Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Zurück zur Schule

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Today I took a stroll down memory lane. Along with Wiebke, we paid a visit to the Marienschule in Krefeld. It brought back many fond memories I have of my fellow classmates and teachers. The school was buzzing along like a typical day. I truly shocked my English teacher when I said hello and we started up a conversation. Wiebke and I only stayed about twenty minutes (the length of a break between classes), then moving onto the Innenstadt (city center). Again, not much has changed in three years, but I think that was still a pleasant surprise. I found myself quite nostalgic, but Wiebke and I had a great time conversing and strolling through town. Lastly, we stopped at my favorite café (Café Extrablatt) - I had to get my favorite french fries with mayonnaise; trust me, it tastes much better than it sounds!

Café Extrablatt in the Innenstadt

Me with the Haribo Bear :)

For the rest of the day, I had some downtime to prepare my upcoming travels to Frankfurt am Main and Hamburg and then enjoyed dinner with two old classmates (Maike and Sabrina) in Fischeln. It has been a magical time in Krefeld and at the Karneval celebrations, but now I'm off to Frankfurt to visit some TCNJ friends and then discover a new city: Hamburg.

I wish you all a Happy Valentine's Day! (Happy St. Valentinstag!)
Viele Grüße,

Tuesday, February 12, 2013


Tuesday, February 12, 2013

I was proud to have fought my jet-lag to enjoy the Karneval festivities, yet by the end, I felt like my exhaustion had finally caught up. After a long, solid night's sleep, I was refreshed and re-lived some of the simple joys of Barbara and Claude's home. It was striking, but comforting, to me that I felt at home as I walked through the door on Saturday morning. 

Vocabulary Post-it Reminder
In addition to the loving generosity of my German family, I have noticed in the past couple days a few more subtleties that truly make my German home special. A few examples have been the scent of the house, the artwork, and the heated floors. There are even some reminders of my previous stay. Pictures of us hang on the wall, and one of my German vocabulary post-its still hangs there on the inside of the closet door. Later, Domi also returned home after a big exam. At dinner, I tried to joke that I noticed the white walls had been recently re-painted white. It turned on me when I said they had "petted the walls" rather than "re-painted."  I still am a part of the family..and already thinking in German, but perhaps not exactly the right words!

For Karneval, Barbara made Faasekuchen - a funnel-cake, spherical dough with 
powdered sugar sprinkled on top. YUM!

Beste Grüße,

Alaaf in Kölle!

Monday, February 11, 2013

When in Germany on Karneval, you have to see Köln (Cologne, or Kölle in their dialect known as Kölsch), the Karneval capital of Germany. The grandest celebrations take place on the Monday prior to Ash Wednesday, known as Rosenmontag (Rose Monday). Up early, I went with my friends, Wiebke (former classmate and fencing teammate)  and Yasmina (fellow classmate). We met up with Yasmina's Javi at the train station in Köln. Even at 10 am, the chaos was slowly brewing.

Me, Wiebke, Yasmina, and Javi in front of the Cologne Cathedral

It was colder than Sunday, but my Marsupilami costume served me well. Köln hosts the largest Rosenmontag parade, thus attracting the most people. According to tradition, it starts punctually at 11:11am, although the parade did not pass our spot for another hour. Instead of screaming "Helau", the Kölners (people from Cologne) scream "Alaaf!" It was the same routine of floats, music, dancers, and the most creative costumes you've seen in below-freezing temperatures. The parade was hilarious and energetic, despite its slow stop-and-go pace. I did not understand all the floats, as they were written in Kölsch, the dialect of Cologne. (That was not an issue when I visited Düsseldorf in 2010). Between Yasmina, Wiebke, and myself, we caught about ten pounds of candy from the floats. The girls even collected a rose. In honor of Rose Monday, they threw out as many flowers as candy. After nearly 3.5 hours, we saw the halfway point pass by. We grew too tired and cold to see the end. Wiebke and I headed back to Krefeld after a festive Rosenmontag, but honestly, I was simply too exhausted to form a sentence after all that fun!

Rosemontagszug (Rose Monday Parade) in Cologne 2013

I'm pleasantly content to have taken part in this celebration in Germany. However, as I returned home, I was reminded of my Irish heritage. I looked in the mirror to notice that I got a slight sunburn on my forehead, nose, and cheeks. Impressive, when you consider it was cloudy and below freezing! It's better now, so ALAAF to Karneval! :)

Helau! und Alaaf!

