Tag Archives: Germany

white High speed train leaving a station

Interrailing in Germany – Part 1: Tips for Travellers with Vision Impairments

Since I started working in Ireland, I use most of my holidays to go back to Germany for Christmas, celebrations or simply to have a proper summer. I love catching up with family and friends, but at the same time I also want to travel to new places.

This May my boyfriend and I combined attending a birthday party with sightseeing in Germany. Before this trip I had seen more of Ireland than of Germany. Most people don’t  travel their own country and Germany is a large country, so there were plenty of cities I hadn´t  been to. During this trip we visited Frankfurt, Heidelberg, Stuttgart, Munich, Augsburg, Leipzig and Gera, my home town in Thuringia. Visiting Germany as a tourist gave me a different perspective on some aspects of German culture.

Map of Germany showing the main cities

 

How Accessible is Germany for someone with a vision impairment?

It really depends on where you go and what you want to do.  German public places and tourist attractions provide reasonable levels of accessibility. It is rarely perfect but manageable. In most cities you will get along with English, although speaking German definitely helps especially when asking for directions or reading information on websites and listening to announcements on public transport.

I googled the museums we wanted to visit to find outif they had audio guides or special tours. If not we joined “normal” tours in English. Some museums said they would provide us with a “special” tour if we paid extra for the guide. That is fair enough if you are a group and can split the cost, but I argued that we we should have the same access to the museum as a sighted visitor and that people with disabilities can’t always be expected to turn up in a group. In every case I got a tour for free or to a reduced price. In return I promised to write reviews about our visits. They will follow later in this series.

 

Using Public Transport

 

You can get everywhere by public transport. Most cities have at least busses and trams, the major ones offer also subways or undergrounds. These well connected transport systems make it easy to get around, but it can be challenging to find the right platform in a station that looks like a gigantic shopping centre.

I still have a German travel pass, which means I and an “assistant” can go for free on regional trains and local public transport. For the fast trains (ICE and EC) I only get the assistant’s ticket for free. I bought our tickets for the longer journeys online through the DB Navigator App (Deutsche Bahn App) a few weeks in advance and never paid more than €30 per journey. However, these reduced tickets are bound to a specific departure time. I think the “assistance” is supposed to be sighted, but we always got away with it.

You can book assistance at the train stations to show you to the plattform and to meet you off the train to bring you to the exit. However, the service has to be booked through the Mobilitätzentrale (Mobility centre) at least 24 hours in advance. If you don´t speak German it would be easiest to send them an email at MSZ@deutschebahn.com with your contact information, travel details, what kind of assistance you need and if you travel with luggage and use a cane or guide dog. Bring the cane even if you don ´t use it, so  the assistance can recognise you. If you have some vision look out for someone with a bright red hat, shaped like a police uniform cap.

If you have an ICE or EC ticket the mobility centre also bookes you a seat reservation free of charge. That also makes it easier for them to find you on the train and you don´t  have to wander around looking for a non-reserved seat.

Overall the assistance works very well, the only disadvantage is that it can´t be used spontaneously. If we were  not bound to a certain departure time and the train was frequent enough, we turned up early and found the plattform ourselves. Ironically, the meeting points for the assistance are sometimes harder to find than a plattform.

Private Busses

There are also several private bus companies like FlixBus. These busses connect the major cities and even have destinations allover Europe. They are cheaper than the trains and the App is easy to use and the tickets are digital so I don‘t have to worry about paperwork I can’t read. There are no free tickets for travel pass owners, but on request  the bus companies often give a free ticket for the „assistance“. Contact customer service and give it a go.

green flixbus coach

My golden rule is: Always ask for reductions for people with disabilities, especially in tourist attraction. Public transport companies are not required to accept foreign travel passes. But you can always try, especially if you have a kane. Train conductors have to sell you a ticket at normal price without charging an extra fee for buying on board, because the ticket machines have touch screens. The larger stations also have a „Reisetenzrum“ travel centre with a ticket counter.

 

Planning is Key

This sounds stereotypical German, but I really believe that I get more out of a holiday, If I take the time to do some research.  Where do I want to go? What is there to see and how do I get there. Without planning I would waist valuable time finding out all this information when I get there.

Booking Hotels

I’m a big fan of apps. I find that booking.com and Tripadvisor for IOS are more accessible and less cluttered than their website versions. The IPhone speech software VoiceOver reads most text fields and buttons on the screen. I save all my travel documents to ICloud files and make them available offline to access them even without internet.

Listen to other people’s reviews on Booking.com. I booked a hotel with a 2 star rating in Frankfurt and regretted it. More about that in a future post on Frankfurt.  Read the property descriptions carefully. How far is it away from the hotel away from the centre, are there restaurants and shops nearby, how good is the transport connection. You can also look at the property in Google Maps, which leads me to the next point.

