In this journal
a pancake on fire
a spring roll explosion
a gummy bear massacre
here is a background music for the read mood (PC only)
long post, please refresh if the pictures fail to load
goodbye Chile! (even it is just for 3 months)
After almost 2 weeks in the driest desert in the world, I was ready for some glühwein and proper beer. Christmas should be spent where the light shine bright throughout the cold night, while ample food and drink is served on demand, and a fire burning slowly in the furnace… 15 hours of flight brought me to the European continent, and I took the fast train from Frankfurt airport to Cologne, so I could meet up with someone I got to know quite a few trips ago. I walked out of my train at Köln huptaubanhof, and a familiar blonde figure was waiting anxiously on the platform. Seeing that, I quickly turned back to wipe off my tears of excitement: I could not believe that I was about to celebrate the holidays with people from memories so vivid as if they were made yesterday.
interactive map of my pawprints for German festival season
I quickly stabilized myself, made sure I had rid my face of the two teary trails, and put on the biggest smile my facial muscle would let me, and approached.
“Hey Pauline!!!” I was so excited that my voiced cracked a little.
If you are an avid reader, you would know I met Pauline during Australia 2016, in the remote capital of Darwin. I always enjoyed her whacky style while she “cooked” her breakfast by pouring milk into a bowl full of cereals. It had been too long, too long! After a hug, we walked around the area, where a Christmas market had popped up. There is nothing that can beat a Christmas market in Germany during the holiday season for a warm fuzzy feeling. The one in Cologne is especially marvelous, where a few sectors surrounded the dominating Gothic church of Kölner Dom.
Am Dom Christmas Market
Christmas Markets, or as in German, Weihnachtsmarkt, has been around in the area since the 15th century. However, its lineage can be traced back as early as 1298 in Vienna. Thus, it is not an overstatement to say this tradition has been around for more than 700 years. Sadly, before this trip, I had never been to one of these festivals of heaven before, given my nature to devour everything in my path. For that, I felt truly ashamed as someone who claimed to eat his way around the globe. Yet, it is always better late than never, so here I come!
the Weihnachtspyramide/Christmas pyramid
Before I even set foot onto the grounds of paradise, I was stared down by the massive Christmas pyramid called Weihnachtspyramide. It is originally a kind of rotating decoration driven by heated candle air, normally put on tables during Christmas season, but here, it is magnified 100 times and of course, loses its ability to spin. Some historians claim that this kind of tower is the precursor of Christmas trees, but I cannot see the resemblance. Ok, true, I only see resemblance to food whenever I see anything. (just fyi, it looks like a macaroon tower)
Pauline eating a reibekuchen
Without a doubt, I was here in Germany to try food and alcohol. I have been criticized by many that I put food as the top priority during most of my travels, and thus, blog journals. “We have seen enough pictures of food!” someone yelled in the distance. However, there is no room for debate that in Christmas markets, food takes the spot.
a beautiful starry adornment stall
One of the first foods I tried was this delicious deep fried potato pancake called reibekuchen, or as any other region outside Rheineland would call, kartoffelpuffer. It is served with apple sauce for some strange reasons. It is one of the traditional market foods, along with chestnuts, mulled wine, and of course, sausages.
a toy store
Also a specialty for the holiday season is gingerbread called Lebkuchen, or as some regions call it, unnecessarily complicatedly, pfefferkuchen. (all I can do is to hold my lower lip against my upper teeth and blow air out of my lungs as if I am choking.) A very classic thing to buy, or more frequently, look at, is actually gingerbread made in the shape of hearts with nice words on it, usually “I love you” or “you are as important as a serving of sauerkraut in my life”. One of them might be a pure conjecture made up by my food-oriented German psyche, but I want to believe both are true.
*blushes* I love you too, bread
a pretzel stall
Pauline and I walked across the Hohenzollern bridge across the Rhine after a few good hours of chatting and mulled wine, and sat down by the wet stairs by the river, facing the beautiful Gothic cathedral Cologne is so famous for. The humidity produced a thick layer of high fog, hanging like a layer of blanket over the slightly drunk city, murmuring quietly, about to fall asleep, while Rhine river silently flowed towards north. It was a sight that I would never forget, and would never want to.
good night, Cologne
After bidding Pauline farewell, I myself fell asleep in the tiny bunk bed in the hostel. I knew this was my destiny, alone in a tiny bed in a city 5000km from where I was born, but with such fond memories of all the beautiful days across the globe. I may be poor that I only had 4 shirts, 2 of which had holes, but I am rich in my heart. It just saddens me a little bit that a lot of people nowadays look for a thick wallet with a thick skull rather than a heart of gold. It is the world we live in, and for the path I chose, I do not regret a bit.
