The Solo Traveler

It was after 11 p.m. Saturday by the time I was finally able to sleep. I had been awake for almost 24 continuous hours, barring some bad sleep on a plane. My trip back to D.C. had involved a long-distance ICE train, two planes, an airport shuttle, a bus, a subway and a taxi. I was exhausted and sore and still I’d rarely felt more personally satisfied.

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I’d spent the last week away, first in New York City for a day visiting a friend, then in Germany over Thanksgiving. It was the first time I had traveled abroad on my own, without going (back) to school or doing something for work. I’d done a European circuit in college with my best friend and had just gone to Sweden with that same friend. But this was different. It felt riskier — apart from simply wanting to go, I had no good “reason” to, no justification. It felt empowering.

I planned and booked the entire thing myself, asking some advice from friends who’d been to the cities I was visiting. I ditched my normally strict tendency to plan every day to the detail, and just did what felt right, whatever I wanted to at any given time. One day this involved eating a plate-sized Schnitzel with fried potatoes and a Frankfurt-style green herb sauce, washing it down with half a liter of beer (that was somehow the smallest glass available). I ended up visiting a modern art museum, wandering around Frankfurt’s Dom before the sun had risen, strolling through a giant food hall. 

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I went to Bonn for a day and wandered around its Münsterplatz, which was packed with stalls for the annual Christmas market. I found a present for my mother, ate sweets from the stalls and just took in the atmosphere.

Thanksgiving morning, I sat alone in an empty first-class train compartment as we zipped through early-morning fog. I saw glimpses of little villages along the river, buildings that looked ancient and sleepy. I wondered, sleepy myself, what it might be like to chuck it all in and settle down in some little burg.

When the train arrived in Cologne, my last stop, the first place I went after dropping off my luggage was to the Dom. More than any other cathedral I’ve seen apart from perhaps York’s minster, it evokes the phrase “pillar of the Earth.” Photos of it, though I took several, do it no justice. It is simply mind-boggling in its enormity and it amazes me that the people living in Cologne must just get used to it, like a stone Godzilla just sitting there.

Cologne’s Christmas market seemed to go on forever; it actually has several of them and they just bleed into each other. I had mulled wine and hot potato cakes covered in apple sauce. Everywhere there are sausages, sandwiches, cookies, cakes, pretzels, wine, hot chocolate and arts and crafts. At night, with the strung-up lights illuminating the sky and the Dom in the background, it’s downright ethereal.

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I perused Cologne’s Greco-Roman Museum in the afternoon, admiring the mosaics, jewelry and pottery on display. Later that night, I went on a date and ended up drinking Kölsch in a Brauhaus and sipping hot mulled wine in the Christmas market, snuggling up to stay warm. Thanksgiving indeed.

I’m in that buzzkill-ish period right after a trip, when it’s over and done and you just think, “Well now what?” But going on this trip, short though it was and to a place I’d been before where I more or less knew the language, gave me a lot of confidence. It might be the introvert in me, but I really believe that you have to be able to manage on your own before you can manage with anyone else. So for that reason I enjoyed my taste of solo travel (although I still plan to travel with friends, obviously), and I feel brave enough to do it again. It was also exhilarating to go somewhere just to go, because I could, without it being for school or anything else or anyone else but me. 

I think I owed myself that.

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Just a little bit of wanderlust

It’s been about a week and a half since I was in Stockholm, and traveling again — especially traveling abroad again — just made me want to do it more. Rather than sate my need to move, it just spurred me on.

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Stockholm, while beautiful and full of friendly people and gifted with perfect weather, just didn’t “grab” me the way cities like London, Paris and Florence did. I might not be being fair there; London and Paris are the twin jewels of the continent, and Florence has perhaps the best art collection in the world. Still though, I left Stockholm with a niggling feeling, like I was missing something.

I recently decided that in lieu of spending Thanksgiving in the U.S., I was going to make use of the two paid holidays and take a week-long trip back to Europe. But not to the U.K. — I’m going to Germany. It’s been about two and a half years since I’ve been there, and that was a rushed visit to Berlin to sit the Foreign Service Exam. I’ve only ever been to Berlin and Munich.

This time, I’m taking an early morning train up to New York City, spending a day with friends there, and then flying on a red-eye flight to Frankfurt. I’ll spend two days there, two in Bonn and then two in Cologne. I’ll hopefully see a combination of old and new friends, browse the Christmas markets, practice my (very rusty …) Deutsch and see the Dom in Cologne.

This won’t be my first (or my last) Thanksgiving spent overseas, and I’m excited to see some friends, see parts of Germany I haven’t seen before, and just, in general, escape for a few days. I think that’s what appeals the most to me about travel, especially now that I’m working full time: It’s the chance to fall off the map for a while and to just be accountable to yourself.

See you in a few months, Deutschland.

Going to Berlin: Mostly business, a little pleasure

In a little less than two weeks, I will be taking the Foreign Service Officer Test, which is used to determine a person’s eligibility to serve the State Department at overseas embassies and consulates in tenure-track work. I wanted to take the test in February and the only place I could do it by the time I was able to register was the U.S. embassy in Berlin.

I’ve been to Berlin before and I read German very well — I sound dumb trying to speak it, but I just haven’t had the practice in a long time — so I wasn’t terribly worried to go back. It’ll be like a mini adventure!

I’m going to have to skip a Tuesday class, but my teacher understood what I was doing and said it wasn’t a problem. I’m taking the train from Canterbury to St. Pancras, then another train to Luton airport, then hopping on a plane to Berlin Schoenefeld and then taking an express train from the airport to the Hauptbahnhof (the main city train station). I’m spending the night, then taking the U-bahn (subway) to the embassy in the morning, taking the test, grabbing a bite to eat and flying back to London. Piece of cake, right?

The exam itself is split into four parts. One part is mixed bag of questions about U.S. history, world geography, economics, culture, government, computer literacy and management skills. The second part is all about written expression, including grammar, reading comprehension and editing. A third part is unassessed and asks you to give biographical information. The fourth part is a critical essay, which is graded in the event that you pass the multiple choice portion.

If you pass the exam, you’re invited to complete a broader biographical survey. If that’s sufficient, a panel of current foreign service officers looks over your full package and determines if you’re fit for an oral examination. Following that, then you may be offered a post off of a list, depending on your qualifications. Whew. So as important as the upcoming test is, it’s really just the first part of the gauntlet.

I’m hoping I have time to get a nice German meal that isn’t from a train station cart, and can maybe run over to Brandenburg Gate and/or the Reichstag again for some quick photos.

Wish me luck!