Temples, rooftop drinks, sand, and Souqs: Stopover in two artificial metropolises

Finally, after what seems like an eternity, I have found some time to catch my breath and reflect on the past seven weeks. After leaving my wonderful host family on Sydney’s north shore, which was a tough and sad experience as they have truly become my third family next to my first and second families in Germany and the United States, I took off for an unbelievable trip of a lifetime, which is still continuing for two more weeks.

I started off travelling from Cairns down the Australian east coast to Brisbane, from where I took off for Singapore and Dubai before returning home after seven months away from Germany. Then, after a week that flew by in the blink of an eye, I took off again for the United States to visit family and friends in the Washington D.C. and Maryland area. Over the past week, I explored South Carolina and Georgia before flying up here to Minneapolis, Minnesota. Here I am now, having another great time catching up with one of my best friends, whom I hadn’t seen in over two years. Together, we will visit Chicago next weekend, before I return to Washington D.C. and Maryland, my second home, to spend another week with family and friends.

Despite still being in “travel mode”, which means living like a nomad and spending most of my time “touristing”, I found some time to sit down in a hipster café in Seward, a Minneapolis’ suburb, and pin down some thoughts regarding my recent travel experiences. For now, I will focus on my two stopovers in Singapore and Dubai, because they have been the two most “unusual” places on my itinerary.

I would consider both Singapore and Dubai the most interesting places I’ve been to so far. Not my favorite places, but certainly interesting in the sense that they were different from the places I had been to before. Prior to my recent stopovers, my travels had mostly taken me to countries in the western hemisphere or, in the case of Australia, countries dominated by western culture. Those travels have been interesting as well, as there are still noticeable differences between places which seem similar, but none of them have exposed me to completely different cultures and forced me out of my comfort zone.

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At Ce La Vie next to the infinity pool at the rooftop of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel in Singapore.

Singapore, the first place I have ever visited in Asia, is still heavily influenced by western culture due to its former status as a British settlement. However, due to its location in Southeast Asia and its wealth, it has a high influx of immigrants from all over Asia as well as Europe and Australia. This combination made it very interesting, as people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds seemed to live together in relative harmony.

During my two days there, I deliberately chose to stay in a hostel in Little India, which turned out to be a great decision. While the tourist hotspots of the city, mostly located at and around Marina Bay, seemed to lack culture, Little India was full of different sights, smells, and colors. Strolling through its streets, I explored several Buddhist temples and street markets, which offered everything from Henna tattoos to exotic spices and traditional clothes bursting the most amazing colors and ornaments.

The Marina Bay district, home to the annual Singapore Formula 1 Grand Prix, which had taken place the day before my arrival, seemed dull in comparison. While the buildings are all modern architectural masterpieces and worth seeing, the area seemed like a typical tourist mecca deliberately designed to cater to the needs of western vacationers. However, one of the places I found spectacular is the top of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, which offers a breathtaking view over the city and the Street of Singapore, the ocean passage between the city state and Indonesia. Instead of taking the elevator up to the tourist viewing platform, I took to the rooftop bar Ce La Vie, which is located next to the famous infinity pool. You may not get the cheapest drinks up there, but the view and atmosphere is breathtaking. Additionally, the magical Gardens by the Bay, conveniently located next to the three-tower-hotel, round up the experience.

While I thought Singapore is decadent in a sense that it is completely “over the top” and thus attracting many superficial people, Dubai even topped this experience. My visit there both refuted and confirmed my expectations.

I had expected it to be completely artificial and the characterless skyscrapers that were

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Watching the sunset in the Dubai desert. (Photos: Wagner)

either in the process of being built or already finished all seemed like they had been picked out of a catalog or copied from somewhere else in the world. The Palm Jumeirah, The Palm Jebel Ali, and The World, three ambitious real estate developments in the Persian Gulf, are the prime example of wealth that had come to the biggest of the United Arab Emirates too fast after the first discovery of oil in 1966. Only one of them looks like it will ever be finished. The oldest part of Dubai, Deira, looked like it used to have a lot of character, but had also been neglected for the longest time. Old buildings and boats were not being kept up and instead replaced by more high rises that seemed to come right off an assembly line. The three different markets, called souqs, of whom I only visited the spice souq, seemed like a relic of the old times. Even though today there are many air-conditioned shops that look like every other shop in a big mall, you can still stroll through narrow alleys where the shopkeepers offer their goods from market stalls. If you want to get a feel for what the city used to be like in the old days, walking through the spice and textile souqs is thus a decent option.

I had expected to feel a little bit uncomfortable discovering the city by myself, considering I am a woman and a single traveler. But that expectation was refuted, at least to some extent. I did not feel much more uncomfortable than I would travelling in any of the other countries I had been to before. And if I did feel a little more uncomfortable, I must admit that I might have to blame that on my own preconceptions. Like Singapore, the city felt extremely safe, even though one must credit that to the authoritarian ruling systems in both countries.

Overall, Dubai was worth a visit but probably not a place I would choose to go back to in the future. At the Top, the viewing platform of the impressive Burj Khalifa, the highest building in the world and, aside from the Burj al Arab, one of the buildings I did like, is worth a visit. However, the view over a city that is dominated by construction sites and cranes is not nearly as impressive as that from the observation deck of the One World Trade Center or the Rockefeller Center in New York City.

Finally, both Singapore and Dubai were interesting due to their different climates. In Singapore, a city located close to the equator, temperatures reached highs of 34 degrees Celsius and heavy, hour-long rainfalls and thunderstorms as well as high humidity made enjoying the city a challenge for my “European” body. Dubai on the other hand was dry but even hotter. Temperatures reached highs of 42 degrees Celsius in late September and made it impossible to stay outside for longer time periods, especially as there is a lack of trees in the city that could offer relieving shade.

This brings me to another commonality between Singapore and Dubai: their use of air conditioning throughout the year. There is clearly a need in both cities for air conditioning in order to make daily life a little bit easier – after all, one can make use of mankinds achievements when it is reasonable. However, the wastefulness of the modern western lifestyle is very visible especially in Dubai. While you would think that a city that is built into the desert where the sun shines almost every single day throughout the year would be smart and, despite having large oil resources, would get their energy from that never ending source, these expectations were not fulfilled. I could not spot a single solar panel in the city.

