On this particular Sunday, a group of young girls, mostly Trinidadians, spontaneously joined the Haitian Troubadours and danced in traditional Caribbean carnival costumes
A troubadour plays a cylindrical bamboo trumpet called a vaksen behind the Rara circle with the Prospect Park audience enjoying the free concert.
    Haitian troubadours gather around Prospect Park lake every Sunday evening to form a Rara music circle. They dance, they sing in Haitian Kreyòl, bang snare and bongo drums, blow deep melodies through bamboo trumpets and give the sun a festive African-sounding music bed to set to. Rara is a form of festival music that originated in Haïti. Like so much of Haitian culture, you can hear the influences of Taino Amerindian, African and French in the rhythms and melodies as they perform in the park.
A Haitian man adds his seashell horn to the mix of instruments.
Prospect Park provides an open, natural environment for the Rara circle participants. There are trees, lakes and grassy knolls where Caribbean communities living in Brooklyn can escape New York's urban turf.
A Haitian troubadour with a cowboy hat keeps the beat with a güira. This instrument, which sounds like a maraca, was initially invented in the Dominican Republic, but their Haitian neighbors adopted it to compliment Rara's Afro-based sound.
A young girl clutches a vaksen as a troubadour plays her a low-pitched trancelike rhythm.
A young Trinidadian girl pauses from dancing to watch a shoving match that has broken out between an apparently drunk spectator and a Rara circle participant.
The young girls in their traditional attire had participated in a West Indian-American carnival the previous week.
They had help setting up their costumes from a Brooklyn organizer who helps Caribbean Americans preserve their culture and history.
The hot, humid environment of Prospect Park on an August night, along with the costumes and music, made the scene feel just like a night in the Caribbean. Sweat drips from a musician’s brow as he ogles a bottle of water.
The sun sets over the natural environment of Prospect Park lake as music fills the evening air. Believe it or not, this is Brooklyn.
The Hohenzollern bridge crosses over the famous river Rhine and leads to the Cologne Cathedral. During WWII, the bridge survived daily airstrikes with little damage. When the allied troops invaded Cologne, German military engineers blew it up and it finally fell - proving that only German engineers can combat German engineering. It was rebuilt a few years later. I took this picture with my point-and-shoot camera, then brushed some dirt off my shoulder.
The stairs leading up to the bridge have these cool tracks where you can put your bike wheels while you're walking down the steps. Nobody else seemed particularly impressed with this, but I think it's the height of German engineering. I don't know what happens when one biker is going up and another is going down though. I'll update when I figure it out.
Trains and pedestrians are separated by this fence on the Hohenzollern Bridge. Lovers go to the bridge, say things like "Ich werde dich für immer lieben," then attach these symbolic locks to the links and throw the keys into the Rhine river.
This Cathedral is enormous. It's the largest Gothic church in Northern Europe at 515 feet tall, and nearly 300 feet wide. It was pretty much impossible to stand in front of it and get a picture of myself and the structure in one frame. So I climbed this streetlight. Germans, who love rules, seemed to think this was the craziest thing they had ever seen. They were pointing, taking pictures and speculating that I was an "Amerikaner."
    I've heard that Germans are not all that hospitable. If that's true, my friend Patricia and her family are definitely the exception to that rule. I crashed at their place for three days, and Patricia showed me all around Cologne and Leverkusen. Her father is a fellow photographer, and their guest room had a display case of cameras that must have been 40 to 80 years old. He's also a retired engineer (of course) and in his free time he's building a drone to capture aerial photography.
     Patricia told me people in Cologne are more carefree and fun-loving than most Germans, who she says have a "stick up their ass."
     I also became a soccer fan while visiting. I never liked soccer because it's tough to gamble on, low-scoring, and so many plays end in no result. But when I tried to explain baseball to a German, I realized my favorite sport suffers from all the same deficiencies. Ultimately I figured out loving a sport is about understanding the strategy and knowing the players. While I'm here, I'm going to learn to love soccer. I think it's my duty as a world-citizen.
These young kids were holding hands and canoodling in the church. I think he's into her, but she's not really feeling it. If I was him, I'd bring her up to the Hohenzollern and lock it up.