Helau in St. Tönis

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Marsupilami (Source: Google Images)

It's the most wonderful and un-German-like time of the year! It is when the serious and stern Germans let loose and party in the streets the few leading up to Ash Wednesday. I arrived just in time for the Karneval celebrations, and I'm glad and grateful to be here. I met up with friend and former classmate, Britta and her family, who brought me along to their family's Karneval celebration in St. Tönis. I came dressed as a Marsupilami (a leopard-like comic figure seen above), so I was the spotted-yellow someone in the room. In spite of the German stereotype, everyone was extremely friendly and welcoming. As the parade got started, Britta and I visited some of our Marienschule friends.

Britta, Daniel, Martina, and I

In some sort of déjà-vu moment, I was reunited with my old German classmates. It was freezing as the streets were crowded with a wide variety of costumes, stirred up with alcohol and candy. In the hype of the celebrations we danced to goofy songs (that I personally love for their basic melodies and repetitious lyrics) and screamed "Helau!" to encourage the people on the floats to throw the candy in our direction. Although the parade was quick, it was euphoria to see everyone again in such a happy time. It was even more fun to take part in the tradition! I do laugh that the cleaning crews followed the parade, immediately starting to pick up the huge quantities of litter. It is socially acceptable to be a litterbug in this moment, but the Germans assume the responsibility to clean up the mess as well. They were in the mix of the "merrily tipsy" crowd that scattered in search of friends and their next party location. Britta and I made our way back to her family's aunt's home before dancing the rest of the night at a St. Tönis bar.



Saturday, February 9, 2013

Wieder daheim!

Saturday, February 9, 2013

It is electrifying how happy I am to be in Germany! I arrived early Saturday morning and words cannot describe how it feels. I'm literally living a dream.

My German sister, Marie-Claire was generous to pick me up at 6am this morning. My reunion with my German family was wonderful. Automatically I know I was at my second home. The conversations with them today was thought-provoking and just like 3 three years prior. After sleeping a bit, I went to pick up a new SIM card for my phone. I was fascinated by the German supermarkets. I had experienced it many times before, but this visit felt like the first time as I went today to Aldi with Barbara (my German mother). Germans deposit a 1-euro coin for the shopping cart. The items are extensively detailed (they tell you the exact farm from which an egg is laid); and to be environmentally-friendly, everyone brings their own reusable bags. I am stoked to be in a country of order and function!

Aldi Supermarket

With Marie-Claire's encouragement, I didn't waste any time about jumping into the Karneval celebrations. We went a Karneval costume party in Fischeln - it was friendly, funny, and a blast! I dressed as a caveman, she as a cat. Her friends were as kind as ever.

On February 9th, I am definitely living on cloud 9!

Feier schön,

Der perfekte Sturm

Friday, February 8, 2013

Hello again! After a short hiatus in New Jersey, I'm on to my next adventure! Back to good ole Germany! I couldn't be more excited to return. For the next six months, I hope to share (at least) one photo from each day. Granted that I may not be near a computer every day, the posts may not be published on a daily basis. I'll do my best.

The "perfect storm" was approaching the Northeast of the US, New Jersey just slightly south of the eye of two combined snowstorms. I sat at the airport, hopeful that we would take off and make our way to Düsseldorf, Germany. In true German fashion, everything was well-organized and punctual - I was in heaven. More importantly, we were one of the last flights to take off from Newark. An hour later and I believe the flight would have been cancelled.

Boarding the plane

I accredit some of my luck to a baby that I encountered in a King's Cake on Friday morning. Thanks to Aunt Nancy, in true Mardi Gras tradition, this baby follows the story of the three wise men and the twelve nights of Christmas. The custom varies in each region, so my basic understanding is that whoever may find the baby hidden in the King's Cake (it can also be a bean in other areas) must play a role in the reenactment of the story of the three wise men and they also are blessed with good luck for the upcoming year. In the 24 hours following, I have been accepted into TCNJ's International House and arrived safely to my German family in time for Karneval, despite the nearing storm in New Jersey. 

Thank you, Aunt Nancy for the King's Cake, and some genuine luck!

Liebe Grüße aus Krefeld,

Argentina en una palabra...

While I cannot share everything about my time abroad in a few sentences, I have managed to find one word that encompasses my entire experience in Argentina - unforgettable. I have been home in New Jersey for around six weeks now, and it has taken me this long to appreciate my polar experience in South America. On one hand, there were many beautiful moments, through travel and intercultural connection that undoubtedly solidify this experience as well-worth it. Yet on the other hand, I easily find words such as adverse, insecure, and stressful to describe my time in Argentina, particularly in Buenos Aires. 

