Weeks Thirty-Four through Thirty-Six

Busy! I thought I’d have an easier time this semester, but I’m afraid it is not so. There are more interesting classes offered this time around, but they are also harder and I am finding very little time to myself. I work every day of the week, usually quite a bit more than 8 hours a day. I haven’t been cooking much due to the busy schedule.

Like at the start of last semester, my schedule this semester is not entirely settled yet, but the classes still in the running are:

  • Software engineering
  • Semantics
  • Statistical natural language processing
  • TensorFlow (programming project)
  • Semantic Parsing (presentation + programming project)
  • Language Technology II

Software engineering (SWE) is a class I need to fulfill the requirement from UdS that states I need >8 credits from a comp sci department class taught by a non computational linguistics (COLI) prof. For this class, we get into groups of 5, and we work on a software project for a client from around the school or area. Each group works on something different. The deliverables for the class are project-management style reports, as well as the completed project. The client basically gets free interns for a semester.

In our project, we are working with a software engineer from DFKI to create an app for psychologists working with patients with dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and similar. The tests involve things like asking patients to name images, or describe a scene, or tell the time. The app records their responses, analyzes the speech, and reports statistics on the data. The speech recognition part and analysis is done by DFKI. Our bit is just the front end. This has to include things like a nice UI, a database for patient tracking, audio recording, and so on. Also– and this is the stickler– it must be an iPad app. The problem is none of us have experience writing apps for iPad, and only a couple of us have Macs that we can use to compile and test the code. So yea, this is gonna be a fun ride.

The next class on the to-keep list is Semantics, which I need to fulfill the last core course requirement, plus it’s helpful for one of the LCT requirements which I haven’t finished yet as well (LT-M3 I think). Semantics is the one theoretical linguistics topic that I didn’t cover in my undergrad, so it makes sense to take it now.

Next is statistical natural language processing (SNLP). This class introduces a lot of the basic computational and info-theoretic techniques that I need to know (although some I already went over last semester); however, it’s a frustrating class, because the lectures and the assignments are completely disassociated, so I am basically teaching myself everything involved. I work on the assignments with a partner, and I feel like we are a good team, although we do have some kinks to work out. Still, even with two of us, it takes us at least twice the prof’s estimated time for us to finish the assignments.

The TensorFlow programming project sounds like a really relevant thing that I want to work on. Unfortunately, this thing hasn’t even started yet (a month into the semester), and it won’t finish until well after I am in Italy. The time frame for this isn’t great, but I am hesitant to drop it until I at least see what it’s about and how it will go.

Semantic parsing is another class that I’m not that sure about. We read a paper, and do a presentation. After all the presentations are done, we work together on a semantic parser, either implementing a system that we read about, or implementing our own system. I am already committed to doing the presentation, but I am not sure how many software projects I can do at once while also taking a bunch of classes.

Finally, Language Technology II just goes over some techniques for machine translation. It has a good curriculum, but unfortunately, it’s a very slow class, and it has very little (if any) assignments. To be honest, I’m just sort of keeping this class in my back pocket for now in case something else goes awry, but I most likely will drop it.

In addition to the above, I am attending a few other class in a not too serious way. I’ll probably stop attending these as the semester wears on (the order below reflects the order in which I will stop attending them):

  • Methods of Mathematical Analysis: I don’t like the way the prof teaches, and the curriculum isn’t as good as it could be, but maybe I’ll learn something useful
  • French Culture and Conversation: just a relaxing thing I’m doing for fun
  • German classes (“Grammatik” and “Allgemeine Deutsch Kurse”): it seems silly to be in Germany and never learn any German
  • Italian: I’m moving to Italy, and I’ve barely studied Italian, but I’m finding it difficult to put much effort into it with everything else going on

It’s a shame that I had to drop some of the other very interesting sounding classes, like Image Processing and Computer Vision, Artificial Intelligence, and a seminar on Minimalism (Syntax), but I just didn’t judge that I could manage them and/or didn’t need them as much as some of the required things.

Next week I am going to Malta for the yearly LCT conference. I hope I can enjoy it, because I will also be quite busy due to all the work that is still due.

