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Saturday, March 24, 2018

D'Dorf Siteseeing



No matter where you are, the daily grind can really get to you. This is most certainly compounded by cold weather. I find that the dream of living abroad is only as good as the location you choose. Düsseldorf has been nice up till now, but the cold weather really takes its toll - especially when you're huffin' 'n' puffin' to get everywhere. Over the last few months this has gone from an excellent form of exercise to a rather unhealthy strain on my body. For one thing, while bicycles are supposed to be easy on the joints, my knees have been giving me serious problems. I've gotten to the point of wearing braces on both knees. Furthermore, the cold weather just makes everything feel like a constant battle for survival. It's no surprise that people start getting the frühjahrsmüdigkeit (early year tiredness/depression) real bad this time of year.

On Saturday, the 10th of February, my travel buddy Stefan arrived for a visit. Having a visitor definitely helps to break the mundane day-to-day routine. I met him at the Hauptbahnhof (main train station) at about 6am, after which we started right into a tour of the city. First stop: Trödelmarkt (flea market).



We then rode along the Rhine River, through the Altstadt (the old city), and back to my place. It was noon by the time Stefan finally put his stuff down. I pumped up my little inflatable raft so he could take a rest for a bit before our ride up to Angermund for the home meeting.

The next day, after the table meeting, we passed through the crazy festivities of Karneval on our way up into the hills. Stefan is a big fan of riding bikes on hilly surfaces, so this was the next logical place to visit. We found our way up to the top of the only hills in Düsseldorf where we stopped to visit the Wildlife Park.



It being a free Wildlife Park, there wasn't a whole lot to see, but it was definitely worth the visit. We then rode through the forest on our way to Spieleabend (game night). We followed a long path which wound through the hills for a good hour or so before ending abruptly in the middle of the city. From there it was a relatively easy ride to the meeting. Later that night I went back to the Hauptbahnhof  with Stefan so he could catch his train back to Switzerland. About three weeks later I went back to the Hauptbahnhof to meet up with my next visitor - Garret.



Garret and I met about eight years ago in Paris. Up till a few months back he'd been working on getting back to France for what would be a more long-term visit. Garret has ancestry in Luxembourg so, after a very long and bureaucratic application process, he finally managed to get citizenship. With that, it was only a matter of tying up some loose ends back in the states before he was able to, at long last, achieve his dream of moving to Europe. Garret arrived in France just a month after I had also arrived back in Europe. Since his new home was so close to mine, we decided it was about time for a bit of catching up.

After stopping back at my place for breakfast, Garret and I started our walk around town. Unlike Stefan, Garret is a bit more interested in the local culture. So, we went to the local shops to get some German chocolates and other food. Then, after dropping that off at my place, we went into the city to meet my friend Tarek from Köln (Cologne). We had a good lunch followed by some Chococoffee and cheesecake. Finally, after a walk along the Köh (a famous shopping street in the city center), Tarek hopped back on the train home, and Garret and I went back to do some cooking.


The next day we went to the table meeting, had lunch with some of the others from the church, and tried some Leberkäse at the Hauptbahnhof. Finally, it was time to say goodbye, so Garret caught his train heading back to Paris.

Over the next week I finally got my visa, opened a bank account, and started shopping for a scooter. It was time to start moving up in life! Unfortunately, my timing could have been a little better. With the cold weather I was convinced by Peter to ride the train to one of the meetings one night... I hate taking the local trains. They're overpriced and, more often than not, they don't really save me any time. Sometimes they even take longer than just riding the bike because of the waiting times. But, I thought it'd be nice to accompany Peter just this once since, you know, it's just like five euros, right? Wrong. After waiting over a half hour, we finally boarded the train only to be kicked off after a couple of stops - we hadn't bought a zusatzticket (extra ticket) for our bikes! A zusatzticket is a full-priced ticket that you have to buy for your bicycle as if it's another person or something. But, at the time, I didn't really know that was necessary. So, we got two more tickets and waited for the next train to come... thirty minutes later. By this time we were cold, hungry and demotivated, but we took the train the rest of the way to Angermund. Then we started riding to the meeting only to realize, after about a kilometer in the freezing cold wind, that we were going the wrong direction. So, it took another 20 minutes or so, but we finally made it to the meeting.



After dinner we thought the worst must be over now. Wrong again. We checked our tickets and, upon realizing that we hadn't validated them, got to thinking that we could validate them at the station and use them to get home. The problem is that, while some tickets require validation in a ticket machine, others don't. The whole train system is like this - some places have machines in the trains, some have ticket checkers who can sell you tickets, and yet others require that you buy your tickets and even validate them before boarding. The inconsistency is a well-known problem here; one that frustrates many people. Well, it was just our luck... our tickets were the ones that you don't have to validate at all. This meant that they were no longer valid since we had purchased them for another trip. So, after we boarded, and put our bikes aside, the ticket controllers came over, looked at our tickets, and then proceeded to treat us like a couple of Schwarzfahrer (fare dodgers). Note: Germans don't like it when you break the rules. They wrote us up for 60 euro fines and then, when our stop came, refused to let us off the train (an illegal form of detention if I'm not mistaken!). They insisted that we wait a couple more stops which, as I tried desperately to explain, would only make our journeys home very long as we had no more Bargeld (cash) for buying more tickets. In other words, we needed to ride home in the middle of a very cold night. Nevertheless, they were set on making us regret our mistake, so my ride home went from a 10 minutes to about 30. Not cool.

