Monday, January 25, 2016

That Girl and Her Sister in Bad Wildbad

That Girl and Her Sister
Blogs from Across the Pond
Bad Wildbad

Every now and again, as I make my way through the world I find a place that feels like home. Colorado, the sacred Valley of Peru, a small cabin on board a freighter, Milan, Rijeka. Now, as we get off the train in Bad Wildbad, Germany, I’ve found another place that makes me think, I could live here.

We stay in a delightful, immaculately clean, nicely stocked fourth floor apartment overlooking the river and the train tracks. Our host is so accommodating he makes us feel as if we’re already best friends, or family. He’s stocked the fridge with breakfast foods, milk, and juice, and has left a loaf of bread for us on the cabinet and some fruit in a bowl on the table. When Jesse asks if there is a place to print documents here in town, he says he'll do it himself later that afternoon. And he does. His parents live two floors below, and he says we could ask them for anything we need. Call him if we need anything else.

Here, we relax. Bad in German means spa. And Bad Wildbad is a place known for its relaxing thermal baths. We've come here because who wouldn't want to visit a place called Bad Wildbad? It sounds like the perfect setting for a real life fairy tale—a Hansel and Gretel story replete with goblins, ogres, and witches, good food, gingerbread houses, and adventure. We’re also here because it's in the Black Forest, and that holds another charm. Jesse loves trees the way I love mountains. After our nearly foodless time in Berdorf, Luxembourg, and our epic trekking there, we accept Bad Wildbad as a good place to recuperate. Around the corner, we find a charming cafĂ© that serves potato soup and omelets, hot tea and wine. We lunch another day at a Creperie and have spinach, cheese, and mushroom crepes with frothy lattes. At night, I make us up Grog (rum, apple juice, and ginger water) to soothe our coughs and remove the lingering chill from our bones. In between excursions out, we cozy in on the couch and read and read and read, wrapped up in blankets and with the heat on high. Occasionally, we get up to look out the window at the Brothers Grimm fairytale world below us and to listen to the sound of the bells ringing the hour, the quarter hours, the half hour.

"It's like a postcard," Jesse says.

It's peaceful and magical. It's autumn in Germany. The trees have turned a blushing red with the knowledge of their impending nakedness, a heartbreaking orange, a soft Midas touched gold. The strewn leaves blanket the pathways and float atop the river, flit over the train tracks. The air carries a hint of winter, but we have a warm place to stay if the outdoors become too much.

Inside our apartment we’re comforted as if with a longed for hug. But outside holds other magic. Places with names like the Zig-Zack-Weg, Fusweg, Baumwipfelpfad, Aussichtsturm are out there. In between reading, eating, and visiting the bakeries and corner store we walk up the Zig-Zack-Weg up to the top of the hill where the Baumwipfelpfad (the tree top tour) enchants me to absolute delight. As we walk at tree level toward the Aussichtsturm (tower) soft flurries fall down upon us. And I laugh, happy as a child, turning my face upward to catch the snowflakes on my cheeks and on my outturned tongue.

"It's like a magic fairyland," I say, my eyes aglow with joy.

Exhilarated, we walk up the ramp of the Aussichtsturm, all ten stories, and look down at the trees. I’ve never seen them like this before. I lean out over the edge of the top railing, trying to memorize the shape of the treetops, the out-flung branches, the far off faint towns. We’re high up and down below us is the whole, misty, cloud-covered world.

We take the funicular down, a frightening thrill like a carnival ride. I want something to hold on to even as I all but press my nose to the front row glass. Not wanting to miss a thing.  

On Sunday, as we sit on the couch with our books and blankets and feelings of contentment, the bells ring out a pealing song. A beautiful melody that goes on for seven minutes, fifteen, a half hour? It’s our last full day in Bad Wildbad. Our time here has been all we could wish for. We take a final walk up the Zig-Zack-Weg. Blue sky breaks through the clouds for a brief moment complementing the orange tipped trees. Perfect mushrooms grow up like fairy homes out of the rich earth. Far below us, we hear the bells chime the hour.