Google Maps Lists

For this holiday, I created a private Google maps list with places to go in each city we visited. These included not only tourist attractions, but also restaurants, pubs Cafés and parks.  Food-wise I want local cuisine and healthy and cheap options, which mostly turn out to be Chinese or Indian.  Read the reviews, sometimes they even tell you what is near the location. Use the public transport options in Google Maps for directions and select your hotel or a major train station or square as starting point.  Also have a look for a local public transport App in the App Store. Some cities even produce a visually impaired friendly version of their app. Don t hesitate to add more places than you will probably visit to your Google Maps list. You will find that some things are near each other and it is good to have a choice.

Screen shot of Google Maps list Munich
part of my Google Maps list

Overall, I would definitely recommend Germany as a travel destination. All the preparation sounds like a lot of work, but it will ultimately make the holiday more enjoyable and a bit more stress free.

What experiences do you have travelling to Germany? Or are you planning a trip to Germany and have any questions? Feel free to ask them in the comments.

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Lit buildings along the spree at night

Irish Society from a German Perspective

As a German student living in Ireland for the best part of three years, it took me a while to realize that my Erasmus year at NUI Galway not only made me a more independent and open-minded person; gradually it also improved my perception of my home country. While visiting Berlin with my Irish boyfriend, it dawned on me that living standards and social security are definitely higher in Germany.
When I applied for the exchange year as an undergrad, I couldn’t get away quick enough. I was fed up with the infamous German bureaucracy, the anonymity of big cities and everyone’s stereotypical “Germanness”- first and foremost my own. I took my conveniently located and affordable apartment, my student grant and free third level education for granted, and became unsatisfied and restless. Although I met plenty of foreign and Irish students who had to pay for college and their stay abroad, I still didn’t understand people’s enthusiasm for everything German. I spoke as little German as possible and when I started to speak with an Irish accent, I began pretending to be Irish when abroad, and asked my friends to stop introducing me as “Tina from Germany”, a fact they think I should be proud of. My Irish friends are still puzzled by my lack of interest in German history and current affairs and wonder why I don’t talk to every German tourist on the street. They mention people they know in Munich and are almost disappointed that I don’t know them. It seems to make no difference that I’m from the opposite side of the country.
 TV tower in front of blue sky
 

Initially, I had mixed feelings about bringing my boyfriend to Berlin. I don’t know the city well and I was afraid to fail miserably as a tour guide. However, researching things to do, I discovered lots of interesting sights I haven’t been to myself. I really enjoyed the city centre walk and the bus tour in English, maybe because they were designed for foreigners and gave a good overview without going into too much detail. My generation was no longer taught to feel responsible for the past in school, we were nevertheless bombarded with dates and facts, which we forgot as soon as the last exam was over. Most Irish people on the other hand have a fair idea of Irish history and politics.
The best part of the trip was a Trabi Safari. Trabis are flimsy looking, but surprisingly robust cars produced in the GDR. Although I was born after the wall came down, I feel nostalgic every time I see one of these cult-cars. Before my boyfriend remarked on it, I hadn’t noticed that the buildings in East Berlin are much more square looking than those in the Western part of the city. There are still architectural, economic and cultural differences between East and West. When telling people I’m from Germany, I always make the point that I’m east German, a distinction the Irish, many of whom are proud of their home county, tend to understand better than other visitors.
 lit TV tower at night
My boyfriend loved the cheap but high-quality multi-cultural restaurants and the variety of cakes and rolls in bakery shops. He was seriously impressed with the frequency and punctuality of all modes of public transport. In most parts of the country, but especially in the capital, you can get everywhere by train, bus and subway, and changing from one to the other is no problem. The transport systems in Galway and even Dublin do not remotely compare to that. The massive train stations are a bit overwhelming at first, but as someone who doesn’t drive, I felt very empowered.
 Wall with street art
For me, Germany’s main advantage is the high level of social security. Unemployed people are far from being rich, but in my opinion nobody who seeks help has to be homeless there. It took me years to understand Irish people’s obsession with owning a house; unlike in Germany, well-kept apartments in Ireland are rare. The Irish rental market is privatised and on top of paying ridiculous rents, tenants have few rights. At home, neither my parents nor my grandparents own a house; they live in the same apartments for years and don’t intend to buy it. This system makes it easier for people to move and although the minimum wage in Germany is slightly lower than in Ireland, people don’t have to spent most of their money on paying a mortgage. As a student, my health insurance contribution is comparatively low and most medical treatments and prescription medications, including a GP visit in Ireland, are free.
 High rise building
My main reasons for living in Ireland are still the stunning landscape, Irish arts and first and foremost the friendliness of the people. By now I have more good friends here than I ever had in Germany. Nevertheless, most people we met on our holiday were very nice and spoke at least some English. Unlike the small East-German town I’m from, Berlin is pretty international and one can get around without speaking much German.
Ireland is a great country to live in, as long as you have a well-paid job and don’t get seriously ill. If the government wants to keep young people in the country, it has to offer us a future that makes working, living and perhaps raising a family here more attractive. Otherwise, many of us will eventually move to countries with better living-standards, even if we don’t really want to.
First published on campus.ie

Galway 2020: Tina Paulick –Germany

This post was first published as part of the New Tribes Series in the Galway2020 blog. Galway is bidding to become the European Capital of Culture 2020 and with only a few weeks left until the judges make their final decision, I want to share this again. I volunteer for the Galway2020 initiative and the Galway2020 team is very open to suggestions. They made me feel welcome and try to find volunteer roles I’m able to do and enjoy. Sometimes people with a disability are, often unintentionally, excluded from participating in and contributing to mainstream cultural projects. In fact, their voices are seldom heard outside disability related contexts. For me this wasn’t the case in the Galway2020 campaign. Thanks for letting me be part of it. I hope we win!

