There Once Was a Small Town in Germany

Arriving by train, from the south along the Rhine, my sister and I slowly and gently approach Bad Honnef, where we spent some formative years as teenagers. A return to this small town 10 km south of Bonn beneath the Siebengebirge range (Seven hills) always warrants nostalgic thoughts and confirms current identities.

Still beautiful, these towns along the Rhine, each complete with rows of narrow, angle-roofed houses along the river bank and a few blocks up into the vineyards, a church in its midst with steeple over all, and from our vantage point looking like miniature Christmas towns in their quaintness and preservation of a simple, calm life. Ruins of castles appear frequently on hill tops, defenders still, now of their own history.

The train slows, wheels screech and scream as if in agony at having to stop at this now appearingly abandoned whistle stop station. There have been no updates to this station since the early 70s, except for the benches, which are now white metal but in the same place as before, on which we sat waiting for a rare departure in and out of the town. Nature, though, like animals, will assume ownership of a place if it is vacant long enough, and evidence of this is seen by not only the weeds growing tall along the still marigold colored Bahnhof building, but also by the assault of graffiti marring its exterior. The stairs which descend from this platform, which continue under the rails and up into the interior of the bahnhof, are littered, stained and neglected. Animals indeed. But still, if these exigent perturbations can be ignored, the stillness and simplicity of this unelectronic bahnhof exuded familiarity of an analogue and telegram time.

After standing there for a bit, feeling as if we were transported back in time, we emerge into the bahnhof itself, which is no longer attended with train personnel but which nevertheless still has the glass counters from which we once bought tickets. The blinds behind the glass are now drawn permanently, but a kiosk that sells candy, print publications, lottery tickets and tobacco still gives the place a bit of life. A large scale map of Bad Honnef lines the wall to the right of the main entrance, and we study it both dubiously and faithfully, uncertain that the streets still named the same and still geographically oriented as we remember will faithfully execute our meanderings and reflections.

We venture forth, up over the road that bridges over the north/south B42 highway along the Rhine, and into town. The sun beats down already, the heat rises, the light reflects off the stucco houses along Menzenbergerstrasse in strong and sharp angles. We decide to take the first left onto Bahnhofstrasse, deciding to take a tour of the town center first, before going by our house and then up the hill to our accommodations.

The Imbiss, from where I regularly bought wurst and frites, is by no surprise no longer there. Instead, a metal fence protects an industry from the corner road and its traffic. We walk on, and find a number of ethnic restaurants: Greek, a number of different Asian, Turkish, and of course, the regular German. Awy locates the bar that was once owned or operated by a “Harold” – whose intererior suggests it still pulls a strong pils.

Honnef on Sundays back in the day; peace here used subjectively, as we all had our own word for those days back then: doomy, dead, boring. The church still punctuates the quarter hours and then especially noon. Thank goodness for that. Back to the Bahnhofstrasse – very few buildings if any at all – stand empty. There are book shops, clothes stores, travel agents, two veterinarians and animals “spas”, professional offices, several banks, and the staple magazine, tobacco and wine store. The old post office still stands with its bus stops out front. Further up, and merging right onto Hauptstrasse and the now Fussgangerzone, pedestrian zone, Kaiser’s food store on the corner is now void of life, its windows empty and interior standing hollow. Like the bahnhof, it has been victimized by graffiti. Across the street from where Kaiser’s used to be, was once a drugstore, but it has also vanished, its interior now displaying nic nacks and bric-a-brac of indiscernible origin or theme.

Around the corner, and we find an esplanade of restaurants and outdoor cafe tables, something that all towns and cities across the world have latched onto as the evidence of a place that is modern yet quaint, chic yet old world, intellectual and bookish, Parisian and Greek, a place that wants to be visited, returned to, seen by the people walking through, referred to by the people who choose to live here and commute to Bonn or Koln or further every day. If you have outdoor seating in your town, you have earned a place on the map of the world. The Catholic Church is closed for renovations but the restaurants on this Sunday noon are all open and serving despite the heat and the bees, which people seem to accept as part of the privilege of being on the map. Back in the 70s, the opposite prevailed: the church remained open, and the restaurants were all closed. We walk on and around to Kietz, the main square hang out for teenagers, now named or always named Franz-Xaver-Trips Platz, and notice regrettable changes: a metal fence along the short retaining wall we all used to sit on and watch the mofas go by. On the grassy hill now stands a playground, and the cafe tables from the ice dealer on its left spill over and encroach on the area that used to Just be sidewalk.

Once in Self Hof, the neighborhood and section of Bad Honnef we lived in, we see that all of the shops and Kneipen we knew and frequented for daily sustenance are gone. Heinekamp, our once daily grocer, is shuttered behind drawn blinds. The fruit and vegetable man across the street has vanished into thin air, and some other house stands there now. We walk down Kirkenstrasse, and can make no reference as to where the bakery stood, where we bought our daily loaf of dark bread for 1.50 DM and penny candy for when we amassed enough pfennigs. The Kneipe where we got our Belgian Dalmation dog, Tasso, is gone and remodeled into something else. We come to the end of the street and turn right, and there stands our old townhome, one of five which still seems to be rented as its care and attention are not as current as those next to it. The windows are weathered, they are not framed in shutters, and the steps and walkway to the steps, the railing are all the same. Across the street from this, our old address at Mezenbergerstrasse 96, where once was an empty grassy lot, is now filled with apartment buildings. 

From there, we walk up Mezenbergertrasse, past St. Martin’s evangelical church, and onto Karl Simrock Strasse, which will lead us to Mezenberg and where a friend from long ago currently lives and offers us a place to stay. It’s longer than we thought or remembered, but again, many more houses line the roads which lead up into the woods. Eventually, away from the houses and into the woods, we arrive at Haus Perzival, built in 1840 and once a wine distillery when vineyards covered a vast portion of the hills in the area. Karl Simrock, a German poet during the 1900s lived and wrote here; according to the website, Byron and Longfellow visited and went for long walks along the Rhine. 

We hopped in our host’s open air Jeep Wrangler, and gave us the modern day tour and developments of Bad Honnef as we zipped through the narrow streets we knew so well as children. The Kneipe where we had goulash next to the small chapel is gone and its space has been remodeled into a residence. There is a shoe repair man down the road (where if memory serves me correctly we found Tasso a new home) who is still there, still living, and still repairs shoes. The Siebengebirgs Gymnasium where we went to school for a year and a half is still the same. There is still a store on the corner of Rommersdorfer Strasse that sells candy to school kids.  We learn that developers are going hog wild by tearing down and building up – literally up, to an extent that residents that are negatively affected these new plans are taking the developers to court over code violations and omissions in paperwork. We end up at Nottebrock Cafe, one of the very few remaining establishments which has retained its old furniture and wall paper, for coffee and tea while we wait for a Vietnamese restaurant to open. 

We walk to the Vietnamese restaurant on Bahnhofstrasse, which let’s simply call Asian due to the choices of foods on their menu. Would we have ever thought in 1974 that sushi would be available in Honnef in 2018? Did we even know what sushi was? Did it exist outside of Japan? Could we even find a place to eat on Sunday? These thoughts and others like them consume most of my time.  The food is good; but for me, this experience is anachronistic with my memories; for old friends who have been living here all along this change has been gradual and has been traveling at the same speed as their own daily experiences and memories.  When a certain store opens its doors or another closes becomes not only a blur but also unimportant to our constant state of movement through time. It’s through the leaving of a place, when it no longer moves through time with us, that it earns its static impression.

We park at the electric train, the bahn, that shuttles people back and forth from Bonn. The Schwimbad at the end of the bridge is now a hamburger place (how in the world did they fill in that basin?) but the bridge to the island is as we remember; the restaurant down to the right is for sale; but its cafe outside still serves a cold drink; the foot paths around the island’s perimeter offer the same respite from cars and noise as they always did; dogs and children run free and the barges still chug along. The Island, the school, certain corners and spaces are of course the same as our memory confirms, yet there is a modernity to Bad Honnef that is unbecoming; as if it wants to be someone else, somewhere else. Like a child, its personality has changed over the years. It’s trying on new clothes, and stretching its attitude into a persona that may change yet again.

We return to the house,  open a bottle of wine in the garden, a wildly growing backyard surrounding a small canopied stone patio. We look at a photo album from our long ago Honnef, each picture taking each of us 40 years back into both separate and similar memories.

The next morning we made ourselves breakfast with the cheeses and marmalade, coffee and tea, and afterwards we went to the cemetery, and paid some respects to people we once knew and laughed with.

We drove back to Menzenbergerstrasse 96 to take a walk around the back of the house. All the simple wire fences to simply mark boundaries or to keep rabbits or ducks in are now taller, solid, formidable structures that basically tell people to keep out and away. Our old yard has a couple of wooden sheds in it, no pear or cherry trees, and a huge bush or two that prevent us from getting a good look at the back of the house, but we could tell the whole kitchen extends further, and the porch is no longer there.

We talked and walked, and eventually, as always, arrived in Konigswinter, two towns north along the Rhine River.  The ferry that ferried us across to go the English library was making its crossing over to Bad Godesberg further to the north, and we found the Hotel Maritim across the street with a terrace and some embrellas just in time for a late lunch – a buffet of salad and desserts.

We took the bahn back, and walked the way back up to Sel Hof.  It could have been like old times.  But I left a long time ago, and my feet, steady as they go, no longer fit into those old shoes. 

Reflections up on Storm King

A break in the January rain came one day in the guise of sunshine on a Saturday morning. Mount Baker winked at Kingston across the still waters of Puget Sound, a sure sign to take my hiking boots a little bit further than the trails now well canvased around Kingston and Poulsbo. I set my sights on Cresecent Lake, on the northern edge of Olympic National Park. In a nifty two-seater, manual shift car, I rolled across 104 West over the Hood Canal Bridge, and from there roamed over its smoothly paved cut through North Kitsap county. The 35 miles to Port Angeles takes about just that long in minutes, the 60 mph forcing a redistribution of my thoughts, a slowing down of their pace, gliding through the pine covered hills and isolated farms, wineries and tackle shops. Shortly after turning right onto US Hwy 101 West, the road curves gently around Discovery Bay, offering a pit stop to the left with a general store advertising fishing supplies, food supplies, boat fuel, an espresso and a porta-pottie out in its gravel parking lot. Around the bay and further north, 101 East cradles under Sequim, a city between the Straight of Juan de Fuca to the north and the Olympic Mountains to the south. Sequim, as noted by guideboooks, is located in one of the driest areas in Western Washington. Caused by their height, the snow-capped Olympic Mountains halt the flow of wet, heavily laden, oceanic air, interrupting its current northward, forcing it to spill its legendary rain up against the mountains on the southern side, creating deep, lush, moss-covered rain forests. The remaining, tapped-out, dry air slips past the summits of these rock giants, and graces the expanse from Sequim to Port Angeles with a haven for the drenched and wet-weary Wasingtonians to frolic around without rain gear. This dry climate, known as a “rain shadow” induces the growth of a yearly plethora of lavender flowers – fields upon fields of scented purple in the entire month of June and into July. One year a while back I visited The Sequim yearly lavender festival to participate in the celebration of harvested lavender, from flowers to edibles, to household products and pet supplies, all infused with lavender scent and oils. If you get a sunny day, the yellow will compliment the purple fields vividly.

