Thursday, June 14, 2012

The day I went everywhere: Potsdam, Wittenberg, and Itzehoe, Germany (6/8/2012)

11/6/2012, 8:50.  I am sitting on a train from Hamburg, Germany to Copenhagen, Denmark as I write.  The train will be boarding a ferry for part of the journey!

    Jeff had left when I woke up on the 8th.  I spent a frustrating hour or more looking up timetables, trying to print them in the hostel lobby and so forth, trying to ensure my successful arrival in several places for the day.  As you will read, it was a day of some mishaps, but a wonderful day as well!
    I decided that I had seen what I wanted to see in Berlin, and that it wouldn’t be fun to do anything else by myself.  So I planned to stop in Wittenberg (where Martin Luther famously nailed the 95 theses to the church door) and then Leipzig (where J.S. Bach lived and wrote music for many years) and then catch a train to Hamburg, where I would catch the last train to Itzehoe in northern Germany, where I would meet my friend Jamie Stallman and his friends to stay with them for a few days. 
    Then I realized that I’d only have an hour in Leipzig, and that it was in the opposite direction of Hamburg.  Bad idea.  So I strapped on my giant backpack and decided I’d still go to Wittenberg: it was a tiny town, and I could see all that I needed to in an hour, and then hop on a train to Hamburg.  But I missed the 9:30 train to Wittenberg, so I’d have to catch a later one.  In the meantime, I thought, I would go to Potsdam, the former home of the kaisers.  It was only a half-hour subway ride from the Berlin Hauptbahnhof (main train station), so I could be back for one of the Wittenberg trains!  So I hopped on board, last minute.
    I bought a bus pass in the Potsdam train station, and then discovered that to visit the destinations of Potsdam-- the royal palace, etc.-- and then return to catch the train in time to catch the train, in time to catch the train, would take a long time.  So I took a deep sigh, my backpack weighing me down, handed my ticket to the tourist information clerk to give to a stranger, and took the subway back to Berlin.  Wellp, I’ve seen the Potsdam train station, I thought to myself.  On the bright side, I had a good long conversation with a nineteen-year-old German, who told me all about the German school system.  Here’s a few things I learned:
German college has much different calendars than the States.  If I remember correctly, school starts in early October, and they have short breaks for a few holidays throughout the year (Christmas, etc.)  Besides that, they have a break in February, and school gets done in late April or something.
German students start to specialize on a subject during high school.  Willi, the dude I met, started taking five hours of chemistry and geography for every three hours of other subjects during high school.  They still study other things, but not as much.  The university is the same way.
There are different educational institutions that one can attend during what we call high school years: “Gymnasium” is closest to what we call the university or college; a technology school; and one other one that wasn’t really described to me. 
Instead of general P.E. class, everyone at Willi’s school specialized in one sport or activity, if I understand right.  Soccer is very popular, and also handball (like ultimate frisbee with a small ball) and floor hockey.  Everyone chooses  one art subject, too: music, visual arts, or theatre.  Besides that, most sports and art activities are “club,” that is paid for by individuals rather than provided by the school.
    I returned to Berlin and caught the train to “Lutherstadt Wittenberg.”  It was less than an hour train, and there would be a train leaving for Hamburg (by way of Berlin) in one hour.  Perfect, I thought: I’d have one hour to see this tiny town, take a picture of the Luther statue and the church door, and be back to the train! 
    As it turned out, it took me almost a half hour to walk from the station to the town square and the Schlosskirche, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to walk back in time.  So I walked through town, snapped a few pictures, called a taxi, and arrived just in time to catch my train.  Close call!  Although I didn’t get to really savor it, I enjoyed the trip.  Wittenberg is a pretty little town with charming old buildings, and it was fun to witness the festival celebrating the anniversary of Luther’s marriage to Katherina von Bora, complete with silly old costumes and stands selling classic German foods and “Lutherbier.”
    After a long and quiet train ride (I exchanged only a few words with the German couple in my Hogwarts Express train box), I arrived in Hamburg, and then in Itzehoe, a town of 30,000 in far northern Germany.  A nice guy about my age saw that I needed to call them for a ride, and so he let me borrow his phone, bought me a beer, and waited for a while with me!  So nice!  Then my friend Jamie, his German friend Florian Drechsler (whose family would host me for the next two days), and Flo’s girlfriend Conny picked me up.  It was about 6:00 or 7:00, and we had an exciting night ahead!
    All of us (and Conny’s sister Xenia (Ktseen-ya) went to Flo’s house for dinner, and I met his father Uwe (Oo-vuh) and mother Kerstyn (Care-stin).  All of them-- kind, considerate, and smiley people.  All of them spoke English, making it easy for me to join in conversation although I was the only non-German speaker at the dinner table (although when they spoke German, I was content and intrigued to listen!)  Kerstyn and Uwe talked quite a bit about bicycling.  Kerstyn in particular is an avid biker, and has done trips through the Alps and across Germany.  I learned from her that Germany and the Netherlands have excellent networks of paths especially for bikes (perhaps a destination for a future vacation??) 
    A while after dinner and dessert, Jamie, Flo, Conny, Xenia, and I went to join their friend Hanjo (Hahn-yo) at his house for a party at his house in the woods.  There were many others there as well: Hanjo’s sister Freda, Johann and his brother Tron, Anna, Marie, and a few others (cool names, huh?)  Besides Jamie and I, everyone had either just finished high school or had one year left (18- and 19-year-olds.)  We all crammed in an upstairs bedroom in the old country house, drank tasty German beers, and hung out.  I had a great time getting to know the Germans, and had an especially great conversation with Freda, Hanjo’s stunningly beautiful and kind-hearted sister (Did I mention that all of the ladies were gorgeous?) 
    Then we cranked up the music and danced.  The music was a little of everything, mostly very familiar-- a song or two by Florence & the Machine, Mumford and Sons, Skrillex, a few of the Chemical Brothers, and even oldies including the Beach Boys, the Blues Brothers, and so forth.  Of course we listened to some German techno songs, my favorite of which is “Disco Pogo.”  It seemed to me that the Germans were generally more open and crazy than Americans typically are, but perhaps that opinion was skewed by Hanjo, who rocked out without a care in the world the entire time, his infectious joy sucking everyone back into the dancing after moments of sitting.  We made danced and made fools of ourselves until 3:00 in the morning.  It was a proper German party, and a night well-spent.

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