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Christmas lights in Alsace

Posted: 2016-12-23 20:05:00, Categories: Travel, France, Germany, 344 words (permalink)

A few half-timbered houses in Christmas dress, Colmar.
A few half-timbered houses in Christmas dress, Colmar.
Sandra and I would like to wish you all peaceful end of the year 2016 and happiness for the upcoming 2017! Following our tradition, the wishes are accompanied with our Season's greetings card.

The Christmas market in Colmar.
The Christmas market in Colmar.
December is the season of Christmas lights and markets all around Europe. In our area in Southern Germany almost every village sets up a market at least for a day or two, larger cities do it for a full month. Glühwein, sweets and handicrafts are sold in small booths, typically in the pedestrian zones. We're not much into shopping, but it's always nice to visit the small event in our village, which lasts only one weekend and is less commercial than most.

This year we also checked out two towns in Christmas dress on the French side of the border: Colmar and Saverne. The markets were quite similar to the German ones, but the lights and decorations clearly topped all we have seen here. Almost the whole old town of Colmar was illuminated, with rows of coloured lights emphasizing the shapes of the beautiful half-timbered houses (Fachwerkhaus in German). Video projectors casted alternating scenes on more evenly coloured walls.

Colourful facades along the main street in Saverne.
Colourful facades along the main street in Saverne.
A fountain converted into a Christmas installation, Saverne.
A fountain converted into a Christmas installation, Saverne.
In Saverne, there was less glitter on the edges but the houses were beautifully lit with large lamps pointing upwards, creating a row of coloured facades on both sides of the main street. Statues of Santa, dwarfs, reindeer, gigantic candles and other Christmas paraphernalia were arranged in large decorative installations. We wondered where are they all stored for elevent months of the year waiting for the season, or are new ones built each year and thrown away afterwards.

The main reason of our short trip to Alsace was visiting friends and we spent a day hiking in the Vosges mountains. Also here in the German Alps it's still possible to go for walks — there is some snow higher up but not so much that one would need snow shoes yet. We'll have to wait a bit before we can go sledging like in the photo of our Christmas card.

A job with a royal view

Posted: 2016-07-03 01:47:00, Categories: Travel, Work, Germany, 878 words (permalink)

Neuschwanstein, the fairy tale castle above the clouds.
Neuschwanstein, the fairy tale castle above the clouds.
Since March 2016 I've been working part-time as a guide at the Neuschwanstein castle, one of the most popular tourist attractions in Germany. It has been a great experience to do something completely different than my previous jobs, and the view out of the "office" windows is the best I've ever had. :-) In addition to greeting thousands of visitors from around the world, through the work I've gotten to know many nice colleagues, some even from the same village we are living in.

The castle is located a good 10 km from our apartment, on top of a hill so we actually see it from our windows. It takes me about 50 minutes to cycle there and change my clothes to the official outfit of the guides. I work normally on Mondays and Wednesdays, starting at 8, 9 or 10 in the morning, and finishing between 16:30 and 19 in the evening. During July-September I'll be there one more day per week, usually Thursdays. Additionally I'm still involved in IT projects on a freelance basis, so this year has been busier than usual.

View from the castle towards lake Bannwaldsee.
View from the castle towards lake Bannwaldsee.
With more than a million visitors per year Neuschwanstein is the top tourist magnet of the area. All visits of the castle are guided tours, which guarantees that there is enough to do. During the busiest time of the day, a new tour with up to 60 participants starts every 5 minutes. Every guide on duty does up to 10 tours a day, lasting about half an hour each. After the tour there's some time for answering questions, coming back to the starting point and preparing for the next tour, usually also for a short break in between.

View from the castle towards Füssen.
View from the castle towards Füssen.
The tours come in three varieties: spoken tours in English and German, plus audio tours where each visitor gets a portable device and can choose the language from 18 alternatives. On an audio tour, the job of the guide is to lead the group through the castle, activate the audio guides at pre-defined points and help in case of any problems. That gives occasionally a chance to practise other languages than English and German. In addition to the tours, the guides are also responsible of cleaning the exhibition rooms. That's done every morning before the first tour starts.