In the winter, though, only enticing thoughts of the summer surface as US 101 takes me onward, past RV sales offices and motor home camp grounds, hotels from the 50s and Olympic National Park visitor information spots. Soon enough, I imagine buying a small conversion van, or attending the upcoming RV show, and my day dreaming takes me and said new van to the far corners of Nova Scotia and down through the Louisiana Bayou. But then Port Angeles appears, a port town with the feel of lunch-pail, maritime men working transportation industries to move the goods that have arrived from sea onward over land. Port Angeles likely attends to its economic life, as its independent stores and pubs, its cafes and bakeries are lit and open, sidewalks sharing space with pedestrians and wares. US 101 goes right through its heart, and the five stop lights pulse the traffic through at regular beats. A gateway city to the Olympic National Forest, and its iconic Hurricane Ridge, Port Angeles welcomes its visitors with clearly posted markers for national park information, directions, access, day pass and registration for backpackers. US 101, sliding along this east/west stretch of road keeping the mountains to my left and peripheral vision, now turns sharply south at Lincoln Street, dead ahead into the mountains, standing formidable. Dwarfed by their command, the car inches towards them, and the deep green, rugged pyramids loom forward, flooding the windshield with captivating allure, pulling me straight into the national park and its ancient wilderness.

On this stretch of the road, headlights corner the shadows that now grow along the base of the mountain curves, then suddenly disappear within intermittent sun streaks; fog that settles low will force reducing speed, bringing visitors into a perceptibaly cooler and darker terrain. 10 miles out from Crescent Lake the roads become narrower, tighter; still at sea level with the lake on the right, the weight and steep grade of the mountains on the left, almost a 90 degree angle from the road, shrinks self-perception, and minimizes a self-made, augmented reality which left untethered and untempered can grow to an imagined, unrealistic proportion. Ego subdued, I recognize the turn off to my destination: Storm King Lodge and Trail and Marymere Falls Trail.

Bathrooms Closed shouted an orange lit, construction sign generated by a current federal government shut down, but it hasn’t stopped people from climbing. Parking spaces were not plentiful, but luckily on this mild winter day, an open space lay waiting. I emerged into the cool, damp air of pine and earth. At first, the path leads along the lake to one’s left and past a ranger station on one’s right. A small foot tunnel takes the wanderer under US 101 and into the forest proper. Here large, moss-covered pines tower since centuries, some having fallen decades ago and left to lie in a restful, compostable pose. A few Western Red Cedars, bark stripped, show off their light auburn, rust-colored wood, polished as smooth as any varnish could do, with the help from decades of a temperate zone that prevents the temperature from escalating too high in the summer and dropping too low in the winter. Before the path splits into the Storm King Trail to the left, the unmistakable sound of rushing water grows in crescendo to one’s right, an ever present sound that cannot hide between the thick, dense growth. I opt for the strenuous choice today, veering left and up, a two-mile one way to its summit over intensely graded switchbacks of roots, rocks and gravel.

As any summit hike will do, its paths will start out at a mild grade and inevitably thrill you by its relative easy incline. But mountain bases are wide and gradual; the top halves are steep and challenging. For the first half an hour, the path was gracious in its introductions. Several plateaus leveled out, making walking lighter and breathing wider, and the vistas, emerging after breaks in momemtum, when simply standing still and looking around cleansed the visual palet, promised a return for the investment. Higher up, the trails become steeper, fallen logs require stepping over, roots become steps, and gravel and rock the tread.

Stop to look around. Moss climb up the Sitka Spruce, lichen flourish over fallen Red Cedar and the great Western Hemlock, the national tree of Washington State, stands proudly reaching for the sky.

An inate pull is keeping me going, step by lumbering step. The summit beckons in its pinnacle, one-pointed glory. Unlike a continuously sea-level trail, or a loop that brings you trustingly back, a hike to a summit is many things at once. It can challenge in its difficulty, forcing a hiker to best themselves. It can entice, with keeping its mountain top view a mystery until the very end, the prize for the persevering souls. It can offer a riddle through its winding scales, a mesmerizing maze of zen meditation. Metaphorically, we’ve trained ourselves to reach heights. To soar. To accomplish the high rungs of success. To climb the proverbial ladder. And so with little more than miles for measurement, the explorer goes forth, feeding his need for discovery, watering his thirst for adventure, supplying his desire for wonder.

“You’re almost there,” a fellow explorer tells me as we pass at a bend, his stepping aside to let me keep a steady, upward momentum. That’s nice of him to say. It’s what you tell someone to keep them going on an arduous task, or trip, or senior year. And yet, this statement holds so much value. Where ever “there” may be for any number of us explorers, we’re always almost there. We’ve almost solved a problem, almost achieved an idea, almost feel whole, almost released and almost accepted the Now. And once we get “there” – to a summit, to a scenic view, to a height that let’s us feel on top, something happens to our psyches that creates a balance, an exhale, a finish, and a resolve.

Towards the latter third of the ascent, the gaze tends more upward than downward, measuring the “till we’re there yet” syndrome. Sky shows itself more forgivingly now, edges of outlines beyond branches become less hazy, and the scope of a tree’s height is not lost against even higher trees. These are clues to a certain evocation. The feet now accustomed, relatively, to place and plant, the legs now knowing to protect the knee by keeping a slight bend in them, the eyes darting from soft pine and rock ground to hillside, to fallen and standing beauty, from greens and browns upward to blues and whites and occasional slices of yellow streams, which, able to reach the branches now, and with such immediate intensity, heat the cool moisture off the verdant splendor, sending plumes of spiraling condensation off of the trunks in whose path the sun crosses.

Higher still; then unexpectedly but gratefully, like bumping into a ripe avocado in the hardness of winter, a first summit opens up on the left. Below, 1500 feet below, lies Lake Crescent’s mirror of water, smooth as blue glass, reflecting the sky from above. The hills and mountains that protect it sear a path upward, dwarfing 200 foot pines and relocating oversized egos. A stable rock serves as a seat to this scene, and on this January day, only silence and sight were the company of travelers and contemplators alike.

To what do we owe these summits we reach? They can be a place where we dump out our mental trash, release our own vistas of overworked thoughts and reworked tribulations, fighting their duos in a mind-numbing series of several seasons in length. This scene here, looking out to this earth-made determination in the form of rock and fauna to surivive centuries and millennia, puts weak resolves to shame. And up in a summit, this awareness is illumminated. The worrries lift like condensation from bark and branch. The awakened strength shoots down like the surrounding trees rooting down to the earth and grabs the land, digging deep and reconnecting to a hidden life force. The heart may pump with more vitality, sending out pulses of presence to the vast expanse. A connection, a vibration, a wave is received via every inhale, and a whole, quintessential joy bursts forth via every exhale. One’s validity and contribution to harmonize this natural balance is an essential part of this scene, living impervious to the quarrels of man-made life below.

I climb on. The trail from here on is more rock than root, and soon curves around the mountain side to face the sun, suddenly ushering in a whole new climate: facing south, the moss has retreated, the air has transposed to arid and warm, and the light has cast out the shadows on which lichen, ferns and undergrowth depend. The light is greater; its spread is wider. Branches reach laterally. Here, then, is the second vista, one that faces the mountains to the south, a complete symmetry of peaks and valleys, four in a row, fronting the higher and now capped mountains behind them. I sit by a sign that announces the “end of the maintained trail,” and deduce that only mountain goats or the mountain outfitters need continue. But that’s alright. I feel a joy that I can’t find down below. I feel a peace that’s urged me on. I lift my face to the sun, and smile.

Light and Space

On the second day in Krakow, I begin to see and feel a way the city and its people move that gives me a fluid outline of impressions. I can’t help make connections and inferences all the time, some right, some wrong, some way off target. But more often than not, the character of a country is both rooted in its own history and pulled and stretched by its present political and economic climate, challenged by the desires of newer generations, secured by the skeptical aging generation. Since the 1400s, give or take a century or two, Poland’s independence was hardly what one could call stabile or secure, getting nibbled or gobbled up by either the Germans, the Russians, and the Austrians, taking turns or all at once; after regaining their country following WWI with Germany’s surrender and support for an independent Poland from US President Wilson, Poland was still fending off the Russians and Czechs in the early 20s, overcame an assissination and secured Danzig as way to the sea to avoid being landlocked, so they were always working to protect what they had. After a brief 20 years of independence, Poland once again suffered under massacres, destruction and attempted obliteration. The countries that were once part of the Eastern Block of communist rule since the end of WWII have had to reassert an old identity or create a new one; Poland’s release into democratic ideals in 1989 allowed it to breathe and to grow as a viable economic force and now it behaves as a toddler in the wake of an EU: feisty and at times unwilling to compromise, seeing what it can get away with, what they like or don’t. Of course, no individual walks around the city with this load on his mind, but collectively, the country inherits the stories and an old culture, and they become the tell tale weave on a fabric or painted designs on pottery that line the shops along the Old Town streets.