The fun continued as I tried to pay the ticket to DB (DB in this case was Deutsche Bank, not Deutsche Bahn), ended up paying double (which took well over a month to be refunded) and, after a month, still had to rely on my bicycle to get everywhere because my bank wouldn't allow me to finance the scooter. I had been in such a hurry to finish paying off my property back in the states, that I hadn't left enough money in my account for the scooter. At least there's one upside there - my property is finally paid off!

Friday, February 9, 2018

The Long Haul



Life in Düsseldorf has begun. We're now looking at a steady five-year plan... which is bittersweet for me. Since I first started living overseas I've avoided doing more than a year living and working in one place. But now, thanks to the promise of permanent residency and increased financial stability, I've decided to stay for a while. I don't like the idea of being tied to a place (I like change), but permanent residency in Germany essentially means residency (aka the right to live and work) in all EU countries - this is an opportunity that I just can't pass up. So, I went into the BürgerBüro (town hall) with my Anmeldung (rental contract) and passport in hand, got registered with the city, then rode over to the Ausländerbehörde (immigration office) and applied for my visa. Well, actually, I applied for an appointment to apply for my visa... Four days later I went to this appointment only to find out that it was an appointment to set up an appointment to get my visa four months later. Yay.

In any case, I'm now living in Germany. The first order of business - sell my dodgy motorcycle. It died in the first week due to a bad fuse. The back tire also went flat. Oh, and the battery died again. No worries, I've got a bicycle now! Oh, that's broken too. I swapped it out at the flea market (had to pay an extra 30 euros), but the new one wasn't quite right either. So, I dropped it off at the bike shop by the Hauptbahnhoff. Of course, I would later come to realize that this place was charging premium rates but, at the time, I just chalked it up as another overpriced service (services in Germany, and perhaps most places, are a bit pricey, so it's often cheaper to buy new than to fix something). I went back to them a couple of times for different reasons spending around 100 euros each time. I got new gears, chain, kickstand, rear tire, front brakes, etc. After a few months I probably ended up replacing most parts on the bike.



As for the motorbike, I spent a couple weeks trying to practically give it away (other people selling the same bike as parts had it listed at the same price). In the end, a guy who had flaked out on a number of our arranged meetings finally showed up and loaded it into his trailer... well, good riddance.

Nevertheless, I still had a lot to figure out. I had to buy health insurance in order to qualify for my visa. I also had to get a new place - which I did but, two weeks after I moved in, my landlord told me I had to move back out ASAP in order to make room for her family who had randomly decided to fly up from Argentina for a three-month visit. Luckily, I had found a better place before that wasn't available until December - now only two weeks away! The timing was not only good for the landlady; I hadn't even really admitted it to myself, but I needed to get out of there. In just the two weeks or so that I was there, I probably discovered about 50 of her 500 pet peeves.

She was more than just a little concerned about Salmonella, and germs in general. So, making anything with eggs was scrutinized with prejudice - garbage with egg shells was to be taken out immediately even if the egg shells were the only item in the bag. Even a little water on the floor prompted a rushed cleanup operation with scrubbing, disinfectant... the works. I also took her laundry out of the machine once (it had been in there all day) so that I could do mine. 30 minutes later I was hearing about how it would all have to be washed again due to overexposure to the air. Nevermind the fact that she had used up nearly all of my value-sized liquid detergent in those two weeks without even asking. Then there was the onion "allergy". The first time she just complained a lot but, the second time I cooked with them, she decided that onions were no longer allowed in the house. I asked her if her "allergy" had any symptoms, only to confirm that her nose being unhappy was the only symptom (she didn't like the smell).

Okay, it's her house so, even though I was paying rent, I was happy to follow her rules (not easy getting a room for $250 a month!). I think she picked up on that though, because it wasn't long before she started finding ways to totally dominate the shared facilities. She started putting her stuff on top of mine in spaces that were reserved for me, even though she was already taking up 99% of all physical space with her makeup, fragrances, and boxes of random stuff. I had to move increasing amounts of her stuff in order to get to a little fridge in the closet where she had me keeping my food. I also had to dig through her stuff in order to get to my shaver, so I eventually just gave up on keeping any of my stuff in the bathroom. And even when I tried to use the bathroom for a few minutes in the middle of the day, she would get a worked up and tell me that I had to be quick. Then, after I had rushed in and out, she would forget that she even wanted to use it... things you put up with in order to save a few bucks on your rent, right?