There was a long adjustment period upon my arrival to the land of steak and Evita that I honestly anticipated to have less bumps; that is not the reality that life threw at me. It was my goal to be out-going and open to new experiences. It was smooth sailing until the middle of September, where I felt challenged in many ways I hadn't been before. My genuine trust in strangers was shattered after I was robbed at the train station. Later that month, I became fed up with the treatment I was receiving from the first family. It was tormenting to feel unsafe at home and anywhere I went. The greatest gift in this time was my trip to Córdoba, Salta, and Jujuy. It took me out of a dark cloud of negativity, brightening up my 22nd birthday through the new people and places.

As I moved in with Alice’s family in Recoleta, I immediately felt at home and found a place where I could relax. Living in the center of a capital city required a certain learning curve, proving the fact that I’m more a country bumpkin than a city slicker. It was amazing to be so close to all the action – cultural events, night life, friends, and the French architecture of Recoleta. However, I remain a country bumpkin.

Public transportation was very inexpensive and unreliable. Yet in my case, I always made it eventually to where I had to be one way or another…the ArgenTIME mindset forced me to adapt to a new understanding of time and patience. This cannot downplay the fact that it was a true act of faith each time I stepped into a bus and relinquished my safety to the bus driver. It sounds dramatic, but it was always out of my control. I grew accustomed and it was second nature to keep the thought out of my head. I still wanted to live the dream and fulfill my Argentina bucket list and the commitments I made.

Being in a new place, new experiences and friendships distracted my mind from the concentrating on the daily insecurity. The swim team, tango class, and my friends from San Andrés were my main source of fun. My frequent travels also kept things positive and exciting! They helped me perfect my Spanish, encouraged me to try new things, and enjoy the day. I am happy to have fun a positive group of people, with whom I constantly surrounded myself…it was just a few months in the making. Thanks to them, I always found something interesting about my day-to-day life in Buenos Aires. Politics and protests were easy conversation starters with the Argentines, a very social group of people. I truly loved the Argentines present at the cacerolazos for not being afraid to state their opinions.

Life in Buenos Aires encouraged me to reflect on my life in New Jersey. Yes, I had travelled to 20+ countries but never lived where I felt so foreign and threatened. To be honest, I experienced six additional robbery/pickpocket attempts in Argentina and Chile, in which the noodleheads did not succeed but scared the life out of me. I never necessarily felt personally threatened, just my possessions. This “normal” was not my “normal,” which made my persona rather nervous – in turn, I feel this made me appear like an easy target. And as Alice would say, “my blue eyes don’t help.”

In a way, I have personally concluded that I did not fall in love with Buenos Aires, from my own experience. I saw the beauty and experienced the magic of the Argentine culture, yet it did not click all the time. Outside of the capital, I truly loved every other place I visited. For me, travel was a way to escape the hustle and bustle, or just to treat my soul. The people seemed friendlier, the air fresher, and the opportunities even more unique! It is difficult to say which places I liked the most. My photos have helped me relive those special experiences and bonds that were an absolute highlight for me. Based on my own scale of most memorable/unique, here is my top 4:
1. Iguazú Falls – simply majestic
2. Patagonia – fresh and pristine
3. Valparaíso, Chile – colorful and gritty
4. Iruya, Salta, Argentina – basic and homey

I made the best of the time I had in Buenos Aires, but when December 22 came, I felt ready to leave and new in my mind it was truly time to head back to the northern hemisphere. I felt drained. It was magical to be home; I felt that I could breath a HUGE sigh of relief (and wear my backpack on my back!). Christmas was full of smiles. In the weeks following, I saw friends from all over; I made several trips into New York and enjoyed Miami weather for a week. I finalized and arranged my program for my upcoming semester in Germany. I also caught up on A LOT of television and took naps! It was a time when I felt connected, and I have never been so grateful for this time to relax and simply enjoy my family.

Even though I did not think I would miss Argentina much, I missed it more than I thought I would. I was confused with American habits, such as the dependence on the iPhone, and often questioned customs I never thought twice about before. It was in these moments of clarity, I realized I did better in Argentina than I thought. Overlooking my concern for personal safety, I seized every day and saw the world with a different set of eyes. I completed my bucket list, which a myriad of unexpected twists along the way. I would not change anything because Argentina was a harsh reality that taught me quite a bit…now where would I be without that?