I’m digressing, so why not continue. The taxi cab driver (a yong guy born after 1989) who takes me to the airport for my flight to Warsaw strikes up a conversation that helps me understand a little bit more of how Poland works. He tells me more about the generational differences that he has gleened from family conversations. His grandparents remember the economic security afforded every family under the communist regime: that jobs were available for everyone, and as a result, see that as a better time. His parents are open to change and willing to try, but they see that a democracy requires people to be competitive, and the let’s say “older Poles” have no training or mindset in competitive ideas. The younger generation, in their 20s, are complacent and for whatever reason, don’t feel the urgency to start a career or forge their way forward. As a result, many ambitious Ukrainians, Czechs and Hungarians are coming to Poland because of all the work opportunities that Poles are deliberately avoiding. Disregrding the complacency of Poland’s younger generation, many EU companies are moving to Poland (similar to American companies moving to Mexico) for cheaper labor and apparently bringing their labor force with them. Our talk in the cab then moves to a current conversation the EU is having about changing the currency from Zloty to Euro, and here I keep some thoughts to myself about what Poland should work on before the value of its currency: a) make sure public restrooms and those in buses have toilet paper b) get an organized train system like the Germans, Austrians and Swiss. There is no possibility, for example, to take a non stop train from Warsaw to Frankfurt or Berlin, Germany, or from Vienna to Warsaw or even closer to Krakow. This is quite inefficient, it seems to me. Coming in to Poland from Vienna, I needed to take a bus because the train required three transfers and I didn’t want to deal with dragging my suitcase around. F0CB1695-221F-4FA1-870E-55FDEC4202DD

I fly on a delayed, small propeller plane from Krakow to Warsaw; once ascended, the stewardess gives everyone a glass of water and a chocolate wafer and by the time the water is drunk and the wafer eaten, we are ready to descend; the 35$, 45-minute flight is well worth it compared to a 16$, 6-hour bus ride. The small propeller plane comes to a halt on the tarmac where a bus was waiting for us. I have seat 1A, and I had never had the first seat before, and feel myself quite privileged until of course a few minutes later. As the first one off, I board the bus right away, and then I notice that the baggage is coming off the plane and is being transferred to the baggage carts. Passengers are pulling their bags off the cart and bringing them into the bus. I thought this is quite smart instead of waiting at baggage claim. So I get off the bus and wait for my bag, and by the time I see it being loaded into another cart, all of the passengers are on the bus and it is ready to go. So some passengers got their luggage, and others don’t and have to wait for it to be transported to baggage claim. The few remaining passengers, the five of us, have to wait inside the terminal at baggage claim. Weird, if not inefficient. But it does give me time to google help for getting from the airport to the Old Town, and by the time my bag rolls around, I’ve found the way: the 175 bus will take me right to the edge of the Old Town, very close to my hostel, and those courteous ambitious Poles who the taxi cab driver was not talking about are found next to the ticket machines helping tourists get a ticket.

On the bus I notice the city: wide streets and modern buildings, electric trams and electric buses and the occasional baroque building. The sun shines in a way that lightens and welcomes. I feel I have emerged from the medieval ages, and the fear that Warsaw would be like Prague and Krakow in terms of confining and overcrowded has disappeared. The hostel is on a large boulevard close to Kolumna Zygmunta, the tall column with a bronze statue of King Sigismund III Vasa, who moved the capitol from Krakow to Warsaw in 1596, the Royal Palace, and the almost exactly reconstructed Old Town to pre-war design, which received #2 on the UNESCO heritage site list. 22C55569-4D40-4DC4-98FA-2D274CF3A32FD001816B-0C54-4A55-98B1-A151030F613E56AB288C-5F76-4C9B-B2E8-01937686A87DD5D0D5E7-5962-474D-977F-CEBBB99473D020480618-4C74-4888-98B9-10E58A310D193AA7D201-EF5B-4019-9571-2E37D60055E3F0FF7400-1A6D-4149-9675-182F69CC48658109B255-D0A9-4BEA-A1CB-9E2EC3DE9C055CC80231-C8A0-450F-B95A-17B412EC68DFBEB1FFE3-F8C0-48A1-8D9E-F42E9FA68EA0EF39B895-583E-4A07-83FB-9628BAC59AB102A2FB22-A471-443C-857D-21F9045A4C88C5D6B557-422E-4410-87D3-9A42EA1024617BBE85E8-DFF6-489E-8019-2C47F1D43A8A40807FD6-EDE0-4FE0-BDFE-548C5113EE4FIncidentally, the Salt Mines outside of Krakow are #1. I will get to them in a later post. I find the hostel and it, too, is as modern as the city: key cards, an elevator, newly painted walls without graffiti, laundry facilities that include an iron, wooden IKEA type bunk beds with privacy curtains, and above all, a quiet atmosphere. It’s a dream really, compared to where I’ve randomly selected to lay my head lately, and no small coincidence that the name of the place is actually Dream Hostel.

Later that evening I attend a Chopin concert nearby, at Chopin Point. The pianist, Piotr Nowak, is a young man who won many awards both nationally and internationally. When I hear him play, I am transformed; his passion and skill at playing Chopin’s most famous Etudes is stupendous. He plays every night apparently, and the venue is the same place Chopin played when he was in his 20s before he moved to Paris, giving concerts upstairs to visiting dignitaries. I can say that the small setting (seating for 40 max although tonight there are no more than 30), with proximity to the piano and pianist creates an intimacy with the music and the playing that would otherwise be missed on a bigger stage. The pianist and his skilled fingers on the grand piano transposes me, and probably all of us, to another plateau, or spatial realm; the sound from the piano keys vibrates throughout the salon and through me and at all the right notes, as Chopin’s playing is known for its diminuendo from forte to piano resulting in a very emotional and moving mood.

Feeling enlightened and inspired by the beautiful concert playing, I walk through the Old Town, which is now becoming more fully awake by the hoards of tourists coming out to late dinner; the lanterns are lit along each restaurant’s outdoor seating, street musicians are out in full force, also playing their Etudes on the accordion, the violin, the guitar.64C34BAB-3864-4571-A680-9C7B7483996D08ABC81F-0A8B-47BC-A39E-CD976EA6BC343B2291D5-E780-4896-A354-3092F481D94B43D3F897-BCCE-4BF2-82F9-F1EF007CD5B0AD2E1D2A-8271-48F9-AD83-2E2BECA14E75 Kraków sold its amber for the Everyman, affordable and out on open markets; Warsaw sells its amber for the high end big spender, only behind solid glass window jewelry shops. Walking up and through the Old Town, taking in the sights and sounds, I get a feel for the place before I head back to the hostel and relax before bed.

The next day I meet the volunteer organization Angloville with which I am registered for the free city tour and complimentary lunch. As it happens, it’s not a city tour, but a history lecture in the full heat of a scorching day. Interesting, but it’s hard to compact 600 years into 2 hours even on a cool day in an air conditioned lecture hall, much less outside vying for spots of shade with other tour groups, trying to outspeak the other tour guide’s voice behind us who must have experience as a stage actor. Walking tours are often hard because of the amount of walking involved, but standing tours can be even harder. Get a bunch of travelers together who have been living out of suitcases and place them in an Old Town in 90 degree temperature where no air conditioning exits, and you can come across some pungent smells. I’d like to spare you of the history of Warsaw, as a) I’m likely to have forgotten it all, trying to concentrate on simply breathing, and b) most of it is pretty depressing. Every one’s spirits pick up when lunch is mentioned and we are escorted to a restaurant in the Old Town. There are tables outside under the canopy which experiences some soft breezes, but we are seated indoors without a fan. It’s ok, I think, as I am looking forward to a traditional Polish lunch which will introduce me to some of the menu options I’ve perused from menus on display in front of the myriad restaurants all through the Old Town. 99DE99D8-919C-4A16-AC6D-1B6883E09A37

But alas, the meal is an embarrassing let down; I could have cooked the meal  blindfolded and hungover. Watery tomato soup with soggy noodles starts us off. I don’t know what the deal is, but there is no bread on the table to accompany the soup. More on that deal, or lack of deal, later. After the soup, the main meal arrives: a flat piece of chicken breast that looks semi processed and boiled potatoes on the side. The big man from Northern Ireland who could use a bath, a barber, and some new clothes shouts out, “I don’t eat chicken, mate! What else ‘ave ye got?”  “I don’t eat meat, either,” states another young lady from Cork, and the two from Texas add, “And we’re vegans. Did anyone inform you ahead of time?” “Can I have potato pancakes instead of those boiled potatoes?” Asks a lady from London. The young, flustered Polish waiter returned to the kitchen as I and the remaining people stared at our flat, very lifeless chicken, bare and naked without sauce, gravey or even a sprig of parsley to add character. The waiter comes out with a cooked, head and skin intact fish for Northern Ireland and Cork, and put a heap of steamed vegetables on the plates for the Texas vegans. I’ll explain all about Angloville later, but if this is the first impression, it’s an insult.

After the quick lunch (no one was sure if we were to wait for dessert or not, as our subsititute guide had left us at the beginning of the meal to go to another tour) we get up to split up and go our own ways. I am headed for an umbrellaed cafe where I intend on imbibing a refreshing cider and eating a lovely dessert, and I remember just the place from previous walks. I find it right away, a little hideaway bakery with books inside and some tables outside in a quiet alley.2856997A-CB23-4850-9FC7-FBA65EF71F28

I drink two refreshing ciders and enjoy a mango cheese cake; I eye the amber through the window across the alley, catch up on my Instagram feed, and watch the tourists as they pass.

 

It’s Not All Work

 

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Filling up and sealing bottles in the Groiss factory. 

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A break after lunch on the terrace. 

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Taking Greta, the dog, for a walk and coming across these friendly donkeys.

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If a stalk of corn is stressed by weather or soil, this type of fungus grows, which is edible and a delicacy in Japan. It tastes like a mushroom.

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Dog and cat days.

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Exploring Krems, a city along the Donau.

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Charlie mixes two different types of soup to make it look more appetizing for Fransi (5 yrs)

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Fun times

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Charlie discusses the celestial bodies with his children.

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There’s always time for wine!

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Swimming in the pond with the frogs.

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Charlie and Fransi dry the red pepper seeds for next year. 

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On my way to the Donau by bike one afternoon.

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Getting ready to go to town.

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The crew, ready to Baum Kletter

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Eichbüchl

This isn’t my first time feeding horses and mucking out stalls and picking cherries and eating loads of apricots on a farm in Austria. In the summers of my tenth and eleventh years, our family spent a summer on a farm in Austria, and I knew one day I would want to relive the experience. How I found the Senning family or how they found me, or why they decided to reply to my request as a workawayer is less important as the belief that my spending time with them here and their giving me the possibility to experience farm life again is part of my road of re-discovery.

Since I’ve arrived, the day trip to my childhood summers in Eichbüchl, only an hour by car from Senning, has always been on my mind, and therefore also on my calendar of places that I try to fit in whenever Birgit says, “You’ve done too much! Go!” When she sent the kids on a three day golf workshop with their grandfather, and she and Charlie took a day for themselves, we knew this would be the perfect day for me to go.

I grab the bike after breakfast and the feedings of animals, bike to Stockerau, where I board with the bike and I set off on the two hour train ride to Wiener Neustadt, the closest train station to today’s destination. I chain the bike in the designated area, and sit on a long bench opposite it; this train is one of the older, regional, slower, every-stop trains, yet I find myself enjoying the warm air coming in through the open window, the emptiness of a train whose commuters have long since left and are sitting in offices somewhere in Vienna. The motion and momentum, the metal of wheels to rail, the screeching, the clicks, the gliding through time is peaceful and both self assuring. Standing still offers the opportunity to capture the Now, I suppose, but moving with time, either on foot, bike or any type of conveyance, makes me feel part of the world as it moves through the universe.

