Bike Riding in Germany

In all three of the cities in Germany that I have spent the most time in, Freiburg, Tübingen, and Heidelberg, bikes have been a big thing. You can find people whizzing by you on their bike just about everywhere: people of all ages, in all outfits, with or without a child trailer – everyone loves riding their bike.

Even the common expression “Fahrrad fahren” in German reveals a bit of this intoxication. The verb “fahren” means “to drive” or “to ride” – to get an idea of the sense of this verb, think of the English verb “to fare” (as in “farewell!” or “sea-faring”), this verb has its etymological roots in the verb “fahren” . “Rad” means “wheel”, so “Fahrrad”, which translates to “bike”, has a literal translation of something like “faring-wheel”. “Fahrrad fahren” is then “faring-wheel faring”.

Bike riding seems to be a general trend in the “greener”, university cities of Germany, where students not only seem to consider the environment in their actions, but probably couldn’t afford a car even if they wanted one. Freiburg, which is currently run by the Green Party, even has a pole that shows you how many bike riders passed a certain spot on a certain day, the total count of riders for the year, and the amount of CO2 that was saved as a result of their decision to ride a bike instead of a car. (Heidelberg, incidentally, also has a sign showing the “goodness” of the air that day, although it contains no information pertaining to bikes). In Heidelberg, there are even streets that only allow bike riders for most of the day.

Thebike and CO2 monitor in Freiburg.

The bike and CO2 monitor in Freiburg.

The air quality sign in Heidelberg.

The air quality sign in Heidelberg.

Some bikes parked in front of the Neuenheimer Feld campus of Heidelberg University.

Some bikes parked in front of the Neuenheimer Feld campus of Heidelberg University.

Germany’s layout is also conducive to bike riding and public transportation. Many small to medium sized cities have a pretty dense layout and you can get to anywhere you need to go within 10 minutes on a bike. In many places in the United States, you really need a car if you want access to all of the things your area has to offer. A movie theater is 10 minutes in one direction, a supermarket 5 minutes in the other, the home improvement store 10 minutes in yet another direction. Of course there are exceptions in both places, but it seems that overall the transportation structure in Germany is a lot better than in the US.

Many, many people in Heidelberg have bikes, and many (most?) purchase them second hand. I have already been to three such used bike stores, all within a 3 kilometer radius of my apartment and these certainly aren’t the only ones. There are also used bike flea markets, one of which is hosted by the city train station so that they can get rid of all of the bikes parked in front of the station that have not moved for months. When you get a bike at a shop they usually in okay shape, often taking on their new life with the addition of other parts from some bicycle graveyard.

I purchased a bike from just such a shop, and have been riding my bike every day for the past month, usually from home to class and back. Each leg of the trip I get to cross over the Neckar river and get a beautiful view of the city with the old castle in the background. This is my favorite part of the trip, but unfortunately I don’t have a great picture yet from this spot.

My new bike, in front of the store that is next to my apartment.

My new bike, in front of the store that is next to my apartment.

Today, my bike was making a lot of strange noises so I took it to an on campus bike repair center that is run by students and provides free repair and learning. Someone diagnosed the problem and then gave me the physical and theoretical tools to fix it myself. The staff was very helpful and friendly and really just wanted to help me get my bike working again. I can go there any time they are open and I have access to all of their tools and knowledge (and yes, their own bicycle graveyard as well). If any Heidelberg friends are interested, here is their website.

I am happy to join the bike culture in Heidelberg. Bike riding is good for the environment and it has definitely been good for my health. I have been traveling 6-12 kilometers a day just to go to and from class and when I get there I can park right in front of the door without ever having to worry about finding a spot.

I leave you with a song I love by an old German a cappella group, The Prinzen, that wrote a song about bikes. The last line sounds better in German and says something like Only connoisseurs ride bikes and they always get there faster. I think that is true!

Easter in Cologne (Köln)

Julia and I traveled to Cologne for the Easter holiday. We met up at her brother and his wife’s house as did the rest of the immediate family.

We took the train over to Köln from Heidelberg and it was about a two and a half hour ride. A lot of the trip was along the Rhine (Rhein) river, which is really wonderful to see. We joked about how many castles are to be seen on the landscape – it seems like every few miles you see the ruins of another huge castle.

When you walk out of the train station in Cologne you walk into the main square and are immediately confronted with the Dom, the massive thousand year old gothic cathedral. It is impossible not to be instantly impressed by its size and grandiosity. It is hard to imagine that generations of people worked on the single goal creating this monument. In any given place including high, high up you can look in a tiny corner and see intricate stone carvings that only a professional could have crafted.

The Dom is so big that I couldn't fit it in the frame. Look how small the people are compared to it.

The Dom is so big that I couldn’t fit it in the frame. Look how small the people are compared to it.

The tower of the Dom.

The tower of the Dom.

Later in the day we climbed the 533 stairs of the tower of the Dom and got a wonderful view of the city. We have climbed many church towers at this point; many of the churches in the cities here offer the climbing of their liberally-graffitied, narrow-spiralling-staired towers for a nominal fee.