Well, one benefit of living with a German was that I got to practice my German everyday. Now that I was moving to my own apartment (only 100 euros more per month), I wouldn't be getting quite as much exposure to the language. But then, a free weekly German class started at the meeting hall and, a couple days later, a German home meeting on Thursday evenings! I was now meeting five nights a week: Tuesdays for the prayer meeting, Thursdays at the German home meeting, Friday and Saturday at the regular home meetings, and Sunday nights for Spielabend (game night). This not only meant devoting a large amount of time to meeting, but also a large amount of energy to cycling. I had to cycle about 85 km a week just for the meetings when you include the regular meetings Sunday morning. That's not even taking my regular rides to the office into account... Let's just say that I was missing my motorcycle a bit, especially the few times when I got caught out in the rain - one of which almost destroyed my phone/navigation.



On the first of December I finally moved into my new apartment. The small private apartment was a welcome change from the large house that ironically didn't have any space for me. It came furnished, the bills were all included and it was certainly cozy. As the Germans say "klein aber mein!" or small but mine. The winter season was in full swing. The school that hired me (still waiting for the visa) invited me to a staff holiday event with lots of tasty food and opportunities to get to know other teachers and staff. Some of us from the church also went out for lunch followed by ice skating, and some Gebrannte Mandeln (roasted sugar-coated almonds) at the Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas Market).



About a week or so later we got hit by the first of many snowstorms during which I found myself cycling in the snow. I also started having my first battles with moisture and mold in my apartment. My landlord picked up a dehumidifier, and I learned some things about relative humidity but, ultimately, I had to spray every surface with bleach and, when that proved to be a bit too toxic, vinegar. Unfortunately, it was a bit late - the mold had already spread under the wallpaper next to my bed. So, we had to tear things up a bit in order to replaster the wall. Thankfully it's been pretty okay since but, just in case, I make sure to make the extra effort to keep my little place as clean as possible.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Wanderlust



Düsseldorf is a really nice city with lots of opportunities and things to do. At the same time, it's actually quite small for a city, so it actually feels more like a town (it's even in the name "dorf" which means "town" or "village", and the Düssel is the river that the town was built on). In the end, the only problem here is one that you can't really avoid in Germany, Europe or, in fact, most countries - bureaucracy. Within the first couple weeks I already had a job and a place to live (which was pretty impressive considering that the city has a housing shortage), but I soon became painfully aware that these things were hardly even the first hurdle. In reality, it would be another several months before I was officially welcomed to the neighborhood.

On Saturday, the 21st of October, I joined a group from the church on an excursion to Schloss Burg - the largest reconstructed castle in North Rhine-Westphalia. There we saw lots of medieval relics, and I somehow ended up in the stockades.



The next couple days I walked around Düsseldorf and met with a new couchsurfing friend, Michael. I then stayed at Michael's for a night before having to finally resort to staying at hostels. The one night at Michael's was nice though - we had Baba Ghanoush for dinner, and really tasty Macedonian figs for breakfast. Later that day I had a successful interview for my future job as an English trainer at Sprachcaffe. That same day I also found a place for $250/month in an area called Rath. One of my couchsurfing hosts had suggested that I make a profile on wg-gesucht.de, which is where I eventually found a WG - or, rather, it found me. WG, or wohngemeinschaft, is the German word for shared housing. I was very happy to find such a deal in Düsseldorf... even if it was just a tad pink.



The next day I went to a couple more interviews just to see more of my options. I then spent the next few nights at hostels before finally moving into my new place. During this time I met some backpackers, one of which was a legal professional. She told me how to prepare before going to get my German license. Lucky for me, I'm from Washington State which means that I don't have to do the written or practical tests in order to get my license in Germany (reciprocal agreement) - I just have to give them a translation (70€), application (50), and photo (7). I also have to let them cut up my American license for some reason but then, after a few weeks, I'm all set with a German license which is valid all over Europe!



This is great because the written and practical tests cost a fortune (about 2000). The next day was Saturday and, according to another backpacker, that meant that there was a massive Trödel & Antikmarkt (flea market) open down in Bilk where I could get myself a bike for less than 50€. I was definitely pretty motivated seeing as my motorbike was on its way out...



I also picked up some things for cooking at my new place - a rice cooker, waffle maker, etc. Then, two days later, I finally moved in. My landlord, Gabi, was real keen on having regular chats, making waffles, and eating dinner with all us housemates. It was a nice place for me... while it lasted. Unfortunately, a month later I would have to move.



The next day I went on another excursion with the church. This time we went to Geierlay Hängeseilbrücke - a suspension bridge in the low mountain range of the Hunsrück in central Germany. After a short walk over to the bridge, we crossed it then took the long way back through the valley. This was quite a bit longer than expected, but a beautiful hike nonetheless.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Düsseldorf



On Tuesday the 17th of October I hit the road again. This time I had a couple days drive ahead of me... this was exacerbated by the fact that my bike's condition was rapidly deteriorating. I couldn't even go over 100 kph (about 60 mph) without the bike overheating. It was evening time as I pulled into my prospective camping spot which I thought looked pretty promising. It was a densely wooded area with no sign of human activity... until I spotted a man with a dog. Actually, he spotted me. I was stopped at a sign, which unfortunately was a warning about the only dangerous large animal in Germany - the wild Boar. This already had me thinking twice about this spot, but then I saw this guy staring at me. I would later come to understand that Germans often just stare a lot in general when they don't know you, or are trying to figure out if they do. With this guy it was only when I turned around that he went on his way. He clearly wanted to make sure I wasn't planning on sticking around. Well, it's one thing to freedom camp when nobody's looking, but he was probably going to dob me in, so I got back on the autobahn... for another two hours. By the time I got to my next spot, it was dark, and I was actually pretty close to my final destination - Dusseldorf. I was happy to finally arrive at what turned out to be a beautiful camping spot near Cologne.



