Friday, 2/21: The flight
Took most of the day off from work to clean and pack. Took a cab from Framingham to Lotus, finished a project, and dashed off to the airport. The cabbie was nicely aggressive and got there in record time through heavy traffic. Checked into the flight and then sat at the bar for over an hour. Met an interesting woman named Ann whose phone number I regrettably did not ask for.
The flight was fairly pleasant. Luftansa is a great airline. The food was good. I managed to sleep some of the flight. The woman I sat next to was going to see her husband, and we chatted about the conditions in Germany. I managed to speak only German to the airline personnel.
Saturday, 2/22: Mannheim, Landstuhl, Star Trek
Arrived at Frankfurt Airport at 7 AM. Got off the plane and had to wait 40 minutes in the passport line while my luggage sat on the conveyor for anyone to steal. Some people were delayed in the line for several minutes while the passport control police questioned them; I got through with a quick glance and a wave. After that I got my luggage and went through customs to meet Carl and Tony. They asked if I wanted to go home and nap, but I agreed it would be better to try to stay up all day to get over the jet lag. They were quite pleased because the prospect of another day doing nothing was not a good one.
We decided to see Mannheim that day. We parked around 8:15 and walked around the city as it was waking up. We looked around for a totally “German” place for breakfast and after more than an hour of walking finally found The Place. That would be the theme of our trip — finding The Place. It was always worth the effort. The server didn’t speak any English at all, which was thrilling to us. We had pocket German dictionaries and had to resort to them a few times, but managed to muddle through and order our food and drinks. The breakfast was delicious and quite German. Mine was a sort of toast with ham and cheese and some type of vegetable. Quite filling.
After breakfast we looked around for the Reiss Museum and had some trouble finding it, so I managed to stop a couple of residents and muddle through the German “Excuse me — could you tell me where the Reiss Museum is?” (Entshuldigen Sie mir, können Sie mir sagen, wo ist die Reiss Museum?) They explained several times and used some English, and we thanked them and found it with their help. The museum had a display of aincent historic artifacts of old kings, such as clothing, accessories, sword and shield pieces over 1,000 years old. It makes our history look so short in comparison.
After the museum we walked around some more, then drove home. I met Tony’s family and unpacked. Tony was giving us the kid’s rooms and having the kids in his bedroom.
We then decided to see Landstuhl castle, which was in the area. We got lost trying to find it, and as a result saw some nice scenery in the surrounding villages. By the time we got to Landstuhl, it was closed, so we only walked around the outside, which was still quite impressive. Most of the castles in Germany overlook the villages they ruled and you can see where a peasant would be awed by the presence of his overlord.
We went back home after that. For dinner, Tony’s wife Tracy made schnitzels for us (tenderized pork breaded and deep fried), which were delicious. We ate quickly and raced out to see Star Trek First Contact, which had just come to Germany, at the Airbase theater. We got lost on the way and Tony turned around in a field, so the car got covered in mud. That’s where our nickname “tollefahren” (wild/crazy/cool driver) for Tony started.
Sunday, 2/23: Heidelberg
We slept late and then got up and went to Heidelberg Castle. It was much bigger than Landstuhl, with sweeping grounds and a garden, and a majestic view of the town and river. We looked around for a while and then realized that there was an English tour of the castle, so we purchased tickets and then took some pictures of the courtyard and the view.
The tour guide was good, and explained a lot about how the castle was used as well as its history. The castle’s main hall is still rented out for weddings and parties, at a quite reasonable price. I think the funniest thing he mentioned was that the moats never had enough water, so they ended up storing live game down in them, and the Queen would go out and shoot dinner. The castle was filled with ornate woodwork, stained glass, intricately painted heating stoves, and artwork and sculptures. It reminded me of how truly different things were between the noble classes and the peasants in that day.
Another thing we saw in the castle was the great cask, which once held over 221,000 liters of wine. We got to taste some of the wine from the region, which is much better than the “tariff” wines that were mixed in the great cask.
After we finished the tour we went over to the Apothecary Museum, which is also inside part of the castle, and got to see a number of actual apothecaries, rebuilt inside the museum, as well as tools and old drug ingredients. It is amazing to see the difference between what passed for medicine back then, when they were almost completely in the dark, and what medicine is today. I’d be willing to bet that many of the medicines we saw in the museum made people worse.
