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December 29, 2011

Christmas In Germany

Hi, it is Jess. I posted an entry on my blog about our Christmas experience, but Aaron asked me to repost it here. The original posting can be found here.

So far our trip has been absolutely great. We just arrived into Florence after spending a couple of nights in Venice. It is hard to believe that we have been on the road for over a week already.

Aaron and I had a really wonderful Christmas weekend with our friend Verena and her family. Aaron met Verena years ago when he studied abroad in Finland, and they have managed to keep in contact since then. We recently visited her in Chicago and she extended an invitation to spend the holiday with her family in Rosenheim, which is about a thirty minute train ride from Munich. We met Verena at the central train station mid-morning on Christmas Eve. The ride to Rosenheim took us through quaint Bavarian towns, and we could see glimpses of the snow covered Alps through the clouds. After dropping off our luggage at the hotel, we went to meet her parents at their apartment. Gisela and Jurgen gave us a warm welcome as we gathered for coffee and biscuits before going back out for the afternoon.

Our first stop was to a local restaurant in Rosenheim to eat the traditional late morning meal of white sausages and hefeweizen. This is a very common meal in Bavaria. According to Verena, these sausages are made out of the 'extra parts' of the pig, and they are supposed to be eaten before the noon bells ring so not to spoil. They are served in a large pot of hot water, and you eat one at a time so that they stay warm.
Eating instructions per Verena:
Remove one sausage from pot
Cut lengthwise but not all the way through the meat
Peel the skin without being too messy (we were horribly unsuccessful at this and used our hands)
Slice and dip in sweet mustard sauce
Wash down with Hefeweizen

This fine dining experience left us full and content as we boarded the train for Salzburg to enjoy some more holiday festivities. During the ride Verena and I took turns jotting down Christmas songs to be sung later in the evening around the tree. Of course we practiced our singing as we rode along, which was really nice. Aaron finally got a little embarressed during 'O Holy Night,' so he pretended not to know us for the remainder of the trip. We arrived to Salzburg around three or so and caught a bus that took us to the center of town. There were plenty of people out wandering, and a few frantic shoppers taking advantage of the final hours of the Christmas markets. The city was lit with beautiful white lights along the narrow cobblestone streets. After strolling through the main plaza we made our way up a steep hill to a quiet overlook of the city. There were no other people, just the three of us and the view below. Verena and I sang Christmas carols while we took in the lovely sight. The best part of being in this location was hearing the many church bells throughout Salzburg chime simultaneously at five thirty.

From the hilltop we quickly made our way back towards the center to an old graveyard. This is where the locals gather on Christmas Eve every year to listen to a brass band play carols on the rising hill. While the music sounds above, families place small Christmas trees and light candles on the graves of loved ones. All day had been very overcast, but while the music played the clouds parted, and we got a peak of the clear winter sky. It was a beautiful and peaceful experience, and I especially loved hearing Silent Night and humming along with the instruments and the crowd. Salzburg on Christmas Eve was a very surreal night for us, and we were so thankful that Verena shared it with us.

Following the music it started to rain heavily, so we caught a taxi to the train station and made our way back to Rosenheim. Gisela and Jurgen had prepared a lovely meal, so after singing a few more carols around the tree we sat down to a traditional dinner of homeade sausages and potato salad. The food was amazing and the conversation was lively. Aaron and I both felt right at home with Verena and her parents. Gisela and Jurgen are both passionate and intelligent people, so we covered a variety of topics well into the night while drinking fine local beer.

Christmas day started out with a traditional German breakfast-a variety of meats, cheese, bread, fruit, cereal and lots of strong coffee. We enjoyed a very low key morning lounging around the house and talking before Jurgen and Verena took us on a tour of the town. Rosenheim is a small comfortable city that is really quite scenic. We passed by churches, walked along the Inn River, and looked around the city center where there are old buildings and cobblestone streets. On our way home we stopped at a local brewery that is one of Jurgen's favorites, and we warmed up while enjoying a pint and liver dumpling soup. Delicious. We also made a quick visit to a chapel originally built in the 1400s. It was very small and dark except for the outside lights shining into the windows and a few lit candles. Once again we broke out the Christmas carols and sang into the still quietness of the church. It was beautiful.

Back at home Gisela had outdone herself once again with an amazing dinner of roasted duck, potatoes, brussel sprouts, chestnuts and beets. We had no difficulty clearing our plates. For dessert we enjoyed a delicious vanilla mousse with strawberry preserves. The remainder of the evening was spent lounging, looking at old photos from Verena's younger years, and talking. We made it back to our hotel around one or so, and slept for a few hours before getting up, enjoying a quick breakfast with the family, and making our way back to the train station for one final night in Munich. We couldn't have asked for a better Christmas. Verena and her parents really made us feel like part of the family. Wonderful memories to last for many years to come... 


December 28, 2011

Arrival In Munich

Well, I haven't been very good at posting entries on here at all. We are in our third country now, and I am just getting started.

