Culture Shock #6: History is Live

“Ja, Hamburg is full of bombs.”

Three sets of eyes turned towards the voice. It was Ingo, one of our freelance copywriters. He sat, completely relaxed, behind his computer, as the three expats discussed the latest breaking headline: a bomb threat had closed the subway. Only this wasn’t an ISIS threat or a domestic terror attack. It was a (potential) blast from the past.


It turns out that we had translated the headline wrong. When the line read, “bomb found”, they literally meant “found”—as in, discovered in a construction site. According to a Guardian article, back in World War II, the British and American Allies pounded Germany with 1.5 million tons of bombs. Officials estimate that 15% of the bombs failed to explode—which means that throughout this country, thousands of live bombs are hidden like Easter eggs, waiting to be found.

Luckily, this being Germany, there is a system in place for when such a bomb is found. This past weekend, for example, we were returning from a visit to see Tim’s family only to find out that a massive evacuation was taking place in Frankfurt, where we had to change trains. In the largest evacuation since the war, 60,000 people were ordered to leave their homes for the day as experts came in to defuse what’s known as a “blockbuster”—a bomb large enough to flatten a whole city block. Over beers and a pizza at the central station (which was outside of the potential detonation radius, don’t worry Mom), we watched the coverage of the evacuation. Uniformed officers went door to door, ringing every bell and ensuring that everyone had properly exited the area. (The Guardian also tells me they used helicopters with heat-sensing cameras to make sure nobody was left behind). Then a team of police explosive experts came in and defused the bomb—and by the evening, everyone was back at home again. Like clockwork.

This type of occurrence is regular. So regular that Ingo didn’t even bat an eye when he heard what we were talking about. But in America, the bombs that fell in Europe in WWII are just lines on a history page. It’s hard to imagine that this type of Frankfurt bomb fell with a legion of others—and harder to imagine the type of flattening damage the bombs unleashed when they did explode on impact.

Amid all of the recent controversy about race and history in the States, I’ve found it so fascinating to see how Germans deal with their blemished past. I think part of it helps that the history is still alive for people to experience. You can still see the signage in Berlin that routed the trains to their different concentration camps. You can visit the camps. Theoretically, you could even be blown up by an active munition. It’s hard to glorify a history that weighs so heavy on you—and that’s one thing that should be appreciated about the German approach to history. They not only allow, but insist on that weight. They refuse to forget. And so history—its evil, its beauty, its danger—doesn’t die. It lives, breathes, and demands to be remembered.


Things We Are Not Taller Than

“Excuse me, would you mind taking our picture? We have a little tradition we do—just hold on and we’ll get into place.”

It started as a little gag—Tim had once put me on his shoulders and I said I was taller than anything else around. When I came to Aachen to visit him, I found a stat on how the Aachen Cathedral, when built in 798, was the tallest and largest structure north of the Alps. “I want a photo of me sitting on your shoulders next to it. It can be something we are not taller than.”

Tim paid it back to me on his visit to San Francisco in December. We drove up to Hawk’s Hill and walked the viewpoint to the Golden Gate Bridge. Onlookers laughed as I springboarded off a nearby log and scrambled onto his shoulder, whacking him in the face with my gloved hands.

And thus came the tradition. Every vacation we go on, we try to find one thing that we are organically not taller than—and someone kind enough to wait while we struggle into position.

For two years and ten countries, this guy has walked beside me, driven me crazy, swept me off my feet, and yes, carried me on his shoulders, both literally and figuratively. We’ve both got road left in our shoes…I can’t wait to see where we end up.


Postcard from Edinburgh

A few nights ago, sitting on the couch on a gloomy Saturday night, Tim poured us two glasses of whiskey and we settled in to watch a movie. He’d gotten Glencairn whisky glasses for his birthday; they are specially-designed with a tapered mouth to let you catch the nuanced smells of each pour. While he sipped American bourbon, I’d opted for Jura, a Scotch whisky we’d purchased on our November trip. As I brought the glass to my mouth, the smell instantly transported me to Scotland. This particular Jura is known for its peatiness—the smoky smell and taste that makes many whiskey novices turn their heads (or stomachs).

