Sunday, July 28, 2013

Pass the Buttermilk Please

As we drive rapidly (in Europe that translates to 130 kilometers an hour) toward the end of our trip, I have decided on a theme for our trip.  I know, I know, themes are usually chosen at the beginning of a journey, but this theme is one of retrospect.  The unofficial, irrevocable,  singularly chosen theme of our trip is..."It's Special to This Region!"  Whenever some new activity or food was met with resistance, someone would pull this catch phrase out of the air and the decision was made.  It was happening.  

The kids, being the brilliant and talented, figured out early on that this was the theme.   The relatives and friends we visited (similarly brilliant and talented) have figured out this theme as well.  It has become sort of a catch phrase around us.  I like it.  And I usually liked the outcome.  

Try some homemade apple's special to this region.
Let's visit the dairy to buy milk and butter from an honor-system's special to this region.
Let's climb the alps...they're special to this region.
Let's eat in an outside bier garden while listening to music for's special to this region.
Let's visit ancient cathedrals, castles, churches, salt mines, forests, lakes, alms, etc...they are all special to this region.

I apologize to those who have been following along on our trip and thought I was the bold adventurous type...I don't care how special it was, or how small the region, buttermilk will remain special to region...for others.  They can have my share.

We have done things in these fortunate five weeks that a lot of people have only on a bucket list that lies somewhere in the back of their hopeful minds.  Visit Europe.  Ride a gondola.  Swim the Adriatic.  Walk from Germany to Austria.  Ride a bike to a bakery for Italy.  Fire a a castle.  Walk where kings and queens have walked.  Eat an ice cream cone on a mountain top.  Drive really fast on the autobahn.  We've done them all...and they were all special to this region.

There was something else that was very special to this region...the people who have treated us so very well.  We have been fed, taken in, fed, pampered, fed, cared for, fed, taken on tours, fed, welcomed, fed, had schedules overturned for, fed, chauffeured, fed, loved, and given food,  (I know you thought I was going to say, 'fed' again, but I read once in a book about being a good writer who wants to be rich and famous that you shouldn't be too predictable).

I cannot even express how grateful we are to every one of the families that have allowed us to park our weary band of travelers in front of their houses and in the midst of their lives for extended periods of time.  There is an old saying that says fish and visitors both smell after three days.  If that is true, we must be absolutely stinky, in a metaphorical hygienic sort of way of course.  I can not fully express the gratitude and genuine thanks I feel toward everyone who have taken time out of their daily lives to accommodate us.  I can say, when you come to our area we will try to repay the favors.  Instead of ancient cathedrals and bier gardens we have Golden Gates and sourdough bread bowls with clam chowder...but we like it.  We can work to find things that are special to our region.

Thank you     X    999   =    Still not enough!

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Parles Vous German

As we travel through Germany I am making a discovery of sorts.  There are many German words that you can figure out if you have a decent English vocabulary.  I think I have stumbled upon the reason...and it is not what you may think.  

There are scholars and linguists who may tell you that the reason there are many language similarities between English and German because many of the roots of English are Germanic in nature and therefor and so on and blah blah blah.  My blog shall not become a lecture series!  After weeks of imaginary research I have discovered that the truth behind these so called "roots" in our language is due to a guy with a hearing problem, a speech impediment, and a sense of humor.  I will now pause for a moment while academics the world round slap their palms to their foreheads and reconsider their chosen professions.  Also, this would be a good time for all of you students writing final exams to delete everything you have already written and instead write about the mumbling guy.  

Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that Germany was established first.  The fact that there are cities here that trace back to dates that end in "B.C." should be help you accept this, but we won't quibble over facts.  So people were speaking German a long time before America was a country.  Then a guy named Wolfgang traveled over to America to establish a language.  (Prior to Wolfgang's arrival Americans just sat around saying "forsooth" a lot.)  Well he met Fred (Wolfgang spelled it Pfred) and decided to have some fun trying to communicate.  I think it went something like this.

Wolfgang:  Hallo
Pfred: huh?  I mean, huh forsooth?'s a greeting.
Pfred (ears still ringing from shooting at squirrels) Hello got it!
So I see you live in a hutte.
That there? it.
May I have an apfel?
Here you go...enjoy...let me write that down.  Apple.
You don't seem very bright Pfred...may I speak to your vater?
My father?  I guess, he's over there.
Hey! Who ist sie?
Who is she? Forsooth!
Sie ist your schwester.  
My sister?  If you say so.

It went on and on like this for hours until the two of them had come up with the basics of a new language.  During a thunderstorm Wolfgang said "donner", Pfred wrote down "thunder".  Pfred pointed at the "flowers" and Wolfgang said they were "blumen". Pfred said, "of course they are blooming...they're flowers!"  And with that a comedy routine was born.