a parking lot with an ancient Roman wall
An interesting thing about cities around here is that they were built on ancient cities that came before them, which were on top of even older settlements before. Thus, it is almost normal for news to pop up about a construction project unearthing some old dwellings from Roman times, especially since Cologne was the capital for German Inferior ever since its establishment in 1AD as Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium, from whose first word the city is name after.
statue in a church
For the second day, I, being a poor bastard as I always am, moved into Ulrike’s house. Ulrike was a shipmate on my Voyage South towards Antarctica, who unceremoniously decided to become an old lady and knit the whole 20 days, while none of the other passengers, most of which were over the age of 60, did anything close to that. It was such a great opportunity to see her again, as the memories from the voyage was still fresh as if they were made yesterday. If you have not seen the journal to Antarctica, I highly, highly recommend you to check it out, and trust me, it will not be a waste of your time.
We went to a brauhaus, the local brewery, called Peters. Here, Ulrike introduced me to the interesting local beer of kölsch, literally meaning Colognian. Unlike what most people had in mind when they think of German beer, kölsch is a smooth, mild beer served in a tiny tall glass called “Stange”. Thus, for Germans being Germans, it is very normal to see people here drinking a “Kranz” of it, basically a plate full of them, in one sitting. And if you finished your drink, and did not put your paper pad on top of the glass, it is understood by default that you want another one, so the server would swap out your empty glass with a full one without you even noticing, and bill you accordingly.
more Christmas markets!
After filling myself with one of Cologne’s biggest attractions, I continued with Ulrike to see the other (strange) symbol of the city, Heinzelmännchen. If long words that you cannot pronounce is not your thing, then I would recommend you stop reading and check out any other non-Germany related journal I have, since it is only gonna get worse from here. These Heinzelmännchens are basically gnomes that are tied to the city in a very specific tale. It was rumored that back in the days nobody in Cologne had to do any housework (ahhh my kind of city), because at night, these gnomes would come out and do all the work for the citizens, until one day a tailor’s wife got really curious and spilled a lot of peas on the ground so they would trip and fall. Infuriated by the betrayal, the gnomes left and never came back, so the Colognians had to do all the work themselves from then on. Thus, in the market shown above set in the square where the statue of this story, called Heinzelmännchenbrunne (told ya it is not getting any better), is located, has a lot of gnomes on the arch.
Markt der Engel
We crossed through so many markets, to so many different places of so many interesting history, including a beautiful Christmas market called Angels’ market, where lights dangled from the tip of the branches and reached down like shooting stars from the distant future. There is no denying that this is probably the best season to be in Germany, as the festive atmosphere is almost infectiously exciting, permeating through every air molecule and blood vessel. Nobody would say no to a walk in the crowded market filled with delicious treats and aroma of love in the air.
at night, markets look especially delightful
For day three, I finally had to hug Ulrike goodbye, as my grandma friend had to go back to her old home of Berlin for holidays, while I go south for Mainz. Our trains departed at the same time, and I waved her goodbye the second time since the end of our voyage in 2016, as the two sets of rails got further, and further apart.
After 5 hours of slowly grinding alongside the beautiful Rhine river valley, my train came to a halt at Mainz hauptabanhof. Coming to me in front of the station with a bicycle probably older than herself, was Eveline. She nimbly hopped off the bike, and gave me a big hug. It felt like it had been years since the end of our other bike journey together in Ecuador, but it had merely been 3 months. I sometimes just hate it that time perception gets scrambled while you are on the road. Is it a Sunday today? How long ago was my last proper night of sleep? Since when did I start forgetting my own birthday? Just the most annoying thing ever!
a beer bike
I was glad that for once in my life, I got to meet a friend I made during my travels less than 2 years after seeing them on the road. (not like I have friends made any other way though!) Finally, I am a normal functional human being for once, hooray! Eveline showed me around the town, and then I explored a little bit myself. Most of the time, I walked around Altstadt, the old town, but due to the gloomy weather during my entire stay, I cannot show you any any spectacular photo of this beautiful city, as a grey sky with a grey river is not exactly the postcard-perfect picture of this Roman city.
