Driving On The German Autobahn

June 12th, 2012 | Filed in Travel Tips

You’ve just arrived in Germany at one of its major airports (Frankfurt, Munich, Berlin, etc), you’ve got your luggage; and you’re now headed to the car rental counter for a chance to drive on the infamous Autobahn (or any part of the country’s 636,000km of roads).

Ohh, perhaps in a convertible since spring and summer are so beautiful in Germany.

Errrr… put on the brakes for a moment.

Yes, driving in Germany is probably one of the most exciting things you could possibly do in your lifetime — but it ain’t no easy feat.

If you’re coming from the U.S., you’ll just need your passport and driver’s license to drive here. Otherwise, you’re required to have an International Driver’s License. Hmmm, rules already and you haven’t even gotten behind the wheel yet. ;-)

Please… those 30-inch thick road beds on the Autobahn are so worth the wait — have some patience.

A proper, valid license isn’t the only thing you’ll need. You’d better learn the “rules” of the road — and fast if you want to survive out here — one of them is never to pass on the right (big no-no).

Someone behind you flashing their high beams? Uh, Sunday Driver, get out of the left lane you’re going too slow. Whatever you do, don’t flip ‘em the bird on the way by — they got the right of way.

Oh, and get this, running out of gas on the Autobahn is illegal! There’s no excuse to run out of fuel — there are service areas with Tankstellen (gas stations) every 40 – 60km. They’re open 24-hours a day, 7-days a week with restrooms and a restaurant or snack bar.

They’re like service plazas found all over the New Jersey or Pennsylvania Turnpike in the US — only better. ;-)

All right, it’s time to be serious now for a minute. Whatever you do, do not (DO NOT) drink & drive. The legal limit for blood-alcohol is .05, but Germany’s getting stricter by the minute. Some places will throw the book at you for a .03.

Want to sample the best of German beer, wine, or schnapps? Leave the keys to the Audi or Mercedes behind, OK?

If you’re not imbibing, remember to always wear your seatbelt. You’re traveling at speeds of 250 km/h (160 mph), or faster in some areas, so safety first.

Don’t worry if you find yourself in trouble. There are callboxes along the roadside to help you. You don’t even have to worry about which way to find the closest one, there are posts that point an arrow to it.

I would, however, worry about where you’re going. Germany’s road signs on the Autobahn list their routes by city (the furthest city listed first) instead of numbering east/north/whatever. You don’t want to find yourself in Stuttgart if you’re headed to Kiel, do you? Learn to read a map (or use a GPS) so you know which cities are along the way to where you’re going.

Just don’t stop along the side of Autobahn to do it — that’s illegal too. ;-)

June Brides, Weddings German Style

June 4th, 2012 | Filed in Culture & Art, Traditions

It’s June and everyone talks about a June bride. Hell, even the venues seem to charge more for this “high season” of the bridal year.

So I got to thinking (which could possibly never be a good thing) about weddings in Germany. Sure, every culture has its wedding rituals and traditions, and Germany is no different.

Getting married in Deutschland can be a three day affair. Day one usually includes a civil ceremony since a totally religious ceremony isn’t valid. The civil ceremony isn’t the big day in the life of the bride & groom; it’s usually just attended by family and a handful of close friends.

Brides and grooms wishing to get married in a medieval church or elegant cathedral will have to do it on day two of the festivities. Here’s where the big party comes in — right after the religious ceremony.

Never attended a German wedding before? You might notice the lucky couple carrying bread and salt, which is symbolic for a “good harvest.” They might also be carrying some coins to throw at any kids nearby, as guests throw rice.

Careful, someone might lose an eye! ;-)

All the dishes being broken (on Day 1) isn’t a lover’s quarrel between the lovebirds. It’s traditional to break old dishes. Scaring away any evil spirits, I gather.

There might not be new modern music or sappy love songs as their first dance as a married couple, traditionally it’s the Waltzer. But, hey, every couple’s different — so it’s a gamble. Still, I like tradition.

Want a proper wedding gift for the German couple? You can never go wrong with a ceramic pig that signifies good fortune, or a Black Forest Cuckoo Clock (yes, I’m serious). ;-)

OK, so the cuckoo clock might be out — get the newlyweds a “bridal cup,” which should be given BEFORE the actual nuptials because (again) tradition says it’s for the first toast.