Inside the Dom.

Inside the Dom.

The inside of the top, after climbing the stairs.

The inside of the top, after climbing the stairs.

The view from the top.

The view from the top.

Another view from the top, including the architecture of the second tower.

Another view from the top, including the architecture of the second tower.

We stayed in Julia’s brother’s house for a couple of days and spent a lot of the time with her family. Each of the three mornings we had a huge – I would even say traditional German – breakfast with tons of fresh bread, jams, cheeses, meats, cereals, vegetables, etc. The house and her brother were both very accommodating and with the penthouse apartment we were offered a very great view of the city, including the Dom.

The view from the apartment.

The view from the apartment.

On Easter morning, after our breakfast, we drove to a park and hid some candy and presents for Julia’s nephew and then took a nice walk through the park. Later we drove to an old coal mine and got a tour inside. The tour guide spoke very clear German so I was able to understand quite a bit which was nice. After the tour, we drove back to Cologne and had dinner at a traditional restaurant for the area. It was a very different Easter for me – I am used to staying in the house and having a big meal with the family at home. This Easter felt less traditional in the sense that there weren’t as many customs, but at the same time it was still hugely family oriented with everyone interacting together and enjoying each other’s company.

The next day we went to a botanical garden and took another nice walk around as a group. It is hard for me to imagine American families talking walks as a group of nine people for over an hour. In the park we even saw a peacock showing its stuff. After a bit more walking around it was time to go to the trainstation and head back to Heidelberg.

The aforementioned peacock, showing its aforementioned stuff.

The aforementioned peacock, showing its aforementioned stuff.

Our Apartment in Heidelberg

We moved into our apartment last week and everything went better than expected. Julia’s parents and uncle helped us (a lot) take everything from Seelenberg, a small town near Frankfurt where Julia’s parents live, to our new apartment in Heidelberg. We were fortunate in that the previous renter left a lot of her furniture behind, which means that we didn’t have to buy and transport so much.

A difference that I have noticed in Germany is that more often than not you buy the kitchen when you move into an apartment. That means the previous renter also bought the kitchen when she moved in. When she moved out, she had the option of taking the refrigerator/stove/oven with her, or selling it to the next renters. I find this to be pretty impractical, as most kitchen appliances fit very well in the place for which they were bought and would not necessarily go with a kitchen in a new place. On top of that, you have to worry about transporting them and hooking them up. In addition, at least in the place we moved into, certain small things that I would never expect to be taken were in fact taken. For example, the standard bathroom sink mirror was gone when we moved in. Then we had to (more accurately: Julia’s dad and uncle) put up our own bathroom sink mirror. It seemed unneccessary since I take the following to be true: 1) A bathroom sink mirror is standard in a bathroom and 2) The style of the mirror is not very personal and is just there for function. Can’t we all just leave our bathroom mirrors? Anyway, these are just differences from America that I think others may also find interesting.

Our apartment is a “2 room” apartment. This means there are two “hang out” rooms: rooms where you can do things that aren’t purely functional like a bathroom or a kitchen. Our two rooms are the bedroom and an eating/living room. In the USA, this would be a 1 bedroom apartment. The bedroom is a good size and the second room is a bit smaller. What is really nice is that the hallway is really wide and doesn’t feel cramped at all which I think can often be the case in hallways in apartments.

The apartment is in a beautiful, small courtyard that hangs off of the main street in the old city area of Heidelberg. The main street (Hauptstraße) always has a lot going on and makes you feel alive. We are just far enough removed where our section of the courtyard is peaceful. We can be in the action in 20 seconds, though, if we want.

Overall, we really, really lucked out getting the apartment and are excited to live here. Heidelberg is notorious for being hard to find an apartment. There is a massive influx of students every semester that all need places to live and even the dorms are way over capacity. There also seems to be an unwritten law where the landlords don’t just jack up the price to meet demand like they would in the US. Our landlady said, for example, “the price from the last tenant seems fair, so let’s just keep it like that.” I can’t imagine a landlord/lady in the US saying that. I have the feeling the rent has been the same for six years and she could easily get a couple hundred Euros more per month for it. We saw worse apartments with worse locations that were way more money. With an overcrowded market and lower priced apartments the competition comes not in the form of money, but in the form of appearance and how well you will get along with the landlord. I have heard, but not seen, that there are often long lines of would-be renters that line up to see apartments when they become available. You write your name, age, and occupation down on a list and hope you are the chosen one. Again, we really lucked out and are excited for the times ahead.

Here is a video of the apartment: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=miCXD5Nc-sY

Burg Hohenzollern

A week or so ago, Julia, some friends and I visited the Hohenzollern Castle which is about 20 minutes away from Tübingen. It is thought to date back to the 11th Century, making it hundreds of years older than anything that can be seen in the states – it is pretty incredible. The castle has been rebuilt many times over the years and was often inhabited by German royalty. Here are some pictures from the trip:

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