24 November 2008

Winter in Hallstatt

In the afternoon on Friday I boarded a train and headed to Salzburg, Austria in order to visit my friend Dylan. The city lies just beyond the southeastern border of Germany and is a four-hour train ride from Eichstätt. The visit was actually my third time in this Austrian toy town, and I documented another of those trips on Fire at Will during the first year in Eichstätt. Though Salzburg is currently entering the Christmas season and its Christmas market has opened, the concentration for my stay was in another Austrian town by the name of Hallstatt.

Dylan and I boarded a bus Saturday morning in the center of Salzburg and began our journey to the Salzkammergut, Austria's lake district perched in the Alps. Several wide and deep bodies of water fill the valleys between the steep mountains. The villages and towns that spread along the shores of these lakes remind travelers of a time when these communities were isolated and protected by the mountains and water that separate them. After an hour and half we got off our bus and transfered to a train that continued to bring us through the beautiful landscape and into that Austria that exists in one's imagination. We hopped off a half hour later at the only platform of Hallstatt's train station and found ourselves on a bluff overlooking the Hallstätter See, or the Hallstätter Lake. Our journey was not at an end. One finds the actual town on the other side of the lake, by the train station are only trees and a steep, rocky cliff; we stepped onto a ferry that soon pushed off and puttered into the fog. In the view below you can see the path that leads from the train station to the ferry.

Hallstatt came into view as we crossed the lake. The small town of nearly 1,000 does not merely rest on the lake's shore; it clings to it. The following pictures from a few viewpoints in town attest to this fact.

Apparently human settlement has existed in and near the current Hallstatt for around 6,000 years, millennia before anything close to an Austria existed. Hallstatt's original boom centuries ago owes its happening to the natural salt found in the region. The mineral, which was very valuable in the past, was carried from the mines around Hallstatt and spread across Europe. To understand the importance of these salt mines, and their influence on the town, consider that the name of a cultural period in European history is known as Hallstatt. Today, the town is known more for its scenic setting than salt.

As we slept Friday night, winter arrived in central Europe. Snow fell on much of Austria and southern Germany, and, as you have seen, Hallstatt was no exception. As some of the pictures below show, the snow came quick and unexpectedly. The precipitation blanketed colorful berries and flowers. Icicles hung like daggers from gutters. The people of Hallstatt awoke to find their homes covered in the snow. In spite of the cold, however, some town residents didn't mind going for a swim in the lake.

After we arrived in town, Dylan and I walked through the narrow streets and up to the parish church overlooking Hallstatt and the lake. Due to the lack of developable land on which to build, buildings seem to rest on top of one another. On the shoreside of a house one might face the building's first floor, but on the next lane behind the house one could be looking into a third- or fourth-floor window. In the small land around the church is a cemetery, a photograph of which you can find below.

In the past, because of the lack of land in Hallstatt, deceased residents could only rest in the cemetery for ten years. After this time the remains were exhumed and the plot prepared for another occupant. Of course, simply disposing of the remains was not an option. Instead, families cleaned and decorated the skulls and other bones of their loved ones, and then laid them to rest in the Beinhaus (Bone House) of the church. In the first following picture you can see a view of this Bone House, and in the second a closer look at the some of the skulls. The tradition may continue today for those who request it, though with access to land beyond Hallstatt and modern cremation methods it is not as common.

We continued to wander around the quiet town and soon assumed that most residents must have been remaining indoors. At points in the town when the mountain slope became steep, walkways led to tunnels through houses and other buildings. The snow started to fall more heavily and quickly collected on our coats and hats. Eventually, we did come across some of the locals. After the following picture that showes Dylan walking through the swirling snow, you can see exactly how we interacted with these two representatives of Hallstatt, and, furthermore, you are able to see it with a media format new to Fire at Will: video.

After our snowball fight, we found lunch at what appeared to be the only open restaurant in town. Some relaxing time of warm food and drink later, we returned to the streets of Hallstatt for our last look around town.

We soon headed back to the dock and boarded the ferry that brought us back across the lake. The weather conditions on our day of travel may have been cold and cloudy, but dramatic scenary of towering mountiains, lapping waves of clear lake water, and centuries-old buildings covered in snow helped me, at least, to overlook that frosty fact. We boarded the train and made our way out of Austria's picturesque lake district. At around seven o'clock in the evening we were in Salzburg again.

