Note: clicking any of the pictures will enlarge them.
I like traveling. I just don’t like to travel. I don’t like long car drives at all, but for some odd reason, I don’t mind flying—unless it’s a long flight. I hope I live long enough to see transporter technology so I can just beam my cranky ass to wherever I want to go and skip the entire getting there process. That would make me happy, because I have what my mother always called wanderlust. I’m not sure where I got that from, but I’m glad I’ve got it. I just wish it didn’t compete with that other gene I have—the one that views getting from point A to point B with the same necessary dread as going to the dentist.
My wife and I were going to Eastern Europe—specifically Germany—with a large group of people who are friends with my father-in-law. Her father left a small town in Germany as a teenager in 1951, worked through Canada and eventually ended up with his wife and two children in Rochester, New York. I’ve heard about Germany from him for the past thirty-one years, not always with rose-colored glasses but with respect and fondness for the place he came from and for the foundation it laid for his life. This would be a chance for my wife and I to see Germany with her dad and experience something we’ve always talked about doing. Plus—we were going to Europe! How cool is that?
Day One (Tag Eins)
The check-in procedure in Rochester went well enough, but I still don’t understand the point of the automatic check-in when there is a perfectly good ticket agent hovering nearby. It seems to be a two-step process: We, the passengers, have to scan our ID’s backwards, sideways, upside-down and any way but right and then fumble with our e-mailed confirmation numbers until a ticket agent finally steps in and does it for us. Can’t we just go back to the old way, because I don’t see this system saving any time whatsoever. I miss walking up to the counter and handing all my crap to somebody and being handed thick, cardboard tickets in return. Somehow, spending a lot of money and getting a flimsy slip of thermal paper all while hoping to avoid a monstrous luggage surcharge leaves me feeling a little like a prom date.
Our flight to Germany would be broken up into two parts: Rochester to Newark and Newark to Berlin. On paper, that doesn’t seem too bad. In reality, there was a lot of standby time in airports spent staring at tired travelers tethered to a power pole with their phone chargers. Normally sane people would also sprawl out on the floor with a two foot charger cord and snarl at people who came near them, guarding that outlet like it was their first born. From start to finish, we flew a little over forty-two hundred miles in slightly over twelve hours, five of those spent waiting in airports.
There really is only one way to settle in for a long flight and that is to buy first class tickets and a bottle of Ambien. Since we didn’t do that, we opted for the next best thing: economy plus near the front of the plane, which bought us about four inches more room all the way around and a quick departure once we landed. Unfortunately, every overhead carry-on bin between us and the rear of the plane was packed full. Our stuff ended up so far in the rear of the plane, they may as well have clipped it to the tail and fluttered it behind us. We had to wait for the entire airplane to empty out before I could finally get our luggage. Apparently the memo to the flight attendants about the quantity and size of carry-on baggage was totally ignored for this flight.
Our group met up at the Berlin Tegel airport and piled into a bus, which served two purposes: it got us from the airport to the hotel, and it took a circuitous route to get there, which provided us with a flash tour of Berlin. With the time shift of six hours forward, it was now early morning and after being awake for something like thirty-six hours, I dozed through most of the tour as it was ladled out over my tired ears. All I heard was blah-blah-blah only in German, which sounded more like bloch-bloch-bloch. In fairness, the tour guide did an admirable job switching back and forth from German to English, but at that moment in time, it all sounded the same to me.
Day Two (Tag Zwei)
After a good night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast, we took what would turn out to be one of many bus tours, all led by multilingual guides. Most Europeans speak two
languages, but many of the people that I met spoke at least three. I’m fifty-eight and I still feel as if I’m learning English, but Germans seem to take learning another language in stride. Yes, German is the official language of Germany, but that’s no reason not to be practical.
Our stay in Germany began with four days in Berlin, which is an exciting city still recovering from both the Second World War and consequences of the division and the Berlin Wall afterwards. Once the wall came down, this shed some light and piles of money onto the former GDR. I’ve never seen a city with so much (re)construction.