But this smokiness is exactly what makes me think of Scotland. It reminds me of a roaring fire, a sleeping dog, thick, felty tartan blankets, rain-lashed windows. The crunch of cobblestones. A fine mist dancing across your face and settling on an upturned collar.

I’ve visited Scotland twice now, once with Tim last November on a trip through the Highlands, and back to Edinburgh in April with my friend Alex. Both times the weather was sunny but cold—I kept my coat buttoned to the throat and a flask of whisky in the pocket to ward off the chill. Alex and I didn’t have much of an itinerary (it’s what makes us such good travel companions). We wandered the Prince Streets Garden while munching on buttery, oven-fresh shortbread; flipped through thick books of fabric swatches as she contemplated getting a custom-made kilt skirt; admired the arches and colorful glass windows at St. Giles Cathedral; took tea breaks whenever it struck our fancy.

We finally ended up at Edinburgh Castle and slipped in right before the close, meandering through the sprawling keep in search of the shiny stuff. We found it in a high tower, where bejeweled swords and crowns lay in a thick glass case besides what appeared to be a massive rock.

“What is the rock for?” Alex asked the security guard. He appeared surprised.

“That’s no rock—that’s the Stone of Destiny,” he said. This epically-christened oblong piece of sandstone is also called the Stone of Scone (or in Scottish Celtic, An Lia Fàil). It’s the coronation stone used for centuries by the Scottish kings and now the British monarchs. According to the guard, when Charles ascends the throne, he will sit on the throne chair—but beneath it will be this very rock, brought down from Scotland.

On our last day, we woke early and headed to the base of Arthur’s Seat—a different rock named (according to legend) for a different king. Arthur’s Seat is often mentioned as one of the possible locations for Camelot, the legendary castle and court of King Arthur. At a height of 250.5 m (822 ft), it’s a relatively easy hike that offers fantastic panoramic views of the city. We took our time, chatting and picking our way over the grassy knolls. Shortly before the crest sat a man playing lilting Celtic songs on an acoustic guitar. We paused to savor the moment.

“Do you ever think these moments are our rewards for doing good in this world?” Alex asks me. “The ways that karma manifests for us?” The sun was bright on our faces, the wind crisp and strong. The city of Edinburgh unrolled at our feet, and the roughness of the mountain was cloaked in freshly-sweet heather. I replied with the only answer that occurred to me. “God…I hope so.”


Deutschland: Year Eins

Last Saturday marked the start of my second year in Germany. Which seems insane. It feels like I just landed from California (oh wait, because I did…). But in seriousness, I learned a lot in the past year—about myself, about my new country, about people. In truth, I think a lot of things I knew already. I’ve been lucky to have traveled a lot, lived abroad, and worked cross-culturally before. But I like that my lifestyle now serves as a constant reminder of these lessons. Here are some of the ones that resonate most with me:

Practice Empathy

The constant struggle of being understood reminds me all the time to be more patient with others—whether they are struggling with language issues or struggling with simply finding words to express themselves. This goes for being culturally different too. My team at work is made up of myself, Germans, Brazilians, an Iranian, and the occasional South African freelancer. That means that on any given day, we’re working across an average of three cultures. It’s taught me to be aware of our differences, as much as we celebrate our similarities. Things that I might find offensive might be completely regular to someone else. When I get confused or frustrated, I try to always have my first reaction be to question, “Ok, is this a cultural thing?” and then go from there. (And truthfully, while sometimes it is, other times the person is just being a jerk)

Collect Moments, Not Things

Giving up so much of my stuff when I moved reminded me that you can live with less—and that I’m completely okay with having fewer things and more stories. I spent a lot of money on travel within the last year, but I’d much rather have the experiences versus a big television or fancier bike. Moving here was expensive, and if the choice is between buying something I don’t really need or having a nice night out with friends, I’d rather use the money towards doing something instead of having something.

Work is Not Life*

Speaking of traveling all the time…here in Germany, I have 30 days of vacation. And while it may amuse some of my friends here that I’ve learned lessons about working less (considering the crazy hours I do work), living in such a society has convinced me how imperative some sort of work-life balance is. This is honestly my biggest hesitation when it comes to moving back to the States—the feeling that work is always there. To some extent, it is here too (especially for me lately), but I also know that when I go on vacation, I’m untouchable. And for the most part, work respects that.

