A year in pictures

On August 20, 2013, I arrived in Frankfurt, Germany to begin a year-long adventure. Since my arrival, I have visited six different countries, seen dozens of cities, met countless new and old friends and taken thousands of pictures. It has been an incredible journey -- though it hasn't quite ended yet, since I'm planning on returning to Germany shortly -- and as a way of reflecting on this year, here is one photograph from each month that I think best sums up what I saw or experienced that month. In some cases this was difficult to do, since certain months I did a lot of traveling to exciting places, but regardless I stuck with just one picture per month. Take a look at what I have to show for my nearly 12 months of living abroad. 

August 2013 -- Madrid, Spain

When I was applying for my Fulbright, it was hard not to get ahead of myself and think of all the trips I would make if I were to get it. Top of my list was going to Madrid to visit my former college roommate, Maggie, who had been living in Madrid for a year and a half. When I found out I had received the Fulbright, suddenly a pipe dream became a very real possibility. And shortly after I arrived in Germany last August, I took off for Spain. 

It was a special trip for so many reasons. I had never been to Southern Europe before, so it was very striking to me to observe the differences in culture, architecture and food. The sights were beautiful and the weather glorious. Most importantly, I had the chance to see Maggie again, as well as two other dear friends who flew into Madrid for the trip. It was such an incredible way to begin my adventure in Europe, and it really set the tone for the coming months.

Read more about my trip to Spain.

September 2013 -- Fulda, Germany

September was when I really started settling into life in Fulda. I started the month with an orientation session in Köln, which was a wonderful opportunity to both learn more about what to expect from the next nine months of teaching and to begin to get to know the other 139 American teaching assistants (though it seemed a bit cruel to bring us together for several days and have us bond, then scatter us across the country, sometimes several hours away from the awesome new friend you just made). After orientation, I began my regular teaching schedule.

One of the coolest things I got to do in September (in my opinion) was to see Angela Merkel speak. Since elections were coming up in Germany, various political figures were traveling across the country to drum up support for their respective parties. Seeing her speak was fascinating for me on several levels. Beyond the significance of seeing Germany's highest ranking politician (and one of the most powerful politicians in the world), it was interesting to me to see how politics in Germany differed from the U.S. (in terms of how Merkel was treated and presented during the event) and to observe how people reacted to her presence and her speech.

Read more about my thoughts on seeing Angela Merkel speak.

October 2013 -- Dresden, Germany

Picking a picture for October was hard due to all the traveling that happened in this month. I had two weeks off of school for our fall break, so my parents came to visit and together we traveled to Prague, Vienna and Budapest. But although those trips were wonderful, there was one trip that I thought was more meaningful, and that was Dresden. Also, this is one of my favorite pictures from the whole year. 

My trip to Dresden was my first time properly visiting East Germany. I had previously been to Weimar, and had explored the old bolder with my boyfriend (because where his family lives is not far from it), but I had never been truly, properly east before visiting Dresden. I expected to notice differences in architecture and to learn a bit about the city's history both in WWII and during Germany's split, but I didn't expect to come away in awe of what a beautiful, fun and lively city Dresden is. If I ever had the chance to live there for a period of time, I would absolutely leap at it. 

Read more about my trip to Dresden. 

November 2013 -- Wasserkuppe, Germany

In November, a group of exchange students from Denmark came to our school in Fulda, and since my partner teacher was coordinating it, I decided to get involved and come with to the various outings. One trip we took was to the Wasserkuppe, the highest point in the state of Hessen which is conveniently located very close to Fulda. Though the weather wasn't the best, I enjoyed having a chance to step outside "city life" (as much as that could ever describe Fulda) and enjoy a hike in beautiful surroundings, something I don't get to do in Germany nearly as often as I'd like. 

I just liked what this picture captured of the day -- you can see fall colors in the background, but the picture has a decidedly cool feel, reflecting the overcast day. And the water droplets on the branch were just very visually striking to me. 

December 2013 -- Berlin, Germany

This picture captures so much of what made December special. Where to begin?