I hope that cup’s filled with a great German wine. I’ll drink to that — I’ll drink to love — and I’ll drink to the lucky couples, whoever they are!

German States In A Nutshell, Part 2

May 28th, 2012 | Filed in Culture & Art, Dream Trips, Parks & Nature, Places To Live, Regional, Sights, Travel Tips

Here it is, the much anticipated part two of my “German Federal States In A Nutshell.” There’s a lot of history, culture, and economics in each of Germany’s states. Isn’t it much easier to break it all down?

OK, OK, maybe I didn’t add every little nuance into all of them, they are snippets after all. ;-)

As a reminder, here’s Part 1 of German States.

Where did I leave off? Oh yeah…

Lower Saxony

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times — Lower Saxony is best enjoyed by bicycle. All the better to see all this agricultural landscape. Whatever mode of transportation you’re using to see this state that includes Hanover, Göttingen, and Wolfsburg, will work all the same.

You’ll certainly eat good, there’s everything from potatoes to sugar beets, and wheat that are grown around here.

Take that, Schleswig-Holstein, MeckPomm, Brandenburg, Saxony-Anhalt, Thuringia, Hesse, and North Rhine-Westphalia. Wow, would you believe that all those places border Lower Saxony? Yeah, me either.

North Rhine-Westphalia

Eighteen million people live within this most populated state, if you’d believe it. Not so hard to understand when you’ve got cities like Dortmund, Düsseldorf, Aachen, and Cologne — as well as lots of medieval architecture, half-timbered houses, and UNESCO World Heritage sites scattered throughout its many villages and towns.

Cologne is a big favorite. It’s got an annual film festival, a huge Carnival season (November to February), and the largest Gothic church in Northern Europe. If you want a picture — stand far back, its towers are 157 meters high (oh, and it took over 600 years to complete!).

Rhineland-Palatinate

This is a predominantly Catholic state that borders Baden-Württemberg, Saarland, Luxembourg, Belgium, and France. No wonder they appreciate the great wines that come straight from this region.

Viticulture might be big business here, but visiting charming cities like Trier, Speyer, Mainz, and Worms are also a must-see.

Saarland

The Saarland is Germany’s smallest state, which also borders France (as well as Luxembourg and the Rhineland-Palatinate). French is widely spoken here; and you’ll find cities like Saarlouis, Neunkirchen, Saarbrücken, and Sankt Wendel.

Saxony

No, this isn’t the land of the Saxons of the Germanic Tribes, but where you’ll be when you’re visiting Leipzig, Dresden, Zwickau, and Chemnitz. It’s also a wine region, has mountains, and castles. Sadly it isn’t known for being a top spot for tourists to Germany, though you’d miss out big time not to spend some time here too!

Besides, did you know that recent excavations have found 29 million year old fossils?

Hmm, maybe more people will come to visit from now on? :-)

Saxony-Anhalt

Saxony-Anhalt is proud of its rustic Harz Mountains, Martin Luther, and the Romanesque Route that winds its way through this state.

Consequently, you’ll want to pay a visit to Magdeburg, Wittenberg, and Halle.

Schleswig-Holstein

Bordering the North Sea and the Baltic Sea, this state is home to one of the most famous nude beaches in the country — on the Island of Sylt, if you’re wondering.

It’s also where you’ll find the annual Cabbage Festival (September), hear Low German, North Frisian, and Danish all spoken in the same place. Try a delightful dish known as Rote Grütze made with custard and berries (take your pick — strawberries, raspberries, currants, whatever, it’s yummy).

Thuringia

This is the last of Germany’s federal states — but certainly not the least. Known as Thüringen in German, Thuringia was once home to Martin Luther, since he went to school in Erfurt. Erfurt’s also where you find the country’s oldest synagogue (11th century), the Rennsteig (a gorgeous hiking trail), and great cities like Eisenach and Weimar.

