I'm sitting here in the car and am trying to recount the past week of vacation, but I can't even begin! I've done so much that, as my host mom says, "mein Kopf raucht" - my head is smoking. Looking forward to the weeks ahead, there's still no break in sight. I cannot emphasize this enough: Exchange students never have time to sleep.
On Sunday the 7th, my host dad kindly took me to the Catholic cathedral in Berlin, St. Hedwig's. Every first Sunday of the month, the cathedral hosts high mass (Hochamt) in Latin, so it was really interesting. However, the priest did the readings and homily in German so I was able to understand what was going on. Afterwards, the couple sitting in front of us turned around and asked if we spoke English... Turns out they were Australian tourists who wanted to know if we could explain the homily. I cleared up what was going on, and we got further into conversation, finding ourselves in a nice discussion about taxes. I am not sure how that happened as the homily was about the vows of marriage!
Taxes, however, were a bit relevant in context, seeing as we were in a church. In Germany, one must pay a tax to be a member of a church. It's organized by the state then given to either the Protestant or Catholic church, whichever one is a member of. The couple found to be a good idea but also easy to avoid - if one does not become an official member of a church, no tax has to be paid. The churches look down upon these people, though.
After church we picked up my host brother and his girlfriend, and drove them home for my host brother's birthday lunch. Almost immediately after arriving, we sang "Happy Birthday" to him. To my surprise, the song was identical to the American version, save for the part which goes 'Dear so-and-so'. Here, it's 'Liebe(r) so-and-so'. Liebe means Dear (Lieber for masculine), so it still makes sense. He then opened his gifts, which included a shirt from America I brought with me for him, and extra-fudge brownies that I baked, American style. It's great to adopt a new culture, but it's also fun to put the first to use. The brownies were a hit!
One of his other gifts was my host dad's old iPhone 4, as my host dad is now the proud owner of the iPhone 5. My host brother had an iPhone 3, so he gave it to me to use, for free! We now all have new toys to keep us busy.
That night, after my host brother and his girlfriend left, arrived the niece of my host mom and the niece's friend. They came from north Germany, in the region of Kiel, just to shop! They were my age so we had a ton of fun, shopping for two days straight in Berlin.
On Tuesday I had to stop shopping early to meet with a public affairs officer over coffee in the Embassy, regarding my interest in the the 'Meet US' program, in which American students in Germany visit high school English classes to talk about our culture, or something relevant to the curriculum. The US Embassy was amazing, I'm so glad I got a chance to see the building. It's adjacent to the Brandenburger Tor, so it's in a prime location. The brand new building wraps around a courtyard, in which a large slab of the Berlin Wall stands, and in a quiet corner rests a piece of a Twin Tower. Inside the Embassy, original Jackson Pollacks and Andy Warhols were displayed - it was absolutely unbelievable.
My host dad was so kind enough to take me to the Berlin Philharmonic (Berliner Philarmoniker) on Thursday with him. It was a special concert, as medieval music was played. Not only was the music flawlessly performed, but we sat so close to the stage that I could see how much work the musicians put into the pieces. It almost made me regret quitting the piano and violin!
Friday morning I woke up, packed up, and then got into the car with my host mom and the dog to drive to Bonn, where her brother and his family live. Eight hours, an entire German essay, two rest stops, and a nap later, we arrived. Thank gosh I am so used to road trips with my family! However, this was a bit easier than I was used to, as there were no suitcases and coolers at my feet, and siblings to argue with over who gets the front seat.
Upon our arrival, it began to rain off and on. Regardless, the dog still needed walking, so my host mom, her sister-in-law, and I took the dog through the neighborhood. Their town is on the mountains, so it was especially pretty. Not two streets away was a little country road we took, and from there I think I fell in love with Bonn. Behind us the sun was starting to set, but in front of us lay a sun shower. Over the dips and the curves of the Rhine Valley below us were two beautiful, vibrant, complete rainbows. Words cannot do justice to how absolutely stunning and breathtaking it was. I cannot believe I didn't have my camera with me. Living alongside this view every day, I expressed in broken German, it'd be extremely difficult to find a reason to wake up unhappy.
The next morning, my host mom, her brother, his wife, and I left to see the city of Cologne (Köln, pronounced Kerhln). Köln and Bonn are sister cities, so it was a relatively quick drive.