 

In other news, spring is in full swing! The sun is warm, the evenings are pleasant, and I am finally so so happy with the weather. A bunch of us got together for a Grillabend (barbeque) out in the park. People cooked various delicious things, and it was such a relaxing time.

There were about 18 people there. I have to say, I am normally a fairly introverted person, and I don’t really feel comfortable in large groups. But somehow, I don’t feel that normal stress of having to be sociable when surrounded by these folks, and I actually get energy from hanging out, rather than getting fatigued by it. Moving to Italy is going to be bittersweet.

Costs:

I’m overspending on food (as usual), partly due to busyness, partly due to laziness, partly due to the enjoyment of shopping for food. =\ Next week will be expensive too since I’ll be travelling. By the way, my HiWi job ends this month, so my ideal budget will be getting cut down again.

  • €250 – rent
  • €90 – health insurance
  • €60 – replacement key (from when all my shit got stolen)
  • €25 – phone
  • €50 – train tickets for a later trip
  • €10 – bouldering
  • €168 – groceries
  • €76 – dining/snacks
  • €6 – school supplies
  • Total: €675

Weeks Thirty-Two & Thirty-Three

“there was a hole (there was a hole)
in the middle of the ground (in the middle of the ground)
the prettiest hole (the prettiest hole)
that you ever did see (that you ever did see)
and the green grass grows all around all around
and the green grass grows all around
and in this hole (and in this hole)…”

…there was a giant burst pipe (a giant burst pipe)…
…so they had to close off the road, the busses couldn’t run to the Uni from this side of town so we all had to walk, and they had to work for weeks on end to get it fixed.

IMG_20170427_131454.jpg

Quite late in the hole saga, when they had already started filling it.

The very first day of of the new semester, we all realized the busses weren’t going to the Uni, and we had to walk (I was half an hour late to class as a result, but so was everyone else). I was already kicking myself for not getting my bike fixed earlier.

On the way, we passed the hole. They had said that it would be fixed by the end of the week. To that, I said: lol.

They had dug up nearly the entire road for this thing. As the days progressed, and I kept walking to and from school, the hole actually got bigger. At one point, they began digging a second, smaller hole, near the larger one, and eventually it joined together. It’s been two weeks now, and this weekend is a 3-day weekend. I’m not sure if they work over the weekends or not, but somehow, I still don’t expect it to be done by Tuesday.

There are few busses that go to the Uni now, and those that do have to go all the way around via a different road, quite a ways away. From where I live, I would have to walk back the other direction into town to catch one of those busses, so it makes a lot more sense to just walk the 40 minutes to school (30 minutes if I go fast).

Speaking of walking, I twisted my ankle at a climbing/bouldering class yesterday. It’s not horrible, but if the road isn’t fixed by Tuesday, it’s going to be very difficult for me to get to school. I actually did just get my bike back though (sure wish I’d had it these last 2 weeks while the road has been closed). I could probably ride it… it seems like it would be less stress for the ankle to ride the bike than to walk all that way.

Before this accident, a bunch of us went hiking to the Saarschleife. I have been there once before, at the start of the year, but this time we hiked all the way up and back (around 16km total). It was really awesome to just hang out with friends, and chat about whatever. On the way, we saw a really cool WWII bunker (I guess that’s another type of man-made ground-hole). I’ve never seen one of these before. The only way to get in it was through a little hole in the front that you had to climb through. There wasn’t a normal door into it, although there was what looked like a hatch on the inside. It also had all of these signs on the inside about what to do with the lights and what to watch out for with the air intakes and such, and it was large enough for probably like 10 people.

Anyway, the new semester has started, so I’m back to hard work and stress, and I’ve spent a bunch of money buying some of the things I lost when my stuff got stolen, and overspending on food due to laziness. I guess I’ve sort of thrown frugality out the window, as I have tried to replace some of my discomfort with material possessions and carbs– neither a healthy nor effective strategy. =\ I need to try harder in this regard.

I already have a lot of studying to do, including learning Italian, since I am moving to Italy in September (or sooner).  Just like last semester, there are cool computer science classes that I can’t realistically take because I don’t have enough background in math to pass them, even though I would learn a lot, so I haven’t quite decided on what I will take.

