The German landscape crept quietly out from under wispy cloud cover to greet me as we neared the Frankfurt airport. Clusters of orangey-red roofs and venerable older buildings seemed haphazardly scattered among expanses of geometrically precise fields. The Rhein snaked along beneath us until we banked and left its company, headed for landing. The plane’s wheels hit the landing strip with a commendable shuddering, as if doing their best to shake us all fully awake.
My too-full messenger bag held awkwardly in front of me, I managed to stumble off of the aircraft without too much loss of dignity. I followed the signs pointing me towards baggage claim, a trek across the airport that took a solid twenty minutes—that’s right, the Frankfurt airport is bigger than McDaniel College’s campus, and I was only in Terminal 1. Slipping easily through Customs, I learned how to pay for and maneuver a baggage cart after a brief moment of bewilderment (“Why can’t I pull it free? What? Pay two Euro and press down on the handle? …ja, klar…”).
Finding other students with my program was akin to spotting zebras at a horse corral: while we didn’t necessarily have neon signs announcing our presence, a large group of exhausted people of the same age with softly confused airs about them is hard to miss. We had all found the Treffpunkt (Meeting Point) in section B, as we were told to do, and as I arrived four or five other students were sitting quietly near each other. We acquainted ourselves and struck up conversation after realizing that we were, in fact, all there for the same reason. It was a comfort to know we were in the right place at the right time. I imagine we had all had a few nightmares about missing the group and being left to our own devices. Instead, the only torture we endured was waiting for the rest of our compatriots so we could climb aboard the bus (a Mercedes bus, used by soccer teams) and fight sleep and jet lag on the ride to Heidelberg.
The bus and Area Coordinator, Herr Adam Lengiewicz, dropped us off one by one at our living spaces. I sweet-talked my 30-kilo suitcase up the stairs to my room, a neat rectangular space warmly illuminated by sunlight coming through the red curtain. My most bizarre surprise of the day came when I pulled the curtain aside and found myself staring at a large white horse. My exclamation of surprise didn’t interrupt his grazing, nor did my prolonged staring. I blinked, looked away, and looked back to make sure that he was actually there and that I wasn’t already suffering from delusions (I could only laugh when I opened my curtains again a while later to discover that Mr. White had been joined by a muscular black horse, who was equally as unimpressed by my astonishment).
Organizing my room and putting my belongings properly away didn’t appeal to me, but still I had three hours to kill before we had been asked to meet at the AJY Center in the Altstadt. Behind the yard my equine friends were occupying was the Neckar and a pedestrian bridge. A friendly German woman welcomed me to Heidelberg as we walked together on the slim bridge. I meandered through the streets on the south side of the river until I realized I didn’t actually have a map for the area, and turned back to cross the bridge again. I stuck to the northern banks of the Neckar, passing such sights as a man casually graffitying the walls of a skate park with the words “Enjoy Capitalism” in Coca-Cola font and a group of people charging at each other with Styrofoam swords. I sat and rested my complaining feet and watched teams of two challenge each other in games of volleyball. Slowly, the fact that I could do this every day, that I hadn’t even breached the surface of what this city (my city) had to offer began to register. I was jolted out of my revere by a shout from one of the volleyball players, and a glance at my watch spurred me to my feet and back towards my room.
My housemate, a PhD student from China, was kind enough to explain where I needed to be when the bus arrived, but the nagging terror that I would be left to stand without hope at the bus stop forever persisted until the large vehicle rounded the corner. The doors opened with a sharp inhale and I sat, cautiously watching my building vanish as we rumbled away. The ride lasted about twenty minutes, crossing the Neckar back to the south side. I tried to remember the names of all the stops, but they slipped from my mind as soon as we started moving again. Finally I disembarked at Universitaetsplatz. I momentarily wished I had someone from South Riding or Westminster to brag to—check me out, conquering public transportation. Don’t have that a whole bunch back home, do we! Ha!
