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Sandbox > Germany travelogue

Friday, Sept.20 2002

I can't remember if I slept on my last crossing of the Atlantic, but this time I couldn't. I experienced the strange effects of a major west-to-east time change--a night that was both preternaturally long (being sleepless while I am tired) and preternaturally short.

As we arrived in Philadelphia from Denver, it was just sunset up above the clouds. By craning my head in opposite directions, I could see the sun at one end of the sky, and the full moon standing pale and rosy at the other. By the time we took off for Frankfurt, it was full dark, and I was startled by the brightness of the moon as we rose out of the cloud cover ... at first I mistook it for some artificial light. It silhouetted the long, finned wing against the silvery variegation of the cloud floor.

Only once through the night could I see what looked like water, glimmering dimly below the interstitial clouds. I kept intermittent watch as the moon double-timed across the sky until it was lying behind us, and the next time I looked out the window, we were flying into dawn.

Even after a year in Colorado, I still struggle to comprehend the effects of altitude. Where there are high mountains, winter is not a time; it is a place that you can go to. Likewise the dawn. I think of my solstice vigils, waiting for the sun to come ... and then I marvel at the thought of just going out to find it instead. Theology meets technology, to thought-provoking effect.

As the day came on, I happened to look out and see coastline passing under us. I grabbed for the flight map, trying to figure out whether I was seeing the far south tip of Britain or the edge of France (I suspect the latter, but without proof.) I boggled at the thought that I had happened to check the window just as we passed over the coastline of the other side of the ocean, and wondered what the place was like that I was gazing at. For a minute or so, I considered jumping ship once we got to Frankfurt and cutting out to see the transatlantic world; I thought, "I just won't come back." Then, of course, reality returned.

Saturday, Sept. 21, 2002

So much has happened since we arrived yesterday. After Jeremy's relatives Wolf and Christian picked us up at the airport, they drove us back from Frankfurt to Elz, the suburb where they live. I was looking out the windows along the drive and noticing the rolling of the land, and how many farms were visible, and that the flora here seems much the same as in the East at home ... fir trees and maples and so forth.

When we arrived at their (lovely) house, we met Wolf's wife Doris, who had lunch waiting for us: wurst unt brötchen. We dined like kings on the sausage with curry ketchup--a new innovation to me, but one well worth knowing about--and the rolls, which had come from the bakery that morning. We were then whisked off to meet some older relatives (Wolf's parents, perhaps?) in a nearby burg. When we returned, I napped for a few hours before supper (another excellent and filling meal, laden with meat and cream).

Then we all loaded into the cars again and drove to Limburg, just a little way down the highway from Elz. Wolf explained that usually all the businesses are closed in the evenings, but that (for some reason) they were open that night. After parking, we walked past the old city gate and over the river that used to define the city boundary. Limburg has a dom (cathedral) that Wolf said was seven hundred years old. They light it up at night, and the view of it from the bridge was truly stunning--the dom, which is orangey-pink, with multicolored decorations and tall spires like some sort of polychromed castle, was reflected clearly in the still river, as was the full moon. It was like looking at a fairy tale.

We finished crossing the bridge and walked into the city, and the same sense prevailed. The houses are tall, plastered structures with steep roofs and small, deep-set windows. Many of the streets are cobbled ... we climbed one and came into the heart of the old city, which is full of tiny, hilly lanes and half-timbered houses where each floor overhangs the one below on gingerbreaded buttresses. Wolf explained that the houses had mostly been restored in the last twenty years, and I marveled at the careful, artistic paintwork that not only distinguished the timbers from the stucco, but also outlined them and created fictional, curving beams connecting the actual ones. However, the houses' original age was made clear by the girth and crookedness of the timbers.

We wandered around the city for an hour or so, looking into the shops and staring at the architecture. We stopped and drank some apfelwein (apple wine, served with mineral water in it) on a corner and watched the people ... then we climbed up to take a last look at the dom and headed home to bed.

This morning (once Jeremy finally managed to drag me from under the warm duvet) we awoke to a breakfast table laid with several kinds of rolls and an absolute profusion of fixings--meat, cheese, butter, clotted cream, marmalade, nutella, jams, paprika spreading cheese, two kinds of honey, and (get this) Snickers spread. Once we'd stuffed ourselves by sampling everything on offer, we loaded into the cars again--this time headed for Köln.

Jeremy and I were in Christian's car. Cologne is more than a hundred kilometers from Elz, and he covered it at a brisk, 170 kph rate. He said there is no speed limit on their autobahns (highways) and I asked whether there were many accidents. He answered yes but added, with an air that seemed to suggest this fixed the matter, "but the people are not hurt; they are dead."

Sunday, Sept.22, 2002

Some notes on home life here: we have now visited four homes, and I am taken by how lovely they are. Otto and Ellen's house was rather normal (if smoke-filled) but the others have been remarkably tasteful and modern-looking ... what we would probably call swiss style furnishings. Lots and lots of blond wood, skinny brushed steel fixtures, glass doors, parquet floors. Also, for some reason, a profusion of leather living room sets. Wolf and Doris's house also had a scrupulously tended (although not manicured) garden with two tiny, curving koi ponds and beds punctuated by tall clumps of pampas-type grasses.

