Ora et labora et in omnibus glorificetur dominus

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“Why on earth would you do that?” and “Oh, I can’t wait to read the blog post on that” were the two reactions I got when I told people no, I couldn’t attend that party, no, I wasn’t going to that event, no, I couldn’t travel to this amazing destination because I was going to spend four days at a nunnery.

My high school was run by nuns and since then, I have had a fondness for sisters. Already back then, after deciding at age 13 that I could not become a nun myself, I resolved that if I ever needed peace and quiet and a place to think, I would knock on the doors of a convent. So I emailed them and asked if I could do the “ora et labora” program, which means you work with the nuns and, if you want to, attend their prayers.

Today’s German nunneries are a bit like retirement homes plus lots of Jesus. Apart from four women, I only met ladies born in the 1930s or 1940s. You think that sounds awfully boring? Think again. These nuns entered the order before Vatican II – the great ecclesiastical council in the 1960s – and could tell me about what changed in their lives afterwards.

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Beautiful church windows

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I cleaned four large ones

Did you know nuns were not allowed to choose their name but instead were given one? After Vatican II, they were allowed to change back to their maiden name, as they call their Christian name, and today, they get to propose their name themselves. I now know this because my “host nun” was even younger than me and told me.

I now know what a real attitude of gratitude is because there were the two sisters who sat with me during all meals. Over 80 and not able to walk well anymore, one of them unexpectedly sighed at lunch and said, “Isn’t life just beautiful?” and her sister replied, “It sure is.”

I now know nuns don’t just accept every teaching they are presented because there was the nun who, when we discussed the Scripture about God being the good shepherd, said, “Actually, I kind of mind being called a sheep in this metaphor!” And the nun who shook her head about the current quarrel among German bishops whether or not divorcees and protestants may join in communion, and agitatedly said, “Jesus would never have denied them that!”

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The little waterfall outside my winow

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Bike tour through the nunnery’s surroundings

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These fish were very hungry and as soon as one came near, they would come up and hope for food

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My evening hangout

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Part-time nun strolling through the garden, behind me the nunnery’s guest house

Convents are transformative. From my normal life including getting up at the latest possible, surviving the commute-road-battle, working at a screen for hours, chores and a Netflix episode at night, I went to attending prayer at 6:15 a.m., commuting for 45 seconds in the corridor, cleaning the crypt, reading psalms, and watching the sun go down in the abbey garden, sitting next to the graves of sisters long gone. (“Say hi when you go to the graves!”, my table nun joked.)

Convents also have, I have always found, a particular peaceful atmosphere. Located on the top of a hill in the (surprisingly beautiful!) Sauerland region, one was safe from all bustle. No city noise, no crowds. Just nature and heavenly tranquility. I recommend it.

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“And lead us not into temptation”: The nunnery snack bar

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The convent is located next to an official bike route that follows the Ruhr river

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I decided to bike the first few kilometres home

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There was even art on the bike path

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Proof that nothing could upset me when I just had left the convent:

The train arrived, lots of people boarded. I got on as the last person with my bike. When I turned around to pick up my baggage that was still on the platform, the automatic doors closed before me. (If you stick your arm in the door, it will crush your arm, not halt.) The train started moving, my suitcase stayed on the platform, my bike and I travelled. So I scrambled through the entire, very crowded train until I reached the train driver and politely with a serenity only the nunnery could’ve given me, explained my situation to him. “Would you please inform someone that my suitcase is not a bomb?” I asked. He told me the schedule was designed that he had 20 seconds (!) to stop at that station (making it nearly impossible for everyone to get onboard, especially for my luggage). Half an hour later, he informed me my suitcase would now travel after me. The little black thing had become an unaccompanied minor! I had to wait an hour longer than planned to secure our reunion but then a cheerful train driver hoisted my precious bag out of his window. Thank God!

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90 minutes at the station in the glamorous town of Schwerte – I got to read almost the entirety of magazines in their newspaper store!

 

 

 

 

A shark-free day

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Yesterday morning, I completely flabbergasted A. So much that even several hours later, he would not stop talking about it. What had happened?

“If you want to get the ferry to the island, you need to get up and be ready in twenty minutes”, he had said and, much to his astonishment, I immediately jumped out of the bed and twenty minutes later was the one rushing him to the car. Who’s this girl?!, he reportedly thought because usually I am not the one wanting to hurry anywhere in the morning, especially not when on holiday.

