My Experience as an American Volunteering in Heidelberg

I recently submitted a letter to the editor of the local newspaper, the Rhein-Neckar Zeitung, detailing my various failed attempts at volunteering for charities in Heidelberg. Shortly after, I received an email from the editor, in which he suggested we turn the letter into a full article, for which he would interview me. I obliged. The letter appeared a few days later in the paper, as well as online.  Unfortunately, and yet somewhat expected, the article paints a different picture than that which I meant to convey. Surprisingly, the many of the comments that the article received were negative: Either I did not try hard enough to volunteer, or I had no skills to offer the charities, etc, or other ad hoc fallacies based on pure speculation.  In light of this, I decided to write about my experiences in detail, as well as what I meant to convey in my original letter to the editor.

The Story

Shortly after moving to Heidelberg, Germany, my girlfriend, Julia,  and I decided we wanted to volunteer in our free time. This was in 2014, before the so-called “refugee crisis”, but there were still many refugees in Germany at that point in time. I often think about how I can maximize my “good” output, and decided that helping refugees, especially children, with their integration into Germany society would be among the most effective uses of my time. 1)I think the most effective cause, to which one can contribute, is vegetarianism/veganism. There are many reasons for this: 1) Billions of animals are killed each year, most under terrible conditions. Since we know many of the animals we are talking about feel pain and enjoy experiences as we do, and that we do not need meat to survive, this is morally wrong and unjustifiable. 2) It takes more resources to feed animals than we get from the animal itself, contributing to hunger issues as well as water issues, since more water is required as well. 3) Meat production contributes more to global warming than cars do, so cutting down on meat would have a sizable, positive impact on one of the world’s other largest problems. I plan to discuss this issue in more depth in another post.

Julia and I went to the Asylarbeitskreis, an organization that helps refugees and explained we would help in any capacity we could, but that specifically we could be helpful in teaching children German or English, helping them with their school work, or providing after school supervision. If that was not available, we could do something else, too. The woman at the office said it sounded great, and she would contact us in a few days. Much to our surprise, we received an email a few days later saying that there was room for our (free!) help.

I went to next to Obdach e.V., a local homeless organization. Homelessness has always been a social problem that I could not wrap my head around. How could it be that in super rich societies like the United States and Germany that such a problem could exist? In Heidelberg, there are many homeless people, who are on the street every single day. There is one man with one leg who drags himself up and down the street with his hands for more than a full work day of hours and asks for change. I wanted to investigate how this could be and to help tackle this problem, so, I offered my services. I was accepted, although I was told they had no need at the time. I could visit a man who was in social housing and keep him company, if I wanted. I was not excited by the idea, as I thought I could have a much bigger effect, but I said yes. I was warned many times that the man was very strange and could not speak clearly, and I was told she understood if I did not want to meet him again. When I met with the man, it was even worse than she said: the man was drunk, smelled like it, could not speak clearly at all, repeated himself, and after our meeting called me 70 times in a row. I told the woman at Obdach that I did not want to meet him again and she understood.

After this, I did some small jobs, like helping to renovate an apartment for a man who lived in the high rent section of the city. He had lived there for 20 years and had smoked the walls yellow, so it was time to repaint them. Everything needed to be taken down and furniture needed to be cleaned and moved. I asked myself how this man was classified as homeless and what exactly I was doing there. It seemed like I got shoved into random jobs that were at best loosely related to the topic of homelessness, and that at most I was having an extremely tiny impact.