There are some small differences, too: all the light switches are large toggle pads (a *big* improvement over our switches, I must say), and the toilets have a cunning two-button system instead of a single lever--you push one button to start the flow of water, and another to stop it. It also seems to stop by itself if not monitored, so I'm not exactly sure what the point is, but I bet it is related to water saving ... maybe more water when you need it and less when you don't.

The doors also are designed slightly differently; each door is two pieces--one that fits inside the jamb, and a second, slightly larger one that fits outside the jamb on the inside-opening side of the door, and makes for a complete seal. I cannot at all fathom how the locks work ... they all have what seem to be some kind of key in them, but turning it has no easily discernable effect. I also can't say that I'm fully comfortable with a bathroom door that is made of glass, even if it is delicately frosted! One last note: they don't seem to go for the shower and tub combination. The bathrooms feature a bathtub with shower-hose attachment, and also a dedicated shower cubicle; I know not why.

Monday, September 30, 2002

Today I am on the way home, following the sun over the Atlantic. From the hotel where I woke up this morning to the expected time I'll get home, I have 23 hours of travel. Even our rather fabulous technology can't entirely mask the fact that the planet is on such a grander scale than we.

Some more notes: this trip has made me a believer in the stereotype of "meticulous German engineering". So many things we encountered in our travels were just *better designed* than in the US (or other places I have traveled.) For instance, second class train seats that slid the seat forward as the back reclined, giving one a much more restful position than the familiar American equivalents for no greater intrusion on the space of the person behind one. The train seats also featured built-in laptop plugs, ashtrays, trash containers, and wing pillows. At one of the stations we traveled through, a weight-activated conveyor belt had been installed next to each stairway; you slung your bag onto it as you walked down, rather than hefting it bodily or pulling it down clunk-clunk-clunk after you. I have already mentioned several of the household improvements; another was the flat, quick heating electric stovetops--no crevices or exposed coils, just a smooth surface with the burner areas marked on it, which could be turned off and used as counter space if not needed. It seemed that most everywhere we went, things just *worked* in clear, useful ways. Maybe having these people rule the world wouldn't have been the worst thing ... culturally, they seem to have a knack for usability engineering.

Some of the small differences were more jarring, of course. I couldn't get used to the fact that Germans don't seem to use a top sheet; everywhere except the hotel where we stayed the last night, the bed was covered by simply a duvet--usually two, one for each side. These duvets were thin, decorative material that zipped or buttoned around a changeable inner blanket, usually containing down. I had some trouble, because they were (1) uniformly short, even for me--people here must either stick out of their blankets or not sleep stretched out--and (2) HOT. With no top sheet, one had only a binary choice--really warm blanket or no blanket at all. Consequently, I woke up in a sweat every morning. The pillows, adding to the strangeness, were all *square*: they were as wide as our pillows, but also that long (and again, always down-filled). I kept folding them up so they fit in the space I expected for them.

Jumping back quite a few days, let me pick up the tale of our adventures. We arrived safely in Köln in spite of the Autobahn, and once we had parked we walked up the Rhine toward the Dom. I was struck by the similarity of the broad pedestrian pathway along the river to that along the Seine, and also by the extreme difference of the views they commanded. Köln was bombed out 95% during world war II, so it looks like a modern city, not an historic one. The Rhine is also a working river, and one sees as many coal barges on it as tour boats. Unlike old Paris, no one seems to worry about making Köln beautiful.

We walked up from the river bank to the Dom, Köln's famous cathedral. Apparently it remained unfinished for so many hundred years that the crane standing over its construction site was considered an emblem of the city. On the outside, it looked very much like Notre Dame--the same crazy, frantic gothic ornamentation that aims to please God by obsequious excess--but the elements have been less kind to the Dom, with acid rain turning its carved saints and spires black. Now it is being repaired, and the new pieces are incongruously white alongside their sooty elders.

Inside, there is that same eerie feeling of having ventured into an impossible stone forest filled with sandstone sequoias. The pillars go up and up and up, smooth and branchless, until they blossom into the roof. The stained glass windows were saved from the ruin wrought by the war, and the light coming through them is convincingly divine. As I did in Notre Dame, I lit a prayer candle for Daddy, and it made me feel as if I had summoned him into the place with me, so he could see it too.

After the Dom, we struck out for lunch. Wolf and Doris led us to a restaurant/brauhaus called (for reasons that surely escape me, since it is the word for 'early' in German) Früh. I had wurst with potato salad and Jeremy had grilled wurst with sauerkraut and mashed potatoes. The wurst, for all intents and purposes, pretty much looked and tasted like an extra long, well-made hot dog. The potato salad was tasty but bore no resemblance to the vinegar-based concoction that I have always been introduced to as "German potato salad". In fact, I had no such salad the whole time we were there; perhaps the kind I know comes from the north or east of the country. Jeremy's sauerkraut was simply delicious; the relatives were quick to point out that (they think) Americans believe Germans eat sauerkraut every day when in fact it is only an occasional dish. That as may be, they certainly *make* it better than Americans, because it is much less sour--tasty without making your face pucker. Less vinegar, I take it, and more sugar.