That night, Dylan and I strolled through the Salzburg Christmas market, but our timing could have been better as the stalls closed soon after our arrival. I said goodbye to Dylan on Sunday afternoon and rode the trains to Eichstätt. Reaching the town I discovered that snow had also fallen here over the weekend, and it continues to do so.
In other news, my classes last week went well. For those who sent me ideas about American customs and traditions, thank you. I think most of the students found the day's topics interesting.
I'm not yet exactly sure how this coming weekend will play out, but I don't intend to stay put in Eichstätt.
For my American readers, have an enjoyable Thanksgiving. I know that I will miss some of the great home cooking that I can usually find on this day of the year.

14 November 2008


Last weekend I traveled to the city of Neuburg, which lies due south of Eichstätt by about 13 miles. The story, though, is not in the fact that I visited this city, rather how I arrived to it. A train connection to Neuburg does exist, but I opted to reach the city in a more self-accomplishing way: by bike.

Immediately after publishing the last post in the university's computer lab on Saturday morning, I mounted my bike and began pedalling out of town. Bike routes are well marked throughout Germany, and bike touring is a popular activity; therefore, I was not concerned with getting lost or being directed onto a major highway. In any event, I did bring a map with me. The following picture was taken soon after leaving Eichstätt's urban area. Much of the route to Neuburg consisted of dedicated paved trails like this one.

After the tiring ride up and out of the valley in which Eichstätt lies, the land opened up and the forests gave way to farm fields. In the next picture you can see a portion of the route that shared the path with a country road.

As the route twisted over the Bavarian landscape I passed through several small villages and communities. The following is a view of one of the larger communities through which I rode. The church steeple remained slightly concealed by some of the late morning fog.

The next photograh is a view of the same town, but from the other side, and was taken as I was leaving.

A little ways past that town I saw a small solar power plant to my left.

Soon after I came across an abandoned fortress with crumbling walls and overgrown courtyards. If you closely at the yellow sign before the bridge you'll notice that two speed limits are given--one for trucks and one for tanks.

The rolling landscape then continued and spread to the horizon. Every now and then another village would appear in the distance.

Most of the time while I rode on the roads I felt safe, as there was little passing traffic. In one instance though, as I was pedalling up a steep hill, I was overtaken by a medium-sized freight truck. It didn't help in this instance when I realized, a moment after I could hear the truck approaching, that my handle bars were slowly coming out of the bike's frame. I swerved onto a narrow shoulder of the road, which was conveniently placed where it was for a farmer on his tractor to reach his field, and heard the truck roar by. After tightening my handle bars in place, I continued on my way.
With only a few kilometers to go before I reached Neuburg, I passed through a couple denser communities. Here's a view from one of them.

On the edge of the small town the paved road ended, but the bike route continued onto a dirt trail through a forest. The trail led me past a couple lakes and meadows, and then turned onto a ridge overlooking the Danube River. From here, the trail hugged the ridge and stayed parallel to the river. I knew I was close to my destination because the full name of the city is, after all, Neuburg an der Donau, Neuburg on the Danube.

After the trail took a bend, the trees seemed to part and I finally glimpsed my first view of Neuburg.

In all, the ride to Neuburg lasted about two and a half hours. I think I could have easily shaved an hour off had I already known the route and not stopped so much to take pictures and check the map.

Even though it is a name, and names are normally not translated, the meaning of Neuburg in English is New Castle. The picture above probably lends you an idea as to the origins of that name. Neuburg is larger than Eichstätt with about 27,000 residents, but with its Baroque architecture strongly resembles its northern neighbor. Here are some additional views in Neuburg's old town center.

