Sunday, July 20, 2008

On Tour: Germany

Our friends Chris and Melissa are a mixed couple. Not in the racial sense – you wouldn’t be able to tell from looking at them that they weren’t from the same town, and they’re so evenly matched in disposition you might think they were brother and sister. But she’s from the south – Kentucky – and he’s from the south of Germany –Bavaria – so when they decided to get married it was apparent that both of their families would demand a wedding on their respective shores. Hence, last month they were wed in Louisville and last weekend they did it again in Schwandorf, Bavaria.

Christine and I told them from the start that we’d only be able to attend one of the weddings, and especially after Canadian Customs didn’t stamp my newly-minted passport on our recent trip to Toronto I wanted to finally have a documented trip out of the U.S.

Our flight out was to Munich, and we even got seats together, which was fortuitous since we'd booked last minute – I’d just bought and paid for a ring, and I couldn’t help myself from popping the question 3 hours into the flight. I’d thought up a scheme involving the flight attendants where they’d ask us if we’d like anything, I’d say, “Yes, I’d like a ring, please,” they’d procure it, and I’d ask her to marry me with the smiling stewardesses looking at us in approval, but I decided against it when both of the flight attendants were men. How it happened was somewhat less planned – she got up to use the restroom and when she came back I let her in, then got on one knee between the seats – not an easy task in Economy Class – and asked her to marry me. And thus did we leave the ground single and land engaged.

Which made the rest of our trip somewhat of an engagement honeymoon. We landed in Munich at 1:00am EST, or 7:00 in the morning there, which meant we we’d missed out on a night’s sleep. We were lucky Hotel Royal was both near the Hauptbahnhof and allowed us to check in early. We got in a couple hours of sleep, then headed out to meet Melissa, her family, and Chris’s brother Stefan at the Englischer Garten. It was there that our weekend of heavy drinking began. Both Christine and I had the Weisse Bier in mugs that were bigger than our heads while enjoying the greenery and artificial ponds as well as our first opportunity to use our 2 years of college German.

After a good 3 hours of drinking, Stefan took all of us from there to the Hofbräuhaus, where there were more Americans than Germans. We enjoyed the enjoyed the dirndels and lederhosen, and even got the pretzel girl to take a pic with us. Afterwards Stefan took us to a more low-key place, where I promptly fell asleep at the table.

The details of the night are a bit hazy, but we somehow made it back to our hotel and the next morning we had the hotel’s breakfast – which was delicious, by the way – and headed over to the Marienplatz to see the world-famous glockenspiel before splitting town for Regensburg. Our timing was perfect as the noonday tinkerbell chimes were playing on our arrival. I have to say, though, that my big discovery in Munich was the Deutsches Jagd- und Fischereimuseum, complete with a giant catfish statue in the front and wooden fishing reels and very disturbing ancient paintings of hunters in heated battle with their fictional prey inside.

When we boarded the Deutsche Bahn (DB) train, we were surprised how nice the plush seats were, folding down for sleeping in roomy suites holding 6 capacity . We enjoyed this for about an hour of our 1 1/2 hour trip, until the conductor finally came by for our tickets, saying yada-yada-ersterklasse-yada-yada while pointing at the big “1” on the door until we took our places at a table in the adjoining dining car for the rest of the trip.

I was disturbed to find the train station at Regensburg was surrounded by a shopping center that wouldn’t have looked out of place in any American town its size, but Christine told me to just keep moving, it only gets better. I’m glad I listened; after we checked in at the Hotel Ibis, we went directly down Martin-Luther-Straße into the. Coolest. Town. Ever.

It’s hard not to sound like a dumb American tourist at this point, but it was just so, well, different. The way each street led you down its own cobblestone path, cathedrals that truly felt sacred (except for the 2 neighborhood toughs drinking from their beer bottles on the steps), and the bier, er, beer…We started out with dunkelweissen and this mixture of beer, cherry brandy and coke that labeled us as out-of-towners – hey, the dunkelweissen was great – then made our way past the Rathaus and down the Donau, with stops at 2 or 3 more biergartens along the way, and ended up at this renaissance fair on the river (they called it the Regensburger Spectaculum).

But by far my favorite part of the Regensburg was our 4-hour stay at the Spitalgarten, not just for its fine selection of weissebier but for our conversation with an older German couple that sat down at our table. Both Christine and I had 2 years of German in college to fulfill our foreign language requirements and like most American college students hadn’t use it since, but we’d been slowly making our way back into the language ever since our arrival. But we were thrust into full conversational form when this cheerful lady with lots of makeup asked us in German if they could sit with us while her companion looked the other way. I’m pretty sure she thought we were German, and her man harrumphed in disgust when we said in our broken German that we were Americans and our German wasn’t that good. But she sat down anyway, and tried to speak to us in English. It turned out her English was about as good as our German.