It looks like software engineering, and semantics are pretty firmly on the docket. Statistical natural language processing, a seminar on semantic parsing (programming project), a seminar on TensorFlow (programming project), and information theory are all strong contenders. Other classes still in the running are a seminar on minimalism (syntax), a course on language technology, which covers various topics including machine translation, and what I would call a remedial math course (but hey, there’s no shame in not knowing things and needing help to learn them).

My original goal was to take it easy and to do just the bare minimum that I had to this semester, but so many of the classes are interesting. So once again, I have to carefully consider what I realistically have time for. I might end up just sitting in on some classes, but not actually taking the finals in them.

Costs:

  • climbing classes: €45
  • snacks: €20
  • groceries (including for a dinner with friends where I cooked): €135
  • dining out: €30
  • clothes: €65
  • pens: €8
  • Total: €303

Weeks Thirty & Thirty One

The last two weeks have just been a whirlwind of emotion, I guess. My family came to visit me in Europe, and although it started out great, there was definitely a theme of misfortune throughout much of it. One of the stress points was that I was the only one that spoke any languages, so I had to translate/coordinate things, while also trying to keep my family from panicking. Another stress point was my family’s near pathological avoidance of planning. But those were minor things. The hardest part to deal with was the theft in the second leg of the trip… but let me start from the beginning.

My family landed in Paris. The weather was great, we hit up all the big sights, went to a bunch of museums, and ate a lot of delicious food. Unfortunately, my husband got kind of sick the first couple days, so we didn’t see much of him (at least he had seen Paris with me earlier), but he did manage to join us near the end for a couple things he hadn’t seen before.

The next place we had on our itinerary was Switzerland. As mentioned, my family has some sort of strange aversion to finalizing plans. Thankfully, my mom had ordered accommodation for us near Paris, Geneva, and Munich for the trip, but she hadn’t planned on how to get from one place to the next. We actually weren’t even staying in Geneva or Munich itself for the second and third parts of the trip, but quite far away by public transport in both places, so my parents intended to rent a car once in Geneva and to use it for the rest of the trip.

We took a train from Paris to the small town we were staying at near Geneva (actually in France). The only affordable train that was available by the time we were making the booking would come in after 22:00. Like most small towns, this one didn’t really have a public transport system that late at night, which meant we ended up waiting around for a long time for 2 separate taxis to take us to the house we were staying at.

Then, the next day was completely wasted on trying to get that rental car. We had to split up into 2 groups. One group went to rent a car at a nearby place for the duration of our stay near Geneva, and the second to the Geneva airport (via 3 busses) to rent a different car to Munich. We had to do it this way because the rental car agencies that rented internationally had no cars available since we didn’t reserve ahead of time. Suffice it to say, this was a very stressful and frustrating day for everyone.

The day after, my big brother got sick, and I later caught it as well. (By the way, I’ve been sick 7 out of 8 months I’ve been in Europe.) I was actually expecting to get sick since my family had traveled on planes, so I wasn’t surprised, but that didn’t make it any less annoying. Also, one of the days, my husband ended up having to work so we didn’t see much of him again. But Switzerland, eastern France, and the Alps were beautiful, so we managed to enjoy our time there nonetheless.

PANO_20170410_164856

PANO_20170409_170726

We had to leave quite late on our last day in Switzerland, because we had to do a lot of driving back and forth to drop off the old car and pick up the new one. On our way out, we stopped by Lausanne. My family went to the cathedral, and my husband and I went to visit with a friend.

This is when it all went to shit.

We were having a great time, right up until my big brother called to tell us that in the hour or so that they had been away from their car, it had gotten a window smashed. My husband’s and my backpacks were stolen. These were the only two things in the car cabin (since we didn’t have space for them in the trunk), and so they were the two things that were stolen. Thankfully, nothing else was taken, and everyone’s passports, money, and phones were safe as well. Also, thankfully my friend was willing to waste an entire night with us at the police to help explain the situation, since although I speak French, I would still have trouble with the whole process. Most importantly, no one was hurt.