The next day I had my morning muesli before packing it all in. The final stretch wasn't easy. The bike overheated every 10-20 minutes which meant that I had to stop and add water to my leaky radiator... this wasn't so bad until I hit traffic. After about 30 minutes overheating in traffic, I was sure that the bike would be permanently damaged. At the first exit I could find, I pulled off to find a place where I could check the bike. It was way overheated by the time I finally stopped but, after adding the water, I was happy to find that the bike started back up without much difficulty. A short while later I finally arrived at the meeting hall in Düsseldorf. I could finally breathe a sigh of relief... against all odds, I had actually made it!



I dropped off my stuff then went to a Korean restaurant with a family from the meeting hall. After lunch we went on a hop-on-hop-off bus tour of the city that lasted all afternoon. During the tour I learned a few things about Düsseldorf that I've often referred back to. They told us about the Oberkasseler bridge, which was built upstream before being brought into place using tracks - this was the first time such a feat of engineering had been attempted, and it was a complete success. Another interesting fact is that Düsseldorf has more parks than any other city in Germany. This makes me happy because I don't really care for cities in general, so the more nature the better. They also told us about the Altstadt or "Old City" (a historical part of town that lots of people, tourists and locals enjoy visiting), and a church with a crooked spire. The church of St Mary and All Saints has inspired some really strange myths with regard to its spire. The one they told us on the bus says that it twisted away from a marriage that was conducted under the false pretense that the bride was a virgin. According to the myth, the spire will only twist back when an actual virgin gets married in Düsseldorf... it's been about 600 years now.

That night I rode over to the nearby suburb of Kaarst to meet my couchsurfing hosts with whom I'd be staying for the week. Over the following days, I helped out with Bible distribution in the neighboring cities of Essen and Cologne a bit before starting my search for a job and a place to live.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Stuttgart



Going from Switzerland to Germany is quite a transition. Switzerland is one of the more expensive countries in Europe while Germany is one of the more affordable when you exclude the southern and eastern blocks of Europe. The food and language in Germany are also somewhat different. They both like their cheese and bread but, of course, they also have their regional specialties for these things as well as food in general. They also both speak German but, again, they have regional differences. In fact, Germans tend to speak either Hochdeutsch or Plattdeutsch (mostly northerners) while the Swiss will often speak Swiss German, French or even Italian. They even have a small region where the fourth nationally recognized language - Romanian - is spoken. Overall, when we talk about Switzerland and Germany, we are talking about two very distinct cultures which, without much consideration, could be (mistakenly) seen to overlap in many if not all aspects.

In any case, I was happy to find that Stuttgart offered more than a few cultural enjoyments. On Thursday, the 12th of October, I arrived at the home of my couchsurfing friend Willy. I had requested hospitality with Willy a couple months before while I was still in the states. After that we had gotten to know each other a bit over social media, so it was cool to finally be meeting in person. Willy comes from Peru originally. This actually gave us a really nice common ground to meet on in that we both spoke Spanish. In fact, I find that most Spanish speakers are pretty happy to get to know you when they find out that you can speak their beautiful language. It makes sense actually - Spanish was designed to sound good, so naturally its native speakers are inclined to speak it!

Willy welcomed me by taking me to his favorite place in town... the sauna. For those who don't know, many German saunas have a very unusual characteristic - they don't allow clothing. Apparently it's more sanitary this way. Well, while I wasn't exactly comfortable with the idea, I really didn't feel like I had much of a choice. As local customs go, it seemed pretty harmless. I also believe in trying everything once, and have tried much more terrifying things over the years (notably Balut), so it would probably be somewhat hypocritical, not to mention a bit wimpy, if I were to draw the line at being naked.

Well, the sauna is actually quite pleasant once you get over the sight of wrinkly old fat people walking around everywhere. Which, of course, brings one to the realization that nobody in this place cares at all about seeing a little flesh. Not that I thought they would but, to those who think this encourages lust or something, think again. Not one of these people had any interest in looking at anyone else. In fact, I think the only thing to be worried about is being blinded!

After a few hours of sitting in rooms of temperatures varying from quite warm to scorching hot, we went back to Willy's to make Sopa Peruana (Peruvian soup) - a specialty of Willy's home country. I can honestly say that Peru is now on my list of places to visit. The food is really good! The next day we had Pollo Estufado Peruano (Peruvian stuffed chicken) which was also pretty tasty.



