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One off the Bucket List: Bavaria at Christmas

Many years ago, a German friend of mine told me how Christmas was her favourite time of year, and how Christmas was a very big deal in Germany. As she described it for me, I had images of villages lit up like the ones I’d seen on the mantel at home when I was young. She told me of Christmas markets, glühwein and gingerbread. It sounded like everything there was to love about Christmas, and so I filed it away as a “bucket list” thing to do.

For the six years my wife and I lived in Asia, we celebrated Christmas quietly, but it’s not as culturally celebrated or festive as it is in the west. We had to request Christmas day off as a personal day each year we worked there. There are many practicing Christians in Asia. For them I suppose it’s about the religious meaning, but in general Christmas isn’t shared as much as a cultural tradition or a marketing and consumerist bonanza as it is in the west. Or at least on the same scale as it is in the west.

Whether or not you celebrate Christmas, or are religious or not, you would know that Christmas is a tradition that invokes feelings of warmth and good cheer (if you can get past the shopping and ironic mean-spiritedness induced by seasonal stress.) It can typically be a time of great memories, just as any culture I know of has special traditions that bring them times of joy.

After being away from our traditional sense of the holiday for that long, we thought it might be a good time to go for gold and visit Bavaria at Christmas.

We looked at a map and chose our locations.

Munich

Where we wandered through the Christkindlmarkt and wafted from stall to stall.

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I had been to Munich before, but had never visited Dachau Concentration Camp. It felt like it was time to go. It was so completely wet and cold that day, and it was impossible to imagine what kind of horror life would have been there.


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Grainau

We chose Grainau because it was tucked way down in Bavarian Germany at the foot of the Alps. It seemed like it could be a cozy place to spend Christmas.

We left Munich in a rental. Christmas surprise! They gave us a BMW.

We were going to drive through the Alps in this:

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We stopped for a few photos in Starnberg, on Lake Starnberg, where Ludvig II mysteriously drowned. We would be crossing his path again soon.

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We got off the road again in Schlehdorf, because I thought the lake might give a nice view. It did. It was also the first time we’d seen the sun in days.

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When we got to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, I knew we were in for something special. It was a real-life Christmas village, covered in snow. By the time I took photos a couple of days later, most of the snow had melted away.

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We stayed in Grainau, a smaller town next to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, which was really just up the road. We also drove a little further down to Lake Eibsee. The mountain seen here is Germany’s highest peak, Zugspitz.

dsc_5769view from the hotel

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Drove around, visited Wallgau. Bavaria!

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In Garmisch-Partenkirchen, we visited the Partnachklamm (Partnach Gorge).

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dsc_5582At the top of the gorge. We took the cable car down.

We took a day trip to visit Neuschwanstein Castle. What would a trip to Bavaria be without a castle visit? This was built by Ludwig II (referenced earlier at Lake Starnberg). He had spent a great deal of his family’s wealth on his Wagnerian obsession, and mysteriously died before the castle was finished. Many reviews I read of this castle said that because it was unfinished, it’s not worth touring the inside. Untrue! The tour was totally worth it and really fills out Ludwig’s vision and obsession. Book your tickets in advance and avoid a huge line.

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It was a cloudy day. I waited two hours for this little sliver of light. Then it covered over and the light never came back. When you come this far and think about a photo for so long, two hours wait is okay. Special thanks to my ever-patient wife who actually sat there for 90 minutes with me. (Please, no mention of ‘vemödalen‘.)

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The trip to this part of Germany was one of the greatest trips my wife and I have ever taken. We would have loved to see more snow (being from Canada and currently living in Africa), but in every way the trip was absolutely amazing. Our visit to Grainau / Garmisch-Partenkirchen was our favourite part of the whole trip.

Austria

Austria was as great as Germany, and was like going a whole degree deeper into the culture of this part of the world. We stopped in Innsbruck for lunch, which was incredibly busy after Christmas / before New Year (a time called ‘Jul’, or ‘Interscotia’, as I recently found out.) The alpine range rose behind the city like a giant salt rock wall, and the architecture of the city indicated that we were in a place set apart from its neighbour to the north.

Now I had this brilliant idea (sarcasm should be noted) that we were going to drive through the Alps. Take the scenic route.

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So the last third of the trip was in darkness since we didn’t get there until the night time – which began around 5pm. However, the first part through the Alps was incredible. I felt like I was in a car ad. I did take a few photos as we drove through valleys, ski villages and around crazy bends that revealed massive panoramas, but I don’t feel any of them did the scenery any justice.

This was one of the only photos I took in Salzburg, in the Salzburg Cathedral. There was a lot to photograph, but there are times on vacation that I don’t want to carry the gear.

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dsc_5801Gingerbread!

