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CELEBRITY WELCOME

By pure coincidence we were booked on the first of KLM’s fleet of relatively new Boeing 787 “Dreamliners” to land at Dulles International Airport.  To celebrate our arrival, an airport fire truck greeted our plane with a hosing down from the truck’s water cannon (above).  

From my perspective as a mere passenger, the plane’s interior was not that different from the interiors of other planes.  The wings, however, at least from my seat in the plane’s middle section, looked uncommonly small, as if during construction the plane had been given a dose of Thalidomide.  But hey, those stubby wings managed to keep the plane airborne across the Atlantic, so I’m not complaining.

I must commend KLM for their better-than-average selection of on-board movies.  In my experience, airlines seem to have an uncanny knack for choosing crappy movies for their passengers’ entertainment but on this flight I watched one pretty good movie (The Wizard of Lies) and one excellent movie (Maudie).  Maudie is the story of a physically handicapped woman who manages to make a marriage with a taciturn and irracible fish monger in Nova Scotia.  It is a very moving story and archival footage at movie’s end pops the surprise that it is the actual story of real people.  I give it five stars.

Our son, Nicholas, picked us up at the airport.  We’re spending a week with him and his family in rural Virginia.  On Friday he took us into DC for a tour of the Capitol building which is so much more impressive in “person” than in photographs.  So much marble in our nation’s capital; I’m surprised there is any left in the world.


We had a picnic lunch today down by the creek that flows through Nicholas’s two acres.  The setting reminded me of N.C. Wyeth’s paintings of the first Thanksgiving.

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“ALL SADDLED UP AND READY TO GO”

As is our habit on the morning of a big adventure, we were wide awake and anxiously biding our time by 4 AM on Monday morning – a full three hours before our scheduled boarding of the train to Amsterdam.  Our last grappling with Deutsche Bahn had not been pleasant (see Freiburg Fiasco).  The source of our anxiety was no fault of Deutsche Bahn.  German trains are sleek and admirably administered.  The problem lay with our baggage, or rather with the fact that there was  250 pounds of it.  

Seeking to avoid the escalator catastrophy of the Freiburg trip, we had re-packaged our stuff into three somewhat sleeker containers: a Samsonite suitcase for the folding Bike Fridays, a large duffle bag with shoulder straps, and a smaller daypack  that we mounted on our chests.  Looking and feeling like paratroopers about to jump into enemy territory with a full complement of combat gear, we walked (staggered?) the half mile to the train station of Wilferdingen in the cold early morning darkness.

The source of our anxiety was the memory of how difficult it was last time to load and unload our several pieces of luggage onto and out of the train amid the surging mass of hurrying passengers who have their own needs to attend to.  On the crowded train from Metz to Freiburg, we had also been unable to stow our oversized luggage properly and the embarrassing knowledge that we and our luggage were inconveniencing the other passagers was something we were not eager to re-experience.  As if our luggage issues were not concern enough, we were also fretting over the knowledge that we had four train transfers to contend with on the way to Amsterdam.

Thus were our thoughts preoccupied for the twenty minutes we waited at the Wilferdingen train station.  We dared not take our packs off for fear we would be unable to heft them on in time when the train arrived.  It was a welcome relief to find a nearby railing at a convenient height on which we could support our packs without taking them off.

When the train finally did arrive and we had succesfully clambered aboard, Mary and I were able to trade self-satisfied grins because our boarding was somewhat anti-climactic – all went well.  The duffle/backpacks, while heavy, proved to be much more manageable than they had been when carried as armloads.  It was also a great relief to find the train nearly empty.  And so it went throughout the day.  Our route followed the Rhine and was quite scenic with many authentic medievel castles staring down at us from the rocky heights along the way. We made our four transfers with only minor inconviences, such as the lack of an escalator in Dusseldorf and the consequent necessity to drag our weighty baggage up a long series of stairs.  A kindly policeman saw Mary slowly ascending the stairs and offered to help but she stoically declined his offer.  Our train was late arriving at Dusseldorf and we missed our connection but that proved to amount to nothing more than waiting another hour for the next train.