Wouldn’t be the ultimate dream trip to visit all of Germany’s states? Don’t you wish you had that kind of time? Maybe I should get out from behind the computer — and travel more, huh? ;-)

German States In A Nutshell, Part 1

May 22nd, 2012 | Filed in Culture & Art, Dream Trips, Parks & Nature, Places To Live, Regional, Sights, Travel Tips

The fact that Germany has sixteen federal states it might be hard to keep track of what’s what, and where’s where. Sure it would be nice to visit the Bavarian Alps then shoot over to chill out on the North Sea coast, but considering they’re nowhere near each other — you’ve got a lot of ground to cover between them.

Ya get what I’m talking about? Good thing I’m here to help you understand each of Germany’s states, and their unique culture.

Oh wait, this is only Part 1 — so here are the first eight.

Baden-Württemberg

Some of Germany’s most famous cities are located within this state; Stuttgart, Heidelberg, and Freiburg to name a few. This is also a famous wine producing region, as well as where you’ll find the Black Forest and the Bertha Benz Memorial Route, Lake Constance, and a huge Oktoberfest that’s second only to Munich’s.

Bavaria

Yeah, speaking of Munich, Bavaria is where you’ll find this beer partying town that attracts millions of visitors for this September festival. But, beer isn’t its only attraction (shocked, considering this is where the German Purity Laws for beer started).

The Bavarian Alps dramatic landscape is extraordinary. No wonder some 12 million people live in this state that borders not only Lake Constance, Baden-Württemberg, Hesse, Thuringia, and Saxony — but also the Czech Republic, Austria, and Switzerland.

Geography aside, Bavaria’s home to the Franconian Wine Region, has delicious Weisswurst to eat, and your chance to see folks dressed in lederhosen and the traditional dirndl.

Berlin

Yes, I’m fully aware that Berlin is Germany’s capital city, though it’s also a federal state (totally surrounded by Brandenburg). I’m still not sure how the city has managed to have over 700 hotels, 135 million visitors a year, over 150 museums, and some of the liveliest nightlife — when over a third of it is covered by parks, gardens, lakes, and forests. What a unique mix!

Brandenburg

This state doesn’t include Berlin, mind you (wait, didn’t I just say that in the paragraph above). Brandenburg’s capital is Potsdam, but with countless parks, lakes, national parks (including the Spree Forest) you’ll have a heckava excellent time hiking or bicycling around this part of the country.

Bremen

Yet another state that’s also a city — and Bremen also includes Bremerhaven. The city of Bremen has been a free city for centuries (its Roland statue from 1404 proves it), and its Marktplatz is one of the most beautiful in the country.

Bremerhaven is a port town that’s a perfect setting for the German Maritime Museum. The weather’s great during the summer — where temperatures rarely (if ever) get above 30° C or 85° F. Quite cool if you’ve ever spent the summer in the European South. ;-)

Hamburg

Germay’s second largest city seems to have an even better climate than Bremerhaven (average summer highs are only in the 20s/70s); and has a cityscape that’s got to be seen to be believed. It’s a gay-friendly city with an opera house, almost 4 dozen theaters, and 60 museums.

While you’re here try the local Birnen, Bohnen und Speck — a dish made from pears, beans, and bacon. After a day of mudflat hiking at the Wadden Sea National Park, you’re bound to be starving.

Hesse

Inasmuch as Brandenburg is a nature lovers dream destination, Hesse could rival it in a heartbeat. Yeah, this might be where you’ll find cities like the cosmopolitan Frankfurt am Main, academic Darmstadt, and medieval Kassel — I’d pretty much say the Westerwald, Taunus Mountains, and the Vogelsberg are the real showstoppers.

Just one thing: you better behave yourself while your here; Hesse is the only state in Germany that still has the death penalty — YIKES!

Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania

Bordering Schleswig-Holstein, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania is Germany’s least populated federal state. Doesn’t that sound great when you want to get away from the masses? Hey, with over 280 nature reserves and 14 national parks — there ain’t no room for people, I guess. ;-)

Just kidding, but this state that’s got Chalk Cliffs, borders the Baltic Sea, and over a thousand megalithic monuments is often not given the respect it truly deserves.

Don’t worry, MeckPomm, as you’re lovely called… I’ll be right here on this blog to sing your praises — just as soon as I can tear myself away from your chalky cliffs, OK?

