The Brass Monkey

Trip Start Jun 12, 2006
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Trip End Nov 28, 2006


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Wednesday, October 18, 2006

She Said:

This blog isn't really Darmstadt per se, but more so a series of daytrips from Darmstadt. A close family friend, Ed (who is a cousin on my mom's side), offered us a place to stay at his house about thirty minutes outside of Frankfurt. Anxious to see more of Germany, we took a van from Cesky Krumlov to Austria, where we connected with a train to Frankfurt. From there, we hopped on a regional train to Darmstadt where Ed picked us up and took us to his place. I hadn't seen Ed in like fifteen years, and Chad had never met him, so we were grateful for his hospitality and thanked him before we even arrived.

We caught up on our lives since we last saw each other over some deli sandwiches and pickles. Ed took us for a walk around his neighborhood and the "downtown" area, which was pretty small, but located in close proximity to the base where he worked for the American military newspaper, Stars and Stripes. We did our first load of laundry and took a shower in a place with an actual shower door!

The next day, Ed took us in his sleek Mercedes for our first ride on the Autobahn. The rules of the road are strict and heavily enforced in Germany. When they say the left lane is for passing, they are not kidding (no offense gram and gramps, but many people in Delray Beach might benefit from some German highway patrolling!). He had an itinerary planned for the day that included a castle tour, a small town with a very large cathedral, and a wine festival. You could tell he'd played "tour guide" before!

First stop, Schloss (castle) Erwachsene, situated in a small, not too touristy town. We got our tickets for the German-only tour and toured the massive gardens while we waited for it to begin. These gardens were extensive with some of the most awesome landscaping and gardening I've seen since my grandmother used to take us to Longwood Gardens. We joined the tour and were given written English translations so we could follow along. This was a new and interesting way to tour a castle, but after the last guide in Cesky Krumlov, it could only get better. This castle was also more interesting to me, as the inhabiting family (please don't expect me to remember royal family names), were functional and somewhat warm in their décor. The rooms seemed lived in, and the furniture sat in. When we read of how the women powdered themselves under their wigs and required Barbie-size waists to fit in their wardrobe, I had a good laugh with another American woman on the tour.

We got back in the car after a tasty Greek lunch and headed for the town of Speyer. Our purpose was mainly to see a massive cathedral, but I was more impressed with the lively medieval ambiance with tons of pedestrian streets and a weekend festival going on. Just looking at the homes and buildings with their half timbers (a term Chad would continue to use and impress upon me for the next week) was enough for me, but paying a visit to another cathedral, well that was a bonus of course (nothing against JC or cathedrals, but I have definitely hit a wall with cathedrals and religious art). We stopped to pick up some anticipated gummy bears and enjoyed the beautiful weather as we strolled through this quaint town.

Last stop, Bockenheimer Winzerfest for some wine tasting. There was a mini-carnival going on with some small wine booths, so we decided to walk through the town in search of bigger wineries. The first place we stopped felt like we were in someone's backyard with picnic tables and a small pond. We enjoyed some regional white wine, and then proceeded to a more happening tent-like winery. There was a live band playing different English and German cover songs, and we had another glass of regional wine with some tasty cheese.

Since it was Saturday night, we opted out of another winery and decided to go to a military bar showing American football. Watching football, drinking beer, eating crappy bar food, and paying in USD, I almost forgot we were in Germany it felt so much like home - that was precisely the point. Ed explained to us that the bar, and many other places on the base (i.e. Taco Bell), were there to make soldiers feel as much like home as possible. Many of them have never been away from home before, much less in another country. And as I looked around at the young faces in the bar, my heart began to get a little heavy all of a sudden.

Each one of those individuals joined the military for his or her own reason. I realize joining up is still voluntary, but we all know that many join out of necessity (i.e. college education). I began to feel a tinge of guilt for the freedoms of traveling we were enjoying, partly because of people like them who volunteered to defend our country. I couldn't help but think that so many of those faces won't make it home to realize their dreams. So many of those faces will likely be deployed to Iraq sooner or later and won't see a college campus or cheer for a team of their own. But that night, at least, they seemed content with cheering for any team and were happy to have some sense of normalcy on a Saturday evening in the fall.