I have been able to follow along with many stories that Sylvia has told by just listening closely and picking out key words.  It's interesting how much you can pick up on when you know the story of Wolfgang and Pfred.  Of course they didn't get everything mixed up.  Camera, for instance, is kamera.  Ya is ya.  There are many more but I keep vergessen (forgetting).

I tried to put my newfound language into practice when I asked about going to the apothecary to get some medicine.  It is spelled apotheke and it has that mortar and pestle symbol next to the words so I was able to figure it out.  I was not, however, able to pronounce this new word.  I said something like (a POTH o  k) and was met by confused looks from everyone.  I said it again.  Nothing.  I knew it was the right place to talk about.  I knew it was where we would need to go.  Still nothing.  Then I explained that it was where you needed to go to get band aids or rubbing alcohol or cotton balls..."Oh!!!  Ah po TAY KAY!"  Then they laughed and pointed and called me Pfred.  I think that I will come up with a game that involves pronouncing words the wrong way with the wrong emphasis on the wrong syllables.  It could be lots of fun.  I won't try to let the fact that they already have such a game stand in my way!  I am on a mission!

There are a lot of things that make sense when trying to learn German.  Tired, for instance, is müde in German.  It's like you are pronouncing the word "moody" with a rubber band wrapped around your lips.  I think anyone who has been near a two year old would be able to tell you that moody and tired go hand in hand.

The last one I want to talk about takes a bit of explanation since I have discovered that there are many new German readers of the blog.  Der Weinerschnitzel is a restaurant in America that serves hot dogs.  They specialize in them.  I have never been there.  Apparently my parents never thought there was anything special enough about hot dogs to go to a restaurant to eat them...even if that restaurant specialized in them.  I have continued this tradition of not going.  Also, now that I am embracing my German roots, I know that true Weinerschnitzel is delicious and breaded, and seasoned, and has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with hot dogs, and I'm hungry!  The point is, if you are from the land of hot dog restaurants and wish to eat something that is hot dog shaped, you should order something completely different than a Weinerschnitzel.

In conclusion, I will say that all of this food and language talk has reminded me of a joke.  And it fits in to this topic!  But I have decided that I will not tell it at this time.  You see, German sausage jokes are the wurst!

Thursday, July 18, 2013


Yesterday we got to go to one of my favorite cities in the world.  Salzburg.  If you've never been, I can describe it in one word...absolutely without a doubt undeniably spectacular.  (Ok, so I'm no good at counting...but I know a beautiful city when I see one).  I've said for years that you could drop your camera and accidentally take a picture, and it would be gorgeous.

Sylvia and I have been twice to Salzburg.  There were some things that we did the first time that we didn't get a chance to do again...but there were other things that we experienced for the first time this trip.  

We went to the castle this time, and last time we only watched from afar as construction happened on the outside.  What Sylvia didn't know was that while they were doing the construction on the outside, they were tearing down bits of wall on the inside and discovering new rooms, new frescoes, and new sections of some really old parts of the castle.  It was great to see things that Sylvia hadn't seen in a castle that she had been to several times before.  We saw the cannons, the gold room, the torture room, and some really interesting cabinets that I'm sure were the inspiration for some of the ones in the Harry Potter movies.  

Dieter, Jake, Kristiana, and I, spent a tiny portion of our time using the crossbow to send darts sailing across part of the castle.  Since they have re-fortified the walls, however, our attack was unfruitful, but at least they didn't pour boiling oil on that was good.  There were sections that showed history, and military uses, and (since it was used in the filming of The Sound of Music) I opened my arms wide and tried to sing, "The hills are alive...with the sound...." but that was as far as I ever got.  Apparently Julie Andrews didn't sing while inside the castle...or in front of the castle...or in the room of torture...or the graveyard where the Von Trapp family snuck away at the end.  Does anyone know how much "I had a weird dad" therapy for children costs?  Do they offer group discounts?  I'm hoping the kids will forgive me when they find out that we replaced our VHS copy of the movie with a more modern version.  Now we can watch it over, and over, and over...on Blue Ray...and over...or DVD...and over.   Maybe I should start a collection for that therapy now.  

After the castle we walked through the fussganger zone.  We looked for a sausage (a bosner) that is only sold in one place.  Montreal, which is why it was weird that we looked here.  No, it is only sold in Salzburg, by one place, and there is always a line.  Unfortunately it wasn't a long enough line to see from where we walked because we still don't know what they taste like.  Another interesting thing about Salzburg is that Mozart was born here.  Perhaps you've heard of him...I think he did a duet with Olivia Newton John...we walked to where Dieter and Sylvia thought it would be and then gathered our bearings.  Again it's one of those places that always has a crowd so we should have found it easily.  Just when we were about to ask someone where the house was, Sylvia looked at the wall right in front of us.  Ta da!!  The Mozart museum.  As she said his house should be near here, she looked up the wall of the building...and in foot tall golden letters...Mozart Geburtshaus (birth house).  Very cool.  We didn't go in.  But we did go into the music store that was a few doors away.  Kristiana bought some sheet music and Jake looked at a few electric guitars that were rumored to have belonged to old Wolfgang himself...rumored by me that is.

