Germany - May, 2001
No doubt I'm forgetting a lot of stuff. We spent most of the three weeks on the move, experiencing stuff until, as our German friend put it, our impression receptacles were overflowing. I had foreseen this problem and had taken my laptop along, planning to add to this trip report every day, while memory was fresh. I had also intended to write lots of fiction every evening. Ha, ha, ha. Good intentions.
The Flight There
Friday, May 11. The trip began on an alarming note. Lufthansa pilots struck on Thursday, as well on the previous Thursday. The strike was only supposed to affect flights originating in Germany, but the result was chaos in German airports, so Lufthansa canceled both the one daily flight from Frankfurt to Denver, and the one daily flight from Denver to Frankfurt. So most of Thursday's passengers, including Germans anxious to get home, were at the airport in Denver hoping to squeeze their way onto Friday's flight. Tired people, upset children, frantic Lufthansa employees. Somehow, almost everyone got on, although for a few minutes Leonore and I thought we were about to be bumped. We had booked seats together, but everything got shuffled, so we ended up across the aisle from each other.
The Airbus A34whatever is a large, spiffy new plane, but this one became just another flying sardine can, albeit one manufactured on a different continent than the sardine cans I've flown in before. It was also very hot throughout the nine-and-a-half-hour trip. -81 degrees F outside the plane, according to the monitors in the front of the cabin. We could have used some of that air inside. There was the requisite screaming baby a couple of rows ahead of me. In the row in front of Leonore, there was a young German mother with two incredibly lively kids, a boy and a girl, about 5 and 6. They played vigorously and loudly up and down the aisle for almost the whole trip (flight attendants smiling at them with gritted teeth as they tried to maneuver their carts without crushing a kid), then inevitably wore out at the very end and were both unconscious when it came time to leave the plane at Frankfurt. Their mother looked about as tired as I've seen a human being look.
In spite of all of that, Lufthansa treated us well. The (bilingual) flight attendants were uniformly pleasant, and not in the gratingly artificial way I've come to loathe on American airlines. This was more that reserved but congenial European politeness that the European part of me likes. Of the two meals, one was very good, the other was mediocre. The frequently replenished cocktails and wine with dinner were all free, as was the after-dinner cognac or Bailey's. I don't know why the free alcohol impressed me so much, particularly since I didn't have any of it except for the cognac; maybe it's the contrast with the mean-spiritedness that's infected the American flying-sardine-can companies in recent years.
Got to Frankfurt, got off, got our luggage. Lots of English everywhere, no surprise there, but I wouldn't have been able to find my way by myself. I was very glad that Leonore speaks German so well. I think the Germans she asked directions of were too. After much renovation, there's now a pedestrian bridge connecting the airport to both the regional and long-distance railway stations in Frankfurt. Lots of signs. Lots of those looooong European escalators. Lots of serious people on a mission. And it was disappointingly hot and humid. And nothing is airconditioned. We're decadent and spoiled and soft and self-indulgent, and damn it that's the way I like it. But we got the right train for Muenster, which is what counts.
Despite the heat and the decrepitude of that particular train, the trip was a delight. The tracks run alongside the Rhine for a good part of the way. "Look, a castle!" "Wait, look over there! Another castle!" "No, over there!" "No, over there, that one's even better!" And so on. Mein lieber Gott! So many castles! Some ruined, some magnificent, some converted to hotels. There were also some tacky restaurants along the river, with drawings of knights and named Graf This or That. The towns and cities and villages along the way were charming. All in all, a magical stretch. A young man on the train, who knew we were Americans without our having said a word, came up to us, asked us (in almost perfect English) how far we were traveling, and told us that the stretch from Mainz to Koblenz is the most beautiful part of the German railroad system. He showed us how to pull out the little seats in the corridor so that we could see everything in comfort and told us to be sure to look down as well as out, to get the full benefit of the view. He got off at Mainz, right after the start of the trip, but we followed his instructions.
I also bought a beer on the train. It was okay, but more to the point, it was my first real German beer in Germany. Very important.
For much of the trip, we shared the cabin with a German woman of about our own age, who was very friendly and talked happily with Leonore in German while I stood in the corridor, trying not to miss anything at all, no matter how minor.
Arrived in Muenster, where our friend Rolf Ueffink met us at the train station and drove us to his apartment, where we dumped our stuff and then set out to stroll around the town and stay awake until an appropriate time to go to bed in terms of local time. That's the way to avoid jet-lag - go to bed on local time, not your hometown time. All the visual stimulation helped us stay awake. It's all so foreign! They all speak a foreign language! Lookit all that beer!
Muenster was our home base for this vacation. Rolf lives in a new condo near the heart of downtown. He's visited us numerous times in Denver, staying for a few weeks at a time, and for years he's been eager for us to spend a few weeks with him. We hope he didn't come to regret his hospitality. Which was remarkable. He's also a great cook and had stocked up on German beers just for me. Oh, yes, and he also drinks a lot of tea and has numerous teapots in his kitchen, so having lots of good cups of my other favorite beverage was an easy matter.
Muenster is an almost unbearably charming town. Every curving medieval street is another picture-postcard view. It was hard to make much progress during our strolls, because I kept stopping and gawking and insisting that Leonore look at that! Of course, the locals don't pay any attention to any of it, as locals usually don't.