But we managed to string together a conversation in Germenglish, and the woman seemed quite taken with the novelty of it all. And he warmed up to us eventually as well, eventually getting through to us that his wife had died 15 years back and he wasn’t getting married again, then showing us pictures of the cottage his companion at the table was moving into and complaining that it wasn’t any different from her old one, which he then showed us a picture of; he was right, they looked identical to us. She told us how she had one son from from her only marriage, and then I thought she was talking about church – Kirche in German – and started to lose interest, but Christine then pointed out she was actually talking about her job sorting cherries – kirschen – and pointed to the woman’s nails, which were stained completely black. They bought us round after round of bier, and we all together watched the sun set over the Donau.

The next morning it was off to Schwandorf, and Chris and Melissa’s wedding. Unlike our train to Regensburg, this one was really crowded - we seemed to be on the G train of Bavaria, as it was only 3 cars long and there was a very drunk guy spilling beer all over the woman who had to sit next to him. But it was short at least, and we were at the Schwandorf station within a half hour. Outside the station, we saw a group of people dressed up, and took a chance that they were also headed to the wedding.

“Fahren sie zum Kleins?” I asked in my broken-but-less-hesitant-than-yesterday German.

“Sorry,” one of the women in the group said. “We’re American.” Turned out one couple was coming from Frankfurt and the other from Helsinki. We offered to share a cab, but they insisted they had a car coming for them. It’s funny, we didn’t see much of them again until 3:00 the next morning at the reception, when we discovered we were all staying at the same bed and breakfast and made the drunken decision to walk the 3 miles back there. But more on that later.

The time between our arrival at Chris’s parents’ house and the reception was a blur of friends, relatives, friends of relatives, relatives of friends, friends of friends, relatives of relatives, and a magnificently corpulent Bavarian priest who attempted to do the nuptials in both German and his wonderfully broken English in the small but heavily decorated country church where Chris was once an alter boy. Oh, and the ringbearer had a fauxhawk. Classic.

And then the reception started. Held at Zum Birnthaler outside the neighboring village of Krachenhausen on a meandering river (every town we go to in Bavaria seems to have one!), the reception lasted from 2:00 in the afternoon until well after we left at 2:00 the following morning. There was a Bavarian wedding band playing a voluminous mix of polkas, American pop, wedding novelty songs, and wild electric keyboard solos, 4 or 5 meals scattered throughout, a few of Chris’s old-school friends in their dirndels and lederhosen, and an open bar with unlimited draughts of – you guessed it – weisse bier. By the time the midnight hour rolled around , both Christine and I were pleasantly glowing but surprisingly not drunk – ah, the fine art of extended, sustained drinking.

It was around 1:00 when we ran into the Americans from the train station, and they all seemed in the same state. So ebullient did we all feel, in fact, that when we discovered we were all staying at the same place we decided we’d just walk the 3 miles to 12 Ringstraße together. It turns out that, it being so far in the country and all, they don’t bother with streetlights outside the town, so most of the walk was pitch black except for the moon’s reflection on the river we walked along, and one of the women with us, an urban planner in Chicago, freaked out thinking there was someone or something following us (it didn’t help that her husband kept saying he heard footsteps behind us).

Alas, we made it there without being hacked to bits by any natives, and the next morning we woke up, dressed, and met our hostess Frau Schön downstairs for breakfast. We had a pleasant conversation in Germenglish with her and Herr Schön while waiting for our ride to Frankfurt, and he even loaded us up with some fresh tomatoes from their garden for our trip. This was our only car experience in Germany – we rode with another mixed German-American couple who worked with Chris at Lufthansa, and we got a definite feel for German highway velocity. It ain’t just the Autobahn.

It may have been the weather (cloudy with patches of rain, as opposed to sunny and perfect the day before), it may have been that we didn’t arrived until well into the afternoon, it may have been that we were still bushed from the night before, but Frankfurt was a bit of a letdown. Bombed heavily during WWII, the architecture now is pretty haphazard – in fact, it reminds me quite a bit of NYC. There was an Ironman Triathlon going on well into the evening, so we just sauntered around the river mingling and then avoiding the massive crowds of heavily spandexed Germans before eating dinner at an average restaurant and retreating to the hotel for some German television. (I have to say, I thought Frankfurt-style Wurst tasted a ,lot like hot dogs – then I thought about it, and what’s another name for hot dogs? Frankfurters. And that, my friends, is what I learned on my first trip to Germany.)

And the next day, after waiting 45 minutes for our subway train (another way Frankfurt is like New York), we got to the airport and discovered that due to the amount of people already boarded, we could only fly in Business Class. Man, I didn’t want that 7-hour flight to end – massaging seats that reclined into beds, warm towels, gourmet meals with wine, we even got our own slippers. I personally think that’s how they tell the Business Class from the Economy chumps – I swear that when I went to use the Business Class restroom, the flight attendant looked down at my feet, saw my slippers, and nodded approvingly before letting me pass.

And then we were back in Jersey. It was at Customs that I knew I was back:

Customs Guy (looking at my passport): “Business trip?”

Me: “No, wedding.”

CG: “You come back married?”

Me: “No, engaged.”

CG (Shrugging and handing me my passport without ever looking up): “Takes all kinds, I guess.”

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