September 1, 2007

Around Deutschland in 14 Days

Kevin and I just returned from a two-week trip around Germany, organized and paid for by the Humboldt Foundation, and while I never want to look a gift horse in the mouth, I am glad that it’s over. Ten cities in 14 days means that we never got to spend more than a day or two in each city, and sometimes significantly less time. On the final jam-packed day of the trip, we managed to leave Bamburg, visit Rothenberg and arrive in Würzburg all during normal business hours. It was just a little much. When you visit new cities at such a fast pace, the most you can take away from each is a snapshot of its most famous building and the flavor of its most famous dish. My memories of the trip read like a laundry list of such things:
Bamburg: the Bamburger Reiter, Rauchbier (that’s smoked beer)

Münster: the Münster Rathaus, Haxenfleisch (that’s a whole pork leg)

Hamburg: the Hamburger Hafen, Matjesfilet (that’s raw pickled herring, and I like it!)

Fortunately, since Kevin and I had visited many of these cities before on longer more leisurely trips, we didn’t have to feel that we were missing much. This time on our layovers in Berlin, Dresden, and München, we got to see some of our favorite museums one last time and a few new places that we never would have seen on our own. The workshop of the luxury watch manufacturer A. Lange & Söhne, located high up in the Ore Mountains, was actually pretty cool; the tour of the Airbusfactory in Hamburg, I could I have done without, although I bet there were engineers on our trip who would have disagreed.

Still, there were days when, in the middle of a three-hour walking tour of a city following a four-hour bus ride, Kevin and I would want nothing more than to slip off from the rest of the group and settle ourselves into a shaded café, where we could read novels and sip our double espressos. Sometimes we did. Those were my favorite memories of the trip.

But without sounding to hokey (I hope), what the trip lacked in leisure time it made up for by throwing us in the constant company of interesting people. There were 33 people on our bus, and they were of all ages, nationalities and disciplines. There were Jordanians and Egyptians; Chinese, Japanese, Thais, and Malaysians; Russians, Poles, Kyrgistanis; Indians and Madagasks. (The one Madagask being my friend Dina from my German class in Frankfurt). There was even one other American – a chemist from Washington State.

Oddly enough, although this was a German-sponsored trip of Germany, the working language was English. Everyone on the trip spoke English, more or less, and so Kevin and I got to purge ourselves of all the cocktail conversation that we’d been saving up for eight months. As some of the only native English speakers on the trip, we had a captive audience.

But don’t think that I didn’t practice German at all on my summer vacation. Our tour driver was a charming old Sicilian who looked just like Rosano Brazzi, and as he was one of the only people on the tour who spoke German but no English, and I was one of the only people who spoke any German at all, we often sat together at dinner. After many beers he’d open up to me about the secret to making good Spaghetti Alio Olio and everything he knew about the Mafia. (There was a terrible quintuple homicide at a pizza place in Dusseldorf during our trip; it was obviously a mafia hit.)

Also, as part of its effort to maintain and spread the German language, the Humboldt Foundation provided a German tour guide in every city,and so as the rare German-speaker, I was obliged to always travel with the German-speaking tour guide. Often, I was even asked to translate German into English, when members of our group hadn’t understood. At one point, I even overheard our German tour guide, telling another tour guide, “You know her German's actually pretty good.” It almost made it all worthwhile.

For posterity’s sake, the pictures in the slideshow belong to the following cities: Münster, Bonn, Hamburg, Berlin, Dresden, Bamburg, München, the Danube River, and Rothenburg ob der Tauber.

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