29 September 2006

Wilkommen zu Deutschland Part 2

Ok, so, you know how I got here, let's go over what happened after that.

I arrived outside of the Eichstätt train station a little after noon and my tutor from the university was there waiting for me as planned. Now she's not really what we in the U.S. would think of as a tutor, more like a guide that the university assigns to international students to help them for the first weeks or so. Her name is Charlotte and she's only in her second semester here. She helped me with my luggage and we took a taxi to my apartment. By the way, she greeted me in English, so for the rest of the day that was our language of choice, even though I know I need to start speaking in German as much as possible so as to get use to it quicker.

My apartment is, well, a typical student apartment for the most part: small and worn. It comes with the basic furniture needed, a stove, and a balacony which I share with the as of yet unoccupied room next to mine. The buildings in the complex are of a modern design, so plain and ugly. How the people of this town could allow something like it to be built, when they have prime examples of Barock architecture in their city center, surpasses my comprehension. In any event, it's an adequate place to call home for the year, especially considering I should be doing the most of my actual living in the rest of the town. On the plus side when leaving the apartment I can see the castle on top of the nearby hill. Charlotte left so I could take a shower and do a little unpacking, but then I met here in another hour to find where I could cash some traveler's checks and possibly open a checking account.

After meeting back up we headed to the city center, which is a five minute walk from my apartment and another five minutes from the university. As we went from bank to bank to find the best deal Charlotte pointed out some of the important or good to know places. Walking around everything had a good feeling to it, like everything was going to be alright; however, going into the banks was another story.

First of all, the interior desgins of German banks are much differnet than their counterparts in the States, at least I thought so. Some had one counter, most had many, a few didn't have any.

Secondly, there's that darn language barrier. I followed Charlotte's lead the first time because of the confusion, eventually it became habit. We'd walk into a bank and Charlotte would start talking with the teller, I always caught the first part where she'd point to me and tell the teller I was from America and needed to cash some traveler's checks, but after that a very fast and seemingly unintelligible conversation would pick up. At that point I would stand there feeling rather helpless. I have to say that was the first time I remember having this feeling with such severity. As Charlotte and the teller would talk I couldn't help but wonder how I'd do this if she wasn't here to help me. Even as a little kid if I became seperated from my parents I could still ask someone for help, but here? I'm sure I could have done it alone, but probably much slower and with a lot more frustration. We eventually settled on one bank to cash the checks, then it was back to my apartment to meet with a representative with the management company.

This meeting went very similar to those with the bank tellers. The housing representative walked us through the apartment and the complex and went over the lease and rules as Charlotte translated for me. I know it must sound like I don't know any German at all, but I guess classroom teaching didn't prepare me entirely for native-speaker speed and local accents. And I wasn't as if I would have been completely lost without Charlotte, I understood a lot of words and the gist of what the rep was saying, so I would say she was more of my saftey net to prevent the potential for utter confusion. Everything was going fine until Charlotte said that I would have to paint the apartment when I leave. I thought surely there was something lost in translation, so I asked if she really meant every wall, or just the places with marks. After asking she said no, that wasn't it, every wall and the ceiling. Of course, there was nothing I could do so I smiled and said ok to the rep before she got mad over my reluctance. As I think about it now though, I guess that's not that uncommon is it? I don't know, I've never had an apartment before. Anyway, everything else went ok, but the rep seemed to overly stress a few seemingly mundane issues. For example, all of my trash must be organized, recycled, and placed in the proper bin, there's even a mandatory compost heap for organic garbage. I'm all for recycling to help the environment, but the seriousness with which she spoke of my obligations to do so made me afraid to do otherwise.

After the meeting was over Charlottle left, and I unpacked some more before running down to the store for some basic needs. I was glad I brought my messenger bag because plastic bags from the store would have cost me extra. Back at my apartment exhaustion settled in from my nearly 30 hour day, as did hunger from not eatting since arriving in Munich, but I opted for the bed and was quickly asleep by 7 o'clock.

I awoke today at 7, feeling much rested and better overall after my hectic two days cramed into one. I decided to go for a run up to that hill-top castle which was now draped in more fog. At the summit of hill, or maybe it's a short mountain, the fog grew thicker and created a very calm setting hidden from the town below. A run back down some step trails, shower, and breakfast I met with the study abroad coordinator at the university.