 

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#nicoledownunder (Part 3)

Is it too late? Am I too old? Can I afford it? Will this make it harder for me to find a job? I asked myself various questions, before I decided to apply for a working holiday visa and set off on my adventure to the land down under. Naturally, I had doubts and concerns, whether or not it was the right thing to do, at the right time.

What was for sure was that after being in school for roughly 22 years and receiving the Master of Arts degree I had been working towards for the past two years, I needed a break. From studying, from the constant pressure produced by deadlines and expected GPA’s, from my living environment, my daily routine, life’s problems. I have had trouble sleeping during recent years and my brain sometimes just felt dead. Empty yet so full of content – content that was forced on me by university curriculums. Do not get me wrong. A lot of the literature I had to “feed” myself as part of seminars and lectures was very interesting, sometimes even entertaining. But it was simply too much. Often, I merely browsed through a book and then ended up reading the synopsis or summary online, hoping it would be a sufficient amount of information to enable me to participate in the next seminar session. Why, you ask? Well, I might still have had several papers waiting to be penned and had to sort out my priorities. The papers were graded, reading the book was not. – Just as a little side note, the ability to sort out your priorities is one of the best soft skills you learn in college and university. It comes in very handy in life! – But the point I want to make here is: my brain was full of content that had to be in there. I did not choose to put it in there. There was no free time left to read the books I wanted to read, which I just happened to discover in the book store or the library and which woke my curiosity. There was no time to write hardly anything except school papers. And while my freelance work for the local newspaper and my gym membership helped give some relief, I was yearning for something else.

The wish to travel to Australia and experience something new and different had been in me for a long time. I had been wanting to realize it right after high school, but gave in to the voices of family members and my own conscience, who urged me to start college right away and not waste any time. In addition, I still lacked the needed confidence to embark on such a big journey all by myself. So during the following ten years (yes, my high school graduation has been THAT long ago!), I received an undergraduate and graduate degree, completed several internships at home and in the United States, studied abroad, and worked in various summer jobs to afford these endeavors. I have made so many good (and bad) experiences, met wonderful people, and made friends that I will hopefully keep for the rest of my life. Many of my dreams have come true and I have grown immensely during this time – not physically of course, as that train seems to have left the station a long time ago! (I am aware this German saying might not translate very well, but it just felt right.) However, ten years later, that wish was still lurking somewhere within me. So when I thought about my post-graduation life, it resurfaced over and over again, and I went for it.

Coming back to those questions from the beginning. I have met many backpackers and au pairs ever since I arrived in Sydney four months ago. Most of them are in their late teens or early twenties. The oldest might have been 25. Approaching 29 with the speed of light, sometimes I feel it would be nice to be around more people my age. It is fine for me to spend time with people younger than myself, but the image of a fun weekend at age 29 just looks a little bit different from that at age 22. I am just not so much into staying out until the early morning at smelly but (considerably) cheap backpacker bars anymore. Waking up to a monster-hangover, because you drank too much cheap tetra-pack wine just does not sound like a good way to start a beautiful Sunday morning. Instead, I prefer spending an evening going out to dinner with good food, good conversation, and a glass of red. (Yes, I recently began preferring red over white wine. I think I’m ready for my thirties now!) An alternative would be a day of “touristing”, followed by a movie and yummy self-cooked food – food is essential, guys! After these activities, I wake up at a reasonable time on Sunday morning, ready to go for a pre-breakfast run, with a full day to spend doing other fun stuff. So it would be nice to be around people who are also past their binge-drinking days. But, essentially, it is not a problem. I can still participate in a pub crawl and leave when I feel like I’m ready to “call it a day” and let the others order their third, fourth, or fifth cheap drink. Sometimes I feel a little bit old doing that, but then, on the next morning, that feeling fades when I run past those terrible looking zombies, on their way home from a rough night involving too much liquor, still in their party outfits and seemingly ready to fall to their death bed.

One of the concerns I heard a lot from other people whom I told about my plans, besides maybe being too old to enjoy being around all those “young kids”, was that it might not look good on my résumé when applying for jobs. It might be better to apply for jobs right away after graduate school, they said. Employers might question why I went away after receiving my degree instead of making myself available to the market right away. Well, all I can say to them is that I simply do not care. Why should I let go of a dream I have had for such a long time, and which I can finally realize, because a potential employer might ask me why? Firstly, I do not have a problem giving my reasons and explaining, why it was the right moment in time to do it. Secondly, I do not think that, after hearing my reasons, an employer would necessarily think of my “gap time” in Australia as something negative that disqualifies me for a position I otherwise would have been considered for. And if, against my solemn belief, that would indeed be the case, I honestly would not want to work for such an employer anyway. I believe that there are many open-minded employers out there, who know about and value the experience one gains and the skills one attains when travelling to, working, and living in another country on another continent. They will know that not only does it take a lot of courage to take that step, but that you also learn to be more open and how to adapt to different cultures and work environments, which in turn makes you a better employee within a global market. So, effectively, my “gap time” should improve my résumé and make me more interesting to potential employers, especially globally operating companies.

So, after roughly four months down under, with two and a half more to go, I do not regret the decision I have made at the end of last year. I look back at the cold, cloudy day in

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View towards North Head from South Head near Watson’s Bay.

Göttingen last December, when I visited the Christmas market with my sister to eat Nutella crêpes right after booking my flight to Sydney, and remember the mixed feelings I have had. I had taken my courage and spent a whole lot of money on a 22-hour flight that would take me to a country on the other side of the world, which I had never been to. It was exciting and scary all at once, but I trusted my gut feeling. And once again, as with my past decisions to study a semester at the University of Maryland, intern twice in Washington D.C., and return to my first alma mater, the University of Göttingen, to pursue an advanced degree, my gut was right. It certainly was the right decision to make at the right point in time. It may not have been in compliance with the wishes of some members of my family, but it was the right decision to make for ME – and that’s what this adventure is all about, doing the things I want to do when and with whomever I want.

