December 10, 2016
Arriving in Heidelberg
After a two hour drive north we arrived in Heidelberg, Germany. A quick train ride dropped us off in the town of our couch surfing hosts, Matthias and his girlfriend Wiebke. They are both studying physics at the university in Heidelberg and speak impeccable english!
Our Couch Surfing Hosts
Wiebke greeted us when we arrived and we shared tea while waiting for Matthias. She was very generous to share with us some of her delicious oolong tea and German Christmas cookies. Their apartment has an interesting lay out- it is a large house and each floor has a kitchen and several bedrooms. Everyone on each floor shares a kitchen and bathroom.
When Matthias arrived we enjoyed some more tea and talked about their schooling. They both attended the oldest university in Germany and are finishing their undergraduate studies. They have taken the time to travel before and during their studies. Matthias spent 9 months in New Zealand and Australia and Wiebke spent a year in China teaching english. They also studied together in Norway for one year.
When we speak with people from Europe we are always astounded by how affordable university is for students. This makes education much more accessible for everyone and students aren't bogged down after graduation by loans and debt. Perhaps this is why more Europeans value world travel and don't feel as pressured to the work hard, make money and vacation later- the american mentality. It is also very refreshing to be around new points and see that many paths in life lead to happiness, even if they don't fit the American model. We were surprised to learn that in Germany parents are obligated to pay for their children's education while they are in college. If the parents refuse this responsibly children can take their parents to court.
A Castle and a College
After finishing our tea, Matthias and Wiebke showed us around the old section of Heidelberg. We walked down a cobblestone pedestrian-only path, supposedly the longest pedestrian path in Europe, toward the old castle on the hill. As we walked we observed that almost all of the stores were closed even though it was only 4pm. Matthias informed us that the stores, with the exception of cafes and restaurants, are closed on Sunday's to protect workers. And on week nights most stores close around 6pm. This is a big adjustment for us after getting used to late-night lifestyles in Argentina and Spain.
We continued walking through the small town passing beautiful red stone buildings including an old library and some buildings belonging to the university. The red stone used in the construction of the buildings is local from the mountains.
We headed uphill to see the castle. When we reached the castle we were struck by its size. None of the roof was left and some of the walls were crumbling but it was still a striking sight. From such a high vantage point the views of the quaint city below were stunning.
Dinner and Discussion
Later over Arabic food for dinner, we compared our countries health care, marriage practices, education systems, prison sentences and immigration. Germany is a very diverse country with a large immigrant population which is under scrutiny now in lieu of terrorist attacks in Europe, however Matthius and Wiebke felt that immigration has a positive impact on Germany society and is actually vital as Germans are having less children at an average of 1.4 children per family. In comparing prison sentence severity we learned that the harshest sentence in Germany in 25 years in jail- they also have no death sentence.
Back at their apartment, Matthius introduced us to a German game called Wizard. It is a card game similar to spades or bridge and it quite entertaining. We played while drinking tea, beer, and enjoying more German Christmas cookies.
After finishing up the game of Wizard, Wiebke shared with us some helpful advice for China. She showed us small towns to visit that she had fallen in love with while traveling and teaching in China. They also provided us with some information about Norway. They highly recommended visiting the north of Norway and staying in huts reached by cross country skiing. So far north in Norway it is possible to see the northern lights- something I have always wanted to see! Norwegian air offers some discounted flights from Germany. If we can find a flight for the right price. We are definitely going!
The following morning we shared breakfast with Matthius. We had some typical dense German bread with different spreads. Matthius told us that bread is a pretty common breakfast for Germans. Their bread is dark and very hearty filled with different seeds and nuts so it is actually rather nutritious.
Matthius kindly walked us to the train station after breakfast. He and Wiebke were incredibly generous hosts and made our visit to Heidelberg very special. Couch surfing is unique as it offers a local perspective on a foreign town and gives you a change to interacts with locals, make friends and have your own personal tour guide. We will be seeking out more couch surfing opportunities in our next destinations, for sure!