First of all, CHRISTMAS MARKETS. Christmas Markets are one of the absolute best parts of living in Germany. The sights, the smells, the tastes, the Glühwein... The entire month of December is nothing short of a delight in Germany, and it's because of Christmas Markets and the holiday magic they bring.

Beyond the markets, the picture was taken during my very first trip to Berlin -- yes, after three years of visiting Germany, I only just visited Berlin for the first time this past December. And this was no ordinary trip to Berlin, for we (my boyfriend and my best friend, Jenna) were there to celebrate New Year's. This picture was taken from the Christmas Market held at Berlin's Gendarmenmarkt, one of the city's most beautiful squares, where Sven and I rang in the new year, as well as my birthday (sadly, Jenna had to stay home because she was ill). Having the chance to celebrate both my birthday and New Year's in one of Europe's coolest cities was simply unbeatable. 

Read more about my first trip to Berlin here. 

January 2014 -- Abisko National Park, Sweden

Shortly after celebrating New Year's in Berlin, my friend Jenna and I flew up to far northern Sweden with a specific objective in mind: see the Northern Lights. Though our time at Abisko National Park was somewhat brief, the entire trip was incredible -- landing at the tiny airport in Kiruna, Sweden and exiting the plane directly onto the snow-covered tarmac; catching our shuttle to the national park and seeing moose cross the road in front of us; taking an exposed chairlift up the face of a mountain in the dead of night; seeing more stars than we ever thought possible; and yes, seeing the lights.

Perhaps somewhat strangely, I chose a picture that did not feature the lights (since I did manage to get a few ok-ish shots from our night of aurora watching). Because in reality, the few pictures I managed to get didn't really do the lights justice -- some of the best displays we saw happened after my camera battery had already died. And even if we hadn't seen anything, the trip still would have been worth it for the unbeatable experience of being in such a remote, cold and exquisitely beautiful part of the world. I would go back in a heartbeat.

Read more about my trip to Abisko National Park here.

February 2014 -- Fulda, Germany

I chose another picture of Fulda for February to represent the process of becoming more and more familiar with my temporary home. It was important to me not to spend all my weekends away from Fulda and to give myself a chance to explore it in all its forms

This picture was taken from the Frauenberg, a hill overlooking Fulda. I had never bothered going up the Frauenberg prior to this trip despite it being a pretty easy trip (a 15-20 minute walk from the inner city). Once I finally did go up, I realized I had been missing out on one of Fulda's best sights. The hill provides a lovely view over Fulda, including its impressive church, and is also home to a 17th-century Franciscan monastery and a particularly gaudy Baroque church. It was a nice reminder that even after six months of living there, little Fulda still had pockets for me to explore.

March 2014 -- Köln, Germany

It was a bit difficult for me to settle on a picture for March, because there were two major events this month. One was the celebration of Karneval across much of Germany, and the other was my trip to Berlin for Fulbright's annual conference. I decided to go with Karneval since that was one thing in particular I was excited about for this year in Germany -- the chance to finally experience this massive celebration.

I was especially fortunate because my family's former exchange student, Kiri, is from Köln, which is the German city that is perhaps best-known for its Karneval celebrations. For most Kölners, this is the time of year they look forward to most, and for several days the city is effectively one giant party.  With Kiri as my guide, I was able to experience Karneval as a true Kölner might, rather than just as a random tourist taking advantage of the partying. This picture is of a woman marching in one of the smaller parades, and I really liked the sentiment it captured: the tradition of dressing up silly with lots of colors, the overall sense of fun and joy the Karneval season conveys, as well as the idea that Karneval truly is for the whole city to enjoy -- it's not just something people do when they're young and wild.

Read more about my experiences celebrating Karneval in both Köln and Fulda.

April 2014 -- Munich, Germany

 For my two-week easter break in April, my good friend Maggie flew in from Spain and I had the chance to show her around Germany a bit. Since I had just been to Berlin the previous month and wasn't too keen on making another trip there so soon, I decided to take her down to Munich, I city that I had visited a couple times before.