Leaving Vienna now, heading south, these are the stations that greet us along the way in 1973: Liesing, Mödling, Pfaffstätten, Baden, Sollenau, Felixdorf, Theresienfeld….The hills become more pronounced now, the villages are small and train stations are of one ground floor, cement platform. I remember one trip to Wiener Neustadt, maybe two, that we took by train, on these very tracks. One was concerning a pair of jeans, but for whom and whether the shopping trip was successful, I don’t remember. It may not have been about jeans at all. Another was for an experience to eat a wiener schnitzel, (or was it a Linzer torte? Was this the memory that created my coffeehouse story?) but again, this may simply be part of my memory that is patched with other memories, and may have nothing at all to do with us driving to Wiener Neustadt. Still, I remember the long train ride, at least, which of course seemed longer than it actually is; and I distinctly remember wanting to get back to the farm as quickly as possible, to the rabbits, the dog, the horses, and the awareness of teetering on the cusp between childhood and teenager.

We arrive in Wiener Neustadt. I unlock the bike and roll it onto an elevator – surely this is a new addition in the handicapped accessorized station – and then out and up to the main floor of the station, which now has a mini mart (Spar) and Lanauer Konditorie on the opposite side.

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I walk through the open door facing the Main Street that heads right down to the main square of the city. Here somewhere our friend Sevi picked us up in the red VW bus and we got our first taste of Austrian words and the dialect. B34CD1CE-5F5E-4F1A-9C55-961FDF57D9F1I check google maps for a direction to Katzelsdorf, and within a few minutes map out the few turns in my head and then am off. Down the main road, Bahngasse for just two blocks, thrn a right onto Ledererstrasse through the park, and then left and right onto Günserstrasse until the signs point to Katzelsdorferstrasse, and a left turn takes me out of Wiener Neustadt and into countryside for the five km to Katzelsdorf.

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Little is familiar to me of course, but I like to think of our rambling along this little road fresh off the train from Istanbul from where we must have sent a telegram to indicate an arrival day and time – or was a telephone involved? I arrive in Katzelsdorf, and then find the sign to Eichbüchl, which takes me through the one main street with a Gastätte, a butcher, a post office, a church or two.

I make a left, and pedal over a wooden bridge and up the road. Closer. The road becomes one lane, the houses smaller, the woods deeper, the incline steeper.BB60E2E0-15DE-4452-9DB4-DF1858A594C0 I decide to take the woods up, which will take me through the lush back yards we used to play in as children despite warnings from the adults to not stray too far – Czechoslovakia was only 20 minutes away. Deep ravines, hunting post look outs, paths veering up, down and across yielding to one’s imagination. In these woods we roamed, often on foot but also bareback courtesy of Befluga and Blida, the two black horses that roamed the pasture across the gravel road from the castle grounds. After a steep 30 minute walk, rolling the bike up with me (although a mountain bike, I’m not here for a cross trek challenge). Finally, the paths levels off into a clearing. I get a feel for where I am, finally, a sense of recognition. To my right I glimpse a terra-cotta roof and beige stucco walls, but beyond this, the thick hedge keeps eyes out. I walk on, keeping the hedge to my right, and soon come to a thick-barred, tall gate, two square, stucco columns standing sentry on either side. I look through the gate and find an island of trees and a tall cement stone with engraved information about the castle’s significance in its being the place where Austria became the Second Republic during early April 1945.  In the 70s, only one unassuming plaque hung by the gate, whose presence I find comforting: 0240B9EC-61CD-4C70-9A7B-03ABFAF0B87FWe only knew it as a 16th century castle where strange things occurred and noises were heard.  Then I look right, through the bars and towards the entrance of the castle itself. The anachronistic image cannot be missed: a black luxury SUV is parked along what used to be the gravel road leading to the wooden red and white courtyard gates, but which is now an asphalt road leading to dark green doors; besides the two cone shaped spires from the main building, I can’t see anything else. I feel an instant affront from the owner from his obvious desire to keep nostalgic viewers like me away.  90CC131C-4D0E-4F95-A55F-90135B4AB1E8D23B2A83-9F75-433F-9D1A-2920846D6A15729534E4-C2FA-4EE4-96D0-AEAEEFFAA1E940B1C667-98CC-4E43-98FF-2CBA9C8769EF9575D162-9007-424F-BEF7-2AB60D8AE01A28FA0C91-D086-4D2E-B18C-C4B56946AEBB

 

Whoever owns this place, with its precise landscaping and detailed renovation painting does not want to be called on. I am locked out of my once summer playground. Later, I learn that Wikipedia can do no better: Walter Burghart, industrialist, who ever he may be, has been the owner since 2012. Two nameplates and a buzzer on the left tempt me, but I don’t ring. There are two choices: Schloß (castle) and Kastellan (captain of the castle). Burgahrt must be the captain. Among all of the signs commemorating this place, there is none that says van Lieshouts or the Clods were here in the summers of 73 and 74. But there I was, a little girl.

I look to the left and my view is again blocked from where the barn used to be, so I walk down the road a bit to get a better view and notice to my left, up where the apricot trees and the hay fields scented the air with late summer ripeness and from where we gathered up enough apricots to fill the hay wagon, our hands an orange sticky sweet; and where the hay, prickly and prolific and stiff, tinged the air with sweet haze, are now orderly, trimmed, neat rows of grape vines. Maybe Burghart’s into wine. B109AF1A-603A-44EA-957B-03244AB5F320

I turn my attention back to the right, to find the barn, and then I spy it through the hedge. It has been converted into a home. Maybe the same property, maybe not. I notice homes around me everywhere, where none used to be, these new houses locked  away behind gates and private entrances and hedges. What used to be a an open farm, a welcome haven to all kinds of people, a castle on a hill, with open gates and grazing sheep and rabbits is now a place for the rich. 9C28E761-4CBF-4E68-9B12-390DC41872A1

I get on my bike, slowly allowing myself to roll downhill, away from what is unfamiliar to me now, and I turn around one last time to look at what once was.B53BF09F-2B70-4C21-A5D0-960C7E5550BA

Down and around, Eichbüchl appears as it was, and this street gives me the nostalgia I’ve been looking for. Farm houses, a mill, chickens in the yard, and the old peeling yellowed paint of memories.D8921532-EDC4-4B0D-AC58-91CBE9117B0479CBE328-7AC2-4927-B2EC-E581B66E1986EF6116D1-E280-4C5D-816E-728069FB778F5C0031C2-20FC-4EE7-A97B-969E1D5CA8C3

A Night Out

July 27

The full lunar eclipse happens very rarely, and apparently over Senning 250 years ago. Tonight, it will occur again, and so we plan to make a picnic and take some blankets and sit out on the horse field to enjoy the lunar eclipse. 

But first, it’s still morning and there’s work to be done. We bring in the freshly picked blackberries that grow along the backyard fence, 2.3 kilos of blackened berries, wash them and bring them to a boil on the stove. It’s jam and liqueur time. Once they’ve come to a boil, I purée them with a handheld mixer, and then strain into a bowl.

The strain leaves all the seeds, twigs and dead bugs behind. The mulch and pulp that remain become the basis for the eventual liqueur and once the liquid from the blackberries is strained into the bowl, leaving the glob of residue behind, I dump that into a jar. Once the blackberries have been strained, the juice is then reboiled with sugar and a sugar plus pectin mix. I ladle the thick liquid into jars, and Francziska caps them while still hot.

When cooled they are stored in a rom in the cellar, full of other preserves: tomato sauce, pickled corn, apricot jam, apple sauce …. This is some delicious stuff. The remaining pulp, meanwhile, is covered with alcohol from a plastic bottle that has a 96% on its label, which Birgit gets at the apothecary, but she says any type of plain schnapps alcohol would do. This mixture stands for three weeks on a window sill; it won’t work in the dark. After three weeks, sugar water is added. She pours the alcohol over them, seals the jar, and places it in an appropriate sill; she then retrieves a different jar that has cherries in it, strains the cherries she left standing in alcohol before I got here, adds the simmering sugar water to them. She admits she needs a second opinion on the ratio of sugar to alcohol; it would be rude to not oblige…it tasted like mixture between Christmas Eve and a first date.  

After the blackberry jam is completed, I get to work making the apricot knödel: three packages of topfen mixed with two whole eggs and 4 egg yolks, 9 tablespoons of semolina flour and 9 tablespoons of bread crumbs. This is the basic recipe. Once you’ve got this, anything can go in the middle. Birgit pulls a package of apricots she froze from the freezer. I scoop a large tablespoon of dough onto the palm of my hand and flatten it; put an apricot in the middle and roll it up. Finish a dozen, and in boiling water they go. Once they float to the surface, I scoop them out, and roll them in a bread crumb, butter, cinnamon and vanilla sugar crumble. 

While I was working on the knödel, Birgit makes a spread with fresh red peppers, koriander, onion and cumin. Total kitchen time: from 9 to 2, and I love every minute of it.

After lunch, each person finds their own quiet corner or place, but soon around 4:30 we find ourselves mucking out the horse stalls. The horses are kept in Charlie’s father’s barn, where he used to have his dairy cows and steers for beef. Pitchfork in hand, scooping the soiled straw into the wheelbarrow, deep into the smell of hydrogen sulphide and methane from the concentrated manure, I ask Birgit what became of them all. According to Opa, Charlie’s father, who was putting new hay in the feeding trough, the distributors for local beef and dairy in Stockerau, the bigger city 8 km away, closed down, apparently suffering from the same thing that happens to small, individually owned stores: they get gobbled up by bigger chains. Another and more alarming explanation, is that only ten years ago, Austria made it law that you need to get your cows out to pasture and not keep them cooped up in the barn all day; small farmers around here need their land for crops and don’t have enough for grazing fields, and as a result, probably rarely got their animals outside.Times change everywhere, even in the stillness and quiet of rural Austria. 

I shower after that, enjoying the clean smell of suds from the Nivea shower cream; back upstairs, Birgit decides suddenly, or not, but she says suddenly that she will make pudding for tonight’s eclipse. What a woman! Preserving, cooking, mucking and back to cooking and making salads for tonight’s picnic. The aroma of cream and vanilla pleasantly eclipses the manure and methane of ten minutes ago.