Later on today I'm supposed to meet Charlotte and her friend to go to the grocery store. This weekend everything closes and Charlotte goes home so I don't know what I'll do, but I'm sure I'll find something to entertain me.

Wilkommen zu Deutschland Part 1

I slept long and hard last night after the long flight to Munich and the bus rides to Eichstätt. Now I'm in one of the computer labs, suffering because apparently German keyboards are slightly different than those in America. The y and z are switched, there are keys for ö, ä, and ü, and other variances which make me feel like I'm back in typing class. However, I have so much I want to say and tell about journey here and Eichstätt. So bear with me and any typos you come across.

The flight itself lasted for around 7 hours, in which I was asleep for only one. I flew on the German airlines Lufthansa, which I have to say is now without question my favorite. The meals come with actual silverware, they don't skimp on the drinks and snacks, and every passenger is supplied with pillows and a blanket. Basically, their coach is like first class on other airlines. I think I was too excited to fall asleep for the most part, so I watched to movies they played for us: "Akeelah and the Bee'' and "Over the Hedge." Now I'd seen the latter before, but I think it was actually better to watch in German. As for sleeping, I got lucky for the one hour I got it because no one was sitting next to me so I could stretch out fine. I also spoke my first German for the year on the flight with the attendents.

I arrived in Munich, or München as the Germans say, around 8 in the moring local time, 1 in the morning Memphis time. Most of the signs were bilingual and I found my way around easily. After a short stop in customs and the baggage claim I preceded to find out where to catch the bus.

I went to one counter that looked appropriate and waited for any of the four men behind it to assist me, but they seemed a little busy. After a few minutes of waiting without any of them looking up I remembered reading about a certain cultural difference between Germans and Americans. For one thing they don't like standing in lines, and they don't like waiting on others. In other words, a much more self-assertive culture. So I spoke up to one man and with that he turned into a perfectly attentive employee. I guess I can't really know for sure if his initial lack of attention to me had anything to do with cultural differences, he may have just been too busy to see me at first, but in America it seems like when one walks up to a business counter the employee will greet one in some way, even if only by saying to wait a minute. Whatever the reason, he told me where to catch the bus and I boarded it at 9:30.

This bus took me to Ingolstädt, a city of 60,000 a little east of Eichstätt. The ride lasted an hour and was mostly on the highway, but even from there the scenery was enjoyable. No hovering fast-food signs or bleak landscapes, rather clusters of red-roofed houses and church steeples and farmers, not the industrial kind, tending to their land. Some of the things that I find most fascinating and interesting about being in another land are not the large and obvious differences like language or food, but the tiny ones, the minutia, of the built environment and landscape. Things like odd looking roadside signs, the cloth, not alluminum, sided semi trucks, and the different style of construction cranes used. Once in Ingolstädt I waited for the final bus to Eichstätt, which arrived at 10:15.

The final leg of the journey lasted about an hour, but was the most interesting. The drive followed local streets and rural roads to Eichstätt, not major highways. With every twist in the road my envy in these local communities grew. Behind every turn was another equally attractive view of quaint red tile-roofed homes and exposed private gardens with flowers in full bloom. Seemingly random statues and shrines dotted the roadside, even ornate crucifixes in the public rights-of-way, an act which some in America would probably consider a violation of church and State (Heaven forbid we reveal a little bit of local culture because it might inadvertantly offend someone.) In between the villages laid farm fields and pastures, complete with thick vails of fog in the distance to ensure a bit of mystique to the land. My envy grew to downright lust after witnessing the amount of people walking in the villages or riding their bikes in the road. Unfortunately, such a lifestyle is nearly impossible in America due to our current development patterns and city design, but I hope to learn a little on good urban planning from Germany to take back to America and use latter on in my future profession.

Finally, the rolling land gave way to the valley that Eichstätt lies in and the mountains on either side, but my view was still partially hindered by the fog. As the bus drove further into the city contemporary buildings gave way to those of centuries past in the Barock style. Grand and gorgeous buildings with facades of inticate detail lined the streets, many times almost actually on the cobblestone streets. I saw bricked public plazas with stone fountains, vendors with stands in the open air, and school children getting out for lunch. I wondered if those school kids had any idea how lucky they were to have this town as their childhood home, as opposed to some suburban tract housing in America. Of course, I speak now of the amazing wonders and advantages of this land over America, but in a month or so I might be in disgust of these things and desire their American alternatives. I doubt it, but we shall see.

