Saturday, March 31, 2018

Of solo trips and chocolate nostalgia

At this point, if you're still a reader of this blog, chances are you know me from real life somehow, and therefore have a sense of the amount I travel, as well as a vague sense of the how/why behind it. From 2014 to 2017, according to the site I use to track these things, I have apparently averaged nearly 83,000 miles of flying every year. And have already crossed 25,000 miles in 2018.

A lot of that flying was for work (I could tell you exactly how much, because that site tracks everything about your flights), but a significant chunk was for personal trips as well. The personal trips probably make up most of those miles, to be honest - work trips might have been more frequent, but the personal trips have been to more distant places.

I've done all kinds of personal travel in the last four years - solo trips, random day trips, trips with friends, trips with family, 24 hour trips, 48 hours trips. The one thing I hadn't done so far was a solo trip to a place where I don't speak the language.

Well, that changed this weekend.

I finally got around to applying for and getting my Schengen visa at the end of last year. They gave it to me for six months, and I knew I had to use it at least twice to make it worthwhile. A longer trip is being planned for this summer, but I wanted to use it over a long weekend as well. We get Good Friday off, and I figured... why not Germany?

So I flew to Frankfurt Thursday evening, landing Friday morning. I chose a hotel using my usual criteria whenever I travel alone - look at the chain I usually stick to, and pick whatever hotel they have closest to the main area of the city. In this case, Frankfurt's Central Station, because the plan was to to do a day trip to Heidelberg on Saturday, which was today and then fly back Sunday, i.e., tomorrow.

There is a reason I wanted to go to Heidelberg, and I'll come to that towards the end of this post. But first, a few musings on this trip overall:

  • The kind of a traveler I am makes it easy for me to travel alone. I like seeing historical things, and I like seeing cliched touristy stuff. So it's easy for me to pick up a travel guide, and just hit the road. Every single guide book I own has every place I've seen or visited meticulously ticked off, a fact that makes friends who then borrow said guide books from me roll their eyes.
  • The kind of introvert I am also makes it easy for me to travel alone, but also has issues. I invariably realise either halfway through a trip, or after the fact, that I know someone in the city I've visited, and it's too late to reach out.
  • Selfies are hard to take. Thankfully, the world is full of tourists who offer to and/or agree to take a photo of you (and your group, if you're not alone), and then gratefully accept your offer to take a photo of their group. I met a very sweet German couple today who agreed to take a photo of me, and then very shyly agreed to let me take a photo of them. The gentleman asked me very grimly if I was from India, which initially made me wonder if we had done something to offend him. He and his wife respectfully minded the gap and stood three inches apart for their photo, and then he coaxed her to take out her own camera to get me to click some photos on that as well, which she blushingly did. He then proceeded to ask me where in India I was from, and when I asked him in return if he had been, he said no. He's only been to Karachi in Pakistan. Which left me even more confused.
  • The one thing I am not good at doing is dining alone in restaurants. I invariably grab something to go, or get something back to the hotel room to eat. I need to get better at exploring restaurants and cuisines when I do my solo trips. This trip was relatively easier though: a touristy curry sausage place in the square in Frankfurt yesterday, a crepes stall in the MarktPlatz, and of course, a McDonald's at the train station - none of these needed me to walk into a restaurant and ask for a table for one.
  • Yes, McDonald's. I have now been to this chain and had their McChicken burger in at least half a dozen countries (except Japan, where I ended up with a Chicken Teriyaki burger). And every single country I've been to does it better than Amreeka. But no one does it better than India. 
  • This trip is my first time to Europe since moving to Amreeka. I've done the UK several times, including a two month "study" abroad stint, but never mainland Europe. Which also means this was the first trip to Europe since this wonderful trip. And I am pleased to report that I have neither lost anything nor been robbed so far. Of course, we have another twelve hours or so till my flight takes off tomorrow, so who knows what'll happen in the interim.
  • The big thing I was worried about was the language barrier, because like I said, I've never travelled alone to a place where I don't know the local language. I've always had at least a friend with me who knows the local language enough to get us by. I mean, okay, Chennai a decade ago when I used to go for work might be the exception, and I might still have nightmares about my trips there, but other than that I mean. Surprisingly, it wasn't as much of an issue. Most people knew enough English to understand me, which was great since all I know is Danke, which I realised I'd been saying wrong all along only this evening. What was actually trickier was navigating, because the road signs are all in German, and the walking tour maps I had was using English names for a lot of places.
  • And lastly, I may need to revise my hotel picking strategy. Years ago, when I would plan trips, tripadvisor was my first stop. In the past five years, my interest in  loyalty programs has grown into a full-fledged obsession, so for the most part, I simply use my chain plus location plus price method of choosing where to stay. And so I've stopped looking at reviews as much. Which is why I didn't realise, till I was looking at the Yelp reviews of a very highly rated curry sausage literally right next door to my hotel, that the two streets on either side of my hotel are red light areas. The street in front of my hotel is fine, and two streets over is the main street of the city (complete with Indian restaurants, including a Saravanaa Bhavan, obvs), but those two streets are to be avoided apparently. Which was reiterated by the hotel receptionist when I was asking what to go see in Frankfurt. She point out points of interest, and then drew big crosses on the two streets on either side, telling me to avoid them completely. Oh, well. ¯\(ツ)/¯
So. The reason I wanted to visit Heidelberg. Years ago, when I was still in high school I think (so literally, 15-20 years ago at this point, because I'm old), the father had visited Heidelberg for work a few times, and had always come back with gorgeous photos of the castle. And this one time, he attended some sort of conference, where they gave him a box of chocolates to bring back. Called Heidelstones. They were cubes of chocolate, and inside were layers of jam, nuts, cake, and more chocolate. And they were amazing. And for years I've tried to find them, without success. I once found a website about them, but it was all in German, and it didn't seem like they shipped anyway. That site seems to have now shut down. 

A friend started looking into them a few weeks ago, when I started planning this trip, and didn't have much luck either. The closest thing she could find was dominosteines, which seem to be close, but I'm not entirely sure. You get them only at Christmas though, apparently, so I didn't see any to try either. I went into a couple of chocolate shops today to ask about them; only one person knew what I was talking about (so they do exist!), but had no idea where you actually get them.

So, while this trip has been fantastic, the main purpose remains unfulfilled. And I'm now sending an appeal into the universe at large - if you know what Heidelstones are, and/or where to get them, let me know please?