a weekend with no photos? inconceivable!

Yes, it’s true. I was in Braunschweig this weekend for a DAAD conference/meeting and I didn’t take a single picture! Which is a shame because I enjoy taking probably too many photos while traveling, but I have all the memories in my mind, and due to this boring blog post, they will be documented here for all of eternity… [it’s late as I write this, and since I have to make this interesting without photos, I guess melodramatic rambling will do the trick.]

In October, we had a similar meeting in Köln, but that was only for the North American (US + Canada) scholarship holders. This weekend’s conference was one of four “universal” DAAD conferences: every international DAAD scholarship holder currently in Germany was invited to attend one! They were broken down by topic; I seem to have been lucky in that I got my first choice, “Climate Politics, Food Security, and Natural Resources” or something like that.

It turns out that there are a lot of international DAAD folks… there were over 400 just at this weekend’s conference! Of course, I was the only American from Dresden as Felicitas had already been to the meeting in April, and I was one of only 7 Americans in total this weekend. As it turns out, the developing world far outnumbers the developed world when it comes to these scholarships, as getting money to attend school in Germany offers a huge draw to people whose home countries can’t provide the same level of education.

For a lot of the weekend, I was really out of my comfort zone… mingling with large groups of people I don’t know is very difficult. (I know it’s probably hard for most people and they somehow get over it.) Luckily, the American group was really cool, and there were built-in ways for us to spend time with those from our own geographic area. And some of them seemed much more at home in the large, lively, and international atmosphere, so they were able to meet interesting friends to invite to our table during meals! In particular, several of the American guys spoke some level of Russian, so we got to know a few Russians who were especially entertaining at the conference-wide “disco” on Saturday night. (Yes, you read that correctly.)

After a day of conference-opening and keynote sessions on Friday (the keynote speaker gave a surprisingly good talk on the pros and cons of biofuels which I particularly appreciated) and several chances to bond with our fellow countrymen, Saturday morning was filled with typical “conference” activities: breakout sessions, coffee breaks, and a cafeteria lunch.

My first breakout session was a fascinating presentation by a professor from Braunschweig about the potential for sustainable waste management. I love it when environmental scientists and engineers are able to be optimistic and innovative instead of talking gloom and doom all the time. I would love to see the future of self-sustaining apartment buildings that run on energy created from their own recycled waste. “Urban mining” was also a topic of interest: making use of resources that have already been converted into consumer goods for a secondary life as energy sources!

Luckily, the “conference” as such ended midday. After lunch, we were bussed into downtown Braunschweig for guided tours through the city! At this point, I really wished I had grabbed my camera, which was useless in my hotel room. The city is mid-sized, medieval, and gorgeous. How medieval? Its founder (around the 10th century) was nicknamed “the Lion.” Between that and the cobblestone roads punctuated by Romanesque buildings, Braunschweig seems like it would be the home of German Robin Hood.

Braunschweig boasts Germany’s “newest castle,” rebuilt in 2007 after being destroyed in WWII. There are also several Romanesque and Gothic style churches, as well as multiple city halls in the Renaissance style. (Because Braunschweig was originally five different cities, there are multiples of important landmarks.) During the tour, an open-air performance of West Side Story had just begun in one of the town squares, so as we were led around by our tour guide, we could hear snippets of the music; most amusingly, “I like to be in America.” There were also a few huge pro-Palestine rallies happening in various parts of town.

After the tour, a few of us grabbed ice cream (for the girls) and beer (for the guys) as we waited for the buses to arrive to pick us back up… after a few misunderstandings and a bit of running around, we finally found them and we made it back to the hotel for a small break before dinner.

On the bus to dinner, I reconnected with a few other Americans. As there were over 400 of us, we couldn’t imagine what kind of place they had found that would fit all of us! (Until this point, we had just eaten at the university’s dining hall.) We eventually arrived at a huge green warehouse… yep, that seemed about right. The place had been decked out with a big buffet table, dozens of smaller tables for seating, and a dance floor. We joked that it seemed like prom! We considered taking prom photos with our American-Russian coalition, but that never happened.