RHINE CASTLE AS SEEN FROM OUR SPEEDING TRAIN

We had allowed an extra day in Amsterdam because we misplaced our flight information and feared we would have to straighten that out with the airline but that was all taken care of over the internet.  So, with a free day on our hands, we rode into the city and walked the always-interesting streets of Amsterdam.  Mary bought some souveneir gifts and  we took a sightseeing ride on one of those glass-topped tourist boats through the canals:

I remembered those boats from when I was a boy and our family visited Holland.  Probably because we were eight and it would have been expensive, our family didn’t ride the boats then.  Many of the houses along the canals are hundreds of years old and quite distinctive with their Dutch gables.  We learned that they are high and narrow because homeowners were taxed according to the width of their homes, not the height.  Each has a beam extending from the gable top so that furniture can be hoisted up to the windows, the staircases being too narrow for access.

Back at the hotel, Mary had trouble getting TV reception.  All that appeared on the screen was “green signal” – or so she thought.  After several unsuccessful attempts, she went down to the concierge and asked her what the “green” message meant.  The concierge had no idea so she accompanied us up to our room.  “That doesn’t say “green signal”;  it says “geen signal”” the amused woman informed us.  “Geen” is Dutch for something like “no or not any.”  A loose cable appeared to have been the problem and our television service was restored – in Dutch.  It’s quite amusing to hear Dutch emanating from the mouths of such notable actors as Brad Pitt and Russel Crowe.

So once again we wait – this time for our flight to Washington DC in a few hours.  I admit to being pleased that we will cover in a matter of hours in a Boeing jet what it took the Pilgrims several months to do in the Mayflower.


THIS IS HOW WE EXPECT TO BE GREETED

After two and a half months in Europe, we’re coming home.  And I must say, we’re ready.  It’s been great but…..

For two of the two and a half months I’ve been preoccupied with an intensive German language program at Sprachakademie in Karlsruhe.  It has gone well and I have learned a lot but it has brought home just how massive an undertaking learning another language is.  At least a full year would be required to truly feel comfortable with a new language.  In my case, that isn’t practicable.

Mary took the trolley into the city today and met me after school for a long-promised visit to the natural history museum.  Karlsruhe museums offer free admission on Fridays so of course we had to go on Friday.  We learned that this giant prehistoric flying creature was neither bird nor dinosaur and that it had fur instead of feathers!  The museum employee who informed us of this was so enthusiastic when he explained this to us.  I think we made his day.  “You’re welcome, museum employee.”

LOOK OUT MARY!

Monday morning at 7 AM we catch a train to Amsterdam.  Wednesday we fly to Washington DC to spend a week with Nicholas & family, then it’s home.

One final cultural peculiarity to bring to your attention:  There is a street on my daily commute into the city that features an unusual window display:

NOT MANNEQUINS

Those figures in the window are not mannequins.  They’re actual women in their underwear.  There are about ten of these display windows in a row.  The windows are adorned with bright placards announcing the obvious: “GIRLS, GIRLS, GIRLS!” The photo is blurry because even though they display themselves willingly to passersby, they don’t willingly pose for photos.  I had to take it as a drive-by from my speeding bicycle.


KARLSRUHE’S HARBOR ON THE RHINE RIVER

This weekend’s adventure was supposed to be a visit to the Rheinhafen, Karlsruhe’s Rhine River harbor.  We rode our bicycles out there on Sunday, which was good because the city traffic was minimal but was bad because the harbor takes Sunday off like everyone else.  Hence, not much to see.  We wanted to see all the big ships unloading and the enormous cranes lifting the containers but no such luck.  The harbor is said to provide much of the raw materials for local industry and it is quite a large facility but we got to see little of it because the gates were closed and the ships weren’t moving.  

Holland may be the bicycle-friendliest country in the world, but Germany holds bicycles (and tricycles) in high regard too.  Most mail, for example, is still delivered by bicycle in Germany.  Here’s a photo taken from our apartment window of our local letter carrier:

DEUTSCHE POSTAL WORKER

It makes a lot of sense I think. When you’re stopping at nearly every house along a street, a bicycle is as fast as a van and a lot cheaper.  One way this is born out is the fact that Deutsche Post, a private corporation, earned a profit of 4 billion dollars last year while the U.S. Postal Service lost as much.  

