Germany

Hello! I’m writing from my bed, eye-level with the sea, listening to the quiet hum of the engines, feeling the aches and pains of travel-weary muscles, eyeing my unpacked luggage with disdain, and scrolling through my pictures of Ireland.

“Ireland?” You say. “I thought you were going to Germany?” Ah, yes. I’ve been to Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, France, and Ireland since I last blogged. I’m in trouble, and mostly because I’ve got more to say than I’ve got time to make it funny.

So I’m going back to the beginning and playing catch-up. We’re going to pretend that I’m leaving Germany right now and writing about my many German adventures. Wow, wasn’t that schnitzel good yesterday? And how about that upcoming election? (If you didn’t follow it: Merkel won.)

Our first day in Germany directly followed a long sail through the Kiel Canal. This was such a cool way to enter Germany; many vessels are too big to sail down the 100km canal to Hamburg. As one of the professors described it, the Kiel Canal is a rare opportunity to be surrounded by land and yet sailing a ship. It was a little funky, actually, to wave at Germans from the ship’s dining hall.

Customs is a bit of a process on Semester at Sea. After all, there are 700 passengers and therefore 700 passports to stamp. The customs agents came on board when our Kiel Canal pilot did; they then spent the rest of the day doing “face-checks” and decorating passports. It takes a long time to clear all of us! We were kind enough to give them a 30 minute lunch break. Our day-long clearing process meant that disembarking was quicker and smoother once we arrived in Hamburg.

Hamburg is a bit of an odd city. (And if you were wondering, I did have a hamburger in Hamburg with local Hamburgers). It is defined by its nautical culture as a port and fishing town, but has also modernized with the growth of German economic power. The feel of the city reminded me of an east-coast city; it was clean, down-to-business, posh but not showy, and financially-oriented.

Sounds like a nice place get live in, right? Not so fast. I have a few standards that I uphold for my favorite places.

First: it must have nice bread (and Hamburg has fine bread).

Second: it must have nice people (and Hamburg has fine people).

Finally: it must have frequent and free WiFi (but Hamburg has a city-wide shortage of WiFi — even slow, inadequate WiFi. I repeat: Hamburg has no WiFi).

You can imagine, then, the following scene: 575 students disembarking the ship, whipping out their iPhones and smart phones and Androids, and vainly wandering in circles throughout the city, searching for even the slightest signal of free WiFi. Needless to say, Hamburg’s main Starbucks made a killer profit off of Semester at Sea.

Our ship was docked in a central location, near a lot of major interests. In particular, our view from the dining hall was of a massive theater with “DER KONIG DER LOWIN” across the top. I clearly don’t speak German — but let’s just say that “The Lion King” branding is readily understood in any language. Words are almost unnecessary when describing Disney.

We had to take a ferry across the river to get there, but a small group of us went to see the Broadway play that night. It was so entertaining because the entirety of the show was in German and Swahili. I couldn’t understand the conversation; therefore all of my attention was focused on the costumes, the set, the actors’ movements, and the music. It was a very different theater experience than when I watch plays in English. My sister would be proud of how theatrically observant I became.

Granted, I had to laugh at a few parts. “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” is not the same in German. The butchered sound of the German language does not convey love well, and “achkmar foin lacken fack rawkrotfenstein” wouldn’t compel many women to run through a jungle, even with a king.

The return trip was well worth the effort of getting to Der Konig Der Lowen. Because we were directly across the river from our ship, I took some beautiful photos of our home lit up at night. It was one of those proud moments where we students listened to local Germans point and admire the MV Explorer. Funnily enough, I was told that the local gossip is that SAS is a tax-evasion cover: the ship is actually owned by the Scientologists who sail their senior members around under a university guise. Obviously this is the truth, and I am not actually studying anything. (Although, truth be told, I haven’t had time to study much!)

My friends teased me ceaselessly, but I signed up for a program to visit Hamburg’s Rauthaus (parliament building/town hall) to listen to a lecture from one of Hamburg’s vice presidents. To lay a brief foundation, Hamburg is one of three city-states in Germany; it is exactly like any US state, but all of its land is within the city (Berlin is another example of a city-state). The vice president is one of the heads of parliament, which is the balance-of-power to Hamburg’s senate. Keeping up?