With these thoughts, I proposed that I write an article for the local homeless newspaper that Obdach put out four times a year, thinking this might have a larger impact and support homelessness more generally. The responsible party at the organization thought it was a good idea, and seemed excited about the topic, which argued to make the local library services free in Heidelberg, since the homeless have less access to culture if they have to pay for all of the good literature. I wrote the article and submitted it. I was promised it would appear in the next issue of the paper and that I would receive a copy. Months passed, and I received no other jobs to do, and was not notified that the article was in the paper.  I sent many unanswered messages and was eventually told that the editor of the paper was stubborn and did not want to publish the article. It was clear there was frustration between the woman with whom I spoke and the editor of the paper. I emailed the editor multiple times and received no response. Persistent and frustrated, I continued to email. Eventually, I received an email saying that he never got the article and asked me to send it again, which I did. He promised me it would appear in the next issue. Again, months went by and no article appeared. I wrote him again and received no answers. Like the previous time, I continued to email, not accepting silence. Eventually, I was told that they would no longer be printing the paper, so the article would never appear.

While this was going on, I also proactively asked if there was anything I could do for the website of the organization, and again my offer was accepted. I met with the man responsible for maintaining it, and we had a meeting about what needed to be done and made a plan. I was going to the United States to visit my family for a month, so we would start when I got back. We planned a meeting for my return. When I came to the second meeting, I was told that the site had already been redone – the work had been contracted out. After this and the other experiences, I had been with the organization for more than a year and had accomplished almost nothing. I decided I was done with Obdach e.V2)While all this was going on, I volunteered for the Deutsch-Amerikanisches Institut in Heidelberg, but only ended up getting called every Halloween and Easter to help run parties for kids. Something good, I suppose, but not really effective.

By this time, the refugee crisis was in full force. Thousands were sent to Heidelberg, as we have a large, newly-empty US Army base where they can seek refuge. What better time to contact the Asylarbeitskreis and offer again to help out? I never received a response from them. I also read online and heard from others that they were at capacity and could not make use of any extra effort.

I went to der Paritätische Forum, a group that helps interested volunteers find matches, and asked what I could do. I met with a woman who asked me about my interests, and we then proceeded to examine different charities and organizations to find potential matches.This was very efficient and a breath of fresh air after the slow, ineffective experiences I had previously dealt with. With the contact information of five or so organizations, I left the building re-energized and positive about the prospects. I contacted all five organizations and explained who I was, how I got their information, and how I thought I could help. The first said there were no opportunities. From the rest, I received no replies. I decided to give up.

About four months later, I received an email from one of the organizations, HD Ink, apologizing for it having taken so long. Would I like to come to a meeting with the other prospective helpers and learn about the organization and get the ball rolling? Sure. I went to the meeting: we tossed a ball around for 30 minutes and learned each other’s names. Then we had to make claims about each other’s personalities just based upon appearance to show how stereotypes are not always correct. We also were told to ask questions about how the organization functions, to see if our expectations matched the reality. It was all intended to be a fun ice-breaker. We filled out paperwork saying when we could start working, how many hours a week, what our skills were, etc. The organizer was happy with my application. I asked when we started, and she said something like “well, Easter is in a couple weeks, so we will start after that.”, almost implying that in two weeks time nothing could get done. Will it surprise you at this point, dear reader, to find out that I have received no message from them, months after Easter?

This time I really gave up and decided to write the letter to the editor of the newpaper, figuring that shining a light on this apparent problem might be the most effective thing I could do and also not having the energy to search for more institutions. Shouldn’t volunteering be easier than a job search?

Lessons Learned?

Summing up my experiences, I believe I have learned a few things. If not concretely, then at least I have some suspicions, which could be more deeply investigated. I do not know which apply to just the charities I contacted, which apply to Heidelberg, and which to Germany in general. Obviously I have a relatively small sample size, so take it for what it is worth:

