I’m often asked how it is to travel by myself. If I’m not scared. If I don’t get lonely. If I’m not afraid that the sky may fall on my head tomorrow.
The answer has always been no – and meeting Sri Lanka’s only ski instructor was clearly another proof that travelling solo is a great chance to come across people that open up to you in a blink of an eye.
Ms Tina Uebel is telling her absolutely fascinating story how she travelled from Germany’s West coast to China’s East coast. There are probably hundreds of people doing this every day; but by train? And we are not talking the touristy, comfy Transsiberian here, the Titanic of trains. No, Tina Uebel took the ordinary trains – in total 19 of them! – that took her in seven weeks from Hamburg across Europe, the Middle East, East Asia – in total eight countries! – all the way to Shanghai.
Sweet encounters in Turkmenistan – proverbial and litteraly.
This Central Asian state was Tina’s fourth country on her route from Hamburg to Shanghai. Photo: David Stanley, www.flickr.com/people/davidstanleytravel/
Before I tell you more about this great book, let me dwell a moment on the spectacular author and her flashing name. Of course I mean her surname, Uebel, which in her mothertongue German means, depending on the context, something like queasy, bad, dangerous.
For her book she picked the title “Uebel unterwegs” which thusly might be translated either as “Uebel on the road”, or irrespective of her name, “Sorely afflicted on the road”. That’s not only an original double meaning, that’s also true; You can follow Tina’s tales and trails with awe – how many women do you know that hop by themselves on a train that goes across Eurasia? Most of the time she’s having a great time; because she’s willing to have a great time. But you’ll have to witness also moments where she is worn and torn and pensive – especially when she realizes how blessed we are being born by chance in a wealthy country with a democratic government and a passport that grants us unlimited travelling.
For some people it’s unimaginable to travel individually and not organized. For many people it’s unthinkable globetrotting by themselves. And then comes this forty something women and travels individually (and sometimes not so very organized) by herself through countries that make others shiver. And she’s generous enough sharing not only her adventures, big and small, with her readers, no, in addition she shares her feelings and her thoughts. She describes encounters with different people in such a vivid and intense way that you have the feeling sitting next to them. Her travel buddies become your buddies, too. When she described how she bids farewell to her friend’s Persian cousin in Teheran, it made me cry a little since I had to part with him, too.
She crosses countries and visits cities you probably haven’t even heard of – all these “-stans” in the former Soviet Union where she’s not allowed to take pictures; and when she’s allowed to do so, she’s too polite to interfere with people’s privacy. But Tina makes up for this by describing these people and places in such a emphatic, vivid and vibrant fashion that you see them right before your inner eye in even brighter colors than a photograph could ever show.
Witty traveller, humorous writer, and busy body Tina Uebel. Photo: Florian Büh, www.Gutes-Foto.de
If you’re not a traveller (then I’m surprised that you read my blog, but thanks a lot, anyway), you’ll enjoy all these curious and noteworthy encounters. When you’re a traveller, too, you’ll have experienced similar situations, but her writing them down is like underlining them with a laser pointer: Yes, me too, I’m missing decent coffee as soon as I leave Europe; real coffee, coming from coffee beans, not from a pack of Nescafé with or without whitener and sugar in it. Oh my gosh, how I can relate to her dwelling on the lack of decent coffee! Yes, me too, I’m looking at all these disappointed faces that try to get me involved in a conversation about soccer and the price of a BMW since I’m from Germany; I know next to nothing about soccer and I’m riding the subway. And yes, me too, my blog entries are too long since I’m rather a wandering storyteller than an influencer.
So is there a downside to this absolutely fantastic book? Yes, there is: It’s written in German and not translated in any other language yet. And some of the cutest expressions are so Hamburgish that I’m afraid people living about one mile from Hamburg’s city limits won’t know them. But it doesn’t matter, they can be translated and replaced by sweet and funny idioms, especially transferred into English. So hurry up, you translators, and spread her words – that are so full of love and joy for travelling.
This is the awesome book “Uebel unterwegs” * in which Tina Uebel takes you to mesmerizing destinations and encounters in Serbia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran, Turkmenistan, Usbekistan, Kasachstan, and China. Safe travels!
*This is an affiliate link. By purchasing items through my affiliate links at no extra cost to you, I will receive a small commission that helps to run this site.
What do young girls do after graduating from high school when they want to live in another country, learn a foreign language and explore a different culture?
They become an Au Pair!
What do ‘Best Agers’ do after retiring when they do want to live in another country, learning and exploring?
They become an Au Pair, just the same!
Who wouldn’t enjoy taking care of this little cutie for some time?!
And if you want to spend your next trip as an Au Pair, you can do so with the help from Kristin.
Kristin is 70 and she’s living in a Bavarian village 56 miles from Munich – one of Germany’s most picturesque regions.
