Deutschland – Berchtesgaden

We crossed the border back into Germany and found ourselves in rolling highland, with the alps looming behind us. A few short turns later brought us to the tiny town where we had booked lodging. The apartment sat atop a huge steep inclined hill. We drove up and the car struggled – I wasn’t sure what we would do if another vehicle came as the road was definitely not wide enough for two cars.

We parked and met our hosts, a local couple. They assumed my German was far better than it actually was, and I struggled to keep up with them. They showed us our apartment, which was beautiful: it included a sauna, modern kitchen and furniture, a luxurious bed, and a gorgeous view of the surrounding mountain tops. The apartment was also right at a small trail head, though we didn’t know exactly where it went.

We got settled in and researched a spot for dinner, back in the main town of Berchtesgaden. It was a short drive away, so we hopped back in the car, made our way down the narrow lane, and drove a short way to town. We found a parking spot without much trouble which was pleasantly surprising, and found the restaurant after a few tries. For dinner, I had a German take on roast beef with stewed potatoes as we sat outside overlooking the place’s beer garden.

We took our time with dinner. Afterwards we of course made the necessary gelato stop; I got a flavor I’ve seen a few times, “milcheis.” Literally “milk ice,” it tastes just like sweetened frozen milk. After dessert we headed back to the apartment, where we took a few pictures, then hopped in the sauna for a little relaxation therapy before heading to bed.

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View from the front lawn
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The charming little apartment where we stayed

The next day was the last of our trip. With Chelsea’s knee not feeling 100% we skipped our hiking plans for the area. While it would have been beautiful to see, we felt it was more important that she was rested and healed up before her summer adventure. With no need to be out on the trail early we slept in a bit, departing late in the morning after taking some time to grab breakfast at a nearby bakery.

Or rather, we tried to leave. About 10 minutes into our journey we received a call from the hosts. It turns out we had forgotten some clothes in the apartment – thankfully we were not far away, so we turned back and retrieved our stuff before setting off properly. Amusingly, our route took us back across the Austrian border almost immediately, so we literally crossed a country border to fetch our dirty laundry.

We had no further issues on the trip after that. We took the opportunity to practice our road-trip karaoke, and I frequently practiced my breath-holding skills through the many tunnels. We arrived back in Stuttgart around 2PM or so with plenty of time in the afternoon to clean up, pack, and get organized. We had plans to attend a potluck dinner that evening and consequently had to make a grocery run. There we picked up some dessert; we had been planning to bake but were concerned we wouldn’t have sufficient time to do so. We picked up a Black Forest cherry cake and some ice cream. The ice cream didn’t make it to the potluck 🙂

We caught a bus over to the apartment where the dinner party was being held. There, we spent a few hours talking, I introduced Chelsea to everyone and we spent time catching up, discussing our trip and hearing about other places people had been. There was pasta and pizza as well as a few other dishes, but mostly it was just nice to hang out and get to see everyone.

We left around 10PM. Chelsea was all set to leave in the morning, so we made an early night of it so that we wouldn’t be too tired. The next day I had work but was able to drop Chelsea off at the train station before heading into the office. Goodbyes are always difficult, but I know we’ll both be so busy doing great things in the month until we meet again.

With Chelsea on her way home I solemnly drove into work, missing her already. Fortunately I had a short week ahead of me, and even more travel plans looming on the horizon. More about that next time! Until then, as always,

Best wishes and safe travels everyone,

– Ben

Deutschland – Triberg und Karlsruhe

Last weekend I had made plans to visit a friend. Hans had come over to the US on an internship to work with my last working group in Michigan. He is finishing up a master’s degree in Karlsruhe, not far from Stuttgart. So I opted to more-or-less take a week off of travelling and get a chance to see him.

He was only available on Sunday, so I found myself with a perfectly good Saturday to occupy myself in southwest Germany. Naturally I wouldn’t think of staying in Stuttgart (although it is a nice city, I promise! I just realize I may be back here on future trips), so I decided instead to take a day trip into the black forest. So on Saturday morning I was headed to Triberg.

I drove about 90 minutes and found parking near the city center. My first stop was the nearby waterfalls, advertised as “Germany’s highest”. However, this is *a lie* as there’s actually a higher one that isn’t as impressive or accessible. Nevertheless, the hike was pretty. Winding paths followed the cascades of the falls, snaking their way up switchbacks with several bridges.

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A lie!

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I walked through the forest for a few hours, eventually making my way from the more traveled paths. I found small narrow nooks with shady trees and even a bit of leftover snow near the top. The trails near the falls were somewhat crowded but as soon as I got away from it I had the place more-or-less to myself. The weather was a bit chilly but I had no trouble keeping warm with a brisk pace. I made my way all the way to the top of the falls and spent a while winding back down to my car, because I had to top up my parking.

I spent some time exploring the streets of Triberg. It is a quaint little black forest town, with cute stores, restaurants, and bed-and-breakfasts. It was a grey cloudy day so the town wasn’t so crowded despite it being the weekend. The town sits in a valley with the small stream fed by the waterfall cutting through it. Everything slopes downward from the falls, so getting around and orienting yourself is easy.

I’ll admit, in coming to Triberg I had a mission. I hadn’t been buying lots of souvenirs in my travels. Early on, I had decided to invest in one larger item rather than purchasing many small things at each destination. I didn’t want a bunch of nick-nacks but I did want something to commemorate my time abroad. Since I was living in southwest Germany, I decided the Black Forest was a natural place to get something.

I had eyes on the clocks. The town has lots of stores selling all sorts of cuckoo clocks. Big, small, grand, simple, clocks with music, clocks with functioning waterwheels, clocks that look like churches, beer halls, birdhouses, and much more. Spoiled for choice, I had done a bit of reading online to prepare myself and determine what would be best for me. I opted to go to one of the stores run by the artisans themselves. There, they sell a few mass-produced clocks but they are most famous for their hand-carved pieces.

In the small store I was unimpressed at first. The clocks they sell on the ground floor all have a conspicuous “MADE IN GERMANY” printed on their face, an indication that the clock was manufactured in bulk. Most of these clocks were fairly simple and contained plastic elements. Some were pretty, to be sure, but nothing blew me away. When the shopkeeper saw me looking at clocks, she showed me upstairs where they had many more to choose from. There were some smaller ones here as well, but they also had big impressive ones here as well.

Most of the prettiest options had a small crest carved into the side, indicating that the piece had been hand-carved by an elite group of artists in the town. The shop’s owner came out and discussed his work with me, and I got a refresher on the research I had done online detailing clock movements and features. I was after an 8-day movement, which lets you be a bit more flexible in resetting the clock (as opposed to needing to reset it daily), as I want to be able to be away from home for a few days without having to reset the time.

I decided on one of the simpler-styled 8-day clocks. I chose a beautiful dark wood, though I won’t picture the clock itself here. You’ll have to come visit me to see and hear it in person! I had the clock shipped to the US to avoid paying the expensive VAT, but hand-carried the mechanism weights home. I’m excited to install and enjoy the clock when I get back to the states. Satisfied with a successful outing, I headed home relatively early with an evening to relax and take care of some chores in Stuttgart.

The next morning I got in the car again, this time headed north towards Karlsruhe. Karlsruhe is the second largest city in Baden Württemberg (after Stuttgart). The city is laid out like a fan, and is best known as a college town. I drove and parked near Hans’ apartment and met him to catch a metro across town. We got off and met Nicole, his girlfriend whom I had also met in Michigan as she worked with a radar team upstairs. We got lunch at a brewery nearby and talked and joked about differences between life in America and Germany.

We walked through the city center and the campus of the university they attend, KIT. The scenery was pretty but I will remember just hanging out with them more than anything else. It was nice not to feel like a traveler for one Sunday afternoon. Rather than being enamored with the sights, I simply walked and talked with the two of them to learn about their time since we had last spoken. We had some cake and sat for awhile enjoying the sunshine.

By mid-afternoon we had meandered back towards Hans’ apartment. They had other appointments and work to do, so I left them and had another evening to myself.

While this wasn’t the most exciting weekend in terms of far-off getaways, I enjoyed the downtime. After Morocco I felt I could use a little break; this was the perfect thing to prepare me for my next big adventure. I had the ancient world in my sights, and was ready to take on the foundations of European culture. You’ll have to wait to hear more about that one. Until next time,

Best wishes and safe travels everyone,

– Ben

Deutschland – Füssen

My mother and brother had arrived. Over their jetlag and acclimated to living in Germany, I wanted to show them a good time over the weekend. They had a stated preference for outdoors and nature rather than cityscapes, so Fussen was a natural choice for us. Nestled in the foothills of the alps, Fussen has several famous castles and lots of great hiking trails. We drove there on Saturday morning to get started with our sightseeing. The drive over was boring, taking a bit over two hours. Traffic was heavy enough that I didn’t get to have too much fun on the autobahn. When we arrived we went straight for the castles – paid for parking, and went to find the line for tickets. We waited maybe 30-45 minutes in line, after which we were pretty hungry, so we ventured down the hill to get a quick bite to eat. My mom and brother got a taste of their first schnitzel, and I opted for a sausage dish. Given that we were in a tourist mecca, I wasn’t upset with the price or quality.

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Neuschwanstein from below

After lunch we caught a bus to the top of the hillside where you can enter the castle. A short walk later took us to the entrance just before our entry time. We wandered around to get some pictures and came back to the entrance to find that they were calling the tour after ours to queue for entry. I was worried that we had to catch up to our tour group and consequently hurried through the first few passages. Eventually we discovered that we had not been left behind and made it in time for the start of our tour.

The tour guide took us through a few of the decadent rooms. Not all of the castle was finished as the “Mad King” Ludwig II died prior to its completion under mysterious circumstances. The castle featured an artificial indoor cave, an ornate Byzantine-style throne room, and lavish living quarters. The castle interior was interesting to see albeit not that historic. I preferred the views we got outside of the castle. Perched on the side of a rolling hill, the castle overlooks serene farmland lying below. The castle served as the inspiration for the Disney castle. The clean looking stone, high tower, and strong walls are reminiscent of a classic fortification. The exterior is beautiful, and the surrounding countryside even more so.

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The view from the castle balcony
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Photo credit to my mom

We walked up the Marienbrucke (a small bridge with a good viewpoint), took a few pictures, and moved past to clime up the hill for an even better vantage point. My mother was not too pleased with the bridge, which had wooden planks which were flexing a bit under the weight of all the tourists. The hillside afforded a great lookout, I thoroughly enjoyed the quick climb to the top. My mom seemed happy with solid ground under her feet, so we hung out there for awhile.

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Marienbrucke

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My mom got more comfortable on the bridge eventually!

Eventually we left and opted to descend on foot rather than catch the bus down. We found ourselves immersed in a dense wood, following a service road down the hillside. At the bottom we decided to check out another nearby castle which had been visible from above, right next to the visitor center. We didn’t pay to enter this one but got to check out the exterior and see some views from its courtyard.

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Our descent

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Perhaps the nicest views of all came from the last area we visited near the castles, the large lake that Neuschwanstein overlooks. We went down to the shore and walked around the pristine crystal-blue waters, reflecting the hilly landscape which enveloped us. We stayed here until the first traces of evening were setting in.

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Lakeside views

After our outdoor exploration, we drove into Fussen and checked into our small hotel. The host was super friendly and it felt like we were the only guests there. We took a few minutes to clean up and walked into the downtown area to find dinner. After some time we found a place serving German food. Jon and I got pork-shoulder – always a solid choice in Germany by the way – and thoroughly enjoyed it. The portion was large which suited me just fine, as I had been feeling peckish after the hikes we had done. We continued to walk around town well after sunset. We got some gelato and saw some traditional Bavarian dress in the shop windows. After some time we made it back to the hotel and turned in to go to sleep.

The next morning we enjoyed a good breakfast. The host had laid out a table for us in advance, and the food was buffet-style. While the selection wasn’t massive, everything was fresh and tasty. Jon didn’t get up early enough to catch breakfast; he definitely missed out although he claimed not to be a ‘breakfast guy’. While people were getting ready in the morning I plotted out a quick series of hikes for us to check out before we had to get back to Stuttgart. The first of these left right from our hotel, so after we dropped off keys for the hotel we set off that way.

The walk took us across the river past a manmade waterfall with a series of cascades. The waterfall itself paled in comparison to the nearby landscape; the blue river carved through a small rocky canyon and through a nearby valley, creating a picturesque scene. The river wasn’t our end destination however, so we didn’t linger too long as we had further to hike.

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Our next destination was a hilltop overlooking the town and the lake we had been to yesterday. The climb up took us 20-30 minutes and took us right past a series of outdoor monuments to be used as Stations of the Cross. My mom liked the religious aspect for our hike despite the fact that I had just chosen it for the view. At the top, you could see for miles (kilometers!), the countryside stretched before you in the direction of Fussen, and behind you lay the foothills of the alps and pristine lakes.

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Overlooking Fussen

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We stayed up there for more than a few minutes but there was one last place I wanted to take them before we drove home – another lake which was supposed to have a great view. We walked down the hill and drove 15 minutes to the lakeshore, where we were treated to the following spectacular view:

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We ended up doing a full lap of the lake. The highlight for my mom and brother was probably our brief foray into Austria. The border ran within a few hundred meters of our walk, so we took a short detour (~10 minutes) so that they could walk there a bit. The mountains framed everything nicely. Perfect weather, beautiful views, and relaxed walking. That’s how I’ll remember Fussen.

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Our brief foray into Austria

We had to leave before it got too late. My mom and brother booked a flight to Mallorca, a getaway island in Spain. They had found cheap flights and I had a work conference which would have been boring for them, so I took them to the airport around 2PM. On the drive home I found out that my car maxes out around 200kph on flat ground. My mom was not amused although I’m happy to report they made their flight with plenty of time to spare.

I really enjoyed my time in Fussen, and my family did too. They had had a taste of the alps and wanted more. While they were away Chelsea helped me coordinate a trip with them for the following weekend, but you’ll have to wait until next time to hear about it.. Until then,

Best wishes and safe travels everyone,

– Ben

Deutschland – Berlin – Museen

On Sunday morning we got off to a relaxed start. We woke up relatively late and decided to go get a late breakfast in a restaurant that Allen, a trainee staying with us, had heard about. The restaurant was about a 20 minute walk away, but this suited us just fine as the route took us right through a nearby park. Though the weather was a little chilly, we got to see children playing in the park, people walking dogs, and others enjoying a stroll on their Sunday.

We enjoyed a good meal. The restaurant was French style, and I got a big meal, complete with the hot chocolate I had been denied earlier in the weekend. We walked back and discussed our plans for the day. Mike and I were in a unique situation as our flight was not until later that evening. As we got back to the hostel it became apparent that splitting off from the others made sense, as we had large luggage to consider. We therefore decided we would go take our bags to the main train station to rent a locker, with the intent to come pick it up before catching airport transit. The others had a little time before their flights and less luggage than us, so they went straight for their first sight, the East Side Gallery.

We swung by Hauptbahnhof and dropped off our bags before catching transit to the East Side Gallery ourselves. Though I had already been, Mike wanted to come check it out so I got a second round of sightseeing in. We went in the opposite direction from what I had done previously, and I noticed new things coming from this side. It wasn’t all a waste of time as I was able to point out some details to Mike while I appreciated new things he pointed out to me that I hadn’t seen.

After we completed our rounds at the gallery, we still had several hours to kill. We decided to visit the Checkpoint Charlie museum. There, we were surprised by the scope of the exhibits and the level of detail the museum went into. The museum details lots of events relating to the cold war, including proxy wars between the US and the USSR. There’s a fair bit of it dedicated to documenting escape attempts and methods. Additionally, the museum does a fair job describing the aftermath of WWII in Berlin and what it was like living in a divided Berlin. It was more history about the cold war than I had ever seen in one place, and while we rushed through certain bits I walked away having learned a lot.

Checkpoint Charlie is relatively centrally located in Berlin, so with more time to spare before our flight we headed to Museum Island. We decided on visiting Bode, because to check out some of the Byzantine collection there. The museum itself was not huge, but it was not crowded at all which was a welcome change from what we had been used to. The most memorable bits for me were the Byzantine collection, featuring sculpture, architectural elements, and lots of tile-work, and a special exhibit they had running on international currency. The museum seemed to be housed in an old church with a main hallway and rooms off to the sides. It was a good way to get out of the rain and see some of the less-visited artworks.

After the museum, we found a Mexican place nearby and grabbed some dinner. It was actually pretty good, though maybe not by US-standards. Considering we were an ocean away from Mexico it was pretty good. After dinner we grabbed our bags at Hauptbahnhof, made our way to the airport, and caught an uneventful flight to Brussels. Before long we landed in Belgium and caught a train to get to the city. After a 10 minute walk we were at our hostel, where we checked in. Tired after being out all day, we didn’t do much that first night besides prep for bed, do a bit of research for the next day, and sleep. After all, we had lots to explore in Belgium. More on that next time! Until then,

Best wishes and safe travels everyone,

– Ben

Deutschland – Berlin – die Mauer

On Saturday I found myself awake much earlier than the rest of my friends. With time to spare, I decided to head out early and get some extra sightseeing in before they were ready. I walked to a nearby grocery store and picked up some water and breakfast for everyone, then set out for the East Side Gallery, an art exhibition along a long preserved stretch of the Berlin Wall.

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Some graffiti offers protest
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Not all of the artwork is so old..

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I just like the message here

Walking along the wall, you see edgy works of graffiti art. Some of these are open and right on the sidewalk, and have (to varying degrees) been kept intact. Many of these have been painted over by would-be artists. Other panels sit behind a thin metal cage, which serves to keep away pesky cans of spray paint. More than once I saw graffiti complaining about the irony of placing the Berlin wall in a cage. There was art examining freedom, the history of the wall, peace, death, conservation, and many other themes. Some of it was too abstract for me to make much out of, but all of it looked cool. I really liked the format of presentation and felt that’s what makes the gallery unique: seeing the wall intact turned into an expression of free speech creates quite the cool dynamic.

There were a fair number of tourists there like myself, taking in the sights and admiring the artwork. But there were also people just passing by,ignoring the wall as if it was just any normal part of the scenery. I walked the length of the wall before I got a text from my friends indicating they were finally stirring. I turned and made my way to a nearby metro station to go meet them at our next destination: the Berlin Wall memorial.

The Berlin Wall memorial commemorates the victims who tried to flee to West Berlin while the communist government was preventing refugees from doing so. The memorial features a preserved section of the wall, complete with the “no man’s land,” guard towers, and spiked traps which awaited those brave enough to attempt a crossing. There is also a free museum detailing the socioeconomic, political, and cultural divide the wall came to symbolize, with an emphasis on the impact it had on the lives of the citizens of Berlin. Probably the most striking image I recall from the museum was the standoff of Soviet and American tanks from 1961. The tension in the air on that day must have been palpable.

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Not my photo, sorry! But a powerful image

It was interesting to learn about the impact the wall and Soviet occupation had on the East Germans. The museum did a good job too to humanize the citizens of Berlin and tell their story. A few escape attempt stories were shared, though that was not the focus of the museum. They had footage of news coverage from when the wall fell, which was cool to see. It’s easy to think of the fall of the Berlin wall as a grandiose part of history, but one needs to remember how recently these events took place. As the modern unified nation it is today, Germany has only existed since 1990.

The memorial did a good job to make you aware of the conditions living in a divided Berlin, the hardships people faced, and the resistance to the barrier. We walked through all the information stations and eventually concluded our visit with a trip up the observation tower where you can see how the fortifications looked, including the “no man’s land,” spiked traps, and guard towers.

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“No man’s land” from above

Exiting the memorial, we headed back downtown. We got off near the metro right by the Brandenburg Gate, so we took a chance to go see it again. We spent a little more time here than we had hoped as one of our group members got split off from the rest of us. Because the area was packed with street performers, tourists, and visitors, he was understandably difficult to find.

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The busy Brandenburg Gate

We did not find him at the Brandenburg Gate despite our best efforts. He had known that we were headed to the nearby memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, so after awhile we made our way there. The memorial recognizes victims of the Holocaust. The choice of the name for the memorial is interesting and shows the solemnity with which the German people regard their troubled past.

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A few lonely souls wander through the maze of columns

The memorial is a sea of grey pillars, varying in height but constant in form. We spent a few minutes getting lost in the memorial – several people in the group were a little bothered by the effect. We ended up finding our missing friend among the pillars, and we headed downstairs below the memorial to view the exhibit. There, statistics and a timeline served to provide some context, while several rooms were dedicated to the memory of specific victims. In one room, text and images described the lives of families torn apart across various regions of Europe. Another room documented notes and writings from victims, often emphasizing their fears and cries of despair. A third room was a constantly-running audio stream reading the names of those who were killed.

No Holocaust memorial is easy to see, but I was glad we went to this one. While it was sobering to be reminded again of the horrible suffering, I thought the memorial was well done and I liked the fact that it had such a prominent place in the city, right near the capital buildings and the Brandenburg Gate.

After our time in the memorial, we explored the streets a little bit before we settled into a place for some “pre-dinner dessert” to warm up. We had a funny experience here I thought I should share: I ordered a (delicious) slice of cake and some hot chocolate. Mike ordered hot chocolate, and someone else ordered cake and a few small things. We never received the hot chocolate. Now normally I am pretty forgiving concerning bad service at restaurants. After all, servers are people too, and everyone has their off-days. But we had very slow service with items missing that we had ordered, and the place was not even very busy. Keep that in mind. Now, when the server brought our bill (after a long wait), he circled a “tip not included” label on our check. I know that service is included in the food prices in Germany, so I figured this was a way to rip off tourists. The phrase was in English and we were in a touristy area. Annoyed with our server, we left a very meager tip and walked out. I only later discovered that our “cheap friend” at the table had been eating food he brought from elsewhere at the table. I suspect this may have made the waiter upset, and I can understand why. He grabbed the receipt from the table before we left, deliberately leaving our tip behind.

After our dining debacle, we went to a shopping district. There were some cool modern buildings there, and I didn’t mind the break from normal sightseeing as I took the opportunity to replace my thoroughly worn-out sneakers. We grabbed dinner at the food court (I went for Indian), and left the museum before it got too late.

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A large open roof at the “Sony Center,” a large open shopping complex
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Interesting skyscrapers
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A cool view at the mall

Our last stop for the evening was a big observation deck and TV tower at Alexanderplatz. I always find it fun getting an overlook of a big city, and we enjoyed seeing all the streets and buildings twinkling in the darkness. We grabbed a drink or two at the TV tower, did a few laps to take it all in, and headed back to the apartment afterwards.

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views from the tower

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We had a busy second day adventuring in Berlin, but we were not done yet. More to come on my next post. Until then,

Best wishes and safe travels everyone,

– Ben

Deutschland – Berlin – Freunde und Kapital

Friday morning I woke up early to go for a run. Using my normal tactic to find a route, I headed for the nearest large green space I could find. I found myself at the edge of a large park which had formerly been an airport. Before I explored the park though, I happened across two interesting pit-stops: first, a nice-looking Mosque. There was a small graveyard there and it was very quiet and peaceful.

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The quiet mosque I found in the morning

After a brief stop at the mosque I went to continue on with my journey, but I couldn’t help but stop again soon. I happened upon a WWI cemetery, featuring soldiers’ graves and several large memorials. There was even a memorial to Kaiser Wilhelm himself there, although I don’t believe he was buried at the site. It was neat to experience the other side of history. It’s a story you don’t hear as often but the soldiers on ‘the other side’ all had families, friends, and were real people. Often propaganda and nationalism tends to de-humanize enemy combatants. While they might not have been fighting for the right side, I was undoubtedly standing among brave men.

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German WWI graves
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The inscription reads something like: “Kaiser WIlhelm II and his chief squire, you are deeply mourned. Rejoice comrades”

I apologize for the poor translation. I am still learning German. The rest of my run proved uneventful – I spent some time in the park, turned around and ran back to the apartment to get cleaned up and get started with the day. I was (for the last time, thankfully) “refreshed” by the ice cold shower at our apartment. We checked out and grabbed a quick brunch before we headed to Alexanderplatz to meet our other friends. Mike Trentadue from my high school was meeting up with us (he had taken vacation to fly over from the US) and another trainee had a friend flying up from Italy whom he had met from college.

While waiting for them, we saw an awesome skateboarding dog. (I’d have taken a picture of video for the blog, but my rule with street performers is that if I photograph them I feel obligated to pay them, and I didn’t feel like fumbling through all my luggage to do so. Therefore, no pictures, sorry.)  The dog entertained us during our short wait. Before long our two new arrivals stepped off a bus from the airport and we made introductions. We wanted to get rid of our luggage, so our first stop was our next AirBnb where we would be spending the weekend.

Naturally, however, on the way we realized it was St. Patrick’s day. So we did the only logical thing and detoured to go to an Irish pub. A round of Guinness later, we were on our way to the apartment. We checked in at around 3:00 but we needed to leave in a hurry. I had made our first appointment of the afternoon, a scheduled rooftop visit to the Reichstag building. The Reichstag is the seat of Germany’s legislature, perhaps best known as being the site of a fire. Hitler used the Reichstag fire as a justification for seizing power, arguing that a state of emergency was in place. He alleged the fire was set by the communists, but many now suspect he was responsible for the fire himself.

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Who’s that handsome photographer I see?
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The Reichstag dome ramps
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The top of the Reichstag dome is left totally open. Rain is captured via the metal structure behind me
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The inscription on the Reichstag building reads “To the German People”

Today, the Reichstag affords a beautiful view of the city, thanks to its massive glass dome adorning the roof. The dome features a spiral path visitors can use to climb to the top, and a neat-looking cone of mirrors which serve to redirect light into the legislative chamber. The symbolism of the glass roof is clear (pun intended): the citizens are watching their government. Transparency is paramount. We walked up the spiral, taking our time to learn a bit about prominent buildings and features of the Berlin skyline. It was a nice way to start our visit as it gave us a good introduction of where things were laid out and how to structure our time.

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Our fleeting glimpse of the Brandenburg Gate

After traversing the Reichstag, our friends were hungry. We hurried past the Brandenburg Gate (determined to see it later) and found a place to eat. Several people got 1L beers which were huge, and I recieved a baked potato wrapped in tinfoil decorated like a swan. I liked my swan-tato. Our group wasn’t trying to rush things too much on our first evening, so rather than do more sightseeing we hit up a few bars and chatted, planned, and caught up. It was nice to see  Trent, learn about what he was up to with work, and talk about our experience at the hackathon.

Barhopping, we stopped by “museum island” and got to check out some of the grand facades.

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Museum views

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Before it got too too late I split off from the group and headed home. I later learned that a few of them had to walk home in the rain, so with extra sleep and a warm bed I felt pretty content. After all, we had a busy day planned for Saturday. More on that next time.

Until then,

Best wishes and safe travels,

– Ben

Berlin – Hackathon

This past Tuesday marked the start to my adventure across Western Europe. I had been planning to fly to Berlin from Stuttgart but found myself unable to due to labor strikes among Berlin airport ground-crews. I booked a train at the last minute and spent 5 hours cruising through the German countryside all of Tuesday afternoon to find myself in Berlin on-time to check in to a rented apartment I would be sharing with my teammates.

Teammates?  Before I would be able to do any sightseeing in Berlin, I had arranged with some of the other trainees to attend a conference / hackathon event in the city. I was not sightseeing until Friday in Berlin – this post will focus on my time while working during the week in the city.

A lot of the technical trainees agreed to attend the event, so one of us found a large apartment for all of us to share. The space was quite unique and hard to describe. The apartment was one huge room segmented into individual sleeping spaces. Naturally, I grabbed the top “bunk” as soon as I could, but calling it a bunk is misleading. I slept above someone else but we each had individual enclosed rooms with a small door. My “room” was accessible via a ladder and also a small bridge near the ceiling which I found very entertaining. The place felt a little like a playground and featured a few cool spots to gather and work on ideas.

 

Though the space was cool, it was not the most practical – we had a neighbor who was very particular about us making any noise and asked that we not walk around the apartment after midnight – apparently the construction was not the best here and he could hear everything we did quite loudly. Overall although the apartment was not the most practical I thought it was fun to be staying together and the unit effectively gave everyone enough privacy and space.

After settling in, we set out for an Egyptian restaurant we found from a recommendation. We ordered a ton of appetizers (including hummus.. mmm) and I got a mixed grilled-meats plate. The food was very good although I didn’t care for the liver or the yogurt drink I ordered, which was very sour.

A few people wanted to stop for drinks on the way  back from dinner. While I didn’t care to drink, I found a massive bar of chocolate at the convenience store where we stopped and decided that that would be my vice for the competition days, rather than alcohol. When we got home I had a few squares of it while we discussed ideas for the competition. We turned in for a relatively early night without things getting too crazy.

We woke up early the next day to get to the hackathon on-time to start our project. After I took a cold shower (we ran out of hot water), we grabbed some pastries on our way to the metro and were at the venue a short ride later. We checked in without incident, and spent a few minutes in the morning seeing some of the exhibitions and talking to people from different companies.

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A proof-on-concept vehicle at the hackathon

After touring the conference, we gathered to hear the introduction and get the rules for the hackathon, after which we immediately sat down at our table to devise our project. Our hackathon was focused on connected mobility solutions, so we settled on tackling the problem of hit-and-run collisions. Our proposed implementation was a network of communication between passenger vehicles which would allow neighboring vehicles to take pictures in the event that one of the vehicles detected a collision while parked.

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Announcing the hackathons

To mock up what this might feel like, I designed a demonstration – we would have a Bosch accelerometer send a message to a server running on a Microsoft Azure cloud, which would then relay a message to a connected smartphone application. This app was then responsible for making the phone take pictures and uploading the results to the server via FTP, which then ran a script to consolidate the images into a mock report.

Shortly after we decided our architecture, we split off into smaller teams to tackle the various pieces, including  few people who were devising the business case and preparing the presentation. I claimed responsibility for the smartphone app and immediately got to work in android studio to throw something together based on code samples.

We worked all day and had an app taking pictures pretty quickly, but needed to re-vamp things a little to get something that we could integrate properly with the rest of the project. Around dinner time I was getting a little frustrated, but my frustration soon ended when they started serving drinks. I had a beer or two and found myself having a lot of fun joking about how bad our code was, and about the project in general. I liked hanging out with the guys.

Around 11 PM we decided that while there was more work to be done, we could accomplish what we needed to with the app from our apartment. We packed up and went to leave the venue, only to find some sort of weird concert-like event going on in the other room. We stayed a few minutes to observe, and a few others took advantage of the open bar while I grabbed a few pictures.

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The concert venue

Eventually we left, and my android-dev partner and I worked for another hour or so to wrap up the major implementation and fix the design. I ate more of my giant chocolate bar while we worked, and around 1AM we headed to bed.

The next morning I woke up and had another cold shower before heading out to the event. When we arrived I began to test my code from the previous evening and found things to be working (more-or-less) smoothly. We had to present our progress by 2PM, so before too long we were trying to shoot a video to showcase our demonstration. We could successfully shake our accelerometer and have several nearby phones start taking and uploading pictures. A few of the guys mocked-up cars to place the phones in, and we staged a cheesy “hit and run” scene with the cutouts.

By 2PM we were ready to show our product. Our business team had put together a rock-solid presentation, and our demo video, while crude, showcased the concept. We had succeeded and felt proud of what we’d built. We had a good use case, interested stakeholders, and a (barely) working prototype.

In our hackathon there were about 20 entrants, and I didn’t like most of the entries. Several of the attendees came to the event with an idea in mind, and more than a few were actually start-ups trying to get exposure and be noticed. I thought that defeated the purpose of the hackathon as a medium, and it seemed like a waste of their time and money to be there to me.

We did not win – I am fine with that, as we had some difficulty with our presentation due to A/V issues and we were only allotted a 3 minute timeslot, so our showing was not our strongest. However we were confused by the business-case winner, who showcased a meet-up app for scooter riders. I didn’t really understand the benefit or the utility of such an app; maybe it was too European for me.

The technical winners were better, but still not all that impressive in my mind. They demonstrated simple convoying of indoor robots using 2D-barcodes in ROS. They likely pulled a lot of largely off-the-shelf ROS-nodes to accomplish this, but the fact that they had a working demo was nice.

A few entries there were (at the risk of sounding rude) comically bad. One guy was talking about vaguely increasing factory automation despite the fact that there was a separate hackathon competition for connected manufacturing. Another pitched a free internet radio service with no advertisements, but “local sponsored content.” It was not clear how these were not advertisements. He had a start-up for this idea. There were other ideas that were pretty bad too, and a few good ones. I was a little frustrated as it seemed like not many people had novel ideas they were pitching and we at least had that.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed my time at the hackathon and may look into pursuing more of them in the future. We hung out a bit after the awards ceremony and grabbed some vegan Mexican food after the event. We went home and called it an early night, tired after long days of programming and short nights of programming. I’m glad I took part in the event, and not only because I got to hang out with people and spend the  better part of a week in Berlin. With the hackathon over, I found myself in the historic city though, poised to spend the weekend exploring there. More on that next time. Until then,

Best wishes and safe travels,

– Ben