That evening another couchsurfer showed up. Willy mentioned that likes to have lots of people around. I assumed one or two but, a couple days later, yet another backpacker showed up. And, as I mentioned before, it should probably come as no surprise that they were also Spanish speakers. I mean, even when you put aside the beauty of the language, I think people generally like to hear their own language. As they say, when you speak to someone in a foreign language, you speak to their mind. But, when you speak to them in their own language, you speak to their soul. I guess that's why in English we say things like, "speak English!" (e.g., when someone talks about something in an over-complicated way), and, "now you're speaking my language!" (even though the language hasn't technically changed).

Over the next couple days, I attended a local church conference in which both English and German were spoken. I wanted to practice my German though, so I got a German outline and focused on the German translation. It was pretty good! I actually understood most things without having to listen for the English words. The message itself was on recovery, specifically the recovery of God's original desire for us both individually and corporately. I enjoyed that "we are what we are until we're not", which is basically to suggest that we should grow through our experience. This is very practical because sometimes we worry about our condition (spiritual or otherwise) as if it's permanent even though actually, if we're open to it, it's possible to overcome our natural disposition. We don't have to be limited by how we see ourselves or how we think other people see us or expect us to be.

For the last couple days in Stuttgart, I enjoyed a few more cultural delights. One was Brazilian chocolate brought by our third arrival, Victor. He prepared it by melting it down with some other ingredients to make a special dish... the name of which I don't remember. We also had some Peruvian salad as well as what is probably one of my favorite German dishes - Zwiebelkuchen (onion cake). Willy recommended it to me and, when I saw that it was only a euro, I gladly gave it a try. You might think that "onion cake" sounds a bit strange, but actually it's basically just a giant Swabian quiche. "Swabian" because, to my great disappointment, I later found out that it's really more of a southern German thing... I later found some in Dusseldorf, but it was six euros a slice! As I mentioned before, different regions of Germany and Switzerland have their own cultures. In the southwest in particular there's a region called Swabia where, from what I'm told, people are notoriously thrifty (according to stereotypes they're even a bit greedy). As a result, it seems there's a deal or two to be found in this region- namely, Zwiebelkuchen.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Switzerland and Beyond!



After three weeks of non-stop travel around Europe, it was nearly time to move on towards the goal - Germany. As much as I dream of a permanent life on the road (maybe in about four years we'll be there!), one unfortunately has to work for a living. And, on Monday, the 9th of October, that's exactly what we did.

Stefan is a hard-working guy. He spends a lot of time driving around meeting clients and doing odd jobs for them. Like me, he can pick up as much or as little work as he's in the mood to do. Another nice thing about his work is that he is able to help me pay for my visits. It seems that every time I go to visit, he's got another job with which I am able to help. During this particular visit, I raked in probably about as much as I had spent over the last couple weeks of travel. Not a bad arrangement! After a long day of moving furniture, we headed back to his town to have a very enjoyable dinner at the home of our friend Pascal.



The next day, I swapped out the battery on my motorbike with the one that I had bought in Spain. Then, after a quick oil change, the old thing started up as well as if I hadn't left it sitting in a shed for the last year! I was quite relieved because the last time I had ridden it, the old beast had just about every problem you can imagine. As a few mechanics had warned me, these problems were signals of the bike's imminent demise. Of course, I only required short-term functionality, so no worries!

After my great success with reviving the motorbike, we all had lunch at Stefan's outdoor lounge area overlooking his town, Brittnau. The following day, I packed up my gear in preparation for my ride up toward Stuttgart.


It was several hours, with the usual adventures (I always say "it's not an adventure until something goes wrong!"): a pump that stole my money, a wrong turn up a beautiful stretch of autobahn... one of my brakes failing. Well, as my dad likes to say, "one of two things will happen." In this case, I'll either make it or I won't. Thankfully, I made it to my first camping spot... I just had to convince a forest ranger that I was just lost (he then directed me back toward the autobahn) so that he wouldn't come looking for me. I then turned down another road where I could camp without being found. Of course, I had the hammock that Stefan gave me, so that would probably afford a bit of leeway with locals anyway. As I've previously noted, the simple and non-invasive design of a hammock seems to have a slightly better appeal in the eyes of the authorities in Europe. So far, so good!

Sunday, October 8, 2017

L'excursion Française!



For our last drive through France, Stefan and I had spent probably a hundred euros and seen nothing. France - at least the South of France -  is packed with toll roads. To get across the country without stopping in every little town, you have to pay a toll probably every hour, and this gets a bit pricey. In fact, if I didn't need to get my motorbike up to Switzerland, I would have considered this part of the trip a complete waste of money. You can literally fly for less than half the cost of taking French toll roads... that's not even taking into account the cost of fuel. But I digress.



Before the start of our French excursion, we still had to finish our drive up the Spanish coast and pass through Andorra. On Thursday, October 5th, we started the day by visiting a walled pueblo called Morella. Morella was another place on my list that I had neglected to visit during my big trip around Spain - primarily because it was taking a lot longer on the motorbike than I had expected. Well, I'm glad we finally managed to see it. With it's elevation, the walled city of Morella boasts some pretty cool views. It also has some rather impressive historical structures, including a huge castle up at the top of the crazy hill that Morella sits on.