However, we lost the rest of the day and night to this, and we had to rent a hotel nearby to stay the night as well. Even though it was just mine and my husband’s stuff, we lost a lot of expensive things to this theft, as well as a lot of small things that are just annoying to have to collect again. In my case, I lost my backpack, which had basically my whole life in it (I don’t have a lot with me in Europe). Here’s a summary of the major things:

  • Both of our house keys and my husband’s car keys (~$60 for me to replace, ~$800 for him to replace the electronic car key)
  • My husband’s expensive MacBook Pro (~$1700)
  • Much of my husbands collection of Netrunner cards, along with his winnings (promo cards, special tokens, etc.) from championships (~$350)
  • A brand new Nintendo Switch my husband had just gotten me as a gift with the new Zelda game (~$350)
  • My backpack which I had spent 6 months finding to be exactly right for my needs (~$100)
  • My work laptop that I just bought a few months ago (~$600)
  • A huge external hard drive with a bunch of pictures; thankfully I have the pictures backed up elsewhere (~$100)
  • Almost all of the clothes I own including my nice button up shirt, my travel towel, my toiletries (~$170 I guess)
  • My glasses case with a spare pair of glasses, and most of my glasses cleaning cloths (~$200)
  • Chargers for everything, including my only USB Type C to Type C for my phone and my US extension cord for all my appliances
  • All the little junk I carry in my backpack (e.g. a pocket knife, a combination lock for when I go to hostels, a pen+stylus, plug adapters, my key chains, etc.)
  • My Blizzard authenticator, so I guess I have to figure out how to cancel that
  • All the little souvenirs I had just bought from Paris (magnets/postcards)
  • Around 6 months worth of my thyroxine prescription meds that my husband had brought me from the US

So yea… after this, the vacation got less fun (and of course the two days after I come home are Easter vacation days in Germany, so I can’t even buy replacement clothes right away). I am very lucky that I was with my family during this time though, because they really helped me out. My big brother and dad generously generously offered me their laptops (I ended up taking my big brother’s). My mom bought me some clothes, my dad bought me some chargers and a cheapo backpack, I bought my husband a full collection of Netrunner cards… Basically, all the stuff will be replaced eventually.

After all that, what were we to do, but continue on with the plan? We drove to our AirBnB near Munich. We visited Neuschwanstein Castle, I climbed up to the top of a cliff to catch the sunset, we ate more amazing food, and eventually, we said our goodbyes.

It’s gonna sound weird to say, but despite all of that shit, I had a good vacation. Even though so many frustrating things happened, I didn’t realize how much I had missed my family, and of course my husband (who is still living in the US). And as for the stolen stuff, well, it’s just stuff.

Lessons learned:

  • Keep your passport/money/phone on you. This saved our bacon.
  • Don’t leave stuff in the car cabin. This makes you an easy target..
  • Don’t bring expensive stuff on trips. Then it hurts less to replace.
  • Leave a few pairs of shirts at home so you have clothes for when you return.
  • Have great friends and family. I don’t know how to do that, I just got lucky.

Costs:

  • rent – €225
  • replacing some of my things (should be in the mail soon) – ~$250
  • the gift of an entire Netrunner card collection for my husband – $350
  • souvenirs (most of them now stolen) – €33
  • transportation – €129
  • lockers to store stuff at the train station – €30
  • food (my family paid most of the time) – €60
  • cold medicine/cough drops – €8
  • Total: €404 and $600

Weeks Twenty-Eight & Twenty-Nine

These last two weeks I did nothing but work. I had a “block” (i.e. intensive) course on voicebuilding (text-to-speech synthesis) that lasted the whole two weeks, and then I had two deadlines for a paper and a programming project due at the end of those two weeks. This means all this beautiful spring was wasted on me.

The voicebuilding course covered many similar things that I did at my last job, where I worked for a speech recognition company. It was a bit of a flashback in that way, but whereas at my last company we had homegrown tools, this time we used a bunch of different open source software. As a result, the project ended up being a massive sprawling mess of interconnected systems. We worked in groups, and I actually got to record my voice for synthesis in the studio, since I was one of the native English speakers. That was neat. Some of the tools I got exposure to were:

  • MaryTTS – the text-to-speech synthesis platform using unit selection,
  • HTK – a hidden Markov model based TTS synthesis tool,
  • webMAUS – a web based wav file force alignment tool,
  • Kaldi – a more modern speech recognition toolkit that can be used for force alignment as well,
  • Praat scripting – for annotating and editing wave files; of course I’ve used Praat before but never scripted in it (it’s clunky),
  • Sox – a command line tool for audio manipulation,
  • Gradle – a build tool which we used to keep the project together and automate everything,
  • Docker – a tool for creating portable virtual environments.