*and I’m writing this at 10 pm from the office, so this is definitely something I will continually remind myself.

Take Care of Yourself

My mom often tells me that I “burn the candle at both ends”—always taking on a full plate. But without the safety net of close family and friends, you wind up looking out for yourself a lot. That means knowing your limits, and when it’s necessary to push them. Here, I’m responsible for making myself uncomfortable and trying new things—but I’m also responsible for knowing when to take a night in and spoil myself.

Get in Front of People

Whenever you move somewhere new, you have to force yourself to be social, because otherwise, you’ll be a hermit. I’ve been really lucky to have found a crew of wonderful friends since I’ve moved here. A mix of German natives and expats, they both remind me what’s good about living here, and give me someone to vent to when I need to complain something Typisch Deutsch.

Be More Direct

This comes directly from the Germans, and it’s one lesson I’ve really relished learning. Americans always complain about Germans being rude, but what they are is direct. They say what they mean and they do so unapologetically. I love this culture of real talk—it’s a great tactic for professional as well as personal life. I’ve also been forced to learn how to articulate my own feelings more regularly. It’s not enough to not like something or to be upset: Germans want you to be able to analyze why you feel a certain way and why you think that is. It’s been kind of fascinating to be so in touch with myself versus the self-shrug we typically do in the States.

Celebrate Stupid

Stumble through your bad German. Ask silly questions. Push the red button. Wait. Try. See what happens. Squawk in surprise. Be embarrassingly American. Stick out like a sore thumb. Have fun. I’ve felt utterly ridiculous at least 3 times a day since I got here, and while some nights I am so frustrated I want to break something, overall it’s refreshing to laugh at yourself so often. I know that I’m trying. And it’s so rewarding when I finally do find success—whether it’s being able to ask the butcher for the right cut of meat, cracking a joke in German that makes my boyfriend’s best friend laugh, or giving a tourist directions.

After a year, I’m starting to feel things clicking. I’m starting to feel like I belong.

Postcard from Tenerife

One of the delights of learning new languages is playing with the new words in the patterns of the languages you already know. In English, you can say, big to mean “cool”, “heavy”, “brilliant”. Germans will use their equivalent, groß, the same way. Do Spanish speakers? If they didn’t, they might now.

Over seven days in Tenerife, whenever we got a plate of delicious food or a glass of incredible wine, or turned a corner to see an amazing view, I’d hear Tim give a low whistle and say (to the baffled amusement of the Canarians), “Grande”. And Tenerife, the largest of the seven Spanish Canary Islands, deserves the word. Hovering off the coast of norther Africa, Tenerife is famous for its volcano, Mount Teide, the largest peak in Spain at 3,718-metres (12,198 ft); its stunning landscapes; and (most importantly for those visiting from northern Europe), its year-long sunshine and high temperatures.

We went all over but didn’t really do anything besides eat, drink, lay in the sun, and drive.

Long, winding drives through crazy landscapes both lush and alien. The road to Masca, which ribbons through the islands northwestern corner with hair-pin turns and cacti at every corner.

Through Anaga National Park, which occupies most of the northeastern corner and is luscious and green with Canarian pines.

We ended up at pristine beaches, thick with chunky sand and hunks of holey rock plunging out of the blue waves. I searched for sea glass in the crumbles of volcanic sand. We stacked colorful lava rocks in approximations of snowmen figures.

We passed through towns where the houses were built on each other into the mountains, balanced together like stacks of blocks. Little squares were still decorated for Christmas, and fat Santas rappelled down bright walls or dropped from wrought iron gates.

We ate tapas and paella, drank carafes of delicious cool red wine and tall cups of rum and pineapple juice—a lime bobbing at the lip of the glass. We bought avocadoes by the pound and ate a heaping bowl of guacamole every day. Our table was filled with vivid food—rosy slivers of Serrano ham, rough hunks of salami, moon-yellow slices of Emmentaler, pauncy green olives bloated with brine, persimmons and mandarins like little balls of fire. We bought spicy red Canarian mojo and topped everything with it—eggs, toast, avocadoes, potatoes—until the squat little jar was scraped clean.

