Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Driving Fast to the Middle Ages

Early Sunday morning we woke up to rain and did what you should do on a free Sunday when woken up by rain. We went back to sleep until a symphony of church bells rang through Frankfurt and made waking up glorious.

After realizing that Delta had still not delivered my lost luggage, we set out to find some more appropriate shoes for me. (We had left southern California in a heat wave and I had been wearing sandals on the plane.) We wandered around a cold and somewhat dreary Frankfurt for a little while until we realized that nearly all stores are closed for Sunday mornings, so I settled into wearing Kip’s shoes for a second day and we made plans to explore the area around Frankfurt.

Kip wanted to rent a car and try out the autobahn. I wanted to see the Gutenberg museum and reveal in a little history and then drive up the Rhine Valley, so we rented a car at the train station near our hotel and headed off into the realm of international driving.

I was not interested in challenging the autobahn. I had accidentally let my California driver’s license expire, so I had the perfect excuse. But driving on the autobahn was definitely on Kip’s bucket list and he was eager to experience driving without a speed limit.

Without a speed limit sports cars fly as fast as possible in the left lane while other drivers scramble to move over to the right lane. Traffic can stop on a dime.

Kip, of course, did a great job while I sat in the passenger seat pleading, “careful, careful, careful, please careful.” He was able to top 100 mph in our little economy sized, fuel-efficient car.

It could have been very difficult to navigate driving in another country with different rules and signs exclusively in German, but we rented a GPS with our car and it was amazing. I am so used to using Google Maps that I rarely use a  GPS anymore, but in this environment it was extremely helpful.

The Gutenberg museum was great. I have been to other museum exhibits on printing, but it was inspiring to actually see a Guttenberg Bible and realizing how it changed the world in so many ways.

Sunday afternoon plaza filled with families walking around shopping. It seems to have been Fashion Sunday in Mainz. There were several little runway shows.

These girls are modeling dresses made entirely from newspaper.

Trying to look cool in Kip's shoes.

After the museum we wandered around Mainz, enjoyed walking with the crowds of Germans out enjoying Sunday afternoon shopping and snacking. We tried the delicious döner, a popular Turkish/German sandwich that resembles a gyro in German bread instead of traditional flatbread. I understand that Turkish workers arrived in Germany after World War II and stayed, although never quite assimilating into traditional German culture. In a way the popularity of the döner is a validation of their growing subculture in a changing Germany. We Americans take multiculturalism for granted.

Who needs a museum; every food stand is a legacy to history and culture?

And going back further into history, food and how it shapes a culture, we headed out of town and into the Rhine Valley. We had spent a little too much time in Mainz, so we only had a few hours of light to see the epic Rhine Valley with it’s medieval villages and castles lining the Rhine River. In this notorious corner of Germany vineyards cascade down steep river banks, providing what seems to be the only other industry other than tourism.

When we realized we would be soon losing light we pulled over at Bacharach, a town with 700-year-old half timbered houses and cobblestone streets. Once we walked through the old city gates it was like waking up in Disneyland’s Fantasy World. I am quite sure Walt Disney studied this area in designing his early films and theme park. He recreated it well.

This little town is famous for its wine festival celebrating their traditional Riesling variety. The name of the town literally means "Alter of Bacchus."

We climbed the 14th century city tower that once stood as one of several ramparts around the city and followed a path where the wall once was. It was the first time of many times this week that I was glad for our Malibu hill training. It’s nice to be able to run up mountains for fun.

You can climb through the tower and walk along the path that was once the old city walls.

As it got dark we found Altes Haus, literally translated Old House, and tried some of the local Riesling wine, reibekuchen (potato pancakes) and something that was like country fried pork. It was pretty good, but characteristically heavy. I liked German food, but we often had to split meals and eat only twice a day because the cuisine was so rich. And then after walking more we found the local Italian gelato place and had their tourist specialty – Riesling ice cream.

The name Altes Haus is no joke. It was built in 1368! The food was pretty good too.

Are we in Disneyland?

It was a wonderful day, and really just a small sample of a small, but famous area of Germany. I would have enjoyed spending a week riding bikes up the Rhine River and taking in the beauty. Maybe next time.


Tuesday, October 2, 2012

German Hospitality and the Wurst Way to Get a Hot Dog

Beer and brats at a Saturday volkfest in Frankfurt.

Our European adventure began like all other modern transglobal expeditions – at the airport. With a six hour flight to New York followed by a nine hour red-eye to Frankfurt, Kip thought it would be cool to spend our four-hour layover running into the city to see the 911 Memorial. I was craving a NYC street  hotdog, so I set aside my concerns and decided to go for it. It was a fun idea to race around train stations and the subway, but by the time we got to the 911 Memorial we discovered we need a timed ticket to go inside and it was already time to head back to the airport. We found our hot dog and barely made it back to Kennedy as the last passengers were boarding the plane. And maybe that is why my luggage went to Paris instead of Frankfurt.

On the quest for a NYC street hot dog. What were we thinking?

So much for a hot dog,

I should have known we were headed to the very birthplace of sausaged meat.

