Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Germany - Day 13: 2/12 (Goin' Straight to Bell)

No school for us today! We didn’t have a snow day like folks back home seem to be getting in spades. We had our trip to Cologne, otherwise known as Koln (with an umlaut over the o, which I don’t have on this keyboard). It meant that once I made it into school at the usual time, I walked to the hosts of Frau Canavan and had coffee with her host, Sarah (pronounced Zara) and her mother, and Frau Canavan. At 9:30, Frau Lohoff picked us up to take us to the Moers Train Station, where we met with the rest of the crew.

We arrived in Koln at about 11 and as soon as we exited the train station I was overwhelmed by the mountain sized cathedral that was located across the courtyard. The train station, and about everything else in a half of a square mile radius, was thrown into a deep shadow. The Koln Dom is the oldest Cathedral in all of Europe, home to the world’s largest church bell and a spiral staircase to the near top of the highest tower (all we need is a dragon and this is straight from Shrek) that was rumored to number near eight hundred steps, although Sandman (and who else could it be?) decided to go all Myth Busters on that and said that it was exactly 500 steps. It was the tightest, narrowest spiral staircase I had ever seen. So much so that when I was behind Colleen, who was behind Casey, and I could reach up and grab Casey’s ankle and trip him, even though I couldn’t see him.

I was warned that my legs would be smoking by the top. Even Casey couldn’t run all the way there (although he will probably give some bogus excuse like he was getting blocked by people in front of him), but I found that it was more of an issues with my balky knees hating stairs and my own stupidity of not taking off my windbreaker, which is both totally waterproof and non-breathable (for extra warmth), all of which combined to me being flushed and perspiring like I had run a 5k and my kneed practically screaming for me to stop the torture. But they don’t understand that if you come to Cologne and not climb to the top is like going to the Great Wall of China and then just looking at it from the car. Besides, it was a P.E.A.C.E. Exchange tradition, so without so much as a single thought to the contrary, I excitedly went after those stairs.

The view from the top was amazing, and since there was limited windows on the way up, you really couldn’t grasp how high you were climbing until you reached the top platform. From there, there was still a steeple above, I am guessing about fifty additional feet, but to get up to that level, you needed to climb a thin ladder on the outside of the steeple, which obviously was only there for maintenance, and despite Jan’s enthusiasm to scale the steeple wall and get to a window so he could climb the latter, I thought that it was probably in our best interest to see the sights from the suggested platforms and viewpoints, all of which were INSIDE the tower.

On the way down, Sandman and I stopped to look at the ridiculously large bell. I had Sandman stand in front of it just so people could get a scale of how huge this thing was. If it decided to ring while we were there, I think I would have bled from the ears, literally. Walking around the platform, I decided that the bell’s maintenance it must be manned by small children or gnomes. I could barely clear the walls walking straight forward and Sandman had fun snapping a picture of me wedged between the walls.

When we made it to the bottom, I shed my coat and tried to cool off in front of the cathedral. It was cool, even in the sun, and when I took off my wind breaker, I was literally steaming. After cooling off and taking some pictures of the surrounding court yard, we started the fairly long walk to the Lindt Chocolate Factory and Museum. Being that Lindt chocolate is a favorite of my wife, who was very jealous tonight to hear that we went; I shot lots of small video clips of the factory machines. It reminded me of the Crispy Cream shop in Latham, before it closed, just with chocolate instead of donuts. I agree with what many of the students said: it would have been better if there was less museum w pictures of chocolate signs, and more chocolate samples. Jessia and I had hatched a plan to invade the bon-bon line when the workers, dressed and resembling Chef Boyardee, left the door open. We had concerned she would be gunned down by a bon-bon gun, which was, we theorized, like a paintball gun with chocolate based ammo instead of paint.

After this, we split up for about an hour of free time. The chaperons went to a famous restaurant in Cologne that makes its own beverages and served some really good food. I had lightly smoked pork shanks, with weinsauerkraut und kartoffelpuree (wine sauerkraut and mashed potatoes), which I ordered in German totally solo. I am starting to get a little better grip on the pronunciation of common German syllables, especially if I can read them while I am saying them. I have been pretty much working phonetically with my German, spelling everything as it sounds, particularly when I arrived here 12 days ago, and hopefully becoming a little more accurate with each increasing day. We spent almost all of our time at the restaurant with an art teacher from Moers, who grew up in Koln.

Once we were done eating and were heading back to the train station, Frau Lohoff agreed to catch up with the students so Frau Canavan and I could walk the inside of the cathedral, which was not accessible earlier in the day as there was a mass in progress. The cathedral was just as impressive as the Berliner Dom and the Aachen Dom, and like the sarcophagi of Aachen, held a similar one with the remains of the three kings, or wise men, from Biblical lore. I lit candles for my three deceased grandparents and for my wife’s deceased grandfather. It was an impressive structures, also considering it was built and carved totally by hand, which made how ornate it was all the more impressive. All things being considered, I think I like the Aachen Dom the best so far. It was the smallest of the three and probably not the most ornate of the three, but I agree with Beatrix when she says that there is just something about it that makes it special.