Everything feels right at the moment. I enjoy working as an au pair four days a week, though not all days are equally enjoyable of course. Taking care of toddlers and school children is hard work and I have gained a newfound respect for my mother’s accomplishments. But it is also a great joy to witness the progress young children make every day and to be the recipient of their unconditional love. It will be very hard to part ways with my loving host family once I head off to my next travel destinations. However, I am also very much looking forward to my trip down the East coast, from Cairns to Brisbane, as well as my stops in Singapore and Dubai on the way back to Germany. Until then, I try to live according to the motto of “carpe diem”. I “seize the day”, every day – whether that means bushwalking through a tropical rainforest in Sydney’s backyard, watching the trains go by with the adorable two-year-old, or sipping on a delicious mocha in my favourite café, writing this post. Life is good, as long as you do what you want and love.

#nicoledownunder (Part 2)

More than two months into my Australian adventure, I have settled into my daily routine working as an au pair as well as getting familiar with and accustomed to my surroundings in a Sydney suburb, complete with having a usual spot at my favourite café. (Pure Brew Co. has the best mocha I have tasted down under so far! It is seriously so good!)

I tried not to have any set expectations before I

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Working in my favourite spot at Pure Brew Co. café.

came here, but of course I harboured some stereotypical hopes, like seeing koalas and kangaroos hopping along the side of the streets or seeing surfers out and about barefoot everywhere. I can say that I haven’t seen any koalas and ‘roos (Aussie’s love to abbreviate words) outside the zoo and a koala hospital yet. However, I have seen many surfer “dudes” roaming around the beaches I’ve yet been to.

When it comes to typical OZ (common nickname for Australia) life, I can say that there’s some notable differences to life in both other countries I have lived in for a longer period of time so far – Germany, my home country, and the United States, where I have spent a considerable amount of time during the past seven years.

One I was very surprised about was how early cafés and some restaurants close, especially on weekends. While cafés in Germany are usually open at least until 6pm, or even longer depending on whether the menu caters to evening desires like cocktails and dinner, most places here close around 4pm, sometimes even earlier on weekends. But while most stores in Germany are closed on Sundays, they are usually open at least until 5pm in Australia. So while you are usually always able to buy food to prepare at home or take away, places where you can sit down and eat or drink in beautiful surroundings can be more tricky to find, at least if you are on a tight budget.

Which brings me to the next difference compared to Germany – the cost of food. Even when considering the conversion rate between the Aussie Dollar and the Euro, any kind of food items, whether in the form of groceries to take home or restaurant meals and drinks, are more expensive. Here are some examples so you can get an idea of the differences: a regular coffee is usually $3.50 (2,36€), typical lunch and dinner restaurant mains range between $20 (13,49€) and $30 (20,23€), a regular-sized single Snickers chocolate bar is $2 (1,35€), and one scoop of Italian-style ice cream is at least $5 (3,37€). (And no, the scoop isn’t any larger than it would be in Germany.) If you are lucky, you can find lunch specials that usually consist of a decent-sized sandwich and a coffee and range between $12 (8€) and $14 (9,44€).

So living on a tight traveler’s budget down under is tricky, especially when you do not have the advantage of working as a live-in au pair, which includes free food and accommodation. When I arrived in Sydney a little more than two months ago, I met many backpackers at a hostel in the Sydney CBD (Central Business District – another typical Australian abbreviation you need to know if you want to be able to find your way around Aussie cities). Despite the national minimum wage of $17.70, most of them were living on a pretty unhealthy diet of toast and jam for “brekkie” (as the Aussie calls his breakfast) and white pasta and processed Bolognese or tomato basil sauce for dinner, which they tended to eat most days. I suppose that for most of them, lunch consisted of unhealthy but affordable snacks like potato chips or – again – toast. So, understandably, dining out might mostly be a rare experience for the usual backpacker, who also has to pay for his accommodation in a hostel, which in a city like Sydney can also be quite expensive. The hostel I stayed in during my first days in the Sydney CBD cost around $40 a night. Quite expensive for a bunk bed in an 8-person dorm room! If backpackers do dine out, relatively (big emphasis on relatively) cheap American franchise options like Macca’s (Australians never say “McDonalds”), Hungry Jack’s (the Australian name for Burger King), KFC, and Subway are mostly the destinations of choice. The 60 Cent soft serve ice cream cone offered at both Macca’s and Hungry Jack’s has probably satisfied many backpackers’ ice cream cravings for many years.

However, I’ve also found that, if you are lucky and have a little more time in a metropolitan area like Sydney or Melbourne, you can find cheap fresh fruit and vegetables at local food markets, which tend to be a little more on the expensive side in both Germany and the United States. My personal recommendations are Paddy’s Markets in Sydney and – especially – Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne. They are both wonderful destinations if you do not only want to buy fresh food, but also have time to spend a nice morning wandering around and taking in an authentic market experience. For seafood lovers, Sydney Fish Market is highly recommended!

Speaking of experiences: I’ve made many over the past two months. Aside from working and living in Sydney, one of the most desired places in and around Australia, and visiting many of its sights and attractions, I’ve taken trips down to Melbourne, including a day trip to the famous Great Ocean Road, the Blue Mountains in Sydney’s “backyard” (cf. my previous post), the Australian capital Canberra, and up the New South Wales coast to Byron Bay, including stops in Port Macquarie and Coff’s Harbour. Before anyone asks: Yes, I have taken the obligatory picture in front of the “Big Banana” in Coff’s Harbour! Everyone who has been to Australia will know what I’m talking about. And to name only a few more experiences: I have spent Easter Sunday at Bondi Beach, ate fish and chips at Sydney Fish Market, had picnic lunch on the lawn in front of New Parliament House in Canberra, and sand boarded down the Stockton Beach sand dunes in Port Stephens, the largest in the southern hemisphere. And I’m always imagining and planning my next adventure.