Later in the afternoon, after we had had a good look around, we visited yet another place that I had not been able to fit into my previous itinerary - the Fontcalda hot springs. I have to say that one of the most interesting things about this spring, as well as the one in Montanejos, is getting there. Not unlike Montanejos, the Fontcalda hot springs are located in the middle of nowhere - tucked away in the mountains. The difference with Fontcalda is that the winding mountain roads lead to a rapid descent with switchbacks that'll make your head spin. This, of course, was no problem for our Swiss driver who has experience with roads in his homeland that are easily much more challenging. As we continued down, switchback after switchback, we eventually found ourselves at the bottom of a hidden valley at the front door of a pretty nice little sanctuary.



Yet again, we found that the water was more refreshing than "hot", but it was a nice day so we didn't mind! After exploring a cool path along the river that was carved into the cliffs, we made our way back up out of the valley and rode the mountain bikes down the other side. Finally, we drove for a few more hours until we reached the Piernes. We then camped at the top of a mountain near the border before continuing into Andorra the following day.



We didn't spend long in Andorra. After having a picnic in the beautiful Andorran hills, we rode the bikes back into one of the villages. We later stopped at the ski resort Pas de la Casa, which looked a bit different than it did during my last visit during the ski season, then continued our journey to our next stop - a small town in France called Foix.



Foix was a recommendation from our friend Patrick. The pretty little town was well worth the visit; the castle in particular was pretty awe-inspiring. After our short visit there, we moved on to the infamous Carcassonne!




The castle is seriously fortified with two massive outer walls and 53 towers. The quintessential castle of any fairy tale, this fortified city is a pretty neat place to walk around. The upkeep alone has got to cost an absolute fortune! We stayed there until after dark then went out on our hunt for the nearest camping spot we could find. This actually seemed to be the case most nights seeing as Stefan didn't seem to mind looking around in the dark. Personally, I generally like to look for my camping spots in the daylight. For one thing, this makes it easier to see the places that are a bit farther off the road. It also helps in revealing just how visible the spot will be in the morning. You see, if the spot is hidden well enough, you don't have to worry so much about being spotted when the sun comes up!



After a night of being spooked by foxes, we continued our drive through small town after small town. At one point we found ourselves on a crazy mountain road called Sant Jean du Gard which eventually led us to a commune called Alès. It was there that we dropped Patrick off with some farmers who he had often worked for in exchange for room and board. Finally, we camped out near Fontaine Petrifiante De Reotier, a so-called hot pool which, as we realized the next morning, was only really good for looking at.



Still, determined to find some decent hot pools before finishing our journey back to Switzerland, we went to La Source de Phazy, a nearby pool that just so happened to be the best one yet! Okay, it wasn't exactly boiling, but the water was warm and, at this point, we really just needed a bath.


Wednesday, October 4, 2017

La Pedriza



After a couple days sitting in a hostel in Madrid, I was happy when my good friend Stefan arrived to pick me up. He had picked me up in Spain before for a similar trip (if you don't count the detour down to Morocco). One big difference this time was that we had a bit more time to stop and see the sights.



Stefan had come prepared with the perfect European camping device - the hammock. I've read several forums on the subject of "wild" camping in Europe; many of which do not cast a positive light on the subject. It seems that the Europeans don't take too kindly to people going off the beaten path in order to get away from it all... AKA actual camping. No, the European way is to spend 30 bucks on a small section of someone else's backyard in the middle of about a hundred other "campers". Yeah, thanks, but no thanks. Unfortunately for people like myself, the laws tend to reflect the attitude that Europeans have toward "wild" camping. So, the only way to get away with the dastardly deed of roughing it in the woods for a night or two, is to be aware of what in particular the local authorities are most concerned about.

It's not really so much that they hate people setting up camp in their beloved forests (though I'm sure some would find a reason to get upset about that, e.g., it's not safe, it doesn't belong to you, etc.) but, rather, it's the fact that campers haven't always shown the most respect while doing so. Some campers litter, others try to set up more permanent dwellings for long-term habitation, and still others just don't have the sense to stay out of the public eye. With these things in mind, it's really not that hard to come up with a few strategies for keeping everyone happy... more or less. First of all, don't camp in places where you're likely to be found! That should be obvious, as should not littering. As the old saying goes, "take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints."

The last thing to consider, especially if you're not really that far from civilization (a likely scenario in the relatively crowded landscape of Europe), is keeping a low profile. This is why the hammocks were so useful. Setting up a tent not only draws more attention, but a tent also looks more "permanent". That's why one of the few pieces of actually useful advice that I was able to find regarding wild camping in Europe that one take a tarp, lay down, and cover up with it! Well, I'm not above doing that, but hammocks are a bit more comfortable and are just about as likely to be perceived as a temporary sleeping situation. In any case, I use google maps to find places that are generally tucked away enough that I don't have to worry about being stumbled upon by some hiker or forest ranger.



