Thursday, December 8, 2011

Sweatpants Across Europa: Germany

A decade ago, I applied for a work visa in Britain and used it to work and travel for several months. This is that story.  To begin at the beginning, go here.
 
The German trains that connected us to Berlin were beautiful, on time, and flew at nearly one hundred miles per hour. Their interiors resembled space-age executive offices, complete with automatic sliding glass doors and recessed televisions in wood-paneled walls. It was an encouraging introduction to our home for the next week.
 
We were tired but wanted to check out some of the nightlife in the birthplace of electronic music. We agreed to rest until 10 PM and head out for E-Werks, which was, according to our guidebook, one of the original dance clubs in Berlin. We overslept, woke at 11:30, and had a very groggy discussion about whether to just forget it or not. I persuaded Karie to wake up and go to downtown Berlin, so we gathered ourselves and headed out. We had only a vague idea about where E-Werks was located – enough to know that it was too far to walk, so we opted for the subway. At the tube station, our inexact change didn’t lend itself to ticket-buying, so we jumped on without paying and hoped for the best. We made it to our destination without a problem but when we exited the tube, we didn’t see the club at all. In fact, we didn’t see much except empty parking lots and abandoned buildings. No cars, no people, no club, no nothing. We walked the length of Wilhelmstrasse, a street with few memorable qualities except that it was very long and very empty at night, but to no avail. Tired and irritated, we hailed a cabbie and in our best German, repeatedly told him the name and address of our hostel. He understood where we wanted to go, but when I tried to engage him in a conversation about E-Werks, he became very confused, as if such a place never existed. Back at our hostel, we fell asleep quickly, feeling defeated and exhausted. Next time, we decided, we’d buy the updated travel guide.

We took in as much of Berlin as possible the next day, which is to say we missed most of it. Berlin is massive. It sprawls. It is packed with things to see and do. And it never sleeps. If you only have twenty-four hours, it is almost better to skip Berlin and avoid being overwhelmed. We visited several attractions and would have stayed much longer, but we had an appointment to keep.

It was time to head east. In Eisenhuttenstadt, a small city near the Polish border, we were greeted at the station by an old friend of Karie’s, an exchange student who had once stayed with Karie’s family and dutifully kept in contact for many years. This area of Germany still held a few remnants of life behind the iron curtain. Some of the parks were run down or overgrown, older buildings were little more than concrete blocks, and every now and then a “GDR car” would go roaring by.

A close friend of our host referred to communist government-issued cars as GDR (German Democratic Republic) cars. They were very easy to pick out because there was only one model. Imagine a short, boxy, old Volvo without a muffler. They came in several colors, although the only ones we saw were black. Back in East Germany, the waiting list for one of these vehicles was ten years, so most parents put in an order for their children when they were six years old.

We rode (not in a GDR car) to our host's house in the small town of Riessen, a charming, quiet, residential village made up of several winding roads, a few dozen modern-looking homes, and a vast collection of tall pines. Its major landmark was a church which, judging by a few photos and old drawings inside, had changed little since the 15th century.

There were three residents in our host’s home – all women, each from a different generation. They lived in a well-kept two-story house with an attached coup containing chickens, rabbits, hens, and guinea pigs. They fed us hearty German meals – lots of eggs, sausage, and potato salad – and gave us a comfortable bed for a few days. It was the perfect amount of luxury following our hectic spin through Berlin. During our stay, Karie’s friend told us stories about life under communism, which she experienced for most of her childhood. As she explained, money wasn’t valued as much as connections. If somebody needed something, they didn’t buy it because they likely couldn't afford it. They found somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody and they bartered. Modern East Germans can more often buy what they need, she said, so life is more comfortable but also more disconnected.

Our host took us to an old church that held a replica stain glass window. The original window was looted by the Russians during World War II. Lost for decades, it had recently been found and the Russians were soon going to return it. In exchange, the Germans agreed to rebuild a Russian church that was destroyed by Nazis during the war. Even for a non-history-buff like myself, hearing these stories first-hand was unforgettable.