Right now, I’m planning to take a little break from travelling to other places and focus on daily life in and around Sydney, because – frankly speaking – constant travel can be quite tiring after a while. I just got back from the mentioned four-day road trip to Byron Bay, during which I have driven roughly 1.700 kilometers. Don’t get me wrong, it was great and exciting! But it is also nice to step back and relax for a little while, before starting the next adventure. So I will use my free time to explore Sydney and its surroundings a little more, an area which is rightfully listed among the most beautiful metropolitan areas in the world. Nowhere have I seen the same combination of urban shopping and entertainment, beautiful weather, and picture-perfect beaches and coastline before. It truly has the best of everything and is the perfect place to live – if you can afford it considering the skyrocketing real estate prices in and around the city! Just to give you a rough idea of how insane house prices here are: in the suburb I live in, which is located about 20 km north of the Sydney CBD, most regular-sized family homes, which aren’t necessarily larger or more luxurious than the ones you would find in a suburb in urban Germany, range somewhere between $1.000.000 and $3.000.000.

There is so much more to tell you about and I will keep you updated on my adventures. For more regular updates, follow me on Instagram or Facebook via the links on the bottom of this page. I truly enjoy my gap time halfway across the world from both places I call home. So far, no regrets!

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#nicoledownunder (Part 1)

IMG_3734Australia – The land down under has always been very high on my travel destination priority list. So it’s not surprising that, when I started making plans for my post-graduation “sabbatical” (very needed!), my decision to finally realize my plan to work in and travel through the fifth continent was made rather quickly. Despite the common doubts and worries, whether it’s the “right thing” to do instead of finding a job in the “real world” right away (overrated right?), my plans had been finalized after I simply walked into a Göttingen travel agency and left about an hour and a half later with my flight reservations in hand, ready to hit the Christmas market and celebrate my decisiveness with a delicious nutella crèpe. After all, finding a job after you graduate is not the easiest thing, especially with a liberal arts background, and, in our globalized wired world, can be done from nearly anywhere in the world. So I packed my bags, stored all my application data on a USB stick, cleared all my SD cards to make room for the thousands of pictures I would most likely take on my journey (yes, I am a picture-taking maniac!), and took of about a month ago.

After an awefully long 22-hour-journey from Frankfurt to Dubai and on to Sydney, I arrived at the centrally located hostel I had booked at about 11:30pm, ready to fall asleep right away and forget about how awful I felt (physically). Don’t get me wrong, flying is amazing and I love it! But there’s just something unnatural about having to sit in an awefully narrow seat for 13 hours, getting up just three times to use the restroom, and watching the sun go up and down within only a couple of hours, because you’re crossing numerous time zones, basically “fast forwarding” half a day in your life. However, I did get to watch “Manchester by the Sea” on the plane and agree that Casey Affleck deserved his Oscar win this year.

Now, almost four weeks later, I have settled into my new life working as an au pair for a lovely family in a quiet Sydney suburb. Despite the sometimes torrential rainfalls during the past three weeks, I love the city and its people. Of course, I am still in “tourist mode”, trying to visit all the must-see sights in and around Sydney during my free time, but I’m also looking forward to getting a better feeling of what’s it’s like to actually live here, as a temporary resident.

The city itself is simply beautiful! I like to describe it as a perfect mixture of wonderful historical Victorian buildings (London-style, just without the bad weather), modern business architecture most likely to be found in Singapore, Shanghai, London, or Frankfurt, beautiful parks and green spaces similar to those in San Francisco, and breathtaking beaches and recreation areas comparable to Santa Monica or Malibu, the beautiful parts of the greater-Los Angeles-area. I could totally imagine living here for a couple of years, even though the horribly-high costs for just about anything, especially food and drinks, definitely make it hard to enjoy yourself. But according to the statements I’ve heard from various people here, that is true for most of Australia – it simply is an expensive country to live in or visit.

Over the next couple of months, I will try to keep you updated regularly with more posts using the hashtag #nicoledownunder (which I use on instagram and facebook as well). There are many – or as we say here in Australia – HEAPS more interesting places I want to visit. But for now, I’ll head out and go for a little “bushwalk”, while you can browse the slideshow. Talk to you later, mate!

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“Oh My My”, One Republic!

People always have certain expectations when an artist releases new material, no matter if it’s a new single or an entire album. Those expectations vary depending on how high the artist is rated by the individual. Naturally, I had very high expectations for OneRepublic’s new record, which is one of my favorite bands. And again, I was not disappointed with what I got. “Oh My My”, their fourth studio album, is a masterpiece I cannot stop listening to and is one of the best releases of 2016 – maybe even the best.

Colorado-native and OneRepublic’s lead singonerepublic-ohmymyer Ryan Tedder (37) is (secretly) known to be a musical genius. Besides the instant classics he wrote and produced for his own band, such as “Apologize”, “Counting Stars”, and “Love runs out”,  he also penned and produced worldwide chart toppers for other artists. Adele’s “Rumour has it”, Leona Lewis’ “Bleeding Love”, and Beyoncé’s “Halo” were all born in Tedder’s mastermind. In fact, OneRepublic’s breakout hit “Apologize”, a remix of the original version produced by Timbaland, was knocked off the top of the UK singles charts by Leona Lewis’ “Bleeding Love” in 2007, before OneRepublic’s follow-up “Stop and Stare” reclaimed the top spot.

The “appetizer” single for OneRepublic’s new album, entitled “Wherever I go”, already proved that Ryan Tedder still has what it takes to create an instant classic. Fans of OneRepublic got exactly what they expected –  a melodic, catchy song that gets stuck in your head in an instant. The relatively short song and the follow-up release “Kids”, another harmonic up-tempo tune that boasts a haunting rhythm and melody, are both immediately identifiable as they have the typical “OneRepublic sound”. The newest single off “Oh My My”, the power ballad “Let’s Hurt Tonight”, follows the same pattern.