The mashed potatoes were likewise excellent ... I believe there was cream lurking in the mix somewhere. Laura recently wrote email and asked whether I found that Germans ate any vegetables other than potatoes. I'd have to say, pretty much, no. I had a few salads while we were there, but they were very monotonous--just a single variety of field greens and dressing, or just lettuce and tomato. Tomato also showed up in some meals, but beyond that, vegetables were conspicuous by their absence. Potatoes, however, were purely in their glory. I passed a cookbook in one store titled "Kartoffelzeit ist immer!" (trans: "Potato time is always!") and at one dinner where we were furnished with both potato salad AND potato bread, we joked about it being potato day. And the potatoes were *good*--the french fries, the salads, the fried potatoes, the mashed potatoes ... they were all in top form. Still, eventually one (EVEN me) begins to long for a pea or a floret of broccoli to cut the starch a bit.

Of course, we had beer with our lunch. Beer made in Köln is called Kölch, and it is (if this was any example) excellent. Another example of an (apparently) perfectly true stereotype is the excellence of German beers. I feared it would be all horrible thick bocks, because I only like light beers; however, it turned out that they make great "helles" (light) beer that uniformly lacks the awful bitter aftertaste that dogs most american and south american light beers. The beer was just plain tasty and good everywhere we went, and they really do drink it all the time. Snack stands and drink machines sell it, and it appears to be the expected with-meal beverage. Just try getting a glass of plain water in a German establishment!

After finishing lunch, we wandered back through the city (with Wolf repeatedly shooing us Americans out of the unexpected bike-devoted lane of the sidewalk) to the car and headed to the home of Germa--another one of Jeremy's relations, whose exact position in the family tree I never rightly ascertained and who for some unknown reason kept calling Jeremy "Santa Claus". His and his family's house is in an apparently typical suburb veined with tiny streets that are barely wide enough for two cars at the best of times but have a row of parked cars taking up one lane, meaning that drivers have to perform sophisticated and wordless negotiations to determine how each shall be allowed to pass--I can't imagine Americans ever being civilized enough to manage it.

As if unwilling to give up the cobbles idea as a loss after such long use, the builders chose to pave the streets with interlocking concrete tiles that provide a similar look (and a similarly bumpy ride.) The area is hilly, so Germa and Alex's balcony looks out onto the red-tiled roof of the house next door.

While we were there, Alex showed us a large, lavish German-language coffee table book full of pictures of the twin towers before and after September 11. It was interesting to realize how far that event resonated. It was also interesting to listen to all the German family we talked to, who uniformly felt that war with Iraq was simply insane. They seemed relieved to discover that we did also, and that not all Americans were on Bush's hawkish bandwagon. More than one of them said to us, "We have had enough war." Jeremy helped me realize how true that was when he explained that part of the reason we were being welcomed and feted so lavishly by these people was out of a sense of gratitude, because his great grandmother sent care packages of money and food back to Germany after world war II. These relatives are the children and grandchildren of the adults of that time, and Hajo (who was a child after the war) has told Noah that he thinks his family might well have starved without that assistance. Udo talked about honoring the work of his parents' generation, which rebuilt in the wake of the war's extreme destruction and secured for its children the current high German standard of living. No wonder they don't want more war.

It sort of makes me wonder that they seem to feel no animosity towards Americans--not just the family, but the general populace we encountered. I mean, we had a hand in bombing most of their cities into piles of rubble. Maybe the guilt of the current generation about the war, paired with the massive American monetary assistance in rebuilding, has neutralized that. Christian stated that "the British still hate us"--he said that when German children go to Britain for school trips, they are instructed to tell questioners that they are from Switzerland.

I guess there is no surprise in that--some Americans still have issues about the civil war, and that was 150 years ago within a single country. Still, it drives home what the current generations of Germans are living with--they didn't cause the war, but they are still paying reparations for it, still apologizing for it, still known for it, first and foremost, everywhere they go. I was sort of surprised at the willingness among the relatives to discuss the war; I thought they might shy away from it as a shameful subject, but they seemed ready to acknowledge it and their country's acts. I suppose that is probably the only possible way, really. At one point, we were discussing the town that Udo and Sybille live in; one of the main streets is named something that translates to "Jew street". Udo, who grew up in the town, said it was so named because a Jewish family lived there for a long time. Then he paused for a beat and said, "Before the war, of course." I saw only one swastika during my entire trip (except for when I saw the evil nazi villains in an old Doris Day movie that was playing on the tv, dubbed into German); it was carved into the window sill on one of the trains we took. It is always a sort of offensive thing to see, but seeing it there, in Germany, it seemed more so--more offensive, more embarrassing. It was harder to just brush off as the work of some angry idiot kid; one felt as though one ought to cover it over, or something, for the sake of decency.

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