Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Learning to ski in Austria

Sitting in the aisle of the packed train
The journey to Austria itself was pretty evenful. Firstly, the taxi arrived early so everyone went into a panic rushing around to get ready to go, but then we couldn't fit everything in it and we had to work out a way of taking the car as well and leaving it somewhere. Then the train was late, and arrived with only half of the carriages, we don't know why, so we had no seats and ended up squashed in on the floor in the aisles. After a few more stops the train was packed and it was very obvious that we couldn't fit more people in, so we sat on the tracks for ages until enough people were persuaded to get off and take a second train. Hauke renamed the German rail system 'Fail Rail', as it was clear the conductors just couldn't cope with the situation, their announcements were quite entertaining. We were standing and sitting on the floor for most of the way to Munich.The delays meant we had to really rush to get on our next train into Salzburg, Austria.  

Train station at Göttingen

The landscape changed quite a bit in lower Germany and Austria, there are more mountains and snow, and the houses are made with more wood but with no framework, with the bottom story or two made of I think plaster and the top story or two and the roof made of wood. We somehow made it onto the next train within about ten minutes, which is quite impressive when you are carrying all of your bags and skiis and have to go underground to reach different platforms. It has become quite apparent that Germans are not as relaxed as New Zealanders, Hauke (who has spent a year in NZ) and I have been very chilled out about all of the problems and rushing around and just accepted that there will be delays and we will cope with things as they happen, whereas everyone else has gotten quite stressed out and angry about it all. Hauke gave me German lessons on the train, much to the delight of all the Germans sitting around us, especially because the sentances he considers most important include ordering drinks and explaining that I am drunk or have a hangover! Finally, we took a bus-sized taxi for about an hour to Rauris, through all of these mountains and valleys with a river running through, it was absolutely amazing but the light was too bad for photos.

Church in Rauris

The ski-hire man giving us scnapps

Rauris is a small village that seems to exist only for skiing in the winter! It's nestled in a dead-end valley in the Austrian Alps, perched in amongst these amazing mountains. The church in the village amazes me, it is really tall and thin, and sticks out above everything else. Sara and I hired a couple of bits of gear from the ski shop in town, the guys there were really cool and gave us all shots of homemade Austrian scnapps. As well as Hauke's parents (Karin and Georg) and his brother Arne and Arne's girlfriend Sara, there is another family with two boys, aged 11 and 15, staying with us. The youngest boy is learning english at school and is really cute,  and his father really cracks me up because he is always saying things to me in english, usually in the context of a german conversation that I wasn't following, that make absolutely no sense! I have perfected the "No idea what you're saying so I'll just smile and nod" again.

Carpacio, raw beef
After everyone saying what an epic failure I was going to be at skiing, Hauke and his family didn't have high expectations of me but after some lessons from Hauke and Georg I managed a red slope before lunch on my first day. By about 2pm I was in absolute agony and really tired so I headed back to the hotel early to nap. My sleeping patterns seem really weird since I arrived in Europe, no matter what time we go to bed I always wake up a hour or so before we planned on getting up, but I never feel like I've had enough sleep. We went to another village for dinner that night, in a fine dining but really old resturant where I tried Hauke's raw beef fillet (carpacio) and calf's liver. Karin said I am pretty brave, not being scared of skiing, trying different types of food, and also doing things by myself like catching the bus back to the hotel, which again might be a reflection of the kiwi can-do and eager to try new things attitude. Hauke and I went for a drink after dinner that turned into several drinks and meant I was even more tired skiing on day two!

Me in the bar in Rauris
Day two was more or less pretty similar, we stuck to the same slopes and I just focused on improving my technique. I had morning tea with Georg, the way he speaks with his limited english is really cute, he speaks really slowly and thoughtfully, wanting to get each word perfect before he says it. For dinner we headed into the hills to a resturant they have visited every year for over 20 years, run by a hunter turned fisherman who cooks amazing almond-baked trout. It rounded off my first week here in Europe, but unfortunately my mood wasn't fantastic, I was just too tired to be upbeat and therefore sick of not understanding what people were talking about, not being able to read a menu and pick my own food and of constantly making an effort to smile and follow the conversation even though I can barely make out what is being talked about, instead of just staring at the wall the whole time. Georg and Karin picked up on my mood and kept asking me if I was ok, they are really lovely, but that just made me feel guilty! I am really grateful to Hauke because he is looking after me all of the time and doing things like ordering food that he guesses I am going to like and translating a lot, and then the 11 year old boy perked me up a lot asking me "would you like to play with me Uno" (taking boardgames to resturants is quite common), so I finished the evening on a much better note, and this night Hauke and I took the 15year old, Constantine, for a couple of beers in the same bar - the first time I ordered drinks and was actually understood! The legal age for drinking and smoking is 16 here in Austria, and they are pretty relaxed about things.