We decided that we would drive down to the town and walk around to look for The Place. The Heidelberg walking area is mostly laid out along one long cobblestone street with huge crowds browsing all the shops and bars. We didn’t find much for restaurants, and were headed back toward the car, when we looked down a small side street and saw an unassuming little sign labeled “Schnitzelbank”. It turned out to be exactly the kind of hole in the wall place we were looking for, and in fact it ended up serving the best food we had in Germany. We were the only ones speaking English in the restaurant, though the waiter spoke some English and helped us out a bit with the menu. During the meal more and more people came in until The Place was completely full, so we were sitting with some friendly Germans at our table who wished us “Guten Appetit” when our food came. They noticed me browsing through the English-German dictionary and heard me tell Carl my find: Köstlich (delicious). They laughed heartily at that. They were nice people and complimented us on our attempts at speaking German. It is quite surprising how polite and friendly the Germans are.
We came home and played some cards after that, until late. Then I went for a walk around the base and towards town, and got stopped twice by the MPs as I was coming back because it was late and I was in black, and lost in the airbase. Worst of all, it had started to rain by then. Still, they were friendly about it. Got home and finally managed to get to sleep.
Monday, 2/24: Trip to Garmisch-Partenkirchen
We packed up for our ski trip and drove from the airbase, through München (Munich), to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, to the Von Steuben hotel. The trip ended up taking nearly 8 hours because we got lost more than once, especially in München. German highways don’t have bypasses for the towns; instead they end and you have to know how to get through town to the highway on the other side. The funniest part of it was passing the same “Erotik Shop” at least five times. Tony was really earning the tollefahren nickname as he narrowly managed to avoid an accident down two way streets that barely fit one car. We decided that he is indeed ready to drive in Boston. Finally we stopped and purchased a map of München, and got on the right autobahn towards Garmisch.
Near Garmisch we got lost again and had to stop and ask directions. My German was good enough that the service station attendant rattled off something in rapid German that I couldn’t even understand, because he figured I’d understand. Fortunately, he spoke some English so we got on the right path, but we still had a lot of trouble finding the hotel, because it’s an American facility and isn’t listed on most of the signs, and also because it was after dark at this point.
We had dinner at the hotel and had our only bad service in Germany. The hotel was American run, but I think our waiter was German. I sent my steak back three times and they still didn’t cook it beyond medium rare, so I had to summon the manager and complain vehemently. She felt very sorry and ended up giving me my meal for free and giving us all free dessert. The waiter got yelled at and the entire staff knew about the incident. We decided that would be the last dinner we had there.
Tuesday 2/25: The Alps
We woke up and knew our skiing plan was in trouble. It was almost warm enough to be summer, and the highest slopes were shrouded in clouds from a storm. Sure enough, the slopes were icy and many were closed. We did not feel we could ski safely and had to cancel the skiing. Carl was upset but got over it quickly, and we drove around the Alps and took some pictures of the fantastic scenery.
Later in the afternoon we walked around Partenkirchen and played some pool, then walked a lot to find The Place. After a good long walk, we were getting hungry and tired, but I pushed to just walk down a couple more blocks — and there it was! We found The Place again. We came upon another family run place. The husband went in back to cook. The wife waited on us. The kids were bussing and doing various things. A friend or relative handled the bar. In spite of her having the entire restaurant, service was still good. No one spoke English here so it was fun to communicate. The best part was when we were trying to figure out how to ask for bread. Carl thought we should ask “Können wir Brot haben?” (Can we have bread?) I wasn’t sure if that was proper, with the old “Can I” vs. “May I” and tried instead, “Haben Sie Brot?” (do you have bread?) She looked confused for a moment, then said yes, so I thanked her and she went off. We’d been early, so the bread probably wasn’t ready, and it took a while for it to come to the table. So the guys were teasing me, saying that she’d just thought I wanted to know if they had bread, and not that we wanted any. When the bread came I was redeemed, but the nickname “Brot” was firmly affixed by that time.
We got lost finding the hotel and had to stop by the Bahnhof (train station) to find a bathroom. When I went down the stairs I was confronted with two doors: one marked “D”, the other “H”. I stood there for a moment at a complete loss; I’d expected the man/woman symbol or at least “F” for “Frau” on one of them. Then I realized that they meant “Damen” (ladies) and “Herren” (gentlemen), so I went in the correct door. Disaster averted! The stalls had pay locks with sharp spikes on top so no one could crawl over. I think this was also to protect the vulnerable restroom users.