Me on the castle courtyard. Photo by Vladi Kurucova.
Me on the castle courtyard. Photo by Vladi Kurucova.
A world famous attraction brings in an international audience. One clearly visible trend is the rise of Chinese tourism: without any statistics in hand I'd guess that Chinese are already the second largest group of visitors right after Germans. Also other Asian countries, Northern America and large European countries such as France, Italy and Spain are well represented. Russians and East Europeans come often as well, and occasionally we receive South Americans too. Africans and Middle Eastern visitors are a rarity, even with Arabic offered as one of the languages on audio guide tours. A few times I've also met Finns in the castle.

The outfit of the guides. Photo by Vladi Kurucova.
The outfit of the guides. Photo by Vladi Kurucova.
Neuschwanstein has more visitors and longer opening hours during the summer than in winter. Therefore they search guides for the summer season every year to complement the permanent staff, and that's how I also found the job. There is a range of different contracts available: full time, part time and a fixed number of days during the season, which suits especially students working during university holidays. I'm one of the three foreigners, the other two being Fabienne from France and Vladi from Slovakia. There are no dedicated English and German guides, we all do spoken tours in both languages as well as audio tours. My German isn't perfect, but being allowed to guide natives at one of the landmarks of Bavaria confirms that it's good enough.

My contract is until the middle of November, a couple of weeks into the more quiet winter season. That means that I'll spend this summer and autumn mostly in Germany. One of my free time plans is to visit some other castles and palaces in the region. As an employee in one of the historic buildings managed by the state of Bavaria, there are quite a few others I have free entrance to.

Neuschwanstein castle on a nice April afternoon.
Neuschwanstein castle on a nice April afternoon.
The title photo shows Neuschwanstein five years ago, with the valley behind covered in fog, when I was visiting the area with my family. That was a magical moment, doing justice to the nickname "Märchenschloss", the fairytale castle. The other photos have been taken in spring 2016, featuring the view out of the windows of the guides' lounge, me at the castle courtyard and another view of the castle taken near the Marienbrücke bridge. The bridge is currently closed but should open again in August.

Finally, a tip for everybody who'd like to visit the castle, especially on a summer weekend: come early in the morning. The first tour starts at 9 am, but the ticket center opens already at 8. Later in the morning you'll have to stand in the queue for quite a while, and in the afternoon all tickets for the day might even be sold out. Alternatively you can make a reservation in advance — there's a separate line to pick up pre-booked tickets. If you have a long waiting time before the beginning of the tour, a pleasant way to spend that is to take a walk along the shore of the nearby Alpsee lake.

Introducing Germaine

Posted: 2013-12-20 21:55:00, Categories: Travel, General, Germany, 398 words (permalink)

Germaine sitting and looking around on top of a cupboard. Let us introduce Germaine, our new furry companion. She likes to lie down and relax, not worrying too much about what's happening in the world. She follows us around in the flat and knows how to get food and attention. She miaows or squeeks in a special way, lifts her tail up and vibrates it. She has hurt her tail at some earlier time in life and cannot move the last part, so it forms a funny looking arc. When not eating, Germaine's favourite place is on the bed. Sounds like a comfortable and easy life, doesn't it?

Germaine standing on Sandra's back. Germaine spent her first 15 years with an elderly lady, who passed away a few months ago. She needed a new home and we decided to offer ours. It took her a while to get used to us and the new environment, but now it feels like she had always been here. For her age, equivalent to around 75 human years, she's quite fit. She suffers from digestion problems, needs special food and medicine, but otherwise she seems to be a happy cat.

We don't have a garden where Germaine could go out, but she is anyway not used to it after spending all her life indoors. When we open the balcony door, she may shortly step outside to smell fresh air, but comes soon back in. First we were careful as we thought she might jump down on the neighbour's balcony, but she doesn't seem to even consider that. An even if she would, it wouldn't be too bad as the neighbour below us likes cats too.

The new oven in our kitchen. After returning from Thailand and Laos in May, Sandra has been working again, this time in a laboratory together with her best friend. I spent a couple of months in Finland during the summer and after that I've had various small projects like renovating our balcony. We also bought a wood oven so we can enjoy watching flames and keep our flat warm without being dependent on oil.