Some of the postal bikes here have electric motor assist – something I’m sure the workers appreciate. That big hub on the bike in the photo above is an electric motor.

Another German innovation is the beer bike:

BEER BIKE

This thing roams the university district of Karlsruhe on warm days, powered by up to twelve pedalers who drink mugs of beer as they loudly sing their favorite songs accompanied by a blaring stereo system.  It has an on-board tap for dispensing beer and a bartender who doubles as a driver (not simultaneously).

Our two-month stay in Karlsruhe is winding down.  I’ve put over 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) on my bike pedaling back and forth to class each day.  I have one week of classes left and then we face another ordeal on the Deutsche Bahn.  Our train ride to Amsterdam includes four transfers which we are dreading.  Our baggage hasn’t gotten any lighter during our stay.  We hope that by stowing the wheels and hitches of our Bike Friday trailers inside the Samsonite cases we will be able to find space for them on the trains (see the September 2, Freiburg Fiasco post to this blog).  Fingers crossed.


A WARY MARY RIDES THE DEUTSCHE BAHN

Our German in-laws, Wolfgang and Waltraud Frasch, invited us to spend the weekend at their house in Ulm.  We jumped at the opportunity.

Ulm is a two-hour train ride from Wilferdingen (where we’re staying).   It is a historic, medium-sized city on the Danube River in the state of Baden-Wurttemberg in southern Germany.

Waltraud picked us up from the train station on Friday afternoon.  As soon as Wolfgang got home from work, Mary and I were invited to tag along to their ballroom dancing class that evening.  We agreed on the condition that we be granted “Observer Only” status.  I learned long ago that the essence of dance is grace and when ya’ ain’t got no grace, ya got no business dancin’.  We thoroughly enjoyed our observer status and easily resisted numerous entreaties to take to the dance floor.  Mary and I agreed that Wolfgang and Waltraud deserved the  Best in Class prize.

WOLFGANG & WALTRAUD DO THE FOXTROT

Then it was off to a nearby restaurant where I discovered that a liter of German ice beer does wonders for my ability to speak German (or so it seemed to me.)

Saturday was sunny and warm.  The hills were aglow with the brilliant colors of autumn.  Wolfgang led our foursome on a hike through the woods of nearby Blaubeuren where, in addition to savoring views of the village rooftops in the valley, we toured a 1000-year-old monestary and gazed into the deep blue waters of a football-sized natural pool (the Blautopf) that is fed by springwater from the mountain behind it.

BLAUBEUREN WOOD

WHAT IS MARY LAUGHTING AT?

Back at their house, Waltraud capped the day with her delicous gourmet plum cheesecake:


Sunday morning Wolfgang and I took a bike ride.  Wolfgang borrowed a neighbor’s bike for me but he let me ride his super-deluxe mountain bike because my Crocs couldn’t handle the clip-in pedals on the borrowed bike.  Ulm was shrouded by a heavy fog but we climbed to the top of a nearby ridge and broke into the sunshine.

I love his bike!  It handled every obstacle effortlessly.  On the way home we stopped by Seeberger GmbH (corporation) where he works as a salesman.  Seeberger sells gourmet coffee and nut/dried fruit snacks all over Europe.  Check out the Seeberger warehouse – that’s a lot of dried fruit and nuts!   It reminds me of Scrooge McDuck’s bullion depository:
WOLFGANG IN FRONT OF THE SEEBERGER WAREHOUSE

SCROOGE’S BULLION DEPOSITORY (GERMAN VERSION)

We talked the afternoon away while we basked in the sun, had a hamburger lunch, then caught the 3:54 train back to Wilferdingen.  Thank you, Wolfgang and Waltraud for a splendid weekend.


ON THE FRASCH DECK


BRETTEN STREET SCENE

We threw a dart at the map and chose the town of Bretten, some fifteen miles distant from Wilferdingen, for our Saturday ride this week.  Twisted streets and half-timbered houses such as those in the above photo would be considered kitsch anywhere else but they are authentic German here in the state of Baden.  Of course we lost our way once or twice before we arrived in Bretten but that was no great problem because the fields and forests and little villages along the way were sights to behold in their own right.