Once the capital of the Roman Empire province of Germany Superior, Mainz had faced quite a bit of challenge in modern ages. While during the World War, ally bombings took out almost 80% of the town, it was not until the arrival of rapid mass transit did Mainz feel the pressure threatening its strategic importance in the nation. Frankfurt now lies just 1 hour away by bullet trains, and that took away almost all regional influence this ancient capital once prided itself for.
along the Rhine river bank
However, thankfully, Mainz had found a new way to insert its dominance. The city has held tight to the title of wine capital in the region, even having a special wine department in the government. While wandering around with Eveline in the area, I could find numerous fields of grape vines all along the river banks and hilly valleys. And not to mention, Krug, a champagne hailed as almost the god standard in frequent traveler communities, was founded here in 1800.
view from Eveline’s home
Finally, it was Christmas time. This is my second time ever celebrating Christmas in Europe, after that unforgettable experience in the Swedish north. Eveline and I arrived early to help her sister’s family prepare dinner, the most important meal of the year in the household. As usual, by preparing I mean watching everyone else darting around the house doing actual work while I stood in different positions while munching on some food. The concept of “helping” already made me feel like a functional member of the family. Moral support is important, ok?
making dumplings, German way!
dinner is set!
Without breaking a sweat, I successfully watched the entire dinner being made in front of me. To reward myself after completing such a hefty task, I grabbed a seat by the dinner table. It was completely different celebrating Christmas with Eveline’s family, as they have more Catholic values and traditional practices. For example, they said they always leave an empty seat at the dinner table for Christmas, because Joseph and Mary were knocking door to door asking for assistance when Christ was born, and they are always ready for unexpected guests to share the sacred meal. This year, however, that seat was occupied: I was the guest.
After the meal, we exchanged gifts. I had very little to offer, since I only carried a backpack the size of a school bag during my trips, and I could not offer the kids large toy train sets, but every other member of the family prepared something special for me. While watching the others happily surround the children playing, I could not help but fall into an ocean of thoughts. I never got to live like this, and yet I was treated like a member of this typical household. Growing up alone in China meant every Christmas was watching others celebrating the holidays with parents, while I sat alone in front of a television, crying most of the time, hoping that one day I got to do that too. It was not easy that I put myself this far into the unknown, and be in Germany thousands of miles away in a different tradition. It almost felt like a different life, and I am so proud of myself. Today was the second time ever in my life that I did not have to bury my head inside a pillow and secretly wish that I had a family to celebrate Christmas with, because this time, I am in one.
Mainz at night
An interesting gift exchanged during Christmas night was a set of figurines. When Eveline pulled it out of the box, everyone immediately started laughing. Apparently, those little guys are called Mainzelmännchen, some kind of local celebrity here. These little boys were originally created in 1963 to warn the audience about upcoming advertisements, usually with short clips lasting 5 seconds long. However, they quickly became some kind of symbol for Mainz, where the TV station is located, and they even were awarded titles of honorary citizens! Until now, they have produced over 50000 snippets of funny clips, and merchandise stores are set up around town for people to buy souvenirs ranging from mugs to full size models.
Mainzelmännchen on a t-shirt
After thanking Eveline’s sister and her family, I dragged my heavy heart, along with a heavy bag of gifts everyone gave me, back home. To make myself useful, I suggested to teach Eveline how to make wontons. I always pride myself with my self-sufficiency, and being able to feed myself when the dire situation comes is definitely a leading factor. However, Eveline was so smart that she learned it before I could even finish instructing. Before too long, she presented me a beautiful plate full of future food-coma inducers.
dumplings, Chinese style!
Finally, it was time to say goodbye. I felt like I had known Eveline as an old friend since middle school, but in fact, I had known her for less than a year! That is what they say about friends you make on the road: one day on the path is worth a month at home. There is nothing that honors me more than being able to see these old pals alive and well, because for me, this is what I live for.
I boarded another train, unable to bear the sadness that I may not see Eveline for a looong time. I felt like a horrible friend, irresponsible, egotistic, naive and pompous. Always takes and never gives… As the Rhine river again started creeping into my view, I tried my best to look forward, to the next destination: Bonn.
After another 4 hours up the stunning river valley that gave birth to this beautiful and powerful nation, I hopped off at the city of Bonn. While waiting, I anxiously checked my phone numerous times, despite the fact that it had no internet at all. Finally, I knew that she was approaching, the girl who could bring up a gust of wind by just walking pass. Jacqi, along with her sleek outfit, appeared in front of me by some form of magic. It had been just 2 months since we met in San Diego, but how could I forget this devilishly smart girl? Apparently, she had her life sorted out, now working for a great company in an internship, hopefully boosting her resume for the next level of studies down the year. I used to think I had done quite a bit in my life, until I saw young people like her who actually gave me midlife crisis anxiety. Her life accomplishments made me feel like I was a homeless old man picking trash off the streets. Oh wait, I sometimes do.