We took a bus to the small town of Spreewald, where we then took a languid ride on an open boat (think large, flat bottomed fishing boat) that was driven, gondola style, by a large, boisterous and funny German. I’ll have to admit that I knew very little about the individual towns and cities where we would go over the next two weeks. Even Berlin. Unlike France or Italy, Germany doesn’t seem to have a famous go-to city that has that iconic “thing” that people know about. Other than the Berlin Wall, which really isn’t anything to emblazon on a souvenir T-shirt, can you name even one landmark? I honestly couldn’t, so here I was, soaking it all in.
Spreewald is one of those towns they replicate in Epcot Center, as was just about every town we would visit over the next two weeks. I lost count of the cottages with red tiled roofs or the old churches or the cathedrals or the fancy bridges. They were everywhere and this is when it dawned on me that Germany has been around since the first century. Two or three hundred years there are just a few chapters in a very thick book—this place has some really old stuff.
German quirk: I never realized how German my wife looked until I saw her in Germany. It’s not as if she has an accent or wears a dirndl around the house, but she has always dressed a certain way and has always eschewed makeup and she looks terrific. Over there, the majority of the women follow the same aesthetic. It’s nice. The guys on the other hand, all look like either David Beckham or old Clint Eastwood. There is no middle ground.
Day Three (Tag Drei)
Our group was set up to go shopping in the largest enclosed shopping mall in Berlin. Next to being in a coach seat sandwiched between two screaming children for eight hours, going shopping in any mall of any kind in any city for a solid afternoon is my idea of hell. Mrs. G. and I separated from the group and opted to take a guided walking tour of Berlin instead. We can shop at home; we can’t tour Berlin in New York.
This was amazing and well worth the nine euros apiece that it cost. What we got for that was a university educated American from Minnesota with advanced degrees in German history and a sense of excitement delivering what could have been a dusty school lesson. Our small group of tourists walked for a little over four hours and covered most of the physical landmarks that spanned centuries. He explained Berlin’s (Berlin literally means “swamp”) growth from a marshland in the thirteenth century, through boundary expansions and contractions, two World Wars and a Cold
War right up to current time and while it certainly contained some dark moments, it was fascinating. One thing I couldn’t get over: they literally spackled over the bullet and shrapnel holes on the buildings, that is if they patched them at all. Many were left as a reminder, and there were a lot of them.
German quirk. Put your hand in front of you, palm up. Now make a fist. Now count with your fingers from one to five. Which finger was number one? If you are like most Americans, it was your index finger, then your middle finger was two and so on, with your thumb being number five. In Germany, the thumb is the first digit used for one, then the index finger for two and so on, which make perfect sense now that I see it.
Day Four (Tag Vier)
Another bus tour, and I honestly can’t remember what I saw. The gist of it is that Berlin is a city under construction. Come back in a few years for the reunification anniversary and it should be done. While walking around, I wished I owned a scaffolding business in Germany. I’d have Mercedes Benzes stacked up in my garage like firewood.
German quirk. Yes, everything is metric, and American that I am; I was constantly trying to convert kilometers and hectares, kilograms and liters, centigrade and currency to the American way of doing things. This is way too much math for a writer, and even though I was there for two weeks, I’d still convert rather than just accepting 12C for what it was. I couldn’t make the association to the actual temperature unless I converted it (54F).
Day Five (Tag Fünf)
We’ve loaded ourselves onto the MS Saxonia, which will be our floating home for the next ten days. If I had to take a guess, our cabin was no more than ninety narrow square feet, and that includes the bathroom and a closet. With the two twin Murphy beds up in the wall, we had one small couch and one desk chair. The bathroom was big enough, but at a lanky six-foot two, I bumped into everything. I don’t think a day went by that I didn’t crack my forehead on the towel rack. With both beds down at night (one went right over the couch), there was no room at all. It was like sleeping in a pup tent. Still, it was clean, modern and the beds were comfortable. Besides, who hangs out in their room when they are on vacation?
