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Life in Germany

Posted: 2011-02-04 23:55:31, Categories: Travel, General, Work, Germany, 1028 words (permalink)

Posing for the camera in the bedroom. Since August 2010 I'm living in Germany together with my girlfriend Sandra. I've learned a new language and gotten used to not having to buy food in a supermarket any more. I continue to work part-time, but now from home instead of going to an office.

On a typical day the alarm clock wakes us up at 7:30, early enough for Sandra to get dressed, drive 40 km to her shop and open the doors for customers an hour later. I either get up at the same time or continue sleeping for an hour or two, depending on how tired I'm feeling. Then I do my morning yoga, have a breakfast while reading the daily newspaper and go upstairs in my home office. I'm still working for CSC on cultural data and digital preservation projects, although technically I'm a freelancer instead of a CSC employee now.

Working from home has the advantage of almost complete freedom in choosing the working hours. Nobody will knock on the door when I'm writing a document and I can listen to music without fear of disturbing colleagues. On the other hand it requires self-discipline to actually focus on work projects in a home environment. On some days I don't really get started and end up spending most of the day on personal emails or reading articles online. I'm also missing a bit all the short discussions with colleagues which happen naturally in the office during lunch and shorter breaks.

I have lunch around three in the afternoon, typically a salad and a warm dish consisting of food left from previous days. After that I continue with some more work on the computer, language studies, a walk or a bike ride outside, housework or hobbies before Sandra comes home around 19:30. Then we have dinner which we usually also prepare together, unless I've been a good man and cooked something already in advance.

Food is always around at the house. Every day Sandra brings home a box loaded with vegetables and fruit which have brown spots or other defects causing the customers to avoid them. In between are jars of yoghurt, pieces of tofu and other packaged products whose best before date has just gone by. We stock the boxes on top of each other in the cellar and do our best to cook and eat everything as long as it's still good.

I had never studied German at school and even after meeting Sandra didn't attend a language course in Finland. In Memmingen I started by walking to the library, borrowed a couple of books for self-study and a month later enrolled on a German course in the community college (Volkshochschule). I skipped the beginners level starting on a B1 level course, which ran from September until the end of the year two 90 minute lessons a week. The course was slightly difficult at first but not too hard when spending a bit of extra time on homework. I also took the habit of reading the daily newspaper Memminger Zeitung every morning and trying to make sense of the news stories on the front page, looking up words in a dictionary when necessary.

A few months was enough to reach a reasonable conversational level. Jokes, proverbs and strong dialects are still hard, but otherwise I can mostly follow and participate in discussions as long as rather simple words are used. I continue to make loads of mistakes in grammar, in particular with prepositions, gender (der/die/das) and various conjugations, but can usually make myself understood. Many of Sandra's friends don't speak English even nearly as well as she does, so I have plenty of opportunities to practise my new skill and knowing German makes it also more fun to spend time with them.

Memmingen is a town of about 40 000 inhabitants, situated 100 km west from Munich. It has a beautiful and pleasant old center with many pedestrian streets and is relatively cyclist friendly. I also found a nice yoga studio where I attend classes once or twice a week. It has not been difficult to get used to living here. One thing I miss a bit is the cultural life in Helsinki. There are of course concerts and events in Memmingen and nearby, but for a comparable variety of music and small alternative cultural happenings one would have to go until Munich. That's a bit too far for a spontaneous evening out, seeing a band for an hour or two.

Sandra and I are sharing a half of a two-family house 2 km away from center with her brother Thomas. The bottom floor consists of the kitchen and a common living room, Thomas has the first floor for him and we have two rooms just under the roof. One of them is the bedroom, the other being used as our private living room, home office and guest room. Occasionally we have a dinner at home or go out all three together, but mostly Sandra and I have our own life and Thomas has his. We get along but simply have different thinking and interests.

When Sandra has free days from the shop, I'm usually also taking those days off so that we can do something together. Most often we go for walks in the mountains or visit friends. Occasionally we relax in one of the big public baths with several saunas, where Saunameisters throw water on the stones, twirl a towel in the middle of the sauna and entertain people sitting on the benches. A few times we've traveled to neighbouring countries but not as often as we would like — with one less employee since October Sandra hasn't been able to arrange as much free time as before.

Music is also important for Sandra, probably more than for me. Whenever there is a cool band playing in Kaminwerk, the only regular live concert venue in Memmingen, we're usually there. Often we've also driven 35 km south to Kempten or some other nearby city for concerts. Through Sandra and her friends I've discovered a few artists which I hadn't even heard of before but liked immediately. Three I can recommend and have also seen live are Anyone's Daughter, Jamaram and Unheilig.

Arriving to the flat parts of Veneto region, Italy. We descended from the Alps to Longarone, a small town near Belluno, in North-Eastern Italy. The high peaks of the Dolomites gave way to lower, grass-covered mountains, then hills, and finally to the flatlands of the Veneto region. The route followed small roads and tractor tracks through vineyeards, corn fields, fruit gardens and small villages. On the way, we had a few wonderful stays with CouchSurfing hosts.