Back at the hotel, we hung around the bar and played cards. Carl taught us a bizarre card game his family plays that I still say is like Star Trek’s “Royal Phizbin” game. Although only 5 cards were dealt per hand, Carl got the Ace of Hearts at least 4 out of 5 hands, and won a lot as a result. We wondered what the cards were trying to tell him and nicknamed him “Ace”, but couldn’t think of a good German equivalent.
Wednesday 2/26: Neuschwanstein and Stuttgart
Had breakfast at the hotel, and then we packed and checked out a day early, since we were sure there’d be no skiing. We drove to the border and went into Austria. I joked with Tony about asking the border police to stamp my passport (this makes them very angry and is not a good idea) but didn’t actually say anything to them; they took one look at Tony’s military ID and waved us through without further examination.
Austria looked much like Germany, except it was miserable weather. It was dark clouds and heavy rain, unusual for Germany. Only the hardy tourists were out that day, which turned out to be a benefit, since our destination, castle Neuschwanstein, often had waits of several hours to get in. We drove back into Germany with another quick wave of Tony’s military ID and went straight on to Neuschwanstein.
The castle is a 30 minute hike up a fairly steep road, at a high altitude. We bought cheap umbrellas at the bottom but mine blew inside out with the first slight breeze that touched it. When we got to the top I was wet and cold but I guffed it and went on. We waited in the castle courtyard after buying our tickets because no one seemed to know where to go. Finally I saw someone go in, so we all followed them into the long waiting hallway. It only took about 30 minutes to get to the front of the line for the English tour.
Only 17 rooms of Neuschwanstein are finished — the other 60 are all bare concrete and brick. The rooms that are finished are incredibly beautiful; the King’s bedroom took 14 carvers 4 years to finish. But the tour is over fairly quickly and you’re not allowed to take any pictures. Overall, it was worth seeing but too much of a tourist trap and even cheesy in some ways, like not being allowed to take pictures so that they can sell more of them.
We took a carriage ride down the mountain because we were tired and it was still raining. The carriage driver had a fit because Tony didn’t have exact change; he was fairly rude and I nearly resorted to the few German insults I know. We rode down and decided to leave the area without buying anything further.
As we drove northward the weather began to clear and our spirits lifted. We got hungry and had a great idea: why not pull off the autobahn in the middle of nowhere and find The Place? So we pulled off an exit and searched around. The first restaurant we found was closed on Wednesdays, so it wasn’t The Place, because The Place would have been open. So we went under the autobahn to the next village and found The Place there. The proprietor was hanging out at the bar with his friends. He sat us, waited on us, cooked our meals, and served them to us. We were early for dinner so we were the only ones eating there at the time. Toward the end of our meal, someone we suppose was his daughter came in to help. He spoke no English and we had trouble understanding him (some of the Southern Germans speak dialects) but we managed anyway. He pointed out some things on the menu, and was either recommending them or saying they were a lot of food. Either way, we chose from what he pointed out and indeed it was both great and a lot of food. When we were done, he was curious to find out why we were in that area: were we working in town? When we explained that we were simply on vacation, he shrugged and left it at that. I’m sure he was still curious, not understanding our Quest for The Place.
From there we decided to check out Stuttgart, since it had a large Walkplatz (walking around shopping area) and would probably look pretty cool at night. We wandered around for a good bit and stopped into a bar for a couple of drinks, then headed home. Stuttgart seems to have a New York City kind of feel to it. We got lost on the way home and ended up getting home fairly late.
Thursday 2/27: Kaiserslautern
We were tired from the previous day, since we’d all risen early, so we slept very late (or at least tried to). Due to the late hour, and the fact that Tracy seemed to be bored, we decided to get a babysitter for the kids and walk around nearby Kaiserslautern, looking for The Place. “K-town” has a nice walkplatz, with a lot of touristy shops, and after a good walk that saw the sun set, we found a small Swiss restaurant in a little hotel. We had a nice meal there, and a couple of beers, and wandered back to the car. Unfortunately, tollefahren took a sharp U-turn and scraped one of the hubcaps of his new car.