Well, let me tell you: this was an amazing program and I learned so much. The vice president was very engaging and walked us through the Sept. 22 election (by the way, Merkel won, much to the dismay of the Greeks). On top of that, he explained how the individual states work to make up the federal government. It was simplified for us, of course, but I learned a lot about German politics from an inside source — albeit, it didn’t hurt that we had unlimited coffee, water, and soda throughout the lecture, as well as the most beautiful view of Hamburg’s town square.

The rest of my afternoon was spent hunting for the elusive WiFi. I felt obligated to contact my parents, as they hadn’t seen my face since Russia — and who knows? I may have been mauled by a dolphin since then — so I spent three hours wandering the wrong direction. In case you were wondering, there is no WiFi in the red light district, the fish market, or the slums. in fact, there is only WiFi at Starbucks.

Semester at Sea has a unique program for 40 adults each semester called the “Life Long Learners.” Basically, a bunch of old people come on board and commit to four months on a tiny ship with a lot of immature people. Life Long Learners add a really unique flavor to our community, and I love getting to know them. After all, 575 twenty-year-olds get obnoxious after a while, so I jumped on the opportunity to go to Lubeck for a day with several of the SAS adults.

Lubeck (about 30 minutes outside of Hamburg) looks a bit like Hogwarts in the sense that it has tall, slate-blue towers and medieval-styled turrets. The town itself is a UNESCO World Heritage site, largely because it is so well preserved, and is surrounded by a river/moat on all sides.

One of my favorite parts about Lubeck was the central church. It is the tallest brick church in the world, but I find it so memorable because of its frequent displays of death. Unlike most churches, it had skeletons and the Grim Reaper tucked into a few of its statues and stain glass windows. Someone was saying that because the church was built in the years following the Black Plague, death was a predominate motif in the teachings of the church. I don’t know if that’s true — so don’t post it on the web — but it sounded good.

At the back of the church were two broken bells embedded in the ground. This was one of the highlights for me; during WWII, allied bombers attacked a nearby site and sent the church bells crashing to the floor below. Can you imagine the way that must have sounded throughout the small city? It really must have resonated off all that brick. The church decided not to repair the damage to the floor and left the bell shards stuck in the brickwork.

I spent another part of my afternoon watching a German puppet show. It was painfully confusing. Although I was amazed to watch the puppeteer control all the different characters, I didn’t understand the gist of the 45-minute show until the end. It was about a daughter who cooked pasta, but over-boiled the stroganoff and flooded her entire house. I connected with the story on multiple levels, of course, but let’s be honest: I wouldn’t have tried to cook stroganoff in the first place. That’s why we have Hamburger Helper, duh!

That night I went to a lights and water show in the park. I liked watching the fountain jets dance to traditional music while the colored lights set the atmosphere. We’re cheap but creative, so we brought the ship’s plastic laundry bags, ripped them in half, and sat on the little plastic squares to keep our butts dry. It was cute. But the best part? Since the show was completely free, I was able to buy an ice cream. #livingthelife

Speaking of ice cream: Ice cream is a rarity on the ship. You would think that such a prevalent staple would be available in the middle of the ocean, but you’d be wrong. It is a treat. HOWEVER — since no one ever eats on board when we’re in port, this is the time when the crew whips out their secret stores. That’s right: I had ice cream while on the MV Explorer. Tell your friends, tell your mom, tell your neighbors. There is ice cream hidden away somewhere. I will find it again. I must. If I don’t, I might not make it across the Atlantic Ocean.

Seriously.

On my final day in Germany, I got up bright and early for Hamburg’s Fisherman’s Market. This was the weirdest cultural experience I’ve had in Germany, and possibly in the world. Allow me to paint this picture: groggy-eyed and sleepy-headed, I stumbled into clothes and set off with my friend Lillian for a one-mile trek along Hamburg’s shore at 7 (SEVEN, SEPT, SIETE, TOO EARLY) in the morning. Since breakfast isn’t even served at such an obscene hour, please note that the following scenario was experienced sans coffee.

Hundreds of people, shoulder to shoulder, were crowded in the single lane of the fish market. Getting through the myriad of locals was impossible, so Lillian and I joined the throng. There was so much noise in the air; in particular, two fishmongers were shouting both their wares and mock-insults as loudly as possible. It was apparent that they did this every Sunday morning and the regulars had arrived en masse to watch the show. I find German to be a very aggressive-sounding language, but nothing sounds more aggressive than German fishmongers at 7am. Whew — that was terrifying.

