Is German Germaine?
On the way to Germany, I worried, “How could Kevin navigate a motor home in a place where we couldn’t even read the signs.” My stomach began to do flips and gymnastic twirls. “How were going to find the van that was going to drive us to the motor home rental place? I can’t even count in German. I don’t even know the word for yes, etc. What’s the word for exit? Why were we going to Germany if I only knew three words all learned from Hogan’s Heroes?”
Luckily, we were met by a handwritten sign, “KYM” held by a tall longhaired man with a large cowboy hat. I felt like a movie star with her colorful entourage. (Redheads always make a gaudy group.) He spoke English pretty well and hurried us down the autobahn. However, we got to the rental place late and were hurried out the gate with our underwear figuratively hanging out the door of the RV. We headed to a Sparkasse (an ATM in Germany—we think—at least, we always could get money when we found one.) And, this is a reoccurring theme in Germany, found one easily in a charming little town. Then we found a map, directions, nice people, and a restaurant with delicious food and even a menu in English.
Germany won our hearts immediately with great food, great roads, and cleanliness. Gas station restrooms are spotless and bathrooms in even tiny restaurants were beautifully tiled and five star clean. The lush countryside surrounded us without even a stray cigarette butt to mar the experience. We did camp the first night in a Gypsy campground. At least the people came from Hungary and were swarthy skinned. Language barriers made it hard to get the exact details but we smiled a lot and offered each other what we had. We offered them wine. They told us not to use the camp outhouse until tomorrow when the honey wagon would come.
We forgot the camera when we went to Dachau, the concentration camp nearest Munich. However, that kind of evil isn’t exactly picturesque. In fact, visually it was mostly appropriately bland. (The place, however, to Clay and Quinn’s delight, was full of skimpily clad schoolgirls. German girls as a whole were awesomely beautiful. Sausages don’t cling to their thighs like they do to mine.) The crematorium was simultaneously beautiful and horrifying. However, Kevin never even saw it. He was so enthralled that he spent the whole 6 hours in the first building. Having a RV proved useful as the older boys were able to hang out and eat when Kevin was gazing fascinated at unbelievable photos and stories of the horror that had happened within. We barely found him in time to get our autoguides back to the shop by 5.
The next day we headed up the Romantic Road. The road is about 200 miles long and winds through medieval towns and lush meadows to the north and Alpine beauty to the south. We stopped in Nortingen and Quinn decided to move there.
Yes, whether it was the ancient walled town with charming shops or incredible church with a 5 story tower or perhaps the beautiful blonde frauleins who served us crispy pizza smothered in fresh veggies and melted cheese, this place stole Quinn’s heart.
We strolled the wall which encircles the entire town stopping to scoop handfuls of water from medieval fountains.
Discovering grocery shopping European style, I soon purchased a basket to stroll from shop to shop tasting cheeses and breads. Quickly the basket, stuffed with succulent fruits, colorful veggies, long crusty loaves, and wedges of cheese, became part of my camouflage. I not only thought I looked like a local, in my heart I felt like one.
We climbed the church tower and stood hand in hand watching the bells toll the half hour. (We quickly jerked our intertwined fingers apart and pushed them into our ears but it was romantic shoving digits warmed by Kevin into my auditory canals!)
We got to the top and felt like royalty as we gazed regally over the town and out to the far distant mountains.
I know these houses look new but they were built 5-6 hundred years ago. The Germans are just meticulous about upkeep and design. Even their jails look like art. Here the boys are standing outside the local lockup. Note that Clay would have banged his bean if he had been shoved through that doorway.
We drove on to Rothenberg and again fell in love with a town. We didn’t, however, much like the European method of camping—everyone is just jammed as close as possible with wires for hookups running everywhere. There were more people in that ½ acre than there are in all of Salmon Creek. On the other hand, for mere pennies per roll, fresh bread is delivered every morning.
Clay bravely went out that evening to an open air concert. (I bravely did not fling myself around his ankles crying that it was dark and he didn’t speak the language and he would have to walk through deserted roads over a mile to get there). He loved it and stayed until the concert broke up. (Oddly, when he told fellow concert goers that he came from Humboldt, they knew right where it was and welcomed him with cries of, “Big Bud.” Perhaps they knew the American slang for friend. Whatever…he was immediately part of the group. Though they seemed somewhat disappointed he didn’t have a “joint” with him. Mayhap they thought he was a plumber?)
Rothenberg revels in its medieval aura. The town only allows cars between 1 and 3 in the morning. The rest of the time it is all horse, foot and bike traffic. The streets are cobbled and lined with magnificent buildings. Even private doorways look like works of art.
The town had several curiously arched gates and lush gardens.
One of the most amazing parts of the whole trip was how unpopulated tourist spots seemed. We spent hours in a large museum here that housed incredible collections of medieval weapons and whole rooms, including ceilings and floors, from medieval mansions. Yet, other than a curator that occasionally slid in and out of view we saw almost nobody.