First, we parked in the longest parking garage in the world. That was a pretty interesting start. Then, we went to my host mom's brother's office building. It sits directly on the Rhine, and from the highest level's balcony, we got a beautiful view of the city.
After, we went to a chocolate museum a few blocks away. Unfortunately, the line was too long to go in, but we did stop at the gift shop afterward. At first sight, I think I may have gotten it confused with Heaven. Hopefully they look very similar.
After reveling in the Deadly Sin of Gluttony we went to der Kölner Dom (the Cologne Cathedral) to balance it out.
I have never been in a more beautiful church, including the Sistine Chapel. The building began in the eleventh century and was completed in the nineteenth. The dedication to the cathedral these architects and hand workers had is obvious, it was such a masterpiece. According to the UNESCO World Heritage site, the High Cathedral of St. Peter (the official name) is "a powerful testimony to the strength and persistence of Christian belief in Medieval Europe" and "a masterpiece of exceptional intrinsic value".
Many people make a religious pilgrimage to this site, as it houses the Relics of the Three Kings. I was able to see it, but I couldn't get close as the area was closed.
Afterwards, we went to a local restaurant for lunch, where we had the traditional fare: "half a chicken" and a Kölsch (pronounced Kehrlsch). Bread, butter, cheese, and a local specialty drink.
We went out to dinner, too. This time, Italian! We stayed at the table for three hours, as the Germans don't leave directly after eating, nor are they expected to. During this time I had a great conversation with my host mom's brother about music. Turns out he loved bands like CSN&Y, Eagles, Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan... It was so great to be able to talk about something genuinely American. I even learned a few things! When I mentioned I came from Philadelphia, he said, he did not think of the cream cheese like most do, but rather the song, 'Sailing to Philadelphia' by Mark Knopfler. It's really quite good, I'd recommend you check it out!
When we returned home, I sat down and worked on a German assignment with my host mom's niece. I had to write an autobiography from the perspective of Gérard Duval, the Frenchman killed by Paul Bäumer in All Quiet on the Western Front. It took us a while to get through it, but every correct ending was a not-so-small victory!
This morning I went with my host mom and her brother around Bonn. First, we saw the Fachwerk, the typical architechture of the region.
There was a church with graves dating from the 1700s, when a lot of the houses here were built!
We then stopped at a crane dating from Ancient Rome (the region was conquered and settled by the Roman, so there are a lot of relics).
After, we crossed the River Rhine on a ferry to drive up to the Petersburg Hotel, the formal residence of the Guests of State when Bonn was the capital of West Germany.
The hotel sits at the top of the mountain and the view was absolutely gorgeous. I was told that at one point, one of the USSR's former presidents was gifted a Mercedes SLK during his visit. The road to get to and from the hotel is very steep and curvy, and the Russian had a bit too much to drink. However, he couldn't wait to try out his new toy. Needless to say, it was the only time he tried out his new toy.
We then visited another beautiful church, and I was able to squeeze a few minutes of Mass in.
After, we visited the house where Beethoven was born (Beethoven Geburtshaus), which was really cool. I saw, among other things, his first violin, his original manuscripts, and even his baptismal cap!
When we returned to the house, I went with my host mom's sister-in-law in her new Fiat 500c, or her 'baby Ferrarri'. The nickname was rightly earned, it drove extremely well! We cruised through the countryside roads, and took in the beautiful scenery. Directly after getting out of her car, I got into my host mom's car, and here I sit, four hours later, with two more hours to go.
I thoroughly enjoyed Bonn and Köln. Although Berlin is absolutely wonderful, I can't see myself living here. Before this weekend, I thought I wanted to learn German for corporate reasons, but now I'm not so sure. The way the streets curve, the houses slant, the mountains roll, and the river flows... I truly have fallen in love with the region.
Yesterday, I went to see the World Cup Qualifier Game Germany vs. Sweden. Don't even get me started on how that went. The first twenty minutes, we were doing fantastic. 4-0, only playing offensive. Fans were wild, we were all happy! Then I think the goalie got a little careless, and the defense stopped paying attention, one goal in. The center of the action drifted from offense, to midfield... Sweden's second goal could have been easily prevented. Such a careless mistake! Sweden scored again soon after, and the last minute of the game, the goalie let such an easy goal in. The Germany fans consider a tie a loss, and we were all extremely disappointed. The ride back home on the more-than-crowded train was silence, punctuated by an occassional drunken rant.