Muenster has a population of about 240,000. Of those, about 55,000 are students, mostly at the city's ancient university but also at the technical school. Bicycles are everywhere, incredible numbers of them. It's not just the students riding them, either. People of every age ride bicycles. Every sidewalk is half bike path, denoted by red bricks, and you'd best not walk on the red bricks because the cyclists will ride right over you. Especially if you're standing still and gawking at something. That's generally true in Germany, but you really notice it in Muenster. One of Rolf's friends hypothesized that it's the combination of being near the Dutch border and the land being so flat that makes Muenster so bicycle oriented. Next to the train station, there's a new multi-level underground parking lot - for bicycles. Looked full to me.
What strikes a guy from the western U.S. most of all, perhaps, is that these cities are based on the model of the village square, with narrow streets leading from one square to another, whereas Denver and other such newish Western cities had their street grids laid out first and then the buildings planted along them. The resulting visual difference is night and day. Or maybe charm and not-charm. I'd hate to have to drive in Muenster, though. Actually, it's more accurate to say that the old German cities have grown outward from the original walled town, so the streets tend to be spokes radiating out from the center and concentric arcs centered on the old city center (which usually means the cathedral, the Dom). It can be disconcerting if you've grown up with a grid system and right angles. You think you know where this street will take you, but it doesn't. Try to remember that all roads lead to Dom.
There are little restaurants and bierstube everywhere. Beer everywhere, and everywhere a different beer. And they're all good. I should know. So it doesn't really matter if the street doesn't go where you think it should and you get lost. Relax. Have a beer.
Okay, if you want to be pedantic, even Denver started out as a small town that wasn't laid out on a North/South/East/West grid, so the oldest part of town is different from all of the rest. But after a certain point, a grid system was established, and it was followed from that point on, whereas a lot of (most?) German cities tend to retain the original radial/concentric system even as the city grows.
In Muenster (also in Bremen and elsewhere), the old city wall has been made into a tree-lined pedestrian and bicycle "promenade", and the moat that was just beyond the wall is now a park that goes around much of the old city. In Bremen, parts of the old moat are still filled with water, resulting in little lakes.
Everywhere, we were struck by the non-Puritanical frankness and acceptance of the human body, from nudes in ads in shop windows and on TV, to sex shops scattered about, to female mannequins with very visible nipples in fashionable shop windows. The children! My God, what is this doing to the children? Nothing, apparently, based on what one can see. The same applies to the beer, which is sold right next to churches and cathedrals, and sometimes (as in Cologne) is named after the cathedral. The nation has not yet collapsed.
Speaking of beer, we met a lot of Rolf's friends, and they all hastened to offer me beer. What had he told them about me?
In general, despite all the cheese and beer and wine, in the north the people are fit, slender, and very modish. Leonore kept saying she felt fat and frumpy. Fortunately for me, I'm a guy, so I felt just fine. Beer! Wurst! Cheese! Friendly, attractive people! What a wonderful country! If only there were fewer smokers and more airconditioning.
The people were also rather tall. That didn't bother me because I'm used to being shorter than most of the people around me. I actually found it more disconcerting in France, where I was tall. Looking over the heads of the crowd in the Paris Metro was strange and unnerving. Convenient, though.
One group of people was particularly tall. While we were in Muenster, the annual convention of an international tall people's club took place there (it moves around from city to city, country to country). When we saw someone unusually tall looking a bit lost and consulting a map, we assumed that was a club member. We had known about the club and its convention ahead of time because one of Leonore's language students, Carolyn, is a member and was there for the convention, so we spent part of a day with her, walking around, looking at stuff, museuming, eating at an excellent restaurant, and in the case of one of us drinking some beer.
Our time in Muenster overlapped a big city fair, the Eurocityfest, which we spent some time walking around in. Booths, bands, enormous crowds. Not the sort of thing either of us particularly enjoys. We preferred the weekly market, which we went to one Sunday morning. We got there a bit late - tourist time rather than native time. The freshest stuff was gone by then, Rolf said, and the crowds of gawking tourists (German tourists, in this case) were dense. Natives know to go there early in the morning, get the good stuff while the air is cool, the vendors are fresh and friendly, and the crowds are light, and then the natives go to a nearby restaurant for a nice Sunday breakfast while the tourists begin to pack into the area.
One of the pleasantest things we did was have a guided tour of the old city. The guide was Christa, a friend of Rolf's, who had just qualified as a city guide and used us as her first English-language guinea pigs. One of the places she showed us was the room where the Treaty of Westphalia was signed, ending the Thirty Years War. Later that same year (anyone? anyone? Bueller? 1648!) the treaty establishing the independence of the Netherlands from Spain was signed in the same room. When we were finished with the tour stuff, we all went to a Mexican restaurant for dinner and, in the case of one member of the party, much beer.
Monday, May 14th, was Bremen day. We took the train from Muenster. It's a trip of just over an hour through very flat, very rich, very prosperous farm country with the occasional town or city along the way. Everything looked so clean and well-maintained. Just like the people.
Bremen is about twice the size of Muenster, with an even more interesting history (part of the Hanseatic league, a high degree of autonomy granted to it by Charlemagne and it has held on to that autonomy fiercely, now a separate city-state, the smallest state in the federation, a Lutheran city), and it has an appropriate sense of big-citiness and bustle compared to Muenster. More intriguing, more fascinating, more noisy, less charming. Of course we saw the statue of the town musicians of Bremen, the giant statue of Roland, the insides and outsides of famous buildings (too late to get inside the Rathaus, though), the river walk, wandered around in the Schnoor (the medieval city), and so on. We also had a wonderful meal (with a certain amount of a local beer) in a very nice, shady outdoor restaurant surrounded by university buildings and filled with students (another ancient university, no doubt; I didn't bother asking).