Unfortunately, a little misunderstanding between Malachi and Quinn (I’m carefully not taking sides here) led to dropping the camera and our pictures occasionally began taking on a surreal lavender tint.
(Goes well with our red hair, don’t you think?)
We left the Romantic Road and headed onto the Castle Route. This scenic series of highways deserved at least a couple of weeks. Unfortunately, we had two days. We eased through tiny towns the size of Phillipsville and hummed into hills as empty as those above Alderpoint. But, there were still magnificent buildings and tiny charming cottages and wonderfully flowered gardens scattered everywhere. Schwabisch Hall is about half the size of Eureka and is deeply rooted in medieval times. Yet, here was a modern carnival that the boys loved. We all rode the rides. (Remember what I said in the last blog about Europeans being less concerned with safety? Part of the excitement of some rides lay in racing onto the still moving ride and claiming seats before the last riders got off. This could be a little unnerving.) Clay and Quinn especially enjoyed the shooting games where, unlike the locals, they knew guns and, consequently, they excelled. Clay won a ton of stuffed toys.
And they both won various doodads like a beautiful glass chess set and their favorite, a set of guns that shot pellets. (I was less than pleased by them as I swept those plastic peas out of the RV for the rest of the trip and once found Malachi experimenting with shoving them in his nose.)
We hiked to the city center to see the magnificent church of St. Michaels (minus Clay who preferred carnivals to carvings). The floor had an opening into an ossuary (a place where bones are stacked). The piles of skulls and thigh bones etc. had a bizarrely clean aspect to them as if a very hungry giant with OCD had stripped the bones bare and then carefully placed them for maximum artistic value.
Afterwards, we wondered down through the rain to the market–stopping to play in another medieval fountain.
At the market, we licked up velvety chocolate ice cream. (Yes, it was supposed to be steaming hot chocolate but it was delicious anyway. In another language you don’t always get what you want but with a few hand gestures you can get what you need.) We meandered over an ancient stone bridge to find a crowd gathered around a street vendor. He and his wife had set up a rolling oven and had been baking bread and small crusty pizzas. We asked if he spoke English. “Nein,” but he eagerly beckoned a woman over, “Marietta, Marietta! English, please!”
A pretty woman munching a small pizza smiled and asked what kind of bread we were looking for. “We’re just exploring. Which should we buy?” I responded. She translated with such a grin I’m sure she knew the reaction we would get. The man threw back his head happily and clapped his hands. Then we were treated to the pleasure of watching someone who joys in their work. He grasped a long loaf, expertly sawed off a large chunk and passed it out to us. For the next 10 minutes we tasted bread made by gods and were treated to explanations of “this one takes two days to make the dough,” and “this one has a nutty flavor.” Finally, we reluctantly narrowed our choice to just 2 different types of golden crispy loaves (bread gets stale fast without preservatives). To our surprise, the bread god insisted we not take the ones he had given us slices of but rather, whole, unblemished beauties that were still warm from the oven. Blissfully, we wandered off munching flakey handfuls that smelled almost as incredible as they tasted.
Ambling back on another path beside the river, we drifted under old trees and beside mossy rocks, crossing a wooden bridge, and climbing stone steps until we reached the campground. There we gathered cozily around the table and played still yet another game of Pinochle.
Reluctantly the next day we left for France. We drove the magnificent German highways—clean and with easy to follow signs. And crossed the border to France where once again we got lost. (Did I mention how much I appreciate Kevin’s driving the whole way AND how cranky he can be when lost?) France, unlike England or Germany, was trashy with toilet paper strewn around every rest stop (which made picnicking somewhat unappetizing.) We did eat some good food and, although we had thought German Milch delicious, French Alpine Milk was even better. The pastries were pretty delightful, too. I loved the Jordan Almonds that we found in the city where they were invented. I bought some for gifts–one small bag made it to Mom who loves them. (The rest mysteriously appeared on my thighs in the form of small bumps. However, they were absolutely worth every bit of exercise I’m doing to get rid of them. I’m sorry to all of you who were expecting some sort of souvenir but, you can have the pleasure of knowing how happy you made me.)
We drank from an ancient well inside the basilica. Afterwards, I discovered it was supposed to cure infertility in women…(LET”S HOPE NOT!) Malachi held up a lucky coin that Kevin bought for him there.
Like almost everything in Europe, the church was amazingly accessible. We wandered round the building, mostly by ourselves, able to run our hands over carvings made silky by centuries of touch and lay our cheeks against cool marble set in place before Europeans first came to America.
Kevin then pointed the RV towards Epernay, the center of the Champagne region. Of course, we got lost and gave up on finding Moet and Chandon vineyards. We settled on a lesser Vintner but still enjoyed ourselves.
Unable to resolve whether we should stay or go, we ended up driving the rest of the way to Paris, (not to decide is to decide) pushing through gorgeous countryside in order to make Paris by 9 that night. We were all a little snappy when we got there. (Learn from our mistakes. Go to a very few places, stay and enjoy them.) The next day we went to the Louvre. Unfortunately, our camera, which had been happily destroying pictures but occasionally letting a decent one slip through, finally collapsed so we have no more photos.