We began talking to one guy, a Tennessee fan who tolerated Chad's Gator-speak, and they ended up talking about football for like an hour. He said, "I wish I was home watching this game." I wanted to cry. We met another kid who didn't even care which team won, he was just happy to be at a bar watching American football. I watched as another guy walked in with his wife and sat down to enjoy a beer. I wondered how she dealt with the constant possibility of his deployment and if they got married so young because of it. I couldn't get the thought out of my head that many of these young people were going to die.

Chad noticed my emotion and suggested I buy our new Tennessee friend a beer. As I did, I asked him how old he was. He was actually older than I thought, twenty six, and told me he was an information security guy and wouldn't likely be deployed to Iraq. I told him I was happy to hear that, I thanked him and told him that I hoped he could go home soon. He thanked me and said, "I hope so, too."

The next day, we hopped in the car, and Ed took us to the Black Forest region. We hit an enormous amount of construction traffic, so in an effort to avoid it, we ended up taking an even more scenic route. The leaves were beautiful and the ride was peaceful. We stopped for a snack at a small café outside of Baden-Baden, where we arrived soon thereafter. This was another small town, just at the foot of the forest, with pedestrian streets and cafes at every corner. This town felt a bit more affluent with fancy cars, 5-star hotel/spas, and poodles with diamond collars walking around. Still, you couldn't miss the old town charm with a beautiful river running through much of it. We stopped on the way home for some traditional...Mexican food.

Our next daytrip was just the two of us; like most people in the real world, Ed had to work. Without a car, it was a little trickier getting places, so we took a bus to a streetcar to a train, and two hours later, we were in Heidelberg. Yet another cute, little German town adorned with pedestrian streets, cafes, and shops. This town, however, had more of a university essence with an obvious student presence. As we sipped our coffee at an internet café, I watched as students came and went and imagined what college life was like here. We walked up and down the cobblestone streets and hopped on the funicular to see the castle. This castle was actually in ruins, and apparently, that's part of the charm. We walked the grounds with great views of the skyline, looked for footprints of a suitor who was fabled to have jumped from the princess' room three stories high, and took pictures of the biggest keg I've ever seen. As the clouds rolled in, we set ourselves up at a café and turned on the computer, I looked around and realized, we fit right in!

Our final daytrip was to Frankfurt, which is about a half hour away from Darmstadt. Although Frankfurt has an old town, it felt much more like a big city than the other towns we visited. The Old Town is pretty small, but a stark contrast to the city with its remaining half-timbered buildings and church spire. There are more skyscrapers and big city stores than I expected. One of the most interesting pictures Chad took was with and old town building in the forefront with a skyscraper in the background. It really captured the split personality I began to see Frankfurt as having as we wondered through the streets. We utilized the metro system to take us to the different areas around the city. We began again with the university area, but this time, I really felt like I was back in school. There was an area that was like the main "quad" for lack of a better word, with tons of students hanging out and chatting, presumably waiting for their next class. There was a student union and student cafes, all packed to the gills!

After some coffee and exploration, we hopped on the subway to the old town area. Frankfurt is unique to the other towns for many reasons, but one of the main ones is the vast number of museums all situated on the riverfront. You name it; there was a museum for it, many equipped with their own cafes and exhibits. We were enjoying the theme of wandering towns and staying out of museums so much that we agreed we would spare ourselves the expense, and me the agony of going to them that day. Instead we sat in the square, enjoying the weather and people watching, and shared our last frankfurter of the trip (when in Frankfurt, right?).

We headed back to Darmstadt and took Ed for some ice cream. He informed us there was an opening at his newspaper, and the possibility of moving abroad became a topic of conversation. Aside from Chad saying he wants to live in almost every country we've been to and attending school abroad for a semester, we never really had a serious talk about it. Obviously, it wasn't really the time or place, but as Ed talked of American hospitals on base with the possibility of needing a therapist like me, we both looked at each other as if making a mental note to discuss it later. Although I am not looking to ex-pat myself and don't know if I could handle being so far away from my friends and family, the possibility is not out of the question. I am coming to the realization that when one grounded person marries one spontaneous person, the pendulum can swing in either direction, and you never know where you will end up...

He Said:

I would like to take this opportunity to let everyone know that Alli and I are moving to Germany. While we were in Darmstadt, a writing position opened up at the Stars and Stripes newspaper where Ed works, and though I haven't actually been hired for the position - in fact, I haven't even applied for it - I have nonetheless taken the liberty of calling the movers so that our boxes of winter clothes should arrive in the Rhineland by some time next spring to an address that we don't even have yet.