Jacqi in old Market Square
Despite Bonn’s immediate proximity to Cologne, it had stubbornly retained much of its unique style. In the back of the above photo, the equally gorgeous Altes Rathaus/Old Townhall was built in 1737, with the exquisite Rococo style decor and a beautiful facade. We walked along the cobbled streets on the beautiful yet a bit gloomy afternoon. One thing that nobody can miss in Bonn is the magnificent Bonner Münster, the epitome of Bonn’s unique identity. Constructed more than 1000 years ago, this church, in my humble view, is more impressive than the Gothic Dom in Cologne, a stone’s throw away. In front of its gates were two severed heads of Saints Cassius and Florentius, legendary Roman warriors of the Theban Legion.
We walked all the way down past Hofgarten, a beautiful large building with an enormous patch of grass in the front, perfectly suitable for a delightful picnic if it was not on a grey afternoon in the dead of winter. We eventually came to a nice university campus site called Poppelsdorfer Schloss. Significantly damaged by the ally bombings and since had been repaired, now it houses a beautiful botanical garden perfect for lounging around.
For a power lunch, of course I had to give in for Jacqi, she suggested me to try wiener schnitzel in one of her favorite restaurants. While she quietly went for the healthier flammkuchen, literally meaning flame cake. I bet everyone is very familiar with the classic pork chop dish, and if you want a detailed version of explanation, I had it in my Vienna portion of my EuroHop 15/16 journal. It was my first time seeing the flammkuchen, however. It is basically southern German pizza, but without the tomato sauce and cheese, yet with some sour cream and onions. Oh, and since it is German, it of course has to have a lot of meat.
Ok, ok, my dear French readership, please stop yelling “sacré bleu” into your screen, you may rupture a vein. This is the version for you.
Instead, the girl slim as a baguette but sweet like a chocolatine opted for a healthier tarte flambée, the classic Alsatian pancake. By taking out the cheese and tomato from its Italian cousin, while adding in a lot of onion and most importantly, crème fraîche, this is definitely the better man’s pizza.
Oh no, I just realized chocolatine is not the word they use for Alsatian region. It seems like I have failed to retain my French readership after all, because all of them probably had already thrown their devices out of the window when they realized I did not use the proper name pain au chocolate…
wiener schnitzel, along with a tall glass of kölsch of course
Finally, I finished eating about 12000 calories, while Jacqi just sat there and watched, smiling. I realized it was her secret plan, probably a pact made with devil himself, to feed me so much food that I die from obesity, and happiness. I would not let her succeed, and that was my determined conviction before seeing the giant Haribo flagship store. You see, Bonn is actually one of the most important cities in Germany during 20th century. To some degree, it is as crucial as Berlin since it served as the capital of the western part of Germany during the cold war. Every single government agency stayed here for 50 years, even for 10 years after the Berlin wall was torn down. Thus, a lot of important facilities are still here for legacy reasons, including the headquarter of the company that once invented the delicious, life-altering gummy bears: Haribo.
Haribo flagship store
I rushed in and started munching on the thousands of kinds of sugary bears, while making muffled sounds such as “shooooo good!”. They even had entire walls of mosaics depicting all kinds of arts, except that every tile is gummy bear!!! I probably ate half of the gummy bear world population before realizing Jacqi was just following me while not eating any. Oh no. I had failed again. I would never be as slim as her, because I simply cannot restrain myself in front of these little pieces of fructose heaven… I blame the gummy bears for being too tasty. I have absolutely no problem! It is all their fault!
Finally, I had to leave this city. Thankfully, that also meant I would no longer be tricked by Jacqi’s deceptive coercion. I believe if I stayed for just one more day, I might become fat enough that I would never leave. Thankfully, I was on the train towards the other side of the black forest before I fell into another food coma.
Seven hours of train again put me back on the road. A short transit in Stuttgart reminded me of last time I journeyed through Germany. It was not an easy task to be in my favorite country in Europe, if I have to pick one to live in. Every little town looked like a future home, and the nice people everywhere just reminded me of a possible lifestyle that is just one simple decision away. Where I am going next, however, is somewhere that the trains cannot even reach, and that is a tiny town on the border between Swabia and Bavaria called Bopfingen. As the train slowly climbed through the hilly black forest, it started to snow, as tiny patches of white began dotting the sides of the windows of this 2-carriage train. Eventually, it slowly powered down, and I had to get off at the final station of Aalen. On the dimly illuminated platform, I saw a familiar face, with the unmistakable smile. Despite it was my first time here, I knew: I’m home.
waiting to get my cancelled train sorted out so I can get home faster
When it comes to irresistible smiles, Cathrin’s award-winning complexion came to my mind. Nobody could forget her smile the first time she was featured as the shining star of my Nicaragua journal. I bet even my great grandma remembers, and she can barely remember my name! Cathrin had returned back to her hometown, and now worked as a diligent student/pharmacist in the tiny village of Bopfingen, and there is absolutely no reason to not visit her when I was in Europe! After a quick drive east for a further 15 kilometers, I finally ended up in her warm, wholesome house. Hours of journey had led me back to this moment, and it had never been more worth it. Cathrin, full of surprises as always, pulled out a full box of cookies, all made by herself.
someone is a bit shy!