The boat was set to take a leisurely ten-day run down the Elbe River from Potsdam to the Czech Republic and then turn around and head back up to Potsdam. My first impression was that while this was indeed a large boat; it was a very small ship. There were only two levels with one dining room, one lounge area on the floor above that, forty-five identical passenger cabins, and a small observation deck on top. This was not a Carnival fun ship by any means, but an intimate, well-appointed and gracious tour boat with a nice restaurant and a staff that managed to be friendly without being obsequious. To pass the time sailing, most passengers read, played cards or sat in the lounge or on the rooftop deck and talked. It was a different mindset than any other cruise I’ve ever been on or any other vacation for that matter.
German quirk. Germany has two large industries—engineering and graffiti. Graffiti is everywhere, and if there is a vertical flat surface, some dummkopf is going to paint on it with balloon letters. I have no idea why a country that is almost fanatical about order and cleanliness doesn’t do something about this. Nothing is sacrosanct. The streets are spotless but the only section of a building, wall or bridge that goes untouched by graffiti is the center. Thank God Germans are stocky rather than tall.
Day Six (Tag Sechs)
It’s finally raining, making up for the past week of great weather, so it seems like a good day to take another long bus ride—in this case, to Magdeburg. The rear of the bus, where we were sitting, was easily a thousand degrees. No amount of coaxing from anyone could get the driver to open the roof vents or turn on a fan. This, coupled with the observation that we were definitely in the old East Germany and that the Soviets sucked the life out of pretty much everything they touched made this a dreary bus ride. One culinary note worth mentioning: today I had my first meal in a week that didn’t include some kind of pork product.
Magdeburg is a city that has been around since 805. That’s the year 805, as in twelve centuries ago. This sort of thing amazed me every single day I was in Germany, and I would like to formally apologize to Sister Winifred for not appreciating history class more in the seventh grade.
The highlight of our stop in Magdeburg was a walk through the Cathedral of Saints Catherine and Maurice otherwise known simply as the Cathedral of Magdeburg (Magdeburger Dom), which took a solid three hundred years to build after most of the original structure was destroyed in a fire. It was amazing and easily on par with Notre Dame in France. That such a place isn’t as well known escapes me. Germany needs to hire a better PR firm.
German quirk. Dogs, as pets, are allowed virtually everywhere. Fine restaurants, shopping malls, you name it. Ice cream cones, however, are verboten in stores. Go figure.
Day Seven (Tag Sieben)
I’m taking notes during the trip on an iPad and the spell check changed Dessau to despair—I hope this isn’t an omen.
One note on the German language—I think the reason I couldn’t pick it up is the sheer length of the words. It’s a very elegant and descriptive language, but c’mon—does a word have to be sixteen letters long? Do we call a vacation home on the water a vacationhomeonthewater? Break it up! Use spaces! The German language is just a www away from being a dotcom. Having said that, immersion is working. I’m beginning to understand many of the written words and I can greet people in almost coherent short
sentences. I can at least read some of a menu, but my father-in-law’s companion has been asking waiters (in fluent German) if there is any flour in sauces or soups. So far, our tag-team approach to ordering food has worked out perfectly.
German quirk. The German language allows words to be strung together in an inspired manner to create a brand new word. I think there’s a contest or something to make the longest acceptable German word. The winner gets a schnitzel. So far, Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän seems to be the winner (it means Danube steamship company captain) but unofficially, single words can run up to eighty letters long. Take that, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.
Day Eight (Tag Acht)
I’ve never been on a vacation longer than ten days, so the prospect of another week was starting to get a little weird. The beds in our cabin are small, the top third being tucked into an alcove. This required some thought when I rolled over at night, since I have a wingspan of about six feet. Once the beds were pulled from the wall, the cabin got much smaller and if I slept on my back, my feet hung off the end of the bed by a good eight inches. If my wife got up to shuffle to the bathroom, my ankles stopped her cold. She’d then bounce back and forth like a pinball until I moved.
We had a bus tour scheduled, which would take us through the city of Leipzig. Like much of the former Eastern Germany, the land hasn’t been all that exciting. It’s mostly flat but the efforts to reduce the Soviet blandness did not go unnoticed. The narrow rural streets are lined with small, charming houses and the rectangular bunker style buildings favored by the Soviets have been painted bright colors and re-purposed into apartments and schools. There are also many public gardens and parks. The overall affect is inviting. The city has a half million people and doesn’t feel hectic. It feels more like a big village rather than a small city. We stopped at the railroad station, which also had some nice places to shop, including a grocery store.