This is the alter area, where they hold services every day. You can see their schedule by clicking the photo. Once in a while, you can also hear a sermon from his eminence, the Rainer Maria Woelki, the Archbishop of Cologne.
This is a picture of me with Patricia and her mom and Dad. There was some kind of celebration in their neighborhood where everyone gathered around a fire, drank gluehwein, and talked about the brightness of the stars and the moon.
There were a lot of people walking around. You can see some of them ghosting in this long exposure. This church sees about 20,000 visitors a day. Despite all those people, it still feels very solemn and contemplative inside. Even with all the whispered echoes bouncing off the hard surfaces, you can hear a pin drop from across the room.
This is a statue of Saint Christopher. It's a beautifully detailed work of art sculpted in the 1400s by Tilman van der Burch. It is one of his earlier works. In the 1500s, he became a world-renowned sculptor and carver and you can see several of his works around the Cologne area.
The embers from the fire started dying down at the end of the night. I moved the camera in circles for this shot. I think it's pretty trippy.
    I met Patricia Url in Brooklyn more than a year ago. We only talked for about twenty minutes in Williamsburg, but she was kind enough to invite me to her hometown of Leverkusen and offer me a free tour of her favorite spots.  Leverkusen is a unique place, partly because the whole economy and social structure of this small city thrive on a single company: Beyer (the aspirin maker.) Even the professional soccer team here is called Bayer.  Ever since Patricia was a little kinder, she has been spending time at this lovely Japanese Garden (also owned and maintained by Beyer.) I took some video there so you could accompany me for the tour.
    I always thought the Autobahn was one road in Germany. It's actually the entire highway system of Germany. I also assumed there was no speed limit anywhere on the Autobahn, but in fact there are many places that do have a speed limit.
     Cultural tip # 1: Autobahn drivers flash their headlights when they want you to move to the slow lane - and it's not a rude thing. It's actually the way you are supposed to indicate that you are passing. But they all have those bright blue headlights and it's scary as hell to be the car flagged to move over.
This is not the fastest I drove on the Autobahn on my way to Prague, but it is the fastest speed at which I felt comfortable taking a picture of the speedometer. Also, the speedometer was in Km, not miles, so this is roughly 100 mph. I topped out at about 120 mph before my tiny VW rental felt like it was going to slide of the road.
    Cultural tip # 2: The general rule for a driver anywhere is that you use the left lane to pass and the right lane to coast. In America, it's pretty much just a guideline. On the autobahn, it's scripture. Everybody stays in the right lane, whether they are driving 90 kph or 300 kph, unless they are passing a car or stuck in a traffic jam. I think when you remove the speed limit regulations, people feel more inclined to follow every other rule intended to keep order.
    There are several aspects of driving in Europe that make it challenging for me as an American. For starters, the signs are in other languages, and the images don't always make sense. "Do Not Park" looks to my eye like "Do Not Enter." They also don't seem to know about automatic transmissions here, putting additional responsibilities on your brain as you try to figure out how to proceed in precarious situations. In America, when cops at an intersection outstretch their
hands, traffic parallel to their arms has to stop. Here, parallel traffic proceeds. In America, the traffic that is already in a roundabout always has the right of way. Here, traffic entering the traffic circle has the right of way and you have to slow down to let them in.
    In America, .08 is always the cutoff for DWI and any citizen has the right to refuse a BAC test. Here, DWI rules are vastly different in every country and police have the right to use physical force to compel you to take a breathalyzer or blood test - meaning they can no-kidding beat the hell out of you with no repercussions. And DWI usually leads to imprisonment in the arresting country, regardless of what country you are from. In America, traffic going in opposite directions is separated by a yellow line. Here, there are no yellow lines.
In Europe, especially Prague, you have to share the road with these Street Cars. As an American, imagine how I felt entering an intersection with a friggin train heading my way!