This was Rolf's first time in Bremen, surprisingly. He loves it and wants to go back. He thinks it's more colorful and interesting than Muenster. Muenster is Catholic, Bremen Protestant, and Rolf insists that Bremen is literally more colorful than Muenster and that the religious difference is the reason. Actually, I thought Muenster was more colorful.
We spent the day with Scott, a former language student of Leonore's from Denver who now lives in Bremen and teaches English. Denverites! They're everywhere!
We got back to Muenster in time for Leonore and Rolf to attend a Spanish conversation group that Rolf and his friends go to regularly. So Leonore got to speak all three of her foreign languages on this trip, although obviously she spoke German most of all. I stayed behind in Rolf's condo. Read a bit. Wrote a bit. Drank some beer.
On Tuesday, May 15th we did Hamburg. Moving up in size, you see. Hanseatic city, still a great booming port city, at one time Germany's largest city, nowadays has the largest number of millionaires per capita in the country. Very bustling, busy, determined, but still polite and friendly. One Web site I looked at says that the citizenry are known for their gentlemanly politeness and says that this may be due to Hamburg's long history of trading with England. Or maybe to the city's cold, drizzly weather. But this is also the city of the notorious Reeperbahn and naughty St. Pauli district.
Actually, what struck me about the Reeperbahn was how tame it was and how many nice restaurants there are amidst the sex shops, frequented by well dressed bourgeoisie. Shocking, I say. What about the children? Moral fiber? Sodom and Gemorrah? Blah, blah, blah.
There's far too much to see in a city of such size and age. Next time, we'll spend a few days there. This time, we contented ourselves with a harbor tour and then a bus tour around the city, plus some driving and walking around, guided by Rolf's brother, Ansgar, who lives just outside the city and spent the day with us. Capped it off with a wonderful meal at a ritzy restaurant overlooking the harbor. With beer, of course.
One of the things Ansgar was eager to show us was the old car elevator used for travel through a tunnel under the Elbe. This was built early in the 20th Century and is still in use. You walk into an elaborately decorated tower in the middle of a parking lot and suddenly find yourself at the top of a staircase that winds around the tower's inner wall, heading downwards for roughly one million miles. Look over the railing, and there it is - a drop of one million miles. Perfect for an acrophobe like me.
So we walked down the staircase and eventually reached the bottom. Fortunately, it was only a half million miles, after all. At the bottom, you're at the start of twin tunnels, for traffic in two directions. The tunnels head off into the darkness, under the Elbe. Perfect for a claustrophobe like me.
Cars were heading into and out of the tunnels. So were bicyclists and pedestrians. The tunnels debouch into an open space, on the opposite side of which are a bunch of humongous elevators - car elevators. An attendant directs the cars until a given elevator is full (two cars per elevator, if I'm remembering correctly), then closes the door, and the elevator ascends. People and bicyclists can crowd in beside the cars and ride to the top, as we did. Or you can start at the top and ride down to the bottom.
Ansgar is fascinated by this old elevator system and seems to think it's one of the highlights of the city and something no tourist should miss. By George, he's right!
Part of the harbor is a free port which contains a huge complex of warehouses, brick buildings many stories high, standing on thousands of oak pilings. During the harbor tour, the tour boat goes down a long canal between some of the buildings - quite an amazing sight, and you can stare at the oak pilings and wonder how they're able to support that vast weight of brick and concrete and when will the pilings give way and will it be before the boat reaches the end of the canal. A lot of the warehouses are used by Oriental-rug businesses, and at the right time of year, you can see zillions of rugs hung out of the windows to air, but we weren't there at the right time of year. The boat pilot claimed that it's important to go down that canal on a tourist boat, because the people in the offices in the warehouses like to throw things down on any other kind of private boat - apple cores, stale bread, bricks. Perhaps he was just saying that to spice up the tour, although thinking about those pilings was spice enough for me. I guess I'm an oakpilingsbearingimmenseweightsaphobe.
Historical note alert: Hamburg's special status as a free port dates to 1189, when Emperor Frederick Barbarossa granted the city privileges in a letter. Hamburg held onto those privileges jealously and on the basis of that letter negotiated a special deal for itself when it joined the German Empire in the 19th Century. Modern historians, looking at the letter again, have cast doubt on the authenticity of Fred Barb's signature; apparently, he had already left for the Crusade on which he was destined to die when he was supposed to signing that letter. To which I suppose modern Hamburgers could say, "It's too late now!"
The city tour by bus took us over quite a bit of the city, including around the Outer Alster. This is a very large lake within the city formed by the damming of a river (the Alster?). The lake is actually in two parts - the smaller Inner Alster (Binnenalster) and the much larger Outer Alster (Aussenalster). The area surrounding the Outer Alster is chock full of extremely expensive and quite lovely residential areas. The western shore especially has what used to be the homes of many of the great shipping magnates of earlier generations. Most of those giant houses are now foreign consulates - more in toto than in Washington, DC, according to the tour guide. One of them, a sprawling white mansion, is the American Consulate, called The White House, of course. The British Consulate, nearby, is more subdued, sedate, and has a lovely garden. Perhaps one could find examples of other national stereotypes embodied in their consulates if one looked. Anyway, we decided that we'd like to have one of our many houses in that general area, while we're fantasizing about a superwealthy future.
Thursday, May 17th through Monday, May 21st were set aside for France, including traveling to and from. Rolf accompanied us; it was his first trip to France.