On Tuesday, the 3rd of October, Stefan showed up with his friend Patrick and we set off from my hostel for our first stop - La Pedriza. La Pedriza has been on my list of places to see for a while. I spent a whole year living in Spain, even drove around most of the country, but never got around to seeing it. Well, since we had a few days, we made a slight detour to a "campsite" nearby so we could get an early start on our hike the next morning. Okay, so we broke the first rule of wild camping - we camped in a public place. But, we made it work by getting there after dark, and leaving before the first joggers showed up. Spain has a lot of areas where there's really no place to hide, so sometimes you just gotta make do.

After hiking La Pedriza, with all of it's boulders and beautiful views, we rode back down on the mountain bikes with our friend Patrick following us in the van. We then drove to Guadalajara for lunch, and continued to the small mountain pueblo of Montanejos for another shot at the hot pools there. I had been there before during my trip around Spain with Preston, but I hadn't gone in because it just didn't seem worth it at the time... winter was only just coming to an end. Following our refreshing dip, and a nice dinner at a local restaurant, we decided not to stay at my tried and trusted camping spot there in the hills. Instead, we pushed on for a couple more hours toward our next destination: Morella. We ended up camping on a random mountain road up in the clouds which, yet again, turned out to be a rule breaker... we would wake up the next morning to the sound of the owner of the house just up around the bend driving down and stopping at our "campsite". Fortunately, he didn't seem to have much to say - probably saw the Swiss plates and put two and two together. In any case, I had chosen this place based on its remoteness (google maps is clutch), so chances are they don't get a lot of unwanted visitors hanging out on their premises.


Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Mis Amigos



When it comes to travel, momentum tends to be a decisive factor. Though, it doesn't always seem like it when you're on the road. In fact, it's easy to get tired and start looking for excuses to drag your feet. Nevertheless, momentum comes into play when you consider three things: one-way trips are cheaper than round-trip tickets, you don't have to worry about paying rent in one place once you've moved to another and, because you don't have anything keeping you in one spot, it's easy to just keep moving! Once you have a job, and finally find a place to rent, it's hard to imagine spending more than a few days on the road. This leads us to a sort of contradiction: while you're traveling, work, and the security that comes with it, sounds pretty good. But, after you start working, it doesn't take long to realize that having a job doesn't leave much room for travel!

Nevertheless, there is a way to balance the equation - do as much travel as possible before and after starting work. After my visit to England I continued my whirlwind tour of Europe. On Sunday, the 24th of September, I landed in Madrid and picked up my rental car. After just catching the church meeting, I went to a Chinese buffet with some of the brothers that I hadn't seen since a year before. I then grabbed a sim card and went to the weekly couchsurfing meeting. Finally, after making some new friends, I made my way to a hostel for my first night back in Spain.

The next morning I picked up a motorcycle helmet and battery for my bike up in Switzerland (cheaper to buy in Spain) before heading down to my old stomping grounds in Castilla-La Mancha. There I saw my former colleague Cristina after paying a visit to my mechanic friend Luis. Cristina and I went to the local cafe to catch up - she had actually moved to another pueblo, but we met there in beautiful Belmonte for old-times' sake. That evening I found my way back to Julio's in Pedro Muñoz then joined him and the others for a walk.



Over the next four days I went back to Las Mesas as a guest teacher, visited with more colleagues, met with my former employer from the academy in Las Pedroñeras, and joined Maria Jose and her family for a basement fireplace barbecue similar to the one I had been to with Luis and the guys at the racing circuit the year before.



The next weekend, Julio took me to Tomelloso to see the Museo del carro y aperos de labranza. We saw a lot of cool historical farming artifacts as well as a old-timey dwelling called a Bombo. A Bombo is a traditional structure specially designed to house shepherds and farmers, along with their farm animals and their farming tools - no joke, they slept alongside the smelly animals! This old-school barn was reconstructed with more than two million stones, cleverly arranged one above the other without any mortar between them.



The next day I drove back to Madrid to return my rental, then spent the next two days hanging out at the hostel waiting for Stefan to arrive for another trip up through France and back to Switzerland. Thankfully, this time we would not be doing it in a 41-hour straight shot!

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Bristol



Bristol was probably the most unexpectedly interesting part of the whole trip through the South of England. Steve and I decided to go there as our last stop simply because neither of us had ever been. We were pleasantly surprised to find that Bristol is actually a very cool city. Not only is it the birthplace of the famous graffiti artist, Banksy, but it's also loaded with unusual history, unique street food and just a ton of cool things to see. Needless to say, our expectations were blown out of the water.



Speaking of water, that's where our visit began - on the Kennet and Avon Canal. It turns out you can actually take this canal from Bristol to London via Bath. We got on a boat tour that took us around the city using this waterway. Right at the start we saw a funny looking bridge which we later learned is called Pero's Bridge. Opened in 1999, this bridge has two funnel shaped sculptures on the sides that look like Shrek's ears. As it turns out, these "ears" are actually counterweights which provide balance and stability - who knew!