Towards 8 the family gets ready to go up to the field for the picnic. Shouts for pillows, shoes, binoculars, cameras, blankets, food baskets, wine, the tripod are echoed throughout the house – anyone who lives in a large family will be familiar with the chaos of getting out of the house at a designated time. Eventually, all are ready, and we leave from the barn, where two wheelbarrows of picnic material are waiting to be hauled up to the field. Birgit remembers to grab some horse food mix on the way up, so she’s got a bucket in each hand, Charlie a wheelbarrow, one of the son has another wheelbarrow, the other on a go cart, one on a bike; we could easily be mistaken for a family of refugees. 

While we assemble up on the field, Birgit calls some neighbors over she sees walking along the road, Charlie brings the dog back because he was chasing the rabbits over and through the fields, the children call dibs on pillows and places on the blanket, we pour the wine and note the dark clouds on the northern horizon. Not to fear. The moon is expected to rise any minute.

The plates are distributed and some clouds appear in the south where the moon is awaited, the horses are finished eating their food mix and slowly inch their way towards us (this is their field, after all). Birgit creates a makeshift barricade with the wheelbarrows, but those sly creatures come in on the flank. She has to shoo them away, but they decide to run behind us, and stand a polite distance away. 

 

Soon, smart creatures they are, they give up and mosey back down to their hay, and we are left with our picnic of salads, meat and cheese, wine and juice and the sparks of lightning, pushing the thunderous effects closer. 

The neighbor lifts his phone to the sky and using an app, locates the moon hidden behind the clouds. This will provide the only viewing tonight, and I am able to see the blood orange partially eclipsed moon, at least this way, for my memories.

The neighbors leave after a glass of wine, each one of their children clinging to them in response to the increased wind and ominous storm that appears to be heading our way. Adamant that we will see even a bit of the moon rise above the low clouds in the south, we hang on to the romance of a picnic in the impending rain. The children, however, don’t find it as appealing, and begin to wonder how long we plan on holding out. Soon the wind picks up in tumultuous currents, forcing us no option but to concede to packing up the wheelbarrows and heading home. The pudding will have to wait. 

Farm Days

The train back to Vienna is full – a group of Czech natives, I’m assuming based on the language, is at one end of the wagon playing cards, a couple of American girls are taking selfies of themselves and talking about fit bits, but all others are quiet, thank goodness, on their way somewhere. And I back to the farm. 

Anticipating the peace and the clean smell of land and grain, slightly odorous of manure, is now welcome for me after the metal rails and stone of Prague, the flood of vendors and cafes and restaurants vying for attention. Farm life is strenuous, tenuous, and yet productive and fulfilling, but despite the fast food that has been surrounding me here, I find myself wondering if any left overs from Birgit’s homemade tomato soup and morsels of stuffed zucchini are still in the fridge. 

We are just pulling out from a Czeck station called Pardubice, and so far I’ve lucked out and not had to move for someone’s inability for spontaneity with a seat reservation. A woman (girl? young lady?) is beside me, her head resting down on the tray, forearms for pillows. Maybe a bit too much absinthe during last night’s pub crawl. So I’ll take this opportunity and write about daily life on the farm, as it seems that beyond the little bit about this and that, I’m leaving out a full day. 

Mornings for me start at 6:30 to first feed the horses and chickens as part of my 4-5 hour work day before any other tasks they have for me. I can feed them any time between 6 and 10, so my deciding when to feed them depends on whether Charlie needs to start in the fields. Lately you may have been reading of the corn fields I’ve been walking through, but there is a lot more. So I like to get the feedings finished before breakfast, because once the family start coming down the stairs one at a time, things can get pretty hectic.

I enter the barn entrance from the back yard, opening huge, thick wooden doors with brass handles.

Inside, I locate the two buckets in which I fill about 6 cups of two different types of grain mixtures for the horses. Each horse gets its own bucket and they should be fed simultaneously, as the older and more dominant horse (Rufus) will steal all the food from the younger horse (Davie). While they are munching away, I walk to another barn /shelter where I lift a bail of hay from the stack and take it into the horse field, behind them, divide it in two, and fluff it out in different places so that they can munch on that later. If I wait until they are finished with the buckets, they start grabbing it while I’m walking, and I don’t want them to start fighting over some hay with me in the middle. Once the hay is placed, I walk to their water tank, and turn the handle on the tank to fill another large basin with water for the day.

Above: after a run with Birgit, Greta finds relief in the horses’ water basin.

Once the horses have been seen to, I walk down a ways to the chicken yard with two gallons of fresh water. Once there, I open the little door to the chicken coup to let them out of their hen house. They will come down the plank often one at a time, but some of them get antsy if a hen is taking too much time and start clucking and jumping to the ground around her.

There are currently ten hens and one rooster. Birgit gave me the low down on the whole egg laying process, and also why they will choose to sit on some eggs, letting them develop into chicks, and not sit on others, the ones we collect for cooking. If you’re interested, I will share the specifics later. Once the hen door is open, I open a container kept near the hen house and pull out a cob of dried corn. I take it to a bare spot under neath some trees and break the kernels off, scattering them around. The chickens love this, and often run to where I’m throwing; if they are late getting out of the hen house, they miss this treat. Once that has been done, I go back to the hen house, and open a different bucket, one with seed in it. I pour three scoops (2 cups per scoop) into their feeding tray which is underneath the hen house, in case it rains.

Then I take that same grain bucket and walk into a smaller cage inside the chicken yard. Inside this smaller cage are two young hens and six male chickens, which were born this spring. They use the branches of a small tree inside this pen to sleep on, the height instinctively telling them it will be safe from predators. They don’t get any corn, but they do get lots of grain feed that will fatten the males up for the fall and future meals. When they were chicks, they got a special chick food, so the different types of food for different purposes is the reason they animals are separated. After the feeding of both sets of chickens, I change their water which is held in a mini water tank contraption that holds about a gallon of water and releases its contents slowly into a trough that runs around its base. Every day I take a brush and brush away the scum or any algae that might form inside and outside this little water tank.

Charlie’s father lives next door and he is too old for any strenuous farm work, but he does still like to come around and help Charlie with this or that. He used to be a dairy farmer, and as such, could never leave the farm to “go on vacation.” As a result, he has never gone anywhere in his life, except maybe to Vienna, but I can’t think of what a farmer would need in Vienna. All suppliers and buyers are contacted and business is handled right in Senning. Crop farming gives farmers their winters free and possibilities for traveling and leaving the farm for extended periods. When Birgit and the children added two kittens to the mix of pets, it will fall on Charlie’s father to make sure the horses, the chickens, the dog, and now the two cats are fed if they go on a vacation. One of their favorite places is to their apartment in the mountains of Austria, where often Birgit’s extended family will join them, to ski.

Usually within half an hour I have the feedings of horses and chickens completed, and I go back to the house where I make my breakfast. Birgit and the children enjoy their summer hours; usually they start to come down stairs around 8:30, one by one. I make my instant espresso triple and then either a muesli I mix myself from their selection of cereal grains and seeds, or light rye bread and cheese. The family drinks apple, grape or cherry juice made from their own fruit that they either press themselves or have pressed.

Usually the night before I ask what they want me to do the following day, and it could be either the corn fields, Birgit’s garden, or collecting fruit. The fruit trees are in the chicken yard, and I have been back there on several occasions to pick cherries and apples on different days. From the apples, Birgit made an apple strudel one day, which was better than the one I had in Vienna, and I made a deep dish American apple pie, which turned out tasting like it should despite my converting grams to ounces.

Another day Birgit asked me to tie the tomatoes higher up onto the stakes, as their stalks were growing longer; I find such pleasure in working with plants and animals. They give me such peace and joy. Good news, though, the corn cobs are coming in two or three to a stalk, and the male flowers are dry and dying, so the walk-through season of removing female flowers is over!! It’s been fulfilling to see the fruits of one’s labor…

Towards 2 lunch is ready. Every day offers a new delight, something which is usually made from carbs (potato or flour dumplings, young potatoes, noodles or rice) and some kind of vegetable (zucchini, tomatoes, peas, carrots) into some kind of sauce that includes milk or cream, sour cream or topfen a type of light cream cheese. Usually Birgit has made soup before hand: zucchini soup, tomato soup.

Once I made chicken soup, and then a vegetable soup. Last week I pulled some carrots from the garden and boiled the carrots and the leaves for a delicious carrot soup. I also picked dandelion leaves one day because I had a craving for greens. They were excellent with a bit of olive oil and lemon as well. Lunch will last until 2:30 or 3. Generally Birgit and I will talk long after the children have run off. I will clean up, and then I will either take a bike ride around and between the fields of one town to another, play chess with Emmanuel, go downstairs to my room for some quiet time, or help out, doing this or that. There is a light supper of bread and vegan spreads, hams and cheeses around 7:30, but most I’ve found this is flexible and people come and go whenever they get hungry. 

At 8:30 or earlier, depending on when I want to get in my comfy clothes, I feed the horses one more time, going through the same process of grain, hay and water, and then wait until dusk to close the hen house door. Usually all the hens are in by that time.

About five days ago, Birgit, Charlie and Anika released 6 of the young hens from the interior cage to the exterior, ready to be joined with the older hens.  That next evening, all of them were perched on the cherry trees when the sun set, instead of following the others into the hen house. So Birgit and I had to catch them, and it is no easy feat. But the advantage, she explains, is that at night they are disoriented and sleepy, so you can creep up on them and quickly snatch them by cupping your palms around the front part of the wings. Of course, if they are perched too high, you need to wiggle the branches so that they will wake up and jump down, but we have often had to climb the tree just to get to them. 

Each night, we gear up with flashlight headbands and have to scan the trees for them, catch them one at a time, to make sure they are safely inside the hen house. Once they are caught, they wake up and cry bloody murder, flapping their wings away from the hold we may have on them. I always think this must cause them great stress. But too may weasels and foxes come around here and wreak havoc on their lives, so we’re actually saving their lives.

The other morning, As I came to feed and water them and open the hatch to see if any new eggs were laid, I noticed two young hands barely moving and one which was definitely dead. I texted Charlie right away, who was already in the field, and he was there in five minutes. His father was there as well, who happened to be picking some apples. It was very sad. By the time Charlie arrived, there were three dead hens. I was afraid it was due to the trauma of leaving one pen and into another, or of the stress caused by the late night captures, but they insisted it was a little parasite, harmless to humans but which sickens chickens, and sickens them fatally when they’re immune systems are young.

The hens that I just last night held and kept safe were now in a bucket in the barn. I left for Prague that afternoon, and I have a feeling they have since been plucked and frozen for a later date. I hope much later. 

Too Much Absinthe wakes up beside me, charges her phone, makes some seemingly important texts, and replaces her head. We near Vienna as the train slows, and I’m comforted by anticipating the familiar Bahnhof, the platforms, feeling competent with the arrival and departure boards. I find my way to platform for the Stockerau train, and then the bus to Senning.