  • The majority of people I was in contact with did not seem very motivated to do their jobs efficiently. Things moved slowly. Emails went unanswered. On that point:
  • Emailing probably is not the best method of reaching an institution, at least in Germany. I usually prefer it because I can express myself more clearly in German when I write in advance, but in hindsight I think I should have just knocked on the doors of the various charities.
  • There seems to be a crazy imbalance in the way jobs function in Germany, and the employer has the advantage. Most German students I have talked to have done multiple unpaid internships and often struggle even to get those. I know others who, despite having master’s degrees, have all but given up getting a normal paid position and are looking instead for “traineeships”, which are another source of cheap labor from the highly educated. But this is a broader point which I may expand in another post. This seems to extend to the charity sector, which is why I mention it here. In the US, whenever I have volunteered I have been accepted immediately and have done meaningful work.
  • Charities here do not seem to have the ability to “think outside of the box”. This may be due to legal considerations or may be simply the “we’ve always done things this way” sickness. Many people, including the head of der Paritätische Forum, the newspaper editor, and many others have told me that the problem is at the administrative level. The organizations do have a need, but they do not have the administrative resources to manage the volunteers. If this is the case, why not either: 1)let the volunteers do administrative work that is easy to delegate or 2) give out work that does not require much overhead? It seems like most people I came in contact with expected to pigeon-hole me into a role that already existed within the organization, instead of allowing me to do something new. If all of the roles were filled, well, then they did not need any more help. At a higher level, it is easy to see that a lot of help is needed with the refugee issue, for example. I have an friend in the US who recently went to the mayor of a city and asked if he could volunteer and help out. The mayor gave him a job and now he sits in on meetings and helps organize events to help promote the city. This seems unthinkable in Germany, and other Germans have echoed this opinion.
  • People’s interpretation of a situation conform to their pre-existing biases. This is probably the most frustrating observation of all, and something I plan to expand into its own post. As I stated in the beginning of this post, many people were critical of the article about the situation that was in the newspaper, saying that I must have been the problem. Maybe part of it is my problem. I do not mean to make the claim that I tried every day for two years to volunteer and it never worked out. I just wanted to make the claim that it is more difficult to volunteer than it should be, and that I probably was not alone with such problems.3)And it appears I am not the only one. I was contacted by a man who read the article who also had had similar experiences and who told me he would likely never volunteer again as a result of it. Regardless, many people do not want to take a look at themselves or their society and make a change. If they had read an article about a land far, far away, they would have overwhelmingly agreed that the system in Land X was dysfunctional and urgently needed changing. But when the article is closer to home, there cannot be a problem. It must have been my fault, since I, in this case, am the aspect “furthest thing away.” How can dysfunctional systems change under such a structure of thought?
  • Due to these experiences, I have thought about developing a website where people with a social need could be matched with volunteers, to avoid the problems which I’ve outlined. As an example, a refugee using the site could get matched with a person who could help them learn German, with their daily visits to government agencies, or what have you. The match would have nothing to do with an organization, and could be efficient, and content agnostic, meaning any need could be fulfilled by a willing volunteer. This would save the volunteer from finding an appropriate organization, signing non-disclosure agreements, waiting on emails, etc. Maybe such a site already exists. If you know of one, let me know.

Julia and I are moving to Berlin in a few months and I have a feeling things will be somewhat different there, or at least I hope it. Either way, I will eventually write about my experiences here. If you have any comments, I would be interested to hear from you.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. I think the most effective cause, to which one can contribute, is vegetarianism/veganism. There are many reasons for this: 1) Billions of animals are killed each year, most under terrible conditions. Since we know many of the animals we are talking about feel pain and enjoy experiences as we do, and that we do not need meat to survive, this is morally wrong and unjustifiable. 2) It takes more resources to feed animals than we get from the animal itself, contributing to hunger issues as well as water issues, since more water is required as well. 3) Meat production contributes more to global warming than cars do, so cutting down on meat would have a sizable, positive impact on one of the world’s other largest problems. I plan to discuss this issue in more depth in another post.
2. While all this was going on, I volunteered for the Deutsch-Amerikanisches Institut in Heidelberg, but only ended up getting called every Halloween and Easter to help run parties for kids. Something good, I suppose, but not really effective.
3. And it appears I am not the only one. I was contacted by a man who read the article who also had had similar experiences and who told me he would likely never volunteer again as a result of it.