We took the train from Muenster to Frankfurt, where we transferred to a Thalys train to Paris. It's a nice trip. The train stops at Aachen and Brussels and lets you see quite a range of countryside and city and townscapes. Thalys is a high-speed train service run jointly by the Dutch, Belgian, French, and German railroad systems. Crews are multilingual, and so are announcements, and the trains are pretty slick. Unfortunately, the English of the crews and the announcers is incomprehensible. The German passengers on the train seemed to derive much amusement from the English announcements, giggling and asking each other if that was really supposed to be English.
The Thalys arrived at the Gare du Nord, but we had reservations on a regional train to Normandy that left from a different train station, Montparnasse Vaurigard. Real soon. And the Thalys arrived late in Paris. So we rushed out, hauled our luggage up and down immense escalators (fell down one, cut my shin, lasting memento of trip) and along corridors amidst construction work and evening rush hour crowds of grumpy commuters. Found the right Metro train. Traveled in hot, crowded Metro train to Montparnasse Vaurigard. Arrived at Montparnasse V. Found platform. Hiked a mile or two. Got on train seconds before it was due to pull out.
We found ourselves in a car filled with children on their way back to various small towns from a group outing in Paris. Leonore spent a large part of the trip chatting with them in French, telling them about America, listening to them demonstrate their English to her ("Baa, baa, black sheep, have you any wooool?"). She and the kids were laughing a good deal of the time. I spent my time staring out the window. The French countryside wasn't as beautiful as I remembered; I think that's because I had seen so much of the even more beautiful northern German countryside during the preceding week.
We got to Argentan, where Leonore's sister, Cathy, and Cathy's husband, Didier, picked us up and took us to their house. They live in the countryside in Normandy, in a huge house that was once a mill on a huge property with lots of huge trees, a pond, a creek, birds, frogs, snakes. I don't think any of the snakes are huge. We spent Friday, Saturday, and Sunday with them, although that included day trips for sightseeing purposes. One day Cathy took us three tourists to see Mont St. Michel and St. Malo, a walled medieval city.
This was my second time for both Mont St. Michel and St. Malo, and I liked both just as much as before. We walked along the walls in St. Malo, once around the city, admiring the spectacular view, and then had an outstanding dinner in a small restaurant in the town.
The next day, Cathy drove us to Caen, partly to have lunch at a Persian restaurant there that she likes a lot and partly so that we could stroll around the main shopping district, which is apparently something that people who live in small towns in Normandy like to do when they can get to Caen. Last time we where in France, we did the medieval stuff at Caen, and I had hoped we'd be able to do that again. William the Conqueror, I mean to say. Talk about your weight of ancient and fascinating historical stuff! But I guess native Normans aren't as fascinated with Norman history as we outsiders are. So instead we watched contemporary Caenanites, or whatever the right word is.
I think it was after we got back from Caen that we went to Carrouges, a beautiful moated castle. Last time, Leonore and I borrowed one of Cathy and Didier's cars and drove to Carrouges ourselves (and found both the castle and the way back!), but we got there too late for the guided tour of the interior and spent the time in the gardens instead. This time, we were in time for the last tour and so got to see the nifty interior. The great storms in Normandy last year had knocked down a lot of the huge, old trees on the estate, sadly, so the gardens are no longer as grand as they were before.
Monday, May 21st was the return trip to Germany. Basically the same as the trip to France, but in reverse. Fortunately, we didn't hit Paris at rush hour this time, so the trains and stations were less crowded and the crowds far less grumpy.
Burlo, Holland, Rees, and Father Rhine
There being no rest for the weary, the wicked, or the touring, on Tuesday, May 22nd we drove from Muenster to Burlo, a small town where Rolf's parents live. This is right by the border with Holland. Rolf took a winding route to show us various unspeakably scenic and charming small towns along the way. We also went briefly through Rhede, where Leonore attended a language school twice before, so that I could see the school.
Rolf's parents greeted us warmly and had beer ready for me.
Properly refreshed, we jumped on bicycles and cycled through lovely woods along shaded paths into Holland. The plan was to visit a farm where they make and sell cheese and have a small restaurant. It's apparently popular among the locals - cycle through the beautiful countryside, spend an hour or two nibbling Dutch cheese and drinking Dutch beer, then cycle back home. Alas, the place was closed when we got there, so all we could do was stare hungrily through the windows at shelf upon shelf of giant wheels of cheese. Also, I got to revive faint hints of my Afrikaans by puzzling out some of the signs. (Actually, I did better with the signs I saw from the Thalys in the Flemish part of Belgium; I had expected that, because Afrikaans, or so I've read, descends more from Flemish than from Dutch.)
Got back to Rolf's parents' house, had more beer.
The next day, Rolf, his father, Leonore, and I drove to the Wasserburg Anholt, a magnificent moated castle which Leonore remembered fondly from a previous trip and very much wanted me to see. We skipped the grounds and went on a long, guided tour of the interior. What a place! The aristocratic family that owns it still lives in part of it and has converted yet another part into a hotel. We'd love to stay there, but judging from the kinds of cars we saw driving into that part of the grounds, we couldn't afford to.
Got back in the car, drove to Rees, a small town. Rolf and his father had wanted to show us the walk along the Rhine at Rees, but it turns out the walk is temporarily nonexistent because of a huge levee project now underway. There's been bad flooding along that part of the Rhine, and the levees are meant to contain the floodwaters. When they're done, the tops of the levees will be the new riverwalk. So we walked into the old town and went up on the old city walls, on which you can now stroll around the city. We could also look down at some archaeologists at work; apparently, the levee work has exposed interesting ruins.