This is where I messed up. I only made one mistake while driving in Prague. I made a left-hand turn into oncoming traffic on a one-way street. Since all the lines are white, I had no idea what I was doing until it was too late. I immediately pulled onto an adjacent road where I could follow the appropriate direction of travel, but it was too late. A cop had seen me. He came around the corner and boxed me in with a perpendicular position, flashing lights and a "NEE-NUR NEE-NUR" siren. He spoke passable English and understood me as I apologized profusely for my error. I explained that I had made a mistake, and he assured me it was a "pretty big mistake."
    I gave him U.S. Drivers license, my Euro-License and my Military I.D. At the time he only took note of the Euro-License and went back to his car. I think he saw my vulnerability as a foreigner. He returned to my window and told me I had to pay 200 Crown (a very small fee for an American). He told me this was only payable in cash and had to be paid on the spot. I could be wrong, but I think he was soliciting a bribe.
I was more than happy to pay what amounts to less than $10 to avoid this ticket, particularly since I didn't know how harsh the legal system might be in this foreign Country (Given that police have license to physically beat suspects). I also imagined the severe ramifications for a U.S. officer for soliciting a bribe. Obviously, the pocket money was worth the risk for him here. I gave him the money, he went back to his car. When he returned to my window, he pointed to my military I.D. and asked "Is that where you work?" I said yes. He returned my papers, including the money, said "have a nice night," and then sped away.
    Welcome to Europe.
    Pool was an important part of my life in Brooklyn. I played on a team for the NAPL, I competed in the Stickman 8-ball Challenge, and I played for fun all around NYC every night. New York has a highly developed pool scene: It's easy to find Pros like Tony Robles hanging out at Amsterdam, or league players smacking them around on bar boxes city-wide. Even the pedestrian players are pretty good - but most importantly they are there. If you go some place to play pool, expect to wait for the table and play competitively.
I found this place based on Yelp reviews. This photo is not cropped badly - the table really is that slanted.
    I did not expect to play much pool here, but I can't help the need to split a rack once in a while. Here, I have found a few good pool games - but mostly with Americans. In fact, I've played pool a total of six hours at three places and only played two Germans. (The others were Scotts and Americans).  I think it's just kind of not their thing.
At this bar, Biddy Early's Irish Pub - which is a popular bar at Marienstraße 28 - you have to chalk your cue with blackboard chalk. And nobody sees anything wrong with this!
    The first thing you need to know about pool in Europe is the rules are quite different. Any foul - including a table scratch or a pocket scratch - means your opponent gets two shots. It's pretty interesting, and I'm excited to play this way, but everybody seems to have a different take on how to apply these rules, though. When I find out more, I'll update. 
    Another important thing to know is Germans like to gamble, but they don't like to gamble for a lot of money. This is a welcome change from the states, where nobody wants to gamble with you unless they are much better than you, and everybody who is much better than you wants to gamble for a LOT of money. Gambling here is a cultural norm I think - there are video casinos throughout Stuttgart. They are never crowded, but always populated.
My search for a worthy pool spot with quality German players will continue. I brought my Predator IKON 1 here and I'm going to put it to good use. The more friends I make here and the more I learn about the culture, the more chances I'm sure I will have to find the Stuttgart version of Alligator Lounge and the German version of Full Whiskey Force.
    Germany seemed determined to make sure I didn't have a phone.  When I tried to get my broken phone fixed, the "Nummer 1" phone repair shop apparently had a screen for every type of phone on earth except for mine. I couldn't get a plan for another phone because I didn't have a German Bank account, I couldn't get a German bank account because I didn't have an official address yet, and so on and so forth.
    At first, this infuriated me, but I started to embrace it. I got my information from a handful of English-language newspapers and by talking to people. You know, like, actually interacting - what a thought!
I bought this handy little book from the PX to help me communicate with the locals.
    But there was something I had to learn about communicating with people when you are a foreigner. See, every time I asked somebody if he or she spoke English, the response was always a very reluctant, "A little bit." Or else they would just shake their heads, say "Nein" and walk away. The truth is, many Germans speak English quite well, but they just didn't like me that much.
    It was because I didn't have any sense of conversational give and take. You can't just ask somebody to speak English with you if you haven't even tried to communicate with them. So for the last week I've been practicing German every day. I'm still pretty darn awful at it, but it's helping me out big time.