Of course, she had to make the most tasty cookies in the world, in the shape of Ometepe, where monkeys howl and raindrops splash into a million little crystalline pearls. One little bite immediately brought me back to those awesome days, and the fact that I still owe her 2 euros of lunch which she treated me. Oopsie!
We took the next few days off, just messing around with all kinds of festivities and nonsense. For a particularly sunny day, we went to the next town across the border of Bavaria called Nördlingen, a prominent stop on Romantische Straße(Romantic Road) and also a beautiful medieval town stuck in time. It is one of the only 3 towns in Germany to have preserved its complete city wall. In fact, the Romantic Road is so popular in Japan that the road markings are in Japanese and German. Additionally, it is widely believed that the famous anime Attack on Titan took inspiration from this place, since the complete city wall intrigued the visiting creators greatly.
on the city wall
If you have been in Nördlingen, you will know that it is impossible to not see the imposing church nicknamed Daniel, towering over 90 meters above the rest of the buildings. Despite the fact that we both were probably 60% cookies by weight at the time, we climbed up all the way to the top for the best view ever! A guard was stationed at the top, and every day, during noon, he would go to the windows and call out:”SO, GSYO, SO!” Apparently, it means:”hey, you rascal!” Even Cathrin herself cannot explain why. Through all my digging, it is apparently because one time a spy tried to open the city gates at night during a siege, but the tower keeper saw it and yelled aloud “YOU RASCAL!” and saved the city from the imminent invasion.
looking out from Daniel, note the clearly visible city wall
To reward ourselves, we decided to go for some great local food. In this region, it is really popular to eat a kind of noodle called spätzle. A delicacy, however, requires some extra ingredient, and there was no better time to enjoy the notoriously delicious Käsespätzle than this special occasion. The rich cheese on top of the soft egg noodle was a pair made in heaven, and the beautiful golden color was perfectly accompanied by the fresh salad…
Käsespätzle, the fried onion is heavenly
For the equally sunny afternoon, we visited the local museum. Interestingly, the city itself was built on top of an ancient meteor crater. Thus, it is rather clear that there were small hills all around the area, and all rocks used to build the houses here contain millions of tiny diamonds, formed by extreme heat and pressure put on the graphite deposits during the collision. In the museum, numerous boards detailed how the rocks around the region differ in layers, thus proving a significant impact eons ago: center of the crater is full of rocks that form under pressure, while the layers outside show thick stratos of dust accumulation.
streets in Nördlingen
After getting back to Bopfingen, Cathrin took me around the tiny downtown. She showed me where the little Cathrin went to school, as well as the big “Christmas calendar” on the front wall of the town hall. Locals from around the town contributed to the artworks, and for each day before Christmas, starting on December 1st, a window would be opened, so on the 25th day, the final window would show the biggest, most impressive drawing. However, I would prefer one with chocolate, since I usually can finish 25 days’ worth of candies in 25 minutes.
biggest Christmas calendar I have seen!
And finally, it was time for me to do something for Cathrin! I always admit that I am quite useless when it comes to helping out, but in order to make myself useful, I decided to cook a meal for the family. That included Cathrin, her parents, her brother Wolfie, and me! Seeing a bag with packaging of “spring rolls” in the local supermarket, I could not contain myself: I can impress Cat’s whole family with one of my most confident dishes! I bought a whole cart of ingredients, catering to both common and Cathrin’s vegetarian diet. A quick chop of the bok choy, a simple slice of carrots, and finally a hint of meat and ginger, with my female little helper’s assistance, I finished wrapping two dozen spring rolls in no time. Everything went silky smooth, until it was time to fry it. I completely forgot that it was misnamed by the importing German company as the spring roll wraps were actually Vietnamese summer roll skins made of tapioca. Normally, for Chinese spring rolls, I have an oil pot set up at about 130°, and I just deep fry them to golden, crunchy deliciousness, but this time, when I put the tapioca ones into the pot, the least appetizing thing happened.
“KABOOM POP BLAMWHAM CHING CHONG DING DONG KAPOW!”