Salzburg was a beautiful city, and although we didn’t visit a lot of the cultural landmarks, I would like to go back during a less touristy time and visit again. It was very congested at Christmas, and I can only imagine summer must be intense.

We had returned the rental car and booked a trip to Vienna by train. I was glad to have reserved seats as well, because the train was packed with people cramming the aisles. Everyone was traveling for New Year’s Eve.

Vienna

Vienna! The architecture and vastness of this city are dizzying. We walked for days and saw so much, yet visited so little of the city. This is a place worthy of the hype in its history and grandeur. It’s one of those European cities that you wish you could live in some dream.

dsc_5846The famous Café Central.

dsc_5880The Wiener Riesenrad

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The winter markets in Vienna were similar to the ones we’d seen in Munich, but with an Austrian distinction. We had also seen the winter markets in Salzburg and partly in Innsbruck. They sold a great assortment of hot drinks to walk you through the cold nights, which was a great way to spend New Year’s Eve.

We wandered through the wide, busy streets of the old city, drinking, eating, and dodging massive crowds. Before midnight, in one of the spots we had stopped for some glühwein, a waltz began to play over the loud speakers. Everyone around us suddenly started to dance. It was the perfect New Years in Vienna.

And so Austria, from its alpine spine to its historical city wonderlands (winter wonderlands, for us) was a great way to conclude the trip. If you love Christmas, you will love Germany and Austria!

 

(A final note – I was surprised at the amount of people who smoke in Germany and Austria. It’s a huge part of the culture there, perhaps even bigger than when we were in Asia. It was especially noticeable in Austria where people were smoking in most cafes, restaurants and bars. I read that the law is changing but that it’s been so slow because no one wants to enforce it. Really, Austria?)

 

 
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Posted by on January 9, 2017 in Life Abroad

 

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We Moved to Africa

Tanzania, to be specific.

We’ve just finished our first month of residency in Dar es Salaam. In the past month we’ve gone on safari, had a car accident, and found out what it was like to do banking in the 1950s. Yesterday I found myself stranded on a desert island.

I once thought I would probably never visit Africa, let alone live here. I’m not going to lie – I like comfort. As I get older, I find myself more willing to pay for the comforts that the first half of my life didn’t afford me. The thought of staying in a hostel now gives me shivers. I did all of that in my twenties, into my thirties. Those days are long over. And since I am increasingly fond of comfort, I would have never expected to agree to living in a place where the city roads are no better than the safari roads, nor where you should keep your car doors locked just to drive to work.

On the other hand, I have learned never to say never (I just really really hope I never have to stay in a hostel again.) We’ve lived in Mongolia, and before that, Korea. What? Korea is uncomfortable? It is for a guy with an intolerance to garlic. So I kept my mind open about Africa. Then we moved there.

Shortly after arriving, we visited Mikumi National Park. It’s said to be “about 4 hours from Dar” which really means it’s 9 hours. During our two-day visit, we were fortunate enough to see giraffes, monkeys, zebras, impalas, hippos, crocodiles, wildebeests, warthogs, and immeasurable counts of exotic birds.

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Then we saw the lions. You’re never guaranteed to see lions, but there were four. Three lying about 30 meters from the road, and one young male who was too lazy to leave the roadside – sleeping on his back in the grass with his belly to the sky. Perhaps he’d been rejected by the two females further away, or the male that accompanied them had bullied him out of the trio.

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Just after sunset on both nights, a pack of elephants came down to the hippo pool for a drink. The large crowd of tourists that had chattered fell silent as the elephants lined the water, stepping down into it, and used their trunks to fill their mouths. One hippo wasn’t having it. He slowly made his way toward the elephants in protest of sharing the water space, but by the time he got close enough, the elephants had drank their fill and were ready to move on.

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*

Life in Tanzania is not always safari. All of the game parks are far from the big city, and the biggest ones are the furthest. The Serengeti is a trip for a later time. Zanzibar is in October. Beyond that, we haven’t planned anything. Currently we’re still trying to adapt to life in Dar es Salaam. The traffic is bad as they say, because people drive as they wish, dodging potholes and speed bumps everywhere. There are no standards on vehicle emissions, so large black plumes of exhaust fill the streets. Masai men lurk around car parks, hoping to make a thousand shillings here and there (roughly 45 cents USD) by providing protection for cars from thieves, or to help people back out onto hazardous roads. You lock your doors when you drive. You never leave bags in sight. You quickly get used to these things. If you get too used to it, you get careless. Mongolia has prepared me to always be aware of my surroundings. I thought it had prepared me for bad roads but Tanzania is definitely worse. Who are worse drivers– the jury is still out on that one. Tanzanians are definitely a lot more relaxed though. The car accident mentioned earlier was probably an overstatement. My wife turned too sharply into a tree, pulling the bumper off. A few of us managed to pop it back on, and while the rental company noticed the scratches, they didn’t even mention it nor charge us for the damage. That definitely is unlike any rental experience I had in Canada!

