Sunday, May 11, 2008

Heidelberg, Germany

Two (?) days ago, I flew from Los Angeles directly to Frankfurt. The flight was an exhausting 10 hour, 40 minute flight. It was cramped and uncomfortable and the woman next to me, though extremely pleasant, kept talking to me when I was trying to doze off. I did my best to sleep, but it just didn't work very well. Upon landing, it was 10:40 AM in Frankfurt, and I was already bleary-eyed. My eyes, even as I type, are completely blood-shot.

In any case, I got off the plane and had to face a long walk to the baggage claim. Happily, it didn't take too long, and I was able to go through "customs" -- actually an unmanned gate (this is certainly not the U.S. with all our paranoia) -- to curbside where I was able to pick up the shuttle that would take me to Heidelberg.

Before doing so, however, I had to exchange some U.S. dollars for Euros. Of course, being at the airport, the exchange rate was terrible (1.71 dollars to 1 Euro), but I had to pay the shuttle guy. I made the mistake of exchanging $140 of the $200 cash I was carrying there, as I later found out that the hotel I was staying at would exchange at a rate of 1.54/1. Ah, well, it's only money, right? :(

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After the one-hour shuttle ride to Heidelberg, I was dropped off outside the hotel, where I went in and got settled. Even though I really felt like just laying down and going to sleep (it was 4 AM, after all, wasn't it?!), I decided to go walking. One of the sights I really wanted to see was the castle, so I just started walking in that direction. I'll have a separate post on that later.

Heidelberg is a beautiful little town. The area I'm in is the "old" part of town, and they really do mean old around here. Various versions of the castle itself has been on the hill above town since sometime in the 12th century. The roads are narrow -- some have been closed to cars -- and the buildings are typically European, stacked side by side with shops on the ground floor and residences above. There are many chapels and cathedrals in the area, which seem well-groomed but under-attended.

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The people here are very nice. Nearly everybody I've had the need to speak to has spoken English. Interestingly, I've discovered that one really doesn't have a need to speak very much at all in general interactions. As long as you can pay people what you owe them, a simple smile and a head nod are acceptable. You'd be surprised how far you can get by using the following word: "Visa?".

Speaking of "Visa", apparently this little town, even though it is a big tourist town, doesn't really use credit cards. The reply to my "Visa?" inquiry was almost always "no." Only the bigger establishments are willing to accept them, and so it is that I'm stuck having to use cash for every little thing. I've been nickeled and dimed (do they call them nickels and dimes?!) so that I have maybe a third of my money left. This is not too alarming to me, though, as I'll be at my conference the balance of the week, and shouldn't have need to buy much more. I hope. I really hope. I might need to find an ATM ...

I really enjoyed walking around yesterday. I saw quite a few neat thing, and I'll post some pictures later. One funny thing, though, was that I ran into some Mormon missionaries here. Not just two, but a whole group of them. There were about twenty of them milling around the area.

Eventually, the missionaries congregated in front of one of the college buildings, where they lined up and began singing church hymns. It was fascinating to watch them. You can imagine 20 young missionaries standing in front of a statue of Robert Bunsen (they namesake of the "Bunsen" burner) singing with all their hearts while locals and tourists alike walk by with either curious expressions or a desire to get anywhere else fast.

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Occasionally, someone would slow to listen, and one of the missionaries would peal off to go chat with them. I watched for a while, and while I was there, the experience was a resounding failure. Just down the street were street performers who were variously just looking funny, playing some rock music (which was very good), or attempting a bad form of Jazz. The missionaries' company wasn't exactly spiritually focused.

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One street performer, a guy with a guitar, made the unfortunate choice to start playing right in front of the missionaries -- he quickly scooted once he saw what was happening. One man did have an interest in talking with them -- a rotund, old, bearded man with a book that had "Bible" written on the back with a bunch of other words in Germany. He basically took one set of missionaries aside and started reaming them. I have no idea what he was saying, but it was evident he was loud, rude, and very much interested in debunking what the young missionaries had to say. It was quite fascinating watching the two young Elders struggle to get a single word in, let alone try to answer any of his accusations.

Strolling the streets was sure a neat experience, though. There were so many people milling about and it felt very safe and secure. Even though it's a tourist town, I didn't feel any of the unease I usually feel in touristy places (Where's my wallet? Is anybody looking at me funny? I have to stay in crowded places. Are there any policemen around?!). There were a lot of Japanese tourists zipping around -- they don't seem to ever linger, but roll in on their buses, take a million pictures, then roll out. The locals, apparently, detest them.

One thing I'm still trying to figure it is what these people actually survive on. I went into several stores looking to stock up on some food for a few days, and from what I can tell, these people live exclusively on pastries, chocolate, and alcohol. They had the token fruit around, but one little row of fruit is nothing compared to a larger row of chocolate, and the three rows of alcohol. Very odd. Perhaps they just eat out all the time?

I haven't quite ventured into that realm, yet. I stopped at Subway and at McDonalds, and I will probably wait until I have a wing-man (a good friend is arriving today) before I try to order any "real" food at a restaurant. Food prices seem reasonable (though I wish they'd take Visa!!), which is quite welcome on the heels of my previous Hawaii trip where prices were not anywhere near reasonable.

Last night I forced myself to stay up until about 9 pm, then crashed. I blinked awake at 3 am and went back to sleep, and then woke up again at 9 am! I had slept for twelve hours! And my eyes are still blood-shot. I'm hoping I adjust or else I could be presenting my paper in a few days looking like a psychopath.

As for today, I'm going to church. The missionaries told me that there's an English-speaking ward (branch?) that is meeting today at 1:30 pm -- a change from their usual 9:30 am time-slot (why a change for this week only?!) and very different from what was on the lds.org website. Then I'll wander through downtown again, probably walking by the river towards the conference center where I can register tonight. It should be pleasant.

I'm having a good time, but I miss my family -- especially my beautiful wife, whom I wish was here so she could experience this, too.

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