It got pretty late so we talked about going home...but there was one more thing I wanted to see, The Mirabell gardens.  I remembered walking hand in hand with Sylvia through here eighteen years ago.  I wanted to see it again.  This is when a minor miracle happened.  I remembered where it was...sort of.  We walked over the Salzach river to the Rathaus then entered the garden.  It was as nice as I remembered.  We saw the statues and the fountains  and thousands of colorful begonias that outlined beautiful patterns all throughout the garden.  They were all the same size and nothing looked out of place.  There weren't any workers wandering around making sure it was pristine...I'm guessing they have an army of elves and lawn gnomes who come out only at night.  Some of us toyed with the idea of standing in the main fountain but ended up being content to just dip feet.  

As I sat on a bench looking at the people walking by I was struck by how each one of them had a story.  There were couples holding hands who were probably we were many years ago.  There were couples who were holding hands because they each needed support to stand up...who would laugh when I said that eighteen years was "so many years ago."  There were melancholy people who sat quietly looking at the fountain, perhaps flooded by memories of shared times that couldn't be again.  Everyone in their own little space, no one disturbed by the people who may be cutting through just because it was shorter than going around.  I was glad we came.  If I were a TV producer I might try an idea like Mirabella Stories and go through one each week.  But I'm not, so...sigh.

Sylvia and Dieter had their own memories of the garden.  I knew that their Opa liked it...but I didn't know that he took them there almost every Sunday.  The roses were his favorite and it took us a bit to find them, one level up, but I'm glad we did.  I thought about snipping one off to dry and take home, but I hear gardener elves are very touchy about their roses.  We crossed over the river again,  looking at the hundreds of red locks people have clipped to the bridge.  The story is, click the lock, throw the key in the river, your love is forever locked.  They even sell red locks at the base of the bridge.  Don't bother asking which one is ours.  Our love is locked with rings and a vow.  Sorry.

We walked back to the car that we parked in the garage, carved under a mountain, eight past the bosna sausage store (as they were closing) and Sylvia navigated us home, in our borrowed car, through two-way streets wide enough for almost one car, guided by signs that indicate straight ahead...when straight ahead is clearly a building (a beautiful centuries old building...but a building nonetheless.)  

My one regret for the whole trip is that my trip to the garden made us very late for the delicious dinner that Monika made, and held, for us.  I joke about a lot of things (almost everything) but I am completely serious about this...  I am very sorry about that.   I'll end with this, if you ever get a chance to visit this great place, two things.   Allow a lot of time, and bring your camera...OK, two regrets. (thank God for smart phones)

Tuesday, July 16, 2013


I am coming to realize that I have a lot of similarities with a pack mule.  I am slow.  I am larger than the other creatures around me.  I can be tricked into following people for the promise of food.  I'm hairy with exceptionally large feet.  Flies circle around me, especially when I haven't been hosed off in a few days.  And left to my own devices I would rather roam the earth unencumbered, but I can carry lots of things...for others.  

Today we visited the Königsee.  For those who have been following along, you know that "see" is another word for lake.  For those of you who haven't been paying attention, your scores will reflect your lack of effort on the final exam.  

The Königsee was a play place for King Ludwig while he was spending the people's money on himself.   While slipping further and further into insanity, he managed to save a quaint little chapel that was destined to be torn down.  It's a pretty little church that needs to be accessed by boat.  Electric boat.  Slow, nearly silent, calm, electric boat.  We pack animals like things calm.  The noisiest part of the whole trip was when the quasi-tour guide (he spoke about five minutes of the half hour trip and then we were on our own) told us about the special echo properties of the lake.  The captain turned off the motor (silent electric motors can be so distracting) and the guide got out his flugelhorn.     He then played a piece of music in short bursts, pausing while the echo sounded back at us.   It was very cool.  Then he played Johnny Be Good and the echo had a guitar solo?  it was a very special echo.  

Then, since he was speaking German, I didn't catch Sylvia told us to wait on the boat as about half the people got off at the church stop.  There is another lake called the Öbersee (literally the over see...or lake that is above the other one) that we were going to see first... Then, we would take a trip back to the church to check it out and catch the next boat back to the parking lot.