It looks like we'll spend at least the winter and early spring mostly here in Germany. A hint to our friends: if you've been thinking of visiting us, now would be a good time! Sooner or later we'll probably go travelling again and will also need to find someone to take care of Germaine. However, for now she's living here with us and bringing us joy.

Traveling north for Christmas

Posted: 2012-12-17 02:14:02, Categories: Travel, Finland, Norway, Germany, Sweden, 376 words (permalink)

Our season's greetings card: Northern lights in Sarek. I'm traveling with Sandra to Northern Norway for the last two weeks of the year to join a gathering of other likeminded people. It will surely be a different Christmas than we've ever had before - non-commercial and without rush. We will celebrate the winter solstice with the sun remaining under the horizon all the day. The moon, stars and northern lights will be visible if we're lucky.

We wish all of you a merry end of the year, in whatever way you're celebrating it, and let the new year 2013 be full of happiness! The photo in our season's greetings card is from our summer and autumn trip to Finland and Sweden. We were hiking in the the Sarek national park in Swedish Lapland and set up our tent next to a small river in the wilderness, far away from trails and huts. Around half past ten in the evening the sky was illuminated by this beautiful arc of green light.

We spent also several weeks visiting family and friends in Finland. Mushroom and berry season was great so we ate plenty of chantarelles, blueberries and lingonberries, and also filled quite a few jars with them. At my father's summer cottage we spent a week renovating the sauna as a 65 year birthday surprise for him. We also had time to read a few books, but somehow didn't manage to update the blog. :-)

In the beginning of October we returned to Germany, in time for Sandra's best friend's wedding. October is usually a good time for outdoor activities in southern Germany and this year was no exception, many sunny days with blue sky. When not being outside we worked on a few more things in our flat and tried our best to get bureaucracy stuff done. It takes an amazingly long time after selling a business before bills and other letters from various directions finally stop coming.

During winter and/or spring 2013 we're planning a trip to South-East Asia, particularly to visit Sandra's father who is living in Thailand already since more than five years. But before that we'll see how we'll manage the cold above the polar circle. At least it's not only a camp - there should be some kind of heated building and maybe even a sauna.

Mountain view at home and other changes in life

Posted: 2012-06-21 12:09:54, Categories: Travel, Work, Germany, Hiking, 469 words (permalink)

Sandra enjoying the view on our balcony. In our new home in Halblech in Southern Germany, we have a direct view to the Alps. We moved here in the end of April after Sandra sold her food store. I quit my job at the same time, so we're both now free to move around and start any new projects we get excited about.

The changes had been in preparation already for some time. Like most small entrepreneurs, Sandra had endured stress and long working days for many years, and felt she needed a longer break. One of her employees was quite interested in taking over — a perfect opportunity to give her the chance of running the shop instead of a much harder decision of shutting it down.

I had continued working for CSC from home after moving to Germany. From a technical point of view it worked quite well, my employer had a positive attitude and I was able to make useful contributions to the projects. However, during one and a half years the lack of social contacts became more and more evident. I was more motivated to study German or help out with simple tasks at Sandra's shop than to work alone on a technical document in the corner of the living room. Therefore it was eventually not a hard decision to call an end to it.

The nature around Halblech is beautiful. On the east and south side are the Alps with high peaks up to 2000 meters and a large network of hiking and cycling trails. Towards the west and north are hills covered by meadows and forests, with rivers and lakes in between. I hadn't thought about it before, but a location at the foot of the mountains offers more varied scenery and opportunities for outdoor activities than a place deeper in a valley between high mountains would.

During the first weeks after moving in we didn't have to think about what to do with our additional free time. On sunny days we explored the nearby hiking and cycling trails, otherwise arranging things at home kept us busy enough. Building the kitchen was the largest amount of work.

In Germany it's common that apartments don't have any equipment in the kitchen: there are only connections for water and electricity. So we packed all our kitchen appliances, cupboards and the sink in the moving van, transported them to our new flat and reinstalled them there. That was already the second time within one year, including a new variety of small surprises during installation. In any case, after all the planning, cutting, drilling, screwing and sweating we have a functional and quite nice looking kitchen. And if we continue moving often, we'll do it faster and better each time. :)

Now it's time to enjoy the summer - and to have a housewarming party next week!

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