Calculated Experience

Years ago, I was hanging out with a group of friends, one of which brought up a joke he had recently seen online. Although the content of the joke would probably make this, the second sentence of this post, much more interesting, I have to say I can’t remember it. And the joke isn’t really the point. The point was the almost everyone in the group had already seen the exact same joke online. The joke was posted on Reddit, a popular news aggregation site where people can up- and downvote issues as they see fit. I remember thinking to myself (and I think saying out loud), that it was incredible that among the millions of jokes that are posted every single day online, this group of people had all seen the exact same one. This post you are reading has been in the back of my head ever since.

In more and more areas of life, at least it seems to me, experiences are being quantified according to a formula and then spit back out to users, sorted accordingly. I say “experiences of life” because I can’t think of a better phrase that accounts for the broadness of such disparate items as “knowledge”, “current events”, “music”, and “film”, just to name a few. Instead of a user having to make a conscious decision as to what they want to experience online, the answer is just given to them. Maybe some examples will clear up what I mean.

  • You go to Reddit.com and naturally start at the top of the page – this is where the most highly rated items of the day are. Since they were the most highly rated by other users, chances are you will find the item good as well. You read the description, decide it is good enough, and click the link. Now you see the most highly rated comment of the thread and view comments in this order until you get tired of the thread.
  • You are having a party and use Spotify, a music application. You type in “party music” and see already created playlists. You click the first or second playlist and your party is ready to go.
  • You are on Netflix, a movie streaming application, and you want to watch a new movie. Movies are presented to you based on a complicated rating system, including feedback based on what you have watched and liked in the past. You pick one that is a relatively good match.
  • You log into Facebook and have the default “Top Stories” mode selected, in which you see stories presented in an order based on Facebook’s algorithm for “top”. From Facebook: “, it uses factors such as how many friends are commenting on a post to aggregate content that you’ll find interesting. It displays stories based on their relevance, rather than in chronological order.

This list could obviously go on and on. It goes without saying that these services provide benefits to society, but I think there are some troubling aspects that one could raise about such systems and how they could affect society as a whole:

  • More and more people access the exact same information from the same sources. At a micro level you are probably going to find information that you find interesting. At a macro level, the chances are slimmer that you will come across someone with a different viewpoint than you. You have been consuming the same information as others, so the exchange of information between two parties will be lower. Instead of everyone being able to contribute a unique, nuanced perspective on a complicated issue, you are more likely to hear just a couple of points, and likely ones you have already heard and ones you may have given yourself.
  • The information people know will be highly stratified. When you do encounter someone who has a different opinion than you, then chances of a meaningful discussion being possible are lower. You subscribe to “RightWingNews.com” on Facebook and you and thousands of other subscribers comment on the posts, all confirming ideas you all thought yesterday. You encounter someone who subscribed to “LeftWingNews.com” who did the same. You both think the other side is just saying gibberish. How could this not be the case? The information you have allowed yourself to consume is highly stratified and never challenges you to think in a different way from the exact way you already think, which you are already sure is the right way (If you are stuck inside of a system, how could it be the wrong way?).
  • There is a certain loss of agency in giving up the choice to make a conscious decision. If an algorithm is deciding for you, you aren’t deciding. When I was younger, going to get a new CD was a big, fun decision and after the purchase I listened to each song on the CD over and over. I don’t do that anymore. If I hear any sort of self-generated mix it is usually the best hit from each of the best artists in a particular genre. I don’t hear the other songs from the artist that aren’t the “best” and I don’t hear from the “non-best” bands. Music touches me less directly. I think it is a shame. Imagine an ice cream flavor machine choosing your flavor for you at the store. It determined that most people that day liked chocolate and so everyone, including you, gets chocolate. It tastes pretty good. You eat it and you go home.