Salzburg

July 15

Sunday morning I wake up at 4:30 in the morning by Michigan who is rummaging through her suitcase until she finally falls asleep; making a quick survey of the room (mother instincts?) I see that Argentina is fast asleep after her coming back to the dorms around midnight, taking a half hour to shower, and then packing and repacking, unclicking and reclicking her suitcase for 25 minutes; but Ireland’s bed is still empty. A full night out! I snuggled back in until 7, when I tiptoe around the room getting my things together and myself ready for breakfast downstairs. The smell of freshly brewed strong coffee and the sweet, yeast smell of fresh, warm bread flooded the downstairs reception. This hostel, the Meininger, is known for its breakfasts; few offer anything more than coffee and tea because of a kitchen access. So I eat, write some postcards, and plan my day. I opt for nothing too strenuous, as yesterday’s Berchtesgaden hikes offered a lot of walking and tomorrow’s corn walk-through will demand more of the same. As I go back upstairs to get my overnight bag as I will check out for the day, Argentina comes off the elevator and apologizes profusely for the racket she made last night. She is off to check in to the Von Trapp mansion and begin her English journalism course. 

Heading back to Old Town, my goal is to get to the fortress by foot. (Did I just concede to nothing strenuous? Can’t help it – I love a challenge) There is something akin to an elevator that moves up the mountain at a diagonal, but that seems way to easy. After the third cup of coffee and packing another sandwich, hard boiled egg and an apple, I head down to Old Town and Getreide Strasse, which, according to this newspaper caption has nothing to do with grain (Getreide) but a dialect that sounds like Getreide, which essentially means “to be in a hurry” – and so this small shopping alley was just as busy and commercial back in the 12th Century. C49CF64F-D09E-46C2-9AC3-34D01432E1ADThe elaborate, intricate and unique store signs are like large Christmas ornaments, and the Church, St. Michael’s, happened to ring its Sunday morning bells just as I am passing through. It feels so wonderful, so absorbing, so full and rich.

I walk for several more blocks, to an approximate location of the footpath according to a tourist brochure I picked up at the hostel, and pass the oldest bakery in Salzburg, right outside of one of the old medieval portals to the city. Unfortunately, someone left the trappings of a midnight, or probably more likely, 4 am snack on the counters, but the picture is nevertheless interesting, as the brass table and sills look quite original (below).4DE57A9E-4458-43A2-B1A9-9DD2ECDB4F13

I walk through a few more churches, and then give in, and ask a ticket agent at the entrance of an elevator to a monk’s home where I can find the footpath, and she points me back toward the direction I came, and so off I go, eventually arriving at this huge city entry portal that goes right through the rocks of large hills that surround Salzburg to the south. Below, left: entrance to Salzburg from the south; right: exit from Salzburg to the south.

I walk through here and come to a residential neighborhood, where I soon realize I am on the other side of the mountain with no access to the fortress, so I walk back through, make a right, and continue on. 

By now the horse carriages are becoming regular, and all I have to do is to follow one of them, and I’m sure it will take me to a junction of important places. At this point, I don’t care if all I find is this diagonal lift, I want to get up there. So I ask again, this time a young waiter at a cafe, and he directs me right around the corner, where I can tell I am getting close: souvenir shops and stands one right after the other, and a whole line of horse carriages that wait and sweat in the already hot, close-to-noon sun. I pass and ogle the jewelry, the bags, the leather, the magnets, the coffee cups, the paintings, the summer dresses, the Mozart emblazoned bric-a-brac, and find a treasure indeed: a small cookbook of Austrian desserts, and know right away, after looking through it, that I must add it to my collection of cookbooks. So I pay, and in it goes, to add to the shoulder weight of my overnight bag. Up a little further through an alley way, the lift awaits – but lo and behold – right next to it is the foot path, and so up I step. 15 minutes later, I am at the fortress gates. 

One of the most well preserved fortresses in Europe, it started out as a little tower in 800AD, and each successive century did its bit to extend and build onto it. Once inside, it becomes obvious that the occupiers of this fortress had created their own mini city, as it has a main courtyard/square, complete with a well and a church; the priest’s dwellings, a metallurgist, a gunnery, horse stables and now of course, a cafe. I find a little lookout through a barred window from which a cool breeze flows up and around me; I sit down next to it, admire the view and relish the relief for my feet and shade for my head. After a several minutes of quiet, as this little lookout is off the beaten fortress path, I walk around some more, enjoy some lookouts, and walk down to a lower level, where I run into Ireland, with two new friends: sisters from Australia. We are so delighted to run into each other again and so spontaneously that we chat for a while; Australian sisters seem to be just as smitten with the Sound of Music tour as she was. In fact, all over Salzburg I hear adults and children humming any one of the songs from the movie. Anyway, Ireland is safe and happy and seems none the worse for wear and soon we bid each other a final goodbye. I look around for a bench and a view, and eat my sandwich and egg and apple, and feel that with another walk through Salzburg my weekend here will be concluded. 19EC43AE-AB82-4FB9-87E3-76DD83C1052007F4214D-6F6B-4263-8E17-B54628B854B8EDF2487E-E942-4BC2-878D-5835EE2285C69E0A87C5-499B-464E-82DD-9289765E72C3Above: all views from the fortress. Below, the fortress from “the love locks bridge.”3E7AA44C-5E3C-435A-AD59-07E2848AFA3C

Perhaps I bit earlier than I originally plan for, I will catch the 3 pm train back to the farm as the budget for this weekend has been met, and would like to relax before work on Monday; maybe even catch some of the World Cup game. 

Birgit picks me up right before half time, as it so happens, when the family is once again at the neighbors to celebrate Croatia’s pre determined win against France. The neighbor who is an elderly woman has a caretaker, Anna, who comes from Croatia, and as she is hosting the event which includes food and drink, the applause for goals will likely be for the country she comes from. As I arrive, two men from the family or neighbors themselves shift apart and make room for me to sit; Anna stabs a large schnitzel and places it on the plate in front of me and the bowl of potatoes (a cold sliced potato salad made with vinegar and sugar) and cucumber salad (sliced cucumbers in sour cream and dill) make their way towards me. I’m just in time for dinner! After the beer from the evenings with the girls in Salzburg, I had intended to drink dry for a while, but the jester to my right pours me a glass of his own homemade wine which he insists I try, and I have to admit, with the schnitzel, the long hot day, and the camaraderie now surrounding me, it is perfect. 935E4A8E-449A-438B-A65F-A7CF745B7CFD

Yet I can’t understand a thing, as the Austrian dialect is so distorted from standard German that it sounds like another language entirely, and I am left with certain words here and there that I can’t even synthesize into a reasonable inference but from which I can gather a tone at least. And what a jovial crew. The joker to my left insists I try his homemade Walnut schnapps, which he calls the best medicine in the world- for that he switched to German – but then returns to the colloquial chatter that he and the jester to my right has the whole table laughing by despite Croatia’s lack of points on the board. The Walnut schnapps doesn’t taste like schnapps at all, and therefore not fearing an impact on my efficiency the next day of plucking flower stems off the corn stalks, I have another. Then a neighbor from down the other end of the table pours me a shot of apricot schnapps, which is terrible and tastes like it would get a truck running. All the while joker and jester trade what sound like rejected mottos for beer stein mugs – because they elicit such raucous laughter – and then dessert comes out. Apricot cake, cherry tort, nut rolls. Coffee or tea? Nope. More wine and beer. The game, which only Anna and a few others show interest in, is slipping by into an inevitable defeat for Croatia. The dishes are cleared and people excuse themselves. While the French president offers his congratulations to the French team, the evening offers me an authentic neighborhood party on a warm summer night on an Austrian farm.

An early evening and morning in Prague

I arrive in Prague off the 19:10 train and feel its closeness already: a green area of grass growing alongside the length of the station greets travelers right out of the one set of front doors (no multiple entry/exit doors which can lead a new comer into a puzzling maze of city streets), dotted with food stands, locals out for a stroll and the ubiquitous homeless of every city. I follow directions to my hostel and take note of shop signs and placards, bulletins and posters all in a language of which I know nothing, and of the architecture, a wonderful aesthetic of curves and columns, brillliant colors silenced by the grey smear of pollution.EA797ADF-969E-4DFE-B9E0-63B3301BF2DC

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People are everywhere, there is an electric air to the feel and pulse of the city, and although I’ve never been to Las Vegas proper, I will take an uninformed leap here and liken this city to it based on the myriad groups of world citizens, who canvass the pedestrian zones with cups and bottles in hand, dance their way from one cobblestone to another, sing in any language loudly and proudly through the alleys and squares, and shed any reservations or inhibitions that may have arrived with.

I arrive likewise at my hostel and it is discovered that I booked for the following day, not for tonight, and as they have no rooms, I have to find another hostel through my app, which is no problem at all. I find and book a bed at the Old Prague Hostel, north of Old Town Square, about 12 minute walk. So off I go, enjoying the food stands, the ice cream stands, the jovial nature of random people, and am checked in within a half an hour. The dorm room looks out onto a street with a disco and a beat so profound I can only applaud the carefree, reckless, and yet necessarily responsible young people of today, who will have the weight of the world on their shoulders all too soon. Dance on!, I think to myself, the future is waiting once they leave the gates of Prague. The only other way to feel one’s youth, besides teaching grade or high school, must be to come to Prague, or a similar Eastern European city, where the ties to a proper and regulated Brussels is less enforced. The locks to the safe in the room are temperamental, and not trusting their flimsy nature, I take my few belongings with me, back out to the streets; not wanting to eat late, I enter a mini mart and buy a can of pear mango cidre and follow the crowds to Old Town Square, where the Tyn Church is illuminated and groups of people are just sitting on the cobblestone square with their drinks and food. At first I think everyone must be waiting for a giant city pub crawl, but on second thought, they’re probably waiting to meet other people, people they’ve just found on an app, or people they’ve known for a while, first dates, marriage proposals, breakups, meet ups, people wanting to get lucky, its all happening here. I sit down on the curb as well, facing the Tyn church, and enjoy my drink. I am reminded of the visit to Tours during the Summer Solstice- a similar living-in-the-shared-moment type of joy that has escaped me for many years.5C68EF82-13D8-4751-BBFF-E6B88B29B624

Towards 10:30 I decide to walk back, slowly browsing through shops and noticing the gold plated crystal glassware, the cashmere scarves – for 200 Czech koruna? That’s only 8 Euros! The disco is throbbing on, and I fall asleep in an empty dorm (the two girls from New Jersey and Boston are out somewhere) with the life below on the streets keeping me company in vicariously experiencing the joy and possibilities of a young generation.