It was a long bus ride today, which was scheduled to meet up with our already sailing ship in seven hours. It’s not at all lost on me that the plane ride from New York to Europe was not much longer than this, but we stopped often to stretch our legs and check out the sites. I’m finally getting used to the whole rhythm of bus touring.
The bus returned to our port thirty minutes ahead of the ship, but the driver had a basket of booze to help pass the time. All of these tour buses were well appointed with a bathroom, comfy seats, cold beer and a basket of booze. Mrs. G and I shared a small bottle of champagne (sekt), which was never offered to me on a bus when I went to school. Later that night on the ship, I had rack of lamb, which is the first time in my life I have ever had lamb. I have now consumed every known, non-domesticated land animal while on this trip. This was also my father-in-law’s eighty-second birthday, so it was kind of cool that we got to celebrate it in Germany.
German quirk. The coffee is served cooler than I’m used to and the cold drinks (juice, water, etcetera) are served close to room temperature. I have not seen an ice cube since we left America.
Day Eight (Tag Acht)
The boat left dock at 10:00 p.m. last night and will sail until 5:00 a.m. when we dock in Meißen. This is as good a time as any to address the funky ß character. It represents a double s (ss), and is used after long vowels and diphthongs, and is a character that is unique to the German alphabet. I saw it used mostly on street signs—Friedrichstraße, for example. It also gave me fits whenever I would use a German keyboard, which has a few other oddball characters that relocate the American keys I’m used to someplace else.
I knew nothing about Meißen, which is what I knew about every other city we had been in so far. I’ve heard about Germany for all of my married life, but none of it has really jelled until now. It’s as if somebody flipped a switch in my brain. Much of the written language makes at least some degree of sense now and if someone speaks slowly enough—as if to a small child or perhaps a mollusk—I can even make out some of it. Regional dialect makes a huge difference, as there is high German and low German and Germans who talk fast or mumble and that affects the language, just like people who speak English. Not everyone enunciates like James Earl Jones.
The recent history of Germany is scarred by war and by the communist influence on (the former) East Germany after the last war. Most of our trip so far has been in areas severely affected by these events and there is a massive effort to rebuild, repair and modernize. Every building seems to have some kind of scaffolding around it or a crane in the background and there are still buildings that appear to have been strafed only last week. I’m waiting to take some kind of tour that has a less tragic story attached to it, but I’m not sure that will be possible. I’ve also never been in large cities that are so clean, in spite of being in a constant state of construction. Germany makes Disney World look sloppy.
Downsides so far—a glass of plain water (wasser uhne gas) costs €2,50 and finding a free bathroom is next to impossible. The cost to pee has ranged from 0,40€ up to €1,00. The current exchange rate means it could cost $1.35 to use a public bathroom. Of note to travelers—Starbucks has free bathrooms. So does McDonalds and most restaurants will let you use their bathroom if you are eating there. We got used to carrying small change and not drinking a lot of tea or water.
WiFi has been another matter. As much as I’ve tried to stay connected, it’s rarely free. Even the hotel charged a pretty farthing of €10,00 for an hour, and that hour had to be used all at once. There was a bakery not far from our hotel in Berlin that had a slow WiFi connection and they would hand out their code if one made a purchase. We were traveling with a group of twenty-four people and once one of us had the code (it changed daily) we would hang around outside and glom free WiFi. I took my iPad over and tried to download the series finale of Breaking Bad, but it would have taken close to two hours.
A little more about the ship. The Phoenix Saxonia has a passenger list of eighty-nine if filled to capacity and a crew of twenty-three. I could easily walk from one end of the ship to the other in under thirty seconds. It is a German cruise company and while all of the staff spoke varying degrees of English, some seemed to be stuck between German, English and whatever Eastern European language they speak. Everybody tried though, and that’s what mattered. All of the announcements that went over the speakers were in German, but our daily itinerary (delivered each night to our cabin) was in English.