The funny thing is, although we knew Bad meant spa we didn’t think to bring swimsuits. So we never actually take Bad Wildbad up on its more traditional relaxing thermal baths. Nevertheless, we find exactly what we need all around us.

The next morning as we wait in the chill air on the platform for the train to arrive, there’s comfort in knowing that no matter where I am or what happens in the world I have a home in Germany. No matter what happens in the world, in Bad Wildbad the bells still chime five o’clock, six o’clock, eleven o’clock.

The bells will still chime.

Monday, January 4, 2016

That Girl and Her Sister in Berdorf

That Girl and Her Sister
Blogs from Across the Pond

There’s a country called Luxembourg. It’s tucked away in a little pocket of Europe, pressed in between Germany, Belgium, and France.

Inside that country is a little village called Berdorf. It’s a village of clean streets and closed shops. A village of cows and cats and at least one goat. It’s a place, as the internet has told us, for walking and not much else. We’ve gotten here on the weekend and are staying in an immaculately clean room, in an immaculately clean house.

In the morning, we venture out, our breath making ghosts in the air above the frosted grass, to find a place to eat breakfast before we go out to walk. For inside this little village is a magical place of cliffs and trees. A place where people come specifically to walk and climb. We’ve come for that and also because who wouldn’t want to visit a place where Luxembourgish is spoken? It sounds made up, but is some kind of mixture of French and German and who knows what else. I add it to the growing list of languages I wish I spoke.
We wander for an hour looking for a place to eat. But nothing is open. Not to us. Not even the hotel where the manager runs us off because we aren’t staying our nights there. The two restaurants we do find have odd hours like 11:30 to 2:15 and 7:00 PM to 2:00 AM. I look at my clock. It’s early still. Too early.

A goat bleats from inside one of the buildings we pass. It probably wants breakfast too. Poor goat. Poor us. We turn away from the locked restaurant doors and head back to the center of the village. But there, we can’t even find a little grocery store with bananas or bread to buy.

The people here must never eat, I decide. In despair (my despair mixed with some disgruntlement), we go back to the house and I eat protein bars, nuts, and an apple which we’ve (thank goodness) brought along with us. Jesse has popcorn and peanuts. “I’m so happy to have popcorn for breakfast!” she says. And she means it. I try to capture a piece of her simple joy and to be grateful for what’s in front of me. I want to be happy for the littlest reason too. I’m overthinking things and finding disappointment in the failure to meet my expectations of a hot breakfast. We chase our meal down with the Nescafe instant coffee our immaculately clean hostess has left in our room for us. It’s not half bad.

More or less fortified, we walk down the street, down a shorn grass trail past the cows, and into the dark covering of the trees. Under their canopy I forget my bad mood. Words like majestic and grand run on repeat in my head. We’ve come into Faerie. A magical place for mythical giants and wanderers. Here anything is possible, magic, sorcery, bewitchment, joy. The cliffs rise to each side, towering over us. Fissures make walkways through the rocky hearts and we venture deep inside. The trees grow up out of stone faces, clutching rock with rooty tendrils. Mushrooms sprout like charming homes from the leafy floor and out of the trees. And the colors of fall—gold, red, green—make a soft carpet for us to walk over.

The trails have names like Mater Dolorosa and Devil’s Eye. Frightening names meant to send the unworthy away. But we’ve been caught in an enchantment and we could stay here forever in the forest, next to the towering cliffs, cushioned by moss, and comforted by the earthy smell in the air.

We walk and we walk. At one point, Jesse turns to me and says, “Despite not getting breakfast this is the best day yet.” And at that moment, before our fruitless search for lunch, I have to agree.

Friday, January 1, 2016

That Girl and Her Sister in Frankfurt

That Girl and Her Sister
Blogs from Across the Pond

We take the train to Frankfurt.