The weather cooled substantially by the time we got to Bretten and we ate our lunch on a bench in the village square wearing every piece of clothing we had packed.  We had expected the temperature to rise in the usual manner as the day progressed and so had packed thirst quenching Gatorade instead of hot chocolate – big mistake.

Absent a thermos of hot chocolate, the solution to our sudden hypothermia was to hop back on our bicycles and pedal back up the substantial hill we had descended into Bretten.  And, indeed, the exertion worked like a charm.  Half way up the hill, we shed our outer layer of clothing.

On the climb we met this fellow cutting firewood using a saw and splitter powered by his tractor:

Firewood is often to be seen stacked in fields here.  I had wondered why it is cut in 3-ft lengths, which would be too long for all but the largest woodstoves, and now I know the answer.  The farmers use these handy rotary saws on the power takeoffs of their tractors to cuts it into shorter pieces.

Something else unique to Germany are “kindercars” like this boy’s tractor.  They come in many varieties and are of the highest quality, in typical German fashion.  He had towed a load of branches and leaves in his little wagon out of town to dispose of them near this tree.  I asked him if his tractor had an electric motor and he proudly told me that his legs did all the work!

Something not unique to Germany are “fartin’ hounds” but at least we don’t glorify them in America like this poster in Singen seems to be doing:

And finally, I leave you this week with a photo of this devoted couple that I pass every day on my ride to school.   They share a small pasture along the bicycle path and it is not uncommon to catch them affectionately nuzzling each other.  On this particular morning the male goat had his head resting on the female goat’s butt.  “Just as it should be” was Mary’s comment.  “The male pursuing the female.”


CLIMBING THE TOWER STAIRS

My German conversation group sponsored an outing to the Turmberg (tower mountain) Winery in nearby Durlach.  The cost was only three Euros (approx $3.50) per person so I signed us up.  When the day arrived, the weather forecast was kind of iffy with a good chance of rain.  Mary wanted to call the whole thing off but I was adamant that I hadn’t paid six whole Euros for nothing so off we went on our bicycles to Durlach yesterday afternoon.

The flyer for the outing had specified that we should meet at the Turmberg trolley stop on Saturday afternoon.  Seeking to avoid confusion, I had asked the group leader if there were more than one trolley stop in Durlach.  She assured me there was not.  Mary and I had even scouted out the Durlach station ahead of time so as not to have trouble on the appointed day.  We arrived in Durlach ahead of schedule and waited, and waited, and waited…….   No one showed up.

Looking around, I noticed a second trolley line running perpendicular to the main one where we were waiting.  We walked over to it, hopped aboard the first trolley to come by and rode to the end of the line.  To our great relief, the group was there and heading toward the Turmberg.  We joined them and walked to Turmberg Zug which is a railcar towed by a cable up the mountain at an angle of nearly 45 degrees.  Mary surmised the possibility that the cable could break and wondered what would become of us should that happen?  Depending on how far we had ascended, I estimated we would be traveling somewhere between 100 and 300 mph when the railcar struck the steel barrier at the end of the line.  I left it to her imagination what the result would be.

Needless to say, the cable held. At the mountaintop is a stone tower, the last remant of a 12th-century castle that once overlooked the Rhein Valley.  Visitors can climb stairs to the top of the tower where a magnificent view of Durlach and Karlsruhe awaits:


TOWER VIEW

Once we had our fill of the view we joined the rest of the group for a tour of the winery and vinyard that grows on the slope of the mountain.  The young man who was our tour guide went on at some length (in German) about what makes their wine so special.  I got the gist of his talk but Mary could understand none of it.  About this time we noted that the sky had darkened and rain was threatening.  Of even greater urgency to Mary than the weather, however, was her need to find a public  restroom where she could lessen the pressure in her bladder.  I suggested we slip away from the group, which we proceeded to do when Group Leader Margit stopped us.  

“Oh, we’re not wine drinkers” Mary explained, trying to offer a polite explanation for our premature exit from the tour.

“That’s not a problem” Margit said with a smile.  “I brought grape juice for those who don’t drink!”

Rather than admit the true reason for our escape attempt, Mary accepted her fate.   Foiled, we started down the mountain with the rest of the group.  I with resignation, Mary with gritted teeth.