I'll go ahead and start a new entry here to break up the reading.

27 September 2006

As Munich beckons...

My last night in Memphis was one spent with family, a heap of pork, and a crisp early Fall night on the Downtown streets. In a quick, almost whirlwind experience, Memphis was behind me, and I never had a chance to properly say goodbye. Now I sit in a rocking chair in the Charlotte, NC airport overlooking a vibrant atrium of trees, fast food, and travelers on their way to destinations near and far.

The plan was to check-in at the Memphis airport around 7:30 this morning with ample time to spar for my 9:25 boarding. Around six o’clock I woke up and packed some last minute items before loading the luggage into the car in the presence of a very friendly neighborhood cat. At seven o’clock we were ready to go, but not without breakfast and other last minute necessities of course. So pretending to have forgotten the original plan, we left the house at 7:30 and made it to the airport a little after eight. At the check-in counter we discovered both of my bags were over the weight limit and had to transfer some items into one bag from the other so as to avoid a fine on both. With forty minutes to spare I said my final good byes to my family as I entered and snaked forward through the security check-point line. With one last wave good bye I rounded the corner and found my way to the gate.

To my surprise, sitting at my gate was an urban planning consulting team that had spent the last week in Memphis for a public neighborhood redevelopment process. With urban planning as my academic concentration, I had been attending a few of the meetings to provide my input. A fresh-out-of-college consultant whom I had befriended at the meetings ended up sitting next to me on the plane.

As the flat West Tennessee landscape gave way to rolling hills and eventually the Smokies of East Tennessee beneath us, we discussed city design, world travel, and the lingering pull of home. Over the mountains he pointed out to me Maryville, Townsend, and Gatlinburg, places I had been in or near only a few weeks before on a camping trip with friends. At the time I would have said I probably will never see them again, but there I was looking down on them from above. Travel proved to me once again that unexpected twists and turns manage to find a way in life on their own; imagine what could happen if one was to go looking for them.

Landing in Charlotte my new friend wished me well as he rushed to meet his finance for lunch, and I was left to contemplate my journey that had begun two hours ago, and wait for the next segment. Before grabbing lunch I skimmed various magazines and newspapers reading on topics from new condominium developments along a soon-to-open light rail line in Charlotte to the endangered state of national parks and protected environments around the world. Now, I sit here on the overlook with a pianist down below playing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." Directly in front of me rises large windows offering a view of the tarmac with planes taxiing back and forth. So is this to be my last view of America from the ground? Perhaps, and with the piano melody fading out and other travelers unknowingly allowing me brief glimpses into their lives, I think it will suffice.

07 September 2006

Fire At Will Explained

In the battles of old, armies would face each other in organized rows and columns and await orders from their commanding officers. As the confrontation began Captains gave their men targets and barked out, “Ready, aim, fire!” The first row of soldiers complied, and then knelt to the ground to reload as the second row stepped forward and received the same command. This method worked fine until the armies’ proximity to one another became to close, or the battle itself simply too chaotic. Captains answered these situations with the following order: “Fire at will.” Of course, modern soldiers can still receive this command, and what it implies has not changed. Under this order a soldier independently decides his target, when to pull the trigger, and how best to react to the sudden changes in the battle. From this military command arises a metaphor that expresses my personal attitude toward experiencing life; I choose to fire at will.

Now before you start to worry that I may someday randomly point a gun at you, allow me to explain. I could live like those soldiers dependent on their commanding officers for an order. I would wait for someone to tell me what to do or simply mirror the actions of others. I would not arrive at my own goals and aspirations in life, rather at the goals and aspirations recommended to me by society or an individual. Perhaps most significantly, I would not choose when to act, to venture, to live, rather I would wait on fate to decide for me the opportune moment for such actions. And here lies a very troubling problem for me, for I believe that the opportune moment is always the present. If I waste my time dreaming about my future life, my real and present life will pass me by without warning. Do not mistake me, I believe in fate, but, as paradoxical as it may sound, I also believe that we must live our lives independent from fate. Throughout life this omnipresent and omnipotent force provides us with signs and guidance, but we must ultimately decide which path to take. Therefore, I choose to live like the other group of soldiers; I fire at will, with no opportunity missed.