    Now, when I need help getting someplace, or buying a train ticket or getting a cab, I can start a small friendly conversation.  I say " Helo. Guten Abend . Ich heiße Russell, und ich bin aus New York. Wie heißen Sie?" It sounds awful, but they think it's just swell that I'm trying. After the introduction when I ask, "sprechen Sie Englisch?" they are quite pleased to accommodate me. 
    This worked out wonderfully this week. I used my computer to find a store called ISOMedia. I had to write down the directions and print out maps, like it was the 1990s. I successfully traveled on the S1 train to Stadtmitte, but I couldn't find Theodor-Heuss-Straße 26.
    I went into a bar and met a guy named Carlo. We chit-chatted about where I was from.  He had grown up in Italy always wanted to go to either New York or Miami. Once we were speaking in English, I told him to skip Miami. At any rate, after a 5-minute conversation, he was happy to walk me to the address I needed. Poof - made a friend, got my phone fixed. By just speaking a few words - by just trying like, a little tiny bit - Germans think I'm a super cool guy. (Although, technically Carlo is an Italian working and living in Germany - and Italians are known for their friendliness - it's still been working out well with native Germans.)
It is exciting to be a tourist.  I walk around wide-eyed, ignorant, and plainly innocent. These are all characteristics I haven't allowed myself to experience for years. I wear faces I wouldn't dare wear in NYC, lest I be marked as a fool and swindled by some scrupulous criminal. So if you see me on the street in Stuttgart, my range of expressions includes bewildered, studious, or wildly smiling to myself for no apparent reason. 
I'm enjoying this new version of myself for how ever long it may last. It helps that I have no particular place to be and all day to get there. But being such a tourist has made me realize how confidently I enter social situations
A group of young dancers forms a floshmob at Schlossplatz Square while I eat schnitzel in an outdoor restaurnt.
when I'm in the states. It's uncomfortable for me not to speak the language or understand the culture of my environment. Maybe this is why mid-western tourists in New York line up around the block to eat at Olive Garden in Times Square instead of taking the 6 train down to Little Italy. 
    Even more crippling is to be in a foreign country without a smart phone.  I realize I'm completely dependent on my phone even in my hometown. If I had a phone that worked here, I would be finding places to go in a moment's notice, translating words on an app to communicate with people and getting instant directions and maps to places. Instead I'm chronically lost, and the only German phrase I have used is "sprechen Sie Englisch?"
    I decided I would take the subway wherever possible and get to know the city on the streets and underground. The subway is a fascinating piece of German culture. To begin with, people smoke cigarettes right there in the station. In America, we don't have signs that say no smoking in the subway station, but I think that's because smokers know intrinsically there's no way you're allowed to do that.
Two frauen smoke cigarettes at a designated smoking area INSIDE the station while waiting for their trains.
    The stations are incredibly clean. There is bright lighting all over, no litter on the ground, no gumballs stuck the stairs. It doesn't feel gross to sit on the steps waiting for your train. You could almost mistake a Stuttgart subway station for a hospital. 
    Despite the orderliness of everything, it's still quite
difficult to get around. Even if I could speak German, I would easily get lost here. Stuttgart is not laid out with any sort of grid or respect to directional simplicity.
    Oddly, purchasing a train ticket is kind of done on the honor system. Each ticket is valid for a certain number of train stations in a particular direction or for a certain amount of time. No sort of authority checks to see if you bought your ticket as far as I could tell, yet everyone buys their tickets. I saw one frustrated woman who took too long to figure out what kind of ticket she needed to buy, and she
Escalator and stairs to the Charlottenplotz metro station.
I used this ticket to get from Stadion to Hauptbahnhof after a traveling a few stations in the wrong direction and accidentally stealing train service. There is no enforcement that I could see for commuters going extra stops.
ended up missing her train. She missed her train to buy a ticket that nobody would even inspect. I accidentally took a train in the wrong direction and went too many stops. When I saw how committed she was to buying her ticket, I wondered if someone might come and arrest me or something.  But it seems like Germans just respect the rules and aren't that hung up on the inconvenience or cost of train ticket purchasing. Perhaps it's my New Yorker paranoia that makes it so hard for me to accept that there is a system that anyone could easily scam and they choose not to.  Or perhaps enforcement is infrequent, but severe for cheaters who do get caught. Either way, the Stuttgart subways offer a pretty unique part of German culture to explore.