At 3:30, students entered the train station and began making their way towards the tracks. I realized that 4.5 hours was really not enough time to get any type of grip on Koln and that even for me, the day felt very rushed and I can ignore most signs as I cannot read them. I think in the future I would recommend that the trip leave earlier, stay later, or a little of both.

For me, however, I had a different adventure in store. At 4:05 I was meeting Hannah Jaeshke, a former exchange student and track star of mine on the steps of the cathedral. I disappeared from the group early so Canavan could convince some gullible student that I had missed the train and didn’t know how to get back to Moers. From what I heard later that evening, Freshie Bekah fell victim to the prank, being quite concerned until she saw a “cute shoe store” passing by on the train and quickly forgot my supposed predicament. I was touched that she had that level of concern, even if it was somewhat below her level of concern for shoes. Even though it was only thirty minutes, my solitude in a country where I don’t speak the language quickly sank in as I sat on the steps looking across the Kolner Domhof. It was wild feeling, sitting there, with some Goth kids sitting twenty steps below me with some mean looking dogs barking at passers by and them randomly yelling at or ignoring these people. I took some time to really take in what was going on. I was in the middle of Germany. I was in the middle of Germany. Four months ago if you asked me if I would be in Germany for February break I would have laughed at you, much as I would have laughed if you asked me if I would live in China for three months by the age of 21 when I was 15. Life has a funny way of offering you crazy opportunities and I have learned that it is most often the wise man who takes a hold of those opportunities to gain a larger understanding of the world around you by just going for it. I think one of the foremost signs that age is catching up with you is when you stop taking those chances. Youth is reckless and old age is cautious. I always want to live in the middle, and hopefully, closer to youth.

It was great seeing Hannah again. She was a student of mine when I was at Ballston Spa and was an extremely hard worker, scoring higher marks in my senior English class than most of her American class mates. On the track, she was also a force for the BSpa sprint team. We have kept in touch since she returned to Germany 18 months ago, entirely through e-mail, and I knew that if I was going to be in her neighborhood that I had to catch up with her and discuss life.

We stopped for coffee. Canavan has me now hooked on milkaffe. I know the spelling is almost certainly wrong, but that is what it sounds like. It’s like regular coffee with cappuccino foam. You don’t even need to add cream, so I like it a lot. We talked about how her year and exams were going (she thinks she aced a recent exam in English – obviously because of my wonderful influence!) and her plans for next semester. Hannah goes to a gymnasium (sp?) or a school for the most gifted and talented students in the area. Geschwister-Scholl is a gesamtschule or a comprehensive school that has a mix of students from all ability levels, but like most mainstreamed classes in the U.S., if a school has A.P. or U.H.S. programs, the main stream classes lack the upper end student because that student is elsewhere. Here, that can be said of entire schools, not just classes. Hannah’s schooling will run the course of 12.5 years, which is different than many schools, such as GSG, which last for 13 years. She also had to forfeit a years worth of education as she gained no school credit for her year in BSpa, or she had to choose to try to advance and pass the more advanced classes without having taken the ones she missed. She choose to work her tail off and do that and is now considering mechanical engineering programs at places like Aachen RWTH.

After coffee, we walked around Koln, and just talked about people from Ballston Spa and what they were up to now. She told me that two former students traveled to visit her last summer and that it was a good experience for one and not the other. I guess the one who had the bad experience was expecting miles and miles of shopping and to be pampered like she was on vacation in a hotel, and not to have to live with an actual family who had responsibilities outside of hosting. Ah, America!

It was nice walking around Koln and seeing what the city looked like for more than the blur as we flew through it earlier in the day. Hannah showed me where the original Eau de Cologne was invented and then we figured out the train system and checked out a few more shops before I needed to board my train. I did note what looked like a homeless woman passed out, faced down on the floor when I was purchasing a ticket, but the Polizei and paramedics appeared to be helping her (she spazzed a little when they were putting her on a stretcher and almost tossed one of the EMT’s over the stretcher and to the ground, but no one else seemed to pay attention, and taking the social cue, neither did I.

The train was largely unoccupied for the first stop. We picked up passengers often and eventually the train was very crowded, but I must have looked foreboding because the seat next to me remained empty. When we hit Duisburg, there was a mass exodus. I found the next track and waited, looking around the station and debating whether or not to get a coffee from Dunkin Donuts. About 15 minutes before my train, the DB 20146 to Rheinberg, was supposed to depart, another train arrived on the same track. It was the DB 31 to Xanten. I waited for it to depart, but five minutes before my own train was to depart, there was no other train on that platform and it was pointed west, the right direction. I decided to just ask somebody. I hopped onto the train and asked a gentleman if I was on the right train to get to Rheinberg, where Beatrix was going to pick me up. Indeed I was. I relaxed on the fairly empty train for the next 30 minutes, getting off at Rheinberg, which was about as much of a train stop as I could imagine in rural Montana. There was a dirt parking lot with no real buildings of any sort, besides some dark, industrial looking structures across the street. I would not have been surprised to see tumble weed blowing across the “parking lot” as I walked to Beatrix’s car. I now have faith that our students here will be okay. If, with my near non-existent German, I can manage to navigate my way across Germany by train, getting around town on a bus should not provide the danger or challenge that I think many students were fearing. And the worst case scenario is that you end up on the wrong side of Moers, or at worst, Kamp-Lintfort!

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