Stay tuned for Part 2 (next week). There’s so much more in store. :-)

German Sauna Etiquettes, Naked

May 7th, 2012 | Filed in Travel Tips, Wellness

Let’s talk a bit about the ins & outs of the etiquette in a German sauna, including the etiquette of being naked in a German sauna. ;-)

Don’t laugh, don’t giggle, don’t think I’m writing this for shock value. The German sauna experience — clothed or not — isn’t cheap and tawdry, it’s purely for health benefits.

The first thing you gotta do before settling into either a sauna or steamroom is shower, shower, shower.

Next, never let your skin touch the benches, always use a towel.

And while any one of you ladies might be sitting right next to a chippendales lad, it’s never polite to stare. The same holds true, of course, for you gentlemen sitting right next to a baywatch chick!

Oh, did I just gloss over the fact that men & women often share the same sauna? Nude? In North American culture, for instance, this is shocking, but not so in Deutschland.

Often a sauna will have same gender specific times throughout the day, so if you aren’t willing to go totally bare in front of the opposite-sex, check the schedule.

Some saunas will allow children, and if you’re gonna bring yours in to experience the “healing properties,” just make sure they keep the noise to a bare minimum.

Yeah, that’s about as easy to do as threading a needle with a limp spaghetti noodle. ;-)

Plus, leave your mobile phone outside. Besides the fact that a sauna’s climate is completely inappropriate for gadjets, no one wants to hear details about your sister’s nasty divorce or your best friend’s gastric bypass surgery. ;-)

Another no-no is either entering or leaving during the Aufguss, the “ceremonial” act of pouring water over the hot stones (times are posted). When all is said & done, it’s only right to applaude them for their efforts.

Just in case I’ve missed something, you’ll generally find a list of rules posted right outside the sauna doors.

Golfing In Germany

April 30th, 2012 | Filed in Sports

Golfing has been called many things: an elistist sport, boring, and on the other end of the spectrum, the best game on Earth.

The sport didn’t originate in Germany, but now about 500 years after the game was created in Scotland, there are more than 600 courses found all over the country — and Spring and Fall are two great times to do it.

Yeah, yeah, summer too — in case you like the heat-filled season. ;-)

Playing a round or two of golf in Germany isn’t as easy as waking up one day saying, “I think I’d like to take a gander at whacking a little white ball with a club for 6,000 yards.”

It is, however, a fantastic way to relieve some stress.

C’mon, I can’t possibly be the only one out there that thinks whacking the bejesus out of something (in a constructive way) is a therapeutic. Don’t believe me, try it. Or, go to the gun range — that’ll work too. ;-)

Before you can get that kind of therapy on a golf course in Germany, you better have brought your Handicap Card from your local club back home. No card, no play.

Please, at least for you folks it’s a bit easier than what any German has to go through to get their “Platzreife.” That’s a “license” to golf, just like you need one to fish, but with a lot more hassle.

To get it, you better do 18 holes in less than 108 strokes (that would be bad on a par-72 course, wouldn’t it), AND take a written test.

Yikes, a written test to play golf? That’s German bureaucracy for you.

OK, got your handicap card or your Platzreife handy? Good, now all you need to do is book your tee-time. Again, punctuality. It’s the German way. :-)

As with just about every other country where you’ll find a golf course, you need to be considerate to your fellow golfers. Did the guys behind you catch up ’cause you were taking too long? Courtesy demands that you allow that party to proceed ahead of you.

Plus, it’s bad form to have your Blackberry or other electronic device ringing every time someone’s about to tee off or find their way out of the rough.

Otherwise, it might be “rough” to get out of a situation with a crazy German wielding a nine-iron. Nah, maybe not — it’s probably just me. Just tell me how much you love my blog… ;-)

It’s Spargelzeit — Asparagus Time!

April 16th, 2012 | Filed in Culinary, Regional

The months of April, May, and June are an awesome time to find yourself in a number of German towns. I should say eat yourself silly in a number of German towns. All because of the Spargel, or asparagus to the English speaking readers out there.

Now I’ve said time and time again, this veggie really doesn’t get the respect it deserves. And most people just think of these green stalks served under Hollandaise sauce. Uh, they ain’t never showed up at a rustic German restaurant deadsmack in the middle of the King’s Vegetable Season.

Whether you serve or eat asparagus, it’s a very versatile veggie (and really healthy chocked full of potassium, folic acid, and some B vitamins) that can show up in a number of dishes.