The big cruising names (Carnival, Princess, Royal Caribbean et al) aren’t even on the radar. This is a small boat cruise that leaves no wake in the shallow water. The shoreline was always visible on both sides of the boat and the ride was as stable as could be. As I wrote some of these notes, there were flocks of sheep grazing just fifty feet away—and that included an actual sheepdog doing whatever it is actual sheepdogs do. So far the view had been pastoral but as we headed through the Saxon area towards the Czech Republic, the landscape got noticeably hillier.
The dinner portions on the ship were just right and the breakfast menu was the same as we experienced in France and Belgium a few years ago. It’s almost lunch-like with meats and cheeses and fruits and breads. There was also yogurt with various mix-ins, scrambled eggs and of course, plenty of strong, lukewarm coffee.
(As I wrote the above notes, I was drinking something called schwarzer tee mit roten früchten and a glass of fruchsäfte, writing and watching sheep from the rooftop deck of a slow moving boat cruising down the Elbe River. I can’t complain too hard about that.)
Meißen was exactly what a quaint little European town should be, with narrow roads, cobblestone streets and small shops and buildings. We spent a few hours walking around, taking pictures and just soaking it in. Where Berlin was exciting, this was charming. Charming won that day by a huge margin.
We made it back to the boat just in time to get on another bus and tour a winery. This was the farthest north that wine could be produced in Germany, and was only possible because they have grown these grapes on a steep hillside, away from the prevailing winds, for the past nine hundred years—considered to be young by European winery standards. Once again, it dawned on me that barely three hundred years ago; the United States was largely an open field.
We ended the tour with a sampling of red, white and sparkling wine and by samples, I mean a full glass. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad either, and we bought a bottle of sparkling wine and crammed it in the mini fridge in our cabin.
German quirk. Most Germans will live their entire lives in an apartment roughly the size of a two-car garage. They will raise their families, have birthday parties and enjoy holiday celebrations in an area that most of us would consider to be small even by a generous definition of the word. It is what it is. Perhaps as a means to expand on this world, many people lease what is known as a Schrebergärten or an allotment garden (not a literal translation). On these small plots of land, there is usually a tidy little shed which doubles as sort of a vacation home. It’s a break from whatever urban life people lead, and a chance to relax, work a little vegetable garden, and just kick back in a miniature version of an American subdivision.
Day Nine (Tag Neun)
I’ve lost track of the actual day. It really doesn’t matter if it’s Tuesday or Friday, though. It’s day nine, as each day has been orchestrated to keep things moving.
We are stopping in Königstein and Bastei today, departing on another tour bus, and hooking up with the boat in Bad Schandau. “Bad” means “bath” in German and Schandau is just a town name. The combination means that the town of Schandau was originally a spa town. My wife and I have been calling it Bad Schandau as if it’s the name
of one of those evil towns in a Stephen King novel.
“Things were going well until their car broke down in … Bad Schandau!”
Bad Schandau soon became our go-to phrase when something was wrong. “That’s some Bad Schandau out there today,” Mrs. G. would say on a rainy day. I think the small cabin was making us a little stir crazy.
The landscape was finally getting interesting, though. The Saxony region has a large area of sandstone cliffs, which have the shape of coral and look as if they have been formed by the wind. The Elbe Sandstone Mountains straddle the border between Germany and the Czech Republic and it’s very easy to imagine this entire area being underwater at some point in history. After a short bus ride to the park, Mrs. G. and I broke away from our tour group and hiked up into small aeries that looked out over the river and deep in the valley below. We really could have spent days there, but it was time to get back on the bus.
After four days on the boat, the patterns of the other passengers were becoming more apparent. There were a few of us that were out on deck early every morning in the dark, waiting for the sunrise. Most of us had cameras to capture a sunrise or a castle or a combination of both. The breakfast buffet didn’t open until 7:00 or 7:30, depending on the tour schedule, and there wasn’t much to do otherwise. A few mornings, when we were docked, I just strolled out and took a walk. Nobody checked for ID, as the people at the front desk knew everybody onboard by name and room number.