Tapioca’s captured ingredients expanded intensively like a mid-air plane depressurization, and before I realized, the entire kitchen was covered by debris. I must had been accumulating great karma as nothing was caught on fire. Cathrin must be my guardian angel since I was pretty sure that the normal scenario involves something engulfed in flames, most likely me. Imagine going to someone’s house and proceeded to burn her generation family home down…
It only took me an hour to clean up the mess, and of course, I was grounded as the careless child of the family that I became. To finish the other spring rolls, we decided to bake them, while closely monitoring the expansion of these safety hazards. Eventually, I got it edible, but as I watched the whole family trying their best to chow down the food without gag reflex kicking in, I knew my credibility as a master chef had gone kaboom just like the first spring roll. After handing my invisible chef hat back to Cathrin, I eventually got to see her in action. There is no denying that she makes an impressive array of baked goods. Her bread was better than any artisan bread I had ever put my paws on. She probably took this after her mother, who was able to put food better than the previous day on the table, every day.
a night out with Wolfie’s friends!
Interestingly, Cathrin’s house is next to the local mountain Ipf, a famous little hill part of Schwäbische Alb/Swabian Alps. There were some remnants of the previous ruins, indicating that people had been settling into Bopfingen since the early 8th century, and in the first documents, it was called Pophingen. Thankfully, the name is changed into something a bit easier on the lips, unlike the name of this hill.
walking near Ipf
Oh and do not try and pronounce the name Ipf. Apparently I was not good enough at it, and got forced into practicing it with so many people over the course of my stay that I almost coughed my lungs out. However, there was no denying that while my respiratory system was suffering catastrophic failure, the view up there was spectacular. A little tree-lined walkway led all the way up to the top, and you could see panoramically across the border to other regions. Hundreds of wind generators were working hard at the nearby hills, and each little piece of land had a prominent castle visible miles away.
view from the top
Finally, it was New Year’s Eve! For this special meal, Cathrin decided for the Swiss specialty of raclette. What is raclette, you ask? Well, it is a special kind of cheese made for melting. The word comes from the French word of racler, meaning scraping off, because usually they heat one side of the cheese wheel and scrape off the melted part with a knife. Here in the Hauk household, we used cheese already sliced and cooked them in a special cooker, with special non-stick pans in the shape and size of the slices, and then scrape them onto boiled potatoes.
I was expecting silky smooth cheese with a nice dose of milk aroma when I opened the packaging, but NO. IT WAS THE OPPOSITE OF WHAT I EXPECTED. The pungent smell felt like an old carton of yogurt forgotten in the depths of one’s fridge for so long that it had imploded and lost all of its sour smell, left with just the horrific odor of rotting protein and a sense of regret (do not ask me why I know this smell). In short: it smelled bad, very bad. My happy face above quickly turned into super scared face, as I begrudgingly put a slice of devil’s butt cheek onto the cooker. However, the bad smell quickly dissipated, and instead came the strange smell of grilled cheese with sourdough. Could it be?! It turned pleasant after heating!? And the answer is yes. After applying a slice of melted raclette on top of a small boiled potato, I took a timid bite, and found out that it was way better than the trashy melted cheese served by my university canteen. The texture and the strings, ahhh, just perfect! Wait, oh no, I am turning into one of those cheese snobs, oh no!!!
raclette for new years~!
After stuffing myself with 50% potato, and 50% cheese, I fell into a food coma, as Cathrin and her friends started playing the piano with some beautiful songs. These were truly the days we’ve been waiting for. After a meal full of laughter and great food, we sat down by the piano illuminated by the dimly lit candle fires, with some of us slowly dozing off due to the excess amount of food, and the rest cozying up to a nice chorus of Love Is in the Air by John Paul, played by a pair of hands still a bit cold from the snowball fight. No crazy drinking, no dreadful partying, no uncomfortable pleasantries, just a bit of a silly singing together, probably a few octaves off, and a bit of time C.A.T.: Carefree.Anytime.Together. Days like these, I could not ask for more.
I was awoken from my thoughts as Cathrin rocked me hard on the shoulder, happily handed me a glass of champagne: it was time to say goodbye to 2017. We raised our chutes, and drank for the brand new year, as the little village echoed with hundreds of fireworks. Ipf’s shadowy figure looming at the back became visible every time a flash passed us, and in the chilly night, we welcomed the brand new year of 2018 with a big smile, probably because we were all infected by Cathrin’s signature grin. This is what we live for, and who can deny us the pleasure?
a swing in front of the house~!