This is different than when Sylvia and I visited the Königsee when we came here just after we were married.  The way to the church was a quiet little boat (check) that took us out on the water to the church (check) We wandered around for a few minutes (check), it was by small and there wasn't at our (check) and then we boarded the boat to go back to her uncle's house.  There wasn't anything about another lake back then.  Last time we were nearly alone on the boat and there were no people in the town on the way to the boats...wildly different from the mass of people today.  In talking with Monika, Jürgen's wife and our companion along with Dieter for the day (I hope you are taking notes...this will be on the test), we determined that the reason my experience was so different last time was, time of day and weather conditions.  They almost didn't want to take us out since it was storming in the area.  So today I got to do something new.  Off to the Öbersee!!

I noticed that most people who got off the boat at the "over" lake looked much more fit than me, had better shoes than me, and were a little more accustomed to the warmer weather than me.  It might have been that it was also could have been that I was carrying the family backpack.  Not too much in, extra lens, drinks, Kleenex, gum...not a problem for a beast of burden.  I broke down and bought a straw hat for a few euros since it was really a warm day and all tanning ability has been bred out of my people...besides it looked really cute when I put it on and cut holes for my pointy ears to stick through.  (A trick I learned from Hee Haw). 

There were arrow shaped signs everywhere telling us where to go.  This way to the lake...10 minutes.  This way to the WC (bathroom)...5 minutes.  This way to the öberalm (best I can tell its like a restaurant that sells milk, buttermilk,  bread, and butter...all of which used to be in a cow until very recently (fresh and non processed)...11 minutes.  That way to the Fischbückalm...45 minutes uphill, in the heat, on jagged rocks, while cows wander amongst you.  And a happy little sign that said,  "Bier Garden!  Right here! Just follow your nose to the delicious smelling sausages!  Come on in! And by the way Jeff...isn't that backpack heavy!?"  Of course it was written in German so I can't be sure that's what it said, but I think I am close.   Monika said, "On the boat he said it would take an hour and a half...lets go to the fish alm."  My reply,   "Didn't anyone else see that last little sign?"  

So off we went to the fish alm.  Of course I was teasing about the treacherous rocks and uphill climb.  It was a beautiful shady stroll through some wonderful scenery.  There were some stairs(?) that were dents in rocks with guide wires to hold onto but it was a small portion of the trip.  We stopped and ate sandwiches Monika had brought (and carried), had some of the drink I was carrying, and took many pictures.  The deal is, when I want to take a picture I just have Jake grab the camera.  Saves time and I don't wrench my back twisting out of the backpack every few minutes...I also don't have the camera bouncing around my neck while we walk.  It's a good system...I thought.  

We got to the fish alm, we drank fresh milk, we ate fresh butter, everyone else tried fresh buttermilk (even pack mules have their limits), and the kids went down the the water.  Kristiana waded while Jake skipped stones.  I stayed up near the alm to hear a farmer use actual German swear words as a cow wandered through the crowd of people who were milling around drinking milk...and beer.  (For the record, I don't think the cows are actually part of the beer making process).  The cow left me alone...we beasts of burden stick together.  Then we decided to walk back.  Jake broke his skipping record of about twenty as it made little ripples out into the still water and then he came up to go.  He told us that there was a stone skipping scout down there by the water's edge and he may be looking into a college scholarship...we'll see.  

Then Jake did something that will change the course of our trip.  He said, "Just one more."...and reached into Sylvia's purse.  He pulled out a flat stone.  This, of course, led to, "Is that why my purse is so heavy!?!? " as she pulled out a handful of equally flat and equally heavy stones.  That got me to I dug my hand into the multiple pockets of the backpack.  That's!  Our 'grab the camera' system was working so well because Bozo the Wunderkind was depositing rocks into the pockets while he was taking out the camera.  So I would like to introduce Jacob by his new name...from now, until I forget about hauling rocks around in the backpack on the hottest day we've spent in Europe (aka...never),  Jacob the New Beast of Burden!  

The walk back took almost no time at all...and I wasn't huffing and puffing like a wolf in a children's book!

Sunday, July 14, 2013


When I say that we went spelunking, I don't mean that we caved.  Well, maybe we caved when we decided to let Jacob eat at the Augsburg McDonald's.  (something I was planning on being very proud about avoiding) But that is not what I wanted to talk about today.   We, the Garrett clan, actually walked into a cave...underground...on purpose!  It was the second time this trip that we were all under the ground, but the first time was in the Salzburgwerk (salt mine) in Berchtesgaden.  We are now the proud owners of Bad (pronounced bod...unless you are on the tour listening to the English version via headset where the narrator states that it is bad, like it was naughty ) Reichenhaller salt mills.  At the mines we were carted off to our destination in rail cars...this time we were at the mercy of over 500 steps.  (They told us it was legs are 70 steps more tired than I was prepared for.)