I also started the head cold and sore throat symptoms that seemed to be sweeping the ship, but it was still nice to get out and get some air. The cabin windows are all sealed, so it was always a welcome break to get outside.
Dresden came on strong with plenty of castles and bridges and with the sunrise, it really was pretty. Sorry, Kodak, but I’m glad I have digital cameras with huge memory cards instead of film. I’ve lost count of the castles and churches and terraced vineyards and farmland. I think it’s possible, although I didn’t try it, to set the timer on the camera, toss it in the air, and take a stunning picture of some building or another that is centuries old. After breakfast, Mrs. G. and I sat up on the small sundeck, soaking in some more European scenery. It was hard to get blasé about any of it, but I really was starting to get distracted and a little homesick. I missed our dog, my bed and my shower. I was also getting tired of rotating the same four shirts. Although there was enough English being spoken for me to navigate through the day, this was Germany, and German is the primary language. I missed English and it will feel good to once again be surrounded by my native language.
It’s broth time. Every morning at 11:00, they serve broth in the lounge and although everybody has finished breakfast just a short while ago, we arrive like clockwork. Life onboard a ship becomes very Pavlovian in no time at all. Funny though—coffee is only free during meals. If you want a cup outside of the standard feeding times, it’ll cost €2,00—and this isn’t a mug. At the most, there’s six ounces of coffee in the cup. At least the toilets are free.
German quirk. Each morning, no matter who I see, I’m wished a good morning (guten morgen). More often than not, it’s simply morgen. If I walk into a shop of any kind, I’m always greeted (guten tag or simply hallo). A purchase of any size is always thanked (danke) and when asking for something, they always say please (bitte). I’m not saying that people in America aren’t friendly, I’m just saying that sometimes the pleasantries of greeting somebody and saying please and thank you are often ignored.
Day Ten (Tag Zehn)
Prague, Czech Republic. Many of the cities in Germany, at least the cities that we have seen, were heavily damaged or destroyed by the war. In some cases, up to eighty percent of a given city was blasted to the ground. Picture whatever city you can think of being almost completely obliterated to rubble. Much of Germany has been rebuilt, and in the case of the former East Germany, the rebuilding is still going on.
In the case of our introduction to the Czech Republic, it looked as if time had moved on without a second, third or even a fourth thought in the world to rebuilding. Our bus ride from the boat towards Prague passed through some areas that looked at if they were simply rusting into the ground and nobody cared one way or the other. It probably didn’t help that is was cloudy and dreary. From my seat on the bus, it looked like the Soviets came in and drained all the vitality out of the countryside and nobody bothered to follow through with the DNR notice. That is, until we started to pull into Prague.
As we passed by the Charles Bridge, we were able to take a walking tour of the old town square, which was magnificent—not a word I toss around lightly. There seemed to be a castle or some sort of church at every corner, much of it connected by an elaborate bridge. Prague is known as the City of a Hundred Towers. That’s probably a little light.
I wish we could have spent more time in the city. It’s large (1.2 million people) and exciting and authentically medieval. We clicked through the high points with our guide before he set us loose for about thirty minutes. We walked around a bit, stopped at a drugstore and bought what I think was the Czech equivalent to Sudafed. We had to use a credit card because they did not accept euros. A box of cold meds cost eighty-five koruna—about $4.50 US.
The mixed blessing of a cruise of any kind but especially a river cruise, is that one gets to see a little of everything, but not enough of one thing. It’s the soup course of traveling, whetting your appetite for something more but never giving you enough soup. The thinking is that if one really likes a place, one can come back for more. I’d come back to the city of Prague. The other city I’d come back to is Dresden.
Day Eleven (Tag Elf)
Dresden, Germany, is a young city by German standards. It’s a Saxon city owing much if its greatness to August the Strong, a name that kept coming up over and over when anyone talked about this nine hundred year old “young” city. There are castles mixed with modern manufacturing plants and gorgeous bridges and everything is neat and orderly. We took a city tour on a rainy Thursday and eventually stopped at Newtown, which is actually older than Oldtown, and did some touring on our own with a little shopping. There is enough to see and do to fill a week, but we had to cast off and head to Meißen.
