Federweiss in my last German fall

Trip Start Oct 24, 2009
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Flag of Germany  , Rhineland-Palatinate,
Sunday, October 30, 2011

The beginning and the ending are always the most spellbinding parts of stories. The first steps
of the journey because of the adolescent fantasy and hazard; the ending because we know that the fantastical reality we have plunged ourselves into is about to become mist, a vanished illusion. An alluring beginning inspires us to tirelessly pursue action. An impending conclusion impregnates us with a sense of panic.

So we begin to turn the pages more slowly and make more conscious use of our bookmarks. We know that once the back cover closes, the characters will fade, and those who
had become our friends, or enemies, will recede into the scenery of our experiences. Once they cease to demand our most immediate attention, their realness is diminished to us. It is only later, when we revisit our old companions, that we realize that the magic is changed, less glossy, and not to be felt as it was the first time. The second time Holmes lures the Hound of the Baskervilles into his trap is less captivating than the first. The tragedy of
Valentin’s death in Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman is not as heart-rending after we experience it once. Today I paused in my reading for a moment and noticed that my left hand held twice the
volume of pages as my right hand. So I went outside to feel in the crisp fall air, and with every breath, time slowed down a little.

The apple tree and the walnut tree have littered the ground with their fruits, and the creeping ivy that clings to the rear of our house bleeds a slow, red death as winter encroaches. The grass on the hills remains green, but the days grow shorter like a candle lit at both ends, and the verdure will soon lose heart and turn brown. Then, with the first snow, the emerald and forest of the
Rheinland countryside, turned red and orange and then yellow, will be replaced by white, and I will have seen my final German autumn. Of all the far-reaching adventures Tracy and I have had since I last wrote, my own backyard was what stirred me to take up the pen again.

One recent afternoon after German class, I got on the Autobahn and headed in the opposite direction of where I wanted to go, true to form.  After one failed attempt at turning around, I tried again at one of the many Kaiserslautern exits, keeping an eye out for a
convenient place to pull over. I passed by the Vogelweh military base and through a small commercial area before finding a neighborhood that served my purposes. As I navigated my way back toward the Autobahn, something at the side of the road caught my eye. A homemade sign, yellow with red lettering: Neuerwein. Impulsively, I pulled into an adjacent parking lot.

Just the previous week I had learned about Neuerwein in my German class. The teacher, a near-elderly woman holding what she professes to be “traditional German values,” explained that this particular German sweet wine is only available in the fall, and should be enjoyed with Zwiebelkuchen, that is, onion tart. Neuerwein is also commonly referred to as Federweiß in Rheinland-Pfalz, a bit of knowledge about the local culture that I wanted to show off to whoever was selling the wine.

The merchant was a middle-aged woman with a round face and flat, brown hair to her chin. She
looked like she had been selling produce all her life. When I asked her if she had the wine I was after, she replied, ja, and pointed to a small mountain of neatly arranged plastic tanks I had just
walked by. The shape of the vessels gave the impression that they should have held tractor fuel, and the color of the liquid through the clear plastic told me as much, but I grabbed a jug nonetheless and made my first Federweiß purchase. My change was 2€, and as she handed me the single gold and silver coin, she held her left hand up, wrist bent, with fingers pointing toward the ground. The woman looked at me rather intently, and uttered something that sounded like advice or a warning. I did not understand a single word and asked her to please repeat. The second time she was clearly speaking in code, and I smiled and nodded politely. I
thought perhaps she was telling me to keep the cap on securely while driving.

That evening, I cracked the seal on the jug to give this new, novel beverage a taste test. As I
twisted the red cap over the mouth, the contents erupted like a shaken soda. Immediately
I tightened the top and hastened to the kitchen sink, leaving a trail of sweet, white, and apparently sparkling wine on the floor behind me. After I wiped down the jug and cleaned the floor, I poured myself a few ounces for a taste. It was way too sweet with only a mild taste of alcohol. Strange, my teacher had earlier boasted of the wine’s potency. The aroma was slightly sickening, too, reminiscent of the way your breath smells to yourself after vomiting. Then the pieces of the puzzle came together: the merchant’s hand gesture, the fizzing, the overwhelming
sweetness, the disconcerting scent. She was telling me not to open the cap until the wine finished fermenting. I put the large vessel of Federweiß back on the pantry shelf with the cap tight and secure where it remained unopened for four days.

On that fourth day, I poured myself a small glass of sweet wine and walked out into the
backyard with the dogs. It tasted better – not perfect, but more like I thought it should. We went up the wooden-beam stairs secured by long metal spikes to the tiered dirt, behind the wood-burning oven, and I sat on a bench beneath a walnut tree. The dogs trotted about and sniffed things. The sky was overcast and the air was cool and markedly autumn-like. I closed my eyes, inhaled deeply, and slowly released, and was rewarded with a complex bouquet. A fire
burning somewhere in the distance, and I detected a trace of manure from the cow pastures that surround our tiny village. My neighbors’ busy, tangled gardens, with harsh, dark plants. The decomposing apples in the compost pile. The red ivy that embraces the house had lost a few leaves from a few days before. A familiar thud sounded behind me as an apple fell from the tree to meet the ground. A high-up walnut rustled through the drying leaves before cracking on a
stone near my bench.

Everything was alive, yet still; vibrant, yet monochrome. It felt like the German countryside; it
felt like I expected it to feel. Sensing that the sugars of spring were consumed by fall, I smiled to myself because I knew that this place had become real to me: the minerals of the waters, the sweet acidity of the fruit, the pungent barnyard, the reds, the greens, the browns. It had leavened properly in me and was ready to be enjoyed as life.
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