I pressed the buzzer outside the door of a skinny building, Hauptstrasse Number 133. A loud buzz followed by the click of the lock opening welcomed me into the building. Up an old spiral staircase was the AJY Center, where other students were beginning to gather. We chatted in the way new acquaintances do, haltingly, shallowly, trying to imagine something more interesting to say than, “I hope I’m not too jetlagged. Where do you live? Here, I mean, not back home.”
The arrival of pizza eased conversation and made everyone friendlier, as good food tends to do. Dr. Heckmann, Herr Lengiewicz and Irina introduced themselves to us again and welcomed us to our new experience. When the pizza had finally been devoured people began to split off in their new groups of friends. I wandered aimlessly with a handful of others down the Hauptstrasse until we reached the Bismarkplatz. The idea of ice cream was tossed around, but ultimately postponed as no one was willing to break their twenty-euro bills on one-euro ice cream quite yet.
We made it back to the Center in time to see the beginning of the Duell, the televised debate between the incumbent Chancellor Angela Merkel and her main opponent in the upcoming election, Peer Steinbruck. As sharply as I was concentrating, I was running out of fuel to fight my exhaustion and soon bid the others goodnight. Veronica and Anabelle and I all needed the same bus stop, so we waited in the square for Bus 32 until the chill drove us to walk to the Bismarkplatz—we learned later that 32 had fewer stops after 8 pm, and that we could have taken 31 and landed a brief walk away from our buildings. Instead, we waited in the Bismarkplatz another twenty minutes until 32 appeared like a heavenly chariot to take us back. (Yeah, so much for conquering public transportation).
After a minute of pawing along the walls of the bathroom, I gave up on finding the light switch and washed up in the dark. Crash landing on my bed was a simple but excellent feeling that I curled up with and very quickly slipped into sleep.
Everything ached with a vengeance as I swam back into consciousness, but my complaining muscles aren’t what kept me in bed a while longer than necessary—the realization that I had woken up and was still here did. A dream indeed, but it was already true.
Veronica, from the Adventure of What Bus do we Take, was waiting for me at the stop, and we rode together to Universitaetsplatz and hunted for a café to sit and feel cultured in. I decided immediately that Apfeltaschen were the pastry I’d been waiting for all my life. Shortly thereafter we greeted our similarly sleepy classmates and chatted in sometimes-English, sometimes-German, occasionally Denglish until Herr L and Irina called for our attention. They walked us through forms demanded by the German bureaucracy with all the patience of skilled parents. Tja, the forms weren’t actually too agonizing, but it was nice to be guided through them rather than floundering on our own.
Having been shown the Mensa (cafetieria) near the Center and later freed for the day, a group of us again headed for Bismarkplatz, this time to go further in search of a grocery store. We met our needs in a nearby Rewe and agreed to meet an hour later at the Center to go to dinner. Another pack of AJY students had had the same idea, and we joined forces to flood a small Doener shop. My first taste of Doener was 19 years late in coming—I understand and heartily agree with the German obsession for the Turkish snack.
A stroll towards the old bridge gave us the chance to simply stand there and look out over the river and snap photos. Katie and I could hardly stop grinning as we started pointing things out: “My castle. My river. My city.”
…and let me tell confirm that my city has delicious gelato. Our last conquest of the evening was to procure a few wonderful scoops before heading back to our rooms. This time Sixtine and I were wise enough to board bus 31 and returned before 10:30. Sleep came just as quickly as before…even though I had yet to find the damn light switch in the bathroom.
I could practically feel the routine beginning to form as I woke up with time to shower and start functioning before heading to the bus stop. The sky was pleasant and so were the people so early in the morning; I hope the good mood I find myself in becomes routine as well.