We are actually going back to that region, just outside of Salzburg, today.  It will be a happy time because that is where Ruth's family is from, and where Sylvia spent much of her childhood.  

It will also be a sad time, we will be leaving Herzogenaurach where Birgit and Christian live (pronounced Chris-tee-on...coincidence that Kristiana pronounces her name nearly the same way?  I think not.)  

I met them when they flew to the United States to come to our wedding.  They brought Nicolai with them...I believe he was about one...and I liked them all immediately.  We visited them once before, a few months after we were married, and they showed us around their region.  Birgit is Sylvia's cousin who is not really a cousin.  They are related, by blood, but the explanation about their dads' being cousins and so that makes us second cousins...I think...or are we first cousins once removed...too complicated.  "Hey everyone!  Meet my cousin!"  

They met for the first time at a boring-for-little-kids family get together.  Sylvia describes it as, old people, old people, old people, and Birgit.  Te family never really got together before that.  They hit it off and became long distance pen pals after that and whenever they flew to Germany, they would make it a point to visit Birgit.    When they came to see us we were able to show them around our neck of the woods (as much as we could with our upcoming wedding) and now they have once again returned the favor.  If we were keeping score, they would totally be winning!

Our vacations, in addition to being totally awesome, are exceptionally lucky!  When we got here this last Thursday we heard music off in the distance.  "Oh that is the annual festival that concludes this weekend...we are planning on going every night after we do great stuff during the day...Prost!!"  We'll, they didn't say exactly that...but it was close.  Speaking of Prost!  It is the German equivalent of "cheers!" and I must have said it about three hundred times these past few days.  After we spent the day shopping at the outlet stores we were treated to a barbecue...then to the festival.  Following the day long exploration of the city of Nürnberg...we went to the festival.  After we traveled to see the caves near Tuchersfeld and had a blast at the summertime toboggan runs a few kilometers away (that Birgit's dad helped build) and then a superb dinner at an out of the way beer garden...we went to the festival.  

The kids were off having fun together at the turns out that Sylvia and Birgit are not the only ones who have things in common.  Thilo and Jacob seem to be separated at birth and we stopped naming things that they might have in common since it started to get a little spooky.   Sylvia and I followed Birgit and Christian to the more adult section of the annual festival.  You know those rather large traditional German beer mugs that you see the waitresses carrying six of in each hand?  I now know, after numerous trials, exactly how much they weigh.  They seem to get lighter as the night goes on...for some reason.  

Last night was the last night of the festival and it was concluded with a fireworks show.  This was extremely lucky on our part since the one thing we really missed in our trip to Europe was the fireworks on the Fourth of July!  Jake was bummed when we told him that we wouldn't be seeing any this year.   Problem solved.

It was back to reality as the sad faces as we had to say our goodbyes to Christian and the kids' new 'cousins' as we figured out that they would be getting up and going to school and work very early in the morning and wouldn't get a chance to see us again this trip. 

We are coming down to the last week or so of the trip and I'm sure that we will have a few more things that are worthy of the blog.  I would like to take this opportunity to extend a thanks to all those who have hosted this traveling band of wanderers in your homes, driveways, and tables.  We all appreciate it very much and would like to tell you that our door is always open to you.  

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Always Go Right!!

It is important and helpful to learn the customs of foreign lands that you are traveling to.  Strict adherence to these customs is never expected, but the sooner you pick up on these subtle (and not so subtle) habits the more you will put your host at ease and the more you will enjoy your trip.  

I have already spoken of the seemingly universal need to always have food and/or drink in front of your guests.  I am learning to embrace this one although it goes against my familial training to refuse food or drink so as to not to inconvenience the host.  If I were to crawl out of the desert, wearing my crawl out the desert outfit of tattered shirt and dark Capri style pants that are frayed at the bottom, and came to a friend who offered me something to drink, I would be genetically coded to say, "No thanks, I found some damp sand about thirty miles ago.  I'm good, but thanks."  I am actually working on this one at home too.  Whenever I offer something to someone in my house I would be perfectly happy if it was taken.  I, however, am not saddened if my offer of something to drink is not accepted.  I'm not so sure that is the case here. 

Another European custom is that of shaking hands when you meet.  Now I know some of you will say that this is an American custom as well, but it's different here somehow.  In America it sometimes depends on age, gender, or location as to whether or not you shake hands.  Sometimes an adult won't shake a child's hand, or a man may shake only the hands of the men, or not at all if, for instance, there are a lot of people sitting around a large table.  The new person may get a nod or a wave when the seated people are named.  Usually someone will quip, "There's going to be a test. Heh heh."  This would never fly in Germany.  Each person, no matter the circumstances, shakes the hand of each person they meet.  It can be a little comedic as groups meet groups and the various combinations of new introductions take place.  