But if a landlubber like A agrees to go to the North Sea with me, I of course want to go. He understood that I need to hear the soothing sound of the sea, breathe the fresh air of the bracing climate, and marvel at the island horizon. So we went to the East Frisian island of Langeoog.

Langeoog is nestled between the coastal wetlands and the sea, covers barely 20 square kilometres, and it advertises itself with being “shark-free” and “fairtrade”. My mother had advised to have 30 minutes between getting to the ferry terminal and getting on the ferry. We had eight. (I’m still proud we made it.) It’s only half an hour on the ferry until you get to the island and that’s quite an advantage of my parents’ home’s location. In Dizzel, you need at least a little over two hours to get to the sea and that’s the Dutch coast and not an island. I am, and I notice this with every day I grow older, a Northern German, and I secretly love the red-brick buildings and the road signs with funny names like Carolinensiel, Dunum or Dangast.

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These houses…

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…are a fraud!

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Love locks on Langeoog gone rational: instead of two lovers’ name, this one says, “Conference April 2017”

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The oldestlove locks ever?

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This house was for sale. A estimated the exact correct price (we checked online later).

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Home for the holiday

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Dutch influence

London? Mallorca? Croatia? Those were the destinations we discussed for a spring holiday in the beginning of the year. Where did we end up? Oldenburg. And it’s better than ever!

The reasons why we went here are practical and sentimental: it’s easy to get here by car, we get free accomodation (that has hotel standard, thanks, mom!) and maybe most importantly I get to see my cat. My parents took off to Rome and we waved them off, occupying the house for a few days now. Before, I never liked Oldenburg that much. It’s okay, but it wasn’t anything that charmed me. Yesterday, we spent a day in the city and either I changed, or A adds to the atmosphere, or a lot of new lovely places opened up. Or, actually, maybe all of the above.

We strolled through the many small streets with countless shopping opportunities, checked out the abundance of delightful cafés and restaurants and even got a whole-day-parking spot for an amount of euros that in Dizzel would cover two hours. (A says, “One and a half!”)

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Where I’ve been

 

You know something is wrong with your blogging routines when your mother says, “You were in Stockholm? I didn’t even know you went to Sweden!”

So, yes – I was in Stockholm for work and our event started at 8 a.m. which meant I had to leave the house before 7. Marita was legitimately impressed with me managing to be up and running at what is a super early time for me otherwise. But – if you start early you can do so much! By mid-afternoon, I had checked off the event and four meetings off my list!

Social media had informed the world that I was in the Capital of Scandinavia which prompted a former co-worker to write to me. “I assume you are already completely overbooked?”, she asked and when I replied I actually was free for several hours on more than one day, I think she secretly thought some alien had taken possession of what used to be Helen. Keeping a somewhat freer schedule (compared to other people it might still have been cramped) was nice though because it gave space to this kind of spontaneity.

Dance like a mother

What also enabled spontaneity was the fact that my host parents, eeh, friends Marita and Fredrik are the most hospitable people on earth. Not only do I always get to live there and feel very much at home (actually, I kind of want to move to their house so I can always have that life), I also get to have spontaneous parties in their apartment. Saturday saw the finals of Melodifestivalen, the Swedish pre-selection for Eurovision which is a huge deal in the country. I asked if we could watch it. Sure! And maybe could William join? Certainly! Now Paul is free, too, and would like to come. That’s not a problem! Evelina can only meet during the evening, how about we invite her too? Go ahead, the more, the merrier! Umm, she’d have to bring her dog. We love dogs! 

You get the idea.

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The songs had rather interesting lyrics: “I’m gonna dance like a mother, you hear my party voice” or “I feel your love coming at me like a train on a track”.

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Long-ice-skating

I don’t even remember how I came up with the idea that I want to test winter sports. Maybe it was something I read about how when you live in Sweden, you have to embrace the winter instead of hating the cold. Or maybe I was worried I wouldn’t get to tag along the next time my friends would plan a ski holiday. In any case, I suggested to go to a friluftsgård and rent equipment to do cross country skiing. Only that when we got there, they didn’t have that kind of skis and instead offered us långfärdskridskor. Living up to my new-found adventuresomeness, I was all like, “Let’s try it!” Långfärdskridskor are a kind of ice skates, just that their blades are longer than normal. Let’s just say this: Marita and Julia were not only much better than me, they were also very supportive. (“Well done, Helen! Look at you, going two metres all by yourself! Hooray!”)