Main street in Rauris

It is now the morning of our third day here, and it is snowing! I am really tired, so I had breakfast in bed and am now just sitting here watching the snow fall over the Alps, everyone else has already headed up to the skifield but I will go up around lunchtime. They've set up a big ramp thing for a ski jumping competition tonight, so we will go and check that out later. If it stops snowing I will take my camera up the mountain today, so I should hopefully have some photos of the view and us skiing next post!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

A Winter-white German Christmas

Merry Christmas! or Frohe Weihnachten!

I felt much better after a good sleep, and so on my second day here we set off to visit some local villages and castles. Unfortunately the weather didn't want to play ball, and many roads and buildings we closed due to the snow and ice, but we visited a little village called Hardegsen that had a wee castle and a lot of amazing buildings. It is really crazy to see houses that are older than New Zealand, and the narrow streets and old slanting and warped framework really amaze me. They are all two or three stories tall, so quite different to most of NZ where houses are mostly one story but sprawled over a bigger area (excluding Wellington!). Hardegsen has a thing about donkeys, so all around the town are these lifesize donkey statues, all painted differently. I made a bit of a dick out of myself trying to climb onto one when it was covered in ice, lucky for me Hauke was on hand with the camera to capture all of that! During the night it had rained but frozen as soon as it landed, so everything was covered in a layer of ice. Things like plants and flowers look amazing encased in ice, my camera is really getting a workout!

Christmas market

In the evening we put up the Christmas tree (it has candles on it instead of fairy lights!) and headed back to the Christmas market to catch up with all of Hauke's old school friends, the place was packed with people all bundled up and drinking mulled wine. It was great to see Anki, a friend of Hauke's that I got to know when she visited New Zealand! A group of us then went for dinner at a modern Italian resturant, and then headed to a club. The Savoy is inside an old prison, with three different bars on different floors. It was quite cool to hear Belgian, French and German songs that I've known for a long time like Alors en Danse in a club. Hauke's friends were all really friendly and welcoming, I really appreciated the effort they put into making me feel comfortable, like finding me an english version of the menu and even those that only had a little english would come over and chat if they noticed I was standing alone.

Opening christmas presents
Christmas Eve is the main celebration here in Germany, so after we woke up, admittedly quite late, we went to collect Hauke's grandparents from another town. They are really delightful, they remind me quite a lot of my own grandparents and were so cute trying to communicate with me! She had baked four different cakes and made a desert, so we spend the afternoon eating cake with coffee; I was full a long time before dinner began! In the early evening we walked to the tiny local church for an informal service where the children re-enact the Christmas story. Hauke and his brother Arne went to great pains whispering to me what was going on, giving me the giggles at their stating the obvious "well they just went to the stable because the inn was full". My attempts at singing German Christmas carols got a few laughs in return!

driving on christmas eve
After church we tucked into dinner: barley and egg soup, followed by wild pork, potatoes (mashed potatoes rolled into balls and cooked again), red cabbage and salad, with berry pudding and a bottle of kiwi wine. Gifts were opened after dinner, and I was really touched to be handed a sack of presents to open first. Hauke's grandparents gave me a handcrafted traditional mug, specially made for me with my name on it - I am so appreciative that they took the time to organise this before I came, and among other things Hauke and his parents are giving me a trip to Austria for skiing. They had me in tears, I feel truly blessed at how welcomed and cared for I am. Hauke's dad Georg is always explaining things and asking how I am, and his mother Karin has an amazing sense of humour, she is always laughing and is always trying to make me feel comfortable in subtle ways. We skyped with my own parents and grandparents, everyone here in Germany thought dad sitting at the piano in his pijamas playing Te Haranui for them was hilarious!

The return drive to drop off Hauke's grandparents was amazing, it was snowing again and it was almost impossible to tell where the road ended and the fields began as there are not roadside fences here like in NZ. I am really impressed with Hauke's driving skills, as the conditions are absolutely terrible. Overall, it was a really lovely Christmas, the snow and -7degree temperatures really give it a different feel to Christmas in NZ!

Hann Münden
Today has been quite relaxed, we went to see Hauke's uncle and their family where I made a complete idiot of myself falling down their internal stairs! 'Fail' has become a big word between us, and as I fail at both walking around outside in the snow and walking around inside Ive been told by Hauke that I fail completely at remaining upright in Germany. Skiing is definitely going to be interesting. We detoured past a castle in Adelebsen, its amazing to see them exactly as you imagine, perched up on the hill with high walls, towers and spiral stairs. We also visited Hann Münden, a really old city with amazing buildings that are hundreds of years old but five or six stories tall. We had coffee in one and I walked up to the fourth floor. Coming from New Zealand, the warped and buckling floors and stairs are quite scary when you think about what would happen in an earthquake! Our attempt to find another castle using the GPS system was quite funny, we ended up firstly in a carpark and secondly in a dead end road where we struggled to turn around! We headed home on the autobahn again, it was still quite dangerous going really fast but even 180km/hr amazes me!