The city street just within the walls, which you can look down on as you walk, is called Am Baer - At the Bear. Odd name, you might think. Along the walls, we encountered a statue of a man in a vaguely 17-Century military uniform wearing a bear skin. A plaque explains that, during the Netherlands' fight for independence from Spain, Rees was on the border between the two forces, and the Spaniards had heavily fortified it to guard against incursions by the Dutch. One Spanish commander, to test the courage of his men, killed a bear, dressed himself in its hide, climbed up on the wall, and then walked about roaring and making threatening gestures. All of his men threw down their weapons and ran for their lives - all but one, who bravely stood his ground and shot and killed the "bear". The plaque doesn't say what happened to that one brave man.
After a bit, we stopped off at a restaurant opening onto the old wall and had a leisurely meal (and beer) and watched the Rhine flow by. Barges, barges, ferries, tour boats, more barges, etc., flying the flags of quite a few European nations. Gee, it's a big river, especially by Colorado standards. "Father Rhine", a lot of Germans apparently still call it. On a Dutch barge that passed, the area behind the pilot's cockpit had been converted into a fenced playground for the pilot's kids, who were swinging back and forth happily and very vigorously on a swing set.
We drove back to Muenster that evening.
We did Cologne on Friday, May 27th. Cologne is yet another city that one would have to spend many days in to tour it adequately, but it's also another city that we could only allocate one day to. We drove there from Muenster and to the house of a friend of Rolf's, a young mother who's taking advantage of Germany's extraordinary maternal leave provisions to stay home with her little girl, Hannah. The five of us then took the "tram" - what we'd call light rail - from their house to downtown. We walked along the Rhine for quite a way, gawking at stuff, and through the old city, gawking at stuff, and around and then into the famous cathedral (largest in Europe, and rather too big for my taste), gawking at stuff, had some food (and beer), gawked at stuff some more. Hannah was wearing out by that time, so her mother took her home, and Rolf, Leonore, and I gawked some more. Leonore had particularly wanted to show me the German-Roman Museum, which she had seen on a previous trip and which is chock full of stuff from the days when the area was a Roman colony (Cologne's original name was Colonnia), but we got there just a few minutes after the place closed. Fortunately, a lot of the Roman stone stuff is outside, so I was able to gawk at that, and we were also able to look through the museum's windows and do some more gawking. Next time, we'll see the inside properly.
After which, the three of us found a frightfully tony restaurant in a frightfully tony hotel and had a fine, fine meal, accompanied in my case by a few glasses of Koelsch, a local specialty. (Is it a beer? I think so. But rather light and a bit sweet. After a few sips, you forget the sweetness and become aware of the charming flowery fragrance and body.) Next time we're there, we think we'll stay in that hotel.
We went back to Rolf's friend's house, by which time her boyfriend, Hanna's father, was home. We had a nice long conversation (well, I listened), they offered me much more Koelsch, and then we drove back to Muenster.
We had to check in at the airport in Frankfurt at 11 a.m. on Friday, June 1st, and it's about a four-hour train trip from Muenster, so we decided not to get up in the wee hours. Instead, we took the train to Mainz on Thursday, June 31st. Mainz is a smallish city (190,000 people) outside Frankfurt (20 minutes by train), and the Frankfurt airport is actually about midway between Frankfurt and Mainz. Moreover, a language student of Leonore's, who had spent a lot of time in Mainz, praised it highly for its charm, which is something Frankfurt is notorious for not having.
We had reserved a room for the night at a hotel recommended by Let's Go Germany, a budget traveler's guidebook. Charming hotel, right near the Rhine, across from the Rathaus, Cuban restaurant in the building, short walk from the railroad station. Says the book.
So we decided to walk instead of taking a cab. Short walk? Ha! Not under the best of conditions, and especially not when you're both loaded down with lots of luggage and it's hot and sunny and humid. We did get to see a fair bit of Mainz along the way, although we weren't in the best mood for appreciating it. Also, the map in the book was truly cruddy, and Mainz, in the best European tradition, needs a LOT MORE HIGHLY VISIBLE STREET SIGNS!!!
It really is a charming city, though. We stopped for a long rest in Schiller Platz, which gave Leonore an opportunity to take some pictures of the big statue of Schiller, who's long been one of her faves. He sure did look like a poet, to judge from the statue.
The hotel was indeed right near the Rhine, and after signing in we spent a short time walking along the river. Maybe the hotel was indeed once a charming place to stay. But nowadays, the street in front of it, which our room overlooked, is full of noisy traffic all night long. And that Cuban restaurant is a happenin' place, with laughter and loud music until around 2 a.m. We probably managed an hour's sleep total. Between the two of us, I mean.
We could tell ahead of time how noisy (oh, yes, and hot) the room would be, so we girded our loins by walking around the city a lot on Thursday afternoon and into the evening. We tried one charming side street and found a Bavarian restaurant filled with friendly, rotund south Germans, amazingly good food and really, really good wheat beer, and had supper there. Leonore had a long conversation with a man at the next table, who was waiting for his girlfriend? wife? to show up and was eager to tell us where to stay the next time we were in Mainz and what to see.
Later, I was waiting across the street for Leonore, and a young man approached me and said something in German that I didn't understand. "Leider spreche ich kein Deutsch," I said, proud of myself. "You're English?" he said immediately. "American?" "American." He launched into a sales pitch, in adequate English, for a multilevel marketing scheme headquartered in Utah. Sheesh.