A Couple Of Asparagus Recipe Ideas

A dish called Spargel-Nudelsalat mit Einern is a yummy pasta salad dish made with asparagus (hello!) and eggs.

Eggs show up again in the scrumptious Spargelsalat Vinaigrette recipe, thanks to Germanfoodguide.com.

For something a bit more hearty, try Kartoffelauflauf mit Spargel (Asparagus Cassarole) that’s got (besides asparagus) potatoes, ham, and creme fraiche.

Asparagus Tips

Because in Germany we eat an average of over 70,000 tons of asparagus a year (amazing since the country only grows just over 55,000 tons) we sure do know how to cook it. As if the recipes I just mentioned above didn’t prove that. So if you’re going to try making it at home here are a few tips.

Never cook asparagus in an aluminum pot; always cook in salted water with butter; and to check if what you’re buying is fresh—squeeze the end to see if any “juice” comes out. If it doesn’t, it’s not fresh.

Asparagus Hot Spots

Asparagus is so popular it’s no wonder there are quite a few festivals to the veggie. Schwetzingen holds theirs on the 1st weekend of May, Bruchsal is two weeks later, and Graben-Neudorf has theirs the same month, too.

Great, another way to eat great German dishes. Plus, it’s nice to be home—I’m from Schwetzingen! :-)

German Personality Traits ;-)

April 9th, 2012 | Filed in Culture & Art, Traditions

I found the Schnitzel Republic Blog on the personality traits of the typical German quite by accident.

Wow, are we really like that? In typical German fashion, I was obsessed (I mean, motivated) to find out if these were really true.

Stubborn & Argumentative

Germans stubborn? Wow, when a German’s got his mind to something — then nothing will detract him (or her) from their mission.

Case in point, 3 friends were coming home from a German club one night. The driver stopped the vehicle right in the middle of the street putting his car in park and absolutely refused to move until the €20 he thought was owed was paid right there on the spot.

The funniest part? They were 2 blocks from their house — the passengers could’ve walked home. But, noooo… they decided to argue it out in the middle of the street.

Stubborn? I’d say yes. Argumentative? Too. Maybe there is some merit to this.

Wow, that’s two typical German traits for the price of one story.

Tradition

I’d call it loyalty. Yes, Germans will find a brand they like and stick to it (you know, Mercedes vs. BMW vs. Audi). There’s something comforting in the fact that on the 2nd Saturday of the month when the moon’s in Aquarius with a Venus rising that there’s some event or another going on. Makes it easy to plan things that way.

Why is this a shock? Germans plan, plan, plan. One friend (me) will stare at you for a good 5 minutes before answering a question because he’s thinking how to answer. ;-)

Coldness

One non-German friend said, “the Germans started two World Wars, they’re not exactly the kissy-huggy type”; this in response to a lady asking why her new German boyfriend wasn’t romantically demonstrative in public.

This gives us the impression of being cold. We’re not really, we just believe in formality.

Humor

As cold as the world sees us, we’ve got a funny streak. Silly, nonsense humor isn’t going to do it for us — give us irony or vulgarity and we’re laughing til beer shoots out our nose (which isn’t funny, BTW).

Creative

Ever see a German’s eyes glaze over? They’re in deep thought as how to make something work better, faster, more efficient if you will. Some of the best inventions have come from the logical thought process that is a German brain.

Remember that when you brush your teeth with toothpaste or take some aspirin for a headache.

I would like to add one more.

Orderly

My grandmom used to say, “A place for everything, and everything in its place.” Yes, we’re a bit OCD in the whole keeping order department. We like things tidy with no clutter — chaos is a German’s Kryptonite.

Don’t believe me? Go mess up a German’s desk (kitchen, bathroom, whatever) and watch their whole world spin out of control. I’d gander that would be hilarious — unless you’re German, of course! ;-)

Or if you’d like to get up and travel to wherever your nose takes you? Don’t do that to a German. It has good, valuable reasons to plan out a route first to ensure the most efficient travel experience.