The next part of the tour was a lecture in the vinyard on what makes a good wine grape.  After about twenty minutes to me and an eternity to Mary,  the tour guide decided that the rain was imminent and turned us loose to make our way to the bottom of the hill where the winery is located.  We were to meet up there for wine sampling.

Here was our chance to escape!  The descent was along a lengthy but narrow series of steps.  With an “excuse me” here and and occasional nudge there we slipped past anyone who stood in our way and raced to the bottom of the hill.  Fearing that  Margit was close behind, we practically ran a block at the bottom of the hill until we had rounded a corner and were safely out of sight.  From there we retraced afoot our trolley route through Durlach back to where our bicycles were parked, hopped aboard, and pedaled speedily homeward until we came to a brushy area that Mary deemed sufficiently overgrown to afford her the necessary privacy to pee.

A more relaxed Mary and I rode the rest of the way home just in time to avoid the rain.


WILHELM I

The other day a Karlsruhe native was telling me about all the art museums she has visited and going on and on about great art.  Once she had stopped to catch her breath I told her that I really don’t care much for art museums.  “You don’t find great art inspiring?”she asked incredulously.  I thought about it a moment.

“Well, there is a statue at the traffic circle on Kaiser Allee that is awesome” I allowed.

She waved her hand dismissively, “That old man?”  It was clear she didn’t consider the statue of Kaiser Wilhelm I to be art.  She is not alone in her disregard.  Wilhelm’s statue is surrounded by weeds and a ramshackle chainlink fence.  Because he presided over the suppression of a rebellion in which protestors were killed, his entrance into the city is now symbolically blocked by plaques with the names of those who died.  He was once the German emperor but he is almost a non-entity now.

I don’t know much about Wilhelm (his more famous son, Wilhelm II, was the Kaiser that presided over WWI) but his statue sends a chill down my spine.  Is that not what art is all about?  The sculptor certainly captured something in that statue that resonates with me.

Speaking of statues, Mary and I saw this one on our Sunday stroll through the nearby village of Nottingen.  It’s of a WWII German soldier.  Beside him is a plaque on which the names of the village lads who died in that war are inscribed.  There must be at least thirty!  Nottingen is very small – a few hundred inhabitants.  Just imagine the toll that war took on Germany.  If only Germany had realized what a terrible price it would pay for following Adolf Hitler into WWII.


Mary has joined a fitness studio in town.  She tells me she enjoys her aerobic classes although she complains about the soreness of multiple, heretofore undiscovered, muscles.  She was pleased to discover on the fitness studio’s scale that she has slimmed down by fifteen pounds!  I must say, she is looking HOT!


MARY MEETS THE UNIMOG

Even though the big trip to Rome didn’t work out, bicycles are still an integral part of our European Vacation.  Today we did a fifty-miler to the Unimog Museum in Gaggenau.  It was a beautiful fall day.  The Rheintal-Weg, the bike path we followed, was scenic and, thanks to the Rhine River, FLAT!  

Unimog, if you don’t know, is a very special four-wheel-drive vehicle built by Mercedes Benz.  The first time I ever saw an Unimog I was a little kid in Germany.  It was out in a muddy farmer’s field chugging along with the bed piled high with sugar beets.  So strange and stubby with it’s out-sized wheels and a cab perched atop the front wheels.  4WD vehicles were rare back in the 1950s and Unimog was top-of-the-line 4WD.  It still is – they’re not cheap.  The first ones were sold in 1947 and were intended to be used as a farm tractor that could be driven on pavement at highway speed.  In fact, the museum showcased Unimogs with plows and harrows attached.  I think they really found their niche though as military and exploration vehicles.

On a special course outside the museum building, for six Euros apiece, we could have taken a short ride over rough terrain that included one 60% grade.  Mary was game but I was too cheap.  We settled for a photo of some other people going up a lesser slope:


As I said, the ride down to Gaggenau was a scenic one.  We passed though one especially charming town called Ettlingen.  If you want visit a very “German” town, visit Ettlingen.  It puts Leavenworth to shame:


ETTLINGEN BRIDGE

I found a German conversation group that meets on Tuesdays and Thursday evenings.  Because my regular language class meets from 8:45 to 1:00 there is a 5-hour gap between the two.  On Tuesday I rode back to our apartment between classes but that resulted in two 42-kilometer rides (51 miles) in one day – a bit much!  Thursday, I went to the American Library and worked ahead in my German text for the five hours – also a bit much.  I’m looking for a less exhausting alternative.