For those of you that don't know, the Stars and Stripes is a newspaper delivered around the world to members of the U.S. Armed Services. It is a First Amendment publication that is officially part of the Department of Defense, meaning that my ultimate boss will be Mr. Donald Rumsfeld, who, of course, also has a boss named George W. Bush. So, I will indirectly be working for the President (insert laugh track here). "Why would I do that? Why?" you might be asking, and the answer is: "To have the chance to live in Germany." I'll take Unique Experiences for 100, Alex.

When we left Cesky Krumlov, I was glad to be going back to Germany so that I could see something besides the interior of a beer hall - No, I didn't just say that. Really, who am I trying to kid here? On the train back to Germany I couldn't help but think that five more days of Oktoberfest would have been just fine!

Instead we settled into a small village near Darmstadt along the Rhine Valley. Thanks to Ed's generous hospitality, we all enjoyed a weekend of daytrips throughout the region, and then as the workweek began, Alli and I made our morning commute to some of the other nearby towns. Those few short days were probably as close to a routine as we've had in months, and we left with a feeling of what it might be like to live in Germany, where it seems there's no such thing as suburban sprawl; where public transportation is as smooth and efficient as anywhere in the world; where people recycle everything; and where the highways have no speed limit, no slow drivers in the left lane, and interestingly enough, a lower percentage of accidents, drunk drivers (even though the drinking age is lower), and traffic-related deaths.

I was really amazed by the Autobahn. It really doesn't look that much different from our interstate system, though the roads are probably maintained to a higher standard, possibly because there isn't nearly as many of them in Germany. The visual differences are on the shoulders of the Autobahn, where you don't see any billboards or advertisements. There are no signs for Stucky's or the Shoney's Breakfast Bar or McDonald's Next Exit - all things that, in reality, could distract a driver and possibly lead to an accident. Distractions are not allowed on the Autobahn, and in fact, long-distance drivers must take a mandatory break after a certain length of time behind the wheel (which I think is three hours) to maintain awareness on the highway.

From the Autobahn you don't see suburban sprawl. The Germans still value their towns and villages, so homes and businesses are clustered in groups around things called city centers. There are no strip malls. Everything is efficiently (and charmingly) located in the city centers, so driving isn't as necessary. People can walk to the market. People probably should walk to the market because the German government taxes gasoline prices right through the roof. Even though I'm probably going to be a car owner again, I think we should do this in the States, too. It's beyond me how people bitch and moan about the prices at the local BP station, when people in Europe are paying more than twice that amount. When you tax gasoline, you encourage people to buy more fuel efficient vehicles. This encourages car manufacturers to design, build, and sell more fuel efficient vehicles. This creates more jobs and decreases our dependence on foreign oil, which, in turn, makes us safer, more independent nation with greater superior technologies.

When you tax gasoline, you also have more money to build cool roads like the Autobahn, where there really is no speed limit, AND, people actually drive in the right lane unless they're passing! I could not believe how every single person moved over when they saw us approaching - rather quickly, I might add - in Ed's Mercedes. First we headed down the Autobahn to Schloss Erwachsene, a summer home for local officials built around immaculate gardens at a time when everyone who was anyone wanted a "Versailles" of their own. Then we crossed the Rhine River into a town aptly named Speyer (pronounced "spire"), where we strolled the promenade looking for gummy bears and visited the famous Romanesque cathedral that towers into the Rhineland skies. Finally, we wound up in a few regional wine gardens and enjoyed some local Riesling with familiar-sounding music.

On the way home, we stopped near the Army base for a few beers and some college football. It was total culture shock. The place only accepted dollars, which I hadn't used in nearly five months. It was strange seeing American money again, and it was even stranger hearing American accents, watching American sports, and eating American food. The place wasn't very crowded, but there were a few soldiers hanging around playing pool and watching the games over a plate of wings and bottles of beer.

The other half of the shock was a realization that many of those kids would be heading to Iraq in the next few months. And they were kids. We talked with Ed about the common traits of today's soldiers, and I think Alli was really shocked to see and hear how so many young kids join the Army simply because they didn't make good enough grades or have enough money to attend college. While this isn't true for everyone, there are certainly many kids who join the Army simply from lack of other alternatives, and the recruiters know this.