I believe, after hours of imaginary research, that the custom of grasping each other's hands began as a way to show that you were meeting in a friendly way and you weren't holding a weapon, a subpoena to appear, or a baby whose diaper was past its prime.  As two people met, they would hold out their open weapon hand to the side, upon seeing that both were empty they would grasp the forearm of the other person and squeeze, as if to say, "I didn't bring my sword, but I could still throw you to the ground with my impressive grip."   This is a variation of when the Saxons first sailed to the shores of South Dakota looking for the mythical fountain of frozen yogurt.  They held BOTH opens hands at their sides when meeting...but this led to many bearskin clad warriors running awkwardly toward each other, in slow motion, through fields of daisies.  It was an strange and difficult time.  Given its original intent, and its apparent lack of need in this day and age, it seems strange that it still continues...but it does.  I can say that in my many decades of greeting people, when I put out my empty hand the number of times I am greeted by a spiked iron ball dangling on a chain is probably no more than three...five tops.

Sylvia prepared us for these practices as we started our journey, but something has begun here that she was unaware of.  She was spot on for greetings.  I've shaken more hands than a politician.  What she didn't know about were farewells.   The new custom when people say goodbye is new to her.  And, unlike the hard and fast handshake rule, this new rule is complex with differing levels of expression.  I, being a semi-careful observer, held back the first time to see how it was done.  

When people who know each other well say goodbye they now hug, press their cheek to the cheek of the other person and then switch to touch opposite cheeks.  It seems a little French to me, but C'est la Vie!  If the people are related, then the cheek touching is done in combination with a kiss (or a kissing sound in the air in some cases).  When people depart who are just friendly toward each other, then there might only be one cheek contact (kissy sound optional).  When people who have just met say goodbye, it can be done with another handshake.  This is my typical placement.  There are occasions where I have met the people before and so I am given the cheek treatment...but those are the people who greet me with a hug so I have a clue how this meeting will end.  Kids are afforded the cheek treatment simply by order of age...but one person actually said something like, next time we meet it will be a hug.

Every once in a while there is a surprise...that is what I want to talk about today.  We all went out to a beer garden for dinner a few nights ago.  It only sounds like palace where beer is grown.  Do not make that mistake unless you wish to be laughed at...and not in a good way.  Beer gardens are great for large groups since the tables are huge and great numbers of people can gather together.  We had about a dozen people get together while we were in Ruth's home town.  People heard that the Americans were in town and wanted to come out to meet the husband and kids of Sylvia.  Understandable, I've met them...they're nice.  A good time was had by all!  Such a good time that we all decided to go back to one family's house for drinks after the eating had stopped.    We had a great time there as well.  (The kids had a particularly great time because it was the first time they encountered WiFi in a while so they were in Instagram/Facebook/Snapchat/Tumblr heaven.)   We stayed about an hour and then it was time to go.  Out in the front of their house we started saying our goodbyes.  Sylvia got the huggy two cheeked goodbye from everyone.  The kids and I got our handshakes.  Then it came down to me and Claudia.  Apparently there is a little known rule about the cheeky thing that I hadn't read in the small print.  "When saying goodbye to the good childhood friend of your wife, it is acceptable to hug while cheeking."  When we said goodbye she shook my hand, then leaned in to give a one armed hug, and then it was obvious that she was going to do the cheek to cheek.  I panicked as I realized that I hadn't seen which way to go.  She went right, I went left (which of course was her right), and we almost met right in the town square of Smoochville.  Laugh laugh laugh...cheek to cheek...goodbye.  

So it is here that I offer my advice.  Always go right!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Chugga Chugga Shoe Choo!

If you gave Sylvia a rail pass, a map, and a schedule...she could rule the world.  She looks at these color coded spaghetti graphs for a minute and says things like, "in four minutes the number 22 will take us to the banhof where we'll have three minutes to get to the A2 toward Jä'll be close but we can make it."   I could study those Spirograph inspired instruments of torture for three days, with the aid of a slide rule, a sextant, and a Sherpa...and it still would look like a diagram of the endocrine system.  I've said it before, and I'll say it again...without Sylvia, I would still be hopelessly circling the freeways of Chicago.  

Being on this trip, in Europe, affords us many opportunities to use public transportation.  The fact that we rented an RV that is considerably bigger than an average American monster truck in a place where parking cars that are slightly larger than the size of a deck of cards is difficult, also makes public transit much more desirable.  I have been on more trains, planes, and busses in the last two weeks than I have been on in the last twenty years.  I'm not complaining, in fact Europe does a fairly good job of handling this sort of thing.  But it does remind me of something that I would like to tell you about now.  (Another story!?  Great, now you've got something to complain about). 