She by far didn’t spend all her life in this secluded place. For many years she was married to an industrial engineer working for the United Nations, therefore they didn’t live only in Germany, but also in places like Geneva and Copenhagen. Kristin, the great woman behind the successful man, took care of the household and the three kids. She cooked dinner for her husband’s business partners and had cocktails with ambassadors, politicians like former labor secretary Norbert Blüm and Germany’s late ex-chancellor Helmut Kohl, because social life was without saying a big part of the job. As everybody with kids can figure, this was not always easy, so Kristin had to rely on help from Au Pairs, and she was particularly happy when her then 65 year old aunt Jutta came from time to time to stay with the family and look after the kids and the house.
In 2009 the youngest of her three kids left home, so Kristin, by then retired, took a good look around whether there was an old dream hidden somewhere. And indeed, she remembered that as a young girl she always dreamt of becoming an Au Pair girl in Paris – the city of lights! Only her parents didn’t allow it, so these lights remained dim. But now was the time to turn them on and illuminate the “best age” that lied ahead – Kristin decided to become an Au Pair at 62.
Finally an au pair in the ‘city of lights’: Kristin became an au pair at the tender age of 62.
Since at that time there were no agencies, it was extremely difficult to find a host family, but nothing could discourage Kristin, and finally with the help from some friends, she found a French family that took her in to stay with them at their huge, charming appartement in the famous Parisian neighborhood of Saint-Germain-des-Prés.
Strictly speaking, Kristin was not the average student anymore – but she and the host family agreed that she wouldn’t be treated differently: She stayed at a tiny room facing the backyard, sharing the shower with other students. Like any other Au Pair, she had her duties like helping the family’s daughter studying German for her Bacalaureat. She ate dinner with her hosts and enjoyed conversations on cultural differences and similarities. In the company of all the other commuters she took the Métro to school and back. With her school mates she studied French in the morning and partied at night. She had the time of her life!
I can absolutely relate to that since my language courses to Rome, Izmir, and Milan were some of the most inspiring experiences ever; I think that at an advanced age it’s not only the activity and the trip as such, it’s especially the idea behind, the recherche du temps perdu – respectively sa découverte.
Back home, back to her little Bavarian village, Kristin, spurred by her own experience, decided to give others – who probably won’t fulfill their dreams of becoming a ballerina or getting a Unicorn for their birthday anymore – the opportunity to make at least the wish to become an Au Pair come true: she founded an association placing senior Au Pairs in host families around the world.
Having a brilliant idea, founding an association, designing a webpage – this was makeable. But here the hard work only began. Kristin had to let the public know that she was out there, and that she was ready. She contacted every newspaper around, she wrote more than 1,000 Emails to German language schools abroad like e. g. the Goethe Institute. She got in touch with chambers of commerce, consulates and embassies. She stormed every convention dealing with demography. And it paid – after a while she was considered an expert in this field and got invited to respective events like chancellor Merkel’s demography summit. Then the Bavarian delegate to the European Union Dr. Niebler recommended Kristin to German President Gauck to receive an award for her outstanding honorary activities. Now of course also the media were interested in this ingenious project.
The images of senior citizens did change quite a lot over the last decades.
Today Kristin’s project gets more and more attention – thus Kristin gets more and more commitments and chores. For years she’s participated in major conventions and specialized fairs – the group of active senior citizens is growing significantly, especially but not exclusively in Germany, thus projects like Madame Grand Mère are absolutely in the line of the trend.
The peer group is interested, Kristin’s databank includes almost 500 potential Au Pairs – around 460 grand mères and at least 30 grand pères. Every year about 20 of them are heading to new shores – the youngest was 50 and took a sabbatical for her trip, the oldest went for a couple of weeks to North Carolina at the age of 76.
Of course the Au Pairs get board and lodging for free and do sometimes receive additional gratuities according to an individual agreement with their hosts. Same goes for the fare, it all depends on the respective necessities, the circumstances, distance and length of stay. That can vary from four weeks “vacation assistance” up to one year; the friendships last forever, though. However, there are regular ‘customers’ like the German TV-correspondent in the US or the Honorary Consul in Turkey, and there are Au Pairs going again and again.
You now might wonder about visa and work permits? To avoid illegal employment, an Au Pair cannot be over 27 years of age (at least according to German law). But since the Grand Mères are not employees but the family’s guests, they only have to stick to tourist visa regulations (you will find these in my World’s Most Complete Travel Information). Same goes for possibly necessary insurances: German citizens have their national or, where necessary, travel health insurance and liability insurance (unless these are cheaper in the guest country in which case the host family takes care of it). Besides maybe a little pocket money, the Grand Mères are rewarded with a wonderful adventure, the chance to learn – and to teach – languages and experience, it’s a enriching give and take.