That night we met a kid with a thick southern accent who was wearing a shirt that read - anyone, anyone? - Tennessee Volunteers. We reminisced about past UF-UT games over a few beers and both rooted on Vanderbilt in their upset win over Georgia. He looked kind of young, and that bothered the hell out of Alli. She was literally on the verge of tears, especially after he told us that that was his first week in Darmstadt, and he wanted to go back home to his wife. I told him to try to enjoy his time in Germany because some people drain their savings accounts to experience other cultures, and I told Alli that if she felt that bad and needed to do something, she should buy the guy a beer and tell him thanks. Simple gestures are often the most important ones.

He gladly accepted the beer and said he was actually pulling for us to beat Auburn that night. Now listen. I talked to this guy for close to an hour, and he was as big of a Volunteer fan as I am a Gator fan. Insanity can recognize insanity, and there was no way in hell this guy was ever going to root for us to beat Auburn because Tennessee needed Florida to lose if they hope to win the conference. Well, I guess the "Florida Burger" I had for lunch did me no good, because when we woke up on Sunday morning, there was a two-way tie for first in the SEC East between us and Tennessee, and somewhere across town, there was a happy Volunteer fan who probably listened to the game on the phone. (He told us that the previous week he had called his wife and had her put the phone up to the radio so he could hear the Vols. He listened to the entire game on the telephone! I felt his pain.)

That day, Ed took us to see one of Germany's traffic jams, caused by a work zone on the frequently upgraded Autobahn. It actually worked out for the best because Ed turned off the highway on some sort of maintenance exit, and we wound up driving through the hills of the Black Forest enjoying the pleasant weather and sudden hillside vistas. We enjoyed lunch at a bed & breakfast near Baden-Baden, and then headed into town for an enjoyable walk. It was definitely more of an upscale, resort-type town, with famous baths (the town's name means "bath-bath"), spas, and hotels lining a picturesque stream. The most interesting visual was outside the art museum, where clay pots were perched high above the walkway on metal tripods. The looked like giant Sputniks or some sort of contraption from the "War of the Worlds", and I couldn't stop photographing them. That night we had the best Mexican food we've had on the trip so far, and we called it a weekend.

Since we had missed my sister and her boyfriend, Erik, in this part of Germany about a month ago due to biblical flooding in Italy, we decided to ask them what the can't-miss places were in the area. My sister raved about Heidelberg, so that's where we decided to begin our week. We followed Ed's instructions and took the local bus to the local tram to the train station, and we were again blown away by the efficiency and ease of traveling in Germany, as they have one mode of transportation already waiting for the other arrive. We got to Heidelberg in the late morning and walked into the old town filled with students. Heidelberg is home to the oldest university in Germany, and the café we chose seemed to be home to half its students. After catching up on the internet, we headed to the infamous crumbling walls of the Heidelberg Schloss. The semi-decrepit state of the castle, with is free-standing walls and empty facades, really does add to its charm. We enjoyed the views over Heidelberg and the Neckar River, headed to the wine cellar to see the largest wine cask ever used, and we rubbed the brass monkey's mirror for future wealth. I realize why my sister loved Heidelberg so much.

For our final day in the region, we headed to its largest town - Frankfurt. Frankfurt is sleek and modern, as much of it was destroyed in the war. In fact, the only remaining building left standing from Allied bombing was the Cathedral. Still, though, its old town square, Romerberg, was carefully reconstructed. Today, the half-timbered buildings line the square and create an interesting juxtaposition with the modern, glass skyscrapers behind them. Again we enjoyed the great weather, we sat on a bench in the square, and we ate Frankfurt's most famous food - the Frankfurter.

Alli and I are both grateful to Ed for showing us around his adopted home so that we could get a feel for what it's like to be a local. The five days went by very quick, and they left me wanted to see even more of Germany. It's definitely the one country where we've sort of short-changed ourselves as far as giving it enough time goes. But as Alli and I said, we can both see a National Lampoons Stamm Family German Vacation coming soon to theaters near you. Hopefully we'll have everything moved into the new place by then, and God knows everyone's invited for Oktoberfest.

Prost!

Cousin Ed said:

I was looking forward to hosting "Challi" during their half-year travels through Europe. I'm centrally located--near Frankfurt--so I figured at some point they would head in my direction. I hadn't seen Alli since her high school days and, of course, had never met Chad. However, in earlier e-mail exchanges I found out that Chad was suffering from college football deprivation and they were anxious to find a place where Chad could see his beloved Florida Gators on TV. Even though the game started at 3am. Seemed like he would be my kinda guy!