I simply can't bring myself to dislike Munich. It's quite touristy and expensive (compared to the rest of Germany) and the beer-drinking, lederhosen-wearing culture that is so celebrated there is hardly representative of the rest of Germany. And their accent is silly. But it's also an exceptionally beautiful (and clean!) city with no shortage of impressive sights, and I would gladly return. This is one of my favorite pictures from the entire year, capturing some of the flowers of spring with the city's beautiful Neues Rathaus in the background.

Read more about my trip to Munich and Salzburg with Maggie.

May 2014 -- Alsfeld, Germany

 One of my favorite things to do on weekends in Germany is to pick a random nearby small town with some sort of noteworthy sight -- a church, castle ruins, maybe a nice park -- and take a daytrip there. There are so many places in Germany that the average tourist will never see, either because they're off the beaten path or, more likely, because nobody told them to go there. Some of the most beautiful places I have seen in Germany are the ones that receive only a couple paragraphs in a guidebook, if that.

Alsfeld is a small town about halfway between Fulda and Gießen. It also happens to be a treasure trove of Fachwerkhäuser (half-timbered homes), that distinctive, charming style of building that many people think of when they envision a traditional German village. My boyfriend and I took the 45 minute train ride from Fulda one day and were thoroughly impressed at a what a well-preserved -- and lively! -- town Alsfeld was. The town was filled with quiet, winding streets lined with endless, brightly painted Fachwerkhäuser maintaining the original designs they've had for hundreds of years. Alsfeld has done a wonderful job of preserving the town's history and trying to make it accessible to tourists (both German-speaking and English-speaking, since many informational placards were written in English as well). It's just a shame that many American tourists will probably never hear about the town.

June 2014 -- Fulda, Germany

This picture is a bit of a departure from the others, as you can see. June marked my last month of working at my school, a hard reality to face after nine months of bonding with my teachers and students. The group in this picture represents my favorite batch of students -- my English club regulars (for the record, we did occasionally have some boys stop by).

I was constantly impressed by how smart, determined, thoughtful and inquisitive these students were. We tackled many difficult subjects, like gun control, religious freedom, and immigration, and I tried to give expose them to many different aspeccts of life in the U.S., from the college experience to American accents. They were always so good natured about my screwups, such as the multiple times I planned a computer-based lesson only to have the computer not function properly, and often asked surprisingly insightful questions. Most importantly for my self esteem, they generally came week after week, choosing to spend an extra hour at school wth me rather than go home and hang out with friends. I am sad to leave them behind, but I am so hopeful for what their futures hold.

July 2014 -- L'isle-Sur-La-Sorgue, France

After my work at the school ended, my parents and sister flew to Europe for a couple weeks and we had the chance to travel together once more. This time, we set our sights on France. We stayed in Avignon and Paris, and had the chance to do some daytrips from Avignon.

I think L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue was a highlight for all of us. We had had a bit of a stressful morning getting our rental car, and this was our first stop once we finally set out. The second we arrived in L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, it was like we breathed a collective sigh of relief. The town was small and beautiful, embodying everything I would expect from the south of France. Light, neutrally-colored buildings with flashes of color, lazy street cafes, canals running through the city... This is the perfect place for a daytrip, and frankly I wish we had stayed there longer. 

Read more about my trip to the south of France with my family. 

August 2014 -- Lübbenau, Germany

As a final trip of sorts before heading back to the U.S. for a month, my boyfriend and I headed to the Spreewald, which is a beautiful forested region southeast of Berlin. It's also a designated UNESCO biosphere reserve. We spent a few days in the town of Lübbenau, probably the most scenic town in the Spreewald region. It's also nearby to the historic village of Lehde, a very well-preserved village with many buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries. 

This trip was everything I loved about exploring Germany. I got to see a gorgeous part of the country I had never been in before, and I also got to do something many foreign tourists in Germany never have the chance (or never take the time) to do. The Spreewald is a beloved vacation destination for many Germans, but while I was there (in peak season no less), we only encountered English-speaking tourists once, and it was clear that heads turned when my boyfriend and I spoke English together. I feel so fortunate to have the opportunity to explore all these lesser-known corners of Germany, and I hope that others may also be more inspired to step off the beaten, guide-book recommended path.

Read more about my trip to the Spreewald.