Our time on the cruise and in Germany was winding down, and while it had been a remarkable experience, Mrs. G. and I were both getting homesick. A breakfast buffet that includes all kinds of meat, fish, cheese and pastries is not what I’m used to at all. I actually had a dream one night about the oatmeal I make at home.
We should be docking in Meißen in a few hours. We are on our return trip up the river, so this is our second time in Meißen. We borrowed a pair of umbrellas from the ship and headed off the boat on foot to see if we could catch anything we may have missed the first time. We bought some chocolate and walked around for a while. The city was even more charismatic in the rain.
If you’ve been on a typical large cruise ship with anywhere from two thousand to four thousand people, it’s oddly easy to find some space to yourself. The MS Saxonia, our home away from home for the past week, is just two hundred and sixty-nine feet long and thirty-one feet wide, but most of that space is filled with passenger cabins or crew facilities. Unless one is in their cabin, there is only one central room to sit and relax. I’ve seen, eaten, drank and shared a wicked head cold with almost everybody on this ship and I’ve had a ball. Everybody is nice, friendly and a joy to travel with, but sometimes … well, sometimes a little space isn’t a bad thing.
German quirk: I mentioned earlier that most of the public bathrooms charge a fee. This can vary from a restaurant just being grabby to an elaborate facility. Nobody pees for free in Germany.
When we were in a high-end shopping mall in Dresden, both my wife and I had to use the bathroom. We followed the yellow WC signs, until we came upon what looked like one of those vending machines they have in a Laundromat that sells soap, only this took 0,50€ and spit out a ticket on the other side of a turnstile. Once one walked through the turnstile, the boys were on one side, the girls on the other. Each side had an attendant who would check things out when each patron was finished and tidy up if necessary. I had to check this out, so I used the stall instead of the … standup facility. I figured if I had to pay 0,50€, I was going to use a door. The flusher thing was automatic, just like those in the States, but after the flush, a little arm popped out from the back of the toilet. My first thought was that this was a bidet, so I stood and watched. As continental as I am, and I am quite continental don’t you know, I have never used a bidet. Quite frankly, I have no idea what one would be used for or what one would do after the undercarriage gets hosed down.
I figured out that this wasn’t a bidet (wouldn’t I have been shocked) when a small jet started to spray out disinfectant and the toilet seat hovered up a fraction of an inch and spun completely around, exorcist-style, twice. It was a toilet seat merry-go-round. When it was all done, the disinfecting apparatus retracted and the seat went back to normal. Next please. It was worth it just to see the dancing toilet put on a show.
Day Twelve (Tag Zwölf)
Wittenberg, home of Martin Luther.
Mrs. G. and I woke up this morning with our shared head colds in full bloom. If I had to guess, I’d say twenty percent of the passengers had the same cold. It wasn’t helping that it was foggy, rainy and about 9C outside. We were trapped in a petri dish filled with sausages and cold germs.
The plan today was to take a bus tour to Wittenberg, home of Martin Luther and the birthplace of the Reformation. It’s another bus ride, but that is the best way to get from ship to town, so we settled in and listened to our guide.
Each of our bus trips—and there have been many—was lead by a guide who was fluent in German and English and they could shift seamlessly between the two languages. Some guides had more personality than others, which made some of the tours less history class and more Entertainment Tonight.
From my seat on the bus, Wittenberg is nice upscale town, which had a lot of huge, rectangular concrete buildings that, once people grew tired of buildings that looked like an enormous cinder block, were painted in bright colors. One building added elaborate and unique window frames around every window opening. The improvements made an austere chunk of stone into something more cheerful and inviting and less maximum security prison.
I have to be honest, the Martin Luther element was a bit of a snooze for me, but the photo opportunities, like virtually every square inch of our vacation, were everywhere. Moody and evocative or sunny and bright, everything looked interesting.
That night was the fancy captain’s dinner onboard our ship, which meant after almost two weeks, I finally got to wear the suit, shirt, tie and dress shoes that hogged valuable real estate in my suitcase. Most of the time, I wore dark jeans or khakis, and the same could be said for ninety-nine percent of the other men onboard or in town. Walking through town—any town—most people dressed nicely, but not overly fancy.