By November, I became hooked on TedTalks ( These talks provided new ideas that helped me to see this unforgettable experience in positive light. There was a lot going on at home and in Argentina that was exhausting to think about and offered a new way to think. One speaker shared this that caught my attention: we have two selves – one that experiences a moment, and another that retains the memory of the event. In retrospect, we can only recall on our memory. While my experiencing self was not always as happy as a clam at high tide, my memories of these five months are rather optimistic (I have truly surprised myself). I have taken a lot from this experience, and for that I continue to believe that everything happens for a reason. It was the wise Alice who said “Life is always a challenge! It never gets easier. That’s how you live.”

Now if you ask me, “Matt! How was Argentina?” I’ll tell you, “Unforgettable.” The good, the bad, and the ugly each brought something new into my life in their own way. For example, I laugh at how my list of ex-host families is nearing the number of Larry King’s ex-wives. I am grateful for Argentina, and if I return to South America, I will embrace it, like every other moment and opportunity.

It has been a pleasure sharing this adventure with you. I will be arriving in Düsseldorf soon, so let the roller coaster called life go on!

¡Suerte con todo!
Saludos con un abrazo grande,

P.S. To be honest, it is like comparing apples and oranges if I refer to my time in Germany on the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange. High school is different from college; 19 years of age is VERY DIFFERENT from 22. I enjoyed them both for various reasons and both have made me feel blessed and a deeper appreciation of being me and an American.

Jersey Shore horizon at dawn

Friday, February 8, 2013

Santiago de Chile - moderno y picante

Back in July, someone had described Santiago as the "arm pit" of Chile, referring to its cleanliness and crime. I had low expectations for Santiago as I heard mixed reviews prior to my own visit. I was very pleasantly surprised with the city and its fun-loving environment.

After finding the hostel, I could only smile as people cooled off in the German Friendship fountain. Greg, Germain, and I made our way to Cerro San Cristobal for an uphill hike. At the top, we got an up-close view of a gigantic statue of the Virgin Mary. The views of the city were interesting; it was possible to see a visible layer of smog that draped the city with the Andes Mountains in the background.

Cerro San Cristobal

A thirsty dog...I was too after the hike, but came prepared with a water bottle.

It is difficult to see the layer of smog that blankets the city. The Andes provide a nice contrast.

The Virgin Mary looks over Santiago.

The first day was rather traumatic at dinner time. Greg, Germain, Pei, and I were eating dinner, when we saw a flash followed by a boom outside the hostel. We neared the window to see what was happening, as the tear gas started to bombard the hostel. It took a moment to notice the discomfort and stinging in my mouth and eyes. Everyone in the hostel scrambled for water to cleanse the sting. It was quite unsettling to feel trapped as the oxygen was displaced by this gas. It was the result of a riot acknowledging a prison fire (that happened two years prior) that took place in Forestal Park, just outside our hostel. Our bout of madness subsided moments later, but I kept imagining the gas chamber in the Holocaust must have been infinitely more frightening.

With a new appreciation for life, the next morning we took a free walking tour of Santiago. Our guide was quite the storyteller. He was a vivid orator as he shared the history about Chile coffee. In short, Chile is not known for its coffee because it's not good. Several decades ago, it was idea of a few "wise" men to sell coffee by using sex appeal. The idea was called "Coffee with legs" (café con piernas). Attractive women were hired to serve coffee in skimpy clothing. The coffee industry has boomed thanks to the idea, but it may not be because of the coffee.  

Capital building

We walked by the major political and cultural landmarks of the city. Despite a 8.8 earthquake in 2010, the city was bustling and showed signs of a full recovery. It helped me to orientate myself in this city of 5 million people. We returned to a few locations later on during our stay.

This famous NYC nuts stand originated in Santiago.

We meandered through the different areas of the Santiago center, ultimately finishing at another home of Pablo Neruda in the bohemian Bellavista neighborhood.

Greg, Germain, and Me in front of La Chascona - Pablo Neruda's house

Pastel de choclo for lunch - a meat and veggie dish covered with corn

GAM Cultural Center - Named after a famous and influential Chilean author, Gabriela Mistral.
We stopped by one evening before dinner. There was nothing going on, but I came across this "Before I Die Wall." A few weeks prior, I saw a TedTalk about this project, so I was very excited to witness it in person. The project allows people to share art in common spaces by sharing their dreams and desires they wish to accomplish before they pass. 
For the 7-minute video, click here for Cindy Chang's TedTalk

Before I die, I want to...