The next morning, we had breakfast at the hotel (included in the fee was a "typical American breakfast", if you consider rolls and cold cuts typically American) then went out for a quick stroll around Mainz. We had hoped to have time to go into St. Stephens to see the blue stained-glass windows designed by Mark Chagall, but we couldn't manage it. (Okay by me, actually. I think stained-glass windows are kinda creepy.) We saw quite a bit more of the Cathedral from the outside. It's a stunning reddish building with intriguing statues in various places on the roof. Much more to my taste than the monster in Cologne. I do wish we'd had time to go inside. Next time ...
Mainz is another former Roman city, and it also has a Roman-Germanic museum. Maybe next time we'll skip Cologne and spend a few days in Mainz.
One of Mainz's most famous citizens was Johannes Gutenberg, whom all writers should revere. We didn't have time to do the Gutenberg Museum either, alas - and a sign outside it seemed to be saying that it was about to close permanently, aargh! In front of the museum, there's a low-key fountain with some benches and a bunch of stone cubes, about three feet (okay, probably one meter) on a side. Each face was carved to look like a letter from the old alphabet, so that the blocks looked like blocks of type from Gutenberg's time. Cute. On the other side of the open space, facing the museum, is an immense statue of the man himself.
This open area is part of a larger pedestrian area in front of the Cathedral. On Friday morning, we found it filled with food vendors and flower stalls and jammed with people. It made us all the more reluctant to leave the city, but we had no choice, so we got a taxi from the hotel (not only was the supposedly short walk from the train station not short, it had also been downhill, so going back would have been uphill, ack). The taxi driver was happy to give us recommendations for better hotels in Mainz.
And so on to Frankfurt airport and away.
The Flight Home
More chaos in Frankfurt airport and with Lufthansa because of the pilots' strike. More overbooking and reassigned seats, with us being assigned to separate rows despite our having reserved adjoining seats days in advance, although this time we were able to get ourselves rereassigned to adjoining seats. This time, both meals were mediocre, the flight attendants were less completely bilingual and also less friendly, and everything was generally less well organized and more on the edge of chaos. Same Airbus plane, still a nice aircraft, and this time it was cooler. Nonetheless, we'll try British Airways for our next trip to Europe. (BA and Lufthansa are currently the only ones flying nonstop between Denver and Europe.) The second time through, we also found Frankfurt airport poorly laid out and frazzle inducing. No, not all big airports are like that, although admittedly most of them seem to be.
A.K.A. asparagus. The specialty of the area of Germany we spent most of our time in is a kind of white asparagus that is only available for a couple of weeks or so, which happened to coincide with the time we were there. It's kept underground so that it remains white, then it's harvested, peeled, cooked, and served with butter, ham, and potatoes. And it's yummy - which I say even though I don't like standard green asparagus.
It was everywhere. In the outdoor markets, in restaurants, on the table when we were invited to people's houses.
Goes well with beer, too.
Young Germans sneer at traditional German food nowadays. They prefer the various ethnic cuisines you find in abundance everywhere - Mexican, Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Turkish, Lebanese, etc. The Mexican food is a far cry from the Tex-Mex stuff that's standard here in the U.S. Southwest - lighter, healthier, tastier, more sophisticated. Durn, shore do wish we could get grub like thet in these here parts!
Fortunately, all those ethnic restaurants serve many types of fine German beer.
The Exchange Rate
Was wonderfully in our favor, this time. The last time we were in Europe, 11 years, ago, the dollar was low against the major European currencies, so we felt like the poor country cousins. This time, we were the rich visitors. We spent, we splurged, we treated everyone, we tipped handsomely, and still it cost us far less than we had expected. We may have actually saved money by going abroad. It was a taste of the good life.
German doors are impressive. They tend to be higher and wider than American or French doors (Germany has higher ceilings, in general), and they're heavier, but they swing smoothly and they close precisely. I spent an inordinate amount of time checking out doors (possibly being watched suspiciously by Germans who wondered what I was up to, but if so I didn't notice) in old and new buildings, and they were all fine examples of German engineering. French doors seemed shoddy by contrast and American doors embarrassing except for the expensive ones. Why doors? I don't know, they just seem to symbolize something. Care taken with something minor that gets cavalier treatment in other countries, perhaps.
I wonder what the doors are like in Japan.
North and South
By coincidence, I had with me Elizabeth Gaskell's wonderful novel North and South, which has a lot to say about the social/political/economic/philosophical contrasts between the industrial, bustling north and rural, traditional south of England in the middle of the 19th Century. Which is relevant because we kept running into the anti-southern prejudices of north Germans. Southerners, they told us, are ignorant, prejudiced rednecks. They're fat, they have no clothes sense, and their old-fashioned food is embarrassing. The north is where the action is and where the people are hip, with it, cool, progressive, attractive, cosmopolitan, worldly, multilingual, etc.
Well, actually, we saw some truth in all of that when we were in the South, which in our case was only Cologne and Mainz, not the depths of the South, like Bavaria. Leonore remembers Munich very fondly from her time there 11 years ago, and she has happy memories of the two years she lived in Bavaria. I hope I'll get to see all of that on our next trip. On this trip, though, we did notice that, yes, southerners are heftier, but perhaps that's because they don't seem to smoke as much as northerners. Their lack of clothes sense turned out to mean that they don't worry so much about their ensembles; in other words, they're a bit more like Western Americans when it comes to clothing. What southern food I had was great, although admittedly I wouldn't want to eat it on a regular basis - both for fear of looking like a southern German and of dropping dead real soon. They're friendlier than northerners, a bit less like Europeans and a bit more like Americans.