At night we watched German television, which every tourist should do, especially if you can stay up late. On one of the evening talk shows, the host stuffed an entire male chorus into a tiny makeshift sauna and watched them get increasingly miserable. It was brilliant, and I did not need to know a lick of German to follow along.

After saying goodbye the next morning, we departed Riessen and headed south to Dresden. Our hostel included a washing machine that was located in an adjoining dance club. After navigating through hard-partying, dressed-up hipsters in my pajamas with my dirty laundry, I found the washing machines and deposited my clothes. Maybe it was the pulsing music or the strobe lights, but my mind left me and I forgot to remove my valuables from my pants pockets. When I unloaded my laundry, I discovered I had just thoroughly cleansed my passport. Let me tell you, a passport sure looks phony after it has been soaked and tumble-dried. “Meh,” I thought, “What trouble could that be?” I would eventually find out.

From Dresden, it was on to Munich, where we sat outside on a sunny spring day under the trees in a beer garden, thinking about little else than how in the world we were going to finish the gargantuan mugs in our hands. Not only does German beer have twice the alcohol content of most American beer, they insist on giving it to you in a container that could double as a footstool. Karie and I were quite happy for most of that day, which included a visit to a modern art museum. If you ever visit a modern art museum, we heartily recommend going to a beer garden first.

I had been to Munich once before, in college. One of my regrets from that visit (although it was during Oktoberfest, so in another, more accurate sense, there were no regrets), was that I never got to see Neuschwanstein Castle. So we took a day trip to see it. Even though I had high hopes, I was still blown away. Nestled high on a hill in a thick forest deep in the Alps, with tall white towers and blue roofing, it was a phenomenally beautiful structure. From inside, the castle oversaw lower ridges of the Alps and a pristine lake surrounded by small village homes.

It was quite nice even with all the tourists around, which included a family that brought their two-year-old all the way from America to appreciate the intricacies of European architecture. It looked like they were in the process of creating a very painful memory, full of crying and frustration. That poor family made a very convincing case for not bringing small children on international trips.

Wishing we could stay longer than three days, but with other destinations in mind, we left Munich the next morning. On the train ride out of town, we decided to visit Berchtesgaden, a small town near the Austrian border known for being the site of the Eagle’s Nest, Hitler’s vacation home. This side trip was well worth the effort. The train ride into the hills led us on a shady route along a bright green stream. Berchtesgaden sat between two enormous, snow capped peaks and included two cable cars for tourists to take into the hills. We stopped at the tourist office right away, only to discover that the Eagle’s Nest was still closed for the next two weeks of winter, which in Germany apparently continued through April. Not ready to quit, I convinced Karie to ride up the cable car and hike towards Hitler’s hideaway.

The cable car ride included a mid-point where we had to get off our car and onto another. Prior to the transfer, an automated train voice told us to get off, cross a platform, and board one of two cars waiting for us on the other side. We stepped off and headed for a car. Before stepping into our new car, the voice stopped us, saying “not that one…the other one.” I almost got down on my knees and began bowing to the omniscient cable car voice. That is, until we spun around and noticed our ticket saleswoman waving to us from the bottom of the hill. At least, I think she was the mind behind the voice. I wouldn’t put it past German engineers to build human intelligence into their cable car system.

When our cable car stopped, we were about a third of the way up the hill from the Eagle’s Nest, so I once again cajoled Karie into venturing further. We hiked along a path until it seemed that we were definitely going in the wrong direction, took a leap of faith, and started wandering off into the Alpine wilderness in a direction I sort of felt seemed kinda right. It was rough going, what with all the ducking-under-limbs and stepping-across-puddles but we finally came to a clearing where, if you hunched over and peered through the trees at exactly the right angle, you could see the Eagle's Nest using your binoculars. It was an undeniable victory.

Then I turned around and gasped. Nearby, the mountainside fell away and we had a perfect view down the valley, through Berchtesgaden and onto the forests at the base of the Alps. After spending so much time moving among smoggy crowded cities, this combination of clean crisp air, sunshine, and pristine natural beauty was the greatest gift our journey could have presented us. Without a soul in sight, we sat in peace and stared in silence under the snow-capped peaks towering overhead.