I just hate it when I have a good time, because I never realize that it was time to leave. Needless to say, I had an awesome time with Cathrin in Bopfingen. In fact, I think it was the first time in a long, long period, maybe ever, that I had ever felt I belong somewhere. I never had a home, had a family, had a sense of longing, until I was there. It was almost as if I was supposed to be born there, but some kind of celestial mistake put me 10000 kilometers away. It was my time to go to the next place on this trip, but somehow, it gave me the feeling that I was leaving home for the first time. That sadness, mixed with a hint of dreary fear, stirred my heart like a washing machine on crack. I could only feel nothingness, just a blank mind telling myself: why? Why do I always have to be on the move, leaving such great memories behind? I hated myself, for getting on that bus in Nicaragua, for letting myself come here to experience this life, and most importantly, for creating such fantastic experiences and then leave them behind…
on the way to Aalen
There is nothing to be written here, because I had no memory of it. I cannot recall how I said goodbye to Cathrin, because it was too painful that my subconscious did everything it could to suppress that moment. The only thing I remembered was sitting on the toilet in the train compartment, staring into my own reflection in a puddle of tears created god-knows how long ago, and an angry German banging on the doors, yelling something probably very nasty, or just speaking normally since there was no audible difference in German.
“Sorry! Sorry!” I frantically wiped off my tears with one of the many balls of tissue paper that popped up from nowhere, and stuffed them into the bin. I could not even remember my seat, so I found my bag on the shelf and sat down near it.
tiny tiny train to Kappelrodeck
Onwards, to a place so little and obscure that nobody I have met had been able to decipher where it is: Kappelrodeck. Sandwiched between the mountains and the French border, this tiny town was home to the Köninger family. Pascal and Fabian are two brothers who I got to meet during the quaint trip to Mexico a long, long time ago, and surprisingly, we kept in touch. Until then did I realize it was lucky too, since I just found out the best hidden gem of this province of Baden-Württemberg. After transiting for 2 solid hours standing in the desolate train stations of Stuttgart and Archen, I boarded the tiny one-carriage diesel powered train towards this little village. As I got off, I was pleasantly surprised that Pascal, and his girlfriend, Laura, were waiting for me on the platform! I gave both of them a big hug, and thanked them for coming to pick me up. It turned out that for them, it was not hard at all.
Pascal’s mom’s handmade deliciousness!
It turned out that their mom’s house is literally 5 meters from the train station, so they just walked out when they heard the diesel engine coming. On the other hand, it took me 2 hours of metro into the airport, then 15 hours of flying, then 6 hours of train to get to the same spot. However, to reward my long trek, the warm family welcomed me with a handcrafted cake/bread and an afternoon tea befit for a king. Finally, something that is on the same level as my
appetite level! Don’t tell them that I lied, since I am actually not a descendant of the Chinese emperor, and I suck at Kung Fu.
Maultaschen for dinner!
Of course, to have the most Swabian dish possible, I had to order the notorious Maultaschen. Alina also cooked it for me last time I was here in the region during summer, and this time it was the meat version. Oh god it was unbelievable, and it was not until then did I realize that the family had a long tradition in cooking local food. In fact, Pascal’s aunt owns one of the most prominent restaurants in the tiny village. During summer, lots of people would come to these beautiful valleys and enjoy a good vacation, and her restaurant is always booked out way ahead in advance.
Pascal’s mother and aunt, in their restaurant
We also took a walk around the small place. How small is it, you ask? Well, to my German readers, it only has 1 kebab place that is open past 10pm. Yes, only one. Now that should give you a sense how minuscule that place is.
Most of the buildings had been perfectly preserved, revealing their traditional cross-wood building structure. A small river runs through the city, producing all the necessary natural force for the biggest industry in this small town: schnapps. Yes, this region is notorious in this strong alcohol that unfortunately sounds extremely funny whenever I am drunk. People here are obsessed with this thing. For example, the restaurant Pascal’s aunt owns used to be a distillery, and every building in the above picture was as well. Every food could be made with a bit of schnapps in it. In the family restaurant, they offered Laura a flammkuchen (yes the one Jacqi had) but with schnapps spread on it. The catch is: it is so fucking strong that it can catch fire, turning it into a literal flaming pancake. What.The.Fuck.
hey, um, Miss, uhhhh, your pancake is on fire
Then there is also some strange local alcohol that is made from a mixture of schnapps and egg yolk. Yes, egg yolk, oh, and a lot of sugar. Behold the Bibbeles, a sweet alcohol as thick as honey and probably made by someone with a skull equally thick, and let’s chug it in! But since it is so thick that nobody can chug it, the family used a special chocolate bowl that was suitable for holding ice-cream: why drink alcohol when you can eat it with the container altogether? This is Germany after all!
Bibbeles with a “cup”
To continue the alcohol saga, Pascal’s dad’s favorite drink is nothing other than the horrific nightmare called Jägermeister. It was my first time drinking it, and in order to be considered a part of the house, I had to. The herbs made the alcohol taste even stronger, and Pascal’s dad just casually drank it like an American working in a gas station with his diet coke. What.The.Actual.Fuck.
