Punctuality: it’s in German blood. I would later learn the clock on the train platform I saw through the window is synched with every single other train platform clock in Germany. To the second. And the second hand is vigorous – none of this languid, gentle, metronome style progression like the school clocks of my youth. The German second hand lurches with precision between the previous moment and the next. At 8:34:59 p.m. I just happened to be looking at the clock, in anticipation of our 8:35 p.m. departure. Suddenly I felt like I was in a Rube-Goldberg machine: the second hand slammed home, a referee’s whistle blew outside the windows, the train doors snapped closed with a bang. Then, smooth-as-butter, the train began to roll forward. Welcome. to. Germany.
Most of the consumer price indexes I could find for Europe use the thriving German economy as a benchmark, so tourism isn’t what brought this poor traveler here. At 16 I became friends with a high-school exchange student who introduced me to strange European clothes, Nutella on toast, and no-sugar-coating German personalities. At 18, I fell in with an Oregonian whose adventurous spirit carried her to New Zealand where she ended up in love with a blue-eyed German. Both of these women now call Deutschland home, and I’ve been longing to visit them for years!
We began with the latter – my university amiga, Laurel, now pregnant to the point of bursting. She is my first close friend to start a family: I can already see the “You’re Next!” sign flashing on my horizons. As long as next doesn’t come too soon, I’m thrilled to be entering these years of marriages and babies and families and careers and houses.
We spent a few very relaxed days following her doctor’s orders to walk for at least two hours each afternoon. On foot we saw Laurel’s neighborhood, one of the many nearby forests, the area of Stuttgart where she lived previously, and a city park so enormous it felt like a slice of the countryside right in town! Turns out the field-like areas of the park are used to grow food for the nearby zoo animals! The paths leading to the edges of the park are lined with huge old trees, calling to mind the southern U.S. Recently all the trees have been spray-painted with neon-orange sad faces by the large contingent against the “Stuttgart 21” train project which required the destruction of several acres of the park and removal of several of these protected, ancient trees.
The train station – still in its infant stages of renovation – is where we fetched Geeta. It’s been nearly two years since I’ve seen this lovely, funny, creative, whip-smart Chicagoan. We met at Laurel and Fabian’s wedding, now two summer’s ago. After our day in the city, another couple (also from Chicago!) joined us for a delicious BBQ and a hilarious game of progression charades. We laughed all night and I still can’t shake bits of the Chicago accent.
Our last day was spent spontaneously enjoying champagne with Fabian’s high-school teaching colleagues, followed by an impromptu afternoon tour of beer gardens in the historic, Bavarian village where he works. Laurel and Fabs left their apartment to us that evening as they headed off in hopes of missing holiday traffic jams on the Autobahn the next day. Pat and I relaxed and reminisced about the delicious cheese, strawberries, and tomatoes we collected on our Stuttgart farmer’s market visits. We fell asleep looking forward to the coming days with our high-school colleague, Kristin!
It’s been seven years since Kristin visited the U.S. and came to hang out with me in Upton, WY. We hopped into her shiny new BMW Saturday morning and set off for Heidelberg castle. At an Autobahn reststop along the way, sent alone to the bathroom, Pat and I were hopeless. It took us ages to understand where to insert our coins. The bathrooms are so highly automated (when you stand up, the seat actually rotates through a cleaning system!) that it took me more than ten seconds to realize I had to turn on the faucet myself. You should have seen us trying to exit the bathrooms, country bumpkins that we are, searching for the place to insert our ticket like one does in the metro. No, no. The ticket, you see, is a voucher that can be used toward a purchase in the adjoining convenience store making the bathrooms free for those who become customers. Oh. So, how do you get out? Through the gate. You just. walk. out. Oh.
Most of Heidelberg Castle is closed to the public, but the exterior is gorgeous. And a large section has been turned into a pharmacy museum. The preserved apothecaries on display call to mind the early 1900’s, but many were in fact in use through 1961! Also interesting – the pharmaceutical field has experienced drastic changes in perspective over the years. During one period of thought having to do with the balance of nature in one’s body, Christ was revered as a pharmacist (the ultimate). Fascinating to see these two concepts so divided in the new millennium.
The castle was not a highlight for Kristin. Turns out every one of our visiting cohorts from her American days asks to go to a castle and they always go to this one. What a trooper! The evening program was a BBQ at Kristin’s brother’s in-progress house. The whole area is surrounded by farm fields, adding to the magic of beer and grilled food underneath the summer evening sky where the sunsets seems to last for hours. It’s been strange, flying into a major daylight change. Near the equator daylight is twelve hours, give or take, year-round. So while it’s always warm like summer, the sun never shines much past the American dinner hour. It’s liberating to arrive and immediately be able to enjoy the freedom of all that extra daylight!
I walked to the bakery with Kristin in the morning (who spoiled us completely rotten, by the way, despite our constant protests). The pretzels available at bakeries and many other German outlets are distinctively shaped – the portion at the bottom, between the two end bits, is maybe double the thickness of the rest! And nearly every cashier counter has a small plastic platter where one is supposed to place one’s cash and receive one’s change. And while I’m on a roll I might as well note that everyone smokes, white is by far the most common house color in Lampertheim, everyone drives between 100 and 140 m.p.h. (up to 220kmh!), and most waiters carry long wallets on a chain with dividers for each bill denomination. Oh, and separate beds. A “matrimonial bed” in Germany is made up of two separate mattresses. No joke. And comes with two separate but matching blankets. This is just how things are done. A seamless queen or king mattress has to be special ordered.
So anyway, after the bakery we headed to an ancient monastery and then
Heilbronn’s Heppenheim’s quintessential town square where we lunched and enjoyed the historical buildings, fountains, and sunshine. We visited another castle, and this time Pat and I got to climb a tower to incredible views over the countryside! Kristin indulged my longing for a T.V. night (it’s been… years? Since 2010?), even after being unimpressed by the first episode of Six Feet Under.
My favorite day with Kristin was our last. We set out across the farm fields and walked the 10k to her university town – Worms (yes, really. And no, nothing to do with any kind of creature). We walked through springtime onions to reach the recreation path winding through hay and agricultural fields. Eventually the Rhine River came into view and we made our way to the Stand (translation: “Beach.”) Bar on the banks. We dug our toes into the sand, ordered up beers and snacks, and passed the afternoon people watching. The best? A stout German grandmother all alone, swilling beer and sunning herself in her blue and white-polka-dot bikini. Adorable!
While waiting for Kristin’s awesome friend, Heiko, to turn up for dinner, we cruised the nearby carnival/fair and found it nearly identical to the American version. We would later return, after our Italian dinner, for crepes. Yes, that’s right. On the eve of our departure for Italy, Kristin and Heiko treated us to a goodbye dinner at an authentic, riverside Italian restaurant. My Gorgonzola pasta was pure heaven, an excellent prelude to the looming culinary treats and an extravagant and appreciated goodbye. I can’t wait until next time! ♣
This facebook photo album has the aforementioned granny, awesome German architecture and countryside, and the biggest wine cask you’ve ever seen!
Photo credit links: Rube Goldberg machine, German pretzels (site now defunct).