Friday, April 09, 2004

Cologne Germany: Life in Germany

While picking bits of cheese from my clothing that got stuck there a result of a cooking accident this evening, I realised it's been a while since I wrote an update on what I have been doing. I haven't really been travelling since Christmas so I haven't felt like there was anything to write about. But actually with the weekend trips and other things I have already been to Belgium, Austria, Switzerland and Spain this year. There is something to be said for this European life, even with the relentless winter weather.

A couple of trivial things about German life first:
  • It is illegal to move house in Germany on Good Friday, as well as on two other days throughout the year. One must be very quiet on such a day. I have no idea how they punish transgressors.
  • When I jaywalk or ride my bike 10 cm outside of the bike lane I usually get a stern lecture from a nearby German. Now I jaywalk not to save time but to see the way older Germans get red faced and wave their umbrellas at me when it happens.
  • I was talking with a German yesterday about the genocide in Rwanda 10 years ago, and I suggested in some ways it was worse than the Holocaust. Ouch! Mistake! I was told that such a comment in Germany is considered antisemitic. They seem to be quite touchy on the subject. It makes sense, I guess.
In January I made a weekend visit to a Belgian city variously called Bruge, Bruges, and Brugge. It was very picturesque in a rather dull Belgian way. It was a thriving medieval trading city whose river port unexpectedly silted up so development stopped. Today the medieval buildings remain in a renovated form and canals encircle and crisscross the city. It's nice to look at but there isn't really much to do except buy Belgian chocolate.

In early February I went to Sound of Music territory in Austria to visit an Aussie friend who lives there. He lives and works in a small village on an alpine lake that was actually used in the filming of The Sound of Music. We were joined by two British guys we met in the Baltic countries last year, a little backpackers reunion. We went to one of the three local pubs in the evening and found a traditional dress party going on. It was full of people in their twenties wearing lederhosen and felt hats and dirndls (think Julie Andrews), an accordion band provided the entertainment, and I even convinced someone to do a demonstration of yodelling. It is one of the few times I have seen people in traditional dress when they weren't just doing it for the tourists. It was also the coldest weekend of the Austrian weekend, with temperatures not even getting close to zero. I think we had a maximum of minus 12 degrees and a minimum of minus 30 degrees, but my brain was so numb I don't quite recall. Sounds awful but the sky was perfect in the daytime so it made for some great photos as we visited the towns in the area. I don't understand the physics of it, but the cold was making steam come off a lake where a snow-draped village is more or less carved into the mountainside. This village is my nomination for Worst Place to Live - it is on the north side of a steep mountain so it doesn't get any sun for the entire winter.

In late February I was itching for some warm weather so I made a trip to South Europe where it is usually a bit warmer. Spain is well known for being warm, right? So I went to Spain's Basque region on the Atlantic coast near the French border. Somehow, like Austria, I was there in the coldest week of the Spanish winter. The weather varied between rain, snow, hail, and thunderstorms. The main Spain-France highway crossing was completely snowed in as well as hundreds of villages. I almost got stuck in Pamplona because of the snow. Pamplona is the place where they have the famous "Running of the Bulls" each year in July, an event where lots of drunk Americans join the Basque men in running through the narrow streets while being chased by angry, frightened and very heavy bulls. Nothing like that when I was there, just snow.

Bilbao, the Basque capital, is a city I liked a lot. It stretches along a river in a valley to the ocean and was a rundown, depressed small industrial city until a decade ago. It has been remarkably transformed into a place worth visiting. It has the Guggenheim museum on the riverbank, a titanium clad building built a few years ago that was designed to resemble a something between a fish and a ship. The museum building itself is even more interesting than the modern art inside and has become a landmark. Up and down the river old areas are becoming shiny and new.

I enjoyed the Spanish trip a lot, despite the snow. The food was great and affordable, especially compared to German food and I gorged myself on tapas and Spanish omelettes. People were friendly and helpful too.

In March my company sent me to Zurich for a week. I didn't get much time for sightseeing though. My hotel was 100 metres from where I worked during the day, so actually I could have been anywhere in the world for much of the time. I've been working for an entire 5 weeks now, although it's been mostly free time, because the project they want me to work on is not ready to start. It is a bit boring, but I am getting paid for the waiting time so I have no complaints. It gives me plenty of time to plan my next trips.

That's all for now. It's 10 minutes to midnight, and tomorrow is Good Friday. I've got to stop typing because the clicking noise might disturb the neighbours.