I met Chad and Alli at the Darmstadt train station. I really expected them to be dragging, as they had been on quite a long train ride from the Czech Republic. However, they were good shape--which after so many months on the road is quite an accomplishment. I had earlier promised them laundry service and hot showers. Since I was hosting them over a weekend I decided to take them places where they normally couldn't get to unless they had a car. Since I get a number of friends and family visiting me I have a rule as travel host--I never go to the same place more than two times. First stop on Saturday was a summer palace in a small town outside of Heidelberg. I had been to the palace's huge garden, but never inside. I've been to about 100 of these throughout Europe, so I'm a bit jaded about these buildings and furnishings. The tour was in German, but I had previously mentioned to the guide that we didn't speak German, so the guide agreed to summarize her explanations for us in each of the rooms. We had lunch at a Greek restaurant and Chad and Alli impressed the owner with their near fluency in Greek, acquired earlier this summer. However, I'm not sure what he thought of Chad ordering a "Florida Burger". Chad didn't know what to expect, but if you're in Germany, at a Greek restaurant, your Florida Burger is a piece of beef with pineapple on top. We then headed for Speyer, home to one of the most important cathedrals in all of Germany. The main pedestrian zone is just west of the cathedral. We did mostly window shopping, except for the Gummi Bear store. A couple of times during their stay Chad mentioned possibly staying in Germany to work. I think it was the lure of living in the land of Gummi Bears.

We ended the day by going to a wine festival. Germany produces quite a bit of wine, most of it consumed by Germans as a break from consuming large quantity of beer. The festival wasn't as nice as others I've attended, but Chad & Alli seemed to enjoy themselves. At one winery (they're all located in the village, so we just walked from one to another) they had a band and it played some favorite Oktoberfest songs, in addition to American classics. At another winery we all had a sip of "neuer" wine, which translates--surprise--to "newer wine". It looked like thin honey, but tasted worse.

That night, Saturday, I took the Stamms to a US military bar-restaurant to watch college football. We didn't have a stamm tisch, but the place was pretty open. Being six hours ahead, the first game (12pm on the East Coast) starts at 6pm and the second game at 9:30. They both expressed some culture shock--the bar took US dollars, there was college football on TV and the menu featured "American" food. Unfortunately, someone had hidden all the remotes (staff said it was the manager), so we could only watch one game at a time in the bar. A soldier from Tennessee was wearing his orange Vols shirt, so he and Chad reminisced about past UF vs. UT games.

On Sunday we headed down to the Baden-Baden in the Black Forest. During our traveling we did most of our driving on the Autobahn. I promised I would open it up in the no speed limit area. I usually cruise at about 90 mph, but on an open stretch I went about 135 mph (please see attached video). One reason you can drive so fast is that the roads are in great shape. That means lot of temporary construction when repairs are being made. We hit one stretch of road on the way to Baden-Baden. After being stuck in traffic for over an hour I made a slightly illegal exit and we took the back roads. The leaves were beginning to turn and we had a few nice vistas along the way. Baden-Baden ("Bathe-Bathe") is famous for it's spas. In the 19th century the rich and famous descending upon the town to sit in community bath tubs (I'm not a fan of the experience). I hope Chad and Alli enjoyed themselves, as originally I had suggested somewhere to visit. Alli confirmed that Chad had the sense of humor of a 12 year old, so I was going to take them to the town of Assmannhausen. No, the town wasn't founded by a proctologist. The town is on the Rhine river and there are several river cruise boats we could have taken. However, since the weather wasn't going to be so nice, I decided to go somewhere else.

Sunday dinner we (again) passed on a traditional German restaurant and went to a Mexican restaurant in the town next to my village. Monday and Tuesday I worked, but at night we regathered to discuss the rest of their travel plans. They headed south to Colmar on Wednesday. All in all they were very nice guests and cleaned up after themselves. In fact, I wish I would have showed them where I kept the vacuum cleaner....
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Comments

hemmingway
hemmingway on

Germany
I glad you got to experience the high speed autobaun...like a D-Ticket at Disneyland, huh? Did you happen past the transportaion museum at 'Stemshien' (sound sorta like that) ...visible from the Frankfurt-Munich autobaun. It had a number of big planes mounted on poles out front. Anyway...one of my favorite museums as I am a car nut.
We got our first snow and slick roads this morning. We're putting on the studs sooner than later this year as our third grandchild, Anrick, is due this month. We're thrilled.
It's been fun following you around. We think of you often. Go Gators!
Rick and Judy Wright (Ronda)

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