When I was a wee lad of, I haven't got the foggiest idea, my parents took the clan on a train ride.  During the summers we lived in our camper (eery coincidence isnt it?) and, on occasion,  we would do something besides slap mosquitoes and peel sunburned skin off our ears.  This particular time we traveled to one end of the rail line...then chug... chug.... chugg... chugggg...we slowly made our way back to where the camper was parked.  The whole trip probably lasted about two hours but it could have impacted my whole life!  Dun Dun DUNNNNNNNNN!

As I said before, I don't know how old I was.  I can guess that I was about ten.  I was at the age where I still had to be near my parents but didn't have to be watched all the time.   I also was at the age where something terrible was avoided and I didn't feel the need to tell my parents.  If someone is near my mom, could you crack a window...she might need some air for this one  

I'm am very fuzzy on the details of why we would have been on this old fashioned train, but I could paint several pictures of what happened on (or rather between) the cars.  Dun... Dun... Oh you get the idea.

My dad and I were coming back from the bathroom on the train, and it was moving.  Since memory tends to paint an idealized picture, I peed through a hole in the last car that watered the tracks as we sped along.  Truly, it was probably as modern a bathroom as ever and it had its own car to not spoil the old west illusion.  The point is, we had to go from one car at the back of the train toward the front.  My dad walked first, he was an old pro.  Spent time on trains.  Was even born in a boxcar (true story).  He stepped, like a railway expert, from the front of one car, over the coupling, to the back of the other car...and kept moving forward. I was not so lucky.  

I stepped to cross from one car to the next, right over the coupler.  The coupler (I'm sure that's not the real name) is like two giant steel spring-loaded hands, both cupped the opposite way of each other.  When the conductor wants to add a car to the back of the train, he backs into it, the "hands" hit, spring away from each other, then snap together to form a very strong grasp on each other.   Since trains don't travel n a straight line, the couplers need to wiggle.  Some might say they shake.  There's even a contingency in Bethelridge, Kentucky who claim that they shimmy...but let's not quibble.  As long as the cars are pulling forward, there isn't a gap.  If the cars in front slow down, the cars in back come forward and there is a gap in the coupler.  When I stepped between the cars, the train slowed, a gap opened up, I lost my footing, and stepped right into the gap! Up to my ankle!   My size seven and a half  Ked was a perfect fit!

I knew enough about trains to know that this wasn't good.  In a split second I did the math.  A few hundred tons of train ahead of me, a couple hundred tons behind me, the train accelerating, the space between the gap about to get smaller...crap.  (Don't go thinking that  by using the word "crap" my blog has slipped into some sort of potty mouth abomination...I happen to know that Pastor Matt at our church has said that word in a sermon!...if he says it, so can I)  but I digress...So there I am, literally doing a "if a train left Chicago" word problem in my head as my foot is in grave danger.  

As you may have guessed, I am quite the cartoon aficionado.  I know about injuries.  Had the gap closed on my foot, when I pulled it out, it would have looked like a perfectly shaped foot only three times bigger and it would have flapped like a rubber pancake.   As opposed to if only my big toe had gotten trapped, where it would have swollen to ten times its shape and glowed bright red.  (Had I fallen all the way off the train but landed on my feet, my legs would have had many folds in them and when I walked,  each step would have sounded like an accordion.). Even though it would have been cool to be the only kid in school with a pancake foot (knowing full well that I could make it pop back to the original shape by sticking my thumb in my mouth and blowing) I decided to fix the situation.  No panic, no yelling, perfectly calm,,,I simply lifted my foot out of the gap. It came out as simply as it went in.  

Here's the part that should have made me scream, faint, or at least tell someone.  Just as the bottom of my foot cleared the top of the coupler, the train pulled, the cars lurched, and the gap closed with a deafening clang!  I stepped up onto the next car and caught up with my dad who was none the wiser.  As I stepped into the forward car, I noticed two teenage workers on the small platforms on the ends of each of the cars.  The one yelled over the noise of the train, "Did you see that kid!?!"

So here I am.  "That kid", with an un-pancake-like foot.  Riding trains with no fear, stepping between cars willy nilly like there was possibility of getting my foot caught in the couplers (because there isn' with no lasting ill effect whatsoever.  I've always known that God had sent a guardian angel to watch over me.  I have suspicions as to why...I may write about one day, but not yet.  I'm pretty sure it is probably not so I could write a story that takes four thousand times longer to read than the actual event.  I know there are some people who might say that it wasn't true, possibly because I tend to get injured/sick more often than the average Hollywood stuntman...but I like to instead think, how much more likely I would be to fall down if I didn't have someone watching over me...especially with a pancake foot.   

And don't worry...I will definitely probably write more about our European vacation next time.