At dinner, we enjoyed a few common Chilean drinks. The first was Huesillos (above), a sweet peach drink. For dessert, we shared a Terremoto. This alcoholic beverage is called an earthquake in Spanish because when you stand up, it feels like the ground is shaking underneath you. It is a combination of white wine, fernet, and pineapple ice cream. The sweetness of the ice cream disguises the strong alcohol, but I did not find the one I tried to be too tasty.

Germain, Me, Nora, and Pei

The next day, Greg, Pei, Germain, and I signed up for a rafting excursion in Cajón de Maipo after two day so playing phone tag and back-and-forth e-mails. Our ride delayed us more than an hour, and that is how the scheduling of the whole day went. It was just a beautiful place with the mountains and surrounding green plant life. The rapids were very impressive as it could swallow a feeble human at any moment. We were thoroughly instructed the safety procedures. It was about 45 minutes through the frigid, white rapids - I laughed the whole time. They served us an extravagant late lunch and a brief canopy ride following dessert. It was a fun day, but more organized trying to communicate with the staff who was theoretically supposed to make our stay pleasant.

A well-deserved ice cream after rafting. The rest of the day was quite mellow. The four of us met up with Nora (our friend from Mendoza) for dinner, and then more ice cream afterwards.

On the final day in Santiago, Pei departed for Perú to continue her travels. I went with Germain to Pablo Neruda's house, La Chascona. This was the home of his mistress and true love, whom he later married and spend the final 24 years of his life. It was just a quirky as La Sebastiana. I took full advantage of questioning the tour guide about the unique life this poet led.

Later, Germain and I toured the National Art Museum. The exhibits were quite bizarre, and I found myself more captured by the architecture of the building, instead of the artwork. 

For lunch, we made our way to the Fish Market. As a tourist trap, many tried to recruit us to eat at their food stand. After walking around, we picked a spot. My stomach was bothering me (from drinking the tap water, I believe), so I had a light meal.
Pineapple juice

Fish Market - Santiago de Chile

For the afternoon, we arranged a tour at the Concha y Toro winery. It was an expansive location, as I learned they are the 2nd largest wine producer in the world. The tour was informative and efficient, with a few tastings sprinkled in between. We even received a complimentary wine glass (Merry Christmas, Mom!).
It would have taken a lifetime to count all of these grapes!

Sampling a white wine

We escaped into the cool wine cellar, known as Casillero del Diablo. It is a specific line from Concha y Toro, that you can even find in American liquor stores. I recommend the Malbec. Overall, the expansiveness and efficient production of wine were most impressive.

Germain, Me, Greg

Sampling red wine

The final day of the trip was all about travel back to Buenos Aires. We took a bus through the Casablanca Valley and the Andes Mountains back to Mendoza. We arrived two hours early. We managed to relax and meander through the city of Mendoza for a few hours before we were expected to show up at the airport.

Valle de Casablanca - Chilean wine country

Tight turns on extremely curvy road near border

That snow-topped mountain would be Cerro Aconcagua. Although it wasn't an ideal view of the tallest mountain in the Americas, I finally got a glimpse of it.

The percentage does not add up to 100%. Nonetheless, the sandwich was tasty.

Ice cream in Mendoza. It is typically served in such a foam cup, and the ice cream is weighed - based on the amount of grams or kilos you pay for.

Highlights of a final stroll through Mendoza

After all that walking, I was completely exhausted by the time I boarded the plane. We had a stress-free flight, and the view of Buenos Aires prior to landing was quite the sight! It was the conclusion to another eye-opening and fascinating trip!
Buenos Aires from a bird's eye

All in all, Santiago de Chile was a certainly worthwhile stop. The city was extremely clean and efficient. The transportation was heavenly when compared to Transporte Buenos Aires. The food was delectable, but I was not warned about the tap water. It upset my stomach for a few days, but I did not find it to interfere with all the fun. In fact, I felt much more comfortable in Santiago than I generally feel in major cities. Perhaps, I was biased when I found out the Chileans have adopted the German word for "cake" ("Kuchen") instead of "Torta." I found a few touches of Germany in Santiago, which easily pull on a few of my heartstrings. It is a resilient city that was fresh and friendly. In the end, Valparaíso and Santiago were two excellent choices to explore in Chile.

I hope you experience something new for yourself, despite others' criticisms, if you are truly interested in seeing it for yourself. Who knows? It may be completely the opposite of your anticipations. Now go have some Kuchen! :)

Abrazo grande,