What can we do to combat problems like this? Improvise – do things you don’t normally do. Read a newspaper from a publisher that you have never read before. Read a site that has the exact opposite view on an issue you have an opinion about. Go into a bookstore and buy a book you didn’t read an Amazon review for on a topic that you think is interesting but have never explored. Ask someone who you don’t usually talk to about music what they have been listening to lately. Hit the “Random article” button in Wikipedia and follow the links down the rabbit hole. Tell me other ideas you have!

 

 

Democracy and Toilets

Anyone who asks me “What is the worst part about living in Germany?” receives the same response. It is the same thing every time. Hell, anyone who has talked to me for more than 18 seconds in the past year and a half probably knows the answer: Water. I’ve given the explanations hundreds of times, so once more won’t hurt.

You see, I took water for granted in the USA. I would go to a park, visit a museum, go to the doctor, come out of the bathroom in a bookstore and there was a water fountain there pretty much every time. When I wentout to dinner, I was greeted with a large water before even ordering. My glass was refilled throughout the night without even asking. The first time I came to Germany I noticed the change pretty much right off the bat: free water is hard to come by. Water fountains are virtually non-existent. When you go to a restaurant and want a water you can ask for Leitungswasser (“Pipe” water from the tap) and be met with a dirty look or buy a water for your dinner which in pretty much every case costs the same amount as a beer which costs about the same as a soda which costs about the same as a juice: 2-3 Euros which is more like $3-4.5. Sure, the water is seltzer and has minerals in it, but when you drink water constantly like I do, this makes drinking each day an expensive proposition.

People sitting (but not drinking) near the wonderful Bächle that flow through the city of Freiburg.

People sitting (but not drinking) near the wonderful Bächle that flow through the city of Freiburg.

I am in a similar position when I need to go to the bathroom somewhere. If I am in the train station, I need to pay. If I am at a pitstop on the highway to fill up the car, I need to pay. Going to the bathroom is always tied with an economic transaction. In the US in comparison, there are many more places where you can go to the bathroom for free.

For a third example, when I go to the library in Heidelberg and want to check out a Best Seller or a DVD, I have to pay a Euro. When I want to reserve a book, I have to pay a Euro (although I can go to the bathroom for free there). There are, however, other ways to get free books.

“Who cares about water and toilets?” you ask. “If those are your biggest problems with Germany, then it sounds like things are great,” you claim. You would be correct. I only bring this up to illustrate two points: 1) you take aspects of your own culture for granted and more importantly 2) through seemingly trivial decisions such as water distribution systems, a society expresses its care or concern.

What do I mean by care or concern? I am borrowing the term (in German Sorge) from Martin Heidegger, an extremely influential 20th Century philosopher, who was, in his magnum opus Being and Time, interested in finding out what it meant to be a human being, for lack of more complicated terminology. Human beings, even through they are thrown into the world into some social, political, and economic context engage with the world and constantly make decisions based on some sort of concern for the future. For example, I brush my teeth twice a day because 1) it was what I was brought up to do and 2) I want to have good teeth in the future. Outside of right now, I never really reflect on this activity – it is just a part of my life and a concern that I carry with me throughout my life, so to speak.

What I want to say is, the social and technological institutions that a society has reflect its ongoing cares over time. When one looks at these three aspects of German culture: water, public access to restrooms and library access, I think it is easy to see that they express a lack of democracy in these three areas, which I hope to illuminate.

First let me say: I am not trying to attack Germany. I have a more acute awareness of these aspects only because I am an outsider with a different perspective. If I went to any other country I would have a different list. America has its own list (e.g. the Death Penalty) and outsiders of the USA are more acutely aware of the items on that list. The point isn’t really about any specific country but about how a society, through what it does and doesn’t do, reflects their cares, in this case: democracy.

Imagine for one second you are a homeless person and you want to get through your life, just like everyone else. For the homeless, access to water, bathrooms, and books are much more important than they are to me and can make the difference between a constant daily struggle and a much easier life. In this sense, they are democratic institutions that everyone, in my opinion, should have access to. With regard to the homeless in Germany this is a moot point as Germany has a very strong democratic institution for the homeless: every homeless person can get an apartment that is supported by the state if they want one [citation needed, but I believe this is true]. Regardless, the point stands: access to these basic necessities  is harder for everyone when there is a monetary price involved and puts a(nother) barrier between the haves and the have-nots.