When we got to Frankfurt Saturday morning we immediately checked into a chic cheap hotel with a recycled jeans theme and took a jet lag nap. We woke up hungry and disoriented and decided to take the advice of the German travel guide I picked up at the library before we left and we headed out to find the Saturday farmers market.

We walked a mile or so through Frankfurt and found the most delightful farmers’ market I have ever seen. Fall was in full swing and there were stands of local apples and squash and everything you would expect to see on a fall table. Frankfurt is famous for its Apfelwein, a cross between apple cider and weak beer, so several vendors were selling wine glasses of the yellow stuff. I tried to use a little German to order and was reminded that Germans count “one” on their thumbs so holding up an index finger and saying “I’d like one,” is likely to produce confused looks from the server and two glasses. With the help of a couple English speaking students we managed to get one glass to share.

The real treat at this mini Oktoberfest was a mobile restaurant serving up plates of sauerkraut, bratwursts, pork, fried potatoes and everything else characteristically German. Everything was heated over gigantic cast iron frying pans and handed to customers on real ceramic plates which they expected patrons to return for a one Euro deposit.

We got steaming plates of food and found a place at a crowded picnic table. Having read that it was acceptable etiquette to ask if you could join a table, we found a friendly couple and joined their conversation. They had lived in America, spoke perfect English and were delighted to include us. The husband who was a proud Bavarian told us all about that area of Germany. He was wearing the traditional Bavarian coat and had just come from Munich for the opening of Oktoberfest there. When we got ready to leave they invited us to join them later that evening for dinner with the rest of their family.
Tired and jet lagged but happy

Sharing food and stories with our new friends. The "grandmas" were the best. They laughed the entire meal. I have no idea what the jokes were about, but they seemed to be enjoying their beer too.

We took our new friends up on their offer and had one of the richest cultural experiences a tourist can find. The crowded restaurant was a traditional eatery with long narrow tables each occupied by large groups sharing pitchers of Apfelwein and plates of savory meats, sauerkraut and pork. The couple and their adult children and their childrens’ friends filled the long table almost uncomfortably, but when we arrived they squeezed together and made room for us. They treated us like celebrities and wanted to hear all about our travels and our life in the US. They explained everything about the food, including the tip that most of them watered the Apfelwein with soda to make it more palatable, and then they insisted on treating us.

Sharing a toast of peach liqueur with the German family at Adolf Wagner's.

Kip and I have always valued hospitality and we try to be generous to friends and strangers, but we were both astonished at this German family’s eagerness to welcome us. It was the kind of kindness that has life power. Once you have experienced such hospitality you want to offer it to someone else. 

How Adventures Come to Be

Great opportunities rarely come at opportune times.

Some people are skilled at making plans and casting off into safe waters. Our only talent seems to lie in holding hands and charging straight into the unknown. Sometimes it doesn’t work out, but most of time, when I am with Kip at least, we seem to have the best adventures. It might be that we work well together, but I think it is more than that, I think that God has blessed us over and over again. He knows our hearts and He delights in giving us adventure, beauty and opportunity to see His hand at work in the world.

The weather in Germany changes rapidly. This vibrant rainbow spanned the skies over a rural road at the beginning of our road trip.

A German Adventure

I like to move. I love to run. I love to hike. I love a good road trip. There is just something incredibly special about looking at a map and finding yourself there, in real time, taking pictures to prove it.

But I was not really prepared for this trip to Germany. It came in late September, just after the kids had started a new school year. Micah had just started a new homeschooling high school program, and I hated to take a trip just as she was getting into the new routine. We had also just returned from a two-week vacation with my family that included a six-day road trip to Seattle and week-long cruise to Alaska. It didn’t seem like the best time to go to Europe, but Kip had a conference scheduled and enough sky miles for me to fly for free. My parents said they were available to host the kids in Oklahoma. So we decided to seize the opportunity.

To be honest, I half expected German food to be bland and the people to be somewhat cold. When we traveled through Norway we found people to be polite but distant, and I was expecting the same in Germany. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Almost as soon as we arrived we found Germans to be some of the warmest people we have ever met in our travels. And the food was great too. I had sauerkraut about a dozen times over the week we were there and it was always different. The German Brotkultur (bread culture) is inspiring too. There was no shortage of delicious and diverse breads at every meal and I found myself looking forward to trying my hand at baking again..

Bakery in Dinkelsbühl

Kip getting German with the bratwurst, sauerkraut and beer at an inn along the Romantische Straße.

We rode trains, stayed in unusual hotels, ate amazing local food, met great people, rented a car and drove on the autobahn as well as on cobblestone streets of medieval towns. We explored castles and vineyards and museums and Gothic churches. Towards the end of the week we decided to scrap our plans to go to Oktoberfest in Munich and headed south on an unlikely road trip to Venice. We made it to Venice around sunset and spent the evening walking Venice streets, eating pasta along a canal, watching the gondolas and feeling completely amazed that we were there. It was an adventure of the best kind and it is going to take several blog entries to tell half the stories.

The end of the road trip. Venice.