Oh, I just don't know. I guess it would take months and months spent in all the parts of Germany to come to reliable conclusions. I'll have to work on that.
Effects of Alcohol
All that beer! Am I some kinda lush? I hope not. Years ago, after having lived in Denver for a long time, I discovered on trips to sea-level cities that I could drink vast quantities of beer with no effect at all. Now, this is of no particular value when one is visiting a city in the eastern U.S., where the beer is insipid. But it's a wonderful thing if one is visiting the Pacific Northwest, where the beer is excellent, or Germany, ditto. Daniel and Andrea reported the same thing when they were in the U.K., where the beer is the best in the world.
I suppose this effect is due to more red corpuscles in the blood or something else having to do with oxygen metabolism/oxygen pressure. (People who live at Denver's altitude have about twice as many red corpuscles as those who live at sea level.) No doubt this superpower would go away in time; fortunately, three weeks isn't long enough for it go away or even noticeably diminish. Unfortunately, the effect doesn't magically stay with one when one returns to a high altitude.
Size and Age
The part of South Africa I remember best is the last place we lived, a town called Rustenburg, in the Transvaal, when I was in my early teens. I occasionally rode my bike and walked up to the top of one of the hills on one side of town, where there were the remnants of British forts from the Boer War. More than fifty years old! Wow! Really old stuff, real history! In the town, there was a huge tree stump. Under that tree, Potgieter and Pretorius signed a treaty ending what had been on the way to becoming a civil war between their two bands of Boers during the Great Trek. Wow! That was in the year ... er ... um ... I'll know it in time for the test. Anyway, during the first half of the 19th Century. Why, you could stand in front of that stump and absolutely feel the immense weight of all that ancient history!
Now, this would not impress your average European. However, the vast open spaces in all directions probably would. Such as the fact that from those old British forts you could see Rustenburg down below you in one direction and no towns at all in any other direction. I've always thought of the Ruhr Valley, because of its historical and industrial importance, as a rather large place, but when we drove from Muenster to Cologne and back, I was surprised and a bit disappointed by how quickly we zoomed down into the Ruhr Valley and then back up out of it. I was probably able to see over a far greater distance than that when I stood on the top of one of those hills outside Rustenburg and looked out over a succession of valleys and hills, fading away into the blue air in the distance.
Since 1971, I've lived in Denver, where "ancient history" means about what it did in Rustenburg. This is also an area of vast stretches of open space. Why, you have to go 500 miles to the west before you reach another real city, and that's Salt Lake City, about which we'll say no more. To the east, it's 700 miles, to Kansas City.
When I made a business trip to Boston and Cambridge some years ago, I was astonished and delighted by how close all those famous buildings and places were to each other and how old everything was. But gosh, heck, gee whiz, even that's nothing compared to Europe. Of course I knew ahead of time intellectually that the old cities in Germany are, well, really old. And that stuff is, like, real close together. But knowing that and experiencing it are different things. I was constantly taken aback by both the closeness and the ancientness of everything. Delighted, too. It was a constant high.
But actually, an awful lot of Germany was reduced to rubble by the British and American bombing during the War. Much of what we saw, including the charming center of Muenster was reconstructed after the war to look as much as possible as it had before the bombing. I have to say that learning that took a bit of the edge off the delight. What, you mean this is really a recreation? Disneyland Muenster, kind of? (Albeit with as much of the original material as possible, and with great accuracy and fidelity to what had been.) Not all German cities chose to do this; some built themselves entirely anew instead. Christa told us that she came from one such city (I can't remember the name) and moved to Muenster because her hometown had no charm at all because of the way it had been rebuilt. And yet, and yet ... one could argue that her hometown is more genuine than Muenster. I still haven't decided how I feel about this whole matter. Perhaps it'll take a bunch more trips and lots more walking around the old towns for me to make up my mind.
No, not German politics. Depressing American politics. Everyone we met wanted to talk about the ghastly accession of the abominable Bush. "How could such a great country have put such a terrible man, such an idiot, in charge?" That was the gist of the question we kept getting asked. So we politely reminded everyone that we didn't put him in charge, that Al Gore won the election, and that we had a non-violent coup d'etat by a gang of plutocrats. As patriots, we felt it important to clear that up. And I'm not joking.
No one should underestimate the depth of revulsion and shock on the part of Europeans. I'm not talking about lefties, either. The people we met covered quite a political range, and some of them were fairly conservative.
The influence of English and the English-speaking world on the Continent is not a new phenomenon, of course. One of the many historically interesting sites in Muenster is a building, now a store of some kind, that used to be a hotel. It's famous because Goethe visited the city in the late 1700s on business and had the misfortune of hitting the place while some major religious meeting was going on, so he couldn't get a room anywhere and had to spend the night dozing on a chair in the restaurant in that hotel. There ought to be a sign:
The name of the hotel was The City of London. No connection with London at all, that I could discover, but already more than 200 years ago anything Anglophone was trendy and hip.
Nowadays, the language is everywhere. Advertising, especially, but more than that. Shops have signs saying "Closed" and no sign in German. Words like "center" and "service" have replaced their German equivalents in common use. "Gerhardt's Pizza Service! Echt Italienisch!" I made that up, but it's the sort of thing you do see. "Happy Hour". "Cocktails". "Live-Musik". English is taking over one word and one phrase at a time. Eventually, the Germans will be speaking English and they won't even know it; they'll think it's German.