It's a nearly seven hour ride and we settle in, grateful that we’ve reserved our seats when at one of the stops a crowd of people comes on board and there's a wild scramble for chairs and a redirecting of those who have taken others’ places.

Jesse and I sit opposite each other next to the window watching the mayhem. The seats beside us are empty until two men take them. They're jovial, older, German men. Their wives sit across the aisle with another couple they're traveling with.

The men begin to speak to us and we or rather, Jesse tells them in German that we’re sorry we don't speak any German (unless we’re asking for scrambled eggs, saying excuse me, or thank you). But this makes them happy and their faces brighten even more when they find out we’re from the United States. "I haven't practiced my English in sixty years," the man next to me says. He speaks to us in German, English, and then also in French when he finds out that Jesse understands. She becomes the conversationalist, the translator, and I follow along best I can when the languages branch over into the ones I don't know. The second man’s English is sparse like my German and he lets the man next to me translate the way I let Jesse. We communicate with smiles, hand motions, and our own languages.

They ask about our travels and we tell them we’re heading to visit a friend in Frankfurt.

"Forget Frankfurt," the man says. "Come to Hanover. I'll give you a grand tour."

They ask us where all we’ve been and I pull out my notebook and show them the map I’ve drawn there of our itinerary. They grudgingly approve of our trip to Berlin, lightly mourn that we aren’t going to the north of Germany. "It’s more beautiful there," they say.

When lunch time comes around, we all take out our packed lunches and eat. For dessert, the speaker's wife pulls out a box of assorted chocolates and tells the men to offer some to us.

"She’s my general," the man says with a grin as he obeys.

They've just been to Austria, like us, and I ask something about how Germany feels about Austria, what with it having been taken from Germany after the war, because in its claim of independence it declared itself permanently neutral, and because of its past with Hitler. Hitler was born in Austria after all. The man makes a sound. "Hitler was a mistake," he says, and shrugs. Austria has been forgiven that, and Germany itself is reborn, different. It’s come through the fire. The past isn’t forgotten, certainly not, there are too many dead to forget it, too much pain and suffering lining history books and lives, but in a way it’s forgiven. At least, learned from. The man tries to explain it as we all sit together, Americans and Germans, in a train as friends.  

"My father fought in the war in France." The man’s eyes get a far off look in them. I imagine him sitting across from his father as his father remembers the war and tells the stories that salve the pain of that violent time. "He was in charge of the horses and had to work them. He ended up using the horses to work French fields when they weren't fighting. It's never a problem with man to man. It's the politics. Not the men."

That is the way it is, I think. Always the politics and not the men. Each country fed propaganda that matches what the warmongers, the power-hungry, those in charge of national security want or see is necessary. Not Austria. Not Germany. Not the United States. Not the people that make up those places. Just a German farmer-soldier tending French fields after fighting hours. How many stories are like that one?

I remember, several years ago, when I was on the freighter going from Houston to Hamburg and the conversations I had with the First Officer, a Ukrainian only six months older than I was. He’d told me that they’d been fed a mirror-image story about the United States. For them, we’d been the evil one, the wicked trying to take over the world, the disrupter that would bring in philosophies to ruin their way of life and destroy their morality. We’d been told the same things about Russia and the whole Soviet Union.

But the Ukrainian and I, we had no problems with each other. We could be friends.

Man to man is never the problem.

I stare out the window for a moment reflecting as the miles speed by.

Our German friends get off the train at a stop somewhere before Frankfurt. The man pauses in the aisle and asks, "Do you want me to write down my number? So you can call if you come to Hanover?" I start to push my notebook his direction. And he laughs, it was a joke, what are the chances we’d ever make it there anyway? They all leave together in a flurry of motion, noise, and joie de vivre.

Jesse and I continue on in the train from Vienna to Frankfurt. When we arrive and after we’ve checked into our hotel, we hang out with my friend Stefan. He shows us the German nightlife which includes a traditional German festival and then a South American festival where we have Ecuadorian food and Peruvian Pisco Sours.

The world is open to us, the entire world, all we have to do is get from place to place.