We spoke Spanish, English, and German. Sprawled under the strong equatorial sun we talked about everything under the sun—about the ethics of keeping orcas at sea parks, Einstein’s theory of relativity, the differences between comets and meteors, the types of volcanoes, if it’s possible to grow a banana tree in a non-tropical climate (also known as our kitchen).

One night in the middle of our trip, we drove up to the slopes of Mount Teide to watch the sunset and the stars come out. We wandered around the edges of the volcano, a landscape full of rocks and cacti and wild openness. As the sun sank, we climbed up a burgundy finger of scoriaceous rock, it’s porous surface making it look more like coral than stone. The stars slowly began to appear—and there is no way to write about them without using every tired cliché in the book. It was incredible. A sky so dark and clear that, directly above us, we could see the faint flickers of the Orion Nebula.

And there’s no other word for that, I think, than grande.

Scotland Part 1: Edinburgh and a Taste of the Lowlands

“Tell me why you’ve always wanted to go to Scotland,” Tim says. We are fresh out of Edinburgh, heading north into the Highlands. Tim has spent the last three months on business in the UK, so driving on the left side of the road doesn’t faze him, though it is still strange for me to glance to my right and see him driving. We have three days of driving and exploration ahead of us—plenty of time for deep conversations and silly car games, self-reflection and stares out the window.


The natural view out the window is largely the reason I wanted to come to Scotland. Edinburgh as a city never ranked so high on my list. The appreciation I did have Scotland for before I came (which amplified significantly since our arrival last Monday), is ironically tied to a landscape. I remember standing in the hallway of a friend’s apartment in California. We were getting ready to leave, and she was telling me about her recent trip to Edinburgh—how much she loves the city and the vibe. I was tugging on a shoe, starting at a set design sketch she’d made for Waiting for Godot while I listened. (To give some context, the setting in Waiting for Godot is described as: “A country road. A tree.” Her sketch was of a black tree against a strange orange background. The image, and the association with Scotland, stuck.

But Edinburgh, of course, is much more than a country road and a tree. It’s bustling and impressive, with old buildings in thick sandstone rising up all around you. Edinburgh Castle crowns one towering hill, the buildings of the University crowd another. There’s a nice tension of heaviness and refinement throughout the city; you get a sense that things are solidly built, but also of a delicateness—an appreciation for finer detail. And in between tea rooms and elegant hotels, there’s a strong sense of Scottish pride.

We arrived on October 31. The clocks here in Europe had already changed back an hour, so by the time we landed it was getting dark. We had booked a night at the Ibis Hotel by St. Andrew’s Square, and were greeted with Halloween treats upon checkin. Jack-o-lanterns grinned from the hotel bar as we headed back out into the night for our dinner reservation at Whiski Rooms, a whiskey lounge meets bistro that serves a modern-take on Scottish cuisine. Our table wasn’t quite ready for us, so we started the evening with what would become the first of many whiskey samples—a flight featuring drams from Glen Moray, Glen Grant, Aberlour, and Craggenmore. The whiskey made us adventurous: for dinner, Tim had the beef and bone marrow pie, paired with a Talisker. I ordered the haggis (paired with a Laphraoig whiskey) and was more than surprised to find it delicious.

We stepped back into the drizzle in search of the city’s Samhuinn celebration. Lucky for us, all we had to do was turn left and listen for the drums. The rain increased steadily as a parade of painted dancers writhed towards Parliament Square, dancing and waving gigantic flaming torches. The official writeup from the Beltane Fire Society sums it up nicely:

“The story follows the ideas of the overthrowing of Summer by Winter, with a stand-off between the Summer and Winter Kings. This is overseen by the Cailleach, a Celtic representation of the Goddess, or Divine Hag. The transformation from Summer to Winter is supported by the energies and interactions of the Summer and Winter courts – through performance, music and dance. The narrative focuses on this conflict and its resolution, but also focuses on the transition that many aspects of life take during the changing of the seasons.”

Watching the celebration was a culmination of exactly what fascinates me about Scotland—this sense of wildness, spookiness, unapologetic brashness. If Edinburgh and the Lowlands were Scotland on “good behavior”, I was looking forward to getting out of the city and seeing the untamed sides of the country: the Scottish Highlands.

