The magical inscription on this painting reads: “We cannot lay her in the dark earth,” said the dwarfs and so they had a transparent glass coffin made so that she could be seen from every side laid her in it and wrote on it her name and that she was a kings daughter. Then they carried the coffin into the wood and some of them always watched her and the birds also came and bewailed Snowdrop. First an owl. Then a raven and lastli a dove. So Snowdrop lay a long long time in her coffin looking as though she were asleep. –GRIMM”
After three years in Germany as an American ex-pat, here’s my list of what I’ve learned so far:
1. Germans value sharing public spaces. This makes for a lot of conditional traffic laws. For example: “If there is a bicycle in this bicycle lane, you may not drive your car in it. But if there isn’t, you may.”
2. Saving energy is valued more than convenience. For example: the train and store air conditioning goes out whenever it gets hot enough to need it.
3. Plastic packaging is a big deal. There’s so much of it that it gets its own trash can in every household.
4. Our neighbors value walking in the woods as much as we do.
5. The whole country is full of pyromaniacs. I’ve never seen so many fireworks.
6. Volunteering is the way to find yourself inside a society instead of outside.
7. There are rules for everything and the response to overwhelming complexity is sometimes: “Es geht nicht anders” meaning: “I had to break at least one rule, there was no other way to do it.”
8. The trains and public transportation system sometimes set impossible standards for themselves. For example: the doors on the newest trains open too slowly and destroy the schedule. Solving problems with more complexity seems to be the way things develop. Maybe not unexpected in a land of engineers.
9. Public libraries are an American legacy.
10. Southwestern flavors–salsa and tortillas that aren’t sweet, green chili peppers, enchiladas–have not arrived here.
11. Creamy must be important because palm oil is in Nutella and is added to every kind of roasted peanut butter I can find.
12. Natural medicine is big because people can’t afford medical care here either.
13. Grown-ups live in apartments. I’m still struggling with this one.
14. People commute here as a lifestyle. Children start commuting very young and don’t ever seem to stop. This promotes bookstores and e-readers and magazines. I don’t know what it does to the accident statistics.
15. Chocolate cannot solve things, no matter how large a quantity is available.
16. Cake is consumed on a regular basis, not just for birthdays. Cookies are for Christmas. A chewy chocolate chip cookie is not possible or even necessarily desirable.
17. Pursuing things other than money is quite acceptable.
18. Houses from 1905 with outdoor latrines, gas stoves, single-pane windows and wood floors are still available on the market. All other houses seem to be four times the price.
19. Germans drive cars just as much as Americans and more than many Vermonters.
20. Bikes are regularly ridden without helmets and in the pouring rain. Corollary: Light rain is considered “good weather”.
21. Many Germans value liverwurst, blood sausage, and salami for breakfast. (See any hotel review website.)
22. Bakery bread is whole grain–you get to choose how much of each grain you want. 25% wheat and 75% rye, or the other way around? On the other hand, white flatbread with flavored cream cheese is popular party food.
23. Books from other countries (i.e. translations) seem to be preferred in bookstores and libraries. There seem to be few or no creative writing programs in this country.
24. Melted cheese to Germans doesn’t mean the same thing as melted cheese to Americans. German melted cheese usually involves potatoes. Or isn’t hot when served.
25. The preferred method for giving official information in a broad range of categories is a one-on-one appointment.
One morning, in early spring, my husband and I decided to walk to Burg Eltz (Eltz castle) from the tiny village of Hatzenport. We had asked the innkeeper if he thought Burg Eltz was do-able and he said, “Why shouldn’t it be? It’s only 2 1/2 hours.” Oddly enough, that reassured me.
It was an unexpectedly sunny day with a cool breeze, miraculous after weeks of rain and gray skies. We set out on little goat trails and followed the course of the Mosel river, far below. We barely needed our topographic map because everything was so well labeled. That’s how many people live in this part of the world. The trail was called “Traumpfad”, the path of dreams.
We traversed the vineyards on a tractor-wide track, feeling like Heidi and Peter. A sign said goats were used to clear out overgrown vineyards when someone wanted to begin again. Abandoned, overgrown vineyards were called “Brazils” after their owners left for Brazil to start a new life.
In earlier times, wagons must have collected the grapes from the rows of vines. A rusty winch in one village must have been used to pull heavy loads of grapes up and down the steep slopes. In another, a tower near the Mosel supported the cables to run a ferry across. The ferry needed no power other than the river current.
At some point, we left the Mosel to turn into another valley. The path climbed gently until we found ourselves on a high plain. The Mosel cut a valley into the plain, so that the river bed was actually in a canyon. The broad meadow was just as inviting as the earlier paths and the sun was just as delightful. There was a ring of standing stones, either old or modern, in the distance. It was almost unreal.
A group of eight deer leapt across the meadow in front of us to cross a road in the distance. Seven made it across but the last one was spooked by a car and couldn’t find his way. He bounded back to the safety of the forest. The others didn’t come back for him, so maybe that was the beginning of his own adventure.
An older pair of hikers passed us. They didn’t seem to be going fast but they were soon in the distance ahead of us. We saw them much later, having a picnic by the trail side, just before we got to a lot of boring pavement. Experience must help people pick out picnic spots. Role models for adventure pop up in surprising places.
By the time we had walked a few hours, we had gotten less tired or had found our stride or felt virtuous because we didn’t need parking, because we felt we could walk forever. When I was 10, I used to explore with my brother in the same way. A peanut butter sandwich in a backpack, a walking stick, and eyes to see what is in front of you.
Burg Eltz actually has a longish–by American standards–hiking trail from the parking lot to the castle. On the trail, three miniature knights came toward us brandishing wooden swords and painted wooden shields. A baby in a stroller was teething on a wooden sword. We were getting close.
The castle gift shop was full of swords and shields and castle-related memorabilia. A hearty soup lunch at the castle and we were ready to continue down the valley. Here the trail looks down on the river Eltz below—a gray, green, glacier-colored river—but I think the color comes from algae, but not in a bad way.
We hiked down to the village and took the train back to the tiny village of Hatzenport. It was a dreamy day of talking, walking, taking things in, and spending time together becoming whole.
The next morning, I took a walk in our own neighborhood. At the far meadow, a black and white horse whinnied and trotted, then pounded the grass with his hooves and galloped the perimeters of electric fence. Was he going to leap over it? Did the sunny, cool weather make him long for wide spaces and adventure?
Then a shaggy, brown horse appeared on the trail and the black and white nodded his big black head up and down emphatically. He had been calling this friend.
My day with my husband was perfect for me. The weather and the availability of food made it a very convenient adventure, but not one I will forget. A perfect life is an adventure with a friend.
The village of Mayschoß in Germany’s lovely Ahr valley says “spring” all over. The name of the village means “lap of May” and even though it’s only April, you can see why.
It’s easy to imagine an earlier era. On top of the hill nearest the church tower is a ruined castle. One vineyard advertises horse-drawn wagon rides through the vineyards. My daughter told me they have to muzzle the horses to keep them from eating the grapes during harvest. I never thought about a horse eating grapes before.