In Longarone we were welcomed by Gigi, Francesca and their family, who had heard about CouchSurfing from an Italian TV program. We were their first guests. They were first a bit puzzled what they could show us as mountains were the most popular attraction in the area and we had just been hiking for almost three weeks. However, we didn't need much sightseeing — a tour in the garden, chatting, relaxing and family dinners including their own vegetables, local cheese and wine were just perfect. We also got good hints which route to take during the following two days.

From Longarone we climbed once more up to 1700 meters and descended to Tarzo. There we stayed two nights with Helio and Lori, a warm and funny Brazilian-Italian couple. With them and their friends we had a tour in nearby Vittorio Veneto old town, followed by more than excellent ice cream in a local gelateria and the most entertaining wine tasting ever hosted by Lori's father, also called Gigi. Helio and Lori didn't speak much English but it didn't stop us communicating in a mix of about five different languages, while enjoying delicious Brazilian food and the friendly atmosphere in their home.

One full day walk later in Spresiano we met Francesco, a guy of about same age than us who had recently come back from a 6 month tour around the world. We all had one thing in common: quitting our jobs to travel at least once in our lives. So it was no wonder we had a lot to talk about. :) Francesco had a lot of ideas about how to change his life and be happy. We might meet him again one day in his small cocktail bar on a quiet beach, where he will mix a drink for us.

After Spresiano we didn't have any more CS hosts and were relying on hotels and guesthouses instead. We also considered sleeping outside, but without a tent or a mosquito net it would have been a bit tricky. In a few places the personnel immediately guessed which trail we were on, probably thinking "Again two of those crazy Germans walking to Venice".

On the flat parts we could have taken exactly the same route by bicycle so it was a good opportunity to compare these two ways of travel. By walking we saw a few more details in the gardens of the houses and it was a bit easier to talk to each other. On the other hand we were limited to about 25 km per day while by bicycle we could have easily covered three times that, without missing much in the scenery or opportunities to communicate with locals. So we sometimes felt a bit silly walking along the roads, but nevertheless decided to go on for the couple of remaining days.

After a total of 26 days of walking (including two rest days) we arrived in Lido di Jesolo, a beach resort located about 20 km from Venice. It was a big contrast to all the other places we had been to on the trip. There were hundreds of hotels and restaurants on a few kilometers of shoreline, and of course thousands of tourists on a beach holiday. On the beach there were sections of sunshades and chairs reserved to each hotel, but fortunately the waterline was freely accessible for all. We walked to the waterfront and took photos in our hiking outfit in front of the surprised beach-goers.

From Lido di Jesolo it was only a one day walk to Punta Sabbione and a half an hour water bus ride to Venice, our final destination. We spent a couple of days exploring the alleys and canals, photographing the colourful houses of Burano and relaxing on the beach before returning home. There was a good feeling about completing the tour, but it was of course not as important than the experiences during the trip.

Overall, walking for four weeks was an interesting experience. The first two and half weeks on the Alps (see parts one and two) were beautiful and the mountains started to feel like home in way I had never felt on shorter hikes. I would do it again, although perhaps carrying a tent and choosing my own route instead of following a book. On the other hand, I don't think it'll be my ambition to walk hundreds of kilometers along roads as some people do. On roads I prefer the bicycle or some other kind of vehicle, depending on the trip.

On the München-Venedig trail, part 2: The Dolomites

Posted: 2010-09-27 17:40:34, Categories: Travel, Italy, Hiking, 636 words (permalink)

A view of the Dolomites from Wasserscharte pass. The Dolomites looked quite different from the German and Austrian Alps. The rocks had sharper shapes, slopes were steeper and overall there was much less vegetation. Different layers of stone and rock often had their own colors — "European Arizona" as Sandra called it.

We still had a couple of cloudy and rainy days, but were mostly enjoying quite sunny weather, especially in the mornings. Our daily schedule gradually shifted to earlier hours. It became easier to get up in the mornings, and we were not any more the last ones to leave from the huts. During the first week it had always been Sandra waking me up, but it changed so that I was just as often the one who was getting up first — which was a surprise for both of us.

I also got better into the flow in walking. We descended to a valley and climbed up, over highlands, sometimes over a mountain passes and then down to a valley again. The days merged to each other so that it was hard to remember which date or day of the week it was. There was a feeling of traveling as scenery changed slowly but surely. We didn't go very far on any single day, but the events and views of the first days of the trip were already far behind.

Huts were more full than they had been during the beginning of the trip. We couldn't count on having a bed without making a reservation beforehand — something which we both dislike. Of course the huts would usually find some emergency space outside the normal sleeping areas instead of leaving hikers out in the cold, but it would have been extra hassle both for us and them. We took the habit of calling 1-3 days in advance, and canceling the reservations as early as possible when we changed our plans.