But if you listen to the band’s newest record in its entirety, you are in for a surprise. While all sixteen songs on the standard edition are clearly OneRepublic, some of them come by with a little more edge than usual and feature unexpected artists. You can even discover some country music-inspired tunes (listen to “The Less I Know”). The choice was tough as almost every song on the album struck home with me, but here are my top five (yet unreleased) tracks I cannot stop listening to:

  1. “A.I. (featuring Peter Gabriel)” – This collaboration with one of the 1980’s most iconic musical artists marries futuristic electronic beats with fast electric guitar chords. My personal highlight: the portion at the end sung by Peter Gabriel alone, which almost seems like a seperate track and resembles the songs on the 1980’s “Miami Vice” soundtrack. You can totally visualize Don Johnson steering his speed boat off into the sunset!
  2. “Choke” – The melodic ballad captures you with its touching lyrics and powerful choral singing. A possible worldwide hit!
  3. “Future looks good” – The song that was already released for promotional purposes starts off with a mellow guitar intro and gradually adds instruments. Additionally, Tedder’s lead vocals become more powerful with every verse, before the song returns to it’s mellow roots at the very end.
  4. “Dream” – The rough, edgy electric guitar and Tedder’s low vocals at the beginning sound unusual for OneRepublic enthusiasts, but they are exactly what makes the song stand out in a good way. Their combination with the electro-pop beats during the chorus make the song unique. A “2016 OneRepublic”!
  5. “Better” – Another song that seems like a contemporary reinvention of the classic OneRepublic sound. Tedder combines a steady rhythm with electronic backbeats and interesting lyrics. Listen to the string-version on the bonus edition as well!

My final conclusion: Ryan Tedder can simply do no wrong.

“Oh My My” was released on October 7th on Mosley/Interscope Records.

Dear America, Please Vote for Hillary!

Crazy, exceptional, scary, revealing, momentous, entertaining – many words have been used to describe this year’s presidential election in the United States. And it can be said without a doubt that the latter of these words best describes the election battle that was indeed entertaining. For the media, the nomination of Donald Trump as Republican candidate for the nation’s highest office has been a lucky strike, as nothing sells better than sensational news. This has been a conventional wisdom ever since Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst revolutionized the newspaper business in the 19th century. So over the past twenty-two months, stories about Trump’s moral trespasses and his controversial ideas for America’s future have kept writers busy and citizens entertained. But as time gets closer to the actual election day next week, it should dawn on many people that this election is not some kind of reality show that makes you laugh but has no consequences for people’s lives once it’s over. Whatever happens in this battle for the White House should be taken seriously and should be looked at with the future of the world in mind.

I have been asked several times by Americans, what Germans think about the election battle. “They must think Americans have lost their minds” is an assumption I have heard. Germans have asked me about my opinion regarding the craziness in America, as I am an American Studies student and have close connections to the United States. My answer to all of them mostly ended up being: “We cannot really understand it, as the German and the American cultures are much more different from each other than people think they are.” It is sort of a diplomatic answer, coming from someone who has been exposed to both cultures for longer time periods and who knows about the different ideological and historical foundations both countries are built on. In fact, many Germans cannot at all understand how someone like Donald Trump could become the Republican presidential nominee. Just like me, they wonder what kind of people would think that he could lead America, and the world, into a positive direction. But to relativize this statement, most of us Germans also do not understand how people in our own country can sympathize with groups like Pegida, the anti-Islam movement that has gained momentum last year, or a political party like the rightist AFD that has been able to win seats in many state parliaments recently. Just like citizens in every other country in the world, we Germans do not understand everything that’s going on.

Since I have been asked about my opinion so often and the developments in the United States do frighten me to some extent, I feel the urge to speak my mind in this post.

I have been both surprised and shocked by Donald Trump’s success. Despite my extensive knowledge about the United States’ history and culture, which I have gained through both my academic education and personal experience living in and travelling through this beautiful country, I cannot fully understand that a large proportion of the U.S. citizenry wants an immoral, ruthless businessman turned populist to handle the fortunes of their country. Of course, I can imagine their reasons. Frustration and dissatisfaction with the political establishment, which has allegedly contributed to their declining personal wealth. They are angry and feel left behind in an ever-changing society that has had to adapt to globalization and becomes more and more diverse ethnically and religiously. Their hopes lie in the possibility to turn back time and revitalize an America led by a white majority that dominates the world politically and economically. They want to travel back into the “American” 20th century. Into a time when American goods and the American lifestyle were exported into the world and the United States turned out to be the only remaining superpower at the end of the Cold War. Donald Trump makes such time travel seem possible. His campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” is evidence of that. Hillary Clinton on the opposite side is seen as the personification of the political establishment that is seemingly living in its own elitist bubble in Washington D.C. and has fallen completely out of touch with “ordinary America.” Additionally, her agenda represents a mere continuation of the “Obama doctrine”, which is seen as the root of all evil. By cheering and voting for Trump, the ones who feel left behind want to punish Clinton and her peers. They want to protest against a perceived post-democratic system dominated by special interests and Wall Street.

If I imagine myself in their shoes, I understand why they are frustrated and want to make their voices heard. I understand that they are looking for people to blame. And even if I cannot agree with many of their opinions on political and social issues, I accept them. It is the base of democracy that everyone can have an opinion and is allowed to stand in for their beliefs and cast their vote accordingly. However, I’ve also got news for these people: Time travel is not (yet) possible! If Donald Trump is elected, things won’t just change over night into what they were twenty or thirty years ago. The world has changed and just as we have had to adapt to these changes, our politics will have to adapt accordingly. Trying to solve twenty-first century problems with twentieth-century solutions simply will not work. And that isn’t even what “the Donald” really wants to do. In fact, no one really knows what a Donald Trump presidency will look like, as his policy descriptions have been more than vague. Instead, America will have a leader, who not only lacks political experience, but who also lacks a precise plan, not to mention the potential threat he poses to international cooperation and peace. People intending to vote for Trump should ask themselves the following questions: Do you really want “the Donald” to decide on American foreign policy? Do you want him anywhere close to the nuclear launch codes? Strengthening the American economy by cutting taxes is one thing, but deciding on matters that could impact the whole world is another. It is not the right time in history to use your right to vote as a tool of protest and Donald Trump simply is the wrong guy for the job.

election-2016The decision the American people make next Tuesday will determine a lot of things. It will determine if the United States turns its back on people in need, illegal immigrants most of whom have come to the country in search for a better, safer place to live and who are willing to contribute to America’s well-being. The integration of immigrants takes a lot of time, it spans generations. America as a country founded by immigrants, as the ultimate “melting pot” of cultures, should know that. Tuesday’s decision will determine, if America might turn its back on the same international institutions it once helped establish, NATO and the UN. It will determine if America continues to invest in new energy technologies as part of its mission to fight climate change. It will determine the fate of millions of refugees and people affected by wars in countries like Syria and Iraq. It will also determine my own future. I have loved the United States and its people all my life and it has been a dream of mine to move there permanently one day. However, if I’m honest, I’m not so sure if I want to live in a country run by Donald Trump.