After roaming the old streets of Neuburg for a sufficient amount of time, I found my way to the city's train station and waited for the next connection to Ingolstadt. In Germany, where public transit is a way of life, bringing one's bike on an inter-city train is no hassle at all. I arrived back in Eichstätt in the early evening. For the rest of the weekend I relaxed and prepared for my courses.
All of my classes are going very well, at least in my opinion. My Monday courses are fairly easy to prepare for. In U.S. Current Events we simply discuss topics and, whenever possible, I try to find group work for the students to do. Each student must also give one 15-minute presentation in the semester. Last week one student gave his presentation on the financial crisis. This coming Monday a girl from France will talk about holidays in America, a refreshing topic after last week. After she finishes I plan to cover anything that I feel is important and ask how some of the same holidays are celebrated in the students' home countries. Then I will break the class into groups, give each group a large sheet of butcher paper, and instruct them to draw images associated with a certain American holiday. Before class ends they will have to present their drawings and explain why they drew what they did. I've found that the less the the course feels like a lecture from me, the more enjoyable it is for the students.
On Monday afternoon I have Debate and Discussion. I'm excited for the up-coming class because it will be our first group debate. I have divided the class into two teams and, following the Lincoln-Douglas debate format, they will hold an one-hour long debate. On one hand I am interested to see how well they perform because I'm not certain how well I've taught them what to do, but on the other hand it seems like a fairly basic concept to me and I think they will do okay. The negative team will take on the affirmative team's resolution of, "Public surveillance is an unacceptable abuse of personal freedom." The second group debate, to come in two weeks, will deal with the topic of environmental protection.
On Thursday, in American Culture, we discussed education and religion in America. I was very pleased by the positive response I received from the students over my presentation. Especially interesting to them was the social hierarchy in high school and the several stereotypical high school social groups, like jocks, nerds, and emo kids (I'm trying to keep the information as up-to-date as possible, so if you don't know what that last group is then you probably haven't been in high school in the last ten years).
One other thing they found very interesting was that Ameican school students always begin the day with reciting the pledge of allegiance. Because German class was my first class of the day for two years in high school, our teacher required us to learn how to say the pledge in German. When I said it out loud to my class, in German, they were very amused.
For the remainder of the class we talked about religion in America, and covered topics such as the Bible Belt, God in everyday life (for example, "In God We Trust" on our currency), and even tent revivals.
A half hour later came U.S. Current Affairs. This class went well except for one incident in which a student almost launched into a full argument with me. The topic for the day was the war in Afghanistan. I had made a comment over the production of poppy in the country, the resulting drug trafficking, America's policy on destroying the poppy fields, and how this hinders the relationship between the American troops and the locals, who look to the poppy production as a major source of income. One student, who must be close to 30 years old if not over and who seems to have an anger management problem, interrupted me and started to say how I was wrong. Fortunately, the rest of the class was on my side and the man stopped trying to push his point. I was very relieved by this, especially because I was beginning to wonder if, perhaps, he was in fact somewhat correct. Either way, after that incident I was ready for the class to end.
I had plans to visit Dylan this weekend, but those were canceled when he fell ill. Hopefully I'll find some other activities.
One more important part to this post, I need your help. Next Thursday in American Culture we are going to discuss American traditions and customs. We will discuss holidays as a separate topic, so I need to find several traditions and customs not connected to any holiday. So far, I'm coming up short. The best one I've thought of is the tooth fairy tradition, I'm fairly certain that doesn't exist in Germany, but I need several more. What are your ideas? Remember, just because it is something that seems normal and commonplace to you, as an American, does not mean it won't be received as strange and exotic to Germans and other Europeans. They can be small customs from everyday life or complicated traditions. Please leave your ideas in a comment on this post, and I thank you in advance for your input.

08 November 2008

Nördlingen and Such

Sometime in the week after my last post several employees of the university and I met with representatives of Canisius College in Buffalo, New York. That college is considering starting a partnership with the KUE, and the representatives wanted to speak with an American to hear his perspective on the university and Eichstätt. I was as positive as I could be.

On Halloween, I celebrated the day by carving pumpkins with Anna, a friend of my tutor’s. As the holiday is mostly American, she had never participated in this tradition. My two-faced pumpkin is on the left of the following two photos, and Anna’s is to the right.

One reason that Halloween has not caught on much in Germany, in spite of the efforts of some national retailers, is because that the two following days are observed religious holidays, All Souls’ Day and All Saints’ Day. For many Germans it is simply too hypocritical to celebrate a holiday that traditionally honors ghouls, goblins, and mischief on one night, and then head to church the following morning.