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The glassware did not have out its prices, but prices for other commodities I noticed along my walks: a pair of decent walking shoes: 180CK (7 Euro); a tempting sausage: 65 CK (2.51 Euro);a ham and cheese croissant; 52 CK (2 Euro), a pedicure 300 CK (12 euro) ad manicure 100 CK (3.8 Euro). Currently, I Eu = 1.17 USD

And Dance on! they did – I wake from a good night’s sleep, undisturbed, to a dawn sky and the persistent disco beat – but not only that – people are still laughing, singing and shouting their way across Prague. Good for them, I think – just give me some coffee. I make my way to the kitchen downstairs, pour a strong one, and begin to write….

At 7:30 am four handsome young French guys come into the kitchen for coffee and one joins me at the table. We strike up a conversation: They come from Strasbourg to have a bachelor’s party, he and “the guy sitting over there to the left of the one getting married” are pastry bakers, they drove 6 hours to get here, they came in at 4:30 and will sleep for a bit before heading back out for one more day of party; his girlfriend, a moscovite, is a travel agent, he wants her to move to Strasbourg, and come to the wedding, but the visa thing is such a hassle…don’t I know it. His friends leave to sleep, and he throws them the key; soon he leaves as well, wishing me a good day and travels. I don’t think I got in a word about myself.

At 8:00 am on the dot the jack knife cuts into the cement for the construction project downstairs. Imagine, if you will, the Dance On! hangovers dealing with that. My cue to head on out!

The streets are pleasantly deserted, at least until ten; by then the alleys and boulevards are scented with a sweet doughy bread that vendors use to fill with ice cream, the charcoal of grills firing up and roasting meat, the pungent odor of beer spilling out from taverns, laced with tobacco that made its way back in from outside seating, the rising heat upon the tourists who scan the tour times and museum hours to be first in line.44CA6970-2A58-4C84-BFB5-FF57F67B243C

I decide on a walking tour myself, and at 11:15 walk to the designated area where a coach takes 16 other English speakers up to the Castle grounds. Along the way, we learn of much disappointment: The state Opera building, the National Museum, and the Astronomical Clock are all closed and undergoing construction. The reasons for these are two-fold: Prague needs to spend the money it gets from the EU, and the Czech Republic’s 100 years of Independence from the Austrian Empire is this year, and they hope to be finished with it all by the end of August.

The castle grounds are enormous: with 45 hectares, it is the largest castle complex in the world, says our guide Elena (and she pronounces it just like we do!), who originally comes from St. Petersburg but has been living in Prague for 15 years teaching history. We need to go through scanners and have our bags checked, because the Czech president has is offices and home in these grounds, and as the flag is up, is in residence.

She hurries us through some courtyards so we can see a changing of the guards, which is about as interesting as feeding time at the zoo. FD16EFF2-E8AD-4535-B0BC-5FBE0219705DAfter this march out of one courtyard and into another, she takes us to a panoramic viewing area, and then down to the Charles Bridge. All along the way she tells of some tidbits: the castle history and remodeling; the small Devil’s Bridge underneath the Charles Bridge, Charles the IV’s influence on Prague, the many different quarters of Prague which only came together as one city after 1922; the Lesser Quarter, which is older than Old Town, but has been remodeled and where the diplomats live, the tower next to the spire of St. Nicholas Church in the Lesser Quarter where the Czech version of the KGB kept an eye and ear on everybody during the communist period (how much quieter this place must have been back then, I muse); the Old Town where the universities and high schools were located, and the New Town, which is the economic and business hub of Prague; the cobblestone streets are protected by UNESCO, so ladies, leave the heals at home. We end up back at Old Town, where the tour ends.

Above: St. Vitus Cathedral, commissioned by Charles IV in the 1300s, and finally completed 600 years later, by 1960.

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Above: the panoramic view from the castle grounds, with St. Nicholas of the Lesser Quarter (an exact, but smaller version of this church is located in Old Town because of a competition between the quarters, and is known as St. Nicholas of the Old Town)

Above: along the Charles Bridge.

Above: the gates to the Lesser Quarter from the Charles Bridge; looking down to Devil’s Bridge, the name gotten from a lady who commissioned an artist to paint pictures of 7 devils on her house walls; he painted only 6, telling her she was the 7th.)

I head to the Jewish quarter, which is now lined with exclusive shops like Prada and Bulgari but which once housed thousands in a small walled ghetto. Here they cash in on the souvenir shops as well, but you can see remnants of Judaism on buildings and sidewalks. Unfortunately, tickets are required for synagogue entrance and well as for the Old Jewish Cemetary, and at this point I’m fading fast.

I walk back in the direction of my hostel and buy a grilled sausage that I see people eating everywhere and sit on a bench in Old Town Square next to the garden of flowers.78B4C7FE-A98E-498B-84D1-7013276A3E3C597F7F9A-9F34-4D4E-8CAC-247FB236DE99To me, Prague has been a cacophony of sights, smells, and sounds that runs on overtime. The tour guide said tourist season is all year round now, and besides sightseeing, shopping, eating, and drinking, which becomes limiting after a few hours, not much more can be achieved as a tourist in one and a half days. The heat today brings me back to the hostel, where I enjoy a cup of tea, the peace of an empty room with its own shower and toilet, and the freedom to lay on the floor and put my legs up the wall.

Berchtesgaden

One of my must sees while I still have days on my Interrail pass is Salzburg and the the allure of Berchtesgaden, Koenigsee, Obersalzberg and the Kehlstein Haus (nicknamed the Eagle’s Nest). Having read so much historical literature of this retreat and underground bunker system of Hitler’s and his crew, I needed to see it first hand. And as I only have two days in Salzburg, Saturday and Sunday, I opt for Berchtesgaden on Saturday, so I don’t have to worry about catching a train back at any certain time.

But first, I arrive in Salzburg, and find my hostel northeast from the city center, about 25 minutes walk away from the train station. After I choose a top bunk in a dorm room that sleeps 6, I head out to find something nearby to eat, as it is about 7:30, and I decide to wait to do the heavy sight seeing for tomorrow on my way to the bus or Sunday because I had already walked 8 miles that morning in the corn. I find one of the top listed “authentic” Austrian restaurants by Trip Advisor only ten minutes away, but their menu offers only huge meals at huge prices, so I opt for a beer and a bowl of oxtail soup, which comes as a clear broth, with some very thin noodles, shredded carrots and cubes of what I’m assuming is ox. The broth is very good, the meat tough, but the beer excellent. And anyway, I don’t want a full meal before bed.0D7E7017-B4F4-4403-80F1-DA1ABAE6869C

As I arrive back into the dorm room, there are three young girls speaking English so I say hello and we all start talking about what tours are available and what to do while here. In the middle of it all, we tell each other where we’re from: there’s a 24 year old brunette from upstate Michigan, who works as a Nanny for a schoolteacher and who is taking a break from her boyfriend by coming to Düsseldorf, Germany to visit with an exchange student she knew from some time ago, who is working all the time, so she took a break from him to come down to Salzburg; there’s a 24 year old blond girl from Wexford, Ireland, who is getting a degree in Drama and Theater and is taking the Summer months off to explore; and then there’s the 21 year old from Argentina who is studying journalism and is taking a course that will be held and I believe she said housed, in the Von Trapp mansion that was used for filming. Once Ireland heard this (I will refer to these girls using their origin of place, as names only came later – it really didn’t seem to matter) she started swooning, as she lives and dies by this movie, has seen it nearly twenty times, and suddenly must have felt a deep kinship with Argentina merely by her soon proximity to the famed location. Meanwhile, Michigan was helping me understand the bus schedules to get to Berchtesgaden, where she was just that day, and regretted not getting out to Koenigsee, as she said the water from the river that flowed through Berchtesgaden was so clean and clear, it was like glass and you could see the bottom of the river. I made a note to myself that I might need two days just for Berchtesgaden. The girls all have on their sleep wear, which to me looks like a short black nightie on Michigan and some comfy shorts on Ireland, so I get dressed for bed, thinking that the evening will come to a close. As I come out from the bathroom, they ask if I want to go with them to get a beer: first they will have one downstairs, and then they will go out from there. I realize that the clothes they are wearing are intended for going out, not for sleeping, (silly me: why waste a decent pair of young, bare legs?) and I put on my functional and practical hiking pants and walking shoes, having packed for that very prospect.

We grab a table downstairs and order beers and wine, and begin talking about our lives, these four random strangers with one thing in common – solo travel and adventure. Michigan talks about her crazy boyfriend who can’t commit, I talk about the perils of teaching in a public school, Ireland and Argentina then compare their private girls only school experiences, and Michigan chimes in with the stories she hears from her employer who is a grade school teacher. We spend a lot of time on school, for some reason, but then switch to social media, as I am very interested in how young people navigate relationships with the lack of privacy and temptations that the plethora of sites beckon with every new ding. They admit sadly, that it is a problem, and that you just don’t know who’s being truthful or not. They know many people who are having a field day without ever having to harvest a thing.

It is now 11 pm and I have a full day tomorrow of hiking and a prearranged tour, so I bid good night and wish them well on their night of prowling (not in those words, of course). Once back at the hostel, I get back in my comfy clothes and settle in, fall asleep immediately; a few hours later, am awoken by the bathroom light, footsteps, suitcase zippers. I glance at my phone to check the time: 4:30 am! But only Michigan was back – empty beds for the other two. I return to sleep and wake up at 6:30; between the last two hours Ireland and Argentina made it back safely. Gosh – what a mother I sound like! And to remember having just as much energy and stamina when I was that age… oh well, I have better things to do, so head down to a fantastic breakfast: cheeses, cold meats, different assortments of bread, boiled eggs, jams, yogurts, fruit, muesli and of course the best coffee in the world. I eat and savor the coffee as I map out my day, looking at brochures and offerings that make me want to stay even longer. I decide on Berchtesgaden for some hiking in the morning before the historical tour of Obersalzberg at 1:15.

I walk down to the 840 bus that leaves from Mirabel Palace and note that because it is Saturday, the bus leaves an hour later; instead of 8:15, I have an hour to explore and take the 9:15 bus. So I head on through to the gardens of Mirabel Palace, full of roses and designed blooms, a center fountain, and then up a few stairs to a terrace garden, I find a yoga group underway.

Too early for the crowds, the paths and the flowers offer a respite from the cement city and speed of the traffic, and so I linger here before moving on towards a foot bridge that crosses the Salzach River and into the Old Town, where the marigold yellow of Mozart’s birthhouse caught me off guard, belying the visual perspective from google maps. Only open at 9 am, I had to postpone an entrance and visit until maybe tomorrow, depending on how today went. Getting a feel for the closeness of everything, which surprises me every time I visit a European city, I quickly find Mozart’s Wohnhaus, which also doesn’t open until later, but provides me with a satisfaction of being surrounded by artistic and aesthetic beauty and genius, and knowing this, I am ready to board the bus for Berchtesgaden for my day of hiking and history.