Already on our second day of the trip we had met other hikers who were also on the way to Venice. Some of them were faster than us and some slower, but about half a dozen were traveling more or less the same speed. We didn't walk in a group and occasionally would also make different choices of which hut to stay in, but then suddenly meet again a day or two later. As time passed a kind of companionship developed. During the day we were often guessing where our friends would be, and looking forward to seeing them again, sitting together at the dinner table and comparing experiences.

Our last day in the Dolomites was perhaps the most memorable. We stayed in Rifugio Pramperet and set our record by being on the trail at 6:46, a whole hour earlier than any of the mornings before — and without using alarm clock. The morning sun was casting a beautiful light on the mountains as we were climbing uphill. Up on the ridge there were a group of chamois, a kind of goat-antilopes. They ran away well before we reached them, but we were close enough to see well how elegantly they walked up and down on the steep slopes.

We reached the peak of Cime di Citta Sud (2450 m) at around 8:30 am. It wasn't the highest mountain in the area, but the view was gorgeous in all directions. It was also one of the only times we actually climbed on a peak. We cooked a second breakfast near the top before starting our long descent along Val del Ross. The open grasslands changed to forest, the trail followed a river, then there was a road, a few houses, then a small village. Late in the afternoon we reached the town of Longarone, bought two large ice creams and a big bag of fresh fruit, and called our CouchSurfing hosts. That's the beginning of part 3.

On the München-Venedig trail, part 1: The Austrian Alps

Posted: 2010-09-27 17:39:21, Categories: Travel, Austria, Italy, Hiking, 621 words (permalink)

A hole in the clouds on Grafmartspitze, Austria. One of Sandra's dreams was to go for a long walk one day. Like her, I had been on many short hiking trips, lasting up to one week, but never longer than that. So we decided to spend four weeks of our summer holiday by walking over the Alps.

Our route was mostly following the München-Venedig trail, a 550 km hiking route from Munich, Germany to Venice, Italy. Apparently a few hundred people walk at least a part of the trail every year. The route is described with minor differences in at least three books, all in German. We were carrying two of them with us.

We skipped the first 150 km and started near Innsbruck in Austria. The first day was easy: a bus to Tulfes and a ski lift up to 2000 meters left only a few kilometers of distance and 600 meters of altitude to climb up to Glungezer hut, our first place to stay. This time we didn't carry a tent, but our backpacks were loaded with a camping cooker, food, clothes and other equipment needed for the trip.

Second day showed us the reality of the mountains: sunshine had turned into snow and clouds with almost zero visibility. We chose a route which stayed most of the time on a ridge above 2500 m, trusting the forecast which suggested weather to clear up by noon. Well, it didn't and we spent a full day doing our best to find safe steps on the slippery rocks. It was almost dark when we arrived at the next hut.

On the following day the weather was better again and we got used to the already familiar Alpine scenery: snow-capped peaks, rocky ridges, mountain lakes and grass-covered highlands where cows and sheep were grazing between the mountain flowers. A new companion we hadn't so often seen before were marmots, who were squeaking and standing on two feet besides their holes, looking at us.

The trail never climbed over 3000 meters but rarely descended below 1500 meters. The weather varied rapidly from 25°C sunshine to cold rain, with temperature occasionally falling down to 0°C and rain turning into sleet. Once we had to change our planned route: Friesenbergscharte was not passable due to too much snow and clouds. We hiked about 10 km west and crossed the ridge at Alpeinerscharte, knee deep in the fresh snow. On the way we stayed one night at Geraerhütte, which turned out to be one of the most charming huts of the whole trip.

I had usually traveled with a tent so hiking from hut to hut was something new for me. Huts in the Alps are quite well equipped, even luxurious: most have nowadays electricity, hot showers, water closets and a fully equipped restaurant. Perhaps a bit surprisingly, they are still considerably cheaper than hotels and guesthouses in the valleys, at least for Alpine club members. A bed in the dormitory costs 8-10 euros for members (about double from non-members) and meal prices are similar to simple restaurants down in the valleys.

Where the huts differ between each other is the atmosphere. Some are friendly and cozy family businesses where the hosts have time to talk with every guest personally, while others are more busy hostel and restaurant establishments. Small huts far away from roads and cable cars are usually the best. Our favourites on this hike were Geraerhütte (Austria), Kreuzwiesen Alm (Italy) and Rifugio Pisciadu (Italy).

Actually we were in Austria only the first five days before arriving in Italy. However, the main local language was German still for a week and both the mountains and architecture of houses remained similar to Austria. It took a few more days to reach the Dolomites, which looked quite different. More about them in part 2.

Blog software upgraded

Posted: 2010-09-24 12:11:58, Categories: General, 54 words (permalink)
My website was moved to a new server this week and at the same time the blog software was upgraded to the latest stable version. After a few initial problems everything should work more or less as before. However, if you notice that something is broken or looks weird, please let me know! Thanks.

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