The Louvre, especially the great staired hallway where the Winged Victory posed at the top like an eagle ready to take flight was breathtaking, but overwhelming for the boys. We ended up only staying 4 hours. I wish I could have gone for 4 hours a day for 4 days. I loved seeing Franz Hals’ paintings (The Jester and The Gypsy)and other art I loved so close I could make out every brush stroke. We spent the night and headed out the next day. Of course, we went astray again and nearly lost the top of the RV as I directed us down a tunnel with not much top room. Luckily, Kevin caught my mistake in time to save our heads and, consequently, was in a great mood all day and didn’t even mind when we bumbled around perplexed for awhile.
We did some drifting around France and Southern Germany over the next couple days. Eventually, we turned up at the bottom of the Romantic Road again. There we went to see the Fairy Tale Castle, Neuschwanstein. Absolutely beautiful from the outside, we waited several hours in the hot sun, standing in line first for tickets, and then for a horse drawn carriage ride to the top of the mountain, and then for another hour to get into the castle itself. Built in the late 1800’s, the castle, after all the beautiful real castles we had seen, was like a plastic Disney version. We were all disappointed, and hot, and hungry.
The day before, however, we had serendipitously discovered another castle, this one a ruin, a couple hours away that Kevin, Malachi, and I hiked up through vineyards and around a mountain to enjoy. Funny that this one cost nothing, had almost no signs announcing its presence and, yet, we loved it so much more.
We returned the RV and spent the night in motel. When we got ready to get on our airplane in Munich though, there was a several hour delay. The plane had been struck by lightning and needed a thorough checkup. We didn’t mind—Check away. In fact, it helped somewhat to reassure us when, as we finally boarded, we could still smell the ozone!
We weren’t worried about making our connection in O’Hare because we had a 5 hour layover. (Cue warning sirens. Not being worried about connection these days is foolish! We barely made our plane.) Apparently, a group of planes all landed about the same time. We were rushed through security check point after security checkpoint. We had baggage grabbed from us at one line as we were shoved towards another. Eventually, we stood exhausted but still an hour an a half from loading time waiting to board a train from one section of the airport to another. We thought we could easily make it. However, the trains kept coming and unloading but none were headed to the right area so the waiting area began to fill… and fill. At first there were security guards barking directions about leaving the unloading area in front of the train doors clear but as the area became packed and people started barely squeezing out of the trains, the guards disappeared like rats from a sinking ship.
People were barely squashing into the hall as the doors attempted to mangle them. We had to pound on doors and forcibly open them so people who were caught could get out from between them. Meanwhile, the escalators were still disgorging more people into the hall from the floor above. Eventually, I held Malachi up and my guys all surrounded me like bodyguards just to make enough space to breath. In fact, Malachi was partially held up by the mass of people just pressing on us. To add to the fear factor, visions of dozens of travelers being trampled were going through everyone’s heads and right out their mouths. The fear rose in a gray cloud from hundreds of mouths and hung choking us in that hot hallway. The time was ticking and we had a half hour now to make boarding of our plane. Finally, our family chose to squeeze onto a train going the wrong way in the hopes that it would eventually go back the other direction. It did. We crammed our way through security checkpoints and made the flight just in time.
Arriving in Frisco to a lightly loaded van that brought us easily to our hotel with our car parked out in front was, on the other hand, a beautiful experience. We gorged ourselves on American TV and fell asleep unable to be sure whether we were even glad we had gone on this adventure. But, by the next morning, as we relaxed over a fabulous breakfast, we were remembering all the amazing things we had seen, the wonderful pinochle games we had played every night, and the incredible food we had eaten.
We came home with enough stories to keep us amused for a year and a world view that has changed. Now when anything is good, Malachi says, “Ahh, just like Germany.”
One thing we found when you are in a country with a different language, there is no problem as long as you are flexible—if you order hot chocolate and get chocolate ice cream, just enjoy the great ice cream. Mostly though we didn’t have any problems except I never did manage to get plain drinking water in spite of learning laboriously to say, “Trinking wasser” (my language skills are somewhat limited)–all I ever got was a series of ever more expensive mineral waters (one costing 7 Euros–about $10!) that tasted better than mineral water in the States but not near as good as just a plain glass of water.
We now know a few German words. Our favorite is Ausfahrt! (No, not what you think. )The signs every so often on the Autobahn were not about everyone relieving gas all at once (Although we did attempt “alls farting” at same time once or twice—not recommended in a small RV) but rather we now know the word ‘Ausfahrt’ is for exit and Sud is for South. Yes, the boys and I now know lots of direction words in German and, as we learned them, Kevin made sure we reviewed our command of American swear words also.
May your travels be joyous and your command of the more colorful parts of the American language not get in you into trouble with your family.
Love you all,