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It does not look like it but I was actually a bit better at sledding than at ice skating

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The muscle soreness from one hour on the ice was, to say the very least, intense for two days

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There is an association for people who are extra sensitive to electricity in Sweden. In the church at the ski place, they arrange technology-free concerts and lunches. All electricity is turned off and phones may not be taken inside.

Shopping

I was very surprised to find that there was close to nothing worth buying this time in the Swedish stores. Some patterns and cuts were made for people either much more or much less boheme than me (depending on the store and item).

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Second-hand stores in Stockholm. Look like noble boutiques in Germany.

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I strolled through Fältöversten which used to be my local mall. They’ve redone it beautifully and now they put it light therapy lamps and are counting down to equinox,

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“Now we’re counting the days until they are longer than the nights”

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Small wooden Easter witches to hang up

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Something I noticed with great interest was the popping up of very nice restaurants in transit. At the airport, at the central station – bars and restaurants you’d actually want to hang out at.

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Not a bar in transit, instead the Stockholm Brunch Club Bianca took me to, adding, “This place is very instagramable!”

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This is not a travel blog

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Carneval is upon us!

By now, readers must believe this is a travel blog. I wish to clarify that it is not – it’s just that a) I seem to only ever have time to blog in transit and b) more blogworthy things happen when not leading one’s mundane life. Or actually, that is not true, interesting things happen to me at home as well. Which is a good thing as I have suspended all private travel for the first three months of 2018. (I travel enough for work and it seems that traveling is not idea for my health, see the aftermath of Luxembourg.)
I am writing this on the ICE train (yes, in Germany the superfast trains have that name, must have been some Polar Express fan who came up with that) which nowadays has functioning internet. I cannot stop marveling at this fact! It makes train travel worthwhile especially when travelling for work. Some of my most productive work days might have been spent on trains.
Where am I going then? To Munich to do site inspections. Bavaria is really far away, actually it takes two hours longer to go there than to go to Paris. There are two things I like about Munich: the excellent stationery store on Rosenstraße and the fact that when I come back from Munich, I always feel blessed to be stationed in Düsseldorf.
Speaking of Dizzel, I dedicated last Sunday to preparing for Carnival in Cologne. The season started November 11th and now the Karnevalssitzungen have started. A Karnevalssitzung is a show where everyone is in costume and the people on stage perform a program of songs with satirical or political lyrics, sketches, dances and speeches. There are different types of Karnevalssitzung and as a carnival novice, my friend Maike took me to the one for immigrants. That is actually the name – because in Cologne, anyone who hasn’t lived in the city forever (and three generations of her ancestors or something) is considered an immigrant, affectionately abbreviated as “Immi”. I do think it is a very egalitarian concept: It does not matter if you are from Brazil, Syria, the neighboring city of Düsseldorf or the German capital – everyone is an Immi. On stage as well as next to us in the audience there were Polish ladies, American men and of course some Immi-Germans. It was a very interesting experience and I feel even more integrated into Carnival now.

Much of my time I also spent working. We are a new team at work now, with me being the oldest (!) one around, and so far it’s going splendid. I had the intern start declutter our archives, and our annual national kick off event went off without a hitch. We actually introduced a new little feature, the Mentimeter. I can highly recommend it for adding a fun and creative element to a seminar or a panel. It lets your audience live vote on a topic (it is both free and incredibly easy to use as long as everyone has a smartphone). We asked our audience about their predicition of the future of the EU and got an interesting overview of the mood in the room to start off our panel discussion.

 

 

Upstairs, downstairs

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“I’ll have to get the blog post done on the train home or I’ll never get around to it”, I told my friend Joraine with whom I spent last weekend in Luxembourg. Well, I did not post anything because already on the trip, my health deterioated (again! still?) and by the time I got home (spoiler alert: you have to take regional trains almost all the way, four hours, to Luxembourg, that, with their commuter train interior, are not beneficial to anyone’s health), I was so sick. The next day the doctor told me I wasn’t allowed to go to work all week in order to spare the co-workers my virus. So my days have been a blur of sleep and going to the pharmacy, starting to clear up somewhat by now – I actually know what day of the week it is today, but I am still coughing like a crazy person.

What can I tell you about Luxembourg?

It’s small. Like, really small. I somehow thought the country’s 600 000 inhabitants mostly lived in the capital, but no. We actually were looking for people all the time and only in the main square we found some while the other streets were deserted at almost all times. Looking for Luxembourgers is generally a difficult game because there are almost none – the population is made up of three thirds foreigners.