The only fashion observation I can make, and that’s from the highfalutin Berlin to the countryside of Wittenberg, was that adults dressed like adults. Not a lot of baseball caps, novelty t-shirts or shorts on the men. The women all looked sharp with tailored pants or jeans, nice shirts, scarves and jackets. A little kid in Germany looks identical to a little kid in Rochester, NY, as we often saw groups of schoolchildren walking around the streets. The only thing I didn’t notice were the gigantic backpacks we strap to our school kids. I have no idea why school kids in America appear to be lugging around forty pounds of baggage on their backs everyday. German kids skip around unfettered by that loaded nylon anchor.
German quirk. Coffee is served in a small china cup with a saucer, even in the corner coffee shops (which includes Starbucks). I like that. I haven’t seen a Styrofoam cup of any kind since we’ve been here. A break for coffee is a respite from whatever else is going on in the day, and the formality—even something as minor as a nice cup—elevates something simple to something special.
Day Thirteen (Tag Dreizehn)
Potsdam, and one more day. This isn’t taking anything away from Potsdam, which is a beautiful city, but it’s been a long trip. Mrs. G. and I both have wicked head colds, and it’s damp and raining. It was the perfect day for a bus ride, which ended up at a city center, complete with cobblestone streets and sidewalks. There are literally thousands of acres of cobblestone in Germany. I’m not even sure if I saw asphalt for the entire trip. If you ever find yourself in Europe, be sure to wear comfortable, non-slip shoes. We also found out that walking on cobblestones all day is an excellent core workout. I expect to see trendy walking tracks in gyms made out of cobblestones in the near future.
We stopped in a shopping mall, bought a full sized nutcracker for sixty-five euro (cheaper by half than the same thing in the States) and a few other souvenirs. Our luggage checked in at a packed solid thirty-two pounds, and there wasn’t room for much more. The highlight of this stop was the Apple store, which had free WiFi, so I was able to check my e-mail. Our daughter was checking on Milo, our dog, who was in a kennel. He was doing fine, which only added to our homesickness.
I took some pictures and we walked around a bit, but we ended up back on the bus about ten minutes earlier than scheduled. That was a sign, I think. We were ready to leave.
Day Fourteen (TagVierzehn)
This was our travel day and as daunting as fourteen plus hours in the air and God knows how many more hours waiting in various airports (we
had two extra layover cities going back) were ahead of us, we were ready. Still, there was so much we didn’t see, but it would be impossible to see it all. It would be hard to cover thousands of years of history in two short weeks, and as I sat in the airport, surrounded by racks of newspapers I couldn’t read, a language I barely understood, and missing my regular life back home, a part of me wanted more.
Germany isn’t on the bucket list for a lot of travelers. When Travel and Leisure magazine recently polled its readers through Facebook, Twitter and on-the-street surveys, Germany wasn’t on anyone’s list. Iceland was and so was Vietnam and Finland. Maine and the Galápagos Islands made the list too along with Russia, but no Germany. I wondered why. The German people are as friendly as I have ever met, most of them speak English, the food is wonderful, and there are mountains and rivers and museums and a contemporary culture as diversified as any.
People travel for adventure, to get away from the usual, to see things they can’t see at home and to appreciate what we have when we get back. We read about places and tell ourselves that we want to go there someday. Not today, not tomorrow, but someday. But when is someday? When is that day that you’ll see that place?
There is so much to see and so many places to visit that it’s hard to narrow them all down. It’s even harder to find the time, but of all the excuses or reasons we make not to do something, time is the one thing with which we can’t barter.
Most of us have a bucket list of places we want to visit and if we’re lucky, we’ll get to check off a few and if we’re even luckier, we’ll get to go someplace that will totally surprise us. It could be where your ancestors came from or a place that looked amazing in a magazine or even a curious turn down a quaint looking street. There’s always something interesting to see. You just have to go look.
©Rick Garvia 2013. This column is protected by intellectual property laws, including U.S. copyright laws. Electronic or print reproduction, adaptation, or distribution without permission is prohibited.