Jägermeister, served cold
And the family’s favorite pastime is a strange game called kniffel, which is very similar to the luck-based game Yahtzee in North America. It is almost a purely luck-involved gamble, and of course, I suck at it. It just felt weird, sitting in the tiny German village, rolling one round of snake-eyes after another, while drinking Jägermeister with a single carriage train passing by, every night. Ask me 5 years ago what I would end up doing in January in 2018, this must be somewhere on the list between “eating McDonald’s on a bench in Central Park with the Queen” and “casually petting my 12 pet meerkats while playing a harp”.
We then took a little trip to the ski resorts around the area. Presented in front of me, was a frozen lake, pristine to the core. Or in its case, the very bottom. A beautiful walkway encircles the lake during the summer, but during winter, especially after a round of heavy snow, it turned into a pristine white dumpster, specifically, a dumpster so slippery that it could easily dump any human being into the lake.
by the lake
And it turned out that it was a Tuesday. And here in the Köninger family, Tuesday is schnitzel day. I had already stopped asking questions by then, so please do not ask me why since only god himself knows. In a nice restaurant serving specialty schnitzels every Tuesday, we had a big dinner, with everyone, and more importantly, every kind of schnitzel in the world. Did you know? Schnitzel is not just the breaded and buttered version we always refer to it to. As long as it is a pork chop served in some dish, it is considered one. So I was surprised when I was served a giant saucy plate of pork, with the slice thicker than an encyclopedia. Now I knew why Laura refused to order schnitzels: those pork chops can eat you instead!
wiener schnitzel means breaded and buttered ones, but this is also a schnitzel
And after a few days of pure insanity, most of which spent drowning in a myriad of alcohol, it was time for me to finally leave. I hugged every member of this bizarre family goodbye, and stepped onto the train platform. It was weird that after waving them farewell, you could still see them back in their house, and actually hear them talking, since the house was so close. It almost made me feel like I should ditch the train ticket and just hop back upstairs for another cup of Jägermeister. Oh no… I have become addicted to Jägermeister…
say hi to the weirdest and warmest household in the world!
(special epilogue music here, PC only)
I took the speedy train back to Frankfurt airport, and boarded the Finnair flight towards Helsinki. It was a quick 1 month trip, yet it felt, unsatisfying. Do not get me wrong, this is probably the most satisfying trip in the entire history of my travels. Who the hell gets to go explore a Korean megapolis, a Chilean desert and a quaint German country village all in 2 weeks? But for me, Germany was so memorable, so indelibly unique, and so heartwarming, that I felt physical pain just to leave. Growing up by myself, I always wondered what a family felt like. When I was young, as I tucked myself to sleep every night in the military kindergarten (believe me they exist in China), I always asked myself: what would it feel like if I do not have to sing myself to sleep? Now I know. These few days in Germany are the nights when I got the sweetest dreams, and this is how it feels to not be alone.
at Helsinki airport
All these past memories came flooding back whenever I see someone I met a few trips ago. Some people measure their lives in days, in work hours, in promotions, in salaries; I mention my life with trips. Jacqi, Agersch, Eveline, Cathrin, one (mega)trip ago; Pauline, 6 trips ago; Ulrike, 4 trips ago; Pascal and Laura, 16 trips ago. This is my life, tracing all the way back to my adolescence. There are no internships, paydays, or rush hours, just days as fresh as the very first, memories as new as yesterday, and people as pure as in Eden. This is what life means to me, and these people are the ones who made me be.
Thank you, Agersch, Pauline, Ulrike, Jacqi, you gals showed me where you call home, so I get to do it too.
Thank you, Eveline, for letting me know, if I come knocking like Joseph did on Christmas day 2000 years ago, there would be a place that would offer me a place on the table.
Thank you, Laura and Pascal, without those final kniffel wins I might still be washing the dishes as the loser in the household.
And a huge thanks to you, Cathrin, for you made me realize family is not something I was born into, but grown into, accepted into with warm hugs and even warmer cookies. Because of you, I can finally say I have a family.
And hey, to the little, 4-year-old myself, we don’t have to wonder any more. Because we have finally found what we have been looking for. Now go to sleep, because we are C.A.T.: Carefree. Anywhere. Together. No more nightmares, no more tears, and no more darkness, because finally, these are the days we’ve been waiting for.
These are the days we’ve been waiting for~♪
And days like these who couldn’t ask for more?
Keep’em coming cause we’re not done yet~!
These are the days we won’t regret,
These are the days we’ll never forget~♪