These are just some of the reasons why I urge everyone eligible to vote next Tuesday to vote for Hillary Clinton. Even if you do not like her personally and feel resentment towards her, it is necessary that you vote for her in order to keep Donald Trump out of the Oval Office. Voting for any of the other candidates will only help Trump, as your votes might be the deciding ones Hillary Clinton might lack in the end. The same is true if you decide not to vote at all. This week, I heard a Bernie Sanders supporter state that he will not vote, because he wanted Bernie Sanders to gain the nomination. Exactly this behavior could turn out to be a terrible mistake. Even if Hillary Clinton does not inspire and motivate people to be politically active, the frightful prospect of having a President Trump should! In fact, I believe that if you have the privilege to live in a democracy, you should use your right to vote and see it as a personal duty. Many people have fought or still fight for the same right!

Before I end this very personal post, I want to emphasize that I love the United States and believe in the American people and its judgment. I believe that no one really wants Donald Trump in the White House, if he or she listens to their heart and reflects on his or her hopes and dreams for America and the world. My deep fear, which urged me to write this post, is that people underestimate the scale of the decision they make next week. Voting for Trump would be wrong, voting for a candidate without a chance of winning would be wrong, not voting would be wrong. Instead, voting for Hillary Clinton would be right, persuading people to vote for her would be right, and urging people to make their way to the ballot box would be right!

That being said, what remains is for me to say that I hope you will make the right choice on November 8th: for yourself, for America, and for the world. #imwithher

Leo’s Powerful Call to Act on Climate Change

Leonardo DiCaprio. When most people here this name, they think about the legendary Titanic, different dream-levels, Wall Street, and a man who climbs naked into an animal carcass to keep himself warm in the freezing North American wilderness. His first and long-awaited Oscar win this year tops a film career that spans more than two decades and has produced many of the most memorable performances, including those in Titanic, Inception, The Wolf of Wall Street, and The Revenant.

Many people who are interested in celebrity gossip also know that he has a preference for supermodel girlfriends and is keeping a close friendship with his Titanic and Revolutionary Road co-star Kate Winslet. And a few might even know that he has German and Italian roots and loves Schnitzel and Spätzle, the German dishes his late grandmother Helene Indenbirken used to prepare for him when he visited her in Oer-Erkenschwick, western Germany.

But Leonardo DiCaprio is not just one of the most talented actors of our time, if not the talented, he is also a passionate environmentalist who established his own foundation as early as 1998. Ever since, the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation has worked to protect Oceans, Forests, Wildlife, and to fight one of the most urgent threats to our global safety – climate change. An excerpt from the foundation’s mission statement reads as follows:

LDF implements solutions that help restore balance to threatened ecosystems, ensuring the long-term health and well-being of all Earth’s inhabitants. Since that time the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation (LDF) has worked on some of the most pressing environmental issues of our day.

While Leonardo’s engagement has often been played down by people and media, who still deny the existence of climate change, others have continuously recognized him for his tireless efforts. Two years ago, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon designated him as UN Messenger of Peace for Climate Change. He has spoken at the UN General Assembly twice to raise awareness for the urgency of the problem and attended climate summits.

After producing the documentary The 11th Hour, which was released in 2007 and already broached the issue of climate change, his newest documentary, for which he travelled the globe over the course of the last three years, is called Before the Flood and was released and made available to watch for free globally today. The film that was produced by DiCaprio and directed by fellow Academy Award-winner Fisher Stevens follows the American actor around the world as he meets with scientists, world leaders, and other renown figures to discuss the problem of climate change as well as possible solutions. Among the well-known people Leo visited are the already mentioned UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, indian scientist Sunita Narain, Pope Francis, U.S. President Barack Obama, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. The film also shows Leo visiting places that already show the severe effects of global warming, for example Greenland, and places where human action destroys natural habitats, for example the Indonesian rainforest where thousands of trees are uprooted in favor of palmoil plantations.

Despite recent dirt that has been spilled on DiCaprio because of his Foundation’s financial ties to Malaysian businessmen involved in a corruption scandal, reviews of Before the Flood, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, have been overwhelmingly positive. The fact that National Geographic, which the film was produced for, made the film available to watch and stream for free to a global audience, is exemplary. Leonardo himself announced that he was happy that people around the world are able to watch the film and learn about scientific truths and possible solutions to urgent problems.

But Leonardo’s engagement isn’t restricted to producing films, spearheading his foundation, and informing people about truths and action. He also leads by example. He was among the first to drive a hybrid car and bikes around Los Angeles as often as possible in and effort to reduce his personal carbon emissions. Furthermore, his home in California is “green”, meaning that it is designed to be as eco-friendly as possible. Of course, people still criticize him for not sacrificing enough of his personal wealth and lifestyle in an effort to fulfill the expectations his status as a celebrity environmentalist comes with. But the truth is: people who focus on single shortcomings of others in order to discredit their engagement and achievements mostly do not engage in any efforts to solve the world’s problems at all.

Before the Flood is a riveting example of how a celebrity uses his status to raise awareness of issues that affect us all. It doesn’t matter that many people might only watch the film, because it features and is produced by someone with worldwide celebrity status. What matters is that they see it, learn about the facts and what they can do to help, and tell others about it.

You can watch Before the Flood now for the next five days on YouTube following this link. The German version can be streamed at natgeotv.com/de. Find out more about the issue, the movie and ways to watch it in other languages on www.beforetheflood.com.

Let me know what you think in the comments.