Another ear-scarring experience was the sunrise rock ‘n roll band. I’m all for music on Sunday mornings — usually this involves a heavenly host and a grand piano. However, heavily-accented cries of “stick another dime in the jukebox, baby” was far more effective at waking me up than my alarm clock. There were about 100 beer-drinking, breakfast-eating rock-‘n-rollers in the audience. I like coffee with my eggs, they like Heineken with theirs. Basically the same thing, right? I suppose the end effects are similar.

After such an awakening morning experience, there was only one thing left to do: impress myself beyond words. I visited Hamburg’s claim-to-fame, the one-and-only Miniature Wonderland (or Miniature Vunderland, actually). I could only say, “Wow.”

I had a lot of preconceived notions for Miniature Wonderland. Right now, I bet you’re creating your own judgments too. My idea of Miniature Wonderland looked a bit like this:

– small things

– lots of small things

– cutesy geriatrics creating small things

– little displays of more small things

WRONG.

My idea of Miniature Wonderland now looks like this:

– wow, those are intricately detailed small things

– my goodness, there are 3 floors of small things

– all the staff are young and running electronics and technology throughout the displays of small things

– I just witnessed a room-sized display of the Hamburg harbor, and I can’t even describe the depth of the fully-functioning miniature airport with flying planes, flashing lights, tiny controls, and taxiing aircraft.

I hope I’m able to upload photos with this post, because I cannot use words to describe the amount of dedication throughout this museum. I will highlight my two favorite “secrets” though. First, in the room featuring Switzerland—complete with a 10,000-person rock show and paragliders in the Alps—a Lindt chocolate factory spat out 100% edible minature Lindt chocolates. And second, in the room featuring the history of Germany since prehistory until today, there was a German hiding Jews (even wearing the golden David’s Star on their chests) in his cellar beside a segregation ghetto. This attention to detail was established in every display. I cannot rave about this museum enough.

Unfortunately, all ports come to an end, and I soon said goodbye to the fair city of Hamburg — even without WiFi, it was a nice place to visit. And unlike Russia, where I bounced around all over the country, I was content to stay in one small region because I’d been in Germany only a few weeks prior.

“What?” You say. “Surely you haven’t been on an adventure that you didn’t blog.”

Eesh. Yes, yes, I have.

Because I was sailing from the fair English town of Southampton, and because my father had to be in Cologne, Germany, for August’s GamesComm, the Zmak Family had a Zmak Family adventure to Paris, Munich, and Cologne. And, unfortunately, this was an adventure that has not yet been featured on the blog.

So let me focus on the Germany part briefly, and I’ll be sure to include some photos from our Parisian escapade in the next update. At this rate, I should be writing that by the time I get to Brazil.

Three of my favorite memories from the German portion of Zmak Family Trip:

First, we went on a biking/hiking trip to Neuschwanstein Castle in the pouring rain. And by pouring rain, I mean pouring rain. The castle was simply exquisite, perched on the rocky face of the Alps, and I thoroughly enjoyed learning about Bavarian history. However, nothing beats seeing my family pedaling through massive puddles, climbing slippery waterfall stairways, posing in the least-flattering ponchos IN THE WORLD, and conquering more stairs than the entirety of the Great Wall of China. We had one heck of a good time, despite the weather and the ponchos.

Second, while Dad was off doing business-stuff, us girls waited 45 minutes in line to see the new SIMS game. The trailer was in German and the interactive game trial wasn’t that impressive, but we were pretend-groupies for almost an hour. We were armed with fancy-shmancy badges and we tried to blend in with the 50,000 gamer geeks to the best of our abilities. In case you were wondering: Rachel did best.

Finally, we took a sleeper train from Paris to Munich. If you’re anything like me, and you can sleep anywhere and everywhere at any time and in any place, then sleeper trains are very comfortable. I slept like a rock. And although the rest of the family struggled to find peace in a deep slumber, we had a lot of fun in our snug compartments. Everything is a process: you want coffee, so you stand up, swap places with your sister, move the bunk ladder, pull out the table, close the door, place the table, open the door, grab the coffee, swap places with your sister, and finally sit so someone else can wash their hands or grab their book or fall over. I can confidently say that living in a trailer for 4 months is easier than living in a train compartment for 9 hours.

And so ends the blog post on the German adventure. I am already working hard and fast on Switzerland and France. I’ll try to update soon, but the next port is already upon me and I like to go go go.

Love from the seas,

Emily

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