The food was delicious, and we each got three drink coupons, which could be used to purchase beer and wine, so that kept things lively! I really enjoyed the opportunity to get to know some of the other scholarship holders and hear about their experiences: where they come from in the US, what experiences they’ve had in Germany, what they study. It’s always good to have a bit of solidarity, especially during an experience that can be as solitary as I’ve found this year to be.

And the dancing… the dancing was fun. I was skeptical about the idea of what had been billed as “clubbing,” but it was fun in the cheesiest way. The music selection was eclectic, and we speculated that it had been chosen to appeal to people from over 100 countries! (Over 100 countries! Can we just take that in? Where else could you find such a group?) In any case, I’m sure that the Backstreet Boys would be proud to know that their 1998 hit “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” is still widely known and loved by twenty- and thirty-somethings around the world.

I can’t come up with an adequate closer, so I suppose I’ll leave it at that! I’m thankful to have had the opportunity to have been in such esteemed and diverse company this weekend. It’s good work that the DAAD is doing and I’m proud to be a part of it.

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ávila

"Avila at night"

“Avila at night”

Avila is about halfway between Madrid and Salamanca, and I’m so excited I had the opportunity to go! I can’t say I’m an expert on St. Teresa of Avila, but I’ve recently started learning more about her and reading some of her writings, and after seeing Ávila I’m inspired to learn more!

After arriving in Avila on Sunday, we started the day with Mass at the cathedral, which is pretty much the best way to get into beautiful churches for free! The Mass wasn’t in the main nave, but rather in a side chapel, which was still gorgeous but smaller and probably a bit warmer (it was really cold, especially compared to Portugal the previous day!). It turned out that they were presenting two catechumens who will receive their sacraments at Easter, which was cool.

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**Tangent alert**

Mass was in Spanish, and unlike the previous Sunday, I hadn’t remembered to look at the readings beforehand, so I had low expectations about what I would understand. But, to my surprise, I was willing to make out key words in the 1st reading and the Gospel that clued me into what was going on! The Spanish words for “serpent” and “fruit” are cognates, so I pin-pointed the 1st reading as Genesis right away; everyone in Texas at least knows that “diablo” means “devil,” and my 1 semester of Spanish allowed me to understand “40 days and 40 nights,” so I made an educated guess at the temptation of Jesus in the desert for the Gospel.

I thought about this pleasant surprise as I followed the Mass under my breath in English, and I realized an important skill I’ve developed since living in Germany… the ability to tolerate not understanding everything I hear and to focus more on understanding what I can instead of getting frustrated. I know this probably sounds like small potatoes, but if you understand what I’m talking about, you know that this is a big deal. Not every word is always important, and once you’re okay with understanding only the general gist of things instead of being a perfectionist all the time, getting along in another language is much easier and lower pressure!

**Tangent over**

After Mass we took to the walls! Avila is a medieval city that’s still completely walled, which is actually pretty rare, from what I can tell. So for about 7 Euros with a student discount, we were able to walk about 60% of the city’s perimeter, taking in gorgeous views of the old city inside the walls, the new city outside, and the surrounding countryside. Our walk was narrated by these only-somewhat-functional audio guides:

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What they lacked in functional consistency, they made up for in style.

We were most entertained by a story about a local town hero/saint from the medieval days, who, after his death, was put on the back of a burro that was then charged with deciding on an appropriate burial place for the holy man. It just sounded like such a ridiculous premise that I joked mid-story that the burro probably died once arriving at the place… and it turns out that I was right! History is strange, or at least what we choose to remember of it is.

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Also entertaining was the fact that “Teresa of Avila” narrated about half of the tour… for a 16th-century Spanish nun, she sure spoke impeccable English!

Once we had walked the touristic portion of the wall, we debated between getting lunch and going to see the Carmelite convent where St. Teresa had lived. We decided on lunch (and it ended up being quite the ordeal finding somewhere affordable to eat) and, after a typical, long, filling Spanish lunch, we finally headed to the convent… to find that it was closed for siesta. Spain…

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Luckily, the convent would open soon enough for us to have time to see all the rooms and exhibits and still make it to the bus station in time for our return trip. We took a short little siesta on a plaza bench and enjoyed the beautiful, and by then warmer, weather.

Eventually the church opened back up and we looked around inside. The sanctuary was simple and beautiful. I lit a candle for a family member who’s been in my prayers lately, and then we moved on into the reliquary, where we could see a number of St. Teresa’s relics (first and second class), some of her personal writings, and the document by which Pope Paul VI declared her a Doctor of the Church.