Conclusion

You know what? I must say that I’m happy to be stubborn, argumentative, traditional, cold serious, humorous, creative, and orderly. Oh, and I’m also glad to be efficient, punctual, reliable, meticulous, down-to-earth, honest, and a true friend. :-)

Kaffee und Kuchen, Delicious And Relaxing

April 2nd, 2012 | Filed in Culinary

Between 3pm and 4pm millions of Germans stop for Kaffee und Kuchen, or a coffee and cake break, to help get them through the rest of the day.

I guess you could drink tea, but what’s the point (unless you’re in East Frisia)? ;-)

But, whatever you choose to drink, might I suggest some of these delightfully, sinful treats to go with it?

Bayerische Creme

Anyone who’s been to Dunkin Donuts knows the Bavarian Kreme donut is one of the coffee chain’s most popular. Ha, they don’t know what true Bavarian Creme tastes like — made with sugar, milk, and vanilla bean, you serve this up in a pretty dessert dish — not a Berliner (which is also great, BTW).

In case you want to make it (it’s not all that hard) — here’s the recipe.

Oh yeah, it just hit me — Bavarian Creme isn’t a cake. Ah, no matter, the dessert is the stuff of legend — from its creation all the way back in the 1300s. ;-)

But to stay with the cake theme, try the famed Berliner. It’s one of my all-time favorites.

Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte

The famed Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte, or Black Forest Cake in English, is a layer cake of cherry schnapps, cherries, chocolate, and heavy whipping cream. I think I need to let my pants out just writing about this decadent cake that’s popular all over the world.

Käsesahnetorte

Käsesahnetorte is cheese-cream cake, not a cheesecake. But, it is made with white cheese (called Quark), sugar, flour, and whipped cream. One thing: you’ll be disappointed if you’re into instant gratification — it’s got to sit in the fridge overnight to solidify.

Streuselkuchen

Yeah, it’s got all the basic cake making ingredients — sugar, butter, milk, and yeast. Yet, the crumb topping (make with vanilla sugar, sugar, and butter) is what makes this Crumb Cake the bee’s knees. ;-)

Linzertorte

I don’t care that the Linzertorte cake’s origins were in Austria (and baked in the Baden region since the late 17th century). I just know the inside is filled with almonds, rasberry jam, and cognac. Delicious!

Strudel

The Strudel has been a staple around many German kitchens since the mid-15th century. Today you can order it with just about anything on the middle from Blood Sausage to poppyseeds, fruit, and veggie versions.

Zwetschgenkuchen

Sounds like a mouthful, but Zwetschgenkuchen is just a delicious plum cake. The crumb topping is made just like a crumb cake — but the fruity goodness on the inside is what makes this a little slice of Heaven.

Excuse me, I have a date with a cup of coffee and that plum cake. Care to join?

German(s) Outside Of Germany

March 26th, 2012 | Filed in Culture & Art, German Language, Traditions

I kind of got sidetracked when I originally went to write this. It was supposed to be about cities all over the planet that had a large population of Germans.

But then, that just didn’t seem like enough. As if 17% of the United States’ population being of German decent wasn’t enough, right?

What I found was that over a million people in Australia speak German, and the language is widely spoken in Namibia and parts of South Africa (but that’s about it on the African continent).

I also learned that 20 million people in South America (16 million in Brazil) alone speak German, which is only eclipsed by the 25 million German speakers in North America.

Did you know the first German settlers to the United States (except it wasn’t the U.S. back then) came in the 1680s, who settled in what became known as Germantown, Pennsylvania? The Germans might be gone, but the name still remains as a neighborhood of Philadelphia.

New York wasn’t to be outdone. They had a neighborhood in Manhattan known as Little Germany (Kleindeutschland). By the 1850’s they had the third largest German population, including Germany itself.

Other cities in the U.S. can also boast a large German population: Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh to name a few. Perhaps this is why all sorts of German-American Clubs have sprung up all over, and German-American parades take place on October 6th for German Heritage Day. New York, however, holds their German-American Parade on the 3rd Saturday of September.

What caused this mass emigration of the German population? Sadly, it was war and famine, mostly. (Learn more at the German Emigration Center in Bremerhaven.)

One of the good things to come from all the Germans that left Germany is they spread their culture around the globe, introducing Kindergarten and the Christmas Tree to millions of children and homes in the process.

Think about that the next time you put that star on your tree or send a little one off for their first day of school. ;-)

 

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