Despite being the first bus out, it is packed with all sorts of people, some annoyingly loud. I move from a standing position in the rear to a quieter platform up front, and watch how the houses thin out and the foothills become larger and denser. The elevation increases as the bus shifts gears and takes the turns, stopping at Bad Reichenhall and a few other familiar names from the books I’ve read. Small, self sufficient, insular Bavarian towns are run down with backpackers and tourists all summer long; yet this is no new or post war phenomenon: Germans have been flocking to this area for centuries, and after Hitler was released from Landsberg Jail for the “Beer Hall Putsch”,  he visited a like-minded friend who lived in the area, and in 1928 decided to rent a house in Obersalzberg, where he completed the writing of Mein Kampf. 

The bus station in Berchtesgaden is at the front of the train station, which still brings passengers from all over Germany and by train every hour from Munich. I emphasize still, as throngs of German tourists in the 30s descended from the trains every day in hopes of getting a glimpse of Hitler to such an extent that it became the largest train station in Germany in the 30s. Hitler himself had his own private entrance on the northern side of the station – which is now the Watz bar/restaurant –  but despite the reclaiming of this space as well as a magazine store/tabac inside the main hall, all doors, fixtures, ticket windows, a mural on the southern wall, the outdoor face clock, and floors are all original. I wonder what ghosts come out at night, when the last bus leaves the station (18:15) and last train departs for Munich (22:00), with heels clicking against the softened stone; with hands opening the doors onto the roundabout ahead, the Koenigseeache (River) to the left, and the Mountains overhead, caving in and widening one’s perspective all the same, empowering in their madness, humbling in their solidity.4088B766-EAA6-4F88-A8BE-469EBE7B81F6F487B75D-FEC2-4FB9-A9A7-9FA0704206DAAF019DF2-82D7-4E9F-A59C-A20B342E038499DB3EE6-F782-4C3C-8405-1928BBE641298242CC94-48A6-4F6D-862D-4E9D97B9DAFD8B6D9B05-34EF-4B31-8AE6-4F97F05DC75B

Once off the bus, I find the yellow and green shuttered house with an i on the other side of the roundabout where I receive information about the hiking trails and boat times to Koenigsee. I check the trail walking times and figure out that if I hurry, I can make it to Königssee and back before the 1:15 tour, so I find the trail head and begin to set off. The water is hypnotizing, however, and I find myself suddenly alone in the woods on the trail with no sounds save for the rushing, crystal light blue water. The people who packed the bus and then swarmed around the station and roundabout were no where to be seen. There is Berchtesgaden Old Town, of course, with food to be had and souvenirs to buy; there are other buses that take people directly to Koenigsee who prefer not to hike it for an hour each way; and then there’s the dark place that is paradoxically the lightest place, the place I’m scheduled for later this afternoon.

I walk on an flat plane for a while along the river before I decide I don’t want to rush alongside the woods, but prefer to hike into them, and follow signs to Oberschonau which is a 30 minute walk away – this will give me ample time to explore and return, maybe have a coffee or a drink at one of the Gasstatten, and think my thoughts. The newly chosen path ascends into the woods, and again, I pass no one and no one passes me. I walk for a while, come to a clearing, some farm houses, descend again into woods and then come out at a place of guest houses and vacation rentals. These all are kept in typical Bavarian house style, with flowers everywhere, in pots, along wood banistered balconies, drooping from open shuttered window sills, and adorning front porches and entrances. I eventually arrive in a place that might or might not be the destination, nestled in a valley with a magnanimous gesture towards simple, natural living. I am inclined to believe that when one lives at the foot of mountains, one realizes the fragility and temporal nature of life, and the sacred and eternal nature of the universe. Here the stillness was divine; I met a few farmers with the everlasting “Gruss Gott” salutation and returned it in kind, I heard the clinking of a cowbell or two along the pastures and felt such an inner joy I knew that my decision to make it to Königssee another day was a decision well chosen.

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Later I learn that Hitler loved the area so much he bought the house, that he later called the Berghof, up on Obersalzberg. He authorized one of his henchmen, Bormann, to become the acquisition director of the area. According to the tour guide, too many visitors were swarming the mountain, lining the streets in hopes of getting a glimpse of Hitler, so Bormann cordoned the area off, bought out several farmers for their houses and land, and when things really got rolling, forcibly evicted owners from their own houses, giving them less than what the land was worth. Of course every now and then he would let tourists onto the mountain and use the crowds for propaganda purposes, but essentially he wanted exclusive rights to the place. As I walk the trails here today, it is evident how the privacy found in the seclusion of this area, surrounded by impenetrable mountains that appear to stave off the world at large, might wrongly encourage one to falsely feel on top of them and amass a power that is as negligent and wrongly directed as these mountains are strong. One sees the irony everywhere – in the wildflowers canvassing the valleys, the meadows dotted with cows, the sheer, steep snow-capped mountain fortresses jutting up into the clouds. This place was teeming with Nazis not too long ago, marching if not fear through bucolic dairy farms then certainly a false sense of bravado.

I head back, following the signs to Berchtesgaden, and sit on a bench overlooking the river and eat my cheese sandwich I packed from the breakfast buffet. I still hadn’t met one other wanderer, and found the reverie the surroundings put me in both thoughtful and somewhat pensive. Over 300,000 visitors visit Obersalzberg and the Kehlstein Haus area every year, and now I am one of them, even before my inevitable and long postponed visit to a place that commemorates the victims.

The tour bus drives us up to Obersalzberg, slowing down at significant places for gawking pleasure, which includes the information, “Over that hill used to be Goering’s house.” “You can just make out Albert Speer’s studio to the left through the trees and you might be able to see the roof of his house in the far back, now privately owned.” “Around from the Hotel Turk, which is now closed for renovations, used to be Hitler’s house, der Berghof.” “If you look behind you in 30 seconds, you can make out a red door which is an exit to a bunker.” And so forth, drolls out this young historian? Student? Summer Intern? I feel like I want to get out and walk the grounds, as I see other hikers doing, who either left their cars further down the mountain or walked from Berchtesgaden. The Hotel Turk, one of the few original places here, is the most interesting to learn about. It was a Gastatte in the 30s, and Hitler thought it would be a perfect place to house his security officers. So he forcibly bought out the owner, who had to leave with his young family. After the war, only three of the properties on Obersalzberg were returned by the government to their rightful owners. To reappropriate, a former owner must show that he was forced to sell and still have the bill of sale. A daughter of the former owner of this hotel found the necessary papers, and because of this, now in her later years, still owns the place. Her intention is to open up the bunker entrances, which are right below her hotel. I think of the stories she must have, and wish I could talk with her. But we drive on. I may never come back; and so the Hotel Turk recedes from sight and the stories it houses with it.7871E49B-EAC9-40CF-BEAD-F2269C8E5C7452A34967-6BA4-4BFD-959B-469D51361A14

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From the lookout vantage point behind Kehlsteinhaus, with Königssee in the distance.

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Layout and map of Obersalzberg.

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The Kehlsteinhaus, from a lookout point beyond, which leads to many hiking trails around the mountains.

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Another irony: a Bavarian accordion player singing Heimat songs at the top of his lungs at the Kehlsteinhaus , of all places.

The tour bus soon arrives at the visitor’s center, which used to be der Platterhof, another hotel back in the day, but was bulldozed after several years of neglect. On its place now stand ticket counters to Kehlstein Haus, ice cream, souvenirs and snacks. I weigh the heady choice of ice cream or goody, and because we are only allotted five minutes break before we board bus number 1 to the top, I don’t want to wolf down the ice cream, so I choose Manner Schnitten, a favorite chocolate wafer treat from Vienna. Fortified with more water and sugar, I am ready for the top.

This is I assume why the masses come. It is beyond any expectations that you might read about. The bus snakes its way up a steeply graded one way road whose asphalt covers the original stones, which can still be visible along either side. The tall, dark and foreboding evergreens loom around and inward. We enter three short tunnels, all pristinely unaltered, their arches built with the heavy granite stone that adorns the exterior of the house itself. The views are spectacular, the cliffs only a meter off the road, precipitous. Eventually, we even out to the small rotund parking lot, disembark, and walk through a cool, dark tunnel. The same clean granite stones line the interior as if they were just put in place yesterday, and after a minute’s walk, enter a small rotunda on the right, where we wait for the elevator. Once the doors open, all you need is a good imagination because the original brass and mirror interior is so precisely 1938 it becomes eerie. An original clock, placed above the button to the right of the door that winds with a key still works; the only thing that has been updated is the cable wiring and motor which we don’t see. We empty out in the Kehlsteinhaus and enter a main dining room that is still used for the same thing today. At the end of this rooom, is a small round room with a marble fire place that has the names of some US Army guys etched in with the dates: 1945, 1947, 1948. All the windows, the stone, the floors, the woodwork, the light fixtures, even, are still original. When you look out the window, the view is just the same as they saw it. Hitler did not use the place very often; but there are several pictures that can be found online with him and visiting dignitaries in these rooms and balconies. Eva Braun came up here regularly and entertained. Despite the many visitors up there today (Saturday) I cannot help but go over the timeline of their lives, the fate that awaited them, the fate that awaited 6 million others, the idea that in only a few quick and rapid years everybody and their mothers would be strolling through these private quarters, witnessing these views he wanted to keep for himself, the victors owning the spoils. Because although Obersalzberg is Germany, you can’t help feeling that there will always be a claim for the British as their stakes came in the form of bombs, and there will always be a claim for the Americans, as their stakes came in the form of captures and arrests when they arrived shortly after.

We return to the bus, then to the tour bus, and finally back to Berchtesgaden. I decide I can’t return quite so quickly for a Koenigsee visit; the impression and feelings of this place will last a while. I have one more day, and decide to stay in Salzburg. Walking back to the hostel, I grab what I think is a gyros, but is on bread, not pita, and the meat is only beef, not mixed with lamb and no gyros spice. But I am hungry, and so walk and eat; I pass an outdoor live music and beer fest venue and pause, listening. From behind me, Michigan says “Hey there!” And we talk some more, and decide to stay a while. There we bump into Ireland, and think we see Argentina on the other side, but after careful scrutiny, we decide it isn’t her. We listen to a type of Austrian rock band; drink some beer; our talk is more muted as the music takes center stage. Again, once 10:00 strikes, I’m off to bed, but they stay, as they are only warming up to the night, I’m sure.