Although I got some exposure to the above from the class, I would not say that I got an in-depth understanding of all of them. We worked the most with Gradle throughout the process, and I actually enjoyed that, since it seemed very practical, but it did occasionally add a layer of complexity that didn’t seem entirely justified for a small class project. In terms of Praat scripting, I can see how it makes sense to use it for specific tasks, but in general, I would try to avoid it as much as possible. Docker seems great at scale, but for small class projects, it’s a bit of overkill. Juggling all the different formats and phonetic symbol sets between the force alignment tools and the TTS synthesis tools is a nightmare, as usual, so half of the tasks revolve just around getting this right. Keeping everything in Git is, as ever, a good idea.

Apart from the voicebuilding course, I had to write a sort-of literature review style essay on natural language generation. I’m not entirely sure if I did it the way I was supposed to–the problem was that the papers I was meant to write my essay on all use neural networks (the prevailing machine learning model used for nearly everything in computational linguistics these days), and although I worked with neural networks at my last job, I never really learned how they worked.

So instead of talking out of my ass about things I didn’t know, I decided to take a good couple of weekends to just focus on learning. My essay became a sort of “intro to neural networks,” plus a little bit of discussion about the contributions my citations made to the field. Basically, I covered feedforward networks including backpropagation, CNNs, RNNs, LSTMs, and word embeddings. I don’t know if I’ll get a good grade from this or not, but I know it was worth learning it this way. Now I know a little bit more about the math behind neural networks. In the future, I hope I will have the chance to try to implement one on my own (or with a little bit of help), because I think this would be very instructive.

Finally, I had a programming project to finish. In this case I was trying to re-implement (using Python3) Keshava & Pitler’s algorithm for unsupervised morpheme induction. I wish I had more time to work on this, because I don’t feel like the final product turned out as I would like– but the deadline came up on me, and with everything else, I had to just throw a few things together. First of all, I’m pretty sure this thing is fucking riddled with bugs. Also, its performance is shit, and it’s hard to tell if that’s because of a failure in my implementation (very possible), or because I manually threw together a crappy evaluation corpus (since it would have taken me too long to convert other corpora), or if it was because there was some important implementation detail not mentioned in the paper, or if it was because the algorithm is legitimately not that great. I needed to explore all of this a lot more, but I just didn’t have time. Long story short…. =(

So basically in the last two weeks, the voicebuilding course went on from 10am-5pm most days, and the rest of the time I just worked on those other deadlines. Since I had traveled the entire start of March, I only had a basic outline of work done for both of the deadlines, so these two weeks I had to really knuckle down. I basically didn’t go outside nearly this whole time (except for one day when my resolve could not withstand the siren call of the spring sunshine), didn’t exercise, didn’t eat very well, and didn’t sleep much. There was a stint of days there where I rapidly decreased the amount of sleep I was getting from 6 hours, to 4 hours, to finally just 2 hours at the end.

I turned everything in on Friday, but I couldn’t go home yet because I had to wait around on campus for some appointments. The weather was nice (yay, spring!), so I went outside, found a nice patch of grass, and crashed out. It was fantastic– the birds singing in the forest behind the campus, the light breeze, the soft mossy grass, and the sweet relief of a peaceful slumber, knowing that there were no more upcoming deadlines.

In fact, the birds have been going crazy all spring, and it’s been so nice:

Yesterday, I finally exercised, did laundry, cooked, and just basically took care of myself. Now I am off to Paris to see my family and my husband who are visiting for two weeks. We will travel around Paris, Geneva, and Munich in the next couple weeks. It’s gonna be great.