I think it would do us all good to reflect more on what our societies are showing us and to try to change things for the better, whatever we think that might be. I think it is also helpful to look at things through a critical lens, even if “too” critical. A good example of this is education in Germany. When you look at the cost here to go to college (around $200 a semester) compared to the USA (thousands upon thousands of dollars) it is laughable and I look at the education here as pretty much free. But that doesn’t stop protestors from thinking that $200 is too damn much and that free is free, $200 isn’t free. Seen from the American perspective, this may look like overdoing it, but to me this is very critical attitude and a leads to a good societal jolt that shows democracy is alive and kicking. I believe we need more movements like this and that people should look more about which cares they are expressing and which they want to express.

If anyone has any other examples of democratic or non-democratic values that a society expresses, I would be very interested to hear and discuss them.

Public Books

Something that I have appreciated in both Tübingen and Heidelberg is the ubiquity of books. In these university cities you can find a book store every couple of blocks or so.

In Tübingen, a city I lived in a few months ago, there was a large culture of giving books away for free. I very often saw books sitting on the stoop of some apartment that said Zu Verschenken – basically that they are giving them away for free. This generalized to furniture and other items as well. When people didn’t want something anymore they just put it outside for someone else to take. I should note that this wasn’t always just crap – there are many books you would want to read and furniture that you could actually sit in.

I see this less in Heidelberg, but there is another phenomenon here: city sponsored bookshelves that are outside where people can take or leave as many books as they want. The one right near our apartment pretty much always has at least one person browsing, which is nice to see.

People browsing the free books where we live.

People browsing the free books where we live.

A second bookshelf in a neighboring section of Heidelberg.

A second bookshelf in a neighboring section of Heidelberg.

Main Street in Heidelberg

Julia and I live right off of the Main Street (Hauptstraße) in Heidelberg. We got really lucky because apartments are notoriously hard to get in Heidelberg, and especially hard in this location – it isn’t even all that expensive and much less than half of what I was paying in Arlington, VA. The Hauptstraße has a lot of shops, both boutique and chain and is very touristy with lots of hustle and bustle. According to Wikipedia, the Fußgängerzone (“Fuß” like “Foosball table” meaning “Foot”, “Gänger” like “Doppelgänger” here meaning “Goer”, and “Zone” as in “Zone”, altogether meaning something like “Walking Area” – see? German is easy…) is the longest in Europa at 1.6km long. Part of Heidelberg University is in this area, with the major part being on the other side of the Neckar River.

I made a little video to show a little bit of what it is like here. At the end, I go into a little area where we live. You can see a boutique shop with red awnings as well as where our apartment is on the upper right, which is above a bakery that you can see at the beginning of the video directly to the right of the gate.

Skateboard Park in Heidelberg

Just a quick post since I usually sit on them too long and they end up never getting posted…

Heidelberg has a really great skate park.

It is:

  • under a bridge, so you can skate in the rain.
  • right on the river, so you are right in the middle of a beautiful area.
  • made completely of concrete, which makes for a really smooth ride.
  • lit up at night, so you can skate when it is dark.
  • covered with cool graffiti.
  • free.

Skateboarding has always been a great release for me. It is the closest thing to a Buddhist Enlightenment that I think I will ever have. Here are some pictures of the park and a quick video of me skating:

 

The skate park in Heidelberg.

The skate park in Heidelberg.

20140602_144836_HDR

Nice graffiti.

Nice graffiti.

I spent all of my time on this section.

I spent all of my time on this section.

I think a homeless guy lives under here.

I think a homeless guy lives under here.

 

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:

DSC01777

DSC01779

DSC01821

DSC01808

DSC01823

DSC01839

DSC01836