So, we arrived into Munich on the 21st after a non-eventful flight from South Carolina. I didn't get much rest, so I was pretty tired once we landed, but it was a very smooth arrival into Munich and our hotel. Munich has a very efficient public transportation system, which is sort of a shock to the system as I am used to the chronically late and generally subpar (to European standards) public transit system of San Francisco. I mean, what does one do when a bus arrives at its scheduled time? No protests holding up an entire line? Absurd. 

Anyhow,we found ourselves at our hotel in record time. That's right, we have started out this trip staying in hotels, a remarkable departure from our previous experiences. Usually we are pretty hardcore about where we stay; an American we met the other day was telling about an instance he had bedbugs on his current trip, and I sort of scoffed and thought, "Only once?" Well, fear not, my friends, tonight is our last night in a hotel; tomorrow, once we arrive in Florence, we are back to the 14-bed bunkroom.

But I am getting off track, which, being a week behind, I cannot do. So we checked into our hotel, which was quite nice. Speaking of getting off track, allow me to define "nice" as it pertains to me; as Jess and I are travel nurses, and even though we have been in San Francisco since January now, we never knew how long we'd be there, so we have been sleeping on an inflatable mattress since we moved there. This place didn't have any air mattresses that we could see, especially ones held together by duct tape and late night reinflations.

At any rate, we couldn't actually go to our room, so we headed out into the center of Munich, a beautiful plaza called the Marienplatz. Now, we had a good reason to go to Germany in December--the Christmas markets. These turned out to be worth the hype, being numerous and randomly placed throughout the cities of Germany. They tend be merry and well-lit with lights, swarming with shoppers and filled with colorful gifts of all sorts. Different markets have different focuses; there is a medieval market, another that had stalls that sold only nativity scenes and their characters. The largest market, in Marienplatz, was the Target of the markets, selling all sorts of gifts and holiday paraphernalia. The one thing the markets had in common is that they all had glühwein, that spicy alcoholic beverage called glogg in the US, served piping hot; there is nothing better than a steaming cup of glühwein on a chilly holiday afternoon.

We didn't stay out long that first afternoon, opting to go back once it was possible to get into our room. We had no problem getting in a four-hour nap, before heading out to look for some dinner. On our first venture out, we'd taken the bus, as we had a day-pass for all public transit, but our nap made us feel more adventurous. So off we set on foot, only to find out that walking in the center of Munich tends to be more confusing than might think. Probably more due to the fact the center likely retains its medieval design than a critical failure of German efficiency, most roads in the center curve around and head out in all sorts of random directions. On our way into the center, we got a bit off track and wandered around an extra half hour, which was fine. Once on the center, we quickly found a restaurant near the Marienplatz, a joint called Ratskeller. It seemed like it had the potential to be a German Denny's, being a bit generic and probably quite touristy in the summer. For our purposes, it was great; I had a massive plate with an assortment of sausages, along with sauerkraut and plenty of beer. Jess's dinner was less extravagant but still pretty good. Stuffed and feeling our fatigue settling in, we decided to head back, but were still feeling adventurous, so we decided to walk (to burn off all that meat and beer, perhaps). This time we really got lost, seriously so, and crossed the center several times. I simply could not get my bearings in the city, which normally I have better success at. As a cheapwad, I'm loathe to take a taxi, especially when a familiar street might just be around the corner, and quite unfortunately we'd left our map at the hotel.

I'm happy to report that we survived and arrived back to our hotel, and all on our own, though we walked a good two and a half hours. We did ask one lady; she seemed to want to help us, peering at a bus-stop map for awhile, then getting on a tram looking as though was going to get some directions from the conductor. I thought that was quite above and beyond until the doors slid shut and we watched the tram and our would-be helper roll on down the street. The next morning we walked again, this time with our map, and found we were less than a half mile, about 15 minutes, from the heart of the center. Note to self: don't forget the map, and take the bus if you do.

Our second day, the 22nd, was all about walking and eating. We started with a cafe near Marienplatz, which we left before eating once we realized our coffee and OJ had already cost 20 euros (oh, yeah, we're in Europe). We were quite hungry, and it was near noon, so we walked a short distance and found a beer hall specializing in sausages (what else?) called Bratwurstherzl, where we found sausages grilled over open flames and plenty of beer. While scarfing down our food, we found they'd put us next to a couple of Americans (a common experience so far, though whether to allow us better conversation or to isolate us from other customers, I don't know). One of them lived in Munich, and he told us all about the choices of Christmas markets we had.

The rest of the day we spent using various markets to set goals for walking. There was a sort of light rain and sleet mix, with occasional snow,  but it was tolerable, so we were able to get in some serious walking. I have a pedometer, and it says I took just short of 25,000 steps, which it calculated to be about 14 miles. By late afternoon the weather had dropped the snow part and just was raining, so we headed back to the center. We were quite wet by the time we arrived, and lo and behold, we found ourselves back at the Ratskeller again. Several beers and food such as hot soup and delicious kuchen got us into cheery moods, so much that we decided to walk. Of course we got lost, but not too seriously, and we stumbled upon a market, for young folks, that only sold glühwein. It was our kind of place, and a couple of those helped make the wet walk more tolerable. Even better, the market sat next to a major landmark I remembered from our trek the previous night, and we were soon back.