Where in the World is…

Nope, not Carmen San Diego. The correct answer this time is the Google Street View. The BBC’s new Geoguesser game challenges you to look at scenes from Google Maps and try to orient yourself on the map. The closer you are to the actual location pictured, the more points you get—and it’s really interesting to try to suss out all the clues from each map situation. Are there signs you can read to get a sense of language? Are the cars driving on the right- or left-hand side? Are the buildings new or old? What are the people wearing? Have a go of it here!



Seeing through the Circus Act: A Week in Mallorca

A long-overdue post—but life happens. I’ll call it a Throwback Blog Post anyway. 🙂 To set the mood, I’ll open with a recording of this awesome duo we caught at the Sineu Mercado—aptly named, “The Market Noise”. Just imagine this blaring through the sunkissed, cobbled streets of a century-old village—picture yourself peering through throngs of people, over stalls loaded with greens and fresh fruit, through the hanging skeins of freshly shorn Serrano Jámon, trying to identify this strangely hypnotic sound…

Sineu Mercado was a riot of color and smells. It was hot, bright, sensorial. Everywhere there was food to try or crafts to admire—each stall was, in the brilliant Spanish sun, almost a work of art. We wandered through the narrow aisles, picking up parts of a picnic lunch that we’d enjoy by the sea, later in the day.


Pro Tip: The Sineu Market is every Wednesday. Get there early to beat the crowds (and the heat), and make sure to buy some fresh olives and jámon to take with you.

That picnic lunch was just the first of many meals eaten by the beach. With views like these, why wouldn’t you? We rented a car for the entire trip, driving every which-way imaginable across this tiny island. Epic scenery awaited us at every turn.

Pro Tip: If the weather doesn’t hold, or you want a break from the sun, check out the Cuevas del Drach. The tours will be crowded, but if you aim for the front of the group, you can appreciate the amazing rock formations with minimal selfie intrusions.

In between the jaw-dropping views were tiny villages, constructed out of the same, warm sandstone. The architecture in Mallorca ranged from Roman ruins to green-shuttered farmhouses to the soaring cathedral in Palma itself—where the Spanish Royal Family had celebrated Easter just days before we arrived.

Palma was beautiful and bustling. We spent an evening watching the sunset from Sky Bar at Hotel Cuba (technically closed for the season, but with a quick tongue, we made it happen). The city is crowded with cafes, trendy shops, and trendy bars. Drinks are cheap, and the food is bountiful and delicious.

Which brings to me my favorite thing memory of Palma. If you are there on a Tuesday, do not miss the Ruta Martiana. It’s an almost city-wide pub crawl, where different bars and cafes offer platos/tapas and a drink for only 2EUR. We arrived on a Tuesday and did the Ruta Martiana on our first night—it was a great introduction to the city, and we FEASTED on some of the best food of the trip for a fraction of the usual cost.

What I really loved about the Ruta Martiana—and why it beats out even the beautiful scenery for my favorite thing about the trip—was how authentic it felt. There weren’t a ton of tourists; in fact, most of the people we saw were groups of local friends, just out for a cheap drink after work. The best part of it was just exploring the curving streets of Palma: looking for the Ruta Martiana signs, debating whether this bar or that one was too crowded, strolling hand-in-hand and experiencing the city as the night unfolded.

Mallorca was beautiful, no doubt about it, but there’s a joke that it is the 17th Federal State of Germany, and that joke holds largely true. The menus and signs are all in German (or on the “British side”, in English) and tourism makes up the core of Mallorca’s income. To that effect, the experience can feel largely contrived—as if the island was putting on a show for all of us visiting…and we didn’t even visit the Ballermann! The night on the Ruta Martiana felt like we were seeing Mallorca with its guard down—and we could appreciate the experience without it feeling like an act.

Culture Shock #2: Those Doors Are Closin’

We’ve all been there—at the base of the stairs as the train you need comes rushing into the station. As you make the effort and sprint up the stairs, people inside of the carriage spot you, throwing an arm across the door to keep it from shutting before you slip inside. “Thanks,” you gasp, trying not to fall on your ass as the train lurches off from the platform. Or at least that’s how it typically goes in most US cities.