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Finally, we entered the convent, which has been converted into a St. Teresa museum. We got to see lots of artistic depictions of “La Santa,” some more of her personal effects, and learn about her biography. One fascinating thing I learned about was a particular spiritual gift she received during her lifetime: the transverberation of her heart. This basically means that she received the grace to feel her heart pierced as Jesus’ was; this was part of her Spiritual Marriage with Christ. (As I was just researching this online, I found out that when St. Teresa’s heart was examined after her death, they found an actual puncture wound in it!) There were some really fascinating artistic depictions of this.

No pictures were allowed in the museum, but here’s an example via Google!

Many parts of the exhibit were also dedicated to St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa’s co-founder of the Discalced Carmelites during the Carmelite Reform. I think it’s so fascinating that two great saints and Doctors of the Church were able to have such a close friendship during their lifetimes. It makes me wonder which of my friends will be this generation’s great saints! Pressure’s on, peeps! 

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i’ll be me, you’ll be you

First of all, anyone who can name the song gets 50 points!

I just got back from my Pfingstpause trip. I had so much fun this week that my body can’t take it anymore and is going to collapse from exhaustion, but I figured I’d write a little about the first part of my vacation before I let that happen.

On Friday, I took the train to meet my dad in Frankfurt. Because of crazy weather delays and subsequent luggage misplacement, I beat him there. Then, because I’m such a loving daughter, I did my jet-lagged dad the service of keeping him out until 1 AM Friday night by getting us lost on the U-Bahn. Love ya, dad!

Once all bags had been accounted for on Saturday morning, we headed for Würzburg. We stashed our obscene amount of luggage in a locker at the train station and then set out for the Würzburg Residenz, the former home of the Prince-Bishop. My dad insisted that we go on the German tour instead of the English one, so I translated for him.

The Residenz was beautiful and much more manageable than the one in Munich, which was huge! All of the artwork was gorgeous, and it was extra impressive because most of it (including the incredibly ornate Spiegelkabinett) had to be re-furnished after WWII, when the building was largely destroyed. After our tour, we saw the cathedral (which I thought was pretty, but really spastically decorated), the Marktplatz (which was really lively–my dad was super impressed by it), the bridge (filled with people enjoying afternoon cocktails), and the old fortress across the river (from afar).

My engineer father trying to figure out the purpose of the dam

Next stop after Würzburg was Rothenberg ob der Tauber, a little walled-in medieval city that retains all of its charm despite outrageous touristy-ness. We were lucky enough to be there the weekend of the Meistertrunk festival, so it truly felt like we stepped back in time: everywhere we looked, there were locals in period dress riding horses, singing old German songs, and generally being rowdy. It was awesome. We got to walk on the old city walls, explore some “ruins,” see the old castle gardens and beautiful views, and continue my dad’s quest to try a different type of beer in each city.

On Sunday we headed to Heidelberg. I didn’t have high hopes for this one, since my trusty German guidebook gave it a bad rap, saying that it’s overhyped by Americans. But we really enjoyed ourselves! Heidelberg is known as the Birthplace of Romanticism because of all the artists and philosophers who used to hang out there, but now the main attraction of the city is the castle, a good hike up the hill from old town. We weren’t able to tour the inside of the castle, but the outside was quite impressive and the views were gorgeous. We enjoyed a delicious Italian meal, walked along the Rhein, and stumbled upon the prison (whoops…). I also introduced my dad to German pastries and he was immediately hooked. It doesn’t take much!

Monday, my dad flew out of Frankfurt to Austria, so returned to the big city. I said Auf Wiedersehen to dad, who headed for the airport, and checked into my hostel, which was a convenient distance of about 350 meters away from the train station. I spent that afternoon wandering around Frankfurt, which was actually much nicer than I’d expected it to be. I spent a little while on the Main River reading my book, which was quite pleasant, went to Mass at the Cathedral (it turned out that it was actually a holy day of obligation, so score one for the Holy Spirit telling me what to do), and explored some Roman ruins that were actually unearthed by bombs during WWII. I had to get to bed early because I had an early flight to catch the next day… to Poland! More about that later, though!