An old friend of mine, Verena, had invited us to spend Christmas with her family, in a small city outside of Munich called Rosenheim. We were to go there on the 24th, but on the 23rd we had plans to meet Verena for lunch in the city, where she works. We spent the morning exploring the area north of the Marienplatz, an upscale business and historic area, getting in another decent mileage for the day. We had lunch with Verena in a Christmas market in the Englischer Garten (English Garden), which is Munich's Central Park, only bigger than the one in NYC. After, we wandered back through the center again, and on to our hotel, for a bit of rest. That evening, we wandered up to the train stop we'd need on our way to the airport after Christmas. It was the same one we arrived on, but after our treks around Munich, it seemed prudent to confirm the route. Near the stop we found  a restaurant that oddly enough had tex-mex on its menu. It also had southwestern US decor, including paintings of saguaro cactus. The menu also included schnitzel, which I'm pretty sure the Germans are more proficient at cooking than tacos or burritos, so I stuck with that, as well as some more excellent German beer. Actually, it was really good beer, so we stuck around, talking and drinking until far too late.

Thus ended our few days in Munich, which is a charming but also very modern city. The next morning we were off to Rosenheim for our German Christmas experience, but that is another entry.

Until next time, be safe.

December 17, 2011

On The Road Again....

So, we are at it again. For those of you in fairly constant contact with us, this is no surprise, we've been thinking about our next trip since, well, our last one. This trip takes on a bit of a big significance for us, so allow me to explain.

Since January of 2011, we have been residing in San Francisco, CA, as travel nurses. We've not had a permanent job there, I've taken three contracts in that time, while Jess was able to extend her contract out. Two things happened in SF, though; first, we started to put down some roots, we made friends and began to have a real community around us for the first time since we started travel nursing back in 2008. Second, we just got tired of the constant packing up and moving that is the essence of travel nursing. That became very clear as we packed up and cleared out our apartment at the end of this past November, in what will hopefully be the last such packing of our home for awhile. I guess I'm trying to say, we were looking for a place to call more than just a temporary home, and we found in the most unlikely of places (in our minds at least) in San Francisco.

So now we are faced with the daunting reality of possibly being somewhat permanent, though we are really only looking at being in SF for about two years. Before, when we wanted to take off to travel, we simply finished a contract and didn't sign another. Now, I have taken on a permanent job (though per diem, which is an important difference to me), starting in the beginning of April. That means I'll have rules to follow, and I'll be expected to not take off for months at a time. I make no promises, but I plan on giving it an old timey shake. That means that this could be our last extended trip for a couple of years. I know, right? Shocking.

So, let me tell you a little something about our upcoming trip. This trip won't be like our last long-term trip, where we were out of the US for over six months. This one is a shorty, just three months or so. We have definitely had a change in focus from the Big One, which focused on visiting every continent and maximizing the number of countries we could fit in. This time we are spending much more time in countries, and will try to really maximize the experiences possible in each one.

First we will fly to Munich, Germany, where we will spend a week with a friend of ours and her family over the Christmas holiday. We'll take some short daytrips out of the city to surrounding sites, as well as a daytrip to Salzburg, Austria. A couple of days after Christmas we'll fly to Venice, where we will kick off the Italian leg of our trip, which should last about three weeks. We'll mostly stay in the areas around Florence and Rome. Then we plan on flying to Nepal for about the same time period, where we will try to get in a trek if possible. Yes, we do realize that all of this is taking place in the middle of winter, in countries that actually have a real winter. All in the flavor, I say.

We then will fly further east for the final leg of our trip. We might try to fit in a few South Pacific countries, say Papua New Guinea or American Samoa, or maybe the Cook Islands, though nothing has been determined about that yet. Our main focus will be New Zealand, where we want to spend no less than three weeks, ideally more like five weeks. There we also have friends that we are highly anticipating visiting, so it will be exciting for us.

And that is the short version of our plans. We've booked flights as far as Venice, and hostels through New Year's. Then we're winging it, as usual. I'll probably look at flights to Nepal in the next couple of days, but we've never been big on restrictions. We already have that time constraint of needing to be back in the US by mid-March, which feels already like it is breathing down my neck...

For those who were on this list during the Big One, and had received updates, I hope that you will stay with Jess and I as we head out again. If you'd like to be off the list, just send use the contact link to the top right of the main page to let me know. Likewise, for anyone wanting to be on the update list, please contact me using that link with your email address and I'll add you. For those I've just added, welcome, there is plenty to read back about, and I'll update our progress as we proceed. Jess is also blogging, on her blog about life in SF and in general:

The Whimsical Wandering Nurse Blog

Until next time, be safe.

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