A family of Germans walks on the north edge of Schlossplatz - the central square in Stuttgart, Germany. The beautiful building behind them (to the South) is das Neue Schloss (The New Castle). It has been around since the 1740s, which actually is kind of "new" in European history.
This is a little gallery of some snapshots I took over the weekend. I was desperately trying to find a place to fix my phone, which broke just before I got here. While I was at it though, I took in a few sites, ate a bit of Schnitzel, and learned (the hard way) how to get around on the train. 
Art and text for this outdoor menu all done by hand. Reminded me a bit of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
The buses are yellow and boxy. A lot of people use them, but I definitely am not ready to understand public transportation.
Polizei with their funny sounding European sirens: "NEE NURR NEE NURR." This cop is making an illegal left against oncoming traffic. I was hoping to see a good chase, but Jason Bourne and his mini-cooper must have already successfully evaded him.
A little outdoor restaurant at the north edge of Schlossplatz.
These ladies ate at the restaurant. I took their photo because I noticed a strange trend. On three occasions that day I saw a women in hijabs hanging out with women not wearing hijabs. I thought it was an interesting piece of social mixing, because in America I almost never see that except for at college campuses. When she caught me taking her picture, I pretended I was trying to shoot something behind her. I don't think she bought it.
Here is a German payphone. Based on some of the phone plans I looked at, I think the Germans are a little behind the US in cell phone technology, but clearly they are way ahead in payphone technology, because I've never seen a digital touchscreen payphone in New York.
The Stuttgart streets are very quaint and extremely clean. Remember, this is a pretty large city, but you would think from the visuals you were in a pleasant little suburb.
There are basically two types of bikes people ride in Stuttgart. One of them has tiny wheels - probably good for short distances and deliveries. The other is a solid mountain bike with thick tires. Either way, they always have lots of gears and are built sturdy. This is probably because of the hills out here and the sometimes rugged terrain in the countryside, as well as the engineering history of the Germans.
I stumbled upon this peaceful protest. I think it was in opposition to ISIS. At least I hope so because I walked four blocks with them chanting whatever it was they were saying. On a side note, this may somewhat explain the hijab thing I pointed out in the picture to left.
This is what I look like in Germany
    I initially took this photo in the cab to Stuttgart to show the difference between Euros and Dollars, but now it's more like an homage to what I lost yesterday - tons of money. Money is easy to spend when you don't know a city.  For instance, I took a cab to and from the city. If I was a bit more familiar I would have taken a cab to a nearby spot called Goldberg where I could take the train.  If the hotel receptionist had told me that instead of calling a cab to Stuttgart right away, I'd have saved 85 Euro, which I didn't really know was equivalent to about $108. 
    This brings me to another expensive observation
- Money is easy to spend when you have no idea what it's worth. I mean, look at those Euros. Am I spending money or playing Monopoly? On base, they use dollars and I'm paid in dollars, so since I plan to take plenty of trips off base, I need to stay highly aware of what value the money I'm spending has.
    I have read Europeans don't tip like Americans do in restaurants.  On the plane to Heathrow, an Italian woman named Cecilia sitting beside me told me Europeans don't tip at all unless the service is truly extraordinary. Instead, restaurant workers are paid a fair wage by their employers (can you imagine? Barbarians...), but I don't know how it works for cabbies.  The trip cost 42€
, so I gave the cabbie 45€ and waited to see if he would give me change.  He did not, which led me to assume he was taking a 3€ tip. I didn't know if he would do that for a German, so to test it I tried giving him another 5€.  He immediately and urgently refused the money.  He assured me I had tipped him enough (he only spoke German, but I read it in his face.) So perhaps tipping is not customary at all in cabs, because he seemed kind of guilty about the initial tip, as though he felt he was suckering an ignorant American but would only take it so far. I don't think I've ever met an American cab driver who would refuse a large tip. At most, if he's a great guy he might ask "are you sure?" but only because he already knows you ARE sure. 