I like the concept of Europe, because theoretically, it means I can be German and Irish at the same time.

I wearing the Galway2020 shirt at the docks.

My Origins

I’m from Germany and I came to Galway as an ERASMUS student while studying English at the University of Leipzig. My degree focused mainly on Britain, but I wanted to go somewhere different and Galway was advertised as a small seaside town, so I picked it without knowing much about it.

I’m legally blind and there aren’t that many students with a disability who go abroad. I had to organise some things in advance, but it was definitely worth it, because I became more self-confident and independent. I’d recommend living in another country to anyone, but I’d especially encourage students with a disability to give it a go. During my first week in town, I did a walking tour and the guide said, ‘Some people call Galway the graveyard of ambitions, because once you move here, you can’t or won’t leave again’. I’m now doing an M.A. in Irish Studies at NUIG, so I agree with the part about not wanting to leave, but I don’t think Galway is a graveyard of ambitions. It’s very much alive and I can imagine living and working here for a while longer.

My Irish friends are always amazed that I don’t greet everyone I hear speaking German on the street, which is what most of them would do. To be honest, I didn’t really go looking for other Germans; I wanted to meet people from different countries. However, I met some lovely Germans over here, mostly ERASMUS students and people connected to the German Department in NUIG. Native speakers of English are said to be unwilling to learn another language, but I know lots of people here who learn German or at least have some phrases. There’s a German conversation group meeting every other Tuesday in the Bierhaus, if anyone wants to catch up on their German. Living abroad definitely made me look at my home country and culture in a different way.

Being at Home

If you go out and do things, it’s very easy to meet people and to get involved with community groups and projects. In the beginning, college clubs and societies helped me a lot. Especially when you’re new somewhere and know nobody, you’re more prepared to try new things.

I joined the Galway Visually Impaired Activity Club. Every other Sunday, we go cycling on tandem bikes, with a sighted pilot in the front and a visually impaired person in the back. It’s a great way to get to know different people and it doesn’t matter whether you have a disability or not. Once or twice a year, we go on weekend trips and I already got to see a good bit of Ireland by bike. We also participate in charity cycles. The longest one I did was 100km, but our Sunday spins are shorter and we try to cater for all ages and abilities.

Last year, I helped organising a cycle from Berlin to Prague for the club and I hope to do the Cycle Against Suicide next year. I also volunteer with the NCBI (National Council for the Blind of Ireland), advising people on how to use their smart phones with the built-in accessibility features.

I’d love Galway to become more accessible to people with disabilities; more pedestrian crossings and acoustic lights, wheelchair accessible businesses and bigger street signs with contrasts.

There’s always something going on in Galway; festivals, good live music in pubs, charity events, and Connemara is ideal for all kinds of outdoor activities. I bring my Jack Russell terrier, Mixer, who I got from the GSPCA for a walk on the prom every day. It’s a great place to meet other doggie-people. I got so used to having the sea right outside my doorstep that I start missing it when I’m gone for more than a week.

When I first came here, I tried to listen to a conversation on the bus from Dublin airport and thought my English was really bad, because I couldn’t understand anything. It took me a while to realise that they spoke Irish. I’ve learned a few phrases from friends and Duolingo. People are delighted that I try, even when I get it wrong. I hope to do a spoken Irish course next year. I went to a few events in Irish and even though I didn’t understand most of it, it was fun.

Because of my visual impairment, I often have to ask for directions. People here are very nice, sometimes even a bit too helpful, when they want to help me cross a road which I don’t want to cross at all or try to lift me into a bus. But they mean well and sometimes, I have great conversations with total strangers.

Accessibility

I’d love Galway to become more accessible to people with disabilities; more pedestrian crossings and acoustic lights, wheelchair accessible businesses and bigger street signs with contrasts, to name only a few things. I recently wrote a blog post on how giving each bus stop an individual name and announcements on busses would improve Galway’s public transport system, not only to visually impaired users but also to visitors.

What it Means to be European

I like the concept of Europe, because theoretically, it means I can be German and Irish at the same time. It would be great if Europeans didn’t need to decide a citizen of which country they want to be, but I suppose that wouldn’t work for legal reasons. I find applying for anything in Ireland rather cumbersome. It’s all so bureaucratic. If you have documents in a language other than English, you have a real hard time. But I suppose that’s the same in every country. It would be great if it became easier to resettle within Europe, especially when it comes to insurance and state benefits.

First published: www.galway2020.ie