It’s high and low. I have never seen a city like this, there’s a upper town and a lower town and I don’t mean this in a socioeconomic way. The difference in altitude is impressive when looking at the whole city and navigating is tricky because Google can’t tell if you are upstairs or downstairs, showing your little blue circle on the same spot even if you just walked 15 minutes uphill. A better way to get up and down is the mountain railway which brings us to:

It has amazing public transportation. I would say I have had a mild interest in public transit even before I met Emily but it is surely due to her enthusiasm that I also got rather excited about getting around in Luxembourg. We used all public transport accessible including the brand new tram with its futuristic light design and a different melody played to announce each stop (however, no written information about the stops was to be found), the elevator, and the mountain railway which we got to use all alone late at night.

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It likes to strictly forbid things. It seems that the dominant language in the country is French. However, when we got to the hotel, I noticed that the prohibition sign was in German. I guess they pick their languages best suited to the desired effect. In Luxembourg, many things are forbidden, judging by the many signs I saw, and it’s not only prohibited, it’s always strictly forbidden. It’s strictly forbidden to play soccer in the yard or not to sort the trash. Lux and Order!

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The national dish? Yeah, not that great.

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Luxembourg is the seat of many EU institutions but it really does not feel as EU as Brussels

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In the MUDAM, the Modern Art Museum

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Maybe my favorite exhibit at the MUDAM, a moving carousel

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Yes, they also exhibit potatoes.

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Kate was in Luxembourg on a visit recently and since she seemed to enjoy the Luxembourg City Museum, we gave it a go too.

Koblenz

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“I pity you”, my beloved late grandpa used to say. “You have to travel so far by plane while I can be content with what Germany has to offer within such a short distance of my home”. He would have been proud of me this weekend because I went to Koblenz – two hours from Dizzel. And just like grandpa always preached, you don’t have to go far to see wonderful things.

Koblenz’s name is derived from the Latin Confluentes, referring to the river Rhine and the river Moselle meeting just there, in more than 2000 year old Koblenz. The rivers are surrounded by four low mountain ranges that are adorned with an abundance of castles. Already as a child when we always passed Koblenz on the way to my grandparents, I marvelled at the sight, and when we contemplated places to visit for a weekend getaway, the choice was not difficult.

The town easily took me by storm! I kept saying, “Look at how beautiful it is!” and wanted to photograph every other restaurant because even those are so picturesque. Strolling down the river promenade provides instant holiday feeling and there are actually a good deal of international tourists adding to the flair. Emperor Wilhelm I had his summer residence here and we dined at the restaurant “Augusta” named after his wife. Wilhelm himself is represented as a giant statue at the so called German corner. That’s the name of a headland where the two rivers unite and there, the 16 flags of the federal states of Germany fly – my inner patriot rejoiced pointing at the flags of the states I’ve already lived in. The 16 state flags are joined by the German, European and American flag. Actually, the American flag is there as a memorial to 9/11, “united in friendship with the American people”, it says on the flag pole.

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The German corner could also be called the German triangle

 

 

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Statue of Father Rhine and Mother Moselle

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Wilhelm’s summer residence, not too shabby

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Gates of Koblenz

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The Forum Confluentes and the mall opposite it are just two of several architectural achievements in the city

Something I could not find out was why there are so many rubber ducks in Koblenz. In our hotel bathroom, there was one (no, that’s not customary in Germany) and then in several shops, you could buy rubber ducks of all kinds – I’ve never seen such a wide range of rubber ducks: State of Liberty ducks, Queen Elizabeth ducks, Beethoven ducks, you name it.

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Is the Playmobil figure small or the church it stands in?

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Our room included newspapers so we could be very cosmopolitan reading the NY Times for breakfast

Koblenz is also home to one of the German Train Museums, ideal for our first day that was a little cloudly. As a frequent train traveler and historian, I especially enjoyed meandering between the trains from the 1930s. They had tried to conceal the swastika on the trains (debatable…), but the interiors were impressive. I would not have minded going on a trip in those parlor cars.

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I can’t help but like model railroads – so much to look at!

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German readers, observe the “Ludolfs” sign

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Historical advertisement (two of my favorite things combined): “Safe, fast, comfortable: German Railways”

I can recommend going to Koblenz and if you don’t believe me, trust the German prince of poets, Goethe:

“Until Koblenz we floated calmly and I remember vividly that there I saw the most beautiful image of nature that I might ever have laid eyes on. […] The picture was a magnificient delight”.

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