There’s not much to say about the banking here. Imagine life before ATMs. All of that hassle is real.

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Life in Dar definitely has its sweet moments. As a matter of fact, I think once we have a car and have settled in more, the sweet moments will be a lot more frequent. We work with some great people. There is a much larger expat community here than in Mongolia, so that should make for a broader social scene. There are two beautiful islands within an hour of the city by boat. There is Zanzibar, Mafia and Pemba islands for longer breaks. There are the Seychelles and Mauritius for pure luxury, though they’re much further away.

Last weekend we visited Mbudya island, 30 minutes by car, 15 minutes by boat. Despite the attempted shakedown by the ramshackle restaurant there (I would recommend you bring your own food and drinks) it was a great time. All of that white sand / blue water you’d expect. I stupidly attached my Joby tripod to a banda there (grass hut) and didn’t listen to the little voice in my head that said “don’t do that…” Then I forgot it there.

The next day I was on the next island over, Bongoyo, on a school trip. One of the water taxi guys agreed to take me to Mbudya to check for my tripod, but I needed to get right back to Bongoyo. He brought me over and I had told him I’d be five minutes – but when I returned from the banda the boat was nowhere to be seen! A guy standing up on the beach saw my exasperation and said “he’ll be back later!” What did that even mean? When was ‘later’?

So I paced around the beach for forty minutes, waiting for a glimpse of a boat headed my way. I laughed at the irony of being impatient and pissed off about being on a tropical white beach with clear blue water lapping bits of coral up onto it. I stared off at the island that I was supposed to be on, thinking about how I told my coworkers I’d “be right back”. I hadn’t brought my phone or even water.

Around 40 minutes later I saw a wake somewhere in the distance. The boat was returning. By the time it reached me I was pissed off yet elated, and said nothing except to ask if this was the boat that would take me back to Bongoyo. It was. When I returned to the island, lunch was just being served.

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*

I won’t fool myself into thinking everything is marvelous here. Beach weekends, great people, mind blowing vacation prospects – those parts are all great. But this is not the reality of the majority of people here. We work with, for, and amongst great wealth in this developing country. And so with this in mind I still can’t shake the feeling that we are colonialists here. We are part of the long, living history of this place. And so it’s very much on the forefront of my mind to mind myself and our existences here. To give what we take.

I hope we stay for a while.

 
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Posted by on August 24, 2016 in Life Abroad

 

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Summer of 2014 – Latvia (Part 1 of 2)

Hello everyone!

It’s been a very busy summer. We were away from Mongolia for 6 and a half weeks, in Latvia and Greece.

I’ll make a separate entry for both countries, though I took far more photos in Greece. Latvia was incredibly beautiful, but it rained most of the time we were there.

We arrived shortly before Līgo, Latvia’s midsummer holiday. It was very fortunate for us, because I love beer, and my wife loves good food, as you could expect any European holiday to have.

Chris and Eugene

Myself and my father-in-law, Eugene. We’ve got this covered.

Līgo was a great time, and by great, I mean we sat around a cottage house eating, drinking, and walking or driving around the countryside to eat and drink some more.

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Latvians know how to do smoked fish. Delicious.

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Poppies

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Stuck selling Līgo wreaths in the rain…

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Of course one of the great things about Europe are the old-world markets, and Latvia didn’t disappoint.

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You can imagine how good this cheese bread was when it came out of the oven.

You can imagine how good this cheese bread was when it came out of the oven.

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You can drink local beer right in the market. Canada... you have a long way to go.

You can drink local beer right in the market. Or take it away.

Riga is a very modern city, with the usual international brand stores. Here is some of the old city, which was incorporated in the year 1201 (although many of the buildings date at around 1900.)

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And of course, since Riga is a post-communist port city… what would any children’s playground be without a little fun on the back of a dying soldier?

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We had a great time in Riga despite the constant rain. It took a little getting used to for the sky to be “day lit” up until or past midnight, and made it hard to sleep since it came back up just a few hours later.

I have no idea where we’ll live next on our international agenda… but the food and beer alone has put Riga on the list.

Next:
Summer of 2014 (Part 2 of 2) – Greece: from Crete to Athens

 

 
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Posted by on August 12, 2014 in Life Abroad

 

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Japan Part II – Kyoto

We stayed in Kyoto for five days, which gave us plenty of time to travel all around the city on foot, by bus and by bicycle. Kyoto is a fantastic city for bicycles, everything is flat and you can get from point to point very quickly.

The image sharpness of the horizontal shots are soft due to WordPress resizing them in this standard gallery format. You can click on the images to improve this and make them larger – especially recommended for the wider panorama shots.




















