Germany

I have lived in the US for 15 years now. I visit Germany every other year, if I can. For some reason, I expect things to be the same when I go, but they never are. I have lost several beloved family members over the years. The ones that remain have changed living situations so that sometimes, prior to returning, I have to print directions to “my new home” on Google. The house I grew up in is now in the hands of a stranger, and on every visit I drive there and take pictures. It feels so awkward to stand in the driveway where I learned walking and riding a bike and not be able to go in. I then wonder if things would be different had I not remained in the US but returned after one year as all my other friends did.  You see, I came as an Au-pair, just like many Europeans do. We came mainly to learn English fluently and experience the culture first hand, but it’s also a great time to take break from life and think things over. I liked the uncomplicatedness of life here, the many opportunities that, if you take them, will open numerous doors down the road, and now I visit my country only when I can. I try to eat all the foods that I dream of while in the US. Among some of the things I most of enjoy are bakery items. It’s quite easy for me to resist them here but in Europe I can’t.  Especially the Broetchen, comparable only by its appearance to rolls are an essential part of my vacation diet. We have them for breakfast with sweet toppings such as Jam or Nutella or sandwich meats / cheese. The cakes are pieces of art. Any bakery will offer a wide variety of wonderfully crafted cakes and Torten (something much creamier and richer).  On these trips, there is usually more eating going in than there is hunger, which equals to some additional pounds. Some I can stave off by walking. I love that aspect of life in Europe: destinations such as shopping centers are simply not as accessible by car as they are here so there is a bigger reliance on public transportation or your legs. Parking is usually also a hassle since there are only limited spaces. It’s simply much easier to walk. I often stay with friends who have cars, but when we are in a larger city, the car stays in the spot (otherwise we will lose the place) and we walk.

Germany, so I noticed on this year’s trip, is a beautiful country. Now, 22 years after the reunification of the two parts, it’s almost impossible to tell a difference between east and west. We drove from Stuttgart, which is former west on the autobahn to Leipzig in the east, the city I most frequent when I visit my country and I was simply amazed at the beauty. East German dwellings used to be described as grey by outsiders. This was due to the fact that there was a lack of building materials and only standard stuff was available. Anything extra or out of the ordinary had to be either stolen or purchased “under the table.” I guess somewhere materials were available, for “special” people maybe. Today, almost all houses have a fresh coat of paint and many have bright new red roofs.  I visited a small town that I knew from the time I still lived in Germany. I hardly recognized it after all the renovations and restorations that had taken place in the last years. It used to be a boring place with little to do. Now, simply walking through the quaint and historic town center is enlightening.

The US is my home now. After so many years here, I cannot see myself living in Germany. There is more to Germany than the beauty and the good food. It would take more blog entries to describe some of the challenges of living in Germany. All I can say is, it felt great when I arrived at the airport and the immigration official said “Welcome Home.”

 

Paris

Paris. I had no idea. In fact, I always thought that there was too much focus on this city when people speak about travel ambitions to Europe. It never attracted me, partially for that reason.

In Germany, we refer to Paris as the city of love. Another reason not to visit, I always thought. But this year, I decided that it was time to get to know Paris, only a 9 hour drive from my hometown in Germany. I expected a huge, buzzing metropolis, possibly dirty, overcrowded and too touristy. As we approached Paris on the A4, the European Autobahn which was almost empty when entered France, Paris opened itself and sucked us in.  Suddenly we were surrounded by hundreds of cars that cut in front of us constantly, tall buildings and to our left the river Seine. I was in awe. Paris captured me with its careless elegance and charm, its inviting sidewalk cafes, and its amazingly beautiful people. Parisians are a pleasure to look at – they dress well and are slim. I theorized that this could be due to the fact the city is very expensive and the parking situation dire. Therefore, people walk a lot, and probably can’t afford super-sized meals.

When I travel I prefer rented apartments over hotels. They often have a personal touch from the owner and allow for more freedom. I can open a bottle of wine, prepare coffee the way I like it, and make a salad at night when I don’t feel like eating out again.   And our Paris apartment was simply a great choice. On the 7th floor we had an incredible view of the Eiffel tower. Needless to say, we spent many hours there. We would stop at a fromagerie in the evening, pick out a few cheeses and often, right next door we purchased some wine. This, and some salad made for wonderfully simple dinners, with a view.

The different parts of town in Paris are almost like their own little cities with their unique flair. After many miles of walking and many Euros spent on metro tickets, I decided on St. Germain as my favorite place. Artsy, a little trendy, with tiny streets that you can walk forever and discover one great place after another – bookstores, design shops, museums, churches, art galleries, boutique hotels, historic cafés and restaurants. But then again, you will have this experience almost anywhere in Paris. Parisians say that you eat well everywhere. Its true.

We visited the Louvre because that is what you do when you go to Paris, but be prepared to be overwhelmed, exhausted and unsatisfied. The place is too large and crowded to truly enjoy it. The Mona Lisa is blocked off; you can admire it from a distance. And while it is nice to stay in front of David’s Coronation of Napoleon or a Rembrandt, I preferred the smaller Musée d’Orsay, a former train station. As an admirer of impressionist art, I was taken by the remarkable collection of paintings by  Gericault, Delacroix,  Moreau, Degas, Monet, Renoir, and Sisley.  There is something about walking in an ancient museum, with cracking wooden floors, high ceilings, a musty smell, and large windows that overlook the city.