    This is one of several experiences leading me to believe Germans are just not hung up on money.  Who turns down a tip?  Especially in a down economy (Germany is hurting a bit right now) and with everything in Europe being so damn expensive, and while driving a presumably "wealthy" American who you'll probably never see again.

    One time I had bought a pack of cigarettes in New York for about $15 - maybe a bit more.  Usually I bought my smokes from a bootleg discounter, but on this occasion I spent the full amount at a store on Grand St. near LP & Harmony in East Williamsburg. I was pissed about the price as I packed the tobacco tighter in the pack.  A German tourist asked if she could have one, and I refused - explaining they were too expensive to share. I regret being such a poor ambassador to this woman , but it made sense to me at the time. But I remember her face - it wasn't anger, but shock.  She was confused as to how I could be so money-hungry as to deny her ONE cigarette, because to Germans money is just a resource, not the meaning of our existence. I suppose I'm starting to understand that.  
    Check out the video below to see where the cab drove me.  (It's an adorable you tube piece about a Stuttgart Vape Store that lasts about 40 seconds too long...)

    I had lost my vape charger, so my first stop in Stuttgart was this vape store at the corner of Olgastraße and Jakobstraße (Prononced Olga Strassay and YAKob Strassay).  The cabbie used his GPS to find the place, and I was listening to the directions to practice my German.  The female GPS voice kept saying "bitte" for every instruction, which I thought was awesome.  I think Germans are uncomfortable taking or giving orders without saying "Please." Either that, or they worked the word "please" into the female voice because it's a woman.  I remember reading in 2010 that BMW had to recall its GPS because Germans didn't want to take instructions from a female voice.  You can read about that here
    My cab driver could not find the corner of Olgastraße and Jakobstraße, even with the GPS.  This demonstrates how difficult the city of Stuttgart is to navigate (much much more on that later).  He made three or four u-turns and eventually got me about a block away. I figured out his mistake and walked the block - no big deal.  I spent five minutes checking out the store, then asked the vape store guy "Sprechen Sie Englisch," bought the Vape charger for 4€ and left the store. 
    After that, I stopped for a few minutes and sat on the curb admiring an sweet old couple.  He was buying flowers for her on a lovely little street as they walked in the brisk autumn air.  I'm no softy, but this one really hit me in the feels.  I hope one day I can be an old man buying flowers for my old wife because I still love her after a million years. 
    On that same sidewalk, I saw a German guy walking what I believe to be a West Highland terrier, although his ears were a little floppy, so I'm not sure.  It reminded me of my Father's West Highland mix, Chiquito, who died when I was about 11 or 12. 
    I wanted to get a picture of his owner, because he was a fun old German guy.  Super friendly, as you might imagine someone with such a dog might be, but it would have been weird to ask him if I could take his picture in a language he couldn't understand, so I resisted the urge. 
    Anyway, the reason I explained all that is to say this. While I was petting him, that cab driver called out to me.  He had been driving up and down Olgastr
for more than ten minutes to tell me he dropped me off in the wrong place. He finally found me to tell me he was one block off when he dropped me off and give me directions to the correct intersection.
    What a sense of duty he had. I can't imagine a New York cabbie ever ever ever doing that.  He was so relieved he found me - and it certainly didn't benefit him monetarily or in any other way to take care of me. I suppose there's something to be said here about the German work ethic or kindness. He wasted time finding me after taking just a seven percent tip from me. He didn't even speak enough English to tell me where to go, but he gave it his best shot. This was a hell of a first encounter with the good people of Deutschland. Plenty more to come, but it's time for bed now.  Tomorrow is my first day back as a real Marine.  Wish me luck. 
    Some photos >> here


    Russell Midori is a writer and photographer for the Marine Corps enjoying some travel as he works in Europe and Africa. This is a personal blog and any views expressed here do not reflect the views of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, Marine Corps, or any organization.


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