In the Imperial Palace, this is the place where the emperor sat. The bamboo partition would be lowered so he could not be viewed directly. Click image for much larger version.

















Next: Japan Part III – Minoh and Nara

 
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Posted by on August 18, 2012 in Life Abroad

 

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Japan Part I – Osaka


























Next: Japan Part II – Kyoto

 
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Posted by on August 17, 2012 in Life Abroad

 

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Japan – introduction

Living in Korea for the last 2+ years has somewhat prepared us for our visit to Japan. And by prepared, I mean that it minimalized any culture shock. Although the two countries have their deep divisions in history, there are undeniable parallels in their cultures. Their mutual influence, interconnectedness, and proximity have created some similarities, while they remain entirely distinct.

I won’t compare the two, but coming from South Korea has inevitably caused us to draw comparisons and differences that might affect the overtone of this post.

Let’s make it simple. I’ll list off what I love about Japan.

-Order. That might drive some people crazy, but when you have so many people and so much going on around you, it’s nice to know that people are going to behave in a civilized and respectful way, even to complete strangers. People don’t push and shove to get on the bus, and they are generally aware of their surroundings. It’s a universal courtesy and I love it. In some sense, it restores my faith in humanity as a direct contradiction to the “ME FIRST” mentality. If they can be polite in overcrowded places like Japan, people can be polite everywhere. It’s the choices we make about the kind of people we want to be.

-Mixing the old with the new. When you think of traditional attire in any country, you wouldn’t expect to see people wearing it in the street. But arriving in Japan in the sweltering heat of summer, I was surprised to see so many men and women dressed in Yukatas (casual traditional Japanese clothing.) I saw Geishas and Maiko’s discretely scuttling the side streets of Kyoto, appearing and disappearing from doorways a few short blocks from each other. I had never expected to be treated to such a vibrant part of living history. The flipside was the fierce, stylistic edge that can be found ubiquitously throughout the streets of Japan. Many women were dressed to kill, and many of them were busy checking each other’s’ appearance as well. It reminded me of Montreal, where as a new arrival, I voiced concern about why so many people were staring at me. “Because they’re checking you out” I was told. People staring at other people out of interest in fashion and uniqueness. This is Japan.

This type of style called “Lolita” seems to be popular among some of the younger girls, with outfits that could get quite elaborate.

-The transportation system. It can be expensive, but do you really need to take the super-highspeed bullet train? If you’re modest about your travel plans – or even better, if you’re traveling only within one province – it’s not that bad. We went from Osaka to Kyoto for 600 Yen (roughly 7 dollars for a city about 90 minutes away.) Despite the generally high price for public transportation, the convenience and extensiveness of it can’t be beaten. The entire world should be looking at Japan as a model. Even though everything in Japan is in close proximity, it’s still an amazing standard.

-Cycling is a huge part of everyday life and alleviates so much road traffic. People need more exercise and where you’re going most of the time is not even that far away. Cycling is so pervasive in Japan that they have to regulate where you can even park a bike. Bikes and people share small sidewalks and no one is griping about it because everyone is respectful and that’s the way it is.

-History. Everything you could imagine about the history of Japan in front of your eyes. Glorious and astounding.

-Fine women.

To be fair, I will also list some of the cons about Japan.

-Price. Almost everything. But just get over it, you’ll have a better time. And eventually you’ll realize, as long as you’re not buying everything in sight, it’s really not that bad. If you’re coming from Canada or the US, the cost increase might seem incremental, but I hazard the assumption that you too, will find it most worth it. I would suggest that you don’t come to Japan as a backpacker on a backpacker’s budget.

It’s too good to budget for eating at McDonald’s twice a day because you want to afford the subway tomorrow.

-Everything is small. If you like to eat a lot, get used to smaller portions at high prices. If you take an American size XL, don’t plan on shopping.

-Almost no English. Jeju Island, where we live is also like this. With basic Korean we get by, but even in the big cities of Japan, you will get minimal to no English. So it’s good to learn basic phrases, and be prepared to skip a lot of restaurants because unless there are pictures on the menu, you’re not going to have any idea what you’re getting yourself into. Everyday things like transportation are not a problem, (everything is translated) and despite the complexity, you can easily get the hang of their amazing, integrated transportation system. Just ask an attendant, they’re incredibly helpful. I’ve been told taxis are a different story when it comes to English though. But man, those taxis sure do look like a classy ride.

I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves from here on out. But really- if you ever come from the west to see Asia, do not miss out on Japan. It might be among the costliest of your destinations, but it will also be amongst the most memorable.

Since we had 12 days, we made our itinerary simple. Osaka, Kyoto, then Osaka again to make some day trips out to Minoh and Nara. The pictures are posted chronologically in 4 different posts.

Next: Japan Part I – Osaka

 
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Posted by on August 17, 2012 in Life Abroad

 

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