A drawn-out trip to the Heidelberg Buergeramt consumed most of the morning, and after lunch we filled out one last form for the university. Upon the completion of that duty, Dr. Heckmann gathered the troupe of us living im Neuenheimer Feld and took us to explore our neighborhood. For the second day in a row I had mistakenly assumed that it would be colder than it was, and it wasn’t long into the day that my legs were toasting in my jeans, but it was well worth it as I learned that there was astoundingly more in the area than I had assumed there to be. I made a mental note to spend time in the Botanical Garden five minutes away from my building, or at the very least sit by the bubbling fountain across the path from the large art installation that spells out one of the university’s mottos: DEM LEBENDIGEN GEIST.
“To the living spirit.” Yeah, I like that.
Later Sixtine, Sam and I made the journey for more groceries at an Aldi as near as we could find. Anabelle was kind enough to share her pasta with me and Veronica, and we three sat and chatted in the court yard until the sun began to set. I returned to my room intending to put away clothes…and sat and started writing this instead.
A day well lived, I say.
I made sure to arrive at the Uni Platz earlier than usual, hoping to find a post office or someone who could break a fifty euro bill or both. I learned today that most German stores won’t be open until 9 am, so I spent my last coins on another Apfeltasche instead and sat in the Center with a few other early risers.
Our orientation today consisted of Irina explaining how best to travel and giving us tips, which we all dutifully wrote down. We had been tossing names of cities back and forth in the past few days already. Paris, Berlin, Salzburg, Morocco, Munich! Where can’t we go? …well, we discovered that Morocco would be pricey. We remain, however, intrepidly undiscouraged.
After lunch at the Mensa we had some time to kill. Hannah and I finally found the post box and dropped off the post cards we had written. It wasn’t until returning to the classroom that I smacked my forehead, remembering too late that I had wanted to send the cards I’d just put in the box with priority mail instead. Well, my dear friends can wait a few weeks for a post card. By then it actually will be a surprise.
Dr. Heckmann began today on the topic I’ve been waiting for—choosing classes. We only briefly discussed how the process would work and what to expect out of it, but I’ve been brainstorming what I want to take for months and am excited to see how it finally all falls into place.
And, of course, the real event of the day was visiting the Heidelberger Schloss. Two teachers who will be instructing us in class starting next week took us on tour of the old castle. Frau Said told us the old stories as she showed us around the impressive structure. Even the ruined towers and walls seemed to look down on us with distant severity. The myths about parts of the castle make me wish I had seen it when it was the jewel of the territory. Want to hear some cool stories about the castle? Good, keep reading.
The impressive structure is positioned above the village and river with an eagle view of the Neckar valley. People asking to enter knock on a small door, too short for anyone but children to walk upright through. On the door hangs a gigantic iron ring. The prince is so sure of the entrance’s safety that he promises that if anyone can bite through the iron ring in one bite, he will give them the castle. An evil witch full of magic arrives and takes the challenge—she makes a dent in the ring, but runs out of power before she can bite through. That’s why the ring is dented and still hangs on the small door today in memory.
Not all marriages were made out of love. Money, politics, or class could demand arranged marriages and create uphappy people. These people often took lovers. Once, a court woman had an affair with a young and handsome knight. She invited him to her room when she thought her husband was away, but the man returned to find them together. The knight had nothing else to do but leap from the window to the balcony below. Thus, that balcony had an indent in the stone that seems to fit people’s feet. The knight’s boot created it when he landed.
The prince had the massive barrel holding 130,000 liters of wine built…and later the room for it. A dwarf known for drinking wine all day, every day was brought to the room and the prince asked him if he could also drink the wine from the barrel. The dwarf looked at it, shrugged, and simply asked, “Perché, no?” Why not? So, he did. The dwarf, known because of his answer as Perkeo, drank wine all day, everyday. One day he felt ill and the doctor told him not to drink any more wine. Perkeo went one day after that without a drop of wine…and died the next. The moral? Drink more wine. Why not!
To round out the day I had a conversation with my other housemate, Isa. I met her on Monday but hadn’t seen her since, as she works at night and I’ve been out all day. She’s a cheerful German with a genuine smile and didn’t mind that my most pressing question was where to find the bathroom light switch.
It’s on the wall outside of the door. Natuerlich.