Meeting new challenges: Running

Running, I absolutely hated running during my teenage years and early twenties. Do you know that feeling when you’re forced to take a run in physical education class and everyone is starting off sprinting as best as they can, but you just end up almost at the end of the pack? Do you know that feeling of embarrassment that creeps up inside you after you finally reach the finish line? Well… that was me.

After I had changed around my eating habits, lost a lot of weight, and started making sports an integral part of my life, I still hesitated to start running again. For some reason, probably because of the bad memories I had kept in the back of my mind, I had decided that running just was not the right sport for me. I had wondered why so many people loved to run through the streets day in, day out, and most of all, why they were so much better at it than I was.

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Make your training as enjoyable as possible: I loved running around the Kiessee in Göttingen.

However, somewhere inside me, the challenge of overcoming my fear and changing yet another part of my life tempted me. And so, one day, out of no particular reason, I decided to run for a little bit, just for fun. (Yes, when I wrote this I immediately thought of “Forrest Gump” as well!) After running for about ten to fifteen minutes, I had to stop and walk for a little bit, before I took off again. What I realized on that day was that I could do it. It wasn’t my body that was unfit for running, but my mind! All of my bad experiences had built up an invisible wall patrolled by guards telling me that I could go no further, that this was as far as I was allowed to go. But on that day, I was so proud of myself for taking on the challenge that my short stint motivated me to run more often and to increase the length of my stints. Additionally, I began educating myself a little bit about the running sport by browsing through books in the bookstore and took some of my new knowledge to heart. I improved my breathing technique for example and made sure I was running in the right body position.

Two weeks ago today, I finished my first 5k and couldn’t be prouder of myself. During the summer, I had signed up for the traditional annual run in my hometown and had practiced regularly in order to reach my goal. I did not want to finish in a particular time or wasn’t having the illusion of winning a medal (I’m not THAT far yet), I simply wanted to FINISH and complete the 5000 meters without having to stop for a break. And the feeling of running over the finish line was incredible!

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My sister and I after we ran our first 5k. (Photos: Wagner)

Why am I telling you all this and even devote a whole post to it? My success of meeting a challenge and expanding my own personal boundaries is something I wouldn’t have thought possible five or six years ago. And it is another sign for me that I can change and am on a good path to become the person I want to be. It doesn’t matter what happened in the past, you can always set new goals for yourself and work on them until you reach them. And they don’t have to be goals to improve your health or fitness, I am talking about any goal you set for yourself. Even if they’re small goals and may seem insignificant to others, they are one step on the way for you! My own process of losing weight and changing my life around, including making sports an important and fun part of my life, is proof of that.

If you haven’t read my series of posts about my personal journey yet, you can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

So get up, find your own personal challenges, and work on mastering them!

As always, let me know about your experiences or ask questions!

How I lost 30 lbs and began to lead a healthier life (Part 2)

For years and years I have struggled with my weight and have tried several times to effectively slim down without any long-term success. Finally, three years ago, I found the right way for me to reduce my weight and keep it down. Little did I know that this was also the start of a long-term learning process and a transformation, which affected not only my diet and exercising habits, but also my attitude towards the food and diet industries and, ultimately, my own formerly sedentary lifestyle. In this series of blog posts, I want to share my knowledge and sketch my path from the decision to try a new way of controlling and reducing my weight to the present.

(Important note: This is a personal decription and is not meant to be or to replace professional advice from a medical doctor or a nutrition expert.)

Loving to move your body

In the first part of this series, I introduced you to fitness apps available for your smartphone and their operating modes and stressed the importance of changes to both your diet as well as your exercising habits in order for weight loss to be healthy and permanent. In this part, I want to tell you the story about how I transformed from a coach potato into an amateur athlete and learned to love exercise of any kind.

First of all, I was never an athlete. Growing up, I always felt like my body just was not made for sports. In gym class, I was always among those pitiable kids who were the last ones to be picked for a team and I did not have a lot of confidence in my own body and athletic ability. This lack of confidence most certainly added to my misguided belief that whether you were athletic or not depended on your genes.

During my earliest weightloss-endeavors, I began to exercise regularly, for the single purpose of losing weight. I spent hours on the exercise machine in our basement and started doing yoga and pilates routines. However, I always felt like I had to force myself through the units, for the sake of that shining goal at the end of the journey, which appeared in the form of certain digits on the scale. Exercise for me equaled torture! Whenever I had reached a certain weight goal or had simply given up somewhere along the way, I stopped exercising and returned living a mainly sedentary lifestyle.

One of the mistakes I made was that I never tried many different sports and never found out, which ones I liked and disliked and which ones were more fun for me. For example, I forced myself through running stints that I absolutely hated. That practice only added to my belief that I just was not made to be an athlete, because “running seems to be the sport everyone likes”. Then “why do I hate it so much”?

After I began logging my exercise in my fitness app every day, I was motivated to try different sports, as the app offers a database of all sorts of different kinds and shows you, how many calories you burn during a certain period of time. Knowing how many calories I burned while exercising gave me a real motivation kick! I started trying different sports and looking for possibilities to exercise during my daily commitments. Initially, I merely exercised in order to be able to eat more and not go to bed with a hungry stomach, while still staying below my daily calorie limit. But after a while, I began to like moving my body and being active. I realized, how much fun I had during long bike rides or how listening to my favorite music motivated me to do an extra ten minutes on the elliptical.

It is a scientific truth that exercising triggers the distribution of serotonin in the human

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If it’s for a good cause, even running can be fun for me now. At least for a short while. 😉 Photo: Wagner

brain,  which is called the happiness hormone. Thus, exercise ultimately has the same effect as eating a piece of delicious chocolate, it makes you happy! After a while, I began to get used to my regular exercising units and even started to crave them after a long day sitting at school and using mostly my brain. During my free time, I tried to find new ways to move my body and to make my exercise more diverse. I began to swim, take long walks, play badminton and do units on the stepper. I even took up running again now and then and found that I had improved my general fitness, which made even this form of sports endurable. However, I still don’t like it very much.