Later that night, Carl and I went out for a walk but this time the MPs didn’t take any notice of us. The German night is dark indeed. We had figured it was late enough to avoid anyone being out but there was still one of the trailer hookers in an RV across from the base’s BX. We had to avoid making eye contact because she was watching us intently. She left right after we passed by. Apparently she’s a fixture in the neighborhood.
Friday 2/28: Kaiserslautern and Fussball
Again we got up kind of late, but still didn’t get much sleep. We had plans to meet a Brian and his wife Janice for dinner, so we couldn’t really go anywhere much. We ended up going to K-town and walking around for about a half hour, then realizing we didn’t remember where the car was and frantically searching for it for the next half hour. Finally we found it and raced home, with tollefahren at his best, and made it only 4 minutes late.
We went out to a Greek place that Brian and Janice had chosen, but it had a distinctly German flavor and I ended up ordering a Jäger Schnitzel (less breading, more gravy). After dinner they served Ouzo shots, and some of the folks didn’t like Ouzo so I ended up having 2, plus with the two beers I’d had I was feeling a little wobbly. From there we drove to a nearby bar that Brian and Janice liked to hang out in to drink some more and play some cards. I drank Fanta for the first few rounds to clear my head.
The bar had a Fussball game, the one with the men on sticks you can move back and forth and spin around. Brian was good at Fussball but told us something like, “No matter how good you think you are at Fussball, if a German challenges you they’re better at it.” After playing both with and against him I’ll take his word for it but it’s hard to believe — he’s really good! No one could score on him in goal, and he’d score goals with the goalie, so finally Tony and I played each on 2 sticks and Brian had to play all 4 himself. With all our effort, we managed to tie the score — 5 to 5. What a game!
The women decided to go home because the babysitter had to leave, but we stayed for one more game of spades — and it lasted about 3 hours. I ended up having a respiratory attack from being in thick smoke too long, but after going home and rinsing off it was better. Fortunately Tony had warned me so I’d taken a Seldane before we went out. Got to bed well after 4 AM.
Saturday 3/1: Luxembourg and Trier
We got up late, and headed out for Luxembourg. Tollefahren pushed the limits of the car as much as he could and we made it there in good time. This was now the third country in Europe I had visited. There wasn’t even a guard at the border, so we sailed right through and headed for the city.
Luxembourg is an interesting mix of buildings. There is a vast gorge in the middle. We parked in a garage built into the side of the gorge and walked around. The downtown, on one side of the gorge, was somewhat run down and dirty from burning coal (we could smell it), with strip bars and sex shops on every block. We walked around there a bit and then decided to move back toward the gorge. The gorge has a fascinating architecture. It is honeycombed with tunnels, bridges, and stairways of various shapes and sizes, and there are buildings at many different levels, some freestanding and some built into the gorge. I think I’d like to go back there just to explore the gorge more. We took a lot of pictures of the gorge and then decided we wanted to go see Trier, since it was starting to get late in the day.
We whooshed down to Trier on the autobahn and parked quickly. Trier has a nice walkplatz with some interesting sculptures and fountains. This was the first place we’d seen vandalism — one of the fountains had some graffiti sprayed onto it. Still, the city was very clean, like most German cities, and nice to walk around. We looked for some Roman ruins that were supposed to be there but didn’t have any luck finding them, so we hung out for a while and had some food and drinks, nothing special, and then drove home at a less frantic pace.
We stopped to refuel in Neunkirchen on the way home, because Tony was getting low on gasoline. We went to bed relaxed, after another nice day.
Sunday 3/2: The flight home
We got up a little later than we should have and as a result we had to rush for our flight. I had a few minutes to shop and picked up some KinderEggs for my son Andy, who had asked for toys and chocolate; so I got him chocolate eggs with toys inside. I had other souvenirs in my carry-on bag and those just fit. The flight was a little late, and we boarded late. The flight ended up being nine hours because of a strong headwind combined with a detour through Greenland to avoid a large storm. We were very eager to get off the plane. Again, I managed to speak only German to the flight attendants.
When we got to the airport we were just ahead of a huge group of travelers so we got through passport control fairly quickly. It was strange having to show documentation to get back into my own country. The customs people were much more strict than the Germans, reminding me of how badly American freedom is slipping away. It was very nice to see my sister Nikki waiting for us at the gate. It was time to get back into English mode…