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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.

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!

From library to library on two wheels

Posted: 2011-06-18 14:55:49, Categories: Travel, Work, Ecology, Cycling, Germany, Cyc4lib, Denmark, 641 words (permalink)

Cycling to
Libraries tour approaching the bridge to Møn island. The Cycling for Libraries tour was an experiment on what comes up in the minds of library professionals when they go out and ride bicycles for nine days together. Answer: far-reaching discussions about the future of libraries in the changing world, and a great team spirit as the group worked it's way 700 km from Copenhagen to Berlin.

In the beginning we got to know each other and figured out by trial and error how to travel in a group. We saw beautiful Danish seaside landscapes, enjoyed meals prepared for us by our cook, were warmly welcomed in a local libraries, spent much more time on the road that the organizers had expected, got tired fixing punctured tyres in the rain, felt the bliss of a hot shower and slept side by side on the floor in a school.

After a couple of days the weather became more sunny, daily distances a bit shorter, bicycles were in better shape and also other topics than cycling and survival started to pop up in the discussions. As we didn't have books, documents or Internet in front of us, it was easier to think of broader topics than details. We talked about our projects, library politics, online presense and social changes — and of course about cycling, traveling and other hobbies.

The organizers had prepared for each day a theme, which was announced in the morning briefing. That guided the discussions a little bit, but ultimately it was up to each participant if they wanted to follow the theme, pick some other topic or simply listen to the nature and enjoy cycling. In the evening we were usually too tired and at the same time excited about what had happened during the day, that it was not easy to focus on any common theme other than food, beer and sleep.

A topic I found particularly interesting was the role of libraries as participants in social and environmental issues. One idea which came up was to create a global warming information finding aid: a shelf containing books, dvds and other resources on the topic, including hints what people can do themselves in everyday life. Libraries taking part in the campaign would place the shelf in a prominent place where visitors would easily see it. Different viewpoints should be offered to maintain the reputation of libraries as an impartial and trusted source of information.

Just as media can influence the thoughts and focus of its audience by choosing the topics to write about, libraries have more subtle but similar power through choosing which books and other resources are most visibly presented - including recommendations given by librarians online. Whether or not and how that power should be used is naturally not a trivial question. In any case, libraries can provide resources which give both a broader view and go deeper than a single TV show or newspaper article ever will.

One goal of the trip was to get library folks outdoors and challenge them. Several participants were first time taking part on a longer cycling tour. Accommodation was modest so people were together also in the evenings instead of locking themselves in hotel rooms. Day by day the team spirit grew, people helped each other and made sure nobody got lost or left behind. Everybody made it until the end, and many wrote afterwards that in their minds they were still cycling several days after the trip.

The Kirjastokaista team with their video cameras were with us during the whole tour. Almost everything was therefore freshly documented in detail and a short video of each day's events was posted online every evening. In that way the tour itself was an example of rapid information sharing using modern channels. A half an hour documentary is planned to come out later in the autumn. I'm looking forward to watching it.

Cycling for Libraries

Posted: 2011-05-28 10:49:39, Categories: Travel, Work, Ecology, Cycling, Cyc4lib, Denmark, 341 words (permalink)

Cycling for Libraries logo. Today starts an interesting event called Cycling for Libraries. About 80 library professionals and other people, whose work is somehow connected to libraries, will be spending nine days cycling from Copenhagen to Berlin. The goal is to combine work, fun and healthy exercise outdoors in a new and exiting way. The welcome party was yesterday evening at the Copenhagen main library, featuring a pedal powered ice cream and coffee bar.

Cycling for Libraries is a moving conference, where the main focus will be on the informal discussions between talks and other organized sessions. Hey, those are often the most interesting bits in conferences anyway. There will be some seminars, workshops and visits at local libraries on the way, but most of the time the participants will create the event themselves. I'm curious to see how much of the discussions will be focused on library topics, how much on cycling and how much on everything else. The organizers don't have a clue either, they're also doing this the first time.

For me it'll be the second time to participate in a organized cycling tour. Cycling for Libraries will not be as ecological and down to earth as the Ecotopia Biketour I joined in 2006, but still relatively low on luxury for a professional event. Accommodation will be at campsites, hostels and schools. I like that — sharing the space in a dormitory room or in a tent is a good way to get to know each other.

It's also a great opportunity to get out from my home office. It's too easy to get stuck to routines there, and have too little communication with the outside world. I came to Copenhagen a few days in advance and have really enjoyed my time here. Almost everybody is moving around by bicycle and that gives a special spirit to the whole city. Already on the first day, crossing a canal on a big bridge together with dozens of other cyclists and only a few motorists, I had a great feeling of being part of the community.

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.

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