The essence of all this is that you have to try different sports and I guarantee you that you will find at least one or two that you like. In the beginning, you have to force yourself to work through the scheduled units, but after a while you will find that your exercising routine makes you feel better about yourself and makes you happier. You might even find that you long for movement, just like I did!

Right now, I usually exercise four to five days a week. The form of exercise varies depending on the weather and my general mood. Some days, I enjoy a two-hour bike ride in the sunshine or swim for 30 minutes, on others I merely do 30 minutes of yoga, pilates and stretching routines. I also began looking for ways to move my body during my day-to-day routine. For example, when it is not pouring outside, I always ride my bike or walk to class instead of taking the bus. And whenever I have to make the tough decision between the elevator and the stairs, I mostly opt for the latter. You just have to walk through life with open eyes and you will find opportunities to move your body, even if you have a busy and tiring schedule. As actress Cameron Diaz writes in her “Body Book”, “everyone has ten minutes”. I will introduce you to her amazing enlightening book in the next part of this series.

But for now: get up, find the perfect exercises for you and MOVE YOUR BODY!

Feel free to comment about your experiences or ask me questions.

Read the first part of this series here.

The day we saw President Obama

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On our way to Hannover, Lower Saxony. (Photos: Nicole Wagner)

“This will certainly be the highlight of my time in college.” Christin Schmidt takes the words right out of my mouth when we sit on the train from Göttingen to Hannover, the capital of Lower Saxony in Germany, early in the morning of April 25th. Together with 21 fellow students of North American Studies at Georg-August-University Göttingen, professor Babette Bärbel Tischleder and teaching assistants Marleen Knipping and Susann Köhler, we are following an invitation issued by the U.S. consulate to attend Barack Obama’s eagerly anticipated keynote speech during his last state visit as President.

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President Barack Obama during his keynote speech at Hannover Messe.

“The invitation from the consulate in Hamburg arrived on very short notice. I had to choose a specific number of students within a day’s time”, Babette Bärbel Tischleder, professor of North American Studies at the Seminar of English Philology, recounts. “We maintain a good relationship with the consulate and back in 2012, the former U.S. consul Inmi Patterson visited us for a student talk. I guess that is why they chose to invite some of our students.” 21 of my fellow students and I were chosen from about 50 interested young scholars on a first come, first serve basis and are part of approximately 400 invited students who, amongst others, mostly come from American Studies and Political Science departments at universities in Berlin, Hamburg and Hannover. “They surely want to foster the cultural understanding between Europe and the United States”, Babette Tischleder believes. “Our students are the mediators of the future.”

We are all very much looking forward to the President’s speech, who visited on the occasion of the Hannover Messe, the largest industrial fair in the world. “To hear him speak will surely be a great experience”, says Frederick Prush. Caroline Bürmann adds that she is curious “what arguments he will come up with”. Except for its focus on foreign policy, not much of the keynote speech’s highly anticipated content was previously known. However, most of us expect him to talk about the advantages and neccessity of TTIP, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which has provoked harsh criticism and sparked major protests in Hannover during Obama’s visit.

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Witnessing President Obama’s speech.

After our arrival in Hannover and a short bus ride to the fair grounds, we are put on the rack for about two hours before we are finally able to pass the meticulous security checks and can take some of the sought-after seats in the pavillion. There, we find ourselves in the company of the international press, Secret Service personnel and German political VIPs. After catching a short glimpse of German chancellor Angela Merkel, who takes her seat in the first row next to government spokesman Steffen Seibert just behind the barrier, we are finally rewarded for our previous patience. An energetic Barack Obama enters the stage with a smile on his face and greets the attendees with a friendly “Guten Tag” before he begins his 45-minute speech.

Our assumption about a focus on TTIP is not confirmed. Instead, President Obama offers a broad summary of the imminent challenges facing us in our world today. From the bloody civil war in Syria and the connected refugee crisis Europe is struggling with to the pitfalls of climate change, he talks about measures his government has already taken or is planning to take in the remaining time until the presidential elections this coming November and the end of his period of governance early next year.

“The United States, and the entire world, needs a strong and prosperous and democratic and united Europe.” – President Barack Obama

But the essence of his address turns out to be a call for a restrengthening of the European Union, which Washington fears to be falling apart in the wake of the refugee crisis and recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels. Obama touches upon numerous subjects and connects them each time to the necessity of a strong European Union, which is one of the most important allies of the United States. Additionally, he commends chancellor Merkel on her refugee policy stating that she “is on the right side of history on this”.

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The President’s motorcade at a Hannover intersection on the way to castle Herrenhausen.

On our way back to the train station, we surprisingly catch a glimpse of the President in “the Beast”, his presidential limousine, on the way to castle Herrenhausen, where he meets the German, French, British and Italian heads of state in the afternoon. Everyone in our group seems impressed and gives the experience a positive review. “Obama touched upon different subjects like the refugee crisis and international terrorism”, Theresa Croll explains. “I liked that the speech was not primarily about TTIP.” Laura Cavallaro adds that he came across “very down to earth and realistic” and “directly addressed us students several times”. Laura was the luckiest of us all on that day, as she got to shake the President’s hand after he finished his speech and came down to greet some of the invitees. “That was an unforgettable, exciting moment. I will still tell my grandchildren about it.”

For me, this was the third time I was fortunate enough to see and hear President Obama speak and, like the previous two times, I was deeply impressed by his demeanor, eloquence and ability to captivate the audience’s attention. Despite the fact that he was not able to implement all of his well-intentioned plans in the gusty political waters of Washington D.C., to me he represents a type of political leader you scarcely find in the often dirty business of politics. That is most certainly due to his intellect and global perspective as well as his seemingly empathetic personality, which is rooted in his familial background and the diverse experiences he made during his forming years living in Hawai’i, Indonesia, and on the American mainland in Los Angeles, New York City, Boston and Chicago. It makes me sad to know that he will leave the oval office next year, as the prospective leaderships of Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton seem to be either a complete catastrophe or a political compromise – especially for a Europe battered by crisis.

Watch President Obama’s keynote speech at Hannover Messe here and read more about Göttingen University’s English department trip to Hannover over at the department website.