Many of the Au Pairs are retired teachers, but there are also women who were just housewives for years and do want to experience something new, something exciting after their kids left home (not every Grand Mère is a single lady) – basically the same reasons why the founder of this fantastic project left for Paris in 2009. And the founder herself gets all dreamy sometimes when she liaises between an Au Pair and a lovely family at a particularly alluring dream destination such as Dubai and Daressalaam, like Beijing and Brisbane. But by now Kristin is far too busy making Madame Grand Mère great – by promoting her non profit society, giving interviews, attending conventions – and of course the most challenging part: The placement of Au Pairs into families. That requires very thorough preparation, checking lots of paper work, references etc. The first introduction is anonymous, if both sides are interested, eventually they get further information. It’s very important that things work out and both sides are happy. And besides minor incidents, by now Kristin, the families, and the Grand Parents are elated!
Looking at picture books – the perfect way to increase the vocabulary.
I hope I gave you a good idea of what Madame Grand Mère is all about. I think that especially for people who are a little insecure going to far exotic places all by themselves – and who are at the same time quite curious what these places are really like – this is the perfect way of getting on a trip and spending an extremely rewarding time.
I’d love to hear what you think about this project. And if you know about another extraordinary program, I’d be grateful if you’d let me know. In brief: Keep in touch!
What Hamburg based journalist Meike Winnemuth did when she won 500,000 Euro at the German edition of “Who wants to be a Millionaire?” is just amazing.
Hanging out on a Hawaiian beach – certainly one of the best options to spend a jackpot on.
The question is probably as old as mankind itself – or at least as old as the first episode of “Who wants to be a Millionaire?”, which was broadcasted in September 1998 in England. And since then the population of over 100 countries cries “me, me, pick me!” when this question arises.
Meike Winnemuth probably did not cry loud enough, since on October 11, 2010 she became only a semi-millionaire. However, I’d trade her in a blink of an eye. Not only for winning a lot of money, nor simply for going on a trip for a year. What impresses me and makes me all dreamy is how she did it.
Meike Winnemuth – travelling light
Maybe it’s because Meike Winnemuth wasn’t a teenager anymore, or maybe it were her German genes that made her not just leaving with a half empty backpack to walk mother earth in a pair of Birkenstocks. She had a very clear concept, very organized luggage, a perfect plan. This way, in my eyes, she took her opportunity and made the best of it – she made her trip a lasting and sustained experience.
Winnemuth’s plan was to actually live in twelve cities in twelve different countries over twelve months. Living meant not staying at a hotel and hanging out on the beach. Living meant renting a flat from the 1st of each month till ultimo. Living meant filling the fridge with groceries bought at the local market. Living meant having an everyday’s life. Since Meike Winnemuth has been a journalist forever, and writing and publishing nowadays is possible from basically everywhere, she kept on writing and she kept her readers up to date on her travel blog (exclusively in German).
Where did she go and why did she pick precisely the places she picked? Well, she picked the places a bit willy-nilly – places she has been before, places she always wanted to see, one place because she couldn’t make it to the one she initially picked et cetera. So she went to Sydney, Buenos Aires, Mumbai, Shanghai (that’s the one she had to switch because she didn’t want to go to Tokyo after the nuclear accident in Fukushima), Honolulu (hence the first picture of this post), San Francisco, London, Copenhagen, Barcelona, Tel Aviv, Addis Abeba, and Havana. What by the way inspired me the most, is that, getting home to Hamburg from Latin America at the end of her adventure, instead of buying a plane ticket, she took a freight ship back to the old world like customary back in the old days. Being the only passenger during the passage that took 12 days, she celebrated Christmas and New Year only with the Polish crew. Awesome! I wanna do that, too!
So all the places listed and visited are fine and dandy – but what are you doing an entire month there? Well, besides a lot of pondering and reflecting about life in general and hers in particular, she did some writing and she learned many things like dancing and stitching and stand up paddling, to mention just a few.
How I know all this? Because besides blogging, at the end she wrote a wonderful book called something like “Hitting the Jackpot”. Every chapter – dedicated to one city – is written as a letter to families, friends, an ex-lover and – and that’s particularly sweet and charming – to a younger version of herself. At the end of every chapter, i. e. letter, she adds a list of ten things that she has learned at that respective place. Usually – and especially after every blogger out there feels the urge to put one together – I can’t stand these stupid, useless lists “the best 10 this” or “the hundred coolest that” – please, spare me! But hers make actually sense insofar as they cut each stay and all her entertaining stories down to an extract of clear facts.
At the end of her wonderfully written book, Meike Winnemuth explains how she prepared and organized her trip and gives some advices. Basically the way I do it in this very blog.
My favorite part is where she describes the stylish yet sensible collection of clean cut, matching, tailor made co-ords she packed. For her, reducing her luggage to only few pieces of garment wasn’t too hard: You should know that two years before her twelve-twelve-twelve-adventure, she did an self-experiment by wearing the same blue dress for a year – and blogged about it.
But that Great Project of this Great People should be the topic of another post.
This is the wonderful book where Meike Winnemuth describes in her entertaining way how she lived during twelve months at twelve cities in twelve different countries. Unfortunately it’s only available in German*; big mistake!
*This is an affiliate link. By purchasing items through my affiliate links at no extra cost to you, I will receive a small commission that helps to run this site.
The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.