Mary found a health club (they’re called fitness studios here) just up the road.  She will start Monday with a Zoomba class – some type of aerobic exercise.


HAUPTSTRASSE, WILFERDINGEN

No thrilling adventures to tell you about this week so I’ll tell you about life in Wilferdingen.

We have a second-story apartment on the right-hand side of the road in the above photo.  I’m told the street is normally relatively quiet but a lot of traffic has been detoured onto the street of late because of construction.  No problem.  Our apartment windows do an amazing job of blocking the traffic noise – which brings up an interesting point.   Doors and windows, rain gutters and roofing tiles – everything that goes into a building here is built solid and expensive.  The door to our apartment building could double as a bank vault door.  The windows must weigh 100 lbs each.  Down the road they’re building some commercial building with a parking garage beneath it and the amount of steel rebar in the concrete is unbelievable – 5/8 diameter every two inches.  These buildings are built to last – but at what price?

All of which brings up another of my discerning observations: why is there no parking space in German towns?  Even the Hauptstrasse above (which translates as Main Street) has very little parking.  All the other streets of town have barely enough width for two cars to pass and that space is reduced to one along much of their length because cars are parked half in the street and half on the sidewalk.  Answer: German towns long pre-date the automobile and in the old days a street only had to be wide enough for horse-drawn carts.

Karlsruhe, the city where I go to school, is about the size of Spokane but it has minimal traffic.  The reason?  Bicycle ridership.  I estimate many thousands of people get around Karsruhe each day by bicycle.  Bike paths parallel many streets and some streets are reserved for bicycles.  Parking is less of a problem too because hundreds of bicycles can be parked where a handful of cars would park.

Germany has issues, however.  Mary says the Germans could learn a thing or two from Americans about toilets.  She calls German toilets “shit catchers.”  “Streaking” seems to be unavoidable.  I would also suggest that they sell milk in cartons bigger than one-liter.  A family of four would have to buy twenty of those piddling things to get through the week.  Their willingness to irradiate the milk makes a lot of sense however.  They don’t need to refrigerate it and the expiration date is several months in the future.

Moving right along…..   The distribution of shopping facilities here takes some getting used to.  “Mom and Pops” abound.  And they’re tucked into the most obscure corners.  Wilferdingen has a hardware store of sorts.  It’s called “Dodi’s” (pronounced “dirtys”).  The entire showroom could fit in the average American living room and it’s located down a little side street.


DODI’S

Sundays are a time for “spazieren gehen” (strolling) here.  Paved footpaths lace the hills around town and a lot of people use them on Sundays.  Benches are placed at convenient intervals along the paths for those who tire or simply want to contemplate.  Intersections are signed for those who are uncertain of their route.  Mary knows more about the paths than I do.  She’s been taking a six-mile walk everyday when I’m at school.


MARY TAKES A BREAK

My bicycle ride to Karlsruhe follows the Pfinz river and is quite flat but all around us are hills.  The views from the hilltops can be serene:


WILFERDINGEN FROM ON HIGH

We rode to the American Library in Karlsruhe today.  We thought it odd that Karlsruhe would have an American Library.  The story is that until twenty years ago there was an American Army base there.  When they closed the base some people lobbied to keep the library building and its contents which they have for twenty years with a lot of volunteer help.  The librarian told me that 3/4 of their patrons are Germans who for one reason or another want reading material in English.  I put a notice on their bulletin board seeking a conversation partner and I checked out two books: biographies of Eisenhower and the actress Helen Mirren.

I never fail to see interesting sights on my ride to school.  Here are some people at a heritage festival in downtown Karlsruhe:


Our kitchen came equipped with little more than a microwave and a toaster but Mary has managed to put together some delicious meals from rice, noodles, bacon, and eggs.  We bought a little frying pan and I heat it with my camping stove.  Add a few slices of German bread “und das schmeckt gut!”