Paris and its cafes. Paris is expensive, but its worth it. When I finished one 6-Euro coffee in one place, I looked for a pretext to sit at the next place across the street.  The brasseries are part of the experience. I tried wonderful dishes. Forget about the cesar salad, you can eat that here. Venture out. I would ask the waiters what they recommend and just took a risk – I was never dissppointed. As you walk down the streets of Paris, the sound of dishes accompanies you. I loved it. I miss that here ….  

I will return to Paris. I want to sit the pews of the Notre Dame early in the morning, when tourists are still in their hotels.  I want to stand at the steps of the Sacré-Cœur at sunset and take the view in with more time. Next time I’ll walk along the Seine again, but in the rain, when everyone else seeks cover. Paris has captured a place in my heart.

El Salvador

During my morning cleaning routine I still see black sand on my Q-tip, even though I returned from El Salvador over 2 weeks ago.  This is a daily reminder of the high waves at Playa Zonte that tumbled and whirled me around quite heavily on my last day in the country. Those were surfing waves, and that is what these beaches along the coast, south of La Libertad, are famous for.  And the black, glittering sand.

San Salvador is only a 3.5 hour flight from Dallas and welcomes its visitors with a small but roomy airport, quiet and focused immigration officials and a general relaxedness about things. I still recall the tropical evening heat that enveloped me upon arrival. I was wrapped in several layers of clothes due to temperatures in the 40s in Dallas, which I slowly removed as I stood in line waiting to have my passport stamped.

Since the airport is near the coast, we began our 6-day trip through this beautiful country at Costa del Sol, a getaway destination for many Salvadorians. It’s easily identifiable on the map as a long, straight strip of sand with the ocean to one side and the estuary on the other. The road is lined with villas and hotels. I did not get the sense of luxury that the first edition of this travel guide alluded to. But then again, little can be seen from the road as all entrances are closed by huge wooden gates and stone walls. At the tip of the strip, La Puntilla, I had the best mariscada, a fish soup with a variety of shellfish in an insanely tasty broth with rich cream.

El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America and I was amazed at the number of places we were able to visit in one week.  With a map in my lap, fresh coconut water in a bag and the windows rolled down, we drove on many roads, some without pavement, and several not even on the map. A burning smell seems to linger in the air everywhere in El Salvador. I saw people burning trash, probably due to the lack of proper waste management.

In San Vicente, a small town at the base of a volcano, I tried fried yucca, chatted with men that carried machetes on their belt and climbed an interesting-looking tower. It was here that I ventured into the famous Pollo Campero, which turned out to be a Latin American version of KFC. But honestly, I was not in the mood for fried chicken, but was told that this place has the cleanest restrooms, which turned out to be true. Needless to say, I visited Pollo Campero more than once.

On the road into the capital we stumbled upon Olocuilta, famous for rice flour pupusas. You get to choose your fillings, which took me some time since several vegetables pointed out to me did not sound familiar. They are topped with escabeche, which is a mix of pickled jalapeno peppers, cabbage, onions and carrots. Loved it.

Entering San Salvador I was stunned. A modern and clean city greeted me with everything any other western city has to offer. I expected to see more signs of poverty, crime and gang life. I learned that there are two parts to the city and that the old capital, with the cathedral and cemetery was the trouble area. I asked my friends to take me there because I had come to get to know the country in its true colors.  The old side is not nearly as clean and the streets bustle with all sorts of vendors trying to make a few dollars with fruit, veggies or cheap import goods. Several houses bore gang-related markings. We entered several side roads, one of which suddenly became so small that we were afraid the car would not fit through. A man lying on the street mentioned that there is probably no way out, which was enough for my friends to turn around and head out of the city.

A beautiful country opened itself up for me. Fresh and exotic fruits are sold at the side of the roads. And if you stop and buy, you meet the whole family, and even get to use their outhouse, which works in cases of emergency. The air became cooler in La Palma, where we tried interesting baked goods and fresh, local coffee to warm us up. Artesanias are sold here everywhere, gifts made out of wood and fabric, beautifully painted in bright colors and then lacquered. Check out Fernando Llort, a local artist whose gallery we visited. From here we went higher up into the mountains, almost at the border of Honduras. We stopped in Metapan for an afternoon drink with family and drove on a gravel road for two hours to get to what must have been one of the remotest places in the country, a huge property that ends with a small river which I crossed swimming just to be able to say I stepped into Guatemala.

We then took La ruta de las flores, which starts after Santa Ana, a city that has lost a bit of the glamour described in my guidebook.  Outside the city, we stopped at the Mayan ruins of Tazumal, which, disappointingly, were covered in cement. I spoke to an employee at the museum and was told that upon discovery, heavy rains started and the archeological team could not think of another way to prevent destruction.  I really enjoyed Juayua, were we wandered quiet cobblestone streets in the evening, helped a Mayan girl set up her stand for the next morning’s market, and stayed in a cabin.

The people of El Salvador are reserved, but very friendly people. Every encounter first begins with a handshake, even if though a gate. Pleasantries are exchanged, apologies for the late disturbance. People are humble even if they own half the city that you are visiting. They seem honest and genuinely interested. They are happy you are visiting their country. They allow you to pass on the road. They are accommodating to your need, always willing to help.

I know that I will rid my ears of the sand in a few days but my fond memories of El Salvador with stay with me forever.