Costs:

  • €85 – groceries (but honestly, lots of crappy snacks to avoid cooking)
  • €4 – laundry
  • €34 – eating out
  • €10 – bouldering
  • Total: €133

Week Twenty-Seven

cully06

This week I went to the French part of Switzerland to visit a friend. His town is near Lausanne, nestled in the middle of a stretch of vineyards, on the banks of Lac Léman, opposite the Alps. In the three days that I was there, we walked all over the place. We climbed up steep roads alongside vineyards on the hill overlooking the lake. We walked down tiny winding paths through the vines themselves. We climbed up towers overlooking the city, including to the very top of the cathedral in Lausanne, and we walked through the cobbled streets and shops down to the lake’s shore. Up and down and all around, I think we probably ended up walking around 15 miles a day, but it’s hard to judge. We also took the train to nearby towns, and out to other cities in Switzerland. All together, we visited the areas of Lausanne, Montreux, Fribourg, Bern, and Luzern.

This region has an ethereal beauty that can’t really be described or photographed– it’s something you have to see for yourself… The vines on the hills below, the spring flowers, the snow-clad faces of the Alps reflecting off the still waters of the lake… I know it’s a cliché to say, but it really takes your breath away.

train03

Costs

I spent a lot of money again, but actually less than I feared I would. Also, I didn’t really break the costs down that carefully while I was on vacation either.

  • €288 – trips (train tickets, food, souvenirs)
  • €26 – groceries
  • €29 – phone (used more data last month)
  • Total: €343

Weeks Twenty-Five & Twenty-Six

The last couple weeks have not been great for travel. After the shenanigans last week, I’ve been nervous when thinking about having to take more trains. As it turns out, it’s not the trains I should have been worried about. More on that in a minute.

DSC_0378

Last week, a friend from the US came to Europe and we visited Copenhagen together. It was a lovely city that reminded me quite a bit of Portland, Oregon, which I do miss. From the warehouse of street food carts at Paperøen (which turns into a party at night) and the upscale version of the same at Torvehallerne, to the fine/homey dining and fancy beer culture, Copenhagen definitely shares Portland’s love of mixing together the up-scale with the everyman, the weird with the comfortable, the unique with the traditional. (Well, maybe Portland isn’t known for traditional, so in that I suppose they differ.) Both also have a great transportation system, and are also incredibly bike friendly (Copenhagen moreso in both cases, since it is a European city).

IMG_20170306_145725.jpg

Yea, I feel ya, lady.

However, unlike Portland, Copenhagen is just so damn cold! By March, Portland is usually experiencing that weird spring weather, where it can’t decide whether it wants to rain, hail, or be sunny. By contrast, Copenhagen was quite firmly in the grey, rainy, windy and near 0 degrees Celsius camp. I got through the cold by looking forward to flying immediately afterwards to Porto, where the weather promised to get up to 17 degrees C.

Long story short, go to Copenhagen for food, beer, coffee, gaming, adorable shops, cool castles, viking history, beautiful canals with coloured houses in Nyhavn (an idea apparently borrowed from Amsterdam by King Christian V), and a cool language (check out that vowel space) plus Elder Furthark runes for those of you who are linguists out there– but go during the summer! By the way, you can also visit Sweden, by taking a short train from the Copenhagen Airport to Malmø. Malmø is quite small and there isn’t much there, but if you want a bit of quiet, away from the bustle of the big city, it’s still nice for a half-day trip.

Our last day in Copenhagen, we met some friends for a hot coffee, had an amazingly unique and delicious dinner, and were headed home via the efficient transportation system, when I received an email from Ryanair, the budget airline I was taking to Porto in the morning.

DSC_0144

Malmø, Sweden.

My flight was cancelled.  Apparently, there was some sort of air traffic controller strike in France (is anyone surprised?), and no airlines could fly over France. So even though my plane was not landing in France, since it would have to fly over it, the flight was cancelled. Ryanair reimbursed me for my flight; however, I had already booked a non-refundable train ticket home from that vacation a few days later and an AirBnB. Plus, now I had to get transportation back home from Luxembourg in the morning. Ryanair refused to reimburse me for this (of course), so I am basically out approximately €70. I also don’t know if I’ll have another opportunity to go to Portugal while I am here. Probably not this year, since it’s already looking like it will be a very busy 5 months.

I considered taking the time and going somewhere else for a few days, but honestly, I actually do have a lot of work to get done, and coming home gives me a chance to crack down on some of it before a trip to Switzerland next week. It also gave me a chance to attend a few different gatherings to say bye to folks who are leaving this semester. I gotta say, Saarland is a bit meh, but we have a great group of people that I will really miss. It’s hard to believe I only have 4.5 months left here before I move to Italy… and I don’t speak a word of Italian yet, aaahh!