Dylan came to Eichstätt for a visit on Saturday. We decided to take a day trip to a near-by town, but first went to Kloster Walburga, a convent in Eichstätt for Benedictine nuns, in order to investigate the phenomenon known as Walburga Oil. Saint Walburga, sister to Saint Willibald, the first bishop of Eichstätt, lived in the latter half of the 9th century. Her physical remains were laid to rest in what became the convent and soon turned into a destination for pilgrims. Every year from the middle of October to late February, for centuries, pure water has dripped from Walburga’s tomb into a collecting dish placed by the nuns. The convent’s sisters then dilute the Walburga Oil, as they call it, and give it out to pilgrims.

Votives cover the walls of the chapel that contains Walburga’s tomb, thank you gifts offered by those who believe that Saint Walburga has answered their prayers over the centuries. Most of the votives date from several centuries ago, while others are from as recently as the 1990’s. The view below shows the back wall of the chapel. The actual tomb is recessed into the wall, the consequence of a number of renovations and reconstructions of the cloister since its founding in 1035.

The next picture shows a case located on another wall contained in which are wax figures, fragments of bone, and teeth, presumably other offerings from individuals of a time long past.

This last photograph from the convent is of the chapel’s altar, behind which is the tomb. The square gold and silver door above the large painting accesses the opening where the nuns place the collection dish for the water. Unfortunately, it remained closed during our visit.

Dylan and I then rode the trains to the town of Nördlingen. The community is home to about 20,000 and lies about 25 miles southwest of Eichstätt. The town sits in the center of the Ries Crater, formed by the impact of a meteorite more than 15 million years ago. American astronauts conducted part of their training for the Apollo moon missions in Nördlingen because of the well-preserved conditions of the crater. The best way to take in the view of the landscape and town is by ascending the tower of Saint George’s Church in the middle of the historical city center, as seen below.

Creaking wooden steps twisted up through the stone tower, growing narrower and steeper along the way.

Several minutes later we stepped out onto a skinny walkway and into the open air.

We returned to Eichstätt and spent the rest of the night eating dinner and relaxing with a couple other friends. The first picture below is of my meal, oven roasted pork shoulder with potato dumplings.

On Sunday morning Dylan returned to Salzburg.

Tuesday night I stayed up until dawn on Wednesday in order to watch the live results of the election in America. As the bakers of Eichstätt were probably pulling their first batches for the day from their ovens and the rest of the town slept, I lay in my bed when the networks announced the next President of the United States.

The election was a major issue in Germany as well, and was the primary topic for most of my classes during the week. Some Germans, like other Europeans, lament that they cannot vote in the election because the results matter so much for them as well. Barack Obama was, of course, the candidate of choice for most of Germany. On the following day some individuals congratulated me on the selection of America’s newest President.

The week before the election one of my students asked if I would be willing to participate in a poll for her as an assignment for one of her classes. I agreed, and she asked me questions regarding my thoughts on the election and which candidate I preferred. Close to the end of her questions I felt that something wasn’t right, and asked her to explain again what this assignment was. I had mistranslated. She wasn’t conducting a poll for one of her classes; she was conducting an interview for the regional newspaper.

As I have tried until now to remain neutral in my classes when discussing American politics, I immediately asked her if I could remain anonymous. She said no, and requested to take a photograph of me as well. Our compromise was that she could use my name and answers as long as she took no photograph and left out the information on my age and occupation. She comforted me by saying that the university students rarely read the local newspaper.

On Thursday, in U.S. Current Affairs, five minutes into the class, I was speaking privately with a student who was preparing a presentation on the American election. He told me that he would try to be neutral, especially after reading the article in which I gave my thoughts on the election. I wanted to turn to the student who had interviewed me and give her an angry glare.

Incidentally, on Election Day a television station from Ingolstadt wanted to interview me as well. I declined.

Last night I attended a special event with Franzi. The university and the town was hosting a discussion between the Archbishop of Munich-Freising, a top executive from Audi, and two Bavarian state politicians on the topic of Christianity’s role in the workplace and economy of the 21st century. The discussion attracted a large audience and filled the ballroom to standing-room-only capacity. Several television stations from Munich and Bavaria were on hand to film the event. Unfortunately, the discussion often reached such a high philosophical level that I could barely follow along. Nevertheless, what I did understand was interesting to hear.

For the rest of today I might take a trip to another town near Eichstätt, but you’ll read about that in the next post.