Today I met Gerd.  It's pronounced in a half a breath and one syllable.  G-air-t.  His name is spelled Gerhard.  His wife calls him Gerhard.  I think everyone calls him Gerhard...except for Ruth.  She calls him Gerd.  Ruth does things like that.  

Gerd is a big strong sturdy man.  His hands, from years of being a medical masseuse, are large and grasp mine tightly in a friendly greeting.  I didn't get an immediate read on Gerd at first.  He looked like he could just as easily gone on safari as he could go down to the vet and pet premature kittens who needed human contact.   He looked as though he might be someone to be reckoned with if he was to be crossed...but I watched as he teared up when Ruth walked over slowly to give him a hug.  

As is the custom with all the people we've visited...we were rushed over and offered drinks as if our life depended on them.  The kids, fully understanding the way things work, whispered, "Drink slow...he'll just open more if you finish."  In Gerd's case, we walked through their yard, past the long unused hand-pump that was most definitely used as the source of water at some point, into what I can only call a drinking hut.  Traditional German decorations, many marksman/hunting plaques, a table and chairs, a cabinet that held far more glasses than the amount of people who would fit into this medium sized cabin.  There was a fully stocked refrigerator, enough memorabilia to fill any German restaurant back home...and a stack of pictures about two inches thick.   There wasn't any doubt who they were for as Ruth scooted over to sit right in front of them.

She started going through this stack and, speaking German,  held out a few to show the kids and me.  There was one thick papered picture, whose black portions appeared blue in certain light, that made Ruth stop and explain to us (in English) that these were their great grandparents...their REAL great grandparents.  They were a nice looking couple.  Him with uniquely shaped sideburns that would rival any of the twenty something hipsters who think they are being original, and wearing a military uniform.  She was thin, wearing a dress, and had striking eyes that reminded me of that Time magazine cover of just the woman's face.   Sylvia then said that Gerd and Ruth were real cousins...emphasis on the real.  I know a little of Ruth's story but didn't quite understand this.   Ruth has called many people her cousins, but there are only a precious few who are related by blood.  

Ruth's mom and Gerd's mom were sisters.  They were both wonderful women by all accounts.  They both had children.  They both died at a very young age.  Both Ruth and Gerd's dads remarried but the connection between these two "real" cousins is very strong.  

We continued to look through the pictures and even saw one that had to be an eighth of an inch thick.  When this one was delivered in the mail, instead of "photos, do not bend" this one said, "photos, I dare you to try and bend them!"  Eventually we packed up and headed off to a restaurant where we could talk more, and more, and more...(and more.)

In the beer garden we sat down, Ruth across from Gerd, and ordered.  The whole time we sat they sparred with each other.  Judging from the expressions on Ruth's face and the playful jabs in the ribs from Ula's elbow, I'd say they had plenty to tease each other about.  I couldn't stand it.  I grabbed my phone and started to take notes.  It wasn't difficult because they were speaking German...I only jotted down the times that they translated for us.  

There was the time that Gerd and his brother got into an egg fight, with about a hundred eggs.  They laughed and Gerd spread his flat hands wide saying that there was egg everywhere!  The subjects bounced around.  Gerd told about his new car, a Mercedes, that was originally a dealer's car.  It only had a few thousand miles on it so he got a great deal.  Ruth said, "Why did you buy a new car?  You're going to die soon."  Without batting an eye Gerd said, "Then I will see you again soon."  When Gerd started to name the real cousins who were left, he said, "There's me, there's Ruth, oh wait that's you, then Rolf (Ruth's brother)..."  She said something in German that was probably like what you can't come up with them all?  And he said, "It's ok, you and I are related."  Ruth said, "Yeah too bad."  Ruth, in the noisy outdoor beer-garden, kept saying, "huh?" whenever she didn't hear something.  Gerd kept teasing, "I already told you...we say the more formal wie bitte."  (Pardon me?)

There was laughter, and jabs, and unmistakable snide comments...but every once Ina while it got quiet.  When Gerd gets solemn he looks as if he has seen a lot of hardships in his life.  But when he laughs and smiles, you can see that the lines of happiness have been carved deeply around his eyes.  He is one of those people who I say, smiles with his entire face.  

When the meal was done and it looked like we might be heading to our next destination, Gerd ordered ice cream for everyone.  It wasn't a question of would you like ice cream or not.  The only question was, do you want whipped cream or not...on the ice cream that is coming to the table no matter what.   When the ice cream was finished, he ordered schnapps.  We were in the restaurant for more than two hours talking and laughing and watching them reminisce.  

At the cars we didn't really say goodbye.  It was more of a we'll try to get together again before you fly home.  I hope so.  I want to get some more tips on how to tease Ruth!