Costs

I spent a lot on fancy food during my travels so far. It’s only been two weeks, and I’m already projecting to be way over my ideal budget (I expect Switzerland will be quite expensive too). Hopefully, I can stay within my break even budget. That reminds me… I have to catch up on my HiWi job hours.

  • €225 – rent
  • €90 – health insurance
  • €21 – other medical expenses
  • €30 – phone (called my mom a lot this month)
  • €17 – bouldering (wish I knew why they let me in for cheaper one of the times)
  • €230 – dining out/drinks in Copenhagen
  • €86 – dining out/drinks in Köln
  • €20 – souvenirs
  • €24 – groceries
  • €2 – laundry
  • Total: €775

Karneval Shenanigans

I left Saarbrücken for Karneval in Köln on Sunday around 10:00, with the intention of returning Monday night. The train took me through a connection in Koblenz to Köln. The festivities had already started for a few guys in banana costumes, who were drinking and blasting Karneval music on the train. Köln is the center for the Karneval in Germany, kind of like New Orleans is the center for the similar holiday, Mardi Gras, in the US. I’ve never been to Mardi Gras, or Karneval or anything like it before, and I am not a big drinker, but I wanted to experience a bit of this unique holiday.

img_20170226_173322

I came in on Sunday and met up with some friends who were already there. We had just enough time to grab a late lunch and explore some of the beautiful sights of the city before dark, when we sat down with a glass of wine each at an outdoor patio restaurant. There was going to be a parade on Rosenmontag (Rose Monday) so my friends were letting me stay at their AirBnB that night so that I could see the whole thing.

The parade was really something. Beer kegs lined the parade route, surrounded by clown-costumed families and friends, singing “Kölle Alaaf!” Bands, floats, cheerleaders, and standard bearers went by, each group dressed in their own colours. Many of the floats had some sort of political commentary, though I didn’t always follow it.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

As the floats went by, children in animal costumes asked for sweets by yelling “kamelle.” Those in the parade threw candy and flowers in the general direction of the yelling revelers, and the people on the floats rained literal armfuls of candy down at us. These weren’t always small candy pieces either. Often, they were regular sized chocolate bars, and a couple times I even caught actual boxed candy.

My haul was as big as any Halloween haul I have had in the US as a child, and it included not only countless chocolates, wafers, gummies, suckers, and two boxed candies, but also five flowers (that I received by throwing kisses to the people on the floats), an orange, and a small sausage, of all things. The family next to me had three kids dressed up in matching dinosaur costumes, and their loot consisted of no less than five full cloth bags of candy!

Some four hours after the start of the parade, we decided to duck out for a late lunch. When we were done a couple of hours later, the parade was still going on, and people were getting progressively more drunk. I had to catch my train back to Koblenz and then Saarbrücken (SB) early that evening, so we went back to the apartment, I collected my things, and headed out soon after. It was 19:15 when I left to catch my 19:53 train.

That was when it all went to shit.

—-

Since the rest of this post is depressing, I’ll intersperse it with nicer pictures of the Mosel river that I took on the way home (spoilers, I eventually did make it home), so I can feel less bad about the whole experience.

img_20170226_121603

Because of the holiday, the Stadtbahn (light rail) in Köln was running entirely irregularly. They gave up on posting the times and just announced that the trains were coming as they could. What should have been a 15 minute ride transformed into a 40 minute slog, with the trains stopping two or three times between each stop, presumably due to people on the tracks or who knows what. I really thought I’d miss my train to Koblenz, but I ran and made it.

My train, however, was late too, and I had a connection to catch in Koblenz to SB. Five minutes transformed to 15 and then to 20. My layover in Koblenz was supposed to be only 20 minutes long so I thought I would miss my connection, but it turns out my next train was also late. I would have 4 minutes to change platforms. As the train came to a stop, me and a handful of others booked it underground towards the next platform. Our train was still there. We ran up to it and pressed the door open buttons; the doors didn’t open for us; the train pulled away. These regional trains usually come in, open their doors for about 30 seconds, and then leave, so it was no surprise.