preparing for skiing
Tomorrow we are going to Austria! I have been kitted out with snow clothes, skis and woollen socks handknitted by Hauke's grandmother, although I feel like I've eaten so much since I got here that I will be rolling down the hill rather than skiing down them! Hauke told my family on skype that he was taking me skiing, and I think their laughter in response showed him that I really wasn't kidding when I said it would be quite entertaining! We just had a big meeting about it around the table to go over all of the planning, I love the way they include me even though I don't understand a thing, still have no idea what's happening, and am just going to go with the flow. I do know that we get up early and take a train to Munich, and from there to Rauris in Austria, but after that, no clue! It will be interesting!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Frustrating flights and snowy streets

It has been one really really long day! I flew out of Wellington at 10am on Tuesday morning NZ time, and finally arrived in Germany at 6pm NZ time on Wednesday (6am German time). Its now 9pm here and I still haven't gone to bed!
Outside Hauke's parent's house

Long haul flights suck. Long haul flights with screaming children, neighbours who just won't sit still and french women who stink of red wine, ciggarettes and puke suck even more. After days of flights into Frankfurt being cancelled I was quite stressed about getting here in time for Christmas, and arriving at Wellington to be told that my ongoing flights were suspended wasn't great for my nerves, but after Auckland everything was smooth sailing, screaming children aside. There was none of the crowds of holiday travellers and snow-bound passengers that I had seen on the news. Even customs and immigration into Germany seemed too easy, unlike NZ you can pick up your bags, waive your passport under a nose and then just stroll through. The reality of what other travellers had experienced did sink in though when I saw the rooms filled with camp beds where stranded passengers had been bunking down.

Hauke was waiting for me in Frankfurt, most epic hug of the whole year I think, its been really good to see him again after a year and a half! He has been absolutely amazing and playing the role of host and tour guide perfectly, although I don't know how much more of 'Claire you have to try this food' my stomach can handle! We caught the train back to his parents house, and everywhere is like a beautiful winter wonderland. This is one of the biggest snowfalls they have had in decades, fields, trees and houses are absolutely covered in snow, with a foggy white sky as the perfect background. I haven't seen snow like this for years!

Picking a Christmas Tree
Hauke comes from a small village called Harste, just outside of Göttingen which is about the same size as Wellington proper. Both are beautiful, small towns filled with wooden-framed houses and cobbled streets. His own house is beautiful, and his parents are absolutely lovely. We headed out for the afternoon, to pick a Christmas tree and explore the Christmas market. Words can't describe the market, I'm sure for Europeans it is really standard but I have been totally captivated by it, I will post more photos of it on facebook soon. It hadn't really seemed like Christmas back in NZ, but it definitely does now! We also checked out his dad's work, the huge sotrerooms filled with drawers and drawers of electronic parts seemed like your kind of heaven dad, and we detoured to a supermarket where I found the vegetable cassava (yuca), one of the foods I had missed the most from Costa Rica but couldn't get in NZ, it's really bizarre to find it here!

On the plane I dwelt a bit on my new unemployed and homeless status, but since I got here I have had the biggest smile on my face, I think the next couple of months are going to be awesome! Over the next couple of days we will check out the countryside around here, meet up with all of Hauke's high school friends and celebrate Christmas, before the whole family heads to Austria for a ski trip. More news coming in a couple of days!

Monday, December 20, 2010

One sleep to go!

And seeing as its 2.30am, obviously not much sleeping going on!

I fly out at 10am tomorrow morning, I am mostly packed and sorted, but the weather has decided to pack a sad and flights into Frankfurt have been cancelled for the last couple of days. Thanks snow, really thanks, way to wait until I've paid megabucks to fly over for Christmas to close everything down. I'm sure Christmas in Singapore Airport will be just as good.

I feel as though this trip has been too easy to organise in the end, surely there is something huge I have forgotten to do! Maybe just because I am comparing it to travelling to third world countries, or a ship in the middle of the ocean, places with no internet or easy banking? My travel agent is awesome, if anyone is looking to head overseas soon I fully recommend Graham at STA Coutenay Place, I can't believe how far above and beyond he has gone! My stress levels have plummeted as soon as I finished work on Friday as well, I suddenly feel so much healthier and better about life.

It's quite a surreal feeling actually to be leaving, after two years of planning. It still doesn't seem real, I haven't said goodbye to most people and I haven't really got my head around it, although I am finally realising that I get to see Hauke, my German best friend in (hopefully!) a couple of days! I've had a few glasses of wine so I am starting to get quite nostalgic and should really be asleep! Last post before I actually get somewhere interesting I swear!