently did lots of important things, among them converting Constantin I to Christianity. What I found to be one of the coolest things about Silvester here though, is the fact that everyone lights fireworks at midnight. No, not just the official-sponsored city fireworks show, everyone. It’s like the 4th of July, in the middle of winter, and probably way more dangerous. We were in Cologne and the street we were on clouded up within 3 minutes of midnight, people had sparklers left and right and fireworks were being shot off literally from street corners. Of course this lasted about 30 or 45 minutes, and I can’t forget to mention the legality of open containers so of course we popped open some champagne as well. I already mentioned one ‘resolution’ (to update this more often), but I’m really not a big fan of New Years resolutions. I think from age 8-16 I vowed to stop biting my nails which of course never lasted more than a few weeks (still guilty), so instead I like to make goals.

Other resolutions/goals:

– Get the lacrosse team officially registered and have a schedule for next season

– Don’t turn down an invitation. My friend Pat, in Russia, has commented on this more than once in his blog, but you never really know who you’ll end up meeting or what kind of fun you’ll have when you get invited somewhere.

– Keep traveling/taking advantage of my current position. I have absolutely NO idea where I’ll be next year (the possibilities are literally all over the globe) so I’d like to take advantage of my place in central Germany, not to mention central Europe.

Hope everyone had great holidays and look forward to entertaining updates coming from my family and Jessie!

January 8, 2011 Posted by | Germany | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment