Thursday, October 16, 2014

Letting Go

As a career freelancer and modern nomad, one would think that saying good-bye is easy. Both personally and professionally, I have been forced to pack up my belongings and move to the next place of opportunity more times than I can count. And it always hurts.

The season with my most recent employer has come to an end and most of the people that have been so kind to me are moving on to the next adventure. The paragliding pilots that I have come to love are all chasing the winds to Napal. The other tour guides that I met will either be going home or on some extended vacation to other far-off lands. I will be staying in Germany, trying to break into traditional employment. 

The Mike's Bike Tours Crew
On my final tour to Neuschwanstein Castle,the weather gods were kind and made that last day beautiful. The sun shined brightly behind the clouds which framed the Alps perfectly. The air was crisp and sweet. 

I hiked around Alps Lake, trying to create the perfect farewell image in my head. I smelled the grass, touched the trees, and put my feet in the icy cold water. I already had a ton of pictures on my camera, but they seemed insufficient. I wanted a way to save the experience, not just the sights.

Lottie, a woman who stuffed me full of her homemade German soul food all summer, hugged me good-bye. And I thanked Harti, the owner of the paragliding school and restaurant, for all the free beer he supplied. 

And right when I thought I felt the first tear starting to fall down my chubby cheek, I thought of a line from American Beauty's protagonist, Lester Burnham:

"Sometimes I feel like I'm seeing it all at once, and it's too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that's about to burst... And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can't feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life"

In that instant, my sadness turned to joy. This summer was one of the best I've had in a long time. And I'm so grateful I have these memories, these moments, to add to my stupid little life. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

Facing Fear

This summer, I have had the pleasure of hanging out with paragliding pilots from around the world. So each day when my tour group goes for a bike ride around an alpine lake in Bavaria, I get to listen to their conversations, which often go something like this: 

Jess: So what are we going to do today? 
Bella: I don't know. I don't really feel like flying, maybe we can rent e-bikes and bike around Alpsee lake before going for a swim.
Jess: Maybe we can go paddle boating

And all I can do is sit in awe. It's like sitting at the cool kids' table when you're the chubby newcomer. They do things that I have never even imagined doing. 

Here's some background info; I am not an active person. Actually, a more accurate description would be that I have never considered myself to be an active person. I think exercise is voluntary torture and my attempts at being sporty includes cheerleading and a short lived time protecting my face from the ball when I tried to play football. I run only when I have to. So seeing people push their bodies to the limit is fascinating. And it inspires me to do the same. 

For the past four months, I've been riding my bike to work and hiking almost every day in the Bavarian Alps. And my body has responded in amazing ways, including the formation of some cool new thigh muscles. I can hike faster and longer. I'm stronger and healthier. But when I compared myself to the pilots, I was sad because I was still worlds away from their levels. 

Things really came to a head when one of the pilots invited me to come mushroom picking in the mountains and I had to decline because I was afraid I would slow him down. On my own, the hike would have been fine. But I doubted that I would be able to keep up with a man who was practically born with hiking boots on his feet.

Pilots, Ivan and David, chilling before flights
The incident really put me off and I was so disappointed for not even trying. Here was an opportunity to push myself and I turned it down. 

But, here's the wonderful thing about the universe: it will present you with additional opportunities to learn important lessons. 

Due to kindness on my part towards his nephew-in-law, Ivan invited me to a tandem paragliding session, for free. I would be strapped to his harness and he would do all of the work. All I had to do was run towards a 930 meter high cliff as fast as I could. 

Now, people, running towards a cliff is NOT the normal thing to do and your brain knows this. I was so excited before the take-off, but when we got to the actual cliff, I froze. I just couldn't bring myself to start running. The other pilots tried to get me to go since the wind was perfect and the wing was already filling with air. But I just could not do it. 

We ended up detaching from the wing and letting the other pilots fly and I felt horrible. I wanted to do it, but the fear was paralyzing. I apologized to Ivan for wasting his time and started to dread facing the other pilots. How could I possibly face them, people who do this for a living and I couldn't even do a tandem flight? 

After a few minutes, Ivan suggested we give it one more try. I looked at the cliff and then focused on a small green hut on the neighboring mountain. 

I was not going to be that person. 
I was not going to be afraid to do new things. 
I was not going to watch people do the things I wanted to do.
I was going to test myself.

I agreed and we reattached to the wing. We took a few steps to let it fill with air. Then Ivan said, "Now," and I asked, "Do I run?" He said yes and the world went black. The next thing I remember is him telling me I can stop running and to sit down in the harness. I could hear the people from the take-off cheering us in the background. We were airborne and it felt glorious. 

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Unemployed Abroad

Now what?

If you're like me and find yourself jobless in Germany, your natural reaction will most likely be to freak the f*uck out. So many questions will pop up, but the most pressing one will probably be will I get kicked out of the country. As a non-EU citizen, I was granted permission to stay in Germany on the basis that I would be able to support myself financially and not become a burden on the state. This is obviously rather difficult to do when your sole source of income is abruptly taken from you. 

But all hope is not lost, if you know how to navigate the system. So the first thing I would recommend is notifying immigration of your new, unemployed status. If your work permit is tied to your job, this is voided once employment with that company ends. I sort of hid from the authorities for about a month after my employment ended. But that was because it went into effect over the holiday season and no action would have been taken on my case until the new year. My residence permit was still valid until the end June, so I was able to stay in Munich while I figured out my next step. 

Don't cancel your health insurance

After speaking with the authorities, my next thought was how could I reduce my overhead. Certain items like rent will remain static and there's little you can do to reduce it that does not include moving or subletting your space. But other monthly expenses appeared to be more flexible, like my health insurance. However, I strongly advise against canceling it if you plan on staying in Germany. By law, everyone is required to have health insurance. So if you cancel your plan and stay in the country, you can, and most likely will, be hit with a massive bill totaling all of your missed payments. Instead, call your provider and inform them of your new employment status. My company, TK, reduced my payments to the minimum amount of 158 euros, which is one of the lowest rates you'll find. Plus, if you were able to enroll in a public health insurance company like TK during your initially period of employment and then cancel your membership, you will be unable to become a member again until you find another job. This is extremely important since your only other option will be the private insurers, which have rates of about 250 euros, regardless of your income (or lack there of). 

Get another work permit

So your original work permit is now null in void, which means that you cannot legally work until you receive another work permit. If you jumped through hoops to get the first one, you know how difficult and timely this can be. Employers are simply not excited about hiring someone that will require so much additional work. But again, all hope is not lost. Until you find that sweet staff position that will provide you with the financial security you crave, look for a freelance one. Now, you have to be careful with this option as you will be responsible for paying for your own health insurance as well as taxes by the end of the year. But the tax problem can be solved if you freelance for a short amount of time and keep your income below 8,000 euros. 

With these two cons, you may wonder what the pros are for a freelance visa. Well, the biggest one I can list is that it is significantly easier to obtain a freelance visa than a typical work visa. If you can provide letters of intent to hire from at least two companies stating that they would like to hire you AND you can prove that you're qualified to do that job, plus show that you have health insurance, you're golden. In Munich, they also required me to enroll in a pension plan, which was easily accomplished by speaking with some people at the bank, Sparkasse. In Berlin, this was not necessary. So the rules are not set in stone, and each city may require slightly different paperwork. But the goal remains the same: prove that you can support yourself for the duration of your permit (which is valid for a period of one or two years). 

Find another job

This obviously goes without saying, but it can be hard to know where to start when it feels like your whole world is falling apart and you're in the midst of a mental crisis (like I was). The goal is to simply stop the negative cash flow. So if you don't speak German and you don't have a work permit, you're going to have to look at unskilled/ semi-skilled positions that are open to people with little to no German language skills. Luckily for me, the summer tourist season was about to start and I was able to land a position with a tour company that caters to the English speaking market. It's temporary, but it helped me land a freelance visa since my previous employment as an event manager proved that I was qualified for the position. Other places to look would be hostels, hotels, and kiosks. Again, a great place to look is Toytown Germany. Smaller companies often post job listings in the forum when they're searching specifically for English speakers. 

Another option for some fast cash are online freelance sites like Odesk and Elance. If you have a skill that can be done electronically, you may be able to find some clients from all over the world to help fund your continued stay in Germany.  

Don't freak out

Easier said than done, I know. But it's really hard to think clearly and form a plan of action when your stress levels are through the roof. I actually stayed in bed for about a month in one of the worst depressive states I've ever dealt with. The prospect of going home was very real when one month I literally had enough cash to either pay for a one-way ticket or one more month of rent. 

But thankfully, I had some truly great people in my corner that helped to pull me up when I was down. And their struggles were my inspiration. Seeing how they were able to weather some of the worst storms let me know that I could too. I'm not sure what my next move will be, but I'm honestly so happy with where I landed. The new job is filled with great people, which helps in the whole "I'm alone in a foreign city and have no friends" department. Plus, I'm rewarded with this lovely view on an almost daily basis.

View from my office 

I swear, I'm like a cat and have somehow landed on my feet more times that I can remember. So for now, it looks like I have a few more lives left in my european adventure. I have no idea what my next move will be. But hopefully, it'll still be within Germany. 

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Top 5 tips if you're fired from your German job as a non-German citizen

If you've been following this blog, some of you may know that I've been very lucky when it comes to the jobs area. Somehow, fate has stepped in and blessed me with employment and visas right when I needed both to stay in Europe and not be be homeless. But in December of last year, it looked like my luck ran out. I was fired from my job and faced the very real possibility that I would have to leave my European dreams behind. 

While there were some telltale signs that things weren't all that they appeared to be with my employer, I ignored them. Long story short, when I was hired, it was under the impression that I would be working in Munich. As part of the company's expansion, the company would move to an office in Munich at the end of the Oktoberfest tour. So that's where I got an apartment, obviously. However, after I signed a lease and several weeks after the tour ended, my former employer decided to purchase a brewery instead. So I would have to move, yet again, to a place that I can only describe as the Alabama of Germany, Überlingen. And when my ex-boss found out that I was investigating my rights about abruptly switching job locations, I was fired.

Totally lost and completely broke, (did I mention he did this right after the company holiday when I flew to New York) I had no idea how to proceed. But several months later, I'm still here and surviving. So here are the 5 most important things I learned that could help you should you find yourself in a similar situation.  

1. Know what's in your contract

This is actually is more about protecting yourself before the termination, but is just as important afterwards. In Germany, the contract is gold and it should spell out everything, from how much you'll earn to exactly where your job duties will take place. My contract was a very barebones one that only outlined my holiday pay, salary, and included an unenforceable paragraph stating that I'm barred from working on similar Oktoberfest events. In total, my contract was only 4 pages long while my friend's contract for an internship was over 20 pages long. Major red flag.

2. Don't sign anything

When your employment is terminated, there are several steps that have to be cleared by your employer. Failure to comply with the rules can end up costing them a lot of money, unless you unknowingly sign away your rights. For instance, if you have been working for a company for at least 6 months, it is practically impossible to be fired. Think American Teacher's Union level job protection. But if you sign on the dotted line because you think your B1 level German is good enough to understand German legalese, you may forfeit any chance you have at staying employed.

3. Speak to a lawyer

Since you're not well versed in German labor law, find someone that is. If you have no income coming in because you were fired after only working 5 months, and can't collect unemployment (like me), you can find a low-cost lawyer to help out. Where I live, the Münchner Arbeitslosenzentrum provides legal consultation for the low price of 20 euros. You can only use them once per calendar year and you'll need to bring in a translator if you're not fluent in German. They'll look over your contract and other documents you may have received and advise you on how to proceed. It was here that I found out I was entitled to my holiday pay, which leads me to tip number 4.

4. Go to the Arbeitgerich

The Arbeitgerich is the labor court in Germany and each region has their own. When my former employer refused to release my holiday pay, I filed a case with the Arbeitgerich in Munich, which stepped in. Again, you'll need a German translator with you, both to file the case and to actually go with you to court. Fortunately, my roommate is a certified translator and helped me with everything. In my case, we were required to go to mediation and would only proceed to the formal case if we failed to reach an agreement. I was told that I did not need a lawyer to represent me, although it would have been possible for me to get one for little to no cost. Since I didn't use their services, I can't provide any information, but know that it is available if you need one. 

5. Have faith

Going against a business that has a lot of money in a country where you don't even speak the language was a scary prospect. But my fears were for naught. Laws here generally favor the worker and the judge was very fair in her observations. When my employment ended, my boss kicked me out of the office, even though my contract stated that I was entitled to a 6 week notice of termination. Since I was not in the office, he argued that I had taken my vacation and was not entitled to receive any additional holiday pay. He also tried to argue that I came to Munich on my accord and he had never said that I would be working there. However, I never signed anything agreeing to take a 6 week vacation in lieu of a cash payment. And my contract did not say where my job duties would take place. So, due to these omissions, the judge recommended a settlement where I would receive 3/4 of the holiday pay. Even though it was my word against his, my chances were pretty high that I would win since it was his responsibility as an employer to get everything written down. But I was happy to take the minor loss and finally have this chapter closed. 

So what have I learned from this whole ordeal? Aside from the obvious, which is read your contract thoroughly, the lessons gained are too complex for me to neatly wrap up at the end of a blog post. One thing that I can say is the employee in Germany is not powerless. Unlike the States, the courts here are accessible, so taking an abusive employer to task for their bullying tactics is much, much easier.  So when a job is offered, it is normal and acceptable for both parties to go over the contract, down to most minute detail, so that each is comfortable with the terms and conditions. This explains why my former boss made a point of not hiring Germans. 

In the next installment of this tale, we'll discuss things to do when you're unemployed abroad and trying to plan your next step. Hope these tips help =)

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Selling Culture

After a few months of aimlessness, I landed a position that takes me to Germany's lovely Neuschwanstein Castle several times a week. But before we get to the castle, there's a stop in the nearby town of Tegelberg for a bike ride and lunch. 

Having decided to stay in the restaurant to catch up on some work instead of joining the group on the bike ride, I noticed something. When the guests are eating lunch, the radio plays German pop music staples. But today, Recking Ball was on. The tour guide told me that he asked them to play German music during lunch to provide the visiting tourists with a "true German experience".

When we travel as tourists, we often think the things we see are representative of the culture we are visiting. At least I do. But the music switch made me question how much of what we see is simply provided for the tourist's gaze versus practices in which the residents engage in as part of their everyday activities. 

When I took the preceding picture in Vietnam, I assumed that the dance was performed solely for the benefit of the visiting backpackers who decided to go a little off the beaten trail. But I failed to make the same assumption concerning the music the restaurant decided to play. I guess the menu, which consists of spaghetti bolognese and club sandwiches, should have been a clue. 

If you decide to move to a country, you have a greater possibility of gaining access to the "authentic" experience of the location. But that's no guarantee since the definition of authentic is so hard to pin down. I.e., when discussing my love of dirndls with my friend, she argued that real Germans don't wear them. And the ones that do are most likely people that I'm far too cool to associate with, e.g., dude bros and the equivalent of sorority girls. However, my tatted & pierced roommate with a hot pink stripe in her hair has several and she is as far from a sorority girl that you can get. 

Perhaps the idea is not to look for the authentic, but to understand what authentic means to the culture you are visiting. This approach allows room for several definitions of authentic and provides a richer picture. 

Or maybe I'm just over analyzing the whole thing and trying to put my ethnology degree to good use.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Cultural Assimilation at the Frühlingsfest

I keep saying that I will post at least once a week, but I never seem to keep that promise. Oh well, sometimes life doesn't always goes as planned. Any hoo, I've been making myself comfortable in my new home of Bavaria and finding all sorts of hijinks to keep myself entertained.

This past week, I had the great pleasure of attending a maibaum fest as well as the Frühlingsfest on May Day (for those of you in the US, that is Labor Day for everyone else in the world). 

A maibaum is the german translation for maypole, and yes, there is a party dedicated to its raising on the first day of May. I had no idea to expect, yet happily accepted the invitation to hang out with cool Germans and begin my drinking at 11 in the morning. The square at Hans Mielich Platz was transformed into a beer garden, complete with a dance floor, and people in the neighborhood gathered to drink and dance. 

Even though we were in the heart of Munich, it felt like we were in a small village. You could tell the dances the men and women performed were things they have practiced since childhood. 

And the clothes were beautiful. Richly embroidered suspenders, hand tooled leather belts, and skirt covers in mirrored flowers; the outfits made me swoon. 


Not to be outshined, I put my best foot forward and modeled my lovely new dirndl. After an exhaustive search, I found this lovely gem at the second hand store across the street from KVR, the immigration office in Munich. And I only spent a total of 50 euros for the entire outfit, which is a much better deal than the 100 euros most places charge for things that are much lower quality. 

The highlight of the day was the performance by the schuhplattler dancers. The schuhplattler is also called slap dancing and can be best described at Bavaria's answer to the step shows that are popular with Black fraternities. 

I am a total geek and squealed when I saw them take the floor. I've been watching YouTube videos of schuhplattlers for months and was so excited to finally see one in person.

After several dances, many compliments on my outfit, and too much beer, my friend and I made our way towards the Frühlingsfest, which is spring's version of Oktoberfest, and takes place at the same location at Theresienwiese. 

Having never been to the actual Oktoberfest and only managed a bastardized version of it in several countries, I was mildly disappointed when we arrived and saw a giant amusement park. Complete with rides and carnival games, I felt like I was at Coney Island. But never one to give up the chance for a new adventure, my friend and I made our way to to the beer tent and continued our love affair with liter glasses. 

Shortly after grabbing a table, we were quickly joined by a two German guys and then two Finnish ones. The Finns were really cool AND sociable, so I took their picture as evidence to present to my Finnish friend who swears her people have no social skills. 

One of our German neighbors, who was only mildly attractive when he was sober, turned into a royal ass once he was intoxicated. He foolishly tried to pull up my dress while I was dancing, and I screamed, "I'll fucking slit your throat if you touch me again you son of a bitch!" My new Finnish friends made it known that they would happily deal with him should he decide to touch me again. 

So all in all, I had a great time, but after seeing what the festival is in the spring, I think I will be avoiding it in the fall. There are far too many beer halls in the city to choose from than to subject yourself to the commercialism and drunken debauchery that is on display at the Oktoberfest. But if I do decide to go, I already have an outfit picked out. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Adventures in Assimilation: My Quest for a Dirndl

As was demonstrated by the Starkbier Fest and Fashing, Germans like to dress up. If it's a special event, the sneakers and jeans are traded in for something much more stylish. And for them, that's usually the dirndl or lederhosen. Here in Bavaria, they are not just costumes, they are a part of their culture. I've seen people, both young and old, wearing leather trousers and structured dresses around town without the slightest bit of irony.  


Contrary to popular thought, lederhosen & dirndls were not considered formal attire. They were typically worn by working class peasants, much like American jeans or a maid's dress. But the garments gained a bit of respectability when German nobility decided to take inspiration from the fashion of the general population and reproduced the items in rich fabrics and deer skin leather. Today, people often where them to festivals and other cultural events in a show of national pride. And I want one.

I should rephrase that. I want a nice one. I have two that I got from my job, one of which is pictured below. But they both look and feel cheap, more like a costume than an actual dress.

The style is very flattering, even if my boobs are pushed up to my chin. However, the fabric and overall construction of both dresses are flimsy. As part of a bulk order for the workers of the company, they were purchased with cost in mind, not style. So I would like one that is more reflective of my impeccable taste.

One company that makes absolutely exquisite dirndls is Noh Nee à l'Africaine

The specially produced fabric is only available in the Netherlands. And the dresses are constructed in their shop in Scwabing. Needless to say, the quality is exceptional and the cost staggering. Most of their dirndls start at 800 euros.

And it seems like the fates enjoy teasing me since I happen to live above a dirndl shop. Theirs are also lovely and obscenely expensive. Most start at 1,000 euros, which is so far out my price range, I can't even see the price tag. 

My best bet for getting a dirndl that is both lovely and affordable is getting one from a second-hand shop. I visited the Weis 'n Tracht & Mehr at Rosenthal 5 right by the Viktualien Markt and was surprised their inventory. I completely ignored the hideous display of cheap dresses at the front of the store and went straight to the vintage section. And fell in love with a red embroidered number. However, our love affair was not to be since I literally could not get the zipper to move past my boobs. Not one to give up so easily, I found another dirndl, this time in blue with white embroidery. This one fit like a glove. If that glove prevented you from breathing. I looked great, but felt like I was wearing a vice. So that too stayed in the store next to it's crimson counterpart.

But I will not give up yet. Weis 'n Tracht has 5 locations in Munich and I only tried one. Plus Kleidermarkt at Tal 30 has three floors of second-hand goodness and a happy-hour special of 30% off every Tuesday. I will find a dirndl that will love me as much as I love it. It's just going to take a little bit of patience and some footwork. Wish me luck.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Starkbierfest: Good beer, better friends

This past weekend, I had the immense pleasure of attending the Starkbierfest at Paulaner am Nockherberg. My lovely friend was visiting from Madrid and I wanted to show her what Munich was all about, namely mass beers and singing. Plus, one of the guys from my writing group wanted to go and was looking for people to join him. So we all agreed to  go and see what this magical elixir was all about.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with starkbier, it was originally created by monks for them to drink during the fast of Lent. The idea was to create something that served as liquid bread since drinks were permissible while one was fasting. The result is a flavorful brew with a higher alcohol content of about 7%, a nice little side effect.


Most of the famous breweries in Munich have their own version of starkbeir, but Paulaner's is the most famous and has the biggest parties, so that was where we were going. 

Entrance to the festival this year was 2 euros. If you went Thursday through Saturday, the entrance total was 11.80 euros and included a voucher for one liter (mass) of beer. So if you plan on going next year, budget accordingly. Also, reservations are highly encouraged if you actually want to get a seat inside. 

When my friends and I first arrived, the sun was bright and shining, so we decided to sit in the adjacent beer garden. Not wanting to get too drunk too early, I decided to get some food from the near-by stalls. Now, I do not speak ANY German. I know, I know, bad American. But so far, I've been able to get by with my rudimentary skills of Danish (the languages are surprisingly similar) and miming. There were no menus nor prices listed at the stall and after asking the man behind the counter the prices of several different items, I some how managed to get a plate of a half chicken and a dumpling for 19 freaking euros! I thought I misheard the woman at the register and was going to take my food back for something more affordable. But then she started yelling at me in angry German, so I paid for my meal and mourned the loss of drinking money. So again, be prepared if you decide to check it out, the is not for the tightwad.

Rather than sulk about the culinary rip off, my friends and I enjoyed the day and made arrangements to meet another friend who happened to have reservations inside. Score! 

Must protect the precious beer!

I would have been happy sitting outside all day, but the weather and crowd were both a bit subdued. I was hoping for a German brass band and dancing on the tables. Instead, the beer garden was filled with quiet conversation and civilized drinking. And Despicable Me balloons. 

So once we finished our first round, we headed indoors and was greeted with Bavarian hospitality.

Yes! This is exactly what I was looking for. And after doing a international tour of Oktoberfest, I knew most of the drinking songs and was able to sing along. In the end, my friends and I managed to drink 4 liters of beer, each, over 10 hours. It was great. Until I woke up the next day and looked at my account =)

Monday, March 31, 2014

Spring in Bloom

It's amazing how much a city can change when the sun finally comes out. When I lived in Copenhagen, I thought there were hardly any people there. And then Spring came and the city was overflowing with tourists and residents alike. I guess they had been hibernating. 

When I came to Munich, I expected a similar transformation, but a little less dramatic. Unlike Copenhagen, people still go out to bars, play winter sports, and generally live their lives even in the wintery months. However, the last few days of sunshine and warm weather has brought even more people out of hiding and I'm so excited to see what the city has in store. 

No sun + low temps = no people

Last week when the temperatures dropped down again, I was struck by how empty the city became, literally overnight. As I walked down Ludwigstrasse, a street that is normally buzzing with energy, it felt like I was in the city all by myself. But then the sun came out the next day and everything was back to to normal

High temp - clouds = people!

What I've really enjoyed, in addition to the warm weather, is the buskers that have started appearing around the city. In New York, they're everywhere, including the trains, and the random street music is something that I start to miss even now and again. So imagine my surprise when I came across a band with a full sized piano in the middle of the street on my way to Marienplatz. 

And when I went to hang out in the English Garden, the rhythmic sounds of a drum circle beckoned me to find them. I tried to ignore them and stay focused on my book and beer, but their hold on me was too powerful. Before I knew it, I was packing up my belongings and going in search of their source. 

When I found the group of performers, and started dancing, I was reminded of an old Dave Chappelle skit were he discusses the power of electric guitars and drums on white and black people. I proved his theory right. 

After having my fill of good beats, I decided to look for the legendary surfers of the Eisbach. I saw them once during my first trip to Munich. But it was the smaller area where the beginners practice. I wanted to see where the pros go to show off. 

I noticed a few people walking with surf boards before, but I wasn't sure if they were going to the area or coming from it. I was feeling daring that day and decided to follow my instincts and go where they were going. And I was well rewarded for my courage. I came across the pro area and there were about seven people in slick wetsuits riding the waves on their short boards. Even though the day was warm, the water was rather chilly (I know this because one of the surfers flicked me when he was coming out of the river) and I had to admire their commitment. Here's their exact location if you want to check them out.

And the summer hasn't even begun. Hell, it's not even April yet and all these cool things are happening. I haven't even mentioned Starkbierfest, the festival celebrating strong beer. And I've started to see some advertisements for the Munich Film Festival and numerous musical events that will be coming to the city. I'm absolutely giddy about the new experiences Munich has to offer. Let's see what else I can find.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Cheap Travel, German Style

Spring is a upon us and soon, the streets will soon be teeming with tourists from far and wide, looking for a fun and adventure. If you would like to be one of them and are looking to stretch your limited budget, here's a few tips to bring down your transportation costs.

If you want to travel within Germany's borders with several accomplices, one of your cheapest options will be rail. One of the numerous discounts available through the national train service, DB Bahn, is the Bayern ticket, which allows multiple people to travel on the same ticket, throughout Bavaria. The more people that travel, the lower each person's ticket costs, with up to four people paying 8.75 euros per person. It also covers local transport, including buses. When my friends and I traveled to a tiny German town about three hours out of Munich for a Thanksgiving dinner in a countryside cabin, the Bayern ticket helped to bring the cost of travel and lodgings to less than 100 euros per person for a three day weekend.

Bayern baby! Photo: Ashley Lovell

And the savings that DB Bahn offers is not just limited to Bavaria. The company also has similar tickets for all parts of Germany and is currently running a special to many European cities, including Amsterdam, Paris, and Vienna, for just 39 euros. 

If trains are still a little too rich for your blood, the next cheap option is bus. 

Berlin's central bus station

Pictured is one of the many discount bus lines serving Germany, Meinfern Bus. Even if you need to book and travel on the same day, you can usually find cheap prices, like from Munich to Berlin for only 18 euros. Plus, there's free wifi on all their buses and snacks for sale, including beer, if you're unable to pick something up before you board. 

For bus travel out of Germany, I've had really good experiences with Eurolines. They also have free wifi on most of their buses, but they give you a free snack and bottle of water. The only draw back with them is you have actually print up your ticket, unlike Meinfern, which gives you the option of downloading a PDF of your ticket to your smart phone. 

When I wanted to travel to Copenhagen over the Christmas break and all flights were coming in at well over 100 euros, I used Meifern to get me from Munich to Berlin, and Eurolines to take me the rest of the way. I spent a full day traveling, but I only paid 30 euros doing it. 

Another bus option is Berlinlinien. They have prices that are similar to Eurolines when looking for international travel and low prices for trips within Germany. But for you to get the best rates, you will need to book your trip about seven days in advance. 

If buses and trains are still pushing you to the limits of your budget, your last option, that I know of, is a rideshare. If you can find people that are traveling in the same direction as your destination, you can offer to split the cost of gas with several other travelers. A great website you should checkout is Carpooling. Obviously, such a method has several drawbacks, the main one being that you are at the mercy of other people's schedules. You'll have to find people that are not only going where you're going, but they also have to be leaving when you want to leave. But if your dates are flexible and the savings that attractive, then go for it.

I will admit, all of these options will add significant time to your trip. Rather than spend more than twelve hours sitting on my butt when I went from Munich to Copenhagen, I gave myself an extended layover and spent the night with a friend in Berlin. But I love traveling and part of the adventure is actually getting to my destination. So a good soundtrack and plenty of treats were enough to keep me happy. And when you're in a position were every cent counts, I'd rather pay for my way in patience than cash. Happy travels!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Packing like a pro

This post was inspired by the countless articles that say they have the secret to traveling lightly by only using one carry-on bag for a three week trip. Honestly, I'm tired of the shannigans. Their secret is almost always some variation of "only take two shirts and one pair of pants and do laundry while you're there," to which I must respond, ew.

My main gripe with this method of only taking the bare essentials and buying or washing what you need once you get to your destination can end up being very expensive and frustrating. Things like sunscreen and moisturizer can be more costly in countries outside of the U.S. And if you're like me and have sensitive skin, do you really want to experiment with products when you can't even read the ingredient list? 

As for washing clothes, unless you're going to hand wash them, a laundry service can easily run more than $20. And don't count on finding a self-serve laundromat as my travels to London, Stockholm, and Glasgow have all shown that such services are on the steep decline and chances are, the city you visit may not even have one that is close to your accommodations. Hand washing presents it's own challenges since you will have to find a place to hang them (good luck if you're staying in a hostel) and wait for them to actually dry. Do you want to be stuck in the hotel when your only pair of trousers are dripping wet? 

Shopping may not even be an option, especially if you're visiting an Asian country and you are bigger that a U.S. size 2.

So now that I've said all the things that are wrong with this method, I think it's only fair that I suggest something that is more efficient. 

If you're only traveling for a few days, then sure, take the carry-on. That is what it was meant for. But if you're going to be on the road for at least two weeks, I say bite the bullet and check a bag. Before buying your ticket, see which airline will be the cheapest, including baggage fees. Most international flights will give you at least one bag (and usually booze) for free, so take advantage of it.

Now, if you're new to the world of travel, you're probably wondering which bag is best for you. I think few can go wrong with a rolling duffel bag with backpack straps. This is what my friend recommended when I did my first multi-country trip through Europe and it was the best advice I received.

I found this bag on Ebay when a gentleman sold two of them together for only $100. I gave the other one to my mom and she loved it when she took it with her to South Africa. It may look small, but it packs big, holding enough clothes for a three month, 4 country tour. The two large rubber wheels in the back makes it very maneuverable, even on the cobblestones of Europe. It has a large opening on the front, so I can reach what I need without having to rearrange everything inside. Plus, it has a ton of straps and handles, so you can grab it from just about any angle. 

As for carry-on luggage, you have plenty of wiggle room. I tend to go for bags that have either backpack traps or cross body straps, both of which leave my hands free to pull the larger bag. During my Oktoberfest tour, I picked up this lovely bag in Glasgow. After traveling for three months and buying gifts for family and friends, I needed an extra bag to transport all the goodies home

This bag has two main compartments, hidden backpack straps (are you noticing a theme), a removable cross body strap, and handle. It's also expandable, giving me a little extra room when I need it. This was 20 pounds at TK Maxx, which is pretty cheap for a Henry Cottons bag.

For an everyday bag to use at my destination, a vintage Dooney and Bourke saddlebag is perfect. It can hold a bottle of water, camera, and small book comfortably. Plus the inner pockets have zippers which keep my wallet, cash, and passport all nice and secure. I also found it on Ebay for the low price of $30. 

Me, my friend Nicki, and my trusty bag in Amsterdam

Aside from the backpack straps, an apparent theme is my love of Ebay. My adventures with used items have shown that you can save so much money by turning to this site in your hunt for high quality travel pieces. 

As you begin your search for the right piece (or pieces) of luggage, know that amassing a good collection is not an instantaneous process. It's taken me several years and many trips to know what works and what doesn't. So don't be afraid to start off slow with one piece at a time. The goal is to find things that you love and will stand the test of time. Happy travels!