During the tour we also saw lots of colorful buildings, similar to one's I've seen in Scandinavia, and a number of really cool boats ranging from historic sailing ships to modern designer houseboats. After the tour came to an end, we grabbed a snack from one of the many tables selling homemade sweets, and stopped in at the tourism office for some information. From there we began what's referred to as the Curiosities Trail. One of our first stops was St Mary Redcliffe Church - referred to by Queen Elizabeth I as "the fairest, goodliest and most famous parish church". She was far less kind to the women of Bristol, saying to the mayor "Good Lord Master Mayor, how plain the women of Bristol be!"



The next landmark was the Temple Church tower which leans at a precarious angle and has done so since the 14th century. The army, clearing WW2 bomb damage wanted to pull the tower down thinking that a bomb had caused the lean. Only the entreaties of citizens saved this famous landmark.



We then passed through Castle Park and arrived at St Nicholas Church - the only public clock in England with a second hand. Behind the church we found a huge variety of tasty street food at the food market. After having something to eat, we stopped in front of the Bristol Exchange where four brass 'Nails' mark another 'curiosity'. Back in the day, merchants used to strike these nails when a deal was completed; hence the expression, "pay on the nail".



Next, we came to a neat little thoroughfare, which dates back to 1669, and followed it up to the top of the Christmas Steps. Near the top of the steps, we came across the Foster's Almshouses. Rebuilt in the present French style in the 19th century, the Foster's Almshouses were originally constructed as charitable housing with spaces for thirteen men and thirteen women. According to Steve, many of these houses are supported by trusts set up centuries ago and, if you belong to that trade or can prove your ancestors belonged to it, you may be able to live in one when you get old.



At this point, we had pretty much reached the end of the list, save for the burial place of the supposed inventor of the blanket. So, we pulled out the other list which directed us to a few 'Banksys' around town - little known fact: Banksy was born in Bristol. I guess that explains why there seems to be so many copycat graffiti artists running around.



At the end of the day, before heading back to London so I could catch my flight to Madrid the following day, we had a cup of tea and some cheesecake from the food stands. Then we sat at the edge of the canal for a bit while a historic sailing ship and some SUP boarders went by.


Friday, September 22, 2017

The Jurassic Coast



As I mentioned before, the Jurassic Coast is really aptly named. Most places along the way have that cool Land of the Lost feel that you get when you see something preserved from another era. Some things are from ancient cultures and other things are simply prehistoric. The village we stayed at the night before itself was pretty old school. Most of the homes there have those really cool, and very expensive, thatched roofs.



We exited the town onto a path that lead from Lulworth Cove to Durdle Door. The name 'Durdle' comes from the Anglo Saxon 'thirl', meaning a pierced hole or opening, which is exactly what Durdle Door is. The hike there was about 30 minutes or so up a hill and down the other side. It was a perfect morning for taking photos and the temperature was ideal. Steve had been there a month before when it was a bit warmer and had decided to go swimming through Durdle Door to cool off. This, unfortunately, hadn't gone too well. It seems he had swum a little too hard in water that was a little too cold and lost all motivation to swim back - he almost drowned. Luckily, I think he said the current helped a bit so he was able to make it back; a little shook up perhaps but alive nonetheless!



We had a good look around before heading back to the village. From there we drove until we found a little farm shop where we could grab some breakfast. Steve got the last breakfast roll so I ended up having a Scotch egg - a hard-boiled quail's egg wrapped in sausage meat, coated in bread crumbs and baked, or possibly deep-fried. Scotch eggs are served cold, but I couldn't help thinking that it would have been better warm. Still, not bad.



Our next stop was West Bay. This was a really cool place; the cliffs definitely had some serious stratification going on - reminded me a lot of something by Antonio Gaudí in Park Güell in Barcelona. This makes a lot of sense actually when you consider that his work is largely inspired by nature. As we walked along the cliffs, we also found lots of large broken-off chunks with tons of fossils visible on the surfaces. I even found a large coprolite... also known as fossilized dino poo.



We continued on from there to our quirky hostel in Moretonhampstead on the north-eastern edge of Dartmoor. The owner there was a funny cat lady who clearly wasn't too concerned about running a business. Not only did she allow her animals to roam around in the guest quarters but, the next morning, she was nowhere to be found. Lucky for her we had every intention of paying and would be mailing her the money later. I can imagine that some guests are occasionally a little less forthcoming though.



Covering an area of 368 square miles (954 sq km), Dartmoor contains the largest area of open country in the south of England. As one of several high moors in the area, including Exmoor and Bodminmoor, Dartmoor is known for its tors - hills topped with outcrops of bedrock.  As we passed through, we saw lots of these tors as well as some cool looking red cows. At one point we decided to stop and climb one of the hills in order to visit the tors. I was surprised at how much colder it was up in the moors. The freezing wind blasting us with an icy mist made it seem as if we had stumbled into a whole other climate. The whole hike was probably about 30-45 minutes, including our visit to the bronze age settlements on the adjacent hill, but in my memory it easily could have been twice that. Nevertheless, it was a fascinating environment littered with relics from prehistoric societies dating as far back as the Neolithic.



Later on I had a pretty amazing British scone with fresh cream spread. Then, that evening, we had chicken pie with chips at a local pub. This was also really good. Though, that's unfortunately more than either of us could say for the local cider... yuck!