So now I was in Koblenz and had to find a new connection to SB. I went to talk to the Reisezentrum (trip center). The lady there wrote me an ersatz ticket, putting her official stamp on a form that said that I could take the next train, and that I would get compensated for the delay. I would have another layover in the middle, this time of only 4 minutes (not really enough time to transfer trains, as I had just learned from my last attempt).

fahrschein

Still, I went back to the platforms and found my train. When it failed to leave more than 10 minutes after the scheduled time, it became quickly apparent that there was no point in staying on it, so I was already trying to get info from the train conductors in my broken German, and googling for new train times. By now it was around 22:00 and I had essentially missed all the connections to SB in other cities, so I needed to figure out a new plan, or else end up spending the night in a train station.

Me and a handful of others ended up getting off this train too. We all went back downstairs to talk to the Reisezentrum again. The lady I got this time was not very helpful. She tried to get me onto a train to Trier, where I would take a taxi for over and hour to SB. The idea was that Deutsche Bahn would reimburse me for those costs (i.e. I would have to pay for it myself first). The lady didn’t let me talk and clarify how exactly this would work. She just kept talking over me, saying that I should hurry up and catch “my” train to Trier. I declined, and told her I needed a ticket back to Köln, where my friend was still staying the night, thank goodness. She turned my ersatz ticket over, and wrote on it that I could take a train back to Köln, and stamped it.

I went back up to the platforms. The signs on platforms 2 and 3 kept switching info. The train back to Köln was supposed to come in to platform 3, but there was a train at platform 2 now and the sign and voice were saying this was the train to Köln. The train was just standing there. I asked a nearby employee if this was my train, but she didn’t know. She said her colleagues on the train believed it was meant to go elsewhere, but they also didn’t know. No one knew.

Eventually, that train took off to wherever it was going (not Köln I guess). At this point, I was getting pretty agitated. I went back downstairs to look at the boards, I went back upstairs to wait for the trains, I just sort of wandered around pointlessly.

img_20170226_125108

Finally, an intercity (fast) train came into platform 3, but I couldn’t tell any longer if it was my train or not. I asked a nearby Deutsche Bahn (DB) employee, and showed her the paper the Reisezentrum person had written me. The employee asked me if my original ticket was intercity (IC) or regional (RE). I didn’t know how to answer correctly in German, because the first leg of the trip had been on an IC and the second was supposed to be on an RE. Another nearby employee got roped into our conversation, to look at my note. He said it shouldn’t matter, and I should get on the IC train. Unfortunately, by the time he said that, the doors of the IC train were closed, and I was left pressing the button ineffectively (for the second time that night) as the train slowly took off.

There was one more train coming through Koblenz towards Köln that night. One last, late night, ultra slow, regional (RE) train. It was meant to come around 22:30, but was coming 20 minutes late. 20 minutes became 40, but it did finally come around 11:10 or so, and I made it on.

It took 1.5 hours to get back to Köln, because the RE train stopped at every single tiny stop along the way. When I got to Köln, I found the light rail again, and headed back to exactly where I had left from around six hours earlier. Thank the stars my friends still had their AirBnB for one more night, so I had a place to sleep.

img_20170226_125315

I left early the next morning, and went straight back to the Köln Hauptbahnhof (main station). I asked the Reisezentrum there about how I could get home now. They told me the upcoming schedule and assured me that the handwritten note the lady had given me the night before was sufficient to get me home. I got on the next train to Koblenz (again).

In Koblenz, my connection was a double train, where the two halves would split up in Trier, one going to SB and the other to Luxembourg. I asked three different people to make sure I was on the correct part, because I wasn’t going to leave anything to chance. The train followed the picturesque Mosel River towards home, but I didn’t really breathe easy until we passed Trier and I knew for sure that I was headed the right way.

One stop before SB, the train got delayed again for another 30 minutes due to some issue on the tracks. When I finally got back to SB, I went to the Reisezentrum there to ask about compensation. It will take Deutsche Bahn two weeks to compensate me for my troubles, and the compensation will be just half the cost of my trip.

Lesson learned: don’t travel on Rosenmontag.

img_20170228_105555