This quest to seize and conquer the opportunities in life compels me to possess a tremendous zeal for life itself. Each new day heralds the arrival of new opportunities and possibilities for me in life, as it does for each and every individual member of humanity. The world we live in is an exciting and wonderful place, so rich in experiences, places, tastes, sights, and sounds that no one man could possibly witness and undergo all in his one life, but he could sure as Hell try his best. And thus we arrive at my ultimate goal in life. My zeal to experience life and all that the world offers knows no bounds. From leaping out of a plane 14,000 feet up in the air, to attending the worship services of a religion different from mine, or to running a full marathon, if it expands my worldly experience I will do it. In the end though, I am of the opinion that the best way to experience life, or to simply live in general, is through travel.

Travel exists as so much more than a simple journey from point A to point B. Travel opens new doors while providing the traveler with the keys to unlock still more doors. Travel leads to new experiences undertaken, new places explored, new sights observed, new tastes savored, and new sounds heard. Travel leads to a greater social network of friends that could possibly span the globe. Travel even possesses the potential to create a more peaceful human society, because as one travels and makes friends and learns about other regions, one becomes more likely to understand and respect the people of that region, their views, their culture, and that region itself. Travel leads to a greater self-awareness and self-identity because as new experiences and new parts of the world introduce themselves to a traveler, the traveler questions his place and role in the world, and along side these experiences. Furthermore, travel also leads to a greater awareness of the world around you, and hence a more open mind. Here lies the key, because I believe an open mind will persuade one to explore the world more so. At least this stands true for me, the more I travel, the more I desire to travel, and the more my zeal for life expands. But travel does not require venturing to the other side of the world. Travel can take place in your own backyard. How much of your neighborhood, your city, your region have you actually visited and explored? What you discover could surprise you; it may even alter your perception of the place you call home. This theme of travel leads to the purpose of this blog. Very soon I will embark on the most exciting endeavor of my life to date, to continue with the fire at will metaphor, it is the equivalent of unleashing a barrage of heavy artillery fire in the battle of life.

On September 27 I will leave behind my hometown, Memphis, for a ten-month stay in Munich, Germany to study abroad. Actually, I lied, and the title of this blog is a bit of a misnomer. In reality the school I will study at is about an hour and a half by train north of Munich, in a small town called Eichstaett. I simply could not resist the good flow of alteration, nor could I ignore the fact that most people would not have a clue as to where Eichstaett lies on the map. For at least a year now, I have prepared for this day to come. I hope to return from this year abroad not only wiser about the world, but also about my place in it, not to mention as a true globe-trekker. Essentially, I look at it like this: Europe, stand by to be at my mercy. Of course, there will be the challenges of mastering German, making new international friends, and surviving college courses not only in another country, but taught in another language as well. But I digress, the purpose of this initial entry is not so much an introduction to my study abroad experience, rather more of an introduction to me and the reason for this blog.

I will write on here for two main reasons: one, to share my experience, and two, to inspire you to make the most of your days. Specifically, I want my family and friends to read my entries and share in my experience with me. Also, I want to give other college students a little taste of my time in Germany, and hopefully persuade them to undertake the exciting opportunity of studying abroad for themselves. Most importantly though, I desire to share my zeal of life with you, and by doing so motivate you to actively live your own life to the fullest. Unfortunately, I all too often witness other individuals passively allowing life to pass them by. I hope you will develop you own exuberance toward life, and not take it for granted. You should always feel fortunate for your life, and treasure it by seizing the opportunities that arise to experience it in a new way. Those are my intentions, but if the idea of reading about the interesting and potentially humorous trials and tribulations of an American college student studying abroad for a year sounds attractive enough to read on, then please, by all means, check in from time to time.

Most entries will more than likely not even approach the length of this one, and I cannot make any promises as to how often I will update. In fact, I am not even entirely sure of the level of Internet access in Eichstaett, so this blog may be very short-lived. But I doubt that’s the case. I will aim to update once a week, but it could be more or less depending on my schedule and my experiences. I invite you to leave as many questions and comments as you desire, please let me hear from you. You are not even required to become a member of this blog, simply click on the anonymous option when leaving a comment; however, I ask that you also please leave a name in your message so I know whom I’m talking with. I look forward to hearing from you, staying in touch, and sharing this coming year with you as best I can.

It’s a fast paced world out there, so double-knot your shoes, grab a jacket, and try to keep up with me as I fire at will.