The younger Germans, though, do speak English, some of them very well. Some of Rolf's friends were making fun of another friend (who wasn't there at the time) for not being able to speak English.
So in time, it should be easy to travel in Germany without knowing much German. Even now, "Noch ein Bier, bitte" is all one really needs to know.
Und So Weiter
Jeez, I know I'm forgetting a lot. There's also quite a bit I remember happily but don't feel I can say much about, such as the excellent performance of Hayden's Creation we saw in Muenster, or the very pleasant afternoon we spent at the home of Rolf's sister, Anne - in yet another shockingly charming and historic small town in a lovely rural setting - and so on and so on. Maybe next time I'll write an even longer trip report than this one.
On the Other Hand
So what did we not like? The smoking, the not drinking (or serving) water, the lack of air conditioning, the social conformity, the class consciousness, the driving too fast, the silly and rigid clothes consciousness. This is done, that is not done; this is the right way, that is the wrong way (God, how I remember all of that from childhood, and how I hated it when I was child!). The plumbing stinks - all too often, literally.
They love things American, but the wrong things, or at best the trivial things. Rap, jazz, hip hop. (Barf!) Baseball caps worn backward. (J. Harvey Christ, turn those damned things around!) They'd be far better off if they forgot all of that and adopted American social and business freedom and flexibility, instead.
I suppose someone who was raised as a Jew and whose mother lost about half her family in the Holocaust can't avoid discussing That Subject in connection with a visit to Germany, so let's get it over with.
My mother grew up in Lithuania. She left before WWII, ended up in England, married an Englishman, and was safe there (except for the bombs, of course) during the war. After the war, she tried to find out what had happened to the part of her family that hadn't gotten out in time but had no success except to determine that, as far as anyone could tell, all the Jews of her village (Nemokst, or something like that) had been killed. Draw your own conclusions.
Certainly no one has the right to tell my mother not to harbor bitterness, even hatred, toward Germans, although I do still resent her trying to instill those feelings in me when I was a child. I will say in her defense that she always praised German as a beautiful language and was happy when I chose to study it in college. For that matter, she seemed to admire pre-Nazi German culture in general, an attitude I assume she absorbed while growing up, since many in her family seem to have spoken German and admired things German in the pre-War years. That hatred and bitterness, though, poisoned her life from the War onwards.
But in spite of her efforts, I never felt the same way. Germany has always fascinated me. Even the Nazis fascinated me. I read about them almost obsessively as a boy and finally sought to deal with the matter by writing an alternate-history novel (Budspy) about a triumphant Third Reich. That did help to get the subject outside myself and make it more objective and less subjective, but the interest remained. So, yes, it was in my mind during this trip. Part of the time, anyway.
While strolling around Muenster's beautiful old section, I saw an interesting-looking remnant of a wall in a short, dead-end street, so I walked over and looked at the commemorative plaque. Turned out that the street is named after the last rabbi of the Muenster Jewish community; he died during the Nazi era. Oops, there it is.
But that's also near a church high up on which are three metal cages. That's where the bodies of Jan van Leiden, the Anabaptist leader, and two of his henchmen were displayed, after they had been tortured to death in 15something. The bodies were never removed. They simply rotted away to nothing, although the Papal Nuncio, who was in Meunster to help negotiate the Peace of Westphalia a hundred years later, wrote home that he could still see some bones in the cages. The torture and death of Jan and his buds was preceded by the overrunning of the city by the army of the local bishop, which resulted in a general slaughter of the citizenry. But then, the same thing had happened years earlier, when Jan and his army had overrun the city. Perspective.
More perspective. The cathedral of Muenster was destroyed during an RAF bombing attack in 1945. It was rebuilt after the war, and there's a cornerstone and a plaque explaining that the cornerstone was a gift from the people of Coventry, England, whose cathedral had been destroyed by a Luftwaffe raid in 1942. The stone is meant to be a symbol of mutual forgiveness and friendship. I found this extraordinarily moving.
Now, none of this would amount to a hill of beans, to borrow a line from America's last legitimately elected president, if Germany were still under the control of the Nazis, or if it had only appeared to change but was, under the surface, still a fascist dictatorship, like the Germany of Budspy. But one of the things that struck me forcefully in the larger cities we visited was the large numbers of Orientals and Africans. I was told that some of them are students, some are there on business, but many, especially the Africans, are political refugees. To all of these people, Germany isn't the country of deadly showers and lampshades made from Jewish skin. Rather, it's the country of economic opportunity, stringent laws against discrimination and fascism, and shelter for those whose own countries are no longer safe. (Yes, it goes too far, from an American perspective, in suppressing neo-Nazi speech, but that's a different debate.)
(Here was an odd experience: Walking around in a crowd in downtown Muenster, I was somewhat aware of two men behind me talking quietly to each other in German. Suddenly, I had a moment of disconnection from reality and remembered lying in bed as a child, hearing adults speaking Yiddish in the next room. A Rod Serlingstein moment!)
Budspy didn't quite manage to exorcise all those Nazi ghosts, or my fascination with them, but the reality of modern Germany did. The Nazi past, awful as it was, pregnant with Lessons for the Future though it may be, is simply the past, and such a small part of the past at that. Germany today is a different and far more interesting country. Compared with the vibrancy of modern Germany and the immense weight of German history, those terrible 12 years recede into their proper place - a ghastly episode, but nonetheless a short one in a long, fascinating, frequently bloody, but still wonderful parade.