Most Americans understand that our public transport systems tend to…well, suck. If you miss your train, you might be stuck waiting another 10 minutes (or if you are trying to depend on BART, you might be stuck waiting another 25). They react with compassion and empathy, or maybe just on reflex.

So imagine my surprise when, on my first trip with the U-Bahn, I gave my customary best to sprint up the flight of stairs, and watched as the people inside let the doors close on me. Assholes, I thought, a little peeved, watching as the train pulled away. I turned to see when the next one was arriving, and with a little shock, saw it would be at the platform in 3 minutes. Sure, let’s see. Lo and behold, 3 minutes later, there was the train.

Trains, you might think, are one thing. But what about the busses—infamous for being late or delayed in traffic. But the busses are even more efficient than the trains, and nearly all of the bus stops have an arrival estimator, so you can at least see if it is delayed. Frequent runs mean that you rarely have to stand, and just like the trains, the carriages are clean and relatively new. The announcements are mostly in German, but in touristy areas, they add in an English translation for visitors.

Pro Tip: There are no typical turnstiles or farecheckers on the U-bahn, the way there are in the US. Paying for your fare is largely an honor system—random checks for proof of purchase do happen, but it’s pretty sporadic. So if you feel like living on the edge, try what the Germans call, “Schwarzfahren”—or riding without a ticket. Just be aware that if you do get caught, it’s a 60EUR fine.

Pro Tip #2: If you decide to be a responsible citizen and pay your fare, you may be rewarded. Occasionally, people who have bought a day-pass but no longer need it will leave it on the fare machines, giving lucky you a free pass with a guiltless conscience.

For Culture Shock #1, click here.

Culture Shock #1: Your Money’s No Good Here

People have asked me how I’m settling in here, and the truth is—it’s been quite easy. Unlike living in Thailand, which was for the first few months so unsettlingly foreign and where almost everything seemed like a struggle, getting my start in Germany has been virtually seamless…though unlike in Thailand, adjusting to the weather is infinitely harder.

To be fair, I have a lot of help. A built-in network of friends made the city feel like home almost immediately; whenever I feel lonely, there’s someone to spend time with. These same friends have also helped with the overwhelming things—arguing with Telekom about my internet services, negotiating the rental agreement, translating the endless stream of letters I get in the mail (more on that later). Culture shock has been pretty minimal, but over the next few posts, I’ll share a few things that give me pause.

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#1: Cash over Credit

I come from America. A healthy credit line is like our life’s blood. How else do you pay for things you can’t afford?

I’m not one for keeping up with the Jones’, but like any good ‘Murican, I have a visa or two in my wallet. And having them was basically essential when I first arrived—without a bank account it was exorbitantly expensive to get cash money, so it made more sense to charge the visa and pay it off from my U.S. accounts. The Chase Sapphire card was designed to look expensive, with a clean face and a heavier plastic that makes it feel fancier (and makes you feel good to forking it over to make your purchases). Almost without fail when I hand over my Chase here, the cashier makes a noise of surprise: “Oof, schwer” or “Wow, schön”.

The fail? At IKEA, of all places. Where you cannot pay with credit, despite making major home purchases. That 900EUR couch? The 400EUR bed? All of the other assorted sundries that you don’t need but wind up in your basket due to their innovative and beguiling layout? You better have cash on hand.

In Germany, credit cards tend to be issued from the banks themselves—this concept of miles, rewards, and points for credit cards you have to pay for is baffling to them. “You can sign up for a credit card,” my banker assured me, “for when you want to make online purchases.” For the day-to-day, better get used to waiting in line at the ATM and carrying around a wad of bills that would make Beyoncé blush.

Pro Tip: In case you’re also new to Germany and need to purchase furniture from IKEA, you can flout their system by ordering online. Major credit cards are accepted on their online shop—and home delivery means you don’t have to spend an hour in the parking lot trying to Tetris your purchases to fit. 

Pro Tip #2: Get a coin purse, ziploc bag, or (like me) an old mint tin to keep track of coins. Unlike in the States, coins are real money here—and losing a pocket full of it could theoretically cost you 20EUR. On the flip side, finding a coin in your pocket could also buy you lunch.